Birds

To keep his mind off the dull, hollow ringing in his ear, Arnold stared intently around the hospital emergency room. He couldn’t quite remember when the ringing had started and for all he knew, maybe it had always been there. It felt like being the butler to an overly demanding widow, a bell constantly ring ringing in his ear. The flu was really getting to him.

The emergency room was nothing like what he had imagined. Being of a particular generation and level of health, Arnold’s only frame of reference for hospitals were movies and television shows and this was not his envisioned glossy, white bastion of recovery with lights bright enough to disinfect and hospital staff feverishly running around tending to patients’ needs. Instead, the seedy yellow lights inside the hospital inexplicably built within a castle flickered lowly, scattering light unevenly across tiles which alternated in shade between heavily eroded seafoam and the teeth of a consummate coffee drinker. He couldn’t tell if the lights were buzzing strangely or if it was just his head but, all in all, it felt much more like a bus stop restroom than a hospital.

It had been almost an hour since the receptionist chewing gum loud enough to blow a bubble through Arnold’s deafness had waved him into his curtained-off section of the emergency room. That the emergency room here was just a single room parceled out into plots was a bit too literal for Arnold, who had expected a personal room, preferably with a variety of glass openings to always be in the line of sight of the nurses and doctors hurrying about the halls. Instead, all he got were walls of anti-microbial, stain resistant mesh patterned with what appeared to be flower leaves sans blossom. (more…)

Grudge

Tom stared blankly at the ceiling. He tried to coordinate his breathing pattern with the steady hum of the bedside fan. He had always had trouble sleeping in the heat, but this summer heatwave had recently made repose all but impossible for him. His girlfriend, Janine, had no such troubles. She lay comfortably asleep with her head profiled against Tom’s chest and her legs serpentined down the side of his body. Tom tried to relax himself by imagining how similar to the Rod of Asclepius he might have looked. Perhaps that would relax him and bring sleep. Still, it just would not come. It was Janine’s breathing pattern. Tom noticed it was entirely out of sync with the nearby whir. It was actually the most mundane torture he had ever experienced. Each one of her exhalations was a small refreshing breeze on the skin that immediately settled into hot stagnant condensation. Tom could not wipe the moisture for fear of waking Janine, and slowly watched it build up into a puddle.

(more…)

Conveyor Belt

Look, I know it’s impossible to fully understand this since it didn’t happen to you and experience is subjective, but try and follow me here. I’m standing outside the door. The moonlight makes the white trim look sickly and pale. Other than that, the street is entirely empty. I parked a block away because I don’t want to risk waking her up. It’s the sort of emptiness I remember from when I was kid. There was always that week in August when everyone from our suburb migrated to their summer homes. We would be the only family in the neighborhood for that one week. My mother would water ten dozen gardens and my father would feed fifteen cats.

Anyway, this is the first time I’m reminded of that suburban emptiness. The neighborhood is still, as if the entire block might stagnate. The houses might just collapse and rot beneath their own weight. I’m thinking about all that, just standing there, and I swear I can feel the Earth spinning underneath my feet. It makes me feel as if I’ve never moved at all. I’ve just been standing in place and the world has been my travelator.

I think about how long I’ve stood there but I can’t quite piece a number together. I get the courage to break the stillness and I open the door. This kills me. I have to sneak into my own house like a burglar. Except it’s not exactly my house, Janet’s parents put down the payments for it, but the way I look at it, a man’s got to have some place to call home doesn’t he?

I go to the kitchen, drink a glass of milk, urinate in the sink to avoid the noisy toilet, and then start upstairs. I know all the creaks on the stairs by heart. I skip the second step, it’s a death trap. I cling to the wall on the right side halfway through since the bannister is starting to separate from the floorboards around there. Even though I’m stumbling around a little bit I get up to the top in relative quiet. I just don’t want to wake Janet – it’s four in the morning and she gets up for work at the hospital around five. I’m fully dressed but I decide to lie down beside her anyway. What’s the point in changing? That’s when I realize that I haven’t actually seen Janet in what must be weeks. She is always asleep by the time I get in and I’m always gone when she gets home. Sure we sleep next to each other, but we don’t actually see one another. We live opposite lives. Which is why I started drinking with the guys after the late shift. It didn’t matter. I’d never see that look. I’d never have to feel guilty.

But now that I’m lying there and I realize that I actually can’t remember what Janet looks like. The shape of her is there somewhere in the dark, but that’s it. I can’t tell if she’s black, white, Hispanic. I can’t remember if her voice is soft and rises when she says my name or if it’s husky and strained when she gets mad. I can’t remember if her eyes are sparkling brilliants or rusty bits of wire. I turn over slowly and try to look at her, but it’s just darkness. I press my eyelids closed as firmly as I can to see some sort of color just to make sure I’m alive. I get those swirls that look like everything and nothing all at once. They compress into a bright moon crossing a dark horizon. Still, no matter how hard I try with open eyes, there’s nothing there.

I am almost ready to give up when I do see something next to me. Her face is blindingly clear now, but it’s not Janet. It’s an old girlfriend of mine, but I can’t think of her name. I know you’re not supposed to talk about old lovers, but there’s no harm here. We went to college together. Yeah, what a world of good all that college did for me. I’m the most loquacious teller this Turnpike has ever seen.  But it’s unmistakably her and now I start getting worried. I’m not so out of it that I could fantasize that she’s beside me, but there she is. As clear as the beauty-mark on her left cheek.

It must have been a troubled relationship but now I can only remember the best aspects of it. Plus it wasn’t all her fault. I think she was done in by her parents. Her mother told her that she shouldn’t raise her arms in a room lest they get caught in a ceiling fan. What kind of a parent would do that to a kid? So she’d always yell at me about ceiling fans, even if they weren’t on. You won’t laugh at me when you lose an arm, she’d say. At first, I used to laugh because I thought it was kind of endearing. Like with all idiosyncrasies. But by the end I was laughing because I thought it made her look stupid. Thinking of it now, it actually hurts me. It makes me yearn for her and it hurts even more that I can’t remember her name.  I can hear her laughter. So full you could fill a sand bucket with it. I feel my hands shake like they did the first time we were ever intimate. She cried afterwards but would never explain why. When we finally broke up she said it was because she knew I had ruined her already at that point. You’d think with a person of such psychic abilities things would have worked out better.

I want to reach out and touch her. I want to explain. I decide I should comfort her, tell her my side of things. But as I look over again, she’s gone. It’s just another void. So I stare into the nothing some more. I figure she came out of there once, surely she’ll be back. I begin rehearsing what I am going to say. I figure I should say she was right a lot of the times I didn’t give her credit for, I’m sure she’d like to hear that. Maybe I’ll say something about her being the love of my life. But the next time I look over, someone else is there. A stranger. She has the brightest skin I’ve ever seen. She actually looks gilded. Her eyes are closed but I know that underneath the lids her eyes are sparkling. Two precious stones dropped in saucers of milk. My body feels like it’s on fire. If a glass of cognac makes your stomach warm, then I am drowning in a barrel of it. I start thinking that I might melt and I touch the sides of my body just to make sure I haven’t fused with the bed.

Then I start to really worry. What if I’m not in the right house? What if I am just beside some stranger? Could I be disturbing some innocent beautiful woman in her sleep? If she wakes up, I’d definitely end up in jail. This frightens me even more. I’ve never been to jail. I’ve had my nights in the drunk tank, but those are harmless, there aren’t real criminals there. Even the cops know it. I can’t go to jail though. But I can’t be wrong can I? I know those steps. I’ve pissed in that sink dozens of times. I bought that milk personally. I realize the milk is expired now. I collect myself a bit and realize she actually is awake. She’s staring right at me with those eyes. The room which was absolute darkness before is now filled with blinding light. I can’t even look directly at her. I don’t know what to do. So I do nothing.

I begin retracing my steps, trying to figure out how this could have happened. I had worked my regular shift on the highway. Another teller, Jack O’Hannigan, had invited me over to his place to drink some champagne he had gotten as a gift. Jack’s an interesting guy in the sense that he never offers me any normal liquor. I’ve drank Sambuca straight with him, weird African cream liqueurs, those Asian concoctions with dead snakes in them. He’s even made moonshine. But I’ve never seen him have a bottle of whiskey or gin like normal people. Anyway, I was excited because it had been a while since I had last drunk champagne and it’s always nice to indulge in luxury. We started the night off right with the bottle and then decided to go to a local bar. I think it was the Rusty Shamrock, but I don’t think it really matters. The sort of bars I go to tend to be exactly the same. Kind of like this one. Of course, I drank more, but nothing beyond normal. After all, I managed to drive home didn’t I?

I can’t finish my thoughts though because when I look over, the sheet has slid off her body and where her radiance was before is a tangled mess of scales and scars. It’s really the sort of thing that is impossible to tell. I’m not even sure if she is a sea-serpent or just the victim of one. Now the fear is really escalating. I wonder if I am dreaming or if I am being haunted by some sort of witch or spirit. Don’t roll your eyes, you weren’t there, I know what I saw. I know I am not the best of people, but there is no way I could deserve this.

And then? asks the woman across the table as she takes another cigarette.

I drink another glass of gin. Everything is in motion.