FICTION: They Live on the Other Side of Language – Part One/Chapter Two
Big Joe Wilson wants to stay rational, but a cult has brainwashed his wife. They convinced and taught her to forget language in pursuit of an uninterpretable heaven on the other side. Now Big Joe has to decide. Will he relinquish complete control over his wife’s catatonic state to doctors, or will he give into the cult’s nonsense and go in there after her, on the other side of language?
“They Live on the Other Side of Language” is a serial novel whose chapters will appear monthly, exclusively at Tuff Gnarl.
(Click HERE to read Chapter 1.)
PART I, Chapter 2
“Ascending the Mountain”
An elderly woman answered the cabin door.
Joe leaned into it. “I need to speak with you about your book.”
The woman slammed the door in his face. Joe’s boot wedged between the door and its frame. His hand smacked the door. “My wife is in a coma, and I need answers.” He pushed the door off his face. The woman stumbled backwards onto the couch. He stared into the grey clouds of her glaucoma. Her quivering hands clasped her cheeks. Her posture collapsed behind her folded arms.
Joe wanted answers, but not to terrorize her. Now he looked as though he invaded this elderly woman’s home to assault her.
“Ma’am, please.” He pulled her folded book from his sleeveless jacket. He opened its pages to show the underlines and marginalia. Joe squatted before her. “These are my wife’s markings. She treated your book like an instruction manual. Please tell me what I’m dealing with here.”
The woman trembled. Her arms guarded her face.
Joe stood and gripped his forehead. He stared at the open door. He realized that if he left now, he probably would end the day with police questioning him.
“I’m sorry for what happened at the door. When you slammed the door in my face, I was just trying to protect myself. I wasn’t trying to push you down. That was a huge misunderstanding. I’m here only to learn more about your book and how to save my wife.”
“Please leave,” the woman said weakly beneath her hands.
“My wife might die.”
Joe was certain she planned to call the cops. He was pretty sure that if he left now, he’d spend the night in jail and never get her help.
She reached for the landline.
Joe panicked. He tore the phone from her fingers and disconnected it. He returned the phone to the side table. Joe wondered how a simple search for answers turned into a potential hostage situation.
“Listen.” He squatted and waved her book. “I’m not a fast reader, and I need to understand what I’m dealing with here. The doctors don’t know why she’s in a coma. Her brain’s not swelling. They haven’t found internal bleeding. No signs of stroke or seizure. Her blood sugar’s fine. Nothing cut off her oxygen. She doesn’t have meningitis or encephalitis. I mean the doctors are at a loss, and I find your book. Nika underlined the hell out of it. Her notes turn your descriptions into steps. I mean listen to this.” He opened the book in his lap and thumbed for a page with a lot of markings. “‘See negative space as positive, convex as concave. Rethink three dimensions into two, two into three. Practice alternative interpretations of space, then time. Hear language as orchestrations of sound, not sentences.’ I didn’t know what the frick she was doing, but I saw her do it. She drove on sidewalks. She parked in yards. She talked in tongues. The doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia or schizophreniform, and then bam, she’s catatonic, and now she’s in a coma. And I’m trying to get answers before she dies. Please tell me you know what’s going on.”
Behind her hands, the woman still trembled. “If you go, I won’t call the police. I promise.”
Joe lowered the book to the carpet. “What are you: cruel or deaf?” He shook his head and groaned through a sigh.
He heard a vehicle on the gravel road. He leaped to his feet. He peeped through the curtains to see a station wagon. It stopped in front of the cabin. The driver leered at Joe’s truck before accelerating up the hill.
Joe stared at the old woman. “All I wanted was your help.” He shook his head, backed to the door, and shook his head again. Cursing, he made his way to the truck.
The station wagon he saw a moment ago careened back around the bend. Joe reversed onto the road, slung his truck into drive, and accelerated. The station wagon barely missed his fender. It slid to a stop in the gravel driveway. From his rattling rearview, Joe watched a shaky figure. It leaped from the blurry station wagon and dust. Joe’s truck jostled down the unpaved road. He hoped to escape before this misunderstanding caught-up with him. He didn’t want to end-up on the evening news.
But he was too tired to drive over four hours to Nashville. He was too exasperated to sit helplessly there in the waiting room at Vanderbilt Hospital.
In a $40 mountain motel room, Joe didn’t feel much better. He wanted to see if his “assault” was on TV. When the TV didn’t work, he stared mindlessly at the flaws in the wallpaper. Bubbles in the paper gave his mind a focal point. His half thoughts wandered.
He snapped back to consciousness. He jerked the old lady’s book from his jacket pocket. He tore through it—only to throw it. Joe clenched his face, chest, fists. He opened his watery eyes and sighed.
The book lay open on the floor. Joe noticed it but looked away.
He took deep breaths. “All I wanted was her help.” From the tension, his neck and shoulder ached. “I have no other authors’ names.” His head reeled. “I don’t know how to find even Nika’s forums.” His breath burned past a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to do.” Joe sat on the floor. He lay back on the thin carpet. “This book and that woman are my only chance.”
He leaped forward and scrambled for the book. He thumbed past the pages about her stroke. His mind had problems processing. He recognized the word “peace.” His mind focused on the word “peace.” He reread it. The word slowed his thinking enough to grasp the sentence. He read it aloud, “I longed for that peace so much, I stopped wearing my hearing aid for an intimation of it.”
His mind spun around the words and concept: an intimation of peace. He thought of his wife as going to asinine lengths, especially for an unemployed person, to find intimations of peace. Joe had told her, for what seemed like forever, that she needed to work on stress-management techniques. He pleaded with her, speak with a therapist. He begged, time and time again, stop self-medicating with wine and get on anti-anxiety medication. If Nika wants peace so badly, Joe thought, she better wake up and freaking get a hearing aid.
Joe blinked. “The old lady wasn’t wearing her hearing aid.” He punched the ground. “Damn it.” He grimaced. “She wasn’t wearing her freaking hearing aid.” He looked up and sighed. “She never heard a word.”
He yanked his cell from his pocket and dialed 411. He forgot the author’s name. Joe flipped over the book and read it into the phone. Information connected the call. The old woman answered.
Joe introduced himself. He briefly explained his situation to Dr. Agapia Berg. Dr. Berg voiced her sympathy—and apologized if her book had anything to do with Nika’s condition.
Joe sighed in relief. The old lady didn’t recognize his voice—or his story.
The two chatted a little about Nika but more about Dr. Berg’s home invasion. If not for her neighbor, she insisted, the intruder might have murdered her. She expressed regret for her inability to meet with Joe that day. Between managing her nerves and providing testimony to the police, she now faced a full day. But perhaps it was more fitting they meet after church in the morning anyway. After all, she explained, her assisting Joe would enable her to express even further gratitude to the Lord.
Joe agreed, she indeed was blessed.
After the phone call, he lay back onto the thin carpet and let his muscles relax. He hadn’t felt this calm since his wife first showed signs of her self-inflicted illness. Not long after Nika had quit her household duties, Joe pulled into the driveway and noticed her on the roof—upside-down on the A-frame. She said she wanted to see the world another way. The next day, after he couldn’t find her in the house, he discovered her squeezed between the boxwood bushes. Joe spent that evening treating her scratches; Nika blabbered as though she had found a secret passageway. From then on, he hauled it home from the project site for lunch. He wanted to make sure Nika hadn’t hurt herself in some idiotic way.
He looked at his bare arms outstretched. He wanted to dress better to meet with this Bible-thumper. Joe rolled upright and leveraged the bed to get on his feet. He kicked past Dr. Berg’s book, whistled his way to the front desk, and had the concierge point to the nearest Walmart on a map. Whenever Nika’s situation seeped into his thoughts, he narrowed his thinking to the moment. Joe rolled down his truck’s windows and enjoyed the cool Smokey Mountain breeze, the way it curled through the stubble on his head. At Walmart he sauntered through the men’s clothing area. He found a dress shirt large enough that it wouldn’t burst at the seams. Back at the motel, he tried it on—shoving its tails into his jeans. It pulled across his chest. Joe sighed and shrugged.
He took off and hung the new shirt, draped his jeans over the air-conditioner, and tucked into the clean sheets for his first restful sleep in weeks.
By the next morning, the anxiety had returned. Before getting out of bed, Joe called his wife’s nursing station. Nika’s condition hadn’t changed.
He crawled from the bed to the carpet and dedicated nearly ten minutes to simple yoga poses. He stretched free from the stress in his lower back, shoulders, neck. Curled on the floor, he started with the child’s pose. Later on his feet, he ended with the mountain pose. Joe never contemplated spirituality. But he recognized and appreciated the impact of exercise and even stretching. Without them, he lived on the edge of hurting—himself, someone else, or just plain hurting.
During the ride to Dr. Berg’s, he spread his right arm over the empty passenger seat’s backrest. His thick fingers mindlessly massaged its headrest. When he turned up her gravel road, he took deep breaths.
Joe pulled into the driveway. The station wagon was parked in front of him. Anxiety welled-up in him. He realized he should have rented a car; his truck had become a liability, a way to tie him to what happened yesterday. He knew they heard him. From yesterday, he knew how loud that gravel sounded inside the cabin. Maybe they haven’t looked out the window. Maybe they haven’t seen his truck yet. No, if he pulled away now, he’d only raise their suspicion. Perhaps his pickup was too common to warrant suspicion—that is, if he didn’t do anything stupid.
He needed to relax. He raised his arms over his head, took big breaths, and counted backwards from a hundred.
He exited the car and walked resignedly to the cabin.
Dr. Berg waited for him at the opened door. Her cloudy eyes looked up and blinked at him. “Oh my, you’re a big fella. Come in. Come in. I apologize, but my antiques probably can’t support you.”
“Most horses can’t support me, Ma’am.”
She motioned for him to enter. “Is that true?”
Joe nodded. He squeezed past her. “Horses hate me.”
He stared at the attractive female guest on the couch, where Dr. Berg had fallen yesterday. He tried not to stare at the woman’s crossed, bare legs. Joe smiled and nodded in her general direction. He saw a bare arm extend. He reached to meet the gesture with his own hand. The woman said her name was Alija. Joe thought it sounded pleasant.
He turned quickly to Dr. Berg, who had shut the door behind him. She pointed at Alija. “I asked my neighbor to join us.”
Alija interjected, “I’m not just her neighbor. I’m also her daughter.”
“If I wanted him to know you as my daughter, I would have introduced you as my daughter.”
“This isn’t a job interview, mama.”
“Mr. Wilson, I know you came here to discuss something very intimate, something you may not want to share with Alija, but I hope you understand. I don’t feel comfortable alone with strangers, not after everything that’s happened.”
Joe nodded. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Dr. Berg shuffled over to the couch. “I do wish I had at least a chair that could hold you.” She sat next to her daughter. “But you can’t sit, not here, not on my furniture.”
“Can I get you a glass of water?” Alija offered.
He shook his head. “No, Ma’am. Please don’t. I don’t intend to stay long.”
Dr. Berg blurted, “Well, go ahead then. I don’t want to keep you.”
He nodded. His eyes strayed from the old woman’s, touched her daughter’s thigh, and then jumped back. His sight ran to the window.
Joe tried to reclaim his thoughts, organize them into something sensible. “Right. Okay.” He nodded. “Here’s what I think happened.” He took a deep breath. “Nika used your memoir as a set of directions.”
He waited for a response but got none.
“She intentionally lost language, complete with all the madness and bull—,” Joe caught himself, “baloney that comes with it.”
Nobody said anything.
“And now she’s in a coma.”
The silence disquieted him.
“Since you’ve been there and back twice, and since I’m sure you know others are doing the same thing, and since they’re all right, all right enough to write books, well I figured you might have some advice.”
He turned from the window to Dr. Berg, but her eyes focused on her folded hands. Alija’s, on the other hand, beamed at him. Joe turned quickly to the window.
Dr. Berg cleared her throat. “I don’t do that anymore.”
“But you—.” He took a deep breath. He looked briefly at her, but then walked closer to the window. Joe felt imprisoned. “Please, you must know something.”
“I wish I had never gone, Mr. Wilson. Groups of people, like your wife, now do some sort of homemade brain-wipe, like it’s a cool new drug or something. Those fools think that going there means going out there. When things lose familiarity and are no longer trustworthy out there, Mr. Wilson, you can run from them. You can’t run from in here. And things can kill you a hell of a lot faster from the inside than they can from the outside. They also can follow you, if you live long enough to resurface.”
Joe stared absently at the fog his breath left on the window. “What can I do?”
“Alija, don’t you have to go smoke or something?”
“You heard me.”
The daughter stood. “Aw, ma. It was just getting interesting.”
After Alija exited the cabin, Dr. Berg explained, “It depends, Mr. Wilson. I told you what I believe. But I’ll be honest and admit, I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong. I am positive the other side of language is in here. But I’m not so sure it isn’t also out there.”
Joe caught sight of Alija’s long legs through the window. He turned back to Dr. Berg and tried to refocus. “No, I don’t get it. What are you saying?”
“A lot of people in the community believe the other side of language is a communal space. A lot of people believe that really deep in here,” Dr. Berg tapped her temple, “we’re all connected.”
“You don’t believe that?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “When I did it, I was the first to do it. There was no one else to meet there, besides my own inner demons.”
“So if I forget language, I might be able to find Nika?”
“You’d have to lose both your sense of community and your identity in order to forget language, and then you’d have lose more than language. You’d have to lose the mental ability to construct symbols. Artists are one step away from schizophrenics, Mr. Wilson. Their access to social symbols is weak, but their mental abilities to construct symbols remain strong. You’d have to go past artists. You’d have to go past the worst level of schizophrenia. If you don’t make it all the way there, you’ll live the rest of your life in hell, Mr. Wilson. Your mind won’t be able to differentiate external from internal. The whole mental organizational system will no longer work right. You could end up hurting everyone around you while you wrestle with your demons through broken thought after broken thought, falling through chaos—and for eternity, too, because you’d lose even your sense of time.”
Joe paced the length of the coffee table. “Can’t I draw her out? I mean why do I have to go into my own head in order to get her out of her head? I don’t get it. This is too complex.”
“If you don’t get it, then you probably can’t do it. And even if you could do it, there’s no guarantee that deep in there is a communal space, and even if it were a communal space, there’s no guarantee you’d find your wife in there, because we don’t know how big that space is. For all we know, traveling there is like traveling to another country. Let’s say you know your wife’s in China. How do you find your wife once you get to China, Mr. Wilson? There are a lot of ifs in this.”
“Ma’am, please.” He squatted before her.
The woman trembled. Her arms guarded her face.
“What are you doing? I’m not going to hit you.” He grabbed her arms. “Ma’am, I’m just trying to understand.”
“Let go of me. Get your hands off me.”
Joe let go. He stood.
Dr. Berg stared at his size hovering over her.
Alija opened the front door. “Ma, the truck.”
“I know, baby. Stay outside.”
“I said I know, honey. Your mama’s got this.”
Alija shut the door. Through the window, Joe watched her walk to the back of his truck and stare at his license plate. He turned to Dr. Berg, “Please, give me something better to work with here, and I’ll get-out of your hair. I love my wife, Dr. Berg. I’d do anything for her.”
The old woman’s cloudy eyes stared dispassionately. “Maybe that’s part of the problem.”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind. I can give you two options, Mr. Wilson.” From the coffee table, she retrieved a pen and tore a page from a notebook. She wrote a name. “I can recommend someone to guide you through the process.” Dr. Berg handed him the paper. “But I doubt a man like you can make it through, even with a guide.”
Joe rubbed his forehead. “And the alternative?”
Her grey eyes stared unblinkingly. “Many of the same people who argue there is a communal space—they also claim it’s where we go when we die.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” her eyes enveloped him in their fog, “a man like you might have an easier time getting there through suicide.”
Joe stumbled back. He turned to the door. He turned to her. He looked at the door. He looked at her.
“A man like you might have to die.”
“Thank you.” Joe reached blindly for the door behind him. “Thank you for your time.”
Outside, Alija accosted him. “You’re the man who assaulted my mama yesterday. Aren’t you?”
“No.” Joe shook his head. “No, that was a big misunderstanding. Please let me go.”
He looked back at the window. Behind the fog his breath had left, the old woman stared unblinkingly. Her grey eyes appeared to smear across the air. The grey grew.
Joe didn’t know what to do.
(Click HERE to read chapter 3.)
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