Philip Martin 

Bad Brain

 (Jason Beckwith)             

JasonB1.jpg (237071 bytes)I wake up and I can't get back to sleep. I leave my bed, my wife, and I walk blind, closed-eyed, a little ways, down the hall to this room. I tap the space bar, the computer blinks grudgingly, radiates my face. I have a problem. Excusez-moi de vous deranger, monsieur, mais j'ai un probleme. There. That's half of it, isn't it? That counts. I'm not sure but it is possible that I feel better already. Why go any further; is it really anyone else's business? Why provide details? Why gossip about myself? This is not a suicide note, it's not even a real confession. Possibly it is nothing at all, just a blemish on my cerebral cortex, a little hard gray snaggy pimple on the inside of my skull. A little pressure point, an irritant, maybe even a kink. There's nothing so horrible about that, everybody has kinks, even us bland boys, us late baby booming lower upper middle class consumers.

I feel you out there and I want your attention. I have a problem, I have an announcement: Don't go. Not yet at least. I'm building up to something, to not much maybe.

I want your attention. I want it bad enough to ask for it, which isn't something someone like me should ever do. I'm not begging you, but ... Don't be afraid - at least don't be afraid of me.. My problem is not a dangerous, serious problem. It's not even like the problems the listeners tell
the lady radio shrink about - though I remember she's not really that kind of doctor, she's a physiologist or a kinesiologist by training - I'm actually quite happy with my situation. I'm a happy guy. Just like the Promisekeeper bumper stickers say, I love my wife. I pay my bills. I have a lot of things figured out - I have no great gnawing ambitions left. I just want to live in the world, have my little house and my dogs and my work, have enough money to play golf and travel and maybe even do a little good. Like the movie stars, I want to be able to give a little back.

But you're not interested in that. You want to know the worst about me. I'm coming to it. I just want to prepare you for the inevitable anticlimax. Like most lower upper middle class Southern whiteboys, my life has been anticlimax. I peaked when I was a Theta Xi, a shooting guard who could vertically leap his waist size. So here goes.


OK, no more stalling.

Sometimes I think I may have killed someone. Make that "murdered." Make that sometimes I feel as though I may have murdered someone. A woman. Shocked? Well, don't be. I was very careful to describe my problem accurately. Sometimes I feel as though I may have murdered someone. The problem is not that I may have murdered someone - in fact, I can tell you with some confidence that I have never murdered anyone - but that sometimes I have this vague, irrational, inextinguishable sense that I may have committed this crime. And while I am certain that I didn't, the feeling that comes over me, the chill sensation, a certain criminal flatness, is nevertheless very real
and worrisome. I very nearly panic. I am imbued with guilt and shame. I very nearly despair. I want to confess but I open my mouth and find there is nothing to say. Just "sorry." Sorry.

I have this recurring dream. I am young and in Baton Rouge, in college, walking in a neighborhood of small frame cottages just north of campus. It is an October, I can tell by the air's bluish bite and seasonal streaks of orange and black plastic draped like Spanish moss over some of the rent houses' porch railings. An effulgence, like Vermeer's gold gas, from a particular house's picture window draws me and suddenly I am down an alley and peeping through paned glass at a thick young woman in a slip with cotton between her toes brushing at yards of brown hair, a beaver pelt of hair. She looks up at me and she sees me and, true to the logic of dreams, she doesn't scream but smiles. Now I am in the house and she is beneath me on the yellow-tiled bathroom floor. We are making love or fucking but it is no rape and no we are on our sides and I am looking slightly up at her. We roll and now with my hands around her throat, absently caressing, she is murmuring, making noises of impending satisfaction and for some reason it is impossible for me to see her
face. I am straddling her, kneeling on the floor, my knees crooked religiously, my patellas paying penance. It is if I am deciding what to do. I don't decide. My hands grip. She starts up and I push her back down. So softly, so quietly. I cannot believe how gentle she goes. It is easy work, a bit of shushing. Some quiet assurances. Sleep. There is a German word:  Lustmord.

Now I can see her. Now I know her.

She is a girl I knew in high school. A girl I went out with a few times - maybe five times. Someone with whom I was friendly. A smart girl, a cheerleader. the best high school French student in the state. No one I ever wished to harm, not even a genuine girlfriend or object of adolescent lust.
Just someone I might otherwise have forgotten if not for this chronic dream.  Her emergent face is my cue to surface, to swim desperately for the light, to break and breathe. I wake up with a bad head - a wobbly gob of mercury loose inside a tin shell - and a lightly tripping heart. I hear the authorities at the door, the slide of the newspaper across the front porch, the rustle and cry of dreaming dogs in their shelters below our bedroom window. Going back to sleep is no good so I lie in the grainy dark, grit-socketed and pounding, smelling bad to myself and waiting for the bullet in the back of the brain.

That's all.

I don't believe it, but somehow my body does - sometimes for an hour after waking, sometimes longer. They say the body doesn't know the difference between a dream and an actual occurrence, that the subconscious mind processes them the same. They say a lot of things, mostly psychobabble and gobbledly gook but the important thing is that for a little while it is real and I am guilty. For a little while I am a murderer.

You think this is no big deal. Well, I think it is no big deal. But I cannot put it away. I have had my dream again and so I walked across the hall from the bedroom to this computer and sat down determined to write it out, to work it through. Just a few minutes ago I was sleeping beside my wife, now I hear her turning, listening to this cushioned clacking. She no doubt thinks I am working on my column, that I have been seized by inspiration and that I must get down whatever is ricocheting through my head. I imagine she finds the sound reassuring. I don't imagine she can hear the panic. I must stop this, it isn't healthy. It isn't good.

I am back.

I have decided to continue. I don't know why, I just trust that something will work itself out, like the piece of glass from the bookcase I shattered when I was twelve years old - yes, running in the house - that mysteriously popped out of my left knee when I was twenty-five. They say the body can retain sterilized glass. They said that on an episode of M*A*S*H, when Hawkeye and Trapper John sewed some marbles into the abdominal cavity of some bully officer as a joke. This was after they saved his life and the only side effect was the sound of the marbles knocking against one another inside the officer's gut. I guess they figured that was OK to do, after all he was a bully. Maybe that's what my dream is, just someone's idea of a joke. I don't think it's particularly funny, but then I guess I'm not supposed to - after all I'm the bully officer.

To be honest, as a white guy with a little money and an excellent credit rating, I'm not used to being the butt of jokes. So maybe I should be a good sport about this. It's just a nightmare after all. And everybody has nightmares.

But I've been thinking I've been going about this all wrong. I think maybe I should start again. Maybe you shouldn't have heard about my dream. Maybe that's not important. I'm just going to pretend that I don't have them, that like most people I never remember my dreams. And I'm just going to tell you a story in exchange for you forgetting all about it. And maybe we can all learn
something. maybe we can come to an understanding. I'd like that. I'll write this story now, we can forget about the dream and maybe get back to sleep.
A couple of years ago we were watching the Orioles and the Red Sox. play on TV when Coal lurched to his feet.

Coal is a big animal, almost freakishly large for a Labrador Retriever. Big and rangy, he weighs more than a hundred pounds. He is a confident alpha male, so gentle and self-assured he allows squirrels to steal his food. He knows there will be more when he wants to eat.

So Coal lurched to his feet, away from his spot between my wife and myself, banging the heavy slate-topped coffee table aside. He seemed to jackknife in the air, then came down heavy - with a crack - on the hardwood floor. He began to twitch and stiffen, to foam at the mouth and leak acrid-smelling urine. His jaws locked up. He smelled sick and fearful. I thought he was choking - we both thought he was choking - and I straddled him, tried to force open his jaw with my fingers. L. reached into his mouth to search for a foreign object - we suspected a golf ball - and was badly bitten. His eyes clouded, his body convulsed, big muscle shock waves that seemed to go on for hours.

Our other dog Quark - who is half Lab and half terrier - begin to growl and cry. L. was bleeding, her blood was dark with oxygen and heavy drops were audibly splattering on the floor. I was - for an instant, a second - paralyzed with weird shame. I knew I had to try to do something. I dove onto the floor, hustling after a loose ball, burning my elbows. I grabbed Coal around his thick chest.

I pulled myself to my knees, I tried to approximate a Heimlich maneuver, I squeezed and pounded. Coal arched his back and stiffened. He went rigid, his eyes frozen wild. He made a glottal noise.  I scrambled up, ran into my office to get a Swiss Army knife - I actually planned to cut a hole in his throat. A tracheotomy. Hawkeye was going to cut his throat, I so loved that dog.

But L. stopped me. Coal was breathing. He was sopping, wet with his own piss and drool, and likely hurt by my thumping on his chest, but breathing. Long, regular, exhausted breaths.
L. had put Quark outside and now she stood there bleeding on our chic bleached hardwood floors and looking at me with my sharp and shiny knife and the poor befuddled animal she had named after the black Lab in The Witches of Eastwick.  Coalie licked my hand in apology.

We called the all-night emergency vet and they didn't even ask us to bring Coal in. They diagnosed him over the phone. Epilepsy. Not a very big deal really, happens all the time.

That was the first Bad Brain episode.

We cleaned up the mess and I drank a tumbler full of Glenlivet in two gulps. Then I drove L. - over her protests - to the emergency room. It took fifteen stitches to close the gash and we got home after 3 a.m. and lay in the grainy dark and talked about Coal.
There is a medication we could give him, two doses of Phenobarbital per day. L. is afraid it will take the edge off him, that it will make him drowsy and hungry - that he will get fat and sluggish. I worry that, big animal that he is, he might hurt himself while thrashing about. So far we have decided to do nothing; we mark these episodes on the calendar, we are learning to trust our instincts and we try to make sure that he's outside - in the yard or on the deck - when these fevers take him.

It is hard for L.; before we married, Coal often shared her bed. For a while, he saw me as a usurper, even now he still holds a mild confounded grudge in his stubborn doggie way. He is not my dog, he is not our dog, he is her dog and no matter how kind Coal and I are to each other, how understanding and solicitous of each other we may seem to be, there is the spice of rivalry in
our relationship. I love that dog, but he reserves a bit of his big queer heart. There is a part of Coal that I can't know. And I respect him for it. I don't want him dulled; that seems unfair. It would spoil our competition. I asked the vet flat-out what he would do and he told me the pills - should we
choose to use them - would be more for my sake than for Coal's.

If you'll sleep better knowing he won't have a seizure, then you might want to consider them, he told us. But Coal doesn't know what hit him. He doesn't get any trauma from these events, he just wakes up a little confused, maybe a little sore if he's been bumped about a bit. But he's more upset because everybody around him is upset than anything else - he's just disoriented. "Bumfuzzled," L. calls it.

So we watch him, and after every fit have the same conversation. We can stand it. Better our Coal with Bad Brain than some zombie pooch we don't know. Now sometimes when I have my sad dreams and walk outside to check on the poor damaged thing. He lifts his sweet heavy head; he pities me, tells me everything will be all right.

He kicks and whinnies like a colt while he dreams his black-and-white dreams of rabbits, or of fetching balls, or whatever puppies dream of - I go back to bed and listen through the screen for him; I can tell when he is in his dog house, when he's on the bricks, when he's on the deck. He bumps into things - the vet told us cataracts are growing in his eyes, Labs are susceptible - he blunders through the dark, half-blind and crazy, his doggy head confused yet untroubled, ready for sleep.