The Forth Hand

The Forth Hand


It was deeply disconcerting to Patrick that Dr. Zajac--specifically, his face--smelled of sex. This evidence of a private life was not what Wallingford wanted to know about his hand surgeon, even while Zajac was reassuring him that there was nothing wrong with the sensations he was experiencing in the stump of his left forearm.

It turned out there was a word for the feeling that small, unseen insects were crawling over or under his skin. "Formication," Dr. Zajac said.

Naturally Wallingford misheard him. "Excuse me?" he asked.

"It means 'tactile hallucination.' Formication," the doctor repeated, "with an m."


"Think of nerves as having long memories," Zajac told him. "What's triggering those nerves isn't your missing hand. I mentioned your love life because you once mentioned it. As for stress, I can only imagine what a week you have ahead of you. I don't envy you the next few days. You know what I mean."

Wallingford didn't know what Dr. Zajac meant. What did the doctor imagine of the week Wallingford had ahead of him? But Zajac had always struck Wallingford as a little crazy. Maybe everyone in Cambridge was crazy, Patrick considered.

"It's true, I'm a little unhappy in the love-life department," Wallingford confessed, but there he paused--he had no memory of discussing his love life with Zajac. (Had the painkillers been more potent than he'd thought at the time?)

Wallingford was further confused by trying to decide what was different about Dr. Zajac's office. After all, that office was sacred ground; yet it had seemed a very different place when Mrs. Clausen was having her way with him in the exact chair in which he now sat, scanning the surrounding walls.

Of course! The photographs of Zajac's famous patients--they were gone! In their place were children's drawings. One child's drawings, actually--they were all Rudy's. Castles in heaven, Patrick would have guessed, and there were several of a large, sinking ship; doubtless the young artist had seen Titanic. (Both Rudy and Dr. Zajac had seen the movie twice, although Zajac had made Rudy shut his eyes during the sex scene in the car.)

As for the model in the series of photos of an increasingly pregnant young woman... well, not surprisingly, Wallingford felt drawn to her coarse sexuality. She must have been Irma, the self-described Mrs. Zajac, who'd spoken to Patrick on the phone. Wallingford learned that Irma was expecting twins only when he inquired about the empty picture frames that were hanging from the walls in half a dozen places, always in twos.

"They're for the twins, after they're born," Zajac told Patrick proudly.

No one at Schatzman, Gingeleskie, Mengerink, Zajac & Associates envied Zajac having twins, although that moron Mengerink opined that twins were what Zajac deserved for fucking Irma twice as much as Mengerink believed was "normal." Schatzman had no opinion of the upcoming birth of Dr. Zajac's twins, because Schatzman was more than retired--Schatzman had died. And Gingeleskie (the living one) had shifted his envy of Zajac to a more virulent envy of a younger colleague, someone Dr. Zajac had brought into the surgical association. Nathan Blaustein had been Zajac's best student in clinical surgery at Harvard. Dr. Zajac didn't envy young Blaustein at all. Zajac simply recognized Blaustein as his technical superior--"a physical genius."

When a ten-year-old in New Hampshire had lopped off his thumb in a snow blower, Dr. Zajac had insisted that Blaustein perform the reattachment surgery. The thumb was a mess, and it had been unevenly frozen. The boy's father had needed almost an hour to find the severed thumb in the snow; then the family had to drive two hours to Boston. But the surgery had been a success. Zajac was already lobbying his colleagues to have Blaustein's name added to the office nameplate and letterhead--a request that caused Mengerink to seethe with resentment, and no doubt made Schatzman and Gingeleskie (the dead one) roll in their graves.

As for Dr. Zajac's ambitions in hand-transplant surgery, Blaustein was now in charge of such procedures. (There would soon be many procedures of that kind, Zajac had predicted.) While Zajac said he would be happy to be part of the team, he believed young Blaustein should head the operation because Blaustein was now the best surgeon among them. No envy or resentment there. Quite unexpectedly, even to himself, Dr. Nicholas M. Zajac was a happy, relaxed man.

Ever since Wallingford had lost Otto Clausen's hand, Zajac had contented himself with his inventions of prosthetic devices, which he designed and assembled on his kitchen table while listening to his songbirds. Patrick Wallingford was the perfect guinea pig for Zajac's inventions, because he was willing to model any new prosthesis on his evening newscast--even though he chose not to wear a prosthesis himself. The publicity had been good for the doctor.

A prosthesis of his invention--it was predictably called "The Zajac"--was now manufactured in Germany and Japan. (The German model was marginally more expensive, but both were marketed worldwide.) The success of "The Zajac" had permitted Dr. Zajac to reduce his surgical practice to half-time. He still taught at the medical school, but he could devote more of himself to his inventions, and to Rudy and Irma and (soon) the twins.

"You should have children," Zajac was telling Patrick Wallingford, as the doctor turned out the lights in his office and the two men awkwardly bumped into each other in the dark. "Children change your life."

Wallingford hesitantly mentioned how much he wanted to construct a relationship with Otto junior. Did Dr. Zajac have any advice about the best way to connect with a young child, especially a child one saw infrequently?

"Reading aloud," Dr. Zajac replied. "There's nothing like it. Begin with Stuart Little, then try Charlotte's Web."

"I remember those books!" Patrick cried. "I loved Stuart Little, and I can remember my mother weeping when she read me Charlotte's Web."

"People who read Charlotte's Web without weeping should be lobotomized," Zajac responded. "But how old is little Otto?"

"Eight months," Wallingford answered.

"Oh, no, he's just started to crawl," Dr. Zajac said. "Wait until he's six or seven--I mean years. By the time he's eight or nine, he'll be reading Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web to himself, but he'll be old enough to listen to those stories when he's younger."

"Six or seven," Patrick repeated. How could he wait that long to establish a relationship with Otto junior?

After Zajac locked his office, he and Patrick rode the elevator down to the ground floor. The doctor offered to drive his patient back to the Charles Hotel since it was on his way home, and Wallingford gladly accepted. It was on the car radio that the famous TV journalist finally learned of Kennedy's missing plane.

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Excerpted from The Forth Hand by John Irving. Copyright © 2001 by John Irving. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.