All I Want You to Say
His voice was beautiful. Smoky and rich, with a tone like
thick antique brass. A faint trace of Czech, or perhaps
Slovak. Croatian. Serbian. She couldn't keep track of all
those fussy Eastern European nationalities and their silly
politics. But it wasn't the quality of his voice that made her
toenails ache. It was the beautiful words he chose.
Please say it.
The others used that awful phrase.
Persistent Vegetative State.
A harsh dissonance, like slamming
fists on piano keys.
Don't they know? Can't they smell
A sharp pungent odor, like Brussels
sprouts boiling in kerosene. Usually it was the initials, pee-vee-ess,
and the smell dissipated to a latent odor of warm urine at the
minor league ballpark, the restrooms sharing a plumbing wall
with the concessions stand where she worked for
four-and-a-quarter per hour between her junior and senior year
of high school. She hated baseball, and would always associate
it with the smell of pee. But when the younger voices were
there on whispery footsteps, with responses like apologies,
the older voices became cool and authoritative and said the
whole bloody schmeer, sometimes even tacking on the initials
at the end, and then she would get a double whammy.
Strike one, you bastards.
She remembered odd moments. The gum in her mouth was
peppermint. The previous customer had smelled like cherry pipe
tobacco. A lady earlier had bought pantyhose that were way too
small for the thunder thighs protruding from beneath her
housecoat. Good luck with those, she had smirked.
It was mid-morning, a slow time when
the fresh doughnuts had been whittled away and the rest of the
store was still busy stocking shelves and checking inventory.
The manager, Mr. Schwartz, had closed the other lanes for lack
of customers, then went out back for a smoke break with that
other cashier, Marcia. They were lovers, although neither
would ever admit it. He was married, and she was older than
him by a good ten years. Maybe fifteen. They would go out back
behind the loading dock two, sometimes three times a day, each
meeting lasting for a length of minutes equal to their
difference in years. Then Marcia would come back and use the
ladies restroom for a few minutes. To freshen up, as
she always put it. Freshen up? Nobody 'freshens up'
anymore, Marcia. But then again, not many people do what you
do on your knees while Schwartz is leaning back against the
dumpster among the rotting cabbages. Like Carlos discovered
when he went back to throw out an armload of expired yogurt
cartons that one time. No amount of mouthwash is going to
'freshen up' that, honey.
His voice was brittle and tense, like
pond ice with too many skaters gliding on its surface. Open
the register, bitch. She had put her hands up slightly,
feeling a little foolish, not quite sure how to respond. The
conveyer belt kept spinning, bringing her nothing but air, and
she had resisted an urge to turn it off, afraid he would think
she was reaching for some kind of alarm. He stood to her left,
at the edge of her peripheral vision, holding his arm out. At
the end of it was something metal, with a small dark hole like
a missing eye. It was a strange moment really. Not
frightening. More surreal, as if time had turned liquid. She
remembered what the assistant manager had told her if
something like this happened. Just give them what they
want. Let the police deal with it. She slowly hit the
large button to open the drawer, and it sprang open toward her
pelvis like a thousand times in the past. A gloved hand
reached across and began pulling out bills, flipping up the
spring-loaded wires holding them in place. The fingers were
erratic and dangerous, gorging on a loose collection of
twenties, tens, fives and ones. When they were finally sated
they pulled away, and the glove caught on one of the wires
sticking up from the drawer. It pulled again, only to get
stuck further, and she remembered simply staring at it. Like a
sunfish caught on a hook, wriggling, desperate and helpless.
The coins danced in their plastic compartments, and the other
wires shivered and shook in their erect positions in the air.
She reached forward to set it free. She could see the wire
protruding through the leather cuff. Hold still. Then a
soft pop next to her head, like the sound of a disengaging
She had become a houseplant. The occasional bag of saline to
keep her hydrated, with a Zolpidem drip that would ultimately
do nothing. The voices of her clan would appear periodically
and, thankfully, began to lessen. They were dull, patterned
and monosyllabic. Her brother had visited once. Her father,
twice. Her mother, however, had become a continual pox on her
degenerative house. Each visit would begin with accounts of
garage sale discoveries and new magazine recipes, then devolve
into self-pity and blame for what had happened. Blame for
taking a job in that part of town. Blame for not going
to community school and becoming better edjumacated.
Blame for ruining her chances of getting married someday, and
popping out grandbabies to fuss over. As if the genetic
disruption were somehow her own personal failure. Like
forgetting to feed the cat, or failing to bring in the drying
laundry before a rainstorm.
But what she wasn't able to tell her
momma was that if she could find the town and the road and the
prison and the cell where the person inhabiting it was doing
twenty-to-life for pulling a trigger and transforming a
beautiful, vivacious creature (prosecuting attorney words that
had never, ever been uttered in previous reference to her)
into a carrot, she would hand that man a medal. Because when
he pulled the trigger, something happened. The bullet that
seared through skin and fat, shattering her zygomatic bone
just below her left eye, nicking a sinus cavity, traveling
upwards through her brain and exiting through the right side
of her skull and scalp, taking with it cerebrospinal fluid,
blood and parts of her parietal lobe, had, in return for its
destructive ways, left behind a gift. Kind of like a superhero
bitten by a radioactive June bug, or a housewife mixing the
wrong two toilet cleansers and, before she knew it, was
shooting lightning from her navel.
The voices were back again, speaking the background gibberish
that, for the lightning scents and odors she had never
imagined before, she would suffer the minor indignities of a
dark paralysis. Their phrases were irreversible
dysfunction, cerebral hemispheres, post-comatose unawareness.
Anencephalitic state. The words carried in them smells and
fragrances, odors of far away places, locations she had never
visited, people she had never seen, and sometimes they would
speak, these people in her mind, and it would happen again,
only someplace different, and it would be like holding two
mirrors in front of each other and seeing into infinity. The
smell of an ocean never experienced, a harsh tang of salt air
and seaweed and fish. Expensive perfume on silk, masking hair
dye, menopause and the faint trace of a man's scent that was
not the wearer's husband. Fresh bread coming through an open
doorway, mixing with the fragrance of cherry blossoms and
hydrocarbons of exhaust. The menthol smell of ointment on new
skin, overlaying the lighter, fragile scents of strained sweet
potatoes and talcum. Each scene was a surprise, like speed
clicking through channels on a television, only different. I
can smell them. I can taste them. But she was waiting for
something special. He was nearby and she was listening,
focusing on him, stalking silently to pick apart and gather
his words like blueberries.
Say it. Say it.
Fresh watermelon and cotton candy,
sticky chin and fingers, on a hot July night at the county
fair. The smell of tobacco on his breath, a man's scent on a
boy's lips. The clean odor of a fresh t-shirt battling the
gasoline smell from the garage where he worked, layered with
traces of motor oil, cologne, deodorant and hair gel. Fresh
corn and butter, elephant ears, roasting meat and falafel,
kabobs and fried dough, commingling with the delirious, heady
fragrance of a thousand unwashed bodies. Intertwined fingers
pulling her toward the Matterhorn, then behind it, where
electric cables like snakes crawled on the ground and pumped
out an ozone scent as the earth pounded with each downward
thrust of the chained cars. And children screaming in rhythmic
unison somewhere far away, in sweet root beer voices.