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The Wrinkles

Rating: PG-13

Stephen tells me the wrinkles methodology is a hoax, like astrology, phrenology and those other "unsuccessful bridges between science and superstition." This, after working three months together, here at the clinic where we are interns, assigned by our medical school, here where, each day, we place our hands on the foreheads of children and check them. We tell them to smile, frown. We record on our pads the lines that show up in their faces. And then we diagnose them. Tell them their futures.

Now Stephen says he wants nothing more to do with wrinkles after this assignment is over. But that is easy for him to say. He has long planned to confine his practice to the city — to bond brokers and their sterile wives, and he will have little need for the wrinkles methodology. In my frontier practice I will of course see many children, and this knowledge will be essential. Like with this morning's only negative diagnosis, the young Scot, fresh in from the gold fields. His crisp horizontal indentions above the eyebrows were an exact match to that same feature displayed by nearly every case of manic dementia found in New England during the past decade. Stephen had sighed as he filled out the report that would derail the child's future. What parent would pay to educate a lunatic-in-waiting?

We are taking our lunch across from the clinic, eating sandwiches on a wooden bench while the crowds along Eighth Avenue mesh in and through each other. I am thinking that I certainly do not need Stephen's doubts in my head. In a way, you could say he is biased because he has nothing at stake in any of this. I suppose he must care so little about the wrinkles that being critical like he is requires hardly any rigor at all.

I ask Stephen how his new opinion will affect the report we are to deliver at the end of the term, our analysis of the popular wrinkles methodology. He gazes at me.

"I think that you will have your report and I will have mine," he says.

"That's no good," I say. "We will discredit each other. They will conclude one or both of us are irrational."

"What else can I do?" he says.

Poor Stephen. He is making things so hard for himself — for us. I am afraid he still sees medicine as a science. I don't know — but I am concerned about the effect his doubts will have on the rapidity of our graduation. This internship was to be our final requirement — but if it is discredited, I don't know.

I am almost finished with my sandwich when Stephen asks me to look at him. "Smile," he says. "Frown." Fine, I do both. He shrugs and tells me that I and my wrinkles are pretty much normal, with about half a chance of suffering from severe nightmares. I already know this. I have checked myself in the mirror maybe a dozen times.

"How about you?" I ask.

He stares at me. "I have the forward eye creases."

"Horse manure."

He tips his head and frowns deeply, and there they are, sharp, angling dents between the eyelids and the brows. According to the literature, only Benjamin Franklin and a handful of other transcendentally intelligent souls had ever displayed them.

"You hide your genius so well."

"You want the truth. It's hereditary. Ben Franklin was my mother's grandfather. Every child in my family has them. It just goes to show how much of this is farce."

I consider that, but I cannot let his doubts get to me. After all, I will not get far with a practice that does not offer diagnoses via means of the much advertised wrinkles methodology.

"The eye creases have never been more than theory," I say. "Really, there aren't enough geniuses around to properly test them."

"Please," he says and throws the remains of his sandwich into the gutter for the rats.

I frown. I don't really care. I mean, I care about the patients. Who wouldn't? But I don't care about the proving. If Stephen wants to despise me for that, so be it.

The Scottish boy and his father come out of the clinic and step down to the sidewalk. The black-haired man has the son by the hand while he fumbles inside his thick coat with the other.

I ask Stephen if he would have seen the report by now, and he nods yes. We are quiet then, and we watch them closely until the father glances our way and pauses. He steps down to the street and begins coming to us, son in tow.

"I believe it's your turn," Stephen says to me.

I take in my last mouthful of bread and cheese.

They reach us, and the father says, "What are we supposed to do with this," while holding up the crisp pages of the report in quivering fingers.

Only months earlier I held a horrible fear for these awkward situations.

"It's the earliest sort of diagnosis," I begin, quoting from the clinic's standard rhetoric. "Its benefit is to allow you to begin treatment, even before symptoms of disease become evident."

The father grimaces and crumples the report, stuffing it in his pocket. He turns away from us for a moment, but does not leave. The boy stares ahead with a blank expression, drooped shoulders.

"I have just this one son," the father says slowly.

I let a dismal vision of the boy's future wash over me. I try to think of a highly technical response, something that will confuse this man enough to get him to just accept things for what they are and leave us to our sandwiches.

"Tear it up. It doesn't mean anything."

That was Stephen. He shouldn't have.

The father's expression eases for a moment. Then he grabs onto us with a firm look. "I paid fifty dollars, and it doesn't mean anything?" he says. "It means a lot to those schools in San Francisco."

"There are so many influences on a child," Stephen says. "Diet, the climate, his religion. The wrinkles analysis can't possibly account for all of it."

I touch Stephen's arm. I want to remind him we are guests in this clinic.

"You kids aren't really doctors, are you?" the father says.

I shake my head no. Stephen grunts and looks away.

"Let me go see about this," he says, and leaves us. His tall hips jerk along, and his and his son's matching overcoats flap against each other like they are on clotheslines.

"Saboteur," I say. Stephen grins and sits forward, elbows on knees, his hair stringing down his forehead.

"The thought of that kid . . ." he says, his voice stopping short.

"Maybe you're right," I say.

"I think so."

We are there on the bench, quiet for a moment.

"Maybe there is something to your Ben Franklin eye creases after all," I say.

"How's that?"

"You being such a cynic. Geniuses are usually cynics, aren't they?"

He chuckles. "So the fact that I don't believe in the wrinkles methodology is supposed to be evidence that it works?"

"It makes sense from where I'm sitting."

He frowns and we sit some more. Nothing more to say, I suppose.