An excerpt from Understanding Entropy
by Barry Malzberg
So I go to Martin Donner's bedside in the room they have staked out for him in Florida, and I ask him the crucial question: If you had known? I say, if you had known that it would end this way, that you would be dying of a hundred wounds, of the tuberculosis, of the pneumocystitis, of the parasites and the kidney breakdown and the hepatitis, the jaundice, the venerium and the shattering of the pancreas, if you had known that five years after the positive diagnosis and three years after the first episode of the pneumonia you would be lying here, eighty-two pounds, filled with morphine which does not work anymore - oh, nothing works but that isn't quite the point, is it, they are trying - with your lover and your daughters and your wife and the doctors circling in the outer room and coming in now and then to inspect your reeking corpus, some of them weeping, others taking your pulse and monitoring your breathing: if you had known this fifteen years ago, Martin Donner, if you had known everything that would happen to you and that it would end this way, would you have left your wife and children to their lives and your history and gone out to Fire Island, Cherry Groves, the baths and the bathhouses and the quick and the scuffled, the long and the grievous affairs full time, no longer sneaking it around? Would you if you had known? Or would you have stayed in your marriage in the suburbs, Martin Donner, and played with your daughters and watched them grow and claimed your wife with closed eyes in the marriage bed and nothing more, nothing more because you would never know when the dogs truly came into the basement and snuffled up the stairs? Oh maybe once a year you might let some man tend to you with rubber gloves in a bank vault, but otherwise nothing, nothing, nothing at all? If you could have seen that it would have ended this way, Martin, what would you have done? Tell me the truth now. Do you know the truth? Is there any such thing as the truth? Because I need, I need, I need to know now, it affects my own situation.
He stares at me. He is relatively lucid now, it comes and it goes, in and out, back and forth, the pounding on the chest has loosened the phlegm, the morphine has momentarily quelled the cough, he thinks that he can think, although this is not necessarily the issue, and he thinks, of course, that I am a hallucination. Hallucination is common in this late-life condition, although the dementia has not affected him as fully as it might in a few more hours or (if he lasts that long, he probably will not) days. I don't know, he says. His eyes are strangely lustrous, the only motion, the only thing in his face not quiescent; the rest is dead, bland, sunken, a canvas upon which has been embedded the full and perfect features of the dead, the valley of the dead, the shades and valleys and small tablelands upon which the dead walk until at last they sleep. Yes, Martin Donner says, yes I do know. I can answer that. He thrashes weakly, the ganglia in his shattered nerves trying to pull into alignment. I wouldn't have done it, he said. I would not have died this way. It is not worth it. I thought it was worth it, that it was worth any price to be what you are, to live expressly and fully, but it is not; this is unbearable, I am sinking, I am sinking in disgrace, I wet myself, I humiliate myself, I seethe with visions and dreams of such inextinguishable horror... no, he says, no, and his voice is momentarily stronger, he screams in the room, no, he says, I would not have left them, I would have stayed there and I would have died, I would have died in a thousand ways, but it is the difference between metaphor and truth, they are not the same, once I thought they were but no, no, no, no, no, no, he says uncontrollably, the word ratcheting uncontrollably, and he sinks into the steaming sheets, his eyes fluttering, closed and the coughing, the moaning, the turgid phlegm passes again through his desiccated and shattered cavities. No, he says, and no; I think, his answer is no and momentarily there is a kind of settling; I can feel my own realignment and a sense of history colliding with imminence merging with the steaming and impenetrable future, but of course this fusion cannot last and I am in Martin Donner's bedroom fifteen years earlier, the bedroom on the second floor of the suburban colonial in one of the nicest areas of a nicer suburb in these sets of anterooms to the city, and I have put the question again. I have put it to him calmly and without sinister intent and then have used my powers - the powers granted me by the old and terrible antagonist who nonetheless, and this is undeniable, always plays fair, as fairly as Martin did not with his wife and daughters and friends and family through all of the years up to this point. I show him the bottles, the tubing, the arc and density of the room, the harsh and desperate light and it is uncommonly vivid; I have placed all my powers in the service of this adumbration. Oh yes, Martin says, seeing it all, oh yes, I see now. Yes, he says, it is worth it. I would do this. I would not be deterred. It is worth it. It is worth anything to expressly enact what you are, what you must be, the full and alarming necessities of the soul. So I do not care, he says. I am going, I am going to leave, if this is my destiny, so be it. His features congeal with conviction, unlike his face in the room of his death, they recede and pulsate, project and flutter with light, there is light all through him. Worth it, he says, worth it to be what one is. How many years until this happens? he says. Not that it matters. But I want to know.