Henrik entered the close green environs of his ground-floor unit’s yard with a Balloon Time helium tank kit jacked up on his good shoulder. He kept the outdoor space free of anything that needed tending to, preferring flat grass, waist-high hedge boarders and no furnishings. A second balloon kit remained unopened in his bedroom with the other equipment he had bought at the hardware store. The red-aproned salesgirl (as well as the box itself) boasted of the set’s essentialness for any celebration, going so far as to call it a party no-brainer. It came with three tester balloons in the secondary colors; additional balloons sold separately, a suggestion Henrik had declined.
To the credit of the box’s declarations, he easily filled the orange balloon. Letting it expand in his hand until it became the size of a heart, then a head, he knotted it shut and let it go. It started to float away like runaway citrus before he snatched it, slid open the glass doors with the rubber tip of his sneaker and tossed it inside the living room. Levitating on its side, the balloon wedged itself into a ceiling corner, barricaded by a sprinkler spigot. Some people liked the way escaped plastic bags danced in the parking lot, but not Henrik. He didn’t want to dirty up some tree or beach where the skin of the broken balloon would invariably wind up. So he brought the ugliness inside. It looked like a portly little sun now, but in a few days that balloon would be nothing but trash.
His doorbell rang. Peering in through a beveled side window, a tired and rumpled-looking woman hunched and surveyed. Henrik opened the door letting in a breeze colder than the sun’s brightness would have you believe. The woman, to Henrik’s surprise, was more kempt and spry than she looked through the privacy glass. She looked well-rested and eager, dressed in a beige skirt and a matching loose-fitting blazer. Lifting the glasses necklaced around her throat, she positioned a small sweat-worn index card and read from it. “Henrik?”
“Yes. You must be Sally.”
“I had hoped Bill would make it too. He’s the pro. I’ve never counseled for the Society alone.” She smiled apologetically and extended her hand for a shake with the card still cupped inside. The unfamiliar friction of an obstructed handshake, like the dullest sandpaper on soft wood, froze the inexperienced Sally. She waited for Henrik to direct her deeper into the apartment, excusing her faux pas. He released his grip and made sure the card stayed with her and joked, “I’m sure Bill does that all the time. Good thing he’s not here.”
She followed him a few steps into the living room nook where a Floridian-printed sectional couch waited for them. She pulled out a folder from her tote bag an observed the status of Henrik’s home. Sally’s direct view was of the stuck orange balloon. “I see you have purchased the kits. Do you have the vinyl tubing? And the hood?”
“Yes. I got a turkey bag for the hood. You know the ones where you cook it inside and the bird stays juicy?”
“That should work. Strong enough to withstand heat so….”
From the kitchenette, a few feet away, Henrik put on a percolator pot of coffee. He pulled from a high cupboard the box of turkey bags to show to Sally. Yellow and full, the innocent box was ready for inspection, “Do you need to clear these with Bill?”
Sally’s hands in surrender, “I can’t touch the box, you’ll remember from your readings. Not until cleanup time. You’ll have to do everything on your own until you’ve expired. Then of course you can’t do anything. You do understand that and are comfortable with that?” She spoke as if the bags were a virus or a grenade. Their movements circulated the air enough to prod at the balloon. It shimmied, but remained stuck, dancing alone in a corner.
“Sorry, I forgot myself. I remember.” He lowered the bags and backed away, assuring he meant no harm. He’d return the box to the kitchen, get the coffee and leave this woman to decompress. He considered the appropriateness of hugging her, to calm them both down. Would that leave fingerprints too? And her hair! Would the strands that would wend their way into his sweater put her at risk for prosecution?
Sally raised her voice slightly since Henrik’s head was turned, selecting mugs for the tray, “You’ll need to check the size. Not to be crass, if they will fit a turkey, they will fit your head.” Henrik placed the tray on the table between them, the black surfaces of the coffee looked like the deepest grottos he could dive into and disappear. The smell was otherworldly and lusty, making even the daintiest cups deep enough to drown in. Sally asked if he had set a date for his liberation and Henrik replied he was hoping to make arrangements with his daughter, but that it would be soon, best after the holidays into the new year.
Sally whispered over the edge of her cup, as if to tame the steaming liquid from its heat. “My husband had colon cancer. It was a nightmare. I was so glad to see him released. He did helium too. Asleep in forty-five seconds.”
Curled like a volute at the end of a handrail, Petra’s dog sunned in the valley of a vinyl desk chair. Licorice, little and black with an aging gray face—the suspected runt of the litter—didn’t budge when Petra loomed near. The dog looked up at her owner with black-moon eyes and an expression that betrayed nothing but familiarity with Petra’s presence. More respect than love. That regard never translated into learning that the chair was Petra’s, not hers. Whether it was dim-wittedness or entitlement, Petra could never tell and she made no effort to positively-reinforce otherwise. There was never any change in behavior.
With a two-handed scoop, Petra felt the warm pocket of Licorice’s front legs; her grip pulsated from the dog’s heartbeat. There’s so much life, so much chaos, inside such a little thing that sits still all day and does nothing. Petra took her rightful seat as Licorice burrowed into the hollow of Petra’s thighs and—after several attempts—rolled into a C-shape. She remained that way as Petra checked emails and arranged a list of who would need to be called back, but as soon as the doorbell trilled there was life again. Out the window, Petra saw the brown van at the lip of the curb. As the driver trotted back to the vehicle, Licorice serenaded him with bared taupe teeth and verbal warnings. Get off my land! There’s that protective warrior she’d seen in the pound, hiding her puppies from those who dared march passed her gates.
“Too late, Lic. He got away.”
Downstairs, while Petra scanned the counter for a knife to open the package, she boiled water for tea. She draped a bag of peppermint into an empty Pennsylvania mug, a souvenir purchase destined to be passed over at a garage sale, but PA were her initials and the shortest of words, some children’s first intentional sound. She had found herself hooking the handle and walking it up to the counter along with a bag of dry Purina and a tube of tennis balls. She was on her way to the pound in Bird-in-Hand, where she was growled at by a Hurricane Katrina dog that she’d eventually chose and name not all that creatively from the shade of her black coat.
The kettle was not yet whistling, but it was an angry sea inside, water tumbling over itself, frantically morphing into steam. She sliced open the flaps of the delivery with a butter knife. The water was ready, hissing and shrieking. It bubbled as she poured it over the bag of peppermint. The steeping tea settled itself, turning a translucent green, silent in the mug. Her phone vibrated crawling over the counter top. A call from Mother Home. She silenced the call.
The box had been light, carrying it in from the porch, almost comically empty, like a bad prank: someone sending you a box full of air. Inside sat a collapsed plastic bag loosely knotted shut. Putting down her mug, Petra worked open the closure. She saw a heap of warm-colored yarn. Hats. Pulling out each one, she counted six, all different sizes, some small enough for a child. A glowing-fireplace palate, with the blue of the flame represented in the smallest hat. She tried on a red beanie with ochre dots, like splashes of spices cascading down to the rolled up brim. Petra hadn’t a clue as to who had sent them.
Searching for further clues, under the crinkled bag she exhumed a note in wide and legible cursive. She looked to the return address. Henrik Appel. It was her last name attached to an unfamiliar given name. But she had heard the name a few times, it being her father’s. There was one time on her grandmother’s deathbed, and another occasion when she was eight and boarding a plane in Mexico to return to the States. She’d never seen it in print before, that ghost of a name. Spooked, she sipped her tea and burned her tongue just enough to take her mind off of the note, the name, the box.
Licorice sensed a shift in the room and barked once. Her phone buzzed. Her mother again, but Petra needed a moment. For her own sake, and for Licorice’s, she turned on some Wagner. The first part of the Ring Cycle conducted by Pierre Boulez himself. That would hold the dog in calm stasis, the mutt being so much like the music, an unemotional shell sheathing a hurricane. She kneeled down to pet Licorice’s head, pulling the skin on her face back tight, opening her eyes as far as they would go. Poor kid, Petra thought, carted and shipped in eighteen-wheelers up the Eastern seaboard. This little hurricane dog: the storm was held within the muscles of her sleek midnight body, almost blue in the morning light.
She picked up the note again.
Petra, Looking you up, I only found one you. I’m proud of what you’ve become even if I don’t know what a publicist is. You’ve exceeded anything I could be. I hope you are well and I hope I can see you before it’s too late. I’m not long for this world and would like you to come visit me. I only live a short ride from you, isn’t that funny?
Petra, stuck on the word funny, tried to decipher its intent. She had laughed, a quick burst like an opening of a soda pop. She looked for the joke that made her chuckle and found none. Leaning rather towards peculiar, Petra eyeballed the rest of the note, which included an address with landmark directions, the four numbers indicating the next year, and the salutation, “Love, Dad.” She had found no explanation why the note came nestled in a box of hats crudely wrapped in a plastic bag.
A noise from her phone alerted Petra to a text message. Her mother: I called and you didn’t answer. This was not the way mornings usually went. Petra felt hungry and didn’t know if she could let her absentee father or a forced chat with her mother—or whatever those two strings knotted together became—enter the space in her head if she didn’t have something toasted and warm to fill her stomach. She would call her back later.
The toaster was filled with crumbs. She had never before thought to clean it. Dampening the sponge, she wrung it out and scrubbed the crumb tray until it revealed a uniform shine. With the last sheet of paper towel, she dried the tray off and rebirthed it in the toaster. Untwisting the wire clasp off a fresh bag, she pulled out one slice of whole wheat, shaved a bit of cheddar off a block and dotted it with pickle chips. The atomic orange glow of the box warmed the space around her and she watched it toast. The cheese began to melt, the pickles settled deeper into the ooze. Brown began to scar the skin of the cheddar, a relief map for her teeth to traverse..
She blew on the grilled cheese until it wasn’t too hot to eat and took a tentative bite. Her phone rang. Her mother again. Petra not yet sated (her stomach’s emptiness feeling like abuse) she consumed the sandwich rapidly with little soothing. The toaster still blushed with heat. She opened it again and touched her left palm to the coils. Her skin burned. A few seconds later, the sting was too much and her fingers found her mouth. The phone stopped ringing.
Plunging her hand like pincers in the ice tray, she reached for paper towels but only the bare roll stood. Her hand throbbed from burn and naked ice. Licorice, panicky, stayed with Wagner and his raging Gods to guard the top of the steps. Petra huffed and disappeared down the basement stairs. Would it be so bad to tell her mother about the note, Petra thought. Or was it not the act of revealing rather what comes after that was the problem? How much cleaning up would there be? These things were messy. She climbed back up the stairs with a roll of Bounty in her good hand to the dog’s hind-leg stance. Ice tossed in the sink rumbled, as the God of Thunder baritoned from the player. Petra ripped plastic packaging with her uneven bite. She placed some fresh ice in thick squares of towel. While her phone had stopped its tune, it still waited expectantly as did Licorice, who wanted back in the cave of Petra’s lap.
Calling her mother back meant she had to tell her, maybe even recite the note from her father. Her mother hadn’t spoken to Henrik in decades. And if she decided to spill, Petra couldn’t dance around it. They’d have to have a conversation—adult to adult—and Petra could not see her the way she often saw her; scattered limbs randomly arranged around a static trunk. Petra’s father contacted her for the first time in her thirty years with a curious tone. She might need her mother’s help.
Sometimes, Petra would look at an old photo album she managed to smuggle away from her mom’s house around the time she was finishing college. Petra had fished it out of a pile in the attic and stuffed it under her sweatshirt until she could stow it in her overnight bag. With a tug, she’d open the puce-colored cover, browns and reds marbling together. It seemed to Petra like the album was a live action comic book, familiar characters in an otherworldly place. They were all shots of her parents, when they were young and there were no rings and no Petra. Her long-haired mother and her bearded father both smiled upstage of a birthday cake. Her mother’s blue-shadowed eyes fluttered shut, stuffing a Waldbaum’s bag full of frosting-smeared paper plates, as the party must have come to a close. Her father played a silver harmonica while others clapped, pull-tab beer cans raised in salute. The other people were strangers to her and she wondered if her mother still knew who they were. She wondered if her mother had noticed the album had gone missing. Her mother kept a lot close to the chest.
After excavating a tub of Vaseline from under the bathroom sink, opening it up with her good hand and the assistance of her clasped feet, Petra lathered a coat of jelly over her blistering raw palm. Where her knuckles were, appeared stripes of unburned, pale flesh. She filled the dog’s bowl with water, Licorice appearing from around the bend, lapping up the cool liquid. Her nametag clanged, dipping itself into the water like a tea bag. She would have to call her mother back.
It rang three times. Petra anticipated the pick up of voicemail but then heard a clattering and a resigned, “Oh, hello.”
“Hey, mother. How are you? I saw you called. And texted.”
“Yeah. Just want to see. Ya know. I bought some meat on sale.”
“Was it good?”
“I’ve had better.”
Petra agreed, as it was a familiar refrain, one of her mother’s greatest hits. An idea that somehow everything was better in the past, and everything retroactively was the past. If in the near future, Petra asks her mother how that meat she bought on sale was, her mother will complement it as a treasure, a rare find. Even as she will take a ravenous bite off a thick fatty pork chop that Petra will treat her to, she will fondly spend that future moment reminiscing about that meat she bought on sale’s leanness, its juiciness and its rosette-pink color.
On the counter, untouched by her injured hand, another conduit of the past stared at her. Henrik’s scripted letter. She didn’t know what it would mean to her mother but for Petra, it was a ticket to an unclear destination. From a ruinous reunion to a perfectly healed family unit, an acknowledgement of the letter could leave her anywhere on the map, most likely at the bottom of the ocean. As she hung on the phone with some seconds of dead air, she understood she was now a middleman between her mother and father. That regardless of what he had written, he had written to her and not her mother, the person whom he had known. It felt unfair.
“I thought you might be out with Ray since you didn’t answer my calls.”
“I was trying to work.” Petra looked down at the differences between her hands. One was on fire and the other was blank. Petra couldn’t stop one tear from jumping out of her eye. “Ray and I spent a lot of time together this weekend.”
Sometimes when talking to her mother, Petra would story-tell. One day, she told her mom she met a guy while out walking Licorice and they were going to go out on a date. There was a grain of truth to Petra’s story. She had met her neighbor Ray while she was out walking the dog; there was just never a date. She was pretty sure he was married. Petra had walked her street a few blocks, down the hill and passed the traffic circle. She had been heading towards the creek. Ray had been running up the hill, hatchet-chopping at pebbles with his sneakers, as if his each step nicked the bark of an oak. Out of breath, sweat tie-dyed his John Hopkins med school t-shirt, he slowed down before her, happy to have a reason to stop. He introduced himself with a panting tumescence, as did Licorice. Petra asked if he was a doctor and he said yes, quipping that he had left his stethoscope at home. He smiled at his own joke, letting her do the laughing. He smelled malty and radiated heat. Licorice tugged for attention and need of movement. Petra said it was nice to meet him, but she really had to walk her dog. As she walked down the hill, it felt like he might have watched her a bit before he started his run again. She felt like a hot dog kept under a heat lamp, and the sun was behind clouds; that fevered beam of heat was either from Ray or from inside herself. It was the only time they had ever spoken.
Ray became something they could talk about when they had nothing else to say or if they wanted to avoid anything too controversial between them. “Ray and I went to a birthday party yesterday.”
“Yeah, it was a friend of his. An old friend.”
“How was the food?”
“Mother, do you always have to ask me about the food? I don’t know, it was fine I guess. A grocery store cake.”
“Well, there’s nothing wrong with that.” Petra heard the applause from a television show decrescendo. Her mother wanted to hear more.
“They played some oldies, probably your music. Ray took out this harmonica. He had it in his back pocket like he carries it around all the time.”
“Sounds like a real blues man.”
“That’s what they were playing. The blues.” Petra hummed a song she knew her mother had heard before. One she would sing along with when it came on the car radio, on her mother’s favorite station, the one pre-set and easily found by pushing the first button with her acrylic nails.
“Well, it sounded like you had fun at the party.”
Her mother’s sentence felt like the conversation’s closer. Petra’s hand ached; she needed help. She didn’t mention her agony to her mother, nor did she bring up the note. There was no way to get there. She let them both stay in that little album, covered and stuck closed. By crafting a tale of a night, one that belonged to her mother, but claiming it as her own, Petra felt she wasn’t lying, just telling someone else’s truth. Was her mother picturing the night she spent celebrating her father’s birthday? She reckoned that when the call ended her mother might head up to the attic, pulling down the duct-taped string that sent down the ladder. She’d climb, clacking her wooden soled flip-flops, supposedly better for aging feet. She’d search in piles and boxes and shelves for that photo album that Petra had taken. And when she couldn’t find the album, what would she do? Just straighten up the piles she messed and take an old tissue from her pocket to dust off the covers. Take an inventory of all the useless things that could be trashed, hobble back down the ladder and close the door tight.
Ray unpacked two upright brown paper bags. Out came fresh sweet and white potatoes, Brussels sprouts, rainbow carrots, a locally raised chicken. A turkey was too big for only him and Karen. Vidalia onions, celery, a disposable baking tin. Let drippings coat the layers of produce he’ll bury underneath that plump bird. Let them turn brown and crisp with the sweat of his ample hometown chicken. A little fat wouldn’t kill them. Ray had been jogging. After his suspension, he was bloated, up over two-fifty. And as he had gained, Karen lost. She was thin as a wishbone, legs like the stems of a double cherry. But he was home now.
Ray’s co-workers knew he was a “problem doctor.” His malpractice insurance was taxed; a dozen cases open at any time. Nurses switched shifts to avoid him. But that wasn’t enough to confront him about his issues, the culture of his hospital being: see something, say nothing. His wife even once approached the Chief of Staff, “Ray always smells of vodka. Vodka’s not supposed to have a smell I’ve always heard, so why does he always smell like it?” The Chief had told her she thought the story was that vodka caused no hangover, not that it was odorless. Karen had gone on to tell her Ray had claimed his boozy odor was because nurses would leave open alcohol pads, like the kind you swab on a patient before an injection, on his counters. “The air is pure alcohol at the hospital, Karen, were trying not to spread diseases.”
But his behavior couldn’t be ignored when, at a Friday morning Morbidity and Morality conference, Ray punched out an unusually polite Mid-Western blood specialist. Dr. Stiv Ogilvie had vituperated on Ray’s unschooled choices after the death of a patient. Ray retorted that the patient had been terminal and that the same had happened to Ogilvie not to mention every other doctor present many times over. “What’s the point of these pointless meetings? Going over and over about someone dying and why they died and we know they are going to die! They are sick! In the hospital. End of story.”
Ogilvie, a former high school wrestler, albeit an unsuccessful one, puffed out like a rooster, stuttering over his words, “The thing is, my patients…I’ve witnessed them die. I’ve managed to be sober.” That’s when the left hook landed on Stiv Ogilvie’s already crooked nose. Ray tried for another swipe, but unsteady on his feet, he slipped from the stage onto the velour stadium seating of the front row.
After that incident, Ray was sent to Colorado for assessment from a specialist who deals with erratic doctors. It saved his job, but his license had been temporarily suspended. “Dr. Ray Peet cannot practice with reasonable skill and safety at this time.”
So now he cooked. And Karen, still a stick, sometimes ate a plate in her library as she worked on her vision boards. Ray ate most of what he made, but he had begun a regimen of jogging, so he felt it all evened out.
He removed the chicken from its packaging for the test run. After rinsing it off and patting it dry with paper towels mittened around his hands, he salted the skin of the chicken, then peppered from the crank of an old wooden grinder. As he rubbed the seasoning in, Ray felt the flesh surrounding the bones. He felt how every section was connected through cartilage and skin and meat. He was a doctor still. He sharpened his knife, a top tier purchase made with the bounty of all his billable hours. The more patients he had seen, the more money he had made. The accounts grew like a fairy tale beanstalks. The only thing to do was to buy toys for themselves. They were their own children.
With the knife he separated the chicken into all its identifiable parts. The adipose breasts, the sinewy legs, the useless all-bone wings. Each part was tossed on the island and accounted for. Ray examined the bones and assessed the carcasses’ chances for survival. If Stiv Ogilvie and his other colleagues were with him, aprons layered over their cotton scrubs, they could soberly discuss the bird’s demise. They would confidently riff on modes of solution, marking up Dr. and Mrs. Peet’s little used, landline-adjacent white board. They’d squawk pragmatic words like prevention, diagnostic and characteristics and Ray would speak his clearheaded thoughts. Hatching a plan to the other’s exasperation, they would think, there he goes again, trying to prove the rules don’t apply to him, but Ray’s idea would levitate above the others. Ray would put the amputated bird back together.
He needed to keep his sewing skills sharp; his muscle memory atrophying. When not jogging or cooking, he’d recline on shaker furniture to look at the green and blue bottles fancying the windowsills. The living room had transformed itself into an antiques store. Compelled to buy them at garage sales and mildewed country stores, for years he collected the trove of hand-blown glass. He’d stare at them, imagining the long-ago consumed spirits still within.
Getting a thick needle and surgical thread, he started to sew the chicken. He imagined fusing joints and bones and brought the flaps of dimpled skin together, in and out in a choreographed rhythm. He conjured up the music of the surgical theater’s PA system—sambas sweating with percussion and bass—something he could shake his hips and tap his toes to while keeping his hands steady. The chicken’s thigh connected under the breast. The legs sewn at an angle to accommodate the thighs. The thread was thickset and fibrous, yet thin enough to blend in with the texture of the planet-surface skin. It was an exquisite job, Frankenstein poultry, as if it was fresh out of the package. If he had feathers, Ray would give the bird back its plume—same with a head—resuscitating it to real life. Ray wasn’t sure if he could bring himself to cook it. He gave it a seat in the tin and brought the tray in with him to sit and watch the bottles.
Petra climbed her neighbor’s steps, letting Licorice lead in protective formation towards the portal of the unfamiliar house. She knocked, Licorice barked and too quickly—as if he was waiting for her—Ray answered, gripping a chicken in a disposable silver baking dish against his hip.
“Weird, I was walking by the door and the bark, it was like I was in trouble. Like the police...” Ray would have gone on talking if Petra hadn’t been wet cheeked and florid. She presented her hand, burned and dressed with a film of emollient. “Is that Vaseline? You know that makes it worse right? Come in, I’ll get a towel and some bandages.”
Petra followed Ray and Licorice inside as the orange light turned to the aquamarine of sea glass. She felt like she was walking under water, hallucinating another world. There were bottles everywhere. It was November outside and the dead of winter within. Ray deposited the chicken on a coffee table in the living room and Licorice whimpered at the body, as if warning its ghost not to rise from its coffin. Petra’s hand swelled with discomfort, all her blood traveled to the damaged extremity, making her lightheaded.
Petra noticed small pieces of something on the floor. Because of the oceanic light, she thought it was sand, small shells or pebble-like beads, but it was paper. In different colors and shapes, confetti-like shards littered the carpet. She followed the trail to a back room that might have been a garage once. There was a blonde teak table, plateaus of magazines bordering the edges. X-acto knives and scissors weighed down several piles of torn glossy images.
On an easel sat a thick poster board glued with pictures and words. The images were bright, rosy, and hopeful; an incomplete vision board, the lower right hand quadrant still blank. Petra got closer to observe freckled children toting balloons and running on a beach, helmeted bikers orgasming up a hill, picnickers forgoing a curated table of cakes and pies to throw newly fallen leaves at each other. They were smiling, sure, Petra expected that from a vision board, but what struck her is that all the people were in motion, all captured in random acts of exhilaration. As if to be happy, you can never sit still.
Ray searched for her with fistfuls of supplies. There was a brown jug of hydrogen peroxide, gauze pads, cutlet-colored ace bandages and an ice pack he unloaded next to the towers of periodicals. Sitting down, he took her hand, assessing the degree of burn and methodically striped away the Vaseline. Flinching, she found her focus in his profile, sitting in a dainty task chair, his knees coming up high to accommodate the length of his legs. They were mountains, like a child would draw. If he had holes in his jean’s knees, it would look like snow-capped hills rising close to the clouds.
“Can you take me somewhere? Not far.” Petra asked.
“You don’t need to go to the hospital. The burn’s not deep.”
“Somewhere else. I don’t think I can drive one-handed.”
“I can drive with my knees. One hand for the phone, one for the Egg McMuffin.” And he smiled like he had when they had run into each other on the street and introduced themselves. He gave her the space to laugh and again, she did.
He wrapped her up, letting the elastic of the bandage cling around the bones and the different shapes they’d make of her hand. It reminded him most of the chicken’s wing, except Petra had a pulse, rapid from the stress of her suffering. Since he’d been home, Ray was sharply aware of the daily absence of other body’s vibrations. Karen wasn’t the affectionate type, shielding her thinness in quilted clothes and Afghan blankets. In a typical day at the hospital, his fingers had hunted those comforting signs of life, his ear drumming to the beat of others. With each consecutive patient, thousands of dollars worth of pulses and heartbeats thumped for him. During eighteen-hour shifts, when the beating became too cacophonous, a swig from a paper cup would slow everything down. He would crave that feeling so much in the dormitory in Colorado. Even a handshake with his doctor was a thrill. Now in his house, to replicate the feeling, he would anchor his finger inside his cheek to feel the pulsations through his fleshy mouth.
Petra father’s note was folded and tucked into her left front pocket. Dark splotches like algae spotted her pants from each time she had checked that the slip was still there. She directed Ray to unearth the note, “Do you mind? My hands.” She held the ice pack against her bandage finally feeling some numbing relief. Awkwardly—in position, not experience—he inserted his bent fingers until he felt paper. He lingered on her warmth and the slow bass line of blood coursing down her limb, more controlled then in her palm. At that moment, he blushed, embarrassed about the chicken. She was probably wondering about it and was too polite to ask. That chicken was only play and no replacement for the real thing. This woman was alive. By the pounding of her heart that he could feel trough fabric and thigh, a beautiful rush, like he had some part in keeping her alive. Her face was in blue shadow; her breath rapid as he opened the note. “You can read it,” she said as he turned away, reciting its contents out loud to the dog that until then had no idea what was going on.
Henrik never knew what to make for dinner. What happened this day was what happened most days, he waited until he was ravenous and the sun was already down (he didn’t drive in the dark) so he slapped some whipped butter on white bread and quartered an orange. He made the attempt at solo formality and plated his food. Sucking a bite off the fruit, looking like a cooked pig, he guzzled a cream soda from a can.
The doorbell rang and he saw the silhouette of a woman through the side glass. It was Sally, he thought, and he was weary about opening the door to her again. When she had come to his apartment a few days ago, they had started off their consultation well. She was demure like Henrik’s teachers had been in elementary school. She was compassionate and knowledgeable about the process of liberation, of taking the time of your inevitable death into your own hands. He knew resolutely, he was making the right decision and Sally was there for him. Then a little bit of truth comes out and suddenly the woman was angry. Isn’t that usually the way, he thought as Sally had seemed to inhale some moxie and clucked at him how selfish and mocking he was. Henrik stood his ground, and she had left and said the Society would disavow all knowledge of Henrik Appel. He no longer existed. He had agreed. That was the whole point.
To see her crawling back, while he was sitting down to feed his belly! That satisfied Henrik more than his food.
Henrik opened the door to Petra. She kept her bandaged hand inside the furry wristbands of her frock coat. The porch light was not on yet, he didn’t get a good look at her but knew this was not who he had expected it to be. “Oh, I thought you were Sally.”
“No, I’m not Sally.”
He ushered her inside. She appeared staid, like all the Society members he had met. “Well, I’m sure she’s filled you in on everything,” he called from the kitchenette as he sliced up an orange for his visitor. He wrapped it in a napkin and placed on the table for her. He extended his hand (a lefty) and Petra lifted her bandage as an explanation of rejection. He switched to his right and she held her father’s hand for the first time. It was cold from the orange and heavy. A real mitt. He introduced himself and waited for her name. “Ray,” she answered and lied, but it was also a prayer. The name was a wish that instead of keeping company with Licorice in the car outside, Ray was with her, acting her counsel there at the table. She would be a dog on his lap, curled up and dreaming.
Henrik returned to his seat, “Listen, this doesn’t have to be a problem.”
“Is there a problem?” She had a hard time looking directly at him; afraid she might see something familiar. She soft-focused on the areas around him, a basic space, with the exception of a tropical couch devouring much of the apartment. She saw no evidence of a wife, another child, a roommate or even a pet. It was an efficiency unit, just what you need and nothing more.
“You tell me if there is a problem. I spoke my peace before. It’s against the policy, I know, I know, but there will be a time when this country takes my point seriously. The Scandinavians are good for something you know. If we can’t be socialists, then let’s be ethical humanists at least. What did Bill say?”
To Petra, this was like having a conversation with her mother, but only without the benefit of studying the tape for years and knowing what the opposing team was going to throw at you. All she had to do was say I’m Petra and this unknown conversation she found herself in would change course. She could speak her peace. She could tell him that his absence loomed larger in her life than whatever he could have given her if he were part of it from the beginning. That whatever love or embarrassment or confidence could have been showered upon her, what she had now was bigger. And that’s nothing, thank-you-very-much, a whole galaxy of void. She could tell him whatever truth she wanted to but something stopped her. Why should he get more of her than her mother does? Instead, she could play along and story-tell.
“Bill?” Petra tested the reaction to the name. Henrik hunched over his plate, head down, eyes up like a bull in a ring. He manically chewed, perhaps with loose dentures. He looked ready for a fight. “Bill’s not happy,” Petra taunted.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, but you need to know and Bill needs to know and I tried to tell Sally. I am truly suffering. There’s not a day when I’m not engulfed in pain. I’m trying to make amends.”
“How are those amends going?”
“I’ve done the usual, you know, I reached out. Apologizing.”
“I’ll tell you who I sent a three-page letter to. My old boss. All the things I stole. I can’t believe I never got caught! When I lived in Camden; pens, tape, toilet paper. All funded by the electric company. I could get anything out of there. Phones were my specialty.”
“What about your family?”
“My sister doesn’t answer my calls, something about saying something wrong to her kids, I don’t know, but I sent her a card. Then there’s my daughter. I don’t know her well.”
“How well does anyone really know anyone? You have kids? It’s not always easy.”
She was amazed he didn’t know who she was. She thought he might have known it was her upon opening the door. He had sent out the call. He had requested her presence and she came but he didn’t realize it was her. He might have even seen a picture on Facebook. She knew she was one of those people that always looked different in every picture, like the camera doesn’t know how to capture her face. “What about your daughter’s mother. Are you married?”
“Haven’t talked to Petra’s mother in thirty years.” He pronounced her name with a German, almost soviet lilt. It didn’t even sound like her name to her.
“Maybe make amends with her?”
“I don’t even know her anymore.” He got up and put his dishes in the sink. “So what? I don’t have terminal cancer. I’ve suffered from depression my whole life, undiagnosed for a great deal of it. That’s not good enough? I’ve taken medication, I’ve seen shrinks. I’ve turned to God even, can you believe it? But I’m broken, you see, I can’t get away from it. That’s why I needed your help. But we’re at an impasse now, aren’t we?”
“An impasse,” she parroted.
“I have all the tools. I have your magic system. The tanks and the tubes and the hood. So if you decide to help me or not, I will be liberated. I want to die the way I decide to die. I don’t want to slit my wrists or shoot myself in the head.”
“Of course not.”
“You’re about compassion. Why do I have to have a physical disease to get it? I don’t deserve help? I am diseased, I’m just never going to die of it, so I have to suffer and suffer. Where’s my compassion? I want my end.”
“So let me clarify, Mr. Appel. And you tell me if I have anything wrong. I will need to write up notes for Bill. And Sally.”
“Okay, sure, lets be on the same page.”
“You want to kill yourself.”
He sighed a yes. His impatience made her feel small, but she continued, “But you want dignity. So you contacted the…Bill and Sally, and they told you to buy tanks and all the other tools you need to peacefully fall asleep, but you lied to them and told them you have cancer so you could get our over-the-counter secret method. And once you got it, you said, Ha Suckers! I fooled you! And you expected everyone involved to say, oh, that’s okay, you can get away with it. Is that the truth Mr. Appel?”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“But that is essentially, the way it happened, correct?”
“Sally sent over a mini-version of herself, I see.”
“I’m not denying you’ve suffered, Mr. Appel. And I’m sorry that you have. But you also lied to people that were trying to help you. You also didn’t finish whatever amends you’ve promised to make. Maybe sending a letter or a card to someone you haven’t spoken to in years and shrugging your shoulders when they don’t answer is the very definition of the least you can do. I should confiscate all the materials you’ve purchased.”
“You could, but that would be stealing. And I can just go and buy them all again.” He was a petulant child with all the answers.
“You won’t apologize now will you? You won’t admit that how you went about it, maybe the way you’ve gone about your whole life, is just wrong. You’re taking no accountability, is that correct?”
“Hold on, Ray, was it? I’m feeling on trial here. This is what I was saying about compassion.”
Petra asked for a pen and paper. Henrik asked why, but she insisted. He got up and opened his bedroom door. She heard the opening of drawers, the tweak of a lamp’s knob and saw the shadow of his body moving through the room. Through the doorway she saw a made-up bed and centered on it were bundles of yarn laid out like fireplace logs. Two fat needles crisscrossed and impaled the mounds. On the floor, against the night table sat a helium kit, clear plastic tubing lay across the top, hanging over the sides. What celebratory and almost maternal items he had inside that little room where he sleeps. There was a harmless little tank for a party he was going to use to die and those knitting needles were long a favorite of desperate women in the countryside in need of abortions. You could kill anyone with anything, even with nothing, if you tried or not. He exited the bedroom with a pad and a click-top pen shutting the door behind him. She wrote down her mother’s number and her mother’s name and passed the note to him.
“How’d you get her number?”
“Finish your amends, Mr. Appel. Then do whatever you want.”
After a while, it got cold in the car, so Ray turned on the ignition. An opera spooked him from the speakers. Lowering the volume, he fiddled with Petra’s unfamiliar heating system, surprised to find no switch for seat warmers. The headlights beamed into action, giving Licorice access to the world outside the cabin of the car. The dog leapt up from her nested blanket in the backseat. The light made the squirrels scatter. To get as high and close to those climbing creatures, Licorice mounted Ray’s lap, her front paws on the top of the steering wheel. She barked in warning and attack as Ray stroked her belly. In the chaos of looking for safe shelter, a squirrel nosed a stuck balloon out from between two branches. It hovered near the tree, like the helium had slowly leaked out but there was still enough inside to keep it afloat.
The front door to Petra’s father’s apartment opened and Ray saw her bundled in her coat, the furry collar pushing her cheeks up high. She walked towards the car. Ray held Licorice tighter. The dog’s heart beat like an earthquake, like the organ was the size of her entire little body. Ray couldn’t tell what Petra was feeling, but he felt like a puppy falling asleep next to a ticking alarm clock.