Bart Plantenga

 


Ocean Groove, Ocean Grave

Novel excerpt: Ocean Groove, Ocean Grave is a sinister noir mystery animated by a plot-boiling love triangle -- if "Jules et Jim" was a sheet of paper then this is that sheet of paper ripped to shreads then gathered and crumpled into a tight paper wad. It involves H., an ex-vet (of no verifiable war), K., a lanky Lolita-type, and P., a mysterious "I" character, not so much a community member as a virus, a grey bedouin defined by his migrations and the conjectures and prejudices of the locals. The action culminates in a suspicious car crash in which the driver, H., sustains only superficial injuries but K., his passenger, enters a coma. Rumors abound that the accident may have been a botched double suicide. H. claims to have the suicide note in writing but cannot produce it.

Ocean Grove, NJ, a town of 5000 inhabitants along the New Jersey shore, just south of Asbury Park and 40 miles south of New York. During the summer tourist season, the town bloats to nearly twice its off-season population.

Chapter 6

One night the J.D.s put oranges in the Laun-Dri-Mat dryers, a variation of their stones-in-the-hubcaps terror of a year earlier.1 Another night they scrawled "SUCK ME!" on the bank wall, the one that faces -- get this -- the alley. And last week (K. knew them all well enough to despise them) got caught with beer, and "half-clad coeds" around an illegal bonfire on the beach. This was fun, fun as pre-job petty criminality. It encourages a kind of dignified stance while being beholden and indebted to an abiding respect for cops. Rumors had it that H. bought them beer all the time.2 Sometimes, in exchange, they'd come look at his gun and knife collection which is supposed to be in locked display cases, but he had copies of the keys made -- winkwink; everybody knows and likes the idea of knowing but nobody wants to own up to the responsibility which knowing requires -- so he can handle (fondle?) them any time he wants. He showed off his latest to them, bare-chested (red-bandanna hiding the thick-cabled veins bulging from his forehead), a German assault rifle, the MP-44, predecessor of the Russian AK-47. He knew where and how they're made. I still don't know exactly how he got them all. Nobody does. Or well, maybe they do.

He sometimes encouraged local kids to punch him in the stomach -- "rock solid," he'd say, while they listened to his extensive collection of Death Metal.
3 One kid said he had giant posters of Rambo and Travis Bickle4 on his walls.5 He had even given himself a mohawk in the image of Bickle many months apparently before any punk rocker in New York had dared.

My journey to the Grove's "other" side -- infections under smooth skin -- however, originated at Freedman's Bakery where the employees, although not official "loonies", are known to be ... fragile. You pull a bobbypin and not only their hair comes undone.
6 I mean they could never get the cash register to work. Cursed it as if this could save their dumbfounded mugs. The problem was further exacerbated by the fact that they could not add up three double-digit figures. The solution: I had to pay for each of my three items separately! Their "croysants" -- why I kept trying them I can't say -- no rat would even use for a pillow.

A tourist, as I was going out the door -- "Have A Nice Day" aimed at my back -- asked if there weren't some amazing chocolate stores open Sundays somewhere "over there."

"Not in Ocean Grove," said the register jockey, pointing north. "Maybe out there, that's Asbury! You don't wanna go there. There's nothin' over there."

He's right but just as wrong -- but it makes no sense to say anything because they'll label you a snob or worse, a New Yorker -- Asbury Park, that "over there," serves as some fabled Hades, geographical locus of collective angst -- black forest, dark sea, road to out there, the ghetto, Darkieville.

Ocean Grove is ringed by liquor stores -- in Asbury, Neptune, Bradley Beach; fifths of bourbon aimed like cannons at the Grove's religious ramparts. If you look on the public bulletin boards among the kitten and cookie ads you will see the ammunition meant to stave off the enemy, the annual list of Grove Events: The Flea Market, Kite Day, Pay Your Bills Day, Boys Week -- in conjunction with the nationwide movement to emphasize that Our Boys are loyal, Why I Should Eat Ice Cream Everyday, Painless Diet Education Day, Joy Week -- ministers will be asked to preach on the theme of does it pay to do good turns, No-Spit-No-Swear Week, Tax Reduction Week, Household Hints Day, Personal Computing Your Way To Solvency Day, Our Flag's Origins -- a lecture, Bypass Surgery's Effects on IQ., Wise And Foolish Women of the New Testament, Are Skateboards a Tool of the Devil -- a symposium, MTV -- Mouthpiece of Beelzebub, a sermon by TV-Reverend, Ferel Hoarton.

Asbury Park meanwhile has become one part each of Watts, the Bronx, Hiroshima but still retains some of its treasures.
7 But as is the nature of desperate and besieged people everywhere, much of it lies buried or neglected. You might even see a Victorian cornice dangling from a collapsing building. Oh, the desolate chocolate emporiums filled with dusty chocolate with no expiration dates are still there. But the biker bars, migrating discos, jazzy speakeasies, hoodoo churches with their Farfisa soul organs, artists working in basements, hosting elaborate costume party jams have all disappeared, bulldozed until there's not a brick left, until flat can't get any flatter.

I remember there was this haven for night crawlers, this mysterious afterhours five-story building, the old Aqualung Inc. Building, 1923, with its liquor store at ground level, an old man bar on the 2nd floor, a gay bar on the 3rd, a lesbian disco on the 4th. And on the top floor, the one with the weird pulsing light sequences? Masonic eunuchs? Gone. Regardless, it was all "Sod-om" to the Grovers.

The disappearance of this lifestyle in the shadow of Ocean Grove's glorious survival is sometimes seen as a sign from God, and the Grovers don't mind gloating about this. This has something to do with the perceived chummy relationship Methodists feel they have with God and that he appeases them by offering these instants of petty revenge to revel in, knowing full well that their egotistical humility feeds on proofs such as these.

In the Asbury Park Woolworth's, high up on the walls, above the artificial flower selection, above the "exotic" housedresses and decorative trivets once hung (for 20 years?) a series of discolored photo murals -- Asbury, Wesley Lake, Ocean Grove, revealing their elegant beach resort heyday.
8 The murals, including this very eerie one of the carousel, are all gone too; as are all the antique carousel hand-carved horses, coveted for so long by antique buffs, sold to high-bid scavengers, when Asbury went belly-up in the 1980s.

I've complained before about Ocean Grove no longer being a real town. Did I mean it was not like it once was or was more like all the rest, bearing striking resemblances to local Kabuls, Phnom Penhs, Beiruts... wasn't that just fine in its own way?

Well, its not unlike the beautiful woman -- or at least someone like H. mom, Evelyn, is that her name? -- who had effectively convinced others of her undeniable beauty, whose vanity, whose existence on a series of surfaces (which becomes a kind of depth) begins to collapse inside itself with the onset of age.

H. mom -- you've seen her on 57th St. in Manhattan and hundreds of other Main Streets -- is the kind who has learned to walk with chin on shoulder, gazing onto store windows, mesmerized by how her own extraordinary face used to -- no! still does! -- float there like a waterlily on a pond. Her headshot not a twinkle in a store's glass eye but (hopefully) a photogravure etched into the collective mindset.
9 The perception of herself bleeding into how others saw her.

And at what age did all this begin to wither? An entire empire depends on the answer, its eradication or its misapprehension. Bluestockings or floozies, I think they used to call her kind. They could slip into clothes that transported them into agreeable reveries, walk by the store windows at the appointed speed and almost see the films they should have been cast in. That was the magic of H. mom -- you spin the image of yourself and others get dizzy.

Extraordinary face or so I too had decided to see it (Swedish -- I too had guessed wrong because of her blond broom of hair) as a baited hook, a lure of amazing allure until there is a shift (a wrinkle, the fear of a wrinkle precipitating another) and suddenly what had once been "natural," timeless, a fresh vase of flowers is suddenly made over into a nostalgia for what had once and never been. Now begins the replication, the trick of make up's effect on the eye, eye tricking mind-- she becomes an optical illusion -- mind tricking wallet. At 50 she's applying more and more foundation (in the manner of a mortician) and people are saying, "doesn't she see what she's doing to herself?"
10

The hook is baited so that any errand is not just going out for cigarettes; no, all her movements on Main Ave. or along South Main, venturing into the downtowns of Bradley or Belmar are heavily lured to attract nibbles, each imagined bite adding beat to the heart. But with every passing day there are less bites, more what one is willing to interpret as a bite, more bait, longer eyelashes, long as the tail of a troutfly. When she flutters her long, longer, even longer eyelashes you get the faintest fanning effect -- air moves around her. I swear. And with the film crew prowling around town she tramped about in her most flamboyant demeanor. She could still be somebody.

Ocean Grove -- don't believe all the Sunday magazine articles -- is also in a state of mortification, despite, or because of the facelifts -- you can only lift the lift of a facelift so many times. Yes, facelifts, that's what they call these architectural tack-ons of balsa wood gingerbread detail. Granted, life does continue to be, for some, just life, like residents in Venice who remain unperturbed and oblivious to the millions of tourists; some people just go on, exist either engaging, ignoring or despising the tourists. For some Grovers, tourists are just trees in a park, you just walk around them.

But can we really make a comparison between H. mom's eyelashes and the gingerbread lace details that people around here apply to their façades more and more gratuitously -- so much that it feels like one is walking through an elaborate spider web? And doesn't it look ridiculous on the prefab apartment complex with its cheap aluminum siding and plastic screen doors? But isn't that all that historically correct has come to mean?! Well, yes and no.

A journalist writing some false (yet all that s/he said was true as well) piece, based on rewritten promotional materials, an annual pre-summer ritual for the Lifestyle or Travel section, makes the town shine proud yet dying for, groveling for the next feature -- the town coming alive only when it's being observed or documented by others. So that everything we do around here is documented. This is not unlike the vacation dad who insists on videotaping every moment of the family vacation even going so far as to recreate some events he may have missed. And as you wander around in your "own" town each citizen begins to find his part, adjust to her role, encourage you to assume yours as if in some way Ocean Grove is connected by the North Jersey Coast Line train to Petticoat Junction.

A tourist or one of the summer Tent Methodists might be in town for a month when suddenly you notice s/he beginning to swagger around, proud that s/he knows the Laun-Dri-Mat hours, garrulously engaging the cashier at the Pathway in small talk, the weather, the history of the town, the travel brochures bulging out of his back pocket -- there, I've conquered it by knowing it.

In the silence between the various factions lies the town's precarious détente. Between assorted innocuous niceties and daily greetings sits a vast and deep sense of dissatisfaction. The townies, sometimes called "white trash," "trailer trash" or "Pineys," (people who come from that backwater preserve and gangster burial site known as the Pine Barrens) keep to the selves they find in beer on their porches. They believe that if god had meant for them to keep their teeth he would have supplied them with an affordable dental plan. They believe the Lord guides them home when they drive drunk.

The locals, the Methodists, brood and glare in their own distinctive silent ways. Silent except around election time when their various mendacities are articulated and they can be seen all over the streets handing out conservative and Republican Party literature.

The tourists, be they Methodists or worshippers of Ra, spend a lot of time wondering if their new automobiles might indeed be a manifestation of the Lord's good graces. They grow mildly cocky in their little scrums as the summer wears on. Clad in ironed leisurewear, equipped with the arrogant luxury of not having to have a thought left in their heads -- that supreme insouciance of the retirees who squander that no-thought-consciousness on ennui and the fake revelry encountered on the shuffleboard courts, a stretch of canopied pavement to the south, on the banks of Fletcher Lake. These summer campers are veterans of 20 years of religious symposiums and work study groups but remain further from divinity than the deinstitutionalized who rock to and fro, to and fro, for days and days on end on the porches of the dilapidated hotels. They operate spiritually at somewhere around denying themselves golf and look at me funny with their tense, pursed lips, as if I am violating myself by just walking around in my own neighborhood. Of course, they are right, I jack off at the slightest memory of a glimpse of a woman down on the beach. They are right, they own the place, I am just here until the rents go through the sky.

For instance, one day I walked into the Raspberry Cafe to see if K. had indeed been hired on as a waitress (she hadn't) and one man asked, "Where you from?"

"Down the street."

"Really? I've never seen you around here." Spoken like the director of promotional films for planed communities. Or a skipper without a ship.

"Well, I been here." But, he was right, I was out of place in a place that offers muffins made with Spermotaine (an artificial sweetener and virility enhancer) or Metamusil or Kaopectate or ..." [Shortly after the film crews left town, the Raspberry Cafe closed its doors for the last time.]

The Grove reminds me of how I discovered that my parents had lives beyond me, were beings in their own right; that the bedroom was suddenly off limits, that you have to knock; that they had assembled an array of objects, private photos with you not in them, facts (they can't always make ends meet), and thoughts outside my sight and reach. That when my father left my sight, he didn't just hide on the other side of the wall but that he went to an appointed place. What is that instant called -- recognition of the greater universe?
11 When you realize planets and parents are no longer revolving around you and that not everything they say is true? Was I 6 years old?

My father used to have a stash of magazines -- filled with clandestine, prurient stories and gruesome photo not normally seen as "healthy." I once found him browsing through these magazines, putting them in some sort of order on the rec room floor. They were not dirty magazines with their pink and perfunctory penetrations, nor gun magazines; no, these magazines were described as saucy or rotten, sinister even, because they indulged in the seamy side of life.

I stopped going along on Saturday grocery shopping trips to stay behind and watch The Lone Ranger, watch Tarzan, the Johnny Weissmuller ones, where I saw Tarzan fidget with Jane's toes, learning how to count, discovering quite innocently, the delicious cleaves between her toes and then hunt for the key to his cabinet: here I discovered a stack of Man and Man's Adventure, full of weapons, wild safaris, stampeding rhinos, sterility, photo spreads of women with comely glances, uneven haircuts, and dirty soles, each one a kind of no-name brand knock-off of one or another Hollywood sex symbol. Like dingy refractions of the real Rita Hayworth. These photo spreads were complimented by stories of G.I.s encountering wild sensuous and leather-clad, snarling, buxom enemy women in articles like "The Secret Coven of Nazi SS Torture Vixens" or "Angels by Night, Killers by Night -- The Devil's Servants."

The others, Real Crime and Crime Confidential, showed men in Stetsons and bulky trenchcoats standing over supine contorted bodies; strange tangles of white limbs protruding from behind overturned furniture. They were printed on cheap paper, one step away from newsprint, so that when you turned the pages with perspiring fingers the lurid photos would stick to your fingertips and if you pressed your fingers to a blank sheet of paper you would get an odd effect -- parts of the crime scene photo lifted by your fingerprints printed there with your own unique whorls as a pattern "inside" the photo.

d style, somewhere desolate in Ohio or Western PA. I would stare at these photos, wondering what and how things in such average, unglamorous homes -- ugly mirrors, ugly carpet, sad snow scene souvenirs from collapsing tourist attractions -- happened. The crime scene photographer squatted over the body as I imagined even then, being this photographer, coming home to my wife after a long day of photographing dead people.

I remember the way my father stacked them, perhaps he'd even marked them to see if anyone was invading his private biblio realms. Neatly ordered in reverse chronological order -- the oldest on the bottom. The magazines stacked one atop the other, inter-leaved as if one lead to another, as if some longer, more involved, serialized, true-life story were contained in the collaging effect -- comely-dame-Nazi-intrigue, folded into deranged-ex-vet-crime-scene-in-small-town--anywhere-USA.

And some 20 years later I suddenly wondered: when did he read them; did he read them by placing them inside Consumer Reports? And why? After thinking about my father's collection I began observing my Grove neighbors to see why they couldn't be the people in these grisly stories in all their unrepentant and vicious details. In fact, walking around Ocean Grove and looking at certain homes, especially the ones on the "other" side of Broadway, near the Asbury edge of town, you can go with me and stare at these houses in a squint, stare until your focus goes inward, stare until the aperture of your squint converts these homes into these selfsame yellowed crime photos.
It was a weekend or 2 after the first of 2 murders in Ocean Grove: I lingered near the abandoned municipal swimming pool, site of the murder, with K. but only after the others had left, when dusk had called all of them to television.

The beefed-up police force, cruised the Grove's narrow dusky streets like somnolent bottomfeeders looking for more than just suspicious parking violations and curfew breakers.
12 They were under real pressure to arrest someone, anyone, since the rash of house torchings -- it made The New York Times, complete with a town map, flame symbols marking the 8 buildings torched thus far -- and the murder which occurred along the Asbury-Ocean Grove border, in the abandoned pool. Among the mumbles and whispers, a patriotic feeling, an Alamo spirit, emerged. Some "had" inside info that pointed to "niggers" or "loonies" or even a "nigger loony." The delirious descriptions of the charred rubble by some of the locals revealed how desperate they were to be part of something, something more dramatic than being an extra in a Chevy commercial. They were suffering too, if anyone would just take notice, they seemed to say.

One day I tripped over a thick wad of electrical cables bound in duct tape, feeding into the huge spotlights. It wasn't a Chevy commercial they were shooting. Maybe it was something to do with drinking milk. Or it was the crew shooting the documentary about the rash of fires. I wasn't paying attention. That I was upsetting their filming seemed more important than the fact that they were upsetting my life. And rightly so.

The tourist bureau and Methodist Tent Association (interlocked boards of trustees) spun these recent unfortunate incidents, hiring a slick (ironically enough, NYC) PR firm to "save" the town. They talked of "Sin City spillover." Petitions such as those proposing the erection of a fence between the 2 towns with a security guard checking the bags and persons of all suspicious entrants floated around from time to time. Another petition demanded the closure of the welfare hotels that house the deinstitutionalized psychiatric patients. Another would retreat to the past when issues were fundamental, values traditional and gates guarded all the entrances to the town. The death penalty petitions seemed to be stapled to every one of these other petitions. "Why should we, a religious community, always be the victim of our own charity and be required to take care of everyone else's problems?" This was how the petition began. Within a month of the 2nd murder they had plowed landfill into the empty pool. Where there had once been fun there now only lay contaminated landfill.

In the Pathway Market, one shopper turned to me, swinging her checkered shopping bag, remarking, "A girl just like K." The K. aimed right at me. She had only a week earlier accused me of stealing her frozen hamburger patties off the checkout counter. We had to go through her bag to find the patties. But I could sense my innocence meant nothing to her or the others. My being suspected by another justified their own suspicions. Well, if she indeed represented a "they", then they would find other reasons to suspect me. More on that later.

 

Chapter 7.

When I heard K. was in a coma I did not believe they were talking about K.A.; it had to be K.B., the K.B. who hitchhiked and -- we hear -- even bleached her pubes blond.

I thought maybe coma was something like a mental flotation device; coma -- a fleshy petal from a Japanese water lily. A metaphor for a vow of silence. As if K. had caved into herself, in exasperation, an appropriate escape from the way things were -- and still are.

In my research to find out "where" she was I discovered that poets were maybe pointing in a better direction than doctors. In the 8 reference books and medical desk manuals I checked in the libraries, the entry for coma was on average 1/10 the length of that allotted to entries fulminating against alcohol and cigarette consumption.

For instance, Gaston Bachelard, the poet of intimate space, describes something like a coma as a poetic state with a conjectural geography: "In this ambiguous space, the mind has lost its geometrical homeland and the spirit is drifting."
13 Mahayana Buddhists -- yes, I went all over -- insist nothing has substance anyway, that all is fleeting including the concept of void ("personified" by coma, perhaps) which "only has meaning for an ego clinging to things." And so maybe, by extension, a coma is a kind of "liberation from all obligations of dimensions."14

Or maybe the body floats hypnotically on dark water somewhere.
15 In questo sacre mare,16 searching for the "reborn paradises of the forgotten sun."17 We just have to find where and how far "beyond the solemn geographies of human limits"18 that somewhere is. Be it Atlantis, the collective unconscious where all the unformed material of human consciousness is stored, or private instants of inexplicable ecstasy or a subworld comprised of "this entire atmospheric essence" or "metarhythms,"19 (beyond detection) "hidden currents,"20 or currents below sea level, below consciousness, snugly hugging the contours of thought-becomes-territory.

I mean, I was willing to look anywhere for answers -- libraries, medical talk shows, my past research with hallucinogens and out-of-body experience ... For instance, from my reading it seems that you guys could pinpoint some of these conjectures by using single photon emission tomography to monitor cerebral blood flow -- significant blood flow occurs during hallucinatory periods. I mean, we might learn she is enjoying a rich imagistic cerebral cinema -- that she has access to Mnemonica, the phosphene cinema of memory, listening to music in her head, the "voice of a multitude"
21 in her temporal lobe where words are recognized and ultimately subsume "ego in the meaningful patterns in the noise"22 in the left anterior cingulate cortex, the region associated with emotions.

And naive me, I thought I could just go to intensive care, find that somewhere
23 and then talk to her, talk her through it and out of it. Like yelling down a manhole to someone caught in a labyrinthine storm sewer underneath the city streets. Like getting in a bell tower and ringing the bells.

Not long ago I ran across this poem in an old magazine I had laying around. It is by Swedish poet, Peter Sandelin, who put my notions into these words: "... I handed over the problems / to the snowstorms, / to the silent trees, the invisible / gulls ..."
24 As if thought had drifted outside the bioelectrical realms of neurotransmitters, the way a radio signal drifts in and out late at night or clouds drift out of the frame of the airplane's window.

Researchers involved in psychic experience verification hint that there may be a similarity with ecsomasticity, out-of-bodyness, where a coma, may produce a "distinct shift of the perceptual locus from the physical organism."
25 William Butler Yeats in his 1921 poem, "The Second Coming" described this psychic drift as a sphere breaking out of the gravitational field of its host, like thoughts spiraling into an ever larger orbit: "Turning and turning in the widening gyre, / The falcon cannot hear the falconer ..." As if K. were on an auto-piloted flight carrying her outside human earshot of those she's left behind.

Shakespeare spoke of a certain spatial dizziness: "... the murmuring surge / That the unnumber'd idle pebbles chafes / Cannot be heard so high. I'll look no more, / Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight / Topple headlong ..."
26 While Baudelaire wrote of a deep sleep where "vast perspectives (are) filled with new clarities."27 That would be nice.

Was K. prepared for all this, this ... travel by her dad who'd retold the stories of Jonah and the whale as he nibbled on her precious little toes when she was 5 or 6 or 16? She imagining the darkness of the whale's belly as he spoke ... "the waters compassed me around, down to my soul, until depth closed in around me ..." And then Jonah spit her out, and she died and now is reborn ...

Didn't all this news about her "accident" arrive right after I'd discovered the very button in K. which when pressed, sent her mind reeling with loud abandon? Like a cheerleader. I still have the marks, the perfect slivery moons, her nails dug out of the flesh of my arms wrapped around her hips, as orgasm, the orgasm that sat inside one orgasm, exploded even further into orgasm. Like a caterpillar in a children's book who eats his way through a fruit, through the seed of the fruit and the very idea of the fruit which the seed contains. The caterpillar thus containing a belly full of tomorrow's orgasms. All this so that her muscles could release spasms and engorged blood, which was infused with adrenaline, kerosene, and fever. And then she would pass out to somewhere where I could not find her, where "the pleasure suffusing (her) body called for darkness, that darkness was pure, perfect, thoughtless, visionless; that darkness was without end, without borders; that darkness was the infinite we each carry within us."
28

Hadn't she written something like: "I didn't know I could leave my body. I didn't know it wasn't like H. said, like getting piss drunk. I thought it was going to be messy. Nauseating. But it wasn't. It was like nothing else. It was so like what love is. So that love and sex are like interchangeable words. I wonder if we have sex all the time, maybe we will permanently leave our bodies. Like abandoning your car when you reach the edge of the sea. (Don't get me wrong, I like your Hornet!) So you have to admit I was right when I told everybody you were my 'Mr. Right'."

Didn't all this occur with me on my knees before her quivering torso as she held onto the chipped ceramic kitchen sink just 2 weeks ago? My genuflection meant to mitigate hers. Right after that "anonymous" phone call referring to what I was doing as 'statutory rape'? Was it me or K. who quoted Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door'?

Coma, according to K.'s doctors however, described in a certain ascerbic or contemptuous brevity -- perhaps instigated by the fact that a coma still defies verification and comprehension -- is "a state of unconsciousness resulting from either temporary or permanent brain injury. A comatose state indicates major damage to the function of main nerve cells that, in intricate ways, facilitated a human's full alertness."
29 Affected nerves, I have read, may lie in the brain's surface layer -- the cerebral cortex -- or in deeper regions such as the diencaphalon or the brain stem.30 All this is meant to wrench the soul ever further away from religion and into the realm of medicine so that soul can become memory, because memory is quantifiable and soul isn't.

In automobile accident impact studies done at the Volvo crash labs in Sweden, there are indications that coma is more likely to occur in cases of side collisions, broadsides if you will, than in head-on collisions. In head-on collisions, the whiplash or severe shaking of the head is forward and back. While broadside impact (say to the passenger-side door) is lateral which apparently can cause the separation of the cerebral hemispheres and make the axons connecting the two hemispheres stretch, balloon up, swell. They exhibit damage. And it is in this separation of the two hemispheres that the coma may occur. But, if detected quickly enough, doctors can stop the swelling with drugs and if applied immediately, thy can reverse or at least mitigate the damage and the onset of a coma. In your case, you had several hours before irreversible damage might have set in. So did you act appropriately in this timespan? I'd really like to know.

The most common non-disease related causes of a coma are head injuries that cause bruising, tearing ... ruptured blood vessels, general drastic drops in blood pressure, irreparable brain damage in other words. K., it is rumored, suffered sudden severe blunt trauma. But, I wanted to ask, doesn't this mean that the genesis of her coma was squashed into some instantaneous micro-second, where one second she was gay and festive and the next she had passed instantly through all of coma's tollbooths -- lethargy, confusion, stupor, light sleep, and finally the irretrievable sleep of coma?

The patient in these cases, supposedly remains unresponsive to stimuli normally associated with sleep interruption: bright lights, loud noises, pin pricks. Progressive mental deterioration or brain syndrome may be manifested although the patient may continue to display autonomic movements -- twitches -- in response to pain.

So if a coma means being nonsusceptible to normal awakening stimuli why not try extreme electrical stimulation to the mesencephalic portion of the reticular formation? Just to be sure. I mean, this supposedly can cause immediate and noticeable generalized activation of the entire brain, including activation of the cerebral cortex. It's known to cause a sleeping animal to awaken instantly. So, have you considered this? I'm willing to try my hand at it. How about caresses of intact erogenous zones or suggestive whispers,
31 the scent of my feet, my underarms, or let me try to arouse the paroxysms associated with pleasure, or read poetry directly into her inner ear, blood-curdling screams. Why not? Let's try everything.

I've got lots of other questions for you doctors. Is it cerebral edema from acute hypoxia? Why not do a living autopsy? Why not administer L-dopa, a drug known to perform quite admirably (and mysteriously) in the relief of the coma-like symptoms in Parkinson's patients. It has also done amazing things for the sexual urges of geriatric patients. What about the Lesh scale which correlates subjective states of feeling with objective measurable physiological changes? Would that not be a good compromise to "idle" verse and proactive medicine?

Did CAT scans show anything? Have you even done them? Pardon my impertinence. I'm just frustrated. The pain is not knowing. I mean, are there at least alpha waves when you guys do an EEG? If so, doesn't that just mean she's in a quiet resting state of cerebration? Are there delta waves? You must know that these are the waves of deep deep sleep, infancy, and serious organic brain disease. Can we make beta waves happen? I'd like to try. How can I make it clear that I am at your and her service!? Do you need blood? Where do I apply?

But since I'm not family, they won't entertain any of these thoughts over the phone. That seems like such an arbitrary distinction when it comes to saving the life of someone dear to you.

I mean, just because doctors cannot discern a response to applied stimuli does not necessarily mean that the patient, K., could not still somehow get pleasure from my voice, my caressing hand. That's the arrogance of medicine -- physicians must identify a shiver or twitch to "know" there has been a reaction. Their entire imagination constrained by a semiotic of blips, graphs, and vital signs. It's the old falling tree making a noise in the forest argument ... But you can't tell that to anyone, especially not immediately after the crash.

Had K. not also said (am I remembering or strategically restructuring her words for the sake of my self-esteem or at the behest of the film script?
32): "I didn't know women could have pleasure. H. always says 'bitches give, guys get'." A coma, then, could be something like the body launched out to sea by sexual pleasure, and maybe there is no deterioration of ecstasy in her case. The ancient Egyptians believed that once the soul that had animated the body began to wander it would leave the body motionless. But, I was assured to learn, everything else continues to move. I mean her desires, musings, dreams keep moving onward, advancing, an extrapolation of soul into the unseen, the way infrared extends human sight into the mysteries of darkness.

Or is it all just my addle-brained attempt to apply noble human will to the situation; as if she'd chosen transcendence like a "psychic traveler driven by desire and curiosity"
33 rather than her being tossed against her will into a no-mans-land by the selfish homicidal/suicidal act of one person? I'm, by the way, convinced it was no accident. The police would maybe like to know this, although I'm not too sure.

Back in town it was impossible to deal with the community's inverted glee, the sappy gloom, the ant-like diligence, the delirious bedwatch details, the "progress," the prognoses, the talk of "dilated pupils fixed" or "flat EEG" or "blood gases," or "biofidelic cadaver," or "no RAS response."
34 The descriptions of how she looked -- "raspy breath, dry, pale lips," and the spurious hints of attempted philosophizing: "Once there's an irreversible loss of brain function including brain stem reflexes she's no longer an organic unity known to have person or soul and is just a breathing side of beef, well, I say then she might's well be dead." Like they were waiting for her to die so that their own needs could rebuild her in their own likeness.

There was also the cloying manner in which certain locals felt almost special, chosen, like messengers -- this bugged me -- the way they took to the medical jargon they'd cribbed from doctor shows on TV, Reader's Digest and what crumbs the attending doctors had offered them and the newspapers to enlarge their sense of well-being of their own importance. Like dreamers who might write poetry. Suddenly everybody was an expert ennobled by the manner in which they organized their concern, enlarged by how central they had made themselves to the dissemination of information. A new blip on the screen might sustain some for an entire day, each whisper of the information like a hiccup of ecstasy. In the end everybody knew her and everybody had always loved her. And now they were grateful to her for having given them this, this crisis to rally around.

In the bank and bakery I spoke to no one. No one. And because I spoke to no one I began to sense piercing glances from locals as if to say "why doesn't he care? Why hasn't he visited her? He seems totally unconcerned. He seems to have 'feelings of estrangement from others
35.' Aren't him and H. friends, after all?" They limited their view of me to how they needed to see me. Their picture of me was a perceptual set of visual/post-perceptual information they are "programmed" to receive. Where was he that night? They'd ask. Isn't it him who fed her whiskey -- H. mom later asked with some sly sense of insinuation -- and filled her head with weird ideas in that strange apartment building on Mt. Hermon, owned by Jews living in Washington, D.C.? Me culpable? Well, more on that later.

Regardless of how many beautiful and powerful words I swaddle the phenomenon in, is it not true that I am not seeking a solution by describing it so much as a way to feel better about myself having described her condition? I have not fully addressed this counter-argument.

But anyway, there you have it; I did struggle to understand, to get a feeling beyond greeting card feeling, sympathy beyond the churchy kind, grief beyond the weepy kind, a sorrow of deep deep abiding regret. "And then, my dear, we'll find ourselves in darkness," said Gepetto to Pinocchio.
36

Letter from K. to P. dated August 14 (containing a letter dated June 1), 3 days before the crash on August 17: "... i didn't dare send this letter at the time since i didn't know you or maybe didn't know how well i already knew you!! -- so here it is now. Can't you just accept my full love for what it is L-O-V-E?!! ' ... i dropped out of ROTC. i couldn't take it. H. said i wasn't man enough to take it. Never mind what he meant because he meant less than you'd think. i think i just had too many conflicting feelings. It felt as though i was doing something against myself. i'm in music now. i play piano, flute, and bells. It's great. Each instrument takes my heart into a separate direction all happy and relaxing. i'd love to go to Interlochen or Cranberry but it's too expensive and too late -- i'd have to wait a whole other year!! NO way!! If i wait much longer i'll be applying to Monmouth County Psychiatric instead!!! ... Music means so many things to me. The song of a songbird, the sound of a mountain stream pouring over big stones, a happy man humming, children's singing games. Almost everybody gets pleasure out of music. Or uses it like Muzak in the Acme or the ice cream man (Mr. Softie!). Musics have always been close to me. My father said i was only 2 days old when i turned my head to see a blackbird singing in a tree. And i was like a week old he said, when i turned and actually reached for the radio knob -- maybe i was going to turn up the music! So music expresses emotion, it calms a troubled mind. The handicapped deserve enjoyment too. They gain so much in a very positive way. They get kind of centered, less anxious, they smile because their minds and bodies are in harmony and there i will find some of my worth, maybe all of it! Some people think i have a good voice. They think my voice sounds like Karen Carpenter! At first i was teed off to be compared to her. But the more i listen the more i can see it. i would never admit this to any of my friends who are all into metal but i LIKE the Carpenters! "i'm looking at you now finding answers to my prayers" Wow! But, please don't tell any of my friends that i listen to the Carpenters, they'd never understand, they'd never ever let me live it down! ... i've come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of people who join the military -- those who wish to help the world but who are lost in how to focus this help ... and so they take orders from men who are playing god ... The others are looking for something to believe in which will carry them to where you are ... I wonder if the other girls will soon be able to smell a stranger -- me! -- when they smell your skin ... Anyway, 2 more months in this prison and I'll be free ...'"

Last letter excerpt from K. to P. dated August 15:37 "H. is going to drive me to Upsala College tomorrow so i can see the campus. And then on the way back, I want to see Fairleigh Dickinson. Upsala's not too far but just far enough that if i do decide to go there i will live on campus meaning away from my family who are driving me nuts. FDU is too close i'm guessing. i didn't ask you not because i don't love you or don't think you are a good driver (you're the best!) but because my love means i respect your time. Your time seems more valuable than others like mine. I've been accepted to 4 other colleges too -- Syracues (sic), Boston University, SUNY-Binghamton, Ithaca College (good for teechers (sic)). Upsala has a religious orientation and that is good ... although I'm not so sure since i think God likes people like you and me who don't take orders from anyone ... free souls he doesn't have to babysit, that's what God likes ... H. doesn't want me to go there or any college! He's very negative. He's always talking about mind control. That professors work for the government. And lie about Vietnam. He's also very possessive of me. But can you (I don't mean YOU!) be possessive of something (I do mean ME!) you don't own? Can't own!! ... The more he says he wants me, the more he makes me hate him and the more he lashes out. Don't ask!!! H. has taken care of me. He bought me food and stuff (jewelry but NEVER books!) when i needed them. He fixed my wounds ... But he's even jealous of my dog, Hootie! You'd love Hootie! But H. shoots it, not with a gun but he makes believe, with his finger -- POWPOWPOW, he'll yell, putting the barrel (his finger) up to Hootie's head especially when he snuggles up to me. How can you feel jealous of a dog!? i feel like asking him. But i don't dare!!!! ... They (or was it YOU!?) say that possessive people are those who don't possess a soul. So they search forever for a placeholder, trying to control things outside and being out of control inside. Do you believe this? If you told me this i guess you do believe it ... If i was a musical instrument how would you play me? The way you did the other night!!!? i will always be grateful for what you have done for me. i am forever your long distance lover ... Yes, you are probabely (sic) thinking that when you saw me riding around with Rob and Roy that I was crazy. You are probley (sic) right althouph (sic) they are not as bad as you make them out to be. I also know you saw me driving around with H. What was I supposed to due (sic)!? I know you don't get jealous or so you say but I was determined to try. I hope that someday when our ages are only 25 procent (sic) apart maybe we can again be joined and then you can show me all and i can play music for you. Do you like Vivaldi? i do! i've never told this to anyone, not even G. i now intend to become a music teacher, a therapist for troubled children. Music has magical healing properties that ..." [Last page misplaced.]

 

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