Monday, October 3, 2011

Under Fall’s Pretenses: Woodbane Suffers the Equinoxious Effects of the Season

A lethal dose of October.
     “Nurse! Quick!” shouted the doctor, picking a leaf out of Woodbane’s hair. “Prepare a sedative! Get me eight full-spec lamps! Stat! This man has had a lethal dose of October!”
     Stretched out on a gurney was Woodbane himself, his eyes wide and a crooked grin on his face. Two orderlies were rushing him toward the Intensive Care Unit. The doctor was running alongside. I was in close pursuit, having just sped Woodbane to the hospital by car. As we all raced down the hallway, leaves flew off Woodbane’s windbreaker and out of his hair, and in the confusion I found myself wondering if the doctor had really said what I thought he’d said. Then they wheeled Woodbane into the ICU, and the door closed in my face. I found a bench in the hall and waited.
     Woodbane lives two houses down from me. Just a few minutes earlier, we had been standing on his front lawn, where he was making leaf piles with a wide bamboo rake. He seemed fine, his white hair sticking straight out from his red face, his eyes gleaming. It was a beautiful autumn day, and Woodbane had been rhapsodizing, as is his wont. “Behold!” he said. “How the brazen breeze sends shivers through the half-clothed trees! How the random clouds, pushed from the north, rush south to pile cold and dark upon the horizon! How the sun stares low and cool, making of bright branches a bewilderment of shadows! Ah! See the coed with her thick sweater and windburnt cheeks pedal by on her bike!” Suddenly, Woodbane switched from rhapsody to nostalgia. “Alas,” he said, leaning on the rake, “for the good old days, when the scent of the burning leaf gave deathless seasoning to the season’s death, and the chapped-nosed girls sat wrapped in blankets on the fifty-yard line!”
Alas, for the good old days, and the scent of burning leaves.
     At that point I was feeling a little dizzy myself—Woodbane’s carryings-on often do that to me—and I thought about going home. But just then a large cloud passed in front of the sun, turning the air cold and gray, and suddenly Woodbane fell straight over backwards into a pile of leaves. Rake still clutched in his hand, he just lay there, a horizontal one-man American Gothic. At first I thought he was joking—illustrating, perhaps, his love of leaf piles. But when my pleas had no effect—“Woodbane! Woodbane! For heaven’s sake, man, get up! You’ll catch your death!”—I knew that he wasn’t fooling. I dragged him to my car and raced him to the hospital. . . .
     After fifteen minutes or so, the doctor opened the ICU door. He was a small old man, with shining spectacles. He wasn’t smiling.
     “May I speak with you a moment?” he said, motioning to me. They had pulled a curtain around Woodbane’s bed. The curtain seemed to glow.
     I stood up. “Will he be all right, Doc?” I asked.
     He frowned. “Well,” he said, “we might have caught it in time. But your friend is a sick man, a very sick man.”
     “What is it, Doc? What’s he got? You can tell me. I’m his best friend,” I said. I reminded myself of a bad movie.
     The doctor hesitated. From behind the curtain I heard Woodbane mumbling. “Chapped cheeks!” I thought I heard him say. “Standard time! The light! The light! Oh, coeds!”
     The doctor looked at the curtain and shook his head. At last he sighed. “Simply put,” he said, “we believe your friend has an acute case of October.”
     “Sorry, Doc,” I said. “Did you say an acute case of October.”
     “You got it,” said the doctor. “October.” Seeing my confusion, he went on. “Let me explain,” he said. “About twenty years ago, medical science discovered a previously-unknown disease that strikes millions of Americans every autumn. Its victims are extraordinarily light-sensitive, and as the hours of daylight get shorter, they become sluggish, depressed, even suicidal. We call the condition ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder.’ SAD, for short. The only remedy for SAD is careful doses of bright, full-spectrum—white, to you—light.” He looked in the direction of Woodbane’s bed. From behind the glowing curtain came the buzz of fluorescent tubes and the voice of Woodbane mumbling, “Catch your death! Pretty red cheeks!”
Full-spectrum light: the only remedy for SAD.
     “But, wait, Doc,” I said. “Woodbane wasn’t depressed. In fact, he seemed kind of, well, ecstatic. I mean, he was going on and on about the wind and the clouds and this girl on a bicy—”
     “—Ah! A girl!” interrupted the doctor. “I suspected as much. You see, my friend, when SAD hits men . . . well, the effects can be doubly devastating. For men, an extra element enters into the equation: SEX—with a capital X. Studies have shown that from September to October, the production of male hormones takes its largest leap of the year, then peaks in November. In the United States more babies are conceived in the fall than at any other time of year. Add to this the fact that cooler weather suddenly turns the lethargy of summer into the energy of autumn—plus all sorts of other factors we have yet to understand, such as the prospect of death brought on by the brilliant but dying fall landscape—and some men experience a veritable rush of desperate hyperactivity in October.”
     “Touchdown!” called Woodbane’s voice from behind the curtain. “Oh, snuggle!”
     “Wait, Doc,” I said. “I thought you said this disease—Seasonal Affection Disorder—”
     “—Affective,” corrected the doctor.
     “Whatever. I thought you said it made people sluggish. Now you’re saying it makes them hyperactive. Which is it?”
     “Both,” said the doctor. “Which is precisely the danger. Half the victim says, ‘Let me sleep!’ The other half says, ‘Let’s boogie!’ Half is hot, half is cold. The result: the victim cracks like a hot cup plunged in ice water.” He nodded somberly in the direction of Woodbane. “All we can do now is pray—pray, and hope for an early spring.”
     As I started toward the exit, I heard Woodbane’s voice call out from behind me, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light! Hey, kiss me, baby!”
     Outside, a fresh chill evening wind was scattering leaves, the sunset burned a brilliant yellow-pink, and I held the door open for a beautiful nurse with Asian eyes. All told, I found it pretty depressing.


This story first appeared in Memphis magazine in October, 1987.

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