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
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
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!
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
"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
"Some magazines for. . . . Oh, now come on. You're joshing. Cut
"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
"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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