I hear my wife talking out in the hall. The other woman’s accent sounds Jamaican. They laugh. Good sign, my wife doesn’t seem worried. More female voices now. I recognize the sound of my name. Yes, that’s me, not just once but several times. What they’re saying about me I cannot catch, but could be nothing bad. Remarking on how steadily I’m recovering, I bet. What a good patient. How courteous. Never uttered a “fuck.” But why doesn’t she stick her face in here, just to see with her own eyes how her husband’s doing? Yack, yack. She loves to talk. A wifely love, love beyond death, this love of constant yack-yack. I look up and try to roll my eyes. The ceiling is moving. Steadily, at constant speed. Always in the same direction, front to back. That’s what my eyes report, but is it possible? Never seen or heard of a moving ceiling. What would be the point of it? All considered, such a thing is, what’s the word – implausible. Just below the moving ceiling the clock shows twelve-thirty. AM or PM? I should ask someone. But if it were AM, the middle of the night, my wife would be in bed at home, not here. And if it were PM, lunchtime, my wife would have arrived to see me here at the hospital quite a while ago. She’s not one to be in bed till noon. Therefore, it is similarly implausible that the voice I heard coming from the hall be my wife’s and that the name I heard several times be mine. I must be hallucinating. After-effects of seven hours of anesthesia, affecting sight and hearing, as must be, I suppose, well known. Remarkable, however, how well my common sense is working. Goes to show that the stricture garbage in, garbage out, doesn’t apply to me. With me, whatever bullshit goes in through the senses, what comes out is the truth. The clean, inodorous truth.
“Buddy, you sleeping?” My roommate calls me from his bed. He hasn’t moved his bowels in a week. That must be what keeps him awake. Or one of his many other problems. I feign a halting, sticky, sleepy voice and say, “Hey Gus, what’s up?”
“My numbers are down again,” says Gus; “I need another transfusion.”
“Oh God,” I whisper, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s coming to the point where it’s hard to find a spot on me to stick a needle. Nobody knows what’s wrong, doctors don’t tell me. I don’t think there’s any internal bleeding any more. But I tell you, each time they put the new blood in, then right away they start drawing blood for tests and stuff: no wonder the new blood gets diluted and the numbers go down again – what they expect? – and so they end up saying I’m anemic and I need another transfusion. One thing I’m sure though. It’s the Lord who puts me through these tests.”
My roommate remains silent for a moment, as if to let his last statement sink deep into my brain. As I keep silence too, he confronts me: “Do you have a special relationship with God, buddy?”
This guy and his friends are delusional. Christian nuts. Yesterday – was it yesterday or the day before or only some hours ago? – anyway, let’s say yesterday, a bunch of them were here around my roommate’s bed. Men and women. Some of them were positively obese; all of them were overweight. They talked for some time about food. Great bargains at local restaurants. All-you-can-eat chicken parm, dessert included, for twelve ninety-five. A recently opened humongous Chinese buffet at Strawberry Hill Mall. Then a man wearing a collarless black shirt buttoned up to his neck, which lent him the aura of a preacher, stood next to my roommate and read passages from the Bible. At first I could not understand why those particular passages were selected, I mean by what criteria. Finally it dawned on me that it was by the oldest and strongest by far of all criteria, self-justification. “This from Mark,” the guy who was like a preacher read:
“And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean).”
Elimination. Justification by the nether end. Following which, the pseudo-preacher offered, from First Timothy, the following justification by the opposite, oral end:
“For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
They read other passages, but I don’t remember them. What happened next, though, I do remember and I must tell. Gus has a clot in one or perhaps both legs, so bad he cannot stand up. He’s got to keep his feet elevated. His Christian friends were talking about it, about how dangerous clots are, but they thought this one was getting noticeably smaller, and one woman, perhaps the preacher’s wife, observed, “Miracles do happen, you know,” when by one of those damn impulses that sometimes overpower my better judgment, I interjected, “That’s how my father died, from a clot in his leg.” It’s true: after an accident, my father had to stay in bed for a long while and ended up succumbing to a clot in his leg. But true or not, my remark was received with frigid silence, until the woman who believed in miracles snapped out: “You like to ruin people’s hopes, don’t you.”
That’s the American Christian, ever the positive thinker. You’d think that, since they believe in after-life and feel they have a special relationship with God, Christians would view death with more equanimity, but no, death is the unmentionable negative, a taboo. Anyway, to Gus’s question whether I have a special relationship with God I reply that I am a skeptic.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of those. I’ve met some septics. It’s the easy way out,” says Gus.
“You’re wrong,” I reply; “being a skeptic is one of the hardest things one can be. Harder than tightrope walking across the Niagara. Most people, the vast majority, believe they know certain things for absolutely sure, for instance that two plus two is four. The skeptic rejects any absolute certainty. He is passionately interested in the truth, but he never believes he has completely attained it. He keeps searching for it. Very few people would bear that kind of uncertainty, being suspended in thin air. One of those few people was actually a guy from right here, from Albany, a judge by the name of Learned Hand. He said that one of the most important things to have in life is an ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you’re right.”
“You sound like an educated man,” says my roommate. “Never heard of that judge. Don’t seem to me like something a Christian would say. I haven’t got much schooling, two years at Hudson Valley. I trained as a car mechanic, then got fed up with working for a boss and went into business by myself. For a while I did dry wall, roofing and installing those covered gutters that don’t need cleaning – you know what I mean? Well, to make a long story short, finally I moved to Esperance and started my own garage. I was making good money: I was always dependable. When I said it’ll be ready on Tuesday at 8 AM, Tuesday at 8 AM it was, and if something came up, I always called the customer ahead of time. Everything was going cool, till I got too sick to work.”
A nurse comes to take my vitals, finds that the oximeter registers less that ninety, and chides me for not having the oxygen tube stuck in my nose. When she leaves, my roommate resumes: “Tell me, what satisfaction do you get from being a septic?”
“I don’t do it for satisfaction,” I say; “I simply can’t help it, being a skeptic.”
“Well, how d’you know you can’t help it? Have you prayed, have you asked for God’s help? Or are you gonna spend the rest of your life like you say, suspended in the air, walking across the Niagara? Reach for Him. Reach for Him. He won’t let you down.”
“Yes, and as long as I’m there I should also reach for Santa Claus in the North Pole, don’t you think? And I should apply for a meeting with the Mad Hatter and Speedy González.”
“Hm… Forgive me, but it all sounds a lot like pride to me, sort of like arrogance. Like feeling yourself stronger, way up there, way above the rest of the people.”
This guy is dying at fifty, with a wife and a couple of kids, and he’s telling me that God will help you if you only ask him to do so. He’s telling me that I am a skeptic because I’m arrogant, and he’s the one who claims to have a special relationship with the Almighty! I press the button for the nurse: it’s time for another dose of painkiller. Gus has started to snore. I wonder could I ever become friends with a guy like this? Could I even sympathize with him? He seems to come from another planet, and in a way he does. Yesterday – was it yesterday? – anyway, whenever it was, between Bible bit and Bible bit, he and his friends were calumniating Obama. A Muslim, Gus said, and he wasn’t even born in the U.S. A socialist Muslim, a terrorist, for what is allowing abortion if not terrorism? Wanting to outlaw guns: isn’t that abetting criminals and terrorists? Hard to believe, so much ignorance, and so much hatred in those who profess a creed of love of neighbor. The nurse comes with my painkiller and, as usual, before handing it over she asks me to rate my pain from one to ten. I say, “four,” kind of at random. Talk of ignorance among Tea-Party crazies – what about that of our medical establishment, which seems to believe that people’s pain can be quantified from one to ten? Since zero is not allowed, what if I said, “one”: would she give me the pill anyway? And if I said, “Oh, it’s more than ten,” would she call a doctor?
Dozed off. The clock on the wall now says twelve-fifty. Amazing how slowly time flows here in the hospital; but the ceiling keeps moving fast, always in the same direction, front to back. I try to fart. No luck. I know they will let me out of here only when I “pass gas,” or “pass wind,” as they put it, and when I’m able to inhale air in sufficient amounts: both conditions, out and in, being necessary. The way up and the way down, the way out and the way in are one and the same, said Heraclitus. But they might not be sufficient. I mean, breathing and farting might not be quite enough: they will also want me to pee abundantly and without the catheter, so as to empty my bladder completely, before they let me go. It’ll be at least a couple more days, I’m afraid. I’ll have ample time to discuss with Gus some more about Darwinian evolution versus intelligent design. Last night – or was it the night before last? – let’s just say last night. Last night I was trying to explain to him what’s a scientific theory. Hard work, and ungrateful. He said that there was no way of demonstrating that intelligent design is not true, and I tried to get him to understand that doesn’t mean that it is a scientific theory: rather the contrary, it means that intelligent design is not a scientific theory. I told Gus the famous example of the guy who claims that the universe was created only five minutes ago, only in such a way that each of us was endowed with his or her present memories, and the earth with its fossil record, and so on. There’s no way of proving the guy wrong, yet his is not, precisely because of that, a scientific theory. Then – or maybe it was at some other time, for obviously the subject rankles him – Gus brought up the notorious probability argument. That evolution would come up with something as complex as for example an eye, he said, was extremely unlikely: one chance in 10 followed by twenty zeros. Or perhaps twenty-five. I tried to educate him about that too. Imagine that upon leaving my house I register the first ten things that call my attention. A fat, mustachioed man with an eye patch; then a bus: line 10, internal number 3284; then a dog peeing on a maple tree next to Brown’s funeral home, etc. Could he compute the likelihood that this particular sequence of events would happen to me, or to anyone else? According to his own argument, it would be very small, maybe one in ten followed by thirty zeros, and yet it was that, exactly, what happened to me. Was it because I’m extremely lucky? I told him that the problem with his sources is that they don’t know the requirements for meaningful application of probability theory: they just fill their mouths with big words without having a notion. No way to make Gus see the light. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Intelligent design is too precious for him, and it’s easy to understand why. If God, my roommate’s close friend, has designed this whole caboodle, He will surely be nice enough to save him from his fast-spreading cancer.
“Buddy, are you awake?” calls my roommate.
“Here I am,” I reply to the call from God’s close friend.
“Tell me, you’re a hunter?”
“No, I’m not.”
“How ’bout fishing?”
I am aware that if I answer that on top of not being a hunter I’m not an angler either, that will irretrievably ruin me in the eyes of my roommate. On the other hand, I’m averse to lies, so I reply, “I used to fish when I was a kid,” which I vaguely remember doing a few times.
“Oh, what did you fish for?”
I don’t remember ever fishing for anything in particular, so I pick at random: “Rainbow trout.”
“Yes, I fly fished in the mountain lakes and streams of Patagonia,” I add so as to make it more believable, but in the end, I’m afraid, less so. How did I ever get into this mess? To change the subject ever so slightly I ask, “What do you hunt, deer?”
“Mostly. I’ve spent my happiest hours hunting, in camouflage, up a tree in the middle of the woods, waiting very quietly with my Remington ready.”
Gus’ sudden lyricism has taken me by surprise. I didn’t think it was within his style. I can feel in his voice, in his words, his attachment to life, his memories bubbling up, his trying to reach for happiness from what is likely to be his deathbed. Is it my auditory hallucinations again? No, it’s Gus’ sobs. “My life is over,” I hear him whisper.
“You believe in God,” I say after a while, conscious that I’m trying to console a man the age of my sons, “you trust Him. You must trust, too, that He will bless you, that you will be forever among the blessed, and when the time comes you will be reunited with your wife and your kids.”
“I know, I know,” says my roommate, restraining a last sob. “I do, I put my trust in the Lord. Only, you see, I don’t think there’s gonna be any deer hunting in paradise.”
I laugh. Gus laughs too. Then we remain separately thoughtful, listening to each other’s breathing. I suddenly remember something written by a man who was also an Albany native, Henry James Sr., the father of William, Henry and Alice:
“It is no doubt very tolerable finite or creaturely love to love one’s own in another, to love another for his conformity to one’s self: but nothing can be in more flagrant contrast with the creative Love, all whose tenderness must, by definition, be reserved only for what intrinsically is most bitterly hostile and negative to itself.”
But that I will not tell my roommate.