I am some kind of bug. No, a sea creature. My shell is ivory white. Tubes extend from my body tunneling liquids in and flushing sludge out. I float just beneath the waves and I can hear talk from the tip of the beach.
"So this old guys goes up to the whore and he dodders out in this oatmeal voice, 'I got to have a woman.' So the whore looks at this antique and says to him, 'Mister, screw off. You've had it.' So the old guy says, 'I have? How much do I owe you?'"
How do I know their language? Probably I have been in this puddle for a thousand years. I look up through brown water.
"Trina, I still can't understand why you do your own grocery shopping. Isn't your maid Code Q?"
"Don't ask me again, Mother."
"She likes to shop. It keeps her in touch. I can relate to that," Homer says. "The important thing is, he got off easy. He damn near lost an eyeball."
Amos says, "Can we sue them?"
"Absolutely," Lauren says. "It's a clear case of negligence. Your father will do very nicely. Very nicely."
"His hand is moving," Amanda says.
I float closer to the surface. It is tempting to reveal myself. But what will the sun do to me? It could fry me to a black crisp. I might be edible, as desired as an oyster.
"She's right," Homer says. "The klutz is waking up."
"That isn't funny," Trina says. "When can we get a private room?"
"I'm working on it."
The ozone leak has been plugged, Homer's chemical company found the proper scab, I should be reasonably safe in their atmosphere. I could join in their society. If they will forgive my carapace and tentacles. I could walk among them telling stories from the sea. I could tell Amos vital tales.
"When the disease called AIDS got out of hand victims banded together into what they called Biting Battalions. They attacked the uninfected snapping and biting at random. Before the vaccine there was mandatory tattooing and then the camps. Infected babies were put to death. That is how it was. You see, Amos, there was a Before You. Before Me. Before Mom. Before Us. Before . . . "
Amos should know these things.
"What is he burbling about?"
"Get the children out of here," Lauren says.
"Yes. Amos, Amanda, go to the waiting area. Read magazines."
"But he's waking up," Amanda says. "I want to see his eyes pop open."
"I already know about the Biters. Big news."
"Amos, take your sister to the waiting area."
"If you didn't give them what they wanted they bit," Amos says. "Sometimes they just bit. People had to wear clothes like toothpaste tubes. You couldn't knife them or shoot them because of the blood splash. So there were nets."
"Shut your mouth," Homer says. "Your little sister has ears."
I leave the sea. There is no going back.
"Welcome to the land of the living," Homer says.
"Thank God," Lauren says.
Homer goes to get a nurse while Trina explains my accident to me. Yes, the supermarket. Yes, the crap on the floor. Yes, the splat. Is everyone OK? Yes, we are fine and the kids are just outside.
"Break it to him gently that he lost his balls," Homer says following a large nurse into the room.
"It was an honest mistake," the nurse says. "Happens all the time. How do you feel, Mr. Wander?"
"Confused. How long have I . . . ?"
"Twelve years if it's a day," Homer says.
"You've been unconscious for thirty hours," the nurse says. "I hope your dreams were sweet."
"Tepid. Nothing special."
"Sorry about that."
The nurse props my pillow. She wears a Be Proud of Your Code button. I scan her. D+, not bad, but at the bottom of her Potential Scale.
"The doctor will be in to see you soon."
"Were there any internal . . . "
"None. Only the cut. And our best tailor sewed you back together. You are a lucky fellow."
"I am that. Luck is my middle name."
"You might feel itchy. Don't mess with the bandage, though. And try not to move around too much. We don't want you to exert yourself. I'll send in two gorgeous children to say a big hello to their Daddy, then everyone must leave. We want our patient to rest."
Amos and Amanda are summoned. They stand like soldiers. They have never seen me immobilized. They are frightened. I assure them that there is no permanent damage.
"Of course you realize we couldn't hold your job open. You're finished with the company. We don't employ defective executives," Homer says.
I nod and try a smile. A slash of pain splits my skull. I touch the cap of the bandage that covers my pate and forehead. It comes down over my left eye and across my nose.
"Let's all sign his head," Homer says.
"I don't think so," the nurse says. "Time to go."
"What's your name?" Amanda says to the nurse.
"Nurse Eames. What's yours?"
"Amanda Wander. I'm going to be a nurse."
"That's nice," Nurse Eames says.
"But impossible," Lauren says. "Scan her Code."
Amanda begins to weep. Trina throws her mother an evil look.
"I'll be back later tonight," Trina says.
"No, please. Just go home and relax. I know how you hate these places. Thanks for being here, all of you. I mean that sincerely."
"I wouldn't have missed it," Homer says. "Do you know you rang up $1.49 on the tape? Plus tax."
As they are about to leave, Lance comes carrying a bouquet of sterilized flowers.
"I heard he was dead," Lance says. "But I brought the flowers just in case. They suck up oxygen."
"Visiting hour is over," Nurse Eames says. "All of you go play. Mr. Wander needs his sponge bath."
"His sponge bath?" Lance says. "Move over. So tell me, Homer, do I get his title?"
"No problem," Homer says.
"Trina and the kids, too? The whole package?" Lance says.
They leave. Nurse Eames gives me a wash and changes my gown. The old one is full of blood. It looks like a captured flag. She pulls back the bed curtain. I see my roommate. As I am about to say something, Lance comes back, holds a finger over his mouth, presses a pack of condoms into my hand and leaves again. I put the rubbers into a night table drawer. The man has wit.
My roommate is a swollen face, a blue balloon stuck to a spindly neck. I try to scan him but I can't make him out for the puffing. He reads a baseball magazine. Three tubes connect him to bottles and hanging bars. Stuff drips into him and flows from him in a pinkish ooze. He reminds me of the neon signs advertising specials at Food Forest. Seeing his tubes I check myself. I am tubeless.
He lowers his magazine and turns like an owl. His eyes wince, his face spasms. Nurse Eames must have told him my Code. His reaction tells me he is low centile. His mind is already working for position. Being A+ this is nothing new. It happens ten times a day. His face relaxes, not a pretty sight. He is a pumpkin a month after Halloween. But he has found some foundation for comfortable communication. A+ or not, his tubes make him feel superior. Every universe has its rules for dominance and in a hospital tubers reign.
"You got flowers. They took my plant."
"I just got the flowers. Not five minutes ago."
"They'll probably leave them there."
"I don't think so. When the nurse sees them she'll put them out in the hall. My flowers won't be treated any better than . . . "
"Your wife is a real blouseful. I saw her come in."
"Thanks very much."
"I got one cousin in Vermont sent the plant. They want I should give it to the children's ward. Over my dead body."
"What are you in for?"
"Fight. Asshole tells me Joe Dimaggio hit safe in forty lousy games. Total schmuck. I hear you fell in a supermarket. Jesus, how did you do that?"
"I'm not sure. Some oily shit on the floor."
"So you took a flying flop. Jesus. So what's your wife's Code if you don't mind my asking?"
"My wife? Is that relevant?"
"Is it a secret?"
"My wife is a B+ cusp A- if it makes any difference."
"Jesus. She must be some tumble. I heard plenty about those."
"Do you mind? You're talking about my wife."
"You're right. Excuse me. By the way, my name is Robert Tipski. I drive a cab. My own. Code Y and proud of it."
"You should be proud of it. James Wander is my name. I'm in business."
"Business is right. Wasn't that Homer Brogg in here?"
"It was. He's my father-in-law."
"Holy floating turds. You're related? Plug me with a warm salami. A celebrity."
Nurse Eames comes in and says, "I see you two have met."
"He's my long lost brother," my roommate says.
"You want me to leave the flowers?" she says.
"Take them to the kids' ward."
"I will. Thanks, James."
"Not my plant. I want it here in the morning. You hear me?"
Nurse Eames gives me a pill to swallow and takes Robert Tipski's temperature. She checks his IV, then clicks off the light.
"The sun goes up the sun goes down. Another day another dollar," Robert says. A poet.
From the street we hear a car alarm.
"That could be my cab."
"They never turn off. We got to listen to that the whole night?"
Out there in the dark street a Slime is robbing a radio. The wounded car lets out a howl. The car alarm stops, then starts again. It is a sound I usually despise but tonight I follow it like a line. Robert farts and groans, affirming life.
p r e v i o u s
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