Sunday, November 8, 2020

Not Zen 201: The Breakthrough

Straight jacket by Rodw, Wikimedia

The Breakthrough

This is the scene: a crazy man stands on the edge of a garden, waiting to attack.

Why he waits is hard to know.  He stares at Eqbal, the groundskeeper.  Eqbal's job is to cut the grass, trim the hedge, and supervise the five supposedly-therapeutic gardens.  He kneels, now, in a vegetable patch.  He holds a small hand spade in his left hand.  The crazy man, whose name is Monroe, stands at the edge of the patch.  He is pale and wears a straight-jacket.

The straight-jacket has not become untied.   It is simply old, as many of them are at the home.  The straps were frayed.  Monroe broke out.  He popped five straps at the seams, where they had been re-sewn many times.  Now they flap as he moves his arms.  This is his third time out of a jacket.


Monroe is taller than Eqbal but less massive.  The gardener has very strong arms, a lot of bulk.  He looks less like a desert Arab and more like a drawing of an old Persian king, except for in his face.  His face is plain and, because of it, Eqbal appears slow-witted.  He is not.  Even some of his friends think he has a dull mind; this is because he does not speak much and is reluctant to act on an impulse.  Also, he has not been to school since he was nine.  He only came to America on the recommendation of one of his younger brothers.  It was this same brother who got him a job at the home.

So Monroe stands trembling, hovering at the edge of the garden, as if waiting for Eqbal to become aware.  It would not be fair to say the two do not know each other.  Eqbal has often been cruel to Monroe.  He has described the horrible things doctors will do, has made faces behind his back, has made hand gestures towards him, and has been a general nuisance.  These are all things he does out of fear.  Eqbal cannot understand why the violent cases are allowed to live.  He does not like his job and, in the morning, trembles at the thought of going to work.  His wife tells him he is silly, a coward.

And here a violent man is, free, standing at the edge of the tilled soil.  Eqbal, who had been bending over to check a sprout, feels the shadow across his back.  He stands up.

He stares at Monroe.  In the first second, he thinks, Where did this man come from?  Why is there no nurse with him?  In another second, he wonders, Is this patient escaping?  Why did he come here?  To find me?

Monroe trembles.  He begins breathing louder.  Eqbal can see the terrible, unreasoning rage in those eyes.  

Monroe runs into the garden, a mad bull, an animal, swinging his fists for twenty feet before he even gets to Eqbal.  When Eqbal gets hit in all this flurry of limbs, it surprises him.  It knocks him back a step and turns his vision purple for an instant.  Monroe swings again.  So Eqbal hits back.

Up to this point in his life, Eqbal has never hit with all the force of his being.  This punch is inspired by fear.  It has all his concentration.  It sends a shiver through his body.  Monroe goes down.  A second later, he pops back up, swinging all the while, driving Eqbal out of the garden.

A few punches later, flesh stinging, Eqbal says to himself, Enough of this, and hits Monroe again.  This punch is like the first one, only more deliberate.  Even Monroe notices it; he coughs up a bit of phlegm and falls to one knee.  By his knee is the hand-spade.  Monroe blinks at it.  He picks it up.

Holding the implement like a knife, the patient charges.  At last Eqbal knows what to do.  He steps to the side as Monroe begins his wide, wild swing.  He grabs the offending arm by the wrist and twists, hard.  It is an old army move.  His reflexes are in action now.  He twists and drives Monroe to the ground, slams an open hand to the back of Monroe's elbow, and feels a pop.  He thinks he has broken Monroe's arm.

"Drop it," he says.  "Drop the knife and I'll let you up."  He knows his accent is not good.  For a moment, he is afraid the patient cannot understand him.

Monroe thinks about it.  His eyes are watery now, not only because his arm nearly snapped but also out of frustration.  He strains, kicks, tries to stand, to shake Eqbal off him, but Eqbal is immovably immense.  He lets go of the hand-spade.

"Okay."  Eqbal grabs the spade and throws it into the bushes, where Monroe will think it is lost but where it can be found later.

While Eqbal throws the gardening tool, Monroe rolls and scrambles, fighting to get to his feet.  This isn’t necessary.  Eqbal lets him.  Once standing, Monroe dashes away toward the trees for three or four large strides.  Then he turns around again and rushes back, swinging his fists on the run, at Eqbal.

Eqbal is all army, now.  He takes Monroe up, puts him down, hard, on his back, on the ground, on a little piece of shale that bruises Monroe in the middle of his spine.  That done, Eqbal steps away.  He cannot bring himself to do any more.

Uneasily, Monroe stands.  For a moment, he wonders where he is.  He feels his need to fight draining away.  In its place, a sickly dread arises.  The world seems new and terribly uncertain.  He wobbles; he cannot believe his legs will not obey him.  He makes fists but they feel weak.  He is afraid to charge again.

Eqbal studies him, waiting for the attack.  He does not accept that Monroe is no longer dangerous until the pale, mop-haired man begins to cry.  The tears well up and the sound that comes out of Monroe's mouth is a wail Eqbal has never heard before.  It is a sound he does not want to hear, a beastly cry, the cry of a child's voice in a man's body.  It is horrible.  Yet even after this cry begins, Eqbal cannot believe Monroe is not dangerous.  The crazy man leans back and cries to the sky, to himself, to everything.

Eqbal takes half a step forward.  Monroe does not move; he only cries.  The next few steps are more difficult.  Eqbal is trembling.  He is still frightened by Monroe but, of course, he has learned he can beat him, can beat all that rage and hatred by sheer, physical force.  Eqbal walks forward because he must do something to stop the crying.  He holds up a hand; Monroe only cries.  He embraces Monroe.  Monroe cries.

Then something strange happens.  Monroe puts his arms around Eqbal, gently, as if afraid to touch him, afraid to hurt him.  He hugs Eqbal and his crying changes.  He begins to say the first words he has said in two years, though he and Eqbal have no sense of that.

"Oh God," Monroe says.  "Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God." 

He keeps repeating it.  The words have become his litany, his wailing.  His hug grows tighter and tighter still, until Eqbal is trembling under it.  He is amazed by the strength in Monroe's arms and further amazed that he is not hurt by it.  Monroe continues to say Oh God, Oh God as he cries.  Eqbal wails along with him.  It is too horrible for one person, alone, to be as sad as this.

Out the window of her office, the Chief Psychologist sees Eqbal and Monroe embrace.  It takes her a moment to realize what it is because most of what she sees is Eqbal's huge back.

She drops her fork and part of her carry-out Szechuan Chicken lunch.  Coincidently, the words she utters to herself are, "Oh God."  This comes when she recognizes Monroe for who and what he is.  She prides herself on knowing many case files by heart and she knows instantly this is the first friendly contact Monroe has made in years.  A breakthrough has been made.  She rushes out of her office and down the stairs.

Monroe seems better for a few days.  He talks, though he does not form complete sentences.  He eats his meals with a fork and takes his medication orally.  There is no repeat of the hugging incident.  He refuses to let the doctors touch him.  When his relatives come to visit, he becomes violent.  He blackens his father's eye.  The old man is nearly eighty and quite frail; he is fortunate not to have been hurt worse.

That afternoon, Monroe is put back into the straight-jacket.

A doctor recommends electroshock to return his lost complacency and the administrator agrees.  Up to this point, the family has resisted permission.  After violence toward one of their own, however, they seem to relinquish their previous sense of hope.  Over the course of the next month, Monroe's father, mother and older brother are won over to the idea.  They agree there is no possibility of a cure.  Fortunately, the therapy goes well.  The patient is reduced to manageable hostility.

When the administrators find out how this all came about, this is what they do for their poor, Arab groundskeeper: they fire him.  Witnesses say he provoked the violence and that he is cruel.  Eqbal does not argue.  The administrators tell him they will refer him to another facility if he will agree not to contest the decision.  His brother advises him to agree.  So he does.  He goes to his new job, in fact, before Monroe has had shock therapy.  When he leaves, he thinks that his new friend is on the way to a cure.  On his way out, he stops by Monroe's room to say goodbye.  Monroe cries and tries to hug Eqbal but he is confined by a straight-jacket.  He touches his forehead carefully to the gardener’s forehead.

The attendant starts to make a note about this additional incident of friendly contact but, feeling tired, she sets it aside for later and never actually writes it down.

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