An elderly, poor Russian émigré couple intend to pay a birthday visit to their son. He is institutionalized in a sanitarium, diagnosed as afflicted with referential mania. It is an incurable disease in which the patient imagines that everything that happens around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He is certain that phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he may be, that trees can divine and discuss his inmost thoughts, that coats in store windows want to lynch him—in short, that he must be on his guard every minute of his life. The boy’s most recent suicide attempt was brilliantly inventive, as he sought to “tear a hole in his world and escape.”
On the parents’ way to the sanitarium, the machinery of existence seems to malfunction: The subway loses its electric current between stations; their bus is late and is crammed with noisy schoolchildren; they are pelted by pouring rain as they walk the last stretch of the way. On their arrival, they are informed that because their son has again attempted suicide, their visit might unduly agitate him, so they do not see him.
While awaiting their bus on their way home, they observe a tiny, half-dead baby bird twitching helplessly in a rain puddle; it is doomed to die through no fault of its own. On the bus, they are silent with worry and defeat; the wife notices her husband’s hands twitching, like the bird’s body, on the handle of his umbrella.
(The entire section is 511 words.)