Dr. Henrietta Sternby Efrem Sigel
Dr. Henrietta Stern was nothing like Howie's mother, Alice, who had a knack for smothering him with her infuriating cheerfulness at all the wrong moments. Here he was, surly, uncommunicative, one foot on the staircase headed to the refuge of his room, and here was Alice, pestering him with pointless questions.
"Did you like the corned beef sandwich I made you? Not too fatty? What about the bus home, was it on time? Oh, and did Arthur get his new glasses?"
"Yes. No. Yes. No." There, four answers and still she didn't have a clue as to what was going on in his head. She couldn't know his shame at running away from the Sterns', from Henrietta, Arthur, and Douglas. Even the bandages on his elbows and forearms, covered by the gray sweatshirt, were invisible to her.
"Somehow I thought you were staying at Arthur's for supper," his mother said, her smile flickering in the aftermath of a collision with her 15-year old son, the way a table lamp may flicker when someone jostles it. She was afraid of him, he realized, whereas Dr. Henrietta Stern's boys were afraid of her. "Well, never mind, your father will be home any minute and then we'll eat. Okay?"
Upstairs, Howie threw his body on the bed and screamed at himself wordlessly: chicken. Chicken about what had gone on at the Sterns, chicken about calling Carol Wise, two inches taller than him, with that saucy, all-knowing smile that said, "go ahead, call me, stammer at me over the phone so I can grind you into dust." And short: too short to hoist his jump shot over Arthur's outstretched hands; so short that Carol would spurn him even if he had the balls to call her. Short and chicken, a deadly condition, like one of those tropical diseases, malaria maybe, that gets in your blood and never leaves.
He thought again about Henrietta Stern, who rarely smiled-though she did have a great cackle of a laugh-and who, unlike his mother, dispensed no sugary words. Her life was a lot more complicated than Alice's, what with her practice, her boys, Arthur and his younger brother, Douglas, the house chores, the daily calls to her invalid mother, her bad driving-she clung to the steering wheel as if it were a life preserver, pumping the clutch and the brake so that your teeth clattered from the bucking of the old Chevy-and of course Herman being away.
The patients who came to her sunny office in the southeast parlor of the house called her Dr. Stern, though she was a podiatrist, not a medical doctor. She wore a starched uniform and shoes that were shined daily with a polish so chalky white that it appeared to be baked on. Howie was fascinated by the way she rode herd on Arthur and Douglas. Her questions were different from Alice's-insistent, needle-pointed questions that often drew blood. Arthur was constantly battling to subvert her interference, sometimes by swallowing his words, only rarely by lashing out in protest. How come Arthur, a gawky kid with those big glasses, could be so lazily nonchalant while he, Howie, was always tying himself in knots?
"That you, Arthur?" came Henrietta Stern's voice earlier that afternoon. She was calling from her examining room, as Arthur and Howie dropped their books onto the kitchen chairs. "Howie with you?"
"Yeah, it's me," said Arthur, scanning the refrigerator shelves.
"And me," Howie added.
"What did you get on the geometry test?" Unlike Alice, who lobbed softballs at Howie, Dr. Stern wanted names, facts, numbers.
"I got a 92."
"Ninety-eight," Howie shouted to make sure his words traveled around the corner into a narrow passageway and then into the examining room. The Sterns' house was drafty and poorly lit, the kitchen linoleum cracked, the passageway badly in need of a painting, but the examining room was magnificent, spotless.
"Next time study harder." No mistaking to whom this was addressed. Then, "Arthur, leave the pastrami and pickles alone. Have fig newtons."
Ignoring half of Dr. Stern's admonition, Arthur unwrapped a crunchy pickle from its wax paper covering, devoured it in three well-spaced bites, and washed it down with a glass of milk, a combination of food and drink that made Howie's stomach lurch. Then they each grabbed three fig newtons and headed outside to shoot baskets.
The big hazard in shooting baskets was Tiger, the German shepherd in Miss Neal's yard, next door to the Sterns'.
"Don't mess with that vicious dog," Henrietta Stern had warned Howie. "He'll take your hand off if you let him."
Because the dog knew him better, Arthur could sometimes do a slow minuet and retrieve a wayward shot without Tiger's attacking him. Otherwise they had to ring the front bell for a long time and hope that Tiger's owner, Miss Neal, would come to their aid. She was very deaf, a stiff old lady in her seventies with gray bangs and a Teutonic face.
On this day when an off-target jump shot nicked the side of the hoop and squirted into Miss Neal's yard, Howie looked at Arthur. Arthur looked back at him.
"Why don't you get it? Why am I always the guinea pig?"
"It's your ball and your hoop, and the dog lives next door to you. Besides, your mother told me not to."
" 'Your mother told me not to,' " Arthur repeated in a high-pitched whine, complete with "nananananana" to punctuate the insult.
"Okay, okay." Stung by Arthur's mockery, Howie shed his chickenhood and chose the way of the warrior. He dipped a toe into Miss Neal's yard and advanced step by step in the pale November sunshine.
"Take it slow," Arthur called, suddenly his pal again as Howie, dry-mouthed, inched forward, keeping an eye on Tiger. The dog lay near the cellar doors, his silver-brown hairs forming a tight sheath over the bunched flesh of his neck.
Howie scooped up the ball, cradling it to his chest as gingerly as a robin's egg, and was a step from the Sterns' property when a gray Plymouth turned into the driveway and coughed its way to a stop. It was Mr. Garvey, here for his weekly foot treatment. The thumping of the badly-tuned engine startled Tiger. He raised his snout and let loose a growl.
Howie flung the basketball and ran, but his left foot caught the raised lip of the driveway border. He sprawled headlong, shoulders and chest on the Sterns' driveway and legs in Miss Neal's yard. As he struggled to his knees, feeling the scrapes on his arms and wrists from the rough caress of the asphalt, he could see Tiger's elongated body bounding over the yellow-brown grass.
Mr. Garvey was a dried-up looking man, prissy, with a nearly bald scalp ringed by a fringe of white hairs. He had reached the side entrance when Tiger began to nip at his trousers. Just then Dr. Stern poked her sharp nose out the door.
"Arthur! Howie! Grab him." She was clad in her white coat, its starched cleanliness setting off a helmet of gray hair that was rigid with hairspray. Her competent hands reached for Tiger's collar. Howie, who was closer, seized the dog's hind legs and planted his sneakered feet on the driveway. Mr. Garvey turned around to see his trousers caught in the dog's sharp teeth like bits of cotton fluff in the tines of a barbed wire fence.
"Give," Dr. Stern intoned in a low voice.
Tiger looked at Dr. Stern as if she were making a proclamation in Hungarian. Howie yanked Tiger back toward him but the dog stiffened his legs. Another growl, then a tearing sound-a trouser seam coming apart in the middle of the rear end. Mr. Garvey gasped as cool air began circulating around the edges of his boxer shorts, which were light blue, the color of violets.
Everything happened quickly then: Dr. Stern seizing Tiger by his collar, Howie falling back as Tiger shifted his weight rear-ward, Mr. Garvey clutching the torn shreds of his black trousers and squealing in discomfort at having his bowed, nearly hairless legs exposed to the scrutiny of his podiatrist and two teenage boys.
Mr. Garvey was murmuring about getting back in his car and driving home, but a podiatrist's visit was $4 cash and Dr. Stern wasn't about to forego this income just because a German shepherd had ripped her patient's trousers.
"Arthur," Dr. Stern called, "go get the pair of black trousers from the hall closet. Mr. Garvey, you wait in the waiting room. Close the door and Arthur will bring you the trousers."
"The hall closet? But you told me never..."
"The hall closet. The black ones are on the left-hand side."
"But you told me..."
"Arthur, do it."
Then she turned to Howie, whose elbows were stinging as tiny drops of blood splattered the driveway.
"Howie, wait here." First she pulled Tiger back across the driveway, releasing him into Miss Neal's yard. Then she led Howie inside, through the passageway behind the pantry, past the closed door of a small room where Mr. Garvey waited for his replacement pants, and into the examining room, a gleaming palace whose centerpiece was a swivel chair with a leather seat the color of a praying mantis. On the floor below it sat a stainless steel bowl into which metal tubing could discharge a swirling stream of warm water.
This was the whirlpool. Here patients dangled their feet in the basin and sighed with pleasure after Dr. Stern had skimmed off corns and cleaned and repacked ingrown toenails.
The hall closet had been off limits to Arthur ever since Howie had known him, which was the entire eleven months that Arthur's family had lived on Staten Island. The day after Christmas Arthur had shown up on Howie's street with a Schwinn bicycle. The head of Donald Duck faced forward, happy and big-lipped, from the front vertical shaft.
"Nice bike," Howie had called, as Arthur stood before him, straddling the lengthwise bar and scuffing the sidewalk with the toes of his sneakers. He was four inches taller than Howie, with a head of thick black hair. Horn-rimmed glasses gave him the air of a mathematician-revolutionary. Every year his eyes needed a stronger prescription.
"Did your mom and dad give it you for Christmas?"
"We don't have Christmas, we're Jewish. Also my Dad is away on a long trip."
The Sterns had come from Brooklyn. The Golds had come from Brooklyn too, but
a decade earlier, his father insisting that Howie and his brother grow up in sight of woods and ponds, in a lemon-yellow house with its own backyard and a tree to climb.
Howie knew Brooklyn as a place where you could drive for many minutes up and down streets whose houses were attached to one another, until eventually you came to Coney Island Ave. His uncle Jerry owned a deli two blocks from the boardwalk, where Howie had once eaten too many kosher hot dogs; he'd thrown up in the back seat on the drive home.
Within hours of their first meeting Howie and Arthur were shooting baskets at the hoop mounted on the garage.
"Did your Dad put that up for you?"
"My uncle. I told you, my Dad's away."
Later, when Arthur took Howie up to his room they passed the hall closet.
"That's where we keep my Dad's clothes for when he comes home."
"How long has he been away?"
"A long time."
Arthur said they weren't allowed to open the door on pain of being smacked. "She hits hard," he said.
Howie believed it: Dr. Stern was an angular woman, all edges and protuberances, knobby knees that poked through her starched white skirts, pointy elbows that made an exclamation point as she sliced a rye bread.
"Let me see your feet," she said to Howie when she met him that first day. "No, with your shoes and socks off." He sat barefoot in the chair as Dr. Stern felt along his instep, looked between the toes and under the toenails. Her touch was knowing, firm, soothing.
"Not bad. Be sure to get those toes really dry when you shower. Here, use this." She handed him a sample of zinc powder and promised that next time she'd give him a whirlpool.
"By the way, you're going to be a lot taller. I can tell by the length of your feet."
That offhand, utterly authoritative judgment was enough to secure a place for Dr. Stern in Howie's galaxy of adult role models, right next to Ruthie Lawrence, the pretty English teacher who was always slipping him weighty books to read: Tolstoy, Conrad, Dreiser, Hemingway. He trusted Miss Lawrence about books, Dr. Henrietta Stern about feet.
Dr. Stern's rule was homework done, hands washed, before supper; if not, Arthur or Douglas risked an open-handed slap to the side of the head. Howie often stayed to eat with them and got used to Arthur sprawled in the living room, elbows dug into the aquamarine carpet, scratching away at geometry theorems with the TV set on low and Dr. Stern hollering at him from her examining room.
"Arthur! Turn off that set."
"Douglas turned it on."
"I don't care who turned it on. Turn it off. You can't do your homework with the set on."
"I'm not watching."
Dr. Stern was also wise to Douglas, who lay propped up against the pillow in his room upstairs, reading an action comic purchased at Cheap Sid's stationery store while keeping the textbook to hand in case his mother appeared. No matter how busy she was-stirring the contents of a pot, making notes in the patient notebook that hung by a string next to the wall phones-she always put on her reading glasses to check Douglas' work line by line.
"You want to be a doctor?" she told her boys. She meant a medical doctor, not a podiatrist. "You do all your homework and get all A's."
"You're the one who wants us to be doctors," Arthur would mutter.
"How's she going to know if you look inside that closet?" Howard demanded that first day.
"She always knows."
But on this day Dr. Stern had asked, no ordered, Arthur into the forbidden closet.
Howie was in the chair, having his scrapes attended to, when Arthur returned with his father's black trousers.
Dr. Stern bent over Howie, wiping his elbows and arms with an iodine-dipped swab, blotting the moisture and the droplets of blood with a second gauze pad and attaching an oversized Band-aid. He heard her tell Arthur to take the trousers to Mr. Garvey.
"Be respectful. An elderly gentleman with his trousers ripped can be very sensitive."
She turned back to Howie. "Take off your shoes and socks."
"What's wrong with my feet?"
She had the kind of honking laugh that could scatter geese. "Nothing. But after the bumping around you've had, a whirlpool is just the ticket."
While the delicious soaking was in process, Arthur flung open the door to the examining room to report, "Ma, he has the pants."
"Now bring me the ripped ones and my sewing kit."
And while the water coursed over Howie's feet, Dr. Stern mended the ripped seam with a series of minute, nearly invisible stitches. Then she shut off the whirlpool, dried Howie's feet, shooed the boys into the kitchen and called Mr. Garvey in for his bunion treatment as if nothing at all had happened.
"You went into the closet?"
"It's just a clothes closet," Arthur said. "Nothing special inside."
All the times they'd chased each other down the hall and past the closet door, Howie's eyes had flicked over its shape, imagining what lay within: a black cast-iron safe filled with money, incriminating letters, a picture of Herman Stern in gray and white prison stripes.
Now, sitting in the Sterns' kitchen, Howie wondered at the expression on Arthur's face.
"Just clothes," Arthur said again. "Pants, some shirts, a bathrobe. This red and black bathrobe he used to wear at night. He was outdoors a lot during the day, always walking up and down the streets, and on cold nights he would get into that bathrobe right after supper."
"What did he do outdoors?" To Howie outdoors meant the guys who climbed down into manholes or operated the steamrollers that smoothed a new coating of asphalt on Forest Ave.
"He sold vacuum cleaners door to door." Arthur mentioned a well-known brand whose radio jingle immediately popped into Howie's head. "He used to say a good day was when only one lady slammed the door in his face."
This was a different Arthur, wistful, reflective. Normally Arthur had this combative way of talking, especially after basketball when the two of them hung out and talked about girls. It amazed Howie that Arthur, with his slouch, his thick glasses and his absent-minded air, had no trouble calling up girls. Arthur had long ago lost patience with Howie's endless fantasizing about Carol Wise, her pointy tits and her long reddish-gold mane that was almost the identical color of Howie's Aunt Sophia's hair.
"Shit," Arthur would say, "how long are you going to walk around with a hard-on in your pants and your tongue stuck in your mouth? Call her up already."
"Yeah, well, maybe," Howie would answer as they waited for Dr. Stern to finish up with a patient and come in to start supper.
Basketball and talk of tits and ass made Arthur hungry, and as they talked he'd be snacking on fresh rye bread, olives, pickles, peanut butter, potato chips.
Howie took a potato chip or two. His appetite was sporadic; at school he often threw away half the corned beef or salami sandwich that his mother made for lunch. Eating was the one thing she nagged him about whereas it was the one thing that Henrietta Stern took in stride.
"Your body will tell you when you need to eat more," she told Howie. "Believe me, you'll start shooting up soon, probably this summer, and the appetite will come." She didn't care how much the boys ate, only that they didn't pile more onto their plates than they could consume, that they washed their hands before supper, that they asked politely for more.
"Don't reach, ask him to pass it," she would instruct Arthur when they were all seated. "No taking first. Offer it to our guest."
"It's just Howie."
"Howie is our guest."
On this night Dr. Stern came into the kitchen a little late. A few minutes before, they'd heard the rumble of Mr. Garvey's Plymouth pulling away. On one burner Dr. Stern began heating left-over meat loaf, gravy and mashed potatoes; on the other she put a pot of water up to boil, into which she would slide the frozen block of Birds' Eye peas. When she turned to face the boys she, too, had a queer expression on her face.
"You boys wash up? Howie, you'll stay to supper, won't you. Arthur get your brother down out of that room and into the bathroom to wash up."
All the instructions were normal but the tone was not; suddenly she seemed lost, almost beaten down by the world.
Was it just fatigue? Howie could understand how adults got exhausted. In the weeks before April 15th he would see it on the face of his father the CPA, staggering home at ten o'clock with a clutch of accordion folders under his arm, or gulping his coffee early on a Sunday and then driving to the office to prepare yet another batch of returns.
But what he read on Dr. Stern's face was different-more naked, more vulnerable. She was looking over her shoulder at Arthur as she poked at the pot with her long-handled spoon.
"You shut that door upstairs?" she asked, still thinking about the closet.
"Yeah." Normally when he answered her in a monosyllable or swallowed his words Dr. Stern would demand, "Speak up, mister."
But this time his response really didn't matter to her, this tall, bony woman with the metallic rasp in her voice. "I haven't looked in there in a while," she said. "Once it seemed like a lot of stuff but now..." She stopped, as if to complete the thought were to give Arthur and Howie a glimpse into something as private as the state of her underwear.
"Your father," she began again.
"Don't say it, mom."
The words sprang out of Arthur's throat. He had a look on his face that Howie had never before seen.
"I know what you're going to say."
"What are you talking about?" Dr. Stern asked, in a small voice that seemed to vibrate in the steamy kitchen air.
"Why do we pretend that he's coming back? Why? It's all a lie."
Tears appeared in the corners of Arthur's eyes, not the limpid tears of sorrow but tiny bright drops of anger, glinting and darting under the fluorescent ring in the ceiling.
"It's not a lie, Arthur. He can always come back."
"It is so, when you know it'll never happen."
Howie pressed his back against the metal tube chair as waves of heat passed over his face. He wanted not to see the expression on Dr. Stern's face, but he couldn't help looking. A few months ago he'd been in the car with his father when the car ahead of them had rolled over a squirrel. One minute the squirrel was skittering across the road like a streak of ribbon unfurling from a starter pistol, the next minute it was flattened beneath the left rear tire. Spreading out from under its crushed body was an ooze of dark blood. Howie felt now as he did then, trying to avert his eyes from the gore but unable to avoid staring.
"Your father was an unhappy man," she was telling Arthur, and Douglas, too; he had come downstairs and was hovering in the doorway, listening. "Unhappy with his work. Unhappy with his marriage. We had fights, you know that. We had silences. Sometimes talking made things worse." She hunched her shoulders as if resettling a large bundle that sat there. "Finally he said he had to leave. He never said for good."
"He has a girlfriend, right? So why this B.S. about his coming back? Why these lies?"
"You don't use that word here, mister."
"I didn't use that word. I said B.S."
"You don't use that word and you don't use B.S."
"Mrs. Stern I better be going," Howie forced the words out of his mouth. He tried to lever himself to his feet, and there was a sucking noise as he pried his windbreaker, moist from the perspiration on his shirt, away from the plastic backing of the chair.
Often, when Howie left for home, she would hand him letters or bills to slip into the mailbox he passed on the way. She sent them out in envelopes with "Dr. H. Stern, Podiatrist" in stickers in the upper left hand corner. Now Dr. Stern looked at him in bewilderment, as if she couldn't remember where she'd put the day's correspondence.
"But we haven't eaten yet. Howie, stay for supper."
"I just remembered that mom wants me home for supper tonight."
Arthur looked at him with disgust. How dare he flee with the intimate secrets of their family life, like a thief spiriting jewels away in a pillowcase lifted from an upstairs bedroom?
Now in his own kitchen his father was reading the evening paper while his mother dished up leftovers: meat loaf, with mashed potatoes and peas.
"How's Henrietta?" she asked. Alice liked to have coffee and cake with the ladies in the neighborhood once a week, but Dr. Stern, though invited, rarely came. His mother couldn't quite get the hang of the relentless rhythm of Henrietta Stern's life: housework, shopping, meals, boxes of medical supplies to order and unpack, the procession of patients, the bills and correspondence, the emergency visits to her mother in Flatbush, the upstairs closet with the clothes that Herman Stern would never come back for.
"How the hell did the Russians beat us to it?" his father said, putting down the paper with the latest about Sputnik. "Do you think we need a space program, Howard?"
Space was the last thing on his mind. He was thinking about how Dr. Stern's expert sewing had repaired the rip in Mr. Garvey's pants, the sting of the iodine on his elbows, the way the whirlpool had made him forget his pain.
After a few bites the mashed potatoes stuck in his throat. He got up to leave the table.
"Where are you going? You have to eat. You need your supper." Even in her anger his mother tried to mollify him. "There's chocolate cream pie for dessert, Howie."
Henrietta Stern had said his body would tell him when to eat and it was telling him now wasn't the time.
"I have to go to Arthur's." And then he was out the door, not walking fast but not tiptoeing either, not the way he'd tiptoed into Miss Neal's yard to snatch the ball from under Tiger's nose. For once the buzzing in his head ceased, all the ideas and names and word pictures shutting down, so that he could feel the breeze from the passing cars, could hear the faint slap of his sneakers against the pebbled sidewalk, propelling him forward.