Rothko by Simon Barker


After my PSA reading refused to drop I made a urologist appointment. I was freaking out because prostate cancer was what killed my father. But as soon as I entered the surgery I was distracted by this enormous painting. A Rothko. It must have been worth millions. And then in walked the doctor who turned out to be female, which was another surprise.

“That can’t be a Rothko.”

“Yes. I treated him once. He gave it to me.”

“But I thought Rothko died in 1970.”

“I mean his dealer. I treated his dealer once and we had a brief affair and he gave it to me as a present.”


The doctor checked my results and started explaining treatment. I told her my father had radiation therapy.

“Radiation therapy? That’s old hat. These days what we do is remove all the affected organs — the penis, the testes, the scrotum — Oh,” she laughed, “don’t worry. We put them all back again.”

“But …?”

“No, no, we do this all the time. Now let’s have a squizz at you. Hop up on that bench and lie on your left side. Knees up.”

I started reluctantly unbuckling in front of the Rothko. The door banged.

“OUT! OUT!” I heard someone ordering. In stepped a guy in a white coat, pointing the finger he probably used for rectal examinations.

The doctor hung her head and said, “Do I have to?”

“Yes. You want me to call security again? You know what’ll happen.”

“It’s not fair.”

The white coat guy started shooing, as if she was a farmyard chicken. “Nooo, don’t take anything,” he ordered when she picked up a razor. “And shut the door.” After the door clicked he added, “Sorry about that. That woman’s a very sad case. She spends all day haunting the corridors. Embarrassing.”

“Who is she?”

“Not a doctor, obviously.”

“What’s she doing?”

“She’s crazy. Years ago she was training here. I was training at the same time. I actually slept with her a few times. Big mistake. She wouldn’t give me up. I think it tipped her over the brink. She had some latent psychosis. Anyway, for the past however many years she’s spent her time wandering the floor trying to steal my patients.”

“That’s awful.”

“Yes, she’s convinced she’s a real doctor, though she’s nothing of the sort. Of course I’ve moved on. I’ve now got a wife and kids. And a Lamborghini.”

“And a Rothko,” I said.

“I suppose she implied that was hers too.”

I nodded.

“She’s living in a dream world. I actually had her scheduled once. I didn’t want to. It seemed cruel. As soon as she was released she went back to stalking me. If you know of any solution I’d be eternally grateful. But I’m not holding out hope. It’s just something I have to put up with.”

I thought. “So what she said isn’t true.”

“What did she tell you? Not that we’re going to cut everything off?”

“Then reattach it later.”

“Oh, god, I hope you didn’t believe that for a second. Remove your dear old penis? As if we’d do something like that. That’s monstrous.”

“What a relief.”

“No. Let me tell you what we actually do. It’s called the Gomez technique. Just listen to this. This is the genius of targeted medicine. We create this tiny capsule — it’s microscopic — and insert it into your bloodstream right near the prostate area. We can track it — it actually has a little transmitter — we can see where it’s going — and it slowly works its way around your circulatory system until it gets into exactly the right spot in the tumour. And then we detonate it.”


“It has this miniscule amount of high explosive, a few molecules. When it reaches the right spot, we jam down the plunger and… kaboom! End of prostate tumour.”

I imagined my prostate exploding. I didn’t even know where it was — somewhere down there. But imagining it exploding wasn’t nice. It almost made the temporary castration sound better. I told him I’d have to think it over.

After weeks more freaking out and not doing anything I decided to visit the art gallery and get my mind off my prostate. There was a travelling exhibition and I was interested to find one of the items was the Rothko. The one from the surgery. Only the catalogue said, “On loan from the Museum of Modern Art.” That puzzled me. I couldn’t figure it out. There couldn’t be two Rothkos exactly the same, could there? Like your two testicles.

And as I was leaving I bumped into the urologist. He was perched on the bus stop seat in Gallery Road. In his lap was the woman he’d chased out of his office, the one who’d wanted to cut off my penis.

“Oh, hello!” she said bouncing up and down and smiling lasciviously. “How are you?”

The urologist looked pissed off, like he’d been caught in the act.

“Hey, I couldn’t help noticing that Rothko. It’s the same as the one in your office.”

“Yes, that’s right,” the mad woman said. “We lent it for the exhibition. It’s labelled in the catalogue as coming from the Museum of Modern Art. But that’s just to keep us out of the public eye. When the exhibition closes it’s going back to the office. Otherwise we couldn’t get insurance.”


And this, I solemnly swear, is the entire reason why I smuggled the razor into the gallery the next day and slashed that picture. I had to know. I had to know what was real and what wasn’t real.




Simon Barker is an Australian living in Sydney although for a number of years he lived in the Bay Area of California. His stories have appeared in New Ohio Review, Water~Stone Review, Event, SmokeLong and other publications.


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