Earthquake Weather – Snippet 16

He was wondering just how bad an infraction it was to break the nose of another patient; and he was giddily alarmed at his determination, even stronger this morning than it had been last night, to keep his promise to Janis Plumtree and get the true story across. Eventually Armentrout would be on the ward, and Long John Beach would be up to corroborate the facts. Cochran might very well even have to admit to having had another hallucination, and he supposed that would surely guarantee him a “PCH,” an unfavorable one–which would mean not being able to see the real PCH, Pacific Coast Highway, for at least two weeks–but Cochran would be able, finally, to . . . take the blame.

And she loves me, he thought as he licked his trembling finger to get the last crumbs out of the corn flakes box; or she did last night; or she said she did last night. I will take her out of this place.

But neither Plumtree nor Armentrout appeared in the cafeteria, and just as Cochran was reluctantly getting up to investigate the TV lounge, and brushing cornflake fragments off the crotch of his ludicrous corduroy pants, a young woman in a white lab coat came striding up to his table.

“Sid Cochran?” she said brightly. “Hi, I’m Tammy Eddy, the occupational therapist, and if you’re free I’d like to get your dexterity tests out of the way. Kindergarten stuff, really–the patients are always asking me if I majored in basket weaving!”

Cochran managed to return her smile, though her cheer seemed as perfunctory to him this morning as the HAVEANICEDAY admonition printed on the “moist towelette” package on his tray, and she didn’t notice his shirt. He opened his mouth to tell her that he had something important to say to Dr. Armentrout first–but instead relaxed and said, “Okay.”

“Let’s go to the conference room, shall we?”

Maybe we’ll meet him on the way, Cochran told himself defensively.

But there was no one in the sunny TV lounge as the young occupational therapist led him through it–Cochran noticed that the blood had been cleaned up, and the floor was a glassy plane again– and she had to fetch out her keys and unlock the conference room, for no one had been in it yet today.

“Sit down, Sid,” the woman said, waving at a chair by the table. “Can you find a patch of clear space there? Good, yeah, that’ll do. Today you’re going to get a lesson in–” She had been moving things on a shelf over the microwave oven, and now turned around and laid on the table in front of him two five-inch-square pieces of blue vinyl with holes around the edges, and a blunt white plastic yarn needle and a length of orange yarn. “Can you guess?”

“Knitting,” said Cochran carefully, abruptly reminded of the book he’d read on the flight home from Paris three days ago.

“That’s close. Stitching. This is called the Allen Cognitive Levels test, and it’s just me showing you different ways to sew these two vinyl squares together. Here, the needle’s already threaded–you go ahead and sew them together any way you like.”

Cochran patiently laced the things together as if they were the front and back covers of a spiral-bound book, and when he was done she beamed and told him that he’d just figured out the “Whipstitch” all on his own. She took back the squares and unlaced them and began showing him a different stitch that involved skipping holes and then coming back around to them, but though his fingers followed her directions, his mind was on the book he’d read on the plane.

The disquieting thing was that he had read Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities before; and though that had been a long time ago, he had eventually become aware that this book he was reading in the airplane seat by the glow of the tiny overhead spotlight–a Penguin Classics paperback, wedged between his cigarettes and the several little airline bottles of Wild Turkey bourbon–was a different text.

The variances hadn’t been obvious at first, for he’d only been able to read the book fitfully, especially the Parisian scenes; he had still been shaky from his encounter the day before–in the ancient narrow streets south of the river Seine, by Notre Dame cathedral, where fragrant lamb koftes turned on spits in the open windows of Lebanese restaurants– with the man who had called himself Mondard . . . and who had shortly stopped seeming to be a man, to be a human being at all . . .

Cochran forced himself to concentrate on pushing the foolish plastic needle through the holes in the vinyl–not knitting, stitching– The woman in the book had been knitting, and stitching, weaving into her fabrics the names of men who were to die on the guillotine. He’d remembered her name as having been something like Madame Laphroaig, but in this text all the French revolutionaries called her Ariachne–a combination of the names Arachne and Ariadne, given to her because she was always knitting and was married to the “bull-necked” man who owned the wineshop. The notes in the back of the book explained that it was a nom de guerre of the revolution, like the name Jacques that was adopted by all the men. Cochran recalled that during the French Revolution they had even renamed all the calendar months; the only one he could remember was Thermidor, and he wondered what the others could have been. Fricassee? Jambalaya? Chowder?

He smiled now at the thought; and he tried to pay attention to the occupational therapist’s cheery explanation of how to do a “single cordovan” stitch, and not to think about the book. But he realized now that the story he’d read on the airplane must have started to diverge from the remembered text very early on. In the scene in the Old Bailey courthouse in London, for example, in which the Frenchman Charles Darnay was on trial for treason, Cochran seemed to remember having read that the court bar was strewn with herbs and sprinkled with vinegar, an apparently routine precaution against “gaol” air. . . but in this text the bar was twined in living ivy, and splashed liberally with red wine.

And just because of the rhyme he had remembered “Cly the spy,” whose death had been a hoax and whose coffin had proved to contain only paving stones–but he had remembered Cly as a man, and certainly the name had not been short for Clytemnestra.

His hand shook as he pushed the needle through the holes. In the book he’d read on the plane, Madame Ariachne’s cloth had flexed and shivered as she had forced each new, resisting name into the fabric.

“You’re not quite getting the hang of that one, are you?” said Tammy Eddy.

Cochran looked up at her. “It’s hard,” he said.

“Hard to remember what I said?”

“Hard to remember anything at all. But I can do it.”

He thought of the scene at the end of the book as he had read it years ago, in which the dissolute Englishman Sidney Carton redeemed himself by sneaking into the Conciergerie prison to switch places with his virtuous double, the Frenchman Charles Darnay who was condemned to die the next morning; and then Cochran made himself remember the scene as he had read it on the airplane three days ago–

In that variant version, it had been a woman who furtively unlocked the cell door–the woman Clytemnestra, who was somehow the classical Greek Clytemnestra from Aeschylus’ Oresteia, come to atone for having killed the high king Agamemnon.

And in this crazy version the prisoner was a woman too, though still the visitor’s mirror-image double; and when she demanded to know the reason for this visit, this exchange of places, Clytemnestra had said, “Forgive me. Madame has forgotten that we agreed to play in partnership this evening.”

Tammy Eddy was speaking sharply to him–and he realized that she had been repeating herself for several seconds. He looked up at her and saw that she had retreated to the door and pulled it open. “Put,” she said, obviously not for the first time, “the needle . . . down, Sid.”