Thursday, March 5, 2015

Wasteland: End of Winter

sits on my mind like so many people
Staring out the window we watch the last of summer
 Dusk is upon us like heavy sleep
Black Sumatra coffee sitting in front of us in flimsy paper cups, and
we dip chocolate tipped almond cantuccini into the joe Taking small
bites as cars pass by just outside the plate glass window which steams
from our combined breath

On the last day of winter she dies Ravished by cancer and chemo, doctors prodding her with needles and pills and empty hope

Chapter One

This evening, before we knew, when trees were still bright green and not quite blooming mums hung in planters from the coffee shop's awning, she took a huge gulp from her coffee.

"April is a terrible month," she said.
"Everything comes up out of the dead."
"In the wintertime everything dies. And spring comes, and all those flowers bloom out of what had died. April. Terrible, terrible month." She took some more coffee. "And I know, you are going to say June is such a cliché."
"For a wedding yes," I said.
"Why not a June wedding though? We could go somewhere. Greece maybe. Just the two of us. I've never been to Greece."
But she never saw Greece because she died on the last day of winter. March 20 in 1994 or 1992 or a year like that. But I remember the day we met…


  In Velvet capes, Capitano hats, tunics, leather doublets, tabards, Locksley pants, and medieval boots, the Bowling Green chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism moved through Myles Beer and Pizza's thick cigarette smoke like history's ghosts. They carried crossbows and horsewhips, claymore swords and kestrel daggers, all make-believe like in a dream, like so many people Jack knew who were only made-up dreams too.
Myles was a stronghold against Bowling Green winters. On the cold days when the dorm room windows held in their corners the star-shaped pattern of frost, when the rooms became tiny and claustrophobic with their cinder block walls, bunk beds, and posters of half-naked women, when you couldn't stand your roommate for one other minute, you walked out into the snow. Bundled in mittens and scarves and a knit-cap hat, you made your way to Myles underneath the icicles hanging along the walls and dangling from the bare trees. Inside the pub, pizzas slid onto tables and beer spilled out into frosted mugs. Every Thursday night Jack gathered with his SCA friends and visited Myles. They called the waitresses their bar wenches. They stood on tables and quoted Tolkien. They smoked and drank and ate and allowed themselves the one night a week to forget about research papers and midterms. SCA and Myles was where Jack escaped into imagination and hid from all of his troubles—or whatever Jack thought were troubles back then.
This summer Thursday night though, when most of the college students had already gone home to parents and only a remnant of SCA kept the medieval dream alive during those quiet June-Julys, big blonde Taylor with a full scraggly beard wearing his kilt in true Scottish tradition, drained another pitcher of beer, and he yelled out to the nearest waitress, "Wench! Fill my beer."
Christine brought another pitcher, and Taylor slapped her full on the bottom. She spun around and slapped him hard across the face.
"Oh, a shrew we have," shouted Taylor and stepped onto his chair and lifted his kilt. Her dark eyes did not shy away. She smiled and said something Jack did not quite hear but made Taylor drop his kilt.
Jack stayed until close. He watched her wipe down the tables as her raven hair fell into her eyes.
"You've got to go," she said.
Jack nodded. "What's your name?"
She smiled again, but not the same smile she had given Taylor. This small smile held hope. "Christine," she said.
"I'm Jack."
"So what's the deal with you and your friends?"
"What do you mean?"
"All the medieval costumes."
Jack shrugged.
"You know, we're closed."
Jack nodded.
"Do I need to walk you home?" she asked.
Jack laughed. "You don't need to."
"Everyone else is gone," she said. "Just you and the bar manager in the back waiting to cash me out."
"I could walk you home."
"Ha! You and every other guy in here tonight wants to walk me home."
Christine was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. He imagined a perfect future life with her. Love at first sight, he thought. "It is rather dark outside," he said.
"Yes it is," she said.
"And a lonely walk in the cold."
She laughed.
"Maybe I would like you to walk me home," he said.
Instead of returning to their rooms, they went to The Galley, a fast food burger joint that made its home in Harshman Quad's basement without windows, making due with badly designed track lighting. The tables were heavy and old, thick with varnish and rich with carvings. Julie loves Chad, Chad loves Brad, Call 4-2445 for a good time. The Galley served burgers wrapped in wax paper and saturated with grease. Hand speared potatoes dipped in batter and deep-fried. Deep-fried pickles and cauliflower. Huge onion rings with lots of ranch and blue cheese. Hot dogs smothered in chili and cheese, bacon melts with slabs of tomato, fried peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, grilled cheese with bacon, fried bologna. Anything close to a salad came with something fried. Open late and good for milkshakes served in stainless steel malt cups, they shared a chocolate one with two straws, and after the milkshake, she and Jack followed three of The Galley's employees through the tunnels that connected the four different dormitory halls. The employees pushed a vat of used grease. They took the freight elevator to the shipping dock. Snow fell through the lamppost's light; the steam floated off of the grease and burned their eyes. She and Jack shivered, smoking a couple of cigarettes. When the butts were close to their lips, they threw the cigarettes into the grease and watched them sizzle out.
Jack adored Christine. Her dark midnight hair. Her love of a good, aged red wine. The way, when relaxed, her big toes curled inward. How she preferred the Berber carpet to the classical halo sofa with pillow-top back. She drove Jack crazy with how meticulous she chose the artwork for the cottage—replica pieces by British artist Solomon Joseph Solomon, depicting everyday boring events from the late eighteen hundreds, portraits of supposedly famous people who Jack did not know. The frames were imported, antique gold toned hardwood with floral detailing and solid brass museum plate etching. 
She leaned against that couch, lounging on the floor, drinking wine, reading American hard-boiled mysteries filled with gritty settings, deceit, nihilism, paranoia and unspeakable crimes. She once bought me a sable Lawton fedora that Jack wore around the cottage a lot, but never outside. She said, "You look dashing."
"I look like I escaped from one of your mysteries."
She giggled.
Her giggle was exquisite like champagne bubbles or butterflies.
 "My noir detective. My Sam Spade. My Phillip Marlowe," she said.
"Yeah, right."
Jack took off the hat and sat down beside her on the floor. I remember it was winter. The lake had iced over and dotted by fishing shacks with slender streams of smoke emerging from their aluminum stacks making marks against the full moon. She pulled the heavy fleece blanket from the couch and covered her legs. A small log crackled in the fireplace. She read. Jack watched a movie. Jack stole some of the blanket and moved closer to her. She spilled her wine on the couch. "There'll be a stain," she said. Jack shrugged. She stood. Jack noticed she wasn't wearing much.  A navy blue t-shirt with her midriff exposed. Her cut-off gray sweats showed a good amount of hip. She went to the kitchen and dropped off her wine glass. She came back and snuggled deep into the blanket and beside Jack. She opened her book and continued reading. Jack felt her breathing. He thought about those legs that walked in front of him.
They kept a bottle of infused oil on the mantle. Jack got the bottle and opened it. He lifted the blanket from her legs and poured out the strong scent of jasmine, overtones of sandalwood. One leg at a time, his thumbs ran the course from the tops of her calves to her knees. She put down her book. He moved up the thigh with the heels of his hands and glided back down to the ankle. She turned over and Jack poured oil from the hip to the ankle. From the back of her knees to the hip joint. Somewhere in that, the movie ended with the blue screen of the TV, the dying fire, and her legs.
All of that is destroyed: the boorish British paintings, the stained couch, the books, the blanket, the fedora, the antique gold frames all locked in storage somewhere.
The city is gray now. Tall buildings reach past the sky, blocking out the sun, killing the green trees, allowing the grass to go brown and rot into the earth with the rest of humanity. Few people are left who remember. Columbus once a long time ago used to be beautiful. Christine and I—Jack—used to drive the two hours into the city from our lake front cottage in mid-Octobers when the trees hit the back end of their autumn color-change—bright reds and vibrant yellows beginning to creep into dull browns. They always took their time driving. Where Highway 33 suddenly jogged east outside of Wapakoneta, she and Jack stopped. There used to be—and I don't know if it is even still there or not, probably not. Probably it has been swept away. But maybe, if we are lucky, The Orange Barn still stands. Made from large white-washed planks, the building kept inside huge refrigerated bins of oranges, and you picked out your navel or a few tangerines, and they were so cold you wanted to wear gloves when you picked one out. After you paid for the orange, the cashier handed you a small green piece of plastic. You jammed this plastic into the orange and you sucked all of its juice out of that small piece of green plastic. You could get deli fresh chipped beef too, Swiss and Mozzarella cheese made somewhere in the back, and generic old fashioned flavored sodas.
Christine and Jack stopped at the Orange Barn for lunch every mid-October on their way to the downtown Columbus city mall. They watched children frolic in the pumpkin patch. They watched men tap maples in anticipation of the winter season's syrup. They drank hot, mulled cider and discussed their future. How she wanted to open an art studio and gallery. How Jack wanted to—well, he didn't know what he wanted to do. He had a crazy idea to invent heated insoles for shoes, or blue jeans that felt like pajamas on the inside. It didn't matter. Hopes and dreams were high for Christine and Jack. Anything good was possible, and after The Orange Barn the two made their way to the mall. Christine obsessed over this mint scented foot spray The Body Shop sold. She liked the oils you could scent yourself. She pulled Jack into Victoria's Secret and pulled him into the dressing room. He would go in and come back out grinning. And whether Christine had picked out lingerie that looked good or not, he didn't care. Looking at a half-naked female body made him happy—his reward for being dragged along on those shopping trips. The Germans had a word for them—Pacheselen. After Victoria's, Christine and Jack trolled the bookstore, Old Navy, Kohl's, JCPenny's, and Maurice's. On their way out, they stopped at the Chocolatier. They savored dark demitasses, cappuccino truffles,  double chocolate raspberry truffles, Mochacinno mousse dessert chocolats.


That was all before the world went to shit. The plague came. Christine died. The aliens arrived. I met God, and demons loitered around in coffee shops and grocery stores. They sat in the back pews of churches waiting. Few people can remember the before though. Before the government broke apart the freeways and installed the high speed mono-rails you can only ride if you are properly ID'd. Before the alien ship came, hovering above our planet, promising new technologies, a cure, a rescue from our own self-destructive wars. (You see them sometimes. Glimpses of them. Talking to the mayor or a congressman. They are taller than us, and hairless with yellowish-gray skin stretched taught across their faces, never smiling because they don't have the muscles for it, and their never blinking green eyes, their lion-flat noses. They put things in our food and our soap and the air we breathe. They wear clothes like Roman Emperors, and I think, maybe, sometimes, they got some of their information about us wrong—the tiny details, like our fashion. And They—whoever They are, whoever used to be in power: the government, black-ops, the Illuminati—they track you. They do this for your own protection they say—to protect you from the aliens, to keep the public calm. You can't get out of the city. You can't escape Columbus. They keep you where you are at. The police stand on the street corners in riot gear like the Salvation Army with their little buckets. They watch you move from your Assigned Living Domicile to your assigned job duty. They watch you move back and forth from the UDFs grabbing packs of cigarettes and forty ounce malt liqueurs. They make sure you are not where you aren't supposed to be. Jack doesn't even remember the last time he tasted chocolate. Something as simple as Milky Way or a Hershey's is rationed. You need a level three ration card to get chocolate. I have a level one ration card. Cigarettes are hard enough to come by, but at least they are in walking distance. A United Dairy Farmers sits three blocks down from my ALD. At noon, the sidewalk lights pale blue and you can follow the pale blue all the way down to UDF; get yourself cigarettes and milk all in the same trip. If you have enough rations left, maybe some beef jerky. You have twenty minutes to do all of this, though the sidewalk lights turn back on at five, but then you only have ten minutes cause it's getting late and it gets darker earlier these days. Some say, the sun is going out, and what the fuck because it's bad enough the stars are already gone.)
Years before this, when Christine and Jack were married, when she was still alive, on warm comfortable evenings, she and Jack sat on their back deck of their cottage in their Adirondack chairs and watched the stars fall into the lake. No one, of course, knew that was the first sign of the end of the world. They just whispered to each other, "Beautiful."

Chapter Two

Patients are given an injection of a chemical tagged with boron-10.
This chemical binds to tumor cells. The patients are placed on a machine resembling a simple CAT scan, only it's not. Instead, the tubing is only big enough for the patients' heads, and a gun is attached to a nuclear reactor. The gun is called a beam collimator, and this shapes the neutrons shot into human tissue. As the neutrons pass through the brain, they are slowed by collisions and become low energy thermal neutrons. The LETNs react with boron-10 and form the compound boron-11, or excited boron. Boron-11 does not last long in the brain. It quickly disintegrates into lithium-7 and an alpha particle. The lithium and the alpha particle produce ionizations, or in layman's terms—tiny little explosions in the brain. The doctor assured Christine the explosions were only within five to nine micrometers, or about the size of a single human cell. If all of this does not work, if the Boron Neutron Capture Therapy totally fails, then and only then do the doctors repeat the process with uranium-235, which is almost always lethal. But if the BNCT didn't work, you are probably dead anyway, or at least soon will be. I refuse to remember Christine like that. Her head shaved; her lying down on that machine; uranium-235 shot into her brain; her whole body thin and malnourished. Jack saw the white of her bones through her skin so leathery and stretched tight across her framework. There was something dark in her eyes too. She had become the sickness.


Who goes to the doctor for a headache? You go to the store and buy aspirin or ibuprofen. In the more severe cases of a migraine, you buy potassium. Maybe you complain to someone, or try to increase or decrease the blood flow to your brain or whatever. You hang upside down, smoke a cigarette, eat, drink a cup of coffee. Some say sex takes care of a headache. Whatever it is, you do it, but you don't go to the doctor.
She looked beautiful in the early autumn. The trees had lost most of their leaves, though some pinks and reds remained. The sky whited with cold clouds. A few fallen leaves littered the pine porch overhanging the lake. You smelled the acidity in the air of the later to come rain.
Jack left Christine in bed that morning. She complained of weekly headaches, so he let her sleep. And at this point, Jack also begged her to see a doctor. Whatever doctor she saw though, never found anything wrong with her. Told her the pain was all in her head.
Jack began his morning with a cup of black coffee, a cigarette, and out on the porch watching the water lap at the shore. He sat in his favorite chair and took time with what used to be his favorite part of the day. He went into the cottage, vacuumed, dusted, did the dishes, and left for the market. He picked up fruits and vegetables and some luncheon meat for the day. This was his morning routine. When he returned home, rain came down in cool, sloppy sheets. He put the groceries down on the kitchen table, looked out the French doors to the porch, and saw Christine standing in the rain. She had her hair pulled back in a tight pony tail. She sucked on her right hand fingers, and smiled. She wore this clingy flesh peach color dress with a low, wide V-neck, her breasts almost all showing through the cloth. Her eyes were low, her eyebrows raised in mischievousness. She looked more than sexy. She looked like Eve.
Jack joined her. The rain felt cool, refreshing. Jack grasped her hand, which slipped away from him as she collapsed. "I can't get up," she whispered. "I can't feel my arms or legs." Jack carried her to the car, and drove fast to the hospital.
I was not the only one with a loved one in their arms. People straddled across waiting chairs. Some were on the floor, convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Others conscience, but limp without bodily control. One woman fought the Coke machine, slamming it with her fist and shouting, "You goddamn bitch of a whore! Move your fucking ass! You goddamn bitch of a whore!" Then she fell to the floor, clinging to the Coke machine, sobbing, "You goddamn bitch of a whore. You goddamn bitch of a whore." Nurses and doctors performed triage like in a war.


Christine finally died late March. Snow dusted the ground. Not enough to cover the browned grass, but enough to whiten the earth, to make the yard bright.
Jack went to the kitchen and made strong coffee. He drank the coffee in the briskness of the cold morning air out on the back deck. The ice on the lake had begun to melt with big left over ice chunks floating helplessly around in icy water. The sunrise, almost grayish hinted at orange on the horizon. He made breakfast for her: eggs and toast, brown sugar maple oatmeal—nothing fancy—her usual cannabis tea so she could at least keep some of the food down. He brought the food to her in bed.
She looked like an angel without wings. Her long black hair done up behind her head with a few strands dropping down across her forehead and left eye. Her mouth slightly parted. She wore her gold pendant. Her arms were crossed at her breasts. She was naked, the night before complaining of being hot. She had even opened the bedroom window and grabbed out the summertime fan. Her skin was golden—not a sickish yellow—but golden.
Jack tried to wake her. She was cool to the touch. He lay down beside her naked body, trying to warm her, but her body only grew colder. Jack turned up the heat. But the increased heat made no difference. She stayed cold, and after three hours, her body, underneath her skin, she stiffened. Like her bones moved into her skin. Her lips, when Jack kissed them, were bricks. Her breasts, when Jack caressed them, stones. Late into the evening, her back and lower sides, the backs of her thighs, her heels, her triceps had turned purplish.
Two days he laid beside her naked body. He called no one. Went nowhere. Ate nothing. Drank nothing. Kept the doors locked and shut the windows. On the third morning, someone pounded on the door. Christine had begun to soften—she started to come out of her rigor mortis, and maybe, Jack hoped, she was coming back. So he held Christine tighter.
The cottage front door cracked open. "Jack?"
Jack did not answer.
"What the hell is that smell?"
The intruder opened windows as he made his way to the bedroom. Jack whispered into Christine's ear over and over, "I love you, I love you. Come back. Please come back. I love you."
"I love you, I love you."
"Come back. Please come back."
"Neil," Jack said. "What are you doing here?"
"I think you need to get out of bed."
"She's dead."
"No. No, she's sick. That's all." Jack covered Christine’s naked body.
Neil approached the bedside. He whispered, "Where are your clothes?"
Jack pointed at the dresser.
Neil pulled out socks, underwear, jeans, a shirt. He laid the clothes beside Jack and left for a minute. He returned with shoes. He sat Jack up and dressed him, though Jack kept clawing for Christine, trying to return to her. Neil kept pulling Jack away.
Once Jack was dressed, Neil stood him up and led him out of the bedroom into the green shag carpeting of the living area. Jack stared blankly at the old blackish, grayish wood burning stove, with its big flat feet on the piece of oddly placed loose linoleum covering the carpet, where the beast sat, the handles sharp, and pointing upwards, the round smokestack poking through the ceiling, the slight red rust around its edges, the stink of wood and rolled newspapers, the smell like sulfur and brimstone. A cool March breeze whipped into the room. Jack saw into the kitchen. He saw the dishes piled in the sink—the ones he had used to make Christine breakfast three days ago. Eggs and toast, brown sugar and maple oatmeal. Nothing fancy. Her usual cannabis tea so she could at least keep some of the food down.
"Come on," Neil said. "Let's go outside."
"I had made her breakfast."
"She was sick," said Neil. "She had been sick for a very long time. It's good she's gone. She isn't in anymore pain."
"She isn't gone!" Jack screamed. "She isn't gone! She's sleeping. Just sleeping!" Jack moved quickly back toward the bedroom. Neil blocked him and held him tight. "Let me the fuck go! Let me the fuck go! Get away, get away, get away!" Jack pushed Neil.
Neil fell against the stove. He caught himself by the hand on the corner of the stove. "Fuck," he said, but somehow, managed to keep calm while Jack moved toward the bedroom. "No," Neil said, very quietly, like a whisper, like a command, like a dirge. He held out his burned hand and stopped Jack at his chest. "She's gone."
"No," Jack said. "No."


 On a hot July night, Jack laid awake in his bed. He woke from a dream of Christine when she was a girl. Five or six years old. In the nightmare, her hair was longer than when Jack had known her. She held a pair of small scissors, open and underneath her chin, poised to cut. She wore white lace around her head and shoulders. Upon her lips was a small blue butterfly. A black zipper line of staples and stitches ran across her forehead. The dress was torn and ragged. Her shoes had holes. Her hair stuck to her face. There was the smell of old, ancient blood seeping into a garden. She reached out for Jack and took his hand and asked him to play. He opened a box for toys, but the box was empty.
Christine cried. Jack tried to comfort her, but she cried louder as if she was in pain. Jack found blood on his hands. He had a headache, and looked at his feet, and they were covered in black blood. Jack lied and told Christine she would be safe with him, but she still said she was scared and she still wouldn't stop crying.
Her voice. Her adult voice in this silent dream came out of her child-body. "Something is after me," she said. "Something dark. Something evil. Something brooding."
"Where are you from?"
Christine pointed to the mirror in Jack's room. "I come from there," she said. She grabbed Jack's hand and pulled him into the mirror, back to where she had come from—her childhood house, a house Jack had been to many times and knew well.
Christine took Jack to her bedroom. She showed him her adult body lying on the cold hardwood floor. Her head leaked out onto the floor.
...and Jack screamed. He screamed and screamed and screamed but no sound came from his mouth, just more blood from his hands and feet and around his forehead, the back of his head, blood coming down like thorns had been thrust deep into his skin. And the dream seemed like hours, but Jack simply woke in his bed sweat covered, and someone knocking on his door asking him if he was alright. 
"Yeah," Jack said, his voice scratchy and strained. "I just have no voice." And he reached for his cigarettes.


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