The First Patient
Born at the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the small village of Skala, Fradel Shtok (1890–1990) immigrated to New York at around the age of eighteen. She began publishing her poetry in a variety of venues and quickly made a name for herself as an up-and-coming poet. In her modernist poetry she experimented with classic forms, notably the sonnet. Shtok also wrote and published short fiction, including her only book-length collection of Yiddish prose, Gezamlte ertseylungen (1919). The settings of these stories tack back and forth between the edges of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire and the bustle of Jewish immigrants in New York. These modernist tales deal with the travails of young women looking for love and desire in a world that spurns them and with the strivings and disappointments of immigrant life in New York. This story, “The First Patient,” features a young dentist seeing one of his first patients. Accompanying him are his overbearing parents, kibitzing and intervening in his practice. At once broad comedy and a sensitive character sketch from multiple perspectives, “The First Patient” is a subtle vignette of immigrant life through Shtok’s modernist narrative lens. We are currently at work on a translation of a selection of these stories. —Jordan Finkin and Allison Schachter
When the new dentist, Turner, a young man of twenty-one, received his first patient he became flustered, turned red, and spoke too much. His parents were sitting in the waiting room watching. After working so long for that diploma, they wanted to get a little joy from it.
Turner guided the patient—a middle-aged woman—into the private exam room, sat her in the chair, and closed the door behind him.
When the dentist’s mother heard the patient in the other room, she actually leapt up from her seat and blurted out, “A patient!” Her husband restrained her, “Shh, sit still.” And when she couldn’t sit still and went to have a look through the crack in the door, he got angry: “Stop running around like that, you’ll frighten the patient.”
When their son came out to get something, the two of them stood up. “Who is it?”
“What does she want?”
“A tooth pulled.”
The father moved closer to him. “Look, son, this is it, your big chance.”
The son was offended. “Papa, what’s the matter with you?”
“No, don’t be mad. I won’t say any more: just be careful.”
“You don’t need to worry about it.”
His mother was also annoyed. She puffed herself up, the diamond pin prominent on her chest, and said in an affected and ungainly Yiddish, “You don’t have to teach him. He already had someone to teach him, thank God.”
The dentist grew angry at them. “This is outrageous. My patient is waiting,” he said as he headed back.
As his father heard the woman groaning, he beat his fist into his palm and said, “He should have had more practice in the hospital . . . to work with someone for a little while longer. To take such a kid . . .”
It irritated his mother that her husband should treat their son, the doctor, like some little kid. She puffed her chest with the diamond pin and said, “Now look here. Why are you trembling? Do you think these are your customers? He’s no peddler. He has nothing to be afraid of, do you hear? Should it make the headlines? When you pull a tooth, it hurts.”
But her heart was also pounding. “Who knows? It’s still his first time . . .” She bit her fingernails.
His father approached the door of the private office, got on his knees, and peered through the keyhole with one eye while making a kind of smacking sound with his lips as if to say, “Not like that, that’s not right . . . twist the root, just a little, ah, ah . . .” He moved his elbows as though he were pulling a tooth.
He heard a shriek and jumped up as if on springs. His wife wrung her hands. “Oh my! Berel, come here, they’re going to open that door.”
Berel went and sat back down in his seat. Soon the door opened and the woman came out with her head down. Turner came out after her, red as fire, and helped her onto the leather sofa he was paying for on installment.
The woman was shaking all over, groaning. The dentist was dismayed that the woman had yet to pay him. Who knew? Maybe she would leave and forget to pay? He looked around, ashamed to ask for what he was owed.
His father was burning to know about the money and was waiting to see if the woman would finally make to leave. At first his mother was alarmed at how the woman was shaking. But when she saw that the woman didn’t faint, she felt relieved. Grateful that her son had not caused some misfortune, she went over to the woman, soothing her and starting up a long conversation.
Though still somewhat dazed, the woman was not at all sluggish and answered each question with three new ones, her voice modulated by her pain. “Your eldest son?”
“Yes, such a gift.”
“Has he had the office long?”
“He’s had it two years and he should have it for a hundred and twenty more.”
“Do you have other children besides him?”
“Yes, each and every one a gift.”
“Seems like he’s just gotten his degree. How long has he been a doctor?”
His mother was terrified; this could hurt his business.
“Goodness, what are you talking about? He’s been in practice for five years already. You see?” She pointed to a jar of teeth. “Pulled them himself, God’s honest truth.”
The woman pulled herself up to take a look. Midway she remembered the pain in her tooth and began walking feebly.
Meanwhile the father was standing with the doctor in another corner and asked him, “Tell me, has she paid?”
“You’re such a fool. Go over and demand it from her. Such a cheapskate, thinking she can ignore it and just walk away.”
“Never mind it, Papa, she’ll pay.”
“How much are you thinking of charging her?”
“A dollar, I think.”
“I reckon half of that. Don’t push it; you’re still new. That’s what the one over on Delancey Street’s charging.”
But what they were talking about was not their biggest worry. Let it be fifty cents. The most important thing was how they were going to get her to take the hint.
Berel signaled his wife to wrap up her conversation. So she steered the woman on to a tangent, then on to three more, and then on to two further little digressions. Then all at once she stopped. The room was quiet enough to hear a fly buzzing. The silence weighed on both women’s hearts; their tongues were eager, impatient, and restless. But the silence stood like an iron wall, unyielding; it lay upon them like a heap of stones. They turned gloomy. A round, smooth thing, like fish jelly, slipped off their unspeaking tongues.
The women were embarrassed to look each other in the eye because of the silence.
The father coughed and the son began to whistle a tune, like a young man who wants to cry but feigns courage.
The father wanted to start a conversation about money, so he moaned, “Ah, such expenses, such expenses . . .”
The patient also moaned, “Such costs . . .”
“Since you’ll be a little unsteady on your way home, make sure you hold on to your pocketbook; there have been pickpockets around here lately.”
The woman clutched her pocketbook tightly.
The father crossed his arms behind him, looked her in the eye, and said, “Oh, the money, the money . . .”
A moment later, when the woman rose and headed for the door, the dentist let out his breath. His mother, not knowing what was happening, accompanied her, but his father took two large strides toward them and burst out, “Pardon me. You know, of course, that at a dentist’s office one doesn’t pester about payment. But just in case you might forget—you owe fifty cents.”
The woman started as if burnt. “Oh dear! I completely forgot.” Then she said with some resentment, “Dear me, I’m not trying to run out on the bill. What are you so afraid of? It’s the first time I’ve ever been pestered to pay at a dentist’s office.”
She angrily took out two quarters, handed them to the man, and left in a huff.
When the door closed they huddled together and rehashed it all as a family. The father held up the money like it was a lucky charm and handed it to his son.
The young dentist turned a fiery red, buried the two quarters in his pocket, and said to his father, “Nonsense.”
His mother grabbed her son and kissed him on the forehead. “My son, congratulations.”
His father quietly repeated these words, stroking his beard. “Do you know what I want to tell you, my dear son? When the Lord shows you a miracle, deposit it in the bank if you want to move up in the world. It’ll help the business.”
The son grew talkative and cheerful, retelling the story of how it all happened. His parents drank in every word, so proud of such a son. But when it came to the part where he yanked the tooth, his father jumped up, clapping his hands. “That’s my boy.”
Jordan Finkin is rare book and manuscript librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. A specialist in modern Jewish literatures, he is the author of several books as well as numerous scholarly essays and articles. His most recent book, Exile as Home, explores the work of the Yiddish poet Leyb Naydus. He is also director of Naydus Press, a nonprofit publisher of Yiddish literature in translation. He was a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in 2017.
Allison Schachter is associate professor of Jewish studies and English at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of Diasporic Modernisms: Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in the Twentieth Century. She is currently completing her second manuscript, Experiments in Prose: Women Writing Jewish Modernity in Hebrew and Yiddish. She was a translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center in 2017.