He had been waiting in the doctor’s office for so long he had begun to forget his symptoms. They had all been there initially: a dry mouth with matter like lint stuck to the roof and tongue, swollen polyps or adenoid, the occasional burning flash up the spine, a storm in the colon, a knot in the chest, a numbness around the fingertips, occluded vision, migraine, chills. It was with great difficulty that he got up from his slab on the floor, then put some clothes on and caught a taxi. He thought he might not survive the trip: zones of dots were charging at him, objects in his field of vision would abruptly swell or shrink. The world was sliding and shaking him off. He was a goner, and he felt himself getting smaller with each number that lit up over the elevator doors. But now he’d sat in the cramped, overly lit room for hours and all he felt was restless. He was nauseous, but only from the fluorescent lights and the pile of magazines with their covers torn off.
Actually, it was more and more as if he’d ceased having a body. That body was only provisionally his anyway. He knew it belonged to him when it kicked up or broke down, when he woke up at night and knew he was desperately ill. The rest of the time it was a prosthesis, a false foot. He was a false foot. When he wandered around another body in a strange room he knew it to be manipulation from without. He and the body were just dumb agents then, he was there only to be stuck with the damages. Now and then he could watch his body in action distant from him, not even connected by an umbilic of protoplasm but like watching his car drive itself. Even his dreams were merely narrated to him by something else. He would reach for some change: his pocket was being picked. He’d scratch himself: he was being goosed.
But his body, ill or not, had sent him to the room in which he now sat, and for a purpose. Perhaps this was the way of medicine, his body and the absent physician having a tacit agreement to dupe him into panic and then out of it so that he could appreciate that body as a luxury dwelling after all. He was to leave, then, and feel renewed, breathe deeply, walk five miles, make resolutions for the future. Just then the doctor walked into the room,
He was a tall man with a large head whose button eyes made it look like a mask. The doctor silently ushered him into an adjoining consultation room, then passed a hand down the front of his lab coat and pointed to the padded table. So he made himself naked and prone, and tried to formulate his complaint, but the symptoms were now garbled memories and he felt like a liar. He said nothing, and the doctor still said nothing, palpating his chest, his limbs, his throat, peering into his mouth, his eyes, probing his pain centers with a fingertip.
At length the doctor made a curt motion, and so he stood up and dressed. The doctor scribbled three indecipherable lines on a pad, and before he knew it he was going down in the elevator, clutching the scrip. No words had been spoken. He had never consulted the doctor before; it was the chance reference of a chance acquaintance, he could scarcely remember who. He felt slightly dizzy in the street, and his eyes hurt as if he’d emerged from a tunnel.
He decided to walk home. It was a weekday morning. Watching people go in and out of stores, buy newspapers, hang around, he felt a bit astonished that this kind of activity could go on while he was normally walled into his job. He almost expected to find the streets hushed and depopulated. While he knew that the world didn’t come to a stop when he did, at night, for example, he remembered the sensation of leaving class in the middle of a period in school. The halls were empty, the grounds deserted. His game was that he was the sole survivor of a catastrophe, and he could do anything he chose with the ruins. Now he felt as though he were still being tested, let loose in a world where the shoppers and idlers were all agents of the silent doctor. It was a play city expensively simulated to observe his demeanor within it. What would happen if he turned and walked the other way, or threw the scrip in the gutter? He would freeze in place; the curtain would drop; a great box would lift its lid.
He walked into a drugstore, straight back to the prescription counter, where he handed the slip of paper to a chinless man with tinted glasses. To his great surprise, the order was filled immediately. It cost almost exactly what he had in his pocket. They were large, transparent spansules, maybe 30 or 40 of them, identified on the label by an unintelligible Latinate abbreviation.
Back home, he poured them all out on his table and counted them, lined them up, arranged and rearranged them. He looked at them and speculated, spilled their insides and combed through the powder. He tried standing them on end. Then he took himself by surprise and popped two.
The drugs slowly awake in us as we do ordinary things. We do ordinary hateful things so that the drugs will laugh at them when they awake. It is our little gift to the drugs. We offer them the hovels we live in, the morons we’ve befriended, the sickening regularity of our routines, and the drugs eat them. The drugs clean things up for us the way a photo retoucher erases acne scars. Actually, the drugs are more imaginative than the retoucher, because the retoucher would never think of improving a hideous face distinguished by a beautiful mole by making the mole the entire photo. The drugs helpfully rearrange time and space, give us laughter and dull our pain. We climb up on things because we enjoy life and want to make everyone see, then things go aslant, we gently fall over, and everything is lovely, and still lovely hours later when we stand up. Meanwhile the drugs are hard at work editing what happened to spare us the unimportant news. The drugs are a whole industry of little factota and intermediaries within us. They are better than the retinues of the famous who oil the working parts of the day. Retainers can be corrupted but drugs can never be corrupted. They are always a heartbeat away from our importance. The drugs propel us to our state of grace.
Later, we wonder who the drugs were. Their efficiency and expansion are a mystery. Later or other drugs do not necessarily recreate those personalities, and their own are just as complex. In cold light, we realize that the genius of drugs is ineffable, that their claim is nostalgia. Drugs are messengers and their service is purposely finite. Drugs are sent to us from the dead.
In a crowd, at night, the drugs might let go our hand, maybe just for a minute in the surge and the heat. The floor is very slippery from crashing drinks. There’s such a din a voice couldn’t make itself heard to call back the disappearing friend. But those are almosts, it’s very easy to part the crowd, catch up and walk around the floors and stairs in something like seven-league boots. You get taller. People go by faster and faster in sharp montage. Somebody falls and you step over, you get mysteriously punched but it’s all in the game. You’re excited because the music turns heads and you’re the one most like the music. People are saying who is that? They’re talking about you, of course. You’re the one it all refers to. All they do is attend, like shrubbery. Your eyes must be a couple of solitaires, cutting through the dark blue light from another balcony. You’ve never felt better in your life. This has been owed you, and you’ve stepped into those shoes. The moment gets longer and longer, as your hand slowly opens to enclose it.
This night will be your trophy, only you can’t show it. Nobody would understand that the ashes in the envelope were once a million dollar bill.
She was wrapped in a mummy sleeping bag on the floor, looking at the rectangle of light above out the window. At that moment an airplane was passing, no bigger than a toy, with a giant noise that seemed to have been dubbed in afterward. She was thinking of money, but kept getting confused. It was as though she were counting a pile of bills and couldn’t keep the presidents straight, having to start the count again and again. Her thought was furthermore complicated by the chills that ran through her body, painful and delicious and stopping her mind cold. The chills seemed very much like the noise of the airplane, large and disconnected, an outboard motor strapped to a canoe.
He sat on the floor cradling the phone receiver on his shoulder, listening to an endless series of rings. His hands were occupied with a bowl and a spoon, mixing up some kind of gray mush. It was pancake batter, actually. He’d figured out that pancakes cost less than almost anything, and had imposed pancakes on them as a regimen. On himself, really, since she would have none of it, boiling her vegetables almost in secret. His mixing had gone on for a long time. He would set down the spoon and dial another number and let that one ring 60 times in succession. He was thinking of nothing, or rather, his thought was stuck in a space between paragraphs, showing the last word of the last and the first word of the next, separated by tundra.
The air was slow and heavy, and it was the kind of apartment that always seemed to be in twilight time. Dead food on a plate was about to fall off a chair. He abandoned the spoon in the bowl and then dropped the receiver on the cradle. He stretched out, and his leg knocked over the bowl, which spread a lake of the batter under him and the telephone, with rivulets disappearing into the cracks between boards. It was very still, nothing but the cooing of dozens of pigeons amplified by the acoustics of the airshaft. The light faded. The pancake batter slowly solidified. Cockroaches were massed around the puddle, some of them trapped in the goo and wriggling desperately.
Slowly she came to, thinking, it’s so quiet, it’s like being in the country. She turned her head and saw his vague form parallel to hers a few feet away. She couldn’t quite think what he’d be doing there. She had a certain recollection of night, and now it was night, maybe a different one, possibly the same. Outside, a car door slammed. They were in a very big city. She could imagine the lights popping on in window after window, hundreds of thousands of cells of light gradually coming to life, like a model of the brain. It was a vast brain and it never stopped, but throbbed and ached from its throbbing and throbbed in spite of its aches. Her own head confused the thought with itself and began to hurt. Soon it hurt so much she wished she could drill a little hole in the top to let off some pressure. She reached for the telephone.