Thigbold is in a coma. He gets a visitor.
During my convalescence, I had several occasions to relate the experience to well-meaning tsk-tsking health workers. The first, a very sweet physical therapist, listened for a bit then seemed to file me with her cases of 'harmless but 'strange,' She was the only one I told the whole story. With each retelling, it was shortened, made more and finally acknowledged as a dream, the mind wanderings of a very-ill man. It didn't take much to reason that it was in my best interest to show signs of recovery which, at least to a degree, followed the medical script in some fly-specked textbook on the brain injured.
I was discharged seven weeks ago. My chart probably has a neatly transcribed concluding note by one of the learned attendings stating I am healed, normal, and should take six months off. That's what I was told, "You're 100% Mr. Thigbold, take six months though, just to get your bearings back." It seemed a contradiction worth probing, for about three seconds. Ten days in that acrid-odored mausoleum was sufficient motive to say only 'thanks' and get out as quickly as an orderly-pushed wheelchair could roll. Once freed, I walked a block, tired quickly from inactivity, and cabbed to my flat.
I live alone. I work alone, or worked rather, I'm my own company, "SAWB ENTERPRISES."
Only a few know my card means 'Serving Anyone Will Buy.' More biography is unnecessary. I've only related this much because the doctors believed my hospital experience was due to a lack of close relationships and 'no one to live for.' Goat Balls!
Why must one need another for motivation to live? Shouldn't the alternative be reason enough? I was motivated plenty to vacate that stainless steel monolith and use some time for this, to record what happened, the way it happened.
I have always been an organizer. Things seem more manageable, more understandable in their place. I can find no logical place for what happened, but writing it may help me understand. Whoever reads this may believe it or no, I neither care nor will be around to suffer condemnation or condolence. This is for me, told by for me, and anyone reading it will only prove my oversight and preoccupation with something more important than setting a match to the narrative.
I was stopped at a light. Tire squeal behind gave only enough warning to glance at the mirror, the reflected image showed red, huge, moving red. Later, I was told the Coke truck had lost its brakes. Actually, the loaded vehicle was mechanically sound, its driver only inattentive. I accepted an out-of-court settlement for enough to take six years off if I want. I don't. Six months is about three too many. Had it been important, I could have sued the car maker. I'm average height, yet the headrest, a no-option, non-adjustable, extra cost safety feature, met the back of my neck, not my head. I was only aware of a violent forward then backward thrust.
I awoke two days later. The nurse said five. Days three and four are my story. I'll get to it. I must mention two interesting things first, one amusing, the other damned serious. One of the nurses, this was before transfer to psych, one of the nurses greeted me, and other patients as well, each morning with a Mini Pearl "Howdieeeeee!"
Absurd, but it probably did more good than 88% of the drugs that are the foundation of modern medicine. She thought I was still out "on break." They all did those two days.
She was the only one who talked to me or at me. I learned about her loves and fears and failures. I also learned my neurologist was a closet homosexual. I tried it once - too much hair. Mini was a gem. I couldn't move or talk or feel anything, the latter proved a real blessing.
There was a concerted determination to find an organic explanation for my coma. All agreed it must be a blood clot, or ruptured disk, or I don't remember all the ors. I was tested, needled, and nudged to fit half the machines their grant money could buy. That was the scary part. While I enjoyed nurse Mini's attentions, I was very relieved to discover an inability to feel touch, no matter how sharp.
During those two days they thought I was a radish, I had a visitor. I remember every detail and word. I didn't sleep, didn't get hungry, or visit the bathroom. Neither the doctors nor nurse Mini bothered us though they came and went. At times, when I perceived it safe, I got up and moved around the room. It helped me think, something I had reason to do seriously when my visitor was with me.
It was mid-morning the second day after the truck stepped on my car. I felt a presence and looked around. Someone occupied the room's only chair. He was dressed in white, so, at first, I concluded he was hospital staff. Looking closer, though, the details of costume became clear and the visitor proved to be dressed, encased rather, in a suite of 16th century armor, all white except for black lettering across the breastplate. In a heavy old-German gothic, it said 'White Knight.'
"Are you part of the therapy," I asked. "Are they later going to ask me if I saw anything strange this morning?"
"No." The reply was hollow.
"Then how did you get in here, who are you, and do you owe me any money?" I demanded.
He raised the helmet visor. "Perhaps this outfit was a little too much. I wanted to get your attention, and on short notice, this was all I could think of. Would you prefer something more conservative?" He didn't wait for a reply but sort of faded then cleared. The chair then supported what most would take to be a middle-aged bank executive. "How's this?" he seemed anxious to please.
"I suppose this is a dream," I said, more to myself than the vested visitor. "Too professional, too doctor-ish. Let's see something more interesting."
"I don't have a lot of time, and I am not here to entertain but in the interest of establishing credibility," he faded again.
I heard the voice before the image cleared. "Just stop me when you see something you like,. I came to talk and thought it better to have something for you to look at."
The chair held a potted ivy, a dark Siamese cat, then an exquisite brunette barely covered in an emerald green, lacy thing. "Whoa! I think we have something here." My interest was decidedly captured.
She lightly, beautifully, touched her hair. "This is it then?" she asked.
No! It was ridiculous. She spoke with his voice, a rich baritone combination of maybe John Houseman/Charles Laughton, only younger. "The voice," I pleaded. "Put a 'her' voice with the her."
Again, she/he spoke. "No, can't do it. Actually, won't do it. We need to do some heavy talking, and I really don't believe you would do so seriously were I to stay in this form. I'll just get into something comfortable - for you, not me."
This, the last change, at least fit the voice. I saw a college professor type, maybe a writer like author pictures on the backs of book jackets. He stood up, looking himself over. He was average age, average build, and wore a tweed coat with those ridiculous leather patches on the elbows and brown pants. He had the uniform turtleneck and pipe, then no pipe. "I suppose you should call me something. My clients seem to prefer it. How about Mr. Cruz?"
Reality struck like a slap. "Just what the hell's happening here?" I asked. "It's obvious I'm in a hospital but except for a sore neck I don't feel ill. The last I remember is leaving for work this morning. Now I'm in a little room with a hose in my arm and apparently seeing things. What is a Mr. Cruz? Why does this seem so real?"
"I don't have a lot of details," Cruz said dryly. "I was on another case. My client and I had just about reached an agreement; she was 23 and it looked like she would come back. Any decision was taken out of our hands abruptly however when a bumbling doctor overdosed her. She went out like a match in a hurricane. Negotiations fini. I was briefed on my way here. You got hit by a truck, not this morning, two days ago. Your car was hit, that is. The paramedics were good, by the way."
"So I've been out for two days and I must still be half-out because you are certainly not real, not with all that image changing business."
He turned from the window. Fixing me in a clear, hard look, he said, "I'm plenty damn real, buddy! I'm real to you, to this time, and this place. I have no truck with anyone else, so people coming in here won't see or hear us. You will stay in a coma until our talks are concluded, or one of them accidentally kills you. You can get up, walk around, whatever, just stay within sight of your body. Since you're alive, you may have to return to your casing on short notice."
"I'm to be Daniel Webster and argue the devil for my soul?"
"There is no devil!" Cruz thundered. Then, softer, "Webster was good, very good. We still use him on the tough cases."
The outburst startled and frightened me. I wasn't so sure anymore that I was dreaming. Maybe I was dead. Looking around, I saw a bag of something dripping into a tube that was taped to my arm.
Chest wires led to some machine that had a blinking light. It beeped and flashed rhythmically. I was breathing. Signs of life. But that guy and what he had said was unreal. A nurse came in. She took no notice of Cruz, didn't say anything, and left having made an inspection of me.
"Well what," I asked.
"Shall we get on with it?"
"Look, this is all new to me and damned confusing. You may be a pro at slight-of-hand, or an angel or my fairy God-father. Just what are you? Why are you, and what's going on?"
Cruz sat down. "I can see to it you end it all here or allow you to recover and leave. Of course, your doctors can intervene and kill you. I can't prevent that. I can keep them from waking you up, if they knew how. So, if you have any interest in living, and that's why I'm here, it would be in your best interest not to delay."
"Are you from God?"
"I'm working really hard here to have patience with you, Thigbold. I told you there was no devil. It stands to reason then, there is no anti-devil, or God. I am limited in what I can do."
"I'm also limited in what I know. I do my job, report to my boss, who reports to the committee. That's it."
It was too much. I still had no idea why or what I could do about the situation I was in.
He continued, "The reason I am here is because you are neither dead nor wholly alive. This seldom happens as you can imagine. More than 99% of the time, it's no problem; one is alive or not alive. I was in a state once, same as you now, and was recruited by my boss. There are certainly others like me though I have no awareness of the operational details.
"You're a ghost," I declared.
"Not in any conventional sense. Chain rattling and moaning are counter-productive. No time for such nonsense anyway, too short handed. Technology now keeps a lot more such as you around, with one foot on either side so to speak. The committee must decide which way the person goes." He was up, pacing. Someone in white came in to hang a new bag on the I.V. pole. I shouted 'Fire' but caused no alarm in the technician.
Cruz remarked impatiently, "Time Thigbold, time."
"What the crap do you care about time?" I spat back. "Aren't you going to be floating around for eternity doing this, getting into minds, bothering people with things you don't even know about? Am I supposed to plead, to argue in defense of my life? You undoubtedly know my biography; why come here for an interview?"
"Because we can use you," the remark was made in a deadpan monotone.
"For what?" I asked.
"I don't know, perhaps as a recruiter like me. The committee has a lot to oversee, and there are many departments. You like kids? We have a high burn-out rate in pediatrics, you could do that."
"Do what, do WHAT!?" I said, exasperated
Cruz was just too cold about this. I thought 'unreal' and chuckled at the irony of it. Of course it was unreal I mean, what's reality? Consciousness? Well, I was certainly not conscious.
"There are a million decisions made every day," he continued mechanically. "Natural events like earthquakes and droughts get most of the effort because they require so much coordination. Even the committee has rules though I have no idea their origin. Everything that happens is governed by laws. Some have been figured out by mortals who call the rules physics."
"You're telling me you people make hurricanes?"
"Not make exactly, just cause things to happen like a shift in the wind together with a fall in barometric pressure, that sort of thing."
"They do dams too, or undo them to be more accurate."
"And you, or they, want me to be a part of causing such things?"
Cruz nodded, then corrected himself, "No," he said. "I mean, I doubt a new worker would have much of anything to do with a volcano erupting. I was born in '26 and died in '81. I'm still doing the job I started.
"No promotions? Bonuses at Christmas? Paid vacations?"
"No need. With no sense of mortal greed there is no awareness of absence, or doing without, if you understand."
"Maybe you aren't so good at it," I replied. "If you were, seems to me seventeen years on the job should qualify for something a little better. Shouldn't you be causing at least small floods or maybe train derailments?"
"Three hundred and seventeen," Cruz snorted. "I joined up in 1681. What I do carries neither reward nor threat of failure. A few, a very, very few are offered the chance to continue."
Yes! I snapped. "Continue WHAT?"
"Oh," Cruz said, ignoring my frustration.
"Continue, er, awareness."
"And what about the very, very many who aren't offered?"
"They die, as usual."
"What becomes of their spirit then? If there is no God or Satan, there is neither a heaven nor a hell. Where does the soul rest?"
"On the underside of your foot Thigbold! You die, you rot, you're recycled and are used by the living. You have been existing...," Cruz pulled a notepad from an inside pocket, "...uh, forty-nine years all at the expense of dead plants and animals. "Not a bad circle really, very efficient, until the last twenty years. We think your background could be have some use to us, that is, the committee must believe so."
I felt I was about to understand, at least the basics. "Ok, what do I have so far? Your boss has sent you to me while I'm in a coma. I'm offered continuation though not as a mortal. If accepted, I'll be assigned some minor job working within the laws of physics for so long as I want and they want. The alternative is to take my chances. If you take me I die, yet continue. If I refuse, I may recover and be a normal mortal. Sooner or later, I die anyway, at which time there will be no continuance, only my hydrocarbons fueling someone's car of the future. How am I doing?"
"You have the picture Thigbold," Cruz seemed genuinely interested for the first time. "How about it then?" he asked.
"I'll take my chances with real life. You don't exist, much less live. I may not have had a very exciting forty-nine years, but it sure beats what you've been doing for three hundred. Oh, it might be fun to sit on some cloud all day and cause house fires or hail, but I somehow doubt there's much job satisfaction in the long run.
Thanks, but no thanks."
Cruz had not come to sell me, only make an offer. He obviously didn't care one way or the other. "Right," he said. "I'll be on my way, have to be in Bangkok in half an hour. Good luck Thigbold, not that there's any such thing of course. You may need some help getting back but that isn't my department."
"What if I change my mind?"
"I don't know," his voice and image faded, then was gone.
I spent all the next day aware but unable to move or speak or feel. On day five, Mini came in as usual just after seven. She said, "Howdieeee," and I opened my eyes and said, "Suck an egg!" They put me through some more tests then sent me to the psych ward for interviews. It was apparent early that I would have no believers in my story. I acted very normal, whatever that is, and pushed for discharge.
The seven weeks since have been a total waste.
My business is ruined, all my customers taken by other guys. Neither my clients nor the landlord knew what had happened.
My apartment lock had been changed, the bank is suing for back car payments yet the damn thing was totaled and parked in a wrecking yard which charges $20 a day storage.
The final bit was yesterday. That truck's insurance company withdrew its settlement offer. They found the brake light fuse burned out on my car and refused to pay, saying I could sue. I took the last $500 out of the bank. I bought a quart of vodka, and the rest went to a little guy around the corner. I hope it is good stuff, at least it's a very clean, very bright white. It didn't mix well in the booze but I drank it down anyway. That was a while ago and I've had to finish this quickly as I'm very sleepy.
"HEY CRUZ, I'VE CHANGED MY MIND CRUZ!"
"Forget it Thigbold, we found someone else."