24517028

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The I and the It
Author(s): Gabriel Blackwell
Source: Conjunctions, No. 56, Terra Incognita: The Voyage Issue (2011), pp. 211-220
Published by: Conjunctions
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24517028
Accessed: 23-10-2018 23:44 UTC
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The I and the It
Gabriel Blackwell
Under more agreeable circumstances—we are paraphrasing;
Bennell was predisposed to cliché and imprecise language—Dr. Miles
Bennell, a physician for thirteen years, would have welcomed the
sudden relaxation, the opportunity to indulge a newfound frivolity;
the life of a busy GP had never exactly encouraged the profligate
humoring of passing fancies and so this should have been a glimpse
of the life he had not yet found the time to lead. But no. His leisure
was unlooked for, his retirement an inescapable result of the tragedy.
Why the metaphor of imprisonment? He was not at liberty. Why "a
result" but "the tragedy"? Surely, the impact on his work life was
outweighed by the collapse of civilization. Ah. Still, he could feel
sadness at the loss, regardless of its feathery avoirdupois on some
imagined scale. This was the tragedy: His skills had overnight been
rendered surfeit. Who, he wondered, would use them? His patients
had been replaced. A verbal pun? Or a peculiarly telling choice of
words? On the contrary, utterly concrete, not pirn or metaphor at all.
He had trouble remaining in the chair, complaining that it was un
necessarily low and missing its cushion. Could a cushion be provided,
he wished to know? Existential questions were meaningless in a
darkened back room of a dry cleaner's. He disliked being referred to
as Banquo, and asked that we address him as Miles. We eventually
settled on "Bennell," to which he usually answered.
A senescent collegiality was never destined to be his reward for a
life of service; this was his substitute. Not for him the merry circuit
of golf course, swimming pool, tennis court, bingo hall, and cafeteria.
The smell of chemicals gave him headaches, occasionally made him
nauseous; might we see to it? His oldest patients had been the first
to go. Bennell had been the last of Santa Mira's GPs: the two others,
elderly gentlemen, had shuttered their offices almost at once when
the trouble started. Both had long been used to dozing off between
patients. At risk? They were ideal vectors, Bennell claimed. They
had to be destroyed. Isn't it quite natural to be agitated about the dis
appearance of old friends and colleagues? This was, after all, putting
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Gabriel Blackwell
it mildly: He intimated murder. Only when they are old friends and
colleagues, Bennell corrected us. Please remain in the chair, Bennell.
We are only just beginning.
As for his own practice, though there had been a glut of com
plaints—all curiously similar—in the days following the outbreak,
soon thereafter, people stopped coming around altogether. Perhaps
he had felt inadequate in some way, embarrassed at the sudden slow
ing? Not at all. It was simply that no one got sick anymore. There
was no one. With no one left to treat and nothing left to do, Bennell
drifted from one hobby to the next. Astronomy. Chemistry. Hydro
culture. Furniture. Ships in bottles. Messages in bottles. This drift
plainly reflected an uneasiness with certain thoughts, certain feel
ings. Sublimation, an unwillingness to deal with a parricide after all
almost literal (one of the doctors, it was disclosed, had been the man
who had delivered Bennell forty-two years earlier), and other, more
serious offenses: his own ill-accomplished substitution. Why did we
insist on pretending the situation was other than it was? Why did he
insist on starting with the coda?
One had to have something to do. What was so abnormal about
hobbies? A man without a vocation is little better than a beast, un
awed by the civilizing influence of drives kept in check. One could
not go through one's life playing at a somnambulism one did not
suffer from. His earlier comments about our "disarming habit" of
humming along to his answers only further bolstered our initial sup
position—the man was unserious, impulsive, driven by a glistening,
naked desire he believed inimical to his identity. He did not wish to
be manhandled or maltreated. Concentrate, Bennell! This is not the
piece we have asked for. We will have to begin again.
Bennell had decided to turn his office building into a kind of bul
wark, a fortress against the troubles. He moved the storm shutters up
from the basement. He padlocked the doors from the inside. Every
hatch was battened, every hole spackled. Not even a rat could get in,
he assured us. Nor could one get out. Why was solitude so important
to him? Security? What did he fear from other people? Still he did not
sleep.
He commandeered the other offices, rifling their rec rooms for sup
plies and their workrooms for something to do with himself in the
absence of his occupation, rest, and any human company—"I had
nothing but time. Do I need to tell you what my neighbors did?" A
dry cleaner's. An upholsterer. A carpenter's workshop. A laboratory of
some sort. "Gould—the fingers, please." Focus, Bennell. Imprecision
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ruins the effect. A pharmaceutical laboratory, then, with an appar
ently nebulous name. Associates, Inc. The caesura,
the mark of some unseen force. What did he suppress? Our grip was
such that he couldn't breathe,- might we loosen it or abandon it alto
gether? Left-hand technique, Bennell, all-important in passages with
complex harmonies. A mail-order farm supply. A candy maker. One
could draw certain inferences from this litany, Bennell. A candy
maker's? Really? That's what was there. One could draw inferences
from its members, yes, but also from its ordering. Order assigns mean
ing, does it not? Why had the dry cleaner's been first in his mind?
Wasn't it obvious? Why, then, did the upholsterer's come second? He
had spent little enough time there. Perhaps he could be allowed to
finish? Certainly, Bennell. By all means. Have done.
On any given day, a visitor to his office on the second floor would
have found the reception area smelling strongly of noxiously intoxicat
ing epoxies or filled with puffs of pleasantly vibrant but eye-irritating
smoke, the plush chairs (several now disemboweled) occupied by
envelopes of rare seedlings, eccentric and out-of-date sidereal atlases,
or vats of plainly dangerous reagents. Of course, there were no visi
tors in those days. Why introduce a hypothetical visitor or visitors
into his narrative then? Why again the specter of an auditor? Had he
imagined one at the time? Only the periodic shrieks of... what were
we exactly?—growing rarer and rarer as Santa Mira was completely
overtaken—ever pierced the deaf calm of the office. Otherwise,
Bennell felt himself cast adrift in the sea of his uncertain passions.
He often imagined the blood crashing through his head, another
effect of the sleepless eternal night of the blacked-out building, as the
waves of a troubled ocean, slapping against each other like layers of
wet quilt. How did he imagine his raft? Of what was it built? He
seemed at a loss for words.
What were Bennell's feelings upon giving up one "hobby" for an
other? Little thought was given to the exchange—one grew from the
other, occupied more and more time—and its predecessor less and
less—until the latter had simply been abandoned. That was life, wasn't
it? Things did not ever really come to a close (until, of course, they
did); they simply took up less and less space in the mind, like a game
of pick-up sticks gathered, bundled, returned to its drum, its drum to
its box, its box to its shelf. A rather harebrained, scattershot life, per
haps, yes. Why not exercise a little restraint? Resolution is rarely the
result of accident, Bennell. Dissonance is chance given voice. The cuffs
were inhibiting circulation. His fingertips had gone quite purple.
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We resume.
Logic was at work, Bennell protested. Astronomy led quite natu
rally to chemistry: How else to understand the chain reactions that
powered our universe? Some observed the stars for their beauty,
Bennell, mythologized their arrangement, or applied mathematics to
judge their distance, thus diminishing their own provincial self
importance. Doesn't the choice (a rather esoteric and—up until very
recently—purely conjectural branch of astronomy) of which whim to
flatter next perhaps reveal a nature devoted to dominating, sub
duing? And what were we after? We are not the one in restraints,
Bennell. Domination does not interest us. Were you perhaps seeking
after the unknowable as a means of staving off discovery of the
immediate, i.e., death? Death, even its obvious precursor, disease,
was hardly a dire concern at that time, or at any time since. There
were more complicated fates to be feared. This won't do. Begin again,
Bennell.
A few days after the last patient he could recall seeing had com
plained of the strange trouble everyone else seemed to have had,
Bennell witnessed a string of events that, together, convinced him to
put up in his office and hold out there for as long as he could. Did
being in large crowds, or, more generally, in public cause feelings of
anxiety at that time? "Yes, Gould. Haven't you been listening?"
Perhaps it would be helpful to begin at the point at which he could
first clearly recall those feelings of anxiety.
"It was a Thursday. I can't recall the date, but I do remember that
it was a Thursday, because Thursday is the day the garbagemen
come to collect on our block [Hmm.], and also the day that Becky
and I had set for our date.
"Well, that morning I had my coffee in bed. [Much better, Bennell.]
I was feeling a little run-down. When I stepped outside to get the
paper, my neighbor, Burt Danvers, was watering his prize Gertrude
Jekyll roses. It had rained the night before, and I recall making a joke
about it. Burt didn't laugh, and that was odd because usually Burt is
such a cutup. But I guess I was just tired, I didn't think anything of
it. No, it wasn't until just before the garbagemen showed up that I
noticed something was wrong.
"There was a man's hand, flopped over the lip of Burt's garbage can
just at the wrist, like a dog's tongue hanging out of its mouth. I didn't
know what to do. Here it was, this beautiful early fall morning, the
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sky blue, the sun shining, the lawn freshly clipped—I think there
were even birds singing—and then there was this man in the garbage
can next door. It was like some awful nightmare. [Hmm.]
"I couldn't even speak I was so shocked. I pointed, and Burt glanced
over at the can and then back at me without once changing the look
on his face. Then he walked calmly over to the can. Not in a hurry,
you understand, not in a panic. Like it was the most natural thing in
the world to have a man in his garbage can. He put the hose down
and tried to tuck the hand back into the can. [Hmm.] He didn't even
turn off the water on the hose. It was spraying all over my side of the
drive. You know, looking back, I think it must have been Burt Dan
vers's hand in that garbage can. It must have been.
"Just then, the garbagemen came around the comer, fast, and clipped
Burt in the shoulder with their bumper. Before they could slam on
the brakes, he was already under the wheels of the tmck—there was
this awful screeching noise and then a loud popping that I'll never
forget—and I ran to help. It all happened so fast, I didn't know what
I was doing. What I remember best is the hose: It got kinked under
one of the wheels, and started whipping around under the pressure.
Before I got ten steps, it had slipped out from under the tmck and was
aiming right in my face. [Hmm.]
"If Burt's wife hadn't come outside and started screaming in that
high-pitched way you all have, I would have stopped the garbagemen
and searched under that tmck. As it was, I had to run inside before
any of them caught on. I thought, 'Maybe I'm seeing things after all,'
but I didn't believe it at the time and I don't believe it now.
"All that was there to prove that anything at all had happened was
a bluish stain about the size of a twin mattress, nothing that the
human body could make. [Hmm.] No Burt Danvers. No body. Just
the hose, making a racket on the siding out front and turning my
yard into a mud hole. I couldn't go back outside. I was worried that
someone might see me. That one of them might see me.
"You know what else I remember? The trash cans were gone. I
don't know when the garbagemen would have had time to pick them
up in the minute or so it took me to run inside and lock the door, but
they had all been lined up down the block, and now they were all
gone. That was strange. Mine were the only ones left out on the
street, and nobody ever came back to pick them up."
Why give the hose such a prominent place in the telling? That
was the detail that came to mind. Yes, but why? Surely not even he
could be blind to its connotations? The third and fifth stages of
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psychosexual development were certainly well represented. Castra
tion anxiety, too. Perhaps, or perhaps there had been a hose in Burt's
hand, and when Burt was hit by the truck, the hose had sprayed him
in the face. Was Burt an older man? Yes. About Bennell's father's age?
Yes, perhaps. Ah, it was becoming even more fantastically symbolic.
But he had once again omitted the passage we had inquired about. He
would get there. Well then, press on, Bennell. Press on.
"With an injury like that, I assumed I'd see Burt inside of ten min
utes, or maybe Burt's daughter, who still lives with her parents, bless
her soul. Just about the plainest thing you've ever seen. The assistant
librarian. Once, she came to me with the sailor's ailment—that's
what we called it in the service—and I did what I could to make her
comfortable, but that sort of thing just takes time to heal. Probably
some Romeo's method of birth control. I prescribed a really soft pil
low and told her for God's sake not to do it again. But she was back
in a month. It's always the quiet ones.
"I stayed in all that day, watching the Danverses, until Becky rang
the doorbell. We went to the Sky Terrace for dinner but I got called
away before we'd even sat down. [Hmm.] Jack Belicec, an old friend,
had just found a person in his basement. Stark naked and fast asleep,
or unconscious anyway. A little wrinkled, like a newborn puppy.
Jack dragged him upstairs and laid him out on the pool table. In the
light, the damn thing looked so much like him that he thought he
was going crazy. I know exactly how he felt. The thing did look like
Jack, right down to the mole on his left buttock. I examined it
myself: It was the spitting image. Only, the face didn't seem to have
any features."
Yet more stalling. These so-called details, prurient amusements
for a sordid imagination, were really quite transparent, Bennell. Wish
fulfillment, or else a naive attempt at suggesting such. In what way?
What was this interest in Miss Danvers? Bennell refused to discuss
her. Why then did he bring her up? What was it about this memory
of that particular ailment (particularly apt, perhaps? Did he worry?)
that made it seem part of this chain of events? It had just occurred to
him, that was all, a fluke signifying no whale beneath the waves, a
bobbing tip of no iceberg. Still, it was quite clear he was fascinated
by some aspect of the memory. He hadn't been talking about Miss
Danvers; Miss Danvers wasn't important. Jack's body, or rather the
body in Jack's house ... Ah, so there it was. Hardly deserves com
ment, Bennell.
"You want me to finish or don't you? [We want you to begin.} The
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very next day, running from Jack's house back to my own, I saw a
gardener take his partner's arm off with a pair of shears. Almost to
the shoulder. Did he come by the office? Can you guess the answer?
That week, as I went out less and less, pretty much just here and
back, I saw three bad car accidents and an honest-to-God shoot-out.
Where could these men be going? It's about thirty miles to the hos
pital in Pasadena, which is twenty-five miles too far if you haven't
had any sort of medical attention. I mean, these were extremely seri
ous injuries.
"And here we were, in pretty bad shape ourselves. Going without
sleep can be dangerous, even fatal. It does things to a person's physi
ology that are only really curable through sleep. Becky got a few
hours while I watched her, and then she tried to spell me, but she
passed out sitting up. When I came to, Becky was gone, replaced by
one of those ... things."
Finally.
Of course it disturbed him. More than he could express at that time
or any since. He had had to make himself destroy it. The ampheta
mines he had injected himself with, along with the lack of sleep,
made him feel hollow, "outside of myself," as he put it. Made this
horrible thing possible, this thing that he could not now believe
he had done. And yet he remembered it clearly? That's just it: He
couldn't remember anything about it. Come now, Bennell. No teas
ing. What did he remember? After, standing there with a bruise on
his knuckles like a dentist's drill that bore down when he loosened
the grip his right hand had around the leg of his nightstand, a night
stand that, legless and flattened, lay shattered underneath the ...
thing. There was blood everywhere, even in his mouth. A bit of
something that looked like egg with ketchup on it was stuck to
his shirtfront. He resisted naming it. Don't resist, Bennell. "Gould,
you monster." The difference between Shakespeare and a monkey
with a typewriter, Bennell, is aim. Hitting the key called for, not its
neighbors.
He had rushed to find Jack, sleeping downstairs, and both had
made a break for the office. The peaceful look on Jack's face should
have clued him in. Did he envy Jack? He only wished he hadn't let
Jack have Iiis pistol. He told Jack to wait outside while he checked
to see if it was safe. It hadn't taken long for the shrieking to start.
With Becky and Jack gone, there was no longer any need to shut
tle between the office and his home, Bennell claimed. Better to
choose the more secure place. Why the office then? Shouldn't a man
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Gabriel Blackwell
feel more comfortable in his home? Too many windows, too many
doors, Bennell said. And perhaps some unwelcome associations? To
be sure.
And so, cloistered in the office, there were only his capriciously
inflamed passions to stoke. That is, until lack of oxygen smothered
them under the terrible blanket that now covered everything. It was
as though he had taken that nightstand leg to his old self back there,
didn't we see, and not to the empty simulacrum of Becky Driscoll
that had crumpled under it like a candy-less pinata. And yet, he
seemed to believe that it wasn't Becky at all. Or did he believe that
Becky was "hollow," as he had put it, i.e., subject to penis envy? Had
he been afraid that she was trying to "screw" him? Is that why he
had attacked her with an improvised phallus? Did he feel emascu
lated by her?
This was too absurd. Becky Driscoll wasn't empty: That thing had
been. Please, remain in the chair, Bennell, or the restraints will have
to be tightened, the cuffs secured again. But it was absurd, what we
were suggesting. The strenuousness with which he denied our "ac
cusation" was revealing. Perhaps displacement was the culprit, the
return of that castration anxiety he had described earlier. It had been
a hose described earlier. "For God's sake, Gould! A hose. A fucking
hose!" Excitement is fine, Bennell, ecstasy, rhapsody, even tears—all
acceptable. But anger only bruises the tempo, mashes the score. You
will be restrained until you have calmed down.
Ahem. In the first few weeks, he had had the run of the place. He
worked in the various offices, whenever the fancy took him. He re
paired some of his chairs in the upholsterer's, tried restuffing a divan
he found in the farm supply. He discovered volatility in the lab,
regretted its discovery. He tried to grow food in flats of bottles he
found in the basement but the seeds corroded in the backwash of
chemical residue. He even ventured up on the roof with his tele
scope. But he felt watched: In every office, no matter how involved
in what he was doing, he could not escape self-consciousness. He
imagined customers, coworkers,- on the roof, the eyes of the town.
He dismantled the telescope. You see, Bennell? He took the bottles
back to his office. He welded the door to the roof shut, painted tar
mac on the inside of the windows. Still, he could not sleep. Ah.
Something about the second floor seemed suspect to him. He aban
doned his office, leaving behind thirty-seven messages in bottles, all
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drafts of a single letter that he couldn't quite bring himself to finish.
Everything on the page seemed false to him the minute it slid
through the slim neck. He built fortifications on the stairs, pikes
made out of sharpened coatracks bristling from the pile of desks that
had taken hours to move into place. Surely you see it yourself,
Bennell.
And the basement? Something was very wrong in the basement. It
was the echo of the space that set him on edge. He began to feel the
same in the front corridor. He could no longer move from office to
office without feeling unsafe. Open doors, even empty boxes, scared
him. Within a month, he could not stand to be anywhere but the dry
cleaner's backroom. Regression, Bennell. Perhaps we will get there
after all.
All around him hung suits of clothes, draped in thin sheets of
brown butcher's paper, so close together they seemed to ride piggy
back on each other, filling the room until only the small well in the
middle where the chair was kept was free of them. All along the
walls and in rows so close they overlapped, they huddled together, as
though for warmth. They, Bennell? Did he believe them human?
Their stillness, the hush of their conversation when he pushed
through them to the bathroom or, less frequently, to the front room,
reminded him of a public gathering. As though the whole town had
convened here? Yes. For a trial? Maybe. Or perhaps for a recital? Here
they all were, assembled for some reason or another, stifling their
coughs and throat clearings for his benefit. When the last whisper
had been quelled, he could sit down and begin.
And so, let us begin again, Bennell. His knees were almost up to
his chin: It was ridiculous, this posture, he could hardly breathe,
much less recite. He wanted to shut his eyes. He could no longer
remember sleep, the feeling of weightlessness, bodylessness. His
hands were numb, his legs were numb, even his head was numb; all
he could feel anymore was the drag of gravity upon his body, forcing
him always down, pressing him to sleep, perchance to dream.
Bennell, there wül be time for sleep later. Forget dreams for now;
tell us instead about waking. Tell us about the unexpected return of
consciousness. Tell us about the odd twilight when the unchecked
fancy of the unconscious is interrupted by the reassertion of the will.
Tell us about the strain of the world coming into being. Tell us about
the grains of light that fall and swirl and fix into dark constellations
of surroundings. Tell us about the moment when blankets first have
weight, sheets separate from blankets, a head from its pillow, an
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alarm clock from its nightstand. Tell us about the moment that the
creeping things make themselves known, about that moment when
the veil's fog has dissipated and you can finally name them. You will
rest later, Bennell. First, before you go, give us purpose. For your
sake, Bennell, yours and ours, give us meaning.
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