The hospital grounds end where Fritz Bemelmans Park begins. At the south entrance to Fritz Bemelmans Park there once stood, shining and absolute, a bronze statue of Fritz Bemelmans, gentleman, with a scroll, a musket, a sheaf of wheat, and a mysterious bundle. A plaque affixed to the statue’s plinth told in the beige voice of homeland and state what these things meant, but don’t ask us to tell you now. When one of us says, “Fritz Bemelmans” someone else replies, as if it is the answer to a riddle, “a scroll, a musket, a sheaf of wheat, and a mysterious bundle.” We believe this says it all, and if there is more, we do not know and are not sure we want to know. The statue was long ago taken down, hauled away following the general ban on statues in parks, and the space it once occupied is now filled with dark-suited men opening umbrellas into gray sunshine.
We are the volunteers. We volunteer, every second and fourth Sunday, at the Schmetterling-Kiteley Neurology Wing of City Hospital. It is our job, every second and fourth Sunday, to take the people in comas to Fritz Bemelmans Park. We push the people in comas in wheelchairs and on gurneys into the elevator that goes from the glorious glass-roofed vestibule of the Schmetterling-Kitely Neurology Wing, on the sixteenth floor of City Hospital, down to the mezzanine level and to the corridor that leads to the tiny cement-walled courtyard where the loved ones of the people in comas go to smoke and wait with faces full of a clouded hope that is indistinguishable from boredom. We, with our official volunteer badges and starched tunics, push the people in comas in wheelchairs and on gurneys past the parking obelisk and the retention pond, past the shuttle station and over the pedestrian bridge to the south entrance of Fritz Bemelmans Park. There is a Fritz Bemelmans-shaped space now filled with children who come up to us wanting to touch the hair and the faces of the people in comas. They all want to know the weather report. We say to each other “release the dogs” but of course there are no dogs, and the children push past us to the stone fountain half-filled with last week’s rainwater in which other, unparented children are splashing. We speak to the people in comas in low voices, trying to make our voices sound like warm soft rain. This is what it said in the job description, posted on the bulletin board in the community center: Hospital volunteers needed: must have voices like warm soft rain. This is our job: we do our best. We sit on wooden slat benches and brush away the tiny brown birds that cluster around the faces of the people in comas. Animals of all sorts are drawn to the people in comas, but mostly these tiny birds, some of which are no larger than your thumb.
On the day the city hauled off the statues everyone came outside their houses and workplaces to watch the cranes and cherry pickers and big trucks head seaward.
The Loved Ones.
The loved ones of the people in comas come on visiting days carrying tote bags containing soft balls of worsted yarn and pieces of dark, bruised fruit. We, the volunteers, and they, the loved ones, are often forced to stand uncomfortably close together in the elevator that ascends from the shag-carpeted reception area on the mezzanine level to the sixteenth floor of City Hospital, to the glorious glass-roofed vestibule, the long pale corridor and finally the hushed orangeness of the Schmetterling-Kiteley Neurology wing. We open our brown paper lunch sacks, and are not surprised to find them empty. Someone has been stealing our lunches, our dry tuna sandwiches and ham rolls. This has been going on for a while now. The doctors, when we approach them to tell them about these incidents, startle like antelopes gathered at a riverbed, and move quickly away.
We carry small red spiral notebooks given to us by the nurses, which contain graphs into which we are to insert marks denoting the involuntary movements, gestures, tics and twitches, and breathing patterns of the people in comas. When we return the notebooks to the nurses after our shifts end they peer into them and nod gravely, then deliver them in stacks to the doctors, who run from room to room, lit by the terrible glow of afternoon soap operas. In the cafeteria, they all sit together looking at their watches and eating pink and yellow fruit out of plastic containers. No doctor has ever said a word about Fritz Bemelmans.
We imagine that being in a coma feels like going swimming in a suit of armor. Soft armor, made, perhaps, of corduroy. Nights, at home in bed with our boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses and significant others, we sometimes have dreams about Olympic-sized pools into which fingers and toes are suddenly, icily, plunged. We slide in up to our waists; the water is freezing. Our legs become quite numb; our legs disappear; we have no legs; our legs have come loose —this does not hurt— and float, bobbing on the surface like canoes, to the far end of the pool.
Mr. L. is fifty years old and has been in a coma for eighteen years, ten months and seventeen days. Mr. L awoke one morning full of vim, threw off the bedcovers, ready to leap into the wide open blue of a new day, kissed his wife, who lay beside him in their expensive, expansive marital bed; it was a fine day, to judge from Mr. L.’s diary, which he made a habit of writing in daily, at several points over the course of the day: an important part of Mr. L.’s routine, according to Mr. L.’s wife. The first entry of the day, undertaken as soon as Mr. L’s eyes had snapped open –Mr. L possessing, according to his wife, an unfailingly accurate internal alarm clock which, Mrs. L claimed, she could sometimes hear going off deep in Mr. L’s busy brain, far beneath his twitching eyelids—was invariably a comment on the weather, or in any case, those aspects of the weather observable from Mr. and Mrs. L’s bedroom window: the color of the sky, the condition of the clouds, the reported or estimated temperature and so forth, following the completion of which entry Mr. L, having returned his diary to its usual place in the bottom drawer of the nightstand, one of a matching set of nightstands, the other, of course, being on Mrs. L’s side of the bed, would throw back the bedcovers and launch himself from the bed straight into a deep-knee bend, following that one with fifty more in rapid succession. On this day, however, the day that Mr. L felt the first stirrings of his incipient coma, he threw back the deeply tufted velvet bedcovers, under which (as Mr. L remarked in his diary) he sometimes felt the hands of God pressing down upon him as he slept, to find that his legs had completely vanished.
The Weather Machine.
Past the reservoir and the aqueducts, past the condominium towers with their fragile balcony gardens and decorative gargoyles, lie the various institutes, facilities, government-sponsored brain trusts and corporate think tanks of the Quadrangle Research and Technology Park. The low, quiet, egg-colored buildings of the Quadrangle Research Park exude undisputed authority, disporting upon their square shoulders imposing acronyms rendered in smooth microplastic, facing, always, the rising sun. The exterior signage of the Quadrangle Research and Technology Park, sculpturally emerging from treeless lots, discloses no secrets, makes no claims, but nevertheless, in virgin white and polished red, expresses certain bold assertions, seeming almost to invite applause. Though what exactly is being boldly asserted, we, the volunteers, have never been able to figure out.
Several of us volunteers, while running errands in our cars during lunch breaks from our other jobs, on the days that we do not volunteer at the Schmetterling-Kitely Neurology Wing, have seen a group of Schmetterling-Kitely Neurologists, in their white doctor coats and loud ties, five or six of them all crammed together in a small sports car, pulling up to the gated entrance to one of the low quiet buildings of the Quadrangle Research and Technology Park. We have, each of us, on more than one occasion driving past the Quadrangle Research and Technology Park, seen glimpses of what we volunteers believe to be a weather machine. A machine for controlling the weather, yes, but also for creating it. It is not, we do not think, kept in one place, or in one building. As near as we can figure the machine, which we have only seen traces of, exists in some way due to the red notebooks we give to the doctors. We are not certain how this could be possible, but what do we know about Neurometeorology? Several of us volunteers have discussed these sightings amongst ourselves. We have compared notes. During lunch breaks from our other jobs we meet at a mutually convenient location and pile into a small sports car and drive to the Quadrangle Research and Technology Park, park across the street, and wait. We see the doctors and what appear to be several researchers warmly shaking hands next to a large spherical sculpture. We see the doctors loading something into the trunk of their car. We see the researchers lighting cigarettes and standing together in a little knot, smoking and talking and gazing over the roofs of facing buildings, in the general direction of the future.
A perfectly round white cloud casting a perfectly round dark shadow hung over the Quadrangle Research and Technology Park. The next day the shadow had moved six feet to the east. The day after that it had moved twelve more feet, and the day following that one it had moved twenty-four more, for a total of forty-two. For a week the cloud moved, as near as we, the volunteers, could figure by means of our primitive compasses and limited mathematical abilities, due east at a rate of 3(2(t-1)) feet/day2. By our calculations the cloud will be centered directly over Fritz Bemelmans Park in six days, three hours and forty-seven minutes.
The eyelids of the people in comas register subtle shifts in the barometric pressure. If it is to rain their faces sag like paper. Sometimes someone makes something that looks like a smile. We reach for our notebooks. There is a low-pressure front moving in from the north.
Miss Q. is seventy-seven years old and has been in a coma for twenty years, six months, five days. Miss Q. is unique in that her coma did not come about, as far as we are able to know, as a burst from or bolt to the back of the neck, or as a sudden falling backwards with arms splayed, or as a sudden awakening into a new, twilit color —a color we volunteers imagine as a purplish shimmer pressing down upon the chests and heads of the people in comas— but overcame Miss Q. a little at a time, over a period of some forty or fifty years. Miss Q.’s close friend and neighbor Miss K. comes to see Miss Q. during most visiting days accompanied by her son D., a middle-aged gentleman whose face and limbs display the petulance of an exhausted child, and who sits upon a chair as if a chair is not something meant for sitting upon. Miss K. and D. are fond of saying about Miss Q.’s coma that Miss Q. was “boondoggled” by it. It is unclear whether this word possesses for Miss K. and D. some private meaning known only to them (and presumably, to Miss Q. before she became fully enmeshed in coma), or whether Miss K. and D. are simply fond of the word “boondoggled” despite its seeming inadequacy in expressing the events leading to Miss Q.’s coma.
Miss K. believes that Miss Q.’s coma was with her, like a shadow of wings beating overhead, from a very young age, although Miss K. herself did not become aware of the physical manifestations of Miss Q.’s encroaching coma until many years after she and Miss Q. first met as schoolgirls. According to Miss K., the first part of Miss Q.’s body to lapse into coma was her left leg, on May 10th, 1947. Miss K remembers the date because, as she relates to us, she and Miss Q. were supposed to perform that evening in a festival pageant heralding the vernal equinox, a tradition at Miss K. and Miss Q.’s small women’s college. Miss K. was to play the role of a zephyr, while Miss Q. was to play a patch of snow being slowly melted by the warmth of the sun. The rays of the sun were to be played by a group of eight girls, who were to descend upon Miss Q with outstretched arms and beat with flat palms upon Miss Q.’s curled body, which was to respond by slowly unfurling and yawning and stretching out over the soft green lawn of the women’s college while Miss K. fluttered about waving white scarves over the proceedings. Miss K. notes that Miss Q.’s left leg’s coma resulted in its becoming not an anchor, but a kite, Miss Q.’s leg lifting or floating up of its own accord as if it wanted to fly off and away, a matter of some inconvenience as Miss Q. could neither control this nor predict when it was going to occur, the result being that Miss Q. was finally obliged to wear wrapped around her left ankle first a sand-filled stocking, and later a large heavy bracelet. This first, buoyant stage of coma lasted several years, but, Miss K. notes that as the coma made its way up Miss Q.’s left side and down the right, it became more and more of a burden, so that, in the months before Miss Q. was fully overtaken by her coma, she became, while fully awake and conscious, unable to move her body save for her eyes and mouth, her nose and ears, the pinky of her left hand, the toes of her right foot, her left shoulder, her right arm below the elbow, and her left ankle.
The Avenue of Fountains.
The north entrance to Fritz Bemelmans Park opens onto the Avenue of Fountains, one of the brightest and busiest streets in the city center. The fountains, housed within mesh enclosures upon small circular cement islands spaced evenly along the median of the Avenue, appear as a row of delicate silver parasols opening and closing with symmetric regularity, and their fine spray coats the workers and shoppers and gray-suited businessmen with a damp amniotic sheen. Limp-haired and soggy, the workers and shoppers and businessmen press small absorptive cloths to the backs of their necks, heads bowed against the onrush.
Every now and then the tide of people flowing day and night over the sidewalks and across the median in the center of the Avenue of Fountains and into and out of the tiered glass office towers with their glass elevators and revolving doors channels a small rivulet of baffled pedestrians into Fritz Bemelmans Park. They sit, with feet flat and hands on knees, staring straight ahead into the spaces once occupied by the statues, or wander about clutching bag lunches, unsure of where to sit or stand, uncertain of how they came to be here among the truncated trees and grasses and chalk-dusted asphalt of the Park. Among these castaways we sometimes discern a familiar coalescence, an arrangement of features we recognize as belonging to a loved one of a person in coma, but the loved one—or loved ones, as the case may be—are unable, it seems, to recognize us, or the people in comas, outside the confines of the Schmetterling-Kitely Neurology Wing. The doctors have told the nurses, who have told us, that this is to be expected. All the loved ones will eventually, inevitably come to see the people in comas as an inseparable part of the hospital, as having no discernible meaning away from the glass-roofed vestibule and the long pale corridor, no tangible qualities outside of the clean white-walled rooms where they—the people in comas—are housed amid gift-shop plants. The doctors stumble into these rooms as if by accident, blinking, glowering over clipboards, shouting incomprehensible questions to the nurses, speaking, so we volunteers believe, in a sort of code, and scanning with perceptible impatience the pale triangles of sky visible through the hospital rooms’ windows.
Mrs. C. is fifty-one years old and has been in a coma for thirteen years, one month, 0 days. Every visiting day Mrs. C’s husband R., son R. jr., and daughter M. come to do Mrs. C.’s hair and makeup. They bring with them, producing them from their pockets with the flair of a team of magicians, thin smocks of a waxy paperlike material to put on over their clothes. Mr. C attends to Mrs. C.’s hair while M. soaks Mrs. C.’s hands in rose water and R. jr. applies a mud pack. Following this M. will perform a manicure while R. jr.—a boy whose large helpless head and receding body indicate a likelihood that he, too, is destined for coma—stands sentry, mouthful of hairpins at the ready. Mrs. C’s hair is of an unusual soft hue that reminds us of the interior sheen of a conch shell.
Prior to the onset of her coma, Mrs. C. enjoyed her hair very much, and always wore it in an elaborate upswept hairdo comprised of a complex arrangement of rotund curls held aloft by a still more complex system of long sharp pins. Mr. C. remarks that when he and Mrs. C. first met, she seemed to him a formal garden, in which one could wander for hours, feeling suitably awed but never relaxed, and among whose arcades and shaded boscos one is surprised, but not shocked, to come across a rusty axe sunk into the trunk of a tree. Yes, agree M. and R. jr., working together to prepare Mrs. C’s face—M. sanding while R. jr. buffs, M. scraping while R. jr. collects the shavings in a small bucket, Mr. C. chipping away with tireless diligence at the yellowing varnish caused by Mrs. C’s coma—there is, no doubt about it, a violence to Mrs. C’s hairdo. It is a violence, however, that the C family cannot do without.
The Weather Machine, II
On a fourth Sunday at the cusp of summer, when the city is wrapped in a thin gauze of heat, when along the Avenue of Fountains workers crowd the narrow median during their lunch breaks to avail themselves of the fountains’ cooling spray, clutching tiny paper cups from which they suck mouthfuls of crushed ice, one curved edge of the cloud’s round shadow has just begun to appear over the weedy horizon of Fritz Bemelmans Park. Large aproned men bearing pushcarts of flavored ice treats station themselves at the four entrances to the Park, and gray-eyed musicians appear with flutes and accordions and guitars, crouching under shade trees with hats and instrument cases open to the public’s approval or scorn, their tuneless tunes a flurry of golden darts that ping against but fail to penetrate the solid mass of heat.
In Fritz Bemelmans Park a group of children are squatting in a circle, gathered around what can only be described as a miniature tornado. The tornado, perhaps five or six inches in height, spins like an angry top, bumping against the cage of children’s knees and issuing a low hungry whine. We volunteers have no doubt that this is the work of the weather machine, and the cumulonimbus cloud that hangs low over the park, darkening, but the tornados do not appear to be attached to the cloud, or to anything in particular, the tops of the funnels simply dissipating into warm air. At first, the children recoil when the dark column whirls against their bare legs, but soon grow bolder. They push down on the top of the tornado, then pull their hands suddenly away to watch it spring back into shape, and take turns encircling the tornado with their arms, imprisoning it. We suspect that the tornado is only the most visible manifestation of a second, lower cloud, invisible to us. The children walk all unawares through this second, lower, invisible cloud, and climb trees to thrust their arms up into the swollen underbelly of the first.
We push the people in comas, strapped to gurneys and propped up in wheelchairs, through flocks of tiny birds pressed like thumbprints into the air. We head for the cool places of the park, hurrying to reach the best benches, which flicker in and out of view beneath the long threadbare branches of the willows near the duck pond.
The people in comas wear regulation Schmetterling-Kitely coma patient jumpsuits, which we volunteers have to put on them before each visit to the Park. This task involves two of us volunteers working together upon one person in coma, in a system we ourselves have devised, one of us lifting and pulling and stretching while the other one pushes and bends and folds. The jumpsuits are made of terrycloth, and have small breast pockets with the Schmetterling-Kitely logo embroidered upon them in blue and green. Sometimes the eyes of the people in comas flutter open like moth wings at the moment of flight. We enter marks denoting the character and duration of each eye movement into the appropriate boxes in our red notebooks, and write, in separate spaces at the bottoms of the pages, preceded by the word Comments: moth wings, moment of flight.
Holly Tavel’s fiction has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Torpedo, Elimae, McSweeney’s, The Prague Anthology, Diagram and others
HOLLY TAVEL is a fiction writer and artist whose work has appeared in McSweeney's, the Rail, Diagram, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.