By Paul Galarraga
I won't tell you everything that happened; I'm getting old and some things I don't remember, and some things I just wish I could forget. It’s like that sometimes, the tapestry of your life ends up with a few holes in it, some from age and some from where you pulled on an annoying thread a little too much—a little too hard—and the thing just unravels on you. Sometimes it’s just like that.
My name is Horatio Casey.
I once was an ambulance driver at a private hospital, a sanitarium, they used to use that term back then. It was named Preston Hospital but the nurses had another name for it; they called it Bedlam.
I worked there from ‘53, when I got back from Korea, to ‘78 when they finally put the padlock to the place. The pay was okay and the work stank. But I watched my father cry himself to sleep every night for eighteen months because he couldn't find work when I was a boy, it was the depression and we felt it right in the waistline, so I will never be one to disparage honest labor.
I was a kid fresh from war and just bouncing around working for whomever would have me. I landed in Bedlam when the foreman, who had to let me go from a road crew job, thought I just might be serious when I said I would take any job. Well you would have to be crazy to take this one, he said and gave me an address in the middle of the piney woods of North Jersey. In those days it was at least six miles from the nearest paved road and I hitchhiked and walked there with the clothes on my back.
I was still trying to find somewhere I could fit in back then, now I think I was just uncomfortable in my own skin. Maybe it was because I couldn't make it work in the Army or maybe it was because I had nothing to come home to; my father and a bottle of scotch had seen to that. I was running away. I was wandering in search of a place where they didn't know me. Where no one would stare and say: that's the Casey boy, his daddy got liquored up one night and cut his momma open with a butcher knife in her own kitchen—she still had the oven mitts on, the poor dear—did the same to his sister when she came home from school and then hung himself in the garage. He is probably going crazy right now—murder us in our beds.
If there was a place where they would never know me, it was here, at the end of Hospital Road, in a place that looked like it was built with black bricks. Even in the late noonday sun the place had a pall hanging over it. I often looked at the building as I came back to it in that old Cadillac ambulance and wondered why anybody would ever come here to get well. But then I would eventually learn that most of the people that ended up in that place had very little choice in the matter.
The hiring was done by an old battleaxe named Dorothea something or other, whom I believe must have been the nurse that treated George Washington when his teeth were bothering him. She had a sour face with black agate eyes sunk into her doughy features. She quizzed me about my work habits, where I served in the war, what I did and for some inexplicable reason, if I was a pervert or a secret sex maniac. Then she hired me, gave me a perfunctory tour of the hospital and had me fitted for my uniforms. She even insisted I strip down to my drawers so she could measure me—even after I told her I knew all of my sizes.
Then she introduced me to Ray McNally. God bless him. In the ground forty two years now and I can still see that ugly mug of his watching me as I said, “yes ma'am,” to Dorothea a half a dozen times. He was just like that; said more with his eyes than with his mouth any day.
Ray had also eaten dirt as a kid. He soldiered in the Great War and had a mother of a scar on his back to show for it. German artillery shrapnel had tore him up and turned his brother into hamburger. He said we both belonged to the brotherhood of the shit filled pants because we knew what real fear was, and as he showed me how to work the collapsible cot for the ambulance, he said you needed something like that to work in Bedlam. I thought he was just having me on, working the new kid, but the years taught me that, if anything, he was holding back.
Roy prayed in the Great War, he prayed when his son caught the whooping cough and he prayed every day he worked for Bedlam. The place had a way of making you long for a real down home friendship with Jesus.
We had a call out our very first night. There was some big shot doctor with attending privileges, a lot of the high society docs would keep a quiet little relationship with Bedlam for when they had a rich or famous patient that needed a rest, or to kick the hooch, the coke or sometimes even the needle, and he called up the night resident demanding that we pick up a patient of his right away.
Every second counts young man, he yelled into the telephone so loud that Roy and I heard him from across the nurse's station where we were trying to win some nickels from the doc in cutthroat pinochle. We grabbed our coats, it was raining to beat the band, and took off.
Roy handled that Cadillac ambulance like it was an extension of himself, and we used the rotary light to keep the troopers of our tail. It took almost an hour but we pulled into the circular driveway of a huge house, or maybe at that price range it's called a manor, and a panicked maid was doing a strange dance, with a lot of arm waving involved, to get us to hurry.
The living room smelled like a charnel house. There was a circle of well dressed people, that looked like they could sweat money if they wanted to, flanked by old and expensive furniture and art that looked right out of a museum, and within the circle, centered on what could only have been a Persian rug, was a naked and shrunken old man covered in so much blood that I thought it couldn't possibly all be his.
The Doctor had bandaged him up and was giving him an adrenalin shot as we set up the cot, but I could tell from the old guys color that he was in shock. I had seen wounds in Korea and I couldn't quite figure out why this old guy was still breathing. Especially since with all that blood, if I didn't know better, I would have thought he had been shot.
The Doctor, in a ruined, bloody suit, came forward. He looked like he had dressed for dinner. “I'm Doctor Colibri, I spoke with Doctor Manes, this is my patient and time is not his friend right now.”
“What happened?” Roy asked as he prepared the cot for loading.
“There is no time for that now," Colibri said and shot a look at the small group. There was a woman crying with her face buried in the chest of a tall blond man with Joe College written all over him. The look of regret on his face said a lot. That young man would carry something—something terrible—with him for the rest of his life. Something that once seen can not be forgotten. Like a photograph burned onto glass film, it may fade, but it's ghost would always be there. I never did hear what became of that young man.
“Men, load him gently, he isn't stable, and administer oxygen once we have him in the ambulance. How soon can we reach Preston Hospital?”
“At this time of night?” Roy said, “Less than an hour.”
Doc didn't look too pleased. “It will have to do.”
Roy drove and I rode. The doctor had half a dozen surgical instruments in the old man's belly and was clamping off blood vessels as quickly as he could find them. The ambulance was littered with blood wet sponges and I couldn't stop marveling at how that old man could still have a pulse, much less still be awake, with so much of his blood on the ambulance floor. The mounted examination light in the ambulance was pointing at his wound and with Doctor Colibri hunched over him most of the truck was cast in shadow. But I could see Claymore's stark, pale face. He was staring straight ahead, panting like an animal behind the oxygen mask I had put on him. He turned his eyes at me and I saw something there. Something. His lips were moving and I leaned my head so that my ear was next to the hole in his oxygen mask.
“It won't be long now,” he said and I thought he was speaking about his own death. “The beast becomes stronger the more you fight it, that is it's nature.”
I thought the guy had gone out of his head, but he turned his face towards me and I saw those eyes, eyes that had seen it all, as my Grandpa used to say.
“I was once a young man like you. Yes you. I was also a wanderer. I wandered the earth, in search of power and I became rich doing it. But then, in a mountain pass in India, I witnessed true power.”
“You should rest Sir, conserve your energy.” I said not quite knowing what else to say.
“I should have listened to that damned holy man. He knew. But I was young and stupid and believed there was no more to the world than what I saw, tasted, heard or could snatch up with my hands and take.” His eyes turned back towards me and I swore at that moment that those eyes were boring right into my brain and hearing what I was thinking.
“It's the nature of the world—the nature of the beast—all the pretensions of man end where the nigh conquers the day. There are things in this world Horatio for whom we are nothing but food.”
How did he know my name?
“Even our souls are theirs for the taking.” He was still talking, but his wheeze was becoming more pronounced. “The earth is old, and older still is the night. The night laughs at our science, it laughs at our religion, it laughs at your philosophies.”
With that, mercifully, he passed out.
We made great time with Roy making that old ambulance twist around the sinkholes in the hospital road like a jungle cat.
We were met at the infirmary entrance by a small team made up mostly of day employees who had been called in special, even on this ugly night. This guy, Claymore, must have been some big shot to warrant all of this, I thought and still couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right with all of this.
We transferred the patient to the examination table that had already been draped and prepared for surgery and that's when Dorothea waved us away like we were flies about to contaminate her pick-nick. We cleared out and wheeled the cot outside to hose off all that blood.
“You're wondering how a guy who gets himself shot got brought to this place, aren't you?”
It was like Roy had read it on my face and was just answering what I was thinking. I kept my mouth shut. I thought it wouldn't do me any good to ask too many questions on my first day.
“You saw that house,” Roy said, real low, the sound coming out with the smoke from around his cigarette. I kept cleaning. I was waiting for him to say more, but I wasn't going to give him a chance to tell me to not ask so many questions.
“That guy was a big shot and I'll be a monkey's uncle if he didn't go and get himself shot.” He pulled the cigarette from his thin lips, pinched it between two fingers and gestured with it. “Well those guys are always worried about scandals. Who knows what, who says what about this and who wrote what about that in the society pages this month, and some of these guys would rather bleed to death—gut shot—than have their names bandied about. So they come here, where it's nice and quiet in the piney woods, far away from the police, the reporters and everyone knows how to keep their mouth shut. I can tell by your wooden Indian imitation that you know how to keep yours shut as well.” He came over and took a grip on my forearm. “You're going to do just fine here, and believe me, you're going to learn secrets a plenty. So keep your trap shut and collect your pay envelope; this job ain't so bad.”
The sun was almost directly overhead and I suddenly felt my energy draining away. I needed sleep, bad. I turned in for a nap in the bachelor men's dormitory and dropped my head real heavy into that pillow.
I was too tired to eat and couldn't have managed it anyway. I was dropping off, still getting used to the strange place and then, real distant, I heard a howl like the sad call of a wolf, and just before I dropped off I whispered a little child’s prayer, it was the only one I knew, but I thought, if I stayed, I was going to learn a few more.
The wolf howled again.
Maybe I would learn more than a few.
“Horatio wake up.” Roy was shaking me. I came awake quickly, just like in Korea, the world rushed back into focus and I was getting dressed before I even asked what was going on.
“The battleaxe wants us. There's trouble in the special ward. I think it's the new guy, Claymore.” Roy was all business and I noticed he had put on his short white jacket and had on his leather work gloves. I grabbed mine and followed him to the special ward.
We used the utility corridor and the naked bulbs in their wire cages cast so many shadows that it always made the place look haunted. Before we reached the heavy door that connected to the special ward we could hear screaming. The loud howl-like screams made me think of tortured animals and madness.
Roy led the way to the short connecting passageway and we almost ran over the staff nurse who couldn't seem to get out of there fast enough.
She was covered in blood.
Roy stopped cold and I was turning to run after her.
“Let her go.” It was Colibri and he was waving us over.
“But,” I said, “the blood.”
“It's not hers. The little twit is just scared,” he said. He was looking over his shoulder. “Let her get some air. Right now we have bigger problems.”
We followed him into the infirmary and were instantly alert to how cold the room was. Dorothea was squatting on her haunches using a wet surgical drape to wipe off her face when we came under the glare of the surgical lights, she looked up and stood. “Get the jacket ready.”
Doctor Colibri went to get a hypo.
“Mister Claymore came out of his anesthesia too soon and we have to get him moved before he hurts himself.”
Then I saw it—he was on the table, it was the guy we had brought in all right. But this was not the shrunken old man we had taken from that manor house. This man was longer, more solid and definitely strong. Despite his leather restraints holding him on to the surgical table he was half hanging off and already the metal legs were bending and many of the bolts that held it to the ground had already popped off. It was maybe a matter of a few minutes before he would have himself out of that contraption and then the fun was sure gonna start. Things were going to go to shit fast.
“Help me hold him for the shot.” It was the doctor holding a hypodermic needle in front of him like a talisman as he approached the patient. Roy was on Claymore's left shoulder pulling him back onto the table, one knee jammed into his back. I was trying to twist the old man's arm back and help Roy when the Doc reached around me—I know he was using me as a shield—and jabbed a two inch intramuscular needle into him.
I don't think Claymore even felt it and we kept struggling with him for minutes that seemed to stretch out into muscle numbing hours, with nothing but the sound of heavy breathing and my own rapid pulse thrilling in my ears. Then the old man went limp and crumpled beneath us. We lowered him to the table and stood back.
Dorothea came away from the wall where she had been trying to disappear into the paint and strapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm. Doctor Colibri collapsed into a chair and Roy turned to me and gave me the look that I knew meant let's leave.
“I need a cigarette,” Roy said.
We were outside in the hospital's old drying yard where we sometimes took our cigarette and fresh air breaks when we pulled duty in the hospital proper and the last purple glow of sunset was turning the building windows above us into fiery mirrors.
I lit my own smoke with hands that were still trembling and drew the smoke into a throat as dry as old newspapers. I was still thinking about the old man, bandaged from the nipples to his John Thomas, pumped full of anesthetic and so pale he had to have lost half his blood; but he fought like a bear. When I gripped his arm it was as hard as a charged fire hose and full of strength—hidden strength. I was thinking how glad I was that the hypo brought him down, that the restraints held, that he was still groggy. I knew then that if one thing had been different that old man would have killed us both. We had wrestled a bear and survived.
“That man was gut shot and bled dry,” Roy said, staring off into the horizon.
“He fought,” Roy said, “like an animal.”
The last of the purple light faded and I walked to the switch box to turn on the outside lamps. It was dark now and the blackness in the woods seemed closer somehow. The night seemed the blackest I had been in since my third night at Chosen, where I laid curled up in my foxhole trying to warm up using the body of a dead Chinese soldier as a blanket.
The surgery was over and they called us back in. we were going to move him to his hospital bed. Dorothea was looking on without a word. We checked his leather restraints and covered him with a light blanket and stared at the wrinkled face.
He was growling. The skin on his forehead was taut and shiny in the bright lights and his eyes were wide open with an animal-like awareness in them that made an ice cold wave come up my back. His teeth were bared, like a wolf's and I knew fear again.
He reared on the table and bucked the instrument tray to hell. Bloody surgical instruments, drapes, sponges, dishes, all of it scattered and clanged to the parquet floor. Dorothea was screaming. The butcher block smell of blood was filling the room. Doctor Colibri leaned forward and made a grab for Claymore and got sprayed with a fine mist of blood to his face for his troubles.
The old man nearly bent double over the table and I could hear a wrenching sound that could only be the restraints parting under the strain. The muscles of his chest, his arms, his legs, his face were writhing and popping with violent tremors.
Many years later I would assist on a case where a man had a grand mal seizure and although nowhere nearly as violent as this, it would bring me back to this night and I ended the day by up-chucking my lunch right into the crapper.
I heard screaming, it was Colibri. Claymore had his claws—claws?—in his face and was tearing it off. I watched as blood poured from his face and saw his jaw laid bare, the white bone stark in the strong lights in contrast to the wet blood that was now streaming faucet-like from the ruin of his face.
I have been over that night many times in my nightmares and I know it was cowardice, but I couldn't move a muscle. With Roy grabbing at the creature's arm—there was nothing else to call what Claymore was becoming, Dorothea was screaming for help as she tried to melt into the wall again and I was frozen in place, watching it all happening like it was a home movie. Flickering images—my eyes wide—my heart beating a drum march in quick time.
Doctor Colibri collapsed and passed out, he would be dead within the hour, but we weren't noticing. I came out of it, my arms moving without much thought from me and I grabbed a stainless steel stool and with a wicked over the shoulder swing brought it down over Claymore's head. I felt the violent force traveling up my arms, numbing my shoulders and heard the sudden dog like yelp of pain.
The last of the leather restraints broke.
I never saw such quick movement. With one wide swipe of his hand he opened Dorothea's neck, nearly taking her whole head from her shoulders. The screaming turned into a wet gurgle and then stopped.
Claymore leaped to his feet on the table, knocked Ray on his ass and crashing into the surgical lamp bringing down a shower of glass.
Dorothea’s lifeless body slid down the far wall and the beast turned towards me. I say beast because his face had finished it's change. The mask of anger had hardened, it's angles molding into rigid forms, his mouth widened to an impossible width, showing uneven, cracked and yellow teeth that dropped to razor points. The darkness in its eyes reflected the weak moonlight, and I saw there the forest primeval, the darkness that our ancestors feared.
I could feel heat radiating off the beast and saw wet fur sprouting on it's skin. His head lowered towards me as it flicked Roy away without a glance. His haunches rose and I knew then that he would leap.
My mind returned to its beginnings, to that Paleolithic clearing where man first challenged nature and often came up short. My muscles tensed and my heart seemed to stop, and when the beast came off the table again, I felt myself falling, falling backwards, surrendering to ravening death.
The beast leaped over me and in my panic my head jerked to my left and I just caught the shaggy form as it crashed through the infirmary window, glass exploding. A million shards that became mirrors casting the light of the full moon in every direction. I saw the beast, and as it mounted the back wall, silhouetted by the harsh lights outside, I know I saw him turn.
For a second.
The beast turned and saw me. It turned again, leaped—spinning in mid air—and disappeared behind the wall into the piney woods.
I never saw the creature again. I carry that night, and others I may tell you about someday, maybe, in my old man's recollection, and I don't know what it all means. But maybe not knowing is the nature of the beast. What life is all about. How one can approach the edge of the world we all know and gaze into the world we hardly ever see, to have it see into us, and still not quite understand.
Maybe it's like that.
Just like that.