HomeSouthern VoiceSouthern Paris

Southern Paris

by Chad Rhoad

My name — is Paris Hilton, and I am a man, which does me no favors in a Southern town. I am not heir to any dynasty, I have never made a sex video that was viewed by anyone of importance, and I am not a goddamned socialite. My parents merely had an unnatural obsession with Homer. Contrarily, I do not wear any undergarments, but the reasons for said wardrobe choice are completely unrelated to skinny women who keep dogs in their purses, and far more frightening. The name naturally creates an icebreaker for my patients during some of the more awkward exams, if there is any benefit to having the name at all.

The office in which I work is located in a downtown brownstone on the second floor sandwiched between an optometrist that does Lasik surgery on the first floor and a terrible plastic surgeon on the third. A rabbi used to hold seminars to improve self-esteem on the fourth floor, but he quit last year after he committed suicide. The floor is still cluttered with institutional gray chairs, folding tables and feel-good videos with guest appearances by Terry Bradshaw, Olivia Newton John and Boris Yeltsin.

Every morning I walk into my office I’m greeted by my receptionist Margaret, who is talking on the phone to one relative or another about how to neuter stray cats from the comfort of your own home or ways to clear up shingles with walnut extract. Occasionally, she puts the relative on hold to answer another line and say, “Dr. Hilton’s office, how may I direct your call?” She repeatedly asks that question despite the fact that there is no one to transfer a call to. This morning, when she saw me, she put her hand over the bottom of the phone and said, “Morning Doc. How was your evening?”

I gave Margaret the opportunity to decorate the entire office when we first opened, which is a decision I question at 7 a.m. every day, but any resolution would involve me venturing into a public place and having a conversation with someone I do not know. The wallpaper is a mauve color with white stethoscopes. The leather chairs in the waiting room cost entirely too much and lined the walls on all sides of the lobby. Sometimes I trip over the chair closest to the entrance, but Margaret rearranges the furniture twice a week so it’s always a surprise.

My own office is at the end of the long, God-awful, lavender hallway, and to get to it I have to pass the four examination rooms and the break room. When I passed the door to the break room, I was greeted by Tonya, my nurse, who was, as usual, microwaving a Hotpocket that makes the entire office smell like microwaved eggs.

“Hey, Doc,” she said with a long drawl. “Ready to get down to business?” She asks me that every morning and always chuckles afterward. Her head shakes when she talks, and mine does after a while if I don’t pay attention.

The office, which I decorated, is simple. The walls are covered with some of the finest wood grain paneling I could find and the curtains are a deep red. I put the desk in the center of the office and it faces the window and allows me to have my back to the door. I like to discourage conversation to avoid awkwardness. My therapist thinks that is a bad idea, but I think her habit of coffee and cigarettes without at least occasional tooth brushing is a bad idea. Maybe even those little condoms you slip over your finger with bristles on it. She sits entirely too close to me during session for breath issues. When she changes, so will I. She says the desk placement gives the impression that I don’t want to engage with people. But, there’s truth to that.

“I’ve got the day’s appointment schedule done, Doc,” Tonya drawled from behind me. “I’m setting the charts up now. You ready to — ” you get the idea.

Yep, I said. Let’s, indeed, get down to business. Ms. Mitchell. Ms. Mitchell is a 17-year-old girl, who is convinced she’d like to name her child after me regardless of sex. I’m honored, but that’s too much pressure. Having someone named after means you have to live a life worthy of such. Consequently, Ms. Mitchell isn’t pregnant. She is certain she is, but science disagrees. She thinks being with child as a teenager is what everyone is doing now. She wants her own reality show. As I crossed the hall to enter the exam room containing the confused 17-year-old, I heard Margaret on the phone.

“He’s with a patient right now, can I take a message … Oh, yes. Yes, certainly. I’m sure he will be thrilled. I’ll tell him immediately. He’ll be tickled to death. Of course, of course. I won’t tell him then. I’ll give him the message and let you tell him yourself.” She put the handset down on the switchboard and I heard the high heels tapping on the floor. She saw me in the hallway.

“Dr. Hilton, you’ve just won an award. You’ve been selected as the Rotary Club’s Citizen of the Year. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Come again.”

“They just called. They wanted to talk to you but I know your rules about the telephone. They said they decided last night. You’re the new Rotary Citizen of the Year. Congratulations. I think this is wonderful. You deserve it, too. I’ve always said you are the best gynecologist in the city and you have the best bedside manner of any doctor I’ve ever known.” I walked back into my office and closed the door. Margaret stood outside the door and continued talking.

How the hell am I the Citizen of the Year? I’m not a member of the Rotary Club. To my knowledge, I don’t even know anyone in the Rotary Club. Or even what the Rotary Club does. How could something like this happen to me? I’ve always been so careful. Now, they’ll want to give me a dinner and want me to speak and—I won’t do it. I’ll just refuse. No one can make you be Citizen of the Year against your will, right? Fuck the Rotary Club. I don’t want to be anything of the year. I’ll call them right now and tell them. The bastards. I mean, thanks, but no. Public is what I have a problem with in the Public Figure label.

I stood up and opened the door to find Margaret still by the door talking about what a great honor this was. Tonya had now joined in with her long drawl.

“You want me to reschedule all of your appointments today, Doc? This is a special occasion. We shouldn’t work on a day like this. We should celebrate by going someplace nice like the Sizzler. I call and make a reservation.” I hated Sizzler until the first time I went with Tonya.

“Margaret,” I said. “Give me the number to the people who called. I need to speak with them.”

“Oh, sure. Here you go.” She handed me a purple Post It Note with numbers scribbled on it and a name I couldn’t make out.

“What’s this name, Margaret?”

“Lynnwood. His name is Lynnwood Hewitt. Oh, he was the nicest man.”

I sat back down at my desk and dialed the number.

“Lynnwood Hewitt’s Insurance,” a pleasant female voice said on the other end.

“Yes, can I speak with Mr. Hewitt?”

“Certainly, may I ask whose calling?”

“This is Dr. Hilton.”

“Oh, Dr. Hilton. It’s such a pleasure to finally hear from you. I mean, really good. Oh, I’m blushing. I am such a big fan of your work. Honestly, I just love you to death. Mr. Hewitt’s expecting your call. I’ll put you through immediately.”

When charming voice secretary lady put me on hold, “Highway to the Danger Zone” was playing on the phone. I tapped my shoes on the plastic mat under my desk and had a Top Gun flashback. Suddenly, I thought of joining the navy.

“Dr. Hilton,” a man with a husky voice interrupted my navy daydream, “It is a huge pleasure to finally talk to you in person. I have heard so much about you.”

“Thanks,” I said, “I think.”

“Well, I have some wonderful news to bestow upon you.”

“I know, I know, Citizen of the Year.”

“Your assistant already told you?” He sounded disappointed.

“You don’t know Margaret.”

“Well — Congratulations, I suppose. None of us on the committee here has actually met you, nor has anyone in the Rotary Club, but your reputation precedes you. You are well thought of around here. Most of our members swear by you, doctor. You are a legend.”

“Question: do I know anyone who is a Rotary member? And why in the name of blue cheese dressing am I your Citizen of the Year?”

“Dr. Hilton, your humility amuses me. Everyone here has heard of you. Your medical practice, your charity work, your writing — you are a model citizen. My question is: how could you not be our COY?”

“Charity work? Writing?” I asked in a way that probably sounded simultaneously like a question and a statement.

“We all look forward to meeting you at the banquet. I’ll have my assistant Vera call you later this week with the details. The banquet is this Saturday. Congratulations once again, Dr. Hilton. It’s our pleasure to be able to give you this award. You are simply amazing. Have a blessed day.”

After I hung up the phone, I stared out the window in my office. The view was nice. It overlooked a sewage treatment facility in the industrial complex next door. “That’s all ladies,” I said to Margaret and Tonya whom I knew were listening outside the door. For the life of me I couldn’t figure this one out. How was I selected for this? I give 20 bucks a year to the Native American College Fund, but I somehow doubt that qualifies as charity work. I buy Girl Scout Cookies, too. And writing. The last writing I did was a letter to the editor of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in which I was upset over the tone they used in an article on waiting room politics (that is deserving of its own story, by the way). I began to question the intelligence of the Rotary Club but didn’t see how that letter would have excited them.

Margaret knocked on the door as she was entering my office.

“Doc, you have delivery,” she said in a drawn out and sugary voice. The last time she said that I ended up with 40 pounds of deer sausage that’s burning in my freezer as you read this. She leaned over my shoulder from behind me and put a vase of flowers on the corner of my desk. “Aren’t they just gorgeous? Word is out and you’re famous now. I can’t believe it. I work for a famous person. And I never knew it. This is simply wonderful. You’re Citizen of the Year. My mother used to be a member of the Rotary Club before I put her in a nursing home, and believe me, they do not take the Citizen of the Year Award lightly. You are in rare company. I’m so proud.”

“Thank you, Margaret,” I said. “And you too, Tonya.” I knew Tonya was there. She never came into my office, but she was more than likely standing behind the wall next to the doorway sending a text message to someone. She heard text messaging was popular.

“Congratulations, Doc,” she yelled from behind the wall. “This is unbelievable!”

The flower arrangement was yellow Gerbera daisies in a lemonade pitcher. It had little slices of lemon in the water.  The card read, “Congratulations. You deserve this. You’re a beacon of light in the city.” It was signed by the mayor and everyone at city hall.

Ms. Mitchell, whom I had forgotten about, came into the office as well.

“Dr. Hilton,” she said is a low, raspy voice, “I just wanted to say congratulations. I heard everything going on and this is just wonderful. I’m honored to have you as my doctor. And since this is too big an occasion for an appointment, I’ll just reschedule. I can’t believe my doctor is Citizen of the Year. I’ve heard people who win those awards are super successful. Charity work, writing —you can do it all. Wow!”

“Thank you, Ms. Mitchell, but really — ”

“I’m going to go tell my mother right now. She’s upstairs planning on having her stretch marks removed. She’ll be enthralled.”

I instructed Margaret to reschedule all of my appointments for the day. “I’ll be working in my private office here for the rest of the day,” I said with more than a subtle hint that I was positive would be ignored. I thought that this day was too much. Somehow, I began this day by burning the coffee in my coffeemaker and making my entire apartment smell like burnt grounds. Then I spilled that same burnt coffee in the floorboard of the car on the way to work because a clown jumped in front of my car to advertise something at a stop light. And to top all of that off, the mayor sent me flowers in a vase that could be used for a lemonade pitcher. I took a dip of snuff. While I was trying to enjoy my snuff the phone buzzed and I startled and sneezed tobacco all over my desk.

“Doc,” Margaret’s voice boomed from the intercom. “Doc?”

“Yes, Margaret.”

“There’s a news crew here to see you.”

“No, no, no. Not at all.”

“But, Doc … It’s Channel 6.”

“I can’t.”

“But — you’re — famous now. All famous people do it. The public wants to know you.”

“No.”

“Please, doc. Please. If you do it, I’ll bake that cornbread layer cake you loved so much.”

“Tell them we can do it via email. I can’t see anyone today.”

“Okay. And I’ll still bake the cake for you.”

I left the office a few minutes after the TV crew. We were all on the elevator together. They were talking about how famous I was with me standing behind them. “He has given almost one million in humanitarian aid,” a man with a thick beard and a camera said. Another said they heard I had served as the queen’s personal physician in England. There was a crowd of people standing around my car in the lot, so I went for the bus. When I got onto the bus my head was spinning. The bus smelled like baked sweat socks in onion juice and it gave me a headache. My head made a thud when I leaned it back against the window. There were only three other people on the bus with me for most of the twenty-minute ride. One was a homeless man sitting in the back talking to himself. He kept saying, “I’m the king of Siam. I’m the king of Siam.” Another man who looked like Robert Duval sat in the middle of the bus and stared at me for most of the trip. He wasn’t angry or happy or depressed or anything that I could make out. He just kept staring at me dead pan. I spoke to him, but he didn’t say anything. He just stared.

A middle-aged woman sat in the seat across from me. She stared, too. But she wasn’t quiet for nearly as long.

“Excuse me,” she said in a high-pitched voiced. She was polite despite the fact that by then I had my head down on the seat in front of me.  “I noticed you coming out of that brownstone. Do you work there or something?”

“Yes.”

“Wow. A friend just sent me a text message telling me about a very famous doctor that works there. He worked as a physician on the set of the Twilight movies. My friend said she thinks she heard he won the Nobel Prize for Medicine some years ago. Do you know him?”

“No. I make videos about self-esteem.”

“Oh, that sounds interesting. My mother always said doctors make the most interesting boyfriends.”

My apartment was a studio loft in an old factory building that people said used to make Cabbage Patch dolls. Outside the door was a circular wreath on a tripod that looked like something that would be at the funeral of a horse jockey. White flowers in the shape of a horseshoe rested on top of three wire legs with a banner across the front that said “congratulations.” I unlocked the door and dropped my keys on the table next to the door. My cell phone was on the island in the kitchen. The red light on the corner was blinking. It read, “You have 27 voicemail messages.” Earlier in the morning, I filled the sink with dishes and ran water over them to let them soak. I tossed the cell phone and all of the messages into the sink with the dishwater. I read somewhere water was bad for cell phones.

I poured myself a scotch, lit a Cohiba and dropped into one of the lounge chairs on the balcony, well, fire escape. A slight breeze blew as I stared out over McMoultrie Park. Eleven in the morning is a little early for scotch, but given all of the interaction I’d been forced to have with people and public spaces, I guessed my therapist would have allowed it. I thought of calling her office for a minute until I remembered where my phone was, so instead I put on a Miles Davis record. I prefer the sound of vinyl to CDs. John Coltrane used to say he preferred that sound, too. One of my aunts said she lived in the same building as Miles Davis for a while. She said everyone else in the complex was unsure as to whether or not it was Davis, but she was certain. It was Miles Davis.

Down in the park several men were tossing around a football and one of them had a cannon for an arm. There was a rumor floating around the local sportswriters that Brett Favre worked out here in the offseason, but I couldn’t make out whether or not the guy with the cannon arm was wearing Wrangler Jeans. It looked like it could have been him, though.

A knock came at the door. I had so little company to my apartment that I sat there for a moment like I had heard a knock in my sleep and wasn’t sure if it was real or not. The knock came again.

“Good morning, sir,” a chipper teenager said when I opened the door. “I’m looking for a Dr. Paris Hilton. Is she here?”

“No, she stepped out.”

“Well, I’ve got a package here for her. Would you be able to sign for it?”

I signed the big gray box he handed me with a bulky gray pen. I grabbed the box and turned back into the apartment.

The chipper stuck his hand in the door before it closed. “Can I ask you a question, sir?”

“I’d prefer you didn’t.”

“Is that the real Paris Hilton. I heard she had an apartment in the city, but this is my first delivery here.”

“Yep. It sure is. She’s my aunt. She used to live with Miles Davis.”

I set the box on the dinner table and put out my stogie. The box contained a congratulatory plaque made of a mirror with stethoscopes placed around the edges.

After I set the box to the side, went back out on the fire escape and was getting ready to light my cigar again when another knock came at the door. My first thought was to ignore it, but another knock came quickly behind it followed by a “Dr. Hilton!” It was Margaret. “Dr. Hilton, open the door. It’s me Margaret.”

She walked in quickly when I opened the door like someone was coming up the stairs after her. She pushed the door, which I was behind, and hurried to sit down at the dinner table.

“Oh, a plaque,” she said. “How sweet.”

“Hi, Margaret. Good to have you.”

“Thanks, Doc. But I have something for you. Here,” she handed me a card. “It’s a gift card from Home Depot. Apparently, they heard about your award. Isn’t that nice?”

“Yes. Thank you.” I sighed deeply and stood up.

Margaret stood up with me and I walked toward the door. But when I turned around, Margaret was on the fire escape. “This is a wonderful view,” she said. “Oh my God. Is that Brett Favre? I heard he works out here sometimes.”

“I think it is,” I said. “I think he knew Miles Davis, too.”

“I didn’t know that. So are you excited about the award? I know I am. You’re the most famous person I’ve ever known personally.”

“I’m not going to the banquet.”

“Why on earth not?”

“Because there will be people there. And they will all be fawning over someone they have never met and have no idea about.”

“Who?” she asked while looking at Brett Favre playing football.

“Me, Margaret — or you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, Margaret, you.”

I had no intention of going to the Rotary Club banquet to accept the award for Citizen of the Year. It would entail conversation with too many people that I don’t know and that don’t know me. I had a routine and my own idea of myself and didn’t want anything like this to change that. But the award was intriguing. I had to imagine what it would look like on the mantel beside my Outstanding Achievement Award as treasurer of the OB/GYNs in America Group, or OB/GYNAG. Since I was fairly certain no one knew who I was or what I looked like or what my favorite brand of baseball card was, I asked Margaret to take my place at the banquet.

“Accept the award in your honor? Why, I’d be glad to, Doc.”

“Not in my honor, as me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Tell them you are Dr. Paris Hilton. I’ve never been to one of their meetings, and I don’t see any patients who are members. No one in this city knows who I am, or, at least, they would believe you’re me. They have no idea what they’re looking for. So you be me.”

“I don’t know, doc. I’m not from here, but someone will surely know who I am.”

“It doesn’t matter. Just go up, take the award, say whatever you want, and leave. It’s simple. No one will say a word.”

“I don’t want to, but if you think it will be okay … ”

“It’ll be fine. Enjoy yourself.”

“I always wanted to be a doctor.”

Margaret had been excited all week at work. Every time she passed by me in the hallway or the break room she winked at me like we shared a tremendous secret and she was proud to bear it. A local cable access show sent me an email requesting an interview. They heard I had served in the Marines and received the Congressional Medal of Honor during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I forwarded the emails to Margaret and heard her giggle in the lobby each time she opened one of the emails. The people from the local cable access show said they would be showing the event live on their station.

On Saturday night, I poured myself a scotch, lit another cigar and turned on the TV for the big event. The Radisson Hotel hosted the event in the only conference room in town big enough to hold this many people. The room had brown carpet on the floor with gold designs and tables with white cloths and brown folding chairs crowded the space. Water glasses and white napkins dotted the panorama like flash bulbs at the Super Bowl. Music from James Taylor played in the background.

The Citizen of the Year Banquet is nothing more than a buffet meal, in fine dress of course, and the presentation of the award. The honoree speaks and then everyone has coffee and goes home. Therefore, the first 45 minutes of the local station’s broadcast was a camera set up in the corner of the room focused on a podium with no one behind it. The angle of the camera showed the tops of the heads of the standing room only crowd. Occasionally, bits and pieces of conversation between those in attendance drifted into the camera’s microphone. I heard numerous rumors about Dr. Paris Hilton. One woman heard Hilton was a gigolo in the 1980s. A man heard Hilton was a woman and once dated Ellen DeGeneres.

 

“Good evening, y’all,” a man in a seersucker suit and bowtie said too close to the microphone in front of the audience. Feedback from the microphone drew a rumble from the audience. “We are here to honor someone special. Someone we have all heard of. Someone whose reputation for good deeds and success is unquestionable. Ladies and gentlemen, we are here to honor this city’s greatest philanthropic doctor, our greatest servant of mankind, and genuinely, one hell of a man. So without any further to do, I present to you, Dr. Paris Hilton.”

The camera panned the audience and would freeze on a table for a few seconds when someone stirred as if they were going to stand up. Finally, Margaret stood up and walked to the podium. A few people clapped, but most of the audience whispered to themselves and the room sounded like a waterfall of words.

“Dr. Paris Hilton, y’all,” seersucker said. “And I meant she is one hell of a woman, a woman. Dr. Hilton, y’all.”

The waterfall ceased and was followed by a roar of applause. “I told you” and “Only a woman” and “Ellen DeGeneres” were phrases I heard amidst the applause.

Margaret took her place behind the podium and waited for the applause to stop. Her one gold tooth flashed in the middle of her mile-wide smile as she straightened her index cards. The black dress she wore flowed near her feet. “Y’all thank y’all so much,” she said. The gratitude was followed by another avalanche of applause. This time several people stood up and blocked the camera’s view of Margaret. Whistles and yells came from the crowd.  “Y’all,” Margaret begged. Eventually, the applause subsided.

“Y’all know how to make a girl blush,” Margaret said immediately followed by a roar of shrill laughter.

“We love you Dr. Hilton,” someone screamed from beside the camera.

“Aw, I love y’all, too,” Margaret said and applause erupted again.

Finally, the crowd hushed.

“This award is the highest honor I have ever received. I want to begin by thanking God Almighty, without whom no Citizen of the Year Awards could be rendered.”

Applause erupted again and Margaret waited.

“I’ve given a lot to this city and nation in my life,” she said. “But this is by far the most rewarding symbol of my service. I am grateful. From my years at the White House to the war to my time with Bobby Fischer, this is truly the culmination of my exploits.”

Another round of applause.

“I wanna thank everyone for this — this is — this is just too much. Thank you to the Rotary Club and to everyone who had a hand in this. This is something I’ll never forget. And I mean never.”

Again, applause. A man from the head table carried a bouquet of roses to the podium and kissed Margaret on the cheek as he handed the flowers to her.

“Y’all,” she said. “All I can say is ‘thank you’ and I hope I can continue to live up to this great honor. God bless and keep you all. Thank you.”

A final round of applause erupt for what felt like days. The entire audience rose to its feet and began to cheer. A single cheer began to emanate from the center of the room.

“Hilton to mayor. Hilton for mayor. Hilton for mayor.” The crowd repeated over and over again.

I turned the TV set off and took my cigar to the fire escape. I stared out across the park. Brett Favre and his buddies were playing football again. He had a cannon for an arm. I never played football.

Chad Rhoad grew up one of the only liberals in a terribly small town in South Carolina called McBee, which provided him with fuel for a lifetime of writing. He recently completed his first novel and received an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of South Carolina, where he studied with writers Elise Blackwell and David Bajo. He is currently a commissioning editor at The History Press in Charleston. He has also served as editor of The Messenger in Hartsville and presented portions of this work at the New Voices Conference in Atlanta and The Shark’s Parlor in Columbia. Rhoad has a pending publication of a novel excerpt with The Smoking Poet.

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