THE MAN WHO PLAYED PINOCHLE WITH DOGS
We must admit that the divine banquet of the brain was, and still is, a feast with dishes that remain elusive in the blending, and with sauces whose ingredients are even now a secret– Macdonald Critchley
“Sorry to keep you, Mr. Woodley. I’m Doctor Hutton. What can I do for you today?”
The man peered down his nose like a hawk sizing up its prey. He wore a mauve sweatshirt that screamed in bold letters, “If things get better with age, then I’m approaching MAGNIFICENCE.” From beneath the bill of a dirty, pulled-down Dallas Cowboys cap, he scrutinized me through slit-like eyes. I slowly lowered myself onto the wheeled stool and tried to act nonchalant, as if I had ample time to wait out his petulance.
“It’s nice to finally see you,” he intoned, not yet willing to abandon his overwrought pique. “Was anxious to get to Muleshoe before the sandstorm hit.” While his words were barbed, his western drawl and soft Parkinson’s speech reduced their sting. Outside the wind began to wail, reaching just then the higher octaves. In unison our eyes went to the ceiling, as if making entreaties to an angry Mother Nature.
I continued with my get-acquainted conversation, sensing a thaw in my frigid reception. “So, watch sports, do you?”
“Do now. Wife up and died three years ago. My kid took off for godless California. Not much else to do since leasing out the farm.”
After a few sympathetic clucks, I asked, “Live by yourself?”
“Yep, but, sonny, ya see a young heifer wantin’ to play house with an old fart like me, ya let me know!” A mischievous grin came over his gnomish, weather-beaten face.
I felt myself beginning to admire the pluck of this old cotton farmer. “I’ll keep it in mind, Mr. Woodley. How you spending your time these days?”
“Frankly, not doin’ much. Try to care for the place as best I can. Played cards with my Gladys, before the cancer took her.” Before he turned his head away, I noticed his eyes had begun to glisten. His defiance by then was melting faster than an ice cube on a Texas sidewalk in July. He then struck me as appearing vulnerable and painfully lonely.
“What problems are you having with your Parkinson’s disease?”
In a muted voice, Sam began describing difficulty when cutting his food and tying his shoelaces. His tremor and shuffling feet embarrassed him. He surprised me by saying that he also found it harder now to shuffle cards.
Shuffling cards? Why does he need to shuffle cards? Solitaire?
In response to my questioning, Sam Woodley conceded that his memory had slipped a bit. I listened, nodded, and sympathized. We discussed making lists to jog his memory. I inquired about side effects of his medicine.
“Upset stomach or vomiting?” “Nah, Doc. Cast-iron stomach.”
I asked a further series of unproductive questions. Then I asked a standard, almost throw- away question: “Have you ever seen animals or people that were not really there?”
He hesitated. I noticed his jaw muscles tighten. I sat motionless on my mobile stool, anticipating his response. His face took on a quizzical look that could not have appeared more puzzled had I hopped off my stool, stood on my head, and begun to spit out marbles. Sam measured me; his bushy eyebrows knitted up like two angry caterpillars about to do battle.
“Maybe, maybe not.” “Well, could you help me out a little bit more?”
He ran the back of his hand across his square chin. I observed his lips quiver ever so slightly. I felt Sam Woodley held a secret that he had not planned to share that day. After taking an unusual interest in the ceiling tiles, Sam Woodley finally dropped his head and blurted out dryly, “Well, Doc, I see some dawgs.”
At last, he had shared it. I quickly followed up. “Dogs, huh? Well, big or little dogs?” I asked in my best nonjudgmental tone but feeling my interest piqued. Sam Woodley wrung leathery hands and tugged at a dangling earlobe. With a weary sigh, his resistance gave way like a tractor suddenly extracted from a mud hole. He then began to share his well-guarded mystery–and in so doing, related a bizarre and unforgettable story.
Sometimes patients allow doctors to gain a glimpse of their most intimate secrets. Such trust must be earned, as it resides at the core of the doctor-patient relationship. Sam Woodley allowed me a premature gift that day like an early Christmas present, an information bequest that provided me insight and a most challenging dilemma.
“Well, ’bout every afternoon three dawgs drop by the house.” He fell silent, awaiting my response to this snippet.
“Go on,” I gently urged.
In his monotone he proceeded to describe a large, yellow Labrador, a black-and-white border collie, and a smaller white-and-light-brown cocker spaniel.
“Are they scary?” I asked. “Nah, gentle as can be; besides, we play together.” Puzzled and unsure where the conversation was leading, but wanting him to share more, I asked if the dogs had names. He nodded. “I call them Yellow Dawg, the Lab; Skipper, the border collie; and Coco, the spaniel.”
“Well, what do they do at your house?”
“Mostly like to play cards.”
I wondered if my ears were tricking me. “Oh, I see,” I replied, trying to sound collected, as if I often heard of dogs playing cards. “Well, what card games do y’all play?”
“Usually pinochle, their favorite.”
“So, play pinochle, do they?”
“Oh, yeah, especially Skipper and Coco.”
“I see. . . . Make any noise while they play?”
“Nope, never a sound, but I know what they want.”
“Well, Mr. Woodley, please tell me how you and the dogs go about playing pinochle…”
To not spoil the ending of the story for you, suffice it to say t Mr. Woodley goes on to describe a fanciful but to him, wholly believable hallucination of card playing with his “dawgs.” The story has a surprise ending.