The Cure for Everything by Charles Baxter
from his forthcoming novel The Sun Collective
Soon after he boarded the light rail at the downtown station, Brettigan checked the available space, saw two empty seats next to each other at the far end of the car, and aimed himself in their direction as the doors chimed shut. Having taken the one on the aisle, he removed his Minnesota Twins baseball cap and placed it beside him so that no one would drop down there. An odd, soapy, purple light—the translucent advertising sheath attached to the outside of the car was filtering the sun—gave his hands a bruised discoloration, as if he’d been in a fistfight.
A young couple followed him onto the train and sat down in the seats opposite his own.
A man of retirement age, Brettigan wore an expression of studied neutrality whenever he found himself in public, as if he possessed important secret information and needed to fade into the background to avoid exposure. Despite his age, he still had a full head of graying hair, rather bushy eyebrows, and penetrating blue eyes. Deep lines creased his face. Though he wore khakis and a cotton sport shirt, giving an appearance of informality, he sat as straight as a child who had recently been told not to slouch, and he gazed out the window with the uneasy intelligence of someone who has few illusions to comfort him.
Last week, on this commuter train, there had been an incident. A woman whose baby was in a stroller had pitched and rolled her way to the seat directly in front of him. Brettigan had been close to the window, near enough to hear her panting. From time to time she had uttered soft groans. Every few seconds, she would nod and say, “Uh huh,” as if in conversation with a ghost companion. When an old man had walked past and leaned down to pat her stroller-bound infant on the head, the woman had started to shout. “Don’t you touch my baby!” she said, pointing at the aging passenger, who, alarmed, hurried out the doors at the train’s next stop. Then she had glared at Brettigan, still sitting there behind her, as if he, too, were guilty of public touching. Collecting himself, Brettigan had pretended to stare at the landscape outside. Where he looked apparently didn’t matter. “Don’t nobody touch my baby!” she cried out suddenly in Brettigan’s direction. She smelled of wine. Her baby probably smelled of wine. The whole car smelled of wine and beer and Red Bull.
But this morning the train had apparently been steam cleaned, and the usual professional-managerial types—suited, accessorized, and iPhoned—were seated nearby, tapping out messages, talking into Bluetooths, or reading The Wall Street Journal. Very few Victims of Capitalism were on the train today. Most people thought of them as the homeless, or vagrants, or the deinstitutionalized mad— one of Brettigan’s friends preferred to call them “scum”—but for Brettigan they were the Vs of C, that generously proportioned sector of the economy that had never had a single foothold on the ladder of success and who were lying on the ground anywhere they could fall unmolested. In midsummer you’d find them on the train rumbling out to the Mall of America, a terminal point where they would not disembark but stay right where they were, collapsed in heaps, half asleep and therefore semialert, until the train started up again and returned to downtown Minneapolis. They had no purchases; they consumed nothing but air and food scraps. Even the tattered clothes they wore seemed borrowed from somewhere. Back and forth the trains would go, carrying their half-awake human freight.
Whenever Brettigan exchanged glances with one of these people, he tried to make his face express compassion and kindliness. They looked back at him with sodden indifference or hatred.
Months before, sleepless, at home, in the grip of insomnia, Brettigan had found himself watching a late-night movie on TV that apparently had started a few minutes before he tuned in. An early talkie, statically photographed in old-style black-and-white and therefore comforting, the movie had pleasingly slow narrative rhythms, easily comprehended, or so it seemed at first. Usually Brettigan’s demons abated when a movie was on. The film’s plot appeared to be deadpan fantasy: seven passengers, well-dressed in formal evening attire, were conversing in the lounge of a transatlantic ocean liner. The camera seemed to be stuck in one place, and the sound recording was rudimentary, but that was okay because the movie had quite obviously been adapted from a stage play, and the characters on the screen appeared to be as bewildered by the plot as Brettigan was. What were they doing on this ocean liner? No one seemed to have any idea. They kept asking themselves how they had gotten there. None of them could remember booking passage on this ship or by what means they had boarded. Perhaps a joke was being played on them. Where were they going?
They were all dead, of course, and the ocean liner was taking them to the afterlife, and the movie was called Outward Bound, by someone named Sutton Vane (Brettigan had found this out by googling the title once he had discovered it), and he always thought of the movie whenever he was on the light rail here in Minneapolis, or on the subway on those occasions he visited his brother in New York City. Judging by the appearance of their riders, one would think that the late-evening subway trains were populated almost exclusively by the dead. Something about public transportation—you could also see it on the coaches in Amtrak train cars—had a narcotic effect and seemed to render people half alive, their heads flung back in comatose slumber. They didn’t appear to be asleep so much as anesthetized, lifeless, unticketed, and whenever he saw Victims of Capitalism in a heap in a corner somewhere, he remembered Outward Bound, and the journey they were on.
Every so often one of the Victims of Capitalism awakened, and, weighed down with God, would start to shout inspired prophecy. “Look at my wounds!” someone had loudly commanded last week, though without specifying any location. And then, “Where’s Duluth?”
Now the train passed by several abandoned grain elevators, as blindingly white as the abstract geometries of a Charles Sheeler painting, and at Thirty-eighth Street a well-tailored gentleman boarded, wearing a three-piece suit, a trench coat, and a trilby hat. He trailed a small suitcase on wheels. His glasses consisted of small tinted circles on thin gold frames, and some property in the lenses reflected light in such a way as to make his eyes nearly invisible. Standing in the aisle next to Brettigan, bathed in soapy, blue sunshine, he looked down, smiled, and asked if the seat next to Brettigan’s, the one on which Brettigan’s baseball cap lay, was taken.
“No, no,” Brettigan said, picking up his cap, putting it on, and moving over. “Please sit.”
The man dropped down in slow motion next to Brettigan, lifting the crease in his trousers in an old-fashioned gesture. “Thank you kindly,” the man said. He had a trace of a Southern accent.
A few moments passed. The man cleared his throat. “Thank you,” he repeated, looking straight ahead before checking his watch. “You have a plane to catch?” Brettigan asked, making a social effort.
“Yes, you could say that,” the man said.
“Where to?” Brettigan asked, trying to keep his questions on this side of politeness, the starchy affability one attempts with strangers.
“Paris,” the man said. “I’m goin’ to a conference.”
“Ah,” said Brettigan.
“And you?” the man asked. “Where might you be goin’?” He turned to glance at Brettigan, but behind the lenses the man’s eyes remained invisible. Maybe he didn’t have eyes. Maybe he had something else.
“Oh, me?” Brettigan said. “I’m . . . headed out to the mall to get some exercise. I’ll meet with some friends out there, and then we’ll walk around until we tire. It’s air-conditioned, and although I don’t particularly care for—”
“—Yes,” the man said, agreeably interrupting him. “I’ve seen them. I should say, I’ve seen walking-around people like you. But tell me, why don’t you walk around the lakes in the city? Or the parks? Outdoors? I myself enjoy the city parks this time of year. Birds, and . . .” The man thought for a moment. “Trees.” The stranger was wearing cologne, Brettigan noticed. The scent was like autumn— aromatic burnt leaves. And the man’s accent faded in and out, as if he were imitating a Southerner without being one himself.
“I have a medical condition,” Brettigan said, “so I need to stay out of high temperatures, and therefore I—”
“—Go out to the mall,” the man said, interrupting again.
“Yes.” Who was this character, prying into his early-morning life and finishing his sentences for him? “So,” Brettigan said, doing his best to take control of the situation, “if you don’t mind my asking, what conference are you going to?”
Rather quickly, and as if by magic, the man reached into his pocket and drew out a business card before handing it to Brettigan.
DR. ARVER L. JEFFERSON, M.D.
PSYCHOANALYTIC AND ASSOCIATED THERAPIES
MEMBER: MIDWEST INSTITUTE OF PROTON-ANALYTICS
The doctor’s email address and phone numbers had been printed at the bottom of the card, but the ink was smudged and mostly illegible.
“I’ve never heard of proton-analytics,” Brettigan said, putting the card into his shirt pocket. “What is it?”
The doctor drew in a long breath. “I’ll give you an example. You see that man over there?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the young couple who had followed Brettigan onto the train. The man wore headphones over his ears, and a stack of pamphlets was in his lap. The woman seemed to be studying both Brettigan and the doctor. “Yes,” the doctor said, “that one. As soon as I get off this train, he will ask you for money. He’ll test you. He will beg you for some- thing, anything. You must give him a dollar, at least. Do you know the legend of notre seigneur en pauvre, our Lord in rags?”
Brettigan shook his head.
“It’s a French-Canadian legend of Jesus,” the doctor said, warming to his subject, “and in this legend, Jesus is dressed as a beggar and is roaming the Earth, testing the generosity of everyone he meets. It’s a spot quiz for your salvation. You could think of that man over there as Jesus. I recommend that you do so. Did you say you have a medical condition?”
“The airport is coming up soon, and I will have to be on my way,” the doctor informed Brettigan. “But I will tell you another legend that grew up among my people in the South. This one will help you, I guarantee. It will help you personally. Here is what you must do. This is a cure, a cure for afflictions.” The doctor now seemed nervously energized and was enunciating his words with care, as if he were speaking to a child. “Find a mirror, the largest one that you can easily carry, let’s say a hand mirror, and take that mirror to a creek, or, even better, to a flowing stream, or, best of all, a river, and here is what you must do. You must lower the mirror into the water.”
As he spoke, the doctor’s hands moved in the air in front of him, pantomiming, or so it seemed to Brettigan, a vigorous form of washing.
“The water has to flow over the mirror or the cure won’t work, and once you have the water streaming over the glass, you wash your reflected face in the mirror. Not your actual face, but your mirrored face in the water. Holding the mirror so as not to lose it, you wash your face, your reflected face, your face in the mirror, and you will get well, you will recover, and, renewed, you will prosper. I give you my personal guarantee. Really, I promise you, you will get better. This is an ancient cure! It is proven. It is so. There is a literature to this effect.”
The little recital sounded like nonsense to Brettigan, but even nonsense can serve a purpose when you don’t feel like yourself.
The train entered a long tunnel, and the sudden change in air pressure caused Brettigan’s eardrums to pop as soon as he swallowed. He saw his own reflection in the window and was startled. Across the aisle, the half-sleeping young man wearing headphones sat up and rubbed his face. In his lap, the collection of pamphlets appeared to levitate, thanks to the altered air pressure. Next to the young man the woman, evidently his girlfriend, gazed fixedly at the passing landscape before taking out her phone and tapping a message onto it.
“I must go now,” the doctor said, standing up and gazing at Brettigan one last time. His opaque lenses gave the doctor the appearance of a walking oracle. “Enjoy your walk, and do as I say. You will get better, I guarantee. You will be saved.” He turned toward Brettigan, and the lenses of his glasses reflected the sun. “Perhaps you will see me again, and you can tell me how you got well.”
The doors of the train opened, accompanied by a two-note electronic chime, and the doctor hurried out, pulling his suitcase and checking his watch, and as he exited, Brettigan thought he heard the doctor say, “You never told me your name,” but he might have imagined those words, tossed into the air behind the trilby hat in the general tumult of passengers rushing out toward the terminal where the TSA would soon examine them for concealed weapons and malevolent intent.
Now the light rail car was mostly empty: Brettigan counted only a dozen or so passengers, including the young man and woman still sitting across the aisle from him—the man who, the doctor had predicted, would soon ask him for money. In preparation for this request, Brettigan reached into his wallet and opened it, taking out a dollar bill, which he folded into his palm. The young man watched him do so, although without interest, and then went back to straightening his pile of papers. As the train erupted from the tunnel into the sunlight, Brettigan waited to be asked for money, to be put to the test, to be saved by notre seigneur en pauvre. But the young man, now examining his iPhone, had turned his head away to observe the landscape of hotels and businesses passing by, and Brettigan, clutching his dollar bill, realized that he wouldn’t be tested today, nor would he be saved.