the man who would be art

By Chris Walter

THE GOOD doctor was beginning to lose his patience. He rested his elbows on his desk and formed a tipi with his fingers. Unlike most of the psychological profiles he did for the police department, this one was straight out of left field.

“Look,” he said dropping the psychobabble, “this is starting to get silly. Just show me your identification and we can settle this dispute right now. You don’t need a psychoanalyst, you need a reality check.”

His patient, a slender, reedy man in his early forties, patted his pockets apologetically. “I’m sorry, man, but I seem to have forgotten my ID at home in my wallet.” He spoke slowly and softly, as if each word were a part of his soul that he was reluctant to part with. A palpable silence hung in the air as the doctor planned his next line of attack. He studied the serious-looking man curiously. Reason, so far, had failed him. The patient returned his gaze calmly, and no obvious signs of stress were visible in the lines of his clean-shaven face. Indeed, for a painful moment, the doctor had the unnerving sensation that he was the one being analyzed. The patient put his hands on the edges of his chair and half rose. “Listen, doc. If we’re all finished here, I really should be going. I’m late for band practice.”

“We’re not finished here. Please, sit down. I’m sure the band will understand.” Despite decades of experience in dealing with the mentally unsound, the doctor could feel his blood pressure rising, could feel a vein throb dully in his temple. He was getting nowhere fast. The patient allowed himself to sink back into the leather recliner and sat silently, waiting to hear what the doctor would say next.

Since reason had failed, the doctor opted for a full-out attack. “Art Bergmann is a heroin addict,” he continued. “If you’re Art Bergmann, why aren’t you on drugs?”

For the first time since the interview began, a shadow of agitation appeared on the patient’s face. “I don’t see how my past mistakes are relevant. I’ve worked hard to put that behind me.” Faint beads of perspiration formed on his upper lip and, with a brusque motion, he wiped them away. “Now, are we done here? I really do have to be going.”

The doctor threw up his hands in utter defeat. “By all means. Go do whatever you think it is that Art should be doing. But I must warn you that any further attempts to collect social assistance under Mr. Bergmann’s name will constitute welfare fraud, and I doubt the authorities will continue to be as understanding as I am.” The doctor got up and opened his office door, signifying an end to the interview.

The pretender to the somewhat dubious throne got up and shuffled towards the door. He moved with the gait of someone on their way to a dentist’s appointment, his posture that of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“One last thing,” said the doc to his departing patient, “If you’re Art Bergmann, how does ‘Bar of Pain’ begin.” It was a final, desperate bluff.

“You’re just a fly, hanging up on the wall. In the bar of pain, waiting on my last call,” sang the patient, walking out the door.

The doctor grimaced. Damned if the impostor didn’t sound eerily like the infamous artist he was pretending to be. He shut the door with unnecessary force and went back to his desk. Massaging his temples tenderly, he wondered at his client’s motivation. Patients claiming to be Napoleon or other well-known leaders were common enough, and it was easy to understand why they would rather be someone famous and successful than Joe Blow from Stain on the Map, Nowheresville, but claims to be marginally famous strung-out singers were few indeed. Desperately, he racked his brain for a clinical pigeonhole into which he might insert this most troublesome patient.

The doctor was almost embarrassed about the absurd amounts of money he was paid to attach popular terms like “paranoid schizophrenic” or “manic depressive” to any individual who didn’t fit into specific categories or widely accepted segments of society. It was a convenient way to deal with misfits, but cases like this made him all too aware that his chosen profession was an absolute sham and that he had no more insight into the human mind than the average plumber.

Most of the cases referred to the doctor by the police were straightforward enough. They usually involved patients who were trying to beat a criminal charge, or those unfortunate enough to have real and unmistakable brain damage. The most important thing he had learned at shrink school was how to log thousands of hours convincing bored housewives that they had deep-rooted and serious problems that would probably take years to unravel. The lengths that people would go to blame their problems on someone else was absolutely incredible. Just listening to these pathetic, neurotic people all day, every day, was enough to give anyone a complex.

But Art Bergmann? Despite a lifetime of toiling at rock n’ roll and a natural born talent, Art had consistently snatched failure from the jaws of success. It was almost as if Art went out of his way to screw up his life. Why would anybody want to assume such a tortured soul? It just didn’t make any sense. Fingerprints of the patient identified him as one Gary Petersen, yet despite the conclusive evidence, the nutbar continued to insist he was someone else: to wit, Art Bergmann. The police department wanted the doctor’s professional opinion before they decided whether or not to lay fraud charges against this sorry, messed-up weirdo. Should he tell them that Gary was faking his condition? Or should he just admit that he had no idea whatsoever why Mr. Petersen had taken on the persona of the messed-up guitarist. What if this was just a test run by the Board of Psychiatry to see if he was doing his job properly? His leg twitched uncontrollably as he considered the strange yet increasingly real possibility. The longer the doctor thought about it, the more it seemed likely. Sweat leaked from his armpits and his hands began to tremble. This had to be some kind of investigation, maybe to see if he was earning his grossly inflated paycheque. Perhaps Art Bergmann was in on it.

[Chris Walter is a grouchy old wanker who spends all his time publishing and writing nasty books that no one reads.]