Short Fiction by Robert Salsbury
I remember when you could smoke in hospitals. Simply fire one up in bed while recuperating from knee surgery or while visiting Uncle Harry, it didn't matter in those days. Now you've got to go outside, and here at Sacred Heart Medical Center you wander around searching and eventually finding the crappy little outside area to smoke where the November wind rolling down the South Hill hits you and freezes. You get to stand and shiver with the other smokers, some in ass baring pajamas with IV stands and portable morphine pumps. I could use a smoke now as I sit next to the bed with my comatose son in it. I could use a morphine pump too.
I'm going to be here all night watching over you, Rory. Your mom hated that name, but I wouldn't let go of it. I named you after the greatest Irish bluesman of all, Rory Gallagher. I think you liked the name too, you somersaulted through all the pregnant fights until we wore her down, you inside, me outside, demanding that name. I guess I won a few battles with your mom before it all flamed out with the divorce five years ago. But I had you on my side (and against hers) on the name war.
Now you're swimming somewhere deep again and I didn't even see you jump, I didn't know you were close to the water at all. A 17-year-old boy tosses down a bottleful of his mom's medication and codes three times in the ambulance and ER. And his dad, a former psychologist, was blindsided.
Your breakup with a girlfriend, who I didn't even notice you had, plunged you to the place where dying seems easier and dying seems the only way to send a simple and powerful message to the person you've lost, and the only important one, "you will never forget me."
So, Rory, I'm going to tell you why I couldn't see what you were going through, and why I wasn't there for you and I'm going to send you my dispatches from hell so when you wake up you can say "Jesus Christ, Dad!, It's good to see you, but you're kind of a dumbass too," And you'll be right, Rory.
I am a dumbass. Here's where it began this summer, with the drive home after a date with a beautiful and darkly troubled woman.
Once upon a mistake, I floored the pedal to the medal, balls to the walls and felt my crappy minivan rocking and swaying down North Idaho highway 95 (drag strip to the Death Hotel) its bad transmission whining like a metallic banshee shedding scoured wings in a great superheated bath of castle oil dumped over the ramparts.
And every mile was a mile of confusion, what just happened? What is this? What was that? What the hell am I doing? Why do I, why do I, why do I? and the questions fed the questions and the answers were scrabbling away in the dark underbrush somewhere near Athol, a town name too ironic to repeat in mixed company unless you're going for a cheap laugh at the expense of the lispers of the world, and the answers were camouflaged in the wild rose bushes and kinnikinnick (a favorite laxative of the Salish people) and the question grew fat and fatter in its great cannibalistic orgy of consumptive excess.
I weaved onto Interstate 90, the ribbon of asphalt and concrete binding Seattle to Boston and my guts were boiling with a witches' brew of self doubt and rejection and anger, such anger at that bitch, and wondering why are people so fucked up in so many special fucked up ways and thinking run don't walk/sprint don't crawl/leap don't look, make an exit of extreme prejudice and turbocharged rapidity. Just write this chick off to one messed up piece of post traumatic/attachment disordered/narcissistic survivor lost soul work with a geisha in a kabuki skill for faking real until the time to fake grows late and real hits you like a white hot meteor screaming through the August night.
I pulled into my driveway and killed the minivan, smelling the oil burning its tired fumes off the manifold and locked the doors so some juvenile delinquent punk ass loser doesn't raid my cd collection and rifle the dash box for anything he can pawn for meth money. I go in the house angry, confused, but now wanting answers to what happened that evening because the question has grown to a monstrous stomping Godzilla knocking shit around in my head and gut. I had let the answers run off to hide in the dark brush instead of riding the great white steed of instinct like a seasoned Knight of the Love Table coming out of the great oak forests on his warhorse with his lance pointing at an ambiguous angle, and clearly he's a victor and a pro and a guy you look up to if you're a serf or a lute wielding court puppet.
I sat at my computer and wrote a "what just happened" email to the source of my romantic anger and confusion and frustration. I let my feelings out like releasing a white dove into a cave occupied by a pterodactyl perched on a craggy rock so hungry, so hungry for a dove and spreading her great leathery wings, she leaps and glides in a hot whoosh, and my email is answered the next day. So I drink the goddamned Kool Aid and she's my new poison and she's my new drug and she's my dark pretty robot and the best poisons are not the slow ones. I'd have to say the best poisons hit fast, hit hard and leave you sprawled across your bed growing paler by the second and your veins bulge in a blueness that seems unearthly as your heart pounds out the poison, and the poison just recycles but it's quick, quick, quick. Instead I got the slow poison, the poison that gives you false euphoria as it eats your soul away but tickles the opiate agonists to fool you and keep you drinking it and all I can say is I'm glad it wasn't so slow as 20 years slow, thank god for that and what would that be like?
It would be like tiny soap bars of pleasure dissolving in a hot acid bath of misery or stepping around the eggshells of her moods everyday and hoping for a sign just one sign of love or even like. The liking can nourish a starving soul, and sure, love is a bigger meal, Christ, it's a buffet, but when your guts knot up in hunger for a touch, a hug, a smile, you'll settle for so little and they always know it. God they always do.
In my crawling around on the dining room floor looking for the crumbs she so deftly and gracefully and meanly tosses my way, I want to rise up like a man and tell her to stick it, that I'm through with this hopeless bullshit but I can't. I'm her puppet and she knows it. She will never rain manna from heaven and if I can suck the tiny bits of nutrition out of a minnow and pat my stomach in faux fulfillment, that's all she needs. And will ever want to know of me, to taste of me, and in her self consumed planetary presumptions, I am a dirty chunk of orbiting ice, some kind of drag, baby, but she can see her great astral chart and I'm the new moon in her pull.
When it all ended in a sad email exchange of pixilated pain and then a phone call where she told me how proud she was of me and what a wonderful man I was, just wonderful and I said "no, I'm not wonderful, I'm like anyone else" she said "no, you're wonderful" I let my dragon inhale and wrote poems to her.
You need to protect yourself
He looked up to the cabinet
at a book of poems
a gift he never gave her
as he knew
that book tucked in his shirt
could stop an arrow
On an impulse, one day at a bookstore, I bought "Nine Horses" by Billy Collins as it caught my attention. Earlier, I'd written her a poem called "Outriders of the Seven Heavens" and used the symbolism of seven horses and found the coincidence of this book too amazing. I wanted to give it to her as a gift but later felt if I did, she might vaporize it with her Star Wars Emotional Defense System.
I kissed the sweat
on her shoulders
as they shuddered
and tasted the salt
of dusty trailer parks
of hours alone
with books and pens
of televisions blaring
the same movies
and felt it
burn my tongue
She grew up in trailer parks and a bad marriage, but now, oh god, now she was wearing the perfectly tailored dress of a professional woman living in a professional single woman's perfectly ordered home and she could make sarcastic remarks about huckleberry wine and send back soggy calamari, even in the best of restaurants.
In the letter
"you tried so hard "
I ate calamari
The proving ground was on our third date, she found out I despised seafood, every way, shape and form, and thus, ordered an appetizer of calamari to see if I'd prove my devotion to her and be sucked deeper into her gravitational field. So I forced down forkful after forkful until she finally sent the undercooked squid back. I didn't care as I was snaking on the floor for any detritus she would drop my way and calamari was the perfect food for bottom feeders.
These poems were a hop, skip, and a jump over Hell's Canyon on the back of an Italian Moped from the one I wrote her early in a brain-stunning phase of infatuation:
Outlaws of Love
and we wrestled the comet to the ground and felt the ice and the heat and laughed at the stellar irony and we left its smoking husk by the riverside to tell the gods "don't fuck with us we're fierce and we're outlaws of your galactic vanities! " and we rode the dragon until it purred and rolled over and wanted its scales scratched and we conquered every terrestrial pissing match waged by the confused and mistaken and we made castles shatter and tumble down cliffs just broken pieces of artifice and anomaly, and where they once stood as frozen sentinels, we planted forests and wrote "angst " in the dirt and couldn't remember the definition anymore so we scratched it out with a big stick and in its place wrote:
One day we all come to a place where the thunder meets the rainbow where the wolf plays with the fawn where ego becomes altruism and just open your eyes now and you'll see it
And when you see the gathering place where even gods avert their gazes you've come home to the hub of all where the wheel no longer turns against the winds of the universe and all now resonates with the thrumming of what is and what can be and you are amazed and swept still and every breath is your first and every touch is desire enveloped in grace and there are no ghosts of shame, they do not trespass here, and the seasons of pain are what were and will never be and the only vortex is in the stars that swirl behind your every step.
Anyone can take the trip from the celestial expanses of what you hope will be, to the sudden chill of what is, a walk in freezer at a failing restaurant with a big flashing neon sign beckoning the hungry to pull up and order a steak or stardust or calamari. Just don't expect me to ever again show up for the dinner special.
Eventually, I became grounded with my prayers for the healing that takes too damn long. The remembering is the mind worm that burrows in so deep and squirms and feeds and you wonder when the worm sleeps and there is no easy answer but only time is the sedative-hypnotic for the worm. The grief becomes something I want to corner with a keyboard and put form to and trap with tripwires of verbs and nouns and it was slippery and fierce.
There are no means
never will be
to release this grief
this raven of loss
living in my gut
without feeling him
pecking his way out
tearing his way out
his great wings
stretching to fly
but there is no air
That raven has flown. I wrote the poem to loss and longing over a month ago and never thought I'd see the day the grief bird launched into the still air and joined the great flocks of dark regret winging over the Spokane Valley, swooping low and cawing at the hangers on perched in leafless trees rooted in deep soils of despair.
Rory, you look like a saint lying in state, so beatific and calm, despite the tubes going in and out of you. Now that I've shared my process of loss and recovery, with all its pain and hope delivered at maximum metaphoric overdrive, it's time to tell you two new stories.
You always loved my stories, remember? You loved being the hero, the plucky little guy who always snatched triumph from the jaws of the scary monster. I almost choke on the irony of those memories.
Our monsters are real now. So I'm going to tell you about two searches, Rory. The first was a search for a mentally retarded man who ran from his institution; the second I only heard about, a search for a little boy who wandered away from his father. Both were escaping.
Please Rory, don't you.
At 3:45pm that afternoon, while cleaning out some old files in my office, I got the call. All unit professional staff were to report for a search. Jimmy had run again. Jimmy was the bane of my professional existence as an institutional psychologist, the one client who seemed immune to the laws of conditioning and learning. He was a badass gunslinger of maladaptive behavior.
He'd been lost since early afternoon and they needed all available staff to find him. I walked out to the unit with my favorite Alcoholic Psychiatric Social Worker Burn Out One Year away from Retirement Coworker. He was cracking jokes about Jimmy and his running. I was laughing along with him. At Jimmy's Living Unit, the manager was explaining the search details. They'd already covered Jimmy's standard run route and were fanning out into the woods north and south of it. She had a single radio left and gave it to me.
Burned Out Social Worker and I paired up and headed north on a fire road. The forested area, mostly pine and fir with dense brambly undergrowth, had open areas mixed with impassable ones. Heavily structured with basalt cliffs, it wasn't an easy area to search.
We hiked the road about a quarter of a mile, and then left it to follow some single-track paths into the woods. This area was a favorite for hikers, horse riders, and mountain bikers and had quite an extensive web of trails. We ended up along a series of basalt outcroppings overhanging a small gorge; we didn't want to look over the cliff edges for Jimmy but did anyway. It was hard to see much as dusk was approaching and the gorge was mostly heavy leaved maples and brush. We sat down and lit smokes, hanging our legs off the edge. "Shit, if he ended up down in that gorge we'll never find him" I said. "Yup, maybe a deer hunter would find his bones someday." I flicked ashes over the edge and watched them float down.
We continued to search along the winding trails as the August sun began to creep towards the horizon. Well, he wouldn't freeze to death if he's out all night, but he could dehydrate pretty quickly. Searching all night with flashlights, particularly around the basalt cliffs, didn't seem too appealing. Spending any time with the night shift at all was something to avoid. The few times I'd gone out to units to train or talk with them I realized why some people work night shift. They do not play well with others, are incredibly alienated (not just by chosen work schedule), and are just damn weird. I couldn't imagine hiking around in the dark with any of them.
Almost Retired Guy and I had covered a lot of ground and were debating on backtracking or continuing on. I made some radio calls to get status checks and everyone was still actively searching and giving their rough locations using landmarks and fire roads and trails. We had a smoke and decided to work our way back and join up with some other search teams if it had to continue after the sun set.
We backtracked trying to look at new places we might have missed first time through. About 20 minutes into our return search the radio crackled. "All teams, all teams, we found him, we need Dr. Gonzalez contacted STAT, over" Shit, this didn't sound good. "Contact Gonzalez and bring her down Fire Road 12 about a quarter mile then take the main right trail, I'll have Roberts posted there" Then the radios went nuts with everyone trying to get answers.
"What's his condition?"
"He doesn't look good, but doc's gotta make the call"
"What the hell's going on?"
"How is he?"
"Please, get Gonzalez here quick"
"This is Tom, we're heading your way, over"
"Does he need anything?"
"I can't keep up with all this radio shit, just get the doctor here"
I took off running, but my Wheezing Alcoholic Smoker Social Worker friend couldn't keep up. I didn't care, he knew the way out. I was sprinting down the fire road now, getting winded but still adrenalized. The radio was bouncing in its holster against my hip. I knew by the tone of the radio voice that Jimmy was messed up. I cut onto the fire road and felt my lungs burning and my pace slowing. I started jogging and walking and trying to catch my breath.
Near the fence line I saw three of the nursing staff running onto the other fire road. They were carrying emergency medical supplies. I unleashed a big burst of speed to catch up, and while trying to catch my breath asked them what was going on. They didn't know for sure what had happened to Jimmy but were sent out ahead by Dr. Gonzalez.
We headed up Fire Road 12 at a jog and came around a corner and spotted Roberts and two other staff. I sprinted to them. "Where is he?" "Straight down that trail." I could tell by the tone that this was serious shit. I ran down what appeared to be a game trail, partly overgrown with weeds and tightly snaking through heavy brush. I came into a clearing and saw five staff by Jimmy. I slowed down and walked over.
Jimmy was blue. Jimmy was dead. I stood over him, stunned. He was on his back with one arm at his side and the other one bent over his stomach. His legs were straight out. Jimmy's eyes were wide open and stared sightlessly at me as I bent over him. I stood back and tried not to look at his face, but I did. His ice blue eyes, cold dead yet open to the heavens, were irresistible. I don't know how long I looked at him. The nurses came around me and bent over him and quietly swore. No pulse, no respiration, no blood pressure. They CPR'd him because that was procedure and training. Even though it was obvious Jimmy was deceased, only the physician could make that call. I felt sorry for the nurses.
I had to walk away. I stood by a large basalt rock that looked too much like a toad silently squatting at this ground of dying. I lit a cig and didn't taste it at all but wanted the distraction and comfort. I stared in a trance at the nurses working on him. They were compressing but having problems with his airway. Less than five minutes into it they stopped when Dr. Gonzalez arrived. She asked for vitals, squatted down by Jimmy, checked for a carotid pulse and respiration. Then she called it.
They sent Jimmy's body out for an autopsy as per standard procedure. He'd choked to death on leaves. His airway was packed with old moldy maple leaves he'd picked up off the ground and ate. He couldn't chew anything with much texture and was no match for handfuls of Norway maple leaves.
After teaching a class on behavior modification one day (and using Jimmy as an example of how the rules of behavior can get broken), I headed down the hallway and stopped at the chaplain's office. I'd never really spoken with the institution's chaplain, other than saying hi. I knocked on his door. He looked surprised to see me but motioned me in.
Chaplain: Hi, how are you today?
Me: Fine, just finished a class.
Chaplain: Great! How's everything going?
Me: Ok I guess, hmmm, can I ask you something?
Chaplain: Of course.
Me: Does the Bible say much about the retarded?
Chaplain: You mean in general?
Me: Not really, I'm just wondering, what happens
after they die?
Chaplain: You mean, do they go to heaven?
Me: Kind of yeah.
Chaplain: I believe they do.
Me: All of them?
Chaplain: Yes, it's a question of volition and original sin
Me: That's reassuring I guess, I mean that they get
to go to heaven.
Chaplain: Why do you ask?
Me: Well, what if a mentally retarded person didn't
want to go to heaven?
Chaplain: Who wouldn't want to go to heaven? I don't
Me: Someone who'd piss on the clouds, yank feathers
off angels, and never, not one time, look God in
The whole town showed up, at least it seemed so. Sheriff Bill gave them map grids; they went out in teams of four. The terrain was brutal, rough high desert with rocky outcroppings and cliffs like scabs on the tawny arms of someone who slid down a mountain. The townsfolk were searching for Timmy Rodriguez, a three-year-old boy who got out of his dad's truck and wandered off. At the time Timmy crawled out of the Ford pickup, his dad was in a broken down silver Airstream trailer banging his 19-year-old girlfriend in the middle of nowhere. His daddy took a long post coital nap. Timmy couldn't wait any longer.
Each team had photocopied pictures of the cutest little boy you'd ever seen. Written below his picture was:
Timmy Rodriguez, Age 3
White Jersey with Arizona Cardinals logo
They hiked up a long draw, calling out Timmy's name and trying to spot anything that didn't fit with the dried up brush and rocks. The tall man on this search team saw some ravens on a twisted juniper but no cardinals. Half an hour later, they decided to fan out but stay in visual contact. The tall man climbed up a nasty hillside, slipping on the loose basalt and crumbling sandstone. His khaki pants were torn and bloody. From the top he could see forever. He spotted another search team on a plateau. He screamed for Timmy.
All these years later, the tall man still goes into the desert. He drives to where the Airstream trailer used to be. It's now just sand and a few creosote bushes. He gets out of his truck and lights a cigarette and watches where the wind blows the smoke. He used to follow the wind and smoke for miles.
So, Jimmy was found, Timmy wasn't, yet the outcomes were the same. We can all reach for the stars and end up with a handful of dirt but that's life isn't it? The worst endings are the ones that dissipate softly away, no sound, no fury, and no scornful rage at another. Those endings are too soft and empty.
I prefer the endings that make my ears ring for hours and my heart pound adrenaline rich blood through my body and I feel electric and like I'm standing at the gallows and the hangman isn't going to slack the noose and everyone is crying and I think of the One Who Got Away (AKA The Big Regret). All the logic and cool intellectual reason is under my last meal tray and right before the lever gets pulled, I remember how reducing the complexity of romance down to formulas, in my desire to make the ghost in the machine a computational demigod of empirical answers to mystifying questions, I postulate the spawn of Narcissus as numerators of infinity and the rest of us as denominators of one.
Rory, you look so peaceful in your neurological cocoon; these stories haven't stirred you once. I sort of hoped at some point you'd have bolted straight up and shouted "give it a rest dad!" but there is no real rest for me until you wake. You used to pretend you didn't read my poetry, but I always knew you did. I saw poems you'd written and was amazed by the depth of your feelings.
That's why you're here.
A paramedic gave me your suicide note. I expected, I don't know exactly, something like I'd written about my pain or a big fuck you to the world, but it wasn't like that at all. It was a strange cryptic chant written in red ink that left me even more scared for you.
Marching witches/kill switch on/metaphorica/cry for me/
Marching witches/kill switch on/marching witches/kill switch on
I come back to your room after sucking down a smoke outside with a couple of cardiac care nurses on break, and want to scream at you. Your monitor glows blue and your vital signs are stable. Your coma will lift. You'll live.
Because you'll live, it's safe to be furious.
I hope you heard my story. I hope you understand that even dads get all messed up over someone they wanted to be the sun, the moon, the stars, and in reality, was just another dirt clod like everyone else. Living means learning, and you've got so many years to unravel the mysteries of the search.
I hear your mom coming up the hall and decide she can have the next watch. I'll ask her later about this girl you felt you needed to die for. Right now I need to go home and drink myself to sleep.
But Rory, before I leave you to your mother, I need to tell you something. No girl is worth self-destruction, no girl is your world, and at best she can be a landmark in your memories, just a bright touchstone if she's one of the brilliant few.
Then I walk out, glancing back at your beautiful face, your strong body, and hope to God you learn this better than me.