DOCTOR SAGWELL BY DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS
Paul Bowman, the greatest author the world will ever or never know, nearly fainted when the ‘Lady in Black’ came into Wilson’s Bar & Grill on West 79th Street and told him his old friend Robert Sagwell, an analyst whose mentor had been Anna Freud, had died of a brain tumor a few days before, and that he had already been cremated.
This was the second death the Lady in Black had announced to Paul this month, the first one being that of Robert’s friend, ‘Dave the Accountant.’ Paul then called ‘Robert the Analyst’ and told him of Dave’s demise as well as the time and place of the memorial. Robert thanked him for the information.
“So how have you been?” Paul asked. Robert had undergone bypass surgery a few months before. After considering the dietary approach to his condition, he had opted for the surgery, a decision made easier after a cooperative clerk at Blue Cross altered his plan records to cover the costs. He went into the hospital a few days later. Robert was a “mind over matter” man, and was proud he had insisted on going home two days after his chest had been ripped open.
“I’m not feeling so well at the moment,” Robert replied, coughing.
“Paul, we should get together soon.”
“I’ll give you a call.”
But now this, from the lady in black: “I’m sorry your friend Robert is dead.”
“You didn’t know?”
“No,” Paul felt faint.
“I saw him at Dave’s memorial. He didn’t look good. He had a patch over his right eye. He had a brain tumor. He was buried on Saturday. My friend at the mortuary said only his family was at the funeral. He was cremated.”
That made sense, thought Paul, struggling to get a grip on himself, for Robert, although from a Jewish family, was fond of fundamental Buddhism and had often expressed his belief in the annihilation of the soul.
At first saddened by the tragic news, Paul then became angry he had not been told. But Robert’s silence as to his impending death made sense too, for he liked to be perceived as a strong authority, not the sort of man who would ring up his friends to tell them he was dying.
Robert was well-off, did not get along with his family, and had known very well that Paul was hurting financially. Robert recently asked him “a hypothetical question.” How could a large sum of money be transferred to a friend if he died? One might put it into a joint account with that friend, he suggested. The very next day they quarreled over a trivial matter, the pronunciation of the word ‘oxymoron.’ Paul was insistent, and his pronunciation was correct. Robert, a Yale graduate proud of his literacy, was deeply offended by the diminishment of his authority. That was the last Paul had seen him. How greedy of me to think this way!
“What a moron I was,” Paul chastised himself. “I should have let been nice, and just let him think ox’ymoron is correct!” He added, only to feel guilty for having the thought, “And then I would have had that money.”
Paul knew he would miss his old friend. He loved to visit Robert at his lofty and spacious rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the park and the Hudson River. Robert was paying six-hundred a month for the grand old flat, much to the chagrin of the condominium convertors who valued it at nearly a million, if only they could put it on the market. He had refused to buy the unit. He believed a collapse of the real estate market was imminent, soon to be followed by the fall of the civilization he felt was rapidly declining with his advancing age. Besides, at sixty-something, he had no heirs he wanted to speak of, least of all in a will: he had been born into a wealthy family and was well-taken of, but he was unloved or loved coldly, hence his familial relations where chilly at best.
Despite his frigid familial relations, Dr. Robert Sagwell was a sociable bachelor who did not neglect his own life or the lives of the many friends whom he loved. He was a wealthy man who appreciated wealth well enough to pinch pennies. He went to considerable current expense to remodel his Riverside Drive apartment and to generously entertain his guests therein. Those expenditures were offset by the savings he realized after he vacated his rented office next to the school playground a few blocks away on West End to take up practicing his profession at home.
The shouts of children playing at the West End office had disturbed his sessions with patients, but the deciding factor was the fecal matter burglars had left behind in the toilet while he was in the Bahamas for a two-week vacation one hot summer. He was shocked by the anal development when he entered his office upon his return and was confronted by the odorous ordure, as he called it. Manhattan’s stifling, humid weather, unfavorably compared that year to the Amazon jungle’s climate, had done its work. Crime scene investigators ascertained from the colors of the unflushed evidence that at least two burglars had violated his rented domain. He said he would never forget the unbearable stench polluting his desecrated office as he packed his things for his exodus. His forfeited rent deposit took care of the subsequent fumigation of the demised premises, which is now a chiropractor’s office.
After Dr. Sagwell evacuated his West End quarters, one room of his expansive flat on Riverside Drive served as his professional office. Upon one wall there he mounted a self-portrait he had painted while dabbling in art therapeutics. A young woman was depicted sitting in a chair, behind which the good doctor towered, gazing down on her, with his hands on her shoulders. He said she was an old flame of his, yet she appeared by virtue of her features to be closely related to him, perhaps his double. The “experimental painting” would become an embarrassment after several patients said the woman in the painting looked like him, so he eventually removed it from the wall.
The good doctor had otherwise equipped the office with a firm but comfortable couch for the analysand to recline or sit on during forty-five minute sessions. He was fond of sitting on it himself during leisurely hours, rubbing shoulders and legs with a friend, casting off his official authoritarian role to chat freely and munch snacks as an equal to all.
Nearby the couch was a small desk and typewriter, an unabridged dictionary looking quite formidable on its own slender pedestal, and a peculiar chair upon which he perched during his psychoanalytic sessions. This “Ortho Analysis Chair” had no back. The analyst must wrap his legs around two of the three legs of the chair, which, of course, comes with postural instructions to the effect that, if the instructions are followed to a ‘T’, then mind and body will be in the harmony best suited for psycho-analysis and -therapy.
Now the reader might not be surprised to hear that Doctor Sagwell was into the Alexander Technique, yet the same reader might deem the doctor’s occasional interest in crystal therapy rather odd. Indeed, his Freudianism was unorthodox, extending beyond the Jungian heresy, transcending the frontiers of the unconscious in order to know to the Unknown. His practice was nevertheless in accord with the demand of his patients, all bourgeois neurotics. He referred the few seriously mentally ill people who came his way to competent specialists.
Although his fortune was already assured by the inheritance of a goodly fortune, with even more to come after the impending death of his mother, he did not mind if his clients added to it. Still, he charitably provided accelerated therapy pro bono to humble members of the homosexual community whom he occasionally met behind the boarded windows of the Black Saddle Club on Amsterdam Avenue. He said he believed homosexuality to be perverse but not immoral. He had developed a therapeutic technique designed to help anxious gay men “adjust.” Paul became suspicious of his friend’s true orientation one evening after the doctor’s hand had “accidentally” alighted on his thigh during a conversation.
Paul Bowman had known Doctor Sagwell for many years, commencing some time before the doctor was a doctor, when he was just “Bob,” in the Sixties. Bob smoked pot back then, became confused, went into analysis, and was so impressed by it that he decided to become an analyst himself. Paul looked up to Robert as an authority on mental matters, and allowed him to practice hypnotism on him.
Now, in the Nineties, we find Paul nearly homeless after committing the usual economic suicide, visiting Robert in his flat. They sat in the living room for awhile admiring the Sun setting over New Jersey – it was a marvelous spectacle – then they retired into Robert’s home office to sit on the couch, munch snacks and chat freely.
“Paul,” said Robert in a deep voice, “you are a very talented and flexible man. You can play whatever role you set your mind to, and you will be successful if you stick with one role for ten years.”
“I believe I shall become the greatest author the world will ever or never know.”
“Every frustrated author is one or the other. You may be far from the greatest, but if you keep writing for ten years at one stretch you will vastly improve your mental powers, be much happier, and die a millionaire if you want the money.”
“My freedom is in not wanting it.”
“That will help make you great, and in the end you will have it, like it or not.”
“Then I could better serve my readers.”
“There is one thing you must remember.”
“Remember that you ran away from home for good reason, and that you owe your father absolutely nothing. Only then will you stop throwing everything away on the verge of success.”
-To Be Continued-