A disclaimer: If you are my grandma or my mom, please don’t read. This isn’t for you. If you think you can handle hell from the eyes of teenage boy…then read on. Tim O’brien, Chuck Palahniuk, Flanner O’Connor. These are my favorite writers. Harrowing. Catholic for descent into hell. Welcome.
Meet Me On the Road to Recovery
by Paul Tomes
I tell them no flowers. Kenny has lost his sense of smell anyway, and me, I don’t want to see the yellow starfishing nipples of forget-me-nots. Also, that name is depressing as hell.
I tell them soft foods only. Ice cream and milkshakes and frozen yogurt. They’re all the same thing. Pudding and fizzy jello and whipped cream and mashed potatoes— “And mashed potatoes with whipped cream,” Kenny says, without looking up from his gameboy. He’s button smashing with his thumbs like he’s a three year old playing arcade pinball. I can decipher the top half of the words Super Mario printed across the cartridge. He’s faking it. Glue one finger to the right directional and tap the “A” button when you need to hop a gap or body slam a koopa. That’s all it takes to conquer Super Mario World. But he’s trying to bleed the room of tension. He knows I love whipped cream on everything: coffee, pancakes, straight-up in a high ball glass, matterhorned atop a rib-eye steak—seriously, that and a knife blade of jelly; savory-sweet. I’m only trying to make him more comfortable. Like when we were little and had our wisdom teeth pulled at the same time. Sitting around on his mom’s couch playing Xbox and drinking smoothies, crossing our eyes at each other and seeing who could make the best retarded chipmunk face.
Kenny calls her the NBA Slut. Clearly, he says, she likes black dick. “Watch the way she pigeon toes out of the room, ‘T’. She’s gone all crooked from some big ol’ cock. Not even a white guy from France could twist up a girl with baby momma hips like hers.”
Kenny is ice skating around the room in some cloth booties he found in a bin near the cafeteria. He springs to his tip-toes and hobble turns in place three times in row until he’s practically mummy wrapped in a rubber tube.
“And Mia Hamm nails the triple axel,” he says, throwing up his arms like a twelve year old gymnast dismounting the balance beam.
“Mia Hamm?” I say, looking up at him over the pages of our History textbook. “Do you mean Michelle Kwan?”
“No, I mean Mia Hamm. That Asian chick who wins all the gold metals in ice skating.”
“That’s Michelle Kwan,” I say.
Kenny’s triple axel arms drop to his sides. “Are you sure?” he says.
I nod my head, but only barely. The attempt at the quick neck movement reminds me my spine is locked into the bed frame with the assistance of a steel brace. I can bend forward and backward, but at max to a 45. No folding up like a taco or trying to touch the toes I can’t wiggle.
Kenny unravels himself from the tube mess and slouches back over to his bed.
“I’m bored,” he says, grabbing the remote for the TV.
I don’t remember the first three days, but Kenny tells me there isn’t much to remember. He tells me the NBA Slut came to check on us regularly. A lot of knob twisting, he says, while grinding his pointer fingers and thumbs around his nipples like he’s getting a radio tuned. Machine reading and sack draining and pill dishing. If we were any more gray in the face we would look like zombies; our bandages like white bread moist with strawberry jelly. “She touched your dick, dude.” A lucky fuck, he calls me. His legs actually function, so he has to walk across the room to piss. Says it’s unfair. “I told her you named your pecker T-Rex,” he says, nodding his head rhythmically and biting his lower lip like he’s giving it to her with his own T-Rex wiener.
Kenny’s blowing bubble gum, round and pink, pinching it off with his teeth and through his full mouth he mumbles that it looks like it’s half a nut sack attached to his tongue. He starts fondling the thing and moaning through his lips. His eyes are rolled back. His body jerks forward, and woofing like a spaniel he sucks the gum balloon into his mouth and snaps down on it. I hear it pop underneath the pressure of his tongue. Kenny winces. “Shit,” he says, “I’m balls deep,” and he’s cracking up like it’s the funniest thing in the world. He’s kicking his feet, both of them pumping like pistons. You can practically see the electricity arcing between his socks as they glide past each other. He’s slipping lower into his bed and lifting his legs until the thin sheet of his night gown is uncurtaining from around his upper thighs. He’s still laughing.
I unload on him. “Kenny,” I say, the violence in my voice spraying like buckshot, “shut up already.”
Kenny’s eyes dilate until they’re only whites and pupils; like rotten eggs over hard, or a shell shocked vet dropping acid. He’s half fetal and staring up at me, sad as a freshly beaten bunny rabbit but not as cute.
“It’s not funny, Kenny,” I say, “quit dickin’ around.”
He starts to half come back to life. Unshrinking from his collapse, he uses his arms to push himself up until he’s sitting and facing me.
“Dude,” he says, with a what’s-the-matter-shrug, “you made that shit up when we were younger, remember?”
I do. Sitting on a concrete bench in DrakePark, hours past my curfew, Kenny and I smoke cigarettes we lifted from the market and deli where we both bag groceries. The ducks beneath the juniper trees are ladled with scoops of sleeping moonlight pouring through the windy branches. They wear their own necks as scarves, tucking their beaks below the smooth feathers of their soft pod bodies, showing only the slopes of their heads. We watch the calm sea wave of their dreaming. To break the chain of the five cigarettes that taste like Lent, I unwrap a contraband piece of watermelon Bubble Yum and stick it in my mouth. It’s chalky at first, but I start to grease up like one of Pavlov’s shepherds until my tongue feels like a slip and slide. I’m pushing out tiny bubbles while Kenny is still practicing smoke rings. I look over at Kenny. He looks sad as fuck. Around his starving wrist is the yellow paper bracelet he has been wearing for the last four days; yellow to tell the nurses and the doctors that he’s a family member of the attempted suicide patient who was in room 206. He would flash it like a sheriff’s badge and the someone working the front desk would lean her varicose cleavage in his face and say something like, “Honey, you go right ahead.” My gum is mashed up enough, so I stare cross eyed over my nose and watch it inflate. It reminds me of an amniotic sack, only without the fluid. But I don’t say that. Instead, I knock Kenny on the elbow, “It’s a big bulging nut,” I say, and Kenny’s smile is gaunt. Shallow asthma laugh.
“We’re not kids anymore,” I tell him. “Grow up.”
Kenny’s stare tells me he thinks I’m wrong. His lips squeeze together and out jumps his wad of bubble gum. It lands at the foot of my bed. He turns the other way and reaches for the gameboy resting on the steel nightstand.
The NBA Slut tells me I don’t have a concussion. Neither does Kenny. Her real name is Dr. Clara Roberts. She is in and out of the room all day. She takes our vitals, administers our medicine, wraps and re-wraps our limbs with fresh gauze. Scribbles on a clipboard. She tags along with the nurses who bring my meals. And Kenny was right; she touches my dick. Honestly, she is sweet with us, only uses neutral language. Only a little annoying as she mmhhmm’s constantly while nodding her head. Her attention is mainly on Kenny; tells him there were “quite a bit” of drugs in his system when we were admitted. Asks if he would feel comfortable talking about what happened. She blinks a lot while she listens. Crouches like a mom by the side of Kenny’s bed. The whole time, he lies to her
Dr. Roberts finishes re-wrapping my good wrist, preventing the yellowy ooze trickling out of some of the stitches from soaking my bed sheets. As she leaves the room Kenny flexes his eyebrows at her ping-ponging ass cheeks. He turns to me, only now his boner smile is gone from his face.
“Tom, you need to promise me something?”
I know what he’s going to ask; why he’s been acting like a jackass; why he’s all smiles and flirts and bullshit and why he’s been pretending to be ok—why he’s been lying.
“Will you promise?” he says.
“Kenny,” I say, “She wants to help you. Just tell her what—” but Kenny cuts me off.
“Christ, man. You’re supposed to be my best friend,” he says.
Kenny turns his back on me before I can say anything. His bare ass is showing through the drapes of his tea cozy patterned night gown. I try to reach towards him, but shit, I can’t feel the tips of my fingers in my arm.
This is the third time I’ve had to see Kenny in the hospital. Only now I have sideline seats and my legs don’t fucking work. My arm too. My legs, they think, will heal eventually. Some spinal surgery and the paralysis should patch itself up. Whatever that means. My arm though, it’s a mangled mess. They showed me X-rays and photos from the accident. There is a normal gag reflex and then there’s a projectile vomit reflex. I felt along my esophagus a geyser version of the latter. Ask me what it is like to be a fire hose. I was told it was a triple compound fracture. In three places the knifing bone was breaking out of the rubber skin. It looked like a bamboo garden growing below my elbow, the hollow shoots streaked with bloodlines and fertilized by the shrapnel chunks of marrow. Real Hollywood carnage.
“What’s up Doc?” Kenny says in his best Bugs Bunny voice.
Some lab coat is leaning in the doorframe, a leg crossed nonchalant and posed in a youthful relevance. Peaking over the brim of his glasses, he’s skimming pages in his manila folder, turning them over at light speed. The folder snaps shut.
“Morning, Ken,” the doctor says, and shooting me a wassup shuck of the chin, adds, “Thomas.”
“You can call me Kenny-Bo-Benny, and this here is T-Rex,” Kenny says, wagging a hitchhiker’s thumb towards me.
“Tommy,” I say, ignoring Kenny’s attempt to portray us as partners in idiocy. “Where’s Dr. Roberts?”
“Dr. Roberts will still be your medical physician,” He says. “I can’t handle scabs and gouges. My stomach gets squeamish. I could lose my lunch at the sound of celery snapping or seeing a grape tomato spitting its cellulite when diced.” He shakes out his arms and shoulders like he’s getting insects off his skin. “Blah,” he says. “My name is Dr. Morrison. I’m a social worker.”
Out of the corner of my eye I can see Kenny’s hand torturing a fistful of his bed sheets. Dr. Morrison has activated the homing device of Kenny’s nuclear stare and I’m locked in the crosshairs. His lips are tucked into each other like converging plate boundaries ready to earthquake.
“I need to ask you boys a few questions. Mind if I start with you Tommy?” Dr. Morrison says.
I nod my head. Kenny is facing fully towards me. His lips have come unglued. Behind the fire in his eyes are sparks of fear. It’s doctors, nurses, and social workers; people with questions and PhD’s, people in coats, people who diagnose and deem you disordered or dead and wheel you away, who make Kenny sweat. Or start hearing the sound of paint splattering on dry wall, or taste gunpowder.
“Can you tell me about what led up to the car crash?” Dr. Morrison says.
I swear to fucking God I can hear the hiss of Kenny’s stomach lining melting beneath glowing flatiron of his question. Inside his brain he’s shrieking “No.” Christ, I’m supposed to be his best friend.
Dr. Morrison is hopeful behind his glasses. A sturdy chin, a wisp of hair; a real Clark Kent.
I shake my head. “I don’t remember,” I say.
He’s flipping through his notes, looking up every few pages and examining me with his eyes. Lucky me he can’t come pat me down for lies.
“Interesting,” he says, his mouth turning crooked. “It doesn’t say anything here about memory loss, temporary amnesia, or a concussion.”
I shrug my shoulders, “Sorry, doc.”
He folds his arms up at his chest cocks up his chin and opens his stance like a soldier at ease. The manila is dangling from his right hand. He’s squinting at me. I’m boiling under the heat of his X-ray vision. Someone untwists the pressure release valve coiled around his neck and a big knot of steam, loud as a train in a tunnel, rushes out his nostrils. He lifts the tan folder of scribble scratch back to his and twirls toward Kenny.
Kenny’s blushing with confidence. He straightens himself up in his bed.
“Can you tell me anything about what led to the accident?” Dr. Morrison says, shooting a quick look of disappointment at me which emerges on his lips scrunched and sad and then disappears.
Kenny’s flinging shit at him like a monkey. You can see the righteousness in doc Morrison’s eyebrows, slowly bowing in shocked concern as Kenny tells him some kid fed him a brownie that convinced him his hands were melting candles. He didn’t know what to do so he took some medicine; only, the orange prescription bottles were dressed in choir robes and singing the Hallelujah chorus. So what he does, he says, is down half a bottle of the big black lady who is belting it out of the range of the other sopranos. He has to get her to shut up.
“What about the methamphetamine?” says the doc, “The interior of your nose suffered some severe cuts; did someone force you to inhale?”
“Yah,” Kenny says, “they smashed my face into a whole cake that was covered in this powdery sugar stuff, and then tried to suffocate me. By the time I got my face out of there I was watching the second plague that hit the Egyptians come hopping down the stairs.”
Dr. Morrison’s taking notes in his folder. Kenny seems to be enjoying his part of the feces throwing. This bullshit is never going to take.
I can imagine what really happened. Kenny alone in his mom’s apartment. No party, no brownies, no cake. Just before Kenny calls me, Jason delivers a bag of shard. If Kenny wants to get fucked up he inhales crystal. It shreds his nose and he can’t smell anything for weeks. But it’s in his mucus immediately, so he takes off. It’s a race to beat the hallucinations; otherwise he’ll forget he had a plan. He bolts to the cabinet in the bathroom and tears into his mom’s prescriptions. Citalopram, Lorazepam, Prozac, the rest of the Ativan, a fistful of Xanax. Then he’s packing his piece before the sedatives sweep him away. He wants that itch in his throat to drive him nuts. He knocks the skunky ash out onto his hip and I guess the pipe slips from his hand, or something, because when I get to his house later it’s in three pieces next to the toilet. He takes one last look in the bathroom mirror at his swollen face. His nose is rimmed black with dry blood and has gathered in the fissures of his lips. In the mirror his face is getting blurry like someone is smearing it with water. Then his blurry face is pressed up against the glass and he can feel his reflection pushing back into him. Then he can only see himself in the corner of the mirror. Now he’s wiping fresh nose blood on the ugly rug. Kenny pulls out his cell phone and hits dial until it rings. I’m the last person he called. “Tommy,” I hear him groan. “Kenny,” I say, “you drunk, dude? Where are you?” “Why’d he just give up, Tommy?” I hear Kenny say. “Why’d he go so early?” I can hear the shallow supping of quick breaths. Kenny’s crying. “Never built me the tree house he promised,” he says. I’m already plucking the keys off my desk. Kenny’s house is only a few miles away. No reds if I stay residential and I’ll be there in no time if I blow through stop signs. “Kenny,” I say, and freeze. You think you will have words when your best friend calls, but you won’t. If you’re normal, you fuckin’ pray. He’s talking again, “Never even told me we owned a shotgun. He could have taught me to shoot it, or something.” I’m reversing out the driveway. The sedan chokes as I throw it into drive while its tail is still whipping backward. The tires hug the asphalt and the car lurches forward. “He just quit, Tommy,” Kenny says. I can hear the rattle in his adams apple. I fly past a stop sign without checking for cars. “They didn’t let us keep the shotgun, Tommy. We got to keep the house, the car, the tapes.” His voice is charging through the phone static. His list keeps growing, crescendoing, until finally he’s barking and I can feel the heat off his neck coming through the speaker, “But not the gun, Tommy. Not his gun. What if all I wanted was his fucking gun.” I check for oncoming traffic and pass the green station wagon driving too slow in front of me. With my foot biting the accelerator I burn through another stop sign. “Kenny,” I say again, “listen to me; I love you,” I say. “You don’t have to give up.” I catch the shadow of a dip and before I have time to brake, the nose of the car dives bumper first into the concrete. The back wheels jump. My neck thrashes forward and the grip around my phone is loosed. It catches the air and goes slamming into the windshield and rides along dashboard toward the passenger side. The car skidders and the back wheels, still spinning at full speed, land with the front tires pointed perpendicular. The vehicle dashes for the curb, eats it and is airborne. As soon as the rubber meets the sidewalk I pull hard on the steering wheel and the car is back in the street again. I smash my foot into the brake pedal. The car is stopped and I’m chugging air. I stretch over the dash and pick up my cell phone. “Kenny? Kenny?” I say. I can hear the tide of static. It’s his breathing. I start talking to him, hoping he will hear me. “I love you, Kenny,” I say. “I love you.” I keep saying it. I love you. It’s all I can think to say. If he dies, I want it to be the last thing he hears. I ease back on the gas. I’m only a few blocks away. When I get to Kenny’s house the door is unlocked. I can see his sneakers through the bathroom doorframe as soon as I turn the corner of the hallway. Blood streaks paint the mirror. Drops of red are budding in the bathroom sink. Kenny’s piece is broken next to the toilet and his fingers are curled limp around his cell phone. I take him by belt, hook a hand under his armpit and hoist his body up until he’s leaning against me. I dangle one of his arms over my neck; catch him around the hips, and with my other hand start slapping him hard in the face. He lets out a groan and I repeat my phrase and then tell him to stay with me. “Use your legs, Kenny,” I say. I drag him out the front door and fold his rag body up into the front seat. Getting to the hospital will take fifteen “good traffic” minutes. I roll the first stop sign long enough to check for headlights. Kenny’s neck is rubber. I give him a few more smacks to keep him awake. He doesn’t respond. With my free hand I peel back an eyelid. His eyes don’t move and the pupils don’t pinch in the added light. I cruise another stop sign. Adjusting his head so it is turned toward me, I wedge my middle and pointer finger into his mouth. I start digging for his gag button. Saliva is leaking from his lips, polishing the back of my hand. I’m grinding and prodding. I’ll pull the fuckin’ pills out. The whisper of an oncoming car horn suddenly becomes a lightning round flashing from a double barreled shotgun as I turn toward the wind shield. Thunder fills my ears and an explosion of glass rips into my face.
Kenny is explaining to Dr. Morrison that when we go to these parties we switch off being DDs. Most of the time, he says, it’s at a house of some douche we might know. A cheerleader, a jock, a spaz, a goth, some drama dweeb, but this time it’s different; we get invited by the friend of a friend of friend to a college party which we drive to after the football game ends and we don’t know anyone.
I can barely track the tree branches of Kenny’s lies. They’re crossing in different directions, being sheared unexpectedly, and burning. I am among those cuts of firewood. I can’t take it.
“He was trying to kill himself.” I say.
Only the click of the air conditioner; the rumbling of the metal parts inside its rusting husk, turning and scraping and finally wheezing into life. The fan starts spinning cool air into the room. I can hear the revolutions of the blade. Then the drip of morphine like a bloodpetal flowering into a bathroom sink. And then everything: the electric hum in the static of the TV, the grinding of plastic wheels as a bed moves across the linoleum, the squeaking of rubber tubes and the quivering pulse of sound waves as arm skin stretches and pops like a seam, the wingbeat slash of the air a needle makes as it leaves the body. Kenny swearing at me.
“I did not fucking try and kill myself you fucker. You fuck. Fuck.” he says, over and over. A fuck, he calls me. He’s up and out of his bed. Dr. Morrison has him wrapped around the waist and he’s calling for help. Kenny’s clawing at the air in my direction with murderous paws; gnashing with his elbows into the open ribs of Dr. Morrison. His mouth is gathering spit at the corners, spider webs of drool swinging off his lips in shiny globs. His face is knotted with veins, choked red and thrashing on his neck with the brutality of a whole body in seizure.
“You’re a liar,” he screams. “Tell them you’re lying. Tell them, you fuck, tell them.”
Another doctor enters the room and joins the struggle. He attacks Kenny’s flailing upper body and together the two doctors have him lifted off the ground. Kenny’s legs are bucking. This time they’re savage pistons. He’s being carried slowly out of the room. For a moment his feet touch and Kenny whips his head back into the jaw of the new doctor. It’s enough to weaken his grip and Kenny has one arm free. He takes hold of the counter they are pulling him past.
“You fuck,” He is screaming. “I wanted it to be me. My legs; my arm.”
Tears are rolling down his face, following the roadways of the veins.
“I didn’t mean for you to get fucked up, Tommy” He screams.
Kenny swipes at the glass jar full of gauze sitting on the counter, he clips it with his free arm and it shatters, spreading like marbles all over tile. Still within the arms of Dr. Morrison, Kenny dives for the glass blades at his feet. His legs are held tight, up in the air like he’s being wheelbarrowed, his free palm scraping the ground and picking up shards of glass. They pull him back up to his feet and are trying to get control of his arm.
“We can be even Tommy, see, we can be even. We can be hurt together.”
A fang of glass is curving out of Kenny’s bleeding fist.
“Kenny,” I scream.
He buries the glass in his forearm just beneath the elbow, and runs it down until it kisses the wrist.
I’m sorry, he keeps yelling, he didn’t mean for me to get hurt. Never wanted to die, but see, now we’re even, he says, even. Everything back to normal, because, see, we’re even now, just tell them he doesn’t want to die.
Kenny is hacking away at his arm. The blood is coming out in thickly spreading sheets.
In my esophagus I feel the fire hose