Chronology and other relevant info

Roughly 30 years ago (early-to-mid 1980s?), I read a paperback science fiction anthology which contained a story of which I only have fragmentary recollection at this late date. I do know that I found it entertaining at the time, but of course I was a heck of a lot younger in those days, and it may not impress me so much if I get to read it again.

I said I read this in the 1980s, but I believe the paperback edition of this anthology was already several years old at that time, i.e. probably published in the 1970s or even earlier. The story might have been even older than that.

I can't remember a thing about the title of the book, nor of this story, nor of any other story within the pages of the same book, nor the names of any of the authors. I have a vague idea that the art on the front cover of the paperback had a lot of dark green (or possibly dark brown, or even both)!

I strongly suspect the story was not written by anyone who is still remembered as one of the "Very Big Names" of 20th Century SF, or else I almost certainly would have run across it again since then. (For instance, if it were by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Roger Zelazny or Frank Herbert.)

Key plot points

The main thing I remember is a scene near the beginning (not necessarily the first scene, though). I believe it had the following elements:

  1. The narrator of this scene was a female physician1, working in what appeared to be a "normal" 20th Century American city.

  2. A man entered her office2, wanting to consult her. She had never seen him before. During their conversation, he said something weird/ambiguous/ominous/whatever, which somehow struck her as having threatening implications.

  3. This worried the doctor so much that she calmly reached into the drawer of her desk and pulled out a handgun.

  4. She aimed it at the man, and I think she then commented that with her expert knowledge of human anatomy, she would have no trouble shooting him in a spot which would not be fatal, but would be quite painful, and was likely to leave him in bad enough shape that he wouldn't be much of a menace to her before the police could arrive. (Or words to that general effect -- she may or may not have specifically mentioned the police, for instance.)

  5. The man took it very calmly -- I think there had been some sort of misunderstanding here, and he had no intention of physically assaulting her -- and then the story kept going in weird directions and turned into some sort of time-travel story. (I think. Unless I'm mixing it up with something else from the same book -- who knows?)

I am sure that I have never run across that time-travel story again. I'm just hoping someone can recognize the story from this unusual situation of a female doctor, narrating to us in the first person, pulling out a gun when a patient says something that makes her nervous.

1. I found myself thinking: "Was she a psychiatrist?" But I cannot swear that she was, so I didn't go into the subject of her specialty, since I don't know.

2. I have a vague idea that the "patient" had entered her office under false pretenses; i.e. he did not actually have an urgent medical problem which he wished her to diagnose and treat. He wanted to make some sort of proposition to her, instead. But I cannot for the life of me remember just what the proposition was (not romantic!), nor what special qualifications she had for whatever he wanted her to do.

  • 1
    This reminds me of a black-and-white TV episode I saw (or at least think I saw) but I just searched through the plot synopses of the old Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and came up empty handed. I believe that the man was a burglar who accidentally traveled into the future and the woman is a burglar or some other type of criminal who kills him. My memory of it was that everything played out very calmly.
    – user71561
    Sep 14, 2016 at 23:57
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    Where did you buy it? What country? What state/region? What store? What do you remember about the cover asides from brown/green? Were there multiple copies on the shelf or just one? Did it seem like it was printed by a major printer? Where there advertisements for other books anywhere in it? How much did it cost? Was it targeted at children, teens, or adults? Were there cuss words in it?
    – Hack-R
    Sep 15, 2016 at 0:53
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    Was it called "Monkey on His Back"? That's a SF story from that time period with a doctor/psycholanalyst seeing a patient and having a gun.
    – Hack-R
    Sep 15, 2016 at 0:58
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    @Mooz -- my memory is very vague on everything except the scene I described in the original post, but I think it was not a case of "A stranger walks into a doctor's office and then much of the remainder of the story is just him talking her ear off about a weird adventure he already experienced." I don't recall exactly what he wanted the doctor to do (it wasn't anything as simple as "please treat this flesh wound right now"), but it was something which the doctor actually ended up doing as part of the plot development, complete with time-travel complications of some sort. I think.
    – Lorendiac
    Nov 30, 2016 at 23:37
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    @Gallifreyan Somehow -- maybe because I wasn't visiting the site regularly for a while; real-life concerns -- I had failed to notice that an Answer was offered in late May. When I saw your comment, I thought: "Huh?" Just now I came in and glanced at the answer, and I'll give it a careful evaluation now.
    – Lorendiac
    Jul 14, 2017 at 0:28

1 Answer 1


I believe it's called "A Clean Escape" (ISFDB, Wikipedia) by John Kessel. The story was first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in May 1985.

  • The doctor (psychiatrist) is interviewing a man:

    There was a knock at the door.

    “Come in,” she said absently.

    Havelmann entered. He had the large body of an athlete gone slightly soft, gray hair, and a lined face. At first glance he didn’t look sixty. His well-tailored blue suit badly needed pressing.


    Evans stared at him for a moment. She would kill him. She looked down at the desk, rubbed her forehead. “Sit down,” she said.

    She took the pack of cigarettes from her desk drawer. “Would you care to smoke?”

    The old man accepted one. She watched him carefully. His brown eyes were rimmed with red; they looked apologetic.

  • The patient doesn't say anything alerting - rather the doctor is constantly on the edge and struggling to hold herself - but she reaches calmly for the gun:

    “This has been the state of the surface for a year now, ever since the last bombs fell. To our knowledge there are no human beings alive in North America—in the Northern Hemisphere, for that matter. Radio transmissions from South America, New Zealand, and Australia have one by one ceased in the last eight months. We have not observed a living creature above the level of an insect through any of our monitors since the beginning of the year. It is the summer of 2010. Although, considering the situation, counting years by the old system seems a little futile to me.”

    Dr. Evans slid open a desk drawer and took out an automatic. She placed it in the middle of the desk blotter and leaned back, her right hand touching the edge of the desk near the gun.

  • Later Havelmann loses it and tries to take the gun, but Evans reaches to it first; no shots are fired, though:

    The old man’s face reddened. “God damn you! Tell me what happened!”

    “The famous Havelmann rage. Am I supposed to be frightened now?”

    The hiss from the loudspeaker seemed to increase. Havelmann lunged for the gun. Evans snatched it and pushed back from the desk. The old man grabbed the paperweight and raised it to strike. She pointed the gun at him.

    “Your wife didn’t make the plane in time. She was at the western White House. I don’t know where your damned kids were—probably vaporized with their own families. You, however, had Operation Kneecap to save you, Mr. President. Now sit down and tell me why you’ve been playing games, or I’ll kill you right here and now. Sit down!”

There is no time travel in the story, but the interview apparently repeats itself indefinitely - 3 times in the short story, each time from a blank slate - because Havelmann suffers from Korsakov's syndrome, where he can remember clearly events up to a certain point (i.e. the nuclear holocaust) but can't hold the memories of anything afterwards.

  • The story was first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in May 1985 May 27, 2017 at 6:54
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    Hi, welcome to the site. You could also edit in a synopsis to help show why this is the right answer.
    – Longshanks
    May 27, 2017 at 7:59
  • I had to study this carefully. I admit that the bits about "female doctor, male patient, she takes a gun from her desk," seem like a pretty good match for my tattered recollection. I might, conceivably, have garbled the "time travel" bit -- i.e. conflated the "doctor with a gun" part with some other story in the same book. But I'm still positive I read the story in a paperback book -- not a magazine -- in the early-to-mid-1980s, and ISFDB says this one wasn't reprinted in a book until 1992 -- and that was a hardcover. So I'm afraid we're dealing with a remarkable coincidence.
    – Lorendiac
    Jul 14, 2017 at 1:32

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