Every profession had its misfits and mediocrities, but few attracted, as his did, the very people it was designed to help.
Image by Lara Viana, Frame, oil on board, 18×16 in, 2008. Photo by Andy Keate, courtesy domobaal
He looked like nothing, which depressed them as they entered and took their place. There were three places: a couch like an altar, and two matching chairs, separated by a table with a box of extra-large tissues. It was the most inviting thing in a room without so much as a poster, a plant, or ashtray. He had his own lounge chair, into which (once they began) he disappeared, to become a voice which each strained to hear. His name was Doctor Kowal. Someone not too distant in time had sheared off the terminal syllables to what was once a real name, the kind you could trace on a map of Eastern Europe.
He rose early, while his wife was still a lump in the bed, to his full days. He ate cereal with a sprinkling of fresh coconut and dried fruits, and drank a protein shake, for he worked through lunch hour. He had an antique car, a Benz, with cream-colored leather seats and chrome fenders. Every night, secure in a locked garage, the Benz was shrouded in a chamois cloth. First to arrive in the lot, the car claimed space number 1, close to the entrance. Hildegard was its name; its original owner was a trainer-breeder, and had had the car shipped from the factory. Hildegard was a family name, according to the dealer, who had filed the paperwork, including the car’s maintenance diary. Dr. Kowal kept the diary in the glove box, required reading for the mechanic who’d lay a hand on the hood.
The drive over to work was made in the Benz, listening to its six cylinders, to the smooth interlock of the gears, and the way its tires, capped in chrome, took the speed bumps in the corporate park. The trunk, a velvet case, was empty. He kept a folding umbrella under the passenger seat.
Few patients had spotted him in his black 300SL, but those who had brought it up as a key piece of evidence, which he skillfully turned back on them. His clientele were mostly men of a certain age, with the money to see him four or five times a week—very early, at lunch, or late in the day. In the interstices, he saw (at a low fee) students, women, and children, and the rare retiree, driven in by an exasperated spouse.
Dr. Kowal was the best-known shrink in town, reached solely through referral. He shied from publicity, and did any forensic work anonymously.
Marie, his wife, and Hildegard were his life, when he wasn’t at work, or writing up cases in his home study, where he had a chair to match the one in his office.
Marie had been his first inpatient, when he was a green intern. She had become a nun at sixteen, whose failed vocation (as they put it) and return to a family of priests (she was the youngest and only girl), had triggered a major depression. She had already cut her throat with her father’s razor, ingested rat poison, and thrown herself from a second-floor window onto her mother’s rose trees. She was in four-point restraints in a locked ward when he first met her. A comely girl whose thick black hair was just beginning to grow out, her emaciated face made her pale eyes large and shiny as a cat’s. Just over five feet, she looked like a child.
She told him (when she could get the words out) that he looked like St. Francis, without the tonsure.
That first day, he pulled up a metal chair to her bed, and sat there. Even then, he was plain to look at, and slight of build, but before long, she was willing to stretch out a finger, once he’d released her hands, to touch his sleeve. She told him (when she could get the words out) that he looked like St. Francis, without the tonsure. She’d been (she told him later) a Poor Clare, and then explained what that was. He’d heard of the saint with a bird on his shoulder, but not of the Sister Clare. They had no children.
In time, Marie seemed just like other doctors’ wives, if a little quiet, and always dressed in white. She had shaped her peculiarities into styles and choices. She did her housework at night, and spent the days reading. She had become an expert in her own disease, and in church history, especially the violent schisms and healing councils. She studied Jewish history, too, when first married, and considered (with no pressure or encouragement) converting. Raised in doctrinal Catholicism, the Old Testament was fresh ground, a marvel of strangeness and funny bits, and the way the different authors tackled the job of storytelling. Her religious name was Sister Mary Divine. She had made her first and second vows in a black habit with a white veil. It was before the final vows, with the advance to full black, that she suffered the breakdown.
Arriving at his office when the sun was breaking upon the horizon like an egg, he sat down at his desk and opened his ledger. All his patients had their page, some with a slash drawn corner to corner. He blacked in squares on several pages. Sister Divine was in there—not on page one, which was blank, but the next page, for he’d ordered the ledger the day after commencement. First in his class, he was offered the single spot in the teaching hospital’s psych ward. He had no office then, so he kept the ledger under his bed, the only place it would fit, and made his entries sitting on his kilim, a gift from his family.
Marie Divine still had a scar like a fine chain around her throat. She wore scarves and chokers until the white flesh loosened, and all but swallowed the scar. The early psychotropics were crude, and his first conception of Marie Divine was of a record revolving at the wrong speed. She seemed miles away, but the nurses reported late-night pacing, when they took off the leg restraints to give the sores a chance to heal.
She was still a marathon walker. Setting out in the early afternoon, she tracked the length of their town along the north and south arteries, and knew every cat and dog along the way. She was shy with people, but housewives and shut-ins, perched by their front windows, waited for the sight of the tiny woman in the hat and heels. “Religious,” as she termed her colleagues, were, by vow, poor and homeless, and performed their corporal and spiritual works of mercy on foot, and in silence. She had broken away from the articles of faith, but was faithful to the practice. He had his time carved into fifty-minute chunks; hers were the canonical hours, beginning at midnight. At the end of the parkway was the bay, where she stopped for coffee and to read the paper, starting home in time to fix their supper.
His pen hand was on one of yesterday’s patients, but he flipped back to the beginning, looking at the marks he’d made with a fountain pen for the hours spent with Sister Marie. She’d been two months on the ward and, in that time, he’d met the family, and even paid a visit to the convent where he was received by the reverend mother. You weren’t supposed to fall in love with your patients: that was a cardinal rule of his craft, but people forgave the Kowals.
He’d grown up across the street from a Catholic church, and played on the parish basketball team, but he’d never seen a family like hers, or an order so backward. He kept his notes and had used them for a paper on difficult-to-treat cases. He was surprised to see a strain of dogmatism in his views. He was himself, as he now saw it, a convert, but his sect was on the rise and hers in decline.
He smoothed her page, and turned it.
His first session was with a chemist, a man who’d lost two wives to the same cancer. He had grown children, who’d forced him to seek help when they’d seen what their childhood home looked like. He was burning the furniture, piece by piece, in campfires on their fifteen-acre lot. He also fed the fireplace. When the oldest girl visited, she found the first floor stripped. She’d moved her father into a hotel, when he refused to go to the hospital. Dr. Kowal knew the man from an advisory board, and the daughter was able to bring him in for a consultation. The patient stayed in treatment, but came only once a week. He brought coffee for himself and Dr. Kowal, and they shared a bagel. They talked about organic molecules, and sometimes they drew them. Dr. Kowal always left him with a problem to solve.
Michael was the man’s name, and he insisted on first names. The doctor’s name was also Michael. Michael the patient sat in a chair, with the doctor at his desk. They passed a quad-ruled pad between them, with the organic compounds (balls and lines) spread like maps. If this is this, the patient would say, pointing to the formula under the map, and I add this colony (he was quick with a pen), what is it now?
Dr. Kowal would take the pad to study the enlargement. I don’t know, was usually his answer, but I know you do. The patient would reclaim the pad, erase the old compound’s name and write in the new one. He had a photographic memory for molecules. They meant more to him than stories and people. “But not as much as combustion,” the doctor had said, adding, “the force that combines them.”
Dr. Cormley was still working at the plant, which made eye solutions and lenses, the only other thing he did besides “visiting” Michael on Mondays. The daughter had said he had a bed, table, his kitchen stuff, and a few lamps in the eight-room house. He wore two wedding rings.
Dr. Kowal closed his ledger, and opened the blinds to meet the sun head on.
Michael walked in on the minute. He refused to honor the ritual opening of doors. He didn’t want to dawdle in the doctor’s waiting room. If the doctor’s door was still locked, he waited right outside.
When the doctor turned around, the patient was already sitting in his chair. His right hand was bandaged, with the fingers bound into a club.
“What happened?” Dr. Kowal said, and Dr. Cormley started to cry. They sat like that until Dr. Kowal said it was time. He had an hour free on Tuesday, tomorrow, and when he wrote the time on an appointment card, the man took it.
Compared to handling these deviations, cutting out tumors and transplanting organs was mechanic’s work.
He had anticipated a break, but nothing so drastic. His way with patients was a gentle but steady forcing. There was no word in the psychiatric lexicon for this, but the best practitioners knew it by instinct. You either had a taste and a talent for it, or you didn’t. The poets—as his wife, a reader, had told him—called it negative capability, but that seemed the least of it.
He had wanted to be a surgeon, and he had the hands and the patience to resect the finest blood vessels, but he’d been struck by what he saw on his first visit to the back ward: the faces, the mannerisms, the barnyard noises, sparks firing in the skunky air. Compared to handling these deviations, cutting out tumors and transplanting organs was mechanic’s work. And it was there—in the state hospital—where he found his calling. He found he could call them, and they would answer. Something in him was visible and palpable, and pulled them out of the netherworlds they found so congenial. The mute ones opened their jaws to bleat; the chatterers closed theirs to listen; the screamers piped down, if only for a minute; the head-bangers, shakers, and spinners slowed their sickening beats and revolutions to take a look, when they’d seldom shown an interest even in each other, much less the uniformed staff. The ward officer noticed, and the new med student was sent to the hospital director, a graduate of the same school. Upon a good word, the student’s progress through the ranks was foreshortened and accelerated. He received an MD-PhD in three years, and then turned to analytic training. He tried to find the words for this skill or talent, something to bind it to what was already known, make it less epiphenomenal. Transference, though, was the patient’s own forcing, of fears and fantasy, and frustrated desire. What he did (and he was forever refining it) was faster and targeted; something closer, his wife said, to exorcism.
As far as his arsonist was concerned, the devil was now out. The rest of the work was finding something to stuff into the hole, dug in childhood, and still sucking air.
How can you be so sure? Marie had asked, as he shared some clinical details with her. Look at you, he felt like saying, but he knew that each patient felt like a singularity: the alpha and the omega.
He was, in this case, the prime mover. Was healing, though, such a one-way street? It was, he knew, in her New Testament, where Jesus walked about with his disciples among the unbelievers. In this case, though, better not to put a name on it. He was a molder: he shaped the cloud-like force around each patient, until they lost the urge to hurt themselves. It didn’t feel, Marie had said, like invisible restraints, but it worked that way.
She still kept the habit of the Poor Clares in the back of their closet, covered with a sheet. He’d suggested professional storage: Isn’t that what women do with their wedding gowns? The convent had retained three wedding gowns for the day a novice made her final vows, but you didn’t get to pick your own, Marie told him, because vanity was like a skirt you stepped out of before drawing the veil over your head. Picturing her walking down the aisle in a dowdy, ill-fitting dress was too painful: not for her—she seemed to cherish these moments and stages in a life wholly elected and reluctantly abandoned—but for him. He thought of himself as raising her, like Lazarus, from the dead, but raising her in a way that improved upon her life as Baby Sister to three priests, and daughter of a candy-store owner. For their wedding, she’d worn a white suit with a polka-dot blouse. The suit was in the closet, too, but the blouse, worn for ten anniversary celebrations, was in the bag kept for dusters. She’d washed it and it’d shrunk to doll size, the ink of the dots scribbling into the white organdy. She kept everything, reassigning cast-offs as they degraded.
I don’t plan to continue to treat you, he’d said the day he proposed, but that was a vow hard—maybe impossible—to keep.
When Marie was released from the ward, but still living in the convent, she came to his office with an older nun, a silent witness in the consulting room. Sister Veronica was a tall, thin Irishwoman, with dark eyes and pale skin. She kept her eyes down, but she was listening: she blushed when he addressed his patient by her first name. “Is it Marie,” he asked, “or Mary?” He’d heard both.
The two nuns answered in unison. They laughed, and Marie explained that her given name, Marie, was altered when she’d made her first vows. No sister kept her given name “intact,” was how Veronica put it, blushing again, because it wasn’t her part—and she understood this—to speak for her subordinate, even though in any other “street” context, she must speak.
Dr. Kowal had studied the patient’s face, noosed in stiff, white ruffles, with a tight band across the forehead. Somehow, the face looked older.
It had been his advice that she return to see if, together, in their biweekly meetings, they could resect the broken thread of thought and events that sent her to the hospital. “Our lives are not our own,” she’d said as an inpatient. He asked if she was hearing the voices of Jesus or of God. “I meant corporate life,” she said. “We’re not individuals.” They’d talked about her childhood as the “mascot” of three priests (one, a Jesuit; the others, parish priests). She’d gone to all the ordinations, first masses, and installations in remote parishes. She’d gone shopping for chalices and vestments, suits, and black shoes. The parents had had Marie in their early fifties, and the father died when she was five. The priests had to read books on the index, to know what was there to test their chastity. In junior high, she’d found these books in a trunk, and absorbed what she could of the “facts of life” from Fanny Hill, Casanova’s memoirs, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and assorted detective novels with the black-cat label. There were other books harboring heresy, or spin-off cults of Mariolatry and devil worship. The Jesuit was a theologian in a Canadian university. Dr. Kowal had seen photos on Marie’s bedside table of Mike, Ed, and Neil in their Roman collars, but had only met the mother, who was the most devout—a daily communicant with a crucifix and holy water font in each room of the house, a Mary altar with a vigil lamp, dried palms, the papal blessing. The philodendrons and rubber plants were housed in sacred effigies. On the walls were copies of Italian religious art, “Madonna of the Chair,” “Light of the World.” The house smelled of scorch, smoke, and candle wax.
Father Mike Divine, the theologian, had married the Kowals, assisted by Fathers Ed and Neil. A rabbi—present for the sake of old Mrs. Kowal—inserted a Hebrew blessing as the Catholic vows were exchanged. Marie wanted a plain band, like the one she’d worn as a Clare, but Dr. Kowal enriched the band she chose with pavé diamonds from his grandmother’s wedding ring. Marie had bought him a silver ring, woven with a pattern taken from the Book of Kells. He liked it better than he thought he would, and liked the brothers, too. The eldest, Mike, was fat and stolid, but the younger two, assigned to neighbor parishes, played basketball and hockey and seemed like schoolboys. They sent him a few of their troubled parishioners—the hard cases, as they called them, drinkers and philanders, men who couldn’t keep a job, or those for whom rectory advice, or a retreat, wasn’t enough. Father Neil had come in himself, when he felt his faith slipping away, but found, in time—and on his own—a second vocation as a missionary, with a posting in the mountains of Peru. Father Ed followed him there, but the oldest brother, the theologian, stayed put. He was newly launched into the chancellery, assistant to the archbishop.
The brothers were glad their baby sister had found someone to look after her. They were confident she’d find her way back to the true fold. “They don’t know me very well,” she said.
The body, and even that part of the mind that wasn’t the soul, was an impediment, something to neglect, discipline, and overcome.
Dr. Kowal knew that Marie’s vocation was to be his wife. He’d even said this, when she’d complained that she wasn’t doing much with her life, since taking it from God. They were talking one Saturday, a few months after their marriage. On Saturdays, they spent the mornings drinking coffee on a porch he’d winterized. Marie was a birdwatcher, and had hung up different kinds of feeders. The Clares—because they work with the poor—were trained, she said, as social workers and nurses, but she’d entered right after high school, and had gone no farther. Teach yourself a language, he’d said, or paint. She’d worked selling “better” dresses over that first Christmas, and was good at it. She liked the clothes and the customers, and was even sent to a trade show with the boss. She still worked in busy seasons, but selling dresses and suits wasn’t a life’s work, not the way—before entering—she’d conceived of a life. Be patient, he’d say, and, of course, she had infinite patience. Each day blossomed with something new. He’d come home and hear about it—someone new seen on her walk, or some oddity she’d read in the paper, or spotted through their backyard, when the kids were released from school onto the playground. With such zest for life, why bother with a vocation? was his thought.
She wasn’t strong. There was no organ weakness, or disease, but for a youngish woman, she lacked vitality and endurance—except for the long walks. She drank too much coffee, slept poorly, and finished the bottle of wine they opened for dinner. She was too thin, and had a slight stoop. He was ten years older, but looked younger. She didn’t like to go to doctors—no one in that family did. The body, and even that part of the mind that wasn’t the soul, was an impediment, something to neglect, discipline, and overcome. With no active faith, he wondered, where does that huge subtraction leave a person?
After an hour’s lapse, he heard his second patient, a new divorcée, open and close his waiting-room door. Beatrice Lamb had sent her husband, a man who had just finished his second surgical residency, for treatment almost a year earlier. The Lambs had been college sweethearts, married for fourteen years when Bruce, a science teacher, decided on a medical career, spending the next ten years in round-the-clock training, while Beatrice, also a teacher, supported them. Suddenly finished with the second residency, and rehired as a hospitalist, the man felt pushed off a cliff. He was lifeless one minute and raging the next. He wasn’t sleeping, and had put himself on anti-depressants, with no relief. He was afraid he had cancer—the kind he’d treated in much older men—and was losing his memory. He could just manage to show up for work. Miraculously, once scrubbed and gowned, his hands were steady for as long as it took to cut and sew, but no sooner had he finished the day’s last work, when it started up again. By the time he got home, he was a mess—sometimes, he cried in his car.
Beatrice didn’t know the half of it. He was so angry at her, he could hardly speak, and closeted himself with his reading and whatever game happened to be on TV. He hadn’t spoken a civil word to her in a month. She was puzzled and even frightened. It took another month to browbeat him (as he put it) into the psychiatrist’s office.
Dr. Lamb was the youngest of four, a doctor’s son. His brothers were much older, nearing retirement, when he entered medical school. The parents were dead—the mother just a year ago. He was estranged from them all. Beatrice was his only family connection.
In the weekly visit, Dr. Kowal heard about the marriage, a “disaster.” Beatrice had drained him dry. She was abusive, a whiner, never satisfied, frigid, indifferent to his needs, uninterested in his career, reckless and negligent, a spender, overweight, and losing whatever looks she had, which weren’t much. He had nothing but his work to call his own. He couldn’t bear the sight of her, or of their house, on which she’d spent the money they didn’t have, decorating.
Slowing him down and asking him to focus on a single subject only succeeded in speeding him up. There was nothing worth examining in his upbringing, or his childhood. He had very little to do, he said—then or now—with his family. He’d been involved in sports as a kid, and was home only to eat and sleep. When Dr. Kowal asked what had sparked the crisis, the patient glared, his face flushing. “Haven’t I said this already!”
He wouldn’t say his wife’s name, referring to Beatrice as “she.” She was the cause, but it was more the build-up than a single outrage. When Dr. Kowal pointed out that the crisis coincided with completion of a long, arduous training, the surgeon said he wasn’t paying another doctor’s fee to hear something so stupid. Yes, he knew the dates coincided, or nearly did, but his problem had nothing to do with medicine. He loved his work; and, if anything, there was more of it now than in the busiest days of residency. He was gone from dawn to dusk, on call through the weekend. He loved teaching, and having his own lab—a life-long wish—was now a reality. He had applied for a large grant, and word was that he was a shoe-in. In this part of life, there was absolutely no problem—just the opposite. The problem was entirely, as he put it, “in the home.”
Following the fifth or sixth session, the Lambs separated. The patient moved into an apartment near the hospital, but things still weren’t right. Dr. Kowal had helped him with step one, though, and he could do the rest himself. (The patient still owed him money, money he was sure he’d never see.)
A week after Dr. Lamb’s last appointment, Mrs. Lamb called. That was a year and a half ago. “You don’t look at all like what I expected,” was the first thing out of her mouth. And Dr. Kowal could have said the same.
She laughed, and said she’d received a full report on the office, too: cramped, with junk for furniture, and his presence in it “like a big spider.” And he said, she added, that your voice was the most irritating he’d ever heard: grating and singsong.
Mrs. Lamb was a beauty.
“Tell me why you’re here,” he said, because she fell silent after thanking him for the appointment. “You’re my husband’s doctor,” she said, “and you helped him. But you didn’t help me. I sent him in the hopes of keeping him.” Her eyes filled with tears. “He was hurting so much.”
Mrs. Lamb was willing to work, since compliance was, for her, a major defense, but even when the terms changed, and she became, almost overnight, the woman the surgeon had described—she even looked heavier and older—she came regularly, and paid on time. She was trying to discover what part of the marital unit that had been her total identity was still hers. “I never thought of myself as a doctor’s wife so much as a doctor’s mule. You know how horses need a mule around to steady them?” She paused, then said: “Stop blinking at me.”
“Was I blinking?”
“I don’t know. Your face doesn’t look normal today.”
“What does it look like?”
“I don’t think you like me. Most men like me too much, but that doesn’t last—as you know.”
He waited, looking at the now wan face, until his patient looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That was too personal.”
He waited. There was so much she had to say, and simple support or empathy was rebuffed. She explained that kindness was an insult, given what he now knew about her failure and inadequacy.
She’d absorbed the hate, and now it was pouring out, but she was just the storage unit.
That was the beginning, and the beginning went on for months. Much had changed. The surgeon was remarried, and had moved to California. “He can walk away, but for me,” she said, “he’s still a noose around my neck, or is it a monkey on my back?”
He was encouraging her to speak out, to claim her own hostile impulses. Her notion was that all the hating was Bruce’s. She’d absorbed the hate, and now it was pouring out, but she was just the storage unit. Whatever there was of her own was lost. “Don’t forget,” she liked to say, “how long we were together. I was just a child.”
That day, she came in dressed in a short, tight skirt and furry jacket he’d never seen before. “I think I’d like to lie on the couch today. Is that okay with you?”
“I guess it isn’t,” she said. “Well, I’d probably jump right up anyway. I hardly can stand to stay in bed, when I’m at home. I must have slept last night, though,” she said, “because when I woke up, I remembered my dream. I haven’t had a dream in years.”
“What did you dream about?”
“Does it matter? We’re not doing dreams here. I’ll tell you anyway. You were in it. We were getting married—as soon as I got off the roller coaster—but the car wouldn’t stop, and you just stood there with the ring in your hand. I think you were crying, or I was crying, because I woke up crying.”
After a pause, she said: “But that was typical. I always wake up crying. And I finally have something to cry about. You know what Bruce used to say? He’d say: ‘What do you have to cry about?’ I thought I knew what I was crying about until he said that, in that tone, and then I wouldn’t know. I wouldn’t even know what the hell I was crying about! That’s how he destroyed me, by taking things away, one by one. I wonder sometimes if you do that, too.”
“If I do what?”
“Take things away that I’ve said. Rob me of my reality. That’s why Bruce stopped coming. He, of all people, wasn’t going to take that chance.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Where would I be if I couldn’t come here and spew this out to you?”
Marie had described a circle of hell reserved for a special brand of sinner, doomed to eat her own flesh, which grew back the instant she’d torn off a chunk. These sinners were ravenous. Catholics considered this a description of the afterlife, but he saw it, for some, as the here and now.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I think so. Do you want to tell me again?”
“I’m thinking about killing myself. Why shouldn’t I? But I’m too much of a coward. And I’m not good with a gun, or even a knife. You have to have some skill. You can’t be a klutz.” She laughed at this.
“Do you find me funny?” she said.
Beatrice Lamb didn’t need forcing. She had filled a year’s worth of hours with a stream of talk: confessions, threats, laments, and rants. She answered her own questions, and asked questions for him. She was the most voluble patient he’d treated outside of the hospital. She’d be talking when the connecting door opened, and until it closed behind her. He’d tried to leave a thirty-minute border, and often had to take an aspirin and close his eyes. Once he’d marched down to the lot to lie down on the back seat of the Benz.
He could see that Dr. and Mrs. Lamb were made for each other. Borderline narcissists in a lifelong dance—until the injury of the end of his stellar performance as a resident dropped the tent onto their heads, a tent like a cobweb, sticky and maddening. He’d broken free, but probably still felt the stretching, tickling fibers. Who starts the weaving in such a match? Does anyone ever stop? There were those (like his Marie) who hadn’t the urge or knack for it, or perhaps, their interfering God did all the weaving, leaving them free to dangle or die.
“Why do you ask?” he said, but he’d waited too long. She’d lost the thread, but was remembering more about her dream. Was he interested? Or was that too old-school? “Why don’t you buy yourself a few prints?” she said. “Where’d you get this god-awful rug?” She was scratching the gray and yellow design with her heel.
Their sessions began like this, until the turn—a thought about the empty, four-bedroom house, or the clothes (the coats and suits he’d left in the closet) she hoarded, or her boyfriend (too old, immature, stupid, clingy, inert, a mama’s boy) she was stuck with in her unbearable pain, grief, and isolation. Beatrice Lamb could cry on impulse. Her face (at the turn) would bloom, swell, and transpire like a hothouse rose. But the tears dried as soon as they came.
Toward the end of the session, he talked about the dream, and this consideration felt like the touch of finger upon finger, a charge reversed, something given and received, without a superfluous word.
“It’s time,” he said, and Mrs. Lamb sailed through the doorway’s narrow port.
He watched her cross the street, sliding herself, in one liquid motion, into her tiny car.
Mr. Browning was late, and Dr. Kowal lingered at the window until he saw the black Lexus shoot into the spot left by Mrs. Lamb. The man leapt out and was nearly side-swept by a delivery truck. Two minutes later, Dr. Kowal opened his door to let the man breeze past and throw himself on the couch, covering his eyes with an arm.
He was in real estate and could sell, as he claimed, any house to anybody, but he had no life. His own house, complete with wife and four children, was as unreal to him as a stage set, but he was so real and oppressive to them that—when he was not holed up in the den with his TV—they scattered. Except for meals, he never saw them. His wife was a teacher, and they had a daily maid and cook. He felt most at home in his car, or hosting buyers in the echoing shells of new houses. He knew how to decorate the bare, white rooms, and also how to clear and point up the wrecks of old homes, left by the old, sick, and bereaved. In two decades, he’d moved his brood to six houses, the newest and biggest unit in a raw subdivision, and always made money on the deal.
In the minute it took Dr. Kowal to close his doors and sit down, the patient was asleep. Dr. Kowal rang the little bell hooked to his chair.
“I wasn’t asleep,” the man said, looking at his watch, easing the strap on a meaty wrist. “My oldest,” he started, after clearing his throat, “Valerie, wants to go to art school now—not to college. I told her no, but her mother said yes. I’m the one paying tuition, I said, but Val said she’d ask her grandmother for the dough. My wife insists it’s her life, her choice. “You might be a good mother,” I said, “but you stink as a parent.” And then they were all crying and picking sides, but I put my foot down, and it stays down.”
He paused. “I don’t know why every discussion has to end in a battle, but that’s the way she wants it, and the kids go along. I’m sick of it. This is not life. I have closer ties with total strangers. Fact is—they hate my guts, and always have. Once Mona went back to work, that was the end of my role and purpose with the bloodsuckers.
“I think I’m going to be sick. Hold on,” he said, jumping up, and bolting out the door.
A woman colleague had referred Cody Browning to the analyst, and the man said he was willing to try anything; he was willing to sacrifice himself in any way, but how that was going to affect his family, he didn’t know. So far, it had only made things worse, he said, because he was learning how to stand up for himself, to hold his own in that jungle.
Mr. Browning was the only child of a widowed mother who’d moved in with an old-maid sister after the husband, a lineman, was killed on the job. When the boy was nine, the mother remarried, and the new husband, who owned a body shop and lived over it, moved in with the sisters, but the marriage bombed in a year because the stepdad was a drinker and a gambler, and the aunt said either he goes, or you can all find someplace else to live. His mother was beside herself, and turned to God, spending her life at church, or at the rectory, answering phones for the priests. Eventually, the stepdad himself bailed, and good riddance, but by then, nothing was the same. The aunt took it out on them, and rued the day she’d offered to put a roof over their heads. Cody attached himself to a friend’s family, and then—when he left home after high school—never came back. It was like having no family at all. And think how he must have felt, he told Dr. Kowal, on meeting Mona’s family: they were like a TV show. Everyone got along, and out of four kids: a doctor, a lawyer, a social worker, and a teacher. He wormed himself in with Mona’s brother, and went to auctions with his sister-in-law.
It was only then, hearing the message, that Dr. Kowal recalled that today was his birthday. Was he fifty-four or fifty-three?
The patient was in the restroom for ten minutes. The phone rang until the message cut in. It was only then, hearing the message, that Dr. Kowal recalled that today was his birthday. Was he fifty-four or fifty-three? Funny that Marie hadn’t mentioned it; then he remembered that she hadn’t been up. She’d had a restless night and, toward morning, moved to the couch. One of the missionary brothers had called; he was coming back to the states for R&R and wanted to stay with them. Something was off, Marie said, because the order didn’t allow homestays: when stateside, the missionaries had to board with their own, but Father Neil had said what he needed was to come all the way home, and he didn’t want to disturb their old mother; plus, their mother didn’t have room.
“What does it mean?” he’d asked Marie, when she returned to the supper table.
“He didn’t say, but it can’t be good, can it?”
The priest would arrive in a week, and although Dr. Kowal had encouraged Marie to talk it out, she’d said nothing. Divine family reunions, rare enough, were never less than maddening. For all his twenty years of marriage, Dr. Kowal had not found a place in this family. Sometimes, the priests treated him like their dad, and sometimes, like a stranger. As soon as he and Marie arrived, Marie would press to leave. Yet by the time he needed to be back at the office, she couldn’t tear herself away. “Stay for a while,” he no longer said, because that made things worse. She went nowhere without him, but the only trips she really enjoyed were times together and alone, unencumbered by family, friends, colleagues, or even a common language. Marie preferred countries where neither of them had even the rudiments of the grammar: she liked to hear people talk, but preferred not to know what they were saying. It brought them closer together as a couple, she said.
The annual retreat of East Coast shrinks to the tip of Cape Cod for rest and re-matings was never part of the Kowals’ summer. They traveled in January, and went someplace different every year. Marie picked out the spot and laid their travel plans. They had never been to Israel or Ireland. She’d heard quite enough about the latter, and had lived her life in a “replica” of the old country. Dr. Kowal had taken the one high-school trip to Jerusalem, but that hadn’t made him any more Jewish than his socialist parents.
Now that Neil and Mike were settled in the mountains of Peru—and since Marie had a smattering of Spanish—that whole continent was off-limits, although the Kowals had been to the islands, and once to Brazil.
Dr. Kowal replayed his message, but just as he heard his wife’s voice, his patient was back. “I think I have food poisoning,” he said, “so I don’t want to lie down.”
When Mr. Browning had seated himself across from the doctor, he looked up. The two men were the same age, a few pounds overweight, in brownish tweed jackets. Mr. Browning spotted the run-down heels on the doctor’s wingtips. “I can see you don’t take good care of yourself,” he said.
“So, I come here twice a week,” he went on. “I see you. It’s like having a friend. I haven’t had a friend that wasn’t also Mona’s friend—or mostly Mona’s friend, or completely Mona’s friend—since I got out of school. But if I had one, it’d be someone like you, older, stable. I think of myself as stable, compared to guys I know in the business. I’ve only had one wife, for God’s sake! And a big Catholic family—although I’m the only one who cares about that. I sent the kids to parochial school, and I make sure they do their Easter duty. It’s the only time they see the inside of a church.” He paused. “It means something to me.
“You have to have something in life. It can’t all be about money.
“Say something! I need you to talk back to me today.”
“What would you like me to say?”
“I just want to hear a voice not my own. Hey! Guess what? I need to get out of here early today.” Smoothing back his hair, he stood, swaying a little, and he reached across the gap for the doctor’s hand, squeezing it. “Thanks a lot. I appreciate it. You know I do.”
Dr. Kowal replayed his message, and heard the message within the message. The priest brother had had a change of heart: he wasn’t coming home, after all. “False alarm,” he’d said. He was being sent to a facility. It wouldn’t be long—a few months. Above all, don’t tell Ma, or the other ones. “Your husband will understand.” Marie said she was going out for her walk: they could discuss this later.
“We’re all on your case list,” Marie liked to say. “We’re tied to you like a big, heavy barrel.”
Dr. Kowal did understand something about all the Divines. The particulars he didn’t always know—and no one in that family would dream of seeking treatment—although they expected him to intervene in emergencies. “We’re all on your case list,” Marie liked to say. “We’re tied to you like a big, heavy barrel.”
“What’s wrong with that?” he said.
He wondered if she knew what day it was, and whether he was turning fifty-three or fifty-four. He could do the subtraction, but didn’t. Turning fifty had posed no problem to a man who was born old. That’s what his mother always said, and she meant it as praise. Mature for his age, thoughtful, responsible, capable—those were her words. She leaned on him, especially after his dad’s heart attack. At age eleven, he had been the man of the family, although his father lived another year, bent on working himself to death, three weeks out of four on the road. Harvey Kowal was a labor lawyer, and had seen his workload double as union after union folded and as factory jobs went overseas. Harvey Kowal was the one to rely on, for as long as he could breathe. He’d died on a plane, returning from Cuba. The three Kowals met him at Newark International with the rescue squad and the hearse.
His sister, Sylvia, twelve years older, took over the law practice, supporting mother and brother, because Dad had left almost nothing, and didn’t believe in life insurance.
Dr. Kowal was fourteen when he started managing the family budget, using a checkbook with all their names, and signing his. They sold the house, a wreck and re-mortgaged, and moved into a two-bedroom apartment, with mother and daughter sharing the old double bed. He’d worked his way through school, helping out in the uncle’s mortuary. He was the one dispatched in the souped-up beach wagon to collect the stiffs. The uncle worked out of his home, in what had been the grandfather’s business. His only child had also married a Catholic, so there was no one to take over, and the Kowalewski Funeral Home was sold, when the uncle was too old to do everything himself. Dr. Kowal played chess with the old man, now a widower and living with his married daughter. What they had in common, the uncle liked to say, was the crucifixes, the dried palms—and the Sunday masses, to which his daughter took the grandson, who was training to be an altar boy, imagine! “Aren’t you glad you don’t have kids?” he said.
The Kowals wanted a family, and they’d tried, but even after Marie was treated for what was said to be the problem, there were no pregnancies. By then, Sylvia Kowal had taken up with a woman, whom she called a partner (although they lived in different cities), so the Kowal family—under its original and shortened name—would stop with him. And wasn’t that also true, he was thinking, for the Divine family?
The afternoon patients included a very sick boy, whose father delivered him to Dr. Kowal’s door, and waited outside. The family didn’t want to hospitalize Louis again. They’d tried every drug available for what was an untreatable melange of melancholia and obsession. Nothing was left but ECT, and the hope that age and growth might ease the flood of symptoms, aggravated by hormonal flux.
Wasn’t that what had happened in Marie’s case? There was a temporal window, when intervention meant most, and development was itself an anodyne. Dr. Kowal took the referral with that in mind.
Stumbling in, the boy always glared at the two armchairs, as he calculated. To stop the stream of numbers, even and odd, odd and even, he jerked his head back, and dropped down, his spindly legs and arms like trembling feelers. When he spoke, he kept his eyes closed, opening them to watch Dr. Kowal formulating a reply, then closed them again to repeat, and then, to dissect. He’d say: “What you really mean is this.” With that, the doctor’s soothing sentence would be twisted into something that cut and burned. “Now, try it again,” the boy would say, and Dr. Kowal would enunciate the boy’s sadistic recap. They’d go on like this, barb and rebarb, until Louis was satisfied. The rest of the hour was devoted to stories of early life, which must not be broken into. He’d date the story, first by year and season, then, by color, make, and model of that year’s car, for his father leased a new one every spring, after the winter auto show, which the whole family attended. It was the best time of year. And there was always a different car: T-bird, Cadillac de Ville, Barracuda, Regal, LeMans, Town Car, Firebird, Bonneville, GTO, Mustang, but American-made, and first issue. Mother sat behind Dad, and Andrea behind Louis. They liked to drive to no place in particular, stopping for lunch or dinner wherever they happened to land: the lower Cape, Foxboro, Newport, Jamestown, upper Connecticut, Western Coventry, rural Scituate. The “mystery” ride was a typical Sunday story, and the brightest number, tunneling into the darkest, for—no matter how long the drive home, or how hard the father worked to shorten Sunday night—at bedtime, Louis would drop into his finished basement and play his records full blast, to ward off Monday, and the forced return to whatever school it happened to be for disturbed, gifted, disabled, suicidal, and homicidal adolescent boys. No normal school would take him with his record of cutting, biting, bullying, and mutism. At eighteen, his schooldays were over, and he lived down in the finished basement, whose walls he’d covered with swastikas, then mandalas. He slept inside a tent and worked on chess problems, and he built model cars and classic planes, which he hung from the ceiling on fishing line. The floor was covered in towels and bathrugs. No one was allowed to clean, visit, or call down, but twice a week, when the dad brought the boy to Dr. Kowal (and took him out for lunch), the mother and maid slipped down there to open the windows and shake out the towels.
His father never lifted him out, or even touched him, but spent many an hour peering down from the heights into the well of the crib.
The boy never mentioned either woman, or the sister, who was away at college. He rarely mentioned anyone, even in his stories of babyhood. He was a lone pair of eyes and ears, and an especially sharp nose. He talked about days spent flat on his back in a white crib, inhaling his stinks, along with the baby oil and powder. He never cried, but kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling, where the crystal hanging from the window spelled out the colors of the spectrum. He was up night and day. When he was picked up, laid against the crib wall with his legs stuck out, he was given a bottle or rubber stopper for his mouth. Flat, he was secure, intact; upright, he was dizzy, nauseated, scared, and deafened by his helpers’ noise. He had two helpers—the maid and his mother. His father never lifted him out, or even touched him, but spent many an hour peering down from the heights into the well of the crib, where Baby Louis lay in wait.
He never smiled, and didn’t speak until he was three. He understood everything said to him, but he didn’t bother to convert the babble. With his sharp eyes, he read the faces, and paid attention to tone. He could mimic their speech when he talked, as strips of nonsense music. That should give you some idea, he told Dr. Kowal, of who I was.
He didn’t want his accounts turned into something the doctor could sell, so he snatched the notebook out of his hands, clutching it, until Dr. Kowal promised just to listen, with his hands visible. Louis sat on one of the chairs with the doctor right beside him, so both of them could look at the spackled wall. On that wall, the story the patient was telling was blocked out: where the crib was, which window collected morning sun, and the tree backlit by a streetlamp.
Sometimes Louis held the doctor’s hand. To signal that he needed extra support, he’d fling his hand, palm up, and bounce it on the chair’s arm. “What do you think I’m saying?” he announced, the first time. Dr. Kowal didn’t catch what it was, but he smiled at his patient. He’d learned that Louis liked a toothless smile. Teeth frightened him, but a bland curl of closed lips, with eyes open, was a prompt that evoked a corresponding flicker, where the boy’s face seemed to crack with the effort.
Continuing to bounce the hand produced two reactions. First, Dr. Kowal held down the boy’s arm by the wrist. Then, feeling the muscles like knots, he opened his own fleshy hand to clasp the boy’s fingers. A minute later, after a deep sigh, Louis was asleep, with his head cocked back, mouth open.
Dr. Kowal wanted this patient to try something new, a blend of low-dose tricyclic, with a new SSRI. He had phoned the father, and they’d discussed its introduction. Louis ate once a day—a hamburger, a black-and-white frosted cookie, and golden ginger ale in a glass bottle with a pry-off cap. Whatever he needed to take that day was tucked into the burger, after it was fried. Louis looked for it, dug it out with a fingernail, and swallowed it with the ginger ale. It was the crackerjack prize. He would accept one pill a day, so ingesting a compound would take some urging. Perhaps the capsules could be cracked and spilled into the ginger ale? No, Louis drank only from capped bottles that he opened himself.
He had taken to calling their back garden his yard, and he paced its borders for a half-hour twice a day, rain or shine, numbering his cycles and reverse-cycles. Once out of school, he no longer took the Sunday drive.
It was the only time his mother saw him. She stationed herself by the kitchen window. The maid watched from the second floor.
Dr. Kowal was looking out his own window, and he saw the latest Wolf car—a red Audi A3—take the spot left by Mr. Browning. It was the family’s first foreign car. Louis himself had picked it out from a magazine.
This month, the boy was turning nineteen. He had grown three inches in the two years of treatment, but was still a stick figure.
Was he any better? The dad thought so, but he was now taking care of Louis’s mother, who’d broken her hip on the cellar steps, when she’d tripped on a newly painted car, left there to dry. She’d thought to turn on the light, but the bulb had burned out. The boy had shown a flicker of concern, when father and son found her, lying on the steps next to the maid, who was applying ice. Why hadn’t she called for help? She was going to, but then they heard the car in the driveway. Louis slipped past the two bodies, and sat on the cellar floor. When his father asked him for help lifting the heavy woman, the boy came up from behind, digging his head into his mother’s back and holding her shoulders. The three of them hauled poor Mrs. Wolf to the car, but Louis refused to go to the hospital. The mother was now on a walker, and Louis was willing, when his father was at work and before the maid arrived, to get her out of bed and into the bathroom. Sometimes the father would find them at night, sitting together watching reruns. It was a lucky accident, and yes, the boy was better. How else to explain the change?
Dr. Kowal found Louis in the waiting room, sitting by himself.
“He dropped me off.”
“Good,” Dr. Kowal said.
In the office, Louis sat down on the couch, brushing its nap in circles, first fast, then slow. He tapped his heels and toes; then, once more together, dropping on his back, with his knees up.
“Are you telling me we’re beginning your analysis?” the doctor said, moving to his armchair.
Dr. Kowal waited.
“Here’s how I see it.” The boy stopped. “Am I talking too loud?”
“I can’t hear. Speak up!”
“I said no.”
“Today, I woke up early. I could tell, because it was still dark.” He stopped to stretch his neck left, right, and left again. “Someone was there. When my eyes got used to the dark, I saw them sitting at my desk. How long they’d been there, I don’t know. I couldn’t see a face. I got up and found the guy fast asleep, with his head on my desk. I could smell his hair. I didn’t want to scare him, but what the hell was he doing there?”
“Tell me what you’re thinking.”
“I’m wondering if it was you.”
Dr. Kowal waited.
“I know it wasn’t. I know who it was, but for a second, I thought you snuck down there during the night just to check me out.”
“Why?” the boy said. “How would I know? Something that couldn’t wait till today. Till you had me here in your clutches!”
“What would that be?”
“I guess it was some idea you had about my future.” The boy sighed. “If you think I have one.”
“Do you think you have one?”
“What do you think?”
“When you got up and you thought it was me sitting at your desk, what was the feeling?”
“I thought what I always think—coo coo!”
“What do you think about your future, Louis? Can we talk about that?”
“I don’t like it when you say my name.”
“What was the thought?”
“Ask me something else.”
The doctor waited.
“I didn’t even kick you out.”
“So, what happened?”
“I fell back to sleep and it was morning. I had to get up, and get fatso out of bed. I got us something to eat, too.”
“You mean your mother?”
Without answering, the boy got up to sit on his chair. “You stay where you are,” he said. “I’m okay by myself.”
For a minute, Louis sat; then, paced the room, sat down again, and soon the hour was up; but before Dr. Kowal could announce the time, the patient said, “Is it okay if I come back tomorrow?”
“You can come the day after tomorrow for your regular time. Do you want an extra hour this week?”
“Ask my father.” He paused. “No, I’ll ask him. I don’t think they have the dough for this, do you?”
Before Dr. Kowal could answer, the boy said, “I’d rather come here than have you sneaking into the basement. You know what I mean?” He laughed. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”
“I’ll see you Wednesday.”
“Call me by my name. I can take it.”
It was not his long day—that was Friday, when hospital rounds pushed his appointments into the evening—but he was tired. His last hour was reserved for his supervisees, a lawyer who’d gotten a doctorate in psychology, and was trying analytic training. But there was an hour before Abby Goff arrived in her yellow T-bird.
Stretching out on his couch, with a fresh tissue under his head, he tried to imagine what Louis Wolf saw as his future. The hoped-for relief from a simple advance in age had occurred, but it wasn’t much. Work was needed, if the boy was to get any further. He was smart, imaginative, with the ability to reason, when inner needs didn’t swamp him.
She collected incongruities, odd phrases and scenes, she explained, until she was ready to burst out laughing, and she did burst.
There was much to be said for the right friend or partner. And an outlet for the trapped energy. Marie Divine had found it in the hours of walking, and restless travel. He closed his eyes. One of his own favorite visions was the sight of her in her first street clothes. He remembered the thin wool pants, pink silky blouse, and gray sweater, with black patent-leather pumps. Her hair hadn’t grown out, but it was softer. In the habit, she looked wizened; in the johnnies and jackets, like a child. But this was different. She invited him home for a family dinner, and to meet the brothers. It was then that he first heard the laugh that could split your eardrums. They all had it, even the mother. It still rattled him, because it was rare. She collected incongruities, odd phrases and scenes, she explained, until she was ready to burst out laughing, and she did burst. There were professional terms for these, and she would know what they were, but they didn’t really apply. That in itself was a good sign.
The first time he proposed, when Marie was twenty, and living at home, she’d laughed in his face. Who would want to marry a nun and a basket case!
I don’t think of you that way, was, of course, what he’d said. Well, I do, was her reply.
When she told Mrs. Divine about it, the old lady advised her daughter to pray; then, she offered her help. We want to see you settled, was what Mrs. Divine had said, when Dr. Kowal was there, drinking a highball in their parlor.
“I am settled,” Marie said, then, laughing that shattering laugh: “I’m settled with you, and you’re saddled with me!”
When the mother said she wasn’t going to live forever, and what would “my girl” do all alone in a four-bedroom flat?
“That’s the least of my problems,” she’d said.
He waited a full year, after referring her to a colleague and then asked again at Christmastime, when the brothers were all home. He had a velvet box with a diamond solitaire of a bright, watery quality. It was a delicate ring, suited to the girl’s thin, spidery hand. The priest brothers exulted at the sudden news; one ran out that minute for a case of champagne, which they chilled, two or three bottles at a time, over that holiday weekend, toasting each time their sister showed up with bare hands.
“Put it on, Sissy,” they brayed. “Don’t be a little ninny.”
They sang sentimental songs, music-hall songs from the ’20s. There was a turkey dinner with friends—all priests—from the seminary days. Once the news was public, how could the girl back out? The doctor was in love—couldn’t she see that? was what the oldest one kept saying. Marie had reported it to him.
“Do you love me at all?” he’d said, a few weeks after their engagement. “You don’t have to answer that,” he always added, “if you don’t want to.”
“You haven’t given me a chance,” she said, and he was mortified. How small she could make him feel.
As a wife—even as a friend—she was not a strong presence. It was enough for those so ill to be present for themselves, was what he came to understand. And when exactly had he taken up her case again? Never officially, but his attention turned more and more to the resurgence of symptoms and signs.
“Do you still love me?” she started asking this past year. He was, by then, a training and supervising analyst, publishing cases and review articles, getting up before dawn to write. He wasn’t sure she meant it as a joke.
There was a sharp knock, and he rose, checking his watch. He greeted Dr. Goff, and sat behind his desk, but he couldn’t seem—try as he might—to keep his mind on the oral report of what Dr. Goff’s patient had said, in four days’ worth of sessions, and how Dr. Goff had replied.
His attention—instead of hovering and even—was sharp, and struck the spots in the dialogue where his student had gone off track, saying too much, or the wrong kind of thing.
After each sentence, Dr. Goff swallowed, and her voice rose a notch. Dr. Kowal rubbed his face to smooth it. But Dr. Goff saw everything that was there on his face, and stopped reading, mid-page.
“No,” he said. “Keep going. I was distracted.”
But the trainee, blushing to the hairline, had tears in her eyes. “I stink at this, don’t I?” she said. “Why don’t you just say so.”
“I wasn’t really listening, Abby. Go back to the beginning of day two—the Tuesday. Start over from there.”
Instead, she’d closed the folder on a half-year of bumbling, inconsistent work on a very sick old man. “If you wanted to destroy my confidence, you couldn’t have found a better way of doing it,” she said.
“I accept your criticism, and I apologize, but let’s make use of our time together. You mustn’t turn my lapses against yourself. You know that, Abby.”
“I know that,” she said, grimly.
“Let’s get back to it.”
“I don’t think I can do more today. Can I just sit here a minute, Doctor Kowal? I hate coming here, you know that. Everything I do with my patient is dumb, even when I know it’s the right thing. I feel programmed. And I sound like a robot. How can that help anybody?” She paused, glancing behind her. “And I hate coming here. You’ve got the world’s shittiest office. It’s gross. How can you ask sick people to come here, and get better, looking at these bare walls and this ghastly rug?”
Dr. Kowal sat back, closing his eyes. “I’m ready now to listen,” he said. “Keep going.”
“And I feel even worse now. Why did I say all that to you? You were looking at me—and you admitted it—like I was dirt, an idiot. I knew you didn’t like me, but do I deserve this?”
He opened his eyes, easing the muscles in the middle of his back. “Why are you so angry, Abby? What’s on your mind?”
“I’m not going to talk to you about that!” she said.
“We can talk about whatever you want to talk about,” he said.
“You’re giving me that disgusted look again. Please stop,” she said, opening the folder. “I’ll see if I can go on. I’ll try.”
After his supervisee had read her full week’s notes, and they’d connected the vague, halting exchange to the terra cognita of conflict and compromise, derivative urgings and suppressions, dream and wish, and the trainee’s aggression was channeled into energetic probing and theorizing, she felt strong, well, and sturdy enough to continue with her first analytic case. She’d overstayed her hour, though, insisting on finishing what she’d started. This was not good supervision, but he let it go.
At times, even expert analysts sought the advice of a peer, but Dr. Kowal had never solicited another analyst’s opinion, about patients or candidates, but this relationship was different. He tried to imagine what someone else would say. Dr. Goff had already dismissed three of the institute’s senior analysts for her own treatment. She was an illustration, if one were needed, of analysis “interminable,” having had decade-long, failed treatments, before deciding to become a psychologist, and then an analyst, herself. Why and how had she been accepted by his institute?
He knew why. Dr. Goff was the most intelligent and best-trained applicant they’d had in years. She was disciplined and eager, and his institute had its full share of neurotic (even borderline) individuals, smoothed out and shored up by the training. Some were capable enough, if they knew their blind spots, and picked their patients with care. Every profession had its misfits and mediocrities, but few attracted, as his did, the very people it was designed to help. And they tried—the institute leadership—not to be snobs, but ever to be strivers, aspirants, whose clay was shaped and re-shaped, but never set to hardness.
Tomorrow—it was too late today—he would call Ned Weaver, who’d assisted him in his course on contemporary theory. Dr. Weaver was the youngest of the institute trainers. He had the most diverse background: a doctorate in philosophy, the Peace Corps, a social work degree, and involvement in three East Coast institutes, each with a different view on etiology and method. He was already supervising three out of the four new candidates, by their choice. Perhaps, Dr. Weaver could help. It could be an opportunity—not an insult, or sign of failure.
Driving home, shortly thereafter, he thought he heard a quaver in Hildegard’s sustained note. Not a knock, more a burp or syncope. He pictured, as he always did on the silky homeward drive, the interlock, smoothed by oil, cooled by fans. This was a time when he could think about his own machinery, let it race for a moment.
Tucked into Hildegard, on her vigilant course, he cleared his mind completely, tuning the radio to his favorite signal.
There was nothing, of course, wrong with his car. It was old. He heard nothing now but its plaintive hum, a somewhat tuneless chant, as his own ego was replenished.
Jean McGarry is the author of eight books of fiction, story collections, and novels—the most recent of which is Ocean State. She is a professor and co-chair of The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.