I’m taking an evening class in fiction writing over at UC Berkeley, my alma mater. Our first session was last Wednesday, and the teacher had an ingenious idea. She broke the class into groups of three and had us each tell a personal anecdote to the other two students. Then she gave us ten minutes to write down our anecdote. As our homework assignment, she told us to take half an hour to rewrite our anecdote, but incorporating one of the two anecdotes we’d heard from a classmate.
At first this struck me as impossible—after all, my anecdote had nothing to do with the other ones. But as I thought about it, everything fit together very well, and it solved my biggest problem in writing fiction: coming up with an idea. Sure, half of this story started out as true, but the action now happens to someone else, and the story is merged with my doubtless faulty recollection of a secondhand tale which I then further fictionalized. I'm sure you'll agree that the result can only be considered fiction.
So here’s the story. (Yes, I went over my half-hour.)
My name is Tara. I never liked my name—it always reminded me of “Taras Bulba,” like I came from an ancient family in the steppes of the Ukraine. (It could have been worse: my mom had considered naming me “Terra,” as in Earth. My whole life I’d have been thought of as a hippie!) I grew up in Etna, California, a tiny town way up north with zero traffic lights. Most of the folks in town were poor farmers or poor ranchers. My dad was the only doctor around and though he officially worked in the hospital about half an hour away, an awful lot of his work happened at the house, at night or on weekends. Many of the locals, who either couldn’t afford or didn’t trust hospitals, would save up their problems for when he got home. Often I ended up helping him out.
My mom pretty much stayed in bed, which is a long story I won’t go into. Suffice to say I never felt like my family was very normal. Not that the townsfolk were much to compare myself with. I had to remind myself that the families on TV probably weren’t typical either.
On a Friday evening in the fall, when I was about nine, I was bored, sitting by an open window waiting for my dad to get home from work. An unexpected rainstorm had blown in and I was watching the rain come down in sheets when I heard the hiss of a car’s tires on our street. I thought it was my dad but to my surprise it was a modern black sedan I’d never seen before. It turned onto our gravel driveway and pulled up to the house. A man in a nice grey suit climbed out, walked right up to our door through the pouring rain, and rang the bell. I ran down the hall to my mom’s room and called through the door: “There’s a man in a suit at the door!” My mom told me to call my dad and ask if he was expecting anybody. The doorbell rang again.
I phoned my dad. It must have been quiet at the hospital because they found him pretty fast. “Oh, shoot!” he said. “I totally forgot. That’s Ferdinand, the account manager at Fortis. I actually had an appointment with him tonight. Tell him to hang tight—I’ll rush right over.”
“Uh, dad, it’s pouring rain here. Should I let him in?”
“No, you shouldn’t. See if your mom will let him in.”
I rang off and with a sigh called to my mom again. Sure enough, she wouldn’t come out. I got to the front door just as the doorbell rang a third time. I peeked out through the mail slot. I could see the man’s nicely pressed charcoal grey woolen slacks, and his leather shoes with a nice design pierced all around the toe. “Um, are you Ferdinand?” I asked timidly.
The man knelt down and peered through the mail slot. “Yes. I have an appointment with Dr. Stevens. Are you his daughter?”
“Yes. I just called him. He forgot about the appointment but he’s on his way here. I can’t let you in because my mom is ... busy.” I thought of adding, “She’s cleaning her rifle and isn’t quite done reassembling it.” But other than my dad, I could never get a grown-up to take me seriously.
“Um, are you sure you can’t get your mom?” he said. “I kind of, uh, locked my keys in my car. I'm getting soaked out here.” I told my mom. She still wouldn’t come out. I reported back to Ferdinand. To my surprise, he agreed to wait it out.
I went to my room and stared blankly at a book. What business did this man have with my dad? Must be important if he was willing to wait. Was he a banker? Were we losing our home? A long while later I heard the crunch of tires on gravel as my dad arrived. I got to the door just as he opened it. He was staring at Ferdinand. “Oh, man, Ferdinand, look at your suit!” he said. “It’s all bubbly! It’s ruined!”
Sure enough, the fabric of the drenched suit was all fouled up. The wool was separating from the lining and had the texture of bubble wrap. Ferdinand looked stricken. Dad led him to the kitchen table, took his suit jacket, sat him down, and gave him a fresh dishtowel to dry his head and face.
Soon there were papers spread over the table, covered with lots of fine print and some charts. My dad never sent me away when he talked to other grownups; he was always hoping I’d learn something. The two men talked awhile, but nothing they said made any sense to me until my dad finally stood up and said, “You know Ferdinand, I wasn’t actually that interested in this meeting, to be honest. You were so enthusiastic I didn’t know how to say no. But the truth is, this fund has been underperforming for years and I was planning to sell it anyway. I’d actually like to close out my account.” And just like that, the meeting was over. My dad signed some papers, and then Ferdinand packed up his briefcase, wriggled back into his wretched bubbly suit jacket, and left.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“Well, I somehow let this guy talk me into this meeting to go over my investment portfolio. When I showed up late, and then stupidly blurted out that his suit was ruined, I actually started to feel more bold. Like, ‘I’m going to Hell anyway for keeping this man waiting in the rain, so I might as well finish him off.’ Poor guy. His business must be really hurting to come all the way out here to talk about a portfolio of only a few thousand dollars.”
“But dad, he looked ... it looked important. I’ve heard you complain about money. Couldn’t he help?”
“Yes, possibly, in some indirect way. But it’s hard to take a man like that seriously after a long day of seeing patients.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“Well, Ferdinand moves people’s money around all day, electronically, and if he’s lucky the numbers go up. There’s nothing tangible about what he does for a living.”
“What does tangible mean?”
“You can see it. You can touch it. Money is so abstract. It’s like this all-powerful force and sometimes it just gets me down. You know the first thing that happens when a patient comes into the ER? No matter how bad the illness or injury, the patient has to work out the payment first thing. We’re supposed to be providing care for these people but the first order of business is always sorting out the payment.”
I’m sure I’ve embellished my memory of that evening. I couldn’t possibly have remembered these conversations in such detail because I wouldn’t have grasped the concepts at the time. But I understood enough to feel kind of disappointed about the meeting. Not so much about the ruined suit, but because my did dismissed Ferdinand. I kind of wanted my dad to associate with people in nice suits who drive modern cars and talk about money and investments. That was part of the more sophisticated world, the TV world, that of course I dreamed of escaping to. Being a doctor, my dad should have had all kinds of money but it never seemed he did. I suddenly felt very tired, and after a quick dinner (grilled cheese, Campbell’s soup) I went to bed.
In the middle of the night my dad shook me awake. “Tara, wake up. I have a patient and I need your help.” I couldn’t believe it, and yet I knew the drill. I dragged myself out of bed, cleared the dining room table, and spread out a fresh clean sheet for the patient.
It was Drummond, a guy down the way who raised ostriches. Ostriches! He’d somehow cut his arm really badly on some machinery. His arm was wrapped in a giant towel that was totally soaked in blood. He’d injured himself during the late afternoon and then spent the next several hours arguing with his wife about going to the hospital. He’d never been to a hospital and wasn’t going to start now, blah, blah, blah.
Dad stretched him out on the table and removed the bloody towel. Then he went to the kitchen sink and washed his hands for like five minutes straight, got out his medical kit, filled a syringe with something, and started stabbing Drummond all up and down his arm with it. It was like a five-inch needle. “This is just Novocain,” he said soothingly, as though his patient wouldn’t want anything stronger. Blood was getting all over my fresh sheet. I would be doing all the clean-up, of course. At times like this I really resented my mom, sleeping away. After all, she chose to marry a doctor in a small town and should have known what would be expected of her. Somehow that duty had slipped a generation and here I was, a little girl who didn’t choose a doctor for a father, playing surgical nurse with real blood.
We waited around for ten minutes to let the anesthetic take effect. Then Dad got started on sewing up Drummond’s arm. My job was to hold it down. This took all my strength. Drummond was a tough old dude but was clearly in great pain, and couldn’t resist trying to recoil. Dad gave him a wooden tongue depressor to bite down on and Drummond snapped it in two with his teeth. I winced. Dad gave him two more tongue depressors, stacked together. Drummond snapped those, too, sending a shiver down my back. I don’t know how biting down is supposed to help anyway; maybe it was just to keep him from cussing. Finally Dad gave him a clean rag, the color of pink clay, to chew on.
When you’re a doctor’s kid you learn how coarse medicine really is. Putting in sutures, for example, is just sewing up a guy’s skin with a needle and thread. I had to pay attention and it was like watching my mom sewing closed the Thanksgiving turkey with twine or dental floss: just as crude as can be. (By his own admission Dad was only “okay” at sutures. At the dinner table one time he ranted about a surgeon he’d watched stitch up a boy’s face. “He was so good at stitches,” he raved, “it was like plastic.” Plastic surgery, he meant. I had to remind him I was trying to eat.)
Dad finished up and sent Drummond on his way with an Ace bandage wrapped around his arm. “In about a week or ten days you can come back to have those sutures removed,” he said. “Or you can remove them yourself—just snip one and drag the whole thread out.” I was up for another half hour, cleaning up. A bed sheet really isn’t very absorbent and I was just smearing the blood around. I had to soak the sheet and towels awhile in the washing machine, on cold, before adding the detergent and starting it up. Like I said before, I knew the drill. I finally got back to bed at around three.
Fortunately, the next day was Saturday and I got to sleep in. That afternoon I was sitting on the front porch with Dad when Drummond came walking up our driveway dragging his kid’s Radio Flyer wagon behind him. Between dragging the wagon and holding his bandaged arm up over his head, Drummond was, I felt, lacking in dignity. “Good, keep that arm elevated,” Dad said. “What have we here?” The wagon was full of these giant eggs, the size of cantaloupes: ostrich eggs. Dad’s fee. Did Dad send Drummond away, like he did Ferdinand? No, he happily unloaded the wagon, acting like ostrich eggs were the greatest treasure on Earth. “Isn’t it amazing,” he mused, “that the world’s second-fastest land animal can also lay these giant eggs? Puts a hen to shame.”
Drummond didn’t say much, and was soon on his way. We would be eating giant omelets for months. I couldn’t help myself. “Dad,” I complained, “did you ever hear of money? What’s so great about these eggs?”
“Well ... just look at ‘em!” he said, still smiling.
Yeah, I know. You can see them. You can touch them.
dana albert blog