The Minor Outsider

By Theodore McDermott

The technician placed a heavy metal mask over his face. The mask was cold and indifferent and crushing his ability to breathe. It felt like he was being suffocated by a machine. 

He tried to convince himself that everything was fine, that he had to relax, that these people knew what they were doing, that he wouldn’t asphyxiate inside the tight MRI tube, that he wouldn’t die with this metal smothering his face. But there was some separate, autonomous entity inside him—his soul?—that had to get out and that overcame his brain’s rationale for remaining. He made a frustrated sound and felt tears crawling out of his eyes and managed to say, No, stop please

The technician removed the mask and said, It’s OK. It’s OK.

He sat up, breathed, and apologized. I’m sorry, he said. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t—

It’s OK, the technician told him. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. 

No, he said. I know. It’s just, I wasn’t prepared for that. I didn’t know. I think I maybe need some of the stronger—the stronger drugs. 

We can do that.

The technician smiled and he noticed that the technician had braces and he felt sorry for the balding, middle-aged man. The technician helped him up and led him out of the room, back to the kind nurse who smelled like Werther’s Originals and who had already given him some Vicodin. They talked. She asked him if he was OK, what he was feeling. She was thin and had perfect skin and wore a gold necklace that glittered, and he wished she were his mother. She told him that neither she nor the technician knew anything about him or his condition; they only knew that the neurologist had ordered certain scans of his brain. She asked him what had happened, why he was there.

Tell me, she said. It’s OK. There’s no rush. 

He tried to explain. Two years ago, he told her, a tumor appeared as a lump the size and shape of a bird’s egg in his bicep. For more than a year, he’d pretended it wasn’t there and avoided doctors and didn’t look at his arm. It was like children starving in Africa: he could deal with it only by refusing to confront it. This was a dumb comparison, he knew, but he’d made it. Then he’d started dating his girlfriend, and she’d noticed it and had forced him to go to a doctor. The doctor was alarmed. He had surgery and it was excised and a few years after that, he told her, another tumor had appeared in his ankle.

Then there was one in his neck. Then there was one in his thigh. It was dangerous to remove them: the surgery could damage his nerves and impair motor function. The specialist in Boston had explained that there were two varieties of his extremely rare condition and about the correlation between hearing loss and brain tumors. And lately, he told the nurse, over the past six months or so, his hearing had started to deteriorate, and he felt like he was giving himself brain tumors by failing to understand sound. He wondered if his failure was the fault of his ears or of his mind or of his brain, though he couldn’t delineate the difference between these things. The only way to confirm the presence of tumors in his head was to undergo an MRI scan of his brain. So that’s why I’m here, he said. I have to get this over with. I have to find out. 

I’m sorry, she said, then explained his options and put an IV in his arm. This will help. 

He felt lost and catatonic and as if he was being treated like a robot, but the reason he was here—his brain—was not a computer. He couldn’t process everything. The nurse put her hand on his wrist to take his pulse. Her skin was cold like metal. 

As she led him back out to the MRI machine, his brain was far enough outside his body that he followed and obeyed and lay down where she indicated. This time, when the technician placed the metal mask on his face, his panic eventually wore itself out and turned into a general, humiliated resignation that allowed him to sleep through the hammering, mechanical sounds that echoed inside the white tube as if a machine were trying to chisel into his skull, crack it open, see inside.

He awoke as the technician removed the mask from his face. The technician looked frightened. 

What? he said. You saw them? I have them, don’t I? 

I’m sorry, the technician mumbled, and he noticed that the technician no longer had braces. His teeth were perfectly aligned. It felt like maybe he’d been in the MRI for a year, long enough for the orthodontics to do their work. I’m not allowed to say, the technician said. I’m not a doctor. 

That means I do, doesn’t it? 

Here, the technician said, helping him up. It’s OK. 

***

When they gave him the painkillers, he had to sign a form vowing that he wouldn’t drive home. But he went to his car and started it and sat there, with his hands gripping the steering wheel, lost in a hydrocodone haze. The world seemed far away, too far away to manipulate, and he couldn’t fathom going home and dealing with his girlfriend, who would want to know why he was acting so detached, like he was high, like he was in one of her dreams. He couldn’t see her and love her and tell her what he now knew—or thought he knew, what the technician hadn’t quite told him. If he told her, she would cry. She always cried but even now he’d be suspicious of her sadness, want it all for himself, and doubt would distance them and distrust would seep in and something would keep growing inside his brain, something hard and smooth and white and egg shaped. Inside the tumor was something black, as dark as heroin tar, and it was going to hatch inside his brain, where it would live, overtaking it, devastating it. 

He sat in his car for a long time. It was fall and the days were mostly nights now and it was already getting dark. It frightened him and he had to escape. He headed for the highway, for a road that led him away, elsewhere, through a beautiful landscape that had been erased by night and silence. Three hours later, he arrived on the other side of the Rockies, in a small city called Great Falls. 

All he knew about Great Falls was what everyone knows about Great Falls: there’s a bar with mermaids there. He stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. The bar, it turned out, was in a motel. He arrived and gave his ID to a steroid-swollen bouncer perched on a stool. He went inside, and the place felt as false and sinister as a plastic Halloween mask. It had a sort of twilight Polynesian theme. A roof of fake reeds extended over the bar and the booths in the back. There were no windows, and the carpet looked as black as a still lake at night. 

In a booth with waist-high walls decorated with more imitation reeds, an old woman who reminded him of the skeleton from the opening credits of Tales from the Crypt played covers of classic country songs on an elaborate keyboard setup. Homemade backing tracks approximated the beats, and everything she played had a circus sound. Her voice wavered and cracked. She wore braces on both of her wrists. She played “Brown Eyed Girl” and a medley of Johnny Cash songs and “Fortunate Son” and she made every song sound the same, like they were all part of one endless, upbeat lament. 

Behind the bar, girls swam behind glass, in a tank that looked like the deep end of a swimming pool. They wore goggles and orange earplugs and clips that pinched their noses and mermaid costumes that bound their legs. They waved to everyone and swam up for air and their hair spread out slow and followed them reluctantly. He had an impulse to go outside and call his girlfriend to tell her about it, but he knew he couldn’t explain that this was real, that he was here, somewhere more exotic than her dreams.

Two men sat on stools and faced away from the mermaids so they could watch an Ultimate Fighting Championship match on a flatscreen that hung above the keyboard-playing lady. He sat down beside them and ordered a whiskey on the rocks and thought, What sad weirdos come here on a Wednesday night, before realizing that he was one of them—him and these UFC guys and a woman whose red hair was held back with a pink scrunchie and a man with a mayonnaise stain on the collar of his Air Force uniform and a party of 11 women, all drinking piña coladas with orange umbrellas, and a waitress carrying a tray of fishbowl-like glasses filled with an icy blue drink and a man who dropped his pants all the way to his ankles at a urinal in the men’s room. 

Then an Indian girl came in. She sat at the other end of the bar and started writing things on napkins, then pressing her messages against the tank glass for one of the mermaids to read. When she dropped one of her messages on the dark carpet, he surreptitiously picked it up on his way to the bathroom and read it in the safety of a stall. It said, Everything will be fine. It could be a clue. He put it in his pocket. Plot, he thought, is just coincidence.

Comments