What do you do when you've been exposed to a virus that fills you with words? (This story was previously published in Sein und Werden.)
It’s good to see you again. Here, let me buy you a coffee.
You know, it's funny how a couple of weeks can seem to stretch out and make strangers of everyone you know. I’ve been convalescing at home. Well, feeling sorry for myself is more accurate. I went to see my doctor, and I wasn’t too happy with how things went.
I started out hopeful. Dr. Parker ran me through the usual routine: strip to my boxers, hop up on the table, take a deep breath, another deep breath, another deep breath while he listened to things rattling away inside me. I was thinking how stupid it was that they put a tissue covering on the examination table when it tore every time I moved.
He got as far as, “I’m going to check your blood pressure,” before he went off the routine. It wasn’t like I hadn’t told him. It was the main reason I was there. He squinted at the underside of my arm for half a minute before he said anything.
“How long have they been like this?”
“I noticed they were darker about three weeks ago,” I said. “I thought I must be imagining it, but they’ve been this color since Sunday.”
“Have you been drinking a lot of coffee?”
I laughed at that one. “Yeah, but I didn’t think that would turn my veins black.”
I noticed that he wasn’t laughing.
“I’m going to take some blood. Lie back.”
I wondered why he asked about coffee. Haven’t we all been drinking more? Still, I couldn’t see what that had to do with the darkness in my blood. I leaned back on the table and heard the tissue rip. I thought of Lucifer falling from heaven, the wind tearing his wings as he tumbled.
That was the other reason I was lying on Doc Parker’s tissue-cloaked table. These disconnected thoughts kept distracting me. It was like someone sat on my shoulder whispering to me.
Don’t look at me that way. I know how it sounds, but I don’t actually hear anything. The thoughts come at me from nowhere. When I drove to work that morning, the light strobed through the pines, and I thought of Jesus nailed up in the trees blinking a message at me in Morse code: “I should have stayed in the desert.”
The large rubber band sang its twangy rubber band song as Dr. Parker tied it tight around my upper arm making my livid veins squirm. I watched him pull the cap off a needle with a vial on the end. I don’t usually like to see someone stick a needle into me, but things had gotten too weird not to look.
A week earlier my hand started twitching. Wait…not twitching, dancing. It made looping arcs across the table when I sat down to dinner. I watched it pirouette left to right for almost a foot, then hop back to where it started and begin the dance all over again. The whole time I thought about blades of sunlight slicing between the floorboards of an old porch and leaving thin, gold scars on the faces of two runaways hiding from the man who looked just like their father.
“This will hurt a little,” he warned me.
I could see the hole in the end of the needle before it punctured my skin, Dr. Parker popped the valve on the vial, which slowly filled with blood, only the blood wasn’t velvety red, it was black. He capped the container gingerly and handed me a cotton ball. I noticed he was careful not to touch me.
“What the hell’s going on, Doc?”
He put the vial into a metal case and screwed the lid down tight. “I’ll send this off, but there’s not much point. I know what’s in there.” He leaned against the sink and looked at the floor.
“Ink. Like you find in a pen. It’s in your blood.”
I looked at the dark blotch on my arm. “How did I get ink in my blood?”
“It’s a virus. You get it from contact with writers.” There was something condemning in his tone.
I went through the list of my new hangouts--the coffee house in the basement of the old church on Ponce, the café in Decatur, this place--what the Hell had I been thinking?
Well, you know what I was thinking: cheap coffee and free entertainment. I knew this place was full of writers, who else would be reading poetry at an open mic? I managed to convince myself that you were all reading someone else’s poetry, but of course you wrote it yourselves. You wrote all those febrile words, then you spoke them humming and crackling through the amp--breathed them into my face like God breathed into Adam.
So, I asked him, “what will it do to me?”
He took a deep breath. “You’ve already noticed the oscillating tremor in your hand. You’ll get pains in your fingers and wrists, headaches, and tightness in your chest. You’ll be prone to distractions, bouts of depression and mania. You’ll probably start manifesting obsessive behaviors, and insomnia.” He looked me in the eye for the first time since I walked in. “It will eventually consume you and you will die.”
“But…” My lips said the word “die” three times, but my voice was frozen somewhere under my ribs. I saw myself crystallizing from the inside out until I turned into a translucent, brittle--I shook the words loose in my head. “There has to be something I can do about it!”
“This isn’t like a staph infection. You’re full of words. They shift and change so rapidly that there’s no drug that will touch them. The best you can do is try to relieve the pressure.”
“How do I do that?”
“Buy a lot of paper and start writing.”
I thought he was being a jerk, and I told him so--let a lot of the more obnoxious words loose on him in the process--but it turns out he was right. I’ve filled up fifteen of these cheap composition books already. My veins still look like they’re pumping oil, but my mind’s clearer now.
The mic looks hot.
This is the twelfth notebook. It’s full of sonnets--the iambic pentameter spilled out of my black veins, dribbled down my arm, and leaked across the pages. I can feel the words aching between the covers like a fever waiting for a fresh head.
Have you put your name on the sign up list yet? I’m in the ninth slot. There’s a few faces in the crowd tonight that I don’t recognize. Now, don’t even pretend to be nervous; I see that smile. You’re happy they’re here too.