Keith Laumer had retired from the diplomatic corps to write, and had achieved some success and a reputation as a prolific science fiction novelist. Keith was pleased to have sold movie rights to a book adapted for the screen with a starring role for Michael Caine. (“The Peeper”, based on the book “Deadfall”.) But he had recently suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. He was a tall man, emaciated by ill health. His body, though gaunt, appeared normal, but his left arm and leg were terribly still.
Tom was Keith’s great fan, but I tried to avoid notice on our first visit. I didn’t want to admit that I had never read any science fiction, so I pretty much kept my mouth shut. Keith was a real raconteur and was obviously having a good time regaling us with his adventures in the diplomatic service in Burma. Keith was brilliant and charming or sarcastic and vulgar by turns. He seemed Hell bent on destroying himself. More than anything, he seemed starved for companionship.
At last he turned his attention to me. “Such a quiet mouse,” he said.
“I’ve never been anywhere,” I blurted. “And I haven’t read any science fiction.”
I rather expected a sarcastic or derogatory comment, but Keith turned on the charm.
“Honesty is a virtue,” he declared. “And such an abysmal lack is certainly one that can and must be rectified immediately. Follow me! ”
He summoned us to a large pantry off his kitchen toward a wall of shelves containing extra copies of all his books. I was impressed! Selecting a half dozen or so, he piled them into my hands. We returned to our places by the fire. Tom asked when Mr. Laumer would write his next book. After such a charming and pleasant reaction, when I had expected censure over the fact that I was not a fan, I was completely taken aback by the instant shift in his mood. He literally erupted into rancorous violence and malevolent self-deprecation.
“There will be no more books! How can a cripple write?” His face got red; blood vessels bulged on his neck; the paralyzed arm and leg jerked spasmodically as he visibly swelled in rage. Flecks of foam flew from his mouth as he denounced every member of his family, starting with his brother. “He defaced my house installing hand-rails for a CRIPPLE! And my mother! She dared to suggest that I might benefit from a long-term rehabilitation center for CRIPPLES! They have all abandoned me because I am now the most disgusting of all creatures: a CRIPPLE! More than that, to add insult to injury, my vile bitch of an ex-wife married a CRIPPLE, after abandoning me, the most excellent specimen of manly vigor on the planet, and now I am reduced to this!”
The language he used to vilify these people (and more I can’t even remember) was relentlessly malevolent and sufficiently rousing to peel the chrome off a car bumper! I had never witnessed anything like it in my life. It sure gave new meaning to the term “conniption,” which I had never really understood before!
Then Keith turned on a dime. The raging fit stopped in an instant, and he gazed down at his good hand lying still beside him. I think I was even more stunned to see a tear trickle down his cheek than by the vehemence of his bitterness and self-loathing.
He lamented quietly and mournfully that he was no longer a man.
But the drama was not over. Keith reached between the sofa cushions and drew out a pistol. My heart skipped a beat. I was sure he was going to murder us! But, no, he pointed the gun to his own head and said dolefully: “Here’s the proof I’m no longer a man! I don’t even have the courage to put a period to my own miserable existence!”
He warmed up with rage again. I was afraid he’d reach another peak of violence and actually do it right there in front of us! I was so alarmed that I began to plead with him. “Mr. Laumer! Please don’t do such a terrible thing! Your life surely is not over. As long as you’re alive, there’s hope!”
He began to cry. “I have no reason to live. I’ve been abandoned by the world because of my disgusting, repulsive, damaged body! Even my own family can’t bear to look at me.” He wept bitterly.
I assured him that this could not be true! I firmly took the hand holding the gun and removed the pistol gingerly, wondering if it had one of those hair triggers you see in Western movies. I leaned far to the right of the sofa and put the gun out of his reach. Keith grabbed my hand and kissed it, thanking me profusely for my assurances that he was not the most despised of human beings!
Talk about a scene out of a movie!
Tom added his assurances to mine. “We’ll help any way we can,” Tom said. “You have only to ask. You’re not friendless any more!”
I was completely overcome with sympathy for this tortured soul, and I guess he could see it in my eyes. He told us that, yes, perhaps he might make it with such friends. If we would not turn against him like everyone else had, he would have the heart to go on! We all began to plan how we were going to make sure that he could continue turning out his books, how he could regain his health, how he could find joy in life again.
I couldn’t leave my grandparents alone, but I promised to help him with his manuscripts a few days a week. He was downcast to think that I could not just move in immediately. He seemed so pathetic and grateful for a few words of kindness that it was difficult to leave him alone there.
When I got home, I explained Keith’s situation to my grandparents. They thought if I went to work for Keith, he could help me learn to write, a valuable skill, so they were willing to make sacrifices. They also thought his house was too far to drive every day. They could manage if I could come home on weekends.
So I gave notice at my job and soon was off to help Keith get his life back together.
First, I needed to get some decent food into him. Next, clean the house. He had been so verbally abusive to his regular cleaning lady for the infraction of moving an object on his desk that she refused to come back. Now, layers of dust, mold and mildew multiplied everywhere.
His lakeshore home was a lovely modernistic structure built of red brick with an entire glass wall that soared 15 feet high overlooking the water that surrounded the house on three sides. River stone terraces ran toward the banks, and tall pines sheltered the house from the wind. It really was a pleasure to put all to rights again.
When I was ready to go home at the first weekend, Keith sniffled and made dolorous remarks about how difficult it would be to survive until I returned. When I did get back after two nice and peaceful days with my grandparents, I found that Keith had eaten absolutely nothing and had survived on bottles of beer!
This was appalling. Without me to watch things, he’d go down the tubes! I could hardly bear to see so brilliant a man disintegrated by suffering. As weeks passed, it became progressively harder for me to leave on time.
I organized his schedule, devised ways he could write in comfort, typed his manuscripts, made him eat regularly, and protected him from the outside world. Brain damage from the stroke included disruption of the emotional centers. Keith could go from a pleasant conversation to raging lunatic frenzy in seconds, foaming at the mouth, his paralyzed limbs jerking and twitching. And his language could have sent Hell demons fleeing. But he didn’t show anger toward me; at least not in the beginning. Keith lashed out at himself, other people, or inanimate objects instead.
He read and studied, obsessed with regaining the use of his paralyzed limbs. It didn’t matter if a promising therapy was halfway around the world – he was off to try it immediately. I made endless reservations, packed his bag, and drove him to the airport over and over again. He left with such anticipation and hope. And when I went to pick him up, he insisted he felt much better, even if neither of us could gauge any external difference. He was sure his efforts were cumulative; one day he would wake up and the nightmare would be over. His self-image was so completely tied up in physical prowess that nothing short of total recovery would be satisfactory.
Since he had been a regular distance runner before his stroke, he decided that running would be one way to retrain his body, which would then reprogram his brain. He marked off a measured distance on his long circular driveway, and each day we would go out while he ran the distance. He wanted to shorten the time it took by one second each day until he could get back to his old, pre-stroke time.
Calling what Keith was doing on that track “running” is really stretching it. His left leg was in a metal brace to keep the knee joint from bending backward and the ankle joint from collapsing entirely. It was more of a series of hops and drags than an actual run. He gamely gave it all he had until he was perspiring profusely. It broke my heart to see him torturing himself this way while I stood there holding the stopwatch, urging him on.
Keith loved opera. Puccini, mostly, and every waking hour, literally. He had a phonograph that was in the living room with the 15-foot ceiling, and he turned up the volume as high as it would go without distortion to hear his favorite arias throughout the house.
He also had numerous eight-track tapes of Puccini and whenever we went anywhere in the car, the volume was turned up as high as it would go without causing physical pain. This did distract me if I was driving, but not as much as the leg-jerking mouth foaming fit I’d encounter if I suggested we turn it down a bit. I grew to detest operatic music. There was no escape from Puccini and his arias. Except when we went for walks. Nowadays, of course, he would have taken a portable player with a playlist along!
I enjoyed our long walks to search for fat lighter pine in the woods surrounding his home. With three fireplaces in the house, and Keith’s habit of keeping a fire going at all times, even in summer, we needed a lot to start the daily fire. On our walks, he confided details of his life, ideas, his studies, his work, and taught me all he knew about science, which was a lot. He was brilliant, and his knowledge in many areas was vast and profound, so I was challenged constantly to keep up with him.
But Keith didn’t have a very high opinion of women. This was as much cultural as experiential. Like many men, he viewed women as objects not worthy of engaging in serious conversation. However, at this point in his life, it was me or nobody. Yes, Tom came out to visit once in awhile, but I became Keith’s constant companion, and little by little, the subjects open to discussion expanded until we engaged in lengthy philosophical debates. He was not used to having conversations with a female on such subjects, and he naturally would dismiss some of my arguments without any consideration at all. But, if I refused to speak any more until he at least acknowledged that my thoughts had some merit, he soon learned to not reject an idea just because a woman said it.
At some point, he remarked that I was the most intelligent conversationalist he had ever known – for a woman. Well, I wasn’t going to push it, so I took it as a compliment.
As I helped him to regain his life in many respects, he was helping me to obtain a much wider view of the world and the cosmos. I encouraged and calmed him. And he began to thrive. He challenged and taught me, and I had the chance to sharpen my thinking with one of the brightest men I have ever known.
Keith was absolutely certain he did not believe in God or any kind of consciousness except as a by-product of evolution. He utterly rejected the concept of a soul. I did, of course, believe that there was consciousness beyond matter, though at this point I was not precisely sure in what context I believed. This was a topic of endless discussion between us, and I found that I was being challenged to look at the matter in a new way: pure science.
Keith had an extensive library with a great many science texts. I had neglected strict scientific inquiry in favor of social and historical explorations or “metaphysical” applications. A fundamental question took shape in my mind: Does consciousness exist independent of matter at all? This question went well beyond trying to solve the problem of Evil in a universe purportedly created by an all-wise and loving Perfect Creator. According to Keith there was no God to consider, Evil was simply an evolutionary stage in the development of mankind (who was, by the way, the sublimest and most perfect product of chance mutation and survival of the fittest). Consciousness was merely a by-product of mindless evolution.
Even if I now doubted the existence of God in the terms of any particular religion or philosophy, I never doubted the value of the human being as consciousness, whether that consciousness existed as a by-product of matter or not. Keith disagreed. He repeatedly expressed views of eugenics popular among many Darwinists. Only human beings who were superior, both mentally and physically, should be allowed to reproduce. All children who were less than perfect in any way should be euthanized. People who were a burden on society by virtue of age, infirmity, or some catastrophic physical damage, needed to be done away with humanely. Of course, that brought him to the inescapable conclusion that he was no longer worthy to be allowed to draw breath. And this was at the very root of his rage and self-denigration.
He had even married his first cousin so their children would be of the same “superior lineage”. (His wife had left him some years before his stroke.) This subject was something of a hot issue between us, and one day I told him the story of my friend Sammy.
Sammy was a Thalidomide baby. He lived two doors away from my grandparent’s house. We were best friends for many years. Sammy had no arms and one leg was a vestigial “flipper”. The other leg was normal. But he was a genius with a delightful personality and an assertive, no-nonsense, ambitious nature. There was no question that he was “in charge” in our relationship! I spent a lot of time executing his wishes, building things, setting things up, fetching and carrying. Just generally being his arms and legs. I’ll never forget the year that he decided that Christmas trees ought to have a use after Christmas, and we were going to create a “magic forest”. It was my job to go up and down the streets of our neighborhood and retrieve all the trees set out for the trash collectors. I had to drag them back, many of them bigger than I was, and set them up according to Sammy’s specifications. In the end, we had about 50 trees. It was quite a sight to behold! His parents probably weren’t terribly happy to see such an assemblage of items that would need to be disposed of eventually, but they good-naturedly let them stand until they were bare of needles before finally having them hauled away.
I never thought much about the fact that Sammy was “different” when we were very little. I was four and he was two when we were plopped into a sandbox together for the first time. All of his development took place before my eyes, for the most part, and seemed natural. He could do just about everything with his feet that I could do with my hands, including using scissors and playing the organ. When he came over to our house to play and have a snack, he sat on a special stool the same height as the table so he could use his feet to eat. Once he was situated, my grandmother would wash his feet for him.
As we grew older, however, I often accompanied him and his mother on a trip to the market, a department store or a movie. I became aware that other people stared and moved away from him, and so I came to realize that his difference was really different. I was already so accustomed to his difference being acceptable that I thought the people who stared had very bad manners. It was only when I grew up that I learned that Sammy was the way he was because a doctor gave his mother some pills for morning sickness.
I never, ever forgot that a doctor – acting in good faith – had done this. Like I said, I was good at extracting the essence from a situation and understanding it as a lesson to be learned from.
As I told Sammy’s story to Keith, I knew that Sammy was attending college at that very moment. I knew he’d been valedictorian of his high school graduating class. Sammy had a wide circle of friends, and clearly a great deal to offer humanity, both from his amazing intellect and his super personality.
“Should such a person, who did nothing to be guilty of such an affliction, be euthanized?” I asked Keith.
“Yes,” he said, and walked away, ending the discussion.
I could not believe it. To suggest that my adored Sammy had no right to live was so revolting a thought that I couldn’t plumb the depths of a mind that could conceive this view of humanity. My feelings toward Keith changed at that moment. I could see how totally fitting his own condition truly was. If there were evidence of “consciousness” independent of matter, Keith’s own experience of being forced to face this issue was very practical proof (to me) of higher purpose.
I realized that I played a role in Keith’s life similar to the one I had in Sammy’s but with a big difference between the two individuals. What was the nature of the evil that brought affliction on Sammy and Keith alike? In a sense, they were both stricken seemingly without reason. The real contrast was in their reaction to their situation. Sammy accepted his life and saw everything as perfect under conditions that would have crushed some people. Keith, with so many years of physical perfection to be thankful for, could now do nothing but revile the Universe and seek constantly to change everything to conform to his view of perfection. I never felt pity for Sammy. But I now had nothing but pity for Keith. And not for his condition; for the poverty of his soul.
I think Keith felt the change in my feelings toward him. The anger in him began to shift subtly in my direction. Up to this point, we had interacted very much like companions helping one another; teacher and pupil, nurse and patient. Now he began to respond to me more like a man to a woman. This was not good news. To him a woman was an object that was owned.
I had already heard the story of why his wife had left him. As he explained it, she just didn’t understand that it meant nothing when he had “affairs”. How dare she run off to Spain with an artist and leave him with the children in England? (He had three beautiful and talented daughters.) Well, figure it out!
Little by little, Keith put me under a jar where I could neither breathe nor move without his scrutiny or control. This became unbearable. Along with this increasing interest in controlling me came a disturbing tendency to “test” me; to act out and see how far he could go before I reacted.
One day he couldn’t find a bottle opener in the drawer where it belonged. It was in the sink to be washed, not two feet from the drawer. He went into a rage, pulled out all the dishes in the cabinet, and started throwing them at me. They smashed against the wall. Slivers of glass and china were bouncing all over the place. I was in a corner and managed to get away, but by this time, he had broken nearly every dish in that cupboard. I was so furious with him that I went directly to my bedroom and began to pack my bag to leave.
He came to the open door, saw what I was doing, and meekly apologized. I didn’t even speak to him. I didn’t want to hear any apologies. When he saw how disgusted I was with his behavior, he broke down and cried and begged me not to go and promised he would never take his frustration out on me again.
“You know that with all I have to bear that the least frustration is intolerable,” he wept. “I’m so painfully aware of how inadequate I am as a man! You deserve so much better than me. I’m just a broken down wreck!”
I felt alarmed that he was thinking of me this way. But at the same time, concerned that he should not be hurt, I swallowed my anger and made light of it and went to the kitchen to clean up the broken china.
Not too long afterward, making a call to his agent in New York, he was shouting at the telephone operator in vibrantly colorful language that escalated to a new altitude of violence. Then he bashed the phone against the stone fireplace as if he wanted to do this to the poor woman. Now, the old telephones were pretty sturdy instruments, but nothing could have withstood that! The phone flew to pieces as though a bomb had exploded inside it! Naturally, I cleaned up the mess and called the phone company with a fabricated excuse why he needed a replacement.
This next incident plays a significant role in events years later, during a second “meeting” with Keith, twenty years later, when he had already “passed over”.
I had driven Keith to a specialty butcher shop to pick up a large order of meat for his freezer. He examined the packages of frozen meat, neatly packed in boxes, and noticed right away that the sirloin had been cut into steaks, not ground into burger as he had instructed. He began shouting at the butcher and working himself into another foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy. I was shocked nearly out of my senses when he began throwing the packages of frozen meat at the poor man’s head! I tried to calm Keith down, to plead with him to behave, to defend the butcher, but every word I said only seemed to inflame him the more. I didn’t know what else to do except turn and walk out the door.
I got in the car and waited, shaking, certain that a police car was going to drive up any instant. I wanted to be away from the action so they would know I was not the one who needed to be arrested. Keith came out with a jaunty air, thumping the ground with his cane, and got in the car. He turned to me and said: “I showed him, didn’t I?!” And smiled a crooked smile of self-satisfaction, looking like a puppy dog seeking a pat on the head.
I was speechless. He clearly did not feel one bit of remorse, and he obviously thought his behavior was perfectly justified. I realized he simply had no concept of consideration for others. Besides, it was my turn to have a fit.
“I will never, ever, get in this car and go out in public with you again unless you promise, swear on your life, that you will never do such a thing again”.
He was astonished. Then abashed. “I promise,” he said meekly. And we drove home.
Keith’s trips around the world to try new therapies now became a welcome relief. One day, after a week’s absence, I went to pick him up at the airport. As I passed a bar in the terminal, I thought to myself: “I need a good stiff drink before Keith gets off the plane!” I literally stopped dead in my tracks right there in the airport and thought: “What are you saying? You need a drink?”
I knew at that moment that I was disintegrating. I had to get away from him. But I couldn’t just abandon him. I had to do it in increments. I still cared for his well being and wanted to see if he could be encouraged to do things for himself.
The Farm was only about 15 miles from Keith’s house, and was unoccupied most of the time since Mother had finally, after quite a long spell, remarried and moved to the East Coast with her new husband. I decided to create some space for myself. I told Keith that I needed to be there to watch the house. I’d stay during the night and come early in the morning to see to his needs.
Keith cried and raged, but I was firm. He did persuade me to agree to put in a telephone so that he could reach me during the night if he needed me. That didn’t seem like too much to ask, so I said I would.
What a small decision it was. Agreeing to order a telephone doesn’t seem like a life-changing choice, does it? My restless drives to Aripeka where I met Tom, his interest in science fiction – such odd things that led me to Keith. What if I hadn’t realized I needed to get away from Keith? What would have happened if I had decided that I would marry him? It was a certainty that he was sending signals that this was an agreeable idea. Would he have murdered me in one of his violent fits? Or would he have become more content and gentle as a lamb with a wife young enough to be his daughter?
We will never know, because I decided that I could not fix him. The only way I could continue to interact with him at all would be with some distance and time to myself. And then I made a small decision to order a telephone as he requested.
The seeds of disaster were sown. I almost didn’t survive it.