a seven-part exercise in flash fiction
The hospital is empty in the corners, busy with people in the corridors. Bodies shuffling, shifting, scurrying and waiting like extras on a film set with no consistent director. Dennis wanders around alone, holding his camera heavy in both hands, aiming at objects and faces even when the film has all run out. It helps having the narrow transit between his eyes and the emptiness that visually echoes around him. Too many monochrome layers, too many soft-soled shoes, too many filters sucking the texture right out of the air, leaving nothing to lean into.
The walls slip around him, he spins on squeaky sneakers, panorams the hallway and knocks a nurse in the ass with his elbow. She doesn’t find it amusing. Humor can’t thrive here, though people keep faking it, trying to cheer up the white polyester truth of where they are, not buying into the joke. Flowers spill from open doorways, losing perfume in transit. Bodies come here to clean out disease, push out souls.
Bertie won’t sit down, won’t let go of Tom’s hand. He’s hooked to tubes and suckers and oxygenators. Nurses come in and out checking blood gases, pulses, monitors and dosages. They acknowledge her, touch her occasionally, ask if she wants a cup of coffee, a chair, a glass of water. She smiles at them. It’s the smile that amazes him most. Dennis lives inside that smile; he banks on its reality.
Tom makes no noise, though any person allowed in the room hears a constant ruckus: air pumping through the duct of his throat, inflating the chest beneath thin sheets. Ventilation fans, heart bleeps on small dark screens, P.A. calls overhead. Nothing human, all man-made.
Scorpio has gone to find a pay phone to call Vicki who waits impatiently for their return home. When Bertie’s smile fades, she turns her head back to stare at Tom’s controverted face. Den squeezes the camera without lifting it. He’s sitting in a chair against the wall, just under the clock. Bertie scares him when the smile’s gone so he thinks about his father and the phone call, how they always seem to be dropping coins for the operators across the nation. How far away home is becoming, year by year. How his mother is more of a voice, a concept, than an actual woman.
Tom is going to die. Bertie knows it. Dennis sees it. Scorpio denies it.
He comes back finally with two cups of hot coffee loaded with cream and sugar. Dennis takes one cup, feels old sipping it, burns his tongue.
His father’s boots jar the under-silence he and Bertie have been mingling in. Conversation swells but doesn’t quite happen.
Hospital rules say neither of them should be allowed inside, but no one cares to enforce it, considering the precariousness unfolding here. What’s one more broken rule? The world’s inside-out already. The clock over Den’s head reads 2:10 with the second hand whirling nonstop in its predictable circle. Typical of hospitals, the clock doesn’t provide any useful information. Is it night or day?
“Is it dark outside?” Dennis asks between sips of coffee.
Scorpio nods, reaches for a cigarette then remembers where he is. “Yeah. Still night. You tired, Den-bear?”
“Uh-uh. Just couldn’t tell.”
He won’t think about the strangeness of his father’s phone call, waking Vicki in these pre-dawn hours. He doesn’t think about the illusion Bertie emits of not being weary herself. All if it makes sense in an inexplicable way. That he’s in a hospital room with a comatose biker named Tom, sipping coffee like an adult, riding out the unpracticed ritual of good-bye-for-good.
Bertie shifts on her feet, changes the hand she’s using to hold onto Tom’s hollow fingers. She’s been standing like that since before they got here, rolling in around 10pm and storming the room in a panic. Neil’s at home with his sisters. The kid must be freaked out. If that were Daddio – well, of course you can’t think that way. The heart just doesn’t have the wiring for that kind of sanity.
“Your mom’s pissed at me, you know, for not getting you back home.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not ready to leave yet.”
“We do ok, though, right?”
But he worries about Bertie. Both of them worry about her more than they worry about Tom. Scorpio asks her if she wants this or that. She just looks at him, blank, on pause. The thing she wants is rapidly becoming un-wantable. Den’s sorry his father asked.
He puts his coffee down on the night stand, stretches as he rises and walks to be next to her. Scorpio takes his place in the lonely chair, sighs a heavy man sigh. When Dennis stands close to her, Tom looks completely different than he looked from across the room. This is the closest he’s been to him all night.
From over there, he’s a person sleeping with attachments. In the light of this new proximity, he looks like bones draped in bleached leather, stained in random patterns, radiating left-over blood and fear. Cuts in his face and neck surreally stagnate on the surface of his skin, bandaged and stitched in some places, scabbing over in others. His eyes decline deep into his face and the lids are almost transparent, trying to keep them covered and private. This side of his head has been shaved and there are patches of white gauze stuck to the curve. Tubes flow out of him like an experiment, IV needles turn his arm veins into a complex root system draining the life out of his freckles, sucking the tattoos and body hair back into his body.
He looks like a diseased old man. Bertie stares into him like a lover.
Her feet shift every few seconds. Den imagines how tired they must be from holding her up. He notices a stack of clean linens on a table next to the door, leaves her side for a moment to grab two soft blankets.
Without saying a word, he nudges her legs and bends down until he’s eye-level with her dense ankles. Lifts the right leg and removes her shoe. Repeats the gesture with the left. Amazing how she lets him do this, not even glancing down to comment. Even Dennis knows how strange it is for him to move her like this, to act so parental despite his youth. But he moves directed by an intuitive understanding of what she needs.
When both shoes are off, he rests them under the bed. Now lifts the ankles again and smoothly slides the blankets under her feet. A manufactured cloud on cold tile. She smiles, tries to hold it long enough for Dennis to see.
“He’s afraid to go alone,” she says.
“You mean to die?”
“Oh yes. I think he doesn’t know how easy it will be.”
“Compared to this.”
“Compared to us.”
Bertie shifts hands again, holds Tom with her left and wraps her other around Den’s shoulders, pulling him close. He sinks into her body as if it, too, were a cloud. He feels her breathing, her pulse. Scorpio watches them from across the room, suffering the poignancy without speaking. When her voice opens again, Den feels the vibration in his own ribcage, all the way inside his heart.
“My Tom’s not my Tom. I want to help him, but there’s nothing I can say. I don’t know why this happens this way. Why it was today and not yesterday, not tomorrow. I don’t know why it happens, but I just wait. I wait for Tom to discover the place where his silence is good and easy. I wait. I just wait. But you must keep moving. You will learn. You will see.”
:: 1 ::
He’s stuck in one of those moments when young bones declare their stretching to the evolving mind. The camera in hand intensifies the silence in Den’s 13-yr-old thoughts. It’s a silence that makes his bones speak to fill the space around him.
He’s taller than his shadow now; at odd minutes he scrapes the fading sky with the round, upturned bowl of skull that holds his matter in. No way to catch those minutes, no way to stable the seconds. He is simply growing, but not simply. There is nothing simple about the way he’s aching and expanding. Scorpio may never know the kind of vitamins he’s feeding his son. Some of the vitamins will fester like mild toxins before they turn into nutrients. They’ll fester through years and years of wandering, the kind of wandering one does within the confines of his shadow.
Out in the desert things seem to melt, yet the air is so dry it stays their melting. It’s a perpetually oozing body that never flows out of itself. Den picks up the camera. The last frame has not been wound in yet so he cranks the lever. It’s a loud sound compared to so much silence. Scorpio stands away from the Harley, starts to walk in another direction with the sun behind him, catching on the heels of his boots. Dennis focuses carefully. Difficult to frame ghosts on spare earth, but he focuses; he guesses at the settings he needs. He feels with fingertips of soul to find the gages and subtle knobs. Not an exactness, but near.
He’ll learn these secrets later, but right now it’s good to make mistakes, to blur the intended sharpness. It’s merely good to aim and shoot, the arrows of truth flying quietly through his father’s leather jacket, straight through into the darkening East.
:: 2 ::
He stands with his back to the man on the bike, a little taller moment by moment, a little longer in his reach. The desert is all around them, the way Den expected it would be. He’s been through this scenery once before, but it was long ago and his eyes were smaller then. Too small to take in the whole cracked egg of his world. It’s like standing all the way inside that cracked egg now, the sound of their breathing echoes as if confined in a hollow space. Yet this is no confinement.
It’s so wide open that it makes you long for confinement. It enamors you of the contours of your body, the straps of your ribs aching to hold in your soul. The egg, the crack in it, the sense of creation interrupted. What was growing has temporarily left its nativity for otherworldly tasks. It may come back. It may not. In the interim the land is moody, waiting.
Den turns around and looks at his father who leans into the bike, leans into a long drag on his cigarette, leans into a thought not ready for words. The man is so familiar. They should be at home by now. They should be sitting at the dinner table. This familiarity is deeper than the desert, longer than the miles they’ve traveled. It confuses Dennis. What is the source of this sadness? It’s time to go home. Den holds the camera steady.
:: 3 ::
Bertie is the soul of the desert. Her body’s Navajo brown inside the dawn of civilization. Her heart, the rumble of wind across dark boulders, across the ocean of dry soil. He holds her now inside his small, growing frame. Keeps her obesity quietly tucked in the folds of his own taut skin. The mystery of Neil begins with Bertie. A muse, a catalyst, a goddess – but not in that romantic way.
A woman who wields power. And silence. Something so ordinary among the population, yet so extra-ordinary by the depth of her pulse.
She is an awareness.
The round belly that is the earth, where Den’s feet are so fragilely planted. She is what breathing feels like, slipping back inside the wound in which the mystery prevails. She is the night, the underside of sight flashing with stars. And she is wordless.
So quiet. You can slip all the way in and hear: your own thoughts. Her grief is enormous and frightening, more-so because she’s unafraid of it. Her patience is consuming and neutral. Her acceptance is a drug, a poppy blooming in the senses of a tender soul.
When he thinks of her he’s not actually thinking of anything specific, just the sensation of her, the part that he recognizes in himself. That knowing which reciprocates their natures. She gave him the camera, the safe eye to see the stillness of the spinning world. She gave him the lens that he alone can control and she gave him permission to lose control of it, completely.
Because inside that womb of continuous hours where they meet, there is only breathing, only expanding.
It’s the job of the soul to stretch out across the body of the desert and touch, without skin or fingers or nerves, the hidden creek that wets our knowledge of who we are. Who we are always.
Who we are when we are alone and a goddess looks into our eyes, looks into our dreams and says, yes. I see you clearly. All is well.
:: 4 ::
The night’s so cold, it’s impossible to sleep. So cold, it’s impossible to dream or intuit anything outside the realm of instinct. They lie close, body to body, and try to pretend it’s warm. Den shivers, bites down.
He doesn’t ask to leave; it’s not an option in his mind. This night is simply something he will have to get through. He can get through a night. It’s hard to explain why he doesn’t protest, why he doesn’t squirm or whine or complain the way most kids would. He wants to survive it. The sensation is that he’s surviving it for him, for his Dad and for himself. For his brother, Todd, and for his mother back home.
Dennis doesn’t feel like a saint, sacrificing his flesh for the pardon of others; his feelings aren’t haloic that way. But there’s a deep sense of carrying them all inside somehow, little crystals that resonate in his being. He carries their survival in his bones, in his fingernails, in his eyelashes. It’s so easy to feel them moving around his heart on a night like this. Daddio, also awake, moves his arm to secure his son’s warmth. Pulls him in, the little heater always burning. Nothing between them and the earth, nothing between them and the sky. They stretch and curl into the ground like slow night creatures, thoughts snaking in sand patterns with no where to go.
:: 5 ::
A boy is a slippery thing. A handful of stars dripping with liquid vaseline. Try to hold one in your hand or squeeze him down into your pocket: he either slips through the grip you’ve made or he burns your fingers off with his lurking sun powers. Todd is like that.
Loud, red, puffed up and inside-out. His growing startles Dennis, how much he has filled out this evolving form in the weeks they’ve been apart. New scars have formed in unusual places and Todd wants Den to inspect them all. “Connect the dots!”
Todd hands him a crayon. “Mom does it like this. . . .” He takes the crayon, burnt sienna with the paper peeled back, aims it at Den’s face to demonstrate.
“Hold still or I can’t do it right.”
“You hold still. I don’t want that stuff on my face.”
“Then do me, do me, Den. It’s fun.”
Dennis takes the crayon, aims for a scar on the kid’s right arm. Runs it up and down to connect the dots of his little brother’s slowly healing chicken pox.
We draw people in our lives with the colors they give us and we also add our own hues, tint them with the lenses we use. Dennis connects dots on Todd’s small arms, connects them on the back of his neck, on his twitchy cheeks, on his legs growing stubbornly from the ground up into the broad universe of potential manhood.
He connects dots, which are scabs and scars, and he knows that this map will change quickly. In a month or two, in a year or ten, this map will reinvent itself, cover his red sienna trails with unimagined stripes. Todd will always be scratching at something, making it bleed like this, fascinated with the scent and texture of his own blood. These scabs will heal and more will form. Dennis will be there to connect.
The gesture, so innocuous, verging on sweet, is the net that will catch this little giant of a soul and keep it from slipping through into the abyss waiting on the other side of sanity.
Todd squirms, sings, screeches, laughs. A star forms over and over, trying to find a shape to contain its burning core. Forms again and again, cannot outline itself, cannot stop trying.
Maybe if that star could create a crust that could slow things down for even the briefest pause, maybe then someone would be able to stare into it long enough to wish upon it. Oh, sad burning star twisting in childhood dreams. Dennis wishes upon it, unafraid of its heat, willing to connect its sparks.
He wishes with his silence: let it be quiet and still, just tonight.
:: 6 ::
In the dark, on his side of the room, Dennis sits with a piece of paper and a pencil. He has written one word at the top of the page, a short word with heavy letters. The word is a name, just a name. But no, it’s bigger than a name. He won’t limit it with punctuation, no comma or colon or dash feels welcome. Just the name: Bertie. Not even “dear” or some lame preamble. Bertie.
He’s home now, in the bedroom that should be familiar and cozy with Todd sleeping nearby and the old street lamps recognizing the shape of his shadow. His mother’s aroma lingers, the imperfect vacuum lines in the carpet under his feet, clothes with his name sewn in as evidence he belongs. When he thinks of Bertie, the longing is acidic, wearing away his blanket of rest and homecoming.
All night awake, swimming in that acid. Homesick for her presence, the light that comes through her and casts his shadow right. Stuck in the quick ticking of this midnight, he doesn’t have the tools to clarify what he feels, he just feels it. Homesick is the word he can’t identify.
He wants to write a letter, but doesn’t know what to say. Holds the pencil tight, then loosely, spins it, taps it against his teeth, draws a circle on the page. Erases it slowly.
He’s been too long away, has dreamed too long in that other dwelling with which this one could never compete. The dwelling of his emergence, his tender age, the split roads of growth in all directions, the desert studded with possible men. The ones who don’t come back and the ones who can’t leave.
Are you ok? I still have the camera you gave me and I took a lot of pictures every day and some of them are ok but I really like the ones when you were outside and I took them that day. Do you remember – me _ Dad says we won’t go back there but I don’t know if he means never or maybe just a long time from now. Maybe we can come back some time. We were in the desert after we left – in Death valley have you been there? It is a very strange place and I didn’t sleep very much when we were there but Dad slept and I felt like snakes were going to crawl over us and I didn’t care. Does that sound weird? I have to go to school tomorrow and Mom is scared because they keep saying I have to go somewhere else because we were gone so long. Did you know it would take this long to get home? Why don’t you and Neil come visit us? I don’t know – I hope you are ok and not missing too much – Tom. He is not hurting. I know that – but I don’t know.
It’s really late now my brother is sleeping and he makes a lot of noise when he sleeps sometimes because he’s always dreaming about loud things and he likes to make noise all the time. His hair is red he had chickenpox while we were at your house. Mom said he missed me. I love him. I miss you. Good night.
The words are hard to see in the dark. He can’t really remember what he wrote, even this soon after putting the pencil down. Marks on paper slant from corner to corner, not accurate or straight the way it felt when he was writing. They are nebulous, running together. The heart is a restless penman.
Dennis feels like crying, but doesn’t. He stares at his bed and tries to remember how to move.
Related reading: the character of Dennis first appeared as an adult, professional photographer in TORPOR: Though the Heart is Warm. Set in the 1990s, the novel explores themes of identity, self-deception, father-son confusions and spells we inadvertently allow family to imprint on us — spells we must learn to break.
Torpor by Laurie Perez | ISBN 1453684751 | 324 Pages |Amazon
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