J u l y   2 0 0 1

Guest Writer

A narrow expression of intent
Worth ambition
by Neil Anderson

"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 you will!"

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 terribly awful.

Open eyes.

Andrew Brambell's unclipped toes peek out from the other end of the blanket.

My toes.

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.

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