Why We Fight by Laurence Klavan

The man opposite him wasn’t big. Stocky was the word, Dr. Rudolph thought, as he made his first notes on his device. He wrote discreetly, since some patients were upset when he recorded observations. Did they expect him to keep it all in his head? Yet only a few ever expressed such an anxiety. So, you know, it was fine.

Dr. Rudolph knew that it didn’t matter how physically big a person was; if he became aggressive, adrenalin could increase the power of such a person, could even pump up the image of the person in his victim’s eyes: there had been many such cases of misreported identifications before a culprit was caught (“This little runt was the monster they described?” cops sometimes said, after hauling in a diminutive criminal). Anger and energy were drugs in their own right, Dr. Rudolph knew. Anger and energy were what this man, Holyoke, had instead of size, since he was small—not small, stocky.

And his manner was mild, too—that was often the case with those who caused mayhem. According to his file, he never raised his voice, used foul language or was blatantly insulting. Maybe he’d been hollowed out by what he’d done (Dr. Rudolph recorded this thought), and was waiting to be provoked or inspired or in a way filled up again, as if those incidents had been in a sense orgasmic and this was simply the post-coital calm before another storm.

In any case, they had both sat in silence for long enough. Dr. Rudolph had hoped Holyoke would speak first but he hadn’t, so he decided to jump in. (He’d noticed the patient had been kneading his—also small—hands the whole time. Repressing violence? Hoping to cleanse them? Just from discomfort? It was unclear.)

“Do you know why you’re here?”

Holyoke shrugged. Not that he didn’t know, he didn’t care. So Dr. Rudolph prodded.

“Because of what happened at work, yes?”

Holyoke started to shrug again. Then his head movement turned into a nod. It was as if he’d been reminded of something he’d forgotten, which had occurred a long time ago, not last week. And he was glad to remember.

“Yes,” he said.

“You did something?”

“Yes.”

“Do you remember what?”

“I hurt someone.”

“Someone.”

“Several people.”

And now he smiled, which unnerved Dr. Rudolph, a feeling he regretted. (What, was he not supposed to have human reactions? That was ridiculous. No: people misunderstood his line of work, that was all. It was only natural to make such a judgment, it was fine.)

“In what way?”

“Punched them.”

“When?”

“During a meeting.”

“How?”

“Dragged my team leader by the tie across the table.”

“Any idea why?”

Holyoke shrugged: it was obvious. “He was getting on my nerves.”

“And when they tried to pull you off him?”

“I pushed one into the table of hot coffee. The other I jammed hard in the crotch with my elbow.” He rubbed that spot now, for the memory had triggered the pain. Or maybe he was just being illustrative. Or maybe something else.

“So you understand you had to see me? That it’s in the contract with the company for anyone when such a thing happens?”

Holyoke nodded but not happily. “That’s their bright idea.”

At this point, Dr. Rudolph began digitally scribbling about dosages. It was clear that the drug he had prescribed had not been enough: Holyoke was tamer but still projecting an unacceptable amount of ferocity. He’d have to fiddle with the levels.

Dr. Rudolph drifted off now, imagining how it must have been when true talking therapy was practiced (or at least tried) as opposed to mere mood alteration. Now shrinks were just conveyor belts for chemical compounds—or, worse, like checkers at old supermarkets, stuffing items into their patients (another obsolete job and reference). He still dabbled in talking, of course, as he was doing now, but just nostalgically, the way LP records came back for a time after CDs replaced them: it was a quaint affectation. With this patient, Dr. Rudolph pursued it one last time, asking Holyoke was used to be called the Miracle Question.

“If you could wake up tomorrow,” he said, and a miracle would have occurred, what would it be?”

Holyoke, who had been studying the floor, looked up. His eyes widened and softened, as if he had been given a compliment or gift. Yet his tone was particularly fierce.

“That I could do anything I wanted,” he said, “to anyone. And make them like it.”

###

Later that day, Dr. Rudolph had his weekly lunch with Dr. Kelman, who had been a pal since medical school. As usual, they discussed their patients yet kept them anonymous; of course, the patients were in a way anonymous to them—interchangeable might have been the better word. All were violent men (not always but mostly men) who were having trouble being socialized. They had all been bred for aggression, had had their genes altered to reduce the levels of serotonin, plus had had a little augmentation of their testosterone, too, a mixing and matching, a changing up of the recipe. Now they’d done their job fighting and winning the wars that had altered the world’s map and been the point of their existence. The project (named Auroch after a particularly vicious ancient breed of bull the Nazis had played with recreating) had been originated and managed by the Muth Co. Now Muth paid for organizations, schools and individuals to hire psychiatrists to help these men, who were inevitably having trouble being integrated into society. Not help them, Dr. Rudolph thought, ruefully, to numb them, that was his job.

He and Kelman started by teasing what old analytical techniques they would have used if there were still any point to it.

“The Empty Chair, maybe?” asked Kelman, a more playful sort than Rudolph. “Chatting to someone in your seat who isn’t there?”

“Maybe,” Dr. Rudolph replied, more seriously. “I think with this new man, Voice Dialogue might have been interesting. If he has two opposing selves to converse with themselves, which isn’t clear.”

“Maybe just Head-On Collision. Boom! See what he said to the flat-out truth.”

“I don’t know. I actually did the Miracle Question, and that was, well — ” He didn’t want to say “disturbing,” for he knew Kelman was nosy by nature and would want more details. — revealing enough.”

The conversation then degenerated into a discussion of dosages. Yet Dr. Rudolph hardly heard what Kelman considered the correct levels for his current analysand and was deaf and indifferent to his own stated opinion about the same thing. The figure and face of Holyoke kept distracting him, the force of the fellow, even slightly sedated. (And if it was unprofessional to single him out among the others he treated, well—it was okay if someone said that, Dr. Rudolph calmed himself again. Let it go.)

He settled into another night of reviewing client histories, filling out drug invoices and watching old war movies for reference. Dr. Rudolph found that his attention was still dragged away, his mind like a car forced to follow a detour due to a sudden storm and a washed-out road. On his device, he switched to real footage of veterans and the mayhem they were causing at home: overturned desks and chairs in middle school classrooms, bloody beatings administered in elevators at posh corporations, wives and children in sleek suburbs abused and in some cases killed. And he kept coming back to a video of Holyoke, as he fought what appeared to be an army in a boardroom become a battlefield. The man seemed ideal, an impeccable expression of what he had been born to be, the best of his new, aggressive breed. Dr. Rudolph internally railed against himself for thinking this. He didn’t record the observation before taking a pill and going to sleep.

###

The next time Dr. Rudolph saw Holyoke, the patient was no more docile than before, a fact which he recorded dutifully in his device. He didn’t mention that he hadn’t upped the amount of his sedative; in fact he lied for the record about having increased the levels.

“I know what you’ve been doing,” Holyoke said, before either had greeted the other.

“Yes?”

“Yes.”

“What’s that?”

“Doping me.”

Dr. Rudolph only nodded, didn’t reply.

“You’re trying to make me behave.”

“Well…” he didn’t deny it. “You’re aware you can’t go on as you have been. Not in a workplace with other people.”

Holyoke shrugged, conceding the fact. Then he peered out the window at the trees losing leaves in the midst of summer, like small boys going bald, the kind of discordance to which they’d all long ago become accustomed, Dr. Rudolph thought. He was about to ask Holyoke what he was seeing when the other man beat him to it.

“I miss war,” he said.

Dr. Rudolph recorded the new vulnerable tone in the other’s voice. “Do you?”

“Yes.”

“What about it?”

“I miss hurting people.”

Dr. Rudolph waited. “Killing them, too?”

“No. Not that.” Because that went too far? “Because when they’re dead, I can’t hurt them anymore.”

“I see.”

The small amount of drugs had only slurred his speech, not changed the content. Dr. Rudolph wrote one word to describe the essence of what Holyoke had expressed. “Love.”

“Well,” he said. “I’ll have to continue doing that. It’s part of my job.”

Part?” Holyoke smirked, as if seeing Dr. Rudolph clearly, seeing the two of them. It was a kind of bonding, the doctor noted, and had happened quickly. He had been right not to dull him any more with drugs. (And if he felt glad about that—and he did—and that bothered someone, well…too bad. It was their problem, Dr. Rudolph suddenly thought.)

“I’m going to alter the dosage again,” he said. “It is, as you mention, what I do.”

Holyoke nodded. He glanced again out the window, as if at a dying child’s last retreat. When he turned back to his doctor, there were tears bubbling in his eyes, boiled by the loss.

“At the same time,” Dr. Rudolph said, “I’m going to recommend the company give you an unsupervised leave.”

“Meaning?” Holyoke’s voice was choked.

“Freedom,” he answered. “For a little while, anyway.”

Holyoke released a murmur of relief and gratitude. With the end of his sleeve, he captured mucus escaping his nose, an infantile gesture Dr. Rudolph noted. He did not mention that the new dosage would be a placebo, in other words nothing at all. He didn’t internally judge himself for doing it.

###

“Paradoxical Intervention? Is that what you mean?” Kelman asked. This week, he was referring to the old practice of temporarily encouraging patients to engage in the very behavior that had been their bane. This showed: if they could create it, they could stop it.

Dr. Rudolph had pretended to speak hypothetically, hadn’t told his friend that he’d actually done this with Holyoke.

“In a way, I guess,” he replied.

“Because that’s what it sounds like.”

“If you need to name it, name it.”

Kelman sounded less cavalier than usual. Maybe he felt that allowing a patient like Holyoke to “act out” would be a more dangerous proposition than, say, egging on a procrastinator or a compulsive masturbator, or whoever else he might be treating. That had made him change his tune.

“Maybe he’d get it out of his system,” Dr. Rudolph said, toying with Kelman as Kelman had often toyed with him (which had always annoyed Dr. Rudolph, so let him have a taste of it).

“Yes, but at what price? Or whose?”

“You can’t make an omelet,” Dr. Rudolph shrugged, using an expression he’d heard in old war movies that he assumed Kelman didn’t know, unsettling him even more, which he liked.   “Well, anyway…” And Kelman prematurely initiated the dosage part of their discussion, obviously uneasy with where the talk had gone. Dr. Rudolph was satisfied with how he’d smoked out his companion, revealed him to be brave only as long as the conversation was benign. The minute it became challenging—became transgressive—he rhetorically ran, like the sniveling coward he was.

Rudolph soon forgot about Kelman, forgot about everyone and everything, except for his next session with Holyoke. He barely dozed the night before, not daring to take a sedative in case he overslept.

###

In the morning, he let no time pass before engaging the other man. Now that the patient’s “furlough,” was over, Rudolph swiftly recorded his appearance and demeanor (the first was ruddy and revitalized, the second buoyant, practically joyful).

“So? How was it?” Rudolph had intended to parody a typical question after someone’s return from a trip. But he realized he sounded as if he were actually interested in such a shallow way, so his joke had backfired. Would it scare Holyoke away, he worried? No, it did the opposite: the patient brightened further, encouraged by the down-to-earth entreaty.

“It was great,” Holyoke said.

“In what way?”

“The way things are great. Pleasurable.”

Rudolph waited, not wanting to push and be unprofessional. Yet he couldn’t help himself.

“Tell me,” he said.

Holyoke nodded and leaned forward, the way men do in locker rooms when they confide (or embellish or invent) sexual conquests. His doctor imagined him clad in just a towel over his lap and thought he smelled chlorine and the man’s sweat and urine.

“Someone cut me off in line at the store,” Holyoke said. “Or maybe he didn’t. Either way, I followed him into the street. He didn’t know I was behind him. I was as silent as carbon monoxide in an old space heater that suffocates you. As we passed an alley, I clocked him once with my full fist in the side of his head. He went shooting off into the alley and hit the ground, out of other people’s sight. His bag flew from his hand, coming open on the cobblestones, and I stole what he had bought. It was rotten health crap—yogurt and kiwi, which I hate. So I didn’t eat it, I just chucked it out a block away. That taught him. He might not have done anything wrong, but who cared? Someone somewhere had, and he got the blame. My hand felt better afterwards, even though it was bleeding.” And in fact Holyoke’s right knuckles were scraped and swollen and had been unattended.

“Was that all?”

Holyoke scoffed. “Yesterday? It was twenty-four hours. A few blocks later, I saw a young woman bending over to adjust a blanket in her baby’s buggy. I kicked her right in her fat ass, which would have been funny if it had been on film but in real life must have hurt like hell when she hit the street, cars swerving not to hit her, her baby screaming to see it happen. Then I ran into the subway and stomped one foot and then the other foot of an ugly guy standing next to me and I got out just as the door was closing. His toe or toes must have been broken because I was wearing these.” He raised both feet at once, whimsically, and his boots did look heavy, pointed, weaponized. “Whatever you did what that dosage, Doc, keep doing it.”

There was a pause as the patient caught his breath, as if he had actually just performed the acts he had described. Yet when he looked up from his device, Rudolph realized he was the one panting and not his patient: Holyoke had been calmly waiting to be told what to do next.

Once he was able to speak, “Go on,” Rudolph said.

###

As soon as he returned home, Rudolph collapsed on his bed and became unconscious, the effort of being thrilled having taxed him. He awoke in the middle of the night, confused as to where he was: the room was as black as during a blitz and no sounds came from the street. For a second, he thought he was in the dirt, nearly buried alive, hiding during his own imagined military service. He crawled on his belly, propelled by his elbows, as if dodging bullets, lasers, and bombs in battle.

He found himself at the apartment of Saana M., a woman of whom he had heard but never met. He was standing, dressed again in his civvies. She took him to her bedroom, as she did many other ex-soldiers, who were her special clients, it was said. In fact, her services were sometimes discreetly recommended to patients by therapists—Kelman had alluded to doing so in his own jocular way—though Rudolph never had and had been disapproving of those who did, as he had been disapproving of many things until now.

Saana was pretty, lean, in her early thirties. She was nurse-like, not nice exactly but warm in her own way, worldly—unjudging, that was it.

“What’s your name?” she asked, and Rudolph made one up. Then she asked his rank, and they briefly goofed on the “name, rank and serial number” routine from old war movies they apparently both had seen (not many had; he was impressed). He made someone else up.

“What are you on?” was her next question. Rudolph didn’t hesitate with this answer (he had a little on the other two; he hoped it hadn’t been too obvious). Then he worried that he had been too quick with the drug names, too clever by half. Saana only nodded, needing to know that he was on something, so she could protect herself and not get hurt, which had obviously occurred more than once with other ex-soldiers.

They chatted for a while—discussed where he’d been stationed, which wars he had been in, whether he’d been injured or not. Rudolph found himself merging the stories of the soldiers he’d treated, taking on one man’s experience in battle, another’s traumatic period of torture (that he had employed on his enemy, not suffered himself), and his hardships upon coming home.

“And what exactly happened?” she asked.

Rudolph continued role-playing, becoming not just an actor but a visual artist, creating a collage with the lives of the men he’d prescribed medicines. He was responsible for a rampage in a commuter train car, a beating of spectators in the bleachers at a ball game, for choking and kicking of neighbors at a cook-out.

Then Saana stopped him by kissing him and caressing him, undressing him and herself, so subtly and softly that it was as if she were doing nothing: what whispering was to speaking her actions were to sex. Like ambient noise, she expressed just the atmosphere of the erotic. This was what she was known for, what she offered—the approximation of pleasure for men so sedated that was all they could have or handle; anything more would be too much, they would hurt someone, and that’s what Saana (and Rudolph, for that matter, in his own job) were there to guard against.

Of course, Rudolph was not really in this condition. So the experience was only mildly titillating, and that was not enough. When he responded—grabbed Saana’s arm and not even hard, just wrapped his fingers around her surprisingly big bicep, kind of cradled her muscle as a way to bring her consensually closer, her breast grazing for a second the bone of his chest—she knew he was in disguise and called the security man who had from the start (he hadn’t known) been stationed behind her closed front door.

Rudolph only escaped by darting suddenly down the stairs, using his light weight to evade the bulky and slow-moving opponent, a trick they might have taught him in the military had his genes been altered and had he actually served.

###

Rudolph was a little late to his appointment the next morning with Holyoke. The patient was— was impatient, Rudolph thought, amusing himself with a pun he would not have been comfortable (even internally) expressing a few weeks before. The guy was kicking his dangerous boot a bit, his legs crossed completely at the thigh like, well, a woman. Holyoke made a face that meant, thanks for showing up. Yet apparently he still felt disallowed to—knew his place enough not to—actually say something, which Rudolph enjoyed. He didn’t apologize, simply sat and got started, which meant he remained silent for a long time.

“Well?” Holyoke finally said.

“Well what?”

“Don’t you want to hear what I did yesterday?”

By now, it had been a week of Holyoke being free and providing confessions. Rudolph had stopped recording any mention of them, in case someone found his device and saw them—in case he died, in other words, and left them behind. Why had he thought of dying all of a sudden? It was strange.

Rudolph just shrugged.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Holyoke asked, taken aback.

“What do you think it means?”

Rudolph hadn’t asked the question in the therapeutic way—throwing the ball back in the other’s court—but as if he really wanted to know, couldn’t in fact believe Holyoke didn’t know: it was antagonistic. When no reply came because the patient seemed to shrink, become his own size—small, no, stocky—Rudolph answered for him:

“It means I can take or leave it.”

Color was stripped from Holyoke’s face, the way hair is waxed off women and some men: he seemed bare and utterly vulnerable. If a therapist didn’t care, someone who was paid to care, then who would?

Rudolph looked dismissively past him, over Holyoke’s shoulder to a map of the world he had crudely taped upon the wall (not wanting to frame or laminate it, for it had been changing so much lately, it wasn’t worth the effort). He saw that, because of the Auroch project, how the color of their country—and the few other countries that also employed genetically engineered armies—covered almost everything now. And Rudolph thought, if you needed to be born a different way to get what you wanted, you were actually weak and should be in another way re-wired. This would require a new kind of therapy that went past talking and even pills, an innovation that he had arrived at, all by himself.

Rudolph rose from his chair, like a corpse come to life, disinterring himself in an old horror movie (he’d watched those, too) and sprang at Holyoke. He slapped him once, then twice, across his pale face. The action had come too quickly for the man to prepare and protect himself, and he shifted to the side as severely as if his neck had been broken.

Holyoke didn’t stay in that position long, however. Enraged, he faced forward, got up, and grabbed his therapist by the jacket lapels (Rudolph still wore a suit and tie, another affectation) and turned him first one way and then the other, shaking him like a snow globe to see what fell down. He kicked Rudolph twice in the groin, which doubled the other man over on the floor in front of him.

“Get up!” he yelled. “Or I’ll kick you to death right here!”

Rudolph was curled, utterly nauseated. Yet he felt energized, too, by what he had caused to occur. He reached up a shaking hand and grabbed and squeezed Holyoke’s testicles, using them as doorknobs to new rooms of knowledge. And he heard Holyoke’s high-pitched scream as his own “Eureka.”

Every session now became a war fought by one against the other, a wrestling match with no rules in which they rolled from chair to couch to floor, pounding, pinning and biting each other, saying nothing at all after the “hello” that was their bell to begin. At last, months later, Rudolph hid behind the door and jumped Holyoke as he entered, not allowing him time to react. Then he hit and hit him until he killed him and cured him, which had become the same thing.


Laurence Klaven’s short work has been published in The Alaska Quarterly, Conjunctions, The Literary Review, Gargoyle, Louisville Review, Natural Bridge, Pank, Failbetter, Stickman Review, Cafe Irreal, Morpheus Tales, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, among many others. A collection, “The Family Unit and Other Fantasies,” was published in 2014 by Chizine. His novels: The Cutting Room and The Shooting Script were published by Ballantine Books.

%d bloggers like this: