And Joselito, who wrote bad socially conscious poetry, began to cough. The German doctor examined him quickly, grazing his ribs with the tip of his long, delicate fingers (he was also a concert violinist, a mathematician, a chess master and a doctor in International Law with licence to practice in the public lavatories of the Hague). He flicked a hard, almost cruel, glance at Joselito’s brown chest, then he looked at Carl and smiled briefly – the smile of a worldly man to one of his peers – and raised an eyebrow as if to make him understand without words: “Also vor ze zdubid beasant one must truth dizimulate, ja? Othervize he vill have derror diarrhea… Koch and spit are unbleazant vords, iz it not?” He said aloud: “It iz gadarro de los bulmones.”
Carl was able to talk to him outside, under the narrow arcade, with rain bouncing up from the pavement against his pant legs. He wondered to how many people the other had delivered this discourse, and he could see in the doctor’s eyes all the stairs and the porches, the lawns, the alleys, the corridors and the sidewalks of the whole world… and stuffy germanic boudoirs, butterfly trays to the ceiling, an implicit and evil smell of uremia seeping under the door, the humming of the lawn sprinkler on the suburban flowerbeds, the silent wings of the Anopheles mosquito in the calm jungle night (this is not a figure: the flight of the Anopheles mosquito is silent), a nursing home in Kensington, discretion, thick carpets, rough brocade armchairs, a cup of English tea, living room furnished in modern Swedish style with water hyacinths in a yellow cup – outside, the blue china of the Northern sky scattered with drifting clouds, and here the bad watercolours of a dying medical student.
– A schnapps, Frau Unterschnitt.
The doctor was talking into a phone, a chessboard in front of him. “Bat lezion I zink… radiozcobig exam nod done.” He picked up a knight and replaced it distractedly. “Ja… both lungz… quite devinitely.” He hung up and turned to Carl:
– I haf in these beoble obzerfed zurbrizingly quick wound regofery, vith minimal inzidence of infeczion. The broblem iz alvayz the lungz… bneumonia and naturly the Olt Mate.
– Our Old Mate Herr Bacillus Koch! (He clicked his heels and bowed his head). Vithout him zeez zdubide beasant asses vould muldibly and bullulate all the vay into the zea, nein?
He thrusted his face into Carl’s and shrieked. Carl moved sideways to avoid him, with the grey wall of rain right behind him.
– You don’t know of a place where he could be treated?
– I thing there iz zome zort of zanitarium (dragging the word out with ambiguous obscenity) in the cabidal of the Dizdrido. Vor you I grite the address.
– What kind of treatment? Chemical therapy?
– Who kan zay? (His flat voice sounded heavily in the rain-moist air). Zey are all zdubid beasants, the zo-called edugadet beasants are worse than anything. They should be brevented not only from reading but alzo from sbeaging. No need to brevent them from thinging: Nadure that has done…
The doctor dropped a little wad of paper in Carl’s hand.
– Here iz the addrez, he whispered without moving his lips. (He laid his fingers, which were covered in shiny dirt, on Carl’s sleeve.) Remainz the broblem of my fee…
Carl slipped a rolled up note in his hand, and the doctor faded into the twilight’s greyness, furtive and decrepit as a an old junky.
Carl saw Joselito again in a big immaculate room bathed in light, with private bath and concrete balcony. But what could they talk about in this cold empty room – these hyacinths in a yellow cup, the blue china of the sky with its drifting clouds, this flashing fear in Joselito’s eyes? When he smiled the fear turned into flakes of light and flew up toward the fresh shadow of the ceiling, where it would watch him enigmatically. And what could I say with this smell of death all around me and this strange premonition (like image fragments that run through the brain right before we give in to sleep)?
– They are sending me away to the new sanitarium tomorrow. Come and see me, I will be alone.
He coughed, took a codeine tablet.
– Doctor, I understand – that is I have been given to understand – I have read and heard – of course I am not a doctor – I don’t pretend to have medical knowledge – that the concept of sanitarium treatment had been more or less superseded – or at least definitely supplemented – with chemical therapy. It this accurate in your opinion? I… doctor, I would like you to tell me in all honesty, as one man to another, if you prefer sanitarium treatments or chemical therapy? Are you partisan of one method or the other?
“You can judge for yourself,” he said (in Cockney English, with a satisfied sneer), gesturing toward the room with his purplish fingers, “it is all state-of-the-art: bath… fresh water… flowers… the whole package… Good, I will give you a letter.
– A letter? For the sanitarium?
– And this furniture… (The doctor’s voice seemed to come from a desert of black rocks and great, iridescent lagoons.) Very modern, eh? Very comfortable! It is of course your opinion too, is it not?
Carl did not see the sanitarium right away, which was hidden by a false wall of green stucco topped by the over-the-top cable mouldings of a neon sign sitting against the sky like a sinister skeleton at nightfall. The sanitarium was built on a great limestone promontory drowned in Virginia creeper and flowering trees. The air was heavy with the plants’ perfume.
The Commandant was sitting in front of a long trestle set up under a Morning glory trellis. He was doing absolutely nothing. He took the letter that Carl was handing to him and scrutinized it, mumbling the words between his teeth and tapping on his lips with the tip of his left hand fingers. Then he stuck the paper on a long spike over a toilet and began transcribing long columns of numbers on a ledger, column after column, endlessly.
Shreds of images exploded silently in Carl’s brain, and he suddenly felt as if he were detached from himself. With perfect clarity and despite the distance, he saw himself sitting at a restaurant… Slumped, with an overdose of heroin his mother shaking him and holding a hot cup of coffee under his nose… outside an old junky dressed as Santa Claus sells antituberculosis seals. “To save our sick, folks!” he quavers in his toneless voice… A choir of Salvation Army volunteers (enthusiastic and homosexual rugby coaches) sings a carol…
Carl slowly drifted back into his body, a reincarnating junk ghost… “I can try to bribe him,” he thinks. The Commandant taps on the table with his index humming an old folkloric song – far away, then suddenly near, an urgent voice, powerful like a foghorn a split second before the grinding crash.
Carl dug into his pocket and pulled a note half out… The Commandant was standing before a wall of safes and metallic cupboards. He looked at Carl: blank eyes of worn-out animal, agony already oozing from inside, hopeless terror mirroring death’s mask. In this stench of flowers, Carl was overcome with a sudden dizziness – breathless, blood turned to ice, he was stuck in a cone swirling around.
Carl was shrinking, he was being reduced to nothing…
– Chemical therapy?
The scream shot out of his flesh, crossed a desert of locker rooms and soldier dormitories, and the musty air of seasonal rentals, and the spectral corridors of mountain sanitariums, the smell of scullery, grey and growling and rattling of flophouses and old men’s hospices, the dusty immensity of anonymous sheds and of customs warehouses – crossed porticoes in ruins and smeared plaster volutes, rusted zinc urinals turned into see-through lace by the urine of a million faggots, deserted weed-grown privies radiating stenches of shit turning back to dust, fields of phallic totems erect on the grave of dying nations in a plaintive rustle of leaves in the wind – crossed the great river of muddy waters again where trees with snake-loaded branches float, and on the other side of the plain, far away, sad-eyed lemurs contemplate the shores, and one hears the vulture wings like dead leaves crumpling in the hot air… The way is strewn with broken condoms and empty heroin caps and vaseline tubes squeezed dry. Dry as bone meal under the summer sun…
– My furniture!
The Commandant’s face lights up, quick flash of magnesium, then his eyes go out. A whiff of ozone penetrates the room. In one corner, the novia mutters over her altar and her candles.
– It is all Trak… modern, top quality…
He nods like a small-town idiot, drool on his chin. A yellow cat claws at Carl’s pant leg and jumps onto the balcony. Clouds drift in the distance.
– I could get back my deposit, start a little business someplace…
He nods, the stiff smile of a mechanical toy on his face.
A scream: “Joselito!” In the street, the boys look up from their games – ball, bullfighting, bicycle races – listen as the whistling of the name dwindles and fades away.
“Joselito!… Paco!… Pepe!… Enrique!…” Whimpering names that float in the warm evening shadow. The Trak shop sign stirs like a beast hunted in the night and suddenly disintegrates into a bright blue flame.