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“The problem with paranoid schizophrenia,” Duncan said, “is that being smart doesn’t help.”

“The problem with paranoid schizophrenia,” Dr. Faraday replied, “is that you don’t take your meds.”

Duncan pouted.

Melissa Faraday was unmoved by pouting. She was, though, moved by many other things. Not least of which was concern for her patients. Her concern was both natural and professional. Her natural concern was something she had either been born with, or had occurred so early in her life that she never remembered a time when the mental and emotional distress of others hadn’t seemed to carve into her own sense of wellbeing. Her professional concern came from Hamilton College and Harvard Medical School.

“Maybe they’re the same thing,” Duncan muttered.

“In what way?” Melissa asked.

Duncan shrugged. “You know. Maybe it’s smart to not take my meds all the time.”

Melissa nodded. “Right. Because the reasons for you to not take your meds are difficult to understand and complex and would require real genius to untangle.”

Now Duncan nodded, looking down at the worn, beige carpet that had been in the office since… well, forever. Then he realized she was kidding him. A little.

“Hey,” he grumbled, looking up at her. “You were being sarcastic?”

She smiled. “A little, yes.”

“You don’t think there’s good reasons for me to not take my meds?”

Melissa raised one eyebrow at him. “There are reasons, yes. But they have more to do with side-effects and some possible interactions with your other meds.”

She paused, then asked, “Tell me, Duncan. What would be a bad, unintelligent reason for skipping your meds?”

He rocked back in the leather recliner that served as her “couch” and thought for a minute.

“If I stopped taking them because I imagined I was cured. That would be a bad reason.”

“Yes.”

“If I stopped because I was trying to prove I didn’t need them.”

“Interesting.”

“What?” he asked, leaning forward. “Just ‘interesting?’ Don’t you agree?”

“Actually, I do,” she replied. “But now I’m thinking that maybe being smart does help.”

He smiled. It was a good smile. Duncan Myers was a nice looking guy, Melissa thought. Clean-cut, but not corporate. Thin but not skinny. He always came to his appointments well dressed and groomed, which she appreciated. Some of her patients seemed to think that relaxing their minds and emotions required a relaxation of dress codes. While she would never say anything—as she wanted her patients to be comfortable—her personal feeling was that sweat shorts, flip-flops and a three-day T-shirt went beyond “comfortable” into slobby.

“Smart about not being smart, anyway,” he said.

“What do you mean by that?” Melissa asked.

“Well,” Duncan said, leaning back in the chair again, “Some people don’t know they don’t know about certain things, I guess. There’s a… reluctance to admit ignorance or inexperience.”

“Not knowing one’s limitations,” Melissa responded.

He shook his head. “Not exactly, no. That’s not what I meant. I guess… well, I mean that I know that I can’t skate, and that I’m not very good at math. Those are limitations. And if I tried to skate or get a job as an accountant, that would be silly.

“What I meant,” he continued, “is having a good grasp on separating those things that you understand and can deal with, and those you can’t.”

“Can you give me an example?”

“Sure. My dad. Totally unable to control his anger when anybody questions his knowledge of ‘the business world,’ even though he knows as much about business as I do about marine biology.

Duncan shifted in his chair a bit and tapped a forefinger on his head.

“He thinks that because he owned a small convenience store, he knows everything about business. And, sure… he knows some.” Duncan laughed. “He knows enough to run a small convenience store. But he thinks he knows about the stock market, property prices, human resources stuff, advertising… the whole schmeer .”

“And he doesn’t,” Melissa said.

“No!” Duncan was getting a bit agitated. But, Melissa believed, in a healthy way. Working things out often gets heated, and she and he had been through a number of sessions where he vented some strong feelings.

“He makes shit up! He talks about stuff that he sees in the news like he’d predicted it. If a company goes bankrupt, he claims he predicted it a year before. And I’ll remind him that he was calling that company ‘a good buy’ less than a week ago, and he’ll shake his head.”

Melissa nodded, waiting for more.

“It kinda pisses me off, sometimes,” Duncan said. Now he leaned forward in his chair, his hands on his knees, and looked more directly at his psychiatrist.

“I mean… why would somebody give a shit about stuff like that and pretend to know it? It’s not like me or Mom are interviewing him for a job. But he must know he’s faking this great, business acumen. I mean… he can’t be fooling himself, can he?”

“Why might he want to fool himself?” Melissa asked.

Duncan shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not to impress me, that’s for sure. He doesn’t give a fat fuck about my opinion. Or Mom’s. It’s just like he… like…”

“Like what?”

“It’s like he’s trying to change himself. Be more than he was. Or is. Like if he paints himself as more of a big-timer or something, he’ll actually be one. But he only ever talks to me and Mom, like I said.”

“You hadn’t said that before,” Melissa corrected. “Your father doesn’t have other acquaintances?”

Duncan laughed. But not a nice laugh, Melissa thought. “Dad? ‘Acquaintances?’ No. No friends, either. All the people who ever worked for him at the store were pretty much short-timers, and he was there sixteen hours a day. He stopped going to church in his fifties, too. Something about a disagreement with our priest. Mom doesn’t even know what it was about.

“So, yeah. It’s just the two of them. And I go over three or four times a week to check in on them. Do some shopping, make sure Mom’s drugs are up-to-date.”

Her patient paused, and Melissa let him gather his thoughts.

“The more I think about it, the more it pisses me off,” he finally said. “I mean, he could go out. He could go back to the Masons. He was a Mason years ago. He could find another church. I don’t even know if the priest he fought with is still there. He could… I don’t know. Actually do something instead of pretending to be more than he is.”

“And this amounts to not knowing what he doesn’t know?” Melissa asked.

“Right! Exactly! I mean… I know exactly what I don’t fucking know,” Duncan said, fairly loudly. “I know, like I said, that I’ve gotta take my meds. I know that when I feel a certain way, it may be a side effect, not a real… reaction or whatever.

“I know that the universe isn’t really out to get me, except for the fact that I’ve got something wrong in my head. Plenty of people are sick, right? Fine. I know that. But I’m not going to talk myself—or you or them—into thinking I’m something that I’m not. That’s rational, right? That’s logical and healthy? Right?”

Melissa nodded. “It is. Keeping an accurate self-assessment is healthy, I believe.”

“Right.” Duncan was sweating a bit. He rubbed his hair back out of his eyes and leaned back. “Knowing ‘what is what’ is important. Keeping things straight.”

He nodded, and looked at the clock on her desk. It was discreet yet visible from any part of the small office. It was silver and glass and was free swag from a drug rep. She’d spent the better part of an hour getting the logo off with nail polish remover.

“I’ll stay on the drugs this week, doc,” Duncan said solemnly. “I know what I don’t know.”

She nodded. There was about a 75% chance that he would. He often did. But not always. When he went off, he was usually fine, too. He’d get to feeling “antsy,” as he called it, and then go back on. Once or twice he’d called her in the middle some bad times, and she’d talked to him and got him to take his prescription again. All part of the business.

Without another word, he got up and left on his own, understanding that 3:55pm meant that the 50-minute hour was over. She needed a few minutes between patients to straighten her notes, use the restroom, check her messages… before the next session at 5-past the hour.

That was the last time she saw Duncan. The 25% chance hit him square in the heart, and he went off his prescription less than two days after having seen her. By the time she’d learned of his fate from a chain of various doctors, it was a month later and he’d been dead for a week.

She didn’t want to hear the details, but the Hamilton/Harvard part of her knew that knowing might help her help others better in the future. So she listened to the E.R. doc, the oncologist and his G.P. She called his landlord, Mr. Ted, who had found him, and asked what he’d known and seen. He told Melissa very little about Duncan’s death that she wouldn’t have been able to guess from what the docs had already shared with her.

But Mr. Ted also told her that Duncan had left a lot of papers all around the room in which he’d been found. And that if she wanted, she could have them, because nobody else was claiming Duncan’s things. His parents were not having anything to do with his arrangement, apparently. Melissa wondered if it was lingering Catholicism, or something else.

The appliances and anything else of value would be sold to cover Duncan’s unpaid rent. But Mr. Ted thought that she might make use of his journal, or whatever it was. He’d called Melissa once for Duncan when his tenant had been in a bad way. Duncan had given Mr. Ted her card, asking him to call her for him.

Again… Melissa did not want this. But it was her job, as she understood it, to take these shards and assemble them in ways that might be useful someday.

Duncan’s apartment was well out of her way. But that didn’t bother her. Physical details of the world—delays, annoying break-downs, chaos at play, red tape—none of these troubled her in the least. An ex-boyfriend had described her as, “Aloof.” But the truth was that she was deeply concerned… just not about many of the same things that affected him, or most other people.

She parked on the street and used the codes Mr. Ted had given her to get into the building and the lock-box outside Duncan’s apartment. It was a good building; well lit and clean. It reminded her of Duncan.

The lock-box contained a key and ten-or-so copies of Mr. Ted’s business cards, which she left inside. She took the elevator to the eighth floor and unlocked Duncan’s door.

She’d never done this before, specifically. She’d visited a few patients at home, for various reasons. Illness (on their part), concern (on hers). But she’d never had a patient suicide before.

It made her go very slowly and deliberately through every motion that was required. Had she thought about it, she would have realized that she’d adjusted her parking four times before being satisfied. That she’d straightened Mr. Ted’s cards in their pile, getting them all to face the same way, before putting them back in the lock box. That she’d looked to the right and left of the elevator to determine the direction of Duncan’s before taking a step from the elevator.

The sound of the key in the lock was precise and clear. It made the sound a lock should make. No rattle or click; just the satisfying, “pa-chunk” of the tumblers turning the way they were designed to.

The door didn’t squeak when she opened it half-way. And it didn’t scrape the floor or bump on anything. Had Melissa been observing her own mind, she would have realized that all these tings appealed to her on some primitive level.

It was late afternoon in summer, and the drapes were opened, so there was no need for her to turn on the light in the main room of the apartment. Bright sunlight showed her a room that was, to be blunt, normal as hell. Several chairs and a sofa around a coffee table. A large TV and a stereo at one end and a small bar at the other with three stools drawn up tight to the counter. She could see the kitchen peeking out at her from above the bar.

Besides the kitchen, and what her sense of design told her would be the bathroom, there was only one other doorway in the apartment, and it would necessarily lead to Duncan’s bedroom and study.

He had been her patient for almost two years. She’d been in solo practice for close to ten, so it wasn’t as if he was her most tenured client. But still… in twenty-or-so visits, he’d shared with her all kinds of very personal, often disarming details of his life.

He hadn’t been a maniac or a criminal or (by any reasonable standards) a deviant. He’d been a normal, troubled, schizophrenic. The things he’d told her—the personal things—were no better or worse than what she heard from all kinds of people. The details only mattered in terms of her treatment of him, and as markers of his condition.

Still, no matter how fantastic or mundane the personal details of someone’s life are, they are personal. And Melissa knew things about Duncan that, probably, nobody else did, or ever had. And this made her pause before entering his bedroom.

Not because she feared what she would find, or was troubled by any of the revelations he’d made to her. But because this was the last one he would make. And while he was a week dead, still she thought of him as her patient, and still she considered these things worthy of personal and professional respect and care.

The bedroom was, also, quite simple and ordinary. A bed with books on shelves above it. Another, smaller TV on a stand. And a large, complex computer desk with a number of drawers and shelves, mostly holding various peripherals to the PC that was tucked away underneath.

But on the floor, around the bed in which he’d been found, there were notebooks. Lined, essay books, sometimes called “theme books,” of one-hundred pages each. What Melissa had always called, “Workbooks,” in her head, because that was what her mother had called them. Her mother, Lara, had owned a small dress shop, and had used exactly the same brand and type of book to keep track of inventory, bills, receipts, good and bad vendors… everything.

Mama’s workbooks, five of them, on the floor surrounding the bed.

Melissa picked one up and sat down at the office-style chair in front of the computer desk.

Why, she asked herself, would a man with such an up-to-date computer, write things by hand in lined books?

She opened the book and began to read. It began as a diary, basically. Listing, without dates, things that Duncan had done. Places he’d been, the names of people he’d met or worked with, items bought, itineraries. Then, after fifteen pages or so, it became a rambling, unspecific essay on the dangers of living in an apartment as opposed to one’s own house. Then it returned to bland, diary mode for several pages. Then it was about how his high-school reunion was deeply and purposefully unfair to people who had to travel.

Back and forth, from banal, almost trite details of an Everyman sort of life, to cryptic and bizarre reflections on almost any topic. Two pages on TV reruns and how they made less sense every time you watched. Four pages on why owning pets was immoral. Five pages devoted to a description of the people who worked in the bodega down the block, with no explanation given as to why they required such detailed analysis.

Melissa stood and retrieved the rest of the workbooks. Though they weren’t dated, one of them was clearly new. She glanced through the other three first, finding more of the same juxtaposition of routine and odd reflection, before opening the cleaner, starchier book she assumed was most recent.

Inside, she found only one entry. A poem.




Move your pawn

Black and white, my friend.
Indecision ends when
you touch
a piece.

I saw your finger touch that pawn.
Quickly drawn back,
but I saw and you saw
that I saw. So…

It must go down
one square. There’s just
one legal move. There.
You wait. I wait. Why

wait. I play
by rules. If you want to do
something else.
Well… it’s your move.



Melissa gathered the workbooks up into her briefcase and walked out, slamming the door behind her.

She slammed the palm of her hand into the elevator call button . And when the elevator took more than fifteen seconds to arrive, she abandoned it and trotted down eight flights of stairs.

She forgot to put the key to Duncan’s apartment back in the lock box, and would return to do so the next day.

When Melissa pulled out of her parking spot, she did it so quickly and clumsily that she was nearly sideswiped by a pickup truck. Missing her exit on the highway, her drive home went from forty minutes to more than sixty.

She owned her house. There was no bodega on the block, just a Starbucks. She would never go to a high school reunion, or care about one. She didn’t watch TV.

But after slamming her own front door, she punched the beige wall of her entryway so hard that her knuckles bled and the plaster cracked. She took three steps and let her briefcase, keys and cell phone thump and clatter on the floor of her well-decorated living room—and slid down to sit on the softly glowing, blonde wood panels herself. Shaking her head, breathing hard, she muttered:

“Yes. Yes, Duncan. I understand.”

She calmed her breathing and pushed her hair back out of her eyes.

“I could have written that. I could have…” she muttered, leaving her briefcase, keys and phone on the floor and slowly stripping off her work clothes on the way to her bedroom.





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______________________________________________

I blog irregularly at TinkerX. I'm also on Twitter. @andyhavens, go figure.


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Comments

The following comments are for "Move Your Pawn"
by andyhavens

Lucie; thanks for reading
I don't write as many short-stories as poems. When I do, I run into the problem of "poet's eye;" really concentrating on particular words and small details rather than "big stuff" like plot. I have a hard time with plot (see: 3 unfinished novels sitting on my hard drive).

I didn't want this to be a story about a cancer patient w/ paranoid schizophrenia (p.s.)... but about a p.s. with cancer. Not sure if that makes a difference medically, but I think it does psychologically. There is, as you picked up, the reference to the interaction of his meds; and his mention of "being sick," which could refer to his cancer or the p.s.

I also didn't want to get into issues of remission, severity, mortality, etc. The assumption is, of course, that it's bad; but we don't know. Either way, it wasn't bad enough to kill Duncan before his psychological illness did. Which was kinda the point of this whole thing.

Thanks for reading carefully; that's a nice thing to have happen.

( Posted by: andyhavens [Member] On: September 23, 2007 )

Your move, Doc.
Nice story-telling, Andy. I let clothes sit in the dryer till I finished it. That's the nice thing about short fiction. It doesn't wrinkle your clothes much.

Thank you, Lucie, for making me look up oncology. That one had flown right by me in the story.

There was a point where my lazy mind was going down the wrong track for a second. Upon reading about the sound of the lock in the door, I thought that someone had entered the apartment behind Melissa and had locked the door, even though you, Andy, had not yet even put her inside the place. Proper understanding returned quickly, as I read on, of course. I do have moments of clarity, as did Duncan.

Thank you for the good read. A sort of "physician, heal thyself" tale. And, so, it really does go, which makes for good fiction.

~ John

( Posted by: Flonigus [Member] On: September 23, 2007 )

Move Your Pawn
I do like to read your stories, but I don’t usually have anything meaningful or constructive to say about them. I don’t much now, either, but I thought I’d give it a shot anyway…

I enjoy your measured prose style here, like every line is carefully considered, nothing is spare, everything is given its importance, its place, details are observed, but not obsessed over, and the pace allows for a smooth, steady reading, insuring porridge-brained peasants like me don’t miss any of the salient points. you’re a thoughtful writer, mindful of your readers, but in a quiet and unobtrusive way… “well-crafted” is probably the expression I want… does that make any sense at all…?

the matter-of-factness of this also appeals, it doesn’t slosh about sentimentally, but complex feelings are drawn with clarity, the lines are distinct…

like Lucie I’d like to know how this changes Melissa… the poem served as a punch-line… I like how similar the pair were…

thanks for this.

( Posted by: AuldMiseryGuts [Member] On: September 25, 2007 )





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