< A sinister Jonah was concealed in the room. The clash was between Maurice and a phantasmagorical guest, and raged in his mind’s eye. He chanted a nonsensical phrase, – “frosted-mini-wheats, frosted-mini-wheats”, – like a mantra, and was grasping solely it, mentally, against the gaseous strengths of the invisible demon mass, like a handicap bar; elsewise, Maurice resolved, it was the victor in this battle. Sunrise found his face wild, but normal.
The daytime provided less clarity. Maurice refused at sunrise, in the relative safety of sunlight, refused even then to recall the silly Munster’s show (“Munster’s in a hospital”), or to compare the absent phantasm to “monk wrongmen behaving badly,” as Someone later described, but humored the idea of monks in possibly brown, or black robes, with bald heads, and dubious intent. No, the spirits were nasty. He summoned his ability from years of actuary, and police incident reports. Truth was Maurice had seen nothing: the tussle was contained to a dream state of a light sleep; it was a smack down by black forms, with mad, and transient eyes. There was a surreal evil to them, and either way, it was not a match one could survive. The issue was – well – how to get help. Maurice was sure demon phantasms are “substantially rare” to most hospital personnel. His roommate was asleep. He had awoken, and plummeted in their midst, in stygian naps, like a drowning man, in the struggle; heat rose in waves beneath his skin. He could describe it as a dream. It was okay.
The modest solution repaired his memory. Maurice hollered “Yo” aloud in the wee hours, in the throes of it. He yelled, and surged towards any white, or clear spot in sight, any space around the diabolical miasma. It was a reflex. A fellow in a white coat heard him yell in the dream state, in the night, an emergency aide; but this was a hospital. The aide leaned to the room, but didn’t speak, and left. Room service could save him: match madness with madness. But it was too early, four, four-thirty in the morning, the witching hour; purple storm clouds in the sky silhouetted the cafeteria building in the window, startling him, the most fearful moment. No, no room service.
He lay in the throes of the nightmare, a real peril, but worst, he could not awaken; demons only paused. The inside of his face and mouth, his neck, and his upper shoulders were newly aflame. “Yo!” he had screamed, again, and mightily. Maurice mustered strength to rule his body, and any muscles which might respond; this was the battlefield. He was but superior to this dark, menacing brawn with a maudlin grip of him.
He could not devise a sensible story. He saw the room was empty, at dawn. He fixed his mind on pleasantry. Frosted mini-wheats. It was almost five. He had grabbed the bed sheet like a Hitchcock movie, pulled it against the bed, and bar, and covered all but one eye until daylight emerged. The black spots couldn’t see him. The shears, they were black shears, he realized, and he was awake: these were unruly contours of the dusk, and they cascaded around his head, his eyes, and his body, blurring his vision for wavering, wavering instants. “What an awful time,” he said, plainly. The sun rose grayly, the betraying white-lined clouds gathered in the sky. His eyes were open in a solid stare.
He didn’t see the day nurse sneak into the room, and smack two pillows together. “When will I be discharged?” Maurice asked, matter-of-factly, and not to mention the shadows.
She replied, “I don’t kneeew.”
The issue of windows wasn’t middling to Tauri, H.L., attorney-at-law. It was weighty. “The maladies of window privation can result in serious neck injury, mental harassment, sleep apnea; a host of social disorders, and subordinated perjury,” Tauri advised. “Windows should be shared freely. I could get pre-tty ugly about it.”
Maurice lumbered into a sitting posture and dangled stubby legs over the orthopedic mattress. He intended to speak. The lawyer collapsed in a chair, like a preacher after a sermon. Maurice changed his mind, and adjusted the height controls for the bed riser, using a remote by the sliding table with fitful hem. He told his roommate, and Tauri, whose eyes were visibly watering, only “The Indians are coming,” and then bowed, solemnly. The “Indians” were the special team of nurses, whose skills were conjured by the thrice-daily round of dispensing medications to every ailing patient, which was every patient, and shots were nigh. Yes, the Indians had arrows.
It was another day of fateful uncertainty, grimaced by sips of Kool-Aid in tiny paper cups. Courage, and too destiny, converged in the swoons of raspberry jello. Maurice’s roommate rose by ten-thirty, and did notice the man’s disarray, shooing Tauri away, who departed only to the prompts of “a whole hospital of people suffering in liability.”
But Maurice was unable to describe his critical war with the nether world. No logic, no equation arose. There was no explanation likely to draw more than empathy, and blank nods. He fiddled with the retractable bed, and the television, and wiped water from the corner of the serving table. They watched cartoons, without any guff from the Coney Island patient. He switched the television off finally, fearful sleep might overtake him. Maurice said to his roommate hopefully, “You’re a college lecturer. Why don’t you tell me a story?”
He turned his head, and viewed Maurice with suspicion. He had been thinking about Aji, exercise in the hallways, and “omen rings.”
She was talking about the mines of Saturn. She explained the cycles of Saturn were once deemed sufficiently important to give astrology a role in the making of treaties, including the Gold Rush of California in 1848, and 1849. Saturn was the “ruler of long journeys by land, or sea.” Saturn sheltered her rings, planets, and moons from the great star, the Sun, and displayed areas of visible darkness in celestial photographs of sundry “valleys,” believed to be priceless mines, and ultimately named .
Another legend persisted from “this millennium” about the possibilities of these murky-looking mines, especially for the “astounding cache” of gases, like helium-3. It crystalized into a “turnkey” for support to colonize the planets of the Milky Way, once technology became conducive; aeronautic stocks boomed. Aji said, “My favorite pitch was the ruse by millennial scientists, who stated their belief Saturn’s atmosphere, combined with interlude lightning storms, would rain diamonds on the planet’s soil.”
She grinned, and also nodded. “Of course, not a single gem has ever been declared by any miner upon his return. Yes.”
He seldom needed any prodding to tell a story, but he was sick. He pondered his life’s experience in a general orbit of the perfect tale. He paraphrased how people were usually unhappy to hear his chosen subject. However, people were generous. “I’m perilous,” Maurice said, flatly, and his bulging eyes encouraged him to plunge forward in the dark afternoon. He searched his mind for a story with breadth, one that may take days to unpack, or conclude one day with, yes, with postcards; an awful story, to dissuade them from ever again allowing hospitals to become a plausible option. Maurice smiled not at all. He said, “I got all night.” He did mention a George Carlin, or Bob Newhart skit about how asking a comedian to tell a joke was like “asking him to go to work.”
“Tough,” said Maurice, painfully nice.
A nurse burst into view at the open doorway, checked them from the hall, and greeting them with a cheerful face; her chin was curved, eyebrows raised, and she continued down the hall. He ruffled his short-sleeve, the johnnie arms, and craned towards Maurice, who crossed his arms, laboriously. “Have you ever heard of Stalingrad?”
“No,” Maurice responded. “Is it a medication?”
“Stalingrad, the city. Leningrad? It’s in Russia. St. Petersburg, maybe?”
Maurice said, assuredly, “Oh St. Petersburg. It used to be Stalingrad. Something like that. Sure. There’s a St. Petersburg in Florida. Okay.”
“You’re the professor,” Maurice allowed, breathing heavily, bracing a hand on his knee.
He began a Stalingrad story, and, as hours passed, the hospital pair settled into a normalized routine, long about, sometime in the middle of the fourth day, almost lunch time. They exchanged pranks: He adopted a habit of taking the plastic forks, bending them backwards, and sailing them over Maurice’s privacy curtain. Maurice saved them for extras. He was a champion of table-hockey using yellow pills for pucks. There was a contrary reality to tentative life in a hospital: happy surprises; hospital food, for instance, was pretty good. He, and Maurice ordered pot roasts three times in a row; roast turkey, dressing and gravy, was a lunch entree; and every meal was blessed by a Ph.D. certifying it belonged under the umbrella of “Heart Healthy” foods. No jacket, or tie required.
Still nightfall was a lonely embrace of partial darkness. The erosion of garish, florescent light engulfed his bed in a looming, growing facade of the wing with the cafeteria, engaging in a dance of geometry. The shadows formed a semi-circle reminiscent of the shade late in the day at Shea Stadium; the batter swung in the daylight, the on-deck hitter stood in the dark. The privacy curtain separating the two beds quickly slid on its beads and startled him. Maurice was shuffling, one foot at a time, from his bed to the window side rail. “Whoa!” he said to Maurice, worried Maurice was sleep-walking. Maurice ignored him, and explained, with a twinkle of humor, how going forward meant he was not likely to stop. He removed his thumb from a Family Circle magazine, and dismissed, after a moment, the idea of Instagramming Aji a photo of strawberry-and-cheese shortcake.
Maurice chugged to a solid landing at the lower edge of his hospital bed, paternal, and more adroit. “You’re starting to get around like a catcher for the Mets,” he told Maurice, which sounded patronizing, largely because it was patronizing. Either way, Maurice ignored it, too. He was a hapless man on the subway, the palm strands of his black hair growing every which way unkempt from his balding head. Maurice was not dejected, as subway riders can appear. He was ardent. He was anxious. He was resolute. Maurice’s voice was raspy, his questions eyeball-to-eyeball in colloquy.
The trail of mirth, memories, and fish stories elapsed in the midnight air. Maurice nodded about his children, and, tiring, rose like the sun shining through alleyways of a timeworn building. He said, “I’m going back to bed.” ◊
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“The Shadows” is one of three works by SODA TOM.
“The Shadows,” by Soda Tom, Vol. I of III,
from The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories
Copyright (C), 2018; 2017, ff., by the author.
All Rights Reserved.
Created by Soda Tom