The waves must have lapped up the smell of rot. Carried it away past where the footing crumbles – past the intrusion of familiarity. Maybe to that place where the only thing you can hear is your own obliteration, as the lake current tugs hard at heavy limbs.
And seagulls, always the seagulls. There was no death-smell coming from the tousled body at my feet, but I knew that awful odor was all around me.
I felt for them, those charlatan gulls, never living up to their name. Named for the sea, stuck at a lake. Wondered if they ever went anywhere they could feel the sting of salt in their beady bird eyes. Or if they were happy here, making due with these wilting waves, and waters rotund with rot. If they went, was it habit that brought them back? Or something deeper and intuitive, not open to compromise? I thought about dying out on that lake to the sound of their screeching.
I picked up a piece of driftwood that had been battered by ten-thousand gentle waves. Rolled over unassumingly, tossed and marred in little ways, until it lay here mangled, for my taking.
I used it to poke at a snarl of feathers and bloated flesh. Drops of water rested on the oily coating, but they had not stopped there. Wetness penetrated the down, saturating it with a sodden, clingy, weight. The neck twisted towards the shore, and flecks of sand stuck to the gray film covering a vacant eye. The waves tugged at an outstretched wing, moving it, but stiffly, so I wanted to shout, imposter!
My granddaddy had once told me this lake stretched the whole way to Canada, and that made it exotic, even though it was only a lake. I felt close to him here, and it scared me. Made me think about souls, and that maybe his was here now. Maybe it had always been, but I didn’t often think of souls. I’d been coming here for the past five days, while we waited and waited.
A fishing boat still took up space in his garage, though he hadn’t known the waters intimately for at least a decade. My mother and her sister had nagged him to sell it, but I knew something about grasping for possibilities. They had a way of falling through your fingers, sliding as if thick with grease, and they were damn hard to pick back up once they’d hit the ground and danced with dirt. If you even wanted them, then.
Now he lay between raspy white sheets, maybe dying, maybe not. The wet sand under my feet conformed and welcomed and tried to suck me under, but everything in that room resisted; rigid, and molding to nothing. Lively nurses entered without knocking, saying things like Oh you just never can tell and Miracles do happen and We’ll just hafta’ wait and see. All for our benefit, it seemed, because they never spoke to him. Tubes ran out of his nose, out of his mouth, out of his bladder, collecting and organizing the stuff of life we take for granted and try to ignore. I had to keep reminding myself that these infiltrations, so mechanical and cold, lent him warmth.
This morning, the young nurse with the tobacco teeth had told my grandma for the fifth time, “Yes, this is called life-support. These tubes are doing all the breathing for him.”
My grandma wouldn’t quit asking, even though the answer was right there, glaring Clorox white. Then she’d say, “Oh, Harold,” and lay her head upon his chest, her sobs blending with the constant hums and blips of the machines. “He wouldn’t want this,” she said.
We didn’t yet know, what this was.
Yesterday, this preacher man came into the room. All starched and pressed, and us, wrinkled and stained. The idea was to bring hope of some sort, but I wasn’t one to be fooled by his faith, that vendor of death. I hadn’t liked the way his arms had snatched at me, as I stood clutching my elbows, grinding my teeth, watching an air bubble frolic in the bile-tube. It was sucked down, because it always would be.
That preacher man’s arms held me too long, greedy, trying to console me. When he said, “I’ll pray for you,” all I could think was, “Fuck off,” so I said nothing. My husband used to hold me like that.
My granddaddy loved gospel songs, though he once told me he needed proof of God’s existence. And what was so wrong with that, needing proof? Evidence was doubt, and doubt was damnation, according to that preacher man. Granddaddy didn’t belong to any church, but spent Sundays scouring the sand, always looking down, making divots with his walking stick, revealing secret hues, long-buried and forgotten.
Beach glass, we called it. Before he suffered from the shooting pains in his knees, he would bend down and collect each piece, no matter how small or plain, and place it in the pocket of his flannel jacket. Afterwards, only the most precious would do. That jacket smelled like Te-Amos long after he told my grandma he’d quit, and I’d drink it in when I hugged him. Let it fill me with something real and musky and that was proof enough for me. And every time I’d visit, he’d whisper me away from my cousins, and press a bauble of red or amber into my palm. They were the rarest, and all mine.
He’d tell me that it came from pirate ships, or from fine china held by fine ladies whose last breaths had been filled with the dark waters of the lake as it stripped them of all haughtiness. Later, I knew most had come from bottles of Bud Light and cheap liquor that had shattered on the rocks. The lake robbed it of its defenses, as ragged edges were polished smooth. Sometimes, I’d find a piece with a bit of spared pattern, and I’d think of those ladies screaming as every remaining thirst was quenched. Ones they hadn’t known.
Still, that preacher had come. Marched into the room while I held that hand, so soft, it was, so unexpected. I’d hoped it would be rough, but it was fat and smooth, like a child’s. I felt it twitch in mine as Granddaddy grasped at life. Little signs he might recover. His eyes opened sometimes, but we didn’t know what they saw. At first we’d jump up, gasping and collaborating like survivors of some catastrophe, but now, we wished they’d just stay closed.
“It’s OK, Dad, you can go,” my mother said, stroking his forehead.
I thought, fight, fight, damn it.
The doctor said, “Tell me if you feel him squeeze your hand. It’s a sign he might come out of this.”
When I rang for him, each time, he said, “It was just a reflex. Just a reflex, nothing more.”
That doctor’s name was Dr. Sunshine. Dr. Fucking Sunshine. I hated him for that name. Hated him for the cold linoleum floor, and the artificial light, and my daily diet of powdered coffee and aspirin, and the sterility of everything, and for that nurse whose hair was the same color as my husband’s lover’s.
When she bent over to check an I.V., I’d leaned down and smelled her scalp, inhaling remnants of hairspray and dandruff, thinking maybe it could tell me something about her. About everyone whose hair was that shade. It had the sharp chemical smell of newness and change, and I wanted to ask her the name, but this was not the place.
I’d stood at Wal-Mart for an hour one day, looking for that color. And still, after studying every glossy box, tapping my chewed nails against the airbrushed faces, still, at the end I couldn’t decide if it was Charmingly Chestnut or Alluringly Auburn, so I ran my fingers through my own Bumfuck Brown, and went home with a stranger I met in the produce aisle.
I stared at that seagull, and wanted to bury myself with it while the sand filled my every crevice. I wished as I had many times before, that salt hung heavy in the air here. But there was no salt in this water. No salt to glaze your lips, which could be sucked on later like a piece of licorice. Just dark water and a dark sky and sand that rode the breeze into your eyes and clumps of dried sea plants, dark and foreign and failed, aborted onto the uncombed beach.
And I stared down into the sand, but the only piece of glass I found was still young and sharp and uncultivated, and it would have been wrong to take it just then. Rows of mason jars sat on a coffee table at my grandparents’ house, all filled to the brim, each piece, within, cherished. The tide began to reclaim the dead gull, and I longed to return to the white walls and blatant suffering of the hospital, where the only outcomes were life and death, with none of this terrible openness.
Its funny how quickly intimacy can happen. Real intimacy – details and quirks, tiny faults turned lovely — not fucking. The kind you wake up next to, and hold. The kind my husband was learning about his lover while I was out here, out of state, sleeping in a hard plastic chair, waiting for death. I wondered if she used my pillow, my bathrobe, my drugstore shampoo. The beeps and tubes and lines on the screens, what was normal and what was not, all became second-nature and relaxed, and full of danger.
The way the thin skin above his left eye flickered when he told me he was working late that night. When I knew. The familiarity that made him stray.
Where to find the red glass. The feathery white hair that reminded me of a baby bird; something to be nurtured despite the odds, even when nurturing becomes cruel.
When I walked back into his room, tangled from the wind, grains of sand tumbling from the rubber of my shoes, Dr. Sunshine stood with his back to me. They were gathered around the bed. A new urgency sucked at the air, and I didn’t ask why.
My aunt, between hiccups, finally said, “ They’re going to take them out. We were waiting for you to be here. The brain-scan shows nothing.” She patted my hand, and looked for a moment, at the paleness where my ring used to lie. I felt the acid from the coffee slink into the drawn twists of my stomach, and I wished I’d stayed at the beach. Never came back, so this couldn’t happen. Kept them waiting and waiting.
“People come out of these things all the time. Jesus Christ, it’s only been five days, and we’re just going to say to hell with it?” I said.
Dr. Sunshine turned to me, and frowned. “Those cases you hear about on TV are very rare. Your grandfather shows no brain signals, and has had no voluntary motor action. The chances are very slim that he’ll get better.”
Maybe, maybe, maybe. Now, no way in hell. White dress, something blue, sparkly stone, now what, Dr. Sunshine? I shoved my fist into my gut, trying to stop everything caustic. I was sick and angry and craving, but loathing, hope.
My grandma touched my arm, and said, “He wouldn’t have wanted this, dear. He’d told me so many times. You know him.”
She was calm, and I wanted to shake her and shake her and scream, “He’s not dead yet!”
They were all calm, and I was breathing hard and shallow, taking almost nothing from the air around me.
“He squeezed my fucking hand,” I said. “You told me that was a sign, and now it’s nothing at all. He opens his eyes when we play George Jones for him. Now we’re just going to let him die, because we’re tired of waiting?” I was sobbing and dry heaving, and thought the room would spin, but it stayed unchanged, white and stark and persevering better than I ever could.
They pulled the tubes, stopped his glucose, and drizzled morphine into his veins. Yet, he lived. And lived, and shit, why wouldn’t he just die? The clogged drain of life emptied, so slowly, twirling and twirling. I looked for the lines jumping up at sharp, familiar angles, but the monitors had been taken away. Nothing left to distract.
A new nurse came in and snipped the blue band from his wrist. In its place, she fastened one of bright yellow. The color of god-damned sunshine. I looked at her, but didn’t ask, and she said, “It means do not resuscitate,” and walked out without any mention of maybe.
They thought he’d relieve us of that ragging hope. Oh, how I wanted him to keep us waiting! Oh, how I wished he’d just stop. After ten days, he’d die from starvation, if he lasted that long, for morphine alone cannot sustain, can only numb. He’d always saved the red pieces for me.
The only thought that calmed me, as we sat there, was of my husband and his lover. The thought of her hands gliding over his body, and of him grabbing her hair. Their scent on our sheets. I’d seen her once, but imagined her many times. They’d been at dinner, touching and claiming each other, sharing a bottle of Malbec. How close I’d been. Close enough to see beyond the bottle, and read the label, yet I said nothing, waiting for their love to be worn smooth, for some things do not wear so well.
Alayssa M. Sarnovsky lives in Nashville, TN, with her rescue dog, Daryl. She holds a degree in English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, and has been previously published in the Atticus Review. She is a past recipient of the Westmoreland Award for Short Fiction. She is pursuing her passion as a singer/songwriter, and would be thrilled if everyone would check out her music at : reverbnation.com/lacymay. She can be contacted at AlayssaSarnovsky@yahoo.com.