--a novel in the form of a family memoir
“It is strange. If you talk to the good gentleman about anything that does not touch on his madness, far from talking nonsense, he speaks very rationally and shows a completely clear and calm understanding.”
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
Part One: Phlegmatic 3
i. Jupiter or Neptune 4
ii. Phlegm and Torpor 23
iii. Sandra Perez Weisberg 36
iv. A Sac Within A Sac 48
Part Two: Choleric 57
i. Elsinore 58
ii. A Bilious Brew 74
iii. Albert Weisberg 92
iv. A Sinister Hammering 109
Part Three: Melancholic 119
i. Montecito 120
ii. A Black Mood 135
iii. Gene Weisberg 148
iv. The Chemistry of the Brain 171
Part Four: Sanguine 181
i. Cuba 182
ii. A Bloody Mess 195
iii. Dr. Morris Weisberg 208
iv. Coda 223
The best way to put yourself in a novel, a wise friend once told me, is to leave yourself out. Not only have I removed myself here, but this prologue also leaves out my hero, spry but aging as he is, Dr. Morris Weisberg, pathologist and sometime Chief of Laboratory. Here, instead, you are to meet an antagonist, Dr. Bill Smith, who will appear again later but significantly at the Montecito Veterans Hospital, located on the northern rim of Los Angeles in the desiccated hills some miles from suburban Northridge. Of course, these designations – hero or antagonist – are provisional, even questionable, and you must exercise your inalienable right as reader to revise and even to reverse them. For example, it would be possible to present Dr. Smith as a wielder of knife and scalpel, a slayer of disease, a marbled statue of power and grandeur.
In the event, however, the surgeon - other than being a drunk - seemed perfectly ordinary: not too short, nor too tall, and not too fat, though with a round face which was sometimes clouded, for his mouth could appear disapproving, and his brown eyes were somewhat assessive behind corrective lenses. On this June morning, dressed in his surgical garb, he wiggled his stiff fingers into latex gloves and felt how recalcitrant they were as he forced them in. Last night had been what he called a long, hard night, but let bygones be bygones, he thought. Smiling and a bit bleary, he strode confidently into the brightly lit surgical theater. He would perform an exploratory, which he invariably enjoyed.
The poor girl was dying, but now prepped and anaesthetized, she was stretched out on the operating table.
“Good morning, Dr. Smith,” the nurses said as did the new anesthesiologist, Dr. Maury – he was a handsome man; swarthy was the term. The line of his strong neck led down to broad shoulders and what looked to be a lean, fine physique below. Dr. Maury smiled politely at him, and Dr. Smith immediately turned to look at what was on the menu today.
The skin of the abdomen was bared before him as he picked up the scalpel with his stiffened fingers. Perhaps he would give her a few months more of life, he thought as he automatically cut through flesh, fat, and muscle. His nurse placed clamps and a drain so no profusion of blood would well in the cavity. At its bottom, there it was, the pancreas riddled with cancer. Searching for spreading metastases in liver and spleen, his rough fingers pushed the pancreas aside.
The heart monitor began irregularly to beep, and it stopped.
“Dr. Smith, her heart has…”
A slight tremor convulsed the body on the table, and Dr. Smith pulled his bloody gloved hands away.
“Adrenaline. Syringe,” he said as he glanced about, numb and unsteady. Dr. Maury was staring alarmed at him.
He plunged the needle into the heart. Immediately, he knew it had missed its target, and he lifted, shifted, and plunged it once more into the heart’s chamber.
Part One: Phlegmatic
2-20-62: John Glenn—riding in Mercury-Atlas capsule—is first American to orbit Earth.
Imagine we are now giant doctors, the size of Jupiter or perhaps Neptune, and that we had at our disposal the necessary massive instruments for magnification. We would direct them at the Earth, and each of us would peer through our lens at the continental rim of the western United States, where the Pacific surges. There we would behold a rectangular cell, one among many, a hundred feet wide by a hundred-fifty deep, the lot sited forty miles east of the lapping ocean. The wintry clouds would part like receding leukocytes to display a carefully measured suburban nucleus, and we would wonder whether the slight trembling we all observed were due to some pathological disturbance in the California landscape or to the conditions of our gaze, perhaps the imperfection of our device. In any case, before us within that suburban cell on Simshaw Avenue in Southern California, we see the semblance of persons. They are like chromosomal strands of life (are these viruses?), like nucleic acids, yes, a nuclear family within the cell lot. They are the home's inhabitants, but silent: from our electric and celestial distance, we cannot hear the whispers they exchange or the beautiful string sounds vibrating from the curved hollow boxes of wood three of them hold in their hands and a fourth between her legs.
To hear them, let’s try a new vantage point.
In our city, there stood a house—oddly ramshackle, yet recently built and surrounded by newly planted trees—a house owned and occupied by the Weisberg family, or rather now only by the doctor and the doctor's wife (the two sons currently residing in France and in a Redondo beach duplex, respectively). In our family’s neighborhood, Dr. Weisberg was especially respected for the fact that he never ventured from his house without a tie, a white shirt, and usually a suit coat to boot. This familiar uniform earned him, he thought, respect at work, though in fact his overly polite manner and rather tensely formal appearance were rebuked by some as peculiarly patronizing and European. It must be said, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, that the doctor’s co-workers – particularly his Hospital Director – would soon be the source of a rather dire crisis; in a few months, Dr. Weisberg would dissect the corpse of an otherwise healthy Caucasian female on the autopsy table, only to discover that her surgeon had effectively killed her. Whether the act was inadvertent or not, the result was the same: death. The resourceful pathologist would attempt to confront the crisis in his characteristic manner, at once phobic and quixotic.
To resume our story, it was winter here in Northridge; hence deciduous trees lacked leaves, garden beds lacked extensive blooms, and the heavens were without their wide sun-white canopy of light. From horizon to horizon, there were high, gray, rainless clouds. It was the evening of
February 28, 1962, and music wafted from the Weisberg windows. Yes, there was sound, and it could be heard even by neighbors across the street, faintly but distinctly. Beethoven, yes, it must be, only odd—not the big racing momentum and climaxes of a Napoleon symphony, but the experimental and transcendent coherence of a late work.
Morris—such was Dr. Weisberg's first name—sat in his living room, with windows open to the sixty-five degree evening stillness, and in his hands he gripped and played a violin with a bow of horsehair and wood. He was the second violinist, playing the lento variations Beethoven had composed one hundred thirty six years earlier, in the epochal year of 1826. With gratitude and wonder, Morris played his part in the grave flow of sound, transcendent though imperfect in this performance. To his right, the first violin was played by Michael Kramer; then, kitty-corner from Morris—a tall two hundred watt lamp centrally placed between them—sat Joan Ruggles, the blonde violist with her one eye, the other glass. To Morris's left sat a burly cellist with large hands, Edith Lowenstein. The music, quite slow, quietly sang. Its perfectly balanced melody was a sort of hymn, and this hymning core was steadily present throughout the movement, always underpinning each variation, no matter how desperate, broken, reduced to only the fewest two or three tones or, as now, elevated to the heights where the hymn's vaulted grandeur was rung round with ecstatic wreaths of soprano sound, where Michael Kramer's high violin tones lived a separate, inspired life while just below, Morris's second violin played a sort of lullaby, a companionable hum, which quieted as the movement drew to its close.
There was silence, respectful, punctuated by Edith’s coughing into her large hands and Michael’s turning a tuning peg to sharpen his E.
Then the stark, mysterious introduction to the last movement of Beethoven's last quartet (the sixteenth, written a few months before his death from massive liver failure). The strings played in unison, asking the question Beethoven had penned above the notes:
Must it be?
It must be! So answered everyone, as the movement's main melody flew out in fine form. Episode after episode, affirming or questioning, anxious or insouciant, were all punctuated by the recurrent phrase: It must be (and each time, among the listeners, someone's hand gave three supportive slaps to a chairarm). Always the quartet's happysad, sadhappy voice declared that life, even amid death, keeps leaping forth, keeps on rolling and rollicking, life and love, yes, love despite everything: It must be.
“Beau-tee-ful, just beautiful,” Daisy Kramer said, from the couch, a smile full of teeth blossoming in her face. (Morris saw that his Sandra sat nowhere in the room; where was she?)
“Hear, hear,” Dr. Lowenstein said from an armchair, next to Daisy; he sounded as if he were a backbencher encouraging a fellow dissenter. It had been Max Lowenstein's hand which rapped his chairarm in time to each it must be.
Morris Weisberg, his violin and bow carefully balanced on his lap, laced his fingers together it seemed in prayer. “Wonderful music,” he said to Michael Kramer, who smiled back at the doctor's wide eyes gazing from hooded brows and a long, thin, wondering and appreciative face. Before they'd begun, Morris had reached to hold Michael's left hand, and clinically but gently he traced the lines of bone and sinew, saying to the first violinist: “It amazes me, such extraordinary small muscle development.”
Now Morris's own less amazing yet serviceable hands were woven together in what looked like prayer. Each month Michael Kramer (a gifted professional violinist, and a knight among chamber players) found time to play with this group of amateurs, Dr. Weisberg's friends Joan Ruggles (violist tonight and accountant by day) and Edith Lowenstein (Mrs. Dr. Max Lowenstein in life, cellist in art) and last but not least Dr. Morris Weisberg himself (pathologist and chief of laboratory in life, otherwise second fiddle).
Edith Lowenstein, a big athletic woman, leaned to lay down her cello and then rose to stretch. “That was quite a workout,” she said to all and sundry. “Soon you'll be competing with Isaac Stern,” she directed her joke to Kramer, who raised his eyebrows. Forty year old Kramer, who had been a concertmaster of the Columbia Symphony for Bruno Walter's magnificent recordings of 1959-61, who had sat in with the Budapest String Quartet on their South American tour (trying out for second fiddle to replace Gorodetsky), who only played with these amateurs out of love for Morris Weisberg—yes, this Kramer was being mocked by Edith, the cellist.
Morris sensed some distress, and he awoke from his vague meditation. “Dear Edith, there should be no competition in such matters. Let's just be grateful such music exists.”
“I'm grateful, Morris; it's just that I think my friend Isaac better watch his backside.” Edith had been a family friend of the Sterns, when she lived in San Francisco and Isaac was then a teenager taking lessons from Nathan Blinder. “Michael is catching up!”
“It's not a race,” Michael said.
“Dear Edith, listen to me, you mustn't,” Morris said. “You mustn't speak of competing. What we played is transcendent music, pure and simple.”
“Okay, okay,” she said, and turned with a big smile to Joan Ruggles, slight and blond. “Are you feeling transcendent this evening, Joan?”
“Oh yes, my dear,” Joan said, lowering her voice to Morris's pitch and emphasis. “I'm feeling positively transcendent.” Her face seemed oddly divided, the glass eye immobile on the left, the living right eye animated with laughter, a flashing blue orb.
“You do look radiant tonight,” Morris said, smiling his compliment to Joan, and the two women burst into laughter.
Joan Ruggles, her functioning eye beginning to tear from laughing, thought back for a moment to a night of drunken stupor after her divorce, when she walked into the metal edge of her upper kitchen cabinet door, carelessly left open. Sudden blinding pain, blood on her face, her stomach churning to the brim, her lungs suffocating, hysteria in her heart, confusion in her brain. Only Morris's phone number came to mind. “Morris,” she had screamed into the line, “help me, help me.” And he had told her what to do, directing her, reassuring her, hanging up to dial an ambulance, meeting her at the hospital forty minutes away to the southeast corner of the Valley. Now she laughed, with a sort of glee that he had helped and that, more or rather less intact but sober now, she lived on to tease him this evening.
“Oh yes, Morris,” she said, irony in her voice, “I'm positively radiant!” She unwittingly gestured with the hand holding her viola bow to the left side of her face. Then she laid her bow by the viola in its case and walked with the other musicians and listeners out of the living room, through the central hall to the dining room, and up to a table filled with abundant appetizers, drinks, and desserts.
Morris stayed behind. Putting his violin and bow in the case at his feet by his chair, he got up and felt a bit light-headed, though only for a moment. He walked around the circle of stands, retrieving the sheet music on them. Carefully he put the four parts of Beethoven's last quartet—It Must Be, opus 135 in F major—into its outer sheaf. The fine smell of the paper, decades old, was in his nostrils. The ream of music had a heft and thickness in his hand, with the tens of thousands of coded notes scattered like stars through the myriad sheets: it was another dimension into which they had stepped for half an hour. Sheaf in hand, he moved toward the wooden shelves built into the wall at the end of the room, and he suddenly found he could not slow his pace. The room began to tilt. His shoulder bounced against the wooden shelves, and his free hand grabbed one to right himself. For several seconds, he stood absolutely still. His body had of its own animal volition plunged forward; of course, the body had its own surfaces and depths, and this symptom may have been associated with a deeper condition, perhaps the sporadic cough besetting him lately. The vertigo subsided. Though his shoulder ached a bit, he felt he was back to normal, and he placed the sheaf he held of music on the shelf at the end of the row of Beethoven quartets.
Manuscripts had been on Morris's mind all day, for he was facing the fact that he had not yet completed his magnum opus, had not even truly begun, and yet for what did he live? To discover something of value, to make a difference for future understanding, to leave behind his contribution. How old was Dr. Jaffe, his finest professor when he was chief Pathology resident at Cook County General in Chicago, when he died—forty-nine? And here Morris was, already sixty! Suddenly he recalled the first time he had observed Dr. Jaffe conduct an autopsy, or perhaps it was the first time he observed an autopsy forty years ago. At the base of the amphitheater, a corpse was stretched under the sheet. The professor pulled back the covering and began to speak a litany of description. The features of the naked man were noted with an attentive eye to every detail of size and surface: the skin—mottled or pallid, taught or slack—and the external organs, from the bald pate to the drooping genitals to the swollen, calloused feet. Another cloth was pulled back to unveil several, carefully enumerated instruments: the seven-inch knife, the vibratory saw, the scalpels and scissors, the forceps and chisel, the pump and hose, the basins and gloves. The doctor held up the knife and inserted it into the man, slitting him open from chest through belly to just above the pubic hair and then from nipple to nipple. The peeling layers of skin and fat were exposed, and liquid seeped out and into the table drain. All the while, with breathtaking care and precision, the professor narrated what he did.
Now Morris had become the professor and the Chief of Laboratory, and he had done so many autopsies, he had not realized how many he would perform. A new job offer—not to be Laboratory Chief, but Head of Research in Pathology—had come from the U.S. government research installation at Oak Ridge in Tennessee. So last August he and Sandra had taken a long, leisurely trip, driving across the country to visit friends, old haunts, and finally to interview at Oak Ridge. If truth be told, his current position did not altogether please him (and particularly his smarmy and politic Hospital Director); he had let it be known in certain circles that he was open to an alternative. The call had issued—rather late in his career—from the Institute for Nuclear Studies and, amassed behind it, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and the combined forces of American Intelligence—for the FBI had even given him a security clearance for Oak Ridge (despite fifteen years ago at the dawn of the McCarthy era, his having with some trepidation signed Linus Pauling's Stockholm petition, opposing the use, testing, and proliferation of nuclear weapons). The official written offer had been delivered by courier; with the letter had come a document which had disturbed him: the Oak Ridge Report on Acute Radiation Syndrome in American Nuclear Accidents—from the Manhattan Project to the Y-12 accident a few years ago. For Morris's eyes only. He had needed time to make up his mind, however, more than time.
Last August, when he toured the round-domed research facility with its sealed insularity, he had realized irrevocably that he was a clinical pathologist and not only an academic researcher; he could never relinquish his daily confrontation with death, the histological diagnosis of the body’s struggle against it, and the autopsy’s revelation of its causes. As well, he had been repulsed by the monomaniacal faith in technology on the part of the Oak Ridge Director with his team of scientists: as if studying the cellular effects of acute radiation poisoning was merely a step toward perfecting the technology rather than the study and exposure of the nuclear horror, of skin burned and peeling off the body, roasted flesh falling from the bone, an eternity of birth defects and mutant genes. It was that same blind faith in technology—whether to create or destroy—which Morris saw at work in so much of his society: as if weaponry alone could prevail against Cuba, or in the skirmishes lately in Vietnam, or in the confrontation at the new Berlin Wall, with each side's nuclear missiles bristling just miles or it seemed yards from each other; most recently, there was the criminal stupidity of the atmospheric nuclear testing, one just a month ago—a 50 megaton H bomb in Russia, answering a similar test in the U.S. It was not merely the billion pound explosive force, but the radiation loosed lethally into air by the fools.
That August, Morris refused the call from
Oak Ridge. Afterwards, he and Sandra had driven north from Tennessee to visit their Cleveland friends—Julius Weinstein, the fine cellist, and his effervescent wife, Sophie, and their son, Jack (who was so much like the Weisbergs' sons, sullen, with Elvis sideburns and music of all types blaring from his bedroom record player).
Then, driving toward Chicago on the trip home, they stopped for lunch in Toledo, a big dusty town on Lake Erie's western rim; after lunch, Morris had wandered down the main street into a nearby used book shop specializing in medical texts, and there on a backroom shelf he had found the title “Pathological Conferences” by R. B. Jaffe, M.D. Morris's breathing stopped at the sight of the words and then the photo on page one: the bald, intent, plump, brilliant face of his teacher, Robert Benjamin (yes, Benjamin, Morris’s father's name) Jaffe, 1888-1937. Gulping for breath, he leafed through the browning pages. Starting on page 1074 and thereafter for the final hundred pages, the dialogue of each Thursday afternoon in 1937 was reproduced between himself—Dr. Morris Weisberg, Chief Resident in Pathology—and Dr. R. B. Jaffe, Director of Laboratories at Cook County Hospital. First came a page of Morris's account of the initial facts for each case (“this patient came to a sudden and dramatic end by a profuse hemoptysis; she was nineteen year old girl who...”) and then Dr. Jaffe's magisterial report of the autopsy findings (“the patient was a well-nourished and well-built woman from whose mouth and nose much blood was exuding; the left pleural cavity was completely obliterated by...”). The last conference had taken place on December 16th (my god, it had been Beethoven's birthday). The eminent clinician had conducted his usual revelation and on the 17th had dropped dead of a cardiac infarction. Morris was not allowed to assist at the autopsy: no students had been given leave to gut and saw their teacher's corpse.
Morris bought the aging volume in Toledo, and over these last six months had re-read the book for evidence of the voice he had and the life he had led in the thirties in Chicago, for clues as to why in the ensuing years no hefty volume—say, a histological study of cancer—had emerged from his pen; all his thoughts (stray, illuminating, furtive, penetrating), why had he not collected them into a sustained discourse?
Manuscripts—both existent and non-existent—were on Morris's mind, then, as he shelved Beethoven's opus 135 between the opus 133 Grosse Fuge and Schubert's a-minor quartet.
“Where are you keeping yourself!” Sandra Weisberg said from the entrance to the living room.
“Where have you been, Sandra?” Morris asked in response. He looked up from the shelf of chamber music, and there she was, walking toward him and still wearing the dress he had objected to before their guests arrived. He had been instinctively repelled by its pattern. The enemy had manifested itself in a woolen shroud obscuring his wife's body: from out of a blueblack ground of Azocarmine dye signaled the bright Tetrazolium blue blots of squamous cell carcinoma, each with giant tentacled arms revolving around a dense blue nucleus. The cancer enveloped Sandra, covering her breasts, her stomach, her precious thighs. “Remove that dress at once, Sandra. You must not wear it.” And he had even reached to her back and begun to fumble with her zipper, urgently attacking the problem. She had wrested herself away. “Why? Why must I change my dress?”
“Morris, your guests are missing you. Come have a bite to eat; please, come,” Sandra said to him now. With her fine, light brown hair (the gray magically gone), her smooth, plump, olive skin, and her short ample Mediterranean body, she smiled at him and gestured for him to come join the group.
“Yes, dear,” he said placidly and followed. She had been right about the knit dress of merino lamb's wool. What had possessed him? He had mistaken its print for a cancer's stained microscopic image. Yes, it was merely a wool dress, and the print was in fact a beautiful, abstract, flowing, floating pattern, like beautiful blue windmills cartwheeling on a dark horizon.
Morris followed her across the wide, modern, glass-roofed central hall, which opened to the living room, the hallway to bedrooms, the front door, the glass door to the backyard, and the noisy dining room, which he entered. Everyone talked as if in a fever, the voices over-loud, happy and serious, teasing and earnest. Everyone felt heightened by the proximity of the music played in the immediate past and to be played in the near future.
Sandra watched her husband move to the laden table and fix himself a small plate of creamy clam dip and an open-faced rye bread sandwich of buttery chicken liver. His metabolism was phenomenal, his cholesterol fine, his head of black hair still full and shiny as a twenty year old's. He was a prince of health, her wiry husband. Though she had noticed a slight dry cough lately; also, his light Ashkenazi skin was especially pale. “A natural,” he would call her, “a brilliantly intuitive diagnostician: Mrs. Dr. Weisberg.” Her brilliant prince, rugged in stamina, maniacal in metabolism, could her prince be ill? Of course, there had been no sign of slack at dinner, when he practically ripped her dress from her body. “Why? Why must I change my dress?” she pleaded. “You have no understanding of these matters, Sandra,” he had said coldly; “it's a medical concern.” Finally she realized what his concern was, and she cried out: “Who is your wife? Medicine is! No, not your wife. She is your mistress.” He had winced at that. “Your mistress, yes, and must I, your wife, always take orders from your mistress!” In silence, they had sat down to have a snack of cold roast beef; as usual, he had refused to carve the slab of peppery meat, so kin was it to flesh. As they ate, he had mumbled across the kitchen table where they sat: “I think there's a severe case of the meanies going around this house.”
“I feel sorry for Van Doren,” Edith Lowenstein was speaking to Sandra, who had not realized it.
“Father or son?” Sandra asked.
“Why, the son, of course. To grow up with such pressure from a hoity-toity father. Who could live up to the expectations of a Mark Van Doren! Poor Charles, and then to be offered the blandishments of the Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question.”
“Blandishments, shlamdishments,” Daisy Kramer interrupted, her bright and generous set of teeth decorated with crumbs from the brownie she ate—it's delicious, she'd said, brimming. “I feel sorry for the father. For a fine man like that to have a son convicted of such deceit and now going to prison...”
Sandra looked from one woman to the other, smiling her assent to each, divided in sympathy between Mark and Charles. Yes, thievery had occurred, and deceit. Of course, fakery and deception were what television was all about, according to Morris. He disapproved when she watched any of it, even the news, let alone The Sixty Four Thousand Dollar Question. But who were these people anyway, the MC, the television producers, that young light bulb, and the old ivy-league professor? Everyone was maintaining such an image. Where was reality?
“It all seems so unreal,” she said. “Let's judge gently—both the father and the son. Because it's a question, what is just in this situation, don't you think, Edith?”
“I should say so. After all, that kind of money...” she went on, and Sandra thought of how kind Edith had been to them over the years, in her rough and tumble way. They met her through Sandra's sister, Teresa, who had been Edith's violinist friend during her
San Francisco years. Poor Teresa, living alone now in her apartment far out on Clement toward the Pacific. Sandra must visit her soon.
“I have something I want to give you,” Michael Kramer said to Morris.
“You do?” the doctor said, staring expectantly at the violinist, twenty years his junior. “I should give you gifts, not you me. I'm so grateful you play with us.”
Michael—balding and heavy, wearing a bulky brown sweater, scuffed shoes, and carefully pressed black pants—handed Morris a flat cardboard record album. The words Walter and Brahms' Second were emblazoned in red and white over silver.
“I told you about those sessions in '59.”
“Of course. You played a tape of it for me, on your reel to reel—three years ago, yet hearing your solo on the Adagio, it's like yesterday. Your phrasing, perfect, like breathing. Remind me again how Walter chose you to be concert master.”
“There was a competition; it was me or Israel Baker,” Michael said, smiling, with a glint of pride in his eyes, mouth, voice. “Like a tournament,” he explained, as if he were a son reporting what he accomplished to a father. Yes, like a son, Morris thought, and a pang of feeling jolted him, inside, pleasure and pain combined. Albert, his true son, had also played the violin and possessed a gift of tone miraculously like Michael's, a beauty of sound completely independent of any hollow of wood his hands held. But Albert, with his wondrous potential, had stopped playing in college, and on his twenty-first birthday last May, he had sold his violin at an incredible loss, the Amati copy Morris had bought him when he was seventeen. With the money, Albert had sailed on the Queen Mary to
Europe. Such distress Morris had felt, and there was more to come, though at the moment the doctor could not foresee that both Albert and Gene would be returning home and that filial rage and resentment, pain and breakdown, would soon descend.
Morris coughed now. He felt a bit feverish, and there was an amorphous, intermittent pain not in his shoulder but in his chest, just a slight ache but worth examining in greater detail.
“You know, Michael, I think I need a bit of fresh air,” he said, and the violinist looked concerned. “It's nothing. Nothing to worry about,” Morris said in a chipper voice, ruling out any seriousness of ills or distemper.
Perhaps the trouble was having children later in life. Both of his sons seemed unhappy, though both were physically sound (despite Gene's asthma and Albert's tendency toward obesity, sinusitis, and nose-bleeds). Gene, his elder son, was given occasionally to sudden rages, and whenever he visited an onslaught was always possible. Even as a child, stubbornness and tantrums had erupted in him. All the same, though, he was not as troubled as Albert—or as gifted. Certainly not dull, only a little literal-minded, Gene was a photographer for the record industry, with pretensions to artistic expression. A few years ago, he had gotten married—when he was twenty-two: too young. (Morris himself had waited until he was almost thirty and already a resident in Pathology.) What a beauty Gene’s wife was, though. Deborah of the dark and flowing hair, perceptive and polite, sharper than Gene, and the true breadwinner, as far as Morris could tell; she worked as a pastry chef at a restaurant in Westwood.
Of course, Gene had posed problems from birth. The baby’s body was immensely vulnerable to disease, and the possibility of his death threatened Morris, looming over him, an unspeakable enormity. Their tiny first-born son absorbed Sandra’s attention, even to a fault, and it brought his demanding mother-in-law into their apartment. So the infant’s arrival had been an alarming disruption to the family, though Morris had of course kept himself under control. The latest child-rearing orthodoxy was based on Watsonian Behaviorism, and intelligent parents were placing their babies in Skinner Boxes. The Weisbergs followed suit, and it was a godsend, isolating the infant from contamination and releasing the mother from the drain on her energies.
Morris had sometimes caught Sandra disobeying the Box rules and removing Gene from the crib outside of the feeding schedule. A sense of rage had arisen in him, almost blind outrage – but at what? At his wife’s violations of the Skinner protocols: it was intolerably naïve of her and oblivious to the harm done by excessive holding of the infant. What was even more galling was her absorption in the moods and needs of this newborn protoplasm. He insisted that the behavior cease. Such was the purpose of the lectures he was compelled to give his otherwise fine and pliant wife. Of course, now, there were new child-rearing orthodoxies, which oddly shifted over the decades and even censured what was gospel in the thirties. Lately Morris had wondered whether Gene’s asthma, a disease of often psychogenic origin, stemmed from those early supposed deprivations, and there was Gene’s temperamental spirit, developing later and potentially so destructive, so in need of regulation and control. But on reflection, these idle speculations seemed of no import.
“How are you doing?” Dr. Max Lowenstein grabbed his host's arm. Morris had begun walking through the central hallway. He coughed slightly and flinched a bit: the amorphous pain returned and again vanished.
“You'd better watch that cough, Morris,” the ophthalmologist advised the pathologist.
“Oh, it's nothing, Max. I'm taking care of it.”
“You know the adage, the doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient.”
Morris attempted to restrain another cough, and his right hand unwittingly reached to his chest to soothe the fleeting pain. Max noticed the gesture, and the two men peered at each other, each through thick glasses to correct myopia. With a glint in his eye, Max said, “Lungs are precious, Morris, and you know we only have two.” Brimming with laughter, he reached his hand to hold Morris's arm, to keep himself from guffawing at his own bon mot.
“And the new technology of pulmonary study! Way beyond mere x-rays: it's amazing,” Max said. “But who am I to tell you about what they can do today? This new generation, Morris, it's pushing the limits of science.”
“That’s true, Max,” Morris said in a mild, detached voice. “Of course, before antiseptics and antibiotics, doctors killed more patients than they saved. Now, to be a good doctor, one should implicitly be a good scientist too.”
“And a good businessman, as well,” Max said. “Nowadays, you have to be aware of market factors, or you won't survive. Today, doctors must be merchants,” Max concluded and rapped his hand twice on Morris's arm at the syllables “must be,” just as he had rapped his chairarm as he listened to each “it must be” earlier.
“You mustn't say that, Max,” Morris answered, straightening himself to his full sixty eight inches, extricating his arm from Max and interlacing the fingers of his hands now in front of his chest as he spoke. “Doctors must not be mercenary.”
“Did I say mercenary?”
“Medicine must be unaffected by concerns of social privilege or the mercantile world,” Morris said and then began to lecture his colleague and friend on the primacy of truth-telling from the beginnings of their profession.
“Right, right, Morris. Just as I said in the first place,” Max interrupted with ironic and forced bonhomie toward his difficult, relentlessly serious colleague. Morris felt suddenly how much the cellist's husband was patronizing him. “The pursuit of scientific truth knows no limits now,” Max continued. “It's the golden age of technology, Morris. Look at that astronaut last week. Far out in space, he orbits the earth, more than once! Glenn—he must be one of your heroes.”
“Max, you mustn’t,” he replied, leaving vague what Max must not do. “This is no golden age; it's an age of technocrats. What do they know of a lifetime dedicated to serving truth and opposing death? What do they know of honesty, of ethics? Just now the tests of H bombs in the atmosphere. The nuclear radiation released will blight the growth of unborn fetuses, the bones of growing children, the bodies of the aging. Those bomb blasts are butchery! And did you read the propaganda generated by the servants of technology, the cover-up from the mouths of paid-off doctors and technicians? Science is irresponsible today.” Morris's voice was icy and detached.
He began edging toward the central hall, his eyes on the sliding glass door in back. He was not feeling well and needed fresh air and the canopy of cloudy sky.
“What are you, Morris, a god, some Jupiter or Neptune gazing down at us from on high!” Max loosed mocking laughter at his startled host; Daisy Kramer heard and took a concerned, protective step toward the two doctors. “You judge all of science, looking down at us dwarfish minuscule beings through your superior microscope!”
Morris turned and smiled palely to his guest, who seemed to be snickering. “I hope I don't put on airs, Max; does it seem so?” Morris said, stopped now in his tracks and again tightly interlacing his fingers, as if to keep his hands from flying into the air between them. “I am no
Neptune, and I don't set myself up as particularly wise, Max. I'm a flawed, imperfect person. All I want is that doctors remember the values of our profession. What a mistake to forget the joy and glory of simply opening your eyes and speaking what you see. Truth-telling, Max—though I agree it's not an easy task.”
Max's eyes no longer narrowed into a glint of mockery and irritation, and he was once again pleasant and avuncular. “For sure it's a tall order,” he said. “I share that creed with you. I know it by heart; it's our liberal faith in freedom of perception, expression...whatever. But, Morris, who actually wins and loses in the history of medicine—from the time of Bichat and Hunter, Rokitansky and Virchow, into perpetuity? It's the go-getters, Morris!” Max mentioned Art Kornberg's Nobel prize three years ago, awarded for the discovery of an enzyme which copies the gene's nucleic acids, so that growth can occur; unfortunately, the enzyme Art discovered was not the one which helped life to thrive or be at all. “Tell me, Morris, he's your colleague: did he give back the money? No. Did he delay progress? Yes. But did he intend to obstruct it? Of course not. He was doing what comes naturally: he's a go-getter!”
“I need some fresh air, Max. I think I'll just step outside. Would you tell Edith I'll sit this next one out. I know she wants to play the Mozart String Trio. Tell your wife, it's on the shelf, would you?”
“Are you okay, Morris? Let me help you,” Max asked with pleasant kindness as Morris walked into the central hall and began to slide open the door to the
"No, no, it’s nothing! Tell Edith about the Mozart. Now's her chance to make some glorious music."