Up ahead is the famous Bellevue Hospital. I pause to catch my breath as I stare at its manicured grounds, wondering what monitored catacombs of detention await those who dare enter this inhospitable land. Somehow it’s as if I already know what’s there without really crossing the threshold. Yes, like some poignant thing redacted from memory, the sensation of what lies within this monumental structure is somehow vibrantly alive inside me - and it gives me great pause.
Increasingly hesitant to take the next step, I shut my eyes and turn myself into a roulette wheel. Spinning in vicious circles, I decide to submit any future steps to Fortune. Since I have no religion and Sylvia is ostensibly out of the picture now, it feels vaguely comforting to commit my autonomy to something external and conscript Fortune as my compass. But the spinning soon gets vertiginously out of control and I need to stretch my arms out to slow down.
When I open my eyes I discover that am stumbling past the famous Bellevue Gates and am almost grateful to be detained by two officious looking men dressed in stainless white. They even have white gloves on in this intolerable heat.
Although they are sitting, I can tell that one of the unofficial Gatekeepers is appreciably taller than the other, reminding me of the two paramedics who once helped cart away the insentient object of my affection. One of them (the shorter, squatter one) even has a copy of Paul Auster’s Leviathan splayed on the table beside him. I notice that it’s freshly autographed.
“Excuse me…?” I repeat slightly louder without trying to sound pushy. “Is this where the Conference is?”
They continue to ignore me, and I consider turning around to exit. But I am committed to the fragile compact I’d made with Fate – It’s not for nothing my feet placed me here or I surely would’ve kept on spinning. I clear my throat but they still don’t turn to regard me. On each of their heads is a playing card they can’t see but which clearly faces the other Gatekeeper.
“I asked - Is this the Conference?”
They answer alternately, without turning to face me.
“You mean party.”
“It’s already started, you know.”
“I got here as fast as I could.”
“Not fast enough.”
“You wouldn’t be late for the opera.”
“I don’t go to opera.”
“This is better than the opera.”
“Anything’s better than the opera, unless you’re doing woodwork or cleaning your carburetor. Then the opera is pretty great.”
When they finally turn to me, they simultaneously close their eyes.
“We don’t want the expression on your face to give anything away,” says the shorter of the two, although he might prove the taller once they stand up.
“Yeah, I’ve already beaten him five times, consecutively.” The other wags his head. “Bo-ring.”
“Not this time, loser.”
“Oh yeah, I can read you like an open book with my eyes closed.”
They turn back to each other. Staring at the cards affixed to their respective foreheads. Trying to second guess each other, raising their bets in a counter-intuitive fashion, squinting eyes, pursing lips, unsquinting eyes, raising once more, then going for the final showdown. I’m sure Kafka would appreciate this scene and the sanatorium setting it takes place in. But I’m not even certain he’s here - or if the Girl is with him.
“You don’t understand, I really need to get in.”
“You have a pass?”
Their aggressive overlap prevents me from formulating a decent answer.
“Who are you affiliated with?”
“He doesn’t have a pass.”
“Look, you’ve got to let me in.”
“It’s decreed that I go in.”
“You sure it’s not ordained…?”
“You don’t understand. It’s what’s supposed to happen. Bashert.”
“Oooo… bashert! In that case it’s also bashert that you suck my dick.”
“After I bashert fuck you in the ass! Hahaha.”
They bust a gut laughing, quite demonic and hateful. Then stop on a dime.
“Listen. You think we like sitting out here in the hot sun playing stupid card games for two-year olds?”
“We’re not morons, you know.”
“Do we look like outpatients to you?”
I shake my head with a touch of contrition. Anything to get in to the fuckin Conference. But the Gatekeepers are relentless in their denial. The more they reject me, the more legitimate they feel.
“Put yourself in our shoes, think how much we’d like to be in there now listening to a lecture on” – he consults the program and reads – “Kafka’s Notions of Liturgical Heteronomy.”
The short one grabs it from his hands.
“Or K’s - Reclamation of Self as the Destruction of the Other.”
“But I’m part of this Conference.”
“I don’t see your name here. What about you Derk? You see it?”
They study the program seriously. But still regard me with eyes closed when facing my direction.
“So what’s your paper called?”
I pause too long to sound convincing.
“Kafka’s Curse,” I propose.
“Is that a question?”
“You don’t sound so sure.”
“What kind of a title is that?”
I think quickly and improvise.
“Full title is - Kafka’s Curse: the Banality of Being”
“Still not great.”
“It’s a bit familiar, isn’t it?”
“No one’s going to want to hear that one.”
“What about Professor Heschel?” I resort to my trump card. “He must be here. At the Conference. I’m sure he wants to hear it.”
“Do you know him?”
“Or are you using his name in vain?”
“He’s expecting me.”
“You shouldn’t joke about some things.”
Again they check the program for a long time, then scour the VIP guest list. I look about the premises to count viable exits - always a good thing to study before making an entrance.
Bellevue, it appears, is in the process of undergoing its own metamorphosis - from psychiatric hospital to homeless shelter, and soon to be gentrified into an upscale hotel and conference center - but its formative history for welcoming the tortured souls of this earth will always be written on the iron wrought gates that have gone from being austere and formidable to quaintly nostalgic.
“Still don’t see your name here.”
“But I belong in there!”
“And all the patients in there think they belong out here.”
“What’s it going to take to convince you?!” I shout. “WHAT?!”
I snatch the cards from their foreheads. And for the first time since our encounter they address me with open eyes - eyes that keep getting larger and wider the more they stare at my engraved forehead.
“Not that bubble gum tattoo on your head, that’s for sure, you little starfucker!” says the shorter one as he spits into a napkin and begins to vigorously wipe my brow. “You can’t convince us with that cheap shit.”
When it doesn’t smudge, he and his partner confer, whispering, then turn to me with a more guarded tone.
“Perhaps you should take a seat?” the taller one offers.
“Yes, why don’t you relax, play a few hands with us.”
“But I need to, I’m supposed to –“
“Let’s see what the cards have to say about all that, shall we?”
“There’s this girl and…”
“Are you in or out?”
We ante up. The deck summarily shuffled, cut, distributed. And on the count of three - cards are lifted to our respective foreheads. The shortest one with the biggest forehead bets first. He can see my card and the one belonging to his slightly taller partner – but not his own. Likewise, I can see his partner’s card as well as his - but not my own, never my own.
I now study his face as he studies his partner’s card, who is currently looking into mine, and try to interpolate some new knowledge from the careful relay of shifting looks. But this analysis is further complicated and compounded by the strong possibility of willful deception promoted in the masked looks of my fellow players.
The short Gatekeeper bets high, hoping to make us feel unworthy, or maybe he’s just playing it as it really is. Hard to tell when he’s got his poker punim on. But also quite ironic when I consider that the card he so proudly cleaves to his head like a miniature billboard is in fact identical to the one exhibited - save for the suit - by his unwitting partner.
The taller Gatekeeper bets next, also trying not to work against himself. He can see my card as well as that of his shorter partner - the other “seven” - but is of course blind to his own. The number 7 spanning the bridge of shared knowledge to our active ignorance.
Offering misdirection and miscues whenever possible, the other Gatekeeper craftily prepares to place his bet – which in an unwitting gesture of corroboration – matches that of his partner. Like in life and literature, his own ignorance is enlightened by our condition; the mechanism of empathy made manifest in the predicament of others.
My turn next. Presented with the same card from different suits for both Gatekeepers - (although they have no idea that this is the case, and I must never let them in on this) - I perversely bet against my own ignorance in the light of theirs. Yes, we are all dwelling in some permeable darkness about ourselves, except that their darkness is unknowingly shared, and mine is forever solitary. Unless my card is also a Seven, but even I doubt such convenient coincidence. So I stare into their faces a long time and try to deduce something about my card from their dumb impenetrable looks. Ultimately I decide to push the boundaries, knowing I have nothing more left to lose.
“What do you say we up the ante some?” I suggest.
“What do you have in mind?”
“How about if I win, you let me in.”
“And if you don’t…?”
“Yeah, what if you lose?”
I ceremoniously place the inkwell on the table.
“What are we going to do with that old piece of junk?”
“It’s an antique.”
“It’s got schmutz on it.”
“Is that blood…?”
It always had blood, I think, even when you couldn’t see it there was blood on it, in it, around it.
“What else you got?”
I empty my pockets to no avail.
“I know,” says the taller one after exchanging a quick glance with the shorter.
“Yes…?” I pursue. “What?”
“How about if you lose, you suck his dick for real.”
“Alright! I’m game!” the suckee exclaims. “And this time my colleague here gets to fuck you up the ass.”
“Yeah! Bend over, baby!”
Again, they laugh. Louder than before, certainly more disturbing. Then stop abruptly to look at me.
“Oh my god! You were considering it, weren’t you?”
“Don’t you have any self-respect?”
“You don’t understand. You have to let me in. There’s this girl…”
“Ok, ok, seeing as how you’re so desperate and we’re so miserable - how about who ever wins gets to go to the Conference. Just like you said. But the losers --”
“-- the losers have to stay here and work the door for eternity,” the shorter jumps to finish.
“Or how ever long it takes,” the taller one finesses.
A clumsy handshake goes quickly around the table. Then the revelation arrives. Cards are confronted. But based on their respective responses, I don’t even need to examine my card to know where I stand.
Soon as each Gatekeeper regards his own card, he promptly commences to attack and assign blame on his partner, overlooking the fact that it is in fact the same card, and that I only needed to beat one of them to consensually beat both.
But for them the blame is anything but mutual; that’s the earnest measure of their disappointment, a man cursing himself in a mirror, impugning others to his own detriment.
“It’s all your fault.”
It doesn’t even matter who’s saying what anymore. By this point I’m past the main entrance, already heading for the Conference. My playing card is still affixed to my forehead with fresh sweat, concealing the tattoo below. I decide it’s better to leave it there for now, avoid any unexpected controversy or unwanted attention it might otherwise stir.