THE DOUBLED MIND
by Terence Hughes
January 16-23, 2017
When Jack Crory was 50, in a theatre with his wife who died a year later, he watched a now-dead singer perform a duet with her long-dead father, and he felt a kind of dizziness, like he was walking on a 2x4 across a canyon. It was a sensation that included an idea of a god and immortality: it was both true and untrue at the same time. Sensible and ridiculous. There and not there. The awareness answered no questions but exposed their futility. With it came a voice that said, “It’s me, Jack.” He tended to be a skeptic; he thought, “It’s a natural phenomenon.” But anyhow, for the first time in his life, he paid attention to his internal voice, that neutral one which uttered the truth and left him to pick up the mess it left.
It left more than a few messes. When his wife was ill, he looked through her not at her, and the voice said, “She’s going to die soon.” He became too compassionate and she flashed in anger: “You’re just waiting for me to die!” He protested but the voice told him, “She knows it too. Save yourself.”
At such times he was aware of pain and had a rat-like desperation to escape it, though escape was of course never permitted. When he had lost every dime in a well-publicized Ponzi scheme, the mess was getting used to the loss of old friends in the sin of being a failure, and subsequently eating alone at dirty all-you-can-eat troughs. “You don’t need them. Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. He protested but the voice was firm.
Now he was 82 and debilitated with Parkinson’s. He required a wheelchair and needed help to dress himself, to get on the toilet, to do anything needful. He peered at the young woman who was sitting across from him. His internal voice groaned in pity. She was pretty and clearly good with the old and sick. Her name was Nina, and Jack saw past her pleasant demeanor into deeply scarred self so clearly that he almost jumped out of his wheelchair to comfort her. Nina was saying, “You seem to be doing pretty well here, Mr. Crory. Is there anything you need right away?”
He shrugged. “There is a superficial competence, but everyone is filled with rage, having to work in such an environment, with people who smell and are out of it all the time. I can’t say I blame them.”
She was taken aback and confused. This was the best facility in the area. What was he referring to really? He was one of those well-educated clients she always found intimidating, and she didn’t have a clue what he was meant. Nina set down her tablet, into which she had been recording his responses to her file on CRORY, JOHN. “That seems harsh, Mr. Crory.” She hesitated then said, “If you would like a different social worker…”
“I’m full of harsh thoughts, Nina.”
She attempted a warm smile because it appeared his heart was breaking. “Is it simply because you’re a senior citizen?”
“Sweetheart, it’s called ‘old’.” He studied her for a long minute and leaned forward. “I see that you are a person who has suffered cruelly. Your soul has been almost destroyed. Inside you’re deformed. Someone did that to you intentionally.”
Nina looked at the window, out to where there was sunshine and a gentle breeze, sealed off from this little universe that smelled like bad plumbing and sounded like a bedlam. She looked back at him, smiling. “Now, is there anything else about Palmview Manor you’d like to tell me?” The inhabitants were on short-term leases. Their complaints filled her days. She picked up the tablet, fingers at the ready. She was patient and persevering.
Jack shook his head more than it generally shook. “I think I’ve said too much already. Forgive me. I am abrupt and harsh to a lot of people. But I don’t have a lot of time. Bullshit is time-wasting.”
Nina leaned forward and took his mottled hand. “I understand. I truly do.” Then she amazed herself by raising his hand to her lips. It was the lightest of kisses. Jack’s astonishment gave way to an expression of pity.
“I see you walking in sunshine some day,” he told her. “You have to live long enough, though.”
Nina almost ran out of the building. She got in her broiling hot car and cold ran through her. She couldn’t fathom her action. Where did that come from? The strange old man had awakened something. He saw her like she was. She didn’t understand what he might see, but he had intuited enough of the truth to frighten her. She thought he was the kindest person she had ever met.
She wasn’t optimistic for either of them.
Before she encountered Jack Crory, Nina had convinced herself that she was a survivor. She had lived through years of malevolent abuse at the hands of her mother and stepfather. When she left home, she found a support group of similarly mutilated souls, and eventually wound up in psychotherapy. The therapist once told her she was “occluded”, and that she was incapable of living a normal, relatively happy life.
Nina hid behind shy smiles and gentle words. Most of the people she met along the way remarked on what a sweet girl she was, self-effacing to the point of invisibility. She got through college on a needs scholarship and various student jobs; then she earned a master’s in social work. She owed nobody anything, really. She had to rely on herself always.
Through all of her version of a pilgrim’s progress Nina never made close friends with anyone. She was terrified to be in anyone’s power, in any way, ever again. When she went home after work it was to a place that reminded her of the shit-smeared closet where she spent much of her time as a child. She scrubbed the apartment endlessly and showered a minimum of twice a day, and of course it and she were never clean enough. She would observe herself in the bathroom mirror and trace the scars they left on her belly, five of them as if a hand of talons had attempted to disembowel her. She would look at herself and not think anything.
A grainy black and white film played in her mind constantly, where one minute she was dirty and alone in the pitch-black closet and the next Roddy, her stepfather, was giving it to her up the ass. Her mother would be grinning at them, high, eating potato chips. Another scene from that endlessly looping movie had her mother beating her so hard that baby teeth flew out of her mouth. She swallowed one. By this time Nina had learnt not to cry or struggle. She knew enough to stay in the house when she was battered black and blue. Sometimes she went to the closet on her own and tried to sleep there while Donna and Roddy fought and cursed all over the little house until they passed out.
Tonight, after Jack Crory, Nina felt odd, less in the possession of the old wrongs. She peered out the kitchen window at dusk, convinced she heard a bird struggling against the glass.
Two weeks passed by her as she almost tiptoed through the days. A sense of wary expectancy developed in her. As she made her rounds of her assigned cases, she met scores of residents. Some of them were kindly, but most of them were too afraid, lonely, and sick to be other than hostile. She went to Palmview Manor and asked how Mr. Crory was doing.
“He’s OK. Just a little weird.”
Nina found him sitting in the common area at a picture window that looked onto a golf course. He brightened when he saw her. He pointed outside, saying, “Nina, sometimes there’s a sound at the window.”
“What do you mean?” She felt invaded by his knowing comment, his smile.
He laughed slyly. “Nina, I’m sorry to sound cryptic but there’s no way of talking about it that doesn’t sound insane. But you better go with it to save your life.”
She was supposed to be interviewing him. “Are things OK for you here?”
He gave her an ironical look. “Take me to my room.”
He wouldn’t speak any more or in anyway answer her routine questions. Nina said, “Have a nice day, Mr. Crory.”
Trevor was waiting for her at the coffeehouse. “You’re late,” he said, sipping at his cappuccino. “My coffee’s cold.” He had already eaten the tasteless pastry. Nina stared at the shredded wrapper and apologized.
“I had a hard time getting up this morning.”
Trevor smiled salaciously. “Hard night?”
Nina flushed. “Why do you always talk like that?” She excused herself and got a coffee. She didn’t feel hungry. She was afraid to eat in his company. Back at the table she killed time fussing with the pack of sugar and the little container of half and half. “I’m not sleeping well.”
Trevor looked grave. “Tossing and turning over some other man.”
She didn’t bother answering that one. Everything he said was a provocation. Responding to everything he said would exhaust her in no time. “One of my clients said some things. I don’t know what he was talking about. It’s made me restless.”
Trevor tossed his homely head. “So now you’re hot for some old fucker of 90! You kill me!” He bared his teeth.
Nina gazed at his misshapen mouth. She wondered what she was doing with him. They had met one day at this very place, and Trevor then was pleasant and charming. She liked him. Then they fell into a routine of meeting for coffee twice a week. Trevor’s manner changed, and he grew angrier and more insulting as the weeks went by. They had met outside this place just once, to see a movie she pretended to want to see. Whether he was hostile because she pulled away at the first sign of intimacy or because he was living in his own hell, Nina couldn’t say. She never thought much about it one way or the other.
Something from the past snatched at her and made her react with a startled cry. “I have to go. I’m very tired.”
Before she could stand up he took hold of her thigh, squeezing hard enough to bruise her. “You’re mine, you dirty little birdie.”
Nina saw the face of her stepfather glaring at her. She was thankful she didn’t have a gun in her purse. She got free. At the door she looked back. Trevor’s face had crumpled.
“You see, I protected myself,” she told Jack. “I never did that before.”
“Did you break it off?”
She nodded. “Here’s the strange part. He doesn’t call me and hang up or stalk me anymore.”
Jack’s eyebrows went up. “He did that?”
“Yes. He did sometimes. This was the first time I saw him the way he really is.” She paused and looked out the little window of Jack’s room. “It was like a voice – an actual voice – spoke in me and told me to cut him out of my life.”
Jack wheeled over to the kitchenette to take the kettle off the stove. He tried to prepare their tea but his hands shook too much. Nina got up and took the mugs to the plastic-topped coffee table.
“What do you think is happening?” he asked.
“It’s scaring me.” Her hand shook too as she raised the mug to her lips.
Jack told her, “Don’t weaken.”
Her mother was still alive. She lived in a trailer by a polluted canal. The place flooded frequently and Donna called her daughter begging assistance of some kind, usually cash, sometimes groceries or a couch to flop on until the water receded. “Nina?” Donna was surprised by the sound of her voice, because she had never heard Nina speak so calmly. “Nina, that you, sugar? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong. What do you want?”
“Now, honey, don’t you love your mom no more?” Donna cooed. She went on about the flood and the sewage that she said was seeping into her place. Her voice rose in calculated panic. “It’s just terrible, Neens, and there’s a gator swimmin’ around out here! Come get me!” Her beseeching tone ended as a peremptory demand.
The voice told her what to say. “No.” She hung up.
Nina was shaking but stilled her nerves when she realized she would never have to see the woman again if she didn’t want to.
She sat at the kitchen table and sipped a glass of water. She marveled at the voice. She capitalized the word in her mind. The Voice.
“Why are you here?” Nina’s own voice rose higher as fear came out of its caves.
“Sometimes you’re really dumb.” The Voice smiled. “Tell Mr. Crory about this.” Nina closed her eyes, resolving to see him on Monday.
“What else did it tell you, Nina?”
“It got quiet. It went away.” She was a little distraught. “I can’t just summon it when I want.”
“What conclusions did you draw?”
Nina shook her head. “I didn’t. Haven’t. I’m too freaked.”
Jack closed his eyes. “Hurry up about it. There’s not a hell of a lot of time.”
As usual, she was perplexed when she left Mr. Crory. She laughed to herself on the way to the car. “I guess he wanted to tell me I could be free or something.” It was the most absurd thought she had ever had – but it came from the Voice. Nina knew that freedom was an illusion and felt disappointed in the fallibility of the Voice. She had hoped it was God speaking right to her.
She saw Mr. Crory once more before he died. He asked how she was doing. “Has she spoken to you recently?”
“Your voice. Socrates called it his daimon. His inner power.”
Nina didn’t know what to do with the information. “It doesn’t come to me much.”
Jack gazed at her and said, “That’s good, actually. You don’t command it. It points you the way to reality, but you don’t have to listen to it. It always ends up bad if you don’t, though. At least for me.” He scrutinized her. “You’re going to be alone all your life, aren’t you?”
She hadn’t framed it like that to herself, but she nodded.
“That’s a shame. But I understand.” He beckoned her closer and kissed her forehead. “You’ve brightened my last days.”
“Oh don’t say that!” Nina protested. “You aren’t going to die soon.”
“Sweetheart, I have a voice too.”
There was a good turnout in the common room for Mr. Crory’s memorial. They were going to serve doughnuts and coffee after. Nina stood at the back of the room viewing the scene with detachment. It was mildly surprising that she felt no sorrow.
She went about her daily work, visiting and recording interactions with her elderly clients, arranging doctor’s appointments, and making sure rent subsidies were properly credited. She was calm when she got home. Jack Crory was sitting on her couch in his funeral suit.
“I had a feeling you’d be here!” she told him. “I’m glad to see you. We can say goodbye.” He smiled, gazing out the window, and vanished.
She felt a presence. It touched her heart and she broke down in tears for the first time since she was a dirty little girl locked in a closet. The Voice was mute but made her hear her own pain in all its purity, at once the little girl and the woman, hidden away, always afraid.