I would never have had my DNA tested if my brother had not died suddenly from Crobson’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder.
“You won’t be able to sleep if you don’t know whether you’ll be next,” Dr. Mexta said.
Instead of the scrub suits younger physicians affect, Felix Mexta, M.D., was old enough to wear a white lab coat over a button-down shirt and tie. This gave him a certain cachet with his older patients. Sometimes I thought he would appear with a silver reflector on his head and a tongue depressor and ask me to stick out my tongue and say, “Ah.”
“Your insurance will cover it, Mr. Sisal,” he continued, when he saw I was wavering.
Mexta had the eager, driven look of a car salesman behind on his monthly quota. Things were tough for him after a series of spectacular malpractice verdicts drove him from orthopedic surgery to geriatrics.
“I’m not so sure,” I replied.
I suspected he was getting a commission on all the tests he ordered. Besides, who wants to find an unexpected interloper in his gene pool at the age of 64?
“We really should, Henekin,” the doctor pleaded, glancing at his laptop for my first name to show he was simpatico.
I don’t know why physicians always say “we” when talking about experimental drugs or some bizarre surgical procedure about to be performed on a patient.
“What will Louise say if she hears you had the opportunity and failed to take it?”
The same as she has said at every other opportunity I have failed to take, I was about to say. Then I remembered I had signed something allowing him to share my medical information with my wife. As an attorney I had to admire the subtlest blackmail attempt I had encountered in years.
“Oh, I suppose we should do it then, Doctor.”
I thought he was going to high five me. Instead he rose abruptly, shook my hand, told me to wait for his nurse, and someone would call with the results. Before I could roll up my sleeve for the anticipated blood work, a young woman in maroon scrubs bounced into the room with a handful of Q-tips, swabbed my cheek, clipped a few hairs from the side of my bald spot, and bounced off leaving the door ajar. They let me leave after I showed them a receipt for the copay I had paid in the waiting room.
I had nearly forgotten about this descent into my genome until Louise reminded me of it two weeks later.
“Henekin, I had a call from your doctor while you were at the club,” she said with a hint of anticipation in her voice. “They said your test results were in.”
Louise was a still attractive woman with eager smile and beautiful eyes, when she didn’t let alcohol or arguments with her friends upset her too much. There comes a time in every long term marriage, however, when the partners begin to fantasize about insurance payments and long sea voyages alone.
“What tests are they, dear?”
“He’s testing me for Crobson’s Syndrome.”
“Isn’t that what your brother had?”
I didn’t reply. Why get her hopes up? When I called for an appointment, however, I was directed to Triglyf Loench, M.D., a specialist in genetic medicine. I had ten days to worry about the results until he could see me. Louise was happier than I had seen her in years and insisted on accompanying me to Loench’s office like the spouse of a lottery winner driving to the state capital to collect the prize. Getting into the car, I saw she had had her hair done for the occasion.
“This is a most unusual case, Mr. Sisal,” Dr. Loench began the interview. He was a large man dressed in black scrubs and white gym shoes like a masseur at the upscale spas Louise favors. I was going to ask him why I was charged two copays until I saw Dr. Mexta was with him.
“Is it Crobson’s Syndrome?” Louise asked excitedly.
“Oh, please, Mrs. Sisal, Louise, is it? I said this is a most unusual case. You have nothing to fear from Crobson’s Syndrome.”
I have never seen her so deflated.
“Then what is it?” I pressed him, fearing something even worse.
“Embedded in your DNA was this,” he said, turning his lap top around to show us a page of code as dense as cuneiform script.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Neither did I until we showed it to a colleague at the Conservatory of Music, who ran it through a synthesizer. Here it is in human readable text.” He touched the keyboard, and the code changed into musical notation. “It’s the most beautiful choral symphony since Beethoven’s 9th.”
“What are you saying, doctor?” Louise exclaimed.
“Only Beethoven could have written it. We’re calling it ‘Beethoven’s 10th.’”
“Am I a descendant of Beethoven?”
“No. It was just stored there.”
“I don’t get it, Doctor.”
“That’s what DNA does. It stores information. It’s being developed as a storage medium for all sorts of information.”
“I heard about that,” Louise said. “It’s better than the cloud or a hard drive.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I snapped, feeling I had been charged a $45 copay to see a specialist who was hopelessly mad.
“There is no question that it was in your DNA. The only question is how it got there.”
Dr. Loench shook his head.
“We don’t have a metaphysician on the staff.”
“At least that saves me another copay,” I said. “Ready, dear?”
I was standing up to leave when Louise said, “Can we listen to it?”
“I only have the music. We’re still waiting for the translation of the libretto from the German department.”
Louise nodded, and I sat back down. Dr. Loench took out his phone, touched the screen, and the most beautiful chord I had ever heard swept over me, stopping my breath and making me shudder so violently I dislocated my shoulder. Before I blacked out I heard Louise cry, “Oh my God!” as delighted as if she had she discovered a new blusher.
I was lying on a pink cloud staring up at a rosy sky when I heard Dr. Loench say, “I never expected a grand mal seizure to follow translation of his gene code.”
He sounded very defensive.
“What could have triggered it?” Dr. Mexta asked. “He doesn’t have any history of seizures.”
“Do you think it could have been the music?” Louise said in that “I’ve gotcha tone” I knew too well.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Loench said just before I started to moan.
“Uh oh. He’s coming around,” Mexta cautioned. “I got that shoulder back in just in time.”
I felt like I was crawling up a huge mountain of sand, slipping back with every other step, until I reached the peak exhausted.
“Hello, dear,” Louise greeted me. “You gave us all a real start.”
“What happened?” I said between parched lips.
“You’ve been under a strain,” Dr. Mexta explained.
“Why don’t we have the doctor play you some soothing music?” suggested Louise.
“No!” I screamed. “That chord made me feel like I was coming apart.”
“It’s part of your DNA,” Dr. Loench explained. “You have experienced a sympathetic reaction to a genetic stimulus”
“Why didn’t you tell me before you played it?”
“This is a most unusual case,” Dr. Loench repeated, a common medical euphemism for a bad outcome.
“I’m writing this up for a case note in The New England Journal of Medicine,” Dr. Mexta said excitedly.
“With me as the first author,” Dr. Loench rounded on him. “If anyone gets a Nobel out of this, it’s going to be me.”
“You always liked poetry, dear” Louise said to separate them. “Don’t you have some nice poetry for Henekin, Dr. Loench?”
“Some very nice German poetry, Louise.”
“I don’t know German,” I began, but already he was reading,
Ein Mittel, ohne Geld
and I shuddered back into oblivion.
“I don’t think his insurance will pay for two shoulder dislocations in one hospitalization,” Dr. Loench was saying as I drifted up from a black and bottomless sea.
“I’m not the one who induced the seizure,” Dr. Mexta countered.
“At least we know now that we have to keep him away from both the music and the libretto. Without experiment, Felix, science would go nowhere.”
“I have all the information I need,” Louise said happily.
I was surprised to learn I had been in the hospital three weeks.
“Isn’t there any way to get the symphony out of my DNA?” I said weakly.
“Are you suggesting surgery?” Dr. Loench asked.
“If it’s stored in my DNA, there must be some way to delete it.”
“We will have to consult another specialist,” Dr. Mexta cautioned. “And that means another copay.”
And another override for you, I was going to add, but I agreed. Later that day a small sallow man in a gleaming white lab coat that contrasted with deep blue latex gloves entered the room with the two other doctors. He was carrying an instrument like a caliper in one hand and the modern physician’s ubiquitous laptop in the other.
“May I present my colleague Dr. Paxton Sibelius,” began Dr. Loench.
Dr. Sibelius appeared very anxious to measure something but did not speak. The wires attaching the caliper to his laptop were twitching in anticipation.
“He is better at gene splicing than English,” Dr. Mexta whispered.
Without warning, Dr. Sibelius pulled down the front of my gown and began running the instrument over the ribs above my heart. Every few minutes, he entered something on his laptop. Louise appeared distraught that my case might have a positive result. Finally he wiped off his calipers and my chest with an alcohol pad, wrote excitedly on his laptop, and showed the other doctors his diagnosis.
“It’s inoperable,” Dr. Loench read.
“If they can operate on the DNA of an embryo, why can’t they operate on mine?”
“The gene profile in question is wrapped around your aorta. We would have to remove the aorta along with it.”
Dr. Sibelius made his computer say, “Goodbye” and left us. So ended the most unsatisfactory hospitalization of my career.
“It should be easy to avoid future admissions,” the discharge nurse said. “Just don’t listen to Beethoven’s 10th or read the words.”
“Easy enough for me,” I agreed, but I heard Louise chortling beside me.
Louise was humming something as an attendant pushed my wheelchair to the front of the hospital. Suddenly I started to shudder again.
“Stop it!” I cried.
“Sorry, dear. I forgot. It’s one of those tunes you just can’t get out of your mind.”
So many reporters were swarming around our condo that we couldn’t get into the garage.
“Are you the guy who has Beethoven’s 10th in your DNA?” one of them shouted, while TV cameras recorded my every grimace. I was nearly at the door when Louise said, “Oh, come on, Henekin. Say something nice.”
“How’s it feel to have the most beautiful symphony since Beethoven’s 9th embedded in your DNA?” another reporter called.
“Terrible,” I said. “It would kill me to listen to it.”
“Even just a few notes?” she cried, holding up her phone.
I opened the door and got inside just before the first fatal note sounded. Louise stayed outside regaling in the role of spouse to a man who would die if he heard one note or read one word of the symphony that was sweeping the world.
The next morning I called the office to talk with Larry Sinclair, one of our intellectual property attorneys. Surely there was a way I could prevent the symphony from being played.
“Too late for that,” Larry said. “While you were in the hospital, Louise licensed the symphony to the biggest music company in the country for $100 million plus an incredible fee every time it’s performed or played or recorded.”
“But I’m out of the hospital now.”
“In retrospect, it may have been a mistake giving her that power of attorney. But hey. We have to get together.”
“Why’s that? You just put me on death row by licensing the damn thing while I was flat on my back in the hospital.”
“The hospital and a Dr. Loench are claiming they own the copyright because they discovered it, and a Dr. Mexta claims he has rights in it because you were his patient in the first place.”
“It will take years to straighten it all out, but in the meantime you can enjoy that $100 million. Of course you’ll want to set some of it aside for legal fees.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Henekin, I always knew you’d be a rainmaker someday,” he continued. “This is the biggest thing to hit the firm in ages.”
I hung up.
“Have you been talking to Larry?” Louise asked, entering the breakfast room in a new housecoat and gold lamé slippers.
“You sold the rights to the symphony!” I cried. “I’ll never be able to get away from it.”
“You shouldn’t have hung up on him so fast. He would have told you about the movie deal with Disney for the story of your life.”
“I don’t want Disney making a movie about my life.”
“Don’t worry, dear. They’ll have an actor play you.” She paused. “Actors are more fun.”
“Louise,” I pleaded, “if I hear a note or see one word it will kill me.”
“We can turn your study into a sound proof room. As long as you never listen to the radio or watch TV or go near a concert hall or a band or a restaurant or people with cell phones who might play it, you should be fine.”
“I can’t live like that.”
“Don’t say I didn’t try,” she said, taking her cell out of her pocket and scrolling to her music app.
Before I could stop her, she pressed “play.”
Fred McGavran retired from practicing law in June 2010 and was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Black Lawrence Press published The Butterfly Collector, his award-winning collection of short stories, and Glass Lyre Press published Recycled Glass and Other Stories, his second collection, in April 2017. He is a frequent contributor to Spank the Carp. Find more about him at www.fredmcgavran.com.
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