Conjunctions:56 Terra Incognita: The Voyage Issue

The I and the It
Under more agreeable circumstances—we are paraphrasing; Bennell was predisposed to cliché and imprecise language—Dr. Miles Bennell, a physician for thirteen years, would have welcomed the sudden relaxation, the opportunity to indulge a newfound frivolity; the life of a busy GP had never exactly encouraged the profligate humoring of passing fancies and so this should have been a glimpse of the life he had not yet found the time to lead. But no. His leisure was unlooked for, his retirement an inescapable result of the tragedy. Why the metaphor of imprisonment? He was not at liberty. Why “a result” but “the tragedy”? Surely, the impact on his work life was outweighed by the collapse of civilization. Ah. Still, he could feel sadness at the loss, regardless of its feathery avoirdupois on some imagined scale. This was the tragedy: His skills had overnight been rendered surfeit. Who, he wondered, would use them? His patients had been replaced. A verbal pun? Or a peculiarly telling choice of words? On the contrary, utterly concrete, not pun or metaphor at all. He had trouble remaining in the chair, complaining that it was unnecessarily low and missing its cushion. Could a cushion be provided, he wished to know? Existential questions were meaningless in a darkened back room of a dry cleaner’s. He disliked being referred to as Banquo, and asked that we address him as Miles. We eventually settled on “Bennell,” to which he usually answered. 

     A senescent collegiality was never destined to be his reward for a life of service; this was his substitute. Not for him the merry circuit of golf course, swimming pool, tennis court, bingo hall, and cafeteria. The smell of chemicals gave him headaches, occasionally made him nauseous; might we see to it? His oldest patients had been the first to go. Bennell had been the last of Santa Mira’s GPs: the two others, elderly gentlemen, had shuttered their offices almost at once when the trouble started. Both had long been used to dozing off between patients. At risk? They were ideal vectors, Bennell claimed. They had to be destroyed. Isn’t it quite natural to be agitated about the disappearance of old friends and colleagues? This was, after all, putting it mildly: He intimated murder. Only when they are old friends and colleagues, Bennell corrected us. Please remain in the chair, Bennell. We are only just beginning. 

     As for his own practice, though there had been a glut of complaints—all curiously similar—in the days following the outbreak, soon thereafter, people stopped coming around altogether. Perhaps he had felt inadequate in some way, embarrassed at the sudden slowing? Not at all. It was simply that no one got sick anymore. There was no one. With no one left to treat and nothing left to do, Bennell drifted from one hobby to the next. Astronomy. Chemistry. Hydroculture. Furniture. Ships in bottles. Messages in bottles. This drift plainly reflected an uneasiness with certain thoughts, certain feelings. Sublimation, an unwillingness to deal with a parricide after all almost literal (one of the doctors, it was disclosed, had been the man who had delivered Bennell forty-two years earlier), and other, more serious offenses: his own ill-accomplished substitution. Why did we insist on pretending the situation was other than it was? Why did he insist on starting with the coda? 

     One had to have something to do. What was so abnormal about hobbies? A man without a vocation is little better than a beast, unawed by the civilizing influence of drives kept in check. One could not go through one’s life playing at a somnambulism one did not suffer from. His earlier comments about our “disarming habit” of humming along to his answers only further bolstered our initial supposition—the man was unserious, impulsive, driven by a glistening, naked desire he believed inimical to his identity. He did not wish to be manhandled or maltreated. Concentrate, Bennell! This is not the piece we have asked for. We will have to begin again. 

     Bennell had decided to turn his office building into a kind of bulwark, a fortress against the troubles. He moved the storm shutters up from the basement. He padlocked the doors from the inside. Every hatch was battened, every hole spackled. Not even a rat could get in, he assured us. Nor could one get out. Why was solitude so important to him? Security? What did he fear from other people? Still he did not sleep. 

     He commandeered the other offices, rifling their rec rooms for supplies and their workrooms for something to do with himself in the absence of his occupation, rest, and any human company—“I had nothing but time. Do I need to tell you what my neighbors did?” A dry cleaner’s. An upholsterer. A carpenter’s workshop. A laboratory of some sort. “Gould—the fingers, please.” Focus, Bennell. Imprecision ruins the effect. A pharmaceutical laboratory, then, with an apparently nebulous name. _____________ Associates, Inc. The caesura, the mark of some unseen force. What did he suppress? Our grip was such that he couldn’t breathe; might we loosen it or abandon it altogether? Left-hand technique, Bennell, all-important in passages with complex harmonies. A mail-order farm supply. A candy maker. One could draw certain inferences from this litany, Bennell. A candy maker’s? Really? That’s what was there. One could draw inferences from its members, yes, but also from its ordering. Order assigns meaning, does it not? Why had the dry cleaner’s been first in his mind? Wasn’t it obvious? Why, then, did the upholsterer’s come second? He had spent little enough time there. Perhaps he could be allowed to finish? Certainly, Bennell. By all means. Have done.

     On any given day, a visitor to his office on the second floor would have found the reception area smelling strongly of noxiously intoxicating epoxies or filled with puffs of pleasantly vibrant but eye-irritating smoke, the plush chairs (several now disemboweled) occupied by envelopes of rare seedlings, eccentric and out-of-date sidereal atlases, or vats of plainly dangerous reagents. Of course, there were no visitors in those days. Why introduce a hypothetical visitor or visitors into his narrative then? Why again the specter of an auditor? Had he imagined one at the time? Only the periodic shrieks of … what were we exactly?—growing rarer and rarer as Santa Mira was completely overtaken—ever pierced the deaf calm of the office. Otherwise, Bennell felt himself cast adrift in the sea of his uncertain passions. He often imagined the blood crashing through his head, another effect of the sleepless eternal night of the blacked-out building, as the waves of a troubled ocean, slapping against each other like layers of wet quilt. How did he imagine his raft? Of what was it built? He seemed at a loss for words. 

     What were Bennell’s feelings upon giving up one “hobby” for another? Little thought was given to the exchange—one grew from the other, occupied more and more time—and its predecessor less and less—until the latter had simply been abandoned. That was life, wasn’t it? Things did not ever really come to a close (until, of course, they did); they simply took up less and less space in the mind, like a game of pick-up sticks gathered, bundled, returned to its drum, its drum to its box, its box to its shelf. A rather harebrained, scattershot life, perhaps, yes. Why not exercise a little restraint? Resolution is rarely the result of accident, Bennell. Dissonance is chance given voice. The cuffs were inhibiting circulation. His fingertips had gone quite purple. 


We resume. 

     Logic was at work, Bennell protested. Astronomy led quite naturally to chemistry: How else to understand the chain reactions that powered our universe? Some observed the stars for their beauty, Bennell mythologized their arrangement, or applied mathematics to judge their distance, thus diminishing their own provincial self-importance. Doesn’t the choice (a rather esoteric and—up until very recently—purely conjectural branch of astronomy) of which whim to flatter next perhaps reveal a nature devoted to dominating, subduing? And what were we after? We are not the one in restraints, Bennell. Domination does not interest us. Were you perhaps seeking after the unknowable as a means of staving off discovery of the immediate, i.e., death? Death, even its obvious precursor, disease, was hardly a dire concern at that time, or at any time since. There were more complicated fates to be feared. This won’t do. Begin again, Bennell. 

     A few days after the last patient he could recall seeing had complained of the strange trouble everyone else seemed to have had, Bennell witnessed a string of events that, together, convinced him to put up in his office and hold out there for as long as he could. Did being in large crowds, or, more generally, in public cause feelings of anxiety at that time? “Yes, Gould. Haven’t you been listening?” Perhaps it would be helpful to begin at the point at which he could first clearly recall those feelings of anxiety. 

     “It was a Thursday. I can’t recall the date, but I do remember that it was a Thursday, because Thursday is the day the garbagemen come to collect on our block [Hmm.], and also the day that Becky and I had set for our date.

     “Well, that morning I had my coffee in bed. [Much better, Bennell.] I was feeling a little run-down. When I stepped outside to get the paper, my neighbor, Burt Danvers, was watering his prize Gertrude Jekyll roses. It had rained the night before, and I recall making a joke about it. Burt didn’t laugh, and that was odd because usually Burt is such a cutup. But I guess I was just tired, I didn’t think anything of it. No, it wasn’t until just before the garbagemen showed up that I noticed something was wrong.

     “There was a man’s hand, flopped over the lip of Burt’s garbage can just at the wrist, like a dog’s tongue hanging out of its mouth. I didn’t know what to do. Here it was, this beautiful early fall morning, the sky blue, the sun shining, the lawn freshly clipped—I think there were even birds singing—and then there was this man in the garbage can next door. It was like some awful nightmare. [Hmm.]

     “I couldn’t even speak I was so shocked. I pointed, and Burt glanced over at the can and then back at me without once changing the look on his face. Then he walked calmly over to the can. Not in a hurry, you understand, not in a panic. Like it was the most natural thing in the world to have a man in his garbage can. He put the hose down and tried to tuck the hand back into the can. [Hmm.] He didn’t even turn off the water on the hose. It was spraying all over my side of the drive. You know, looking back, I think it must have been Burt Danvers’s hand in that garbage can. It must have been.

     “Just then, the garbagemen came around the corner, fast, and clipped Burt in the shoulder with their bumper. Before they could slam on the brakes, he was already under the wheels of the truck—there was this awful screeching noise and then a loud popping that I’ll never forget—and I ran to help. It all happened so fast, I didn’t know what I was doing. What I remember best is the hose: It got kinked under one of the wheels, and started whipping around under the pressure. Before I got ten steps, it had slipped out from under the truck and was aiming right in my face. [Hmm.]

     “If Burt’s wife hadn’t come outside and started screaming in that high-pitched way you all have, I would have stopped the garbagemen and searched under that truck. As it was, I had to run inside before any of them caught on. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m seeing things after all,’ but I didn’t believe it at the time and I don’t believe it now.

     “All that was there to prove that anything at all had happened was a bluish stain about the size of a twin mattress, nothing that the human body could make. [Hmm.] No Burt Danvers. No body. Just the hose, making a racket on the siding out front and turning my yard into a mud hole. I couldn’t go back outside. I was worried that someone might see me. That one of them might see me.

     “You know what else I remember? The trash cans were gone. I don’t know when the garbagemen would have had time to pick them up in the minute or so it took me to run inside and lock the door, but they had all been lined up down the block, and now they were all gone. That was strange. Mine were the only ones left out on the street, and nobody ever came back to pick them up.”

     Why give the hose such a prominent place in the telling? That was the detail that came to mind. Yes, but why? Surely not even he could be blind to its connotations? The third and fifth stages of psychosexual development were certainly well represented. Castration anxiety, too. Perhaps, or perhaps there had been a hose in Burt’s hand, and when Burt was hit by the truck, the hose had sprayed him in the face. Was Burt an older man? Yes. About Bennell’s father’s age? Yes, perhaps. Ah, it was becoming even more fantastically symbolic. But he had once again omitted the passage we had inquired about. He would get there. Well then, press on, Bennell. Press on.

     “With an injury like that, I assumed I’d see Burt inside of ten minutes, or maybe Burt’s daughter, who still lives with her parents, bless her soul. Just about the plainest thing you’ve ever seen. The assistant librarian. Once, she came to me with the sailor’s ailment—that’s what we called it in the service—and I did what I could to make her comfortable, but that sort of thing just takes time to heal. Probably some Romeo’s method of birth control. I prescribed a really soft pillow and told her for God’s sake not to do it again. But she was back in a month. It’s always the quiet ones.

     “I stayed in all that day, watching the Danverses, until Becky rang the doorbell. We went to the Sky Terrace for dinner but I got called away before we’d even sat down. [Hmm.] Jack Belicec, an old friend, had just found a person in his basement. Stark naked and fast asleep, or unconscious anyway. A little wrinkled, like a newborn puppy. Jack dragged him upstairs and laid him out on the pool table. In the light, the damn thing looked so much like him that he thought he was going crazy. I know exactly how he felt. The thing did look like Jack, right down to the mole on his left buttock. I examined it myself: It was the spitting image. Only, the face didn’t seem to have any features.”

     Yet more stalling. These so-called details, prurient amusements for a sordid imagination, were really quite transparent, Bennell. Wish fulfillment, or else a naive attempt at suggesting such. In what way? What was this interest in Miss Danvers? Bennell refused to discuss her. Why then did he bring her up? What was it about this memory of that particular ailment (particularly apt, perhaps? Did he worry?) that made it seem part of this chain of events? It had just occurred to him, that was all, a fluke signifying no whale beneath the waves, a bobbing tip of no iceberg. Still, it was quite clear he was fascinated by some aspect of the memory. He hadn’t been talking about Miss Danvers; Miss Danvers wasn’t important. Jack’s body, or rather the body in Jack’s house … Ah, so there it was. Hardly deserves comment, Bennell.

     “You want me to finish or don’t you? [We want you to begin] The very next day, running from Jack’s house back to my own, I saw a gardener take his partner’s arm off with a pair of shears. Almost to the shoulder. Did he come by the office? Can you guess the answer? That week, as I went out less and less, pretty much just here and back, I saw three bad car accidents and an honest-to-God shoot-out. Where could these men be going? It’s about thirty miles to the hospital in Pasadena, which is twenty-five miles too far if you haven’t had any sort of medical attention. I mean, these were extremely serious injuries.

     “And here we were, in pretty bad shape ourselves. Going without sleep can be dangerous, even fatal. It does things to a person’s physiology that are only really curable through sleep. Becky got a few hours while I watched her, and then she tried to spell me, but she passed out sitting up. When I came to, Becky was gone, replaced by one of those … things.”


     Of course it disturbed him. More than he could express at that time or any since. He had had to make himself destroy it. The amphetamines he had injected himself with, along with the lack of sleep, made him feel hollow, “outside of myself,” as he put it. Made this horrible thing possible, this thing that he could not now believe he had done. And yet he remembered it clearly? That’s just it: He couldn’t remember anything about it. Come now, Bennell. No teasing. What did he remember? After, standing there with a bruise on his knuckles like a dentist’s drill that bore down when he loosened the grip his right hand had around the leg of his nightstand, a nightstand that, legless and flattened, lay shattered underneath the … thing. There was blood everywhere, even in his mouth. A bit of something that looked like egg with ketchup on it was stuck to his shirtfront. He resisted naming it. Don’t resist, Bennell. “Gould, you monster.” The difference between Shakespeare and a monkey with a typewriter, Bennell, is aim. Hitting the key called for, not its neighbors.

     He had rushed to find Jack, sleeping downstairs, and both had made a break for the office. The peaceful look on Jack’s face should have clued him in. Did he envy Jack? He only wished he hadn’t let Jack have his pistol. He told Jack to wait outside while he checked to see if it was safe. It hadn’t taken long for the shrieking to start.

     With Becky and Jack gone, there was no longer any need to shuttle between the office and his home, Bennell claimed. Better to choose the more secure place. Why the office then? Shouldn’t a man feel more comfortable in his home? Too many windows, too many doors, Bennell said. And perhaps some unwelcome associations? To be sure.

     And so, cloistered in the office, there were only his capriciously inflamed passions to stoke. That is, until lack of oxygen smothered them under the terrible blanket that now covered everything. It was as though he had taken that nightstand leg to his old self back there, didn’t we see, and not to the empty simulacrum of Becky Driscoll that had crumpled under it like a candy-less piñata. And yet, he seemed to believe that it wasn’t Becky at all. Or did he believe that Becky was “hollow,” as he had put it, i.e., subject to penis envy? Had he been afraid that she was trying to “screw” him? Is that why he had attacked her with an improvised phallus? Did he feel emasculated by her?

     This was too absurd. Becky Driscoll wasn’t empty: That thing had been. Please, remain in the chair, Bennell, or the restraints will have to be tightened, the cuffs secured again. But it was absurd, what we were suggesting. The strenuousness with which he denied our “accusation” was revealing. Perhaps displacement was the culprit, the return of that castration anxiety he had described earlier. It had been a hose described earlier. “For God’s sake, Gould! A hose. A fucking hose!” Excitement is fine, Bennell, ecstasy, rhapsody, even tears—all acceptable. But anger only bruises the tempo, mashes the score. You will be restrained until you have calmed down.


Ahem. In the first few weeks, he had had the run of the place. He worked in the various offices, whenever the fancy took him. He repaired some of his chairs in the upholsterer’s, tried restuffing a divan he found in the farm supply. He discovered volatility in the lab, regretted its discovery. He tried to grow food in flats of bottles he found in the basement but the seeds corroded in the backwash of chemical residue. He even ventured up on the roof with his telescope. But he felt watched: In every office, no matter how involved in what he was doing, he could not escape self-consciousness. He imagined customers, coworkers; on the roof, the eyes of the town. He dismantled the telescope. You see, Bennell? He took the bottles back to his office. He welded the door to the roof shut, painted tarmac on the inside of the windows. Still, he could not sleep. Ah. Something about the second floor seemed suspect to him. He abandoned his office, leaving behind thirty-seven messages in bottles, all drafts of a single letter that he couldn’t quite bring himself to finish. Everything on the page seemed false to him the minute it slid through the slim neck. He built fortifications on the stairs, pikes made out of sharpened coatracks bristling from the pile of desks that had taken hours to move into place. Surely you see it yourself, Bennell.

     And the basement? Something was very wrong in the basement. It was the echo of the space that set him on edge. He began to feel the same in the front corridor. He could no longer move from office to office without feeling unsafe. Open doors, even empty boxes, scared him. Within a month, he could not stand to be anywhere but the dry cleaner’s backroom. Regression, Bennell. Perhaps we will get there after all.

     All around him hung suits of clothes, draped in thin sheets of brown butcher’s paper, so close together they seemed to ride piggyback on each other, filling the room until only the small well in the middle where the chair was kept was free of them. All along the walls and in rows so close they overlapped, they huddled together, as though for warmth. They, Bennell? Did he believe them human? Their stillness, the hush of their conversation when he pushed through them to the bathroom or, less frequently, to the front room, reminded him of a public gathering. As though the whole town had convened here? Yes. For a trial? Maybe. Or perhaps for a recital? Here they all were, assembled for some reason or another, stifling their coughs and throat clearings for his benefit. When the last whisper had been quelled, he could sit down and begin.

     And so, let us begin again, Bennell. His knees were almost up to his chin: It was ridiculous, this posture, he could hardly breathe, much less recite. He wanted to shut his eyes. He could no longer remember sleep, the feeling of weightlessness, bodylessness. His hands were numb, his legs were numb, even his head was numb; all he could feel anymore was the drag of gravity upon his body, forcing him always down, pressing him to sleep, perchance to dream.

     Bennell, there will be time for sleep later. Forget dreams for now; tell us instead about waking. Tell us about the unexpected return of consciousness. Tell us about the odd twilight when the unchecked fancy of the unconscious is interrupted by the reassertion of the will. Tell us about the strain of the world coming into being. Tell us about the grains of light that fall and swirl and fix into dark constellations of surroundings. Tell us about the moment when blankets first have weight, sheets separate from blankets, a head from its pillow, an alarm clock from its nightstand. Tell us about the moment that the creeping things make themselves known, about that moment when the veil’s fog has dissipated and you can finally name them. You will rest later, Bennell. First, before you go, give us purpose. For your sake, Bennell, yours and ours, give us meaning. 

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of four books, the most recent of which is Madeleine E. (Outpost19). His fictions and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Tin House, Puerto del Sol, Post Road, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He is the editor of The Collagist.