Friday, March 28, 2008

Positively Bud: A Short Story about Depression

I wrote a short story related to depression years ago and it remains unpublished, likely in part because of its 16,000-word length. But I was thinking: What if I serialized it here, say no more than 1000 words/day? Would people read it? I'm going to give it a try. Feedback welcomed--especially let me know if this is asking too much of my readers.

Positively Bud

Martha wove her gray Corolla through the 405 traffic under the overcast Los Angeles sky. She punched her radio buttons like a keyboard operator, deftly avoiding commercials without looking down from the road. The talking heads on KFI hotly debated school vouchers. Not that she cared about school vouchers, but the emotional pitch of the hosts could make the most trivial concern seem consequential, and that was the game: pretend to care about something, adopt an opinion like an only child, then defend it tooth and claw. The more outrageous the opinion, the more incensed the caller, the higher the ratings. Emotions sold soap.

When the next commercial break was introduced by the fading musical signature she was too tired to continue her manipulations, so she listened distractedly: "Home equity loans can give you financial freedom / Cosmetic surgery for the discriminating / We take credit cards, etc." Then: "Are you presently suffering from, or do you know someone who suffers from depression? You may be eligible for inclusion in our treatment trial AND receive up to $600 in compensation, as well as free physical exams, laboratory testing, and follow-up. Call 866-HELP for more information. Sponsored by California Medical Trials, Inc."

Did she know someone who was depressed? Sheesh! Over the last year her husband had devolved from an active (if not cheerful) computer consultant to a sedentary blob whose chief challenge was to rise out of bed and assay a chair. He no longer golfed. He spoke in monosyllables and only rarely watched TV. If she didn't feed him he wouldn't eat. He didn't drive anymore. Mostly he sat staring at a wall as if it might reveal, in its utter blankness, something even less present than himself.

He'd been to therapists and psychiatrists, had tried five different antidepressants, had even undergone electroconvulsive therapy, but nothing could wake him from his stupor. Something had transformed the man she loved into a blackening potato and she didn't know what else to do beyond gentle refrigeration. She memorized the phone number of the radio offer. The disembodied but engaging voices returned to their insincere arguments over nothing.

Arriving home, she hung her stethoscope on the hat rack and put her ID badge in the outgoing mail tray, pausing to look in the entry mirror. Her hair was nut-brown, though casually invaded here and there by white threads, and pulled back in a bun. The pouches under her green eyes had taken on more freight than she remembered and her cheeks were fuller. Her straight, no-nonsense nose called attention to their insidious plumping and likewise emphasized the beginnings of a double chin. Her lips were full, her teeth small and even. She eyed her nurse's uniform: too tight and bulging in places not designed for bulges. But altogether, at forty-five, she wasn't bad-looking. In her soiled whites she approached her silent husband, whose half-closed eyes seemed positively reptilian, cold-blooded, as he reclined in an easy chair.

Though a year younger than she, he looked much older. His sparse gray hair was combed straight back over his crown. It looked as if he hadn’t washed it in a week.. Extended by frontal balding, his high forehead gave the impression of a large-brained alien from an old science fiction movie, the hairless kind with big eyes. Rectangular black eyebrows arched upwards in something beyond grief; permanent puzzlement, perhaps? His red-rimmed eyes were dull, as if their deep brown had stopped reflecting light. And the folds in his skin from weight loss made his cheeks resemble the sagging skin of an elephant. He sat in the striped boxers and gray T-shirt he'd worn to bed. Three days' growth of beard clung to his immobile jaw like a fungus.

"Hi Bud," Martha said with forced enthusiasm, kissing him on his rough cheek.

"Hi, honey," Bud replied mechanically without returning the kiss.


"Yes, dear."

"I heard about a special trial for depression on the radio today. If I make an appointment would you be willing to go?"


"We're having pork chops tonight with fresh applesauce."


"It's your favorite."


She turned away and strode to the bedroom to shed her uniform for some light sweats, then returned to the airy kitchen to prepare a meal only she would enjoy, as Bud's "anhedonia" included food. She had tried explaining to her friends what it was like to live with a depressive. It was as if she dwelt on land and he was underwater, like a fish, and she couldn't share his world anymore than he could share hers. With a few of the drugs he had almost threatened to become amphibian, venturing out for dinner or a movie before he inevitably devolved, losing all interest in the shore. These failed glimmers of near recovery were hardest to take.
Depression was too tame a word for his condition. "Disensoulment" might work better; "Zombification," perhaps; or "Vegetosis," which turned humans into vegetables. She put the green beans on to steam. Somewhere she had read of a Roman punishment for murderers, where the criminal had the body of the victim tied to his back until he died as well from exhaustion. Sometimes she felt that way. It was getting harder and harder for her to carry Bud.

Bud stared out the window. The birdsong from the maples irritated him; each note was like a pinprick. The spot on the carpet made him sad as did the cobwebs in the ceiling corners, but he felt helpless to do anything about them-- they were too, too much.

He had tried to tell Martha what it was like inside the black hole, where attempts at contact with the universe were pointless, only worsening the inexorable gravity of self-absorption with a self long since absorbed. But she couldn't understand, she was too grounded in reality. She even clipped coupons. This seemed particularly miraculous to Bud; planning ahead for anything was beyond his imagination, would require hope. He barely existed (did he?) in the present. The future was unreal. Where did she get such strength?

"Bud, time for dinner."


He began with his right arm. If he believed he could lift it off the armrest, he could. Left arm. Good. Lean forward to the edge of the chair. Good. Deep breath. Hands on thighs. I can stand, I can stand. Slowly he rose, feeling momentarily dizzy. Passing out would be a blessing. Robotically he circumambulated the coffee table and made it to the kitchen, where he collapsed, exhausted, at the dinette. The smell of the food sickened him but one of his last remaining pretenses was to force feed himself and compliment her cooking.

"Let's pray, dear, shall we?"

Bud nodded passively. Martha grabbed his hand.

"Father we thank you for this meal and for this day, and I pray you will help my dear husband and that we won't lose hope. Amen."

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