"Gilbert Green." Gilbert Green looked up at the sound of his name. A nurse stood in the open doorway. Her gaze was on the metal clipboard in her hands.
Gilbert had a battered copy of Sports Illustrated in his lap. The magazine was a relic from the Clinton Administration. Those described as college players had either turned pro or faded into obscurity. Entire teams had moved from one city to the next. Even the uniforms looked quaint. The details were all wrong, but the magazine's central theme was still compelling: life is struggle. The losers come away with nothing. For the winners, there is wealth and fame and a trip to Disneyland.
Still waiting for a response, the nurse shifted her gaze away from the clipboard. She scanned the sad little room and saw Gilbert looking back at her. When their eyes locked, the nurse asked, "Mr. Green?"
Gilbert nodded. Although he knew what was expected of him, Gilbert kept his seat a moment longer. He tightened his grip on the magazine. Gilbert found himself paralyzed by a conflicting set of fears.
On the one hand, he wanted to take the magazine with him. He was afraid of sitting in the exam room without anything to occupy his thoughts. Although the magazine was woefully out of date, its familiar message of competition could serve as a security blanket in unfamiliar surroundings.
On the other hand, the magazine wasn't his. This ancient copy of Sports Illustrated had come from the standard pile of People and Redbook magazines in the waiting room itself. What if he was supposed to leave the magazines where he'd found them? Quite possibly, he could violate some protocol for the transfer of reading material in a medical establishment.
It's hard to compete if you don't know the rules.
Gilbert could imagine the nurse lift a restraining hand. In his imagination, her voice was shrill with indignation: "Where do you think you're going? What will other people read if you hoard all of our best magazines for yourself?"
When the nurse prompted, "This way please, Mr. Green," Gilbert decided to accept defeat. He dropped the dog-eared copy of Sports Illustrated into the seat beside him. Empty handed, he followed the nurse to the exam room.
* * *
Gilbert found himself sitting on the examination table.
The nurse returned her attention to the metal clipboard. While she recorded his weight and temperature, Gilbert looked around the room for something to read. There was a poster-sized copy of the food pyramid hanging on one wall. A wire rack near the sink held brochures entitled, "Reproductive Health."
Tasting the full bitterness of his defeat, Gilbert groaned to himself.
"Please remove your sweater, Mr. Green." The nurse released her metal clipboard and tugged a blood pressure cuff from the wall.
"Is that necessary?" Gilbert asked.
"It's what they pay me to do," the nurse replied. Although there was levity in her voice, her eyes were like cold steel.
Gilbert had to concede another round to the nurse. He felt a cold fire of resentment burning in his heart, but he tugged the bulky sweater over his head.
Sitting in his t-shirt, Gilbert glanced down at his bare forearms. Like shaggy green moss on the north side of a Douglas fir, Gilbert's arms were covered in vegetation. Small, round leaves sprouted from curly tendrils that grew directly from Gilbert's skin. The delicate leaves stirred in the artificial breeze of the air conditioner.
Gilbert looked from the flora that sprouted from his skin to the nurse's face. Silently, he dared her to react.
She did not. With professional detachment, she fastened the cuff above his elbow and turned her gaze to her wristwatch. After the cuff deflated, she said, "Please strip down to your undershorts. There's a paper blanket on the table behind you. You can lay that across your lap. The doctor will be with you soon."
When the nurse left, Gilbert stripped down to his underwear. The delicate leaves on his forearms thickened to a dense heather on his back and shoulders. Where the vegetation was thickest, red berries grew in clusters.
Gilbert draped the flimsy paper blanket across his lap and studied the food pyramid until the doctor arrived.
* * *
Doctor Caraway knocked on the door before walking into the exam room. Although she held the familiar metal clipboard in one hand, the doctor gave her full attention to Gilbert. "Mr. Green," she smiled. "How are you?"
Out of reflex, Gilbert answered, "Fine." Then he added, "Well, actually, I'm not so good. I mean, look at me!"
Gilbert Green spread his arms to display the flora that hung from him like moss. "I feel like a chia pet," he complained.
"Let's take a look," Doctor Caraway suggested cheerfully. She turned to the nearby sink to wash her hands.
Before she had finished washing, an insistent beeping noise emerged from Gilbert Green's discarded clothing. Gilbert hopped off the exam table, pulling the paper around his waist. While holding the flimsy paper blanket with one hand, he tried to rummage through his pockets with the other. "That's my boss," Gilbert explained. "We're working on a big account this week. I really need to get this. Blast! I really need to get this!" The beeper eluded Gilbert's search and the blanket started to disintegrate.
His frustration mounting, Gilbert's face flushed. The foliage across his shoulders trembled. Suddenly, the berries flew from his back in a furious barrage. The hard, red berries whizzed across the room. They exploded on impact, leaving craters of red pulp on walls, on the exam table, and on the pristine white coat of Dr. Caraway.
The beeper gave one final squeal, then fell silent.
Horrified, Gilbert surveyed the splattered room. He was mortified. "Doctor," he breathed, "I'm so sorry..."
Dr. Caraway slipped out of her white coat. Since she had been washing her hands, her back took the brunt of the damage. "Don't worry, Mr. Green," she said. "We've endured far worse than this. After all, sick people can be rather... untidy."
Despite the doctor's reassurance, Gilbert collapsed onto exam table. His voice trembling now, he confessed, "That happens all the time. When I get really upset, the berries just detonate. I've ruined a dozen shirts."
The doctor nodded sympathetically. "Let me ask you a few questions, Mr. Green. What was the last movie you saw?"
"I don't know," Gilbert muttered. "I guess it was Robo-Death III. No wait, it was Prom Queen Nightmare. Yeah."
"What about TV?" the doctor asked.
"Sometimes I watch Celebrity Vice Squad," Gilbert replied. "And I like Smackdown Jungle."
"I see," the doctor said. She opened a cupboard above the sink. "Do you have any hobbies, Mr. Green?"
"Not really," Gilbert answered. "Work keeps me pretty busy, you know? If you're not climbing to the top then you're falling to the bottom. It's a rat race out there, and only the biggest rat wins."
Gilbert propped himself up on one elbow and said, "I don't understand why you are asking me so many questions. What does TV have to do with this salad on my shoulders?"
Doctor Caraway pulled a cylindrical instrument from the cupboard. A coil of glass tubing protruded from one end of the device. When the doctor flipped a switch on the handle, the coil of glass flickered then it glowed with a ghostly blue light.
"As I'm sure you know," the doctor began, waving the instrument over Gilbert's exposed skin, "plants are very sensitive to light. This particular band of ultraviolet light can often reveal Ð here we go!" she interrupted herself. "Take a look."
Gilbert looked at his skin. It was a cadaverous shade of blue beneath the strange instrument. By the eerie light, he could see spiked balls scattered over his flesh. On impulse, he tried to brush them away. One or two were knocked loose, but most were unaffected.
"Have you ever walked across a field," Doctor Caraway asked, "and found little seeds clinging to your clothes? These operate on a similar principle, Mr. Green. You are seeing seeds. You can get them from the media. You can get them from your family of origin and pass them onto your children. You can pick them up from your friends. They get passed around in schools and churches and wherever people gather."
"They look dangerous," Gilbert observed.
"They can be," Doctor Caraway agreed. "It's hard to tell from the seed. But eventually, all seeds will produce fruit. And that's when you can tell for sure." Pointing to the red pulp dotting the walls, the doctor continued, "In your case, I think the seed is very dangerous, indeed. Exploding fruit should not be taken lightly, Mr. Green. As the fruit grows, so will its explosive power. It's only a matter of time until you or someone near you is seriously hurt."
Gilbert paled at this diagnosis. "How do I get rid of them?" he asked. "Can you prescribe some kind of herbicidal soap? Should I take antibiotics?"
"Diet and exercise," Doctor Caraway smiled. "I'm afraid this is another one of those lifestyle issues. As I've already said, seeds of this type are everywhere. The trick is to put yourself in situations where the seeds you attract bear the sort of fruit that does you some good.
"Limit your intake of violence and strife. Limit your exposure to materialism and greed. Limit self-indulgence. Instead, put yourself in situations where you attract the seeds that produce laughter and generosity and peace."
Gilbert brushed the foliage on his shoulders. "But what about this?" he insisted.
"Change your life," Dr. Caraway assured him, "and you will bear different fruit."
* * *
Jesus taught that we speak from the overflow of our heart. What overflows in you?
There are many paths in life. There are many ways to walk. Each path will leave burrs on the fabric of our lives. And those seeds will bear fruit.
We all bear fruit of one kind or another. Our lives will reflect one thing or another: either strife or contentment, either bitterness or joy, either violence or joy, either stinginess or generosity.
We all bear fruit of one kind or another.
Be mindful of the fruit you are bearing. If the fruit doesn't please you, don't be afraid to prune. Be like the woman who uproots a fig tree from her vineyard. Make room for something new.
Don't be afraid to experiment. Dig around those old roots. Fertilize them for another season. If the fruit does not sustain you, give yourself to something new.