Why who, where, and when are important. But, what is not! by Alan Cameron

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Dr Hoo by Alan Cameron
Illustration by Sue Babcock

What is not important, but let me tell you why who, where, and when are.

Dr. Hoo stepped out on the solid granite stoop. Slowly, he pulled the large, engraved, wooden door closed behind him. The day was fair and clear, but he was not. It seemed that a fog had descended on the present, and blocked off all vision of the possible future. He half-staggered down the steps, and probably, for the first time in his life, shuffled down the avenue.

James Hoo’s mind slowly rebooted, as he tried to integrate now with his history. Come Friday, he would be on the Earth ninety years. What had he accomplished so far? Life had broken into three SOPs, starting from an early age. First, always look perfect, or as close as you could. At twenty-one, upon graduation from Yale, James had bought his first good suit. Not just good, but exceptional. He had received the portion of his Grandfather’s trust given to him upon graduation, went to Henry Poole, stood for measurement, and chose, with expert guidance, very rich, but very correct fabric. He asked for a strong, conservative cut. Dr. Hoo still had that suit, and the additional six that he had ordered over the last seventy years. He had taken the same care with socks and underwear as he did with suits and shirts. Added impeccable ties, sturdy but opulent shoes, prepossessing coat, and classy hats. He had, over time, collected a very impressive professional wardrobe. He not only liked to inhabit his place in life, but also reside in the midst of a sartorial splendor. He felt people expected it of him. It all became part of his identity as Professor Hoo.

Professor was the second part of his identity. He had been hoping for five more years in the classroom before needing to retire. This would have given him sixty years in his role of helping his students. Obviously, he considered himself an excellent teacher, and retiring early would squander that resource.

Now it was over, just over. A few days ago, as he was closing out the semester, grading, packing, and writing letters of recommendation for the chosen few who actually met his high standards, the good doctor had suddenly felt – odd. Dr. Hoo did not like ‘odd’. Dr. Hoo had grown up in New Haven, south of Elm Street, just a short stretch away from Yale. Most of his few friends were still there in the old neighborhood. They had been drawn from his grade school class. One of the best was Dr. Phineas Wen. Phineas’s family had been one of only three Chinese families in the city at that time. During Fang Wen’s pregnancy, she read Around the World in Eighty Days, hence the boy-child got Phineas hung around his neck. He too had gone to Yale, but then continued on to Stanford Medical School. It was no surprise to Hoo that Phineas returned to the old neighborhood to practice medicine near his old friends, family, and the growing Chinese community that he now served. For over sixty years, Dr. Wen had attended to Dr. Hoo as his personal physician. Therefore, it was to Dr. Wen that Hoo had gone to find out what the ‘odd’ was all about.

Today, three days later, Dr. Wen’s great-granddaughter, Nurse Chang called, and in a solemn voice, asked Dr. Hoo to come in. And it was there that Dr. Wen found himself telling his best friend that Dr. Hoo had pancreatic cancer, stage four, and probably less than three months to live. Shambling back down the avenue, Dr. Hoo thought, “No autumn classes this year.” As he trudged away, he noticed the suit he was wearing, and slipped into a review of his wardrobe. Moments later, he was shocked to realize that what he was doing was deciding on which suit he should be buried in.

It was at that point Dr. Hoo’s mind shifted to his third passion: charity. Maybe these thoughts had popped in at that moment, because in his meanderings he had come upon Sarah Wear’s Emporium. Sarah had sat on many committees with him, in his effort to serve and care for neighbors who could not always make ends meet. Health and education support were her specialty, but also near and dear to his heart. His feet, that had been dragging, picked up, and his stride started to lengthen as he turned toward the store. But then they flagged again and he slowed, remembering Sarah’s funeral last week. Yes, she was gone. Sarah had sold really splendid garments at very reasonable prices. The gown they had chosen for her funeral had been absolutely magnificent. A solid crowning achievement to her years helping her neighbors dress well. He remembered all the charming outfits that she had secretly provided to those in need. So many others gave the most economical, but not Mrs. Wear. Always the best she could for all the people in her life, good friends all the way to barely known street waifs obtained her bounty. And now she was gone.

James turned to move on and then caught sight of Bobby Wear, Sarah’s grandson, who stepped out of the store and waved. He beckoned Dr. Hoo to come across the street. Bobby actually looked quite a lot like Sarah. His hair was almost solid gray; he was five-foot-four, stout, and slightly stooped just as Sarah had been. He even had the same gentle smile, topped by warm, accepting eyes.

James had been in the Emporium many times in the last forty years, since Billy had started working with his mother. He had always been polite and said “Hi”, but never struck up a conversation. Billy greeted Hoo with a smile that wilted slowly. Hoo commenced his third rendition of condolences. Slowly, he wound down. Billy faded back into the store portal, saying, “My mom left something specifically for you.”

James thought of all the beautiful outfits in the store. On any other day, he would be thrilled, but today? He clanked around the apparel department before waking up to Billy beckoning toward the stairs that led to the residence above. It was obvious that the gift was to be personal, but what of Sarah Wear’s could she have imagined he would want?

Billy did not ascend the stairs, but went to a small hall on the backside of the wall. He reached up to the third hook on the rack and took down an old housecoat. Not just old, but well-worn, with frayed sleeves. He held it out to Dr. Hoo, who could swear he should have been able to see right through the threadbare cloth – but he could not. Studying the fabric drew him into the color patterns. He felt queasy. Not really sick, but on the edge of dizziness and lightheadedness. His first real thought was, “Have I ever seen a garment this odd and -“ but just as he was about to conclude with “ugly” he stopped short. Unique, yes. Extremely odd, yes. And how did the weaver really get such little threads in an intricate pattern with every color of the rainbow mixed into an area of the fabric so small it was hard to even seen the patterns? And then, how did it end up looking so perfectly balanced, without any actual real design?

Dr. Hoo extended his hand, and Billy laid the coat over Hoo’s arm. Billy said,

“The year after I came to work here, it suddenly appeared on that hook. When I asked mom about it, she would only smile. My mother always kept it right there. Once in a while, I would pass, and it would be missing. But she never seemed to wear it.”

Dr. Hoo thought maybe someone important must have given it to Sarah, and she felt that she just had to keep it and put in it a place where her benefactor would see it, if they came to visit. But, somehow, she never came to work up the nerve to actually wear it. He thanked Billy and drifted slowly back toward the door, turning at the last moment. He gave a wan smile and a nod, before ducking through the door and retreating down the steps.

By now, James was feeling almost desperate to reach his own home. He no longer lagged, but set off in a fast march. He was very conscious of the coat. It stood out like a miasmic rainbow, splotched against his prim charcoal gray suit. But since he had no pocket large enough he was left with simply carrying it openly down the boulevard.

As Hoo barged through his own front door, he was aware of the stillness and forcibly slammed the world outside. He slung the coat onto the vestibule coat-tree and spun away to block it from his sight. As he stood and swayed, he was aware of his elevated breathing and yet his chest was slowly easing. The stillness of the house calmed his nerves, and whispered peace in his ears. After several minutes, the tranquility peaked, and then started sliding into irritation. He could not face the coat, but was sensing irrational dread within his own house, as if there were a battle between the plain walls and the coat. His house was losing, and maybe his time and life were ebbing.

Slowly perusing his living room, it was not the dark tables and bookcase or the plush forest-green divan, or even the Queen Anne high-wing armchairs that were the problem. It was the many tombs upon the shelves forming a wall between the present and the past, now quickly growing remote and inaccessible. It was the lack of life. No portraits or scenic pictures; no mementoes or collectibles, or just plain knick-knacks to decorate the shelves and tables. Nowhere to be seen was any sign that he had lived. Nothing to show for all he had done for others, to educate and care. Nothing for the good doctor himself. No, nothing except an edifice of concentric walls that were built, but now seemed desperately only able to keep people out of his life.

James Hoo, with great effort, swung his gaze back to the housecoat again becoming almost mesmerized by the sense of weirdness. He could not allow it to remain, but there was no right place he could think of to hide it. For his house was regimented and defined with everything in its right place. And the coat was not definable.

This time, as he picked it up, he felt something stiff in the right side pocket. He carefully extracted a yellowed, ancient-appearing sheet of paper, thick and about six inches square. In what appeared to be calligraphic letters, the message said, “I was woven from distaff threads on the day of Creation. I am endowed with power for the good of Man. I disclose secrets and discover needs. Bear me from crown to sole, and you will not be here, but may be there.”

Stunned, he required reading the missive a dozen times through before he understood. Then, he slipped into the robe, which seemed to be just long enough to lap his toes. He pulled the cowl up, and the hood down over his head. He could see right through the fabric, as if it were not even there. When he stepped to the floor-length mirror that he used every day to confirm his exactitude, this time, there was nothing to see. In shock, he lunged forward, until his hand pressed against the mirror. Obviously he was here, but he was not there. He was tempted to go outside and see if he would be seen. He did not, because he could not figure out how to get out without possibly tripping and falling down his front steps.

In setting down the paper, he had inadvertently placed it upside down. Now, he could see a second note written on the back: “To be used only and always for the good of others. Your reward will come from without, not from within. To try for wealth or fame will cause humility to change into pride and pride will certainly turn to shame as you are revealed to all.”

James removed the coat and placed the note in the same pocket. Since he slept in the master bedroom, which was on the lower floor, he drifted dazed down the back hallway and into his room. Automatically, he opened his closet to take off his suit coat. In doing so, he noticed a wooden peg hook on the inside of the door. He had never noticed it there before, but it seemed perfect for the housecoat.

It took hours to get to sleep that night, trying to make sense of the coat, never resolved. But he started to imagine what it would be like to use it. And then to wonder how Mrs. Wear had obtained it. It was then that he began to think with clarity of all the work that they had done together. Slowly, memories of her insistence on who needed help and the types of benevolence needed coalesced into certainty that the coat had to have been involved. This led to thoughts of his own philanthropic interests and the things he longed to know that would steer him to the right actions. Somewhere in his imaginings, he simply faded into sleep.

As the sun first peeked through the crack at the bottom of the east window, Dr. Hoo snapped awake. He was focused, and knew exactly what needed to happen today. Cereal for breakfast, one hundred and seventy strokes for his teeth, six for his beard, six more for his hair, and then to don his number three suit ending with a sigh of contentment.

His office at the college was a seventeen minute, two hundred and ten stride journey that covered three blocks and two flights of stairs. His letter of resignation was brief and impeccable: health reasons, real regrets, some regards, yours sincerely, Dr. James Thaddeus Hoo. Two copies; he delivered one to the Provost and one to the Dean. Short, formal goodbyes to all seen on his departure, with a filled briefcase and one small box. Behind him on the door was a letter stating the rest was free to any and all. Home by the same route and in the same time. Approaching his home, he saw the trash bin out at the curb and it dawned on him he would no longer need these things from his office in this last phase of his life. He dropped the small box into the bin and emptied the briefcase on top.

He had awoken knowing who would be the first trip. Three days ago a neighborhood girl riding her bike home from school had been struck by a car that didn’t stop. She was in the hospital. The police had no leads. As of last week, neither her father nor mother had a job. Dr. Hoo engulfed himself deep in the coat that shimmered in the morning sun like a huge rainbow and instantly wished himself to the hospital room. The doctors were there. Three – short, tall, fat, two males, and all three with expressions more suitable for a funeral home. Yes, she would live, hopefully a long life. Yes, she had feeling from her toes to her golden locks. But the bones in between were horribly mangled and mostly unusable. Yes, they could be fixed, ever so slowly, they admitted. But it would take time and more than a dozen operations.

“How much?” the parents asked. The doctors conferred, some differences, but finally said thousands.

“How many thousands?” There followed a much longer conference, and finally a consensus – close to fifty thousand for all of it.

The stunned, shattered silence went on and on, slowly to be replaced with leaking tears that were hurriedly repressed as the parents realized their daughter was coming out of the anesthetic. Dr. Hoo waited no longer. They did not know him, had never met him, therefore he was safe. Wishing himself home, he disrobed, picked up his empty briefcase and headed to his bank. It was a solid, impregnable mountain of a building. The clerk he spoke to was shocked. For sixty years, Dr. Hoo had monthly deposited a steady, considerable amount of money. Today, he asked to withdraw fifty thousand dollars. Cash. No discussion, no. No enticements, no. No dissuasions were to be accepted. Just cash. Home again, he took his now loaded briefcase, pulled on the coat, and left.

This time it was to a small, empty kitchen in the home of the little girl. He sat in the chair at the small, square kitchen table; it was one of the only two chairs. He picked up a grocery list, horribly inadequate, and hopefully unfinished. Flipping it over, he wrote, “I can help. She will run and play again.” And, after a moment, he added a postscript, “You will need more food for her.”

Dr. Hoo stood, opening his briefcase. He neatly piled the fifty thousand dollars into a pyramid. Then, opening his wallet, he started pulling out twenties and fifties, placing them like crumpled leaves on the top of the pyramid, until there was a thousand dollars balanced on the peak. Feeling high and wanting more, James decided to cruise the hospital halls in his robe, stopping here and there from time to time to listen to tragedies and despair.

For the rest of the summer, this became a twice weekly event that went on until his cancer had dragged him home and tied him to his bed. His bank account, which started at over five million dollars, had slowly depleted and was now gone. But the money, plus his influence on three charity counsels, had multiplied that goodness into an avalanche of hope and care. Now he was quickly coming to the end.

With September only days away, he was in great pain. Just getting to the bathroom was a Herculean chore. Dr. Hoo had finally given in last Friday, and hired a young man whose name was Wat. The young man brought his meals three times a day, cleaned up any messes, and ran the few needed errands. Today, Dr. Hoo had sent Wat to bring back Dr. Phineas Wen the Third, who, unlike his grandfather, had gone into law and been Dr. Hoo’s attorney, to execute his final will. Dr. Hoo had decided to leave his house and possessions to the Children’s Home as a new orphanage. The exception was the robe, which he decided to give to Phineas Wen the Third as a separate bequest. Dr. Hoo did not explain about the robe, but simply told the lawyer to retrieve it after he was gone. Dr. Wen did not ask why, he simply promised to do so.

Unbeknownst to either was the presence of Wat listening in the hall, who then slowly and softly slithered away. That night, as he had the last ten nights, Wat gave Dr. Hoo his evening dinner and nightly meds. He had determined to secretly stay until Dr. Hoo succumbed to his sleep draught. Then, Wat would see what was so special about this weird, worn-out, old coat. But Wat got more than he had planned for. Dr. Hoo, that afternoon, had remembered one last kindness he could do, and was determined to fulfill it. After Wat had loudly closed the front door, but remained inside, Dr. Hoo carefully rose and made his way to the closet. By now, Wat was at the crack in the unclosed bedroom door, listening and watching. He gaped in amazement as Dr. Hoo donned the old coat and simply vanished. Amazement glued Wat to his spot for several minutes, before the silence struck him. Then, he crept back to the front door, opened it loudly, closed it loudly, then headed back once again to the bedroom, only to find that Dr. Hoo had not reappeared. Wat called out, but got no response. After an hour, he decided to simply go home. On the way to his apartment, it occurred to him that if the coat could make you disappear, it might also be able to transport you to other places. It was at this point that he thought, “What if it could make me rich?”

By the time Hoo made it home that night, he was far gone. He took almost half an hour just to get the robe off and crawl back to his bed. When Wat appeared with breakfast in the morning, Dr. Hoo refused to eat. In his own mind, Dr. Hoo knew he was finished. At precisely 5:00 p.m., Dr. James Thaddeus Hoo drew and then exhaled his last breath. Wat carefully cleaned up, then stuffed the housecoat into a small bag. He went out and down the next block to the mortuary to report Dr. Hoo’s demise. Then he simply went home.

His apartment was small, with economical furniture; one small table, one fold-out coach, two rickety chairs, and an old creaky rocker. Wat sat up long into the night, reviewing his plan and dreaming of his future palatial home. Eventually, he fell asleep in the rocker.

The next morning, Wat carefully bathed, but ate no breakfast and fearing the rustle of his own stiff garments, put on no clothes. At 9:00 a.m. exactly, he picked up a large canvas bag, and slipped into the housecoat. With a sigh of delight, he wished the coat to take him to the largest local bank. He found himself in the main lobby, conveniently in the corner next to the vault.

He waited until the next teller entered the vault, stole in behind him, and stood in the far corner, waiting. After making an exchange, the teller left the vault, locking the bars behind him. Wat loaded the sack with all the available stacks of fifty and one-hundred dollar bills. But, when he pulled the sack under the housecoat, the coat simply disappeared.

There he was locked inside the bank vault, stark naked with a bag of money. The police found it hilarious to see him standing there. But they didn’t really start to howl until he tried telling them about the magic coat.

The next morning, good attorney Wen opened his closet door to put on his suit, only to find the multi-colored housecoat hung from a brand-new wooden peg that he knew had not been there before. Looking close, he saw the corner of a note sticking up above the right-hand pocket. He took it out and began to read, “I was woven from…”

Now you know why who, where, and when are important. But, what is not important!


BIO: Alan Cameron has an M.Ed. from the University of South Carolina in Reading and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. He worked for the Red Cross for 30 years. After retirement he taught at The University of Phoenix, I.T.T, Francis Marion University and Centura College.