by Sylvia Plath (1958)>
EVERY DAY FROM nine to five I sit at my desk facing the door of the office and type up other people’s dreams. Not just dreams. That wouldn’t be practical enough for my bosses. I type up also people’s daytime complaints: trouble with mother, trouble with father, trouble with the bottle, the bed, the headache that bangs home and blacks out the sweet world for no known reason. Nobody comes to our office unless they have troubles. Troubles that can’t be pinpointed by Wassermanns or Wechsler-Bellevues alone.
Maybe a mouse gets to thinking pretty early on how the whole world is run by these enormous feet. Well, from where I sit, I figure the world is run by one thing and this one thing only. Panic with a dog-face, devil-face, hag-face, whore-face, panic in capital letters with no face at all—it’s the same Johnny Panic, awake or asleep.
When people ask me where I work, I tell them I’m Assistant to the Secretary in one of the Out-Patient Departments of the Clinics Building of the City Hospital. This sounds so be-all end-all they seldom get around to asking me more than what I do, and what I do is mainly type up records. On my own hook though, and completely under cover, I am pursuing a vocation that would set these doctors on their ears. In the privacy of my one-room apartment I call myself secretary to none other than Johnny Panic himself.
Dream by dream I am educating myself to become that rare character, rarer, in truth, than any member of the Psychoanalytic Institute, a dream connoisseur. Not a dream stopper, a dream explainer, an exploiter of dreams for the crass practical ends of health and happiness, but an unsordid collector of dreams for themselves alone. A lover of dreams for Johnny Panic’s sake, the Maker of them all.
There isn’t a dream I’ve typed up in our record books that I don’t know by heart. There isn’t a dream I haven’t copied out at home into Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams.
This is my real calling.
SOME NIGHTS I take the elevator up to the roof of my apartment building. Some nights, about three A.M. Over the trees at the far side of the park the United Fund torch flare flattens and recovers under some witchy invisible push and here and there in the hunks of stone and brick I see a light. Most of all, though, I feel the city sleeping. Sleeping from the river on the west to the ocean on the east, like some rootless island rockabying itself on nothing at all.
I can be tight and nervy as the top string on a violin, and yet by the time the sky begins to blue I’m ready for sleep. It’s the thought of all those dreamers and what they’re dreaming wears me down till I sleep the sleep of fever. Monday to Friday what do I do but type up those same dreams. Sure, I don’t touch a fraction of them the city over, but page by page, dream by dream, my Intake books fatten and weigh down the bookshelves of the cabinet in the narrow passage running parallel to the main hall, off which passage the doors to all the doctors’ little interviewing cubicles open.
I’ve got a funny habit of identifying the people who come in by their dreams. As far as I’m concerned, the dreams single them out more than any Christian name. This one guy, for example, who works for a ball-bearing company in town, dreams every night how he’s lying on his back with a grain of sand on his chest. Bit by bit this grain of sand grows bigger and bigger till it’s big as a fair-sized house and he can’t draw breath. Another fellow I know of has had a certain dream ever since they gave him ether and cut out his tonsils and adenoids when he was a kid. In this dream he’s caught in the rollers of a cotton mill, fighting for his life. Oh he’s not alone, although he thinks he is. A lot of people these days dream they’re being run over or eaten by machines. They’re the cagey ones who won’t go on the subway or the elevators. Coming back from my lunch hour in the hospital cafeteria I often pass them, puffing up the unswept stone stairs to our office on the fourth floor. I wonder, now and then, what dreams people had before ball bearings and cotton mills were invented.
I’ve a dream of my own. My one dream. A dream of dreams.
In this dream there’s a great half-transparent lake stretching away in every direction, too big for me to see the shores of it, if there are any shores, and I’m hanging over it, looking down from the glass belly of some helicopter. At the bottom of the lake—so deep I can only guess at the dark masses moving and heaving—are the real dragons. The ones that were around before men started living in caves and cooking meat over fires and figuring out the wheel and the alphabet. Enormous isn’t the word for them; they’ve got more wrinkles than Johnny Panic himself. Dream about these long enough and your feet and hands shrivel away when you look at them too closely. The sun shrinks to the size of an orange, only chillier, and you’ve been living in Roxbury since the last ice age. No place for you but a room padded soft as the first room you knew of, where you can dream and float, float and dream, till at last you actually are back among those great originals and there’s no point in any dreams at all.
It’s into this lake people’s minds run at night, brooks and gutter trickles to one borderless common reservoir. It bears no resemblance to those pure sparkling-blue sources of drinking water the suburbs guard more jealously than the Hope diamond in the middle of pine woods and barbed fences.
It’s the sewage farm of the ages, transparence aside.
Now the water in this lake naturally stinks and smokes from what dreams have been left sogging around in it over the centuries. When you think how much room one night of dream props would take up for one person in one city, and that city a mere pinprick on a map of the world, and when you start multiplying this space by the population of the world, and that space by the number of nights there have been since the apes took to chipping axes out of stone and losing their hair, you have some idea what I mean. I’m not the mathematical type: my head starts splitting when I get only as far as the number of dreams going on during one night in the State of Massachusetts.
By this time, I already see the surface of the lake swarming with snakes, dead bodies puffed as blowfish, human embryos bobbing around in laboratory bottles like so many unfinished messages from the great I Am. I see whole storehouses of hardware: knives, paper cutters, pistons and cogs and nutcrackers; the shiny fronts of cars looming up, glass-eyed and evil-toothed. Then there’s the spider-man and the webfooted man from Mars, and the simple, lugubrious vision of a human face turning aside forever, in spite of rings and vows, to the last lover of all.
One of the most frequent shapes in this backwash is so commonplace it seems silly to mention it. It’s a grain of dirt. The water is thick with these grains. They seep in among everything else and revolve under some queer power of their own, opaque, ubiquitous. Call the water what you will. Lake Nightmare, Bog of Madness, it’s here the sleeping people lie and toss together among the props of their worst dreams, one great brotherhood, though each of them, waking, thinks himself singular, utterly apart.
This is my dream. You won’t find it written up in any casebook. Now the routine in our office is very different from the routine in Skin Clinic, for example, or in Tumor. The other clinics have strong similarities to each other; none are like ours. In our clinic, treatment doesn’t get prescribed. It is invisible. It goes right on in those little cubicles, each with its desk, its two chairs, its window arid its door with the opaque glass rectangle set in the wood. There is a certain spiritual purity about this kind of doctoring. I can’t help feeling the special privilege of my position as Assistant Secretary in the Adult Psychiatric Clinic. My sense of pride is borne out by the rude invasions of other clinics into our cubicles on certain days of the week for lack of space elsewhere: our building is a very old one, and the facilities have not expanded with the expanding needs of the time. On these days of overlap the contrast between us and the other clinics is marked.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, for instance, we have lumbar punctures in one of our offices in the morning. If the practical nurse chances to leave the door of the cubicle open, as she usually does, I can glimpse the end of the white cot and the dirty yellow-soled bare feet of the patient sticking out from under the sheet. In spite of my distaste at this sight, I can’t keep my eyes away from the bare feet, and I find myself glancing back from my typing every few minutes to see if they are still there, if they have changed their position at all. You can understand what a distraction this is in the middle of my work. I often have to reread what I have typed several times, under the pretense of careful proofreading, in order to memorize the dreams I have copied down from the doctor’s voice over the audiograph.
Nerve Clinic next door, which tends to the grosser, more unimaginative end of our business, also disturbs us in the mornings. We use their offices for therapy in the afternoon, as they are only a morning clinic, but to have their people crying, or singing, or chattering loudly in Italian or Chinese, as they often do, without break for four hours at a stretch every morning, is distracting to say the least.
In spite of such interruptions by other clinics, my own work is advancing at a great rate. By now I am far beyond copying only what comes after the patient’s saying: “I have this dream, Doctor.” I am at the point of recreating dreams that are not even written down at all. Dreams that shadow themselves forth in the vaguest way, but are themselves hid, like a statue under red velvet before the grand unveiling.
To illustrate. This woman came in with her tongue swollen and stuck out so far she had to leave a party she was giving for twenty friends of her French-Canadian mother-in-law and be rushed to our Emergency Ward. She thought she didn’t want her tongue to stick out and, to tell the truth, it was an exceedingly embarrassing affair for her but she hated that French-Canadian mother-in-law worse than pigs, and her tongue was true to her opinion, even if the rest of her wasn’t. Now she didn’t lay claim to any dreams. I have only the bare facts above to begin with, yet behind them I detect the bulge and promise of a dream.
So I set myself to uprooting this dream from its comfortable purchase under her tongue.
Whatever the dream I unearth, by work, taxing work, and even by a kind of prayer, I am sure to find a thumbprint in the corner, a malicious detail to the right of center, a bodiless midair Cheshire cat grin, which shows the whole work to be gotten up by the genius of Johnny Panic, and him alone. He’s sly, he’s subtle, he’s sudden as thunder, but he gives himself away only too often. He simply can’t resist melodrama. Melodrama of the oldest, most obvious variety.
I remember one guy, a stocky fellow in a nail-studded black leather jacket, running straight in to us from a boxing match at Mechanics Hall, Johnny Panic hot at his heels. This guy, good Catholic though he was, young and upright and all, had one mean fear of death. He was actually scared blue he’d go to hell. He was a pieceworker at a fluorescent light plant. I remember this detail because I thought it funny he should work there, him being so afraid of the dark as it turned out. Johnny Panic injects a poetic element in this business you don’t often find elsewhere. And for that he has my eternal gratitude.
I also remember quite clearly the scenario of the dream I had worked out for this guy: a gothic interior in some monastery cellar, going on and on as far as you could see, one of those endless perspectives between two mirrors, and the pillars and walls were made of nothing but human skulls and bones, and in every niche there was a body laid out, and it was the Hall of Time, with the bodies in the foreground still warm, discoloring and starting to rot in the middle distance, and the bones emerging, clean as a whistle, in a kind of white futuristic glow at the end of the line. As I recall, I had the whole scene lighted, for the sake of accuracy, not with candles, but with the ice-bright fluorescence that makes skin look green and all the pink and red flushes dead black-purple.
You ask, how do I know this was the dream of the guy in the black leather jacket. I don’t know. I only believe this was his dream, and I work at belief with more energy and tears and entreaties than I work at recreating the dream itself.
My office, of course, has its limitations. The lady with her tongue stuck out, the guy from Mechanics Hall—these are our wildest ones. The people who have really gone floating down toward the bottom of that boggy lake come in only once, and are then referred to a place more permanent than our office which receives the public from nine to five, five days a week only. Even those people who are barely able to walk about the streets and keep working, who aren’t yet halfway down in the lake, get sent to the Out-Patient Department at another hospital specializing in severer cases. Or they may stay a month or so in our own Observation Ward in the central hospital which I’ve never seen.
I’ve seen the secretary of that ward, though. Something about her merely smoking and drinking her coffee in the cafeteria at the ten o’clock break put me off so I never went to sit next to her again. She has a funny name I don’t ever quite remember correctly, something really odd, like Miss Milleravage. One of those names that seem more like a pun mixing up Milltown and Ravage than anything in the city phone directory. But not so odd a name, after all, if you’ve ever read through the phone directory, with its Hyman Diddlebockers and Sasparilla Greenleafs. I read through the phone book once, never mind when, and it satisfied a deep need in me to realize how many people aren’t called Smith.
Anyhow, this Miss Milleravage is a large woman, not fat, but all sturdy muscle and tall on top of it. She wears a gray suit over her hard bulk that reminds me vaguely of some kind of uniform, without the details of cut having anything strikingly military about them. Her face, hefty as a bullock’s, is covered with a remarkable number of tiny maculae, as if she’d been lying under water for some time and little algae had latched on to her skin, smutching it over with tobacco-browns and greens. These moles are noticeable mainly because the skin around them is so pallid. I sometimes wonder if Miss Milleravage has ever seen the wholesome light of day. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she’d been brought up from the cradle with the sole benefit of artificial lighting.
Byrna, the secretary in Alcoholic Clinic just across the hall from us, introduced me to Miss Milleravage with the gambit that I’d “been in England too.”
Miss Milleravage, it turned out, had spent the best years of her life in London hospitals.
“Had a friend,” she boomed in her queer, doggish basso, not favoring me with a direct look, “a nurse at Bart’s. Tried to get in touch with her after the war, but the head of the nurses had changed, everybody’d changed, nobody’d heard of her. She must’ve gone down with the old head nurse, rubbish and all, in the bombings.” She followed this with a large grin.
Now I’ve seen medical students cutting up cadavers, four stiffs to a classroom, about as recognizably human as Moby Dick, and the students playing catch with the dead men’s livers. I’ve heard guys joke about sewing a woman up wrong after a delivery at the charity ward of the Lying-In. But I wouldn’t want to see what Miss Milleravage would write off as the biggest laugh of all time. No thanks and then some. You could scratch her eyes with a pin and swear you’d struck solid quartz.
My boss has a sense of humor too, only it’s gentle. Generous as Santa on Christmas Eve.
I work for a middle-aged lady named Miss Taylor who is the Head Secretary of the clinic and has been since the clinic started thirty-three years ago—the year of my birth, oddly enough. Miss Taylor knows every doctor, every patient, every outmoded appointment slip, referral slip and billing procedure the hospital has ever used or thought of using. She plans to stick with the clinic until she’s farmed out in the green pastures of Social Security checks. A woman more dedicated to her work I never saw. She’s the same way about statistics as I am about dreams: if the building caught fire she would throw every last one of those books of statistics to the firemen below at the serious risk of her own skin.
I get along extremely well with Miss Taylor. The one thing I never let her catch me doing is reading the old record books. I have actually very little time for this. Our office is busier than the stock exchange with the staff of twenty-five doctors in and out, medical students in training, patients, patients’ relatives, and visiting officials from other clinics referring patients to us, so even when I’m covering the office alone, during Miss Taylor’s coffee break and lunch hour, I seldom get to dash down more than a note or two.
This kind of catch-as-catch-can is nerve-racking, to say the least. A lot of the best dreamers are in the old books, the dreamers that come in to us only once or twice for evaluation before they’re sent elsewhere. For copying out these dreams I need time, a lot of time. My circumstances are hardly ideal for the unhurried pursuit of my art. There is, of course, a certain derring-do in working under such hazards, but I long for the rich leisure of the true connoisseur who indulges his nostrils above the brandy snifter for an hour before his tongue reaches out for the first taste.
I find myself all too often lately imagining what a relief it would be to bring a briefcase into work, big enough to hold one of those thick, blue, cloth-bound record books full of dreams. At Miss Taylor’s lunch time, in the lull before the doctors and students crowd in to take their afternoon patients, I could simply slip one of the books, dated ten or fifteen years back, into my briefcase, and leave the briefcase under my desk till five o’clock struck. Of course, odd-looking bundles are inspected by the doorman of the Clinics Building and the hospital has its own staff of police to check up on the multiple varieties of thievery that go on, but for heaven’s sake, I’m not thinking of making off with typewriters or heroin. I’d only borrow the book overnight and slip it back on the shelf first thing the next day before anybody else came in. Still, being caught taking a book out of the hospital would probably mean losing my job and all my source material with it.
This idea of mulling over a record book in the privacy and comfort of my own apartment, even if I have to stay up night after night for this purpose, attracts me so much I become more and more impatient with my usual method of snatching minutes to look up dreams in Miss Taylor’s half-hours out of the office.
The trouble is, I can never tell exactly when Miss Taylor will come back to the office. She is so conscientious about her job she’d be likely to cut her half hour at lunch short and her twenty minutes at coffee shorter, if it weren’t for her lame left leg. The distinct sound of this lame leg in the corridor warns me of her approach in time for me to whip the record book I’m reading into my drawer out of sight and pretend to be putting down the final flourishes on a phone message or some such alibi. The only catch, as far as my nerves are concerned, is that Amputee Clinic is around the corner from us in the opposite direction from Nerve Clinic and I’ve gotten really jumpy due to a lot of false alarms where I’ve mistaken some pegleg’s hitching step for the step of Miss Taylor herself returning early to the office.
ON THE BLACKEST days, when I’ve scarcely time to squeeze one dream out of the old books and my copywork is nothing but weepy college sophomores who can’t get a lead in Camino Real, I feel Johnny Panic turn his back, stony as Everest, higher than Orion, and the motto of the great Bible of Dreams, “Perfect fear casteth out all else,” is ash and lemon water on my lips. I’m a wormy hermit in a country of prize pigs so corn-happy they can’t see the slaughterhouse at the end of the track. I’m Jeremiah vision-bitten in the Land of Cockaigne.
What’s worse: day by day I see these psyche-doctors studying to win Johnny Panic’s converts from him by hook, crook, and talk, talk, talk. Those deep-eyed, bush-bearded dream collectors who preceded me in history, and their contemporary inheritors with their white jackets and knotty-pine-paneled offices and leather couches, practiced and still practice their dream-gathering for worldly ends: health and money, money and health. To be a true member of Johnny Panic’s congregation one must forget the dreamer and remember the dream: the dreamer is merely a flimsy vehicle for the great Dream Maker himself. This they will not do. Johnny Panic is gold in the bowels, and they try to root him out by spiritual stomach pumps.
Take what happened to Harry Bilbo. Mr. Bilbo came into our office with the hand of Johnny Panic heavy as a lead coffin on his shoulder. He had an interesting notion about the filth in this world. I figured him for a prominent part in Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams, Third Book of Fear, Chapter Nine on Dirt, Disease and General Decay. A friend of Harry’s blew a trumpet in the Boy Scout band when they were kids. Harry Bilbo’d also blown on this friend’s trumpet. Years later the friend got cancer and died. Then, one day not so long ago, a cancer doctor came into Harry’s house, sat down in a chair, passed the top of the morning with Harry’s mother and, on leaving, shook her hand and opened the door for himself. Suddenly Harry Bilbo wouldn’t blow trumpets or sit down on chairs or shake hands if all the cardinals of Rome took to blessing him twenty-four hours around the clock for fear of catching cancer. His mother had to go turning the TV knobs and water faucets on and off and opening doors for him. Pretty soon Harry stopped going to work because of the spit and dog turds in the street. First that stuff gets on your shoes and then when you take your shoes off it gets on your hands and then at dinner it’s a quick trip into your mouth and not a hundred Hail Marys can keep you from the chain reaction.
The last straw was, Harry quit weight lifting at the public gym when he saw this cripple exercising with the dumbbells. You can never tell what germs cripples carry behind their ears and under their fingernails. Day and night Harry Bilbo lived in holy worship of Johnny Panic, devout as any priest among censers and sacraments. He had a beauty all his own.
Well, these white-coated tinkerers managed, the lot of them, to talk Harry into turning on the TV himself, and the water faucets, and to opening closet doors, front doors, bar doors. Before they were through with him, he was sitting down on movie-house chairs, and benches all over the Public Garden, and weight lifting every day of the week at the gym in spite of the fact another cripple took to using the rowing machine. At the end of his treatment he came in to shake hands with the Clinic Director. In Harry Bilbo’s own words, he was “a changed man.” The pure Panic-light had left his face. He went out of the office doomed to the crass fate these doctors call health and happiness.
About the time of Harry Bilbo’s cure a new idea starts nudging at the bottom of my brain. I find it hard to ignore as those bare feet sticking out of the lumbar puncture room. If I don’t want to risk carrying a record book out of the hospital in case I get discovered and fired and have to end my research forever, I can really speed up work by staying in the Clinics Building overnight. I am nowhere near exhausting the clinic’s resources and the piddling amount of cases I am able to read in Miss Taylor’s brief absences during the day are nothing to what I could get through in a few nights of steady copying. I need to accelerate my work if only to counteract those doctors.
Before I know it, I am putting on my coat at five and saying goodnight to Miss Taylor, who usually stays a few minutes overtime to clear up the day’s statistics, and sneaking around the corner into the ladies room. It is empty. I slip into the patients’ john, lock the door from the inside, and wait. For all I know, one of the clinic cleaning ladies may try to knock the door down, thinking some patient’s passed out on the seat. My fingers are crossed. About twenty minutes later the door of the lavatory opens and someone limps over the threshold like a chicken favoring a bad leg. It is Miss Taylor, I can tell by the resigned sigh as she meets the jaundiced eye of the lavatory mirror. I hear the click-cluck of various touch-up equipment on the bowl, water sloshing, the scritch of a comb in frizzed hair, and then the door is closing with a slow-hinged wheeze behind her.
I am lucky. When I come out of the ladies room at six o’clock the corridor lights are off and the fourth-floor hall is as empty as church on Monday. I have my own key to our office; I come in first every morning, so that’s no trouble. The typewriters are folded back into the desks, the locks are on the dial phones, all’s right with the world.
Outside the window the last of the winter light is fading. Yet I do not forget myself and turn on the overhead bulb. I don’t want to be spotted by any hawk-eyed doctor or janitor in the hospital buildings across the little courtyard. The cabinet with the record books is in the windowless passage opening onto the doctors’ cubicles, which have windows overlooking the courtyard. I make sure the doors to all the cubicles are shut. Then I switch on the passage light, a sallow twenty-five-watt affair blackening at the top. Better than an altarful of candles to me at this point, though. I didn’t think to bring a sandwich. There is an apple in my desk drawer left over from lunch, so I reserve that for whatever pangs I may feel about one o’clock in the morning, and get out my pocket notebook. At home every evening it is my habit to tear out the notebook pages I’ve written on at the office during the day and pile them up to be copied in my manuscript. In this way I cover my tracks so no one idly picking up my notebook at the office could ever guess the type or scope of my work.
I begin systematically by opening the oldest book on the bottom shelf. The once-blue cover is no-color now, the pages are thumbed and blurry carbons, but I’m humming from foot to topknot: this dream book was spanking new the day I was born. When I really get organized I’ll have hot soup in a thermos for the dead-of-winter nights, turkey pies and chocolate eclairs. I’ll bring hair curlers and four changes of blouse to work in my biggest handbag on Monday mornings so no one will notice me going downhill in looks and start suspecting unhappy love affairs or pink affiliations or my working on dream books in the clinic four nights a week.
Eleven hours later. I am down to apple core and seeds and in the month of May, 1931, with a private nurse who has just opened a laundry bag in her patient’s closet and found five severed heads in it, including her mother’s.
A chill air touches the nape of my neck. From where I am sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the cabinet, the record book heavy on my lap, I notice out of the corner of my eye that the door of the cubicle beside me is letting in a little crack of blue light. Not only along the floor, but up the side of the door too. This is odd since I made sure from the first that all the doors were shut tight. The crack of blue light is widening and my eyes are fastened to two motionless shoes in the doorway, toes pointing toward me.
They are brown leather shoes of a foreign make, with thick elevator soles. Above the shoes are black silk socks through which shows a pallor of flesh. I get as far as the gray pinstriped trouser cuffs.
“Tch, tch,” chides an infinitely gentle voice from the cloudy regions above my head. “Such an uncomfortable position! Your legs must be asleep by now. Let me help you up. The sun will be rising shortly.”
Two hands slip under my arms from behind and I am raised, wobbly as an unset custard, to my feet, which I cannot feel because my legs are, in fact, asleep. The record book slumps to the floor, pages splayed.
“Stand still a minute.” The Clinic Director’s voice fans the lobe of my right ear. “Then the circulation will revive.”
The blood in my not-there legs starts pinging under a million sewing-machine needles and a vision of the Clinic Director acid-etches itself on my brain. I don’t even need to look around: fat pot-belly buttoned into his gray pinstriped waistcoat, woodchuck teeth yellow and buck, every-color eyes behind the thick-lensed glasses quick as minnows.
I clutch my notebook. The last floating timber of the Titanic.
What does he know, what does he know?
“I know where there is a nice hot bowl of chicken noodle soup.” His voice rustles, dust under the bed, mice in straw. His hand welds onto my left upper arm in fatherly love. The record book of all the dreams going on in the city of my birth at my first yawp in this world’s air he nudges under the bookcase with a polished toe.
We meet nobody in the dawn-dark hall. Nobody on the chill stone stair down to the basement corridors where Billy the Record Room Boy cracked his head skipping steps one night on a rush errand.
I begin to double-quickstep so he won’t think it’s me he’s hustling. “You can’t fire me,” I say calmly. “I quit.”
The Clinic Director’s laugh wheezes up from his accordion-pleated bottom gut. “We mustn’t lose you so soon.” His whisper snakes off down the whitewashed basement passages, echoing among the elbow pipes, the wheelchairs and stretchers beached for the night along the steam-stained walls. “Why, we need you more than you know.”
We wind and double and my legs keep time with his until we come, somewhere in those barren rat tunnels, to an all-night elevator run by a one-armed Negro. We get on, and the door grinds shut like the door on a cattle car, and we go up and up. It is a freight elevator, crude and clanky, a far cry from the plush passenger lifts I am used to in the Clinics Building.
We get off at an indeterminate floor. The Clinic Director leads me down a bare corridor lit at intervals by socketed bulbs in little wire cages on the ceiling. Locked doors set with screened windows line the hall on either hand. I plan to part company with the Clinic Director at the first red Exit sign, but on our journey there are none. I am in alien territory, coat on the hanger in the office, handbag and money in my top desk drawer, notebook in my hand, and only Johnny Panic to warm me against the ice age outside.
Ahead a light gathers, brightens. The Clinic Director, puffing slightly at the walk, brisk and long, to which he is obviously unaccustomed, propels me around a bend and into a square, brilliantly lit room.
“Here she is.”
“The little witch!”
Miss Milleravage hoists her tonnage up from behind the steel desk facing the door.
The walls and the ceiling of the room are riveted metal battleship plates. There are no windows.
From small, barred cells lining the sides and back of the room I see Johnny Panic’s top priests staring out at me, arms swaddled behind their backs in the white Ward nightshirts, eyes redder than coals and hungry-hot.
They welcome me with queer croaks and grunts, as if their tongues were locked in their jaws. They have no doubt heard of my work by way of Johnny Panic’s grapevine and want to know how his apostles thrive in the world.
I lift my hands to reassure them, holding up my notebook, my voice loud as Johnny Panic’s organ with all stops out.
“Peace! I bring to you . . .”
“None of that old stuff, sweetie.” Miss Milleravage is dancing out at me from behind her desk like a trick elephant.
The Clinic Director closes the door to the room.
The minute Miss Milleravage moves I notice what her hulk has been hiding from view behind the desk—a white cot high as a man’s waist with a single sheet stretched over the mattress, spotless and drumskin tight. At the head of the cot is a table on which sits a metal box covered with dials and gauges.
The box seems to be eyeing me, copperhead-ugly, from its coil of electric wires, the latest model in Johnny-Panic-Killers.
I get ready to dodge to one side. When Miss Milleravage grabs, her fat hand comes away with a fist full of nothing. She starts for me again, her smile heavy as dogdays in August.
“None of that. None of that. I’ll have that little black book.”
Fast as I run around the high white cot, Miss Milleravage is so fast you’d think she wore rollerskates. She grabs and gets. Against her great bulk I beat my fists, and against her whopping milkless breasts, until her hands on my wrists are iron hoops and her breath hushabyes me with a love-stink fouler than Undertaker’s Basement.
“My baby, my own baby’s come back to me . . .”
“She,” says the Clinic Director, sad and stern, “has been making time with Johnny Panic again.”
THE WHITE COT is ready. With a terrible gentleness Miss Milleravage takes the watch from my wrist, the rings from my fingers, the hairpins from my hair. She begins to undress me. When I am bare, I am anointed on the temples and robed in sheets virginal as the first snow.
Then, from the four corners of the room and from the door behind me come five false priests in white surgical gowns and masks whose one lifework is to unseat Johnny Panic from his own throne. They extend me full-length on my back on the cot. The crown of wire is placed on my head, the wafer of forgetfulness on my tongue. The masked priests move to their posts and take hold: one of my left leg, one of my right, one of my right arm, one of my left. One behind my head at the metal box where I can’t see.
From their cramped niches along the wall, the votaries raise their voices in protest. They begin the devotional chant:
The only thing to love is Fear itself.
Love of Fear is the beginning of wisdom.
The only thing to love is Fear itself.
May Fear and Fear and Fear be everywhere.
There is no time for Miss Milleravage or the Clinic Director or the priests to muzzle them.
The signal is given.
The machine betrays them.
At the moment when I think I am most lost the face of Johnny Panic appears in a nimbus of arc lights on the ceiling overhead. I am shaken like a leaf in the teeth of glory. His beard is lightning. Lightning is in his eye. His Word charges and illumines the universe.
The air crackles with his blue-tongued lightning-haloed angels.
His love is the twenty-story leap, the rope at the throat, the knife at the heart.
He forgets not his own.