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   f l e e i n g    a s y l u m

---   D .W .  Y O U N G  

I.

The first definitive sign of the trouble to come was quickly disregarded by everyone present at the birthday party except Mona and she kept quiet about her apprehension. Just one too many cocktails, everybody concluded after a tense exchange of hushed whispers. Maxine scowled disapprovingly. "What, is he losing his mind?" she demanded, receiving a collective, chastising groan in response to her tactlessness. But fortunately nothing worse transpired. Relieved to have determined that the awkward moment would not derail the otherwise successful celebration, the guests scattered back into small groups with a trace of undue haste, many making straight for the drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Mona stood silently apart frowning. To her the moment seemed darkly portentous.

Arthur had born up to the well orchestrated "surprise!" which kicked the evening off with remarkable civility and this gave his friends an extra measure of glee, knowing how much effort such a fašade must have cost him. Long acquainted with his grumbling disdain for such affairs-- his nickname was "the old-codger" after all-- they relished the rare chance to poke fun at his obvious but also genial discomfort and they made certain to seize every available opportunity to do so. Content that things were going well, Mona told Arthur, "I'm leaving you to the wolves for a while" and left to check on the well being of her other surprise for him.

Teddy Babbage slapped the unwilling host playfully on the back in greeting, causing his drink to spill a little. "The great recluse comes out of his cave for once, eh?" he remarked. Arthur turned to meet his pal. The pronunciation of certain words like 'eh' caused Teddy's otherwise baritone voice to take on a nasal, talking-through-your-nose quality which struck people as discordant at first and which Arthur could mimic perfectly.

"Having fun?"

"Of course. When was the last time you were in a room with this many people you know anyway?"

Arthur shrugged. "A better question would be: when will I be in a room with this many people I know again? I'm really impressed she got you all together in the first place. She should have been a general and not an editor, marshalling the troops like this."

"I wouldn't have missed it for the world amigo. A surprise party for Arthur! What a brilliant idea. By the way," he added, "you need another drink I think," Snatching Arthur's half-full glass right out of his hands, Teddy ambled off to the kitchen, zigzagging slightly.

"Well, he's an early casualty like always," Mona observed dryly, passing by en route to a refill of her own. Arthur laughed, knowing as well as she did that their friend would undoubtedly end up passed out on the sofa and have to spend the night.

In truth, Mona's decision to spring the party on her husband represented a more complex and private attempt at communication with him than anyone present realized, though some of the guests at least knew the basic circumstances surrounding the transgression. She and Arthur had made each other promise, prior to each birthday of every year they'd been together, that neither would ever do anything so "awful and vulgar" as subject the other to precisely the ordeal Arthur was currently enduring. For ten years the "no surprise party" pact had held. Though threatening to break the agreement had become something of a running connubial joke, neither partner had ever seriously considered doing so before. Only Mona's difficulty responding to a increasingly troubling series of misgivings about her husband's conduct had brought her to go ahead with the party and its implicit breach of faith. She feared she was losing Arthur and had felt this way for some time.

In the year since his last birthday, he had become increasingly rude to everyone who came into contact with him, Mona included. Since he was habitually polite in all circumstances, public or private, this change alone was odd. Next fits of petty, irrational anger had begun to intrude into his usually reserved character and he developed an almost obsessive disinclination to leave the house. These more pronounced shifts counted as positively alarming. Though she'd tried to do so on many occasions, all attempts by Mona to discuss her concerns with Arthur failed utterly. Their mutual friends, most of whom were present at the party, shared her complaints and uncertainty but remained equally incapable of fingering the source of the malaise.

Unable to reconcile this "new Arthur" with her previous experience of her husband, Mona had, as time wore on, inevitably begun to resent him, especially his inability or else his unwillingness to acknowledge even the slightest trace of anything untoward in his manner. Since Arthur worshipped self-honesty as a philosophical necessity, this lack of response seemed terribly circumspect. Even so, Mona had assumed up until quite recently that their life together would eventually return to its happier former state, that only time and patience were needed to make this happen. But, as indication after indication kept refuting this hope and his uncharacteristic attitude only worsened, drastic action had finally seemed necessary. In this regard, then, the evening represented a slap in the face meant to get Arthur's attention.

One related perk of this slap was the rare opportunity it provided for Mona to purposefully relish her wife's prerogative to misbehave with impunity knowing that no matter how annoyed Arthur might be at her, nothing essential between them would be changed. If, in the evening's wake, this turned out to no longer be the case, then she figured she would at least know for certain the true extent of the problem. Besides, he had a habit of pulling outlandish pranks on her, to which she rarely responded and then only when she could really up the ante. His gaping astonishment and her devilish smile in return as he stepped through the door and the kazoos and hooting began more than satisfied any outstanding acts of mischievous retribution she felt she owed him.

When the time at last came to open the presents, Arthur was speaking in superlatives, a certain indication of intermediate drunkenness on his part. Everyone crowded around the living room and proceeded to poke fun at the various gifts offered and the ulterior motives jovially surmised to be behind them. Teddy's offering of an espresso machine prompted voluble Maxine to decry, "Teddy, you just want to be able to come over here and drink free espresso, you bum!"

"Of course I do! I'm no fool!" he rejoined, playing along. "I spend enough time here as it is. I might as well make the most of it." Mona's present was reserved for last and everyone clapped in enthusiastic approval when she returned from the bedroom carrying a slumped, rufuous dachshund puppy between her arms. The pup, his tongue lolling out of the corner of his mouth and his belly puffed out, blinked sleepily in the room's full light. Holding him forth reverently, like a baby in a manger scene, Mona passed the animal to Arthur. "Happy birthday lover." More applause and a few hoots and hollers followed. After a bit of a scramble, they exchanged the puppy, who began earnestly licking his new master's arm. Arthur turned and ceremoniously presented his new pet to the gathering for inspection with a proud, paternal smile.

"He's wonderful darling," he said. "And pretty goddamn cute too." Mona laughed and Arthur paused for a moment. Then his brow furrowed and his demeanor turned inexplicably serious. "I'll be honest," he added. "I'm a little disappointed he's not a kangaroo, which is the pet I've wanted ever since I was a kid. I understand they're pretty hard to find though, so I don't blame you for not getting one or anything. But if we keep him you'll have to take care of him. I really don't have time for such things."

No one assembled could tell if he was joking or not except Mona, who reeled in disbelief at his earnestness. He leaned over and kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek, pressing the warm dog against her chest as he did so. The puppy barked in confusion, ending the room's uncertain silence. A few people laughed aloud but the sound, lacking conviction, only increased the moment's anxiety. Mona stared incredulously at her husband but he didn't notice. She'd spent six months arranging the gift and they were the cruelest words he'd ever spoken to her.

"Well, I really don't think a kangaroo is a possibility Arthur," she replied coldly.

"So what's his name going to be?" Teddy broke in, not too drunk to recognize the need for a diversion. "A christening is in order! Doesn't everyone agree?"

"How about Roo?" Arthur asked.

Maxine scowled disapprovingly. "What, is he losing his mind?"

***

Whatever confusion may have lingered in the wake of the party didn't end up lasting for long. As it became increasingly apparent Arthur was suffering from a physical malady, Mona's worries turned more sympathetic and more grave. Soon forced to respond to a vague but frightening predicament he could no longer ignore -- namely that he was losing conscious control of his actions -- Arthur grudgingly agreed to consult a doctor. It was the first of an increasingly disheartening progression of visits to a remarkable assortment of physicians who had only their inability to satisfactorily explain his condition in common. As matters worsened, Arthur took to referring to his snowballing derangement as his "descent", which angered Mona, who saw an implicit hopelessness in the usage. An advocate of clarity at all costs (the harsh irony of which, in lieu of his present straits, did not escape him) Arthur was quick to accept the gravity of his symptoms and the harm he might one day be capable of doing to himself or others, Mona most importantly of all. He vowed never to allow such an event to transpire and his first step accordingly was to take an indefinite leave from his teaching post at Columbia.

Though he'd planned to work on his next book during his sabbatical at home, Arthur soon abandoned the effort. His illness took precedence in all his decisions and he found himself lacking all scholarly motivation.

In order to maintain hope of recovery, he devoted himself full time to seeking effective treatment and zealously followed each new and predictably useless regimen or set of prescriptions that accompanied each visit to each new and predictably useless specialist. Increasingly experimental in nature, the unpleasant side effects of these myriad medications soon wearied him terribly, as did the tedious task of keeping them all straight and ingested on schedule and in the proper order. In his spare moments he read every book on psychology and neurobiology he could find, until he became something of an expert on the subjects and thereafter his familiarity with recondite terminology could be counted on to fluster any unsuspecting doctor who crossed his path. "Anything but another encephalogram doc," he would kid.

In the early stages of his decline, Arthur could normally retain a degree of control over his inconsistencies. The first pronounced symptom of his affliction showed up as a habit of muttering gibberish to himself both alone and in public. Occurring under his breath initially and with ever greater volume later, the muttering didn't prevent him from entering into a normal conversation when the need arose. Should his unintelligible monologues or something else strange he'd just done be pointed out to him, he would blink in alarm, the way a driver startled awake from a daydream does upon realizing he's drifted across the yellow center line, and then he would be able to reestablish a normal demeanor and outlook for a while. The preceding time, defined by his muttering, would be completely lost to his memory.

Skeptical of this tendency he couldn't himself witness (like a snorer refusing to admit to his nightly rumblings) Arthur had had himself secretly video taped in order to settle the matter. Watching the tape's damning evidence marked the moment of his full acknowledgement of the seriousness of his plight. As Arthur's periods of lucidity grew more sporadic and then fell into the minority of his waking moments he began to fear he would soon be irrefutably insane and incapable of stopping himself from committing possibly dangerous acts. This grim prospect initially sent him reeling into a debilitating depression and for a week he refused to get out of bed or talk to anyone. As far as he was concerned, losing his identity was the same as if he was facing his immanent death. In the end, though, it was Arthur's concern for Mona which drove him to steel himself against despair and reengage the now almost unbearable routines of daily life. He tried his best to ease his wife's burden whenever he could. He could see how much of a strain the drawn out illness had put on her, though she tried to hide the fact. She barely slept anymore and when she was alone her mood alternated between embittered self-pity and rage at the injustice of his fate. In her husband's presence, however, she remained steadfastly in control of her emotions and advocated a hopeful outlook long after such a stance had ceased to be tenable.

As the madness progressed, redoubling its assault on Arthur's consciousness, his behavior turned increasingly incomprehensible. Talking to oneself wasn't a particularly unusual sight in the city, but, when coupled with Arthur's growing and irrational disdain for all social conventions, it thoroughly dispelled any lingering doubts anyone might have had about the severity of his plight. He became obsessed with listening to Dvorjak's Brave New World Symphony and Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland album one after the other without pause and for hours on end and at a deafening volume which caused the neighbors to bang on the walls and attempt, vainly, to get in touch with Frank, the building's remorselessly elusive superintendent. On another occasion Arthur assumed an aristocratic English accent and stiff upper lip and took to walking about everywhere he went, even inside the house, with an ornate walking stick which he swung with regimental precision to the even pace of his strolling country squire's gait.

These displays, though strange, remained more or less harmless and Mona coped with them fairly readily. Other subsequent symptoms were not so easy. Arthur had always disliked their neighbors across the hall -- Bruce and Leanne Belton -- but he'd never allowed them to truly bother him. A ruddy-faced, uptight banker with a premature double chin, Bruce affected a worldliness he didn't possess and walked about frowning like a maharajah stuck in a roadside motel. His wife Leanne wore obnoxious perfume and absurdly expensive but hideous shoes and never talked about anything but her impossibly grandiose plan to redecorate their tasteless apartment. Resisting killing them, Mona felt, was "Greater than any biblical temptation." One afternoon she came home to find both Arthur and Roo pissing all over the Belton's front door, his right leg lifted high in imitation of the diminutive dog's posture.

"Arthur stop that right now!" she demanded.

He regarded her for a moment in woebegone incomprehension, a child asked to put away a favorite toy. "Oh come on darling, Roo does it so why can't I? It's really a more effective assertion of territorial dominance than going out and buying a bigger, fancier doormat than ours like these bourgeois pricks did last week. Don't you agree?" Eking out a few last squirts right onto the doorknob, he danced up and down a few times to "shake the dew off the lily," as he explained loudly, and then, returning his member to his pants, he scooped up Roo and strode back into their apartment as if he'd merely stepped out to grab the morning paper. Leanne Belton chose the next moment to return home with the famous interior decorator Lance Desmond in tow. It had taken her months of cajoling and pestering before he'd at long last consented to make the visit and she considered the event a one of the most significant of her entire life. Arthur was saved from her horrified shrieks by the soothing cascade of Jimi's electric rifts.

Mona didn't discover his subsequent, sneaky habit of making random prank phone calls until one afternoon when two ill-tempered policemen arrived at her door with a printout from the telephone company and a long list of complaints from residents all over the city. Arthur, it turned out, had called seven hundred random numbers over the past week. Each time he'd dialed and someone picked up, he'd then screamed French obscenities at them with all his might until they disconnected. Only a little flirting and a lot of promises saved Mona from a court appearance. When she asked him why he'd done it, Arthur replied, "To make a point of course."

"A point to who?'

"To them."

"Who are 'they'?"

Arthur shrugged. "Oh you know, capital T Them." Mona wisely left matters stand at that since she felt precipitously close to unleashing an unbridled scream of her own. The desire came back with a vengeance later that month when the telephone company mailed her a bill for over a thousand dollars.

The incident marked a turning point for Mona and thereafter her reserves of strength began to ebb steadily. As she grew more and more visibly distraught her friends and family found her so irritable and unreasonable that they began to dread her company. Nearly all had long since stopped seeing Arthur. But it wasn't until Arthur's paper airplane debacle that her emotional fortitude finally bottomed out. Craftiness was one of the hallmarks of his mania and, as with so many of his wild enterprises, he managed to keep this one secret from Mona until after it had already caused irrevocable trouble. Locked away in the apartment during the workweek without a telephone (but with Dvorjak and Hendrix to keep him company), he'd developed an intense desire to communicate to the world some inkling of society's inherent, self-preserving hypocrisy, especially its use of officially sanctioned cruelty to maintain itself. He accordingly penned a forty point manifesto wherein he vowed to oppose "these ancient and insidious forces we've long taken for granted and needlessly suffered as necessary" and then hung it on the wall beside his desk. Soon his quixotic efforts towards this goal fell into a daily routine. Each morning he did background research either in his own considerable library or over the Internet. Afternoons Arthur reserved for the actual implementation of his plan.

Once lunch was concluded, he began his work by writing down the details of various despicable but to his mind telling incidents from history which the general populace remained largely unaware of. After he'd filled both sides of a standard, letter-sized page with his neat print, he would crisply fold the sheet into a paper airplane. Once a considerable squadron of these planes had been assembled, he would then launch them out of the living room window one by one, with little ceremony other than a respectful pause in between. Unleashed to fortune's caprice, the paper airplanes drifted towards the street below or were snatched away by gusts of wind and carried further afield. "The only god worth worshipping," he often mused aloud. "Fickle chance.... that strumpet fortune ...."

Of course, the majority landed immediately below the window and went unnoticed by passersby or, at the very least, were disregarded amongst all the other bric-a-brac along the avenue. He kept up his endeavor for three weeks until an overly ambitious alter boy who all his peers disdained as a tattle-tale (the Narc they called him) brought several of Arthur's torture chamber "wing" to Deacon Doolittle of the neighborhood parish in order to curry favor.

The zeal with which the priest then persecuted Arthur only heightened the latter's already vehement dislike of the Catholic Church, which he considered the principal agent of two-faced Europe's long-running and genocidal delight in plundering and murdering the inhabitants of every other continent. The fact that a great many of the tortures described on his planes were either invented or employed by the Holy Inquisition, something which Arthur had taken pains to make absolutely clear only led the minimally educated Deacon, no Jesuit he, to threaten to sue for "libel and slander".

Nobody who read the planes' fuselages could deny the horror of the practices described thereon. All were well-documented facts, but this mattered little to the authority figures involved, who had their own contrary agenda to pursue. Much to Mona's dismay, it turned out upholding prudishness and moral "standards" still served as a significant governmental means of maintaining the stability of the social order when faced with threatening skeletons from within its own closet. "These bastards just want to sweep everything neatly under the rug," she complained to Arthur, who nodded in sympathy though in his head he heard only Dvorjak. He knew that these actions only reaffirmed the continuing relevance of his efforts.

Three airplanes in all had been discovered and then delivered to Deacon Doolittle by the Narc. The first told of the Church's erstwhile but widespread practice of sentencing heretics to be burned "alive". Forbidden to condemn anyone to death (an decision which technically belonged to the state), the Inquisition circumvented this restriction by "testing" heretics they wanted executed. The accused individual would be offered a chance at exculpation by being burned alive in a deadly pyre. True believers faithful to the Church would be saved from death by divine intervention; heretics would receive no mercy and would burn until dead. Unfortunately the dying was often a slow, drawn out roasting full of screams and pleas, all of which served as entertainment for hosts of onlookers. Needless to say the church's judgement never erred and god never intervened to save anyone wrongly accused.

Reading Arthur's account, Deacon Doolittle had found himself already mulling over which exact tone of righteous indignation he should assume when the matter became public. The extent to which he could turn the dangerous libel in question to his advantage would, he felt, turn greatly on how the public perceived him as the Church's representative. These thoughts in mind, he came to Arthur's account of the Spider, a particularly insidious torture device employed by the Inquisition against women. Consisting of two parallel iron bars set into a wall chest-high in whatever corner of the Church's many dank dungeons was reserved for such things, the Spider got its name from the numerous sharp, claw-like spikes which protruded from the sides of its bars. Female heretics facing questioning would be brought in and stripped naked before the evil device, undoubtedly providing some extra excitement for their captors. Their chests and breasts were then repeatedly dragged across the spikes and shredded up until they were dead and their guilt affirmed by their failure to answer correctly to the impossible questions posed them. Or perhaps there wasn't even any such pretext....

Lastly the Deacon -- somewhat perversely excited to read further -- arrived at what may have been his faith's most gruesome practice of old: the torture of the cauldron. Strapped down upon a table, a supposed heretic would have a number of rats placed atop his chest, the supply of which was undoubtedly never a problem. Immediately these rats would be covered with an iron cooking cauldron. Next heat would be applied to the iron's surface from above. Trapped in an increasingly unbearable inferno, the rodents would turn frenzied and then escape via their only available means: by gnawing through the heretic's chest.

Angrily crumpling this last plane up in his fist, Doolittle abruptly realized it would be needed as evidence and, with the Narc watching him, somewhat sheepishly straightened it back out. In truth he was appalled more by the distribution of such damning information to the innocent public than by the acts described. Already his respect was so diminished in the community that this could only make things worse. He couldn't help but feel a moment of envy for the lost power of his institution. "Then I could have dealt with this madman appropriately," he mused aloud. Realizing the Narc was still staring at him, he sent the altar boy scurrying off on a useless errand. "You've done well my son," he said in off-handed praise to the boy's departing back.

In court Doolittle's lawyers demanded not only that Arthur be committed, but also that Mona face criminal charges for allowing such a menace to "roam free to threaten our children." A formidable lawyer himself, Teddy represented his friend but couldn't entirely keep him in check. At one point Arthur even had to be cuffed after he stood up, interrupting the judge mid-sentence, and launched a flurry of paper airplanes at Doolittle, who was seated at the far end of the courtroom. Still in love with her husband, whose character still felt painfully familiar despite its cruel distortions by his mania, Mona began laughing appreciatively. Far from amused, the judge banged loudly on her gavel. The planes were quickly entered into evidence by the prosecution and the otherwise tedious trial resumed.

In the end though, the couple were spared from further embarrassment or incarceration by Teddy's unexpected revelation on his friend's behalf. Eight months previously, while still "mad in patches", as he'd liked to describe himself, Arthur had determined to counter his wife's noble but unwise asseveration to take care of him "no matter what bedlam you create," as she'd put it. Though the diligence of her attentions to him, as well as her patience and optimism, were at that point all irrefutable, Arthur had had no doubts that keeping her promise would be Mona's undoing when he did go mad. He knew unequivocally that she would enslave herself to their doomed relationship and futilely carry on until her own life was equally ruined, thus fulfilling her promise while also assuaging her guilt at being unable to save him, all by becoming a martyr to their lost happiness.

Believing that only a binding legal document would be able to stop her, he'd sought Teddy's help in the matter. The lawyer acquiesced but only after a great deal of argument. Two renowned psychologists with whom Arthur was slightly acquainted from academic circles were called in and after a thorough examination both deemed him to be sane in his present action. He'd carefully chosen each man -- indeed they were notorious enemies within the profession, one a Freudian the other a Jungian -- and Teddy would later consider the pairing a brilliant legal stroke as well as a first rate joke.

In the doctors' presence Arthur signed the fateful papers. It was his second to last recognizably sane act. The details of the matter were simple enough. Every year he was to be interred for a week of examination by the two doctors. If they concurred in diagnosing him unfit for everyday life under Mona's care, he was to be committed and the examinations maintained on an annual basis. If at any point following such an event they mutually agreed he was recovered, he would then be returned to his wife. If this did not occur after five years time, however, he and Mona were to be legally divorced, assuming she had not already taken such action herself. Handing everything over to Teddy for fiduciary safekeeping, Arthur was startled to see his famously ebullient friend crying quietly. "Come on Teddy," he said. "I'm gutshot. It's the old bullet in the head. There's no other logical course of action."

At the trial Teddy presented the paperwork he'd been entrusted to the judge, who immediately called a recess. The next day the case was dismissed. Following the prescribed weeklong period of observation, the two eminent professors reached an unheard of consensus and committed Arthur to a venerable upstate sanatorium. Infuriated, Mona attempted to overturn the ruling but a second judge upheld it. Arthur's almost immediate leave-taking was an abrupt affair, the pain of which was only worsened by his failure -- in any way -- to acknowledge the significance of the moment.

One trying month later, Teddy came to her apartment bearing a sealed twenty page letter given to him by Arthur on the same afternoon they'd drawn up the contract. This fulfilled his own series of promises to his friend. Mona took the proffered envelope, thanked him politely and then closed the door in his face without further ado. She never spoke of what was written therein or allowed anyone to read the letter, but everyone remarked that from this point on she appeared far more reconciled to the necessity of Arthur's response to his harsh and unprecedented misfortune.

II.

The scratch mark's meaning is twofold. It represents both the tally and the countdown. Four years three hundred and forty-two days since the start of his internment. That's the present figure. He knows this number without counting. The marks cover the entire length of one white wall of his cell. For many months they tried to stop the practice. It's against all the regs, the doctors could be heard whispering outside. Consulting. He must not be permitted to do this. It will only undermine his cure. And how they tried. They put him in a straightjacket and he counted aloud all day long; they painted over the wall each morning for a week and he worked all afternoon to restore it; they removed all the objects from his chamber but then he used his own blood to write with. No matter what transpired though, he guarded the numbers in his head. The last refuge of the tally and the countdown. My one inviolate space, he would mutter, speaking of his head, of his tumultuous thoughts. In the end his stubbornness won out though. They capitulated. Nobody wanted to keep putting forth the effort it took to try and dissuade him from his practice. Just a silly tally they thought. Ha! What fools they were. A tally and a countdown. A line that goes in both directions. Dvorjak and Hendrix; heads and tails. All is point/counterpoint. This truth he reaffirms on a daily basis. Otherwise only the void remains.

These are essential concepts he tries to communicate with the doctors when they come for his treatments, his "sessions". But they do not listen. They merely hold his ramblings up to the formulas in their books, in search of perceived similarities, matching patterns. Symbolism and validation of theory are all that interest them. As if they possessed some sort of psychiatric codex by which a definitive understanding might be obtained. But even if they did pay attention they would learn nothing. He knows this for certain. They do not wish to apprehend the gruesome, underbelly truths. He's surrounded by shmucks in labcoats, most of whom he believes have Napoleon complexes and who get sexually aroused by ordering unnecessary injections.

Ha! Little do they know that today the countdown is complete. Arthur giggles triumphantly, a hyena-like sound that would have disarmed anyone had they been listening. Nobody suspects for an instant that he is capable of such guile. Typical of their insular thinking. Soon they will know the extent of their folly. His plans are arranged in what he likes to think of as an elegant convergence. For the past year or so he has played chess with the attendant Ned at two o'clock without fail on every Saturday afternoon during break time. Ned is an ex-marine from Maine with a humdrum, sex-deprived life and no friends outside his job who has the useful delusion that he possesses a prodigious natural talent for chess which needs only practice to bloom into full-blown mastery. Arthur encourages this misguided belief by losing four out of every five times they play. He's learned to make an art of it though, and like a pool shark throwing a game he creates checkmates only a master could spot and then slowly, savoring the progression, brings them into Ned's limited range of comprehension.

Ned also has a really serious eating disorder: he can't help but devour any food in sight. His gravitation towards it is as ineluctable as magnetic pull. In fact this has proven to be a real problem for Ned and the Asylum has often been forced to chastise him for eating around the patients, which is a major no-no. Poor Ned's addiction, however, proved far too strong for verbal warnings to be effective deterrents, so the management finally found it necessary to retain his lunch from him, dispensing it only at the scheduled hour. Every morning Ned hands the capacious plastic cooler he packs his midday meal into over to Bill the head guard, who locks it up in the Emergency Cage (a large, steel locker with an enormous lock) along with the stun guns and riot gear. Bill also retains Ned's personal locker key so he can't stash anything there and the white uniforms they all wear don't have any places to hide food.

Much to Ned's dismay, these measures have proven to be quite effective. The word snack has been almost entirely stricken from his daily vocabulary. Needless to say he often gets hopelessly hungry during the day. Painfully ravenous is how Arthur thinks of it. A useful weakness from his perspective. For an entire year, three hundred and sixty five scratches, he's been sneaking Ned a candy bar every time they play chess. He gets them in the mail from M. and the doctors permit him a single one per week as long as he behaves. He makes sure to do so. Convincing Ned to first take the proffered gift was child's play. "Come on Ned," he'd said, "You're the only one who's nice to me and plays chess with me. Let me offer you a gift. I don't like them anyway." After the guard's first voracious bite into that first bar, Arthur knew he had him hooked, you could see it in the droopy-lidded ecstasy of the man's eyes. Step one accomplished.

Still, it's true that the attendants aren't usually permitted (or inclined) to interact with the "guests, as they are all laughably called, in their myriad states of frenzy and delusion. But Arthur's a special case; he's one of the two or three most well behaved and coherent. He doesn't drool or shout at people or defecate in public and he's a far superior chess opponent to anyone else outside the doctors. They, of course, would never deign play with someone like Ned but, since the weekend games have always occurred without incident, they have permitted the guard and the guest the liberty to continue them. Ned sits down across from Arthur, this particular Saturday, and then casually spills the pieces out onto the board. Each man begins arranging his side in his own particular fashion--pawns first for Ned, king then queen and on down for Arthur. After today no more scratches, he thinks. No more walls. And no more losing to Ned. The preparations are now complete. He offers his opponent a candy bar. Ned grins, a greedy excitement in his eyes, and then reaches out a flabby hand to take the gift. Thank you Arthur. Anytime Ned. Anytime.

Playing white, Arthur opens with a Queen's Gambit. Nice and by the book. Ned devours his treat in three lusty gulps. Then he regards the board intently, as if studying a complicated diagram, but Arthur knows it's all posturing and he will use his poor excuse for a Sicilian defense like always. Ned reaches down towards the board to move the usual pawn, B2 to B3, but his motion, his entire physical momentum, continue past where they should stop. With a dreamy slowness, he falls face first onto the table, scattering the chessmen across the floor.

Arthur leaps up and dances a quick jig. A special candy bar for Ned on a beautiful, special day. He checks the guard's pulse. Still there. Whew! He wouldn't want to kill poor old Ned! It had been danger though, the price of erring on the side of more rather than less. They'd only given him the pills after six trying months of feigning insomnia, of gushing tears and clamoring in the wee hours of the morning, "Make it stop! Oh please, please let me sleep!" Suspicious as always, they watched him swallow every pill and checked his urine for further proof of his compliance. Suicide was always such an embarrassment after all. Biding one's time was a tactic beyond their expectation though. For each and every time he took his nightly sleeping pill, he bit off a tiny sliver of it which he dexterously kept hidden under his tongue until he was alone. Sometimes the sliver dissolved. When he'd accumulated what he reckoned constituted seven pills worth of slivers, he ground them into powder, which he then carefully inserted it into Ned's current candy bar. Then it's as easy as that: chomp chomp and goodnight Ned.

After laying the black king down in defeat on the board, Arthur strips the guard of his uniform and puts it on. It's so big he has to hold the pants up with one hand. He checks the key ring in one pocket and notes the car key. Thank you Ned. Unlocking the padded door of his own accord for the very first time, Arthur takes one last look back at sprawled Ned, checkmate, and steps out of his cell and hangs a sharp right towards the service elevator at the end of the hall. Only fear of discovery keeps him from jauntily whistling a tune.

***

Mona is sitting on the sofa in the living room waiting for Arthur when he arrives home three hours later. She's even left the apartment's front door unlocked for him so she won't have to greet him as a stranger. The Institute offered (insisted really) to send over some attendants or to call the police but she'd convinced them such extreme measures wouldn't be necessary. She starts crying immediately at the sight of Arthur, ridiculous in the obese guard's outfit, that glazed, distant look in his eyes which always makes her cringe with loss. Roo runs over and barks a cheerful greeting but Arthur ignores him. A part of him would like to pet the dog but he cannot take his eyes off Mona. Her lachrymose response to his return -- her sobbing is neither manic nor hysterical in nature but rather measured and fatalistic and almost fugue-like -- hurts Arthur tremendously and he feels like screaming at the top of his lungs in frustration.

Instead he walks over to her and plops down onto his knees before her, as if in supplication, and then lays his head down on her lap. It's one of their oldest and most intimate positions and against her will Mona finds herself running her hands through his hair, which feels perfectly natural though she hasn't done so for years. He moans once at the sheer pleasure of it. They remain together thus for over an hour, almost utterly still, as in a tableau vivant, each acutely aware that in the morning Arthur will have to return to the Institute. As if by some pre-determined pact, neither speaks a word to the other the entire time they are together.

Later on they make thrilling, emotionally exhausting love and afterwards, when Arthur has fallen asleep, Mona remains awake, intensely conscious of being in the midst of a moment so fleeting and unreal it seems to have already been ripped from her, leaving her present awareness nothing more than a privileged retrospect or a fantasy. As the hours pass and she stares off into the bedroom's darkness, she comes to realize our sporadic instances of happiness all share one trait: once vanished their durations-- whether they are of the briefest or most providentially extended kind-- cease to be of any true consequence, for in every case what has been lost is equally irretrievable. The present is ruthlessly uncompromising in its demand for our attention and offers no special reprieves for even the oldest of lovers.

Looking over at her soon-to-be divorced husband beside her, Mona understands no sufficient solace exists for this plight. As the night wears implacably on, she tries to distract herself from the evening's hard implications by imagining a few of the wild misadventures Arthur must have had on his recent journey through the city. What would I have thought of him, she wonders, if I'd met him tonight as a stranger? Eventually the sky turns to a dim gray suffused with a hint of pink and a rumbling garbage truck can be heard making its rounds on the street below. Quietly rising from the bed, Mona heads towards the kitchen to make coffee and review the details of the drive Upstate she's soon going to have to take in order to return Arthur to the colorless confines of the Institute.

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