Excerpt: 'Nobody's Baby'

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San Francisco Leo Litwak, now in his 80s, publishes a vigorous collection of stories, recommended by All Things Considered critic Alan Cheuse.

Excerpt: "The Therapist"

Wesley goes to the therapist because there's nothing else he can think of doing and everyone tells him, "See someone, for godsakes. It can't go on like this." He's been told that the therapist, Roger Roman, has an odd way of doing business. Roman is said to be eccentric, maybe a little crazy, but he gets quick results and Wesley's need is urgent.

Roman lives in Mill Valley. His office is in his home. It's a shingled house, embedded in a grove of redwoods and cut off from light. A deep porch extends the entire front. The dark rooms are chilly. The heavy, upholstered furniture smells mildewed. The floors are bare save for a worn Oriental that has been tossed willy-nilly on scuffed hardwood. Wesley is met at the door by a spectacled fourteen-year-old. Despite the chill she only wears tight shorts and halter. She's plump, fair, sunburned, and when he tells her his business she doesn't answer; merely points to the office, located off the parlor. A toddler in diaper and rubber pants pulls a toy truck over the bare floor. The toy makes a ratcheting sound. A woman in the kitchen, no doubt the wife, nods when Wesley greets her and continues grinding a pot with a Brillo pad. Is the house in the aftermath of quarrel? Have screams just stopped? Is the furniture out of place?

Roger Roman shows no sign that anything is amiss.

"Wesley? Hi, there."

He is a plump little man with a cropped, shabby beard. He wears a flannel shirt, a leather vest with brass snaps, jeans, cowboy boots. His voice is youthful and enthusiastic. He doesn't seem fit but his strong grip defies appearance. He's not the sort of man Wesley thinks can tempt him into opening his heart. Wesley has imagined someone more fatherly, with a calmer, deeper voice. Still, the effort to secure help has cost him a great deal and he is resolved to get the most he can from this meeting.

Roger waits for him to speak and Wesley tries to be reasonable, calm, objective, and yet his first words—"My wife is insane"—suggest he's out of control. What a way to begin. But he only means to state a clinical fact. Shirley is a madwoman, he tells Roger, even though everyone considers her to be free-spirited, and exuberant, and sane. He's the only one who seems to know the full extent of her madness. Only Wesley has experienced her rage. She becomes a tiger lunging for the kill. There's a child, their four-year-old girl, Rosie. Lawyers tell him he can never win custody. The world believes the child is secure and he can't prove otherwise. He's considered grabbing his daughter and running for it. "You'll be hunted down," the lawyers tell him. He'll lose his job and savings and Shirley will have it all. So what's he to do? The marriage devours him but he can't get out; he's Rosie's only safeguard. He's stuck, in need of help. And so he has come to Roger Roman.

Roger nods and smiles and waits for more.

There is no more. "That's it."

"You're stuck?"

"I'm at an impasse."

"Stuck like a car mired in mud after heavy winter rains? Stuck like an old man in the middle of traffic who doesn't remember what he's doing there? Stuck like a kid who gets up to recite "Casey at the Bat" in an auditorium and blanks out? Stuck like a fly in flypaper? Like a mouse in a glue trap? Like Basil Rathbone in a duel with Errol Flynn?"

Wesley is not sure that Roger has been listening.

"I'll give you a case in point to clarify the situation." He describes something that happened the week before. He acts all three parts—himself, his wife, his child.

Shirley calls him at work as she often does. "You better get home." Her tone is ominous.

"Can it wait? I'm very busy."

"If you care for your child you'll get home fast." He hears her say to Rosie, "Speak to your daddy."

Rosie gets on the phone. "Please come home, Daddy." Rosie sounds terrified and he drops everything and rushes home.

He finds Rosie in her room, playing with her dollhouse.

"You all right, baby?" She looks up, doesn't say a word. He goes to the other end of the apartment. Shirley's in the kitchen wearing a bathrobe, huddled over a sewing machine, repairing the seam of a dress. The house appears calm.

"Is everything all right?"

"I can't talk now."

He runs back to Rosie's room. Rosie whispers, "Mommy's angry."

He takes her on his lap. "You know your mummy. When she's not well she says things that sound pretty scary. But you know she loves you, baby."

Rosie shakes her head. "She was very angry, Daddy." He reads a Madeline book to her and she dozes off and he lays her down and covers her with her blanket. He returns to the kitchen and watches Shirley finish the dress. She cuts the thread, removes the dress from the sewing machine. She holds it up, inspects it. It's a black sheath, all-purpose dress.

She grips the dress at the shoulders and with all her strength—it's a terrible wrench—her face is really squeezed—she rips apart the seam she's just repaired.

"If I didn't do this to this dress I might do this to your child!" Still in her bathrobe she runs downstairs.

"Wait!"

She slams the door and is gone. She returns an hour later. She doesn't say a word. She goes to the bedroom, closes the door. When he looks in she's asleep, still in her bathrobe, wrapped in an afghan. No explanation. She lies on the bed as if she's been axed. She lies on the diagonal, using the entire bed.

His child and his wife sleep at opposite ends of the apartment and he's stuck between them. He waits for someone to wake up. And what can he expect when they wake up? Another explosion?

Roger shakes his head. "Man! What a dangerous life! You're living in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. The lava dome is building. Everyone within fifty miles is doomed. Yet you're still hanging around. Why don't you get your a** out of there, Wesley?"

Is that the question to ask? And should it be asked so critically? Hasn't he explained the dilemma? "I have a hostage to fortune."

"Who's that?

"My four-year-old daughter. I'm stuck."

Roger starts laughing.

"Did I say something dumb?"

Roger sits sprawled in the straight-back chair that rears back on its hind legs. He's on the verge of toppling. His belly shakes when he laughs. Wesley has no confidence in this man.

"Sorry, Wesley. Don't be offended. It's just that a few minutes ago my own Mount St. Helens blew her top and listening to you kvetch I suddenly hear what an a****** I was."

"A******?"

Roger makes a mewling sound, clutches his throat. "I kiss a** at one end of the house. I kiss a** at the other end of the house. I ricochet off the walls. And my complaint sounds like a whimper."

"Kiss a**? Is that what you make of it? Do I sound like a fool? I don't mind that. It doesn't matter what you think of me. That's not the issue. I'm not trying to draw a flattering picture of myself. My intention is to put the case with absolute fidelity so you'll have a clear view of the situation."

"‘Absolute fidelity'? 'A clear view'? Jesus. Tell me, Wesley. What case are you putting? Has a crime been committed? Did you shoot somebody?"

"I know I sound stilted. 'Putting a case.' Very English. I have a problem with spontaneity. I rehearsed my opening speech. Let me put it this way. I want to describe my problem very clearly so you can get a handle on it."

"Wesley, are you sure you came to the right guy? I'm not a justice of the peace. It doesn't do you a damn bit of good to put your case to me."

"I withdraw the language. I'm not committed to it. I'll tell you my problem in any language that suits you."

"I'm a justice of war, Wesley. I prefer to hear the language of war."

"I see we're off on the wrong foot. Let me start over again. I won't put the case. I'll just tell it as it is."

Roger grabs a metal ashtray and slams it on his desk. "Bang!" It rings off the metal corner of the desk like a horseshoe collaring a metal stake. "That's the kind of sound I want to hear."

"I see. You want me to pound on the furniture."

"I want to hear your outrage."

"Shall I break a chair?"

"Great idea! Try this." Roger gets up, lifts his chair in both hands and slams it down. The chair cracks. A leg splits along the length.

"My good chair! S***! I loved this chair. It's the only chair in the house that gave my back any relief." It's a shabby kitchen chair of no apparent value. Roger shoves it out of the way and pulls over another. "Well, it's a relief to let the breath flow easy. I felt throttled in the chest. Choking on my own whimper. Short, tight breath." Roger slams the ashtray again. The desk is thoroughly battered. Wesley guesses that the desk battering is a common office procedure. "Come on, Wesley. Make a little noise."

"Bang," he says with some disgust.

Roger gets up and kicks the broken chair against the wall. The split leg is almost entirely off. "Don't you have any bad noise? Are you some kind of a saint, Wesley?"

"I don't want to add to the general din. It's already too noisy. I pray for quiet."

"Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch."

"I think I'm beginning to get the idea. Abuse is part of your game. I heard about that. I don't think that tactic can work with me, Roger. I'm abused for free at home. I don't intend coming here and paying for it."

"Free abuse at home? And it will cost you here, right? Well it's not free, that's for sure. Can you afford it, Wesley?"

"Probably not. Right now I'm strapped. But I don't have a choice."

"What's your line of work, Wesley?"

"I'm a customer's man in a brokerage house."

"What kind of ‘man' is that?"

"I do a little of everything. Part broker, part gofer. The title sounds better than it is. My income isn't much. I'm getting a late start."

"I figured you for a professor. I hear footnotes when you talk."

"I'm on edge and I'm being pushed. I'm trying to keep control. So I'm more careful than usual and you hear headers and footnotes."

"On edge? You're on edge? Are you one of those timid mariners who's afraid to leave shore because you might come to the edge of the world and fall into a dragon's maw? Is that the edge you're talking about?"

"I'm not saying anything so ridiculous."

"Oh, my goodness! Did I say something ridiculous? Did I ask a stupid question? I'll discipline that naughty question. Bad, bad, bad." He slams the desk with the ashtray three times.

Wesley looks at his watch. He doesn't know if he'll make it to the end of the hour.

From "The Therapist," a story from Nobody's Baby by Leo Litwak, copyright 2005, excerpted with permission by El Leon Literary Arts.

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