14 March, 2009
CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO: THE BACKGROUND CHANGES
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Small troubled thoughts occur to him in his sleep and briefly interrupt the succession of blissful dreams. There is some kind of chasm across which he must jump, and there are people on the other side, waiting to applaud his success, if he is successful in jumping across the chasm. Carl Rogers is there, on crutches, and there is Doralina Steindl Klaus, in her floppy hat, swaying like a willow tree, swaying in the wind. He thinks of Levon Blue Lake Moon, how sometimes you call him Levon, sometimes you call him Blue Lake. But Opal is always Opal. He thinks of Will and Arnie, and he thinks, we’ll never go back to those names, and he thinks what will they call us next? He thinks of names from fiddle tunes, Billy Berwick, Captain MacGreal, Denis Murphy. He thinks of names of Indians, Crazy Horse, Black Elk, Little Big Man. What will they call us next? So much hangs on this unanswered question.
Claudia returns the following afternoon. She’s in jeans and a grey sweatshirt with the hood pulled down. She wears no jewelry. There is nothing around her throat, nothing in her earlobes. Her only nod to color is a blue and green babushka, tied over her head. Her hair has been pulled off her shoulders and rolled into a bun under the cloth.
“Claudia, what’s happened to you? You look different.”
“Oh, I didn’t have time to get pretty for you, Wilbo. I’m sorry. I just wanted to see you.”
He reaches for her hand. “You look pretty to me, Claudia. You don’t have to do anything.” This is true. She looks as pretty as ever, but something about her appearance disturbs him, no so much for himself as for her.
“I got a job,” she tells him.
“You heard me. I got a job.”
“What for? I though you had plenty of money.”
She pulls her hand away from his. “I never told you I had plenty of money. You just inferred that because you think I’m a rich bitch.”
She’s kidding, he hopes. He smiles at her. “Where are you working?”
“At the Lighthouse. Waiting tables, the lunch shift. I wouldn’t work the dinner shift. I need my nights.”
Another wave of disturbance is carried to him by this piece of information. “I thought you couldn’t deal with those people. The last time I talked to you, you said you weren’t even sure you could live there any longer.”
“Oh, they’re not so bad, not really. I was wrong. I had a long talk with Jimmy. It isn’t like I thought it was. They’re not… I don’t know what they’re not, but Jimmy’s a good guy, really. He has some good ideas. I take it back, what I said about Jesus freaks. Besides, I really do need the money. My dad, he’s not a bottomless pit, or at least he doesn’t think he is. But what about you? You look great? Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah, I feel better. Just a little weak around the middle. Look ma! No hands!” he raises his arms to demonstrate that he is completely free of intravenous attachments. “I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m looking forward to a decent meal.”
“I could bring you something to eat. Do you think they’d let me? The Lighthouse has great food.”
“Well, sure. You could try. But Claudia…” He stops himself, realizing that an urgent question has risen in his mind without actually announcing to him what it is.
“What, silly? You sound like a dying cowboy in a movie.”
“When I get out I’m… I’m going back to my house, you know. It’s OK for me to go back to my house. My brother Arno, he thinks it’s not OK for me to go back to my house.”
“Well, why would Arno think that?”
“He thinks it’s dangerous. He says, well, I’ve been attacked. It’s not a safe world out there. Of course it’s not a safe world. I don’t care about that. I want to live, not just survive. But he also says I’ll be in a weakened state when I first get out. I should go and stay with him for the first couple of weeks, or with someone else.”
Claudia sits with this for a while. She stares off into space. When she speaks it’s clear that she’s tapped into a deeper level of emotion than the one she came in with.
“Don’t talk about the future right now, Wilbo,” she says, “Or the past. The present’s just about all I can handle.” She looks at him and their eyes lock. Suddenly there’s a connection, like a little bit of kinko syncho quinto, like if either one of them was to move the other would move in the same way. But her next words completely break the spell.
“I’ve made some bad mistakes, Wilbo.”
He can’t let this pass. He grabs her arm. “What do you mean by that? Bad mistakes?”
She pulls away and shakes her head, like she’s shaking off a swarm of flies. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. You’re not ready to hear that. Forget it. I’m sure you’ll go back to your house. There’s no reason for you not to go back to your house.”
Then she’s quiet, and Wilbo is quiet, but he’s not quiet inside. In fact he’s churning with questions, none of which he can ask because they all have to do with the past, or with the future, the present being nothing but a hospital room, and how much can you say about a hospital room?
“Where’d you get the book?” she asks suddenly.
He glances down at The True Believer tossed open at the side of the bed with the dust cover falling off. “Oh, that was from my friend Carl, Carl Rogers. You know Carl, don’t you?”
“Well, actually we’ve never met, but you told me all about him. He’s the guy who said you spend too much time alone. Alone with your thoughts.”
Wilbo nods. “Yep. The very guy,” he says.
She covers his hand with both her hands. “Well, maybe you should be alone with your thoughts now. For a little while at least. You need to rest. Don’t worry, I’ll stay here with you. Get some rest, Wilbo.”
Vague troubled ideas rise up weakly to resist her suggestion but an overall sense of fatigue weights them down and he closes his eyes. He doesn’t know how long she stays there with him. He pieces together impressions in the misty borderland between waking and sleeping.
She had a long talk with Jimmy. He gets a picture of Jimmy, wailing away like a true pagan on the congas across from the blazing glow of the fire.
Don’t talk about the future or the past. The present is about all I can handle right now. Why did she say that? Especially at that moment, when the conversation turned to his release from the hospital, and where would he go? Bad mistakes! What bad mistakes? I’m sure you’ll be able to go back to your house. There’s no reason for you not to be able to go back to your house.
Over it all, though, there’s something larger, humming and hovering like a great alien mother ship over a barren Arizona landscape. Whatever it is it makes all other concerns seem petty and trivial, especially the matters of attraction and affection and all the bruises and the pleasures of the ego. What is this thing hovering? Maybe it’s just sleep. If it isn’t sleep, sleep is nonetheless riding in on its coattails. He feels sleep gathering like heavy blanket of clouds in the sky of his mind, asking him to forget all these disturbances and just follow.
When he wakes its night. A quick glance at the clock fixes his place in time: 7:45 p.m. The nurse is back in the room- the same one- banging about some metal objects in the corner.
“Hey!” Wilbo announces himself.
The nurse turns. “Mr. Hoegarden.”
“Why do I always wake up for you? Where’s the pretty nurse?”
“Oh, I lied. There are no pretty nurses here. But that little girl came back, just now. She said not to disturb you. She just wanted to bring you some food. Seems like you’ve been complaining about our rations.”
These words usher in an aroma of fresh garlic and basil, like a Mediterranean breeze.
“We don’t normally allow food this exciting into the hospital,” the nurse continues. “I snuck it past the armed guards.”
It’s a big piece of home made hand-tossed pizza smothered in pesto sauce, layered with crumbles of feta cheese and wedges of sun-dried tomatoes. There’s also a salad with generous portions of arugula. The effect this has on his appetite is explainable. What surprises him is the way it also cross-wires down his synapses into his sex, eliciting an immediate erection.
“You have to eat hearty and get strong,” the nurse tells him. “They’re talking about letting you out tomorrow.”
Wilbo looks up in surprise. “Tomorrow?”
“It depends on your brother. He was here tonight. He came with the girl, actually. He was negotiating with the management, trying to convince them you’ll be well enough to get out tomorrow. What do you think? You be well enough to get out tomorrow?”
But Wilbo’s head is swirling. “He came with the girl?”
“Well, I don’t know, maybe he didn’t come with the girl. They showed up at the same time, though. You’re a little testy, aren’t you? You must be feeling better.”
Wilbo considers throwing something at the man, maybe The True Believer. But he reigns in his impulses.
“Well, don’t you think I ought to try walking around a little first, before they decide to let me out? I haven’t even been out of this bed yet.” A question occurs to him, suddenly: where have I been peeing? Another, more pressing question follows immediately: where can I pee now?
“Well, of course you can get up,” says the nurse. “You should get up and walk around. Test out your sea legs.”
Immediately Wilbo is sitting up on the edge of the bed, and then he slides off the bed onto his feet. At first it feels like his stomach is going to rip open and all his guts are going to spill out onto the floor. The nurse grabs his arm. “Steady mate, you’ll get used to it.”
Wilbo straightens his back and places his hands gently over the scar on his abdomen. “Gotta pee.”
“Straight on back,” the nurse tells him.
The first few steps are the hardest, and Wilbo’s thinking, I’m not getting out of here tomorrow. But then he feels his strength kick in as auxilliary muscles wake up and rush to the aid of the ones that were wounded. He reaches the bathroom and finds, to his relief, the lid left up.
Unsupported by anything, standing free and slightly swaying, he feels what seems like a lifetime of impurities streaming out of his body. When he’s done the sense of calm and relief is far greater than one would expect after nothing but a good pee.
“Come eat this pizza before I do,” calls the nurse. “Then you can walk around. Go ahead, just walk anywhere you want. I’ll come see how you did after awhile.”
So the nurse leaves, Wilbo eats the pizza, and then he gets up to walk around. It isn’t until he’s out in the hall that he stops to notice what he’s wearing- a suit of institutional white pajamas underneath the standard striped hospital gown that ties in the back.
Well, at least you can tell the doctors from the patients, he thinks. But it doesn’t really matter. For the most part people treat him as if he’s invisible, and he can go just about where he pleases. With every step he feels his body grow stronger as if the kinetic energy from his legs is knitting him together, a stitch at a time. He wanders the hallways peeking into rooms where people lie or sit in various levels of infirmity, where loved ones armed with balloons and bouquets gather around ailing family members, and where lonely old men languish away in the blue television glow. He begins to like the idea of getting out of here tomorrow. He begins to believe it’s possible.
Shortly after midnight he is approached by his friend, the male nurse whose name turns out to be Nash, as embroidered on the pocket of his white jacket.
“Mr Hoegarden. You’re still walking?”
“Of course I’m still walking. What? Do you think I’d be dead by now? And also, I can answer your question.”
“Yes. I think I could go home tomorrow. In fact, I don’t think you could pay me to stay.”
The nurse glances around surreptitiously. “Well that’s good because you’re up way past your curfew, man. We don’t like to keep troublemakers like you any longer than we have to.” He takes Wilbo’s arm. “Do you realize how far you are from your room?” Gently he begins to guide him down the long dark hall.
Wilbo sleeps deeply through the quiet hospital night and wakes refreshed to a vision of Claudia sitting in the chair beside his bed. She looks better today. She’s wearing a black scoop neck leotard and a strand of African clay beads around her throat. She has earrings and her hair is loose and flowing on her shoulders. When he sees her he smiles both inside and out. He feels great. He feels like he’s ready to go home.
Then there’s a scuffling sound from across the room and another person stands beside the bed.
It’s Arno. He’s got the same punky hairstyle and the same earring and now he’s wearing a black, sleeveless tank top with a bold, dramatic picture of three empty crosses on a barren hill.
Wilbo’s heart falls and his face falls with it.
“Oh,” he says to Claudia, “I see you’ve met my brother.”
Arno doesn’t give her a chance to answer. He swoops in like a buzzard and grabs Wilbo’s hand.
“We met at the Lighthouse. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to you for turning me on to that place. It’s exactly what I needed. It’s like coming home. I’m not alone anymore.”
A sharp jab of pain bites Wilbo in the stomach and it makes him gasp, but he does it quietly, hoping nobody will notice. He realizes what it is, or at least what it means. I need to move my bowels!
Even so, he’ll be damned if he’s going to let on. He clenches his jaw, tightens his sphincter muscles, and contemplates his reply. But Arno speaks first.
“You saved my life, Wilbo. I knew you’d do it. I knew you’d come through.”
Wilbo feels a flush of anger. “I didn’t save anyone’s life,” he replies. “And I haven’t made you any promises. I already told you that.”
“You don’t have to make me any promises, Wilbo. You’ve been called. You’ve just been obedient to the call.’
Wilbo glances frantically at Claudia who just sits there, unsmiling. How can she just sit there, unsmiling? How can she just listen to this line of bullshit without saying anything?
But he decides to let it go. “So you’ve come to negotiate my immanent release,”
Arno smiles. He seems equally relieved by the change of subject. “Yes, we have, actually. I’ve been talking to the doctor. He thinks you’re ready, but you’ll need a few more days of bed rest. And the stitches come out in a week.”
At that point another wave of pain hits and his stomach makes an audible rumble. He closes his eyes and a brilliant display of phosphenes explodes on the darkened screen of his eyelids. He feels dizzy. Mostly he’d like to open his eyes and find that he’s alone, or at least Arno would be gone. He wouldn’t mind if Claudia was still there. He decides to vocalize his thoughts.
“Just go away,” he says, his eyes still closed.
“Wilbo…” It’s Claudia’s voice, and it softens him a little. He qualifies his statement.
“For a little while, at least. Go away for a little while. Come back later.”
He opens his eyes to see them both staring at him with matching dumb looks on their faces, like a pair of bookends.
“But… we’ve got it all worked out,” Arno says. “My car is waiting outside. We're taking you to my house.”
Wilbo releases an exasperated sigh. “Well, if you really want to know, I gotta take a shit,” he says. “Then, I don’t know, I just want to think about it for awhile, OK? Go away. Come back in a couple of hours, OK?”
Arno looks at Claudia but she doesn’t look back. She has her eyes fixed on Wilbo. Her expression looks like her thoughts are going a mile a minute. Finally she breaks the impasse but not the silence. She leans over and plants a kiss on Wilbo’s forehead.
“It’s all right,” she whispers in his ear, “Don’t worry. Trust him.” Then she straightens up and turns to Arno. “Let’s do what he says.”
But Arno’s not so quick to agree. “Wilbo, this is silly. We can wait out in the hall while you take your crap if you want. We came to get you. We came to take you home.”
Wilbo closes his eyes again. The pressure in his bowels is almost unbearable and the word home bounces around in his head like a bad oath. He hears Claudia’s voice.
“He just needs to be alone. I know what he’s talking about. I’ve been there. Let’s go. Let’s do what he says. We can come back later.”
Arno grumbles and mumbles unintelligible words under his breath. Wilbo keeps his eyes closed until he hears their departing footsteps, and he’s quite certain he’s alone in the room. Then he leaps out of bed. The pain of the impact is only slight this time, and the turbulence in his digestive tract is overwhelming. He reaches the toilet in the nick of time.
There follows a day of waiting, as long as it is deep. Having successfully voided his body of every solid and liquid impurity, Wilbo feels clean and strong and whole and ready to go. But nobody comes for him. Breakfast comes which he eats with appetite, and then lunch, which he eats with some reserve. He meets the pretty nurse at last, but she’s not that pretty. He asks her several times if anyone has come for him, or if anyone is waiting for him, but she knows nothing. In the afternoon, the doctor himself appears, a shaggy unkempt man who shows him his charts, presents him with a laminated table of the four food groups, and pronounces him fit for release with a sharp knock on the knee. But when Wilbo asks him has anyone come to get him, he knows nothing.
“That’s something you’ll have to ask the nurses,” he says.
Through the long afternoon Wilbo wanders the halls. He talks to people. He even attempts a few sketches of some of the nurses and interns but they aren’t very good. All he has is a number two pencil and a pad of ruled binder paper. Nonetheless, the subjects act impressed and the pictures get passed around the hall.
“This is what I do for a living,” he tells them, but it doesn’t ring true.
When evening falls he’s back in bed, wondering what they’re going to bring him for dinner, when a white-coated figure pops a bushy head into the room.
“Hey! What are you doing here?” It’s Nash, the night nurse.
Wilbo looks up. “What do you mean, what am I doing here? I live here.”
“No you don’t. You’re gone, man. It says here they released you this morning.”
“Yeah. Your brother came and got you. Don’t you remember?”
Wilbo feels his whole body make a little jerk. “Oh yeah? Well, I must have died then, and this is hell.”
“Get up man, and get your clothes on. And hurry. We’ve got a liver patient supposed to occupy this bed in half an hour.”
“My clothes? Where are my clothes?”
“In the bag. On the floor. Where they always were.”
On the floor? Where they always were? Wilbo giggles. “You mean I could have just got dressed and walked out of here any time?” he asks.
“Well, it’s what you’re gonna do now, and make it snappy,” Nash replies. “Or I’m in big trouble. God, how was I to know this was happening?”
Sure enough, there’s a bag, on the floor, with all his clothes, except that they’ve been laundered in some kind of heavy starch and folded into a tight little bundle. The pants are so stiff he has to force them open with his legs and the shirt sits on his shoulders like a cardboard box.
Nash is already making tracks behind him, ripping sheets off the bed. “Don’t forget your book.” he says.
Wilbo takes the book but his thoughts are still in a puzzle. “But… what if there’s no one here to pick me up?” he asks.
The nurse stops what he’s doing just long enough to frown. “You’re a healthy man, Mr. Hoegarden,” he says. “You don’t need anyone to pick you up. You can go anywhere you’d like.”
With a nod and a chuckle, Wilbo takes one last look around the room until his eyes light on the one memorable object, the clock on the wall. Six thirty eight. Without another word he hurries to the door.