A Painful Case

He was sitting on his bed, muttering to himself. Or at least I thought he was muttering to himself.

"How are you?" I began. "I'm Doctor Linderhoff."

"See what you've done! We're in for it now!" yelled the fellow in response, to the ceiling it seemed to me.

I pulled up a chair and asked, "Who's done what?"

"They've done it!" he screamed.

Here is some background. An hour before coming to the patient's bedside, I had been instructed by my supervisor as to the man's situation. His name was Clammerston, and he had been brought to the hospital by the police, who had become involved in the case by the man's landlady, one Hattie Sobel. She called them to say that one of her tenants was in his room pounding on the walls and screaming, "You will pay! You will pay!" The police had arrived shortly thereafter and found that indeed there was a room in the house in which a man could be heard pounding on the walls and screaming, "You will pay! You will pay!" They knocked loudly on the man's door, but he ignored them and continued his screaming and pounding. After a few more attempts to get the man to answer his door, they opened the unlocked door and attempted to talk to the man, who continued to ignore them and kept up his pounding and screaming. After observing this behavior for a few minutes, the officers shouted at the man that he would have to come with them and that he could do it peacefully or they would put him in a straightjacket and haul him away. At that point the man stopped the pounding and yelling and said, "Very well. I'll come with you." The officers then brought him to the hospital, where I was assigned to help the man.

"Listen, I would like to talk to you," I said to the patient, "but this is no place to do it. I have a very comfortable office where we can talk. Would you like to go there?"

The man's response was to stand up and say somewhat woodenly, "I'll go there."

We then went to the office provided me and sat down in comfortable chairs.

"Alright," I began, "who are they?"

"The ones who say they own Humboldt County," he answered.

"Really?" I answered back. "And why do you believe them?"

He stared at me for a couple of minutes, then rested his elbow on his right knee and cupped his chin in his hand, assuming a position somewhat similar to Rodin's The Thinker. I think it may have been his version of a fetal position. He stayed that way for several minutes. Finally he raised his head to say, "Well, I'm not sure. They've been talking to me for a long time."

"Have you ever seen them?" I asked.

"No," he replied.

"Do you think they own Humboldt County?" I pressed.

"Well, they say they do," he replied.

"And you believe them?"

"Not really," he replied. "They keep making claims, but so far have never produced any proof for them."

"Do you think they have bodies?" I asked.


"Well, to own land I think one would have to be more than a voice."

"And to speak," he replied. "I think one would have to have a body."

"So you've seen their bodies?" I asked.

"No. Not yet, anyway."

"Ahh. So you expect to see their bodies."

"Not sure what will happen." With this he again took his fetal position.

Then he raised his head and said, "Would you like to hear some poetry?"

"Well, OK," I responded.

He took a wad of paper from a pants pocket, unfolded it, and began to read from it,

"Red-breasts, white-breasts

Tiny little creatures, perched in a row,

Flicking water from their bodies

As it drips from the branches below."

He then crushed the piece of paper into a wad and put it back in his pocket.

"That's rather nice," I said, "though I don't quite understand the 'below'. Do you write much?"

"Poetry occasionally, or at least attempts at it," he replied.

"Well, to get back to the voices, how long have they been around?"

"About two years I would say," he answered.

"Did anything happen which might have triggered their visit?"

"My mother died, and after about a month the voices came," he replied.

"Voices? So there is more than one. How many of them?" I asked.

"Three of them, usually. They have names."

"You have named them?" I asked.

"Heavens, no; they told me their names," he replied.

"And what are the names?"

"The leader calls himself 'GefurienNethNeth.' The two others are Ruth and The Leach."

"And why do you keep yelling, 'You'll pay!'?" I asked.

"Because I want them to pay!" he shouted, and then continued shouting as he added, "I want them to pay part of the rent for my room! Don't you think that is fair? I mean, they say they are rich, that they have heaps of golden ducats hidden in the caves near the Petrolia hills! They say they discovered a treasure left by English pirates on an island in the Caribbean!"

"And you believe ...." I began to ask.

"Excuse me."

The voice came from behind me. Startled, I dropped my pencil and got up from my writing table to turn around and see who was talking. It was a man, a total stranger, standing just inside the door of my room.

"And who are you?" I demanded in almost a shout. I am always irritated when people distract me from my writing, but this I felt was absolutely and outrageously too much.

"For the moment, never mind. I hope you will have the honesty to admit, by the way, that your title is theft," said the intruder.

"Before I say another word, you are going to tell me who you are," I shouted with rising volume.

"Call me the voice of conscience," the stranger calmly replied, looking at me as if he owned me.

"Call you a pompous ass is what I'll do! Actually, what I ought to be calling is the cops! Are you a tenant here?" I continued to shout.

"No," responded the intruder.

"Then what are you?"

"I just told you," answered the intruder.

I grimaced at him, then turned my chair around to face him and sat down in it. At first I simply looked him in the eyes, waiting for God knows what. The guy had me stymied. I could of course have called the cops and gotten rid of him. But I didn't. Why? In the back of my mind there nagged that "why," along with an answer: "Because you dare not. Deep down, you fear he sees through you, and you have too much respect for the truth to let go of him."

Soon I was studying him. He looked at me as well, but without examining me, looked at me as if he already knew all about me. My intruder seemed to be in his mid-forties. Although unkempt, he was quite handsome. His hair was steel grey, laced with white and very thick and wavy, almost curly. His eyes were a shade of completely solid blue which I had never seen before. His body was about average in height and solidly built, with broad shoulders and a solid waist. His hands were broad and muscular. The nose too was powerful: a kind of combination of an Irish pug and a Roman nose. His clothes were wrinkled but clean. His leather shoes, though also clean and sturdily built, were worn and the leather sides scratched, as if he did much walking in heavily wooded areas where there were no paths.

The bit about the title was true, so I said, "Well, of course, I'm going to change it. But for the moment it's the best I can come up with."

"How about scrapping the whole thing?" said my intruder.

"I beg your pardon!" I yelled.

"You are trying to get humor out of it, which is sick. The only thing which I can say in your defense is that Doctor Linderhoff is a decent man. Come now, don't you see that his patient Clammerston is suffering and that any attempt to have people laughing at him is cruel? Is in fact sociopathic?"

I bade him sit down.

"Thank you, but no," he responded.

"Suit yourself. And please tell me why you have barged into my room."

"To save you from the evil which has gotten hold of you," he answered. "I have been reading the things which you write and, while I am somewhat impressed with your skills -- though not nearly as impressed with them as you are -- I am dismayed by their product."

"Dismayed? Give me an example," I asked of him.

"Well, that Frickenstick thing," he answered. "You and your friends may find it funny, but I find it insulting."

"Insulting! Of whom?" I asked.

"Of everyone in it," he answered. "Except the narrator of course. You're always showing off in what you write. It really is disgusting. You're worse than the worst of Hemingway. And bombastic as well."

"So be specific. Name one character whom I insult."

"Oh, come now," he answered. "Your father to begin with. Does the term 'filial respect' mean anything to you? Of course, it's not as bad as some of your other descriptions of him. You ought to be horsewhipped for Christmas Memories.

"And Coffee Spoon is also peppered with disrespect for others. In fact, I think it is evidence that you entertain a disrespect for humanity in general."

"Coffee Spoon! What is wrong with Coffee Spoon?" I demanded.

"First of all, you used a woman's name without asking her permission."

"How do you know that?" I asked. (What he said was true, and I had come to regret it.)

"I've been watching you," he answered, "and will now and then frequent the places you frequent. And ask questions about you. There are people at that Senior Center, by the way, who are doubtful as to your sanity. Can't mention any names of course." With this he smiled at me with, again, that expression in his face which said, "I own you."

"I take it then that you get copies of my stuff from my website," I said.

"Not necessarily," he responded. "Copies of it circulate which you have had printed. Some of your poison circulates among the people who do your printing by the way."

"You're lying," I said. "I would certainly have seen you at the Senior Center if indeed you frequent the place."

"Ah, but you assume you would recognize me since you have seen me this evening," he responded.

With this the dagger of a chill went through me.

"You mean you sometimes use disguises?" I asked.

"No, I don't mean that. But let's get back to what has brought me here, that is, the fact that you are in serious need of help."

"Well, what about Angel's Rebuke?" I responded, ignoring his impertinence.

"Ah. That is an exception in that it is useful since in it you describe the wretch which you really are," he responded.

I squirmed in my chair, trying to avoid Clammerston's fetal position.

"Let me get this straight," I pressed him. "You will not tell me who you are and yet you expect me to trust you. And you don't find that absurd. Is that about it?

"More or less," he responded.

"Well what about A Waitress? I suppose you think that trash too."

"I'm not calling your stories trash," he replied. "I'm calling them sick, most of them. Rodoni's Plaque, by the way, I find worthwhile. But of course you did that a long time ago, at a time when you were still morally sound, at least to the extent that such is possible for you. But enough about your stories. We're going to talk about your reformation."

"My reformation!" I said nearly laughing. "What makes you think that I need reformation? And what makes you think that I'd ever interest myself in such a process with a pompous ass like yourself involved in it?"

"You've asked two questions," he replied. "For the moment, I'll ignore the latter. As to the former, let's talk about your work. For starters, why don't you start thinking about again making your stories instructive as well as humorous? You used to write such stuff when you were a kid. Father Curry showed me that play you wrote in your junior year at Ammendale. And the shoe polish story you wrote then was a great piece; it was both funny and a sharp little dig at human vanity."

"Hmmm. And how did you know Richard Curry?" I queried.

"We were friends. I've been in contact with many others whom you abandoned when you left Elkins Park, like a coward," he responded.

"Like a coward! If you know anything about me, you know damn well that my departure was anything but an act of cowardice!" I began shouting again.

"I know a lot about you!" he responded. "And your leaving was an act of cowardice. You didn't have to leave. What you had to do was to relate to your brothers. But in your arrogance you remained aloof from them and so became the tool of evil forces, which nearly destroyed you.

"And then came the philandering, the years of it. How many were the victims of your heartlessness? Honestly!"

As I heard these comments, I became terrified. Only an angel or a devil could know what he seemed to know. Suddenly, as if driven by a power independent of my will, I burst out, "Fine! Guilty as charged; I am a contempt-filled smart ass. By the way, you seem to be unaware of something, namely, that the ultimate subject of every story must be the creator of the story.

"And what you call philandering was simply an effort to stand straight by leaning in many directions. And perhaps those years were years of selfishness and weakness, but they also got me to 40 and the realization that there is a difference between love and lust. And so I was able to marry out of respect, admiration, and affection, and in so doing found a person who helped me deal with a lot of the devils in me. I liked sharing a bed with her too. Now would you please leave before I ..."

"Stop!" he said suddenly. "Save your breath. I'm leaving. Now. And I have done what I came to do. You will never again be able to write unless you find a good reason to do it, that is, start writing not only to amuse, but also to teach what is right. Goodnight." He then exited the room, closing the door behind him. I got up from my chair to follow him, but thought better of it and sat down again.

And indeed, as my intruder predicted, I have not since that night been able to write. I can no longer write simply to amuse, and yet I cannot write to instruct. Why this impotence has fallen upon me I do not know. I wonder sometimes whether it is because I've become a people pleaser and am stifled by the fear of offending. When I was in my 20s, I read Eliot's Hollow Men many times. Was it because deep within me there was a foreboding that someday I would join them?