(This story was originally published by 'Keep This Bag Away From Children' but I think that website is down so I'm reposting it here. It's one of my favorite things I've written.)
Dr. O’Connor limped drunkenly down the avenue, his ankle painfully twisted from when the bartender had shoved him out of the bar and down a short flight of steps, only ten minutes ago. They said he’d had enough. There was an argument. “All bartenders should be castrated,” he growled.
The doctor straggled across the sidewalk in a double affliction of hiccups and wet coughs. “Humanity is nothing but a heap of humping dogs...” he whined, suddenly leaning against a wall. He lifted his face and stared up at the full moon. “The moon is a dog. The moon is like a dog’s eye rolled back in ecstasy, as it humps and lolls its dumb pink tongue,” he said. “What generosity…shining through the darkness so that we may never forget the world. I hate the fucking moon!” In a sudden gesture, he threw his clenched fist through the air as if to strike it down, losing his balance and in the process falling sideways against a large metal trash can, knocking it over. Nauseous odor poured from the trashcan’s open mouth into his, blanching his already doughy face. He vomited across the sidewalk.
Dr. O’Connor always drank heavily after performing surgery, but tonight he drank even more than usual. Finances were on his mind, specifically his lack of them. The patient he had treated earlier in the day had given the doctor a bag of antique silverware as payment—silverware honestly procured, she claimed, from a jewelry shop in Wichita. She was short on money that month. Might the money gotten from the silverware’s hock be enough to cover the doctor’s fee? He felt cheated. “She waited till the last moment to spring it on me, of course, after it was already over… I should have refused her offer then and there.” But, despite himself, he’d accepted the jangling pouch with a hesitant nod, for he was a fool…and, arm around her waist, assisted the girl as she woozily staggered out from his office and into a waiting cab.
“Doctor...” he hissed. “You’re nothing but a rose colored sucker, that’s all.” His eyes rolled. “God, I must get back to Paris. City of lights, light in the darkness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to arrive there in time for New Years? Start off the year 1900 from the fresh side of the pond. Oh yes, that would be marvelous. If I only had the money to do it, I would leave this very night.”
“What a wretched situation!” he howled. “How will I ever make it to Europe, when all I receive from my patients are pained sighs and thirty pieces of silver? I ought to increase my fees. Somehow I must get into the circles of those rich Manhattan belles—that’s where the real money’s at. Probably not too difficult to arrange a few appearances at the right parties. Be charming and sympathy eyed. Confidential above all else. A few hints about social mores and propriety—those kind will do anything to avoid scandal. Could even hand out a few business cards.” He imagined a tiny white card in his hand, and read what was written there.
Dr. O’Connor, with all good faith and continence, offers his services as an irregular physician to the bedeviled ladies of 18th street and near vicinity. Promises a gentle touch and speedy recovery. Dear ladies, you may also be sure that the doctor (PLEASE TURN CARD OVER)
knows the value of a secret, and actually hordes them, like a dormouse does his droppings. Unburden thy sins and lay them in the benevolent arms of an all forgiving clinician. Prices are non-negotiable. Free opera binoculars upon request.
“Of course, ‘doctor,’ you yourself are not helping the situation, spending so damned much each week on liquor and perfume. Physician! Ha! A real physician knows when to stop administering cures.” The doctor was thirty-three years old and desperate for new life. “Thirty-three, the age of Christ before he was crucified...” As he continued down the street, his eyelids sagged—moonlight crawled across his mustache, streaking his black hairs with the shimmering insect life of silverfish. “The time of yet untrodden wilderness approaches—If thou art truly the son of man, turn these belly stones to French bread! Oh Paris, fuck New York in the ass!”
It had been a difficult day for everyone.
Another one of Clementina’s girls. Her situation summarized in ten seconds—none of those long sob stories about deceitful lovers and erring flesh.
“I think I been pregnant nine or ten weeks,” she said.
The doctor set down the copy of Voltaire’s “La Henriade” that he’d been reading, and quietly told the girl to have a seat. At first glance, she seemed far too shy and vulnerable to be a prostitute—if she hadn't mentioned Clementina’s name as a reference, he would have never guessed that was her profession. She seemed more like one of those pale timid women who work in factories sewing clothes all day, not a woman of the streets. She thought the doctor had spoken French when he mentioned a douche. Never heard of a condom either. “I usually just get them to pull out, but there was an accident this time.”
She glanced nervously over at his medical tools. “Will it hurt, doctor?” Will it hurt. Her first time. Painfully clear that she hadn’t a clue.
“It will hurt,” said the doctor.
Doesn’t Clementina ever think to go over these matters when some new waif from Alabama appears at her doorstep? Look at her. Maybe fifteen, sixteen years old. Her big brown eyes. Of course she doesn’t know about babies and contraception and mean old Dr. O’Connor, she’s a child herself.
The girl slipped off her underthings and pulled up her dress, spreading her legs for his professional inspection. “Everything’s normal,” the doctor thought to himself, feeling her stomach. “Seems like the womb is unusually high-placed, in this instance. Bit more trouble, that’s all.”
“What’s this,” the doctor asked. “These bruises on your legs and side here.” On the advice of a neighbor, she had thrown herself down the stairs, hoping for a miscarriage.
The girl’s thin body was like a string in the wind, driven through by one insistent, constant quiver—her teary brown eyes trembled. Not one sliver of fat, from head to toe. Looked like she hadn’t eaten much lately. The girl only spoke when necessary, and despairingly when she did, staring at the floor. She was pretty, but not pretty enough to ever become much of a success at whoring. She was willing, but not cheerful about it. He guessed her only real charm in bed was a certain type of gentle passivity that could stand nearly anything, humped in any position, called any dirty name. How the poor girl had survived even to this point was a mystery to him. A girl like that was almost begging to be plucked and torn. He guessed that in the end, it was this same defenselessness that had allowed her to go on about the night for so long without getting murdered—she elicited empathy because it was so apparent to everyone that it was her destiny to be eaten alive by some unimaginable horror.
“I need more money,” he snarled. “What do they think I am? Some nurse with a stick of slippery elm branch in my pocket? Some old woman with a recipe for diuretic tea? Those brainless idiots, they’ll never know the things I spare them from. No one pays me what I deserve. Who else would they go to? I don’t think the medical schools even teach what a cervix is anymore. And now anybody with an enema kit or a long fork thinks they’re qualified to perform an abortion. Idiots...” He had recently heard of one woman in Long Island who had tried to perform an abortion on herself with a long sewing needle. “Died of infection a couple days later. Extremely painful, an infection down there. An agonizing death. Got her name in the paper, too. A tragedy.”
The doctor reached the end of his block and drunkenly tore open the steel latticed doors of the Palsee Arms Hotel, where he kept a room on the seventh floor. With a long sigh he began to climb the stairs. The elevator had been broken for years. The hotel was a shit hole, and he was just another little piece of shit that had fallen into it.
“Sex and more sex, humping ourselves into a new grand century. Calling poor Dr. O’Connor at three in the morning, wailing and panicked.”
The doctor halted on the stairs, wheezing. Four more floors to go. He sat down and pulled out a cigarette from his jacket. “Get my second breath…” But he was hardly three puffs into the thing, when the sound of panting, sexual moans greeted his ears from behind a nearby closed door. It enraged him. “You goddamn breeders!” In French he cursed the apartment door, throwing his cigarette against its rotten wood. “You can be sure that Heaven has laws against letting in you vermin, you humping gutter scum!” He craned his head sideways and put his ear to the door, listening for a moment before indignantly resuming his hobbling climb upstairs.
He glanced down at his sprained ankle and cringed. “Idiot. What a stupid God! What a stupid decision! To let woman, of all creatures! Men would make far better carriers of the human race, men should be the ones who carry babies in our stomachs, not these lank, hundred pound demoiselles that come stuttering through my door.” He thumped his chest several times. “Now! Let a man carry a baby for nine months, then you’ll see something! Like that steel-bending fellow at the circus, the burly man... Mmn...” The doctor slowly rubbed his stomach in a lecherous fashion. “Now that was a body made to carry a child deep within.” The doctor’s heavy eyes closed as he pictured the steel-bender now—mmn—six foot two in a Tarzan leopard toga and steel buckle boots, thoroughly muscled.
“That is where a true womb should be.” He gripped the handrail tight and imagined the center of that virile universe, that man’s womb, secreted inside a physical monster of retching muscle and hair. “If a man didn’t want to have a child, he would be sure to get rid of it thoroughly. He’d get drunk and rip it out with his own hands. I’d be out of a job for sure. None of this sewing needle and diuretic tea nonsense, I’d tell you that. A man would consume a child with his very heartbeat, and no tears shed afterward—no regret.”
At last, the doctor had reached the top floor of his slum apartment building. He took off his jacket before unlocking the door, sweating large droplets of whisky. “A child would also be much better fed, if a man were allowed to become pregnant.” He concluded this with a nod, and entered his room.
The doctor’s gray apartment looked like the inside of a collapsed lung. The wooden floor was warped and pulpy. The ceiling was slowly crumbling, flakes and pieces of ceiling occasionally fell to the floor. One time, the doctor had been halfway finished with his morning cup of coffee when he noticed that a nickel-sized piece of his own ceiling had some time earlier dropped into the cup. The floor was a mess of dog-eared medical books and heaps of dirty clothing. There were empty cigarette packages and cold cream containers on the dresser—arcane medical papers of subscription on the desk. The entire room stank—his only relief from the smell was the window by the far wall, which could be opened to let in some small amount of purifying autumn air.
It was a miserable hole and he hated it. The doctor kicked off his shoes and they went flying.
He quickly undressed and rummaged through his dresser drawers, pulling out (after some brief deliberation) a slinky black nightgown that he had bought from a lingerie store uptown. It had cost him quite a lot of money. He pulled the nightgown over his large square shoulders, the frayed hem of it falling a few inches above his knees. On the inside of the front door he had screwed in a long mirror and he smiled at the reflection there, a mustachioed man in a silk negligee, his fat plumb shaped belly and hairy legs, his pimpled chest, his limp penis dangling down, visible through the semi-transparent silk. The doctor lit a cigarette and turned to his side. He ran his fingers down the nape of his back, over his flabby buttocks. “I am like Cleopatra,” he mumbled.
Bending forward (but not too much, he didn’t want to rip it), the doctor picked up a cheap blonde wig and put it on. He picked through a stack of books, uncovering at last his well worn copy of Gynecology by the Greek physician Soranus. He plopped down on the bed and opened the book to his favorite passage. “Page fourteen. Conception.” His voice was soft and lingering. “...when urge and appetite for coitus are present...when the body is neither in want, nor too congested and heavy from drunkenness...” (he ignored the last bit) “...after the body has been rubbed down...a little food eaten...when a pleasant state exists in every respect, this is when a woman is ready to receive the gift of new life.”
Smiling, the doctor laid back on the bed and closed his eyes, showing his teeth and rubbing his belly.
“Oh, Soranus...you sorrowing somnambulist, you melancholy magician…” The words dribbled through his warm lips like half-eaten cake. He selected a bottle of perfume from the floor and squirted it several times around his neck. But tonight, he felt somehow disheartened. The perfume did nothing to cheer him.
“This profession of mine. Scraping out babies with a curette, like gunk from a tooth. Like clumps of pea mush from kitchen sink pipes. Remember what mother said? Before they are born, all babies live in one giant nursery in Heaven. Angels circle through the air on wet wings, milk dripping from their feathers. And you, Matthew…you were crying in your crib when Gabriel himself fluttered down, and gently pressed a finger to your lips. Shhh baby, don’t cry…that’s why you have a bend in the middle of your upper lip, why all people have that. And me, to scrape it from the womb like a greedy drunk licking the inside of a glass. My profession. A dread butcher. Slaughterer of honeyed cries. Judas. The giver of a silver kiss. My instrument a curette. Of French etymology, coming from the word ‘Curer.’ Hippocrates, speaking of death: ‘Nature is the curer of disease.’ Oh Hippocrates. You make me want to weep.”
Laying the book on the ground, the doctor waddled over to the window and forced it open. A cold wind blew on his face, moving the dangling blonde curls of his wig. A cold wind as death must feel…sharp to touch, a curer. Still. “Does that little brainless bean really know what death is, inside there? Can it really know death like the rest of us? ‘Life, the permission to know death.’” He had read that somewhere. Where had he read that? The cold wind increased and blew up his skirt, but somehow he just couldn’t giggle.
“I’ve got to get to Paris,” he whispered. “I’ve got to get out of here.”
His eyes gazed past the dirty bedroom window into the clear night, inviting midnight apparitions. He saw chattering cafes adorned in candlelight…moving flesh and shimmering flames. Somewhere in Paris, an evening Opera crowd was filing out into the streets through pearl gates, laughing. And look there—a troubadour, his large eyes hungrily trawling the rue du Cardinal...with orange blossoms in his black suit pocket. Street musicians and poets reciting their wares. Etes-vous la, mon cheri? Toujours! Derby hats and tousled hair. The city of lights. The shadows of people crawling across walls as they walk, in sweet ignorance of origin. Night.
The doctor opened his mouth wide, and yawned.