John Mancini ~ Not Expecting a Miracle

The hos­pi­tal lob­by was all cool air and I was sweat­ing. Orderlies nipped by with bod­ies on gur­neys, nurs­es behind, sneak­ers squeaking. Everyone but me knew just where to go. I took a dou­ble-wide hall­way and did a half-dozen turns before I was back where I start­ed. This time I asked at the desk. Wrong build­ing, it turned out. Shock Trauma was across the way. 

The flu­o­res­cents in ICU hummed over the cur­tained alcoves. My sis­ter Carmen was out­side Richard’s space, wait­ing. She yanked his cur­tain and we went in. Richard was on a high bed with met­al side rails. He had tiny snowflakes on his hos­pi­tal gown. Intra­venous bot­tles and lines sur­round­ed him like dec­o­ra­tive plants. A bank of mon­i­tors flashed and beeped like sonar.

He looks like he’s going scuba div­ing,” I said.

Carmen punched me in the arm.

The doc­tor told us that there had been no internal bleed­ing. Richard had got­ten the good coma. Twen­ty-four hours ago some­one found him—face pale, lips blue—slumped over the front seat of his Cadillac, parked on a dead-end in South Baltimore. The para­medics thought he’d diedat the scene. He wasn’t dead. He was tak­ing about two breaths per minute.

There was no guar­an­tee he’d recov­er, and I hat­ed to think of him liv­ing like a bowl of oat­meal. knew Richardhe wouldn’t like that. I could pic­ture the rou­tine that would con­sume the remain­der of my days, tying Richard’s shoes, brushing his teeth, chang­ing his catheter bag. tried to appear hope­ful.

Once a week, caught the bus down­town and walked three blocks to the hos­pi­tal just so I could see Richard and sit with him and talk to him. Sometimes I fell asleep in the chair, woke up and thought I was some­where else, anoth­er time, the two of us camped out in front of the TV at our par­ents’ house, wait­ing for the sun to come up.

Carmen said we needed to do things he might remem­ber, things he used to like. I doubt­ed the hos­pi­tal staff would like it if we start­ed free­bas­ing in the extend­ed care unit, but I knew what she meant. She was car­ry­ing around med­ical mag­a­zines, study­ing up on comas, becom­ing an expert. She had advice for every­one, things they should say, things they shouldn’t. People in comas could sense their sur­round­ings, she said. It was impor­tant to acti­vate the mem­o­ry. Smells could be a trig­ger, so she had me gath­er up Richard’s colognes. Taste was anoth­er one, and he’d always liked ice tea, so she took him fresh ice tea. Richard loved his cat, so I helped Carmen smug­gle the cat down there, hid­den inside her giant purse, and watched it do its masseuse rou­tine on his chest.

When she asked me for Richard’s ex-girl­friend’s num­ber, I drew the line. Sheila was a strip­per with a crack prob­lem. She may have been with Richard the night he OD’d. Some­one had stolen his wal­let and left him with his pants around his ankles. My mon­ey was on the strip­per. But Carmen had an Irish affec­tion for lost caus­es, and the stub­born­ness to match. I found Sheila’s num­ber in a draw­er in Richard’s kitchen and gave it to her.

Carmen picked Sheila up in her mini­van and took her to the hos­pi­tal. She told her to say things only the two of them would know, to touch Richard and do what­ev­er she thought he would have wanted—so that’s what Sheila did. She asked Carmen to watch the door, climbed up on the bed, got down under the sheet and start­ed blow­ing him right there in the hos­pital room.

Nothing hap­pened, of course. You can’t give a guy in a coma a blowjob and expect a mir­a­cle. I could have told her that.

*  *  *

After that failed attempt at resus­ci­ta­tion, we called the priest. We fig­ured we ought to give Richard the last rites “just in case,so we crowd­ed into the small room with a lit­tle man who wore a black robe and vestment. He made the sign of the cross, read a few vers­es out of the Bible he car­ried under his arm. I went through the motions, blessed myself like a school­boy and mum­bled along. Some­where between The pow­er of the Holy Spirit and The infi­nite com­pas­sion Iopened my eyes and looked down at Richard’s face and saw a tear rolling down his cheek. I crouched next to the bed and watched it gath­er speed. “Look at it go,” I said. “Hot damn! The tear crest­ed the cheek­bone and stuck in the stub­ble around Richard’s lips. I could almost see my reflec­tion in it. Hold it, padre,” I said. We better not put an amen to it just yet.

Carmen ran into the hall look­ing for a sur­geon, a lab tech, a jan­i­tor—any­one wear­ing a white coat and will­ing to ver­i­fy the divine teardrop. The nurse rushed in, checked Richard’s pulse and mon­i­tors. She didn’t seem as con­vinced as to the mirac­u­lous nature of the event. “It’s nor­mal,” she said.

His eyes are sup­posed to water?”

It’s a good sign. She gave us the prac­ticed smile, dabbed Richard’s face with a cloth and left the room.

I turned to face the priest. Oh well,” I said. I guess you can’t win them all.”

He shrugged, put away his oils and walked out.

I hat­ed to tell Carmen what I real­ly thought, but the Sheila thing had been a step too far,and what was called for here was a return to real­i­ty. I think we ought to brace ourselves for the inevitable, I said.

What’s that sup­posed to mean?”

I think we’re look­ing at a Weekend at Bernie’s sit­u­a­tion.”

I wasn’t sure she caught my drift.

We should call Dr. Kevorkian,” I said. “See if he can fit us in.

I braced myself for an arm-punch, but it didn’t come. Carmen seemed to shrink in size. She flat­tened down her mouth, clamped her jaw and did an about-face, leav­ing me alone with mylit­tle broth­er.

In just about every pic­ture that had been placed next to Richard’s bed, he was grinning, kicking back on a couch or on a park bench by the pond feed­ing bread to some ducks. In a three-by-five he and my moth­er were stand­ing on the porch in front of his house. It was tak­en just after he’d closed on the prop­er­ty. Richard was puff­ing out his chest, beam­ing at the cam­era. My moth­er was looking up at him, smil­ing—the proud par­ent. I won­dered if she’d ever looked at me that way. In the fore­ground, four ducks were wad­dling across the lawn. All of those ducks were dead. Our moth­er was dead.

Richard looked like he was next in line.

In a way, I pre­ferred the mem­o­ry. I want­ed to think of him the way he had been when times were goodbefore divorce and debt and addic­tion and comas. I could still see him rid­ing his uni­cy­cle around the front yard, shirt­less, singing America the Beautifulhis long hair fly­ing in the wind, a parade of ducks fol­low­ing in his wake.

*  *  *

Carmen was still try­ing to beam mes­sages into Richard’s brain, hop­ing to kick-start some­thing. She’d made a mixtape of all of his favorite songs and once a week strapped a pair of head­phones to his head and played the tape. During Stevie Wonder’s “A Place in the Sun,there’d been anoth­er tear. It was a sign, she said. I with­held com­ment. The ter­mi­nal bore­dom was tak­ing its toll.

Richard did not emerge from his coma that week or the next week—or the one after that. It took two months for him to regain con­scious­ness, and when he did he was par­tial­ly par­a­lyzed. He’d lost the use of his legs, his fin­gers were atro­phied and he was suf­fer­ing from speech impair­ment that made him sound like a drunk­en pirate. He had astig­ma­tism and was wear­ing an eyepatch.

Richard was not fir­ing on all cylin­ders, but he had col­or in his face and was ram­bling on about the pros­ti­tute that had “giv­en him head and left him for dead. He said being stuck in acoma was like being caught in a half-dream in which you could hear every­thing and every­one around you, but you couldn’t do any­thing about it. The entire time he had want­ed to tell us that he was not dead, but he couldn’t fig­ure out how.

You could hear every­thing?” I said.

Every word, he croaked.

Why are you cry­ing?”

Am I?”

Carmen wiped his cheek with a nap­kin. “Your eye is water­ing,” she said. “It’s a good sign.”

Just like the horn play­er, he said. A snot bub­ble formed at the rim of his nos­tril.

What do you mean?”

I real­ly blew it! He made sound like he was chok­ing on his own spit. When he final­ly coughed up a laugh, it rose to a high-pitched cack­le that echoed down the hall.

What’s so fun­ny?”

He’s mak­ing a joke, I said. He’s deliri­ous.

Carmen dabbed snot from his upper lip.

Richard was going to make it. It might have even been a mir­a­cle. I don’t know. Id nev­er been very good at iden­ti­fy­ing them.

I heard every word,” he said, still gig­gling like a schoolgirl.

What did you hear?”

I heard you, Tommy.”

So let’s have it, Rip Van Winkle.

He stopped laugh­ing and looked me dead in the eyes—my two eyes, his one eye blaz­ing.“Dr. Death,” he said.

Oh. That?

Yes.”

I don’t think we’re going to need him any­more, Rich.”

You didn’t think I would make it.

Sure, I did.

But he was right. I hadn’t. I was pretty sure none of us would.

~

John Mancini has pub­lished short fic­tion in New England Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, New Flash Fiction Review, Literary Orphans, HOOT, and else­where. His sto­ry, “No Future in Oysters,” orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in New World Writing, was recent­ly select­ed for The Best Small Fictions Anthology.