The sick ward is plumb full of punks and pukes and pedophiles and politicians and proselytizers. The ward’s swelled full of men of honesty, faith and certainty. It’s full of practitioners of medicine and metaphysics. It’s filled with philosophers and artists, priests and purists. It’s filled with supervisors and mothers and teachers and cops. It’s filled with those of high crimes and low crimes and no crimes. It’s filled with nationalists and expatriates and men who harvest Christmas trees. It’s filled with Tom, Dick and Harry as well as Joes Six-Pack and Lunchbox. It’s filled with chairmen and wire pullers. It’s filled with you and sometimes even me.
The body doesn’t fall ill by reason. Fever and boils and nausea don’t come about by thought. Rather, they’re the body’s natural responses to foreign invaders or toxins.
My grandmother used to say, “you’ll worry yourself sick” and that’s what they do – foster lies and deceit and anxiety that keep us unhinged and unbalanced so we return to the sick ward again and again, seeking their potions for our ailments. Seeking medicine and advice and answers and salvation from the leaders and mystics and clinicians, each with different agendas.
We’re surrounded by the bullshit of the con-artists big and small – peddling their bullshit of left or right, black or white, all or nothing. These peddlers’ noise – their platitudes, prayers, slogans and party lines – are the bacteria and viruses on toilet seats and door handles, the e coli on lettuce, the herpes on their lips and mononucleosis in their kiss, the gonorrhea in their vaginas or their cock and balls. These con-artists are our lice, our ticks and our bedbugs.
What they peddle makes me sick – psychically, emotionally, physically – the idiocy of it giving me psychic boils on the ass. Swelled and festering, hot and tender boils that make it hard to sit. Boils on the ass as well as emotional nausea and physical fever and a bit of Black Lung of the mind. Of course, I can deal with it a little, like swallowing down some bad food for the sake of courtesy or smelling a fart while ya wait for it to pass from the room. But I can’t take too much. Can’t stomach too much hominy or butter beans or chitlins, not to be a jerk, but because I don’t like them. It’s not by reason. It comes from something like instinct or intuition that what I’m ingesting in the various ways of ingesting are viral or toxic. invasive and destructive or parasitic. All the games. All the bullshit. All the lies and pretense. Sick, I am, with nausea and diarrhea and fever and boils.
I escape the sick ward. I escape to heal. Seems there’s no other way, since inside the ward I’m surrounded by so much disease – a fever never really cured, just displaced by the pain of slow-transit constipation. Sometimes I gotta break free – flee the fake sterility of gleaming white walls and sheets and ceilings and the aseptic scents of alcohol and bleach that do nothing but cover-up the real diseases. I gotta escape to get some fresh air and try to recuperate.
I escape, leaving everyone else in the sick ward behind. But outside it’s just a different struggle. Inside the struggle’s against tuberculosis or polio. Outside the gates it’s dealing with the demon of isolation and loneliness that brings with him a unique strain of the sickness of deceit. And it’s hard to tell when you’re sick from isolation. Sometimes it’s best to have another take a look. Sometimes you need a friend or, even worse, a doctor. But everybody else is inside. That’s the rub.
Another problem is I gotta eat. And to eat, I go back inside, exposing myself to their germs and virus and parasites all over again. I sneak inside from time to time – slip through the back door – don a gown so I can steal some chow. Sometimes I can’t make a quick escape so I gotta spend a few days inside, pretending to be sick – listening to their nonsense and spreading some of my own to maintain cover. I’ll admit, there’s something comforting in the many friendly voices on the inside. And there’s music and TV and magazines. And the heat in winter and coolness inside in summer, the showers and beds and grub aren’t bad either.
So I hang around sometimes – eating, drinking, talking, sleeping – hoping not to get truly sick – submitting to the nurses and doctors that want to tell me what’s wrong. And there’s always something wrong. Usually multiple things. They start scheduling appointments and writing prescriptions, warning me about my knees and my liver and my mental health. That’s when I know it’s probably time to go.
But those voices and friendly faces, they got their draw. They sure are comforting when I’ve spent too much time on the outside. I’ve learned to be weary. See, not everybody inside is a fraud, but most are. A few are grounded. Some I wonder if they make the escape from time to time too. But, just like me, they don’t wanna blow their cover. Don’t wanna expose the hole to their tunnel or which door or window or vent they slip in and out of.
Yeah, some seem down to earth, but not many. Most of the regulars are the artists and intellectuals and pulpit pounders and politicians and all the rest who follow – all the truly sick ones. The least sick I’ve known are a few of the regular guys and women just trying to get by. They’re not all healthy. Its a minority, for sure, but it’s where I tend to look and rarely find the ones the least overcome with disease. I’ve found them from time to time in roofers and teachers – their words and who they are comforting me in knowing we can be less than perfect, but still in good health. I’ve also found their opposite – the shit heels – in plumbers and other teachers too. That’s why I warn: you gotta be careful.
One guy I met in there had cancer. He used to work in a factory stripping paint off of heavy equipment – things like backhoes. He told me if he beat the cancer he was never going back to that hellhole of a sick ward. I asked him how he’d know when he was getting better. I said that anything the docs tell him is probably bullshit. He said he had come to understand that – that maybe even his cancer diagnosis was bullshit. He said he’d just have to go with his guts. He said he felt like hell but couldn’t be sure if it was cancer or everything else. He said once he started sleeping better, talking better, listening better, thinking better – then he’d know it was time to go. It’s guys like him – rare – that I thank for being temporary friends on the inside – for being a non-bullshitter in a ward plumb full of it – and for not making me sicker in there than I already was. I thank him for coming around like a real nurse is supposed to, checking on my real well-being from time to time. And I hope in our time together, I returned enough of the favor.
And there’s this other one – this one I met on the outside. This one I call The Prophet. I saw him on the outside, a wild looking man in rags, more beast than human. I saw him sneaking around and called to him. He was barefoot with black nails like claws. His legs were thin and scabbed and the odor of carcasses preceded him. Between crooked, tawny teeth he puffed on a crooked pipe stuffed with smoldering fungus. He approached and I said I’d never seen him in the sick ward. He said the sick ward was full of fools and tyrants. This interested me. He said he’d never been in the sick ward, that he was far too healthy for that. A truly miraculous man, I thought. I’d imagined magnificent men such as this prophet descending from caves atop picturesque mountains – descending, loquacious and beaded and perfumed and majestically groomed and adorned in gleaming robes and turbans of luxurious silks. Wise men with beautiful names and poetic words filled with worldly wisdom. But my prophet wasn’t any of that. Maybe I’d been deceived by the world’s bullshit. Maybe this prophet was the way it truly was.
I asked what his name was but he wouldn’t say. I asked what he ate and how he survived the cold. He said by eating bugs and rodents and carrion mostly and sleeping on a bed of straw in a deep hole where the ground stayed warm. I told him I’d been in the sick ward and it is, indeed, a mostly horrible place. Mostly but not entirely horrible, I said, because the food and beds and the rare company of ones who’re not too sick can be welcome reliefs. At that point, The Prophet stepped away.
“You do not wholly curse the sick ward?” he asked. “Where men feast on feces and fornicate with animals?”
I told him I couldn’t wholly condemn it and that I’d never seen men feast on feces or fornicate with animals. I said that I’d never before heard those rumors about the inside but had heard them about the outside.
“Then you are deceived,” he said. “So easily deceived just like the rest. And you are far more like them than me, for I could never tolerate their wickedness and deviance for a moment.”
He turned to leave and I asked him to wait. I asked how he knew so much about the goings-on in the sick ward if he’d never been inside. He said it was from enlightenment. Pure, divine enlightenment.
I let The Prophet walk away for I understood his ignorance of the sick ward was as much bullshit as I’d heard from any of the patients or administration inside it – The Prophet’s bullshit about the world inside as deep and warm and thick and stinking as any doctor or priest’s bullshit about how things operate either inside or out. So I let The Prophet walk away and had left him alone until we met again not too long ago.
The last time I got stuck in the ward, it was for four days in early December. It was cold outside so the warmth of the ward and the chicken soup and toast came as some relief. But the sickness from the falseness of the coming holidays – the falseness of the expectations and the falseness of beliefs – started to make me feel ill right away. From the beginning I already felt the itch and by the third day I was scratching. And it was on that third day I found some guy – I’d say was in his fifties with dyed hair and wire-framed glasses – weeping in his bed. It was his birthday and there was no family in the ward to celebrate him or comfort his sorrow at being left alone on his special day. He cried about being alone and how all his kin were stuck in different wards, which is, of course, what they do to separate us. He sat on his bed in his gown, sobbing while nobody paid attention. He just needed to get over himself and his need for special-ness, I thought. But the nurses finally came around and gave him some medicine and a birthday balloon and sent him to the chapel, which seemed to calm him. That’s when I really started to itch and started to feel the bumps. I knew that the weeping birthday boy knew of his own insignificance but wanted – needed – people or something else – anything – to validate him as more. I knew that he knew the truth and still didn’t want to know and nobody else wanted him or themselves to know either.
The itch comes around as mere irritation at first, until I start scratching, then feeling the bumps. And, feeling the bumps of those percolating boils, there’s always a temptation to just stay and let them fester and milk the ward for all it has to offer – antibiotics, nurses eager to lance and drain my wounds, doctors eager to offer advice and solutions to whatever else ails me then and into the future. But I can’t stay so I take in as much as I can, gorging myself with food and memories and details of the ward before making another escape.
The next day I gathered my things out of hiding and, along with the food I’d stolen, slipped out the back door again. Slipped out into December, planning to hold off as long as I could before having to sneak back in again.
I was a few days out when I saw The Prophet again. He looked the same but smelled a bit different but still bad. I think maybe he switched from smoking fungus to moss. He approached me.
“You don’t look so ill,” he said. “Have you been inside?”
I told him I’d recently escaped the sick ward, again, after purposefully going inside, again.
“Heathen,” he said.
“But I can help you,” he said.
He invited me to follow him into his hole of pure enlightenment where he said it would be warm.
I politely declined and went about my business, which was nobody else’s business, even his.