ALL I WANT YOU TO SAY
His voice was beautiful. Smoky and rich, with a tone like thick antique brass. A faint trace of Czech, or perhaps Slovak. Croatian. Serbian. She couldn’t keep track of all those fussy Eastern European nationalities and their silly politics. But it wasn’t the quality of his voice that made her toenails ache. It was the beautiful words he chose.
Please say it.
The others used that awful phrase.
Persistent Vegetative State.
A harsh dissonance, like slamming fists on piano keys.
Don’t they know? Can’t they smell it?
A sharp pungent odor, like Brussels sprouts boiling in kerosene. Usually it was the initials, pee-vee-ess, and the smell dissipated to a latent odor of warm urine at the minor league ballpark, the restrooms sharing a plumbing wall with the concessions stand where she worked for four-and-a-quarter per hour between her junior and senior year of high school. She hated baseball, and would always associate it with the smell of pee. But when the younger voices were there on whispery footsteps, with responses like apologies, the older voices became cool and authoritative and said the whole bloody schmeer, sometimes even tacking on the initials at the end, and then she would get a double whammy.
Strike one, you bastards.
She remembered odd moments. The gum in her mouth was peppermint. The previous customer had smelled like cherry pipe tobacco. A lady earlier had bought pantyhose that were way too small for the thunder thighs protruding from beneath her housecoat. Good luck with those, she had smirked.
It was mid-morning, a slow time when the fresh doughnuts had been whittled away and the rest of the store was still busy stocking shelves and checking inventory. The manager, Mr. Schwartz, had closed the other lanes for lack of customers, then went out back for a smoke break with that other cashier, Marcia. They were lovers, although neither would ever admit it. He was married, and she was older than him by a good ten years. Maybe fifteen. They would go out back behind the loading dock two, sometimes three times a day, each meeting lasting for a length of minutes equal to the difference in their years. Then Marcia would come back and use the ladies restroom for a few minutes. To freshen up, as she always put it. Freshen up? Nobody ‘freshens up’ anymore, Marcia. But then again, not many people do what you do on your knees while Schwartz is leaning back against the dumpster among the rotting cabbages. Like Carlos discovered when he went back to throw out an armload of expired yogurt cartons that one time. No amount of mouthwash is going to ‘freshen up’ that, honey.
His voice was brittle and tense, like pond ice with too many skaters gliding on its surface. Open the register, bitch. She had put her hands up slightly, feeling a little foolish, not quite sure how to respond. The conveyer belt kept spinning, bringing her nothing but air, and she had resisted an urge to reach beneath the counter to turn it off, afraid he would think she was reaching for some kind of alarm. He stood to her left, at the edge of her peripheral vision, and was holding his arm out. At the end of it was something metal, with a small dark hole like a missing eye. It was a strange moment really. Not frightening. More surreal, as if time had turned liquid. She remembered what the assistant manager had told her to do if something like this happened. Just give them what they want. Let the police deal with it. She slowly hit the large button to open the drawer, and it sprang open toward her pelvis like a thousand times in the past. A gloved hand reached across and began pulling bills out roughly, flipping up the spring-loaded wires holding them in place. The fingers moved erratic and dangerously, and gorged on a loose collection of twenties, tens, fives and ones. When they were sated they pulled away, and the glove caught on one of the wires sticking up from the drawer. It pulled again, only to get stuck further, and she remembered simply staring at it. It became a sunfish caught on a hook, wriggling, desperate and helpless. The coins danced in their plastic compartments, and the other wires shivered and shook in their erect positions in the air. She reached forward to set it free. She could see the wire protruding through the leather cuff. Hold still. Then a soft pop next to her head, like the sound of a disengaging kiss.
She had become a houseplant. The occasional bag of saline to keep her hydrated, with a Zolpidem drip that would ultimately do nothing. The voices of her clan would appear periodically and, thankfully, began to lessen. They were dull, patterned and monosyllabic. Her brother had visited once. Her father, twice. Her mother, however, had become a continual pox on her degenerative house. Each visit would begin with accounts of garage sale discoveries and new magazine recipes, then devolve into self-pity and blame for what she had done. Blame for taking a job in that part of town. Blame for not going to community school and becoming better edjoomacated. Blame for ruining her chances of getting married someday, and popping out grandbabies to fuss over. As if the genetic disruption were somehow her own personal failure. Like forgetting to feed the cat, or failing to bring in the drying laundry before a rainstorm.
But what she wasn’t able to tell her momma was that if she could find the town and the road and the prison and the cell where the person inhabiting it was doing twenty-to-life for pulling a trigger and turning a beautiful, vivacious creature (prosecuting attorney words that had never, ever been uttered in previous reference to her) into a carrot, she would hand that man a medal. Because when he pulled the trigger, something happened. The bullet that seared through skin and fat, shattering her zygomatic bone just below her left eye, nicking a sinus cavity, traveling upwards through her brain and exiting through the right parietal bone of her skull and scalp, taking with it some cerebrospinal fluid, blood and parts of her parietal lobe, had, in return for its destructive ways, left behind a gift. Kind of like a superhero who was bitten by a radioactive June bug, or a housewife mixing the wrong two toilet cleansers and, before she knew it, was shooting lightning from her navel.
The voices were back again, speaking the background gibberish that, for the lightning scents and odors she had never imagined before, she would suffer the minor indignities of a dark paralysis. Their phrases were irreversible dysfunction, cerebral hemispheres, post-comatose unawareness. Anencephalitic state. The words carried in them smells and fragrances, odors of far away places, locations she had never visited, people she had never seen, and sometimes they would speak, these people in her mind, and it would happen again, only someplace different, and it would be like holding two mirrors in front of each other and seeing into infinity. The smell of an ocean never experienced, a harsh tang of salt air and seaweed and fish. Expensive perfume on silk, masking hair dye, menopause and the faint trace of a man’s scent that was not the wearer’s husband. Fresh bread coming through an open doorway, mixing with the fragrance of cherry blossoms and hydrocarbons of exhaust. The menthol smell of ointment on new skin, overlaying the lighter, fragile scents of strained sweet potatoes and talcum. Each scene was a surprise, like speed clicking through channels on a television, only different. I can smell them. I can taste them. But she was waiting for something special. He was nearby and she was listening, focusing on him, stalking silently to pick apart and gather his words like blueberries.
Say it. Say it.
Fresh watermelon and cotton candy, sticky chin and fingers, on a hot July night at the county fair. The smell of tobacco on his breath, a man’s scent on a boy’s lips. The clean odor of a fresh t-shirt battling the gasoline smell from the garage where he worked, layered with traces of motor oil, cologne, deodorant and hair gel. Fresh corn and butter, elephant ears, roasting meat and falafel, kabobs and fried dough, commingling with the delirious, heady fragrance of a thousand unwashed bodies. Intertwined fingers pulling her toward the Matterhorn, then behind it, where electric cables like snakes crawled on the ground and pumped out an ozone scent as the earth pounded with each downward thrust of the chained cars. And children screaming in rhythmic unison somewhere far away, in sweet root beer voices.
(Patrick Stuart; short story, 1461 words)