An Excerpt from Drive
Read an excerpt from Chapters 1, 2 and 4. You can purchase Drive online, and where all fine books are sold.
Chapters 1, 2 & 4
I’ll Cry If I Want To
IT’S AN ORDEAL listening to a grown man cry—a cry the Hai- tian aides working at the Morningside Nursing Home compare to the sound of screeching tires in the instant before a deadly crash. So as they led a wailing Willie Easelman through the hallways of Morningside, shadowed by his remorseful daughter, Anna, one of the Haitians rushed ahead, closing doors and warning residents loi- tering in the corridors to cover their ears. Fatigue usually overcomes these remonstrative newcomers as their screams dissolve into sobs and finally into private silences. But at eighty-six years old Willie still possessed remarkable lungs, and for the following month the hallways at the Morningside reverberated with Willie’s tormented screams. Cries of “Where’s my God-damn car?” or “Anna’s stealing my fucking Impala,” echoed day and night, bringing indignation to some residents and childish giggles to others.
But it was Willie’s pauses, pauses that hung in the air before worming their way under one’s skin, that most unsettled the resi- dents and staff of the Morningside.Willie stopped crying and the ensuing silence spread through the passageways of the Morning- side with flu-like alacrity. Often these silences were interrupted withWillie’s child-like queries:“Why am I here?”or“Where am I going?”Willie’s voice resounded with such innocence that even as far away as the kitchen the cooks hesitated in preparing casseroles and tilted their heads with warm-hearted woe. If a sympathetic aide rushed to Willie’s side, trying to explain to the confused old man that the Morningside was his home,Willie would shake his head vigorously and plead,“So this is it?”
Willie also created a buzz among the Haitian aides by the dev- ilish way he snuck up on them. Willie, being slight of build and a yarmulke shy of five feet tall, blended into the contours of the velvet curtains or the fake foliage of the dusty plants that crowded the lobby. When an unsuspecting aide passed by, a raspy voice hissed, “Gotcha!”To the Haitian aides,Willie’s disembodied voice carried the ring of voodoo, and Willie became known to them as the “in- visible one.” Many were convinced Willie’s body was inhabited by a mischievous but good-natured demon. But when Willie began call- ing the female aides “Anna,” his daughter’s name, and damming their wickedness with outbursts of “slut” or “whore,” the female Haitians began to gossip that Willie’s body had undoubtedly been taken over by a more sinister, possibly even evil, spirit.
Willie taunted the young aides, many of whom had been or- phaned by the earthquake that plundered their island. With eyes flaring, Willie pounded his thin chest and threatened, “I’m going to change my will, Anna!” or “I’ll leave you and your brothers zip!” One afternoon he leaped from behind the piano in the lobby, star- tling a young aide with,“I’ll haul your skinny ass into court,Anna.” The startled girl, whose ass was anything but skinny, was so trauma- tized that blood gushed from her nose.
Eventually Willie worked himself up enough rage to swing at one of the Haitian aides.Thankfully the good-natured woman, who was more than twice Willie’s size, grabbed his wrists and held them apart—a mother restraining her child. But as she walked away,Willie sent shivers through the huge woman, shouting, “I’ll see you drown in Hell!”WhenWillie saw the woman hesitate he added,“Drown in your own blood.” The aide fled, but later, at the dilapidated house the Haitians rented in Newark, she terrified her co-workers when she revealed that Willie’s eyes had turned “red as a rooster’s comb.”
As complaints from Morningside residents mounted over Wil- lie’s incessant crying, not to mention the growing anguish of the Haitian staff, the administrators decided to take action. They sum- moned Willie’s daughter, Anna, threatening to expel her father from their “well-mannered” facility, as if Willie was a truant schoolboy.
“Your father must learn to behave if he is to become part of the Morningside community,” one of the administrators scolded Anna.
“He’s quite the spoiled brat, you know,” piped in another.
Anna, who knew her father could be difficult, nodded as if she were on trial.
“Maybe your father would be happier in a different nursing home?”
“The kind that isn’t as kindly as the Morningside?”
Anna was near tears.
Solutions, however, are often acts of desperation, not to men-
tion the impressive pension and stock portfolioWillie brought to the table from thirty-five years of selling life insurance to the business- men of Manhattan.
“Maybe we should try giving him back his car?”Anna sheep- ishly suggested.
“His car?” the administrators bellowed in unison. “Why, that would be criminal!”
“His car, but not his keys,” Anna continued, noting that his car, or lack of car, prompted much of her father’s grief.
“Interesting,” one of the administrators mused.
“Kind of a token of our trust,” another offered, as the three retreated in private to discuss Anna’s proposal.
Anna looked around at the Morningside residents slouched in the worn armchairs that lined the perimeter of the lobby. She had visited her father infrequently since he was admitted, and during those rare visits she scurried through the lobby, avoiding eye con- tact with residents. But now their pale faces overwhelmed her. One lady, sitting alone, gazed longingly out a bay window, as if awaiting a special visitor.A man dressed in a suit and sporting a spiffy bow tie, seemed to be ogling her breasts.And someone was playing snippets of Broadway musicals on a piano tucked in the corner, her face eclipsed in shadows. Anna sensed the residents were eavesdropping; these old folks were cunning enough not to stare. But something in the manner in which they extended their necks towards her made her suspicious.
After a short discussion, the three administrators returned.With one eye on a solution and the other on the bottom line, the tallest administrator extended his hand to Anna and announced, “We have a deal.”
Later that day the administrators sent a Haitian to pick up Willie’s car from Anna’s yard. The administrators then took Wil- lie’s 1986 white Impala for a short spin around the town center of Mount Freedom, New Jersey, before parking it beneath his window. The three leaned against a maple tree and waited, lurking like kids scheming to snare a bird beneath a cardboard box.
From his room high on the third floor, Willie watched. As he blinked wide-eyed at his cherished Impala below, a whisker of a smile broke across his parched lips. He pressed his forehead against the window to better observe the three youngsters conspiring under the tree. He might be old but he could still smell the stink of a trap. The men were gabbing on their cell phones as if their empire would collapse without their continuous attention. He knew the type well, or at least their Manhattan counterparts who made these aspiring sharks appear like guppies.
“Term insurance, always term insurance,”Willie whispered, as if recalling the mantra from some past life. He remembered flog- ging term insurance by the bucketful to suckers like these. Or rather to their wives, whose eyes bulged when he mentioned the “mil- lion dollar” pay out. That number was magical. Oh how the word “millionaire” slid off their lipstick-caked lips with the promise of possibility. “A millionaire.” It ignited daydreams of Florida resorts and nights of jitterbugging with Latin entertainers.Willie caught his reflection in the window. He chuckled as he remembered dickering with the husbands who squawked at those hefty insurance payments. How he phoned their wives in the evenings and found a check wait- ing on his desk the next morning.
But fate was fickle for those wives. Cigarettes, martinis, and steaks heaped thick with butter can’t get you a free pass to paradise if your husband is alive and kickin’—after all, term insurance does have limits. Unknown to those women, the game was rigged. For it didn’t matter what toxins their husbands crammed down their gul- lets; a century that began with a life expectancy of fifty and ended with eighty meant his company could lob darts blindfolded and still make a killing. Capitalism, it is said, operates in the margins. But with the war over, prosperity booming, and a wonder drug called penicil- lin, life insurance was second only to plastics as the next sure thing.
Willie found it ironic that in the end he was left with nothing more than a 1986 Impala he was forbidden to drive and a yellowing stack of stocks he couldn’t cash.Yet if one of his boyhood Brooklyn buddies had prophesied on the grungy streets of Flatbush Avenue how one day he would achieve so much,Willie would have called him crazy. For Willie had exceeded the expectations of a skinny Jew- ish boy whose father barely spoke English. Once again Willie found his reflection in the window and grinned, amused that the endgame only becomes obvious at the end of the game.
Willie waited till he felt the gaze of all three administrators upon him. Leaning against the window he flashed them the OK sign. The administrators put down their cell phones and gawked, yet suspected the old man might still be hiding a few cards up his sleeve.WhenWillie shot them the OK signal again the administra- tors remained cautious.After struggling to open the window,Willie leaned out.The administrators, fearing their clever plan would turn catastrophic if Willie fell, held their breath.Willie teetered. Savoring the drama he contorted his arthritic body to lean out further. He reveled in their groans, concealing his snickering in the pit of his arm as he stretched even further.
But Willie had no intention of jumping, even though the spec- ter of him spread-eagled on the hood of his precious Impala did cause him to compose a line or two of his obituary.And so he threw two thumbs to the sky and slipped back into his room, but not before one final slip, which left the administrators gasping. Then, to the delight of the staff at the Morningside Nursing Home, the residents, and the three administrators trying to catch their breath, Willie winked at his reflection in the window and never cried again.
WILLIE EASELMAN DIDN’T end up at the Morningside Nursing Home overnight. His decline, as with most people his age, was grad- ual, beset with the usual bumps and potholes in the road. First came the simple absentmindedness, which everyone thought was cute, fol- lowed by frustrating senior moments searching for his car in parking lots, convinced someone had stolen it, until finally the dreaded word “Alzheimer’s” began to slither its way into Anna’s conversations with her oldest brother,Andy.
Willie, the tough World War II veteran, lived alone in the gar- den apartment in Mount Freedom, New Jersey he had moved to after his beloved wife died.When his “better half,” as he always re- ferred to Jeanie, passed away after more than fifty years together, he sold his house in Jersey and never looked back.Anna lived in the ad- jacent town and swung by a couple of times a week to check up on him, even after he started calling her “Anna the Horrible,” while she referred to him as “bonkers” to anyone willing to open a sympathet- ic ear to her sad story. He still drove his trusty ‘86 Impala, although he pledged to Anna to drive the car only to the supermarket or on Sundays to the Mount Freedom Diner, where he and the “breakfast boys” teased the young waitresses with veiled sexual asides.
Willie’s freedom ride, however, was about to come to a screech- ing stop. One Sunday morning, after a breakfast of Belgium waffles and pork sausages,Willie took a wrong turn down the only one-way street in town.The policeman who stopped him, the grandson of one of Willie’s breakfast buddies, was on the verge of letting Willie go with a warning until Willie boggled the registration exchange, handing the officer a crumpled restaurant receipt by mistake.When the officer once again asked Willie for his registration,Willie rambled about “taxes with- out representation” and “crooked politicians who line their pockets with pig grease.” Yet it wasn’t Willie’s ranting that convinced the young policeman to reach over and remove the keys from the ignition; it was Willie’s grin, for it was a smile wide with exaggeration but thin on cog- nition, similar to that of a toddler whose hand is caught in the cookie jar.
His buddies at the diner were convinced that Willie’s world collapsed that day as he sat on the curb waiting for his daughter to drive him home. Later,Anna returned with her husband to drive the Impala back to their house, where it ended up parked in the back yard next to the rusting swing set.That night the couple’s conversa- tion centered on her father’s deterioration.
Anna’s husband asked,“How can he stay in his apartment with- out a car?”
Anna scoffed,“He can if I babysit him every day.”
“Maybe he’ll agree to Meals on Wheels.”
“He’ll starve before he’ll eat that stuff.”
“We could stock his cabinets with cereal,” her husband proposed, trying to calm down his wife. “He loves cereal and it stays fresh for months.”
“And I’m supposed to be his milkmaid?”
Exasperated, Anna closed the door on their discussion with, “How can anyone in America live without a car?”
The harder Anna tried to find a solution, the more unsolvable the situation seemed. It began to consume her and soon even her simplest task felt impossible.
Anna didn’t want her father to move in with them. No, her house was small and, although her first child was away at college, she still had two teenagers at home. Furthermore, her dad had never been much of a grandfather; his crisp dollar bill on birthdays was about the only thing he ever gave her kids.Willie never attended a soccer match or a little league game, even when her oldest was the starting pitcher in the all-star game and Willie drove by in his Impa- la. It was no wonder that her boys and her father weren’t close, and Anna no longer corrected her boys when they giggled about how “Grandpa smelled funny.” More significantly, her husband was a pri- vate man and she knew that her dad’s presence would wedge them more apart than they already were.
Anna’s brother, Andy, who had always been her father’s fa- vorite, owned a huge house on the Maine coast and his children were grown and gone. But Andy repeatedly dodged Anna’s hints that Dad should move in with him. Anna knew that her brother’s wife wanted no part of the old man. Her sister-in-law believed that Willie was certifiable—continuously citing a visit a few years back when Dad became belligerent, convinced that Andy was plotting to steal his car.
“Over my dead body,” Dad growled, taunting Andy by dan- gling his car keys in his face. “Shoot me now and take me out of my misery.”
As for Anna’s other brother, well, he was as good as useless.
In the weeks following the officer taking his keys,Willie began to suspect his daughter had joined the conspiracy, suspicions that Anna be- lieved were morphing into paranoia.Willie barred Anna from his apart- ment, jeering at her behind locked doors with cries of “Lizzie Borden.” When Anna countered that it was the police who took his keys,Willie just sneered,“You’ve been fucking that cop since high school.”
Anna was on the verge of calling health authorities whenWillie relented and opened the door. Inside, Anna found unopened bags of Meals on Wheels scattered throughout his apartment and letters strewn across the kitchen table addressed to his congressman.The barely legible letters were incoherent, rambling about his “unalien- able rights” that were being stolen from him or how driving a car was a Second Amendment right.
Anna tried to reason.“But you’re going to starve if you don’t eat!”
Pounding his chest, her father shot back,“My only regret is that I only have one life to give for my country.”
“And what good is that if you’re dead?”
He shook his fist in his daughter’s face.“What good is any man who can’t drive?”
“But the officer did it for your safety.”
“That kid’s nothing but a God-damn messenger boy. It was YOU.You always wanted my car.”
Willie started to cry and, consumed with grief, reached for Anna’s arm. The touch of his hand flooded Anna with memories of her father’s gentleness while growing up. Her father always took her side when she fought with her mother; took her side even when he knew his wife’s anger would later turn on him.A slight tear now settled in Anna’s eye as she heard her father’s tirade begin to fragment, like the letters on the table, into incoherence, and a sadness overwhelmed her as she watched her father stagger to his worn armchair and collapse, too weak, too exhausted, too old to go on.
Anna called Willie’s doctor, who responded to each incident she detailed with a weary but detached, “Oh my!” Later that day a social worker met Anna at Willie’s front door with a nurse, two po- licemen, and the chain-smoking superintendent, who brandished a ring of keys, bragging about the apartments, as if he was the owner. The group barged into Willie’s apartment after the briefest knock, and while the social worker pulled a bewildered Willie aside and talked to him in a soft, patronizing tone, the two policemen shoved their way into Willie’s bedroom and stuffed two suitcases with his belongings. As Willie was being led off, he turned to Anna standing by the doorway.
“Rot in hell, you harlot,” he spat.
Anna averted her eyes. But when her father stumbled, kept from falling by the two policemen, Anna grabbed the railing with both hands and wept.
Seeing this, her father sneered, “Your mother always said you’d never amount to much.”
With a policeman on each arm, they lifted a muttering Willie Easelman into the cruiser and strapped him to the back seat.Yet, as
they started for the Morningside,Willie squirmed his way to the window. “You’ll get yours,” he threatened. When that failed to get a reaction from Anna, Willie pounded on the window. “You’ll get yours,” he fired,“like when that Meyer kid stuck it up your dress on prom night.”
FOR MONTHS AFTER her father was confined to the Morning- side,Anna would awake from a dreadful nightmare,believing her fa- ther was being tortured. Her father’s torturers were always different: a doctor, a boss, even her mother. Her dreams were so real that she would lie in bed, trying to piece reality back together, as if her mind was a puzzle.These nightmares were particularly vivid on the nights preceding her visits to her father, which Anna detested. Her father might see her as an uncaring bitch of a daughter, but from the start of his decline Anna was there for him—whether he knew it or not.
For years Anna had accompanied her father on his medical vis- its, trying to impress on his doctor her father’s declining condition. From time to time she even got his doctor to run a few cognitive tests, ones her father thought were childish.
“How can they ask me how many fingers Jack is holding up, when I don’t know who Jack is?”
Shocking to Anna, these tests always ended up inconclusive.
“Your father’s brain still functions,” the kindly physician would tell her.“But he’s no spring chicken.”
“But something’s wrong,” Anna cried, wringing her hands.
“Thebrainisstillamystery,”thedoctorsadlynoted,astheywatched Willie motoring around the waiting room driving a Big Wheel.
Anna concluded that her father’s deteriorating mental state was beyond the scope of his small-town doctor, so she persuaded the general practitioner to refer her father to a specialist.
After a two-month wait for an appointment, Anna arrived at the specialist’s office with her father, where she was presented with a fifteen-page questionnaire, asking everything from the age her father reached puberty to if he had been bullied as a child.While Willie sat amused by Oprah’s show featuring run-away teenage girls who fall prey to prostitution, Anna fell prey to questions which highlighted the fact that Anna knew little about her father’s life. She scarcely knew his mother’s maiden name, and for her grandmother’s birth- place she simply wrote “Russia.” History, it occurred to her as she struggled with the questions, is erased as fast as it appears—disap- pearing ink that leaves us strangers to ourselves.“A nation of gyp- sies,” she muttered, as she made a mental note to write down what she could recall about her parents’ lineage.
By the time the receptionist informed Anna that the doctor would see her, she was exhausted. The specialist was younger than she expected and yawned continually through his fifty-minute eval- uation. Although he scoured the questionnaire methodically with the tip of his pencil, and had Willie’s medical history from his prima- ry physician, the specialist never spoke directly to her father before declaring he had stage-three dementia.Annoyingly referring toWil- lie as “Dad,” the specialist droned about the slippery slope Dad was skidding down. In the specialist’s opinion, nothing could be done but pick a nursing home or,“if his finances were sound,”assisted liv- ing.If,on the offhand chance she was a“guiding angel,”who wanted Dad in her home, something he strongly recommended against, then she should start making arrangements now.
“Leave Dad to the professionals,” he said, closing the book on her father. “Dad’s a drowning man. He’ll take you down with him and you won’t get as much as a thank you.”
Anna wanted to argue, wanted to tell the specialist how much her dad meant to her. But with a glance at his watch, the specialist anticipated her hurt.
“As the offspring of the unfortunate, we yearn to give them the care they once gave us.When a baby cries, our instincts tell us to rush to their crib. But with the elderly it’s different; their cries wake us to our own mortality. It’s a cry few can listen to.” And with that wisp of wisdom, the specialist scribbled his name on a scrap of paper, handed it to Anna, and scurried from the room, apparently late for his next appointment.
On her way out of the office, Anna was stopped by a sym- pathetic receptionist, who offered her condolences, along with a handful of tissues, and a $650 bill, which Anna was expected to pay before leaving.
To Anna, who had endured the symptoms, diagnosis, and even- tual cure of a host of childhood illnesses contracted by her three children, this “nothing more to be done” prognosis was unacceptable.
“Give him something!” she pleaded to his doctor, who stood fidgeting with his stethoscope, before writing a scrip for a popular antidepressant.
During the months that followed, she pestered his doctor with names of drugs she read about in magazines or over the Internet, some of which he begrudgingly prescribed. She left messages with his receptionist about miracle cures that the FDA had yet to approve and herbs from the rainforests of the Amazon, all guaranteed to im- prove memory. She started sprinkling ginkgo leaves on his Cheerios and became friendly with the salespeople at the nutrition store, who never ran out of helpful suggestions. When each promising drug turned to disappointment, despite the impressive list of physicians who indorsed them, and nothing slowed the “slippery slope,” Anna became convinced that her father needed a psychiatrist, preferably a renowned one.After months of unreturned phone calls and warn- ings about “Medicare’s paltry reimbursement policy,” Willie’s over- worked primary doctor finally provided a referral.
The six-month wait for an appointment with the psychiatrist was excruciating. Her father’s condition worsened by the day and Anna began swallowing her father’s pills, which he adamantly re- fused to take, to alleviate her growing anxiety. No one understood her situation,how her father’s mindless giggling at an afternoon prize show caused her to snap at her children watching a reality show. She worried herself into more pills with fears about her father burning down his apartment house or plowing his Impala into a busload of school kids.Yet she survived the six-month ordeal, at the expense of her relationship with her husband, although as she applied make-up in her hallway mirror the morning of her appointment, mounting doubts of ever finding a cure caused her to down a pink pill she recently purchased over the Internet.
Anna found the renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Weimer, on the twelfth floor of an Upper Eastside Manhattan medical building, whose lobby was a replica of a Renaissance Italian villa, complete with a four-tiered marble fountain that apparently served as a wish- ing well. The psychiatrist’s waiting room was adorned with soft leather chairs and mirrored the Italianate theme of the lobby, an expansive set of Palladium windows providing an unobstructed view of the East River.Anna observed the meticulous detail that extended to the human anatomical DaVinci prints that lined the faux stone walls, although the eerie sense of being watched caused her to study the pale-blue reproduction of “David” for a hidden camera.
The receptionist offered Anna and her father coffee and a tray of pastries.Willie gobbled down the strawberry croissants with both hands, leaving a spot of jam on his shirt, which Anna tried to remove by licking her handkerchief and dabbing at the stain, something her mother used to torture her with.The questionnaire came bound in burgundy leather and was more comprehensive than the one Anna completed for the specialist. It took Anna two hours, during which time her father stood fascinated by a colorful display of salt-water fish swimming around a ceramic pirate ship.
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,” her father annoyingly sang to the fish over and over, forgetting the second line of the song that every schoolboy knows.
Anna didn’t know if she should laugh or cry as she watched her father’s face, distorted by the water of the fish tank, waving at the fish with the wonder of a four-year old.What if he regresses any further? But Anna got hold of herself before her fears started to freefall any further by taking deep breaths, although when she was unable to answer the first question, a spiraling sense of dread made her surrep- titiously slip her hand into her purse and swallow another pink pill.
When she finally completed the questionnaire, an assistant with an Ivy-League style of dress, entered and led them into a private room where he went over with Anna the minutia of her father’s life, while leaving Willie free to fidget with the strawberry jam stain on his shirt. It was clear from his synopsis of her father’s condition that the psychiatrist’s office had received accounts from both her father’s primary doctor and the specialist.When this ordeal was completed, the assistant took Willie by the hand, leaving Anna alone with a stack of magazines highlighting everything from Florida fly fishing to Milan’s spring fashions.
Sitting alone in the windowless room,Anna began losing track of time.The fashion magazines soon bored her as she struggled to keep her eyes open.Adrift in thought she began to believe that her father could be cured with one visit, one magical pill that only Dr. Weimer possessed. She saw her father emerging from his session as a young man, strong and protective. Anna’s dreams were so life-like that she didn’t hear the assistant enter, he awakened her with a gentle shake of her shoulder, led her down a twisting hallway and through a series of arched mahogany doorways with oversized brass doorknobs on the open doors.Anna was ushered into an expansive room where her father sat in an armchair alongside an impeccably dressed man that Anna took to be the famous psychiatrist, Dr. Weimer. A mas- sive, hand-carved desk, with a glistening marble top, took up a good portion of the room, although, with the exception of the burgundy folder she had filled out, the desk was empty.The assistant remained, standing in a corner taking notes.
The middle-age psychiatrist lifted himself with difficulty out of his leather armchair and strolled over to Anna. Extending his hand with a weak but welcoming shake he introduced himself, without so much as a nod in the direction of his assistant, who seemed to disappear into the Italianate wallpaper.
“Your father and I have had a most productive chat,” the psy- chiatrist began in a crisp Eastern European accent Anna found dif- ficult to understand.“He’s had a rather remarkable life, something I trust you, as his daughter, are well aware of.”Turning back to Willie, Dr.Weimer flashed him the OK signal, as if in their short time to- gether they had developed a private bond.Willie returned the signal, peering foolishly through the circle his finger and thumb made. “Your father’s condition is extraordinary,” Dr.Weimer began to Anna. “As Dr. Adams previously diagnosed, your father has stage- three dementia, although I suspect that in the months since that diagnosis your father’s condition has noticeably slipped. I see your father’s physician prescribed a scattering of pharmaceuticals and ho-
meopathic remedies, none of which apparently has worked.”
In the ensuing silence Anna nodded.
“Yes, the world never tires of miracle cures,” the doctor spoke
in the direction of his assistant.“Apparently it’s part of the human condition.”
The psychiatrist glanced over at Willie, who had scampered over to the bank of windows which filled an entire wall of the office. There he looked through an antique brass telescope aimed at the river below.Amused,Willie swung the telescope around and looked through the other end.
“Yes,” the doctor replied.“One end of the telescope makes you larger, and one end makes you small.” Satisfied that Willie was enter- taining himself, Dr.Weimer turned back to Anna.
“But let’s back up, shall we?You were recommended by your fa- ther’s physician, who observed deterioration in your father’s psyche.” “It’s pretty hard not to notice,” Anna shot back, nodding towards her father who was waving to people twelve stories below. Smiling admiringly at Willie, the doctor continued. “We here at the Memory Institute owe our origins to Dr. Fredrick Drinkin- heimer, a turn-of-the-century German psychiatrist who was a con- temporary of Dr. Alzheimer, and I might dare say, a man of infinite compassion.While Dr.Alzheimer waltzed into medical fame on the strength of a single patient’s diagnosis, Dr. Drinkinheimer was ex- iled to obscurity, usurped by the pharmaceutical companies whose profits came to dominate our field. Dr. Drinkinheimer’s approach to dementia was both novel and simple. He believed that human con- sciousness was essentially a story we have told ourselves about our- selves and that memory disorders could be cured, or at least modi- fied, by retelling the story the patient has regrettably forgotten. He was a pioneer in reconstructive memory, a giant of a man who un- fortunately died before many of his theories could be substantiated.”
Anna wrung her hands in her lap.“But certainly there’s a med- ical component to my father’s condition.”
“Undoubtedly,” Dr. Weimer replied. “But Dr. D, as we at the institute fondly refer to him, wasn’t concerned with the physical side. He believed that although the patient’s story, his consciousness, had been ravaged by illness or by age, substituting a new story could create a new self every bit as real as the forgotten one.”
Anna rubbed her forehead.“A fictional self?”
The psychiatrist hesitated, having caught his reflection in the huge mirror propped against the wall.“If one can make that distinc- tion, yes, fictional.”
“But why not recreate a patient’s real but forgotten past?” Anna asked.
Fidgeting with his tie, the psychiatrist chuckled.“Excellent ques- tion, my dear. Dr. D wasted an exorbitant part of his career attempting just that. His office was cluttered with photo albums and memoranda of his patients, but unfortunately this path always led to dead ends. Apparently humans are hard-wired to take a road but once.”
“Hence, the road not taken,” his assistant dryly interjected from his corner.
“But would my father be the same person? I mean if my father was to be given a new … story, wouldn’t it be like creating a new person?”
The psychiatrist laughed to himself “Who am I? Ah, that’s the great enigma—a riddle that even the great Odysseus couldn’t answer.”
“Well, I know who I am,” Anna replied defiantly.
Still struggling to get his tie perfect, the psychiatrist glanced at Anna, with a patronizing smile. “You must understand, Ms. Tanner, that we’re dealing with a most difficult situation.We are not creating a new story, so much as altering a forgotten one. But if it becomes a choice between a buccaneer,” and here Dr. Weimer nodded at Wil- lie who was waving a plastic pirate’s sword,“and someone spouting Shakespeare, which character would you prefer to call ‘Dad’? What might be fiction to you becomes fact to your father.”
“You can do this?”Anna hesitantly asked.
Apparently pleased with the knot of his tie, the psychiatrist turned from the mirror.“We’ve had our successes.”
“So you can do this with my father?”
Anna’s question seemed to trouble Dr.Weimer. He shuffled over and pointed out something to Willie on the river below, who after a crisp,“Aye, aye, Captain,” rotated the telescope in that direction.
“What makes your father’s case so unique is that he appears to lack any notion of time. His memory, on the other hand, is spectac- ularly intact, with one caveat: he has no idea when that memory oc- curred.Thus a trip to the grocery store that he took as a young boy becomes confused with a trip he took to the supermarket yesterday.”
“But on his good days my father’s aware of his surroundings. In fact, he is often quite normal.”
“That’s because on your father’s good days he is experiencing the present and not the past.Thus he is often capable of conversing with his buddies or driving a car, although I would emphatically dis- courage driving.Your father’s problem, if we define it as a problem, arises when he is experiencing the past.We so-called normal people utilize the past, make projections base on it, but we keep it phenom- enologically isolated from the present. But your father, having lost that separation, apparently can process the past in a unique way.”
“But don’t dementia patients do that—live in the past?” asked Anna.
The psychiatrist turned back to the mirror, as if searching for an answer in the depth of the looking glass.
“Yes, dementia patients do remember the past, often with re- markable detail. But their past is frozen; it’s a world that’s accessible, but unalterable. Mother is always mother; the family dog always ends up getting hit by a car. Childhood memories, either horrors or har- monies, remain locked in a state of perpetual stasis.”
“And my father?”
“Your father apparently has the ability to alter his past by reliv- ing it in the present.”
“Possibly creating a new story in the process, ergo a new self,” butted in the assistant.
The psychiatrist’s gaze remained fixed on the mirror. “To be perfectly honest, Ms.Tanner, we’re not completely certain what your father’s psyche is capable of creating.”
Anna rubbed her temples, while trying to present the impres- sion that she understood.
“Maybe my assistant can clarify.”
“We all see the outside world from within,” the assistant began after the briefest of coughs.“What you call the ‘I,’ or what we at the institute refer to as the ‘I Am,’ is, in fact, nothing more than the story you tell yourself about yourself.”
“I am therefore I am,”Dr.Weimer chanted into the mirror with a snide snicker.
The assistant continued,“It’s this story which makes us human. And, like a story, it is imperative for one’s narrative to have a timeline. One doesn’t go from diapers to college and then back to grammar school.Time, in the usual sense, is an arrow moving in one direction, which gives effect to cause.Without time, events would appear to be random, much like how demons and gods spontaneously material- ized in the cortex of pre-consciousness man.”
“Are you talking hallucinations? My father doesn’t hallucinate.”
“Not yet,” cautioned the psychiatrist, “but in time, or rather without time, I suspect he will.”
Anna collapsed into her chair, tugging at a loose stitch in her blouse.“You mean my father doesn’t know the difference between a memory and something happening now?”
“Precisely.You sitting here in your chair and a childhood mem- ory of you in a high-chair blend and blur to him.”
Anna slumped deeper into her chair.
“What’s more, my examination reveals that your father can’t de- termine his own age.That is, when your father awakes in the morn- ing he could see himself as an eighty-six-year-old man in the mirror, but then again he might be looking at a six-year-old boy. On the bright side, your father probably will remember you, unlike those unfortunate souls afflicted with Alzheimer’s.”
Struggling to see any bright side, Anna said, “But you can fix him, right? Give him a new story?”
Lost in the mirror,Dr.Weimer flicked a spec of dust off his shoul- der.“You must understand, Ms.Tanner, that even our most promising patients have a low cure rate. Our modus operandi is in its infancy.”
“But my father?”
The doctor glanced at his assistant, a look that Anna took as not too promising.
“As my assistant explained, time is essential to our story, to con- sciousness. Dr. D believed that the processing of time was the evolu- tionary leap that gave rise to modern consciousness.”
“But if my father is not processing time?” Anna asked, afraid of the answer.
Dr.Weimer turned from the mirror and answered Anna firmly. “Then from our perspective we would be just wasting our time. Pardon the pun.”
In the silence that swallowed up the room,Willie pointed to a ship moving up the East River.“Are we going to take that ship to America?” he asked.
The doctor smiled. “We are, but first you need to take your daughter to school.”
Willie turned to Anna.“Did you do your homework,Anna?” The doctor coaxed Anna into replying.
“I’ve done my homework, Daddy.”
Willie nodded.“Then you can eat your cake.”
“When will we arrive in America?”Willie went on.
“When we see the large woman raising her arm,” answered the psychiatrist.
“Is there anything we can do for him?” asked Anna, the magni- tude of her father’s condition crashing down on her.
“The brain is a marvelous enigma, Ms.Tanner. In fact, we know more about the workings of the first second of the universe, thirteen billion years ago, than we know about the human brain. It’s a galaxy untoitself,andinfinitelymorecomplicated.Wecanpokeit,knockit, shake it about, but it remains elusive, an elegant black box, as Dr. D liked to call it. Like gravity, we can measure it to the nth degree, but, as with gravity, we haven’t the slightest notion how it actually works.”
“And his … prognosis?” Anna asked, pleased that she sounded slightly more professional.
The doctor walked over to Willie who had locked his telescope on a photograph of the Statue of Liberty hanging on the wall.
“Medically, we can expect a continual decline, although your father’s condition is rare, which makes any prognosis rash.”
“And psychologically?” Anna asked, the tenor of hope drained from her voice.
“That is pure speculation.Throughout his career, Dr. Drinkin- heimer operated on the fringe of traditional psychiatry. But during hislastyearshebecamedistantandaloof.‘MadFred,’colleaguesbe- gan calling him. It was during this period that he advanced his more curious theories on time.”
Dr.Weimer looked through the telescope at the photograph. “Yes, that’s our lady, the one with the torch.”
Willie mumbled something.
“It says, ‘Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’”
“Is she wearing underwear under the robe?”Willie snickered. “You’ll have to ask the French.They dressed her.”
“I’d like to undress her,”Willie went on.“Are they real?” Dr.Weimer shook with laughter.“As real as real can be.” “According to his unpublished journals,” the assistant interrupt-
ed, “Dr. Drinkinheimer believed that if time collapses in the mind, so that the past and present become actively fused, it would bring about a condition he called ‘singularity.’”
“Is that good?”Anna asked.
“Dr. D hypothesized that singularity would mirror many of the chimerical time riddles revealed by relativity. His unfortunate quote, ‘The future is the grandfather of the past,’ was ridiculed shamelessly at the time.”
“It sounds … “
“Absurd?” interjected Dr. Weimer, his eye still locked on the telescope’s eyepiece.“But let’s not forget that the good doctor also held a doctorate in particle physics and no one can deny his con- tributions to the emerging field of quantum physics. He practically wrote the book on virtual particles.”
“Something that is now common knowledge,” interjected the assistant.
Ignoring his assistant’s interruption, the psychiatrist contin- ued. “It was Dr. D’s belief that without time, the event horizon of the brain would collapse, creating ‘vistas’ into the future. We’re all a bit sketchy as to the specifics, but Dr. D insisted that there was conservation of time and space, much like how energy and mass are conserved.”
Anna looked at her father, who had taken back the telescope. “These vistas into the future?”Anna murmured.
Dr.Weiner once again left it to his assistant.
“According to Dr. D, singularity was the operating principle in prophets; Nostradamus was his favorite example.”
“You believe my father’s a prophet?”
“Maybe not so much of a prophet, but a …”
Willie interrupted the talk with his tenor tone,breaking into song:
My lass has the tits of a mermaid And the legs of a Parisian whore But I’d sail the seven seas in a teacup To plug her right there on the floor.
The rest of the session was a blur to Anna, much like how a deep afternoon nap can bring on the strangest of dreams.While the doctor’s assistant enthusiastically elaborated on the theories of Dr. D to a perplexed Anna,Willie and Dr.Weimer swapped sailor songs and jabbered like pirates.
“One curious note from our examination is that your father apparently remembers every song he’s ever heard.”
Anna forced a smile.“When we were kids Dad played Sinatra until he drove us crazy.”
“But he retains them all, and his pitch is remarkable. I’m not sure if it’s a consequence of his condition or a caprice of memory.”
“Nostradamus was reported to know more than 2000 folk songs,” the assistant added.
“Something undoubtedly ripe for publication in one of those pseudo-scientific journals you and your cohorts subscribe to,” the psychiatrist blurted. “One more thing, Ms. Tanner. Dr. Drinkin- heimer’s followers tend to be mostly atheists, like my assistant James here, or agnostics in the more complicated use of the word. Their personal perspectives undoubtedly influence their interpretation of Dr. D’s more esoteric works. But a smattering of, let’s call them tran- scendentalists, view these vistas into the future, these singularities, as glimpses into an afterlife.Twisting Dr. D’s words, they postulate that a person’s final second would appear as an eternity to them.
“An eternity?” repeated Anna, bringing her hand to her fore- head as if to arrest the spinning in her head.
The psychiatrist broke into a coy grin.“Did you know,Ms.Tanner, that a computer can exceed a thousand trillion calculations a second?”
“And if each calculation represents one second of our time, then one computer-second worth of calculations would represent a span of time that exceeds the age of the universe.Time, Ms.Tanner, doesn’t always behave as it ought to.”
Anna’s head was now whirling out of control and from the vortex of her chaos emerged her mother’s nighttime reading voice:
Why it’s simply impassible
Why don’t you mean impossible?
No, I mean impassible. Nothing’s impossible.
With his grin still plastered on his face, Dr Weimer turned to Anna and added, “What all this means I haven’t the foggiest idea, but I thought you ought to be aware of it.”
Anna’s mind, riddled with perplexity, was too scattered to reply, and what thoughts she could muster up were drowned out by a voice in her head shouting,“Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Dr. Weimer’s grin trans- formed into a wide simper of a smile as he shook hands with Anna. Then, rotating on his heels, he gave Willie a crisp military salute, before exclaiming to him.“The sea is a sea we are all able to see.”
“We see sea shells down by the sea shore,”Willie answered. “Say that six times fast and see where it gets you.” “Aye-aye,Admiral,”Willie bellowed back, clicking his heels. The assistant shut his notebook and led Anna and Willie back
through the maze of arched doors, somehow ending up back at the lobby.The assistant wished them luck and told them to keep in touch. Anna, who had concluded that the psychiatrist and his assis- tant were as bonkers as her father, nodded politely as she helped her father on with his coat.
The receptionist appeared out of nowhere and handed Anna an embossed envelope with Anna’s name scrolled with calligraphy, containing a bill for $1,600, and a friendly reminder that they take both MasterCard and Visa. Handing the receptionist a credit card, Anna felt surprisingly relieved knowing with surety that her father wasn’t going to get better and that her adventure into the world of cures had come to an end. But as Anna rummaged in her purse for her pillbox, her thoughts drifted to a peculiar question: what story would she wish for her father, if she could wish her father a new story?
Overcome and slightly dizzy, Anna stepped into the elevator. Her father pushed the “L” button and then peered at Anna for ap- proval. As the elevator descended her father hummed, “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.”
Looking like a kid awaiting his prize for good behavior,Willie grinned.Anna, her head swirling with contradictions, couldn’t resist the urge to hug him.The elevator chimed with each passing floor, creating a melody, and causing them to break out in a duet.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.