We kept him in the basement, most of the time. In that damn chair. We all tried to avoid going down there as much as we could. Sometimes at night we could hear the clanks and whirrs from it drifting up through the heating ducts, usually when we were trying to sleep, and every few weeks one of us would have to go down there to refill one of the reservoirs. Usually just with kava or datura that we grew in the back lot, sometimes with ketamine or 2CB or much weirder exotics that we had to barter with the gutterboys for, and god knows how they got it.
It was a drain. Both in the arable land taken up in nothing but growing the curious little plants for the chair, and in the bricks of weed and pieces of Ray's art we traded off for chemicals instead of food or ammo or fuel for the generator. Nobody ever complained about it though, not even Ray when the gutterboys would take some sculpture he had spent six weeks on and give us a little bag of powder than smelled like a high school chemistry lab. We had a strict rotation worked out for who had to go down there to reload the chair each time, though nobody ever mentioned it that I can remember; each of just went down without bitching, or even mentioning it, usually, when it was our turn.
We actually called on him twice, twice in seven years. The first time was maybe a year and a half after he started in the chair. A purely academic matter. Marie had picked up a copy of what was supposed to be L'histoire du livre qu'on appelle Duronensis and wasn't sure if it was authentic or not. It didn't really affect any of us whether it was or not, but we spent the better part of a month in the library trying to figure it out, with no luck. It was just a nagging thing, a question we couldn't answer, and it was exactly the kind of thing Joe would know.
When we opened the assemblage up, none of us were quite sure what to expect. After I started the chemicals that would wake him up, I thought about backing out, just walking away, but couldn't think of a way to phrase the weird apprehension in my guts to Ray and Marie that wouldn't make me seem like a chickenshit.
I can remember the maggotwhite skin, the veins blue and bulging, the rows of IVs marching up both arms, his hair greasy and down to the shoulders. I can remember that I was surprised, inanely, that he didn't still have his crew cut, that he hadn't lost any weight, even though that was the whole point. It was like seeing a ghost, yeah, but not in the way I expected it to be.
He didn't ask how long it had been, or how we had kept on, or even whether the government was back together yet. He just sort of stared at us with that same narrow-lidded look he had (I want to say he had when he was alive, but of course, Joe's still alive), until Marie handed him the book. He flipped through it for maybe 15 minutes, squinted at the title page, handed it out, in said in his same old dry, wry voice, "Forgery. By students at Paris - Nanterre. From about '14."
And then he handed the book back to Marie, settled back into the chair, and closed his eyes. We closed the whole thing back up, and we didn't open it back up again for a long time, no matter how curious we got about something. For some while after that, Ray kept to himself, working in his studio on something he wouldn't show us, but the gutterboys eventually gave us a month's worth of canned soup, a gallon of vodka, and a 200 pill bottle of dilaudid for. Marie took one of her periodic walks to West Market after that, stayed there three weeks trying to track down a 19th century edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. I just puttered around in the garden, playing around with fertilizers and crop rotations. None of it helped, I think.
None of it made the next time much easier.