In the bath before morning the man meant not to be clean but to stop shaking. Rattlesnake spine trying to stay still, parched lips, dry desert, little hope left. Diversions to find, to create focus amongst abstract terror in service of a basic human need for control. How many steps to the gallows or number of grey suits in the gallery. And of those grey suits how many with a flower tucked in the lapel. The further away in fantasy, in focus, the harsher the return. To the darkness under the hangman’s hood or the melted, ruddy mudslide of a hospital room colorway.
Hands around the worn leather collar of the bull and bring him down, easy, then. But the damned bull never tires. Been bucking the strong and fit, the smartest and the most beautiful cowboys without opinion long before the man took a ride. It would be easier to reason with if there was an opinion, revenge maybe, in the shadow of the matador’s sword. The man held out for a period, most did, riding feverish, admonished chills as they bounced him from his job, from his gym, from his home, to the hospital, then back, and for him finally, to the bath. These chills were worse, and he, worried, for they were unlike any ever experienced, and beyond the control of focus.
Inside his lungs the tide raised like panicked flooding waters in his childhood home, a Midwest tract house basement, and when it filled it hardened and expanded, freezing him from the inside and covering the mold left from before. His bath was inside a red shingled house on a small hill within coughing distance of the highway interchange. Its malignant fuzz spewed into the ears of the residents in an endless cycle of rush hours, robbing them of silence and covering the green leaves of the citrus trees with a waxy, carbon muck.
There must have been some time, he figured one evening, thumbing the smalls hairs of a Tiffany blue geranium leaf, when it was quiet. Before the lecherous discharge robbed the roses of their aroma and forced the view into a two-dimensional story board. He thought of the poet who lived down the street, he’d ask her the next time he saw her, but never did, and one evening, after getting the mail, bathed by sherbet rays melted in the bowl of the San Gabriel mountains, saw his dogs jumping and barking, throwing a tantrum inside in the big window and realized the highway kept secrets, too.
Falling bathwater drowned out the road. The sound of the rattle, the music player. He positioned his phone to restart the song when the ruddy green tub filled. A comfort routine evolved over years of treatments, through many seasons, his body deteriorating or recovering in perpetuity. And as always, he sat perched on the edge in anticipation, looking down impatiently, then in, too early, of course, struck back by the heat, then gingerly again despite its intensity, inch by inch, coaxing himself to take a little more.
His body lay heavy under the boiling water, wounds resistant to movement, born from his own stubbornness. The consequence flashed before him and he saw it for an instant, but wasn’t scared. An old thought for a young man. An old thought for an old man. He leaned back, pulled his hands up across cramped abdominals, and stretched out his charred embers of legs. Legs once cut from oak trees and sanded to perfection over hundreds of miles climbing in the hills.
A half-gone candle dripped over a brass candlestick holder. It flickered time and showed the steam off as it shirked off into the darkness of the room. The man slid down further for the heat, his body pulsating, desperate for a respite. With great strain he lifted a leg to verify his suspicion and pulled it quickly away, betrayed. Old spicket, old tub, in an old house with an old water heater.
He retreated to the back of the tub, away from the intruding, cold waters. For ten seconds he held himself, knees to chin, unable to move, to stop the invasion, his reaction, to run. But there was no escape and even less time, if he could not react then the cold would take the bath. Advance slowly across, out of the light of the flame into the shadows where he hid and take it. He would have to move to stop it. To keep the bath he had, the warmth, what remained. Aware of the toll the effort would have, he threw his weight forward and brought his arm down on the lever to cut the stream and slow the inevitable. Exhausted from the effort, he collapsed into the basin and was greeted tenderly by the remaining warmth.
When the water cut off, the highway buzz took back his peripheral consciousness. Dawn transport mania filled the bath, ricocheting between the walls, splattering the silence with engine cries and hopeless revs, desperate for a shortcut, a way through traffic and off the highway interchange. When he first moved to the red house, he tried to convince himself the calamity wasn’t there. But he couldn’t get away from it, because it was part of the house, outside on his property too. The neighbor’s fountain only seemed to make it bigger, so he decided to hear it as something else. The ocean, and lay at night trying to make it mean something. But, he could no more transpose the gnarl of a Ninja Motorcycle into a calming set of waves than he could turn incessant motor honking into the soothing lullaby of a passing gull.
With trembling hands, he reached for his phone, using both to keep it safe from the soup and tapped in vain at the passcode. Only when he wiped the screen with the linen shower curtain would the device respond. Play. Shy piano, play.
A forlorn, wordless song, accountable only to its melody, not to the listener, unlike the snarky politicians leaking from the highway windows, transmuted in the same way as the virus was. In the bath the melody probed in a whisper, itself a comfort or not, just the same. For the man, it relieved his necessitation to be rid of sadness, or sorrow, that he could live well with sorrow, of sorrow, even, and be safe and well understood in its melody.
The candle burned to a quarter and flickered to be noticed. The water clear and still, his body visible underneath. Not clouded by the remanence of a stern exfoliant scrub or the utility of a milky soap. There was no need for fancy organic cleansers, or to be clean at all. He needed to be warm, and with the water clear, even with the shadows from the candle light he could see his legs and his knees and his thighs. All looked well enough, no dates on his scars, and between his feet morning light cast a small ray through the window onto the surface and in it he found the same reflection as he had from the puddle before, the same promise of forever.
The man rolled over on his right side, the wall side, one ear below and it felt hot and sticky. For an instant he forgot his plight, or maybe he didn’t, maybe the rush was just more powerful. The blue of the reflected sky more radiant, and the promise more attractive than drowning lungs, tumors, or fevers. Bluer than his hands which clenched tight with his secret.
He had felt good and it was a brutal workout. The old kind, lauded by his friends, slinging around the steel bells in the gymnasium like crazed Viking warriors. A butterfly out of his cocoon, magnificent in his self-determination, the only concern his wings, which, after several comings and goings, became brittle and cramped at the folds when he was forced back in by the condition. Each time, the claustrophobia of the cocoon increased and tried to squeeze his wings until the orange color disappeared completely.
The man rested his cheek against the slanted old tub, allowing the water to enter his mouth as he lay. One rule, he mused, and pushed the water softly out. He had almost driven to the gymnasium that morning. It looked like one of those ten Los Angeles rain days and he had been warned by the doctor. You’ve been through it, she said, and he responded with a trick from his old bag, haven’t we all?
A one rule town, his, for those who wished to remain. A fair enough trade and he rarely argued. He choked up to cry, but caught it, a physical reaction to a glimpse of truth far away, and instead wiped the tickling sweat from his forehead and let more water in his mouth. Thoughts were coming on their own terms, and his fever rising. Didn’t mind playing in the rules most of the time, but sometimes the human in his heart got the best of the human in his mind and he got to wishing, to hoping. To imagining and making exceptions.
Control of the sensation became to ignore it, and then to admonish and ridicule its truths. For being too one-sided and wholly glib and wasteful of his remaining time in the bath. It was hard to keep still, his head rapped against the side and he could feel his nose and eyelids quivering nervously as a round of convulsions started again, bringing with it a shortness of breath and an expectation for the lungs to be cleared. But they couldn’t be cleared and he was left coaxing air around the lumpy parts. It had been a cold night in the city, coldest for those who doubted it could be, and as the water chilled, the candle burned nearly to the base.
The man was not scared when he rolled onto his back, after a time, his breathing heavy and his body a stone, present and conscious of the effort yet to come. He moved quickly, before second guessing his move, before his cells and his aching limbs could protest, and managed to hang a leg over the side of the tub. It was then he saw the steam creeping silently from the skin of his emaciated limb and for an instant he was struck through with terror. Where would he go if he left this place? He pulled the leg back to the water and the force took his shoulders together to absorb the wave of pain.
The candle flickered and he felt his eyes clog heavy with warm tears and felt a flash of regret again for a far-off thing which he, when he had control, could contest as just being human. It would be a tough trial if he got a trial at all. To defend against a capital crime, irreverence, for the thing he had done after seeing the blue sky’s reflection in the puddle.
Carefully bracing himself with a hand on each rim, he pushed his body up again, and over the side. Unable to stand, he sat, covered himself with a towel, and tried to steady. After a moment and some internal coaxing, he stood and took the towel to the parts of him which remained, those which had not melted into the bath and been sucked down the drain. He bent over and pulled on black sweatpants and sweater, then let the towel fall to the floor and as he shuffled away from the bath.
The pressurized hiss of the highway interchange met him as did the light and he moved very slowly, sliding his feet on the wooden floor to the bedroom. It was now, he wished, that he repaired the antique door, with its clear, crystal knob. It settled with the house and would not close all the way.
He thought of something to prop against it, but lacked the strength, and the door swung open. He felt the world behind him, and with it came a narrow smile, a slight upturn of lips, plastered tight on gauntly clenched jaws. Bed. Finally. Bed. He crawled to the left side, his body straightened, grabbed down for the edge of the comforter then rolled back over several times to his usual right side. Entombed in the burrito of his blankets. Immediately, there was no reprieve, from his chills, but soon, he thought, soon.
He pulled his head under and rolled off the end and it was just him in his world, the sound and lights from the room nearly gone. He lay like this, smiling, and choking. Not comfortable, not yet, it would have been impossible given his current state, as the great flu feasted upon his commodity of living, and shrugged as his body expelled every reserve for a fight for which its master already knew the outcome. And yet, he was not scared.
Perhaps he dozed for a bit, keyed into the malaise of the highway overpass. And then, he was back there, on the street, outside of the bodega where he purchased a few items to make for dinner. Items for a good day, a feeling better day. After the first block things were fine, strong under foot, infused with pride from the gym.
When the downpour started he had little time to react. A quick shiver oriented him to the danger and knew he should retreat, be sensible, try to escape the deluge. To a tree at least, or back to the store. Use his phone to call a car or wait for it to pass.
But he didn’t.
He smiled and looked above then around to the green hills and down at the puddles and saw his reflection radiant behind clear, blue sky, and before the improbable could become the impossible, he stepped out, feeling every drop a drop of freedom. How in a spring thunderstorm he could see the sun he didn’t know, and quickly forgot, as the rains cleared his thoughts.
Under the covers the smile crept up again, this time wider, restored, defiant against plastic jaws and chattering teeth. His face could have been any of his faces during any of his great victories or any of theirs. The birth of his daughter, and of kissing his sweetheart under the church bells in Prague. Hopeful prognoses, and how far he had come with the diagnosis dragging behind. In bed it was easy to see who made the rules and why he had to follow, in the rain after the gym staring at sky it wasn’t, and he was glad it wasn’t.
Drenched, he clutched his shopping bags and looked to the sky again and saw a lightning flash, then stepped again, and again, into the rainy streets, he himself the hurricane into the waiting storm. Laughing at the world, laughing out loud and crying pure, open energy, expanding the lines on a seven-note scale. From a crawl, a walk, from a walk, a run, and soon soaking and shivering he cried joyous and permanent tears as he ran back to the red house.
With his action, a violation. One rule. An asterisked reminding condition. Under the covers his smile evolved into a sob and despite the restriction in his breathing cried for his love and himself and his life. The truth of his existence and its meaning as only realized after letting go. There was a cost to freedom, of being human. For the experience, the survival, and the joy.
He had imagined the rain on his face from different hospital beds throughout the years. Imagined it helping his tears cleanse his face of the chemical residue leaking from his pores. How it buried the beeping and manic moans of the electronics wired to his body, then drained into the quarry where he learned to swim as a boy. During the last stay, a real storm put the hospital on backup power, and in the flicker of darkness while the generators kicked, he wondered what he would do if given such a chance, again.
It was only life itself he would miss and the living in it, and perhaps in this feeling he could be forgiven for his decision. And someday, after a good rain, with the street leading up to the red house shining, fragrant and crisp, after the ripples in the puddles calmed and laughter stopped, that his daughter might also see the reflection of the blue sky amongst the clouds. The man was ready. Ready and not scared, and once again looked out at the rain, once again looked down at the puddle, and once again, stepped out.
Brandon SC Brewer is a writer from Belleville, Illinois. He has won several young author awards and has his poetry and short stories published in multiple languages. His debut novel, Child Oligarch, is forthcoming.