MADMAN - John R. Suler, Ph.D. - copyright 1995

Chapter 13 - Boatmen


As I walked through the main lobby, I looked out the large plate glass windows into the parking lot. I just wanted a brief glimpse of my car and the hope of my eventual escape. Pausing for a moment, I caught sight of it.... and I also noticed something by the front of the car. It was too far away to see clearly. It was something almost UNDER the car! Was it moving... struggling? Was I seeing things? With my heart racing, I ran through the doors and into the parking lot - at first at a gallop, then much quicker as I got closer and realized there indeed was something under the front. There, sitting on the ground, his legs stretched out and wiggling merrily under the car, was Jon attaching a sticker to the bumper.

"Holy shit!" I said, trying to contain myself. "You scared me half to death!"

"Think optimistically," he answered casually, "you're still half alive." Out of the corner of his eye he saw that I was indeed upset. He stood up. "My apologies, Dr. Holden. I'm afraid I let my enthusiasm carry me away. You see, I've succeeded in obtaining for your parking pleasure a sticker to Lot O."

I felt more composed. My heart was slowing down. "Great - but I thought you were going to try to get a visiting clinician's sticker for lot A."

"My source said he could have provided me with two visiting clinician's stickers, if I wanted them. But I discerned he was holding back on me. He's never offered me two of anything. It was a ploy to distract me. I knew he had something even better, so I reminded him of his - well, let me say his debts to me."

"Debts? That sounds intriguing. What kind of debts?"

"Some arrangements concerning creative payrolling," he said as he moved to the rear bumper to place the companion sticker. "You see, I have friends in Personnel as well."

"You're amazing Jon."

He beamed. "I take great pride in being able to subvert, in my own small way, the bureaucratic system. So use it in good health, and be discreet."

"You mean I can't brag about it to my co-workers?"

"If your heart so desires, but you take the chance of getting caught."

"You mean WE get caught," I laughed.

"If YOU get caught," Jon smiled as he pointed to his security booth, "my office will disavow any knowledge of your actions."

"Aha! Desert me in a crisis, will you?"

"Pluck and duck, that's my motto."

"Don't worry, Jon, my lips are sealed - even if they threaten to draw and quarter me, even if they force me to do rational emotive therapy. By the way, Jon, where is Lot O?"

"Around the other side of the building, near the entrance to the library. I would wholeheartedly suggest that you relocate to that position immediately. If you so desire, you will be able to observe your vehicle from the inpatient unit. "

"Great. A constant reminder of the potential escape from work - which reminds me, I must get back to the dungeon. See you later."

"Farewell, dear prince - tell my maiden I await her."

I got into the Nova, which started up without a fuss, and drove along the one lane road around the side of the building, through the patch of the woods that extended down the hill and blended into the forest to the east of the Medical Center. As I came into the clearing, I saw O lot straight ahead of me - it was fairly small, right next to the hospital entrance, shaded by three large oak trees - prime real estate. I pulled in feeling privileged, and paranoid. Would anyone recognize me as an impostor? A Jaguar, a Plexus, a BMW - once again my Nova stood out like a mutant, the hideous dinosaur of automotive evolution that somehow escaped the junkyard. Two physicians standing next to a red Mercedes seemed to be glaring at me as I parked. One of them was holding an old leather bag - the kind family doctors used to carry to their housecalls. He opened it. For a flickering moment I imagined he would pull out a pistol, fire shots into the air, through my fenders, try to drive me out of his territory. Instead, he pulled out a watch. I sighed. Act like you belong here, and no one will suspect you. With glowing pseudo-confidence I stepped out of the car and strode to the hospital entrance. Along the way I noticed an old Ford Falcon with rusted wheel wells, peeling paint, and a front bumper twisted into a rather obscene form. It was a sign, and I smiled, for I knew I wasn't alone.

This was the first time I ever walked into the building through the rear entrance. I wasn't sure what to expect. The tiny mind of the electronic doors - maintaining its untiring vigilance through laser eyes - sensed my approach, commanded the doors to slide open, paused until I passed through, and slid the doors closed - once again fulfilling its purpose in life.

The lobby was smaller than that at the main entrance. On opposite walls hung high profile abstract art - to my left, a metal sculpture that resembled three boat propellers surrounded by a school of sperm, and, to my right, a huge canvas filled with delicate swirls of multi-colored pastels, at its very center one large, anomalous, disturbing black dot that seemed to lure the viewer into a bottomless hole. At the far end of the lobby stood large plate glass windows, trimmed with shiny chrome, that revealed the first and second floors of the medical library. Nestled comfortably into plastic study carrels, facing outward, a row of computer terminals blinked with their glowing green cursors, as if they were chattering to each other.

Smack in the middle of the lobby, mounted on a bright chrome platform, stood a marble statue of Hippocrates in a long, flowing robe, a scepter in one hand, a book in the other. His presence, no doubt, was intended to create an atmosphere of reverence, accomplishment, wisdom - but upon closer inspection, the subtle squint in one of his eyes and the upward twist at the corner of his mouth conveyed a different message, as if he were saying to himself, "Where the fuck am I?"

I didn't see an elevator, so I took the marble staircase that curved along the side of the lobby, up to the second floor of the library. Hippocrates eyes seemed to follow me as I climbed the steps.

"Are you going to leave me here?"

Sorry, old Doc.

Suddenly, I sneezed, and then again, and again. I hardly ever sneeze more than twice in a row - an omen of my impending cold.

"God bless you," Hippocrates said in silence.

The library was almost empty, which seemed odd for a medical center. Sitting at a large oak table, a medical student was buried up to his chin in journals - JAMA, Lancet, the New England Journal of Medicine. He was concentrating intensely on picking his nose. The librarian, an elderly woman with bifocals, sat on a stool at a computer terminal, her fingers resting lightly on the keyboard. Wistfully, she stared off into space, no doubt dreaming of the days of the Dewey Decimal System and rows of wooden card catalogs.

Outside the library, I found myself in an unfamiliar wing of the building. At one corner I lost my bearing and walked down a hallway that dead-ended onto a brick wall, as if the building's architect had made a mistake in his plans by drawing a corridor that went nowhere - but rather than redesigning it, simply capped it off and forgot about it. As I turned to make my way back out, I heard a door opening behind me. I looked over my shoulder. At the very end of the hallway, from a door barely visible from where I was standing, emerged a lanky, slightly hunched over man. He looked like he had slept in his corduroy jacket and missed his last appointment for a haircut. Despite his graying hair and weathered features, he looked like a slightly awkward adolescent. His arms were full with papers and folders chaotically stuffed into stacks of books. One of the volumes began to slip out the back of his arm. Grimacing, he backed up against the doorframe to nudge it back into place, only to upset the balance of books under his other arm. As he juggled them, trying to establish an equilibrium, he caught sight of me watching him. With a look of timid surprise, he darted back into the room. I heard the door close and the muffled sound of books hitting the floor. I had never seen him before, but I found myself liking him.

I found my way back to the corridor leading to the inpatient unit. As I got closer, a tense, aching sensation spread across the top of my abdomen. I thought about Cheryl exposing herself, about Elizabeth under the wheels of a mail truck. No! Put that out of my mind. I had to concentrate on my inpatients. I made a mental list of everything I had to do. As I passed the cluster of offices for the social workers, I stopped to see if Marion was in. Her door was closed. I could just barely hear a man crying inside the room, and Marion's calm voice smoothing over the jagged edges of his pain. In a way, I envied him.

The steel gray doors of the inpatient unit came closer and closer, staring back at me, waiting to draw me in. Fight or flight. I told myself I would not retreat, surely not physically, because I had no choice at that level - but I also refused to flee psychologically. I had a job to do, and I would do it. I had responsibilities. I was a professional.

The door was upon me. I confidently reached for the knob, instead grabbed a handful of air, and collided into the door. Narcissistically injured, I looked down to discover that there was no doorknob! At that moment the blade of a screwdriver snaked through the hole where the knob used to be. The lock clicked, the door opened.

Phil's face popped into view. "You run into things often, don't you," he chuckled.

I felt exasperated. "I should have know it was you!"

"You were expecting maybe St. Peter."

"No - the boatman on the River Styx." I pushed through the door and entered the Netherlands. Apparently the dinner carts had entered just moments before me. As the kitchen attendants unlocked the bars that secured the trays in their slots, a swarm of patients descended on the carts, their eyes filled with eager but suspicious anticipation about what the hospital had brought them tonight. The script was always the same:

"I didn't order jello!"

"Not chicken again!"

"If you don't want it, I'll take it."

"Remember to fill out the menu card next time."

Like birds around a feeder, one by one they plucked out their trays and returned to their respective niches.

A voice passed from left to right behind my head. "Your patients have been looking for you." It was Barb, swinging her coat onto her shoulders, making a b-line for the door. Nurses are abused by the hospital system, but unlike physicians, their self-righteous overlords, they get to go home on time.

"Your knight in shining armor awaits you!" I cried out.

I wasn't sure if she heard me, but the patients did. They thought I was speaking to them. They looked confused.

"No, um... I was talking to the, uh..." I pointed my thumb over my shoulder towards the door, but Barb had already disappeared. The patients just stared, within seconds lost interest, and turned their attention back to the food. One face remained focused on me. It was Rachel Finski. Holding a coke in one hand and a 7-up in the other, she scurried towards me, her arms thrust outward as if she were using the cans of soda to balance herself. "Doctor, doctor!"

It struck me that I was about to enter a conversation I would rather avoid.

"Doctor Knight, can I ask you a question?"

"My name is Dr. Holden."

"Oh... do you have any holy water?"

"No I don't. Do you... need some?" I regretted the question the second it left my lips.

"I need to replenish my fluids. It's very important."

"You seem to have plenty to drink right there."

"Oh, these will never do - caffeine, caramel coloring, artificial sweeteners, cyclamates - all those chemicals will surely clog my braindikes. Holy water will help clear out my axons and allow my spirit energy to flow much more freely."

"Uh... yeah..." I wasn't prepared for this.

"The flow of chi is most important, from one neuron to the other, from one chakra to another, around and around the body, freely, through the internal organs, and the blood brain barrier, and down to the feet, because the toes are connected to the knees, and the knees to the heart, and the heart to the cerebral cortex - "

Help! Someone get some thorazine. I tried to inch myself away.

"Rachel, I'd like to talk to you more about this, but I have to go."

Rachel side-stepped with me.

"Sometimes the energy tries to escape, through the joints, or the top of the head - stone age people thought this was good, so they used trephining. They cut holes in the top of your head with stone knives. It was mostly water evaporation. But modern science has shown that the energy must be circulated within the system. It must be concentrated in the vital ganglia."

Someone standing by the dinner cart caught my eye. It was Mr. Tennostein, motioning at me with his wobbly hand.

"Excuse me, Rachel, I have to talk to one of my patients. Maybe you should talk to your therapist about these things."

"I've spoken to him already. Dr. Lawrence is a kind person, but he's just a medical student and hasn't learned much about hydroneurology."

Holding his arms in front of himself like a preying mantis, and with the clumsy prancing gait typical of organic patients, Mr. Tennostein slowly drew closer to us. He had a wild look in his eyes and a half opened packet of ketchup in his hand.

"Doctor! The nurse told me that you're going to take away my driver's license."

"We were talking about that this morning, remember Mr. Tennostein?" I placed myself between him and Rachel, hoping she would take the hint that she was not to be part of this conversation - but she circled around me and continued listening intently.

"How can you do that? How can you take away my driver's license?"

"We can't do that Mr. Tennostein. Only the motor vehicle bureau or the court system can do that. All I'm saying is that we are worried about you. You've had a few minor accidents already, and we want to prevent a major one. Your concentration and coordination aren't what they used to be."

"Sounds neurological to me," Rachel added.

"Excuse us, Rachel." I took Tennostein by the arm and tried to steer him away.

"You're excused," she said pursuing us.

"Mr. Tennostein and I would like to talk alone for a while. Perhaps we should sit down over there in the library cubicle."

"I don't care if she listens," he said as he pulled his arm away from me. "In fact, I want a witness."

"I know you think that we're against you, that we're trying to take something away from you. But please believe me that we're trying to help. What we need now is more information. Did you go for the catscan today?"

Rachel's eyes opened wide. "I knew it! Braindike blockage!"

"A brain what?"

"Never mind, Mr. Tennostein. Did you get the catscan?"

"Yeah, but I won't let you take my driver's license away, and I won't tolerate any old-bag nurses coming to my home."

"Catscans are for detected micro-fish in the synapses," Rachel added.

"Please, Rachel, not now. Mr. Tennostein, let's wait for the results of the catscan. We can make those decisions about your license later. For now, maybe it would be a good idea for you to meet with our occupational therapist who can check you out to see how you do in the kitchen. You may need help cooking, or cleaning, or taking your medications. A nurse might be helpful."

"Florence Nightingale used cool water to soothe brain fever," Rachel said. She seemed to honestly believe she was making a valuable contribution to the conversation.

"I don't need a Florence Nightingale, or Albert Schweitzer, or Sigmund Freud. I just want to get out of here. I just want to be left alone."

As he shook his fist, my eyes followed the opened packet of ketchup aimed right at my shirt. I prayed I would survive this skirmish without a wound. My concentration on what to say next was broken by the humming of a battery powered motor. A warning signal flashed in my brain, but it was too late - the wheelchair bumped into the side of my leg, knocking me off balance. Kathy Mummom looked up at me, beaming with excitement.

"Dr. Holden, Barb told me that you might be giving me a pass soon."

"Oh, she did? Let's talk about that. I'll be with you in a minute, as soon as I'm finished talking to Mr. Tennostein."

"They're discussing Freud and synapse blockage," Rachel added.

"How come I haven't gotten any passes yet?" Mr. Tennostein said, still dangerously waving the ketchup packet.

"We should talk about that."

"He doesn't like to give passes - he just likes to talk."

"Now that's not true. I mean - Kathy, why don't you and Rachel sit down over there and talk for a while, until I'm done with Mr. Tennostein."

"Talk, talk."

"Talk does loosen up braindikes."

"I'm tired of talking. I want out of here - WITH my license and NO old-bag nurses."

"I really think we should divide up so I can talk to you people separately."

"Divided we fall, anyone want a coke?"

"I want a pass."

"A 7-up?"

"I want my license - "

"Later, Kathy."

" - and no old-bag nurses."

"I can have one later?"

"That's not what I meant."

"They're bad for the brain anyhow."

"Why won't you let me have one?"

"My brain isn't bad, it isn't!"

"Bad isn't the right word, it's just - "

"You think I'm still sick, don't you?"

"I didn't say that."

"You did, you said it is, you said it's - "

"But that's what you meant, you think I'm - "

" - deteriorating."

" - crazy."

" - blocked-up, that's all."

My thoughts locked like an overheated engine. Everyone fell silent. With the ketchup packet aimed squarely at my chest, Tennostein's hand began to shake, while Kathy restlessly fingered the trigger for the wheelchair motor. I just stood there for an eternal moment, for I knew it was coming, I knew I couldn't avoid it - the rap on the shin, the blob of tomato paste on my shirt, the embarrassment of having my professional facade effaced - the horror of my reason losing out to the forces of insanity.

"The movie's about to start!" The voice sailed across the room like an announcement of the Second Coming.

"Ooo! I think it's 'Jaws'!" Rachel squealed. "Let's go quick before the good seats are gone." Kathy's eyes lit up too. "Yeah, I love that movie." They both did an immediate about-face and sped off to the group room, leaving a befogged Mr. Tennostein behind, staring blankly at me, as if the sudden interruption had pressed the "delete" key in his brain. Not remembering exactly what it was he wanted from me, he lowered his hand that pointed the ketchup-gun at my shirt, turned around, and was slowly pulled towards the group room in the wake created by Rachel and Kathy.

to chapter 14



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