stethoscope held to chest of woman wearing hospital gown

Wandering

I’m lying on a gurney, being wheeled down a long hallway with overhead fluorescent lights, while chewing on—what I think—is a tooth. If I had to guess, then maybe a bicuspid, the ones in between the canines and molars. A nurse with short curly brown hair is holding my hand, her fingernails pressing into my skin, and I don’t mind at all. She says something that I can’t quite make out, but when she looks away, I surreptitiously spit out the tooth.

A year ago, I had all of my teeth. They weren’t perfect but my wife said she liked them. The nurse lets go of me just as the doors crash open, and a light shines down hard enough that I try to turn my head, but someone takes a hold of my neck. A doctor with a short scruffy beard leans over and says, “Just stay still, Harrison. Close your eyes.”

Years ago, I got into correspondence chess, but I gave it up when I got married. I started playing again last year, so when the doctor asks me to close my eyes, I visualize one of my games. These days, I play with prison inmates. You don’t have to worry about chess engines, or some novelty from a recently released book, and they always write back. They send endless letters that seem to go on forever and ever. It’s probably my fault because I don’t just send a move. No, I send a quick letter to be friendly, and then I try to throw in something special, a riddle. What can be shattered, sold, and fed? Or, what includes ‘i’ and ‘me’ but outlasts both? If I don’t give them the answers, they send short, angry letters, so I put them in a postscript: a soul, and time.

I reach out with my hand and someone, I think it’s the doctor, pushes it aside. He’s touching my arm, then my ribs, and someone is muttering about ‘pictures’. I flex my fingers a couple of times, grasping the empty air, before someone takes hold. Her hand—I think it’s a her—is soft, and small, with fine fingers, and fits easily inside mine. I keep holding her hand as someone else gently presses on the back of my neck, working their way down to the jugular where they stop and take my pulse.

This hospital seems nicer than the last one, where I stayed for two days after breaking my leg, sharing a room with an elderly man suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. His wife sat beside him all day, knitting a winter cap, while reminiscing about the trips they’d taken together: Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Paris, Baltimore. He had captained a competitive model airplane team, and so I (imagining reenactments of the Luftwaffe, or Japanese Zeros, taking to the air and battling US Warhawks—the ones they painted those teeth on) had to ask: Did they train for dogfighting?  Any of the ‘pilots’ get hurt in their ‘battles’? Ever crash your plane near the other team on purpose? The husband sat up, threw his hands out, and got very excited but his wife went over, cradled and eventually calmed him. She glanced at me as if I were a lost little kid, before sitting on the other side of him, making it harder to hear. I never even got their names.

As they wheel me into a room a nurse tells me, “You’ll be alright, but you’ve got four broken ribs and a lot of bruising so we’re going to keep you here overnight. Is there anyone you want us to call? To talk to?” I wish I could call her, but we haven’t spoken since the divorce, a year ago. My head aches, and I wince in pain. “Shh,” she says. “I’ll get you something to help you rest.”

A few months ago, when I was in the hospital for accidentally swallowing too many of those pain pills they give you for a bad back, there was this kid, fourteen years old, who swore his parents were trying to kill him. They seemed like a nice, albeit boring, couple as they came to visit, but he screamed bloody murder and threw a fit. He got so worked up that his IV came loose and he started dripping blood all over the floor. The nurse came and the parents left. Later, when the kid and I were alone I asked, “Hey?  Those really aren’t your parents?” He said, “No, they’re doppelgangers.” And I said, “Well, you want to come live with me?”

The woman who walks into my room tonight is older, with dark glasses, curly black hair that runs down to her shoulders. She’s carrying a clipboard, and glances first at my face, the purple blotches that run down the side, then the medical chart hanging at the end of the bed. “Harrison Gates?” she says, taking a seat beside me. “I’m Dr. Ressler.”

It hurts, but I introduce myself.

“I noticed that you’ve been in and out of the hospital several times in the past year. Five times, actually,” she says.

Really? Five?

“All relatively minor,” she says. “Although each time you stay for as long as you can.”

I hadn’t thought about that.

She opens her mouth to say something else, but I throw out my arm and put my hand up, signaling stop.

“You don’t want…  Perhaps, you want me to leave?”

I let my arm drop and turn my hand over, opening it.

She takes my hand and I close my eyes. I don’t want her to ask but I know she will.

After another minute I finally open my eyes.

“Harrison?” she says. “Where does it hurt the most?”

“Wandering” first appeared on our website on December 31, 2020. It will subsequently appear in Meridian Issue 45.

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Suzie Eckl

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Wheeler Light
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Derick Olson
Gahl Pratt-Pardes
Roberto Rodriguez-Estrada
Kate Severance

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