Vegetables make the best patients. No complaints but they still shell out the dough. But what of the visitor? With little else to do but sit and worry about the bacteria permeating the room's air like a noxious gas, minute traces of saliva microbe-packed with meningitis syphilis flu Hep B strep mono polio wafting down the linoleum hallway and in through the door eddying into the blood. Visitor, take control of your concern. You need to say If these people can struggle through it, then I can, when I get there, too. Think about what you had for lunch. Think about movie stars. Think about the difference between life, half-life, mid-life, still-life, death. Underneath you're panicking, but then you're arranging re-arranging vase sheets tray wires dehydrated magazines. Take your time. Tuck each pearl-swirled button neatly into its corresponding slit. It requires some coherence to get these things just right. Some in-touchness with mechanics, the way things like pant legs, zippers and buttons work. This is your moment. This is where you come in.
Nurse Patricia came for the Great Turn-Over and as usual William lifted too quickly, expecting more weight. The texture of Francis boneless muscleless, eely always gave him the creeps. The way Francis' velvety bicep collapsed in his hand. Here's a trick. Make lists. Air Supply songs. All Out of Love, Lost in Love, Making Love Out of Nothing At All. They all have Love in the title. Watch it Nurse Patricia said. Nice and easy.
Francis' feet slipped out from the sheet not much to look at chafed and corned, capped with shriveled and yellow-nailed toes. Every day now he seemed a bit more skeletal and soft-jawed. Hands spotted like the body of a lizard. He will get thinner and thinner Nurse Lulu had said. But she didn't say how aggressively thin. Neck piped in blue. Legs the width of fence pickets. Make lists: brother, some of a brother, faintest ghost of a brother.
Here's a joke Francis used to tell: What do you call it when an old man masturbates? Miracle Whip. Who's unluckier? The one who doesn't get to be an old man or the one who does? Old age exiles you you know. The way you shrink back into your skin, repulsive to other people still blooming in theirs. Francis had a point. No one, flush in the core of life, wants to be reminded.
Nurse Patricia tucked the sheet tight around Francis' hips. She's thinking what the lawyers think. Maybe the wife is right.
Out loud they say There is no right in a situation like this. They are trained for these things.
Nurse Patricia said That's all for today and maybe an hour passed and then William was watching Mara from the window gathering handfuls of skirt cloth, skipping over the muddy rush of rainwater that hurried through the dead grass furrows, crushing the last of the yellow glacier lilies—already defeated anyway, drenched and bowed, their wispy petals curled like wrapping paper scraps—under her hard leathered feet. Heels and hose in the rain, how silly. Whisking drops from her skirt on to the cement, tossing her rain-speckled blazer over the weary armchair, scraping the black leaf muck from her shoes against the metal edge of the bed frame, dismissing him with a waddle of her fingers (You can go now), lifting the shades all the way up Francis' gauzy skin in the sunlight as if he were cocooned, squeezing onto the narrow sheet space—spotted gray but with what?—grabbing the remote the click of cheap plastic moving parts the buttons faded from the string of sweating fingers that came before. Remember another Air Supply hit: The One That You Love. What is it with those guys? Francis' breath hanging in slow beats.
When the lawyer calls he loves to say Your sister-in-law's lawyer is driving me nuts. I just wanted you to know, in case you think you're overpaying me. He puts William on speaker phone so that his voice sounds tinny and compressed. Between sentences, a rich pocket of dead air. Was he still there? Maybe we should just disconnect him then William always says. Then, if all goes according to plan, the lawyer laughs and says I'll send the papers right over.
Hard to tell what his lawyer, who he'd only met in person once before hiring, thought about this whole situation between him and Mara, because lawyers kept their distance and never said what they thought, which, if you think about it, is really the way to go.
What happened was that one day Francis was lying there as usual little bits of memories floating in there like glitter in a snow globe and William was sitting in the corner armchair doing work—Lowercase prepositions. Baby Starved to Death by Cult not Baby Starved To Death By Cult. Add space. … stuffed his body in a suitcase and hid it in the guest#house of their Orange County home.—and Mara was sitting by Francis' pillow and then she looked up at William and said Did you hear that?
No William said What?
Nothing Mara said I guess. But she was still looking at Francis' mouth. Waiting.
He's just playing a trick on us William said.
What? Mara said. What do you mean? Her cheeks were almost see-through in the fluorescent light and William knew his were too and all he could think was that he and Mara were seeing each other in a new light which was a pun except that it wasn't funny and he just couldn't stop thinking it it kept rolling around and around in his head like a marble.
He looked at Francis and said Go ahead and tell her Fran. The jig is up.
Mara stared at Francis for a long time and then when she looked back at William she said Why would you say something like that? Why do you always say shitty shitty shit like that?
Why do you always say shitty lame shit like Did you hear that? William said. No William said. I didn't hear that.
I didn't sign up for this shit Mara said.
What's that got to do with it? William said. Signing up for it? Nobody signs up for this shit.
It's true. No one would ever sign up for that shit.
You see what I'm saying William said.
I don't care about that whole story the lawyer said. The law is on your side that's all I need to know.
The law is a formidable ally the lawyer said.
Man Convicted of Killing Kids Found in Freezer sounds like the man was found in the freezer. Change it to Man Convicted of Killing Kids, Hiding Bodies in Freezer.
Nurse Karen said Are we expecting Mrs. Skye today?
Not today William said.
He's been asking for her all morning William whispered.
I see Nurse Karen said leaning into Francis. GOOD MORNING MR. SKYE.
Ha ha. Francis is Mr. Skye.
Here is MR. FRANCIS SKYE's m.o. for stealing, fully-formed and honed by age 15: First, grab whatever it is you're hot for candy bars or watergun or vampire teeth or whatever then make your way over to the greeting cards section turn away from the drugstore's slanted overhead mirrors casually nestle your whole body against the pastel cards pretend to read one with left hand while the right hand slides treasure in coat pocket. The security guard wears gray to distinguish him from a real policeman but still he has a loaded belt around his hips and they always suspect kids don't they? and he sits in a metal folding chair by the doorway, right by the doorway where you have to walk, right where his leg crosses, right where he could say Stop right there and that would be it. But you know, the guard always has his chin to his chest his head rising and falling in a slow rhythm no fail and you can easily slip past him if you're quiet enough and once you do, book through the parking lot through the pedestrian- skateboard- stroller-crowded city streets through the beetle-heavy vacant lots packed with clumps of dandelions that leave their palm-tree-shaped florets clinging to your pant legs through the hot-scented alley behind the house up the stairs and into the bathroom before any parental interception takes place. Remember when William took that lipstick too? Actually went to the cosmetics section and got one? Picked a color and everything. So mysterious the way it cycled up and down that invisible chamber. The cool slime of it against his lips. Then Francis ruined it sticking his head through the door laughing and laughing Now I get it Now I get it Now I get it all the way down the stairs and into dinner and into bedtime. Now I get it.
Mara's lawyer said Are we ready now?
If you play War with Francis, beware. You might be sitting there face to face with empty Coke cans turned upside down supposed to be nuclear bomb buttons and you'll be talking it through, who owns what territory and who will withdraw their troops and Francis, who has seen Dr. Strangelove like 700 times, will be wearing his eye patch and stroking his upper lip and then, without warning, will press down on his can, pushing his whole weight until it squashes into a warped taco of aluminum and when you try to argue with it Francis will roll on his back laughing and all he'll say is Too late the world is all gone. And he might even call you a sucker, which for some reason hurts more than other, seemingly worse names like cocklicker or Twinkie.
Mara's lawyer slid a slim stack of documents across the table. This is what we propose your Honor.
William pondered the top page. Went over back over the most current diagnoses and/or prognosis. Wondered whether it should be prognoses instead. Weren't there, in fact, multiple forecasts as to Francis' fate, or was there just a single prognosis? Maybe everyone but him knew exactly what was going to happen.
Mara's lawyer explained We think it's a fair compromise.
William thought If there's a compromise between life and death Francis is already in it.
William's lawyer whispered Shit are you going to cry?
Mara said Do you see what I mean?
William's lawyer whispered It's okay if you do. It might be good for us.
William thought Maybe it should be prognosis because, after all, it really was a binary hypothesis. 0 or 1. Either Francis wakes or he doesn't. And everyone seemed to be pretty sure. Almost two years? Good God. No need to be greedy. Other people needed the bed to wait out their own fates. But it should really stay diagnoses, because they didn't appear to have ever figured out the origin of it for certain, which is to say, they seemed to know where it was going even if they didn't know where it began.
The judge said Hello Mr. Skye do you have anything to add?
William thought Of course they know where it's going. Where else? Francis = .5. Growing paler, becoming something impalpable. Too late. He had that right. What about the cockroaches? They'll still be here. It's common knowledge that roaches are predicted to survive nuclear armageddon. Yeah, but they'll go to war too Francis said. Eventually. Some roaches will be rich and powerful and mighty and some will be weak and succumb. Even after all that survival.
William said I don't know. I need to talk to Francis about it.
Mara said Is that supposed to be funny?
Mara said Do you see what I mean?
William's lawyer said Thank you, your Honor we'll look these over immediately.
Afterwards, William took the bus home and the stone-faced driver looked straight ahead as William put his mealy dollar in the slot and when William went to sit down the bus driver said It's one twenty-five. William felt around for a quarter but he knew there wasn't one and his chest sort of seized in terror the bus staring in harmony housekeepers with their hair pulled back in ponytails grocery sacks balanced between their feet.
The driver said It's not a charity bus.
William said Yeah I know.
A man in a suit stepped forward there was a cord dangling from his ear and he dropped a quarter in the coin slot and said There you go Can we get going now?
Yes William said Thank you.
Mara used to wear nailpolish and lipstick and all that stuff but now she always had dried crud on her clothes and her face was as worn as a bottom step. Isn't that what happens when you're not paying attention? A cheek droops. An eye sags. You know, even when Francis met her she was already a pretty dull stick.
At home William listened to the thin silence that always hung around now that he'd given away his TV. Giving up your TV sounds like a good idea it is NOT a good idea. Please, I beg of you, don't even think about it.
William went to see Francis in the hospital. Right when the sky shifted blues. Watercolor drying into paper clouds edged with young light. Set the legal documents on Francis' chest squeezed onto the sheet. Vase sheets tray wires. It was early-early. Only the pat taps of soft-shoed nurses sailing by the open door. William ran his hand along Francis' two-day stubble.
You're not getting enough sun he said.
I worry about my job.
I worry the violence is making its way into my heart.
I worry about everything.
Look at you with your no worries.
Did I ever tell you about the time, Francis said, when David Fischer and Ben Berger convinced me to hitchhike? We'd snuck out of Ben's window where we were all sleeping over to go hang out on the top of the old May Company— you know, where the older kids used to hang out and get drunk. Well, anyway, the buses had stopped running and we didn't have enough money for a taxi and we had to get back to Ben's house, so David started walking along Wilshire Boulevard with his thumb out and I was scared shitless and kept saying it was a bad idea, but we really had no other way home and then this station wagon came along and this adult guy was driving and there was a Big Wheel and some other toys in the back so Ben and David were like, C'mon, this guy's a dad, it's totally safe. The guy did look like someone's dad. He had glasses and a bald spot and he even said something really fatherly like, It's not safe for you kids to be hitchhiking out here at night. Then Ben and David, those assholes, got in the back seat and the guy pushed open the passenger door and told me to get in. So here I was in the front seat and the guy was driving like twenty miles an hour and he kept talking about his two little kids and asking us where we went to school, so I was starting to calm down and I even asked him questions back about his kids and how old they were and stuff. When we got to Ben's house, Ben and David got out of the back seat and I was just taking off my seat belt when the guy grabbed both of my wrists in his right hand and pressed on the gas pedal and we went speeding off. I mean, I was out of my head thinking about what this guy would do to me. I was trying to open the door but he was holding both of my wrists and then he just started yelling FUCK FUCK really loud over and over. FUCK FUCK FUCK and then he started crying. I mean tears and tears falling down this guy's face. And he was freaking speeding through the neighborhood now, doing like 80. And I kept thinking about how I was going to end up on a milk carton and how Mom and Dad would cry and never give up looking for me and how every few years the police department would put fliers out showing how I would look five or ten years older—you know, the age-progression sketches. And I think I thought about you too, how you'd be confused by the whole thing. I was about thirteen, so you were around eight, and I kept thinking, I wonder if they'll look alike—older William and the age-progression sketches of me. You know, because everyone said you were a spitting image of me. Except not as handsome. And then, suddenly, the guy just slammed on the brakes and let go of me. I froze for a second, I wasn't sure if I should jump out of the car or if that for some reason was the wrong thing to do. And then he just looked at me and said, You'll know what I mean someday. I had no fucking idea what this guy was talking about, but I just opened the door and fell out and then got back up and started running as fast as I could. I was only about ten blocks from Ben's house, and those guys were still outside they were freaking out, they were just about to wake up Ben's parents. So we snuck back inside and went to bed and I was even laughing about it finally, but later I couldn't sleep. Stayed up all night just trying to figure out what the guy meant. Like, had he said something during the car ride that I had missed or was he just crazy or what? And then that night I decided: I would never be as old as that guy. I never wanted to know what he thought I'd know. Problem was, as I got older, I couldn't quite figure out how old that guy was. He'd seemed so old then, but when I hit my thirties I thought he could have been in his thirties for all I know, or even his late-twenties. But I kept waiting, year after year thinking, Well, it's possible he was older than this. But I knew at some point I'd have to admit I was older than that guy was then and I always wondered, when that time comes, will I know?
Oh, you're still here Nurse Lulu said smiling and pressing some buttons on the monitor.
William frowned at her. And then what? he asked Francis.
Excuse me? Nurse Lulu said.
Nothing. William watched her jot some notes down on her clipboard. He's just a lousy storyteller that's all.
Nurse Lulu looked at Francis.
Let me know if he gives you any trouble William said.
She paused in the doorway. Of course sir.
Francis would have liked her wide ass. He always said he liked women who knew how to occupy space. William rotated the legal documents and slipped a pen out of his shirt pocket. So then. If I have an incurable terminal illness or injury and even though death is not imminent I am in the final stage of that terminal condition—Does that make sense? Doesn't final stage imply that death is imminent?
Listen, Francis said. Listen. There was an old man lying on his deathbed, and his children were gathered around him and suddenly he opened his eyes and he said, ‘Mmm. I smell your mother's famous apple pie. Go tell your mother, all I want before I die is one last piece of that delicious pie, and then I know I'll go to heaven.' So one of the man's sons went down to the kitchen to get a piece of pie but he came back up a minute later empty-handed. ‘Where is my piece of delicious apple pie?' the man asked. ‘I'm sorry, Dad,' the son said. ‘She says it's for the funeral.'
William slipped his fingers inside of Francis' large limp hand. Francis was getting older. Anyway. Bum deal. Tuck the pen back in your pocket the pain like a still lake in your chest. Make lists. Date, time, location, guests. Francis that was a lousy joke, considering the circumstances.
Hates the newspaper but gets it anyway because it's free when you work there. Even without looking knows what's in there tornados, floods, bankruptcy, abused wives handcuffed to bedposts, foster children in cages, men so angry at their wives or parents or employers that they shoot up shopping malls and grocery stores, peppering complete strangers with bullet holes just to appease the rage. Why do they think that will work does it work does it really feel like you're killing the person you hate? Do you imagine the person you hate's face superimposed on the stranger's face? Afterward, do you feel as if that person you hate has actually died or is that, in the end, too great a trick to be played on oneself? Is that a tragedy for you or only, still, for others? There on the front page folded down but still knows it's there two 12-year-old boys who've beaten a toddler to death with baseball bats. A black and white picture of the child's goofy face his jack o'lantern teeth and tiny curls. Throws the paper on the table face side up child sex trafficking in the basement of an Orange County home spreads his proof sheets out on the table the rain coming in slow splats through the air conditioning vent in the ceiling into the large stainless steel spaghetti pot with a steady tinny rhythm. Flicks a red caret in between councilman and Tuesday. Students may be relocated to other local schools while the investigation is completed, the councilman said Tuesday. Suggests schools in the area instead. Or does that mess with the rhythm? Dashes in ages before a noun. Carlos, a five-year-old boy from Torrance, suffers from asthma and chronic chest pain. Wait. Always use figures for ages. Carlos, a 5-year-old boy from Torrance, suffers from asthma and chronic chest pain. The sun moves stains the room with wan light just the same as it did yesterday. Busing has one s. Swipes a curlicue through the second one. It doesn't look right with one s. It looks like boo-sing that way. Pricks his finger with the marker the red dot expands like a tiny exploding planet. Francis dropped to the carpet with a thud, a felled tree. Was listening to voicemail leaning against the arm of the sofa and—jesus—Francis really wasn't moving. Not even a twitch. Changes The Devil's Playground headline to Fourth Child Goes Missing From Roxbury Elementary. It isn't good to be too clever with missing kid stories. Readers complain. Longtime is one word when it's an adjective. Castillo, the school's longtime principal, says all members of the school's staff have been questioned and eliminated as suspects. Police are now searching for Arnold Goldman, a convicted rapist who lives with his mother in a nearby apartment building. On second thought, deletes longtime. There are a hundred Arnold Goldmans on the internet. One is the chairman of an energy company and one is an orthopedic surgeon. Another Arnold Goldman has written a handbook on how to make monster masks. An Arnold Goldman wrote this sentence, which is reproduced on the web: Amos Tutuola is being like these French songstresses who sing in this land for decades of years but whose English speaking is still being broken as much after all the time passing as when coming off the boat at first. — and which is beautiful. Imagine this woman whose English speaking is still being broken. This is exactly what is happening to words. No one can bear to read the newspapers anymore. No one has the heart for the truth. The truth sucks. The truth is, women are robbing banks for diapers. Lawyers are murdering their families and then themselves. Illegal immigrants are dragging their children across the border like sacks of potatoes. Teenagers are injecting horse tranquilizers and posting videos of their orgies on YouTube. The economy will collapse, and you will contract a flesh-eating virus that devours your extremities from the inside out. Your child will be playing ball one second then the next whizzing down the highway with a bible-quoting nut that's been incarcerated twice before for unidentified crimes against minors. Over three hundred people will call in and claim they've seen her and they'll be scattered all over the country so your map will be covered with colored tacks. Another fifty will call in claiming to be the abductor. Your mother who you placed in a nursing home after agonizing debate will be raped and beaten at the hands of two drunk teenagers who work there and who record it all on their cell phone cameras. You've been eating pumpkin seeds because you heard they were good for you but now they're finding that pumpkin seeds may harbor traces of a carcinogen that may or may not increase your chances of getting liver cancer. A boy at your neighborhood junior high was found to have a stash of guns and artillery in his bedroom closet along with a blueprint of the school he downloaded off the internet and a list of teachers he hates. One of them is sleeping with him. You will lose your house, your job, your savings, your left hand, your child, your liver, your sex drive, your right to privacy, your right to shop in a mall, your right to walk alone, your right to say cocksucker, your right to fresh air, your right to look at the sunset, your right to watch football, your right to be naked, your right to post political signs, your right to a mountain view, your right to be alone, your right to opine, to dance, to cruise, to vote, to worship, to ache. You will lose your 46-year-old brother to what the doctors guess is a freakishly rare celiac artery aneurysm and then you will have to brush his hair and shave his beard and hire a lawyer to help you fight against his wife for his right to lay in a bed and do nothing but breathe. This will make you the bad guy. Keeps looking. An Arnold Goldman patented a high density bioreactor system, and another writes about business law. Neither of these seems right. Here's an Arnold Goldman who lives with his wife, Dorothy, in Sussex, and whose online diary entries include detailed grocery lists and updates on Dorothy's battle with vertigo. His score for the U.S. election is Relief 1, Fear 0. Ha ha. Maybe there should be colons there. Relief: 1, Fear: 0. The internet is young. It does not contain old people unless they put themselves there. It does contain everyone under 40, whether they like it or not. William Skye has just squeaked by. Like Goldman, there are only his namesakes on the web. There is William Skye, electronica musician, and William Skye, New Jersey lawyer, and another William Skye whose blog consists of one single entry: #1. Sending this forward in time. What the hell does that mean? No record of William Skye—copyeditor, brother of vegetable—except buried in the paper's masthead. No Francis Skye on the whole worldwide web, except as a footnote in a book written in 1907. Just like Francis to live under the radar off the map outside of the network. All except for his body, serviced by a string of power lines that droops from pole to pole to pole to pole to some distant generating station outside city limits. Electricity running back and forth through Francis on its way to and from the powering up of space heaters, desk lamps, personal computers, hairdryers, Nintendo gaming systems, cell phone chargers, Christmas lights, stereo equipment, all-in-one laser printers that can also fax and scan. Francis, plugged in like an appliance, breathing just enough so you know he's still running. Days pass at cloud-speed lazily drifting by the rain falling and falling the tree trunks papered with wet leaves—pumpkin- and egg yolk-colored—pasted flat, branches sweeping like hair against the sidewalk birds cowered in the hollows of roof eaves hopping out once in a while to sputter their bodies and flick their heads. Drags his red pen to the drone of distant highway traffic not distant enough his eyes weaving over the paper pausing on a sentence and then racing over back over it held a hot iron to the boy's arm back over it. Allen calls and asks what's wrong why are there so many errors in yesterday's paper come to think of it the whole week's? Why did the name of the teenager-fucking city attorney have two rs and why didn't he catch that the bank robbery was in Alhambra, not La Habra? You know he says people write in about shit like that. Makes himself TV dinners. Spongy tomato-swamped beef. Peas trapped in square lakes of ice. Watches the swollen-mouthed gray squirrels with their soaked fur scurry across the lawn and disappear underneath the house where they get lost, lost in the tunnels of beams nosing around the dirt and the glassy pink shards of insulation. Hard to recall Francis' features quite right whether his eyes are this or that close together or even what color so long since they've been open. More proofs up on the FTP site. Woman Fakes Daughter's Cancer in Charity Con. Christ on a stick, what do you think of that? No quick fixes there. She shaved her own daughter's head and gave her sleeping pills so she'd think she was sick. Can you believe it? Changes counciling to counseling. –even put her in counseling to prepare for death. Try this: Woman Takes Daughter to Cancer Charity Concert. How is it the whole world isn't in complete despair? The days on top of each other on top of each other on top. Mother Kills Four Children, Self. Inserts a Her between Kills and Four or else it could have been anyone's children. But it wasn't. Even the cockroaches will go to war. Some people kill children and some people steal them. It's like they say: One man's trash is another man's treasure. Fuck it changes Kills to Kisses. Ha! That's a sweet one. Mother Kisses Her Four Children? Do you know Francis said that I can't really remember Mom and Dad. I mean, of course I remember them, but I can't remember remember them. Do you know what I mean? Do you know what I mean about remembering remembering—? Of course, his eyes are BRN. That's just a fact. Doesn't have anything to do with anything. Screw it. Newspapers don't have any sense of humor that's the problem. No sense of humor. People know all about this stuff. About kids killing kids killing adults raping kids beating each other up in subway terminals while security guards watch. Maybe twenty years ago you would have said What are they thinking? Now you know what they're thinking. People are scared of women. People are scared of God. People are scared of epidemics. Scared of bomb threats. People want stuff left unsaid. Hey! The people wanna have fun! The people wanna watch celebutantes and pandas mate. The people wanna be enchanted. More than anything, Francis loved the canyon roads all the way up there where the millionaires and coyotes live. The valley full of lights like the smoldering embers after a great wildfire. The wind armed with hillside scents sage and berry-flavored toyon the weak sweetness of oat grass. Allen e-mails Listen, man, you really need to tighten things up. Did you change the headline about the guy hanging his dog to Local Man Hugs Dog? I'm not sure if you think that's funny, Bill, but it actually went out that way. There is the bare truth like a sharp point. Man Finds Answers. Man Finally Finds Answers. Man Finds Final Answers. Man Remembers Remembers. Man Remembers About Remembering —Now I get it Francis said. Now I get it Now I get it Now I get it.