THE SIXTH PSYCHIATRIST by Richard Goodwin

I’ll start with the fourth psychiatrist, who made me take off my clothes and lie on a table with my feet in a pair of metal stirrups. Pressing on my stomach with his icy hands, he asked me what I’d had for lunch. 

“Roast beef on rye and macaroni salad,” I said.

“Russian rye? Jewish rye?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Were there caraway seeds in it?”

“Yes.”

“Jewish rye,” the doctor said. He began applying rapid bursts of pressure to my chest, as if I’d had a heart attack. “Have you ever been in a fistfight?”

“Once.”

“When was this?”

“Kindergarten,” I said.

“Did you win or lose this fight?” 

“I lost.”

The doctor produced a penlight and shined it in my eyes. He said, “It’s okay to cry right now. Do you feel like you might want to cry?”

“No,” I said, blinded.

“Tell me about this macaroni salad.”

I was getting cold, and my ankles were starting to hurt in the stirrups. “It could have been better,” I said.

“And why do you think that is?” 

“Not enough mayo.”

The doctor sneezed. “I think we’re all finished here,” he said. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You can go ahead and get dressed.”

 

***

 

The second psychiatrist had evening hours and operated on a sliding scale. We sat facing each other in matching armchairs, a box of tissues on a small table between us. She wore a red dress, white stockings, and black high heels. The lights in the wood-paneled office were low, and it was getting dark outside, which made it feel as if we were in a submarine sinking to the bottom of the ocean. She told me that the mind was like an ice cream sundae whose cherry had fallen off and rolled under the table in a busy harborside restaurant, and it was our job to get the server’s attention and request another one. This could take our whole lives, she said, her eyes fixed on me in the stuffy dimness. On the wall I could just make out her high school diploma and an autographed photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger. I asked her after a moment what flavor the sundae was, but she waved this question away and glanced at the clock on her desk. Then her phone rang and she answered it despite the ten minutes left in our session.

“I agree,” she said to whoever was calling. “The trains over there make Amtrak look like a quaint little choo-choo. Our infrastructure is just a complete fucking joke. If we stopped bombing all these third-world countries maybe we could afford to build some new highways and bridges around here.” She winked at me. “Sure. You’re preaching to the choir now. Look, I have to run, okay? So long. Bye.”

She cleared her throat, smoothed her dress, and smiled at me. 

“You were saying,” she said.

 

***

 

When I went for my appointment with the fifth psychiatrist, the receptionist said he was running a little late. There were four other patients waiting to see him. I sat next to a girl with bandages on her wrists and asked her how long she’d been there. She ignored me. I picked up a People and read about a man with a rare skin disease. When his skin wasn’t falling off in bleeding clumps he enjoyed snowshoeing, rock climbing, and taking long walks on the beach. With a dating app, he’d finally found his soulmate: a woman who’d lost her legs in a steeplechase accident. The article should have made me thankful that I was a fairly healthy guy who possessed all his limbs, but it had the opposite effect, plunging me even deeper into the anxious gloom I’d been struggling for years to escape. I put down the magazine just as the doctor’s door swung open and a man in a mechanic’s jumpsuit walked out. His face was streaked with tears but he looked hugely relieved, like someone who’d just found out a loved one had survived a plane crash. The receptionist swiped his credit card and another patient went into the office and the door closed with a soft click. This was how it went for the next three hours. I took a stroll around the building, and when I returned the receptionist was putting on a fur coat. She turned off the light on her desk. “Have a great day,” she said to me, and off she went. I could hear voices in the other room. Someone said what sounded like “If it’s brown, flush it down.” I checked my watch. Finally, the door opened and the girl with the bandages came out. I was eager for my appointment, eager to divulge my innermost feelings to a complete stranger for a hundred and sixty dollars an hour. This stranger came out wearing a fedora and a wrinkled gabardine suit, a thin blue scarf around his throat. He noticed that one of the watercolor paintings on the wall was crooked, and he straightened it. “There,” he said. He gave me a polite nod, grabbed his umbrella from the holder by the door, and left.

 

***

 

I read about the third psychiatrist in the newspaper two days before my appointment. The headline was “Flaming Liqueur Leads to Doctor’s Death.” Attempting to drink a shot of crème de menthe that had been set alight in honor of a colleague who was retiring and moving to Kodiak, Alaska, the doctor had accidentally ignited the bear suit he’d put on for the occasion, engulfing himself in a “terrible green fireball,” as one of the attendees described it. Failing to put out the flames by rolling on the floor, the doctor rushed to the bathroom, presumably to get in the shower, but it was occupied, so he went to the kitchen, where the guests tried unsuccessfully to extinguish him with cups of club soda, his pain and terror evident in his rising screams, which could be heard by several tenants in the building, a high-rise condo in Las Vegas. By now the occupant of the bathroom had emerged, but the doctor, trapped inside the flaming bear suit, ran out onto the balcony and, according to the party’s host, did a “Fosbury Flop” over the railing. Several witnesses on the street below reported seeing a strange fiery object falling from the sky. “I thought it was the end of the world,” one of them said.

 

***

 

The first psychiatrist had a comfort animal, a tan Pomeranian that looked like a pound cake with legs. It ran yipping and growling around his basement office while we talked. He did all the talking. His voice was deep and soothing, and his breath smelled of roasted chestnuts. At the end of the hour, he wrote me a prescription for something he said would probably give me constipation, night sweats, impotence, insomnia, dry mouth, and suicidal thoughts.    

“Will these side effects wear off?” I asked. 

“It depends,” the doctor said.

I folded the script and put it in my pocket. The Pomeranian was sniffing my shoe.

“Any other questions?”

“Not at the moment.”

He walked me to the door and shook my hand. “Take care,” he said.

 

***

 

The sixth psychiatrist was a young guy with tattoos and piercings and scruffy hair dyed the color of an Irish setter. His office was above a Chinese restaurant that promised NO MSG! I explained to him my problem and he took notes on a yellow pad, filling page after page as the oily smells of kung pao chicken and twice-cooked pork seeped through the floor. When he was finished he tossed the pad on the desk, put on his leather jacket, and said, “Follow me.”

We went down to his car, a cranberry Jaguar taking up two parking spaces. He lit a cigarette and offered me one, and though I’d quit a decade before, I joined him in a smoke as we left the city and sped out into the rolling countryside. Downshifting to let some wild turkeys cross the road, the doctor asked me if I’d ever gotten a girl pregnant.

I said, “Not that I know of.”

“Exactly,” he said.

I was enjoying the scenery, the hills and glens and sunken meadows, the hay bales aglow in the falling sunlight. The Jaguar hugged the curves, rocketed down the straightaways. The doctor ignored the speed limit and checked the rearview frequently.

“What’s one plus one?” he asked.

I thought this might be a trick question, so I said I wasn’t good at math.

He looked at me. He’d put on a pair of sunglasses, and I could see myself in their big mirrored lenses. “We’re making progress already,” he said.

In a little while, we stopped at a roadhouse surrounded by miles of clear-cut. There were a few horse trailers out front along with several motorcycles and mud-spattered pickups and one Subaru Outback with a Free Tibet sticker on the back. The doctor got the first round and we sat at a table near the dance floor, where a man in a cowboy hat and a woman who looked twice his age were swaying to the slow, yearning music. We smoked and drank our beers. The doctor asked me how many times I’d been to the Grand Canyon and whether I felt that Pluto should be reinstated as a planet (once and yes). He gazed pensively at an elk’s head on the wall. Then he called his wife to let her know he’d be late for dinner. “Love you, baby,” he said. After downing his beer he went to the men’s room.

More couples were dancing now. I bought another round. A nice buzz was beginning to warm my brain. When the doctor came back his hair was neatly combed and he’d rolled his sleeves up to his lavishly tattooed biceps. “Let’s boogie,” he said.

“We’re leaving?”

“We’re dancing.”

I wasn’t much of a dancer. I was also concerned about the time. How much was this session costing me? Still, I joined him on the dance floor where we held each other closely, our hands sweating, our beery breath mingling, our knees occasionally knocking together. He said, “Tell me your deepest thoughts.” As he led and I followed, I talked and talked, and it felt…what’s the word…therapeutic. It felt terrific. Suddenly an up-tempo song came on, and we let go of each other and danced separately, flapping our arms and bobbing our heads and swinging our hips, jumping, spinning, moonwalking, doing splits and flying kicks. We moved! We tore up that dance floor. Everyone stopped to watch us. I did a sort of swan dive right into the doctor’s arms and the whole place erupted in wild applause. “My turn,” he shouted. He got on one side of the floor and I got on the other. He lowered himself into a sprinter’s stance and then ran at me full tilt, his elbows pumping, his hands stiff as blades, his mirrored shades reflecting the whirling disco lights, and I stood there with my arms out and my legs bent, waiting breathlessly, ecstatically, to catch him.


Richard Goodwin lives and writes in Vancouver, Washington.

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