Max Dorfman

A Playground for Vegetables

In Fall and Spring, the orderlies would take the odd collection of comatose patients and place them facing the brick wall under the weeping willow, and sometimes, if they felt humane enough that particular day, beside the chain-link fence, which looked out over a small garden filled with dying stalks of basil and lavender and tomatoes, and a great deal of gray grass.

The orderlies had names for the patients—Drool, Droopy, Prissy, names that had no relevance to the ones they had been given at birth. The orderlies would mock them sometimes, usually at close proximity, making lewd gestures and remarking about their given monikers in even lewder terms.

It had all started in Autumn of the previous year, when one orderly, Jameson, thought it would be beneficial for whom he secretly termed “his vegetables” to be given a few hours of natural light every day—to witness the natural world changing around them, even if their natural state was simply to physically decompose, while their minds, already rendered static, would never change. Other orderlies protested, mainly because Jameson’s “light-bringing” required additional work. But the doctors agreed with Jameson, and soon, the staff of orderlies could be seen lifting the patients’ bodies out of their sterile white beds and wheeling them outside the sanatorium to a view not much more pleasant than the daytime talk shows and soap operas re-runs they were forced to watch ad nauseaum, mostly out of the preferences of the orderlies.

Jameson’s extra effort always contented him, for his twin brother had contracted rheumatic fever when they were children, fallen into a coma, and never recovered. Their parents refused to let their comatose twin child live too far from home, and his final “resting” place was only a few miles from their broken-down colonial, which swayed on land that had once been a large swath of an active farm.

Though Jameson knew his brother was still alive then, he often thought he heard the boy stalking the hallways of the house at the peak of night, his pre-pubescent voice penetrating the thin walls of Jameson’s room with a wail, questioning why, why was he back where he was born. Whenever Jameson heard his brother’s voice calling, he would call back.

“Franklin,” he’d say, his voice trembling, “I’m here. I’ll come for you soon.”

Jameson’s conversations would trigger his alarmed parents to storm his room and tell him to hush.

But Franklin’s presence burned through Jameson’s nightclothes like a hot iron. And even after his brother passed—his feverous body convulsing into death—Jameson couldn’t help but think his demise was less a transition from this world to the next than it was a kind of phasing between the two. Being in a coma for most of his young life, Franklin was effectively dead before—a phantasm somehow intent on escaping his corporeal boundaries. What world of literal death could prevent him from maintaining his kinetics?

***

When October stormed in, with the weather becoming colder and windier, the orderlies struck up formal complaints and demanded a meeting about Jameson’s extra labors with their bosses. There was no benefit to the day trips outside, they argued—and even if there was, they weren’t being compensated enough to stand in the near-freeze, risking their health for a job that wouldn’t compensate them if the circumstance made them ill.

During the heated meeting in the common room, Jameson kept his head down, refusing to bring up any objections, or any mention of his past. The doctors sided with Jameson, insisting that it was important for these “waylaid folks” to be allowed to maintain at least a shred of their humanity. The orderlies groaned their objections, but continued to take Drool and Droopy and Prissy out.

The fact was that Jameson always wanted to walk up to the patients, engage and talk with them, comfort them, but always stopped himself, if only to prevent his further division with his coworkers.

***

As the year progressed into the even-more frigid month of November, the orderlies began abandoning the patients near the garden, choosing to walk back inside, leaving the comatose to the bitter, blasting gusts. This incensed Jameson, who felt compelled to stay with the patients, despite his worry about catching colds or suffering frostbite. In the freeze, among his garden of patients, Jameson stood—a stalk emerged among shrubbery. His coworkers stared at him through the windows, laughing.

But soon, Jameson felt pressured to join the other orderlies inside—not wanting to appear as an outsider, or worse, aligned with their bosses—where he laughed with them under the TV about all the hysterical people across all hysterical talk shows and soaps, and snuck and drank lukewarm beers from the fridge that never seemed to broach an appropriate temperature.

***

Later in November, when it was time for them to take the patients in from their garden, some of the orderlies started to crack jokes about how it would be better for everyone if they left the comatose out there amid the dying, frost-covered garden to die. What did they have to live for, anyway? Jameson looked outside, where one had been placed by the wall; one by the tree; one by the garden, all at 45-degree angles.

Jameson furrowed his brow. “That’s wrong,” Jameson said.

“We’re joking, Jameson,” his co-workers retorted. Joking or not, no one made a move to exit the building to bring the patients back inside, though it was growing too dark and too cold for any of them to remain there. Instead, the orderlies continued to sip their beers and slap one another’s shoulders and peer away from the windows, where the patients’ wheelchairs now cast strange shadows that from a distance, looked like horns.

“I wonder if they did this to my brother,” Jameson muttered.

Jameson couldn’t stand it anymore and rushed outside alone, running down the shallow hill of the sanatorium to the perimeter of the property, where the garden and the wall and the weeping willow were. It was dim, the moon a jaundiced yellow, and as he approached the patients, he surveyed the area to see where each had been stationed. They weren’t in their former resting places. The closer Jameson came the more he stumbled and the more he squinted, growing more fearful with every lurching step that somehow the comatose had escaped.

Then, Jameson saw.

Drool and Droopy and Prissy sat in a circle, peering raptly into each other, in strange deep contrast to their usually erratic gazes and eye movements. Jameson’s hands went to his hips. The comatose were fine. Maybe he had just forgotten that they had placed them in a circle. Comatose socialization, Jameson thought. Can’t be a bad thing.

He let out a haughty laugh, as much out of relief as fear.

Then, he swore, even in the dying light, that he saw the three turn their eyes to him and smile a little. Jameson felt sick. Before he could think about them, he got on his walkie-talkie and told his coworkers the patients were getting too cold—they could freeze to death out there—and that they needed to drop their beers and TV shows and come out to help him rush their patients up the hill and back inside.

***

Luckily, the patients hadn’t frozen to death, but they had indeed become sick. Their skin had turned blue and their fevers ran hot for days on end. The orderlies denied any wrongdoing; the doctors suspected negligence.

The doctors commended Jameson, while scolding the others that they needed to respect the humanity of their patients, even if they were, in the words the orderlies often used, “brain-dead.” Guilt-ridden, Jameson stayed with Drool and Droopy and Prissy day-in, day-out while they were sick. But mostly, he ruminated over the death of his own comatose brother, wondering if the same carelessness had led to his twin’s demise.

A few weeks later, after the patients had recovered, the doctors called another meeting and insisted the orderlies no longer take the comatose outside. Instead they were to be kept in the common area—a drab blue room with bars across windows where the orderlies—before they had been caught—had previously partied. It was getting too frigid, the doctors reasoned, too close to Christmas. “It would be a bad time for anyone to lose their job,” the doctors remarked. After the doctors left the meeting, the orderlies laughed and slapped one another’s backs again, thankful not have to push the dead weight of Droopy, or feel the saliva of Drool on their arms, or peer at the odd glare of Prissy. Now, they could just prop them up in their chairs, and leave them to sit for day after day without worry, content to serenade them with Christmas music in their drab blue room while they took to drinking beer in the kitchen.

Jameson was devastated.

When he stared at them, he sensed that Droopy and Drool and Prissy missed the garden and the willow tree, and even the brick wall. He tried suppressing the last frozen image he had of them out there. Maybe he had let his imagination carry him too far.

Not wanting to appear suspicious, Jameson decided to join his coworkers drinking in the kitchen. His coworkers rewarded their suspicions of his loyalty to the doctors by convincing him to bear most of the responsibility of transferring the patients from the common room back to their beds. Still Jameson drank with them—sometimes more than his coworkers would—and refused to complain.

One day, when Jameson felt cheery from all the drinks he had consumed in the kitchen, he maneuvered past the other orderlies and walked down the hall toward the blue common room. There through the half-open door, he saw the three patients lined up, each facing their own barred window, the fading light casting a triangle of their shadows back at him. Jameson clenched his chest, on the verge of collapse. Someone’s moved them again. No, he thought. I need to go back and ask if anyone moved them. When he returned to the kitchen, his drunken coworkers were deep into their lounging around and playing cards. .

“Did you move them?” Jameson asked.

They all shook their heads.

“What do you mean, moved them?” they asked.

“The patients,” Jameson uttered.

The other orderlies looked at each other and exploded into boisterous laughter.

“You are really losing it, Jameson,” they said.

Jameson shuddered and ran back to the common room, where the three patients were still facing their windows, the sunlight they revealed now creeping into obsolescence. He paced behind them as if he were hunting, moving forward in a parabola, trying to determine any trace of their possible sentience. He reached his arms around their backs to their chests and began stomping his feet. Then he loudly grunted. None of it caused any response. Jameson swung his body around Droopy to face all of them from front, trying not to impolitely stare into their eyes. He remained absolutely resolute that the patients’ powers were all part of his imagination. Finally, he cast shame aside and relented to peer straight into each of their eyes.

“What are you doing to me?” he muttered, waving his index finger between them, and prickling at the bottom of their noses. “Why are you tricking me?”

The three patients’ eyes remained downcast, their bodies still slouching and their faces sagging.

Jameson looked around, wondering if anyone had seen his manic outburst. Then, Jameson’s hands went to his hips again and he began to laugh—though quietly enough that no one heard his absurd expression. After his giggles released his fears, Jameson stared back at the patients.

“And you thought you had me,” he smirked, failing to stifle a final laugh.

“We did there for a second,” Jameson heard a chorus erupt.

Jameson felt a sharp pain root from his feet up to the crown of his head. He leaned into the three comatose patients in front of him. Their mouths hadn’t moved. But in the now dark blue room, he swore he saw them staring at him, the corners of their mouths suddenly defying gravity.

I’m losing my mind. Jameson thought. Completely losing my mind.

“No you aren’t,” the voices said. “We’re here just like you are. Maybe you just didn’t ever think we were.”

“No,” Jameson said aloud. “If you’re really here, do something to prove it.”

“Turn on the lights, dear Jameson. Maybe we can give you a hint.”

Jameson froze and glanced at the light switch near the door. Then slowly stepped through the patients, his head darting back every few seconds, trying not to fall over, toward the switch. He could barely breathe.

When Jameson reached the light, he closed his eyes, his finger hesitating under the switch, where some errant black paint had run down the plaster wall.

***

“Jameson!” someone called.

Jameson’s body shook, his eyelids still pressed firmly down. For a moment his consciousness seemed to have been sealed, sunk deep below somewhere inside him, like soon he would fall into a coma, too.

“Jameson!” someone—another voice—called again. Now the light was on, shining into his face from above. He had collapsed on the cold tiles of the common room, and the other orderlies were staring down at him, bewildered. “You okay?” they asked.

Jameson gulped.

“I think so,” he said, then bolted up and looked around. “Where are the patients?”

The orderlies looked at each other, lips nervously folding into their teeth.

“Don’t worry about the patients so much,” they said. “They’re fine. It’s you we’re worried about.”

***

In the weeks after Jameson thought he heard the patients’ voices taunting him, he reneged on most of his sanatorium responsibilities. The comatose went unwashed, and became generally unkempt and uncared for. The other orderlies began to complain about their smells, and instead of offering to help clean them up, took it upon themselves, between their drinking and card playing, to name them each of them after their most predominant odor—Droopy and Drool and Prissy became Hotdog and Sour-Patch and Lima Bean.

The orderlies started harassing Jameson, too, asking him if he really believed the living dead patients were talking to him, or if they were sending him messages with their eyes. Their harassment had Jameson wondering what, if anything, he had communicated to the orderlies when he had fallen unconscious. The uncontrollable flux of his mouth might have led him to reveal his deepest inclinations about what the comatose were capable of.

He knew he was faltering in his tasks, but Jameson decided to talk to the doctors anyway—he wanted to tell them he these vegetative patients were far more aware than they led on or anyone thought.

“What makes you think that?” the doctors asked.

“It’s this feeling I get when I look in their eyes,” Jameson responded. “And when they think they’re alone…”

The doctors only eyeballed him, brushing him aside.

That night, in his apartment above a sleazy bar in the middle of town, Jameson swore it wasn’t the usual loud guffaws of the drunken patrons on the other side of the floorboards he was hearing as he lay in bed in a furious sleepless sweat, but the whispers of his deceased twin, encouraging him to muster the strength to talk to the patients.

Just communicate with them,” Franklin uttered from somewhere close to Jameson’s ears. “Talk to them like you’d talk to anyone else.

***

It was dead cold December—Christmas Eve, in fact—when Jameson finally found the courage to wheel the patients from their beds to the common room and back again. Almost all the sanatorium’s orderlies and doctors had taken the night off—leaving Jameson as the patients’ only caregiver. As he wheeled Drool and Droopy and Prissy back and forth, he stared at them, considering how he might confront his ostensible insanity by trying to reconcile his hallucinations with the reality he was now solely responsible for. Drool and Droopy and Prissy’s eyes were sluggish and their faces and bodies were flaccid, just as he had seen them before. Once back inside, he positioned them each at an irregular angle, all facing away from one another, similar to the position he had witnessed them in when they last sat facing the dying garden down the hill. Then Jameson walked over to the boom box that collected dust on the floor and turned it on.

I really can’t stay (but baby, it’s cold outside)
I’ve got to go away (but baby, it’s cold outside)

This evening has been (been hoping that you’d drop in)
So very nice (I’ll hold your hands, they’re just like ice)

My mother will start to worry (beautiful what’s your hurry?)
My father will be pacing the floor (listen to the fireplace roar)

A calamitous thump-thump-thump in time with the music pounded unceasingly in Jameson’s head, and soon pulsated into his eyes and caused his heart to contract underneath his ribs. He felt coma-bound again—the effects of some curse leveled against him by the supposedly unaware patients?

“Why are you doing this?” Jameson called out to them. “Why are you intent on hurting me after all I’ve done for you?”

Jameson rushed around the room, grabbing at his patients’ wheelchairs. He needed to take them outside, into the lonely dusting of yuletide snow and leave them there, among the basil and lavender and tomatoes, where they could no longer speak to him. Jameson’s grip on the handles of their chairs grew weak, and the weakness shot up into his arms, and then his legs began to wobble. He could barely move, no less push any of them out into the snow.

So really, I’d better scurry (beautiful please don’t hurry)
But maybe just a half a drink more (put some records on while I pour)

The neighbors might think (baby, it’s bad out there)
Say what’s in this drink? (no cabs to be had out there)

I wish I knew how (your eyes are like starlight now)
To break this spell (I’ll take your hat, your hair looks swell)

The light flickered and Jameson again found himself flat on his back, staring at light in the middle the room, with Droopy and Drool and Prissy encircled around him, with their hands held firm across their laps, their heads upright, and their eyes pacing across his pale visage.

We just want someone to listen to us,” they said. “Why won’t anyone listen to us?”

I’m listening,” Jameson said. “I’m here to listen.”

“We’re people too, you know.”

“I know,” Jameson cried. “I know you are.”

“We’re not vegetables,” the echoed. “We’re not toys. We’re not here for you to play with.”

“I’m sorry,” Jameson wailed.

“We expected better of you.”

“What are you?” Jameson exhaled.

“We’re people,” they said. “We’re people, too. Talk to us like anyone else…”

***

Jameson woke—floating in soft, soothing music, though his head was hot, and his lungs fiery.

I ought to say, no, no, no sir (mind if I move in closer?)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried (what’s the sense in hurtin’ my pride?)

I really can’t stay (oh baby don’t hold out)
But baby, it’s cold outside

All Jameson wanted to do was to call out, to extend himself, to breathe. It was too dark to see, too difficult to move. Above him, he saw faint drifting white—snow, in the light of the moon, swirling in a weak night breeze, soft as downy feathers.

***

Jameson can imagine his brother. He can imagine his parents. He can imagine the doctors, and the orderlies. He often thinks of the three patients, people whose names he will never know now, their faces blank.

When he looks out to view the garden, his stiff, placid eyes only see a world enveloped by white. But in the distance floats a dot of blackness, suddenly subsumed by white again, a token of consciousness he has only the notion of finding.

~~~

Max Dorfman is a writer and visual artist living in New York City. He is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College with his BA in English and Columbia University with his MA in Clinical Psychology. He has also been published in The Bookends Review.