"I wonder," I said, "if Jason ever mentioned the counselor's name."
"The counselor's name."
"Or if you had any correspondence from the man."
"Well, on the last point, I certainly never did. But I'm sure Jason mentioned the man's name. And I do take ginkgo, as a matter of fact, but evidently I don't take enough of it, because I just can't come up with that name."
"If Jason wrote it down in a letter- "
"Oh," she said, "don't I wish! No, Mr. Scudder, I don't think Jason ever wrote me a letter from the day he left Wisconsin. The only way I ever heard from him was over the phone."
"So that's how he would have told you."
"Yes, that's right."
"Maybe you could try to call up the sound of his voice, Mrs. Watling. He's talking to you on the phone, telling you about his counselor…"
"Oh, now you're going to have me crying, Mr. Scudder."
"I can just about hear his voice. I was going to say before that I wish he had been the sort to write letters, because it would be so nice if I had a letter from him, but do you want to know what I really wish I had? A tape recording. I wish I could actually hear the sound of his voice, and not have to imagine it."
I don't know where it came from, but I had a lump in my own throat. I swallowed it down and asked her if Jason had ever mentioned a Dr. Nadler.
"Dr. Nadler," she said solemnly.
"Seymour Nadler. No, that's definitely not the name Jason told me."
"Oh, there's no question in my mind. The name's on the tip of my tongue, Mr. Scudder, and I can't quite spit it out, but one thing I can say for certain is it's not Seymour Nadler."
"But it's right on the tip of your tongue."
"Well, I think it is! But what good is that if I can't say it?" She sighed, exasperated with herself. "It was a cheerful name," she said.
"A cheerful name?"
"I remember thinking that. Not that the name was cheerful, but that the person sounded cheerful, and since all I knew about him was his name…"
"It must have been a cheerful name."
"Well, it stood to reason."
"Like Happy or Lucky? What kind of a cheerful name?"
"No, not like that. Oh, I'm terrible, aren't I? I'll bet you're sorry you wasted your time calling me."
"Not at all, Mrs. Watling."
"It was a positive name, that's all. An optimistic sort of a name. I'm sorry, listen to me, I'm just making it worse. And this must be costing you a fortune, calling all the way from New York."
"That's all right," I said. "Look, you wait and see if the name comes to you. Sometimes if you stop trying to think of it…"
"I know exactly what you mean."
"Well, if it comes to you, just call me." I gave her my number, although she assured me she had kept my card. "And I'll call you in a couple of days if I don't hear from you," I said. "Just to check."
A cheerful name, an optimistic name. What the hell did that mean?
The woman is driving him crazy.
She is the type of patient he ought to cultivate. She comes twice a week, Tuesdays and Fridays, at ten in the morning, an hour that is generally hard to fill. And she pays full price, one hundred dollars an hour, two hundred a week, ten thousand a year, and, most remarkable of all, she pays him in cash. Always a fresh new bill with Benjamin Franklin's avuncular portrait beaming out at him. She's a dominatrix, and gets paid in cash herself, by the men she abuses verbally or physically.
She seems oddly cast for the role, a small, slightly built woman of forty-two, who tends to dress down for her appointments, often turning up as she has today in sweats and sneakers, often capping her session with a run around the Central Park Reservoir. She wears no makeup and her long black hair is pulled back in a ponytail and secured by a fuzzy yellow elastic.
On the job, she has told him, she wears a lot of black leather.
You would think, given her occupation, that she would have interesting stories to tell, but no. Her voice is grating, and impossible to ignore, or fall asleep to, and she is hopelessly neurotic, incapable of making the most trivial decisions without agonizing endlessly over them. She whines, she drones, she repeats herself. And, God bless her, she adores him, and is sure he's saving her life, and perhaps he is.
He is, after all, quite good at this.
When his watch beeps he gets to his feet, signaling that time is up. She breaks off in the middle of a sentence, as well trained in obedience as her own clients. In no time at all she's out the door, and he tucks a crisp hundred-dollar bill- green love, he likes to call it- into his billfold.
Ten minutes to eleven. His next appointment isn't until two. He turns to the computer, turns away from it, reaches for the phone.
"Peter," he says, "I'm at a loss here. I don't understand."
"I left a message, Doc."
"You left a message."
"On her answering machine. I asked would she please call me, I said I really wanted to talk to her. But she hasn't called back."
"And this was yesterday that you left this message?"
"Yes, yesterday afternoon."
"And she hasn't called back."
"No. I think maybe she's out of town."
"I rather doubt that, Peter."
"I'm sure she's in town, and in her house, and feeling very lost and alone."
"And most likely depressed, and overwhelmed, all of which are entirely appropriate responses to her situation. She's had some devastating losses. And she's only now beginning to feel the enormity of the first loss of all."
"The first loss of all?"
"The loss of your love, Peter. The two of you separated, for reasons that may have been inevitable at the time, and in due course all of her misfortunes followed."
"Do you see what I mean?"
"I think so."
"You have to break through her resistance, Peter. You don't call once. You call until you get a response."
"You want me to keep calling?"
"I think you must."
"Then I will, Doc."
"What do you get, Peter?"
"You get what you get."
"Precisely. You take the action and accept the result. But the way you take the action determines the result. Peter, when her machine next invites you to leave a message, I want you to visualize Kristin standing right next to the machine. And this time don't speak to the machine. Speak directly to Kristin. Picture her taking in every word even as you are speaking to her."
"Tell her to pick up the phone. Get her to pick up the phone."
"And call me back after you've spoken to her."
He's on the computer when the phone rings. There's nothing interesting at alt.crime.serialkillers this morning, but he's found several Web sites dealing with various aspects of the topic, and he's visiting one of them. What he's reading is interesting, fascinating really, and he's tempted to let the machine take the call, but knows that it's Peter Meredith.
And of course it is, and he's calling to report success.
Success and failure.
"I did what you said, Doc," he begins, "and it worked. Instead of talking to the machine I talked to Kristin, as if she could hear every word I was saying. And I didn't stop, I went right on talking as if we were having this long one-sided conversation, and I said some of the things we talked about yesterday, about family and destiny and, well, I just kept talking."
"And I wore her down, I guess. She picked up the phone and we talked."
"When are you going to see her?"
She doesn't want to see him, Peter says. She has good feelings for him, good memories of their time together, but it's a closed chapter for her. She has her life to live, and he has his own life, at the house in Williamsburg, and she wishes him the best of luck in that life, but she doesn't want to share it with him.
"And Doc," Peter says, "I'm so glad you made me make that call. You always know just what's right for me."
"Because I am so relieved. Doc, I'm over her now, for the first time. When she said there was nothing there, that she had zero interest in getting back together again, I just felt completely liberated. Like I could get on with my life in a way I couldn't up to now."
You fucking idiot, he thinks. But he says, "That's wonderful, Peter. I'm proud of you."
"You did it, Doc."
"No, you did it, Peter," he says automatically, thinking, Yes, you did it, you fat oaf. You stepped in it with both feet.
"Everything you said, about destiny and all? It was like those were my own inner thoughts, but I didn't even know it until I said them and she shot them down. And that released me from them. I think…"
"I know you said it was just rebound, but Caroline- "
"On Wythe Avenue."
"You want to pursue that."
"Unless you think it's a bad idea."
God, he feels tired. "I think it's worth exploring, Peter. If it's a failure, well, every failed relationship is preparation for a successful relationship." He takes a deep breath. "Now you'd better get back to work on that house of yours, hadn't you?"
The shower pelts down on him. Great water pressure in this building, much better than the last place. He lets the spray hit him in the back of the neck, feels the tension drain away. He showered on arising, he showers first thing every morning, but it's not rare for him to take a second or even a third shower in the course of a day, and it seems very much in order now.
You get what you get.
Physician, heal thyself. Is the catchphrase he feeds his patients any less applicable to himself? You get what you get, and whatever comes your way is an opportunity.
You can go to the ocean with a teaspoon or a bucket. The ocean does not care.
Peter is all wrong for Kristin. That had been his first reaction when he met the woman for the first time. This preppy goddess, this daughter of privilege- what was she doing with this jovial fat man?
And so he'd engineered their separation, only to see it in the fullness of time as a mistake. They should be together. While Peter toiled on that sow's ear of a house in Brooklyn, Kristin languished in a silk purse of a brownstone, worth more every day in New York's dizzying real estate market. Now if her inconvenient parents were out of the picture, so that the house and everything else were Kristin's, and if Peter were then to make himself once more available…
He gets out of the shower, pats himself dry. Applies deodorant, dabs a little cologne on his cheeks.
How interesting, he thinks, the way the mind has reasons that the mind knows nothing of. He'd arranged everything for Peter, so that the fellow could win the fair maiden and occupy the castle. (And Peter would be grateful, of course, and would love him more than ever. And, when the castle was Peter's alone, why, he'd show that gratitude in the most concrete way.)