Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
 print preview

Epcot Center, August ’88

She pumps a rubber ball as the doctor cinches the tourniquet. He taps along her forearm, coaxing out veins, and swabs her skin with alcohol. He misses twice, anchors the needle on the third attempt. I flinch before she does. One vial, two. It reminds me of a juice commercial played in reverse, a glassy red arc gushing from mouth to glass to bottle. Though it’s nothing like that. The doctor stuffs his mask and gloves in the red biohazard wastebasket on his way out.

She fixes on the clock. I do, too, the malfunctioning digital light that morphs sixes into block letter Cs, making you want to sound out the time. I don’t have long before her parents arrive with her dinner. My son’s not here, so they blame me. The cause’s cause. It’s like dominos with blood. Though it’s nothing like that.

“Tick, tock,” she says. “It’s almost cruel, a clock in the room.”

I stare at the band of indented yellow skin left by the tourniquet. “You know, Hopi Indians don’t have a word for time.”

“No surprise. Ever meet an Indian with something to look forward to?”

We laugh, and hers comes up blood. She reaches for the nurse call button. I glove my hands and wipe her mouth. The lesions on her neck and chin have scabbed, the skin mottled, like a layer of tundra. Shingles is a funny word until you know what it means. I unfold the wheelchair and roll it bedside.

“A hundred T cells doesn’t make for a party,” she says.

“But they’re more than enough for a free ride.”

On the porch, she tells me travel stories about my son and her: singing Bob Dylan covers to the manager at a grungy hostel to get a break on the room; sneaking onto a night train bound for Transylvania, putting a sign on the door that read “Out of Order”; getting caught midway because my son wrote it in English; hitchhiking the rest of the trip. Some of these are lies, I think. Embellishments. He wouldn’t have sung, certainly not Bob Dylan. Maybe just the chorus. She’s waiting for a story in return. She likes to barter, before for after.

There’s a decent view of the harbor. Secondhand yachts lilting in their slips, each pun worse than the next. Her breathing is ankle‐deep. I wrap her in a second blanket and push her inside, the chorus of “House of the Rising Sun” looping in my head because, who knows, maybe it’s true.

I don’t know who infected whom. But I know, so I’m here. So does my wife, so she’s not. If I had asked my son where he got it, he would have asked me if it mattered. It would have then. It doesn’t now. I guess it never did.

“Nothing for time, the Hopis?” she says.

“Closest they come to it are panis and ason.”

“Sooner and later,” she says, smiling. “I heard that somewhere. Guess that’s enough to get by. Everything’s sooner or later.”

The day pass takes some doing, but she convinces the doctor she deserves the afternoon. On the sign out sheet I check the box under “friend.” It’s the closet option to the truth and I don’t like the sound of “other.” I’d think she’d want to spend the day with her family. Then again, sometimes you prefer the devil you don’t know enough. She can walk today. New drugs, she explains. “Gotta get movin’ while the gettin’s good.” She winks at the parking attendant and he shakes off some “aw shucks” smile.

“Still got it,” she whispers.

I drive up the road to Home Depot and we switch seats. She grips the gearshift. I ask if she’s sure she can handle it.

“It’s as easy as crossing yourself.” She makes the motions. “Spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch.”

The car jerks forward, stalls. “The clutch,” I say. “You’re not—”

“Not playing piano, I know.”

She’s like an echo in a cave ten years deep. I gave my son driving lessons in a mall parking lot when he was thirteen, stick shift by Sign of the Cross. I want to ask where he taught it to her. I tell myself it’s hard to teach a lesson without being mindful of where you learned it. I wonder what else that’s true for.

I test her. “What’s the most important rule of the road?”

“Assume every other driver is a complete asshole. After that, it’s all checking your mirrors.”

We cruise around the lot, navigating bright orange hand trucks and men lugging two-by-fours. She switches into third gear just to show me she knows how. A man is sitting on the curb outside the entrance, a toolbox by his feet. She pulls up and rolls down the window. “Looking to get somewhere?”

I put my hand over hers. It’s like holding a bird, tiny bones with just a slip of cover.

He shakes his head. She tells me to ask him in Spanish if he needs a ride. I ask why it matters. She says that that’s a dumb question. I know why they liked each other. I wonder if it’s the same reason why they loved each other. I ask the man if he’s looking for work. He nods, his hand flat against his forehead to fight off glare. He can’t get a clear look at us. I bet she likes that. I tell him another spot where contractors pick up day laborers. “No hay preguntas,” I say. No questions.

We give him a ride, five miles silent. He thanks us when we drop him off—in English and Spanish. Back in her room, she kisses my cheek. “Mighty sweet.”

I help her into bed. She closes her eyes, but she’s not asleep. It’s a trick to get me to leave. To let me.


My wife sorts through the photographs before she lets me take them from our house. Overexposed Polaroids with the date and place scrawled along the border: Teton National Park, July ’84; Berkshires, October ’86; Cooperstown, December ’90.

“God have mercy, a redhead?” she says.

“Only in the summer, until he was about five.”

“You know, come summertime, he was partial to hats.”

She’s slow with the pictures. I wonder what she’s looking for, the familiar or foreign? What he shed or what he grew into?

“Oh, now, what’s that little cutie so upset about?” She holds up a photo: Epcot Center, August ’88, a little boy crying, Mickey Mouse ears askew.

“Donald Duck is bigger in person. A little scary.”

“That can’t be it.”

“You’d be surprised. Took a lollipop and an ice-cream cone to put out those tears.”

“That’s why they say never meet your idols,” she says. I laugh because it’s the wrong time to say, I don’t know.

Maybe she’s not looking for familiarity. Maybe it’s about everything you don’t recognize but should. Should have. Connecting the line from the little boy who cried in the arms of Donald Duck to the teen who coldcocked me the last time I raised my hand to him to the man who got a girl sick and showed her the world before he came home to leave it.

At the hospital, she asks and asks and I tell her about each photo, as much as I can remember. Then I make up things, happy endings all around. Silence sets in. I let her keep the photos. She’ll show them to her parents. She’ll repeat my stories, tweak them, happier endings still. “Never meet your idols,” she’ll say, and they won’t get it and they’ll be right.


I wait outside until she finishes lunch. She won’t eat in front of anyone. Only her back teeth don’t hurt to chew and it’s hard not to stare as she pitches her head, caging each bite with her tongue. I can see the bones in her temples. The new drugs are the old drugs in a higher dosage. I wear a paper gown over my clothing. A mask and gloves, all for her protection.

“I used to study German,” she says. “Each noun has a gender, you know. I’d get tripped up on that sometimes. Like ‘sun’ is die Sonne. Don’t you think it’s weird to think of the sun as feminine?”

“What should be feminine?”

She sits up as best she can. “Wine. Chocolate. Massages. Whatever you can’t get enough of.”

My gown crinkles as I lean in. “What about love?”

“And lust.”

“Is forgiveness a woman?”

“In German. That’s the only way it works.”

“Where do the men come in?”

“Pride. War.” She winks. “Plumbing.”


“Regret doesn’t have a gender. It’s neutral.”

“Something for everyone.”

We’ve been here before, together. The wasting effect, fat to bone, thinned blood, an open house for a body. I want the rage. Her pain spent on me, the cause’s cause. She suffers and loves as if they were a single act, and I hope she taught that to my son. I hope that it was enough for him. I hope there’s such thing as “enough.”


Her parents are with her when I arrive. Brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles outside the door. Twenty-five T cells draw a crowd. Everyone masked and gowned, faceless, admitted two at a time. I go home, come back, go home. I come back late at night, after my wife’s asleep. I’m ready to fire off a dirty joke, the first one I told my son about a man, a priest, and sex at an A&P.

“A man goes to confession,” I say. Her father stands. Her mother is on the other side of the bed. The ventilator is a row of steady green waves and unchanged numbers. She’s a sliver under the sheets, unmoving. I think to leave, to let them be, but I’m thinking for my sake, again. “I’m sorry. I thought . . . ” I introduce myself. “My son,” I say, and I’m not sure who cries first.

Her father’s face is a slope. Under his mask I can make out a right angle for a nose, and doughy cheeks that spill out over the elastic bands. Not long ago I would have noticed a resemblance. Her mother’s hair is the closest I come, dark and curly, but hers is now string.

Her father pats my back, glove on paper. “Thank you,” he says.

“No,” I say, because it comes easiest. I wonder what she’s told them.

We sit for an hour, two. Her mother holds her hand. I stare at her chest, the mechanical dip and rise of her breathing.

“What was that about a man at confession?” she says. I tell the joke. The punch line: “So, Father, you’re not going to kick us out of the church?” “No, my son, why ever would you think that?” “Because they kicked us out of the A&P.” Laughter. Her mother crosses herself and I look to the bed, to those eyes, for a shimmer of recognition and a shared thought. I look for “spectacles, testicles, wallet, and watch,” evidence of myself that I know will be gone but I’m not sure was ever really there. Before we were these people and life was a little boy begging for piggyback rides, promising each time that this would be the last one he asked for, me too pride-heavy to grasp one day it would be true.

Sooner or sooner or sooner.  end  

return to top