Joyland

Los Angeles |

Sustenance

by Diana Wagman

edited by Lisa Locascio

There were bits of dead fairies in Aunt Lila’s phlegm. She coughed up streaks of pink and lavender and pale baby blue. Pieces of bony arms and legs, pointed shoes, tiny shards of iridescent wings. They dribbled down her chin, fell onto her hospital gown. It sounds disgusting, and it was, but it wasn’t.

“I’m sorry,” she kept saying and trying to suck it all back in.

There were some dark red splashes of blood too, but hers or the fairies I couldn’t tell.

How did I know they were fairies? I’m just her nephew and while I’m not particularly manly and unfortunately at 29 still a virgin through no fault of my own, I am not namby or pamby and I certainly don’t believe in fairies. And yet, I couldn’t deny what I was seeing and for some reason I knew exactly what they were.

A big nurse in flowered scrubs came in and scooped the mess off Aunt Lila’s chest with a blue disposable towel. She didn’t seem to notice what she had collected and just dumped it into the bean shaped basin. She gave my aunt a cup with a straw, nodded as she drank.

“Hey,” I said. “Shouldn’t somebody look at that? I mean, look.”

The nurse made a tsk-tsk sound under her breath and carried the basin away.

Aunt Lila burped and put her ancient hand over her mouth. Her veins were like tributaries to her knuckles, dark as a polluted river. Her fingernails were storm cloudy. There was turmoil, something raging inside her.

I didn’t know what to do, how to help. I wondered what she had been eating. It couldn’t be fairies. Aunt Lila was vegan and a passionate animal lover. She cried when she washed the bugs off her windshield.

She lay back and closed her eyes. “Sorry,” she said again. Her voice was hoarse, not more than a whisper.

“No problem.”

I was taking a turn doing the hospital vigil. The rest of the family had been on call for shift after shift. I had not volunteered, I had been recruited when all other options had been utilized. I was there only because my parents and my cousins were desperate for a break. I was the family fuck up, but not in the usual ways. The machines beeped and buzzed. They were labeled with words oddly joined: pulse with oxygen and saturation; sequential with compression. All the tubes and wires and devices plastic and all in putty gray. Disinfectant mixed with the stink of dying flowers. I was antsy. I was getting depressed. Fluorescent lights can do that, that, that. The flicker reminds me of classrooms, airports, public bathrooms, large box stores, and other terrible places. Fairies were good things. Not to be eaten. I thumbed down my cell phone, but the list of contacts hadn’t changed. I got out of my chair. I told her I’d be back and I supposed I would—if only to see what she threw up next.

I headed for the elevator telling myself not to look in any of the doors that opened off the hallway, but looking in all of them. An old leg mapped with thrombosis, bent at the knee, and a catheter to a pee-filled pouch hanging below the bed. A man standing with a brown hat in his hand. He could have been standing there in his overcoat and leather shoes since 1959. The backsides of a family; wife, mother, sister, dad clustered at the bedside of a body I couldn’t see, someone they loved who’d been damaged in the war, a war, or a car accident, or paralyzed from diving into a shallow swimming pool. What had my aunt done? What could possibly make her sick enough to spew chewed up fairies? She was nice. I had always liked her. She told fortunes at the county fair and never told mine. No fortune for you, she told me, only one of those red plastic fish that curl on your palm and tell you what you already know based on the blood under your skin. In love. Fickle. Jealous. Dead one. The fish always twisted into a ball. It meant I was Passionate. Yes, yes, but I was beginning to think I would never get what I wanted.

The elevator doors disappeared open as I pondered—a good word: ponder. To contemplate, to cogitate, to muse, a full word, round and old-fashioned—and I stepped inside. It was two o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and I had nothing to do until Monday. I pondered what I knew about fairies, which was almost nothing except some movie about little girls I’d seen on TV and TV made me think about the commercials with the cookie-baking elves. And then I wondered about the difference between elves and fairies. What were gnomes? Or dwarves? Why didn’t I like to read fantasy books?Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, even Harry Potter was not my thing. My thoughts turned around and around, the Hobbit and his hairy feet. How they made his feet for the movie, how anybody knew what kind of feet a Hobbit had, gnomes versus Hobbits and fairy parts in white mucus and chicken parts in shrink wrap at the grocery store.

My dad was eating in the hospital cafeteria, spoonful after spoonful of a brilliant green soup. An enormous white bowl of cheerful springtime made especially delicious because it was cold outside. I wanted to lie down and roll in that green, to look up at the blue and yellow sky, to feel the breeze on my thick young skin. Slurp, slurp, slurp. Grass. New leaves. Perky and optimistic.

“Peas,” my father said and gestured to the chair beside him.

“Yes.”

“Please sit down.”

I hadn’t realized I was still standing. At the next table a woman had a grilled cheese sandwich, orange and white and toasty brown, on a paper plate in front of her. It looked pretty good, but she was crying. I looked closer to see if the image of Christ was in the scorch marks on the top slice of Wonder Bread. If the thorn crown of Jesus was making her cry. I wanted her to enjoy that sandwich. How long would she—how long would any of us—still be eating? Eat, I wanted to say. Butter. Cheese. Bread. Enjoy.

“What is that?” I pointed to my dad’s bowl.

“Gone,” he said and finished the final drops. “I should have saved you a bite.”

The woman beside us kept crying. Her tears and her snot were falling onto her lap. She pulled her chair closer to the table. Now her bodily fluids fell on her dejected sandwich. Did it deserve that? What had it ever done to her?

I handed the crying woman one of my father’s paper napkins stained with green. I had thought it was cleaner when I picked it up, but for snot and tears what difference did it make. She crumpled the napkin in her fist. I said, “Your nose needs it.” I wondered why the liquid from her nose seemed so much more disturbing than the liquid from her eyes. I realized I was missing my Saturday afternoon piano lesson. I didn’t take piano lessons, but I wanted to and being at the hospital with my aunt and my family meant I would not start my lessons that day. Not that I ever intended to. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have a piano and I hadn’t found the right teacher. The woman with the grilled cheese sandwich had large, beautiful hands, long fingers, short nails without polish. I thought she could be a musician, possibly even the piano teacher I’d been looking for. Those hands of hers could stretch an octave at least. I didn’t know how to ask her. I didn’t want to disturb her devotions to the grilled Jesus.

“What’s wrong with Aunt Lila?” I asked my dad instead. “Do you know what’s coming out of her mouth?”

“Cancer,” my father said.

“That’s what it is?”

“Answer,” he said. “I have no idea.”

“There are fairies,” I began.

“Take your mother home.” He looked at me. “She’s in the gift shop. I’ll stay with Lila.”

“She’s spitting up fairies.”

“Your mother already ate. You want something before you go?”

I had a fresh and furry bear paw in my backpack and a sweet and crunchy praying mantis. Snacks for non-vegans. “You go.”

“Hugo,” he said to the woman next to us.

“Thank you,” she said. “Marybeth.”

My father’s name was Bob. The woman wrapped her sandwich in the pea- smeared napkin. She stood up and smiled at us. She ruffled my hair and I was sorry I had shaved my head. Still, it felt good. I couldn’t help myself. “Bless me Mother for I have sinned.”

“No you haven’t.”

She walked out of the cafeteria, lighter by seventeen pounds of tears. There was a puddle under her chair. So many people cry at hospitals. It is a good place to cry. No one asks what’s wrong because everyone imagines the worst. If I needed to cry, I would cry at a hospital. I would run from the movie theater where I saw the sad movie about the lovers who have to part and she dies and he doesn’t know it until too late and I would sink into one of the upholstered waiting room chairs on one of the really bad floors—pediatrics or oncology or pediatric oncology—the cheerful purple and yellow diamond-shapes in the fabric bright, but not really supportive. Only then would I sob, allow myself to weep for the ill-fated lovers, the star who would be too old to play this role for much longer, the slimy slug trails of butter flavoring I tell myself never to put on my popcorn and I always do and my stomach always hurts. I would cry and cry.

“What’s the story,” I asked. “With Aunt Lila and the fairies?”

“She’s a good woman, your aunt. She doesn’t deserve this. They’re doing everything they can, but there isn’t anything they can do. This is their last resort.”

There wasn’t a beach or a zip-line in sight. The hospital was not much of a resort. They changed the sheets and the towels, brought in room service, but the bar was permanently out of service.

“Maybe we should clap our hands,” my father said. “You remember? Clap our hands and believe. Believe, believe, believe.”

“Is that what the doctors’ recommend?”

“Peter Pan,” my father said. “The last great adventure has begun.” He looked out the window. “It’s snowing,” he said. “Merry Christmas.”

It was cold, yes, and there was white stuff in the air and on the ground outside the hospital, but I thought it was packing peanuts. It swirled in the wind. Through the glass I could hear the squeak of the Styrofoam. In any case it was not time to wish anyone happy holidays. Dad began to sing; it drove me crazy how much he could sing. Christmas carols and cowboy ballads. Mostly songs about the women I had not yet had.

“You’re too skinny.” My father crooned my shortcomings. “You look sixteen.” It wasn’t any easier to take as a song.

I was glad when my mother returned from the gift shop picking her teeth. “That was scrumptious,” she said. “I won’t have to eat again until much, much later.”

I could see the older, bespectacled clerk dead on the floor, his liver removed by my mother and enjoyed by her, without onions, without salt or pepper, but tasty just the same. It was a very neat extraction. A small pool of his juice, his face obscured under the card rack. Get well soon! We are thinking about you.

She reminded me I was hungry. I took out the bear’s paw, admired the dark brown fur and the shiny black claws. A good one. Still a little warm. The first bite is always the best. The second bite only second best. And so it goes, a law of diminishing returns. Why does anyone eat?

“Yum yum,” I said. “Soon as I finish this, I’ll go sit with her some more.”

A man in a white coat, a doctor by any other name, slid up to us. He was wearing bright blue and holey plastic footwear that made me uncomfortable. I could see his orange socks through the holes as if the shoes were ventilated to keep his feet alive. I wiggled my toes as much as possible encased in their leather with steel tips.

“It’s time,” he said.

My mother put her hand, the one without the toothpick, to her face. My father stood. My cousins were already waiting at the elevator. We went up.

The doors in the hallway had all been closed in anticipation of our bad news. No varicose veins, no bags, no man with a hat. Inside my aunt’s room, a team was gathered, one nurse, two doctors, a clipboard holder in a skirt and blouse. I’m sorry to say my first thought was that maybe the clipboard holder would sleep with me. She would feel sorry for me and impressed by my emotional reserve and erotically aroused by my lack of hair falling over my slightly greasy forehead. She would take me by the hand and lead me to a supply closet and we would leave my family to fully experience their grief and my tears would be those of gratitude and my lamentations because my time with her was over.

Isn’t that what we always cry about? It is over too soon. It is all over too soon.

The clipboard holder did not take me by the hand. No one ever did. My aunt’s mouth had fallen open and her eyes had fallen shut and her chest barely moved up and down with the rasp and the rattle that was all that was left. My cousins cried and I envied them. My mother put her arm around my father.

I looked for another form of comfort. Beside the bed someone had brought in a tray on wheels. On the tray was a plate under a smudged metal dome. Aunt Lila’s lunch. The dome weighed nothing at all. Underneath was a dish of either applesauce or smashed, almost liquefied chicken, but my bet was on applesauce given my aunt’s dietary inclinations. Beside it was a square of red Jell-O. It wiggled and jiggled appropriately although I wasn’t touching the plate. I wanted to tell the nurses she can’t eat Jell-O. Jell-O is made from gelatin which is made from collagen collected after boiling the skin, tendons, snouts, and tails of pigs and cows and sometimes horses. Humans are predominantly made up of collagen as well. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Jell-O flavors add us in. The Jell-O wriggled in unusual ways. I bent over it. A tiny hand with long fingers pressed against the red, like a hand inside a red balloon. I saw a leg, a wing bent in the gel. I wouldn’t think there’d be much collagen in fairies. They’re so thin, so ethereal, no wonder everyone thinks they’re imaginary. The doctors had been feeding her fairies. The little thing was suffocating, dying; its hand fell to its side. I clapped and clapped again. I believe. I think I said it aloud. My mother shushed me. Clap, clap, clap until my father smacked my head. My aunt did not wake up. She took a deep, terrible breath, more lawnmower than woman. I picked up the plastic spoon and dug into the red square, gently, carefully around the miniature body. I peeled away the jelly in chunks. I freed the little fellow. He was almost drowned, his skin had turned a pinkish hue from the Red 40 food coloring.
“You,” I said.

He struggled to sit up. He shook his teeny head. I put a piece of the Jell-O in my mouth. Sickly sweet, a fruit flavor not found in nature. It was hospital food and school lunch. My heart beat faster. Quickly I felt much better. Better than I had in years. Nimble on my feet, looking forward to a future that only five minutes before had been missing. How would the Jell-O taste with a tiny bit of fairy mixed in? How would I feel? Childhood might return. Possibilities still ahead. My fingers dug into the goo.

“You should go.” I urged the small creature to leave. “Now.” Before I couldn’t help but test my hypothesis.

My aunt began to shudder. An alarm went off. I watched her lift off the bed. She levitated and her family sighed and I smelled birthday cake. Please don’t die, I prayed. I made a deal with whomever and swore off meat: if she was cured then not another morsel of flesh would pass my lips ever again—I would not search for fairies to crunch and munch. I would put them out of my mind. My aunt twisted like the fish on my palm. Passionate with the secrets of blood. She floated there with the smell of warm sugar in the air and when she fell back to earth, to bed, what had been her was gone, but a new her sat up and said, “I’m hungry.”

“We are what we eat,” the doctor said. His satisfied tongue dug in the spaces between his perfect teeth.

Clap. I clapped and clapped.