I arrived at the hospital early with the intention of slipping into Harker’s chamber whilst he still slept. My plan was to then soundlessly creep across his bare floor, and with the utmost stealth, ease open his closet door, insert my arm into that dark space and obtain, in short order and with no more trouble than I have already mentioned, “his” cream colored suit, white leather shoes, canary yellow tie, socks (but he had no socks), and rakish Panama hat without rousing the wretched man from his slumbers. The point of this stealth was not, of course, to avoid disturbing Harker, and certainly not to avoid “getting caught” by him (but what an absurd reversal in our relations that would be!) but rather, and very strictly—indeed, exclusively—to obtain the clothes with the absolute minimal exposure to Harker himself.
To this end then, I parked my car at the very far end of the supplementary unpaved lot, crossed the lot on foot but then, instead of entering the hospital by the front door, skirted right past it around to the side and entered via the service entrance, the one usually reserved for the delivery of bulk commodities. I did this to avoid encountering any members of the secretarial or custodial staff who had made it their habit to congregate in the airy vestibule attached to the main entrance at that time to take their communal breakfast (rolls, coffee etc…) and with whom I would have been obliged, as administrator in chief, to exchange hale good morning greetings, which no doubt in short order would have alerted Harker to my precise location within the building.
He waited for me, you see. He waited for me every morning. Even though I hadn’t been to see him for several months (could it have been a year?), he still waited for me to arrive every morning, and, though his movements were wholly circumscribed within a single chamber in a rather peripheral ward (a good distance I might add from the front entrance, indeed, any of the hospital’s entrances), he had his own peculiar methods for divining not only when, where and how I had arrived at the hospital but also for following my movements throughout the day.
That was his most infernal trick! Omniscience. He seemed to know everything about me from where I’ve been in the morning before beginning my rounds, to what patients I visit regularly, to the contents of my files, to every minute interaction I’d had with any member of the staff no matter how insignificant; in a word, to all the comings and goings of my days—he knew it all! Or so it seemed. Of course he didn’t really know. He could not. He exclusively inhabited, as I have mentioned, a single and somewhat narrow room in one of the most peripheral wards of the hospital whilst I was free to wander—and I do wander, I’ll have you know, I’ve always allowed myself the widest possible leeway—the quite extensive grounds of this entire establishment (not to mention the even larger world beyond). However, he did know enough about me to project the impression that he knew everything.
You see he was very clever. I have to hand it to Harker there; the wretch is clever. He was very clever with whatever bits of information fell his way. He was so clever that even after I had managed to pierce this particularly inciting ruse (the Ruse of Omniscience) but before I had become wise enough to leave off intercourse with him altogether, I never could clearly discern, in the smashed mosaic of his insidious conversation, which cracks separated known fact from fair deduction, deduction from plausible supposition, supposition from speculation and speculation from out and out guess.
Just take all that business about parking spaces, for example. For the first several weeks of the “promising” phase, the weeks in which I had lavished so much unmerited therapeutic attention on him, Harker tortured me daily (I was visiting him every day; can you imagine?) with his unerring and yet (at the time) wholly inexplicable knowledge of the precise space in which I had parked my car. Our sessions invariably and for quite some time (until that is—in the fourth or fifth week, I believe—when I could no longer bear to enter the room and was forced to resort instead to questions shouted through the crack under the door) began like this:
Before we get into what he had to say, please note: he spoke first. He ought not to have spoken first. I was the therapist after all. It was up to me to speak first, or better yet sustain a preliminary (long and unbroken) therapeutic silence. But, evidently, protocol, even that derived exclusively for his own long term benefit, was not among Harker’s concerns. He spoke first. He always spoke first. I would stride into his fetid chamber—in white lab coat, nondescript (but sharply creased) trousers, black ward-walking shoes, clipboard under my arm, stethoscope around my neck (rarely used, but as an ornament, I believed, it had the intended effect)—cast over his pitiful form my cool, clinical but not entirely unsympathetic gaze (what sympathy there was, feigned, of course, in the interests of professionalism) clear my throat and part my lips in preparation to opening the session with a greeting precisely calibrated to optimize the therapeutic trajectory of all further discourse when Harker (the patient) would blurt out:
Harker: You parked in the third lot on the right side today, didn’t you? You took the space furthest from the berm and closest to the beach, I believe. Is that not so?
To which I was forced to reply, absently, in a daze actually, and already drifting across the room—
Doctor (me): Yess…s…s, thaaaatttsss… riiiiiiiight…
toward Harker’s window, not the head-sized window Lucy and I used to look in on him but the other full-sized window that he used to look out on—I was drifting and dazed of course because he was absolutely right, I had parked exactly in the spot he named! I was amazed then, as they say, by his evident clairvoyance—absolutely nothing, or rather, a dark column of air. For this particular window was set in an interior wall and “looked out on” only the central ventilation shaft of the building, or rather the pillar of dark air within that shaft, illumined—and this I confirmed as I reached the window and, with two fingers of my right hand, parted its superfluously thick, vinyl blackout curtains to peep out through the gap—only by what cloudy drips of radiance might dribble in through the milky surface of the sky light far, far above, and more to the point—as far as confirmation goes—it afforded no vantage from which the parking lot in question, or indeed any exterior location whatsoever, could be observed, prompting me to further voice my incredulity thus:
Doctor (me): But…but… How could you?
To which, Harker responded with luminous complaisance:
Harker: I heard you drive in, and then I counted your footsteps across the lot.
Bosh, of course! Utter nonsense! Harker was as completely insulated audially from any point at which I might have parked my car as he was visually. His chamber itself was sound-proofed for one thing. (How could it be otherwise? We had lunatics practically living on top of each other in that ward—the Hopeless Ward, as it was known, truth be told, as it housed exclusively those “patients” for whom no positive prognosis could be formulated. And a good portion of these “patients” naturally (at least initially, and by that I mean, at least for the first several weeks, months (sometimes years) of their confinement—it’s the fresh ones I am speaking of here) were of the consistently noise emitting variety (chattering, screaming, ranting, sobbing, moaning etc…) Why, without near perfect sound proofing on each and every chamber, Pandemonium must ensue!) But even had that not been the case, the parking lot in question lay on the other side (across a diagonal) of the institution itself, which thereby interposed all its muffling bulk (exterior and interior walls, echoing courtyards and cul-de-sacs, not to mention the distracting noises of the infinitely various coming and goings of innumerable inmates and attendants alike) between that lot, my car, the sound of my footsteps, and Harker’s tiny sealed chamber. But even if that had not been the case (Erase the hospital building and all it contained! Erase it completely! Merely place Harker, hand cupped to ear, naked and exposed on a bit of sand where his chamber would have been!) there was still the sea, whose incessant crashing surf blanketed the coast with a low din much more than sufficient to smother the footsteps of multitudes!
He was lying of course! I did not believe him, and yet he somehow managed to open session after session (in spite of increasingly elaborate counter measures on my part) with this astonishing bit of parlor magic. For quite some time I found myself both mystified and confused. Of course I did figure it out eventually. He had a confederate. He had a co-conspirator among the custodial staff who had made it his business to ascertain where I had parked my car each morning (or whether I had taken the bus; or even hiked in) and then duly report this intelligence to Harker in some fashion, often with great alacrity, for it was not at all unusual, at that time, for me to proceed directly to my “session” with Harker the very moment I arrived at the building, before even stopping in my office to take off my coat and hat, and even in those instances somehow the information unfailingly reached Harker before I did. But I see I have digressed.)
This morning then, in quest of the suit, and having avoided the front entrance, I proceeded from the service entrance through a long zig-zag of intersecting corridors until I reached a stairwell in the environs of Harker’s ward. I ascended to the second floor on which the aforementioned ward was located, and approaching the far end of “his” hall (by that I mean only the hallway in which his chamber was located), I removed my shoes so as to avoid waking him should he be asleep and padded down the hall toward his chamber door, before which I dropped silently into a crouch such that I could listen at the crack without exposing any part of my person to view from the inside through the head-sized window (set at about head height in the door.)
(You see they loved him. (I digress again.) I am speaking here of the custodial staff. They were crazy about him. I think it was because he was such a shameless gossip and busybody. No member of the custodial staff managed to pass through, or even by, his chamber without being both grilled and informed. They loved that. How much more entertaining was he than the other more tractable but less gregarious inmates (of the Hopeless Ward, no less!) What’s more, he directed most of his queries and gossip at yours truly—the staff’s much maligned boss and lightning rod of discontent! That was how he managed to gather all the bits and pieces of information about me that he needed to project the Ruse of Omniscience. (And it was truly amazing. That business with the parking space was only the beginning.) Where is the doctor now? he would ask, say, the room cleaner. What is the doctor doing today? Or even, How is the doctor? To which the staff good naturedly responded with sufficient information for him to build up an extraordinarily complete and detailed account of my comings and goings which he duly presented as the most tantalizing clairvoyance during our morning sessions. To make matters worse, the staff seemed to look upon Harker’s inordinate interest in me as a sign of affection, which–without, I assure you, any encouragement on my part–they assumed I reciprocated. It wasn’t long (into the “promising” phase) before they began to refer to Harker (to me) as “your favorite patient” and to me (to Harker) as “your favorite doctor.” This, of course, vexed me deeply. But back to this morning.)
I heard nothing.
This indicated to me that Harker was indeed still asleep (as I had hoped) or at least motionless on his cot perhaps feigning sleep (almost as good). Gripping the door knob firmly in one hand to steady myself, I rose oh so very slowly with the intention of taking one long and precautionary peep into the room through the head-sized window, hoping in this way to confirm the above supposition(s) with the oh-so-gratifying sight of Harker’s semi-supine and insensible form curled up against the wall, utterly motionless, on his cot in the corner, as was his wont. Unfortunately, to my horror, instead I confronted—perfectly framed in the glass, peering back at me with—I must confess—a nauseatingly mixed expression of imperfectly suppressed fear, lurid curiosity and intense disdain—my own face!
For several long moments I suffered a paroxysm of ghastly dislocation.
And that was it! That was his trick! How long had the scheme taken to geminate in his brain? How much careful and patient manipulation of the staff had gone into acquiring the necessary materials? And most of all, how long had he waited in perpetual readiness for me not only to appear but to approach in such a way that he could “spring it” on me, so to speak, with maximum effect? And there it was! All over in moments! He had without a doubt created a shock, but I soon recovered myself. Surprise turned quickly to indignation.
With some vehemence, if not violence, I shoved open the door with my shoulder (it opened inward), knocking Harker, who had been crouching against it on the other side, listening no doubt for the sounds of my distress, to the floor. I stepped commandingly into the room. Harker slid, rolled and scrambled to the far side of the chamber, where he adopted a posture positively canine in its servility, cringing on his knees by the foot of his cot, shielding his face from my disapproving gaze with one hand whilst, with the other, holding out to me—to brandish or surrender? I could not say—a shiny, silver framed rectangular mirror of the type and size as might have adorned a vacant corner on a lady’s otherwise crowded vanity. I think he was brandishing the mirror actually. There was no real submission in his posture. In the midst of that theatrical cringe, I could clearly make out, in the slight panting movements of his wasted and hairy sides (he wore no clothes as was his habit), the ragged palpitations of imperfectly suppressed laughter.
I ignored that.
“That’s quite enough for today, Mr. Harker,“ I said, stepping across the room and smartly relieving him of the mirror, as if, I might add, I had come to his room expressly for that purpose. ”Have you been trading favors with the chambermaid?” (A little joke. Of course, there were no chamber maids in the hospital and the cleaner assigned to Harker’s room was a particularly large and masculine member of the custodial staff.)
Harker did not respond but merely gibbered and spat unintelligibly.
“Glass is strictly forbidden as you well know,” I continued to admonish him but got no response. Or was that twitch about the waist the aborted beginning of a sarcastically elaborate (and elaborately sarcastic) curtsey? Could he have been thumbing his nose at me, figuratively speaking, even then? No matter. I’d wasted enough time on him. I had better things to do. Indeed my entire morning in the hospital still awaited me.
And so, I got the trick but no clothes. I obtained no suit.
Instead I walked back along the hall empty-handed, put my shoes back on in front of the stairwell, returned to my car, crossed the parking lot once again (for the third time that morning) and re-entered the hospital through the main entrance as is customary. I offered hale good morning greetings to the staff, whom I encountered breakfasting (as was their habit) in the airy reception area, and made my way from there to the administrative floor where I took refuge in my “office” (not actually an office, as I may have mentioned but more of a rectangular space partitioned off in glass from the rest of the floor, made cozy (somewhat) by the artful placement of vertical blinds and potted plants around the perimeter.) Safely inside, I turned the blinds closed, settled myself behind my desk, withdrew Harker’s mirror from under my lab coat, and placed it carefully (that is to say, face down) inside the vacant drawer second from the bottom on the left side of my desk. It was not long after that that the intercom began to buzz, and, after I opened the circuit with a deft flip of the switch, my secretary’s voice (she is a totally unremarkable and yet unfailingly reliable person) emerged to report that Harker’s personal attendant, Lucy, had phoned a little while earlier to announce that from that moment forward she had decided to unilaterally terminate her employment at our institution and thus would never be seen again.
I put my face in my hands and wept.
James Lewelling’s first novel, This Guy, was published in 2005 by Spuyten Duyvil, his second, Tortoise, by Calamari Press in 2008. Over the years, his short fiction has appeared in a variety of literary venues ranging from The Cream City Review to The Stranger to The Evergreen Review to Fence. He has been writing fiction since 1988 while at the same time teaching and working abroad in Morocco (as a Peace Corps volunteer), Turkey and for the last ten years in the U.A.E. At present, he is writing fiction and taking care of his family as a stay at home dad in Abu Dhabi.