Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

Narita

 

In the room

A single occupancy room is kept cool just above a temperature one would feel justified to protest, as if to follow an unwritten customer satisfaction rule, although no customer can be satisfied here any more than а cow carcass hanging from the hook in a freezer in a starkly shameless display of its lack of entrails or any sign of selfhood.

Two old men are silently waiting. One of them, the young old man lying on a surgical bed with plastic tubes going in and out, as if he were a gadget, has nothing to wait for like a miscarried fetus despite his machine-driven breath and heartbeat. The old old man, meanwhile, has nothing to wait for either like a passenger whose train has arrived at the last stop, with the crew having picked up their bags and filed out of the station casually laughing and weaving a light unnecessary talk before breaking apart to return to the inside of their lives, which could neither be glimpsed nor guessed from the outside, no matter their unflinching belief to the contrary; same as our belief that if a flipped coin lands heads up, the underside is tails, and should the underside turn out anything but tails, we will be certain that something is wrong with the coin, not us.

“What is it I am missing here?” remembers he asking, “What are you trying to prove? To whom? Wanna be dead right?”

He isn't really waiting, just looking at the bed, at the monitor drawing an infinite caricature of sea waves, and at the young old man’s breast heaving, trying to fathom the feeling the sight evokes in him, pondering the uneasy lack of sadness and the paucity of his suffering. "Could it be," he hopes, "these things are in limited supply like a bank account with no overdrive protection?" He doesn't believe it. "Maybe," he tries again, "it’s because I knew it all along and need not feel anything now.” That doesn’t convince him either. There is something irreparably wrong with the way his eyes are closed, eyelids taut over the eyeballs, and the mouth is still, pried open by the plastic tubes held between his rubber-like lips. “This white and blue is obnoxious. Where else do they paint rooms half-blue half-white? Blue walls, white tubes, white ceiling… Cold and uninviting like an airport hallway or a big fish tank. Blue is the color of the sea, where people don’t live, only fish do. Fish don’t know sadness; blue cold is their home. We, too, had a home. I thought we had… Arthur must have thought otherwise, I guess… but why? He never said, impervious in his mistrust like a fish that you can never touch no matter how close your fingers come to snatching it; it goes right through your hands and into the murky water. It does not even need to see, it knows your moves by way of the water. Does a fish that grew up in a tank know it’s in captivity? Clear water, beads of clean air bubbles floating up to disappear at the surface, seaweeds suspended in serenity, polished pebbles of different size and color, a world onto itself…” The old old man isn’t sure he’s not drifting off to a dream, feeling guilty for letting himself adrift by his son’s bed, whom he does not recognize as his son but an extension of the medical equipment and of the white-blue room of the morgue temperature, although his guilt hardly has time to raise its merciless dragon head cut short by a stocky Asian man in a white gown over his blue medical garb.

The young old man is oblivious to the Asian medical man, although oblivion is a privilege revoked from his brain, whose activity, irregular with no rhyme or reason is confined to its stem like the last flicker of a fire ready to turn into a blue-white serpent of smoke emitting the dry bitter smell of finality. Only he (it?) wasn’t the young old man or a man, for that matter: brain stem holds no personhood, bereft of the brain’s memory, of its (his?) stories and characters, of the old old man, of the woman who failed and the woman who didn’t, of the many who passed, and of all their names. Can a name hold the character any more than a brain stem - personhood? He (it?) will never know, nor will it (he?) ever ask.

 

My name

is Narita. My parents gave me a plain American name that I hated, real plain like McDonald’s M. I will never tell it to you. Never. In school, we had a lot of kids from other countries, and their names were so much cooler. We had kids from Uganda, Somalia, Guatemala, Honduras, Haiti, and their names sounded as cool as did their countries. Say, Undugu, Chabrole, Kerfussy, Shanee… I just felt ashamed of my plain American name, so dull. Even Arty had it better, not too special either but still better, maybe because he’s older, and they were more excited. The first child and all… Hate it when they pronounce it American, Naeraita. Just hate it. If you can’t say it right, don’t say at all, period. Sure I could spell it Nahrittah or something, but I don’t want to. Don’t like it, don’t talk to me. Ever. There are so many haters around, it’s awful. How can people be so angry? Ibada is actually a very cool name too, and for the record, it’s Eebahdah, not Aibaeda. Ibada has a big smile.

I liked those boys. They were so much fun. They smiled… I mean our boys smiled too but it’s different. They smiled like a sunray through a crack in the wall, catching you off guard, not like our boys’ wry grins that meant god knows what. Theirs didn’t hold back, no holds barred, as they say; gay, funny, and cute. Not American cute, though. They had a different, special kind of cuteness, their heads so sleek, so smooth to touch, like beach pebbles or licorice lollipops. Not that our boys can’t be fun. Arty is but never like that. Never. He’s more spiky, all bristling; there has always been bitterness to his fun. Always. Maybe this is why. Bitterness is bad for you, toxic. It poisons you from the inside like bile or something and clogs and ruins your kidneys. Eventually. Even his movements were hard as if he were cut out of wood. Those boys moved smoothly with such grace as if their joints were all lubricated and free to turn every each way. I’m too, very limber.

 

My body

is ridiculous. I mean, it’s Ok just different, I call it special, and if you don’t like it, don’t talk to me. Ever. I don’t mean the body but calling it special. I mean, I’m not fat or anything, I just have a big butt. It’s like I was made of two mismatched people; from the waist up I am an average girl, and my face is pretty with nice hazel eyes, people say they make me pretty, but below the waist, there is a spacious full butt like a fitness ball. From the outside, it looks like an overripe pear on legs, as they draw in cartoons, if there were a cartoon about a pear, but pears don’t seem to be a cartoon material like corn, tomato, banana, chili, and stuff, and I don’t know why. What you pear haters have against them? Not that I watch cartoons anyway. But it’s Ok. I guess my mom’s and dad’s genes just didn’t mesh. Don’t blame them, not for that, anyway, how could they know what’s in their genes as in that Capital One commercial, “What’s in YOUR wallet?”

I have no complaints, though, the boys liked it. They were dying to touch it, and I let them, no harm done, which is what’s important, right? And if you don’t like it, don’t come near me. Simple. Our boys not so much, they are boring. They’re all the same, they like the skinny, the flat, and the athletic, cut out to a template, all the same, not special, no diversity, nothing. I wouldn’t mind having long legs, though, you know. The ones made for high heels like Taylor Swift or something. There’s this tall grass quality to how she is, light and limber like a reed stem in the wind and swift like a squirrel. No, really, there is something of a squirrel in her face, I think. I think she’s gorgeous!

Ibada likes her too, but I think he likes me better; I mean, he likes watching her but touching me. In fact, I think he loves my every curve. Every single one. And I like his. “Narita,” he likes saying, “your ass can move a mountain.” He don’t mean it; he just messes with me. I love his smile, full and bright like a pearl necklace on a velvet pad; you open the lid, and it instantly shines at you, laughing, making you want to laugh too. Only you need not open Ibada, he even smiles in his sleep. The night’s in full swing, and it’s so dark you can’t see if you’re even there, and only his moon sickle is glistening through like a beacon. He doesn’t snore either; his breath is clean like grass rustle. His touch makes me love my body, pear and all, and I love it even when it hurts.

 

My kidney

is missing. Ibada’s eyes grow into black saucers with wide white rims.

-No, silly. I did not lose it, I donated it.

-You mean like to a charity? -the corners of his mouth droop squeamishly, -Creepy.

-No, to Arty, you creep.

-He don’t have his?

I like Ibada’s thick voice. It isn’t coming out of his mouth like our guys’ talk but rises from deep inside all soaked in the body’s juices like the taste of deep-roasted sauce-dripping barbeque ribs. Don’t matter if he’ saying trash with no rhyme or reason, the voice makes your heart jump; I often don’t even bother stringing his words together. Yeah, this kind of voice.

-He did. He messed them up.

Our boys never want what they have only what they can’t have. At first, I thought it’s envy and looked down on them. Envy is like slavery. You’re forever a slave to others, each and every one who has something you haven’t, a slave who wants no freedom but to trade place with another slave, and I thought them pathetic. At first…

Then I saw something in Arty. Arty was loose, not pathetic. He didn’t envy, just didn’t want what he’s got. I never understood him. I never understood Ibada either, but with Ibada it’s different: I don’t bother trying. Don’t know why. Maybe I don’t want to know, or maybe I know that I’m better off not knowing; better spare me the sadness of an abject want.

-Whoa, whoa, hold right there. The man made his bed, he oughtta sleep in it. He’s got no damn business in no one else’s kidneys.

Ibada’s different, he wants everything, he’s got an appetite. I like watching him eat. He don’t peck on his food, he devours it. In a good way. I like seeing his ears move as he chews, cute like a rabbit.

-He’s my brother, silly.

-Brother, uncle, or cousin don’t matter. Did the crime, do the time. Is it what this scar above your ass is from?

I like it when he touches me all around with his lanky arms and long eager fingers, like a big gentle slithery octopus. He strokes my scar with his fingers and then runs his tongue over it, which feels empty; the scar is numb, but it ain’t his fault. He rolls over on his back with a chuckle and wide grin.

-It’s all gross.

-Why, my scar grosses you out? –I hover over his grinning face.

-No, the kidney mess. Mom once brought it home from a Mexican store. She hard-boiled it and made us eat, but I couldn’t eat no piece of it, I’d throw up all over, and she took offense. She said they’d ate it in the old country, and that was cool and all.

Sparks are playing between his eyes and teeth as if on a disco ball; he thought it funny, and it was, I knew it was, because he didn’t know what I knew. At all. He wasn’t there when we were back from the hospital, Arty and I. Recovering in the same house, eating the same food, taking the same pills, only he took many more. I didn’t feel too much pain, I felt funny, expecting to be lighter and empty in my right side missing a kidney, but I felt no difference, just felt smaller, as if I had shrunk, even my butt looked smaller to me, though I’m sure it wasn’t, but I didn’t measure, of course.

He, of course, was different. “King Arthur,” as dad would call him sometimes. With that smirk of his. Boy, do I know that smirk! No smirk, though, when he’d say it to others without Arty around. A smile, not a smirk. Definitely a smile. Arty was all different then, as we lay recovering. No more smug and bristling. I remember his eyes through the tears, deep and blue like our lakes in the country, and clear. Intense. No way you could doubt those eyes full of love. He said I gave him a life, that I did more for him than mom did, which was not much anyway, since mom… well, it’s not for nothing we never talk about her or even say her name; we don’t even know if she’s still alive, for Pete’s sake.

You can’t be angry with her, though; she’s completely far out from a different world even if right next to yours. You don’t get angry, say, with a hurricane, do you? Remember, when Harvey came, it was bad. Worse than bad, but you know what, I know of no one angry with Harvey. People were angry with the government, insurance companies, each other, and themselves but never with Harvey no matter the number of homes washed off, roads destroyed, cats, dogs, and horses missing. I can’t be angry with Ibada either, for that matter. Upset, maybe, mad at what he does, even heartbroken but never angry, not with him. Strange how it works… Or don’t.

Then, Arty was at it again. He wasn’t even addicted that much, I don’t think, it wasn’t even his thing. I know because he turned hard again with that metal gloss in his eyes and dryness in the voice. Stubborn, stubborn, stubborn. Hell-bent on rejecting what he had, even his body, which had nothing wrong with it. Nothing at all. That is before he started hacking at it, as they do at the trucks in a demo derby, one drug at a time and then all at once, not sleeping and wasting away. I didn’t even want to know. Father knew but could do nothing.

Arty just wouldn’t take yes for an answer. I don’t believe he even knew what he wanted; the only desire he’d ever learned was not to want, and if you don’t, you can have no other. I never understood how it worked with him; it’s like chasing your tail and finally catching it, like a snake swallowing itself from the tail.

-He’s done himself in again. His kidney is failing. I mean, my kidney is failing in him, and he’s dying.

-Give him another. He won’t be doing no dying, -looking at the ceiling above us with his baby smile. This is exactly what I’m talking about. You just can’t be angry with this man.

-Do you even understand what you’re saying? I have no spare no more!

-I don’t need to understand; he ain’t my bro, he’s yours.

-So he should die?

-Hey, easy there. What I gotta do with all this?

He flicks my nose with his finger, laughing. I do have a cute nose, and he likes it, I know he do. It ain’t funny, but I can’t help chuckling back. You can’t be mad at this man. As I play-choke him, it dawns on me suddenly, as if time skips a beat. I’ve just figured it out.

-I know, -I say stunned by my epiphany, -you’ll donate him a kidney. If you qualify.

He backs off a little, propped on his elbow to take a better look at me as if it weren’t me.

-But I don’t.

-How do you know?

-Cuz I ain’t crazy. I mean, not White crazy. He ain’t my brother, and if he was I wouldn’t give the motherfucker no damn kidney, not mine anyway.

-Stop it, just stop!

-Why?

-Don’t talk like this. You’re not American Black, you’re African.

His eyes grow even more round and dark as only black holes can be in the dark of the night, and I feel growing smaller and smaller as if the whole Africa is looming over me. Feeling smaller than my butt. He speaks slowly with a period after each word,

-What do you understand about Black?

 

My baby

that isn’t. Ibada’s words took the wind out of me, or maybe it was the look in his eyes, or maybe it was everything. I felt on a verge of something I could not even see, and although my breath ceased up, an uncontrollable stream of words gushed out of my mouth. Not like vomit, though, more like blood.

-Make love to me, Ibada! Please do. I like it when you use my body for pleasure when you take it hard like an ox or a boar but gently like an octopus. I like it even when it hurts and I like it soft too. Please handle and thrash my body to mine the pleasure out of its depth. Your pleasure from my depth, so we could share and drown in it. I want to conceive and carry your child in me, Ibada, -I pulled him close trying to get under as under a blanket, wanting to be all covered by him, his smooth octopus body, -I want a tiny sweet baby, your baby, Ibada.

He further backed off, rolled over, and got off the bed.

-Kids ain’t my thing, -he said flatly, looking sideways. The smile left his face as a thief the jewelry store. His face looked like an empty counter.

-You… You’re leaving, -I said without a question mark.

-No, I ain’t. I’ll come again tomorrow. Maybe-ish? –he flashed his staple smile at me.

-No, you won’t.

He shrugged. The smile was gone again without a trace like a dream you knew you had but couldn’t think what it was.

-Maybe I will or maybe I won’t, tomorrow will tell. For sure.

I sat in bed, looking at the empty square of the bedroom door, where Ibada went. I didn’t bother to close the entrance door; I didn’t care. About anything. Sitting there on my spacious butt in the center of my bed like an iceberg in a teacup. Only I was melting on the inside, feeling cold at the surface. I knew it was a turning point but didn’t know where to turn to.

My phone on the coffee table lay dark and silent. Was it how my life was to be? I reached over, pushed the start button, and the screen lit up with its stupid windows. I went on facebook, scrolling, and scrolling without a purpose until I suddenly saw the turning point. Loud and clear.

“Dad, - started I texting, -dad, I figured it all out. Finally. Please, text me back.”

I waited, but there was no reply, so I texted again.

“Dad, it’s important. I know what to do about Arty. Text me.”

No reply either.

“Dad, we have no time to waste. I decided to give Arty my other kidney.”

No reply, so I went on texting like crazy.

“Dad, I’m not crazy, I’ve thought it all through. They won’t give him a transplant because he blew the first, so he no longer qualifies, but I do. I do, dad, because I did nothing wrong. Once I give Arty my last kidney, I’ll qualify for a transplant and will be placed on the list. Do you see now? It all works out. Text me right now. You hear me, dad?”

 

Out of the room

The stocky Asian man in a white gown over his blue medical garb nods at the old old man with a half-smile. “Measured,” the man thinks, “made an eye contact long enough just to acknowledge, not a moment longer, lest nothing could be implied, no unnecessary connection built. Well done, Dr. Cai. Waiting for me to speak. Patient but not too patient. Measured like a still scales with even pans. No, Dr. Cai, you speak, and I’ll wait. For I have nothing to say, as you well know. I had a son, my king Arthur. Too late for words, Dr. Cai, too late. The room has no windows looking outside. See the irony, Dr. Cai? Apparently not.”

-The team has consulted and we believe there’s nothing else we can do for your son.

“Looking at Arthur, not me. He can’t hear you, Dr. Cai. I wish neither could I. Damn, is it cold here!”

-What now? Pulling the plug?

-That will have to be your decision.

“A ready-made quick reply. Very professional, Dr. Cai. Stands to show you knew my decision but wouldn’t help, wouldn’t relieve me of making it. Fair enough, doc, you win.”

-Damn! –the phone meowed in his pocket, announcing an incoming text and making the old old man dive in with his hand as if catching a mouse. He glanced at the screen.

“Damn, Melissa, always the wrong timing, always. A living definition of the wrong time in the wrong place. What is wrong with this girl?”

-Sorry.

-Not at all. You can take your time.

“I’ve been doing exactly that, doc, and to no avail, as you came to inform me.” The old old man dithered on the brink, tethered to it with the thin thread of an undefined feeling that was more like a rubber band stretching thinner and thinner, already beyond the snapping point but still unbroken, with that defying resistance to let go, bucking the deeply buried unspoken desire to break free of the young old man’s body that used to be Arthur, and the stronger was the desire, the more unyielding and hard grew the band.

-What would you do? –he immediately regretted his words, choking on the last syllable.

“What would Jesus do,” tried he to douse his embarrassment with his private sarcasm, unaware that it was not the words he was trying to patch over with it but the swelling below the surface of recognition - the wordless memory of the same rubber band that had fastened him to Arthur ever since the first time he had been called to the principal when Arthur, not even fifteen yet, had been caught with ecstasy, and him, sitting next to his son, facing the principal, feeling ashamed, as if he too had been caught doing something irreversibly wrong and shameful, wanting to cry out to the principal’s condescendingly concerned face, “I have nothing to do with it!” feeling unfairly wronged for doing all he could to do right by his children but unable to complete his work, his assignment that he could never turn in no matter how hard he tried; wanting the principal, whom he instantly hated for his condescending well-meaning compassion, to see these words written all over his desperate face with wide-open innocent eyes, “I have nothing to do with it,” meaning, “with him,” his son, feeling the stubborn pullback of the implacable umbilical rubber band.

-It’s a very personal decision, -said the doctor in a lowered voice, having stolen another quick glance at the old old man’s face.

The cat-phone meowed again, and he knew it was Melissa but nevertheless felt compelled to reach for it to make sure. “What’s wrong with this girl? She couldn’t walk a straight line even to a case of gold. Had she fallen from a plane, she would’ve failed to hit the ground. Made up this monkey name for herself and thinks it cool. Does she know the difference between cool and idiotic? And if she did, would it make a difference?”

-I’m sorry.

-No, it’s Ok.

“What an idiotic thing to say, doc. There is nothing Ok in this room, cold like fear, painted like a fish tank with no life left but the life-support. Is it really life being supported? What are you waiting for, Dr. Cai?”

Dr. Cai was not about to answer, and his stocky body, turned half-way between the old old and the young old men, displayed the eerie irony of the stalemate as if expressing his initial verdict, “we believe there’s nothing else we can do for your son,” with the word nothing floating through the room like a water snake, cold and effortless, on its way to eternity.

-Can I go now?

Dr. Cai, glad to be useful, opened his mouth with an instant readiness to say a premade blurb about arrangements but realized, in time, it wasn’t a question. With “can I go now” still ringing in his ears, the doctor stepped aside, clearing the path for the old old man. “This is it, Arthur,” the old old man said to himself, turning to the red word EXIT.

On the street, walking toward the parking garage, the old man wished for the walkway to never end and for time to freeze into stillness. Instead, the space was closing in on him, making the air dense and heavy to breathe, and people around were quick and agile, as if he were moving in a fish tank among a school of fish of different species. There was a middle-aged woman with a soft round face and a thick bun of brown-red hair stuck to the back of her head. She was moving unhurriedly in the same direction and at the same pace. “What if I stop her and say that I’ve just let my Arthur go?”

He didn’t, as he knew what would’ve happened; he could already see it as if it were rolling out before his eyes: the woman’s concerned face with raised eyebrows and wrinkled forehead, her hard-felt “sorry, I’m afraid there’s nothing anyone could do,” as she paused long enough to express her compassion and briefly enough lest an unnecessary bond had chance to stretch out like a weightless but sticky cobweb strand, stretch out and stick pulling them closer in. “No, don’t be afraid. Dr. Cai wasn’t, and neither, I’m afraid, was I. The only one who was, I’m afraid, was Arthur, but he would have never admitted it to himself, let alone me, least of all me…”

“Oh no, no, no, no. Not now!” he looked at his phone screen, where the word MELISSA in white letters was beckoning his attention. “Shit,” he thought before tapping the green connecting button, knowing already what he’d hear.

-Dad? Dad, it’s me. Listen, I’ve figured it all out, Ok? Don’t even drop the line, Ok? Hear me out. I’ve figured everything. Everything! Are you hearing me? Dad? Dad? It’s me, Narita!

He stepped over the curb into the bright, as if painted green, grass lining up the walkway and took a long tired look at the busy street, at the people all focused and on target even in their leisure, leaving nothing to chance, at the faceless tall flat sheets of the buildings’ walls with no trace of hope. The old man sighed and in a raspy strange voice said,

-Yeah, Melissa, I hear you.

 

 

 

 

 

Valery Krupnik’s stories have appeared in Emrys Journal, The New Renaissance, Soft Cartel, Kaliope, Wired Hearts, SLUG Fest and screenplays have received awards at the Indie Gathering festival. A long-time New Englander, Valery now lives in Southern California, getting used to its sunburning beaches, heartburning wines and tacos, and working on a story collection.