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Richard K. Weems

Steinberg & Whitman

Steinberg one day felt a need for fruit.

"The need!" he called out to Whitman. "The need this time is for fruit!"

Whitman was busy in thought. Thought tussled with Whitman with little mercy. Thought had the upper hand and was revealing nothing to Whitman. Thought gave no yield.

So Steinberg cackled on from his permanent seat. His body not quite a prison, more like a sealed casque coming to his neck. Steinberg turned his head this way and that in hopes of finding something new in his sight (all these years and still his condition agreed with him like an abusive lover). "Fruit! The fruit!" he called, as though bananas and nectarines and spiny pear bobbed in delicious yet teasing proximity.

Whitman twiddled his thumbs, first in a forward motion like a wheel making progress. Then in reverse. Neither method gave up to him the secret of making time pass. Whistle Dvorak? Not a chance, not a chance, no profit in that—music was too precious and unique a thing to be called up that simply.

Steinberg turned one way, turned the other. Steinberg was down to two dimensions—left and right, left and right, left and right. Long ago he gave up on up. Down, even worse. Ribs a memory, hip a memory, metatarsus long forgotten. Back and forth at least offered him the mundane, the sights he had seen in such plethora before. They let him know he was still there to see them, and this allowed him something like comfort, a warm reminder that he still knew what he knew, no farther.

Whitman considered pottery, Play-Do, any kind of layman’s sculpture. He could feel the need to have something cool, maybe even wet or at least damp occupying the valleys between his fingers.

Steinberg felt his body release into the apparatus attached to him for just such a purpose. Release was not quite the right word for it—his body did hot hold, so in no holding there was no releasing. What built up in him eased its way through via natural process: gravity and other laws of space (the way a cup runneth over, etc.).

Steinberg’s release resembled more a neglected drip, a bad case of dripping discharge, gonorrhea gone very bad.

Whitman looked at the rafters and studied their rigidity, their tensile strength. What joy, he thought, to swing from those beams in any capacity, in joy or mortal embrace! Either offered so much distraction, so much avoidance from his present situation!

Steinberg wished so that Whitman would take his hand, despite the lack of feeling, or for a friendly slap on the knee, or a look his way. Steinberg forced his concentration and began a tremble in his useless husk of a body, a vibration perceptible only to him, he feared.

Whitman closed his eyes tight and crossed his arms. It was the best way to hold the music when it came to him like this. Like a dream, he could remember the time when it shuddered in his head over again, this Beethoven, this "Ode to Joy." Such a simple melody. He knew not from where it came, but it gave him something he could focus on, if for a moment, outside himself.

Richard K. Weems most recently appeared in Eclipse and Alkali Flats.  He will be teaching once again at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway in Cape May, New Jersey.

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