This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
This is an excerpt from Lowlands, a novel in progress.
A bright light shone behind his head but the room was slippery with nighttime. Buzzing voices came from the hallway beyond the open door. A monitor beeped, out of sight. The pinch was an IV needle in the back of his right hand. The rest of his body was a maze of dread.
A female nurse came through the door trailing a breeze that wafted over his face. She reached over his head and the beeping stopped. She turned his wrist and looked at her watch.
“Are you dreaming, hon? You awake now? How’s your pain? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”
How’s your pain? Phil tried to answer but it came out in a cough. He watched the nurse lower his hand and close it around a thumb button on a thick cord.
“It’s a medication pump. Press this if you have too much pain. Can you do it? You have a catheter so don’t try to get up. Do you understand?”
She held a plastic cup and a straw for him to drink. He discovered that his bottom lip was bruised. Something about the straw bothered him and looked at her over the cup. He had a question.
“You’re OK,” she said. “You were in an accident. You have to stay in bed now.”
He pushed the straw from his lips. “I know,” he croaked. “What time is it?” Then, “How bad am I? What’s wrong with me?”
“Your left arm is fractured, and your pelvis. Your right knee is sprained and you have some cuts and bruises. But you’re going to be OK. It’s very early now. Go back to sleep if you can. The doctor will see you in the morning.” The nurse straightened and pointed at a whiteboard hanging on the wall next to the bed. “That’s me, I’m Becky. Oh, let me change the date because it’s tomorrow.”
She pulled the top off a marker with a pop, and the felt tip squeaked on the board. “I’ll be back.” Becky left the room in a puff of wind.
She had written “Sunday, August 17, 2008.” Because it’s tomorrow. It almost meant something and he tried to puzzle it out. His left arm was wrapped in layers of thick bandaging. A light blanket covered his hips and legs. He wanted to look, to be sure everything was still there. But when he shifted experimentally the pain took his breath away. He found the pump and pushed the button. He pushed it again in case it didn’t work the first time.
The next time he woke up it was day and there was a lot of noise out in the hall. A man wearing hospital scrubs was fiddling with something below the edge of his bed.
“Hello, sir. How we doing today?” The man didn’t wait for an answer and left with a bag of dark yellow urine.
A doctor wearing a white coat and a tie came in, exchanged a few words with the nurse — a new one, not Becky, and asked him how he was feeling while he looked at the chart.
“We need to perform a surgical procedure on your broken arm to fix the fractures, OK? You’ll be asleep. OK?” He uttered some medical jargon and offered a clipboard.
“No, not OK,” Phil said. “Can’t you just leave it?” He wanted to fight. The doctor remained impassive, explaining the technicalities of the fractures and the surgery. Finally, Phil gave in and made his signature — a distorted scribble on the paper.
People came and went while he dozed fitfully. It was too bright and too noisy in the room. He tried lifting the not-broken arm to cover his face in the crook of his elbow, but the IV stopped him, so he felt for the pain pump in the folds of sheet and blanket.
“Hey, you’re awake.” His brother Kevin. Fresh haircut, smooth button-down shirt, fixed smile.
“It’s you,” said Phil. “Tell me what happened.”
Kevin sighed. “Didn’t they tell you?”
“You tell me.”
“OK,” he began. “So, today is Sunday and you’ve been here since Friday night. Well, since early Saturday morning, a day and a half? You’re pretty banged up but you’re not paralyzed or anything. A flood pushed your truck off the road into a ravine. A flash flood from the rain, do you remember that?”
“They said you’re very lucky you survived.”
Phil swallowed. “What about . . .” He couldn’t say her name.
“OK, this part is bad.” Kevin sighed. “The girl who was with you, she did not make it.”
People were talking in the hall. Carts rolled by, shoes squeaked on the polished floor. Kevin leaned closer. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but, you know, you’ve been pretty out of it until now.” He waited. “How are you, are you in pain??”
Phil closed his eyes. He knew she was dead, had known the whole time, but the blackness and the sounds and the water rolled up like a video he could not shut off. The feel of his feet pushing against her body, the rage. Panic.
After a minute he asked, “Is Mom here?”
“On her way.” Kevin sighed again and straightened. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, dropping his hip. It was the whole body equivalent of an eye roll and summed up what they both knew about their mother. “Do you want me to call anybody for you? I didn’t know if you wanted me to. Like a friend, or your boss.”
“No, it’s OK.” It was lucky that Kevin was the one to tell him, and not their mother, who was a handful. Another not-Becky nurse came in with the usual breeze and loud voice. Phil turned his head away and waited for her to leave. Then he asked, “Has anyone been here besides you?”
“Actually, some cops, but you were still out of it. I don’t think anyone else. The funeral is on Saturday. I don’t know if you’ll be able to go, or if you want to. Do you want me to do anything? Flowers, make a call?”
“I won’t go. They won’t want me.” He tried to feel angry or sad or ashamed, but those things were outside his body and might be lying behind a curtain in a different bed with a different Phil.
“Trust me.” Phil lifted his head from the pillow, wincing. He had the idea that if he talked to Robert now he could reasonably explain it wasn’t his fault. He was looking for his cell phone and realized it was gone, of course. Kevin reached into his pocket and offered his. Phil stared at it.
“Fuck. I don’t know the number, even if I wanted to.”
“Robert. Her father.” Phil let his head drop back to the pillow.
“I can look it up,” said Kevin.
“No, don’t.” He closed his eyes and pushed the button. Once, then again.
When we were girls in the early 1970s, my two sisters and I were lucky, so lucky. We lived in Connecticut, in a historic rambling brick and clapboard colonial home painted white with black shutters in the deep woods. Small brown bats slept behind the shutters during the day and a long green sweep of lawn and gardens led to a pond guarded by weeping willows and bullfrogs. It was heaven.
But the luckiest way that we were lucky was to have a horse. Nightmare was a sturdy, glossy, black mare with some draft horse in her unremarkable pedigree. She tolerated everything we did to her, from fawning on her to climbing and jumping from her back to pushing through brambles, to pulling her thick mane and braiding it with brightly colored yarn, to bathing her with blue Dawn detergent under cold water from the hose.
We kept Nightie at a nearby riding stable. She was so sturdy that unlike the touchy thoroughbreds I would ride as an adult, Nightie was never injured, except for one oozing wound of proud flesh on her right hind ankle that didn’t heal for the longest time. Still, we watched the other girls treating their more sophisticated horses with fascinating ointments and liniments for sore muscles and pulled tendons, and we also applied these lotions to Nightie’s legs and practiced bandaging them snugly but not tightly with cotton fleece and wide wraps, even though she did not need them. Such a patient horse.
The liniment everyone used was an alcohol, menthol and who-knows-what concoction that tingled when you tipped it into your hand from the brown glass bottle and rubbed it down her cannon bones and hocks and down the straight-as-saplings tendons at the back of Nightie’s lower legs. We pronounced it ab-zore-bean. Decades later when I mentioned it to other grown-up horsewomen, they laughed and corrected me. The proper pronunciation was ab-zore-bean, they said.
But I still say it the old way in my mind.
I’ve been writing and reading a lot of poetry over the past 10 weeks as I recover from surgery for a broken wrist. Marie Howe’s What The Living Do prompted this memory of my father’s last days. He died on April 18, 1995, in Vero Beach, FL.
I have arrived in this vivid spring: oleanders, hot Florida sun,
strong Atlantic breeze and cumulus towers in the blue-blue sky.
The small hospital is a tidy white concrete low-rise in a trimmed landscape
where shadows race and the wide doors open like airlocks.
Inside my father lies in a bed and I sit in a chair in my summer clothes.
Delirious, he says anything he thinks of and leers at my legs
licking his lips until something occurs to him
and he points at the door, looks me in the eye, and says,
Go to my office and get that book. I say, Maybe later.
Go now, he says and smiles like it’s a game.
He thinks he’s at home, not seeing the hospital around him.
What is it about, I ask, dangerously indulging the hallucination.
Go, he says, commanding. I say, I can’t, not right now.
A moment later he says, You’re having a hard time.
He sees me crying and his kindness breaks me in half.
The doctor and an intern enter and look at the two of us
How are you, the doctor asks me, but he can see perfectly well.
Prepare yourself, he says, and I begin.
I prepare by coming and going, abandoning plans for recovery
swapping vigils with my mother and sister
in the ICU that is a glass cage behind more airlocks
sitting with my father as he becomes quiet, struggles to breathe
watching the heart monitor leaping, the sound mercifully turned off
the oxygen mask pressing into the skin around his nose and mouth.
I prepare by taking an afternoon off as if cutting class or calling in sick
because he is unconscious, because I can’t take it, and that is when he dies
as I lie on the beach close to the restless, mumbling Atlantic
in the salty wind that peppers my skin with stinging sand.