UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION 06/2006
The Girl Who Was Run Over By a Lawnmower or Hospital
Jen is either dead or dying. It hasn‘t been decided yet. It’s a coma of some sort, and “she might absolutely come out of it” the doctors say, but at the same time “maybe she definitely won’t.” There’s a lot of dead certainties that leave us confused, but day to day Michelle and I are at the hospital no matter what; we’re in waiting rooms, in small windowless offices, standing outside doors or just beyond curtains, next to large machines with small screens, sipping instant coffees silently amidst antiseptic everythings.
“Do you think this will bring us closer together?” I ask, looking up from my chair at a salmon and violet, abstract pastel-print.
Michelle puts down her magazine. “Get me some more coffee?”
As I walk away, I wonder why I asked. I think about smiling and then do. Over the loud speaker, someone says, crackling and squeaking, “Dr. Jenson, Dr. Jenson - paging Dr. Jenson.”
In a hospital everything squeaks. Shoes, wheelchairs, doors, even my shirt seems to let out little, high- pitched whirs that I never noticed before.
“I’m going to go look at her,” I say when I bring Michelle the coffee.
“Don’t go without me,” she says, looking up, almost scared.
“Okay,” I say and sit down. I don’t want a fight right now. I need some quiet. It‘s three in the afternoon. “But I think it’s silly at this point. She’s our daughter.”
“I know - I know.” She stares at the magazine. “I know.”
“No, it’s been days Michelle.”
“It doesn’t feel like days. It feels like -”
“Years?” I interrupt sarcastically, regretting immediately. She glares at me. Do I want to fight?
“Minutes, Eric. It feels like Minutes. I‘m still right there in front of the lawn mower.”
“Come on,” I say. Last night, the two of us rushed home, got drunk on gin, and bashed that machine with an old baseball bat from the shed. It must have been well after two in the morning by the time it was totally strewn across the backyard. We both smelled like fresh cut grass and gasoline when we fell over, suddenly kissing with shame and guilt -- groping ruthlessly at something there on the lawn until we cried, our faces dripping dew and dirt. I felt like a teenager in the summer, uncertain, confused and hot.
Now, here in the William P. Johnston Intensive Care Gazebo, section three, I am hungry and I want to see my daughter, dead or alive. I imagine an elaborate saloon poster that shows Jen lying ambiguously on a bed, a huge reward offered, when Michelle hops up and shakes her hair around.
“Okay. Let’s do this.”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t waste the opportunity.” She smiles sheepishly. It’s the first time I’ve ever watched someone do something sheepishly. It‘s encouraging. For over three days, I haven’t seen anything more than my daughter’s feet through the curtains. We stopped looking at some point on Wednesday, I don’t really remember when. We both hadn’t slept and were standing outside the door staring at each other. We both knew what the other was thinking.
Jen looks too awful. Too awful to look at.
So we’ve stopped looking. Instead we gape idly at the other chairs in the waiting area, or gaze longingly at ads in three month old gardening magazines. Tulips, stonewalls, and wood-finish. Change your life. Mulch, hammocks, and well trimmed shrubbery.
I stand up and look at Michelle. Her head is down, and her shoulders are quivering. Something down the hall is ticking or clicking. I put my arms around her. “Michelle, you know, if you’re not ready, it’s okay, we don’t have to do this if you don’t want.” She turns her head to one side, looks at a chair, wipes her nose, and looks at me. There is a gentle hum coming from beneath the floor.
“Well, I know I don’t have to. But I want to.” We smile at each other and I brush her hair back over her ear. Grabbing hands, we walk down the tiled hall. Jen’s room is around the corner, five doors away, 68-g. Our steps get slower as we get closer, some invisible Gazebo Wing current increasing in strength against us, and for a little bit I have to stop so I can cry. Lately, we’ve accepted this as a regular bodily function, like urinating. While one goes, the other waits patiently, staring down the hall, and sometimes we even go together. When we get through the door, actually into the room and up to the curtain, I kiss Michelle on the forehead and we hug. I pull away so I can see her face, damp and red, and we just look at each other in the bright blue room.
The sun coming through the window is hot on my shoulders. It seems surreal to have gotten to this point with Michelle, to have just about lost a child with a girl that I passed notes to in high school, to be standing in the hospital without direction or reason. I can feel the building splayed out around me, its concrete wings draped across the parking lots, huge black fields that stretch out in all directions. The building is vacuous in some places, its halls uninhabited, its doors quietly ajar. The William P. Johnston Intensive Care Gazebo, section three, where my daughter is waiting between death and nothing, is as empty as they come. I feel myself filling out the space just as I let go of Michelle and put my hand over the curtain, teeth clenched. There’s no bracing for it, so I just yank the blue drape open.
And there, on the edge of the bed, is a midget.
He has on a suit, a tie, and a fedora. His feet are swinging lightly above a brown leather briefcase.
I can’t say anything or even breathe. Why hasn’t Michelle screamed yet? I turn to her and see that her eyes are closed. Jen is asleep or dead.
“Is it okay to look, Eric?” Michelle asks.
I don’t say anything. The little man smiles at me.
“It’s dandy to look,” the little guy says.
Michelle opens her eyes, gasps, grabbing a bunch of my sleeve.
“What’s happening, Eric?” The little man tilts his head, smiles bigger. “What the hell is this?” I can feel Michelle digging her nails into my arm.
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” the man says, hopping down off the bed. “I’m in sales.”
He bends over to pick up his briefcase, lays it on the bedside table, starts to flip it open.
“What are you doing here on our daughter’s bed?” I ask as sternly as possible. He looks up at me, smiles again, then reaches out a hand to shake. I don’t reciprocate. As endearing as he really does look, I know instinctively that there is something inappropriate about him being here, comfortably waiting on my daughter’s death bed whilst we had just debated and suffered about being able to even lay eyes on her.
“I’m Alex Westers.” He holds out his hand, smiling. After a moment he gives up.
“Okay, Mr. Westers, I think it’s time you leave.”
“We’ll get security,” Michelle asserts.
“Oh come now, that’s hardly necessary,” he laughs. “Let me ask you two something.” He reaches into his case, pulls out a few little pamphlets. “Have you given much thought to AOL?”
“Excuse me?” I ask. He hands me the brochures. It occurs to me that he’s rather old, wrinkled with gray hair.
“America Online, sir. The nation’s favorite way to use the internet?”
“Michelle, get security,” I say, keeping a locked eye on Mr. Westers. “How did you get in here?”
“I’m in sales,” he says, slightly perturbed. Michelle is heading for the door, scuttling out, but is stopped in her tracks when the man says, “and I’m here to talk to you about your daughter, for god‘s sake.”
I look at Jenny on the bed, quietly mangled. She’s breathing with the help of a machine, and her freckles are gone, replaced by stitches and bruises. Over my shoulder, I see that Michelle is framed in the doorway behind me.
“What about my daughter?” I ask.
“There’s something missing in your life.”
There’s a beep from across the room, some plastic machine. I move my tongue around in my mouth.
“Okay. Yes. Sure. Same as anyone. I don’t see how that connects to -”
“I’m a good judge of character, Mr. -- uh, what is it? Mr.?”
“Mr. Surraci, I can tell you aren’t exactly happy with how things are going. Maybe it’s your job. Maybe it’s your wife.”
I don’t really understand what the point is here, but I am immediately defensive. I have a mid-level managerial position, but not anything I look forward to before I fall asleep. And lately, yes, much of the time I sleep in the guest room, but I don‘t know anyone who has everything they want served in a bowl at the dinner table. I look back at my wife who is headed our way. “Okay, okay, Mr. Westers -- who doesn’t feel like that in some way? What are you getting at? Are you even a doctor?”
“Maybe it’s some unfulfilled dream? Maybe it’s seasonal effective disorder. Maybe you were abused as a child. I don’t know, but I’ve heard all the stories -- I’m in sales. You meet a lot of people in this business. My point is, you’re not happy, and in light of recent events, Mr. Surraci,” he gestures to Jenny, raising an eyebrow, “you need to start filling the hole that’s about to get a lot bigger.”
“What do you mean ‘is about to get bigger?’” my wife demands, my heartbeat now picking up a little. I’m suddenly confused more than I want to be. I can’t really tell whether or not this situation makes sense. Barely anything has for the past week, and for all I know this is par for the course. Why is Michelle not getting security? Does this man have any authority? Is he some kind of hospital therapist or counselor? What does he know? Am I writing him off as some nut just because he’s so short?
“You two and I, we all know that your daughter -- assuming she hasn’t already -- is going to die.” I am silent, but I can feel the air welling in my chest. My lip starts to shake. I can’t help it. It’s just hearing it out loud. Hearing it out loud.
I look directly at the florescent lights above me.
The loud speaker crackles, “Paging Dr. Jenson.”
I let out a big breath and shake my head at Mr. Westers. He smiles at me with empathy in his eyes.
“Who the hell are you,” Michelle demands, “to say something like that to us, okay?” She is choking back angry tears. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
“You’re in a time of need, Mrs. Surraci.” He takes his hat off respectively. “I can understand this. It’s hard, I know. We all have our tough times, god knows I have, and this is yours. Your time of need. Mrs. Surraci, you need quality service. You need reliable, safe, easy to use service. You need AOL.”
“What the hell is this AOL crap?” I’m getting angry again. This cannot make sense -- counselor or not. “Are you really talking about the goddamn internet program?”
“Yes, AOL, America Online, our country’s number one way to surf the web.”
“Surf the web? Surf the web?”
“What better way to find yourself again than in the arms of the information revolution?”
“What?” I cough. “My daughter is dead or dying or some shit here on this bed and you come with this AOL revolution?” I‘ve never seen spots before, but I think I might be now. “Get the hell outta here, Jesus Christ.” I want to hit this man. I want to run out of the room. I want to drive away from this hospital, hit ninety on the interstate and skid off the edge of the earth.
“Now is really the best time to join AOL, Mr. Surraci. You can get over 2000 soul-searching hours absolutely free.”
I am staring straight ahead. Maybe this is the kind of thing that does happen. I remember the doctor telling me that my daughter could die, that I needed to prepare for that possibility. It seemed absurd, like a ridiculous, tasteless joke, and I could not immediately accept it as reality. Is this the same thing? Are sales pitches customary here? Have I seen that on television? Is that my source of reference? I can’t figure it out. I feel like I’m in a dark room, scraping the walls for a door, but I can’t remember what the knobs feel like. I need to get rid of this man.
“If I sign up, will you get the hell out of here? Is that what it’s going to take?”
“Sir, once I’ve done all I can for you -- which is provide you with access to the most safe, reliable, and connected online experience in the world -- why then, yes, I will certainly be out of your hair.”
“Fine. Fine. Sign me up.” I search for a pen in my pocket.
“Don’t sign up for that, Eric!” Michelle is not happy with this move. She has set herself down on Jen’s bed as if to protect her -- as if my subscribing to AOL might somehow bring her further harm. “He’s not even a real salesman!” She looks me straight in the eye. “He’s insane.”
“No, What is insane, ma’am,” Mr. Westers is flustered, angry, his lip twitching slightly as he talks, “is denying your husband and yourself the right to take back what has been taken from him, from you, the right to dream, the right to access everything the world has to offer through simplistic software and well-organized personalized home pages. Home - is it sane to deny this man a place to bridge his mind, his likes and dislikes, his interests and values with the world around him via a binary key? To deny him a home? No, it is insane, ma‘am, to look at your own husband, who you promised to love and cherish ’til death do you part, and deny him -- ”
And then my daughter sits up in bed, early morning groggy. Michelle and I both stare, mouths open in a long pounding silence. Jen takes a confused look around the room, at the tubes coming out of her arms, and then pulls her air supply mask off. Mr. Westers is talking about something, some deal, some merger, some great opportunity or higher calling, but he might as well have disappeared because all I see is Jenny. I rush over and wrap her up in my arms. I bury my face in her hair. I kiss all over her forehead and just hold her. Rubbing her back, I can‘t think of anything better. It’s not everyday that someone comes back from the dead, especially your own daughter. After a few moments of clean, flushing bliss -- a cathartic and antiseptic sense of justice wrapped in bandages and hair and little hands -- there is a tug on my pant leg. It’s Mr. Westers, and he is nervously pushing a clipboard and form into my face.
I slap it away, sending it slamming into a distant food tray. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask. “My daughter just came out of a goddamn coma here. And you - you stood right here saying she was going to die. You go to hell and take your forms with you.”
“I thought you were ready to take the next step into the future with AOL. What could possibly make you want to stay here in this place?”
I look briefly at my daughter, but then see Michelle licking her fingers and wiping Jen’s face. I think about Jen brushing her teeth in the kitchen, then about Michelle silently eating dinner, pasta with butter -- about attractive, skirted professionals reading newspapers cross-legged at the coffee shop, about family women in distant neighborhoods driving mid-size sedans around endless cul-de-sacs -- in fleets, in flocks.
“I’d really appreciate it if you leave. Just wait outside the door. I’ll sign up when I’m ready.”
“Please sign up now, Mr. Surraci, while supplies last.”
He darts his eyes around, glares suspiciously at Jenny.
“Stop looking at her, you bastard!” Michelle barks. “You don‘t deserve to look at her. Get out of here!”
And then, my daughter opens her mouth to talk. She hasn’t said a word in so long, but I still know every inch of her little voice, and I am starved for it. “Sing,” she says. It’s a beautiful first word, a beautiful way to be born again.
“Yes, darling, yes! We can sing all we want now.” I smile and laugh, looking at Michelle now with excitement.
But then Jen almost yells it, “Sing!” She starts to stand in the bed, and Michelle and I try to hold her down.
“No, honey, just sit down okay? You might not be ready to stand.”
“Sing goo!” Jen’s words are not as comforting anymore. Michelle looks as if she is being pinched. “Sing goo!” Jen yells again.
“Goo?” Michelle sings pitifully, cracking notes. “Goo? Goo?” She looks at me for help, imploring with her eyes for me to join in a chorus of “goo.” I don’t know what to tell her. Jen takes a very large breath.
“Cingular Wireless Phone Service.”
“What?” I ask her. Maybe she said something else. I look at Michelle. Her eyes are big and look at nothing. “Michelle, what is she saying?”
Jen answers for her. “Cingular Wireless Phone Service, Daddy.” And now everything is collapsing inside me; my daughter has brain damage, was in a coma for too long, she left something behind.
“Why,” she looks at me like she might any other day, “why waste money on minutes you can’t use?” Michelle is starting to breathe heavily.
“What the hell is happening here, Eric?” She looks like a dying horse. “What are you saying, Jen, what’s wrong?”
“It’s like throwing away hours of your life, hours of hard work for nothing.”
“Don’t listen to her!” Mr. Westers yells. Michelle and I turn to see that he is still here, holding out a new form, shaking, gritting his teeth. “Use AOL to find the latest in music, movies, and shopping,” he whimpers. I don’t even know the man, but his sudden desperation is not helping me calm down. I want my daughter to lie back down on the bed, to sleep quietly on the edge of death. I can’t look at this anymore and have my body hold together. It feels like its going to slip apart.
“Cingular offers a plan for everyone’s individual needs.”
“Instant access to the world!” Mr. Westers is screaming, waving the forms around.
“Daddy, we can have a family plan where each of us can call each other for free.” Jenny is now standing up on the bed, arms spread majestically wide, tubes and wires careening out in all directions. She is holding a bundle of papers, swooping them around as she talks. I grab it out of her hand and see that it’s a contract. It’s a Cingular Wireless two year phone service contract.
I grab Jenny by the shoulders. “Where did you get this?”
My wife screams and it occurs to me for the first time since the accident that we need a new lawnmower. And then Jenny is crying, “Sign up for Cingular, Daddy, sign up, sign up!” She falls onto the bed, kicking her feet and pounding her hands, her hospital gown coming loose, exposing stitching and violet streaks. We need a new lawnmower. “I want it! I want it!” Now it finally looks like her again, like we’re in the store and the ice cream is all she can think about, all she can see in front of her. I want to help her, want to get her the ice cream, but Michelle is there babbling about health and nutrition and discipline and of course I go along with it and jesus christ what the hell is happening around me? Where can I buy a lawnmower?
“Mr. Surraci, you must listen to reason. AOL is the way of the -”
The room fills suddenly with glaring light, and a poppy song with an intense and driving beat surrounds us, the noises of the hospital disappearing. The music is coming from the loudspeaker, enveloping and intrusive. “Baby, you can drive my car!” a voice sings a bad rendition of the Beatles song. All four windows blast streams of red light into the room, as if some grand event is taking place here, striping the walls like a stadium rock concert. It’s blinding and I barely see my wife drop to the floor, crumpled like a blanket.
“FORD TAURUS,” a deep female voice announces loudly from every direction, crackling and authoritative.
Department stores sell lawn mowers. Home Depot? Sears?
“Sign up now, start an online club!”
Do I want to push it or ride it?
“YEAR END CLEARANCE SALE.”
Does John Deere make lawnmowers?
“Daddy, daddy, daddy!”
Maybe I should hire a service?
“Baby, you can drive my car!”
And then Jenny is puking, foaming at the mouth, shaking and seizing, the sounds of engines revving and tight corners swallowing us. I scream for a doctor and jump onto the bed with her. She is still conscious, her brown eyes staring into mine, pleading. Vomit pours from her mouth in fountainous spurts. In between them she manages to burp or cough, “Cingular, daddy, please.”
“0% APR,” the loudspeaker booms.
I don’t know what to do for her. I yell for a doctor again, but I know my voice is lost in the cloud of music.
“Baby, you can drive my car!”
I feel the crumpled forms in my hand and grab a pen hastily out of my pocket.
“Mr. Surraci, you can find better phone plans searching the web!”
“TAKE LONG CURVES TIGHTLY.”
I start filling out the forms attached to the Cingular contract and Mr. Westers jumps on to my back, his arms around my neck.
“Why don‘t you want to be helped?” he demands, smacking me, the lights now flashing erratically.
“SLEEP WITH A TAURUS, NO PAYMENTS UNTIL NEW YEAR‘S.”
Struggling for air, hovering above my dying daughter with shaking hands, I fill in each box, each number, each preference, each piece of required personal history.
“SEE YOUR LOCAL FORD DEALER TODAY.”
I am determined to give this to her. Then, amidst hits to the face from Mr. Westers, I sign my name to the contract, wheezing and coughing.
The music stops.
The light fades.
Across the hall, something beeps.
I am a Cingular customer.
Mr. Westers sadly lets go of me, my ears ringing. “You jerk,” he says. He slides down off the bed, leaving me breathless on the sheets, all red in the face. “You know, people never go for the old fashioned sales pitch anymore.” He grabs his briefcase, slams it angrily shut, puts his hat on and heads for the door in a huff. “Gotta have the fireworks these days, eh?” he says, looking back at me, eyeing Jenny. “Flashy drama, big ol’ fanfare? I think it‘s a bunch of malarkey, if you ask me -- which you won‘t.” He smiles obnoxiously at me. “Good luck to ya, Mr. Surraci.” He heads out the door. Down the hall, I hear him mockingly laugh, “Vomit!” to himself.
Below me, my daughter is rubbing her head, grumbling, but no longer vomiting. Michelle is passed out on the side of the bed. The tiles of the floor look dull and in need of cleaning. I rest almost comfortably, the hospital again reaching out in all directions around me. I feel something press up against my back from under the sheets. Turning around, I find that it’s slowly growing up from the center of the mattress. I stare at it, still soothed by the new calmness of the room, the slow and steady movement of this thing, like a snake from a basket. It’s a pole of sorts, I can see, and it pushes up about five feet, stretching the hospital-tucked sheets tight.
From atop the pole sprouts a flag emblazoned with a satellite. “S.S. Cingular Wireless,” it says. It is my Cingular reward. I hop from the bed to lift Michelle onto it. When the three of us are seated, comfortable in a row, like a family for the first time in a long time, it starts to move. The bed rolls across the room and out the door of 68-g, gaining speed into the hall. Someone pages Dr. Jenson and a western wind blowing through the William P. Johnston Intensive Care Gazebo, section three, catches in the sheets, carrying us away. It pushes through a window and sails out easily above the sea of parking lots, a flow of stray sheets trailing in the sun.
There isn’t a cloud in the sky, and we fly on our hospital bed across the expanse of concrete.
“Where are we going, Daddy? Are we going home?” Jenny asks me.
“Yes, darling,” I smile at her. “Home Depot.”
Dolan Morgan, veteran writer for Brooklyn's comedy troupe Group of Names, was born on a mountain top in Tennessee (The greenest state in the land of the free). He was raised in the woods, so he knows every tree. He killed him a bear when he was only three.
© 2006 Underground Voices