"What I meant was the everyday fears that often preoccupy people, the
spiders and airplanes and so forth." Arnold paused. He stared at his
hands which were washing themselves below the lip of the doctor's desk.
This was the truth and yet as he listened to himself attempting to
explain it he detected intimations of pomposity and evasion, as well as
the potential for insult if this man, his occupation notwithstanding,
secretly harbored commonplace phobias of his own.
The doctor continued his notations, his hairy and spotted appendage
moving seamlessly across the notebook page. It seemed impossible that
Arnold's thoughts could have any connection to whatever was being
recorded. Though it was probably to his advantage to appear supercilious
or delusional he had been reluctant to offer any more of himself than
what he thought was necessary to qualify for the disability benefits and
actually would have momentarily felt better had the doctor stopped
writing and complimented him on his self-awareness and assured him that
there was nothing wrong with him. But he could not stop himself from
continuing to clarify his motivations.
"You see I have always thought of myself as an extraneous person, if
that term has any significance for you. So it has always been the
possible consequences of danger or violence or misunderstandings that
have concerned me rather than whatever the actual source of danger might
be. In other words, a situation that might prematurely terminate or
obliterate or negate my existence before it had an opportunity to
acquire any inherent or lasting meaning or value. And so that threat has
always, in the abstract, of course, been rather daunting and horrible to
He had wanted to add something about the gulf that he saw between
himself and the rest of the world which spawned hopelessness but at the
same time helped insulate him from fear but he pressed his lips together
to stop, realizing that no stranger could comprehend what he was saying,
least of all this weary old man whose breaths rose and fell audibly as
he wrote. What sort of physician needed to rely on government referrals
to make his living? Had he even been listening, or was he preoccupied
trying to calculate if he had reached the quota of evaluations that
would qualify him for a check, much the same as the one that Arnold was
seeking, albeit a different color.
Behind the desk a messsy bookcase stood like a gravestone in the musty
window light. There was probably a spiders' graveyard that had
flourished undisturbed for decades in the space between it and the wall.
The leather on the office chairs was cracked, the rug was faded, the
ceiling yellowed. Arnold had studied the lobby directory upon arriving,
taking note that the small building was mostly occupied by independent
professionals, counselors, accountants, brokers, and others with strings
of letters following their names which he was unable to decipher. The
bottom feeders of their fields, he had thought, each whiling away his or
her day behind a desk similar to this one, immersed in a private sea of
dust motes, trying to fashion enough activity to justify commuting home.
Why did they keep at it? How did they sustain their self-esteem as the
years of failure passed? What did they believe in?
Suddenly the doctor closed the notebook and also began to rub his hands
together, though seemingly with a rehearsed intent and again as if
preoccupied with matters entirely apart from Arnold's mental health.
"Thank you, Mr. Haus, for your candid responses," he said with a voice
full of phlegm. "As you know, this type of application has many
components, of which my examination is but one, and when they have all
been submitted a decision will be made by the regional office that
determines eligibility. Today we have merely collected some information
nedded to assist the process."
Arnold raised his eyes and realized that he was leaning against a
streetlight pole and that his hands had been rubbing the cold slick
aluminum behind his back. He straightened himself and pulled the lapels
of his raincoat together. The sun was hanging disjointedly above the
wall of rooftops and utility wires that circumscribed the horizon on the
opposite side of the block long city park in front of him, but the March
wind still bore the icy exhalations of winter and postponed hopes. At
this time of year the park was little more than a sloping tree-lined
strip of muddy grass, somewhat resembling a battlefield across which a
troop of heavy cavalry had recently cantered. On secord glance, there
was an actual cavalry still in the midst of its charge, endlessly
reinforced legions of dead leaves and litter skipping toward him as if
intent on overrunning his shoes. As he watched they tumbled suicidally
across the sidewalk and into the street. He concentrated, monitoring the
vibration of his heart as if his chest was a radio that played an
unsteady and ever evolving noontime concerto.
He knew that he should not become overly concerned with the
psychiatrist's report, since the principle basis for his disability
claim was his heart attack and its uncerain aftermath. That alone. It
had been the intake worker who had urged him, after narrowing his eyes,
to add a psychological component, asserting that it would only improve
his chances for acceptance. "PTSD is applied in all kinds of situations,
Arnold," he had chuckled. "You have nothing to lose. After all, you're
not a doctor, you can't analyze yourself. It's important for a claim to
reflect whatever is currently considered a societal problem,
fashionable, if you want to think of it that way." But the fellow had
seemed to know his business, Arnold could tell by the way he had guided
him through the paperwork with smooth efficiency almost by rote, a
manner with which he himself could identify as an ex-employee of the
County Water Department. And so after concluding with the doctor he had
succumbed to the urge to report his change of address to the state
agency in person, although it was doubtful that without an appointment
he would be seen. However if could possibly review the psychiatric
interview with someone while it was fresh in his mind he thought it
would do much to relieve his anxiety.
He had stood in the long reception line occupying himself with noting
the similarities of this office with his own. When he had reached the
counter a form had been pushed at him, as he had expected, as he himself
would have done to his own clients. Then he had stood to one side,
awkwardly completed it with the pencil stub provided, and dropped it
into a slot. Would it ever get to his worker? Would his annotation,
'Doctor visit went well! How long do you think?' even be noticed?
"You'll be denied initially by the government doctors," he had been
warned. "But that's just to weed out the applicants who aren't serious.
Then you can get an advocate, file an appeal, submit additional
documentation from your own physicians, maybe have a hearing, and be
accepted. You might even get a nice retro check back to the date of the
onset of your disability, or at least from the date of your
Despite the season a number of people were stretched out on the ground
reading magazines or listening to their radios. A woman in shorts was
exercising three galloping white dogs, while a muscular bare-chested man
nearby performed millitary calisthenics. An overweight girl in baggy
sweatclothes trudged jog-walking up the slope, pumping her arms with an
exaggerated motion that belied the fixed smile on her face. In the
distance a Frisbee hung in the air seeemingly belonging to no one.
Arnold eyed everything critically, searching for flaws in each person's
veneer of good health and contentment, wondering if they would know what
to do should it suddenly be rent. Gradually the scene became a tableau
of pretension, a sham, doomed bees in a flower garden, just as his own
health and heart had apparently been underneath the well-being that he
had always taken for granted. There was soemthing bitter as well in
their indolence. Why weren't they at work? Did they know of some secret
means to exist without responsibility? He could not imagine baring his
body to the world in the month of March no matter how healthy he might
again become. His heart had become his body.
Excerpted from "Extraneous" by Richard Siciliano. Copyright © 2016 by Richard Siciliano. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.