The Elusive Mr. Clay
Unlike most modern doctors, Dr. Waslik, our family practitioner for over forty years, doesn’t have a receptionist. That is mostly because he doesn’t schedule appointments. Like the lunchmeat counter at Acme, it is strictly first come, first served at Dr. Waslik’s. Walking the few yards from his tidy examining room to his waiting room, he gruffly ushers patients in and out. Both examining room and waiting room are located in the south section of his house, a large colonial on Delaware Avenue in Woodbury, New Jersey. Dr. Waslik, it seems, is not a believer in high overhead. He did, however, until very recently have a male secretary who did his paperwork and answered the phone. That was the mysterious Mr. Clay, whom no patient had seen for the past forty years. Small wonder that Mr. Clay incited speculation about his very existence. He was a disembodied voice, an enigma, yet a gatekeeper and therefore to be respected.
I was sitting in Dr. Waslik’s waiting room one evening with a chronic cough when I learned I wasn’t the only one to find the thought of Mr. Clay intriguing. A man roughly my own age was sitting on Dr. Waslik’s old green vinyl couch with his young son. His son was fidgeting on the couch, rolling about in a frisky way, when the man fondly announced that as a child he had played on the same couch. People nodded. We agreed that, all told, the waiting room hadn’t change much in forty years. The same green walls, the same cracked and yellowed linoleum tile, the same green and liver-colored armchairs (one mended now with green vinyl tape), the same small faux Tiffany lamps, the same magazines on the table -- Sports Illustrated, National Review, Reader’s Digest, Highlights for Children — a greenish-hued beach scene, and a framed replica of the letter Lincoln wrote to a young girl after she advised him to grow whiskers (Dr. Waslik was a big Lincoln fan). I forget who brought up the subject of Mr. Clay, but the man confessed that he had never seen Mr. Clay. Nor had I. Nor had, it turned out, any of the other patients in the waiting room. We all kind of chuckled at this. We only knew he existed because it was he who answered the phone when we called Dr. Waslik’s office to get prescriptions refilled or to see what time Dr. Waslik had hours that day. We all wondered where, exactly, Dr. Waslik kept Mr. Clay. I mean, we had never seen a suitable alcove which could have kept a secretary’s desk. Of course, what went on in the house outside of the waiting room and the examining room was none of our business. Nonetheless, I had images of Mr. Clay tucked away in a closet somewhere, a musty, narrow-shouldered man surrounded by medical records, forced to labor under trying circumstances, like Scrooge’s Bob Cratchit.
Actually, Mr. Clay had a voice that sounded a lot like Dr. Waslik’s. Sometimes when I’d call the office, I would think it was Dr. Waslik answering the phone when it was Mr. Clay. Which led me to further speculation. Perhaps there was no Mr. Clay. Perhaps Dr. Waslik merely pretended that there was a Mr. Clay in order to impress his patients. Perhaps, Dr. Waslik and Mr. Clay were one and the same man, like a less malign version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Or Norman Bates and his mother. On the other hand, Mr. Clay had a kindly voice. Dry and elderly, but definitely kindly.
I remember when I called Dr. Waslik’s office one Saturday morning and Mr. Clay answered.
“My mother got bit by her cat,” I said. “How long will Dr. Waslik be in the office?”
“Just a minute,” Mr. Clay said. Then I heard him throw over his shoulder, “Mrs. Rouff got bit by a cat!” I could imagine Dr. Waslik halting on his way out the door, golf bag slung over his shoulder. Curses! Foiled by a nasty feline.
Mr. Clay returned. “Can you get here by 10:30?” he asked.
Well, I got my mother to Dr. Waslik that morning by 10:30 and the cat bite was duly attended to. Fortunately, it didn’t get infected. But I never saw Mr. Clay in the office on that day, or on any other day, for that matter. The last time I went to Dr. Waslik, he told me that Mr. Clay had fallen and broken his hip. Not too long after that, I learned from another patient that Mr. Clay, being elderly, had passed away.
I imagine some people must have actually been close to Mr. Clay, like Dr. Waslik, for instance, and perhaps his wife. It was strange, though. I can’t pretend to know what it means. But in a subtle way I miss Mr. Clay. It’s not every day you fail to meet a man like him.