The Muscle Beneath the Skin

Dan Young (

This story was first published in Summer 1996 Never Ending Page (Issue 14),

Disclaimer: This story contains a few things not suitable for minors. If you are a minor, or would rather not be exposed to such material, please don't read this.

   In the closet I hear footsteps overhead.  I can't tell how big I
am, and I am afraid to touch the walls.  I try to gauge my height
against the vacuum cleaner, the upright shadowed bulk with a bag
sagging in the darkness like a distended abdomen.  Four feet, maybe? I
feel the knots rippling in my stomach.  Four feet, how old is that?  I
don't know.

   Dr. Berdan puts three quarters in his shirt pocket every morning to
give to the homeless people between the parking garage and the office.
If the quarters are gone by the time he takes his lunch, the people
who ask will get nothing.  Seventy-five cents is all.  His clients
sometimes complain that he prescribes the same drugs for all ailments,
typically maintenance tranquilizers or antidepressants.  I am in my
office and a client is waiting.

   Ernie Levy sits opposite me, hands shaking as he lights cigarette
after cigarette, whorls of smoke drifting and oscillating in the
florescent sixty-Hertz glimmer.

   "Have you had any more thoughts about why you are here?"

   His eyelids perpetually drift to the middles of his pupils and
quiver unnervingly, an odd problem for a nineteen year old.  It makes
him look halfway like a narcoleptic and half like a crackpot religious
visionary suffering the afflictions of the divine.  His voice is
rough.  He clears his throat and says, "No.  I don't know.  Maybe."


   Three days ago he was looking at a photo of my wife and son, and
blurted out, "Why are you my doctor?"

   I said, "Somebody's got to be your doctor."

   He looked at me, then looked away and muttered, "Fucking games."

   "So what, you're ready to stop with the games?"

   He just stared at his fingers.  

   "Ok, then.  Maybe it's because you're a tough nut to crack.  You
come in here like your head is melting down, and then you don't talk
to anybody.  You criticize everybody, and cause petty problems.  Maybe
it's because I think you got something going on that you need to get
off your chest.  Think that's enough of a reason?"

   Ernie smiled tightly down towards his shoelaces.  "You mean that
thing in the group room?"

   MJ, a weekend nurse, had filled me in.  When the orderlies left for
a moment in the group room, Ernie decided to flip the lights off.
There was enough light in the observation room to illuminate the
people sitting behind the one-way mirror, and when the orderlies came
back in, there was a small congregation of ambulatory inpatients
taking turns peering in.  Everyone knew the mirror was there, but
being confronted with the fact made a few of the clients skittish.

   "Yeah.  Do you think that was funny?"

   Yesterday Dr. Berdan was walking to the office when a man in grubby
Dockers grabbed him by the arm, enveloping him with fetid breath as
the man begged something incomprehensibly.  Dr. Berdan had to push him
hard to get him off, and then pressed a handful of quarters into his
palm before walking away.  The man turned teary eyes to him and with
his tongue thickly glotted through rotten teeth whispered, "Berdan?"

   I remembered him when Dr. Parker mentioned it.  He had a speech
defect.  He had been inpatient for a few months a year or so ago, and
I remember him one day telling me urgently, "I don't know what's going
to happen to me, but I know it's going to happen.  I feel like I've
only got one thing left, and I have to hold on to it, but I don't know
what it is.  It's all I've got, and I don't know what it is."

   Through the slats in the closet door I see them getting ready
again.  She is draped over the back of the loveseat, legs spread,
ankles tied separately to the chairlegs.  Her wrists are cuffed to a
short bar running to a come-along bolted to the floor.  He works the
handle on the come-along, pulling her tautly down over the back of the
seat, then slathers her ass in crisco and begins sodomizing her slowly
with the blunt end of a candle.  One of the red ones from the kitchen
table.  Hot wax runs along the inside of her thighs as she chokes and
sobs, tear-stained face pressed into the cushions, biting the fabric.
I don't know why they do this.  I don't know why I am like this.

   Back in my office, Ernie Levy is crying.

   "You don't understand.  I imagine her dead.  There are all these
dead things."

   The gun they took from him on admission was in my drawer, a Walther
.380 with left-handed grips.  The barrel had been throated and the
feed ramp polished, and someone had epoxied a short shim to square the
trigger guard for a long-fingered two-handed grip.  I had often
wondered where a nineteen year old boy had gotten a gun like that, but
unless it was in Ernie's interest, I wouldn't ask.  The orderly on
weekend admissions had taken his phylacteries, too, because he didn't
know what they were.  I had them returned, and that was how he ended
up on my roster.  No ammunition, just a gun.

   Ernie's voice scraped with fear.  "You know, when I came in, in the
interview, I lied about how many drugs I've taken."

   "How many drugs have you taken?"


   Splitting is a strange feeling, like tripping and falling off a
high place, crazy with nausea and fear, and when you hit the ground,
you realize you haven't fallen at all, just changed.  You are where
you were, and you can't really tell what just happened.  I would get
this feeling most clearly when my mother would tell me that she wasn't
really my mother.  She took great pains to explain that often she was
my mother, but that she, herself at that time, was not my mother, only
someone who looked a lot like her.  She looked so much like her that
no one could tell them apart.  I now think that I adapted as if I were
a child forced to live with dangerous animals.  You treat them
cautiously, give them what they want, and never aggravate them.  I
wondered if the kids at school had the same problems.  I sat listening
to Ernie and thinking about the unconscious.

   The admissions transcript listed marijuana, LSD, and cocaine.  I
asked him why he had lied.  He didn't know.  He said that he had lied
before about his drug use, and it came naturally to him in the
interview.  He wanted to take drugs but couldn't find anything he
thought was bona fide.  I didn't know whether to believe him or not.
He was trembling and had trouble looking at me.  I put a question mark
next to the the entry and kept him on the epinephrine.

   "I tried to find a hooker but I was too afraid to ask.  The one
person I thought was a hooker wasn't."

   "Is that why you are here?"

   "I don't know why I'm here."

   "I mean in the city."

   "Like I said, I don't know why I am here."
   There is a small placard in my office that I had inscribed long ago
with some lines from Eliot:

               Those who have crossed
               With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
               Remember us--if at all--not as lost
               Violent souls, but only
               As the hollow men.

   Ernie liked to look at it during the lulls in our conversations.
He said, "I like the idea that death has two kingdoms."

   "You said you imagine your mother dead."

   He shuddered, "Christ.  No, this is different."

   "Your mother?"

   He spoke slowly.  "I don't feel anything for her.  I mean, I do.
She's my mother, you know?  But I think of how hurt she is, and then I
can cry about it.  If I think of how I would be if she was dead.  I
would be so sad.  I love her."  His eyes were moistening.  "It's how I
know that I love her."


   His shoulders were trembling now.  "So there we are in the kitchen,
and she's yelling at me, and I'm thinking about her being dead, and
crying because I love her.  I do.  I'm just crazy."

   In the back of the closet now I can make out a child with his arms
wrapped around his chest slumped against the back wall, rocking.  I
bend down to touch him, but my hands pass through.  I have been in
here before, but I have never stepped out of the darkness into the
rooms of the house, which now seem empty.  Instead I crouch and hum an
old Shabbat melody to the child as he shivers and rocks himself to

   Hookers are associated with dead things.  Sex with death.  Ernie
mentioned that he was once found masturbating by his sister, late at
night in front of the family T.V. set, watching the indeterminate
greens and yellows of the scrambled channels.  I asked if he preferred
the ambiguous to the pornographic.  He didn't know, not having ever
seen pornography.  I asked what he thinks of when he imagines what he
would like to do with a hooker.  He hesitated for a long time, then
for the first time since seeing him, Ernie looked me in the eye.  I
saw hate and tears.

   "I don't know.  I want to hold her.  Maybe I want to hurt her.  I
don't know what I want.  All I can think of is a dead woman I saw."


   "Those films.  At Sobribor.  That one fucking film where the
British first came into the camp with those bulldozers.  I was, what,
fourteen years old when I saw that film.  Fourteen fucking years."
His shoulders shook and his voice wavered.  "I had never seen anyone
like her.  Like that.  With her clothes off.  Before that.  There was
this one woman they swung three times before she landed in the pit.
Arms and legs, swung up and over.  She would have been, she was
really, a beautiful woman."

   He waited for a moment.  I let him go.  He said, "If I would have
been there, I would have fucking saved her.  I would have died for
her.  It was so sad."

   "So is that why you're here?"

   "To find her?  I don't know."

   "To save her?"
   He grinned through his tears.  "Yeah right, I'm gonna save the
whole fucking world."

   I let this rest for a while.  Finally I say, "Will you be able to
see me tomorrow?"

   Ernie nodded bloodshot eyes and lit another interminable cigarette
before rising.  "Ok."

   After he had gone, I sit thinking about Ernie.  He's got a strong
unconscious, and the desire to be honest, or at least to get something
off his chest.  That's all it takes.  He's going to be all right;
he'll get released soon.  This place is for ambulatory psychotics, not
well-meaning borderlines with Oedipal problems.

   My mother told me the unconscious is stronger than I am.  She told
me about living in our first house alone, and how she could never
bring herself to use the sinks or bathtub.  Any water that she needed
she drew from the reservoir at the back of the toilet.  She said that
there were times when she thought she was crazy, but she listened to
what her unconscious told her.  Months later she learned that a former
occupant had years ago killed her husband in the kitchen, and then
kept his body in the bathtub for days while she cut him into pieces
small enough to run through the garbage disposal.  I don't know
exactly why she told me this.  I have no idea whether it is true.  I
guess I haven't gone out of my way to find out.

   Once the halls clear, I can hear the evening wind whistling softly
over the oustide ducting.  I wait for hours, until the janatorial
staff click off the lights and clank off down stairways and elevators
into the parking lot, their echoes dissapating into quiet tremors in
the linoleum spaces.  In the monochromatic green of my terminal, my
tormentor appears, descending from the ventilation grid, and begins to
wind my face slowly with electrical tape, sealing my nostrils, leaving
a small slash for my mouth.  I have never been able to get a good look
at him, and again, I am too afraid.  Then the tape is over my eyes,
head pulled back sharply against the neck of the chair, and his mouth
is over mine, legs over legs, belly to my belly.  My convulsions last
for a couple of minutes before I am forced to finally suck hard
against his thick tongue, and I find that I can pull the breath from
his sinuses and lungs, breathing through his nose in a prolonged
burring cadence of saliva and mucus.  I don't know how long we sit
like this, like always, fear thrumming through my head like a wild,
staccato heartbeat.  I am learning that I am afraid of intimacy.  I am
afraid of the truth.  I am afraid of a lot of things.

(C) Copyright 1995 Dan Young.
All rights reserved by the author.