Our hero Arnold Schnabel has passed into yet another fictional universe, that of the sadly out-of-print Lady Psychiatrist, by “Hannah Pierce Sandler” (although internal evidence suggests that this was one of the dozens of noms de plume employed by Arnold’s prolific friend Horace P. Sternwall)...
(Please go here to read last week’s thrilling episode. Those who would like to begin this Gold View Award™-winning 76-volume memoir at the beginning may click here to purchase your very own copy (either as a Kindle™ e-book or the deluxe paper edition) of Railroad Train to Heaven: Volume One of the Memoirs of Arnold Schnabel.)
“Memoir? Roman fleuve? The fevered ravings of a madman? Welcome to the world of Arnold Schnabel.” – Harold Bloom, in his Introduction to Arnold Schnabel Without Tears: a Beginner’s Guide.
Inside I saw an office much like what I would have imagined a psychiatrist’s office to look like, based not only on what I had seen in movies, TV shows and magazine cartoons, but on my own personal experience as well, except this one had a definite feminine feel and look, especially so since the apparent psychiatrist was a well-put together woman in a black dress and pink high heels, standing off to the right facing a window with white lace curtains.
The walls of the office were a pale blue, and everything in it seemed to converge upon the woman at the window.
She turned her head and looked at me. She had short dark hair, like a girl freedom fighter’s, reddish-orange lips, a strand of pearls or something like pearls around her bare neck. She looked to be about thirty-five, and her face was perfectly smooth and pale, like the marble of a holy water font. Her eyes were dark, and even from across the room they looked straight into mine.
She had apparently just taken a drag on a cigarette she was holding up in the air in her left hand, her elbow propped against her side in that way ladies hold cigarettes, and she let the smoke drift out of her nostrils before speaking.
“Blinds down and curtains drawn, or both open,” she said.
Beyond her I could see, not surprisingly, or maybe surprisingly the way things had been going in my life, the same cityscape visible from the receptionist’s office, but from a slightly different angle. I now caught sparkling glimpses of a river above the rooftops and in slivers of vertical light between the buildings, with another smaller and hazy cityscape beyond the blue of the river.
“Or perhaps you would prefer the blinds up but the curtains open,” she said.
“Oh, sorry, however you like it,” I said.
“Open then, blinds and curtains. For the time being.”
“Um, yeah –” I said, just to say something, the same reason I’ve said nearly everything I’ve ever said.
“Mr. Walker,” she said.
“Yes?” I said. “I mean, yes, I guess so.”
“That’s the best I can do,” I said, then added, “I guess.”
Suddenly she strode right toward me, and I wondered if she was going to slap me for being a wise ass, but, no, she stopped a couple of feet away from me and put out her right hand. The hand was delicate, pale and smooth like church marble except for the fingernails which were the same or very similar orange-red as her lips.
“I’m Dr. Weinberg,” she said.
“Hi, doctor,” I said, and I shook her hand. I don’t think I’ve ever quite decided what’s more awkward, shaking a man’s or a woman’s hand, but her hand felt nice, slightly cool, from the air-conditioning I suppose, because this office also had an air-conditioner, humming quietly in the other window in the room, the one the lady doctor had not been gazing out of.
Her grip was firm and strong for such a fragile looking hand, but there was no masculine attempt to turn the gesture into a test of strength and will power. She gave my hand two quick solid shakes, and then withdrew hers.
She brought her left forearm up to a few inches from her face and glanced at a tiny golden watch on her wrist.
“You realize you’re sixteen minutes late, Mr. Walker.”
“Oh,” I said, “yeah, I thought it was only fifteen minutes, but, yes, your, uh, receptionist –”
“Donna told me I was late, and I know I still have to pay for the whole session.”
As soon as I said that I wondered if I had any money, and was I expected to pay on the way out?
“It’s important that we have these rules,” she said. “And that we obey them.”
I noticed that she had a pair of horn-rimmed eyeglasses hanging above her breasts, attached to a very thin gold chain around her neck. The glasses moved up and down with the breathing of her bosom.
“Or don’t you agree?” she said.
“That we need rules.”
“Well, you’re the doctor,” I said. “What do I know?”
“That is what we hope to find out,” she said. “Why don’t you close the door if you’re staying.”
I hadn’t quite realized that I hadn’t closed the door, but I hadn’t, so I turned and closed it as gently as I could, shutting away the sight of Donna the receptionist leaning forward and sideways, looking at me. Then I turned to face the lady doctor again.
“Now,” she said. “Shall we sit and have a little chat?”
Her body gave off a scent of perfume, it smelled like the gladioli in my aunts’ garden on a hot day after a rainfall.
“Sure,” I said, I said, just as her lips were opening to ask me if I were completely insane or merely hard of hearing.
There was a broad but delicate pale wooden desk across the office, and she turned and walked over to it and behind it and sat down. She may have been a doctor, but the body that walked away from me, on pink high-heeled shoes, was a woman’s. Was I disconcerted by this? Yes. But the hypothetical reader of this chronicle will know that I am no stranger to disconcertion.
I saw that there were four or five framed diplomas on the wall behind her, including at least one in French and one in German, so she must have been legitimate, unless of course the diplomas were forged.
I walked up to within a few feet of the desk, which had two arm chairs facing it, both of them upholstered with a floral pink and blue pattern, roses I think.
I took note also of a couch against the wall to the left, covered with a pattern that matched the two arm chairs. Suddenly all I wanted to do was to lie down on the couch, perhaps to doze for a short while.
“Should I just go ahead and lie on the couch?” I said.
“Not yet,” she said. “Maybe later after we’ve had our preliminary chat. That chair is comfortable,” she said, pointing with her cigarette to the chair to the left of the front of her desk.
The chair did look comfortable, with padded seat, back, and arms, and with the pink and blue floral covering. I went over and sat in it.
“Cigarette, Mr. Walker?” she said, and she reached forward and opened a silvery engraved cigarette box, then shoved it across the desk in my direction. “Philip Morris Commanders. My one vice. Or at least the only one I’ll own up to. Ha ha.”
I started to reach over to take a cigarette, despite the fact that I preferred Pall Malls, when suddenly I remembered.
“Oh, wait,” I said. “I forgot. I quit smoking.”
“Oh, good for you. Had you been a heavy smoker?”
“Couple packs of Pall Malls a day,” I said. “Ever since I was in the army. Before that I never smoked for some reason, but in the army –”
“And when did you quit?”
“Yes,” she said, just slightly raising one eyebrow.
“Well,” I said, “in real time it was probably only a couple of days ago. But it feels like nine years.”
“Interesting,” she said.
She put her cigarette in a large glass or crystal ashtray, and then lifted her glasses from her bosom and put them on. Then she flipped open a leather-bound notepad on her desk, the kind with the spiral binding at the top of the page, flicked through several pages, picked up a silvery mechanical pencil from a pen set, adjusted it so that a point of lead emerged from its tip, and finally wrote something down on the pad. She paused, then wrote for a good minute more, and while she was writing I looked around, and for a change I looked down at the floor. It was made of highly polished pale wood, and definitely cleaner and shinier than the cruddy floors of most doctors’ offices I had been in. Then I looked at the doctor’s desk. Unlike most doctors’ desks I had seen in my life, and I had seen my share, there were no framed photographs. I figured that must mean the doctor had no husband or children, or if she did, she wasn’t very sentimental about them. But I looked at her left hand and noticed she had no wedding ring. Like me. She had a dark blue telephone on her desk, matching the one that Donna had out in the reception room. There was a goosenecked lamp, but blue instead of the usual black, and a glass or crystal vase of roses, red and orange and yellow. The lady doctor stopped writing suddenly, then looked up at me. Now that she wore the horn-rimmed glasses her eyes seemed slightly larger, and darker.
“So have you conquered the craving, then?”
“For cigarettes?” I said, quick on the uptake for once.
“Yes,” she said. “Cigarettes. Tobacco. Nicotine. Have you overcome the craving.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I haven’t overcome anything.”
She reached forward and closed the cigarette box, and as she did I caught a glimpse of the upper portions of her breasts in a black brassière. I looked away, toward if not at one of the abstract paintings, hanging over the near end of the couch.
“Do you like modern art?” she said.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I mean, I don’t dislike it, but I don’t really like it either. I guess it’s like wallpaper to me. Except when it’s –”
“Except when it’s disturbing.”
“And do you find that painting disturbing?”
“I’m getting used to it,” I said.
“And what about its fellow, at the other end of the couch.”
“I’m getting used to that one too.”
“May I ask why you are here, Mr. Walker.”
That was sudden.
“Why I’m here,” I said, stalling.
“Yes,” she said. She put down her mechanical pencil and picked up her cigarette, it was almost smoked down, but she took a good drag. “I don’t think you would be willing to spend twenty-five dollars an hour for no good reason.”
“Twenty-five?” I said, I suppose with a heavy accent indicative of surprise and incipient panic.
“Yes, that is the standard rate. This should have been made clear to you when you made your appointment.”
“Wow, I guess I didn’t pay close attention.”
“Y’know,” I said, and even though the office was well air-conditioned, I began to feel sweat coursing down my spine, “I guess I really wasn’t paying that close attention, um –”
She looked at her cigarette, then stubbed it out in the crystal ashtray.
“Let’s not start off with prevarication, Mr. Walker, shall we?”
“Right,” I said. “But, uh, here’s the thing, I’m not sure after all that I can afford twenty-five. An hour.”
“Really?” She took off her glasses and folded them up above her bosom again. “I heard you just got a thirty-thousand dollar advance for your epic book-length poem from Smythe & Son.”
My epic poem – it seemed as if I hadn’t thought about that in years, but wait –
“Y’know, doctor, in fact it’s only a, what, a fifty dollars a week advance, in fact, for the next three months, I think. And that’s against the royalties, if there are any. I think.”
“Okay, I’m pretty sure. It’s hard to remember right now.”
“When did you sign the contract?”
“Well,” I said, “it was actually more of a handshake deal, over lunch –”
“A gentleman’s agreement.”
“And when did you make this handshake deal?”
“Well, again, doctor, it’s funny you should ask that, because in one sense it was just earlier today, but in another sense it feels like –”
“Well, let’s say seven years, seven and a half –”
“And this fifty dollars a week is your sole source of income?”
“Yes,” I said. “Unless I get a job of some sort, or –”
“You’re a poet. Your job is to write poems.”
“Yes, okay,” I said, “but still –”
“You do know your book – your poem – is the talk of the town.”
“Yes.” She put her glasses back on, then picked up a folded newspaper from her desk, looked at it, and proceeded to read from it, or at least to pretend to read from it. ‘The most highly anticipated poetic début of the year’, according to Edmund Wilson.”
“Wow, that was nice of him,” I said, and I thought of something. “Edmund Wilson. It’s funny, I met this guy named Bunny Wilson –”
She took her glasses off again and looked at me.
“Bunny Wilson is Edmund Wilson,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that really was nice of, uh –”
“They’re saying – ‘they’ being the literary wags about town – that your book, what is it, The Bawdy Embraces?”
“I think it’s The Brawny Embraces actually,” I said.
“Yes, of course, Brawny, silly me, but they say your book is destined to be a runaway bestseller.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Soon to have pride of place on the pale pink bookshelves of eighteen-year-old girl romantics across the country.”
“Great Britain as well.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “That’s good to hear, but in the meantime I’m only getting fifty a week, so maybe if you could bill me for this session and I’ll pay you as soon as I get my first check, or –”
“Do you think I would be so mercenary as to take one half of your week’s income from you for one session?”
“Well, it’s my fault really, but at any rate, I guess I’d better be going then –”
“For you I shall allow a reduced and deferred payment plan.”
“We’ll make it shall we say five dollars a session. I’ll keep an account for you, and then after your book is published and the royalties start flooding in we’ll work out a payment plan.”
“But what if the royalties don’t flood in?”
“Then I will write the experience off as my contribution to the world of literature.”
“Wow,” I said, “that’s very generous of you.”
“Believe it or not, Mr. Walker, I am not in this profession for the money.”
“Oh, well, I, uh, I mean, I didn’t, uh, you know,” I said.
“I hope you’re not one of these tedious people who think my co-religionists and I care only for the accruing of filthy lucre.”
“Wow, no –”
“Great, then,” she said. “Shall we get started.”
“I’d just as soon call it a day,” I said.
“Nonsense. You’re paying for this hour, eventually, unless the royalties fail to flood in, which I very much doubt, and, anyway, you intrigue me, Mr. Walker.”
“No need to thank me. Why don’t you go over and lie on that couch.”
“That couch?” I said, turning and looking at the couch.
“Unless you see another couch in this office,” she said.
“No,” I said.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Lie down. I’m not going to bite you.”
Illustration by Paul Rader.
(Continued here, as Arnold seeks the professional help he so clearly needs.)