expression of intent
"I want out" is what the crippled
old man in the hospital bed is thinking.
The bed is one of many lining the walls of a long,
narrow room -- just wide enough to keep it from being mistaken
for a hallway.
Ordinarily, after "I want out,"
the elderly man's next wish might be, "I want to get sicker."
For if he gets sicker, he gets a bigger bed, a room
with fewer beds, more privacy, more visits from the nurses.
The time is now. The place is the West Coast. The
floor is sand-colored linoleum, the irregularly spaced windows
look out over a parking lot, the walls are light gray, the curtains,
which draw attention to what they're concealing, are green plastic.
The patients are depressed, irritable, bored, sullen.
Some are even sick -- though at any given time it's difficult
to say which ones. The nurses are overworked, dissatisfied, in
varying stages of losing their patience, in consistent stages
of losing their patients. The doctors are aware of being very
intelligent, whether they are or not, looking straight ahead in
reaction to an ever-present expectation that at any given moment
another demand will be made on their attention.
The crippled old man is me.
When I say "I want out," it's not a futile expression
of despair, as it would be for most people in my position. It's
a very narrow expression of intent.
I was born just a few years after the turn of the century, a lucky
time to be born: Too young for The Great War, too old for its tacky
sequel a generation later. I was fortunate enough to be the only
child of elderly parents. I was unfortunate enough to be, from earliest
memory, a very intelligent, studious child in a very provincial
Northwestern logging town.
My manners, though they afforded me great satisfaction, were not
such as to endear me to my peers. Imagine, if you will, a child
who always came to school wearing fabrics no coarser than linen,
in a milieu where denim and flannel were the preferred uniform.
Add to that a disdainful personality with little else to do but
read for amusement -- with plenty of easy targets (sub-literate
classmates, illiterate teachers) at hand -- and you might imagine
what a selfish, egotistical prick I was as a child.
I had all the ingredients to be an extremely insufferable young
man. And then, at 13, I discovered I had the ability of possession.
"'Possession'? And what does that mean?" the blasé
reader of speculative fiction asks, hand already lifted in anticipation
of the yawn that such trite science-fictional tropes generally elicit.
It meant I discovered I could enter someone else's body and physically
become them while still retaining my own consciousness. That is
to say, possess them. Become them. My own body ... disincorporated?
Somehow melded with the other person?
I don't know. I never examined the details too closely. In retrospect,
I'm surprised by my own lack of surprise about this freakish ability.
At the time, it seemed like a natural extension of my own mischievous
tendency to manipulate people. The first time my unusual ability
manifested itself provides a classic example.
I was, I recall, teasing a particularly dim classmate about his
failure to memorize classical verse. To illustrate, I lobbed him
a softball, asking him to recite what Shakespeare had said about
roses. I then felt myself enter the oaf's body and force him to
utter the ridiculous phrase, "A rose is a rose, call it what
Our classmates were in hysterics as I, unnoticed, just as quickly
departed his body to join in the revelry at his expense.
As my tastes and interests matured. So too did my uses for this
newfound ability. As one can imagine, it proved particularly useful
for extracting sexual favors from those local girls with whom I
could contemplate sullying myself. Rather than pursue them in my
own identity, I found it easier --and more enjoyably sadistic --
to wait until they had attached themselves to one of the local louts,
and then presume upon favors already granted.
I make it sound easier than it was.
Inhabiting someone else's body did not give me encyclopedic access
to their memories and knowledge. I usually got a fleeting glimpse
of their last memories and no more. This created occasional awkwardness.
I recall one incident in which I chose as my victim a lanky fellow,
slightly older than me, of Swedish birth, but raised in the United
States (I didn't have to worry about a tricky accent). For about
a year he had been steadily dating a girl who attracted my wandering
eye. I took possession of this studly, gangling farmer's-boy just
before dinner at his steady's house. There passed a badly (gas)
lit meal, during which Rural Ruth and her proud parents tenderly
commented that the Swedish suitor ate and spoke less than usual.
After the usual round of strained post-meal small talk and clumsy
backgammon, the parents conveniently retired to bed, leaving the
field (a living room with bare wooden walls and an often-congested
open fireplace) open, so to speak. Farmergirl Fran and I contrived
to snuggle against each other on the wicker sofa, which we layered
in blankets. Hand, before long, began to touch hand -- then parted,
by mutual consent and desire, to explore less-familiar regions.
My enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when, perversely, Agrarian
Alice became talkative. After so many decades, I can't remember
what she said. But I recall she spoke of the sorts of subjects that
certain people typically bring up in order to evoke their idea of
a romantic mood.
Those ignorant of astronomy can be counted on to talk of stars,
those ignorant of botany reliably blather on about flowers, those
without younger siblings unfailingly laud the innocence of children.
Corn-fed Caroline's conversation was something in that vein. I
listened, alert as always for the dangerous question, the remark
that, if I failed to respond in character, might betray me. I didn't
respond when she remarked, as she had earlier at dinner, that I
seemed different that night. I waited for the pointed question even
as her caresses grew less frequent and her body stiffened.
It never came. Even so, the perceptible decline in her enthusiasm
dampened my ardor. Later that night, after I had left and assuming
my real identity, I congratulated myself that I had at least gotten
away with the imposture.
It wasn't until much later that it occurred to me the reason she
hadn't asked the pointed question might be that she had already
guessed that I wasn't who I seemed to be. She broke off her engagement
to my former Nordic fleshly dwelling. Coincidence, no doubt, but
the bare possibility that my impersonation had something to do with
it sobered me, and made me resolve to be more careful in my activities.
The broken-hearted Swede, as it happens, dutifully consented to
be drafted that summer, and early the next year gave his life in
France on behalf of the same Uncle Sam who had not yet gotten around
to extending him citizenship.
The possibility of the war dragging on long enough that I might
reach a draftable age troubled me throughout most of 1918. The eleventh
hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month came as a distinct
relief, and at a local celebration, with Armistice bells ringing
in my ears, I raised a glass of wine and toasted the opportunities
before me as I prepared to graduate high school and move into the
larger world that my ability would make my oyster.
There followed a busy seven or eight decades. As I became more
and more efficient in bending others to my will, I spent less and
less time in actually possessing them. This was all to the good,
as while I wanted to keep a low profile, I did not want my skills
at navigating my own identity to atrophy for lack of use.
You might think that I would have become addicted to assuming the
identities of others, but rather, the reverse happened. My vanity
was such that I regarded the people I possessed with contempt and
distaste, and the less time I was obliged to spend possessing them
to achieve my ends, the better.
I had unlimited personal diversion, and I found it easy to make
a fortune. In answer to the next question I anticipate from many
readers, I am not responsible for any of President Nixon's bizarre
statements or behavior. I reserve comment on whether I am responsible
for Fiona Apple's speech at the Grammy awards.
That's about as much -- more, rather -- of my life as I care to
share with those I've never met. My health gradually declined as
I aged, till I ended up in the hospital, more or less dying of old
age. The scene with which I opened occurred a few months ago.
Now, let me tell you about a guy I know. His name is Andrew Brambell.
How do I know him? He lives in my apartment building. Who is he?
Well, he's about 30 years old, born in ...
No. Let's try that again.
Andrew Brambell, scowling as usual, enters his bank, the same bank
where I have my account. I enter shortly after he does, about to
make a generous deposit to my savings account. The random element
is an attractive bank teller. See Andrew Brambell glance at her,
stare at his shoes, glance at her, stare at the wall, glance at
her, meet her eyes, redden with embarrassment, stare out the window.
Meanwhile, secure in my senescence, I frankly bathe my eye in the
visual refreshment of her pleasing appearance, occasionally letting
my glance stray to provide myself with some amusement at the ridiculous
spectacle Mr. Brambell presents.
Andrew Brambell, in short, is one of those clueless, emotionally
stunted dimwits who is his own worst enemy. Note the posture: arms
held at sides, hunched shoulders, steps taken with toes pointed
ever-so-slightly inward. And finally, the telling evidence: the
facial expression, which goes the whole range from coldly angry
to suicidally depressed -- a wide spectrum of melancholia in between.
Poor, depressed, dumb Andrew Brambell.
You might be wondering why I'm in a crowded hospital room where
indigents are treated when I can obviously afford better care. I
arranged to be transferred here when I learned that Andrew Brambell
had been injured in a car accident. The result of the accident was
that he had no serious injuries, but was in a coma. Expected recovery?
The doctors said a lot of things that amounted to your guess being
as good as theirs.
Again, I had never considered possessing someone permanently. I
gave one reason, which was that my real identity suited me very
well. True. But there was another reason.
When I was possessing someone, I no longer had the power of possession.
My host didn't have it, so I didn't have it. I could only revert
to my own identity. I couldn't possess someone else. That was the
main reason long-term possession never occurred to me. The greatest
attraction in possessing someone was being able to leave before
the consequences of what I had done could be incurred. Making that
trade-off was never worth it to me.
Until I was faced with the prospect of extinction, at which point
my identity was moot. I was almost 100 -- and taken too many chances
in a very long lifetime. It was time to stop hedging my bets and
make an irreversible choice.
So late one night, I pushed myself out of bed, stepping forward
slowly, my arthritic legs nearly buckling from this, the last strain
I hoped to inflict upon them, and I made my way to Andrew Brambell's
bed. Occasionally, I heard a moan from one of the patients when
I lurched forward to lean heavily on a bedpost and catch my breath.
These unwelcome sounds buoyed me forward.
I want out.
Finally, I stood before his bed.
Easy. Done it more times than I can remember. Just let go.
A feeling of weightlessness, and then ...
Feels like a sprained left wrist ... aching right shoulder ...
tubes in mouth and arm and ... catheter. Not pleasant, but not too
Andrew Brambell's unclipped toes peek out from the other end of
I won't recite what followed in painstaking detail. I called for
a nurse and insisted I was well enough to be released immediately.
My release took a bit longer than that, but I got out.
After almost a century of doing pretty much what I pleased, the
real threat of extinction had produced a rare fright in me. Thus,
it was real tears I shed as I stepped onto the sidewalk, stretching
out my arms and legs in experimentation, in celebration.
Two months have passed, and while the life of Andrew Brambell isn't
much by my standards, I've been gradually making improvements.
Better job? Check. Nicer furnishings, new car? Check, check. Girlfriend?
Check. ("You never said anything!" "Someone had my
tongue," I joke.)
In short, all the things Andrew Brambell wanted for himself, but
couldn't get because he never learned how.
Now the secret, the part I've been holding back; the part I don't
like thinking about too much.
The people I possess know they're being possessed. I can feel their
consciousness, even if I can't read their minds. I can sense their
muted protests, their isolated bewilderment. That's what I hoped
to avoid by possessing Andrew Brambell.
But Andrew Brambell isn't staying in his coma. I sense him gradually
waking up. He's starting, in some corner of his mind, to be able
to tell when it's raining. I sense his relief when we're safely
indoors. He's starting to come out of it. One by one, his senses
flicker. Eventually, he'll be fully awake and aware.
I wonder what he'll think of what I've been up to. I wonder what
he'll think of his new job. (He's an investment banker. The horrible
people he had to deal with as a civil servant!) I wonder what he'll
think of his new clothes and surroundings. I wonder what he'll think
of his new girlfriend. I wonder what he'll think of the life I've
created for him.
I wonder if he'll want it back.