Dr. Jerome Ogburn despised his Friday mornings at the Eastern Parkway Denny’s restaurant.
Fridays the Smoke Yourself Sober chapter of Alcoholics’ Anonymous congregated in the rear banquet room. While the drunks huffed unfiltered Camels and tried to out-do one another with stories of self-destruction, Jerome saw his clients in the brighter, airier portion of the restaurant. It was easier on other days when, in the relative quiet of the back room, he would feel he was bridging the gap between a therapist’s office and the real world. Fridays, though, the mad clatter of dishes and the yammering of the diners made appointments seem more like a java break than a counseling session.
His first client showed up precisely on time. Isaac Rothstein, an obsessive-compulsive. Isaac was given to pulling the napkins from their holder, counting them, then putting them back. His psychiatrist doctored him with anti-anxiety meds and Isaac lived a fairly contented life. The waitress approached and Jerome ordered a slice of pie to go with his coffee. Isaac only asked for water. She turned away with a pissy look. A zero tab meant a zero tip. Because of this, Jerome kept track of his client’s purchases and bought coffee, pie, and side orders accordingly.
Nothing much new for Isaac. He made it to work and to his appointments, but was still counting steps, breaths, miles, smiles and hiccups. All in a notebook he kept in his jacket pocket. As Jerome made a brief notation in his file he could hear Isaac lightly tapping something out in Morse code on the table top.
Dr. Ogburn lost his office in a sad, yet uninteresting fashion. Long story short, a blind-side divorce robbed him of the cash needed to keep his space in the Medical Arts building. Susan, his wife, left him in July and the divorce was final in October. In November the landlord informed him the rent would double at year’s end. So Jerome let his office go and began seeing his clients at Denny’s. He told them it was called Immersion Healing and would break down the wall between therapy and real life. A columnist from Psychology Today interviewed him over the phone and hailed him as a great innovator. His client list grew but Margaret, the manager of the restaurant, grew resistant.
“Dr. Ogburn, this is bizarre.”
To her credit, Margaret never approached when Jerome was seeing a client. But, once the other side of the booth was empty, she would stand with one fist on her hip and her mouth twisted into an ampersand of disapproval. She was pretty, in a way, like a housewife from a depression era photograph who had fixed herself up for church.
“Margaret. Darling. Yesterday, for example. I bought a Grand Slam breakfast. An orange juice then, later, an iced tea. My first two clients bought a cup of coffee. That means the booth generated four sales in two hours. I’m a revenue magnet.”
The manager’s features softened.
“It disturbs the other customers, doctor.”
“How? We drink coffee and talk.”
“The man with the invisible dog, for instance.”
“It’s house trained and he’s teaching it tricks!” Jerome beamed at her hopefully.
“And the crazy blonde woman who comes in every day and interrupts your appointments with other people. My waitresses are afraid of her.”
“Ah, yes. Terri.” The counselor sighed. “She’s on last chance probation with me. If she disturbs us again, I’m refusing her as a patient. She knows this. She knows the consequences.”
Margaret stared at him.
“What are you doing tonight? I could take you to a nice restaurant for dinner.”
A smile crept across her face.
“You know I’m married,” she said softly.
“Just dinner. A steak, maybe some pasta. Do you like pasta?”
She walked away.
Jerome took a look at the notes for his next client. While he paged through the folder, a young woman in a black leather jacket and light blue peasant skirt rushed up to his table.
“Dr. Ogburn,” she announced breathlessly. “I’ve got to talk to you right now.” Her lips were over-glossed and her fingernails, clutching the strap of a shoulder bag, were a candied shade of orange.
“Terri, we’ve discussed the consequences of your behavior. I’m afraid I can’t be your counselor anymore. You’ll have to seek therapy elsewhere.”
The woman flushed crimson as her mind struggled to process what she was being told. A series of tics, spasms, and grimaces assaulted her face and she blinked rapidly before answering.
“But Dr. Ogburn, I need you! I’m doing so much better! Your guidance is…”
“In my opinion,” he said emphatically. “And I’ve expressed this before, you need treatment from a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication for you. I can recommend some very qualified people.”
“But I don’t want to be treated by them, doctor! I want you to treat me!”
Her bosom heaved beneath her blouse and he noticed, not for the first time, that she was a shapely woman. But temptation was not an option.
“I’m sorry, but it is no longer constructive.”
For a moment he thought she would explode in an ugly, histrionic scene, but a calm settled over her and she wheeled about and abruptly left the restaurant. This unnerved the therapist more than if she had screamed and thrown plates at him. She stalked out like she had a plan. Unbalanced people with plans tended to be dangerous, even lethal. His 11 o’clock, a young man named Jackson who couldn’t stop masturbating to Bugs Bunny cartoons, arrived and Jerome got back into his routine. A few minutes later Margaret, the manager, walked by and dropped a note on the table. It read:
My shift ends at 4, but I need to go home
and check in. I could meet you back here
He gave her an enthusiastic, affirmative nod when she looked over her shoulder. Jackson had joined Sex Addicts Anonymous and felt good about his recovery. Perhaps the day would level out.
When his last client slid out of the booth and departed, Jerome gathered up his notes, insurance folder, and receipt book. Placing them in his courier bag, he left a twenty dollar tip and walked to the cash register. Margaret smiled but was visibly nervous as she rang up his tab.
“5:30?” He smiled at her.
She nodded, then ducked her head shyly.
Once in his car, he checked his voice mail. The phone stayed in the glove compartment to avoid distractions. Six messages. The first, just after 9 A.M., was from Susan, his ex-wife. She sounded annoyed, and wanted to know he he still had their tax receipts from five years ago. Next was Terri, at 9:15, requesting an emergency session. Then came Susan, more pissed off than annoyed now. Then Terri again, this time with a good deal more drama. For variety, a client canceling his appointment for the following Monday was next. Last was Susan again, just seventeen minutes earlier, shouting into the telephone:
“Look, Jerome, if I get reamed by the IRS I’m taking you down with me! I remember those cash-only patients of yours, jerk!”
The phone rang again while still in his hand. Seeing Terri’s number displayed, he dropped it into the passenger seat and put the nine year-old BMW into gear. Halfway home, sitting in traffic, he called his ex-wife. Their financial papers were buried in a storage locker beneath a near ton of community property and paperwork they had never gotten around to dividing. She was frantic, so he turned the car around and crept back in the direction from which he came.
Okolona Self-Storage was located fifty yards back from Fern Valley Road, a dusty stretch of highway home to tire dealers, liquor stores and the occasional fast food franchise. Jerome keyed the padlock and heaved the sliding door above his head.
The space was an utter mess: Boxes were stacked five feet tall. Some had settled and now rained files down like cooled lava from a volcano. There were also lamps, five filing cabinets, and a moldering sofa poking up through the flotsam. Having no idea of where he stored what, Jerome simply waded in and began flipping through the first documents he encountered. Once finished with a particular box or carton, he carried it outside and set it down on the asphalt. Then he returned inside to begin again. There was a three foot space cleared when Susan pulled up in her Lexus. Nine boxes stood stacked outside.
“Jerome, you fuck, I need those receipts now.” She snorted and kicked at a box.
“Hey, dive in. I’m due for a breather.” He waded out of the mess.
“Don’t lean against my car!”
He edged away down the drive.
“Your paperwork’s in there and, as John Wayne would say, ‘you’re burning daylight.’”
So, she began digging, grumbling all the while.
He walked to a nearby Burger King and bought a coffee. On the way back he tried to pinpoint the exact time life skittered out of his grasp like a handful of marbles down a stairwell. He never saw the funnel cloud, the ‘check engine’ light never illuminated, and the ice always appeared thick enough to hold his weight. Now, here he was.
Sifting through confetti. They worked alongside one another like resentful oxen, silent and sullen. As shadows began to darken the space, Jerome found the tax file. At that same moment he realized he was late for his date with Margaret.
“Here.” He shoved the manila marked Su-Sun Tanning Salon/Jerome” into her chest, turned her around, and propelled her out into the remaining daylight. Confused, she sputtered at him while he heaved boxes back inside. As he pulled the door back down, she ground the Lexus into gear and fled the wreckage of their marriage. Back in his car, Jerome checked the time.
Monday morning he drove to the Denny’s while rehearsing the apology he owed Margaret. If she were not married, he would have brought flowers. The moment he entered the restaurant he knew he was in dire straits.
“Dr. Ogburn. Booth for two, or are we doing group therapy today?” Margaret’s voice held a flat inflection that indicated he no longer existed. She led him to the back.
“Listen, I’m very sorry about Friday. My ex-wife called and…”
“There you go.” She put the menus down. “Your waitress will be with you in just a moment.” Then, with a gliding, mechanical movement she gone. And she did not look back.
Jerome sank into the booth. Margaret would no doubt now make him move his practice. He thought about the Shoney’s down the Parkway and the image of the all-you-can-eat buffet revolted him. He had to maintain some standards. Could things get worse? He buried his face in his hands and tried to gather his thoughts.
“Good morning! Can I take your order?”
Looking up, he saw Terri, the client he had dismissed. Wearing the Denny’s uniform and clutching the order pad like some kind of demonic court stenographer. Her eyes were alight, like Christmas.
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of the story “All You Can Eat” by Robin Hemley.]
Image by Daniel Oines
Robert L. Penick’s work has appeared in journals such as The Hudson Review, North American Review, and The Antietam Review. He lives in Louisville, KY with my free-range box turtle, Sheldon.