Thereʼa an intense, irritating bright light shining from the ceiling, and I can barely move… my head, yes… my shoulders and my arms, limited but yes… the rest of my body doesnʼt seem to want to move… doesnʼt want to respond to my kinetic intentions, and I canʼt speak because thereʼs a tube in my neck restricting my vocal cords… I think. Iʼm strapped to a hospital bed, supine, but Iʼm in no pain; in fact, I feel really great, light and foggy, more comforting than disconcerting by any stretch of my imagination, a roiling contentment ameliorating all anxiety and encouraging total mental and corporeal serenity.
I have no idea where I am, but Iʼm not alone… Iʼve been in this, this medical unit… (I guess itʼs medical unit)… longer than I can remember… and certain images and patterns keep repeating in my mind… my dreams… my thoughts… images like the unalterable pellucid light that continually shines from directly above me, hovering incessantly like an over-doting parent… my guardian… or guard… both calming and unnerving in its ubiquity, a single, bright, wide beam streaming straight down from an intense round bulb in a sterile room filled with chrome, white linen, and hypoallergenic instruments. Soft voices from sterile white jackets endlessly flit by in what seems like a steady stream of amicability, each dulcet affirmation reassuring in its encouragement but ominous in its lack of detail. I seem to be continually taking pills and IVs, a fastidious pharmaceutical regiment that dictates the verity of my mindʼs embracing only a few anachronistic images.
What happened to me?
Something is terribly wrong with my left leg. Itʼs swollen to twice its normal size; the outer skin blistered as if burned, and a high fever runs through it, consumes it, colors it a deep burgundy. It is so swollen, my toes look like miniature balloons filled with volatile poisons ready to burst through the taut skin. I fall in and out of consciousness… easily… dreaming an endless series of eerily similar dreams, each new dream begins with my swollen, blistered leg raised and a doctor wearing what appears to be immaculate white, plastic, aeronautic or underwater diving gear—hermetic, impersonal, impenetrable, antiseptic, which I assume is for the doctorʼs safety. Clearly, something very serious is happening. I must be highly contagious; the entire room is a bright white alter to sterility. Everything is clean, shiny, technologically sophisticated. The array of monitors is confusing, but their frenetic flashing and brilliant colors are convincing… and comforting; I must be receiving the very best of care… but why? Iʼm not rich… or worthy. Through the clear mask of the doctorʼs helmet I see her comforting, intense, passionate green eyes, and I hear unmistakable embryonic compassion in her dulcet voice.
Iʼve lost total track of time and am so affected by these goddam pharmaceuticals that I really donʼt care… about time. I just want all this shit to be over with. I miss Angela. I desperately want to heal… get better… get out of this place. It seems like Iʼm doing the exact same thing I had just done, thinking the same thoughts, living the very same moment… some… time… ago.
I am suddenly very cold… zero to the bone, violent chills painfully sprint across my immobile torso then through my extremities. White flitting nurses fly to me, covering me with warm, flocculent blankets…
I finally feel a tiny semblance of heat deep within the most distant recesses of my visceral being; the modicum of heat slowly spreads… I feel its incipient warmth encroaching radially through my torso and beyond, like a celestial chord that whistles through summer trees.
I fall asleep.
Suddenly wide awake, I rashly gasp volumes of air, intense heat expelling from my lungs as if from Vulcanʼs billows, a heavy, whistling metal-strengthening heat used by the smithy of the gods to create mythological weaponry. Again, white flitting nurses fly to my side, removing the blankets and bringing me drinks that are refreshingly cool. The heat slowly evanesces and I am reasonably comfortable; I fall asleep… again… and dream.
An old, console television set turns off. The tiny white spec in the middle of the screen slowly dissipates until it finally, almost imperceptibly, disappears, leaving behind a subtle fog that turns into a silvery, dusty moth, fluttering in slow motion within another more pallid light; this misty illumination slowly morphs into the sterile lamp that floats above my supine body.
The pharmaceutical schedule I maintain doesnʼt seem to be helping my leg at all, but it does cradle my consciousness in a satin pillowcase that makes dreaming a premium recreation. Even so, the repetitive series of dreams remind me of my youth and a similar theme of benign, looping iteration.
I am with high school buddies Andy Perry and Tom Robinson, in Tomʼs apartment doing hits of nitrous oxide. Andy and Tom sit across from me and are staring, ready to observe how the gas will affect me. Suddenly, I shoot out of my body like a bullet. The deliquescent room slides into an amorphous stream of fuzzy images, streaking vertically, but Tom and Andy remain in focus as the smeared walls speedily pass by, aging in time, frenetically slipping by like a blurred photograph taken at high speeds. I am journeying to the very zenith of our terrestrial boundary, and as I thrust ever higher, Tom and Andy smile ever increasingly at me. My path is true.
Just before I reach the zenith of our sublunary existence, my body aggressively ricochets straight down with the same intensity and speed. Iʼm rapidly falling back toward reality. Andy and Tom, still in focus, slowly lose their smiles as I flash past the point of origin. I am now streaking towards the nadir of terrestrial existence, and as I sink further into oblivion, my anxieties increase.
Despair tightly grips my chest and I plangently cry out in emotional pain, but just as suddenly, I rebound back upwards, reliving the previous journey towards the zenith, only this time I journey just a bit higher, and the smiles of my friends become more intense, as if in recognition that I am about to break on through to the other side and discover reality. Iʼm ecstatically laughing, screeching in delight. This is incredible. My stomach has left my body and I am riotously chaotic. Spent. I will soon understand the Universe… the vast… Universe.
I suddenly stop then shoot back down toward the nadir of existence, again, crashing back into the darkness of ignorance and superstition, coming closer to the end just as I had come so close to what, in retrospect, must have been the beginning. Again, I shoot back upward, the room still a blur and my friends still in focus. I come even closer to the riotous zenith. Back down I plummet, and the yo-yo effect continues, each time getting closer to the zenith as to the nadir, reliving the dichotomous gamut of emotions with each directional change. When I reach the highest point, the point at which I am about to enter into the realm of reality, I see my two friends frown at the realization that I am denied entrance into whatever reality I errantly thought I was destined to discover by unknowable forces beyond our understanding. I see a dingy subtle misty cloud slowly metamorphose into a silvery, dusty moth that instantly flies away. Suddenly, I shoot back downward. Each journey from the zenith to the nadir becomes shorter and less intense until the yo-yo journey finally returns me to my original state. When I come back to myself, at the original point of departure, I look at Tom and Andy who are smiling radiantly at me. They donʼt know the details of the journey I had just taken, but they can tell that I had just concluded a powerful trip.
The dream series continues as I lay in the rigid hospital bed, but semi-lucid thoughts from my past are now commingling with images of my dream series: the wretched leg, flitting white jackets, chrome, and visual monitors with kaleidoscopic symbols convulsing on myriad screen monitors. I think about my youth: Right after I graduated from high school I got a job at a nursing home as an assistant to the men in the Maintenance Department. Mr. Thackery was the head maintenance man; Sonny and Jack worked under him. Mr. Thackery and Sonny were Vietnam vets, and where Mr. Thackery was a no nonsense kind of worker, Sonny was never without a joke. Jack was older, a veteran of WWII, retired from the U.S. Navy. Jack was also an alcoholic. Although everyone knew it, no one mentioned it because Jack was relatively harmless. All he did was fix the wheelchairs for the residents in a closet that was just big enough for him and the chair he was working on. Jack stayed in the closet-room until the end of the day, mostly incapacitated in a ever-expanding, wan fog, drinking liquor and fixing wheelchairs.
The images of Jack slowly evanesce into a wavering dream journey, and I melt once again into flocculent somnolence… to dream the eternal nightmare that Hamlet dreads and King Lear curses.
Gently, I am awake… from the dream, again, the television setʼs being turned off. Pellucid light from the angry lamp above shines down steadily, intensely onto my red swollen, blistered, peeling leg. The frenetic monitors flash meaningless symbols, benevolent in their color, and white coats flit like colorless butterflies around the equipment. The doctor looks at me with her intense, compassionate eyes. She puts her finger over the hole in my trachea, and I realize that I can now speak.
“Whatʼs up?” I whisper.
“Well, weʼre about to try another antibiotic. Hopefully, this one will work.”
“This infection seems to be a humdinger.”
“Yes, weʼve never seen anything like it before.”
“Really? Have you consulted any other doctors?”
I suddenly notice the CDC on her lapel.”
“Iʼm sorry, son. Weʼre your final appeal.”
“How long have I been here?”
“Shhh. I need to run this final test.”
The word final floats above my mindʼs eye like the words spoken to Alice from the hookah-toking caterpillar in Wonderland; the pharmaceutical effects help the word dance to the beat of my heart. I know that the doctor is doing her best, but what if she isnʼt good enough. If this is the final test, I will either awaken with my leg propped up and the curing process in its initial stages, or I will dream of the television setʼs being turned off for one final time.
More mind-mending medicine easily eases the anxiety that has been fluttering through me like a mindless butterfly. I think of Jack… fixinʼ wheelchairs… bibulously sippinʼ lethean amnesia. Jack spent the latter part of his adult life incognizant of the world around him. Drunk. Unaware that Death was silently waiting. A dusty moth summons me back to my dream, but before I let myself slip into the journey, I think once more about Jack… and envy his drunken ignorance.
By Rusty Taylor © 2005