The Beaten Zone
Things learned along the way: Fentanyl is one hundred times more potent than morphine; doled out in micrograms, any remnants of it must be destroyed under supervision. A "Smog bomb" is a procedure of last resort administered to patients who have been unable to defecate. The number of cherry ices which can be consumed before causing diarrhea are four and a half. Alcohol based hand sanitizers are not allowed in the Psychiatry wing as patients will try to drink them. The tile floor is cold to bare feet no matter the temperature; there are twenty-six white ones, and twenty-four grey ones in the room. Ron, the orderly, played right guard for Grambling until he tore his Achilles Tendon; he will usually work this fact in to most of his conversations, and has mastered the artistry of the tangent. He smokes Marb Reds during his breaks, the smell permanently entrenched in his scrubs. Evelyn, the nurse, has a tattoo on the inside of her left bicep which reads "Brain Forever." During a sponge bath, she reveals it's a typo, but never had it corrected because it made her feel "luminous." Her body is a bratwurst encased in too tight a skin, and it takes a Herculean effort not to stare at her cleavage; especially during the sponge bath. Eventually, a system is implemented in which a maximum amount of voyeurism can be couched in seemingly authentic head tilts and body shifts. At night, the sponge bath is broken down like game film, analyzed and stored away for later use. The five puzzles in the playroom can be put together without looking at the pictures on the front. Needles, which were once nightmarish on par with Tarantulas, are now monotonous. It is Ron who jokingly suggests to ease the initial displeasure by imagining it's heroin. It is unknown whether Ron has any practical experience with controlled substances outside of cigarettes. Dr. Adam's maintains a poker face even when delivering good news. He has his tells though, and it only takes very few encounters with him to understand how he operates. Residents scatter like cockroaches when he's around, his tyranny proceeding him like a pack of wild dogs. At some point he and dad will butt heads, but for now they are both treading lightly in the other's presence.
Things which are seared into the brain; thoughts which remain in the mind during chemotherapy, while vomiting afterward, and late at night processing the concept of mortality after hearing the words "Odds: one in ten thousand": The cancer has seventeen letters in it's name, most of them are consonants. Rarely seen in non-smokers, almost unheard of in children, it is dad who, at one point, making no attempt to hide his frustration, suggests calling Guinness. The Psyche wing is next door to the Children's Oncology Ward. It houses fourteen patients, most of whom are on narcotics ending in lude, drine, oid, and nyl. Mr. Sharp is on Ativan, and has a sitter with him twenty-four seven, as mandated by the suicide watch protocol. A former Tunnel Rat, Sharp was once buried alive after a cave in during Operation Crimp at the Cu Chi tunnels. He has a magnetic personality on par with a cultish figure; it is difficult not to feel drawn to him, his recognition and encouragement a source of pride. A virtual Houdini, Sharp slips his restraints routinely, and finds solace hiding in the ventilation system. On these days, Ron pursues Sharp through the air ducts, emerging sweaty and covered in particles of varying sorts. Sneezing fits and profanity laced tirades ensue. Though there's no proof, it's been surmised Ron favors wearing black scrubs, the uniform of the Vietcong, as a subtle revenge for having to retrieve Sharp from the bowels of the hospital's cooling system. Being able to sneak away from the oncology ward and navigate through the Psyche ward is remarkably easy.
Questions thought about at three in the morning, while watching the heart monitor for irregularities: Perhaps four and a half cherry ices should be given in lieu of smog bombs? What is it like to have sex? Is staying alive long enough to have more than eight pubic hairs a possibility? Does dad need to be clued in to the fact chewing gum won't cover up the vodka he's been drinking earlier and earlier in the day? Does Sharp's sitter have to stay with him even when he goes to the bathroom?
The room's previous occupant, an art history major, left behind three books on "The Dutch Golden Age," two on "Greek mythology," and a Playboy. The Sports Illustrated's in the waiting rooms have been perused so many times, facts, figures, and statistics can now be regurgitated at will, much like breakfast, lunch, and dinner after chemotherapy. In destitute and ravaged lands sports apparel is donated from teams who lost in the championship.
Does this allow for people in these countries to pretend they're living in an alternate reality? Do children in these countries get Cancer? Is there a child sitting at home, donning a Patriots 19-0 t-shirt, confident and strong with a luscious mound of pubic hair, who doesn't vomit multiple times a day, whose teetotaling father takes him to museums to view Rembrandt's masterworks? Do they smile at each other and exchange gestures symbolizing pride? Standing next to them, is there a famous football player, and svelte woman with her husband Brian? Do they take note of the Chiaroscuro shading, the nuances of the brush strokes? Do they know Rembrandt often painted multiple versions of the subject on top of each other? Will it be possible to ever sleep without medication? Will Dad's anger finally boil over, blind rage on par with "Aries, the God of war," or a revenant from A Bergman film? Will his amplified looks of disgust and loathing act as a precursor to his assault of Dr. Adam's? Will the warmth of his embrace ever act as a shroud again, a total envelopment, like he used to before the alcohol and resentment set up camp?
A premonition of life in remission: Having the inability to eat cherry ices, or read Sports Illustrated, without suffering stomach cramps. Maintaining a deep appreciation for Rembrandt's work. Attending Al Anon meetings with Dad, watching Grambling football games, and shorting stock in Philip Morris. Being drawn toward pornographic images of Big Beautiful Women. Feeling ambivalent about pornography which depict doctors, nurses, and hospital settings. Sitting in front of "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer," at the Metropolitan Museum of art and becoming overwhelmed with such emotion it is impossible to move. Understanding the existential crisis permanently etched on Aristotle's face, the paradox he finds himself contemplating for eternity.
A Whiter Shade of Phosphorous: Mr. Sharp stands in the doorway, eyes of jellied fire; he doesn't so much stare as bore holes. We're making a push he says, two klicks north. His voice is soft and subdued, but the strength of his declaration is forceful. We need reinforcements, the capable and the strong. Sharp makes a come hither motion. His acknowledgement provides a rare moment of pride, and the offer to join in escape is practically amnesty from the disease itself. The adrenalin kicks in while crossing the doorway's threshold, the chill from the floor enough to chatter teeth. Sharp moves with ethereal quiet ingrained in him from years of avoiding death. The metal latticework covering the ventilation system is easily removed. The duct is warm, and claustrophobia threatens to derail the mission. Silence ensues as the inches add up leaving the light of the opening behind. The stomach cramps subside, as does the frequency of heartbeats. The breath returns to normal, and the echo can be heard, Sharp muttering half delirious truths to himself, old pacts he'd forged with The God of War to ensure his safety, a prayer to deliver wrath, laying waste to Nathaniel Victor. Sharp's voice multiplies until it's a Greek chorus chanting in unison, offering up allegiance, promises to sacrifice, strike down, and spread the almighty's will; paint horrific cave drawings on the walls of the tunnel, blood of those who would seek to blaspheme against the one true God. The duct forks and Sharp breaks right, movements carefully orchestrated suggesting tripwires are plentiful, like a spider's web cocooning the inner framework. Following Sharp the dimness grows, his serpentine moves multiply exponentially around corners, and suddenly he is gone. The light has now been extinguished revealing an all enveloping darkness. Alone, the full magnitude of the present is too much. Frantic crawling rubs the smooth metal causing a shrieking noise to mark each movement. Fear, a defrocked monster, once beaten into submission by Dad, now returns with a vengeance. Propped up and displayed like a scarecrow, fear's corpse becomes animated like a creature from the deepest recesses of Hades. The monster possesses no actual strength of its' own, Dad would say; it feeds like the cancer. Then, at the mention of the word, he would undergo a transformation of his own, excusing himself from the room with the need to polish off a fifth somewhere, only to return a different person; a broken person, full of regret and anger. Dad, the savior, the killer of fear; Dad, who like a Christ figure turned fear into bravery. Fear, the shapeshifter, now lurking in cahoots with Death, the two headed gorgon now gorging themselves on the anxiety flowing freely as if from an opened artery. The only way out is to keep moving. The process is slow and each movement begins to take a tole, wearing out muscles, joints; the stomach cramps return, and all seems lost. A faint glow up ahead; fractured beams of light, and dust motes buzzing around. Crawling forward, peering through the vent, seeing into the waiting room, relief washing over after understanding safety is within reach. Softly, a sound begins to build. Across the way, a figure sitting in one of the molded blue hospital chairs, hunched over and pathetic, head in hands, releases a slow moan. Crying now, sobs of despair, crashing against the rocks like ocean waves, building and cresting. Dad lifts his head, looks upward toward the ceiling. Being subjugated to forces beyond his control, he pleads, repenting for his perceived role in allowing his child to get sick. Anger and rage pour from his mouth, diatribes at being unable to do anything but wait, feeling helpless and inconsequential, begging God, who's name had once been excoriated and blasphemed. Watching Dad, who no longer cares, drink directly from the pint of Gordon's. Scowling at the mocking face of the boar, tusks protruding, as Dad quaffs down his medicine. Remembering reading about the Erymanthian Boar, wishing Hercules was here to smite the foul beast. Having paradoxical thoughts about character, stoicism, and ignorance. Becoming overwhelmed by seeing behind the curtain, understanding Dad for the first time; an enlightening curse. Coming to grips with the complexities of life: the need for connection, solace, comfort; to not feel so alone at this given moment. Calling out Dad's name will ensure rescue from this temporary prison. Dad will put down the pint, spring from the blue plastic with determination seen in wounded animals. Tearing metal from foundation, the opening made wide enough to be birthed back into the world. Held close in his arms, feeling the re-emergence of grace, love, acceptance. All will be forgiven. Just say the words.