The River of Long Shadows
by Mark R. Vickers
The clinical history of Mr. Caleb Edwards was an imposing, bewildering sight. He’d been treated by no fewer than eleven psychiatrists in the course of seven years. I would make it an even dozen. He’d been diagnosed with and treated for conditions ranging from gephyrophobia to acute insomnia, yet he’d found little relief. I carefully read the history and then tried to put it out of my mind when I realized it was giving me contradictory notions of what might be ailing him. Better to start with a clean slate and formulate my own impressions.
The first time he entered the waiting room, my receptionist Linda came back to my office to tell me so, rather than just buzzing me, as was normal.
“Mr. Edwards is here,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, looking for a fresh legal pad. “Give me another couple of minutes and show him in.”
She hesitated, nearly said something, and left.
Only later did it dawn on me that she knew Mr. Edwards, or at least of him. It turned out he was notorious in western New York for the ruthlessness of his real estate dealings, for behind-the-scenes political muscle and, further back, for some shrouded local lore about this family.
Perhaps that’s why he came to me. In 2003, I was new to the area, having bought a practice from a doctor who’d retired to Toronto. I had come to Niagara Falls because I wanted out of New York City, having done my residency at a center not far from the fallen Twin Towers. I couldn’t bear to treat another anxious, depressed or traumatized New Yorker even while I, myself, still hadn’t shaken the sight of the toxic, billowing smoke rising up from the devastation. That smoke still haunted my dreams night after night. I ran from it as if from a plague.
The city of Niagara Falls — on the U.S. side — seemed like a proper segue, being a small, economically struggling community where I thought I might be able to do some good, yet a place where I wouldn’t feel besieged by events far beyond my control. The Falls itself, or at least the mist from the Falls, was visible from my office and felt like an antidote to my fears — an ancient natural wonder far removed from the dangers facing humanity in the 21st century.
My first meeting with Edwards was unremarkable. He was a tall man in his mid-40s, with narrow-set dark brown eyes and an oblong face. When we shook hands, he only glanced at me before looking away. He frowned and pursed his lips, which at first I thought was a reaction to me. Some men become uncomfortable or even hostile around younger, female doctors.
I allowed him to choose from several seating choices. He picked a leather recliner facing away from the picture window. He lifted the chair from the back and moved it in my direction, an impressive feat of strength. When he sat, he grew more comfortable, though there was still a tight, hunched look in his shoulders.
“Shall we begin the ritual of healing confession?” he asked.
“By all means, Mr. Edwards.”
He dispassionately relayed a litany of events — from what he called his sexually deviant activities to his more outrageous business intrigues. Along the way, he freely defamed many influential people in the area. Through it all, he watched me, apparently trying to gauge my reactions: shock, fascination, repulsion, indifference, arousal?
My primary emotion was annoyance. It wasn’t that I thought he was lying or even exaggerating. I didn’t. But his tone implied his confessions were rehearsed and beside the point, a waste of our time.
Toward the end of our appointment, he asked, “Well, doctor, do you think you can heal this miserable wretch of his psychic wounds?”
“I hope our conversations will be helpful to you, Mr. Edwards,” I said. “However, I get the impression that you want to tell me about other matters that you’ve not yet touched on.”
“Other matters?” he asked. “Such as?”
“I think we’ll know them when they come along,” I said.
During his next appointment, he was relatively quiet, tersely answering my questions, acting as if I’d insulted him by not taking his original confessional seriously enough. Yet, I felt this was also a pretense. There was a subtle twisting of lips — a sort of half-smirk — suggesting he was secretly pleased.
The one area that he deftly danced around was questions about his family.
“Oh, lovely doctor,” he said at one point, “shall we really sojourn down such all-too-well-beaten Freudian paths? Such questions are so tiresome. Do I ask you about the antique in which you sit? Is it a family heirloom, a place where you sat curled up as a girl, reading volumes of Jung at much too young an age? I’ll bet your parents were concerned.”
I let the “lovely doctor” reference go by without comment. My rule was to ignore these little attention-seeking ploys unless they became habitual. What irked me much more was the fact he’d been correct about the chair, the Jung and even my parents. And he’d done it so effortlessly even while remaining an enigma to me.
Then during our third appointment, I had an inspiration in regard to those hunched shoulders.
“The chair does swivel, you know,” I said.
“Yes, would you care to sit facing the window?”
“No,” he said, “not at all.”
I let a few minutes tick away to see what would happen. He looked uncomfortable, perhaps even a bit anxious, hunching his shoulders slightly more than usual.
“Didn’t you say you were raised in Youngstown?”
“Yes, a charming little village; idyllic really, to the north,” he said. “Have you been there?”
“As a matter of fact, I have, during a recent regatta on a friend’s sailboat. Where exactly in the village did you live?”
“Doctor, I prefer not to continue down this barren, banal path of childhood. I expect better of you.”
I said nothing but shifted in my own chair to get a slightly better view of the river. We sat quietly for a time before he said, without turning, “Still beautiful.”
“The cataract, of course. Indeed, the entire stream. Still quite striking despite our best attempts to defile it, setting upon it like parasites, leaching away its essence. In so many ways, it defies us.”
I wrote something on my yellow tablet for the first time since we’d met.
“It appears I’ve finally said something of interest, Doctor. May I know what profound insight you’ve wrung from my tortured soul?”
“If I thought it would help, I would gladly share my notes with you,” I said. “But such things tend to be confidential in my profession.”
He grew silent, settling into his chair like a pouting child. When the hour was over, I asked, “Same time next week?”
“We’ll see,” he said in a petulant tone. He stood up, moved slowly toward the door, limping as if his leg had gone to sleep. Then, as I rose from my own chair, he violently snatched away my notepad and read the only two words I’d scribbled: the river.
I’d nearly dropped him after that, making it clear I would instantly sever my treatment if there were a second such offense. He’d apologized and made his promises. But the vehemence of his reaction spurred me to do something unorthodox by investigating his life, reading newspaper clippings and even standing outside the house where he was raised. I felt guilty about this, yet determined.
When he entered my office, I told him I’d be asking questions about his family and childhood and, if he refused to respond to them, we would go our separate ways. You can try lucky thirteen, I thought but didn’t say.
“Inquire away, dearest doctor,” he responded, as if he had never been resistant on this subject.
“To begin,” I said, “tell me about the boathouse.”
He leaned forward in his chair. I thought he was about to rise and walk out the door. I’d have been relieved if he had. But instead he leaned back into the recliner, looking more relaxed than I’d yet seen him. There was something about how his neatly cut and graying brown hair created a kind of dirty halo over the top of the chair as he told his tale.
I’m afraid "boathouse” was a generous designation for it,
It was more of a glorified shack, the sides made up of boards of knotted wood and the floor of plywood. There was a floating dock and a bit of river cove there, where my younger brother and I would snorkel among the flat rocks and river weed, hunting crayfish. We spent many of our late afternoons there in summer time. We’d race the miniature crustaceans along the dock, you see, allowing the winner to earn its freedom as it dropped into the waters.
Oh, how I loved those races, doctor! They were such simple times. Being a better crayfish hunter than my brother, I would catch only the liveliest ones, leaving the sluggish ones for him. When we had four, I’d give the best of them to Mother.
When we first met, doctor, I was struck by how much you resemble her as she was then: auburn-haired, lithe, perceptive. But, there was nothing of the intellectual about her. She was so alive and vigorous, as if lit from within.
It was all quite lyrical. I thrilled to the resonance of her laughter mingling with the sound of the river, lapping at the dock, running through the rocks. She would cheer brightly and hug me when her crayfish won its race and its freedom. Brother Petey would cry that it wasn’t fair that she always won; so, occasionally, I’d give him the fastest. I didn’t want him to tire of the game.
Looking back now, I’m sure that my father, who never won a race, was on to me. He once suggested selecting the crayfish according to a series of coin tosses. Somehow, though, my mother overruled this idea with a glance. I remember envying this secret language of theirs and wished I could break the code.
I knew only that my father deferred to Mother when it came to matters of child rearing, especially my own rearing. My father wasn’t ever truly comfortable around me, though he tried. Evidently, something had happened that I couldn’t remember, something my parents whispered about at times and that occurred when they first brought Petey home from the hospital. I was only two and a half at the time.
All I really knew was that Petey didn’t seem any the worse for it. In fact, he was bright and unusually happy, looking like one of those rosy-cheeked children in the old nursery-rhyme books. No doubt I was jealous of him, being more sallow and longer in the face. It’s an old story, I suppose.
Copyright © 2020 by Mark R. Vickers