My father's gold watch—the one he acquired in the military while serving overseas in France, the one from the merchant selling his watches from his apartment after his store was leveled, serving a dollop of canned pâté to every customer, even though he had nothing except his children, who frequently chose sleep over hunger—slides up and down the boy's hairless arm, like it ended up there on accident. He's talking, I know that, but I tune out and watch the pink come off the mountains and the sun climb brilliant amongst the thorn scrub. He must have stopped because all of a sudden he's just staring at me, the heat of the sun slowly turning his eyes a prairie brown.
"This is real, right? Gold?"
"Be careful, yeah?"
"So hey, do you think your father would be happy?"
We always speak in questions—he feels it too. I would be in his past soon, the somebody his mom married at some point in time for no time at all. There he was, walking off with my father's watch. I would never be able to afford to replace what my father had given to me, but we find that out later, most of us—all this just to save his mother some temporary grief for forgetting her only son's birthday. Sometimes when I daydream about her, I forget her name. From the rear view, I watch him show his friends his birthday present. The tallest one dangles two pharmaceutical bottles like pendulous love—a trade.
I pull up to the hospital and that same candy red Cadillac Eldorado is in my spot again. It has to be the third time this month, or this week—who are you? I'll find a spot at the McDonald's across the street and give Caroline a twenty and it'll stay there, but before I leave my car, I blast the weather report and scream over the forecast—it was going to be the same all week.
I ask Sammie, our receptionist, a portly blonde with rosacea, if she knew whom the car belonged to. "I drive a nice car, but not that car. That car? I don't know. You should ask Denise, she tends to know these things, but she's off today because she broke her toe."
I knew a surgeon who broke two fingers on purpose because he just needed some time off, and he wanted to deserve it. Now he practices in Costa Rica under a false name—false to us, real as God to those small brown children he saves for next to nothing. Sammie warns me that a couple is waiting for me in my office, but she forgot their names. Do you ever quietly think about a person and unconvincingly say, "they'll be okay?" I start to chew something, but I don't remember putting anything in my mouth, and before I can even check my pockets, it rides syrupy down my veins—that's nice.
Do you ever quietly think about a person and unconvincingly say, "they'll be okay?"
They are too young to be having children and have been together for too long, setting unreasonable expectations from the start, and I get this urge to say something awful, then I want them to pet my head and tell me reassuring things because people waiting on good news could light up this world. I feel their eyes picking my brain, waiting, and that's what makes it so hard.
"Well, Doc, is it my sperm?"
"Or is it me? Just wink if it's me."
"No, no, both of you are medically fine. You're just . . . not a great fit."
I twine my fingers and clap the bottom of my palms together to provide a visual. They stare slack jawed as I continue, and I ask, "Do you either of you by chance drive a red Eldorado?"
All their crying makes me sleepy, so I eat some sweet tarts. I forgot the beige flavor is euphoria. I need some space and lock myself into an empty room. It's wallpapered with this repetitious image of a polar bear chasing a lion from winter into summer. At the corners of the walls their bodies get cut-off and mutilated. I spin endlessly, watching this image never end, and I wish this polar bear would tackle this lion already so somebody in this room could get some satisfaction. I vomit in the sink, which is as close as I am getting. When I was a paramedic, one of my first days, we got a call—this guy in a wheelchair had these red ants all over his porch, so he decided to go inside and get lighter fluid and just douse the suckers. Took a light and watched them burn. But he got fluid all over him, so he caught on fire too, and he must’ve tried to spin it off, the fire, and with his arm dead on the joystick, he just spun and spun on fire in that wheelchair. He couldn't go fast enough to shed the flames—he just burned. I hope it takes much less to get rid of these spins.
When I come out, a nurse tells me Elvis is screaming rock lyrics at the top of his lungs and ripped open his stitches again—regardless of the pain and advisement against it, holding his breath while doing push ups lets him forget how much he yearns for a needle for one, breathe, two, breathe, three—someone like him could live a lifetime between exhales. When I enter, Zeppelin lyrics shatter the air and the corners of the room become dark and vignette-d. The straps now tying him down read "everything is fine."
"Elvis, shut up . . . please."
"Where am I?"
"I know that! Am I in the janitor's closet?"
"It's sort of a storage room. Janitor's closet is smaller, so be grateful."
I still have boxes in here from my previous marriage, after I was kicked out for unproven accusations and one blown up photo of two people obscured by moonlight. She stripped me down like some old machine, which allowed my new wife to wind me up again, just as she liked. The transition was seamless. I met my current wife about a week after I had moved my things into the hospital, when she brought in her dying mother, now resting under a row of sweet gum trees, and four days after I was moving boxes from this room to her home, and that was that. I'm sure that nurses, when they chit-chat over home-made sandwiches, go through my things with tongs and trade personal stories about me. I should finally get to letting some of these things go, and then I remember my father's watch, and wonder if each generation would keep less and less shiny things in tiny boxes.
"Doc, is that you? Thank God . . . hey, why are you handling those boxes? You have an expensive degree, it at least entitles you to soft hands."
I can feel his words dangle off my ears like little branches.
"I just realized, I was never part of a pay grade. Is it nice?"
"Elvis, do you have insurance yet?"
"I don't know. No."
"That's why I'm here, in the closet?"
I slide him an orange sweet tart and watch. His expanding pupils birth planets and confirm that he at least, at this very moment, is not alone. I urgently reach for an orange one too and shut the door gently.
Sammie asks, "Are we getting rid of him yet?"
"No," I say, "he's my child."
I notice gentle humming coming from the waiting room and I'm drawn to it, almost connected, like smell conjuring memory. There's a little boy sitting there by himself, so I ask him where his mother is.
"Oh, you mean Momma. She left when I told her."
"Told her what?"
"What I did to my brother."
"And what was that?"
"Well, it was when we were inside her."
"Like before you were born?"
"Yes. He kept on trying to move me and squeeze me, he'd stick me in like my—what's it called?"
"Ribs. I was much bigger than him, I took up most of my mother and he was just trying to . . . it smelled bad, real bad. I thought he was trying to . . . but I think he just wanted to breathe. When he'd stretch out for a yawn, I'd hit him, touch me in any way, I'd hit him, and sometimes his eyes would close and then open like he was confused. The last time I hit him, I saw blood, and it floated from his head, right here, I remember where. I tried to catch it and put it back, I tried to catch it and put it back!"
The boy begins to cry and heaves this almost adult-like mourning that terrifies me, and I raise my hands up to say I'm not guilty, and I become frozen there, waiting for someone to rush in and take this moment off my hands.
I eat lunch with George and Maria, both good doctors. They have every itsy-bitsy tool memorized by heart, which is something. They tell me that they think I have a higher rating on the Internet because I'm fair, I first take it as a compliment, but then I offer them my slice of pie. I'm pretty sure, though, they've reported me to the higher-ups multiple times. I don't even know what for, but I had meetings one day with people with shiny ties and grey hair, or shiny hair and grey ties, and they kept on repeating "we understand" and "proof" and "intention"—I somehow got a raise through all of it, I think, and I immediately bought a beautiful, mint-green guitar, which is in the storage room. Either way, they're the only people I talk to here, so we just carry on.
It's so hard to talk to people. People seem to always be able to fill silences with rhythm.
My wife texts me, "Don't get mad. Call me." It's so hard to talk to people. People seem to always be able to fill silences with rhythm. A long time ago as an ice breaker, I'd use facts from the Guinness Book of World Records, and all sorts would get a real kick out of it. "No way," they'd say. "Yes way," I'd say. I had about eight, maybe nine things memorized at a time, but I always had to follow up with, "but that's as of," whatever year the thing was published, so I'd be feeding them truth, or what was once true, and with each year, it became more and more likely that these records had been broken, and I had less and less to say. Now, I just stare into the glow of my phone, and no one knows nothing.
Sammie runs into my office and tells me that she can't find Elvis, and that she has looked all over his room, even under his bed, and that he couldn't have just walked out, because she would have seen, and that there is a great chance of something too terrible to explain. Her face is bright red and I watch her pop:
"My neighbors, my goddamn neighbors with their goddamn music, don't they know that I live by myself, and I don't got anyone to complain about their music to? Don't they know how hard I work? It's so lonely to hear all that excitement literally shake your home until you have no choice but to sleep."
"I don't even know what they look like, so I make it up right in my head, so I can imagine murdering them, more realistic-like."
"Sammie, take a nap or something, I'll find him . . . Sammie?"
". . . he's . . . beyond, man."
He isn't though, he's close. Our doors always swing open fire bright for him, he loves to be touched by the nurses, the attention, but only the new nurses will hold his straw for him. I open my office window, and how good it feels, light guitar picking rides the breeze in. I light a stale cigarette from an old pack, and as I peer through the parking lot, I see Elvis with my guitar, singing more softly than a lullaby on top of the red Eldorado. I tell him to stay there. He gives me a thumbs-up, but I still rush down.
"Is this your car?"
"You're funny, Doc."
"Why don't you come back inside?"
"They don't let me sing inside. Out-loud-inside."
"We'll work something out."
"You know who I was named after?"
"He died thirty nine years ago. On this day."
"You know I'm thirty nine?"
He leaves my guitar on the Eldorado, but I don't say anything. He takes my hand, and from my peripheral, I see him shrink two feet and get lost in his gown. I walk back inside with Elvis wrapped around my leg as I whisper over and over, "I know, I know," and on some level I think I did. I pass him off to a nurse he likes. For some strange reason, I get the feeling that the next time I'd see him he'd be in pieces. Two years later he'd come back into the emergency room bleeding out. The officer who would end his life up-close, authorized, will say he had shown up on the scene, witnessing Elvis screaming "bitch" in a dead hooker's ear in the back of Elvis's trunk. That night, all along the halls, the officer would keep on repeating, "I had warned him," as if anyone knows what to do with that. His partner won't be able to corroborate the story, or deny it, stating that he was waiting in the line for a lottery ticket at the time of the incident. Elvis has always been borderline asexual, nor have I ever known him (thirty-seven hospital visits) to ever own or drive an automobile, so the whole thing would be perplexing, and I will ask myself if I ever spoke up, so I probably didn't. He would die though, with my hands inside him.
The floor of my office is white with frost.
"There's bird shit all over your office!" Sammie says.
No, yeah, that's right, three pigeons are walking around after entering my open window. It reminds me of that time I killed that pigeon when I was a teenager. It kept on pecking at my ankle, following me block after block, and I know I told it to stop, I think I turned around at least ten times, I even tried to reason with it, like a little pet. I didn't figure it out until after I broke it. When I got home, I had discovered crumbs in the cuff of my pants. I lock Sammie in my office with the birds and tell her that she's a good person, and to please hurry. I pass George and Maria working on a handshake they made up, and I laugh and watch them move skin to skin, but they don't acknowledge me and make me feel like a stranger. For Christ’s sake, why don't we have a bathroom on this floor?
I pass George and Maria working on a handshake they made up, and I laugh and watch them move skin to skin, but they don't acknowledge me and make me feel like a stranger.
My last patient of the day is Eddie, a former mob capo with Alzheimer's, except he doesn't remember those days, he remembers himself as a journalist for The Times—to me he's Eddie The Animal, to himself he's Edward, to his daughter, he's dad—doesn't someone have to be wrong or are we just an amalgam of the perceptions of the world? He's here for his yearly check-up. Physically he's still all there, but I don't know what he or his family wants me to tell them. Just recently, Eddie was convinced by neighborhood boys to attack a bodega storeowner, claiming that this man was hoarding Eddie's memories, and someone wrote about it, but not him. Now permanently printed in Eddie's palm reads, "Confused? It's okay, call your daughter, Susan," and her phone number. I always notice it, but today I ask him about his gold pinky ring.
"Yeah, it's really something."
"It's nice, it's gold, you know."
"He wears it everyday," his daughter says.
"Where did you get it?"
"It's okay if you don't remember."
"Who said I didn't remember? Why the fuck does it matter to you where it came from?"
"I don't know."
His daughter follows my hands as she watches me undress her father, slowly removing his walking shoes, lifting off his faded, yellow polo over his extended arms, taking his gym shorts down to his white-cold ankles, feeling up and down his smooth, bald skin, folding back bits of his face, peering through dark channels that are closing in, holding his shoulder just a second longer as I tell him, "you're good to go," and "till next time."
"Is that some type of fucking joke?" One of them says that, but all I can think about is my father's watch—I wonder if during that small period of time where we didn't speak before his death he thought about the French merchant who had given him the watch in return for taking his youngest boy he could no longer support back to the States, and did he feel like it was a good trade in the end?
I pack up my things and tell Sammie to cancel everything I have tomorrow, and maybe the next day too, I tell her not to stop until I'm completely empty—there's always later—until you meet me and I tell you there isn't. The Eldorado is still parked there, but someone has taken my guitar. I am going to wait here, however long it takes, so I can feel the sincerity of their breath, good, bad, but crystalline. Having said that, I don't have all the time in the world.
I find a big, smooth stone in the McDonald's parking lot and walk back over, cars left and right insisting on their correctness with horns and long eyes. It feels like the point of the earth is balancing on the top of my head, you've never seen stars like these. I walk to the Eldorado and with a drunken justice throw the rock through the driver’s side window. I feel joy rush like bullets to my fingertips. The alarm is really going now, but I unlock the door, swing the door wide, place two fingers in between where it would close flush, and slam it—the familiar chime of bone. Like a wounded animal, I find a patch of grass about twenty yards off and watch the car flash and flash. I'm not sure if I did it right because I feel absolutely nothing.
The alarm is really going now, but I unlock the door, swing the door wide, place two fingers in between where it would close flush, and slam it—the familiar chime of bone.
The metronomic consistency of the alarm is so wonderful, I really try to fight it, believe me, I'm not giving myself an out, but I wake up some time after, maybe three or five hours later, and in a panic I look for the car and it's gone, even the glass is swept up. I never see it again, but that isn't the point, not at all. I have a few missed calls from my wife.
"Where are you?"
"I'm coming home."
"What time is it?"
"I'll be home soon."
"He's sorry, you know . . ."
He isn't sorry, you're not sorry until you have to pay, and that trade he made this morning would be the first of very small payments leading eventually to what she thought he felt—but I wouldn't be around then. God, I admired him. Stoic, old-somehow, not phased, but you have to look closely to see it with people like that—his long stare after a sip of orange juice, his teeth grinding through silence, the slow exhalation through his nose, the corner of the couch being squeezed into the palm of his hand—open his hand and you may be able to read, "help," but you don't see like me, do you, and I can't make you care.
Zack Stein lives and writes in New York, but has seen every 2 star motel in the U.S. In prison he was known as "Shakes" for writing love letters for fellow inmates. His work can be seen in San Pedro River Review, (b)OINK, Ploughshares, Beloit Poetry Journal, Crazyhorse, etc.