FEBRUARY 2006 – NO. 3
The Alternate Palace
The third and final original short story selected by guest fiction editor Robley Wilson.
The woman was screaming murder down the hall. I could hear her through the door. The man I was with lay in bed, tilted up. "Will you listen?" he said. I was wearing a mask.
I was married to him.
The linen was a mess.
It had been this way, like this, for days. There was a portal in his arm and a tube in his nose, and out the window lay the city, alive. We could see downtown, the river too. There was oxygen in there, in the tube. On TV there was a scandal. A colonel was speaking. "Ahem," the colonel said.
He had been coughing, my husband had, and losing weight. His lungs were filled with fluid. The fluid was red.
The colonel said "contra."
Data was taken, a quantity of blood.
"Consumption" was a word not said. Nevertheless, they were frightened, it seemed, the servers with the trays, and left them lying in the hall.
Underneath the mask, my face was hot. It was summer — the Fourth of July, in fact. I went out to get the tray.
The woman had thoroughly quieted herself when the doctor came to look, and so, the nurses said, he discredited reports. She waited until he was just beyond hearing. "Murder," she hollered. "Call the police!"
The dinner on the tray — there was cutlet, I think, and cubes of things — looked good to me.
There was a little chocolate cake with a toothpick flag.
I was that hungry.
The woman with the bucket of wash is me. I am a failure at folding. The bedding is crushed. The shirts are getting bigger: boys', men's.
I am sensitive to noise in this house of ours, where until rather recently we have not lived.
I have failed to even make an appropriate attempt.
The teacher was giving us a lesson in faith. She said, "Faith is a process," or something like that, to that effect. She gave us examples, and passages to read. I left the pages elsewhere, I believe.
At night, each night, I left the hospital for home. Where we lived, more or less, at that time, was a box. My husband was confined to isolation in the ward but the bathroom was shared with a patient who, going by the evidence, was stricken with a terrible and new disease. My husband had an old disease. "I think I am a danger to him," my husband said.
The woman was screaming as I walked down the hall to where the elevator was. "Call 911!"
I rolled my sleeves.
The nurses went about their night and did what nurses do.
I have often been accused of disregarding the subject. But while we're on the topic, they used bleach to clean up with after a procedure.
The teacher was saying, "God's voice is on the waters." She told us, if we could, to dress in white.
"Listen, I can listen to the hearings," he said. He was watching an investigation into weapons. I could hear it on the phone. I was sitting at work, eating fish from a container. At the time it was important — who said what and what we did. The woman sitting next to me was listening in. "Eee-rahn," she said. "Don't say 'I ran.'"
I went there with batteries and tissues and socks, and something to sip through a straw for myself, which I could do if I adjusted the mask, inadvisably.
"Opportunistic" — the word we kept hearing. The cough had been suppressed by then.
The view overwhelmed me. Taxis and taxis; yellow, yellow everywhere, and gray, and rain; the tallest of structures — only one, on account of the angle, its double obscured. I had once had a drink at the top, on the deck, with a man who liked to talk about dreams. The man was from Chicago. He'd had the dream, he said, where he flew, and also the one we had shared about teeth.
My teeth were partly real.
The tube had been removed.
The man who had shared the toilet was missing, or so we had to guess.
I was learning to use the computer at home. I was processing words. I kept violating something.
I was calling my husband at the hospital for help.
My doctor had told me I needed to be tested.
I stood and watched the fireworks along with the others on top of the building. We saw them from the distance, miles to the east.
We couldn't hear a thing.
There were colorful fingers pointed at us, coming down from the sky.
I ate a carton of food with a wooden utensil, and dialed up the hospital.
"What was your fortune?" my husband said.
My dress was stained.
I said, "Wouldn't you like to hear what I saw?"
My grandfather told me a story once, pertaining to a faraway country and king. My grandfather's friend had a valued position tidying the palace — the alternate palace, the residence for summer.
This friend let my grandfather enter in winter and left him alone for a minute in the study. My grandfather sat at the desk of the king. He filched a pen. The pen had a feather and also a crest, my grandfather said. He had planned his escape. But the walls of the study, my grandfather said, were covered with various animal heads. Hunted down. The eyes, he said, were watching him.
He put back the pen.
The king was killed.
The friend was killed.
The people who lived in the village were killed.
My grandfather lived out his life in Chicago, selling cloth. His hands were red. Dry goods were his industry.
He sang with delight for us in another language.
"Listen," he said. "Vot I have is a story."
Still, I believe he wished he'd had the pen.
All of our sons have been named for someone else — in memory, or honor, or something akin.
I sat on the river, on the ferry one day, and watched the city burn. I was leaving, of course.
I am terrible at names and at faces — both. I cannot always recognize the people I know. But this I insist: I have never, I swear it, forgotten a voice.
After the food was consumed at night, I'd put the tray in the hall, and I would hear the woman raging.
Someone would come, sooner or later, my husband said, and take the remainders away.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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