hush

On a Wednesday afternoon, not a cloud in the sky, I made my move—lying down in the middle of the street. I curled myself into a neat little ball, slowly rocking at first, back and forth, gently. Then stopped rocking. The pavement hot under my flank, I very soon was perfectly and completely still. And very cold. A lot of people seemed to be gathering and quickly, but I was still as death, eyes wide open and fixed vacantly straight ahead. Quite a crowd gathering. A beautiful late summer day. I felt I would lie down, in the road, and not move from there. I felt I would stay there, still as death, until I was myself gone or else forcibly moved. I felt somehow this was the only way things could be.

It had struck at a seemingly arbitrary moment. The pulling, the irresistible pulling on what I would only describe as the nucleus of my being…the epicenter of my self was pulled down with a tremendous weight, like an elephant brought to the cold hard ground by a thousand piercing barbs. Something massive brought down by hundreds and thousands of spears hurled into its side; something like an elephant, or a rhino, harvested for its tusks. My fall was flat and non-percussive, however. And while quite the crowd had gathered, I myself was no elephant. No rhino. In reality, small. Thin. Gaunt, even. An ignoble beast. My falling made no sound, I’m sure. It was not a dignified falling, either, I’m sure. Simply walking along one day—a Wednesday—I fell to the pavement, like a sack full of hollow stones—rather silently and with not much impact. The harpoons tethered to my heart, however, pulled with high speed and tension; I felt myself hit the ground harder than I’d likely appeared to. I didn’t feel like moving then. I felt I would stay there, instead. However long.

What it was that hit me, however, I’m afraid I can’t identify. Just something forceful and somehow, cold; a phrase danced on my lips, but did not escape. I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words—the cold, fricative whisper that pierced my senses and punctured my heart. Brought me down like an elephant. A phrase; several words; a sentence; something I could not recite even if the apparent shock that had overtaken my body hadn’t presently confined me to a neat little ball, lying perfectly, deathly still. A chill of words cruelly danced on my lips, which parted slightly to show my teeth, gritted shut. A peculiar chill of words that had first danced in my brain, then in and out of the exit wounds of my heart and in-between all those barbs and spears. Now on my lips, I only felt cold and perfectly unable to broadcast the simplest human form of expression to define the chill in any concrete terms; no language, no movement or indication would suffice; even if I’d scrawled the words in chalk alongside myself, nothing would be an adequate vessel to translate it.

A crowd had gathered, car horns honking impatiently and men and women and children pointing, whispering. Perplexed, annoyed, unnerved or otherwise inconvenienced at my stillness on the ground and my complete lack of intent to move. I was still as death, and they were volatile as life—wondering and raving and questioning and shouting in no organized manner. All at once, a symphony of confusion; as the piece progressed, however, the crowd and the noise from it became more that of a mob. Disorganized, still confused, but taking shape steadily to resemble a sort of hive-mind—a hive-mind that howled in unison like a pack of dogs. Shouting. Whispering. Honking. Barking. And my ignoble, unmoving frame at the center of it.

“Sir,” one man dressed like me said, kneeling down and speaking in a hushed tone, “What’s the matter? You’re blocking traffic. You should move, before you get hurt.”

“I can’t move,” I said, my voice hollow and empty. It seemed to lack weight, my voice. Just more hollow stones spilled to the pavement. Each one exited like blood.

“Why not?”

“I can’t tell you,” I said.

“Why can’t you tell me?” The man was beginning to show signs of irritation.

“Because,” I said, and stopped, realizing I had nothing more to say to him. The man looked to be in his mid-30’s, like me, and he wore a white dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his tan jacket slung over his left shoulder and a bead of sweat on his brow. But I had nothing to say to him, and certainly, nothing I said to him would carry any meaning. I was meaningless. A meaningless, neat little ball. Still as death. I couldn’t translate or even begin to hush that fricative, cold whisper that danced on my lips. For a moment, my mind wandered: what would happen, I wonder, if I were to let that cold whisper spill too from my body? Whatever it was, it tasted bitter. It tasted like biohazard. Cold and radioactive. He couldn’t understand, unless I were to spill those words from my lips– allow him to wither and die alongside me. I supposed. And as long as this was the case, I thought, I would be lying there on the street, until men in white coats piled out of an ambulance and wheeled me off, snug and secure in their butterfly net. What else is to be done with a man who very suddenly shuts down, curls into a neat little ball, and feels a complete inability to move from his spot on city pavement?

The 30-something man knelt back down, said, “Sir, there’s a crowd gathering. I’m sure you don’t want me to call the police—have them physically remove you?” He tried to look into my eyes, but my eyes, but they were too vacant. Set perfectly still in the optic cavity, aimed dead ahead. At nothing. They were open, glassy. Nothing could look in, and nothing could get out. “Sir.” The man tried to get my attention, snapping his fingers and clapping his hands. “Sir! Listen to me. You can’t just lie down in the middle of a busy street. Do you hear me?”

By now, the throng of onlookers had multiplied—at least fifty people crowded around, cars pulled off at odd angles and children pointing and laughing. Dogs barking. Car horns honking. A real spectacle, it seemed. They were all crowded around in a circle, and a woman stepped forward through the barricade of bodies, attempted to look in my eyes and said, “He’s right, sir. You need to move. You’re making people late for work. People have places they need to be. You have to move. Please, sir.”

“That won’t work,” another man said, pushing his way through to the front. “He’s obviously nuts. It’s like one of those guys who threatens to jump from a bridge. We need to talk him down, is all.”

“And how do we do that?” another woman asked, throwing her hands in the air. “Is anyone here a psychiatrist? Or a hostage negotiator? No? Then let’s just call the damn cops! I have a meeting at 9:00.”

“She’s right,” a teenage boy chimed in.

“What do you know? You’re just a kid. Tell you what: give me five minutes alone with him, and whether he moves himself or I have to move him, your problem’ll be solved.” He began to usher the crowd back. “Step aside, now.”

The 30-something man broke in, “No! He’s obviously unwell. We need to treat him with a little more consideration. You can’t just go and manhandle a sick person.”

“Bullshit! He’s tying up traffic. At this rate, the cops won’t be here for another 20 minutes. I’ll take care of it.”

“Leave him be,” another woman said. “That guy’s right. Let’s just try to talk some sense into him until the police get here.”

But their words were all moot. They meant nothing to me. I felt I would lie there, perfectly still, and that nothing would change that. That cold phrase still dancing cruelly across my lips. I supposed it would take the force of fifty men to lift my body from its spot on the pavement—I felt so heavy, pulled down by a tremendous force onto that small spot in the road. Cold and intent not to move at all, I was–I supposed–stuck. That it might not be a question of intent at all was only now dawning on me. I supposed, for all that weight pulling me down, I was indeed stuck. And like biohazard, also contagious. I felt all women and children ought to back away. Clear the area.

Car horns honked in a delirious cacophony of confused street noise; the career-driven businessmen and women pacing in frustration. I couldn’t blame them. As far as they knew, I was just some basket-case—a mentally disturbed nobody threatening to jump from a bridge. Maybe that’s exactly what I am, my mind wandered. I certainly had no intention of inconveniencing anyone. It was simply unavoidable—inevitable—that something like this would happen. All the weight pulling at my heart—my nucleus—had probably been pulling for some time. I’d probably walked down this road many times carrying it, bearing the weight and the barbs. Today, however, was different. Today, I felt I would lie down and not move a muscle. And so, I didn’t. In time, I supposed, I couldn’t. And I still felt I should be regarded a disease—a biohazard or a human radiation. In a perfect world, my body would shrivel up and blink away, or else some apparatus would lift it—perfectly still and rigor-mortised—up and away somewhere from all the commotion. There was a certain guilt for having fallen, then and there. Then, a complete disregard. Before I could feel too guilty for becoming spectacle, I retreated into myself some more, and things around me became a bit muted. I supposed this might be death. Or a variety of it.

But the cold phrase dancing on my lips was not death; it tasted bitter, poisonous even, but not like death. It was, I suppose, a pearl of nihilistic wisdom—one that said in its own cold, fricative way, that what I needed to do that day, then and there in the middle of the street, was to simply lie down…and not move…and not be moved. And if others tried to, I felt they may well find themselves lying down in their own neat little balls—perfectly still and dead—alongside me. Maybe it’s just too heavy and too cold for me to really care, I wondered…

“…what’s your name?” the first man with the tan jacket asked, kneeling back down. His voice had softened. His words were deliberate, and they nuzzled up close to me. He was trying to play me. Trying to get on with his day and the inconvenience by being kind and understanding, if just for a moment. But I had no intention of playing his game. I felt more and more like the common cold; a human contagion ready to spread. “Just tell me your name, sir. Who are you? Why are you doing this?”

Now, it seemed, the group think had shifted strategic mental gears. And the leader of the three-ring circus was the man with the tan jacket slung over his shoulder, poking and prodding as fumblingly and gently as he could to engage me in something resembling a dialogue. To talk me off this supposed ledge. Everyone has their reasons. People have places to go…other people to see. And I moved more towards not caring with every word hushed to me. Towards contagion.

“I won’t tell you my name,” I said finally. “And I won’t play games with you.”

“You won’t play games?” another man blurted out. “What the fuck are you talking about, buddy? You’re the one playing the damn games around here! You want attention, is that it? Well, you’ve got it. So now what?”

The man with the tan jacket slung over his shoulder turned to shoot the other man a dirty look, said, “I’m not playing games, sir. The cops will be here soon enough. I’m just trying to see if—“

“If you can get me to move, right?” I interrupted. “To see if you could save yourself a little inconvenience, go on with your life and your work day and all your perfect little things…” Hollow stones of words spilled out like blood from my lips, and only as I heard them myself was I taken aback. A human contagion.

“It’s nothing like that, sir,” he said. “I’m just…”

“Curious?” I interrupted.

The man with the tan jacket looked sullen, then smirked a little bit, kind of nervously, and said, “…I guess. Yes. I’m just curious. Why would a person do something like this?”

“That, I can’t tell you,” I said. It seemed the man with the tan jacket at least, did have a legitimate claim to conversation. Either that, or he was simply a ghoul…a rubbernecked motorist gawking at a dead and twisted thing on the side of the road. With vacant eyes fixed straight ahead, I added, “…And you don’t want to know.”

“Yes, I do,” he said. “Really. Tell me. Why are you doing this?”

I supposed there was no harm in a man slowing down to gawk at a train wreck. I supposed, there was no harm in entertaining him. “Really. You don’t,” I said at last.

“Why? Is it really so horrible?”

“Yes.”

“We’re talking in circles,” he said, “You and me, just you and me, now. Forget about everyone else.” He looked over his shoulder, looked back, and continued, “What is it?”

But it was impossible to oblige. I couldn’t separate his face from the fleshy mass of onlookers and gawkers. I saw the mob as one; one big, cancerous mass. “If I talk to you,” I said, “I talk to them too. And I can’t be held responsible.”

“For what?”

“For what might happen…,” I said.

The man with the tan jacket wiped some sweat from his brow. “Sir, listen to me,” he said, grasping my shoulder with his right hand, “nothing is going to happen. It’s all in your head,” he said, swallowing and proceeding in a whisper, as if his words were not fit for the rest to hear, “…you’re sick. That’s all.”

“I know I’m sick. And I know it’s all in my head. That’s just the problem.” My words were hollow stones dropped to the ground. I kept looking straight ahead through dead, glassy eyes. I could feel my contagion starting to spread.

“You need help, sir. Help is coming.” The man with the tan jacket rose to his feet, stepped back, and checked his watch.

“I’m sick of this!” another man shouted. He dropped down to the pavement, on his hands and knees, and peered into my glassy eyes. “Listen you little shit, either you get your ass up, or I’m gonna move you myself. And you don’t want that.” He jammed his index finger into my forehead. Poked and prodded. Back to his feet, he gave a half-hearted kick to my shoulder and moved away.

I felt the inexplicable, cold phrase that had been dancing across my lips begin to spill out onto the pavement. The crowd was settling down. Still staring dead ahead, at nothing, the cacophony of confused and frustrated whispers, shouts, the horns honking and even the dogs barking died out; at first more bluntly muted, then muted some more. And then silent altogether…the symphony ended, or myself deafened, I couldn’t tell which. And I supposed I would lie there. Until I was myself faded into nothingness, or else moved by force.

…however long…

 

The Jelly Donut


Many years ago I heard a story; the subject had come by many tangents and asides (like most subjects eventually do in the course of conversation) to that of craziness. Not insanity, particularly, but craziness. What happens when a man goes nuts. Interestingly enough, no one in the gathering of people involved in this discussion (at what event, function or affair I can’t remember the specifics) had thought twice about venturing into this territory. It was assumed between us all (myself not included) that no crazy people were present at the time, and so the subject was presumed ‘safe territory’, socially speaking. Only years later had I thought twice about it, and, fittingly, it was only in these passing years that the story that had originally been told had begun to leave some lasting impression on me. So, at group one day, I found it completely appropriate to repeat this story, and in my present company, it was oddly enough still ‘safe territory’ to penetrate. Only now, it was not a question of who in the group might possibly be offended or put off by it, because we all quite understood exactly the intentions of the story, some had lived it in their own ways, and it was in this situation relevant to all of us. I had just taken my valium, so I was especially loose. And when the circle had come back round to me, I took the opportunity to repeat what I had originally heard so many years ago; originally told in the sharp, fast tongue of a man who hadn’t understood the moral, I began to tell the story in a slower fashion…..partly the Valium, but also part sympathy, my version followed as such:

 

“I knew a man named Bill (here I had assumed the role of the original storyteller…..I hadn’t actually known the man whose name may or may not have been Bill….if there ever was a “Bill” to begin with). Bill worked construction, up on those steel beams….you know the ones……he worked way up high on steal beams, building skyscrapers. I never understood how that works. How you can build something as big as a skyscraper. You know, because you have to build UP….so far UP….I can’t imagine.” I digressed. “Anyway, Bill worked construction, building skyscrapers, way up high on those metal beams…..” my mind began to wander, “…..I mean, you could just lose your balance and fall right off of one of those things at any moment. I don’t understand how you could manage to build anything that high up, and with the danger of falling right off at any moment. Anyway, Bill. I guess he had been working way up there on the building one day, had just come back down to use the Port-O-John, and while he was down there, on the ground I mean, the foreman had come over to him and was busting his balls about something. I don’t know what. His buddy Rick—Rick is who told me the story—(lying) was having lunch down there next to the Port-O-John. Bill sits down next to Rick and Rick is eating a sandwich his wife packed for his lunch. Rick asks Bill, “what was that all about?” Bill doesn’t say. Maybe he wasn’t working fast enough, maybe he was shitting when he shouldn’t have been shitting, Rick didn’t know, and he couldn’t get it out of Bill. Still, Bill, according to Rick, didn’t seem too bothered by it. Said he seemed to be acting normal. Nothing weird about him, nothing off kilter.

 

“What’s the point of this story,” one of the group interrupted me. I tried to go on but he got up and started pacing, really fast, pacing, in a tight circle around us all. He was going like a machine, pacing in a tight circle, making sharp, mechanical turns and muttering something under his breath none of us could understand. The group moderator got out of his seat after he had made a few laps, placed a firm hand on his shoulder and walked him out of the activity room.

 

“Go on,” the old lady with the coffee cake hair urged me.

 

“As I was saying,” I continued, “nothing was particularly off kilter about Bill. He seemed normal.”

 

“According to Rick,” the middle-aged man in the corner interrupted. He looked like a goat, this man.

 

“Yes,” I said, “according to Rick.”

 

“His buddy Rick,” the goat man added, very enthusiastically. He was leaned forward in his chair, his elbow on his knee and his chin in his palm, like a little schoolboy full of wonderment.

 

“Let ___ finish,” the group moderator said as he reentered the activity room, closing the door behind him.

 

“Thanks,” I said. “….So, Bill seemed pretty normal, right? Nothing off about him. According to Rick (in my head amending the names and tenses of the story as I went, as I was not actually the person to hear this story in the first place). That’s the thing about….” I hesitated, looked around surreptitiously, for a moment taken back to that place where I had first heard this story third or fourth hand myself. The company here, I decided, was indeed mixed, but all the same homogenous. What had brought the goat man here, for example, was certainly different from what had brought me, and from what had brought the old coffee cake-haired lady. But, here we all were. So I went on, “…..that’s the thing about illness. Craziness, right? Call it what you want. I seemed normal, just like Bill. Up until that moment. There’s a ‘snap’. Like a twig. Other people, they hear that snap, but I don’t know…..I never heard it. I don’t think Bill heard it. But Rick, he heard it. And it sounded like this: Bill, sitting there, next to Rick, not eating—just sitting—began to reach under his ass, in his back pocket. Rick tells me he pulled out this crumpled old manila envelope. It had something in it. “What’s that, Bill,” he says, and Bill doesn’t say anything. He just kind of tears the envelope open at the top and reaches in. There’s some kind of sticky stuff all inside. “Ain’tcha got lunch, Bill? You gonna eat?” Bill, calm as anything, pulls out what looks like a mashed up, smashed jelly donut. Now, here’s the snap: Bill takes that deformed, mashed up jelly donut, kind of kneads it in his hands, rubs it all around, like he’s making a pizza pie, and then takes his hands to his face…….he rubs his hands, just covered in red raspberry jelly, all over his face. I mean, he really rubs it in, puts some elbow grease into it, makes sure to get every nook and cranny—under his eyes, around his nostrils, behind his ears—until his face is completely red with raspberry filling. He sat there, his face covered in jelly, looking cool and calm and collected and normal as anything. Didn’t say a word. Got up, picked up his toolbox, got in his pickup truck and drove away. No one ever saw him again……..according to Rick.”

 

“Snap,” the goat man said, pantomiming the action of breaking a twig in half with his hands.

 

“Snap.”

 

The group was soon adjourned for the day. After that was lunch, jigsaw puzzles, art therapy, dinner, lights out. That night I couldn’t sleep. My meds weighed heavy in my gut, like lead. I thought about Bill and whether or not the story was true, and if so, what ever happened to him. More importantly, what led to that jelly donut in the face. The only interesting part of the story, really. If it hadn’t been for that apocryphal jelly donut, I supposed no one would have ever told that story to begin with. Without the jelly donut, I supposed Bill’s story would be not much different from my own. What I was missing was a ‘snap’. I couldn’t put a finger on what exactly had brought me here. What I was missing was a jelly donut.

 

The next morning, I spoke to the doctor. We agreed I should stay seven more days. After that, I left.