By Much Slothfulness
Windy. It seemed the wind would shake trees from their roots. Milan imagined a nearby ancient oak torn from its spot, careening across the square toward the corner coffee shop. He couldn’t recall why he’d chosen this faded green park bench. Milan never sat on park benches. He was never interested in merely watching people go about their routines. He was a doer, not a watcher, a maker not a taker. Before it started.
Six hours ago he’d walked into the waiting room in the neurology department of Lakeside Lutheran Clinic. He waited. He shifted in his chair, hearing the hum of office life, a receptionist’s singsong voice making appointments over the phone, patients breathing anxiety. He laughed to himself thinking of each patient with a nametag, like you wear at a high school class reunion, but instead of a name, a symptom. In Milan’s case, it would have taken a big nametag with room enough for words like: debilitating migraines, dizziness, a numbing roar in the ears. At first the experts thought he had severe tinnitus, but to Milan it sounded like a giant truck engine revving in some deep hellish garage. And what had doctors said for two years? Precisely what the doctor at Lakeside Lutheran told him.
The doctor had given him test after test. Tests came like waves rolling over him. Neurological examination, blood test, spinal tap, CT scan, MRI. Tests punctuated by concerned pauses, raised eyebrows, nurses saying, “How are you today, Mr. Remick?”—to which he couldn’t find an answer. What should he say? He felt as if he should apologize. A tall, broad-shouldered man who looked like he could work for a week without stopping shouldn’t be in the doctor’s office. He felt like a penitent on his knees seeking absolution for his phantom illness.
After six hours under the close scrutiny of machines, he sat for a final consultation, a kind of exit interview with the doctor. She had long, elegant fingers and pale nail polish, the color of a marble tomb. Her speech was clipped, almost military, thought Milan. “We’ve exhausted every resource we have, Mr. Remick. Your symptoms match no known illness.”
Milan smiled grimly. His life was tethered to an acronym. He had MUS, Medically Unexplained Symptoms. How many doctors had used that phrase? He couldn’t count them.
Milan stared at the ceiling. “Of all the damned acronyms …”
“Nothing, Doctor. Thank you for your help.”
* * *
From the clinic he walked to the bus stop. His wife, Elise, had insisted she would drive him, but Sonja had been sick with a sore throat and high fever. Elise had stayed home to care for their sick daughter, and she needed their car in case Sonja’s fever got worse. He thought of getting a lift from someone, but most of his friends had drifted away—or he’d drifted from them—and he felt guilty bothering them. They had work to do, or they had to work looking for work. He’d taken an early morning bus instead, a three-hour ride on the Interstate.
Now he waited alone in the square, the doctor’s last words still on his mind. The sharp cold wind whipped his wavy black hair. It felt like a raging November squall, even though it was only early September, a little more than two years since Milan’s accident. The bus would stop at the far end of the square, but that wouldn’t be for another hour, and so he turned up the frayed collar of his blue Baracuta jacket and opened a newspaper he’d bought in the hospital gift shop.
He looked at the headlines. The Candidate had spoken in a nearby city the day before. Large crowds greeted him. The Candidate had said many things. How he would heal the nation. How he would be a caring president. How he respected the flag and Constitution. How he would bring down the wrath of God on his enemies.
The Candidate gave a talk show interview after his speech. He played to his listenership, people with hatred in their hearts and money in their pockets. He said the country is already fighting four wars, and there will be more to come. Terrible wars, boots-on-the-ground wars in which either the enemy or the homeland will be exterminated. Doctors’ resources would be strained to the limit. They would have to concentrate on those who needed most attention. A triage mentality. They could no longer bother with trivial complaints, phantom pain, ghosted symptoms. The country would need more doctors and nurses, more supplies, more hospital beds; medical staffs would be pushed to their limit. There would be no let-up of broken bodies because the enemy was ruthless, fighting with weapons that killed but just as often maimed and disfigured. And what would he do to free up overworked medical facilities to meet the coming storms?
The Candidate had never addressed the question directly, but for the first time yesterday that changed. Or had it? Milan read the words, then re-read them. As if he were an archaeologist poring over newly discovered hieroglyphics. For months he’d followed The Candidate’s pronouncements about healing those who really needed healing, with an emphasis on “really” so strong it gave italics an otherworldly character. He’d assumed most of The Candidate’s musings were theater rather than policy. He knew dark visions lurked inside The Candidate’s “really,” but he’d also hoped it might lead to new public health initiatives, new ways of helping those growing numbers of people with painful but undiagnosed ailments. After all, his father-in-law, a good man, a fair man, swore by The Candidate.
Had something more sinister now crawled out from under The Candidate’s words?
The newspaper ran an excerpt of the interview.
Interviewer: “So you would make this one of your primary policy goals?”
The Candidate: “I would issue an executive order soon after I took office.”
Interviewer: “Can you provide details?”
The Candidate: “Job Number One would be to address the growing problem of the undiagnosed. To, ah, whittle this group down to a manageable size.”
The Candidate: “In our country today, there are many people whose alleged illnesses cannot be diagnosed by our finest medical minds. I was a doctor for 30 years before deciding to enter public service, and I can say that we have the best doctors and nurses, the most sophisticated medical technologies in the world—as befits the greatest nation in world history. It is painful for me to say it, but I have to conclude that these undiagnosed people have created a health care crisis. They cost our economy millions of dollars every day.”
Interviewer: “How do you explain that?”
The Candidate: “Oh, well, experts give many reasons. Environment. Stress. Economic insecurity. I find all this doubtful. The problem is a sickness of the soul. One must question the motives of these individuals who, yes, I think I have to say this, are preying on our medical staff and ordinary folks’ willingness to tolerate unproductivity. They are taking advantage of the country’s generosity, taking advantage of a guilt-ridden government eager to condone their behavior.”
Interviewer: “They’re faking it, then? Our victim culture has led people to imagine ailments they don’t have, or if they have them, they’re unwilling to overcome them? And what would you do with such professional victims? That’s what we’re talking about, isn’t it? People who live off victimhood.”
The Candidate: “I would follow the dictates of my faith. ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through.’ That’s Ecclesiastes 10:18. And: ‘For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers … whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses … they are always liars, evil beasts, slow bellies.’ Those last passages I cite from Titus, and their implications are clear. We must stop the deceivers’ mouths, see to it that our country not be destroyed ‘by much slothfulness.’”
Interviewer: “Thank you for your time, sir.”
* * *
There had been better times, though they felt like they had taken place on a distant island, something Milan had read about in National Geographic. On some days, when noise and pain between his ears settled to a dull matte finish rather than glowing yellow, he made an effort to form images of the past in his mind.
He’d worked for the best roofing firm in St. Joseph, a small town in southwestern Michigan. The owner hired him because he’d been impressed with Milan’s technique. Milan had learned roofing from his cousin Anton, who’d always used a hammer because nail guns were for guys who only wanted a paycheck rather than for real artisans. Milan with his hammer was almost as fast as the gunners and much more accurate.
He fell in love with Elise, the boss’s daughter, sharp-witted, raven-haired, petite, amber eyes drawn through blue film. Elise kept accounts for the roofing business, sometimes accompanied her father inspecting work sites. She knew more about the business than her father did. Milan had noticed her on his fourth day of work, asked her out a week later. On their first date, she’d said, “You have beautiful brown eyes,” which made Milan smile. Then she said, “You’re a man I could make babies with,” which caused a different reaction. They were married once Elise began showing.
Two years ago he’d spent a day at the beach with Elise and Sonja, just 4 years old. It was an August afternoon on Lake Michigan, Silver Beach, and Sonja built sand castles. Elise wore a skimpy red bikini, and Milan ached with desire. Milan lost himself in daydreams as he and Elise stretched out on a blanket not far from Sonja. They fell asleep. After what seemed like hours, Milan awoke and felt a northwest breeze. Typical of Lake Michigan, where winds changed instantly, and hot August could become cool May in minutes.
He turned to check on Sonja, who was nowhere to be seen. “Sonja!”
Elise stood up, shocked out of a sunburnt haze.
Then he saw her, some 50 feet from shore. My God, he thought. He slammed into the water, powerful legs, muscular arms. How did she end up out there? Was there a riptide? Her chubby arms flailed, he could hear a gurgling scream. When he reached Sonja, her face was in the water, legs no longer kicking, arms floating like fleshy strands of seaweed. He grabbed herOh, no, it can’t beand paddled toward shore.
A medical student had been nearby, seen it all, waited on the shore. Flurried movements, Elise on her knees, muttering, “Oh, Mary, mother of God, save my little girl.” Sonja sputtered, retched, and bystanders let out a collective sigh that took in the day’s warmth and let it flow back out over the young couple and their daughter.
Days later, Milan was up on a roof. He’d sent everyone home for the day, but Milan wanted to finish shingling a section. Elise, her father, his friends—they all said he should take a few days off. He’d been shaken by the incident. The doctors said there would be no after-effects, Sonja was a healthy girl, and would have only a vague memory of her brush with death. Elise called Milan “my hero,” and he felt as powerful as the sky. Yet in the next days his stomach was a battlefield, his heart raced, his hands shook. Getting back to work would do him good, and he showed up at the site, ready.
He’d not connected his harness even though he’d been the one whod nailed in the safety brackets earlier that day. He didn’t want anything to slow him down, and if his crew didn’t see him violate his own safety rules, then no one would be the wiser. He was so close to finishing the job, and tomorrow they had to install soffit vents. It was a beautiful house, big and modern, in a neighborhood where lawyers, doctors, and corporate executives lived. Elise’s father had felt triumphant when they’d landed the job and assigned his best crew, with Milan, who’d only just turned 25, as foreman.
He worked intensely, sweating, but not breathing hard, in as good a shape as he’d ever been. His black hair glistened in the late afternoon light. He was young, lean, eager—thankful for Sonja’s life, thankful for Elise, happy to have a job that let him see the sky, feel the wind. Happy to be given a responsibility usually reserved for older roofers.
His mind driftedhe thought of sun and sand and a baby floating head down in water. He thought of everything that could have happened, what could still happen. How every day he left his family, any number of disasters could befall them. Milan shook his head. He needed to clear his mind.
A few seconds, and the world changed. He slipped, grabbed at the aluminum gutter, which bent away from the roof like a stick of licorice. Two stories down, and the asphalt driveway’s impact left him speechless, but he was lucky the owner saw his fall and called an ambulance. By the time he heard sirens and saw blue lights flashing in early evening light, he had been borne away by a cloud of blinding pain.
Two back operations later, his roofing days were over, and he sat at a desk in his father-in-law’s office, doing work that Elise had first done before she’d become accounts manager. The doctors said he could have been killed, but other than his injured back, they could find nothing wrong with him. No concussion, no permanent damage to his neck. If he did flexibility exercises and avoided undue stress on his back, the doctors said he would lead a normal life, more or less. The numbness in his legs would go away, as would his slight limp. But what of his dizziness and the barbed rumble in his ears? What about the migraines, knotted like steely braids as he lay, unmoving and isolated, in a dark room? Were those the more or the less, Doc? His doctor ordered more tests, which became like ritual incantations: what doctors did when they touched explicability’s limits.
Soon the drone in his head became louder and the pain appeared first here, then there. “Oh, poor Daddy, you have peek-a-boo pain,” said Sonja in her big-girl nurse’s voice when Milan told her why her tall strong father needed several naps a day. After months of wrestling with the ghostly presence of an illness that would not be named, he quit his job even though his father-in-law was willing to keep him on, willing to look the other way when he fell behind with paperwork, willing even to ignore a bottle of Jack Daniels in the bottom drawer of his desk. Yet his father-in-law’s graciousness came layered with harm. He’d become a vocal supporter of The Candidate, whod appeared months before in the political sky like a newly discovered comet. “Loafers and free riders need to be dealt with,” his father-in-law had said in an offhand comment Milan overheard.
Was Milan one of the loafers? The question was like gravity: nailing everything he did to the ground. Reminding him he was no longer the man he once was. Even Elise couldn’t deny the force of gravity. Before long she began turning away when he fell, whisky-aided, into bed at 3 in the morning.
* * *
Milan decided he would never to go to another doctor, never feel the humiliation of being unclassified in the vast universe of medical knowledge. He canceled all his appointments, threw away his pain pills (all the medication he needed could be had in a bottle), dumped printouts and medical journals he’d collected on illnesses that seemed related to what he felt. Maybe The Candidate was right. Time to end the culture of victimhood where it started: with each individual.
In the support group Elise insisted he go to, which consisted of other people with rare or unnamed illnesses with no known treatments, they said they had good and bad days, as if each day could be labeled, as if this naming of a day’s quality was compensation for the un-naming of their illnesses. But for Milan each day was the same: like stale beer. Not even Elise’s voice could bring a day alive.
Some days he felt as if he wasn’t there. He played with Sonja, but was that man Milan the roofer, father of this girl? He slept in bed with Elise, but they hadn’t made love for nearly a year, and each night she called to say she had to work longer, he feared she’d found someone else, someone whole, strong, alive. He fixed dinner for little Sonja, was saddened by how her laughter failed to make him happy. He watched her eat, hardly touched what little he’d put on his plate, saved a large helping for Elise, which he covered in cellophane and placed in the refrigerator. He thought of his mouth wrapped in cellophane, his breath fogging the clear material.
One night when Elise worked late, he turned on the TV after he’d read Sonja a story and tucked her in. The Candidate gave his first news conference after a landslide victory in the presidential election. His supporters were jubilant, fixing for a fight. They’d spent more than a year calling out enemies during the campaign. Whom to lash out at first? They were drunk with choices.
“Are you determined to move quickly in your first 100 days?” asked a reporter.
“Definitely,” said The Candidate, beaming. “My first action will be to get you folks to stop calling me The Candidate.”
General laughter, a forest of hands raised, bright TV lights, then someone from the back. “What should we call you?”
“The Healer.” Murmurs of approbation rippled through the room.
“What will your second action be?” This from a tall woman in the front row.
The Healer paused and gave the reporter his pearliest smile. “I will follow through on what I’ve promised.”
A hush in the room. Cameras stopped clicking. Someone raised a hand, but then pulled it down, as if ashamed to trivialize the moment. A few scribbled, but most reporters stared straight ahead, as if the man standing at the podium had power to command their breathing.
“Undocumented immigrants will be deported immediately.”
Heads down, scribbling, cameras popping again.
“The unemployed who do not ‘suffer’”—The Healer raised his hands and made scare quotes in the air—“from undiagnosed ailments will be parceled out to various work projects, depending on the needs of industry. They will be confined in temporary dormitories.”
More cameras, more pens scratching paper.
The Healer surveyed the room, then raised his hands, palms turned upward, a priestly gesture. “The undiagnosed …” The Healer’s voice trailed off, as if a vision had occurred to him.
“The names of the undiagnosed will be collected and entered into a nationwide lottery on the basis of birthdate. Doctor-patient privacy laws are hereby suspended for the duration of this operation. Lottery selections will determine when undiagnosed individuals will appear at federal law enforcement facilities for processing.”
“And then?” asked an older man near the back of the room.
The Healer glared into the lights, shielded his eyes with his hand. He flashed a smile. “That’s it for today, gentlemen,” he said, and after stepping away from the podium he stopped, returned to the microphone, and added, “and gentlewomen, too.”
* * *
Milan Remick had a howling windstorm in his head. He could no longer sleep in the same bed with Elise because he could hardly sleep. When he did steal a few hours he slept on the couch. One night he woke up and saw Sonja standing in front of him dangling her teddy bear, Reginald. “Sonja,” he said, and reached out, but no one was there. Another night he saw Elise on their wedding day. She looked stunning in her wedding gown, and he lifted the veil to kiss her but saw a man’s smirking face, one of the doctors who had pronounced him hale and hearty.
In May, he received an official-looking envelope in the mail. His hands shook as his ripped open the letter. Elise, grim-faced, stood at the kitchen counter. It was his lottery number and a lapel pin he was to display on his clothing at all times when in public. The metal pin was a red flag, almost two inches long and an inch high, in the middle of which a bright blue U stood outlined in white. Undiagnosed who failed to display their pins in public were subject to fines and, for repeat offenders, imprisonment. Undiagnosed were ordered to report weekly at special agencies set up to monitor them. They had to apply for travel outside city limits. The restrictions went on for two pages, and Milan couldn’t read any longer.
Elise wiped the counter with a sponge, as if she could sweep everything away with a damp piece of polyurethane. “Do they give you a date for processing?”
“July 30. So, more than two months from now.”
Milan pinned the U to his denim shirt. The flag felt heavy, pulling at the fabric. He raised his arms in a triumphant pose. “Ta-da!” Elise frowned.
“You always said I needed to improve my wardrobe.”
Elise threw the sponge in the sink and hurried out of the kitchen.
* * *
Milan and Elise knew very little about what was meant by “processing” the undiagnosed. All they could determine was that after people reported on the appointed date, they disappeared into an ever-growing bureaucracy, and families received a form letter indicating their loved one had been relocated for “specialized handling.” One by one, members of Milan’s support group failed to appear for weekly meetings. Milan had been a haphazard participant in the group, especially in the last six months when his pounding headaches and roaring ears had made it difficult to follow a conversation. But since he’d received his U he attended regularly in hopes of getting more information.
One member, Charlene, a woman with chronic fatigue, said that the undiagnosed were not being sent to camps but rather given lethal injections of painkillers. How did she know? She shrugged her shoulders, as if too tired to answer. Another member, Randy, was an enthusiastic supporter of the new order. He said that Charlene was not only undiagnosed but also unbalanced. It was more likely they would be sent to special camps. “They’ll help us help ourselves,” said Randy.
Newspaper accounts were vague, but most media outlets expressed confidence that government policies were progressive and therapeutic. The undiagnosed would be rehabilitated through good old hard work, faith, and tough love. Milan listened to every newscast, pored over every newspaper story, surfed every website. He analyzed them like a fortune-teller studying a creased palm. Some reporters assumed the undiagnosed would be reprogrammed to rid them of the specter of illness. One talking head said their treatment could be likened to an exorcism. A government official was asked how long the undiagnosed would be interned; he only shook his head and smiled.
The Healer’s popularity skyrocketed. Larger-than-life portraits of the man’s smiling face appeared at grocery stores, on buses, on giant billboards. The Healer showed up in Milan’s dreams at first, then his nightmares. His speeches spurred ordinary people’s aggressiveness toward real and presumed enemies. The world was awash in evildoers.
The undiagnosed engendered unusually hateful criticism because they were difficult to identify. Hence the need for badges. But what if they didn’t wear them? So asked one pundit Milan heard on a late night cable news show. Yes, yes, there were few reports of noncompliance, but wasn’t the danger still always present, like voter fraud? What could be more threatening than a lazy, misery-laden foe who avoided detection and looked so damned normal? And weren’t the malingerers and sufferers of imaginary ills as much a threat to the nation as those who sold secrets to the enemy? Weren’t even more draconian measures needed to deal with the danger?
The Healer inspired people. Rotary clubs, Boy Scouts, church groups, book clubs—all got into the struggle against slothfulness. There was a Citizens Against Indolence group, funded by a billionaire, who demanded that workers with undiagnosed ailments be removed from their jobs. They were taking too much sick leave, exploiting bosses, damaging morale. Healthy people, who by definition would make greater contributions even if they were less qualified, were to replace them. When one of the group’s flyers showed up in his mailbox, Milan tore the glossy pamphlet into tiny pieces and scattered them like confetti on the living room floor as Sonja danced and laughed. Elise chewed her fingernails and managed a thin smile.
* * *
A muggy afternoon in June, and Milan rode a bus just for the hell of riding. He had no destination, and he needed a respite from living inside a whisky bottle. He’d been riding for 45 minutes. The air conditioning had broken down and even though everyone had their windows open, the breeze only added to the stifling heat and thick smell of sweat. Milan had seen a man some rows ahead of him who also wore a red flag with a bright blue U. Across from the man were two teens, one short and stocky with a flaming red mohawk cut on a diagonal across the top of his head, the other tall and wiry with black hair down to his shoulders and several rings in his nose and ears. Trouble, thought Milan, eying the two teens. Trouble times 10.
As the bus rumbled on, the boys began to make comments about the man with the U.
“Fuckin’ freeloader stinks worse than an onion,” said the one with the diagonal mohawk. “More like my old man’s farts.”
“Like goddamned road kill,” said the one with the rings.
“Hey, what the fuck, you ever take a bath, man?” Diagonal Mohawk’s voice was high and whiny.
The man adjusted his thick black-rimmed glasses and read his book.
“Naw, he’s too sick to take a bath, man,” said the other teen. “He has to wait for his old lady to give him a fuckin’ sponge bath, huh? Too sick to do it himself, so his old lady does it for him. Does she give you a little handjob in the process, huh, man?”
The two boys laughed and snorted, giving each other high fives. “Hold it, hold it,” said Diagonal Mohawk. “He can’t fuckin’ have his old lady do the handjob ’cause he can’t get it up, huh? He’s too sick, man.”
“Let’s see if he can get it up, eh?” said the other, now standing in the aisle and staring down at the reading man, who had not once looked up.
The boy knocked the book away from the man, who raised his shoulders as if expecting a blow. He leaned to his right against the passenger seated next to the window. The passenger, an older woman, pushed him back toward the aisle as if to register her unwillingness to be involved.
Milan had heard of crowds attacking undiagnosed people at sporting events and other public venues, but the news reports were sketchy, and some suggested the undiagnosed had provoked incidents. He’d become accustomed to suspicious looks at the gas station or pharmacy. He’d met old friends or coworkers on the street, and he’d seen their initial friendliness fade as they noticed his U. But he was surprised by such unprovoked aggression in public toward someone wearing the bright blue U. Had he been naïve?
By now both boys were standing in the aisle and hovering over the man. Diagonal Mohawk had picked up the man’s book from the floor and started ripping out page after page. In his rearview mirror, the driver watched but said nothing. He acted like it was none of his business. Maybe he hated the undiagnosed as much as these thugs did.
Milan saw the man’s glasses slide down the aisle as his head jerked to the side. The teen with the rings had hit him with a lightning-quick punch. As the man put his hands to his face to avoid another blow, Diagonal Mohawk hoisted him by the shoulders while the other ripped the blue U from the man’s T-shirt. Diagonal Mohawk held up his prize to inspect it, then took the pin and attached it to the man’s blue jeans at the crotch. “That’s where the thing should go anyway, don’t you think, buddy?” Diagonal Mohawk turned his whimpering victim round and round in the aisle, putting him on display. None of the passengers looked as their heads bobbed and swayed to bus-ride rhythms. The driver drove.
From his pocket Diagonal Mohawk took a bronze-colored object and fit it over his fist. Brass knuckles. Swiftly he brought his metallic fist down on the back of the man’s head and sent him sprawling on his stomach toward the back of the bus. He landed a few feet away from Milan, who could see blood ooze from a large gash on the man’s head.
For a moment, the raging sea of sound in Milan’s head subsided. Whenever such respites occurred, Milan felt he needed to exploit them before evil spirits re-occupied his mind. With his calloused hands Milan grasped the seat in front of him and stood up. The bus turned a corner and accelerated into a straight strip of road with few stops. Milan stepped over the bleeding man, who was moaning in pain but otherwise still, and strode toward the thugs, who were high-fiving and laughing as they stood in the aisle. As he approached, the one with the rings looked surprised. Then a smile creased his thin face as he noticed Milan’s lapel pin. “Hey, man, whaddya know, another faker steppin’ up to take his medicine.”
Milan had lost bulk in the years since his injury, but he knew he was still stronger than these two. He stood before the thugs, who despite their bluster weren’t sure what to do with a new victim. Unlike the other bus riders, he didn’t lower his head and ignore them but instead stood, daring them to act. Milan grasped the overhead stirrup and smiled. He could hear everything around him without static—the clattering bus, a nervous cough from one of the passengers, moans from the injured man.
Milan had once wielded a hammer like an extension of his powerful arms and shoulders. It had been hard work, nothing for the fainthearted, and dangerous. Roofers had among the highest fatality rates of all professions, higher than police officers, and some companies cut corners, putting inexperienced workers up on the roofs, exposing them to injury and death. But it had been his work, his tools, his life, and he had been very good at it. He’d done it since he was 17, just out of high school, and he’d once thought he’d work as a roofer until he was 60.
Milan let go of the stirrup and stood with his feet wide apart as he steadied himself against the bus’s jerky motions. As if to repeat the arc of a hammer pounding a nail, Milan brought his big fist down into the middle of Diagonal Mohawk’s smirk. Several yellowed teeth sprayed into the laps of nearby passengers. Milan felt a sharp gash of pain in his knuckle, but he felt more than compensated by seeing the thug jerk back, clutching his face. He dropped to his knees in the aisle, blood snaking between his fingers. Milan turned to the other assailant, whose face froze in terror. Milan could see this one would give him no trouble.
He turned his back on the two teens. Passengers stole looks at him as he walked down the aisle. The bus swayed and rattled, the driver still glanced in his rear view mirror. Milan kneeled by the injured man, but saw now there was no help for him. “Sorry, man,” he said out loud. “I was too little, too late.” The man had no pulse, and the blood around his head had become a large black pool from which tiny rivulets flowed. When the bus accelerated, the blood moved toward the back, and when it stopped, dark red ribbons streamed up the aisle toward the thugs.
“Someone call the police,” Milan yelled. “I don’t have a cellphone. This man’s dead, if anyone cares to know.” He glared ahead at the bus driver, the only set of eyes with which he could make contact.
Milan thought for a moment about his next move. In normal times, Milan would have waited for the police and given witness against the murderers. If the two teens had tried to escape, Milan would have given pursuit. These were not normal times. He’d heard that the undiagnosed were well advised to steer clear of the law, even if they’d done nothing wrong. Some police departments kept special files on undiagnosed citizens, and if they came into contact with one of them, they would take matters into their own hands by doling out beatings. Less than a week ago, Milan had heard rumors that one beating went too far and police dumped the badly disfigured corpse of an undiagnosed person in a warehouse on the outskirts of town. Yet if he exited the bus, could he rely on one of the other passengers to inform police of the truth? Of course he couldn’t. As for the murderers, they would say they were attacked and Milan was an accomplice. Once the police saw his bright blue U, Milan knew whose side the cops would take.
Milan got off at a bus stop five miles from home. No one, not even the driver, looked at Milanexcept for the teen with piercings, who instead of helping his prostrate friend, glared at Milan from his seat. Milan wondered why the teen didn’t force the driver to stop so he could make a run for it. But it began to make sense once he considered that most passengers no doubt sympathized with the thugs. Milan connected the dots: he was being allowed a silent escape from the bus as long as he didn’t cause more trouble. Some may have thought they were being charitable to him.
Light rain tapped out a steady drumbeat on the bus-stop roof just as an all-too-familiar pounding returned to Milan’s head. On the corner 200 feet away was a liquor store. In a few minutes Milan returned to the bus stop, bottle in hand, and sat under the roof as rain became steadier. When he’d reached an appropriate state of numbness, he staggered from the stop even though rain was coming in waves. He felt strangely distant from what had just happened. He’d had a few moments of pain-free clarity, but an innocent man had died, a man like him, and two thugs would go free. Milan’s intervention might result in a visit to the dentist for the kid with the mohawk, nothing more.
* * *
July 30 crept closer as Elise and Milan discussed their options. They could drive away, head for North Dakota or Montana—though not Canada, because international borders were closed to those with undiagnosed illnesses. If they did set out for the West, what would they live on? Their money wouldn’t last forever. Nor would their car, an older model Ford SUV with bad tires and warped brake drums. Or Milan could show up on the 30th for processing and hope for the best.
Elise had told him she’d heard rumors at work. The undiagnosed had written back to family members saying they were fine. Life was hard, but they felt useful working every day, and their ailments were fading, thanks to re-education efforts and “true-grit” therapy sessions. But Elise was an optimist, thought Milan, so she would grasp at such information. And her father had been talking to her.
Despite all the angles and Milan’s doubts, Elise and Milan agreed that the safest thing, the best thing for the family, was to show up for processing. It would be hard, but who knew? Maybe it really was for the best. Maybe his father-in-law was right. Something had to be done to free him from more years of pain.
Milan never mentioned the incident on the bus to Elise.
* * *
Several days before his date with the authorities, Milan found himself at home alone, as he had so many times in the past two years. Sonja was at school, Elise at work. Lately Milan had cut down on his drinking. If he was going to go to boot camp (or was it a concentration camp?), then he had better get in shape. Despite dizziness and a constant drone in his head, he’d started working out. Nothing too strenuous—his back could take only so much. But he was able to do some pushups and even jog a few laps around the neighborhood. He knew the routes where he could avoid the small vigilante gangs that had formed to attack the undiagnosed.
He felt unusually strong this morning. He’d started sleeping better, and lately he’d considered going back in the bedroom to sleep with Elise. But maybe she’d become accustomed to sleeping alone? The weather was already warm, and forecasters predicted high humidity and late-afternoon showers. He liked to run in the humidity. He needed to get a good sweat on, feel like he’d pushed himself. If the headaches came, he’d try to run through them.
He started slowly, anticipating a long run. The other day he’d managed two miles, which didn’t sound like much for a man in his 20s, but hell, the last two years had taken their toll. He ran out of their neighborhood, which consisted mostly of modest three-bedroom homes with neat lawns and gardens. Milan had kept up with his yard work as much as possible, but it was unsatisfying. He wanted to get on a roof, wield a hammer, direct a crew with a deadline, step back from the job and say, “Well done.”
There were times up on a roof when he’d looked out over a neighborhood and felt he could spread his arms and fly. It didn’t matter if he was weighed down with a heavy tool belt and attached to a safety rope. The sensation of being above everything, even if it was just a one-story house, was exhilarating. He’d imagined skimming treetops, touching down on every roof he’d worked on, just to check on shingle wear, on flashing and counter-flashing around a chimney, on gutters. He’d check for possible problem spots, signs of leaks or hail damage, areas that might be prone to ice dams in the winter. He’d do a thorough check-up, just as doctors had probed and examined him so many times, finding nothing, or finding everything and not knowing what to call it. Medically Unexplained Symptoms, indeed. He, on the other hand, Milan the Roofing Man, would know exactly what to call something when he saw a problem. And he’d know how to fix it.
To be up on a roof again, working in the hot sun—surely that was possible. Surely his workdays couldn’t have come to an end when he was in the prime of his life. The experts had to be wrong, just as family and friends had to be wrong. Milan Remick was not finished. Was The Healer listening? Milan Remick was not finished. Even his loved ones didn’t know who he really was, didn’t understand the depth of his need for work, for hard physical labor, for work that put him in touch with his physical powers, showed him his limits and then how to surpass them. His world, his being, consisted of doing, achieving, making. Up on the roof.
He jogged. The more he perspired, the more he thought of his work and how his life had consisted of bringing home a good paycheck, feeling he’d earned it, enjoying the admiring gazes of men in his crew. And since he didn’t gloat or brag—“a man who brags has to,” his father had said—his crew respected his superiority, recognized his strength and skill. Hell, everything he did after the fall wasn’t worth gum stuck on the sole of his shoe. He wasn’t good at pushing papers, and he could barely lean over to tie his shoes without having to sit and let the thunder in his head fade.
As Milan ran, he took notice of the houses he’d worked on. He’d lost track of how many there were. There’s one now, he thought, as he passed a handsome, two-story brick home with nickel-gray shingles. And another, a low-slung modern thing with a green metal roof. The metal roofs were tricky because they were slippery, even in dry weather, and you had to attach your safety brackets just so. There was another one, a rust-colored roof on a lean ranch-style home. He remembered the older couple that lived there, empty nesters, nice folks who saw that the crew had plenty of fresh water and even an afternoon tray of sandwiches the wife made—“just so you boys can keep up your strength,” she’d said shyly.
He found himself heading toward Lakefront Bluff, beyond which Silver Beach could be seen. Why not? He could rest on the beach for 15 minutes, then head back. If the pounding in his skull was too bad, he could catch a bus, or maybe get a taxi. No, not a taxi. A bright blue U on a T-shirt made you an untouchable with taxi drivers, who treated the undiagnosed like a black man at midnight: sorry, this taxi is reserved.
It was 10 in the morning and there were already a small number of sunbathers on the beach. Milan remembered his teenage years, and how on weekends he and his pals would get to the beach about this time, ready for a day of hanging out and watching girls. Just as before, the girls on the beach today were tanned and laughing, they stretched out, wearing almost nothing, on multicolored towels. They reminded him of Elise.
Milan sat on the beach and felt the sun, rising ever higher in the sky. He took off his jogging shoes and socks, felt the fine silver-gray sand between his toes. Though the weather was humid, the wind had shifted and now came out of the northwest, just as it had when Sonja nearly drowned. The day it had all begun. Milan had saved her in a heroic action, the kind of thing any father would have done. He’d often thought of his father-in-law’s favorite saying: “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Milan smiled and put his right hand to his forehead. There were times when he wanted to hammer a nail into his head at the exact spot where the throbbing was worst. Times when locating that pain gave him an obscure happiness: it was better than feeling like his entire head throbbed with the rhythm of life itself.
He looked around. He could go to the place on the beach where Sonja had made her sandcastle. It was a few feet away from where she’d stepped into warm water, felt wet sand ooze between her pudgy toes, and continued out to where gentle waves lapped her little body, out far enough until an undertow caught her and swept her away.
Milan walked to the spot and stared at the sand. He saw a slight indentation, a subtle curve in the beach where tidal wash stretched a few inches higher. He was tempted to build his own sandcastle. Build it and watch it erode in the water’s ceaseless flow. Then he looked out at the lake. There were sailboats and cabin cruisers in the distance, a few speedboats and jet-skiers. Out farther, a bigger boat, laden with multicolored containers, on its way to Milwaukee or Chicago.
He looked down at his shirt and laughed. The U looked silly, like some piece of kitsch from a flea market. He detached it from his t-shirt and felt its weight. It seemed heavier than when he first wore it. He looked around. No one would notice. He was just a guy out for a morning swim. He picked up a pebble with his free hand and flung it into the water. It skipped. He was always good at skipping pebbles, better than any of his friends, even better than his father, whod been pretty good at it.
He heaved the pin as far as he could. He thought of The Healer, and how he’d like to drag him out into the lake, hold his head under water and wait for the man’s thrashing to stop. The man who’d finished what society had started: making him a pariah, turning him into a slacker, malingerer, deadbeat—and only because his illness couldn’t be identified and was therefore inadmissible in the court of public opinion. Why was it that everyone needed a neat classification, a sure diagnosis? What was this mania for certainty?
He walked into the waves, which were already warm. They felt good on his knees and thighs as he edged farther out. He had his jogging shorts on, so why not swim? He could sit on the beach and dry off later. Or dry off while he walked home. The whirring in his head had increased, but he felt steady and surprisingly sure. No dizziness, no blurred vision. Everything appeared to him in stereoscopic clarity, as if the world had gone high-definition. Boats looked closer, individual waves were defined one against another. The world moved in stop-frame action, and he could isolate a single moment, a single image, study it, rewind, make it his.
Water up to his neck now, clear, getting cooler.
He stopped. Where had he grabbed Sonja and started pulling her back? It must have been somewhere near here. He turned around and looked back at the beach, the water lapping his neck and chin. He could step back a little farther and be in over his head. Could be a dropoff nearby. Five feet of water could become 10, 15. Or maybe a sandbar, and suddenly he could stand looking at the beach with water only up to his waist.
He stepped back, waiting to see what came next. Either way was fine with him. Up or down, deep or shallow, end or beginning. The pounding in his head seemed to make ripples in the water as his mouth, then nose, then eyes went under, and soon all was translucent.
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