On Friday evening, December 31, 1982, corresponding to 15 Teveth, 5743, Hyman Lebele Andower rose from his evening meal, sat on the couch to read his evening paper, and felt a sharp, twisting pain in his genitals. The next day would bring the secular new year. This did not bode well, he thought. He grunted. He groaned. He shifted his position. Still, when one reaches the age of fifty-six, he told himself, certain aches and pains are bound to occur. For more than a decade, he had been attacked by an assortment of ills, aches, and troublesome sicknesses.
Sores formed inside his mouth and on his tongue. His dentist told him to rinse his mouth with astringents. The dentist was a young man of thirty-one. On Hyman’s upper arms and legs, patches of skin turned red. A common fungus, his dermatologist informed him. She recommended a fungicide. It oozed gray-white from the tube, a sticky substance that absorbed into the red patches instantly. The dermatologist was a young woman of thirty.
His heart beat irregularly, sometimes pounding, reverberating against his chest. His internist called it arrhythmia. He told him to quit smoking, cut down on coffee and alcohol, and he and his arrhythmia would live to be a hundred. The internist was a young man of thirty-two.
Hyman couldn’t seem to find an old, experienced doctor anymore. At every hospital, office, or clinic he visited, the doctors — often women now as well as men — talked to him through youthful faces and mouths. They drove BMWs, Mercedes — German cars. These wealthy young people had no idea from whom they bought. He, Chayem Lev Ben Dovid ruvein h’Levi, he knew. Even as a child, he had known.
His sinuses stopped up and became infected. His otolaryngologist peered in his ears through a scope shaped like a woman’s breast, open where the nipple would point in excitation. The doctor’s nurse held a U-shaped stainless steel container against the side of his head. The doctor pushed another device that looked like a spaceship into his ear, then forced warm water in an explosive force against his brain. The doctor showed him the wax he had expelled from his ear. The wax floated in the water, a yellow, claylike substance that seemed to have a character, a life of its own. Indeed, it appeared not to float, but to swim about. To think his own ear, against his control, had manufactured such vile substances. A saying from his boyhood Talmud-Torah lessons in Lódz returned to him: “Only man can produce songs the angels cry over in envy, and vileness Satan’s minions gloat over in evil glee.”
He felt a lump. Immediately, he feared the worst. He would be maimed, disfigured, fading ever more day by day, week by week, inevitably losing a battle few people ever won. The otolaryngologist told him not to worry; it was a benign growth in his ear lobe. One afternoon he went to an operating room in the hospital. He looked around. He saw only needles, vials, tubes, curved and pronged instruments. The blue-green color of the walls comforted him. The nurse placed what looked like a shower cap on her head. She had him lie on a table that moved up and down, back and forth. She draped his neck with blue-green towels. Finally the doctor made his entrance. He wore a blue-green top and pants. Blue-green paper shoes covered his feet.
The shot for the anesthetic hurt worse than the procedure. The doctor excised Hyman’s cyst. Afterward, the nurse showed him what had been produced within his body. Pink and surprisingly dry, the cyst appeared as a spongelike sea creature that didn’t belong on land, in the light of day, in a glass tube held up in a room the color of the sea.
Headaches and backaches plagued him for years. By finding a chiropractor, he managed some relief. The doctor stood over him, feeling the bones, knots, tenseness in his back. Suddenly, the chiropractor pushed. One of the bones in his back cracked. The chiropractor walked behind him, cradled his head in his hands, then suddenly jerked, twisted his head. Again, bones in his neck cracked, as if something penned up for years had, in a great last gasp, escaped. Hyman Andower felt a sudden warmth and dizziness. For a while, the aches lessened. By degrees they returned.
Only a few months ago, on a Sunday morning, he went to his bathroom and suddenly realized he had bled through his rectum. The gastroenterologist, another young man, informed him they must gaze into his colon.
It was not so bad, after all. The enemas were the worst. Before the procedure itself, they administered drugs that allowed him to undergo it without difficulty. He had hemorrhoids, the doctor determined, nothing more.
In addition to these, numerous other complaints arose for which he did not bother to see a physician. His stomach churned. Now he suffered constipation. Within a day he suffered flatulence and diarrhea. Pains tightened his chest. Numbness tingled his fingers. Bruises burst forth on his ankles and legs. They took a long time to heal. His hair continued to fall out, leaving him almost bald. Many times he awoke in the night and had to waddle into the bathroom to relieve himself. Oddly, his sexual desires had not diminished. At night when he stumbled into the bathroom, he gazed down, astonished at the size of his erection. He drank one glass of water after another. He couldn’t seem to quench his thirst. Worst of all was the fatigue, endless fatigue. He awoke tired. He went through the day tired and uninterested. At night, he crawled into bed.
Lately the nightmares returned, worse than before. The only survivor of a family that had once boasted brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, he saw his father, a storekeeper in the old country, and his uncle, a great and respected rabbi, descend the steps of the rear porch of his suburban American home. They wore black caftans, tasseled belts, long curly sideburns. They put their arms around one another. They danced a dance around his lawn mower. They shouted, sang, and held each other’s arms, their faces masks of pious ecstasy, while beyond them, a mustachioed man in a dark shirt stalked closer, holding a flashing butcher’s knife in his hand. Hyman stood there, sweaty, half the lawn cut, the other half waiting, the grass waving through a slight breeze, as the figures danced. He awoke in his perspiration. He tried not to disturb Rose, his wife. He went to the bathroom to relieve himself, unable to rid his mind of the dream. Somehow in the early morning hours, he managed to return to sleep.
Now, on the evening of December 31, 1982, corresponding to 15 Teveth, 5743, he experienced a pain that could not be denied.
For a while, he hoped that it was one of those many inexplicable ailments that, when he ceased thinking about them, cleared on their own. But as the evening wore on, a vague, uneasy sensation crept over him, the same sensation, he thought, that doctors felt when they saw the first signs of what they knew would turn into an epidemic. They knew that soon they would cease to be physicians administering medications and treatments. They could only become caretakers, counselors, and confessors to the dying and near-dead, and to their families. Hours later, as the pain worsened, he began to imagine his body as a plague.
He tried baths, heat, ice, Epsom salts, walking, stretching, standing, sitting, lying quietly. Again and again, he visited the bathroom, rolled down his pants, and inspected his member and its accompanying sacs.
Things looked and felt strange, uncomfortable, different. It seemed to him that it was no longer his body, not the one he had known and, despite the aches and pains, grown comfortable with for fifty-six years and more. He whimpered. He groaned. Over and over, as if the incantation might have some mystical quality that the great rabbis knew, he chanted, “God, it hurts. It hurts bad. It hurts right there.” Gingerly he felt around the circumference of that which was designed to generate for him pleasure and progeny and now produced only a whipping, unyielding agony.
He thought he would try to sleep. Often, in the past, if he lay down to sleep, the aches and illnesses miraculously disappeared by morning, as if some angelic visitor had descended to effect healing.
He lay down. Rose lay next to him, breathing her familiar sighs of slumber. She had tried to comfort him. She had offered to call doctors. She had offered to drive him to the hospital. Finally, she had collapsed from exhaustion, well past her bedtime.
He closed his eyes. He tried to relax. Usually, he allowed himself to engage in some fantasy and this gradually eased him into sleep. Now his thoughts remained blocked by the pain. Fantasies dissolved through the agony. Increasingly it seemed nothing in the world existed except himself and this pain. Truly, he thought, allowing himself a little philosophy, the intensity of the pain was beyond belief.
He opened his eyes. For a brief instant, he thought he saw a demon in the ceiling, a horned, cloven-hoofed entity. It then disappeared into the whisper of other, deeper shadows playing in the gloom.
Scheduled activities for the day, perhaps for the week, disappeared. It was Saturday. It would be the first Saturday in a long time that he would miss the Sabbath service at the synagogue. There was at least a little comfort in knowing that his absence would be noted by the other worshippers. Perhaps one or two would wander by in the late afternoon, following their meal, their nap, while on their walk. He hoped so and he hoped not. He wanted to see if anyone had any advice but he didn’t want anyone to see him like this. Already, gazing into the mirror, he saw a person he did not recognize. Another Hyman Andower, a haunted, ashen-faced man with a glazed stare, peered out at him.
He sat. He stood. He paced. He lay on his left side. He lay on his right side. He shifted to his back. He rose again. He shuffled through the rooms. He ate. He drank. He went to the bathroom. He bathed. He swallowed aspirin. At last, after lunch, Rose could bear it no longer.
“I’ll just finish the dishes, Hy. Then I’m taking you to the hospital. No complaints. Lie down and try not to think about it. I’ll just finish the dishes.”
He knew he had married a good woman. She took care of things about the house. They cared for one another during their several illnesses. Yet, over the years, he found himself wishing he were single, and could, in freedom, move to another city — Los Angeles or Las Vegas, some place more exciting. Perhaps he could find himself a young girl or two. He sighed. He could not help himself. Always his lust rose to the surface. Until this curse had struck him down, sexual fantasies occupied half his thoughts. He knew such fantasies violated the precepts, the rabbinical commentaries. Still, women’s bodies paraded before his mind. Often there were two at once, performing with him things he wished he had done in his youth but had never found the courage nor the opportunity.
Perhaps if he and Rose had had children. Now, of course, even his fantasies were impossible. Reality and fantasy merged. He knew only pain.
In the emergency room, he knew right away he was in trouble. His was not the sort of thing emergency-room doctors and their staff were equipped to handle. While waiting, he observed people sitting or lying on gurneys. They suffered broken bones, cuts, lesions, lacerations. They held hands, wrists, heads, noses, arms, legs, chests. Makeshift bandages pressed against the wounds reddened gradually, like ink spreading upon cheap tablet paper. Finally he was called in.
He had to endure the initial indignities. He lay on a small table. A nurse yanked a beige curtain around his table, as though cutting him off from the rest of the world. She handed him a green hospital robe. It had white polka-dots.
Again and again nurses and attendants measured his vital signs, wrote down his symptoms. They wrapped a large gray cuff around his arm, then pumped a bulb, creating a bellowing sound. He felt great pressure on his arm, as if blood were being cut off. He knew this procedure well. He had sat through it many times.
They placed their fingers lightly on his wrist while glancing for a few seconds at their watches. They stuck thermometers under his tongue. They pulled them out. They glanced at them, shook them, returned them to a jar filled with clear fluid. The thermometers made tinkling sounds against the inside of the jar.
Finally, the doctor breezed through the curtains. He perused the charts. He asked questions. He left. Hyman Andower was required to pass his water into a cup, then hand it to a nurse. He lay in his curtained cubicle again.
A fly buzzed over his head. From other cubicles, moans and groans wafted. Advice and admonitions to other patients from doctors, nurses, and paramedics caused his head to swim. Scents of urine, cleansers, medicines, starched white coats and dresses, waxed floors, and a sickly sweet odor of illness, like a great stew of stinks, swirled around him.
Suddenly he realized the entire forty-three years had been a dream, a vision; and he was awakening now, a lad of thirteen, a yeshuva bochur, a bar mitzvah, in a place known as Bergen-Belsen. He knew now that the groans and moans he heard were those of emaciated, smelly, sweaty, scared men in hard planks more like shelves; that it was a day like other days had been for him since he was ten, a day of beatings, screams, and imprecations by men in starched brown-and-black uniforms, a day of haunted, searing looks of anguish by other men in striped uniforms, a day of smelling other inmates’ flatulence and dysentery, diseased skin, and urine scorched by the drinking of tainted water. Flies buzzed in and around the barracks in infernal hordes.
Rose, the flower he had met in America ten years after his bar mitzvah day, his businesses that never quite succeeded, the fantasies of leaving for Las Vegas, the fantasies of women giving pleasure instead of pain to his body — all, all was a dream. Did not his own teacher, the Brasvenna Rebbe, say there is no truth?
“Truth cannot be found through deceit. This is illogical, a non sequitur. All is vanity. One may try to reach the upper spheres through the search for truth, but because Adom and Esha, man and woman, live on the lower spheres, all is deceit, all is vanity. The only truth is that truth is a lie. And even this truth is a lie. There are only degrees of lies. Even the search for the idea and the ideal of truth is a lie.”
Yet the beatings, the groans, the stenches, the zombie-like men and women he lived amongst for three years, during which time he trained for his bar mitzvah — these skeletons spoke some yearning, inevitable, ineffable truth; but since all was vanity and deceit, he was unable to give it a name.
Then another man in a white coat, a young man, of course, parted the curtain. This doctor was a urologist. He probed, examined, read the charts. He admitted him into the hospital. Hyman lay in the bed for three days. Occasionally they rolled him out to have X-rays, ultrasound, other diagnostic techniques. On the third day, he was summarily dismissed, the urologist informing him he should see a psychiatrist.
Sometimes it subsided. Sometimes it returned. When it subsided, it subsided gradually, by degrees. When it returned, it returned all of a sudden, as though one of the Nazi scum had thrust a bayonet into his scrotum. When it subsided, the terror of its inevitable return haunted him. In time, it seemed to him that an aura developed, a few moments of warning. Then it came, inevitably, inexorably, a gripping, twisting pain that rendered him impotent, worthless, and meaningless. And, at the same time, full of meaning.
So his rebbe, his great teacher, had been wrong after all. There was a great truth to existence. Only a living being, with feeling and thought, could comprehend that a great pain wracked his body. His existence became then undeniable, his search for truth measured only in the search for relief.
Sometimes the narcotics and analgesics worked. Sometimes they didn’t.
There were other visits to the doctors and the emergency rooms. He became expert in knowing the procedures, the instruments, the charts, the questions, the tests. He knew in advance which questions, which tests, and, alas, which answers that gave no answer but only asked more questions. He existed from hour to hour, day to day, in a nightmarish world of demons burning and squeezing his manhood, a small, scared, sweating being who had done no person harm, and whose existence was now measured in faces of suffering.
Always the doctors told him to wait, sometimes these things cleared up on their own.
He went to psychiatrists, hypnotists, massage therapists, chiropractors, nutritional healers. He determined even to follow the cabalistic teachings of Yehoshua Ben Miryam, the Rav of Nazareth, whom the Christians had accepted as the Lord’s Son on Earth, and the Lord Himself. So he found himself at faith healings and prayer meetings of fundamentalists and charismatics, imploring this Master who somehow managed to learn the Great Ineffable Name and cause himself to be resurrected.
Nothing availed. The demons won.
He knew at last it was the great Asmodeus himself, the king of the demons, who, through some flaw in his, Hyman Andower’s, own character, had been allowed to enter the house. Imps, demons, and succubi pranced on his roof and about his yard in teeming minions. They cavorted and jeered, the males and females performing unnatural acts, their cloven hoofs intertwined, their pointed tails wrapped around one another, their long black teeth digging into the others’ scales. Some banged on the window. Others howled. They screeched. They clawed. They snarled. They scurried upon and about his home, while he tried vainly to exorcise them with the packages of antibiotics, analgesics, anti-inflammatories, and tranquilizers. From his great kingdom at the mount by the sea, the two-horned giant, Asmodeus, prince of darkness, sent his favorite sadistic paramour to play evilly with Hyman Andower’s groin.
In an effort to pay some of the ever-mounting medical expenses, Rose acquired a job. She soon was promoted to a more responsible position. She found she could be a meaningful contributor to society. One day she left to go to work. In his robe, unshaven, unkempt, smelly from fear and pain, Hyman contemplated the ultimate. He heard Asmodeus snicker. An unseen hand stayed the gun as he turned it toward his head.
He spent the morning calling a urologist at the Mayo Clinic. After five minutes of listening to his symptoms and his history, the man told him that he could see him, but that there was a medical school nearby he should try first. He had heard of the work of a professor of urology there, a Dr. Elehambre.
“He came from Argentina, or Uruguay, I believe, one of those Latin American countries — Paraguay, perhaps — some years ago, to retire in your community. I heard he had a sister near there who subsequently died. His reputation accompanied him, and he was asked to come on faculty. In time, his part-time appointment grew and his retirement went out the window. Still, he only takes on the most difficult cases. You see him first. I’m sure he’ll help you. Yes, I’m sure of it.”
He took a wrong turn. Someone pointed him left instead of right, and he ended up in a long corridor. At the end he approached a thick, heavy door. When he pressed the latch, it made a loud click. He entered. At once his head swam. It seemed to him as though another plane of reality had been reached, one of the seven lower spheres, perhaps.
Moans seeped under pitched sounds. Again, he thought the years had stopped, and all the joy of release from the Nazi torment, his marriage, his productive years in this country, were a fantasy.
Nearly as far as the eye could see, young men and women in green coats hovered about row upon row of people lying prone in chairs. He walked down the large center aisle. Young hands with nimble fingers inserted instruments into open mouths, while the harsh whine of sharp, twisting metal playing upon enamel filled the air. Everywhere he gazed, human teeth were being drilled open, gouged out, filled in. Here the depths of teeth were plumbed, mistakes corrected, misalignments aligned. The people lay anxiously content, helpless in their benevolent predicaments, wanting the job to be done right, hoping that any second its action would cease. Ah, if only the words that came from these mouths could be so corrected, the evil ones drilled into nothingness, new ones of compliment, courtesy, and good intent filled in. He recited the prayer from the High Holy Day confessional: “Forgive us, Lord, for the word we have said, and the word we have left unsaid.”
“Can I help you, sir?”
Hyman Andower turned. He blinked. He gazed into large brown eyes. A girl with soft blonde hair blinked and repeated the question in a silky voice.
“I, I think I’m lost.”
“This is the dental clinic. Is that what you want?”
“Yes. I mean, no. I need the urology clinic.”
“Oh. You need to be in the hospital. Just go down this hallway, out the door, and straight across the parking lot. They’ll direct you once you’re there. I think it’s on the third floor.”
“Yes. Thank you, miss. Yes, this way. The hospital. I understand. The dental clinic, of course. Here you do teeth.”
On the way across, he glanced at the entrance to the emergency room. An ambulance drove up, its red lights blinding. He knew what went on in such places. He had been there many times. He sighed. He went on toward the front door. As always on the days he had appointments with the doctors, the fiend-companion had settled down for a while, as if hiding from the exorcist.
He entered the room with trepidation. He knew the entire routine in advance. The receptionist, a young, pretty, enthusiastic girl, took down the usual information. She asked him to sign the permission and insurance forms. She pointed out the waiting room. She informed him that the doctor was delayed in surgery this morning. He would be in soon.
“He still performs surgery?”
“Some. Mostly he assists and consults.”
“Yes, I see. I understand. Consults. Of course.”
“Just wait in there. It’ll be a few minutes.”
He entered a little room down a short hallway. Already five or six patients sat waiting. The smell of fear hung in the room, the sense of desperate people seeking final hope. He saw drawn, haggard faces. All glanced up at him. It seemed to him they hoped that he was the doctor, or at least the nurse calling them in. A few chairs remained. He sat. One by one, they looked away from him, withdrawing again into their own private existence. Clearly he was not the only one in the world suffering strange, unyielding difficulties.
A man shifted position. A woman turned the dog-eared pages of a year-old magazine she would never choose to read under normal circumstances. Another woman sighed, then sighed again. A fly buzzed about the room. A man coughed, wheezed. He took out a pack of cigarettes, saw no ashtrays, put it away. The fly darted about, buzzing from one chair to the next.
Hyman Andower glanced at his watch. Only ten minutes had gone by. It seemed like an hour. In fact, of all the strange things about his illness, the strangest, it now seemed to him, was how it altered time. A minute seemed like an hour, an hour a day. Days dragged on for months. He had taken to watching television constantly, or to not watching at all and sinking deep into himself, so deep he entered caverns and pits he never dreamed existed.
Often now, he dreamed and daydreamed together, without separation, without difference. He dreamed of being taken away suddenly in an alien spaceship and a miracle cure effected by the beings aboard. All pathways, all dreams, eventually returned to the same questions. Why couldn’t the doctors discover the truth? Why did they not believe his agony, his pain? What did he need to do? What would happen to him? Where would he be in a year? Two years?
Still the minutes dragged. The man coughed and wheezed. The woman sighed. He watched the fly crawl about on the table, working its legs and wings. The other woman turned yet another meaningless page she didn’t really see.
Forty-five minutes later, the nurse began calling in the patients. Another hour passed. Finally his turn came. The nurse showed him into a small room with an examining table, a large sink at knee level, a hook on the wall, a chair, and a stool.
“We’ll need a specimen. Here’s a bottle. Just open the door when you’re ready for me to pick it up.”
He voided, gingerly pulling up his pants so as not to touch his own body, then opened the door. Soon the nurse entered. She removed the bottle, told him the doctor would be in soon, closed the door. Once again, he found himself alone with his thoughts and with his demon.
A medical student entered, looking and acting like a doctor. He took a long history. He took his blood pressure. He listened to his pulse. He took his temperature. Of course, the doctor would be in soon.
Again he sat. Again he waited.
Finally he heard approaching footsteps. A confident yet respectful knock sounded through the door. The doctor entered. The medical student who had been in earlier followed. Another medical student, a young woman, glanced in hesitantly at the door, then withdrew into the lab beyond, a bit too hurriedly to be tactful.
Hyman Andower gazed into the doctor’s eyes. He knew everything at once. The German prosody, tempered now with a slight Spanish accent, coerced to speak English, together with the years, had produced a different voice. The body, still erect, had also grown old. But the eyes, after more than forty years, reflected unmistakable mirrors into the past. When the physician flicked a finger, commanding Hyman to sit down — that gesture so deeply burned into his mind decades ago — he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt.
“Well, Mr. Andower. We’ve gone over everything, and it’s true, you do seem to have some strange, even bizarre, symptoms. But I think I know what we have. Let me take a look and examine first, please.”
It seemed to him that he recalled everything at once. He had been right all along. In forty-three years, not one decade, one year, one hour, one minute had passed. It had all been a dream after all, and the nightmare was the reality. The smoke, the stench of the cattle car, sweaty, fearful people with haunted eyes. At last, after days of travel, stopping, seeking air, any cool breeze, they had been dumped on the splintered, weathered boards of the platform. He had been waved to the right.
“I must examine you.”
The joy had been the dream. The nightmare continued. On the platform, the train belched steam. Women and children screamed and cried before him. Guards screeched orders around him. Lights blazed into his eyes. Gunfire roared above him.
He dropped his pants. The doctor worked his fingers quickly, expertly over what was left of Hyman Andower’s manhood. He remembered the touch.
“All right, pull up your trousers. We’re done. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Once again Hyman Andower stood alone, yet this time not alone. This time he stood with hundreds of other frightened people, men, women, children, in pain, the stench of manure and human feces and urine and sweat hanging in his nostrils, and something else, a sweet, searing, sordid smell that seemed to cast a pallor over the entire place. Suddenly the doctor returned.
“Well, Mr. Andower. As I said, they are strange symptoms. But I think there is a structural malformation, brought on by a trauma, perhaps, or just a spontaneous twisting. The surgery is fairly routine, although naturally we shall do some exploration, to be sure of everything. I recommend it at once, before you suffer another episode. You could check in tonight. We would perform it in the morning.”
“And you, Doctor, would perform the surgery?”
“Well, I am getting on. I should be retired, spending the time with my grandchildren. We know how it is, you and I, eh?”
“Yes, Doctor. We know how it is, you and I.”
“Of course, I will assist. So you needn’t worry. Well, that’s it, after all. In three months, maybe two, you’ll be back to your old self again. You’ll see.”
“Yes. My old self. And you, Doctor?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Does the old self ever truly leave? Does it remove itself? Does it cleanse itself? Or does it chase itself? What are we, anyway, creatures like we are, subject to pain and suffering like we are?”
“Yes, of course. I understand. One of the eternal questions. But here and now, Mr. Andower, this truth I give you, a truth to add to your philosophy. I, Dr. Franken Elehambre, will relieve your suffering through proper history, examination, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up. Check in tonight. I’ll come see you in the morning, just before your time.”
The doctor left. Hyman Andower stared at the sparse examining room, realizing he was an old, scared man, suffering pain.
The sounds of the kaddish, the prayer for the dead, penetrated his mind.
As he chanted the trope, he saw before him all the souls of his six million murdered brothers and sisters. He thought he should cry, but to his astonishment, he laughed. He laughed for them and for himself and for this old man who relieved pain no other doctor could relieve, an old man who wished only to play with his grandchildren. Yes, he laughed.
“Ah, Master of the Universe,” he sighed. “How is it that you must send the Angel of Death to be the Angel of Mercy? Is it true, then, that they are one and the same?”