Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
The Vacation

     {from Nightwork}


          (A PREFACE)




When 6239 awoke at 9:52 AM he was indescribably happy.  There was little to do for now but lie there on the padding and try to imagine there was pain in the world.  He often tried that mornings.  It was a lovely way to begin the day.  From the reflection in the ceiling mirror he could tell she was already awake and puttering around in the other room.  Just like her, his sweet one, 3962.  The early bird catches?  But then his mind went utterly blank, and he could feel rushes of liquid sweet warmth up his spine, and he knew it was time to get up.

     The slightest motion of his head disconnected the recording panels.  He stood and stretched.  The mirrors which surrounded him displayed the image of a handsome young man, arrested in his mid-thirties, nondescript perhaps, medium skin tone, medium hair, medium genitals in the solitary clothing, a skin-tight scarlet loin cloth.  Without further ado he crossed to the exit, thumbed the panel aside, and stepped out into the living room.

     It was such a joy to see her through the glass of her cubicle, she with her matching loin cloth, she with her mid-thirties look, the medium skin tone, the medium hair, the medium breasts.  Already up and at it.  Had anything come through during the night?  6239 always looked forward to the day's work even when it took only a minute or two.  It was good to know you were earning your keep.  Should he sneak up on her?  It would be fun to pretend she couldn't see him in the mirrors and just creep softly over the padding and give her a quick hug from behind.  Would she experience surprise?  There were so many pleasures in life, even those which they chose to fabricate.  And how had "Charlie" slept?  What turns WOULD their conversation take?  Today, after all, was the big one.  He had waited 75 years for it, 3962 over a hundred.  Today was their first vacation.  Oh yes, it had finally come.  They were going pre-sedative.   

     "39?" he said.

     "Yes dear?"

     "Good morning.  I just wanted to say good morning."

     "And what a morning!  Would you like to see my dreams?" 

     "I'm afraid there just isn't time."

     "Oh yes.  I had totally forgotten.  Have you had breakfast?  Silly me.  Of course you haven't.  Let's do it together.  What do you say to that?  You do me and I'll do you.  Race you to the pumper."

     She darted from the cubicle.  As usual, he let her beat him to the kitchen, some twelve strides across the padding.  As with all apartments in Beta Systems, the source of their nourishment was recessed in a black section of polished tile.  There were antiseptic swabs and, of course, the pumper.  It was such a joy to watch her handle the latter even after all these years.  Within seconds she had shot him up and was waiting for his steady grip, the swab, the mechanical injection.  There on her medium right cheek he could at last see the welt.  It was always like that, gone in an hour, such a small price to pay for a lifetime of tranquility, joy beyond measure, a satisfaction which knew no bounds.

     Even the monitor above their heads seemed to sense that there was no discord in the known universe from breakfast to lunch to dinner, welt by welt, world without end.  The few times any of them longed for it were always met with the supreme knowledge that such a day as this would eventually arrive, a day when certain chosen couples would take their long deserved vacation from eternal bliss.  6239 could almost taste it.  It was an unknown quantity, a sweetness he had only heard described by those few he knew who had been there, that sensation they defined as pain.  But even then with the rushes of delight coursing through his viscera, he knew there was work to finish, even "Charlie" to attend to before there was any vacation for the two of them.

     Had she turned him off?  It was always a problem with children.  If you left them running when you weren't there, reel after reel of their experiences would pass you by un-sensed, unknown.  Perhaps that was what they meant by sadness.  It was a speculation that would bear no real fruit.  He knew that as well as he knew that even if they turned their son off forever they would never really miss him.  Life was too full to miss anything, even a vacation.  Oh yes, even for the latter he could wait another century, a thousand years.  The point was that you missed nothing.  There was only this immense delight, crossing the padding to his cubicle and thumbing on the screen with a full imprint of his given name, 6239B2231C8851X31321Z5.

     No work for today?  Curious.  The screen was totally blank.  But then there was no such thing as the unexpected.  Even the totally random had a symmetry so lovely as to melt the world toward bliss.  His wife there behind him, waiting for their first sex of the day.  His wife on the padding, writhing with the warm juice of her breakfast.  3962J1214K-9922V32314V2 just waiting for it.  Did even the Senior Systems Analyst know such pleasure?  Maybe 6239 would program that some day and feed it in just to get the reaction.


ONE (((((((((((((



It was edging toward 3 PM, the start of the evening shift.  Two figures sat alone in the dining room.  Buteckus, the male, was attempting to raise his left hand.  His partner, Edna, seemed listless, out of focus.  Both occupied wheelchairs.  Bill Buteckus had his arm several inches over his head at one point and would have liked a word of encouragement, but there was no one there to notice beyond Edna, and at 88 she was unlikely to see much more than the yellow mesh garden table or perhaps the urinal on its surface, and then likely neither item would truly register.  She would see them in a blur of vision, mind.  There was nothing inherently startling in Bill's progress with his left hand.  In nearly three months on Ward 6-5 he had succeeded in elevating the hand only a trifle beyond the level achieved in therapy over on Rehabilitation before his time ran out.  Perhaps there would be a miracle.  He would recover from the stroke.  There was always that hope.  Then he could go home.  Every day his daughter had held that out to him.  It was becoming more difficult to believe, but he knew that if he lost his grip on that small vestigial affirmation there would be nothing much left to live for.  As for Edna, there was nothing to live for beyond the promise of a cigarette.  A cigarette would register.  For some ten or twelve minutes it would pry open the vague ache in her heart, and then heart, mind, spirit, would close like a cold dry trap, leaving only the strangest sense of being minimally alive.  At 3 PM she might have that cigarette if Barry were on duty.  She tried not to think too much about it because she had learned that the best thing was not to anticipate a pleasure, no matter how large, how insignificant.  Just as well there had been occasions when Barry hadn't come across.  While Bill Buteckus hoped to go home, permitted himself that small ambivalence of pain and warmth, Edna was, of design, beyond emotion.  The evening they covered the fourth of her roommates with a plastic shroud and wheeled her out on a litter she had made up her mind that ambition was the only incurable infection.  These days she was immune.  It was the best thing she had.  It was her ace in the hole.  Perhaps in this sense she was the superior to Buteckus.  It may have been the fault of his youth.  At 71 one was still open to folly.  At 88 one was permitted a small draught of wisdom.

     "What do you think the weather's like?" Bill asked.

     "I don't know.  I really don't know."

     "If there was just a way to know."

     "Maybe we'll have to wait for Barry."

     It was difficult to converse.  In a very real sense they were not alone.  The wide doors led to the corridor, and directly across, the TV room.  From both quarters came a virtual barnyard of sounds, the wails, shrieks, howls, of patients possibly less fortunate than Bill and Edna.  Nor were the latter inured to the interminable clamor.  Every interchange between them had to contend with it, a shifting, unpredictable assault from perhaps twenty creatures confined for the most part in geriatric chairs, cushioned seats and backrests on rollers, heavy composition lap-boards that locked into place to grip each individual against a predictable churning, lolling motion, confusion, rage, hysteria.  Few were silent.  Few were silent for long.  No one could know if the greatest turmoil was a matter of the general outcry or the inner distress it seemed to mirror.  All was speculation on Ward 6-5.  One hoped that the small vestige of human intelligence remaining in each ravaged brain was non-reflective.  A casual observer would certainly reach such a conclusion.  Bill and Edna were locked in their OWN madness.  Each was cursed with a small lucidity.  The desperate task was to maintain it.

     "They said it was going to rain," Bill said.

     "Who said it was going to rain?"

     "I'm not sure.  Someone."


     "No.  I think it was Molly.  She said it last night."

     A particularly strong and virulent shriek rose above the general clamor.  It seemed almost like a prayer.  It might have come from the low slung litter across the corridor at the entrance to the TV room.  For a moment they could hear nothing else.  They knew Nick was in there.  They could see his bulge on the litter, the gloss of his skull.  Perhaps he had tired of the program, what little he could see of it with his head angled over to the side, glimpsing it past his contracted legs, his hands like fins.  Neither Edna nor Bill cared much for Nick.  He was of the worst sort.  The worst sort were semi-lucid, semi-reflective.  Types like Nick were for the most part silent, but when they erupted there was this terrible bellow that they were hearing now, half appeal, half curse, a type of demented assault on the basic decency of existence.

     "God.  God.  God.  God.  Gaaaaaaahhhhhddd.   Kill.  Kill.  Want to die.  Want to die God God.  Oh God.  Me.  Kill me."

     "I hope it doesn't rain," Bill said.

     "Don't worry.  It won't rain."

     "Are you certain?"

     "You said yourself Molly said it would rain."


     "Molly gets it wrong, even the weather."

     As for Nicky, the weather was not foremost.  It would have been sufficient to predict the evening's meal.  The most difficult element in his predicament was the given fact that he had only three meals a day, and this time of the afternoon, two were already past.  Time twitched that way, a lurch between a rather scant variety of purees, a shudder from spoonful to cupful, long draughts of instant coffee, a mash of peas, margarine and bread, and then, click—he was condemned to his fins, the tube in his belly, the blur of the TV image, soundproofing aloft, a will so fevered that he might melt the sun with it, to take up that litter and walk, somewhere, anywhere, just out of there, possibly even past God himself.  Right now he had an itch at the base of his spine, just above and to the right of the scar from last year's bedsore.  There was no way to even touch it.  For a time he had been able to at least wriggle on his buttocks.  That was before the last thirty pounds.  And in the gaps between Wick's gurgle somewhere remotely to his rear, an advertisement for Purex beyond his feet, the general bleat and ruckus down the hall, he could hear those two old fools discussing the possibility of rain.  When did it ever rain on Ward 6-5?  With his luck there would just BE rain, white-hot rain, a flood of it, short chance to shield his eyes.  Maybe he would just order it up.  Wouldn't that be a laugh?  Night was coming.  With night would come twelve hours.  And then, just when the thought of those twelve hours entered his consciousness, burning like that white-hot rain, like something he could never swallow, he let out another shriek of lamentation, half fury, half curse, perhaps to see if he could tremble some of the sound away, certainly the ceiling.  He had been condemned to the ceiling.  Maybe God had willed it.  Whenever his neck gave and he could no longer hold his grip on whatever was just beyond his feet, to the left, to the right, however they had placed him, he had the ceiling.  Nick let the shriek go with his eyes and brain a blur, and then the ceiling was back again and Wick's gurgle, and the possibility of rain.  Oh yes, Barry would let them know in the end.  Good old Barry.  Best drive he could manage was 230 yards.

     "Barry.  Barrrrrrrrrryy.  Gaaaahhhdd.  God.  Kill God."

     "Look in your side pocket," Bill said.  "Maybe you left it in there.  See if it's down underneath that other stuff.  You can't have lost a whole brownie.  Have a look see."

     Edna rummaged in the pocket laced to her wheelchair.

     "No use."

     "Maybe one of the aides ate it."

     "Maybe it was never there."

     "You can't tell.  It might have been there."

     "Maybe I never had a brownie."

     "Maybe you're right.  Maybe you never had one."

     The world was a curious place from where Wick sat.  The world was inward, lodged in the hash of tissue which comprised his brain.  And yet world, hash, brain very likely matched his general appearance, the forehead reaching midway back his skull, the long straight hair nearly to his shoulders, the white isolation gown tied in the rear, the knotted bare calves, a ridge of leg bone down to the wide glossy feet in powder blue slippers.  Wick was the mad professor, locked in vision, a world of murky shapes, sentence fragments, odors, wriggling fingers.  The thesis was gurgle, a liquid rattle in his throat.  For 35 years he had been a banker.  The banker was at last fright, a stink of bewilderment.  The tragedy of Wick was not his pain, for one could never derive a notion of pain from the vague bright eyes.  It was rather the reduction of a basic human dignity.  Catching at figures within his brain, the spinning reel of image, color, form fingering his confusion, poor Wick was further toward bestiality than any mother could have ever predicted, and yet his life had been for the most part honorable, upright.  Even the fleshy fingers couldn't piece it out, the weight of his confusion, his predicament. There was only one isolated clarity his mind could summon, and it let him think in sentences—someone did not love him.  Of that much he was certain.

     Perhaps it was Nick on the litter.  It might have been Sally or even Eve in the corner.  Perhaps that pair hated him collectively.  There was something about their appearance he couldn't fathom, Sally's long wrinkled face, her continuous nodding while the expressionless eyes took in a patch of wall, a mottle of image, color.  Or Eve, her worried sunken glance under a mass of lines hatching the forehead, the bloated nose she dabbed with the back of her hand.  Somehow they seemed his sisters.  He had heard them called the twins.  Perhaps one was his mother.  His mother had died of cancer.  She was very old now.  Perhaps both were his mother.  There was more of his mother than even cancer could ever be.  How old were they?  Oh yes, perhaps older than the virgin God.  He hoped they loved him.  He hoped they would not escape their padded chairs and consign him to the sandbox.  He always hated the brown sand.  He always hated that.  At times like this, when he could almost think, when he tried very desperately to understand, he often let out the most pathetic of wails, as if he could master even the twins, Nick, the world itself, Clairborne just now pacing by with his curious wife—with the ultimate interrogation.

     "Am I nice to yoooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu?"

     Only Barry ever answered.  He loved Barry.

     "I hope I'm nice to yooooooouu.  I hope I'm . . . "

     When they put him into the brown sand the world would scream.  He would have to eat it.  Even if they tied his hands down there was a way to free them, and they knew that.  It was certainly diabolical.  He would free his hands at last and eat the sand, and then they would scold him for being a naughty child, and some would slap him or pull his hair, and the world would be a brown haze, awful, choking, and no one would love him.  Oh yes, not even his mother.  Eating sand at 63?  Wasn't that what she really liked?  God, mother, God, deliver me from the coming night, from fingers, appetite, the sand, down dirty in the sand, my . . . fright.

     "Am I nice to yooooooooooouuuuuuuuu?"

     "Maybe they'll have brownies for supper," Bill Buteckus said.

     "God I hope so.  I really hope so."

     "Did you look in your drawer?"

     "There's never something in my drawer.  Never a thing.  There hasn't been anything in my drawer for years."

     "Not even a brownie?"

     "Not even a brownie."

     In the corridor, a larger contradiction.  At one pole Clairborne, handsome, well-turned, 53, athletic, tall, groomed for combat in industry, rather the tail end of an accountant, holding on, barely holding on, in much the same way he presently grips the elbow that belongs to the other pole, Millie, his wife.  Shapes in the hallway, noisy pathetic forms reaching to clutch at his sleeve, a mute appeal, lolling hashed heads, tormented eyes, and the greater torment, the shape he directs, aims toward the distant orange door, something that cannot bear too much examination, Millie, his lover, helpmate, the waste that is left of her, Alzheimer consciousness, a party dress above bare stubbled legs in pink slippers, a blue restraint which will secure her in her wheel-chair, in her bed when he has gone for the evening after spooning her puree, has returned to an empty split level, has escaped this scene, this scent, this lurch, Millie, bent, intent, diapered, puzzled old eyes, dove's eyes, mouth working toward syllables he'd take for gossip, address in fact, as if it all were a Sunday's outing on the best of streets, past tasteful store fronts, pausing to window shop, to catch a bit of leisure, at last to the park to lie in the shade of an eternally youthful, viable, affirmative world, and not this reality, erect above her devastation, attempting somehow to piece it out, every Sunday at 2:45 PM to the orange door and back and on to the orange door, hoping it isn't life, this repetition, shuddering toward Sarah Jane, dangling the last increment, the last notch before the turn and back through yowling fright, altered light, a white sky leaking, beyond, beneath, the parking lot, the oaks, this autumn where the doctors drive Toyotas and the only real need addressed is blind appetite and elimination, Arthur Clairborne with the best of a bad time, what an aide and nurse may have made of his Millie, here the blue bow holding her hair hank, the bib, the sash, knees buckling till he has to pull her semi-erect to continue, wipe the mouth that he has the latent objectivity not to kiss, to forgo kissing—for Millie too loves, hates the brown sand—pausing at grief and torment, Sarah Jane.

     "I wish I could wish I could wish I love you.  Jehovah said hello you.  And here's my bread.  My bread is dead.  I eat the bread and kisses.  I eat.  Hello hello."

     "Good afternoon, Sarah," he says.  "Millie, say good afternoon to Sarah.  Millie, Sarah said hello."

     "Millie's silly.  You silly thing.  Millie Billy basket bread.  The blood is dead, you silly silly thing."

     "Say hello.  She's talking to you."

     Nick's shriek down the corridor, down a long damp tunnel, down mouth.  Clairborne jerks as if bitten.

     "I'm headed north while you are headed south."

     Sarah Jane herself has watched them come and go, the twelve apostles, Cain, even the virgin.  And yet it would seem she is content to weave her afghans, patch by patch, with what is left of her hands.  At seventy she seems much younger.  There is still color in her hair, and the face is without lines.  She once prided herself on her eyes, and they are still her most striking feature.  Even on the days when they are wild, agonized, contorted, they speak with large soft clarity, so wide and open on the narrow bird face.  She saw those eyes change long ago, the day she was born again in her brother's church; and even the occasion she slipped, the autumn evening coming home from prayer meeting she had carnal knowledge of a visiting reverend, they still shone brightly, even the following morning and the coming weeks of the scandal, when her brother found them out.  Imperfect today perhaps in vision, she can see inwardly enough, well enough to know that all these pilgrims are so dependent on her contracted feet, the bent bone in her lower legs, the shag of hair through the nylons, the doubled feet in foam rubber shower shoes, those feet like claws above the tile, doubled back and up so that she is always fetal, even here on the geriatric chair with the afghan flashing a bright cascade over the lap-board and her fingers working with the needles, working past pain and the mutter.  Oh yes, they would have had her marry the Reverend Thomas, but she had known better.  There was so much to do with her little nieces, Ruth and Bessie, and the nephew, Jason, with the cooking and the washing and the Scripture she set herself to memorize at seventeen.  Even now these pilgrims are in need of what little guidance she can provide in her state of lapse, and much of the day she can give them even the chapter and verse of their perdition, a running commentary, so to speak, for she knows that their souls are on fire, a fire that melts her heart, the hideous flames that raze even the nearly pure, hell-fire agony that claimed so much of her the day she lost her honor in the back of Mildred's buggy when the moonlight was so clear it cut through all her resistance, and the air was a hand on her thighs, and the sky was a rude laceration, condemning her maidenhood to decay and filth, even while she was thanking God for that pain, for the shadowed trees and the scent on the  wind that came through his lips, Aaron, so noble, so seemingly pure, so lovely to take her filth in his arms and bend it, seemingly bend it, toward greater and greater damnation.  It is, after all, all filth, all pure.  So few have known.  Even her brother has not known.  Even the Savior has not known.  Yea though I walk.  Oh yea though I must always walk.  So silly.  Silly as this silly man who shudders through to make his message known in the form of Magdalene, Millie, Billy, yea walking, walking, down down down into the darkness, closer than an embryo, infant son, infant daughter, laughter and tears these years when the sun itself is leaking.  Knit one, purl three, Christ so sweet on Calvary.  Ache, ache, the mothers break, break through the calm, sweet Jesus, sweet loving Father.  Oh bother, the Father.  In time she will take upon herself the whole of it, oh yes, the whole of this terrible inferno.  Even poor Eric grinning with his stub-like hands and his cookies.  Looking at her now.  Always staring.  There is no place for a Jew in God's Creation.  Not unless you have him strung high on boards with his little thing dangling.  Eric Potter, DDS, upper partial slipping, clotted with cookie mulch, striped Johnnie coat, the thick white stockings, hands that would try to grip  her breasts were he closer.  Nudging his nose of snot.  Such an ugly word.  That awful grin.  They say his mind's all right.  Scabs on his bald crown.  Maybe the thorns were there.  Oh God, I'm burning.  Hello hello hello hello . . . . . . .

     " . . . . helllo.  Road him out of town on a rail," she continues.  "Black tar aching.  Hello.  Hello.  They say it's going to snow."

     "See Sarah's afghan?" Clairborne anwers.  "Isn't it lovely, my Millie?"

     Millie is mute.  Eric Potter claws at his face, attempts to speak.  Sound erupts from a remoteness, terrible, breaking:


     It is coming from Potter.

     Sarah descending Christian chasms.  Edna's blur.  Nick shrieking, hands like fins.  Face a clot—Wick gurgling.  Potter:


     "Hello hello hello."

     Sarah's contractions, spasms.  Puddle on the tile, Sarah Jane's smile, Eric Potter, DDS, cookies on his chest.  For the space of several seconds, there was utter silence.  Bill Buteckus tried to read the black stain on his palm, a trace of the rubber rim where he gripped his chair.