Bruce Brown

“Your call is very important to us. Please stay on the line …” Ruffa Bynder sat at her gray Formica kitchen table. One hand mashed a cell phone to the hollow of her ear. Distant sounds of the Mantovani Orchestra faded, returned, then slipped away as she positioned and repositioned the flip-up receiver for better reception. Her stomach gurgled. The sausage-shaped fingers of her free hand drummed on the tabletop not even close to the rhythm provided by a gutted version of “Eleanor Rigby” that unraveled on her eardrum. She picked her nose. Louder stomach gurgling. Finally, there was a beeping noise on the line.

          “This call may be monitored for quality assurance. Please enter your insurance number from the keypad.” Ruffa squashed the phone between her shoulder and cheek and rummaged in her purse through a logjam of eyebrow pencils and lipsticks, past the Kaopectate, the Tums, the Milk of Magnesia, a rock-hard wad of lint-coated Dentine gum. She pulled a soiled insurance card into the dim light of her small kitchen and entered the number on the keypad. There was a zipping noise. A click. Then silence.

          Ruffa stood and paced the two steps to the back kitchen counter. A cramp curled around her belly button and held on. She turned and walked on tiptoes to keep moving without upsetting the pain, humoring it, hoping it would pass. Still it gripped her near the rounded abdomen that protruded slightly over the waist of her cotton panties under her flowered, shoulder-to-floor muumuu. She stopped and bent forward massaging the bulge with her free hand. The pain receded a bit, but returned in a new wave. Tiny drops of perspiration dampened her hairline. Again she turned and paced, her fleece bunny slippers slapping the yellow linoleum tiles. She leaned on the counter holding her belly, squinting through the dusty window above the kitchen sink at a pigeon pecking at nothing on a neighbor’s cement windowsill.

          “I’m sorry, all of Dr. Bozzler’s staff are busy. We appreciate your patience. Please stay on the line.” A chirping piccolo skipped above a wall of violins. Ruffa’s stomach sloshed and grumbled. The music was interrupted by a sharp click, like a bullet seating in a rifle chamber.

          “Welcome to the Bozzler Clinic Automated Self-serve Diagnostic and Therapeutic Medical System. Please press one if you are male, two if you are female.”

          Ruffa sat again at the table, pressed two and listened.

          “Please press one if you are less than 15 years of age, two if you are 15 to 32, three if you are 33 to 64, four if you are 65 to 84, five if ….” She pressed four.

          The pain gripped her again. She lowered her head, supported both elbows on the table and held the phone to her ear gritting her teeth. The cramp slid back and forth under the elastic at her waist.

          “Thank you. Please hold.” There was a whirring noise and a clunk.

          “Welcome to the Bozzler Clinic Automated Self-serve Diagnostic and Therapeutic Medical System for patients 65 to 84 years of age.” There was a flourish of trumpets which hushed to viola and piano etudes then softened further, followed by a professional male speaking voice that seemed to rise from deep in a throat under a ducked chin.

          “Patients in older middle age often experience symptoms of depression. The Bozzler Clinic is committed to understanding each individual’s problems. We suggest eating a balanced diet, getting plenty of exercise, drinking at least twelve, 8-ounce glasses of water, urinating frequently, and having one good bowel movement per day.

          To help keep track of such a busy schedule, we suggest our computerized, pocket calendar, Head Aide, complete with three alarms, a color screen with large print for seniors and a special offer this month only for low-cost, term life insurance. To order, simply press two, now.” The violas rose for a few bars then hushed again. “If you are having pain, please press one.” Ruffa’s face brightened. She pressed one.

          “Please select from one of the following pain options: one, pain in the head or neck; two, pain in the private parts; three, pain in the abdomen or stomach; four, pain in the….” Ruffa quickly pressed three. Another whirring noise.

          “Welcome to the Bozzler Clinic Automated Self-service Diagnostic and Therapeutic Medical System for patients 65 to 84 with abdominal pain.” Accordion music, a snappy beat just right for square dancing. Ruffa held the phone away from her ear slightly. The pain at her waist increased. She listened again. To the low, steady voice.

          “Older patients are often alone most of the day. The Bozzler Clinic suggests drinking twelve, 8-ounce glasses of water per day, and purchasing a pet such as a dog or a cat. Though less desirable, even a gold fish may help with those pesky feelings of loneliness and desolation. These items are available at Petfair Stores Incorporated of Loinex City, Texas, at www@loinexpets.com. If you would like to order, simply press one, now.” More square dancing music. Then a hush.

          “Press two if the pain in your abdomen is above your belly button, three if below your belly button.” Ruffa frowned. The pigeon pecked in silence at the dusty gray cement beyond the window.

          “There has been no response. Press one if you would like the question repeated. Press two for additional options.” Ruffa pressed two.

          “Press one if you are a member of the Bozzler Clinic Payroll Deduction Plan. Press two if you would like to donate your eyes, liver, heart, skin, bones, or urinary bladder to the Bozzler Clinic Special Outstanding Tissue Award Program and be eligible for a new Chevrolet Camero as the outstanding donor of the year in a drawing that will be held at Cruncher’s Chevrolet this coming Memorial Day.” Several bars of the National Anthem and a fade. “Press three for all other options.” Ruffa pressed three.

          “Thank you.” You have reached the Bozzler Clinic Automated Self-service Medical Diagnostic and Therapeutic System for patients 65 to 84 with abdominal pain in an unknown location. The Bozzler Clinic is pleased to introduce its newest advance in diagnostic and therapeutic knowledge systems, Speak Easy. Speak Easy is a revolutionary new voice recognition system that was developed by scientists at the Bozzler Clinic to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of patients just like you whose symptoms cannot be handled by other systems yet known to man. Because of its vast potential for advancing civilization, The Bozzler Clinic has rushed the Speak Easy system into production, and it is now available for purchase at most participating Wo-Mart Stores or from www@wospeakeasy.com. To purchase Speak Easy for a reduced introductory price, please simply press one, now.” Ruffa pressed one.

          The pain crept below her belly button. Her abdomen now began to swell. She slid forward out of her chair, bracing her portliness with her free hand and finally lying prone among the dust bunnies on the crumbling yellow linoleum floor, knees drawn under her growling abdomen, the other hand holding the phone tight to her ear.

          A scatter of toots and beeps danced on the line as if someone was dialing her phone. Then a woman’s voice—firm, like a competent third-grade teacher.

          “Thank you for choosing Speak Easy. Please state your problem clearly.” Ruffa held the phone directly in front of her mouth. “Pain and swelling around my belly button,” she said, opening her mouth especially wide for the vowels, speaking slowly, distinctly.

          “Thank you for using the Bozzler Clinic’s revolutionary new voice recognition system, Speak Easy. Please wait while Speak Easy processes your voice.” The first stanzas of Hayden’s Clock Symphony drifted from the receiver, more abdominal gurgling, and churning. Ruffa rubbed her stomach with both hands, the receiver clutched between shoulder and ear. Her neck ached with bending to one side to hold the phone. The pain gripped her in a new wave. She tucked her knees further under her ballooning abdomen and hiked her muumuu to her waist, her large breasts flattened cold on the floor, the wide expanse of her cotton panties now pointed at the ceiling.

          “You said ‘painful dwelling around my mother’s bottom.’ Please confirm by pressing one. Press two if you wish to speak again to the Speak Easy Voice Recognition System.” Ruffa laid the phone on the floor in front of her, pressed two, and squeezed her eyes shut as a the cramping rolled like a monstrous gob of soft taffy bulging the front of her panties. She spoke in a clear but trembling voice. “Pain and swelling around my belly button.”

          “Thank you for using the Bozzler Clinic’s revolutionary new voice recognition system, Speak Easy. Please wait while Speak Easy processes your voice.” More Hayden. Then, “You said ‘pain and swelling around my belly button.’ Please confirm by pressing one. Press two if ….” Tears of joy flooded Ruffa’s eyes. She sobbed on the floor as if she had been trapped under the rubble of her house after an earthquake but now the sniffer dogs barked above her.

          She pressed one. A click. Then. “Old people often have problems with bowel irregularity. The Bozzler Clinic is committed to treating infirmities of old age such as constipation and diarrhea. We recommend drinking twelve, 8-ounce glasses of water per day and night-time enemas. The Bozzler Gentle Colon-Go, Colon Cleansing System is ideal for this kind of deterioration. Whether it is constipation or diarrhea, you won’t go—and you can’t go wrong—if there is nothing at all in your colon. This system was designed by old people and has changed their lives forever. To order, simply press one, now. For all other options press two.”

          Ruffa couldn’t breathe. She turned her head to the side. A wall of nausea twisted her guts. The pain dived toward her very bottom, lodging precariously just inside her buttocks, a pressure like an elephant squeezing out of a teapot. The corner of her mouth was wet with drool against the floor. She closed her eyes again and pointed the widest expanse of her muumuu almost straight upward. With all her strength she squeezed together every muscle in her bottom.

          “There has been no response. If you have additional information for the Bozzler Clinic Revolutionary Voice Recognition System, Speak Easy, please press one. If you have no more information, please press two. If you wish to enter the Bozzler Clinic Christmas Pagent, please press three.” Ruffa quickly pressed two. The loud flourish of a brass choir. Ruffa drew a long, deep breath and relaxed her bottom muscles slightly.

          “Standby for the Bozzler Clinic’s self-serve diagnosis. Please re-enter your insurance policy number on the keypad.” Ruffa swallowed hard, tightened her buttocks, bringing her knees together and crossing her ankles. She entered her number again quickly. There was another long pause.

          “We’re sorry this number is not recorded in the Bozzler Clinic Patient Data Base. If you think this number may have been entered in error, please re-enter from the keypad.” Ruffa took another deep breath and focused directly on the keypad; carefully—back and forth—between it and the insurance card that she pressed to the floor with her elbow. Slowly, she entered all twelve digits and five letters, each in their proper case. The veins in her forehead bulged from her sweating brow. She squeezed her eyes shut.

          “We’re sorry, this number is not recorded in the Bozzler Clinic Patient Data Base.” Ruffa flashed open her eyes. She frantically stabbed the number into the keypad a third time. Her belly bloated as if the Goodyear Blimp threatened to exit from her pelvis. She slobbered with nausea, her vision blurred with tears. She swallowed the threat of vomiting. A pause, then sirens squawking and bells clanging in her ear.

          “Multiple unsuccessful attempts at entering a security code suggest a security breach and quite possibly a terrorist attack. The Bozzler Clinic takes security of its patients seriously. Breach of the Bozzler Clinic Secure Patient Data Base is punishable by a $50,000 fine, ten years in prison and lifetime loss of medical insurability. There were multiple clicks on the line, followed by the lone buzzing of a dial tone.

          Ruffa gave one last squeeze, but it was no use. There was a long, loud whooshing sound towards the ceiling, like 30 Harley Davidsons passing at 90 miles an hour. The glass panes in the window over the sink rattled. The pigeon pecking at nothing on the cement sill looked up.

          Ruffa Bynder lay panting, sweating, her belly deflated, flat against the cold linoleum floor.

          She smiled. Her pain was completely gone.

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