The Rod of Asclepius

By Jacob Appel

A first pulse of memory:  My father, broad-shouldered and dashing, sliding his arms into a long white coat that smells of bleach.  It is springtime in St. Arnac, a balmy Sunday afternoon snowing crab-apple petals.  We’ve parked in the physicians-only lot atop the roof of the hospital’s garage, the same hospital where, the previous Thanksgiving, my pregnant mother died of a ruptured uterus.

A first pulse of memory:  My father, broad-shouldered and dashing, sliding his arms into a long white coat that smells of bleach.  It is springtime in St. Arnac, a balmy Sunday afternoon snowing crab-apple petals.  We’ve parked in the physicians-only lot atop the roof of the hospital’s garage, the same hospital where, the previous Thanksgiving, my pregnant mother died of a ruptured uterus.  What my six-year-old self doesn’t realize then, though it is clear to me now, is that this may be the first time my father has left our apartment in several months, that I am witnessing the man emerge from a winter-long twilight of raw anger.  He drapes his stethoscope around his neck, retrieves his leather bag from the trunk of our Oldsmobile.  “Are you ready to change the world, princess?” he asks.  At that moment, I am suddenly persuaded that the world does indeed require changing, that the entire cosmos yearns for radical transformation.  Vigorous nods earn me a kiss on the forehead.

My father leads me by hand across the broad granite plaza, colonized with lunching nurses and orderlies on smoke-break, where statues of North Carolina’s war heroes guard the revolving doors.  At the security desk, a red-faced officer with a bulbous nose and greasy comb-over greets my father with a genial, “Hi, doc,” and then salutes me with a more formal, “Good afternoon, ma’am.”  I am still too young to distinguish personal from business relationships, friends from sociable strangers—it will be another several years before I realize, in an innocence-shattering blast, that our postman is paid to deliver the mail—so I swell with pride as the officer waves us past the visitors waiting to register, believing a personal honor is being bestowed upon my father, not realizing the privilege is afforded all white-coated medical gentry.

We ride the elevator to the top.  The doors open directly onto the lobby of the VIP atrium, where angelfish and gouramis cross paths in a colossal aquarium, while a sad-eyed pianist plays cocktail-lounge standards on a baby-grand.  Panoramic windows reveal the rolling, sun-drenched hills of the Piedmont and the wood-shingled rooftops of St. Arnac’s commercial district—an assortment of family-owned specialty shops, like my Aunt Hannah’s millinery, which have since been swallowed by suburban Greensboro.   Papa’s grip is tight on my hand.  He crosses the lounge and strides briskly down the adjacent corridor, practically sweeping me along the tiles behind him.  We pass the nursing station where, beneath the cardiac monitors, a solitary aide reads a magazine.  A whiff of disinfectant hangs in the stagnant air.

And then—without warning—Papa veers through an open door.   Suddenly, we stand inside a patient’s private room, the temporary home of an ancient, one-legged man dwarfed by his own wheelchair. The man’s truncated knee is wrapped in gauze, suggesting a recent amputation.  At his side, perched at the foot of the tidy bed, sits an equally wizened woman.  To my surprise, my father apologizes for disturbing the couple and we retreat back into the corridor.

A moment later, we’ve entered another room.  Here, a skeletal woman watches television from a stack of pillows.  She cannot be much older than my father, but her eyes are sunken and her pale skin drapes off the bones of her face.  On the end table, two photographs depict the same woman in the full bloom of health.  In one picture, a handsome man clasps his arm around her waist; in the other, she cradles an infant.  A basket of fruit and gourmet items—still wrapped—sits on the radiator.  When the woman sees my father, she uses the remote control to lower the TV’s volume.

“Have you seen Dr. Hagerman?” she asks.

Papa touches the woman’s shoulder to offer reassurance.  “I’m covering for Dr. Hagerman today,” he informs her—in the same confident voice he uses to comfort me when I have a nightmare.

“He swore he’d be here before noon,” says the woman.

“I’m sorry.  Dr. Hagerman had an emergency.  Something personal.”

The emaciated woman seems partially assuaged.  Papa opens his leather bag and methodically fills a syringe.  “We need to give you some blood thinner,” he explains.   “Dr. Hagerman was concerned about your most recent laboratory values, especially the risk for spontaneous clotting….”  As he speaks, my father rolls up the sleeve of the woman’s gown; she winces and the injection is over.  “That should do the trick,” he says.  “Dr. Hagerman will be here to see you in the morning….”

My father discards the syringe and removes his gloves.  Even as he shuts the clasps on his bag, the woman drifts into slumber, a tranquil smile settled upon her lips.  We are already halfway down the corridor when an alarm bell sounds from the woman’s room; as we approach the nursing station at a rapid clip, a junior physician in aqua scrubs charges past us headed in the opposite direction.

We traverse the VIP atrium again, descend the elevator to the lobby.  My father and the red-faced officer exchange another greeting.  I feel anxious, but I cannot say why.  Out on the granite plaza, a swarm of starlings blankets the austere statues of Confederate generals and colonels.

My father lifts me into his powerful arms.

“The reason we went to the top floor,” he explains, “is because that’s where the doctors’ wives and mothers go when they get sick.”  Papa’s eyes are level with mine, his nose so close I could touch it.  “Don’t be afraid to ask your father questions, Lauren,” he adds.  “I want this to be a learning experience”

*

Or maybe that is not a first pulse of memory.  Quite possibly, that visit to the hospital occurs after Aunt Henrietta comes to live with us.  I can vividly remember her boyfriend—one of my aunt’s many boyfriends—transporting her suitcases from the trunk of his car into the guest bedroom.  She’ll be twenty-eight that summer, five years younger than my father, and stunningly gorgeous.  I don’t recall if Papa is also present that afternoon, but I do remember the two of them arguing bitterly, a few days later, while Aunt Henrietta drains bottles of whiskey into the hollyhocks.   Only years in the future did I discover that my aunt’s arrival hasn’t been Papa’s choice:  It is part of the custody arrangement he has agreed to with Guilford County’s Bureau of Child Welfare after I go truant from kindergarten.

If my aunt resents her premature summons to child-rearing, I never recall her showing it.  Since I have no memories of my biological mother, a direct comparison remains impossible—but I cannot imagine anyone being more devoted to my welfare than is Aunt Henrietta.  After school lets out for the summer, I accompany her to the millinery each morning, where she assigns me various “useful” tasks around the bustling shop.  Some days, I sort ribbons or buckles.  On other occasions, I unwrap exotic hats that arrive from the warehouse packed in newsprint.  Once, I have an opportunity to pose in various bonnets for a professional photographer from the St. Arnac Beacon who is compiling a full-page spread on juvenile fashions.  Yet I spend most of my time with the young African-American fitters who “mind the store” while my aunt enjoys half-day lunch breaks with her various suitors.  One of these shop-girls, an olive-skinned teenager named Lila, takes a particular fancy to me, because, as she phrases it:  “We’re both orphans, so we have to look out for each other.”

“I’m not an orphan,” I insist.  “My father is still alive.”

Lila hugs me to her ample bosom.  “Silly girl,” she says. “Fathers don’t count.”

What I do know with certainty is that our visit to the hospital precedes my conversation with Aunt Henrietta about what I hope to become when I grow up.  That talk occurs while we’re on an excursion to pick our own peaches.  My aunt is dating a dental student whose family owns vast orchards south of Asheboro, so I’m ensconced between the two of them on the front seat of the young man’s Cadillac.  The open windows bring a gentle breeze and with it the scent of drying alfalfa.  My aunt’s boyfriend, whose marriage proposal she will soon reject, has urged her to invite me along on this outing; he is doing his utmost to keep me entertained—to prove, I suppose, that he’d make a satisfactory partner with whom to raise children of his own.

He addresses me in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, as though I am an infant and not a rising first grader.  “So, young lady, do you have any career plans yet?”

“I don’t know,” I answer.

Aunt Henrietta asks, “Do you know what a ‘career’ is?”

“Nope.”

Her boyfriend tries again.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I don’t know.”

I’ve folded my arms across my chest.

“Would you like to be a princess?” he asks. “Or how about a mermaid?”

Both sound like perfectly reasonable occupations to my six-year-old mind, but the young man’s tone makes me feel contrary.  “I want to be a doctor,” I announce.

“Nothing wrong with that,” says the dental student.  He is grinning.  “We could use more lady doctors.”

Aunt Henrietta also appears amused.  “That’s the first I’ve heard of this,” she says.  “I’m curious, Lauren.  Why do you want to be a doctor?”

I don’t have a good answer.  Even when I apply to medical school two decades later, my various justifications—to help people, to expand human knowledge, even to save lives—somehow never seem adequate.  I suppose the real reason I become a physician is because I can’t imagine doing anything else, but it takes another thirty years of reflection to reach that degree of insight.  The explanation I serve my aunt is far more concrete:  “Because Papa is a doctor.”

The dental student flashes my aunt a puzzled look.  I sense that I’ve said something wrong, but I’m honestly not sure what.

“Your papa isn’t a doctor,” says Aunt Henrietta—her voice kind but firm.  “What on earth would ever give you that idea?”

I understand that I must not mention our visit to the hospital, that my father will want that to remain our secret.  “I don’t know,” I say.

“Her father was an architect,” my aunt informs her date.  “Before.”

The young man nods sympathetically.  “Does she know about…?”

He lets his sentence trail away, as though the word mother were toxic.

“She knows,” says Aunt Henrietta.  “But I don’t think she really understands.”

*

I can’t be certain whether my father visits the hospital again on his own, but the next time we visit together, it is already late summer and the corn along the county highway towers over his Oldsmobile.  Instead of the community hospital in St. Arnac, we drive forty-five minutes to the freshly-minted women’s clinic in Greensboro.  My aunt is away for the weekend with her new boyfriend, a veterinarian, who will soon become my Uncle Conrad, and will later become my former Uncle Conrad, and will eventually move to Florida and open a theme park featuring exotic animals.  Papa has finally mustered the wherewithal to warn me against discussing our hospital field trips with his sister, but when I tell him that I already know they are our secret, he grins.  “Your mother would be so proud of you, princess,” he says.   Later, as we pull into a metered space opposite the clinic, he adds, “Never forget why we’re here, Lauren.  This is for your mother.  So that those doctors who butchered her learn what it feels like.”  And his voice is compelling, although even at the age of six, I’m already aware that his thinking itself is muddled, that my mother had never stepped foot inside the women’s clinic in Greensboro.

The security guard on duty, a dour young woman, takes her job far more seriously than the jolly old-timers in St. Arnac.  She asks my father for his ID card and, when he apologizes that he has left it in his car, she suggests with a firm civility that he retrieve it.  “If you insist,” he replies genially.  But we do not return to the Oldsmobile:  Rather, we circle the building until we arrive at the ambulance bay.  “Pretend your sleeping, princess,” instructs Papa, scooping me up and carrying me into the emergency room as though I were an accident victim.  A genuine trauma patient has arrived ahead of us, so the ER is a maelstrom of clattering equipment and frantic resuscitation efforts.   An elderly woman pleads with God for her son’s recovery, at top volume, while medics shear the clothing off a blood-drenched body.  Nobody takes much notice of Papa when he strolls confidently through a graveyard of gurneys into the belly of the hospital.   Soon enough, we’ve found ourselves another private room on an upper floor of the building.

This room appears far fancier that the one we visited in St. Arnac; oak-paneled walls and rosewood furniture lend it the ambiance of a private library.  Years later, when I reconstruct these events from newspaper articles, I learn that the room belongs not to a physician’s relative, but to a physician herself:  Dr. Jane Barnwell, the forty-two year-old head of pediatric nephrology, who has suffered minor complications following the birth of her first child and is being held overnight for observation.  Fortunately for us, Dr. Barnwell sleeps soundly.  Papa takes great care not to wake her.  He loads his syringe in her private bathroom, instructs me to wait for him, then returns several seconds later and tucks the spent needle and rubber gloves into his leather bag.

“All done, princess,” he says.  “Good job.”

He snaps shut the satchel and gives the room a final once-over.  Dr. Barnwell doesn’t look any different than she did ten minutes earlier, except her chest no longer heaves.

“What do you say we stop for ice cream on the way home?” asks Papa.

“Strawberry?”

“Whatever your heart desires,” agrees my father.

We exit the hospital as we have entered, through the emergency room, again drawing virtually no attention.  On the avenue, however, a squad car with flashing lights has drawn up behind the Oldsmobile.  One of the officers remains seated in the vehicle, while the other stands on the sidewalk, comforting a distraught young woman in a burgundy smock.  The woman has fiery red hair—like my own mother’s—and wide, child-bearing hips; if she wore less makeup, she’d be prettier.

I am still at an age when I find the presence of police officers to be reassuring, rather than threatening, yet that afternoon I suspect their arrival bodes trouble.  My father, however, does not appear at all unnerved by their presence.

“Is something wrong, officer?” he asks.

The officer looks up.  “Your car?”

“I’m afraid so,” says Papa.  “Did I park in the wrong place?”

“Yes, you did,” says the cop.  He’s a gaunt bulrush of a man who looks as though a strong wind might topple him.  “You parked right behind this woman’s vehicle….”

I now notice—for the first time—that glass shards blanket the asphalt, remnants of the Oldsmobile’s left headlight.  A deep cleft forks the vehicle’s front bumper, which buckles over the grill.  The redheaded woman has apparently backed her car into ours.

“I’m so sorry, doctor,” the woman apologizes to Papa, who still sports his white coat.  “I honestly don’t know what happened.  I thought I was in drive, and I must have been in reverse, and I can’t believe I could ever be so stupid….”  She sounds as though she is seconds away from tears.

“Not a big deal,” says Papa.  He turns to the slender cop.  “Officer, is there any way we can just forget this ever happened?”

These days, I practice medicine in Manhattan, and asking a question like that in this city can get a person arrested, but three decades ago, in Greensboro, the rules are more flexible.  The slender officer steps over to the patrol car to confer with his partner.  The second cop, an older man with a shock of white hair, climbs out of the vehicle.

“What are you going to do about the insurance?” he asks.

“Absolutely nothing,” replies Papa.  “It’s not worth it.  I’ll just patch her up in my garage and she’ll be as good as new.  If I can operate on a human brain, I can operate on a busted bumper.  Anyway, there’s no reason this lady’s insurance rates should skyrocket over a minor accident.”

The veteran cop shrugs.  “Suit yourself, doc,” he says.

The older cop nods to the younger cop, and the pair depart into the urban web of Greensboro, leaving us alone with the grateful redhead.  “I don’t know how to thank you,” she says.  “I’ve never even been in an accident before.  I’d offer to buy you lunch in the cafeteria sometime, but this is the last day of my rotation.  I’m a nursing student—did I mention that?—and I go back to the hospital in Winston-Salem next week.”  She looks at Papa, who hasn’t said a word, and blushes.  “Oh, goodness.  I’m talking too much, aren’t I?”

“Not at all.  Why don’t we buy you lunch?  Right now.”

The nursing student, whose name I later learn is Suzanne, glances at me with apprehension.  “Won’t this girl’s mother worry if you’re not home on time?

“This girl’s mother,” replies Papa, matter-of-fact, “is dead.”

Suzanne’s expression flutters from shock to sympathy, but possibly sympathy tempered by relief.  “I’m sorry,” she says.

“Not half as sorry as I am,” says Papa.  “But now that we’ve broken the ice, how do you two beautiful ladies feel about barbecued chicken?”

*

Papa’s mood improves considerably after he starts dating Suzanne Shale.  We drive out to Winston-Salem every Friday and spend the weekend at her cozy, cluttered apartment two blocks from Wake Forest’s medical center.  At the time, I take for granted that Papa brings me along with him on these romantic getaways; in hindsight, I’ve come to recognize that Suzanne’s physical similarity to my late mother is not a coincidence—that my father, in some perverse way, hopes to reconstruct the family he has lost.  For her part, Suzanne is twenty-four years old and thrilled to be dating a neurosurgeon—even one endowed with so much integrity that he refuses to help her with her pharmacology homework.  That doesn’t stop her from begging for assistance, especially as she is barely passing her exams.

One evening, at a crowded steakhouse near the undergraduate campus, Papa nearly makes a fatal mistake while resisting her pleas.  It is my seventh birthday dinner—my second seventh birthday dinner, because my father never brings Suzanne to St. Arnac—and he is working his way down the cocktail menu.

“What use will me helping you be when you’re alone with a sick patient?” Papa asks her.  “Are you going to phone me from the hospital so I can convert cc’s into milliliters for you?”

Suzanne appears confused.  “Cc’s are milliliters,” she says.

Papa smiles.  “Just checking,” he replies.  “So they are teaching you something in that nursing program after all.”

I am impressed—even at age seven—by my father’s talent for deception, his ability to meet every challenge and contingency.  However, I am still too young to be thinking about long-term consequences.  In hindsight, I find myself wondering whether he has given any mind to his end-game, to what will happen when Suzanne insists upon meeting his family or planning a wedding.  Does he really think he can keep his ruse going forever?  Does he care?  Twenty-five years later, hoping to glean some insight, I write to Suzanne Shale—she is Suzanne Stanley now and teaches biology in Creve Coeur, Rhode Island—but my father’s ex-girlfriend responds with a curt note asking me to leave her alone.  I can’t say I blame her.

Yet that autumn, for a brief interval, the three of us do feel like a family.  We purchase a trio of pumpkins for Halloween, and while Papa and I carve jack-o-lanterns, Suzanne bakes pies from the pulp.  We go hiking in the foothills north of the city to view the foliage at its most colorful.  In early November, we enjoy a weekend road-trip to Virginia, where Suzanne introduces us to her mother.  Thanks to Papa’s seven-digit malpractice settlement with the insurance company, he has no need to return to his architecture firm.  In his leisure, he drives me to school every morning.

Our hospital visits drift into memory, vestiges of a darkness that has lifted.  So I am caught entirely off guard one weekend, around Thanksgiving, when Papa rouses me from my slumber in Suzanne’s apartment for a “medical emergency.”

“They need a consult on a bullet wound.  A very tricky case,” my father tells Suzanne.  “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

At first, I assume we are returning to St. Arnac.  Instead, we drive five blocks to Baptist Hospital and park in the staff-only lot.  My father adjusts his necktie with the help of the rearview mirror and then slides his arms into his white coat.  He pins a Wake Forest ID card to his lapel—a forgery, I imagine, but it looks real enough.

“Can I ask a question?” I ask.

“What, princess?”

My stomach flutters.  “How long are we going to keep visiting hospitals for?”

“Until we’re done,” he says.

All these years later, I’m still not sure what he means.

By now, of course, I know what to expect.  So I am not at all surprised when we climb the stairs to the VIP floor and work our medical magic, as Papa calls it, upon a middle-aged woman with a nasty rash across her forearms and neck.  Yet rather than making a quick getaway, my father ducks into a second room and injects an elderly man who is listening to a baseball game on his transistor radio.  We “treat” two more patients before a “Code-1000” is called over the PA system.  Thirty minutes later, we’re eating French fries at a café and rehearsing our alibi for Suzanne.

“We’ve changed the world quite a lot for one day, Lauren,” says Papa.  “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

I fill my mouth with French fries and ketchup.

Papa asks,  “Let’s review, princess.  Why are we doing this?”

“For Mama.”

That is precisely what Papa wants to hear—what I have been coached to say— and he beams with approval.  To strangers, he appears just another doting father accompanying his daughter out for a snack.

“Tell me one more thing, princess,” he says.  “What have you learned today?”

In the absence of guidance, I answer honestly.  “I want to be a doctor.”

My words are hardly out of my mouth when the sting of my father’s palm sets my cheek aflame.  I am too shocked to cry.  The cashier at the café register flashes Papa a look of intense hostility; an elderly lady at a nearby table glances away.  Nobody intervenes, of course:  This is long before child abuse becomes a public concern.  That does not make my face hurt any less.

“Doctors are the enemy.  Never forget that,” says Papa.  “Is that clear?”

“Okay,” I say.  “I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, princess,” he says—his tone gentle once more.  “But I’m counting on you.  Mama is counting on you.  You won’t disappoint us, will you?”

I promise that I won’t let him down and he never raises a hand against me again.  Of course, I never give him reason to do so.  By the time we return to Suzanne’s apartment that evening, my upper lip has swollen to twice its normal thickness—an injury we blame on a doorknob.

“She’s still the most beautiful girl in the world,” says Papa.  “But in the future, she has to be more careful.”

*

I am very careful from that day forward:  So painstakingly careful that I take to eavesdropping on my father, amassing a secret stash of knowledge to avoid any more mistakes.  After bedtime at Suzanne’s apartment, I tiptoe into the foyer and press my tiny ear against the ventilation duct.  From beyond the groaning of pipes comes the murmur of pillow talk.  It’s like having a radio broadcast directly from inside my father’s head.  That is how I learn that they are arguing, that Papa refuses to have the nursing student to St. Arnac for Christmas.  “I can’t handle it yet,” he insists.  “It reminds me of Ellen.  I’m sorry.”  Never before, as far back as I can remember, has Papa called my mother by her given name; it takes me a moment to realize who he’s talking about.

“Is that the only reason?” asks Suzanne.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” demands my father.  “Not wanting to be reminded of my slaughtered wife isn’t a good enough reason?”

Suzanne responds in a soothing tone; I cannot make out her words.  But her volume rises as she says, “All I want is the truth.  I love you.  You can trust me.”

A long pause follows.  I can hear footsteps, presumably Papa’s, pacing the hardwood floor.  “What are you driving at?” he finally asks.

“I want to be a part of whatever you’re a part of, Phil,” begs Suzanne.  “I’m going to put my cards on the table:  I know you’re not a brain surgeon.   None of the girls who’ve rotated through Greensboro Women’s this fall has ever heard of you…. But I’m fine with whatever you are:  an undercover journalist…or an FBI agent…even a Russian spy.  After six months together, I have a right to know.”

This is Papa’s opportunity to save himself.  Obviously, he doesn’t need to reveal that he murders physicians’ relatives as a hobby, a revelation that might test the limits of Suzanne’s commitment.  He merely must admit that he’s a widowed architect with no medical training; I don’t know how he’ll explain away the white coat, but I’m confident that doing so is well within my father’s capabilities.   What will happen, I wonder, if he confesses and puts his hospital career behind us?  Alas, I never find out.

Mattress springs creak at a distance, announcing that Papa has settled onto the bed beside Suzanne.  He may have his hand on her knee or her bare thigh.

“You do have a right to know,” says Papa.  “But I can’t tell you.”

“Phil—”

“No, please hear me out,” he continues.  “You’re right.  I’m not a brain surgeon—or at least I’m not a brain surgeon at Greensboro Women’s.  I wish I could tell you what I am doing at the hospital, but can’t.  It’s not that I don’t trust you.  Or love you.  But telling you what I’m doing would put you in danger, and it would put my project in danger, and people’s lives are at stake.”  I doubt so many falsehoods have been concealed with so much truth.  “You’ll have to trust me, Suzanne.  Can you do that?”

“I don’t know.  That’s a lot to swallow,” she replies.  “And Christmas?”

“Not this year,” says Papa.  “I have my reasons.”

Suzanne responds with a gust of sobbing, then a high-pitched wail that breaks periodically against my father’s protestations of devotion; I tiptoe back to my own bedroom and cry myself to sleep.

In the morning, a Sunday, Suzanne cooks up a pancake feast on the griddle.  My father’s girlfriend seems less chatty that unusual; otherwise, she appears as cheerful and affectionate as ever.  When she walks us to the car after breakfast, she kisses Papa on the lips and reminds him to call her when we arrive home safely.  Then she hugs me, her warmth a contrast to the atmospheric chill.  It is raw, overcast day in mid-December—the sort of day when hugs always feel the most loving—and a light dusting of snow still blankets yards and hedges.  It is the last day I ever see Suzanne Shale.

*

A final vestige of memory:  My father, slumped and intoxicated, fumbling to unsnap the clasps on his satchel.  Sixteen days have elapsed since our return from Winston-Salem, sixteen days since Suzanne Shale delivers her ultimatum.   If she does not come to St. Arnac for Christmas, she’ll find another partner.  But we share a holiday supper only with Aunt Henrietta and my future uncle, who depart early the next morning for a week-long vacation on the Gulf Coast.  It is now December 27th, approaching evening, but Papa has made no effort to turn on the lights.

My father sits at the kitchen table.  He has grilled me a cheese sandwich, has poured me a tall glass of chocolate milk.  I chew in silence, watching him unpack his medical supplies, bracing myself for another visit to the hospital, but Papa isn’t planning any more excursions.

“I think it’s time to teach you something, princess,” he says.  “Do you want to learn how to give an injection?”

“I don’t know.”

Papa finally manages to unsnap the claps on his bag.  “What I’m going to do, princess,” he says, “is fill this syringe with sodium chloride.  Salt water.  Totally harmless, but excellent practice.  All I need you to do is give your father an injection….”

“I don’t want to,” I say.

“I’m not asking you, Lauren.  I’m telling you.”

My father insists that I pull my chair up alongside him.  He is far too drunk to fill the syringe, too drunk even to hold the needle steady, so I am forced to draw the fluid out of the bottle on my own.  My fingers ache from the multiple attempts.  Nausea builds under my tongue.  Papa clenches his free hand around my other wrist; even if I wish to flee, I cannot.

“All right, princess,” he says.  “Just like a doctor.”

His breath, his body, the entire kitchen stinks of whiskey.

I insert the bevel and draw back the plunger.  I know that the syringe contains more than sodium chloride—that even as the toxic contents fill my father’s veins, he is sharing with me his final gift:  the horror and thrill of saving lives.

Reprinted with permission from the story collection Einstein’s Beach House, published 2014 by Pressgang.

© Copyright 2016 Jacob Appel

Jacob M. Appel Photo 2015

Jacob M. Appel is a physician, attorney and bioethicist based in New York City.  He is the author of six collections of short fiction, two novels and a collection of essays.  His short stories have been published in more than two hundred journals and have been short-listed for the O. Henry Award, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading and the Pushcart Prize anthology.  His commentary on law, medicine and ethics has appeared in the New York TimesNew York PostNew York Daily NewsChicago TribuneSan Francisco ChronicleDetroit Free Press and many other major newspapers.   He taught for many years at Brown University and currently teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.  More at: www.jacobmappel.com

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Yuriko Lee

    This is an incredible story… I couldn’t stop reading it.

    Like

  2. Gripping. Skilfully developed.

    Like

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