July 6, 2022

Saint of the Lepers

by Geri Lipschultz

“Did you notice that the most enlightened souls are born on January 1st, and the second most on December 31st? Did you notice that both you and Miranda are kings—not aces, however—according to your birthdays, alone? Fascinating it is how similar you are, even in your differences—you who dabble in the esoteric, and she who aligns herself with saints. I of course was born upon the solar new year, that very day. It was not the first sign.”

The doctor. He who once asked me to write his story. He who gave me a sacred book for one hour, then quizzed me upon its return.

Then he proceeded to tell me of his caul, of the unusual dreams of his mother when pregnant with him, her last child, how he was born a hermaphrodite, and did I wish to check it out? And that he foresaw too many things to enumerate, and besides, he was not long for this earth, and he knew that we two girls were links to his salvation, instrumental to his survival, if only we knew….

That was how he saw us, whether or not it was how we might have seen ourselves. And he’d shown the book to me, not Miranda, because, after all, I was to write his story.

We both had a number of suspicions about him, but they would all go to hell when word of his demise came to us.

 

Say there was a man born early on in the 20th century who felt himself encumbered by the wisdom of the ages. Say that even as a child in the old country, he was ostracized for his occasional slips of the tongue or the way his eyes darkened and sometimes crossed. A loner he was who sang to the sheep when it was his turn to round them up. Say he charmed them, much like Mary with her little lamb. One among them trailed more closely than the others and would become the ram, the chosen one.

Many days he rambled into nightfall, returning with prizes, stones of a certain shape,  stones that sparkled, that called out to him, whispering of triumphs and trials and fortunes, echoing and elongating and qualifying what his mother had always told him, the mother who had named him Damianos or Damian, as in son of a devil, as in tamer of souls, as in savior and saint and martyr and doctor, yes doctor—a title that would stay with him as he pondered, handled like the stones in his hands, ideas of grandeur which he rolled over in his mind, smoothed out, both in those hills and through days that became the years. A softness they said he had, a fragility, the youngest of the children, the one the mother took aside.

Say, that Damianos, like the little lamb who became the ram, would become a leader of flocks. Or so he liked to imagine. Say the mother of Damianos knit with the wool from the family’s flock until her fingers became bent and broken like twigs, and say that this son of hers held her hands and his touch made her fingers straight again and relieved her of the pain. Say that she told him he was like a savior, her savior. Say this fervid intimacy, greater than what passes for mother and son, he took as his sign, his confirmation. Say that when the winds carried him over the oceans and into a city of millions where the Romani languages would not suffice, he learned to form in his mouth the language that demanded acrobatics of his tongue. This speech he would perform without a tittle of an accent, the young Damianos, the observing one who waited out the arguments of the older children, his silence a prize for the mother who loved him most. And so as Damianos mushroomed into Damian, taking in the knowledge he acquired from his listening and imagining—that smoothing and shaping—and he set out to learn English to go with the Russian and Romani sides of a personality split in two: one that repudiated his gift, that tried to possess the souls of those who would indeed come to him for advice; the other a holy side, to give freely, to love all, to share both that which he saw and that which he concocted as existing in the realms of underworld and oversoul. His decision to share or no. His decision to take or to give.

Say the source of his vantage point was just an uncanny gift that gave him access into the ruined hearts that crowded around him. Say his name was different for each person he counseled.

Say all this, and we arrive at the moment when Miranda and I met him, when he was a middle-aged man with a family.

He smiled, but I couldn’t meet his eyes. They seemed to be looking just off to my side, rather than at my face. Later Miranda would ask me what I thought he was looking at. He didn’t speak at first, as if waiting for us to introduce ourselves, which we did.

He had a name, it began with a “D,” he said, but we should call him “Doctor,” as the other was both unpronounceable and secret. Miranda and I settled ourselves in wooden, cushioned chairs upholstered in velvet, as he determined he’d see Miranda, and I’d see his wife, whose name I forget. But I distinctly remember that moment, because Miranda had disappeared behind a screen, and I waited, until after a while a woman walked over to me from behind a blanket that was hung like a room divider or curtain. I also forget what she told me. The important thing was that he impressed Miranda, and so we determined we’d go back, little knowing how well we’d been played. How easy it was to divide and conquer two best friends.

“He blurted out things I’ve never told anyone,” Miranda said to me.

“Like what?”

She wouldn’t tell me until later, years later, when she’d divorced her husband, when I’d divorced mine, when we’d met after a long separation, when it would not seem so painful to place the past on the table, when it was no longer raw and toxic and sticky.

When there was wine, and when one glass would do, when you would think that the very idea of going to a reader of any kind would be anathema.

“Your husband will die with no one there,” he’d said.

“You will have many lovers,” he’d said. “But underneath you hate men because of something horrific that happened to you when you were too young to remember.”

“Your children will make fortunes,” he’d said.

“You, yourself, are a healer,” he’d said.

“You don’t need me,” he’d said.

“And one day, I will disappear, so enjoy me now,” he’d said.

“And your friend will publish a story about me,” he’d said. “Tell her she must, or I will haunt her until she does.”

And although he was a liar, a cheat, and a thief, all that he said would be true.

 

Those were the days when it seemed so innocuous, this pleasure to sit while someone conjured a wondrous future from past difficulties, along with how he might help us, if we let him. And perhaps we could help him, as well, as he was just getting started in this area now known for its viciously exquisite and expensive mall, and people who look you up and down if you do not dress just so.

“There are many problems in this world,” he’d say. “You girls can help.”

We were women, not exactly girls, but we did not give him a hard time about nomenclature. Miranda and I had history, a decades-long friendship. We had different interests, different sensibilities, but we were similarly seekers, both mothers, who took our mothering seriously, but both of us with this pressing desire to make a contribution. How we agreed with him about the state of the world. Of course his “I’ve come to heal the lepers” was more dramatic than anything we might have said by way of explanation. He said more than once, insisting we must call him Doctor, his voice intoned, almost like the sound of a muted violin—not giving an answer to our questions about his field or his medical training, but “because that is what I’m here to do.”

We had parties for him, where he would entertain flocks of our friends instead of sheep, where he would gather one or two inside my bedroom and project a visionary future, whether it be a sudden stock market tip or a position in which to ensure fertility. He made promises and extracted fortunes from one acquaintance after another. Soon the gatherings spread to homes much larger than my little brick house on a main road in this town that borders the more lavish towns, those with lake side or Sound view and drowning problems.

Whereas for Miranda and me, the doctor was escape from the problems. But when friends or friends of friends might ask us about him, whether he was someone to trust, we defended him but made sure to recommend their getting a second opinion.

And so we all called him “Doctor,” although behind his back, I called him D.

 

Say D lived for 45 years, then jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in the heart of winter, and his body floated for six weeks in the all-preserving, all-nourishing deadly waters that surround Manhattan Island.

He floated until he was found, a mass of gray mud washed up upon the gentrified shore.

Say he once asked me to write his life story, but I reneged. I told him I didn’t know where to start, and I didn’t know where to end, and before one writes a story, one must know something of its parameters. Else the story is a rambling that never does justice to the subject, makes the author suspect, the reader contemptuous, and altogether pleases only the critics who love a piece of fresh red meat every now and again.

Now that he’s dead, you would think I would know where the story ends, although I can’t verify where it began, and as everyone knows, although death is an ending, there’s nothing final about it.

 

Five years or so after our first encounter—sometime in early in February, we discovered this, that D had died. It was another member of the fortune-telling community, located not on the Island but in Manhattan, who told us the news, after giving us our little readings. It came up that I should write a memoir. For my girlfriend, the reader warned of more children. I say “warned” because my girlfriend felt she was finished—but Miranda did not dismiss the warning. I wonder why we persisted in going to those readers. You would have thought D would have cured us for life.

 

Like the cat, we were curious. D was our rat—but we were all his mice, and he played upon as though we would be like that lamb he had found, the lamb before he became the ram.

It was Miranda who asked the reader if she had known a middle aged man who was a reader-advisor who called himself Doctor. Miranda described him well. She wanted the reader to know how well we knew him. She mentioned his family, his nephew, his brilliance, his grandiosity, his humor. And yet, she was careful to hold back.

“Oh yes,” she said, the reader, who was quite young but with eyes that were deep, full of the appearance of forbidden knowledge. “Everybody knew about the notorious Doctor,” she said. “He was in a bad way at the end, you know. He thought he had the disease.”

It came out in pieces, like a collapsed puzzle. She told us, and we filled in, we opened up a little, and she told us more, but sparingly, not to give away too much.

 

“Don’t be afraid to come back, girls,” she said to us, which brought smiles to our faces, since we were twice her age, and of course we would come back, we said.

Well, quite simply, D jumped, it was said, from the bridge in the middle of the night, in the middle of December. It was at the end of the year that had been the coldest, most crushing year, the year he became convinced that the world would end, as might he, just as cruelly as his lover, done in by the monstrous disease of lovers.

D jumped and fell into the cold mountain streams, the trickles from Adirondack and Catskill mountains, the ancient rocks and the ancient hills, mixed with the skyscraper tears between Wall Street and Brooklyn Heights—they were pre-9/11 tears—a pain from which he would be spared. He fell from the rusted cathedral steel of Brooklyn’s queen with its gothic arches glowing darkly. He fell from the grace of lordly right and wrong, from darkness and pain into more darkness and pain.

It pleases me to think that between the bridge and the waters that D felt a moment of flight.

For this flight, this light, this chance for love, D leapt. He joined a young Keats, a young Shelley, a young Rimbaud, who nevertheless died old, likewise a young Holderlin, a Bobo, who never really lived except in the imagination of the prolific Giono. D joined all the dead painters, sculptor, writers, musicians of the millennia. Orestes he had been in a past life, and the world was his Eurydice.

The story begins then in the unseen world of spirits and ghosts and darkness where babies live before they are born and where the dead live forever. But I know so little about such a world, except for what dreams have told me, except for my readings, except for the stories told to me by D in the years before he died, and the stories that I filled in because of what he’d left out.

His mission to tell what he could not prove, namely that the spongy matronly women such as I think of myself were more than the mother-nurturers. The wizened up analytical ones whose facial angles point to stars were more than goddesses of art and mind. As if there were a choice. No, he said, you could be it all. All women and all men were beauty, all cherubs under the sun. Animals and vegetables and minerals—all so precious.

And he wanted it. To hoard all of it, especially the minerals.

He wanted to share, so long as the receivers knew who the grand giver was. I took him almost for a philosopher at first, and later as a scoundrel. Other times, he was almost purring, a tender child. And sometimes the Doctor was so human I thought he was the devil.

But nothing could stop him from jumping into those waters, a man once full of life and languages and music and the deadly passionate love—such that even those of us whose minerals he rescued, whose cash he promised to return, whose sons and daughters and hearts and souls he wished for—all of us whose lives he touched were forced to shudder.

The splash that onlookers saw was miniscule. No steam rose to announce the lifting of his soul. The currents pulled him under, just as the other world pulled him, just as we had pulled him when he’d splashed his way into our lives many years before his jump from the bridge of our self-protective skins.

What did he want me to say of him, I wonder? Did he want me to fill up a book of his life, of his comings and goings and knowings? Did he want me to tell of his mother’s way with the silk, cotton, the wool—of course all that wool, not to mention the leather, and the precious metals? Did he want me to tell the tales of his alcoholic father and drug-addicted nephew with hair down to his tush and cracked front teeth. Did he want me to tell of his institutionalized sister, of the penalties for her gender choices, of his gender choices, for the symphony of insults and scars upon their bodies for not being born in this country, for finding the only possible way to survive was reading tea leaves or cards or numbers or the zodiac of walk-ins? Did he want me to tell of the time we went to court in Queens to watch them pick out a jury for the case of his sister-in-law, the one brought against him for theft, where we saw a woman who was full-term in her pregnancy dragging in a poor thin man before the county clerk? Did he want me to tell about his innumerable famous clients, political ones, movie-stars, writers, painters, the woman selected by the government to suffer radioactive injections and become an unwitting spy? Did he want me to spill the beans about the book he showed me in private, the only one he smuggled out of Russia and purportedly helped to translate, about clairvoyant matters, this book that connected up the age of a person’s soul with the date of her birth, along with a pack of playing cards?

No, I could not write such a book. I do not wish to have a government on my trail, or Diana Ross, or the spirit of Truman Capote, or the troubled progeny of a Kennedy or all the neo Nazis of the world. It happened that his lover had a fascination with Hitler and hid out with a tribe of white supremacists on Sanibel Island. And that time I was afraid he would follow D to our house, that time he planned his disguise.

Do I dare to remember that night when he arrived, just let himself in the back door and would not leave? He stationed himself on the large couch in our living room and refused to leave, except to relieve himself, when my son followed him from mirror to mirror talking into it as if to the beloved.

When he closed all the curtains in the house.

When he would not let us answer the telephone.

When my husband came home and threatened him with the police.

None of this can capture D. Nor can the list of names he used for his identity for the sake of telephone companies, the electric company, his landlord, his credit card companies. Once I found a driver’s license that had obviously been touched up to give him a more acceptable age, a more mystical birthday.

Who would believe it anyway if the truth were to be told about Mary and her little lamb, that its fleece was white as cocaine, and that everywhere that D went, cocaine was sure to flow.

Who would believe that my precious though flawed diamond was missing one night—and forever after—that D had come for dinner, a main course of chicken with lemon and sherry and butter, when he insisted on helping with the cooking. “Where are the aprons,” he asked. “I need an apron for my sodomies.”

“Your what?”

“Yes,” he said, with a little pirouette once we’d tied the apron behind. “And tonight, I introduce myself to you as Nostra-Damianous.” After which, he bowed, grabbing first my hand, and then Miranda’s.

They were meant to be appetizers that he made, the sodomies—yes, he called them that—for which I’d bought cabbage and ground pork and hot peppers. He supervised, and Miranda and I were his little servants, for after all he’d been guest chef in restaurants from San Francisco to New York City, notably Tavern on the Green. There was nothing that doctor could not do.

And later, how many times, we made them, calling them sodomies, and how delicious they were, how they had to be just so, and how we’d laughed remembering how we’d roared with the shock of his presence, of all the food, the incongruity.

How many years later was that night we huddled in the car for his spying mission, my dear Miranda nursing her three-month-old wrapped in a blanket waiting, as I walked behind him in the dark. I had placed my twelve-year old son in charge of both sets of kids at home. D had us park just up the block from the house he was stalking, and then he asked me to follow him, about twenty paces behind. I stood behind him as he walked to the corner house, where I knew his lover’s wife had lived. I watched him tear up vines and leaf through a garbage can and rustle up the leaves making such a clattering as to cause some windows in the house to alight. Then I hurried back to the car and told Miranda what I saw. As we waited for D to return, we saw a police car coming up the road, and we watched as D rather amiably allowed himself to be shuttled off. When we got home, we called the police, but they said they had no record of any doctor, so we had to wait to hear what story D would tell us when he contacted us, and then when he did, finally, it would be a series of stories on the fringe of a main river of his paranoia that was turning into hatred very quickly.

A haunted man, he took things as if they came from archangels. Unlike Jeanne D’Arc, D lied outright. More than once we caught him. But somehow catching him up doesn’t make for the greatest story; nor does it seem to tell the truth about him. D said that water was his elixir. Drinking water gave him visions. That’s what he said. But the truth was that cocaine was his water, and we were his bread. The world became his prison when his lover left for eastern Long Island, then to Connecticut, next Florida, and finally he crossed over into the gray tones of afterlife.

When his lover died, the wife sold her house, and it was expanded into a greeting card store right on Walt Whitman Highway with its fast food, gas stations, diners, discount clothing, discount lamps, discount Christmas trees, and other such necessities that could be offered over quickly or at a cut rate. Later on, they would build a mall for the exquisitely rich that the rest of us would be happy to use for speed walking in winter. I can only imagine them letting D in and following him in such a palatial series of markets, all made with glass and stone and glittering steel.

But behind the mall, further down the street, there it was, the small run-down home with a slightly crooked picture window etched with its offerings. A service with that rare set of provisions once considered suitable for kings and queens but now used increasingly by urban and suburban pawns—the gifts of the psychic, the reader-advisor, the fortune teller, the roadside prophet—and D was all of the above and more.

Of course, this was all decades ago.

In fact, the first house was set back, a large red ranch, on the other side of the street, before the crossover of the highway running east to west. A large white-painted sign with the word “Psychic” in black grabbed our attention as we were driving on this road named for the great poet. Later, he’d moved to another house on the north-south two-lane that would be torn down when they constructed a small tower for medical and legal services. And finally that little property in the middle, currently a greeting card store with its ready-made messages and pictures just waiting to be sent from one address to another, from one brain to another—greetings already made, already packaged, already designed, there for a stamp, there for small price.

When we first contacted D, he told Miranda about the stock market, and his wife told me about books. They both told us about enemies—both male and female, and I wonder if they were trying to warn us about D, himself.

The last time I saw him was when he asked to live with us. He was running from the neo Nazis and also the FBI who had thrown him in jail a few days prior to that night, after planting some drugs in his suitcase. They had abducted him while he was waiting for a train. They had confiscated his bag. Soon as he got out of jail, he appeared at our house, and he spent an hour looking out the picture window certain that the passing cars were spying on him, watching him, following him. D stood there, shaky, smoking a cigarette, a habit he’d picked up in jail, he said.

I can still see him wearing that old stained metallic jumpsuit, the one that he wanted all of us to buy a year before, when he’d had a vision of opening a spa right here on Long Island, right here on my property. I was going to learn from him the healing arts of herbs. Miranda was going to do the cooking, and our husbands would landscape and build this fortress with an Olympic style pool, where the world would come to be cured of its illness, its metaphorical A.I.D.S., its lack of resistance to any evil that was coming its way.

But there he stood, with silver growing at the roots of his jet black hair, with eyes screwed so tight, running back and forth to the kitchen, drinking glass upon glass of water, and then disappearing into the bathroom for what seemed like hours

I thought of all that he had done for Miranda and me, not to mention our friends, each of whom had seen him for at least one twenty-dollar session—and felt good upon walking out, as if released, as if the world offered more hope than when they’d gone in. I thought of my cousin, a physicist, whom I’d promised to ask about a vacuum sealed box for D, so he could store the radioactivity he would invisibly, magically absorb from the woman who was a victim of the US government. I thought of the humiliation D must have felt when I told him to leave, when I said I didn’t care where he went, when I said there was no way I wanted any neo Nazi or FBI man coming to kidnap my children.

“Oh,” D had said. “That would never happen.”

“You said it happened to your daughter last month,” I said.

It was true, he’d said.

“Get out,” I said.

 

I remember how impenetrable was his look, as if the pupils had overtaken the iris of his eyes. For all he’d given me, and for all I tried, I could not talk to him. I could not help him, much as he had helped me. And so I turned like a betrayer, partly in fear, as all betrayers must turn, and partly for greed, for the sake of my children than anything else. I didn’t want them to be a part of the doctor’s fall, and so I asked him to leave, and within the hour, there was a taxi in my driveway ready to take D to the train.

It was almost eleven months later that he summoned the courage, or invented the plot, or merely walked the plank to the spot on that monument to beauty and utility that he knew he was destined to leave this world from, and how many moments it took for him to jump, I’ll never know. What I do know is that he must have known we’d find out, and that we’d think of the darkness before the light, that we’d cringe with a creepy feeling before we felt the currents of sorrow, of loss, and I suspect that he must have known that I’d renew my contempt for him and hold it in long enough to realize that all he’d done was to take up the slack in my existence which had become so dull, so ordinary, like a gray crayon. He must have known that I’d think and think until I remembered how he had changed us all by his ridiculous but profound grasp of life, and that now when I really think of D, I miss him as dearly as one would miss a kitten or puppy, something young and innocent, rather than an ancient soul on his last round, which is what he protested to be.

We dream and talk about him often, Miranda and I. Occasionally, we see his look in other men’s faces. It’s a twisted look of someone caught between worlds, between identities, between right and wrong, between the tragic and the ridiculous.

We wonder how surprised we’d be if he appeared at my back door wearing his metallic jumpsuit and carrying a leather bag with all his belongings saying he just landed in a balloon from Paris. For a while we kept looking for him, everywhere, like some lost thing that never turned up, that you keep searching for signs of.

What I will remember most about him was his vision, the way the earth and its people were glorified in his mind, the way his eyes lit when he spoke of the beauty, the love, the promise that life held in store for all of us beings, the way we grew in his eyes as we sat around a table, the way the light presented itself in a more dramatic fashion with a tinge of apricot gold upon our faces when he was near, and how we smiled at each other then, and how we laughed at ourselves, and at D, too, for he loved that laughter that would bubble out of us.

Lepers, he said we all were. Not only in our Long Island town with its name ennobled after the great writer of Moby Dick—and its malls and roads and even its schools remembered that Orestes, that Whitman, who once lived here, walked these roads, in his life that was a gift to all that encountered him.

Not only in Long Island, America, but all over the world, we were lepers, is what D said. So far out of the spectrum and bounds wherein humanity was meant to flourish, so far out that we were marked like Cain for our gross radioactive hearts, with so many dents and leaks in our auras, we looked like lepers to the gods who in due time would fill the skies with all our wasted light.