Every night, just before he slept, Armando Vasquez wrung out his brain. He found it the only way to stop the nightmares. He’d gently lift it out, dripping, and look it over. Late at night Armando’s brain was always bigger and more discolored than it was in the morning. It vibrated, full of the day’s activities and anxieties. Gripping each end, he’d let out a little sigh, and thoroughly wring it. Sometimes small objects squeezed through the folds. Once, a small carp plopped out and flopped on the bedroom floor, attracting the notice of Armando’s calico cat. It all depended, really, on the kind of day he’d had. A rare good day and not much manifested itself, a normal bad day and the bedroom floor resembled an over-stocked manger (sans messiah). Most days fell in between. Usually it was just small bits of broken glass, a tooth, a nail. In the morning they’d be gone.
Before this Armando had tried most of the common cures for dealing with nightmares, and a few cures not so common. He journaled, he meditated, he touched his inner-self and puked. He talked to other psychiatrists about his daily nightmares and became amiably familiar with depression’s cohort of friends: amitriptyline, zoloff, valium, prozac, the entire alphabet soup of pharmacopian cures and pharmaceutical profits. Side effects, all a necessary part of the game, his friends told him, struck him as hard as the nightmares. At least when he threw up from a nightmare it was in his own home; when he puked on the subway people acted as if he were being rude. With the nightmares he might wet the bed, with the drugs he felt as if he was drowning but could never pee a pint. Some nights, with the drugs inside him, he couldn’t sleep at all; his colleagues said, see – no more nightmares! He dumped the drugs, telling his colleagues they’d cured him. Smiling, they blamed Armando’s problems on his father and billed him at the professional courtesy rate. He went to his mother’s faith healer. His insurance didn’t cover it and the nightmares kept coming. Food lost its taste; he ate little.
Having tried the modern religion of pharmaceuticals and the old time religion of faith healing he opted for the middle road and spoke with a priest. Sixteen lines of blank space and a glottal stop best summarize that conversation. Giving up on religion, Armando continued screaming in his sleep. Things only got worse. Hospital security mistook him for a patient: uncombed hair, sunken, seen-too-much eyes, bad breath. The faith healer kept calling back. His patients gave him advice, one even threatened to send him a bill.
He took time off but it didn’t help. Incessant nightmares crept into the in-between times of wakefulness and sleep. Two dimensional images incarnated into three dimensions. The decibels of a truck horn metastasized into the roar of the beast. The dragon, bare-knuckled and scaley armed, consumed his nights. It now clawed for Armando’s in-between spaces of eyes open and eyes closed. Three days off lapsed into a week. His clothing hung on him.
Night sweats, vomiting, jerking limbs, plugging his ears so as not to hear the beast’s roars, these were the nights of Armando Vasquez. Keeping clean no longer mattered. Not when compared to the dual pains of sleep deprived muscles and fraught dreams. He couldn’t leave the house or do his job. Everything he saw outside his home revisited him again in the night, in the shape of the dragon. He tried the drugs again. The beast never penetrated the synthetic armor plating which was chemically welded to his brain. His sense of touch abandoned him, tweed and linen felt the same; just something there to snag on his fingernails.
The dragon lurked outside the prescription-blasted arena of Armando’s mind. The beast would have chewed an arm off before becoming sequestered in that drug-altered quagmire. So it waited for the in-between times, that peculiar separate space of half-awareness bounded by the numbing drug fog on one side and the gradual sensation of conscious perception on the other. In that silent space it waited, hungry for Armando.
Pharmacopeia dug a moat around the maelstrom. In the moat Armando neither lived nor died. His body functioned, his mind was shielded by a sort of screen saver. No smells, no sounds penetrated the barrier. But when he crawled out of the moat, or when the moat dried up and receded from him, he found the dragon waiting.
Armando screamed, the neighbors complained, his colleagues smiled, and the calico cat taught him how to use the litter box.
Ultimately it was the cat who saved him.
Armando’s extended leave of absence was almost up. After a foray out for more cigarettes he found the notice in the mailbox. Throwing away the fact that he might be the next million dollar winner he glazed on the letter from Dopplin and Moore. A fifth reading betrayed its contents. Continued royalties for Armando’s part in developing Florexxelin would cease if he did not resume active research at the hospital. After a seventh reading and a pack of cigarettes the meaning came clear. My god, ‘=d have to live on my salary. I’ve got to sleep to work.
Closing his eyes he slumped on the couch. The light faded and he could hear the scrabble of claws on cobblestone as the dragon awoke. Tendons popped as its wings unfolded, stretching across the vastness of his mind. Thigh sized eyes locked him in place. He couldn’t flee. The dragon approached. Grey nostrils drank the atmosphere. Armando gasped for air.
Armando’s sight fled, his closed-eyed world rendered black. He could feel the dragon near him. He could not run, his legs ached in slow motion thrashing. Limp arms tried to climb out from this abyss. The beast’s breath singed his finger, burned his palm. He screamed, one eye opened, the second fluttered and light poured in. He was awake.
The cat flicked the cigarette lighter closed and tossed it back on a pile of dirty clothes. It sauntered to the only neat spot in the house. A little area cordoned off with a white rope which the cat no longer allowed Armando to cross. The cat sat and washed, keeping one eye on Armando. It groomed itself and then chewed at its claws, spitting the trimmed sheaths on the floor. The cat’s useless sheaths now gone, fresh claws raked the day’s matted fur from its head. Groomed and with every hair in place, it then gacked up a hairball which it disdainfully knocked into Armando’s side of the room. Content, the cat closed its eyes, settling down to the luxuriant sleep of the absolutely uninvolved.
Armando’s red eyes absorbed this scene. His burnt hand hurt. He watched the ball of gacked hair disappear as it left the cat’s domain. The window’s breeze scattered the small pile of claw sheaths out of sight. The cat’s fur was clean and neatly parted. The warm purr reached his ears and became a snore.
Armando sat up and inhaled the breezes. He reached up, felt his head and found the hinges. Gingerly he worked off the rust and after several sharp tugs the hinges gave way with an audible pop. Removing his brain, he was appalled at its size and discoloration. Nearly too big to hold in his arms, he began to wipe it down and massage it. The wipe down and massage lowered its displacement considerably.
Lumps and disfigurements remained. He cleared a space on the floor between the sofa and the cat’s white ropes. Laying his brain on the floor he retrieved a rolling pin from the kitchen and kneaded it. The brain wailed, small objects and feral rodents fled from it. Armando kneaded the brain for an hour, finally getting it down to the size of a basketball.
Sweat poured down Armando’s emaciated arms. Pain wracked his body, but his head cleared with each undulating stroke of the rolling pin. If he paused to rest a rat-like thing with scales and flippers would peek out from under the sofa and flop back into his brain. Armando redoubled his efforts, losing track of time and the number of repulsive creatures squeaking out of his brain. The cat snored in the background.
In the middle of the night only one pesky, fist-sized lump remained. He spent four more hours on that spot. It roared and finally it screeched. A six-taloned claw tore out from the lump, grasping for Armando. The old fears gripped him, the eyes’ glare froze him in place, his vision blurred and he stopped kneading. Creatures peeked from beneath the sofa, anxious and hungry to regain the nooks and crannies of Armando’s brain. A few forayed back to the floor. Armando felt the dragon’s strength, its size, its power enclose him. Blinded, he dropped the rolling pin and whimpered. The dragon roared, Armando sweated and felt very small. In the far distance he heard a hiss and a screech.
The dragon roared again, this time without its consuming power, a furry object fixed upon its arm. The asphyxiating grip on Armando’s throat marginally diminished. The dragon screamed and blurred images filled Armando’s eyes. In concentric circles around him black and brown blobs swayed in concert with his anguish. The beast’s scaled arm projected from his brain to his throat. The dragon’s screams became a retch and Armando’s sight returned. His mouth unglued and a rush of fresh air penetrated his lungs.
The circles of feral creatures scattered for cover. Like a bull rider, Armando’s cat clung to the dragon’s arm. Holding a pair of pliers like a lasso it pulled talons from the dragon’s claw. When the cat yanked the last one, Armando regained all of his senses. He could taste, smell, hear, see, and feel. With the sixth claw gone, Armando regained his mind. And, with the last talon the feral creatures rushed beneath the sofa, which collapsed.
Armando, no longer dripping sweat, stared at his brain. The size was right, the color was normal, it displayed no lumps or bruises. The brain rested on the floor, shining in the new morning’s light. Kneeling on the floor, Armando lifted up his restored brain into the sunlight: Light to light, new life to new life. He set it back into his head and the now well-oiled hinges smoothly latched without a sound.
The cat strung a necklace from the claws, hanging it on the wall of Armando’s study. When he came home from the hospital he and the cat would together count the talons on the necklace. If there were six the cat would smirk and go chase its glitter ball. If there were less than six, if one or two were missing, the cat would hand Armando the rolling pin with a knowing look.
Every night, just before he slept, Armando Vasquez wrung out his brain. He found it the only way to stop the nightmares. Every morning in his study there was a six-taloned necklace and a purring calico cat.
THE NIGHTS OF ARMANDO VASQUEZ by John Zemler, Copyright 2010