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One Morning in the Gut…

Joseph Foehammer stood at the westernmost end of Abney Parkway regarding the large home belonging to Doctor Kristos Sonnerstein. Here, at least, was something resembling what he remembered of this once majestic neighbourhood.

Joseph took another moment to compose himself after a rather trying encounter with Medusa Jones at The Bucket of Blood. His amputation saws and surgical tools were as pristine as the day they had been purchased a half century past, yet he had received but a fraction of their value and was still far short of what he would need to to get to Falun and back.

Joseph took the gentle slope to the front door of the Sonnerstein residence and gave a soft rap upon the door with the handle of his walking stick. He hoped the doctor would be expecting him as he had sent a runner on ahead earlier in the morning to announce his intended visit.

“Doctor Foehammer?” Kristos Sonnerstein asked upon opening the door.

“Yes. Doctor Sonnerstein I presume?”  Joseph extended his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Indeed so.” Doctor Sonnerstein nodded, taking the offered hand and giving it a firm, but gentle shake. “Please, come inside and have a seat.”

“You have a lovely home,” Joseph commented as he looked around the parlour before taking a seat in a plush looking armchair. “Have you lived in this area long?”

“A year or so.” Doctor Sonnerstein replied, reaching toward a pot resting on a side table, “May I pour you a cup of tea?”

“Yes, black if you wouldn’t mind.”  Joseph said accepting the tea and placing it on the table beside his chair. “I lived in this neighbourhood once, just up the hill where the cows now graze.”

“Ah! So you are quite familiar to New Babbage.” Doctor Sonnerstein smiled. “Do you have family in town?”

“I did, When I was a young man. I had a beautiful bride and a young son. But that is a history laced with betrayal!” Joseph paused before adding, “This neighbourhood was quite different in those days… before the great fire.”

“A bit more upscale back then from what I understand.” nodded Doctor Sonnerstein. “It is a little rough these days.”

“Rough? Rough does not even begin to adequately describe it!  The ignorant rabble soil everything they touch. The stench of their moral decay revolts me!” Joseph said harshly, then cleared his throat.

Dr. Sonnerstein appeared surprised by the sudden vehemence in Joseph’s voice, but chose the Victorian high road and did not mention it. “I’ve heard tales of the Great Fire. Did you witness it first hand?”

“I was in town – but did not witness the fire. I was at work in Clockhaven and was not aware of the scope of the tragedy until it was over.” replied Joseph. “Shortly after those events I left and I have not walked these streets since.”

Doctor Sonnerstein nodded. If he sensed there was more to the story he decided not to push the matter. “I can certainly understand how there have been many changes since you were last here.”

“Changes! That is an understatement! This neighbourhood has become nothing but festering midden!” Joseph was still upset over his encounter with Medusa Jones at the Bucket of Blood. “That bar across the street is a prime example. I remember when it used to be called The Coronet, a lovely place for dancing. Now it is vile and full of filth. I’d say ‘the dregs’ but the dregs are where the rest of the city now lies. This neigbourhood is diseased excrement that exists beneath the dregs.” Joseph took a deep breath, regaining his composure. “But listen to me. I wander into digression.”

“A common quality of a long life.” replied Dr. Sonnerstein.

“Down to business.” Joseph changed the subject. “I have sought you out today for a second opinion.” 

“Indeed.” nodded Dr. Sonnerstein. “Would you care to explain to me then your symptoms and complaints?”

“I first noticed difficulty swallowing,” Joseph reported. “It felt as though I had something stuck at the back of my throat and I could never quite swallow it down. But it wasn’t painful and I found I could ignore the sensation.”

“Simply as if the muscles weren’t cooperating?” questioned Doctor Sonnerstein.

“That is a feature of it now, but it was not so initially.” explained Joseph. “I felt it to be more of a growth at the back of my throat. It worries me because as you and I know, sometimes a putrefaction in one area may spread to another.”

“Indeed so.” Doctor Sonnerstein nodded. “Do you mind a small physical exam?”

“That is why I am here.” replied Joseph curtly. “Get on with it.”

Doctor Sonnerstein brushed his fingers along the underside of Joseph’s jaw to feel his lymph nodes first. “Any other symptoms?”

“I have recently developed a cough,” replied Joseph. “I take morphine in small doses as an antitussive.”

“Does the disturbance seem to be from the lungs or the throat?” asked Dr. Sonnestein taking Joseph’s pulse “It could have spread if it’s an infection.”

“Initially it was the throat,” replied Joseph. “Now it feels as though it were both.” 

“Open your mouth and say ‘ah’ please?” 

Doctor Sonnerstein leaned in and turned an ear towards Joseph’s mouth, listening rather than peering in. “Well, your esophagus does sound irregular, there is certainly a growth.” he said after listening for several minutes. “How long has this been developing?”

“Truthfully, almost a year,” replied Joseph, “but it has been particularly accelerated since my trauma of this past summer.”

“Oh?” questioned Doctor Sonnerstein. “What sort of trauma?

“The trauma of insolence!” Joseph snapped.“I was sent to hell by an arrogant stripling youth! Youth, the the carriers of society’s mortifying ills. The youth of today are the foot soldiers of chaos  because their parents are weak and ineffectual! You do not talk to children. You discipline them; you mold them and shape their minds and bodies into instruments of the new world order!”

“Please, take a breath.” suggested Dr. Sonnerstein leaning back. “I’m sorry to be the bearer of such bad news but judging by the symptoms, circumstance, and what I hear in your airway, it’s most probably a cancer. It appears to have progressed rapidly and there is really very little I can do.”

Joseph looked momentarily bewildered. “I suspected the prognosis to be grim, yet I was hoping you might tell me there is some optimism. It has been fifty years since I practiced general medicine surely there have been some advances.”

Doctor Sonnerstein frowned sympatetically, resting a hand on Joseph’s shoulder. “I’m very sorry to admit that if there is any optimistic option, I fail to see one. Our advances still have yet to cover this sort of condition.

Joseph nodded stoically. “Is there any time frame you might give me?”

“Given your age and the difficulty it causes you in swallowing, it could be a few weeks to a couple of months. Maybe a little more if you’re adamant and stubborn about managing good nutrition.”

“I suspected the same though I was hoping to be wrong.” said Joseph solemnly. “There is always so much to do when we’ve run out of time.”

Sonnerstein nodded, offering a sympathetic smile. “It always seems the case we have the most to do when pressed for time. If there is anything else I might do… someone I could contact on your behalf perhaps?”

“That is quite alright, doctor,” said Joseph. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”

“I am sorry, Doctor Foehammer,” replied Doctor Sonnerstein. “I wish, I could offer you more.”

***

It was like a dream… most probably a cancer the doctor had said. Joseph knew it to be true, though knowing the truth of it did not make it seem any more real.

Joseph stopped and looked around. Even the smallest twig laying upon the ground seemed so significant. Without being aware of it, he had wandered into the graveyard next to the Sonnerstein property. The stones looked to have endured decades of weather. Is this where it all ends? Never! Nefertiti must be successful in her mission to the Church of the Builder.

Joseph was momentarily immobilized by indecision. How long he had been staring blindly at the tombstone without processing the words carved on its face? The stone was  cleaner than the others, as if cared for. Atop it lay a single flower – a wilted carnation. None of the other stones were topped by flowers. But it was not the flower that snapped Joseph out of his funk. It was the name! 

“Martha!” he exclaimed and then caught his breath. Life suddenly seemed so much more real.

“The cows are dancing,” A soft voice interrupted from behind, breaking Joseph out of his reverie. He turned to see the same disheveled vagrant he’d seen the other morning standing before the monument commemorating the Great Fire.

“What are you talking about?” asked Joseph irritably.

“In Coronet Gardens,” the man stated simply, pointing to the hill rising above the end of Abney Parkway.

Joseph stared at the old tramp and shrugged his shoulders.

“Heavy weather blowing in from the north.” With that final cryptic comment, the motley dishrag-man turned and shuffled off.

Joseph watched the man for a moment. There was something unsettlingly familiar about him. It was while he was lost in thought that Joseph absently reached into his vest and removed the vial Nefertiti had recovered from that long-haired skinny boy at the Gangplank. He shook it and then, with a tingle of excitement in his fingertips, he unscrewed the cap. He sniffed it. Then placed his tongue on the mouth of the bottle. It was oily and bitter.  

Joseph tipped his head back. Just a drop! That would be all he could afford until he reached Falun. And when he returned… well, then he would find out who was putting flowers on Martha’s grave.  Dr. Sonnerstein lived right next door.  Perhaps he knew who frequented this cemetery.

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