MUSED Literary Magazine.
Fiction

Sympathy Pains

Marcie Roman

When something happened in Doris Dellinger’s town, she was always first with the appropriate form of acknowledgement: condolence notes and casseroles, baby booties and blankets. She gave pens to graduates and pies to newcomers, even the ones just passing through; the writers, and painters, and occasional bird-watcher. The accompanying note read: “I am Doris Dellinger and I would like to welcome you to our glorious town.” She included her number, but requested no calls after 8 p.m. An early riser, she compensated on the back end, rarely making it past the evening news.

Although she’d never married and had no children, Doris Dellinger did have a companion, a fourteen-year-old terrier named Pogo. She’d adopted him after the previous owner—Annabelle Leech, mother of two rambunctious boys—found Pogo in the oven. “It wasn’t on, of course,” Annabelle said, “But I was just about to pre-heat it for some rolls.” Doris Dellinger saw the rescuing of Pogo as an obligation, one taken without complaint, but she grew to care for the pup, toting him around in a brown vinyl purse anywhere that would allow it, which was just about everywhere. Even though Pogo’s bark could lacerate an ear drum, no one ever wanted to say no to Doris Dellinger.

Doris Dellinger was built like a well-insulated house and was almost never ill, so it surprised her one morning to experience a shooting pain in her left arm when she bent to place Pogo in his bag. The pain ebbed and flowed as she went about her day, flaring up through grocery shopping, and as she prepared dinner and watched the news. The next morning it was worse so she made a visit to Dr. Sanchez.

“I just don’t get it,” she said, her large frame on the table, her sleeve bunched to reveal a veined and flabby upper arm. “I didn’t pull it, or lift anything heavier than Pogo. It wasn’t there and then it was.”

Dr. Sanchez tested her range of motion and took a blood sample. “Don’t see anything amiss,” he said. “Rest it a bit, use ice if it gets worse.” Then he thanked her again for the pecan bars she’d dropped off last week in appreciation of his twenty-five-dollar contribution to the Women’s Club raffle.

Pleased that the situation didn’t seem serious—she was after all nearing an age where those worries could exist—Doris Dellinger went home and greeted Pogo (the doctor’s office was one of the few places he was unwelcome). That was when she noticed Pogo’s limp, just a minor favoring of the paw, as he led her to the drawer where she kept the treats.

“Now Pogo,” she said. “What have you done to yourself?”

Reaching down to examine him, her arm burned like she’d stuffed it into a bucket of hot coals. Pogo held up his paw, as though the pressure on it was too much to bear.

“Why Pogo,” she gasped. “Could it be you’re having sympathy pains?”

The next morning, she brought him to Vet Fletcher, an appointment slot always available for the woman who once took over the reception desk on a busy morning after the receptionist got bit by Dirk Lawson’s Chihuahua. As Vet Fletcher prodded a whimpering Pogo, Doris Dellinger’s arm flared again—now a bucket of spiked, burning coals—and she plopped into a chair and waved her face with a flyer for heartworm medication.

“So, there does seem to be something going on with Pogo,” Vet Fletcher said gently. She ordered blood-work and x-rays and promised to be in touch soon.
The news, arriving the next day, was not good. But it could have been worse.

Pogo had a tumor, just a small one, above his left paw. It was the kind of thing that often went ignored, but thanks to Doris Dellinger’s quick response, they could attack it aggressively. Or consider amputation.

Doris Dellinger was practical. “Well,” she said. “Seeing as I carry Pogo everywhere, I imagine one less leg won’t cause him any trouble. How soon can we schedule?” To Pogo, she said, “Isn’t that something. Here I was thinking you were having sympathy pains and it was the other way around.”

Sure enough, as soon as the surgery was completed, Doris Dellinger’s arm pain went away.

The week following the surgery was a whirlwind. Not only was she catering to Pogo’s needs—administering medicine, carrying him to the yard to do his business—but there were two tragedies and one wedding and Doris Dellinger would not let personal matters interfere with her commitment to the town.

“It’s nothing,” she said, a sedated Pogo asleep in the purse, when she delivered a casserole to the Hernandez’s after Mr. Hernandez fell off a ladder and broke his leg.

“Congratulations,” she said to the newlyweds as she presented a gift-wrapped binder of recipes she’d typed on her IBM Selectric.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she said to Janet Sloane, one of the town’s other spinsters, on the loss of Janet’s older sister, Penny. Instead of a food offering, Doris Dellinger took out her rubber gloves and Ajax and scrubbed Janet’s kitchen to a shine since Janet hated dirt and might not be up to the task during mourning.

That night, Doris Dellinger returned home, held Pogo so he could pee, hand-fed him dinner, took him back outside, then put him to bed. As she went downstairs to double check the lights she experienced a thirst so extreme, it was as if she’d been stuck on a desert for days. She could think of nothing but a cold, clear, glass of water. Gulping one wasn’t enough. As she filled a second glass, she noticed the herbs on her kitchen windowsill, limp and brown, the tops hanging as if in defeat.

“Oh dear,” she said, trying to recall the last time she’d watered them. She poured her glass into the hardened dirt and filled the pitcher she used for the houseplants, all of which seemed to be suffering. Yes, it was quite possible she’d forgotten to water them what with the pain in her arm, Pogo, and his care. She made several trips to the sink to refill until every plant had been sufficiently watered. The herbs were already perking up and she realized her tremendous thirst was no more.
“Curious,” she said to the plants. She could have pondered it further, but it was 8 p.m. and Doris Dellinger was due for bed.

Over the next week, she paid close attention to any tweaks, twinges or hints of trauma. She suggested that Louise Andrejeski have her eyes checked when, stopping at Louise’s house with some jam she experienced sudden, blurred vision. At the Post Office, she recommended that Clifford Owen, the Postmaster’s son, be checked for asthma after feeling short of breath when the boy ran past her to get outside. On the way home, when she stopped to commend Henry Locke, editor of the town paper, on his exposé on second-rate feed salesmen, her stomach seized in cramps.

“You might want to stay close to home,” she told him. “Just for the next twenty-four hours or so.”

Sure enough: Louise had the early signs of cataracts; Clifford didn’t have asthma but rather a mild allergic reaction thought to come from pairing peanut butter, strawberries, and chewing gum; and poor Henry Locke did indeed have to stay close to the bathroom for a solid day and a half, resulting, he assumed, from some leftover fried chicken left too long on the countertop, a mistake many a bachelor has made, even one as experienced as he.

The talk spread, as it does in small towns, like a fire with an endless supply of kindling. By the next day, every dinner conversation was about Doris Dellinger’s newfound gift for (depending on the family doing the discussing): healing arts, laying of the hands, ESP, channeling a higher power, prognostication, creative guessing, and, what Doris Dellinger may have used to describe herself, empathy to the extreme. Her phone began to ring.

“Doris Dellinger, can you check on Thomas? He seems run down and they have the big game against Elsburg High on Saturday?”

“Doris Dellinger, my nose gets itchy whenever I’m near Peterman’s Hardware. It’s been that way for years. Can you tell me why?”

“Doris Dellinger, my Harold has been moaning about his back and won’t see Dr. Sanchez, but I’m sure he wouldn’t object to a visit, especially if you bring some of those chocolate brownies he loves so.”

Doris Dellinger was happy to oblige although she had to use a calendar to keep track of appointments after discovering she’d booked the Steinbergs for a cough at the same time as the Callahans for a lethargic parakeet.

One rare afternoon with nothing scheduled, there was a knock at Doris Dellinger’s door. She often received visitors—usually people returning containers from her various offerings—but it was a man she’d never seen before: tall, thin, his beard long, his hands empty. Pogo also identified him as a stranger and sounded the alarm.

The man winced and took a step back.

“Are you Mrs. Dellinger?”

As if she didn’t already know he was a stranger, that address would have sealed it. She was Doris Dellinger. Her mother, Mrs. Dellinger, had been dead for years. She answered, “No.”

A look of confusion, like a cloud passing over the sun, crossed his face.

“I was told that Doris Dellinger lived here,” he said. “My name is Tom Tompkins. I’m a TV producer, in for a week of R&R and to enjoy your beautiful scenery. Thought maybe I could come in for a few minutes. I’d like to pitch you this idea I had.” He smiled widely.

Doris Dellinger did not trust anyone with teeth that white and that straight. She wished she could yap a warning like Pogo to tell this man to go away. She did not open her screen door.

He plowed onward. “See I do reality shows. Maybe you’ve heard of them. Pet Party, about people who throw outrageous parties for pets?” He looked hopefully at Pogo who growled. “Or Extreme Weather Challenge? That’s a popular one. Mother Nature’s been helpful lately.”

Doris Dellinger had no idea what the man was prattling about. She wondered if he’d recently checked out of St. Peter’s Home for the Mentally Disadvantaged. A plaque with her name adorned the front hall in appreciation of her donation, each December, of hand knit green wool socks for all the residents. This man wore sandals; his sockless toes poked like worms, ready to be plucked by the next passing bird. She imagined he wanted her to look upon him and use her powers of intuition, although she’d had no telling flash of pain or discomfort, other than that associated with his invasion of her porch.

“What can I help you with, Mr. Tompkins?”

“Call me, Tom, please.”

He smiled again, and she looked away. Really, the shine of those things was offensive.

“I heard about you. I mean anyone in town for five minutes hears about Doris Dellinger and her amazing insight into the human condition. That’s the kind of thing they love on the coast, you see. I’m thinking we could call you The Senser. How’s that? I’m betting we can get a guaranteed six episodes to start then take you on the road.”

Something in her face must have hinted he hadn’t made his point.

“Talk about tourism. You’d give this town an entire new industry. And of course, you’d be very rich.” His eyes flickered to the right, as if there was something about the slanted porch, the sun faded drapes in the windows, which implied she was living below his standards.

Doris Dellinger counted to ten. Her voice was calm although her heart skipped faster, as if rattling the cage in her chest to demand a greater level of agitation.
“Thank you, but I am not interested in being part of your program.”

She shut the door, leaving Tom Tompkins with another look of confusion, like she’d told a joke but stopped before the punchline.

The phone rang. Who knew one small town could have so many problems? And now here was one of her own. A pest. For something told her Tom Tompkins would not give up so easily.

She was right.

The next day at lunchtime, a news van pulled into the town square with two reporters and a cameraman from a nearby affiliate. Tom Tompkins brought them to Petrillo’s Diner. “You’ve got the scoop,” he promised (as overheard by Mrs. Petrillo when she went to refill their coffee). But, of course, that wasn’t the case and by the time they were paying their bill, two more news vans had pulled in.

Mrs. Petrillo made a phone call from the backroom. “Doris Dellinger don’t answer the door; the media circus is on its way.”

Doris Dellinger was never one to run from a challenge. She put Pogo in his purse, put on her Sunday coat and went to wait on the sidewalk lest they trample her flowerbeds in an attempt to get a closer shot.

Henry Locke arrived with the last of the news vans. He’d been sitting at his desk when he received a call from Mrs. Petrillo about the brouhaha brewing at Doris Dellinger’s. With a sigh, he’d turned off the sports recap, grabbed his hat and headed over. He had no intention of covering her story—he was more of a facts man—but she had helped him with that recent intestinal matter.

Doris Dellinger stood on a square of sidewalk, arms crossed. “Need something Henry?” she asked.

That was a rhetorical question. Henry Locke was the only townsperson—with no family and a healthy constitution, the one incident notwithstanding—who had never been on the receiving end of a Doris Dellinger offering.

They looked out at the small crowd: the cameramen and reporters, drivers smoking through the windows of their vans. Pogo was hoarse from yapping, but his bark was still shrill enough to make any sort of recording impossible. Henry did not need Doris Dellinger’s gift to discern that no one was happy, especially the tall fellow with the beard shouting into a phone.
Henry shrugged. “Thought maybe you could use some assistance.”

In Doris Dellinger’s guttural region, she felt a sudden emptiness. She had eaten a decent lunch, but the emptiness began to grow. She needed to eat and eat so badly that if the only thing left in the world were those pouty faced reporters then so be it. She motioned to the outsiders. “There seems to be an overabundance of nonsense.” She said this like it was a function of the weather: reporters and cameramen raining from the sky. As if cued from backstage, another news van and two rental cars pulled up, horns blaring in competition for the remaining parking spot. The feeling in her stomach spread. Perhaps, it was not her belly but Henry Locke’s. He was already thin as a coat hanger and had likely not been eating right given the matter with his digestive tract. Her mind went to the sugar cookies she’d taken from the oven before she’d answered Mrs. Petrillo’s call.

“Henry, would you care to join me for a bite?”

Henry had eaten lunch an hour before; his usual cheese sandwich, bag of chips, but he was on the list of folks who did not say no to Doris Dellinger.

They turned their backs on the reporters and walked up the path.

“Take your coat off, Henry,” Doris Dellinger said, inside the foyer, as she leaned over to set Pogo down. She expected him to yap—Pogo yapped at anyone entering the home, known or unknown—but with tail wagging, the dog hobbled into the kitchen.

“I’ll just wash up,” Henry said.

“You remember where it is?”

The smell of cookies, cooling on the counter, lured. Doris Dellinger wanted to shove them into her mouth, as many as she could fit, to wash them down with a container of thick milk, coating her insides, staunching the emptiness that spread from her stomach to her limbs, as if she were becoming as hollow as those chocolate bunnies at Easter.

Henry nodded. He had played in the Dellinger home as a child, along with their other schoolmates; the house wide and welcoming, like a big bosomed hug. He hadn’t been over much in his adult life, other than when he came with the rest of the town to pay respects to the late Mr. Dellinger, followed a few months later by the Mrs.

In the kitchen, Doris Dellinger grabbed two of the cookies, barely chewed, as Pogo sat at her feet in search of falling crumbs. “I don’t understand it, Pogo,” she said. “Could the man be dying of hunger?” She went to the fridge. Took out a plate of cold cuts, a jar of mayonnaise. She was removing the bread from the breadbox when Henry entered. He’d removed his hat and his hair stood in tufts like cottonwood fluff.

“Well now, you didn’t have to go to all this trouble,” he said.

“We may be holed up a while.” She motioned to the front of the house. “Unless you’ve got any ideas on making them scat.”

Henry peered through the curtains. The news folk stood in two rows as if set up for a line dance, reporters on one side, their backs facing the house, camera folk on the other, the cameras on their shoulders, a third dancing partner. At least they were respecting the flowerbeds. Pogo came over and wagged. Henry scooped the dog up and sat down at the table, scratching Pogo’s ears as Pogo licked his chin. Doris Dellinger’s hunger pains started to abate.

“Perhaps you should get a dog,” she suggested.

“Now, Doris Dellinger, you know Sally Abbott doesn’t allow dogs on the property.”

Henry had been renting the coach house at the Abbott’s for almost thirty-five years.

“I think Sally is being silly, and her cats are quite capable of taking care of themselves.”

She chose not to fully reveal what she and Pogo thought of Sally Abbot’s cats. She took a slice of turkey. Nibbled it down. Took another. There was an oddness to having Henry Locke in a chair that was usually empty. Since before her mother’s time, company was brought to the living or dining room. The kitchen was reserved for a home’s permanent inhabitants, but there was something about his coat hanger shape seated in that chair with Pogo on his lap that seemed comfortable, almost familiar. She walked to the counter to get the cookies. From outside came the sound of raised voices, shouting her name. Those beasts were hungry too, it seemed. She wiped her hands on a dishtowel and sighed. While she had not asked for this attention, it was her responsibility to clear them out before her neighbors came home from their workdays.

“Excuse me, Henry,” she said. She walked to the front door and swung it open. She would participate in whatever silly interview they wanted just to get them to go away. Henry followed, holding Pogo. “Keep him quiet, Henry, if you could.”

But then another idea struck, as sure as one of her intuitions. She marched to the sidewalk. Faces turned her way, cameras at ready. Tom Tompkins motioned to a big-bellied cameraman to spring to action.

Questions flew:

“Doris Dellinger, how do you do it?”

“What does it feel like?”

“Are you a witch or a fortune teller?”

“Do you think you could do it by email?”

Doris Dellinger smiled politely and started to scratch. She scratched her head, and her arms, her belly and her face. She scratched her knees and her elbows, her wrists and her scalp. She scratched with both hands like she was battling the itch of all itches.

“Well folks, first things first. I’m not sure who it is, but it appears at least one of you is about to suffer from a highly contagious rash. I’m never sure of the cause, as you know. I mean it could be ringworm or scabies or pink eye or lice or maybe even that flesh-eating bacteria thing we’ve been hearing about.” She paused to let that sink in. “So, before we do any of this interviewing, if you’re feeling the slightest bit of itch, I would recommend an immediate trip to your health care provider.”
She waited for them to squirm, and squirm they did. It was clear that there was not a reporter or cameraman or reality TV producer who did not feel the sudden start of an itch on some body part. They tried to hold off but their fingers twitched to rub an eye, or a nose or that one impossible area in the middle of the back. How it called to them to scratch and scratch and scratch. It was useless. A sigh of relief as they gave in. Itching and scratching, and scratching and itching, they packed up their belongings, avoiding each other’s eyes. Tires screeched and horns blared once more. Henry relinquished Pogo, relieved he could address his own prickling sensation that called to be quelled from just under his left rib.

As Doris Dellinger started up the path, Tom Tompkins ran over, one hand raking his beard, the other waving a white envelope.

“We are really onto something here. This will be huge. Global even. Here’s your contract, just the standard. It’s got a stamped envelope all ready to go.”
He gave her a thumbs up, and scurried down the path, his other hand moving into the vicinity of his buttocks.

She held the envelope to her temple, closed her eyes and said, “I’m getting the sense that this is going right into the rubbish bin.”

When she opened her eyes, Henry wasn’t beside her. She looked around and saw him walking down the street, tall and thin, like a lightning rod or a spindly tree. The emptiness from before came back as a gnawing sensation but this time a word flashed in her mind, grey letters with the consistency of crumbly old dough. Loneliness. As soon as she named it, she was sure that this time she’d gotten it right.

After she fed Pogo and took him outside, she picked up the phone. It rang without answer. She waited ten minutes and tried again.

“Hello,” Henry Locke said on the other end.

“Hello, Henry. This is Doris Dellinger, and I was wondering if you’d like to come over tomorrow for dinner. I serve at 5:30.”

“Why yes,” he answered. “Yes, of course.”

After she hung up, Doris Dellinger stood by the phone and listened to her body. She was no longer hungry. That was good. She also wasn’t thirsty or achy, or sore or itchy, or faint or clammy. She didn’t feel queasy or febrile, myopic or infectious. She did, however, feel tired. Tired of the craziness, that was for sure, but also the kind of tired that comes from a good day’s work, and maybe, she sensed, an eagerness to see what the next day would bring. So, although it was nowhere near 8 p.m., Doris Dellinger carried Pogo upstairs, and went to bed.