The Right Hand
by Edward H. Garcia
There were many doctors in this city, even in those days, but a new doctor in his forties was unusual. And one with two fingers missing from his right hand was, well, noticeable. Dr. Dietrich.
A general practitioner, though my friend, Joe Stone, himself an internist, said he’d never seen a more skillful surgeon, even with the maimed right hand. A genius with the knife, Joe said. Of course, this was many years ago. It was a different world the doctor and I lived in, a less forgiving world, I think.
On sight I had assumed — correctly — that he would be worth knowing. He was practically the stereotype of the country doctor: a rumpled vested suit, a lined face, kind eyes behind old-fashioned rimless glasses.
In addition, there was a sense of mystery about him, of something held back. There was a certain vagueness in his accounts of his personal history, but nothing out of order. I checked that myself.
I was glad by the time word came from the last city he had practiced in, and the one before that, to find no scandal. He was what he claimed to be: Dr. Aaron Dietrich, a graduated and licensed physician. In both cities he had had a good reputation: rather more than good; in fact, there had been no impropriety. He had simply and suddenly moved on.
I was glad to hear of it, because by then we were good friends, and I was a little embarrassed to have checked on him. I am a newspaperman; it was easy enough to do the checking, and it was even, in some way, a duty. Nevertheless, I was relieved.
Of course, that made him no less a mystery and for many of my circle of acquaintances, especially women of a certain age, no less a fascination. In a film one would expect that he had killed someone.
He gave that sense, as I have said, of something withheld, something dark, but since he hadn’t — I let the word get around — they burned to know more of him. Surely, the women thought — I am not just guessing; one told me as much — he had a great sadness in his past. If only, she thought, he would confide in her, let her share his burden, etc., etc.
Soon enough he had many patients, many of them women. I said something to him about it, and he smiled and said, “Don’t worry about me. I’m safe. They only want to take care of me.” He laughed softly with his sad eyes. “I am very good with women. I always have been. There is no danger.” I struggled to apologize, but he touched my arm and assured me he understood.
I suppose I was his best friend. We saw each other perhaps once a week, and he seemed to enjoy my cynical accounts of the doings of city politicians. From time to time he spoke of his childhood. His father had been an attorney, a strict man, hard on his older son.
His mother was a soft, childish woman. She adored him. She sought from him the loving support that was not readily available from her husband. For as long as he could remember, she had leaned on him. He spoke laughingly of medical school. It seemed to have been his happiest time. He never spoke about his patients. And he never spoke of his right hand.
The maimed right hand was a great part of the initial fascination with Dr. Aaron Dietrich. He had two characteristic gestures, a way of resting his chin on the right hand and a way of standing with his right hand, thumb forward, on his hip, which seemed designed to hide the condition of his hand.
But he took no trouble to hide it at other times. Once it was possible to observe the hand without being rude, it became clear that the top two joints of the little and ring fingers were simply missing. The hand was perfect, neither scarred nor distorted. It looked as if the two fingers were merely tucked carefully under, out of sight.
The last time I saw the doctor was two or three years after he first came to town. As I have said, that was many years ago, but the details remain vivid in my memory, rather more than vivid.
We met as usual on Wednesday night, a blustery, wet late October Wednesday night, in our favorite tavern. He was uncharacteristically late and agitated when he came in. And he was dressed somewhat more neatly than usual in spite of the weather. He sat, ordered his drink, and then said nothing until it was served. It was not unusual for us to sit without speaking on our evenings together. We both appreciated that freedom.
He took a long sip, sighed — shuddered almost — and finally spoke. “Something has happened, my friend. I must leave town.” To my look he answered, “I can’t tell you about it.” He looked down at his drink for a moment and then, almost as if he had been getting his courage up, he spoke again. “I can tell you a story and perhaps... you will understand... something. You have been a good friend.”
He motioned for another drink, and with another sigh he began. “My story” — he paused and took a drink — “might as well start with a young boy, a first son, standing before his father. The father is seated in a sturdy platform rocker; the boy is nearly in tears.
“‘I don’t want to have to tell you again,’ the father is saying. ‘When an older person comes into the room, you get up and offer your seat. Do not make them ask you. Do you understand?’
“The boy nods. ‘Do you understand? When I was a young man, if I were driving down the street and an older person — any older person — asked for my help, I would give it without question or hesitation. Do you understand?’ The boy understood.
“It was a small lesson, but the boy learned it well, as he learned all his lessons. Nothing was better to him than his father’s smile of approval, nothing worse than the man’s frown.
“And so over time the boy gradually took inside of himself all his father’s lessons: it is never acceptable to lie or cheat. It is a sign of bad breeding and weakness. Neither was tolerable in him. So much so that when the boy, now a young man, first found himself led by his new fun-loving friends to purchase the services of a prostitute, his first thoughts after his passion were...” — the doctor paused delicately — “not of the girl or even of disease, but ‘What would my father think of me?’” Aaron Dietrich laughed to himself at this.
“In short,” he continued, “the boy was condemned to carry with him his father’s voice, even after the father’s death. In fact, death somehow made the voice stronger, as if the old man’s life energies had mysteriously been transported into the boy as the spirit left him. The boy had hoped to be free. He had almost wished for his father to die and for the voice to die with him. But it was not to be.”
Aaron took another sip of his drink and I matched it. He paused for a few moments, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes with both palms. “Perhaps you will not be surprised to learn the boy became a doctor, a surgeon,” he resumed. “His father’s voice was actually a great help to him. When other medical students took evenings and weekends off, he studied. He was really very good in school: no one of his colleagues had more natural ability and none was as diligent, self-sacrificing, honest — rigidly honest.
“The medical school had an honor code. His roommate violated it. The young man felt bound to report him.” He looked up. “That is another story — a good one in itself — but I summarize it to make my point: the young man was as honest as his father could have wanted.
“In his medical practice, the young doctor gained all the success that ability, honesty and hard work can achieve. He was not wealthy, but he was comfortable and respected and not, I think, a dull person. Honesty and hard work are not necessarily dull virtues. He was not particularly judgmental of others; he reserved his uprightness for himself. At this point a young woman came into his life.
“You are probably leaping ahead of me, but you are wrong. The young woman came to him as a patient and remained no more than a patient. I am sure of that. She was very young: sixteen, the lovely daughter of a good family. Her predicament was unexceptional, though the situation had its complexities.
“As a young girl she had been infatuated with her ‘uncle,’ her mother’s younger half-brother actually. He was perhaps ten years older than she and not worth much. By the time she was sixteen she looked like a woman but had no more control of her emotions than a girl.
“She threw herself at him. She admitted that. And when one spring afternoon the opportunity presented itself, he let her seduce him. From her youth and his weakness not much else was to be expected. She assured the doctor it had been only once... once, but she feared she was pregnant. The doctor quickly confirmed her fear.
“You can see the difficulties: her age, the impossibility of marrying her uncle. Such a lovely guileless, innocent girl. She cried in the doctor’s office that afternoon. You can imagine what thoughts went through her young mind. The doctor was sure she would do something desperate. And so the honest, diligent doctor offered her an abortion — a secret abortion, no records, no payment, no further contact between them, and she tearfully and gratefully agreed.
“Medically it was the work of a few moments, and he never saw her again. What she made of her life he had no way of knowing. But the voice. The doctor did not sleep for a week. It was as if, when he closed his eyes, his father’s spirit somehow gained new strength. You can imagine the accusations — it was illegal, unethical, immoral. He had lied, perhaps murdered. He had countenanced the girl’s misbehavior and her uncle’s. He had made it possible again! He had let her youth, her apparent simplicity, seduce him just as the uncle had been seduced.”
The doctor’s last words erupted with a sudden, unexpected demotion. Though he had not raised his voice, he looked quickly around the tavern as if to make sure he had not been shouting.
He took another drink, raising his glass first in a sort of salute to me. “Will you excuse me for a moment? I’m not feeling very well, you know.” He smiled. “Don’t be alarmed if I have to leave the table very suddenly,” he said as he stood and turned toward the hallway which led to the rest rooms. I was torn between my fascination with the doctor’s story and my regret at his decision to leave town.
In a few minutes he returned, sat, took another sip of his whiskey, and said, “He had a point, you know. The doctor’s father had a point.” Another sip. “There was nothing clear about the ethics or morality of the situation. It is important to adhere rigidly to standards — or should that be to adhere to rigid standards? Perhaps both.”
His eyes narrowed in a kind of smile. “Nevertheless, for a physician, as for a journalist I should think, the temptations to compromise are great, as are the opportunities. We have so much power and there is so much human weakness. And if we...if gold rusts, you know.” He was looking away from me, in a dreamy kind of way. Suddenly he came to himself again. “Well, he had a point, the father did — the father’s voice did — and the doctor could not ignore it.”
I had a sense as he continued that he was approaching something very painful, and he seemed to run toward it, toward the telling of it, so as not to run away. “The doctor knew that it was possible he had made a terrible mistake. He had thought to justify his action by a higher morality — the saving of the girl from a life of misery or from suicide. But he could not fully deny the appeal she had had for him. Something in him had gone out to her in a way... which could not be trusted.
“If it were easy to lie, to conceal the truth, to break the law — if he could do it for a beautiful child and let himself off by saying it was for a higher purpose — then where would it stop? On this point, he and the voice agreed. How could he be sure he was acting on principle if there was no cost to him? But if he were to confess his crime — he began to think of it that way — would he not undo whatever good had come of the act?
“He wished at that moment with all his heart he were a Roman Catholic, to believe in the efficacy of a private confession. But that was too easy and he couldn’t convince himself he believed in it. More’s the pity. So that was the young doctor’s dilemma.” He looked directly at me for the first time in several minutes and smiled. “What would you do?”
He listened to my embarrassed silence for a moment, almost hopefully it seems to me now, and then continued. “Well, the doctor found a thing to do. Perhaps by now you will not be totally surprised. At any rate, it was, I still think, his best option, though I have had second thoughts. He, the young doctor, decided he must find a way to insure that he could never do such a thing again without being absolutely sure he was indeed justified by a higher morality, that he would never do it easily again.
“And slowly in those tortured, sleepless nights what he had to do became clear. Even then, he sat for two hours in the bathroom of his house contemplating the consequences of his actions. Suddenly he put his right hand in the wash basin and, with the scalpel he had held for those two hours in his left hand, he surgically removed the first joint of the little finger on his right hand.”
My eyes went involuntarily to his right hand which curved under his chin so that I could not see the two fingers. My own right hand contracted belatedly into a fist, like a sea creature avoiding a predator. At length I managed to say, “How could you?” He had been lost in memory and my question startled him. He smiled sadly.
“The young doctor was a very good surgeon — best in his class — and so he did a very skillful job. But the pain was considerable. He felt first a great remorse and then a cold acceptance. He was sure he would not easily transgress again. The act had satisfied his father’s voice. He felt he had taken responsibility for his actions.” He paused.
“But what happened to the other... to the...?” I didn’t know exactly what to say, but he helped.
“I suppose you want to know how things turned out for the young doctor. He got older, of course, but I’m afraid the story has been too long already and I must go soon.” With his left hand, he pulled out his gold pocket watch and glanced at it.
“I will say that events did not fully bear out the doctor’s predictions. There were other... situations... and other... amputations. That’s what you were asking, wasn’t it? Even knowing as he did the consequences of his actions did not curb the doctor’s tendencies. The third was easier than the second, the fourth easier than the third. And of course by then he had had to move — one cannot explain away these mysterious disappearances.” He was almost cheerful suddenly as he took the last of his drink.
“You said something has happened, that you have to leave?”
“That is another story, my friend, for another time, no doubt. But I’m not feeling very well just now.” On the contrary, he seemed happy and relaxed for the first time all evening. “You will excuse me one more time?” He got up, smiled again, and walked away, his left hand in his coat pocket, his right hand swinging at his side. It was the last time I saw him.
I waited several minutes, ordered another drink, still wondering at his story. Finally, I called the waiter over. “Have you seen the doctor?” I asked.
“Oh! He left a few minutes ago. I saw him coming out of the bathroom. I think he had too much to drink; he was not in very good shape. And he seemed in a great hurry.” His smile faded, no doubt as the look of horror grew on mine. I stood up abruptly and walked, hardly able to breathe, toward the rest room. “Is anything wrong?” he called after me.
I paused, looking at my right hand spread flat against the door. Then I pushed it open slowly and turned unwillingly toward the basin to my left. What I saw I was not prepared for. It was the stuff of my nightmares. The nightmares I have had so many nights since.
My friend the doctor’s legacy to me: a hand, palm down, the little finger and ring finger so neatly removed that they seemed only to be curled carefully under, out of sight. A right hand.
Copyright © 2014 by Edward H. Garcia