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A Miracle of Degree
part 1
by J.(Channing)Wells


* * * * * * * * * * *
The Nutshell
* * * * * * * * * * *

(Michael Bix, at a visiting artist lecture at the MacLeod University Theatre Department)

"What is an Empty Space? Seems like a silly question, I guess. Old Man Webster would probably say that an empty space is, by some definition, 'a specific physical area containing nothing.' But there is a definite trap here that theatre people need to be aware of. Let me make quite clear that there is a universe of difference between 'Nothing' and 'Emptiness.' 'Nothing' is just that. Nothing. Absolute entropy. No motive force, no drive, no energy, no _life._ 'Emptiness,' on the other hand, is quite different. There are borders to 'Emptiness.' When you conceptualize an Empty Space, you're creating a vacuum. And, as any elementary physics major will tell you, when you create a vacuum, nature is just _dying_ to fill it with something. A director who decides to cast for a show has just created hundreds of Empty Spaces: roles to be filled, sets to be planned and built, costumes to be created. The sum total of this is a _lot_ of potential energy. Creation of an Empty Space is not simply an act of negation. What it _is_ is the forging of an imbalance, a pressure gradient, a _difference._ And it is through this difference that life is created.

"I don't know a whole hell of a lot about biology. But someone told me this, once, and it kind of stuck with me: your average nerve cell maintains itself at a constant electrical difference of about negative seventy millivolts. This is not something that happens naturally. In fact, the nerve cell is working _constantly_ to create this imbalance. Why? Because it's _waiting._ Waiting for one little spark to come along to throw open the gates and bring positive ions flooding in with a great surge of nervous life. This is how we live, ladies and gentlemen. This flow of energy is the reason that we can think, feel, breathe, speak, work, play, hurt, heal, create, destroy, _exist._ It all has to do with the creation... and the filling... of Empty Spaces."

* * * * * * * * * * *
Act One
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One of these days, I'm going to write a play about my life. And it's going to suck, because, frankly, I can't write worth shit. Not a big concern. It's not as though it would be terribly interesting to the general theatre-going populace anyway. It would be written for an audience of one (me) and would never be performed on stage. I don't have a title for it, and some of the members of my "dream cast" are already dead. But I'm still going to write it.

All in all, it would be a play about a fairly average guy. In the age of SCABS, "average" has taken on a new meaning, so I hope that I'm not stretching the definition overmuch to include a big humanoid dog therein. A six-foot-tall Dalmatian, to be precise, walking the line between... what? Good and Evil? That's _far_ too dramatic. There have been very few times I've ever done something that really truly fit either of those categories. No, the best I can say is that it would be about a man walking a line between sympathy and antipathy, pulling some of his fellow souls close and pushing others away, who eventually, at the end-all-be-all, would be forced to consider that the sum total of his life had been a losing struggle against mediocrity.

But looking back on it all, he could occasionally, just occasionally, catch a teasing glimpse of something far more.

And this is how it would begin:

Setting. A hospital room. Ithaca, Kansas.

Time. Approaching the end of the Golden Years. A long time ago. It seems.

At Rise: Near-Darkness and Silence. Dim illumination from the ambient lights of the nighttime city as they seep through the thin industrial-standard curtains. There is a bed, and a chair. In the chair is a woman, JENNY. She sleeps in an uncomfortable posture after having dropped from sheer exhaustion many hours previous. In the bed, tangled in a mass of twisted bedclothes, is MICHAEL, whimpering softly in his sleep. He is a crumpled figure, in the throes of a hideous disease that has taken his body and twisted it like modeling clay in the hands of some adolescent god. He looks sorta like a Dalmatian. This scene for a moment. Then, the door swings open and a searing wedge of cold light from the hospital corridor beyond illuminates a figure. This is MURPHY, Michael's boss. MURPHY is only two generations away from Ireland and is distinguished in a way that only grey-haired Irish booksellers can be. In this light, he looks like an angel, holy and terrible to behold.

Scene begins...

* * *

Light. My eyelids squirm in an attempt to keep it out. I don't want to be awake.


At the moment, my conscious life can be summed up in a simple set of equations: Awake = Hurts like hell. Asleep = Doesn't hurt like hell. That's as far as my cognition takes me.

Ergo, I resolutely try to go back to sleep. The fever-dreams are weird as all get out, but it's better than this hospital shit. I've just about succeeded at it again when a voice sparks through my brain.

"Michael." A twinge of emotion somewhere in there. I can't place it.

There is a groan as tired synapses spring into action. Several heartbeats thud by before I finally croak out, "Murph?" My voice sounds like rust flakes and paint thinner, and it hurts my throat as it comes out.

"Good to see you awake, me boyo."

"Shut the fucking light off, Murph."

"Light's not on, Michael. You're just seeing the light from the hall."

"Whatever the fuck it is, Murph, shut it the hell off." My rancor is not particularly terrible. I'm having a hard time speaking at all, much less putting emotion into it. Everything feels wrong. Murphy silently complies and closes the door, washing me in darkness again. Murphy waits, silently.

"What are you doing here?" I ask, weakly. "What time is it?"

"Past normal visiting hours. I... I couldn't sleep, as such. Needed to come in here and see if you were all right."

"So. I'm sitting here in a hospital... I think I feel an I.V. Is that right?"

Murphy nods.

"I'm sitting here in a hospital with a fucking I.V. in and you're asking me if I'm 'all right.' I think that by definition of my current situation, I am _not_ 'all right.'" It is a long sentence, and I foolishly try to put sarcasm in it. It ends in coughing.

"Calm down, Michael. You'll break something there."

I realize that there is one fundamental gap in my world-view at the moment.


"Yes, lad?"

"Murphy, what the fuck am I doing in a hospital? Where's Jenny?"

"She's asleep. Poor gehl, she's been 'ere all day. You best be quiet, else you'll wake her."


"You didn't answer my first question, Murph." Meanwhile, I'm searching around in my own memory and drawing blanks. Something's very wrong here...

"I know, lad. I know."


"You _still_ aren't answering me, here."

"I know."

"Murphy, you're really starting to piss me off."

Murphy bites his lip. He is just dimly visible in the light from the window. Damn it, what the hell _is_ wrong with me, here... I itch all over, for one thing. Something's the matter with my eyes as well, and... goddamn it, Murph, tell me why I'm here...

"You want a mirror?"

All right. I've played the game for long enough. I owe Murphy a lot, but sometimes, you just have to yell at people. "Why the _hell_ would I want a mirror?" In a nearby chair a dark shape stirs. Jenny.

"It might help explain things." Murphy glances uneasily at my restive girlfriend but says nothing.

"Crissakes, Murph. I don't need a fucking mirror. Either tell me what's wrong or I seriously tax myself by trying to get up and look at the chart on the end of the bed."

"So, ye want the official opinion, then?" Murphy has a note of restraint in his voice. He always gets pissed off when he thinks I'm being too "vulgar" for my own good. Screw it. I have the right to be vulgar. I also have the right to the "official" opinion. I inform Murphy as such, perhaps louder than I should. Jenny stirs in her sleep, again. Murphy sighs in that aggravating "more-tolerant-than-thou" way and goes to the end of the bed.

"All-righty-then. 'Patient: Michael Woodrow Bix. Male. Twenty-five years old.'"

"I know that part."

He just glares at me. "'Cause of referral: Patient Complains of High-Grade Fever and Severe Flu-Like Symptoms. Lapse of Consciousness. Preliminary Diagnosis: Complications of positive M.F.V. infection. Further Symptoms: Cranio-Facial Abnormalities, Abnormal Dentition, Abnormal Keratin Structure at the-"

At the three letters "M.F.V." something shatters inside me. Murphy's voice drones on. If I were paying attention, I would probably be hearing a lot of useful and edifying information, but I can't be listening at the moment because my brain is gone. Blackness lurks at the corners of my vision and blissful unconsciousness tries to claim me again. I struggle against it, wrest my brain back into focus. I see Jenny stir. She's almost awake. I interrupt Murph about halfway through the extensive symptoms list and say, "Murph?"

He stops. "Lad?"

"Get me the fucking mirror."

He wordlessly complies, thankfully abstaining from smartass remarks. I take it and look, far too quickly. I should have given myself time to think about it, to put my psychological guard up. As it is, it catches me completely prone.

A long moment passes.

From somewhere in my throat comes a feeble whimper. A dog's whimper.

The noise finally wakes Jenny.

She looks. She, too, is more-or-less unprepared.

The look of ghasted shock on her face is louder than any scream could ever be.

And Murphy stands there helplessly, watching.

This instant, the instant that I see Jenny's face, is the longest instant of my life. It has to be.

Even today, close to four years later, it's still going on.

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