Fiction First Friday: from “Letters to the Dead” by Matthew Clark Davison
New York, Day 1
First I lie still. Soon, later happens and she appears. I want to call to her, but it’s time to be silent. Men scurry in the other rooms and I do not want to arouse them.
I can’t see her face, but her knees are pale, smeared with marks like strawberries. The shinbone on the front leg shines, reflects light. I follow it downward as her ankle darkens into the lip of her shoe. She’s waiting for my call from her window, pretending to read the book in her lap. The angle of her head suggests the direction of her gaze: fixed somewhere above the line of trees.
Is it my name she’s whispering?
When I call her, she will come, pause at the threshold to look at me and say my name. On her hip she will balance her serving tray. There will be warm, wet cloths; a carafe filled with water and light; a single glass balancing upside-down on its neck; a small plate, its lip wreathed with leaves. In her dress pocket she will hold a waxed sleeve of round crackers. She will bring them all to me. She will kneel. Rest the tray on the floor.
But for now it’s time to be quiet.
The men have found the room, but I’m safe under the table. They’re searching and say my name but I do not call back.
It’s her that I want.
Serenity Hills, Day Two
On the other side of glass, trees sway and bend at a distance. Snow swirls, drifts. Winter birds blacken a V as they hulk across the darkening gray sky. Inside this room, the quiet beeping of machines keep time. Doctors and their attendees arrive then depart in intervals. They adjust and monitor: the angle of the bed, the bag draining into me through the tube in my arm. They turn, clean, and change me.
I need sleep. The pills, the drips, the dreams have me exhausted. Or keep me suspended. I need rest to rest from this rest.
The pressure continues.
Everett, I say, picturing him coming in from his kitchen to greet me at his door wearing an oven mitt.
Then fingers on my wrist. For a moment I see his face, try to touch it, but he slowly turns into two. Two women leaning toward each other from opposite sides of the bed.
Everett’s dead again, I say to one as she presses my hand away from her face.
Husband? She asks the other.
Chart says single.
Maybe boyfriend. Poor thing. Here two days. Not one visitor. She’s in an awful state.
The one touching me says numbers. The other writes.
Could be her dealer, the one with the chart says, placing my arm so the hand lands in my lap. Next she’s looping Velcro tape around my wrist.
Husband is funny but dealer makes me laugh. It comes out coughs, sharp like a fork scraping against tin. No. Not husband. Not dealer.
Could be, says the one on the right.
Someone should come, she says. A parent. A relative. She might not make it.
Don’t say that. Someone will come—and she’ll make it—we’ve seen worse.
The woman on the right is gently rubbing my left ear between her thumb and forefinger. She looks down to me and says, Don’t give up, baby girl. Her gaze lingers as long as I can focus.
Anyway, says the other. Winter arrived late.
Yes, the right one says looking out the window. This storm is raging toward blizzard.
Here’s some water. She’s talking to me again, holding a straw to my lips. She raises the back of my head so I can see a different version of what’s here. There’s ice and wind and branches, low, under the weight of snow.
My eyes focus, capture her gaze. I hope you make it, baby girl.
I suck. The liquid is cool in my mouth but goes down too cold.
She removes the straw but keeps my head in her palm. The cup is gone and she’s running the back of her fingers down my cheek.
My dream is a party in a room like this one. All my dead people are lined up at my bed to have their books signed. My mother wears a red dress, scrapes the inside of an empty jar with a butter knife while my father ignores her. Everett is naked and perfect, tearing pages from my book, crumpling them and throwing them at the nurses.
I wake up alone, the bent straw of the water cup pointing at me like the eye of a submarine. Pressing the button on the remote next to my hand, I wait.
Parsnips, rutabagas, onions, carrots, white and red-skinned potatoes slide from a cutting board along the edge of a butcher knife into a large wide pot. The nurse is standing next to me with her hands at her hips, her gaze fixed to the flat screen bolted to the ceiling across my bed. On the television a woman wearing a chef’s hat and a butcher’s apron is manic amidst gleaming surfaces: stovetop, countertop, pots, roasting pans, and silver platters.
The brisket has been marinating in the brine for four days, she says, opening a can of Guinness Stout.
She pours the dark liquid over the beef and my mouth floods, then stings. I look to the floor: scan for empty bottles, my glass. I lurch from the waist, but I’m tied down. When we’ve brought this to a boil, the woman on the television says, We’ll get to work on the spicy horseradish cream and malty mustard. Who says we have to wait for St. Patty’s Day for wonderfully wintery corned beef?
The screen goes black. The nurse with the remote has opened the window shade to my left. Pressing the buttons, for a moment it seems like she might speed up or slow down the snow that falls from the gray sky. Instead it’s me she commands: Relax. Lay back.
The bed and my body are now half the angle they were a moment ago. She pulls a needle and inserts it under a bandage on my arm. As she presses the liquid into me I forget what I just needed. Everything goes slack.
Every morning, they wake me, stick and prod me, take measurements, enter what they find on a chart. She is disconnecting things attached to a tube in my left arm. Get up, she says. Her breath smells of coffee. I cannot remember the last time I had a cup. My stomach lurches, my gut cramps. You can do it, baby girl, she says.
It turns out she’s right, but the fifty feet from my bed to the bathroom is much more complex than I would’ve expected: I cannot feel the bottoms of my feet, or my fingers; but the joints of my ankles, wrist, and jaw are raw; and the skin where she touches me is so tender I wince.
Soon she’s carrying me and I’m grateful for the warmth of her. There’s something scratching at my thigh and it seems I’m wearing a diaper. The leg holes are too big and I fear I’m losing it. The dressing gown is loose, too. My nipples scrape against the fabric.
Soon we’re there. The enormous tub’s water is clear and scented with something citrusy. Marble everywhere, like my father’s apartment. She positions me next to the sink. Lean here, honey, she says.
I’m facing the tiled wall, my forearms taking in the coolness. My robe falls to the ground. Looking down leaves me vertiginous. There’s a mirror opposite the bath. Two women; one able-bodied, robust, with skin the color of a brown paper bag, doing a job—preparing the other: impossibly pale, bony, and scarred, for a bath.
The mound of black hair I see between my legs is startling; like a fly in the frosting of a wedding cake.
How long has it been since I’ve seen Anja, the woman whose precision and efficiency left me manicured, pedicured, and waxed? Or William? Every fifth Tuesday, he led a small team in a hair salon in The Meat Packing District. Together they’d darken, shine, and cut my hair as to be even with my jaw line. Now my hair is long enough to pull back—the same length I wore it before leaving San Francisco.
I only take showers, never baths. But I surrender to the water, too exhausted to make associations. When she lowers me into the bath, the bandages loosen, then float. Pink jellyfish, she calls them, swabbing my skin with a sponge. She calls me sweet heart when its not honey or baby girl—and I watch from a place free of the thoughts that have always accompanied pain. Her treatment of my body makes me wonder how long it has been since I’ve been touched. Never stop, I say as the water finds its way into my hidden folds.
An orderly wheels me down a long hallway—which seems more apropos to a cheery community center, with its arts-and-crafts decorated walls—than a rehab. He stops in front of an open office door. Get up, he says, and my legs shake under my torso as he guides my body. I can see my feet but still cannot feel them. My ankles no longer taper. They’re almost as wide as my calves.
Please sit, says a woman wearing loose pants and a fitted sports jacket.
I do as she says, looking around the gigantic room with the furniture all clustered at its center. A layout that resembles the woman’s wide and pretty face. Her other features seem slightly pulled in toward her nose, leaving a sprawling amount of forehead and cheeks. She’s folding a file closed, opening a drawer, inserting it, and withdrawing another. The black metal filing cabinet is the only dark thing in this otherwise white room.
The chairs are slip covered in cream damask. Two flat yellow magnets, the size of drink coasters, with red calligraphy are stuck to the side of the dark metal. One reads One Day at a Time. Underneath it another one: Live and Let Live.
Has it come to this? I ask, and she follows my gaze to the magnets.
Apparently, she says, and a small smile moves to and from her lips.
Janis Eileen Blades? she says like a question. Date of birth June 1st?
I nod, though my association with my name seems to have dissolved—as if I’m an actress and my name a character I stopped playing years ago.
She introduces herself as Beverly, the psychologist and caseworker. The PhDs at Serenity Hills, she says, Have earned their degrees from the best schools in the world, But, she tells me, We know it’s not our educations that we offer. It’s our experience. I’m also a recovering alcoholic and addict.
She pauses. I feel the tug of her expectation for a response.
Do you know who brought you here? she finally asks.
No, I say.
Your boss, she tells me. Mr. James made the deposit. He also paid for both the med van and the doctor who accompanied you for the three-hour drive.
Clay’s not my boss, I say. Not anymore.
Not anymore, Janis. Do you remember being let go?
I pause for a moment, wait for memory to compose a chronology. He fired me, I say as a matter of fact, but she thinks I’ve asked a question.
Yes, Beverly says. A month before the spring semester ended. A moment passes before she asks, Do you know what else happened?
I was drinking and I fell.
Ten days ago, on January the second, you were taken by ambulance from your late father’s apartment to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. You were unconscious with a .39 blood alcohol concentration. You also tested positive for toxic levels of benzodiazepines. The doctors had to administer opiate antagonists. You were underweight and almost fatally dehydrated.
I remember being thirsty, I say, marveling as I look around her office how quickly things unravel. How I’m here given where I was. A tiny and sudden memory of Clay and how proud he was to introduce me to the faculty surfaces. He took a risk on my hire and I proved myself worthy.
You were a lot more than thirsty, she says. According to the doctor, another run—even one half as severe as the one that brought you here—will likely be fatal. And yes. You’d been drinking and you fell into a glass table and it looks like you tried several times to get up, only to keep falling. Your face, arms, torso, hips, and legs had been lacerated.
This is from the police file, she continues, and hands a picture to me.
My father’s apartment. Blood and empty bottles. Me on the floor in the center of two EMTs.
You required three hours of surgery to remove pieces of broken glass from your body.
I’m holding the picture. My eyes are closed and the impression of my own body on the floor in the picture has been replaced with that of my mother’s. I didn’t want to be like her.
A guard at St. Luke’s kept watch for forty-eight hours. You were deemed harmful to yourself. Do you know where you are now? she asks.
Rehab, I say, quietly.
Yes, but what city? State?
She stays silent for what seems a long time. Then says, Serenity Hills is a private medical detox hospital and recovery facility for women. In southeastern Pennsylvania. Eighty percent of our clientele are dual-diagnosed drug addicts and alcoholics. You signed papers surrounding yourself to our care. The NYPD signed papers saying you attempted suicide.
The word registers. Resonates. But I cannot associate it with my own story, only my mother’s. Suddenly, I smell my body. I’m maple and curry and metal, and I fear she can smell me from there. Serenity Hills? I ask. That’s the name?
Yes, she says. That’s the name.
To avoid thoughts about what’s to come I concentrate on the details. The blinds behind her desk are down. She turns from the filing cabinet and wheels her armchair over to a table where a porcelain lamp lights up a bowl filled with pale pears. Perhaps wax. She parts the folds of a heavy skirt hanging under the table. A miniature refrigerator appears.
Her polished fingernails tap around the tab of a diet cola until she gets under it, makes it open. She takes a sip. She looks at me and I look back to the magnet.
I’m in charge of your head. Dr. Khan is in charge of your body. Got it? she asks. We’re going to take good care of you. We’ll be part of your village. If you want to learn how to live sober, you’ll need a village. Here, she says, then cocks her head at the window. And out there.
I had a village, I say. They’re dead now.
You build a new one, she answers, and smiles.
She sips again from the can, tilts the weight of her skull to one side and then the other, the tendons of her neck appearing through her skin. She’s my age. Maybe a year or two younger. The angles of her face are soft where mine are sharp, rounded where mine are concave. Her unpainted pink skin and her thick, shiny, plain-colored hair leave me shy, self conscious of everything: my nipples, the size of my teeth, the canals of my ears.
Are you feeling okay? she asks.
A bit jittery, I say.
That could be your meds, she says, making notes. You’ll have a host of side effects for a while. Dr. Khan says you’re stabilizing. We’re glad that you’re alive.
Thank you, I say, though I’m not convinced.
A week ago, it seemed unlikely that you’d pull through.
Your nurses. They’re kind, I say. Can you tell them I’m sorry? I don’t like anyone touching my wrists. I fear I’ve hit one or two of them.
She smiles. Yes, I’ll tell them. But our nurses are pretty tough, so don’t you worry.
Her desk is wood with whitewashing. It looks like an oversized antique vanity with its curving surface and bowed legs. There’s at least five feet of space between the two of us, but now she’s speaking in a voice barely above a whisper.
I was like her: a woman with qualifications in a place with a reputation. A woman with a desk. A woman with a pen in her hand. A woman capable of being direct. But that version of me is far more distant than would seem possible, like the idea of a pedestrian’s wristwatch from the view of an airplane window.
I do not know the time or the day of the week, I think, as she continues to speak. Open the curtains, I want to say, curious if I can solve one of the riddles by seeing where the sun might be in the sky. Solving riddles had, at one time, been one of my strengths.
The clock on the desk faces her. I can hear it ticking. My heart is beating fast and hard enough that I can feel it in my neck.
When she finishes another sip and places the soda back on a folded paper napkin, there’s moisture missing from the aluminum where her fingertips have been. Her hands disappear behind her desk.
My parents always used coasters, I’m saying. Not paper napkins. The same set they used when I was a kid is still at my father’s apartment. In a stack on the table in the library, I tell her. They’re hard plastic-covered black-and-white photos of different women: one in a business suit with a high-rise behind her, like she was holding it up with her shoulders; another in a kitchen; at the beach; sitting in a window. When I was a kid, every few days my mother would rotate her coaster. It was rare to see her sip from her iced tea, but the glass and the coaster were always within a few feet of her. This stayed true up until the day she died.
Beverly’s expression has suddenly rearranged itself, like a teacher’s might if her student lit up a joint during the middle of a lecture. Maybe it’s the speed of my words. It’s as if they’ve been posed behind a starting line, waiting for a shot to be fired.
I’m saying that I loved those photographs when I was little—so much like my mother and the women who visited my parents’ apartment. Years later I’d recognize them as Cindy Sherman photographs—probably a gift from a museum store.
Beverly touches her can lightly with the very tips of her fingers. The beads of condensation roll toward its base and dampen the napkin.
Go on, she says.
But I can’t. I have that too drunk feeling. The one that usually means something’s coming. Something unwelcome.
Your mother sounds like an interesting woman.
The year she died, I stayed with my father for a couple weeks before going to live with my Uncle Hugh. I grew bored waiting for him to come back from work. A fly had been buzzing around my room. It finally got caught between the window and the blinds, and I was able to trap it in a plastic sandwich bag that I cinched and brought to my mouth. I puffed it full of air, tied it with a rubber band like a pet store goldfish, and then stuck it in the freezer next to my father’s Vodka. I observed it for exactly thirty seconds every five minutes and wrote descriptions of its slowing down in my school notebook. After an hour, I set the timer for another hour and didn’t look once. When I finally took it out, the fly had stopped moving altogether. Its body lay on its wings and its legs stood stiff and straight up like a cartoon corpse.
I left the bag on the butcher block in the center of the kitchen and lay down on the floor. I remember the rush inside my body. The sensation of being the cause of an outcome. An important factor in suffocation or freezing or both. I remembering saying aloud What have I done?
I held my breath as long as I could. The tips of my fingers tingled and my body heaved, forcing me to breathe again.
Did you think you could kill yourself by holding your breath?
I remember I was lightheaded, and I liked the feeling of numbness. Who knows. I was a kid. I didn’t think of myself as having a life I could take. I just wanted to stop breathing, feel that numbness. See what would happen. So I scraped my foot across the floor toward my hand, removed the thin sock and inhaled before I stuffed it deeply into my mouth. I pinched my nose then held on tight. My periphery darkened. The hum of the refrigerator’s motor quieted and echoed.
All of the anxiety about what I’d do without a mother, where I’d go to school, how I’d get my clothes and books from my room in San Francisco disappeared into pure sensation: pain, temperature, sound, pulse.
Finally, the sock lurched out of me. I put my hands in my pockets, and tried to get as quiet and calm as possible. I imagined tapping on the lowest octave’s C on my father’s piano while pressing the sustain pedal. I held my breath once more, one last time. I remember the cold floor making its way through my clothing, lowering the temperature of the skin on the back of my scalp, scapula, heels.
The third try I was sure that nothing could make me breathe again. I managed to hold it for several long beats beyond what my mind thought possible. Finally, it happened. I started hyperventilating. My head pounded, and I heard a buzzing outside of me. I stood up slowly. My vision broadened. The bag on the counter moved slightly as the fly inside flew into the walls of her transparent cage. I rushed her out.
Beverly makes notes with her pencil in my file. Adjusts. Your mother? She killed herself?
I didn’t want to be like her. I worked hard. Made a life for myself. Made little worlds that made sense out of the bigger one that didn’t. Do you want to know what a critic wrote of my first book?
He said, A courageous experiment. Relentlessly beautiful and disturbing. He called me a raw talent, worthy of much of my praise, but he said my novel failed because it lacked cohesiveness. Frankly, I’m saddened by how easily she seduces my colleagues. A novel is an art form. She manages to collect beautiful sentences back-to-back, page-after-page, but that doesn’t make it a novel.
Do you agree? Beverly says.
I did. For a while. But now I disagree. To him a novel is successful if it’s cohesive. If it follows a pattern. But as far as I see, we get a collection of images lacking cohesion. Meaning is something we assign.
Her facial muscles are engaged. She looks alert and slightly excited, like a person looking through binoculars might after spotting a rare bird.
My jaw aches. The roof of my mouth itches and my sinuses burn. Her excitement is contagious because I, too, am awake and more lucid than I’ve been since they woke me.
I try not to make connections, I say.
I see, she says, closing my file. We’re going to end for today, she says, and pushes a button on her phone. A second later the door opens. The orderly is in the room again and I’m being wheeled back through the long hallway with no end in sight.
Leave a Reply