From “Not a Thing to Comfort You”
by Emily Wortman-Wunder
The woman crawled into town from the riverbed. Two miles. The elbows of her jean jacket were ripped to shreds and there was tar in her forearms, and gravel, and river mud. That’s how it was we knew how far she’d come. That, and the other body, the man’s, was found down in the tamarisk, catfish gnawing on his feet. We knew that they were together because they each had part of the same animal skull in a pocket: she had the cranial cavity and upper mandible; he had the jaw. I put hers on her nightstand so it’d be the first thing she saw when she woke up.
We wondered among ourselves if his was the name she said sometimes. “Buddy.” Hardly a word at all, more of a slur, a sigh, a snarl. We wondered if they were a couple, if this had been done to them together, or if he was the one who’d blacked her eyes. “Or both,” sighed Narita. “She got him back, whichever it was,” Rebecca said. “Gave him something to think about.” The police told us they’d probably been thrown, or thrown themselves, from a train as it sped along the trestle, hugging the water’s edge. I gasped, thinking Amtrack, and the other nurses laughed. “No, Annie, these were traineys,” said the officer. “You know, train hobos. Freight trains.”
We washed her hair, lotioned her hands, checked in on her as we hurried past to other patients. Waited for her to wake up.
Sometimes in the evenings I’d think about her, usually as I got ready for bed myself. Standing in the bathroom, scrubbing my whole, rounded teeth with a toothbrush. Whipping the comb through my hair, dark and full along the hairline. Lifting up the sheet and sliding my body in, tired and sore from a long day of honest work. I’d think about how different we were, what different lives we led. I was short and pink and plump with rounded kneecaps, rounded fingertips, a little round belly. My hands could do things, thread an IV, find a vein, sterilize a wound, play Gershwin and Bach on the little upright piano I kept in my dining room.
I wondered if she knew how to do any of this, or what she did do. Her body was long and lean and dry with thinning blonde hair that was beginning to grow in where it had been ripped out. Her belly was a bruised flat trapezoid, her belly button square, her kneecaps sharp-edged rectangles. Her forehead was so tall and narrow that sometimes it was all you saw if you popped your head in quick, just glancing over to see if her eyes were open yet; it was the same tawny gray as the rest of her skin, and rough and dry from the weather. Her gums and private parts were swollen and foul with infection. Sometimes her eyeballs raced around beneath their lids, dreaming, and her breath would come in shallow pants. “Shh,” Narita would coo if she was there. “Shh, shh, darling. You’re with us now.”
“Get him, honey.” Rebecca would say, one side of her jaw clamped down on a pen as she shook out the IV. “Kick his bu –”
I would shake my hand at them to be quiet, in case she said something else.
Except for the skull, a little piece of rope, and a squashed box of raisins, the kind Narita gave her son to put in his lunchbox, there had been nothing in her pockets. She didn’t have any money or any sort of driver’s license; no nail clippers, no pocketknife, not even a tampon. We told ourselves she must have had a little bag, a backpack, something, and the ones who pushed her off the train had taken it; the detective, one of the days he came in, shrugged. “Sometimes these people don’t carry a thing,” he said. “That’s part of what turns them on to this life.”
“Wouldn’t that be the life,” Rebecca sighed. “No mortgage, no bills. No kids. Nothing to tie you down.”
“Nowhere to call home,” I corrected. “Not a thing to comfort you.”
“Trying To Stop Drinking”
by Sheryl St. Germain
It is like trying to evict my father
out of his home, his nest in my blood.
Or the beloved who always greets me
kindly, rubs my feet and back,
gives me a bath, tells me
a little joke to make me smile.
This familiar pleasure
must be denied, and the man
turns ugly when I try to evict him,
his feet rooted in my house, his arms
once sweet seem like bars.
I still love him. Why
am I doing this? It was my
father whose life was destroyed,
not mine, his gorgeous face
turned orange and gruesome,
the liver completely cirrhotic;
I still remember the last kiss
on those vegetative lips,
the hot nothing of his breath,
ancient scotch and mucus smell,
as if something inside had already
died, the announcement of its death
escaping in his breath.
But I am more careful than he,
taking only small daily sips
of death’s liquor—fine wine, not
his scotch, only drinking
until I feel joined with something
other than myself. (Oh to never
be other!) I understand it
as black blessing entering my blood.
Now, my life will be boring. Now,
all darkness thrown out, I will be wary,
responsible, without father,
without god, uncursed, unblessed,
From Marion Ettlinger: Portfolio
Cormac McCarthy, New York City, 1991
Lorrie Moor, Madison, Wisconsin, 1996
Ken Kesey, Pleasant Hill, Oregon, 1983