He walked along the streets and the people mouthed words that were more memories than sounds. There was the feeling of faint clapping in his stomach, but he was unconcerned as a peripheral butterfly landed on his shoulder. Slow motion passivity rolled over his body and the amplified voice of an evangelical preacher in the distance distracted him. In the back of his mind he realized he was getting sick. His salivary glands were working too hard and he felt the urge to dry heave. Later that night he found himself in bed shaking uncontrollably with a sweat-soaked nightshirt. While lying there, he took his temperature from a thermometer pilfered from a mobile medical unit. Evidently he was just above 94 degrees. He couldn’t remember how he arrived and slowly he recalled people stealing his breath, feeling faint, taking the cab to his gate, fumbling with keys and staggering inside. He was alone in the house at the top of a hill. The sea was a good fifty miles away, but from his bedroom window he could see the water and the devolution. His neighbors were separated from him by a high wall and his house was at the back of the compound, lonely and still, with a single light in a study burning on most nights.
The dogs were moving around, hungry. In the kitchen he emptied some leftovers into a large bowl and threw it outside. When the dogs went to eat he closed and locked the door. Fortunately, there was a rock fountain in the garden so water was not a problem. Over the next week the eyes of the dogs were filled with recrimination and disbelief as they went from door to door or jumped up on two paws to look through windows. They could smell his movements in the house and when he got near a door they barked. The chills got worse, the fever was a form of ice cracking, the delirium came at night, and when he regained momentary feelings of clarity, he mentally wrote profound answers to the world’s deepest and most ancient questions. There was dryness to his visions and when they came he was surrounded by vibrating white light in a dark room. Sleep was fitful and inconsistent. He always woke up with a start as if someone were standing over him.
One morning he heard the sound of the maid ringing the bell and it was like an ice pick driven into his ear. He howled and the dogs began to bark as well. He couldn’t get out of bed and eventually the maid went away. He told himself he hated the maid and he knew that someday he would get his revenge and then he fell back into a nightmarish sleep where he worked in a small cubicle writing advertising copy for a magazine that was only able to print small photos.
He thought about the colors of Paul Gauguin and how the artist had died alone and destitute. By his bedside were the collected literary works of Gauguin. With great effort he leafed through a few pages and found passages about physical dissolution, the loss of creativity, dwindling sexual prowess, and the pain of dying. To die quickly seemed a good thing to Gauguin. What was most scary was measured and painful deterioration. He dropped the book and thought about the new age concentration camps in Africa and Central Europe and how bones were history lessons. He began to shake as if he were at the bottom of a well. He visualized people killed by heart attacks, wrecks, freak accidents, shootings, and bombings. How they were privileged to leave life suddenly and without a great deal of pain. No flesh turned to jelly or cancer eating from the inside or the straight walls of strokes that pressed inward to crush one’s humanity into a small deaf box. His mind kept repeating the lyrics from a song and it was driving him mad. He made an effort to stop it, but always the words returned.
He had been alone in the house for six days. He was not eating and estimated he had lost 10 or 12 pounds, maybe more. His medical problem had refused to get better and he figured it was some sort of paralytic bacterial infection. This concerned him somewhat, but not for the normal reasons. No, he was unhappy with the thought of dying from unknown bacteria without a romantic name. If he had typhoid, yellow fever, or cholera, than people would say, “Poor guy, he died in the grips of an adventure.” There was something good about that sort of death; something literary and you could visualize the castle walls of medieval cities under siege or the port town isolated by the drawn faces of the authorities or the old Indian crone administering cups of tinctures and potions in the firelight. Always there were the piles of bodies on the edge of town while the rats gathered round. He knew death and had a rather causal relationship with it. Death was easy and people were such idiots when they didn’t think about it or failed to make the correct psychological arrangements for its coming.
One morning he woke to someone inside his compound. He looked at his window and there was the maid with her hand cupped around her face blocking the glare from the glass. Good, it was the goddamn maid and he was going to strangle her if he could just get out of bed. The doctor came and so did an ambulance and there was a commotion. The dogs were excited. They put him in hospital for one night and filled him with antibiotics. In the morning he felt good enough to return to his house. The maid cooked a supply of food, fed the dogs, cleaned the house, made his bed, helped him with a bath, and left him once again alone. She had a key and promised to return in two or three days to check on him. The dogs were now near him and things seemed better. He ate well for two days and then the worst part of his illness arrived. He thought back and realized it had been 9 days since he had a bowel movement. He pressed down near his colon area and it felt hard. In that moment he began to have severe stomach cramps and the chills and shaking returned. He needed to use the bathroom very badly.
He sat on the toilet, but quickly had to stand. It was too much to sit. The cramps were unbearable and it was all he could do to stay conscious. He pressed against his stomach and it was hard and he realized that the recently eaten food had blocked his anal tract. He had faced this dilemma before and knew what he had to do. It was not going to be pleasant, but he had no choice and he didn’t want to contact his maid or even the doctor. He tried to sit one last time and that was a mistake. He woke on the white tile of the bathroom. He had hit his head against the side of the lavatory and he was bleeding. He reached upward to his dopp kit and all of the contents spilled onto the floor. He was searching for two things: nail clippers and a dental pick. He took the clippers and cut off the rubber end of the pick and then he stabbed himself in the rectum. It was the first of many times as he excavated the hard food and it rolled onto the floor mixed with his blood. As he worked, he thought about a friend who had found a rejected fawn in the forest. The mother had left it in the grass and the placenta was still covering the body. Everyday his friend returned to take a photo. The fawn died in three days and then the ants and bacteria swarmed over the body. By the seventh day the tissue was eaten and only the fur shell, hooves, and bones remained.
He had been repulsed by the photos, but now as he lay on the bathroom floor he thought if someone were standing above him, taking photos, they might render a montage of how death, in all its emerging and gross forms, was able to bear down upon anyone, at any time, and with total disregard for the romance of living.
Time passed slowly and he began to think about his maid and whether or not he could get off the floor. His bleeding body on the white tile began to spread outward and the illusion was strong in his mind and it became his entire world.