Just recently I had dinner with my old friend, Margaret Hanson, a retired psychiatrist in whose guesthouse I had lived during my two post graduate years at Stanford University. Although nearly 80 years old, she still had it together and always proved delightful company. I made a reservation at Le Pot Au Feu in Menlo Park, one of her favorite restaurants, now in its third incarnation: mother to son to grandson.
I picked Margaret up at 7:00 p.m., and fifteen minutes later I gave my car keys to the parking valet. As we entered the restaurant, a handsome young man took Margaret’s hand and kissed it.
“Good evening Mrs. Hanson. Grandmother sends her greetings.”
“Good evening Charles.”
The young man immediately seated us at the celebrity table, next to a door-sized window overlooking the beautiful, lighted back garden, a position that Margaret and her husband, Hans, had gradually earned over their almost 30 years of patronage prior to his death.
The restaurant still served classic French cuisine, steadfastly refusing to adopt the current, California healthy/French style of preparation that used reduced butter and cream.
I ordered a 20 year old, single malt scotch and Margaret, no longer able to tolerate the tequila shots of her youth or the double strength martinis of ripe middle age, ordered a white wine spritzer.
As we sipped our drinks, Margaret waived away the server.
“Have you noticed this double white orchid pinned to my dress?”
“I daresay, everyone in this room has noticed it,” I replied.
“Don’t be too fast to mock,” she said with the composed smile of someone about to reveal something confidential. “There is a story that goes with this orchid. Just sit back, enjoy your drink and listen.”
“As soon as I reached 65, I couldn’t wait to retire. I located other doctors for patients still in treatment. To protect the privacy of my previous patients, I destroyed all their records, had a certificate of destruction and affidavit notarized re same and put the original copy on file with the San Mateo Court in Redwood City. I did this because I knew that many other retired psychiatrists had been served with subpoenas seeking former patent records based on some special circumstance allowing the release of records for review by the police or FBI. Neither entity ever proved capable of keeping such sensitive information confidential and frequently caused unnecessary grief and embarrassment to the patients and their relatives.
One day, about three weeks ago, I answered my doorbell to be greeted by some well scrubbed young man, bearing a deep tan and sun bleached blonde hair like some surfer dude Hans and I might have seen on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. The dude introduced himself as an assistant district attorney from the DOJ’s office and announced that he was seeking records from one of my former patients for an important case under investigation.
I apprised him of the destruction, showed him a copy I kept of the notarized affidavit re same and advised him to confirm the fact by looking at the original on file with the court.
He flashed a crocodile smile and told me, that to his personal knowledge, many treaters made the same claim, but still kept a “secret stash of records”.
“How rude,” I added.
“He then asked me, taking a step forward, raising an eyebrow and lowering his voice, if I had such a stash.”
“What a scoundrel,” I added.
“Yes, I was scandalized. I then repeated my original reply and said good-by to him, and smiling sweetly, closed my front door.”
Soon thereafter, I received a succession of letters from him, at first asking me to turn over the records of such and such patient, then imploring me, ”for the safety of some unknown persons”, and finally threatening to serve me with a subpoena and take me to court unless I surrendered the records to the San Mateo district Attorney’s Office.
I finally called an old friend, a retired judge and asked him for help: “Dickey, my dear, it’s Maggie. I need your help.”
I remembered that Dickey had maintained quite a few connections among law enforcement and the judiciary, and then sotto voce added, “And still knew where a few skeletons were buried.”
This time it was I who smiled with admiration. “Sounds like something out of a John O’Hara novel.”
“A mostly forgotten and underrated writer,” Margaret added.
Two days ago I answered my doorbell again. A messenger delivered a letter and a silver colored box. I sat down and opened the letter, written on the Department of Justice stationery, in a handsome, cursive style that would make any grade school teacher proud.
Dear Dr. Hanson,
Please, allow me to apologize for my presumptuous, adolescent attempts to obtain information concerning one of your former patients because I refused to believe you. I hope you will forgive me.
It was signed Michael Flynn, Assistant District Attorney, Department of Justice, and then, on a sticker beneath his signature: temporarily on special assignment at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) at Ray Brook, located in upstate New York.
I opened the silver box to find this double white Phalaenopsis orchid. You can buy it from a standard grocery store, or if you happen to live near an Asian market, you can find truck-loads of the white or purplish-pink variety delivered several times a week. But it was thoughtful of him. And I suppose an assistant district attorney works for a meager salary, especially if the sequester has reduced it.”
Margaret leaned her head back slightly and produced the kind of laughter that only arrived at last, and was traditionally valued as best. Then she signaled to the server to approach.
Looking at me, she said, “Now, let’s order. I’ve worked up an appetite!”
William Masters is a writer and litigation paralegal living in San Francisco.