Chapped lips peel and give as I bite down. The flakes taste like nothing, but I will not let them go. I swallow the pieces, and click my molars together in a starter gun move to start the morning. The red and blue checked flannel shirt slips on: an old familiar friend.
The intricate chart on the side of the fridge has many lines and colors. Today’s color is red. In fact, red is the most prevalent color on the chart. I open the white Maytag and pull out the twenty-four count egg carton and a big jar of chunky salsa. The four large white eggs crack with ease, and the liquid protein oozes over the shell and falls into the stainless steel bowl.
The large metal fork is cool and solid in my hand. I poke each yolk. The life slowly mingles with the clear glue. I breathe in for five full seconds, and exhale the air out of my nose.
After the scramble is ready, the salsa pours out like a problem– a messy, figuring out kind of math on the plate. Three pieces of white bread to sop it all up makes for a full meal. I walk over to the plain pine kitchen table and sit.
“Lord, this food you grace me with I am forever thankful. Amen.”
Fork to mouth, blends of yellow and red try to bare to drama but wane; it is a swallow of wanting.
The dishes done, I grab my keys from the green Formica countertop. These days, I know, are shortening. The buttons on the cuff of my shirt sleeves are starting to get loose, but they work another day to cover the scars. The fabric feels a familiar soft as I gently rub my right arm on my forehead. It smells like the new day.
“Make a left on aisle 42, and the mirror mastic is all the way down at the end, last bay.”
I turn the other way and head back to the front of the store. The right knee is weak enough today for the limp, damn it. Lift, step, lift step. Eyes hurting from the day’s dust, I stop in my tracks and rub them hard. I try to focus, but the clarity of my life escapes somewhere down the rabbit hole, too fast for my wounded knee.
“Eddie!” The manager on duty calls out from behind me. “They need you out front. Now!”
I turn and look back, “Okay, okay. I’m coming.”
These are my days: thousands of steps back and forth, a path too hard to wear down. It’s Groundhog Day, and I’m the lesson learner, the come-here boy. After the last load of the shift is done, I clock out and head to the truck. It smells like French fries and feet, but it’s paid for. The rush hour traffic will be gone by now. I take this blessing and eat it whole.
Day 254: the blessed day of the green. Chile peppers and granny smith on the side. Hot and sour make a grown man real and tactile like a snake shedding its skin. I say my prayer then chew and swallow the food for evolving and prepare myself for work; another day of loading and smiling, another day of steeling for the beast.
I clean the dishes in the stainless steel sink. The water and suds flow down fine and leave the surface almost as if it had never been touched. I know I need to repel the bad things like this and not let my spirit be stained by my own doings. No more cuts, no more head voices that sound like screeching tires and smell like them too. I lick the tingling from my lips and swallow. Reaching down to touch my Adam’s apple, I have an impulse to push in hard– but I don’t. This time.
On the way to work, I see a woman with long dark hair sitting at a bus stop with her head in her hands. Something sparks in me to stop, so I do. The truck sputters a little to a parking spot on the next side street. It doesn’t like quick thinking. I have to shut the door real hard or it doesn’t like to stick. We have a lot of things in common. By the time I start to approach the bench, her hands have released her head and I can see the profile of her aquiline nose, and the height of her delicate cheekbones as she is wiping underneath her eyes with her index fingers. I see her shake her head a little before she looks up and sees me staring at her. We are the only ones at the bus stop.
She leans back into the metal bench, creating what distance she can spare.
“Are you okay?” The change in my right pocket jingles as I long for something to hold onto. “It looked like you were upset. I’m Eddie. Eddie Eeger.”
Staying put, I keep both of my hands in my pockets to show her I mean no harm. She looks at me with a Teflon face. One used to shut doors and chest pains.
“I’ll be fine.”
She licks her lips and crosses her arms in front of her body. “We have to be, right? What’s the alternative?”
“Nothing, I guess.” I look down at the sidewalk and shuffle my right boot against the ground.
The scraping sound fills the silence better than my false comfort. The cars buzz by and I feel the traffic wind on the back of my neck. Exhaust fumes make my nose twinge and I look at the cuffs of her blue jeans, frayed at the ends and flattened by the heels of her black tennis shoes. Sometimes, I relate to objects more than people.
“You’re making me nervous standing there like that.”
I walk one step closer in her direction. “Can I sit down, then?”
“My bus will be here any minute.”
“For a minute, then?”
She clears her throat and says, “I guess.”
A black crow lands on a telephone pole on the other side of the street. He caw-caws at us like a fortune teller. We sit there not saying anything, listening to the crow in between the whooshes of the cars and trucks. I can tell she likes birds like me.
“I wonder why I only ever see adult crows. I’ve never seen a baby one that I can recall.” I say this and the crow stops cawing like he’s listening to us too.
She looks at me with her head cocked sideways a little and says, “Crows are one of the smartest birds. They probably protect their babies a lot better than other birds.”
My hands are clasped together tightly as they sit on my right thigh. I squeeze them real hard and see the blood rush to my fingertips. “People could learn a lot from birds, if they wanted to.”
I look up and see her swallow. I watch it go down her throat and I yearn to reach out and touch her neck, like I want to touch mine. But not to push, but to help the swallow go down better, like a spoon full of sugar. She doesn’t say anything, and just nods her head as the bus pulls up with its squealing brakes and belches out charcoal colored exhaust from the large tailpipe.
The woman stands up, collects her purse, and grasps the light denim jacket that has been resting beside her on the bench. She turns to me and says, “It was nice to meet you Eddie Eeger. I’m Sue. I have to go now.”
“Bye, Sue.” I half-smile and stand up as she steps into the large vehicle.
The door closes and I see her form walking down the aisle as the bus charges ahead with a city lion’s roar. I watch it drive out of sight, and then turn to look up at the telephone pole. The crow is gone.
Day 265: cheese the color of orange. I cut the cheddar in rectangles first, and then squares. I set them on the plate, five small square blocks per egg. Five is a good number; maybe I’ll start eating five eggs a day instead of four. Five is the number of elements (water, fire, earth, wood and metal), and five is the number of arches in the gate to the Forbidden City. I need all the help I can get to get beyond my gates of forbidden-ness.
Today is the day I go see Dr. Kevorkian. I mean, Dr. Gregorian. I related the two names right away, but he doesn’t think it’s funny. At least he doesn’t admit to it. I bet he does after a couple or three shots of whiskey. It kind of makes sense though. He is in the business of getting rid of old selves to make room for the new.
After the prescriptions are refilled, I drive by the bus stop and frown at the empty bench. When I arrive at the store, the sun is shining and the parking lot is full. I can feel the twinges in my back muscles already.
The drywall goods are heavy and hard. Large bands of them loom in stacks at the ready for long bed trucks to haul them away to their new homes. It is my job to keep track of the inventory on the outside of the building. I tally them up and give the numbers to the department head.
I squeeze a plastic water bottle and empty it in my mouth. The first drink is a rinse and spit for the dust. The rest goes down clean and cool like nothing else I see or have touched so far today.
An order for a slumlord rehabber comes over the radio. Jared, the new guy, is driving the forklift in the loading zone with a high stack of fire-resistant drywall. I’m flagging the area, trying to guide him down. I hear a thick CRACK and the scraping sound of the metal forks losing their load. He must not have them far enough in. I look up and see the start of the release. I don’t move. I have a quick chance to move out of the way, but I don’t. The sunshine turns to darkness.
The lights are blinding as I peek slowly between the blurry curved lines of my eyelashes. My eyelids are heavier than I remember them to be. As I open them all the way, I begin to see the white walls with clarity. I follow the lines of the metal bars on the sides of the bed and watch them disappear.
I awake again to a pounding sound in my head. I lift my hands and massage my temples with my fingertips. But something is strange. There is an absence in the room. Looking down, I see my feet making bumpy little mountains in the landscape of the hospital blanket. I try to wiggle my toes, but they do not obey. The panic goes right to my breathing and I scramble to find the button for the nurse.
“No, I don’t want to die.” Dr. Kevorkian had been summoned, and I try to convince him while trying to convince myself.
“You know, you’re very lucky to be lying here, Eddie.”
“I have heard that several times. I know.” I look over and start counting the drips in the IV bag in multiples of fives.
We sit in silence for a while. I hear him shift in the green plasticy-leather chair beside the bed. He reaches out and takes my hand in his. I do not turn my head his way.
“Your life will be forever changed, but you have a life. You have a life.”
I stop counting the drips. I squeeze his hand hard as the tears burn a miniature road down the side of my face.
It is the morning again. They say I have to eat today. After the early nurse rolls me on my sides to change the sheets, I feel turned like the cracked eggs of my undoing.
The heavy wooden door swings inward and I see a slight woman in dark blue scrubs walking backwards with the breakfast tray. Her hair is in a ponytail. She comes closer and I see a familiar profile as she turns around. It is Sue.
She hasn’t looked at me yet. I watch her walking intently, keeping her eyes on the orange juice, willing it not to spill. Her cheekbones are still delicate, but her eyes are no longer watery.
Sue sets the tray down on the side table and swings it over in front of me. It is then, when she looks at my face and says, “I hear you need to eat. It’s really good today.”
I watch her tilt her head to the side, like she looked at me before. The recognition registers in her face and her mouth drops open. She scans me from my face down to my impotent little mountains.
“That’s me. Bus stop Eddie.”
The sheets crinkle and crunch as she sits down on the side of the bed. She says, “You helped me that day. With your words and with your silence.”
I don’t remember the last time I helped anybody outside of loading up a truck. I sink back into the pillow behind my head, and turn and feel the scratchiness of the case on my forehead. The sensation is comforting.
“I’m glad.” I don’t remember the last time I felt glad about anything either. The feeling is good.
Sue stands up and straightens out my covers. She then presses the button to make me sit up so I can eat. Smiling at me, she grabs the knob on the brown plate cover, and then unveils it with a flourishing gesture. “Ta-da!”
The beige industrial ceramic plate is completely covered with food. A stack of three perfectly round pancakes wafts with steam. Three pieces of bacon smell like heaven. There are three slices of freshly cut orange that are glistening with droplets on the surface. One of them is kind of large. She takes the butter knife and slices it to make them four.
“Do you like butter, syrup, or both?”
She hands me the butter container and opens the syrup herself and sets it down beside the plate. I look at the butter in my hands and back up at Sue.
“I didn’t step back when I could have. I didn’t step back.”
Her eyes look at me with the knowing of the crow. She’s a good listener, but knows what to say and when to say it. “But you can eat. You can eat and prepare to live a new day.” She winks at me.
I take a deep breath and smile and open up the butter container. Watching my hands as I spread the creamy goodness on the stack, I am pleased to see this simple action. She picks up the other container and pours the syrup over the pancakes. The viscous liquid drips over onto the tray.
“Well, dig in! I hear they got a good scald on that bacon this morning.” She smiles, and I see her teeth for the first time. I smile and show her mine.
Sue comes, and then she goes. Every other Friday on the bed right there in front of me. She says it’s her gift for my bereft undercarriage. My assistant Kenny, sometimes I have to call him my ASS-istant because that’s what he can be, at least knows when to leave. I call her my favorite exhibitionist, but she swears she’s not one even though sometimes she arrives dressed only in a fake fur coat and hoop earrings, just for fun. I joke with her and sing, “Boy, you’ve been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down.”
The days are long, but the nights are longer. I count the time until I see Sue again, and that suits me fine. Breathing concrete mixed with mystery dust is in my history now. I own my minutes, my hours, my days, and my nights.
Laurel Dowswell walks in the woods every chance she gets. She was raised and educated in Florida, but landed in Santa Fe, NM, as a copy editor for an independent feminist newspaper. She likes porches, wine, and songs with guitar solos, particularly if they come together and sit for a spell. She resides in Atlanta, Georgia, with her son, and is currently working on a novel filled with oil paintings, family drama, and the spectrum of sexuality.