Amelia Gray

And then, though they had a choice, the doctors put a generator in my heart, and they gave me a magnetic band to wear on my wrist which I must pass over my heart when the old feelings begin again. Arnold, they say, you are certainly a special man. The following is true:

    1. Because of a history of powerful migraines accompanied by the trilling melody of seizure, I have certain precautions installed by man in my body preventing me from biting off my tongue
    2. A side effect of the migraines is a disorder called Alice in Wonderland which causes worlds to complicate outside of my control
    3. The word "special" often carries both positive and negative connotation

     Jeannie serves me tostadas at the café, the gold cross on her necklace (warm, no doubt, from her skin and the heat of the deep fryer) dangling close to my sweet iced tea. It's the first thing I see as I come out of the dangerous haze, and I feel small and close enough to the cross to make a leap for it. I'd like to dig my fingernails into the soft cooling gold and balance on the arm of it as on a tree branch, holding the chain for support.
     "Watch the plate," Jeannie calls from miles above. She throws herself back like a gymnast and vertigo pins me to the wall. The generator in my heart ticks one sad farewell tick and silences. I miss it already.
     "I almost had a seizure," I say.
     "I sneak up," she says. She points to her soft-soled shoes. "Sorry if I scared you."
     "You didn't," I say. "It was in my head."
     Jeannie smiles like an acolyte. "Tostadas are the special today," she says.
     "They look special." 
     "Are you Catholic?" she asks, folding the plate's towel under her arm. There's nobody else in the restaurant except the cook who, finished with the obligation of soaking a corn tortilla in tomato puree and calling it a tostada, is lighting his cigarette on the grill. "I thought I saw you blessing yourself a minute ago," Jeannie says. "I'm just wondering."
     "God is very important to me," I say, though what she saw as spiritual devotion was an act that has always been purely physical, my body prompting the machine to prompt my heart to regulate my brain's foolish attempt to revolt against the whole. Religious women are often interested in me because they misinterpret the event. I am often interested in them because they remind me of my mother. This is not strange.
     Jeannie rolls silverware and talks to the cook. My tostada depresses me and when I leave, I feel it in my stomach as a whole. My stomach conforms to the shape of the corn discus. I avoid eye contact out of shame.
     This town has one fountain, and I pass by it on the walk home. People come to watch the water go up and down, and they throw coins in the fountain and feed the birds around it. It's an idyllic little scene. What the world needs is more fountains. The corn disk is cutting the soft lining of my stomach in half and I lie down on a bench, feeling embarrassed and oppressively blocked. The only other person at the fountain today is a woman wearing a zippered pouch around her waist. She sits with her feet in the water, looking in, and every few minutes she reaches, takes a handful of money, shakes her hand a few times (water's qualities in sunlight: mirrors, jewels, fire) and drops it into the zippered pouch.
     "That's illegal," I say.
     "I reject law," she says. "This fountain has no laws."
     "What about gravity?" 
     "That's just a good idea."
     The tostada grows three times larger in my stomach. I have the brief sensation of the woman shooting far away, into the trees at the edge of the park, me tied to the bench without hope of pursuit. The feeling passes before I think to move my arm.
     "That money goes to charity," I say.
     "What do I look like?" the woman says.
     I tilt my head to look up at her. She's wearing blue linen pants, wet at the calves from the fountain, and a white shirt. Her hair is tied up with a yellow kerchief, which has the effect of pulling her features up and back, lengthening her neck, brightening her face. I feel heat like a rash. "The Virgin Mary," I say.
     "The Virgin Mary?" she says. "That's strange."
     "No, it's not."
     She stands up. Her zippered pouch drips water down her leg. She is unusually tall.
     I have to shut my eyes. "I'm sorry," I say. "I'm disoriented."
     "Story of my life," she says. When I open my eyes, she's vaulting over a line of bushes on the other side of the park. I think, good. The world needs tougher religious artifacts. Everything you find on Sunday morning is too delicate. Candles burning over white linen. Transferring the wine from vessel to vessel, chasuble sleeves hanging perilously close. You can buy all this stuff from a catalog, but it's expensive. Sometimes, it comes blessed.
     The fountain is very close to my home and at my home's heart is my medicine cabinet. Something feels very strange about the container of my body. As I was getting up, the corn disk hardened into a circular saw blade and went to work on the flesh of my organs. It consumes and spins faster and threatens my spinal cord. My brain howls in protest. I want darkness and my bed and the calming mechanism of a great deal of medication.
     My brain says, careful what you wish for!
     The next day, Jeannie serves me King Ranch chicken (the finest chicken dish named after a bastard since General Tso's) at the café. She has her hair pulled back.
     "Your hair looks nice like that," I say.
     "I wear it like this every day," she says. This sounds a little accusatory and I feel like apologizing for not noticing and then I resent the desire to apologize for not noticing because it's not as if noticing her is my responsibility. I have lately been thinking about responsibility. The chicken is congealed to my plate under a solid grease-mound of cheese.
     "What are your responsibilities?" I ask Jeannie.
     She glances at her other table, two women who are also having the King Ranch chicken. It is the special. "I take orders," she says, looking back. "And I bring out water and I serve plates and sometimes I say 'that plate is hot' and I roll silverware, and I cut lemons and limes and I clean the women's restroom and I wash the windows and I change the specials board and write receipts and make change."
     "That sounds like a great deal of responsibility," I say, thinking of lists (1. bring out water 2. serve plates 2a. that plate is hot 2b. I hope you enjoy the food 3. roll silverware 3a. this silverware is heavy and right 3b. what am I going to do about my problems 4. cut 4a. lemons 4b. limes 5. clean 5a. windows 5b. restroom 5c. specials board), "but I meant in your whole life."
     "That's a lot more," she says, smiling.
     "I imagine so."
     She picks up my menu. "What are your responsibilities?"
     "To keep my body alive, and my mind well."
     "That's it?" she says. "Well, you're lucky."
     I cut through cold cheese with the side of my fork. "I am the luckiest man alive," I say. "I am the luckiest man in the history of the free world."
     "Don't you have a job, though?  Don't you have any goals?"
     These questions make me uncomfortable. There is a poster behind her of peppers from around the world and I wonder, which pepper would be the worst on the tongue. Then, if you swallowed them, which pepper would be the worst in the gut, and how would the burn differ. Jeannie would not be interested in me if I told her that I got checks from my mother and from the government and, though I respect the necessary existence of each, that I dislike both as sources of revenue, and that my goal is her, or someone like her. These are normal ways to think but no way to talk to a religious woman.
     "My goals are to be alive and well," I say, "and to be closer to God."
     "Those are good goals."
     "I want to get so close to God that God has to file a restraining order." 



Q: Why does Jeannie like you?
A: Jeannie appreciates my honesty and understands that there is not nearly enough of it in men in the world these days. She has not given it much thought.

Q: Is it possible that she will break your heart?
A: She would need a much larger magnet.

Q: Do you expect us to believe you?
A: You have absolutely no choice.

Q: We resent this, Arnold. Please give us a reason to trust you.
A: Gladly: You have absolutely no choice.

Q: Don't you feel that God is so beyond caring what is going on down here?


The fountain is broken. The water in the concrete basin is still, and the pumps are shut off. A man in work clothes is bent over an electrical box I never noticed, twisting wires. I think of the electrical box in my chest and feel a little sorry for myself.
     "The water is powered by electricity," I say to the man. "Doesn't that seem like a cop-out?"
     The man pulls a crimping tool out of his box. "I'd be out of a job if it wasn't," he says.
     "What are your responsibilities?"
     "To keep food on the table," he says, turning his attention to the electrical box.
     "You're lucky you don't live on a boat."
     "What's that?"
     "You're lucky you don't live on a boat on the ocean. It would make things difficult."
     "Fishermen make a lot of money these days," the man says. "I was watching a show about it. It's profitable but dangerous."
     We live in a world where fishing is sexy. "My responsibilities are to keep my body alive, and my mind well," I call out to the man working in the electrical box.
     "That's hard to do on your own," the man says. He's hiding in his work clothes. All I see is blue denim and brown belt. This man is a novice practitioner of the electrical box and is growing smaller by the second. This is terrifying to me and I call out, "I'm doing the best I can!"
     I'm very worried that the man will become the electrical box and that the fountain will never be repaired. "Please be careful!" I yell desperately towards the smooth denim, a hanging curtain now, over the electrical box. My hand comes up, my wrist, and I start the generator in my chest. The battery is tiny and creates a small alien warmth as I am brought back hard to the world.
     From my brain, an urgent message:
     Why did you do that?  We were all about to have a good time. If it weren't for you and your precious medical science, we'd be orbiting Saturn right now and watching the stars fall. You call this keeping your mind well?  We're all well on our way to crushing boredom, that's all. But don't worry about us. It's not as if we power your dirty shell through this world. It's not as if we spend all day waiting for a nap in the sun, only to find you jogging us back to your own pointless day-to-day. We have nothing better to do. Please, continue.
     My brain is diseased with logic.
     Jeannie tells me that the daily specials in the café are always the food they didn't sell enough of from the day before. She points at my sloppy joe.
     "Taco meat from Thursday and marinara sauce. Some ketchup."
     "What about the King Ranch?"
     "Chicken quesadillas. The tortillas went stale."
     "How late do you work tonight?"
     She looks at me and doesn't say anything. Under the table, I rip my napkin in half, and then in half again, and again and it's snowing white paper over my shoes.
     "You might want to come to my home for dinner," I say.
     When Jeannie and I walk to my home, the following does not happen:

  1. We turn miniscule but not unimportant, and find that blades of grass have their own weapons, though they are weapons against small insects, who look like demons at close proximity
  2. The sidewalk turns liquid and claims us, drawing us deep through hot sharp earth, where we meet those from generations past as well as some people working in a coal mine
  3. A wise man confronts us and suggests that the Pieta is the most beautiful piece of art ever made by a human in the history of the world and while I don't disagree I think it might be even better as a fountain

      I do, however, realize that Jeannie is essential to not one but both of my responsibilities and is therefore very precious to me. She nourishes my body with her daily leftover specials and she is strong and essential to the health and safety of my mind. It is when I look dreamily at the pendular motion of her golden cross that I realize I feel entirely well. Inside my heart, the generator rides the thumping aortic valve in blissful, silent contentment. Jeannie's hair flows behind her like a river. I am in ecstasy.
      In my home, Jeannie looks around. "It's cleaner than I thought," she says.
      I offer her a mint because I'm not sure what else to do with her. We are both very shy, and not used to interpersonal communication outside the arena of the café. I do feel very shy. My generator feels that I feel very shy.
      She pinches a mint with clean fingers. We both smell like ground beef.
      "Where did you get this box?" she says.
      "From a catalog."
      "It's adorable," she says, taking it and turning it over in her hands. "Isn't this what priests keep communion wafers in?"
      "A pyx," I say. "It came blessed."
      She looks around the room. Her eyes see: table, books, parament, pyx collection, stove, palm fronds, window, stained glass. In the stained glass, she sees tiny bubbles which contain worlds.
      "Did all this come from a catalog?" she says.
      "The oven came with the apartment."
      She laughs, and then she stops laughing. She looks at the oven and I want to tell her that it actually did come with the apartment and that's not a joke and she's really quite kind to come over for dinner and I'm sorry that I didn't make anything and moreover that I don't have anything in the house to eat because I usually take my meals out because it's good for the spirit and as usual what's good for the spirit is bad for the wallet.
      Jeannie sits down at the table and begins to cry. I touch her hair with my lips and her head is warm and smells like a glass of milk. She sobs and holds her fists closed on her knees.
      "I'm sorry," she says. "I'm frightened."
      My fingertips brush against the place where her hair is drawn up in a ponytail and I say, "you certainly shouldn't be frightened of me, if that is what you are frightened of."
      "No," she says. "I am having a fight with my husband and I have nobody to talk about it with. I am frightened he will leave me," she says.


(Then, a terrible thing happens: My brain leaves the picture entirely. The room goes completely black, and the spotlight comes up on the two of us—Jeannie at the table, with my brainless body propped up behind her. Someone coughs. The curtain man lights his cigarette and digs into the fuse box.)

JEANNIE (in tears): I am frightened he will leave me.

ARNOLD: Don't be frightened. Please, let's talk about it, between the two of us. Let's work out a solution for you.

JEANNIE: I can't do that. I feel awful about doing this to you, burdening you with this.

ARNOLD (putting his hands on her shoulders): It's no trouble at all, my dear. Can't you see?  I care very much for you. How long have you been married?

JEANNIE: Six months. He's a good man, he has a good job. He's great in bed—

ARNOLD: And why don't you wear a ring?

JEANNIE: We're getting rings tattooed on our fingers as soon as we can find the perfect artist. I figure it's more lasting that way.

ARNOLD: So what's the problem?

JEANNIE: If you'd let me get to it—
ARNOLD (laughs suddenly): I just don't see the problem then, pretty girl like you, a newlywed, striking out in the world with a sensitive and handsome man—

JEANNIE: Whoever said he was handsome?

ARNOLD: Your responsibility overall is to care for your own life and your own handsome husband because he is a lucky man and to see you sad should be one of the great sadnesses in his life and I'll tell you that honestly, it should be one of his greatest sadnesses.

JEANNIE: Whoever said he was handsome?



"What gives?"
      "Sorry."  I reach for the wall, feeling for the switch. When I find it, she's looking at me with fish eyes.
      "I think I'd better go," she says. She stands up and I shrink back in my chair. "But thank you for the advice." 
She is a tower of a woman!  In the center of my seat, I am acutely aware of the false-feeling velvet under my hands.
"Would you like a glass of water?" I ask the tower of Jeannie.
     "No, thank you."  She reaches across the room and puts her hand the doorknob. She fills my apartment and I cower in the low cover of the chair cushion. And then the whump whump of my brain as it comes down the stairs two at a time, looking for breakfast. As she leaves, she sees a man alone at his kitchen table, blessing himself before the invisible feast.
After that, as after all great tragedies, the days go by:
      Jeannie serves me meatloaf at the café.
      Jeannie serves me spaghetti and meatballs at the café.
      Jeannie serves me pork barbecue and french fries at the café.
      Jeannie serves me breakfast tacos at the café.
      Jeannie serves me fajitas at the café.
      Jeannie serves me onion soup at the café.
      Jeannie serves me quesadillas at the café.
      Jeannie serves me chicken fried steak at the café.
      Jeannie serves me grilled cheese sandwiches at the café.
      Jeannie serves me steak and eggs at the café.
      Jeannie serves me baked potato at the café.
      Jeannie serves me tomato soup at the café.
      Jeannie serves me pork chops at the café.
      Jeannie serves me cheese crisp at the café.
      Jeannie serves me ham and cheese at the café.
      Jeannie serves me fish sandwiches at the café.
      Jeannie serves me chicken salad at the café.
      Jeannie serves me corn dogs at the café.
      Jeannie serves me tamale pie at the café.
      Jeannie serves me vegetable soup at the café.
      Jeannie serves me macaroni at the café.
      Jeannie serves me chili at the café.
      And one day, I come home to find Virgin Mary sitting at my kitchen table.
      "Hey there," she says. She is eating mints from my favorite pyx.
      "How did you get in here?"
      "I try doors. Aren't you that guy from the fountain?"  She offers me a mint.
      My hands are huge and I am concerned they will flatten her in the course of my reach. She watches my awkward progress with careful pinhole eyes. When I touch the pyx, she snaps it closed.
      "What is life?" she asks.
      "Alive," I say, "and well."
      She nods once, grandly. "I thought you might know, if anybody did."




The inspiration for this story comes from a young man who experienced the micropsia and macropsia of Alice in Wonderland syndrome. If he forgot his magnetic bracelet at home, the silverware in restaurants would stick to him. His name was Adam.