By Merrily Weisbord | February 1, 2001

Late March, 1990, I get a call from Dr. R. He wants to write a book and he needs a ghost writer. My own books earn me about 12 cents an hour and I have been working on the latest one for three years. I ask the doctor what his book is about and he says "old age," the subject of my current manuscript, indirect cause of my recent impovishment.

"What about old age?" I ask.

Dr. R. tells me he and two colleagues have discovered a remarkable substance capable of reversing the aging process.

His statement brings to mind Alex Comfort’s exigesis on the age-old dream of rejuvenation, old kings coupling with budding virgins, lily-white skin, tender aureolas, aphrodisiac of youth, elixer of desire.

This possible context is inspiring enough that I ask the doctor what he sees as the content of his book.

He doesn’t know. That’s why he’s calling me. I’m the writer.

I look at the three digit check I’ve just written for bibliographic research and say, "I usually charge for consultation."

"How much would that be?"

I think $100 but hear myself saying, "$200."

"Is that for the hour or the session?" he asks.

"The session," I say magnaminously.

I arrive, punctually, at a newly renovated, instantly decrepit building on St. Catherine Street and take the elevator to the fourth floor. I have a deadline on my current manuscript for what a writer friend calls "the nigglies"– bibliography, footnotes, copyright permissions — and it’s driving me nuts. It’s also eating up the advance that was supposed to buy me time to finish my book. As usual, writing is costing me money.

In the hallway, I look for Dr. R., #713, and see, not his name but a sign advertsing hair transplants. A second sign offers allergy treatments.

Dr. R. opens the door and we take each other in. I register a swarthy man with greased black hair in a gold-buttoned navy blue blazer. Later, I will notice that the blazer barely stretches across his girth and his carriage is that of a corseted peacock.

He sees a not old, not young woman in a black miniskirt. navyblue jacket ,with a red silk blouse, and a red satin bow in her hair. He appears as surprised to see me as I am to see him.

From the back emerges another male figure, Dr. M., rotund and pasty-faced, cheeks like dough spilling out at the edges.

We stand awkwardly in a cavernous, fluorescent-lit waiting room, chairs stuck against the wall and separated by plants for maximum alienation. Dr. M. initiates the where-will-we-sit dance. I move us into the office, decline the swivel chair behind the expansive desk, and squeeze a small chair at the desk corner where I can face them all, one doctor still to come.

It is 7:03 and the session has begun.

Dr. R. leads off. Research has led him to a revolutionary new theory on aging and what he wants to write is a best-seller "like these" and he shows me two self-help paperbacks with solid print covers.

"What would be in the book?" I wonder.

Dr. R. tells me that the pineal gland, "the third eye" which I recognize from Eastern religion, produces a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin makes animals rejuvenate, old rats fluffy and youthful. Melatonin reverses the aging process.

"How do you know this?" I ask.

Dr. M. tells a story which I immediately file as a possible begining for the book: he is treating the very wealthy Steinberg family. Dr. R. is his colleague. The Steinbergs come back from a Rumanian clinic with pills and "things to ingest." Dr. M. sends Dr. R.who is originally trained as a biochemist, to find out what they’re taking. This is how it starts. Dr. M. wants the book to show how a simple G.P. can make such a remarkable discovery.

I write:
1. Intro: Why this book?
2. Beginnings: The Steinbergs, the discovery.
3. Rejuvenation theories.

When I finish, I look up and notice neither Dr. R. or Dr. M. look very well. I am relieved to see the third member of the triumverate, Dr. G., who is walking into the office. He is spare and clean, with a trim mustache and white hair and he looks like people I have seen before. I bring him up-to-date on our discussion and we all look at graphs of melatonin decreasing with age and seratonin increasing. It looks real but it makes me uncomfortable. Everything I know about aging suggests health depends on a complex web of mind/body/spirit.

Dr. R. explains that aging is a disease caused by a decrease in melatonin and an increase in seratonin. It happens in cancer too, he says. In fact until they can synthesize and distribute quantities of melantonin, they have a drug which "acts like" melatonin called Periactil. The Premier of our province is taking it. And, adds Dr. M., so are many of his terminal and Alzheimers patients who live longer and remember better. Dr. G. has organized a massive control study of Periactil in India and it seems to be doing amazing things. As far as melatonin is cncerned, someone in the US is selling it as a food supplement. Dr. R. has been in touch.

Dr. R. stands and strides to the door and it is then I notice his Napoleonic posture.

"We should get the rights for that. At let in Ontario and Quebec."

"Don’t you have them?" I ask, realizing this is somehow relevant.

"No, it’s not the same thing. We have them for Periactil."

Dr. M. nudges Dr. R. " You’re right. We didn’t follow up on Ziphermore and look where it is now."

Dr. G. listens and so do I. His interest is pecuniary, mine in finding out what the fuck is going on. I don’t quite get it. I ask Dr. R. if he takes melatonin and he says he does.

"How much?" I ask.

He sticks two pudgy fingers in the neck of an imaginary bottle, mimes wiggling them around, puts the fingers under his tongue, mimes sucking them.

"Sublingual," he says, "Only at night."

"Why at night?" asks Dr. G.

"In the morning there are some complications with tumours. I wouldn’t fool around with it in the morning.

But at night it makes Dr. R. nicely sleepy. It makes him see "the fogs" in the upper reaches of the room that Dr. G. tells us he saw too as a kid. Dr G. used to play with them and Dr. R. does too, in a way. He describes a night when one of the fogs came on his shoulder and whips around boyishly brushing it off and shooing it away. Then he beams beatifically.

I respond with my brightest, most encouraging smile. I’ve been here two hours. If I can give him an outline, I can go. But I’m missing a turning point, so I ask Dr. R. to describe the moment of his initial discovery. He says for days and nights he was studying in the bowels of the library and, then, one night, he emerged and the sky opened up and there was a big hole and he realized the pineal gland clicks on in the day and off at night and that was it.

I write:
4. Eureka: The Pineal Gland and the Discovery of Melatonin.
And then I manage 4 more headings:
5. The functions of melatonin.
6. How to increase melatonin.
7. Case studies of melatonin
8. Conclusion: Implications of

I wonder if Dr. R. has something on the other two. Dr G. squirmed when the fogs got Dr. R. but Dr. M., who is now asking if I believe in reincarnation, didn’t flinch. He tells me an old man came to him because he believed Dr. M. was the reincarnation of a world-reknown German specialist. Dr. G. says he has a five-year-old patient with a wonderfully evolved past life.

I begin gathering up my papers and in the process hand Dr. R. the outline and a prepared invoice. As he writes the check, I pretend interest in his two colleagues trading reincarnation stories.

He hands me the cheque.

"Can you wait until Tuesday. That’s when I make deposits."

I don’t blink.

Dr. M is suggesting to Dr. G that a hospital administrator they know should use Peractil instead of "cobalt or whatever" on his wards of chronically ill patients — "it would half expenses."

"So, you think it’ll be a best-seller?" Dr R asks.

I don’t know. Who does know? Who can really say in advance? I’ve made it clear only he can do the first draft. He doesn’t have a word-processor and I feel fairly sure he can’t write. I tell him I’m looking forward to seeing his work. I say if it’s good, I’ll show the enlarged outline and first chapters to my agent. We stand facing each other and I wonder if his check will bounce and he’ll have the last laugh. From the office, I hear Dr. M. and Dr. G. discussing UFO’s. Dr. R.’s colour is so high, his cheeks look rouged. Behind him a sign announces that an unavailable drug is now in stock.

I walk away jauntily, find my way around the corner to the elevator, push the button. I am thinking about the guinea pig people in India and the vulnerable cancer patients being used to authenticate Pentactil. About loose science and Dr. R.’s advertising book. About me in my red bow and high heels. About whether Dr. R. is a nutcase, a businessman, or onto somethng. About how an intellectual whore feels slimy and powerful all at the same time.

The elevator door opens, I take the check from where I have clipped it on my notes, fold it furtively and put it in my wallet.

1600 words.


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