It was my first day at the new hospital. The town’s only construction project in years ensured ample coverage in the local daily. People flocked to the grand opening as if they were at the kickoff of the football season. Brochures in hand, visitors roamed the hallways staring into sterile empty rooms with hospital beds and wall fixtures piping in oxygen. High Desert Regional was now proudly on par with hospitals in the big cities.
Townsfolk no longer had to spend a whole day to see a doctor for a fifteen-minute appointment. Modern healthcare even brought with it a brand new road that cut across town. Gone were the dusty dry grass and flowering weeds that lined the road that led to the old hospital, which looked more like a barn than a temple of healing.
The town would have been another forgotten dot on the map but for its hot springs. The faint odor of sulfur accompanied the sign that greeted visitors, “Welcome to paradise in the High Desert.” Rumors of the place being the last hiding spot of an old outlaw and gunslinger helped make the only diner in town a pit stop for weary cross-country travelers. Otherwise, nothing much happened.
Anticipating kinks in the new computer systems, my schedule for the week was kept light. My only patient on opening day was two hours late. As the nurse handed me the chart, she wrinkled her nose and said, “Good luck.” Through my peripheral vision, I caught her rolling her eyes as she hurried towards the smell of fresh coffee and warm bread emanating from the break room.
William Fraser Dalrymple had come to have his heart evaluated by the town’s newest doctor, a heart specialist. On the patient intake form, he had neatly printed his name in big, bold letters as if he was someone important in town. He described his problem as ‘a short in my ticker.’ Easy enough, I thought.
In a town where gossip gets around in less time than it takes tumbleweed to cross the only two-lane road appropriately called Main Street, first impressions are everything. Straightening my tie and tugging on my white coat to make a wrinkle disappear, I entered the examination room. I was nervous as anyone would be on the first day of their professional lives.
“Hello, Mr. Dalrymple…”
“I go by Ritz,” he said as he cut me off and let out a grunt. Straining to lift his body that was hunched over his walker, he stood up with difficulty and held out his nicotine-stained fingers. Unblinking bloodshot eyes met mine. They were not cold, but I had to catch myself from shuffling back a step.
Ritz was lanky with neatly combed and parted charcoal grey hair, while his shirt and pants were wrinkled and soiled. His receding chin made his red bulbous nose standout. Every time he spoke, his loose dentures clicked in and out of place. A brief note from the referring physician stated, ‘Problem with his heart. He refuses to travel to have it taken care of.’ I was in a frontier town, peddling my newly minted credentials as a doctor and my knowledge in twenty-first-century medicine. There was bound to be skepticism.
“Uh, Ritz, what brings you to see me?” I said while trying to ignore the odor of stale cheese that permeated the room.
“They say my ticker ain’t right,” he said, as his drawling voice echoed in the room. A presumptive diagnosis was right in front of me. His electrocardiogram revealed only five or six blips on the printout instead of the usual eighteen to twenty per page, suggesting the need for a pacemaker. His arms moved in slow motion as if to match his heartbeat and the town’s pace of life.
“It’s been the case for twenty years that I have been seeing Dr. Benson. Something excited him last week, and he said I should see you, telling me I would sleep less,” he said. Sleeping seemed an appropriate pastime, especially when there was nothing much to do in town except go to the local diner where they played old Spanish love songs.
“I know all about them medicines and gadgets. They are not touching me,” he said, his brows furrowed as he crossed his arms across his chest. “I was a chemist a long time ago.”
“You mean a pharmacist?” I asked.
“Whatever you call them these days,” came the reply as he shrugged his shoulders.
The wind rapped on the glass window kicking up a swirl of dust. The sight of an endless expanse of dry earth extending to the distant flat-topped mountains was deeply calming. It brought back memories of my childhood fantasy of living in the wild west. Ritz somehow embodied that make-believe place.
“How did you get the name Ritz?” I asked, hoping he would allow me into his world.
“You got the time?” he asked. Pausing and looking at me from top to bottom as if sizing me up, he continued, “I’m from the North East, son of immigrants. My father worked on lobster boats. I rarely saw him. My mother dreaded the thought of me following in his footsteps and forbade me from going anywhere near a fishing boat. I became a chemist instead.” He kept glancing at the door as if wanting to flee, and he went silent.
Adjusting his dentures and pointing to his sunken cheeks, he let out a grunt and said, “Old age. It comes and never leaves.”
“We can make you younger,” I said, trying to sound optimistic. “You need a pacemaker. It speeds things up in your body, giving you more energy.”
“Them devices. What’s the point of new leather on old worn soles?”
After running through the list of benefits, he relented. He insisted on having the procedure done locally, but High Desert Regional had barely dusted off its brand new covers. Parts of the hospital were not fully operational. Ritz had not left that frontier town for decades and was not ready to do so on the advice of an unknown doctor.
“Let’s see what Dr. Benson says. I’m in no hurry.” He said as he punted the decision to his trusted doctor of over twenty years. We spent the rest of the time talking about his impression of some of the people in town. He promised to return one day. From the look on his face, it meant a year or maybe never.
The following week his heartbeat fell silent long enough for him to pass out. Now a pacemaker was a necessity and not a luxury. The cure for his ailment was available at a hospital over the distant ridgeline. It was hard to keep him from falling asleep as we talked.
Dr. Benson was humming to himself as he entered the room. Ritz’s face lit up as his old trusted doctor spoke, “My man, what did you do to yourself? We kept that old ticker going for years. He pulled out his stethoscope. He closed his eyes, squeezing the folds of his chin towards his chest as he listened to Ritz’s heart.
Dr. Benson stood up slowly and looked at me thoughtfully, and turned to Ritz, “It’s time to make you bionic.”
“What? Can’t you do it here? I haven’t left Angel Springs for over thirty years. You know that,” said Ritz in a quivering tone.
“This new kid on the block,” said Dr. Benson pointing to me, “I’ve checked him out. He’ll take good care of you.”
“You are getting a tune-up and a battery change. It is a brief pitstop, and you will come roaring back.” I said, as Dr. Benson nodded his head. Within an hour, a chopper arrived and whisked him into the sky.
The procedure went smoothly. When I went in to check on Ritz the following morning, I almost did not recognize him. He was no longer hunched over. His voice was louder, and his eyes no longer displayed a tired, defeated look.
“You’ve got a new lease on life,” I said as I patted his back. He was sitting upright in his hospital bed, working on his breakfast tray with his right hand. At the same time, his left arm rested in a brightly colored sling to prevent the newly installed wires in his heart from coming loose.
There was a long list of dos and don’ts; he was advised not to drive for a few weeks. Ritz was more concerned about his omelet’s rubbery texture than figuring out a way to get back home. Once the discharge papers were signed, he was on his own. The only next of kin listed was his dog, Dante.
“That’s great. Send him back, and I will follow up,” said Dr. Benson when I called him to let him know that Ritz would be discharged that afternoon.
“That’s the problem. The sending him back part. He does not have a ride.” I said.
“Well, why don’t you give him a ride. You are back here tomorrow, right?” As I listened, I turned to look at Ritz. He was clean-shaven. A bath that morning ensured he was odor-free. Next to his bed lay a large plastic bag that sealed off his smelly jacket from the air in the room.
“You won’t be bored having Ritz in your car. I promise you. Just ask him how he got that name. That will keep you entertained,” Dr. Benson said with a laugh.
Ritz was waiting at the hospital entrance, clutching his belongings as he sat in a wheelchair. Even if patients could walk out of the hospital independently, it was customary for an orderly to transport them in a wheelchair to the curb. God forbid they slip and fall on their way out. Liability laws. I wondered about my exposure if something were to happen with him in my car. Shrugging that thought aside, I helped him get into the front seat of my car.
“So Ritz, Dr. Benson told me you have an interesting story about how you got your name?” I wasted no time as we entered the long, empty stretch of road leading to Angel Springs.
Gone was the drawl. Ritz slipped into an east coast accent and the cadence of his speech accelerated. “I used to be a chemist—a real one. Back in the 60s, worked in the family business. I got caught up in the protests surrounding the war in ‘Nam. The counterculture wave swept most of my friends away, and I was influenced. My upbringing was in a strict conservative environment. My parents disapproved of my political leanings and disowned me when they found out about my other activities. The long and short of it was that I was longer part of the family or the business. Overnight, I found myself unemployed and on the streets. I hitchhiked to San Francisco and joined a network of underground chemists. We experimented with LSD, thinking of ourselves as revolutionaries. It was a time of personal discovery aided by acid trips. The revelations appeared so real. As if I were having profound spiritual experiences. I was fascinated and began to do research.
On one acid trip, I was sitting in an empty park at the top of a hill. Imagining myself being in the Himalayas, meditating with monks. Contemplating higher truths and questions, trying to divine deep insights into the mysteries of the universe. Unknown to me, a crowd had gathered shouting and screaming their slogans. A protest was taking place. I got knocked in that stampede and lost some of my teeth. When I came around, we were in a pen guarded by mounted police. I was a bloody mess. Looking more like a victim rather than a protester, they let me go. Most of my friends were not so lucky. Our network of underground chemists disbanded that night. I was on my own.
Disillusioned, I decided to return home, apologize to my parents, and reclaim my old life. But fate had other plans. My car broke down just outside Angel Springs. What a perfect little town it was in those days, still is, I suppose. Back of my mind, I was afraid that my buddies would give me up to the cops, who were probably on the lookout for me. But not in Angel Springs. The place was frozen in time. One long stretch of dirt road which is now Main Street with a few storefronts, was all there was to the place. A perfect spot if you want to be forgotten.
I stayed with a group of old Mexicans. Delightful people. I did not speak their language, and they didn’t speak mine. Perhaps there was something in common. We were both running away from a past that we did not want to talk about. During those days, there was no running water. We made weekly trips to a nearby creek to store up on water. No electricity either.
We lived off the land—a simple existence. There was nothing around us for miles. The most beautiful sunrises and sunsets you can ever imagine. You could see the sky from one end of the horizon to the other. Now things have changed. Buildings, more people, tourists. Can you believe it? They come because of some old outlaw tale. Maybe it was an invention of the chamber of commerce, who knows?”
“Do you ever miss the big city? Sounds like you grew up near one.” I asked.
“Not really. I found my real family here. I live with the descendants of those old Mexicans who first took me in. So loving and caring. Simple folks who work the land and eke out an existence. They honor me as if I am their patriarch. It was the dying wish of their grandfather Manuel. He was the one who gave me free room and board when my car broke down.”
“Thanks for sharing your story. I promise I won’t tell a soul about your past.” I said.
He laughed and tried to raise both arms in the arm. He winced in pain as his sling stopped his left arm from moving any further. “I am a free man now. All that business about being an underground chemist was such a long time ago. Dr. Benson assures me that no one is looking for me anymore. The local Sheriff is his patient, and word gets around fast. I would have been picked up a long time ago. Now I am old and tired. Hey, not anymore with this magical device. The world seems brighter, my vision has improved, I won’t be huffing and puffing anymore, just to get from one room to another.” Ritz said with a smile.
“Well, you did not tell me about how you got the name, Ritz,” I said.
“Ah hah, that part… You’ll see,” he said as his smile widened. The smooth asphalt gave way to a rough gravel road. A cloud of dust blocked my view out of the rearview mirror. We came to a stop at a metal gate. A burly man with a tank top and an unfriendly look sized me up. Ritz motioned to him, and he opened the heavy gate. The compound had a cluster of houses, and about a dozen dogs barked all at once. They were of all shapes and sizes. A chain-link fence kept them from charging at us. Ritz walked up to them, and they responded with their hanging tongues and wagging tails. I hesitated to get any closer.
Ritz lived in a single-story dwelling with unfinished cinder block walls and a metal roof. The sun was directly over our heads, the sweltering heat was giving me a headache. Warm, stagnant air with a musty odor greeted me as I followed him in. A queasy feeling overcame me, and cold beads of perspiration formed on my forehead. The last thing I remember was stumbling over a box on the floor.
A dog was panting in my face, and his moist tongue was licking me when I came around. Lying on the floor in a narrow and dark passageway lined with shelves floor to ceiling, for a moment, I did not know where I was. Ritz assured me that I had passed out for only a few minutes. All I could see was darkness all around. I soon realized I was in a hoarder’s lair.
There were rows of shelves from one end to another with narrow passages in between. The place resembled a flea market. There were various potted plants, books, magazines, cheap metallic artifacts, old tires, steering wheels, tennis racquets, windchimes, and even a decorated animal skull.
Seeing my eyes dart around looking for the exit, Ritz grabbed my arm and took me to a small closet. Pointing to his sling, he asked me to tug on a thread dangling from the ceiling. The ceiling parted, and a ladder emerged and the closet filled with the refreshing smell of fresh pine leaves. The attic was brightly lit and much warmer than the house. Ritz was blocking the door. There was no way but to go up. The space was small but filled with plants. Not the kind that you would see in an average garden. These were marijuana plants. I need to get out of here as soon as possible, I thought—visions of failing a random blood test and losing my license to practice medicine floated through my mind.
“This is great, Ritz. Wish you had not shown me all of this?” I said as I jumped from the ladder.
“It wouldn’t make sense telling where I got my name without showing you my farm,” he said.
“Back in the 60s, I came up with a special, sought-after blend. It was nicknamed Ritz. It was top shelf and had clients from all over the west coast. I saved a couple of plants when I left San Francisco, and here it is, their great-grandchildren. Next year, they predict, all this will be legal,” he said, drawing a line with his fingers from one end of the ceiling to another. “I hope to finally become Ritz, the legitimate chemist.”