RETURN TO THE VAMC
by Sarah Broderick
What is this fat hen squawking about? Michael tries to open his right eye so he can see the nurse better, but it is sealed shut. His left is barely a slit. Through the haze of milky sleep scumming over his pupil, he makes out a whitish blob topped with frizzy orange lint.
“Fat? You’re already in enough trouble, mister.” This nurse he has never met before heard him. She walks to the wall beside the door. He fights the urge to think in case another insult slips out. What if he has hurt her feelings before having a chance to prove the opposite, and she thinks him an ogre? His head feels like it weighs thirty pounds, fifty, as he rotates it to better set his good eye on her. He senses the unmade hospital bed beside him, the television plopped onto a cart in front, and the wheelchair in which his large body rests. This room, this ward, is unfamiliar, but he tries to stay calm. The nurse rips off a length of brown paper towel from a leaden dispenser, triggering an artery centered in his brain to pulsate and deliver short punches to the surface of his face and into the boggy fluid of his stomach. His gut quivers as he tenses the muscles above his left eye to raise his brow and lower his cheek, which is like trying to prop up a fallen roof with a toothpick.
The nurse rests the rectangle of paper atop the burnished metal counter before her and opens and thuds shut each door hung off a length of cabinets. Glass vials containing pills of pastel shades, tapes, and various sharp metal instruments clink into a wicker basket hung heavily at the crook of her fleshy elbow. Her body blocks most of his view. Reaching into the basket, she pinches the bulbous glass nipple on one of the vials and extracts he knows not what to settle it atop the paper on the counter, then lifts several more items to rest before pivoting sharply on her heel. “I’m closing the curtain,” she says.
Resting along the counter, he sees what she had been setting out—an indiscriminate length of adhesive bandage, cotton swabs, tongue depressors, blunt forceps, and a small, harmless pile of aspirin resting like an attempt at a pyramid. Michael wonders if these will be administered to him in sequential order and rolls his neck so the weight of his head falls to the cool steel of his chair back, permitting gravity to do some of the work of lifting his brow for him.
The window curtain’s rings scuttle along their track. Before the curtain closes, he notices that this ward has a different view than his usual where he checks in once a week to sit in a circle with others and talk, paint graphic scenes, or write words that someone might call a poem. Instead of a lawn of dry, flat crabgrass before acre upon acre of cornstalks, the hospital’s entrance expands before him, its thin paved lane snaking down to a simple wrought iron arch flanked by a fence made of crossed, white beams of timber in a gesture closer to an estate or a horse stable than a veteran’s hospital, and beyond that, the blue-green field of timothy and alfalfa grass that rolls like the sea—Michael knows that place, too. It is the military cemetery. The tombstones are hidden, but all you have to do is take the lane leading through the field and beyond the tree line to reach them. One of the World War II vets usually serves as sentry, and none of them mind how much of your day is spent there sitting, drinking, and talking to yourself as long as you take your garbage with you and consider leaving an honorable token.
“Do you have any questions about what you are doing here?” she says.
To shield him from the sunset angling over that distant tree line, the golden blush cast upon the trees’ limbs and the fence, was kind. “No. Thank you. I can see better,” he says, raising his hand to his closed right eye, which burns and throbs. His fingertips catch the fibrous gauze wrapped like chicken wire around his head, but his eye does not seem to be set where he remembers. He lowers his fingertips. There it is. The numb edges of his body are slowly rising back to him and into soreness.
“Michael, you drove through the hospital this morning. Do you remember that?”
He clacks his tongue against the roof of his mouth in nervous agitation. Flecks of charred grit catch in the grooves of that lump of flesh and nestle within his teeth—the remnants of last night’s hamburger dinner—and his mouth is burnt and raw, clung in the syrupy after-decay of alleyway bourbon, as if used as a receptacle for cigarette butts and bottles. He gags. Sweat marshes along his hairline and swamps around his crotch. Must have been one hell of a bender.
Now, she stands before him, checking a gooey-looking dressing the color of mustard crust on his right forearm. Her eyes are splayed apart, too wide for her Tinkerbell nose. She’s a bloated, orange catfish. “Here,” she says, reaching for a water cup at the end of the counter. The straw hanging limply from the side parts his lips.
His mouth feels better, his insides, too, as the cool water slides over his body’s inner heat. He must be coming back to himself and regaining his faculties. He had kept his harsh thoughts to himself this time. “I shouldn’t have done that. That was bad.” He nods his head in order to stir the lie toward belief, but this motion is a mistake. Bells and whistles strobe behind his eyelids. “Bad. Ow.” He touches his temple.
“I bet it hurts,” she says, rising up to maintain her distance.
“It’s okay. I probably deserve it.”
“Well, you said you wanted to kill President Carter along with yourself. You can’t say that, Michael. That’s the sort of talk that gets you in trouble, and that’s why you’re going to stay here. No leaving anymore. We will be starting what is called an observation.”
He focuses on his left wrist handcuffed to the wheelchair’s arm. He lifts it up and down, clinking the metal.
“You got that?” With one hand, she rummages around at his lower back, adjusting a flimsy, synthetic pillow wadded there.
“Got it clearly. Yes, ma’am,” he says, his voice croaking. Her spongy body is close, and it smells, unlike him, good. The scent of dusty puff powder along with a hint of garden roses she sprinkles along the ridges of her skin to collect the moisture gets the pain moving over and through him all tangled up. She pulls away. He wishes to reach for her, to embed himself deep in her spongy folds and for her to say that everything is okay, there there there, at the same time that he is repulsed.
Her pen scribbles along a clipboard extracted from the foot of his bed, but she seems more intent on stating what she thinks of him in a passive, coded way that professionalism will allow. “All of us here who like you so much told them you didn’t mean it. That you’re a good boy for the most part who has been through too much. You have a right to feel a little angry, Michael. You do. But you have to be cautious. Not only could you have hurt yourself, you could have hurt someone else.”
She already knows who he is. His reputation precedes him. A freak stands out. That repulsed feeling slips further inward as if there is anywhere left to descend. He could almost puke. “Did I?”
“Thankfully, no,” she says, slicing the sheets of paper away from the teeth of the metal clip. She tucks the free sheets back at the foot of his bed but settles the hard board and its metal into her basket, which he supposes could be used as a weapon now that he thinks about it—a stiff beating over the head or a metal pin jabbed into his aorta. “You went through the greenhouse, and you know nobody’s ever in there.”
Good. Maybe he had been thinking of others. Again, he clanks his handcuffed wrist on the metal, wanting her to feel sorry for him. “I was already pretty fucked up, huh?” His arm, the chunks of tissue gone as if munched by an enormous rat, its leathery skin, reminds him that this is true. He tightens his throat and tries to swallow down the paste forming in his mouth. “I was.”
“You gave yourself a good gash today and banged up a few other parts, but you didn’t hurt yourself any more than you were, right.” Tortured kneecaps and ankles crackling, she turns toward the television. As she bends toward the controls, the tight, over-bleached fabric of her dress reveals her full form to him. Her ass is huge, lumpy, and full of cratery cellulite dips like the moon. She is a big-boned, fat fuck nurse with hair the flat orange color procured most often from a box at a pharmacy. Fucking cooz. She doesn’t give a shit about him.
He whispers “cooz” through his teeth, bubbles of spit riding on the end sounding like any other desperate bodily function.
She thunks the VHF knob through the stations, through a hell of a lot of fuzz and laughter. “What about this?” she says, turning back to him and plastering on a closed-mouth smile. The CBS seeing-eye logo behind her head dissipates to reveal a long, red velvet curtain swishing off stage. “A bit of lightheartedness might do the trick, don’t you think?” She nods vacantly.
The green guy, Kermit, claps his boneless felt hands together for tonight’s guest, the comedian Rich Little. Michael looks down at a dried splatter of spaghetti sauce, blood, or excrement streaked on the square of linoleum beside his foot. He hates this show, but he knows it. When one has nothing else, one has TV. “Leave it there. Yes, please.”
A stubby, square heel clacks in front of him, heading toward the door.
“Am I going to jail?” He checks to see how she looks at him—sorrowfully, hostilely, with a hard-edged smile that says he is receiving his just deserts.
Her frizzy head shakes at him as she throws back the door. “You’ll be eating supper in here. Billy set aside some leftovers. Lasagna with meat sauce, a buttered roll, and a side salad. He really outdid himself.” Were those the exact words typed on the hospital’s menu calendar? Saturday: the stated, Sunday: meat loaf, tater tots, green beans, and milk, Monday: chili, rice, canned peaches, and iced tea, Tuesday: the ever-multiplying weeds of guilt and tenderloin of orphan washed down with your own tears. “Goodnight, Michael.”
He returns to the television. He imagines catching his hideous reflection even though he doesn’t see anything beyond the puppets’ song and dance. He wasn’t so sure what he meant about the President, but he had wanted to kill himself. He still does.
His door clicks shut. Her heels waddle somewhat quickly down the hall. He wonders if she has locked the door, if there’s a steel bolt bracing against the lock or an armed guard with ankles crossed, seated in a metal folding chair with his holster unbuttoned, gun at the ready, to keep the maniac at bay. They see what they want. He lifts his hands to fold them in his lap, but the handcuff grips his wrist. Pulling the right arm across his chest to sit with a question in his spine, he stretches his fingers to his left hand and turns the wish over in his thoughts.
Bright, vivid colors swirl across the screen. The Muppets are participating in a dance like a grand cotillion. The lady partners wear ruffled evening dresses and bend their elbows into submission. The supposed males, which are differentiated by bolder colored fur, heavier eyebrows, and bigger noses sport tuxes and tails and grasp the ladies’ hands, leading them across the floor. Then, the guy with the flaming head of hair and the crazy caterpillar eyebrows strolls in to the ball. What’s his name again? His voice is like gravel. “Orrkrray.” Yeah, he likes this guy with the jumbled gestures and drumsticks and look of a Cro-Magnon. Michael digs his socked foot against the sticky flooring and pulls wheeling himself closer. He wants to be close enough to smell them, all those monsters with arms up their asses and flapping heads without voice boxes. This new guy taps a swirling couple on the shoulder. “Excruse me,” he says. The lady partner turns. “What’s the qruickest way ourt orf—” And she knocks him under the chin. “Heaaare!” he screams as he is catapulted clean out of the shot. “Through the ceiling,” the Muppet lady says followed by raucous laughter, hers and others not on camera. His knees crunch into the television cart, but it doesn’t budge.
Michael knows bolts hold the cart fast to the television, and bolts fasten the cart to the wall, just as bars block him from breaking the window and throwing himself out. At this close distance, he catches an even more distorted version of himself in the reflection of the glass. “Blarrrrrgh,” he says, watching as he slides halfway out of his seat, curving his spine into the wheelchair’s back and hunching his shoulders. Elbows splayed out on the armrests, his gut hangs, and his shoulders and neck droop, his face hovering above his protruding stomach. Chin resting on the stiff platform of his sternum, eyes looking from beneath heavy brows, he breathes in rasps. The posture is of a man ninety years old, a twisted cripple, but the parts of the face not wrapped in tape and gauze have few wrinkles and shine grease as if still melting in fire. Look at that pathetic creature, a topnotch monster, he thinks. He stretches his chapped lips into a crooked, toothy grin that unsettles even him. Look now, you fucks. Look at the Animal.
Several minutes pass, as he forces his eye to stay open. Saliva pools in his bottom lip, and a steady stream of air from the vent above blowing onto his eyeball acts as a fabric to wick away the moisture. The moist orb becomes sand, a clump of cat litter. His hands shake, clenching the wheelchair rests. But he ignores the twitches disturbing his upper lid and the water rimming the lower. He will hold this posture and never be himself ever again. He will be what they want him to be. He will see only what they see. Yet he has to blink. He has to. He does. The water loosened runs down his cheeks, and the rage slinks away from his limbs and up through his stomach curling into a cool wad at the back of his throat. The strength of his mind more than his brute size was what got him in trouble when he heard the boom of mislaid bombs and spread his big, strong body to cover his buddies and the pretty little dancing girls sitting on their laps. He had imagined himself a hero. Delivered to his brain at Superman speed, he saw a solemn casket draped in red, white, and blue atop rain-kissed tarmac, and his parents, against a backdrop of mournful bugle notes, bowing their heads to receive a precious medal. Where would he be by now if he would have forgotten about his timber arms and stupid blockhead, and dove under the table. He shakes his finger at his reflection. “Slipping on your own sad sack of shit now, buddy,” he says. He wipes the spittle from his face and sits up, taps the television off. “No regrets.”
Sarah Broderick grew up in the Ohio River Valley and now resides in Northern California. Holding an MA in humanities and social thought from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University, she works as a writer, editor, and teacher, and served as Diaspora Editor for Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince, which was published in 2017 by Verso/Voice of Witness. Her fiction and nonfiction pieces have appeared in Moon City Review, Atticus Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found online at perfectsentences.org, Twitter @sebroderick, and The Forge Literary Magazine.
Image credit: JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash
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