When I was a kid, our doctor was Dr Nieder — Nic Nieder. He pissed my father off because he was very loud and always managed to have the last word.
“You won’t believe that prick,” my father told my mother. “He asked what the matter was, but before I could tell him, he decided to tell me.”
“Maybe he just wanted to save time,” she said.
“No,” my father insisted. “He just needed to speak. And he was wrong. I didn’t have muscle aches nor a fever.”
He paused until my mother made some listening sounds.
“I waited half an hour past my appointment time,” he added ruefully.
“Send him a bill,” my mother suggested.
“He used your time,” she explained. “You could’ve been doing something else. Bill him.”
My father mailed a bill to Dr Nieder in response to the one he got from him. He listed one item, Fredholm Operators, and an amount precisely double that of Dr Nieder’s bill.
A mail arrived a week later with a copy of Dr Nieder’s first bill, with the word FINAL stamped across it.
“Look at this,” my father fumed, showing it to my mother. “No mention of my bill to him. And I’m still called mister!”
“So what?” she said. “What does it matter?”
“I filled out professor on his forms years ago. If he’s not going to use my title, why ask for it? I have to call him doctor all the time, and he misters me about.”
“He’s not going to call you professor.”
“I don’t know. It just seems unlikely.”
“He can call me doctor then,” my father said.
My father made out a new, final bill to Dr Nieder, but he didn’t have a stamp to match the threatening FINAL.
“How the hell do I make this look final?” he asked my mother.
My mother fetched a set of toy stamps from my sister’s room and stamped KEEP OUT across the bill in red ink.
“That’ll get his attention,” she said.
“I can’t send this,” my father complained.
She took another stamp and stamped I LOVE YOU below KEEP OUT.
“Of course you can,” she said. “You’re a professor. You can explain it later.”
A week later another bill arrived from Dr Nieder with the phrase SCHEDULED FOR COLLECTION stamped in red across it. There was also a red border around the entire thing.
My father was livid.
“The complete and utter prick,” he growled. “Can you imagine how self-centered he must be to send this out? And again, mister!”
“He probably didn’t even see your bill,” my mother said. “He has people who protect him from such things.”
My father swallowed with difficulty as he considered this possibility.
“Those are the same people who help him to call me mister,” he concluded. “They shield him from the reality beyond his rooms.”
A few days after that I stepped on a broken bottle and my father had to rush me to Dr Nieder for stitches. Dr Nieder laughed and bellowed and wouldn’t keep quiet while he stitched me up.
“Did you get my bill?” my father asked when he’d finished.
“What bill is that, Mr Roode?” Dr Nieder neighed.
“The one for Fredholm Operators.”
“Why don’t you ask your receptionist?” my father suggested.
Dr Nieder left us with a puzzled expression and appeared a few minutes later with my father’s bills as well as his own.
“You owe me, on balance,” my father said as Dr Nieder stared at his bill.
“What the —?” Dr Nieder started. “What’s this operator?”
He looked at my father.
“Yes,” my father purred. “Mathematics.”
“I see,” Dr Nieder said dimly. “I had no idea. So you studied, like, what?”
“I have a doctorate in Mathematics,” my father said. “Hence, you know, professor of Mathematics.”
Dr Nieder took a few seconds before he recovered.
“Jesus man!” he erupted. “I’ve been calling you mister for years! Fancy that!”
He gave my father a pretend punch on the shoulder.
“What a scream!” he roared. “Titles are such bullshit, aren’t they?”
He held out his hand.
“My friends call me Nic,” he said solemnly.
My father took his hand and moved in a little closer.
“That’s good to know, Nic,” he said. “My friends call me Doc.”