Roberta's novels, such as Orestes in Progress, Justice My Brother, Stephen's Passion, Solomon's Wisdom, A View from Toledo, and Bodmin 1349, are available from Micah Publications, 255 Humphrey St., Marblehead, MA 01945, www.micahbooks.com Roberta's other books include: Orestes in Progress, Justice My Brother, A View of Toledo, Solomon's Wisdom, The Martyrdom of Stephen Werner, Autobiography of a Revolutionary: Essays on Animal and Human Rights, and Bodmin 1349.
Micah Publications also publishes Jewish vegetarian and animal
rightsbooks, such as: The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook,
Vegetarian Judaism--A Guide for Everyone, and Haggadah for the
Liberated Lamb. For a full list with descriptions, see www.micahbooks.com
He had given up driving three years ago. By then, he had given up
walking, climbing stairs, skiing, sex, playing tennis, sitting
upright for more than half an hour. Relinquishing the
driver's seat hurt the most. One morning the effort to lift
his foot onto the accelerator of his car shot a bullet into his
spine and caused his leg to tremble uncontrollably. His treaty
with pain was over. It crept into every nerve and cell of
his body, every corner of his life, how he slept, how he walked,
how he showered, how
he sat. He detested his body, and envied his wife's when she came home from her morning jog, annoyed that she had left him alone to cope with the problem of getting out of bed. She claimed jogging helped her cope with her calamitous job. A social worker, she raved every night about dead children in the neighborhood she worked in, AIDS, drugs, bullets whizzing through her hair, babies dropped into pots of boiling water by accident or design. The poor were disintegrating in the streets. What was his pain compared to a collapsing civilization? Spiteful to his face, in fact patience poured from her. She sponged his body, cut his hair, shaved him, brought him his books and mail, and was like anyone else who has to live with someone who is
suffering, tied to his moods like a dog to a leash, inventive in escaping when she could, remorseless about finding time and space for herself he could not invade.
He hated the sight of her breastless body, her grey braid hanging down her back, her voice scraped brittle from explaining to defeated people why they must not tie their children to bedposts, or telling him in crafted syllables how she had to take care of herself in order to take care of him, the logic of sick people. He uttered vituperative noises in response. She escaped into the bathroom and screamed back, "So suffer, you bastard." At least he still had all the visible body parts he had been born with. Her breasts had gone to cancer five years ago.
Doctors abounded in their new life. Within a few years they had become familiar with the world of cancer support groups and backache sufferers who haunted pain clinics and therapy centers, who wandered from acupuncture, jacuzzi treatments, hot water baths, massages, traction experiments, chiropractors and hypnotists. Their social life revolved around cancer survivors and back disorder victims. They exchanged information about anti-inflammatory pills, anti-depressants, pills to reduce side effects, pills to reduce stress, fear and anxiety; pills to build bone, muscle and hope; pills to reduce weight and terror. She at least was done with pain. They had cut hers out with her breasts. His they couldn't find cause for. He swallowed bottles of pain killers, developed side effects to half of them and became immune to the rest. The pain ate its way through every medication and therapy.
His internet site, www.pain.edu, received a thousand hits a week.
Cyberspace sufferers had new worries. Would the body still suffer
in cyberspace? Did one need a body in cyberspace? Was
the body the defective instrument of our humanization, the
mediator between psyche and world, but what world in cyberspace
world? What became of the soul as we surrendered the body,
organ by organ, interchangeable with other human beings, with
animals and computers? He edited a newsletter, "BCIPS," or
"Benign Chronic Intractable Pain Syndrome," and received baskets
of mail every day from fellow sufferers. Somewhere among the half
million words on the subject there must be a clue to their
pain. Nothing in the universe could be so
hidden from human intelligence! He researched its history, to discover in what century, in what era, had human beings come to suffer from a malady which now afflicted eighty million Americans, which had no known cure, no known therapy, no explanation, not even a dignified name: "Benign Lower Back Chronic Syndrome." Phantom pain or reality? Is that an explanation or the absence of one?" he asked a doctor.
"Your wife's right, you know," the doctor said, "you must try to manage."
"She's the one to talk. How much money is set aside for research into breast cancer and how much money is set aside for research into benign lower back pain syndrome? Do you know why the pharmaceutical companies won't have anything to do with us? Why the NIH shuns us? We're an embarrassment to the medical community. Our condition fails the pill test." The doctor advised him to change his pain killers.
Hope evaporated. What was the use of his brain that had been developing for fifty thousand years stuffed with science, poetry and philosophy? He knew everything there was to know, except how to make his pain go away. He was an expert on the subject, but his knowledge brought him no relief.
They drove north through small somnolent towns along the Hudson River. He tried to surrender to the autumn benignity and rescue optimism from the golden trees and fiery bushes, the tawny farms. He had gone hiking here as a boy. Untouched nature took him first when he gazed down through golden trees on the expansive river on whose shuddering breasts the first Europeans had sailed, amazed at her amplitude. The wind swept through the woods and played with his innocent ears. A lake he found exposed her belly. "Take a dive," she said. "There's only the two of us." He was alone with the squirrels, the chipmunks, the beavers, who prospered from human ignorance of their existence. The sunset spread her colors and thrust her flaming vulva into his mouth.
The car stopped abruptly and jolted his pain alive. His wife's driving drove him crazy. She used the brakes too often, she missed signs. He ate silence and clutched his medical records on his lap. And hope. That was the main thing. Hope. The future without a cure was unthinkable.
Martha took a wrong road, tricked by a sign at the top of a
hill that was hidden behind the branch of an oak tree. She
did not apologize, he remained silent and enjoyed his gallant
gesture. She backed up, took another road and within a quarter of
a mile arrows guided them to a parking lot. "You can't miss it,"
he said, "it's the only place with a hundred cars in
"Good," she said, "you'll have plenty of company." He did: men
and women with tubes and plugs, casts, mobile oxygen tanks, mobile
intravenous systems, mobile spittoons, pulleys and mobile toilets,
carrying the paraphernalia of their indecipherable conditions,
migraines, swollen joints, rashes, palsy, asthma, neuralgia,
epilepsy, and lower back chronic pain. The stricken lay suspended
in baths, in slings, in oxygen tanks, over bedpans, praying to
evacuate a grain of feces. They groped through the corridors and
sat in the waiting room for reports from their tests. Their
families came loyally, driven by love and duty, and fed them
gossip and cheer. They listened to the doctors and the
nurses explain their son's or their husband's condition in
emblematic statements: "He had a good breakfast this
morning." They struggled to decipher these sentences, to
explanation for an unaccountable development in a husband or a wife, a condition they had never heard of until it happened to them, with a name they could not pronounce. They struggled with the wizardry of the unexpected, and the desire to run away and start life over. They passed hours reading magazines or stared out the windows with a catatonic vision of the future.
Martha parked the car. Job struggled to emerge vertebrate
by vertebrate, tensed for the nurse who would rush towards them
with a wheelchair and information about insurance rules. He
was no novice. This was his third pain clinic, all camouflaged to
looked like resorts, spas or hotels with rambling verandas,
or a faux pas castle with turrets and lead glass windows, the gift
of R.J. Cummings, early twentieth century investor in longhorn
cattle. Ivy and rhododendron bushes covered the balconies, a
lawn surrounded the building, and farther away a forest surrounded the lawn. The burgeoning population of sufferers had outstripped the space of the original building, and two modern ten story annexes flanked the castle on each side like bodyguards.
"I prefer to walk," Job said. Martha stiffened with anticipation of an argument.
"It's no trouble to wheel you," the nurse said. She too was no novice. Everyone who came to the pain clinic wanted to impress her with their independence. It was an argument against the facts. "You have to be wheeled in or you won't get in." The pitch of her voice was perfect.
"Then what'll you do?" his wife asked in her grim tone that reminded him of his lonely days with only a computer for a companion, meals left in aluminum trays and heated in the microwave, three visits a week from the therapist, daily visits from the birds who flew past his window in luscious innocence. Keats on his deathbed in Rome!
"What's it to be?" Martha prodded him, anxious to make the return journey before nightfall. She might get lost and disappear forever. He raged at her ineptness at driving and lowered himself into the wheelchair. His back wobbled on the edge of collapse. The nurse wheeled him out of the parking lot and into the castle. His wheelchair rolled frictionlessly across Mr. Cumming's Italian marble floor. Martha ran to keep up, carrying his suitcase, his laptop computer, books on religion and lower back pain disorder, and a carrot cake she had baked for him.
The nurse wheeled him into the waiting room that once had been a
game parlor with a billiard table and leather upholstered
chairs. The smell of hundreds of cigars smoked a century ago
clung to the damask drapes around the arched windows which framed
the lawn and the distant forest where the birds built their
guarded nests. Job spent hours of the next ten days here
with others whose conditions escaped every effort to understand them: Willie, whose leg had mysteriously started to rot three years ago; Rose whose neck had mysteriously locked into place and made her body as rigid as a tin soldier's; Hedda who suffered from migraines; Charlie who had Tourette's syndrome everywhere except here; Mike whose right thumb had
mysteriously swollen to six times its normal size and seemed destined for an astounding climax; Mary who had a ringing in her ears that never ceased; Marcus, an ex foot ball player who had had every muscle in his body stitched up and wore a neck brace, knee braces, and a back brace.
"This you did to yourself voluntarily?" Job said.
"I made forty million dollars," Marcus said. "What'd you make for your pain?"
A portrait of R.J. Cummings hung over the fireplace and gazed at them with unabashed ruthlessness. Like other self made men of his generation, he had no use for history, but he had a sentimental side: after his wife's death in 1943 from a mysterious inability to breathe he transformed the Cummings Castle into a pain center for chronic disorders. Immediately the portraits of famous doctors went up on either side of his: S. Weir Mitchell, Harvey, Sydenham, Lister, Magendie, J. Marion Davis, Claude Bernard. Job knew their work. He had read his way through the history of medicine from Hippocrates to Dr. Fauci, ten thousand volumes in which heart valves and hormones and genes were lifted from their mystery and organs lifted from their bodies. Outside the lead glass windows, a late afternoon wind swept the garden dirt around. The sky turned depressingly grey and drained the setting sun of color. Job sat in his wheelchair, drenched with despair, and clutched his medical records. "You won't need those," the nurse said, "Dr. Rodin doesn't accept the findings of others. You can let your wife take them home." Job yielded nothing easily. If the grave was going to take him, he wanted his records to be buried with him.
"Better do as she says," Willie said. A pipette drained poison from his bandaged leg slung up on a pulley into a bottle on the side of his wheelchair. "I've been here three years, and that's what I've learned. Once you become one of us you do what the doctors tell you to do because you don't know anything and they know everything."
"Is that what we're here for?" Job barked.
Rose wheeled her chair around to face him, her neck stiff, her back upright, like a puppet's which would collapse without strings. "How else can they learn?"
Martha slipped the medical records off his lap and dropped them into her oversize pocketbook. She knew by the look on the nurse's face that it was time to go. "Share the cake with your roommate," she said and bent down to kiss him. "I'll be back next Sunday. Call me everyday." Then she was gone, and Job felt that he had been delivered over to forces whose malice had no love in them. He was swept up to the seventh floor in the annex in a noiseless elevator, flight without movement or sensation. What would become of the birds if they did not feel the lift in their bodies when they spread their wings? The elevator stopped and the door opened noiselessly. The nurse wheeled him into his room. A man slept in a bed near the window, enveloped in a cloud of medicinal mist.
Job was enraged. "I expressly said I wished to have a bed near the window. I cannot stand life unless I am near a window. It's little enough to ask for two thousand dollars a week, little enough in one's life to be able to look out the window and see a squirrel."
The nurse pulled the blanket down over his bed, and dropped her sentences like feathers. "We'll correct the problem as soon as possible, but we can't do it today. This is the only bed left."
"Being sick is apparently profitable," Job snarled. He eyed his roommate's misted face. "What's wrong with you?"
"Everything," the man said wearily. "Asthma, nose bleeds, weak heart, my head and hands tremble so much I can't hold anything, I can't focus my eyes, my head wobbles. My name is Ray, by the way."
Job smiled wickedly. "Ray of hope? The window is wasted on you, you know. I at least can sit up and look out."
"I can lay here and do the same," Ray responded with a mean strength that surprised Job.
"How old are you?" Job asked him.
Job hung over a pit of despair. "God, you could have thirty years left to lay there."
"A long time to wait for the window," Ray laughed.
Job put on the hospital robe. It swung open on his
backside. What did he care? Dignity was not his
problem. Sleep was. He was better off in his own
apartment. At least there he had the window. Prisoners were
better off than he was, especially if their sentences were
limited. Released, they could walk out of prison with a straight
back, without nosebleeds, without a wobbling head. He was confined
to laying rigidly on his back. The unease he always felt the first
night away from his wife seeped into his body. His sexual
needs were desperate and useless. He drifted into a wakeful sleep
where human beings rolled lasciviously in hammocks through his
dreams. The mist from Ray's humidifier hung in the air like
moisture in a mentholated
At dawn he was wakened by Hedda's terrifying screams. "Is that breakfast?" he asked.
"You do have a sense of humor," Ray said. "That's Hedda. She gets a migraine every morning and afternoon and screams like that until the nurses knock her out. You'll get used to it."
"I'll never get used to it. No one should get used to it. We should curse God, all of us."
His wife called him twice a day. In the morning he
complained about the night noises, he was drowning in his
roommate's mistifier. At night he reported on the day's
boredom, wheeling himself from window to window in the game room,
waiting for results from his tests. Results were the focus
of everyone's attention. The watchword of the clinic was
"patience." He was
wheeled from one dark room to another, from one set of lights into his anal cavity to another set of lights into his cranial cavity. Everything about his insides was known and hung up on walls in black X-rays and negatives. He caught glimpses of Dr. Rodin rushing down the corridor, his backside disappearing into his office, or his whole body appearing in casual egalitarian dress, chinos and a short sleeve shirt in the game room for a visit that roused the patients from their stupor.
Hedda's screams were punctual, everyday at six in the morning and at four in the afternoon., Nurses ran with hypodermic needles.
"You can set a clock by her headaches," Willie said.
"At least she sleeps through the night," Job said.
"Don't complain here, this is a pain clinic," Willie laughed.
"How long has she been that way?"
Rose moved herself around in her wheelchair. "I think someone said since she's been a child, around ten or eleven. She's twenty-two now."
"Nothing's worked in all those years?" Job groaned. He had imagined Hedda was an old women whose head had become stuffed with the pain of years. He wept. "She's young. She may be this way forever. Who will marry her?"
"You never can tell," Willie said. "Where's there's life there's hope."
Was that the secret of Willie's rot, Job thought. Nothing left of the nerves but ooze?
His wife came on Sunday and brought him a carrot cake. He tossed it away. She wheeled him across the lawn to the forest where she knew he longed to be, in the green darkness where the sun's rays intersected the tree tops like a sign from heaven. A nurse ran after them with a warning. "You can't go there. There's no paved path. It's dangerous. Our insurance doesn't cover the forest."
He sucked in his breath ominously. "The forest was in the photographs you sent me."
The nurse was used to his type. She was used to every type. "That's just a picture. The sky was in the photograph too. We don't expect you to go there."
His head wobbled with rage. His mouth was stuffed with useless language. Spittle foamed on his lips. Martha instantly wheeled him back to the clinic. "I'll read to you. I bought a good book with me."
"I don't want a book. I want the sun. I want the air
on my eyelids. I want to hear it in my ears, real sun, real
air, real rain, real mist. I want to feel ice and cold sting
my cheeks. I don't want comfort and if I must die I want to
feel death wrestle for my body. I don't want death to find
me in an insulated tank, shut off from the air, from the stars,
from the wind, from the rain. I have loved this world, I
have loved its creatures, I want to die fighting for every morsel
of life I can chew on. I
want to die in the open. I want to hear the birds singing in my ears as I die. Everything in here is artificial. The nurses are artificial, the air is artificial, the food is artificial, the patients are artificial, their cheer is artificial. I can't bear it anymore."
What could she say to him? His pain had exhausted conversation between them. All the magnanimity of life had been sucked out. His irritability had driven their children away. Stephen lived in Peru, building a computer empire for revolutionaries, and Karen was off in India among Jainists, tending a temple for animals. Letters and photographs didn't help. They did not recognize their offspring. He was responsible for the life his life had robbed her of. How had all this theft happened? Yet she was his companion in destiny. "I curse God," she said, "but I will not leave you."
He was moved from one X-ray room to another, his bones were X-rayed, his bowel cavity, his cranium, his blood was tested, his boils were pierced, his sperm was evacuated, his urine, his feces, his sweat. Tubes flowed from his body and the liquids of his body flowed into flasks and onto slides. Everything about him was either in a dark negative or a bright vial.
Then, after ten days the testing was over and he had an appointment to see Dr. Rodin. His anxiety rose to a new level. What if they discovered that he was the victim of a new virus that didn't have a track record? What if they found nothing and he fell back into the mystery of his pain?
His office was lined with shelves of books, journals and
formaldehyde jars of foetal remains, a frog, a pig, a monkey, a
baby preserved in eternal sleep with a searching thumb, its
umbilical cord attached to nothing. The walls were lined
with photographs of his family, his daughter in pink ballerina
costume, his son in soccer uniform, the family dog luxuriating on
the front lawn of their house; diplomas, awards, honorary degrees,
medals from the International Pain Research Society; a needlepoint
Hippocratic Oath stitched by wife or mother; a clock on his desk from "His Admiring Staff," in the design of the instrument he had invented to measure pain by relating it to blood pressure. He worked fifteen hours a day in his laboratory, correlating the crushed skull or the burning flesh of an animal, even its cries, with blood pressure readings. In the laboratory, everything was used, especially the animal's squeals. His theory that pain had specific pathways that could be mapped out in the brain was
controversial, but his invention was not. The guesswork could now be taken out of painkillers. A Nobel Prize was rumored.
Hands on hips, his eyes roamed over Job's X-rays like fingers over a braille page. He was familiar with Job's website and knew that he commanded respect, though it was hard to say who his admirers were. E-mail addresses cloak identities. Nevertheless, to have Job as a patient whetted his appetite to manage the unmanageable.
Job found a seat and pulled his bathrobe down around his legs. His lap felt empty without his medical records. Everything about him hung from clothespins on a line in Dr. Rodin's office: scans of his kidneys, his pancreas, his heart, his lungs, his skeleton. He felt like a weird picture fished out of the bottom of an attic trunk.
"I have been through these scans a dozen times, both by himself and with others," Dr. Rodin said in a tone that presaged much or nothing. The sleeves of his shirt were rolled up as if he had been engaged in manual labor, his power camouflaged with the patina of democracy and equitableness. "We've committed a great deal of time to your problem. We can't find anything, but we are very hopeful that we can help you."
Job heard Martha's voice caution him to be temperate, but he ignored it and roared, "You can't find anything!"
Dr. Rodin had the authority of success and ignored Job's roar. "That doesn't mean we can't help you."
"Help me! How can you help what you don't understand?"
Dr. Rodin felt his gorge rise. "What does understanding pain have to do with mastering it? You've wasted your time looking at the problem the wrong way. At least I can prove my position." That was an icy accustion which flabbergasted Job. A desire for vindication welled up from a secret spot in Dr. Rodin's soul. Does anyone ever think he's been given enough credit? Against the regulations of the clinic, he invited Job to see his laboratory and judge for himself. "Trust me when I say that pain is not a mystery."
Job clutched at his lap for his medical records and felt bereft of support. The man was insufferable, and he would not suffer it. "I have been invited to enter the belly of pain," he told Martha when he telephoned her that night, as if it were a challenge. She was uneasy. He told Willy and Rose at the breakfast table the next morning. Had they ever been? No, no one else had ever been, but they had all heard about it.
"Hotel Anthrax," Willy chortled.
"I hate the thought of what goes on there," Hedda said, pressing her temples.
"What goes on there?" Job asked.
No one knew for sure. Some knew more about it, some less, but no one knew enough. "Too much pain," they said, "to find out."
Mike gave him an engorged thumb's up for victory.
Dr. Rodin drove. His car was one of those jeep-like machines, good for hilly countrysides. Winds had swept the leaves off the trees and revealed abandoned nests that clung to the top branches with their mysterious strength. They drove down a road flanked by a railroad line and barbed wire that pinned back the forest."We're here," Dr. Rodin said, turning left at a sign, "The Cummings Pain Research Center. Private Property. Authorized Personnel Only. Violators Will Be Prosecuted."
"There's a laugh, "Job said. "Sufferers now have to be authorized."
They arrived in the company town of Phital Pharmaceuticals, a modern city with the needs of a city that had emerged out the needs of other cities, with garbage trucks and tanks and pipes to drain away unpleasant fluids and contaminated wastes, and chimneys to reduce organic matter. The Phital Motel was the main building in town. It rose six stories high, built for conferences, with carpeted hallways, coffee shop, bar, restaurant, jacuzzi and poolside telephones. Elsewhere in town a few trees and a privet hedge circled wooden cottages, supply sheds, bunkers, army barracks, dumpsters, the depot where trucks unloaded cages of animals, and the factories where chemicals were analyzed and labelled and life forms were exchanged. An odor of burning flesh rose from the chimneys into the grey sky, higher than the abandoned nests.
A policeman nodded recognition to Dr. Rodin and waved him
on. He stopped his car in front of a low brick building. A
secretary rang for a research assistant who rushed up from his
laboratory in the basement, followed by his research assistant.
Introductions were made, Job's presence explained. "He came
to the clinic ten days ago," Dr. Rodin said. "I think you
know his website." The remark signalled smiles all around.
"I brought him here to prove to him the physiological basis of
pain." The research assistants were deferential, flattered by the
visit but cautious, unsure at what stage the experiments were at.
"Wanda hasn't been eating," the first research assistant said.
"Maybe she's winding down." The secretary offered coffee. "Chilly
day," she said, in grandmotherly fashion, caretaker of
savants. A halo of white hair contrasted with her plum
They filled mugs with mottos of the laboratory, "Pain Stops Here." and descended into the laboratory except for the secretary, who claimed an allergic reaction to animals and never went down to the basement.
They climbed down concrete steps to an underground bunker that looked as if it had been built to withstand a nuclear attack. A cloud of air rose up that smelled of chemicals and decaying life, ammonia, feces and fumigants, death suspended in oxygen tanks by wires. Two large fans whirred in the room to dispel the odor. Job's breath felt cut off, his head stuffed. His throat and eyes burned from the chemicals. At the sound of human footsteps, unaware that the hope of the future lay with them, some animals stirred over their litter and retreated into the farthest corners of their cages. Others lay suspended in little hammocks, wired from openings in their bodies, mouths, anuses, eyes, ears, nostrils, penises, vaginas. Their cages bore identifying numbers and records attached to them. Job felt warned that he was about to suffer a premonition of the future.
Dr. Rodin stopped at one cage and glanced at the chart pinned to it. The dog was immobile, even her brown eyes were immobile, the gaze cast on the ceiling overhead, a taxidermist's creation. "She can't feel anything," Dr. Rodin explained, "but she knows you're here. We've given her an injection of curare. She can't growl, whimper, or whine, but we know when she's in pain. That thing over there that looks like a thermometer measures her blood pressure which measures her pain." He pulled a lever. Electric currents to the dog's vagina caused her blood pressure to rise. The first research assistant read the numbers. Dr. Rodin rubbed his hand together with satisfaction. "We don't need to hear her growl. We know when she's in pain. We can know whether a patient in a coma is in pain. Connect to the right brain cells, pull a lever and the pain flows without a mark to the body. There's nothing mysterious about pain. This dog is suffering massively right now, without growls, without twitches of her soul. We don't need language, only instruments. Amazing, isn't it?"
Job did not respond and Dr. Rodin was piqued. He was greedy for Job's capitulation and pressed his point. "Where is Wanda's cage?" he asked his research assistant, who led the way to a plexiglass cage with the monkey's head in it. Wires descended from her neck into a computer.
Unprepared by anything he had read, unprepared by his half a million words, unprepared by texts on religion, theology, morality, ethics, peristalsis attacked Job's soul. The natural process of assimilating an experience to one's knowledge of the world, memory of the past, reversed itself and everything Job knew about the world was vomited out in revulsion. His back banged into his head so that he could not hear anything.
Dr. Rodin took no notice, and went on to explain the process of discorporation. "There are only a few laboratories that can perform this, and we're one of them. In case you doubt that Wanda's alive, watch her eyes, they'll follow you. We produce miracles here because we know how to interrogate nature, dupe her, make her do what she thought it was impossible to do. We do not subdue nature, we transform nature. Nature is not what you think it is, it is what we tell it to be. You could never wring an antidote to pain out of your system." He spoke with a gentleman's sublimated contempt.
Job rolled his words around in his mouth, moistened them with
spit and tried to swallow them. They went down through his
esophagus and came to a lump in his intestines. His back shrank
down further until it seemed to him that his head disappeared into
his shoulders. He could not straighten his back up anymore.
He was shrinking. Everything was at a dead end, his
universe run down, entropic. Language failed him. There was no voice in the whirlwind to appease the vision of the coming cycles of human ingenuity.
"Take me home," he said to Martha that night when he called
her. She was not surprised and said she would come for him
after work. Ray's mistifier hissed all night, bells went off
in the ambiguous distance, muffled sounds unclear to interpret, a
groan, a strangling cough, a feeble call for help, people waiting
for an answer. An early winter storm blew up and splattered
icy rain against the window. It was suddenly winter, but his
room was drenched with mentholated mist. His body was wet with
it. The odor crept along his brain cells and mingled with
the odor from Dr. Rodin's laboratory, the odor of open sores, pus,
blood, the liquids of disease. Cold creatures floated through his
brain, fused together into new shapes: detached heads and two
headed dogs, monkey heads on computers in a row like heads on a
piked fence. But they were not dead. Their tongues
hunger, their eyes searched for their lost bodies. He tried to sleep, but they came, the dogs and the cats, the mangled bodies, the headless monkeys and mice as small as acorns with irradiated insides. They perched in trees and on rocks, in cages, and gazed at him with the mute stares of children and animals whose bodies are trapped in pain. "We are your comforters,"
they said. "That's what we're here for. We feel your pain. This is our assignment. Your pain is our pain."
A damp terror woke him. His forehead was wet with sweat. Mentholated mist fell like synthetic dew. Ray's mistifier dangled from his dead mouth while the mist sprayed chaotically through the room.
Nurses and attendants detached Ray from his mistifier, turned it off, wrapped him in a plastic bag and wheeled him out. "You can have the bed near the window," a nurse said. Job declined.
"Don't let it get you down," Marcus said at the breakfast table.
"Everyone is different," Rose said cheerfully.
"We're being duped," Job said.
"What are you saying, old man?" Marcus said belligerently, the muscles in his arms twitching with reflexive memory.
"Are you telling me I'll never go back to the normal world?" Charlie said.
Hedda appeared in the doorway, stricken with her daily headache, and shrieked, "You want to rob us of hope."
"Just as well you're leaving," Willie said, disgusted that Job had lost his faith.
The nurse put him in wheel chair to wait for Martha to come for
him. He sat all day in the waiting room with a blanket on
his lap, and watched the birds through the lead glass window. One
hopped on a branch near his window. "Dear bird," he muttered to
it, "dear bird. Let me only live and I will be content with
the world as it is. No more revelations. Let the world
just be what it always was." The setting sun caught a glint
of steel on the bird's neck. The bird was banded. A tiny
computer on its throat caught the fading light as it hopped and
sang and paid homage to some creator.