The Ancient Girl
Roger W. Gardner
And the Lord God called unto Adam
and said unto him, Where art thou?
And he said, I heard thy voice in
the garden, and I was afraid, because
I was naked: and I hid myself.
And He said, Who told thee that
thou wast naked?
He was a kind of detective -- a solver of mysteries, a tracer of lost persons, a Sherlock Holmes of the psyche: uncovering clues, following up leads, patiently fitting all the little pieces to the puzzle until, through the use of his trained powers of observation and proven methods of pure deductive reasoning, he could put it all together and the image would appear, that shadowy but familiar image of the perpetrator of the crime: for there was, almost always, a perpetrator and a crime; and the crime was, almost always, love -- too little, or too much, or perhaps the wrong kind.
However, unlike Sherlock Holmes, whose proficiency increased with age, he felt his confidence eroding: year by year he grew less and less certain of the value of his powers, and at times, as on this cold gray Friday afternoon, he felt not like Sherlock Holmes at all, but like just another insignificant member of the fragile human race, just another helpless observer.
The distance from Saint Catherines to the Regency Park Plaza was approximately five blocks -- not worth the trouble of trying to get a cab, he thought. Dr. Phillip Altman pulled up the collar of his winter London Fog and started up Arlington Street. It was coming down heavier now, beginning to accumulate. He always like the snow, the way it settled over the city like a benign spirit, the way it hushed the jarring sounds of the traffic and depopulated the streets. He felt closer to the city in the snow.
He was thinking about Karin again. She had looked so tired this morning. But she never complained. That was one of the things he liked about her best, that she never complained. Not that she didn't have a right to. It had been almost a year and if anything things had only gotten worse. And now -- there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for what? For something to happen, something to change. But then, something had happened, something had changed. He remembered the way she had stopped and looked back at him before leaving his office this morning. Her eyes.
Phillip crossed the crowded Regency lobby and entered the artificial dusk of the Prince Albert Lounge. He stood for a moment in the doorway and looked around the room. He was early. Maury Kroll was nowhere in sight. He slipped off his raincoat and headed for the bar.
Once again, Phillip Altman found himself equally divided between two opposite and conflicting emotions -- half of him was happy to be here, half of him was wishing he'd never gotten the call. The ambiguity, he thought, always the ambiguity.
This morning, when he heard that familiar voice on the other end of the line he was pleasantly surprised; and when Maury told him that he'd be in town for a couple of hours, he was genuinely eager to see him. He still was. Yet he was filled with vague doubts and apprehensions. Why must reunions be so traumatic, he asked himself. Of course he knew why. They posed a formidable challenge to one's self-esteem: uneasy confrontations with the past, usually preceded by painful bouts of critical self-analysis. Why are you where you are, and not where you should be? Phillip settled into a stool and ordered a Dewars-and-water. He wondered if Maury was experiencing these same anxieties. No, he laughed to himself. Not Maury. Definitely not Maury.
The bartender was a little old man with a limp. Grave, morose, aloof -- like some ancient pagan priest, Phillip thought; and he named him Pontifex Maximus. He watched the old priest shuffle silently to the center of the altar, perform his solemn ritual, and return with the sanctified elixir. Phillip thanked him and smiled. He raised his glass and took a long deliberate swallow. That old familiar rush, warm and consoling. Automatically, he reached for a cigarette. Damn, he remembered: it was the evening of the fifth day, a record, the longest he had ever gone. And it wasn't getting any easier; he was beginning to feel angry and betrayed, beginning to wonder why he had ever decided to quit in the first place. And at that moment, he came close to hating Lars Pederson. At the Monday morning meeting Pederson, their pompous chief-of-staff, had announced with great gravity that the recent smoking ban also applied to the sanctum sanctorum of the doctor's offices. Officious son-of-a-bitch, he muttered to himself.
Phillip leaned back against his stool and tried to think about something else. He looked around the Prince Albert Lounge. He had been here perhaps a dozen times in a dozen years and it never seemed to change. Same play, different actors. Businessmen mostly. A few solitary souls sat at the bar, probably out-of-towners, silently nursing their loneliness. Off by herself at the other end of the bar a rather too-glamorous brunette posed revealingly cross-legged on her stool. There was something in that air of cool indifference, that exaggerated disinterest, that betrayed her. A hooker, he decided. A couple of stools down from the brunette a dark little man with a fastidious goatee was watching her intently in the mirror -- cold, hard, predatory eyes, stalking their prey, waiting, patiently waiting for the right moment. Only, who was the predator and who was the prey?
More businessmen, scattered about the room, crowded around tiny tables. Small homogeneous groups. Animated conversations. The occasional burst of Friday night laughter. And, as always, obscure in the vague periphery of the room, diffused in the smoky amber glow, secretive couples held secretive conversations -- office romances, clandestine affairs. Somewhere wives waited, prepared dinners, dinners that would eventually grow cold and be scraped into the garbage.
Of course all this was mere conjecture. But it didn't really matter. It was the play that mattered; what the audience saw or thought they saw. Who the actors really were, what they might actually be thinking at that moment was totally irrelevant.
And this room -- he swung around on his stool -- this odd mixture of elegance and despair. Rich dark oak, plush red velvet, bright shining polished brass, Mozart softly in the background -- yet despite this carefully-crafted air of by-gone opulence, this pseudo-Victorian solidity, there was something in the whole effect that seemed theatrical and false, like scenery that could be taken down at night and carried away the next morning. A place without character or substance, as empty and cold as the waitresses' smiles. A place where one would always be a stranger.
Phillip Altman took another drink of his Scotch and smiled. A long time ago, somebody once said he had the 'soul of a poet'. He looked down at his watch: ten minutes to go. He looked at his watch again, a thin gold Omega. A birthday present from Connie. Was it ten, twelve years ago? God.
First there was the tree. Whenever he thought about Hamilton the first thing he saw was that great old oak -- standing in the backyard, halfway up the hill, between the white barn, that they'd converted into a garage, and the day lilies. And the swing he'd made for Missy that first summer. Just a couple of pieces of rope and an old wooden plank, but it worked, and Missy loved it. He loved it, too. He could see it in the mornings from the kitchen window and somehow it made him feel that life was good and the world was all right. Missy was about five then. Connie was pregnant with Ben. Their first house. An island in a sea of strangers. A commitment to the future. And somehow it all made sense: those lean years in Philadelphia, the appointment to Saint Catherines, the move to Massachusetts.
Across the bar, he noticed, Goatee had made his move; he'd shifted stools and was sitting next to the girl with the legs. They were talking; she was laughing. Phillip downed the rest of his drink and signaled the old man for another. Then the Ancient Girl came back again.
He had come across her picture in one of his books, a history of ancient Scandinavia. She was, he knew, significant somehow. She meant something, meant something to him. But what? He didn't know yet. All he knew was that she kept returning, floating up to the surface of his consciousness like a recurring dream. She had been discovered in the nineteen-fifties, buried in some desolate Danish bog, almost perfectly preserved from the time of Christ. She appeared to be about sixteen, stretched out in a long woolen gown, head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth partially open. At first it looked like ecstasy -- then you saw the remnants of the noose around her neck and you knew it was something else. She had been hung, they said, most likely for adultery -- for love, or passion, or both. And there she lay in her anguish and her shame. And two thousand years later we gaze at her picture in a book; and what do we think? How curious, we think, how curious. And then we turn the page.
Pontifex Maximus brought his drink.
Maury should be coming soon. Good old Maury.
It was a Sunday afternoon. It was hot. August maybe. They were sitting at the kitchen table drinking gin-and-tonics. Maury was divulging his latest affair, some young secretary from Personnel, Beverly or something. It's not just sex, he kept explaining, unconvincingly. Connie and Doris were outside in the backyard. The kids were playing around the swing. Screams. Wild laughter. The steady repetitive swoosh of the lawn sprinklers. Somewhere faraway a dog was barking. That things could ever change was totally inconceivable.
He had met Maury at Saint Cats. He was a staff psychologist, a PhD. Turned out they were neighbors -- well, almost neighbors. The Krolls lived ten minutes away in Wenham. Doris was a writer, children's stories, pretty successful actually. They'd been married almost twenty years then. Two kids. Beautiful house. Doris had her stories and Maury had his affairs. Then he started getting careless -- or maybe he wanted to get caught. Who knows? Anyway, Doris found out.
It was all so sad. Maury moved out to California, Doris sold the house. Then, two years after the Krolls split up -- he smiled to himself. Like fat dietitians, he was thinking, there's something ludicrous about divorced psychiatrists.
The Universe is transformation, said Marcus Aurelius; life is opinion.
Phillip moved out in the summer of nineteen-eighty and took the apartment on Beacon Hill. A bachelor again. A part-time father, alimony payments, the whole routine. But life went on. He went to work and came home. Still went to the symphony, an occasional play. Still read, still voraciously -- psychology for work, history for pleasure. But mostly it was work. Laboring over other people's problems. Sometimes making a difference. And when he didn't there was always that reliable old disclaimer: Psychiatry's not a science, it's an art. Yet, he had often wondered, if that were true, who then were the Rembrandts, the Cezannes and Picassos? Weren't they mostly like Maury or Pederson? Craftsmen, practitioners, technicians, toiling, perhaps diligently, perhaps even competently, in that no-man's land between success and failure in a kind of perpetual moral twilight? And Phillip Altman? What kind of an artist was he? And why did he feel so empty, just going through the motions?
We lose ourselves, he thought, not all at once, but slowly, drop by drop.
As a young man Phillip Altman had perceived life as a kind of logical equation, an equation in which he saw himself, his will, as a prime factor: hard work and motivation equals success. It was simply a matter of cause and effect. Life was an orderly succession of problems to be solved. Pure mathematics.
Only later did he begin to question the adequacy of this basic premise. There were, he discovered, other forces at work. The malevolent forces of disorder. The ancients understood. The Egyptians had their Maat, the goddess of law and order. but they had another god who shared equal billing: the omnipotent god of Chaos. They were two sides of the same coin, the primeval forces of Light and Dark. And he had grown acquainted with the dark.
For no apparent reason, he was thinking about Norman again, and the Christmas of '79. Jesus. What sins of the profession had he not committed with poor Norman Kramer?
He'd been treating him for about six or seven months. Obsessive-compulsive, anti-social behavior, adolescent masturbatory fantasies. A kind of acute pornomania. He'd withdraw for days, sometimes weeks and lock himself away with his fantasies. Bondage. That was the thing. Women in bondage. Then it would be over and he'd have to come back and face the world and face the guilt and the shame, and try somehow toput his life back together again. Pursued by his demon, Norman hid himself away in marriages and jobs, but to no avail -- the demon always found him.
Perhaps he should have felt something for him, a trace of kindness, a bit of sympathy, but he never could. There was something about him, a certain self-centered whining unpleasantness. The truth was, he just didn't like him, plain and simple.
Norman's background was just what you'd expect. An alcoholic mother, dominating, overbearing, bizarre and sometimes violent. A cold, distant father. In his fantasies he was punishing his mother, taking away her control. Of course, there was more. The basic self-contempt, the gnawing sense of inadequacy. The women in his fantasies were always tied-up and helpless, he was the one with the power, he could have them at will and they couldn't protest, they couldn't say no. And that was the most pathetic part about it all -- that he expected them to say, no; that even in his most secret fantasies he just couldn't picture a woman saying, yes.
Under all of this, Phillip knew, there was something more important. Like his mentor Kant, he believed that all neurosis was a substitute for legitimate suffering, neurotics became comfortable with their neuroses, they used them, like alcoholics used their booze, when life got too tough they hid in them, they withdrew into their cocoon. This was the real problem, the real demon to be confronted.
He saw Norman, somewhat reluctantly, one hour a week; and he always felt relieved when the hour was up.
It was two weeks before Christmas, 1979. The party was at the Bartley's. It was late, he remembered, eleven-thirty or twelve when Trish Bartley came over and told him he was wanted on the phone, his answering service. It was Norman. They said he'd sounded desperate. So he called him back and listened patiently while Norman stumbled half-coherently through his usual long confused litany of complaints -- another bout with the demon, his wife had left him again, everything was falling apart.
He waited for Norman to finish, then offered a few encouraging words and told him to double the dose of Librium and come into the office in the morning. And that was that. He hung up the phone and went back to the party.
Norman hung up the phone and went into the bathroom. He took all of the Librium and slit both of his wrists.
Where the hell was Maury?
Phillip lifted his glass. To Scotch, he mused. As warm and soothing as a mother's caress. He smiled to himself -- he never had any difficulty relating to alcoholics. In fact, he thought, if he wasn't careful...
Oh, they all tried to be helpful, Maury and Connie and the rest. Even Pederson. These things happen, Maury said. Even if he'd been your best bosom buddy, even if you'd loved him, you couldn't have stopped him if that was what he wanted to do.
Pederson reminded him that they were dealing with very sick people over whom they had only limited control. They all understood failure, and they embraced him in his: Welcome to the club.
But to an honest mind it was meager consolation. The truth, Phillip knew, lay somewhere between innocence and guilt. If it was true that he couldn't have saved Norman Kramer, it was also true that he could have done more, but he didn't.
Among the photographs and drawings that hung on the wall in Phillip's study was a small, carefully-framed white card; on the card was a short type-written sentence, a quotation from the diary of a Russian secret policeman in the service of Ivan the Terrible. It read: "Today I did no harm to anyone: I was resting."
Surely pure, unadulterated evil exists, Phillip had decided long ago; but it is as rare in this world as pure unadulterated goodness. We seldom wake up in the morning and decide to ruin our lives, or hurt as many people as we can. But things happen. Things are said that shouldn't have been said. Things are done, or never done. This, Phillip knew, was one of the tragedies of the human state: We hurt each other, sometimes just by living.
"Phil! Phil Altman!"
Phillip turned and looked up. The stranger coming towards him was -- Maury Kroll! He hardly recognised him. The Maury he remembered was somewhat scruffy, pale and prematurely bald. This Maury Kroll was well-dressed, well-tanned, with a fresh crop of glowing auburn hair swept rakishly across his forehead. During the rest of that evening Phillip looked everywhere but at Maury's new hair.
For privacy's sake they decided to move to a table. The waitress came and Maury ordered a Stoli martini, straight-up, extra dry. Phillip passed. And Maury talked. He talked about his new life, his kids, the weather in San Diego (seventy-eight when he left), his lucrative new practice (marriage counseling). Phillip listened attentively, and gradually he became accustomed to this new Maury Kroll. Older perhaps, a little more bizarre. But then some things never change -- her name was Adrianne, and this time it was the real thing, they had something together and it wasn't just sex.
Maury went on and on, and as he listened, Phillip wondered what it would be like to be a Maury Kroll, to be so self-assured and free of doubts. But then, wasn't this too a facade. He was remembering that conversation they'd had so many years ago on Maury's back porch. For the first time since he'd known him Maury talked about his Jewishness. About what it meant to him; or rather, about how he'd never really acknowledged it. He talked about growing up poor and Jewish in Lawrence, about how all of his friends were Catholic, and about how sometimes they'd say that he didn't really look Jewish, as though that was supposed to be some kind of a compliment. Phillip wondered if he had ever said that to Maury, but he couldn't remember.
Did he ever really care that Maury was a Jew? It was easy to say, no. And it was probably the truth. But was he ever prejudiced or racist? Years ago, as a part of his psychiatric training, he, himself, underwent analysis. Among all of the other unpleasant little facets of his psyche, he was surprised, and somewhat amused, to discover the full extent of all of his inherited prejudices. He thought of them now as heriditary environmentally caused handicaps, handicaps that he had for the most part overcome. But some still lingered. Lately, he seemed to have more of them. Lately, he seemed to like people less and less. And he worried about this. He worried that he was becoming one of them, one of those people who were in the business of helping people who didn't really like people.
If nothing else, Phillip Altman was an honest man. His sense of pride and self-esteem was based, not on the importance of his credentials or his career, which he viewed more and more as a somewhat nebulous success, or on his, sometimes questionable, intelligence, nor on the dubious purity of his tattered soul; but rather on this inate ability to see himself clearly and to laugh. Integrity is in the eyes, eyes that never blink or look the other way.
Maury smiled devilishly. "Phillip, old son," he proclaimed dramatically. "You're not smoking!"
"I'm trying to quit."
"How long has it been?"
"About five days," Phillip answered carelessly, as though he didn't know down to the very last minute just how long it had been.
"Well," Maury beamed. "I think that's wonderful. Congratulations!"
Phillip made a dismissive little gesture with his hand and shifted in his chair. He wanted to change the subject. Maury had never smoked, had no idea how hard it was to quit. Besides, he felt uneasy accepting accolades for a victory that was still far from certain.
Maury swiveled around in his chair and surveyed the lounge. He scanned the bar and spotted the brunette. He stared at her until she felt his eyes and looked over at him, temporarliy ignoring Goatee. Maury smiled at her. She smiled back. Victorious, he returned to Phillip. "So how's your love life, old son?"
Phillip made another little non-committal gesture with his hand. Here it comes, he thought. Sooner or later he knew it would come.
Maury leaned in closer. "You know," his voice lowered and he became confidential and sincere. "I was shocked when I heard about you and Connie. I always thought of you two as the perfect couple."
"I know you did," said Phillip without a trace of irony; and for the first time that evening he looked directly at his old friend and smiled. It was only natural that Maury should be curious; but, he decided, he would not spend the rest of this evening conducting some tedious post-mortem on the decomposed corpse of his defunct marriage.
There was a short awkward silence. Maury spoke first.
"Well, you know what they say: If at first you don't succeed --" Unexpectedly he reached across the table and gripped Phillip's arm. "Don't isolate yourself, old son," he warned gravely.
Phillip smiled. He remembered now what it was he liked about good old Maury Kroll. It was surprisingly pertinent advice. Wasn't that, after all, precisely what he had done? But all that was over now. Now things had changed.
"So --" Maury settled back and stretched out, confidently taking possession of the chair, the room, the conversation. "Tell me everything. Tell me about Saint Cats. Pederson still charming as ever?"
Phiilip made a face and laughed. "I don't want to talk about Pederson."
Maury smiled knowingly. "Well, what about you, old son? What are you up to these days, anything interesting?"
Phillip picked up his glass and studied the contents intently, as though the answer to Maury's question might be found floating amongst the ice cubes. "Actually," he began without taking his eyes off the glass, "there is something interesting. A patient of ours. Been with us now for almost a year." He paused for a moment, as though deciding whether or not to continue; then, "Difficult case," he said softly, almost to himself. "Very difficult case."
"Well, c'mon, tell me about it."
Phillip put down his glass and glanced around the room. The far end of the bar was conspicuously empty: Hooker and Goatee had disappeared. "Amnesia," he said. "Acute amnesia."
It was an unusual case. They both knew that complete amnesia was extremely rare. Partial, or temporary amnesia was common enough, especially after shock. That's what they thought it was at first, a symptom of shock. There had after all been an accident. "He'd had an accident. Head-on crash. Had a few injuries, nothing major, a broken leg, some contusions. I was brought in later when they started to notice the memory loss." The waitress returned and put down Maury's drink and, incredibly, he ignored her. "Put him though the whole routine -- CATS scan,NMR, EEG, blood."
"Everything came up negative, and he just kept getting worse."
Maury frowned and took a sip of his martini.
"Eventually, it all just went, everything: there was nothing he could remember -- his previous life, his job, his home."
"Is he married?"
"What's she like?"
Karin -- he could see her face so clearly. What's she like? Like no one he had ever met, he wanted to say; like -- "She's wonderful. It's been hell for her. I don't know how she stands it. She's there almost every day. She'll leave the room for a couple of minutes and when she comes back he'll be all over her, in tears, as though he hasn't seen her for months. He forgets everything right after it happens. She'll spend the whole day with him, and when she finally leaves he'll forget that she'd been there and he'll call her up and beg her to come back. And she'll come back."
"Hm." Maury stroked his chin. "She must really love him," he said, as though, incredible as it may seem, such things really were possible.
"Yes," Phillip agreed. But he knew better, he knew that it wasn't really love, that it was something else, maybe something even finer, something more like loyalty or duty.
"We've got him keeping a journal," he laughed softly. "That's funny, isn't it? An amnesiac's journal. But it helps. He writes down everything that happens that day and then goes over it every night. He starts every new entry with the same sentence -- 'I just woke up.'"
Phillip started for a cigarette, then remembered and settled for a drink of Scotch instead. "There's something else, Maury. Something very strange. And I'm not the only one whose noticed. He's changing. He seems to be getting -- younger."
"No, not regression, more like a metamorphosis. I mean, he actually looks younger, physically. It's as though he's becoming...innocent somehow, totally innocent, like a child."
A sudden burst of laughter erupted from the group at the next table. "You see," Phillip went on, oblivious of the interruption, "there's no recall. No sense of a previous life. No awareness of sin. No guilt. He just sits there, looking out the window, waiting, waiting for something to come back. No memory. No past. As clean and empty and blameless as Adam before the Fall.
"When I come into the room I bring it all with me, the whole bloody business. We all do. We carry it around with us. All the disappointments and failures, the broken hearts and broken promises, all the little compromises and lies. They're what makes us what we are, the burdens that wear us down."
Maury shook his head. "So, what are doing for him, Phil?"
"Not much. Not enough. Therapy's damn near impossible, there's no continuity, nothing to build on. He recognizes me, but he can't remember our last session."
"I don't know. Pederson wants to operate. But it's risky. The chances of screwing it up are enormous."
"You mean --"
"He could lose it all, all cognition, become a vegetable."
"Maybe he'd be better off," said Maury: then quickly, "I'm sorry, Phillip. I didn't really mean that."
"That's all right, Maury. Sometimes I wonder," Phillip said and immediately felt uneasy, as though those simple words concealed some darker meaning. Then there was Karin's lovely face again and he felt a sudden, unexpected flush of guilt. It was too late. Too late to turn back now. They had crossed over the line, not physically, but worse. Whatever it was for him at first, respect or admiration, it was something else now. She had touched him, somewhere deep inside. Something that he thought had died had stirred, been resurrected.
Of course he knew what he should do. Disengage. Bring it all out into the open. Confess. Here. Right now. To Maury. He had after all allowed this thing to happen, he had compromised, or was about to compromise his detachment, his ethical objectivity. He must have wanted it to happen. And now he knew he wanted her. And he knew he wouldn't tell Maury. He wouldn't tell anyone.
It was wrong and he knew it and he forgave himself at once, without deilberation, without descending into devious rationalizations -- he was still too honest for that. He felt -- no, he knew that whatever it was that was happening was happening to Karin too. Something they shared in silence, something pure and subtle; a tender precious seed which he could not -- would not expose to the cold harsh light of analysis. Certainly not here. Certainly not with Maury Kroll. No. He saw it clearly, that's all that mattered. He saw it for what it was and it was good and it was his and he would keep it. And somehow he would keep his integrity too, he vowed. And suddenly, for the first time in years, Phillip Altman sensed that vague unpleasant taste of dishonesty.
It was sometime later when he noticed Maury glancing up at the clock on the wall.
What followed was inevitable, a curious and pathetic ritual. The argument over the check, the exchange of telephone numbers, promises made that would never be kept. False commitments sealed with a firm clasp of hands. Final gestures. The parting of two old friends who had lost whatever they once had shared. Too obvious to be denied, too painful to acknowledge.
Phillip stood and watched Maury make his way across the lounge; at the door he stopped and turned to wave a last goodbye. Phillip waved back and he was gone. Probably forever. Phillip sat back down in his chair. For all his flash and dash, he considered, there was something sad and unconvincing about Maury Kroll the bachelor. As though quiet Doris had lent him a certain legitimacy which he himself had never owned.
He finished off the rest of the Scotch; the ice had melted, it tasted weak and insipid. Phillip looked down at his watch again. Six-thirty. He was due back at Saint Catherines at seven to make the final rounds before the weekend. Karin would be there. The thought of seeing her again, of actually touching her produced a sudden rush of warmth that the Scotch had not. Suddenly, unaccountably, he saw the pale ecstatic face of the Ancient Girl again and now he understood. He felt hopeful and grateful and guilty and happy.
The ambiguity, always the ambiguity.