by Tait McKenzie Johnson
By the time Rosita and I got to the Recovery Room the Pandemic had already begun: all the hip young bods dancing in their tightlegged latex, the girls sporting the new antimicrobial kid gloves, in varying shades of neon like floral radiation warnings, clapping and waving in the sterile blue lights. DJ Grippe was spinning the latest off N1H1 Records, Afro-Iberian dance beats that’d make your heart skip, the club the perfect vessel to blend all the strains of young international health into one rollicking party. You can see it in the eyes, every one of us still living, not like the alleys full of victims we had to pass on our ride here, choking and swelling in the endless dry winter, spreading the disease molecules with even one careless breath.
We got drinks–thin-necked bottles sipped through straws like delicate proboscises–and found a table with an empty table on either side of it so we could breathe freely within the current World Health Organization regulations. Rosita made sure to swipe each surface with a sanitary napkin before she sat down. Without actually touching anything I gave the appearance of leaning against the wallpaper, velvety winged pigs this month, the design sported by all the bartenders. It would all be burnt tomorrow and decontaminated for next month anyway. The owners of the Recovery Room tried to keep up with the latest fashions, since the first club to host the Pandemic fell into quarantine for hosting what would have been an ironic barbecue, except everyone fell sick. You couldn’t get kicked out of here for anything faster than an errant cough or sneeze. And everyone was watching, because the latest fashions were swathed around our faces.
I pointed them out to Rosita: the Japanese folkpunks in their austere Kabuki and Kami prints, several clowns and mock-stars (famous politicians, actors, etcâ€¦the Barack wasn’t so popular this season after a failure to provide national healthcare), it seemed the abstract contingent had done away with representing the mouth altogether in favor of Mandrian-like lines. There was even some old rocker sporting the Rolling Stones lips over his own, everyone with their projected desires plastered like smiles across their plastic faces. Rosita sipped discreetly through the side of her mask while I explained how the first international influenza pandemic wasn’t nearly so colorful, at least, you didn’t get your vaccine in a shot glass at the door. It’s all a big blast, don’t you think? Not as contagious like the Red Death, now that would be some gala!
What about her? Rosita asked, pointing a violet trembling glove across the room. Wandering through the crowd, stumbling as if actually ill, and leaving a wide empty void around her as she moved, was a girl clearly breaking some taboo or illusion of sanitary. We could hear it in the whispers behind the masks around us. Look at that shaved head, so last century, so chemo-chic. And those eyes, gaunt, horrific, what does she think she’s carrying? And then she turned our way and we saw what was causing the stir. Of everyone in the Recovery Room, this girl alone was not wearing a protective facemask. But no, it was something else, a thick scar running along the exposed collarbone as if some vital gland had been removed, and there, at the base of her thin-necked throat, a growth like a rotting blossom, dead set on consuming the otherwise unblemished skin from within.
Does she want to catch the flu? Rosita asked as the girl moved away, her delicate ungloved hands trailing on every dirty countertop, a pariah in this land of hermetically sealed emotions and collisions. She couldn’t go home like the rest of us and wash away the germs and be well again. I couldn’t get my mind off that tumescent flesh, so real, so malignant. I’ve never seen a neck so smooth and sorrowful. A reminder of the anarchy trembling at the cell walls of each of us, an endemic that can’t be hidden or held off by any pretty face. No, I sighed, that’s cancer. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious. Ugh, Rosita shuddered, I wish they’d kick her out anyway. You ready to dance yet? Hold on, I said, and then brazenly pulled off my mask to drain the rest of the bottle, even though people stared at my own naked uplifted cheeks, pallid from months without sunlight or fresh air.
Posted on: July 18th, 2009 Revision
by Daniel Powell
He had become very peculiar in the last year.
â€œI apologize in advance for my odor,â€ he said on the first day of class. â€œIâ€™ve altered my diet. Itâ€™s had some…well, some drastic effects on me. I take no offense if you keep your distance while we discuss your writing.â€
Within a week we learned that he subsisted only on fish and clams. His scent never bothered me; he smelled like the ocean on a cool autumn day.
I had enjoyed his Composition I course when I was a freshman. He was kind and sincere, and he stayed after class to help those of us who cared about our writing.
Of course, back then heâ€™d been much larger; he actually had muscles. Now, he was just a series of strings and cords beneath a canvas of pale skin.
His hair had been longer also. Now, he kept what was left up there cropped close to the scalp. When he leaned over his podium you could see little flakes of skin there, like a tiny collection of scales.
The third difference was that he was very sad. This was quite a change; Iâ€™d never pegged him for the type.
A few weeks in, the news had made the rounds on campus. Heâ€™d lost his wife and little girl. There had been an accident.
Now it all made a little more sense. He taught the minimum workload necessary to maintain his status at the university. He stacked his office hours on Friday afternoons, knowing he wouldnâ€™t be bothered.
I chose one of those afternoons to visit him, just prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. I brought an essay with me as a cover story, but mostly I was curious about how he was holding up.
The English Department was deserted. I walked down the dim hallway to his office and stopped when I heard him weeping. I craned my neck, concentrating.
His words were awash in grief, but I understood a few of them all the same. Changing. Growing.
I felt a little guilty, but I listened for a few minutes. I was just about to leave when I let go with an involuntary cough. It was a small one, just the last of an old chest cold, but he heard me. The weeping ceased immediately.
I stepped into his doorway. â€œHi. Iâ€™m sorry to bother you…â€
He stood, swiped the tears from his eyes and offered a little smile. â€œOh, no trouble. Please, come in, Ann. Itâ€™s nice to see you. Donâ€™t mind the smell.â€
His office smelled like cod.
I sat and he turned away from me and covered something on his desk. It looked like a stack of charts. Old nautical charts. â€œWhat can I do for you?â€
â€œI was wondering…â€ I considered giving him the essay and decided instead just to come out with it. â€œI was wondering how youâ€™re doing.â€
He sat up in his chair, like Iâ€™d reached out and slapped him. He stared at me. â€œRevision,â€ he said after a lengthy pause. â€œIâ€™m undergoing extensive revision.â€
And thatâ€™s about the gist of it, really. We talked for a little while longer. He touched briefly on the accident and the nature of his grief. When I saw him in our next class session, he never mentioned our meeting.
And then, a week later, he was gone.
We sat there on a cold Tuesday morning and the dean told us that our writing teacher had simply walked into the ocean. Vanished. There was a palpable sense of loss in the room that day, and everyone left quietly.
I was home for Christmas when the thought finally occurred to me. It came unbidden, like a moment of perfect clarity. I logged onto the internet and found the article in no time. The Google search had flagged his wifeâ€™s name, and his daughterâ€™s was there as well. They were two among many that had perished on a ferry that capsized in the waters near Amelia Island. Their bodies were never recovered
They never found him either. There was just a brief note on top of a set of clothing, weighted down with a rock.
I sometimes wonder about that note. I think about it in the quiet times, when I have a moment to myself. Iâ€™m pretty sure, though, that heâ€™d confessed his plans that night in his office. Revision, heâ€™d said, Iâ€™m undergoing extensive revision.
And I often wonder if he made it.
Posted on: July 11th, 2009 Better
by Luc Reid
“My god, no; that was pitiful,” he said. “Why do you come to me here, if you are only going to sing like this? Perhaps I will go be sick now.”
There must have been a reason that Master Grenarde taught all of the greatest singers. But maybe the reason was that because he was such a conceited ass, nobody could believe he didn’t actually have something to be conceited about.
My back still ached from where Master Grenarde had whacked it with his cane to keep my posture straight. I glared at him.
“You don’t like me, Mademoiselle, is that it?” said Master Grenarde. “That doesn’t matter. I don’t like you either. You stay, you go, what does it matter to me? Some other churlish, self-absorbed child will take your place. Do you want to be liked? Then you should go to the city and become a prostitute. Everyone likes them, the prostitutes. They provide a public service and are easy to make friends with.”
I pressed my lips shut to keep from responding. He was like this often. I didn’t care. Once I got through his school, his certification would get me anywhere I wanted to go, and I would never have to see him again.
“Like your mother, eh? A prostitute, and everyone liked her, eh? Surely your father did, whoever he might be.”
I clenched my fist so hard, my nails drew blood. If I hit him, I would be out of the school. Oh, but how I wanted to hit him. He wasn’t just taunting; he knew about my family.
He bent down to my ear, his ridiculous, loopy white hair shifting on his head. “You feel that? The anger? Let it go. You must be nothing. Thoughts are nothing. Anger is nothing. Feeling comes, it goes, but there can be emptiness. You feel it? Get rid of it.”
I fought with myself, but obeying Master Grenarde was something I’d been forced to learn to do immediately, without thinking. It was the only way to achieve what he demanded we achieve. So I tried to let the anger go, to separate it from me like letting a balloon drift away, and suddenly I felt dizzy, like I was teetering on the edge of a bottomless pit.
“Now, sing the note again,” he whispered, and I sang it. I brought it up from the bottom of my chest and relaxed my throat and stretched my mouth to let it out. Something seemed to break in the pit of my stomach, and then the note was not coming from the bottom of my chest, but from someplace much, much deeper, someplace outside of me. The note rose through me and resonated through the room, through the tower, through the entire city. Around me the walls burst out in shifting, colored light, the roof burst apart, and power roared through me like water through a broken dam. I had let little trickles through before, but nothing like this. Nothing like this.
I held it as long as I could, until it faded. I was shaking, and my body was drenched with sweat. Pieces of the smashed roof lay where they had fallen around me and the Master. Scorch marks radiated out from where I stood on the floor. The Master pushed a piece of the roof aside with his cane.
“Better,” he said grudgingly.
by Ben White
So my father turned into a crab, big fucking deal. Shit happens, and it happens to grown men who sit on their vintage/hideous 1970s shit-brown corduroy couch while watching the Price is Right like an overweight stay-at-home Mrs. Cleans-a-Lot, such as my mother, who incidentally is pissed, I assume because their sex life–which I hope at their age was a joke–is most definitely in the gutter. I’ve seen the pinch marks. It can’t be worth it.
As if he didn’t lounge around the house enough since he got disability, now he just watches the game shows all day long, hogging an entire couch cushion (like he needs it) and staring at the screen with those creepy little crab eyes. I know, he’s my father, he can’t help it–but yeech.
And during commercial breaks when we sit and watch Law & Order together, I’ll hear quick clicks on the kitchen and bathroom tiles–little pattering warnings as he goes about picking up snack crumbs from the floor and leaving little crab dumps on the mat my mom put down in the bathroom (don’t you dare leave any souvenirs in the kitchen, she says, you’re better than that). But on the carpet, he’s too quiet. You can’t hear him. He sneaks up on you. He just pops out, beady little eyes coming out of nowhere. Mom and I walk around the house wary like a driver changing lanes at night while looking for a motorcycle in his blind spot. I’m going to step on him one day. I just know it. I’m going to crush his little arthropod shell, destroy what’s left of my father. And what then? What kind of son will that make me?