OMNI FICTION

OMNI

Cyril Berganske

by Michael Bishop


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The man with the nosebleeds had no nosebleed when he came to Philip Devers for help. Cyril Berganske was the party of the first part, that part being his nose. For his part, Devers winced noticeably when the lumbering Berganske barrel-rolled in and sank, boom, into the chair opposite him.

Why visit me? Devers said, consulting the chart sent in by Ms. Gill. You need a medical doctor, not a psychotherapist.

Medical doctors haven't helped, said Berganske. I need a sympathetic shrink to dump on.

You've already given Ms. Gill a deposit? Okay, then. Go. You're on the clock.

They sat in an expansive room on the fifty-eighth floor of the Durante-Fields Building. As twilight gathered, the city began to wink, as if with fireflies. Devers thought their altitude, Berganske's anxiety, and the city's spreading glow would induce in his client an episode. This suspicion led Devers to clack the worrystones in his pants pocket.

Few people view nosebleeds with the same reverence they do stigmata, Berganske said.

Devers said, I tend to agree. Is that what you want to talk about?

People with stigmata summon awe, Berganske said. Believers see them as God-touched, imputing to them remarkable powers of faith, healing, and intercession.

Devers waited, but something unguarded in his posture said So? to Berganske.

No one sees a man with a nosebleed in that way, Berganske ranted. People retreat, offended. You're a souse with weak vessels. Or maybe a hemophiliac. In this day and age, they even pigeonhole you as an AIDS carrier. They shun you. A man with a nosebleed is a leper.

Whereas you feel, Mr. Berganske, that people should place nosebleeders in the category of stigmata-afflicted saints? Is that it?

Not exactly.

Devers, wrinkling his brow, waited.

No, I feel they should place me in that category. How can I speak for other nosebleeders?

You think you have saintly, even messianic powers, because you experience nosebleeds?

Yes. Something like that. Moses parted the Red Sea, and I believe myself destined for a role in humankind's fate equally historic.

You don't contend that Moses suffered from nosebleeds?

By parting the Red Sea he placed a kind of septum between its two halves, Berganske said. I suppose you could interpret that as a metaphoric or a parabolic nosebleed, one on such a scale as to recall Noah's Flood.

Devers held his palms out in bewilderment. I don't know what to say. You appear to be the victim of a physiologically-induced delusion.

I figured you'd say that.

Tell me, Mr. Berganske, do you feel light-headed when your nose bleeds?

Of course. I'm losing blood — from my head.

Do you experience an augmented sense of your own destiny as humanity's savior when your nose bleeds?

Usually.

And you resent people who treat you as a leper rather than as a, what, a hero-in-waiting?

Yes. Deeply.

Are you aware that most healthy women between the ages of menarche and menopause bleed about once a month? Moreover, few of them view the phenomenon as a sign of either divine favor or a heroic destiny.

Phil, Berganske said (even though Devers would have liked to be addressed as Dr. Devers), Phil, your question strikes me as a patronizing non sequitur.

Cyril, Devers said, Cyril, I'm just noting that if you can resent persons with stigmata for being favored over you — if, indeed, they are — then billions of women could resent you for supposing your nosebleeds somehow more meaningful than their monthly trials.

But my nose bleeds two, three, four times a day!

Devers seemed genuinely surprised. Really?

Why would I lie? I can have a nosebleed as many as a hundred and twenty times in a month. How can any woman say her suffering, inconvenience, and shame are more than mine? How can she put forth herself or any of her sisters as a candidate for a salvific destiny on the basis of a monthly period lasting from only two to five days?

Well, a hundred and twenty's a lot, Devers said. But I still don't know that your nosebleeds are as bothersome as a woman's recurring experience of menstruation.

My nosebleeds wrecked me, Berganske said. So I invented a tampon, with a thread for easy removal, to intercept and even stanch the flow: Nazpons, I call them. You can use one in each nostril if necessary. When you do, though, you have to breathe through your mouth. My nosebleeds, thank God, always begin and end in the right nostril.

Berganske took a Nazpon from his shirt pocket and held it up. It resembled the slender ivory cover of a slender white pen.

Devers sat and gaped. Meanwhile, many of the city's lights seemed to float through the deepening inkiness of the evening, helicoptering from hotel roof to booster tower, from tower to multilevel carpark.

Berganske paid the lights no heed, but Devers allowed them to distract his attention a bit. At length, though, he leaned toward Berganske with solicitude; after all, the man did need a psychotherapist.

Cyril —

Oh, that's all right. You may call me Dr. Berganske.

Devers examined the client chart that Ms. Gill had sent in with Berganske. Forgive me. I hadn't noticed that you had a doctorate.

It's self-bestowed, but as legitimate as most. I awarded it to myself for my inventions: the Nazpon, the smegma swab, the dingleberry harvester.

A classic case of anality, thought Devers. Aloud he said, You could solve your problem by having a doctor cauterize the broken blood vessels at the back of the nostril. If the use of a hot instrument disturbs you, she might simply apply silver nitrate.

Berganske shook his head. My problem isn't the nosebleeds, as I've taken pains to say, but people's blase' or perhaps even contemptuous responses to them.

You don't want to end the nosebleeds?

No. Once I did. Once I thought them a major misery. But I've invented an answer of sorts — he held up the Nazpon again — and now I'm trying to come to terms with people's distaste for my condition, my anger, and my conviction that my nosebleeds signify something on a universal level.

A year of treatment, thought Devers. Maybe two, maybe even five. Aloud he said, Go on.

During the period I wanted to cure myself, a preacher of Pentecostal leanings told me that declaiming Ezekiel 16:6 would prove beneficial.

Forgive me, I don't know that passage.

Tell me one you do know, Berganske said, smiling, but then waved his hand in dismissal. Never mind. Ezekiel 16:6: And when I passed by you and saw you struggling in your own blood, I said to you in your blood, 'Live!' Yes, I said to you in your blood, `Live!'

But that formula didn't work?

No.

Why not, do you suppose?

Because even a preacher of a Pentecostal stripe may have a less than perfect grasp of scripture. Verse seven goes, I made you thrive like a plant in the field; and you grew, matured, and became very beautiful. Your breasts were formed, your hair grew, but you were naked and bare.The person here is a young woman, and the blood in which she struggles is menstrual blood.

Too bad she didn't have a Nazpon, thought Devers. Aloud he said, Amusing — if, that is, you aren't a guy invoking the verse as a nosebleed inhibitor.

Amusing, said Berganske. Ha ha.

What other steps did you take to cure yourself? Devers said quickly.

I gave up hot drinks, which tend to open the veins. Tea, coffee, cocoa. Toddies.

Toddies?

Actually, I also gave up alcoholic beverages, hot or cold. Beer, wine, liquor. One glass of Cabernet sauvignon acted on me like a pump primer. In went the wine, out came . . . well, it repulsed my dinner companions and mortified me. You can see why I sought to cease priming myself. I am large, my nose is a winepress, I contain volumes.

No hot drinks. No alcohol. Anything else?

I tried hard to stop digital nugget-mining. I never quite succeeded in this effort, though. Probably never will.

Why is that, do you think?

It would take the kind of grit required of a married couple striving for penitential celibacy.

A hotblooded married couple, I suppose.

Soitanly, said Berganske, surprising Devers by doing Curly of the Three Stooges. Then, in his own voice: So I resolved to keep my fingernails clipped. I clip them at least once a week.

When a nosebleed came upon you before your invention of the Nazpon, how did you stop it?

Devers noticed that on a raised section of the interstate bisecting the city, dozens upon dozens of truck headlights rayed out brightly. The word convoy spontaneously came to him, even though traffic was always bad and he could have assumed the truck file a random, if oddly homogeneous, concatenation of vehicles. Meanwhile, outre' lights volleyed across the sky, and Devers could hear helicopterings and other odd grumbles through the ostensibly soundproof walls of his office. The worrystones in his pocket slipped back and forth through his fingers.

The usual techniques, Berganske said.

Devers had forgotten his question. Techniques?

For stopping or controlling my nosebleeds, Berganske said. Like leaning forward, to keep from gulping blood, and pinching the nostrils together for about ten minutes.

That didn't work?

Sometimes, sometimes not. But who's got ten minutes to sit honker in hand, four or five times a day?

So instead —?

Instead, I'd put a coldpack on the bridge of my nose.

And that worked?

Usually. But who's got access to ice every minute of the day? I'm a part-time inventor, a full-time salesman. I have people to see, orders to take, consignments to hand over.

So what did you do?

Kleenex. Toilet paper. I'd carry it with me, folded in a pocket. When a nosebleed struck, I'd pull out my tissues, tear off a few plugs, and insert one. That always worked, even if I had to use five or six to get the wounds in my mucus membrane to clot.

Ugh, thought Devers. His expression betrayed him.

Not pretty, Dr. Devers, but effective.

Any drawbacks? Other than aesthetic ones?

Removal could trigger a fresh episode by undoing the clot. And sometimes I'd shove the plug higher into the nasal cavity, often without realizing it.

Ugh, thought Devers again, but kept a poker face.

Which recalls to me the story of a man who, as a boy, had grossed out and amused his playmates by stuffing lima beans up his nose. He'd extract them again, of course, but twenty-five years later during a routine medical check, his doctor found a petrified bean high in one nostril and had to do minor surgery to remove it.

Does that story scare you? Out of Berganske's sight and perhaps even his hearing, Devers gently clacked his worrystones.

It alarmed me a little. After all, I may have an entire quarry of incarnadine spitballs in my sinus cavities. Wouldn't that alarm you?

I daresay. Any other drawbacks to the plugging method?

Once an old friend with a wife and two small kids came for a visit. I used the method in the privacy of my bathroom, but reappeared with a tissue plug I thought so discreetly inserted that nobody would detect it. Their four-year-old son, looking up, spotted it and said, Whatzat? His mother, bless her heart, immediately said, Mr. Cyril has chosen a very dangerous method to solve a problem. But you, Trey, must never never never ever put anything up your nose. Good advice, no doubt, and a unique experience for me, receiving merited citation as a bad example in my own apartment.

Devers noticed that the incessant helicoptering noises had ceased, but now he heard muffled explosions in the streets near Durante-Fields. Cherry bombs? A police exercise? Is there a history of nosebleeds in your family? he said, struggling to ignore his own mounting disquiet.

My father began having them in his late forties, and my own teenage son, seeing me so afflicted, once said, Is that what I have to look forward to when I'm an old fart? As a jest, only a jest, I said, You may get to experience one sooner than you think.

Mr., uh, Dr. Berganske, what possible benefits, other than your sense that God's chosen you for some unknown purpose, can you take from letting your nosebleeds continue?

A heightened body-consciousness. I've attuned myself to myself in ways closed to me as a youngster.

I don't follow.

Neither do I, said Berganske. I lead. But one example of my raised body-consciousness lies in my ability to distinguish between sinus drainage and the incipient stages of a nosebleed, even in the dark.

Clearly, a handy talent.

If you want your pillowslip undefiled, yes, it is.

How do you tell the difference?

It's hard at first. Novices lying abed in the dark often mistake the beginnings of a nosebleed for a runny nose.

Whereas an old schnozzer like you —

— detects the former by the faint coppery scent. Also the greater viscosity and tackiness of the discharge.

Fascinating, Devers said.

A certain precognitive light-headedness attends the start of a nosebleed too; nowadays, I can usually detect one coming soon enough to employ a Nazpon.

What led you to think, Dr. Berganske, that your nosebleeds signal a special destiny?

Ah, the nittygritty.

I must ask, Devers said. This is what you claim to've come to get help for.

My father, despite his relatively frequent nosebleeds, died when a cerebral aneurysm burst. His brother, my uncle, died of the same fairly rare event. Neither had nosebleeds as often as I do, so I'm sure my nosebleeds have worked to relieve pressure on the vessels in my own brain; they've prevented me from dying in the same way my dad and my uncle did.

You suspect a transcendent plan behind your nosebleeds?

Yes. First, to keep me alive; second, to keep me alive for some noble, self-sacrificial purpose; and, third, to reveal to me my purpose and allow me to act upon it in a time of great testing.

Does your precognitive light-headedness give you any clue as to what this testing might be?

It hasn't yet. I dream of impossibilities. In one dream I nourish a church basement full of derelicts and street folks by filling their bowls with — blood sounds really distasteful, so let's call it my hemoglobic spirit, the iron-rich conjugated protein in my red cells.

The office's plateglass window rattled with the absorbed energy of an explosion on a lower floor. Rockets, mortar shells, and weird fireworks whooshed, thumped, and umbrellaed in the night. Something monstrous fell on the roof of a garage below the Durante-Fields Building; billows of crimson smoke, distorted by the rockets, the impact blasts, and the unfriendly pyrotechnics, rose toward the fifty-eighth floor, tattering and scattering as it climbed.

Berganske, unmoved by this commotion, said: It's edifying to remember that Jehovah's Witnesses think that in our blood resides the essence of our souls. For that reason, they vilify blood transfusions as evil soul-mixing and reject them as a treatment for blood loss. By that same reasoning, I've bled out my spirit so many times that, as big as I am, I sit in your office today a diminished, perhaps even a soulless, being. Or so the Witnesses would contend.

Do you feel soulless, Dr. Berganske?

Far from it. Red symbolizes Pentecost. Even when I have a nosebleed, I think the Holy Ghost — some wondrously Paracletian entity — tends to me, replenishes my red-cell count, and marks me out for service.

Oh boy, thought Devers. Aloud he said, But the Jehovah's Witnesses don't buy your take on the issue, and, for different reasons, neither do, well, just regular folks?

Do you buy it?

My opinion has no weight here. I'm a sounding board, not a tote board.

Baloney. Do you think my equation of my nosebleeds with a God-given task, through the intercession of the Holy Ghost, has any validity?

Again, I have to plead the fif —

Give me a straight answer or I won't come back. And you'll miss me, Phil.

Devers refused to take offense at this appropriation of his Christian name. I'm an empiricist. Any talk of ghosts, souls, and essences makes me nervous.

Blood's okay, though?

Blood's fine. I like blood — maybe not to the degree we've discussed it tonight, but, all in all, it's a smellable, palpable, decently measurable substance, and I'm comfortable with it.

Positive?

Devers hesitated. Well, yes, of course.

Not me. I'm negative. O-negative, to be exact. Makes me a universal donor.

Oh, said Devers.

Negative, said Berganske. O-negative.

Through his window, Devers saw a fire, magnificent in its fury, beyond the ramped interstate. A series of smaller fires in the streets near the Durante-Fields Building crackled cozily. Past them ran angular shadows or rumbled occasional triceratopsian personnel-carriers.

Ms. Gill came in from the reception area. Dr. Devers, she said, the insurrectionists have entered and taken control of the city. I'd like to try to get home to my family.

Why, of course, Devers said. Anybody still out there with an appointment?

Mr. Berganske's your last client for the day, sir, and his time with you was up — Ms. Gill checked her watch — exactly three minutes ago.

Sorry, said Berganske. Phil and I were having a wonderful discussion. He seemed to notice the chaos in the streets for the first time. Devers watched reflections from the various conflagrations and bonfires flicker over Berganske's expansive cheeks and forehead.

Good evening, said Ms. Gill. She went out.

Berganske rose and shook hands with Devers. Both men left the building and ran through the already barricaded and in some cases shell-cratered streets to their apartment complexes, one of which had suffered a mortar hit and collapsed upon itself in gypsum-coated shelves and twists.

Fired upon in a crosswalk, Devers turned and hurled his worrystones more or less in the craven sniper's vicinity.

[next]




This story copyright © 1997 by Michael Bishop. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



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