photo by Andre de Dienes
It’s a busy end-of-the-school year. My voice doesn’t work for the telephone. A few rushed emails and texts trickle in daily, asking how we are. The effect is, I suppose, of receiving a telegram from a seaside palace when bandits have tied you up for torture, face-down in the dust. If only the palace reports were amused and amazed. If they offered the kind of description that could transport me momentarily out of the ward. But the missives read like this: I FEAR THE PILLOWS IN THIS PALACE MAY HAVE LOST A MILLIMETER OF FLUFF—(STOP)—GOTTA DASH OR I’LL BE LATE TO THE BALL—(STOP)—. The telegrams are brief and waver between worry and hurry. The worry seems to be over luxuries—possible sore throats, for instance. Worry—I vow to remember when I’m better enough to do it—is selfish. It’s like even out among people you’re sitting under a cloak with Silly-Putty stuffed in your ears, knitting a sweater for yourself that is way too small. And the rushing off to this or that seems incomprehensible in in its luxury. That the body could glide unthinkingly, without glitch or pain, from house to car to work to trail to school to meal to bar to concert to house. Still, hurry carries a sheen the sick can almost ride. The way, when the last sparkler gets granted, you might run alongside the kid who got it, trying to wave your hand in a stray spark.
Everyone grappling with sickness has different needs. It’s kind and thoughtful to wonder if a bed-bound person is stocked for necessary supplies. If I hadn’t been, a box of Kleenex without pain-enhancing patterns (Kleenex box artists clearly aren’t designing for the sick) may have been so preferable to a recounting of some funny incident. But can we also treat being amused as a basic human need? Can we agree that being fed a surprising narrative is as important as being fed liquids and broth? I wondered about all the people sicker than me who had given up on expecting someone, or a mix of funny and thoughtful someones, to get them away from themselves through their ears. I wondered if they, like me, were lamenting not living in a way that ensured better visitors for ailing or dying: people crackling with life, to distract them from their failing bodies.
When I’m better, I decide, I’ll form a company that hires comedians and storytellers to visit the bedsides of the sick and dying. Every time I start to pity myself the lack of a dynamo visitor (Why do wishes for Peppermint Patty and Ethan Hawke drift so frequently into this silence? Is it because neither one of them ever shuts up?) I turn, instead, to plotting a helpful enterprise. I ponder whether the name Pillowtalk© is already taken, either by an after-hours phone porn company or by a literary pillowcase manufacturer (which should also be a thing). Scouting employees would require travelling around the world in search of funny people, which sounds—from within the silent, serious walls of our ward—just about perfect. I plan out the client form, contemplating what sort of boxes the bedded could tick. Preferred level of animation in a comedian/storyteller seems important, as does degree of humour. And subject material—both the preferred and dreaded. Some dying people might want an educational speaker, to teach them in an area they always meant to learn. Others might feel markedly sicker at the mention of a fact, a stat. The largest blanks on the form would read Please DO NOT Send Someone Who: and Please DO NOT Talk About:–since with pain often comes the super-sharp ability to know exactly what you don’t want.
After about a week I feel well enough to concentrate, and therefore to read, and books rush in to fill the need for funny, thoughtful, imaginative company. I can read on average four pages between coughing fits, and writers can take me to so many places in that time. And so I realize another—maybe bigger— branch of Pillowtalk© will manage book delivery networks. The very sick and dying will be quickly granted any book they want to read. In fact, some clients who request comedians will end up saying to them: Do you mind just reading to me from that book over there on the table? I can forget, during my healthy, peopled, busy days, how vital a book can be—its characters can only transport me as thoroughly as I hand myself over to them. But now I fall in completely. And so I’m no longer someone who can’t stop coughing. I’m a voice on the telephone, a voice with questions and pauses so perfect it seduces all the strangers it calls (Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—the Jelly & Jack chapters). I’m a cynical old captain hired to return a ten-year-old white girl to family, after a childhood held captive by the Kiowa Indians. I used to carry military messages long distance, sprinting by myself blissfully over miles of ground—but now I stand at town podiums reading bits from newspapers to impatient audiences. I’m the captain’s ten-year-old charge, too, holding straight and alert in the wagon, my body attuned for battles, my hand coiled around a knife. I’m singing in a language no one understands, and I want the wagon to go back the way it came. I am white-skinned and freckled, with taffy-colored hair, and my people look nothing like me. I’m both of the captain and the charge, and I’m here and not here, because they don’t belong anywhere. Except maybe—in their determination to be wild, to not let wild become a memory—to each other (Paulette Jile’s News of the World). When I’m no longer sick I will be thankful all over again for these books, which allowed me to be so many people who weren’t coughing-me. There are only twenty-two perfect stories (if you don’t count her amazing novella, Foster) published by the Irish writer Claire Keegan. Twenty-two transports so complete that reaching their white spaces at the end feels like being slammed into snow. Then, in way too short a time, I devour all of David Sedaris’s diary entries (Theft & Finding). I admire anew how many times a day, at the most minuscule prompts, he manages to be simultaneously outraged and amused. When I look up from the page I find myself again in that pathetic place—a reader’s place—of counting as my best friend someone who doesn’t even know me.
Just in case a prolonged illness descends to take my concentration, or my eyesight, I better find Beth. That’s what I decide. Beth, my long lost friend from Fife, Scotland. Beth who from that 1990-something day we met at a youth hostel in Adelaide, agreed—even as we pretended to follow a map, a travel route—that wonder and laughter were our only real destinations. I’m going to find that Beth and I’m going to find others Beths: male Beths, cyber Beths, Beths with animal bodies. But also I will travel to Scotland and reunite with the original. The travel expenses will even be covered by Pillowtalk©, because when I find her I’m going to hire her on the spot as our Fife & beyond Superior Bedside Visitor.
During one of the fevers that descend dependably in the early evenings, like clamps tightening on my head, I actually see Beth entering the ward. This is a happy surprise: since neither one of us travelled with a camera, I have no photos of her. Her hair is more brown and less red than I thought. It’s straighter than the haywire ringlets I remember. But her eyes are instantly familiar: they spark and bulge with funny findings, with incomprehension over totally-normal-but-completely-crazy things. If I was asleep her eyes would wake me up. But I’m awake anyway, because Beth enters a room like someone hurled her into it. She enters like that loaf of bread she once spiralled at me from way down the aisle of a grocery store. And even doubled over with laughter—not coughs, never coughs—I caught it.