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. I knew Richard—he 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. I tried to appear hopeful.
Once a week, I 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 good—before divorce and debt and addiction and comas. I could still see him riding his unicycle around the front yard, shirtless, singing “America the Beautiful”—his 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?”
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 a 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. I’d 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.
“I don’t think we’re going to need him anymore, Rich.”
“You didn’t think I would make it.”
“Sure, I did.”
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.