My Mother The Doctor
I Should Have Asked To See Her Diploma
I had been spitting blood with an Old Faithful-like regularity all day, but it took a man with white shoes to notice.
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Carol! Your kid’s spitting blood!”
Mom: “What are you talking about? I’m looking right at him. He’s fine.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “The other kid. Number Two.”
My mother was doing someone’s hair in another part of the shop. While she was building up her own clientele for her new hair salon, she worked Saturdays for Larry the Straight Hairdresser. It was his busiest day of the week and my mother was the only one he could trust not to poach his customers.
He told me that my mother was an expert at handling his bitchiest clients. They were all women older than seventy, widowed, crotchety, and cheap. My mother called them the Alter Kockers, which was Yiddish for old operator. She talked to them in low, commiserating tones about their dead husbands, the rotten schmuck who lived next door, or the goddamned kosher butcher who was producing sub-par chopped liver.
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Carol. Althea gave you a tip?”
Mom: “Of course she did. I told her, I do her hair on a Saturday, she’s not walking out of here without tipping me. It’s like stealing!”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Who’s the son of a bitch she keeps talking about?”
Mom: “Her husband. Luther.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “You mean Louis?”
Mom: “That’s what I said. Lawton.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “They were married forty years!”
Mom: “They’re all sons of bitches, Larry.”
Indeed they were. After a few Saturdays of my mother working at Larry the Straight Hairdresser’s salon, all the Alter Kockers were calling their departed husbands “that son of a bitch” and tipping my mother huge wads of the dead fellow’s cash.
Layne the Favorite was with her, busy playing with his Matchbox cars that no one, especially me, was allowed to touch. They had their own carrying case and a list of rules longer than the Bill of Rights.
“No one is allowed to touch these,” he would remind our mother. That was rule number one. It was part of the packing-up ritual of the Matchbox cars - they went in their carrying case, each one carefully placed in the same order in the little parking spots in the box. When every one of them was accounted for, he would tell her that no one was allowed to touch them.
Me: “He means me.”
Mom: “SSSSSStace. He does not. Your brother shares everything with you.”
Not true then or ever. Overcoming my mother’s certainty was impossible, so I tried the Socratic method:
Me: “You mean me, don’t you, Layne?”
Layne the Favorite: “I mean anyone.”
Me: “Like the mailman?”
Layne the Favorite: “Why would he want to play with my cars?”
Me: “The meter reader from the gas company?”
Layne the Favorite: “How would he even know I have them?”
Me: “Aunt Hchachel? Uncle Ruben?”
Mom: “Uncle Ruben lives in upstate New York. And Aunt Hchachel is ninety-two years old, SSSSStace. She’s off her rocker.”
That diagnosis, by the way, was from Dr. Mom. ‘Dementia’ was a weird, goyisher word. You could be “off your rocker”, “cracked”, or “meshuga.” Never demented.
Me: “I thought she was cracked.”
Mom: “She is. You think she’s gonna play with Matchbox cars?”
Me: “It sounds just meshuga enough.”
Mom: “What is wrong with you?”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “For one thing, he’s spitting blood. From his mouth.”
Me: “Layne. How about the serial killer who lives in the apartment upstairs?”
Mom: “He’s not a serial killer. I keep telling you.”
Me: “Would he tell you if he was?”
Mom: “Wouldn’t we be his first targets?”
That actually made sense.
Me: “Mr. Vesley from the auto parts store?”
Layne the Favorite: “He has real cars to play with.”
Wow. Everyone in my family was making sense that day. Perhaps I had fallen off my rocker. Actually, I had fallen off the roof of Mr. Vesley’s auto parts store next door, hence the spitting blood and the failure of my Socratic method. The only other trick Socrates had had up his sleeve was to drink poison, walk around until his legs felt numb, then lay down and die. I figured I’d stick with asking questions.
Me: “How about Larry the Straight Hairdresser?”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Don’t knock it, kid. I get to hang out with women all day long.”
Pppppppt - I spit blood on both of his shiny white shoes. Even straight guys needed their shoes to match. Especially ones who wore flamboyantly striped shirts unbuttoned halfway down to reveal gold medallions and a thicket of chest hair.
Larry the Straight Hairdresser gestured elegantly at his bloody shoes. “I told you so, Carol.”
Mom: “SSSSSSSStace. You’re spitting blood! Why are you doing that?”
Me: “Jimmy and I jumped off of Vesley’s roof.”
Mom: “No you didn’t.”
Jimmy the Fourth was the youngest child of our next door neighbor, Jimmy the Third. I liked the fact that all the men in the family were named Jimmy, as if they were royalty, and not girls. Jimmy the Fourth organized nightly baseball games in our back yard, which my mother had paved over to make a parking lot for her new beauty salon. I stayed out of the games, but Layne the Favorite was always involved.
Jimmy the Fourth, among his myriad of talents, was a top-notch pitcher, which was the position Layne the Favorite coveted. He never asked to pitch, but complained about Jimmy’s monopoly of the mound all summer long, until my mother had to go have words with Jimmy one night after dinner.
Mom: “Johnny --”
Jimmy the Fourth: “Jimmy.”
Mom: “That’s what I said. Listen. My son wants a turn pitching the ball.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “I had no idea.”
Mom: “How could you have no idea? Josh, my son has a real talent. Don’t tell me you couldn’t tell. He’s a natural!”
Jimmy the Fourth: “Okay then, Mrs. Roberts. He can pitch at our next game.”
Mom: “You know, Joey, I never liked your parents much. But you seem all right. You’re a good boy.”
At the next game that formed in my back yard, Jimmy the Fourth tossed the ball to Layne the Favorite and switched places with him, ending up at shortstop. Layne the Favorite, without a word, went to the mound, did a dramatic, leg in the air windup like someone had attached electrodes to his ass, and flung the ball over the batter’s head on to Vesley’s roof.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Try again.” He tossed him another ball.
He did his epileptic windup again. Ball on roof. The supply of game balls was down to one.
Jimmy the Fourth: (tossing the ball to me): “Your turn.”
The ball hit me square in the chest and bounced off. It rolled to Layne the Favorite, who picked it up and prepared his Windmill Gambit.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Hold on, Layne.” The windmill stopped.
Layne the Favorite: “He can’t play. He’s too little.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “Pitchers don’t have to be big. They just need a good arm. He looks like he’s got one.”
I looked at my arm quizzically. Jimmy nodded at me.
I walked slowly to the wooden slat on the ground that passed for a pitcher’s mound. I looked at Layne the Favorite and then Jimmy the Fourth.
Me: “It’s the last ball. If it goes on the roof…”
Layne the Favorite: “Then you screwed it up for everyone. Game over. Forget it. I’m pitching.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “Then we come back tomorrow. With more balls.”
Layne the Favorite went back to shortstop and Jimmy the Fourth stayed at the mound. I waited, thinking he was going to give me some pointers, or a warning about the treacherous low roof. The batter, Kevin Fagin, who later that year got “runned over” by a car, yet lived to tell about it, waited in silence. There was a chalked-in box on the third rail of the wood fence that was the strike zone.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Pitch.”
Jimmy the Fourth (quietly): “You’re gonna have to pitch before Kevin wets himself.” Kevin had a notoriously weak bladder and a loose sphincter. He was the only one of our group who had ever shat in the woods. As my mother would say, “Disgusting.”
Me (even more quietly): “If I miss…”
Jimmy the Fourth: “You won’t miss. I’ve been watching you practice.”
I had spent hours - usually in the rain - pitching tennis balls against the fence. I picked early morning and inclement weather to practice in because all the neighborhood kids were inside. It never occurred to me that Jimmy the Fourth might have been watching from his window. If he thought I could do it, that was all I needed. Jimmy the Fourth was the neighborhood’s rock solid truth teller. I never saw him lie, even to spare someone’s feelings, like the time he took Kevin aside on one of our gallivanting trips far from home:
Jimmy the Fourth: “Kevin. You wet yourself.”
Kevin the Weak Bladdered: “No I didn’t. I fell in a puddle.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “Okay. Do you need to go home? We can go back now if you want.”
Kevin the Weak Bladdered: “No big deal. Just a puddle. I’m fine.”
Later that day, Kevin the Weak Bladdered shat himself as well. I never heard his explanation for that. I would like to say that I myself never used the fell crotch first into a puddle defense, but that would be a lie.
I stood on the mound and readied myself. Kevin held the bat. I could see him fidgeting; his bladder was working against him. He was one pitch away from a walk and a minute from calling a time out so he could sprint to a secluded tree.
I wound up and hurled the ball. It hit the fence slat just inside the strike zone.
Jimmy the Fourth: “That’s strike one.”
He stood with his arms folded. The ball rolled to him and he picked it up and tossed it to me. I threw again, and this time Kevin swung at it almost immediately. I wasn't in the strike zone that time, but Kevin missed the ball. Strike two.
Jimmy the Fourth( putting the ball in my hand): “One more.”
I threw again. Kevin didn’t move at all. The ball sailed under his bat, smacked the fence in the center of the strike zone, and rolled slowly back to the mound. Kevin dropped the bat and sprinted for his favorite pee tree.
Jimmy the Fourth: “I think we found our new pitcher.”
Layne the Favorite stomped off toward the house. I could hear my mother’s voice as soon as he opened the door: “Layner, what happened?”
Jimmy the Fourth (standing behind me): “You want to get up on the roof.”
Me: “Nuh uh.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “What’s your plan?”
Me: “Plan? No plan. Nothing going on here.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “What’s your plan?”
Me: “Top of fence, foot on tree, climb up to roof.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “That should work. How will you get down?”
Me: “Same way.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “You’ll end up in the rusty junk pile. Stuck like a bug.”
Between Vesley’s shop and my fence was a pile of discarded, rusty things like old tools, a water heater, and broken car parts.
We studied the problem for a few minutes in silence. Then Jimmy the Fourth had an idea:
Jimmy the Fourth: “The guy who lives upstairs from you put three mattresses out for the garbage. We could jump down from the roof.”
1. Mattresses from the serial killer upstairs? Stained with the tears of his hapless victims? Yuck.
2. He said “we.” My solitary plan had now become a conspiracy.
3. Jump off the roof?
Jimmy the Fourth: “Why not just get a ladder?”
Of course I had thought about it. Jimmy the Fourth’s dad was an electrician and came home every day in a truck that had extension ladders hung on the sides. Lay one of those bad boys against the side of the building and I’d be up and back without any trouble at all, and more importantly, no lockjaw or slow rusty death.
But asking for a ladder, even one from my mother, would elevate my project above the radar. I could build my own ladder out of plutonium rods and frayed clothesline and get a rabid pit bull to hold it steady for me and no one would notice or care. If I asked to borrow a ladder, I would be strapped to a chair in my Underroos, a single bare bulb overhead, deprived of food and water, kept awake against my will, and interrogated as to my nefarious purpose.
Me: “Anyone can get up on a roof with a ladder.”
He grinned, and we went to get the mattresses.
The serial killer upstairs had thrown out three queen sized mattresses. That seemed weird to me. The apartment wasn’t big enough for three queen sized beds.
Me: “What does he need with three mattresses?”
Jimmy the Fourth: “It’s probably better for us to think about what we need with them. When we’re done, they go back in the trash.”
We stacked the mattresses close to my side of the fence, two in one pile and the third in front of it. That way, Jimmy the Fourth said, we wouldn’t bounce off the stack of mattresses and land on the hard asphalt my backyard was paved with. Jimmy the Fourth climbed the wooden fence, up past the strike zone, to the top. He put one hand on the trunk of the cherry tree to steady himself, then reached up to the roof. He grabbed the roof at the edge, put one foot on a knot in the cherry tree, and alternately pulled with his arms and pushed with his foot, catapulting himself onto the flat roof.
He was gone from sight. After a moment, his head appeared at the roof line.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Easy. Come on up.”
As I climbed to the top of the fence, I couldn’t help looking down at the narrow alley of rusted metal - an old water heater, crumbling pipes, and cruel shards of brown metal waiting for me to land on. I stood on the top rail of the fence, feeling the weak, weathered wood bow beneath my feet. I steadied myself on the trunk of the cherry tree and looked up.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Push off with your feet as hard as you can. There’s nowhere to go but up.”
I hooked my fingers on as much of the roof as I could. The gritty shingles felt like moonscape or the surface of an alien planet. I put my right foot on the same tree knot Jimmy the Fourth had used, and pushed off with all my strength while pulling up as hard as I could. As I passed the level of the roof, my pull changed to a modified pushup and Jimmy the Fourth grabbed my shirt and hauled me up and over, onto the roof of Vesley’s.
I was finally there. The roof stretched out before me, flat, gray, and gritty, with occasional islands where air conditioning units and exhaust vents broke up the landscape. All the stuff that had found their way up to the low roof was there: baseballs, tennis balls, bats, footballs, basketballs, caps with different team logos on them, old auto parts, clothes, shoes, and the scissors used back in 1958 to cut the ceremonial ribbon across the doors of the store on its opening day.
Jimmy the Fourth and I spent half an hour chucking all this stuff off the roof and on to the mattresses below. When it was cleared, we walked from end to end, looking out over a huge expanse of our neighborhood. Like any kid who slept in a basement next to a furnace, I entertained fantasies of living up there on the roof, maybe in a tent, peeing over the side into the desolate lot behind the store and using a ladder to come down when it was time for school.
We stood at the edge of the roof, looking at the mattresses.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Time to jump.”
There was no weaseling out. I wanted to ask him to call out to his dad and have him bring us a ladder. I wanted to ask him to wait for someone to come outside and notice the two of us standing up on the roof. But that wasn’t what you did with Jimmy the Fourth. When it was time to jump, you jumped.
Jimmy the Fourth: “I’ll go first. I’ll show you how to do it.”
I just nodded. He stepped back a few paces, then walked to the edge again. He backed up once more, ran a few steps, and leaped into the air. My heart stopped.
He landed on the larger stack of mattresses, bent at the knees, and rolled onto the single one. He got to his feet gracefully and looked up at me.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Easy enough. Take a running start and jump for the mattresses.”
I shook my head no.
Jimmy the Fourth: “You can do it.”
It was all I needed. I took a few steps back and looked around one last time. If I was going to die after leaping, I wanted to remember what the world looked like from the roof of the auto parts store - my house, the street behind it, the metal processing plant, the twinkling of sunlight off the cars in Vesley’s parking lot, the pile of accumulated lost items that we had liberated from captivity.
Jimmy the Fourth: “Don’t hesitate. Be brave.”
I ran a few steps and jumped.
It seemed like I was suspended in the air for several long minutes. I was as high as the trees. My feet hovered above the center of the highest stack of mattresses. I grinned as I landed, a huge bright smile that allowed my bent knees to easily find my front teeth. The impact was horrific. I heard a cracking sound, saw stars, peed my pants, and rolled onto the single mattress. I lay on my back on the serial killer's bedding.
Jimmy the Fourth: “You made it!”
Jimmy the Fourth: “You’re bleeding.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “You wet yourself.”
Me (eyes closed): “Puddle.”
Jimmy the Fourth: “Can you get up?”
He helped me to my feet. My head was reeling. I could taste iron in my mouth. I spat blood onto the mattress. Pppppppppt.
Jimmy the Fourth: “You go inside. I’ll drag the mattresses to the street.”
I staggered home and took a shower, spitting blood into the drain. My two front teeth felt numb when I probed them with my tongue. Numb was good, right? I explained it to Larry the Straight Hairdresser as he took me outside his salon to look at my teeth. He reached two of his soft, chemical-smelling fingers into my mouth and gently wiggled one of them.
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Your teeth are loose. What happened?”
Me: “Layne hit me. I played with one of his Matchbox cars.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “What really happened?”
Me: “Jumped off a roof.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “You’re lucky to be alive. Let’s go talk to your mother. She acts like she’s been to medical school.”
Mom: “Larry. He doesn’t need to go to the dentist. His teeth are a little loose. That’s all.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “He’s still bleeding. He’s probably been bleeding all day.”
Mom: “SSSSSSSStace. Stop spitting blood on Larry’s shoes!”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Carol, if you don’t take him to the dentist, I will.”
I sat in the dentist chair while my mother looked around the room, reading notices tacked up on the wall. I should have paid more attention to what she was looking at.
Dentist: “Mrs. Roberts. His two front teeth are definitely loose.” He looked at me.
Dentist: “What did you hit them with?”
Me: “My knees.”
Dentist: “Okay, then. Nothing to worry about. I’ll give him a shot of Novocaine straight into the gums to numb them up, then we’ll pull them out. They’re baby teeth, so the permanent ones should drop in soon enough.”
Mom: “Novocaine? He can’t have Novocaine!” She pointed at one of the notices she had been reading. “It says that you shouldn’t have Novocaine if you have a heart condition.”
Dentist: “Does he have a heart condition?”
Mom: “He’s a preemie!”
Mom: “Premature! He was two months early! His lungs weren’t cooked! I bet he has a heart condition!”
Dentist: “Has he been seen by a cardiologist?”
Mom (teeth gritted): “I don’t need a stinkin' cardiologist to tell me about his heart. I was there. He’s a preemie!”
Dentist: “Okay. We’ll go without Novocaine.”
For about ten seconds, I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to get a shot. I hated shots. It turns out I hated having my teeth pulled without Novocaine even more.
Back at Larry the Straight Hairdresser’s shop, I sat miserably in a chair with cotton stuffed up against the holes where my teeth had been. We always had good teeth in my family; it was why I still had baby teeth at age nine. In fact, I still have a baby tooth now. It’s because I was a preemie. I’m sure of it.
My head was killing me. Larry the Straight Hairdresser could tell:
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “Do you want an aspirin?”
Mom: “No way! Do you know what aspirin does to you? It shreds your intestinal lining!”
Me: “I’ll rithk it.”
Mom: “Absolutely not! He can’t have any goddamned aspirin. He was a preemie! He’s lucky to be alive! You’re not going to shred his intestines!”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser shrugged. “At least now you’ve got your own song.”
Larry the Straight Hairdresser: “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth.”
Mom: “We do NOT celebrate Christmas!”
Layne the Favorite, knowing we were leaving soon, packed up all his Matchbox cars. He looked at my mother.
Layne the Favorite: “No one touches these. No one.”
Mom: “That’s right, honey.”
We drove home in blissful silence. My head felt like it had been hit by a couple of high-speed knees.
Mom: “What is all that crap on the back porch?”
I roused myself from my toothless stupor and lifted my aching head so I could see. The back porch was covered with baseballs, footballs, tennis balls, bats, caps, and the opening day scissors from Vesley’s ribbon cutting in 1958.
It hurt to smile.
About the author
Stacey Roberts is an author and history nerd who delights in the stories we never learned about in school. He is the author of the Trailer Trash With a Girl's Name series of books and the creator of the History's Trainwrecks podcast.