Conversations with My Father | Idra Novey | Granta

Conversations with My Father

Idra Novey

after Grace Paley


My father has been dead for seventy-three days. He continues to offer rhyming observations and advice. This morning he said wow, two white hairs now in your eyebrow. He told me to stop plucking at these sudden white hairs and get back to work. He said why not write about someone who isn’t an iteration of yourself for once – a paediatrician, maybe, with a small practice in Appalachia.

When he speaks now, I hear the slur in his voice from the morphine. I see the scabs on his forehead, his body motionless in the same rural hospital where he bent over thousands of newborns beginning their lives one floor below, in the maternity ward. In middle school, he took me along on his weekend rounds to see the newest burrito size humans in their plastic bins. It was the nineties, when the maternity ward was not the quiet, nearly empty floor that it is now. My father would un-swaddle each newborn and say, ‘how about the chart, honey’ to whichever female nurse was on duty. The charts were all physical objects then, manila folders coded with stickers and handwritten names.

I ask my dead father if this paediatrician might question, at some point, why he needs to demean the nurses and the mothers of his patients this way, calling them all ‘honey’.

My father says he can’t be bothered with these questions of mine that really are just a form of nitpicking. Why can’t you write about real events, he asks, about people in actual peril?

There was once a paediatrician in a rural stretch of western Pennsylvania who was mostly beloved. He was bald from an early age, tall and highly strung, a man prone to emotional outbursts. He was at his best with children under seven, kids young enough to laugh reliably at whatever word he rhymed with ‘elbow’ and ‘knee’.

Trite, my dead father interjects. Also ridiculous, he tells me, that line about outbursts. I never got emotional, he says, I didn’t even react when those Anabaptists showed up at my office with those crazy knives in their boots. Why don’t you write about that, he asks, and I tell him it’s not a bad idea, as I know how much he enjoys when people take his suggestions.

There was once a paediatrician in a rural stretch of western Pennsylvania who was mostly beloved. He was a tall, high-strung man of such intensity that every interaction with him felt like entering an emotional forcefield. The mostly beloved paediatrician saw himself otherwise, as a man of supreme self-control. He liked to repeat stories that reinforced this notion, as if frequently declaring his lack of emotions would make the statement true, as if it were within his power to define how other people perceived him.

What’s wrong with you? my father interrupts. Why do you do this? It’s so low, he says, all this snide character assassination of your father who’s only been dead for seventy-three days. And what is this crap about an emotional force field, he asks, I never got emotional. Those five lunatics burst into my exam room with their shaved heads and I didn’t get upset. I never got upset, he says. Even when they pulled those hunting knives out of their boots, I didn’t get flustered – I told them I didn’t care if they threatened me, he says, I knew somebody in that cult of theirs was leaving welts on that little boy and denying him food. I saw the cracked lips on that kid and knew right away he was vitamin B deficient.

You’re going about this story all wrong, my father tells me, I don’t know why you ended up being so contrary. That’s definitely from your mother, he says. Now listen, what you need to do is start with the exam room, he says, get the paediatrician in there, giving a strep test to a five-year-old who’s screaming, show how caring and calm this doctor stays with the sick kid howling in his face and sneezing on him. What you need to do, he tells me, is give the reader a sense of what was going on in the exam room when those Anabaptists stomped in like the Gestapo.

Also, he says, your tone in this story leaves something to be desired – it’s too frosty. It’s like you’re trying to convince the reader that you’re capable of watching your own father through an ice-covered window.

That’s enough, I tell him, and frostiness can be reviving. You relished stepping into the deep cold, I remind him. Every winter, you’d charge right into it with no gloves on and your coat open.

In a rural stretch of western Pennsylvania, before the rolling hills give way to West Virginia, a paediatrician from New York joined a local practice. He’d met a woman at college whose family had lived in the Allegheny Highlands for generations, and he’d decided to marry her, to try a different life from the screaming fights in the cramped apartment where he’d grown up. The open farmland relaxed him, the daily sight of grazing cows and rusted silos. The new paediatrician was Jewish, the only practicing Jew many of his patients and their parents had ever met. Fathers told him he talked like that Jewish guy on the radio, Howard Stern. The paediatrician’s voice didn’t sound anything like Howard Stern’s but he didn’t say this to the fathers. He forced a smile and returned his attention to the children, inquiring about school and what foods they liked to eat with their feet.

At this absurd question about eating with their feet, most of the children laughed. One boy with thick red hair responded to the paediatrician’s rhyming nonsense with a memorable high-pitched cackle, until one year, the boy wouldn’t laugh at anything. The red-headed boy arrived listless, with deep cracks in the corners of his lips from malnutrition. The mother was unusually sullen as well, and the paediatrician noticed she had a safety pin replacing one of the middle buttons on her shirt.

The paediatrician knew the family lived in a community of Anabaptists who shared a track of isolated farmland in a rural county whose schools lacked the funding to replace even basic things, like chalkboard erasers. The men in the Anabaptist community all wore heavy, lace-up black boots and occasionally gathered to shout at people entering the only bar in the area that held drag shows. Every few months, the Anabaptist men hectored women in the parking lot of the Planned Parenthood.

Too many judgments, my father interrupts, stop slinging cultural mud like that. You have to hold back like a doctor. My job wasn’t to judge people, he tells me, and yours isn’t either. You need to observe more and comment less. Just keep it clean and write the scene, he says.

I tell my dead father if he gives any more advice that rhymes, I’ll leave this story unfinished.

You’ll finish it, my father says. You’re in with that safety pin on the mother’s shirt.

Please, I tell him, one more monosyllabic rhyme and I will end this story with a description of you weeping in the parking lot behind your office.

I never wept in the back parking lot, he says. I never wept anywhere.

The paediatrician saw the welts on the boy’s back during the exam. The welts were large and already turning yellow, several of them wide as a hand. He asked the boy what happened, and the boy lowered his head, allowing his mother to explain that he’d fallen off the upper shelf in the chicken house while collecting eggs.

Maybe he needs a different job then, the paediatrician said and the boy’s mother pulled her pocketbook closer to her body and said the boy wasn’t doing the eggs no more.

The paediatrician asked what else the boy liked to help with on the farm, and the boy shrugged again, lowered his head, said he didn’t know. The boy had arrived this time with his bright red hair buzzed close to his scalp, with a nick in the skin above his ear where someone had shaved too close.

The paediatrician remembered the boy’s mother saying something on an earlier visit about how nicely the boy sang in church. He asked the boy if he still liked to sing on Sundays and the mother answered for the boy again, said of course he did.

The paediatrician decided not to pry further, that it would be best for a social worker to go and visit the household. He’d reported concerns to Child Services before, knew how to fill out the forms and continue with the remaining patients of the day, return home to his own children, and later, if he wasn’t too exhausted, turn his focus to the heady rhymes of Gerard Manley Hopkins, who he’d discovered at State College. He’d kept a volume of Hopkins on his bedside ever since, to read on evenings when the agitation inside him wouldn’t subside and his criticisms left his teenage children in tears, after which he’d invariably declare that they were too emotional and cried more than the babies at his practice .

A few weeks later, the paediatrician was giving a strep test to a howling five-year-old, when somebody slammed open the exam door hard enough for the handle to strike him in the back. Five men crowded inside with shaved heads and black lace-up boots. The paediatrician knew immediately that they were men from the Anabaptist sect, though the fathers from the community rarely brought their children for checkups. Only the mothers showed up at his office, but everyone in the area had seen these men around, hectoring people over choices that didn’t meet their approval.

Inside the tiny exam room, several of the Anabaptist men bent over at the waist like they were about to pray, then stood up again holding knives they’d extracted from inside their boots. They warned the paediatrician he better never report anyone in their community to the government again. The mother in the exam room began to cry, her arms tight around her child. One of the men used a terrible word for Jews and shoved a knife point in the face of the paediatrician, who had remained motionless, still holding the strep test, his bony shoulders hunched under the wool sweater vests he wore all winter, his eyes amplified behind his thick glasses.

Put that down, the paediatrician said to the man holding the knife in his face. I don’t care about your threats, he said, get the hell out of my office. All of you.

By now, several nurses and the other paediatrician in the practice had gathered outside the exam room. The other paediatrician announced in his strong German accent that he had the police on the phone, though this was a fib. He had no one on the phone. The other paediatrician had grown up in East Germany with a father who’d taken part in Hitler Youth, a fact that brought him great anguish. He’d discussed this history many times with the Jewish paediatrician while they showered at the Y, where they played racquetball together on Tuesdays.

The police are on their way! the German-born paediatrician shouted, pushing his way into the exam room, determined not to be on the wrong side of the door.

He still talks to me pretty often, my dead father says. He tells me that the other paediatrician still can’t break the habit of arguing through things with him either, not after four decades sharing a practice and alarming incidents like this one.

I ask my father if he and his partner commiserated about other experiences they had in common, too, like the shock of their first wives leaving them both.

Why can’t you ever stick to one story, he says, you’ve left that knucklehead holding his knife up to my face.

The chaos continued, with far too many bodies and high-volume threats crammed into a small exam room. Even after the Anabaptists lowered their knives and clomped out of the office in their heavy boots, the high-strung paediatrician didn’t move. His back stung from where he’d been hit with the door handle and he thought of the boy’s welts, of the social worker who had to keep her findings confidential.

For years after, heading to his car in the back parking lot of his office, the paediatrician would get tense, sensing someone watching him from behind the dumpster. He would arrive agitated for dinner and lash out at his second wife about the quantity of garlic she put in the salad dressing. When she got upset and swore at him, he would ask why she got so worked up about minor comments.

You can’t resist, can you? my father interrupted. You have no problem generating mercy for strangers, but you’re so stingy with your own father.

This isn’t you, I remind him, this is fiction. This is a rural paediatrician I invented. You wanted me to write about a small-town doctor in peril.

The paediatrician didn’t tell his second wife or any of his children about the Anabaptists who slammed into his exam room until long after he retired. He didn’t tell them about the time they went to eat at the Red Lobster next to the closed mall up on the ridge and a young man with long, thick red hair in a ponytail came out of the kitchen and called to him. The paediatrician had been alone, on his way to the restroom, and the young man didn’t say anything else, just stood there in his apron, his thick ponytail tucked inside a hair net. The red-headed young man nodded at the paediatrician and then vanished back between the swinging kitchen doors.

The paediatrician had taken care of so many children in the area. People called out his name wherever he went. Yet the rest of that family dinner at the Red Lobster, he had a familiar expanding tightness about him. His children and the second wife sensed it and were careful not to clank their forks or address any questions to him directly, except for the younger daughter who had a contrarian nature and couldn’t resist. What happened, she asked the paediatrician, why are you so upset?

I don’t get upset, he told her. I just go with the snow.


Image © Raquel Samoes

Idra Novey

Idra Novey is a novelist, poet and translator. Take What You Need was named a spring fiction book with the New York Times and one of The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2023 So Far. Her first novel Ways to Disappear was a finalist for the L.A. Times First Fiction Prize. Her works as a translator include Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. and a co-translation with Ahmad Nadalizadeh of Iranian poet Garous Abdolmalekian, Lean Against This Late Hour, a finalist for the PEN America Poetry in Translation Prize in 2021. She teaches fiction writing at Princeton University. Her new book of poems, Soon and Wholly, is forthcoming in 2024.

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