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Michael Hemphill

The Universal Donor


I am haunted by the spirit of Mitch Ricketts, though Mitch is still alive. He didn't save my life, but he proved that he would. I should be grateful for such a friend. But his courage has forced me to acknowledge my weakness. Mitch has proven he'd rush in and rescue me, so I can walk away when the going gets bad.

Mitch is in the Navy now, stationed in Antarctica, many miles south and many degrees colder than where I sit snug and warm. Though he's been often disciplined for drug abuse and insubordination, I feel comforted knowing Mitch is out there, still protecting me.

"He's just a radio operator," his mother reminds me when I call to check on him. "Don't get so excited," she says. My confidence isn't shaken: I'm sure the messages he relays are the most confidential, and of the highest importance.

At nights I watch the news with disgust-hundreds getting killed, thousands going hungry, millions crying for help. I think of how Mitch could have stepped in, entering the chaos and saving them all-the villains and the victims, the slayers and the slain. Yes, Mitch would have acted. I sit back and watch.

By the spring of 1985, Mitch and I had shared many adventures together. Decked out in camouflage, we stalked the high school guys after school while they huddled in a nearby wood to smoke cigarettes and talk about girls. Stealthily, we followed, watched, studied. We were to enter high school the following fall, and there were crucial things Mitch and I needed to know-both of us thirteen years old, trapped in that obscurity of notboy notman.

"Did you hear that, Michael?" Mitch would say from where we squatted low to the ground, our camouflage and face paint shielding us. "Just one more year."

Afterwards, we hiked through the woods, arriving at the interstate that stretched gray and menacing to our left and right. Loud rumblings from tractor-trailers shook us, punctuated by the shrill sounds of smaller vehicles. Scared and triumphant, we ran down an embankment, the traffic noises growing louder, to our destination, the storm sewers, which plunged beneath the interstate like thresholds to another world. When we entered them, we felt as though we'd stepped off a spaceship and into the vast silence of space, the commotion of the interstate gone.

The floors and sides were cool and moist. The ceiling was low, and I had to stoop to walk. Mitch was fine, though. With his slight frame, he could walk fully erect; but his golden-tinged hair and his pale face the color of eggshells didn't escape the spiderwebs and layers of grime clinging to the sewers' walls.

As we walked the dark passageways, we stayed silent, fearing our echoed words would muffle the sounds of attackers lying in wait. The darker it became, the closer Mitch and I moved to each other-his arm grazing mine giving me a peculiar yet comforting sensation. Every few minutes, we each spoke the other's name softly, for reassurance.

"Mitch," I said into the darkness.

"Michael."

But in the spring of 1985, we were to have one more adventure together. Both of us sang in our eighth-grade choir-the Franklin Fantastics-and we were invited to sing that spring with the Alabama Symphony when they performed Handel's Messiah. The performance was to be on a Sunday with the final dress rehearsal on Friday.

My mother let Mitch and me off early that Friday at the concert hall, and as we traipsed through the fluorescentlit corridors with their tantiled floors and smells of cigarettes and throat drops, we began to feel some excitement. These were unknown places where we had gained access: backstage, that mysterious expanse you could glimpse from the auditorium as sets were changed during The Nutcracker or Peter Pan and the curtains would part for an instant so you could see what lay behind it all, behind the ballet dancers and candystriped houses, that enormous, limitless space that seemed to open up wide. Or if, during these productions, you were lucky enough to sit in the balcony and look down into the orchestra pit where the violin bows moved in unison and the thunderous roll of the timpani could be heard and seen-and you wondered exactly how the orchestra got down there in the first place because there were no steps or ladders or ropes, nothing that led down into the pit.

Another guy in our class was also there early, Jamie, and he decided to tag along on our exploration of these places.

"You're supposed to be in the rehearsal room," said a blazerjacketed man with a gold badge. He had thick shoulders and stumpy arms, and had confronted us when we stepped from the hallway out into the vastness of backstage. Scaffolds rose like the skeletons of dinosaurs, and the backs of huge canvases hung directly behind the thick red curtain which was cracked enough to see the orchestra members seated on stage, not sunk in the pit, practicing their instruments, and the countless rows of plush seats rising higher and higher into the dimly lit hall. Disappointed, we turned and walked back through the bland corridors. We tried the door handles along the way, but all were locked except the rehearsal room door, where of course we didn't want to go. Jamie suggested we stay there since our rehearsal was fifteen minutes away.

"Wuss," said Mitch.

"We've got fifteen minutes," I said, and so the three of us continued.

Locked doors, adults all around, nowhere to go-until we came to the door marked STAIRS. I stepped forward and looked through the door's square window.

"Where does it go?" Mitch asked, slapping his fists together.

Still looking inside, I said, "Down."

"Whoa," whispered Mitch.

I grabbed the doorknob, turned, and opened the door wide enough for each of us to squeeze through one by one, our eyes glancing around us as we stepped to the stairwell landing, becoming calmer when the door clicked shut.

A single bulb burned at the bottom of the stairs. We hurried down, then through an entrance into a long hallway. Jamie flipped a switch and the hall light flickered on. A door, bright red with a silver knob, stood at the end of the hallway, ominously beautiful set against the gray cinder-block walls. Scrambling forward, we reached the door, opened it, and immediately, as if we'd entered heaven itself, waves of music, colorful and bright as light, rolled over us. It was the orchestra practicing above us. We heard them, but could not see them; the darkness that streamed out of the room was so black and complete that it made our sewers seem like rivers of polished gold.

"The orchestra pit," said Mitch.

"We should probably head back up," said Jamie, but Mitch and I sidestepped him, moving into the dark.

"I'll bet there's some stairs that'll lead back up," I said. "Let's find the light."

Mitch and I began moving through the room; he kept to the edge and I moved forward until I could no longer see him, though Jamie was clearly in view, framed in the doorway. I stuck out my hand ahead of my face to keep from smashing into anything. Somewhere above me, a trumpet was being played, its notes beckoning me forward, as if the melodic scales coming from the instrument could act as steps to lead me into the light.

I was about to turn around to tell Mitch something, when I suddenly found myself emptied, bottomless, as if I'd found that stair of music and it was carrying me up. Actually, I had fallen, though I didn't know because I couldn't see. Months later, when pictures of the area beneath the orchestra pit were shown to me (on that day, the pit had been raised and connected to the stage), I felt grateful I couldn't see when I fell, for the fall was over thirty feet, and horizontal steel girders ran three feet from the bottom of the hole. If I'd known when and where I was to hit, I probably would have resisted somehow, twisted when I should have turned, zigged when I should have zagged; but because the darkness was so dense, I simply fell, relaxed, unknowing, almost as if sinking in an airy pool of night, and the girders that could have snapped my spine, or plunged deep into an eye or my brain, or split my chest and heart like a circular saw, caught me between the hip and ribs, ripping through the fleshy part of my side.

The breath was knocked out of me, and therefore I couldn't speak when Mitch called out from the ledge high above, "Are you OK?" I lay on the hard floor, wriggling like an injured snake, listening as Mitch called out again and again, then as he scrabbled on the concrete to the lip of the pit, as he swung over into the darkness still grasping the edge, and as he let himself drop to where he hit the floor beside me with a crunch the sound of shifting gravel, and a series of thuds.

"Michael," he whispered. I heard him slide along the floor over to me. I felt him place a hand on my chest, and at that moment, my breath returned.

"My side," I said, then stopped because I felt as if a rib had pierced my lung.

I felt Mitch's hand move down my chest to my stomach, and over to my side. Then, a strange tickling sensation, as if someone had thumped a piece of my intestine.

"Woa, " I heard Mitch say. Then, "Jamie! Go get help!" I had forgotten about Jamie, who I pictured still standing in the doorway, straining to see into the dark room.

The next few minutes passed quietly, except for Mitch's shuffling steps as he dragged behind him his broken foot while he felt the sides of the pit for an exit. He circled the room, then came back and sat beside me. "Didn't know it was so deep," he said. He squeezed my arm, but I didn't react, I lay there rigid, hurt, dizzy.

Suddenly an overhead light blazed on above us-big, orange, making everything clear. We squinted at each other. I noticed how his face seemed whiter than usual, but his blond hair burned bright, and he smiled at me when he slit his eyes open, and it was then I knew we'd be all right.

Inside the ambulance, paramedics worked on me, sticking an IV into my arm, plugging the hole in my side with thick, gauzy bandages. They taped up my arm and head which were cut in spots, those minor cuts stinging much worse than the gash in my side. But the pain was dulled by a rising sense of importance I felt at the attention being devoted to me-the concerned paramedics, the dangling IV, the ambulance screaming through unseen streets.

At the hospital they lay me in an observation room. The walls and ceilings were white, the rubber mattress hard, and the sheets tucked around my legs crisp and neat. A nurse walked in and asked for a urine sample.

"Urine sample?" I asked. I shook my head. "Sorry."

"No problem," he said. He snipped on a pair of rubber gloves, unwound a long clear tube with a plastic bag attached to it, and said, "OK, start breathing hard."

Before I could ask why, he grabbed my penis. I sucked in a sharp breath, then gasped in and out as he pushed the tube in where, until that time, I never thought a tube could fit. A feeling of fire scraped through my body. After a few minutes, he told me to breath hard again, which I did, and the tube slithered out.

A doctor came in. He asked questions and applied pressure on parts of my body that weren't cut, asking me if I could feel this, and this, how about this. He examined my side. I looked down and watched as his entire hand disappeared inside of me. More intestine thumping. "You're lucky," he said, and I nodded my head. He then sewed me up, dissolvable stitches on the inside, thick meanlooking stitches reconnecting my skin.

When he finished, the nurse with the tube came back.

"Sorry, my mistake, but the doctor wanted me to leave this in you."

By the time I left that room, another tube had been stuck up one nostril, forced down my esophagus and into my stomach. As the attendant wheeled me to my room, I anticipated someone stepping on one of the tubes, yanking the whole thing out of my body along with a piece of something that belonged inside.

Mitch was already in our room, in a bed by the window, a white cast sheathing his foot and lower leg. I later found out how much tamer his experience had been. Our choir director had driven him to the hospital. Once there, a technician took xrays of his foot, found four broken bones, and got a doctor to put a cast on it. No stitches, no tubes, no dramatic stories, no permanent scars. He might as well have dropped a bowling ball on his foot. I felt a rush of triumph.

We didn't talk much that afternoon, nor that evening. Doctors and nurses swept into our room to speak with our parents-usually mine-and to change out my IV and urine bags, and give me shots for the pain.

Mitch's mother spent the night, huddled into herself in a corner chair. It was difficult to sleep with the stitches and tubes and discomfort, and I looked to Mitch to see if he fared better. His arms were tucked behind his head as he gazed out the window, his face pale and blue reflecting the streetlight. He wasn't sleeping either, his eyes wide and clear, his plastered leg stacked atop many pillows. His tears seemed to freeze to his cheeks in the cold light like drops of ice, and I wanted to say something, to reach out to him, but my arms hurt from the cuts and IV, and I didn't want to wake his mom who slept in her chair, so I stayed silent, my arms folded on my chest.

The next day, a nurse came in and took out my IV. After she swabbed my arm and put a Band-Aid on it, she said, "By the way, you're O-negative."

"Oh," I said.

"It's very rare," she replied, and I became more excited. "That means you can give blood to anyone. You could theoretically save anyone's life. They call you a universal donor."

I cut a glance at Mitch to see if he'd heard the news. When he saw me looking at him, he turned back to the window.

That night, after our parents left, and all was dark and quiet in our room except the dim whispers of nurses and shuffling clothes and tiny pulsing electronic beeps, Mitch said, "I'm glad we're all right." They'd closed the window blinds so Mitch's profiled face was a silhouette.

I lay still, not wanting to talk, feeling defensive and angry for some unexplainable reason. I forced my breath to flow deeply and rhythmically, as if I had fallen asleep, and Mitch said nothing else for the rest of the night.

In the weeks that followed at school, I walked the halls with a fresh confidence. My classmates would approach me, and ask if they could see my stitches.

"Here you go," I'd say, untucking my shirt and pulling it to my chest to reveal the fresh scarlet tissue and the coarse black stitches that resembled an older man's stubbly beard.

"Oooh," they'd exclaim. "Can we touch it?"

With an air of resigned humility, I'd nod my head. "Be careful."

While they traced the stitches with their tentative fingers-the thick threads both enticing and repulsive-I reveled in the power I had to heal them with my blood. My blood. O-negative. Ms. Crowe, our biology teacher, explained that O-negative blood lacked A and B antigens as well as the Rh protein whose presence made blood positive. Therefore, O-negative blood could be infused into anyone else's body, and no reaction would occur. I smiled at this, feeling large and pleased.

"I can save you all!" I sometimes screamed to myself.

"But would you?" asked Mitch after I explained to him my feelings.

To this, I didn't bother responding. We had drifted apart since our accident. I assumed he was jealous of my newly discovered power, as well as my scars which flushed angrily, demanding attention. Mitch had crutches for a couple of weeks; names scribbled in neon markers and colored chalk covered his cast, until it was cut away. Then he had nothing and I had all the attention, and I made sure it kept coming. I polished my story, added flares and flashes of drama.

"And then the guy grabbed hold and shoved this huge tube into me."

"There?!" the guys yelled, squeezing their legs tight.

"And imagine what that's like when you get a hardon, " I added.

"No way! No way!" And, squeezing their crotches, they hopped around in circles as if they were dancing in fire.

And when the story got around to talking about Mitch, and all that he had done, the consensus was that it was stupid for him to have jumped, he knew what he was doing. He could have landed on me. And for a finely honed finisher, I rolled my eyes and with an exasperated sigh, said, "It's a good thing he wasn't wearing cleats."

Mitch and I didn't see each other that following summer as we both prepared to go to high school. He was to attend Banks, the place we once spied on to learn our lessons. My parents were sending me to John Carroll, a Catholic high school.

I played football my freshman year, and, during our game with Banks, while standing on the sideline trying to hide from my coach behind the meatier players on the team, I looked through the mask of my helmet out across the field and to the bleachers beyond where Mitch stood with a group of guys wearing army jackets, flannel shirts, ripped jeans and harsh eyes. They moved with recklessness, and shoved each other with mock aggression. Mitch's hair was wild, and his white complexion had hardened to gray.

Later in the winter, as I played basketball with Todd, my next-door neighbor two years older than I, who also went to Banks, I suddenly asked him how Mitch was doing. Todd turned away and laughed, drove with the ball and slammed it through the goal.

"Mitch?" he yelled, dribbling back toward me. "You mean . . ." and he put his thumb and forefinger to his lips and sucked in a long, hard breath, "that Mitch?"

Mitch and I saw little of each other over the next two years. The gas station one time, our short conversation consisting of timid suggestions and curious stares. Another time at a party where he'd disappear into different rooms, then emerge, glaring at me until I turned away. Once our junior years, as my girlfriend and I sat in a movie theater, I saw Mitch and another guy enter, stumble down the aisle and sit two rows ahead of us. Feet propped up high, they talked during the movie, cussing big and loud, and I noticed how Mitch's voice had grown deep, and part of me wanted to tell them to shut up, and the other part wanted to join them; but I did nothing except reach for my girlfriend's hand, and slump further into my seat.

After that, I didn't see Mitch again until we were about to graduate from high school. By this time, I'd turned seventeen, and donated my blood at the Red Cross. "Yep, O-negative," I told the technician while she unwrapped my sterile bag and needle. "That's nice," she said, and stabbed the needle into the crook of my arm where the IV had once been. Gushing blood, squeeze on this, don't sit up too quickly, you sat up too quickly, you fainted but you'll be OK, here's some orange juice, thanks for your contribution, good-bye. And I was finished.

The evening of graduation, while my parents prepared dinner and I set the table, the doorbell rang. Outside, the air was still, and a gigantic silence hovered over the yard. Twilight hung heavy and dark, and was about to scatter into night; but I could still recognize Mitch, standing on the back of the porch, wearing a plaid shortsleeve shirt and jeans. I'd heard his graduation ceremony was tonight as well.

"Mitch!" I said, feeling strangely excited and nostalgic. I wanted to hug him, congratulate him, me, us on all we had accomplished.

Mitch cleared his throat, flicked a dark glance at me, stuck out his hand. I shook it; his knuckles felt like rocks. "Congratulations," he said. "I hear you're going to college."

I breathed deeply, concentrated on hardening my face, squinting my eyes. "Thanks," I said. "And you?"

He shoved his trembling hands into his pockets. His hair was longer than ever; it waved in the breeze like fire. "Navy," he said. "Leaving in two weeks."

I nodded my head in an approving way. "Good."

We stood looking all around each other for a few seconds. Behind me, I heard my parents talking, and in the distance beyond my house, the erratic buzz of interstate traffic.

Mitch backed down a step. "Just wanted to come by and say hey."

"Thanks," I said.

"Gotta go. Graduation, you know."

"Yeah, I know."

He turned and began walking down the sidewalk, then swung back around, still not looking at me but at the monkey grass, green and shorn, lining the narrow walk. He didn't say anything.

I drifted down the brick steps and stood before him. The sky's gray was almost gone, but our faces reflected the light from my home. This was the first time I'd looked into Mitch's eyes for many years. Way down, I saw us once again on some adventure, scouring the woods, the sewers, the interior of a concert hall, searching for something grander than what was actually there.

"Mitch!" I wanted to yell down into the deepdark of his eyes. But there was no answer coming back, and I was too afraid to jump.

Copyright 1995 Blip Magazine Archive

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