Saturday, August 05, 2017

Here Be Dragons


Second take, with ending. Gonna tweak it and then tweak some more.

The ending is not strong enough.

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It was a hot evening. The smell of chlorine from a pool somewhere drifted enticingly on the almost-still breeze. Her phone, thrown with abandon onto the bed, buzzed and hummed in its soft nest. Erin ignored it and walked to the window - watching the sunset reflected in the glass panes of a neighbor’s window with a view, turning on no lights, hearing the sounds of the world revolve around her. The father of the family next door was teaching his son how to play basketball in the dwindling light, giving muted pep-talks and, somewhere, a ukulele was gently strummed. All around, the world brimmed with lazy contentment. She resolved to go to Mass the next morning. Mass might shake this feeling. Turning on a tv episode of a cooking show, she watched stiff-mouthed figures create whimsical dishes as she opened a can of sardines, squeezed lemon over it, and ate straight from the can.

The next morning, she listened to the priest with the too-plump mottled face as he gave a homily. The golden light of grace spilled in through the high stained-glass windows, creating soft blurred pastel colors on the floor within, and the dark wood pulpit stood directly beneath a scowling statue of Jesus that seemed incensed at every word the priest uttered, every prayer of the faithful, every living thing within its line of vision. The priest's voice belied his appearance - it was like a lilting bird that lifted and dipped, sweet and clear. But his words were out of focus.

He was saying something about God being love.

She prayed: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed."

"Say the word," she begged the implacable plaster face.

"Please, say it."

After Mass, she genuflected and walked away.

She strode along, a silent fury of frustration amid the street lights and stop signs. Passing a playground full of laughing children, she saw a nondescript tan car parked, its butt bestrewed with bumper stickers. "Practice random acts of kindness" one advised her, smugly, she thought. She drew her keys from her purse and glared at the vehicle before crouching down and methodically scoring the sticker several times with her jagged metal extensions.

Pedestrians looked at her one lone time. Only the owner of the car could practice such precision obliteration, they guiltily projected: perhaps she’d found the universe cruel, the words empty and void - a giant X over a previous state of mind. The more attuned felt the billowy emanations of wrath, wondering uneasily for a slo-mo blink what her deal was, allowing a wide berth on the sidewalk, and then disappearing into their lives.

Erin wouldn't have minded if people were honest but conveyed with cliché. The obverse was odious. These mealy-mouthed moieties resonated with people who had no dirt about them. Pristine and secure, platitudes fell from their mouths like vomit from the balcony of a third-story apartment. They didn't have to deal with the stench or the clean-up, and were left with the purgative feeling of a tum tum emptied of alcoholic turbulence. 

Standing up, she noticed with irritation that crossing the strip of short dry stalked vegetation between the sidewalk to the car had left plant debris clinging to her trousers. Burred seed faces looked up in hope. Destiny held for them a watery death followed by hot blasts of dryer air. They would never touch soil.

Erin continued walking, her destination a few blocks ahead. Abruptly tripping on the lip of a sidewalk edged up by the ambitious roots of a nearby tree, she fell onto her knees, stiffening her wrists against all reason, and felt the shock of compression run up her arms, the grit of ground stinging into her palms. Gingerly getting up and shaking her arms loose of the trauma, she figured it must be karmic retribution for what she’d just done, and mentally apologized to the owner of the car for destroying their property though she retained the right to judge based off a single declaratory sticker. How dare they?

A homeless man with grey matted hair and a ripe scent, sitting cross-legged by a boutique store-front, asked with aloof concern:
"You ok, miss?"
"I will be, thanks."

She could feel him sizing her up, using the estimative powers common to higher-animals, gauging whether to ask and, if so, with what words and pathos. He settled simply with: 

"Spare some change?" 
His twangy voice lacked conviction and she felt stung by his doubt. Reaching into her purse, she yanked her wallet from its dusky interior and pulled out a $20 bill. Suddenly embarrassed, she dropped it into the makeshift-bucket he’d fashioned from an empty fast food cup, limping briskly past so as not to seem to want or care for his thanks. Indeed, she didn't want or care for them as charity for her was not a performance art and she felt uncomfortable receiving thanks. Who was she to be thanked? It was a drop in the bucket, a temporary stay against the pressing indignities of life, a shifting bit of nothing. But, then, was she any better than the Pharisees? You can’t give in secret. The receiver knows.
"THANKS, LADY!" she heard from behind.

She didn’t respond.

Stopping in front of a cheerful looking café with potted petunias strewn about a small outdoor patio, she double-checked the name in the text message: Baladin’s Café. Yes, this was it. Pushing open the door, her eyes traveled around the bustling yellow room decorated with nondescript paintings of idyllic local scenes, stripped of all elements of color, until they rested on a group of friends in moods of full weekend gaiety. Sara’s deeply brown eyes met hers; she grinned and waved Erin over, indicating a seat that had been saved for her. Of course, it had to be the seat abutting the busy narrow aisle.  Of course.

A chorus of good mornings exchanged, Erin settled in and edged gingerly into the flow of the conversations around her.

Jennifer, who’d organized the ladies bruncheon, was telling Sara and Elizabeth about her umpteenth trip abroad to Italy: how she’d rented a little villa in Santa Marinella, a beach-town a short train ride away from Rome. Even in college, Jennifer of the jet-black hair had dressed with a mature understated elegance, fastidiously learned everyone’s name, been present but always distant. She facilitated, but she did not engage.

Elizabeth, perpetually unkempt, was fidgeting restlessly with the cutlery. The shadows under her eyes spoke of long days or troubled nights - working? Drinking? Insomnia caused by the weight of stress in fighting for shifts at the several restaurants she worked at? Erin watched her take a long pull of water from a tall glass, eyes glossed over, looking like her mind was already elsewhere and wishing body could follow.

Sara was more brightly engaged, having just returned from Europe, and still regaling any captured ear ad nauseam about her adventures, crossing her legs to show off to advantage the new sandals that Erin had unwisely complimented her on a few days before. “I bought these in Firenze,” she’d said, “at a shop away from the city centre. Nobody spoke English, but the lady running the shop had this intuition and knew exactly what I wanted!” Sara and Jennifer could form a haute world, reveling in their gnostic knowledge, eclipsing with their foreign leathered goods those who had never been and might never be.  

Jennifer passed around the phone to show pictures of the villa and Erin looked at it ravenously. The exterior was orange. Not the neon American orange that’s so bright that it hurts the eyes, but a fuller deep orange with white trim. It bordered a piazza dotted with fan palms and had a view of the azure ocean lipped with foam, holding a promise of tranquil afternoons spent on beaches and eating frutti di mare followed by scoops of gelato. A rooftop garden contained inviting beach chairs that you could image yourself into: let your bones be toasted by the Mediterranean sun, it whispered, let your marrow run like clouded water. “Very pretty,” she commented and passed the phone to Elizabeth before picking up a menu and scanning it to find something that her stomach could keep down.

“We’ll be spending about one week there before heading north. We always make a point to stop in Verona for a couple weeks. Dino has family there - so many cousins! I’m just worried that one day we might have to return the favor...”

Imagine Jennifer a host to a horde of her husband’s Italian cousins seeping through their sterile apartment doors with effusive due baci greetings, Moka pots, and motorino mentalities! Erin had met some Italians once. They were almost too large for life and mesmerized the small bar in this small town they’d happened to find themselves in because they’d misjudged the great distance from Los Angeles to San Francisco. One had kissed her in the stairwell as she was leaving, holding her close in the dim light, letting her go breathless.   

“Are you ladies ready to order?” an officious waiter interjected, scattering her thoughts. The café was a popular brunch spot and these ladies took up a four-top.  

“Yes, I’ll have the biscuits and gravy,” said Jennifer.
“Biscuits and gravy for me, too,” said Sara.
“The french toast, please” vaguely intoned Elizabeth.

The waiter was now staring pointedly over his small writing pad at Erin. “I’ll have the oatmeal with the fruit bowl, please.” She hoped it wouldn’t cause her to run to the toilet with bowels spasming in angry protest as Satan’s tic tacs danced around her innards.

“Thank you, ladies.” He snapped closed his pad and industriously moved to put their order in.

“Oooh, you’re so good, Erin,” said Jennifer, smiling into her face but not her eyes, eyes shifting for a millisecond to covertly check her plum purple manicure for chips.

“You don’t exercise but you never put on even a bit of weight. How do you do it?” asked Sara, enviously.

Erin felt a wave of bile whelming up her throat, but laughed deprecatingly instead. “Some people just win the genetic lottery.”
---

Later the next day, Erin was on a plasticy throne. The attending nurse asking the routine questions: “Do you want a blanket? Or some juice?”

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

“Ok - name and date of birth?” the nurse asked, not unkindly. They asked this several times and Erin had once made up a date of birth, to break the tedium, and received an exasperated frown from a harried nurse with one too many patients. She would have rather been someone else, born on a different day, to be otherwhere.  

“Erin McGhee, 3/11/1989.”

The nurse held up a scanner to register pre-meds, frowning irritably as the medical equipment refused to take the code, and giving a small satisfied grunt as it success was finally indicated with a faint beep. Laboriously prying open the little pill packets with stubby nails, the nurse dumped them into a small paper cup, and handed them over along with a glass of water.

Downing them all in one go, Erin pressed the button to recline and look up at the drab ceiling. Everything here was anemic: the walls were white, the chairs were off-white, the privacy curtain was beige. There were no cheerful bright baby colors to assuage the the sensory palate the whole place felt wholly unsuited for corporeality.

Her temporary roommate, a large defeated-looking woman with scraggly blonde hair lying loose upon her chest, was having her IV line set and closed her eyes as another nurse plunged into the veins several times before striking gold and threading the plastic tubing into the rubied blood. The woman did not even protest or make a sign that the needle digging around in her flesh was somehow an uncouth violation.  

After pushing a few buttons, the nurse visually confirmed that Erin’s saline drip was going, the clear liquid’s steady drip creating a mesmerizing metronomic metre. “They’re mixing up the meds now. We’ll bring it out when it’s ready. Let me know if you need anything.” The nurse drew off the blue plastic gloves with a faint snap and tossed them into a biohazard bin before pushing away on her stool and standing up to enter a few more medical details into the computer.

Erin’s eyes followed the nurse as her capable body tended to others: stolid, secure, healthy.

When her sister had given birth, Erin had gone to visit in the hospital, bearing the gift of freshly minted sushi. Her nephew, hopelessly ugly and squished from a long labor, had been passed into her arms as the exhausted parents gobbled down pale bits of hamachi flesh and green wasabi while looking up and murmuring soothing gibberish at their creation. She’d looked down into his angry sleeping face, thrust into a cold world, and found her arms trembling under the load of 7lb 3oz. Her hands might not even be able to rock a cradle.

Some people in the clinic were cheery and outgoing. They told you all about their disease, what medications they were on, and how it affected them, glorying in medical details and lurid scatological affairs. Others preferred silence as they submitted their bodies to instruments of healing. Modern medicine may have advanced, but the initiate knew that beneath the surface of white coats and chemical compositions still lay the sticky, troublesome, blood and bones.  

Patients often came alone, ashamed to condemn others to their lengthy term, with the company of a book or a tablet to keep entertained. Some rooms had excellent reception so you could distract yourself from your own pain by watching that of the rest of the world. Others had the x by the bars: trapped.
One wry old man had looked up as she entered a shared room and said: “Welcome to purgatory. May your stay here be short.”

-----
The sun had set by the time she got out, but there were remnants of its passing. Purple clouds lowered to meet the shadowed mountains underneath, leaving an ominous dimming gash of red light between the two darknesses. It took an hour to get home.

Pulling into the apartment garage, she exhaled: “fuuuuck.” A tan car occupied her spot.”Fuck, fuck, FUUUCK. SHIT and PISS.”

It wasn’t that hard to find parking in her neighborhood, but the parking spot was like a port in the storm, sheltering her from carrying heavy burdens lengthy distances or the effort of remembering where she’d left her car and whether it had to be moved every two hours. Sometimes, things were fuzzy in her mind now. Words, meanings, and associations that used to coalesce and slip out easily on the tongue now had to be laboriously pried from the vaults of her mind and haltingly ejected. Angrily, she backed out and found parking a block away, squeezing the car into a spot just barely large enough, seesawing the few asphalt inches back and forth, until she gave up the job as good enough. What did it matter, anyway?

Walking back, she entered the garage to leave an aggressive note and saw a young man heading for the car.  “HEY!” she yelled from a long distance, her voice carrying powerfully, “Is that your car? You’re in my spot!”

“Yes,” he responded, turning briefly, backing up a bit and holding up his hands placatingly: “Sorry! Sorry, I was just picking up my mother...so sorry!” Erin glanced at the car and saw in the passenger seat an ancient face, accustomed to pain, coldly watching this strange little woman yelling at her dutiful son. Erin realized that, perhaps, it appeared as if she’d been lying in wait: apparating out of the darkness after the defenseless had been safely ensconced and unable to act as a proximate pleading intermediary. Disgusted at herself and with the situation, Erin muttered “Ok,” distaste for this whole human interaction choking any ability to say more. The son, apologetically leapt into his car and drove out as fast as was safe.

Later, taking a shower to wash away the metallic smell of saline, she noted glumly that the drain catch was thick with red hair.

--------
Laying in bed, she wasn’t sure if the reverberations she felt were from a small earthquake or the tremors of her heart.

It wouldn’t be long now before she knew - before the doctors told her. Dragging herself out of bed, she whimpered softly at the unfairness of it all. She’d done everything right: lived a clean life, was nice to small animals, went to church - she’d never killed anyone, wrecked a life, or done anything too terribly wicked. Just a little wicked.

A couple of friends she’d told had taken it as a black mark: a sign of either spiritual or material malfeasance. Like Job’s friends, they offered false comfort by way of telling her she deserved it. If she’d only prayed harder! If she’d only eaten more kefir and less ice cream! This was on her.

So she stopped telling people.

What was worse: a universe where small transgressions are repaid 100-fold with divine retributive wrath, or an impartial universe that smote at random? She couldn’t quite decide where the truth lay. If God is love, how was this love?

Shuffling down the steps to the garage, she saw a piece of paper stuck under her windshield wiper along with a white daisy.

The note read:

Hi:
Sorry I took your spot last night - hope you weren’t too inconvenienced! Felt really bad so here’s a flower, Hope your day is a beautiful one. - Your Neighbor

Erin picked up the white flower and wept.