A Novella

(Chapter 2, 10 Pages in Typescript)

                The hallway outside my door has been unusually busy this morning. Doctors and nurses and orderlies have been bustling up and down, and in a sort of controlled cacophony the PA system has been crackling with messages and codes. It seems like everyone but me is doing something, going somewhere. One of the volunteers just brought my lunch in (we eat so early here) with a shiny red apple for dessert, and I found myself musing on what would have happened if Eve had given Adam a banana. Can you imagine two thousand years of art showing a seductive-looking Eve teasingly holding out a half-peeled banana? ("Why was Eve a good carpenter?" I asked the volunteer. She thought about it for a moment. "Because she made Adam's banana stand!" I said. She frowned a sour frown and left the room.) But no, it had to be an apple; the apple tree is part of the genus Malus, and malus, in Latin, means evil. Anyway, a banana doesn't have quite the panache, quite the style that a small, round, shiny red object does. Red is your color if you're depicting what went on in the Garden of Eden, red is the color you want. On the other hand, the Bible doesn't even specify that the fruit was an apple, so why do I mention it?
                Why do I mention it? Because I have to think of something as I lie here, I have to keep rummaging through my mind to keep from going stir-crazy. Who cares about the anonymous man in Room 416? Who in the neighborhood of this giant white-brick hospital, with its twenty-seven floors and ten thousand ugly air conditioners, can imagine that a certain individual, in a certain room on a certain floor, is lying in this bed? I've become nothing more than a bee in a honeycomb, one among the stacks in a three-dimensional grid, a Lego toy, a Rubik Cube without a solution, a stack of people who for the moment no longer function. This is where they put us, I suppose, those who can no longer play their parts in society; it's a sort of zone, a state of mind—for it's not me, it's my body that's the problem—where fallen warriors may be kept out of public view and not distract those who are still fighting. After all, who among the functioning wants to be reminded of fallibility, of fallen comrades? When you pass a car that's broken down by the side of the road, doesn't the knowledge that it could be you bring a twinge of apprehension? Ah, you look, and pretend you're not looking; you think about it, and pretend you're not thinking about it. You race on. But sooner or later (a tiny voice says), sooner or later you know it will be your turn. I think that if I were a poet I would write "An Ode to the Fallen Auto." Or if a sculptor, create a memorial dedicated "To Those Fallen by the Side of the Highway.
                For the moment then, I'm one of the invisible ones, stuck away on a shelf. I'm one of those citizens you see in those revolutionary tableaus depicting fighting at the barricades, one of those fallen comrades at the edge of the scene whose death pangs make everyone else look larger than life, and more heroic. "Ah, poor bastard, the viewer thinks, but let's get on with it. The museum closes at five. On to the next painting, the next room, the next wing.
                Not that I'm alone in the room. I do have company, if you could call it that. There is a man in the bed next to me whose legs I can see poking out beyond the partially drawn curtain. (I would have preferred a private room, of course, but Nelson and Manny said that, owing to the circumstances in which I was admitted, a double was the best they could arrange.) Anyway, for the first few days I tried to make conversation with this man, and when I finally commented to one of the nurses on how taciturn and unresponsive he is, she got a bit teary-eyed, then regained her businesslike demeanor and explained that he is in a coma. I guess that explains why he hasn't said anything, much less moved, since I've been here. No, the gentleman just lies there showing the lower part of a torso and two extended legs. I suppose there is oxygen going in, and a food tube and equipment taking care of bodily functions, but they're beyond the curtain; I can't see them. Anyway, it makes for a hell of a social hour, a very peppy social life. I try not to let it bother me, however, I try to be stoical and good-natured about it. In fact, I've decided it's refreshing, for a change, to talk to someone who can't answer. It allows me a certain, how would you phrase it, a certain freedom of expression. "Good morning to you, sir!" I say, when I wake up. "How are you today? Lovely morning, isn't it? Aren't we lucky to be in such a pleasant, well-staffed hospital!" And then, when no reply is forthcoming, I take it as agreement and go right on. "I feel a little better myself today, My leg itches owing to the cast, and I do get tired of having my arm frozen in this awkward position, as if I were shielding myself from attackers. I'll be really glad when all these splints and traction wires are removed. Other than that, I'm feeling reasonably well, thank you. It's heartening, is it not, to think we're both on the mend?"
                As I said, I have to do something to keep from going stir-crazy. In any case, one thing just led to another and for the last few days, I confess, I've been having a little fun with the man: What else have I to do? "You didn't eat your Jello," I just said, as the volunteer took my lunch away. "Usually you enjoy your Jello! Come on, Mr. Jones! If you have any hope of getting out of here, you have to eat your Jello!" (Mr. Jones. Until a better name comes along, I've decided to call him Mr. Jones.) "You must eat all your lunch, Mr. Jones! You didn't eat your pepper steak last night! You can't fool me! And you didn't eat your scrambled eggs this morning! You must work at getting your strength back, Mr. Jones! Come on, Mr. Jones, you've got to keep up your end!"
                Oh, we have a good time, Mr. Jones and I, we really do. It's rather nice, as I said, to be able to carry on a conversation with someone who can't talk back. And sometimes, when I run out of things to talk about and find myself getting irritated by the silence from the other side, I mimic Mr. Jones's flat, utterly lifeless position by lying low in my bed and staring at the ceiling. I pretend we're two people in canoes, two peas in a pod, two old soldiers standing, or rather lying, at attention, two—perish the thought!—cadavers lying on slabs. "Just the two of us," I mumble across the space separating us, "lying here completely still, twins, blood brothers. Pretend we're field mice, Mr. Jones; if we don't move, they can't see us! So let's just lie here and wait for time to pass, wait for the whole damn thing to blow over. I'd go down to the lounge and get some magazines for you, but for two little details. One, you can't read. And two, I can't move. Ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!"
                And then, having become bored with this charade, I hike myself up again. "Hey Mr. Jones," I say, "what'd you think of that pretty nurse that just left the room? Did you see those va-va-vooms?" (Is it sexist to make cracks about pretty nurses? And in Mr. Jones's case, is it sexist to make cracks about pretty nurses when you, the cracker, have been stripped of mobility and bodily functions, when, indeed, you are comatose?
                I'd be less than candid if I didn't admit I've developed a certain fondness for Mr. Jones; he's not so stodgy, when you think about it. Cleaving to one's silences, after all, is not the most egregious form of behavior (I've met people with worse faults), and a certain, well, reticence on the other side of the curtain has meant I've been able to delve into matters of increasing delicacy and intimacy. What a pleasure it is to be able to speak one's mind, in this day and age! To speak one's mind truly and without fear of censorship, without fear of antagonizing or infuriating people! For example, just now, after casting about for the best way to put the matter, I explained to Mr. Jones the circumstances that led me to my career as a boxer.
                "You may find this hard to believe, Mr. Jones", I said, "but it was the professors. Those damned professors in college who got me thinking so much that I could hardly tie my shoes anymore, could hardly take a breath without contemplating the chemical and atomic makeup of the air. What right had they to fill me with so much book-learning and then set me loose on the world? To fill my mind with schemes and fantasies, quandaries and conundrums, then send me out into a world whose single most important feature is its resistance to such interpretations? You see, Mr. Jones," I said (gradually working myself up into righteous indignation), "college teaching is one of the few activities that adults engage in where no other adult sees them do it. You're always and forever the oldest and smartest person in the room, you know more than anyone else in the room and you're expected to impart your knowledge, but no other adult sees you do it! Oh, the professors struggle to maintain the appearance of patient, tolerant discourse, I suppose, to maintain the illusion that the classroom is a community of scholars dispassionately working to discover the truth. But the fact is, the professors are dealing with people who—three or four years previously—were in high school! And what happens to people who spend their lives talking to people who three or four years previously were in high school? Why, they become incapable of talking to adults! They lose the capacity to listen! They're used to being the cynosure of all eyes and gradually fall in love with the sound of their own voices! Their chosen mode of discourse—the pattern of interaction with which they're most comfortable—is not the conversation, but the lecture!"
                Well, the afternoon I said this, although I was doing my best to remain calm, I had evidently begun to shout and scream, and two nurses rushed into the room thinking I was hemorraging if not dying.
                "Is everything all right in here?" said one. "There there," said the other, thinking I was hallucinating, or losing my mind. And then, nervously: "Can I get you some water? How's your pitcher? Is there something I can bring you?"
                "Just some magazines for Mr. Jones," I said, pointing over to my right.
                "Some magazines for. . . . Oh, now come on. You're joshing. Cut it out."
                "You're not very happy here, are you," said the first.
                "Oh, I'm very happy", I replied. I just wanna get back in the ring and punch somebody."
                They took my blood pressure and gave me a sedative, and I fell asleep for the rest of the afternoon. But the next morning, I engaged Mr. Jones in a conversation about another one of my obsessions.
                "The psychoanalytic world view says the work of art embodies the artist's unconscious themes", I explained to him patiently, "but I'm aware of everything I'm doing. It is precisely my unconscious themes—the very themes I have had plenty of time to consider—that I wallow in, yes, wallow in. And speaking of unconsciousness, I have been unconscious, quite literally knocked out, in the ring at Gaston Park, Mr. Jones, so I know whereof I speak. In fact, I've known about these things my entire life, ever since I was a baby. I knew very well what was going on in the so- called preverbal and preoedipal periods of my life. Yes, I knew what was going on, though of course I couldn't say it. It would have scared them, Mr. Jones, scared them to see me standing up in my crib—a four-month-old child in necktie and bifocals—discoursing on the themes that were already on my mind. But I remember quite clearly, Mr. Jones, standing in my crib and dropping things over the side. I knew all about gravity, of course, even then I already understood about gravity. I wanted only to see what would happen, I wanted only to see how far I could throw them. I was working on my arm, Mr. Jones, my muscular coordination, and I already knew that I was destined for a career involving physical strength. And then, about peek-a-boo. They say a young child plays peek-a-boo as a way of rehearsing the disappearance of it's mother. Naturally it doesn't take very kindly to the thought that its primary source of security and gratification will be removed. But I knew all along that this was going to happen—I knew it all along! I was just having fun! I was just trying to keep my family—a rather depressed bunch, all things considered—amused! I suppose it was the ham in me, Mr. Jones, the part of me that had to be the center of attention, the part which, as an adult, brought me before the bright lights. And those lights at Gaston Park are very bright, I can tell you, Mr. Jones.
                "Now. About those little toy trains that go in and out of tunnels" (I was warming to my subject); "what about those little toy trains? There comes a point in a child's development, Mr. Jones, when he can anticipate the reemergence of the train from the tunnel, and adjusts his eyes accordingly. But I knew from the very start when the train was going to come out of the tunnel! And while I watched for it, I deliberately made up stories of what people were doing on the train! As a matter of fact, it was all those people standing around in lab jackets—the people conducting the tests—that really unnerved me! If Heisenberg was right, that the observation of atomic particles affects their behavior, then I have to ask, what effect did those child psychologists have on me when, cameras and clipboards in hand, they watched me playing peek-a-boo with my mother? Or stood around on the edge of a train set while I tried to anticipate the train's coming out of the tunnel? It almost made me hate trains."
                But I'm tired of talking to you, Mr. Jones.
                There's no reason I can't go on talking to myself, however. It's not the so-called latent content, it's not deep, dark, unconscious drives that propel and emerge from these, my musings. Hmm. The Drives. Sounds like a suburban subdivision. No, the contents and the outward manifestations are precisely my subject. It is precisely the flotsam that has risen to the surface—forget jetsam, that's stuff other people have thrown overboard—that I wallow in, play in. And if you say, ha, but there are sharks, weird forms, nightmarish shapes swimming around beneath you, then I say, But that's me in my diving helmet! I'm swimming around beneath the sharks and weird forms! And if you say, yes, but beneath you in your diving gear there's a submarine down there, I say, look again! I'm that crab you see digging into the ocean floor. I'm a fish on the bottom of the sea, glancing idly up at the submarine.
                Do you know what I should have told them, Mr. Jones, those nurses who rushed in here yesterday afternoon? I should have told them about the time I went to a physical fitness trainer, and he asked me what part of my body I was interested in building up. I replied, my mind.
                Damn. This bed sure is uncomfortable.

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