Book One: King of the Divan

 

            1

            He’d stared so long, so fixedly ahead, that all he perceived before him was a dark oval, suspended in a gauzy white shape, with the shape on another field of white. Perhaps minutes had passed. Perhaps hours.

            He blinked, and the oval reverted into the rim of a teacup that sat atop a saucer. The saucer rested on a white laminate lap board, itself attached to an arm on the side of Toomey’s bed and swung round over his prostrate middle.

            Things hurt. His knees. His ribs, the left side especially, and more so as he breathed. In the center of his chest he felt as if he’d received a great smack: a thudding blow which left the breastbone tender. (There had certainly been that). Beneath a dressing on his face, he discerned, lay either a sizeable cut, or bruise, or both.

            He tested the tea with a finger, and was surprised to find a trace of warmth. Pick up the tea. Take a drink of the tea. His hand responded, and raised the cup to his lips. Wait. There had been cookies. He held the cup suspended at his mouth, frozen, and addressed the question of the cookies’ flavor. A flexing of the tongue against the back of the front teeth, a compression against the molars, of saliva, a few quick open-and-close smacks of the lips. Quite easy, really.

            Ginger snaps.

            He looked at the plate, cup still poised. The tip of his tongue, tracing the grooves of his molars, confirmed the discovery. There had been four of them on the plate, maybe five. That he’d eaten them was beyond doubt; there were crumbs on his upper chest, and a finger swept slowly around the corners of his mouth noted a few on the lips. Yet having eaten them, he felt it a shame to have missed the experience. He drank. The last bit of warmth came with the initial swallow, but he drank half the cup slowly, then replaced the cup on the saucer.

            A lie.

            The wall in front of his bed was white as well, so he turned his head to the left. There was only a window, blinds closed. Turning slowly back to the right, he saw another bed. It was identical to his but had an IV cart alongside it, and a chair at its foot. Beyond it, adjacent the room’s door was a long counter underneath which was either a dresser or drawers of equipment. The cabinets above the counter completed the room’s furnishings.

            It was warm in the room, yet Toomey couldn’t muster the energy to lower the blanket from his chest. What was he dressed in? Some sort of gown, it appeared, or coverall. He shifted in the bed but couldn’t tell if garment was of one piece or two. He flexed his distant toes.

            A woman entered the room briskly, and was at his bed before the door finished closing.

            “Mr. Toomey. Ten o’clock. I’ll notify Dr. Keegan that you’ve awakened. How are you feeling? Was the tea good?” She wrapped a velcro cuff around his right wrist and, reaching under the bed, raised upward a monitor with four blue screens. She unrolled a cord from the side of the apparatus and plugged it into a small jack on the cuff’s wire frame. The machine started itself with a flutter, and began issuing a soft whirring. The attendant tapped a key lightly to lower the screens’ glare to a dim glow.

            “Your SCAN node?” she asked, reaching for his other wrist.

            “Don’t have one,” said Toomey.

            She paused at hearing this, but only for a second.

            “Okay, then.” She collected the cup and saucer, swung the lap tray back down flush with the bedside, and left as quickly as she’d entered, turning off the room’s light as she went out.

            He looked at the monitor and the questions came. Why had he not been able to summon them while she was here? There was a feeling then, a feeling that the woman, and all others like her–that is to say, everyone else, everyone–were continuing on in their routines, in their lives, and however routine that march might be, they were slogging onward. He, by contrast, felt himself pushed to the side of the woman’s path, where she–  and again, everyone–continued the march, whatever march animated them, and toward whatever point.

Toomey shuffled back toward the file. He wanted to re-enter, indeed, tried to do so, but it was no use. The procession moved forward, and as his own forward progress slowed again and stopped he felt the air around him close in, congeal, and harden. The hardness held him fast. He could discern neither its nature nor source, but he did know that whatever it was, once he broke through it he’d be able to move again. To be back in the procession. And things wouldn’t be confusing anymore, and they wouldn’t hurt.

            How restful. How welcoming.

            A monstrous lie.

            Toomey slept.

 

            Wednesday was not a bad day. It had been a good day. It was TV Day; Toomey was pretty sure of it. He didn’t feel like watching TV. What he wanted to do was sit by the window, in his chair, sit by the heating grille, and if Bozeman would keep quiet and let him, he’d think.

            He’d think and he’d rub his hands slowly over each other, feeling the knuckles, feeling the taut sinew. His wrists. His forearms. There was so much to feel. And out the window. There was much there, too. The exercise yards were covered over with snow, the parking lots beyond the yards, the sloping hill with its driveway bending down onto a highway (he supposed). His window faced out onto the side of the main building, so unless there were calisthenics underway or maintenance being performed, or a person out for a walk, there wasn’t an awful lot of movement.

            He could look out and see the bushes along the exercise yard's adjacent sidewalks, and could see the scalloped inlets in the shrubs. From each inlet rose a single tall oak, its bark grooved into shallow vertical furrows. This was the place, the center semicircular inlet, where Bozeman had pointed out the family of wrens nesting among the knotty branches.

            “You can tell they’re wrens,” he’d said. “They’ve got a big white streak across their upper eyebrow.”

            But Toomey had already known that.

            Mario came in, catching the handle of the wheelchair on the doorjamb with a bang, and told Toomey it was TV Day, come on, TV Day.

            Toomey looked at Mario slowly, looked out the window, then back at Mario.

            “Do I have to go?” he asked haltingly.

            “You have to,” said Mario. “C’mon. Lots of good things on today. Let’s go.”

            Toomey thought for a moment. He’d just been about to knit his fingers and slowly stretch his arms out, forward, maybe raise them over his head in an arc, working his shoulders, then lower them again.

            His expression must have shown his reluctance, but Mario had seven other people to convey to the dayroom, in various states of willingness. There wasn’t time for a lot of negotiation. He hiked the wheelchair forward, toward the bed, and swung it around to receive Toomey. He picked up the man in one motion, under the armpits, hands firmly against the ribcage, and stood him on his feet. Toomey looked into impassive eyes. The eyes said to move.

            He wasn’t quick enough, so Mario clapped his hands around Toomey’s shoulders and half-hauled him to the chair. He sat him down, releasing him with a brief but marked pinch to the shoulders that elicited a small yelp.

            Down the hall they went, Toomey crying tears of hurt, his face reddening, ashamed.

 

            Two days later, with the sun appearing in spite of the forecasts otherwise, glaring as if to fox the snow and the season, the door to Toomey’s room opened. Bozeman, grumbling, was ushered out. After a moment a man and woman entered the room. The hallway lights were too bright. He could see only two silhouettes until the door closed behind the pair and they sat down across from him. Both tall. Both handsome. Toomey thought they smelled of soap. He wanted to urinate.

            “Mr. Toomey? Randall?” asked the man, nodding his head slightly in the affirmative. “I’m Dr. Glass, and this is Dr. Foley.” The woman nodded her head and smiled. They waited.

            “Two?” Toomey managed.

            “I’m sorry?..” began Dr. Glass.

            “Two?” he repeated. “Two of you?”

            Dr. Glass thought for a moment, his pen laid against his cheek, then his colleague spoke.

            “I’d like a cocoa or something anyway,” she said. “You two can talk. I’ll be back.”

            Toomey watched her leave. His eyes settled on the remaining doctor, who had pulled off his shearling jacket and was laying it across the now-vacant chair. He was young.

            “Well, let’s not stand on ceremony,” he finally said. “I’m here, Randall, to see how you’re feeling.”

            Toomey looked past the doctor, into the wall locker. His shirts were hung, unpressed, they looked like hell, but they were hung. Pants the same. A clump of dirty clothes sat in the bottom, spilling out slightly onto the floor. His loafers sat in front of the pile, pointing at him, not very polished at all, and they sat uneasily, it seemed to him, on the nubby beige carpet. The loafers seemed sad.

            “Randall?”

            The doctor hadn’t really shaved that morning, or if he had he’d done a halfway job of it. Toomey traced the short whiskers down the line of the jaw, over the adam’s apple. Dr. Glass had a prominent adam’s apple. And he wanted to know what Randall thought of the room, it was all right, yes?

            “Hold on.” Toomey stepped into the room’s toilet for a moment. That was better. Back out again, and Dr. Foley had returned. She was collecting Dr. Glass, then the two were smiling, then leaving. They’d be back, yes, oh, Dr. Glass and Randall could speak again. The two were gone.

Giddyup go Plymouth for ’65!” Toomey laughed, or maybe he only thought it.

            Soap in the room.