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(A short story of 5985 words)

An Airtight Box


by Kathy Flann

During intermission of the “Tosca” benefit performance, ex-President Clinton, without Hillary, stepped outside the door of his Kennedy Center box, wondering what it would be like if someone shot him, maybe in his good lung, or maybe, if the attacker had lousy aim, even in the groin. He waved and sidled over to the people that had gathered on the other side of the velvet rope; at his first step toward them, the people broke into applause. He shook hands and stood in one place for a good three minutes, something that always made the guys on his Secret Service detail twitchy. Surely a non-lethal gunshot wound – one intended to inflict pain instead of death, which a lot of shooters do, according to the guys – would distract him from the sick, heavy feeling in his chest, like his organs were being squeezed between two pieces of Amazonian timber.

This morning in New York, his doctor’s cold stethoscope, pressed hard against the site of last week’s surgery, had felt as weighty as a beam. “Well, I’ve taken a good long gander into the abyss this time, haven’t I?” he’d said. He’d shifted on the exam table, the paper sheet crinkling beneath him. “The bypass wasn’t enough? I had to drive by for another look? Well, that’s me all over, Doc,” he’d explained, laughing, which made his pectoral muscles ache as if he’d bench pressed too much.

“Please don’t speak until I’m done with this, Mr. President,” the doctor had said.

He nodded. “I always drive by for another look,” he’d finished, more quietly. He’d wondered if the sound of his heart racing was as loud to the doctor as it was in his own ears. He winked at his assistant, who was sitting in a green vinyl chair in the corner, talking on her cell phone to her assistant, confirming the arrangements for the flight to Washington and for her pre-session briefing with key Democratic House members.

She didn’t acknowledge the president’s wink; she said he only winked when he was nervous. She had no patience with nervousness. She covered the mouth piece of the phone and sighed; the president braced himself. But she only said, to the doctor, “Please feel free to tell him to stop being so ridiculous.” The sunlight, a little weak and watery, shone on the left side of her face. Her eyes were so blue.

The doctor stood erect, looked at the president’s assistant, who was talking on the phone again, and then he looked right at the president’s face; the stethoscope still dangled from his neck. The doctor’s dark hair was tousled and he was rugged and handsome except for his discoloured skin and teeth, which suggested a habit of cigarettes and whiskey, maybe bourbon, and there was something slightly unsettling, wolfish in his unremitting eye contact. The president found this look all too familiar...

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