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By Marie Etienne
I'd never seen Dr. Guree's house in daylight, never ventured up the sidewalk as I was doing today, holding the estate sale notice in my hand. I felt guilty, as if I were about to do something illicit. Like snooping through a neighbor's closets while they were away. My memories of our doctor's stately house in Louisiana were born in the backseat of my father's Eldorado. Along with my brothers and sisters, I'd press my face against the chilly glass and stare in awe at the Christmas decorations. Now, a year after Jack Guree's death, I wanted a peek inside his real life. After all, he had seen ours.
"Come in, little lady," said the estate sale manager sitting in the foyer. Taking a price list, I entered the study, a room painted a cool, slate blue. Shelves of porcelain figurines filled the wall behind his desk. A saleslady stood nearby.
"These are pretty. What are they?" I asked, reaching for one depicting a little girl holding a picnic basket.
"Careful. They're Hummels. They're extremely valuable." Her squinty eyes followed my hand as I returned the girl to the shelf.
"Did you know Jack Guree?" the saleslady asked me.
"Our family doctor," I answered, wondering why a man, single and childless, would collect all these figurines. They did look sweet and idyllic. Unlike some of his real patients.
I smiled to myself, thinking how every fall my mother would haul us six kids into Dr. Guree's office for our vaccinations. One summer, she had forgotten to make an appointment. For days I waited for her to announce we were going to see Dr. Guree. Then school supplies were purchased. Still no shots. I panicked. I imagined diseases lurking to infect me. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I approached the stove and said, "Momma, you haven't taken us for our vaccinations."
A room full of angry eyes shot my way. A chorus of whiny protests, "No, I don't want to go see Dr. Guree" bounced off the paneled walls. My 2-year-old brother, Nickey, cried, "No vacation. I don't want vacation."
The next afternoon, Dr. Guree's receptionist, a woman with a red beehive hairdo, led us into the examination room. As we waited for the doctor, my mother puffed away on her cigarette, flicking ashes into the sink, checking her watch every few seconds. Happy hour couldn't come soon enough.
The door opened and Dr. Guree shuffled in wheezing. Even without a tray full of syringes, he frightened me. A huge hump protruded from the back of his white jacket. His bumpy, red face looked like ground chuck. We all whimpered. Momma sighed. "Girls," he said, "no need to scare your little brother."
He sounded like a monster with his loud, asthmatic breathing. I stared at his bulbous nose. It sprouted sharp, wiry hairs. The black hair seemed to travel up under his skin, sprouting again like rampant weeds above his eyes and out his ears.
As Dr. Guree turned toward me, I shrieked "No!" and ran out of the room into the hall. The screams of my sisters followed in my wake, their loafers slapping the linoleum as they too looked for a closet to hide in. My mother cornered me by the bathroom, and her scowl told me that I'd have a sore butt later, to go with my sore arm.
After we were dragged back and given our shots, I watched as Dr. Guree swabbed my little brother's arm. When Nickey saw the needle, his face turned white as ice crystals, his eyes rolled, and he fell off the metal table with a loud thud. Luckily he didn't hurt himself.
Now, laughing to myself, I imagined Dr. Guree trudging home from work, pouring a tall glass of bourbon like my father, and plopping down at his desk to admire his Hummels, his perfect, porcelain children.
Adjacent to Guree's study was the den. Four antique wall clocks stood around a billiard table. I wondered if my father and Dr. Guree had ever played together. They were friends from college. Dr. Guree often called on my parents socially, drinking either Sanka or Jim Beam, depending on whether or not he carried his pager. The nights he toted in his brown alligator bag, he and Daddy dispensed with their usual handshake. We'd hear the doctor's raspy voice as he asked, "Where is she?" She would be my mother, shut up in some room, crying to a Glen Campbell album or ranting at the Little Blue Boy painting she loved.
One evening Momma lay at the foot of the stairs. My father had pushed her. We hid on the top landing and listened to Dr. Guree's voice below. "Shhh now, Esther. That must have been some nasty fall. Let's get you into bed. Got something to help you sleep." He leaned over and she looked into his face, right at that squiggly river of veins meandering from his huge nose to the cratered landscape of his cheeks.
Pressed against the banister a safe distance away, we gasped at Momma's reply, "I wish you would take me away from here. I could marry you."
Throughout my childhood, Dr. Guree was the self-appointed ambassador of Christmas with all his lawn decorations. Creating an ideal, magical world was how he, otherwise shy, had reached out to his neighbors. Now, standing under the humming florescent lights of his attic, I found the Three Wise Men that had knelt under his huge oak tree year after year. Up close, they looked like embalmed Mardi Gras kings in matted, fur-trimmed mantles. I turned and saw Santa and Rudolph huddled dejectedly under a dormer. Sitting in a corner was a box labeled "Nativity Baby Jesus." I could almost hear my father's slurred laughter after telling Momma how Jack Guree had called to say that another goddamn baby Jesus had been swiped. I considered for a moment grabbing the box to take back to California with me, but it didn't feel right. What would I do with the plastic doll?
The last time I saw Dr. Guree was my freshman year of college, 22 years ago. I had missed an important assignment after drinking all night and snorting cocaine with some waiters from the restaurant where I worked. I thought that Guree might give me a doctor's excuse, extending the same courteous collusion he'd so often shared with my parents. I found myself standing at the sign-in window, looking into the impatient eyes of the same red-headed receptionist.
I pleaded, "But I've just got to have a note from Dr. Guree."
"Sorry, Ms. Etienne. As you can see by the sign, we're not open on Mondays. The doctor can't write an excuse if he didn't actually see you yesterday."
"But that's the point," I stammered, trying to piece together an argument. "I came by. If the office had been open, surely he would have seen me. It's not my fault he's closed on Monday."
The nurse stared at me and blinked. She looked tired, as if she no longer had the strength to argue. I swallowed hard, praying my logic had stumped her. "Please just tell him I'll flunk my class unless he gives me a note. If he says no, I'll go away."
"Wait here." The glass door shook as it banged closed.
Feeling idiotic, I stood with my back to the other patients in the waiting room. When the receptionist returned, she handed me a folded piece of paper. I looked at her narrowed eyes, which seemed to say, "Good luck! You'll need it." Feeling both relieved and victorious, I hurried out and opened the note. Scribbled were the words "Marie Etienne has been under my care. Please excuse her absence from class on Monday." Signed, Dr. J. Guree.
Before arriving at the estate sale, I had planned to buy a little keepsake, maybe an ornament, some remembrance of Dr. Guree. Now, upon closer inspection, the decorations and figurines seemed tacky and meaningless.
It occurred to me, as I returned to the foyer and set down the price list, that Dr. Guree hadn't come to the lobby that day and asked how I was feeling. But careful examination had never been his forte.
"Didn't find anything, darlin'?" asked the estate sale manager as I opened the elegantly carved front door.
"No," I replied. "There's nothing I really need." 2
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