Dan Gorelick’s earliest sense of luxury, of the mysterious ways of the rich—their deep, scented rooms, their leisurely weekday comforts—was somehow bound up with the cream-colored Art Deco apartment houses which, once upon a time, in his childhood, had marked the Grand Concourse. These buildings, with their exotic casement windows and their strange, sleek stripes of orange brick, were not far from Yankee Stadium, not far from Bronx County Courthouse, so of course Dan could see them now; in fact, they were still there. Only now, as he rode past them in the Medical Center shuttle bus with one of his new residents, on his way to do a consult at a neighborhood mental-health clinic, the sight of these houses—their white-gold brick-fronts scrawled with graffiti, their elegant canopies ripped and pitched sideways—made it hard, no, impossible to convey to the Russian girl sitting alongside him what all this had long ago seemed to represent.
Not that an explanation was actually called for. But because he was becoming self-conscious about his deep, glued-to-the-window reverie—it made for too long, too withholding a silence—he tapped his hand on the glass, saying, with a shrug and an abashed smile, “You know something, Svetlana? I grew up not far from here.” Though exactly what use she could be expected to make of this information was another question entirely. Because assuming she had little more to draw on than the evidence of the boarded-up stores and cannibalized cars just outside the bus windows, what else could she conclude but that he was some kind of tough-guy survivor of the slums, a lion of inner-city perils? And this was so ludicrous, so embarrassingly wide of the mark, that a certain fuzz of boredom hung over the leafy, sloping streets of his childhood in his dreams even now.
What was the worst crime incident he could recall from those days? Once, an unknown man had been discovered exposing himself to housewives as they hung up the family wash on rooftop clotheslines. Briefly then, hanging up the wash had turned into a job for husbands, and all the boys in the building, pulled as if by magnetic force from their stamp collections, comic books, and games, had gone running up to the dangerous roof with their fathers to cavort and cause havoc among the haphazardly clothes-pinned towels and ballooning underwear. The damp, bleach-smelling sheets and suggestive brassieres and pajama pants flapped in his mind’s eye beside all the primitive rooftop TV antennas, flapped, above the roof-odor of tar, through his once-young father’s dreaming fingers, as Dan now leaned toward the eager-looking immigrant doctor, saying, “It was different then, Svetlana. Everything, everything. . . .” He made a brusque gesture. “The whole ball of wax.”
And what in hell was that supposed to mean to a woman whose English was still so tentative? In fact, she did seem bewildered. Frowning, she turned to him with that expression she had of such immense sympathetic sweetness, charm—kheyn, his mother would surely have called it: it had the deep flavor of inner sweetness tested by suffering—and in her very hesitant, lilting, heavily-accented English, said, “But, mmnn, your education, Dr. Gorelick. Of course, not university, no, I understand. But, mmnn, before zen—zat was also not far from here?”
“Bronx Science, yesss!,” he almost whooped out, instinctively giving her a thumbs-up as he motioned toward the window. “As a matter of fact, we’ll practically pass it, I think—well, anyway the old building, I mean, the famous original one. Not the one I actually went to, the new one. In fact, that one is actually quite a ways up and a couple of blocks to your—” What was he doing rattling on about road directions like some addled old gas-station attendant? Why was she supposed to interest herself in the antique prestige calibrations of the legendary old Science building vis-à-vis the new one when God only knew what she might have had to endure—what slights, what fear, what indignities—as a Jew in Russia, every single day all through her school years? Probably it was the “Dr. Gorelick” business that was starting to make him just a little crazy.
He tried a charm-invested smile himself—the smile that sometimes came to him when a patient was being particularly resistant—and said, “Truly, my mother didn’t name me Doctor when I was born, Svetlana. So do me a favor, please, call me Dan. We’re colleagues.” Though he understood her objection perfectly—“Oh, no, no, no, I don’t have your, mmnn, degree,” she had reddened in their first supervisory session. By which she meant rank: that he was the professor, and she was only a resident. And this Mickey Mouse distinction, a pure product of happenstance, prevented her from calling him by his first name, despite the fact that she had already been a practicing physician in Russia. Ah, but not a psychiatrist. “In Russia, I did pediatrics,” she had told him with her kheynevdik, serious smile as they sat over cold coffee and stacked-up xeroxes of journal articles in his cluttered, dark, end-of-the-corridor office. “But always, really, I wanted to do psychiatry. Only, mmnn, you understand, not zere. So now, here, since I must repeat my training—now, well! I think finally I will be able.”
There was a drizzle pattering against the bus windows as he tackled her again, this time in a musing, therapeutic mode. “Look, I know it doesn’t feel so comfortable at this point, using my first name. It doesn’t somehow feel . . . exactly right, I understand. But suppose I just try and clarify something here. Really everyone does it. Residents, medical students, nurses, social workers—really everyone. . . . So I’d say, give it a whirl, Svetlana. Why not?”
“Dan.” Her nod was correct, obedient, and she reddened a little again in the muddy light as she bent down to rummage for something in her briefcase. He saw then that the darkish cloth case she carried was in fact the same dark-green, zippered, nylon bag with the shoulder strap that his daughter Rebecca had taken along with her only two weeks before, stuffed past zipping, to Florence for her junior year—the ill-starred bag of the last-minute-catastrophe-spilled-shampoo episode: almost certainly his fault, somehow, when he squeezed down on it with all his might to help her zip it closed. “Oh, God, Dad! How could you always screw everything up like that? I don’t believe it! Would you look at what I’ve got to deal with now, Mom? It’s just grotesque!”
Rebecca, up before six and already ragged from the countless fevered mini-dramas of departure, had burst into tears, shouting, only minutes before they’d had to leave for Kennedy. “Because of you now, for a whole year in Europe, wherever I go, I’ll have to be this totally obvious American girl with the stinking green bag!” Stinking? Stinking? “Beck! It’ll smell like your hair. . . . Your beautiful, beautiful hair!” he had croaked back to her, his whole body—all his systems—suddenly weak from the absolute unreversability of her going so far away for so long, emblematically weak in his powerlessness to protect her. It was true: Valerie was always much tougher than he was about letting Rebecca go, though as the indulged daughter of the indefatigable, always Doctor Eli Abelson—day or night, a man who never knew an upscale analytic hour he couldn’t fill—she was the one who’d had the easier life.
It was really starting to rain now, to come down in sheets against the tinted glass—plukhet had been his mother’s Slavic-sounding word for such a rain. The shuttle bus swung sharply westward down a steep hill and, at its bottom, rounded a half-familiar-looking little corner playground; this was where they had to get off. To reach the clinic, even now in the pouring rain, they would have to walk all the way across the playground—an oddity he remembered from the two or three consults he had come here on in the past.
Yet the place suddenly felt familiar to him in a much older sense: it seemed to him that he had seen it, known it once when this drowned, scruffy playground had looked somehow different. That he had seen it before, in another light—well, of course another light, since he would’ve been a child then, but also literally another light: in sunlight, blazing sunlight. A high black iron railing? A fence? A steep something you had to climb. . . . This playground was more or less within shopping range of his grandmother’s old neighborhood, so that would place it all the way back in his life, before he was even in first grade. Something you had to climb down from in a blazing sun and there was nothing to hold onto. A panicky, vertiginous throb brought back now, for a sickening instant, the fearful little boy he had been.
“This is us, Svetlana!” It made him lunge for his briefcase and umbrella. “This is us, and we don’t want to miss it. The last stop on this route is a Jewish old-age home—and you can take that any way you want, come to think of it.”
He had hustled her out into the rain, but she had no raincoat or umbrella; she stood a little ahead of him now on the narrow, broken-up walkway to the playground, the lapels of her thin, open jacket held together with her fingers, as if this skimpy piece of cloth could protect her in such a downpour. Or as if, more likely, by her life’s reckoning, no ordinary autumn rain like this could ever seem a threat.
“Zis consult you do now—how will it go?,” her lilt carried back through the wind. “Ze clinic staff will present a severe case, mmnn, zeir most severe case, and you will interview patient?”
To make plain that his umbrella was meant for her as well, he took her elbow, and very gingerly, brought her close to him, so that, with her side pressed into his, he was guiding her around the playground’s insidious, deep puddles, tracing, as they waded over the time-eliding municipal paving stones, the quicksilver fault lines of responsibility and desire. Sternly, he said, “You’re not just along for the ride, you understand. It’s your consult, too. You’re here to evaluate the patient and formulate a treatment plan.”
“But! You don’t yet ask zat I will interview patient! Zat will be ab-surde, I think. Because I know—well! everyone has advised—zat patient-interviews with you are quite famous. Since, mmnn, often quite deeffeecoolt patients who will refuse to speak to another doctor—even for many sessions—will speak to you, zough you examine in conference before so many people.”
So she’d already heard about him. “You get better at it with experience,” he said, but that was a patronizing answer. Because he had been good at it from the start, and was considered, since the death of ancient Leon Ettinger—with his courtly, insinuating ways and remnant Mitteleuropäisch accent—the most skillful clinical interviewer among the senior people in the department. Even so, it pleased him, too much probably, that a brand-new, foreign resident would be so aware of his reputation.
They had been squishing through wet leaves, slipping and sliding over refuse-twisted mounds, nearly hand in hand and a little out of breath, really almost like children, when she said, abruptly, choppily, “Please, can you tell me, Dr. Gorelick—what will be ze time when we return? Because I have at two-fiftyin psychopharm seminar with Dr. Einhorn. And he will be, well! Really not so plyeasant if you don’t keep exactly his schedule.”
Gorelick. She had done it again, and with that pronunciation, so that it was no longer his ordinary two-syllable last name but the name of the town, the shtetl, he had known about all his life. A shtetl burned utterly to the ground in a pogrom, destroyed completely, its clutch of brutalized survivors left to struggle, soot-covered and stunned, over the muddy, rutted Belarussian roads till they arrived in Minsk so frightful a sight that the lot of them, taken in by the larger-town Jews, were always just called Gorelick. Forever. Identified forever by their origin of pathos. Those embers on the skin adhered beneath the surface for generations, he knew it. But when they were invisible, how did you decipher them? And when they were invisible, what did they instruct?
They had reached the series of small, dilapidated clinic buildings and were standing under the peeling overhang, squeezed in beside a row of parked takeout-delivery bikes. Distractedly, Dan said, “Not to worry, Svetlana. Einhorn’s just a bully. Worse comes to worst, I’ll have a little talk with him.” But he owed her something more than that, didn’t he, since Barry Einhorn’s public humiliations of new women residents were notorious in the department. And she had come out of Russia: she had suffered enough. Now that she was delivered into his world, it was his obligation to protect her. But what if her history of hardships had so toughened her that she needed no protection? What if it was the soft life, the soft American life, his soft American life—marrying Valerie Abelson as a medical student, inheriting Eli Abelson’s vast Central Park West apartment—that induced vulnerability?
There was no one to meet them as they headed into the clinic’s dim waiting room, through the rank, rising odors of urine, disinfectant, and a stew of take-out foods; but not far down the corridor, a tall, gawky-looking woman stood peering out of an office doorway, one hand slid up in indolent greeting. She was eating pizza from a dripping wrapper, and, extending this toward them in a half-hearted suggestion of offer, she said in lifeless tones, “You guys from Rehab? I’m Madeline Derschlag, the Thursday conference-team leader.” Vaguely, she waved them past her into the narrow office, where a rackety lunchtime crowd traipsed buffet-style around the long conference table, a white styrofoam flotilla of Chinese food steaming above its surface. “We ordered too much again. Take,” the social worker shrugged. Then, with a cluck of irritation, she leaned forward to nudge the bulging case-file away from a teetering pizza carton, and a trailing piece of wrap stuck a tomatoey half-dollar oil-print on the front of her sweatshirt.
But this was already so wrong—and so badly, irredeemably wrong: the eating, the sweatshirt, the mistaken assumption about who they were, the gassy, public-institution stench of futility everywhere. He was the Russian girl’s guide here, and nothing, absolutely nothing, was as it should be.
“No, no, All-City Adolescent. Dan Gorelick, All-City Adolescent,” he fixed the slovenly social worker with a lingering, seductive smile and seized her unready hand. The woman did not even know who he was. “And this is my colleague, Dr. Starishefskaya.”
“Please! No! Svetlana, Svetlana!,” the Russian girl cried, her face lit up in a touching sunburst of sympathy. But the social worker was suddenly stung into panicky life. “Wait a second—All-City Adolescent? You came here from All-City Adolescent? You mean you’re not here for the paraplegic? The Haitian guy caught in the drive-by shooting? Oh my God! What are you telling me? I just spent the whole week xeroxing spinal-cord injury abstracts for everyone! Plus, there’s a Creole interpreter coming, and we’re paying her taxi from Brooklyn! . . . Oh my God! You’re not from Rehab! I don’t believe it!”
First, it was essential to pacify her. Then, just so that he could conduct a decent interview with the patient he had come to see, he would have to enlist her in persuading the lot of them to get rid of the banquet. And all this in a way that would not lay him open to the charge of arrogance. “A superb clinician and excellent clinical teacher, but unbelievably arrogant, even when you allow for the elevated narcissism levels standard in Jewish male psychiatrists.” This was the old, anonymous student evaluation which had so wounded him that no matter how many times Valerie talked him through it or around it, he could still feel its humiliating vibrations thrumming somewhere in his head. He had already begun to nod sympathetically when suddenly, from the Russian girl, there came, “But zis is not at all correct! Not a man with spinal-cord injury! A boy who comes out now from prison. And he is only seventyin years.”
They hadn’t even been offered seats yet—were in fact, still in their wet coats—and there, in the face of the clamoring lunch line and the social worker’s outraged stare, she was fishing out the yellow top sheet of the All-City Adolescent Evaluation Request packet, and proceeding to—what? She actually thought she could present a summary of the case? When she was from the consult team? And the summary had to come from the clinic people?
“Hector Nieves, seventyin age, male Hispanic, residing with mother and four smaller—mmnn, younger siblings. . . .” The entire presentation initiated ass-backward. In her risible, foreigner’s English. And people wolfing down moo-shu pancakes practically on top of her head. “He has passed three months in prison island Rikers with charge, mmnn, assaults to teacher. But he denies. In prison, he does several times suicide attyempt, and tells to prison psychiatrist, Dr. Garcia, he is very often hearing voices. Zey bring him zen in infyirmary, and treat with neuroleptics. But I must regret we don’t receive data for specifics of medications prescribed, or course of treatment. Now, post-release, he throws all medication in toilet, and does not return in school. Mother brings him here to Cross-Concourse Community Outreach because she tells he is hearing voices. But he denies. Cross-Concourse staff concludes ‘much is unclear in ze clinical picture,’ so you are writing request to All-City Adolescent, to us, to make evaluation. We come now to help,” she looked up, with her graced, saddish smile. “If we will be able. Of course, well! we hope.”
What was this—beginner’s luck? A near-hush had settled over the airless little conference room as people scrambled into chairs and the buffet line vanished. Overhead, an old fluorescent lighting strip had begun to flicker; from somewhere down the corridor came a baby’s wailing, and beneath it the muted, menacing seductions of a reggae song.
“Nieves. Right.” The social worker gave the door a punishing slam. Expressionless now, she reached for the phone. “They’ll have to bring him over from the residence.”
It was simply a fact, these days, when Dan went out on a consult, that people knew who he was. At least they had some idea. So that even if they’d never seen him interview a patient, they were aware, on the whole, that in the new standard textbook, the chapter on the treatment of adolescents with its distinctive urban-cum-community focus was his chapter. Which made this clinic, where nobody seemed to have heard a single thing about him—dafka, precisely, in his grandmother’s old neighborhood—a little like landing on Mars. And of all days for that to happen, dafka—the dark-edged Yiddish word was flying out at him again—dafka, it had to be today, when the Russian girl was there. But why did that, above all, bother him so much? Why was that the piece that really mattered?
This was not the time to dance around with it. Moving briskly now, Dan threw his raincoat on a chair and turned to the group at the table—whoever they were: the balding, saturnine man in the corner packing in the chicken and broccoli, most likely a psychologist; the out-of-town, freckled redhead primly twirling up her sesame noodles, maybe an occupational therapist. He turned and made a little eye contact here and there, and then he said, “Look, I know this is not the case you guys are prepared to present. And that isn’t fair. . . .” He was trying, above all, not to be heavy-footed. “But the fact is I wouldn’t have anything useful to say about spinal-cord injury. So, suppose I interview the patient my skills can address, and we learn what we can together.” The case folder was out of his briefcase now, but between the profusion of congealing food containers and the scatter of leaking soy-sauce envelopes, there was actually no place for him to put it down.
“I will not have people at this table—mental-health professionals—slurping in the patient’s face while I’m attempting to engage him in difficult material. I don’t work that way.” That’s how the words burst out of his mouth, dafka as they were bringing in the patient.
“C’mon in, Hector.” Christ, what a beginning. To come out with a lame, schmucky opener like that when in fact the boy was already standing there four-square in the doorway, his head cocked in brittle challenge, his slight body truculently planted. So that his initial observing gaze should not seem a taunt that the kid meet his eyes, Dan, taking a leaf from the late Leon Ettinger, pulled off his reading glasses and began to play, idly, with the earpieces. His smile had a purposely absent cast as he said, “I’m Dan Gorelick. I’m an adolescent psychiatrist. So I’m the guy who comes around to help out when the folks here feel someone your age is having a rough time.” And his nod even skirted indifference as he gestured toward the empty patient’s chair by his side: the last thing to do here—there was something in the swaggering, aggrieved hunch of the boy’s narrow shoulders that gave warning—would be to offer him the provoking touch of an extended hand.
Still the kid remained glued to the threshold. Finally, in a defiant but phlegm-thickened and just barely audible tone, his wary eyes dredging the floor tiles, the frail slash of his mustache slanting upward in a near-sneer, he muttered, “I din do nuthin. And they ain nuthin wrong wimme neither.”
To acknowledge the kid’s discomfort and maybe even provide him some beginning margin of ease, Dan angled his chair toward the doorway, gently saying, “So . . . why don’t I just do myself a favor and get the hell out of your face, is that it? Like, go find some other kid out there to bother—say in Brooklyn, Manhattan, wherever.”
But nothing in the boy’s sallow face altered: not a glimmer of a smile, not a flicker of curiosity; nothing. Mute, he just stood there in the doorway, locked in the confusions of his outfit—oversized dark, hooded sweatshirt, low-slung beltless pants, laceless hightops. That universal teenage uniform, which transformed the confiscated belts and laces of a jailhouse suicide-watch into fashion, had become the automatic choice of a kid who had actually served three months inside.
Finally, almost as if it were involuntary, the boy shrugged. And in that listless, single-shoulder shrug Dan saw a gesture of such hopelessness that he leaned toward him, too intently saying, “Look, Hector, you’ve had some heavy load of troubles lately, no doubt about it. That’s why I’m here to talk with you today—to see how we can help you turn things around.”
A cocky, derisive smirk prowled across the boy’s bony face, as from somewhere under the recesses of his sweatshirt he pulled out a takeout container of fried rice and, with the same seeming sleight-of-hand revealing a plastic spoon, slowly, tauntingly, began to eat. In this bravado posture, spooning the food into his mouth—at first taking prolonged, suggestive licks and then at each swallow erupting into grunting, mock gag-spasms—he mooched his way over to the empty chair. Slumping down, he pushed all the way back and scraped the chair around toward the doorway, so that only the most determined interviewer would be able to catch more than a hint of his profile.
“Lunchtime, huh?” Dan said, with a sigh. “Wha’cha got there?” Because they always had to dare you to like them, these troubled, in-trouble kids he traveled around the city to see, and it was a dare he always had to take up, a test he always had to pass—even when there was nobody special observing, no Russian girl with her measuring, apprentice eye. “So what’d you order, Hector?” he persisted, as if passing the time of day with a neighbor. “Anything you’d say I should try some time? Anything really good?”
Belching loudly, the boy stretched himself all the way out on the chair, apparently taking a breather, though his left leg had begun an impatient, pressured series of circling movements, and he had his eyes locked on a point above the door frame, as if an invisible clock up there might, at any moment, toll his release. Finally, grudgingly, his back to Dan, in a hoarse voice, he muttered, “Rice. I got rice. . . . With all that littue shit they oweez putting.”
“D’you like Chinese food, Hector? Is it something you look forward to—a thing you’re glad to get?”
The boy again eked out an oppressed, one-shoulder shrug. “I don mind.” But then, almost as if he’d forgotten his own rule, he made a slight shift of his head. “Chinese people littue, right? But they strong. Like Bruce Lee? . . . Shit. He could kick.”
Bingo! Martial arts—it came with the territory. “So Bruce Lee is a guy you admire. What’s your favorite martial art? Your best one, I mean?”
“Bruce Lee. . . .” His face contorted into a disgusted snicker, the boy suddenly shot all the way around, his eyes meeting Dan’s for the first time. “Bruce Lee dead, you din even know that? Shit! Even Brandon Lee? The son? He dead, too.”
“Let me get this straight, Hector. If somebody’s dead, that means you can’t admire them?”
“If somebody dead, they dead. Thass it.”
“That’s it? Really? That’s just it? Do you mean that if somebody’s dead, you wouldn’t ever miss them, you wouldn’t ever think about them?”
“They ain here no more, right? They ain doin nuthin.”
“Whew! You’re some tough customer. . . .”
Of course this was almost certainly bravado; still, it paved the way for him to bring in an essential element of the evaluation request: an assessment of suicidality. Carefully, musingly, Dan started, “Ever get a kind of funny feeling when somebody’s dead? Like, well, yeah, right, they’re dead. . . . Right, they’re not here any more. But y’know what? Maybe, could be, they’re really better off. Maybe, could be, they’re in a better place.”
The boy had spooned up another high mound of fried rice; leadenly, he sat studying it. “Maybe some people, . . .” he said finally. “But lotsa people, where they at, could be worser.”
“And what about you, Hector? You must have had some thoughts about that. Where did you think you were gonna end up when you tried to kill yourself—how many times was it? Three times? Four times?” Dan made a rapid scan of the file before him. “When you made all those suicide attempts at Rikers?”
A harsh laugh issued out of the boy’s mouth as, showily now, he dangled the overloaded spoon in the air, as if preparing to shoot it out at the assembled conference team. “Shit, not dead, man. I wasn never gonna be no dead sucker.”
Dead suckers. It hit him abruptly now—and how could he have missed it? Probably it was all the dead suckers of Dan’s own, not-so-dim, unresting mental cemetery—from his own flawed parents to the ravaged refugees of Gorelick to all the starved-out Minsk Jews herded into a Belarussian ravine in the very same year he sat banging a clumsy spoon in a highchair in the Bronx—probably it was these dead suckers whose unsparing eyes he felt somehow watching him, judging him now in the keenly attentive person of the young Russian doctor. And that was irrational. But really, really irrational.
“Rikers,” Dan gathered himself together to remark in an offhanded way. “From what I’ve heard, that’s a pretty scary place.”
The boy took in a mouthful of fried rice. “To you, maybe. I had my brothers.” With a swaggering gesture, he fingered the gang-color beads around his neck.
“Y’know something, Hector? You’re 100-percent right. To me, it would be scary. In fact, if I had to be in a place like that, I think I would feel so scared, so really down, I don’t know what I would do. . . . I would probably have some of the same feelings you talked about with Dr. Garcia.”
“Shit, that stupid faggot? He din care. That dude just oweez playin head games wichu. He din know nuthin.”
It came to Dan then. Making a casual gesture toward the Russian girl in the chair on his other side, he said, “Y’know, Dr. Starishefskaya over here comes from a country where lots and lots of people, innocent people, were in jail all the time. So she might be able to understand certain things about your experience that guys like Dr. Garcia—or me—would need a little more time to figure out.”
Of course she was not wearing makeup, and the lighting in the room was poor, still it seemed to Dan that her face had become ashen as she looked up hesitantly, almost fearfully, at him and then, in a determined, split-second switch, directly at the boy. Haltingly, with her melting, liquid cadences, out-of-rhythm stresses, and formal, sympathetic tones—in fact, sounding nearly as foreign as a Martian—she began, “When people are taken in prison, or, mmnn, in camps, and zey know, of course, zey have done no crime, zey will feel—well! Mmnn, many, many quite terrible fears and anxieties. Many, many very unhappy thoughts. . . .”
“So? Thass them, right? It ain me.” His left leg again started jerkily circling.
“Zey will have—I can say I believe every person, strong or sick, young or old, all, all will suffer periods of very deep depression, of very great despair. So perhaps, some time, you, too, Hector, have had such periods. . . .”
“Periods! Shit, what she think? I’m a girl? A faggot? I don get no periods, lady! Man, this dumb bitch don even know howta talk!”
Before Dan could do something, anything, to extract her, she was plunging right ahead. “I know you don’t like to talk to me now. Of course. . . .” She was soothing, coaxing him, her lilt a near-lullaby. “To talk to a doctor you don’t know, well! it’s very, very deefeecult. But, mmnn, so we can help you, Hector, so we give, for your future, all opteemum—”
“Shit, I don need no help, Miss! I just needa get outa here. I just needa go home.”
“But at home, Mother has many worries about you, I think. First, zat you don’t go any more in school, and zen, of course she must worry, when she knows her dyear young son will hear often voices.”
The boy blew out a brutal, hooting, car-horn laugh. “Shit, you don know”? He was talking only to Dan now. “My mother boyfriend? The old one? That fat Dominican scum that come back? He oweez hafta have a attitude wimme, that sucker. I swear, he on her back about me twenny-four seven. So, right, she afraid he gonna bounce? So she brung me over here, and she start alla her bullshit cryin and evvything. . . . And she just psychin alla these staffs,” he gave a scornful wave at the crowded conference table, “that I got this problem, and I got that problem. . . .” He shrugged. “It ain really gonna do nuthin for her to put me here. She know it. Fatshit gonna quit her again soon, anyway.”
So the kid had decided to open up to him a little. But how was this anything like the kind of deep, empathic connection that he had above all wished the Russian girl to see? It was past time to get tough. “So none of this stuff we’ve been hearing about you is true, is that what you’re telling me? Never get into any real bad, angry moods—when everything just sucks? Never have anything come into your mind about hurting yourself, killing yourself? C’mon, Hector!” Dan pushed him. “This whole deal sounds like some dude you never even heard of? None of it sounds like you?” And very quietly now, as if trying to slip in under the radar, “No voices, Hector? . . . You’re honestly telling me you never heard any voices?”
“Shit, how come you gotta say it like they was a thousanda them?” A strangely plaintive note had suddenly crept in—the sound of a young child’s offended protest. “Maybe one time I did. Thass one. One time. Maybe.”
Gently, with a casually-pitched intimate croon that could, he knew, even in a crowded conference interview, melt away all the superfluous others in a room, he asked, “What was the voice telling you, Hector?”
“I don know.” Scowling, dismissive, the boy turned away. “I don member shit like that.”
“But when you heard it, who’d you think it was?” Dan pressed. “Was it a man’s voice? A woman’s? Did it sound like anyone you know?”
“I don believe you, man, I swear! You think I posed to member one littue stupid voice I maybe heard a couple times in Rikers? When they oweez so much shit goin down over there? God!”
There was genuine flame, now, in the boy’s eyes as he turned back to Dan, seething, the wild, prickling flame of true engagement: finally, finally. “So how’d you get yourself into a place like that anyway?”
“I bin tellin you—I din do nuthin.”
He was only seventeen, after all—a child, a scant two years younger than his own daughter. “Suppose you just tell me what they say you did,” Dan cajoled. “The prosecution—the D.A.’s guys.”
“That girl, you mean? That littue skinny bitch D.A.?” With a defiant sneer, he spat out a long-range hissing wad, at last blandly shrugging, “Beat up . . . a teacher. . . . But I din do nuthin to that nigger. I wasn there.”
“Not there? C’mon, Hector! What’re you telling me?” Dan had leaned so far sideways that his jacket sleeve grazed the top of the kid’s sneaker. “The blues just plucked you out of thin air?”
Scowling, the boy made a point of moving his chair away. “I was there, okay? In the schoolyard? . . . But I wasn there. Next to the weights and shit. Where evveyone be beating on him.” He picked up the fried-rice container, and scraped out a hardened spoonful. “I was like, you know . . . just hanging.”
“But why were people beating on him, d’you think? What d’you think it was? A diss? An argument? What d’you think happened?”
Suddenly, an undisguised smirk taking over his face, the boy extended a crafty, gloating gaze all the way around the crowded table. “I think . . . that dude got hisself hurt.”
“How bad, would you say?”
“I don know. . . . Yo, you wanna know how come the fuckin five-o’s pulled me? Cause they seen me, shit. Cause, right, I din run away? Shit, I din have no reason to run away. I din do nuthin.”
“Do me a favor, then, Hector. Explain something to me. Why did you plead guilty?”
“My lawyer,” the boy shrugged. “Thass what the sucker tole me.”
“As a plea bargain, you mean? Because you couldn’t make bail?”
“Cause probbly the judge be tellin him, I don know.”
The conference hour was fast running out; it was probably Dan’s last real chance to reach the boy—to offer him, however briefly, an authentic human connection, not simply one more futile psychiatric wrangle. “So even though he was your lawyer, you didn’t feel he was really on your side. . . . Who was, then, Hector? Who was there to take up for you?” On purpose using the street expression, Dan was speaking softly, leaning forward—while taking care not to encroach on the kid’s implicitly staked-out turf, when suddenly the conference-room door jerked open, and a broad-faced, cocoa-skinned woman peered in. Bedecked in a lime-green turban and a bright flower-patterned rain slicker, she said, with a smile, in a distinct Franco-Caribbean lilt, “Par-don, I am late, I know. But the first taxi, he had a flat. Phtt! And we are stuck on the Belt, in the rain—so what can I do but wait and hope for another?”
“Oh! Mrs. Antoine! Of course!” The tall social worker sprang to the doorway, muttering, “My God, two taxis, yet! And now a third one to take her back to Brooklyn, and the whole thing out of my budget, and all of it completely down the drain.”
It was a total violation of the hallowed safe therapeutic space, and of the mood Dan had worked so hard to set up, yet the Creole interpreter, with her vivid colors and jaunty entrance, had wafted in, for a mere count of seconds, a startling, reminiscent fragrance of the city’s ordinary life. But that was not the universe Dan had chosen to work in. Already, he could sense the desultory crackle of tin-foil and styrofoam as the clinic staff began to clear away their lunch leavings: time to wind up. With luck, what he might still be able to wrest from this botch—above all, for the sake of the Russian girl—would be a brief, clarifying case discussion.
Once more, then, Dan addressed himself to the patient, but hurriedly now, and on automatic pilot. “I know it’s not easy for people to make that trip out to Rikers. Just about everyone gets pretty freaked about the searches. So, anyone come to see you when you were in jail, Hector? Mother?”
“Naah. . . .” The kid was sitting with his chair tipped all the way back, a diffuse, bored, owlish glare on his face. “She oweez busy with the littue kids and evveything. Plus she got that fat asshole Wilberto.”
“Father? Ever get to see him?”
His chair slid down with a thud, all the street-swagger drained out of his expression. Staring downward, he said, in a muffled voice, “My biological, you mean? I think I maybe seen him a few times when I was littue. . . . Like real littue? But I don know where he at now. California, Pennsylvania, someplace like that.”
This? Now? When there was no time now to explore it? No time? “How about your girlfriend? She stand by you? She turn up?”
“My ex? Lisa? You crazy? Shit, she oweez be playin me anyway. Fum before they put me over there.”
“Sounds like a whole lot of people’ve let you down lately,” Dan was now neatly speeding toward the finish, when out of nowhere, the boy brightened. “Yo, you wanna know who brung me something? Not over there—in Rikers. I mean she brung me it here. Like last week? . . . This girl? Jasmine? My organization sister? Well—she oney like around thirteen probbly. Anyway, her? Jasmine? She brung me a bear.”
“A teddy bear?”
“Yeah—no. Not ezackly. Cause, right, teddy bears be brown? And littue? With like they littue eyes? . . . My bear—shit! My bear big! I mean real big! Humongous! With like this big mouf.” Drawing out the word in wonder, the boy deftly mimed a huge snout. “And plus he white—alla him! His ears, his feet, his tail—his evveythings. I swear! The whole fuckin bear just white!”
“A polar bear,” Dan restrained a smile.
“Yeah. . . . A polo bear. Like—fum the zoo. Right? They got them.”
Bemused now, even though he knew there was no time, Dan said, “D’ja give him a name?”
“He awready got a name. Fum her. When she brung him. Cause she was like, ‘Yo, here go your bear. Here go your Snowy.’ ”
“Hector! She named him after you!” Dan nearly shouted. “Nieves—Snowy!” Though, of course, for all he knew the bear was stuffed with cocaine, and named for that.
“Yeah. . . . Yeah! . . .” A child’s inward, delighted, uncensored smile had begun to play on his bony face, as for the first time he let himself relax deeply into the chair, all his surly defensiveness for the moment eroded. And it was nearly heartrending, this rapt, astonished, little-boy smile, even if a glint of slyness still lay recessed in its corners—even if, altogether, you could never call it innocent. All of a sudden, then, the kid was out of his seat. “Yo, Ismael!,” he called to the burly, head-shaven attendant waiting in the doorway. “I could go upstairs and get him? My bear? To show the doctor? . . . Or hold up!,” he spun back around, grabbing onto Dan’s chair, his eyes shooting out a wild, pleading intensity. “You could come wimme, Doctor? You could come to my room and see my Snowy bear?”
This—this moment, the spark of human connection, that possibility always, no matter the limitations of the interview setting, or even the patient himself—this was what Dan was going for every time, what he believed in absolutely. In terms of treatment, admittedly, it was only the barest beginning. Yet it was a beginning—and it had just happened. He had just done it. This was what he had wished the Russian girl to see.
“There’s nothing I’d like better, Hector,” Dan spoke from the heart. “But unfortunately our time is just about up now. Maybe another time. . . .” And he gave him this sop, normally so much against the grain, only because the moment was so charged. Since how would there be another time? This was a one-shot consult, and the interview was essentially over.
“Anyone in the team like to contribute a question?” Dan had to go through the charade of searching all the way around the conference table. “No?” No, naturally not, in a place like this: with lunch packed away, what they most likely wanted was to get out of the conference as soon as possible.
“Mmnn, if it will be possible, Dr. Gorelick, yes, I would like to ask. . . .”
Of course. Who else? Dan tapped his watch, and signaled her with his eyebrows.
“But one question only,” the Russian girl turned her quick delicate smile from Dan to the boy. “I know you don’t like to go in school, Hector. . . . But, mmnn, put it on zis way—do you think, perhaps sometime, zere can be something you will wish to study?”
“Shit, yeah—I bin studyin. Oweez. Since I’m like, I don know—three years old! . . . Karate. Judo. Kung fu. Tae kwon do. I could do alluvem. I could fight anyone. Shit, you don know? I oweez be doin my exercises! I oweez be practicin my moves! God, lady! I swear! Can’t you tell nuthin? How you think I could look so dieseled anyway?”
With a violent, glowering swerve, he heaved himself away, but at the same time, and urgently, he was seeking Dan’s eyes. “My grandmother? She dead—thass sad, right? She useta have this picture? Like next to alla her God pictures? It was me, when I’m like three years old, and we having Christmas? Me, with this, like, real, real big dude? And we both doin karate, and we both wearin all the same shit? I mean evveything! The robe, the belt, the sandals—evveything ezackly the same!”
Every single minute now meant time taken away from whatever little still remained for the case discussion—but how could Dan not acknowledge a communication of this magnitude?
“Your first karate teacher,” he said, smiling, and maybe because it was impossible for him not to summon up that snapshot—he had, after all, seen so many: the faded, out-of-focus polaroid, the tawdry, half-furnished, tinsel-scattered holiday room, the flushed, leaping, gleaming-eyed toddler for whom things had not yet Gone Wrong—maybe it was the terrible clarity of this image that made him add now, so rashly, “Who was he?”
“I don know,” the boy shrugged. “Some big dude who be hangin withem then.”
Already, before it was even out of his mouth, he knew what a disaster he was setting in motion, but he couldn’t help himself. “Ever wonder if he was your father?”
“I din wonder nuthin, man! You don know nuthin about me, you don understand nuthin!” The boy, his dull truculence abruptly hard-wired into rage, lurched to his feet. With a lunge at Dan’s briefcase, he spat out, “You come over here with alla your stupid papers and shit, and you just think you so slick! Lookin at me all the time, axin me alla your bullshit questions, oweez acting so big. . . . But you don know nuthin about people like me. I mean nuthin. Fuck it, man, in a littue while, you getting into your badass BMW, and you going home to your nice littue house with trees and shit in, like, New Jersey! . . . And yo, yo, motherfucker! You posed to figger out shit about me? Don make me laugh, sucker! You don understand nuthin.”
It was not the first time Dan had faced such a scene. Quickly waving away the hulking, medallioned attendant who had instantly made a move to intercede, he sat, a solid minute, just meeting the boy’s eyes. Finally, in solemn tones, he said, “Well, you got that one right, didn’t you? . . . Maybe not everything about the house and the car . . . but the rest? Well. . . . I don’t ever claim my life is like yours. I don’t say I’ve had your difficulties.”
Awkwardly, his head down, the boy was already taking some faltering steps backward, as if half-wishing to sit down again, but fearful he might lose face or be seen to stumble.
“Though, I hope you believe me, Hector, everyone—and I mean everyone—myself included, has plenty of stuff they’ve had to go up against.”
“Whachu mean?” the kid, still half-standing, now leaned cockily astride the chair’s edge.
“I mean nobody gets away free. Life isn’t like that.”
“Whachu mean free?” Scowling, with a wary, but furtively intrigued squint, he slid back down into his seat.
So quickly had the sense of menace evaporated that there were already a few people—the chicken-and-broccoli psychologist, a ringleted, very thin young social worker—who were starting to get up and collect their things. But much too quickly for such a turnaround: this miracle was impossible—Dan knew it. And it dawned on him then, in that queasy moment, that Hector Nieves, first with his electric display of rage and again with his blink-of-an-eye mollification, was in fact desperately maneuvering to prolong the contact between them. By any means. A classic attempt at manipulation, granted. But wasn’t it also—you had to consider the wish, the underlying wish—a strategy of hope?
Leaning forward to answer, Dan was aware of a surge of liberated warmth. “Let me tell you an old Jewish saying, Hector. ‘Everybody lugs around his own pack of troubles.’ Everybody. . . . Only right now what you’ve got is a very heavy load. Much too heavy. For anyone.” Here and there around the table, people were getting up and slipping out the door, but Dan didn’t care. There was still one thing left he could do for this boy: explain honestly, face-to-face, his own diagnostic recommendation. Gently, he began, “Y’know how you told me just before that I don’t really understand you? Well, there are times it isn’t possible to understand a lot about a person when you only get to talk to them once. And after all,” he was trying hard now to catch the boy’s eye, “you’re a pretty complicated guy, I think you know it. . . . That’s why I’m recommending to the people here that you go into the hospital for a little while. So the doctors there can get to know you better, and help set you on the right track.”
Slowly, with a bobbing, sniggering nod, the boy stood up, and tossing a disgusted, ritual after-kick at his chair, loped off to the door. “Donchu even know?,” he looked back, a corner of his upper lip so derisorily curled that the jagged fuzz of his mustache was reduced to a paint-set smudge. “You can’t put me away noplace, Jewboy! Cause I oweez just gonna get out!”
“You don’t want to make it easy for me to help you, do you, Hector?” But there was hardly anyone left in the room by now; this time the interview was really over.
The shuttle bus going back downtown was already packed with nurses, mostly Filipina, coming off-duty, and it was a relief, in a way, to feel the wash of their completely alien, hard-consonant chatter. Except because it was the “small” bus—from a dilapidated, out-of-town fleet the medical center had picked up cheap somewhere—it had seats that faced backward, like the old Jerome-Woodlawn elevated trains of Dan’s youth. Now, as he sat opposite the Russian girl and they weaved along the hilly, puddled, once-familiar streets—in Dan’s memory filled everywhere with green: trees, shrubs, bushes, hedges, empty lots wild with rotted tree stumps and coarse, stalky grasses—even through windows that were stuck shut the smell of muddy, overgrown vegetation after heavy rain was so pungent, so palpable, it gave him the uncanny sensation of not merely facing backward in the bus but of watching his life, with all its screw-ups, scroll back in time. A phantom smell, like the pain of a phantom limb.
The Russian girl was not looking out the window but instead peered hesitantly at him. “I hope I may ask you, Dr. Gore/ick. . . . I know you recommend for zis boy admission to hospital. But ze multiple suicide attyempts he is making in prison—well! . . . Zese, I think he does because he knows zey will put in infyirmary, no? . . . So he will have, mmnn, a not so severe regime.”
A shiver of the Lubyanka, of icy, eternal prison-house Russia arose even from her casual professional observation, though what she might have experienced of that domain he didn’t know—nor did he feel he could ask. In fact, what he had wanted to ask her, he realized—and badly—was if she knew the story of Gorelick, of the burnt shtetl, of his name. But what was that asking, really? If the embers still showed on him? If she could see them?
Brusquely, he conceded, “Probably he thought it would be easier to avoid rape that way. And for all I know, he was right.” And so sententiously then—though all he had meant to do was explain—“in any case, my criteria for in-patient evaluation tend to be determined by broader clinical considerations.”
Where were they now, anyway? Somewhere in the East Bronx? The South Bronx? Highbridge, was this? Mott Haven? Morrisania? Not a place he knew at all. But it came over him anyway; it came over him as it did every time: the melancholy which crept down from the rooftops of ruined neighborhoods. Like a sooty, disintegrating tarpaulin, it spread over windows and fire escapes, sidewalks and storefronts, bus stops and fire hydrants—everywhere silting, relentlessly silting, till all he could see was a grit-shedding cover of mourning. And it wasn’t only the flownaway past that he mourned, but also the squandered now.
They were already crossing the Triborough—practically back in Manhattan—when the rain stopped entirely, and a few random slivers of sunlight in the window blinked his reflection. Only there, as he turned to take it in, was the blanched, bewildered image of his mild, failed father.
There was a sob wrenching through him, he knew that—in its raw, blood-sharpness, probably closer to a howl; he kept swallowing as hard as he could, but the thing was, he couldn’t actually swear it hadn’t come out of his mouth.