Tell me, what good is it to have God visit you if you can’t tell anybody about it? Or, if not God, then somebody looking very much like him, or how I had pictured him. Perhaps, to be safe I should call him god, you know, lower case “g.”
No, that won’t do. There’s no escaping it: it was the Almighty all right, our capital “G” Father-of-the-Son God. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. Let me rephrase that: There is no doubt about it.
Yes, yes, I know it sounds crazy, but now and then things happen to you, incredible things, thing you cannot explain but that you cannot deny—not to yourself anyway. For they did happen, and you know they did, whether the whole thing sounds crazy or looks crazy or feels crazy or is crazy or not. Took place. Occurred. Yes, sir. So when in truth I did lay eyes on him, did talk to him, did meet him, how can I deny it? I can’t.
My mistake was sharing it, and perhaps that’s the lesson to draw from all of this: Keep your mouth shut. Especially around close relatives and people in white coats.
It was a Tuesday, a rainy one. My room had that dampness about it, that musty smell that only ventures out after three days of rain. Seeps out of the walls and floor and ceiling, dryness fully pervaded now. Our house is big and grand and all that but not well sealed, not round my room anyway, so if the rain doesn’t turn back after a day or two, it tends to pick up courage and come on in—into my room. In musty spirit, anyway.
I had finished the chapter I was reading and I had placed my bookmark where I had left off. I closed the book in my lap, leaned back and closed my eyes. Picturing. Picturing. A moment later He knocked on my door and I went to open it.
I fumbled with the locks and the bolts and the safety chain and didn’t even stop to wonder (I never do) that I was so carefully sealed. He knocked again, louder this time, or was it that I was closer to the door (of course, I didn’t know that he was He yet), and told Him to hold His horses. Finally, after a few more hold Your horses and wait ups, I got all the locks undone and I opened up and then looked very long and still at Him and He looked very long and still at me and nothing was said.
Strange thing when strange things happen: not for a moment did I think it strange. It was simply taking place.
My first notion was exactly this: Here’s God. My second notion was exactly this: No way. Then I wavered back toward the first. He looked so very familiar. Like a Doré Moses, and for just a fraction I thought perhaps this is Moses, no? Standing there, but no stone tablets about him, no frown or fury at dancings around golden calves, no exasperation or suffering (which rules out the Son, too, doesn’t it?—though He, the Son, was never a real prospect; my visitor had nothing of “the meek” about Him at all). No, this was more, He was more, you know, of the and the Earth was without form and void variety. Let there be lightish. But not very talkative. Just stood there looking back at me. So finally, “Want to come in?” I said. “Sure,” He said.
I held the door open for him, and he, gathering his robe with long, white, exquisitely manicured fingers—almost effeminate but with strength (if that makes sense)—and, carefully stepping over the threshold, looked where He was placing His feet as if He was expecting to step on something alive, carefully didn’t (step on anything alive) and then He was inside my head.
Before closing the head-door (which I honestly had not known I had until just now, until that knock on it) I took a quick peek outside to see if He had brought anybody else (didn’t want to shut the door in some holy face, you know). But no. No one else. Just the usual outside: my TV-less room, a plate of rice and vegetables, sixty percent consumed, forty percent un-, a glass of un-drunk water, shelves for my books, and upon them: my books, my books, my many, many, many books, each one a little life (or not so little, take Gravity’s Rainbow for example), each a little universe in fact (or not so little, take the Mahabharata—now there’s a universe, or a thousand thousand universes for you), and each one mine, so very mine. Yes, you can believe me or not as you please (it’s a free country), but I had read most of them, front cover to back, and some of them, many of them, more than once.
There was my stereo. And my compact discs, my many, many, many compact discs, and each one of them a universe too, and each one mine. Yes, indeed, although there were literally thousands of them, I had listened to each one, all the way through, many, many of them more than once.
And there was my desk, my lamps, my chairs, my pictures on the wall. All in all: my room, my whole room, and nothing but my very God-companion-less room. Hence: He had indeed come alone. But no harm in making sure.
I closed the door. Heard the latch bolt slide into place with a soft click, and let it go at that (I was toying with the idea of replacing the security chain as well, but if you can’t feel secure in the presence of my Guest, where can you feel secure, is what I asked myself, chain or no?) I turned to face Him.
I looked again. Could it really be? But, oh yes, it was Him all right, still very much at the top of Jacob’s ladderish. But I didn’t dare ask, you know, just to make doubly, trebly sure. Bad form. He carried the air of someone who was expecting to be known, by me. So, all things considered, lingering remnants of could-it-reallys notwithstanding, we’ll put him down to God, then, once and for all: Gee-oh-dee, God.
“Sit down?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, looking around for somewhere to sit. Something alive-less. Found a stool I didn’t know I had in here and scrutinized it for a second or two, judged it safe and sat down.
“And,” I began. Meaning to say something pleasant like: And I hope you’ve had a nice trip here, good weather on the way, sorry about the rain here, and so on. But he was ignoring me so stellarly that there was no way I was going to go anywhere beyond those three letters. Definitely the at-the-top-of-Jacob’s-ladder guy, in my house. Should be strange, but wasn’t.
He looked around. Put his hands in his lap. Left over right. Then right over left. Beautiful fingers, no getting away from that either. Long, slender, strong (surely), well, perfect.
“You are a lucky man,” He said, apropos of I had no idea what.
“Yes?” I said, tentatively, prepared for anything.
“You like it in here?” he said. Well, asked, really, but it was more of a statement than a question. Still, I ventured an answer. “Uh, yes.” Not one of my more eloquent rejoinders.
Then he stood up and walked to the edge of the field before he turned around and beckoned me to follow with a perfect “come hither” with his perfect right hand. I came thither but by the time I had thitherized, He had moved on, obviously wanting me to follow. So into my field we went.
Let me explain that.
When I say inside (my head) it’s not really an inside at all (which was why I was surprised to find that it had a door for God to knock on and subsequently enter through). The inside of my head is really an outside. The inside-outside. And it’s a very large outside. It has sky and fields and streams and mountains and color, oh yes, and sounds, and smells, but the senses are a little jumbled. No, not really jumbled, more like merged. No, not really merged, more like seeping into each other. Bleeding. Blending. What I mean is: I can sometimes see the music. I can sometimes hear the color blue, the color red, the color green, all colors. Touch odors. Taste smells. It is a wonderful feeling, actually, if unsettling at times. I’ve have gotten used to it though: fields so green I taste them, grass so alive I hear it breathe. And, of course, my grass knows me very well. In places it grows really high, waist high, and very densely. But knowing I’m coming, it parts softly to let me through. Makes a path. Just like now. It must know God too, for He was still walking ahead of me and the grass parted for Him so eagerly it made a small road, almost.
We were heading for the Bach Falls.
Let me explain that.
Music, at least inside my outside head, comes in many forms. Classical, like Bach or Handel, or Beethoven, comes as water, as rivers, as waves. Can also come as sky, as winter. Or as brush-stroked portraits, alive with counterpoint. Mussorgsky comes to mind—self-taught and daring, until drink claimed and drowned him.
Jazz comes to me as jungle, grown as wild and fast as Coltrane or Davis or Jarrett can dream it, although Jarrett is more like rain, fragrant and fresh. It also comes like corals, millions of arms all red and white and blue and beige and pink and mauve and moving with the underlying rhythm of the sea, tinkling with cymbals as arms touch, pulsing with the bass, sprouting millions more with Coltrane’s breath to rise up out of the water to cling to the air and insist on a hearing.
I hear you, I do, and I smile and let them fill me and after that what other joy is there, or can there be? That’s Coltrane the magician for you, splintering time into so many thousand fragments and daring you to track them all. Of course, then he changes pace and mood and you have become a Paris café around midnight and there’s no other option open, you just give in to the slow river of smoke and closeness and so you deliquesce note by note.
Swing, like Goodman or Ellington or Miller, arrive to me as beautiful disturbances in the air. A whole lot of rhythm with a touch of jungle. And always with a touch of green. Then there’s bebop and then I only think of Charlie Parker who laughed himself to death at one of the Dorsey brothers (I forget which) and he comes at me like a raging cat (yes I mean to say exactly that), his saxophone a weapon.
While Monk stands alone, cloudlike, dreaming it all with his mysterious smile.
Folk music still (I think this is Dylan’s fault) pricks my conscience and sweeps at me like dusty plains (which I think is Guthrie’s fault). Baez tends to pour on the conscience thing (for there is always more you can do, you know, about hunger, about injustice, about our planet, about just about anything) and sometimes, I must admit, I alter it all into a summer meadow to simply enjoy the music: no message allowed.
Joni Mitchell has her own country in my head. She’s indefinable. Un-down-pinnable. Simply wonderful. Everything from river to jungle to rain. Like the hissing of summer lawns. Why she has not drastically altered the world for the better is a question I ponder often. And why hasn’t Dylan? He had its ear. He had the ear of a whole generation. He had his hand on the tiller of the world, but could not steer it. Why is that? I still ponder that question.
And in this part of my inside-outside world live the brilliant race of poets. All of them live here: Shelley the dreamer, Baudelaire the sulky lover, the drowner in black hair, Akhmatova the beautiful sentinel. Yeats too, and his unearthly touch, Plath and Borges. Explorers all of the outside-outside world, celestial visitors documenting their startling discoveries about the rest of us. Theirs is a country of ethereal associations, their many images blending into little explosions as you read and rejoice and suffer and see and hear and:
Next door, pop rushes out of vivid speakers and comes at me with dancing feet. As brightly colored as bubble gum just out of the wrapper. Neon. Juke boxes and eyeglasses that curve up at the edges like wings ready for flight at a moment’s notice. Prudes in budding breasts. No, no, this is all wrong. No dancing feet, no budding breasts, just the smell of all these things. A longing really. We lived up North then, Canada way, away. A lake. A boat. A transistor radio. A faraway station, not very strong, only comes in intermittently. Hollies, Searchers, Beatles, Tremulous, Mindbenders, Nashville Teens, Amen Corner, you name them. But that’s not quite right either. It’s more like a night falling and falling and falling and now I’m back to the dancing feet. It is a growing up. Finding this inside that is outside and hoping oh so much that she’ll look my way and it is suddenly cold outside with snow on the ground and everyone’s so bundled up that you can no longer make out budding breasts. Pop. A complex avalanche of smell and touch and longing, all to a wonderful backbeat.
Rap music—they call it hip hop now I think—is atmospheric pressure is racing clouds is electricity in the air. Chuck D said that Rap music is information that has never been delivered to people so young or so poor. He said that a rap song has three times as many words as a singing song, that Rap music is the invisible TV station that black people never had. And this is all true for me. It is short black novels, often quite ingenious, and always quick on the draw, like chain lightning, often angry, often banal, but rarely boring. It’s bad weather, but enjoyable bad weather. I like to drive in it, hear the rain on the roof of the car, watch the violent illuminations of distant and swaying fields and count thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, thousand four to see how close you were to getting killed (though I believe a car is one of the safest places you can be if struck by lightning, something to do with the rubber tires which will not conduct the electricity into the ground, something, something). That’s Rap.
There are some white folks who try to steal it from the black folks. Like they stole (effectively and often beautifully) the blues: witness Paul Butterfield. They should stop trying to steal Rap though, I think. Then there is French Rap, which is pretty much a joke. I think. No disturbance, only chuckle. But, perhaps to the French, who knows?
Then there is Rock. In my music universe Rock warrants (and is) its own planet.
Huge. Loud. Formations. Geology. The Cliffs of Normandy all in mostly major chords with a minor 7th here and there. But alive. Psychedelic in places, a liquid version of Giant’s Causeway. Instant organ, facing the sea. A ladder to leap from. For me a gate and another country. And also a little like Lake Baikal. Lots of very deep, strange fish, like Country Joe and the; and Jefferson Airplane. Moby Grape (the brightest light in the 1967 skies, mismanaged to death within a decade, though still the energy that warms this continent). I wish, I wish, I wish they would have received their due. Still, they remain royalty in the country of show me the way. Then there’s the Phish type fish, blending Rock back into Jazzy Jungle, brilliantly.
Perhaps I am wrong to categorize. For notes, any notes, frequencies, co-sounding and harmonizing, have always stirred me, and have always formed a perfect cradle for my thoughts, and in that cradle I have placed many dreams of my own, where my words have found their home and comfort.
Others with their own countries: Bach, Monk, Beethoven, Handel, Shostakovich. No, not Mozart, I’m sorry. Yet others: Keith Jarrett, Phish, Beatles, and Cocteau Twins. And prominent in the country of Bach are the Falls. Especially the Victoria sized falls of Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor, for which God was heading, quite a ways ahead of me now, not stopping or turning his head or waiting up or anything, just moving ahead, not doubting my stamina. Flattering, I guess. I increased my pace a little to catch up. The grass was still opening up a path for us, smiling at me as I went by, ooh and aahing at God, I noticed. We were getting closer, for I could hear the beginning of the Toccata. In a way, it was Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor that unlocked my heart.
Let me explain that.
When I say heart, what I mean is my deepest wish, what has always been my deepest wish for as long as I have known wishes (deep or otherwise) to exist: and that wish is, and has always been, to be able to catch and hold and view and frame my feelings with words.
No, I’m not a writer, not really. I’m a dabbler. A word-painter, perhaps.
I am not schooled or trained or studied or anything, but I have always tried to taste my feelings. You know, fully to savor that rising or eruption of joy or anger or sadness or surprise or amazement that is the feeling. And not only to savor, but to hold it, and hold it so still that I can get a really good look at it, so still and so good to now let me frame it with words.
Let me explain that.
When I say frame it with words I mean catch it and describe it, but you can’t really describe a feeling accurately, you can only create a word-frame around it, a frame that lets the joy or anger or sadness or surprise or amazement to be seen or heard or felt within that frame.
It’s as if my feeling was the many and true colors of a painting and the words its frame so delicately and honestly crafted that whomever then read it would naturally and in turn create his or her own colors, painting, feeling within it, to sense, to hold, to own.
That’s what I mean.
Yes, I’ve tried to do this, and often. I’ve started and failed or never really started but only wished. Until that winter’s night (we’re still living up North) when the snow lay glistering on the ground and protested audibly at every step, creaking, creaking at every step. I was glad to finally be inside, closed the door behind me—pulled it extra hard to make sure I sealed the cold out.
(God, up ahead, has stopped to check on my progress, and now gestures for me to hurry.)
I don’t know why this night was the night, or, really, why the Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor was the right music, they just were. Once thawed and settled I chose (for now particular reason that I can remember) the record and placed it on the turntable. They were LPs then, Long Playing records on vinyl, and this Toccata and Fugue was recorded by Karl Richter on Deutsche Grammophon—I have since grown quite partial to Peter Hurford’s rendition on the London label, but that’s beside the point.
With the first three notes, ta-da-da, and (after the faintest of pauses) the following seven: ta-da-da-da-da-da-da, I froze.
Let me explain that.
Up there, where I grew up, we had the northern lights. The aurora borealis. The northern dawn. It is a sight once seen never forgotten. It is more than sight; it is, in itself, a universe. I saw it many times as a child and always in the still of dark winter. Always in cloudless skies—stars clear and near enough to touch. And there, in this sky, due north, the one-thousand-mile high pipe organ of size and shimmer. And you can hear it. And it shifts, constantly, in patterns, colors, red, green, yellow, white. At times it grew so large it covered half the sky, at other times it was a waving band in a small portion of it, but always to the north, and always a stealer of a child’s breath. And always cold. Always cold. Snow glistering, creaking, creaking every step. The child looking for his breath and his heart both, stolen by that towering thief in the sky.
Ta-da-da, Ta-da-da-da-da-da-da, Ta-da-da, Da-da-da-da.
Frozen like the child in the snow-clad field gazing into the magical sky, I grew equally still in my little teenage room, for in the northern corner of it, from the high ceiling, the aurora borealis (impossibly) descended, shifting and shimmering and dancing with every note of Richter’s organ, with every movement of his fingers. Majestically trumpeting, icily touching, flooding me. Not aware that I did, I reached for pen and paper and I began to write, letting the sounds enter me to not only stir feeling, but to also move hand and fingers into ink on paper. I was hardly aware of writing, but I knew that I did what I had so long yearned to do: I was framing this wonderful feeling with words, this river of sound that Bach poured into our shared universe so many years ago (and it’s been so much the better for it since, the universe, don’t you think?). Captivated, I filled the page, then another, then a third. The music stopped (or proceeded onto something not the D-Minor Toccata and Fugue) and I put the pen down and I read with amazement what I had just written. Written by an alien, surely, for I recognized nothing of myself (of my familiar self, that is) in it. These were words of someone who dared, and could, and did. Someone not me, but then again, maybe a little bit me, maybe, actually, mostly me. Maybe, indeed, me. Which is how my heart unlocked.
Up ahead, He looks impatient, God does, robe billowing in the wind, hair flowering around his head like a sea anemone in rough weather, arms almost akimbo, and although I could not see his feet, hidden by the tall grass, I would not be surprised if one of them was tap-tap-tapping the wondering ground.
I’m coming, I’m coming.
“I do not have all day,” He said. Or didn’t.
Now, that’s one thing I would have thought He had; He, the maker of days. This to myself, mind you.
“I heard that,” He said, and I blushed, caught out by our Divine Mind Reader.
“Sorry.” Then, “Where are we going?” I asked.
“Rushdie,” He said.
“Rushdie? I thought you were heading for Bach.”
“By way of.”
“Yes,” He said, then turned away from me abruptly, and plowed on through the tall grass that still kissed up profusely and slipped out of the way at His coming, attention all on Him and almost forgetting me, letting me through, sure, but not with the same reverence, at all. The nerve. After all, this was my head.
Rushdie? Again, I really had to put a move on to keep up. Maybe He actually didn’t have all day and indeed was in a hurry. Maybe there was only one of Him after all.
Let me explain that.
My maternal grandmother, Mommi as we called her, was quite the religious fanatic.
As I grew up, Mom and Dad—then freshly and richly married—always spent their long and leisurely summers traveling child-free Earth (I’d get cards from all kinds of unpronounceable places with very curious postage stamps) so I got to spend most of the summer with her.
I never thought of her that way (as a religious fanatic), of course. Rather, Mommi was the norm, the rest of the world—to a man, woman, and child— just happened to be non-praying sinners is all. There were only a few, a very select few, that were not abject sinners, thieves, murderers, rapists, beaters of little children, killers of women, degenerates, evildoers, reprobates, transgressors, wrongdoers, bandits, crooks, Catholics, criminals, Hindus, devil worshippers, Buddhists, ogres, Mormons, fornicators, Christian Scientists, blackmailers, monsters, swindlers, gluttons, lechers—well, you name it. Mommi, however, belonged to the select few, and if I played my cards right, and prayed every night, without fail now, I might eventually join her. But, she admonished me, raised index finger stabbing the air in my direction, it has to be every night, for God sees everything, knows everything, especially about little boys, and He keeps a tally and a single missed night would send me straight to hell, and that’s hell with capital H, actually, Hell so gruesome, so painful, so hot, so burning, so intensely everburning, everchilling, everarmbreaking, everfleshtearing, evertongueoutpulling (with red-hot pincers), everstabbing, everpitchforksinthesiding, everexcruciating that I could never quite get all of my wits around the utter pain of it. Even so, I knew this was not the place for a child. And He, God, lived only in the hearts of the select few (I believe at the time there were only six or seven of them, Mommi included, in the whole world).
How can God keep track of all the children’s prayers? I asked. He is everywhere, she explained. How everywhere? I wanted to know. Everywhere, everywhere, was the expansion on that.
“But,” I said.
“No buts. You ask too many questions. God does not like children who ask too many questions.”
“Because that proves to Him that they don’t believe.”
That shut me up for a while, ungraspable Hell fresh in mind. But not for long. “How can he be everywhere at the same time? And how can he be in every heart of every holy person?” I asked. Then quickly added, “like you,” for she was not immune to flattery, this I had noticed.
She had waist-long white hair that she normally braided and kept slung over her shoulder and down her chest. She had no teeth of her own left and her dentures clucked a little when she spoke. She had small, kind sometimes, fierce sometimes, eyes, and now this face set upon me through old and partially taped-together glasses (white tape), with what I thought was going to be the final declaration: I had lost, off to Hell I go, so long, see me later. Tell my parents. But instead she said, “He is many.”
“One for each heart.”
“For every human being?”
“But you said,” I said.
“He is in the hearts only of those who deserve Him,” she went on. The deserving, on this planet, only numbering six or seven as I mentioned. “But He is in the conscience of everyone else, keeping track.”
“So that’s how He knows,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s how He knows.”
“More than one.”
“But still only one,” she said. “Our Father.”
But I don’t think I heard that very clearly. At least it didn’t register at the time, for I was busy having a revelation: there were more than one of Him, and He was right now occupying my very conscience, where he sat with ledger in lap and pen in hand keeping track of my evening prayers. I didn’t miss one for months.
And now here He was, rushing toward Bach Falls with me in pursuit, and He was in a hurry because He didn’t have all day, meaning: He had other places to be, other things to Attend to, other persons to See. So, only one of Him then.
We were so close to the Toccata now that I could feel the spray in the air. God, just rounding the little promontory of forest that jutted into the field of grass and shielded the falls from my view, could probably see it now. Yes, He did. For he stopped. To take in the sight. It was always that way. Even God could not help but be pervious to the wonder. I have always thought that if God ever took human form, Bach could have been one of them. Perhaps, I thought, looking at God looking at the Toccata rush towards and fall over the wide edge, perhaps that was the case. Perhaps it was memory that had frozen God to the spot, allowing me to catch up to share the view with Him.
And what a view! I had not been there in a while (there are so many places inside my outside head that many of them—even wonders such as this—go unvisited for months, sometimes years). But here I was again, and again I had my breath stolen by the might of the Zambezi river lunging itself out over the edge and into the bottomless gorge in a cascade of spray and thunder. Often, if my sun is out—like today—you can see the rainbow clearly, sometimes—often—more than one. Had He written this music? I wondered again, as I stole a glance at His rapturous face. No sign of Him having read that thought. No reply. Just rapture. Divine rapture. And that takes some doing, impressing God. But it did.
“You are a very lucky person,” He said at long last as He turned to me.
“Do you realize,” He said, facing the falls again, “that this is as much yours as Bach’s?”
News to me. “No,” I said.
“Well it is,” He said, turning to me again. When I showed no signs of comprehension, He explained.
“To some, the Toccata is nothing but a string of noises, barely tolerable. To others it is a pleasant though unmoving experience. To others it is an historical oddity. To some a mathematical formula even. To some it is an uplifting journey. To some—a few—it is the revelation of, well, Me. To some it is a beautiful display of might and harmony. And to others—perhaps the majority—it is nothing but boredom. But to you,” he said, holding my eyes with his, while smiling, “it is a major event. And a quite famous one with those who know, I might add.”
Those who know?
“Well, we’re not getting into that right now,” he said, heading me off at the pass. “The point is that this is your creation. Yours and Bach’s. You could not have done this without him.”
“And he could not have done this,” He indicated the roaring sweep of the falls with his hand, “without you. And yes, he is very pleased. I think flattered would be the word.”
“As I said, we’re not getting into that right now.”
“He?” I said, unable to let that one go.
“Yes, he does know.”
“About the falls?”
“He’s seen this?” Not quite getting it.
“But this is my head.”
“He gets around.”
Now there’s a morsel for thought, if ever there was one. “In my head?” I said again.
“Not uninvited,” He said.
“I’ve never invited him,” I said.
“Oh, yes. You have.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Not knowingly, perhaps.”
“Not unknowingly either,” I replied.
“How would you know?” He said.
“And he has seen this?”
“And he likes it?”
I must say I was pleased. Very. “Well, darn it,” I said.
God smiled at me again, looked a little proud, actually. Then He turned to look at the falls again, and said nothing for some time. We listened through to the end of the final note of the fugue, allowing ourselves—well, I can only speak for me, but it would not surprise me to learn that this held true for Him as well—to be carried along the breadth and might of the Toccata and then out over the rim and into the cascading flight of the Fugue. And then there was silence, the promise of thunder where the falls now silently went about their business of waiting for me to listen again.
“You are lucky,” said God again, then turned down the jungle path that was no jungle path but more like a narrow forest highway, strewn with pine needles and soft and somewhat mossy silence. “Rushdie,” He said.
It was easier to keep up with him on the path, or he walked slower, one or the other.
Why Rushdie, I wondered to myself.
“Any honest writer would do,” answered God. “But seeing as you are reading him right now, he will be all the more alive here.”
Yes, that’s true.
Each writer I have ever read is a corridor. Each book I have ever read is a door.
Let me explain that.
For me, I guess William Blake is partially to blame, for when he said “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite,” he struck a chord with me. And the chord he struck was the sentence itself, for it cleansed my perceptions and turned infinite on me.
Let me explain that.
I read the sentence. And reading it I understood it. And understanding it I perceived it, saw-heard-smelled-tasted-touched-whateverelsed it, completely. And perceiving it, as it was, as true, as infinite, I suddenly saw that what I was looking at was language itself. Words. Words sneaking in under the perception radar, finding their mark and there exploding into clear perceptions created by you. Now seen by your cleansed inside outside perceptions, bypassing smudged glass and noisy ducts altogether. Real. Completely. Infinite.
Let me explain that.
Well, think about it. It’s true, isn’t it? For when you look at something with your eyes, you may not see it clearly, or even all things about what you’re looking at—tired, speck in your eye, what have you; when you hear something with your ears, you may not hear, clearly, every nuance or harmonic of sound, every whisper of meaning—distracted, preoccupied, calcium deposits, what have you; and when you touch, and when you taste, and when you smell, ditto, ditto, ditto.
But, I realized, as Blake’s sentence grew inside me, that when you read someone, when you take in the words with your eyes (and there is never any doubt about the word itself, it’s there in plain view, you can’t miss it) and with its help now proceed to construct this universe that you now share with the writer (when you follow his blueprint, the book—he is using your imagination as his brush), you transcend the physical means of perception—grimy glass, dull membranes, stuffy nose, what have you: you simply see, hear, taste, smell, and touch the full thing, the infinite, as hard and solid or as soft and delicate as you want to make it. You know, you make it. You become, you are what the language says. You are what you now perceive, and perception doesn’t come any clearer, or closer, or more certain, or more infinite.
Huxley got in on the doors act too, but what he said that I like the most is that “Knowledge is proportionate to being. You know in virtue of what you are.” And what I see is that you are what you read because you create it, your creation is an extension of you, and you know your creation because you are it. A door then. Each book a door.
Here’s one. And if this isn’t a door. Listen: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.” That is how Ambrose Bierce invites you in. You look at the door in amazement, find the handle, press it down, push the door open, and in you go. You’re now in the midst of An Imperfect Conflagration, his amazing short story.
Another door, as wonderful, if more subtle, and leading to a much larger and varicolored universe, goes like this: “On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.”
As you can see, I still remember the opening paragraph to one of my favorite doors verbatim, John Crowley’s Little, Big. I can still taste the lips of Daily Alice Drinkwater, the delicate giantess that Smokey walks to marry. I can smell the wood and texture of Edgewood, the immense and many-angled house that is part dream, part edifice, and part whatever you want to make it. I still love what I made of it and it’s all behind that door, third on the left in the Crowley corridor, itself not far from the Rushdie corridor, towards which God was now leading me down the pine needle path (straight as an arrow—I don’t want to have to be looking about me too much when I head for my writers), safe and soft. You can’t hear our footsteps. Muffled by brown carpet. Trees muttering to themselves at our sides, could it be, could it really be, debating I am sure whether this really was Whom it appeared to be leading me down the needled path, robe billowing not from wind but from forward motion. God is nothing if not energetic.
Once you enter Little, Big there is no turning back. You are changed, you have incorporated. Crowley’s body has become yours. His universe has become yours. His dream has become yours. You cannot unincorporate. Well, I take that back, but that’ll have to wait.
We hurry past other paths branching off in various directions. The largest one—not even glanced at by my Guide (I almost said Captor, but that would be unfair, too strong a word)—leads to the Arts (as I like to call them, same as I like to refer to all my books as the Letters). The Arts is the dominion of form and color, a kind of subcontinent, much like India.
I didn’t much care for Art—you know, paintings and such—until I encountered Dalí, and I first heard of him not as an artist but as a madman. Something about lowering himself down in a cage over a Paris congregation, gathered specifically to see him, and then having himself hauled up again only to then vanish. My kind of guy. Had to find out more. Found and read The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí, his autobiography, and by force of personality alone he made me love his art. I must confess that I had disdained “modern” art up till then as something people do who cannot paint but who pretend to depth and mystique and imply that only superficiality and hollowness will prevent your understanding and appreciation of their genius. Well, I had seen too many of that pretentious ilk in action and damn if they could draw a straight line (actually, quite a hard thing to do I have since been apprised by some article or other).
Not so Dalí. He first learned how to paint, really paint. He could paint almost photographically before he took off into his strange and very Dalíesque universe of burning giraffes and melting watches. The man could paint, and that earned both my admiration and interest. And in a way he was another door for me, leading to the larger universe of the Arts, and especially to the beautiful thought-scapes of the Impressionists: Monet, Renoir, Degas, Pisarro, Manet, Angrand, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin. I have warmly fallen for them all, and each have a permanent exhibition (they are small countries, really, or large counties may be a better description) at the end of a path God wouldn’t even glance at.
Especially Monet. His views of early morning Paris, they, well, remind me. Remind me. His love of blue. His understanding of light. He gave birth to the name of the style, did he not? There are days I spend days in and around him. With a twist of Shostakovich.
Let me explain that.
Although Shostakovich is his own country and Monet is his own country, and although they are quite far apart (you head out west from here for Shostakovich and head due south, then veer east for Monet) you can blend them, bleed them into each other. That’s what I do when I listen to his String Quartets while I feast on Monet’s Paris pictures. It’s like browsing the exhibition with the live quartet in the corner adding just the right touch of surreal color to the air about me, and then I can touch them both, both Monet and Shostakovich, and I can know them as brothers.
Ahead, the Cathedral looms, and with it, inside it, the corridors. Approaching.
The Writers’ Cathedral. First we get out of the now thinly treed forest and into grass again. Fields, nothing but, to the left. Lakes, many and small to the right as far as the eye can see, beaches both sandy and grassy there. Reedy shores in places, lots of little fish in those lakes. The Cathedral—or what would look like one were you to stand far enough away from it—lies straight ahead. It is huge, rising in the early-morning blues of Monet, reaching for—and, yes, touching—the sky. It is the entrance to, and also is, the corridors, and God, stopping now and bending his head back to look up for the spires, but most likely (like all others who try) failing to see them, then looks back at the large doors and now heads straight for them.
When I say touching the sky, I mean: actually touching the sky.
Let me explain that.
The structure, were you to see it from a great distance, is nearly a replica of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral in the Morning, before the sun. Now, when I say great distance, I mean great, I mean many, many, many miles. Say, hundreds. So far away from it that were you to approach it even in a car you would for the longest time have the sense of not approaching it at all, the sense of getting no closer no matter how fast or long you drive. It is the same sensation you get when approaching a distant, majestically rising mountain range. You drive towards it, and there it is, seemingly a foot tall on the horizon. You drive for another hour, it has barely grown, and you know why: the peaks you see are eighteen thousand feet tall, and you are still hundreds and hundreds of miles away, they will take a little more approaching before they grow to full height. I think you follow. So too with the Cathedral. The exterior towers, there is one in each corner, rise well over twenty thousand feet into the sky (what I mean by actually touching). They each measure five thousand feet by five thousand feet at the base and only taper off a little as they soar, and they stand some ten thousand feet apart. It is an imposing structure—daunting, I see, even God—and I feel not a little pleased about that, to be honest.
It is a structure I saw once in a dream, or a memory, it is impossible for me to tell which. Once inside, the vaulted ceilings hang eight thousand feet above you, and you would be well served by a local transit authority, for it takes you hours to cross from one end to the other without one. There are no pews in here, no altars or pulpits, only space, and, of course, corridors, and inside the corridors, doors. Which is what we have come for. The doors.
God walked across the marble square (with its Olympic size fountain) and reached the steps leading up to the portals, where He stopped and turned. “How do you open them?” he asked and indicated the four-thousand-foot oak doors. “You approach them,” I said. “They know what to do.”
“Ah,” he said, and proceeded up the steps.
Now, I could tell that the grass was doing their best to flatter. It was quite apparent from the hurried and fawning ways they bent aside for Him, whispering (and practically pointing) all the while among themselves. But I’m not sure how I could tell that these four-thousand-foot oak doors were kissing up too. Was it that they swung open without even the tiniest little squeak (they always squeaked a little for me—well, imagine the stress on those hinges, they simply have to squeak, or at least I thought so)? Was it that I imagined a stiff but eloquent bow from each of them as they parted inwards to let Him enter? I don’t know, but I was quite convinced that an undue amount of respect was being shown, or at least they opened a little too obsequiously. Be that, however, as it may: God entered, and I followed. The doors eased shut behind us, setting off a small weather system against our backs.
The inside of the Cathedral reminds me a little of my head in general in that you step inside and for all intents and purposes find yourself outside. There’s no sky in here, to be sure, but the vaulted ceiling is so high it may just be overcast that day. In every direction, there are space and pillars, columns and arches, and other feats of architecture. Is everything in here out of stone? Yes, it sure looks like it. But I think too that gravity is playing along and has relaxed its pull a little, at least where the masonry is concerned, or most of this would—it should, really—come crashing down on you. But it doesn’t. It is the largest interior ever erected and I’m not a little proud of it. And then there are the corridors, of course.
Now, in a place this size you’d assume that the inside doors would match the colossity (that’s not really a word, but let’s pretend that it is) of the outside doors and the whole of the structure, but they do not, I think that would have been too impractical. I forget, they may have started out in the larger league, but somewhere along the way I changed them. I think they struck me as too ceremonial or something. Besides, normal doors just work better. And these normal doors were what God was looking for.
“To your left,” I said.
He looked around, didn’t see them, turned to me and held my eyes with His, a question.
“That way,” I said, and pointed to an eight-hundred-foot high maw by the west wall, the entrance to the corridor that led to the corridors that led to the doors. He nodded, and set off in that direction, wrapping the robe around him against the wind that had yet to settle from the outside doors’ closing. I set out after him.
The Writers’ Main Corridor, though not on the scale of the Cathedral itself, nonetheless is impressive (if I may say so). It is about three hundred feet wide with a five-hundred-foot ceiling (painted in Turneresque eruptions of color), and along both sides, for as long as the eye can see: entrances, large arching gateways leading to the smaller corridors—one for each writer, read or not yet read. Those with story openings carved above them have been read, by me (who else? this is my universe, after all). Those without names are waiting their turn. Each of these entrances open up on a smaller (relatively speaking) corridor, about half the size of the main one, each with a row of doors on both sides, some with names carved on them (of books I have read), some without (books waiting their turn to be read, or even written).
So, we’re still heading from the Writers’ Main Corridor, but there’s a little of the distant mountain range phenomenon here: we walked and walked but appeared not to come much closer, so I think God—pressed for time—pulled a little magic something out of his hat, for suddenly there we were there, just inside the main entrance of the Writers’ Corridor.
“Where’s Rushdie?” He asked.
These doorways are not alphabetized (although I sometimes wish they were), you come upon them in the same order I came upon the writer. “Down the left, I think,” I said.
He set off.
It was down the right, actually, which He discovered after a while. That earned me an inquisitive glance: don’t I know my own corridors? I shrugged. He entered.
The Rushdie corridor smells of incense. I know, it’s a bit cheap, but you know, India and all that. I came by Rushdie by way of Midnight’s Children, and so you will find its opening neatly carved on the first door to your left: “I was born in the city of Bombay… once upon a time. No, that won’t do, there’s no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home on August 15th 1947. And the time? The time matters, too. Well then: at night. No, it’s important to be more… On the stroke of midnight, as a matter of fact.”
God opened the door and we stepped into Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home in Bombay, Saleem Sinai busy being born amidst fireworks and celebrations outside, for this was the midnight of the very birth of India herself.
I know this world, I’ve tumbled through it a few times, and tumble is what you do through it: Rushdie has the knack of grabbing you by the hand with a “C’mon, I’ve got something to show you,” and then he rushes off and just never lets go of your hand, nor does he ever slow down.
We didn’t go any farther; this is where God wanted to get to, this is from where He wanted to speak to me. And now that we had arrived, I felt that He was getting ready to make His Point. Which indeed He did.
“You have all this,” He said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“A universe of universes. Your music, your paintings, your very polite grass and doors. Your amazing buildings. Your many planets and countries and counties and cities and forests and lakes.”
“Yes, I do,” I agreed.
“It is quite spectacular,” He said.
“Yes, it is,” I agreed.
“So why would you want to jeopardize it?” He asked.
“I wouldn’t want to jeopardize it,” I said.
“But you are,” He said.
“You either talk too much, or too little.”
I shook my head, slowly. I didn’t get it and said so.
“You either say too much, or nothing at all.”
I still didn’t get it and said so.
“How can I put it?” He said. “There is either no shutting you up when you come upon some passage you like, when you discover something—a new word for example, that’s just the right one, or when you suddenly realize that the shadows you feel cast upon you are actually painted by the poet you just read.”
“It bubbles out,” I sort of protested. For what He said is true. Mea culpa. I have a tendency to sometimes storm down the stairs, book in hand, to tell my mother and sometimes her guests too, if she happens to have company, all about it: Why effete is such a perfect word for Roman decadence, how Dickens’ candle was too weak to shine and only slightly disturbed the darkness, where maggots come from (honestly, I was startled to find out that they were fly eggs, is all, I hadn’t known), how the water in Gene Wolfe’s brook was fresh with the memory of snow, how Rushdie’s language tumbles and bubbles (reading him is like hanging on to a raft on a livid sea, is what I think I said), and things like that.
“Yes it does,” God confirmed.
I agreed, but didn’t say anything.
“And then there’s no getting you to say a single word when Ruth invites company.”
Ruth is my mom.
And by company God means one of Mom’s friends and her (they are always females, these friends of Mom’s, and always mothers) marriageable, but as yet unattached daughter brought along to inspect the goods (me), and now both seated with Mom in our downstairs sitting room, looking at me, also seated, waiting for me to say something. Anything.
“You’re worse than Harold,” said God.
“Harold and Maude. The movie.”
Ah, yes. I have seen it. Good point.
“Then you’re mute,” said God.
“I have nothing to say,” I tried.
“You have zero social skills,” He informed me.
“I don’t need any,” I said.
“Believe me,” He said. “You do.”
“You’re a good catch,” said God.
Let me explain that.
Ruth, Mom, has always been well-to-do. She inherited a lot of money. Canadian oil or something like that. Or was it cattle? Very marketable whatever it was. A remarkable fortune. Married Dad. Had me. Long time ago. Great wedding. Good marriage. Long marriage. Then not so good marriage. Dad cheated classically with his secretary. Divorce. Mom’s lawyer(s) won. She skinned Dad, who was no pauper himself. Mom ends up so far from hard-up she doesn’t even know where it is or in which direction to look for it. House, big one (even if drafty in places, my room’s one of those places). Cars. Maid(s). Cook(s). Boat. Stocks. Bonds. Controlling interest in a company or two or three or twenty. All summarized nicely in her will. She has told me about it. And this is why I’m such a catch: I am her only child and I stand to inherit all of it one day. Also: Mom is very good-looking. Dad is very good-looking. Ergo, I am not of a disagreeable aspect myself. Good-looking is what mom says. A prince is what she says. A very spectacularly good-looking prince she says more often than not when she dresses me up for visitors. A good catch, yes. God’s no liar.
And when put on display by Mom, this spectacular catch has nothing to say. Funny thing about this, sitting around the carpet-hugging coffee table (too low to be practical, too high to ignore) in our sitting room, staring at my cup, saying nothing, tasting the silence: I enjoy it.
This silence has flavors. The stock is a rather thick, rather warm thing, mulled mainly by Mom’s embarrassment. Gradually add to this the increasing individual embarrassments, unease, agitation, what have yous, of our visitors—stir gently: delicious. Top it up with Mom’s now simmering fed-up-with-me-ness-like despair, and there you have it: Palpable silence.
And the silence changes; not at all the same flavor visit to visit. It changes with the company. Take the blond little thing that was here the other day (I am terrible with names; I forget them even as they are spoken—I think I refuse to hear them). Pale, precisely manicured hands so neatly folded in her lap like some ivory gift. Her silence was a resentful embarrassment. Resented her mother more than me. She probably had a boyfriend who was not quite as good a catch, not quite as approved of by one’s mother. Brought along kicking and screaming to inspect this catch. Boiling a little, but perfectly-mannered about it. Mom’s embarrassment, as usual, is a steady “Oh, God, I wish he’d be like normal boys” (yes, she still thinks of me as a boy, though I saw thirty a few years back) sort of a thing. I’m getting used to it for it doesn’t vary much.
The girl’s mom (of course I don’t remember her name) was all daggers. Not really embarrassed, more like hateful. I seemed to fit rather perfectly into her medium-to long-range plans (I probably was her medium-to long-range plans) and by not cooperating (in the least) I was ruining something quite valuable, along with most of her pride. I feel I will never be forgiven by that one. Me, as I sit there, I am eyes moving from face to face, ears enjoying the stillness and the occasional clink as a cup is returned to its saucer by nervous hand and the rustle of dress as legs shift a little (but not much—it’s all so formal), and palate tasting the very thing that surrounds us, the stillness seeping out through the pores of the three females in the room.
Or take that rather too tall red-haired girl, woman really, brought along by her much shorter mother (her father must have been a giant).
I sometimes marvel at the timidity of big people. I learn the lesson over and over: a big body does not inevitably mean a big person, or spirit. Not at all. Statistically, I would venture, quite the reverse. Well, be that as it may. Her silence was embarrassment. She had never experienced anything like it and thought it all her fault, poor thing. My reticence brought on by her ungainliness: that’s what seeped through, what I tasted. Well, for one, I thought, she was not ungainly, at all. Quite graceful, in fact, even if touching six feet and large-boned in her silence. Her mother, on the other hand, was one of those people who seem pathologically barred from any form of introspection (a prerequisite to embarrassment). Just never felt it. Never stopped to feel it or anything else, I’d venture. And, in consequence, quite a chatterbox: how was I feeling, what was I doing with myself these days, working where precisely, or perhaps I was between jobs, I have known you since you were just (indicating three feet with her hand above the floor) this tall (smiles at me but meant for my mother), am I looking for work (that is if I’m not working right now, of course), read any good books lately (Mom would have suggested that one, but I didn’t rise to the bait), what do I think of the increase in sales tax, spring’s late don’t you think, and on and on and on. But not a smidgen of embarrassment. That kind of flavored my mom’s standard-issue resentment with a touch of fury at the little woman who would not shut up. I guess that wasn’t really a silence, but some conversation, even torrents thereof, is the same as silence, I think. I just felt sorry for the tall one, who seemed extra-silent in the midst of all that motherly meaningless noise.
Oh, here’s a name I did remember, and still do: Beatrice. For who names their children Beatrice these days, unless out of spite or cruelty? Beatrice Constance Enger.
“Anger?” I asked, as Mom dressed me up.
“Enger,” she said. “Echo, November, Golf, Echo, Romeo,” she added for clarity. Her dad, an Air force man before he took over her grandfather’s business, and who was still referred to, and addressed, as the Colonel, always used the proper aviation phonetic alphabet when spelling things out. It had rubbed off on Mom, ineradicably.
“Enger,” I confirmed.
“Beatrice Constance,” said Beatrice when introduced.
“Constance was her grandmother’s, my mother’s, name,” added Beatrice’s mother, whose name I forgot immediately. I didn’t answer her.
Another reason I remember Beatrice Constance: She is the ugliest woman I have ever laid eyes on. Not just ugly, fascinatingly ugly. At least I thought so. If there ever was someone put together from leftovers, it was Beatrice Constance. She tried to make up for it though. She was quick-witted and had beautiful teeth. And a smile that was perfectly alive. Alive. Her I could like. Yes, indeed. Like, but not marry.
What no one seems to realize it that I don’t care for women (I don’t care for men, either—I guess I’d better get that said, too). I just don’t care for them. And I’m not going to marry just to please my mom. No matter the sometimes hard-to-take pressure she brings to bear. And I’m not going to make some girl or woman miserable for the rest of her life by tying her to me. I am just not the marrying kind.
Some people live for that: wife, children, house in the burbs, good job, retirement plan, television, and good food. College funds, car payments. That is life for many people. I am not one of them and it is not for me. Just not for me. I don’t fit that mold, not even vaguely. But it seems to me like everybody, Mom at the fore, are hell-bent on making this oddly shaped peg fit in a very non-corresponding hole. They will never succeed. Beatrice Constance could have been my friend. Could have. But female friends were not allowed, not unless they were also wives. Some sort of rule Mom made up along the way.
They talked, at me, at each other. I watched the words fly back and forth. Then I saw her hands. Reminded me of God’s, actually, or the other way around. They lay still in her lap, even when she asked my mom things and answered her questions. Asked me things too, but of course I didn’t answer. Her hands were lovely. Perfectly manicured. Beautiful hands. I had not noticed them at first. They talked for a little while longer, while I surveyed her hands.
Then Beatrice grew silent. This was after her mom had given up on me a few turns back, and after Ruth, fiddling with the coffee pot and calling for the maid to brew some fresh (which Beatrice’s mother said she would not have time to drink, and gosh would you look at the time). After the silence finally fell (for I did everything to invite it) Beatrice took it as a judgment against her and she was crushed. Hers was the saddest silence I have ever tasted. And sadder still was that she was absolutely wrong. She was the one I had liked the best of anyone. But I couldn’t say that, of course. To say that I would have to speak.
“And I wish you would stop getting lost,” said God.
Let me explain that.
I get lost sometimes. Well, often. This is how it happens. Our chauffeur (we change them so often I can’t keep track of their names—and when I say we, I mean Ruth, Mom) drives me to a bookstore, or a mall, or a music store, or a something other store, or a park. He says he will wait in the car. I tell him not to wait, I will walk back. But Mrs. Fielding says, he says. Then I pretend to get upset and say, but I say. And then, new on the job and all, he says fine, all right, okay, one of these phrases, enjoy your shopping, or walk, or words to that effect. And drives off.
And I do my shopping, which is what I call my looking at things for sale. Right now I am very interested in Turner, and I’m seriously considering founding his own country in my inside outside. Somehow I always skidded off of him and into the Impressionist crowd. He was always just the “forerunner,” at least for me, until I stopped and looked at what he has done, only to find that he was a lot more than the shooer-in of effects of light as a primary language of art. He was a giant (if barely five foot tall). Though, be that as it may: I shop, that is, I look. And I ask questions. Then for directions (to other shops—which, they tell me, have more and other books on Turner). Then I leave for those other shops, and then, somewhere along the way, I get lost. More or less invariably.
Now, I only get lost when they find me.
Let me explain that.
Until they find me I am not lost, I explore. The light reflecting off the side of a tall glass building with bluish flavor, for instance. I wait five minutes, and the blue flavor shifts almost imperceptibly towards green, to almost the color of patina, as if the entire building (must be eighty floors) promises to turn copper in a second. I wait another five minutes and the green deepens. And I wonder how will the building look an hour from now, or two, or three, and I find some place to sit, and I sit, and I look. Thinking of Turner all the while and what would he have done with this view, and as I imagine his dramatic capture of the dance of light on steel and glass (soon to turn copper) the hours just drift away and next I know someone in uniform asks me if I’m Sandy Fielding, and I say yes, yes I am, for that is my name, and then he informs me that I’m lost (he doesn’t say lost, he says that my mother is worried about me and would I allow him to drive me home?).
I usually get to ride in the front.
“It doesn’t bother me,” I answer.
“It bothers Ruth,” He says.
“I’m afraid that one day she may want to cure you.”
“Cure me?” I’m astonished. “Of what?”
“Of being her only reliable source of embarrassment.”
“No,” I said. “No. She loves me.”
“Oh, sure,” said He. “Of course she does. But I she may love her reputation just a little more.”
“No.” I’m re-astonished and expel the word.
“I said may. It is something you should consider. Keep in mind.”
There had never been talk of any ailment, so there had never been talk of any cure. I wasn’t sure if God was on the up and up here. But then again, what reason would He have not to be?
“I said may,” He re-said. “All I’m saying, Sandy, is be careful. You have a wonderful world here. You’re as huge and alive as anyone I’ve ever visited, and I visit a lot—and have for a long time,” he added. “Be careful, Sandy, that’s all I’m saying. Don’t embarrass your mother. Try to gain some social skills. Get lost a little less. Consider marriage, even. That should keep things on an even keel.”
And that said, God looked very much like someone not only pressed for time, but fresh out of it, already late for something someone somewhere. “I have to go,” He said and turned. And when I made motions of going with him (we were still standing in Doctor Narlikar’s Nursing Home in Bombay, and Saleem Sinai was still busy being born, along with India just outside the windows with a cacophony of fireworks), He said, “Don’t worry. I’ll see myself out.”
Okay fine. “Okay.”
“Please be careful,” said He and tapped His nose with His beautifully manicured and graceful left index finger. Then He smiled and simply vanished. So that was what he meant by seeing Himself out.
The book is still in my lap. It is still raining outside. It is still Tuesday and God is off to something someone somewhere else. Visiting. I visit a lot, He said. Yes, I can imagine. Lots of inside-outsides to keep track of.
I look at the book. This one is by Rushdie as well. The Satanic Verses. As good as anything I’ve read. Its door says: “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die. Ho ji! Jo ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Ta-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to be born again…’ Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.”
Now, there’s a door opening for you. Note the twenty-nine thousand and two feet which is the exact reading of the plane’s altimeter when it explodes. A very nice door opening and I’m already in there, growing a universe along with Mr. Rushdie. But not now, not at this very moment, for I have just had a visit from God, and I am a bit stunned by it to be honest.
Be careful, He said. Please be careful. And don’t embarrass Ruth. Gain some social skills, don’t get lost so much. Consider marriage, even. And His talk about cure, which—didn’t it?—implied an ailment of some kind.
I cannot make these things compute. Perhaps I am too rattled from the meeting to think straight. After all, this was my first time, in the flesh, so to speak. Well, you can’t really speak of flesh, I guess, but in person. Oh, you know what I mean.
Of course, I had addressed Him often enough, especially when I was a child (night-time prayers and such), but He had never answered. Not until now. And now He had come to warn me, I think, is what I now think. Yes, to warn me. Please be careful, Sandy.
I notice I am sweating. So I’m rattled, then. Well, who wouldn’t be? My hands shake a little atop Mr. Rushdie’s book (trade paperback). I will them still. I will myself standing. I will myself to the window. I will my eyes to look out. Drizzle, gray, torn strips of cloud chasing the tree tops, low, clouds so torn they look more like rags of rain, low, low. A day of many grays and dark greens. Our new chauffer is running from the main door to the garage, trying not to get soaked. So Mom’s going somewhere, or he’s picking someone up. Is there a visit today? Is someone coming. Another prospect? I don’t, can’t remember. The chauffeur reaches the garage but fumbles with the keys and the rain suddenly breaks out. He’s soaked—and very unhappy—in seconds. Finally, he gets the door open and darts inside for shelter. Slam goes the door behind him. How ever is he going to get dry in there? Then I remember that he lives on top of the cars, in the driver’s flat, as Mom calls it. He’ll get dry in there. I wonder where she is going? Or is someone coming?
Please be careful, He said. If someone’s coming, I mustn’t embarrass her. I have to remember that. I watch the rain come down now—for real. Sky’s a bucket leaking badly. The big garage door lifts open into this rain, and the Jaguar inches its way out into the weather as if to test it with its nose. Rolls out into it, and seems to find it tolerable, being a car and all—well sealed. The large garage door drops back into place with a thud I know is there but which I cannot hear for the window between us and the torrent of rain, and out into this storm heads the Jaguar. So, picking someone up then, or maybe Mom sent him out to get something. Wouldn’t have brought the Jaguar for that though. Volvo’s the shopping car. Shopping cart, Mom calls it. The Swedish shopping cart. Not very nice I think, for the Volvo, if a bit bulky, is a nice car, not a cart.
Picking someone up then. Please be careful, He said.
Then things do catch up with me, as if they had been lying in wait, ready to pounce—pouncing, pounced: I’ve just had a visit from God.
No, really. The real one. He knew all about me and my inside outside and he was friendly (if pressed for time) and had come to help. The real One. The One. And the impact of all this catapults me: Oh, wait until I tell her.
And idiot that I am the excitement rushes to my head and I rush with it. Catapult: out my door, down the landing, down the stairs, across the entrance hall and into the living room where she sits, alone. I stop. Please be careful, He said. Don’t embarrass her. She hears me.
“Sandy,” she says and looks up from her paper.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Please be careful, He said.
“Do you have company?” I ask, just to be sure.
“Why, no,” she says.
Good. I won’t embarrass her then. Good. See, I’m being careful.
“Do you believe in God?” I ask.
She looks at me, speculatively. “Why, sure, Sandy” she says.
“No,” I say. “Really believe. Really.”
“Yes, I do.”
“Say, as much as Mommi used to.”
“Honey,” she says, “No one will ever match that woman’s belief in God.”
“Well, within reason,” I say.
“Yes,” she says, wondering what on earth I’m up to. That look. “Yes. Sure. I do.”
“Have you ever seen Him?” I ask. The real question.
“No one can see Him, Sandy.”
Then, not so very careful now, I do it, say it, “I have.”
“No, Sandy, you have not.”
“Yes, Mom. Oh, yes, you see, I have,” I say, and I’m happy now, happy to share this with her, for (I guess I haven’t told you yet) she is the only person I love. And to share this, this with her. Oh, man, the greatest.
“Sandy, please. You have not.”
“I have, Mom. I really have.”
“Stop it, Sandy. You’re scaring me.”
“No, no, no. It’s not scary at all. He visits. Said He does. A lot. And has for a long time. No, not me. No, of course, not, or I would have told you. No, other people, a lot. This was the first time for me. Just now. He just left. Said He’ll see himself out.”
Now she looks at me as if one of her migraines is coming on, with the sort of faint grimace that speaks of pain, and I grow all cold. Does she have company after all? Am I in fact not being careful at all and in fact outright careless and really embarrassing her now? I look around extra carefully. But no, there’s no one here. And cook’s in the kitchen, I can hear her in there. Maid’s not to be seen anywhere—she rarely is. Only Mom and I, then. I’m not embarrassing her. I relax again.
But now Mom grows very still (it’s funny how you can notice a perfectly still person turn stiller) and she scares me right back. “Sandy,” she says. “Are you all right?”
“Never been better,” I say. But I say it kind of automatically. You know, a response.
She looks at me with her still, gray, very beautiful eyes (I have gray eyes too). “And he saw himself out?”
“Yes,” I say. And then I slowly add another “yes.” And then He taps his nose and says Please be careful although I am being careful already. I’m not embarrassing her.
“And before that?” she says. But this question does not come from my mom but from some other beautiful woman with gray eyes, gray concerned eyes. It comes from a beautiful gray-eyed woman who doesn’t even vaguely believe me (Mom would have) and I suddenly hear Him again, loud and clear, and I grow very (and instantly) Charlie Alpha Romeo Echo Foxtrot Uniform Lima, careful.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. “Nothing really.”
“But you saw God. He visited?”
“But you just told me.”
“Perhaps it was that way and perhaps it was not that way,” I say, finding that I’m paraphrasing Rushdie paraphrasing Indian folklore.
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Maybe I’m just making it up.”
And at this Mom returns and she smiles (though not with her usual smile, but with the smile of that other beautiful gray-eyed woman who just sat in my mom’s place). Mom’s eyes are her own though. And now she shakes her head and says, “Whatever shall I do with you?” She says this more to herself than to me.
Ailment, I think, or say.
“No, not ailment.”
“What do you mean?” says the gray-eyed woman.
“No ailment,” I say again and look at the woman in my mother’s place. “There is nothing to cure,” I say. “Please believe that. I’m fine. Really.”
“Of course,” says the woman.
“I’ll go back upstairs now,” I say and turn. While turning I add, “Any visitors today? That I should dress for, I mean?”
“No,” says Mom. “No, Sandy. No visitors today.”
“I saw the driver. He drove away in the Jaguar.”
“Volvo’s in the shop.”
“Ah.” (Relief) “So no visitors then?”
“No,” says Mom, still with quite a bit of that other beautiful woman with gray eyes about her. “No visitors.”
But that was not true.
We did have visitors that evening. A Larry whom I had never met before, and a Karen spelled with a K. The rain had stopped, and I could make out stars among the tatters of cloud that still hung around. A large car, Mercedes from what I could make out, slowly made it up our long drive and then pulled up by our front door. Out of this car stepped what turned out to be Larry and Karen with a K.
A third person remained in the car. I could see him clearly, for he turned the dashboard lights on, to read it looked like. Settling in for a wait. Must be the chauffeur. Rich people visiting Mom.
“Sandy, dear,” said Mom, knocking on my door.
“We have company. I’d like you to come say hello.”
“But you said.”
“Sandy, please open, I don’t want to talk through the door.”
I did, and I see that she is not dressed for company, nor has she asked me to dress for company, and Please be careful He said.
“Should I dress up?” I asked.
“No, you don’t have to. Casual,” she said.
“Casual?” I’m not a little surprised, for I did not know that Mom knew that word.
“Yes. Just a couple of friends, stopping by to say hello. You haven’t met them yet, and I want to introduce you.”
She turned and I followed. So, don’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Make no strange remarks. Do not, absolutely not mention God dropping by. Much carefuller if kept to myself, He would be proud of me. Maybe even talk: social skills, galore.
Larry turned out to be large. Karen with a K not much shorter, though quite slim. A good deal taller than Mom. She looked strong. Would not take no for an answer, she looked like. They were both seated when we came down. Larry stood up first, more like upheaved, he was that big.
He held out his hand for me. “I’m Larry,” he said. I took it. He was very strong and hurt my hand a little.
“Sandy,” I said. Karen with a K rose as I shook hands with Larry. She offered her hand too. “Karen. With a K,” she added.
“Hi Karen,” I said. She was even a tad taller than me. I shook her hand as well. Social skills in evidence.
Mom sat down in one of the armchairs, leaving the sofa for Larry and Karen with a K. This was strange, and should have given me a clue. Mom never, as in n-e-v-e-r leaves the sofa. It is her throne, from where she directs the events of her world. This, then, was not a casual visit, and Larry and Karen with a K were not her rich friends, or Mom would be sitting in the sofa. PleasebecarefulHesaid, and I could think of absolutely nothing to say.
“Please sit,” said Larry.
It was Larry who said that. Not Mom. And that should have given me clue number two. PleasebecarefulHesaid. Apprehension rose from nowhere and filled my chest. My mouth went desert dry just like that and I think I was shaking a little as I sat down. It took forever.
Once in my normal chair, I looked at the two of them, first Larry then Karen with a K and then back to Larry. “Who are you?” I said.
Larry looked at Karen with a K who looked at Mom.
“I told you,” said Mom. “He is very perceptive.”
And now I know why Larry is the size of a body guard and why Karen with a K I’m sure could hold her own against him and why there’s someone in the Mercedes outside reading by the dash light as a backup (should he be needed, which I thought not), and I could see that PleasebecarefulHesaid was nudging my ribs a bit too late. And here I saw very clearly that I should have listened to God’s warning much harder and much earlier and not told Mom a single thing about Him visiting.
Karen with a K spoke next. This was the door she spoke: “You’re going to come with us for a while, Sandy.”
When I look back I see it clearly: that was the door, the beginning of it all. And I think I knew it then. I looked at Mom, looked for her denial, her rescue. But she remained mute. A gray-eyed beautiful woman, sitting in a chair not really hers. Silently consenting to what was about to happen.
“Mom?” I asked. And the beautiful woman’s gray eyes grew so moist you’d expect rain any moment. She didn’t look at me, though, she looked at the table, at the cups and saucers that were not there (and should have been), at the missing sterling silver sugar bowl and creamer. And then a very soft rain began to fall.
“It’s only for a little while,” said Karen with a K.
“Why?” I asked, although I knew. PleasebecarefulHesaid, had not been careful enough.
“Your mom is a little worried.”
“Mom?” I said and looked at her again. Part Mom, part that stranger woman, but with very shiny eyes. A big drop forming and then setting out down her cheek. A little groove formed in its wake where it washed the light brown powder away. A startling tear, clear as crystal, and more startling still: Mom did nothing to catch it. She let it fall. Then she looked up at me. “Yes, Sandy,” she said. “I am a bit worried.”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“So, you don’t have to,” I looked over at Larry and Karen with a K, but I saw that everything had already been settled. Turning back was not an option.
“But why?” was all I could say, though I don’t know to whom I said it. Mom perhaps. Perhaps the other two. Or maybe the magistrate whose signature had made it all legal and official (and apparently irrevocable).
None of the above answered me.
Well, not much left to dwell on. PleasebecarefulHesaid was out the window. Much too little and far too late.
I am not a rash man, nor am I a strong man. I’m quite obedient, really. So, what I said next was: “What will I need?”
“We’ll take care of that,” said Karen with a K.
“Now?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Larry.
I rose and did not look at my mom, who (I could tell) did look at me. I could feel her gray beautiful eyes on my back, simmering in her vision. She said nothing, though.
I walked into our entrance hall and waited. There’s not much more to add, other than that I hear Mom whisper (and I would have heard this a mile away) to Karen with a K: “No violence. Please. I want absolutely no violence. And explain to him, please. He is very bright. He will understand. Perhaps even agree.”
Karen with a K who called her ma’am said, “Yes, ma’am. I promise.”
And that was pretty much that.
I had to sit in the back.
They were very nice to begin with. Concern seemed to ooze from every which way. It was a hospital. Well, I had expected as much. I was a new, well-paying patient made very welcome.
Truth be told, I was expecting God at any moment with a Didn’t I tell you to be careful? but He didn’t show. Off visiting some other part of the universe, I suppose. Some part who heeded warnings.
I’ve told you that I’m awful with names, but as we arrived at the gray-brown wet on the outside but brightly lit on the inside building and new and concerned faces came at me from every direction I decided to start remembering, made up my mind. And damned if I wasn’t able to.
Here then, is the cast of characters:
Dr. Soladi—Head psychiatrist, or whatever her title is. She’s of Italian descent, is how Frank (who liked to impart tidbits of information) put it. This woman was definitely in charge. She prescribed, ordered, and enforced the cure.
Dr. Van Hallstead—Admitting doctor. I only saw him once or twice.
Larry—Enforcer (for lack of a better word). I think I was right about him from the start. Masquerading as a cleaner, he lurked a lot just outside doors or in nearby shadows in case he was needed. I never saw him clean a single thing, they had smaller people for that. There were several of him.
Dr. Karen with a K Ellingswish (nice last name). Yes, tall, slim Karen with a K was in fact a doctor. She and I talked.
Frank DePree—Nurse. He worked in the basement. Pre-nurse, he called himself.
Lucinda DePree—Nurse (of the sympathetic type, not Frank’s wife but his sister I found out). She dispensed both medication and sympathy. Post-nurse, is what Frank called her. She never called herself that.
Robert Grayson—Nurse. He was the one who did it. During-nurse. Evil-nurse.
There were others, lots of others, both staff and patients, but they don’t really matter. They were not really part of this world, only made up the fringes; neighboring countries.
Dr. Van Hallstead very politely asked me to undress. I did. All the way, he then informed me just as politely (like in prisons). I did. At this point I was half-expecting a very polite body/cavity search to go with it, but that didn’t happen.
The good doctor then, very politely, gave me a set of loose-fitting gray pajamas (I think would best describe them) which he asked me to don.
While I did as he had asked, he made a list of all the things I was about to leave behind (also like in prison). Then he gave me a pair of soft, light-blue slippers that looked quite girly and that would have looked more than just quite girly had they been pink.
Like everyone else that night, he looked very concerned. Then he asked me to sign the form where he had listed all my personal belongings. For some legal reason, he explained. I obliged.
Then came Larry. Follow me, he said, and we were off to see Dr. Soladi.
Her office was on the third floor. We took a slow elevator, Larry and I. And I mean slow. It took close to forever to arrive. Larry held the elevator door open for me, and I stepped out, a little apprehensive. We walked down the corridor a bit on a very clean and well-polished marble floor. Her door was clearly marked with both title, and name: Dr. Claire Soladi, Hospital Director. Larry knocked, loudly (as if he knew that she was hard of hearing, which she wasn’t). She made a muffled noise from the other side of the dark, thick, menacing thing, which apparently meant enter and Larry opened and held the door open for me. She did not look up from what she was doing, if indeed she was doing anything other than appearing to be doing something too important to look up from. Larry closed the door behind me with a snug-fitting thud, and, I assumed, stationed himself just outside.
Larry the Guard.
There I stood in borrowed pajamas and equally borrowed light-blue slippers looking at this stern barnyard animal of a woman sitting behind her large black desk ignoring me with God knows what. She was not friendly, nor was she polite, which in my book is a very bad combination in one and the same human being, and here is where I first felt truly afraid. Like very cold stomach afraid.
She finally deigned a glance in my direction.
“Sit,” she said and indicated the chair to my right. I sat.
She continued to stare at (or read, though I don’t think she did) the paper on her desk. Then she pretended to be done and looked up at me again. Then she gave me a what she must have considered a smile, and this is when I knew I should never have said anything to Mom about God. And failing that—which of course I had—that I should have done, pleaded, offered, promised whatever, anything, anything at all, to make Mom change her mind about sending me here. Too late now, though.
Then she came to the end of what she must have meant as a smile and told me, with not so much as a hint of a preamble: “You’ve been declared incompetent. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” I said, honestly.
“You’ve been declared mentally incompetent. You don’t know what that means?” Then to herself, as if this was amusing, “Well, I guess that would follow.”
“No, I don’t,” I said. And, “Follow what?”
Dr. Soladi sighed that kind of sigh that meant that she was now faced with a chore that she had not bargained for, nor was going to enjoy (though I think that was for show, I think she was going to enjoy this very much). She took a deep, pained breath, looked down at her hands (which rested on the piece of paper she had been staring at) then said, “A petition,” looked up at me again. “You do know what a legal petition is, don’t you?”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“Your mother, by way of counsel, filed a petition with the Superior Court this afternoon, to have you declared incompetent. It was heard before the clerk right away, witnesses already on hand and interviewed. It was determined that you no longer have the ability to make decisions or to care for yourself. So, although you are of legal age, your mother is, as if you were again a child, your legal guardian. Does that make sense to you?”
“I understand, if that’s what you mean. But no, it doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Be that as it may,” she said. “Your mother has decided that you—and she—would be best served by your coming here to stay a while.”
“Are you telling me that I am a child again, legally? That I have no say in this?”
“Yes,” then she looked down on the paper again, then up at me, “Sandy. That is precisely what I am saying.”
“Am I to be cured?”
“Of what?” asked Dr. Soladi, and I believe she tried that impostor of smile again, though it didn’t come off very well.
“Of being her only reliable source of embarrassment,” I said, remembering God’s answer verbatim.
She startled a little at that, then frowned and looked right at me, eyes hard now, assessing the offending child. “You are being impertinent,” she told him.
“Not at all,” I said. “I’m just telling you what God told me.”
And that, of course, was the spectacularly worst thing I could possibly have said. The very, very worst thing. Nothing worse than that could be said in my circumstance. Nothing.
“God?” said the Doctor. Amused. She really got to me, this one.
“Well, or a fair likeness,” I said, digging the hole a little deeper. Extra deep.
“God?” she said again, more to herself this time. She then produced a notebook and a fountain pen that she grasped with chubby and ringed fingers. Little sausages with sharp, painted nails. Dark red nails. Not her color at all.
“God,” she said for a third time. Not to me. No longer a question. Just for the record. “Talking to God. Hears replies.” She added another word or two to her written observation, then looked back up at me.
“Your legal guardian has asked that we take care of you for a while.”
“Mother,” I said. Just for the record.
“Am I to be cured, then?” I asked again.
“We don’t know,” she said. She cleared her throat. Then she carefully (slowly, deliberately—it was like a parody) replaced the cap of her fountain pen, and put the pen aside with her little sausage fingers, just so, parallel to the piece of paper—which I’m pretty sure was dead square on her desk. Then she said: “What I mean is we don’t know exactly what to cure you of. Yet.”
“But once you find out, I am to be cured of it?”
“Naturally. That’s what we do here.” And that frightening non-smile again. She had a sharp nose, small beady eyes behind large glasses, thin sandy hair, not well kept, and she was large. I swear, a chicken prototype. Babs of Chicken Run fame sprang to mind out of I don’t know where and I should have laughed; I could have laughed had she not scared me. But scared me she did.
“I don’t want to be cured,” I said.
“Well,” she said. “That’s just it, you see. You don’t have a say.”
“I could leave,” I said.
“Be my guest,” she said, again showing me her teeth.
So I did. I left.
To be returned by Larry, who remained in her office this time, not so far away from me. Large. And now I was very afraid.
She wrote something on a small piece of paper. “Take this down to pharmacy,” she said to Larry. “One every four hours.”
The audience was over.
“Larry,” I said in the elevator, looking up into his eyes at close range. I could smell his breath, not pleasant, but not awful either, I’ve certainly smelled worse. He looked right back at me. “I don’t know you,” I said, “and you don’t know me, but I must ask you a favor.”
“What’s that?” he said. Not really interested, but I sensed a flicker of curiosity.
“I have got to get out of here,” I said.
“No can do.”
“You’re here. Officially. No turning back now.”
“No turning back?”
“No turning back,” I repeated. The most menacing three words I have ever heard. No turning back.
The elevator—as speedy going down as up—finally came to a stop at the first floor. “This way,” said Larry. And I followed: sheep heading for slaughter.
The one every four hours turned out to be Chlorpromazine. I know because I asked him. I don’t think Larry thought I really wanted to know or that I would ever remember. But I did remember. I do have an excellent memory, when I want to remember. Had anyway.
Chlorpromazine was tricky. And strong.
I began to slip. It was very much like soap, this Chlorpromazine. Slippery. Sluggishly slippery. Couldn’t get a good hold on my thoughts, they slipped through my fingers, or more like I slid off them—as if they had been oiled or greased, saturated with grease, greasy on the outside, greasy on the inside, impossible to get a good grip on, harder still to walk upon or even along. Uncooperative.
Sliding off my thoughts was what I was doing, and slowing down. Luckily, I managed to get away from them and return to my inside outside, though it was a little slippery there too. I went back to visit Saleem Sinai, where God and I parted, remember? Where God did his disappearing act. I stayed there for a while. To feel something familiar. Then I fell asleep.
To begin with I spent as much time as I could in my inside outside, but this was getting harder and harder, for the grass was turning slippery, the moss and water too, and slower and slower. Sometimes I couldn’t even take the first step—you know, the one from my room into the fields—and then I had to stay outside my inside outside lying or sitting upon my bed in my room where Larry—or someone like him, some other Larry—woke me up every four hours for another pill (which he made very sure I did indeed swallow, went so far as to shine a flashlight into my mouth and down my throat and under my tongue, just to make sure he said, every time) and where I had a little bathroom to myself, and where there was a lamp that I could turn on and off myself but which Larry always turned on when he came even if it was in the middle of the night. And then there was the cafeteria (is what they called it) and there were stairs to go up and down to get to the cafeteria and every four hours there was the pill and then these things outside my inside outside began to turn molasses on me, sticky and slow, hard to move through and hard to think about for my thoughts kept getting greasier and heavier and then they weren’t at all, much.
A day or two or three or four went by this way.
Then they stopped giving me the pill. I think it was because I dropped my dinner tray on the floor and then could for the life of me not figure out what happens next. I stood there watching the meatloaf and gravy and the mash slowly dissolve into white brown yellow as the milk flooded the little floral arrangement by my feet. Nothing broke. Everything’s plastic here you see, but the food changed into multi-colored mud and then Dr. Karen with a K came over and looked at me and shone a little pin prick of light into my eye and said something to a Larry about something that somehow had something to do with my pupils, I think, and that stopped the pills for a while, and my thoughts poked their dizzy little heads up through the grease (like little crocuses through the snow) and wondered what on earth that was all about.
A day or two or three or four went by this way.
Of no pills. I returned to—no not to, but toward—normal. I still had to battle—I mean, really focus—to keep hold of my thoughts, but I managed. And I recognized Dr. Karen with a K just fine when she came for me. Unlocked the door and poked her head in, and smiled at me. She was very polite and very nice. And she smiled much better that the Larry that usually came for me and took me places, cafeteria mainly, or sometimes outside too, if the weather was fine.
But this was no Larry, this was Karen with a K in her K-ish person who came. We went to her office which was small and messy. Too small, really, for such a tall person, but comfortable nonetheless. It had its own bathroom too, just like my room, which I asked to use. She said fine. When I came back Karen with a K had poured me some coffee. In a cup, with a saucer. Very civilized. She had to make room for it though on her desk, papers and books monopolized most of it. I felt quite a home. She waited for me to sip some of it, which I did. Not too hot. Smelled freshly made.
“Sandy,” she said, once I had returned the cup upon its saucer. “How’re you feeling?”
“Not too good,” I said, truthfully. “Greasy, and, and Incomplete,” I added. And that was the right word, I was happy I had come upon it: Incomplete.
Then, before she could ask me another question, even as she drew breath to, I asked her one of my own. “How’s my mom?”
It took her a long time to answer, though I think what used up most of the time was for my question first to reach her and then to register. Her eyes, which started out holding her own question for me, changed first to surprise at having been interrupted, then to surprise at my question, then to a wonder that I had asked it, then to how my mother was, then to wonder what to tell me about how my mother was, then to a decision about what to tell me about that (while never letting go of mine—it was a little panorama of changes, she had beautiful eyes):
“She is,” she started. “She is concerned.” And then, following through on her decision to tell me, “And a little lonely.”
“I’m the only one she’s got.”
“She has no friends?”
“There are social friends and there are friend friends,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“She does not have too many friends. I mean friend friends. Real ones.”
“I scare them away,” I said. “I can’t seem to not embarrass her.”
“Oh, that’s not why,” she started.
“Oh, but that is why,” I said.
Then—it was like she just then donned an invisible coat—she was all professional. “Over the next few days we’ll be working together.”
“Doing what?” I wanted to know.
“Finding out what troubles you.”
“Staying here, and having no say about it, troubles me Karen.”
“Apart from that.”
“Apart from that nothing troubles me.”
“Are you really sure about that?” she asked.
“Are you happy?”
I could tell that although she now wore her professional mien we were still doing some sort of acquaintance dance, she was not taking notes, just making conversation.
“Yes, really. I’m happy.”
Then she picked up a pen, and I picked up the coffee cup again. It had pretty much cooled. I sipped it and it was a little bitter now. Still good though.
Her office, as I said, was small. About half the size of my bedroom, at most. Lots of bookshelves, you know the kind that you hang on the walls. Strips of metal like rails with little grooves in them for the supports, then long boards rest on them. Covered most of two walls this way, the one behind her and the one behind me. To my right was the door. No shelves on that wall. Lots and lots of books in this room. From what I could make out they were all medical, about Conditions (a word I saw on a lot of spines—I have excellent eyesight). Also piles of magazines, on the lower shelves: Journal of Personality Disorders, Schizophrenia Research, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, British Journal of Clinical Psychology, and others, each in their own well-organized pile, which I found odd considering the rest of the room, especially the desk. Perhaps there was some sort of method to this madness. When I looked back at her, I found her surveying me, quite intently.
“How would you describe happy?” she asked.
“Elated, joyful, pleased with life,” I said. First words that came to mind.
“Good synonyms,” she said.
“Feelings,” I corrected her.
She wrote that down.
“Really, Dr. Karen with a K, why I am here?”
“Did not Dr. Soladi explain?”
“Not very well.”
“I didn’t much care for her,” I informed her.
Now, I didn’t mean for that last comment to slip out, but I could see that Karen with a K shared my sentiments about Dr. Soladi. I could see that the boss was not liked in the facility.
“Your mother, being very concerned, has had you declared mentally incompetent by the Superior Court and has committed you to our hospital for treatment.”
“You’re using Dr. Soladi’s words,” I said.
“I am?” she asked. She looked surprised.
“That’s what she told me. Exactly that.”
“Are you sure?” Then, “Well, it’s the truth.”
“What is the name of this hospital?” I asked.
“Why is it that these kinds of facilities always have such relaxing names: Meadows, The Woods, Resting Pines. Don’t they?”
Despite herself—that’s the impression I got—Karen with a K smiled. “You have a point there,” she said.
“Isn’t it really a sort of cover-up though,” I asked, “to conceal the turbulence beneath? Like a nice, thick blanket.”
“This place actually is rather calm.”
“On the surface,” I said. “I wouldn’t doubt it.”
She didn’t answer that.
“Perhaps because it’s a private facility,” I ventured. “A pretty selective, well-behaved clientele.”
She considered that. “Could be.”
“Mom’s very well-to-do.”
“And concerned,” she said. Then, before I had a chance to reply, “Over the next day or so I’m going to ask you some questions.”
The word some has always bothered me a little. I asked Ruth, Mom, once precisely how many some was. She told me, seven. Without even looking up from the paper. Next time I actually checked, some was twelve, and the time after the only five. Since then I’ve made a point of checking. So, “How many?” is what I said.
“How many questions are you going to ask me?”
Again she held a brief conference with herself, her eyes really put her on display. And again she arrived at a decision: “Seventy-four,” she said.
“That’s a very big some,” I said.
“Perhaps it’s a bit of an understatement,” she agreed.
“And what will we know at the end of these seventy-four questions?” I asked.
“We will have a pretty good idea what ails you.”
“And then you’ll cure me.”
“Why, yes. Of course.”
“But what if nothing ails me. What if I have no ailment?”
“Then there will be no cure.”
“Good,” I said.
“Do you mind?” she asked.
“That I ask you the questions.”
“Oh, no. Not at all, go ahead.”
“I want you to answer them as honestly as you can. That’s really important, that you’re honest with me. Can you promise me that?”
“Yes,” I said. “I can promise you that.”
“And you can take all the time in the world. I literally have all day, and all week, if needed. It’s you and me, Sandy. And I’m sure we’ll sort this out.”
Ailment. Fishing for one.
“How accurate are these tests?” I asked.
Again, I think I surprised her. She looked at the folder that she was just about to open—containing the questionnaire, I’m sure, then up at me, quickly. Brown, large, surprised eyes. Little like roe’s eyes. Very beautiful, I think I mentioned that.
“They are quite accurate,” she answered.
“Well, that’s good,” I said. Then I asked, “You agree with them, these questions?”
“Not always,” she said. She immediately regretted having said that, said her eyes. But it was an honest answer.
I thought about that while she said nothing.
Then I wanted to know, “So what do you do if you, in your heart, feel one thing and these questions, this test here, in its heart, feels another?”
“I,” she said, hesitating slightly, “I do what is best for the patient.”
“It may be a compromise, a mixture of both.”
“Yes, of both hearts,” she said. Frowning a little. I guess tests don’t have hearts in her world.
“The pills were horrible,” I said.
Again, she looked a little like catching-up. Then did.
“I don’t think they were right for you.”
“Dr. Soladi prescribed them.”
“They slowed my thoughts down.”
“They were supposed to.”
“And made them very greasy.”
When I saw that she did not understand, I said, “Slippery. Hard to hold on to.”
“Ah,” she said.
“But not right for me, right?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think so.”
“But the test will tell?”
She looked at me for a long time. More like looking for me, trying to find me, something she could touch and understand. She didn’t find me though, not knowing where to look. She ended her exploration with a simple, “Yes.”
I sipped my coffee again, finished it actually. Cold now.
“Would you want some more?” she asked.
“Please,” I said. “Yes.” I would drink it hot this time.
She rose and left the room, leaving the door open. There would be a Larry nearby so she didn’t take too big of a risk, I guess. When she returned she carried a small tray with two cups, a few cookies, and a small creamer. She served me first, then herself. She added cream or milk to hers.
“Want some?” she asked, holding up the creamer (which caught the sunlight through the window and sparkled briefly).
“No, thanks,” I said. “I like it black, or brown, rather.”
“Shall we get started?” she asked, donning, almost, her professional aspect again.
“Sure,” I said, putting the cup back down on the saucer. Bet you County Hospital doesn’t provide saucers for their cups, I thought, or said. Karen with a K startled a little, but I’m not sure from what. Perhaps I had spoken.
She was looking for something on her desk, then in the drawers, then she patted down her coat, and found them in her pocket. Glasses. She donned them as well. The frames did not suit her—squarish. She looked up over the rims at me, “I need them for reading,” she explained.
“Okay,” she said, pen in hand, folder open before her, looking down at the paper.
“Okay,” I echoed. “One of seventy-four.”
“Right.” She read it and then delivered it. Quite professionally: “Do you sometimes feel that things you see on the television or read in the newspaper have a special meaning for you?”
“I would have to say no on both counts,” I answered. “Because I hate television. I only watch it to keep my mom company if and when I do watch it at all, and I steer as far away from newspapers as I can. Nothing but crime, sex, and conflict.”
She was writing quite fast, and not too intrusively. Shorthand maybe. I asked.
“Do you write shorthand?”
“Oh. Oh, no. Wish I could though. Wouldn’t be a bad idea. No, I don’t know shorthand.”
“Pretty fast, though,” I observed.
“Lots of practice,” she said.
She finished writing, then asked, “Why do you think newspapers are about nothing but crime, sex, and conflict?”
“Is this question number two of seventy-four?”
“No, we’re still on question number one.”
“So, there will be more than seventy-four questions then?”
“There are seventy-four main questions,” she said, “but I may ask other questions now and then to make sure I understand your answers.”
“So, why do you think newspapers print nothing but crime, sex, and conflict?”
“Well, don’t they?”
“Answer the question, please,” she said so kindly that I didn’t feel the least bit upset about being put in my place. Actually, I didn’t feel put in my place, I felt as if she wanted to know.
“Because they’re meant to sell. By and large, I don’t think they’re in business to inform the public about anything, they’re in it for the money. Pure and simple.”
She wrote that down. She agreed, I could tell by her eyes. Especially now, behind those convex lenses (which surprised me, women her age—and she wasn’t all that old, my age-ish, at the most early forties—are usually myopic, not farsighted) which slightly enlarged her eyes.
“And crime, sex, and conflict sells,” I added. “It’s what the buying public wants, and will part with their money for.”
She wrote some more.
“And how television means anything to anyone,” I said.
That earned me another glance over the rims. Then back to writing, fast.
“So you never watch? Other than with your mom, to keep her company?”
“No, I don’t.”
“So what do you do with your spare time, then?”
“I read a lot.”
“Ah,” she said and wrote that down too with her quick, unobtrusive hand.
She sipped a little of her light brown coffee, put it back with a little clink, and asked the next question.
“Do you sometimes avoid going to places where there will be many people because you will get anxious?”
“This is number two?” I asked.
“Yes, this is number two,” she confirmed.
“Tell me again, please.”
“Do you sometimes avoid going to places where there will be many people because you will get anxious?”
“No.” She said. “Anything you want to add to that?”
“No,” I said.
“Number two is done?” I asked.
“And here comes number three?”
“Yes,” she said. “Here comes number three: Have you had experiences with the supernatural?”
PleasebecarefulHesaid. But I was beginning to like her, and I was already hospitalized, surely I could afford to be honest. No? And He tapped His nose with His beautifully manicured and graceful left index finger. And smiled and simply vanished. After having said, again: Pleasebecareful.
“How do you define that?” I said. Then added, “In these circles.”
“Well, dictionary-wise, I guess. ‘Not of this world.’ Above, super meaning above in Latin, the natural. Above what you can touch and see and feel with your senses.”
“Your physical senses?” I asked, for clarification.
I liked her precision with the word. We had that in common. Well, of course, I had sensed Him. I had seen, heard, smelled—well, had I smelled Him? I wondered and didn’t remember. But I had sensed him, with my physical senses, so perhaps He didn’t fit the definition.
But the careless question did escape: “Would God be supernatural?”
Tapping His nose, one agitated (with me) Deity.
“God, well, yes. I think so. You can’t really touch him, can you?”
Had I? Touched him? Had we shaken hands? Gosh, I don’t remember. Odd notion, that, shaking hands with gee oh dee, God. A bit above such formalities, God, I’d have thought. No, I don’t think I touched him.
“I don’t think so,” I said. Being as honest as I could. Just like I’d promised.
“Have you touched him?” she asked. Mom must have told them.
I returned to my meeting with Him. No, I’m sure now, we never touched. Certain of that. “No.”
“Seen him?” she asked.
PleasebecarefulHesaid. But I didn’t think I ought to lie. Not to Karen with a K who looks up definitions of words and knows their Latin derivations. I was getting to like her and you don’t lie to people you like. I never lie to Mom. Especially not when you not very long ago had promised Karen with a K to be as honest as you could.
So, I drew a long breath, and let it out in quite a display of sigh and said, “Yes.”
“You have?” Surprised again. Didn’t write anything, not just yet.
“He visits,” I said. Honest to a fault.
“No, just the once. But He visits others.”
“How do you know that?”
“He told me.”
“So you’ve spoken, to him?”
“Tell me about it, please.”
“It was a private conversation,” I said. Which was the truth.
She was writing now, discretely and fast. She would have made some secretary. Would have learned, and been very good at, shorthand too, I’m sure.
“Maybe we can come back to that later,” she suggested.
“Maybe,” I said. A little reluctantly. She made a note of that, and circled something, twice.
“Three down?” I wondered.
She did not get it, for about five seconds. Roe eyes in lenses, staring at me. Then got it. “Yes, three down,” she confirmed.
“On to number four,” I said.
Which went: “Have you often mistaken objects or shadows for people, or noises for voices?”
Now, that was a good question. I had to think. Hard. About that one. Found the answer.
“Only, you know, monsters under the bed sort of thing. Calvinophrenia,” I answered at length.
“Calvin and Hobbs. It’s a comic strip. There are always monsters under his bed.”
“I thought you didn’t read newspapers.” She’s sharp, that one Karen with a K.
“I don’t. I have the books.”
“Ah.” And wrote it down. “So, do you see them?”
“Monsters under my bed?”
“No. That was a joke.”
She looked a little relieved at that. “Just making sure,” she said. Then asked, “And voices?”
“Noises for voices?”
“No. I don’t hear voices. Other than those I read.”
“You hear the voices you read?”
PleasebecarefulHesaid. “Yes, don’t you?”
“No, not really.”
“That’s a pity,” I said. “How do you read dialogue, then?”
She thought about that for a while, quite a while, in fact. “Well, perhaps I do,” she said then. “Not out loud, but perhaps I do.”
“I don’t hear them out loud either,” I said. “Just with my mind’s ear,” I added with a smile, pleased with the metaphor.
I think she was too, because she smiled too. Then wrote. “Anything else?” she wondered.
“Here’s the next question.”
“This would be number five?”
“Yes. This is number five. Do other people see you as slightly eccentric?” When I didn’t answer right away she added, “You know, odd.”
“I know what eccentric means.”
“Yes,” I finally said. Truthfully. “And not just slightly.”
“What people?” She asked.
“I don’t like talking to them.”
“And this makes you eccentric? How?”
“Because I don’t talk to them.”
“Not even to be polite?”
“Especially not to be polite. What’s the point in that?”
“To make your mom happy?”
That, I must admit, hurt.
“Well,” I said after another while, “there is that. Then again,” I added to put a lighter touch on it, “I am her number one embarrassment.”
She tactfully did not acknowledge that.
“So you never speak to them, your mother’s friends?”
“Nor their daughters.”
“Mom’s trying to marry me off.”
“Has been for years. Always bringing in prospects for inspection. And that inspection is very much both ways.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She brings them in to look me over.”
“To determine whether my looks and money outweigh my eccentricities.” Then I added with a smile, “You know, oddities.”
She smiled too, “Touché.”
“Well, you are very handsome.”
“And rich, once Mom dies.”
“Well, she will one day. And she’s leaving it all to me. She has told me. Which makes me both good-looking and affluent. A good combination and a very good match.”
She had to agree with that. Nodded.
“So, she brings them in, sometimes once a week, sometimes twice a week, sometimes once a month, to look at the odd prospective husband.”
“I sit and look back.”
“But you don’t like to talk?”
“I don’t talk.”
“Do you enjoy that? Do you get any satisfaction from that?”
“From not talking?”
“Yes, and no. Yes, I enjoy the silences. I can taste them. They are quite varied, you know, and so full of emotions.”
She nodded, and held me with those magnified roe eyes.
“It’s mainly embarrassment from Mom, and mainly consternation from the visitors. But they come in so many flavors.”
When she said nothing, I said, “And no, I don’t enjoy them, because really, I just want the interview to be over so I can go back to what I was doing before I had to dress up and go on display.”
“Which is, normally?”
“Reading something. Studying something. Drawing something. Something, something, not being on display.”
She was writing now, in earnest, and not so discreetly. Interested, I think, in what she was hearing. Germinating conclusions? I don’t know. I don’t know. Not sure what she was thinking at that time.
“Which segues nicely into the next question,” she said. “Have you little interest in getting to know other people?”
“Number six?” I wanted to know.
“Yes, number six,” she confirmed.
“Yes, nice segue,” I agreed. “And, no. I don’t have little interest in getting to know other people. To be more exact, I have no interest in getting to know other people.”
“None at all?” she said.
“None,” I confirmed, not at all carefully.
“Why?” she wondered. Sincerely.
“I have all the friends I need.”
“Yes, her. Of course.”
Not so sure I wanted to go there, but I also wanted to remain honest, “Yes.”
“Who are your other friends?”
Rather than answering I said, “I’m hungry.”
She took a quick look at her watch. She wore the face of it on the inside of her wrist, so she had to twist her hand inside out to see it. I’ve always wondered at that, why they wear watches that way, don’t the crystals get scratched. “Lunch soon,” she said.
“Why do you wear the face of your watch that way?” I asked.
She took another look at the wrist, still splayed to show the time. Then held it up for me to see. “Like this you mean?”
“Yes. Doesn’t it scratch the crystal? Like when you rest your arm on your desk.”
“I never thought about it. My mother always wore it this way. It was the way people wore watches, for me. So I did, too. Still do.”
“I see,” I said, and did.
“Would you like to have lunch here?” she asked.
“No, I’d rather to go the cafeteria.”
“You would?” she said, obviously referring to my reticence to talk to strangers.
“I don’t have to talk to them,” I said.
I startled her. I could see. Maybe she was not aware of how obvious she was, or how well I perceived. “You knew what I thought?” she said.
“Of course not,” I said. “But that’s what you meant, right?”
“Yes,” she said. “That is what I meant.” Then she thought for a little while. A new question coming, I could tell. A side one.
“How do you feel about talking to me? You don’t seem to have a problem with that. I’m a stranger, and I’m definitely not your mother.”
“I’m your patient,” I said. “Besides, you’re not here to marry me.”
She smiled at that. “There is that, of course.”
She took another look at her watch and then decided to break for lunch. A Larry saw me down to the cafeteria, Karen with a K stayed behind. Perhaps she had brought her own.
The cafeteria served fish. Not my favorite.
She had taken good notes, had Karen with a K. I admired that. She picked up pretty much exactly where we had left off, with the unanswered question—the one I really didn’t feel like answering.
“So,” she said. “Who, besides your mother, are your other friends?”
No getting around answering it, “My writers.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that. Those that I read.”
“Ah. I see. As in?”
“As in,” I took a deep breath. “Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, Don DeLillo, John Fowles, John Crowley, Mark Helprin, Margaret Atwood, Flannery O’Connor, Arundhati Roy, Salman Rushdie, Will Durant.” I ran out of air, then refueled, “To name a few.”
She was writing. Surely she didn’t catch them all. “Need more?”
Before she had a chance to answer, I extended the list. “There are of course the Russians. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Babel, Nabokov. Especially Chekhov.”
She stopped what she was doing, which was listening and writing, and stopped me as well with a held up hand. “Isaac Babel? You’ve read him?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “Very courageous,” I offered.
She was looking at me with still eyes, not really fishlike behind the convex lenses but suggesting something aqua nonetheless. “Yes,” she said finally. “Very courageous.”
“Why do you consider them your friends?” she asked, and I had the feeling that she really wanted to know. “Friends are usually people you know, people you meet, talk to. Touch, occasionally.”
“I know no people better. I could know no people better.”
“How is that?”
“No friend I can imagine, of the walking-around-and-touching-you kind, could offer me more of himself, or herself, than the writer. He reveals his soul. With every book, you are invited to share his dream, for the book is his dream.”
I looked up to see if she followed, if I had her attention. I did. She was not writing.
“And not only does he share his dream, he asks you to create it with him. To co-create it. That’s how you bring his book alive, again. Once alive in his mind, as he wrote it, and now alive again in your mind, as you read it.”
She wrote that down, almost unobtrusively. “How does he do that?”
“The good writer, the honest writer,” I said, “the one who knows what he is about, allows you to create his dream with him. He does not describe the desk,” and I knocked on her desk, “in such minute detail that it leaves no room for your imagination. That would do you out of a job. Which, by the way, for me, is the main problem with films. They leave nothing for you to imagine and create, you’re sort of force-fed the dream. But what the writer does is give you enough hints, he intimates enough detail to allow you to dream the desk complete with him.”
Writing again now.
“Same with a face, or a smile, or an emotion. Enough hints, enough specific fragments to allow the reader to do the rest. It’s not really a paint by numbers thing, or a connect-the-dots, those comparisons are too crude. It’s far more subtle than that. You can’t connect the dots of an emotion. But you can give a brush stroke of the movement of an eye, and as you see it you can, and do, create the rest of the face. In essence you dream alongside the writer. You dream the writer’s dream.”
She had stopped writing again and looked at me over the rim of the glasses. Then she removed them altogether and placed them on top of her writing.
“Not only that,” I said, “Jorge Luis Borges once said that he sometimes thought that, and I quote, ‘good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves’ unquote.”
“You really have given this some thought, haven’t you?”
“Oh, yes, “I said. And added, “I have lots of time to think.”
“I have to ask you one question though.”
“When you receive so much, as much as you tell me you do. When your writer friends give you so much, does it not bother you that you can’t talk the other way? That you can’t say something back? Return the favor?”
I didn’t answer right away. It was a good question, and one that I had given some thought. She misinterpreted my hesitation, I think.
“I’m curious, honestly,” she said. “Kind of off the record,” and smiled.
“The writer knows that you are creating his dream with him. That’s enough of a return gift, I believe. Sometimes, though, I have had the urge to seek him out, which of course is hard if he is a century dead, to touch him and thank him. Sometimes I have written the author, via the publisher. Even got a reply or two. But that’s not really what you’re asking.”
I looked at her fingers as I talked. Clean, strong fingers. No rings. No husband. She sat very still. Listening with her whole body. The moment was hers to fill with an answer, but she opted out. So, I continued:
“I think, I feel, as if the connection is already made if you honestly erect his design. There is a fulfillment in that act, so strong that he can almost feel it, if not actually perceive it. That you’ve almost already thanked him by doing so. If, that is, he is an honest writer.”
“How can you tell?”
“I can usually tell by his intention.”
“How can you tell his intention?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“I asked you first,” she said and smiled.
“If you feel good, or inspired, or encouraged as you read, his intention is to help you, to inspire you. If you feel nothing, or if you feel aroused, or if you feel slanted somehow, his intention is to impress or to make money or to upset you.”
She laughed at that, a really nice laugh. High and girlish.
“Do you read a lot?” I asked.
“I used to,” she said.
“But no more?”
“There is little time.”
“We make time for the things we love,” I pointed out.
She did not answer that. Instead she picked up her glasses, looked at them for a while, put them back on and sort of gathered herself up. “We had better get back to the questions,” she said.
“If you say so.”
“Number seven,” she said, and smiled again. It was a nice smile. Not so wide or open that it showed teeth, but startling nonetheless. “Do people sometimes find it hard to understand what you are saying?”
“By people, here, we must be talking about my mother.”
“Yes, she’s people. Of course.”
“Or,” I said as I thought of the times I had rushed down the stairs and blurted out my latest insight or amazing turn of phrase before I discovered that she had company, “or, others who accidentally, as it were, are within earshot.”
“Yes, them too.”
“My mother tries, and often does understand what I’m saying. Especially when it comes to phrases I come across. She reads a lot too.”
“Such as?” she asked.
“For example, when Rushdie says, in The Satanic Verses, that ‘The gravitational field of their abilities drew work towards them.’ That’s a good example. That is a beautiful picture, a moving concept.”
She nodded, still writing. “I agree.”
“Have you read it?”
“I’ve heard about it. But no, not read it.”
She didn’t answer that.
“Or when he said, ‘He tried to invent a happy future for them, to make it come true by making it up and then believing in it.’”
“You have an amazing memory. If that’s verbatim.”
“Yes, it is. But I just read it last week.”
“True. I have a good memory. When I want to remember.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes I don’t want to remember and then I forget instantly. As for example the names of my many prospective brides. I forget them within seconds. Gone. In fact, I suspect that these names, once they leave their speaking lips, never quite make it to my ears. I’m that good of a forgetter.”
She was writing.
“There is such a thing as selective memory, right?” I asked. “I mean, medically?”
Another glance above rims. “Yes, obviously,” she said. “You’ve got one, it seems.”
She returned to the original question, “So, your mother usually understands you then?”
“Where turns of phrases are concerned.”
“When not then?”
“Well, sometimes I discover things. In myself or in the world.”
“Like when I found out that maggots were fly eggs.”
“See? That’s what I mean. It’s an amazing fact. Was to me anyway. But not to Mom, who not so much didn’t understand what I said as could not understand my untoward enthusiasm for maggots, as she put it.”
“I think she had guests that time as well. And they didn’t understand at all. I don’t think.”
“And sometimes,” I stopped to think now and PleasebecarefulHesaid stepped up again, looking over my shoulder. “Sometimes I realize things about myself which I want to tell her, and usually I just run downstairs and blurt them out and then I see on her face that there is no connection, no understanding—though she does try, bless her heart, she really does—but there’s no understanding, just a sadness.”
“Such as?” she wondered.
“Such as what?”
“What do you realize about yourself?”
PleasebecarefulHesaid. “Nothing comes to mind,” I lied.
“With your memory?” she prompted. “Or have you chosen to forget?”
I didn’t answer that.
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but it was the feeling that I already had said too much, especially in view of Please be Charlie Alpha Romeo Echo Foxtrot Uniform Lima He said, standing there, looking over my shoulder. I remained my silence.
“So, you can’t remember the particulars of any such misunderstanding.” It wasn’t really a question this time.
“Sorry,” I said, and shook my head.
She inspected me for a short while over her glasses, then let it go. I could tell that she made that decision. It was as if she understood, as if she forgave me for not wanting to go there, though I certainly did remember. “All right,” she said. “Let’s move on.”
She looked down and read from her sheet of questions. “Do people sometimes find you aloof and distant?”
What was I doing here? Was I answering these questions rightly or wrongly? Was I manifesting ailment? Was I in need of cure? I wasn’t sure.
Doctor Karen with a K seemed friendly and understanding enough, but she had a job to do. And that job was to diagnose me, to discover what (if anything) ails me. Apparently something does, or I wouldn’t be her. Mom thought so, obviously. And Doctor Soladi agreed. Did Karen with a K think so too?
I had to know. “Are you sure I have an ailment?” I asked.
She looked up from her sheet and said, “No.”
“You are not sure?”
“No, I am not sure.”
“But you’re making sure.”
“One way or the other, yes.”
“What if I don’t answer any more questions?”
“That would make it more difficult to make sure.”
“One way other the other.”
“Do I have a say? I mean, does it matter what I think?”
“Of course you do, and of course it does.” I believe that she was genuine.
“In that case,” I said. “I think that nothing ails me.”
“The problem is,” she said after a heartbeat or two, “that your mother thinks so, and that the Court agrees. And,” she added, “Doctor Soladi does too.”
“I see,” I said. “That is a problem.”
“So, the best thing we can do right now, honestly, is to finish these questions, and then we’ll know.”
“One way or the other?”
I took a deep breath and tried to discern the right thing to do. Tried to sense this from somewhere. But there was no help to be had anywhere, just a little animal in my stomach, stirring. PleasebecarefulHesaid, and it stirred. And there was Karen with a K across from me—who I could tell, just like I can tell a good from a bad book, had good intentions—watching me.
“Okay,” I said. More like heard myself say.
“So, are there any times you can think of where your mother didn’t understand you at all?” Karen with a K asked cleverly, returning yet again to the much unanswered. She was a good doctor, with good intentions.
I did not like lying, so, finally, I answered truthfully.
“She doesn’t understand about the corridors and the doors.”
“I have a large building in my head. It stands where a deep forest and a wide field meet. It’s like a museum. But it’s really a Cathedral. A very tall Cathedral. Inside it, there is one corridor for each writer I have read, and along each corridor, for each book I have read by him or her, there is one door.”
“You mean figuratively?”
And here He is, tapping his nose. PleasebecarefulHesaid.
Of course not figuratively speaking, but how could she possibly, Karen with a K, possibly understand when my mom can’t.
“Yes,” I said after a little while.
“You sure about that?”
She looked up, a little surprised. Big eyes again. Not over the rim this time. That’s when I decided, PleasebecarefulHesaid or not, to trust her.
“It is an actual building,” I said. “Huge.”
“Where is it?”
“It’s in my inside outside.” Cryptically, I know. And, of course, how could she possibly understand. And then I felt very cold. The little animal in my stomach grew fangs and took a large bite. But I had already tossed the mooring lines and this raft was now drifting with the current. No getting back to the dock now, no stuffing the genie back into the lamp.
So, I explained.
“Inside my head, I have an outside. There is space. Fields. Rivers. Buildings. The Cathedral. It’s a wonderful place, actually.”
She was trying to understand, really trying. I could tell, for she was well-intended. “The cathedral?” she said.
“How big is it?” she wondered.
Then she asked me the question that made me love her. For, whether she believed me or not, she showed that she really wanted to know. That she honestly desired to understand. “Is this cathedral the same every time you visit?” she asked.
And, yes it is. “Yes,” I said.
She wrote that down.
“Is that an ailment?” I asked.
To her credit, she didn’t hesitate. “No,” she said.
The fangs eased a little.
“How does your mother take it when you tell her, well, things like this?”
“At first she looks excited, like a mirror of me. She sees I’m thrilled, and she expects to be thrilled too. She anticipates thrillness, happiness. And so I tell her and see her face drop with the incomprehensibility of it all. She tries to but cannot fathom. Doesn’t say so, but turns sad. ‘Oh, Sandy,’ she says. ‘What am I to do with you?’ Then I hug her and tell her not to worry.”
“But she doesn’t understand.”
“No, not really,” I said and sighed.
“Has this happened, this,” she was looking for the right word.
“Non-comprehension?” I suggested.
“Yes, precisely. Non-comprehension. Has it happened with other people? With company?”
“Too often,” I confessed. “I am after all my mother’s most reliable source of embarrassment.”
She sighed a little, too. “I see.” And wrote it down. “How often, would you say?”
“What does it matter?”
“It does.” Not about to elaborate.
“Ten, twenty, who keeps count?”
“I would expect you to, if anyone.”
“Touché,” I said, for she was right.
“Oh, you have kept count?” Surprised.
“Yes,” I said. “And no.”
“What does that mean?”
“Means I am not the one keeping count. I have a counter that does it for me.”
“What kind of counter?”
“It’s a small man with suspenders and a green eyeshade. He looks not unlike a Nineteenth Century bookkeeper, which by the way is the only English word I know of with three pairs of letters in a row: bookkeeper. But he is very accurate.”
She smiled at the joke, which was no joke. Then she wasn’t sure. She gave me a ‘You’re kidding, right?’ look.
“Kidding,” I said, and she looked relieved.
But I wasn’t kidding, and then said so. That is who my counter is. I think of him as Mister Green, by his eyeshade. He keeps tallies. And his favorite expression, a little inside joke, if you will, is ‘Tally Ho.’ But tallies are what he keeps. Of everything. Just about. Books I’ve read. Songs I’ve heard. Insects I know that start with the letter ‘P’, to name a few. I’ve never asked him to keep count, but whenever I wonder, like, how many movies I saw last year, he appears, unbidden, with the answer: thirty-seven. And if I sit down to think about it, to go through the previous year, I will—I know I will for I’ve tested it several times—come up with thirty-seven. Mister Green, my Tally Ho Man. Not kidding.
“So, you do have a counter?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s sort of a little computer that keeps score,” I began.
“A computer?” she said.
“No,” I said. “Not a computer. Mister Green.”
“Yes, that’s what I call him. On account of his green eyeshade.”
“He does exist?”
And now she looked worried. For me. I knew she would.
“And he counted,” she looked down on her notes, found it, “twenty-two times.”
“Is he accurate?”
To her credit she composed herself very quickly. But it was there, plain as day. A concern, grave, for me.
“Is that an ailment?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“He’s harmless,” I said. “He just counts.”
“I don’t know,” she said again, without really thinking. Then, “Hungry?”
“A little. Yes.” I never finished my fishy lunch.
“I’ll order pizza. How about it?”
“Fine with me.” Had not had a pizza since I got here.
“Anything except sardines,” I answered.
She called the pizza place and we took a time-out by tacit agreement. I used her restroom, then we exchanged pleasantries (I guess is the best way to describe it) until the pizza came. One of the Larrys brought it up to us.
We ate and dribbled grease on ourselves. We used up the napkins. We drank lots of Pepsi and actually had a wonderful, if impromptu, meal. Like an early dinner.
Then the break was over.
And almost without preamble the next question arrived: “Do people sometimes find you aloof and distant?”
The question came from a slightly different place than where it had come from pre-pizza. A little more professional a place. A little more collected. Not quite as friendly, though still friendly enough.
“Yes. Mom’s friends,” I said.
“Find you aloof and distant?”
“Okay. Any more to that?”
“No, that’s it. Just Mom’s friends.”
Another okay, then “How about: Are you sure you are being talked about behind your back?”
“This is number nine?”
“Oh, I know I’m being talked about, whether behind my back or not.”
“The same people. Mom’s friends.”
“Anything else to that?”
“Fine. How about when you go out, are you aware that people notice you when you go out for a meal or to see a film?”
“Actually, no. I’m never aware of anybody noticing me.”
“Yes, I am.”
“I believe you.”
“The thing is,” I added by way of elaboration, “I’m hardly aware of going out.” This, however, muddied instead of cleared the brook.
“What do you mean?”
“I am easily absorbed by what I see, and then I tend to forget the rest. You know, surroundings and such.”
“Ah. I see.”
“You do, don’t you?” I said.
“Yes, I do.”
She looked down, scanned, then turned her questionnaire over. “Do you get very nervous when you have to make polite conversation?”
“Not really. I just don’t make it.”
“You did while we were waiting for pizza.”
“That’s different. You’re, well, sort of a friend. So there’s no need to be polite. You know what I mean?”
“I guess I do,” she said. And smiled. Then, “Do you believe in telepathy? You know, mind reading?”
“I know what telepathy means.”
“Sorry. Well, do you believe in it?”
“Well, not really. Not as defined.”
“How do you define it?”
“Pretty much like the dictionary. Feeling across a distance. Tele, distant, and pathos, feeling.”
“So you don’t believe in it?”
“Not as such.”
“As what, then?”
“Well, I think you can know across a distance, more than feel. I guess it’s intuition more than anything else. You know, how a mother knows when one of her litter is in trouble.”
She smiled again at that, and I suddenly wondered, aloud, “Do you have children?”
“How old is she?”
“Wow, you must have been nine when you had her. And that wasn’t illegal in your state?”
She laughed. “So you know how to flatter, do you?”
“Well, you don’t look twenty-one plus legal age, if that’s what you mean.”
“I’m exactly twice her age. This week as a matter of fact.”
“You mean you’ve worked it out? When, exactly?”
I felt as if I had caught her at something, for she blushed just a fraction, and said, “Yes. I admit it.”
“Cool,” I said. Feeling a little like I had found one of my own species, unexpectedly, in a jungle of aliens. “When?”
“Tomorrow,” she said.
“Exactly twice her age tomorrow?”
“What’s her name?”
I got a little chill from that. The only prospect I had ever liked. The ugliest of them all.
“That’s a very nice name. I once knew a Beatrice Constance.”
“Mine is Beatrice Claire.”
“That’s nice too. You’re not married though, are you?”
“Used to be.”
“Meanwhile back at the ranch,” she said. “Intuition.”
“Is not a feeling,” I said. “It is a knowing. A tele-knowing.”
She wasn’t writing, just listening.
“Knowing at a distance, either in time or in space.”
“That’s a good definition,” she said. “Quite beautiful.”
“I know. I made it myself.”
“And you believe in it?”
“Believe? Knowing is not a matter of believing. You either know or you don’t know. Belief doesn’t enter the equation.”
“So, you know?”
“I know this,” I said. “There are times I know when my mom will return from her errands.”
“Precognition?” she said.
“Call it what you will. It is knowing. And it is always correct.”
“You’re saying that when you intuit, or tele-know as you put it, it is always correct?”
“Always. Otherwise it would not be know. It would be tele-guess.”
“Point taken,” she said.
“I knew exactly when grandma died.”
“I just knew that grandma had died. She had been in the hospital, and all, it wasn’t unexpected or anything, but I knew when.”
She didn’t answer, so I added. “I told Mom. She got angry at first, but she called the hospital anyway, and found that they were just trying to reach her, for her mother had died. Then she got scared.”
Then I think Karen with a K got a little scared too.
“You can check with Mom,” I said.
“I believe you,” she said.
“There are other times, things similar. But it’s knowing, not feeling or guessing. So, I don’t believe in telepathy, which is what your questionnaire wants to know.”
She was writing again, catching up. A little shaken. She finished. Then looked at her sheet.
“And now for number thirteen,” I said by way of cheerful introduction.
“My, you are keeping track.”
“Not me. Mister Green,” I said—quite truthfully. To which she gave me the next question.
“Have you ever had the sense that some person or force is around you, even though you cannot see anyone?”
So, she read the next question. “People sometimes comment on your unusual mannerisms and habits.” More like a statement question.
“I’m sure they do.”
Right here, with that answer—and I think it was a bit of tele-knowing on both our parts—we knew that the diagnosis part of the interview was done. The meaningful conversation had taken place, and I believe I passed it unscathed. Now we were to more or less go through the motions of finishing the questionnaire. So let me summarize, beginning with question number fifteen:
I prefer to keep to myself – Yes.
I sometimes jump quickly from one topic to another when speaking – No.
I am poor at expressing my true feelings by the way I talk and look – Depends. On what? Whom I’m talking to. No problem with Mom, or you.
I often feel that other people have got it in for me – Never.
Some people drop hints about me or say things with a double meaning – Don’t know. Don’t care.
I get nervous when someone is walking behind me – Don’t know. Don’t care. Don’t notice.
I am sometimes sure that other people can tell what I am thinking – I’m positive they can’t.
When I look at a person, or at myself in a mirror, have I ever seen the face change right before my eyes – Only if I grimace or smile or stick my tongue out.
Sometimes other people think that I am a little strange – All the time.
I am mostly quiet when with other people – Yes, as a rule.
I sometimes forget what I am trying to say – I’m rarely trying to say anything. I prefer to look. And listen.
I rarely laugh and smile – I’d say that’s true.
I sometimes get concerned that friends or co-workers are not really loyal or trustworthy – Don’t have any co-workers, nor friends.
Have I ever noticed a common event or object that seemed to be a special sign for me – No.
I get anxious when meeting people for the first time – Not really. Anxious is the wrong word. Indifferent to the point of banishment is more like it.
I believe in clairvoyance (psychic forces, fortune telling) – We’ve discussed that.
I often hear a voice speaking my thoughts aloud – Never. I do the speaking.
Some people think that I am a very bizarre person – Most people think that I am a very bizarre person.
I find it hard to be emotionally close to other people – Haven’t tired. Except with Mom, of course, whom I love and have no trouble being emotionally close to—insofar as she can deal with that.
I often ramble on too much when speaking – I doubt that.
My ‘non-verbal’ communication, such as smiling and nodding during a conversation is poor – Haven’t much thought about it. I mainly look and listen.
I feel I have to be on my guard even with friends – Does not apply.
I sometimes see special meanings in advertisements, shop windows, or in the way things are arranged around me – I don’t think so.
I often feel nervous when I am in a group of unfamiliar people – Not really. I either don’t notice or don’t care.
(Number thirty-nine—a check for those keeping track): Other people can feel my feelings when they are not there – No.
I have seen things invisible to other people – If we’re talking about my inside outside, sure. If not, no.
I feel that there is no one I am really close to outside of my immediate family, or no people I can confide in or talk to about personal problems – Well, there you see. This was a true statement until this morning.
Some people find me a bit vague and elusive during a conversation – Most people can’t even find me during a conversation.
I am poor at returning social courtesies and gestures – Very. I am expert at not returning social courtesies and gestures.
I often pick up hidden threats or put-downs from what people say or do – Never.
When shopping I get the feeling that other people are taking notice of me – We’ve covered this already, didn’t we? Number ten.
I feel very uncomfortable in social situations involving unfamiliar people – Uncomfortable is the wrong word. Indifferent, as I said in reply to number twenty-nine.
I have had experiences with astrology, seeing the future, UFOs, ESP or a sixth sense – Reference intuition above.
Everyday things seem unusually large or small to me – Not at all.
Writing letters to friends is more trouble than it is worth – I don’t have friends, I don’t write letters.
I sometimes use words in unusual ways – Constantly. But always lexicologically correct.
I tend to avoid eye contact when conversing with others – No. I look at them all right. I just don’t say anything.
I have found that it is best not to let other people know too much about me – A week ago I didn’t care one way or another. Today, I’m here in this hospital. I’m not sure what lesson that is teaching me about being too open.
When I see people talking to each other, I often wonder if they are talking about me – No.
I would feel very anxious if I had to give a speech in front of a large group of people – That is such a foreign notion to me that I don’t even know how to begin to entertain it.
Have I ever felt that I am communicating with another person telepathically (by mind-reading) – Please see number twelve above. Please. This is the same question, recast.
My sense of smell sometimes become unusually strong – As a matter of fact, yes. Especially around food when I’m hungry. Is that an ailment?
I tend to keep in the background on social occasions – I tend to avoid social occasions.
I tend to wander off the topic when having a conversation – I tend to avoid conversations.
I often feel that others have it in for me – This is question number eighteen again. What’s with that? Answer is still: Never.
I sometimes feel that other people are watching me – No.
Do I ever suddenly feel distracted by distant sounds that I am not normally aware of – I am always aware of all sounds.
I attach little importance to having close friends – I attach no importance to having close friends, as your questionnaire seems to define it. My writers excluded, of course.
I sometimes feel that people are talking about me – Here’s that question again. No. And I don’t care.
My thoughts are sometimes so strong that I can almost hear them – There’s no almost about it. (And here, Karen with a K made an extra note. Ailment? I asked. No, she said. No.)
I often have to keep an eye out to stop people from taking advantage of me – What a strange notion. That’s never occurred to me.
I feel that I am unable to get “close” to people – Never really tried, to be honest.
I am an odd, unusual person – Yes. And proud of it.
I do not have an expressive and lively way of speaking – I disagree. When I choose to speak, I can be quite expressive and above-averagely eloquent. (That earned a Karen with a K smile).
I find it hard to communicate clearly what I want to say to people – Not if I actually want to get something across (to my mom), no.
I have some eccentric (odd) habits – I still know what eccentric means. And no, I don’t consider my habits odd. Others may, but I don’t.
(Number seventy-one, almost there): I feel very uneasy talking to people I do not know well – Here we go again. I don’t feel uneasy. I feel indifferent.
People occasionally comment that my conversation is confusing – People as a rule don’t have any of my conversation to comment on.
I tend to keep my feelings to myself – Yes.
(And here’s number seventy-four, we did it): People sometimes stare at me because of my odd appearance – No. Ruth, Mom always makes sure I look the dapper part when/if we go out.
Somewhere around nine in the evening we decided to press on until we got it done, and with some coffee and another couple of Pepsis we had them all done by eleven-thirty. All seventy-four of them. Job well done.
“What’s the verdict, Doc.?” I asked. This was not a mock question.
“I don’t know, Sandy,” she said. “I will have to tabulate the answers and read through them again.”
“But you know, don’t you? You do, don’t you?” Because I knew, tele-knew, that she did. Nothing drastically wrong with this one. Eccentric (it means ‘odd’), sure, but ailing? No. And I knew that she knew that. But she could not, would not confirm this verbally. That’s what being a professional is about, I gather. So we called it a morning, day, and night, and one of the Larrys brought me back to my room, bade me good night, and locked the door behind me.
I liked Karen with a K, very much. She believed me, and knew I didn’t need any cures. Mom didn’t have too much to worry about. I was sure of that now.
I slept very well that night. Happy, in a strange sort of a way. I guess the right word is relieved.
Now begins the sad part.
It started not the following morning nor the morning after that, but on the morning of the third day after the interview with Karen with a K.
The day after the quiz I spent pretty much in my room, staring at the ceiling (ostensibly), visiting my Cathedral (truly); spending most of the day with Rahel, Estha, and Baby Kochamma. And Sophie Mol.
They all live behind the door which reads “May in Ayemenem is a hot brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in the still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.” The book is The God of Small Things and lives in the corridor named Arundhati Roy. Not many marked doors yet, but how wonderful this one is, opening onto such a sumptuous world. Easy to get lost in there. Roy’s a magician. Really.
I stayed happily lost among small things until dinner. Then a Larry came and brought me down to the cafeteria, where I had a good dinner. The same Larry brought me back and I soon fell into a long dreamless sleep, all the way until morning and the arrival of not such good news.
Karen with a K brought it herself. She left the door slightly ajar, and I could see a Larry just outside.
The committee, she began, the committee had decided.
She didn’t answer.
“Committee?” I asked again.
She started over, and this was not easy for her. Not at all. “The committee—we met most of the day yesterday—decided that you suffer from acute Schizophrenia.”
“That,” I said, “is an ailment.”
“It is,” she said.
“That has a cure.”
“We think so.”
“And now I must be cured?”
“As long as it’s not Chlorpromazine,” I said. “I couldn’t think. All my thoughts were slipping through my fingers. And slow. So slow. Slipping.” I remembered aloud.
“Oh, Sandy,” she said, and she took my hand.
Now to be honest, I had the almost overwhelming urge to rip my hand away and to slap her face for touching me without my permission, and that I know isn’t a really healthy thing. But I didn’t. I didn’t. I want to stress this. I didn’t. I let her hold it, and after I while I held hers back and I felt emotion trickling from one hand to the other, back and forth, and back and forth, and it was warm and in the end it was very nice.
“I wish it were only a matter of Chlorpromazine,” she said, and I saw tears in a minute or two if she didn’t grow very professional very fast.
“The committee,” she said again. It sounded like a mantra she used to absolve herself. “The committee has prescribed a series of shocks. Twenty.”
“Shocks? What kind of shocks?” I didn’t understand.
Karen with a K didn’t answer. Instead she stood up and walked over to close the door. The Larry outside objected and I heard Karen with a K hiss more than say, “fuck off,” to the Larry and he apparently did. Karen closed the door and came back to me. She sat down beside me and took my hand again.
“Sandy,” she said. “What did you tell Doctor Soladi about God?”
“Not much,” I started. I looked back. Tried to remember exactly, but it was hard to look because a hard, cold fear had gotten in the way.
“What exactly,” Karen with a K said, now with urgency.
Then I found it, quite intact, despite the fear.
“I remember,” I said. “Doctor Soladi had explained to me about being mentally incompetent, and that I, and my mother, were best served by me coming here to stay a while.
“And she told me that this had been at my mother’s request.
“Then I asked her if I was to be cured. I really wanted to know.
“‘Cured of what?’, she asked me right back, and I think she tried to smile. She cannot smile you know.”
Karen with a K nodded, as if well aware of that fact.
“‘Of being her only reliable source of embarrassment,’ I said, remembering God’s answer verbatim.
Doctor Soladi startled a little at that, then she frowned and looked right at me with very hard eyes, as if assessing an offending child. ‘You are being impertinent,’ she said.
“I told her, ‘Not at all. I’m just telling you what God told me.’”
“What God told you?” Karen with a K dropped my hand in alarm.
“Yes. That’s what I told her. I was being quite truthful.”
“God told you this?” Still alarmed.
“You didn’t tell me this.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Would it have made a difference?”
Karen with a K stopped alarming long enough to look at me and sigh and say, “No. Probably not.” Then she looked down at her own hands and said nothing for a while. Then she found my hand again and said, “Then what did you say? Or she.”
“‘God?’ she asked me, all curious now, as if she had hit upon something.
“‘Or a fair likeness,’ I said.
“‘God?’ she said again, more to herself this time. She made a note with a fountain pen stuck between her little sausage fingers. She has little sausages with painted nails for fingers, you know. Dark red nails.”
Karen with a K squeezed my hand that she understood, and agreed, but didn’t smile.
“Then Doctor Soladi said ‘God’ for a third time. Not to me. And it was no longer a question. ‘Talking to God,’ she said. ‘Getting replies.’ Then she added a word or two to her written observation, and looked back up at me.
“And said, ‘Your mother has asked that we take care of you for a while.’
“‘Am I to be cured?’ I asked again.
“‘We don’t know,’ she said. ‘What I mean is we don’t know exactly what to cure you of. Yet.’
“‘So I am to be cured once you find out?’ I said.
“‘Naturally,’ she said. She said that’s what you do here, and then that scary non-smile again.
“‘I don’t want to be cured,’ said I.
“‘Well,’ she said. ‘That’s just it, you don’t have a say.’
“‘I could leave,’ I said.
“‘Be my guest,’ she said, and showed me her small teeth again.
“So I did. Tried. Well, you know what happens when you try that.”
“Yes,” said Karen with a K, “I know what happens.”
“And that’s all I said.”
“‘That’s what God told me?’”
“Yes. Or words to that effect.” Then thought better, “No, those were the exact words.”
“And what did God tell you, Sandy? Precisely. All of it, please.”
So I told her. All that I’ve already told you at the beginning of this story.
It took a while to tell, for I left nothing out. No point now with PleasebecarefulHesaid all blown to bits. Millions of useless little bits.
Once I was finished, I noticed that Karen with a K had cried. A little anyway. For her eyes were red-rimmed and she looked sad. And she no longer held my hand. I didn’t notice her letting go. I had lived the telling.
I asked her, “How cured am I to get?”
“Sandy. I don’t know that there is anything wrong with you. If anything you are too… too alive. Eccentric, yes.”
“Odd,” I offered.
That did earn a smile. Smiling while she slowly shook her head. She had her hair in a ponytail today which chased her slow movements about half a shake behind. Very pretty, actually. The tail, the motion, the smile.
“But the committee,” I suggested.
“Sandy, I am doing my best to stop it,” she said. “Thanks for being so honest.”
“But it doesn’t look good,” I tele-knew.
“No, it does not,” she confirmed.
She was about to say something else, but changed her mind. Instead Karen with a K stood up, looked at me for some little time with her sad, bruised eyes, then she left.
Left me to wonder about a fear I could feel stirring, could feel growing, changing shapes, and setting out to chase me. It wasn’t my fear, it was Karen with a K’s fear that had entered me and which told me all sorts of horrible things which Karen with a K was going to try to stop. But the fear didn’t think she was going to succeed. The fear thought they were going to go ahead with the cure, the shocks. All twenty of them. I wasn’t sure exactly what the shocks would consist of, but I knew—from Karen with a K’s eyes—that they would not do me much good.
It was now mid-afternoon by the sun outside. I should have been hungry, but wasn’t. I could not sleep, or visit Arundhati Roy anymore. Fangs.
Just before dinner Karen with a K returned. She had not come to stay, she said, only to let me know.
She sat down. Looked at me. Didn’t take my hand. She looked emptied out. Distressed. Her fear entered me again, down there where fangs work at your insides.
“Sandy. We met again this afternoon, at my request. The committee. And I tried, Sandy, I really tried to change their minds. Honestly, it feels to me like you are the sane one and we, the rest of us, them, the committee, are the lunatics. Really, no, that’s what I think. We… they are the lunatics for wanting to treat this, for wanting to cure you, your wonderful world. A world I would love to visit.”
“You can, you know,” I said to cheer her up a little, although I didn’t feel to cheerful myself.
“No, Sandy,” she said. “I can’t. Not anymore.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“I hope,” she said. “I really hope…” But that was all she said. She could not make herself utter the rest of that sentence, and I never did find out what she meant to tell me, though by now I have a fair idea.
Instead she stood up, reached for my hand, which I gave her, and said she’d see me later. Let herself out. I never saw her again. From what I’ve been able to piece together later, I think she left Meadows that same day. Up and quit.
No, Karen with a K never did answer my question about the shocks, but that point is pretty moot, for I found out first hand soon enough. They are not nice. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
Once Karen with a K left me the second time I sat still and alone for a long time, studying the floor, my hands, the window, the bathroom door, missing dinner though I was quite hungry. Sitting there as bits and pieces came tumbling down while fangs were getting the better of my insides.
And what scared me most, what fed the fangs no end, was Karen with a K’s reaction, her very apparent sense of having failed me, even betrayed me. It was as if she had sat on a jury that had passed a death sentence, and now could no longer face the deed.
Sandy, alone then, in his cell now, waiting for that final meal. Karen with a K leaving, leaving, leaving, moving away. Away. Sandy very, very afraid now, staring at the walls, at his fingers, standing up, pacing now and then, lying down, standing up, lying down again, standing up again, not knowing what was to come or what he could possibly do about this thing he didn’t know anything about.
That evening: I was collected by some Larry I had not seen before. He said his name was Frank. Frank DePree, Delta-Echo-Papa-Romeo-Echo-Echo, he said. DePree. Really. Just like grandpa Colonel.
He must have been a Marine or something. We took the elevator, down.
Apart from making very sure I knew how to spell his last name, he didn’t say much, Frank DePree. It was a long elevator ride. My room was on the second floor, and the elevator, as usual, took its time reaching the ground floor, but it didn’t stop there. It continued to slowly fall past what seemed like another floor or two or three before we finally came to a soft knee-jerk of a stop. Later I found out that the building had only the one basement. So it must have been deep, bowels-of-the-Earth deep. And, of course, a slow elevator. Which finally stopped. Bunker came to mind.
Frank DePree led me down a brightly lit corridor and into a small room, where he asked me to remove my clothings. Clothings? No such word. My pajamas? I asked. Everything, yes, except for my shorts. Then he gave me a hospital gown; one of these that ties together in the back, and which you can never tie yourself, but which you have to hold together, and which never, never provide much warmth. They’re just to cover you up, keep you halfway decent. That’s the kind of gown he gave me, greenish.
There was an examination table in the little room, padded. He told me to lie down on my stomach, was going to x-ray my back, he said. Why, I asked. Procedure, he said. Which we were going to stick to, like good Marines, is what he meant.
We did. It didn’t take very long. They buzz. X-ray machines do. Just a short buzz, and then it’s all over. Didn’t feel a thing.
“Why did we do that?” I asked again in the elevator rising. Past the ground floor again, and on to the second.
“Procedure,” he said, as again. And that was all he said. Not even goodnight as he locked the door behind me.
No, that’s not right, he did say something else. He told me not to eat or drink anything, nothing. Like I was going to have an operation. And, be sure to use the bathroom, he said. No further explanation. As if I normally used the corners of the room.
I sat down on my bed, which creaked a little. Just a little. The springs were pretty strong. I tried to understand what this was all about. The x-ray. No water. Bottom line: I had no idea. Had no idea. Still, I was grateful for the diversion. Took my mind off Karen with a K’s fear of the cure to come.
Then I managed some sleep.
Perhaps fittingly, it was Larry—the original Larry, the one who had been at my house—who came for me.
It was morning again, and the time was eight o’clock, he said. This was the third day.
Normally, Larry, or some other Larry, came to bring me to the cafeteria at this time. This morning we didn’t go there.
Instead we went back to the basement.
“Another x-ray?” I asked in the elevator going down.
“No,” said Larry.
Frank DePree (Delta-Echo-Papa-Romeo-Echo-Echo) met us at the bottom. Good luck, said Larry and took the elevator back up and out of sight.
“This way,” said Frank DePree.
Another little room. Well, a little bigger than the x-ray cubby hole from the night before, and very well lit. Again he asked me to “remove my clothings.” It’s either clothes or clothing, one or the other, not both, and I debated whether to bring it up. I decided not to. Maybe it was a Marine thing. Meanwhile I removed my “clothings” (still just the pajamas, mind you) and received the standard issue gown. The room was cold.
Frank had a checklist.
It went like this (he didn’t ask the questions, he said the questions, almost barked them, like commands; it was a strange experience, I didn’t know whether to answer or comply or something else):
No food for eight hours. What? No food for eight hours. No.—Check
Voided. Voided? Gone to the bathroom, number one and number two. Well, number two last night, number one this morning.—Check
Sleep. (I’m catching on by now) Okay, I guess.—Check
No water for four hours. No.—Check
Temples shaved. What?
He took a look at me. At my head. At my temples. Asked me to sit down on a wooden chair with a straight back. Brought out an electric razor. It buzzed a lot louder than the x-ray. Especially that close to my ears. Shaved my temples. Checked them with his fingers. For shavedness? I don’t know.—Check
Temples jellied. What do you mean?
He rubbed my temples with petroleum jelly. I could tell by the smell. It was extra cold. Made my temples tingle it was so cold.—Check
Sponge cylinder sized. I had no answer to that. I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he asked me to open my mouth. I did. Wider. I did. Then he measured it. My mouth. Bizarre. He went to a drawer by the wall to his left. Brought out a quite thick sponge cylinder, wrapped it with gauze. Put it on a small metal tray.—Check
No sores on wrists or ankles. I looked. Showed him my ankles. Showed him my wrists. No.—Check
Back, no defects, x-ray confirm. Strange sentence structure. He answered this grammatical atrocity himself before I had a chance to comment. None.—Check
Patient ready. For what? Which he ignored.—Check
Nothing more. End of list.
There was a big clock on the wall above the drawers with the sponge things. I could hear the second hand move. Now that Frank wasn’t barking orders anymore the place had gone very quiet. Fourteen after eight and forty seconds. Beep. Fourteen after eight and fifty seconds. Beep. Fifteen after eight. Beep.
“Let’s go,” said Frank DePree.
This room was bigger still, more like an operating theater without the big, overhead lamps. It did have an operating table though, but an odd one. This one had padded leather straps hanging down from the corners, reaching halfway to the floor, and a fatter strap, more like a wide belt, hanging down from the middle, and indeed touching the floor like a brown, flat snake.
A very blond man in an unbuttoned white coat stood by this strange operating table—I later found out that his name was Robert Grayson. From the very first, I did not like this man. He was smiling as DePree now led me closer to the table—yes he had taken hold of my elbow and upper arm to prevent me from turning around and leave—and this was not a place made for smiling. He had a smile that did not say friendly, he had a smile that said I’m going to enjoy this. He was the nurse, the during-nurse supervising the procedure itself. Evil nurse. I didn’t know all that this first time though. Just that I didn’t like him. At all.
In fact, I liked him so little that I did, despite DePree’s hold on my arm, manage to turn around and begin walking back towards Frank’s room, the one with the big clock.
I don’t know where the Larrys came from but two of them materialized very smoothly. One for each side and with strong hands—much stronger than DePree’s for sure—Now on my arms and shoulders. They turned me around and near enough carried me back to the table and the still smiling Grayson.
“There is nothing to be afraid of,” he said with a very nice voice. It was warm and deep and not in the least scary. Which was really strange and not at all like every other Grayson aspect. It simply did not fit. Hoping against hope, I struggled a little with the two Larrys, but, yeah you guessed it, to no avail.
To the left of the table by Grayson, on a trolley with casters, stood a machine that looked like an old fashioned stereo receiver. It had two dials and three knobs, all black and menacing. On top of it lay what looked like a small leather helmet.
Frank DePree handed Grayson the little tray with the sponge cylinder on it. It looked very formal. Very procedure.
“Okay, up you go,” said Grayson, who then looked over my shoulder and said “Doctor,” with a nod.
I turned to see who he had spoken to and saw a big chicken in a doctor’s coat. Yellow hair, large glasses, small face, thin mouth, thin neck, big fat contour-less beach ball of a body, all precariously piled atop spindly legs, huge feet, white shoes. This added up to Doctor Soladi.
And up on the table I went (courtesy of the two Larrys) soon to realize why Frank had checked for sores on ankles or wrists, and why the leather straps. It did not take Grayson long; he was quite the expert. A minute, maximum. Especially plying his trade in the presence of the boss. By the end of that minute I could not move.
Seems like Grayson had a checklist too. His was on a clipboard, and he didn’t speak it aloud, just checked things with a pencil. I could hear each check, check, check, check, check as he made it with his pen. Then he halted, put the clipboard down and placed the leather contraption I had seen on top of the stereo onto my head, adjusted the straps for a very snug fit. I could feel cold metal against my shaved and jellied temples. Then he picked up the clipboard again. Check.
“Are we ready to go?” asked Doctor Soladi.
“Just the bit,” said Grayson. I thought he must have said ‘just a bit’ and it didn’t make much sense. Later I realized that he had said precisely what I had heard: ‘just the bit.’ Just the bit to go now, the bit, the mouthpiece of a bridle, for horses, bit, the bit, the gauze-wrapped, carefully sized to my carefully measured mouth, sponge cylinder, the bit. Just the bit to go now.
The bit to keep you from biting off your tongue during convulsion.
“Open up, please,” said Grayson in his very pleasant voice. Reassuring, or the complete opposite.
I did. And then I knew the bit.
“Bite down, and hold it there,” he said.
I did. Check.
Up to this point too many things had happened one right after the other for apprehension to gain meaningful purchase. But now, strapped down, helmeted, and bridled, it rushed at me as if to make up for lost time and suddenly I was terrified. Turning my head to the left I could see Doctor Soladi moving up to the side of my bed and now she looked down at me as at some handiwork, and tried one of her smiles. Then she repeated Grayson’s “this is nothing to be afraid of” and now I was very, very afraid of: of her, of the room, of the cold jelly on my temples, of the colder still metal electrodes, of Grayson, of unable to move, of not knowing what was about to take place.
Someone, Grayson I think—by now I was immobilized by apprehension as well as by straps, and didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t turn my head to look—swabbed my arm with alcohol. The sudden chill told me: they’re sterilizing my skin for a needle. Which, before I had even finished the thought, pricked through my skin. It was just a prick, didn’t hurt at all. Grayson—if indeed he was the one injecting me—was good at his job.
Sodium pentothal. It was warm, sledgehammer warm. I took it on the chin and sank like a stone. But I did not hit bottom fast enough, I felt the electricity.
I’m told the actual shock treatment only lasts about a second and a half. That might be true on the administering end. On my—the receiving—end: a minute, an hour, a day. Who can tell? For when the searing white avalanche arrived it came to stay. It had no trouble leaping from cold metal to jellied temples to brain, assailing and obliterating all competition. You shall have no other gods before me, and making very sure indeed. Nervous millions of white charring talons deeper and deeper wrenching screaming arching racing tearing. And never letting go.
A planet of evil.
A year. Who can tell?
Lucinda DePree looked down on me.
I looked up on her.
She looked down on me.
I looked up on her.
She looked down on me.
I looked up on her, and was not sure what I was looking at.
My wrists and ankles hurt. I notice that my ankles have bandages on them. Someone is moving about. Now this someone is looking down on me again. Smiling or grimacing. How do I feel?
Well, I don’t. Anything.
She checks the bandages. Happy with them, I think.
“We bucked about a bit,” she says. Which struck me as a curious rush of syllables, eccentric, odd: webuckedaboutabit, webuckedaboutabit. But I wasn’t sure what I was hearing.
I was very thirsty, and I tried to say so. I had trouble saying so. But she understood.
“We mustn’t drink too much,” she said and held the plastic cup up to my mouth. Tilted it, flooding my mouth. I forgot to swallow, or how to. Same result. All down my chin and neck.
“Now, look what we’ve done,” she said. But she wasn’t angry, just commenting. “We have to swallow, or it will spill.” Drinking technique one oh one. Technique to be mastered. “Let’s try again, shall we?”
We did, and I found my tongue and throat who both in the end agreed to put a shoulder to the effort and after some huffing and puffing the three of us managed the act. It felt wonderful. Was wonderful. Water. Some more, please.
“No, we’ve had quite enough,” she said. I’m quite sure by now that she’s Lucinda DePree.
Then I’m standing. Can do. How was I feeling now? wonders Lucinda DePree. I don’t feel anything, and I say so.
“Oh, it’ll be all right,” says Lucinda DePree.
I am back in my cell somewhere on the second floor. I am not sure how I got here. I sit on my bed. I don’t feel. There is a small window, smaller than before? Yes? No? More like a square hole, in my room. It does not have bars, but it is too small to escape through unless you’re an exceptionally minute midget, which I am not. This I can tell by my un-midget-sized ankles who have bandages on them and wrists who still hurt along with the ankles, who hurt more than I imagine a midget’s ankles would hurt in similar circumstances with midget bandages, but that’s hard to tell for sure. Maybe midgets hurt as much as the rest of us. As yet I am not at all sure what has taken place. I seem to have misplaced that center I used to have right about here somewhere that can feel certain about anything. Or not.
I’ve been left here. I am not sure by whom. Something with a K.
The art of cauterizing the human brain into sanity by way of electricity may still be in its infancy, historically speaking, but it has a noble pedigree.
The idea of using voltage for this purpose came to Ugo Cerletti, the acknowledged father of the procedure, while watching pigs being anesthetized with electroshock prior to slaughter.
Let me explain that.
Or better yet: Professor Cerletti will explain that.
Let me explain that. By that I mean that I have been granted an audience with the good professor, so on and back to Rome we go.
It is spring 1940. I’m at the University of Rome. It is a wonderful day. It is hard to tell there’s a war going on in the better part of the world. Not a cloud in the sky, as they say—although I did see a couple coming here, but they were only little ones, wisps, smudges of cloud, left there as if dropped from a billowy sky that had to be somewhere else in a hurry.
The sun is big and warm on my face and feels very close, closer here than I have ever felt that I can remember. I climb the wide steps to large portals that swing outward. I am early.
I’ve been shown into his study which is beautifully appointed. Professor Cerletti will only be a few minutes, I’m told.
I take a seat and look around me a bit closer. In bringing me here, they referred to this as his study, but I’m not sure that’s the right word for it, for this room is quite enormous, more like a, well what would you call this?—a library perhaps. Bookshelves from floor to ceiling, and the ceiling is at least twelve feet above the floor. There is a movable ladder on little casters in the corner, to reach the upper shelves, I’m sure. All oak, I think, or olive perhaps, this is Italy after all. The one and a half bookless walls are also covered with this same, fine-grained, light brown oak or olive. Stately. Beautifully stately. Fit for a king. Or a librarian. I could live here. In this land of so many beautiful and apparently revered books.
I try to, but cannot, read any of the titles from where I sit, however. Probably not my cup of tea. But who knows. Maybe they’re the classics, and not medical at all. Maybe they are here for show. Who can tell? From here, I cannot.
While we’re waiting, let me tell you a little about him.
I met him briefly in the big, marble-floored foyer as I arrived (early). He wanted to greet me personally, he said, which I thought was a nice touch. He must have interrupted his meeting to do so. He shook my hand (warmly but tentatively, if that makes sense), then vanished back toward his meeting, to see me soon he promised. Very soon, yes.
He is a tall, friendly man our Professor Cerletti, who looks younger than both his 63 years and his photographs. He does however appear like the celebrated man he is. He is well dressed and well attended by, I almost said servants, but I think they are secretaries or assistants or some such. Not colleagues. No, they’re far too subservient to be colleagues. There is an air of worship about this entourage. And he is aware of this, our good doctor, and also of his status. Well, I guess deservedly so, for since he discovered his electroshock therapy nearly two years ago now, all of Italy, if not all of the world, has been singing his praises in pretty much unison.
A large clock on the wall, with an enormous well-oiled pendulum (sough-sough-sough-sough), says nine oh four.
Nine oh five.
Nine oh six.
Nine oh nine.
I think, perhaps, since I am still alone in here, and I’m not sure for how long (the appointment was for nine o’clock) the wait will last, I should fill this vacuum with more than the soughing of a pendulum, perhaps with a brief biographical sketch for those of you who may not be familiar with Professor Cerletti. You know, his origins and background and such. Beats just waiting. No?
I studied up on him last night—to know whom I would be facing this morning—and I’ve memorized it pretty well. Let’s see if I still have it all. Here we go then (if he arrives in the middle of it, we’re going to have to cut it short, though):
Ugo Cerletti, the son of an agricultural engineer, was born in Veneto, at Conegliano, on September 26th, 1877. He studied medicine at Rome and Turin where he specialized in mental and neurological diseases.
He subsequently attended the relevant European asylums of the time, studying first with Pierre and Marie Dupré in Paris, then with Kraepelin, Nissl and Alzheimer in Heidelberg and Munich. After this, Cerletti devoted himself to research and technological innovation, and—a little known fact, by the way—he invented, before the First World War, the white camouflage winter suits that were used by the Italian Army during that conflict.
After the Great War he became the Head of the Neurobiological Institute which is attached to the Mental Institute of Milan. In 1924 he was given a lucrative lecturing post in neuropsychiatry in Bari. From there he moved to Genoa in 1928 where he took over the Professorship from Enrico Morselli and finally, in 1935, he came to Rome University to occupy the prestigious chair of Director of the Department of Mental and Neurological Diseases. Quite a résumé, don’t you think?
And here he comes. I can hear the hushed shuffling of may obsequious feet approaching outside the big door, disturbing the silence in my direction. Professor Cerletti and retinue. Growing louder and louder and then open swing the doors.
And here he is, filling the room with presence. Then he sees me. He smiles and waves a hand (his left). At this, all presence but his (and mine) scurry—more like evaporate—away. The doors close quietly. Corridor’ed feet then shuffle away into silence.
So sorry. So very, very sorry, the meeting dragged on and on. He makes a gesture of exasperation as he approaches me.
No problem. Not at all. I assure him.
I stand up. We shake hands, again. Not so tentative this time. He sits down. I sit down.
“Shoot,” he says, and points at me. Where on earth did he get that from?
So I glanced down at my list of questions as discreetly as possible, and shot:
“Professor. Two years ago, around this time of year, you, along with your team and then specially with Doctor Bini, were finalizing your experiments with electroshock as a therapy for mental illness. You had now validated its effectiveness to your own satisfaction. How did you come to make this discovery?”
“Yes.” He formed a pyramid with his hands and gently touched the tip of his nose with the handy edifice. He took me in with blue eyes. “The story of electroshock,” he said at length, “is really quite straightforward. Like every other neurologist here in Italy, in the world, and throughout history—I would imagine—I have always given prime importance to the study of epilepsy, since it is linked to so many areas of neurology and psychiatry.
“Epilepsy? Why epilepsy?” I honestly didn’t know. No clue.
“Yes.” He dismantled the pyramid and placed his hand on the desk, palms down, as if about to do some pushups. I expected him to rise, but he remained seated, eyes on mine, set to impart knowledge. And said, “As you may—or may not—know, for centuries now physicians have noted the curious and not a little astounding fact that there are few, if any, epileptics who are also schizophrenic.”
“I’m sorry,” I answered. “I did not know that. How interesting. Could you expand on that a little? Please.”
“Yes.” His hands left the desk and began patting his—nicely cut—suit down for cigarettes and lighter. Found them soon enough and lit one. He then looked over at me, as an afterthought. Want one? No, no thanks, not for me. Oh well, then, and he inhaled the smoke so deeply that I could hear the paper ignite and the tobacco burn with a whispering crackle, and then he let it all out in what I can only describe as instant fog. French, I think, those cigarettes. Acrid. I suppressed a cough. He savored it.
“Yes,” he said again. “The notion that head trauma, convulsions, and high fever alleviates mental disturbances is not a new one. Hippocrates himself, the father of all medicine, as you know, was the first to note that malaria-induced convulsions in insane patients seemed to cure them, or at least calm them.”
I drew breath to ask a question about trauma which I never managed to get back to, for he waved me silent with his non-smoking hand. “Yes. Then, in the Middle Ages, many physicians observed the same phenomenon after severe bouts of fever, as after cholera epidemics in insane asylums—which happened a lot in those days, bad conditions, you know. But as a result the inmates seemed to grow calmer.”
Here he paused, performed another of his volcanic smoking acts—a sizzling in, and an eruptive out. I’d hate to autopsy those lungs. Then, through the sharp smoke he continued, “Yes. Then, this was in 1786, a physician named Roess observed and recorded similar improvements in mental patients after inoculation with smallpox vaccine, which also, according to his records—I can vouch for that, for I have seen them—produced convulsions. And then there was the ongoing observation concerning epilepsy that I just mentioned.”
“That epileptics are never also schizophrenic?”
“Isn’t that hard to believe? None? Ever?”
“Yes. Well, it’s impossible to tell for sure. One or two, perhaps. Who can tell? No one kept impeccable records in the Middle Ages, you know.”
“So it would seem then,” I said, “that, based on these observations you mention, the two conditions, epilepsy and schizophrenia, are mutually exclusive?”
“Yes. Ah, yes. Precisely. Mutually exclusive. Well put. Very succinct. In fact,” and began to rummage through his drawers for something to write on. He found some, a blue sheet of heavy paper. So heavy the sheet was stiff. I could tell because it hardly bent at all although he only held it by one end of it. This he placed squarely on the desk. Then he brought out a fountain pen from the inside pocket of his suit jacket, and with it wrote two words. I could almost make them out through the haze. Then he said, reading his little note, “Yes. Mutually exclusive.”
Then looked up at me. “Yes. You don’t mind if I use these so very succinct words, do you?”
“No, sure. Knock yourself out.”
“Yes. Knock myself out?”
“No, I don’t mind. Be my guest. It’s a free language.”
“Yes. I see. Thank you.”
I glanced at my own notes, where I had circled and underlined convulsions in two places.
“And from what you’ve said so far,” I said, “it seems to center on, or at least have to do with, convulsions.”
“Yes. Convulsions. That is it. Pre-cisely. Very good.”
“So, how did this lead to your discovery? Convulsions?”
“Yes. I was getting to that.” He took another long audible pull on his cigarette and issued another bitter fog. “Yes. Let me continue. In 1931, in Genoa, I was doing some research on patients who suffered from Ammon’s horn sclerosis.” Seeing me frown, he added, “Yes. It is a form of epilepsy that as a rule produces sclerotic lesions.”
“I’m sorry for interrupting, professor, but what are those?”
“Yes. Sclerotic lesions are visible damage to the brain or nervous system. Like scars or sores. Little wounds. Observable damage. Yes, that’s what they are. Sclerotic lesions.”
“Yes. What I did, you see, in observing these lesions—which, as I said, are a well-known side effect of Ammon’s horn epilepsy—yes, what I did in observing these lesions during autopsies of deceased patients, was begin to wonder—knowing, you understand, that these lesions were produced by epilepsy, and also that epilepsy held the key to curing mental illness—I began to wonder whether it would be possible, perhaps, to produce these lesions, similar lesions, like the ones I saw in these autopsies, artificially.”
A brief pause for another mammoth cigarette in- ex-hale.
“Yes. In other words, and this was my question, and line of research, you see, very important, please underline: Could epilepsy be artificially induced? That was my question.”
“I see.” I saw. And underlined.
“Yes. That was my question. Could epilepsy be induced artificially?”
“Yes. That was my question, precisely. Now, as luck would have it, we had many dogs at our disposal, as Genoa was overrun with them at the time, something to do with the war, I think, and I decided to carry out a few experiments on them, you see.”
Here he took another mammoth drag on his cigarette and restored the fog (which had begun to dissipate). I was fascinated by the man’s capacity to inhale what seemed like half a cigarette in one breath.
He waved away some of the smoke, but not all, and continued, “Yes. What I decided to do, you see, was to attempt to induce epileptic fits, you see, in these dogs, artificially. However, rather than using convulsive toxins—which we knew could cause its own particular brain damage, its own particular lesions, if you will, which could appear like and mask those produced by true epilepsy—in order to avoid that risk, I instead used the method favored and employed by many physiologists, especially where dogs are concerned, where a seizure can be induced by passing an electric current of 125 volts through the body of the animal.”
“Yes. But no. It does not really hurt. Now, after repeatedly inducing these electrical fits in many animals for shorter and longer periods of time I then performed autopsies to establish the presence, or not, of sclerotic lesions, like those of epileptic patients. My goal, you understand, was to establish, beyond doubt, whether these canine seizures, these fits if you will, induced by electricity, were indeed epileptic in nature.”
“I see.” And saw.
“Yes. Which of course meant that if we could prove that fits induced electrically in these dogs were indeed epileptic fits, then we might have a way to help those suffering from schizophrenia.”
“By inducing epilepsy? By means of electricity?”
“Yes. Yes. Pre-cisely.”
“Because epilepsy and schizophrenia do not make for good bedfellows?”
“Yes. I don’t understand.”
“They don’t like each other very much. Mutually exclusive.”
“Yes. Yes, I see. Humor. Yes.” Professor Cerletti lit and inhaled one third of new cigarette. “Yes. They don’t like each other much. Not very good in bed, together.” He laughed politely at that. Then looked down at his sheet of paper, at his two words, as if to make sure they had stayed put. “Yes. As you say, mutually exclusive. Very good.”
“And what did you find?” I asked.
“Yes. We performed careful autopsies on the animals we had thus electrified, or electroshocked as I came to call it, to study their brains and nervous systems.”
“And what did you find?” I repeated as the professor paused for another explosive pull on his cigarette.
“Yes. Based on the nature of the convulsions produced, and on the nature of the lesions discovered in subsequent autopsy, I established—beyond doubt, you see—that a correspondence did in fact exist between the convulsions induced in these animals and the standard epileptic fits suffered by humans.”
“What you are saying then is that you discovered the same kind of lesions in the dogs as you had found in,” I paused briefly to scan my notes, “in humans who had suffered from Ammon’s horn sclerosis?”
“Yes. Yes. Very good. Clever boy. The same kind. Pre-cisely.”
“So these experiments were a success?”
“Yes. Big success. Enormous.” Another acrid cloud floated my way. “Yes. These experiments clearly established that electricity does indeed produce genuine epilepsy. The real thing.”
“In dogs.” I clarified.
“Yes. Yes, of course. In dogs. That is what we experimented on. Dogs. Clearly. Dogs. Please let me continue.” Another cloud, and after a long pause, “Yes. Then in 1935, after leaving Genoa for Rome, I resumed this very important line of research and conducted further experiments, this time assisted by Doctor Bini here at the university. Now, in order to avoid accidentally killing the animals, the first order of business was to perfect a simple procedure by which to measure both the duration and the strength of the current.”
“The shocks killed the animals?”
“Yes. Unfortunately, our procedures were not perfected at Genoa and some animals offered their lives to scientific research.”
Not the verb I would have used. But I let that one go.
Instead I asked, “Did it work? The procedure you perfected?”
“Yes. Yes, it did. After that we had no deaths. No accidental deaths, that is. You understand, we had to kill the shocked animals after a while in order to perform autopsies, naturally. There’s no autopsies on not dead dogs, you see.”
Which he found funny, and chuckled at.
“Yes. No unintended deaths, perhaps is a better way of putting it. No deaths from the electric shocks.”
I understood. And finished writing down his explanation before I asked the next question. The professor waited, quite patiently—while smoking, for my pen to stop moving.
“Alright,” I said. “I’m with you so far. So, how did your research proceed from there? You have now perfected the procedure, and the dogs as a rule survived the shocks.”
“Yes. They all survived the shocks.”
“The all survived the shocks,” I echoed. “How did you proceed from there?”
“Yes. We carried out another quite large series, twenty-two dogs in all—very well documented, of course—of shocks and autopsies, all with the same result.”
“You found the same scars, the same,” I checked my notes to make sure, “the same sclerotic lesions in each dog brain?”
“So these shocks produced epileptic convulsions in the dogs.”
“Alright, then. You had now successfully induced epilepsy in dogs. How did you come to apply this technique to humans, to treat their psychiatric ailments?”
“Yes. I am coming to that.” And time for another cigarette. And don’t ever talk to me about secondhand smoke, you have no idea what it’s all about until you’ve interviewed this man for a while.
“Yes. To go on. It was at this time that I came across von Meduna’s methods of Metrazol-induced epilepsy as therapy for schizophrenia. Very interesting. Although I don’t know if he ever verified, as I had, that the fits produced by his drugs were indeed those of epilepsy, whether they in fact produced my sclerotic lesions. Nonetheless, his work interested me.”
My sclerotic lesions?
Another cloud, and for the first time I coughed. I could not help myself.
“Yes. I was much interested, since von Meduna’s treatment appeared to hold much promise. In fact, I tried it on some of our patients along with the therapy of inducing hypoglycemic coma with insulin. Both with some success.”
I scribbled quite furiously. He gave me room to catch up, then continued.
“Yes. Concurrently, Doctor Bini and I had begun yet another series of dogs, just to make absolutely very sure, you understand.”
I nodded that I understood.
“Yes, and as a result we now routinely induced epileptic seizures by electroshock. Invariably.”
“By the lesions?”
“Yes. Pre-cisely. Every time.”
“In dogs.” I just had to say it.
“Yes. Of course, in dogs. But this naturally gave rise to the question whether this—I mean the electroshocks—would work on human subjects as well.”
“Naturally.” I underlined human subjects.
By this time, I was beginning to lose sight of the good professor in the tobacco fog that now seemed to have filled the entire room.
“Yes. This possibility, however, remained, for a time, a theoretical one only, since both Doctor Bini and I were familiar with the physically harmful effects on the human organism of strong electric currents. This risk made us hold off on human experimentation.”
“You knew this?”
“Yes. Knew what?”
“That electricity is physically harmful to humans.”
“Yes. Of course. Humans die from too much electricity. It is well documented.”
I’m still writing, writing, done. “So, then, knowing this, what made you change your mind?”
“Yes. One day I was told that they were using the electric current powering the lamps at the Rome slaughterhouse to kill pigs.”
“You mean the house current?”
“Yes. Is that what it is called? House current?”
“I think so.”
“Yes. Well, then, the house current, which they used for the lamps at the Rome slaughterhouse. I had heard that they used this voltage to kill the pigs. And it was to confirm the wisdom, you see, of holding off on human experimentation that I decided to go to the slaughterhouse to witness these electro-executions, which is how they were described to me, first hand.”
Still trying to keep up. Again, he waited for me. Then moved on.
“Yes. To confirm that house current, as you say, indeed was lethal to pigs, and would therefore—I reasoned, since pigs are pretty sturdy animals, wouldn’t you say?—so, would therefore also be lethal to humans, no? So I went there to see for myself.”
The professor pressed a what I assumed to be green—it was hard to tell through the smoke—button on his desk and immediately, and I mean immediately, the doors swung open (improving visibility immensely) and a secretary servant appeared.
“Coffee for me,” said Cerletti, “and,” looking over at me, saw me nodding, “coffee for Mr. Fielding.”
The secretary slash servant bowed without comment and closed the doors behind him.
The professor resumed, “Yes. What I observed took me by surprise. It was not what I had expected.”
“Yes. What I saw was a few butchers moving about among the pigs, holding in both hands a large pair of pincers,” he made his forearms and hands into such a pair to demonstrate, “which had at each end a disc spiked with a small, blunted, metallic tip. When they got near to an animal they opened the jaws of the pincers,” the professor still illustrating with his arms and hands, “and quickly grasped the front part of the pig’s head between the tips of the discs. 70 to 80 volts were then sent through the electric cable, and as soon as the current was applied, the animal fell rigidly to the ground without as much as a sound and shortly thereafter began to present general clonic shocks.”
“Yes. Well, convulsions. Spastic convulsions. They are the same as an epileptic seizure.”
“So, what you are saying is that electricity worked on pigs too? Produced convulsions?”
“Yes. Pre-cisely. Then, once the pig was down, the butcher made a deep incision in their necks so that the pigs bled to death before regaining consciousness.”
“So the pigs were not electro-executed then? They did survive the electricity?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s the very point. Very good. You are a clever boy. Yes, they survived.”
The doors swung open again and coffee and biscuits arrived. China cups, silver tray. Classy.
“Yes. And that is very, very important, you understand,” said Cerletti, starting another small fire at the end of another cigarette victim. “Yes. You see, I realized that I had been misinformed about the electro-executions. I found that the electrical current, the house current, did not serve the purpose of killing them at all. Not at all. It was simply to eliminate, as humanely as possible, any form of suffering while the animals’ throats were being cut.”
“I see. What did you do next?”
“Yes. Here, have a biscuit.” He pushed the tray in my direction after helping himself to a few.
“Yes. Next. Yes. I asked for, and obtained without question—I have reason to believe that my reputation must have preceded me—from the man in charge of the slaughterhouse, a permit which allowed me to experiment on the pigs with these big electric pincers, and over the next few days I proceeded to try them out myself on many of the animals to see the effects of the current passing through various dimensions of heads on various sizes of pigs at various voltages and durations and I was able to confirm what we had already discovered in dogs, namely, that at voltages ranging from 70 volts to 125 volts, the brain can indeed tolerate the current quite well, even when the duration of the current was substantially increased.”
Another cloud of smoke.
“Yes. In fact, if left alone, all the pigs I personally observed eventually regained consciousness, even if a few were slow in doing so. Even those that had been subjected to 125 volts of current for several seconds, once the initial convulsive attack was over, managed to stand up after a few awkward attempts and join their companions as if nothing had happened.”
Still writing, writing, done. I looked up through the fog, “But we are still talking about pigs here, and pigs’ heads, when you say that the brain can well tolerate 70 to 125 volts? Pigs seem pretty thick-headed to me.”
“What conclusion did you draw from this experience?”
“Yes. My conclusion was that what we had now observed on a large number of pigs corresponded exactly to what we had discovered with the dogs. That is to say, that the passing of an alternating current of 125 volts through the head for a fraction of a second, or longer, causes actual epileptic, please underline, actual epileptic forms of seizures which do not endanger life and which do not cause any relevant problems.”
Relevant problems? That’s what I underlined. But I had another question.
“Did you find lesions?”
“Yes. What do you mean?”
“Did the pigs have sclerotic lesions in their brain?”
“Yes. Good question. You are a clever boy.”
“Yes. Funny you should ask. We did autopsy several of the slaughtered animals, and each, yes, in each we found sclerotic lesions.”
“Yes. I don’t understand, slam dunk.”
“Yes. I don’t understand, bulls eye either.”
“You found what you were looking for.”
“Yes. Yes. I found what I was looking for. Bull’s dunk.”
I consulted my notes briefly. There was something I had to ask before it slipped my mind. Oh yes, “What do you mean by relevant problems? How do you define that, professor?”
“Yes. What do you mean by relevant problems?”
“I’m referring to what you just said that the passing of an alternating current of 125 volts through the head for a fraction of a second, or longer, causes actual epileptic forms of seizures which do not endanger life and which do not cause any relevant problems.”
“Yes. Relevant problems. I see. By that I mean the absence of physical impairment. In other words, all the animals were able to stand up again, for example. On their own accord.”
“Yes. And now that we had successfully experimented on mammals of a notably different size and structure from dogs—some of the pigs weighed more than the average fully grown man, you understand—and since we also had been able to experiment with many different ways of applying the pincers to the head and with very long times of application, all without any apparent negative effects, it seemed to me justified that we could now do the same upon human subjects, with little or no danger to the patient. So, I decided to, like you say in the American propaganda films, give it a go.”
“But humans are not pigs, professor. Nor are they dogs.”
“Yes. In weight and size they are quite comparable to pigs, no?”
“All right. I see. When did you first apply this technique to a human subject?”
“Yes. This happened two years ago, in April of 1938, when the Police brought a man in his forties to our Department. He had been picked up at the railway station while wandering from train to train without a ticket. As this person seemed to them very eccentric, meaning odd…”
“I understand what eccentric means.”
“Yes. Since this person was behaving in a very odd way, answering questions put to him in a language completely incomprehensible to any of them, he was brought to us. Here we were able to ascertain that the man was suffering from hallucinations and delusions about being under some kind of influence by a spirit or some such. Apart from that, he was lucid and well oriented but, at the same time, quite apathetic and lacking in willpower. He passively adapted to life on the ward, where he was almost always found lying contentedly on his bed murmuring in his strange language, looking up into the ceiling, smiling strangely.”
“Yes. Very odd. We diagnosed him as schizophrenic.”
“Based on what?”
“Yes. He behaved like a schizophrenic. He was sometimes a lucid self and sometimes a muttering alien. Many persons.”
“I see. Split personality.”
“Yes. Many persons. Different persons from time to time. That is the criteria we use.”
“I see. And then?”
“Yes. And then a physical examination showed that he was in otherwise good health. In fact, this man was an ideal subject for our purposes, and it was on this patient that I carried out my first human experiment with electroshock.”
I shivered, though not noticeably, I hope. “Would you like to describe that first experiment?”
“Yes. Certainly. Having fixed two electrodes, which were well soaked in saline solution, with an elastic band to the frontal part of his skull, with the electrodes touching the temples, we cautiously started with a low current. Only 80 volts and only for one fifth of a second.”
Here the good doctor paused for another cigarette (I had lost count by now).
“Yes. Once the charge was sent, the patient immediately gave a jump, accompanied by a stiffening of all his muscles, which were semi-flexed. Then the patient fell back onto the bed without losing consciousness. Then he began singing at the top of his voice and then he calmed down.”
“Yes. Very odd.”
“Yes. Very odd.”
“What was your reaction?”
“Yes. It was a very stirring experience. All of us who attended were quite a little beside ourselves. Elation, you know, at having dared this bold move, but also a feeling of sad disappointment at not having produced a real seizure. Yes, a very emotional experience.”
“Yes. But while we realized that we had already dared much, and that we were breaking ground, it was also clear to us that we had kept the voltage either too low, or for too short a time. I guess the memory of those dogs we had accidentally killed with too much electrical current was somewhere in the back of our minds, that we must avoid a similar accident with this man.”
“Yes. But it was evident, too, from this attempt, that humans are a little hardier than pigs and dogs and can take more electricity. Therefore, we decided to repeat the experiment with increased voltage.”
“Yes. Opinions differed about that. One of the persons in attendance, I don’t remember who this was, suggested letting the patient rest and for us to postpone another dose until the following day. But suddenly the patient, who had obviously been listening to what we were saying, said in a clear and serious voice: ‘Not another one! You will kill me!’”
“How was that received?”
“Yes. I must confess that, given the situation and the great responsibility I had undertaken with this experiment, this explicit and unequivocal warning coming from the patient, who up until only a moment before could not make himself understood in his enigmatic jargon, somewhat shook my determination to press on.”
And time for another cigarette. Inhale. Exhale.
“Yes. Even more so considering that this other person, I cannot remember who it was, again suggested that we postpone the experiment a day, since the patient seemed to suffer. However, I have a natural reluctance to giving in to unfounded and superstitious ideas and this made me decide that I would not be stopped. I would press on. Complete what I had begun. So instead of letting the patient go back to his room and rest for the day, I put the cap back on the patient and we gave him a charge of 110 volts for one fifth of a second.” Inhale.
Exhale. “Yes. The patient immediately had a very brief general spasm and, after that, performed a beautiful epileptic seizure.” Inhale.
Performed? Beautiful? “Really?”
Exhale. “Yes. Exactly as we had hoped. Then we all waited with bated breath during the recovery phase, to witness the final result. But then, much to our distress, we noticed that he had stopped breathing and was now turning a shade of blue. This literally made our hearts stop. Had we killed him? we asked ourselves. No one said anything for many seconds. Then the patient finally convulsed again, drew breath and jerked a little and our blood started to circulate again. And from there, to our great relief, we observed the patient’s characteristic reawakening in stages normal to epilepsy. Once fully awake the patient sat up and looked at us calmly and smiled as if to ask us what we wanted with him. We asked him, ‘What has happened to you?’ and he replied, ‘I don’t know, perhaps I have been sleeping.’”
Writing, writing, done.
“He had no recollection of what had happened?” I asked.
“Yes. He had no recollection whatsoever.”
“Did you continue the treatment on this patient?”
“Yes. Certainly. On May 25th, after 6 electroshocks, he appeared to the doctors as respectful and orderly and calm. He was lucid, had clear ideas and he no longer expressed himself in neologisms. We were even able to get exact information from him regarding himself and his previous illnesses. After 12 additional electroshocks, we adjudicated the man as cured, or, to be more precise—according to the most prudent terminology now in use—he showed a ‘complete remission.’ Not only did the hallucinations and delirious ideas disappear, along with a complete normalization of his behavior, but it was also very comforting to see in him a spontaneous desire to make himself useful in a spirit of initiative, which was reflected in a continuous and truly concrete will to help other patients and the nurses. He was discharged on 19th of June, 1938.”
“Have you heard from him since? Have you any further information as to his mental health?”
“Yes. I see. No, we have no further information about that man.”
“Would it not have served your research well to establish that the man was now completely cured, for good?”
“Yes. I believe attempts were made to locate the man a few months later, but these attempts proved unsuccessful. Although I did say, remember, complete remission. Not cured.”
“I see. Given the result of that first attempt, I imagine that during these two years since then you have continued these experiments.”
“Yes. Certainly. Yes. We have since carried out thousands of shocks on patients suffering from a variety of mental illnesses, while also, at the same time, continuing our animal experiments.”
“Yes. What we are trying to determine, on the one hand, is the activating mechanism of this therapy—why it works, in other words—and also to ascertain whether there are any irreversible organic alterations caused to the brain. On the other hand, we are trying to map its therapeutic effects. That is to say, what illnesses does it treat, and how?”
“I see. And what conclusions have you drawn from your experiments to date?”
“Yes. Electroshock does not seem to cause irreversible lesions to the brain.”
“So, you have established that they do cause lesions in the human brain as well as in dogs and pigs?”
“Yes. Naturally. Epilepsy is bound to do that. We have known that all along. Have you not been listening? The lesions we caused by the electricity in both dogs and pigs were the clear indication that we were in fact dealing with epileptic seizures, and not something else. The key word here is irreversible.”
“Yes, I’ve been listening. So what you are saying now is that they heal?”
“Yes. They appear to be healing.”
“How can you tell?”
“Yes. We electroshocked many animals, which we then let live for varying lengths of time, then killed and examined. Healing. Definitely. The lesions.”
“I see. And how long did you let them live?”
“Yes. Days. Weeks. Months. It varied.”
“And you could clearly establish a healing trend?”
“Yes. Yes. A healing trend. Good phrase.”
He found his fountain pen again, carefully unscrewed the cap and added a brief note under his first. He read this aloud: “Healing trend.” Then he looked up from this and added, “Yes. The brain is a wonderful thing. Very resilient.”
“Did you find any of these animals fully healed?”
“Yes. Of course not. There was not enough time.”
“So, you do not really know if the brain can heal itself completely.”
“Yes. Well, it is too early to tell this one way or another.”
“And did you examine any of your human subjects?”
“Yes. As luck would have it, some of our subjects died shortly after the procedure, and we were able to perform autopsies.”
As luck would have it? “What did you find?”
“Yes. In most cases insufficient time had passed for healing to set in.”
“How much time is that, insufficient?”
“Yes. A few weeks in most cases, a few days in others, a month or more in some.”
“But with the animals you saw healing within days or weeks.”
“Yes. Apparently the animal brain regenerates faster.”
“So, in fact, what you are saying is that you have not observed healing in the human brain? Yet?”
“Yes. No, that is not what I am saying. We did see some healing, especially after a month or two.”
“Enough to warrant continued experimentation? I’m sorry if I sound a little surprised. What if the lesions are permanent?”
“Yes. Well, as I said, we did observe some healing after thirty days, which is a clear indication of the restorability of the brain. We saw enough to establish that the lesions were not irreversible in other words. And there are many other advantages, of course.”
“Establish? You mean assume, surely?”
“Yes. This is not guesswork, young man.”
“Establish does imply incontrovertible evidence. It is a strong word.”
“Yes. I am a strong man.”
I decided to let that one go. “What other advantages?”
“Yes. What do you mean?”
“You mentioned many other advantages.”
“Yes. Well, compared with other techniques, electroshock is far easier to use, it is less dangerous to the patient, and requires the minimum expense on the part of the doctor or the hospital.”
“Yes. And as far as therapeutic effects go, what we have established—and I mean precisely this strong word as you put it—is that the two mental pathologies which up to now have responded the best to electroshock procedure are schizophrenia—as I have mentioned, especially during its initial acute form—and manic-depression, especially in its depressive stage.”
“I see. And as to why it works? What have you found?”
“Yes. As to the activating mechanism, I have formed this idea, and let me stress that this is only a working hypothesis.”
Time for yet another cigarette and ensuing cloud.
“Yes. This is only a hypothesis, you understand.”
A brief pause. For effect, I think.
“Yes. I believe that electroshock violently arouses all those nervous reactions which belong to the field of cerebral functions and which are philogenetically organized, which cooperate in other words, to guard and defend life. The violent activation of these mechanisms, by the use of electricity, has the effect of powerfully reviving, stimulating and bringing back onto an active level all neuro-psychism composed of reflex, instinctive, and affective reactions which make us function well in our social relationships with others, yet which lies dormant and inert in mental illnesses like schizophrenia and serious forms of depression.”
It sounded well-rehearsed. And well worked out. “Impressive.”
“Yes. But as I said this is only a working hypothesis. I would welcome further research and other opinions in this area in order to better understand the activating mechanism of electroshock and possibly find new applications.”
But now I was a little confused. “So, it is the electricity then, not the convulsions, that are therapeutic?”
“Yes. No. No. It is the convulsions that are the therapeutic element in this treatment. That is what I have said all along. That is what I was aiming for and that is what I have achieved. Convulsions. Yes.”
“But your working hypothesis states that it is the electricity that revived what you called the,” I consulted my notes again, “neuro-psychism in the patient.”
“Yes. I know what I said. But that is only additional theory. The therapeutic value of convulsions is beyond question.” He stabbed his finger in the air (or smoke) in my direction for emphasis. A hammering home.
“Because those suffering from epilepsy rarely, if ever, also suffer from schizophrenia?”
“Yes. Yes. Pre-cisely.”
I wrote and he waited.
“What other applications do you foresee with electroshock?”
“Yes. Who knows? Perhaps electroshock can speed learning. Perhaps it can decriminalize the criminal. Perhaps it can make model citizens. Make the liar honest. Adapt children to society and their future duties. Who can tell? We are only at the beginning of a vast and thrilling vista of treatment.”
Vast and thrilling vista of treatment. Oh, man.
“Professor,” I said, gathering my notes and rising. “I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me. It has been a pleasure and an education.”
“Yes. It has been a pleasure. Thank you for coming, and I apologize for the wait.”
“Not a problem. Thank you again, professor.”
We shook hands, and as if there were surveillance cameras in the room (hidden well, for I had not seen any) the door swung open and his retinue swept in and then swept back out with him. A secretary servant showed me out.
The sun is still warm and near as I step out of the building, though higher in the sky now. Wood and books and Cerletti and smoke behind me, I take a first step down the wide marble steps leading back to the piazza. I feel a little stunned. A lot stunned, actually. So pigs survive 110 volts, and epileptics as a rule do not also have schizophrenia. That’s it? That is the research ground they stand on?
Here is the logic (officially prevailing to this day):
Observation: People with epilepsy rarely have schizophrenia.
Conclusion: Epilepsy and schizophrenia are mutually exclusive.
Application: Induce epilepsy in the schizophrenic patient and his schizophrenia (or manic-depression, or your mental affliction du jour—though they mostly, conveniently, boil down to these two) will take to the hills.
I look at my hands (having just written this) and I look at the wall and I look out the window at the tops of trees and at clouds that seem larger today than I have seen them for many weeks, if not months, and I look for the gap, for what I’m missing here. This could not possibly be it, the justification for electro-shock therapy. There has to be more. But there isn’t.
And so, again, I arrive at the same tragic conclusion, for there is no other:
“But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little child said.
“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another, what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”
“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.
The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, and his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.
A fresh Larry comes. He is a large Larry. A with-long-arms Larry. An arms-that-nearly-touch-the-floor Larry, or at least give me the impression they do, making him look, to my eye, more like a large orangutan in a jump suit than a Larry. But he is a Larry. A Larry with a mission. And his mission is: to deliver me from point A to point B. Point A being my cell, point B being the bunker chamber below. Where they did it, where they will do it again. Where they say there is nothing to be afraid of in sweet, unconvincing voices.
“C’mon, Sandy,” he says, knowing my name, speaking it to soothe, to lull, to balm, to confuse. As if to help. As if there were nothing to be afraid of, with a sweet, unconvincing voice.
When I don’t move from my bed he says it again. “C’mon Sandy, it’s nearly nine o’clock.”
As if that explains everything.
I look at my wrist which doesn’t have my watch, and I realize I should have remembered that. They took my watch when I came here, or maybe I left my house without it, I don’t remember. But no watch. No confirming the time. There is no clock in the cell. I must take his word for it then. Nine o’clock. Time for things to happen time, nine o’clock. I stand up. In my standard issue pajamas which is all you wear here, night and day, and I walk toward him.
“They’re waiting for you,” he says when I reach the door, as if I’m a guest of honor and the party can’t start without me. As if they’re all just dying for me to appear so they can spring their surprise on me. Dark room, lights suddenly on, the room full of congratulatory life. Surprise! So why is Larry giving it away? I wonder. And then I don’t wonder but remember, there is no party, there is only the nothing to be afraid of, and I am dead man walking.
Walking behind Larry, knowing only this one thing now: that I must not arrive at point B.
We exit my narrow corridor and debouch onto the second floor landing, Larry a few feet ahead of me. He heads for the elevator, I follow, slowly. I am very afraid. Through the ornate railing to my right I can see the foyer below, and the large entrance door. Larry reaches the elevator, looks back at me to make sure I’m coming, then presses the brassy down button as I look back down and see the entrance door open to admit a new arrival, or some visitor, some one or thing from the out-there world. I look back to see my Larry hold the elevator door open now, saying something to me. I look down again to see another Larry holding the heavy entrance door open for the rest of the party to enter. A suitcase, a hand, an old woman, a man, a hand, another suitcase, two hands, two bags, a maid perhaps, and then I run.
My sandaled feet slap-slap-slapping on sanitized landing marble and down the long circle of broad stairs and I run down these stairs faster than I’ve ever run down any stairs in my life and my pajama’ed shoulder brushes by the old woman who yelps softly as my same pajama’ed shoulder crashes into soft maid who does not yelp but spins away sandaled feet slap-slapping out through the entrance and on rougher stone of outside steps then crunch-crunch-crunch on gravel then hiss-hiss-hiss almost noiselessly on wet grass. I lose one sandal then the other, and my feet, cold-cold-cold with every dewy step, hurry for the ivy-draped wall not so far away now. And then I’m there and it is taller than it looked. To the left, and too far away, the metal gates are closing, to the right there are no gates, only higher than it looked ivy-clad wall, and then Larry and Larry and Larry arrive, panting and unfriendly.
And then not only my feet are cold but my back and my legs too as they wrestle me down into the thousand little wet and grassy fingers, all eager to receive me.
Then I am dead man screaming, screaming and fighting and screaming for I know, I KNOW, that I am dying, that I, I am dying, that I will cease, I, I will cease if I arrive. But the large brown building, doored maw gaping to receive me, has an endless supply of Larrys, most with strong orangutan arms that twist around and about my arms legs feet head chest waist person to soon deliver me safely to point B.
The big clock says nine oh three. Not a very long adventure then. Cold swab, needle prick, sledgehammer.
And somewhere, far, far above, in a distant land of thunder, malevolent lightning rages and rages and rages for who can say how long.
Lucinda DePree looked down on me.
I looked up on her.
She looked down on me.
I looked up on her.
She looked down on me.
I looked up on her, and had no idea what I was looking at.
“Not bucking about so much today,” she said, examining my wrists and ankles. To which I answered absolutely nothing.
I don’t remember walking back to my room. If indeed I walked. Perhaps I was carried. I just don’t remember. I have cracks in me.
I venture back into yesterday, into gray debris and scattered remnants of recent history. Ah, yes, trying to escape. Not making friends of Larrys. Firmly assisted to slaughter.
Was that number two? Or perhaps number twenty and I was done. Please, I have lost count, and now it was all over. But I have a little man about me with a green eyeshade whose ledger is always balanced, and he says two, number two, he says when I ask him, and I have come to trust him, so if he says two, well then there have only been two, and there are eighteen to go, and I start to cry. Me, a grown man.
It is afternoon. There was no treatment this morning. And I have to get out. At least out of the remaining eighteen. For I know now that they will kill me—yes, I will die—if I receive them all.
I discover a curious rule: If you ask for a doctor, one comes.
I asked for a doctor. One came. Doctor Van Hallstead. I seemed to recognize him but I couldn’t place the face. He’s a short, energetic man, balding with a dark semi-tonsure hugging the better part of his head, except in front. Afternoon beard shadow on cheeks and chin. A twice-a-day shaver, I’d venture. Very white teeth, that for some reason, with the help of lips, say “In a hurry.”
“Sandy,” he said as if he has been looking for me and finally found me. Something I found faintly reassuring. He’s bringing news, I thought. Good news. I’m going home.
“Sandy,” he says again when I don’t answer, “you asked to see a doctor.”
“Yes, doctor,” I said. “Yes.”
“Well, one has just arrived,” lots of white teeth, whiter for the tight stubble springing up around them.
“I cannot go on,” I said.
“What do you mean?” he asked, a little alarmed, perhaps a lot alarmed. Was I talking suicide, he seemed to ask.
“I don’t need more of these, shocks,” I said. “I don’t need to be cured anymore.”
“Sandy,” he said, “you’ve only had two,” and held up his right hand in a Churchill victory sign.
I shook my head. “I can’t take any more of them.”
“You have to complete the treatment,” he explained in a way that said the die had been cast and landed on twenty. There was no going back.
And I’m in some strange part of my inside outside and Julius Caesar looks up from having just cast the dice and says Iacta alea est to whoever’s around, decamps and crosses the Rubicon. No turning back now. It’s Italy or bust. I think I smiled, happy to see at least that part of me seemed intact.
Perhaps my little in excursion took longer than I thought, for when I returned the little doctor, pressed for time with his whole body now, looks at me curiously. Am I all right?
“I cannot take any more,” I said again. “I don’t need them. Really.”
“I’m afraid that is not really up to you, Sandy, and,” he added, a little sadly perhaps, “it’s out of my hands anyway. Doctor Soladi has prescribed the treatment. Twenty. Normal course. Nothing extravagant. Just the usual.”
“Doctor,” I said again, and I could tell by my voice that I was begging now. “I am fine now. Done. I want to go home. Cured. I promise.”
“Sandy. Sandy,” he said, as if looking down and talking to a child rather than looking up and talking to me. “We’ve barely begun. You won’t notice the benefits until we’re through. I promise, you will feel much better.”
And suddenly I distrust this man with all of my heart. He has better things to do, important things, much more important things to do than to talk to Sandy. But some sort of protocol keeps him here, much against his will and better judgment. He is impatient to end it now, and will promise, promise, promise anything now, will say anything to be on his way back to whatever he was so inconveniently interrupted from, by me asking for one of him. Strange rule, I thought, and played a hunch.
“I’d like to see Doctor Soladi, then,” I said.
And darn if the woman doesn’t show up, trailing Doctor van Hallstead. Even more put out than he is, but at least she’s making an effort to conceal it (he is not).
“What is it, Sandy?”
“I want to go home.”
“You’ll go home soon enough.”
“Not soon enough,” I answered, recognizing the pun. Which she didn’t.
“You are not done yet,” she explained.
“I feel done, doctor. I promise. Whatever it is that I’ve done wrong, I’ll stop doing it. I’ll marry whomever Mom wants me to marry. I’ll talk to her friends. I’ll go shopping with her.”
Doctor Soladi looks a little surprised. As if I’ve made too much sense. Then she grimaces in her rictus sort of way, not a grin, not a smile, but teeth. She turns to van Hallstead and says for me not to hear—but I have always had very good hearing, and can hear her very well. “Seems to be working already,” is what she says, and I panic, for the implications of that—eighteen more should do wonders, then—come tumbling down like horrible boulders and I have nowhere to hide.
“No,” I say, or scream. “Not, they’re not working. They’re not working.”
Then she looks back at me, grin-less now.
“Get a hold of yourself, Sandy,” she says. Or we’ll do it for you, she means. But there is no getting hold of myself now. I suddenly realize that this is my only chance and I gush plead beg in a rush of words too thick and wide for me to keep track of and then there’s a couple of Larrys and the little prick and the cottony sinking into the inherit-the-earthy submission of the truly meek.
A behemoth of a Larry comes and looks down at me. “Almost nine o’clock,” he says.
I have slept well and long. Is he really that huge or is it that I’m lying down, I wonder. I sit up, but too rapidly. Spin a little, lie down again.
“Come on,” he says. “Up we go,” and he reaches down to help me.
I don’t need help, and say so, and rise up again, too fast, we bump heads, but not too badly. Just a brush really. He jerks back, annoyed. I’ve touched him.
I sit up. Stand up. Hungry.
“I’m hungry,” I say.
“You’ll have to wait,” he says, and I remember what nine o’clock means. Number three says the green eyeshade. Number three’s coming up. And I grow cold from inevitability.
Then remember the rule. “I want to see a doctor,” I say.
And discover another: “Not now,” he says. Nice try, is what he means, and I begin to cry again. It’s a child, waiting outside his father’s room to be spanked. It’s a small Sandy, broken something, stolen something, no matter, but there are rules and consequences, and there is spanking, inevitably. Inevitably.
And hairy Larry arms grab me by the elbows and he must be the biggest Larry in the house for I see his fingers touch his thumb, around my upper arm. No orangutan this one. No. Gorilla, at least. King Kong, or son of. Firm. Rock. Inescapable.
“I want to see a doctor,” I say again, hope against hope. It does not warrant a reply. I am branded wolf crier.
The elevator. The clock room, showing eight-fifty-eight which somewhere in my inside outside I recognize as a palindrome, and then there’s Grayson’s greeting which I don’t hear and the presence of Doctor Soladi somewhere. I don’t see her but I know she’s close by—she emanates something which I can perceive; it may be evil—making sure. I, for some reason, warrant making sure.
The big Larry helps me up on the table and Grayson plies his strap trade again with his usual efficiency and soon I can barely breathe, the chest belt is so tight. Not taking any chances with this wild beast Sandy today.
The cold gel to my temples. The chill of alcohol, making way for the soon to come pin prick in my arm and I gather as much air as my lungs can contain against the broad and strappy constriction, I spit out the bit, and I scream and scream and scream.
The hammer hits the chisel to announce number three.
Lucinda DePree looks down on me.
I look up on her.
She looks down on me.
I look up on her.
She looks down on me.
I look up on her, and I can make no connection.
“How are we feeling today,” she says. To which I answer absolutely nothing.
A Larry comes.
Lucinda DePree looks down on me.
I look up on her.
She looks down on me.
I look up on her.
She looks down on me.
I look up on her, and can make no connection.
A Larry comes.
Lucinda DePree looks down on me.
I do not look back at her, and somewhere I know that the green eyeshade has finally lost count.
Let me try to explain.
There is no I.
I am home. In my room. My mother is downstairs.
No, that’s not right. Let me try again.
I am in my cell. I am somewhere in time between Larrys. I think it must be evening. I try to enter my inside outside. It is not easy, for the hinges are bent rusty corroded unwilling and do their hingy best to keep the door sealed good and shut. I knock, which feels like the silliest thing I could possibly do for who would be inside my outside to let me in? And nobody answers, nor lets me in. But I keep knocking and knocking and it is possible that those good for nothing hinges finally feel sorry or some such for me, for little by little the door swings open and I finally manage to squeeze my head through to look at the devastation first-hand.
No longer fields. Scorched earth. Stubble of black grass, five o’clock shadow, the biggest chin in the universe, mine to walk on. I squeeze through with ample protest from hinges no longer sympathetic enough to play along. I see the fields better now. Dead grass, singed, smoking still. Tongues lost. Acrid silence.
I step out, hearing with each step the crackle of destruction under my feet. I walk for perhaps a mile, stunned at the thoroughness of it all. I fall down on my knees and look up into a sky now not so much gray as colorless. There have been many fires here, that much is plain. Not just the fields. Armies, perhaps. Invaders. Slaughter, rape. The colorless sky is bleeding its lack into all it covers. Trees, jungles, forests, countries, earth: colorless.
How can I explain colorless? It is not the same as black and white. It’s not what a black and white photograph is compared to a color one. You look at a black and white picture and you can fill in the colors if you wish. No, it’s not like that, it’s away from color. There are no colors to fill in. No life to receive or hold them.
I stand up again, brushing the ashes from my knees. I walk down and into my pine forest.
Colorless, pine-less conifers. Horrible in their scorched nudeness. Twisted, black skeletons of once lovely trees. Arms still stretched skyward in supplication: Please, please make it stop. Trunks singed by fire or something worse. Trees who have screamed, recently. Now void of sound, color, wish to live.
I notice how slow I am. Walking much slower much slower than before. Each step, like each thought, is deliberate, is lifting the foot, shifting the balance, swinging the leg, replacing the foot on the ground: crackle from the burnt ground below.
I stop again to look. Far off in the distance rises fresh smoke. They have bombed the Cathedral. It is crumbling.
And a Larry comes.
Despite now almost unfriendly hinges, I have made it into my fields again. They are more of dust now than scorched. Not so much crackle-crackle with each step but soft-soft sough-sough ashes. Yes, ashes. I have made it across the plains now and I stand before the Cathedral. The crown of all that I am, my mightiest fortress. I look at what is left and I am colorless through and through.
I know I should cry, I should rage at the destruction I see, and the mountain of rock that lies where the Cathedral once stood. I should roar and soar and avenge the outrage committed, but I have joined the silently meek and I do not even mourn the passing of all my writers.
And a Larry comes.
The river is dark now, sluggish like molasses, but still flowing, or in some parody or death throe thereof. Bach, however, is nowhere to be found. Nor Monk. Nor Beethoven, nor Shostakovich. A sound is made as the dark liquid, which may no longer be water—no, which certainly no longer is water—rushes out over the edge and dive bombs like rock for the bottom of the ravine. A sound is made by this but this sound means nothing for sound, too, has lost its color and turned noise. A loud noise, grating to my ears, scratching grooves that once meant melody but now means nothing. Just noise.
And a Larry comes.
The plains are shrinking. The mountains are moving closer and losing altitude. Even the ruins of the Cathedral are drawing closer, the sky is lower, pressing down, bird-less now, lifeless.
And a Larry comes.
I am inside a gray box made of steel. All doors are welded shut. I can stand up, but barely. I say gray, but I mean colorless.
My mother comes.
Now I’m home. I am in my room. My mother is downstairs. I can hear her move about, talking to the maid or the cook or someone else. My door is open. It is always open now. I don’t like shut doors.
It’s been weeks, months, I don’t know. Mom says I’m not going back, no matter what, and looks worried. What have they done to me?
I am a gray box made of steel. Welded shut.
I am still home. Mom has been true to her word. I’m not going back, no matter what. Is it a year later? Five? I don’t know.
I am a gray box made of steel. Welded shut.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men have been at it for years now, I think, but have put together nothing again.
I want to explain that. I really want to try to explain that, but I don’t know if I’m able to. But I will try.
I am an iron bell that has been struck, very hard, twenty times. I am still shaken, still shaking, still jarring. Still reverberating, if silently. Still feeling the white explosions that scorched everything in their path and brought my inside world to its knees and then to its ashes and then to its death.
Each blow raced through me with new obliteration.
I cracked under the onslaught, in many places and repeatedly, until I was nothing but fragments, littering.
There is an I, perhaps there is an I, but a different one. One too stunned and scared, even after five years (has it really been that long?) to venture out. I cannot find the old me, the one who used to love music, reading, paintings. The one who understood poems.
Music means nothing to me now. It is only so much sound, only so much noise. Too much of it hurts the ear, grates. Pains.
I can read no more than four words and still string together meaning. I remember the little joy of reaching three not long ago. Reading three words in a row. Gingerly the lips. Understood them. I managed four the other day. I am now working on five.
Color does not exist, although I observe the thing I know to be color with my eyes, knowing such a thing to exist, but I lack the corresponding color inside to understand with, to feel with. And with color, art too is gone. It means nothing. Colorless. There is the shadow (a distant memory) of having meant, of beauty, and it haunts me.
There is no poetry. The gentleness of one image stirring awake and marrying another is not even memory, for I cannot remember what about it to remember. I cannot remember those silent leaps that once rang true, for the leaper is dead.
Instead, I read, or try to, over and over, a once loved (loved, surely, for I remember reading it often) and tender (tender, surely, for I remember wishing it with all my heart—even though I now can feel neither heart nor wish) description of a first kiss, of lips seeking lips, and finding, and meeting thus:
Gingerly the lips collide
the honey of the tongue
melts to form a glow
a rush, a river
And I get to collide (number four), and I desperately try to hold gingerly in mind as meaning, as softness, but it slips and is lost and I stare at collide and find myself trying to understand how lips can be cars can collide, and I know that the life of the poem has been uprooted and scorched along with the rest of me. But it is all I have, these sixty-nine letters, so I put them together again, into words, and I speak these words one after the other again, aloud to myself, again and again hoping and hoping they will find me and stir me and wake me, and make me understand. That they will invite me back among the living.
But they remain meaningless. Sounds. Exiles.
The word zombie occurs to me often. It is an ugly word. A desperate word. A staggering container of death. Like a gray steel box, welded shut. But nonetheless appropriate.
I walk a lot. Slowly. Mechanically. A gray box made of steel in a framework of flesh hardened by the urge to throw itself under the next truck, or bus, or train, or better yet, from atop say that forty-story bank building on Carson Street.
To end this sad, sad, sad parody of living. Just like Hemingway, who saw no reason to go on after his talent, his life, had been cluster bombed into absolutely nothing. That gone, was there any self left for him? Oh, I doubt it. So he blew the box itself to hell, and maybe he escaped that way. And maybe he was right. Or maybe just more courageous than me.
Yes, zombie is an ugly word, but a good word, for it tells the truth. And truth is a good thing. It is, now that everything has crumbled, and stays crumbled, the only thing I have left. Truth.
And if a zombie would think, it would think like I think. In slow, vacant steps, one after the other, deliberate and careful not to mis-think, for that means starting over, dragging each thought out again, one after the other, much against their will. And the forty-story bank building on Carson Street beckons, and looks, I must confess, very appealing.
Once my fine-fingered sensibilities could probe every nuance of Rushdie’s word flights and glory in discovery and epiphany. Now I am nothing but thumbs, fumbling with fingers so thick that only the most palpable simplicities submit to scrutiny, things like bricks, rock, metal boxes, food, and sleep. I have been reduced to animal.
And there is always, always, the distant sizzle of eggs in hot oil, edges browning, as if a trickle of the twenty is still reaching me, still curing me. On good days I know that this is only memory, can be nothing but, but memory so real that I can smell the burning. On bad days I’m back to nothing to be afraid of, and then I scream sometimes.
And now it is time to eat. I can hear my name from below. Mom, at the bottom of the stairs. Do I need help down? No, I’ll manage.
It is eight years ago now, and there is no I.
I am home. In my room. Mom is no more.
I think she died of a broken heart. I think the broken heart she died of was mine.
And now it all belongs to me, for I am competent again. Which, says my lawyer, is a lucky thing, for otherwise everything would have gone into a trust, and we all know what happens with things that go into trusts he says and winks at me: can vanish, poof, just like that if you’re not careful. But I’ve been competent now for a while, so everything, the whole lot, belongs to me now. I am apparently quite rich, and still good-looking, says the lawyer. A good match. Wink, wink. Honestly, though, if mom were alive still, and asked me, I would marry. I really would. A wife to make her happy with, to forgive her with.
I was declared competent a few years back, or was it last year? It was the year I got the job. So that would have been last year. Yes, last year. Functioning member of society. An I-less, zombie, functioning member of society.
But she knew, she could see how nothing of Sandy remained, even though he walked his six blocks to work each morning (it would not do to have Mom’s driver take me to the supermarket at four in the morning where I worked as a stocker—incongruous came to mind at the time, and when I think back on it, on the word incongruous and how it appeared voluntarily and how apt it was, I think that was the first time in seven years that a tiny speck of a tiny finger of the old Sandy stirred, for it was a good word to have thought of).
But the old Sandy did not stir fast enough to keep Mom alive. She blamed herself, I am sure, for what happened. I could hear her cry in her room at night, even though her television set was on and spewed muffled voices and slightly louder commercials into the night, for I have always had very good hearing, I think I’ve told you that—and that’s something they forgot to remove.
Then one day I think she took Hemingway’s advice.
I cannot prove that, for no one will tell me, and for that matter, I will not ask.
And now I am back in my room, just back from the funeral. And if it wasn’t for the fact that Mom is gone I would shout and scream, not in a bad way, you understand, no, it’s all good. For I have felt sad for the first time in eight years. I have felt sad. I have felt something. I have felt.
I am in my home. It is my home now. I am downstairs, in my living room. But I am still at the bottom of a deep well. There’s cold, dark water down here and the walls are tall and slippery. Still, this well is better than the gray steel box, and you know why? Because if I crane my neck all the way back, and if I really look hard, I can make out a pinhead of light way, way up there, and I know again that there is such a thing as outside. All I need now is a very long ladder. And you know what else? I recognize the one doing the looking: I am. I have found the old Sandy, or he has found me. Either way, he’s doing the looking now. I am doing the looking.
And I stand on firm ground, even if watery and cold: there is ground. The indelible blueprint that refused to give in, give up.
That is where the truth fits.
Let me explain that.
For those eight years following the twenty electric shocks, the blueprint at the very bottom of the well that was me refused to acknowledge the need to be cured. Never, never once, did it accept as right what was done to me. Accepting that would have been the same as death, complete and utter. But there was always that blueprint that no matter how buried, how silent or how lost, refused to bend, refused to concede or compromise. It knew, always, that I had been wronged. Brutalized. Barbarized. Not civilized. Not cured. My mother, the court, Doctor Soladi, all the Larrys, they were wrong. Life, and life alone was right.
And Doctor Karen with a K, she was right, too.
And then one morning, looking up at the pinhead of light with its sky and sun and green fields, I knew how to build that ladder.
The task was to vindicate the blueprint, rung by rung, truth by truth. And that is how I began my research and documentation of the barbaric practice known as electroshock therapy.
Good thing I could now read again. Only two years ago, while I had graduated from counting words into counting sentences, I still had trouble stringing more than three of them (sentences) together, any string longer than that quickly grew meaningless. Well, it would be better to say that I still understood the last three sentences, but if the last one was number four, I would find that number one had now evaporated. So if anyone would have written a three sentence book, I could have enjoyed a good book. Otherwise, no. It was part of the grand larceny perpetrated on my soul.
But now I could read again. And read I did. Everything I could lay my hands on: books, periodicals, journals, magazines, research papers (some libraries had them), correspondence (some university libraries had those). Everything. And I took notes. Many and good notes. And from these many notes I culled my ladder, rung by rung, truth by truth. Each rung a finding to vindicate the true me and prove I was right to have survived. Right to not have accepted my living death as inevitable. Right to not have remained the zombie in the gray steel box.
Each rung a voice, someone else seeing, saying, knowing that the barbarism was sham, that the cure was a deeper illness in disguise, and so another step toward the light. Each rung a little closer to my sky, my fields and my real life.
Each rung another reason to bid the blueprint: Rise and return as me.
This task is what saved me. Here it is then, my ladder:
The first, and possibly most important, rung is my interview with Cerletti, which I constructed from historical documentation and which returned hope to me, even if it made me cough for a week.
From there, feet finally out of the cold water and on their way, I climbed out—truth by truth—as follows:
“By directive of the Minister of Health, use of ECT has been nearly abolished in Italy, where it began 62 years ago.” Bourne H. Electroconvulsive therapy ending where it began. Psychiatr Bull. 1999;23:505.
“There is, in short, no such thing as schizophrenia.” Thomas S. Szasz, M.D., Professor of Psychiatry, Schizophrenia – The Sacred Symbol of Psychiatry (Syracuse University Press, 1988, p. 191).
“There is no such ‘condition’ as ‘schizophrenia,’ but the label is a social fact and the social fact a political event.” R. D. Laing (1927-89), British psychiatrist. The Politics of Experience, ch. 5 (1967).
“Schizophrenia is a label used to classify people whose behaviour is found bizarre and who are difficult to treat.” Hill, D., The Politics of schizophrenia, University Press of America (1983).
“Why do psychiatrists torture people and call it electroshock therapy?” Jeffrey Masson, Ph.D., Against Therapy, 1988 (p. xv).
“From the onset, the treatment also produced severe memory problems, openly acknowledged as brain damaging effects by any of a myriad of published papers during that era.” Brody, 1944, Ebaugh, Barnacle, and Neuburger, 1942; Sakel, 1956; Salzman, 1947.
“ECT’s mechanism of action is not known…As with the other somatic therapies in psychiatry, we do not know the mechanism by which ECT exerts its therapeutic effects.” (pp. 120 & 389). Robert J. Waldinger, M.D., Psychiatry for Medical Students, 1984.
“The role of ECT in modern psychiatry needs re-evaluation, and the time may have come to abandon this unscientific treatment.” Youssef HA, Youssef FA. Time to abandon electroconvulsion as a treatment in modern psychiatry. Adv Ther. 1999;16:29-38.
“ECT corrects nothing; it causes acute organic brain syndrome.” Lishman WA. Organic Psychiatry: The Psychological Consequences of Cerebral Disorder. London: Blackwell Scientific. 1987:111.
“There is no medical, moral, or legal justification for ECT. Like prefrontal lobotomy and all previous forms of shock treatment, ECT is nonviable. The debate about ECT is political, not scientific. Old Psychiatry armed with ECT was an attempt at social and political control. Contrary to one view, ECT is an assault on the patient’s brain.” Fink M. ECT - Verdict: not guilty. Behav Brain Sci. 1984; 7:26-27.
“There are many reports from patients likening the atmosphere in hospital on days when ECT was to be administered to that of a prison on the day of an execution.” Norman S. Sutherland, Psychologist, Breakdown, (p. 196).
“The agonizing experience of the shattered self is the most convincing explanation for the late fear of the treatment.” Lothar B. Kalinowsky, M.D., and Paul H. Hoch, M.D., Shock Treatments, Psychosurgery, and Other Somatic Treatments in Psychiatry (p. 133).
“A young 16-year-old girl with neuroleptic malignant syndrome and a stuporous state had eight ECTs without improvement. She died of cardiac failure 10 days after the last treatment.” Joseph M. Rey and Garry Walter,
American Journal of Psychiatry, 154:5, May 1997.
“The treatment [EST] is admittedly mysterious. One of my colleagues, Dr. Stuart Yudofsky, once likened it to kicking the television set when the picture is fuzzy. We still haven’t the slightest clue why it works.” Jack M. Gorman, M.D., Columbia University Professor of Psychiatry, The Essential Guide to Psychiatric Drugs.
“I’d rather have a small lobotomy than a series of electroconvulsive shock…I just know what the brain looks like after a series of shocks, and it’s not very pleasant to look at.” Karl Pribram, Ph.D., head of Stanford University’s Neuropsychology Laboratory, APA Monitor, Sept.-Oct. 1974, pp. 9-10.
“Organized psychiatry continues to oppose any restrictions by statute, regulation, or court case on its ‘right’ to give shock to involuntary and unwilling patients” (p. 279). The Powers of Psychiatry, 1980, Emory University Professor Jonas Robitscher, J.D., M.D.
“For patients who witness these [brain disabling] effects without themselves undergoing ECT, the effect of ECT is nonetheless intimidating. They do everything in their power to cooperate in order to avoid a similar fate.” Peter R. Breggin, M.D., Electroshock: It’s Brain Disabling Effects. (p. 173).
“The rationale for electroshock was formerly couched in psychoanalytic terms: ‘with punitive superegos sometimes requiring repeated shocks of 110 volts for appeasement. Only then could guilt be assuaged and discontent be relieved.’ It is much more common now to hear equally absurd neurophysiological explanations, this time the idea being that these electrical assaults somehow rearrange brain chemistry for the better. Most theorists readily agree, however, that these are speculations; in fact, they seem to take a certain satisfaction in shock treatment’s supposedly unknown mode of action.” Lee Coleman, M.D., The History of Shock Treatment, edited by L. R. Frank.
“The truth is that electroshock ‘works’ by a mechanism that is simple, straightforward, and understood by many of those who have undergone it and anyone else who truly wanted to find out. Unfortunately, the advocates of electroshock (particularly those who administer it) refuse to recognize what it does, because to do so would make them feel bad: Electroshock works by damaging the brain.” Lee Coleman, M.D., The History of Shock Treatment, edited by L. R. Frank.
“The changes one sees when electroshock is administered are completely consistent with any acute brain injury, such as a blow to the head from a hammer. In essence, what happens is that the individual is dazed, confused, and disoriented, and therefore cannot remember or appreciate current problems. The shocks are then continued for a few weeks (sometimes several times a day) to make the procedure ‘take,’ that is, to damage the brain sufficiently so that the individual will not remember, at least for several months, the problems that led to his being shocked in the first place.” Lee Coleman, M.D., The History of Shock Treatment, edited by L. R. Frank.
“The greater the brain damage, the more likely that certain memories and abilities will never return. Thus memory loss and confusion secondary to brain injury are not side effects of electroshock; they are the means by which families (perhaps unwittingly) and psychiatrists sometimes choose to deal with troubled and troublesome persons.” Lee Coleman, M.D., The History of Shock Treatment, edited by L. R. Frank.
“Electroconvulsive therapy in effect may be defined as a controlled type of brain damage produced by electrical means. No doubt some psychiatric symptoms are eliminated…but this is at the expense of brain damage.: Dr. Sidney Sament, Neurologist, Clinical Psychiatry News, March 1983, p. 4.
“Some who receive ECT appear to suffer both serious and permanent memory loss.” Keith W. Hohnsgard, Ph.D., The Exercise Prescription for Depression and Anxiety (p. 88).
“It is not a sign of good health to be well adjusted to a sick society.” - J. Krishnamurti.
“I don’t remember things I never wanted to forget—important things—like my wedding day and who was there. A friend took me back to the church where I had my wedding, and it had no meaning to me.” (ECT Patient, quoted in: Peter R. Breggin, M.D., Electroshock: It’s Brain Disabling Effects, p. 36).
“ECT has affected my long-term and short-term memory and cognitive skills. I have suffered from many bouts of depression and been suicidal since. Prior to ECT I had never been depressed and never contemplated suicide. The doctor who gave me ECT has committed suicide. It should be outlawed. I sought counseling and ended up instead permanently changed by medications and ECT.” Faith, former patient.
“The most horrible thing that can ever happen to me. I feel there is no one who I can relate with except maybe a Holocaust survivor.” Zetron, former patient.
“The amnesia from ECT was terrifying. I thought I was really going insane. Long term, the emotional trauma has led me to have great fear of doctors and hospitals. And I’m bothered by the gaps in my memory. And it seems pretty clear that I lost some cognitive functioning. I feel very bitter about it.” Grace Heckenberg, former patient.
“I nearly died in one they couldn’t wake me up for two days, my memory pops up at times I do not expect bringing back all, I lost my capacity to speak languages I used to speak five fluently and had to relearn.” Trent Lynn, former patient.
Yes, the gray steel box is gone, I have escaped. Only its memory remains. I have recovered as much of myself as I can ever hope to. At nights I can look forward to rising in the morning again, something I despaired of ever doing again only two years ago. Most days I don’t think of the word zombie at all, but there are still days when the notion nudges me, when a slowness occurs, or when I find myself hesitating needlessly, apprehensive of what is going to seek me out and attack, until I again look around me and realize I am only looking at shadows, memories of the twenty.
I can again enter my inside outside at will and with ease, and new grass is sprouting, bent by fresh winds, and the earth has absorbed the ashes, though I would not say richer for it.
I can walk again in the sun and at times almost completely forget the box abyss well.
I am now working on the Cathedral. I have cleared most of the debris (a mountain of it) from where the old one stood. The new one will rise in the same place, but not quite as ambitiously. I don’t really care though, as long as I can house corridors, and doors in it, and as long as some of my favorite writers can resurrect and rebuild their worlds inside me.
And He came to see me today, knocked gently and waited for me to open. Didn’t enter right away, just stood in the doorway and looked at me for a while, sadly. Sorry about what happened, but none of the “I told you so” about being careful that I had halfway expected if ever I saw Him again.
“Can I come in,” He said finally.
“Oh, please. Yes,” I said, and stepped aside.
He didn’t sit down or anything, but walked past me and out into the budding fields. I followed.
“I tried to come earlier,” He said. “You didn’t open.”
“Didn’t hear,” I said.
“A meteor hit,” He said, looking around. Not a question, a statement.
“How the dinosaurs died,” I said.
“Are you going to manage?” He was sincere.
“I think so.”
The grass wasn’t tall enough to bend aside yet, but they tried nonetheless, the little kiss-ups.
“It’s all right,” He said to the grass. Meaning, I knew—and I was very happy to recognize the knowing, the center that knows—for them not to try to pull themselves up by the roots on account of him, relax, please. They got it too and bent a little less vigorously, still making sure though to fold aside, for Him, if not for me.
“Funny thing about locked doors,” He said, as if He had been pondering this for a while. “I cannot open them from the outside. I have to be let in.”
Well, that sort of made sense to me, and didn’t, and I said so. Said, “I can see that you have to be invited into the heart you visit, but really, though, Creator of the Universe, why would a little locked door stop you?”
“I am not really the Creator,” He said. “I had a lot of help from you lot. Call it a co-op.”
“What, my heart?”
“Inside and out?”
“Inside and out,” He confirmed.
“Sure about this?”
“I don’t remember,” I said, quite truthfully.
“Few do,” He answered.
We had come to Bach’s waterfall, once the Victoria, now not quite so ambitious, or loud. “Still nice though, considering,” He said appreciatively.
“Yes, considering, “I agreed.
By the Cathedral I think He got a little sad. He didn’t say anything, just looked at me and wondered silently. Was this it? The final resurrection?
“I don’t have the same capacity for size,” I said.
He nodded, and entered.
“I had to relearn them,” I said.
“Relearn to read them, then re-read them,” I told him.
“How many to go?” He asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “Some that I am sure I have read before, seem like new novels to me. Others, that I don’t recognize, seem familiar. It is a little unsettling.”
He nodded again, but didn’t answer.
This was about where in the old Cathedral He had turned and said “Careful,” and tapped His nose with His beautifully manicured and graceful left index finger. Just before seeing Himself out.
He didn’t repeat it (which I had half expected, everything had a taste of déjà vu). Instead He shed a tear. Literally. “I am sorry I could not prevent it,” He said, and meant it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t listen,” I said.
“So, we’re co-sorry,” He said, and smiled, wiping the glittering tear away with his hand. Then He looked up, took me in. Compassionately.
“I guess,” I said.
“You’re one of the lucky few,” He started.
“Who climbed out?” I wondered.
“I made a ladder,” I said.
“Say,” I said. “Do you mind if I touch you?”
“Not at all,” He said, and held out His hand.
I took it, shook it. Felt it.