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Zero K(11)
Don DeLillo

“I know there’s a hospice here. Is this where you talk to the dying?”

“They call it a hospice. They call it a safehold. I don’t know what it is. An escort takes me there every day, down in the numbered levels.”

He talked about advanced equipment, trained staff. Still, it made him think of twelfth-century Jerusalem, he said, where an order of knights cared for the pilgrims. He imagined at times that he was walking among lepers and plague victims, seeing gaunt faces from old Flemish paintings.

“I think of the bleedings, purgings and baths administered by the knights, the Templars. People from everywhere, the sick and dying, those who tend to them, those who pray for them.”

“Then you remember who and where you are.”

“I remember who I am. I am the hospitaler. Where I am, this has never mattered.”

Ross had also made a reference to pilgrims. This place may not have been intended as the new Jerusalem but people made long journeys to find a form of higher being here, or at least a scientific process that will keep their body tissue from decomposing.

“Does your room have a window?”

“I don’t want a window. What’s on the other side of a window? Pure dumb distraction.”

“But the room itself, if it’s like my room, the size of it.”

“The room is a solace, a meditation. I can raise my hand and touch the ceiling.”

“A monk’s cell, yes. And the cloak. I’m looking at the cloak you’re wearing.”

“It’s called a scapular.”

“A monk’s cloak. But so unmonklike. Aren’t such cloaks gray or brown or black or white?”

“Russian monks, Greek monks.”

“Okay.”

“Carthusian monks, Franciscan monks, Tibetan monks. Monks in Japan, monks in the Sinai desert.”

“Your cloak, this one. Where is it from?”

“I saw it draped over a chair. I still visualize the scene.”

“You took it.”

“The moment I saw it, I knew it was mine. It was predetermined.”

I could have asked a question or two. Whose chair, which room, what city, which country? But I understood that this would have been an affront to the man’s method of narration.

“What do you do when you’re not tending to people in their last hours or days?”

“This is everything I do. I talk to people, I bless them. They ask me to hold their hands, they tell me their lives. Those with strength enough left to talk or to listen.”

I watched him get to his feet, a taller man than he’d seemed at first glimpse. The cloak was knee-length and his pajama bottoms flapped as he moved toward the door. He wore high-top sneakers, black-and-white. I did not want to regard him as a comic figure. He was clearly not. I felt, in fact, reduced by his presence, his appearance, by what he said, his trail of happenstance. The cloak was a fetish, a serious one, a monk’s scapular, a shaman’s cape, carrying what he believed to be spiritual powers.

“Is this tea I’m drinking?”

“Green tea,” he said.

I waited for a word or phrase in Uzbek.

•  •  •

Artis said, “It was ten or twelve years ago, surgery, right eye. When it was over they gave me a protective eye shield to wear for a limited time. I sat in a chair at home wearing the shield. There was a nurse, Ross had arranged a nurse, unnecessarily. We followed all the guidelines in the instruction sheet. I slept in the chair for an hour and when I woke up I removed the shield and looked around and everything looked different. I was astonished. What was I seeing? I was seeing what is always there. The bed, the windows, the walls, the floor. But the brightness of it, the radiance. The bedspread and pillow cases, the rich color, the depths of color, something from within. Never before, ever,” she said.

Two of us, sitting as we had the day before, and I had to lean in to hear what she was saying. She let time pass before she was ready to continue.

“I’m aware that when we see something, we are getting only a measure of information, a sense, an inkling of what is really there to see. I don’t know the details or the terminology but I do know that the optic nerve is not telling the full truth. We’re seeing only intimations. The rest is our invention, our way of reconstructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, that we can call actual. I know that research is being done here, somewhere in this complex, on future models of human vision. Experiments using robots, lab animals, who knows, people like me.”

She was looking directly at me now. She made me see myself, briefly, as the person who was standing here being looked at. Fairly tall man with thick webbed hair, prehistoric hair. This was all I could borrow from the deep probe maintained by the woman in the chair.

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