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Originally appearing in
Ragged Edge



Piano keyboard and a hand
By Tim Laskowski

from the novel Every Good Boy Does Fine
(Southern Methodist University Press)


At the peak of my piano-playing, righthanded mostly (my left is a gnarled spastic lump that I have tried for years to bang out straight on tables and countertops), my mind empties to allow unsummoned images to flit across the blank screen in my head in no discernible pattern except that the first images are often archways or antique stone facades tumbling down into rubble and dust, as in comedy newsreels I've seen where buildings are exploded from within, collapsing into themselves, so neatly, with the mess contained inside the rock walls of their original foundations. After that, any picture may come: sometimes it is simply myself standing upright, or maybe I am bare-chested in shorts bounding on a cinder track over aluminum hurdles, or it may be angels lifting my sorry body over curbs and stairs, or it could be animals -- wild cat or whitetail deer -- leaping brush, twisting in mid-jump, eyes caught in a backwards stare, bleating wonderment as a hunter's bullet singes fur and skin. For me prayer is never an ascension, since I start at the heights and then tumble, the displacement of breath inside me palpable as I spill slow motion from spiritual precipices to the rocky nasty earth where I am again weighted, anchored, no good.

The effort of that first paragraph has been immense -- days it has taken to refine -- and Ellen bids me to relax. I am head injured and my cognitive functions are slow to respond, slow to make connections. What's worse, tomorrow I won't recognize the words as mine, unless I now review them over and over and can lock in memory some snatch or phrase to trigger a remembrance from my healthy past (my long-term memory remains sound -- a mixed blessing that affords me the bittersweet comfort of lounging in memories of when I was whole).

There is a past which I remember better than yesterday, when I was healthy, my bones reliable, my muscles responsive to my brain, when my left hand harmonized with my right, when my fingers could flex and drift effortlessly along a keyboard. In my "real life," as my mother has affectionately termed it, I could play the piano, climb a mountain, read philosophy, hold a job, hold a thought longer than a minute. My dreams sometimes linger in that past life; denial at times becomes remarkably simple for the wheelchair bound, memory for the head-injured less of a burden than for most. I forget what I wish to.

But in more lucid moments, I struggle against my mother's fantasies, her insistence that I will one day return undamaged, the way I had been. Why, after so long, do I still allow my expectant heart to open to her ramblings? Why am I still entranced and fooled by her descriptions of a life that is past? I look around me; I look in the mirror. I must appreciate this, my real life.

I am slow and I repeat. I cannot speak a sentence without it getting tangled on my lips, though inside I hear the words as plain as you might say them yourself; I've come to understand my own speech when I hear it on tape machines, but others would understand me only with difficulty, with great perplexed and guilty study of my face and signs. And Lord, I forget what I say, day to day, hour to hour; only with many repetitions do I get a pattern down. I rely on habit, on stock responses, to fool the able-minded into thinking I understand more than I do. Ellen says it makes no difference if I repeat here, if I stutter on the page. It takes so goddamned long for my head to get the message to my hand to type. The beauty of writing, she says, unlike the spoken word which once said hangs irretrievably in the air, is the ability to revise before it goes public, till you are satisfied that your text is indelibly right. Conversation is too quick for me to process; writing allows me reflection to form the words. For now, Ellen urges me merely to write on.

I have frequent moments of nothing-to-do, when the effort to keep up with the world becomes simply too much, the pace literally dizzying, as in a group or in dialogue, and my ears shut down, my eyes glaze; I try to reduce input to manageable proportions, and amidst staff shouting and peers' grunts and groans, my mind wanders into meditation, eyes often focused on the tight grip of my left hand, my fingertips white with strain, cuticles rimmed in red, and an inner voice -- desperate for things to slow down --speaks calmly and soothes me. "Robert, Robert," I hear, the name that follows from my pre-morbid life, delivered sometimes in maternal strains, sometimes deeper, more masculine, sometimes disturbed by the voice of staff who try to shake me back to whatever activity I've withdrawn from. Mostly it is comforting, reassuring me that I am, though altered, still lurking in this broken body, these scrambled waves of messages from my brain. If left alone long enough, I can retreat into the voice, sail with the images that flood through me, to a silence where I feel no confusion and no pain.

Usually Ellen reads the next day what I write, though intermittently, she peeks over my shoulder and in the midst of filling my ears with praise and surprise, cannot resist reaching occasionally to fix the typos and spelling and more obvious grammar errors. I suffer her sighs, her struggle to restrain herself further from my delete key. The story must be mine own, she says, and I remember her saying it more than once, as she sets messages in my brain like newsprint, hoping they remain for a lifetime, or at least a day: it's important that I say it uncensored, though she gives suggestions on what to add, what to erase, what to say better. I am, where I am, at the mercy of her criticism; I must grant that she is always right, though I refuse her advice sometimes, usually spontaneously and for no better reason than that the occasional refusal preserves the few boundaries I have left around me.

Ellen volunteers twice a week at the Day program. I asked for a piano teacher and they found me a poet. I have snuck peeks at her poetry and there are some lines that I've forced myself to memorize: When the tree falls we hear no matter the thickness of the forest the muffling of the leaves. The others who started with her have faded away and I remain her one, her favorite, pupil.

She is older, in her fifties, I guess. She had a life once with husband and kids, all gone now, to cities elsewhere. I worry that she depends too much on me, that I am some odd project, some substitute son for other lost life. I spy her hand wishing for my delete key as she argues this interpretation. It is too bleak, too pitying of myself and of her, she whispers. And of course, she is right, always right, though for now, I respectfully refuse to revise.

I should explain, she says. Though head-injured, I am not wholly without powers: a doctor once said that my brain knows what to do and my muscles could follow through, but the messages get blocked somewhere along the way. When my brain says, "Hand open up," or "Lips, make a T sound," the signal gets detoured or fails to make a leap between nerve endings, so my acts remain incomplete. In the evenings in the group home, I can stand for an hour at a time, though attempts to walk result in falling, sometimes taking with me one or more of those hired to care for me. I wheel myself by pushing with my right foot, while my left stays anchored on a foot rest. I wear a strap across my chest to keep sitting upright, but my head lists steadily to the left. I can dress myself in pullover shirts, sweat pants, and velcro shoes. If a bathroom is well-equipped with bars in the right places, I can do my business there alone. Sometimes saliva that I forget to swallow pools in the back of my mouth and muffles my speech worse than usual, and the spit drools out a corner of my lips, and I am either wiped or it drips to my lap. I have one good hand but my left constricts, gnarled, always closed till I or someone else pries the fingers apart and back to clean. I am told it tends to smell inside my hand, though I am immune to it (and the doctors say I have not lost any sense of smell). For hygiene's sake, they operated on my hand not long ago, relieving a tight tendon, allowing the hand more flexibility. With therapy, I might be able to open it at will, though slowly, to grab a sponge ball or hold a pencil with the proper fingers. The doctors discourage the notion, but I have hopes to reach the left side of the keyboard.

I am twenty-three and have been for years since the fall. Inside me, I am not aware that time has progressed; on their visits, my parents talk of how they've aged and how they plan for me after they're gone, and my sister and brother look older sometimes, though I don't see them often enough for me to remember them as they are now. I have a son born after my injury, thus a mystery to me since I have no long-term memory of him. In the mirror, I am the same. The scars on my face have long since faded, and I don't believe that my appearance had changed for ten years except that my lip corners droop and my glasses are always bent and crooked. So maybe I have grown different -- but not older. Even when I become upset about my appearance, my lack of short-term memory benefits me: I soon forget what I'm upset about. Better than television, I can lose myself anywhere I want in time and place, though there are places I avoid, even in thought, like the hospital and nursing home.

Ah, Ellen sighs. She prods me to introduce something of life before the accident, but what value is there in that? I was "normal" before I fell, naively undecided in life, midway through college, frustrating those older, those anxious for me to begin my way into the work-a-day world. I showed them the folly of their plans, their preparations. If I am anything unique now, it is within my present handicap; only God's select few have my privilege. And Ellen agrees, yes, but she wants to know about the moments when I realized I was not what I had been; she views my flashes of comprehension as brilliance of insight, like an epileptic's aura before the seizure. Yes, she knows my struggle for cognition is fitful and hard; my memory fades in and out like reception on a car radio in mountain ranges. Still Ellen would suck my frustrations and horrors out onto paper for her enjoyment, not trusting that there are some things of my experiences I can't or won't piece together.

I break my writing often; I have only so much concentration. This will take months, years Ellen says, then I can turn around and revise. She sees this as a lifetime project. I try to beg out: is revision not censoring, a writing over, erasing the past perception in favor of another one?

I have tried hard to understand all the people in my life but I fail to know who everyone is and what they do. There is, of course, staff: able-bodied do-gooders who get paid very little to feed me, clean me, take me for a dump. They are everywhere, every time; I have few boundaries left. I live with seven other folks like me; weekdays we come here to this converted warehouse with large community rooms of folding chairs and long tables, where the computers and piano are, where they daily teach us current events and children's games and sometimes a special class or two in photography or computers or writing. Therapists and case managers and some guy from the state come see me: I stopped worrying about identities long ago. I go where and when I'm told. I talk to whoever asks. There seems little difference in my life before or after these people appear.

Many of the others I live with are head-injured like me. Some walk but haven't brain enough left to tell them when to shit or even how to get to the bathroom. I think that mentally I do better than most. Then there is Lorna, who has multiple sclerosis, her body shutting down its functions one-by-one. She lives down the hall from me; we play cards together in the evenings and I spoon-feed her lunches and dinners. I imagine that she was a great beauty once: her hair long brown with a blonde sheen in sunlight and her skin tan and soft as worn velvet. I imagine she took long strolls through lodge polepines, her bare feet barely disturbing the rust-colored needles of the forest floor, her presence so slight that birds did not interrupt their singing on her arrival, animals did not stir and run away as she passed. She had a husband, who has long since deserted her, and two children who live with grandparents, who cry when they visit. Lorna is deteriorating, I've heard staff say, but I choose not to notice.

The other day (was it today -- did it happen more than once?), I sat by myself at a long table in a large room with tiled floor and muted green walls. Others wheeled and stumbled by or sat at other tables, doing jigsaw puzzles and playing games with checker-like pieces. There was a scuffle or an argument. Two wheelchairs banged at each other, voices rising, till staff rushed over, spoke in low but firm tones, separated the combatants. And too quickly the battle was forgotten. Each went a different way, neither through the door they had fought over.

"How are you today, Robert?" my case manager asks. Her name is Jodi and I've known her a long time; she is tall and wears heels to make herself taller. She is always so well-dressed that I wish I'd remember the times she is due to visit, so I would wear something besides my usual sweats, make sure I am cleanly shaved and recently bathed, and maybe if I was prepared for her arrival, I wouldn't lose my breath when she waltzes into my space. She kneels in front of me, steadies herself with a slender hand on my knee she studies me with assuringly deep brown eyes, sweeps a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and speaks in a pearly smooth voice, compassionately, and only occasionally with condescension. Oh, I have masturbated many times thinking of her. With her questions, she touches my legs, my arms, my face, as though she has a right to, asking what hurts, what feels, what skin rash is healed, what is not, how I am eating; her usual lecture follows for something I do not do right. She touches my knee again as though she doesn't understand the promise such touches stir inside me. Many times I have wanted to say don't touch me, but I refrain because I, in fact, desire it. In the night when I am alone, I strive but fail for her image, yet the touches haunt me.

"Robert, you must brush your teeth more often. You can do that."

"Uhhhhh-huh," I tell her. I have long passed being embarrassed with her, with the regular people in my life. I sign some words, form some sounds, and she knows my meaning. Or at least close enough. I try to lock my eyes into hers; despite many failures, I retain a naive belief that my eyes can communicate gists of things, if only the other person is attentive. Jodi makes eye contact briefly then looks away. Is she afraid of the lock of eyes? Maybe, I theorize, it is not the eyes' failure to communicate that has people turn away, but rather the success of the eyes to do precisely that.

It is lonely not to connect, to have people like Jodi come in for fifteen minute one-sided conversations; each time hope springs that the connection will be meaningful, will endure, but each time disappointment hunkers in me when I realize the impatience of my companion who suffers the wait for my next intelligible sound, whose mind has raced to other venues while waiting for me. What does Jodi think when she talks to me? As I stutter and struggle, I give her time to plan her dinner, to imagine her children in school, to recall, goddamn her, her husband that morning rising naked from bed on his slow walk to the shower. I wish Jodi would come when I was ready for her. When I might have planned how to respond to her touch.

Ellen does not blush when she reads. She assures me that nothing I write can shock her, and so far she is right, though there was a time I tried mightily. I have written about fantasies of suicide, I have written rhapsodies about masturbation, some about her, and she has not flinched. It is the artist in her she says, that demands the search, the grimy along with the pure. It is the artist in me, she says, that demands the same. Perhaps.

But I am disorganized. I can't focus. Please Ellen, I give up, make this coherent.

No, she says.

Tim Laskowski is a novelist living in Missoula, Montana.


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