D. E. Lee
D. E. Lee’s fiction appears in The Emerald Coast Review, Alligator Juniper, Broad River Review, Mixed Fruit, Prick of the Spindle and others. He is a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee, Honorable Mention in the December 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and a finalist for the 2014 Nelson Algren Award.
A sunset and a dog. Orange like the sun the dog leaps into the Gulf and comes out shaking and shaking all over me and the slip of paper. He connects me to the Gulf, to the sun. The written words begin to run, and I chase them. The message wobbles between my fingers. It slips beyond my reach. Farther, the more I grasp for it. My breathing’s erratic. Whispery.
If I were you and you were me where would you be and where would I be?
And then: Gretchen Hayes.
The name haunts me. She died at precise coordinates. A unique spot on earth. Her car stalled at the exact time a train was crossing. Since then, geodesy has obsessed me.
The world turns like a pinwheel. Once, I could name its parts. Not anymore. A wind has spun the thing. Events and people collide. Somewhere deep in my brain this revolving
thing has separate parts. The dog, the sunset, both orange, denoting something significant between them? Or am I the only one who sees these distinctions?
April brought me flowers when I was in the hospital having my appendix removed. The pain started in my mouth, so I went to the dentist to have my wisdom teeth taken out. I laugh now. Confusion and all. But at the time I was serious. These puzzles drive me crazy. Is there anything static? Or am I interchangeable with everything else? A synonym awaiting a context?
Her dress had no sleeves. Yellow diamonds and vertical stripes. Just sunny enough to make me smile. She asked how I was doing. I pointed to the tubes in my nose.
“Don’t say anything funny,” I said. “Don’t even try. Because I can’t laugh. It kills me to laugh.”
The hospital band contained my information. It told the nurses who I was and what to feed me. No one seemed worried that I might forget or that I might want to forget.
We would take long walks down the corridors. Her hand cool and sure on my arm. In the visitor’s room an abstract print framed in mahogany hung over the couch. We sat in chairs opposite. I felt something cataclysmic in our opposition.
“That. That doesn’t make sense,” she said, indicating the print.
“It’s a protest against mechanization.”
“Then it makes perfect sense.”
“But the artist meant to depict a drill press.”
“Then it doesn’t make sense.”
Her thumbnail scraped my palm.
“I asked to see my appendix,” I said.
“What did it look like?”
“I don’t know. It was taken downstairs and destroyed.”
“I had a dissident organ in my body. Know what I believe? Its rebellion gave it the purpose it lacked.”
From the black leather book I find the name Gretchen Hayes and jot down the number.
The waves soothe me. Warm sand palliates my feet. I suddenly dash into the waves and leap across the curl. My body stretches long and taught as a thick leather cord. My teeth chomp the spray. It’s true! Brisk action momentarily destroys memory.
The bandage around Doris’s head is loose. The sun from the window glows on her skull. She’s asleep again. Or in a coma. Or in some sort of dream. Maybe she’s walking down the long dark tunnel. Against her breast she holds the phone number of her longtime friend Gretchen Hayes. Her thin lips tighten. She thinks. What if just a few months ago I was able to watch television and actually understand what I was watching? And what if one day, the next day, a doctor told me a tumor was in my brain? And what if now I’m lying here with a loose bandage around my skull? And what if I don’t even recognize who I am?
If I were you and you were me.
And then she thinks it’s impossible to have these thoughts.
She hears someone say, “Life’s a mystery,” and wonders if God or the fact that carrots are orange is being discussed.
They are talking about her. She believes exclusion from direct participation is worse than a brain tumor.
The soliloquy begins after steam is wiped from the mirror. The figure in front of you has shaving cream on the opposite cheek.
“You want to be a great poet,” you say.
“Nothing more than that.”
“Have your words on paper, periods after each sentence, revealing an undamaged imagination.”
The razor scrapes in opposite strokes.
“You’re bombarded by stimuli.”
“That’s true. But I’ve decided to make the most of it.”
“You were taught a standard lexicon.”
“I wanted to specialize.”
“What did you write down?”
“Three terms. Science. Religion. Poetry.”
“The more interesting ways to understand things.”
You wipe the mirror again. The steam like an advancing ice sheet has covered most of your face.
“You know, of course, had your father been a banker instead of a carpenter you would’ve put business instead of religion on that list.”
“I tried on all the terms one time or another.”
“Science searched for answers.”
“You were there.”
“Religion gave you answers.”
“Yes. And a real sense of satisfaction.”
“More challenging than the other two.”
“Right. You didn’t know what it did.”
“It did something. You knew that.”
“Yeah. Everything at once and nothing at all.”
“A thing could be like another thing.”
“Worse. A thing could be another thing.”
“That’s the problem.”
“Sure. Poetry replaced ordinary words with different but still ordinary words.”
“A simple matter of arrangement, placement.”
“The possibilities made you dizzy.”
“With words you could change the identity of anything.”
“You could call a rose a jackhammer.”
“And it might make sense to somebody.”
You rinse the razor.
Doris could cook for hours without hunger. She would sit after everyone else had eaten and savor the cold food on her plate. She eats pureed these days. She can’t even say if she likes the fare. Her unaffected smile convinces everyone she loves the stuff. She’s lost control of bowels and bladder. Cleaning her is a chore. She’s rolled from side to side. Totally helpless. We put up with her because we remember what she used to be. We also think we’d want the same treatment if one of us was her.
She made wonderful clay figures. Birds and such. She’d finish one and leave it on a shelf to dry. A few days later she’d smash it. “Not close enough,” she’d mutter.
“You expect clay to be a real bird?”
She’d poke her lips out. “Why not?” Then would disappear into a dark room.
We went walking on our parents’ property one fall afternoon through wide fields of broomgrass. Hundreds of crows suddenly
rose, black against gold, a flurry of wings, a whirlwind of coal dust. I had never seen anything so spectacular. Tears gathered in Doris’s eyes.
April wears white canvas tennis shoes with black socks. Her legs are beautiful. Plump around the knees. She cannot keep her hair from her eyes but refuses to brush it back, calling it a bad habit. We’re having coffee at the kitchen counter. She says, “My boyfriend's kisses are like perforated computer paper.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, Dave.”
She’s more like me than Doris.
“I’m trying on new ways to understand the world,” she says. Creamy shapes rise from her cup.
“The world can’t be understood.”
“I’m often confused about people and places. The proper descriptions of them.”
I pour more coffee. She stirs in sugar. Crosslegged on the stool she laces her fingers through the handle.
“I’m nervous,” she says.
“Mom’s been dead five years.”
She looks at her arms and then looks at me. I grasp her hand. “Cold,” I say.
She smiles. “Cold by nature.”
Outside it’s one of those dreary mornings. Gray by ceaseless rain.
“She needed blood,” April says. “There was nothing else to do.”
“She fussed,” I say. “Remember? She kicked a bit. Protested against procedures. Machinery.”
“Didn’t want to lose her blood.”
“It was silly. She was always so ignorant.”
“She begged us.”
“Don’t take my blood!”
“Like a banshee. She was screaming.”
“You told her it was safe, didn’t you? For her own good, right?”
“Doris did. I kept quiet.”
“And she was singing.”
“Humming. All during the transfusion. Something lofty.” April begins singing. “Nothing but—”