Some fiction for you folks. This is a story I started last fall–like all pieces of art, I feel it’s still growing, the characters are asking for more life, but I need new eyes to see it and for it to breathe before it enters another round of revision. Please let me know what you think. Enjoy!
Ed fixed his clear blue eyes on the brain and offered his free hand to the surgical assistant. She placed a pair of scissors into his palm. He nodded a silent thank you and slipped his fingers through the holes. Ed tried to mute his heavy breath underneath the surgical mask as moisture collected around his mouth and tiny beads of sweat, almost invisible, sat quietly on his nose. Ed had held these scissors for years, made the same incisions almost everyday, he could do this with his eyes closed, in his sleep even. The brain oozed under light, the grey matter pulsating beneath the patient’s skull, each nook and cranny of the organ bulging against the surgical equipment. Ed followed the thick veins along the mass, outlining the perimeter with his eyes, trying to determine where to make an incision. He loved the way tumors appeared, bubbled out of the brain like lava, screaming to him, “Release me!”
He began to lightly snip around the tumor. The movements needed to be fine and gentle—small, precise clippings, slowly separating the mass from the brain. Ed gripped the scissors until the metal finger holes formed deep impressions like canals around his thumb and index finger. A throbbing tightness spread through his palm like a rubber band contracting and expanding under his skin. It spread into his wrist and thumb joint, his fingers victim to the instability of his muscles. Ed collapsed his middle, ring, and pinky finger into his palm—his fist an anchor, the scissors his line of vision. These goddamn hands, he thought, the skin thinning, blue veins bulging underneath, liver spots becoming more apparent each day. Ed cut slowly, counting the incisions he made—one, two, three, four.
“I think we’re almost done here folks.” He looked up at his team, wiped the now increasing perspiration from his forehead, rolled his shoulders, holding the instruments in the air and settled his limbs. Deborah stood adjacent to him on the other side of the body. He felt her eyes watching his face, his hands, and the tip of the scissors as they cut into the patient’s brain. Five, six, seven, Ed continued. The patient’s breath slowed, Deborah leaned forward, placing her weight on her toes. Red liquid squirted onto the latex encompassing Ed’s hands, filling the canals on his fingers.
The body beneath the brain began to shake. Ed stepped back from the patient. The bloodied instruments glimmered in the surgical light. The nurses rushed around the body, their footsteps beating faster than his heart. The brain gleamed orange and red, blood seeping out of the patient’s head into the fatty tissue that surrounded the cortex. The tumor blistered at the incision and Ed saw slices of caramelized apple that his wife made on Christmas glazed with brown sugar and honey. The body convulsed. He gagged on the tube that stretched down the length of his esophagus. Ed stared at his hands masked by the latex gloves and years of experience, listened to the footsteps of his team on the floor, their white sneakers squeaking on the linoleum, then silence and a flat line.
“What happened in there?” Deborah asked after the surgery. She was standing over him as he sat on a chair in the prep room, detailing each second of the procedure—delineating every cut he made, each movement of his hands, his fingers wrapped around the metal scissors.
“I think I might need to get a lawyer,” he finally said. He tried to smile, but all that came out was a cough, his chest shuddering under the weight of the day and the surgery and the dead man in the operating room. He rose from the chair and stood face to face with Deborah.
“The nature of the business, as you know,” she said. Her eyes thinned, and Ed saw them recede into the depth of her memory, recalling all the people she watched die. “Worse for the family I suppose.”
Ed let out a heavy sigh and loosened his tie. He slipped his hands into the pockets of his slacks. “I’ll see you on Monday. Have a good weekend.” Ed picked up his briefcase and tawny colored trench coat, patted Deborah on the shoulder and left the room.
Thirty years and an office wallpapered with awards. It happened everyday Deborah said. Thirty years of practicing medicine and all he had to show for his work today was a dead body—a husband, a brother, a friend. Gone but not forgotten. Ed repeated this mantra over and over while he drove home. He could never forget him; his peppery hair caked and matted in blood, his left hand shaking against his leg, the heat of the lights in the operating room, the sterile odor, the reddish yellow glow of his brain, the whorls of grey matter and the static noise of a dead heart.
A bird fell from a tree when Ed was seven. It landed on the gray concrete between his feet with a thud, twitched, became still, solid then stiff. The street was quite, not a car passing through the neighborhood or person on their stoop, and Ed’s mother had run to grab a watering can from the garage. Ed wanted to to see the green wingtips quiver against its stomach as it breathed. Its beak was tiny and yellow, its eyes two shiny black marbles. Ed got on his hands and knees, crouched over the bird, placed his small lips to the beak and blew, but the bird’s feathers flew into Ed’s eyes. It was dead.
“I don’t want to die, Mom,” he said later that night.
“Why are you thinking about that, Eddie?”
“What if it hurts? His mother stared blankly at the floor. She was not answering. Ed swung his hips back and forth. The lights in the house were dim, subdued. It was Sunday. Ed had just taken a bath, hair slightly wet, his pajama collar fit snugly around his neck, irritated his skin, left a ring mark in the morning. He tapped her on the knee. ” Mom, do you know?”
“No, honey, I wish I did.”
The chrysanthemums in the front yard turned brown, their petals dried out and wilted into burnt chips, the leaves on the tree fell like the bird, the neighbor’s dog had to be put down, his Great-aunt Rosie died, it was the first funeral he attended. Ed wanted to stop it, couldn’t handle the pressure that sliced into his chest at the sound of the word. His mother told him not to think about it, but he couldn’t stop. He held onto life, created life by having children. More kids, Fran, let’s have another one he told her. Then with two boys he wanted a girl and they had twins. Fran told him she couldn’t go through labor again and Ed agreed that he wanted to sleep when he wasn’t in surgery. As teenagers he urged them to dream big, don’t waste a second he told them in high school. Life is limitless, but so was death. Like turning off the stars in the sky, the darkness was pervasive, encompassing, and permanent.
The disaster that had occurred rang in Ed’s ears as he walked down the hallway that connected pre-op to the waiting room. The ground shook under his feet with each step, creating earthquakes in his legs and hips. The walls stretched farther and farther into infinity and the door got smaller as he approached it. Ed inhaled deeply, filled his lungs and belly and exhaled as he laid his hands flat against the door. It was the stone slab being laid on top of a tomb. He pushed it open slowly. The dead never walked through these doors, not once the tomb was sealed. It shut behind him. The sound shuddered against his chest and heart. The patient’s wife had been sitting with her elbows on her knees, eyes glued to the floor as if it were changing shapes under her feet. Her hair was gray and curly and thick, her cheekbones chiseled high into her face, the tops of them rosy with a mole in the upper corner of the left one.
Ed walked toward her; he remembered her worry in his office at all of Alphonso’s appointments and tests. The way her eyes had drifted sideways to the floor and she bit her nails as he explained the procedure and recovery process. Ed felt the weight of the care she carried for her husband pour from the center of her chest when they looked at the scans of his tumor and how comforted she had been earlier that morning when he told her not to worry, that her husband was in great hands. Her eyes had expanded as round and bright as the sun and shined. The lines in her forehead disintegrated into her skin and the corners of her mouth relaxed into her cheeks. Now she looked at the clock, at Ed standing in the waiting room, the tightness of his mouth.
“Done already?” The tone of her voice guarded her body. She knows Ed had thought. The five o’clock news boomed through the waiting room. The plastic speakers rattled as the anchorman’s voice slathered with a thick Boston accent shot from the television. A man and woman slept on each other in the maroon dotted stitched chairs and a child sat at their feet on a bright green rug as he pieced together oversized cardboard puzzle pieces.
“Mrs. Dellaroy, I’m sorry—” Ed began. She drew air into her mouth in gasps without exhaling. “He had a seizure, we’re not sure what caused it yet.” Ed squeezed his hands in his pockets then relaxed them. He ran his thumb across the tips of his fingers over and over from pinky to pointer.
“No, Alphie.” Her face was in her hands. She shook her head back and forth as if trying to erase the words that had come out of Ed’s mouth. “No, no,” she continued. Ed took a step toward her. He wanted to hold her whole body tightly until her back stopped heaving up and down. He wanted to wrap his arms around her like he had when Fran’s father died and she collapsed by the telephone. He felt the rubber band in his palm expand and contract once again.
“I am very sorry,” Ed said. “With his age and already existing heart condition…” She straightened out and pushed Ed away.
“No, Alphie.” She punched his pectoral muscle and beat his chest over and over. “Alphie, what am I going to do?”
Ed rounded the corner of his street and eased the car into the driveway. Light cascaded from the bay window in the kitchen onto the hood of his car. He saw Fran moving from one counter to the other, each time carrying a new plate of food and placing it in the oven. Ed shifted the car into park and gripped the hard plastic of the steering wheel. The death had made it this far, filled his car, pressed against the glass and the spaces between the beige leather seats, onto his foot as he cruised home at a steady 65. But it needed to stay in the car or it would eat him alive. He released his hands from the steering wheel, opened the car door and walked into the house.
Ed heard music when he approached the back door of the house. Fran’s hips swayed from side to side as she moved about the kitchen. Ed watched her little feet in wool slippers glide across the tile floor, her gray hair like Mrs. Dellaroy’s, the weight of time and age that pushed her down and formed a hunch in her lower back.
“You’re home early.” Ed slid the back door open. “I thought you had surgery today.”
“Finished early,” he said and stepped into the kitchen.
“That’s a first. You should have called me. I would have had dinner ready.”
Fran walked over to him and took his briefcase. She placed it against the bookcase that connected the kitchen to the living room, an expanse of dark oak shelves that Ed had carved the ornament into. Vases and holiday candy dishes on top for storage, Fran’s cookbooks, the countless novels she read each afternoon in her favorite chair and mementos from family vacations—weathered blue shells and fishing hooks salted by New England spray, a bronze statue of David, sponge from Dodekanesos, a collection of pint glasses from pubs across Ireland, a woodcarving of a rickshaw propped on two men’s bare shoulders, a photo of Lily as a toddler sitting in her high chair with jelly smeared across her face and a single blonde curl sprouting from the top of her head.
“How was your day?” he asked.
“Same as always, you know—picked up the house, made some phone calls…” Fran began.
Ed held onto her voice as he sauntered from the doorway into the hall and hung up his jacket in the front closet. The house was dark. Moonlight slid into the foyer. The French doors, illuminated by the glow from the kitchen cast sapphire shadows onto the walls as the light bounced off the apothecary bottles and antique glass that surrounded the dining room.
“I talked to Millie today, her and Don want to get together this weekend,” Fran continued from the kitchen. Ed clenched his fists, seizing the air and letting it go incessantly. He looked at his reflection in the mirror over the entryway table. His eyes rested in a pool of wrinkles, his brow line hung low. He didn’t recognize this man, couldn’t identify the face, refused to see the man he was becoming.
“You finished early? Did everything go okay?” Fran asked from the other room.
“What was that?”
Ed meandered through the dining room into the kitchen, lingered in the doorway and leaned his shoulder against the threshold. Oil, basil, and garlic sizzled on the stove. The oil popped in the pan and sent piping hot beads into the air, onto Ed’s hand, and he flinched. The smell reminded him of waking up on Sunday as a boy to his mother making dinner for the family. She let him sit on the counter as she buttered his toast. He watched the garlic brown. Let me know when it starts to curl at the corners, she said and held fresh basil to his nose. This goes in next. You can help me. Always use fresh basil, got that?
“The surgery, how did it go?” Fran asked again. Ed curled the corners of his mouth and cast his head downward. He threw his hand into the air as if wiping dust from around his face to belittle the question. His hand landed on his head and he smoothed his thinning hair with his palm.
“Fine, you know, normal procedure.”
“I got a call from Sam today.” Fran clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth, shot her eyes to him, pursed her lips. “Sue passed away yesterday, the wake is next Tuesday.”
“Jesus, we’re all dropping like flies,” Ed said.
The number of deceased friends was beginning to surpass the living. Fran would tell him not to be silly, don’t think about it, we can’t control it. It’s a part of life, she’d say, like his mother. But Fran knew how fierce his fear of death ran. She understood the irrationality. It was same reason why she fainted or screamed murderously when she saw a mouse. Ed didn’t need to say a thing, but she knew.
“Oh Eddie, would you uncork that wine?”
“Wine? What’s the occasion?” he said. Ed walked to the drawer, extracted the bottle opener, held it in his left hand and gripped the wine with his right—Pinot Noir, his favorite. He smiled. The fruity taste of the red grape, its leathery aftertaste.
“It was on sale at Costco.” Fran now stood adjacent to him, leaning with her back to the counter, arms crossed. “Andrew and Genie and the kids are coming out in two weeks, for your birthday,” she said.
Ed gripped the glass neck of the wine bottle. He held it against his belly and closed all the space between he and counter. He anchored the bottle with his other hand, but it continued to slip across the brown speckled Formica countertop as he tried to press the spiral into the cork.
“I don’t want to do anything. I’d prefer the day pass without any type of celebration.” The bottle moved across the counter.
“He’s your son, of course he’s coming out. So sullen about the whole thing.” She cocked her head to the side and watched her husband struggle with the corkscrew. Ed bit down and leaned into the counter. He lifted his eyes to Fran and expelled a heavy breath.
“How do they make these things these days? Don’t they want you to drink the wine after you buy it?”
He felt Fran’s look, the look Ed knew all too well, her bottom lip swelling with concern, her brow pitched into her nose, her eyeballs slivers of white.
“Would you like some help?” she said.
“I can do it.”
The bottle slipped once more. God damn it, he shouted and watched it fall, the green glass shattering, crimson liquid cascading across the counter. It seeped into the caulking between each tile on the floor like Alphonso’s blood had flowed across Ed’s hands, into the canals on his fingers and onto his shoes. Fran looked at Ed, her hips directing her line of vision.
“Eddie,” she said. She extended her hand to him, cradling his cheek in her palm. He brushed it away before he could feel her warmth. “Did something happen today?”
“I’m fine, Fran. It’s that bottle, no wonder it was on sale,” he said. He looked at the wine, his life bleeding out from underneath him. Fran fixed her stare on his hands. “I’ll be downstairs, call me when dinner is ready.”
The smell of mothballs seeped up the stairway as Ed descended into the basement. A storm had flooded the bottom of the house two springs previous and the odor of mildew stuck to the walls. The dampness sweat from the cement as he walked through the narrow corridors, his slacks brushing up against piles of medical books stacked to ceiling, outdated issues of National Geographic, the kid’s childhood bicycles and storage containers. He couldn’t get any lower into the Earth than the basement and it made him feel bigger, like a hidden treasure within his own life. The green paint had dried with bits of dust resting on the surface, solidifying like shards of glass on the walls. Ed scratched his hand on them as he rounded the corner into his workshop. He pulled the ball chain and fluorescent light revealed the depths of his lair.
Woodcarvings were scattered on top of the table—the sailboat he made for Andrew when he was eight, the collection of forest creatures he began working on when his grandchildren were born, the knife he made with his father when he was sixteen. How kind his father had been as they sat together picking away at the wood. He showed Ed how to sand with the grain. “Just follow the lines, they’re like veins, you don’t want to bruise them,” he said, watching his son take on a hobby his father had taught him.
Ed sat down at the desk. He laid his hands flat in front of him and followed their expanse from his pinky down to his knuckle, up his ring finger, over his wedding band to his fingertips and all the way down to his thumb. These hands had made incisions, fingered through grey matter and blood, held the weight of people’s heads, saved lives by cutting out sickness. Now they were the hands of an old man—wrinkled, thin skin, and bugling veins. He slid his right hand across the desktop and pushed the elephant he was working on in front of him. He looked at it, examining the curve of its trunk, the wooden lifelines blazing brown trails across the oak, the trunk curved upward toward the sky. He picked up the small knife, wrapped his palm around the plastic handle, ran his finger over the edge of the fine blade, and lightly touched the tip of it to the trunk. He began to cut away at the top trying to a curl at the tip of the nostrils. He listened to his breath and moved his hand with its rhythm, back and forth, in and out. The knife slipped from his palm. Ed choked up on the hard plastic handle. He touched the blade to the wood, whittling away at the very top to get the folds of skin just right. The wood cracked. Ed watched the trunk bounce wildly across the surface of the desk and onto the floor. He dropped the knife. Fran’s slippered feet appeared on the ground next to him in the shadow of the light that hung above the desk. She stepped forward, her body outlined by darkness. Ed started at his hands.
“Please talk to me,” she said.
He raised his right hand and held it in front of his face. It shook uncontrollably. Fran stood completely still. She stared at Ed’s hands, his broad fingers like logs, the deep lifeline in his palm and the thinning skin that covered them. He saw her face through the space between each of his fingers. It went in and out of focus with each spasm of his muscles. Ed seized his hand with his left and the two began to shake in perfect harmony. They continued to tremble as Alphonso’s had earlier that day, waving at him as if they had extracted themselves from his arms—a separate entity that he couldn’t control. These hands had cut too far, caused the seizure, killed the patient, soaked up his blood, deflected blame from Mrs. Dellaroy and sat in Ed’s pockets as he watched her sob in the waiting room.
Fran arched her eyebrows into a pyramid and sucked her bottom lip in at the corners. She took a step toward Ed. “Eddie, when did this start?”
“It won’t stop,” he said.