Reluctant Healer

My luck with girls changed when I moved to San Francisco to work for The Mercury as a Circulation Manager.  Sarah Cohen, who sat next to me in the collection of cubes by the stairwell, was so very different from the young ladies at Texas Baptist, my alma mater.  She had unshaved armpits, for one thing.

Her living situation was a couch in her girlfriend’s apartment, so we usually spent the night at my place: a small, roach-infested studio in the Mission District.  It was modest, but convenient to her social scene: a place called Vegan’s All Night Kitchen.  I had tried to keep up with her, but my bedtime was earlier than hers.  I would usually slink away around 3am or so.  

“Let yourself in,” I would say.  Her reply was usually a wave and a vague smile.

Some nights she didn’t bother to come home at all.

One morning I woke up to find her sitting on a cushion that was wedged between the piles of detritus that she had collected on my floor over the past few months.

“I’m moving out,” she said.

I had expected this, and even prepared myself to react without emotion.

“Where will you go?”

“I’m moving in with Roger,” she said.  

Roger was a junior mixologist at Vegan’s. 

“He’s coming to pick up my stuff this afternoon.”

By the time Roger arrived, I had sectioned off all of Sarah’s stuff by the door.  I was relieved to clear it out.  We were beginning to look like hoarders.

“What’s all this?” he asked, looking at the books on Wicca culture, the beads and stones, an oversized dreamcatcher with a mounting string tangled up in the knots of its net.

“All of that belongs to Sarah,” I said.

“Unh uh.” Roger said. 

I helped him carry a couple of boxes down to his car.  When his trunk was full, he said, “Listen: you keep the rest.  If Sarah wants it she’ll come by herself.  Otherwise, it’s yours.”  

I watched him drive away.

I let a few weeks go by before I started packing up the rest of her stuff.  It felt weird to handle her personal things.  Some had memories attached to them and some I had never seen before.  Some were toys and books: a button collection, a Micky Mouse hat, an old doll that reminded me that she had once been a little girl.

My studio came with a basement storage unit that sometimes flooded, but it was better than throwing it out.

As I was picking up one of the boxes, which had been buried in the far corner, the bottom dropped out.

It looked like a head shop had exploded in my apartment.  I counted 23 sandwich-sized ziplock baggies full of pot, all with names like Three Kings, Citrus Kush, Sour Diesel and Yumbolt.  

I had never smoked pot before, but it was a vulnerable time for me.  

If Sarah had left me because I wasn’t as much fun as Roger, then dammit: I was going to have some fun.  I rooted around the remaining boxes for a pipe.  

I was hoping for something discrete but with a little flare, like an old Churchwarden pipe.  From a distance, I could resemble Sherlock Holmes cogitating on a problem.

Instead I found, filling an entire box of its own, a ridiculous contraption that was like nothing I had ever seen before.  It was made of several stages of hand blown glass, like an old vase.  The remnants of ashes smeared on a metal saucer at one end suggested that this was drug paraphernalia of some form, but how to use it?

I Googled “smoking vase.”

Up popped a more modern version of what I held in my hand, along with instructions on how to connect the tubes, where to put the material and what part I should attach to my mouth.

After about an hour of trial and error, I was able to clean and reassemble the Hookah.  Before I lit the contents of the first bag, I removed the batteries from the smoke detector in my apartment and opened all the windows.  

My first experience was uneventful: it was as though I had consumed a couple of cocktails.  I later learned that a typical hookah session can expose you to over a hundred times the smoke you would suck in from a single cigarette.  But I didn’t feel particularly strange, just warm and sleepy.  So much for Citrus Kush.

Like an adolescent boy discovering his father’s collection of skin mags, I experimented with different varieties over the next few days.  The bag labeled “Fucking Incredible” wasn’t.  Something called Zamnesia baked me hard, but still no hallucinations.  I was disappointed.

And then I came across a ziplock full of mysterious leaves.  They were much darker than the rest, and they seemed wet, almost oily.  The label read: “Reluctant Healer.”  For all the hyperbole I had experienced over the past few days, Reluctant Healer sounded like something you might mix in with your tea.

My first thought, as I held in the smoke, was that I needed to quit my job immediately and maybe, you know, walk the earth.  

This didn’t feel at all like a serendipitous whim.  It was just a sudden realization of the obvious.  I had spent the past four years studying the more conventional religious experiences of West Texas Christianity.  One of my professors had told me that I could succeed as a philosopher — whatever that means.  But my occasional philosophizing was random and inaccessible; it certainly wasn’t something I could just turn on.

This herb definitely turned me on.

I exhaled the smoke slowly and held my hands up to within a foot of my face so I could have a good long look at them.  I turned them over.

I’m not sure exactly what I did next, but I must have gotten it into my head to leave my apartment, because I woke up the next morning on a park bench in Haight-Ashbury.  The only thing I remembered from the night before was two guys laughing, and I was laughing along with them in the dark.  But I was also having trouble standing up.  One of them had said to me, “you sleep here tonight, dude!”  

And so I did.

On this new morning, still cool even though the sun had burned off most of the fog, I felt focused.  For once, the path was clear.

Looking around, I saw a man struggling to roll out the awning in front of his store and I went over to help him.  When he thanked me, I just smiled at him and walked on.  

Next I saw an elderly man sitting alone and talking to himself.  I sat down and asked him how his day was going.

“Who is that?” he asked me, “I can’t see too well anymore.”

I could see his glasses were terribly smudged, so I took them down off his nose and wiped them on my shirt.  As I placed them back on his head, my hands brushed his temples and I felt a snap of static electricity on my fingers.  He jumped back.

“I didn’t mean to spark you,” I said, “Sorry.  I just thought your glasses could use a cleaning.”

His eyes were wide with astonishment.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“I’m Clayton Smith,” I said.

His face widened into a broad smile and he jumped up from his chair.  He stuck his hand out, gesturing wildly at the tree in the park across the street.  Then he pointed back at me.

“How is this possible?” he asked.

I must have looked confused, because he sat back down and put his hand on mine.

“Three years ago my eyes started to go.  When I wake up in the morning, I can only see dim shapes.  Now I see everything as clear as a bell!  What did you do to me?”

“I just cleaned your glasses,” I said.

“You cured my blindness!” he said, “This MAN HAS CURED MY BLINDNESS!”

The shopkeeper across the way turned his head to stare at us.


Insanity is something I never know how to deal with.  I think I smiled uncomfortably and turned to go, but he caught my jacket and tugged at it.

“Thank you!” he shouted at me, and then, looking into my eyes, he said it again more softly, “thank you.”

“You … You’re welcome.”  I slipped out of his grip and shared one last embarrassed look with the shopkeeper.  I almost ran down the street to get away from him.


Of course I didn’t quit my job and walk the earth, at least not immediately.  Monday came and I returned to the office.

I stopped doing my work, though.  Instead, for the next several weeks I spent much of the day wandering the office looking for people who needed my help: the FedEx guy struggling to get his handcart through the door; the middle-aged woman in the corner who everyone called Scary Mary, but who wasn’t so scary once you got to know her; the sales rep with the drinking problem who needed to be walked around the block before his boss saw him.

That last one was interesting.  The drunk salesman seemed to reach full sobriety the moment I patted him on the back.  At the time I assumed he was just messing with me to make me think he was drunk before.  But now I’m not so sure.

And all the time I couldn’t stop thinking about that crazy old man I met in Haight-Ashbury.  Was it possible that I had knocked a detached retina back in place?  Was it any more probable that he was so senile and neglected that his glasses were so smudged, so funked up with grease and dirt, that they had presented an impenetrable barrier between him and the world? 

The most likely scenario was that he was trolling me somehow.  His gratitude, which seemed so heartfelt at the time, was probably just an elaborate form of sarcasm designed to let me know how little he needed my help.  Or anyone’s.

I needed to find out.

One Monday before work, I walked over to Haight-Ashbury to sit on the park bench I had slept on a few weeks earlier.  As I walked up I saw the man was already there.  He was sitting with another old man and he waved to me as soon as he saw me.

“This is the guy!” he said to his friend, “This is the guy that I told you about.”  And then he started to sing Amazing Grace in this corny voice.  He was really hamming it up.

“How’s it going?” I said when he had finished.

“Come on over and sit with us.”

After I sat down he put his hand on my sleeve.

“I should introduce myself.  My name is Merv.  This is my friend Vincent.  Vincent has glaucoma.  He sees a little better than I did, but do you think you could help him also?”

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t know what happened, but it’s not like I have any special powers or anything.  I’m not even a doctor.”

“You’re too modest,” Merv said, “whatever you have is a gift.  And I am grateful.  Please help my friend.”

The old man was making me uncomfortable, but I could see that denying his memory of the moment I cleaned off his glasses was not going to work.  And because his friend Vincent did not have glasses, I was certain I would not be able to replicate the results.  I would need to play to his reality, but also set his expectations. 

I turned to Vincent.  “I will try to help you on one condition.”

“Anything,” he said.

“No matter what happens, you will never speak of me or my powers again.”

“You have my word.”

“My powers do not always work.  And if they do not work here, you will still say nothing about me.”  And here I added, with a flourish, “Forevermore.”

“Forevermore,” Vincent said.

I raised up my hands as I had seen the Shamans do in the movies.  I wiggled my fingers in the direction of his eyes.  “Blindness.”  I stopped to cogitate the right incantation.  “Blindness, away!”

After a long pause, Vincent shook his head.  “Nothing has happened,” he said.

“Alright,” said Merv, “quit fooling around.”

“I told you that my powers don’t always work.”

Merv looked quickly from me to his friend.  “But you didn’t do it,” he said.  “You didn’t do the thing where you touch his temples.”

“Ah, right,” I said.  I waved my hands majestically around his head and then touched his temples.  Again I felt a snap of static electricity. 

“My God!” the man said.

“Did it work?” said Merv.

“My God!  My holy sweet God!  I can see!  I can see!”

I looked around at the empty street.  I stared back at him and then at my hands.

And, for the first time, I believed.  


When I was a kid, the superpower I most desired was the ability to fly.  I remember also wishing that I could control time.  Or be invisible.

Never once did I wish for the power to heal.  But as I lay in bed that night, imagining the possibilities, it seemed to me that the ability to heal was the best possible superpower.  

If you can fly, you can’t really accomplish much that can’t already be done in an airplane or a helicopter.  Perhaps you get a small thrill out of floating effortlessly above a crowd of awed spectators, but eventually the novelty must wear off, both for you and for them.

Invisibility and the ability to control time are both solitary pursuits.  No one can be aware of your superpowers when they happen, only the result.  Of course, both would allow you to discover secrets.

But with healing comes the ability to restore hope to the sick and wounded.

Sleepless, I wondered about the extent of my powers.  Could I cure mental illness?  Save a man suffering from a heart attack?  Bring a person out of a coma?  I imagined a long line of sombre people lining up to meet me and tell me about their problems: how they had been unable to think about anything else, how they longed for the simple pleasures of life.  Then I would heal them and they would thank me profusely.  “It’s nothing,” I would say, “You can repay me by doing something good for the world.  Next, please.”

But as I thought more about it, I realized that, for all the possibilities, this superpower presented problems.  If I could truly heal anyone of any ailment, the demand for my services would only grow.  After healing someone’s traumatic brain injury, it would only be a matter of time before they would come back to me with something else, stage 4 cancer, perhaps.  And how could I say no?  How could I ever place my own quality of life above the people who were desperate for a miracle?  “Sleep now?” they would ask, “Are you insane?  This lady will be dead in the morning.”

 I must be discrete.  Setting out a shingle as a miracle worker was out of the question.  But how else might I reach the people who most needed my help?

Eventually I came up with the idea of volunteering in the cancer ward at a local hospital.  I would visit with patients posing not as a doctor, but as a good samaritan there to comfort the sick.  As they talked, I would casually touch them over the area where they said their tumor was.  They would be cured without knowing that it was me.  With some cancers, it might be weeks before a test confirmed that they had gone into remission.  

By then I would be long gone.  A stranger in a new town.

I found an organization called Dr. Wigglesworth which trains people to become hospital clowns.  I’ve always been afraid of clowns, but apparently people who are dealing with the gravity of terminal illness rather like them.

So I went down to the Dr. Wigglesworth Academy, which was located on the second floor of a townhouse in the Richmond District.  They had to buzz me up.

My intake interview was with this cloyingly cheerful woman named Anne.  Except for an overabundance of foundation on her face, nothing about Anne’s appearance suggested that she had a clown alter-ego.  

“What part of our mission inspired you to come in today?” she asked.

“I just want to heal people,” I said.  “With laughter, I mean.”

She looked at me for a moment.  Expecting me to say more, I guess.

“Do you have any past experience as a clown?” she asked, finally.

Up until that point, I hadn’t realized that a job as an unpaid clown required an extensive C.V.  

“Not really,” I said, “but I’m a fast learner.”

“You don’t seem that funny to me,” she said.

I later surmised that this was a joke, and that I was supposed to laugh at it to show that I could laugh at myself, I guess.  But I just sat there awkwardly.  I used to clown around a lot as a kid, but it wasn’t something I could just turn on whenever I wanted.

“I’m only teasing,” she said.  “We don’t expect you to be funny on cue, but you do need to bring some prepared ideas for those moments when the humor doesn’t just flow.  That’s what we teach you in our Clowning 101 class.”

I learned that being a hospital clown was not only an unpaid position, but one that I would pay for.  Clowning 101 met one night a week for 8 weeks and would cost me $695.

I also learned that the Dr. Wigglesworth Academy mostly dealt with kids, and thus, quite reasonably, there was a strict no-touch rule.  So much for my super-power.

I told her I’d think about it.

My next plan was to get a dog.  Then I wouldn’t have to be too talented at talking with people because the dog would be doing most of the work.  While the patient was distracted, I’d sort of brush up against them with my miracle hands.

But I couldn’t show up with just any dog.  I didn’t want a situation where my comfort animal jumped up on an old lady’s deathbed and, you know, knocked out her I.V. or something.  I also needed a dog you could trust around hospital food.

I went to the pound hoping to find something small with an ugly but adorable face.  What they had that day were mostly pit bulls.   There was also this one bulldog with a profusion of snot on its face.  I didn’t see anything you would want to put in your lap and pat for hours. 

Also, I began sneezing the moment I walked in the kennel.  Apparently I was allergic to dogs. 

At this point, I decided to abandon my hospital idea and see if Merv might connect me with some of his terminally ill friends.  He was pretty old, so I figured he had a few.

I was right.  When I went back to the coffee shop in Haight-Ashbury, he was there with three other old men and a woman named Irene who appeared to be in her mid-50s.

“There you are,” he yelled to me before I’d even crossed the street, “We’ve been waiting for you for days!”

As it turns out, he hadn’t kept his promise to tell no one about my powers.  But since he didn’t have my contact information, he’d just shown up every day with this geezer hodgepodge.  

He told me about their ailments.  Two of the old men had minor issues: arthritis and chronic constipation.  The third was almost entirely deaf.  

Another, named Irene, had lived with chronic constipation for years.  She was pale and thin.

I set to work immediately laying hands on one man’s knees, another man’s butt.  They registered no immediate comfort, but smiled broadly in the belief that their health was on the mend.  I placed my hands on the deaf man’s ears.

“How do you like them apples?” Merv said to the old man.

“What?” he said, loudly.


The man, still deaf, shook his head.  I touched him again behind the ears.  No zap.

Merv leaned forward.  “HOWS ABOUT NOW,” he shouted.

The old man still looked confused.  And deaf.  And disappointed.

“Maybe you’re nervous,” Merv said, turning to me.  “Do you want to take a break?”

I shook my head.

“Good,” Irene said in a voice so quiet I could barely hear it, “won’t you try on me?”

I touched her belly, near where I thought her clogged poo might be.  I touched her belly from many angles.

“You’re blushing,” she said.

“Is it helping?” I asked.

“I think,” she said, laughing a little.  “You probably aren’t doing anything for my blockage, but it feels nice to be touched by such a handsome young man.”

I looked at her sadly.


I wondered whether my powers simply needed a recharge and I was all out of Reluctant Healer.  That night I called my old girlfriend, Sarah. 

“You smoked my weed?” she said.

“Just a little,” I said.  “Maybe more than a little.  Listen, do you remember where you got the bag of Reluctant Healer?”   I’d already searched all the local head shops.  No one had heard of the variety.

“I didn’t buy any of that,” she said, “it belonged to an old boyfriend who owed me money he said he needed to set up his cannabis business.  As it turned out, he was the only customer.  So I took his stash.”

“Where is he now?” I said.

“Nope,” she said.  “First of all, don’t know, don’t care.  Second of all, if we did find him, he’s just going to want his weed back.  How much did you smoke, anyway?”

“A few bags,” I said.

“A few BAGS?”

“You left it behind.”

“Did you also parade around in my underwear?”

“I did not,” I lied.

“Take care of yourself, Clayton.”


The next day, I went back to Haight-Ashbury, but only Irene was there. 

“Where’s Merv?” I asked.

“He told me to tell you he was going to hold back for a while.  He said he had a reputation to uphold and didn’t want to stick his neck out for a fake healer.”

“But you’re here,” I said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” she said.

“Did it work?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” she said.  “Still constipated.  But it was nice of you to try to help me.  I was thankful for that.”

I reached for her hand on the table and squeezed it.  “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you,” I said.

At that moment she frowned.  It was not an expression of unhappiness, but one of surprise.

“What did you just do?” she asked.

I stared at her blankly.

“When you touched my hand just now,” she paused, groping for words.  “I felt this wave of…”

“Excuse me,” she said, dashing off to the bathroom.


It has been months since I healed Irene’s constipation.  For reasons that I cannot explain, my power to heal never returned.  Or maybe it is still there, just under the surface but beyond my control.

Maybe it was never in my control.  Maybe it was a power that only worked when I wasn’t trying.

Over the past few months I have tried to reconstruct the preconditions of these few miracles I performed unwittingly.  Healing required touch: some form of real connection with another human being.  And healing required me to be unconscious of my power.  It was something not given to me; Something not even mine to give away.