I woke up one morning but wished I hadn’t.
My mood was no better the next day. Or the next. Someone plucked my brain out via my nostrils, like a Pharaonic embalmer. That’s how it felt.
The blue devils, a cousin of mine used to call it. He suffered from the same, occasional malediction. Until he drowned himself.
I preferred to call it a visit from Mr. Grimsby, who I pictured as a stretchy Victorian gentleman with overflowing sideburns and a meerschaum pipe.
Mr. Grimsby hung about for days on end. Months, sometimes. While I languished in bed, he alternately puffed on his pipe and trimmed his sideburns.
Three weeks into his latest stay—the tobacco reek was beyond tolerance—I persuaded myself to take some air.
“I’ll be back,” I said to my guest as I closed the door.
Mr. Grimsby relit his meerschaum—and grinned bitterly.
A writer can’t afford new books, so I stormed the public library and strolled out the door shouldering every self-help title I could find.
Over the next month, I read every one of them. Most of them were horribly written.
“Imagine two balls on the edge of a cliff. The balls represent ANXIETY and DESPAIR. Slowly run towards the balls. Now kick the balls.” When I read that, I chuckled. That boosted my mood a little—but not enough. None of the books proved helpful in the end, so I poured them down the Return Chute and crossed the street to my doctor’s office.
Dr. Aldermaston was a glum, sunburned man with one undulating eyebrow. He looked like Van Gogh’s Dr. Gachet only less cheerful.
He leaned on his elbow while I tried to articulate my inexpressible distress.
When I finally stopped talking, my doctor stared at me for a silent minute. Then he sighed and said, “I feel the same way, sometimes.”
“I feel that way all the time, lately.”
“Me too,” sighed Aldermaston.
We both admired the floor for a while.
“Can you suggest a good psychiatrist?” I asked, at last.
“The good ones are usually busy.”
“I’d settle for a mediocre one.”
My physician either half-grinned or grimaced and said, “I can think of several offhand.”
We settled on Wanda Holloway. The name rolled off the tongue. She was the only psychiatrist taking patients at the time.
“When will I see her?” I asked.
“As soon as possible,” said Aldermaston. “The waitlist is five or six months, at least.”
“Five or six months?” I repeated.
I pictured a man laboring to hold a boulder over his head for 180 consecutive days.
“What … should I do in the meantime?” I asked, in disbelief.
Aldermaston shrugged and said, “Have you tried self-help books?”
It was my turn to sigh.
For seven months, I spent most days in bed, watching the walls blacken with tobacco smoke and Mr. Grimsby’s sideburn trimmings pile up on the floor. I was close to choking on the latter when the phone rang.
It was Wanda Holloway’s secretary.
“Are you free tomorrow at four?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. It was the first word I’d spoken in days.
I hung up the phone.
Then I burrowed out of the bedroom.
I turned right, left, and left again through a beige maze into the office of Dr. Wanda Holloway. She was sitting at a desk strewn with ceiling-scrapers of erratically stacked folders, busily writing in a blue notebook held almost to her nose and paying no attention to me whatsoever.
When I grew tired of standing, I took a seat across from her.
Eventually, she set down her notebook. Then she squinted at me and said, “How’s the view from the 25th floor?”
I felt confused—and must have looked it, too.
“Aren’t you the mayor?”
“I’m an author,” I said, mincing words. Mayors and authors alike are paid fabricators. Though only the former are paid well.
Dr. Holloway exchanged one folder for another, shuffled through its contents and said:
“Right. The writer.”
She wrote something down. Minutes later, she was still writing. I hadn’t been that productive in ages.
“Would you like me to talk about my childhood?” I asked, by way of underlining my existence.
Dr. Holloway was too busy scribbling to answer. When her pen dried up, she reached for another one—and brushed a pair of manila mountains with her elbow.
Down they came, like the twin towers.
I helped her pick up every last paper. One of them was a menu for Shanghai Lily, a restaurant I’d always wanted to try.
By the time we finished, my hour was up.
“I can see you next week at the same time,” said Dr. Holloway, who’d resumed writing.
I nodded doubtfully—and stood up.
“One more thing.”
I turned. Dr. Holloway was squinting at me again. She took a bite out of her pen and said:
“Good luck in the election.”
“Thanks,” I said, as I stepped out the door.
“Holloway isn’t working for me,” I told Aldermaston, days later.
My physician sighed.
“She didn’t work for me, either,” he said.
“Who else can you recommend?”
“I wouldn’t recommend it.”
I blinked. So did Aldermaston. Then he said:
“I mean, you’ll have to wait again. Just as long, probably.”
“Another seven months?”
Aldermaston had been leaning on his left elbow. He switched to the right and said:
“If you leave her care, you’ll be taking your chances.”
“I’ll take my chances,” I said.
Aldermaston shrugged and said, “I don’t blame you.”
He pulled a notebook out of a drawer. Something was scrawled on the cover. Probably Index of Middling Head-Shrinkers. He thumbed through it.
“I’ve heard mixed things about O’Dowd.”
“O’Dowd it is,” I said.
“I’ll set it up,” he said.
For the next ten months—the time it took to get an appointment with O’Dowd—I spent most of my days at home with Mr. Grimsby, venturing out-of-doors only sporadically.
During one of those rare al fresco moments, walking downtown, I spotted an old friend crossing the street. Though I was sure he hadn’t seen me, he was heading in my direction.
I ducked into an alley. And waited until he walked by.
This happened a number of times, actually. Throughout my Blue Period, I made excellent use of lampposts and mailboxes. Though talking to acquaintances would have done me a world of good, I couldn’t face them.
I still don’t understand why.
Dr. O’Dowd had wide eyes. The widest I’d ever seen. It was disconcerting.
There were no certificates on his walls. There was a painting of an owl. That was disconcerting, too. I’ve never trusted owls.
While I listed my symptoms, O’Dowd and the owl watched intently. The instant I stopped talking, the former leaped to his feet and heaved open the top drawer of his filing cabinet, which doubled as a treasure chest brimming with drug samples.
“They have some beautiful pharmaceuticals these days,” he said, rooting through them. “If the first one doesn’t work, there’s always the next one—and the next.”
He tossed me a credit card-sided box full of blue pills.
I watched astonished as his eyes grew even wider.
“You’re going to love them,” he said.
As it turned out, the blue pills, which I took for a couple months, did nothing. So O’Dowd wrote me a script for pink ones. Those made me dizzy, so he tagged on some octagonal cream-colored ones that resolved the dizziness but triggered hypertension. Thus the yellow pills. I passed a prescription for the latter to my pharmacist.
She frowned—checked her computer—and sternly shook her head.
“If you’d taken these with all the others,” she said, “You’d be dead.”
That doesn’t sound so bad, I thought at the time.
I flushed all my medications down the toilet. They weren’t helping anyway.
This was a poor idea, in hindsight. Soon I was trembling and sweating at all hours. I had a peculiar sensation, too, of electricity bounding up and down my spine and out my hair follicles. Whenever I winced, Mr. Grimsby threw his head back and guffawed.
It took roughly a month for the withdrawal symptoms to subside. They were worse than the depression, actually.
When I went back to Aldermaston, he thumbed through his Index and sighed.
“No one’s available, I’m afraid.”
I wasn’t sure if that was good news or bad.
“What do you suggest?” I asked.
My doctor rubbed his chin—he hadn’t shaved in days—and said:
“Would you like to try any medications?”
“I’m trying to cut back,” I said.
I watched his eyebrow undulate.
“If something opens up,” he said, “I’ll call you. I’m afraid that’s all I can do.”
“No problem,” I said. Even though it was.
As I left Aldermaston’s office, he was staring emptily at the wall.
I was really starting to worry about him.
I was at my wit’s end with Mr. Grimsby. He never slept anymore but stayed up all night watching war documentaries and laughing uproariously. I stayed up watching him—and wondering if I should grow sideburns.
I wanted him out of my life.
But I was getting used to him, too.
That really scared the hell out of me.
The phone rang one morning. It was Aldermaston.
“I have good news!” he said.
I’d never known Aldermaston to use an exclamation point before. He used another one:
“I found you a psychiatrist!”
I was still waiting for the good news.
“A competent psychiatrist,” he added.
“Really?” I said, incredulous.
“Really,” he said.
I was afraid to ask how long the wait for a competent psychiatrist was. I asked anyway.
“She can see you next week!” exclaimed Aldermaston, for the third time.
“That’s unbelievable,” I said.
The strange new Aldermaston laughed.
“It never happens,” he said. “But it happened.”
I was dumbstruck.
“Thanks,” I said, eventually.
When I hung up the phone, Mr. Grimsby was leering at me. I leered back. Then I crawled back into bed.
Dr. Beverly Shaw worked out of her home—a brick Victorian on the less-adventurous side of town.
Strolling up to the door, I noticed a ginger cat blinking in the window. A window cat—particularly a ginger one—is an excellent omen, always.
As the cat purred on my lap, I told its owner everything I could think of. I spoke more in an hour, I’m sure, than I had in years. Dr. Shaw listened quietly. But when I talked about Holloway, she stopped me.
“Please tell me you’re making that up,” she said.
I assured her I wasn’t.
She was less doubtful about O’Dowd.
“The O’Dowds of the world,” she said, shaking her head, “are all too common. I’ve cleaned up one or two of their messes.”
“Do you think I’m clean-uppable?” I asked, hopefully.
Dr. Shaw smiled.
“Someone seems to think so,” she said.
The ginger cat was licking my wrist.
A cat—particularly a ginger one—is an excellent judge of character.
For the first time in ages, I felt hopeful.
I even smiled.
After seeing Beverly for a few months, I was feeling somewhat better. I was looking better too, and no longer dodged mirrors like a Romanian count.
The same couldn’t be said for Mr. Grimsby. He hadn’t trimmed his sideburns in weeks. He’d developed a tremor. Every morning, I heard the meerschaum rattling against his incisors.
When I started writing again, Grimsby withdrew to a kitchen corner and puffed away poutily. He sat there staring out the window all day.
That’s where I left him one afternoon, en route to the park.
The trees have leaves on them, I almost said aloud. It had been a long time since I’d noticed.
I saw a school friend jogging on the path. Instead of jumping into a bush, I stopped to talk.
“What have you been up to?” he asked.
As I stood there wondering how to answer, I caught a glimpse of another familiar face. It was Aldermaston. He was cutting through the park with his dachshund. I didn’t say anything—speaking to one’s physician out-of-office is the last taboo of modern life—but we exchanged nods.
He was looking better, too.
I woke up one morning and was glad I had.
I stepped out of bed. I walked from one room to the next.
There was no sign of Mr. Grimsby.
His luggage was gone.
The tobacco smell was gone.
Mr. Grimsby was gone.
I took a deep breath.
I hadn’t felt that good in a long time.