Floating beside the bed, leaning toward him, dreary artificial light around her. Makes her stand out, a vision. If she’s here, then it’s real. ‘Pauli?” he whispers.
“Who else would it be?” She’s gentle and sturdy, something like a smile on her face. ‘You been dreamin’ of somebody I don’t know about?”
“Yeah,” he says. ‘Uh-huh. Are you okay?”
“Yes, dear one, I’m fine. You’re the patient, remember?”
“Me,” he says. ‘I’m the one. Let’s…stop…dreaming.”
She says, “No need to talk just yet, Taylor. Go on back to sleep.”
But he can’t, doesn’t want to. He swallows and stares up at her, adjusting to the crazy light, memory returning slowly, an inch at a time. Water seeping into soft soil. There’s some distant, scratchy rendition of misery in his stomach.
“Seems to me we’ve done this before,” she says. ‘Isn’t this where I came in?”
He tries to clear his throat. ‘Does seem familiar. You used to be a nurse.”
“Long time ago, yes, as a matter of fact.”
“Come on…not that long.”
“Well. Except last time it was your arm. Only a scratch, you said, just before you passed out.’ She takes his hand and kisses it. ‘This’s something more than a scratch.”
“Weren’t we younger the first time around?”
“Somewhat,” she says, smiling. ‘You were uncommonly fresh as I recall.”
“You didn’t mind much.”
“Didn’t mind a bit. I was shameless.”
“Just had good taste was all.’ He knows there are questions he should ask sometime, but he can’t think exactly what they are.
She rubs his hand between hers, as if to warm it. ‘You’ve been in the hospital three days,” she says, answering what he hasn’t asked. ‘You’re going to be fine. Lost a good deal of blood, going to have quite a stomach ache for a few weeks. Doctor Bullard says R&R’s all you need.”
“And a lead-free diet.’ The pain is not so far away, it’s sneaking into his voice. Then, sudden as a crash he remembers Jay shouting in the coffee shop, the gunfire, each separate bullet ‘ jerking his head off the pillow, sharp white heat slicing into his chest: an idea of what electrocution is all about. ‘Where’s Jay?” he wheezes.
“He’s okay, don’t worry,” she says, “he’s fine.’ He lets her push him back against the pillow. ‘He’s the one got you here in record time. He’ll probably come by later.”
“And Ryan’ll be here after school.”
“Yes, fine,” she says. ‘He’s worried about you.”
Pauline changes direction without skipping a beat. ‘Jay told me to tell you, in his opinion you guys ought to start patronizing another coffee shop.”
Taylor smiles, picturing Jay saying that.
She squeezes his hand and looks away. ‘He had to shoot the man, Taylor. The man who was robbin’ the place. Jay killed him.”
Now he remembers himself lounging in the car, waiting, as if his life depended on carelessness, pretending his mother was on the radio. Good Christ! And Ryan’s poem. Daydreaming, watching his own slow shoes scrape across the street instead of looking where he was going. Knowing the man was dead before the shots were fired. ‘Christ.”
“He had to do it, Taylor. The man didn’t give him any choice.”
“It was me didn’t give him any choice. Damn.”
“What’re you talking about? What could you’ve done?”
But he’s not thinking about explaining. ‘Have to sleep.”
She won’t let go of his hand.
“I need something for the pain.’ He closes his eyes. ‘Would you ask someone?”
She whispers, “Talk to me.”
“Not now. Not right yet.”
“All right.’ She’s watching him. In a moment she lets go, and that motion, her hand withdrawn, seems to cause the pneumatic hiss as the door closes behind her.
He crosses the street again, the sun explodes against the plate-glass ‘ but before he gets to the door of the coffee shop he opens his eyes and finds the ceiling in his hospital room. A crack weaves drunkenly down the middle of the yellowing plaster, a fake-front Hollywood scar. His eyes begin to follow it. Could’ve collared that guy clean, would’ve been easy. His eyes move across the ceiling, the speed and arc of his sight line the same as the searing in his stomach, sizzling in every direction, down to his feet, up into his arms and neck: he thinks of the roots of a tree, on fire, blazing.
At some point Pauline comes back with a nurse who has a bottle and an I-V. She takes his hand again while the nurse sets him up. No one talks.
. . .
Ryan says, “I’m glad you’re home, man ‘ I didn’t say I wasn’t,” shaking his head. In the dim room the gesture is a blur to Taylor. ‘What I said ‘ that you didn’t hear ‘ was you’re always going backwards. Whatever we start talkin’ about, doesn’t matter ‘ you have to take one of your spacey little strolls down memory lane. Try to stay in this year, why don’t you ‘ the one we’re dealing with now.”
“We’re dealing with all of ’em now,” says Taylor. He lifts his arm and squints at his wrist like there’s a watch. ‘Half-past ’94. Thanks for the reminder.’ He sits up straighter in bed and draws a pinched breath, smiling horribly when the dressing pulls at the stitches.
Ryan pushes himself out of his chair and regards Taylor, shaking his head again. He’s quite a little head shaker. ‘Real nice talking to you. Same as always.”
“What? What’s the damn problem?”
“Said you wanted to talk,” says Ryan.
“Yeah, we’re talkin’. We’re not doing so bad.”
“‘Til I say something you don’t like. Then it’s time for a goddamn joke.”
“Watch your mouth.”
“I’ll watch mine, you watch yours?”
“Listen, Ryan ‘ ”
“You think since you got shot you’re right?”
“Since I’m your father I’m right.’ He’s trying to defuse this, but it doesn’t sound that way.
Ryan looks down and inspects his fingernails. ‘Nothing’s that simple,” he says.
Everything is, thinks Taylor. Since he almost went on to his great reward he has observed everything is much simpler than he ever gave it credit for. He waits for Ryan to continue, but the boy turns his head and looks over toward the bedroom window. Taylor’s eyes follow. The square of night sky visible through the glass is a dense bluish black, packed with stars. It doesn’t look real: a bright miniature contained in the window pane. “Doesn’t look real,” he says.
Ryan turns to him but won’t talk.
“Sit down, okay? Come on.”
The boy reluctantly drops into the chair and crosses his legs, an ankle against a knee. He folds his arms and stares at Taylor.
“Your mother’s taking her night out with the girls. She didn’t want to, I made her. So we’ve got some time, let’s see if we can talk.’ He lifts his eyebrows, giving Ryan a space to say something. Ryan looks like English is not his native tongue. ‘I’ve had a lot on my mind lately,” says Taylor.
“You’re not the only one ‘ we’ve all got a lot on our minds. The whole world is thinking about something. There wasn’t anything you could do about what happened, man. Everybody says so. You’re alive, so is Jay.”
“How’d you get so smart all of a sudden?” It sounds like a cut, though Taylor does not intend it that way.
“I come in here and the first thing out of your mouth is something about me not being glad you’re home.”
“I asked you where you’ve been keeping since I got home,” says Taylor. ‘I said I haven’t seen much of you, seems like you’d rather I wasn’t here. Then I ask if that’s true and you launch off on this wild-ass speech about me always going backwards and being in the wrong year.”
Ryan unfolds his arms, Taylor sees his clenched fists as Ryan jams them into the front pockets of his jeans. Ryan looks down at the floor in front of his chair as if it’s a distant planet.
“No, man, what you said was you remembered when I was little how I always liked to hang around you, how I would never leave you alone. Then you said now it’s like I wish you weren’t here ‘ see, the difference is you started with when I was a kid, had to go back a decade or so and make a comparison.”
“Well, damn, that’s natural for God’s sake. Ryan, I don’t ‘ ”
“Dad, I don’t want to be Ryan anymore. I’ve been asking everybody to start calling me Alexander. Or Alex, either one. If I don’t change it now and get people to start using it, it’ll never happen.’ He lifts his eyes from his hands and looks at Taylor. ‘I just want my own name. No strings attached.”
“What the hell kind of strings? You were named after ‘.’ Taylor catches himself, his voice goes flat. ‘Oh, I see.”
“What do you see?”
“You don’t want to be named after my best ‘ ”
“That’s not it! Listen for a second. All I want ‘ ”
“Is to turn your back on the name you were christened with. It’s a damn sacred name.”
“You are so predictable, man.’ Ryan gets up again and walks to the window. ‘No surprises from you,” transferring his fists to his back pockets, watching the darkness.
Taylor turns his head to see the boy. ‘Why should I say it’s fine with me if you change your name? You want me to be somebody else?”
Ryan looks over his shoulder, opens his mouth.
“Don’t answer that,” says Taylor.
“I don’t want to change it. I just want to be called by my middle name ‘stead of my first. That’s all.”
“Okay, then I don’t want to be Dad anymore. From now on, just call me Bob.”
He thinks he sees Ryan’s lip curl a little, but it would be presumptuous to call it a smile. He feels the pain coming on, a roll of barbed wire uncoiling in his gut. ‘What’s your mother say?”
“She’s going with Alex.”
“Alex,” says Taylor, trying out the sound of it, mixing it with the pain. ‘Alex Means. Allow me to introduce my son, Alex ‘ or Alexander if you prefer.’ He feels it moving into his muscles, radiating. ‘It’s not going to be so easy.”
“You’ll try though, right?”
He closes his eyes and nods.
“It’s four letters,” says Ryan, “two syllables. Exactly like Ryan, except it’s Alex instead.”
“Very deep. You’re a brilliant kid, you know that?”
Ryan turns back to the window. ‘Been waitin’ for you to catch up.”
Taylor figures that’s entirely possible. He’s about to shoot back something witty when a stomach spasm twists into him and rips out a moan, jerking his chin to his chest.
Ryan turns. ‘What’s happening?”
The spasm begins to flatten out almost immediately, he opens his eyes enough to see through.
“What can I do?” Ryan’s coming over. ‘There some pills or something? I should call Doctor Bullard.”
Taylor shakes his head but cannot get any words to his mouth. He doesn’t want any more morphine ‘ it knocks him on his butt. He looks at his son’s face leaning over the bed and hears the boy’s voice as it was a minute ago: You’re so predictable.
“Got any pot?”
“You know, marijuana. It’s green, mostly illegal…sometimes used to relieve pain.’ The circles of pain begin to shrink back down to smaller points. He could probably get through it now, but he wants to go on with this. This is inspiration.
Ryan looks right at him, waiting for the punch line. Taylor stares back at him. ‘Yeah, I’ve heard of it,” says Ryan. ‘You serious? Come on ‘ you’re a cop.”
“And your dad,’ Taylor says. ‘Yeah, well, you’ve got the basic facts: I’m your father and I’m a damn fine cop. Now the question of the moment is do you have a joint?”
They look at each other. Taylor stifles a smile. ‘I’m serious.”
“What about Mom? She’d go into a coma.”
“No she wouldn’t, especially if we don’t tell her.”
“You’d lie to her?”
“No, but I wouldn’t offer the information either. Doubt she’ll ask. It’s just between you and me.”
“How ’bout the police department?”
“If they ask me, I’ll tell ’em.”
“You’ll tell ’em where you got it?”
“No, Son. Always protect your sources.”
He watches Ryan going over the whole thing. The kid looks surprised. Imagine that. ‘Maybe it’ll help with the pain,” Taylor says, reminding himself what he’s been thinking the last few days. The pain is changing him: he’s not soft, but there aren’t any edges left either. Fleeting youth and all that crapola; the old mortality thing in sharp focus.
“Maybe it’ll help with getting you high,” says Ryan, Grouchoing his eyebrows, flicking the ash from his imaginary cigar. Taylor taught him that when Ryan was four or five ‘ they haven’t done it in years. But Ryan performs now like it’s second nature, a lost marble that was in his pocket all the time.
Ryan still can’t believe this.
“So?” says Taylor.
His son squints at him, trying to verify with his eyes what he’s hearing. ‘You ever smoked before?”
“You’re dealin’ with a virgin.”
“Your wife would be surprised to hear that.’ Ryan shakes his head again, conveying his own diagnosis of his father’s mental condition.
Taylor smiles as well as he can.
Finally Ryan gets up and goes to the bedroom door, turning before he leaves. ‘This is killer weed,” he says. ‘Don’t need much.”