Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas for the Nooch

This story is my Christmas present to Noochie, who not only introduced me to 'September' by Ryan Adams but also the idea for making it into a story. I've included the lyrics below in purple italics. Everyone have a kick-ass religious observance of your choosing!

Laura lays on the foot of the bed
Mimics a noose with the telephone cord
Doctor's on the phone
And she hangs up and says
"I ain't never gonna see the winter again"
Then, I don't know how, but she smiles

September, September
September, September

They carved your name into a stone
and then they put it in the ground,
I run my fingers through the grooves
When no one's around
Drink till I am sick and I talk to myself
in the dog days of the summer
And I feel you coming but I don't know how

September, September
September, September

Daniel waited for the coffee to brew while Laura planned her funeral.

He rinsed out Laura's only coffee mug, which was shaped like a snowman's head and chipped along the rim so he had to be careful where he put his lips. She was out of milk, and for a brief second Daniel considered whether sour cream would be an acceptable substitute. He dumped an inch of sugar in the bottom of the cup, topped off the rest with fresh coffee and gulped it down quickly, scorching his tongue and throat. He washed the mug again, refilled it and brought it into Laura's room.

She had been up all night scratching ideas for her funeral across slick, blank sheets of paper, and when the sun came up she started to frantically make phone calls to funeral homes, cemeteries, crematoriums, her finger blazing a trail through the Yellow Pages in her lap. She tucked the receiver under her chin and took the cup of coffee from Daniel with one hand, then set it on the night side table amidst the avalanche of empty Diet Coke cans.

In his brief absence to the kitchen Laura had sprawled with her notebooks and pens across the blankets. Daniel stood by the side of the bed for a minute, waiting for her to move over so he could lay back down, watching the pale steam from the untouched cup of coffee curl into the air. After a minute he realized that she wasn't going to let him back into bed, so he slipped into his jeans and t-shirt and sat on the floor.

While he waited for her, he rested his head against the IKEA bookshelf they had bought earlier that year. Laura had refused his help putting it together, and it tilted to the left very slightly. The slanted shelves were stuffed with books from aborted projects: knitting, drawing, ballroom dancing. Textbooks from the accounting class Laura took for a few weeks at Gwinnett Tech. Dozens of literary classics she'd meant to read: A Farewell To Arms, Catcher In The Rye. The Grapes of Wrath, which he'd never read, but it made him think of singing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' in third grade chorus.

Laura had been in the hospital the previous week while her doctor tested out theories for her sudden weight loss, her overall brittleness. She had thrived on the attention from her coworkers who came by with flowers and balloons, the doctors and nurses who would pat her knee while they took her temperature and drew blood, and Daniel, who camped out by her bed in a stiff armchair and gamely watched 'The Price Is Right' with her every day.

"Bet a dollar! A dollar, stupid!" she'd yell at the mounted TV, and then slip into a coughing spasm when a nurse would poke her head in the room.

She'd talked them into letting her stay an extra two days, and then they released her from the hospital yesterday. Daniel had relished signing her out; he liked the official sense of responsibility it gave him over her care and comfort. The nurse had told him to put fiancé as his relationship to patient on the formal paperwork. "We can't discharge her to anyone but family," she'd said with a wink.

As he drove her home, she fiddled with the radio and started rummaging through his glove compartment. "What if I had died in the hospital?" she asked, Jiffy Lube receipts in her fist.

Daniel's eyes darted over to the passenger's seat, saw Laura pull out a map of Georgia like an accordion. The thought of her death had sent him on impromptu runs to the gift shop or the bathroom while she was in the hospital; he hadn't wanted her to see him crying, making frantic, breathless, incoherent prayers to whichever deity would answer him.

"I'd be sad and depressed. I'd cry. I'd miss you every day. Are you looking for something in there?"

"No, I'm just being nosy. You need to clean this out. Is that all you would have done?" she asked, and they shared a sudden, simultaneous vision of Daniel sleeping on the dirt of her fresh grave, drunk on Wild Turkey, tracing her name on the cold granite marker with blind fingertips, and they both felt comforted.

The September morning was unseasonably chilly and the bare floorboards had made Daniel's ass numb. The early fall light shone golden through the grubby blinds, making the dust motes sparkle around Laura while she talked on the phone, picked at the chipped dark polish on her toenails, sketched a crane in flight in the lower corner of the phone book. She fidgeted and looked everywhere around the room except at Daniel.

"So, is there a discount if I'm not embalmed? Oh. Yes, yes I guess so."

Daniel had met Laura three years ago when he had been married to a sweet girl; a pharmacist who kept the fridge full of milk for his coffee and the cabinets full of coffee cups. Laura had been in front of him at the checkout line in Kroger, frantically searching through a weathered knapsack for the eight dollars she owed for her groceries. "I know it's here somewhere," she repeated, taking out her wallet again and painstakingly pawing through the tiny pockets which held pictures, ATM receipts, expired coupons, two library cards- everything but money. After five minutes Daniel stepped up and offered to pay for the stack of Ramen noodles, squeeze bottle of ketchup and box of tampons she was trying to buy.

"Thank you so much," she'd whispered as he helped carry her bags to her car. "I was going to shoplift all that but a security guard followed me and I had to pretend like I was going to buy it."

"Ah...Oh. I see." His palms began to sweat.

"Well, I would have bought it but this month has been hard, I lost my job and then a few months ago..." she reached up and ran her fingers along the curve of her jaw, and Daniel saw a blue-green vein pulsing elixir under her pale skin, her earlobe with its trio of silver hoops, her bitten, bloody cuticles.

"Well, you don't want to hear about it. It's just...hard sometimes, you know?" she'd sighed, wiped her nose with the back of her hand. It was the first of a hundred thousand times she'd hint at some dark monster that always haunted her. Daniel developed his own theories over time, but kept them to himself because he feared that he might be right.

"Can you hold on a second? I have a call on the other line. Wait...Hello? Oh, hello Dr. Thomas." Laura looked at Daniel, including him for the first time this morning.

"It isn't? Oh, I see. That's good. Yes, yes it is. Thursday at noon. OK. Thank you...Hello? Damn, he hung up."

"Well? What did he say?"

Laura curled the phone cord around her neck, her tongue hanging out. "I'm done for. Never going to see another winter." She smiled and waited.


Biff Spiffy said...

I couldn't not read it. I tried.

I'm a big wuss and I like happy endings. But she's smiling... Haunting.

Merry (insert thing to have here) to you!

Dragon said...

You're a star, darling Sea Hag.

Skully said...

How dare you write something that makes my throat all tight!
I always wanted to live forever until I met and married her. Now I want to go first.
You make pictures with words.