I sit gift wrapped, in a metal chair. Nurse Eames is my archeologist. She finds the end of the bandage and removes a clip.
"This is like coping with a roll of Scotch Tape," she says. "I can never get them started with any kind of grace."
Dr. Hyman Zipper, my age, jovial, Code B++, a Maximum Achiever stands watching. He is humming some tune as he aims a spotlight on my forehead.
"James, you won't be able to focus at first. When the eye is uncovered you might feel dizzy. There's a lag while the brain adjusts. No sweat. This too shall pass."
"Will there be a bad scar?"
"You had a nasty gash. But nothing we can't remedy. A hundred stitches will leave some residue. Even if it's the Grand Canyon we have plastic surgeons who can do you nipples to toes. The eye itself was not affected. So you should be able to play the violin."
"Here we go loop the loop," says Nurse Eames.
"I wouldn't mind a dignified scar."
"The moment of truth," says Dr. Zipper. I feel a rush of light and tip forward. The nurse steadies me.
"This isn't at all bad," the doctor says. "There is some scarification but minimal. All in all . . . "
Nurse Eames vomits into my lap. She makes a gurgling sound and turns away.
"There is no excuse for that kind of behavior," Dr. Zipper says sharply. "You are a professional. Control yourself."
"I am sorry. I couldn't help it."
"Clean him up and cover him up."
She wipes her mouth with her sleeve and begins to wrap me again.
"Would somebody mind telling me what's happening here? Why am I being bandaged? Why did the nurse throw up?"
"Nothing is happening here. She saw nothing. She will say nothing. Everything is fine. You're healing nicely. Take him back to his room. And please remember, Nurse Eames, you are not the only one with a stomach. What did you eat last night? Noodles?"
"Eggplant with noodles, yes."
"Bathe him. Change him. Take the rest of the day off. Go to a movie."
I am back in bed and worried. It is hard to imagine a scar terrible enough to evoke such a reaction from a medical woman. I wish they had let me see myself. With no point of reference I turn myself into a horror movie. My roommate is thumbing a National Geographic probably browsing for breasts. He looks over to me with some trepidation. He knows I am troubled.
"There's an article here about a garbage barge been stinking up the ocean since . . . "
"Since the eighth decade of the last century. I know about the garbage barge."
"Excuse me, A+. You know about everything. Pardon my shit. I was just making conversation."
"Just leave me alone, Robert. I'm thinking."
"I'll bet. That's terrific. I lose my tubes today."
"To me it's important."
"It is important. I'm glad for you."
A Chaplain enters the room. He is built like Lance, with a large head and a rosy face. He carries a bible in a jeweled metallic cover.
"Good day and God bless you both," he says.
"Gezuntheidt to you, too," Robert says.
"You must be James Wander then?"
"Him. Not me."
"Ah, James. May I have a moment to speak with you, son?"
"I'm very preoccupied. Full of myself. I don't mean to be disrespectful. But at this particular moment . . . "
"Dr. Zipper asked me to visit." The Chaplain comes closer to my bed and pulls the curtain. Robert waves and goes back to his Geographic.
"I assume that Dr. Zipper realized that I am concerned and even apprehensive. He could have come himself."
"Mr. Wander, the doctor saw something when your bandages were removed."
"Since the nurse regurgitated I suspected that much. He didn't understand that I am very well prepared for adversity. He should have simply told me what . . . "
"Do you believe in God's eternal wisdom?"
"Why shouldn't I? I am a very lucky man. I owe some pain. So whatever they saw, believe me, I am ready to handle it. What did they see?"
"Young, vibrant, brilliant, privileged, everything ahead of you."
"And some good things behind me. A hound would be happy tracking my spoor. Accepting all that, Chaplain, what did Dr. Zipper . . . "
"Unforeseen complications. The accident resulted in . . . "
"So be it. I will need extensive cosmetic surgery. Maybe glasses or a patch. Is that it?"
"James, it might have been a freak combination of trauma and the laser they use to read the UPC labels."
"On the boxes, bottles and cans."
"The product codes?"
"Yes, exactly. The ones we mail in for contests and premiums. My wife is an ardent saver of Tropicana orange juice codes. Our house is full of orange towels, orange wristwatches, even a set of miniature orange trains."
"Is that relevant?"
"Dr. Zipper feels that might explain the alteration in your Code."
"My Code? Are you telling me my Code has been bruised or obliterated? I have to go through recoding?"
"Not exactly, no."
"I used the word alteration. Not obliteration."
"What's the difference? It comes down to corrective . . . "
"James, you know it is absolutely forbidden to tamper with a Human Bar Code. That's the first Hoffenstein Principle. If Codes could be . . . manipulated . . . it would destroy social order. We'd take a giant step toward oblivion. You wouldn't want that kind of world for your wife, your children, yourself. Of course not. Now pray with me."
The Chaplain kneels down at my bedside and opens his metallic bible.
"The cover is reflecting light in my good eye."
"I am sorry. It's tooled in the Holy Land. The jewels are common stones but the work is magnificent. Some people tell me it's pretentious but I tell them . . . "
"Stand up, please. Talk to me. My alteration is the result of an accident. An act of God. God in a frisky mood, but still God. Surely in such circumstances even the Hoffenstein Principles . . . "
"Please, Mr. Wander. Do not blame this on God. You slipped on a supermarket floor, hardly a celestial event. Use God to accommodate, not to accuse."
"I wasn't suggesting God spilled oil on the floor of the Food Forest. I was using act of God in the legalistic sense. Tell me, what am I? B? D? What?"
"Courage, Jim. Fortitude."
"E? F? G? H? What?"
"It isn't that simple. It rarely is. Your metamorphosis is a bit more exotic, if that's the right word."
"In basic English, what does my Bar Code read?"
"The Lord works in mysterious ways. That may be a cliche but cliches are nothing more than a summation of the quotidian. Your Code is no longer strictly human. There must have been turmoil at the checkout. Who knows how it happened. You are coded as pea soup. You are pea soup now."
I hear a wet pop then a scream. It is a blast of laughter and agony. The Chaplain pulls back the curtain. It is my roommate. He is pitched forward half-on and half-off his bed. His tubes dangle dribbling fluids. His mouth is open still shaping a howl. The Chaplain rushes to examine him.
"This man is dead," he says.
"Look at his plant," I say. "Bush green as if nothing changed. Indifferent. And they say plants are sensitive to the slightest change in the mood or health of their owners. If you ask me, that is false and idiotic. Certainly not that plant. Look at it. Completely uninvolved. If you gave it water right now it would drink. There is no sign of leaf agitation or any wilting of the stalk. Nothing. Nothing."
"Just don't move, Mr. Wander. I'll get help."
The Chaplain rushes outside. I hear him calling for a nurse. I get out of bed and grab the smug plant by its glossy foliage and rip it out of the clay pot. The roots come up in a knot shocked by the glare.
"There you go, Robert," I say. "The son of a bitch won't make it to the kiddie ward. Not while you still have me for a friend."
When they fly in with the electrodes and begin blasting at my roommate's deflated chest I say, "When he heard about my reclassification it was too much for him. His Code couldn't handle it. He died for me. Do you understand that kind of sacrifice?"
A strange nurse takes a wilting stalk out of my fist. I am given a shot by an intern.
I sleep like lead.
p r e v i o u s
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