When the doctor stuck his flashlight in Rivard’s ear, Rivard reeled back and said, “Now hold on there.”

“Well, it’s infected, I can tell you that.” And on further examination, “You got a hole in the membrane.”

“A hole in the membrane,” Rivard said.

“What you been doing, son, to pop a membrane like that?”

The doctor’s wall was perfectly blank. No nature scenes, no happy faces. Rivard stared into the blank wall and tried to hold on to his good mood. “I’m a musician.”

“Music,” the doctor said. “Well, I’ll be honest with you. I’ve known certain illegal substances to eat a man’s ear away like this.” He clicked the flashlight off and peered over his glasses into Rivard’s eyes. “Worst case scenarios, they can erode your tympanic membrane. You ever use those kind of drugs?”

Rivard dead-eyed the dough-faced gentleman, and spelled it out again: “In my spare time,” he said, “I play a little music.”

The doctor straightened up, tucked his flashlight in his pocket, and shrugged. “I guess if you end up deaf, you’ll be ready to hear what I’m talking about.”

As soon as he could, Rivard got out of there, but it was too late. The man had fouled his good mood.

People were always on him about something. People on his case all the time. The doc’d put drops in Rivard’s ear and stuffed it with cotton. Now, Rivard took the cotton out and smelled it. Smelled like cotton. He thought about Dr. Shrewd and his pugnacious eyes, his fat-fingered hands, and the drops Rivard hadn’t felt. He tossed the cotton in the gutter. His ear hurt. He needed to clean it out.

- - - -

In the apartment the dishes were all on the floor. Dishtowels were on the floor. Coffee pot, toaster, bread, butter — all on the floor. Rivard’s girlfriend, Betty, was on the floor, too, sprawled out in front of the TV, her feet swathed in gauze. Betty’d had bone spurs removed a week ago, and now she couldn’t walk. She scooted around on her rump and spent days in front of the TV. Rivard spent days putting things within her reach.

Now she sat blinking up at him. “What’d the doctor say?”

She’d wanted the microwave on the floor, but he drew the line there.

“Is it infected?”

On TV, a man in a chef’s hat was dicing carrots. This struck Rivard funny. “What are you watching?”

“Gourmet Chef.”

“Why you watching that?”

“I might just cook us something.” Rivard laughed. “I might,” she said, wiggling her eyebrows, and he asked her how she came to be in his apartment.

“What?”

“What are you doing here?”

She shut her mouth.

“Did I invite you?”

She looked back at the TV.

Rivard stared at the side of her face. For three months Betty O’Dell had been here, day in, day out, and for one week, ever since she had the bone spurs removed, he’d been her personal man-servant. Just now it made him mad.

He stepped over her sprawled legs, headed for the bathroom, and shut the door. He stood in front of the mirror and peered sideways into his crusted ear. When he was a boy, he had swimmer’s ear. His mother had poured hydrogen peroxide in it, and it opened up just like that. His mother was dead now, and he didn’t have anybody to call about something like this, nor about his high blood pressure. He had high blood pressure, his blood sugar was way out of whack, and now this.

He seriously doubted that the doctor had put drops in his ear. Dr. Cool: The type who’d like to teach somebody a lesson. A situation. That’s what he had. Rivard had run into situations before. He’d once had the house band at a downtown club. The environment got a little stale so Rivard served notice. The club owner, Jack was his name, had a temper about it, and on the last night wouldn’t pay them. “So sue me.” That’s what Jack had said.

It was a situation, and this thing with Dr. Medical Moral Majority was a situation, too. Rivard had seen ‘em all. He’d had songs stolen, players wooed. Once on a road trip he’d been hung out to dry. Tibur, South Carolina. Woke the last day of the tour, found manager and money gone. Had to hock his drums to get bus fare home.

The manager, old Jack, Dr. Thinks-He’s-Smart: Guys like that liked knowing they could make a man crawl. One thing Rivard knew for sure: you only had yourself to rely on.