Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Fight, by Sheldon Lee Compton

I take my Case knife and cut another IV tube. All that juice pops loose, flows steady onto the bed sheets. The last of whatever they were giving me moves warm like a fever through my vein, comes flapping out of the tube from the bend of my arm. I lay back and start waiting. This is getting to be less and less fun.

The Case knife was part of a package retirement gift from Core Company Mining in 1976. More than thirty years I’ve been retired. I still take lunch at noon, one hour, a sandwich and coffee. I trace the notched-out curves on the knife handle with my finger while I wait for nurses or doctors, flick the blade open and lean in close to see old coal dust smashed down inside the groove on the blade. Somebody’ll come soon and I might can go home. Nobody’s been by to see me for three days. No phone calls for the last two, which makes for mighty quiet waiting.

The first time I cut my IV, the room turned into a blistered frying pan, at least half a dozen people burning up the floor, nurses and doctors and ladies from housekeeping. All their sound seemed like it was pulling at the walls, all that panic and rushing around, nurses telling nurses what to do and the doctor talking to himself in circles. It was just like electric currents.

Electricity was my business. For years it was my business. I was always connected to it somehow. I could feel where a current was running strong just like some people could feel their blood pushing through their arms. And I was always there to wrangle that power in, to put all that bottled up lightening to use, to fix it, to take my own power over it. It’s just like the damned phone. Without somebody on the other end of that current, it’ll just sit right there useless as anything.

So even though the room was burning up and sizzling that first time I nicked my IV with everybody talking to each other about crazy this, and crazy that, I was right at home. It was just like an undercurrent, running through all that loudness.

Crazy as crazy gets, an ugly, hateful nurse said the first time. Crazy man, crazy job. They don’t pay enough for this. Should just let him go home if that’s what he wants.

It was, without question, beautiful, and I was sure they’d send me home.

Just let him go home.

But that didn’t happen, and now there sits the phone, stupid and quiet.

Two kinds of information – signals and voice, but not at the same time, just on the same pair of wires. Somebody picks up the phone and the switch hook sends the phone into an active state bringing into play a short across the wires and opening up a current to flow. The exchange gets the DC current, attaches a digit receiver and then, bang, a dial tone. Copper wires, currents, all the electricity in the invisible world a person could ever need and the thing had not offered the first sound in two days.

I might need a new plan for getting out of here. I figure if cutting these tubes don’t work, and it didn’t the last time, I’ll just tell them I need to get outside for some fresh air. They might say no, but I’d get pushy about it. My knife could come in handy, if it came down to that. If it takes threatening somebody to get out of here, then that would be fine as frog hair with me. Home is where I need to be right now. I have reasons I should go home. But there was a time when work would’ve been better. Retirement ain’t for me, and that’s what got me in here in the first place.

Irene was fixing greens and pork chops the afternoon I had my accident trying to fix the front porch. The power saw jumped in my hand and turned around on me. It ate right into me, a thick slice sideways, but it missed its chance to crack through my old chest and get into my heart. Instead, it settled for just hacking off some tired, used-up muscle and taking enough blood to fill up a ten-gallon tank.

Irene pulled back from me when I made it to the kitchen, but she didn’t make a sound. She just got a sick look on her face and then went right past me and out the door. I watched her running with her hands flying around her head across the swinging bridge over to Cleve Tucker’s. She don’t drive, Irene, and just about the time I was fixing to go face up into a skillet of pork chops, there she was at the front door with Cleve in his car behind her.

It was Cleve Tucker who almost got me to hospital.


I was away from home a lot. The company had power stations across five counties and always needed crews to travel and work for a week or so if vacations or spreading cold or flu knocked out more than five employees at once. But it never really helped me get ahead, all the volunteering. I stayed at the Number 15 Station for the last ten years of my working life and never got a regional post before they gave me a Case knife, patted my humped-up back and sent me home.

Something else I got while I was gone was Cleve Tucker wearing a path down on that swinging bridge to my house.

After awhile, even when I was home, Irene was always going across the creek to pick greens and corn in Cleve’s garden or to borrow one thing or another. I never returned the favor. I never spoke a word about it or done a thing about it until I was bleeding to death in the backseat of Cleve’s four-door Chevy.

It was spitting rain when we started out. Everything was exhaust fumes and oil rags and greasy car parts in the back floorboard and my blood running off the seat and mixing with the oil and grease and parts. Before long, cutting down the road toward the hospital, the rain was as hard and fast as rocks dropping out of the sky. With Irene in the backseat with me, but pushed as far away as she could, I was spitting screams like fire. Cleve Tucker was a shocked deer at the steering wheel, and Irene just kept shrinking away from me in the back seat. I was spitting fire at both of them and raining blood all across Irene’s lap and then popping back up, yelling to Cleve to drive, drive, drive. And all the while Irene was looking away from me, watching them big sheets of rain slap down across the road, all that dark water slamming down from up there in heaven. Blue tracks of lightning made tracks through the sky and there was Cleve and the car hammering all the way through it. I needed to quit bleeding, start living, stop dying.

Just when I was about to get a breath and try to talk to Irene, tell her I loved her anyway, loved her because she was helping me the only way she could, she reached across the backseat and put her hand on Cleve Tucker’s shoulder. She was shy as a bird, the way she done it. She just couldn’t help herself. The sight of her touching him, brought me up out of that seat, dying out of my chest, and I hit her square and hard across the side of her jaw. I hit her with everything I had left. I wanted to break parts of her. She didn’t scream or cry out, didn’t make a sound, just slumped on over against the door as far away from me as she could manage. Then I went after Cleve. For Cleve it was an elbow to the back of the head, and the road and the rain like bullets and the flashing sky went spinning. Two or three seconds seemed like all it took and the car was stopped sideways in the middle of the road, a half a mile out from the hospital.

Cleve flagged down the first car that stopped and loaded me into the backseat. Car trouble, he told the old couple. And the old couple brought me the rest of the way to this hateful place and this hateful quiet and nothing to keep me from thinking about how soft Irene’s skin was under my knuckles.

After twenty minutes with the IV tube done flapping and all the juice gone and dripping off into the floor, I put my knife back inside the pillowcase. I’m working my way out of the bed, sitting up anyways, when a skinny nurse comes squeaking in, fixing this and checking on that, telling me to ease back down on the bed, telling me I need rest. She doesn’t say anything else, just tightens her lips, goes about her job. More IVs, sticking me with needles without saying a word.

When she leaves, I go into the pillowcase for my knife, pushing the blade up and down, hearing the old familiar snap. There’s three tubes now, and I slice through them all at once, snap my blade closed and pop the bed rail with the side of my hand. It drops and I swing my legs off onto the floor. One step and then another. Every step shoots through my chest. I pull back my robe and see black, bloody stitches. Two more steps into the hallway and it would be the longest walk I’ve had in two weeks.

I walk in little shuffle steps until I’m about six feet from the nurse’s station and slow down. Elevators have to be close by, hopefully before I run into the IV crew. I can hear them down there, talking about lunch and husbands and wives and sleep and the ridiculous hell a swing shift could work on all of that.

My knees are shaking, and it don’t matter how hard I try, I can’t get myself settled. The best I can do is just wobble along. I set myself as best as I can in the slippers they gave me, stupid slippers, straighten my back and when I do, the skin across my chest stretches and knots up over the bones. Two more corners and I see the elevator. The doors open. The doors really open, and nobody’s dragging me back to the bed and the tubes and the stubborn phone. I slide sideways inside and hit the button for the first floor. It’s just me and clank of the elevator's cables taking me to a place where there’s some room to run.

The elevator bucks and racks and I lean into a corner and watch the numbers flash a red countdown. Irene is scared to death of heights, it don’t matter how high, either. She shakes like a leaf standing on a chair. She sometimes needed help carrying corn or carrots back across the swinging bridge because of being so scared of heights. Hard for me to do that when I’m at work.

But I’m not thinking about the swinging bridge when the elevator doors open. Or, at least, I’m trying real hard not to think about it. What I think about is the sunshine busting through the sliding front doors not more than fifteen feet ahead of me. I can see wind blowing the trees outside. I wobble some more into the main entrance and the security guards don’t raise an eyebrow between them. Why would they? It ain’t strange for a patient to just take a quick trip out and get some air if they can. I stop in front of the glass doors and see my reflection. Knobby legs, stupid slippers, wrinkled up pajamas. I think of old trees and beat up trucks with rust spots, I think of stick-man drawings. I see my eyes, how they sink back into my head the way the outside of an apple starts drawing in on itself if it lays off the branch for too long. I think too much. Things can be okay. Things can be fine as frog hair. Irene is out there. My life is still out there, I can feel it moving, a hum, a current right under my feet.

There’s a set of benches at the edge of the parking lot and I squat to the ground beside them. My joints pop together and make sounds like small tools dropped onto a workbench. I press my hand to the ground, close my eyes and stay that way for a long time, then stand and start moving. No wobbling, no shaking. I leave my eyes shut for awhile while I walk and see Irene holding my hand, see Irene combing her hair, Irene reading a book. When I open them again, the parking lot is behind me and the current is a slow sizzle under my feet, that familiar flow of energy, and I follow it, just like always. Ahead of me there is the corn and potatoes and greens, baby-steps across a swinging bridge and my Irene waiting somewhere in the middle for someone to take her hand, maybe waiting for so long she knows no other thing to do.

Sheldon Lee Compton lives at the easternmost tip of Kentucky. He has earned paychecks as a teacher, journalist, coal miner, plumber, public relations specialist and carpenter. His work has appeared in New Southerner, Inscape, The Cut-Thru Review, Kudzu and elsewhere. He also blogs at Bent Country.

1 comment:

  1. I should add that the author is also an editor of Wrong Tree Review, whose inaugural issue just became available.