This story was first published in Summer 1996 Never Ending Page (Issue 14),
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?" "None." 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." "So?" 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 sleep. 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." "When?" "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.