The Experiment

by Joe Eliseon

He came knocking on my door in the faculty apartments, knocking like a madman, pounding more heavily than the pouring rain. I started up from my desk. I hadn’t realized how late it was. It was too dark to see. By default, my computer screen had become the only light in the room. I tripped over the books and papers and several pairs of shoes I had left on the floor and felt my way to the door. I tried to look through the peephole, but I couldn’t see anyone. So I called out, “Who’s there?”

“It’s me!” he called back. “Christianson!”

I knew that voice. I threw the latch and opened the door. He rushed in like a jet of water. He was soaked. Rainwater dripped from his crushed green felt hat, his mustache and his beard. It sprayed from the edges of his dark green poncho as he whirled from right to left and back again. His hiking boots left dark, muddy footprints all over the papers on the floor. “I almost had him!” he shouted. “I almost had him!”

I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Had who?” I asked.

But he waved me off and strode directly to the window, as if he intended to walk right through it. He would have, too, if he hadn’t stopped himself by catching hold of the windowsill. His poncho swirled about him, like wings. I was almost afraid he would fly straight out into darkness. Of course, he didn’t. I shook off my surprise, crossed the room and came up behind him. “Manny,” I said, “Are you all right?”

He said nothing, at least not to me. I could hear him mumble something to himself, but I couldn’t make out the words.

“Do you want a drink?” I asked, to keep him on the ground. “I think I’ve got a bottle of bourbon in the cupboard.”

He breathed deeply and his shoulders relaxed. His wings shrank back into nothing more than the sodden cloak they were. He turned slowly away from the window. “Yes,” he said, exhaustion muffling his voice. “OK. I could use it.”

I rummaged around in my little kitchenette and found the bottle and a couple of water glasses. I came back and cleared a little space on my desk. I got him to sit on the chair and pulled up a stool for myself. He dropped his hat on the desk, pulled the poncho off over his head and let it fall to the floor behind him. I didn’t care. The place was a mess anyway. I poured the bourbon into the two glasses and handed one to him. He took it, but he didn’t look at it. I raised my glass and said, “Salud,” but I couldn’t catch his gaze. His eyes were out of focus. He was looking somewhere else, somewhere far away. Glasses in hand, we sat in awkward silence by the light of the computer screen. He sipped his bourbon quietly, automatically, draining the glass slowly. When he finally ran out, I gave him a refill. He sipped that away, too. Gradually, his eyes came to focus on me, as if he were awakening from a dream. He said calmly, “I almost did it this time. I almost had him.”

I leaned toward him. “Who are you talking about?” I asked. “And what do you mean, you almost had him?”

He gave me a queer, puzzled, then condescending look, as if he had just realized that I was a child or an idiot. “Who do you think I’m talking about? I’m talking about Jesus Christ, of course. I almost had him.”

I moved back a little. His last remark cast a new light on his odd behavior. “Manny, are you turning religious?”

He became agitated and dropped his glass on the floor. “No, no.” He warded me off with a peremptory wave of his hand. “I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about science. I’m not superstitious. I know this is science. I believe this is science.” He grabbed my forearms with his hands. He had the grip of an ape. “You do believe it’s science, don’t you? You do believe it?” He was almost pleading.

I couldn’t move. I thought it best to humor him. “Of course it’s science. Of course I believe it. I believe it.” Repeating the words seemed to relax him a bit. I wanted to keep him moving in the relaxation direction, so I asked in the most soothing tone I could muster, “Why don’t you let me go, calm down and tell me what this is all about?”

He shivered and said, “I’m cold.” He held his empty glass out to me. “Give me another.”

I nodded and poured again.

He took it and held it to his lips. He drank it down steadily this time. I could see he was trying to control himself. He drained the glass and put it down. He said nothing at first. But after a minute, he said, “I started from the premise that Jesus Christ was a real man, a fact, a historical person.”

I had not thought much about it, but I went along with him. “If you say so, for the sake of argument ….” I refilled the glass half-way.

He picked up the glass again and held it in two hands. He leaned forward, his head over the glass, but his gaze went straight ahead. He went on. “I didn’t think we could argue that the entire gospel phenomenon is totally without historical basis. There’s no need to, in any event. Just because you accept Christ’s historical reality does not mean you give credence to anything supernatural about him.” He lifted the glass and drank again, not quite draining it this time. He lowered it and paused, as if he were about to admit something shameful. “So, that’s where I started.” There he stopped and lowered his eyes into the glass, losing himself in the shallow amber pool of bourbon at its bottom.

“Go on,” I urged him gently.

Again he cupped the glass in both his hands and peered into it. “I came to the conclusion that his crucifixion was the whole thing. If he hadn’t been crucified, there never would have been any Christianity. He would have lived and died an itinerant, first-century Jewish rabbi, and that would have been the end of it. Christianity wouldn’t have been possible without the cross, would it?” He grinned and drained the glass once more, licking it dry this time. “Ironic, isn’t it? People have been trying to get rid of the cross for one, two, three hundred years. They’ve been trying to reconstruct Christianity without it. But they can’t, and do you know why?”

I tried to give him more bourbon. Maybe he’d fall asleep. But now he pushed the bottle away and set his glass on the table next to mine, shaking his head. “No, no, no. I’ll tell you why. Because it was there from the get-go, from the beginning. You can’t get rid of it, not by just writing it out. You can’t just ignore it. It’s there and it can’t be gotten rid of. Not that way. You can’t just ignore it. It keeps coming back.”

I had to suppress a chuckle. His speech was becoming a little slurred. “Well,” I said philosophically, “what can you do ….”

He looked up at me, the amber of the bourbon reflected in, glowing in his eyes. “You can go to the source,” he said vehemently. “Maybe you can’t get rid of the cross, the way things are. But who says that things have to stay the way they are? You go to the source and you stop the crucifixion. You stop the one, seminal injustice, and you stop all the injustices that flow from it. Because it was an injustice, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it unjust to crucify the man? Wasn’t it?”

I humored him again. “I suppose it was,” I said.

“Then,” he said, the resolve growing in his voice and spreading to his neck and shoulders, “I have every moral right to stop it. I have every right to stop it.” He stood and walked to the window and back. “I have tried to stop it.” To the window and back again, smacking his fist against his open palm. “I have tried time and again to stop it. But, every time I try, he stops me!” He brought his fist down on the table. Both glasses jumped and so did I.

Christianson raised his eyes, then twisted his face and body away from me. He hung his head and beat his fists against his thighs. “He stops me! Every time, he stops me! Every time, he does or says something that stops me. Ohh,” he groaned, “that frustrating man! He sends himself to the cross!” He dropped back into the chair, broke down and wept. Right there at my desk, in front of me, he wept like a baby. But not like a hungry baby or a tired baby or even a baby frightened or in pain. No, he wept like a baby throwing a tantrum – willful, angry, sickening himself. You’ve seen their screwed up, little faces. That’s what he looked like. I hadn’t avoided children to put up with this.

I took his hands, stood up, pulled him up with me and took him by the shoulders. I meant to say a few comforting words, maneuver him toward the door, push him out into the night and go back to work. I almost managed it, but at the last minute he whirled away from me. I could tell he was feeling the bourbon, because he stumbled as he stopped and had to recover his balance. When he came to a stop, when he reached equilibrium, you might say, he stood half bent over. In that pose he paced back and forth across the apartment, like Richard III under his hump, steadying himself against the counter or the sideboard or whatever piece of furniture came within his reach. “Time and time again,” he muttered to his downcast self, “time and time again, time and time again.” I switched on the desk-lamp. Outside its circle of light, he looked small and dark. He raised his eyes from the floor and looked at me. “Do you know how I started?” he asked.

I made no answer, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t wait for any. “I started as the Apostle Peter. I tried to change his mind about going to Jerusalem. ‘What’s so special about Jerusalem?’ I said to him. ‘Why go there if they want to kill you?’ But did he take my advice? No, he never takes advice. You know what he did instead?”

I said nothing again.

He stooped, picked up his poncho and lost his balance, but caught himself before he fell. “He said I should get away from him. Me, Peter! He said I should get away from him if I was going to talk like that. So I did. I left Peter and I went away.” He pulled the poncho back over his head. I handed him his hat. He leaned toward me. “But I came back,” he whispered. “I came back again. And again. And again. I came back as a bystander, a lawyer, a man in the crowd, a guard, a woman weeping for him. Each time I tried something different. Once I even managed to see him through Pilate’s eyes. I had a long talk with him. I tried everything to get him off. Oh, I was quite the lawyer. I almost had him out of there, but everything conspires with him. This time it was the crowd. He backs you into a corner and there’s nothing you can do. You practically don’t know what you’re saying. And then he’s off, skipping up to Calvary. It’s almost like he wants to be crucified. But I can be as stubborn as he is.”

He opened the door and turned back to face me, a bent figured framed in the doorway. His voice cracked and popped like a log burning in a fireplace. “But I almost got him the last time. I almost did. I figured, if I couldn’t persuade him or save him, I could kill him. I could kill him before he ever got near a cross. So I came to him as a Roman soldier in the Praetorium and I whipped him. I took a whip with nine thongs, with little pieces of bone at the end of each thong, and I whipped him. I flicked my wrist, and the little bones cut into his flesh and ripped along his skin. I tell you, that’s a satisfying sound, that tearing sound. I flayed him and I beat him.”

He paused and almost leered over his next few words. “You know what they never talk about? As it cuts through his skin, the whip throws up little droplets of his blood. It’s like a mist in the air. You smell it. The smell makes you want to beat him more. So I beat him. And I beat him.

“But he wouldn’t die. He just would not die. Any other man would have died, but he is a confounded man!” He paused again to catch his breath. His speech slowed. “They had to pull me off him when they came to take him away. So they pulled me off him and he got his cross despite me.” He pulled his hat down over his eyes. “But I’m not done with him yet.” Then he turned away and shuttled down the hall, out of my sight.

I shrugged. It was all very odd, even for Christianson. But, as long as he was gone, there was no point dwelling on it. So I picked up the place and went back to work.

On a sunny day about a week or so later, I was walking through the medical school campus on my lunch hour when I saw him sitting on the wall in front of the Williamson Building, where he works. He had his lab coat on and he looked quite normal. So I went over to see how he was doing. He stood up and said he was glad to see me and offered me a piece of fruit out of a paper bag. I declined. It was all very normal, but he kept shifting his body uncomfortably. We chatted about the weather for a minute or so, then I asked him how he was getting along.

“You mean, have I gotten over the other night?”

I admitted his odd behavior had been on my mind. I was curious about it.

“It’s the research,” he said. “It gets to you. I was at the end of a cycle and I hadn’t caught up yet.”

“Still,” I said, “experiment or not, you’ve got something pent up inside. That’s obvious. Maybe you should get some counseling before you put yourself through another round of sleep deprivation.”

He laughed a good, short, honest laugh. “No way,” he said. “No can do. They’d cut off the grant. That would really be the end of me, at least in this institution. Besides, I have only one more cycle to get through in this round of experiments. Then we write up the results and it’s done.”

“But can’t you get someone else to be the guinea pig?” I asked. “What about a student?”

He shook his head. “No, I’ve got to finish this thing myself. It’s my baby.”

I knew all about that sort of thing. You’ve got to finish what you start or it goes against you. So I warned him to take care of himself and we said goodbye. It was the last time I saw him sane. He had his breakdown just after they wrapped up the experiment.

I suppose I should have seen the signs that night in my apartment: delusions, hallucinatory episodes, obsession …. Looking back, it’s easy to say I should have seen something. But he wasn’t my patient; I wasn’t looking at him clinically. Besides, it’s hard to detect abnormal symptoms in academics. It’s sort of a forest-for-the-trees type of thing. Outwardly, he was a lean, strong man, a runner. He ran every day. It was like a religion with him. I assumed he was healthy.

Of course, he looked different when I saw him later at the clinic. I remember, I was reading his intake notes and the only thing I could think about was the same thing that would have bothered him if he’d been in his right mind. He never got to write up his experiment’s results. His research assistants did it for him. They did it all very decent and proper; they kept his name first on the paper. It made a splash when it was published, sleep deprivation and dreams and whatnot, which I don’t follow. It’s not my field; at least, it’s not my special interest.

Anyway, I knew he was in a bad way during our interviews at the clinic. He’d been in a state of shock. Technically, he was over it when I started with him, but he still looked terrible. He’d developed that murmur in his heart; his respiration was obviously irregular. He looked emaciated, which shocked me the first time I saw him; his physical condition had degenerated suddenly and considerably. His eyes were sunken and his affect was generally dull.

But every so often, a wild, desperate look would flare up for an instant in those sunken eyes. Then it would pass. If he was experiencing any anxiety during these episodes, he never verbalized it. It came and went wordlessly. To me, the strange thing was my own reaction to his distress. Emotionally, I had the distinct impression of failure; to see this light flash from his eyes, then flicker and fade, without having accomplished what it was …. Well, I don’t know what I thought it should accomplish. It was purely an emotional reaction on my part. After all, I wouldn’t have called him a friend, exactly, but I did know the man.

But what I felt is immaterial. To get back to the point, it was hard to get him to talk. Much of the time, he was inaccessible. He wouldn’t acknowledge your presence. I’ve come to no conclusion about his mental state during these periods. He also had his lucid moments; when he did, he wouldn’t answer questions. He didn’t ignore you; it would be hard to say he was uncommunicative, but he was more interested in saying what he had to say than in whatever it was you wanted to ask him. Let me refer to my notes of our last interview.

I asked him how he was feeling. He heard me; he turned his head toward me; he obviously saw me, but no answer. I asked him if he remembered how he got here, to the clinic. I asked him if he remembered being in his office, where they had found him. He didn’t answer the question directly, but he said, “I was in a crowd.”

“What crowd?” I asked. At the time, I was puzzled. He had never mentioned a crowd before.

He seemed to answer me. “I was in a crowd,” he went on. “It was huge, angry, mostly men, almost everybody was a man, all yelling, cursing.”

“What were they yelling?” I asked.

He paid no attention to me. “They had beards,” he said, “all the men, except the youngest. They wore robes or cloaks and their heads were wrapped with cloths, like turbans. Some wore nothing but rags. They smelled of sweat; it was a strong smell, a stench, overpowering. I could hardly breathe. They pressed in all around me …, men.

But there were women, too, somewhere. I could hear them; they were crying. And the soldiers. The soldiers were in back, behind us, shields and spears and helmets. They pushed us forward, but the crowd didn’t need much pushing. We surged ahead, raving, until we came up against a platform, raised, like a stage. It held us back.

I leaned against it and looked up. I saw two men standing on it, all alone, practically surrounded by us. One was dressed in a white robe with a purple fringe; but the other … the other had nothing but a cloth around his waist … and a red cloak thrown over his shoulders. He was bathed in blood. It flowed over the ground where he stood; flowed from raw wounds all over his body, down his chest and his legs, over his bloody feet.”

“Could you see?” I asked. “Who was the man with the bloody feet?” Naturally, I was thinking about some kind of persecution complex or paranoia.

“His head drooped down to his chest. Something on his head kept it down.”

Then he mumbled something inaudible. I couldn’t tell whether he was trying to answer my last question or not. Suddenly, he stopped mumbling and turned his head towards me. His eyes focused on me for the first and only time in the interviews.

He said distinctly, “I could see.” His tone and manner were dramatic, exaggerated. “I could see and hear and touch and taste and smell everything and everyone. The man in white dipped his hands in a basin. I heard the water splash; I saw him turn to face us. But I could see them all. I could see his face.

“At the same time, I could see the face of every man, every woman, every soldier, every doctor, lawyer, Indian chief of them. Every face but one. Only one I couldn’t see. But I could see all the others and every one of them was mine.”

He bit his lip and grabbed the sides of the chair. He swayed back and forth as if he were in pain. “My face!” he yelled. “My face, my face on all of them. On all of us. And all of us yelling and yelling, chanting, “Crucifige eum, crucifige eum, crucifige eum!…”

He kept repeating that phrase, “Crucifige eum,” over and over again, becoming more and more agitated. I couldn’t calm him down. I got up and went to the door to call the nurse. That’s when he had his seizure. The emergency team hustled me out of there and that was the end.

That’s all I know. I can’t say how significant any of it was or if any of it was significant at all. There is such a thing as mindless rant, you know. I think there is, anyway. But I remember the sound of his last words quite clearly. Do you know what they mean, “Crucifige eum?” It was Latin, I think.

But languages aren’t my field, either.

(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.

Author, Attorney, Humorist