The Mirrors (part thirty)
Joseph Dumain knocked one night at his son’s door.
Charleton did not live in this house alone…he was not alone, and the presence of boarders, of student doctors who interned at the clinic, kept his feet from the chasm, his eyes towards humanity.
Need was life, and the chasm was death.
But it was four a.m. He was in the kitchen, brewing coffee. His grandfather had conferred on him the responsibility of the clinic, and the running of it was not the burden, that stole sleep—
The old man had a curiosity. What components of the human species tended towards stamina, but yet with no excess of soul, as Grandfather used the term? He used it in the way of the British intellectual. He did not want his ideal “unit” to think existential thoughts, to worry over the goodness of man, over his place or purpose. Grandfather felt there was a mix of the races—he wished to learn what it was—that produced a superior breed of soldier.
A soldier to end all wars; for, being bred, he could be sacrificed in unlimited numbers. War would be a game then, a gentleman’s game, and the people would not trouble themselves to follow it.
Charleton, at twenty-four, hadn’t the stamina to speak his outrage. He was on his feet sixteen hours a day. He pulled back the door and saw Joseph; saw the weatherbeaten face grow pinched. He knew his own plain looks were bleached and hollowed uglier by his indoor life.
He hated this man. He was reminded, and his face told it.
Joseph said: “Don’t let the old man know. I’m staying a while.”
Charleton’s arm barred the way.
“Damn you, don’t be an idiot!”
He was an idiot to his father, not a qualified doctor who saw a dozen patients a day, visited the homes of others, updated the books in the evenings, ate meals standing. Joseph practiced in a rough, camp fashion, born of the army, the mines, the places his store of information had ossified into his bible.
One day, after helplessly allowing Joseph in, Charleton climbed to the attic library. Electric lights were not strung here, but windows gave daylight on four sides…light enough. The library was cramped, stuffed with paper, a fire trap. The floor below was entered from a private staircase, needing a key.
Inpatients here were seen by Old Dumain.
And a small staff shared a residential ward, to watch them nights. Charleton searched for an unimpeachable source, a medical journal that would tell Joseph not to hand out pills and send people away. He agreed with his father…many had nothing wrong. They had pains and indispositions that would sort best with a day of bedrest; they made themselves sicker, and others sick, coming to the clinic.
But of course they couldn’t take a day. For their bosses, for their spouses, they needed infirmity—proof of it, in a bottle of pills.
His grandfather had wanted…Charleton hadn’t known why it surprised him…to set aside the back rooms of the first floor as a special, Negro clinic. He had himself hired Dr. Bonheur, feeling depressingly his junior. He would have chosen to be guided by Bonheur’s manner, to let the greater competence take charge. But as they could not work side by side, Bonheur’s mentoring must be vicarious.
He carried a case history to the window. He looked down into the yard, and saw Joseph, saw that Joseph was speaking to Godfrey. The yard was a strip along the back premises, fitted with a handpump for water, a wrought-iron fence for a boundary, and a line for washing. Because of bedsheets, the men were sheltered from the alley.
News of Godfrey painted a degenerate, a pilferer, a fabricator of pathetic excuses, a creature void of the humane impulse…
Was evil too strong a word? It was not clinical, however, and Charleton told himself that at any time he might meet a patient troubled like Godfrey.
It was clear to him his father was giving over a drug, a blue glass bottle. Joseph was shoddy about dosages, about marking them down in the record book, reconciling this with the charts. Charleton saw that a spat had risen. They hissed at each other through their teeth, not to be overheard.
Who am I lying to? If I won’t tell the truth to myself.
He watched Joseph snatch at the bottle…and astonished, watched Godfrey’s face bunch into an animal sneer, watched him lunge and take Joseph, on the grass now, by the throat. The sturdy little bottle rolled away, its blue the thing discernible. And there was Bonheur, putting his head out the window.
Charleton flushed hot. He heard his father’s voice: “None you … in there need to involve yourselves. You … keep to your own business, or look out!”
Amid these dismissals were two epithets. He would not let them echo in his head. Going downstairs to duty, Charleton let the truth form itself.
The fight was over money. Joseph was selling tincture of opium, but Godfrey…no, Godfrey couldn’t pay. At the foot of the staircase, he turned onto the short hallway. The examining rooms, the open doors on either side…
The hall’s four benches.
“Hello…hello,” he said, and none of the patients answered. They needed a second’s time from looking at this stranger from the other side, to speaking, and Charleton was past by then.
“Dr. Dumain. Come in.”
Bonheur stepped out, nodded to the waiting patients. What Charleton wanted to say was not, “I apologize for my father.” There was something in begging forgiveness that made matters worse.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)