The Midwesternist: The Old Man at Nightfall

Mar 29, 2023 at 11:29 am
Sen. Mitch McConnell
Sen. Mitch McConnell Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr

The old man, at the end of an expensive dinner attended by campaign donors, foreign dignitaries and policy engineers, fell and cracked his head open. 

That would normally be the end of an old man. But this old man had fallen in such a way that the back of his skull had split neatly in two, right down the middle, and the resulting fissure was not wide enough for any brains to leak out so long as he lay face down.   

Since the old man was powerful, the other dinner guests decided they had better do everything they could to help him, so that if he lived (which seemed unlikely) he would be pleased with them, or at least not angry. The Chief Interrogator held the left side of his head, while the Special Ambassador held the right, both careful not to get blood on their hands. To give the appearance of being helpful, generic executives held his legs in place until the ambulance arrived.

At the hospital, the old man was suspended from the ceiling by seven long straps so that he could breathe, and so none of his gelatinous psyche would be lost. The greatest medical minds in the country came together to discuss what to do with him, and all agreed that it was much too early to sew him back together, so he was left to hang in the air while nurses administered more medications than one would commonly expect, through more tubes than most old men are ever connected to. 

One of these medicines (there is no consensus as to which one) caused a tiny, neon-green shoot to peek out of the crack in the old man’s head. After two days, the shoot had curled itself into something resembling a pale pink coin purse. On the morning of the third day, the purse burst into a bright, flamingo-colored lily, the base of which glowed ghostly yellow.

The old man regained consciousness that same day. After accounting for his faculties and being assured of his whereabouts, and after some discussion with the hospital staff concerning the flower growing out of his head, he discovered that he could move objects without touching them. He began concentrating on his tubes, making them swing back and forth, twisting them into loops, even disconnecting one line from its bag after a few days’ practice. 

Having already exceeded the power normally allotted to old men, the old man, though immobile, was giddy with delight, because he had become even more powerful. This, he thought, was a promethean gift, the edge he needed over his rivals, his assurance that 500-page epics with his face on the cover would fill the shelves of commercial bookstores. By the twenty-first day, the old man had forgotten the humiliation of the lily, which was now in full bloom, filling the stale hospital air with a musk that was like a mixture of patchouli oil and microwaved hot dogs; he had devoted his full attention to developing his new talent. After mastering relatively simple matters, such as moving get-well cards from one nightstand to the other and stretching wires to snag the ankles of unsuspecting orderlies, he decided to try more complicated maneuvers. A failed attempt at making the Prime Minister of New Zealand choke on his water during a live press conference, and an equally ineffectual stab at deflating the attending physician’s tires, led him to deduce that he could only control objects in his immediate vicinity. “No matter,” he thought. “I’ll be released soon, and the world will see.”

But he was not released soon, and the world never saw. The lily, now perplexingly enormous, made it impossible to return the old man to an upright position, as it had split his skull even wider. No doctor could tell him for certain whether there was some link between brain flowers and telekinesis, and so he refused to be stitched up. He hung there for an agonizingly long period while medical specialists pondered the safest way to get him upright again. 

During that time, the old man improved his fine motor skills by assembling elaborate dioramas from uneaten food and other objects in his hospital room: Cheerios and pineapple became playgrounds for his great-grandchildren; Jell-O became vast, sprawling cities of orange marble; edible arrangements sent by congressional staffers were painstakingly picked apart and made into portraits of people who had not yet been born; a thousand grains of rice and loose change were rearranged to make genderless people sunbathing in public parks. After countless hours of practice, he found that he could strip the ink out of newspapers and magazines, allowing him an ashy substance to smear on mirrors or suspend in patterns in the air. One late night, he recreated from newsprint Albert Robida’s “Paris la Nuit,” a futuristic illustration that he had memorized in exacting detail as a boy, on the south wall of his room. The cleaning staff wiped it away while he slept.

After nearly six months of makeshift art that grew progressively more detailed with every project, the old man realized he had not placed himself in any of his creations. A week of frustrated experimentation revealed that he could not do so even if he tried. Any attempt to reconstruct a scene from the past, or to invent a future that included his own image, fell apart; sticks and coins would not stay connected, processed foods melted into unrecognizable shapes, inky black dust became a faceless phantom before being scattered by an inexplicable gust of wind. 

The old man demanded the lily be cut out of his head. The doctors disconnected him from his straps and his tubes, stapled him together, and sent him home. The lily withered and turned brown, as all cut flowers do; a janitor threw it in the trash. No one mentioned the old man’s fall or his hospital stay ever again, not even to ask him how he felt. In a few days, the old man himself had forgotten all about it.