Gifts of the Magi: For a young doctor far from home, an unexpected present

New York Times: Christmas Day Fiction

Bitter winds churned up First Avenue and tore through the pathetically thin scrubs that Bellevue doled out to its interns. The December sky glowered the same leaden-green color of the bile that Dr. Kamal Singh was siphoning from the gut of Mr. Bill Porter, a homeless alcoholic with a Southern accent, a jauntily curled mustache and a battered walking stick. His skin was sallow and his eyes jaundiced. He squinted at Dr. Singh. ”Thought they weren’t giving visas to Arabs these days,” he rasped.

Dr. Singh controlled his temper. ”Mr. Porter, we don’t discriminate here against doctors or against patients.” He sighed. ”And I’m Sikh.” He pointed to his indigo turban for good measure, but how would a redneck bigot from Texas know Sikhism from Buddhism from vegetarianism?

Kamal would omit this event from the weekly letter to his parents, as he did with all the other unpleasant events of an intern’s life in a gritty hospital in an overwhelming city in an unwelcoming country. Yes, there was decent roti nearby on Lexington Avenue where the taxi drivers ate, but New York hadn’t rolled out a golden welcome mat for the valedictorian of the University of Punjab. His family expected overflowing success from Kamal, and that’s what his letters strove to imply. But the internship was so miserable that Kamal was almost ready to quit and join the taxi fleet.

”Just endeavoring a joke,” said Mr. Porter, tipping an imaginary hat. ”I like to subjugate the docs to my humor. Bellevue’s my second home.”

Dr. Singh nodded, noting Porter’s seven-volume chart. Porter was so anemic from liver failure and his bleeding ulcer, he could barely walk. His breathing was shallow under the weight of his swollen abdomen.

Over the next few days, Porter sobered up, but still looked shriveled and malnourished — the classic cirrhotic. Despite his weakness, though, there was a sprinkling of Southern charm. Porter beguiled the staff in his weather-beaten voice with tales of being a ranch hand, a pharmacist, a bank teller — all of which Dr. Singh found amusing, but hard to believe. Except the part about doing time for embezzlement. But alcoholics confabulate, often grandiosely, so when Porter said he was a world-famous writer, Dr. Singh knew that the alcohol had caused some permanent damage to the brain.

”My literary proclivities arose amidst the depredations of prison,” said Porter. ”Reckon I’ve sold 300 stories.”

Dr. Singh nodded and raised the Ativan dose.

”You cure me strong enough to walk, doc,” said Porter, ”and I’ll bequeath you a story for Christmas. Handmade by an eminent Southern writer.”

Dr. Singh had received a few things from alcoholic patients — gummed-up methadone cards, the occasional trinket, a case of scabies — but fiction would be a first. He had to smile. ”I don’t celebrate Christmas, Mr. Porter, but if I get you strong enough to get into rehab, that will be gift enough.”

”What’s your holiday, doc?” Porter asked with a phlegmy cough. Dr. Singh thought for a minute. There was no equivalent of Christmas in Sikhism. ”In January, we commemorate 40 Sikhs who defended the Tenth Guru. It’s called Maghi.”

”Stupenderous,” said Porter. ”A gift of the Maghi!”

Over the next week, Dr. Singh found that the days in the hospital were slightly less dreary. Porter’s anecdotes were entertaining — like the one about fleeing to Honduras to avoid the embezzlement trial — and Dr. Singh felt almost inspired. Most alcoholics were lost causes, but just maybe he could get Porter into rehab.

Dr. Singh poked his head into Porter’s room before heading home on Dec. 24. Porter was barely visible beneath the sheets. ”Procure me a Christmas present, doc,” Porter croaked, with a feeble wave of his stick. ”Impart a medicine to make me strong.”

There was nothing to save the liver, of course, but Dr. Singh decided to give Porter a blood transfusion for the anemia, even though the chief resident said it was a waste.

When Dr. Singh arrived for rounds the next morning, Porter was gone. He’d checked out A.M.A. (”against medical advice”) during the night. Suddenly Bellevue seemed quiet, bereft. Dr. Singh trudged down the echoing hallway, chiding himself for getting attached to a patient.

An envelope was taped to the nurses’ station. On the back was written: ”Thanks for your gift. Look me up sometime. I’m usually at the back booth in Pete’s Tavern, Gramercy. — W. S. Porter.”

Get an alcoholic strong enough to walk, Dr. Singh thought, and they walk out the door to drink again. Some Christmas present.

In the elevator, heading down to the E.R. for his next homeless alcoholic admission, Dr. Singh opened the envelope. On the back of an old EKG strip was a hand-scribbled story — ”The Gift of the Maghi.” Dr. Singh missed his floor three times while reading. A soft, wry smile remained on his face when he arrived at the patient’s bedside. …”  (From the New York Times).