Before leaving the house that morning, Ted Warren III had rubbed his hands with the remnants of his wife’s perfume bottle, but it didn’t do much good. As he drove in circles through the drizzle, the smell of meat and fresh chicken blood slowly reasserted itself, and he winced in disgust. On the radio, an announcer began reading from the work of the poet Salvatore Quasimodo. “After the turbulence of death,” said the deep, rich voice, “moral principles and even religious proofs are called into question.” Minutes later, during a commercial break, Ted turned down the volume and called his boss to let him know he was under the weather.
He parked near the dingy two-story building behind a closed gas station and found the office door wide open. The doctor, standing by the window looking at the gray sky, turned around and smiled affably as they shook hands. Then he asked him to take off his shirt.
“You see, Doc,” said Ted, pointing to the crumpled bit of loose skin on his chest, “the thing is, it doesn’t hurt.” The doctor, a bespectacled, middle-aged man named Rabindranath, thought about it for a minute and shook his head. “May I?” he asked dubiously. Ted nodded and closed his eyes.
The doctor straightened the loose skin. He pulled at it, gently, and it grew into a ragged little string. Then he pulled again and out came a yarn of translucent thread, shiny like silver. It slid out smoothly, effortlessly, and soon nearly a foot of it hung between the doctor’s hand and Ted Warren.
“I’ll be,” said the doctor, startled. He looked at the strand with some unease. “What do I do with it?” he asked.
Ted Warren felt mildly irritated by the question. He cleared his throat, and another five inches of gleaming string slid out of his chest.
“Just cut it. It doesn’t hurt.”
The doctor took out a handkerchief and dabbed at his sweaty forehead. Then he carefully placed the end of the string on Ted’s lap and walked over to his desk. He pressed a button.
“Sonia, please come in for a minute.”
Sonia, the nurse, was a heavyset woman of about 60. Once a stunning beauty, she had hair of an almost luminescent quality, arranged in a reddish beehive. Her misty green eyes reminded Ted of a seaside landscape that hung over his bed when he was a child.
“Mmm,” said the doctor pensively, as he gently pulled at the string. Another half foot slithered onto Ted’s lap. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Over the years, Sonia had become Rabindranath’s alter ego at the office, and he’d grown accustomed to asking her opinion about pretty much everything.
The nurse smiled at Ted and put a hand on his bare chest, near the orifice and the hanging string.
“Looks like the poor man’s unraveling,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
But as she leaned over to examine the translucent string, something extraordinary happened. Her beehive, which had defied gravity for over 12 years, suddenly became undone. And instantly, touched by the silvery glow of Ted Warren’s string, the red perm was transformed and fell on Sonia’s shoulders lusciously, bathed in its former golden glory.
“I’ll be,” said the doctor.
Sonia, startled, felt her hair with her fingers and walked over to a mirror, near the scale.
Then, when she turned and looked at him, Ted was able to see inside her soul, and noted with amazement the contours of a heart covered by paw prints from a thousand unhappy loves. He gasped and tried to look away, but couldn’t.
“The Lord, in a state of nostalgic timelessness,” he told her without thinking, impelled by the ghosts of his epiphany, “poured his reminiscence through my soul and remade you young and beautiful. For you were beautiful, Sonia. Hot damn.”
Sonia turned to the doctor, her hand still on her blond mane of hair.
“I’ll be outside if you need me,” she said, and began to cry.
Ted’s face turned crimson.
“I don’t know what the hell got into me, Doc. I’m so embarrassed.”
Rabindranath was speechless for a few seconds.
“Mr. Warren,” he said at last, “I’m a doctor. Nothing fazes me.”
He took a pair of scissors out of his white coat’s pocket and cut off most of the protruding yarn. He gathered it into a ball and unceremoniously tossed it in a nearby wastebasket. Ted arranged what remained of the cord to make it look like a crumpled bit of loose skin. He put on his shirt and followed the doctor to his desk.
“Sit, please. I’ve got your X-rays and lab work here,” said the physician nervously. “It looks like this thing, whatever it is, comes straight from your pineal gland. Right in the middle of your brain.”
“So I’ve been told,” replied Ted warily.
“Are you up on Descartes? Descartes said the pineal gland, or epiphysis, is the seat of the soul. The soul, Mr. Warren. It’s nonsense, of course. But really, who would have thought? Let me ask you this: Have you suffered from insomnia lately?”
“Something terrible, Doc.”
“No wonder. Science tells us the epiphysis secretes melatonin, which is essential to restful sleep.”
“So what do we do, Doc? You’re my last hope.”
The doctor took off his glasses and began to wipe them with his handkerchief.
“Why don’t you tell me all about it. Then we’ll see,” he replied.
So Ted told him the entire story: At first he’d been able to lead a largely normal life, he said, except for having to give up golf. As he explained to the doctor, all but very short putts triggered acute episodes right in the middle of the Charles County Public Course. He recounted his initial visit to a general practitioner, and the endless, frustrating testing at the county hospital. After the X-rays traced the source of his problem to the epiphysis, a priest had performed an exorcism on him, with no noticeable effect. A healer, recommended by a coworker, had treated him with urine therapy, which invariably made him gag. That caused the silvery string to glide out of him with terrific violence, until he had to unbutton his shirt in order to breathe. Later attempts with aromatherapy were equally fruitless. He had ended that course of treatment the day he gave forth two feet of yarn after having his chest rubbed with ginger, as the bewildered healer shook his head and muttered: “Holy shit.”
One night, he recalled with a shudder, he fell asleep watching a rerun of Colombo, and his dog, grabbing at the end of the protruding cord with his teeth, had pulled nearly 20 yards of yarn out of him.
The doctor thought about it all for a long minute.
“Mmm,” he said. “Have you been under undue moral stress?”
“Well,” replied Ted, after pondering the question for a moment, “I do work a lot.”
“I mean moral stress, sir. A profound sense of guilt, for example.”
“About what?” said Ted defensively.
“Never mind, Mr. Warren. You mentioned your work. What is it you do?”
“I’m a butcher.”
“A darn good one, Doc. But my life’s real passion is poetry.”
“Yep. Every night, for twenty years, I’ve been writing Alexandrine verse about a lost love of mine. I’d rather not go into it.”
“Mmm. Sure. Are you married, Mr. Warren?”
“Yes,” said Ted, “but my wife’s been staying with relatives for the last month or so.”
“Sorry to hear that. What was the problem?”
“Well, you see, so much string would come out when we were intimate that I had to give it up. Now, she says I’m not demonstrative enough to meet her emotional needs. Can you believe that? She wanted us to see a couples’ therapist. But, you know, there are limits to what a man will endure for a little companionship. So I’d say we’re at an impasse, Doc.”
Doctor Rabindranath dabbed at his sweaty forehead again, lost in thought. Then he took the X-rays out of the folder and examined them for a moment, nodding.
“I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Warren. You need emergency surgery. And even then, the prognosis isn’t good.”
“Jesus, Doc. When do you want to do this?”
“How about now?” replied the doctor. “I don’t want to alarm you, but we really shouldn’t wait.”
He took the scissors out of his coat pocket and used them to point.
“We’ll cut from here to here,” he said, tracing a line from Ted’s abdomen to his head. “There’s probably quite a bit of yarn bunched up against vital organs. Have you been having any digestive problems?”
“Yes,” said Ted, alarmed, “quite a bit of gas, in fact.”
“I thought so,” declared the doctor. “So, we cut from here to here. Next, I’m afraid, we have to break your jaw and temporarily remove your face, to open up a passage to your brain.”
“You serious, Doc?”
“Dead serious. I’ll make an incision in your epiphysis and plug it with the end of the string. We’ll rig a kind of self-feeding loop, you understand? That way you’ll be storing melatonin instead of losing it.”
Ted winced. He tasted a rush of fear and began to sweat profusely.
“You’re in capable hands,” said the doctor reassuringly.
Doctor Rabindranath gave him a capsule with 15 milligrams of melatonin and told him to rest for a while. Ted lay down in a little windowless room off the main office. Despite the stitches of anguish nagging at his insides, he eventually felt himself drifting into a restful slumber for the first time in weeks.
“Go to sleep, Mr. Warren,” said the doctor softly, standing by the door. “Leave it all in my hands. It will be all right.”
“I wonder,” muttered Ted to himself as he fell asleep, “who this quack is. And who the hell recommended him to me.” Then he recalled a line from Salvatore Quasimodo, from that morning’s radio broadcast. Something about a poet “confined to the provinces, with his mouth broken on his own syllabic trapeze.” With his last ounce of strength, he sniffed the stench of lamb flesh and chicken blood that emanated from his naked skin. There was, he concluded with a helpless sigh, no hope whatsoever. And then he closed his eyes.
The next morning Rabindranath got up early to conduct the autopsy at the county hospital. The lifeless body of Ted Warren III arrived on a stretcher. An orderly picked it up and placed it on the operating table with practiced ease. Sonia, who’d been brushing her incongruous mane of blond hair by the window, walked over to the pallid corpse and began to untie the maze of tangled threads, many of them dull and brittle.
She recalled, briefly, Ted’s expression when he woke from his melatonin-induced nap. She thought he’d looked so serene and handsome. “He must have been an angel,” Sonia told herself, caressing the broken yellow face with her fingertips, “and now look at him.”
In truth, Ted had been terrified. Right before the operation he’d blinked frenetically, haunted by premonitions of death and a gripping fear that there would be no hereafter. He’d also realized, with a vague sense of unease, that he hadn’t told anyone where he was going that morning. The doctor inserted a needle in his arm, and Ted felt himself relax almost immediately. Then, before he closed his eyes for good, he suddenly evoked, with startling precision, one long-forgotten summer afternoon, when he was a young man.
He’d been walking aimlessly in the decaying neighborhood around the Zócalo, in Mexico City. The skies were threatening rain. Shapeless brown clouds bled drops of sunlight, unraveling upon the multitude that crisscrossed the narrow labyrinth surrounding the plaza. As Ted reached the huge square, he’d found himself face-to-face with a girl who sold carnations and yellow alders. She was lovely, dark and lean, with knowing, piercing eyes that met his for only the briefest moment. He’d felt, he recalled, oddly forlorn as he took in her sensuous smile. He tried to think of something to say to her. Why is she smiling? he wondered. It began to drizzle, and a minute later it was pouring cats and dogs, a torrent of angry tears that cleansed the tan skies and forced the crowd of vendors and tourists to scatter and seek shelter. A stranger materialized under a makeshift yellow canopy, seemingly out of thin air, and offered to sell him an umbrella. Ted looked all around, but the flower girl was gone.
* * * * *