Dr. Niels Berners—a Swiss plastic surgeon living in New York—is struggling to recover from his dysfunctional son’s abandonment of him. He joins a group of four other parents, all with absent children either in jail or in jeopardy, to discuss their feelings and seek a sense of community, comfort, and closure.
Hortense Calisher artfully strings together tales of healing, brilliantly tracing the shadow of the generational gap. With compassion and precision, she paints the bruised egos of concerned parents confronting very empty nests.
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||1 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Hortense Calisher
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Hortense Calisher
All rights reserved.
At six o'clock on the evening of the last Friday in the past July, Dr. Berners tells us, he reentered his office here in the hospital after reattaching the severed hand of an accident victim, and stood before the window, as is his habit when recovering his nonsurgery self. Thinking as well of this report. To calibrate a parent is not easy. So much of it is not parenthood. He decides to put everything in.
Midsummers around that time, he could watch the city changeover telegraph itself west-east from river to river—the New York invitation, or threat—in his blood ever since his early teens and first visit here, as one freshly arrived boy-vegetable, opal-cheeked and cocoa-calm, from Switzerland. In winters, the office light goes from bluebell to dark; then only he thought of his alp-ringed childhood, the neat prunings around his father's dispensary, and air like a carillon breathed.
This night, the window was letting in a heat-roughened rosiness already browning at the edges, with less than usual hints of golden goings-on elsewhere. The weekend buzz outside was a leaving one. Technically sundown, nighttime for the single here. All this would loom large in such a report.
Over his secretary's rounded back, he saw on his desk a bowl of fresh lichee nuts; half his patients were now from Chinatown, almost all of his practice being now through this hospital.
"Lichee light," he said—he always says something—and reaches over for one of the nuts, fondling its cobbled, inflamed brown—not wood, not bark, not skin. "That sky."
She doesn't answer, hasn't in eighteen years. The Swiss, with some of the best climate in Europe, are its worst weather bores; on his first working return there after a war he had served as surgeon in, he and his French wife had met in Vevey, on just that note. "They try to be such artists about it," she'd said, taking him for an American. "A boring people generally," he told her. "All Europe thinks so—and we know." Stoically he and they suffered their median selves. Even when they were handsome—like you, Renee said—there was seldom enough flash for one to notice it, and like pigs fed on chestnut, she said, their flesh had no rankness; some early ozone kept their linen fresher than other peoples' even when they emigrated, and maybe their souls too—how could she have mistaken him for anything else! "Your kisses taste of camomile." He had chewed tablets, as he had observed doctors there did before examining—since he had never before had a private patient, or a female one. A courtesy to his superior, whose niece she was—a wart removal, from the delicate cheek, tiny lobe. None on the pointed tongue. Sex mixed with the surgery, even when sliding honorably into marriage, was maybe unlucky; all that esprit, boring to him in the end though he never told her so, had carried her off early, leaving him free again to be a monk for medicine. But a father.
He never missed her sharply, except when he went up to Boston. To stand in that slum alley, first locking the car against the idlers there—maybe they're not stealers, but they stare at it and him as at a Trojan horse—and look up at the blind windows of that hermit second story, readying himself. To abase himself, before his son.
He strips a lichee and pops the pure, slippery oval in his mouth. More and more he has a taste for what he thinks of as forest nourishment. "Who brought?"
That half-formed little fist will never be a beauty, but the new operating rotunda here, in the American style, almost as large as an amphitheater, is full of students, and of us doctors, too, every time he works on it. Reminding him that after his war service, his work with a surgeon's group, the Society of the Hand, was what had started him on a vanity practice. What are the decent limits of vanity in a human body, he asks us now? At what ridgeback of hair, daily callous of misery, horn of deformity, may it start? Or must it stop.
Erna the secretary, with him since the beginning, hands him a Kleenex for the juice on his fingers, then a pen and some checks, including one for the rent of the Park Avenue office, which he signs, Niels Berners, without flourish. "Guess I better give up the uptown office." Where patients seldom called anymore, never finding him there. "Hadn't I, hmm?" Answers Erna never gave. But he would feel her approval if he had it. He didn't. "What, no tea today?"
She brings him his cup of a brew called Constant Comment, a tin of which his son had once sent him from Cambridge, as a joke. Awesome to recall that he once had a Harvard son, and a joke with him.
"Guess I'm hooked on this stuff." He says this everyday too. To please her? Stichmain, god of orthopedics at his former hospital, maintained that a daily ounce of ritual was just the placebo to keep the lower staff satisfied. Strange to think of that thick-skinned muscle-guesser (whose daughter, rumor says, now has her own kind of habit) as only another beaten father. Drugs no longer seem to Berners the worst. Rather—incurably simpler. A mass placebo, even when a child—or a parent—dies of them. He admits that if his own only child took drugs he mightn't see as clearly that the parent-child disease is larger, must be something else. Still, there is Stichmain, one more member of the son-blasted, daughter-bitten Society of the Child.
"Where'd you get that tea these days, Erna? Altman's?"
She knows what he's hooked on. He's touched. And brusque to it. "Okay, see you in two weeks. Have a good time on the Cape May, with the mammah. And take with you that box over there."
When he sees her redden with pleasure at the perfume and the stole—which will she give to the mammah?—he wants to spirit her upstairs, quick under the arc lights, to lift the sad, virginal forehead, that meek jowl, even those unused breasts—an operation which he now will do for no one—and then? What surgical correction is there for mother-monkey on the back?
At once he reports himself to himself. Old thinking! Which, who knows, may have its quiet victims lying in state in every mortuary in the nation, under every diagnosis but the true? In the parentism produced by the Society of the Child, one never blames the child. Still, having seen that mood-sucking Viennese monkey, Mrs. Krants, he finds it hard to blame poor Erna, who at the heights of her mother's candy-eating dependency is still called "Lump!" Yet there must be something. Erna is a child, in every house and mortuary the unalterable love-object. Under the terms of the parents' group which he has been attending all winter, Dr. Berners reminds himself of what he is committed to hold fast to at every corner. A child is blameable. Raoul, up there behind the blind windows in his ashram of one—is a child.
He puts down his cup; he has finished it. Its gall is still sweet. "Okay, then—the answering service knows where I am tonight?"
"I gave them all the numbers. You didn't say where for tonight."
"Tonight we meet at Mrs. Hunter's."
Erna, who has met Baba Hunter, must be the only person who doesn't make a face at the mention of her. Holding fast at the corners for Baba isn't easy. But this is where the parents' group comes in. He goes out into that city musk, not single any more. To help Baba Hunter with her blame. Which presumably helps him with his.
"Good night, Doctor. And please remember, if you need me back sooner, just call."
As he closes the door, she is trying on the stole.
Outside, he recalls that when Raoul was little, he and Erna used to exchange postcards. And take trips to the zoo. In her mind, she is a mother to him. It never stops. She would get on my back if she could. With him.
Going up to Harlem via the East River Drive, he drove on past his goal to a spot just south of the Willis Avenue Bridge, one of those places here that he always says no one but foreigners ever see. He and Raoul used to collect them. He parked the car in a cul-de-sac off the Drive and walked back. Opposite him is an oval of green, oddly undusky shore, on which are two old, curved trees, wineglass elms or the next best; a pair of black boys are gamboling across it, but it is Gainsborough nevertheless. If the river running beneath were cloth instead of water, it would be of that kind once brought to kings, still to be seen in that arras under glass in the musée at Edam, or in the painted riverstreak under a saint's prow in the town hall at Siena. The finest eel-gray, dirty, iridescent—what was the name of that cloth in which kings used to clothe themselves? It bothers him, this interpenetration of everything, which people got out of easy by calling "culture." When he can't remember the name of the cloth, he gets in the car again and drives back slowly, past that high-rise mortuary of state madness, Manhattan State Hospital. Anybody passing it, who does not cry out, is to blame. At that point he remembers— samite! Raoul, in the eighth-grade pageant. Raoul, in a hospital ten years later, in dirty-gray menswear samite.
At that point Dr. Berners warns us. Beware the mind, young or old anywhere, that seeks an architectural peace for itself. It will cry out. He reminds himself that this is a full report.
He eats dinner in the No Name Restaurant near Baba's, Soul Food Served Here, Your Host—White Sambo, who proves to be an octoroon, that hot mauve color of the proudflesh round a healing wound. Berners is alone in the conversation pit where the tables are, and the ghosts of the Beatles in that pit in Help! If violence should come, aiming for money or color, he is in a straight bead from the door. Ideas aren't illusory and veiled anymore, rivers either. Yet what is wrong with him, that without logic, he still wants life? The soul food is fine, but he can't eat. His son is like a plummet of stone in the grave of his chest. This is the evening devoted to thoughts of him.
The owner, who has seen him and the group here, brings him coffee he says is made with eggshells in a granite pot. Berners drinks it, swallowing hard. Essen sie Seele. Mangez de l'âme, Raoul. Eat! Eat mine.
"Summin' wrah-ung food."
"My son. He starves."
"Uh-uh! Wo' prisoner?"
He can only shake his head.
"Uh ..." Then that indescribable common sound, expelled from the catgut of the throat, like spittle. The owner looks about him tallying— white leathers, marble pit, soul. The mauve eyelids flutter. "Won't take yo' munnah."
Berners goes to the washroom and returns. He has wept.
The owner is waiting, that pleading look on his face. Toss him a bone.
"He is rejecting the world," Berners says. "And I shall die of it."
Berners wishes to add he is almost sure that, reverting to his childhood training under the Protestant Fathers of Berne, he said that last in Latin.
It is answered.
"I keep that table. Fo' you an' him. An' me an' mine."
Payment is refused.
Beyond is his car, on the hood of which four small boys sit. They are about eight, the age of Mei-ling. Their eyes are the same velvet glass, their small nostrils and lips carved in the same shared substance which keeps all of them alike for a time. Berners looks closer. At one of them. What a surgeon knows best and before all techniques, he reminds us, is the look of the successive stages of flesh. In sickness and in health. His mind is married to it. Is it deeper than fancy that in this one the cornea already itches; the maze of a twofold torture is ready to bud behind that thought-scabied eye?
"Have you a mumma and dadda?" The child turns down the corners of his little frog-mouth. Berners swears to himself there is a spatial knowledge in the smile.
In time, Berners is now ready to believe, the child and she will die of it.
Berners is in other words—new and dangerous words—ready to believe that his is not a special situation. He is fully aware of the source of his brooding—a succession of undiagnosed autopsies in the Chinese district last year. Whatever the cause, certain ones down there fall like flies to it; they go down before it as the Indians here are said first to have succumbed to measles—like them they must have had no antibodies for it. All men and women of a certain age and circumstance. Not unlike his. Parental disease of the heart? A pathologist smiled, and said no.
He has even been foolish enough to coin himself a secret name for it, no doubt grubbed from some submerged Graeco-Roman prowl of his boyhood. Parentation, or the performance of the funeral rites of parents. By—or with—the child. He believes himself to be not merely in a personal situation, but a process—as in so many of the circumstances of life we really are. Of the dangers of this sort of thinking he is also fully aware. But he has come to it. Perhaps the process has brought him there? Yes, in the operating room, those small or larger amphitheaters where observers are allowed, any who ask him for theory, student or staff, still get a hissed "Watch!" But these days he carries us, his own amphitheater with him everywhere, its members changing or added to daily. We are that hypothetical arena to which even the lowest of humans makes his report.
The boys want him to pay them something. On the stoops of the sour night, people stand, offering their breasts passively to the cool traffic wind, sorry perhaps they are not machines. He thinks of the four of us he has approached. Only four of course, in a total staff of two hundred, but all outwardly hearty, positive, supervisory people like Berners himself, sturdy enough for a physical rehabilitation unit in a slum hospital. And each—until that spate of Chinese bodies last winter—harboring at the secret dead-center of himself, his own core of child-woe. Each—Berners now posits—going to die like that, with not a cell disarranged, on the child-vine.
We are participating, he will suggest, in the cacoethes, or malignant death, of the species. He will say he finds it almost exhilarating, that the atom may not be our last abyss. We are humans; it would be fitting that we disappear humanly. In human agony.
In the coal-gas night, Berners copes with this enormous dream funeral, still looking at the child. Once imagined, he has had to deal with it like a man receiving by messenger a giant bouquet the size of his small house. One summons back other funerals, of smaller scope:
A family line on a summer porch, never photographed—and now dust which has escaped this greater dust. Two students he once roomed with at separate times: one stupid, saturnine and dead, the other dead and criminal. They turn their backs on him. The reverend headfather, then eighty, bending toward two novices, brought before him for flagellating themselves, who will die in next year's avalanche; all three stare at him. His own father, now a whistle and a cheroot on the alpine air.
All, all what innocents, on the far, safe side! Old-fashioned, valetudinarian deaths. From small sicknesses. But in the domesday light of this other, wouldn't the interpenetration of all suffering become clear?
He asks us to consider whether we may not now be finishing that Voyage of the Beagle which Darwin made. Ask ourselves, he says—Have the fittest survived? Or is this nature's quick "Price raised!" for having made that unique life-doll, an individual—as those faces he took us to see in the morgue and the Mott Street mortuaries all seemed to say? They were all middle-aged, like us. All on the edge of "a culture," no longer in the golden mean of any. Maybe those go first, he brooded, who in their lifetime have had more than one, and can no longer manage it. Or was it merely that lesser decline of the West which Berners' grandfather, a classmate of Spengler, claimed he too saw dragging its curved shadow up against the sun's curve? There the bodies lay, in what might be a Darwinian death—or only something caught from a mote in a basket of fruit. "All parents—" as that fact-fool of a social worker read out to them, "—of one or more child"—as if it was possible to the state of parent to have less than one. Berners will ask us what would be the most fitting human agony? Or a death the most Darwinian.
Would it be in a reversal of the roles between cadaver and child? Would it be—that our children become our cadavers, and we are forced to dance with them?
But he reminds us that his is only a first report, from a man of median imagination. Maybe those are the only ones to imagine it. Meanwhile, the hospitals round the world continue their search for the nonfilterable viruses, hoping to find an orderly degeneration in the ordinary tissues of men. When we listen to him, we must consider whether or not his is merely that.
What does the rotunda know?—he will say, concluding. Man is a rotunda. That is what it knows best.
Now he asks us to put aside scalpel, microscope, maybe even the hospital, and come outside with him, into a ward growing ever larger.
Follow him please into a group of ordinary parents, casting their nets for blame. Remember? This is a full report.
He paid the boys two dollars to mind the car, promising more when he comes back. Can they stay out that late? Nodding, sitting on its prow like small boatmen soon to be lost in the dark, they watch him go.
Walking to Baba's, he already feels the usual irritation with these people who share his lot. Fools who sit in their misery as in a church. And would have let any local expert from the "Y" lead their interdenominational chorale. Who let him.
Excerpted from Standard Dreaming by Hortense Calisher. Copyright © 1972 Hortense Calisher. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction to Standard Dreaming,
About the Author,