Slackjaw: The Purgatory War

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.


"I WOULD like an EEG,
please."

I’m
not sure it came out exactly the way I intended it to, but there you go. The
guy behind the counter knew what I meant.

I was back
at the hospital for the latest round of brain scans to try and find out just
why in the hell my legs were going all rubbery on me. The man behind the counter
told me to go take a seat and wait, which I did.

After I
stepped away from the counter, an old man began arguing loudly with an old woman
in a wheelchair. Something about where he was parked, and the fact that he couldn’t
wait around much longer. It was hard to tell if they were related in any way,
or if he was just the livery cab driver who got her here. Their voices rose,
as did the voice of the man behind the counter, telling them to keep it down,
and that they had no choice but to wait like the rest of us.

Suddenly,
the old man crammed his hat down tight on his head and stomped out the front
doors of the hospital, leaving the old woman in the wheelchair behind.

Now alone,
she muttered, "He doesn’t care." The man behind the counter concurred.

I sat back
on the couch and waited, figuring it would be a while. Two weeks earlier, it
took 45 minutes, and now the hospital’s registration lobby was much busier
than it had been then, when I’d come in for an MRI. The line at the desk
was much longer; the doctors, nurses, orderlies and visitors crossing back and
forth in front of me were much more harried.

I heard
the hiss of rubber wheels and looked up. Two orderlies were pushing a gurney
past me. On the gurney was a patient–or what had recently been a patient.
The white sheet covered it from head to foot. And a large, clear-plastic sheet
was draped over that. They rolled it through the lobby, through the front doors
to the sidewalk and out of sight.

My initial
reaction was a straightforward, "Oh–there’s a corpse." It
wasn’t until a few minutes later, still sitting there watching and listening
to the people around me, that it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t
such a hot idea to go rolling corpses past several dozen people waiting to get
blood tests.

When my
name was called, instead of returning to the front desk, a middle-aged woman
gestured for me to follow her into a back room. Uh-oh, I thought. There’d
been some insurance strangeness throughout this whole process, and I was sure
I was about to be given some bad news.

I followed
her into a side office, then to a cubicle, where we both sat down. I pulled
out every card, every relevant piece of paper I could find, and placed them
on the desk between us. "There," I said, waiting for the axe.

But there
was no axe. Everything was fine. She typed the information into her computer.

"And
your wife’s name is Laura?" the woman asked suddenly.

"What?!"
I sputtered at her. Suddenly all my recently increasing paranoia about government
databases came charging into my brain. My hands went numb. "How
did you know that
?" I demanded. "Why is that on there?"
I wanted to ask her what other personal information about me she had in that
file, but stopped, explaining instead–and more calmly–that we had
been divorced many years ago. Still–why did they have my ex-wife’s
name on there?

"You’ve
been here before," she said, looking at the screen.

"No
I haven’t–two weeks ago was the first time I’ve ever been in
here."

"You’ve
been here many times," she insisted patiently.

It was as
if the channel had suddenly been switched from The Prisoner to
The Twilight Zone. Was I dead? Was that it? Was I in purgatory?
Christ, I don’t even believe in purgatory!

Then I remembered–back
in ‘91 or ‘92, I had been there. I’d had a fever of 106 and couldn’t
stand up. It turned out to be an inner ear infection. I’d come here then.
That explained everything. I relaxed.

"Whoa,"
the woman said, chuckling, as she removed my ex-wife’s name from their
files. "Good thing Morgan wasn’t here for that, huh?"

Ten minutes
later (after becoming horribly lost on the elevator), I found my way to another
waiting room. Since there was an EEG underway, I had to wait down the hall in
the liver-disease department. The room was crowded, but I found a seat by the
door, after being told the EEG lady would come and get me when it was my turn.

Hanging
from the ceiling in the middle of the room was a large and extremely loud television.
That show where the table-rapper pretends to talk to dead people was on. I began
to think again that maybe I really was in purgatory.

"Oooh,"
the Jamaican woman next to me said, "Aah haayt dees mon. Jes haaytum."
She stood and moved to a chair directly beneath the television, I guessed so
she wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. That didn’t stop her from
complaining about it, though.

"Mon
say he talk to de dead. Boolshit, ah say. And yoo people watchin!"

Nobody paid
any attention to her. They just kept watching.

I’ve
had EEGs before, and so I wasn’t worried. Which is odd, given that my previous
EEG experiences were nightmares. In the first, I was told to stay up all night,
then show up at the hospital by 6 a.m. There, an angry woman undertook a half-hour-long
assault on my scalp with pencils, hot glue and about two dozen electrodes, all
the while complaining about how her department was understaffed. She then yelled
at me for 45 minutes because I wasn’t falling asleep while the test was
on (which, I guess, was the goal). When it was over, she removed the electrodes
from my scalp with a single, sharp yank and sent me on my way, my hair still
full of glue. By the time I got home, I wasn’t really sure I’d ever
be able to get my hat off again.

As the second
EEG got underway a few months later, the electrodes were re-attached to my head.
Instead of being told to lie down and go to sleep, however, all the wires from
all those electrodes trailed away from my head and were plugged into a large
tape recorder that was attached to my belt. I was then told to leave the hospital
that way, and go about my daily business for the next three days.

So that’s
what I did. I went to work, I went to the store, I went to bars with some 20
wires spiraling out of my head and into a tape recorder on my belt.

I don’t
know if the results helped the doctors at all, but I was always assured a seat
on the bus.

Those EEGs
were both more than ten years ago. This one here had to be simpler, I figured.

I was worried
at first when I was ushered into the tiny EEG room. The large woman who ran
the place seemed to be in a foul mood. You just don’t want someone to be
in a foul mood when they’re going to be sticking electrodes into your head.

As she prepared
the padded dentist’s chair I’d be sitting in, she asked if I’d
ever had one done before. I told her I had.

"Good,"
she said, "Then you know what to expect."

"Oh,
I don’t know about that," I told her, before describing my earlier
experiences. She listened, and smiled, and suddenly became much more pleasant.
She became even more pleasant when she saw what was in my pocket.

"You’re
a smoker," she said.

"Yes…
I guess I am." I knew I was in for a lecture. What smoking had to do with
my brain, I didn’t know, but I was sure I was about to find out.

"I
haven’t had a cigarette all day," she said. "Do you suppose…
I could bum one from you?"

I reached
into my pocket, pulled out a smoke and handed it to her. With that, we were
fast friends.

"You
can sneak out and have it now if you like," I offered.

"No–I’m
gonna save it. You’re my last patient of the day, and I’m out of here
at 4:30. If I went and had it now, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much."

She set
about the business of attaching the electrodes to my scalp, my forehead, my
earlobes and my wrist. The process has changed considerably over the past decade.
Instead of a wall filled with machines that make a horrible racket, everything
now plugs directly into a single desktop computer. And the hot glue was gone,
too.

She reclined
the chair I was sitting in, turned out the lights and took a seat in front of
the monitor. It was silent, except for the hum of the computer, the occasional
clicking of the strobe light above my head, and James Brown performing a 20-minute
version of "The Payback" on the radio.

My God,
I thought as I lay there, my hands clasped on my chest, my eyes closed, this
is purgatory!

Then the
lights came on, the volume of the radio went up, and she told me that I could
open my eyes–it was over. I glanced at my watch–it had been nearly
45 minutes. It hadn’t seemed that long at all.

Much to
my surprise, after gently removing the electrodes from my skull, she washed
the glue out of my hair.

"Wow,"
I said, "That last lady didn’t do that–just sent me out with
my hair all full of glue."

"Well,
I don’t need anyone out there badmouthing me," she explained. "Don’t
need anyone telling people there was something I didn’t do." She laughed,
but she had a point. It was nice to see someone–especially in a hospital–who
still took pride in her work.

After washing
the glue out of my hair, she combed it (despite my telling her it really wasn’t
necessary) and sent me on my way. She never once mentioned what sort of readouts
she was seeing on her monitor, and I left the hospital again, wondering–as
I had two weeks earlier–if the person running the test had simply been
afraid to tell me they had seen something really awful.

 

Jim Knipfel’s
latest book–and first novel–
The Buzzing (Vintage, $12) has
just been released. Here’s what Thomas Pynchon had to say about it: "The
Balzac of the bin is at it again. With this paranoid Valentine to New York–and
to a certain saurian colossus noted for his own ambivalent feelings about large
cities–Mr. Knipfel now brings to fiction the welcome gifts which distinguished
his previous books–the authenticity, the narrative exuberance, the integrity
of his cheerfully undeluded American voice."

..