issue twenty

art gallery
past issues
current issue
(4340 words)
Keith Rosson
Shrub Angel
It's a beer run and Nate's pockets are filled with crumpled ones and fives, fistfuls of bashful coins, the inevitable twenty that comes with a stern demand for change. Retchie Rich and Carl With The Acne are up ahead, slap-fighting each other under streetlights. The night is rich with the smell of cut grass and Nate's in no particular hurry to get back to the party. He feels ill at ease with everything, everyone and their affectations; back in the house there is the guy who collects Donna Summer singles, the girl who knits beer cozies with vaginas on them. The couple that won't stop talking about the year they spent squatting in Germany. All the men standing around in undersized t-shirts and haircuts their fathers had worn as young men. The girls in dresses that make them look both slovenly and antiquated. The room dense with an irony as cloying as a gas grenade. In the hallway, April had passed him with a tight smile, one reserved for people sharing an elevator. She hadn't said a word. He'd stood there, openmouthed and wounded in a way he couldn't really name, and when he'd overheard a bespectacled girl in a bowtie claim she could only orgasm while listening to Mahler, he had gathered the beer money and, Retchie Rich and Carl inviting themselves along, stepped out into a night that only a few hours ago had seemed bright with the promise of romance or drunkenness or both.

Romance apparently butchered, he settles for drunkenness. Up ahead, Rich and Carl stumble against each other and bark laughter. They are younger than he is, Carl significantly, but Nate tries not to begrudge them this -- he's only twenty-three but already surprises himself sometimes with his own sourness, his own blooming cynicism. Like now, as he wonders if everyone will still be trying to be such fucking individuals ten years from now, still trying to one-up each other with the breadth of their intricacies. The boys head down the street and yell big at each other even though they're only a foot apart. Dogs press their snouts against fences and bark in their wake. Porch lights come on. Nate sticks to the sidewalk, embarrassed and lurching. His leg aches.

A man comes out onto his porch after they pass. Backlit by his porchlight, he is nothing more than a shape in the doorway, a white t-shirt and the flaring coal of a cigarette. He mutters something about the middle of the night and Carl turns and flips him off and yells "Fuck you, tosser," in a terrible British accent. Rich laughs and slaps Carl in the back of the head. Nate could be the Invisible Man, limping behind in their wake. It's some minutes later, the two of them are standing in front of the 7-11, ghoulish and dangerous-looking under the harsh lamps, when he finally catches up.

"The hell, man." Rich squints against the smoke perched in his mouth. "We've been waiting forever."

"Yeah," Carl says, his voice surprisingly deep, "you're the one with the ID, dude. Took you so fucking long?" His acne really is terrible -- his face looks like it's splattered with gore under the bank of lights.

Nate is suddenly furious at them. They are strangers to him; simply other people at the party, people who invited themselves along. He is angry at April, at the party he doesn't really want to go back to, at everything, but most of all at these boys. He leans down and raps his knuckles on his shin. The sound is hollow, plastic.

"It takes me a little longer than you guys," Nate snarls, hot with contempt.

"Shit," Retchie Rich says, as if he's actually seeing Nate for the first time. There is a kind of reverence in his voice that Nate's used to by now; you can practically see the kid backtracking his way through the past few hours, trying to remember other instances where he put his foot in is mouth. So to speak.

Carl, impervious to notions of propriety or asking personal questions of strangers, says, "What happened to your leg, dude?"

"Accident," Nate says, fixing them with the blank stare he's perfected over the years. Like he's looking right through them, to a horrible, darkened place few people have ever made it back from. "Mall escalator went haywire. They said they found one of my toes in the lingerie section of Target, two hundred yards away. Talk about blood spatter." He shakes his head mournfully.

"Shit," Carl says, momentarily in awe.

Nate steps inside and everything is bright and garish. The man behind the counter, fiftyish, faded green ink running up his forearms, reads the paper. Four twelve-packs of Pabst heavier, Nate limps up to the counter.

The cashier jerks his thumb at the window behind him, where the two boys are slap-fighting each other again. Retchie Rich has Carl in a headlock and is dragging him howling around the parking lot.

"Friends of yours?"

Nate winces. "I wouldn't say that exactly."

"That one there looks like he's about twelve," the man says, but rings him up anyway.

He steps outside and Rich and Carl each grab a twelve-pack, opening beers right there in the parking lot. They swagger down the street, again unconcerned about Nate, who resumes wordlessly limping behind them. His leg feels now like something banked in smoldering coals; his physical therapist said it would be like this, that it would just hurt sometimes, with no apparent catalyst other than using it. He plots various forms of revenge against the two boys, each one more petty than the one before. Tries to convince himself that all the walking will ultimately be good for the leg and that this is nothing compared to how it hurts in the cold.

He could go home. He knows it's not a bad idea, but part of him still wants to go back to the party and dip his toes in his own misery. Again, he knows it's unfair -- he and April had drunkenly made out at a show two weeks ago, and he's been hoping desperately to see her around since -- but he understands she doesn't owe him a thing. But he's feeling that way, like he wants to spend a little time rolling around in his own ugliness. Drinking will only make it worse, but honestly, who cares? What the hell else is there to aim for tonight? How the hell else is he supposed to handle the girl in the bowtie, the guy dancing around in the My Little Pony tanktop while Manowar thunders out of the stereo? Stepping into that world is like colliding with a tidal wave of irony and unacknowledged privilege, and there he is, continually, at the edges of things: The Guy With One Leg Trying To Pass As Semi-Normal. He Who Limps. It's fucking exhausting being around these people.

He's looking at apple blossoms coloring the sidewalk and running through a bevy of smartass one-liners to run on April back at the party when a voice beside him says cheerfully, "Fuck me, huh? Yelling cuss words in the middle of the night, flipping people off? That's what you're about?" Nate looks up and sees the man in the white t-shirt striding purposefully down his porch.

"Hey, listen," Nate has time to say, "that actually wasn't me--"

The man hits him, a solid right jab above his eye, even though he's clearly limping and holding two twelve-packs of beer in his arms. The boxes clatter to the ground and he feels his head bounce off the concrete. Already a hot pulsing above his eye as the sky wheels above him.

A moment passes and the man suddenly says, "Holy shit. What is that? What the hell is that?" He's stands there unmoving, his hands buried in his hair, his eyes wide with shock. Under the streetlight, his face is shadowed with beard and he looks crazed, as if he hasn't slept in days.

And there is Nate's leg lying on the lawn, the false-flesh color nearly pornographic under the streetlight.

"Ah, you fucking nailed me," Nate says, almost cheerfully. He rolls over and puts his cheek to the grass and it's the coolest, most luxuriant thing he's ever felt in his life.

       They burst through the front door and the man howls for his wife as if he's transporting a gunshot victim into a trauma ward. A woman trundles stolidly down the stairs, one hand clenching the handrail. She is a young, big-hipped woman, her face puffy with sleep. She is also hugely pregnant, in sweatpants and a purple Tweety Bird t-shirt, and seems wholly unsurprised to see her husband with his arm around a bleeding young man and holding what appears to be a severed leg in one fist. The entire living room is populated -- shelves, end tables, nooks and crannies -- with small porcelain dogs, Cocker Spaniels, actually, and somewhere in the house a clock begins chiming out the hours.

The man brandishes Nate's leg in the air and waves it frantically at the ceiling. "Ice, Mavis! We need some ice!"

Mavis takes another tentative step down the stairs. "Michael," she says, her voice thick with weariness, "why are you waving that boy's leg around the living room?" Her accent is Southern and so thick it could sweeten coffee, leg coming out laig.

"Mavis, get some ice! Christ, he's getting blood all over your Mom's rug!"

"Who's leg is that? Is that a fake leg? Why are you holding that leg up, Michael?"

"Mavis, I swear to Holy Jumping-Up Jesus!" Dogs begin barking in the backyard and Mike helps Nate sit down in a plastic-covered loveseat. Flustered, he awkwardly waves the prosthetic leg around, unsure whether to hand it to Nate or try to attach it on his stump himself. Nate gingerly reaches out and takes it from him. Mavis goes to the kitchen and hands Mike a sandwich baggie full of ice, who runs it over to Nate; it's as if they're all in some kind of surreal, remarkably inefficient relay race.

Mavis stands in the kitchen doorway, her hair haloed in electric light. She nods at Nate, who's cowed by her pregnancy. It's midnight, according to the clock, and he's mortified to be bleeding on the plastic slipcover of this enormous woman's loveseat. He leans back and presses the ice to his eye.

Mavis says, "Tell me that boy's not a veteran, Michael. Tell me you didn't cold-cock a goddamned Iraq veteran out in the yard, or wherever the hell you went off to."

Mike's eyes suddenly widen at this possibility, horror-stricken at the idea. Nate cuts him off before he can ask. "Nope," he says. "Fishing accident off the Russian coast. Shark got stuck in the crab pot." He doesn't even know what he's saying. For years now he has talked about the leg by not talking about it; the willfulness of his lies now is as much a part of him as being lefthanded.

Mike heaves a sigh of relief, which seems to piss Mavis off. "Oh, that's a relief to you, Michael? 'He's not a veteran at least, it's fine I punched him out'? What is wrong with you?"

"Mavis, this guy comes down the street, yelling his ass off--"

"So you punch him out?"

"That wasn't actually me," Nate offers.

On the coffee table, he counts no less than three-dozen ceramic Cocker Spaniels engaged in various anthropomorphic activities. Mowing the lawn, pushing shopping carts. There is one standing on its hind legs, dressed in camouflage and aiming a compound bow. One sits frazzled behind a mound of paperwork and a calculator. The stand reads, in filigreed cursive, I'm Dog-Tired Of This!

"You get this boy to the hospital right now," Mavis says. "I'm stressed out too, but you don't see me going around punching people in the yard. He could send you to jail, you moron. Where would the Fab Five be then, genius?"

Mike sighs. "Mavis Claire--"

She holds up a finger, silencing him. "Shush. You do it, and you pay his bill, too. Or you can kiss this," she pats her hand underneath her gigantic belly, "goodbye for quite some time, I can promise you that, mister."

Mike stares at the floor, mortified. "Jesus, Mavis. In front of company, even."

"In front of company what?"

He nods glumly at her hand still resting on her sweatpants. "Patting your private area like that in front of company."

Mavis hurls her arms out to her sides. "He ain't company, Michael! He's some guy you punched out!" The dogs resume their howls in the backyard.

Nate mumbles, "I better get going," and they both look at him as if he's a piece of furniture that's suddenly come to life.

Mike sighs. "Let me get my keys, man."

"Don't forget the Visa," Mavis says "And you keep your cell phone on, just in case." She turns to Nate. "Nice to meet you," she says as politely as she can manage, and begins the trek back up the stairs.  

       In the truck, Mike keeps giving Nate these pained glances like he's a waiter who's about to get sent back to the kitchen with the main course. Nate's got a bloody t-shirt full of ice pressed to his eye. There's a pulse of pain every time they hit a dip in the road.

"I'm ruining your shirt," he says.

"Oh Christ," Mike huffs, flipping his hand dismissively.

The adrenaline is fading, turning to nausea and a kind of coffee-jitters fatigue. Mike's got the window rolled down and a Swisher Sweet jutting from one little fist.

"Who's the Fab Five?" Nate says. Through the scattering of trees, he can see the boxy monolith of the hospital a few blocks up ahead.

Mike smiles bashfully around his cigar. "Mavis and me are having triplets. She's due in two weeks."

"Wow. Congratulations," Nate says. He still can't decide if he's pissed or not. It feels like the two of them could be a couple of guys driving to a bar, and he wonders if that's what he wants. Normalcy? To be among normal people? And Christ, are there such people? If it wasn't half-leglessness, it was Donna Summers LPs or crocheted vaginas or a ceramic dog collection. The disconnect he feels is boundless, that sense of difference, of standing apart from. Does anybody really have their shit together at all? Nate's suddenly angry at himself and then angry for being angry, bleeding there in the truck. Sitting beside a stranger and bleeding into one of his shirts.

The emergency room is like every one of them he has ever stepped foot into and he feels a familiar dread stir hairs on the back of his neck. There are banks of fluorescents in the ceilings, muted colors on the walls, potted plants in the corners and dull floral prints on the walls doing their best to smooth out the obvious intentions of the place. There are small end tables here and there, their tops littered with out-of-date fishing and fashion magazines. People are scattered around the room, small satellites of misery. A large woman in a shiny purple sweatsuit holds a crying baby while a little boy coughs and coughs beside her. An ancient couple, both of them hunched and stoic, stare wordlessly at the carpet, the woman's bony hands wrapped around the man's arm. A man in a leather jacket sits in one of the plastic seats; one leg is tied off with what appears to be a garbage bag and is thrust out in front of him. His shirt is spattered with blood and he cackles into a cell phone, seemingly unworried. The night is black and still outside the windows.

They step up to the counter. A nurse looks at the two of them and hands Nate a clipboard.

"I'm paying for it," Mike says.

The nurse eyes him with open hostility for three seconds, four. "You still have to fill out the form, sir," she says.

They sit down and Nate begins filling out the forms, the t-shirt still pressed to his eye. Mike sits beside him thumbing through his wallet. He seems contented enough to be there, an entirely different man from the swinging dervish on the lawn half an hour before.

"Are you really going to pay for this?"

Mike nods somberly. He holds up his credit card, waggles it in the air. "It's either that or go without, uh, bedtime ministrations for God knows how long."


"Not that I ain't anyway, with triplets plowing down the pipeline there."

Nate nods, uncomfortable.

Mike seems to sense this. "I am sorry about it too, man. I'm just so nervous about everything, I get maybe two hours of sleep a night, you know? My doctor's even got me on these sleeping pills. Don't work for shit. Then that dumbass kid flips me off." He shrugs, sighs loudly, nearly crosseyed with fatigue. "Mavis says I get stressed out too easy."

"Those guys were dumbasses," Nate admits.

"No excuse, though."

Nate's name is finally called and the stitches hardly take any time at all. He's good for five of them, and by the time she's done, Nate's pretty sure he's fallen in love with the nurse who has stitched him up. He always does this -- steps away from everyone and then suddenly comes lurching towards them with his heart proffered in his hands. She's maybe ten years older than him, very pretty, clearly tired. A blond ponytail, a wedding band and dottings of blood surreptitiously coloring one of her pant legs. Her fingers leave traceries of warmth where they touch his face. He pictures, wildly, the two of them in Mexico, sitting in some tavern somewhere, elbows on the glossy wood and their thighs pressed together as dust motes swim lazily in the window. She's a woman of depth, obviously, a woman of medicine -- a woman who literally sews shut the holes people rend in their lives. He tries to picture her back at tonight's party, standing in the kitchen next to the crust punks, nodding seriously and attentively as the amateur oboist with a penchant for public nudity talks earnestly about the need for a "clothing-only option" in the workplace, and just can't. It just doesn't come, the image of those two worlds colliding. She's shtickless, is what it is. She's just a pretty, smart, tired woman who has sewn shut the cut above his eye. It's the seeming simplicity of her life, the clear sense of purpose, that he's floored by. He's never been to Mexico in his life.

She's paged over the intercom and she asks him if there's anything else he needs -- she sounds like a waitress, for Christ's sake -- and then grabs her clipboard and steps out of the room, her pant leg still stippled with blood, her and her pony tail bobbing out of his life forever. He wants to tell her about his leg, about April, about Mike and Mavis. Any story to bring her back. He doesn't know the first thing about her. She is gone and the hospital and all of its inextricable weight falls back on him.

Mike is asleep in his plastic chair, his arms laced over his stomach. Next to him, a child stares at his grizzled face with the patience reserved for assassins. Nate touches him on the shoulder and Mike spasms once in his chair, nearly striking the little boy. The kid's eyes flick between the two of them like he's watching a tennis match.

Nate feels bad for waking Mike. "Time to go," he says quietly, and Mike rakes his palms down his face and exhales loudly.

"Yeah," the little boy says. "Get outta here." 

Mike looks at him, then at Nate, and then back at the boy. "Who the hell is this kid?" he says.

The boy inexplicably begins to cry. He leans back in his seat, clenches his little fists in his lap and begins to wail. The noise is terrible and all the more heartbreaking for its suddenness. The nurse turns her laser gaze upon them. Apart from them, the waiting room is empty.

"Let's go," Mike says.

"We can't leave this kid here," Nate said.

Mike says, "Hey, kid, where are your parents?" The boy howls louder, hitching in dark jags of breath only to scream them out.

"He's fine," the nurse calls. "His dad's getting a race car extracted."

Mike and Nate exchange a look. Mike sighs and swipes his face again, as if his sleeplessness is somehow responsible for it all.

       Outside, moths beat themselves senseless around the lights and they can hear an ardent and comforting chorus of frogs somewhere nearby. Mike is jingling his keys and Nate is gingerly tracing the contours of his bandage when he sees Retchie Rich lying crookedly in the waist-high shrub flanking the hospital entrance. The shrub is etched with darkened shadows and Rich looks like a strange castaway thing, a toy flung there by some suddenly disinterested monster. His arms and legs are splayed wide and there are obscenities scribbled across his face.

"Jesus," Mike says, "is he dead?"

Rich snores delicately. The word PUSSYFACE has been carefully written on his forehead.

"I know him," Nate says. "This was one of the guys, man."

"You know him?"

Nate nods. "He's just drunk. His friends probably drove him here and dropped him off as a joke."

"God. The same friends who drew dicks all over his face?"

Nate shrugs. "Maybe he has alcohol poisoning. We should probably wake him up," he says, and it's then that Retchie Rich does exactly that, flailing as Mike had moments before, as if he is trying to stay afloat in some angry sea. He looks, Nate thinks, like some sort of corrupted angel. A shrub angel trying to do the backstroke, with a generous dose of vomit spattered down the front of his shirt. His face, darkened with those obscene glyphs, knits itself in fear and confusion.

"Stuck!" Retchie Rich shrieks. "Stuck!" Amid his flailings, he suddenly farts explosively and Mike honks laughter as he reaches for Rich's arm. Nate leans over and reaches for the other arm, feeling suddenly better than he has in months. They pull him from the shrub and then, noting the vomit dousing his front from neck to knees, try to keep him upright without actually touching him.

Hardly aware he's even doing it, Nate says, "It was just an accident. It was just one of those terrible, shitty things that happen to other people, something that you hear about. But it happened to me instead."

Rich, his feet wide apart, the top half of his body slowly tilting back and forth, studies his reflection in the hospital window. He slurs, "Which one of you assplugs wrote on my face?"

"What?" Mike says. "What'd you say?" He places a hand on Rich's back, steadying him, and tries to catch Nate's eye.

Rich belches wetly. "I said, which one of you tools--"

"Not you, idiot," Mike says, walking him over and leaning him against the wall. "What was an accident?"

And it's always been a question of how much he owes the person asking, that's the thing. Always has been. But now? Here they are, Nate watching Rich slide slowly down the wall, a string of drool dangling ever closer to his knees, and Mike watching Nate. Here they are, and Mike hadn't even asked.

He thinks of the truck in front of them suddenly swerving that night, the tire squirting smoke as it blew, the back bumper looming toward their windshield. Diminishing wedges of star-flecked night on each side. That bumper something godlike in its impartiality, its velocity. There had been a noise -- a brief symphony of glass, metal, plastic -- and then only the ping of relaxing metal, beads of rain ticking on the roof. His lower half had been wedged there inside the wreckage, the bottom part of the car accordioned inward, an indelicate origami. Nothing had hurt, not then. There had been the there-and-gone sound of strobing horns from passing cars, their wheels crunching over the broken glass with a kind of pregnant sensuousness. Two friends had been in the car with him and both of them made it out fine. Nate sees them every once in a while, at a party or a show, and you can feel their guilt ricocheting around the room like sniper rounds. It happened three years ago and he keeps finding different ways to define what he's lost. That's the big picture definition, really, if he had to say it -- it's just one of those things that always happened to other people but this time it happened to him. But the details? The rest of it?

Nate stands there under the glow of the hospital lights and begins to tell Mike about it all. The sounds and the fear, seconds before the truck rose so rapidly in the windshield and the pain a long time after. His words fall from his mouth in a tangle, in a rush, and this is definitely not how he was planning on spending his night. Mike says, "Slow down," and Nate breathes and laughs, once, like a rusted door giving way, and Retchie Rich finally finishes his descent against the wall and beings to snore again, an almost musical trilling, and they really should get him inside just in case he's anything besides really drunk, and they will, they will, but for right now the moths beat themselves grimly or gleefully against the lights -- it's impossible to interpret these things -- and Nate tells his story of how that night seemed like the beginning of everything and the ending of it too, and Mike tilts his head and listens.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Keith Rosson. All rights reserved.