issue 50: October - December 2005 

 | author bio

Adriane and the Court-Appointed Psychiatrist
Paul Mandelbaum


TRUE OR FALSE: I usually feel that life is worthwhile.

      In fact, Adriane felt life was only occasionally worthwhile, but that wasn’t the question before her, and even though the doctor said there were no right or wrong answers, clearly there was a right answer to this one. A normal person would respond: True, I usually do, yes, I most certainly do feel that life is worthwhile usually. Adriane wasn’t going to let herself be pigeonholed as "antilife." She didn’t need that on her record! Determined to put forward her most winning personality, she bore down on her number-two pencil and filled in the little circle: true. She was gonna ace this fucker.
      She sat at a small desk in a small room—probably a converted den—and she could hear Dr. B. P. Harris shambling around the office across the hallway. He didn’t seem to have any other patients. When she’d made the appointment, his schedule was wide open.

TRUE OR FALSE: I have never been in trouble with the law.

      Hmm, she wondered, how carefully did they cross-check these things? "Trouble with the law," after all, had landed her here in the first place. She’d found it merry enough at the time, three months ago, when she and her new friend Shelley managed to get themselves arrested for impersonating streetwalkers. What a lark! Still, when the judge offered to expunge her record on condition she see a shrink, Adriane consented, even though she hardly belonged here, and coming represented a small step backward in her recently hatched ambition to pursue a life of abandon.
      But hell, she only had to come three times—unless the doctor ordered more—the first session to be consumed by taking this test. She filled in the little circle: true, no troubles with the law, nothing you folks need worry your pretty little heads over.

TRUE OR FALSE:  When people do me a wrong, I feel I should pay them back if I can, just for the principle of the thing.

      Well, of course she felt that! Who didn’t? Still: false. Why did these Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory people presume they were entitled to the truth, her truth.
      "Abandoneers "—she coined the term right then and there—rejected that premise. Abandoneers revealed the truth—assuming there even existed such a mutually recognizable thing—when it suited them. Didn’t one of those German philosophers have something to say about this? Or was she thinking of Ayn Rand? Anyway, back to the test:
      Only 574 questions to go.


The following week, she returned to Dr. Harris’s north Baltimore brownstone and pressed the doorbell below his mailbox, one of three gray rectangles lined up like headstones. She waited until he buzzed her in, then climbed the two long flights of stairs to the top floor. He came to the door, wearing the same tweed suit and loosely knotted bow tie from the last time, and Adriane found herself wondering how such a frail old man made it up and down all those stairs. Maybe he never left home.
      He led her to the office and sat behind an oak desk, in an oak swivel chair—the kind that were very retro, owing perhaps to pre-millennium nostalgia, except she suspected his was original—and she sat across from him on a ratty orange sofa and tried not to stare at the shrubs of gray hair that sprouted from his nose and ears. She couldn’t stop staring at those saucer-plate ears. How closely they matched her erstwhile fantasy of God: Gentle Listener, she’d called Him and liked to imagine herself lying along the rim of this large, disembodied ear, the length of her cushioned by a pillow of silver hairs, and she would whisper her innermost thoughts as the ear hurtled through the cosmos. She’d concocted this fantasy—part of an urgent spiritual quest—shortly after her father’s death, but gave it up a few years ago during a crisis of faith. Deep down, she’d always known her "prayers" were a kind of playacting. Which was not to say God didn’t exist, but even if He did, He probably didn’t have time for individual sessions.
      Dr. Harris clutched her test scores in his liver-spotted hand. "Ms. Gelki, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory contains diagnostic scales to indicate when someone manipulates her answers to manufacture an impression."
      "Un-huh," said Adriane, crossing her legs, then immediately uncrossing them, lest her body language give her away. Maybe, from a strategic point of view, she should have owned up to a couple foibles.
      "Your answers, I’m afraid, have run afoul of these diagnostics. And so what could have been a valuable tool for us both—." Here he began to cough, a racking convulsion that shook his entire body, but he insisted on finishing his sentence: "—has—[cough]—been—[cough]—squandered."
      "Oh, dear." She sunk deeper into the couch. A flea sprang from the armrest onto her jeans. "Could there be some mistake? Some mix-up at the lab?"
      The doctor shook his head, then unwrapped a lozenge from the candy dish on his desk and put it in his mouth. He splayed his fingers across his narrow chest, closed his eyes, and tilted back in his chair as though about to take a nap.
      He remained that way for several long minutes before Adriane, seeking to fill the silence, asked: "Do you want me to re-take the test?"
      "No," he said, opening his eyes. "Why did you seek to undermine your personality portrait, Ms. Gelki, do you know?"
      She brushed another flea from her thigh. "I guess I wanted a more flattering portrait."
      "Granted, but why do you find the idea of an accurate portrait intolerable?"
      This had trick question written all over it, and Adriane proceeded with caution. "Intolerable," she said, "is a strong word."
      "So the prospect of wasting my time and flouting the court is merely a matter of whimsy to you?"
      She knew it had been a trick question! "Not whimsy, I’d—"
      He held up a palm to cut her off, then reached for a legal pad. "What’s the date?"
      "Today? It’s the thirteenth," she said.
      "Thursday, February Thirteenth, Nineteen and Nine Seven," he muttered as he wrote. "Let’s begin. Are you employed?"
      Adriane told him she worked at city hall, in the mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Enhancement, creating community-building events.
      "Such as?" he asked.
      "Oh…" She mentioned the soft-shell crab-eating fundraiser for the Dundalk Fire Department. The annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade along Charles Street. Last month’s Painted Screen Door Slam, which might have worked out okay if it'd been held inside, but the Convention Center space she’d reserved fell through due to a miscommunication, and the hastily arranged walking tour wasn’t as popular as she’d hoped. Also, most people had switched their screens for storm doors, it being the dead of winter. Adriane lowered her head. "Nothing all that important, I guess."
      "Why do you persist in a job you believe unimportant?"
      "Why does anybody?" she countered defensively. "Why do you?"
      "My job is to help people. If they’ll let me," he said. "Husband?"
      "Equivalent?" the doctor asked, peering over the top of his legal pad. Upon seeing her puzzled expression, he added: "Girlfriend?"
      "No, thank you."
      "And your parents?"
      Adriane blinked. "None that I know of."
      He raised an eyebrow. "Do you mean you were adopted or your parents are no longer alive or—." He leaned forward in his chair. "What exactly do you mean?"
      "Answer B. No longer alive." Adriane knew more was expected of her, and she took a deep breath, tried to decide whether she was willing or even up to this. She surveyed the office effects around her more closely: a black rotary telephone; a brass-plated banker’s lamp with a small chip in its green glass shade; a framed, yellowing diploma from the University of Maryland School of Medicine dated 1949. Adriane thought, GI Bill. Thought, This guy probably pines for the old electroshock days.
      "My father shot his face off," she allowed, leaving out the details: that he was a gambler who owed a lot of money; that at the time she thought mobsters killed him, because it seemed impossible he could desert her. That she was fourteen.
      "And your mother?" he asked, moving right along. "How did she die?"
      "Same," replied Adriane, surprised he didn’t pursue the father angle, which seemed to her a rich vein.
      "Speak plainly, Miss Gelki. I beseech you."
      "What part of same, don’t you understand?" asked Adriane. She flicked another bug from her leg. "Did you know this couch is crawling with fleas?"
      The doctor set aside his legal pad and pinched the bridge of his nose.
      "We have gotten off on the wrong foot, Miss Gelki," he said. "There’s a credibility gap between us. It’s up to you to repair it. I don’t have the energy."
      "Gap?" she asked. "It’s all true. Okay, so my mother took pills, but it was the same hotel room, though ten years later—"
      "Get your act together, miss!" Dr. Harris slammed his hands on the desktop and pitched forward in his chair, which made a startling squeal. "And come back next week ready to work!"
      Adriane checked her watch as a way of avoiding the doctor’s intense stare. They’d used only twenty of their fifty-minute session, so she’d gotten off easy in a way, and yet she worried about the gleeful emphasis he’d given the word work.
      He did not escort her to the front door, which was okay with Adriane. She passed through the fusty living room quickly, though not without taking notice of a gaudy tasseled lampshade and a chintz sofa coverlet; perhaps these were the trappings of a Mrs. Harris or maybe there was an "equivalent" in the old doctor’s life. Adriane might turn the question back on him next time, if he put her on the spot again.
      It was dark by the time she arrived home, and she took her dog for a brisk walk in the cold. Afterward, she gave him a smoked pig’s ear, his favorite treat, then poured herself a Manhattan from the pitcher she kept in her freezer.
      "What a day, Barry," she said. Together they sprawled on the couch and looked though the newly arrived issue of Martha Stewart Living. Adriane kept an eye out for good recipes and other usable tidbits of advice, which Martha was always full of. If only last month’s issue had included a piece on how to take the MMPI.
      The phone rang, and Adriane, inveterate screener, waited for her machine to pick up. It was her newfound partner in abandon. Except Shelley hadn’t made the mistake of asking an undercover cop for money, so the judge had dismissed the charges against her.
      "What up, ho?" she chirped in that sometimes charming, sometimes annoying British accent of hers.
      Adriane tossed her magazine on the piano, took a step toward the phone, but hesitated. She really wasn’t in the mood to divulge anymore today, so she continued to screen the call. Undeterred, Shelley waded into a detailed message describing her latest sexual exploit. You had to admire Shelley’s self-assurance, not just with men, but with answering machines; she had no problem chattering into the void.


After sliding into their old booth, her boss Garrett asked for a vodka martini, and Adriane ordered the same. Flexible about cocktails, she considered herself, like H. L. Mencken, "ombibulous."
      "You two haven’t been in here for a long, long time," said their waitress, Calida, a wispily tall émigré from Madrid.
      Actually, Adriane and her boss hadn’t come to happy hour in four years, not since their brief, ill-fated fling. She smiled wistfully as Calida walked off, then whispered to him, "I can’t believe she remembers us!" It felt strangely gratifying, in a sentimental way, and Adriane found her eyes grow moist.
      "Look, as I said, I don’t want to do anything to upset, well, anything," Garrett began, "but you’ve been seeming—out of sorts. I thought you might need to talk."
      She sighed. "That’s what my shrink says."
      "You’re in therapy?" he asked, boyishly wide-eyed. "Good for you!"
      She flinched from his enthusiasm. "I don’t really belong there."
      "Are you kidding?" he said. "After everything you’ve been through? I should probably look into a little therapy myself," he added, eyeing the tapas buffet.
      "Yeah, well, unfortunately my therapist thinks I’m a pathological liar."
      Garrett blinked. "Really?"
      "I even told him, you know, about my parents, and he wouldn’t believe me."
      Garrett was one of the very few people who did know about her parents. "He’s supposed to believe you, I’m pretty sure."
      "Well, I’d fudged a few answers on a standardized test." She sighed again, morosely. "He’s way too dependent on those test results."
      "Why don’t you find a better therapist? Shop around."
      "That’s not an option."
      She explained about the court order, which may not have been a wise detail to share with one’s boss, but her need to reveal herself to him was a habit Adriane had never managed to break. It always felt good, in a painful, scab-picking way.
      "You flashed a cop?" he asked, his normally lax facial muscles becoming taut with moral confusion. "Was that—really—necessary?"
      "It was fun," she insisted, clicking the salt and pepper shakers together. "It was the most alive I’ve felt since…" She glanced at him with a trace of longing.
      "You’re probably getting this therapy just in time," he decided.
      "Hey!" she snapped, stung by his remark. "Whose side are you on?"
      Calida silently delivered their drinks and disappeared again.
      "I’m on your side," he said. "Do you want me to go with you next time, to corroborate your story?"
      Adriane imagined showing up to psychotherapy with her boss, the former object of her illicit seduction, as a way to impress Dr. Harris that she was honorable. What an appalling thought! She began to laugh, so loudly that Garrett squinted with concern.
      "I really am on your side," he said.
      She finally got her laughter under control and nodded gratefully, because she knew in her heart it was true. She reached for her martini. "Bottoms up."
      The week passed quickly, and on Wednesday evening Adriane brooded over the next day’s appointment with Dr. Harris. She kept hearing her boss’s voice, offering to "corroborate" her story, and clenched her jaw. Abandoneers never asked for corroboration!
      She approached the tall bookcase in her living room and crouched before the bottom shelves where she kept back issues of magazines—Harper’s, Football Digest, an erotic journal called Nippleodeon. Reaching for the 1992 boxed set of Martha Stewart Living, she extracted the November issue: "Ten Stuffings Worth Our Thanks." When the magazine had first arrived, on a gray Saturday four-plus years ago, Adriane planned to make the recipe featuring apricots and cashews, but events of the day intervened. She now flipped through the issue and found, lodged in the magazine’s center, the document she would bring to therapy in order to prove herself.
      Barry ambled over and sniffed the yellowed piece of paper.
      Her mother’s suicide note.
      It would speak for itself.


After work the next day, Adriane stopped at home to walk and feed Barry, then dutifully drove to her session. She rang the doorbell to Dr. Harris’s apartment, and he buzzed her in. As he had the previous two weeks, he waited for her at the top of the stairs, wearing a different but equally frayed tweed jacket. His ears appeared to have grown even larger.
      "Are we ready to be more forthcoming?" he asked, leading her through the living room. Adriane took it as a rhetorical question and kept mum, distracted in any case by a framed sepia wedding portrait standing on an end table. From her distance, she couldn’t tell if the photo was of the doctor and his bride or possibly his father and mother or someone else altogether. And now, already in the office area, he motioned her toward the orange couch as he shuffled to his post behind the large oak desk. His swivel chair squeaked as he sat down.
      "About last week," she said. "I’ve brought documentation."
      He raised a shrubby eyebrow as Adriane reached into her purse for the note. She smoothed it across the lap of her jeans, then looked up at him. "Maybe this is too abrupt," she said. "How are you?"
      "How am I?" he asked. "I’m fine, thank you. Please, proceed."
      She stood and brought the note to him. "It has to do with my mother’s suicide."
      "I see," said Dr. Harris, taking the page from her. He cleared his throat, as though planning to read aloud, which in fact he began to do:

      To Adriane, Only Daughter of Mine:
      Today has been a near-perfect day.
      After you left for work, I awoke and ate a grapefruit. Then I practiced my Schubert—the B-flat sonata that always gave you so much trouble. Practiced with no earthly goal in mind, no impending recital, recording, or master class, simply practiced—sending notes into the air as though freeing birds from their cages. You always seemed to think of music, or at least practice, or perhaps following in my footsteps, as the cage—though I suppose all that is my fault, too.
      Well, anyhow, I played through the piece twice. Then, for old times’ sake, walked over to Louie’s and savored one of their mocha ice-cream rum drinks. I sat at the bar by myself, the conversations echoing around me. I’ve always liked Louie’s, but the acoustics, as you know, are not optimal.
      Someone had left behind a sports page, and I glanced at headlines recording one pointless conflict after another. With so much conflict in the world—real and often unavoidable—why should people contrive yet more and call it sports? Why should they waste their time, money, and feeling on the outcome? In your father’s case, I believe he had difficulty making distinctions between actual life and its simulacra. A terrible influence you were on each other’s adolescent natures. I always found your closeness untoward and, I might add, hurtful. I know I’ve intimated as much over the years, but saying it plainly, at last, seems more truthful, and it is only through the truth that one can be forgiven. You yourself seem not to need forgiveness, as was made clear on that otherwise lovely day at Pimlico, so I won’t burden you with mine. Perhaps you might someday grant me the favor of yours, but I am not, as it were, holding my breath.
      I am soon to rejoin my husband and will have put such niggling, peripheral concerns behind me. You’ll find the deed for the adjoining plot in my safe-deposit box. Everything’s paid for and taken care of, your father assured me, so there should be no problems. I would have picked a swanker hotel in which to wind things down, but this was the hotel your father chose, after all.
      Good luck, kiddo—you’ll need it!
      Your mother,
      Deirdre de Havilland Gelki

      P.S. Thank you, that was a pleasant afternoon at the track. We’ll always have Pimlico!

      P.P.S. Please keep the piano in tune, even if you rarely play it. You can trust Mr. Hemmerdinger on all maintenance issues. I believe you’re due for a complete re-felting.

Dr. Harris unwrapped a lozenge from the candy dish. Adriane watched him expectantly. He approached and handed her a blank sheet of paper and a pen.
      "Please write the following words quickly and without thinking." He returned to his desk, picked up her mother’s note, and dictated: "Today has been a near-perfect day."
      Adriane shook her head in amazement. Would he carbon-date the paper next? Resignedly, she copied down the sentence.
      Dr. Harris then collected her handwriting sample and compared it to the original. Studied them for a good minute. Eventually, he looked up. At some point tears had found their way into his eyes.
      "Monstrous," he seemed to murmur. "Simply monstrous." And then louder: "Why would you keep such a caustic document?"
      Adriane shrugged. Actually, hearing them read out loud, the words sounded less indicting than she’d remembered them.
      "It seems significant that you’ve held on to this." He continued to clutch the original note. Using his free hand, he now patted his brow and cheeks with the handkerchief from his breast pocket. "Please excuse me for having doubted you."
      Adriane felt her throat tighten at the sight of the doctor’s tears. It caught her by surprise, how badly she must have wanted him to believe her. "Okay," she said.
      "I’ve been doing this for so many years," he conceded, "and your test scores—"
      "Don’t worry about it."
      "How have you—survived this long without therapy?"
      Adriane blushed and lowered her eyes.
      "You should consider coming beyond our brief stint." He glanced again at her mother’s note, which trembled in his grasp. "I can reduce the fee, if need be."
      Adriane nodded tentatively. She was still getting used to being believed. She watched him hold her documentation—her Certificate of Damage—then turned her gaze toward the doctor’s own diploma hanging on the wall.
      "What do your initials stand for?" she asked, as though this were a relevant consideration in choosing a therapist.
      "Beryl. Phillip." The doctor smiled, almost dopily—the first smile she had seen on his face. His teeth were dingy and crooked; maybe that’s why he didn’t do it more often.
      "You have a nice smile," she said, trying to make him feel better about it, but maybe, she feared, the lie was too obvious. The last thing she wanted was to reopen their credibility gap. His face reddened, and he swiveled in his chair away from her, still clutching the suicide note, and seemed to gaze out the window, waiting for her to speak.
      So, it was going to be that kind of therapy. The Woody Allen kind. Adriane pushed off her shoes, raised her legs onto the couch, and closed her eyes. Still pleased to have won him over, she hoped to keep that good feeling going, and if it meant coughing up a few more truths, she could probably see her way clear to doing that.
      Scrunching deeper along the couch, she lay her ankles across the far armrest. She felt awkward about reclining, but this seemed the standard posture in movies, and she wanted—as long as she was striving for Dr. Harris’s approval—to get it right. Her hand came across a small rent in the couch’s nubby fabric and she could feel the cushioning within. Someone, possibly a mouse, had gouged out a small chunk of foam. She poked her finger inside.
      "I was a prude all through high school," she began. "I wouldn’t give my mother the satisfaction of criticizing me on that score. And I’m still barely experienced, if you want to know. I hear you people care about that kind of thing. But she does have a point—about me and my dad being maybe too close. Not physically—we’re not talking movie-of-the-week, but the feeling. I mean, he did love me more than he loved her."
      Which I liked, thought Adriane. And then, she considered: Perhaps the insight only counted if she said it out loud. Therapy seemed in this way like confession, or so she imagined. Self-awareness was not enough; you were supposed to own up to your problems and have them witnessed.
      "I liked it," she said, "that he loved me more than he loved her." She glanced over at the doctor to detect a response, any sort of response at all, and he seemed to offer a subtle, nonjudgmental nod.
      Maybe, Adriane thought, this won’t be so bad. She’d already found herself sharing more classified information than she’d ever shared with her boss, though not as much as she’d confided to her Gentle Listener. But there was something more satisfying, she decided now, about divulging herself to a physical person, a professional—even if doing so kind of put her abandoneering experiments on hold. Adriane settled deeper into the couch, pinched a bit of foam, and wondered how much Dr. H. would be willing to come down on his hourly rate.
      "I liked that my father loved me more than he loved her," she repeated. "So the more she resented me, the more it meant he had, right? Maybe that’s why I never moved out. You know, to keep that feeling alive." She wondered if the doctor appreciated such wry self-analysis. "I mean I really liked that feeling," she said once again for good measure. "From when I was ten, he and I would watch football on TV, and we had this whole Sunday ritual."
      She described the hours upon hours spent watching NFL football. Later, in the spring, her father would pick her up from school early and they’d go to the track. Also the many, many poker games; Adriane would just watch, but that was more than her mother was allowed.
      "That thing in her note, about thanking me for Pimlico? A few months before she died, she wanted to go to the track. She’d never been, and I really didn’t want to take her; it stood to ruin some very pleasant memories for me. But she insisted: Let’s go to Pimlico! Call in sick. Let’s go. This was the first time she’d suggested we do anything together in I don’t know how long. It was suspicious. I reminded her that people gambled at Pimlico—she was dead set against betting of any kind—but she shrugged it off this time and dressed up like it was Easter. She even put on a pair of white gloves. I mean this wasn’t even the Preakness. This was some weekday afternoon. We were in the grandstand surrounded by drunks and washouts. She didn’t seem to care. She kept asking things like, Is this where you and your father liked to watch?"
      Adriane remembered one of the races coming to a finish—that exhilarating burst of dust, leather, and sweat as the horses passed. They’re so beautiful, her mother said, and Adriane rejoined, jealously: Yes, they are.
      "Let’s bet on something," her mother suggested. "How do you decide which horse to bet on?"
      Adriane buried her face in the racing form and mulled over their options. Her father had always liked exactas and tried to pair a favorite with some medium long shot that grabbed his imagination. Adriane tried explaining some of the math to her mother but soon felt embarrassed, as though she were describing a sex act.
      She picked a front-runner, a four-year-old named Dandy Long Legs, and paired him with Homemade, who’d posted very fast practice times on turf. Ten minutes later, she’d turned her mother’s ten-dollar bet into a little over three hundred bucks.
      "She was stunned. She thought it was alchemy. A couple races later, I picked a second exacta, and then there was no shutting her up. Now I understand the whole appeal, she kept saying, in a way that sounded, you know, a little patronizing. But when she started referring to my handicapping as a "talent," that’s when I started to get pissed off and said we should leave. I mean, come on, I know what is and isn’t a talent.
      "In the car, she asked me why I thought my father lost so much money. Not in the harping, judgmental way she used to ask him. She just really wanted to know, which confused me no end, but I told her he was an addict, because that was the truth. She said she hoped I could avoid that in my own life, and I was trying to figure out how I should take that when she added something that seemed so over the top, so eff-ed up, I totally lost it, Doc. We’d just turned off the freeway, and she said she’d been giving the tension between us a lot of thought, and then she said, We all make mistakes, Adriane—she never called me by my name, and she said—I want to forgive you.
      "When you think about it, that’s kind of a strange way to put it, you know? Like there was a but coming. As in: But I can’t. Anyway, that’s not what I was angry about. And, believe me, I was spastic angry. I swear to you, Doc, I almost rear-ended the car in front of us. I told her I had no idea what she was talking about; there was nothing for her to forgive. I may have been screaming. Don’t you dare forgive me, and so on. She just stared straight ahead at the road, and we dropped the subject completely.
      "After that, for the next few months, we quarreled a lot less, and she made an effort to be pleasant, but in that way… Oh, in the way people can put themselves out when they know it only has to be temporary."
      Adriane looked down at her stomach and saw a small pile of foam crumbs, which she’d plucked from the couch’s wound. Except for the throaty moan of a hot water pipe, buried in the walls somewhere, the room remained quiet.
      "Doctor Harris?" she asked after a long pause. "I’ve always kind of wondered. Do you think that time we went to the track…do you think she was deciding right around then…you know…was that the day she decided?" Adriane glanced at him. "To settle her accounts or something? Put her affairs in order? What do you think, Doc?" He continued to face the window, still holding her mother’s note, but he seemed to have nodded off, his chin resting against his chest.
      I put him to sleep? She felt suddenly idiotic. Pouring my guts out?
      "Hey!" She clapped her hands. "Sigmund Freud! Nap on your own time."
      She strode toward him, leaned across his desk, and tried to draw the note from his grasp. But he wouldn’t let go, and the force of her pulling spun him in his swivel chair, and when he stopped in front of her he pitched forward, his head hitting the desktop with a solid knock.
      Adriane looked at the pale scalp glowing through his bald spot and felt the blood drain from her own face as well. His wrist felt cool and papery. She reached for the telephone, stuck her finger in the rotary dial. It took a moment for her body to remember how to use it. She called 911.
      "Nature of your emergency?" asked the tinny voice of a switchboard operator.
      "I don’t know," whispered Adriane. "Death?"
      She’d seen only one dead body: her mother’s, lying across a hotel bed, her suicide note—the very note that Dr. Harris now held—on the bedside table next to an array of empty miniatures. The investigating officer had asked Adriane to identify the body, its skin a waxy yellow, which the doctor’s here lacked, but maybe that was coming.
      Adriane could hear the scrabbling of computer keys over the phone. "Medics are on the way," said the operator. "I’m transferring you to a nurse; don’t hang up."
      A moment later a young-sounding man came on the line and asked Adriane to describe what happened.
      "Nothing happened!" she said suddenly defensive. "Dr. Harris just keeled over!"
      "Is he breathing?" The nurse asked, his voice nearly cracking with puberty. "Place your finger under his nose."
      Adriane did as she was told, wedging her finger in the narrow space between the doctor’s upper lip and his desk, but couldn’t distinguish any possible flow of breath from the tickle of his mustache. "I don’t know," she said. "He’s so frail." She withdrew her finger and noticed a smear of blood on it. Good God, she thought, my yammering killed him.
      "Do you know CPR, ma’am?"
      "Actually, no!" The phone felt slippery in her hand, and she felt irrationally afraid of dropping it. Ma’am? she thought.
      "Are you alone?"
      Adriane swallowed. "Yes."
      "That’s okay, ma’am. I’ll talk you through this situation. I want you to lay him down on his side. Are you strong enough to do that?"
      "Lay Dr. Harris on the floor?" Adriane put down the phone and pulled the slight man from his chair, spread him out under the window, and arranged him on his side as gently as possible. She could see now that he had suffered a nosebleed—when he’d hit his head? Blood had collected in his once gray mustache, rejuvenating it with color.
      "Now what?" she said into the phone.
      "Open his mouth and make sure his tongue or anything isn’t creating blockage."
      She got down on her knees, pried apart his chapped lips, then his discolored rows of teeth. She looked inside. His tongue, small and pale, lay curled asleep. She plucked a half-dissolved cough lozenge from the cave of his cheek.
      "Nothing’s blocking his throat, but I still can’t tell if he’s breathing!" she said, the phone tightly cradled under her chin.
      "Can you feel a neck pulse? Just like at aerobics class."
      Adriane had never taken an aerobics class. She began pressing her fingertips against the sides of his slack, cool neck, then hurriedly loosened his bow tie. Tried the neck again. "I can’t tell," she lamented. "I don’t know what I’m doing."
      "Are you okay with trying some mouth-to-mouth?" the nurse asked.
      "I have a choice?" she said, steeling herself.
      As instructed, she shifted the doctor onto his back, pinched his nose and pressed her mouth over his—the kiss of life, wasn’t that what they called it? But when Adriane heard the rattle of her breath in his windpipe, all she could think of was the whoosh of a crematory burner igniting. She would sometimes hear this sound in her dreams or even when closing her shower curtain. It haunted her at the most unexpected moments. Her mouth trembled around the word monstrous. "Monstrous," she croaked, barely above a whisper.
      She hovered over the doctor’s dry lips and tried pushing another breath down his throat. The phone medic was saying something tinny and distant from the floor, so she picked up the receiver. "When is the ambulance coming?" Adriane cried with anger and wiped the doctor’s blood from her cheek.
      "They’re almost there. Let’s try some chest compression," he said. "Put both hands over his sternum and press down, like almost two inches, rapidly."
      Adriane did as she was told, and immediately on the first thrust she heard a sickening crack that sounded like a snapped branch. "I think I broke a rib!"
      "That’s okay. Keep going. Then give him another two breaths."
      Adriane heard a second crack and then a third. The doctor’s chest became more and more sunken. Was she thrusting too hard? Angry at the doctor for abandoning her? If only she could ask him! A fourth crack. Before she could administer another set of breaths, however, she turned her head, reached for the waste paper basket, and threw up. Tears leaking out of her face, she wiped her sleeve across her mouth, pressed it against the doctor’s once more, and tried to stop crying long enough to transmit another pair of breaths.
      The entrance buzzer jolted her, and she sprang to her feet and ran to the front hallway, pressed a button to open the street door, and shouted: "All the way up!"
      She saw the heads of two young men bounding up the stairwell, and she waited for them in Dr. Harris’s living room, pointing mutely toward the back office. They raced past her, carrying a folded stretcher, equipment jangling from their vests like sleigh bells. They positioned the stretcher in the middle of the office and sprang open its legs. Adriane tried to keep out of their way, stumbled back against the orange couch.
      The taller of the two men dropped to the floor. "Shallow, but he’s breathing," he said and turned to Adriane. "You break these ribs?"
      "Yes," she said timidly. "They said it was okay."
      On the count of three, the two medics hoisted Dr. Harris onto the stretcher then strapped him on. Within seconds, they were carrying him out of the apartment. Adriane grabbed her coat, turned off the living room lights, and closed the front door. Then followed them down the stairs. Outside, it was cold and dark already. The doctor, she noticed, still clutched her mother’s note, and it disappeared with him into the ambulance.
      "Mercy Hospital," the driver told her, "if you want to follow."
      She watched the ambulance drive off, its lights flashing, and tried to remember now if the doctor ever mentioned anything about a Mrs. Harris. Adriane had meant to ask. She returned to the vestibule of the old building and regarded the gray rectangle mailbox, which read, inconclusively: Harris. Still, something should be left. Just in case. She rustled through her purse for a scrap of paper and a pen. Against the building’s brownstones, whose rough surface made her handwriting look like that of a child, she composed a note, then squeezed it into the crack of the mailbox door.


As she sat in the ER admittance lounge, Adriane watched a large pair of automated doors open with a whoosh whenever someone passed from the hospital’s periphery into its core. She resolved to enroll in a CPR class. Everyone, apparently, ought to know CPR. And maybe she should look into aerobics as well. In the waiting area, she had plenty of time to obsess over whether she could have done anything differently; would Dr. Harris be okay if only she’d noticed earlier? She began wondering when exactly in their session he’d lost consciousness and which parts of her story he had heard. What about Adriane’s football ritual with her father? Or that earlier part about how she’d taken such perverse pleasure in her mother’s resentment? Had Dr. Harris a professional opinion about those things? Her truth seemed afloat in some kind of uncomfortable limbo. Trapped, maybe, in the orange nap of his office couch. She hadn’t even gotten to the part about having her mother cremated! That cemetery deed—there had been problems with it, after all. Adriane sat mesmerized by the automated doors, waiting for what, and for how long, she did not know.
      There did, in fact, turn out to be a Mrs. Harris. Later that night, a balding woman wearing a sad amount of rouge, entered the ER waiting area with a whoosh and quickly managed to find Adriane.
      "You were his five o’clock?" the woman asked, consulting her watch. Despite her stooped posture, she maintained an almost regal bearing.
      Adriane needed a moment to recognize herself described in terms of an appointment. Mrs. Harris continued to look at her wristwatch and said she’d been visiting with her husband the past few hours. "He’s had a stroke," she explained.
      "Will he be okay?" Jittery from soda and vending machine candy, Adriane heard the smallness of her own voice.
      "Yes, he will," said his wife, with a familiar tinge of jealousy. "After some time."
      Instantly Adriane made the imaginative leap of placing herself back in his care. She dabbed a sleeve to her face and felt an embarrassing light-headedness and an overall expansiveness of body and spirit. The benefit of confession, she was starting to see, came from transferring part of one’s burden to another person. It didn’t matter whether the doctor, in their next session, would try to rationalize her behavior; she wasn’t angling for that. He could say, "Yes, what a monstrous thing you did, denying your mother’s last wishes" or "What a monstrous thing, sniping at your mother’s compliment; are you unable to recognize a simple kindness?" and that would be okay. Adriane had done those monstrous things and more. He could even say: "Yes, you are a monster, Adriane Gelki. We certainly have our work cut out for us." He would give her the tools. The support. They would work on it together, long and hard. She would seek his forgiveness, and he would find a way to grant it. This supplication, the self-flagellation involved, well, Adriane could just imagine what derisive points her friend Shelley might have to make about the process. But Shelley needn’t know; she and Dr. Harris were never likely to cross paths. The whole therapy procedure was cloaked in confidentiality, wasn’t it? Doctor-patient privilege. And it was indeed: A rare privilege had been conferred upon Adriane. Feeling dizzy with relief, she found herself reaching for the elderly woman’s shoulder, but Mrs. Harris flinched and withdrew.
      "You have a little dried blood in the corner of your mouth," she said and handed Adriane a tissue before adding, "I guess now he’ll take my advice and finally retire."
      "Oh," said Adriane, whiplashed anew. "That’s… He was so good though."
      "Thank you for notifying me." Mrs. Harris smiled tightly, then fished inside her purse and returned Adriane’s message and—paper clipped beneath, as though they were pieces of a related correspondence—her mother’s suicide note.
      The elderly woman then hurried off, with a final whoosh, and Adriane read over the words she’d left for whoever might find them:

Dear Mrs. Harris (or equivalent),

Your husband collapsed during our time together. He’s on his way to Mercy Hospital, where I am headed right now.
      I’m sorry.
      I’m so sorry.
      I’m sorrier than you’ll ever know.

Adriane Gelki, patient

© Paul Mandelbaum 2005

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author bio
Paul-Mandelbaum.jpg (3109 bytes)
photo: Elena Song

Paul Mandelbaum is the author of two novels-in-stories: Garrett in Wedlock (Berkley 2004) and the soon-to-be published Adriane on the Edge, from which "Adriane and the Court-Appointed Psychiatrist" is adapted. He also edited the anthology 12 Short Stories and Their Making (Persea 2005), featuring fiction by and his interviews with Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri, Tobias Wolff and others. He and his wife live in Culver City, California. Contact the author


issue 50: October - December 2005 


    Donald Hays: Why He Did It
    Beth Ann Bauman:
    Robert Lopez:
Shall We Run for Our Lives
    Paul Mandelbaum:
Adriane and the Court-Appointed Psychiatrist
    Laura Marney:
And the Winner Is

     picks from back issues
    Jesse Shepard:
First Day She’d Never See
    Cheryl Alu:
Whoever You Want Me To Be


    Scottish writer Laura Marney


    Harry Potter
    answers to last issue’s quiz, Marys in Literature

book reviews

    Blinding Light by Paul Theroux

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