Sunday, November 06, 2005

After the Four-Color Action Has Ended

They brought the medication at 10:30 and 4:30. He knew that. They were very punctual about it. Plus, there was little else besides the less consistent meals that he could look forward to each day. He watched the light spill in his window, watched the shadows lengthen across his spare hospital room, and watched the darkness retake the room. In between, medication and meals. Very little else to do before those things but lie back and wait. Very little else to do after those things but lie back and wait.

There was a lot of lying back and waiting. Hours and days and weeks of lying back and waiting.

But it’s not like he wanted to do much else. It’s not like he could do much else. He filled his time mostly with books. There were the books his mother and his cousin had sent, and often he found himself staring at their pages.

He couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a full page of text, much less a chapter or a full book, but some of the paragraphs he quite liked. He lay there, a book open on his chest, his eyes picking their way through the orderly regiments of letters. Letters formed words, a fact he liked, and words in turn formed sentences. It all made sense to him.

Plus, when enough of those sentences joined together in as a team, they asserted themselves as a paragraph. A tight unit of unified thought. Sometimes it described action. Sometimes it meandered through a pattern of thoughts. Some mixed it up a bit with both, but in any event the paragraph was self-contained. Why read more?

He enjoyed the paragraphs on thinking more than the ones about action. The action sentences used language that was quick. It was jagged to him. It was sharp. Those passages used shorter phrases, more dynamic verbs. Maybe they were more engaging, but they were stupid, he thought, pointless. Why would someone run across a field? What would make them drive a car? To what end would they fly a kite, swim a river, or argue with their spouse? Just a lot of energy dissipating into the air, as far as he could tell. No matter how much was done, there was always more to do later. It was exhausting, and it never seemed to end. Even completing a paragraph, he realized with sadness, only implied that another one was to come.

When he thought about it too much, he felt fatigued. He tried not to think about it, to let his mind be blank. He was no less fatigued then, but at least he didn’t notice as much.

The paragraphs on thinking were different. They weren’t so concerned with achieving a concrete end. They still had things to say. She feels lonely. He wonders about the existence of God. The people hope for a good harvest, a new goat, some way to keep the Cossacks from overrunning the village. All of it happens in the head, and this he particularly liked. It was about brains, not brawn. The action paragraphs were the other way around.

Another thing he liked: The paragraphs on thinking had a different philosophical outlook. True, they also implied that things would go on and on, paragraph after paragraph. But they did so with a difference. Yes, they seemed to say, every obstacle overcome only reveals another one on the horizon. So why rush and make a lot of noise about it? Better to drift toward deeper understanding, a more varied worldview. Consider all sides. Enjoy the linkages between proposition and supposition. Ponder the relationships between statements.

All of this was a neverending puzzle box that kept his hours between meds far fuller than anyone suspected. They say him lying there, nearly motionless, day after day. They saw how he scarcely turned the pages of his books, how he ignored direct questions, how he seemed not even to notice the massive manacles that restricted his arms’ range of motion to a scant few inches.

He heard some of the staff whispering, discussing his medical chart where they stood outside his bright little hospital room. There seemed to be some disagreement between them, but he wasn’t sure why. It kept drawing his attention away from the paragraph he'd been working on all morning. Why couldn’t he be left alone to recuperate? That’s what they said he should do. Rest. Relax. Take some time off to gather his strength. They told him that he had been through quite an ordeal. That was exactly how the doctor had put it when he had woken up in this room four weeks ago: “You’ve been through quite an ordeal.”

Quite an ordeal? They had no idea. Not a single one of them would have survived it. Not even a little of it.

As he listened to the conversation on the other side of the heavy door, his thoughts were drawn away from the paragraph he had been enjoying that morning. It irritated him to be interrupted in this way. How could he not hear them? There were three speakers, he noted. Two of them he knew. The other he did not, though something about it seemed familiar. Familiar in an uncomfortable way, like a half-remembered bad dream.

“His healing is much more accelerated than expected,” Voice One said. It sounded like the day nurse who sometimes opened the blinds wider than he would have liked.

“No, this isn’t unexpected,” Voice Two corrected her. “His case isn’t typical.” This sounded like the doctor who frowned a lot but rarely said anything to him directly. “What we have to consider aren’t the physical injuries. Those are easy to mend. It’s what’s happening in his head that concerns me.”

“But as badly as he was injured—” began Voice One.

“You see how much better he is, don’t you?” Voice Two admonished. “I would remind you that this isn’t your area of expertise, it’s mine. So listen to me when I tell you that the psychological aftereffects of his injuries are the concern.”

“Of his injuries,” repeated a third voice in a tone clearly designed to show weariness.

Voice Two sounded flustered. “Well, at the … ordeal. How he received them.”

“Let me sum it up for you,” Voice Three said. This was a voice of authority, no mistake. It was no faster than the others, maybe slower, but it had a way of hurrying things. “Yes, he’s healing nicely for the most part. But the fact is he’s uncommunicative, he’s lethargic, and he seems to have lost all interest in the outside world. We have to do something about that.” Still he couldn’t place this third voice. It was low and had a nasal tone. And clearly it invited no argument.

Voice Two outlined an intensive course of drug therapy, trauma counseling, and the slow introduction into his routine of small group encounters. “He needs to see that people need him,” the voice concluded. “To show him that he’s connected to others. If that gets through, things should take care of themselves.”

“How soon will all that take?” Voice Three wanted to know.

“A few months, perhaps. Depends. Several weeks if he has a breakthrough.”

“Make it two weeks,” Voice Three insisted. “That’s all we can spare. At the outside.”

Both the doctor and nurse tried to protest, but the Voice Three cut them short. Two weeks, it was decided, was the extent of his additional recuperation. After that, he would have to be back on the job, without fail. The rest would have to come to an end.

As he listened to the conclusion, he felt anger pressing on him like a great weight. He glanced at his book, but found that he had absentmindedly crushed the heavy, leatherbound volume in his balled fist. The thick novel had been reduced to a dense kernel of wood pulp, as small and hard as a marble. Disgusted, he held it up in front of his face with two fingers. He stared intently at it and the tight sphere shimmered with heat and burst into white-hot flame. A second later, only a curl of smoke and a scattering of powdered ash remained.

More paragraphs awaited him, one after the other. None of them about thinking.