The Bubble


 Peter Selgin, Fiction

 

Though they hardly notice them at first, soon the walls are everywhere: walls of stone, brick, cinderblock, and chain link, some crowned with vicious razor wire, others spangled with ivy. Veronica wonders: are they meant to keep crazy people like Mickey in, or sane ones, like us, out?

"Beats me," says Nigel.

Since the police took Mickey away in handcuffs two months ago, Nigel hasn't seen his best friend, though he's gotten dozens of letters from him, letters written on sheets of brown institutional paper towel, on margins of newspapers, on backs of psychological questionnaire forms. Vernie, Mickey's wife, has seen her husband exactly once, for fifteen minutes. Unable to keep up the rent on their Chinatown one-bedroom, she's let it go to move in with Nigel. Mickey has been given to understand that this arrangement is simply one of convenience—at least he pretends to think so—when in fact Vernie and Nigel have been sleeping together now for weeks.

Holding hands, the illicit lovers climb past a miniature wooden lighthouse ringed with cherry tulips, and up the steep driveway to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Veterans' Administration Hospital, a dozen temples of dull brick perched on a windy acropolis overlooking the wide, silent Hudson River.

"Nervous?" Nigel asks.

"No. Are you?"

"You bet."

Halfway up the driveway, a trim memorial garden bristles with naked rosebushes and the bronze busts of dead (and presumably crazy) generals. A gust stirs up the coppery leaves of a nearby oak. Nigel shivers. It's early May, but still cold.

...The Poo-Bahs here don't seem to know quite what to make of me. Some say I'm too far gone for this ward, others that I'm not far gone enough. The main issue seems to be whether I have lived too much or too little...

Vernie grips Nigel's hand. "He'll be so glad to see you," she tells him. An albino, her skin is perfectly white, her face as round and pale as the moon. She wears no make-up, no rouge on her alabaster cheeks, no lipstick on her pillowy lips. Her eyelashes are as white as the hairs on a Venus flytrap. To protect them from the sun she wears prescription sunglasses, so Nigel can't see her irises, blue as a Siberian Husky's. Her teeth are the same color as her skin, which is the same color as her hair. She's a monochrome masterpiece, a punk angel carved from white chocolate. Only her constantly chewed fingertips bear any trace of color. When

Nigel and Mickey first met her, on the set of a low- budget feature, it took them approximately two minutes each to fall in love with her. "He talks about you all the time," she says.

"Yeah? What does he say?"

"That you're his best friend."

With friends like me, Nigel thinks, but resists saying, knowing it would only upset Vernie. She hasn't been keen on this visit, hasn't been keen on seeing Mickey at all since her last visit with him.

"You know what he had the nerve to say?" she told Nigel after that visit, over a candle-lit dinner. "He said I should never have quit acting—that I'm so dramatic! This from a man who rides the subway back and forth to Coney Island with a 44-Magnum or whatever under his jacket, while making up lists of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he wants to kill."

She shook her head. They were eating a meal of rice pilaf and fish, the light of the two candles dividing them with their glow as they sat at opposite ends of the large table, pinning their shadows up against walls. Throughout the meal, Mickey floated in Nigel's head like a centerpiece, squatting Buddha-like with his shaved head, in his hospital gown and slippers, snickering at their halting, clumsy chat. "As if quitting the theater were something I'd wanted," Vernie said, carrying plates to the sink like a weary supplicant. "As if quitting my work had nothing to do with him." Hot tears splashed on soiled dishes. "When I think of all the dumb things I could have done if I'd known I was so stupid: I could have bungee jumped off the Empire State Building; I could have dined on Japanese blowfish livers. But no, I had to pull the dumbest stunt of all and marry a goddamn lunatic." From behind Nigel embraced her. He kissed her cheeks. Her white eyelashes gleamed with wetness. "I swear," she said, "Mickey's like a mongoose when he strikes."

They stop walking. Nigel holds her. He feels the fake fur of her coat collar against his closely-shaven chin. He brings the fingers of her small hand to his mouth and smells—or thinks he smells—this morning's sex on them. Her fingernails are chewed to the quick; the small fingers look like tomato grubs. A resident, escorted by two Latino attendants in white, passes them by. Goggle-eyed, making baboon chatter, his stubbled jaw glossy with spittle.

"Why do crazy people drool?" asks Vernie. "I mean, do they have more saliva than the rest of us, or what?"

"Maybe they just flaunt what they've got."

"And to think we could've spent the day at the zoo."

"According to Mickey, that's just what we're doing."

...This place has its advantages. Where else can you sit around watching TV all day in a pall of other people's chain-smoking, the volume drowned out by stream-of-consciousness bellowing to the tune of

ChristohChristmakeitgoawayI'mgoingoutofmyfuckingmindsoplease makeitgoawayit'sworsethanmywifebeforeIstuckthesteakknifeintoherear—stuff like that that makes me laugh so hard I fart out loud...

They keep walking. Nigel takes in buildings, walls, benches, sky. A butterfly embroiders the air; a starling whistles on a branch; bloated clouds drift over the Palisades. Clouds, birds, benches, butterflies—all seem to take madness in stride.

...They've transferred me to the Bubble: a dual-diagnosis lockdown for people with psychological as well as addictive disorders. I had to pack kit and caboodle quickly under threat of going the "hard" way, then watched what little I own get labeled and bagged and shipped to "Patient Effects" and other places. To wit:

1 shoulder bag and portable typewriter: room KG (bldg 12) 1 notebook, 1 gold Claddagh ring, 1 black notebook & 3 Pentel pens: Patient Effects. 1 travel bag containing electric razor, medals & other small valuables: Patient Effects. 1 patch jacket, Navy peacoat, 2 vests, three shirts & four pairs pants: Patient Effects. 1 knife & scissors: Montrose Police Department...

On the main building's front steps they stop holding hands.

"Ready?" says Vernie.

Nigel shrugs. He's never been in a mental hospital before, let alone to visit the best friend whose wife he's sleeping with. The whole place seems so orderly, and that disturbs him. He searches for signs of chaos and confusion, but they're nowhere to be seen: not, for sure, in the administration building's smug Doric columns, or in its echoing vestibule of pale brown marble, where a uniformed guard has them sign a register.

"Down the corridor to your left."

A dim passage leads to an automatic door that slides open into a realm of fluorescent light, where another uniformed guard has them sign another register. He points them down another passageway, to another sliding door.

...The Filipino watched as the drugs took effect, made note of my psychic "adjustment," then led me down a hall smelling of a combination of Spic ‘n' Span, Clorox, coffee, piss, cigarette smoke, cum, and carbolic-acid, to my new home, where a dozen residents all danced the Thorazine shuffle, each giving off the wine-and-cheese odor of neglected flesh (why is it, I ask you, that the insane and the dying give off the same, cheesy smell?)...

Footfalls echo off disinfected walls. With every step Nigel grows more anxious, wondering, what if we let something slip? What if Vernie's a rotten liar; what if I'm a rotten liar? Mickey may be insane, but he's not stupid. He remembers their first meeting. Film school, the Village. At a glance, Mickey was different, all hard edges and shadows. Nigel might have guessed he was a Vietnam vet, the way he inhaled on his cigarette, exhaling the smoke like some secret code, the air around him charcoal-dark with mystery. Mickey's mystery and Nigel's innocence: they met like day and light, like sun and shadow. Within weeks they'd grown inseparable. The Two Greatest Artists in New York, they called themselves, a rhetorical life preserver to toss each other in stormy seas. They laughed about it, but they weren't kidding. They were dead serious.

Now Nigel wonders, should Vernie and I even bother trying to keep it a secret? Mickey and I, we've never kept anything from each other, why start now? Wouldn't it be wiser to have it out? That way, at least, the poor son of a bitch will know just what a scumbag he's got for a so-called best friend.

...The first words whispered in my ear were, "Want me to give you a blow job?" by a beady-eyed, skeletal chronic...

I should go to hell, Nigel thinks. Except that I don't happen to believe in the place. Don't immoral atheists get to go anywhere?

"Promise you won't say anything?" says Vernie, taking his hand again. Nigel nods.

The walls of the Bubble are lined with chairs on which dozing drugged men sit, most of them gray and listing like about-to-be-scrapped battleships. The air is blue with cigarette smoke; a TV blares. A very Little Richard-looking attendant sits in a corner with a clipboard. There are NO privileges here: NO phone calls, NO visitors, nothing but the television set which yammers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week...

At the entrance to the Bubble they are greeted by the duty nurse—Becky O'Shan, according to the plastic nametag on her solid-looking bosom. Mickey has described her in his letters. Nigel is both assured and dismayed to see that her face does indeed resemble "a soft pink toilet seat, wide and flat."

"Wait right here, please," Nurse O'Shan tells them, then goes to get Mickey, whom she refers to as "the resident."

...Was just interviewed by a shrink who looks like Orson Welles, yet another Personality Profile consisting of 536 questions about doorknobs. It seems I've been officially designated a "psychotic sociopath," meaning ALL authority figures are fair game...

The same pair of Latino attendants who'd flanked the chattering baboon escort Mickey toward them. He wears a brown, pinstriped robe and soft black slippers. Everything about him, Nigel notices, looks soft, as if he's melted slightly, or been blurred—like a charcoal sketch worked over with a kneaded eraser. A backwards baseball cap covers his head. The razor short hairs poking out from under it, Nigel notices, have started to gray, while the skin above the pocketless gown's neckline is stamped with a tight, grid-like pattern, as if he has slept on a series of miniature waffle irons.

Mickey smiles. "Of all the gin joints in the world, they walk into mine," he says, leaning close and kissing them each French-style on both cheeks. Mickey rarely misses a chance to quote the movies. He stands back and grins. His false front tooth, the one replacing the original lost in a high school hockey match, is missing. "You look good," he says, eyeing them. "Both of you. Real good." He stoops forward and kisses Vernie—a real kiss this time, long and deep—giving the thickest part of her waist a hard squeeze, making her yelp and leap.

He grabs Nigel then and pulls him into a chokehold. Instantly Nurse O'Shan is there, a wall of bleached authority erected spontaneously between them.

"Do you plan to behave yourself, Mr. Doyle?" she asks, in her central casting brogue. "Or do I send you right back into the ward?"

"I'll behave, boss," says Mickey, grimacing. "Whatever you say. Only don't hit me. Please don't hit me, boss!"

The nurse gives Vernie and Nigel a look, shakes her head. "He's a handful, he is." As soon as her back is turned Mickey sticks out his anemic tongue. Nigel snickers; he can't help it. Since they were freshmen film majors, Mickey has always made him laugh—at the worst of times, at the worst of things. With Mickey, nothing is sacred, not even his own sanity. It's one of the things Nigel adores about him. One of the many things, including his wife and the terrible letters he writes to them.

...I spent the next two nights curled up in a gondola of an abandoned roller coaster at Coney Island, clutching the loaded .44. All night long, I had nightmares inspired by the recent bombing of that Boeing 747 in the skies over Lockerbie. In the morning, walking back to the subway, I saw Christmas trees sticking out of garbage bags. Then the Christmas trees turned into bodies and started leaking blood onto the sidewalk. That's when I started running...

"So," Mickey rabbit-punches Nigel's shoulder. "Have you heard the one about the guy in the mental hospital? He's lying in a gurney with a peanut balanced on the tip of his penis. The nurse...," he winks at Becky O'Shan, "...walks in and sees him and says, ‘And just what do you think you're doing?' ‘Me?' says the guy. ‘I'm fucking nuts!'"

...I ran to the subway and rode it to Grand Central. I still had the .44 when I boarded the train. When I got to Mamaroneck it was dark. The station was deserted and there was a full moon. I found a plastic bag, stuffed the .44 in and buried it in the riverbed along the tracks. Then I trudged up the hill to the hospital. When I got there, I sat against a tree and finished off the pint I'd brought for the ride. And I swear to you, babe, in the face of all the lies I've ever told to you and myself—that church bells were ringing in the distance, and the tune (obviously pre-recorded) that they played was John Barry's harmonica theme from ‘Midnight Cowboy'...

Nurse O'Shan guides them down another fluorescent hallway to the conference room, past metal doors swung open to a Whitman's Sampler of psychic anomalies. Bug-eyes, drooling tongues, fingers white and jagged as lightning bolts reaching out from a series of identical small rooms. One resident howls hyena-like, another rubs his already threadbare crotch, a third makes a sacrificial offering of a jewel-like turd, cradled in his palm like a ruby on a velvet pillow. One by one, softly, Becky O'Shan closes their doors.

"So how the hell are you, babe?" Mickey asks, draping an arm around Nigel as they follow Nurse O'Shan down the spotless hallway. "Still working for Leif Ericson?" He means McCann Ericson, the ad agency where Nigel has just been promoted to junior assistant and has been assigned part of the Coca-Cola account. "Saving up for that Beamer? Moon roof, leather seats?"

"Sorry to disappoint you," says Nigel, who's gotten used to Mickey ribbing him over his career change, "but I still ride the subway."

"No BMW? What sort of ad-man are you? You mean you don't want to be stuck in traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel, gripped by exhaust fumes and the texture of Corinthian leather?"

Nigel looks at the floor, a blur of scuffed tiles under his shined shoes. Mickey's ribbing has always made him feel like a little boy, that plus the fact that Mickey is six years older and has seen and done so much more than Nigel has, or is ever likely to. Over time Nigel has come to rely on his buddy to do certain kinds of living for him, the parts he's too afraid or sane or timid to do, like a stunt man, and for this Nigel is both grateful and resentful, relieved and robbed. In Mickey's presence he never feels quite like a man, but indeed like a "babe." "What about you?" he changes the subject. "How have you been?"

"Me?" says Mickey, slapping Nigel's back hard. "I'm fucking nuts!"

...You ask me to describe a typical day here. Okay, since you asked:

5:30 a.m.: Rise and shine, shower, electric shave (no blades), shit (drugs and their constipating side effects permitting)

6:45: Breakfast. Since we're the last ward fed, by the time the boiled slop gets here, it's cold—one reason I've dropped ten pounds.

9:00: Patients' council: gripes and requests for doctor appointments

9:00-11:00: Group AA and individual mtgs. w/ doctors (when you can get them)

11:00-1:00: Free time (on ward)

1:00-2:00: Free time (off ward—meaning if you've been good and can find someone to escort, you can actually breathe fresh air.)

2:00-4:00: Substance abuse lectures by staff

4:00-6:00: Medication/dinner (am now treated with Meloril, 30cc. x 3 per day, and Lithium in varying mega-doses)

6:00-7:30: Recreation (for the privileged)—gym, sauna, dojo, exercycle

8:00-9:30: AA/NA

10:00 p.m.: Lights-out, though I tend to read or write until much later, in the john, since sleep has been a bitch—hard to go off and hard to stay under...

At the door to the conference room, a dreadlocked orderly in white gets up from the small table where he's been reading the latest People, with Steven Spielberg on the cover. He checks for contraband, including food (other than soft drinks or tea), newspapers (books, for some reason, are permitted), and potential weapons—a category (according to Mickey) embracing anything from a nail file to a Howitzer. Nigel turns out his sport jacket pockets; Vernie empties her purse. Consulting her wristwatch, Nurse O'Shan tells them they have exactly twenty minutes, then struts down the hall, the backs of her professional white sneakers kicking up plumes of light as bright as the fluorescent tubes overhead.

"Bet in a week," says Mickey, as Jack Nicholson, "I can plant a bug so far up her ass she won't know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch."

"Be nice," says Vernie. "She's only doing her job, poor woman."

"So am I," says Mickey. "Right, babe?"

The conference room has a single barred window through which daylight creeps timidly, like a burglar. There's a rectangular table surrounded by scuffed plastic chairs. A framed, glassless Van Gogh print—the view of the garden from his asylum window—is the room's one adornment, its irony inadvertent, so Nigel assumes. Inside the room, Mickey takes off his baseball cap. His skull is shaved to peach-fuzz, the stubble as skim-milk-white as his skin, as white as Vernie's, almost.

"Whatever made you cut off all your hair?" asks Nigel.

"The V.A. barber is a Nazi," says Mickey. "I told him how I wanted it. Gimme a nice pair of whitewalls, I said, with a Ricky Nelson flip. So Herr Himmler spins me around in his chair so I can't see the mirror and zzzzzzzz—rides a pair of dog clippers down the middle of my skull like it's a '62 Corvette and my head is Route 66."

Mickey's voice, Nigel notices, is low and slightly slurred, as if his batteries need charging. "It's the drugs," Mickey explains. "They've got me on enough lithium to float the Hindenburg. It's fucking with my sex life. I can't get hard anymore."

He leans his forehead against the shoulder of Nigel's pale green sports jacket. Nigel strokes him, looking up at Vernie, whose own shaven skull she has covered with a canary yellow scarf, her parchment white hair gone, martyred to Mickey's cause. ("It'll grow back," she told Nigel after cutting it.)

She digs in her purse for the small book of Roualt prints she bought at the Strand. In film school, Mickey drew inspiration from the expressionists: Soutine, Roualt, Francis Bacon. He'd wanted to be either a Yankee pitcher or a painter, but after the war, baseball seemed frivolous, and brushes and paints seemed like quaint anachronisms—steam engines and wood fires. The times demanded cooler art forms. They called for cinema, with its mass-target, laser-guided payload, the neutron bomb of artistic media. So Mickey opted for film school. Of course, movies cost money, of which Mickey had not a nickel. But the G.I. Bill picked up the film school tab, and for three years he had access to cameras and stock. And the perfect partner, Nigel, who drew storyboards and acted in his films. Others in the film department steered a wide berth around Mickey, whose edginess intimidated them. Not

Nigel. He looked up to the older, obviously brilliant, vet. Looking up to people: it had been a habit of Nigel's. A bad one.

"Gawjuss," says Mickey, flipping through the Roualt book. "You always know just what to get me, don't you? She's always looking out for me." This to Nigel. "Never stops." He kisses her again, on the forehead, his steel-gray eyes on Nigel, grinning. Does he know? Who can say? With Mickey, there are so many layers of irony, one never knows where the ground is.

"We brought you tea," says Vernie, handing him the to-go container in a paper bag. "We would've brought you a bagel, but it's against the rules."

"I might strangle myself with it," Mickey admits. "Or pummel a nurse to death." He takes a sip of tea, recoils.

"Too hot?" says Vernie.

"Too sweet! Christ, how many sugars are in here?"

"Just one."

"It's the cow urine they put in our milk. I'm getting used to it."

"Oh, Mickey. That's disgusting! Why do you have to say such disgusting things?"

Ignoring her, Mickey turns smiling to Nigel. "So, you selling shitloads of Pepsi, or what?"

"Coke. It's Coke I help sell."

"The Real Thing," says Mickey, shaking his head. "Cola wars, I love it! When not sponsoring genocide in other countries they're fighting wars with each other. What's the latest campaign? Brainwashing Voodoo priestesses into substituting Diet Coke for their witches brew? Displacing Beaujolais Nouveaux at French dinner tables? Down with coffee, tea, mother's milk?"

Nigel smiles, but it's like coming under machine-gun fire. Ever since he quit the film business and went into advertising, he's been putting up with Mickey's shit. Being handed the Coca-Cola account has only made things worse. "Nothing that elaborate," he says. "I assure you."

"Believe me, I would love to rest assured, but you know as well as I, the Dark Powers will not rest until their bubbly tonic has colonized the stars! It's manifest destiny in a can. Cola pours; blood spills. Trust me, Napoleon had nothing on your client."

"That'll do, Mickey," says Vernie.

"The Pause that Refreshes. The Liquid Messiah."

"Mickey..."

"Come unto me all ye that travail and I will refresh you."

"Mickey, stop it!"

"Things go better with Coca-Cola, things go better with..."

"Dammit, Mickey, stop picking on him!"

"I don't mind," says Nigel.

"Well I do mind!" says Vernie. "All these weeks you keep writing, saying how much you miss Nigel, and now that he's come to see you, all you can do is pick on him just because he's got a career and makes money!"

"I really don't mind," Nigel says again.

"See, he doesn't mind," says Mickey, smiling.

Silence. Vernie sighs. Nigel pretends to look through the white bars of the window, at the big oak tree there, the pale bottoms of its leaves jangling like pennies in the breeze. He thinks of the leaves littering the outdoor pool at Vernie's aunt's Tudor house in Maplewood, New Jersey, where they spent their first weekend together, making love on the king-sized bed. It was the first time, though not the first time Nigel had thought of it. Vernie had invited him, saying she was lonely there by herself. There was supposed to be a lunar eclipse. They stayed up waiting for it, watching North by Northwest on the VCR. Halfway through the movie, in the middle of the cropduster scene, Vernie's head dropped into Nigel's lap, asleep. He carried her to her aunt's bed. After the film, he was about to drift off in his own bed when he heard his name. She stood there, in silhouette against the amber hallway light, naked. "Do you mind?" she said. "I really don't feel like sleeping alone."

Afterwards, lying with her, Nigel felt like the captain of a doomed ship, thinking he should do something, stop all engines, batten hatches. Too late; they'd already struck the iceberg. As the moon's sharp corona appeared in the window, Vernie turned over and pressed herself to him, and Nigel had what at the moment seemed like a profound insight, that there had been two simultaneous eclipses—one of the moon, and one involving three less heavenly bodies: his, Vernie's, and Mickey's. Who'd eclipsed whom he still can't say, though it seems to him now that Mickey has eclipsed them all, that he always did, and always would. In spite of his predicament, his madness, his PTSD, or whatever the experts call it, Mickey still holds the edge; he still sits in the director's chair, running things. It angers Nigel; it pisses him off. More than the ribbing over his career choice, Mickey's superiority irks him. It nags him almost as much as his guilt.

"Please," says Vernie. "Let's not have any acting out, okay?"

"Oh, I see," says Mickey, looking down at his slippered feet. "I should shut-up, right? Stop acting like a goddamn lunatic?"

"No one is saying..."

"Check out the paranoid schizo with his transistorized tooth-fillings and mixed bag of conspiracy theories! Any minute now he'll be broadcasting telepathic messages from Mars, proclaiming himself the Third Messiah."

"No one is calling you a maniac, Mickey," Vernie tells him.

"Au contraire, Mademoiselle...," his sweeping gesture takes in the whole ward. "Tout le monde is calling me a maniac. It's why I'm here."

"Mickey, please..."

"Wait, wait. My second left molar is receiving a broadcast, it's coming in loud and clear. Ffff...ffff....fuh....kuh....kyoo....FUCK YOU! That's the message. Right? Right?"

Vernie buttons her coat, picks up her purse."Where are you going?"

"I'm leaving. What does it look like I'm doing? You think we're just going to stay here and let you use us as door mats?"

"Wait...don't!"

All this time, Nigel keeps looking out the window, feeling as if he's not part of this scene, like an assistant gopher who's wandered in front of the camera. When Mickey says, "Don't!" again, he turns and sees Vernie adjusting her head scarf. She has just jerked her arm away from Mickey, who reaches out for her, holding his arm out like a statue, its fingers grasping at air.

"Please, tell her not to go, babe," Mickey pleads with Nigel. "I didn't mean to upset her. Tell her that. Would you tell her that?"

Why not tell her yourself? thinks Nigel. But then he tells her.

"You don't mean to upset me?" says Vernie. "Your whole life is about upsetting me. It's all you ever do. Come on, Nigel. Let's go before it gets any worse."

She turns the door handle. Nigel stands there. He doesn't know what to do. He admires Vernie's ability to be angry, when the purest emotion he can conjure is confusion. With her hand still on the door Vernie faces him. Nigel bites his lip.

"Tell her not to go, babe. Will you, for chrissake, please tell her not to go?"

Mickey says this with a quite convincing catch in his throat. He starts shaking then, and has to grab on to the rolled metal edge of the conference table for support. Nigel's eyes seek Vernie's over Mickey's quaking shoulders. Hers say, "Let's go, please, I can't take this any more," while his say, "I can't; not like this." Finally, she relents, her cheeks rosy with the glow of humiliation—or is it shame? Nigel goes to Mickey, drapes an arm around his waist and holds him, noticing for the first time how thin he's gotten. He can feel Mickey's ribs under the robe, sharp as pitchfork tines.

"They say I'm hearing voices," Mickey says, trembling. "One voice, actually. It's either the ghost of Christmases past or Mr. Magoo, I can't tell which." He laughs. "Even a broken clock is right twice a day, right, babe?"

He turns to Nigel and smiles, the toothless gap poking a dark window in his little boy innocent face. "You're taking good care of her, right?" Then, over Nigel's shoulder, "Is he taking good care of you, my sweet?" Under the cool glaze of fluorescent light he examines them both, something accusing in the metal-shard hardness of his glance. Suddenly Nigel wishes he could hide, drop to all fours and crawl under the conference table to keep the Big Lie hiding there company. Twice, he's betrayed his best friend. First, by going into advertising, and now by sleeping with his wife. She, on the other hand, is innocent, completely innocent, having more than earned the right to sleep with someone else, considering what Mickey has put her through. What's his excuse? What has Mickey done to him, besides rib him a bit now and then?

Going to Vernie, Mickey holds her from behind, sways her gently back and forth. Watching them, Nigel sinks into the conference room blackboard, the air around him grown so thin breathing seems like a waste of effort. His eyes on Nigel, Mickey keeps rocking Vernie, back and forth, until she says, "All right, already!" Having clearly won this round, Mickey celebrates with a cigarette, exhaling the smoke in a series of haughty rings that waver their way up into the fluorescent light fixtures. He crosses to the window, takes another drag, exhales through the bars, the smoke weaving around them like an aviator's silk scarf. Out in the corridor, meanwhile, a harsh voice cries, Hey, hey, mom, moooommmy! A second voice, as if in response, shouts, The banks! The banks! The banks! With Mickey still looking out the window Nigel mouths the words, He knows.

Vernie nods, shrugs.

The duty nurse knocks, enters.

"Feeding time at the zoo," says Mickey, donning his baseball cap.

"Let's go," says Becky O'Shan.

Outside, the attendant frisks Mickey again. The duty nurse escorts Mickey back to the Bubble, with Vernie and Nigel following. Vernie takes Nigel's hand behind Mickey's back, clasping it tight until they reach the Bubble's entrance. Mickey kisses Vernie. While hugging Mickey, Nigel slips him the Pentel Rolling Riter he's been hiding up his sleeve all this time. "Use it in good health," he whispers.

Mickey squeezes his hand, kisses him.

Then it's time to go.

Safely out of sight, Vernie and Nigel clasp hands again. Like lovers who've just watched a sad movie together, they step through the bright light of day, their thoughts still wrapped around their silence, which in turn is wrapped around the plot, not ready to break the mood with talk. Instead, they stop to admire the miniature lighthouse, then look at the Palisades, the biggest wall of all, one of dusky shadow stretching all the way south to New York City. Then they turn and keep walking to the train station.