At best, they were rough men. My house had known my rough men. They denuded in the living room and enjoyed themselves in the bedroom, perhaps cleaned and pissed in the bathroom. Mostly, they were young. They saw nothing else. I never let rough men roam my home, if I could help it.
"Meaning no disrespect," the lead said as he scanned the cabinets with a flashlight, "but this needs to be spotless. You are going to have a major problem, if you don't clean up."
This was my mother's house. I had taken it over after her death two years before. She would get me for letting rough men see it in this condition.
I bled through September. Broke, unable to get money, concerned about food, I saw my nose bleed one Saturday night. I know my ear bled some time that day, because, in the morning, I cleaned out dry blood. Earlier, the previous week, I found my undershirt stained with blood at the shoulder, as if by profuse bleeding.
My doctor had me in that Wednesday. He was an older German Catholic internist in St. Louis. Though not in St. Louis and hardly old, my friend was a German Catholic. I suppose that is why I liked Dr. Flotte. He made time to humor me.
"I don't see anything," he said. "There seems to be some irritation in your ear and nostril, but no sign of bleeding."
"I know what I saw, Doctor. There was dry blood in my ear, and the nosebleed was rose."
He was kind enough not to show he was too tickled by that one. "Your blood is a bit more elevated than normal for you, but not in the hypertensive range. We'll do a blood test."
"Will that check for leukemia?"
"That, and for anemia as well. Might be just a vitamin deficiency."
I would have brought the undershirt, if I had found it.
My illness has always caused me difficulty in the fall, but not like this. This is its new, frightening world. Even Aldous Huxley would cower here.
I want no one to see me like this. I will never accept being seen in this world.
Fall is my petulant pill.
I should call him "Oliver." That is a cute name. Once, when I entered my kitchen, he ducked into the oven vents and waved good-bye. Last I saw him, he slipped into the crack beneath the front door. I know he has been here. He left his calling cards, even in my bed. Each time, I had swept them to the floor, but, when I returned with the broom and dust pan, they were not there. Not even a pee streak.
How could Oliver explain that?
"How is the downstairs, compared to this?" the lead rough man asked.
"About the same. A little more organized, perhaps."
Slowly, they went into the basement, kicking everything before they stepped. Nothing moved. The assistant rough man dropped bait.
"We're going slow because you never know where they are hiding," the lead rough man said. "Don't want one to jump on you."
"Might one have come in last night, then left?"
He didn't even look at me. "No one would come in here and leave. There is too much for him. He could come in here, camp out, and have the time of his life. If we could find some droppings, at least we would know what kind of rat we are dealing with."
I know what I saw in my bathroom. It was a black rat, of the Bigger Thomas kind. Heard it gnawing in my kitchen, too. If these turkeys can't find it, I'd just have to get someone else.
I had called him a couple times the previous weeks. I needed someone German Catholic to talk to. He was working on an exam, the silence of his university cell deafening. I could hear his door close.
"I need to do something about my blood pressure."
"Do you have high blood pressure?" he asked.
"Mine has always been low." I could have told him that my grandmother always brought her blood pressure cuff when I was a boy and, each time I was sick, she smiled that my pressure was perfect. "My medication suppresses it so much, my G. P. doesn't want me to drive."
"Low pressure. Gee. Do you know what you can do to raise your blood pressure?"
He laughed his jealous laugh, so pregnant. He had had a bone to pick with Cody ever since the kid registered for my summer class.
"We just play golf."
"Golf!" he scoffed. "How many woods does he have?"
"Four," I said. "Three in the bag and one above the bag."
Something told me if we talked like this long before, he wouldn't have gone north to get married. He would never believe Cody had flown back to Arizona, after graduation, and disappeared. We were swinging, this conversation. Might as well go further on the limb.
"Actually, peppermint sticks raise my blood pressure. Could you put one in your pocket and bring it?"
He laughed. "You're crude. You're a crude man, John!"
"How is that crude?"
I liked talking to him. He liked talking to me, I suppose. I called him often during football season, because my head really hurt.
On the appointed day, I called the internist. Even now, I can see him tilting his head, because his arm could only grow so much longer.
"Your vitamin and iron levels, and blood counts are all normal," he said. "We can rule out anemia and leukemia with these results."
"But, I bled."
"As I had said, you may have blown it too hard, or picked it too much. But these results show no sign of disease."
Whatever. I know I was sick. I am sure of it. I need a cigarette.
I smelled gas leaking from my oven. Did Oliver turn it on?
He offered nothing.
It was singular, perfect, an entomologist's dream. Legs, three pair, antennae working from the head, an oval, segmented body, healthy enough to roll dung. It came from under a sofa cushion. It looked around, then headed back.
I suppose it made its rounds. Mom would kill me for bringing a cockroach into her house.
Luckily, I had my Raid. Can in hand, I pulled off the cushion. Then the next one. Then the next one. No roach, no eggs, no dust. Where on Earth did they go?
Yesterday, I called. He was in town for the holidays. "Could you come by tomorrow? I have something I must discuss with you."
"I got some time now," he said. "I can be there in a few minutes."
He was on the other side of town. He had to borrow his mother's car. He arrived almost as fast as I, when my mother made a similar call. With him was his son, a six year old learning Chinese. Why did he do that? I didn't want to upset the boy. Besides, I hadn't done the bathroom.
He sat on my sofa. It seemed he had taken his happy pill.
Bill, tell Danny it wasn't a malapropism. Tell Danny, when he was Veep, he got the line right. "What a tragic thing it is to lose one's mind." Write it down for Danny, Mister Kristol. Tell him I said he had it right. Still.§
Before being worked into invalidity, my mother was a psychiatric social worker with the State of Illinois for over thirty-five years. For a good twenty years on the job, she worked with the Guardianship and Advocacy Commission, providing guidance to those assigned to safeguard the affairs of those adjudicated incompetent.
Almost ten years after Mom's retirement, with Mom long gone, I still knew the local office's number. I left a message. It wasn't an opaque message. "How does one become a guardian and may the insane state a preference?" As of yet, no answer. It was as if my question came from Mars. Perhaps the commission office is busy with Governor Hot Rod. Now, if I am a schiz case, he is past la-la-land.
I still have my question. Perhaps, in the new year, someone will call.
Please, don't leave me alone like this.
For New Year's Eve, I made brownies. The mix was simple, something I had done several times before, even if I am no baker. I let them cool on the stove. They did so easily, and they were remarkably good. I went to bed before the firecrackers and shooting started. Come the next morning, the brownies looked as though something had nibbled on them. Oliver, perhaps. Strangely, though, there was a calling card.
I threw the brownies away.
Minds never leave suddenly. They go as fits, like a death rattle, raging. Then, come dawn, we are gone.
I will go with it before I would let it go without me.
I am afraid I have smelled something dead. It is in the walls. I knew it is not here, really. I know I am the only thing alive here. How do I tell myself?
There. It is gone.
On the second day, the rough men returned. By then, I knew where that black rat went.
"From your conversation at your previous visit," I began, "I gleaned that you are of the opinion that this rat exists nowhere outside my head."
The lead rough man wasn't rough about it. He was quite gentle. "We found no gnawing, no droppings. Nothing."
"You may take your traps."
What did I do yesterday? Rising, I mailed a book. I baked brownies. I made beef stew and froze the remaining rib roast. I read something. I must have read something. Then, in the end, I drank what little vodka I had in the house. If my next medicine costs as much as what I have now, it will be Prohibition before I am able to drink vodka again.§
After lunch, having seen his boyhood home and the jazz trumpeter's birthplace, he drove me home. We were alone.
"You know how I feel," I said. "How do you feel?"
He paused. "I love you as a child of God."
"You know that is not what I meant."
He paused again. Thought happened there. "I am not the queer."
So he said.
Bitterness is this world.
The news raised the first pique in my psychiatrist. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I just thought I had vermin in my house."
Then, calm came. "Okay. This is what we will do until you can see me."
Oliver didn't eat the brownies. I did. I must have gotten up early in the morning, in the night, perhaps, and used a spoon. That is the sole explanation. I have not the least memory of it, but that is the only way that could have happened.
A mind compelling the body to do without telling itself it made it be done. Imagine the implications. What else might I make myself do? It is appalling.
No one must ever know me like this.
On the second day, I dug the brownies from the garbage and presented them to the rough men. "What does this look like?"
"It looks like something had eaten it."
Gratefully, I had an intelligent one. I threw the brownies back into the garbage. "Thank you."
I had bleach in the house. I could kill myself, thinking it was water. Bleach must go to hell.
For an unQueer, he had an impotent handshake. It felt like shaking raw liver.
"Can't you make it firmer?"
"She asks that all the time," he said.
I let that hand go. Really, I should have asked him if his old priest gets his jollies from that. Knowing his old priest, like all of his old priests, he does.
"You got nothing to be jealous about," he said once. "He's widowed and has four children our age."
He still needed to firm-up that handshake. Become a man, for once!
As a little boy, I was frightened to go outside in the dark. Horrible things breed in the dark. Ghosts. Monsters. Aliens from Mars. By the time I was seven, I had the idea a space ship would whisk me away, if alone, and do all kinds of earthly experiments. I needed someone out there to watch me.
It stayed until I was in college. How was I to realize I feared bogeymen.
Considering that, Oliver is not so unusual.
In the middle of January, sitting in my living room as the wind outside brought Canada for a visit, I felt a spring rain on my hand. My hand cooled, accordingly. I knew it was not spring. I knew it was not raining. Neither my ceiling nor my roof had a hole.
I knew it was a hallucination. Had my mind gone so far I must bear that, too?
When he called, I told him the truth. "They are more real than you."
"Are you saying I am not real, John?"
"You said I am the queer."
I never want anyone to see me like this. It is not just a matter of distinguishing reality from fantasy. It is as much an inability to discern other people's reality. Real is real for us. Real is more real than you. How more real can hallucinations be?
I want no one to see me like this. What would it be to kiss Death, holding his knees, like suppliants do? Time to fear a schizophrenic is when I stop talking.
"Are you still there?" he asked.
"The cell phone went dead and you didn't say anything, so—" He was heading home after the evening mass. There must have been snow on the ground. Drive carefully. "I'd give a big damn if you're not here."
Today tries its pleasantness, for a Sunday. A viola plays on the radio. Were I a weller man, I would want to dance. But, my semester, now started, is a failure. My poor college students, even those from before, do not know me. I am my own lost connection, denied the things taken for granted by the common man: a pair of eyes catching hold of my fleeing shadow.
Where are you, Oliver? At least, you kept me company. Instead of you, I am haunted by ghosts—spooks, really, just my relics. Sometimes, I try speaking to them. A student was curious about "Conrad," a name I uttered this past Friday. He is too young for such a question. He will never be told about Oliver. His questions, and my response, provide him some perspective in seeing me, like moving to Vermeer's The Lacemaker, a polychrome featuring pink and abracadabra.
Here is my schizophrenic fear: come Christmas, sat quiet in a corner, slipped, I should blend into the sole color.