Two chapters to go. Hang in there. If you get lost find your place in the archive list. Chapter One is the third post, dated January 8.
Thanks for reading!
12 March, 2009
copyright 2009 by Jim Nail
Stick figures appear against a continuous background of sky blue. Their bodies are elongated, like shadows at twilight, and they move slowly from side to side with their arms trailing slightly. They seem to be peering in from somewhere. The general tenor is inquisitive, curious, like they’re saying, what’s that in there? That’s interesting. We’ve never seen anything like that before.
Time doesn’t want to behave itself. It jumps ahead in fits and starts, then it slows nearly to a standstill. Sometimes it even seems to move backwards. Things that happen seem to happen again for the first time, even though they’ve already happened.
A door opens and someone comes into the room. This event repeats itself numerous times, both forward and backward. It seems to be the focal point of some sort of information. Whenever it happens a new piece of information is transmitted, or maybe it’s the same old information being transmitted, again and again. The stick figures are the ones who transmit the information. They are the ones who come and go.
For a long time, Claudia is there in the room with him, or maybe she comes and goes, like the stick figures. He’s not sure. He just knows that sometimes when he opens his eyes she’s there in the room with him, sitting in the chair next to his bed. He’s not sure if there are times when he opens his eyes and she’s not there. He can’t remember the time when she was first there, but he feels quite certain there was a time before that, when she was not there. He just can’t remember when it was.
It occurs to him that they’ve been talking, both of them. He’s been talking, she’s been talking, they’ve been conversing, but he’s not aware of what they’ve been talking about. It’s like the sound of a television left on all night in the next room. This bothers him. He doesn’t like the idea that he’s conversing with someone without any awareness of what he’s saying. He tries hard to bring his attention to the sound of his own voice. The effort of this attention forces his voice to be silent. The silence of his voice forces his attention away from his voice, onto the details of the room.
Suddenly it just pops, not unlike the popping of one’s ears. Suddenly everything just falls into place. A rush of consciousness floods his mind and he is fully awake and aware of everything that’s happening to him.
He’s in a hospital bed. His arms are harnessed with clamps and straps. Coils of plastic tubing bloom out of his wrists like tendrils of ivy. Something heavy and tight is pressing against his stomach. He can’t see what it is, or reach it with his shackled hands. Claudia sits in a chair holding his immobile hand. She’s wearing a modest blue blouse and a plain silver chain around her throat. He can’t tell what she has on underneath.
“Claudia.” he says. His voice is weak but he is fully inside it. He knows he has entered the conversation.
“What have we been talking about?”
Claudia smiles, a little sadly. “Well, I’ve been doing most of the talking,’ she says. “You’ve just been agreeing with me. You know, you’re very agreeable when you’re drugged.”
“How long have I been here?” He has the urge to sit up in the bed but he lacks the strength to accomplish this.
“Oh, about twenty-four hours. You were in surgery yesterday, but I don’t suppose you remember any of that. It went very well, though. You’re gonna be allright, Wilbo. The doctors were amazed. They said it was almost like Gary knew exactly where to stab you so he would miss all the major internal organs. It’s weird and I hate to say this, but that seems like something that Gary would do.”
It’s not like her words bring back the memories for the first time. The memories are there. It’s more like she throws open a door and the light spills in and makes the memories visible. He follows the memories backwards. He remembers pulling the knife up into his stomach, so Gary wouldn’t get it. He remembers Gary’s words just before the attack: what have I done to offend you, Wilbo? He remembers how he and Claudia had moved in perfect synchronicity to grab the wrist that holds the knife. He remembers the boldness of his own words as he stepped into the alley: come away from the girl! He remembers the shock that sent him reeling when he first peered into the alley and saw them there, Gary thrusting himself into Claudia’s helpless body. This image is the most powerful. He won’t go back any further. He stops and his eyes begin to fill with tears.
“Oh, Claudia, are you all right?” he whimpers. “Did he hurt you bad?”
“Hell, no, he didn’t hurt me. I think I hurt him if you want to know the truth. But it doesn’t matter. Those cops, they hurt him a lot worse. I felt a little bad for him, actually. They clubbed him hard. Police brutality, but that’s OK. He deserved it.”
Wilbo closes his eyes and the tears spill out and slide down his face. With his eyes closed it’s harder to make time behave itself. Faces and words crowd in on him and he begins to forget where he is or who he’s talking with. He opens his eyes quickly.
“Where is he now?” he asks. “I mean, Gary. What happened to him?”
“I don’t know. They beat him up and took him away in a police car. He won’t bother me again. I’m sure of that, this time. This time it’s the end.” She squeezes his hand and a current of pain shoots up his wrist. “You’re a brave man, Wilbo. That was cool, what you did. My hero.”
Wilbo feels a wave of dizziness sweep over him and at the same time a host of little thoughts comes swirling about like leaves caught in the circular eddies of a whirlwind. He wants to say something but there’s so much to say, and the thoughts don’t fit together in any conventional manner.
“Claudia,” he begins, then he pounces on one of the thoughts at random. “There’s something… there’s something behind the rock.”
Claudia doesn’t say anything. How can she? He needs to be more specific.
“There’s something behind the arch rock,” he continues. “I need to go there. When the tide is low you can almost walk to it. That’s how low it is. The tide, I mean. And the seals have come back. I mean the sea lions. Carl tells me they’re sea lions if they bark. Seals don’t bark. Carl tells me I spend too much time alone. Alone with my thoughts. That’s why I’m telling you this. There’s something behind the arch rock. I need to go there.”
Claudia squeezes his hand again. This time it doesn’t hurt. “You be quiet now, Wilbo. You’re not making any sense. Just get some rest.”
Wilbo sighs. “I know I’m not making any sense to you, Claudia. But I am making sense. My brother, Arno tells me that God is calling me. I don’t know what I think about that. Hey, I don’t even know if I believe in God. But there’s something behind the arch rock. The other night it called me. I was naked and I just went into the water. Then… I don’t know what happened, it was like it just stopped calling me…Claudia! Something started happening to me the day that I met you. I’ve just been thinking it was you. Sometimes I thought that you actually had some kind of sorcery, and you’ve been practicing it on me, deliberately, for some reason or another. Maybe just because you’re young and you wanted to try it out. Young people like to try out new things. But now, I don’t think so. In fact, lately, I’ve been thinking that you aren’t the cause of any of it.”
When he says this he feels her loosen her hold on his hand.
“I mean, you’re a part of it. You’re an element, like the salamanders or Arno, or the way I lost my mime. It’s like it’s happening to you, too, like it’s happening to both of us, like when we do that thing, that kinko syncho quinto, it’s like something bigger than the both of us takes control. And then the other night I saw something behind the arch rock, like a light or something, it was not quite visual, but it was calling me, and I was naked, and I went out into the water, but then, I don’t know, it just stopped. I… I think maybe that’s what it is, or maybe that’s where it is, behind the arch rock. I want to go there. At low tide I could almost walk there, or I could wade there, or if I had a boat…”
His words trail off. His eyes are closed now, and in his mind’s eye he sees the arch rock and the waves crashing around it, and the faint blue light glowing behind it. Then words form, but he’s not sure if he says them out loud or he just thinks them:
I have a boat!
There follows a string of images, almost like a movie. Goddamn movies! In the movie he’s dragging the boat out to the breakers. He’s naked, and he feels the cold waves splash over his naked body as the boat takes float. Quickly he hauls himself over the oarlocks into the boat and grabs the oars. At first he has to struggle hard to overcome the waves. All this time there’s this exciting, discordant music playing, like in a move when a ship is battling against a storm at sea. He finally pulls through the breakers onto the smooth glass of the sea beyond. After that it’s just effort, the sure and steady effort of rowing toward the jagged arch rock, backlit by a pale, blue, unearthly glow. The music changes. It becomes mysterious and ethereal, and woven with a velvet strand of high, wordless female voices. The music is so seductive it draws him into a world of pure sound, and little by little the visuals begin to fade. Soon he’s just floating on the music and there is nothing else. He lets himself go and rides currents of peace and bliss for a long time. Updrafts of peace and bliss elevate him and he soars above the world, slowly drifting down until he catches the next updraft. At one point in the process he thinks to himself, I’ve lost consciousness. This thought has enough arresting power that it jolts him slightly, and he opens his eyes.
The room has changed. It’s dark, for one thing, and also, there’s nobody in it. He scans the room until his eyes light on a clock. It says one o-clock, but that doesn’t tell him everything he needs to know about the time. The door opens and a person comes gliding into the room.
“Mr. Hoegarden,” says the voice, a man’s voice, “I see you’re awake.”
Wilbo tries to sit up, and is painfully reminded of his restrictions. “Oh, hi doc,” he says weakly,
“How am I doing?”
“I’m not a doc,” says the voice, “Just a nurse. Sorry, I’m not as pretty as the last nurse. I’m just here for your goodnight cocktail.”
Ok, then. It’s one A.M. The nurse starts fumbling around with something on the sideboard.
“So, how am I doing, nurse?” Wilbo repeats his question.
“Well, as a matter of fact you’re doing incredibly well,” replies the nurse as he fills a syringe. “There was absolutely no major internal damage. Of course you’re gonna have a nice scar to impress your grandchildren. Now we just gotta juice you up with antibiotics. A wound like that is an open invitation. I’m glad to see you looking so bright and chipper. You were pretty out of it earlier.”
Wilbo smiles. “Yeah. I’m in of it now.”
“That little girl that was in here today. She your daughter?”
The words sting. Wilbo doesn’t answer. He just stares straight ahead. Perhaps the sting shows on his face.
“Whoops,” says the nurse. “Guess I overstepped my professional boundaries. Here, roll over. Take your morphine.”
Wilbo rolls over and he feels the needle. After that there’s a long, dark, blank space with very little in it, maybe a few images, some criss-cross grids, a couple of treble clef signs. When he opens his eyes again it’s day, with all its sound and color. There’s someone else in the room but he can tell at a glance it’s not Claudia.
It’s Arno. He doesn’t recognize him at first. He’s got a new hairstyle, a short, croppy cut with lots of pomade, so that his whole scalp is covered with tufts of greasy hair, pointing in every direction. He wears a sleeveless vest of bleached white denim. But the weirdest thing is the earring, a single silver hoop in the left ear.
“You look different, Arno.” Wilbo says suddenly.
Arno startles slightly. Wilbo realizes that this is probably the first thing he’s said since his brother appeared on the scene. Arno shakes off his surprise and forms a benign smile, like an undertaker.
“I am different, Wilbo. I’m a new creature. I’ve been born again.”
Wilbo narrows his eyes. “Yeah, Ok. But your hair’s different, too.”
Arno doesn’t answer this but he reaches up instinctively to pat his head, as if to make sure all the spikes are in place.
“And what’s with the earring? Is that symbolic or something?”
Arno brings his hand down from his hair to his ear. “Yeah, I guess it’s symbolic. It’s like a wedding ring, except even more so. A wedding ring you can take off and your finger’s still there, just the same. But you take the earring out and you got a hole in your ear. Jesus had holes in his hands and his feet. It’s like being married to Jesus. Wilbo, we’ve got to talk. Are you awake now? Do you feel OK enough to talk?”
Wilbo looks around the room until he finds the clock. It says nine-thirty and there’s sunlight coming in the window. At least he’s got his bearings in time.
“Yeah, I’m Ok. What do you want to talk about?”
“I was here yesterday, after the surgery, but you were out cold. I just want you to know that. I came as soon as I heard. I’m your brother you know.” Arno gets up from the chair and walks to the window. He seems to be looking for something outside. He turns back to the room. “I talked to mom. I called her as soon as I got home. She seemed to be OK. I mean, she didn’t fall apart. You know mom, she doesn’t fall apart. She said, you tell Wilbo to get better and come see me. She wants us both to come see her at Christmas. So I said, mom, Wilbo doesn’t have any money. He doesn’t even have enough money to pay the hospital bill. It’s like, he doesn’t have any health insurance or anything. So she said, Oh don’t worry about that. I’ll just sell one of my stocks. You tell Wilbo don’t worry about the hospital bill. I can pay the hospital bill. I just want you two to come see me at Christmas. That’s what she said. So I guess you don’t have to worry about the hospital bill, Wilbo. Pretty cool, huh?”
Wilbo smiles a thin little smile. “You should have told me that later, Arno. I wasn’t at the point where I was starting to worry about the hospital bill yet.”
Arno sits back down on the chair. He gets a perplexed look on his face. He’s perplexed by something Wilbo said, but there’s more to it than that. It’s like a programmed perplexity, like there was something he wanted to say and he was just waiting for an opportunity to say it. Wilbo knows this but he doesn’t know why. Arno is his brother. He just knows these things about him. Arno speaks.
“I don’t want you to call me Arno anymore.”
“Why not? It’s your name.”
No, it isn’t. My name is Arnold. They call me Arnie. Your name is William. They call you Will. Will and Arnie. Those are our true names. The names we were given. Those were our names before we sinned. That day when we became Wilbo and Arno. That was the day we first sinned.”
Something like a bolt of blue light, like the light behind the arch rock, illuminates Wilbo’s mind for just a flash when Arno says this. He speaks at once. Perhaps at another, more guarded time he would have weighed his thoughts and stopped the words.
“That’s not true, Arno. You have to change your name. More than once. The background changes and you have to change your name to fit the background. It’s like Little Big Man. Maybe we aren’t Wilbo and Arno anymore, but we aren’t going back to Will and Arnie. We’re becoming something else.”
Arno sighs. “You’re not making any sense, Wilbo. I’m sorry I brought it up.”
Wilbo’s exasperation is almost tactile, like a fluid surging through his veins. “I’m tired of hearing that I’m not making any sense. That’s what Claudia said, too. I’m making more sense now than I’ve ever made before.”
“You’re not making any sense, Wilbo. I’m sorry I brought it up, about the names. We can talk about it later. Besides, there are other things we need to talk about. Practical things that need to be addressed right now. Like where are you gonna go next? You just can’t go back and live in that little shack again.”
These words infuriate Wilbo, and his fury sends an instinctive signal to his body to get up and start pacing around the room. But the moment the signal reaches his muscles, even before they can respond, a jagged blade of pain rips through his stomach. It’s like he’s feeling his injury for the first time. This only infuriates him all the more, and he has to take several deep gulps of air to calm his nerves so the pain can subside.
“What’s the matter with the shack, as you call it?” he says at last.
Arno lifts his arms and drops them to his sides with a slapping sound. “Oh, come on, Wilbo, you’re living in the eighteenth century, can’t you see that? You’ve been attacked. This is the modern world. These are the end times. The world’s gone mad. People are totally out of control. People need the Lord, but they’re not all gonna find Him. That’s sad, but true. We have to face it. You can’t live in a shack on the beach without a lock on the door, without a telephone, without even electricity or running water, without a gun at least.”
Wilbo grabs rapidly at the waves of rage that are flying at him and tries to funnel them into someplace safe, where they can’t hurt him. This requires considerable deep breathing, as words form slowly in his mind.
“Arno… is that what this new religion thing has done for you? It’s made you into a neurotic paranoid. It’s stolen away your trust and love for the world. And this is what you’d like for me to embrace? I’m sorry, Arno. I’m not going there. I’m going back to my little shack as soon as I’m strong enough.” A wisp of memory of voices singing drifts through his mind. “And I will never own a gun.” he adds.
Arno is silent for a while. It seems like maybe this little speech has had some effect on him. He bows his head and folds his hands. Perhaps he’s in prayer.
“Well… at least you shouldn’t go back right away. You’re gonna need some time to heal, even after you get out of the hospital. Won’t you think about coming and staying with me for awhile, or if not with me… maybe you’ve got a friend that you like better.”
This remark causes Wilbo’s feelings to shift, just a little. Well, shucks ,he thinks, I’ve hurt the poor little bastard’s feelings. But that’s OK. Let him stew in it for a while. He’s got some growing up to do.
“Yeah, OK, Arno, I’ll think about that one. We’ll see how I feel when they let me out of this place. The doctor says I’m doing remarkably well.”
After that neither of them speaks. Wilbo begins to feel a wave of weariness, mixed with nausea. He closes his eyes. Immediately an image appears on the inside of his eyelid. It’s a picture he remembers staring at, many times as a child; a stormy sea, three stars-Orion’s Belt- shine weakly in the distant sky. In the near distance, a sinking ship; in the foreground, a bearded man struggling against the waves. Then there’s Jesus, standing right on top of the ocean, his body bathed in light, his red robes dancing in the wind, reaching down, pulling the shipwrecked sailor out of the water to safety.
Eventually the picture disintegrates into a warm, comfortable darkness and he falls into a deep peaceful sleep. When he awakes he’s clear-headed and feeling fully cognizant of his position in space and time. The clock on the wall says six and the color of the light says PM. There’s someone else in the room, a nurse- the same nurse as the night before. He’s bringing a tray of food. It smells like cardboard and brown gravy from a package mix, but nonetheless, Wilbo feels his appetite stir.
“No more hard drugs for you, Mr. Hoegarden,” says the nurse. “You’re on your way to recovery. It’s solid food from now on.” He sets the tray on the extended table by the bed. It bears some kind of white meat with a pad of mashed potatoes and peas and a soft white dinner roll. “Oh, yeah, and there’s a package for you. Came in the mail this afternoon.” He sets the package down on the tray next to the food.
The package is obviously a book, wrapped loosely in a salvaged grocery bag bound with twine. The paper is torn open to expose the title. It occurs to Wilbo, this is not the condition in which this arrived. The hospital must censor all incoming reading material.
He rips off the remaining shreds of paper and frees the book from its bodice of twine. A paperback, obviously used and often read. Eric Hoffer: The True Believer. The nurse leans over inquisitively.
“Religious book, huh?” But Wilbo can’t answer because a wave of tenderness has made his eyes go teary. He blinks to regain his vision, then he opens the book to read the inscription.
I’M SORRY I WON’T COME TO SEE YOU. HOSPITALS GIVE ME THE CREEPS. BUT MAYBE THIS IS YOUR OPPORTUNITY TO READ THIS BOOK. GET BETTER BUDDY; I’LL SEE YOU SOON.
Ps: if nothing else, it’s a good way to meet girls.
The nurse senses the moment. “Well, enjoy your food then,” he says. “I’ll check in on you later.”
That night after ravenously devouring a meal of bland white hospital food, Wilbo reads The True Believer from cover to cover. It takes him until 3:47 AM and his attention never leaves the page. It’s not that he is all that much interested in the subject matter, or that he feels any great investment in Hoffer’s train of thought. To be honest, he finds Hoffer’s style of writing rather maddening. The man uses expressions like the great leader, the true believer, men of conviction and passion. But he’s obviously talking about something negative, something bad for us, a dire warning of a great danger. Yet he won’t commit himself to his role as a lone prophet crying out in the wilderness. It’s all so objective. Some new little Hitler could just as well get a hold of this book and use it as a guidebook to fashion some brand new mass movement!
But these thoughts don’t matter. What he feels the strongest in those chocolate-rich hours between 6:30 PM and 3:47 AM is the living presence of Carl Rogers, sitting next to him, perhaps staring into a fire, into the wee hours of the morning, sharing a mug of Tawny Port, talking about ideas, books, people, anything at all, talking in slow comfortable tones to a background of waves and wind.
At 3:47, when Wilbo finishes the book, he turns to the back sleeve and reads about the author.
At age seven, and for unknown reasons, Hoffer went blind. His eyesight inexplicably returned when he was fifteen. Fearing he would again go blind, he seized upon the opportunity to read as much as he could for as long as he could. His eyesight remained, but Hoffer never abandoned his habit of voracious reading. He was completely self-educated.
There is no picture of the author on the sleeve but there is an odd little space above the writing, where a picture should be. Wilbo stares at this space until a picture of Carl Rogers appears there. When it does, he allows the book to drop to his chest and he falls into a deep peaceful sleep.