This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
You Boys Be Good
He was climbing up the makeshift ladder to the stand when he fell. Everything was fine up to then. He was still pissed at Robert, but it didn’t matter because he’d gotten geared up, he was ready, and his good mood was restored by more beer and weed.
The ladder was made of six-inch wide pieces of salvaged wood siding nailed to the trunk of a pine tree. The tree stand was also made of salvaged lumber and plywood. It was on land that his friend Mike’s family leased for hunting. Phil and Mike had helped Mike’s uncle build it, which had been harder and more work than he’d expected.
Hand over hand, one foot, next foot. But he missed a beat in the pattern and went backward into the snow, falling on the rifle slung across his back.
He lay there for a while, catching his breath and looking straight up at the stupid tree. It was mostly dead, the dark broken branches sticking out like spears. The sky was a uniform white. He was still warm from walking in, but if he didn’t get up he knew he’d get cold pretty quick from the shock of the fall and from the snow. He experimented, raised his arms. Muscles convulsed between his shoulder blades. Then he tried rolling onto his side, intending to free the rifle digging into his back.
The pain flared. It hurt. A lot. Fuck. He could not even start to sit up, much less stand. He carefully removed a glove and fished his phone out of a pocket, and thank god there was a signal. He called Mike.
“You’re alive. What happened,” Mike said.
“You wouldn’t believe it. I fell. I was climbing and I think one of the slats broke. I fell like twenty feet.”
“What, did you break your leg?”
“My back hurts like a motherfucker. I can’t walk out. Can you come get me?” Mike sighed, agreed, and ended the call.
An hour later the doe appeared. Phil was really cold and it was getting dark when she stamped and snorted. He turned his head slowly and watched her, his cheek freezing against the icy snow. The doe’s head was low and her breath smoked in the cold air. He could smell her. Then he heard the buzz of Mike’s ATV and she disappeared.
The only good thing about this — two good things — he would get time off from work and he would get Percocet. Already he looked forward to the warm nothingness he would be feeling in a few hours. It was such a relief that, unbelievably, he started to cry.
Old friends, old enemies
Phil was dreaming — speedometer, clock, RPM. His arms and legs would not move. Teeth scratched at his hand and he was filled with a wild fear, pushed against something dense and heavy that was dragging him down. Don’t look at the light, baby. Close your eyes hard, roll them all the way up. Count and sing. We are the sultans, the sultans of swing.
He opened his eyes, his heart thumping, and he knew instantly that once again he was on his back in a hospital bed.
Unlike the other times Phil had awakened to find himself in the hospital, this time he was full of despair. The room had that slippery quality of nighttime. Light spilled into the open door from a hallway and a far-away voice buzzed quietly. A monitor beeped behind his head, out of sight. The scratchy pinch on the back of his hand was an IV needle. The rest was a maze of dread.
A female nurse in pink scrubs came through the door trailing a breeze that wafted over his face. She reached over his head. A fluorescent light came on and the beeping stopped. She turned his right wrist to time his pulse.
“Were you dreaming, honey? Are you awake now? How’s your pain? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”
Phil tried to answer but coughed instead. It hurt.
Here were his old familiar companions — pain and the hospital. He watched the nurse as she lowered his right hand and closed it around a thumb button attached to a cord. “Press this if you have too much pain. Can you do it? It’s a medication pump. You have a catheter so don’t try to get up. Do you understand?”
She held a plastic cup and a straw for him. The straw reminded him of something just beyond recall and discovered that his bottom lip was swollen and would not obey him. He had a question and looked at her over the cup.
“You’re OK, you were in an accident,” she said. “You have to stay in bed now.”
He dropped the straw from his lips. “I know,” he croaked. “What time is it?” Then, “What’s wrong with me?”
“Your left arm is fractured, and your pelvis. Your right knee is sprained and you have a lot of 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 on the wall next to the bed. “That’s me, I’m Becky. Oh, let me change the date because it’s tomorrow.”
With her back to Phil, she pulled the top off a marker with a pop, and the felt tip squeaked on the board. “I’ll be back,” Becky said over her shoulder and left the room in a puff of wind.
Sunday, August 19, 2018. Because it’s tomorrow. Phil tried to work it out. It meant almost nothing, or not quite something. He looked at his left arm wrapped in an ace bandage over thick padding. A light blanket covered his hips and legs. When he shifted experimentally the pain took his breath away. He found the pump in his right hand and pushed the button with his thumb. Then he pushed it again in case it didn’t work the first time.
Pain and the hospital — old friends, old enemies. The pain was an expanding balloon that carried off his mind like a trailing string. There was no room in his body for more questions.
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress.
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.