Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Wire, F. Feldman

Telephone Wires
by Frederick W Feldman


Doctor Alphonse Muskovodere had to tend the carnivorous plants, or else he would die.
In the greenhouse, where he practiced, he strolled past the exotic species, stopping at each one, occasionally palming a leaf or inspecting a sprout to ensure that they were well.
He was not expecting his next patient for another hour.  At the moment, he didn’t have to worry about it. When it was time, his secretary Nona would remind him and give him warning to prepare. She sat near the door, partially separated from him by means of a slap-dash wall he had put in and behind which she functioned as the front desk. She had allowed a spattering of potted houseplants to accumulate in her domain, in an effort to get into the spirit of working in a greenhouse, but she retained her aversion to heat, so she also brought a constantly humming dehumidifier and three continuously busy electric fans that were positioned directly at her head, from different angles. Her thin hair was always whipping around above her head in the embattled airflow.
He called out to her from the other room. “Have the ants been delivered?”
He waited for a response, but none came. As usual, she couldn’t hear him over the noise of the fans.
“Into the whirlwind,” he muttered, and trudged out to her desk. The beating fans made a tremendous racket. She was hunched over her Personal Computer, with earbuds in her ears.
“Did the ants come in?”
She continued typing away.
“Nona! Did the ants come in yet?”
She finally looked up at him and pulled out her earbuds. As they swung from her hand he could hear the tinny sound of pop music coming from the speakers.
“What?” she asked.
“The ants,” he shouted over the fans, “was the shipment of ants delivered?”
“Yes,” she said. “I told them to leave the box in the corner of your office.”
“Oh, alright. That’s good. Thank you, Nona.”
She called it his office, but it was really just the most immediate part of the greenhouse that he had cleared and in which he had set up some medical equipment. He found the box right where Nona had said it would be, with the cardboard flaps open. He cut open the rest to reveal a case swarming with a rare species of ant that had been transported from Africa.
Getting the necessary permissions to open his office here had been a pain. An incredible pain. The medical profession was so strictly regulated these days, lobbying to let them open his in a greenhouse had been a trial worthy of Hercules. It had taken him over a year and thousands of dollars of debt. It had finally been due to the medical-necessity angle and the strong support of his colleagues and mentors from med school that had clinched it.
He scooped a heaping, crawling portion of ants into the vegetable arms of a  rare specimen from South America. Many of the specimens in his care had discerning palates and had to be fed particular species of food. He had rotating shipments of ants, flies, arachnids, bugs, and small rodents to feed his picky population.
After he was done with feeding time, there was time to kill before his next patient came in. Over in the corner he kept his old PC. In front of this he sat down and began to boot up the system. The machine warmed slowly within its crème casing, and in another couple of minutes DOS had popped up on the curved screen. He input the commands, and soon he had a game of Solitaire going.
As he clicked through his deck, he found the atmosphere too silent. He needed some music.
Alphonse hopped over to the radio and tuned through buzzing static to the classical station. He returned to his game. The disc jockey announced their next piece, and soon the strains of one of the more arcane of Ribaldi’s violin opusculum was filling up the greenhouse, wafting and crackling among the plant leaves and dirt and plastic.
He felt very peaceful there, clicking away and playing Solitaire. He had lined up a suit of hearts and a suit of diamonds, but was having trouble progressing past that. As he shuffled through the deck one more time, he found himself increasingly stuck. He took a chance on an open card, and almost instantly was brought to regret it: that was it – he was done. No more moves.
He closed the program. The Ribaldi piece was winding down in a graceful and evanescent ritardando. His arm was bothering him.
Nona called him through the intercom. It beeped flatly. The intercom had the same plastic casing as the PC, as well as a spiral cord. “Mr. Benner in fifteen minutes.”
“Thank you, Nona,” he said, hanging up the phone.
Given the tingling and the diminishing time until his next patient, it was time for Alphonse to treat his arm. The climate in the greenhouse was simply too warm for him to wear long-sleeves all the day long, but sometimes he did wear them during an appointment to cover his lower arm from the eyes of the more sensitive patients. The tiny, clover-like leaflets growing out of his skin were a disturbing sight to many eyes.
All the way to the back of the greenhouse was a particularly rare plant, not entirely natural, that had been a particular focus of his research in and since school. It was called Verdimillious Adrastia, and it was a dangerous specimen that had taken fingers from multiple known cases, one of which had been the unfortunate discoverer of the plant, a Mr. Kenneth Square.
Keeping well away from its swift and venomous trap (it was the venom that really did the harm), Alphonse pulled one of the newly forming tubers and made an incision in it. He rubbed the seeping juice over his arm and felt a brief and tender stinging rush over the surface. It was imperative that he keep the parent-plant in excellent health, for it had to be well enough to constantly be entering the reproductive process, because it was only through the fluid that was found in the tubers shot off by the parent that he could treat his disease.
He had contracted his disease by mere chance through one of the nasty practical jokes that fate likes to play on perfectly ordinary people. He had gone hiking with a group of his college friends on a trip to the mountains and during the course of their trek he had accidently ingested a stray bit of the root of a baneful growth. It did not present until several long months later, when the area below his elbow began to turn a mottled green from the thing growing beneath his skin. He had it looked at, of course, but all the doctors and specialists he went to were mystified.
When a single leaf appeared growing out of his arm, his symptoms were finally connected to one other case of a man who had recorded a similar description of a plant-like growth below his knee that slowly multiplied, spread throughout his body, and finally killed him four years later, ravaging his body with a thick covering of leaves. Alphonse’s first impulse was to amputate the arm, but in the previous case the man had tried the same thing to no avail; the parasite merely regrouped in his arms and spread from there.
With the singular, almost maniacal, focus of a man trying to save his own life, Alphonse began studying the anomaly and hunting for a cure. His output was astonishing, as his contemporaries readily attested. He himself was quick to emphasize the help he was receiving from his colleagues, and worked tirelessly to establish connections and goodwill with leading researchers – especially plant biologists – who could aid his efforts. However, it was Alphonse who shouldered the weight of the burden, and Alphonse who made the weightiest breakthroughs.
It was he who stumbled upon Verdimillious Adrastia and the possibility that it could produce a cure. He did some studies on it, which led to some genetic tinkering, and then to further studies. After he had a succession of experiments peer-reviewed and published, he felt ready to use himself as a test subject. And anxious, too, for by that time the parasite had taken over nearly three inches of his skin.
The fluid produced by the carnivorous plant proved able to halt the spread of the parasite. He had, throughout this time, little trouble obtaining grants to continue his work, but the cost was increasing and the money was not stretching the way he hoped. He found that he could obtain more grant money if he were to branch out into the care of more exotic species (specializing in carnivorous plants) and so he had the greenhouse built and populated. But then he finished medical school, and he had debts to pay, and was thus compelled to wheedle the medical community into allowing him his practice within the walls of the greenhouse.
Even now he could see the freshest of the buds losing their vitality and wither marginally, as if they were giving out little sighs. He shook his arm to clear the tingling.
“He’s pulling in now,” Nona yelled over the intercom.
Alphonse gave the medical equipment a quick disinfect. The equipment was paltry, but he did what he could, and his patients seemed to like him even if he did have to constantly refer them elsewhere for testing.
The new arrival entered the greenhouse and checked in with Nona. This was his first appointment with Alphonse, who rubbed his hands together as he prepared to make a good impression. He threw on his lab coat to cover his arm. No need to lead with that. The muffled yelling over the fans at the front desk was audible all the way to the back.
Alphonse felt ready for Benner when Nona sent him back.
“Mr. Benner. I’m Dr. Muskovodere. Good to meet you.”
“Gary Benner. You, too.”
Gary Benner hopped up on the examining table and they talked through particulars of his visit, his history, and Dr. Muskovodere’s practice.
After that was hashed out, Dr. Muskovodere brought out the stethoscope and began a routine checkup. As he finished checking his pulse, he sought to engage his patient in small talk. They discussed the weather, which led Benner to remark on the necessary conditions for air travel.
“Do you have travel plans?” asked Muskovodere.
“Yeah, I’m heading out to Tennessee for work,” Benner replied.
“What do you do?”
“I’ve been in management for two-and-a-half years, right after I graduated with my MBA.”
“Management?”
“Yep, I really enjoy it.”
“It sounds like a high-stress job,” said Muskovodere.
“It’s…demanding, sure.”
“What company did you say you work for?”
“Parallax,” said Benner.
“That’s…healthcare?”
“Yep. Software solutions for the healthcare industry. Big company, big tall white buildings off the highway.”
“Right, right. I don’t get out much, but I remember driving past those. I’ve heard it’s a very good company.”
“Yeah, the way I got in was through the connections I gained in my MBA,” said Benner. “My MBA was good stuff. Lots of good stuff.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, it was just…there were a lot of leadership courses I took. It taught me all those leadership skills, y’know? I…”
A bright twinkling sound interrupted him. Benner looked at his wrist, where a gold watch hung, and then pushed up his sleeve, revealing nothing.
“Oh – uh, sorry…”
He fished a cell phone out of his pocket and tapped on the screen, queuing up a swirling hi-def display of colors. A few gold spheres danced around the screen in time with the twinkling sound, and Benner swiped his finger around each one of them and then tapped twice, with firmness. The screen lit up with a red wash and then faded back to a menu screen.
Benner pocketed his phone. “Ugh, I just switched from the TimeTable, so I keep going for my wrist when my phone goes off. It’s a reflex.”
“What one is that?” asked Muskovodere, gesturing towards the phone in Benner’s pocket.
“That’s the new one. The one they’re calling the Lightspeed. I really like the TimeTable, but I switched back to a normal phone ‘cause it just has features that won’t fit on a tiny watch. It’s pretty sweet, though.”
“The connection might not be so good in here…” Muskovodere apologized.
“Well, this one is on the new network, so it should be able to get a signal anywhere – that’s why they call it Lightspeed, because of the fancy satellite network. It’s supposed to replace wi-fi within a couple years.”
“That’s impressive,” nodded Muskovodere.
“That’s how it’s supposed to work. Of course, there are still people using telephone wires,” said Benner. “I dunno what’s up with them.” He laughed lightly and shook his head. Muskovodere checked Benner’s reflexes.
“But, anyway – “ Benner continued, “ – my time in my MBA was really helpful. I mainly went for my MBA because I didn’t really know what else to do, but being in the program I learned I was just lacking confidence. And my professors really encouraged me and helped me, uh, find my potential that way.
It’s mainly believing in yourself and working hard - that’s the key to success, and that’s what my professors taught me. And it really works. Because it’s all expectations – if you send the signal that you’re expecting something, then that’s what other people pick up on, and then they’re expecting that, too.”
“I’m glad it worked out for you so well,” said Muskovodere. He put his medical tools back in their padded holster and wrapped them up. He faced his patient with a smile. “I don’t have very much else to say to you; everything look normal. Are there any questions you have for me?”
Benner pulled his phone out of his pocket and glanced at the time. “Nope, not really,” he said, sitting up straighter, looking like this meeting was over, that he was ready to go. Here was his occupation showing itself, thought Muskovodere.
“Very good, then. You can schedule your next appointment with Nona.”
They both rose. Before Muskovodere could offer his hand in a final handshake, his phone interrupted with its flat electronic tone. It was the intercom again. He picked it up, pressed the rubber button, and Nona told him from the other end that his next patient had called with a last-minute cancellation. He thanked her, pulled the spiral cord out of the way, and returned the crème-colored receiver to the base. When he looked up he saw Benner fixed on the vintage equipment with a mixture of fascination and horror.
“So you’re the reason we still have telephone wires,” Benner said, as he struggled to get his composure back.
“Yes, that would be me,” said with Muskovodere, with an awkward laugh.
“Well, I’ll see ya, Doctor.”
“Thank you, good luck.”
They took their parting handshake, and Benner walked out of the room, over to Nona and her fans where he would set up a time for his annual checkup. Alphonse Muskovodere watched him as he yelled over the fans, watched him as he waved goodbye to Nona, watched him as he walked out the door, watched as the wind caught up the vents of his blazer and whisked him away.
Alphonse sighed deeply and shrugged off his coat. The greenhouse was so warm and full. Here was his life’s work, and where it all had led him. He walked into the aisles of plant-life. A trance-like state settled over him; he walked into the inviting arms of the branches bending over him and slipping across his shoulders. They were healthy plants; he kept them well maintained. He fondled their leaves between his fingers. So smooth.
A tingling shot though his arm. It was time, already. He sighed and repeated the familiar process with the Verdimillious Adrastia specimen and spread the goo on the infected area. He didn’t usually notice the smell of it, but this time he did. Dark and pithy was the smell of the sap that kept his disease contained.
He could pretend it didn’t. He could force it down for days, he could distract himself with his work and with his PC games on his ancient computer, he could trick himself into forgetting about it, but his diseased arm was loathsome to him. It always was there, strange and foreign, galling him with its freakishness.
As a doctor, of course, he was in the constant way of abnormality. He saw hidden wounds and those too encompassing to be hidden. Some of his patients lived well with their particular diseases, others didn’t. This was all normal – but professional detachment was supposed to protect him from getting worked up about any of it. But Alphonse was unable to detach himself, for he was involved with abnormal mankind, and each abnormal man’s disease reminded him of his own, and sometimes a healthful man’s state reminded him of his own. Either way, he was engaged in a nearly constant struggle to forget the arm that had determined his fate.  
Alphonse sighed among the specimens, those fat and happy plants, as they digested their ants or rodents or spiders (or soaked up the sunlight, if they were more traditionally inclined). He’d talk to them sometimes. Most of them didn’t really need the CO2, but it seemed like it ought to be beneficial even though he knew it wasn’t, and Dr. Muskovodere felt efficient doing it in spite his vast knowledge to the contrary. Besides, Nona couldn’t hear him doing it, and there was no one else to talk to through all the long hours he spent in the greenhouse.
Was it really as easy as Benner believed it to be? Could a man really march through life by force of willpower alone? Alphonse Muskovodere looked around at his plants and laughed. Yes, of course. If he believed in himself – if he only had the confidence – he could be running around out there, buying up all the fancy gadgets and replacing wi-fi with the new network. All he had to do was to change his career, his body, his entire personality, his life’s circumstances. Indeed, it was as easy as that!
“This is where I’ve come – to you,” he said. “And here we are. It was you who brought me here, and you who keep me here,” he accused. “You’ve made me just one more part in your life cycle. You caught me in your trap.” He fumed silently.
“Are you impressed by Gary Benner? Do you like him?” he asked the plants. Then he quieted down, in morose reflection. “Probably not, I bet. I bet you think mankind is silly to try and get the draw on you. Are you angry at us ll, or do you just have a nasty streak?”
The plants remained silent. It wasn’t often that Alphonse fancifully wished that they would talk back to him, but today was one of those days. A small worm of yearning wriggled around inside him, hoping for a reply. He felt tired.  There was as good a chance as any that a game of minesweeper would distract him, so he leaned back in the metal chair and set difficulty on “hard.” If he put more effort into making some money, couldn’t he? There had to be some clever solution that would get him out of this unending dead-end and abreast of his fellow humans. He yawned.
The he clicked a bomb. Wasn’t paying attention. Not close enough attention. Oh well.
He spent the next hour completing his deskwork – messages, prescriptions, etcetera – and afterwards still had thirty minutes until his last appointment of the day. After that, he could go to his room in the back and maybe catch a nap. In the meantime, he had very little to do. He stretched, and as he stretched he was struck with a thought. He paused in the middle of the motion, with his arms spread-eagled like branches and let it sink in: he was a plant. He considered the evidence: he could not leave the greenhouse. He spent all day planted there, occasionally pulling a meager livelihood to himself like one of his specimen’s traps. He even had leaves. He had to laugh. It had been a long day. Perhaps a quick nap would improve his state of mind.
He slid down against one of the planters – he was a plant, after all, so it followed that it ought to be comfortable – and rested his back against it, the cool and bright support. And his thoughts drifted some more.
Maybe the plants felt like he did. Maybe they were not angry or malevolent towards humanity. Maybe mankind frustrated them just like mankind frustrated him – maybe it even caused them stabs of pain and wistfulness.

To just close his eyes for a minute. If he slept, that was fine, too. He could use it. With his eyes closed, he could hear the rustling of the many leaves, even indoors with no breeze. That was one ability that had come of his enclosed life: he could hear all the different leaves, gently moving from the faintest drafts of the fans. He knew them well, that was sure. It was like they were talking to him in a gentle, the very gentlest, of whispers. Their murmur was all around him. He could even pick out some of the specimens, simply from the sound and his memory of their placement in the greenhouse. Keeping his eyes closed, he started to go through the names of all the plants he could hear…  

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