On Monday morning I pulled on my sweats, hailed a cab, and made my way across town to the office of my cardiologist, unfed and insufficiently slept but on the whole optimistic. A few minutes after arriving I was whisked into an examination room, where a technician threaded an intravenous needle into my right arm and pumped me full of thallium. “You’re going to be radioactive for the next couple of days,” she told me matter-of-factly. “Let us know if you’re going to be traveling by air or if you have to enter a federal building–any place with metal detectors–and we’ll give you a card so that they’ll know why you’re setting off the machine.” Then she escorted me to another room containing a large, ominous-looking machine upon which I reclined motionless while a second technician took pictures of my heart.
After that I made my way to a third room containing a treadmill, where yet another technician shaved my chest and hooked me up to an EKG machine. At length the doctor arrived, told me to get on the treadmill, and set it in motion. For the next nine minutes I walked, at first slowly, then faster and faster, while the doctor monitored my heart rate and blood pressure. Finally he turned the speed up so fast that I was forced to break into a trot. He produced a syringe and shot more thallium into my arm. Then he shut the treadmill down. “Very nice,” he said. “Much better than the last time we did this.” I remembered my previous stress test, which took place four days after I called an ambulance and was whisked away to the emergency room of Lenox Hill Hospital, there to be filled full of drugs and diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
The second technician took another set of pictures of my heart. I returned to the waiting room, which by then was full of anxious-looking people, some of whom had IV tubes hanging from their arms. One of them was talking furiously on her cell phone to a business associate, ignoring the sign on the wall that read TESTING AREA: CELL PHONES PROHIBITED. “I’m radioactive,” she said. “I guess I can’t go to Washington until Friday.”
I distracted myself by pulling a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season from my shoulder bag. I opened it to page 25, and my eye fell on the following paragraph: “Up till then everything had been fine. As I put hat on hat-peg and umbrella in umbrella-stand, I was thinking that if God wasn’t in His heaven and all right with the world, these conditions prevailed as near as made no matter. Not the suspicion of an inkling, if you see what I mean, that round the corner lurked the bitter awakening, stuffed eelskin in hand, waiting to sock me on the occiput.” That’s not funny, I thought.
At that moment my cardiologist poked his head into the waiting room. “Mr. Teachout, could you please come into my office?” he said. His face was expressionless. I followed him into the office. “Have a seat,” he said, then sat down behind the desk, holding a sheaf of color photographs of my heart in his hand. He broke out in a big smile. “I have very, very good news for you,” he said. “The results of the stress test are excellent. Completely satisfactory. Your heart hasn’t sustained any damage at all. There’s no sign of a blockage. That doesn’t mean you can go crazy now–your heart isn’t completely normal yet, you need to keep taking your medicine and exercising and losing weight–but so far, everything looks great. I don’t want to see you again for another three months.”
Two minutes later I was standing on East End Avenue, basking in the bright blue sunshine and hailing a cab. My mind was unexpectedly empty. Thank you, I kept saying to myself over and over again. Thank you, thank you. A few minutes after that I was sitting at a table in Good Enough to Eat, breaking my twelve-hour-long fast with a reasonably healthy meal and thinking about Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.
After I ate I walked back to my apartment and wrote the first two thousand words of the fifth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. Then, all at once, I had (to quote once again from The Mating Season) “the feeling you get sometimes that some practical joker has suddenly removed all the bones from your legs, substituting for them an unsatisfactory jelly.” I realized that the various stresses of the past few weeks–some of which I had steadfastly refused to acknowledge–had finally caught up with me, and then some. “I think maybe that’s enough work for one day,” I said out loud. I stripped off my sweats, crawled into the loft above my desk, and fell into a deep, untroubled sleep.