Charles Munoz

Pilgrim's Regress

Jane Pilgrim's relatives stood by the graveside while the vicar prayed. Her coffin was pulled from the ground, clods dropping back into the grave. Six strong men placed the coffin in a hearse, which drove slowly to Mercy Hospital. For a few hours her body lay in the hospital's morgue but then she was carried upstairs to the critical care unit. She drew her first rattling breath there in the early hours of Thursday morning while her poor heart thumped and struggled to beat.

Tormented by tubes in her nose and her throat, Jane Pilgrim suffered from pain and indignity. She was dangerously sick, only a few hours from death. Her mind wandered. Her heart stopped twice but doctors and nurses rushed to her bedside and shocked her back into life. Her relatives visited her from time to time, but never stayed long.

One day two large orderlies rushed Jane downstairs to the emergency room, shoved her onto a stretcher, and pushed her out of the hospital into an ambulance. Paramedics worked over her frantically while the ambulance sped to her house in the suburbs. She drifted in and out of consciousness. There was a crushing pain in her chest and down her left arm.

The next morning she popped out of bed and drove to work for the first time, a cigarette in her mouth. Her heart attack had dwindled to a faint feeling of indigestion. She was immediately appointed president of a major advertising agency, and people looked to her for the most difficult decisions. She was highly paid, she was good at her work, and she pushed herself and her staff hard. The agency prospered under her care. She worked more than sixty hours each week. Her stomach was often upset but she never showed the pain.

It was a relief when, after three highly successful years as president, she was appointed vice president. A surgeon removed her artificial hip and replaced it with a natural joint. When her arthritis left her, she began to play tennis with a few of the other senior executives. She visited her dentist, who removed her dentures and put a fine set of teeth in her mouth. There was much less stress in her new job.

Gradually she worked downward in the company. Her stomach aches stopped when her ulcer went away. She became tall, her grey hair turned blonde, and she was rewarded with jobs that were less and less demanding. Her optometrist told her not to wear glasses any more. She began to smash the ball and became the lady singles champion of the Slough of Happiness country club. Her salary shrank, but her needs shrank faster. She dropped out of her country club, sold her Mercedes to a new car dealer, and began driving a second-hand Ford which was much cheaper to run.

As she moved lower in the agency, competing with other bright young executives for a trainee job, she met Peter. Their first meeting began with a fierce, unhappy argument about breaking up. They were in their favorite restaurant, so they shouted at each other in whispers. But within an hour they walked back arm in arm to the apartment she shared with him, and for several years they lived together happily. Their sex life grew more passionate each day: it was at its peak the night they went to a party and a mutual friend introduced them. After that, they were strangers.

Jane, by now assigned to the mail room, began to look forward to college and the end of her working career. College was glorious! She entered with high honors and gave the Commencement speech for her graduating class. Her responsibilities fell away from her, she was sent money by her parents, she dated a different man almost every weekend, and she felt that she was truly living an independent life for the first time, freed of her business responsibilities. Better still, each semester she was able to reduce the burden of knowledge that had weighed her down. She spent long hours in the library, cleaning a thorough liberal arts education out of her mind. She spent three years forgetting the fundamentals of philosophy. She cleared her mind of Kant. She worked harder than most of her fellow students, and knowledge flowed away from her. Her professors learned everything she forgot, and were delighted with her progress. Her algebra went away, so did the burdens of ancient history and French. On her twenty-first birthday her sorority sisters took her into a bar for the last time. In her freshman year, she quit smoking.

High school was even better. She handed her diploma back to the principal, enjoyed the senior prom, and set about forgetting everything she knew about English grammar. On her seventeenth birthday she returned her driver's license to the motor vehicle bureau. From then on her doting parents drove her wherever she wanted to go. She earned money with a paper route; she collected folded newspapers from the neighbors' lawns, and brought them back to the delivery truck early in the morning. The driver would return them to the printing plant and the day's bad news would revert to wood pulp. Eventually the wood pulp became trees.

Grade school was delightful. Her dedicated teachers freed her of American history, physical education, and penmanship. They taught her to forget the multiplication table, and it was as if a cloud had been removed from her mind. She was a happy, laughing child, deeply loved by her parents and by every one who knew her. Half way through the first grade, she forgot the alphabet. In kindergarten she lost her freckles and her eye-hand coordination skills: her teachers were proud of her. She was a little girl who had gone far.

Finished with school at last, she became perfectly free. She didn't even have to watch Sesame Street any more. She ran, she took naps, she ate icecream, she did whatever she wanted.

Then, best of all, she became a roly-poly, jolly baby. Her family tickled her feet and played peek-a-boo, fed her mushy foods, bathed her, powdered her, took her for wonderful rides in her carriage. She learned how to crawl. Her teeth vanished up into her gums. Later on, she lay in her bassinet with milk on her mouth and stared at her fingers, absolutely contented.

When it was time, she and her mother went to the hospital. The doctor said, "You have a fine baby girl," and put her inside her mother, who yelled for two hours. Then for nine months Jane carefully shrank away inside her mother's comfortable body and--pop!--ceased to exist on New Years' Eve at the stroke of twelve, when her mother and father were celebrating with champagne, caviar, and other delightful things.

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