The Ballad of Patient 10/99. by Martine Compton (Previously published in INPATIENT Magazine in 2001)
It had started well along without her, and so she found herself in the middle of something strange. It began, for her, when she found herself hostess to her own party. Harriet was fully aware, as she entered her apartment with her groceries, that it had been instigated by someone else. For who else but someone else would know what caterer to hire for the meat, how much ice to stock in the freezer (just the right amount), what time the dessert caterers would be on each night (a woman in a white coat, a pushy realtor of a brunette, had said “seven-thirty”). Who else, then, would have washed all the glasses perfectly clean without a dishwashing machine? But it was you, you silly thing,–or don’t you remember? Harriet found herself believing she was part of some sick joke, the kind of foolish cruelty that only children and serial killers were capable of exercising.
Then the bills came. When she had timidly gone to the bank, intent on footing the darn yellow slip-of-a-bill, intent on making a deposit, she found her account to be overdrawn. In a flash of (what felt like someone else’s) genius, she requested a printout of all her recent transactions, withdrawals and deposits. Where on earth,–who on earth, but herself—could have managed to have sunk (Good God!) five-thousand dollars since the first of May? Harriet received the printed testament with the eyes of a freshly deflowered virgin. Harriet also, in keeping, had a delicious urge to sit down, but found it was, for the moment, impossible.
Though the details of the bill were absurdly out of character with her own spending habits, Harriet did not wish to go to the police, nor did she express any distress outwardly at the bank. No, it was all too fascinating—twelve dollars for pink paper cups and six on boys’ fashion underwear. Well, cups, and peanuts, but platform shoes— she hated those things. She never could see the point in a “retro” investment unless that reflected a lost part of one’s own childhood or early youth, and being twenty-five all she had were Velcro high-tops and jelly-shoes, NO THANK YOU.
At the dentist, Harriet concluded that her mouth, too had been invaded: Twelve cavities, instead of the usual two or three or “perhaps one coming, let’s see the x-ray” but no one bothered to take an x-ray. Didn’t they know her insurance would cover any piddly test? By God, she thought, what was the fun in having insurance if dentists didn’t run trivial tests, and show off those wonderful buzzing and blinking machines they kept polished and whirring in the back, back room for customers who could cover, perfectly reasonable, the ever-mounting costs of the supply of lollipops for the lobby—she knew full well that baskets of lollipops did not grow on trees.
Seated awkwardly in the papered dental chair, Harriet bore blossom to the most intelligent and sensible thought she would have all week, but which she chose, in her excitement, to ignore: She must be going mad. Perfectly reasonable. It happens all the time. When one is going mad, Harriet, there are safe places to go—white and sterile places with tight jackets made of canvas with wide straps, and where they serve you peas with your perfunctory-prepared, perpetually last (bad) meal. If you have a car, drive right into the lobby, and, boy, they hop to immediately; it isn’t long before you’re eating plump, green peas or reading “People” magazine. And, oh, heavenly, with the right coverage plan! But Harriet slipped from the brink of sanity and plummeted into creative thought: That, she reasoned, is what you do when you are losing your mind, but what do you when someone else is losing it for you?
Harriet found two teething rings in her purse. Still at the dentist, she demanded that they match the dental records. They were, she soon found out from a receptionist, who looked like a cross between Tweety Bird and Marilyn Monroe, a perfect match to Harriet’s own.
No matter, she told herself. Perfectly reasonable. She left the dentist’s with a large amount of cotton in her mouth (which she found vaguely erotic) and an odd feeling in her body. She said, “I feel as if I were an egg timer, minutes away from heralding the arrival of another soft-boiled egg into breakfasthood.” No alcohol, the doctor had cautioned her, not with pain pills. She rushed home in a dizzied frenzy.
Harriet awoke at half-past three, in a drunken stupor, suddenly aware of having lain all afternoon on a new Persian carpet she did not recognize. This must be the one that was purchased on her credit card last night at two-am. The most recent transaction on her printout. She picked up the printout again and scanned her eyes over it and learned, then, that sauced people, like herself, took an especially long time to read. At half-past four, she had completed the last two steps in this drunken reading process which were realizing that what she had read was in English, and allowing her brain the time required for translation. (Vaguely she felt it was not unlike the waiting one experiences at an ATM machine while on a drugged-out binge: “Just don’t ask me to tell you how I did it; I just know it’s legally my money, so push off.”) Harriet went to the kitchen to help herself to her large supply of lemons. And then it was off to the bathroom.
Whoever had finished the last shift with her body, Harriet thought, had terrible taste in clothing (although, admittedly, superior to her own) as she found herself to be clad in a light green pantsuit. Rather unreasonably tight. But no matter. The knobs on the sink had been changed, as if by some mad interior designer. No longer metal, but white rubber, and maddeningly soft and slippery. No longer did they serve their proper function.
After another two days of such unpleasant surprises, Harriet sat hovering over a bowl of Cheerios and milk, that she hadn’t remembered buying, and had a good think. By the time the evening paper had come, she realized that she’d forgotten how to do just that: to think, short of buying the proper things and making sure her signature wasn’t too irregular, oh, yes, and minding to replace things like the garbage, and light bulbs. She eyed the yellow paper with a newfound disdain and considered doing the crossword. All too certain it would be painfully easy, she instead turned to the Sports page, and, for no reason at all, memorized a brief editorial on protective football attire.
She finished her Cheerios.
The telephone rang. Harriet picked up the receiver.
After a long pause, someone said, “It’s hello, you chimp. Say hello.”
Harriet obeyed, and proceeded in stabbing a lemon with her fork.
“I suppose,” the voice went on, “you’re wondering what’s going on.”
“Speak up, I can’t see you, my girl.”
Harriet had a vague impulse to correct the voice and say, “woman, not girl” but her lemon pulp was more immediately satisfying to regard.
The voice went on, “There are business cards lying about. Take them in.”
Dial tone. Harriet clipped the phone cord rather than hung up.
And, of course, the voice had been right.
Harriet set about collecting small manila business cards. Ali’s Flying Carpet Express Co., Havvard’s Deli, Vienna Dessert Caterers, Lyle’s Lemons, Late-Nite Party Den, Footcare Brothers, Inc, Impossible’s Plumbing, Leopold ‘n Loab’s Wigs in a Jiffy. All these and three ripe bananas, Harriet deposited in her purse. In, she thought, where was in? All she knew was this was an emergency.
She hired a cab and was dropped a half-block from her destination, on account of the driver’s inability to accept members of the plantain family as currency. She mugged a adolescent skater and rode into the hospital emergency room lobby on a blue and black skateboard. And, yes, was served immediately.
“Please show some I.D.,” said the nurse at the small shielded window.
Harriet offered her a banana.
“And what is this supposed to prove?” the nurse snapped.
“That I’m high up on the food chain,” Harriet reasoned.
“No one here has any use of a banana, miss,” she replied coldly.
Harriet thought about informing the nurse that bananas were, in fact, high in potassium. Shouldn’t all health centers be informed? She decided against it and kept quiet. Then Harriet said, “I have these cards,” and pushed them through the office teller window.
Within a few moments, the nurse’s countenance displayed newfound interest, and near respect.
“Well,” she mooed, “that explains it.” She gestured down the hall. “Take off your shoes and enter the light green room.”
Harriet obeyed. For a moment she wondered whether her obedience was somehow her downfall, but rather enjoyed walking barefoot and so pushed the thought from her troubled mind.
The “light green room” was bright and cheerful, sunlight emanating from an open skylight, with no glass. Harriet was not alone. People within were reclining in the shade of parasols—large and in unpleasantly loud colors. Some listened to radios, others tried violently to listen to nothing. Harriet listened to the radio in her head: memory. Why invest, she had always reasoned, in a recording when one had memory? Then one could afford to take a trip, now and again…
Harriet passed the time thusly, seated in a chair, and watched patients being called by their credit card numbers. “Bring your printouts” read a large sign over the desk (manned by an airport arrival monitor with a parking ticket on it) labeled “MISINFORMATION.” Happily, Harriet clutched her printout in her hands, swinging her feet to an fro as she ate her third banana. Every eight minutes a tall, shapely woman entered the room, wearing a banner across her breast labeled with a trademark logo, such as “Energizer” or “AT&T” or “Chevy” or “Cheetos” and called out a credit card number. There was a catch, too: if you didn’t know your expiration flash cards until you were ready, you weren’t served.
When Harriet’s was read, she cried out, “Ten-ninety-nine!” The shapely woman smiled, and motioned for Harriet to follow her down the hall. Harriet thought, Success!
“Would you like another banana?” the woman asked.
“Oh, yes, please, thank you,” Harriet chirped.
The woman spun on her heel. “Wrong answer,” was all she said. She said it, Harriet supposed, because she could.
Harriet was left in a room with a small black leather-upholstered stool, upon which she sat. What else, she reasoned, was there to do?
A serious-looking, pinch-faced doctor entered the room.
“Miss 10/99,” he muttered, and then paced quietly about the room. (Harriet, by now somewhat annoyed at having been referred to as a number nonetheless waited expectantly for needed information.) “I suggest an x-ray.”
“Of course, doctor,” was all she could say at first. Then, in a momentary rush of boldness, she inquired, “What is it that is in me?”
The doctor seemed a bit put off at being asked a question he didn’t know the answer to. He paced again. And leaned into Harriet as if to admit a great confidence. “It isn’t of you, I think.” He swallowed. “An x-ray will tell us best.” He added, “I am a good doctor.” He looked with pleading on his female patient.
“I believe you,” she replied, for she did.
Then the self-proclaimed good doctor looked frightened and said, “Do you read?”
Harriet understood. “Quite,” she answered. “I even finish whole books.”
The good doctor marveled. “Really!” he ahhed. “You know, there is a colony in Texas, or is it Tennessee—that you ought to go to. Where people finish whole books.”
“So that’s where they live!” Harriet exclaimed. But then realized she had no care. “I haven’t found any in the city.”
“No, I’d imagine not,” said the good doctor. “Still, it’s a shame.”
The door was opened. The shapely woman entered wearing a RAID! banner. “Doctor, it’s time.” And she left.
The good doctor rocked absently back on the balls of his feet, and on his toes, with a sad expression on his face. He stopped and looked at Harriet. “I’d call you, but I don’t have a pen. Are you listed?”
“Oh, yes, she replied unthinkingly. “We’re all listed.”
“Ah,” he said. And then nothing.
They passed several minutes in silence together in what felt to Harriet very near peace. The shapely woman came in, changing her banner in favor of one advertising Scott Paper Products. “We’re losing funding.” And left.
Harriet looked at the good doctor.
“Well,” he said, “Perhaps I’ll see you one day in Texas. Or is it Tennessee?” He smiled. “Well, sit tight, we’ll fix your problem soon enough.” And upon leaving, he muttered to Harriet, “Yes, I think it’s Tennessee.” And left.
Harriet was tired, and so fell asleep.
“Your soul is black,” was the next thing she remembered hearing.
“What?” she cried. Her head was spinning.
“Well, more dark green, really. Here, but the color’s bad on this film. Better funding would allow for better accuracy. But I know the shades well. And, see here?”
Harriet was in another office, overseeing the display of her X-rays.
“Yes,” she said, to a doctor she knew had been speaking now for some time.
“That’s bile,” she was told.
Harriet heard a clock ticking.
“What can I do, doctor?” she inquired in a small voice.
He shrugged. “Take a vacation. It’s only a virus, I expect you’ll be back to speed in about ten days. Drink plenty of fluids, and don’t drive through stop signs…”
“But I don’t drive, I have no car,” she said, feeling bewildered.
“Ah, well, then, don’t worry.”
“But, doctor—my soul is dark green with bile?” This new doctor, Harriet thought, was decidedly not the good young doctor, although she could hardly tell; they looked strikingly similar.
He seemed to weigh the matter, and replied, “Yes.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” was all she could say.
The doctor sighed impatiently. “My God, girl, haven’t you been paying attention?”
Harriet blinked. “To what?”
The doctor chuckled snidely.
“What’s so funny?” Harriet wanted to know.
“Oh, indeed,” he said amusedly, “Indeed!” and continued to laugh mirthlessly. Then he said with a sudden seriousness, “I suppose you have a bill, then? A printout?”
Harriet handed it to him.
He grumbled academically, saying, “Hmmm. Yes, lemons. Yes. An abundance of q-tips, a new automobile muffler. Miss, if you don’t mind my asking, if no car, why a muffler?”
“This isn’t me!” she insisted.
“Oh, yes, I forgot,” he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm and waving a wan hand, “Well, there isn’t much I can do, then, is there?”
Harriet angrily spat on the floor.
“Well,” said this new doctor, “that isn’t very sanitary, now was it?”
“Who made my soul dark green?” Harriet fairly whispered in a hot rage.
He merely looked at her.
“I need to know!!” she insisted.
At last, he replied, “A visitor.” Long pause, wide, too-long awake eyes…
She asked, “What kind of visitor?”
“Well,” he said as if what we was about to say was likely to be over Harriet’s head, “ the kind, fortunately, that doesn’t stay; but the kind, unfortunately, that causes no small amount of harm.”
“Am I sick? she asked, as if asking God.
“Dying,” he said. “You’re middle-aged.”
“But I’m only 25.”
“Yes, well, that’s no matter. People these days are dead at 22!” he chuckled. And then looked tragic. “This,” he said, “is dying.”
Harriet wondered aloud, “When do I die?”
“Oh, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s a process. Internal. It’s just set in prematurely. You’ll be fine.” He folded his arms.
“What can I do?” she asked mournfully.
The doctor again chuckled, and then brushed a manicured hand over his well-coiffed head. “There is one thing. Can you live without telling lies?”
“Yes. Lies. Can you subsist on total honesty?” This question offended Harriet.
Harriet frowned, and longed more than anything for the removal of this man’s judgment of her behavior. “Well, not without buying or selling, if that’s what you mean.”
“Hmm.” The doctor cleared his throat and said abruptly, “Well, then, plenty of rest, and remember, ten day vacation. Preferably paid.” He paused on his way out. “Do you have insurance?”
Harriet paused. “I don’t know,” she said honestly, feeling the room growing dimmer.
The doctor left. Soon after, Harriet did, too.
Not long after, Harriet declared bankruptcy. She filed showing proper identification, and brought no bananas to her hearing. Harriet’s memory of the entire incident was fading, and by the end of that week seemed to her little more than a dream. The number of cavities in her head was back down to two, or one, or none, and she no longer had an inexplicable penchant for pink paper cups and lemons.
One Saturday, a letter arrived in the mail set in a long, white, thick envelope. It was addressed to: “My Beloved 10/99”.
Harriet opened the envelope.
The letter was wrapped around two plane tickets. It read,
“I do not know how I found you,neither when first we met, nor now… Forgive my state—I am, I think, learning to be at peace—and it’s a most disturbing experience. Still, I am here, you are there. Hopefully, one of these tickets will remedy the situation. Please—choose the one that will bring you to where I am—I await your arrival.
My warmest regards,
Between Raid! and Scott.”
Harriet then examined the tickets. One was a one-way to Dallas Airport, leaving in two days. The other, leaving in one hour, was destined for Nashville. Whatever, she marveled, did this mean? Her memory was blank and green and dark, and she couldn’t think what it was she needed to consider.
Without further thought to the matter, Harriet placed the articles in the trash bin, and thought to herself, “That’s where such prank letters belong.” She passed a manicured hand over her well-coiffed head and muttered, “Yes; perfectly reasonable.”