A checkup, I went for a checkup, a check-through, a ticket-of-leave. I went to get vetted, poked, prodded, my chest thumped, my knees knocked, my arm in that armband, pressure’s mourner. I went to get the speech, drop a few pounds, watch the vodka, the vodka tonics, the coffee, the cream.
The Philosopher was on the roster of my firm’s new plan. He looked at my chart, my numbers, my counts. He stifled a chortle, gave out a tiny semi-philosophical sigh.
"I’ll just be a jiff," he said.
He left me there on the checkup table, the paper sheet. I studied the pictures on his desk. He’d been to many beaches, stood in the shade of untold palm-tree stands. Jiff elapsed, the Philosopher returned with his colleague, the Mechanic. Together they reviewed the data from my chart.
Together, quite excitedly, they told me I was dying.
"Dying of what?" I said.
"We’re working on that," said the Mechanic. "We’ll have to get back to you on that."
They got back to me quite a bit.
We’d meet weekly in the Special Cases Lounge as I was such a Special Case. We sat on overstuffed sofas while a man in black surgical scrubs brought us tea and lemon cake.
"Can I get a drink around here?"
"Not officially," said the Philosopher, "but here."
He plucked a bronze flask from his coat.
"Brandy?" I said, sniffing it.
"Cognac," said the Philosopher. "With a dash of methamphetamine."
"Did you run those tests yet?" I said.
"Which tests would those be?" said the Mechanic.
"The ones you said you were going to run to get a better idea of how much time I had left."
"Have left," said the Mechanic. "You’re not dead yet."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Fascinating," said the Philosopher.
"We conducted the tests," said the Mechanic. "Frankly, they left us more baffled than before. Honestly, I can’t tell you anything more than we’ve already told you. You’re dying. You’re dying quite quickly. The rest is a mystery better explored in our upcoming book."
"Your book," I said. "I don’t give a rat’s ass about your book. What about the cure?"
"Cure for what?" said the Mechanic.
"You know damn well it doesn’t have a name," I said. "You’re the ones who didn’t name it."
"You see our problem," said the Philosopher. "Who’s going to grant us the time, the money, the facilities to research a cure for a nameless ailment from which one person presently suffers? What are we going to do, mount gala events to raise funds for the Fight to Save Steve from Whatchamacallit? By the way, how’s the hooch? The speed gives it a nice bite, right?"
"My name’s not Steve," I said.
"Maybe not, but my point stands."
"We need more clients," said the Mechanic. "Or patients, if you prefer. Until then, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ll do what we can."
"What’s in our powers."
When I phoned the clinic to confirm my next appointment the Mechanic took the call himself.
"We’ve got some exciting news," he said. "A breakthrough. I can’t tell you over the phone, though."
The next day the nurse led me past the Special Cases Lounge and through a slim metallic door. We stepped into a bright amphitheater, a room like a grooved well. The Philosopher and the Mechanic stood down at the bottom of it behind a semitranslucent scrim. Dozens of others filled the raked seats. Some craned back to catch my eye, nod, enact hopeful semaphore with their thumbs. The Philosopher stepped out from behind the scrim. A lectern rose into his hands from some hushed hydraulics in the floor.
"Good morning," he said. "Shall we begin? Now, as some of you from the press may be unfamiliar with medical jargon, I’ll try to stick to layman’s terms. But first, a small caveat. While our tests can’t be considered foolproof, the sheer quantity of data and the unequivocal agreement of it cannot be wished away. Since we have nothing comparable by which to judge the subject’s condition, there is, to be quite candid, some element of faith involved, but I would by no means refer to it as a leap of faith. Consider it more on the order of a small hop. Or perhaps even a skip. Okay, then, on to the main presentation of our body, or rather, well, you know what I mean . . ."
There were giggles in the gallery. The lights dimmed. The Mechanic slid a videocassette into a dark notch in the wall. Out of speakers mounted in the ceiling came the whir and sputter of an old film projector. Nice touch, I thought, listened as a chime-y melody, familiar somehow, seeped into the room. It was American educational music, that old warped hope in major chords, and it bounced along to the vistas skating by on the screen: mountains and mountain valleys, jungles and jungle clears, lakes, rivers, streams, each yielding to the next in a bright ceremony of splice and dissolve.
Last was a light-filled forest, where all manner of creature began to stir, make their first nervous pokes from mound and burrow. I’d seen footage like this before, felt fourteen again, dozing in my snowboots, waiting for the afternoon bell. I remembered how much I’d always envied the tight life of voles. The hidey-hole was happiness.
No expectations down there.
Now the shot pulled out a bit. Here a stunted horse drank from a creek. There an odd bird jerked worms from the earth. Here came a rustle in the brush, a gentle tremoring that sent bugs the size of bullets to wing. Something huge burst into view, a shambling immen-sity I knew from coloring books, dioramas of yore. The woolly mammoth. Hairy-hided. Shovel-tusked. A great shaggy thingness. It looked about with what could have been innocence and not a little fear in its eyes. I wondered how much it cost to rent a toothless elephant, trick him out for another geological age. There wasn’t much time to wonder. The music tripped into a darker key, some molester-on-the-carousel lilt. It was the end of innocence, or the end of something.
It was bum luck for the mammoth.
A band of humanoids lumbered up, a hunting party, crude men with crude spears in their tufted fists, loud language on their tongues. They whooped and hollered, circled the beast, rushed in and out and in again, stabbed until the mammoth’s hide blew bright spouts of mammalian blood. The woolly fellow thumped to his knees, bellowing, bellowing, us thrust up now into the black pain of his mouth. His cries and the taunts of the hunters started to fade. There was darkness now, silence. There was darkness with a few faraway pricks of light. The universe. Universal shorthand for the universe.
We were moving through it now. We were gliding toward a greenish-bluish ball. Our ball, the home sphere. Sea and tree and all those organic shenanigans, all that fluke life. We were flying right smack into the middle of the fucker, flying and flying until it wasn’t flying anymore, it was falling, and we were falling now through clouds and sky and down upon the body of a city, row-house bones and market hearts and veins of neighborhood, arterial concretions of highway and boulevard and side street, falling to a low float over pavement, a hover here in some lost alleyway, a superannuated little gland of a place, where a solitary figure walked with his hands stuck in his windbreaker. The figure began to glow, as though suddenly sensor-read, his organs swirls of grained color, his skull a glassy orb of dim pulses and firings, the lonely weak electrics of homo erectus. The man stooped for his shoelace. The picture froze at the beginnings of a bow knot. Through the speakers came the sound of gated film jumping its sprockets, the flutter of reel’s end. The screen swiped to
test bars. The music leaked away. The lights went up.
The Mechanic took the lectern, spoke into a thimble he’d slipped over his thumb.
There were questions.
"Should we assume the figure, the visible man, as it were, is the subject?" called a woman with a series of laminated cards clipped to her pantsuit.
"What’s with the woolly mammoth?" said a kid with a video rig strapped parrot-like to his shoulder.
"Forget that," said an old man in a hunting vest. "What is the point of any of this? Is this some kind of gag?"
"I assure you," said the Philosopher, leaning into the Mechanic’s amplified thumb, "this is no gag. Nor could it be construed as a bit. The visual aid is merely meant as a tool to help you better understand the scope of what we’re about to tell you. Ladies and gentleman, the subject, who, as some of you may already have ascertained, is seated here among us, which I note as a precaution against insensitive comments regarding his condition, this subject is the first-known sufferer of what I believe will and should be referred to from now on as Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome, named, I might add, for its discoverers, Dr. Blackstone and myself."
"Without being technical," said the kid with the parrot cam, "what exactly is the nature of PREXIS? PREXIS for short, right? I mean, what’s the deal, nontechnically speaking? And why should we care, given all the diseases out there right now?"
"To put it bluntly," said the Mechanic, "those other diseases already have a name. And with it, a cause: viral infection, chemical compromise, cellular glitch, inheritance on the genetic level. This syndrome, though now named, still has no identifiable cause, which does not mitigate its unquestionable fatality. This man is going to die. But here’s the kicker: he’s going to die for no known reason. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually, and irrevocably. He may show no signs of it yet, but he will, trust me. And though he may be the first, I assure you he is not alone. Like the beast in the film, and the prototypical bipeds who felled it, all of us here, too, will someday be extinct. Why? Who knows? Perhaps the cause is sheer purposelessness. At any rate, be advised, this subject, Steve, this mild-mannered thirty-seven-year-old adman, is but the first in line. Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to dodge everything else, the cancers, the coronaries, the aneurysms, but do not consider yourself blessed. Goldfarb-Blackstone, or PREXIS, if you will, is guaranteed to claim us all."
"Aren’t you just talking about death?" said the old man.
"Unfortunately, yes," said the Mechanic.
"But don’t we already know about death?"
"What do we know? We know nothing. Now at least perhaps we have what little light the work of Dr. Goldfarb and myself can shed on it."
"I’m interested in what you mean by purposelessness," said the woman in the pantsuit. "Do you mean boredom? Do you mean to say this man is actually going to die of boredom?"
"That’s one way of putting it, yes," said the Philosopher.
"Dynamite," said the woman, darted out of the room.
"Why didn’t you tell me sooner?" I said, back in the Special Cases Lounge.
"We weren’t sure."
"We couldn’t be certain."
"All the data accounted for."
"All the numbers in."
"Until a granular quality obtained."
"Then checked and counterchecked against findings in our database."
"Adjusted for error."
"Human and otherwise."
"Human and counter-human."
"We had to be precision-orientated on this one. Or oriented."
"We had to be scientists about it."
"If we’re not scientists, what are we?"
"If we’re something else, who are the scientists?"
"So," I said, "how long have I got?"
My best friend Cudahy was waiting on the corner near my building. It looked like there’d been some sort of accident. News trucks and radio cars cordoned off the better part of the block. Cudahy threw a parka over my head, guided me over a hillock of root-ruptured pavement toward my door.
"Don’t answer the vultures," said Cudahy.
"Which vultures?" I said.
Here they were upon us, pressing, pecking through my fuzzy sheath.
"How does it feel to be dying?"
"Do you believe you are bored to death?"
"Have you had any further contact with the mammoth?"
Cudahy shouted them all down. I felt his huge arms wrap around my head.
"Scum," said Cudahy, bolted the door behind us.
I let the parka slip to the floor.
"What’s happening to me?" I said.
"Hell if I know," said Cudahy. "Why can’t they let a man die in peace?"
"I’m in fine fettle," I said.
"Sure you are."
"All I did was go in for a checkup."
"That’s how they get you," said Cudahy.
He cracked a bottle of beef-flavored vodka, turned on the TV. The woman in the pantsuit beamed up from my stoop. She fiddled with a coil of metal in her ear.
"Yes, Mike," she said, "he appears to be barricaded in this building you see behind me.
And, truthfully, I can’t say I blame him. Who wants to be the pace car in the race to oblivion? But there’s another question, Mike, which I think you broached, or maybe breached, earlier. How do we know he’s the only person on the planet with Goldfarb-Blackstone, or PREXIS, as it’s so rapidly come to be known? It’s hard to believe that this man, this so-called Subject Steve, is even the only victim of terminal ennui in this city. And if there are others, are they dying, too? Are we all, perhaps, dying? Have we, perhaps, always been dying? It’s too early to tell."
"This is insane," said Cudahy. "A mass hallucination. I’ve read about this kind of thing. My life, there’s a lot of downtime. I go to cafés. Some have free magazines. You get educated. History is full of this phenomenon. It’ll blow over."
"I don’t see it blowing over," I said.
"It’s just started to blow, buddy. There’s a whole blowing-over. Anyway, you’ve got more important things to think about. You’re still, on a personal level, dying.
"But I’m in fine fettle," I said.
"Fettle is irrelevant," said Cudahy. "Science has proven that much."
Now a man I knew appeared on the screen. He sat at an office workstation, his thin hair blending with the fabric of the cube-wall weave.
"One thing I can tell you about the subject," said the man, "he always bought doughnuts for his team."
"Pastries!" I said. "Better than doughnuts!"
"It’s okay," said Cudahy. "Calm down."
"It wasn’t doughnuts."
"It’s okay," said Cudahy.
"What are they talking about, boredom?" I said. "I’ve never been bored. Lonely, tired, depressed, of course. But not bored."
"I think they mean that as a euphemism," said Cudahy.
"A euphemism for what?"
"I’m not sure I follow," said Cudahy.
This was about the time I started to weep. This was the kind of weeping where after a while you’re not quite sure it’s you who’s still weeping anymore. Some wet, heaving force evicts your other selves. Now you’re just the buck and twitch, the tears. You fetal up and your thoughts are blows. Phrases drift through you. Rain of blows. Steady rain of blows. There’s no relent. There’s no relief. The hand of a comforting Cudahy is a hand of hot slag. The world is a slit through one bent strip of window blind. The noise of the city, the hum of the house, the hiss of the television, is wind.
I fell asleep, woke to a bowl rim at my lips.
My beautiful Fiona.
Dimly, men in Stetsons rode past boomtown façades and out on to a pixilated plain.
"I love this part," I heard Cudahy say, dimly.
"Fennel soup," said Fiona. "Drink, Daddy."
"They’re doomed," said Cudahy. "They know they’re doomed, and they also know their only shot at grace is precisely in that knowledge. There’s an army of vicious Mexicans out there waiting to shoot them to pieces."
"I’d like to see the Mexican side of the story," said Fiona. "I’d like to read an oral history from the Mexican perspective."
"An oral history," said Cudahy. "I bet you would, honey."
"What’s going on?" I said. I figured they needed a chance to adjust to my state, to their consideration of my state. My worry was I could sleep too much. A dying man sleeps too much, maybe his power slips away.
I needed all the power in my purview, my ken.
Cudahy muted the doomed hooves.
"Daddy," said Fiona.
"So," I said, "you heard. You came."
"PRAXIS," said Cudahy.
"PREXIS," said Fiona.
"You didn’t seem so worried before," I said.
"I didn’t know how serious it was. Daddy, I want you to know I’m going to be here for you. That part is settled. Don’t argue. It’s what I need to do now. For me."
"Thank you, baby," I said, and sang to her, weakly, the song about aardvarks I had sung to her in the days before she became disaffected, had to be boarded at the School for Disaffected Daughters for it.
Then I spit up some fennel shreds.
Cudahy came back with cabin food. Siege supplies. Soup cans and sandwich meats and bouillon cubes in silver foil. He pulled a newspaper from the grocery sack, folded to an item: "Doc’s Prog for Our Kind: Game Over." Beneath my ex-wife’s picture was a caption: "Ex-Hubby the New T. Rex."
"Where’d they get the photo?" I said.
"Eye in the sky, probably," said Cudahy. "Or the DMV."
"Mom gave it to them," said Fiona. "She left a message on my cell. She’s getting calls from talk shows. She wants to know how you feel about her speaking publicly on the matter."
"You mean pimping my suffering."
"No, I mean sharing her experience, hope, and strength."
"Tell her she can do whatever the hell she wants."
"I knew you’d say that so I already said that."
"There’s a guy out there," said Cudahy. "Says he can help."
"Reporter?" said Fiona.
"Don’t think so," said Cudahy. "He told me to give this to you."
It was a mimeographed brochure, lettered in splotchy monastic script.
Have you been left for dead?
Do you number among the Infortunate–
shrugged off by family, friends, physicians, priests?
Have you been told you’re beyond all hope?
Are you incorrigible, inoperable, degenerative, degenerate, terminal, chronic, and/or doomed?
Are you lost, are you crazy, or just plain sick?
Maybe you should snuff it, friend.
Pull the Trigger.
Turn up the Gas.
Do it, coward.
Did you do it?
You didn’t, did you?
Okay, don’t do it.
You’re not worth the
mess you’ll make. Not yet.
Here’s a better idea:
Call the Center for Nondenominational Recovery and Redemption and deliver back unto yourself your dying body and your dead soul.
No malady, real or imagined, is too difficult to treat.
Forget the scientific phonies and the quacks of holistic boutiques.
Forget the false love of New Age shamans.
Forget the false touch of healing retreats.
Your health, your freedom, your salvation is a
toll-free call away.
Ask for Heinrich.
All major credit cards accepted.
Squeezed along the margin in fountain ink was this: "I have the cure–H."
I made of this inanity a nice coaster for my coffee mug.
"They’ll really be coming out of the woodwork now," I said.
"What woodwork?" said Cudahy. "We’re on an island of concrete."
Walking back to the clinic for my next appointment a few weeks later, I saw what Cudahy had meant. I’d lived in this city long enough to forget the absurdity of the place, all these surfaces refracting us in shatters, this tonnage that bore down on us with hysterical weight.
Someday sectors of this city would make the most astonishing ruins. No pyramid or sacrificial ziggurat would compare to these insurance towers, convention domes. Unnerved, of course, or stoned enough, you always could see it, tomorrow’s ruins today, carcasses of steel teetered in a halt of death, half globes of granite buried like worlds under shards of street. Sometimes I pictured myself a futuristic sifter, some odd being bred for sexlessness, helmed in pulsing Lucite, stooping to examine an elevator panel, a perfectly preserved boutonniere.
I’d be the finder of something.
Now, walking along, I had only the sense of losing myself.
Yes, I could perambulate unpestered, unthronged. My saga was stale. There were fresh griefs upon us. A beloved lip-sync diva had choked to death on a sea-bass bone. The troops of our republic were poised on the border of a lawless fiefdom in Delaware. The Secretary of Agriculture had been exposed as a fervent collector of barnyard porn. Worse, he had yen for the young ones, the piglets, the foals. Bestiality was one thing, bellowed the ethics community, but these were babies. There were wars and rumors of war and leaks of covert ops. There were earthquakes, famines, droughts, floods. A certain movie star had made box-office magic once more.
The National Journal of Medicine’s scathing rebuke of the veracity of Goldfarb-Blackstone Syndrome, its excoriation of the ailment’s namesakes as "freak show impresarios," had barely made the back pages, the spot after the break.
The air was out and I was glad of it. My fine fettle continued to obtain. Still, I somehow felt bound to these men, Goldfarb and Blackstone, the Philosopher and the Mechanic. They had shocked me into keener living. I was brimming with bad poetry and never reading the financials. I can’t say I knew what counted in life but I was beginning to glimpse what didn’t. I had Fiona back, and Cudahy, too.
I owed these doctors a courtesy visit.
The Philosopher was sniffing something from a vial of handblown glass. Dark powder dusted his nose.
"Want some?" he said. "It’s a new synthetic."
"Cunt’s out of control," said the Mechanic. "Making his own yay-yo, to hell with the world."
"Oh, piss off, Blackie," said the Philosopher. "Just a little pick-me-up."
These were not the dashing scientists of the amphitheater. The Philosopher was unshaven and looked long unwashed. His lab coat was covered with cobalt smears. The Mechanic had developed a tic of the eye which might have seemed lewd had the psychic deterioration which motored it not been so plain.
"Galileo," said the Philosopher through hinges of spit, "why have you forsaken me?"
"Cunt’s dreaming of Pisa," said the Mechanic. "Can’t see the truth of the situation. We got busted. We ran a scam and we got busted. I told him the mammoth bit was too much. Stupid. We could have had our own disease. Now we have squat. You can’t patent death, I told him. You can’t copyright a nonstate, let alone the extinction of a species. Especially ours. Didn’t I say this? I said this."
"So, am I dying or not?" I said.
"God revealed it to me," said the Philosopher, "yet now I must defy God to appease the church. I shall perish from the hypocrisy . . ."
"That film, that idiotic film," said the Mechanic. "Somebody’s cousin with an educational library. Dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. So now we have what? What do we have now? The answer is C: Squat. Squat is the correct answer. We had everything going for us. The two names, perfect. You need two names for a good disease. Goldfarb-Blackstone. A Jew and a white guy. What’s not to trust? Can’t be a conspiracy, right? I mean, sure it could be for some people, but we weren’t planning on this being a black disease. They have no insurance, by and large. I mean, well, what I mean by that is by and large. I’m not a racist, you know."
"I didn’t know that," I said.
"But what about me?" I said.
"Oh, you. No, you’re dying. Sorry, kid. Hate to say it."
"Dying of what?"
"I don’t know. We haven’t figured it out yet. What did we call it? ‘Whatchamacallit?’ Good enough name as any, I guess."
"But you said it was a scam."
"The scam was everything else. See, we just wanted to stick out from the others. What’s wrong with that? A brand, you know? Brand recognition. Brand–what’s the word–leverage. You know, something for people to worry about on the drive to work. Something for the pharmaceuticals to jump on, the comedians to joke about. Lots of people die all the time from nameless, mysterious diseases. What, do we deal with even a fraction of the shit that goes on? The answer, by the way, is D: Less than a fraction of the shit. It’s like all those murders. Most go unsolved."
"So, what am I going to do?"
"I don’t know. Cry. Pray. Go see the castles of Scotland."
The Mechanic’s eye began to spasm anew, as though straining to vomit some abominable vision. The Philosopher fondled himself on the sofa.
"Doctor, doctor," he sang, "gimme the news . . ."
"Consider yourself the luckiest guy in this room," said the Mechanic.
"But I’m dying," I said.
"But nothing, you fuck," said the Philosopher.