Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Procedure

I myself never underwent the Procedure. I tried and I tried. That is, I continually sought out doctors who might give me the necessary referral. None did. For a long time this drove me mad with frustration and chagrin. How could I know how lucky I was?

My original psychiatrist, Dr. Blanchard, was the first to say no.

"What are your symptoms?" he asked. "How do you feel?"

"I feel empty. I feel sad. Purposeless. Depressed," I stated.

The doctor nodded pensively, taking notes. Finally, I summoned the courage to ask.

"Do you think... I could get that, that, you know, that Procedure?"

I felt a pang of shame, asking for what I wanted. As though I were begging for some addictive medication. But is it wrong to ask for what you think you need?

Dr. Blanchard made a wry smile and began tapping the nib of his pen on his pad.

"I'll be honest. I don't think the Procedure is right for you," he said.

I never felt more alone.

"Why not?" I pleaded.

"Because..." He paused and sighed with some exasperation. "Because, Adam – and I know you're not going to want to hear this – because I think you're fabricating symptoms in order to get me to write you a referral to undergo the Procedure. Plain as that."

I was thoroughly embarrassed now. With nothing to lose, I continued to protest.

"But doctor. I know I need it. I know I need the Procedure. I can feel it in my bones. I know my life's not right and it won't be until I get it." I began whimpering now, half in grief and half in humiliation.

"I understand what you're feeling. I understand what you're experiencing," Blanchard continued softly. "But desire for the Procedure does not, in and of itself, constitute a symptom for which the Procedure is indicated. Am I making myself clear?"

I covered my face with my hands and nodded.

"Now, there are plenty of other things we can do for you. I'm thinking Zoloft. Maybe Librium too." He began scrawling on a prescription pad.

"OK," I said, defeated.

"Here, take these and we're going to see how you do. Try to forget about the Procedure. Focus on you for a while. You don't need the Procedure. You just need to stop thinking that you need it. Good?"

I glumly accepted the 'scripts, said goodbye and left.

My obsession had begun one day when I was walking home from town and decided to try a shortcut through the woods. Old paths crisscrossed there; I knew it wouldn't be hard to find my way. I stuck close to the roads for the most part, close to the edges of backyards. This is the anti-street, I thought, glimpsing mirror images of familiar houses through the trees. As I walked by one I heard an arresting sound: a human cry, a wail.

Concerned (and curious), I entered the yard and hid behind a tree. I could hear words now, the voice distinctly female. It seemed to be coming out of the open window to a den or study.

"Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God!" she moaned. "Yes! Yes! Yes! That's it! That's it, please! Oh my God... oh my God... oh my God!" She then burst into a prolonged fit of crying, her sobs punctuated by sighs of deep elation.

I knew she wasn't in danger. She didn't need my help. There was no reason to be there save for voyeurism. Yet she didn't seem to be having a sexual experience, either. It was greater than that somehow; an all-encompassing ecstasy. I was transfixed. I wanted to hear more. I crouched down and scurried to the wall of the house, just below the window.

When her tears abated she began to speak again, still breathless.

"Doctor, my God, doctor, my God, that's so good, that's so good, that's so good!" she said.

"Good," a man replied in a calm voice.

"I... I... I... have never felt this good... I never imagined it was possible to feel this good!"

The doctor chuckled warmly.

"Oh my God, honestly, when you did it, I felt like... like..."


"Like I was giving birth to God. I don't know. That sounds stupid."

He laughed again. "People have all different ways of describing how it feels. That's a wonderful description."

She squealed, she yelped, she emitted strange, staccato sighs. She remained unable to contain her enormous pleasure.

"Honest to God, doctor. Everything I ever thought was wrong with me has disappeared."

He made a sound of affirmation.

"Everything, I just..." She began to cry again. "I'm sorry!" she gasped.

"It's OK, it's OK."

"It's just that I... I... I'm so, so, so happy, doctor!"

"I see that, Judy."

"You must get this every time. But I can't stop telling you how great I feel. How thankful I am."

"That's quite all right. It never gets old seeing people react positively to my treatment, believe me."

"Will this feeling go away?"

"I have never heard from any patients that it does. In fact, many have reported a deeper, richer experience over time."

She laughed an airy, delightful laugh. The laugh of someone utterly unburdened and joyful. The ultimate laugh.

"Thank you, doctor! Thank you for everything."

I decided I'd better leave before she did and so escaped quickly to the driveway and to the road. I looked back at the doctor's yellow house, a house I'd seen a thousand times without once giving it a thought. I noticed a sign hanging from a post by the flagstone steps to the porch. It read:

       Douglas R. Herkimer

Haunted and bewildered, I walked the rest of the way back home.

I found myself returning to the back of Herkimer's house when I had the time. On my way to or from work sometimes, I'd park my car in a dead end in the woods, creep across the backyard, sit under the window and listen. Men, women, young and old. They paraded through the doctor's practice at one-hour intervals and appeared to all undergo the same extreme catharsis and transformation.

After a few days of eavesdropping I discerned a pattern: Patient enters. Pleasantries exchanged. Doctor invites patient to recite his or her litany of woes: relationship troubles, phobias, lack of self-esteem. All these the doctor acknowledges with a grunt. Finally he asks the patient, Are you ready? Yes is the invariable reply. He murmurs soothing words: Relax. Take a deep breath. You're going to be just fine. Then there follows an eighteen-minute gap of total silence. Always eighteen minutes. Always total silence. It ends with the patient's exclamation of unconstrained exhilaration: a sharp cry or tremulous moan, a stuttering gasp. Then comes the flood of tears. Helpless, quaking sobs as of some primeval bereavement. A total letting go. Eventually the punctuating sighs grow longer and the patient returns to the world of words: The doctor is thanked and praised effusively. Semi-coherent avowals of extreme happiness are made. God is often invoked, both in vain and in earnest, and sometimes in blasphemy: My God! My God! Good God. Oh God! God, oh God. I see God. I feel like God. Am I God?

As more patients exited Dr. Herkimer's door and returned, aglow, to their homes and workplaces, his reputation grew. They seemed happy. There was no doubt about that. Standing in line at the post office or supermarket, riding in elevators, sitting at the diner counter – everywhere I went in public I overheard others inquire of them: You look great. What's up with you? Did you lose weight? Did you get a tan? The patients would smile coyly and say No, no. I got the Procedure.

"The what?"

"The Procedure."

At first, eyebrows rose in curiosity. But then these revelations came to be greeted by knowing smiles. Soon the conversations went something like this:

"You look great! Don't tell me – the Procedure?"


"I knew it!"

Little more was ever said, as far as I could tell. It seemed that no one who hadn't had the Procedure wanted to admit to anyone who had that they didn't know what it was. And the patients never said what it was. So it was just the Procedure. It was a given, omnipresent and invisible; a new element abundant in the atmosphere.

One Saturday afternoon in the park, I finally summoned the audacity to follow up myself. Within earshot of my bench, a woman with a baby stroller revealed to another mother that she'd had it. I caught up with her after they parted ways.

"Excuse me," I began. "I'm sorry to bother you, but did I hear you say you've had the Procedure?"

"Yes, that's right," she answered cheerily.

"Well, I'm curious about it. Would you mind telling me what happens?"

"What happens when?"

"What happens during the Procedure."

She smiled serenely, slowing to a languid pace. "I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to divulge that."

I felt another pang of loneliness. And of intensified longing.

"I see. I understand," I continued. "Um, is there... what is there you can tell me about it?"

"I can confirm that I've had it," she declared. "I can tell you that Dr. Herkimer is the exclusive practitioner of the Procedure. I can tell you that the Procedure is called the Procedure..." She looked up to a corner of the sky, trying to remember. "What else, what else... Oh yeah, Dr. Herkimer only accepts new patients by referral from other doctors. From mental health, um, doctors. Professionals."

She looked at me, satisfied.

"That's all you can say?"

She closed her eyes in momentary concentration. "Yes... No, I can also say that what I've told you is all that I can say. That's it!"

I reiterated, counting with the fingers of my right hand. "You've had the Procedure, it's called the Procedure, Dr. Herkimer is the only one who does it, the referrals. That's it?"

"And the fact that I can not tell you anything further."

"You can not tell me more."

"Not at liberty to divulge is the terminology."

I thanked her, she nodded graciously, and we said goodbye.

Among the non-patients, whispered rumors soon abounded. Were the patients brainwashed, mesmerized? Were they made to experience a dissociative disorder or other breakdown so that their troubled psyches might better be rebuilt? Were drugs involved? Not just everyday psychotropics but wild drugs; hard, strange drugs synthesized from African root bark, primordial wisdom teachers of humanity?

Many, of course, imagined a sexual component. The revelation of a superorgasm perhaps, some terminal state of libidinous bliss. For what else was there to make anyone so happy?

I found I could recognize them, especially in a crowd of ordinary people. They stood out in contrast. They smiled, of course, but there was more to it than that. They were radiant, as though a fire burned inside them. We started calling them the Procs. Or maybe that's what they started calling themselves. Anyway, now there were two kinds of people in town. The Procs and the non-Procs. The Nocs. Us.

I was not the only one who was desperate to know what the privileged few had known, to see or feel whatever it was they'd seen or felt, to emerge reborn and so exalted. There were murmurs of discontent in bars and coffee shops, in work break rooms, in all the places where Nocs might huddle, glancing warily at the door each time it opened and hoping it wasn't one of those damned happy people. Have you tried to get it? we asked each other. Of course, have you? Almost everyone had petitioned at least one shrink for a referral, even those who'd never been to any kind of therapy and had previously considered themselves content and well-adjusted. Happy, even. Now a new misery had descended upon us. We wanted the Procedure.

It was not easy to get. Those with the sudden and tremendous power to refer patients to Dr. Herkimer had various reasons to be stingy with it. Some were skeptical of the Procedure. It was not documented in any reference book or journal, after all. Might there not be unintended side effects? Others were clearly jealous of Herkimer. They didn't want to admit that he could fix their patients when they could not.

You might think you'd have better luck if you found a psychiatrist who had undergone the Procedure. But that was not the case. In spite of their expertise, they were not immune to a flaw that seemed to be subtly infecting the Proc community at large: pride. They were the gatekeepers to a rarefied realm of boundless, exquisite ecstasy. Surely its inhabitants were special. Surely not everyone deserved to enter.

I still went by the back of Herkimer's house when I could. I knew the routine by now. It never changed. But I longed to hear the sounds the patients made when the doctor's work was done. Their uncontrolled sobs of utter catharsis. Of course, this deepened my longing to be in their place. Bearing witness was like scratching an itch that just got worse. Still, it gave me hope. If a human being could experience what that human being experienced, then why not me?

I was also gripped with fascination about the eighteen-minute silence. As it occurred, and I sat outside the window, I felt as if a strange and powerful energy were permeating the air. Though birds flew by and the wind blew, nothing seemed as it was or again would be. I trembled with apprehension. The Procedure was taking place.

One day, as the eighteen minutes of silence had just begun for some anxiety-prone young woman, desperate curiosity got the better of my caution. I stood up slowly, careful not to stir the dried leaves on the ground. I turned around to face the wall of the house, crouching to keep my head just below the window. It was open about a third. I could see the ceiling in there, track lights turned off, a wall to my left. Slowly, I lifted my head to look into the room. Hoping to see – expecting to see – what? Blood? Sex? Totems and pentagrams?

What I saw was far more terrifying. What I saw I couldn't have imagined. I saw Dr. Herkimer's face looking right back at me, eye to eye, about a foot away. He was bald, with a long, gray-streaked beard and wide, dark eyes. His expression was absolutely neutral. Not angry. Nor disapproving. And that was the most frightening thing of all.

I suppressed a gasp, turned and ran. As I reached the woods I looked back to see his face, darkened now by shadow, still at the window.

I pulled into a sad little strip mall on the edge of town for my first appointment with Dr. McNamara. She was my fifth psychiatrist since I began my desperate quest for a referral to Dr. Herkimer. I wasn't sure what my strategy would be this time. Come straight out and ask for it? Or seduce her with words of woe, engage her sympathies, gently lead her into a corner where the only solution might be the Procedure? I'd tried both approaches in the past and they seemed equally ineffective. As I closed my car door, beeped on the alarm and walked up to the sidewalk, I had no idea what I'd do.

There was a homeless man there, sitting up against the wall between a liquor store and the doctor's office. His legs were entangled in a filthy blanket and he clutched a pint of booze in a tattered paper bag. Beside him an open Styrofoam container held a pile of chicken bones.

"You!" he exclaimed, pointing his finger at me.

I gazed at him warily but did not stop.

"I betcher tryin' to get that Pro-cedure!" he continued with a grin.

I shrugged and smiled, trying to be good natured. As if to say, "You got me."

"DON'T do it!" he shouted raspily, his expression somber now.

I stopped at the door, startled by his emphatic command. I turned to him.

"Why not?"

He shook his head. "Trust me, brother! Trust me! DON'T do it. DON'T get no Procedure done, no way, no how!" He took a sip of whatever he was drinking.

My heart was pounding now. "Did you get it done?" I asked.

He just stared out at the parking lot for a while. Then he looked back at me.

"Don't do it," he repeated quietly. Then he dissolved into a mad, shoulder-shaking cackle, hooting and stomping his foot. He seemed to forget about me then, and I decided to judge his warning without merit.

I reached for the door.

Inside, I was disheartened to find several people on the couches in the waiting room. I went to the receptionist's window and she brusquely handed me a clipboard of paperwork to sign.

"Have a seat, sir."

"How long is the wait?"

"Not long, sir. Have a seat."

The patients ahead of me were called in and dispatched quickly. Sure enough, it was soon my turn. I entered the consultation room to find Dr. McNamara seated at her desk, pen in hand.

"Procedure?" she asked, barely glancing at me.

"Yes," I replied.

She scribbled on her prescription pad and tore off the sheet.

"Here you go. Best of luck to you," she said as she handed it to me.

I thanked her, a little bewildered, and turned around to leave. I now held the magic ticket I'd coveted so long in my trembling hand. Intoxicated with relief and joy, I sat at the wheel of my car for a minute before turning the key. I'm among the blessed ones, I thought. I'm standing in the light. I wept helplessly. Everything is going to be all right.

As I drove home, I took stock of my present emotional state: I was happy, that's for damn sure. More than ever before. And soon I would be much, much happier still; happier than I even thought was possible. And yet I felt another emotion, too. This one was hard to describe. But it was another emotion.

Due to the popularity of the Procedure, my appointment was weeks away. This left me ample time to bask in a sort of delicious agony, like a child awaiting Christmas. It also left me time to think. And to observe. To observe this strange, exalted race I'd soon belong to: the Procs.

There were a few where I worked, at a financial consultancy firm on the edge of town. These were people who'd previously been more or less convivial, more or less competent. Who had probably been tormented by doubt, guilt, fear and a thousand sins and vices, but for the most part managed to get up, get dressed, feed their kids and drive to work. People like everybody else.

Now – as far as I could tell – they seemed to have boundless energy and good will. They were relaxed, earnest and hyper-competent. In meetings, they listened to the inanest, most jargon-filled ramblings of their colleagues with saintly patience before proposing insightful, elegant solutions of their own. Everyone deferred to them more and more, a little embarrassedly at first but finally without reservation. For what sort of person would deny them, after all? Eventually the Procs were effectively running the business. Could anyone think of a legitimate reason why they shouldn't? In short order our revenues increased, the business grew, and salaries went up.

That Saturday, I saw the lady with the stroller in the park again. I ran to catch up with her and greeted her breathlessly.


"I remember you!" she said.


"How have you been?" she asked. She peered deeply into my eyes. It occurred to me with a bit of a shock that she actually wanted to know the answer.

"Pretty good. Great, actually. I got an appointment for the Procedure."

Her smile widened. "That's so wonderful!" she exclaimed. "I'm so happy for you!"

I smiled idiotically for a moment. She really was happy for me. I was flattered and moved by her happiness on my behalf.

"So anyway, I know you can't talk about the Procedure, but I was wondering if you could tell me how you're feeling now. Generally."

"I... I... Gosh, this is always so hard to put into words. What's your name?"


"Hi Adam, I'm Shana." She extended her hand and we shook.

"Adam, I have to tell you, it's been the most marvelous experience, it really has. Everything that ever stood in my way has disappeared."


"All the barriers, all the bad habits and all the bad thinking. Gone."


"Is it OK to say this? I feel like God."

"I don't know."

"There's nothing I can't do, Adam."

"That's very exciting."

"Do you want to have sex?"


"Would you like to have sex with me? My apartment's not far away. I can put the little one to sleep."

I was dumbfounded. Of course I wanted to have sex with her. She was fit, beautiful. Her sunny disposition made her all the more attractive.

"I... I... Uh, I dunno, I..."

She beheld me with an expression of profound warmth, sincerity and understanding. Of love.

"We have no hangups anymore, Adam. There's nothing we can't do and there's nothing we won't do. Nothing means nothing means nothing. Do you understand?"

"I guess so."

She made a gleeful little laugh. A dark trickle of blood emerged from her left nostril and flowed slowly toward her lip.

"Hey! Are you OK?" I asked, pointing at her face.


"You have some blood there."

Puzzled, she reached for her nose and felt around with her fingers. When they found the incongruous fluid she withdrew them to inspect their crimson tips.

"Huh!" she said.

"That's blood," I said.

"How about that!" she said. Her smile, half bloodied now, was no less wide than it had been when it was clean.

"Are you OK?"

"Adam," she replied, shaking her head, "I will always be OK. Do you understand?"

I nodded uncertainly as she wiped her fingers on her pants.

"You'll soon know what I mean. Hey, I'll see you later, OK?" she said, and turned around and went off on her way.

Alex, my only remaining friend from high school, was the only person I knew well who'd had it done. We used to hang out a lot. Go to bars. Play pool. See bands. Not so much anymore. He got married, I got divorced. Somewhere along the line we let each other go. Still, I managed to enlist him for drinks one night after work.

My last encounter with Shana had left me shaken. From a distance, the Procs seemed fearless and utterly at ease. Idealized human beings. Up close, there was something else about them. Something hard to define. A transcendence bordering on oblivion, maybe. A kind of a disconnectedness from the world but an unconditional embrace of it, too. At least judging from Shana. It was weird. I wanted to see if Alex was the same.

We sat at a table in the back of the biker bar we used to go to. As we made small talk, catching-up talk, I tried not to seem like I was scrutinizing him. He brought up the Procedure himself, without hesitation.

"So you heard I got it, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "How, uh... How do you like it?"

"Man, I don't even know where to begin. I... I know this sounds stupid, but it has solved all my problems."

"Good lord."

"For instance. You know I had a bit of a coke thing. You know. You were there."

"Sure, yeah. You're not doing it anymore?"

Alex suppressed a laugh and made funny waving motions with his hands.

"No, no, no! Check it out. It's even better than that."


"I can do as much of it as I want."


"I can do it, I can not do it. It doesn't fucking matter. I don't even have to think about it."

"Huh. That's interest–"

"Here's what it is, Adam: I'm free. I'm cut loose. No preoccupations and no fixations. Addiction is an illusion. Illusion is an addiction."


"Let's do shots."

Alex ordered a round of tequila and then another and another. We were on our third pitcher of beer, too. Maybe fourth. I was getting hammered. Alex seemed completely immune to the alcohol.

In a sotted and unthinking moment I tried to press him about the Procedure himself.

"Adam, you must know I'm not at liberty to divulge such information," he declared sternly.

"Not at liberty to divulge," I repeated with a hiccup.

"You thinking of getting it?" he asked.

"I'm going in. I got an appointment."

Alex smiled and shook his head.

"My friend, your life is about to completely change. You have no idea what you're in for," he said. "Man, if I could just be you. To experience that feeling for the first time."

He grew quiet for a few moments, looking down at the table. He appeared to be on the verge of tears.

"Sorry. Anyway, cheers. I'm happy for you, bro," he declared, raising his glass.

In an effort to lighten the mood, I asked after his wife, Teri.

"Oh. She's dead," he said.


"Teri's dead," he repeated. He looked dully into the distance and took another sip of beer.

"Jesus Christ, man. I'm sorry."


"How did it happen? What happened?"

"I dunno, Adam. She's just dead."

"She's just dead?"

Alex nodded. I got the feeling that this topic of conversation bored him.

"I'm sorry," I repeated. "You don't really want to talk about it. I understand."

"That's not it. She's just dead, man." Alex shrugged. Then he sat placidly, waiting for the conversation to resume.

"OK. Well again, I'm sorry."

"Dead is dead. Life is life," he declared abruptly. "Beer is beer," he added, clunking his mug against the table to make his point. "Get it?" He smiled the way one might to an errant child.

I nodded, pretending to understand.

A curious event occurred on the way home. I left my car in the parking lot and Alex drove – even at the end of the night, after yet more beer and booze, he appeared to be completely sober. Energetic, inquisitive, sharp. Perfectly alert.

We rode in silence for a while. Suddenly there was an awful thud. I looked in the rear-view mirror to see a four-legged creature limping toward the ditch.

"Jesus! Was that a dog?" I exclaimed.

"I dunno," said Alex.

"Man, stop the car. We have to go see."

"Go see what?" he said with a trace of irritation.

"Go see the dog. Or whatever."

Alex sighed as though he were summoning the stamina to explain something to a fool.

"Adam, trust me on this. There's no point in turning around."

"What if it's not dead? We should put it out of its misery."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Dead, not dead. Dog, animal. Misery, suffering, blah blah blah."

"What are you talking about?"

"Adam, this is a little frustrating for me because in a couple weeks you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. But we do not turn around the car."

I relented. I begged him pardon for my ignorance. I admitted I was a little wasted. But I didn't tell him I was scared.

I got up late, all wobbly and bleary, with fragments of last night all mixed up in my nightmares to haunt the shadows of my hangover. Alex's beatific expression. Tequila. His avowals of great happiness, of boundless capability. Beer. His emotions regarding the Procedure itself. His longing to experience it again. Did he really say Teri was dead?

Over the course of the day, as I numbly carried out my pitiable tasks – e-mails, phone calls, meetings – I agonized over my impending appointment with Dr. Herkimer. I vacillated between steadfast determination and doubt. I told myself it was normal to be scared. The Procs existed on a higher plane; ordinary people were bound to misunderstand them. They had transcended petty, sentimental preoccupations; this might be shocking to Nocs, but wasn't that the point? Their state was not the result of mere mood alteration, of cozy, coddling talk. They'd acceded to a higher level. They had evolved. It was a testament to the scope of their transformation that it bewildered those they'd left behind. Right?

This logic kept me resolute for long stretches. Then my thoughts would drift and I'd get scared again. And not just scared like you're gonna get your teeth pulled. Though there was some of that. That kind of scared I knew I'd overcome. But I mean deep-down scared. The kind of scared that might be trying to tell you something.

On the way home I went by Herkimer's house again. To hell with it if he caught me. I just had to hear one more person get the Procedure. I figured if I heard those cries of ecstasy again my mind would be made up. I had to reassure myself that this was what I wanted.

I crept up quietly and took my seat upon the grass and leaves. A young-sounding man was unburdening himself to the doctor. He was in bad shape: weary, desperate, lost. He was a little more aggrieved than most, but otherwise this seemed like a typical pre-Procedure consultation. And then the conversation took a stunning turn.

"When did you say you had it? About six months ago?" asked Dr. Herkimer.

"About six months ago."

"You were one of the first," the doctor remarked gravely.

Through whimpering sobs, the patient asked, "Has anyone else come back to you like this?"

"Michael, I'm not at liberty to divulge the therapeutic experiences of my other patients."

More crying. Suddenly, Michael erupted in a desperate howl.

"Can you undo it?! Doctor?! My God, can you undo the Procedure?!"

"Shhh, shh. Shh... Relax, Michael, relax. Take a deep breath."

"Ahhhh... God! God!!"

"I can only help you if you try to focus." The doctor's voice was pointedly, exaggeratedly sedate. "Try to relax."

"OK," Michael gasped.

"Good. Now. Tell me what you're experiencing right now."

Michael emitted a stuttering sigh then spoke haltingly, quickly, before tears got the better of him again.

"There's... there's... there's something deep inside me that's dead and gone and I don't know where it is and I want it back."

"I see," said Dr. Herkimer tensely.

"I thought I had everything but I have nothing."


"I have less than nothing."

"I see."

"Can it be undone? Please?"

I heard no reply but evidently the doctor was shaking his head.

"Aaaaahh!" howled Michael. "AAAAHHH!! AAAHHH!!"

"Shh, shh. Shh! Stop. Don't. Stop! Michael!"


"Stop it, Michael! Stop it! I can help you! I can help you!"


"No! No! NO! NO! NO!"

Amid the patient's agonized wails I heard the chaotic noises of a struggle: objects swept off of a table or desk; furniture upended; something falling over – a lamp, perhaps. Instinctively, I crawled a few feet away from the wall. I looked up to see the young man lurching towards the window, Herkimer shadowy behind him. Michael threw his head into the glass, shattering it and bloodying his face. The doctor grabbed him from behind and wrestled him back down and out of view. Parrying Michael's flailing arms and clawing fingers, he held aloft a syringe. When he found a momentary chance he quickly plunged it downward. As Herkimer stood above him Michael's screams grew weaker and lapsed into moans of deepest sorrow, then resigned sighs, and finally, silence.

Again I escaped through the woods. I was frightened still, but no longer for myself. In fact I was relieved. I would not have the Procedure done. There was something wrong with it. But what?

News and rumors about the Proc named Michael spread quickly in the next few days. Everybody knew something had happened. Nobody agreed on what it was. Everybody had an explanation anyway, depending on who they were. Depending on whatever.

I called up Alex to see what he thought. I did not mention that I'd witnessed the episode from below the doctor's window.

"That fucking asshole should never have had the Procedure done in the first place," Alex stated. "It's clear he was not emotionally equipped."

"So... Herkimer should have known that, right?"

Alex sighed. "A therapist cannot be completely responsible for the degree of derangement of the idiots who walk through his door. Besides, I heard this was in the early days of the Procedure. There were probably certain..." Here Alex paused a moment. "Safeguards, let's say. Certain guidelines and so on that had not yet been fully codified."

"You mean–"

"That's normal. That's normal in such a momentous undertaking."

"So you mean–"

"It's impossible to gain so much, to do so much for individual human beings without some incidents along the way. I view that as perfectly acceptable."

"You mentioned–"

"Collateral damage. Casualties in the ultimate war for all mankind. That's what I say."

"You mentioned something interesting. You said safeguards."

"I can't go into further detail, Adam. Can't divulge."

"I'm just wondering what the patients need to be protected fr–"

"The Procedure is very, very, very safe, Adam. Trust me."

"So, the other thing I was going to ask you, and I know this was somewhat answered when I saw you the other night, but I just want to ask."

"What is it?"

"You feel fine, right? You're happy you got it done?"

"Best thing that ever happened to me Adam, why are you making me repeat myself?"

On the spot, I fibbed a little. "Well, I understand that. I know. But, you know, I'm getting this thing done pretty soon and I just want to know... I want to know that it's the right thing, you know what I mean?"

"Do you want to live, Adam?"

"Umm... what?"

"Do you want to live. I'm not talking about getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. I'm not talking about eating, shitting and fucking. I'm not talking about driving your stupid car to work. Do you understand what I am talking about?"

"Really living?"

"Really fucking living. Not being God's little bitch. Or Satan's. Or your mommy's, or your daddy's. Or your wife's. I'm talking about living. Your. Life. Completely. Without compromise."

"Well, yeah."

"Without compromise!"

"Yes," I repeated, summoning as much conviction as I could. "I do."

"Well then quit being scared."


"You understand me? Quit being scared."

"Right." I was scared.

"It all comes down to a simple decision, OK? Be weak or be strong. Withdraw into your cozy little cocoon or stand up in the wind. Succumb to doubt and fear and guilt or vanquish them. It's a decision."


"The Procedure is the means by which you make that decision in the affirmative."

"That's what I understand."

"What decision are you going to make?"

"I'm doing it, Alex," I lied.

"Good," he said. Then he abruptly hung up the phone.

Now that I knew I was going to break my appointment, I was less susceptible to Alex and the other Procs. Their confidence and force of will no longer shamed me. I came to view their immaculate personalities as hollow somehow, as wanting.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Alex was right. Maybe all the other Procs had done the right thing anyway. Maybe I was a coward who had just constructed an elaborate rationalization for succumbing to my deepest, subconscious fear: not fear of the Procedure so much as fear of living life the way it should be lived.

It's just that there was something deep inside my brain that told me no. Maybe that's what Michael was grieving over so extravagantly. What it was I did not know. It seemed silly to speculate, really. But I had a feeling something contradictory, perverse even, was at play in the Procedure. Like, maybe, getting it done was a way of guaranteeing that you would never really be free. I don't know. I didn't want it anymore.

I was still curious about the Procs and the Procedure. I kept looking for Shana in the park. One day I saw her sitting on a bench, rocking her stroller back and forth. I sat down beside her.

"Hey! Shana!"

"Hi Adam!" she replied. Her smile was even sunnier than usual.

"How are you?"



"How are you!"

"I'm good, thanks!"

"You didn't get it done!"

"Uh, you're right. Well, not yet–"

"You're not going to get it done, are you?"

I was amazed at her perceptiveness. "That's right. I'm not."

"Adam, you have made the right decision!"

"Really?" I asked, dumbfounded.

Then a strange thing happened to her face. Her smile – her beautiful, strong and open smile, this miracle of divine engineering – began to tremble and waver as though it were coming undone. Her eyes. There was suddenly a vast expanse of sadness in her eyes. And then she collapsed into tears. Hearing this, her baby started crying too.

Reflexively, I put my arms around her. After a few seconds of spasmodic sobs she tried to compose herself and I pulled back.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Oh Adam, oh Adam, oh Adam, oh Adam," she wailed. "It's no good, it's no good, it's no good, it's no good..."

"The Procedure?"

She nodded. "It did something bad to me Adam, it did something bad to me, bad to me."

"Oh my God."

"I'm not the only one," she whimpered. "There's lots of us that are fucked up." She took a Kleenex out of her purse and blew her nose. "Did you cancel your appointment?" she asked.

I was about to answer yes when it occurred to me that I hadn't, in fact, bothered to call Dr. Herkimer's office.

"Well, no, I haven't actually canceled it."

"When is it?"

"It's Monday morning, first thing. At nine."

She seemed to suddenly get an idea.

"Don't cancel it! Let's go together. I have to see him. My next appointment isn't for a month. I have to see him, Adam, I have to, I have to. I'm losing my mind."

I felt a bit uneasy even going near the doctor's office at this point. But she seemed desperate. Maybe Herkimer could do something for her.

"OK. Sure."

"Thank you Adam! Thank you so much. I'll meet you there at nine on Monday."

When I pulled into Dr. Herkimer's driveway on Monday morning Shana was already there, waiting in her car. We walked up to the porch and rang the bell. No answer. Rang it again. No answer still. I knocked on the door as loud as I could. Nothing. Finally, I tried the knob. It turned.

Inside, the house was dark and quiet. We stepped through the foyer and into the den.

"Hello?" I called out. "Hello?"


We walked through the dining room and opened the door to Dr. Herkimer's study. The room where the Procedure took place. At first everything looked normal. Two comfortable chairs facing each other. A coffee table. A desk. A curtain stirring in the wind from its open window.

Dr. Herkimer's body hung from a beam below the vaulted ceiling. In a navy suit and dress shoes. Swaying ever so slightly, ever so slightly – or turning? Not swaying but turning. Very slightly on the rope.

On the desk there was a note. It read:


  I am so, so, so, so sorry.

Shana began to weep again. But now her sobs were loud and open. Not as pained as they'd been in the park. They sounded more like the crying I first heard coming from this room. Again I held her. After about a minute it was over.

"What am I going to do now?" she asked.

"You'll find something," I said.