“You want to be a doctor, too?” the patient asks me, pushing up his left shirtsleeve the way my father has instructed him to do. He is an older man with jowls and a silvery crewcut, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a necktie, and he is pinned to a kitchen chair by the boulder of his abdomen. The tap drips water into a cup in the kitchen sink. The smell of the patient’s dinner lingers, raw meat and fat against cast iron.
When I don’t immediately reply to his question, the patient looks up at my father, who has come to his home this evening to conduct an insurance physical. My father reaches into his black bag for his sphygmomanometer, unrolls the cuff, and uncoils the rubber tubing. Like many young doctors not long out of medical school, he supplements his income with these in-home exams. After putting in a full day as a pediatrician at the Phoenix Indian Hospital, where he has been posted by the U.S. Public Health Service, he comes home just long enough to shower and shave for a second time, change his shirt and tie, and grab a quick bite. Then he heads back out to perform exams for one of the big insurance companies, often taking me with him. Sometimes, as we did earlier tonight, we forgo dinner at home and stop at our favorite restaurant, a Mexican place called Ricardo’s.
“Cute little guy,” the patient says to my father in a confidential tone, then calls to me, parked in a corner on another kitchen chair, “You want to be a doctor, eh? Just like your daddy?” Trying again—maybe I didn’t hear him the first time.
I take my sphygmomanometer out of my black bag. Unlike my father’s, with its rubberized canvas cuff, sturdy squeeze bulb, and steel-and-glass gauge, mine is made entirely of brightly colored thin plastic, like my Taylor hammer, my otoscope, my syringe, and the stethoscope that I wear dangling like a pendant necklace, the way my father does, with the earpieces pincering my neck. My black bag is plastic, too, a flimsy, lightweight affair with none of the pachyderm heft and dignity of my father’s. The mouth of my father’s bag opens and closes smoothly on the hinges of a secret armature, clasped by a heavy brass tongue that slides home with a satisfying click. Mine pops open when you flip a plastic tab that has begun to shear loose and will soon snap off. A vial of candy “pills” was the sole advantage that my black bag possessed over my father’s, but I have long since prescribed and administered them to myself. The empty vial rolls around at the bottom of the bag.
I hunch my shoulders, racked with the dreadful hope that the patient will invite me to come over and “check” his blood pressure. I squeeze the bulb of my gimcrack instrument. I don’t feel that the word “cute” suits either me or the gravity of the situation. On my previous outings, a few patients have allowed me to pretend to stick them with my needleless needle and to hear their heart beat through my sham stethoscope. There is nothing that I want more than for my presence to be taken seriously, and nothing that can render me more painfully aware of my fraudulence. The truth is, I don’t especially want to be a doctor when I grow up. Or, rather, I’ve come to understand that while my presence at these house calls may be cute, or amusing, it is in no way promising: I know that I am not really cut out for the job.
Based partly on direct observation and partly on his tales of his own medical prowess, I have already formed the impression that my father is an excellent doctor. Though he will, in other ways, disappoint, disillusion, or unfavorably surprise me in the coming decades, this impression will stand. In his hospital tales, my father stars as a first-rate diagnostician with a near-Holmesian power for inferring rare or easily missed pathologies from the slightest of symptoms. As a small boy, I have no way (and no desire) to disprove these claims; I have to take his word for them. (Though I have observed that, whenever a patient on a TV show like “Marcus Welby, M.D.” or “Ben Casey” presents with odd symptoms, my father always makes what proves to be the correct diagnosis long before the first commercial break.)
But I have been an eyewitness to a number of displays of my father’s other remarkable skill as a doctor, one that mysteriously is never the focus of his storytelling: an uncommon gift for reassurance, for making his patients feel that he registers and sympathizes with their pain or discomfort and their anxieties about treatment itself; that he is really listening to them, really seeing them. Later in life, I will encounter and come to understand other self-centered people capable of great feats of empathy if only within certain narrow yet powerful contexts—while writing novels, say—but for the moment I cling to the misguided hope that the ray of my father’s compassionate attention will one day be directed toward me. (Unless I am gravely ill or seriously injured—and I am almost never either of those things—I don’t even rate the bedside manner. My father’s response when I cut a finger, stub a toe, twist an ankle, or fall off my bicycle never varies: “We’ll have to amputate.” When a suture or two is probably called for, he makes do with butterflying a pair of Band-Aids; when, a couple of years from now, I fall off a stair railing and break my arm, he sets it with an acebandage and a flat plastic tool for scraping ice off our windshield.)
Both my father’s bedside manner and his diagnostic chops depend, however, on his fundamental superpower, which is that, as far as I can tell, he knows everything. His memory is profound, his command of facts sweeping and indiscriminate.
He knows the genealogies of English kings, the birth names of all five Marx Brothers, the Köchel numbers of the major works of Mozart, the batting averages of the top-ten all-time hitters in both leagues, the differing effects on Superman of the various colors of Kryptonite. He has read every important book, seen every major film, listened to every great symphony. When we listen to classical music in the car, he whistles ostentatiously along with even the most complex and atonal themes. He remembers people’s names, details, and particulars. When examining an anxious young patient, he is able to call not only on large swaths of medical knowledge but on a disarming command of pop-cultural information that helps put both children and their parents at ease: he knows the name of Underdog’s archenemy (Simon Bar Sinister) and of Barbie’s little sister (Skipper); he keeps up with the intricacies of daytime soap operas and baseball box scores.
There is really no point, I have already decided, in even trying to pass myself off as a doctor, a would-be doctor, or a pint-size future version of my father. No matter how hard I try, and this is an assessment my father seems to share, I will never know as much as he does or be as intelligent as he is. “You are a very smart boy,” he has informed me, a few times now, after I came out with some unexpected fact or precocious bit of perception. “Of course, you’ll never be as smart as me,” he always adds, smiling in a way that seems apologetic and mocking at the same time.
“Following in your footsteps?” the patient says, trying my father again, talking a lot—nervous, perhaps.
At first, my father doesn’t answer. When I’m older, he will explain that he used to bring me along to these appointments because the presence of a small child was an icebreaker for anxious patients in a potentially awkward social situation, but in hindsight this strikes me as improbable. It strikes me now that he may simply have wanted my company, or felt guilty about working evenings after having spent his whole day in the company of other people’s children. Or maybe he just liked to show me off, or show off to me. He had schooled me, for example, to name the Presidents in order, from Washington through L.B.J. Often, during the insurance physicals, he would call on me at some point to perform this, or one of my other circus acts of memory—U.S. state capitals, Canadian provincial capitals. These feats may not have broken any ice, but they unquestionably reflected well on his own abilities, both as a rememberer himself and as a skilled trainer of children.
“Like father, like son?” the patient adds helpfully.
My father has fitted the earpieces of his stethoscope to his ears. He slides its diaphragm under the blood-pressure cuff. One eyebrow arched, he listens to the patient’s pulse with an expression of calm intensity that to this day remains the badge, in my imagination, of an engaged and curious mind. A few years later, I will watch Leonard Nimoy, as Mr. Spock, look up from his scanner on the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, and catch an echo of my father’s face.
“I don’t know about that,” my father replies finally, uncuffing the patient’s arm. “He might be a little too squeamish.”
This is a new word to me, but I grasp its meaning immediately. Doctors stick people with needles, cut them open, take their blood, lay bare their bones and organs. Inevitably, doctors—even doctors with gentle and reassuring manners, like my father—inflict pain.
“I’m making moatmeal. Do you want some?”
“Is that right?” The patient looks at me. (In my recollection of that night, I see from his expression that I have disappointed him, but maybe what I saw on the patient’s face was only bafflement: if I didn’t want to grow up to be a doctor, then why was I in the man’s kitchen at seven o’clock on a week night, with a doctor’s bag?) “So, what do you want to be?”
I think back to the conversation my father and I had earlier in our booth at Ricardo’s. Ricardo’s is the only Mexican restaurant I have been to at this point in my life, Mexican restaurants being nowhere near as commonplace then as they are now, so I have no point of comparison, but decades later, living in California, I will come to understand that Ricardo’s was a Mexican restaurant of the old school: half-elegant, red Naugahyde and dark wood trimmed in wrought iron, a throwback even then to an era when white people thought of Mexico as an exotic land inhabited by cacti, burros, men in sombreros, and Lupe Vélez. For my father, a Brooklyn boy, there was still something romantic in 1967 about tacos and tamales. To me, there was a solemnity in the iron-and-wood interior, the chill, the shadowed booths. Meals there took on an adult air of significance. At the front of the restaurant, the cashier sat behind a glass display case, well stocked with candy, gum, cigarettes, and, especially, cigars, laid out in ornate and colorful boxes that depicted great generals and queens, gods of ancient Egypt, Indians in full regalia.
Over our dinner tonight, my father remarked that, when he was a boy, almost every decent restaurant had featured a cabinet of wonders of this kind; now almost none of them did. This observation prompted me to ask him other questions about the world of his boyhood, long ago. He told me about the Elevated trains of Brooklyn, about the all-day programs at his local movie theatre: a newsreel, a cartoon, a serial, a comedy short, the B picture, and, finally, the A picture, all for a dime. He talked about comic books, radio dramas, Astounding magazine, and the stories they’d all told: of rocket-powered heroes, bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists bent on ruling the world. He described to me how he had saved box tops from cold cereals like Post Toasties, and redeemed them by mail for Junior G-Man badges or cardboard Flying Fortresses that carried payloads of black marbles. He told me about playing games like potsy, stickball, handball, and ringolevio, and, for the first time but by no means the last, about an enchanted pastry called a charlotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scalloped paper cup, topped with a Maraschino cherry. He described having spent weeks in the cellar of his Flatbush apartment building as a young teen-ager, with some mail-order chemicals, five pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern battery, trying to re-create “the original recipe for life on earth,” as detailed in the pages of Astounding.
In the air-conditioned red darkness of Ricardo’s, across from the cigar case, the past and the future became alloyed in my imagination: magic and science, heroes and villains, brick-and-steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of tomorrow. My father, an inveterate list-maker, rattled off the names of games, trains, and radio shows, giving little in the way of description, yet it all came to life for me, as gaudy and vivid and fragrant as those boxes of cigars. Some quirk in me, in the wiring of my brain or the capability of my heart, enabled me to ride the bare rails of my father’s memory beyond the minimal contours that he hastily sketched—we had a patient to get to—and into the past. In my mind, in what I was just coming to understand, without even putting a name to it, as my imagination, I felt that I was or had been present on Flatbush Avenue for these moments of his vivid, vanished childhood. I did not know how I was managing the trick or what it might be good for—I was not even necessarily aware that I was doing it—but I knew immediately that this was my secret superpower.
Fair enough. So, what do I want to be? How to answer the patient, who is now taking long slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as the drum of the stethoscope makes checkers moves across his back. I put away my plastic sphygmomanometer and snap the flimsy clasp of my counterfeit black bag. Let my father be the doctor—when I grow up, I want to tell the patient, I will become a guy who gets to live both inside and outside his own mind and body, travelling, without moving, into other worlds, other places, other lives. But I don’t know quite how to put it, or exactly what kind of work the proper deployment of my superpower might suit me for or entail.
“I’m probably going to be a mad scientist,” I announce to the patient, to my father, and, a little wonderingly, to myself. “And make the original recipe for creating life on earth.”
Fifty years on, though my father has long since retired from regular practice both as a doctor and as a father, I’m still chasing after that recipe for life and still, four times a father myself, doing part-time work as a son. At this point, to be honest, being my father’s son is less than a sideline; it’s more like a hobby, one of a number of pastimes acquired early, pursued with intensity, laid aside, and then only intermittently, over the years, resumed—origami, cartooning, model building, being a baseball fan, being a son. I think of my father at least once a day, try (but fail) to call him once a week, and, as required, afford him regular access to his grandchildren. Beyond that, the contours of the job turn vague and history-haunted. Outside the safe zone of our telephone calls, with their set menu of capsule film and book reviews, amateur political punditry, and two-line status reports on the other members of our respective households, the territory of our father-and-son-hood is shadowed by the usual anger, disappointment, and failure, strewn with the bones of old promises and lies.
Strange how a relationship—therelationship—that I understand as truly primal, as foundational, for good and for ill, to the construction of my self, my world view, my art, and my approach to being a father, should for decades now have consisted of and subsisted on a studied avoidance of any but the most ancillary and weightless interactions!
And yet it’s in my capacity as his son that I board a flight from Oakland to Portland, Oregon, home to my father for the past seven years, travelling on a full-fare last-minute ticket, hoping that he’s still alive when I get there. The day before yesterday, my father fell so ill, so suddenly, that he consented—for the first time that anyone could remember—to being hospitalized. “A hospital,” he always says, “is the worst place to be sick.” He’s home again for now, but I have been given reason to believe that if I want to see him again—and, of course, at the moment, seeing him is all I want to do—I’d better not hesitate. When the plane lands, I take my phone out of airplane mode with a sense of dread and dramatic irony, but there’s no fatal text message. I rush over from PDX to the apartment downtown, messaging with my stepmother and my half brother all the way.
When I called to say that I would be flying up to see him, my father made the expected but unexpectedly feeble attempt to dismiss my urgency as baseless and my visit as gratuitous, yet, as soon as I walk into the bedroom, I can tell he is happy to have me there. Although he seems to be out of danger for the time being (and will make a decent recovery from what eventually gets diagnosed as a nasty combination of kidney failure and bronchopneumonia), he freely acknowledges that he just came very near to death.
“The day before yesterday was bad,” he admits. “According to your stepmother, I was raving. Saying a lot of things that didn’t make sense.”
“How could she tell the difference?”
“That’s exactly what I said.”
I lie down beside him on my stepmother’s side of the king-size bed. The flat-screen television mounted on the opposite wall is tuned to TCM, which happens to be showing a film I first saw with my father, when I was eleven or twelve: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Every few minutes, my father is racked by spasms of gnarly-sounding coughing that leave his voice a ragged whisper; if he taxes it for more than a sentence or two, whatever he says dissolves into a fit of hacking and gasping for breath. It seems best, therefore, to avoid conversation entirely. We lie there for a long time, contemplating Lang’s quaint dystopia as it silently unravels. In the fifty-four years of our mutual acquaintance, I cannot remember our ever having sustained so prolonged a silence in each other’s company.
It turns out to be not the worst way to spend an hour of your life. But after a while I find myself thinking about the conversation we aren’t having. I start having it with him in my head:
This is a great film, but “M” is the masterpiece.
I just saw it again: incredible. But what about “Dr. Mabuse”?
A great film, too, but I think you have to give it to “M.” Have you ever seen “Hangmen Also Die!”?
A long time ago. I never really cared for the Hollywood films. You know Thea von Harbou was a Nazi.
Lang’s mother was Jewish. His wife was a member of the Nazi Party.
Hey, that would make a great sitcom.
The cadence, the tenor, the content of the conversation are all so readily accessible to my mind’s ear that they come unbidden, as clearly and freely as if we were speaking the words aloud. I wonder how long it has been since the last time we did this—just lie around in the middle of the afternoon watching a great movie together. I decide that the answer is probably something in the neighborhood of forty years. And then, equally unbidden, comes a thought: This is how it will be when he is gone. I will be lying on a bed somewhere, watching “Citizen Kane,” or “A Night at the Opera,” or “The Man with the X-Ray Eyes,” or some other film that became beloved to me through my father’s own loving intervention, and, even though he won’t be there anymore, I will still be watching it with him. I will hear his voice then the way I am hearing it now, in my head, this instrument that was tuned to my father’s signal long ago, angled to catch the flow of his information, his opinions, all the million great and minor things he knows. After he’s gone into that all too imaginable darkness—soon enough now—I will find another purpose for the superpower that my father discovered in me, one evening half a century ago, riding the solitary rails of my imagination into our mutual story, into the future we envisioned and the history we actually accumulated; into the vanished world that he once inhabited. ♦