Sunday, December 04, 2011

Hospital for the Gravely Injured

‘Cat got your tongue?’ asked the voice sitting next to him on the park bench. He turned and came face to face with a woman who’s bulbar eyes had escaped his notice when he’d first sat down. The crookedness of her mouth made it look like she was whispering when she was in fact shouting. A man out walking his dog stopped and said ‘I’ll have none of that madam!’

An alms woman sits in the midmorning sun stitching hems with a bone-needle. The story goes that she found the bone-needle in a hatbox box under a pile of soiled clothes. It brought back memories of the things his grandmother kept in a coffee tin on her bedstead vanity: a promise ring given to her by a cheating suitor, a blind tinsmith, a small picture of a horse and rider. She dropped a stitch piercing her thumb, blood mixing with the meatiness of working flesh. ‘Some mornings’ she said to herself, ‘begin better than others.’

Appearing as if out of nowhere Albert Scrim yelled ‘Mrs. Crabstick of Upton eats ribbon-toast with cream cheese!’ Mrs. Crabstick actually preferred headcheese to cream cheese, so his declaration, though boisterous, fell on deaf ears. A purveyor of saltpeter and Plumtree’s arrowroot biscuits, especially the tinned variety, which she doubly liked, Mrs. Crabstick seldom complained about the salt. She liked what she liked. She bought cheese from the Barnstaple Maple Cheese factory situated in a small creamery overlooking the Greenock Inverclyde lochs. Overripe and blue she chose the cheeses she liked most leaving the rest to people with younger tongues and fatter change-purses.

She liked liking things like Plumtree’s biscuits and ribbon-toast. She liked freak shows and jar-lids that tighten round jars. She disliked bad freak shows and weak-kneed tightrope walkers and men who wore britches with link-socks and bowties tied in curlicues and bolos. She herself preferred culottes to Capri’s, red blouses to cable knit sweaters and bobby-socks to hoses. His grandfather liked her but from a distance, not wanting to incur her wraith which she displayed with equal parts anger and rage. He liked to espy her as she made her way along the sideways, her bobby-socks unraveling round her ankles. She liked to watch his grandfather from across the street resting his weary head against Upton Chemists storefront pillars, his chest heaving in and out like a church bellows. Word had it she read Meister Eckhart in the original German, her copy of the Laws found at a flea market just outside Gotha. Claiming the Laws made a muckery of things the Parnell brothers gave their depositions. One of the brothers had a snake-charmer's tan and the other a roustabout’s neck that bulwarked his skull. They wore charms on ropes round their waists to fend off evil and those that do it.

He espied Orofino standing cocksfoot his cap held aloft brim-side out. The first time he espied Orofino was behind Didier’s grocery after a rather ruthless cockfight in 1979. Orofino was holding a hatbox under his arm tied with ribbon. Orofino, Orofino cocksfooted Orofino he whispered to himself. The night of the cockfight he stood behind Orofino watching two cocks fight to the death, fiery cockscombs jumping in circles, talons like penknives. Cockfighting is merciless, he thought, feathers and fat and the Mexican hollering at the top of his lungs ‘kill kill scratch scratch!’ An abattoir he thought. Miserable how a man can get so riled up and red-faced. Pathetic. Shame on you shame on you!

He stared out the oilcloth window at the crescent moon. Cigarette paper. Brown. Yellow. Black lung his grandfather said. Comes from years underground. Decaying tissue; pink to black tarnish.

The beggar woman let out a wail, her hands trembling under the barrows of her go-round. They met at the Piazza del Tornado on a Sunday afternoon in July 1979. She was dressed in a gabardine jumpsuit and he in a cashmere sweater made from sheep’s wool. They spoke in Esperanto and Gaelic, neither understanding the other. Sometimes it’s the voice that doesn’t speak that speaks the loudest, a child’s whisper ‘scratch kill scratch kill!’ She lived in a world of make-believe.

He drank Mescal, the smell of wormwood burning the space between his nose and upper lip. He skirted across the blacktop, his feet, blood-blistered chattel-sticks, anchored to the corset of his ankles. ‘These are small times’ he said out loud. ‘Not a moments rest for the weary’.

He heeled it up the sideways, his black and red chequered shirt flapping unchecked. ‘Lord have mercy!’ he shouted. He took to acts of fearless contrition for the sins he’d committed and those he’d yet to commit. Sins, though inexcusable, were acts of indifference, and neither the sin nor the sinner was held responsible or the act considered praiseworthy or blameworthy. ‘God have Percy on my bowl’ he shouted attracting the attention of a woman walking her dog. ‘What’s that?’ she asked pulling on the leash. Losing his footing he fell, tiny cakes plummeting like bayoneted soldiers onto the asphalt ahead of him. Doffing his cap he sped in the opposite direction, the woman hollering after him. In his haste to make a clean getaway he stepped on the dog’s tail. ‘Look what you’ve done you scoundrel!’ hollered the woman. ‘Have you no humanity?’ ‘Algebra isn’t my forte madam’ he said. ‘Nor am I or have I ever been a member of the Crummiest Party, now shoo’.

Orofino’s great grandparents, peasants by birth, spent evenings with the other sombrero-wearing peasants at the cockfights championing a cock that rarely won. Cockfight enthusiasts with bad teeth and chin-beards pushed and elbowed trying to get a better look at the gladiator cocks. To him cockfighting was all that kept sombrero-wearing cock enthusiasts from turning on one another. With the price of soybean plummeting anything that took their minds off starvation was a welcome distraction. A rasher of bloodied-sausage and a flap of tripe, a breakfast fit for a penurious Queen.

A clochard hocked up a bleb of cows’ stomach, his jaw clenched taut as a screw-wrench. ‘E’s got the aboulia flu’ said his grandmother. ‘We best get him over on his side before he spits up a lung’. They rolled the clochard over on his side, careful not to bang his head against the railing, and loosened his threadbare clothes. ‘Cloppicare-cloppicare-cloppicare’ grunted the clochard, the pus boil on his neck weeping yellowy pus. ‘He’s got a pus boil on his neck’ said his grandmother wiping her hands on her floury apron. He helped his grandmother pull down the clochard’s trousers, which had twisted round his belly, his hipbones as sharp as a swindler’s wit. ‘Is he breathing? his grandmother asked. ‘Careful, that pus boil’s about to burst’ he shouted letting go of the clochard’s shoulders. The clochard opened his mouth and whispered ‘Cloppicare-cloppicare-cloppicare’.

‘Don’t tug at him like that’ said his grandmother, ‘you’ll rip his head off’. The clochard drew in a deep breath, held it for a second and exhaled, a clot of tripe forming a bubble on the tip of his tongue. ‘He’s going into shock by dimity!’ his grandmother said loudly, ‘pull up his head!’ He pounded on the clochard’s chest with both fists and then turned him on his side. A crow spun out from under the Seder’s awning caw cawing, its wings hotchpotch with tar and shingles. ‘Quick before it bursts!’ said his grandmother leaping up and running away, the clochard burbling like a wan calf. The clochard shook violently and then stood up. ‘He’s a wake’ said his grandmother. ‘Wake means dead’ he said to his grandmother. ‘and he’s definitely not that’. A passerby knocked into the clochard, a pocketful of coppers and face-coins tinkling to the ground. The clochard made a fork with his fingers and jabbed at the passerby’s eyes starting a scuffling that ended with both men bloodied and bruised. ‘Now he’s dead, or close to it’ said his grandmother. The clochard slowly raised himself upright and hobbled away mumbling to himself. The next time he saw him he was causing a disturbance out front of the Kingdom Hall.

He sat under a half moon sipping contentedly on a quart bottle of stout, the sky clouded over with crows and blackbirds. ‘That was a near miss’ he said. ‘Life is a gamble’. His grandfather met the harridan at the church bazaar under a generous full moon. She was arranging a table of glass figurines when the Witness, his face tighter than a pugilist’s fist, appeared to the left of her. ‘Life is a gamble’ he said, the corners of his mouth curling like a prepuce. ‘A near miss’.

She had short stumpy legs and long gangly arms. She stopped growing the day she fell down the front steps of the Church of the Perpetual Sinner, severing her spinal cord at the fifth vertebrate. The doctor diagnosed Acromesomelia Malevolencia even though she didn’t had rubella or a history of smallness in the family. Her mother figured it was a curse from God. When she turned eleven her legs bowed out so much they had to put a post between them fastened with screws. She skipped down the street her crutches striking the pavement like dud-matches, her mother hollering at her to be careful. He remembered seeing her sitting on a pillow with a picture of Nolan Falls stitched into the cushiony part.

Her mother wed a man named Brno Slocomb who owned a small hashery near the miles-end. She knew his grandfather but not his father. She spent her honeymoon in Nolan Falls backcombing lice out of her hair, the bed she shared with her husband overrun with bedbugs. She lay swaddled in the sheets like a calf in its mother’s belly, her husband’s cock creeping along the perineum of her ass-bone. They made the beast with two backs her hole moistened with spittle, her husband’s cock bent into her like a Bowie knife. She stared blankly at a wet spot on the ceiling waiting for him to finish. The innkeeper, a bicycle thief and dullard, spied on them through a hole in the wall. ‘I had a bicycle with a sparkly yellow banana seat’ said his father. ‘My granddad greased the gears with machinists’ oil and an old shirt sleeve. It had a sissy-bar’. The innkeeper’s wife made her water in a commode-pot. To the untrained eye it looked like a spittoon not a pisspot sloshing with stale yellowy urine. The innkeeper died at the hands of bare-knuckled men who fisticuffed him to a bloodied pulp.

He loosened a stone and reshoed his shoe. He shooed a quarrel of crows, a quorum of quail and a gaggle of geese. He shimmied his way down the street the loosened stone jangling. A horned fowl flew flapping overhead, its beak formed into a perfect O. He cast his eyes skyward and said ‘Pluribus excelsior’ the stone in his shoe jig jangling.

‘Begin at the begin’ said his grandmother. ‘There’s no beginning’ he said. ‘Then fetch me my umbrella’. The hole that let in sunshine also let in the rain, a wet yolky rain that never seemed to give up. His grandmother always put her ducks in a row, the kitchen windowsill an aviary of wooden teals and mallards. ‘My grandmamma had it right’ he said to himself, ‘line the ducks up and then get on with it’.

He cast his eyes skyward and said ‘ex pluribus abracadabra’ the crows scattering like mice. There were drifters in these parts who carried cudgels in scabbards and wineskins full of calf’s urine slung over their shoulders for good luck. ‘Them they’ll cut off your balls’ warned his grandfather. ‘One at a time’. Then the lights dim, one coulomb at a time, and they’re on you like a snake on an apple . ‘These are strange times’ he thought. ‘One affliction after the other’. He stood in the shadow of the Seder’s clock squinting to make out the littler hand, the one that tells time in affliction. At exactly 27½ seconds past twelve he let out a scream and retched up a stomachful of yellowy bile. ‘They’ll swipe at your belly with their cudgels’ warned his grandfather. ‘Uncoiling your intestines and cutting your bowels to pieces’.

Tonsured O’Malley stood admiring his reflection in the mirror over the sink. Exhausted from all-night vespers, he himself lighting no less than 27 candles, his thoughts were drawn to the Cartesian doubt he’d learned as an innocent years prior. ‘Our Father would not put up with such cockish shenanigans’ he whispered under his grapy breath. ‘Cocksureness has left it’s vile stench everywhere’. He remembered the soft yolks he’d had for breakfast and the holes in the sky left behind after a night of storminess. ‘What a sorry state of affairs’.

The Peacock Haberdashery sold porkpie hats with whistles. His grandfather preferred a rattan boater with an unadorned hatband, his grandmother a going-to-church sunbonnet with marigolds, dahlias and hyssops arranged in a nosegay on the top. On Sundays the pews were filled with women in church bonnets, some garlanded with feathers and others bunched with flowers. So many bonnets with embellishments and prettifications that the altar boys swooned with lightheadedness and dirty thoughts. The milliner’s wife sat in the front pew knitting her husband a winter scarf, the woman next to her fidgeting over a loose thread in her stocking.

Taqiyah panamas and Balmoral bonnets, garrison caps, wedge, rain and kepi, skullcaps and Kufi caps, Nasaq toques and Salakot berets, newsboy caps and nightcap caps, zucchettos and turbans, by the time he was twelve he’d seen them all. He knew the names for all the hats in his grandfather’s collection: fedoras, cowboy, boater, rain, bowler, porkpie and beret.

The legless man awoke to a phantom soreness in his stumps. The aches reminded him that he once had two legs, each with a foot and toes. His handcart needed a new wheel; the back one worn down to the steel rim. A tin shovel at the front added leverage and absorbed the shuddering between him and the asphalt. The legless man carried a three volume set of Russian philosophy on a shelf attached to the backend of his handcart. Embossed on the title page of each volume was an albatross circling an eagle circling a hammer and scythe, the Russian symbol for honor and vodka. He wore a porkpie with a visor to keep the sunlight in abeyance and rain off his face.

He slept on top of a piece of cardboard to keep the dampness out. Many was the night that an icy pox lay in his lower bowel. His guts were rotting from a rusty tin of sardines he found in a dumpster behind the grocers. He drank wine by the quart but the sour metallic taste remained. He remembered the spoonfuls of Castor oil his mother fed him and how it burned his throat and upset his stomach. The label on the tin read 'Cupper’s Finest Sardines, Man’s Other Best Friend'. He tried eating salted bread but the taste lingered in the back of his throat. He slept worryingly under a whorish yellow moon, a ghostly pallor bringing out the paleness in his face.

He grudgingly awoke and fetched the stick he used for fishing out old clothes from the dustbins and bit down hard hoping to assuage the niggardly pain that he awoke to each and every morning. He positioned his handcart to affect a bulwark between him and the outside world and mused on the day ahead. ‘Cupper’s are rot’ he mumbled, ‘rot and feces’. He saw the shamble leg man gambling and shimmying across the street his arms flailing like sailcloth. Empanada Del Amore strode defiantly across the street hissing and horning and making a general spectacle of herself. She tossed a bloodied butcher’s apron into the nearest dustbin and hurried up the downwash the harridan gibbering after her ‘sluttish slut whore’s belly afterbirth!’ The legless man bellied from atop his handcart ‘sluttish whore!’ A coxswains’ shuttle whirled past his head just missing his ear and caromed into the Seder’s storefront window. ‘Cupper’s… putrid fish’ he hollered at the top of his lungs. Empanada Del Amore tippled sideways, her feet marking the pavement like struck matches. ‘Never a moments rest for the incontinent’ she said loud enough to draw attention to herself.

The lamplighter lit the street lamps with a kerosene wick and ladder, his right arm steadying him from falling headlong into the pavement below. As he was a wobbly old fool the lamplighter seldom lit a lamp on the first try. He levelled his left shoulder with the lamppost and drew an imaginary plumb-line on the asphalt, his eyes straining to find the exact spot on the lamp-wick. His greatcoat was grackle with ashes, the tops of his shoes piebald with burns. Chadwick the town imbecile stood in the exact spot where the lamplighter lit his last wick and blew out the flame. ‘That’ll show him’ he grumbled. ‘The night is suppose to be dark not lit up like a Roman candle’.

He was higgledy and liked nothing more than to spend the day sniggling. His uncle Moesha taught him how to bait and shore-land squirming eels. More often than naught they caught dogfish, pulling them up hand-over-hand from the mucky bottom of the river. They cooked a shore lunch over a driftwood fire firming up the dogfish with salt and vinegar. His head was full of collusions and disruptions from exposure to gasoline fumes and an ungentle childhood. Without them he would be lost to thoughts of a less savory character.

‘Right now, this very moment, I am thinking about my own life’ he mused ‘a life spent in search of characters to fill the emptiness, the void, of my life’. All of his great uncles had raffish hair that gave them an oafish unruly appearance. Moving from one point to the other, his uncles great and not so great imagined they were majestic Lords on their way to court. The men on the other side of the family lived with the discomfiture of baldness, donning paper hats copied onto tracing-paper to hide their receding hairlines and smooth shiny crowns.

This squalor behind the bakery was startlingly off-putting. Half empty dustbins and rummaged through dumpsters left one with the feeling that hooligans had recently laid waste to the alleyway. All that thoughtlessness and unneeded disorderliness and upheaval.

‘Did I say he was old? Well I was mistaken’ said his grandfather. ‘He’s ageless and has been for as long as I can remember’. His grandfather cleared his throat and continued ‘Age tells us nothing about a person other than how useless they are. And that, my boy, is a tragedy’. He shouldered his kill-hammer and walked out onto the porch. ‘What we know doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. We’d do better to put our trust in alchemy or prayer. Did I say I was mistaken? Well perhaps I am just too old and decrepit to remember’.

The legless man had a purloined copy of the Venus de Milo hanging on the wall in his motel room. Lingeringly astraddle the sepulcher toilet he fixed his eyes on the missing arms. A Jackdaw, its wings cutting the sky like a Skinner’s knife, flew across the window. The legless man pushed his handcart out from beneath the Seder’s awning and whispered ‘Cupper’s Finest for the feign of liver’. As a farthing child he was forced to wear short-pants with cuffs that cut into his legless legs. His mother bought him short-pants made from Egyptian cloth that belled out at the bottom like flour sifters. They buttoned at the fly and had curlicue stitching on the back pockets.

He awoke to a rustling outside his motel window. He reached for his eyeglasses and walked to the door. Opening it a crack he peeked out and came face-to-face with a man wearing dark sunglasses. ‘is it raining?’ whispered the man. ‘My eyesight, as you can see, is horrible’. Not knowing how to respond he crossed his arms over his chest and took a step back. ‘Were a fire to burn it would burn brightly and were a crow to caw it would caw loudly’ he said offhandedly. ‘Bacliff’s a crone’s throw from the Bay-of-Figs’. Manly legs made from steel that could jump tall buildings in a single bound, not stumps that stank. Not legs that stumbled and made a nuisance of themselves. Fat legs with knees and meniscuses, aches and pains. Legs that curled up in a fetal position when he slept. Bowlegged legs. He would settle for white legs covered in hair like his granddad’s leg.

As it was Sunday she put on her sunbonnet with the paisley hatband. She had a church-hat she wore on Saturdays and days that had an E in them. On Mondays she went hatless. Tuesdays she slept in and preferred her toast unbuttered. Wednesdays and Tuesdays she spent in contemplation of what was to come and what came before. Saturday mornings she ate Monk’s cheese and biscuits and nursed a cup of chamomile tea. Sunbonnets and seafaring boaters and head-scarves made from whiskey-cotton or Egyptian linen. She had a fondness for Sufi scarves and handkerchiefs made of silk. Every second Friday she wore an Estonian Taqiyah securing it to her head with a red silk ribbon.

She volunteered at the Hospital for the Gravely Injured where she saw a man who’s ear had been torn off in a fistfight, a blood soaked rag wrapped round his head like a diaper. Another man had such a horrible cough that the nurse had to put him in a room all by himself. A woman with a swollen belly lay stretched out on two seats cradling her belly like a stone-child. A man with a nervous tick stared at the woman with the swollen belly. A man waiting for his wife sat in a chair by the window. A woman waiting for her husband stood next to the man waiting for his wife. She ran out of the hospital as fast as her feet would take her.

A stray lay basking in the sun, its tongue pulled back like a slingshot. A three-legged dog, its stump wormy with maggots, limped passed the basking stray. ‘Dogs sharpened their dogteeth on bones’ his grandfather told him.

A viral antibiotic, Gramicidin, is obtained from the bacterial species Bacillus Brevis purloined from dirt. Gramicidin is particularly effective against gram-positive bacteria (see Gram's stain). Because the drug is highly toxic it cannot be administered internally and so is used only on the skin as a lotion or ointment. It is used primarily in the treatment of infected surface wounds, and in eye, nose and throat infections. The American microbiologist René Dubos isolated the substance Tyrothricin in 1939 and later showed that it was composed of two substances, Gramicidin and Tyrocidine. These were the first antibiotics to be manufactured commercially. The prophet told his grandfather that in order to protect the flock from infestation and disease he needed to travel out beyond the five-mile and find the antibiotic he’d read about in Popular Mechanics. His grandfather had heard stories about dogmen that lived beyond the five-mile where the sun was so hot it blistered a man’s exposed head. These dogmen were known to kill small children and the sickly, heaving their lifeless bodies over the cliffs into the muddy river below their encampment.

His grandfather read about the American microbiologist René Dubos and his victory over infectious diseases. ‘The drug is highly toxic!’ cautioned the prophet, ‘and should be handled with the utmost care’. As prescribed by law the antibiotics had to be tested before they could be marketed for public consumption. And so they were tested on imbeciles and the homeless, many of whom died from toxic shock and respiratory failure. ‘One must first be at peace with penicillin’ the American microbiologist was heard to say, ‘then we can move forward with the manufacturing of Bacillus Brevis’.

He read about Tyrocidine in a Reader’s Digest he found in the trash behind the Waymart. Behind Stones bakery he found a rolled up copy of Popular Mechanics. He folded the magazines into an origami crane and threw it over the refraining wall between the Sears and the Waymart. His great uncle Maxus told him that the Asians ate uncooked fish with the scales still on. Mac Schreiber scolded his great uncle for badmouthing the Japanese ‘If it were for that Jap’s we’d still be listening to a Herrold’s’ he said gruffly, his bulging pockmarked nose bobbling.

Colin Wooster died in the Hospital for the Gravely Injured from Gram's stain the day after he was admitted complaining of stomach cramps. They found him in the pigeon house holding onto an advertisement for a cardboard submarine. He was wearing his best summer trousers and a paper hat. He also went by the initials W.C. When W.C. was eleven and a half years old he was diagnosed with the whooping and sent away to a sanitarium with no windows. He climbed out the skylight onto the roof where he laid out a three by seven foot patch of Astroturf and built a flowerbox out of old window-frames and straightened nails. He taught himself Japanese in between ECST sessions and learned how to fold crate-paper into origami cranes. He took to wearing woolen trousers and preferred his fish under-cooked. He knew of him from a magazine article he read in the Reader’s Digest. Popular Mechanics ran ads for X-ray glasses and how-to’s on building your own ham radio while Reader’s Digest ran ads for cardboard submarines and recipes on how to cook raw fish in its own gob.

‘These are dreadful crab cakes’ his grandfather complained. ‘now fix me something else now!’ His grandmother rarely listened to his grandfather’s ranting, turning him off like a Herrold’s. His great aunt Alma owned the first console television on her street. She never once missed her afternoon shows. When the antenna fell off the roof she sat in front of the console squinting like an onion cutter, her favorite movie stars fighting it out on a background of snow. The fishmonger prepared small, medium and large fish, some with worms and others with puff-out yellow bellies. He used a hose and funnel for siphoning fish guts and worked until the tips of his fingers bled and his eyes smarted from staring at fish all day long. He traded the gob and fish semen for butcher’s paper to wrap the fish in. Wives cooked chowder, intestine and guts simmering in a bath of cloudy sperm. The fishmonger worked until the cows came home and the roosters came to roost. He would have prepared mutton had he enough rope to hoist it over the transom. He kept a mongrel dog in a clapboard shack behind the cannery, feeding it fish bellies and lobster antennas. He took the dog for walks, yanking the ox-hair leash if the mongrel drove to the right or the left. He disliked things off-kilter and went to great pains to redress anything that might be perceived as a carom or a veer. As he was blessed with a straight back and equally straight legs, a gift from his mother’s side, he could rein in the dog if it mistook a “heel” for a “hightail” or a “come here” for a “fetch”.

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