"You think this will be good for me? You really want to hear about this?" I ask him, running a finger around the rim of my scotch glass. Don't know why I had Bernie put in ice. Reminds me of the old days when you'd see a booze ad in a magazine and graphics artists would airbrush nudes and pictures of distorted screaming sculls in the cube reflections.
That's the way I feel now all the time. Nudes and screaming skulls.
"It's gotta come out some time, Philly. Who else you gonna tell?"
I clear my throat. My brother the priest makes sure not to look directly at me.
"It's, um..." stupid syllables coming out of my mouth as the picture forms in my mind. I've tried so hard to keep the picture away, inviting it back seems like a crime. I won't be able to fix it anymore.
Mark says, "It's okay. I'm sorry I made you start. If you don't want to..."
Now I want to. He started it and I'm not going to stop the train now. It would hurt more than finishing.
I hold up my hand to get him to shut up. Take another sip of my Springbank. Thank Bernie for the 25-year old at the 12-year old price.
We all know it's a distraction.
"I got her out of the tank when she started screaming--" I say, before I have to clear my throat. I stare at the light turning amber in my scotch glass. It takes me away. I'm not really here anymore.
"I had to dress her, she was so weak. We...um...got to the emergency room and she couldn't walk. I mean, I could barely carry her myself, the chemo and all."
I swallow, feeling her weight against my shoulder. Her labored breath. The convulsions in her frame.
"The bitch at the admitting counter kept asking for my insurance card. I mean, what the fuck was I supposed to do with Jennifer? Just let her go and reach for my wallet? Let her drop right there? There wasn't an empty seat in the whole emergency room. So I was supposed to prop her in a corner and come back with my card? People can be so fucking cruel."
I slug down my scotch. It makes me cough.
"She told me it was a private hospital. Unless I could show proof of coverage or pay cash, I'd have to take her to the county hospital. I mean, Markie--she was dying in my arms. She was fucking dying and all that asshole cared about was whether or not I was gonna stiff them. I know it doesn't make much sense to say, but if I hadda gun I'd have blown her brains out right there. It's stupid to say--kill someone because another is dying, but that's how I feel. Is that a sin?"
My brother says, "You were under a lot of stress."
"She--Jennifer started groaning. There wasn't enough energy left in her to scream. It was the whole of her shaking. Burning up with fever. So I started yelling for her. I became her voice.
"Well there was an intern there who heard the commotion. When he came out and saw Jennifer, he dropped everything. Got a gurney. Got a bunch of nurses. Took the information I had and then he took her away. And you know what that son of a bitch asked me when they brought Jennifer upstairs? You know what he had the nerve to ask me?"
Mark taps the side of his dewy glass of coke and shakes his head.
"He asked me what the fuck we were doing so far away from home. Like we were little kids or something."
"Well, she was a cancer patient under treatment in New York. Don't you think it was natural for him to wonder why you were in New Mexico?"
"I think it was none of his goddamned business," I say, because I still can't figure out why he couldn't just do his job. "What's the difference why? Why doesn't help him help Jennifer. Jennifer is. She was what she was. She had what she had. How or why we were there was irrelevant."
"Are you ashamed?"
"Does it feel like a waste? All that time and travel. Do you wonder if they couldn't have cured her if you had stayed home?"
"No. I don't wonder that."
Bernie is cleaning glasses, drying them, and hanging them over the bar. The television on the wall in the corner is shouting a ball game nobody is watching. Cars go by in the night outside, red lights chasing white.
Life just doesn't stop. Not for any of us.
"What I wonder is why she did it. I mean, I know why I went with her, but I don't know what would make her suggest going in the first place. Or maybe I do..."
"Why?" Mark says. For once he looks at me. Blue white TV light reflects off his glasses. Bernie comes over, lifts his glass, and refills it with the nozzle from behind the bar. He moves slow. I don't care if he hears. I don't care if anyone hears anymore.
"I thought we might actually be able to find God. Two sick people gonna die anyway. Who else would God talk to?"
Bernie whispers, "Nobody," and graciously stops one of Mark's sermons.
"She was so tired," I tell them. "That's what she said to me at the end. She was tired of it. She'd gone as far as she could go. She said goodbye and then she..."
Now I can't talk anymore. My eyes start to tingle and my nostrils burn. I swallow down the feeling but it won't stay. Comes back up. I'm gonna get this out. I just have to try harder.
"How many women does one man have to see die before he gets the message?" I say before thinking about it can get in the way.
"But what's the message, bro?" Mark says. He drapes his big arm over my shoulder. "What do you think you heard?"
I grit my teeth, swipe a hand at my eye when it gets blurry. Bernie puts a soda water in front of me when I point and a couple of sips soothes a tightness in my throat that's starting to hurt.
I can talk if I'm quiet. I say, "She had been so many places and done so many things the whole world was inside her. You know? She was this really--really bright thing. Like you couldn't look right at her. When she was there everything was different in that light. I never had to...there was nowhere else to go. Nowhere. You know?"
Markie says he knows. He says God knows. Bernie changes the channel on the television, and unhappy with the selection turns it off and heads to the back.
And I don't like this feeling. The loss of control. The not being able to breathe. The weaklings on the corner. The boy nobody wants to play with. You fight it by being strong and not letting the world scrape away your dignity. That's what I know.
"You want I say a prayer?" Mark says.
"Nah," I tell him.
"You wanna go home?"
I shake my head.
I just want to think about her for a while. Because that's where she is now.In my mind.And that's where I want to be.
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