There was a young man in the bed behind the dividing curtain who had somehow lost his hand. That was all Chuck knew for sure. He didn't know which hand, or how much forearm. Or how. Chuck was on a hospital high. Completely without responsibility. As worry-free as he had been since birth. His job was to lie in bed and sleep.
At first he was bad at it. The air was filled with boops and beeps of monitors and machinery. The rustles and scrapings of skilled people at work. Putting things where they were needed. Trailing cords that hummed on the floor. The occasional rush of response to a crisis. And scents. Always strong scents where before there had been absences. There was lemon, and iron, and sterility and foreboding. And he was unable to express anything. Too groggy to ask someone to please shut the door. He tasted bad breath and the lights were attached to switches he couldn't swat and the distance between himself and his constant dislike made the feeling hotter and broader as it pushed it further away. All he could do was pout. Slowly. At no one.
But only at first. His medicine came regularly. And the sedatives. Both of them so strong. And good. Like everything was. The good skilled people brought him round after round of viscous, wonderful medication. Liquids and pills. They looked just like the chemicals that they were. Chuck gobbled them with his little waking energy. He had been a patient for three days. Perhaps four. It was perfectly acceptable to shut his eyes against anything he didn't want to see. All of his senses. He had given up trying. It had nothing to do with him.
They wheeled the young man in. He had a drawn face. A fish's fat lips. Under the sheet, his gaunt body protruded at unconscious angles. He was balding gently. Young. Very young. Recklessly. To Chuck he looked like an impossible newborn. A thought arose, unbidden; he spoke it: “Bar fight.” It was a mumble. As he laughed he projected a thin drool. Someone drew the curtain. And he fell back to sleep.
There was a surgeon, standing there. He held a clipboard. He was ticking items off a list. He looked like a surgeon. Chuck tried to ask him a question. The surgeon said that they'd intended to reattach the hand, but something something tendon damage, and as it happened they had a perfectly good left hand arriving that afternoon. From a firefighter. So what the surgeon had done instead was clean up the area as best he could. Somebody asked if a fireman's hand was the wisest choice for a young man with unblemished skin. The surgeon said there'd been an accident with a ladder.
Chuck looked for his hands. He felt a presence. Their waxiness. But he couldn't see them. He couldn't see anything. But there were the voices. He wondered whether this was a memory, or a dream. Or the memory of one. He opened his eyes. Well—there was the surgeon. He wore a lab coat. He wore green scrubs underneath it. He looked like a surgeon. He was checking off items from his list. Chuck tried to ask him a question. The words were a distant echo in his skull. He tried to pinch himself. Nothing happened. He tried to grow a third arm. He could see it—gray and scaly. Like a Greek statue. Extending from his chest. Except it wasn't there. Chuck put blue scrubs on the surgeon. Then he slept.
He had a bet going with one of the nurses. As to how the young man lost his hand. The nurse didn't know about the bet. Chuck thought the young man had himself made a wild wager.
“Uh-huh,” she said. She was changing tubes.
“He wagered that he could draw the short cigarette out of a full pack.” He tried to give her the flowers. “And then… And then he couldn't.” He held the vase and dropped it. A little water sloshed over the lip and wetted his lap.
“Okay.” The nurse took the lip between thumb and forefinger and set it back on the bedside table as she reached across him to cover his shoulders with the sheet.
“You have such beautiful movements.”
She shrugged. She had big shoulders.
“So… economical.” Chuck was filled with awe. And love. They brimmed up inside of him and threatened his heart. He reached for her. He could not move.
“What happened next?”
“Next. Next, everybody shouted. They were all good-natured about it. They all bought him drinks.”
“They wanted him to feel good.”
“Sure they did. They all… they all had mustaches. And they clapped him on the back. And then they took him to the back room, and held him in place. They're all very strong.”
“Uh-huh.” She held him up with one hand and swapped out his pillow with the other and gave the flowers fresh water from an old pink spout.
“But he wouldn't run. Not from a wager. He's an honest man.”
“That's a good quality to have.”
“No. Not him. He stayed in place, and he tensed himself. And then they chopped off his hand with a knife as wide as a phone book.”
“That sounds barbaric.” Chuck didn't know her name. He called her Nurse Spirulina. It had just come to him. She pulled the cord to close the blinds when she came to it.
“No. No; don't you see? It's… noble. It's a noble thing, what he did. They appreciate that.”
She handed him his water and his medicine and he took them. Then he leaned back. “In Little Istanbul,” he said.
She struck the lights and looked back at him as she wheeled out the cart. “Keep resting,” she said.
“They do,” Chuck said. He snuggled into the bed. “They really do. They know how to treat you right.” He sagged harder against the mattress.
There was running in the hallway. There were two policemen at the foot of the young man's bed. Chuck could see all of one of them and the hat and half the face and the left arm of the other. They were taking a statement. The policeman without a hat looked sympathetic. He nodded a lot. He was younger than his partner. But his partner took the statement. It had to do with a girl at a crosswalk. On the college campus. She was walking against traffic and the car in the leftmost eastbound lane swerved at the last second to avoid hitting her and crashed into the car idling peacefully at the crosswalk in the rightmost eastbound lane instead. The driver of the idle car had been dangling his arm out the window with a cigarette in his fingers at the time. Chuck thought of the hand and some percentage of the forearm twisted around and back upon itself in the pressure of the wreck. He shuddered. It came out a bubbly mewl. He laughed. There were bubbles in his throat. He wanted to clear it. But his coughs were weak and aggravated the bubbles. The bubbles tickled his throat and the tickles produced more bubbles and he wasn't strong enough to stop any of it from happening. Most of what he did happened to him. The policemen were staring at him. The younger policeman wore the same sympathetic expression. It was frozen in place. Chuck wondered what he looked like to them. He pictured a stick figure, prodded by ghosts.
The laughs continued. They sounded like a very old man in a dust storm. Chuck's stomach ached. All of him ached. Laughing was a full-body exercise. The laughter was gaining strength. He started to worry that it could sustain itself indefinitely. That he had become a vessel for it. Then hands appeared. Beautiful, confident hands. Hands that bore a small paper cup filled with cool water and smaller paper cups full of color. Their appearance righted him. He sucked at the cups. One of the hands patted him on the forehead. There was a face. Kind. It said something. Chuck smiled. He had the paper cups in a little stack. He held out the stack. The face repeated its words. One of the hands patted him on the forehead. It was gone. Only an impression. Chuck's head was filled with impressions. He tried each one.
The running continued, accompanied by shouting. People were shouting at one another, through the corridors. For things. The policemen ran. As they went the older policeman turned to Chuck and spoke. He could have said anything. It sounded like “Nice flowers.” Chuck turned. There was the squat vase, filled with a growing spray of orange and yellow flowers. And purples. Their petals were round and thin. In the evening light they looked otherworldly. All of the flowers were turned away from him. Except one. Its middle was black and ringed with gold. It looked like something. Chuck watched it. When the flower became a face he knew he was dreaming. He watched it anyway—watched it ascend, take flight.
There was light but it was brighter than it should be. A haze of it. His eyes wouldn't focus. When he opened them he swam in blurry white light and when he closed them the light turned flesh-red and got blurrier but didn't go away. There was a noise—a faraway thump. He made a face and tasted chemical mint and then realized he was tasting it and then realized his face was one of discomfort. He was making the face he made when he felt great discomfort. But he didn't feel discomfort. But he was not comfortable. Everything he thought about happened before he thought of it but after he knew he it was happening. He shut his eyes and moved his tongue.
Someone said something.
He was hungry but he didn't want any food. Not at all. Just the thing that the food represented. For nourishment to have appeared inside of him without him having to get it there.
Someone said, “Chuck.”
He opened his eyes. Everything was blurry light in different shades of blue. Of light. He unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth, over and over.
Someone said, “Chuck. We're going to remove your asshole now.”
He unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth. Squinted. Something wasn't right. He thought about it for a moment. He tried to say, “What?”
“Your asshole,” someone said. “We're going to remove it. Like we talked about.”
Carefully, with only fingers and no large gestures, Chuck felt for his asshole. He lifted one side of himself ever so slightly. It was important that whoever was there not see what he was doing. He prodded. There it was. Round and small. And present. Like it always had been.
Chuck frowned. He weighed his words. There were so many of them. He searched. His hand was still beneath himself. He double-checked for his asshole, and then, patiently, curling the fingers into a fist, withdrawing the fist, rolling his arm out from under himself, lowering himself back to the surface, waiting to sense the reaction of his surroundings in the wake of these movements, he smiled. He thought he was probably smiling. He said, “That can't be what you're really saying to me.”
There were whirrings. Then murmurs. From behind him. The light had a pulse. Chuck thought that maybe the pulse was the blood in his body. Dimly, imperceptibly, he reached for his asshole.
Someone said, “That's fine.” And someone put something over his nose and mouth, and held it in place. “You're going to be just fine,” someone said. “Just fine.” All there was was the flesh-red presence; then less of it; then nothing.
The first thing Chuck did was check for his asshole. It was there. It felt solid. He found himself sighing. He was awake. Wide awake. Nothing in front of his thoughts. He blinked. The world had gone quiet. The stillness of a pleasant evening. Neither beeps nor boops. He listened hard and thought that maybe there were padded feet shuffling past the room.
The curtain was drawn halfway. He blinked. There was a presence with him. Sitting at the foot of the young man's bed. A faintly smiling older man in a tan trench coat and a black hat. The hat was a fedora. It looked like a fedora. He sat at the young man's feet and cupped one set of his toes. His smile didn't change. He noticed Chuck and waved. “Hello.”
Chuck blinked. “Hi.”
“I'm sorry if I woke you.” His voice was deep, and even. But kind.
“I don't think it was that.” He blinked. “I don't know.” He sat up. “I'm not used to feeling awake.” He moved his tongue around. Blinked, deeply. He asked, “Is that your son?”
“Oh,” Chuck said.
He stood up and brought his chair to Chuck's bedside and sat down.
Chuck said, “Okay.”
The man did not respond. He just smiled his small smile. The seat of the chair was lower than the bed but the man seemed to look down upon him. They stayed like that.
Chuck asked, “Are you… are you Death?”
The man threw back his head and laughed. His laugh was hearty and full. It sounded like companionship. A long companionship. He laughed with his belly and with that magical part of a person that could only be roused by circumstance. He laughed until Chuck started to feel all right about things, and then he laughed a little more. Then there was unease. Then the laughter began to trail off. But it was still there.
“No,” he said, finally. “I'm visiting. I'm a visitor. ”
Chuck nodded. “Oh.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
“What are you doing here?”
“In the hospital?”
The man laughed again. There was a feather in his hatband. A short white feather mottled with red. The tip was all red. When he laughed the tip caught the light and looked like thin skin. He said, “That's where we are, aren't we?”
“No. Sure. Okay. Well. I was feeling pretty lousy–”
“You were feeling pretty lousy.”
“Yeah. Just after the holidays.”
“Yeah, sort of at the very end of the year—”
“Wonderful things, holidays.”
Chuck squinted at this man. He repeated things as if feeling for the truth in them. He was holding Chuck's hand in both his own. Sitting on his chair and waiting. He gave Chuck a small nod.
“And so I thought maybe I had a bug, a twenty-four hour bug, or something, but it lasted a week. And on the morning of the eighth day I couldn't get out of bed.”
He put one hand to his mouth. “Goodness.”
“Yeah—it was pretty surprising to me, too.”
Someone had brought a pitcher of water and a pair of plastic cups on a tray. The man followed his eyes and got up and went for the pitcher. “Please; continue.”
“Well, so I woke up on the eighth day, completely soaked. Actually wet. Not moist, the way you sometimes get over the summer. Just, disgusting and drenched. My pajamas; the bedsheets; the pillowcases. The comforter. Wet to the touch.”
“You mean drenched.”
“I thought—this is going to sound gross.”
He held up a hand. “I promise I've heard a lot.”
“I thought—I thought I had wet the bed. The cleaning lady came in and asked if I wanted her to strip the bed, and I was mortified.”
“Of course you were.”
“And I couldn't answer her. I was so tired. I felt like—I had never felt like that before. And I didn't want her to touch me. Or any of it. I tried to think of what to say. I probably looked like I was having a heart attack. Or anyway something terrible. This poor woman's staring at me, and I'm just squirming. After a couple minutes, she called an ambulance.”
He clapped his hands. “A wonderful woman. A thoughtful woman.”
“Yeah. She may have saved my life. And—”
“Perhaps she did. But it was the right thing. The prudent thing.”
“And in the ambulance the guy said he had never seen a human body sweat that much.”
A series of laughs and claps. “You were spared a crippling humiliation.”
“I don't know about spared.”
“You were spared.”
“I was spared the worst of it, probably; let's put it that way.”
The man leaned in. “What next?”
“Well, so, they brought me here, and asked me how I was doing; they ran a bunch of tests; they gave me a bunch of morphine, or something great, to keep me under—although, who knows? I could have been that knocked out from all the different stuff going on inside—”
“But, what they found was, I have early onset pneumonia. And, an infection in the lining of my stomach.”
The man stopped.
Chuck nodded. “So.”
The man said, “Oh.” He leaned back.
“Yeah.” Chuck clasped his hands. “It's pretty bad.”
“Yes.” The man looked away. “I suppose.”
“Oh.” Chuck rolled his eyes. “And, an intestinal parasite.”
“An intestinal parasite?” He lurched forward, grasping the bar on the side of the bed. “Are you sincere?”
“I know; it's weird. It's… unusual.”
“It is bizarre. What a bizarre thing to happen to you. Do you know what caused it?”
“I… do not.”
“You have no suspicions?”
“Maybe some bad cheese.”
“You must have an idea. An inkling.”
“I don't know; it could've been—”
“It could have been any number of things. You ought to be re-tracing your steps.”
“I've been sleeping.”
“Of course. But: upon first rejuvenation of your energy.”
“They keep me pretty doped up.”
“Have you been deducing?”
“I've been trying to eat a little bit. They removed the parasite a couple, a day or two ago. Maybe. I don't know, when.”
The man put a hand to his chest. “That sounds dramatic.”
“It could have been today. Do you know what time—”
“Are you in pain?”
“Pain? No; they put me under. They did it—”
“I said are you in a great deal of pain.”
“No; they did it—they did it in surgery. I wasn't conscious for it.”
The man brought his hands together in a terrific clap. “Bravo. Then you are cured.”
Chuck looked around him, to what he could see of the sleeping young man in the next bed. “Well, I don't know about—hey, we should probably be keeping it down. Are we going to wake him?”
“Keep it down? Keep what down? Don't you feel jubilant?”
“Jubilant!” He brought his hands together. The sound exploded outward, bounced off of the walls, shot through the open doorway into the world, where nothing greeted it.
“I don't know. I guess I feel… pretty good?”
“Pretty good?” The man was agape. “Have you got a scar?”
“Yes—a scar!” The word had the same explosion behind it. Around it.
He was standing now. Chuck said, “You know, I don't know.”
“Well—lift up your gown.”
“My—lift up my gown?”
“Lift it up, man. That's something to be proud of.”
Chuck hesitated. “You mean a scar.”
The man reached for the gown. Chuck recoiled. The man laughed his same laugh. At the fun he was having. He lunged again. Chuck recoiled again and fell off the other side of the bed. He knocked a machine to the ground and sent his cup of water flying. He was splayed out on his belly on the tile floor, his gown around his hips, face-to-face with a ball of cotton. He groaned. “Ow,” he said.
The man came around to his side of the bed and stopped short at the foot of it. He said, “Oh.” He said it like a man who's just discovered he is eating dirt. Chuck heard him turn and then turn back and say “Oh” again and turn back again. The mirth reentered his voice. He cackled as if the two of them were old, old friends. “You've got a scar, but it isn't where you want it,” he said. “And it isn't where you can show it off.” He held on to the wall for support. “Not in polite company.”
Chuck stared at the cotton ball.
The man laughed. “Did your parasite have a twin?” He cackled. “Were there two parasites?” His laughter was persistent. But not unkind. Focused.
He was back in bed. The man was back in his chair. He looked happy. Expectant. “So what are you going to do now?” he asked.
He spread his arms. “Now.”
The bedside telephone rang. “I don't know what you mean,” Chuck said.
The phone rang. “What I mean,” said the man, “is what will you do next? What will the next thing be?”
“I don't...” The phone rang. “Probably whatever it was going to be.”
The man nodded. At first he was out of sync with the ringing of the phone. Then he wasn't. Then he was. “And what's that?”
“Jesus, man, I don't.... What do you keep asking me that for?”
The man cocked his head slightly. The telephone rang. “Has this been a transformative experience?”
He nodded. “For you.”
“I don't really...”
The phone rang. Chuck said, “Look, you're closer to the phone than I am.”
The man tossed his head toward the next bed. “It's for him.”
Chuck looked at the other bed. “The, that guy?”
The man nodded. “Answer it.”
“How do you know it's for him?”
The man leaned in. “He can't answer it.” He pointed without looking. “Look at him.” Pointed at the stump. “Go ahead.”
Chuck looked at the phone. “I don't even know him.” It was old. An old model. The phone vibrated in its hook as it rang. The ring started at one volume and ended at another.
“He won't mind.” The man had the receiver in his hand. He held it out to Chuck. He said, “Go ahead.”
Chuck thought about it.
The man said, “It's fine. Go ahead.”
The telephone wasn't ringing. The man held it out. Chuck thought about it.
“Go ahead,” the man said. “Pick them.”
He waved the receiver. There were flowers growing from the mouthpiece. Long and thick-stemmed. Brilliant like refracted light.
“It's fine.” The man shook the receiver. “I'm telling you.”
“I don't know,” Chuck said.
“You're worrying too much. Here.” He plucked one at the base and handed it over. Chuck accepted it. Inhaled. It smelled sweet. Faint.
The man was smiling at him. Chuck said, “You must be a magician.”
He expected him to laugh. But he said, “No.” He said, “I'm not.”
It was morning because the light was growing. The blinds were up. It was painful. There were visitors. Four of them. A mother and three daughters. The mother was the shortest and she swept into the room first and her girls got taller as they came. They surrounded the young man's bed and ducked their heads like tiny birds to peck kisses at his face. The curtain was drawn all the way back. The young man reached up with his good hand for each of them. He smiled at them. His mother looked as though she wanted to cradle him. She kept putting her hands down on the stump and then removing them and taking hold of the bedside railing instead. The women commented on his appearance and his luck and his surgeon and he smiled brashly at their words.
There was a jar on the bedside table. Chuck looked at it. Craned his neck to peek around it. The jar was a jar. It was filled with a thin yellow liquid and a vague white blob. The blob had sharp edges. It came to a tiny sharp point. The mounted television was on and each member of the young man's family turned to it, every few seconds, as if by reflex, though they also cupped his face in their hands and kissed his forehead and peppered him with questions about what had happened, how it had happened, how he had felt, how he felt now. Chuck wondered what kind of gift the young man's family had brought him. Whether it was some sort of delicacy. The program on the television had to do with forests. Forests or forest fires. Every so often a scene of the deep woods was interrupted by a shot of a person, sitting near a bookshelf, saying something. The jar was on the table between their two beds. A man said something about nature, something about cleansing. Every few moments the mother turned in Chuck's direction the same way that she and her daughters turned toward the television. Then he knew what it was. He raised his hand to snatch the jar away. The hand hovered above the bed, and stared at him, and fell back to his side. The look on the mother's face didn't change when she turned, and just as quietly she turned back to her son to share with him something about the procedure, the prognosis, the insurance claim. Chuck stared at the jar. A thin white blob turning slowly in the light. He watched for its eyes. The young man broke away from the television program to address his family as frequently as his family looked from him to it. The sound that the program gave off was insistent but very low. Most of the noise in the room came from the animated chatter of the young man's family. Through the doorway, the hospital was a steady pulse of unconcerned activity to which Chuck found himself increasingly drawn. Without realizing he was doing it he would glance from the doorway to the family, from the doorway to the television program. There was an order to the sounds of the hospital. A rhythm to them. Chuck thought he could almost feel it. When the young man's mother said something to her son about how he should have given up his smoking habit, he laughed and grinned bashfully and hung his head partway. His mother pressed him and the second-tallest sister said something about it too and the shortest sister turned toward them to add what sounded like a supporting statement mostly related. The young man only grinned and agreed. The rhythm came from being a part of the hospital, letting it overwhelm and consume him. His mother said if he had quit smoking for his father's birthday like he'd promised he would either be lying in a hospital bed with just a concussion and an injured knee or he wouldn't be in one at all. There wasn't a conscious meter to the rhythm. It moved according to its own needs. Its breath changed in order to meet the pace of those needs. The young man only grinned. And Chuck understood. It was the kind of grin worn by people who were used to doing what they wanted and charming their way out of the worst of the trouble they got into whenever it did arise. Something like compassion and envy formed in his chest. It grew there. The jar was tall and thin and had a thick white lid. Chuck wanted to hold it. He reached over. He was such a shit. Used to creating messes of which he was unaware. He had probably ruined fancy desserts as a child by eating them with his bare hands as they cooled in the late afternoon. He had probably already forgotten about more pregnancy scares than he would ever remember. And yet his age made it impossible for Chuck to feel anger or indignation. Toward him. He was such a young man. Young and so dumb. It didn't matter that he had infinite time in front of him. To become what was regarded a “better” person. Or whether he ever would become one. Chuck saw how whole he was. How fundamental. How unlikely it was that anything in him would ever change. His family knew that. It had grown used to him. It was why no one criticized him for the close attention he paid the television set. And why even in their initial cries upon sight of his stump, swaddled to twice the thickness of a normal forearm, there not a trace of real anguish among them. They didn't see a stump. They didn't see where his attention went. He was himself. So there was nothing to be concerned about. This was their standard exchange of information. Only the setting had changed. As he reached for the jar the movement of his arm caught the mother's eye and she turned to him. He stopped. They looked at each other. Chuck felt the void of guilt but not the sensation of it. He heard a beep. He knew there would not be another. The moment stretched. The surgeon. With his blue scrubs. He could explain this. He could explain the jar. Chuck waited for him. He tried to present a smile. The smile would explain that surgeon was coming. There was no distress over the surgeon's absence. He continued his absence. The void shifted.
Then the moment passed, and the mother's face returned to normal, and she smiled at Chuck and said something that sounded like “Hello,” and one of her daughters, the tall one who had said the least, turned to him and looked away.
Chuck cradled the jar. He didn't imagine flowers, or a face among the petals, or a radiant stem. He stared into the tiny hard eyes of the blob. He saw that what he had thought was a fat bloated body was in truth a thin floppy frame looped over onto itself dozens and dozens of times. A body many times longer than his own. He counted the loops as they floated gently together, gently apart. A pair of burly orderlies came in and nodded to the young man's family and did their orderly things. The family's attention strayed. The young girls looked around the room. The tallest ran a finger along the frame of a painting of a beach at high tide. Chuck's brow furrowed. A tiny tongue protruded from the white blob. The blob was smiling at him. No one else knew. He reached around and stuffed the jar behind his pillow. The jar slipped around the bed frame and clanged against the floor. It smashed against the floor. Everyone looked up. They looked at Chuck and around him. He thought he should pretend to be asleep. He closed his eyes and lay back. That wouldn't work; they had already seen him. He opened his eyes. One of the orderlies walked out of the room. Briskly. Everything was happening briskly. The second orderly did precise things with his hands and the needles and tubes and swabs they held. The mother spoke to him in tight, practical sentences, asking for information about sustenance and physical therapy and rehabilitation. The tallest daughter stared at the painting. As if she were trying to identify something about it. Something in it.
Chuck saw his opportunity. He lay his elbow into the second of his pillows. It billowed backward, between the bars of the bed frame. Chuck lay into it a second time. The pillow was wedged in place. He pushed back against it and twisted his body into the push. The pillow fell behind the bed. Chuck sighed. The pillow would conceal the blob. It would soak up the liquid and conceal the blob. And it was behind the bed, and under it. No one had to know. It wasn't anyone's concern. He could go on lying in the bed, absorbing the world and being absorbed by it. Nothing else had to happen.
The orderly returned and fell back into position. In his wake came a janitor. Another burly man. He had coarse stubble and a round face and a thick chest. He wore scrubs. And covered shoes. He kept his eyes down. On his work. Chuck tried to get his attention. He tried to say “Sir.” All he could manage was a consonantless groan. The janitor reached under the bed. He held up a corner of the pillow between two gloved fingers. The pillowcase was blue. The lower corner a darker shade of blue. Beneath that came the sound of urine streaming into a bowl. Of rain spattering against a tile floor through a hole in the high roof. The janitor looked at Chuck. He didn't say anything. Chuck tried to think of something to say. He tried to smile. He imagined he looked like the victim of a stroke. He tried to look like one.
The janitor reached down and grabbed something else and tossed it into his mop bucket. Chuck never heard it land. He imagined the blob. It looked up at the room from the bucket. A small, ageless creature. Everything else from a different point in time. Full of something it had no ideas about. And which had no idea of itself. Its existence. He tried to turn his blob head, but the notion disappeared in a cowering slither.
The young man had drifted off. His family kissed him and squeezed his sleeping stump and filed out as they came in. Now Chuck could hear the television, under the hum of voices and movement outside. He could sense its movement. He didn't want to collaborate. He concentrated on the television. It was full of excitement. And more. Always something more. The forest fires continued. After those came whales. After whales, the ruins of a mountain civilization.
Some of the flowers were dying. It occurred to Chuck that they were too tall for their vase. They towered over it, their long stems bowing slightly in the middle. He looked around the room for sharp objects. The young man's bed was empty. He opened the drawer in the table. Only an empty bottle that rolled to the front.
He frowned and took the flowers out of the vase and lay them on the table and stared at them a moment. Then he picked the closest one and snapped the end from it like a green bean. And the next one. The third was soggy and fibrous and took twisting and pulling to break. And the next one. And the one after that. Alongside the clean breaks was a row of gelatinous masses. He lifted one of the remaining flowers to the tip of his mouth and bit the end from it. It came away cleanly. The taste was bitter. An unconsciousness bitterness seeping inside of him. He grimaced. He hacked like a game bird swallowing a marble. He fanned at his mouth. He reached for the vase and drank from it. Then again. He gasped. Hawked.
The young man entered, in a wheelchair. He stared at Chuck but the nurse pushed him to his bed. “Forgot my bag,” he said, with a sudden smile.
“Oh,” Chuck said. He added, “Yeah.” He put the vase back, arranged the flowers in it. There were two with long stems. They looked unsure of the others.
The young man sat the bag in his lap. He drummed his fingers on it. Chuck watched them because nothing else moved. The young man said, “Yup. Got ’em both working again.”
“Oh,” Chuck said. Then he realized. “Oh! Hey. That's great. That's, that's great.”
“Thanks,” said the young man. His hair was very precisely ordered. “They said it'll be a couple of months before I'm up to full sensation. But, you know.” He made a masturbatory gesture with his new hand. It was a gigantic hand. Much bigger than his birth hand. The nurse rolled her eyes.
“Does it hurt?” Chuck asked.
They headed for the door. “See you,” said the young man, pumping over his shoulder a giant fist.
“Oh—hey,” Chuck said. The nurse stopped. She fixed her eyes on him but turned the chair. Chuck held out the vase. “You forgot these. Also.”
A smile. “No thanks, man.”
Chuck looked from the vase to him. “What do you… mean?”
The nurse pushed them out. “Not my thing.”
“But these—aren't these yours?”
He was gone. Chuck stared out the doorway. A doctor passed by the room. Another. A janitor. He sat down on the bed, stretched his legs. The vase grew heavy in his hand. He had been trying to let go of things as best he could. Little things. The kind he knew he shouldn't carry with him. Slights and imperceptions. His shopping cart bumped into. Being walked in front of by people. A couple. Their only acknowledgement of the shift in his stride a glance over one shoulder after they had moved past. Acknowledgement only by his absence. It was more than simple things. The feeling of being overlooked. Sometimes the mailbox. Trapped in his car by any delay, any halt. The merest construction detour or poor decision by the drivers in front of him. Anything that kept him from moving toward what he intended at the pace he knew to be appropriate. When in his fatigue he noticed other people he imagined what it must look like. A sweaty, tired man pounding on an uncomplaining wheel. Squeezing it. Throttling it as one might the neck of an unfortunate chicken. Exactly as pathetic and soggy as he was. The ability to see himself this way did nothing to keep him from acting like it. He was no calmer for the knowledge that the anger was irrational, that he was foolish for letting it guide him. There were no other means of release. For it, or from it. He started to walk to places. Without knowing he was doing it, he examined other recurring moments in his life, noting other sadnesses and hesitations as they appeared. He had a way of staying caught over time in something he only then began to understand had been there all along. It reminded him almost of the detachment he felt in his hospital bed while the hospital went about the business of itself. What he was was a tiny component of a very large thing. His role in that thing was to stay still and exist.
A nurse came in, pushing a wheelchair. Her blonde hair bobbed as she walked. “You're not dressed,” she said.
Chuck looked down. He was wearing his hospital gown. He double-checked. He said, “I don't understand.”
“Your clothes, silly-pants.” She patted the seat. “We're getting you out of here. I'll pull the curtain so you can change.” She opened the closet. “Nice flowers,” she said. “Are they yours?”
“I don't know.” Chuck looked at them. One of the red ones was ghastly and drooping but it hadn't fallen yet. “I guess so.”
The nurse folded his items and put them into a hospital bag. “What kind are they?”
“I don't know.” Then: “Do you want them?”
She laughed. “No thanks. I've got my hands full for the rest of the day. Of stool samples. No end to that. They just keep coming. More and more.”
“More and more,” Chuck said. “Well, do you know if—have I had any visitors, over the last couple days?”
“Has anyone visited my room?”
She burped. She was chewing bubblegum. It smelled terrible. “Sure. Your roommate had quite a few. This is the place to be.”
“Did any of them come more than once?”
“We don't really keep records...” She shook her hands and stuck her tongue out and made a noise that said she didn't know what else to say. “You know?”
“No,” he said. “You don't want them?”
He wiped his upper lip.
She smiled, a little bit. “Why?”
He didn't know. “They would go—you would look nice, with them. Because—I don't know. Why does anyone ever give anyone flowers? Because… because you have to clean up poop, how about that? Examine it. They're your poop flowers.”
“I don't have any place to put them.”
“You could put them on the poop machine.”
“It's not that kind of machine.”
“You could leave them at the nurse's station.”
“That's a good idea.” She patted the clothes stacked on the bedside chair. “Why don't you do that? I'll let you change.”
It was a different nurse who returned. He sat in the wheelchair with the bag upright on one leg and his hand curled around the vase on the other and didn't notice the station until they were passing it. They moved without concern. Chuck reached for the desk but saw that he was too low. Saw the vase slipping off the edge, falling to the ground, smashing. People picking up bits of glass between their fingers. Instead he kept it close to his chest. When the elevator chimed he looked back down the hallway toward his room. It was wide. Much more spacious than he had imagined. Full of people. But not enough of them. When the doors closed and the feeling began to pass he held it closer still.
He had suspected a problem with the refrigerator almost immediately. There had been a sale. He'd gotten a shrimp platter. The ice was melting off the shrimp and the shrimp were sitting in shrimp-water when he scooped a handful away for a morning snack. They tasted like it. More like shrimp-water and less like shrimp. Later on, after a nap, he poured a glass of milk. He had had an erotic dream. Sexless, but intense. In the dazed shuffle to the kitchen he'd forgotten the drama of it. It had something to do with false teeth and long stares. He poured the milk and drank it and it was much nearer to room temperature than milk probably should have been. But it tasted fine. That was the key. Not like spoiled milk. Not milk laden with bacteria. It couldn't be. It was much more likely that the refrigerator would continue to function until a more convenient time for it to not.
He paced the block. The next block. Looking for a worthy candidate. The dark doorway to a house whose occupants hadn't returned from work. An open mailbox. Secret—it had to be a secret. The hood of a car. An empty flag mount. All the cars were moving. He walked up the hill to turn at the intersection. A car approached, from behind: headlights on the low branches; then the power of the engine; then its physical presence. It rolled past the stop sign before taking off. He kept the bundle at his side in a tight fist. Like a weapon after use. He had wrapped the stems in aluminum foil but he could feel past it to the paste they were becoming. The little sinews and tendons of the stems, straining to maintain the muscle through which they'd been created. There was a row of townhomes most of which were empty and as he turned down the garden path of the first one a motion light came to life. He turned back up the path as a car pulled in to the adjacent drive. He switched hands. The drive wrapped around and the car followed it.
There was eggnog and deviled eggs and most of a ham. He thought about throwing it away but he wasn't sure the food was warm enough to justify the waste. He thought of donating it all. There was a soup kitchen within a short drive and a shelter close to it. The nog was unopened and the deviled eggs sat unblemished on a tray ringed with egg-shaped indentations made for that very purpose. But then there was the chance that the food had gone bad. He sniffed it. He didn't want to spread a bad thing and make it worse. So he got out a plate. He sliced against the bone of the precut ham and came away with meat enough for royalty. He piled a half-dozen eggs around it and got a pint glass from the cabinet and filled it to the top with creamy, lukewarm eggnog. After he set the food on the table he got a second glass and filled it. Then he sat and chewed. The ham had a gentle slime—one he didn't recognize, but thought could be attributes he had simply never noticed before. The extra warmth lent a sweetness to the eggnog; it complemented the ham wonderfully. His thoughts turned to families. And other people. Doing just what he was doing in much the same way. At least some of them were probably eating food that had sat out longer than was supposed to be healthy, or hadn't sat long enough in other, overtaxed refrigerators. That had to be. It felt more rational than not. He was coming to embrace unusual ideas when they nonetheless felt true.
His neighborhood was made up of low-slung bungalows and boxy old brick homes and shiny new developments. Mature, well-developed trees. The sun had set. It was cold but it didn't feel cold. He wasn't an especially interesting guy. He had always thought of himself as a person who knew how to go about his business. He followed the gutter down a side street and came upon a half-open mailbox. He pulled back on the rusted clasp. The hinge squeaked terribly. He tried to jam the flowers in through the opening. The foil that gathered the stems made the bundle too wide. The hinge shrieked as the loose post rocked in its hole. The neighbor rolled his trash can to the curb. A car blazed up the street behind them and stopped at the three-way. Chuck took a step into the street and another car barreled down the hill toward him; then another. He stepped back with the flowers pressed against his leg and out of the neighbor's line of sight. He started to walk back the way he'd come and as soon as he turned another car came around the bend at the opposite end of the street. It was white. The driver hadn't flipped its headlights just yet. The car streaked toward him in a faultless glide. Chuck stood on the curb with the flowers behind his back in his folded hands. Looking like a boy who had just rung the bell on his first date. He bobbed on the balls of his feet and ground the tip of his tongue into the floor of his mouth. When he crossed back to the other side of the street he followed the driveway behind the townhomes. A man was taking his dog out. It was fluffy and white, with a long head. It looked like a goose. The dog's owner smiled at Chuck as he passed, and Chuck pressed his lips together. He cut across a rise and walked the through street on the other side of the block. Lights were coming on. People standing in their yards. Talking. To neighbors. Their mailboxes at their doors. Someone crept behind him, waiting for a break in the cars parked along the street. He tucked the flowers back and stepped onto the curb. The car roared impractically as it passed. The draft knocked more petals from the bundle. There were petals everywhere. Spring was only a memory from years passed. He switched hands and wiped his palms on his thighs. He thought: You have no place here.
He chewed and chewed and drank. When the food was gone he took the second glass and refilled it and took it to the couch. He sipped from it and stared at the walls. After some time he felt faint hunger and rose to refill his plate and sat at the table to eat a second time. He finished and went to the refrigerator to plan the rest of his meal. The eggnog was gone but he had half a gallon of milk in a glass bottle. The eggs were disappearing, but there was plenty of ham. He had sliced cheese and mayonnaise and plenty of bread. He brought forward a container of chicken salad. Another full of yogurt. There was a tray of lasagna he had hardly touched. He had no fish. What he did have was enough. He would eat until he had to stop. And then he would wait, and eat some more. He was doing it right.
The smart thing to do would be to find a quiet spot to topple over. A quiet corner of a quiet yard around a home no one visited. Where he could sink into the ground and vanish, unknown. A pair of headlights crested the hill and raced toward the thoroughfares and opportunities of the city beyond. He felt the energy of the driver. He felt it in his chest and his arms. He wanted to hurl the bundle. He started to cross. A car came booming up the hill. He could make it if he ran but he wouldn't run. He jumped back onto the sidewalk and scraped the foil and the flowers against his leg. A group of people in the distance, coming his way. Dark shapes loping under their own spell. He wore a track jacket and a thin shirt. This wasn't a good idea. It was stupid. There was no other word for it. A stupid idea. Beautiful objects. Made stupid by his association with them. Someone laughed and then the group did. What plan was this? He was slinking from door to door. In his own neighborhood. Like a rapist. That was what he looked like. The oldest and dryest in the history of bad ideas. He had thought: I would like to give someone flowers. I bet someone would like that. And the response came back: Yes: someone would. It's possible. And you would. You would like it very much. It would make you feel good, to do that. But how many more people were going to pass him; how much longer was it going to take for him to finish and be gone? The flowers were less and less flowers. They were eroding, as he beat them against his knee unconsciously while walking the disappearing blocks. He wanted to lash out against the open air. As would a knight. A knight stuck out of time and fighting something he didn't understand though he could see it as clearly as the trees and the clouds and the natural world around him. He had a handful of flowers and he had to give it to someone in secret. That was all he had space for. But when the world shifted around him it changed the space it left for him to move through, so that even a single bundle was too much, too big an operation. A whistle as a car passed. He gritted his teeth. He wanted to heave the flowers into a bush and let them rot there. He wondered how the petals would look smashed against the windshield of the next car. An outburst of petals. Completely harmless. Everyone fine. The explosion muted against the curtain of falling night. If there was a use to it, he couldn't see it. It had become a pinprick. And the pinprick sat inside the curtain and mocked him without needing him to look up. The sidewalk and the street along the hill were dotted with weak sodium lights. They made every living thing in their glare a dimension duller than did sunlight's ideal. It was up to the people who relied on them to fill themselves. What was he even doing? What had he intended to try? To give a bouquet of flowers to a total stranger—what kind of unnecessary gesture was that? Half a bouquet. Now not that much. Cardboard flowers had more life. Fourth-graders had more imagination. Second-graders. Children with bright futures and agile minds and full hearts uncompressed by life. Not even a trace of incompletion—a knee skinned, a toy denied. Nothing internal that would blossom into the disappointment to be. That was what the music in the rushing cars sounded like. And the people, driving the cars, that pulsed with it. They were constructing bulwarks against disappointment. Huge, arrogant constructions made of volume and speed and light and that they carried with them wherever they went, like a blanket that drags on the ground. No one had any ideas about him. Everything was itself and for itself. The trees, in their silence, remained indifferent. There was no conclusion to this. He couldn't execute the gesture and even if he did it a little bit it would go unnoticed or be misunderstood. A man comes outside in the morning and crushes the delicate stalks with his first step. Why would he look down? A woman steps out to survey the street, catches a glimpse out of the corner of her eye, and then stares at this misshapen thing with a face contorted in horror. No love. No loving surprise. Someone who thinks the flowers are from a secret admirer that she's suspected for weeks, who thanks him for the flowers only for him to be confused and put off by her. Or she by him. And what if she becomes ill at the thought of him, because what he thinks is sweet is to her terrible? Or if he is actually a terrible person, and she calls the police to have him put away for something he didn't do? And you've gotten someone arrested for nothing more than a fantasy? Which everyone has in their heads all the time anyway. So? What of it? What if? Do you even know what your thoughts are? You stupid, stupid person. Shame on you for having them. You should choke on the flowers and die. They should find you with stems sticking out of your mouth and a disgusted look on your face. Then you could be as done with this earth as it is with you. There is no way that what you are thinking would ever happen. They would blow away. Or an animal would drag them off and eat the prettiest parts and leave the gnarled stems to decay inside the foil that will never rot, never decompose and become a new element in the churning, grinding world that you want so badly to be a visceral part of. To soak into its guts. To lose yourself and any notion that you were ever anything more than middling compost far beneath an ugly bush and a frightened creature's turds. What are you doing. What did you think you would do. There was no way that this was ever going to be anything but wrong. Look at the source of it. All you have is yourself and your history of piddling action. None of your efforts toward anything have ever mattered. You don't matter. You are less than worthy of attention. This idea would have meaning in someone else's head. Anyone else. Anyone else in the world would have bought the flowers and handed them to the first person to answer a knock at the door. And smiled and walked away. Ignoring all the questions. If there even were any. Making it clear through gesture and gaze that the act was perfectly kind and joyous. No attachments at all. But you: you fumble around and fiddle so painfully for just the right way to do such a simple thing that the thing is no longer simple. You turn pure things grotesque. You could mutilate children and achieve the same result. This is what you contribute to the world. With your endless fumbling and worrying. You render impotent and dumb everything that could have been beautiful. You make it just like yourself. No one considers the things that for you are a part of everyday existence. No one else would ever for a second entertain these absurd thoughts. They are a complete waste of time and energy and existence. If you were to leave the flowers on the sidewalk and jump in front of the next car yourself, the flowers would more than fill the void you left. Everything would become buoyant. You would be the bell ringing and the angel getting its wings. The bell is the joy of the world ridded of filth and the angels every single other person getting a spring in their step and not knowing why. And not caring. You would care to know why. Instead of accepting the spring with grace and humility. Nothing about you is important. You need to understand that. These mashed-together, awful flowers. This soup of weeds that you've made, with nothing more than your stupid jangly body and your head full of dumb good intentions but no real understanding. These flowers have so much more worth than you ever could. You are made of poisoned things. And instead of bemoaning the poison influence you must have had on everyone you've ever come into contact with, the smart, responsible, sensible thing to do would be to wait, with true humility—and silence—for the fastest-moving car, and to roll under it as it passes. To just collapse into its beautiful, enchanting momentum. Hold the flowers; let them go; it doesn't matter. The flowers are already a ruin. They mirror your own sad nothing self. If you need proof of that nothingness: you are holding it in your hand. These drivers are energetic. They shoot down the hill like people taking charge of something. Not a single one of them would be affected by your selection of them, of their vehicle and careening youth, as the means by which you exit this world and crash headfirst into the black nothing that you can only pray awaits you. Let alone bothered. You are not worth the mental effort of even a minor, life-fracturing trauma. The skeleton of these peoples' lives will not be cracked, when you are gone. Write a note: “Please, continue with your plans for the evening.” Put it in your pocket. Let that be your self. No one will read it. The note is on your face. What driver would not see it? What coroner would spend his best energy on you? People are highly visible. Their lives are written all over themselves. You know this because you have spent so long examining yourself. Which is all you will ever know. Too much yourself to be outside of it. Either more or less. There is no void, when you are gone. They will find clothes, with nothing in them. Don't be so dramatic as to think that you would ever jump in front of a car. You are too much a coward to do anything about the problem of you. You should have known that the worm could do this job. You were warm and healthy for it. You could have eaten and eaten and kept it alive. The fattiest, most harmful foods. The least like nourishment. Food you actively ignore. Out of some misguided sense of duty to your body. Or the world. Whatever bizarre, inexplicable sense you make of those things. You could have eaten everything and clogged your necrotic heart and given the creature in your belly all it would have ever needed to grow and thrive and then to take you from where you don't want to be and put you where you hope there will be nothing to greet you. Least of all any semblance of you. Go home, and unplug your refrigerator. And sleep, and wait for the temperature to rise. When conditions are perfect, eat everything it contains. Eat the raw red meat, and the leftover noodles, and the mealy fruit, and the condiments. Eat, and wait for the eggs to grow again. Pray for them to re-appear, as if by magic. Let magic be the thing that takes you. The world so full of it. But none for you. Only this. It doesn't matter. None of this matters. You are nothing but the knowledge of your own worthlessness. Do what you know you should have when you had the chance. Until you can count on a bolt of lightning, it will be all you can trust. Let the eggs grow and become a part of yourself until they hatch an exception. One that needs you. It will have been the only one. Let it.
There was a woman watching him as he knelt beneath the mailbox. Squinting at him in the near-black. She thought to call out but then thought better of it. He spoke to himself and his whispers had the force of conviction. With violent pawing he parted the raw earth at the curb and after a defiant grunt he thrust both hands into the hollow he had made. She reached in through the doorway and flipped a switch and a soft yellow light washed across the shallow yard. Immediately he got up and walked away. He turned up a driveway not his own and passed behind a house and kept going. Into a copse of trees in the backyard. Through the brambles. She kept her eyes on him until she reached the curb. Planted at the foot of her driveway was a little bunch of flowers. Tickseed askew and daisy sagging. A third variety too mangled to identify. They looked like something obvious. To someone else. The misguided correction to a mistake long-festering and just as long forgotten. She pressed a foot down and then dragged the loose soil back into place. Stooped to pluck a ball of foil from the pavement. She squinted but there was nothing to see except the houses and the trees between them and the busy thoroughfare beyond that and after she tamped the dirt once more and went back inside the street was quiet dark again.