Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Legless A


by Patricia Highsmith

Richard Thurman realized that in the eyes of other people there was something the matter with him. In his own eyes he was merely troubled, sometimes depressed. Other people, such as his wife, Barbara, were worried about him because they couldn't understand what was wrong. What bothered him had to do with consciousness, Thurman said to his wife. Further than that it was difficult for Thurman to go. His sleep had become erratic, so Thurman agreed that he should see a doctor.
A doctor tested his blood, heart, and so on and found nothing abnormal. His weight was also normal. The doctor suggested a psychiatrist. Thurman, forty-eight, a graphics designer and earning nicely (with a twenty-year-old son at Yale who was also doing well), and happily married, uttered some five hundred words nonstop about his symptoms. The psychiatrist had his recording machine on; otherwise he might not have caught it all. The essence was that Thurman felt obsessed and oppressed by what he called "himself," or a sense of the uniqueness of his personality or identity. Thurman admitted to being bored with it and was glad to show humor in saying that he realized the absurdity of being self-obsessed, as he considered himself "an ordinary fellow." But what could he do about it? He woke up most mornings around five, and within seconds could be in a sweat of fear. Fear of what? Of knowing or sensing too much about himself. Fear of death, of his end, of pain to come followed by nothingness, fear of the possible unreality of life and at the same time fear of the reality of it. Was his a word problem? Thurman asked, and the psychiatrist replied, "No," calmly, as if he had the explanation and would in time disclose it. Thurman went on to say that he had made a drawing, first with a ballpoint pen, then more carefully with a pencil--of a form like a three-dimensional A, but without the bottom legs or supports and with a triangular aperture as had the capital A. Thurman said that he had the feeling that this massive shape was himself, the image of himself just as much as, say, the picture of himself in his passport.
"And what worries you so much about this?" asked the psychiatrist, Dr. Murray.
Thurman took a few seconds before replying. "I worry because it's like something I shouldn't know--like a secret--about myself. I wish I didn't know this." Thurman said this in a deliberately light tone.
"But then"--Dr. Murray, a man of thoughtful mien, seemed to be weighing his words now--"what's so depressing about your vision, or this image of the A?"
"I see it as all of my existence! It's also my death--all my little life, fifty, sixty years or what I'm due, plus my appearance and smell and stamina and fate--everything particular to me. I sense all this at five in the morning, for instance, and I get scared. That's why I'm here." As soon as Thurman had said this to the slowly scribbling Dr. Murray, he felt naive, even stupid, because he was paying a hundred and eighty dollars for this less-than-an-hour session, spilling his beans to this stranger, just because the stranger had a degree, an M.D. plus a psychiatry degree. How could another human, thanks to a few books which Thurman granted he may not have read himself, remark on what he was saying? Thurman cleared his throat. He couldn't say he wanted to get rid of his triangle or even of his thoughts on the subject, because that would be like saying that he wanted to get rid of himself.
"I'd like to be not so obsessed with this," Thurman said finally.
"If you really want that," said Dr. Murray, looking up with a friendly smile, "you'll have it. What's stopping you? This may be a temporary--image. Like a recurring dream. You've had it about six months; well, a doctor's just told you you're in good health. You feel well, you said. It isn't even hampering your work."
True, and Thurman had said that.
"Try taking a lighter attitude," said Dr. Murray, "that this particular image is not going to harm you--just because it's you. Remember, you're doing well in every department of your life!"
Richard Thurman, sitting in a chair, shifted his feet a little. He hadn't said that the legless A was going to harm him, merely that it seemed ominous. "The triangular shape," Thurman began again, as the time was running out, "is just a symbol, I realize, a shape I think of now and then. What troubles me is a much more frequent awareness of my personality--or self."
"But aren't we all aware of our personalities--pretty much?"
Pretty much? Thurman meant that he felt aware of his own soul but didn't want to use the word soul because it sounded religious, unrealistic. "Yes," Thurman conceded. The psychiatrist and his wisdom had collapsed like a balloon for Thurman, and he was bored and discouraged at the end of the session.
Thurman described the session to his wife when he got home that evening. "He took an optimistic attitude. So I will, too. Maybe there's nothing at all to worry about." Empty words, Thurman thought, but empty and polite words make the world go round. Thurman loved his wife and didn't want to upset her. They were then drinking a pre-dinner tomato juice. Barbara was a secretary in an insurance firm. They both helped with household chores, shopping and such, though they had a cleaning woman once a week. Their son Bill cost them something at Yale, but they were making ends meet, and Bill was in his third year. They also owned a modest house in New Jersey, where they spent summers and most Christmases. Richard Thurman was thinking, as he began on his lamb chops, that he had nothing to gripe about. He smiled at his pretty wife and tried to think of something to say to make the worry leave her brow. "It'll pass," Thurman said. "I've been taking myself too seriously."
Her frown did go away. "I think maybe you have, dear."
The following dawn it came again. When Thurman opened his eyes it was dark. Barbara liked the curtains drawn at night. Thurman knew without looking at the radium-dial clock near him that it was just after five. He closed his eyes and let it come, thinking maybe this time, now that he'd aired the intangible phenomenon to another human, a shrink, someone apart from himself and Barbara, he could handle it, keep cool about it. You are a single wretched individual, Thurman thought. What's important about you, when the chips are down? Nothing. You are weak, scared, cowardly before the big facts of life. You have been to college, so you can express yourself better than the majority, but otherwise what is the difference between you and a man in the Third World dying from malnutrition at thirty?
Nothing, Thurman thought to himself. No difference. He wasn't trying to make himself special. On the contrary, he was in awe of what he was experiencing and felt humble. Thurman tried to relax, to sleep again; but the black emptiness swirled around and throbbed, making him tense with fear. His heartbeats shook him. You will die, vanish, and there'll be nothing but blackness and silence. Snuffed out you'll be. Not even the blackness, the ringing silence of now, will exist for you. Who are you, you ask? Many men before you have felt exactly the same as you feel now. Who are you? This last question seemed posed by a silent voice, yet Thurman knew that it was an idea of his own. What Thurman hated now was the thump of his heartbeat, which he could hear despite some early morning traffic noises beyond the window.
Thurman got gently out of bed, dressed, and in about five minutes was out of the house. He walked downtown. He was free now, he told himself, of the thoughts which, when he lay in bed, had made him feel so cramped and powerless--and frightened. Now he could lift his arms, jog a few steps, look around and see a variety of images: other people, windows, buildings, cars. But he was not free, and he realized that. He could never be free. At nine-thirty he rang his office and got the young fellow called Gil, who was always on time at nine, while the three older fellows, himself included, seldom turned up before ten. He asked Gil to ask Bob Clark to telephone his wife and tell her he had taken an early-morning walk. Just that. Then Thurman walked on, into Central Park. He did not want to speak with his wife. She wouldn't understand. At close to noon he was sitting on a park bench when a shabbily dressed man of about fifty approached him timidly and asked for a dollar, please.
"Or just fifty cents--if you can."
Thurman stood up and pulled out his wallet from the inside pocket of his summer jacket. He had at least a hundred in cash and started to take it all out, then realized there might be another in equal need and pulled out half the bank notes. "Here. No, take it; take it!" He walked quickly away.
There was another human in need, an obviously poor woman sitting on a bench with a babe in arms, a shopping bag at her feet. She looked up as he approached.
"Here. For you," Thurman said with an awkward smile and thrust the rest of his paper money into the woman's hand. She thanked him in Spanish. Thurman felt slightly happier as he walked away from her and the child, as if he had made contact with the human race.
You are still you, condensed, heavy, like an elixir. Neither good nor bad, merely commonplace, destined to suffer from the usual--a few unhappy love affairs, toothache, flu, maybe prostate pains. And so your little life. . . The silent interior voice faded, stopped pushing its message into Thurman's consciousness, and in its place came the legless triangle of gray stone, heavy as a pyramid. Thurman shook his head with impatience, but the triangle did not budge. Now he was looking out on a cooler, broader scene: the East River from the Queensboro Bridge, little barges and tugs pushing purposefully through the gray water, traffic buzzing behind him, noise, activity everywhere. With a slight jump and using both hands, Thurman cleared the rail, found himself tottering on a projecting girder, but why hesitate? He had a will made out; Barbara would have no problems, no financial ones, at least. These thoughts flashed through his mind and vanished.
Thurman jumped, again not making a clean leap, because one foot struck something else unseen, but then he was in the clear, falling. The impact of hitting the water knocked him out, but such was the speed of things. He was aware for an instant of deliberately inhaling water--after all, that was his intention--and then it seemed that the massive legless A pulled him down forever, accompanying him forever.

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