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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Verificationist

A Novel

Donald Antrim



THE PANCAKE SUPPERS were my idea. The plan was, as I imagined it, innocent enough: respectful, unceremonious gatherings, one in early spring a few days before Easter, another sometime after the Wicker Beaver Festival in late October, all the teaching analysts coming together as friends, drinking limitless coffee refills, sharing opinions and impressions of the various candidates at the Institute, of crises or patients' breakthroughs in our private practices, of new ideas relating to the seemingly everlasting task of reconciling classical metapsychology to our particular branch of Self / Other Friction Theory. It was my view that the mood at these pancake affairs should be kept light, and I therefore selected, instead of that new, expensive breakfast restaurant on Woodrow Avenue—Jane had been raving about the food, but I had never set foot inside, for reasons that may be immaterial within the context of the present discussion—the more modest, open-all-night Pancake House & Bar on Eureka Drive, way out past the book factory, down the perilously steep hill leading to our famous covered bridge and, beyond the bridge, the overgrown, abandoned airfield.
It is true that this meant a long drive for my colleagues who live on the north side. An occasional trip through the city's neglected districts is worth their time and trouble. The Krakower Institute, like any privileged organization, has significant responsibilities toward the community, and I can't help feeling that, despite our peer counseling program for teenaged girls, we do not accomplish enough. That said, allow me to report that our first-ever analysts' pancake party was a monumental success. The sordid, oddly lovely, threateningly intimate and utterly unexpected, mortifying embrace between Richard Bernhardt and yours truly did not spoil the evening in the least. Not appreciably, anyway. Everything depends on how you look at these things. I remember that I ordered blueberry pancakes with Canadian bacon, a large orange juice, and, because this was dinner, a house salad. It was, I recall, a gorgeous evening, one of those ideal early-April nights, the stars already apparent in a sky falling from blue to black, the night air brisk with smells of trash fires smoldering in backyard incinerators. You could hear songbirds gathered in the flowering trees that border the restaurant parking lot, and, in the distance, the high, whining buzz made by handmade wood-and-paper airplanes that circled above their pilots, local hobbyists standing on the old airport's broken tarmac, clutching radio consoles.
I love our medium-size city with its Revolutionary War history and its easygoing ways, its minor-league sports teams and its modest skyline—visible now in the distance from my comfortable booth at the Pancake House. Looking north through partly curtained windows, I could see the pyramidal tower of the new municipal hospital, shining brightly, blindingly orange in the setting sun's remaining light.
Beyond the hospital, College Hill rose steeply from downtown and our popular riverfront market district. Lights were on inside homes dotting the Hill's expansive, rolling lawns, which had been hacked out of the region's last native forest back in the early nineteenth century. Kernberg College began, interestingly, as a music academy for orphans; and it is the old music hall, housed in its bizarre, turreted, allegedly haunted mansion atop College Hill, that best captures the benevolent spirit—at least this seemed true to me, that night, looking out at everything from the Pancake House—of our brilliant, glowing city.
"Leave it to you to choose this place for dinner, Thomas."
The speaker was Manuel Escobar, the renowned Kleinian. He sat across from me in the booth by the window, and I explained to him, "Breakfast foods, except for cereals that contain inordinate amounts of sugar, have, in my experience, a comforting, antidepressant quality."
"I suppose that is true if you are an American," said Escobar, looking around the room, then waving impatiently to our beautiful waitress.
"Don't stare."
"I'm not staring, Thomas. I find adolescent girls enchanting, though not compelling. I am happy with Conchita." Then the waitress was beside our table, and Escobar, his eyelids lowered, said, "Hello, I am Escobar, and this is my friend Thomas."
"Pleased to meet you, welcome to the Pancake House & Bar, I'll be your waitress."
"It's nice to be here," I said. Why was I talking? My voice was all wrong, and I felt ridiculous.
Manuel, however—as always so absurdly comfortable with himself, so shamelessly direct in manner—asked, in his coarse, Mediterranean voice, "Tell me, what may we call you?"
"How about Rebecca?"
"Rebecca. May I call you Rebecca? A beautiful name. I would love a cup of your very hot, very strong coffee, Rebecca."
"Cream and sugar with your coffee?"
"One black coffee coming up. Anything for you, Thomas?" she asked. She was looking right at me. I fell momentarily in love.
"What? Not yet! Water is fine!"
She wrote in her pad. She handed us menus. She said, "One coffee and one water." She walked off.
"Incredible," I whispered to Manuel after our waitress had marched away on her long legs. Escobar nodded, and I realized he thought I was referring not to him, to his brazen style, but to the girl, her dark good looks. I let the matter drop, since he was, in a way, correct.
"How is your Jane?" he asked me.
Why was I unable to respond with a simple, perfunctory answer to this meaningless, polite question? It was because I was intuitively aware that Escobar wanted to make love to my wife, and I was therefore reluctant to allow him access to her, even through me—especially through me.
Actually, I don't dislike Escobar. It has occurred to me from time to time that an affair between this man and my wife could be harmless enough, and might solve a variety of problems in my home life. I said to him, strategically, "Jane is fond of you. The other night she remarked on how much she likes talking to you. Give her a call, Manuel. Drop by the house."
"No, Thomas. I would not feel in the right place." Escobar sounded sincere, and in spite of the fact that I found his formulation of discomfort alarming (what, precisely, might be "the right place"?—an hourly-rate motel on the highway?), I experienced a brief moment of liking the man intensely; and then the restaurant's front door opened and in came a group of analysts, including Maria, who clacked hurriedly over on her high heels, past the cash register and the little bar area with bottled beers displayed, around the fish tank and the glass case stocked with candies, syrup, and fruit preserves for sale. Around the tables she came. Maria clattered over to our booth, leaned down over the place settings, kissed Escobar on the lips, and announced, "Your paper on sibling murder fantasies among children of recovered alcoholics is extraordinary, Manuel."
"Ah," answered Escobar.
I, for one, am always made uneasy by these rituals of professional approval. I believe established colleagues do well to assume one another's integrity and accomplishment, and leave it at that. I make it a rule never to give people favorable opinions of their work—not even those exceptional, open-minded people who admire my theories concerning reality and its dissolution through polite social conversation.
"He's a genius," said Maria to me. She took off her coat and hung it from a peg near the booth.
"Who's a genius? Tom? The Dead Lieutenant?" cried a man standing behind Maria. It was Bernhardt in his red sports jacket and the ridiculous panama hat he never, as far as I can tell, takes off in public. Bernhardt wedged himself into the booth, beside me, and Maria squeezed in next to Escobar, and we all sat quietly—groups that contain Bernhardt, I have found, immediately become anxious, wary, ill at ease; and this is a problem for the man, since he specializes in Group—until Rebecca arrived with Escobar's espresso-strength coffee. I found myself unable not to gaze at this girl's black hair. Was it dyed or natural? I made a mental note to give Rebecca my recruitment speech—sometime later, in private, without all these shrinks around to make her feel inadequate or insecure—for my Young Women of Strength program at the Krakower Institute.
In the meantime, to irritate Bernhardt—and to get him back for using an old nickname that I'd rather not hear—I said, "I agree with Maria. Manuel is one of our important thinkers."
After that I felt depressed, as I knew I would after praising an associate, or even an intimate.
In fact, Escobar is a shrewd, insightful, compassionate therapist. One might wish he would become less involved in patients' lives outside the consulting room (the recent, unsettling incident with Mrs. Jackson and the countersigned insurance claim checks comes to mind); however, Escobar is a European. His unorthodox, interdisciplinary methods naturally reflect some sort of traditional cultural orientation.
"You're that party of doctors from the mental institute, aren't you?" Rebecca said.
"That's right," answered Bernhardt, giving me a wonderful chance to contradict him on a fine point. I knew I shouldn't've—you have to watch your step with Bernhardt; he's grandiose and will lose his temper and, on occasion, shout—but it was irresistible.
"We're not doctors. At least, I don't think anyone at our table has a medical degree," I said, looking around at the faces of my companions.
Bernhardt said, "Tom, I don't know about you, but I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology." Food had not yet been served, and already Richard was getting worked up over genital potency issues.
I explained to our waitress, "It's true that we are clinical psychologists. Those with doctorates may call themselves doctors if they choose, but most of us, except Sherwin of course, are not doctors in the way that people routinely think of doctors."
She—bless her heart—recalled, "I had this jerk for a history teacher in eleventh grade. He got a Ph.D. through the mail or somewhere and then made everyone call him Doctor Woody."
"My Ph.D. is not mail-order." Bernhardt's face beneath his panama hat was suddenly, brilliantly red.
"Richard, it's all right. Take it easy." Maria reached across the tabletop and stroked Bernhardt's sleeve, lightly, reassuringly, professionally.
"How can I take it easy? Tom has no idea how to get along with peers. I worked hard for my Ph.D. It gets so I'm afraid to take pride in my accomplishments."
"Tom didn't mean to hurt your feelings, Richard. I'm certain he respects your credentials. Isn't that right, Tom?" asked Maria, the diplomat.
At that point, more analysts barged in. Peter Konwicki, Elizabeth Cole, Dan Graham, Terry Kropp, Mike Breuer—and Dr. Sherwin Lang, the gynecologist turned psychiatrist, whose relationship with alcohol may or may not have been getting in the way of his relationships with analysands. Greetings were transacted, and the Bernhardt situation was momentarily defused as, one after another, adjacent tables filled with personnel. Someone put money in a tableside jukebox and a popular tune played. The waitresses in their blue dresses came and went, shouldering dinner plates and metal trays stacked with silverware. Our waitress approached and said, "Ready, Doctors?"
"Two eggs over easy with hash browns and extra cinnamon-raisin toast with butter on the side," said Bernhardt.
"The country sausage and eggs, I guess," Maria said next.
"How do you want your eggs?"
"Scrambled. Please."
Manuel requested more coffee, nothing but black coffee, and then it was my turn.
"Well, I'm torn between the blueberry pancakes and the eggs Benedict. Are the blueberries fresh?"
"Yes, sir."
"Treat yourself to pancakes, Lieutenant," said Bernhardt.
I explained, "I like pancakes, but with pancakes a little goes a long way. They leave me feeling stuffed."
"I know what you mean."
"On the other hand, whenever I have the chance to order them, and I don't, I regret it."

Copyright © 2000 by Donald Antrim