"Visiting hours are five to eight, ma'am," the nurse explained to Maureen, who was a little early and very anxious. Look, she knew that without me she would cease to exist, and I was up on the third floor, asleep, attached to this futuristic science fiction-like device that scanned my imagination and then displayed whatever I was imagining, or dreaming, on a TV monitor. Anyone -- doctors, researchers, interns, students, anyone with two bucks who happened to be walking by -- could watch my dreams, as they happened, with no five-second delay for foul language and nothing cut out or censored.
As Maureen walked down the long hospital corridor toward my room she was greeted, leered at really, by every male doctor, male patient, male visitor -- every man that passed by greeted her with unusual warmth, and familiarity. When she reached the third floor and caught a glimpse of what everyone was watching she realized just why she had become so popular -- I was dreaming about her, and I mean I was really dreaming about her! And it was all on TV! In living color!!!
It didn't last long. Maureen fought her way through the crowd, barged into my room and ripped the wires right out of my head, pulling the plug on the noble experiment.
"How could you do this to me?!!!" she asked without emotion, but please note the three exclamation points.
I couldn't talk -- I'm not sure why, but I'll think of a reason -- so I indicated with my head movements that she should re-connect the wires and I would communicate with her on the TV. Reluctantly, she plugged me back in.
"Jim, look where all your shenanigans have gotten you. You're lying flat on your back in the hospital with a bunch of wires stuck in your head. Now what? And what happens to the rest of us? And to me?"
I thought about things she could do if I'm laid up for a long time, like get part-time work as a character in another novel. To convey this, though, I had to imagine that she was waiting for an interview outside another writer's office. Maureen turned and looked at the TV set, where my thoughts began playing out and she saw herself, waiting for the interview.
"But Jim, I just can't show up like that, unannounced, with no references."
She was right, so I imagined myself sitting at a desk, writing a letter of recommendation. "Dear Mr. Salinger," it began, "please consider Maureen for your next novel. She's a delightful fictional character, a good sport, and she might even have some depth to her." I then imagined myself holding the letter up to the camera so Maureen could read it off the TV screen.
"Mr. Salinger? Who's that?"
I then imagined myself holding up a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. She nodded, but obviously hadn't read it.
Then I imagined myself changing the name of the author on the letter and holding it up.
"Stephen King?" She laughed, and I imagined myself laughing, too. "Seriously, Jim, what am I going to do?"
It was getting a little tedious communicating like this. It was like trying to act out a Japanese Noh theater piece just to convey to someone that you needed a Kleenex!
"Jim, I don't know what you're thinking about, but -- !"
I looked over at the TV. My thoughts at that moment had me blowing my nose and wiping out all of Tokyo. You could tell they were miniatures, though.
"Do you need a Kleenex, Jim? Where are they?"
This was getting ridiculous. And then -- an Epiphany! -- Of course! I imagined myself looking directly at the camera, directly at Maureen -- and then I pointed to myself mouthing words, and then I pointed down, to where the TV controls are, and made the motion of tuning, or turning up the volume.
"Jim, I don't -- oh! -- the volume, you want me to turn up the volume!"
I imagined myself nodding yes in great relief as Maureen went to the set, found the volume knob and -- voilá!
"Hi, Maureen, it's me -- I'm talking!" I crowed. It was funny hearing my voice coming out of the tinny little speaker on the TV.
"Jim, this is so much easier."
"You're telling me!" I imagined myself saying enthusiastically. "Now, all I have to do is imagine myself standing here talking to you. It's so simple!" We shared a laugh. It had been such a long time. And then a doctor entered, looked at the TV, and flipped the dial to another station -- and another patient's imagination! -- and this other patient was imagining himself walking down a hospital corridor, and he was holding a revolver, threateningly. Maureen and I watched as, on the screen, this other patient imagined himself walking into... my room! And then he walked up real close to the camera and scowled, menacingly.
The doctor flipped a switch and the screen split into two pictures, on one side the imaginary him, and on the other side, the imaginary me. The imaginary him turned and pointed the gun at the imaginary me.
"You Reynolds?" he asked, apparently talking to me. What could I do but imagine myself nervously nodding yes. "Are you the author of this catastrophe? Are you?"
"Uh, well, at times I am, I guess you could say," I imagined myself stammering back. (No matter how hard I tried, I just could not imagine myself wearing a bullet-proof vest!) "Who are you?" I imagined myself asking him, stalling for time.
"Ethan Childress? But, I made you up -- you don't exist!"
"Guess again. My name is Ethan Childress and I'm a historian, and it just so happens that I've written a book, Lincoln: The Man, which you have chosen to defame and libel!"
My head was spinning. Was there really such a person? How do I know this guy isn't some crackpot trying to cash in on a little visibility in somebody else's book? Is there in fact an author or historian named Ethan Childress? I have to know. (I'll check -- Ed.) In the meantime, I'm imagining that I'm staring down the barrel of an imaginary gun, held shakily by an imaginary nut case. And it's all on TV!
"Maureen? Look around. Find Childress," I imagined myself writing on a handy artist's sketch pad. I then imagined myself holding the pad up to the camera, but away from Childress's line of sight."
"What's that? What's that say? Hey! You better let me see that!" he barked.
I imagined myself gesturing to Maureen to hurry. She rushed out and started to search the ward for the patient named Childress, the one who was imagining he was going to kill me. I needed time.
"Tell me, Childress, why does water drain clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere?" I imagined myself asking him. He then imagined himself getting really pissed off and checked to see if his gun was loaded. It was.
"You don't have much time, Reynolds," Childress declared, threateningly.
"But, you see, this shouldn't happen," I imagined myself struggling to explain. "You're fiction. You're a dream."
"I'm your worst nightmare, pal," he said, derivatively.
"What a cliché," I imagined myself muttering. And then a look of fear came over him, and he began to fade, and then his side of the screen started to disappear, and then it was blank. A moment later Maureen re-entered, breathless.
"Is he gone?"
I imagined myself pointing to the empty frame next to mine on the TV screen.
"How'd you do it?" I imagined myself asking.
"I woke him up," she said proudly.
"And where was he?"
"Right next door." And then, as if on cue, Childress himself, Childress: The Man, entered, and he was wielding a real gun, and was just as mad as he had dreamt he was.
"Reynolds?!" he barked, walking up to me and aiming right between my eyes, my real eyes.
(This ends Chapter Twenty-seven. Let's hope it was just a dream.)