Healthy and in the midst of life, Norman Ivanovitch entered my office gray with fear. My secretary came along beside him, rushing and bubbling about "Cannot be disturbed" and "Find out if he's available." Disturbed I already was and available I could be considered, so I let him sit down. Norman gave me no opportunity to ask him the matter; as my secretary went out and closed the door behind her, he pulled his shirttails out of his pants and held them high up against his chest, displaying one side of his abdomen. Chin tucked to the hollow of his shoulder, he peered at the exposed area. "There!" he said, and he pointed with index finger to a whitish patch on his pale skin shaped like a large leech. "What is that? What is it?"
"Good morning, Norman," I said. "Always nice to see you. How're your wife and daughter?"
Norman let down his shirt gradually and he sat there, rumpled, his expression pained. "I'm sorry," he said vaguely. He smoothed his clothing. "This must seem a little strange to you."
Airily I waved my hand. "So-so."
"I apologize for busting in here like this. That quack Rathbone got me so worked up.--"
"Cigarette?" I offered him one and he took it, lit it, puffed quickly.
"I'd better go," he said. "I don't want to bother you. There's nothing you can do."
"How do you know there's nothing I can do? What's the trouble?"
"Well, this thing--" His hands reached again for his shirttails. "Do you mind?" He pulled his shirt up and showed me the whitish oval. "This thing turned up on my skin last week, and no one can tell me what the hell it is."
"Did you try a doctor?"
"Lots of doctors."
I rose, went around my desk and examined Norman's abdomen. The mark was two inches long, three eighths of an inch wide, had ten crosslines extending out onto the surrounding skin and was faintly livid. It looked not like a leech but like a caterpillar. "Why, it's a scar!" I exclaimed.
"That's what those damned doctors tried to tell me. But it isn't a scar! It can't be a scar!"
"It certainly looks like a scar."
"Did you have something removed?"
"There used to be a birthmark there. Right on that same spot."
"Well, then, it is a scar."
"It's not a scar! I never had anything removed, never in my life, not a thing. I wouldn't have had a birthmark removed. Who cares about a birthmark? My wife liked it. I didn't want it removed and I didn't have it removed."
"What did the doctors say?"
"They said it was a recent scar, where I'd obviously had a lesion removed."
"What did you say?"
"I said there used to be a birthmark on that spot, but I did not have it removed."
"What did they say?"
"They said it was best to have large lesions removed before middle age."
I looked back at Norman's abdomen. "And you told Dr. Rathbone about it?"
"Yes, and he asked me stupid questions about my memory. There's nothing wrong with my memory and there's nothing wrong with me. I've never felt better in my life. I don't like doctors and I don't go to doctors unless I'm sick, and I'm not sick often, and I'm definitely not sick now, and I definitely didn't have my birthmark removed."
I regarded Norman's abdomen as a whole. "You seem to be in pretty good shape," I observed.
"I keep fit," said Norman proudly.
Whatever the thing was, it sat whitish and puckered on the skin of Norman's well-muscled abdomen.
"Well," I said, "there's nothing I can do. Why don't you just forget about it?"
Norman rearranged his clothing and thanked me for my time. I walked him to my door.
"It's healing, anyway," I said, ushering him out.
The door to my office burst open and there was Norman Ivanovitch again, angry and desperate, and there was my secretary right behind him, tugging at his arm.
My secretary spoke first. "I'm terribly sorry," she apologized, "but this man----"
"It's all right," I said.
Shrugging, she went out. Norman sat down.
"What is it this time?" I asked pleasantly.
Norman bent and rolled up his pants leg. Trousers above one knee, he indicated a long, slender white line on the inside of his leg starting at the base of the bulging muscle on his lower thigh and curving around the kneecap to the top of his strong shin.
"Did you ask doctors this time?"
Norman shook his head. "I went across the street to see my brother-in-law. He works in a pharmacy."
"Did he know what it was?"
"Yes, he knew. He said it was a knee-surgery scar. He showed me one just like it on his own leg. Football injury. No doubt about it. Identical. That's what he said."
"I don't suppose you ever had knee surgery."
Norman shook his head vehemently.
"When did you first notice it?"
"In the morning, when I got out of bed. I exercise first thing every morning. I noticed it then. Same time I noticed the mark on my stomach."
"How is that, by the way?"
"It doesn't hurt anymore."
"That's good. Did your brother-in-law have any advice?"
"He said I seemed tense. He gave me some pills to calm me down."
"Are you taking them?"
"No, I threw them away. I don't like pills."
"Have you spoken with Dr. Rathbone?"
"No, no, I made an appointment with him for this afternoon, but I'm not going to keep it."
"You must keep it," I ordered. "It's your duty as an employee to inform Dr. Rathbone of any change in your state of health."
"Then I'll go," Norman said. "But if he asks me questions about my memory and wants me to guess what people in drawings are saying to each other and tries to find out which color cards I like best, I'll walk out on him."
Yet a third time Norman Ivanovitch burst into my office, my secretary literally dragged in his wake.
"Norman," I said immediately, "you've got to stop barging in here like that."
My secretary detached herself from his shoulders, settled her weight back on her feet, gathered her strength and slapped him as hard as she could, a real haymaker of a slap. Norman seemed to feel nothing. He looked gloomy, withdrawn.
"I'm going to call the police," my secretary declared.
"Nonsense," I said. "Just go and ask Dr. Rathbone to step in for a few minutes."
She left and Norman still stood there in the center of the room, not looking at anything.
"Norman? Did you hear what I said to you? This unannounced interruption has got to stop."
"It's not fair," was Norman's only reply. His voice came from far away, out of a locked mirrored room in his head.
"What's happened now?" I asked. "Another scar?"
Norman nodded. "My appendix." He made no move to lift his shirt again; I took his word for it.
"My appendix has been taken out. I went to a clinic and had them give me a barium X ray to make sure. It's gone."
I tried to smile. "You're really better off without your appendix," I told him. "I had mine out years ago, after a very painful seizure at a most inconvenient time. Appendix inflammations can be quite serious, you know. If not treated immediately, the appendix might actually rupture, releasing poisons and intestinal acids into the abdominal cavity and causing widespread----" Thankfully, Rathbone appeared at the door.
"Come in," 1 said. "Sit down. Norman, you sit down, too. Why don't you show Dr. Rathbone your latest scar?"
"I am acquainted with Mr. Ivanovitch's unfortunate manifestations," Rathbone intoned.
"But Norman tells me there's a new scar where his appendix----"
"I am informed that Mr. Ivanovitch's appendix has been removed," Rathbone interrupted.
"Good, you know. What I'd like you to do, then, is to take Norman down to your office and talk to him about----"
"Our past consultations have not been productive," said Rathbone.
"Surely you must have some advice to offer. Here's a man who needs your help."
"Mr. Ivanovitch should not be on his feet so soon after major surgery," Rathbone said.
"See? You do have suggestions. Now, take him down with you and talk to him for a while, and take notes or whatever it is that you do, and then send him home for the rest of the day. The rest of the week, in fact. Norman, you work in payroll, is that right?"
"There are too many other people in payroll. Just in case you turn up with something contagious, I'm switching you over to bookkeeping. Schwartz is on vacation and Joyce needs help. Don't worry, she'll explain everything you need to know on Monday. Get some rest. Read books. Take up a hobby."
Norman followed Rathbone meekly to the door. "It isn't fair," he repeated, subdued. He clutched his side.
Rest, books, hobbies, tortured introspection--something pulled Norman back together during the days he spent away from the office. On Monday, Joyce squealed with delight at Norman's wit as she showed him the simple-minded bookkeeping procedures. He took to the work with a will, controlling even Joyce's frequent loud outbursts and restoring a measure of calm to the crowded and noisy office bay. It's an ill wind that blows the office no good; I decided to move old Schwartz elsewhere when he returned.
At the end of the week, I summoned Norman. He actually knocked on the door before entering.
"Norman," I said, "allow me to compliment you on your quick grasp of the fundamentals of your new position, and allow me further to congratulate you on a promotion; as of today, you may think of yourself as bookkeeper."
Norman shook the hand I extended and sat down.
"Your promotion will, of course, involve a substantial increase in salary, as you no doubt remember from your payroll days."
"Thank you," said Norman. "I'll admit it, I'm glad of the change. Change, that's what I need. I'm changing my entire life," he said firmly.
"Fine, fine," I said, unsure of his meaning.
"I'm not complaining and I'm not looking for help from others. I'm taking things into my own hands."
"That's a good, positive attitude."
Norman rose to go.
"Your health, I take it, has been----"
"My health is excellent," Norman answered. "Good health is a state of mind."
"No more of those----"
"One more, up here." He pointed to the base of his muscular neck. "An old cyst, apparently. I don't care. It doesn't bother me. I'm far too busy to be disturbed by the appearance of meaningless marks on my skin. They'll go away. If you keep fit, cells replenish themselves."
(continued on page 114) Night Surgeon (continued from page 98)
"Yes, they do. You can't feel sorry for yourself. You've got to fight."
Writhing from side to side like a fish with the hook set deep in its cartilaginous mouth, Norman fought. He moved his family out of their house and into a new one, larger. He sold his stock and bought a racing car. He ran for civic political office but lost. Inward he turned: made primitive ceramic objects with a small orange kiln, tried photography, took vitamins and ate rice. My secretary informed me of all this; I knew firsthand only that he wore flared paisley pants and transparent shirts, no tie, no socks. I let it go. What matter how the bookkeeper dressed? He put on a suit again for his court appearance, I heard, during which the midtown divorce lawyers were particularly brutal; my secretary (who was present) described the tears shed freely by all three, husband, wife and daughter, as testimony dissected their former life and as argument stitched it back together again in a monstrous new shape. Asked by my secretary how he could put his child through such an experience, Norman repeated what he'd told me: You've got to fight. Fighting, he moved into an expensive apartment; fighting, he grew a beard, found a mistress, bought a dog, wrote a play and took a three-week cruise. Returning, he announced his conversion to socialism; then to anarchism; finally to nihilism. He got rid of his mistress and dog and he bought a small farm. Reclaimed there by the rhythm of the land, he married an older woman. His daughter paid him a visit. "You're looking younger every day, Daddy," she said. He made a will. The marriage did not last; he moved into a hotel room. He drank. He played cards. He bought a suit of armor. Depressed, he moved out of his hotel room and, with no place left to go, came to the office to live, folding his strong legs onto a short canvas cot he squeezed behind the desk in his simple bookkeeper's office now adorned with a tarnished suit of armor mounted on an iron rack.
During this period, Norman found scars on the soles of his feet, on his thigh, on his groin, on his stomach, on his back, under one arm, along the edge of the left side of his chin and behind one ear. He also reported his plantar calluses cured, a second birthmark removed, a lump vanished, stomach ulcers no longer painful, a mole absent, glands missing from his armpit, glands missing from his neck and a wart gone.
"How do you feel?" I asked him.
"I feel fine," said Norman, teeth clenched.
My secretary arranged my meeting with Mrs. Ivanovitch, the first and primary Mrs. Ivanovitch, after she began calling the switchboard and asking the girls how her husband was, but refusing to let them connect her with his office. She agreed to come in person only upon the condition that Norman be nowhere in evidence. I agreed to this and she appeared promptly at the appointed hour, an attractive woman, well dressed, her face puffy under the eyes and around the mouth, which quivered as she put her questions to me. I told her that Norman was fine, that for the time being he was spending his nights on a cot in the office, that his work was excellent. She wanted me to know, but not to tell Norman, that she'd forgiven him everything and she hoped he would know he could come to her if ever he needed any help, but not to tell Norman that she'd been to see me because he might think she was spying on him, and Norman had always been very independent, and it was just pride that made him act the way he did, and he was going through such a difficult time, men Norman's age often had a very difficult time, and she had married him for better or for worse and still remembered those words, even though he'd been so horrible to her in court.
"Don't mind that," I said. "It was just the lawyers. I'm sure Norman didn't mean to be horrible to you in court."
Her puffy eyes then produced tears, and her puffy mouth sobs, and my secretary came in and led her away, calming her with woman's words.
"There must be a reason," Norman said. Norman was sitting on the table in Rathbone's office while Rathbone repaired with difficulty the elaborate bandages Norman had torn from his chest in rage after doctors had told him over the telephone that X rays revealed no trace of a tumor and that Norman's lung specialist, whoever he was, should be congratulated.
"I search through the years for a clue," Norman went on. "Somewhere in my past, there's a clue. I was a healthy child. Most people liked me. But nothing comes from nothing. There must be a detail I've overlooked. A trespass. An unkindness. Even an attitude; it could be something as small as an attitude. And who knows which man suffered? One of you, perhaps. Listen: If it is one of you, will you forgive me?"
"Hold still," ordered Rathbone.
Norman stood in the center of a stern knot of accountants. "Norman," I asked, "did you realize you'd transposed these figures? Where are your checking columns? Did you save your tapes? What's the meaning of all this?"
Norman squinted at huge errors in his calculations.
Loyally, Joyce attempted to shoulder the blame. "It was me, I did it. Mr. Ivanovitch explained, but I didn't know what he was asking and everybody says I make the silliest mistakes, and Mr. Ivanovitch would have corrected----"
"Norman," I said, "are your eyes bothering you?"
Norman went to an ophthalmologist, who said yes, Norman would have some difficulties, but considering the size of the cataracts that had been removed, his vision was remarkably unimpaired.
As soon as I entered Norman's new office, the stench hit me.
"Norman, Norman. I'm sorry," I said. "This room hasn't been properly aired out. It smells like a stable. Come back down the hall with me, I'll get maintenance men up here before you move in."
With the tentative haste of an old man, Norman continued to unpack the files of publicity clippings that now were his responsibility.
"Did you hear me?" I asked, afraid that his hearing might be going the route of his eyesight.
"I heard you. The office was cleaned yesterday."
"But that stink! Surely you notice it."
Norman glanced down to a bulge in the side of one leg of his trousers. "I guess it's this," he said. "When I woke up and found crap all over the bed, I went to the hospital and they strapped one of these plastic bags on me. With part of my colon gone, I don't hold my load very well. They didn't tell me it would have an odor. Maybe I'm not wearing it right."
Chambers entered, birdlike. Clutched to his breast was the bulging personnel file marked Ivanovitch, N. Chambers had brought bulging files with him in the past, but this one was ridiculous.
"Chambers, what's in there?" I asked.
"Pertinent data," said Chambers defensively.
"You and your data."
"Dr. Rathbone's reports----"
"Rathbone is even worse than you are."
Chambers looked sullen.
"Never mind. Here's the reason I called you. The employee whose vital statistics you hold in your hands was transferred from payroll to bookkeeping because it was thought at the time that he might be harboring communicable disease. He was transferred again, from bookkeeping to public relations, because of failing eyesight. Now I find out he has trouble with his colon and he's going to smell bad for the rest of his life. Good vision isn't terribly important to public-relations work, but a strong hint of manure will definitely hamper his effectiveness. I need your advice on a new spot for this unfortunate man."
(continued on page 182) Night Surgeon (continued from page 114)
Chambers considered. "Complaint letters----"
"Perfect," I said.
Twilight drifted through midtown like a cloud of poison gas, blurring the colors of the billboards, neon signs, gargoyles, copper cornices. Cars clotted the streets, buses stalled, trains backed up one after another on their sooty tunneling tracks. Slowly, with much confusion, the office emptied; Girls babbled as they punched their cards in the time clock and crowded together into sagging elevators; men settled hats on their heads, buttoned their overcoats to their necks, hefted their briefcases and strode away to their homes as if in pursuit of a fleeing enemy. Before night fell, with its stars and its sleep, there was only Norman, an unknowing Norman preparing to spend another evening on his cot behind the desk in this, his fourth office, and, in the office next door, a whispering conspiracy made up of myself, my secretary, Rathbone and Henry, a young photographer from the art department. We watched Norman's movements through one-way glass installed at considerable expense. The photographer's three cameras were poised on tripods facing, respectively, Norman's cot, the window in Norman's office and the door leading out to the corridor. My secretary had tape recorder plugged in and note pads open and ready. Rathbone sat before an array of instruments, loaded hypodermics, plasma bottles, sterile gauze, adhesive tape. I held a pistol in my lap.
"What's he doing now?" whispered my secretary.
"Looking out the window," said Henry. He clicked the nearly noiseless shutter of the camera trained on Norman's window.
"More soup remains," announced Rathbone, holding up the pan of broth we had cooked on a hot plate and shared for our supper.
"Throw it away," my secretary said.
"The next time we stay up all night, we'll order out," I promised.
Flattered to be a part of our surveillance effort, Henry was full of theories. "I'll bet there's a rational explanation for this," he said.
No one bothered to answer him.
"I'll bet," he continued, "it's some kind of an experiment. Some kind of medical experiment. Lots of doctors don't have any scruples at all." He glanced at Rathbone. "No offense meant," he added.
"None taken," mumbled Rathbone.
"I'll bet it's a student," Henry went on.
"Those medical students are real ghouls."
"Henry, please," I said.
"It's sure one hell of a way to practice medicine," said Henry.
More minutes passed.
"What's he doing now?" whispered my secretary.
"Just sitting down on his cot. He looks like he's thinking."
"Reliving his past," Rathbone corrected. "All latest tests indicate inordinate preoccupation with past events."
Henry tripped his shutter on Norman reliving his past. "Here's one for you," he said. "Suppose there's some guy here from another planet, see, and suppose he wants to find out how we work."
Again, no one bothered to answer him.
"So he cuts up Norman," Henry said.
"Why Norman?" my secretary asked.
"Why not?" said Henry. "Norman's in good physical condition. He takes care of his body. With him, it's a principle."
Another minute passed.
"Name someone in the office who'd make a better specimen," challenged Henry.
"Henry, please," I said.
"All right, here's another one. A doctor in the future needs organs to transplant, see, and he figures out how to go back in time and take what he wants from people alive now."
"A doctor in the future has need of Norman's appendix?" Rathbone asked.
"How do I know what a doctor in the future might need?"
"Why only Norman?" asked my secretary.
"Who said it was only Norman?"
"Henry, you're making me nervous," I said, the pistol in my lap.
"What's he doing now?" asked my secretary.
"He looks sleepy," Henry answered, and he took a photograph of Norman sleepy. "Of course," said Henry, "it could all be some kind of practical joke."
My secretary dropped her pencil. Rathbone choked on a swallow of cold soup.
"Hey," Henry said brightly, "did anybody ever consider the possibility that this guy we're trying to catch might be invisible?"
"Henry, shut up!"
"Shh!" my secretary warned me.
"Let's run through the plan again," I suggested.
"Not again, please," sighed Rathbone.
"Just one more time. We have to move quickly. Now, if something happens, anything at all, I head for the corridor with this." I waved the pistol self-consciously. "When I have the door to Norman's office covered, Rathbone, you follow with your hypodermic and fingerprinting gear."
"I'll activate the tape recorder and simultaneously take down details in shorthand," said my secretary.
"And I'll be ready," said Henry, holding up three remote shutter cables ending in rubber squeeze bulbs.
"Don't forget the floodlights," I reminded him.
"The floodlights, of course," Henry said.
"Keep in mind, you people, that this business could be dangerous. We have no idea what we're going to run up against."
Norman's mouth opened in a soundless yawn at the same time. Sleepy he may have been, but he did not lie back and turn out the lights. Instead, he rose and walked over to the corner of his office where the suit of armor hung on its iron rack. Wearily, expert from much practice, he dismantled the metal sections of the suit and began strapping them onto his body. Rathbone, Henry, my secretary and I all watched in amazement. Norman fumbled briefly with the helmet visor before settling the helmet in place, patting the stiff limb joints of the suit and waddling back to his cot. Ready for bed, he lay down. The clank of the armor was faintly audible through the intervening wall.
"Well, can you beat that?" I said.
Norman's office went dark. I fumbled for the infrared lamp and goggles.
"What's he doing?" whispered my secretary urgently.
In the weird monochromatic light of the infrared equipment, Norman unfolded a rough wool blanket and pulled it over his armored legs. Several times he thrashed to get comfortable. Then he lay still, his back to me.
"Going to sleep," I said.
"This is really exciting," said Henry.
The next time he said it, hours later, his voice was fatigued and resigned.
The third time he said it, sarcasm hung in his tone.
"So you take a turn," I said, handing him the goggles.
Rathbone and my secretary were both asleep. I let them doze until the first shadows of dawn shaped the smooth darkness outside into silhouettes of midtown towers like tall tombstones crowded together, then woke them up. "Be especially alert," I told everyone. "Now's the time it will probably happen. Don't let down your guard for an instant."
We were especially alert; our guard never wavered; nevertheless, time passed quickly, and when I heard the first of the telephone receptionists arriving in the outer offices, I stretched my stiff legs and arms and went in to knock on Norman's door, inform him of our night vigil on his behalf and offer him an expense-account breakfast downstairs in the best of the building's restaurants.
Within the unopened armor lay Norman on his canvas cot, pale and weak. Along his side and across his chest and shoulder, I found the long deep healing wounds of open-heart surgery.
The screaming went on for an hour before I summoned Rathbone.
"The fear is upon him," Rathbone explained.
Screams and shrieks reverberated down the corridors.
"Can't you do anything?" I asked him.
"It's the fear," said Rathbone, shrugging.
"I don't care what it is, get in there and do something about that racket!" I shouted. "This is an office! There's work to be done!"
I heard Rathbone enter Norman's room; the screams surged as his door was opened, then ebbed again as it was closed. Rathbone's voice rose to threats; Norman's screams rose higher. Rathbone came back and told me he could do nothing short of knocking Norman unconscious with drugs. I recoiled at this remedy and sent the office staff home for the day instead. Gratefully, haggard from the stress of listening to Norman, everyone left.
The following morning, even I was reluctant to return to the office. Nervous, I rode the empty elevator to my floor; cautious, I turned my key in the outer-hall lock; apprehensive, I pushed open the door. No sound came from the offices beyond. Norman's voice was silent.
He's dead, I thought.
The others, who had waited by the elevators until I came to unlock the door, now trailed me inside and down the corridor to Norman's room. We gathered there, none of us wanting to be the first to enter.
"You go in," I told my secretary.
"Not on your life," she answered back.
"You're the boss, you go in."
The others remained motionless and I had no choice but to open the door.
Norman sat at his desk, work piled high around him.
"Hi," he said. He frowned as he saw the people behind me. "What's this all about?"
"We wondered if you were here," I said foolishly.
"Me? Of course. I'm just getting some of this old correspondence filed." Norman bent again to the papers.
"Do you feel all right?" I asked, approaching his desk.
"I feel fine. Still a few pains in the chest, but they'll go away." Norman smiled benignly.
I came closer. "You seemed--worried--yesterday," I said.
"I did? About what?"
I leaned across his desk. There, just below the hairline, a fresh lobotomy scar snaked across his scalp.
"Nothing," I answered. "Glad to see you on the job so early." I turned to the employees in the doorway. "I'll be glad to see everyone on the job," I said. They scattered.
Norman's wife helped him move his things, what little there were, out of his desk and into the drawers of a new walnut bureau bought to celebrate his homecoming. Norman's daughter, restless after tasting the glamorous day-to-day life of a broken home, lingered a week with her newly docile father and then ran off to wander the world while she was still young. Norman I shifted back to his original duties in payroll. Chambers I told to devise some new use for the vacated correspondent's office with its carefully installed one-way glass observation panel. Rathbone I asked to advise me concerning the dream that was troubling my sleep. In this dream, we were keeping our long vigil in the room next to Norman's, and I had the infrared goggles over my eyes, and Rathbone and Henry and my secretary were asleep, and I saw through the darkness the night surgeon come, short legs rolling swiftly on oiled bearings, thin arms folded and flexed by wires and pulleys, torso a deep hollow barrel of bronze clockwork wheels and chrome coiled springs and iron pendulums hanging on golden chains, in deft mechanical hand the icy stainless-steel scalpel swinging forward and downward and each time just beginning its incision when I would wake up in pure panic, fingers at my eyes to tear off the goggles I no longer wore, mind not even certain whose skin was about to be slit.
Norman's suit of armor he left behind, forgotten in the room with the canvas cot and the one-way glass. I let it remain where it was, memento mori.