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Apr/May 1999 Fiction

Personal Assets

by Adam Marcus


It was still dark when the alarm clock tore Irwin Schroder from the arms of the stewardess he had been trying to seduce for the last five nights.

Frustrated, Irwin rose from bed without kissing his wife, Joanne, and padded to the bathroom. With the lights off, the sound of his water in the toilet bowl was balky and alarming. Worse, his stream, which lately had begun to burn along its route, was now erratic, and some of the urine invariably ended up on his toes. The fact that he could muster a weak, sagging dangle of an erection was little help to his confidence in the aging process. He had an appointment with Dr. Siegel in the afternoon, and maybe he could get a few pills to straighten out the mess his urethra was becoming.

After washing up, Irwin filled the coffee maker and collected the morning papers from the doorstep. It was Friday, the headlines thick with news about an impending budget deal, and he knew there would be plenty to examine in the stock quotations. Since he began investing as a young professional, Irwin's enthusiasm for the stock market had grown steadily, more than keeping pace with the inflation of his other interests and the responsibilities attendant with age. Even after the children left them and entered that quasi-state of financial independence—violated occasionally by remodelings and European vacations—Irwin still followed the stocks with the anxious avidity of an expectant father.

He'd recently sold off two technology stocks and a mutual fund, turning nice profits on each, and so now his portfolio was slightly lighter. He would have to find another company to invest in, but although the market seemed poised to break into record territory, he was cautious about the best sector to enter. Biotechnology held promise, as did waste management and computer services. Still, he thought, opening the business page to its back half, somehow the idea of putting money into those emergent industries made him apprehensive. Irwin scanned the New York exchange (he once had money in the American and NASDAQ indices, but his broker had encouraged him to consolidate) noting with a frown or a nod the status of his holdings. Argon Electric up two after their split last week; Bedouin Management, even; Elephant Industries, up an eighth (an unimpressive performer, he was thinking about unloading it); and so on.

The coffee was ready, and Irwin shuffled into the kitchen for a mug. He always drank two cups in the morning, partly for the pick-up and partly for the salutary effect the hot liquid had on his intestines, which uncoiled with Swiss precision five minutes after the last drop passed his lips. He took out a second mug for Joanne, removed the silver creamer from the refrigerator and brought both to the table. Joanne liked to spend a half-hour in bed waking up, something she'd done throughout their thirty-five year marriage. At first, he'd been upset with her for it, wanting her to be up and about if he had to be. He would make such of a display of his morning rituals that she would have no choice but to get out of bed. Gradually, however, when it was clear that she was a much less amenable person when rushed, he allowed her the luxury of a slowly unfolding morning, and he had even grown as jealous of protecting it as he had earlier been of disrupting it.

Irwin picked up the paper again. Percival Holdings, down two; Salmon Hatcheries Inc., up three, for the third time this week, no less. So far, so good, he thought, and was about to turn to the mutual fund section when an entry caught his eye.

"Schroder Irw, 32 7/8 unch."

He picked up his reading glasses and looked again. "Schroder Irw 32 7/8 unch." Prices to earnings, 85, previous high, none, previous low, none. Must be a new listing, he thought. Sales in 100 share blocks, 1. Not a big mover, either. Dividend...

"Very strange," Irwin said aloud.

"What's strange?" Joanne had emerged from the bedroom in a pink terry cloth bathrobe and worn, beige slippers.

"There's a new listing in here for a company called 'Schroder Irw.' I've never heard of it before."

"What's it trading for?" Joanne asked, indifferently.

"That's not the point," he said, sounding more irritated than he'd intended. "It's my name, remember? Irwin Schroder? Ring a bell?"

"Take it easy, mister crab," Joanne said. She brought the coffee pot over to the table, poured some into the mug Irwin had set for her and refilled his.

She sat and began reading the front section.

After a moment, Irwin announced, "I think I'll call Sherman about this stock."

Joanne grunted indistinctly from behind the paper. The front page showed a picture of an attractive young woman who had recently been crowned Miss America. She appeared to be Asian.

"The final seal of approval," Irwin thought. His older brother Miles had dated Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America, before he was married. Irwin had met her once, when she came to their apartment one day to meet Miles. He remembered her looking remarkably normal, the difference between the brochure and the resort. She broke it off with his brother after a few dates, accusing him of being stuck in the shtetl and having no future. Miles went on to own the New York Knicks, and Beth Myerson lost her looks. There was some justice, Irwin thought, though he detested his brother's success. Miles' wife Molly was a face-lift away from cracking, her smile so taut it seemed almost savage. She had also been beautiful, but could not let it go, and Miles indulged her desire for cosmetic surgery as if he were helping her cultivate a garden, with a trim here and an implant there.

"After all," he said, "how many people get to own a company with their same name."

"Not many," Joanne said from behind the paper. Irwin had met Joanne on an elevator in the building where he worked as an editorial assistant. She was a nurse for a practice on the 12th floor. She was not beautiful in the commercial sense of the word. Her dark features and long, curly hair were more Semitic than he was usually attracted to, but she had lively green eyes and full breasts, and he contrived a way of seeing her again by complaining of a lingering cold. He asked her to the movies while she drew his blood, and they'd been together ever since.

 

"Sherman Berg, please. This is Irwin Schroder." It was a little past eleven, and Berg would have been done with his morning meetings. There was a long pause, interrupted only by the electric clicks of phones transferring, then Berg's high-pitched voice broke through.

"Hello, Irwin. How are you?"

"Just fine, Sherman. I hope you're making a killing off this bull market."

"I'm doing my best," Berg said. "What can I do for you?"

"Well, I came across a stock I'd like you to look into for me. It's called Schroder Irw. A new listing, I think. The prices to earnings ratio is a monster, but if it's not a bad company, it would be a nice gift for the kids, you know, to have something with their name."

Berg was silent. Then he coughed.

"Sherman?" said Irwin after a moment. "Are you still there?"

"Um, yeah Irwin, I'm here. Look, there's something you should know about that company."

"I'm not set on buying it," Irwin said cheerfully. "I just wanted you to check it out, you know, see if it's run by a bunch of mumzerim."

"I already know who owns it," Berg said uncomfortably.

"Well, then, who is it?"

"You, Irwin. It's you. Schroder Irw. is your listing."

 

Irwin, head in his hands, tried to explain to Joanne what Berg had told him.

"I'm being traded on the New York exchange," he said in stunned disbelief.

"Every day investors from all over the world buy and sell me depending on the events of my life."

"Why don't you snap up all the outstanding shares," she said. "You know, corner the market."

"I can't," he moaned. "That's insider trading."

"Oh." Then she brightened. "Well, look at it this way: some people are going to make a killing off you. Buy low, sell high, right?"

"Or they'll lose their shirts and come after me like the villagers in Frankenstein. I'll be pilloried. Shit." Irwin clapped a palm to his forehead and slumped further toward the kitchen table. He hadn't had an existentialist crisis since he learned, at the age of six, that although his best friend Micky "Dizzy" Stein was Jewish, Dizzy Dean wasn't. He'd had trouble following baseball after that revelation until Hank Greenberg broke into the league.

According to Berg, his stock had opened that Monday, at thirty three dollars a share, paying no dividend. Four days, and he hadn't moved a point! Together they'd gone over his assets, including the Taco Bell in Des Moines that he owned with Joanne's brother Bennie. He showed a net worth of a little over $1 million. He was solvent. But Berg had warned him sternly about relying too heavily on his financial picture at the expense of the intangibles. After all, he'd said, some of the strongest companies on the Big Board had fallen to the jitters of investors. "Remember General Dynamo," he'd lectured. "After word leaked that they were considering firing their CEO, they lost 80 points in a week. Now they're belly up."

"What should I do?" Irwin had wailed piteously. "I can't even buy shares of myself."

"You've just got to be patient. Hope for a buy-out," Berg had said, and had hung up to make his noon squash game. Berg was nearly his age, but exercised regularly. He seemed to be a much more cheerful man, Irwin decided.

 

Joanne drove him to Dr. Siegel's office, which occupied one corner of a strip mall off Atlantic Avenue. It was a hot day, the humidity almost overwhelming, but the low, gray clouds kept the sun at their backs and the ground below in patches of shadow. She dropped him in front of the office and went to the hairdresser. "Meet you in an hour," she said over the rising window. "Good luck. And remember to ask for a refill for the blood pills."

"If you keep after me nothing will help my blood pressure," he shot back under his breath, but she had already begun driving off and didn't hear him.

Inside, the office was cool, a shock compared to the air in the parking lot, and Irwin felt his skin prickle as it adjusted to the difference. There were two other people in the waiting room: a man who looked to be about his age, and a woman who must have been close to ninety. The man, who was sitting in a leatherette arm chair, wore a pair of madras shorts and a short-sleeved, blue and orange-striped shirt with buttons. He had on beige club-house shoes and athletic socks with yellow and green stripes that were pulled above his calves. Irwin looked at his own clothes—brown sans-a-belts beneath a red white Polo shirt—and shook his head. "It's as if I forget how to dress ourselves sometimes," he thought. "Then again, who do I need to impress?" Irwin filled out the insurance information and waited with a magazine. After about 15 minutes, a pretty Cuban woman called his name and led him to a bathroom, where she handed him a cup.

"Do you think you can fill this?" she asked politely. The cup had his name written on it in black magic marker.

"I'd do better with a funnel," Irwin said.

She laughed. "Try sitting down, then. Some people find it easier. When you're finished, leave the cup by the sink. Then go next door and change into the robe. Dr. Siegel will be with you in a few minutes."

The peeing went smoothly, and Irwin found himself on the examination table, bare legs swinging freely over the linoleum floor. The paper runner was cold through his underwear and against his thighs. The white noise from the air conditioning vents was soothing, and it had almost lulled him to sleep when Dr. Siegel entered, chart in hand.

"Hello Mr. Schroder. It's nice to see you." Dr. Siegel was a young man, not yet 40, but he had an excellent reputation in south Florida. "That Dr. Siegel, what a mensch," his patients would boast to their friends. "What a nice young man. And so handsome. Too bad he's married." Sometimes Irwin wondered if they only liked him for the symbolic quality of his presence—a Jewish child who'd come back to take care of his parents—as if his patients were projecting their filial needs onto him. But he had to admit that Dr. Siegel was more than competent. Straightforward and sincere, the doctor looked him in the eye when making a recommendation or diagnosis, and he'd always treated Irwin with respect.

"You're not due for a physical, but it says here you've been having some problems urinating."

Irwin shifted nervously on the paper, which slipped and crinkled loudly beneath him. "Yes. It's as if I can never get rid of it all. And when I go in the morning, it comes out in waves."

"Any burning?" said Dr. Siegel, as he listened to Irwin's breathing.

"Yes. A little lately."

"Any blood in the urine?"

"No. No blood. Just the stops and starts. And the burning."

Dr. Siegel was silent as he checked Irwin's ears and eyes—which, Irwin was proud to say, were in top shape. Even at 60 he only needed reading glasses occasionally, and those he'd bought on his own off the rack at the grocery store. Joanne's eyesight had begun to fail thirty years ago, and she was facing cataract surgery as soon as they had the free time. But with trips to visit her family, their children, the now-infrequent bird watching weekends in Texas and the Gulf, they never seemed to have the weeks to do it. Joanne kept making the plans, and he realized that she was filling their months to avoid the operation. He vowed to refuse to do any travelling in February, force her to get it over with.

Dr. Siegel made Irwin stretch out on the table and pull down his underwear. He did, whereupon Dr. Siegel began handling his testicles, moving them firmly around in his fingers.

"No sign of anything unusual," he announced.

"They're still there?" Irwin asked, pretending to be light-hearted. But he was getting more anxious as they approached the heart of the exam, and he felt that Dr. Siegel sensed this.

"I'm going to have to check your prostate now," Dr. Siegel said, pulling a glove over his right hand. "You'll need to get down off the table and bend over."

 

In Dr. Siegel's office, his rectum still smarting, Irwin sat uncomfortably on the chair opposite the doctor and listened with a vacant expression as he told him about the possibilities. The lump in the gland was not necessarily a tumor. He needed to keep that in mind. But he should also be aware that for a man his age, the risk was substantial. Moreover, Dr. Siegel said, tapping a silver Cross pen on Irwin's file, he hadn't been taking the best possible care of himself. His blood pressure was too high, his cholesterol, too, and the fact that he used to smoke didn't help matters. In any event, they would need to have him evaluated by a specialist immediately. Dr. Siegel said he would call a doctor in Fort Lauderdale and arrange for an appointment on Monday morning. In the meantime, Dr. Siegel would order a test to see if Irwin had certain antigens in his urine. A high level would mean trouble, Siegel had told him, a likely sign of cancer.

Irwin was silent during the car ride home. They stopped at Publix to get the refill on Lopressor for his blood and buy some things for the weekend, but Irwin sat in the car and stared out across the blacktop. Old people pushing carts. That's all there is here, he thought glumly. Old people, old people, old people. Dr. Siegel is the only young person around here, and his job is to help us die.

When they reached the condo, he realized Joanne had stopped talking, too. She'd been sympathetic when he told her about his prostate. He'd forgotten to compliment her on her permanent. She'd also dyed her hair a light chestnut. A hundred dollars at the beauty salon buys the illusion of being young again, he thought, while three times that at the doctor's brings you closer to death. No contest there.

The phone was ringing when he opened the door. Joanne answered it.

"It's Nancy from the broker's office. She says Sherman needs to talk to you."

My stock! The thought jumped suddenly into Irwin's head. He'd forgotten. He took the phone and sat down at the kitchen table.

"Sherman? What's the problem?"

"You tell me, Irwin. Everyone's been asking about your appointment over here. I need details. There's only an hour of trading left, but I think I can still move some shares. What happened at the doctor's office?"

"How did you know about that?" Irwin said, feeling confused and frightened. "Who told you I had an appointment?"

"It came in across the wire," Berg said. "I thought you watched. So anyway, do you have cancer or not?"

"What?" Irwin began to sweat. "No. I mean, I don't know. I have another appointment on Monday with a specialist."

"Who?" Berg demanded. "Is he good?"

"It's Fred Levine in Fort Lauderdale."

"Never heard of him. That could hurt you," Berg said, but quickly added, "As if a tumor isn't bad enough. I'll call you when the bell rings." Berg hung up, leaving Irwin, stunned and shaking, holding the phone against his temple.

"What's happening to me?" he said aloud.

 

Irwin was working on a peregrine falcon when the phone rang. The sound made him lurch, sending a thin streak of grey paint across the page.

"Irwin?" It was Berg.

"What happened?"

"It isn't pretty."

Irwin felt the room begin to spin.

"So where did I wind up?"

"Maybe you shouldn't ask..." Berg began.

"Tell me, goddamnit. It's me, my stock. Tell me," Irwin's yelling brought Joanne in from the bedroom. He waved his hand angrily for her to leave and turned away from her.

"You lost half."

"So what does that mean? Fifteen? Sixteen?"

"Fourteen and three."

"My God," said Irwin. "It's a blood bath."

"It could have been worse. Computer trading cost you, but I was able to buy up a big block of shares that kept you from totally bottoming out. You could have been finished. And with Monday's appointment, I can't see how you're going to make it another week. Unless of course you get good news from the doctor," Berg added sheepishly.

"What do you care?" Irwin screamed into the receiver. "You get your frigging commission regardless!" He slammed down the phone and slumped into the chair. The crook!

Joanne put a hand on his shoulder. "Irwin, honey," she said. "What does all this matter? I mean, after all, you exist beyond the stock. It doesn't mean anything but money. You're still here. We're still here. The kids are still here. What do you care if your stock goes up or down?"

He shook his head slowly. "Can't you see? They're trading me. Nobody wants me. I'm a bad bet, a tired horse, a cellar dweller."

"No," she said. "That's not true. I love you."

"Oh yeah? Well tell that to my goddamn prostate. It's inflated like a fucking inner tube. I'm dying, and they know it. The market doesn't lie. Berg said so himself. You can't fight the intangibles."

Irwin watched television while Joanne defrosted a brisket and heated a pot of matzo ball soup, his favorite meal, in hopes of cheering him. He was flipping through the channels when a picture froze his blood. It was his face, superimposed on a graph with a broad red arrow plunging toward the bottom. He turned up the sound and yelled for Joanne, who came in from the kitchen.

"...market today, a remarkable nose dive for Schroder Irw., which lost more than half its value in less than an hour. The stock, which opened Monday at thirty three dollars a share, was buffeted late today by rumors that Mr. Schroder has prostate cancer. And in other news, General Motors announced that it will begin construction..."

Irwin turned off the set, threw the remote control onto the couch and turned to Joanne.

"Doesn't mean anything? Hah! I'm on the national news. I'm a national embarrassment, that's what I am."

The phone rang.

"Dad? What the hell's going on?" It was Jane, their oldest child. Jane, 30, was an architect. She lived in Rhode Island with her husband Leo and their two children.

Irwin blinked. This couldn't be real. "What do you mean?" he asked, trying to sound as ingenuous as possible.

"Leo said he saw something about you on television just now. That you have cancer." Her voice was trembling.

"Talk to your mother," Irwin said, and passed the phone to Joanne, who was standing beside him.

 

By the time the phone grew quiet, it was already close to eleven. They were both exhausted from explaining Irwin's situation—primarily that he did not, as the newscaster had indicated, have cancer, but also from deflecting occasional questions about his long-term productivity and whether Joanne had any plans to restructure should something dire happen. One caller even threatened him. "Get well, you bastard," yelled the man menacingly. "I've got thousands tied up in you, you sorry sonofabitch." They agreed to call the telephone company the following day and unlist their number. The only bright spot, Irwin reasoned, as he climbed wearily into bed beside Joanne, was that the market would be closed for two days.

 

Irwin woke having dreamt of the stewardess. The details were fuzzy, but he had a partial erection as he groped in the dark to the bathroom. He could not remember the last time he'd had a full hard-on. Even when he and Joanne made love, which was infrequently, perhaps once a month, he could never get it up completely. This did not bother him. Their sex life had been exciting for many years, even after the children came. More so than he'd expected, he admitted when thinking about it, considering how slowly things started after their meeting in the elevator. He was twenty five, she twenty one. He'd served a year in Korea, where he'd dallied a little with the Seoul prostitutes, nothing obsessive like some of his platoonmates, but enough to get it out of his system. When he met Joanne, he was seeing a few girls but none sexually. So when, on their fourth or fifth date, as they stood at the entrance to her building in the Bronx, freshly separated from their first kiss, she announced she was a virgin and intended to maintain said status until her wedding night, so don't get any ideas, he was slightly discouraged. And it was therefore a little surprising when, two months later, they did it in the impossibly small back seat of Miles' new Buick coupe.

At that time, Miles was already rich, owning a string of hotels along the coast, from Miami to Hilton Head. Shmagegee, he'd say to Irwin. Look at you, the starving artist while I'm a millionaire. You had all the brains and you wasted them on talent. Come to work for me and get loaded. Make my advertisements or something, paint the damn hotels, but at least make yourself a decent living so you can support that girl of yours.

But Irwin didn't want the money then. He did later, or thought he did, when Miles was traveling all over the world, and he and Joanne struggled to save what they could. But then no. He was an artist, he'd told himself, a painter of birds, and if nobody wanted to make him a rich man, so be it, but that was what he wanted to do. More importantly, Joanne didn't need anything more than what the two of them could provide each other. Or, rather, if she did, she never said anything. But somehow the money found them. His book of North American warblers sold well enough that he was asked to do another on sparrows. Then ducks and geese. Then an entire field guide. He'd worked on it with a young naturalist, an earnest, soulless graduate of Cornell's ornithology program, who irritated him but knew more about birds than anyone he'd ever met. And when birding took off as a hobby, the money wouldn't stop.

They bought the condo in Florida to spend winters there, and kept the apartment in the city, too. A pair of regular jet setters, Joanne had joked. High society. Of course, by then the kids were gone, Jane to Rhode Island and Maria out west, in Colorado or Montana or wherever she was. Maria hadn't called last night, but he didn't expect she'd be near a television, miles away in the woods somewhere, leading a ski tour or an ice fishing expedition or whatever it was she was doing this month. In the summers, Maria brought rafters down the rapids of the wild western rivers that Irwin had taken her to when she was a child. They'd been birding then, so there wasn't much adventure, but it was clear from the look in her eye as they clambered through canyons and picked their way along rocky mountainsides in search of rare and remote species that she would be back one day. If he had to say, Maria came out more like him. Jane, on the other hand, was a reflection of her mother. Cautious in many ways, responsible, living according to the world's expectations instead of against them.

"I have a good marriage, a good career. I've raised two perfect children," Irwin said to the coffee maker. "So why is my stock so damn low?"

 

Over lunch at Barney's Big Burger, Irwin, Joanne, Sol and Louise discussed his problem.

"I don't understand how they can sell your stock if you don't want them to," said Louise, a small woman with a shriveled up face and bony, rheumatoid hands. "I mean, you have rights, you know. At least I think you do. What do you think, Sollie?"

Sol, her husband, was looking thin lately. Irwin suspected the worst, but hadn't asked. On the golf course, Sol, usually the longest hitter, was having trouble getting on the greens in regulation, and had even offered to use the ladies' tees to speed up their rounds. He chewed, his mouth full of cheeseburger, and swallowed.

"I think they can do whatever they want," Sol said gravely. "It's a free market, after all."

"That's not what free market means," protested Louise. "The stock market is regulated. It's one of the most heavily regulated, you know, things in the economy."

"She's right," Joanne said. "It is."

Irwin looked around the restaurant. The conversation was irritating. The food was irritating. He wanted to be home. Joanne put her hand on his and asked him if he felt okay. He nodded.

"It's just hard," he said, not knowing if he was answering her question or addressing the voices in his head. "One day, life seems to be flowing along smoothly, like a calm river or something, to get metaphorical, and then someone throws in a crazy boulder and changes the course of the water, leaving you divided and confused."

The soliloquy surprised him. It was the most he'd spoken all day, but the words came from him honestly, freely, and he realized that he was crying.

"Don't worry, champ," Sol said. "It'll all work out. Right now you've got to forget about this stock thing and concentrate on beating the cancer."

Louise gasped. Joanne looked at her plate.

"I mean, if you have it, of course," Sol said, embarrassed.

Irwin nodded gently. "Look, there's no reason to dance around it. I'm sick. That's all there is to it. It's not as if it doesn't exist." But he was angry at Sol. What do you think, I forgot? A man doesn't forget he's dying.

When the waitress came, they asked in unison for the check.

 

Berg called him before eight on Monday morning.

"Irwin, hope I didn't wake you, but I wanted to wish you luck today. Knock 'em, er, I mean, good luck."

Fuck you, Irwin thought, but told the stock broker thanks and hung up.

The drive to Fort Lauderdale took nearly an hour, traffic heavy on the interstate, but they got to the specialist's office with a half-hour to spare. It was in a tall building, tall by Florida's standards, 20 stories, and there was nothing in the area, so Joanne had dropped him off and took the car to downtown to do some shopping. The waiting room was already full when he entered. A dozen old men, looking frightened or trying not to look frightened, slouched into the furniture. Irwin checked in with the receptionist, who recognized the name and gave him a two page form to fill out. He brought it back to a couch and squeezed between to other men. Each smelled strongly of coffee, and he wished he could move, but there were no other empty spaces. The office was hot, and he began to sweat. His heart picked up its pace. Oh God, I don't want to be here, he said to himself.

When he completed the form, he looked it over. Nearly every disease on the checklist was marked—all except cancer. No family history, no personal history. None. I'm the first. Irwin Schroder, whose inferior genes broke a chain of strength and supremacy. He had to go to the bathroom, but since they needed his urine, he held it in. He wondered what black truth the doctors would find in his golden piss. Would there be miniature tumors swimming around in it like those inflatable duck rafts kids use at the public pool? Grinning maliciously while they colonized his body and tried to drown him with his own cells?

He was so lost in thought that the nurse had to call his name twice.

"Schroder? Irwin Schroder?"

Irwin looked up. "Yes?"

He saw a large black woman, a small white hat perched on her head like a snow cap. "You here to see the doctor or to daydream, Sir?" She was smiling.

He smiled back weakly. "Sorry."

As he rose, the man next to him grabbed his sleeve.

"You Irwin Schroder? The Irwin Schroder?" The man had a pleasant, round face. It was dotted with age spots, giving him the look of a leopard.

"Yes," Irwin said diffidently. "Do I know you?"

"You should. I own you. A thousand shares. I bought it on Friday when it hit bottom. I'm counting on you." The man gave Irwin the thumbs up sign. "Beat the rap," he said.

Irwin nodded. "Thank you."

"No," said the man. "Thank you. You're going to make me a bundle."

Irwin wanted to admonish the stranger for taking such a foolish risk, but the nurse was calling for him. He turned away without saying anything and followed her into the corridor. The doctor, Dr. Levine, had a much nicer office than Dr. Siegel, Irwin concluded. Large, glossy photographs Dr. Levine had taken in such places as Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti and Thailand lined the walls here, whereas Dr. Siegel's halls supported artwork more likely found in hotel rooms. Everything spoke of expensive tests and long-term treatments. Dr. Levine clearly made a good living, and he wasn't ashamed to let his patients know it.

Although he was expecting it, the nurse did not give Irwin a cup, but rather guided him to the open door of Dr. Levine's office.

Dr. Levine, seated behind a narrow teak desk, appeared to be about Irwin's age. His swept back white hair and fully gray beard offset his white lab coat, which sat snugly against a pinstriped navy three-piece suit. The effect, Irwin decided, was one of gravitas. Dr. Levine rose, unfolding to a surprising height of more than six feet, much taller than Irwin, so that he had to look up into the physician's eyes as they shook hands. The doctor's grip was strong. Irwin looked down to see a row of impossibly long fingers, like the stylized digits of a Byzantine Christ, encasing his own. He shuddered at the thought of where one would soon be probing and quickly sat down opposite the doctor.

Dr. Levine ran his hands over his broad forehead and picked up a manila folder Irwin assumed was his chart.

"Dr. Siegel told me you've been experiencing some difficulty urinating," he said.

Irwin nodded matter-of-factly, not wanting to appear distressed.

Dr. Levine nodded back in syncopated time. "I think I should tell you..." he began somberly, looking at the chart. Irwin froze, amazed that the doctor could have made such a quick diagnosis. "I think I should tell you that I'm not altogether disinterested in the outcome of this examination."

"You mean you own me, too?" Irwin said, less surprised that he wanted to be.

"No, not yet. But if you check out like I hope you will, I'm going to start planning my next junket." He looked up from the papers and gave Irwin a brief but penetrating stare.

Intimidated, Irwin averted his eyes. There were more pictures of exotic places on the walls: Beijing, Sidney harbor, a flock of sheep in New Zealand. Dr. Levine, speaking with a tone of firm authority, began explaining what, in his opinion, could be wrong with Irwin's prostate and the ways to find the problem. There was a case history, questions about his past illnesses. Was he impotent? He didn't think so. Perhaps a little too easily fatigued, but capable. It was all going smoothly, he thought, the doctor operating with remarkable grace and efficiency. Then Irwin was in an examination room, doubled over, the now-familiar sharp pain and tears in his eyes. From there he was ushered into a bathroom and handed a cup, which he filled, spilling himself liberally in the process, and capped and placed on the counter. And then it was over. Dr. Levine said he would get the results on the test for prostatic antigens from Dr. Siegel's lab, and then they would know one way or the other. Irwin checked his watch. Exactly one hour since Joanne dropped him off. The timing jarred him. It took sixty-five years for my body to fail, he thought, and sixty minutes to tell me how. But Dr. Levine had told him to expect the best. The lump Dr. Siegle had thought he'd felt didn't appear to be anything serious. Why, he was so confident of Irwin's good health that he was going to call his broker that afternoon.

The waiting room was still full when Irwin was done. In fact, he could see through a window that a crowd of people had gathered outside, and he was about to remark on how much business the office did when he realized that many of the people had television cameras, and those who didn't were holding microphones, notebooks or both. Then he saw Joanne. She was trying to push her way through the throng toward the door, but couldn't budge the crush of reporters. She appeared to be on the edge of tears.

Feeling blood rush into his face, Irwin threw open the door.

"What the hell do you people think you're doing?" he demanded in the loudest voice he could summon. Nobody heard him. He was about to shout again when Joanne saw him and called his name.

"Irwin, please help me."

With the precision of a school of fish, the group whirled to face him.

"Mr. Schroder," yelled a knifish young woman with a swooping mass of black hair. "Mr. Schroder, how are you feeling? What did the doctor say?" She had crystal blue eyes that flared eerily against her pale skin. And that jet black hair.

"Go to hell," Irwin said.

"Is it cancer?" came another voice.

"Is it curable?"

"What about the rumors that you'll be offering a dividend?" Joanne had managed to break through the crush and was pulling Irwin by the elbow toward the car. The group pressed after them, shouting at their backs. "Is it true even your children won't invest in you?" "Did you know the Magellan Fund dumped all its shares of you at the opening bell today?"

They reached the car. Irwin's shirt clung to his back. His heart was racing. He fumbled in Joanne's purse for a Lopressor and swallowed it in short, dry gulps. Joanne was shaking.

"Are you alright?" he asked her, ignoring the faces staring at them through the glass.

She nodded, then shook her head. "No. I want this to end. I want it to go away."

Irwin took a deep breath, letting it out with a quick sigh. He wiped the moisture from his palm onto his pants and took her hand in his. "Me too."

 

He called Berg when they got home.

"Is it true about Magellan?"

"Yes. A hundred thousand shares."

"Where am I now?"

"Hovering around eight. Maybe eight and a half."

Irwin hung up and began to cry.

 

They did not leave the house for the next two days and nights. Sol and Louise came over with food, having caught the incident with the news people on television Monday evening. On Tuesday night they played three rubbers of bridge at a dime a point, and Irwin and Louise won sixty dollars. She left with the money and returned with a bottle of fine champagne, which they drank, toasting to Irwin's health. Life, for a few hours at least, was back to normal.

That night, Irwin dreamed of the stewardess. He was alone in first class, the curtains to the cabin pulled close. The stewardess had been flirting shamelessly with him since he boarded, and at first he found her provocative looks and unnecessary, lingering touches intrusive and embarrassing. But as the flight progressed—to where he did not know, only on, ahead—he felt himself growing more and more attracted to the woman. She was very tall, taller than he, with long, slender arms that were gangly like a teenager's, and when she put them around him, to adjust his pillow or lower the shade on his window, they enveloped him like the bars of a cage. He imagined her supine and naked, but when he tried to mount her, he saw that he'd become Lilliputian, clambering across her body like a child on a backyard play set. When she passed by his seat, to offer him a magazine or another drink or "anything to make his ride more comfortable," he could smell her rose water perfume, the kind Joanne used to covet (but could not afford) in the days when she wore perfume.

On one such pass, just as she reached him, the plane began to tremble, and the stewardess, whose name tag read "Melissa," fell headlong across his lap, her buttocks just inches away from his nose. He could see the lines of her underwear through the tight sheen of her burgundy skirt. Melissa shifted herself and sat up, their cheeks now nearly touching. Irwin's groin leapt to attention. She had the face of the television reporter from the parking lot.

"No, Irwin," Melissa whispered heavily, her hand reaching into his underwear.

"No, Irwin. You go to hell."

Irwin's eyes snapped open. He was breathing heavily. He closed his eyes. The face of the stewardess. The wild hair. Her saber-sharp features, too severe to be pretty. He had to go to the bathroom. But when he sat up, he felt a patch of warmth against his belly. He put a hand there. It was sticky. Not urine. Irwin shook his head. A wet dream. The first time since he was a teenager. More than forty years. Then he became suddenly ashamed. He looked over at Joanne, sleeping soundly beside him. In their three decades of marriage they'd shared practically everything but this. Of course, it was perfectly normal. He couldn't control his dreams. But even so, part of him felt he'd betrayed her.

He slid silently from bed and changed his underwear, throwing the sodden pair in a plastic trash bag and burying them deeply into the garbage can in the kitchen. When he finished, however, he felt ridiculous and furtive, so he retrieved the shorts and stuffed them into the washer along with several pairs of dirty socks.

 

They'd been keeping the phone unplugged, but because Dr. Levine was supposed to call, Irwin reconnected it. Almost immediately it began to ring.

"Irwin?" Berg. "Where have you been? I've been trying to get ahold of you all night."

"Hello, Sherman," replied Irwin, ignoring the question.

"Has Dr. Levine called you yet?" Berg's voice was more anxious than Irwin had heard it since the whole episode began.

"Nope, not yet," he said, pleased at himself for remaining calm. "I'll let you know when he does, though."

"Yes, do. By the way," Berg said. "I forgot to tell you. Congratulations."

"On what?" Irwin said blandly.

"On your, um, shall we say, night flight."

"What?"

"On your nocturnal emission. That's got to send strong signals to Wall Street, tumor or no tumor."

Irwin hung up without saying goodbye. "When all this is over I'm going to get myself a new broker," he vowed.

Levine said the tests would be ready by noon, so he did not anticipate a long wait. That, at least, was good, although he'd never minded waiting. It lent more drama to events. Joanne had gone to the store to the kosher butcher to buy kasha varnishka, which they had ready-made in tin containers. Irwin's mother, who was not a particularly elegant cook, used to make the grainy, bitter dish, full of mushrooms and gravy and stringy beef, on his birthday when he was a child. In fact, back then he didn't much like the taste of it, but because Miles refused to eat it, he insisted upon having it, and made a big show when it was served to him. For some reason, when Joanne had offered to cook him a special dinner, immediately kasha varnishka sprang into his head. When Joanne returned, she had an apprehensive look in her eyes, but Irwin told her with a shake of his head that Dr. Levine had not called. He had not called by noon, or one or two either, although Berg had phoned to ask and was promptly cursed by Joanne, who then hung up on him.

Irwin was growing impatient, and wondered whether the doctor was not calling because the news was bad.

"What possible reason would he have to do that?" Joanne asked.

"Maybe he figures he can sell off his investment before it goes totally under," Irwin said.

"You're not making any sense," she scolded him. "Take a walk."

He refused and began instead to play solitaire, asking the deck questions about his health and future.

"If I win this game, everything will work out okay." He lost.

"Rephrase that. Too general. If I win, I'll live another year." He turned up only one ace.

He was about to deal a third time when the phone rang. Joanne answered, then turned to him expectantly.

"It's him," she whispered loudly, forgetting to cover the receiver.

"Dr. Levine?"

"Yes, hello Mr. Schroder. I hope you'll forgive the delay but the results just came back from the lab. Apparently there was quite a commotion over there and some agents from the S.E.C. were called in to make sure everything was kept confidential." The doctor's voice was deep and reassuring, but otherwise revealed nothing. Irwin's ears began to ring and the room receded from him.

"So, um, how am I? I mean, what's the matter with me?"

"Mr. Schroder, I'm pleased to tell you that there was no evidence of any cancer. You've most likely got a case of acute prostatitis, but nothing medication won't cure."

Irwin turned to Joanne and grinned. She smiled back, eyes watery.

Dr. Levine went on: "I've written out a prescription for something for the inflammation. You can pick it up immediately."

Irwin thanked him.

"And one other thing," Dr. Levine said.

"Yes?" Irwin was eager to hang up.

"We're all quite relieved."

 

Berg called as Irwin and Joanne were untangling from a long and tight embrace. He was nearly frantic.

"What's the verdict?"

"Don't you know already?" Irwin wanted to pound the phone into the broker's head.

"Of course I don't. Why would I ask if I did? What happened? What's the prognosis?"

"I'm going to die, Sherman..." Irwin began slowly.

"I knew it, I knew it," Berg said excitedly. "I told them to sell you short. Admit it, I can pick 'em."

"Yes. I'm going to die," Irwin said, more loudly. "Of old age."

"What?" Berg shrieked. "You mean you're healthy? No cancer?"

"None. Not a trace. No carcinoma, no melanoma, no omas at all."

Berg cursed him. "I'm ruined, you bastard, ruined..." but Irwin could barely hear him as he hung up the phone.

Joanne emerged from the kitchen with steaming tins of food. Irwin felt his stomach growl. He realized he hadn't eaten all day. He felt hungry and strong for the first time all week.

"Maybe I'll offer futures," he said.

 

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