A light awakens as the delivery man approaches the shabby old cottage. The orange glow reveals what appears to be a log moving through the wet leaves. Hearing a moan, he realizes the log is a person covered in dirt and debris. Dropping the package, he rushes to the figure. Blood streams from the man’s nose and mouth. “I fell,” he whispers before losing consciousness.
Children entering the cavernous hospital lobby discover the centerpiece, a massive cylindrical aquarium inhabited by a rainbow of tropical fish. Most fish swim in a circle through a profusion of bubbles created by an unseen submersible pump. However, others surf the glass by swimming up and down as if seeking an escape. One of the older children fixes on a sizeable black-striped fish along the near perimeter. Joined by his companions, he pursues it, rapping his knuckles against the glass until the fish eludes him by darting out of sight into a realistic-looking sunken ship. Undeterred, the boy and his companions go after a vividly striped regal angelfish as their new quarry, shrieking and laughing as they run around the glass, appearing as figures on a merry-go-round.
A woman enters and walks past the children. The enthusiasm around the children draws smiles from other visitors but not from her. She is intent on the nearby elevator. Yet when it arrives, she turns and looks at them as if capturing the moment. She then ducks inside and presses the button for the Trauma ICU.
Arriving there, she focuses on a glass-enclosed room directly opposite the nurses’ station. With a practiced motion, she removes and folds her coat and places it on the lower shelf of the metal cart. She plucks a blue gown from a stack, sliding it over her street clothes. The trailing sash remains untied. The gloves go on last, and then she steps through the opening.
I first learned what happened to my friend when his sister called, telling me and asking if I would come. An hour later, I was at the hospital. And have been here most days.
The first time walking into the room: was at shock. I was forewarned. I was still unprepared. Seeing him still unconscious on a ventilator. Fractures and severe internal injuries. Tubed, swaddled, and strapped to a monstrous-looking mechanical rotating bed rocking back and forth. The platform resembling a raft of evil intent rather than life-saving. His condition so fragile a nurse was stationed at the bedside. We felt heartened a week later when a regular bed replaced it. The room was loaded with an alarming array of machines, screens strobing, recording, or on pause. I wondered if the staff feared navigating the space.
With no way to communicate, I notice everything: the twisted linen, the dust accumulation under the rust-pocked bed frame, from which dangle two nearly full sacks of dark yellow urine. I almost nod off. I am ashamed. Is he awake? Is he looking at me? Wake up. But his eyes remain closed; there is no hint of movement. Two days before Thanksgiving, he fell, and Christmas is tomorrow.
I drag the lone low-slung chair closer to the bed, fearful of dislodging a vital tube or wire. Fluids of life drip and burp on the crab-footed IV pole through lines to taped veins.
I think about how much happened between us before I knew, wanted to know, wanted not to know all the struggle. Promises to yourself more than to me. Always tempting, stretching reason. You always maintained that you were in control. It was just a matter of time until you stopped. Your parents and sisters tried and cried. We all did, cajoling and pleading, having awkward conversations, risking your anger. You wanting so much to make good on promises to yourself. I believe you tried. I know you tried. And when the fight became dangerous, you enlisted me to drive you to treatment. How many times was it? Three or four. I know because I took you there.
And then, against all reason, in the chill of autumn, climbing up to repair shingles on the damp rotting roof of the place you rent. You, the man who worked construction to pay for college. You, the man who knew better.
After your father died, stopping by your mother for tea and her famous cookies, you sitting cross-legged on the floor next to the couch, struggling to stifle the wanting, having just come from a day of teaching. Then you reached for a cookie, and we saw your trembling hand. I wish I had taken your hands in minee to still the tremble. I didn’t know how to compete with your insistent mistress. Our closeness ebbed into silence. And here we are in uncharted waters, cast adrift.
A shrill alarm sounds. A new bag replaces the empty one. Medical staff revolves in and out, pastel-hued figures in scrubs armed with devices descend. observe, consult monitors, and proceed to chronicle. Others scrutinize from a distance as if reluctant to get too close. Few acknowledge the woman in the chair, a persistent peripheral fixture of no import.
When they leave, she speaks aloud, turning pages of the good times. About how much students miss him and his dedication to them, working to help them succeed despite learning challenges. For a moment, she imagines some motion of his hands and leans forward expectantly, but it is not so.
The magical evening when your reassurance calmed my fear of climbing four stories on a narrow metal stair to the steep-pitched roof of the theater so we could watch Fourth of July fireworks exploding high over the river. Sitting close in the dark, the twinkling lights of the town at our feet.
Remember my intimate encounter with poison ivy after you led me up that slippery steep bank near the creek instead of going on the less challenging hiking trail. You were so distressed when the ivy blanketed my body. I forgave you. How attentive you were applying calamine lotion where I couldn’t reach all the following week. I came to your defense when you were stung by a horde of ferocious ground wasps. I rushed you to the ER. The many museum visits. You tested my stoicism by reading each exhibit plaque and scrutinizing every painting we encountered. You felt a kinship with the Van Gogh self-portrait because his chiseled features and blue eyes resembled yours. You surprised me by scouring the East Bronx to find the authentic pasteles I loved. I am in awe of your fantastic knowledge of Doo Wop and devotion to The Crests, Dion and the Belmonts. Hundreds of LP albums stored in crates. Advocating for me to buy a house, then living up to your pledge to help with chores, even gutter cleaning and capping a chimney.
A great thing happened yesterday. A small brown feathered bird landed by this window and lingered on the ledge. Perhaps it is an omen. I am desperate for a symbol of hope. I lean over him, my fingers soothing his forehead. I remind him he is loved.
The woman takes the elevator down to the now-empty, darkened lobby. The children are long gone. The aquarium lights are off but the pump still bubbles. A small patch of condensation marks the glass at the top. The fish are ghostly shadows circling in their tiny ocean.
Hugging her coat close, the woman walks through the automatic doors into the parking lot. She looks up at the light from his room. The forecast rain has arrived. The drops bathe her face like tears.
K T White (she/her) is an African-American writer who wrote nonfiction in the private sector. Since 2017, the priority has been the study of literature and scribing creative nonfiction and fiction. In addition, she contributes her talents to local public schools as a storyteller. KT resides in the Lower Hudson Valley.
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