Short fiction by Ron Merkin

“Sorry, Samantha, I’m calling because I can’t be at our board meeting this Tuesday. I made an appointment to have a nervous breakdown that day.”

There was silence. Then, “You made… an appointment… to have a… nervous breakdown?”

“Yes, with a specialist! I’m really excited!”

“But… Gloria. I mean… no one… makes appointments to have nervous breakdowns!”

“They don’t?”

“Well, of course not!”

“No one? I didn’t know that. But now that you made me think about it, it seems like all the more reason why I should!”

Samantha slammed the phone down. I just can’t deal with any more of her nonsense, she reasoned.

In spite of that, Samantha phoned again the day before the board meeting. Maybe, regardless of the way she frustrates me, I can convince her to postpone her nervous breakdown, Samantha thought. Now that a few days have passed, some rethinking on her part, along with some gentle coaxing, might do something for her sanity. Attendance at the meetings was dwindling. Gloria was needed.

“How do you feel today?” Samantha asked.

“Why, with my fingers. How do you feel?”

Samantha hung up a second time. She took a deep breath. Gloria’s weirdness was not her fault, after all.

On Tuesday, Gloria’s nervous breakdown went smoothly. Having slapped her face 42 times, Dr. Dejetarias de Glomderwurgedictator jerked her hair. Shorter than Gloria, mustached, he had refined his skill over the years. The balance he’d perfected between force and restraint humiliated and pained his patients to exactly the right degree.

“You’re so stupid! And look at the way you dress! You should be ashamed of yourself!” he intoned, breaking into laughter.

He pointed a finger at Gloria. “For heaven’s sake, why can’t you be more like your brothers and sisters? Success is written all over them!”

“I don’t have any brothers or sisters,” Gloria mumbled. “You asked me about that, and I told you before we started this session.”

Dejetarias’s finger wagged as he improvised. “Don’t project your hallucinatory wishes on me, young lady! You’re the one who can’t do anything right. I’m the expert! You were born without a brain!”

He was screaming by then. Glancing at this watch, he slapped Gloria a few more times and finished the treatment by switching to a normal tone of voice.

“We recommend that you commit yourself to the Green Field Psychiatric Hospital twelve miles away,” he explained. “There, a series of ten electroshock treatments would begin. Should you do this immediately, you won’t have to pay today for this session. It’ll be added to the overall bill at the end of your psychotherapy. Assuming you agree, I’ll call an ambulance to transport you to the hospital. Shock treatments should begin as soon as possible after the introductory indoctrination in order to maximize the lasting effect.”

Gloria wasn’t sure what to say. At least, while slapping me, he didn’t dishevel my clothes, she noticed as she glanced downward.

”Should you need additional convincing, we can schedule another appointment tomorrow,” the doctor went on. “Like the shock treatments, a second preliminary session, similar to today’s, should be scheduled immediately.”

“Why did you have to pull my hair?” Gloria ventured.

“Sorry, sweetheart. We’re over our time limit. That means I can’t comment on procedure.” Dr. Degetarias smiled. “If you’re going home instead of going to the hospital, I’ll tell my receptionist to give you a prescription for some medication that’s effective for patients who have trouble sleeping. Based on how today went, I can’t imagine that you’ll have that problem…”

Then he grabbed her gently by the shoulders. “You worry me. I’m concerned about your future.”

Once home, Gloria thought maybe she shouldn’t have canceled her attendance at the board meeting. By way of apology, she phoned Samantha to ask how it went.

“OK,” Samantha said. “And how was your nervous breakdown?”

“Oh, it’s not finished. Today was a prep session. The psychiatrist who did it told me I need electroshock treatments next.”

“Electroshock treatments! They’re no longer done! Today, everything’s drugs.”


“Yes, you know. Psychotropic medications. Xanax, Celexa Prozac, Ativan, Desyrel…”

“How do you know about these drugs?”

“My mother. Have you forgotten? She’s a psychiatric nurse.”

“Oh. Is she available to do nervous breakdowns? I wasn’t crazy about the psychiatrist’s approach…”

But Samantha had abruptly ended the call again.

To Gloria’s surprise, she did have trouble sleeping that night. I don’t want to take any of those goddamn pills Dr. whatever his name was gave me, she thought, still awake an hour later. Well, maybe just one…

Swallowing it felt discomforting. A second after she had, Gloria felt so tired that luck alone seemed to enable her to walk the two feet to her bed. Thinking the day over before collapsing into sleep, she wondered why in the hell she’d gone through with the stupid nervous breakdown.

“You’ll understand when you wake up,” a voice she thought she heard told her.

“But when will I wake up?” she asked.

“Oh… when you’re ready, idiot.”

She floated aimlessly above gravity. What’s gravity? I have no idea, she realized. A loud noise brought her down to earth.

My fire alarm!

Jolting awake, she could smell the smoke. She had to get out of there! Rushing to put on a bathrobe, she made it to her front lawn in two minutes. Then, watching the fire, she burst out laughing.

Who had started it? What was making it spread? Could this have anything to do with her nervous breakdown? She couldn’t stop laughing.

Groggy, wondering what had happened to the fire, she reached for her phone on the night table next to her bed. “Who’s this?” she grumbled.

“Oh. My name is Bob Zeltby. I’m a reporter for the Whartonville Times. We’re writing an article about nervous breakdown therapy and would appreciate hearing about your experience. Dr. Dejetarias said you’d be a willing interviewee.”



“Has he never heard of privacy!? What about confidentiality?” Gloria erupted. Then, after not getting a response: “Are you there, sir?”

“Oh, yes. I was checking to make sure your comment has been recorded. I’m having a problem with…”

Gloria slammed the phone down. Its impact made her wonder if at this rate both her and Samantha’s phones would soon be ruined.

The thought made her laugh again. She was doubled over as the laughter began reinventing itself. Metamorphosing into a scream, it got loud, louder… the neighbors can’t hear me, they’re too far away, she reminded herself. Shouting to express her feelings even as her throat started to hurt, she found herself dancing in a circle.

Wait a minute! She was going to be late for work!

Glancing at her watch, Gloria realized she’d have to leave immediately. Her boss had been understanding enough to find a fill-in while she was at the “friend’s funeral” she’d lied to him about the day before. But the dental clinic where she worked couldn’t function without someone at the front desk.

“Hello, how ya doin’ today?” she rehearsed as she raced to get dressed. Gloria wondered why she overdid her enthusiasm while greeting patients. A few minutes later, she floored the car’s gas pedal.

“You’re a little late.” It was Dr. Koreen.

“I’m sorry,” she told him.

She began to wonder how she’d managed to sustain this job. She was hired nearly a year ago. She felt a little pride, but her self-esteem was compromised when she remembered that there was an enormous shortage of dental office managers. Was she better than nothing? How she could function in a professional way when she seemed so crazy to herself at home also perplexed her.

Gloria had been at her desk only a few minutes when she heard a dog barking outside, probably in front of the building. But she heard its sound getting closer. Could it be climbing the stairs to the office?

A second or two later a woman with an unleashed dog walked in and approached Gloria’s desk. “Hi. My name’s Doris Filbourne. I called yesterday to make an emergency appointment for 15 minutes from now.”

“Aha,” Gloria greeted her. “But, sorry, I’m afraid dogs are not allowed in our office.”

There was a pause, then: “My dog is the patient.”

“Your dog is the… patient? I mean, we don’t… we don’t treat dogs here. You need a veterinarian specializing in animal dentistry.”

“Nonsense!” the woman said. “All dentists today have animal skills. They all treat dogs!”

A moment, then: “I’m afraid that’s not so, Ms…”

“What? You’re telling me I wasted forty five minutes traveling here for nothing? You’re refusing to treat my dog? He’s in acute pain. You can hear that!”

“There’s nothing I can…”

“I’m going to report you to the Humane Society!”

With that, the woman turned and started walking to the door before glancing back.

“Casper, aren’t you coming with me? Or would you prefer to stay with this stupid woman? We’re leaving, for Christ’s sake! Casper, come here this minute!”

Having stopped his barking, the dog walked to her slowly. Looking through files on her computer, Gloria found the woman’s appointment for the time she said it was scheduled. But nothing was written about a dog. Should she tell Dr. Koreen about this? Only if he asks, she decided.

That night Gloria dreamed that the dog was attacking her. What she couldn’t account for was why its face looked exactly like the nervous breakdown doctor’s. And as if that wasn’t enough: it was Samantha’s voice doing the barking – not the dog’s! The dog was quiet! What was this about?

All this swam in her head while she lay half-awake. Eventually, Gloria eased into a deeper sleep.

The next day, she thought about the dream, but she couldn’t figure out its meaning. Then, as she nodded off during a slow moment at work, a version of the dream repeated itself.

This time, Dr. Dejetarias de Glomderwurgedictator was holding her again by the shoulders. His sincerity – “I’m really concerned about you” – made her realize that everything would be clarified: easier, for the rest of her life.

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