Twelve Minutes

Sometimes I worry that my pen holds too much power, that the brain behind it is unconsciously so clever, it has the ability to construct reality from words. Don't ask me how I got here; even I'm not sure of that. I don't remember ever waking up one morning, sitting down at the table with my cup of coffee, and realizing, "Oh, I'm crazy, aren't I?" It wasn't like one of those movies where the poor victim of insanity carries on conversation with the six voices in his head or keeps the body of his dead mother in a trunk because he thinks she's always watching him. No, nothing like that. There may be many shades of crazy, but what I got is something else altogether.

Throughout my childhood, I was frequently told I had an over-active imagination. When I did poorly in school, it was because I was too easily "distracted." The nuns at the academy made themselves hoarse trying to talk sense into me, tearing up my drawings, and breaking rulers over my ill-timed references to Joan of Arc and her voices. There are no such things as "voices," they chorused. People shouldn't "hear" things; it was only Satan trying to fill them with delusions and self-importance. But didn't God speak to people too? I would ask, knowing full well that I had caught them in their own net. That was different, they would answer and assign me another detention. It only gave me more time to daydream, to become the Homer figure in my own grand mythology.

What I figure is my brain just works differently than most people's. Instead of patterned thought, my mental processes come in sharp peaks. First there will be nothing, only normalcy, the sort of things regular guys think about. And then bam! Suddenly there's so much going on in my head all at once, I feel like my thoughts will splatter themselves all over the walls from the pressure of it. Then, picking up speed, like a bicycle catching some wind downhill, my mind comes alive with faces, sights, and smells; a kaleidoscope of intense color. I seem to be everywhere at once, both in my body and yet at the same time, looking down at myself from someplace higher up.

Before I was "certifiable," I was a writer. No one important, of course, just a measly local writer trying to get his stuff into a few of the small papers. I remember the day they published my first short story. You can bet it was one of the proudest moments of my life, seeing my name there, so permanent in that black ink, like forever looking back at me. I thought about all of the folks who would read my story over their breakfasts, then scan back to the top of the page and repeat my name out loud. "Genius," they'd say and read it again to make the name stick.

Twelve Minutes to Goodbye was one of the finest things I've ever written, maybe even the finest. It was about a woman, based on an old girlfriend of mine, who dies in a plane crash. The whole story passes within the twelve minutes before impact. But about a week after its publication, something happened. Something really weird. Barbara, the girl I had loosely based my character on, died in a sort of freak car accident. She had been on her way to the airport, ready to hop a plane back home to Rhode Island. There had been a time when I devoted my every waking thought to theories on how to regain her affection. But she had left me for a mutual acquaintance of ours with more money, better looks, and three published novels. That was after she slept with him. Now, don't go assuming I felt guilty about this to begin with. At the time, I considered it to be a creepy kind of coincidence, but the thought of it stained me. Barbara had never been one that you could just wash away.

I keep a notebook for writing in (always have), where I can jot down any ideas I get. One particularly warm afternoon, I sat down for lunch at truck stop diner and began the story of a young man's first car, a cherry red mustang. I don't know if it was the pot roast, or the waitress's bad attitude, but the tale slowly went sour. This fictional young man, so proud of his fiery wheels, ends up hitting someone on the road, late at night. He hits them so hard, that they die instantly, and he doesn't know if he should do the right thing and call the police, or dump the body in a ditch and keep going. I was trying to get the waitress's attention for another cup of lukewarm coffee, I remember, so I stood up to wave her over in my direction. I'll never forget the squeal of tires from outside, rising in pitch and falling away abruptly, the streak of red in the corner of my vision. We all made for the door as the screaming started. Out there in the parking lot, a teenager climbed out of a red Nissan, quaking. Someone's kid had darted out in front of her and was now splayed out on the steaming pavement. The cops came right away, but I'll never forget the look on that poor girl's face. She looked like a frightened doe, eyes wide with savage fear, like she was ready to tear away with break-neck speed, like the only thing keeping her on the ground was the officer's steadying grip on her arm.

After that, I threw my notebook away. I know what you're thinking, that I was paranoid, that there was no way anyone could have predicted that. I didn't write for days, and when I finally gave in, it was in shaky little experiments. I wrote about harmless things, and studied the aftermath closely. Like the laundry mat on the corner and how its dirty white walls, soiled by years of greasy fingers and cigarette smoke, might cause the owners to invest in large amounts of red paint. Or Cecilia, the nineteen-year-old prostitute who lives across from me. I wrote about what a sigh from her pouting lips might taste like; how the scent of her limp curls would remind me of honeysuckle.

I found her caught in the middle of a November drizzle one night downtown. Her pink coat, the crazy vinyl kind that the kids are wearing these days, offering her no protection against the damp cold. I pulled my car to the side of the street and waved her in. She came willingly, as I knew she always did, and huddled against the seat, wringing the water from her blonde ringlets. There was a moment of static, and then everything became clear. Cecilia's darkly lined eyes, as striking as any Egyptian queen's, met mine to confirm the transaction.

"Seventy-five bucks for an hour," she slurred her price. I nodded without meaning to. The forces that brought us together were violent, gravitational. I didn't dare fight them. Even as I held her shoulders that night, the darkness flashing around us like a wild thing, the sweat dripping in my eyes, I knew it had happened just the way I'd imagined it would. Except she tasted like cigarette smoke and cheap liquor, but when my lips found the hollow of her throat, I thought I caught the milky hint of ivory soap.

After that, the bigger my imagined events got, the more nervous I became. Simple ponderings shed their skin and were reborn as apocalypses. There were no longer coincidences, and the lines between my authored thoughts and reality began to bleed into each other. I didn't know what created what or which came first. Until then, I had spent my whole life pinning words to paper, bits of myself and my own memories, to weave magic. Now I was worried that maybe the ink drying in my notebook spelled out more than amusing anecdotes, but people's lives. Soon I had several notebooks. One for keeping track of obituaries in the newspapers, another for news reports. The research kept me busy, and I shut myself in my little apartment for weeks, ignoring the concerned telephone messages that whined from my answering machine.

It was my own sister who brought me here-how's that for family loyalty? Beth told me that she was worried about me, they all were, and that I needed help for my social phobia. I told her it wasn't a phobia; I was protecting the world from myself. But it wasn't enough. Somehow my thoughts, those dark and morbid, disobedient things, had begun to leak out of my ears, polluting the very air. I couldn't stop them; I couldn't keep all of those bad things from happening.

One windy afternoon, as the tree branches raked at my window, I became aware of a sudden knocking at my door. It wasn't paranoia that slowed my limbs; there was little doubt as to who could be on the other side of that paneled wood. I wasn't afraid of the confrontation I felt coming on, but the news had begun to blast from my television, the anchorman speaking in grave tones about shooting downtown.

"Merill, it's Beth," her voice rang out in a whine I was all too familiar with. "I know you're in there...please, just open the door. I need to see you."

"The stormy weather has been the cause of many accidents today out there on the freeways...expect delays southbound on highway 109...a fatal four-car accident causing some serious problems..." I strained to hear the rest of the report, which rode on the back of Beth's persistent banging. It had always been like that. The five years that divided us had been a gaping rift when we were growing up, and hers was a constant presence on the rug before my door. Dolls in tow, she would knock pleadingly for what seemed like hours as I strummed my guitar with the clumsiness of a fourteen-year-old. Eventually, I always let her in for one reason or another, usually because mom would yell if I didn't. This time was no different.

I opened the door to the drab gray-green of the hallway. She frowned back at me, her hair darkened by the rain, rivulets of it streaming from the flaps of her raincoat. "I've been knocking for over five minutes. It's a wonder you can hear me over the tv." Beth let herself in; I stood aside and watched.

"Why do you need to have the volume so loud? You're worse than the kids..." She shrugged off her coat to signal that she was staying.

"It's not that loud," I said simply, following the movement of the water rolling from her jacket to the floor, wondering at the shape it formed. "I just don't want to miss any of the news."

Beth sat down at the table, as if expecting something. "You're not still doing that are you?"

I took the seat across from her, knowing that the time for this particular conversation had finally arrived. "Beth, this is my work now. It's important to me."

"Merill," she said my name like it was already too late. Like I was a goner or something. "Talk to me. Tell me what's happening to you."

I remember the leaves falling outside, the raspy thrumming of my heater. "I don't know what to tell you," I said, tracing the words on the table with a finger. "It's not something you could understand." I had scribbled this scene on a napkin, I was sure, down to my very last line: "There are just some things you can't explain."

Beth's look just then reminded me that, though she was youngest, she was used to mothering. I had seen the same expression on our mother's face when my father would come home from the tavern in a stupor. That worried sort of anger, like you can't believe a person would do that to himself. Her face clouded, darkening the shadows under her eyes.

"Goddamnit, you're not even trying anymore! You won't answer your phone, you hardly leave this filthy apartment, and you're not sleeping!" The thunder in her voice broke and retreated. She took my hand in hers. "I can't help thinking that if you just got away, took a vacation or something, that you might feel better. So you can get your life back on track."

I slid a notepad toward her; a spider webbed chart of my own brainstorming and corresponding news stories. "It won't matter where I go, Beth," I said and withdrew my hand. "It's not like I can shut my brain off. Wherever I'm at, things like this will keep happening."

She read the notes, her eyes the only part of her that moved, hovering on each word like a nervous insect. In a flutter, the pages were banished to the floor. Beth sat glaring at the spot they had occupied, drawing in noisy breaths. When she glanced up, I knew right away she had missed it; that narrow window of time that divides skeptics from believers.

"You're scaring me, Merill."

I smiled a little at that, I couldn't help myself, and spoke the words I had known were coming. "I'm scaring myself."

I'd like to say that my committal to the institution went smoothly, that I went voluntarily, even bravely. It's not as if I didn't see this coming, but it would have been much better for all of us if they hadn't taken my notebooks away. I'm a little ashamed to admit that I screamed and gave a forty-two-year-old version of a tantrum when the doctors confiscated them. Doctor Peterson said that they "exacerbated" my condition. I began to worry what might happen without a place to deposit those horrible thoughts. I imagined them lining the walls of my brain, building layer upon layer until they forced everything else out, and then melding together, they would explode with such a force that would make every other worldly catastrophe look like a trip to the fair. What if documenting them on paper watered them down somehow, diluting their potency? So I wrote on everything I could find-toilet paper, the walls, my own skin-using whatever would suffice for ink. There was a rhythm to it, and I would recite this mantra late at night, this unspoken code I couldn't defy.

There is a sense of urgency now. It's absolutely maddening that I'm the only one who feels it. Doctors speak to me in low, patronizing tones, offering weak rewards for my cooperation, television rights, magazines, and such. My sister visits too, with false cheerfulness, but leaves my nephews at home with her husband. Sally, a patient from the next ward down the hall, sings loudly whenever she spots Beth's red hair. Her shrill chorus reminds me that I don't belong here. I'm not crazy, I just have some kind of gift or curse. But they don't believe me, no matter how articulate my debate. Beth cries as she leaves, her eyes as puffy as they were when she was a girl and I was a bully, tugging her braids.

It's all spiraling downwards. They've taken away the last pen I managed to smuggle in, the precious instrument I traded two weeks of dessert for. I can feel the next one brewing; blurred faces becoming clear, the players rising from their seats at the sidelines, my scene being set. No, not my scene! I don't want this-I never asked for it! Peterson is leaning towards me in his pompous leather chair, ready to ask me all of the typical crap that makes up our forty-five minute sessions.

Twelve minutes, I think to myself as he and his colleagues turn to watch me. That's what I've averaged it out to be; about twelve minutes separating my thoughts from disaster. As much time as I need to conceive it, but only twelve minutes to tell them.

I have eleven to go, and so, I try again.