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his cheek.
    Carl puts the book down and sticks his hand under his pajamas to probe his belly. He massages it carefully in large, circular strokes. Then he rises and goes to the bathroom. He undresses, puts out a towel, and gets in the shower. The water runs down his body, swirls into the drain, soapy and gray.
    Then he hears the telephone ring.
    Carl lets it ring. He turns up the cold water and turns down the warm water and can feel his skin tighten and tremble. He turns off the shower and steps out. He grabs his towel and dries his face carefully, then his belly. He can trace his own form in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. With his hand he clears a space for his face, but the mirror quickly steams up again.
    After he has dressed, he goes downstairs and sits by the telephone. Outside, it has begun to snow. He dials his son Jesper’s number; Jesper lives with Maria and her son, Jonas. The telephone rings a few times before someone answers.
    â€”Hello, Carl says.
    He can hear breathing on the other end of the line.
    â€”Hello, he repeats.
    â€”It’s Jonas.
    â€”Well, hi there, Jonas. It’s Carl.
    â€”How are you?
    â€”I got chewing gum today.
    â€”Aren’t you lucky. What does it taste like?
    â€”Like chewing gum.
    â€”But you’re doing okay?
    â€”Uh huh.
    â€”Is Jesper or your mother home?
    â€”What’s that mean? Are you home alone?
    â€”Who is it? he hears Maria say in the background.
    â€”Nobody, Jonas says, mouth turned from the receiver. Goodbye, he says.
    â€”Bye, bye, Carl says.
    â€”Jonas! Maria shouts.
    There’s a clicking as the receiver is hung up. Carl smiles and looks out the window. The snowflakes are large and downy and fall from the heavens in straight lines. He watches them settle into fine layers on the naked earth. He sees how the flakes are sifted through the branches of the chestnut tree, forming a complex pattern of snow and darkness on the ground beneath the tree.
    Then he looks at his watch and rises from his chair.
    C arl has been sitting in the waiting room for almost a half-hour before the doctor’s assistant peers her head through the door.
    â€”Carl Skov.
    He stands and follows her down the hallway. Examination rooms are on both sides of the hall. At the far end a door is open on the right, and she leads him into the room.
    â€”Have a seat. The doctor will be with you in a moment.
    Carl sits on a brown plastic chair and looks around. In one end of the room there is an examination chair with stirrups made of stainless steel. A white paper slip covers the black cushion. On the table beside Carl is his insurance card and a form he’ll have to sign. Next to that is a file with his medical records and a big yellow-brown envelope, which he can see has been opened.
    Carl looks out the window. On the lawn in front of the medical center a group of children are playing in the snow. They look comfortable in their quilted snowsuits.
    â€”Hello, Mr. Skov.
    The doctor slides the door closed and extends his left hand to Carl; Carl clasps it clumsily with his right. The doctor sits in the chair and skims Carl’s records. With thick, competent fingers he opens the envelope and pulls out a number of X-rays. He holds them up to the light and examines them one by one.
    â€”So, Mr. Skov, he says. I think you’re going to have to change your eating habits.
    â€”Is that so?
    â€”There’s nothing wrong with you. The photographs here indicate that you are fine. If your stomach is bothering you, it is because of nerves or poor diet.
    The doctor bends forward and picks up a piece of paper that is lying on a shelf to his left.
    â€”Here’s a list of some things I’d recommend you eat.
    Carl takes the paper and reads. Soundlessly he forms the words on his lips: carrots, celery, apples, whole-grain bread, fish.
    â€”Do you have a lot going on these days?
    Carl looks up.

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