You’re a liar. But that’s fine. Everyone is.
Parents. Friends. Policemen. Lawyers. Cashiers. Doctors--especially doctors. We don’t know anymore than you do what happens once you rattle out your last breath and go still on your pillow. We’re paid to pretend. To tell you that everything will be okay even when we know it won’t be. Nobody wants reality. Especially when they’re dying.
But I’m not here to tell you what it’s like being paid monstrous amounts of money to be a certified bullshitter. I’m here to tell you about Marshall Weather.
I was working at the psychiatric ward at St. Photini Hospital when I met Marshall. Ryan was out of a job at the time and I’d had to pull longer hours than usual that year. He kept insisting that his latest toy tinkering experiment--some type of car engine--was an eventual goldmine. Before that it’d been a new kind of bicycle. Guess there was a downside to falling for a creative type, though I told myself it was better to put up with rampant quirkiness than sullen sloth, which had been the cardinal fault of my second husband.
Psychiatry wasn’t a career I’d chosen because I felt it to be my higher calling. Rather, it appealed to my inherent laziness because my job was actually pretty simple: I lent a sympathetic ear to dying crazy people because nobody else wanted to bother, and I got to be the one to hand them drugs that jacked up their minds so they could blissfully ignore, for a few sweet hours, the bony fingers of Death curling eagerly around their throats.
I consulted my clipboard as I walked down the hallway that morning, maneuvering skillfully around bustling doctors and frazzled nurses. My first patient of the day was Marshall B. Weather, forty-three, admitted by his mother due to a history of violent behavior that had culminated in him trying to hang himself from her kitchen rafters a week ago. Next to the space on the form where the mental illness was typically identified was the untidy, familiar scrawl of Dr. Steve Pierce, head of the psychiatric ward as well as a long-time friend:
I stopped in my tracks and stared at the word for a second. Then I resumed walking, shaking my head.
Leave it to Pierce to half-ass it.
Tucking my pen behind my ear, I pushed open the door of room nine and immediately saw the patient sitting in a chair near the window. When I got a good look at him, I felt a sting of shock. Forty-three? He barely looked twenty. His boyishly round face was framed by untidy auburn hair that was lightly dusted with blond, which gleamed like broken bits of golden thread in the early spring sunshine flooding through the window. He was looking out the window, a shawl around his thin shoulders; his slippered feet hung about an inch above the ground. If he stood up, I thought he’d barely reach my shoulder--quite a notable characteristic, seeing how I was only five three. He turned towards me as I approached and his face split into a grin, revealing two rows of perfectly stacked sugar cubes. His grayish-green eyes were bright and alert, framed by a thick spray of amber lashes.
“Good morning, Doctor Pearl,” he said as I pulled a chair from the corner and set it across from him. A voice like that could make wall plaster sound erotic.
“Good morning, Marshall,” I said. “You’ve been expecting me?”
“He told me you were coming. Is Pearl your first or last name?”
“That’s my last name. My first name is Andrea. And who told you I was coming?”
“I don’t like that at all. It sounds like a sneeze. You look like a Pearl. Don’t you think people should look like their names?”
“Well, you don’t look like a Marshall.”
“Who do I look like?”
“Maybe someone who could use a friend?”
His laugh brought autumn apples to his pale cheeks.
“I bet you say that to all your loonies. By the way, will you speak to someone about cleaning up the piss around my toilet? The nurse keeps forgetting to do it and I can’t do it myself, you know. Hurt my leg when I fell after my mother cut me down from her ceiling. But even madmen are entitled to cleanliness, for God’s sake.”
I made a note on my clipboard as he spoke, and when Marshall’s eyes flashed down, I said quickly:
“Just a formality.”
“Formalities cause wars. Why do you think Rome fell? It was because some god-damned Grecian didn’t take his shoes off in the house of an important official. Though perhaps he did and his feet stank. Can you imagine? Especially in those days. I heard they crapped in the streets. Or maybe that was in Europe. I have trouble keeping dates straight. What do you think?”
“I think we all have trouble remembering things sometimes.”
“No, I mean about the crapping.”
“I’m glad it went out of fashion.”
He laughed again, swinging his feet like he was trying to kick something away from him.
“I’m probably being too judgemental, though. Aren’t we all a little diseased? Inside, at least. No. That’s not what we were talking about. What were we talking about?”
“Good Lord. Were we really?”
“What do you mean about being diseased inside, Marshall?”
“The Architect calls it ‘soul sickness.’ It’s when you’re lying in bed and staring at the ceiling and there’s no noise to distract you from your own head anymore.”
“Who’s the Architect? Friend of yours?”
“Are they here right now? I’d like to meet them.”
My pen, ready for diagnostic action, hovered eagerly over my clipboard. Marshall licked his lips, his eyes searching my face. Then he smiled.
“You can scratch off Multiple Personality Identity, or whatever the hell you people call it now. No, I know that’s what you’re doing, so don’t bother,” he added, waving his hand and scattering the automatic protests that had sprung to my lips. “And don’t worry about the Architect. I have no doubt you’ll meet him eventually. Though not through me, and not until you lose a few marbles.”
“‘We’re all mad here.’ Who said that? But where’s your pendant, Doctor?”
“What?” I said, startled into looking up from my clipboard.
“The pearl pendant your father gave you.”
I sat rigid and cold for what felt like several years. Then I said tersely:
“I lost it a long time ago. Who told you about my pendent, Marshall?”
“The Architect mentioned it. Does that piss smell from the bathroom bother you? I really wish they’d keep things up around here.”
“This Architect presumes to know me pretty well, then,” I said.
“Well he’s pretty presumptuous.”
“Why does he call himself the Architect?”
“Because thinks he created everything.”
“Where is he from?”
“Oh, nowhere and everywhere.”
“Does he ever tell you to do things?”
“Is this your way of leading up to asking me why I tried to hang myself?”
“We don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.”
He grinned, his eyes shimmering at me like jade-green water in the sun. “We can talk about whatever you like, doctor.”
“Did you ever try to hurt yourself before, Marshall?”
“If you’re counting jumping off the roof of my dad’s car when I was little. I was practicing a tuck and roll I’d seen Bruce Willis do on TV once. That was the day I learned Hollywood was full of shit. I tried to hang myself because I I wanted to stop the thoughts.”
“What kinds of thoughts?”
He scratched his nose and gazed absently out the window.
“Oh, I imagine they’re just like yours. Insistent, blithering, mental squawking that reminds us of our own misery, day in and day out. Like the constant whining of a deformed infant. Dying is the only way to make them shut up.”
After a few seconds of silence, I said cautiously:
“Did the Architect tell you to hang yourself?”
“Nobody told me to do it.” He looked offended at the question.
“How long have you been hearing the Architect, Marshall?”
“That’s not the right question.”
“The real question is how long he has been speaking to me. Though I think the favorite theory is that he doesn’t. Isn’t that insipid? If he wasn’t, why would I hear him?”
“Have you ever seen him?”
“Maybe you’ll never meet the Architect after all, Pearl,” he said ruefully. “I don’t think you have any imagination.”
“What does imagination have to do with the Architect?”
“They say this place houses madmen,” Marshall muttered, appearing not to hear my question. “Except the madmen are the ones with the clipboards.”
“When did you first meet the Architect?” I said. My voice sounded louder than I’d intended. I was starting to feel like a fly pinned beneath an unapologetic thumb.
“I was visiting my mother near Oliver’s Mount. Ever been? It’s a shithole. But Mom’s neighborhood isn’t bad. I went for a walk and the tulip trees were blooming, and as I looked at them I thought about how I hadn’t seen her for a very long time and how nice it was that things were finally okay between us. They hadn’t been for a while. Later I was sorry I used her rafters to hang myself. She took it personally. Why do women do that? It was just convenient.” He scratched his chin. “What was I talking about again?”
“The tulip trees.”
“Thanks. Let’s see. I was mulling about this stuff and then everything grew very still inside of me. That was him.”
“Did you experience any other symptoms? Shortness of breath? Dizziness?”
“It was simply absolute interior stillness,” he said dreamily, his eyes fixed on my face but looking beyond to something else. I suddenly felt naked. “It’s like being inserted in a bubble. Time froze in time. But I don’t think you understand at all.”
Marshall took a moment to indignantly adjust the shawl around his shoulders.
“Pearl, do you prefer unpleasant truth or pleasant delusion?” he said.
“Pleasant delusion,” I said. I was surprised at how easily the answer came to my lips, like oil slipping from a bottle.
“Because without it I’d be out of a job.”
He laughed and clapped his hands.
“Perhaps he’ll come to you after all.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. I was ten minutes late to my next patient visit.
“I’m terribly sorry, Marshall, but I have other patients to see. However, I’d like to come and see you again next weel. Would that be okay?”
“I’ll try to be here.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Do you plan on being somewhere else?”
“One never knows. Do you tease your husband, Pearl?”
“Men like to be fools. Nothing’s worth chasing if you don’t feel at least a little stupid doing it. If the hubby can’t treat you right--well, I’d tell you to look me up, but I doubt I’d be much of an improvement from Ryan. I can’t even piss when I want.”
“I think your current residency would pose a bit of a problem for a long-term relationship.”
As I stood up to leave, something suddenly occurred to me and I turned back to him curiously.
“How did you know his name, Marshall?”
“Who, your husband? Oh, I don’t---wait.” He stiffened. He remained still for so long that I grew alarmed and reached for the door to call into the hallway for help. But then he relaxed, his body loosening in the chair like melting wax. “Forgive me. The man you’re currently living with isn’t your husband, though you’ve had two before, isn’t that right? My God, it’s no wonder I’m here. I can’t keep anything straight, can I?”
He shrugged good-naturedly. I stared at him. I felt the color draining from my face. The silence that followed seeped through the room like water through a canvas sack. Finally I turned away.
“Goodbye, Marshall. “
“He says to check the utensils, Doctor.”
I shut the door without answering. I was done with his nonsense. I could hear Marshall laughing through the door.
* * * * *
I was in the middle of cooking an omelet the next morning when Dr. Pierce called and told me that Marshall Weather was dead. I don’t know how long I stood at the stove without answering, but the reeking odor of burning eggs and fried cheese snapped me back to life.
“He didn’t get hold of rope, did he?” I said as I dumped my ruined breakfast into the sink.
“No, nothing like that. We think it was a heart attack. He’s in a better place now.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Isn’t that just something you say?” He chuckled. “I liked him. So did the nurses. He didn’t seem like the usual sort we see around here.”
“I think he felt sorry for me.”
“For you? No, that goes in fifty-three. Look, Andrea, I’ve got to go. We’re going to try and contact some family members this week. Let me know if you need anything.”
As I hung up, I looked down and saw that some pieces of fried egg had fallen on the countertop. Still thinking about Marshall, I walked over to the drawer that doubled as my towel and silverware storage and pulled it open. Something rolled and flashed from among the polished forks.
I felt as if something was rushing down on me. My lost pearl pendant was winking up at me from a pile of cluttered utensils.
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