Nowhere Man – Novel Excerpt from Sol & Serafina & the A.I.R.

The latest migraine got Serafina a morning slot with the newest ADHD professional on Team Serafina, Dr. Ebenezer Woolf, psychiatrist.

“He might have some thoughts,” was all her mom, Luz, said, cancelling early Spanish classes at St. Cecilia’s.  As long as Serafina wouldn’t get tricked by therapy into talking about stealing the mini-van at midnight to meet a boy who ghosted her at the winery—which got robbed after she forgot to rearm the alarm—before she lost the only key to aunt Julieta’s heirloom Armada chest from Mexico—she’d see the good doctor.

All she wanted was to feel better—and stop messing up. 

The pastel hush of Dr. Woolf’s airport terminal sized waiting room for a fleet of therapists and tutors was supposed to soothe any ADHD kid with “poor impulse control” who might randomly kick a holes in a wall or turn school supplies into projectiles.  Serafina, herself, was not proud of dents behind her Fab Four posters, caused by a statue of St. Anthony (long story, she apologized). But impulse control issues didn’t usually happen in a doctor’s office. 

To break up the pastels, the waiting room had a collection of framed cartoon kids with bowling ball faces and sad extraterrestrial eyes.  This was to remind everyone how they felt while they were stuck waiting—and how they’d keep feeling if they refused professional help.  

Serafina and her mom sank into one of the black pleather couches.  Serafina reached up to scratch her head and realized she was still wearing her brother Sal’s Bose headphones. These curled over the tops of your ears to let you hear music and listen to teachers simultaneously. They were Blue Tooth, super expensive—no way to afford unless you won them at an FOP fundraiser, like Sal did after an FOP flare up locked his right elbow forever. 

 FOP,  Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva,  was one of the rarest genetic disorders known to  man. It hit 1 in 2.25 million. Serafina knew this by heart since she did a presentation in Biology last year. Back in the day, the first time FOP was recorded, was in the 1600’s and they called it Stone Man’s Disease since it turned people into “living statues.”  Scientists found out that trauma—bumps or falls or strains— could trigger FOP and turn muscles into bone forever. Even the needles on vaccines were risky. The easiest way to diagnose FOP was to check for a missing joint in your big toe—which got overlooked everywhere through the ages. 

At least Sal was doing OK, mostly, thanks to new meds that helped on and off.  They just had to find an actual cure before Sal started college next year.  (He wanted to be a doctor and he was smart enough, for sure.) Scientists were working on  “gene linkage” studies, collecting data from around the world on grandparents, parents and kids with FOP. It was nearly impossible to find these families since FOP was so rare—and to pass it on, you had to have it. So far, there were six multigenerational FOP families located on Earth.  With maybe one more, they could pinpoint the FOP gene and start a cure. In the meantime, the lab at Penn—Serafina and Sal had seen it—was collecting baby teeth from kids with FOP for their DNA. 

Anyhow, Sal couldn’t wear the expensive Bose, since his hearing aids got in the way. Sal hadn’t asked if she’d seen the headphones after she found them in his desk last month. Why waste them? They were perfect under puffy hair. Parents and teachers would never be able to tell if you were listening to your playlist instead of their constant instructions.   

Serafina checked herself in her phone to make sure the Bose were camouflaged. She saw her average 16-year-old face, olive skin over a white jersey-navy shorts uniform under frizzy caramel hair hiding the Bose. She did notice her eyeliner wasn’t helping; definitely too faint for her only good feature: blue-green eyes (people asked if they were contacts). She’d never find a boyfriend.  Not way things were going.

Resigned to a miserable existence in California’s (agricultural) armpit, i.e. the Central Valley, Serafina tapped her phone to start a soundtrack from her History of the Beatles. That was the only high school class she was sure of passing this Fall.  And nobody could say she wasn’t studying if she listened to assigned works. She found the perfect title, right as Dr. Woolf’s blue haired assistant cracked open the wait room door to say “Serafina” in a bored vocal fry.   

She’d just crank up a song in the good doctor’s office. 

Dr. Woolf’s personal space was cramped and dim due to its wood paneling and bookcases packed with drab tomes and obvious titles like Child Psychiatry.  Presiding over the reading material was a green “Sigmund Freud Action Figure” showcased in its original plastic. Dr. Woolf must have bought it for himself and written “Thanks, Dr. W” on the box. Serafina couldn’t imagine a single kid—medicated or unmedicated—bringing in a thank you gift. 

She and her backpack flopped down on one of the green beanbag chairs in the semi-circle of  seats facing a giant oak desk. Dr. Woolf manned in high-backed leather. The good doctor was white bearded, paunchy and slow-mo, like a blasé Santa Claus.  When he was alone with Serafina, he asked her to talk about herself.  But she took the Fifth as often as possible.  Today he asked how she felt when her parents told her to do homework.  She answered that she hated it.  And that she hated homework. 

Dr. Woolf seemed to have a new idea and woke up a little. “Have you ever just thought of telling your folks simply, ‘I’d prefer not to?’” He smoothed the Santa beard. “Like a character in a short story called Bartleby the Scrivener?” 

 Serafina knew the story as she had dramatized it once with Amanda Q for freshman English. Serafina had to play Bartleby and all she did was stand there and repeat, “I’d prefer not to.” She had no idea why Dr. Woolf wanted her to act like that.  Maybe because he, himself, was catatonic, like Bartleby.

Or maybe—it had to be a Sign, the kind Abuelita believed in. Abuelita always said how weird coincidences helped out when things weren’t going so well. And it was up to you to interpret them the right way. In this case, the good doctor was probably giving her permission to say nothing about her unwitting role in the winery break in or losing a priceless key from Spanish ancestors sent by her aunt Julieta in Mexico. It really was all about a crime that she, personally, did not actually commit.  I prefer not to confess.      

Serafina also preferred not to talk to Dr. W.

Dr. Woolf glanced at his ancient leather wrist watch. He then asked if she was using music as a tool for distress tolerance.

Good idea, Dr. W.  

Serafina nodded. 

She knew Dr. Woolf had started hunting for the right letters on his keyboard to report that Serafina was on the job with distress tolerance tools for ADHD issues triggering emotional dis-regulation, poor impulse control and maybe even oppositional conduct disorder. While was on that she tapped the perfect soundtrack from her History of the Beatles Syllabus:

                                    He’s a real Nowhere Man 

                                    sitting in his Nowhere Land. 

                                    making all his Nowhere Plans 

                                    for nobody.       

Right then her mom poked her head in the door. Dr. Woolf was still zeroing in on the right combination of diagnoses on his keyboard. As her mom sank into one of the bean bags, Dr. Woolf looked up to announce he’d like to fax in a prescription for Adderall.

 “I’d prefer not to,” said her mom. Had she been listening at the door to Dr. Woolf’s  Bartleby question?  Dr. W. looked over at Serafina to smile at the coincidence. Serafina did not smile back. 

 “Did you ever see the play Equus?” said Luz, dark eyes anxious, running a hand through her own brown frizz. “About a boy who loved horses? Everyone wanted to fix him?”

 Dr. Woolf smiled knowingly. He actually seemed to be on horse tranquilizers.   

 “Nowhere man, don’t worry, take your time, don’t hurry.” John Lennon was right there in Serafina’s head on Sal’s headphones. They were so light and invisible. If it weren’t for the music, even she wouldn’t even know she was wearing them.  

“I don’t want to change my daughter,” her mom was explaining over the Beatles’ elastic harmonies: “La-la-la-la—”

“I love who she is,” Luz said.  

 “La-la-la-la—” sang John, Paul and George. They didn’t believe this either.

Serafina surreptitiously reached up through her hair to push “off” on the Bose.

 “All I want is for her get to school on time and learn,” said Luz.  “Can you help with that?” 

Dr. Woolf smoothed his beard again and turned to the laptop, as if it were a fortune telling 8 ball floating up answers. 

Conditions point to no, thought Serafina.

But what if a pill could help? So what if they said ADHD drugs statistically made people more prone to street drugs? She had already been offered all kinds of illegal substances at her-CATHOLIC– school. If her mother only knew, she would have let her leave the educational system forever.

 “As you prefer to avoid ADHD medications,” said Dr. Woolf, peering over his Santa specs, “How about this?”  He became animated. “We’re conducting a study on depression and a medication called Depakote.” The good doctor gestured to Serafina. “Depression can affect your drive and focus, like ADHD.” 

“Yesss!” Serafina found herself raising high a volunteering hand. “I’m in!” Finally. Some help

“Just a minute,” said her mom in a tone that meant “just an eon.”  Luz had her arms crossed.  

Serafina looked miserably at the Sigmund Freud action figure.   “Ple-e-e-e-a-se,” she said, turning to her mom, hands together in prayer. “What if it improves everything?”

“There’s no charge,” said Dr. Woolf helpfully. “The Depakote is a study drug.” He looked to Serafina. “You’ll be part of a research project, so the medication is provided for free. I would supply you with a bottle of it before you leave today”

Free drugs? Not a way to sway her mother. 

“I don’t want my daughter to be a guinea pig.”        

Now old Luz was going to block it. No. No. No!

“Depakote has been around for decades,” said Dr. Woolf. “It’s been used successfully to treat migraines. A plus for Serafina.”  As he spoke, a set of forms glided out of the printer on his giant desk.  “We’re just investigating an off-label use for depression. “He handed over the freshly printed paper. 

Good timing, Dr. W. 

Luz took the forms without looking at them, with the same face she’d made over a speeding ticket the other day. 

“What if it gets rid of my headaches?” Serafina’s eyes were starting to sting.  “And I could make it to school on time! And I stop messing up!”

If those magic words didn’t work, nothing would.  

Luz frowned at a form in one hand.  Her other hand independently smoothed back her dark frizz.   “Maybe,” she finally said.  “We’ll discuss it with your father.”

“Maybe” always meant “no.” 
Serafina wanted to yank the Sigmund Freud Action Figure off of Dr. Woolf’s busy bookcases and hurl it across the room.  Instead, she cranked up “Nowhere Man” loud enough to block out the good doctor and her mom entirely.  

But she could still see the oncoming headlights of another migraine.


Photography Credit: Jason Rice (detail)

Carol Zapata-Whelan teaches Spanish/Latin American literature at CSU Fresno. Her work has appeared in “Newsweek” & “LA Times” News Syndicate. Her fiction is in “Under the Fifth Sun: Latino Literature from California” (SCU Press) & “Love You to Pieces: Creative Writers on Raising a Child with Special Needs” (Beacon). Her memoir, “Finding Magic Mountain: Life with Five Glorious Kids and a Rogue Gene Called FOP” (Marlowe & Co.), also in Mandarin & Korean, elicited a movie in China/Taiwan. Her children’s book is, “The Wish Sisters” and her first YA novel is “Sol & Serafina & the A.I.R.”