Human Contact


James Lewelling

Excerpt from the novel Tortoise. Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.

I hate being sick, I thought, feeling sick between the cold clean sheets on the hotel bed. But at least there’s no-one around. It sucks to be sick in this hotel all by myself, I thought, but it’s a much better than being sick with a bunch of people around. When I’m sick at home, I thought, I close the door, crawl into bed, pull the blanket over my head and wait. I stay in with the door shut until I feel better and then I come out and jump right back into things as if I had never been sick. No-one likes being around a sick person, not even the sick person himself. When I’m around a sick person, my first impulse is to get away. When I’m sick, I’m sure the people unfortunate enough to be around me—a sick person—want to get away too. And in general, they do. The people who can get away, do get away. Why not? What’s to keep them there? You may find yourself sick and surrounded by a whole group of people who want to get away. You may be thinking, being sick is bad but it’s even worse being sick around all these people who really want to get a way. Don’t worry! The people who can get a way will get a way soon enough. They’ll get away lickety-split. There’s always a reason to get away, or if there’s no reason at the moment, one will surely come along. One minute you are surrounded, even smothered, by people who want to get away and the next, you are all by yourself—if you’re lucky. But more often than not, there will be people left over. These are the people who want to get away but can’t. The people who could get away got away; the people who want to get away but can’t are left over. These people can’t get away because they feel they really ought to stay. They want to get away but they’ve mastered that impulse—the impulse to get away—and replaced it with the compulsion to stay. So instead of getting away, what they really want to do, they stay and the more they want to get away, the more they find themselves compelled to stay. The people who are truly repulsed by illness—repulsed to the degree that this repulsion could almost be considered an illness itself, a morbid repulsion—nine times out of ten are the very same people who, confronted with an illness, will go way out of their way to stay. You can’t get rid of them, and you know the whole time they are sitting there, locked in place beside your bed, their dearest wish is to get away, far away, as far away as possible from this illness that repulses them. These people can’t get away. These people are trapped. These people—the people who want to get away but can’t—are utterly dependent on you, the sick person, to let them off the hook. They sit by your bedside with every mental fiber drawn toward the hope of some conclusion and, at some point, it just won’t matter which. They might hope one moment that you get better and the next that you die or conversely hope you die one moment and that you get better the next or possibly hope for both at the same time--that you get better and die simultaneously. But if things go on long enough, these people will be wishing singularly and fervently for your death. At that point, your death is better, for them, than your getting better because death is more decisive. Anyone can get better and then the very next moment get worse again. Getting better is a kind of tease. No-one gets better permanently. Getting better is a kind of lull in the progress of getting worse. It’s a lull and, in that way, a prolongation. It’s a prolongation of an intolerable situation. At that point, these people want you to die because at that point, your death is their only way out. Your death has become their release, I thought, feeling like I might be sick, looking up at the ceiling between the cold clean sheets of the hotel bed.

Suddenly I remembered Mou. He lived in the town in that hot country with me and Ali and the moulay. I had thought there were three of us, but actually there were four, I recalled, looking up at the hotel ceiling, feeling like I might be sick. He was a bit different because he was from there. That made him different. I didn’t know Mou until Mou and Mr. Tagine took me to Mou’s village to meet his mother and look at the children. The skinny moulay wouldn’t come along. He was a moulay and from a big city—from a big city going way, way back. Those people are like animals, he thought. Mr. Tagine was a whole nother kettle of fish, as they say. He didn’t really count. His name meant “stew.” That was a real riot for him. Mr. Stew. Mou thought Mr. Tagine was an idiot. Mr. Tagine thought Mou was an out and out communist and would have drunk the blood of the ruling classes if he could have, and he was absolutely right. Mou would have lined them all up against a wall if he could have. But he knew he couldn’t. Mou knew it just wasn’t in the cards, but he thought it just wasn’t in the cards for now. He thought just maybe it would be in the cards in the future, and when that happened, he would be ready. Meanwhile, to bide his time, he practiced ethnology on his own people. He wrote down everything they did because he knew they would soon disappear. His village was vestigal, he thought. It couldn’t last much longer. In fact, it was dead. He walked around the village like he was walking around a museum. He wanted it to be gone as much as anyone else, but he didn’t want it to disappear without a trace. He wanted a record because his village was also an indictment. The way his people lived was an indictment against the comfortable world. He hated the whole situation, but he wrote it down so people would know. He wanted the people in the comfortable world to know that his people had lived like this. They would never believe it. But he wanted them to know anyway, and he wanted them to know it was their fault. He had translated some songs for me. They were the songs his people sang when they were doing backbreaking labor. Subsistence agriculture is no picnic. It’s really hard, and it doesn’t always work. That is to say, you can break your back all year long and still not subsist. Most of the songs were about how hard the villagers were working and the villagers' landlords—damning them to Hell. Mou also played the Oud. He was folklore all over. So we took a truck over to his village to look at the children and meet his mother. His father was dead, but a bunch of other male relatives were still around. His mother ate with her hands. She called forks and spoons the devil’s fingers. But everyone in that village ate with their hands. There wasn’t a single fork or spoon in the whole place. The children scared the shit out of me. There were a lot of them, and they had a tendency to swarm. But it might have been the flies. There were flies everywhere. The people lived with the animals and everything was covered with flies. The flies were maddening. They put me in a state. I hate flies. I couldn’t think about anything else. All I could think about was the flies. The children might not have been so scary if it hadn’t been for the flies. The children looked like they could eat you alive. They had a tendency to swarm and touch. Who doesn’t like the touch of a child? But if there are a lot of children, swarms of children, it’s different. They were hungry, and they were active. Hunger hadn’t dulled these children. Hunger had sharpened these children. They were sharp and active and you could see a sharp, active hunger in their eyes. These children, I thought, would eat me alive if they could. The flies were making me nuts. Mou said Germans came through in buses and threw candy out the window. It had ruined them, Mou said. It turned them into beggars, so now every time they saw a white face they swarmed. Mr. Tagine thought the whole situation was hilarious. Without Mou here, I thought, these children would eat me alive. A sharp word from Mou scattered them instantly. But as soon as he stepped away—to talk to someone, to talk about something secret, or maybe just to say goodbye to his mother—the children came back. They thought I had candy. I didn’t bring any but even if I had there would never have been enough. If I had brought candy, I wouldn’t have let on. I wouldn’t have wanted them to know about it. I wouldn’t have wanted them even to smell it. You could tell just looking into their sharp, hungry faces that the whiff of candy would throw them right over the brink. They were sticking their hands in my pockets when the truck came.

I rolled out of the bed, crawled to the bathroom and threw up. I felt much better. I rested there by the toilet feeling much better. Then I turned on the light, brushed my teeth, washed out my mouth, turned off the light and walked back through the silence of the hotel room and crawled back into bed. When I looked up, the ceiling wasn’t there anymore, just the sky.

There were some girls in that poor country too, I recalled, looking at the sky. Two of them. They lived together in a little house. It was in the mountains in the north where it was beautiful and cold. They had snow. They had trees and rocks with water running over them, cutting through the snow. In their little house, I drank tea with them--all of us wrapped up in blankets in the cold morning. It was very cozy. The two of them were managing an orphanage. They had volunteered for this job, but as it turned out, they were in way over their heads. There were too many babies and not enough of anything else. There weren’t enough dryers, for example. You could hang out the blankets, but they didn’t dry fast enough. The babies slept in wet blankets and it was cold. They got sick and then they died. A couple died every so often. The girls buried them. There was no-one else to do it. They were orphans after all. Those girls were in way over their heads. It should have destroyed them. Maybe it had destroyed them but they wouldn’t know that until they were adults. They had a grave, tired, hollowed out look but they weren’t destroyed. Or if they were, they didn’t know it. They had volunteered for the orphanage. They hadn’t volunteered to bury babies. Who would volunteer for that? It was, as it turned out, part of the job. The girls had learned a lot in college. They learned about orphans and orphanages and what to do with orphans and orphanages. There were too many babies and not enough help and not enough dryers. Even without the wet bedding, some of those babies would have died. The babies weren’t in great shape to begin with. Some of them were deaf; others were blind; others were infected. They all had problems. In most cases, it had something to do with the way they were born. You can bet they weren’t born in hospitals. There were no hospitals for miles around but even if there had been one, those babies wouldn’t have been born there. They were born on the sly. An unwanted pregnancy was a very sticky situation in that place. The mother of an unwanted baby could get her legs broken. Her own brothers would do it. It was a matter of honor. So you can bet when those unwanted babies were born, there was no doctor around or midwife or anyone else. Those babies were born in the dark and all alone with their terrified mothers. They were born in the woods somewhere, in the snow, and then their terrified mothers brought them to the orphanage—if they were lucky. Infanticide is a crime. It’s a worse crime than having an unwanted baby. But who wants their legs broken? If the mother of the unwanted baby was more afraid of God than she was of her brothers, she’d bring the unwanted baby to the orphanage. Bringing the baby to the orphanage was taking a chance with her brothers, but God saw everything. And you can bet those babies weren’t in the best shape when they got there. Not after a birth like that. They had problems. All of them had problems. In a situation like that, some of them would have had to die whether the bedding was wet or dry. You could have had one full-sized dryer for every kid in the place, and babies were still going to die, and the girls would still have to bury them. They were exhausted. They had this tired, grave, hollowed out look. Those girls were, in a word, destroyed, but as yet they hadn’t a clue about what had happened to them. It wasn’t easy to bury a baby in the snow. The ground wouldn’t take them. You had to thaw it out first and even then digging the hole was no picnic. Of course most of them made it. Children are resilient—even babies. Some of the babies died but most of them made it. They made it through the wet blankets. Once they were out of diapers, their chances improved dramatically. If a baby made it out of diapers, its chances—as far as not dying goes—were almost as good as anyone else’s. That’s not to say from that point on, everything was golden. Babies aren’t house plants. They require a certain amount of human contact. Their brains require it. Those girls couldn’t cuddle thirty-five babies. There was never enough help and the help there was didn’t understand about brains and human contact. As a result, the ones who made it suffered from a lack of attention. They don’t get enough attention, the girls told me. I met a kid there as blank as a sheet of paper. He hadn’t gotten enough attention. You couldn’t get a rise out of him to save your life. I kept putting a ball in his hand and taking it out again. I was giving him the ball. I said, here you have it; it’s yours. Then after a while, I took it away. It was like a game. It missed him completely. You could give it to him and take it away and give it to him and take it away all day long. It was all the same to him.