g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Chad walks confidently, briskly, down gray, wheelchair-wide halls, long loping strides, arms swinging freely.
Fresh, black leather soles click-clack on worn, white tile floors.
Chad is thinking about getting off work and going to a bar.
Chad is young. Chad is happy. Chad is smiling.
Chad’s starched white shirt and white pants swish loudly in the quiet space. Fluorescent lights buzz an incessant buzz. Musty odor, loneliness, quiet.
Chad slows, then stops, leans his head into a doorway – still smiling, still thinking dull, insipid, but happy thoughts. Chad peeks into room 320 at Joseph.
Joseph – reclining in bed, wearing white jockeys, white T-shirt, that’s all. Bed sheet crumpled at his bony feet.
Joseph – pale, thin, knobby-kneed, with gnarled hands, wrinkled skin – slowly turns his white-whiskered face toward Chad peeking.
“Hi ya, Joseph. How’s it going?”
Joseph slowly turns his face to the window. Eyes yellowed, yearning, nearly crying, but still.
Joseph – just looking, thinking nothing, just looking.
A dark, thin slit of a shadow stretches from the window obliquely across the drab green carpet, twisting up onto the bed and across Joseph’s face. A squirrel dashes across the grass, rustling the fallen leaves outside the window.
Click-clack. Chad moves on, thinking about getting off work.
Joseph calmly rises, begins to dress.
First, shirt. Pale, thin, wrinkled, skin-sagging arm wriggles clumsily into white cotton sleeve. Reach back, struggle, other arm in. Damn buttons.
Next, pants. Pale, thin, bare, skin-and-bone leg awkwardly into dark polyester pant leg. Slowly, creaking, one leg in. Then another. Zip.
Socks even harder.
Shoes take time.
Click-clack. Chad is well down the corridor now.
Joseph pockets his wallet. Then, photos, cards, some money. Next, checkbook. Hidden. Must remember. Ready.
Joseph moves quietly to doorway, stops, leans head out through door opening, peers down hall.
Quietly, slowly, move toward desk, opposite direction from Chad. One step, two. Quiet. Shuffle. Breathe. Desk just ahead. Slow. Stop. Look. Nurse is off somewhere.
Joseph through outer door, outside, find bus.
“The words are still the same,” she said.
As usual, I’m lost. I say, “Why can’t you cry? I don’t understand.”
“It’s so cold here at this latitude...”
So cold she says.
“I’m learning... well... I guess to fit in.”
Learning to fit in she says. I think: Do I know what she means?
“I know what you mean,” I say.
I’m thinking yes, she’s right, people are cold. Politeness is commonly mistaken for friendliness. It’s definitely cold here. Cold. But, latitude?
I think more.
Julia stares into my eyes. Hers are blue. A blue that changes somehow. Now grayish, then yellowish, or brown-like. Then again, a hint of green, or as deep pastel as a clear blue sky.
“The words are the same,” she says, “but they mean something else, something different, I can’t quite make it out.”
I think of colors. I once took an art class and I learned how a color can look very different when placed next to other colors. It was amazing how different it could look just because it was next to a certain color. Changed. Are words like that?
I look at my coffee. I sip. I don’t like coffee, but I drink it. I wear a T-shirt with words on it.
I don’t have any idea what to say, so I decide to be Rogerian:
“What do they mean to you, the words?”
(Roger Wilco. Over and out.)
Before Julia can answer, a man walks up to our table. An old man with a pale, white-whiskered face. Julia looks up at him. I look up at him.
Then, “May I join you?”
“Uh, sure,” – “Yes, please do,” we say simultaneously.
I rise a bit as he sits. He’s thin, but sturdy. He looks familiar to me in the way in which everything looks familiar to me. I’m thinking about colors. And people. I’m thinking that people change when they’re around other people. I realize now that I change, change quite a bit, when I’m around different people. I’m thinking...
Julia speaks first, “Are you cold?”
...when things look different, when something has changed, I wonder what it is that changes?
“Yes,” he answers brightly, “I’ve lived here all my life, learned to be cold from the get-go. Wanted to fit in. But now I want to be myself. I don’t want to be cold anymore.”
We smile. I sip. We nod.
My turn: “How will you do that?”
(Roger Wilco. Over and out.)
“Not how,” he says, “When. And I mean now. I’ve waited too long. I want to be warm. I want to be myself.”
A siren blares somewhere.
The wind blows.
I sip my coffee and think about colors and words and cold.
“I want to know things. Mostly about myself,” the old man continues. “And people. But, everything really. I want to know so much, I ache. I feel like I don’t know anything. I’ve waited too long.”
Julia patronizes: “What you don’t know can’t hurt you.”
I imagine a person carrying a chunk of radioactive uranium who comes close to me, wants to show it to me, to give it to me.
The old man is smiling a half smile, staring at Julia.
I’m thinking: What you don’t know can hurt you. I remember too much. Lies. Deceit. Duplicity. Too many chunks of radioactive uranium. I wonder if this old man was given some chunks of radioactive uranium. I guess most were, maybe all of us.
It is cold here, I now muse. Too cold. Is it the latitude? I’m wondering: Do the words change meaning? Do they change?
The old man says, “I want to know. I want to be myself.”
A red rental car speeds along a highway. A convertible with the top down, an old man at the wheel. Smiling, thinking. The wind whips at his white hair. Shadows of telephone poles glide swiftly, rhythmically, across the hood of the red rental car and then across the old man’s face. A city is just ahead. A big city with lots of people.
Joseph smiles the smile of someone who knows something.
Joseph thinks: The words are just the same, but the meaning is changing. Like colors.
The red rental car speeds down the road.
When Joseph sees a bright yellow sign he remembers the sweet little girl he saw playing in the park. Then an orange truck and Joseph feels a sudden tinge of regret from a long-lost childhood memory. A red bird above triggers an emotion from an early marriage.
A small dark cloud passes momentarily in front of the sun and changes the highway from grainy gray to a brooding matte black. In his mind Joseph instantly sees a woman’s face, a too familiar face. A knife-stabbing pain surges through his chest. Radioactive uranium. Then a bright, royal blue billboard with yellow lettering comes into view and contentment displaces Joseph’s pain.
The red rental car sails the highway. Joseph soaks in the colors, smiles, and thinks.
Now into the city.
Joseph knows something.
The red rental car stops.
Joseph, still smiling, slowly slumps forward; his head gently rests against the steering wheel.
Joseph is still.
More time passes.
Green light, but the red rental car is not moving.
A horn blares. Still the red rental car sits.
The cars pile up, horns blare, frustrated voices shout, and yet the red rental car sits unmoving.
“This is 911, how can we help you?”
“There’s a car blocking traffic. There’s a big mess out here. An old man is slumped at the wheel of the car. It’s not moving, and neither is he. Send an ambulance right away. I think he’s dead.”
Chad walks confidently, briskly down the quiet gray hall. Chad is thinking about last night’s football game. He imagines he is the star quarterback surrounded by reporters after winning the big game.
Chad’s dreams are all the same. All dreams seem the same at this latitude.
Chad is young. Chad is happy. Click-clack.
Chad slows his pace and then stops at the doorway of room 215. He leans carefully forward, his head tilts diagonally into the doorway, Chad still smiling, still thinking.
Chad stares into the room – looking, but not seeing.
Bertha – sitting, nearly rocking, but mostly still. Bertha’s head turns slightly toward Chad staring.
“How’s it going, Cutie?” Chad smiling a phony smile.
Bertha offers a short stiff nod.
Bertha’s thinking: Now is a good time. Everyone will be in their rooms, Chad will be down the hall, and the nurse should be taking her cigarette break. Good time to try. They can only bring me back inside. What more can they do?
Click-clack. Chad is already on the move, dreaming, fantasizing.
Bertha pauses, pulls in a deep breath, slowly rises, pushes her small, frail body out of the rocking chair. Old bones creak, skin sags, eyes gaze longingly out the window. A dark thin shadow falls from the bright window directly across drab green carpet, up onto Bertha’s dress, and then obliquely across Bertha’s face, neatly dividing one eye and cheek from the rest.
Bertha’s face is now solemn, but hopeful. Now’s a good time, she thinks.
Bertha gathers her valuables, her purse, moves slowly toward the door, leans her head out into the gray space, peers down the lonely, quiet corridor, takes one light step silently onto old, worn, white tiles, then steals quietly down the wide hallway, step by careful step.
Bertha was right – the nurse is on her break. Glance side to side. Coast clear. No one around. Move quickly now. Don’t look back.
Out door, into fresh air, sun.
Bright, vibrant colors. Bertha thinks: The colors look so different, so intense, so changed.
But the words, the words are still the same.
Bruce H. Hinrichs is a professor, artist, musician, and author of both nonfiction and fiction. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches the biopsychology of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. He writes fiction so as not to die of the truth.