The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 1

Often I Mistook Other People for Abraham

by Rivka Galchen

Now it seems strange to me to think I was allowed to hang out all day at the institution. I was only fourteen that summer, but my dad was the chief psychiatrist and there was this vague sense that I was learning. Mostly I just opened drawers, snacked on the free crackers, apple juice; every few hours I'd go to the insta-hot tap and make myself an off-brand tea, shake in a generous amount of powdered creamer. I did do some filing: all the folders were labeled CONFIDENTIAL, but I looked in them and they didn't say much, at least nothing I could understand.
     Just before I started, my mom had come home to find me sitting Indian-style on the kitchen counter, looking down at all our dishes—iris-pattern CorningWare we'd acquired on points at our grocery store—which I'd broken on our checkerboard linoleum floor. This destructive outburst wasn't like me: I liked watching old movies on television with my dad; I collected stamps.
     "Do you have AIDS?" my mom said.
     The only boy whom I'd ever even held hands with was my father. But my parents were Israeli immigrants living in the wilds of Oklahoma, and my mom especially didn't know how to synthesize the clues she got from the news and from me.
     "I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what I was angry about," which was as precise an explanation as I was capable of offering, and I felt suddenly embarrassed, like I was making an appearance on a TV melodrama.
     I don't think my mother actually told my father what I'd done. We went out for Chinese food that night, and the next day we had new dishes.

The ward had low, nubbly carpet—a fresh, fat blue stripe the length of the hall; except for all the patients dressed in hospital pajamas and foam slippers, the place had the look of a relatively well-funded community center (though there were little disquieting things: no blinds or curtains, so the patients couldn't hang themselves, nothing nailed to the walls, a pay phone in the hallway that was never properly hung up). I knew that one floor up there was a ward where the patients were supposedly dangerous, and had escorts, and small locked rooms, even occasionally straightjackets. I wanted to know what a straightjacket looked like but asking seemed wrong.
     I heard about the other ward early on, from Tania, the chatty young nurse:
     —‘Haldol, please,' that's what I'm sayin' all day up there, she laughed.
     Tania's gaiety both attracted and repelled me, just like she did. She had these pretty blue eyes, but you could always see her makeup and the color of her foundation didn't match her skin.
     —That's funny, I said with a sense of obligation.
     Though I hadn't been to that other ward, its unknown, pent-up craziness haunted the whole institution, leaked down into the background flat-affect hum of our entire floor. At least in my mind it did.
     That night I asked my dad—we were watching Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes on TNT—what Haldol was.
     —An antipsychotic, he said. Basically, just something that calms people down.
     —Oh, I said. You know what bothers me?
     —About these movies, I said. It's like I'm missing something. I feel like I'm missing something and I don't know what. And this even when I watch the same one twice.
     —Oh but I like that feeling, he said.

Much of my day at the institution I'd pass sitting at the nurses' station, reading mysteries. I had the anthology Alfred Hitchcock's Murder-go-round. The cover graphic was a dour color photograph of Hitchcock superimposed on a mossy green drawing of a merry-go-round. I usually felt how he looked: at once ridiculous, tired, and condescendingly tolerant. Having only my parents as real friends had made me precocious in certain unfortunate ways.
     The main punctuation of my days came from one of the patients—his file just said "personality disorder not otherwise specified," a phrase that to this day remains dear to me. He liked to walk up to the nurses' station while I was sitting there and say:
     —Little girl, you dropped your nose on the ground.
     He'd do this a few times a day. And this somehow would actually make me feel strange, and defeated; it embarrassed me that I couldn't laugh, not at him and not at me.

Our floor did have a certain cheer though, one that went beyond the blue stripe, and I became fond of particular routines. Afternoons, when the sun would pour in the windows and the patients were in the ebb tide of their sedating medications, I would leave the nurses' station (leave chatty
     Tania, leave my murder mysteries) to go and play Uno with some of the patients in the lounge. There was geisha-stepping Clara, whose dementia was unapparent to me. And Karl, whose only visible offense was occasional complaints of excruciating pain in his left hand—this despite the fact that he was maimed and had no left hand, not even a forearm. Tania assured me that—out of the institution, off medication—Karl had tried to kill his mother with a steak knife, that Clara put clothing in the oven and beat her head against walls. Picturing that was difficult for me. And I didn't really understand how being in the institution, how playing Uno with me, how any of this solved much. Before that summer I had always pictured my dad's work being like a cross-examiner getting a defendant to break down, cry, and reveal the truth. Gasps from the gallery. Instead he seemed like a really good summer camp counselor. The patients called him "Doc."

However, there was one impressively conclusive case. My first week there a young woman was admitted with paralysis of both her arms; she blamed the condition on a dead mom and a bad Boston cream she'd bought at a local doughnut shop; her admission papers cited an outside physician's tentative diagnosis of schizophrenia, paranoid type.
     But my dad told me he suspected otherwise. He found out that a few weeks earlier she'd taken sulfonamides for a urinary tract infection. Also that she frequently suffered from abdominal pain.
     —The sulfonamides, my dad said. They're the key.
     Apparently, sulfonamides could trigger a latent porphyria, a rare disease that, as my dad explained, was believed to have been the etiology of the madness of King George. I didn't know about this mad George, but I was profoundly impressed. My dad, following his hunch, ordered a special urine test that had to be processed at a lab. The patient quickly improved, was assured of her mental health, and returned home with an informational pamphlet and a list of medications to avoid.
     Acute intermittent porphyria. Case closed.
     —I could still be wrong, my dad said.
     But I didn't think he really meant it.

I wanted to solve something so elegantly, so completely. I was waiting for my moment of insight. But all those afternoons playing Uno with Clara and Karl, and I'd learned nothing but the forms of their eccentricities.
     Karl would offer to shuffle. Clara and I would flatter his single-handed bridge shuffle. Karl would blush. There were better games than Uno for us to play—Clue, Parcheesi—but the dice were missing and somehow that was that. And besides, it was a pleasure to watch him shuffle. He did it so well. I took to the notion that the shuffling would prove to be the door to understanding Karl.
     Clara tended to say "Uno" whenever she felt like it, regardless of how many cards she had left in her hand, but was otherwise a decent player. Also, she always called me "love," as in, "Your turn, love."
     Which was another reason playing Uno was better than just preparing myself another Styrofoam cup of blond tea and continuing on at the nurses' station. But still: it wasn't exactly the riotous, madcap fun promised me by the phrase loony bin.

The first time Abraham spoke to me had to do with string beans. He had saved some string beans from lunch and wanted them reheated.
     —Will you ask them to wrap these in foil and put them in the oven? The foil is very important.
     I was sitting at the nurses' station as usual and had again failed to anticipate the resolution to the murder mystery I was reading. When Abraham spoke to me, it wasn't as if I had anything else to do. I walked his little plastic tray of beans to the kitchenette in the back. Chatty Tania was there. She looked exasperated, disregarded my foil instructions, stuck the beans in the microwave, and then sent me back out with them steaming.
     —They didn't have any foil, I said meekly, handing over the beans.
     —Then it's not kosher, he said, waving them away politely. Actually quite politely. He seemed very pleased about this noble forfeiture.
     I threw the beans away.
     —You keep kosher? I asked
     —Of course.
     —That's strange.
     A pause then, like birds taking flight off an electric line.
     —Gotta keep clean. Gotta be me. Gonna wash that man right out of my hair, he said, and then slapped his hand down on the counter emphatically.
     —That's right, I agreed.
     It irritated me that even though I was Jewish it had never once crossed my mind to keep kosher.
     Abraham walked away purposefully. I didn't know his name yet, but I noticed him—strange, bespectacled, slope-shouldered him—for the rest of the day. He looked out the window. He sat in one of those green plastic molded chairs, the ones where the plastic is all of a piece, where the metal legs are all of a piece. One of those popular, practical things that I've never learned to like.

That night, like almost every other night that summer, my dad and I watched the 11 P.M. Alfred Hitchcock Presents. During a commercial for Hamburger Helper I said:
     —I'm no use to you at work.
     —You don't want to spend the summer with me? I was wondering who would ever think to make a mascot out of just a hand.
     —It's just that I'm not, I don't know, any help, I said.
     —Don't be ludicrous. You're observing. You're my observer genius. I need you. I need you to see the things that I can't see. You're like an extra me, but better, better because you're not me, because you're someone else. It's like, for example, binocular vision.
     My dad is always all wrong about me, I was thinking. The Hamburger Helper blinked bashfully. Changing the subject I asked:
     —Who's the kosher guy?
     —Kosher? I'd say about thirty percent of psychotics say they're kosher. As soon as one of them is kosher, it becomes an epidemic; the kosher idea, it's more infectious than tuberculosis. There's something about being kosher that appeals to crazy people, some false ideal of purity that psychosis seems to spawn—
     —You never actually answer my questions. But as he started to say more I shushed him because Hitchcock was back on, and the best part of the show was always right after that last commercial break, when everything would unravel, or occasionally, unsettlingly, ravel.
     —I think I could write a paper on that, on kosher crazes, my dad whispered, half to himself, and I again shushed him.
     We watched so much television that summer. I'd fall asleep on the sofa with that pale blue TV glow filling the living room. When I'd wake up in the morning I'd find that someone had covered me with a blanket.

Midmorning of the day after I'd met him, I sat down across from kosher-green-beans man. I handed him some saltines packages; I knew they were kosher because they had the circled U.
     —Thank you, he said, taking the crackers. You have beautiful hands, he added. You must play piano. You must play so well.
     He was holding my hand like it was an exhibit. This didn't creep me out but instead flattered me: I wasn't the kind of girl who was overwhelmed with physical compliments. And though I knew he was wrong—I was a terrible piano player—I liked the way he misinterpreted the evidence.
     I noticed his hair was thinning, his hands were pudgy. He wore his green robe so neatly it didn't seem like institutional wear. I had tried on one of those robes at home and looked like a highway vagrant.
     —Nonkosher food will ruin you, he said. Think about it.
     What I thought about instead was the circled U symbol for kosher—so sealed and perfectly complete.
     —I don't know your name, I said.
     He told me it was Abraham, which was a funny name to me, a name of people now long gone. I wanted to ask Abraham what he was in for; I found myself saying:
     —How do you like your room?
     —I have a marvelous view of the apple orchard, he said. I've seen three Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. We're going to have a wet and generous July, it's lovely. You're the rabbi's daughter, aren't you?
     —The what?
     —You tell him. You tell him that Abraham is very happy here. Do you want to play a game? Let's play one of them, let's do.
     He pulled Clue off the shelf. I protested that the dice were missing, but he said we could just take turns, going from room to room, making accusations.
     —But none of this secret passaging, from Lounge to Kitchen, Kitchen to Lounge, Abraham added as he unfolded the board.
     I missed the weekly staff meeting that afternoon. My dad had wanted me to attend, so that I could learn how the floor was managed. Probably to make me feel included.
     —Maybe you'll be a psychiatrist one day, my dad had said to me with a shrug. Or, what do you call me, a midget? An albino?
     We'd watched a movie where an albino midget was a key suspect.
     —A shrink, I said.
     —Shrink? Where does that come from?
     —How can you not know the word shrink? I said.
     —How would I know? he said.

My father died suddenly the following fall, and I didn't grow up to become him, to become a shrink. But my summer in the institution learning did end up being of practical use: for a few years out of college I worked for a prestigious psychiatrist, whom I liked to think of as Dr. K. Dr. K wore rimless glasses, exquisitely tailored clothes, and these fancy soft Italian shoes that were like socks. The fit of his pants—which I had to remind myself not to stare at—made me almost wish I were a man, just so I could fit into pants like that.
     It was my job to help him write a psychiatry textbook.
     Dr. K took his free-associating very seriously; he believed his thoughts to be not only important but also interrelated, part of a unified world, a map of his mind, a map the public was waiting to see. On the practical level this meant a filing cabinet filled with scribbled-on napkins, inked-up progress reports, paperbacks with marginalia on folded-down pages. A few fairly well-reasoned, typed-up mini-treatises as well. My job was to stitch the fragments together until they were all of a piece, noncontradictory.
     —Keep it clean, Dr. K was always exhorting me. Keep it clean.
     He wasn't alluding to sexual or bathroom references, of which there were plenty, but to unconcluded thoughts, unresolved problems, conflicting and ragged edges of examples. Yet his instruction was impossible to abide. He wanted all his thoughts in there, his whole self.
     Working for Dr. K I learned a little about fashion and a lot, with disappointment, about the deficiencies of medicine, about how it has only the most primitive ideas about what "disease" really is. How it just puts that name to anything that makes life a little more difficult to live. Note: The same mutation that makes a person immune to malaria can, when it happens in tandem, produce sickle-cell disease. This on the back of Dr. K's business card. In some parallel universe, where blood has evolved to clot in a different way, sickle-cell disease might very well be not a disease at all, but just a variant, or even a strength—the secret weapon of marathon runners. And as for mental "health"?
     Dr. K convinced me that though we think of disease as an assault on the normal self, in truth man is just a much-mutated fish, disease simply one more of these mutations. We can either think of ourselves as very ill fish, or take our mutations as our selves.

—His name's not Abraham, my dad said to me back in his office, after I had pointed out Abraham in the rec room. That guy is full of pastrami. His name is Chester. Has he told you yet how much he likes it here? As far as I know he doesn't work, and he keeps getting admitted because of dramatic suicide gestures that don't have a chance in hell of succeeding. This always right after his Social Security runs out. I never figure him out, to be perfectly honest. He's hyper, he can't hold a job, or a relationship, but I know a lot of people like that who I wouldn't describe as mentally ill. Honestly, I'm just a centimeter from that myself sometimes. I don't know if Chester's just bored and putting on a show or really crazy or a little bit of both, and I know he'll never take any medication, and frankly I'm not sure he should. I usually try and discharge him as quickly as possible. He never wants to go. But it irritates me to see every day a patient that I'm not doing the least bit of good. He's the same, in or out.
     My dad could run on like that, like any of the new manic-y patients before their mood stabilizers had really set in. It was cute. I looked around his office: papers pinned on corkboard, stacks of folders, a pile of journals on the floor, near toppling.
     —I noticed Abraham's, I mean Chester's, hands are pudgy, I said. Not like the rest of him. Don't you think that might explain something?
     —Maybe. Not really. Doubtful. No. Sorry.
     My dad handed me Chester/Abraham's file. It told me his age: fifty-three. Eighth-grade education. Sister in Albion, Michigan. One daughter, deceased. Question marks around the phrase "exposure to toxins." He had apparently worked once in a jewelry factory. Nine prior admissions. This time, the admission sheet noted, he was found playing chicken on the highway.
     The file was a mess, full of pale Xeroxes of old admission sheets and unreadable handwritten marginalia.

Soon after, sharing saltines with Abraham, I found myself still fixated on his pudgy hands.
     —Do you often get fevers? I asked with what felt like keen instinct.
     He denied it. He kind of gave me fevers though, just because he seemed to quietly adore me; maybe he adored that I adored him, and I adored that adoration, and it made for a homey, reverberant crush.

I hadn't known that Hitchcock made cameos in all his films. But in one of the last movies we watched together, Rear Window, my dad said,
     —Look, there's Hitchcock.
     I rewound the video a few seconds and asked him to show me again. There he was, winding a clock in the songwriter's apartment. No, nothing in particular. But it struck me as hugely important.
     —He's in almost every movie, my dad said. In The Birds he walks little white dogs.
     And I thought, That's it. It's him. He must be the essential clue.
     It was a few weeks after that my dad died of a heart attack. Later in my life, for obvious reasons that I failed to notice, I did a fair amount of watching Hitchcock movies. When I'd spot the cameos I'd have this overwhelming sense of insight, of brilliance even.
     Once I made a big show of pointing out a cameo to my mom. We had rented Dial M for Murder; Hitchcock appears in the class-reunion photograph.
     —That's fun, my mom said. That's a cute thing for him to do.
     —I think it's much more than cute, I said. I think it's acute intermittent porphyria.
     —I have a headache, I said. I'm sorry.
     I did really think, though, that "cute" was the wrong description for the cameo. It was much more than cute. Much more.

Dr. K took me to a tea shop located in the basement of a Fifth Avenue Japanese department store. He ordered us a plate of strange jellies, some of them powdered, all of them mysteries to me. I poured the tea too early. I stuck one of the large toothpicks into the top of one of the jellies, and the server hurried over and said no, no and something about the dead.
     That Dr. K wouldn't openly laugh at me made me feel sad and small.
     He started to tell me about a magazine article he'd read about the problem of dark matter, about how dark matter might not really exist, that it might just be a placeholder for now, a placeholder until we know more, if we would—
     —My dad was an astronomist, I interrupted.
     —Oh, he said.
     I took a sip of tea.
     Dr. K began to say that my father must have known all about the problem of dark matter, and I said that he had, yes.
     And that night I asked myself what was wrong with me—because that was a conviction of mine, that something was wrong with me—and I decided it was just that I missed my father. He had been so good to me. That must be it, I said to myself, that must be the key to it all, I thought, hearing the false note, and hearing, in my mind, the sound of just one small door opening.

My dad asked me if I thought Abraham was ready to leave.
     —What do you think? he asked. He's harmless enough, right, he's not going to hurt anyone else, he's not going to hurt himself, and he's perfectly capable of taking care of himself?
     —You'd be the one to know, not me, I said. I mean, they all seem fine, everyone, when they're here. Well, Karl, I guess—Karl still thinks his hand hurts even though he doesn't have it anymore, that's—
     My dad interrupted me to explain how that was completely normal, that just happened, that wasn't a mental disease at all, that often people felt pain in limbs that were no longer there—"phantom pain" they called it, but it was pain sure enough.
     Personality disorder not otherwise specified. The phrase popped into my mind whole, as if it were just one word.

I'd watched Karl shuffle, one-handed, the Clue cards. Abraham had made a big to-do about going to a separate room to choose cards for the Confidential Case File.
     On account of knowing before Abraham did that he was going to be sent out, I felt guilty. And feeling guilty, I didn't trust my fellow players. Also, I really wasn't doing well; I had already come to the conclusion that every single suspect was innocent.
     —There's something wrong here, I insisted at the end of my turn.
     —Nothing's wrong, Abraham said while centering the Wrench and Miss Scarlet in the Library.
     Karl was idly petting the stump of his left arm.
     —No, something's definitely wrong, I went on.
     —Your time's up. It's my turn again, Abraham said. So! Conservatory, Candlestick, Peacock.
     He began moving pieces with his shaky but certain pudgy hand.
     —No, no, and—Karl looked at his cards again—no.
     —I already showed Professor Plum, I said. To both of you.
     —You still have him, though? I want to know if you still have him.
     An image came to me, of a fissure in the Earth, a photo from my science textbook of the year before. Abraham always seemed to have only select and deliberate daffy-nesses (and yes, daffy-nesses was the right word—silly, made-up, like my copycat tantrum, as if for a movie), and I expected him to be in control of himself.
     —Give me the Confidential folder, I said.
     It wasn't in the center of the board but underneath it, on Abraham's side. That, he had said, was where he liked to keep it.
     —Do you have a guess?
     —Give it to me.
     I grabbed it from under the board, upsetting the pieces. Inside was a three of diamonds.
     —This is dumb, why did you do this? I asked humorlessly.
     Karl and Abraham made eye contact.
     —You shouldn't be a sore loser, Karl said quietly.
     —A perfectly fine suspect, nothing wrong with that, not less than one hundred percent.
     Then Abraham scooted his chair back, walked out of the room. Later, though, I wondered why I hadn't noticed having a different number of cards dealt to me.

The day after the jellies/death/astronomy tea, I was standing near my desk, organizing. Dr. K was shuffling through papers I had Xeroxed and began saying:
     —I don't need some country-bumpkin head doctor sending me irate letters for not citing his paper, so make sure you reference everything, everything even remotely relevant. Cite as much as possible. And also, it's just a generous thing to do, because being referenced makes people feel good about—
     —You're such an ass, I whispered, rolling a pencil off the edge of my desk. Dr. K didn't seem to have heard me, and talked on, about how nice it was, for small people, to find themselves, unexpectedly, appearing.
     —I hate you, I said louder, feeling possessed. I hate this stupid book.
     (I didn't really, I don't think. Nor did I think Dr. K was an ass. I had always liked his irreverence. And his shoes that were like socks. And he was so good to me. He gave me books to read. He bought me nice lunches at restaurants and would bother the waiters for extra lemons for my water. Once, he brought me extra-thick, green trash bags, just really nice bags, for what reason he couldn't quite say.)
     I kicked the desk. This knocked over a mug of pencils that then landed almost silently on the red Turkish rug. I kicked the desk again, then again. One of the thin, elegant legs splayed, making the desk look to me like a newborn colt, which made me stop.
     —Are you taking drugs? Dr. K asked me in a steady voice.
     He was standing right next to me, watching me.
     I could have cried. I did hit him. I tried to hit him again but he caught my hand. Then he had his arms around me so that I couldn't move and he told me to calm down, and I told him again that I hated him, that he hated me.
     (He had his arms around me, I say again. And of course I had strange longings for him that I wanted nothing to do with. But there was never the hope or dread of something between us, I could feel that; maybe I was as ugly as I thought I was, maybe he didn't like girls, I don't know.)
     I calmed down. Dr. K sat me in an armchair. He brought me a tea. He had nice tea in his office, and real cream, not like those teas at the institution with that taste of powdered creamer that came to mean something for me, I'm not sure what. Dr. K also had thin ginger cookies that flaked.
     He didn't fire me. But I was ashamed and didn't come in the next day. Or the next. I'd never behaved like that in front of Dr. K, yet I wasn't actually very surprised with myself. I knew about those frayed places within me, which I thought of, for some reason, in connection with the docked tails on pigs. Dr. K left messages on my home phone. I didn't call, but I sent an apology letter. I told him that I was doing fine. I said I was working as a pastry chef, which I wasn't, but it seemed like a sufficiently humble and yet impressive thing to say. Dr. K had been kind to me, and I thought I should just be grateful for that, and go. I still often lose relationships in this way.

My dad asked me to be present for the discharge discussion with Abraham. He said he felt that Abraham trusted me.
     —You know what they call a group of ravens? Abraham hissed. An unkindness. That's what they call it and that's what this is. Well I'll tell you one thing, Rabbi and Rebbetzin, you won't have Abraham to kick around anymore because, lady and gentleman, this is my last hospitalization. This is my last hospitalization.
     This sort of talk went on for a bit. My dad told me not to be impressed, that Abraham was going to a nice residence center, that there was nothing the institution could do for him, and that anyway he'd be back in a few months, that Abraham always came back.
     And of course in the following weeks, months, I looked for him, in a passive, vague way. Often—at the Piccadilly diner, at the gas station—I mistook other people for Abraham. I'd get this overwhelming sense of insight, like brilliance, in those moments of recognition. Then: a head turn, a posture change, and I wouldn't be able to continue to believe that I'd found him.
     He never returned. I never learned more about him.

The other night my boyfriend of a few months rented Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat.
     I'd never seen it, but I'd heard that the entire movie takes place on a lifeboat. And I thought this would make it difficult to work in the cameo, that maybe this was one of the films without a cameo.
     I asked my boyfriend if he knew, about the cameos.
     He knew quite a bit about them. He said Hitchcock had to start inserting them earlier and earlier in his films. Because people couldn't pay attention to the actual movie. Because they were so distracted, wondering where and when Hitchcock would turn up.
     Funny, I said, not laughing.
     Then when Hitchcock appeared—in a weight-loss ad on the back of a newspaper—I actually started to cry, though I thought for a brief moment I was just laughing. Embarrassed, I offered a hasty but elaborate narrative, a breadcrumb trail from Hitchcock to a deep sadness. The hypothesis was convincing, and this boy I didn't really know so well was nice enough to hold me.
     —Hitchcock makes me feel strangely sad, too, he said.
     Then I pushed him away and pounded the wall and went back to my room.
     I know we're all ridiculous and that the only hope for life being of value is that maybe in private we can laugh at one another.
     And I know it isn't a disease. Or if it is a disease, the disease is me. There's no way to separate it. There's no way to be clean. Ruin is what we are, and if we get rid of it there's nothing left.

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