THE PALMER PRIMER A Short Story Cheri Laser “With no disrespect intended,” she began, her Bermuda-blue

eyes fixed on my face, “no member of your profession has been on my list of people to visit. Frankly, I‟m embarrassed to be in a psychiatrist‟s office. I‟m forty years old. I‟ve never committed a crime. I don‟t have conversations with myself and, as I told you on the phone, I‟m sure this will be a waste of your time. But I made a promise that I‟d show up, so I‟m all yours for the next forty-five minutes.” That was my first introduction to Amanda Palmer, a classic, over-achieving babyboomer, who, out of deference to a persuasive friend, had reluctantly made this appointment. Now she was eager to pay one hundred dollars for me to expeditiously fix her up. Her just-do-it approach to life left no room for questions without answers, or projects without defined ends, or patience. Painfully familiar with this syndrome typifying men and women of her generation, I had actually been able to help a few of her counterparts. But there was something exceptional about Amanda Palmer, something that aroused a curiosity too frequently sedated now after so many years of witnessing variations of the same stories over and over again. Intrigued by this fresh mystery, I nodded my head, letting her know that I was paying attention as she continued. “Excuse me, sir, but as you know, I now only have thirty-five minutes left with you. Just tell me what I‟m supposed to do. I‟m a quick study.” “Perhaps we should discuss some ground rules,” I answered after a measured hesitation. “My role is not to instruct you to do anything, nor will I attempt to answer your questions. My purpose is to act as a guide, one who might help you answer your own questions and perhaps assist with interpretations of things you might teach yourself.” Calmer now and no longer swinging her right leg, which she kept demurely crossed over her left, she spoke in what I gathered was her corporate voice. “Of course, Doctor. Please forgive me for being abrupt. I‟ll be happy to move this process forward in any way possible. Now, what would you like to know?” “Why don‟t you just start at the beginning?” “At the beginning of what?” “At the beginning of Amanda Palmer.” I thought I‟d lost her, and that she was going to collect her coat and pocketbook and walk out of my office without another word. But she remained seated in the large, overstuffed leather chair she‟d selected across the room from me, while her right leg began swinging again. “Doctor.” My title was now a statement rather than a salutation. “You and I are apparently operating under two differing agendas. I am simply over-extended and over-tired. A friend suggested that re-examining my priorities through a little counseling would be prudent. I‟ve always been able to manage my considerable responsibilities without any serious side effects. So coming here today was a major concession—a reluctant admission of some new vulnerability. However, to initiate our dialogue, as you have suggested, at the moment of my birth, would not only be irrelevant but could not possibly be accomplished in one or two hours with you.”

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser


She paused, offering an opportunity for me to speak. But since she had not asked me a question, my eye contact remained steady and my lips did not move. “You must realize, Doctor,” she continued, clearly miffed at my silence, “that I simply do not have time to drive down here every week to discuss things that happened forty years ago.” Her right leg had stopped swinging because both of her feet were planted on the floor, and she was reaching for her coat. “Mrs. Palmer, I do understand your situation,” I said, taking myself off mute in order to stop her from fleeing. “And if you choose not to pursue our sessions together, I think you‟re perceptive enough to find an alternate way of rebalancing yourself. But I would like to make a suggestion, if you‟ll allow me another minute.” Following my example, she didn‟t say a word, but eased back down onto the edge of her chair, her coat draped neatly over one arm and the handle of her pocketbook over the other. “Perhaps you could look upon this as a break,” I offered, grateful for the reprieve, “something you‟re doing for yourself—a bit of a rest. Do you belong to a fitness club?” “Yes,” she answered, almost defensively. “Well, you might consider the merits of giving as much time to your mind and emotions as you do to your body. All three are supposed to work in concert with one another, you know.” “All right,” she replied flatly after staring straight through me for a minute. “I‟ll try.” No extraneous dialogue followed. She made an appointment with me for the following week, donned and buttoned her coat, and walked out—and once my office door had closed behind her, I fully believed I‟d never see her again. ****** The next six days were filled with various personal and professional calamities, and when the seventh day arrived, odds were markedly against Amanda Palmer showing up for her scheduled appointment. Yet there she was. I‟ll never know to what extent my pleasure was apparent to her, because she clearly supervised the next uncounted moments. “Good morning, Doctor,” she said, replacing a year-old Vogue magazine on the end table in my anteroom. Her hair was piled on top of her head, just like the week before, in a staid version of the Gibson-Girl look. The glasses were new, though, with owl-like lenses resting near the tip of her nose and her translucent blue eyes peering over the heavy black frame. Last week she must have been wearing contacts, I thought to myself, finding the glasses oddly preferable. As she rose to her feet, the exquisite tailoring of her navy blue pin-striped suit became evident, the two-piece outfit nestling around the curves of her body without a crease, suggesting rather than revealing her feminine form. She was not beautiful, but striking, with an undeniable aura—a cross between a librarian and Wonder Woman, complete with luggage. Yes, luggage. She brushed past me and walked into my office, carrying a bulging briefcase with one hand and pulling a large wheeled suitcase behind her with the other. “Going on a trip?” I asked nonchalantly. “No, Doctor, I‟m not,” she answered, placing the two satchels on the sofa. “But you might be, should you choose to accept this mission.” She smiled and seemed to take great delight in unzipping the wheeled suitcase, which sprang open from the tension of whatever was crammed inside. Pulling back the lid, she

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser


motioned toward the contents with her hand, as if she were a model introducing a game show prize. “What is it?” I asked, sidling closer. “This,” she answered, looking down at what turned out to be about thirty pounds of paper, “is the beginning of Amanda Palmer.” I wanted to deliver a clever response, but the words weren‟t coming. “Please,” I said instead, gesturing toward her previous chair as I settled into mine, “have a seat and fill me in on your …” Amanda interrupted, ignored my instructions and remained standing. The shift in power caused me to consider standing up again, but the territory felt unfamiliar enough already. “I‟ve been writing all of my life,” she began, “and I‟ve saved practically everything. Other than a few teenage diaries, which I‟ll never forgive myself for burning, my life is right here, and I‟ve organized things into sections—by clusters of years. In the interest of time, I thought you might be willing to do a little reading between our sessions.” Alarms began going off in my head. “Mrs. Palmer …” “Doctor, last week you said you wanted to learn more about me, and your reputation suggests that you‟re quite capable. And believe it or not, I would like to cooperate so I can start getting some sleep again. But rather than verbally reconstructing things that I‟ve already written down, wouldn‟t it be more efficient for you to read a section each week and then discuss those entries with me?” “Mrs. Palmer,” I repeated, alerted to her reference about not sleeping, “I think there might be some difficulty …” “Please forgive me for interrupting again, but I neglected to mention an important point. Naturally, I‟ll pay you any additional fee required for the time you spend reading—and this plan should help us move through the process rather quickly. Wouldn‟t you agree?” “Not necessarily,” I countered, uncrossing my legs after noticing that my right foot was beginning to swing up and down. “One of the advantages you have by coming here is the regular opportunity to privately—almost anonymously—talk things through.” “Yes, I understand. And I will talk with you, if you‟ll do some reading. After all, Doctor, how many people come in here with a suitcase like this?” “Not many, Mrs. Palmer,” I replied, considering the hilarity of that understatement. “Well, then, shall we give it a try?” I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger as I flirted with the word “no.” “Okay,” I said before I could stop myself. ***** Over the next forty minutes, she introduced me to the collection‟s organization and occasionally lost her concentration in a section that she had apparently not reviewed for several years. After awhile, the fact that I wasn‟t saying much of anything didn‟t seem to bother her any more. “My goodness!” she exclaimed at length, glancing at her watch before I was ready to look at mine. “I can‟t believe today‟s appointment is over already!”

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser


We agreed to keep the same day and time for the following week, and then she proceeded to close the suitcase after removing and handing me an inch-thick stack of paper fastened at the top by a large black clip. “By the way,” I told her, “I can prescribe something to help you sleep, if you‟d like. Maybe that‟s a short term solution while we get started.” “No!” she snapped, and curiously without an apology. Then we shook hands and she hoisted her briefcase and suitcase through the outer door of my office. I had fifteen minutes until my next appointment, scarcely enough time to dictate my customary summary of the session just ended. Instead, I lingered on her reaction to my offer of medication and began thumbing through the document she‟d given me, which had the word “Tremors” hand-printed in red ink on top of the first page. Despite the mounting apprehension that this was perhaps the worst idea I‟d ever entertained, I kept going. ****** Someone needs to help me, she wrote. I’m afraid to tell Mother. She already thinks I’m a liar, and Daddy’s never here. So, who’s left? Amanda was in the third grade, about eight years old, when she penned that entry. From what I could tell in her subsequent notes, that was the point in her life when she‟d decided that no one could help her and that she‟d have to rely on her own ingenuity. Part of whatever was plaguing her now had obviously been festering inside of her for more than thirty years, rather than being some new vulnerability with respect to her priorities, as she‟d mentioned in our initial meeting. During that first week, I read her material in fifteen-minute segments on four different nights. My objective was to bill her for only one additional hour, although I could have easily read non-stop—and probably would have, if my wife hadn‟t insisted on dragging me into other plans, where I doubt I was very good company. Against my will, my attention was locked on Amanda‟s writing, which filled dozens of loose-leaf notebook pages, her direct and uncensored expressions probing more deeply into her heart and psyche than one would expect from a girl as young as the one who‟d been doing the writing. Attending Catholic schools from kindergarten through twelfth grade, she was the only child of conservative Catholic parents, who appeared to remain married because the Church said that‟s what they were supposed to do rather than because they loved each other. Their fights were legion and frequently documented, shout-by-shout, blow-by-blow, as Amanda listened from her basement bedroom. Whether or not that marriage ultimately survived was a question answered inside the suitcase of documents that Amanda had taken with her. But as I read the child‟s analysis, I found myself wanting to know more, hoping that she hadn‟t been forced to endure the siege too much farther into her life. And, of course, I continued to deny the faint voice of caution in the back of my mind. ****** Her regularly scheduled appointment the next week was at 8:15 am, the first one on my calendar that morning. So I arrived at my office at 7:30 to open up and make a pot of coffee, anxious to begin a discussion with her. Awaiting her arrival, I poured a cup of the Hazelnut and Cinnamon blend—my favorite—and added a splash of non-dairy half and half. Leaning back in

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser


my ergonomic executive chair, I inhaled the coffee‟s pungent steam and slowly sipped at the hot brew while I waited. But she wasn‟t there at 8:15, or at 8:30, or at 9:00, and suddenly my next appointment was poised in my anteroom. I was upset at myself for feeling disillusioned, and I must confess that I was fully distracted during my next two sessions, which made me feel guilty. Then, during the break between 11:00 and my 11:15, my part-time receptionist-secretary knocked on my door, informing me that the Fed Ex man had arrived with a large package requiring my signature. The box turned out to be too heavy for me to lift, so the Fed Ex man wheeled his hand truck into my office and edged the package onto the carpeting beside my desk. After scribbling my signature on his electronic clipboard, I was left alone again, my curiosity fueled by the unfamiliar return address and the pressure of only six minutes remaining until my next patient. Slicing the seams of sealing tape with my letter opener, I ripped at the top flaps of the box until they popped open. When I‟d removed several layers of balled up tissue paper, I inhaled sharply and peered down at Amanda Palmer‟s suitcase. ****** She had not included any note of explanation in the box, and I even opened the suitcase just to be sure she hadn‟t placed a letter inside. Instead, I came face-to-face with the sections of her life that she had so meticulously arranged for me. Torn between wanting to know and believing I should not, I closed and zipped the lid and then did my best to give my 11:15 the attention she deserved. When the day mercifully ended with my 3:15 needing to leave early, I toyed with the idea of calling Amanda at her office to find out what was going on. But due to obvious privacy concerns, psychiatrists don‟t make such calls unless there‟s an unquestionable emergency that leaves no other option. Furthermore, my experience had repeatedly shown me that patients generally tend to resurface with all sorts of explanations, especially after receiving my bill for an appointment missed without twenty-four hours notice. So I took some time to catch up on my notes from the day‟s sessions, struggling to remember what had happened during most of them. Then I locked up and went home, leaving Amanda‟s suitcase inside the packing box in the corner of my office. ****** Two excruciating days later, I still had not heard from her and decided I would call the next morning and ask her to stop by and pick up her material. Rather than intriguing me, this game she was playing wasn‟t fun anymore—and notwithstanding her initial appeal, I had neither the time nor the stamina for something this unconventional. But at 8:00 am on the third day, the special delivery postman added another yet layer of complexity when he arrived with an Express Mail envelope from her. Dear Doctor, she wrote, well, here you go—the beginning of Amanda Palmer right up to the end. Thanks for trying. Sorry I didn’t call. Please hang onto the suitcase for safe keeping. Everything is in there. A.P. As soon as my 9:15 appointment was over, I telephoned the business number on her General Information card. “Good morning,” the female voice said on the other end. “How may I direct your call?”

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser


“Hello. I‟d like to speak with Amanda Palmer.” After a notable pause, the woman asked me to hold for a minute. Then a man‟s voice took her place. “This is Mr. Edders in Human Resources. May I help you?” “Actually,” I said, “I think I might have been transferred to you by mistake. I‟m trying to reach Amanda Palmer. If she‟s not in, I can just leave a message on her voicemail.” “Are you a client, sir?” “No,” I answered, feeling a fusion of annoyance and concern, “I‟m a friend. Why do you ask?” “Sir,” he replied, lowering his voice, “I‟m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mrs. Palmer passed away two nights ago.” The room seemed to go black in front of my eyes for a moment, and some invisible weight slammed against my chest, preventing my lungs from taking in air. “What?” I struggled to speak. “What happened?” I added, not really expecting him to explain. “You‟ll have to contact the family for further information, sir.” “Yes, of course,” I said, not certain how I was putting any words together at all. “Thank you for telling me.” Moments later, I ushered my 10:15 into my office, which really wasn‟t fair because I didn‟t hear half of what he was saying, and the only thing I could see was that damn box in the corner. ****** The voicemail message left on my machine later that afternoon tore at my heart. “My name is Allen Palmer, Amanda Palmer‟s husband. I‟m not sure if you know or remember her, but I found your card in her purse and thought there might be a chance that you could answer some questions for me. You see, Amanda is dead, from an apparent overdose of sedatives, and I can‟t understand why she would have done something like that. I know she was busy. We both were. But we were finally trying to have a baby, and she seemed to be so happy. If she was seeing you, maybe she told you something that would help me come to grips with this.” He then left his number and asked me to call him. Everything is in there, she‟d said in her Express Mail note to me. Staring at the box in the corner, my ethical dilemma slapped me across the face. By entrusting me with that suitcase, she might as well have told me in confidence about each page of her writing, and I was bound by the doctor-patient privilege, prohibiting me from helping Amanda‟s husband work through this horrific scenario. Feeling sick to my stomach, I reached for the glass of water on my desk and closed my eyes. ****** “So anyway, Doctor, Allen and I have been trying to have a baby for almost a year, and I guess that‟s been causing a little more stress than I realized.” When I opened my eyes, I could have sworn that Amanda Palmer was sitting across the office from me, in the chair she‟d chosen two weeks earlier when she first came to see me. As she punctuated her remarks with those extraordinary eyes, I blinked my way into the realization

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser


that she actually was there, and furthermore, that she was very much alive. On the floor by her feet, with the zippered lid open, was the suitcase, each group of her writings clearly displayed and fastened on top with a black clip. “Doctor,” she said again, leaning forward with a troubled look on her face, “are you all right?” “Excuse me?” I asked, feeling a little embarrassed and reaching back through my professional experience for a thread of explanation about what had just happened to me. “Oh, my,” I said, certain that I was stammering, “I‟m afraid I‟ve been unforgivably preoccupied. I hope you‟ll accept my apology, if I appeared to drift off somewhere.” “Don‟t be silly, Doctor. I‟m just relieved that you‟re okay. I suppose it was a little presumptuous of me to bring all of this stuff in here again today—so I guess it‟s not surprising that you were thrown off your mark,” she added with an impish smile. “Well, you do get an „A‟ for creativity,” I replied, giving her an awkward grin and waiting for my discomfort to moderate. “But as I said earlier—or perhaps I didn‟t say it and only thought I did,” I said, half speaking to myself, “I‟m afraid we‟ll need to proceed in a more conventional manner, if you still wish to do this. Maybe you could focus on a section of your writing each week and then, when we meet, highlight the points for me that you believe are relevant. I‟m just afraid that I won‟t be able to do any more of the reading, after giving the idea careful consideration. I hope you understand.” “Yes, I do, and I can live with that. Frankly, I feel a little better already after talking with you today. Perhaps there‟s something to be gained from these visits after all.” I didn‟t want to scuttle our momentum by asking her to repeat everything she‟d said to me while I‟d been so perplexingly absent. Nor did I want her to think that I was the one needing a psychiatrist by trying to describe for her the phenomenon that had just taken place. So I let the session come to a natural conclusion and then watched her leave, luggage in hand. “See you next week, Doctor,” she said waving to me over her shoulder. “Right,” I replied, glancing at my watch and noting that I only had five minutes before my next appointment. What a fine line we walk, I was thinking, between good judgment and bad—and how many lives hang in the balance, helplessly dependent upon the direction we choose every time we come to a fork in the road. How tempted I was to veer off the professional path with Amanda Palmer. Taking on that suitcase would have been disastrous. But somehow the potential nightmare only played out in my mind—perhaps as a warning. Picking up the phone, I telephoned my wife. “Hi, honey,” she said. “Why are you calling me from work? Is everything okay?” “Yes. Well, no. Not really. Actually … well, sort of. I‟ve been thinking about that vacation you‟ve been pushing. Want to go out to dinner tonight and talk about it?” She was very sweet and did not make mention of my apparent meltdown. “You bet!” she replied with her typical zest and spontaneity. “Want me to make a reservation?” “Sure. Wherever you want to go.” “Great!” she said. “See you tonight. Oh, and one more thing.” “What?” “I‟ll still love you,” she answered, a broad smile evident in her voice, “no matter what you think you‟ve done.”

The Palmer Primer/Cheri Laser

8 ******

As my real 9:15 made his way to his customary end of the sofa, locked and loaded with his latest installment of sibling and in-law traumas, I found myself giving thanks for many things, not the least of which was a living, breathing Amanda Palmer—and the best of which was the blessing of my wife, who was, inexplicably, still energized at the prospect of having a conversation with me after more than thirty-five years of marriage. She’s really going to get a kick out of this one, I thought, as my 9:15 began blathering away at me before I even sat down. ****** The next morning, there was a message from Amanda waiting for me on my private line. “Doctor, if the offer‟s still open, I think I‟d like to take you upon those sleeping pills.”

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