“What?” she said.
Her question came too quickly. Because of the way the human brain works—always lagging slightly, always falling a bit behind itself when it has to drop many things, one thing at a time, and refocus on a new thing—my attention had not yet caught up with my expression. Also, perhaps because of the way that morphine works, I was unnaturally aware of the mechanisms inside my mind. I could actually feel the neurological switching, the mental grinding of fine, tiny gears that makes multitasking such an inefficient, slow, error-prone, tiring way to get things done.
“Still hurts,” I finally said. “Wondering if you’d shorten up the intervals.” I left out the I’s, text message–style, because that’s how people in agony communicate. Teenagers, too, but aren’t they also in agony, with the shy self- consciousness of partials who don’t show all their cards, out of fear that they haven’t yet drawn many worth playing?
The nurse made a face that the gurus would call “equivocal”—meaning that it can support conflicting interpretations, even in a real-time, face-to-face, “presence- rich” exchange—and then glanced down at the iPod on my blanket.
“Book on tape,” I said.
“You can do those both at once?” She eyed the real book lying on my lap.
“Same one,” I said. “I like to double up.”
I had no answer. I had a comeback—Because I can, because it’s possible—but a comeback is just a way to keep things rolling when perhaps they ought to stop. When the nurse looked away and punched in new instructions on the keypad attached to my IV stand, I heard her thinking, No wonder this guy has kidney stones.No wonder he’s so hungry for narcotics. She turned around in time to see my hands moving from the book they’d just reopened to the tangled wires of the earphones.
“I’m grateful that you came so quickly and showed such understanding,” I said, not textishly, relaxing my syntax to suit the expectations of the elderly.
“Maybe more dope will be just the thing,” the nurse said, shedding equivocation with every word, as a dreamy warmth spread through my limbs and she soft-stepped out and shut the door. When I woke in the wee hours, my book, in both its forms, had slid off the bed onto the floor, the TV remote was lost among the blankets, and the blinking “sleep” indicator of the laptop computer I’ve failed to mention (delivered to my bedside by a friend who’d shared my delusion that even 25-bed Montana hospitals must offer wireless Internet these days) was exhaling onto the walls a lovely blue light that tempted me never to boot it up again.
That night, last May, as I drowsed and passed my stones, the mania left me, and it hasn’t returned.
What happened to the skinny brothers’ car-boat was that it sank the third time they took it fishing. It cracked down the length of its hull, took on water, then nose-dived into the sandy bottom, leaving its revved-up rear propeller sticking up two feet out of the river, furiously churning air until its creators returned in a canoe and whacked it silent with a crowbar.
The catastrophe, visible from half the town, was the talk of the party line that night, with most of the grown-ups joining in one pooled call that was still humming when I was sent to bed.
"Where do you want to go today?” Microsoft asked us.
Now that I no longer confuse freedom with speed, convenience, and mobility, my answer would be: “Away. Just away. Someplace where I can think.”