A Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Willie story by Greg Swann
Here’s what happened: I had to stop walking because I was sick. You may not know it, but on top of all the other scourges it entails, the state really has it in for itinerants. You may never have wanted to run off to Alabama with a banjo on your knee, but I’d bet you’re more than a bit dismayed to discover that you can’t. Got to have a fixed address, so they can inflict all their precious ‘benefits’ on you.
So I had to stop walking and I had to see a doctor, and of course I couldn’t. I’ve walked myself right out of society, and I have an inkling I may have walked myself right out of the human race. At least that’s the way Nurse Martinetti made me feel.
That’s really her name, but I think she must have married into it. She looked like American Gentry to me, which is to say John Bull white trash six generations from the last capital crime. Short, bottle-blonde with a cut that looks cute on smudged-nosed tomboys, thick through the ankle and the cortex. My guess is she became a nurse because she red-lined the psych profiles for meter-maid.
First, it’s not a doctor’s office, not anymore. It’s a ‘Health Services Cooperative’. We all know what a cooperative is: It’s a place where you go to not get whatever it is you came for. It would make too much sense to stay home, where you already don’t have it. In any case, Nurse Martinetti is charged with making sure that no one gets anything they came for, although they might get stuck (literally!) with quite a lot they’d have sooner done without. But I wasn’t even that (un)fortunate, because I don’t have a fixed address.
Nurse Martinetti gripped her clipboard and said, “What do you mean? How can you not have an address? Everyone has an address. Some people even have two!” She looked at me as if I were something a puppy accidently left on the carpet.
“…,” I said with a shrug.
“Are you homeless?”
“I wouldn’t say so. I sleep indoors as often as I want to. I pay my own way. I just don’t have an address.”
“But you must!”
“But I don’t.”
“But this can’t be!”
“Why not?,” I asked. “Why is it so hard to accept that there are people who walk from place to place. There have been people walking this continent at least since the Europeans came. Ponce de Leon. Coronado. Father Kino. Daniel Boone. Lewis and Clark. William Blake, for god’s sake!”
“He wasn’t an American!”
“You can say that again,” I mumbled.
“Are you some kind of spy sent out from Washington?!?”
I just smiled at that and sat there, giving her the time to really look at me. I expect that with a few improvements in my grooming habits, I could get a job parking cars in Washington.
“Well then, on your way!” My jaw dropped. She got up and was walking away before I managed to speak.
“But wait! I need to see a doctor.”
“…?” I said: “What?”
“You can’t see a doctor.” She said that slowly, the way American Gentry types talk to children and Hispanics.
“Well why not? I can pay.”
She scoffed. “Pay what? Five dollars?”
“I can pay whatever it takes.”
“What it takes,” she sneered, “is five dollars.”
“Everything here costs five dollars.”
“Do you drink?”
I said, “No.”
“How much if I drink?”
“We won’t do a liver transplant on people who drink.”
“Kind of a retroactive social engineering, is it?”
“Sounds more like revenge,” I muttered.
She was straining to turn like a jammed drill bit. She was obviously trying to think of some slightly more polite way to dismiss me, so I said:
“Well, five dollars it is. At five bucks a pop, you must do a land-office business.”
“We did for a while,” she confessed, “so we had to institute rationing.”
“Why not just charge what things are worth? Then people will decide on their own what to buy and what to leave on the shelf.”
For the first time the expression of habitual belligerence on her face was gone. In its place was belligerence-on-the-verge-of-tears. “But what about people who can’t afford health care?!? You are an atavism!”
I’m thick-skinned, but I’m not all skin. I said, “What about someone who can afford a liver transplant, but happens to drink? Your income transfers were one thing, but now you’re talking about transferring life and death! What kind of ghoul are you, anyway?”
Well, that tripped her breakers. She stomped over to the reception desk and picked up a microphone. “Vinnie!,” she announced. “Nurse Martinetti calling Doctor Vinnie!”
I don’t believe in destiny, but certain toes were just made to be stomped on. I said, “So I do get to see a doctor.”
“You do not.” She was speaking now from the armory of pure rage, each word a bullet. “For your information, you cannot obtain health care from this cooperative. You do not have an account with our parent alliance.”
“Well, then, let’s just fill out that paperwork and open an account.”
“You do not have an account. You cannot have an account. You do not have a job. You do not receive public assistance. You have no fixed address.”
“So you’re telling me I can’t just buy what I need.”
“I am telling you, sir, that no one can buy health care! Health care is too important to be bought and sold!”
“Too important for keeping people in line…?,” I murmured.
Just then Doctor Vinnie showed up. Big, bronzed and beefy, the kind of really dim man really dim women go for. He was wearing a dark grey suit — a ridiculous cut but beautifully tailored — a black shirt and a lime green silk necktie. He swaggered and sucked his teeth, two traits that never fail to win my awe…
Nurse Martinetti said, “Doctor Vinnie used to work in the private sector.” She swallowed hard, as though to get a bad taste out of her mouth. “Now he works for us, curing people of their reluctance.” For the first time she smiled. It wasn’t pretty.
“On second thought,” I said, “I think I will be going.” I’m nobody’s coward, but — taking account that I can’t get health care — I couldn’t see adding injury to insult.
“Oh no! It is we who have reconsidered.” She smiled again, and her teeth looked a lot like fangs. “Doctor Vinnie will see you now.”
She held open a door and Doctor Vinnie pushed me in. She closed it behind us, leaving me and her rehabilitated mafioso alone.
To my shame, I cringed. I cowered. I may even have whimpered…
Doctor Vinnie picked me up by the collar and dumped me on an examining table. He spoke to me, his tone a conspiratorial whisper. “Whatever it is, I can get it taken care of.”
I said: “…?”
“Jeesh!,” he said. “Don’t you get it? She turned you down, right?”
“Yeah, so. I’ll just go somewhere else.”
He smiled, and every one of his big, beautiful, pearly-white teeth called me an idiot. “There ain’t nowhere else.”
“…!,” I said. I gulped hard.
“Not to worry,” Doctor Vinnie said. “Like I told ya, whatever it is, I can get it taken care of. But it’ll cost ya…”
“A hundred grand. Cash.”
I gulped again. “A hundred thousand dollars…? For what?”
“Whaddaya got?” He grinned.
“A hundred grand.”
“A hundred grand.”
“A hundred grand.”
“You didn’t ask if I drink.”
“What do I care if you drink?”
“Right…” I said: “Triple-bypass?”
“A hundred grand. We take care of you and we even fix your records, so the feds don’t come after you later. A bypass is hard to hide…”
Vinnie smirked. “Don’t be an idiot. It’s a hundred grand, and we’ll give you the same lethal injection you’ll get from her for five bucks.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
Just then Nurse Martinetti burst in, followed by two men who reeked of Fedliness: Boxy suits, boxy shoes, boxy skulls. They came in with their guns drawn and triangulated on Doctor Vinnie.
I’m nobody’s coward, but I’m nobody’s fool. I’m not shrewd like Doctor Vinnie. What I am is smart. In a flash, I could see what would happen to Vinnie and me: The Fedlies would give us a free lobotomy and they’d alter our records at no extra charge.
So I packed up my pride and I ran. One of the fedlies tried to chase me, but he gave up after a couple of blocks. I’m sure he thought they’d pick me up later at my address. Joke’s on them, of course, since I don’t have an address.
You should be so lucky…
Ah, well, you’ve got your health. And when you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.
Further notice: I wrote this story in the summer of 1993, when Nurse Martinetti was trying to ram HillaryCare down our throats. Since then, Americans have managed to become even better suckers for beguiling lies, more is the pity.