by Kim Rush
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
Edgar Allan Poe
Hermes, the messenger, sends you this story.
Archibald Hermes pinched his thumb and forefinger together in a hopeless attempt to grab the little silver slip of paperfoil that would open the seal of the tiny creamer container. The greasy plastic container felt as if it would either slip away or collapse between his fingers. He swore at the maddening thing, put it to his mouth, lifted a strip of the seal off between his teeth, spit the foil to the air, and squeezed the tiny gulp of white creamer like a ripe pimple into the black coffee.
Steam rose from the mouth of the styrofoam cup as Archibald stirred the plastic spoon around. The sides of the cup shuddered with each stir, reminding Archibald of the shakes he got when he had to fly. The engines of a Boeing 747 roared outside the airport restaurant’s window, pulling Archibald’s head away from the shuddering cup. He stared out the window as the plane pulled away from him. In a flaming burst of fuel from the engines, the big plane raced down the runway and lifted so slowly into the winter sky.
It seemed to hang motionless in the air for an impossible time and finally moved up toward the clouds, marking the morning sky with its vapor trail. Archibald stared at it as he lifted the coffee to his lips and grimaced as the hot liquid slid down his throat. His empty stomach seemed to constrict like a clenched fist at its contact with the bitter coffee. For a moment he considered another container of creamer, but decided against it for the quiver the foil had given to his tongue.
The roar of the airplane faded from Archibald’s mind into the noisy restaurant clatter. Archibald sucked in a breath of the restaurant’s stale air as he turned away from the window and breathed it out slowly as he watched the mad scrambling of people for their planes. A steady line of passengers swarmed down the terminal hallway outside the open mouth entrance of the restaurant. Archibald hated to fly, but his medical equipment sales job demanded it of him. He had to keep making that money–alimony, child support, clothes for the kids, insurance, rent for an apartment he barely knew, car payments, credit cards, and the expenses of living in a world of expenses; running down that narrow rut of twentieth century man. He had enough Frequent Flyer miles to fly to any vacation spot in the world ten times over, but he had no time to do it–and, of course, it would mean flying.
The stocky waitress returned with Archibald’s fried eggs and hash browns. She squeaked the styrofoam plate down in front of him and asked if there would be anything else. He shook his head no and she placed the check on the table, turned and walked away without a smile, without any interest at all. Archibald watched her. He had seen this in hundreds of airports all over the world. To her, he was just a moment in a tough day on the job. He wasn’t a fellow human, but just a common dollar; a tip–maybe.
Archibald tried to stab a cluster of hash browns with the flimsy plastic fork, but the tines spread away from the crispy, brown potatoes. He scooped some up into his mouth. He mashed the egg yolks with the fork and spread the yellow fluid over the potatoes like his ex-wife had always done. It was good. A high-pitched beeping sounded in his suit coat’s pocket. Archibald pulled the pager out of his pocket and sighed. The red LED display showed his secretary’s number. Archibald crammed another mouthful of egg-saturated potatoes into his mouth and rummaged in his carry-on bag for his mobile phone. The damn thing was the size of a brick and weighed even more, but Head Office insisted that their reps have the latest gadgets so the clients would know that the company was “on the cutting edge”–what passed for humor in the medical supply business.
“Archibald, this is Shirley. You have a ton of messages here. Want me to hook you up to your computer?”
“I’m doing fine, Shirley. How ’bout you?” Archibald said dryly. He remembered how in the “olden” days he had to chase down phones to get his messages. Martha, the old secretary, now retired, would always greet him with some small talk and questions about what he was eating and how he was sleeping, or would joke about who he might be sleeping with. Shirley’s voice, however, cooed pleasant and isolated; far, far away from knowing him. He shrugged. That’s what his ex had told him: “It’s 1990–but you can’t get past the past.”
“Yeah. Hook me up,” he said to the distant voice. He brushed aside the novels that half-filled his bulky carry-on bag, and pulled out his lap-top computer. Like the mobile phone, it was the latest thing; half the size and weight of the old Compaq “luggable”, it usually impressed the hell out of any clients who saw it. Of course, it cost as much as a pretty decent car… He had hoped to have his breakfast in peace, but had chosen a table that had a power outlet within reach. He plugged in the computer, opened it, and set the phone down into the modem cradle. The screen lit up and the “HOOKED” signal flashed in the upper right corner. Archibald touched the necessary keys and glowing green text marched slowly across the screen. He sipped his coffee and read down the list that Shirley had typed into the office computer for him–the way of the 1990 modern world; electronic and nonhuman.
Angel of Hope Hospital in San Diego, California:
back order of seven hundred sagittal saw blades; needed immediately.
Bush Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Illinois:
standard order of ortho scopes and hip prostheses; needed immediately.
West Ten Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: five gross of tooth implants; needed immediately.
John Miller: needs three cadavers for exhibition at Kansas City Happyday Inn: Adult, one male and female, one child, male.
Chris Sandy: needs body parts for doctors’ convention at the Caddson in Chicago; one adult, upper chest with intact shoulders, three adult right legs for artificial leg tendons.
Lilith and her attorney have filed a court order to increase alimony and child support; hearing on January 20th; you must be present.
The Friend of the Court: an order to garnish wages.
He would have to get this new contract now. He needed the money. Archibald wryly considered a prayer to his namesake god, Hermes. As a child Archibald had read of Hermes and then considered Hermes as his personal god: Hermes, the god of eloquence, boundaries, crossing boundaries, thieves, and above all, a god of pranks. A risky god who also was charged to guide the dead. Archibald liked that humanness of the Ancient Greek gods. “Okay, Hermes, give me a break, change my luck and give my language power,” Archibald said aloud, and with a touch of a finger broke the phone connection.
“Give me peace,” Archibald said and sipped at his coffee. He was tired of fighting with Lilith. He missed the kids. He didn’t want to make another sale. He considered his job and wondered why body parts and the idea of cutting on bodies no longer bothered him. It hadn’t bothered him for a long time, he realized. He sat and stared at the vacant screen on the little computer. He snapped the computer lid shut.
Archibald grunted as if he had been kicked. The clattering sounds of the restaurant began to fade away. The bitter taste from the coffee no longer puckered his tongue. The smoky-greasy restaurant smell disappeared. He no longer felt the gritty plastic seat under his fingertips. This sent a shiver of fright through him. He wanted to get away, but he knew he couldn’t. He just… He felt overwhelmed and protectively withdrew his awareness into himself. He no longer perceived the restaurant. He felt a thick, palpable skin begin to grow over his brain like hot butterscotch being poured over grey matter ice cream. With an instant clarity, he understood that if this growth were to completely enclose his brain, he would no longer be. Or would he, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, turn into an insect; trapped–or safe–in a hard shell? He considered this with a mental grin. He sat still and let it happen.
The waitress shuffled between the counter and a table and came over to Archibald. He sat motionless. “Anything else, Sir?” She asked him. “Sir? Sir, are you all right?” She stooped down to look into his vacant eyes. “Hey Vinny!” She yelled to the restaurant manager in the kitchen. “Call security! I think this guy’s unconscious or dead!”
Archibald unknowingly rode the red flashing ambulance to City General Hospital where he was tested for drugs and then given drugs. He remained unresponsive and was admitted to the isolation ward after an insurance card was found in his wallet. He was assigned to the intern on duty who was told by the admitting doctor to run the usual gamut of tests.
The tests were completed and, outside of having high cholesterol and high blood pressure, Archibald was normal. Archibald remained at the hospital for three months where he was given the nickname, “The Stiff.” The hospital and insurance company soon began a legal battle that the insurance company eventually won, and Archibald was moved to a less expensive state-run mental institution. He received more drugs and finally electric shock was tried; again no response. Archibald simply was.
Soon, Archibald was forgotten; he became part of the daily routine; something that needed washing with the timed plugging in of intravenous bottles. He remained unresponsive to all stimuli and was marked by the doctor who saw him every two weeks as: “Vegetative state. Reason, unknown. Prognosis: all known treatment has failed.” Archibald, however, had brought with him his nickname and soon all of the people at the institution knew him as “The Stiff” in room two-twenty-seven.
Eventually, Archibald swam up through the hazy vestiges of memories, thoughts, and emotions into a fuzzy, grey consciousness. He felt himself struggling up out of his brain stem into the roomy cavity of the cerebral cortex. But he couldn’t access any sensory perception. In a moment of panic he slammed around and around in the skin envelope like a fly in a bottle. Madness! Madness! MADNESS! He mentally screamed in his new tiny world. I have to be mad, he thought and slammed around and around, and consciousness was beaten away mingled in a line from King Lear that he remembered from a college English class: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods; / They kill us for their sport.”
The next time he filtered back into thought, Archibald was ready for the confinement. While in the unconscious state, his brain had come to the layman’s conclusion that, if he was aware of himself being mad, then he really wasn’t. He focused his scattered thoughts and began to wonder and think about what had happened to him. He remembered the restaurant and the closing, but nothing more. What had happened? What had happened? He asked himself over and over until the words lost their meaning and became mere phonetic thoughts.
It had happened and I’ve got to do something about it, he reasoned. But what? In all of the many books he had escaped into while being strapped to an airplane seat, he had never read of anything like his experience. But I’m still thinking. I have no sensory perception, but I still can think. But with no perception–he hesitated and then forced himself to ask the question. Am I dead? And then the thought–But what is death?
He mauled over these questions like a dog with a raw-hide chew stick. And finally, Descartes’ line, “I think, therefore I am.” convinced Archibald of his being. Once he decided that he wasn’t dead–or, at least, that he still existed, his mind cleared and his thinking became acute. He understood that out of the three human abstracts that make humanity what it is–the ability to think, the creation of linear time, and the perception of space–he still had the most important one: he still could think. Granted, he no longer could perceive time or space, but he still could think. And was it not thinking that created the other two human abstracts? Space–reality–was that not created by perceptual organs–the eyes, ears, nose, skin, the tongue and mouth, nerves? All of what made him Archibald Hermes. Were they not simply instruments that collected stimuli for the brain, thus making the brain’s thought process the controlling power over reality?
And time? Was that not also a human abstract created only in the human mind? After all, had anyone ever lived outside of the present? There was no such thing as the future because it could never be perceived. And the past was made up of memories of actions that had taken place only in the present. It was all in the mind. Reality was only in the mind and, therefore, reality was controlled by the mind.
Thought, then, was true reality.
With this logical revelation, Archibald stopped his incessant reasoning and focused on a visual image of a place where he would like to be–a place of peace–the childhood summer beach house on the coast of Maine.
The heart monitor’s jumping light began to skip and flatten, skip and flatten, skip and flatten, and finally went flat-line. Mary, at the nurses’ station, watched it for a moment and then punched the code ninety-nine button, looked at the doctor-on-duty list, called Doctor Jamison to room two-twenty-seven, and grabbed the code ninety-nine cart on her run to the room.
Archibald imaged the beach house in his mind, but felt a resistance against his mental push. It felt like trying to stick a finger through a balloon. It gave, but held. He pushed harder.
The code ninety-nine team converged on room two-twenty-seven and went to work on Archibald. Doctor Jamison ordered three units of epinephrine. With syringe in-hand she plunged the needle into the intravenous line and squeezed the stimulant in. “Ready the paddles, just in case,” she said to Mary. The code ninety-nine siren wailed.
Archibald felt a surge of energy and pushed harder against the resistance. It expanded and gave way a little more.
“Ready the paddles. Level twelve. This guy’s not going to make it,” Doctor Jamason said. She took the paddles from Mary. “Clear!” She ordered and touched the paddles to Archibald’s chest, shooting the electric current to his heart.
Archibald burst free from the resistance. He felt himself hurtling away from all that he had ever known–all that he ever was.
The heart monitor remained in its flat line run. Doctor Jamison didn’t try again. “He’s gone,” she said. The crew stood still for a moment as if to take a breath and then began to fold up the code ninety-nine equipment and rolled it away. Doctor Jamison glanced at her watch and noted the time of death. “Shut that siren off, Mary,” she ordered and walked from the room to record the time on Archibald’s chart. Mary pulled the sheet up over Archibald’s face and left the room. She went to the phone at the nurses’ station and punched in the number to the morgue. As she stood there with the receiver to her ear, she grinned self-consciously at herself when she thought of telling the morgue that they had to come up and get “The Stiff” in room two-twenty-seven.
The image of the beach house splintered away and Archibald hurtled through a void trying to figure how to take the next step in this new crazy journey. I need some shape, some substance. He remembered his little league coach’s advice to him when he couldn’t hit the ball. “Visualize yourself standing at the plate, the ball coming in, and see yourself swinging and connecting with the ball.” It had worked then and it worked for Archibald now.
Archibald visualized his body and in a stunning wave sensory stimuli penetrated his mind. He found himself spinning, tumbling in a grey emptiness. The beach, he thought, and tumbled onto the sand. Eyes closed, he lay flat on his stomach in the sand feeling the wonderful grittiness of the sun warmed grains against his skin. He listened to the hiss and sizzle of the waves sliding onto the beach. He smelled the salty-fish smell of the Atlantic Ocean and he became aware of seagulls squawking in the air above. Hesitating a moment, afraid that it all would disappear, he opened his eyes and looked across the dirt-yellow waves of sand into the white bubbles of the surf.
He was back.
Archibald climbed up off the sand and looked around. He stood outside the summer cottage that he remembered so well; the place of childhood joy. He walked up onto the porch and, not sure what to do, knocked on the sea salt worn door. No one answered, so he turned the knob and went in. With the first look he knew he had entered his own world. He had created it, for the old black and white TV from the sixties sat on top of the coffee table in the family room. He had thrown that TV away. The cottage appeared just as he used to daydream about it as a twelve-year-old boy sitting in his boring Math class.
The worn Easy-boy chair looked inviting and Archibald sank into its familiar softness. He leaned his head back, but didn’t dare close his eyes. He didn’t want to lose his new perceptual anchor to the world. What had happened? He asked himself. With the anchor of perception, the words now had meaning. A form of reincarnation? Or, maybe, he sat as an image dream of the Hindu gods; an image in their dreams. If so, then, now, by creating this reality, had he become the image god?
An ocean breeze blew the front window curtains in a wavy salute to him. Just like the way he remembered it: sitting in the easy chair, listening to the ocean and birds outside, with the dry summer smell of the cottage stirring brain chemicals into memories. Archibald felt comfortable and at peace. He brushed sand off of his right leg and wondered if there were any clothes in the cottage that would fit him. He laughed and closed his eyes and visualized himself in his favorite summer clothes. He felt the soft cotton of the baggy shirt and shorts he loved so well before he opened his eyes. “I am a god,” he said to the empty room.
“I can have anything I want,” he continued his conversation with himself. “Well, then, I want a large, cold glass of iced tea.” A glass of tea appeared on the coffee table in front of him. Archibald lifted it to his lips and tasted the sweet Sassafras tea his mother used to make for him. He smiled, got out of the chair, and went back out to the porch swing to look at the calming ocean. The springs squeaked in the stretch as he lowered himself onto the swing. In his mind, he visualized a ham sandwich and some of that wonderful macaroni salad his ex-wife used to make for him. A plate with the sandwich and salad appeared on the porch banister in front of him.
Archibald sat and watched the ocean do its endless slap routine at the beach and ate his meal. He threw a crust of bread out for the seagulls to fight over. He felt like a sponge absorbing everything around him: the steely blue of the far out ocean, a sand crab scuttling to the water, the tangy taste of horseradish on the sandwich, the gulls squawking discordant bird music in the air, the eternal fishy-salty smell of the ocean, and the wonderful taste of the sweet, cold tea, all of which Archibald experienced with heightened acuity; all seemed new; all seemed grand.
He drained the last of the tea and sucked on an ice cube. With a flick of his wrist he scattered the ice cubes out of the glass onto the sand and watched the gulls fly in to investigate. He set the iced tea glass on the banister and with a smile, and a play of his new power, he closed his eyes and visualized it away. It still sat on the banister when he opened his eyes. “Ah, so thoughts are permanent,” he said to the gulls. “Thoughts truly are reality then.” He yawned and stretched out on the swing and closed his eyes. Man, I’m tired, he thought. I wish Lilith were here to rub my back like she used to do. Archibald shivered at a memory of Lilith’s arctic iciness the last time he saw her. A scream pierced the gentle calm and Archibald bolted upright to his feet. Lilith stood ten feet away from the porch with her arms across her naked breasts. She pointed an accusing finger at him and screamed, “You! You bastard! You did this! You son-of-a-bitch! What the hell have you done?” She turned and ran into the surf to cover her nakedness.
Archibald stared dumbfounded at her bouncing in the waves and burst into laughter. How, after twenty years of nakedness together, could she be so worried about him seeing her naked now? He laughed harder. His laughter seemed to peak and crash with Lilith’s screams until he felt tears come to his eyes. He sank down onto the swing and buried his face into his hands.
© 2009 Kim Rush, Published in 2009 Aphelion Webzine