Read The Four Fingers of Death Online

Authors: Rick Moody

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

The Four Fingers of Death (5 page)

BOOK: The Four Fingers of Death
She lay down on the sofa and put her head in my lap, and that was a moment I often thought about two or three years later when I found myself in the waiting room of the hospital, eating from the vending machines. The day on which the helicopter carrying the world-renowned Sino-Indian surgeon landed on the roof. (And this was only one of the many, many add-ons that your health insurance provider doesn’t deem reasonable and customary.) In the OR, they were taking the lungs out of the six-pack holder in the refrigerator, in order to test this first donor lung, to make sure it was still in good working order. Then they began talking about my wife’s condition, which, they remarked, was going to
George’s squeaky-clean lungs, just as it had slain her own, and which made the whole transplant a complex undertaking for anyone, because, they said, my wife, Tara, was going
to perish
. I would never see Tara with gray hair, and I would never see her worrying about how fat she had gotten in old age; I would never see her liver spots and think
how beautiful are these spots
, I would never see Tara dandling a malevolent toddler on her knee, she would never bust out her identification card for
seniors’ night
at the movies. And I would never see her on the deck of a cruise ship in the Caribbean, drinking champagne from unbreakable stemware. I would never see her with her (as yet imaginary) children’s children, or in Rome, or getting ready to go hang gliding. She would never collect a pension. But on the day of the double lung transplant, I was thinking only that another couple of weeks would be
, and six months would be amazing, three years: like from the heavens.
They gurneyed in my wife, Tara. At the ready was the heart-lung machine and various other pieces of advanced robotic and nanotechnological complexities intended to prevent unforeseen happenstance. A moment hovered, expectant, as the systems went through their scanning protocol. Then my unconscious wife had the inferior of her two diseased lungs disconnected. I can’t really imagine which of the two was the worse, since both were full of pus and fluid and dead carbon-based gunk, stuff that Tara could no longer eliminate from her bronchi, stuff the color of turned mayonnaise. They began pulling George’s left lung out of the beer cooler, and they trimmed away a little bit of it so it would fit into Tara’s body. This after a guy with an expensive saw had opened up the whole of her, underneath her breastplate. They opened her up straight across, from latitude to latitude. And they began the arduous connection of George’s left lung to Tara’s pulmonary artery, the pulmonary vein, the bronchus, while the other nearly worthless lung pumped away haphazardly, keeping her just this side of peat moss. When the left of George’s lungs was attached, it took a few breaths, began doing its job, and they moved on to the right.
In the waiting room, the better to try not to think about the direst of circumstances, I looked at the worried faces of other people. I got up and paced, as one will, because the molded plastic chairs abraded my posterior. (There should have been a therapeutic ward in the university medical center that was devoted to nothing but the skeletal problems caused by the molded plastic chairs of hospital waiting rooms. The Montese Crandall Wing for Abnormalities of the Softened Posterior.) The other thing I did was to call again on Noel Stroop, to ask if I could have a reading at Arachnids, Inc. “Noel,” I remarked, “it’s Montese Crandall, yeah, yeah, baseball cards. Right. Look, Noel, I’m here in the hospital, where my wife is… well… never mind.… Right. That’s kind of you. Noel, let me be frank. I would like to be able to tell my wife, when she comes around, that I have accomplished something in the area of my writing. It doesn’t have to be much. I would like to tell her something
, you know, to cheer her up, while she’s realizing how many stitches she has in her chest, and how big the scar is, and how many stents and shunts there are in her. Noel, I’m wondering if you would consider giving me a chance to
there at the store, yeah, from my collected stories, such as they are, so that I can tell my wife, when she awakes.”
As I may have indicated earlier, Tara didn’t come out of her coma on any accelerated schedule. In the days after the completion of her double lung transplant, I was permitted to observe my wife’s slumbering form, first in the ICU and then in the general hospital population, and this is when the word
suddenly became a part of daily conversation. The doctors would ask, “Are you Mr. Crandall?” though we’d been multiply introduced, and I would say, yet again, “Why do you think I’m hanging around her bed day and night, looking as though I’m a homeless person, mumbling to myself and breaking out into, well, spontaneous heaving sobs?” They would ignore my comments. “In the coming days, it’s possible that we might see the following… ,” and then the word
was always slipped into the monologue. Other bits of medical argot were also deployed, diabetes mellitus, further “clubbing” of the fingertips and toes, progressive deafness due to long-term consumption of antibiotics, cross-infection from other lung patients, genetic stuff I didn’t understand, and then something about a
transmembrane conductance regulator
. These conversations always ended with someone asking whether I had been tested for the certain recessive gene myself, the gene that caused Tara’s difficulties. Which was another way of asking if I knew of or accepted the barrenness, the non-productivity of our marriage, to which I replied only with silence, because that was my way.
The expectations the doctors had for my wife were optimistic, after a fashion, until they remembered to ask about her age. My wife, at thirty-eight, was sicker than most people with her illness. Younger people didn’t have trouble with
reperfusion injuries
subsequent to their surgery. They bounced back quicker from the infections. Whatever the cause, my wife long remained unconscious. Or, more exactly, she was in a way station between delirium and unconsciousness. During this stretch, when I was either sitting next to her bed or eating nougat-and-peanut snack items, Tara was having incredibly vivid nightmares, all of which involved persecution. She dreamed that I personally was a member of the FBI’s
domestic fraud task force
and was coming to cut parts of her body off bit by bit so that they could be blown up in garish desert explosions. Or I was a serial killer and was trying to administer lethal drugs to her. Or else I was eating bits of her. Or I was forcing her to have sex with me, even though she was missing limbs. Or I was using my amputation stumps to penetrate her. Or she was trying to flee from me and other persecutors, even though she had only 20 percent of lung function.
It was a good thing, therefore, that I had secured an upcoming reading at Arachnids, Inc. This was a welcome distraction. The only problem, as regarded my reading, was that I had a grand total of six or seven sentences to read to the audience. Despite the fact that I admitted to absolutely little doubt as an artist, some of these sentences
were clearly better than others
. Either I was going to read the sentences over and over again, so that they would transport by virtue of a canny repetition, or it was going to be a very short reading. Well, there was a third alternative, namely that I would produce some
material. I have heard of, and have never exactly approved of, people attempting to write new works just so that they’d have something to read. Here was my chance. Blood and guts. The heartbreak of mortality. The last bit of air squeezed out of a diseased lung. The love, or at least the considerable devotion, cut short by fate. Out of great adversity comes great art, and so I came up with my celebrated lung transplant sequence. (See
The Collected Works of Montese Crandall
, presently under construction, p. 4.)
Future readers of my works will realize that the surgery sequence, at the time, represented a huge advance in the amount of work I had at my disposal for the reading, in that it contained
several sentences
. It seemed to be what I was able to come up with in those weeks of drama and anxiety. I knew my wife’s illness was genetic, and that it was unlikely that I had
it from her, and yet I found myself having to remember, almost manually, to breathe, breathe, breathe, while I was in the waiting room or in her hospital room. When I fell asleep, in fact, I began experiencing episodes of apnea, in which I would shake myself awake, chest heaving, unable to catch my own breath, just as I had so often attempted to catch my wife’s breath
for her
. The same was true on the nights I tried to sleep at home in the large queen-size bed that never felt right without Tara’s skeletal frame alongside me. She was one of those sleepers who move ever closer, until they have commandeered a good three-quarters of the square footage, while you are balanced precariously on the remainder. Without her, it seemed there was nothing to keep me from spreading out and taking over everything, in an orgy of self-centeredness and, thus, insignificance.
The twenty-first day of the month came around, the day when Tara went back into the ICU. They did more tests, which is what they do in the ICU, and I thought about canceling my reading at Arachnids. However, I decided that if Tara were awake, dressed in a pink miniskirt and some silky flowered top that she managed to find at one of the thrift shops on Fourth Avenue, she would have said, despite her oxygen mask, “Monty, get out there and
.” You understand, this is not to say she never felt sorry for herself, nor that she didn’t get bored of seeing me hanging around every day. In an earlier phase of her illness, she would occasionally take off on ridiculous trips up the block. Dragging her rolling oxygen tank, she would stick out her thumb and wait for someone with a minivan to come along. Then she’d say,
Take me to a betting parlor, if you please
. Or something similar. She would have the racing form, and the sports pages, and a copy of one of those periodicals designed for arms traders. Those illegal betting parlors were dangerous, unscrupulous, and sad. But when you don’t get out of the house much, you are willing to go almost anywhere. In the backseat of this stranger’s car, coughing her disgusting and very watery cough, spitting her sputum into a cup or sometimes out the window, Tara gazed upon the whole thing, the vast expanse of our part of the state, effusing to her driver. “Do you see any longhorn sheep?” “No, lady, no longhorn sheep.” “Do you see any bobcats?” “No, lady, I don’t see any bobcats.” “Do you see any javelinas?” “Sure, when don’t you?” And Tara would often conclude, “Once I was able to hike in parks, a little bit, anyway.”
But let us now leave my wife in her unconscious state, so that the scene might shift again to the little bookstore named after the kingdom of life-forms with prehensile second antennae, e.g., scorpions, brown recluses, and their kin. I was going to Arachnids, as scheduled, whether I liked it or not, and whether or not there were going to be any listeners in the store. It bears mentioning that I did occasionally visit Arachnids as a customer, because of its excellent used books and digital media. It was a comfortable place for the slaying of time. I belonged there. It was right that I was reading here. I was going to enter the store like some prefab pop singer, therefore, striding onto the stage as if he had ownership. And I would wear the most elegant outfit (I had put some serious thought into this), namely some
undertaker’s clothes
, because that was how I felt, like a merchant of death, like a man whose everyday affairs had only to do with the lost, with the teeming cities of Hades, where the souls eternally suffered. So I would wear black shiny shoes and skinny tie and black armband, a black knitted cap. Let it be noted, too, that black does flatter a gentleman who has perhaps become spread out in the midsection with the nervous eating of nougat-and-marshmallow treats.
I loitered in the philosophy section of Arachnids until a quarter past the hour. I muttered nervous prayers. Noel then made clear that we would have to make do with the audience at hand, which audience was scattered among folding chairs, and, as I have said, this audience numbered exactly five. I knew three of them. One was Jake Cohn, a pharmacist and enthusiastic supporter of the arts, who owned and operated
Mud Hut
magazine; then there was Jenny Martini, a flea marketeer like myself who often helped me put up my stand (she sold vintage lamps); besides Jenny and Jake, there was one of the legions of beatnik homeless men who lived in our town, probably an Iraq war veteran, wearing on this night old polyester rags. And then there was a rather stately, motionless, and imposing black man, sitting alone in the back row. He looked drugged.
Noel Stroop began introducing me now, mumbling an entirely incorrect pronunciation of my name, calling me, believe it or not,
Montrose Candle
, and indicating that I had numerous publications in the local rags. Then, having run dry of material, Noel asked the audience to please give me a warm welcome, which they attempted to do, notwithstanding that they were the proverbial
happy few
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