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LAce Posted Monday, April 9th, 2007
Canal Zone
Diana Woods

His connection to reality is fragile, exquisite, a thin strand of sanity flowing through his needle-thin body. Panamanian by birth, Clifton carries the water locks inside him, delusions flooding the metal gates of his reality, paranoia lodging in the damp soil of his sunken eyes.

I sit across from him as he swims in his artificial lake, stuck behind the Mira Flores Locks, the first of the three sets. The stories he tells seep from wounds that he doesn't remember. He talks about his sorrows, not mentioning his confusion, but the words sound distant as if he's lost and can't find himself.

"How're you doing?" I ask. Sparks ignite his eyes. He recognizes me from another time, a place I've been but not with him. Iím his mother, his sister, his wife, his daughter. Who knows what I've done in his past. My fingers slide to the emergency buzzer. Helper or tormentor--I wait for him to label me, but his fingers remain uncurled, no fists.

"I'm okay," he lies as he stares behind me where there's nothing to see but the barest white walls. As the corners of his mouth turn downward, my buzzer finger tightens, but he remains seated.

It's all business for me, pen in hand, emotions hidden. Men have reached across the threshold where husbands once stood, tweaking the emotions that women have been taught to feel, but I'll halt him as always.

He doesn't ask to leave the mental hospital like the others. Not that he wouldn't if he could articulate his thoughts. Now, he's content, and then he's not. His hands flutter like the wings of a peacock. The overhead lighting flickers across his sleek, brown arms. His skin glistens, tightens and stretches over his taut muscle. I feel heat flowing within me, spontaneous, uninvited, as my eyes drift across his forehead, the bridge of his nose, down his chin, peering inside his gray-tipped beard.

"How can I help you?" I ask. The chart will seem empty if I don't fill in the blanks, but he doesn't know and can't tell me. I'll have to guess.

He squints. "Who are you?"

I tell him that I'm his nurse, but he won't believe me. In his eyes, I'll be the devil who wants to hurt him. He'll accuse his daughter of trying to poison him when she visits at lunchtime. He wants to tell me that he doesn't need my help but he can't remember why he ended up in a hospital, only knows that's where he is because I say so.

"I'm not crazy," he mumbles.

He finds the doors locked when he pushes on the handle bar, can't understand why I have a key and he doesn't. He peers through the glass window, looking for the way out, the portal to raise the waters so he can float through, like a merchant ship or a cruise boat, or a swordfish swept into the channel.

I help him find his room and wait while he showers. Standing in his underwear, he picks at his frizzy hair as I hold out a clean shirt. We're tandem in front of the tiny mirror as he shaves. I watch the movements of the razor. I become part of him, the voice that wants to save him. We've made it to the second step, the Pedro Miguel Locks.

He talks about the terrible things he's done, murdered women and children, stolen money and used drugs. Now, he trusts me with his secrets, wants to tell me more, seeks comfort from my voice.

"Not him. He didn't do those things," his daughter says when she meets with his doctor. "He's worked hard, loved his children. Our mother left him for another man. He never got over it."

Fingering his Blackberry, the doctor chooses a diagnosis, given the patient's age and the symptoms, the paranoia and the confusion. Might have been a heavy drinker, Korsakoffs dementia. Comes on suddenly. Rarely reversed. Wipes out the thinking, stalls momentum.

"Wrong," says the daughter. "Dad's never been a drinker."

The doctor scowls. Plain old depression with psychosis. Likely, heíll improve with medication." Now, the doctor has lost interest, nothing more to think about, apply the protocols.

In group therapy, Clifton talks about things that need doing, but he isn't sure what. Might be money, but he doesn't know how much or where. There's property but he doesn't remember who collects the rents. Doesn't trust his daughter to do the legwork. He hopes to make passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean within the usual nine hours but bogs down in a reservoir.

The patient beside him cups her hand over his. "We've all been there. You'll get better." He yanks his fingers out from under hers and leaves the room as attention shifts to the next person in the circle.

Two days later, he's able to sit for an hour and listen, even smile, though none would call him friendly. He no longer thinks that everyone wants to hurt him, doesn't clench up, and lets the woman nurture him.

The doctor discharges him to outpatient treatment. "Take your medication," he orders.

On the day Clifton departs with his daughter, I open the final locks, the Gatuns. He breast strokes free but not sane. None of us are, really. He'll be okay, I tell myself. For a second, I envision myself wrapped in his arms as he floats, but it doesn't happen that way. I become the Canal Zone. He passes through and I stay.


Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Donna Levy [ donnachka@cox.net ] on Monday, April 9th, 2007 at 8:53 AM
CANAL ZONE is an EXCELLENT short story. You found an apt metaphor in conditions of water. Upon reflection, I would have to say that we are all Panamanian by birth. So very well done. With great admiration, Donna



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