In my office, it’s not every day a priest trundles in a wooden wheelchair holding an eight-year-old girl frothing at the mouth. But that’s not what set my teeth on edge. I slid the frosted glass shut and hissed at my receptionist.
“Stop it,” Glenna said.
“That’s my wax impaction?”
She blew on her nails. “So I understand.”
“What about a parent?” I pointed at the priest. “Don’t tell me he’s her father –”
“Ooh, good one, Dr. Sperry.”
Yarelcy, my dark and gorgeous office manager, appeared at my side, all five feet of her. “Mrs. Thorneville signed off care to Father Dade. You’re good to go.”
I hissed again. “Mrs. Thorneville? The Mrs. Thorneville? I thought I discharged that brain-sucker weeks ago!”
“Not her whole family,” said Glenna.
Groaning, I glanced at the afternoon schedule: empty, save for this one patient. “Let me guess. I’m the only one who can see her today.”
“The only ENT,” said Yarelcy. “And this seemed a bit more than your average doc-in-the-box could handle.”
“But it’s just a wax impaction.”
“It is,” said Yarelcy. “But, did you notice the girl is raving? And, she’s trussed tighter than a rump roast. And, she’s with a fucking priest.”
Yarelcy: the only woman I knew who could make me blush. I said, “This is supposed to mean something to me?”
“You ever see The Exorcist?”
“Sure. I have it on DVD.”
Yarelcy smiled. “This kid is shit out of luck if she can’t hear the ritual.”
How did I get into this fix? I blame Yarelcy.
“It’s called boutique medicine, and it’s all the rage in Beverly Hills,” she had said. “No reason why you can’t bat in their league.”
One year earlier, I had cancelled all my HMO contracts, thumbed my nose at the private insurers, and told Medicare to kiss my ass. Overnight, I became a cash-up-front, fee-for-service doc, with the added feature that folks willing to pay me five hundred bucks a year could claim me as their private ENT. If Mr. Smith’s nose bled in the middle of the night, I’d be there for him. Hell, I’d even make a house call.
“Look around you,” Yarelcy said. “Good neighborhood like this, all these rich bastards in their Beemers. It’ll be a little slow at first, but before long you’ll be making twice as much and working half as hard.”
She nailed it on working half as hard. As for making more money, well, to cut overhead, we laid off our nurse and moved from the Huntington Drive office in San Marino to the Fair Oaks office in Pasadena. North of the 210 Freeway — not a good neighborhood. Glenna dealt with the same phone call four, five times a day: “North Pasadena. No, Ma’am, not Hastings Ranch. No, not La Canada. On Fair Oaks, Ma’am. North of the 210.” Click.
“You’d do better if you didn’t discharge every third patient,” Yarelcy told me at our last sit-down.
“I can’t deal with psychopaths.”
“You gotta understand, normal people don’t fork over five hundred bucks a year to an ENT. The ones who do are all rich bastards with issues.”
“You could have told me that before we got started.”
“Build up your practice, then you can discharge psychopaths. But only the really crazy ones.”
And now, here I was, sucking wax from the demon spawn of Satan.
Father Dade read my diplomas while he fiddled with his gear. He said, “Are you a Catholic, Doctor Sperry?”
“Close enough,” he muttered. “Your Ph.D. — not standard for a medical doctor, is it?”
“No, sir. Father.”
“May I ask the title of your dissertation?”
That stopped me cold. I hadn’t given any thought to my thesis in years . . . not since Yarelcy updated my curriculum vitae.
“Ah . . . The Interface of Magic and Medicine in the American Third World.”
He nodded thoughtfully and opened his book. Meanwhile, Yarelcy and I frog-walked the exam chair to the side of the room so we could wheel Andrea under the binocular ear microscope. Father Dade assured us this would be safer than untying her, lifting her into the exam chair, and tying her up again. I agreed.
I once saw a five-year-old boy pin down three recovery room nurses for two-and-a-half hours. By the end of it, he’d torn three of their fingernails, twisted two nipples, given one traveling nurse a black eye, and sent another traveler to the ER for a bite wound. Andrea was twice the size of that kid.
“I don’t see why you can’t just shout the ritual.”
“Elementary, Dr. Sperry.” He didn’t look like Sherlock. He looked like an ex-half back for Notre Dame. Then again, he reminded me of Spencer Tracy in that Boy’s Town movie. Father Flanagan?
“Andrea’s so full of wax, her hearing is distorted. I say, ‘the power of Christ’, and the serpent says, ‘Bower? The Sin-licker never told me he’d lived under an arbor.’ You can imagine how frustrating it’s been.”
“Yes. I see.”
What I saw was a kid with long brown hair matted in dreadlocks, sunken eyes rolled back, convulsing in her chair. Not a bad imitation of a grand mal seizure, if it was an imitation. I took Yarelcy aside.
“My malpractice covers this?”
“You don’t see me telling anyone. How about you, Father Dade?”
“You’re performing an act of charity,” he said. “No one would dream of suing you.”
“Charity?” I said to Yarelcy. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“He was speaking in general terms,” she said. “Now, calmate. Sit your ass down and clean the poor child’s ears.”
I scooted my stool closer and pulled the scope down. Heard a sudden crunch like several handfuls of cracked knuckles — Andrea turned her head sharply, stared at me with the whites of her eyes.
“If she keeps this up, it’s going to be a long afternoon.”
“I’ll sit on her other side,” said Father Dade. “The serpent will spew his vitriol upon me, and you can do your job.”
I grinned. “Yarelcy, dear? Have a mop and bucket ready for the vitriol.”
“Real funny, asshole,” she said. “Now be a goddamned doctor. Perdoneme, Tio.”
Father Dade nodded amiably. “Whatever it takes, Yari.” He sat heavily in one of my other rolling stools and positioned himself opposite me. “Arabosh, are you there? In the name of all that is holy, I command you to –”
Andrea’s head whipped around to face Father Dade. “You’ll command legions of shit-eaters in Hell, pederast! I know your evil heart . . .”
And so on. Not the gravel-throated voice of a demon, vocal cords swollen from breathing brimstone for eons, but the medium-pitched nasal tone of an eight-year-old girl with big adenoids. Father Dade gave me a quick nod and a wink.
I put the speculum in her ear and groaned.
“What is it?” he said.
“Wax, ear hairs, and Q-tip cotton: the worst impaction known to man. This might take a while.”
Yarelcy stood beside me like a good scrub tech. I asked her for the right angle pick and she slapped it on my palm.
“You watch too many plastic surgery shows on Cable,” I said.
“Naw. Too much MASH as a kid.”
I got down to business. Toughest part was to keep from laughing, especially when Andrea — excuse me, Arabosh — called Father Dade Beelzebub’s Best Butt Boy.
“I’ve seen your personal library, Father,” she said. “Marcel Proust. Oscar Wilde. William S. Burroughs.”
I glanced up from my work. “No shit? You read Burroughs?”
He shrugged. “He wrote outside the box.”
When I finally managed to unplug her ear, Andrea/Arabosh twisted her head around and hissed at me.
Yarelcy poked me in the shoulder. “You hear that hissing?” she said. “That’s what we got to deal with from you, every day. Not a pretty sound, huh?”
“We’re getting close, Doctor,” said the Padre. “All I need is one good ear.”
Back went the kid’s head. “So like you, pencil dick, to do it in my ear.”
“This is one naughty kid,” I said.
Father Dade shook his head. “It’s the demon speaking. The child is an innocent.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure. I know her mother.”
“The piglet’s mother?” snarled Andrea/Arabosh. “She has a special place for you, pederast. She shoves it full of –”
“Silence, foul serpent!” Father Dade cried out. “Can you hear me now? You’ll never see the outside of this room. Your days of tormenting this child are over.”
My instrument hand faltered. I looked up at Yarelcy. “What is this? He’s going to do it here?”
“This is the logical place, Doctor,” said Father Dade. “The child is safely restrained, and you’re here to minister to her medical needs. You may assist me in the ritual, if you wish.”
“But — but — don’t these things take hours?”
He looked at me with soft blue eyes. Eyes that were resigned to anything.
He shrugged. “Senora Soto took four days.”
Yarelcy leaned on me from behind, her breasts squishing pleasantly against my back. Her breath was hot in my ear: “Mom’s paying by the hour. If this goes past midnight, you’ve paid your overhead for the month.”
I murmured into the girl’s good ear: “You comfortable, Arabosh? This might take awhile.”
“Leave everything to me,” the Padre said. “Arabosh may persecute you with all manner of lies and truths, but your resolve must not weaken. When appropriate, you and Yari will join me in the responsive readings. Otherwise, hold your peace.”
He began by donning his vestments and making the sign of the cross over Andrea. Eyes closed, she hummed and bobbed her head to a familiar tune. Next, Father Dade sprinkled holy water on her. Nothing steamed; no welts broke out on her dampened skin. She didn’t even open her eyes.
He’d given me a rundown of the ritual, so I knew what to expect: the Litany of the Saints, during which Yarelcy and I had to respond, “Pray for us,” after each Saint’s name. Andrea/Arabosh merely hummed louder.
Father Dade made it to St. Bartholomew before it came to me.
“Macho Man by the Village People! Damn. I’ve been wondering what in God’s name she was, ah, humming . . .”
Father Dade and Yarelcy stared me down. If looks could kill.
“Pray for us.”
On and on like that. Father Dade’s ritual book was thick, and he worked through it one page at a time. I kept my eyes on the page to keep from dozing. This was worse than Yom Kippur services. Yarelcy, I noticed, barely glanced at the book. And I’d never even known she was Catholic.
Next, Father Dade recited a few psalms. Glenna popped her head in to say she’d ordered pizza and Coke.
“Thank you, Glenna,” said Father Dade. He turned to Yarelcy. “We can skip the next paragraph. I learned the demon’s name when we tried this yesterday. Here.” He pointed to the relevant passage.
He placed his hands on the girl and said, “They shall lay their hands upon the sick and all will be well with them. May Jesus –”
Andrea/Arabosh’s eyes flicked open. They were solid inky black.
“Didn’t take you long to fondle the goods, Father. And who have we here?” She turned to me, and I just about lost it. “Snot doc Jew and his Mexican whore. He’s in love with you, you know.”
I glanced at Yarelcy, saw her eyes grow large, her mouth gape. I shrugged.
“Not that it’ll do either of you any good,” the girl said. “You’ll both boil in piss before I’m done with you!” She bucked mightily at her restraints; the wooden chair creaked and groaned.
“May Jesus, Son of Mary, Lord and Savior of the world, through the merits and intercession of His holy apostles –”
“Abossel?” said Andrea/Arabosh. “What’s an abossel?”
Father Dade glanced at me. “I thought you said . . .?”
“She’s faking it. Keep going.”
He soldiered on. Pizza arrived after a long quotation from Luke. Finally, we got to the good stuff.
“I cast you out, unclean spirit, along with every Satanic power of the enemy, every specter from hell, and all your fell companions; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Begone . . .”
Yatta yatta yatta. This was fun in The Exorcist because Linda Blair had so many tricks up her sleeve, and elsewhere. All Andrea/Arabosh could do was convulse, curse creatively, and do amusing things with her eyes. After the second time she pulled the black eye trick, I didn’t even get chills.
Sometime between the Book of Luke and I cast you out, Yarelcy’s hand worked its way into mine.
“. . . For it is the power of Christ that compels you, who brought you low by His cross. Tremble before that mighty arm . . .”
Yeah, I remembered this part from the movie. I started to dig the whole thing, especially the feel of Yarelcy’s hot, sweaty palm in mine. But how had the kid guessed my feelings for Yarelcy? Was I that obvious?
“Depart, then, transgressor. Depart, seducer, full of lies and cunning, foe of virtue, persecutor of the innocent . . .”
A massive convulsion shook Andrea/Arabosh’s small frame, and she broke the duct tape. Damn. I didn’t know that was possible. The wheelchair’s sides splintered outward and she climbed atop the seat, holding her arms outward, crucifix-fashion.
My instruments began flying around the room.
“Oh, shit,” I said, but Father Dade put his hand on my arm.
“Ignore it,” he said. “It’s all show. Arabosh wouldn’t resort to such theatrics if we weren’t getting very, very nnghk!”
My antique alcohol lamp smacked Father Dade in the temple. He crumpled to the ground.
Yarelcy tugged at my hand. “You have to finish, Robert! She respects you!”
I suppose I ought to have found this somewhat illogical, but I really liked the sound of my name on her full, Raspberry Red-glossed lips. She pointed to the appropriate passage. A nasal speculum beaned her on the head and a thin line of blood sped down the side of her face.
“Robert, you must continue!”
So I picked up where the Padre left off. “Give place, abominable creature, give way, you monster, give way to Christ, in whom you found none of your works . . .”
Yarelcy nodded her encouragement and squeezed my hand.
“For He has already stripped you of your powers and laid waste your kingdom . . .”
No big deal at all. Hell, I could read. And after a few pages, Father Dade recovered and took over for me.
Several hours later, Father Dade read the Prayer Following Deliverance while Yarelcy and I sat next to each other in the waiting room eating leftover pizza. He finished his prayer, kissed the whimpering child on the forehead, and joined us.
“You do this often?” I said.
He and Yarelcy exchanged a glance.
“Uncle is the Diocese’s exorcist,” she said. “This is all he does.”
I didn’t know what puzzled me more — that she called him Uncle, or that the Diocese was so infested with incubi they needed a full time exorcist.
“Yes, Doctor, I stay busy,” said Father Dade. “Unless they read the tabloids, few people realize the Millennium was not a non-event. In America alone, even the sparsely populated states have at least one exorcist. An overcrowded diocese like ours requires its very own.”
“And he’s your uncle?” I said.
“It’s a huge problem,” Father Dade continued. “We Catholics are all over it, of course. Ours is a culture which accepts the concept of Satanic possession. Other communities are less fortunate.”
Yarelcy looked at me imploringly. “He’s saying the Chinese, the blacks, the Vietnamese –”
“Those who aren’t Catholic,” Father Dade said.
“– a hundred different ethnic groups all over L.A., and so few of them have any defense against Satan. It’s a calamity.” She smiled wolfishly. “It’s also an opportunity.”
The pizza threatened to rise again. “What are you saying?”
Father Dade laid his hand on my shoulder. “She’s saying, Doctor, that I can only do so much. A Catholic priest is out of his element in the Hmong community. And the Haitians! Don’t get me started.”
“But you could do it, Robert! You could figure out the necessary rituals –”
“It’s all on the Internet,” Father Dade said.
“It’s an untapped market!” Yarelcy cried.
I looked at them long and hard. A lightbulb flickered.
We’d have to fix those damned fluorescents.
“You planned this from the start,” I said. “That’s why you had me give up all my HMO contracts. You wanted me in financial straits so I’d have no choice.”
“I got the idea when we redid your curriculum vitae,” she said. “With that Ph.D., you’re perfect for the job.”
“That dissertation was written fifteen years ago. And I haven’t kept up with the cultural anthropology literature –”
“Don’t worry, Poppy,” said Yarelcy, stroking my cheek. “We’ll work it out together.”
Was it the Poppy or the together that melted my resistance? Perhaps her fingertips caressing my skin . . . Who knows. Who cares. I caved in to the promise of things to come.
“She’s an experienced assistant,” said Father Dade. “And I don’t think she’ll let you say no.”
Anyway, that’s how it all happened. By the following week, I’d hung out a new shingle. I think you know how it reads. But if you’re as slow on the uptake as I was, here it is:
Ear, Nose, Throat, and Soul.