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An excerpt from'Nirvana'

It’s late, and I can’t sleep. I raise a window for some spring Palo Alto air, but it doesn’t help. In bed, eyes open, I hear whispers, which makes me think of the President because we often talk in whispers. I know the whisper sound is really just my wife Charlotte, who listens to Nirvana on her headphones all night and tends to sleep-mumble the lyrics. Charlotte has her own bed, a mechanical one.

My sleep problem is this: when I close my eyes, I keep visualizing my wife killing herself. More like the ways she might try to kill herself, since she’s paralyzed from the shoulders down. The paralysis is quite temporary, though try convincing Charlotte of that. She slept on her side today, to fight the sores, and there was something about the way she stared at the bed’s safety rail. The bed is voice-activated, so if she could somehow get her head between the bars of the safety rail, “incline” is all she’d have to say. As the bed powered up, she’d be choked in seconds.

But she doesn’t need an exotic exit strategy, not when she’s exacted a promise from me to help her do it when the time comes.

I rise and go to her. She’s not listening to Nirvana yet—she saves it for when she needs it most, after midnight, when her nerves really start to crackle.

“I thought I heard a noise,” I tell her. “Kind of a whisper.”

Short, choppy hair frames her drawn face, skin faint as refrigerator light.

“I heard it, too,” she says.

Next to her voice remote is a half-smoked joint. I light it, hold it to her lips.

“How’s the weather in there?” I ask her.

“Windy,” she says.

Windy is better than hail or lightning, or god forbid, flooding, which is the sensation she felt when her lungs were just starting to work again. But there are different kinds of wind.

I ask, “Windy, like a whistle through window screens, or windy like the rattle of storm shutters?”

“A strong breeze, hissy and buffeting,” she says, “like a microphone in the wind.”

Charlotte hates being stoned, but she says it quiets the inside of her. She has Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition in which her immune system attacks the insulation around her nerves. When the brain sends signals to the body, the impulses ground out before they can be received. A billion nerves inside her send signals that go everywhere, nowhere. This is the ninth month, a month at the edge of the medical literature. It’s a place where the doctors no longer feel qualified to tell us whether Charlotte’s nerves will begin to regenerate or whether she will be stuck like this forever.

She exhales, coughing. Her right arm twitches, which means her brain has attempted to tell her arm to rise and cover the mouth.

A little bit about Adam Johnson

Shortlist

Adam is Associate Professor of English at Stanford University.
A Whiting Writers Award winner, his work has appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, Playboy, GQ, The New York Times and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of two short story collections – Emporium, and Fortune Smiles, which won the 2015 National Book Award – and two novels - Parasites Like Us, and The Orphan Master’s Son, which received the 2013 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. His books have been translated into twenty-nine languages. Johnson was a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow.


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