Slackjaw: The Purgatory War


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"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."


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