—You should all be killed.
Jane Doe #14
The moon, coming in, was silver and flinching constantly against the movements of the water. The train, too, had shuddered away from the waves as it ran by, his reflection still and stoic and barely reflected there in the window beside him, lit by the end of a cigar, gasps of bright orange that came with each breathe and faded away slowly with the passing of each breath.
Not that he had noticed, eyes closed. Eyes swaddled in dripping ointments, viscous and slightly greenish, even in the ebbing orange light; medicine and moisture, analgesic, amniotic, bitter smelling and slightly cool. The syrup ran down his cheeks, and he had refused to wipe it, even though he felt it with every nerve.
He refused to wear his hat inside. Even inside a train, even in a locked compartment by himself.
Now the stainless steel walls of the room just hummed with inhuman constancy, the flicker of florescent lights too quick and too subtle to be perceived by human eyes. His eyes were still closed. Necessarily now, the room so unbearably bright the surgeon and his nurse wore thick nearly opaque glasses, round lenses with little glass shields running back toward the ears to shield the eyes from any peripheral light. They were welders’ glasses.
Two days earlier he had boarded the train under an assumed name, traveling north to throw anyone bored enough to care off his scent, he had gone from Pasadena all the way to Klamath Falls, Oregon before exiting, purchasing another ticket under another assumed name, and making this dreamy little run for the border.
The train would stop again in Pasadena, of course, on its way down the coast, but few other places, Sacramento, Tijuana, certain few unnamed outposts deep in the desert demarked by single fading streetlights and heavy military presences, pushing through the countryside day and night in unremitting silence, unremittingly steadily, a world unto itself, bracketed against the night by armor plating that may or may not have been vestigial, blanketed always in darkness, without headlight or signal of any kind. In a previous life it had scoured northern Mongolia, complete with staterooms, dining cars, an abbreviated pool hall, a post office, a schoolroom, and a torture chamber, carrying revolutionary Whites across the emptiness, fleeing and returning, marauding, dying, long after the revolution had ended and been lost, encased in a constant moving siege. There had been a funeral car, complete with a small trebuchet that sent bodies out into the night, the intention being to keep the train sanitary and the tracks clear. Perhaps it was meant to dispel any ghosts that might seek to lay claim to this endless earthly limbo. If so it had likely failed.
The man, let’s call him “John Wayne” had felt the presence of someone else in the car intermittently throughout the southward journey, always, of course, unable to see, unwilling to speak, his recent habit of stroking the soft weak skin beneath his eyes even more recently broken by the therapeutic goo he’d been assigned. He drifted in and out of sleep constantly, silent, blind, forced into something approaching meditation. Something, maybe slivers of wind generated inside the train, crept in through the seams in the door, brushing against his knees, jolting him awake, or more thoroughly awake, or else marking the passage into sleep. It became harder to guess.
So had death been insinuating itself into his body. Slowly slowly here and there, imperceptible weakening in the arms, across the chest, the slow descent of a healthy girding of belly fat into a drooping pocked rope of entropy against his belt, the increasing permanence of the wrinkles that arise when one glares purposefully toward the sunset, the sunrise, the vast distant horizon, their increasing depth, the slow spreading of pain from nowhere into the feet, the knees, the back for no reason; all this slow enough to be unnoticeable, but punctuated with startling slaps of realization, tolling clocks as he moved from the wild young outlaw to the conservative lawman to the haggard old wiseman, from the wildcat aviator to the sergeant in command to the retired general with moral misgivings.
Beneath his eyes, soft, thin, pink as silk, the skin compiled itself. Wisdom or suffering (if those are two different things) compiling itself there. Nothing but visible in 70mm Technicolor. Used for dramatic effect in his last film, suggesting, there where it lay, stark contrast with the piercing pale blue eyes, that Ferdinand was already dead, really, from the outset, long before the limo, before the wrong turn, before the shots were fired and sunk into him where he sat clutching the ornately prosthetic leg of his much younger wife, whose endless wigs and metallic contact lenses and of course those art directed legs could only barely approach what “John” had already really become in life.
She had offered to come with him, the Ingénue. To bring her costumes and masks and silk scarves &c. and make a weekend of it, to sit on the beach as he recovered and to drift, drinking, into her own slight remove from actual flesh.
He’d said no, of course.
Coming off the train into the village was jarring beyond all reason, the sunlight, the emptiness, the whistling birds and ragged soccer balls, the first time he’d opened his eyes in 33 hours and met immediately with all the garish colors of the desert, azure and saffron and cinnamon, woven into rugs and plastered onto adobe and cast carelessly all across the landscape. Distant children’s shouts in chirping Spanish. He blinked constantly, he squinted against the light, and looked at the world through swooping interlocking eyelashes, a net of golden sunlight, blinding as anything else.
The doctor’s office was a pink adobe mission-style clearly freshly painted but already flaking in the heat and aridity. Much more of a house than anything official, the way the first atom bomb was assembled in a two room ranch house in the middle of the desert, more suited to mending saddles than tearing the world in two. “Wayne” considered this to himself and felt better for it, for whatever reason. It would be another day before he went there, but it had met him at the train. Another adoring fan, he smiled. Another ingénue fresh in from the country.
His driver, who introduced himself subtly and seemed disappointed when “Wayne” deemed the secret handshake they’d arranged for unnecessary, spoke with a slight and difficult-to-place eastern European accent and drove like a maniac to the hotel outside of town. “Overlook the sea,” the man said, meaning the hotel did. “Restful.” “Wayne” softly stroked the skin beneath his right eye with a smooth and soft right fingertip.
That night he soaked his face in scalding water in the hotel sink, a towel draped over his head, steam very slowly filling the room. After half an hour he shaved, dragging the straight razor upward from his jaw toward his eyes. Clouds outside across the moon. The glazed clay tiles of the bathroom slowly absorbed the spilled water. He slowly shaved his neck. He lifted his nose with two pinching fingers of his left hand and tilted his head backward to shave his mustache, as if he had learned from cartoons and not from his father.
It was, undeniably, an effeminate move. One never called for in any script, one no one had ever told him would have betrayed him to real cowboys for what he was, a Connecticut Yankee. A child of privilege. As the voice had before he destroyed it and replaced it with another, some faux-Texan caricature of talk. The pantomime of silent-movie actors pouring out of his mouth, down from his horse, some centaur, some Coronado.
Though of course these days he’d play Montezuma, the stately noble savage, laudable now, unthreatening now.
There was an impulse to drag the razor across his cheek, to cut some pristinely straight line contrary to the organically wavering ones running downward. There always was. He wiped the razor and put it away. Tilted his head side to side, searching for blood, but there was none.
Behind the front door of the office the lights were blinding. He could hear his chauffeur grinding the gravel undertire as he sped away. The woman, nurse and secretary, stood to greet him, walking awkwardly around the steel kiosk and toward him. The unflinching white linoleum floor. She seemed taller standing than she should have. The seatless lobby gave way to a winding hallway, walls covered with thick and soundproof layers of iridescent white plastic. A stainless steel door. The operating room entirely stainless steel. The operating table more of a chair, more of the frame of a chair, a reified blueprint of a hypothetical future chair. “John” sat down and gas filled his lungs. He counted backward from 54, his age. At 48 he was overtaken and disappeared from himself.
There had been a night, younger, when he had slept as soundly. Outside, tucked into a clearing in a forest, a little creek pulsing past just audible in the distance. His first camping trip. The silence and novelty of it all had kept him up far past his normal bed time, and by the time he was slowly drifting into sleep he was exhausted. His dreams had come up and coaxed him down to them, beginning long before consciousness truly abandoned him, mixing with the sounds of the trees in the wind, the creek, the crickets, reinterpreting them and spinning them into different worlds. He had slept then deeply and perfectly, one of the rare nights in his life that he had slept through the night without waking for one reason or the other or for no reason at all, roused by some inexplicable concern for the night around him. When he woke in the morning the woods had disappeared, the sky, the earth, everything around him had turned to cloud and his first thought, once the shock and confusion had begun to cohere into legible thoughts, was that he had died in the night and been whisked away to a cartoon heaven, sleeping bag and all. He laid perfectly still then, awaiting angels or some better explanation, though none came. The sound of the creek came, distant and ghostly. He laid perfectly still and deep in thought. He was something like ten years old.
As the groundfog burned off darknesses appeared and slowly resolved into pine trees and aspen, the general ephemeral haze into a rising sun, the eternal light into the naked world. And it was preferable. And if he became a cartoon of the west it was because he had found the grandeur of reality there as a child, watching the real overwhelm and replace and surpass the imaginary, watched existence begin at his fingertips and spread out to the campsite, the clearing, the creek, the mountainside and the endless endless sprawling plains beyond it; an authentic majesty. If he had sought to be larger than life it was only because life was too large, really, to comprehend anything smaller.
The operation began simply. A small incision in the back of the left hand. Blood there was diverted first through a hollowed length of bone, the ulna of a hawk, drilled to form a small and perfect tube, then into a length of transparent tube that ushered it up along the arm, the neck, catching the endless light of the room and seeming to transfuse the unconscious body with it. At the base of the jaw, near the ear, the tube split into 117 separate, smaller tubes, one for each of the miniscule capillaries that coursed through the left eyelid. Delicately, intricately, each capillary was opened and fused with one of the tubes, maintaining blood flow through the delicate skin. The capillary was then opened on the opposite side of the eye, below the tear duct, and the blood, stripped of its oxygen, allowed to drain out there. This was repeated 116 times.
As the doctor rested, eyes closed, head back, nurse massaging his palms, thick dark blood ran down “John’s” cheek.
The same was done for the right eyelid, and by the end of the procedure any evidence of life had been removed from the perimeters of the man’s eyes. It had taken eleven hours.
For reasons no one can know, or perhaps even no reason at all, subsequent to the operation, there had been nothing to do but to remove the man’s legs from the knee down. Light reflected off the doctor’s lab coat, leather and deep red, his thin surgical gloves replaced now by thicker rubber gloves, as sterile and white as the sands that blow across the desert. Tendons and ligaments were cut, popping loudly, trees giving way to the weight of accumulating ice. Blood poured out of the man and ran down the slant of the steel floor into the drain that ran along the entire length of the opposite wall, collected there for other purposes.
Once everything was cauterized the lower legs were replaced with scimitars that caught the light in graceful curves, carrying it down their length and to the earth, the way the jagged course of least resistance ferries lightning home.
The next day he was released from the hospital and placed in the limousine, a nurse beneath each shoulder, bearing his weight, patiently waiting for him to learn to walk again. The driver greeted him casually, “Hola, Comrade,” and so forth.
They talked on the way back to the resort, not always entirely sensibly, “John” still managing the aftershocks of the anesthetics. A small explosion went off not far away, chthonic insurgents, “Nothing to worry over them,” he was informed. “Not anymore.”
Bio: Phillip Grayson lives and writes in Kosienice, Poland, where he has meagerly survived for the last few years, pining away and telling stories to himself to pass the time.
Poetry in Aldeburgh 2017
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