The Nightgown

In Search of the Answerman

Magazine Issue
March/April 2011
The Nightgown

Stranded in Manhattan on a holiday weekend, Nat Solomon, a visiting academic from Detroit, decided to treat himself to an off-Broadway play. The production had received tepid reviews, but he was intrigued by the theme: a Catholic priest had begun to doubt his faith. Rather than speak to his bishop—he’d been there before—the priest decided to reach beyond the church and consult a psychiatrist.

Solomon had lost three of them; that is to say, a trio of psychiatrists had died on him. They were old men; he’d sought them out for their wisdom. It had never occurred to him that, one by one, they’d expire, which they did just as he was getting somewhere. Undeterred, he tried again—this time a Jungian. She was clearly a compassionate woman. Still, when she learned of the three dead shrinks, she turned color and refused to take him on as a patient.

At the moment, Solomon had no one. When it came to his mental health, he was flying solo, barely holding his life together—a distant wife, a rudderless daughter, shrinking income, and crumbling knees. It was quite a package.

He lucked out and got an aisle seat in the tiny theater—the better to stretch out his left knee, the one that gave him the most trouble. Both performers in the two-character play were accomplished, but Solomon couldn’t take his eyes off the actor who played the psychiatrist. Never before had he seen such compassion in a therapist’s face. Each time the priest cried out in anguish, the therapist cried out with him, though silently (if such a thing was possible). The few times the therapist spoke, his words trembled with humility and quiet strength—a difficult combination to pull off. Solomon waited for him to stroke his chin, an unbearable cliche. Stroke it he did, although the stroke was closer to the ear than the chin, which made a world of difference. When the therapist drummed his fingers on his desk, Solomon did some drumming of his own—on the armrest. The priest had been waffling. The drumming was a gentle nudge: get to the heart of what’s eating you.

There was a slight trace of cockney in the psychiatrist’s voice, which was appealing. There was a puckish grin in the mix. All of it was irresistible.

At the end of the brief play, the priest, beaming with fresh perspective, wrote out a check and blessed his counselor. Solomon would’ve done the same. Both performers received a standing ovation.

Where do you find such a man? Solomon wondered, as he left the theater. With all respect to the three psychiatrists he’d buried and a few he’d met at parties, not one had the quality of the man he’d seen on the stage. He was convinced that such an individual could finally set him on the path to mental health.

There were few restaurants in the darkened neighborhood. Solomon decided to have a bite in a tavern that virtually leaned against the theater—Flanagan’s. How bad could it be? No sooner had he wolfed down a surprisingly tasty cheeseburger than the psychiatrist-actor he so admired entered the restaurant, took a seat near the kitchen, and whipped out a copy of Variety. Solomon took a swallow of
his beer and approached the gifted thespian.

“Forgive me for intruding,” he said, “but I thought your performance was brilliant.”

The actor looked up with a smile.

“That’s very kind,” he said, and then returned to his showbiz newspaper.

“I hope you don’t find this indelicate,” continued Solomon, who was slightly offended that he’d been so quickly dismissed, “but may I ask you how much you earn—performing in a play like this. The question is in a good cause. I don’t mean to offend.”

The actor looked up again.

“We don’t get rich, that’s for sure. Actually, we get a percentage of the gate. I made about 70 bucks tonight.”

“What if I gave you a thousand?” asked Solomon, getting in the question before the actor returned to his Variety.

“For what?”

“For doing essentially what you do on stage. I’m not a rich man. I’m a professor of anthropology, but it would be well worth it to me. What’s more important than our mental health?”

“I agree with you on that.”

The actor took a close look at Solomon.

“This isn’t a gay thing, is it?”

“No, of course not.”

And then he felt compelled to add, “Certainly not to my knowledge.”

The actor set aside his newspaper.

“I’m sure you’re aware that I didn’t write the play. I do vamp a bit here and there, to keep the performance fresh; to maintain my interest, frankly. But the dialogue was written by the playwright, Ruth Bender-Farkas, and I rarely stray from it.”

“Bender-Farkas would be nothing without you,” said Solomon.

The actor accepted the compliment without protest.

“How exactly would this work?”

“On a night that you’re not performing, I’d come up to your place—my hotel room wouldn’t be a good idea. I’d ask you to simply sit at your desk, much as you do in the play, and listen.”

“I don’t have a desk.”

“A coffee table will do.”

“How long would this take?” the actor asked.

“An hour.” He corrected himself. “Fifty minutes. The usual.”

“The whole thing’s ridiculous,” said the actor, in a sudden change of mood.

Once again, he returned to his newspaper.

Solomon forgave him. After all, the man was an artist, subject to sudden flashes of temperament. He reached into his pocket, counted out $500, and slapped it on the table.

“What about this?” he said.

It was all of his travel money—but there was an ATM machine in the hotel and at least another $500 in his account.

The actor stared at the money. Then he picked it up, not quite counting it, but giving it a quick riffle. He put it in his pocket.

“We don’t have a performance on Sundays. Does that work for you?”


“Shall I prepare some lunch?”

“No, no, that would spoil it.”

The actor lived in a fifth-story walk-up—a single room with a small kitchen and a surprisingly formidable collection of books. One, Solomon couldn’t help noting, was a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr., but The Best of Spinoza was on an adjoining shelf. Interesting man, thought Solomon. Not just an actor. Of course, he’d surmised as much.

The actor had, unnecessarily, Solomon felt, prepared a snack—peanut butter on crackers. Perhaps getting into character, he showed Solomon to the coffee table with a thin and serious smile, and then sat opposite him, crossing his legs demurely. Solomon thought: This is exactly the way to begin.

Not wanting to be rude, he chomped down on one of the peanut-butter snacks. A drink would have been useful to wash it past his dry throat, but why waste time with asking. Thinking it only fair, he began by telling the actor of the three psychiatrists who’d died while Solomon was in mid-treatment. One had expired quietly in his chair, just as Solomon was about to kick off a session. Surprisingly composed, Solomon had called 911, and then respectfully faded away, later writing a letter to the man’s widow. Only in the weeks that followed did he grieve.

Three psychiatrists. Each one dead and gone. There was a slight flicker of concern on the actor’s face, and why wouldn’t there be. But then that, too, faded away.

“It would be ego to think I had anything to do with the deaths, don’t you feel?”

The actor shrugged and spread out his hands, palms up, as if to say, “How can we tell? If only we had the answer to such questions.”

A perfect response, thought Solomon.

He continued: “The last doctor who bit the dust felt it was important to deal with my feelings about money.”

Bit the dust. Solomon was aware he’d used an attention-getting phrase, a little jokey, perhaps to defuse the pain he’d felt when he’d lost Mel Glickman, an important figure in his life.

“And then, of course, the prostate caught up with him. Brilliant man; brave, too. Continued his practice to the end, although it was hell to see him squirming around in the chair. I could barely concentrate.”

Was it possible that the actor winced and did a little reactive squirm in his own chair? Such empathy, Solomon felt. Incredible.

He continued along. “So we never did get around to covering money, although something strange just happened, just now, right here in your apartment.”

The actor’s eyes widened a bit, with what seemed to be authentic curiosity.

“For the first time, I flashed on my mother’s first words to me about money. I was a boy of 5.”

Now the actor leaned forward, chin in hand, an elbow on his knee.

“Money means nothing to me,’ she said. ‘It’s crap.’ The implication was that there are more important things in life—family, for example, although ours wasn’t so terrific. But I ask you—is that why I can hardly wait to dispose of money on those rare occasions when I have some? So I can wash my hands, metaphorically, of course, and get rid of the crap?”

The actor seemed doubtful. He did a half-shrug this time, and then reversed himself by looking thoughtfully off in the distance, not stroking his chin, but holding it. Then he nodded, almost imperceptibly, as if to say, “You may be on to something.”

“Great,” said Solomon. “That’s exactly how I feel. . . . I’m so relieved to finally clear up my confusion about money.” He shook his head in wonder. “After three psychiatrists and all these long years, you just come along and—bam—you nail it.”

The actor flashed an authentically charming smile. Solomon noticed for the first time how handsome he was. Why wasn’t he a star? Possibly he was a late bloomer. Solomon had a friend at the Morris Agency in Los Angeles. But this was not the time to get involved in the man’s career.

“Then there’s the death thing,” Solomon continued, “something else we never covered. I’ve never been able to quite get my arms around mortality. You live and you die and that’s it. Or—fat chance—there’s something beyond, an afterlife.”

The actor expelled a little air from his nose, producing a snuffling sound. Solomon felt he could read the man’s mind. “The great thinkers of history have been grappling with that question for centuries. Don’t beat yourself up. You’re not alone.” Or so the actor seemed to indicate.

“You’re right on that,” said Solomon, although, in truth, the actor hadn’t actually said anything. “There’s religion, of course, and God bless the folks who take comfort from it. I actually keep a copy of Ten Great Religions on my night table . . . but with each one of them, there’s always that leap you have to make, or you’ll never get off the dime. And I can’t take that leap. To make it worse, I don’t even have a comforting philosophy. At my age, I’m 62, you’d think I’d have one. Maggy, that’s my wife, says ‘Don’t worry, Nat. You’ll get one when you need it.’ I just love her for that.” Solomon almost added: “Don’t you?”

The actor responded with an ingratiating smile and a little shake of his head. “You’re a lucky man,” was the message he seemed to be sending, “to have a woman like that in your life.”

“I agree,” said Solomon. “And I’m so thrilled that you and I are doing this. It’s worked out exactly the way I’d planned.”

The actor smiled again and nodded humbly, as if satisfied he was doing a good job.

Solomon glanced up at the kitchen clock and was surprised, alarmed actually, to see how much time had gone by. He felt he’d barely cleared his throat. And yet he’d eaten up a good slice of the session. He could ask for another hour, of course, maybe a half-hour, assuming the actor didn’t have to attend a rehearsal or something. But this would seriously strain his budget. So he decided to cram as much nagging conflict as possible into what was left of the session.

As if he’d read Solomon’s thoughts, the actor, too, glanced at the clock. He did a little roll of one hand as if to say, “Might as well get on with it.”

In a great rush, Solomon tackled his loss of tenure, his daughter’s arrest for shoplifting, a bitter argument with his oldest friend, an EKG that had frightened two nurses. The actor tried to keep up the pace with nods of understanding, flat-out chin strokes, encouraging grins, and an occasional frown, albeit a sympathetic one. But, finally, he held up his hand. He’d had enough. When he spoke, for the first time, his voice was soft and modulated, but it might as well have been a clap of thunder.

“I have to stop you here. We’re almost out of time. How can I help you? What do you want from me?”

“Exactly what you’ve been doing. And I was hoping we’d get back to my mother. I believe it’s germane.”

He paused a moment to make sure the actor was familiar with the word.

The actor grinned, nodded.

Somewhat reassured, Solomon pressed on. “She was awfully smart, but she didn’t know what to do with herself. Once a year, she’d make a big deal over painting our tiny apartment in the Bronx. She was 10 times smarter than my father, who worked in the garment district, and she clearly should’ve been the one who was out in the field while he stayed home. But that would’ve been emasculating, or so said the culture. So she stayed in the apartment and brooded.

But each morning, after she’d a cup of coffee, she’d hail a cab on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and tell the driver to just drive, it didn’t matter where. And she’d talk for about an hour—essentially what we’re doing. Then she’d come home feeling better, even looking refreshed. All this, first thing in the morning, and she hadn’t even gotten out of her nightgown. . . .”

“Her nightgown. . . .” the actor said, thoughtfully.

“That’s what I said. Her nightgown. What point are you making?”

The actor did a modest shrug. “It was just a thought.”

Solomon reflected for a moment.

“Oh, I see what you’re getting at. Why didn’t she get dressed? She did more than talk in that cab. Is that what you’re saying? If so, that’s really a low blow. Completely beneath you, actually.”

Unsettled, Solomon took a moment to pull himself together.

“I’ll concede she was a little flirtatious. There was one time in Miami when I was 12 years old, and I walked in on her and the hotel manager. Who knows what they were up to. Come to think of it, there was something about a comedian in Monticello. It was probably nothing. The same thing with the insurance man. But first thing in the morning? In her nightgown? In the back seat? My mother? Mom, who spit blood when she had me? Made believe she was chewing food when I chewed, as if to make sure I didn’t choke. Stayed up all night, putting hot compresses on my foot when there was a suspicion that it might be gangrenous—all the while patient, mumbling to herself, ‘This is my lot. What did I expect? I’m a mother.’ Gave up theater tickets to a Broadway show that night. Handed them to the doorman. A hit musical. And what do you do, hustler? Goniff. You just throw her under a bridge, nightgown at her neck, legs splayed, rolling around in the grass with a strange cabdriver, while my poor father goes blind sewing shoulder pads on Seventh Avenue.”

Near tears from that last image, Solomon got to his feet. Only the knee kept him from leaping over the coffee table to get his hands on the man.

“I have to give you credit. You’re some sonofabitch! Why I ever trusted you I’ll never know. You’re not getting the other $500.”

“You go too far, sir,” said the actor, suddenly out of character, taking on a role he’d played in a Restoration comedy.

“Not another dime,” said Solomon, starting for the door. He stopped and called back. “You’re a lousy actor, too. I can see why you’re working in toilets. And I guarantee you this,” Solomon added, with a theatrical flourish of his own. “You’ll never make it to Broadway.”


Illustration © Kari Van Tine / Illustration Source

Bruce Jay Friedman

Bruce Jay Friedman, a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright, has written short stories for magazines like Esquire and The New Yorker, one of which became the basis for the film The Heartbreak Kid. He also wrote the screenplay for Splash, which garnered an Academy Award nomination and the New York Film Critics Circle Award. His most recent book is Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella.