By David Denny
Marlene and Ralph walked up Kaanapali Beach about half a mile from their hotel. They sat in a corner of an outdoor restaurant with a floor of sand. Each of the small, round tables was shaded by an umbrella made of palm leaves. A row of tropical greenery, punctuated with orange and red hibiscus, separated the restaurant from the boardwalk. They could hear the waves hitting the sand about forty feet away.
Marlene slipped off her sandals and wiggled her toes in the cool sand as she looked over the menu. Mahi was her new favorite; however, she’d eaten it two days in a row and thought she should try something else. Up next to the bar, a local singer was nearing the end of his lunchtime set. He took a slug of water, traded his guitar for a ukulele, and began crooning the popular island version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Marlene wasn’t all that hungry. A shrimp cocktail and a Diet Coke might do the trick. Her husband had his cell phone out on the table in front of him, checking their reservation for the dinner cruise out of Lahaina harbor. He had decided before he left the hotel that he would order a burger; he was tired of fish already.
Marlene felt a tickle, like someone drawing a feather across the top of her left foot. Instinctively, she lifted her foot, shook it a little, and looked down to see if perhaps she had brushed up against her own sandal. Clinging to her foot was the ugliest thing she had ever seen outside a horror movie. She couldn’t name it at that moment. But it looked and moved like a creature from a nightmare: about eight inches long, its brown and red segmented body had dozens of legs going every which way. The front part of it was fixed upon a spot at the base of her second toe and the rest of its body wriggled and crawled in several directions at once.
Marlene screamed and stood, knocking her chair into the next table. She tried to shake the thing off her foot. “Shit!” she screamed. Her husband saw her kicking her leg out in a weird hopping motion. He picked up her sandal from its place next to her chair and clipped the insect loose. It scurried across the sand and disappeared beneath the tropical plants next to their table.
The music stopped. People craned their necks to see the trouble. The elderly gentleman at the next table had been knocked over by the force of Marlene’s chair. He was helped to his feet by his daughter, who was alternately lifting her father and trying to see what the man at the next table had been slapping at.
The waiter approached. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh my god!” Marlene cried. She sat heavily and cradled her foot in both hands. She rocked back and forth. Her face was red. She winced and wept. “You can’t believe the . . . pain!” she cried. “Oh my god.”
“Did it sting you?” Ralph asked. “Oh my god!”
Those at the adjoining tables were on their feet, by turns looking at Marlene in her agony and searching the sand for the culprit, whatever it was.
Ralph turned to the waiter. “What kind of a place is this?” “How can I help?” the waiter asked.
Stop the pain,” Marlene said.
The waiter looked at her foot, which was turning red now and beginning to swell. “Let me get you some ice,” he said, hurrying toward the kitchen.
The hostess left her podium and stood in the middle of the restaurant, gawking. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. “We’re moving over to the bar,” a woman said.
Ralph knelt next to Marlene and examined her foot. “What was that thing?” he asked.
A young woman at the table next to Ralph said, “I saw it. It looked like a centipede.”
“It was . . . huge,” Ralph said.
“Everything grows bigger in this climate,” the young woman said. “Oh my god, Ralph, you can’t believe how much this hurts!”
Some of the patrons began to leave the restaurant. In the process of packing his instruments, the singer knocked over his tip jar, sending a splash of coins across the electronic keyboard. Even people walking along the boardwalk stopped to see what had caused the commotion. Murmurs quickly turned to idle speculation. Sent to get the news, a teenager called down the boardwalk to his friends, “Some lady’s purse got jacked.”
The manager approached the table, followed by the waiter, who held some ice cubes in a plastic baggie. “Can you tell me what happened?” the manager asked.
Ralph relayed the story for the manager.
“I’m so, so sorry,” the manager said. “I can assure you this has never happened before.” He knelt next to Marlene while the family at the next table gathered their purses and snorkel kits. The woman who had come to the rescue of her elderly father said, “We’ve been coming to Hawaii for thirty years, and I’ve never even heard of anything like this before.” She patted Marlene’s shoulder with genuine compassion. “You take care now. Don’t let this ruin your vacation.” She and her party squeezed past the manager and the waiter and the hostess.
“May I?” The manager offered to examine Marlene’s foot. He took her foot in his hand. She gasped and turned her head; the tendons in her neck strained.
“Look at that,” Ralph said, pointing to two small puncture wounds at the base of her second toe. The top of her foot was bruised next to the wounds and her foot was puffy and reddish.
“I’m just going to put some ice right here.” He took the baggie from the waiter and placed it gently atop the puncture wounds. “Now, is that OK?”
The manager held the ice to Marlene’s foot. She sat with her head in one hand and the other hand gripping the edge of the table. She tried to breathe as evenly as she could. She wasn’t getting any relief from the pain, but she made an effort to accommodate the manager. The waiter had gone to soothe the nerves of customers at his other tables.
“Well,” the manager forced a smile. “Most people who come to Maui go home with snorkeling stories about puffer fish or sea turtles. You’ll have something unique to share around the water cooler.”
Ralph asked, “Any relief yet?”
Marlene pushed the ice off her foot. “That’s only making it worse.” The manager stood. “Let me know if I can do anything.”
“Do you want to head back to the hotel?” Ralph asked. “Maybe lie down awhile?”
“Oh my god, Ralph. Did you ever see anything so ugly?” “That was truly disgusting.”
“I don’t see any point in sitting here,” she said. “I can’t eat anything now. Oh, shit, Ralph. Shit, shit, shit!” She picked up her sandals and her purse and clutched them in one hand. She took a deep breath and reached for Ralph’s hand. “Get me out of here.”
Ralph tucked his cell phone into his pocket and helped Marlene to her feet. She hobbled through the sand, each step on the left foot stabbed her, as if a paring knife were inserted between tarsal bones. People kindly moved chairs aside and wished her well as the couple navigated across the restaurant and back around to the boardwalk. It took them half an hour to get back to the hotel. The pain and swelling grew worse. People stared and pointed and asked if they could help. “Jelly fish?” someone asked. Ralph called ahead to the hotel on his cell and asked that a doctor be sent to their room.
Once back inside, Ralph got Marlene into a comfortable chair and propped her foot on the edge of a suitcase. Marlene’s ankle was swollen now, as if it was sprained, and her foot continued to discolor. The reddish marks around the puncture wounds were now blue as bruises. “You just can’t believe how much this hurts,” she cried. “This is more intense than childbirth. I mean, I know it’s just my foot but, holy shit, it’s like it’s on fire!”
“Maybe we should try the ice again.”
“Fuck the ice! I didn’t stub my toe, I was stung by god-knows-what.” “You’re really starting to sweat,” Ralph said. “Let me turn the AC up.” “Where’s that doctor?” Marlene asked.
“They said they would call him and give him our room number. Do you want me to take you to the hospital?”
“I don’t know. Do I need to go to the hospital? Was that thing as poisonous as it was ugly?”
“Strange that such a small creature could have such a harsh sting— ” “Small?!”
“I mean, you know, relatively speaking.”
“It was as big as a banana!” She reached down and massaged her calf. “All right, now it’s pretty much my whole leg that hurts now. What the hell is this?” Ralph looked at her, helpless. He wanted to stop the pain somehow. It was true he didn’t love Marlene anymore—at least, not in the way he once had. But he didn’t want her to suffer. He had lived with her for almost forty years. In a sense, the marriage had dried up in the last decade; however, they still treated one another with affection and a level of civility that they didn’t see in many other couples their age. They had avoided the nasty public snipes and behind-the-back complaints that characterized so many of their friends’ marriages.
There was a knock at the hotel room door. Ralph let the doctor in. As he entered the room, the doctor peeled from his face a pair of small, round sunglasses that looked like black half-dollars. He was a tall, deeply-tanned, sandy-blonde man of about thirty-five, right around their daughter’s age. He wore a faded blue T-shirt atop his khaki shorts. He might have looked just as natural carrying a surfboard as a medical bag. Immediately, Ralph noticed something odd about his face, his mouth, but in his stressed state he couldn’t pin it down. The young doctor set his black medical bag on the edge of the bed while Marlene and Ralph told him their story.
The doctor examined her foot, noting the puncture wounds and the swelling in her foot and ankle. He spoke with an Australian accent. “Yeah, these giant centipedes can be nasty. They’re really a pain when they nest next to the house. They like dark, moist areas. They’ve been known to crawl in through bathroom fixtures. There was a guy up in Kula who got bit while taking a shower. The thing came right up through the drain. They keep the local pest control guys in business, that’s for sure. You can kill them with insecticide, but that’s all. They’re impervious to everything else. You can chop them up and they’ll still wiggle on their ghoulish way.”
“Are they poisonous?” Ralph asked.
“Well, they inject venom, yeah. That’s how they kill their prey, which is usually spiders and worms and other centipedes.”
“They eat other centipedes?” Ralph asked.
“They’re nasty little buggers,” the doctor said. “You’re the first tourist to get bit that I know of. There must be a nest in the plants there on the edge of the restaurant. Usually they only come out at night. Maybe this one’s developed an appetite for the local cuisine,” he said, smiling.
At the smile, Ralph realized what was different about the doctor’s face: he had a small blonde goatee just beneath his lower lip. What was it they called those things? Ralph focused his attention—ah, yes, it was called a soul patch.
“Is there some sort of tropical ointment for this?” Marlene asked. “Because I gotta tell you, this hurts like a sonuvabitch.”
He shook his head. He pulled a few things from his medical bag. He took Marlene’s blood pressure. “Just try to relax and breathe normally,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen,” Marlene said. She twisted her behind in the chair and rubbed her thigh. Despite the air-conditioning, her brow was sweaty. She had developed a bit of a tan the past two days; however, now her face looked pale.
“Your BP’s a little high,” he said, tearing the Velcro wrap from her arm.
Marlene reached down and took hold of her foot. “OK, now my foot is numb,” she said. “My foot is numb and the pain is going up my leg.”
The doctor moved the stethoscope to her heart. He listened for a moment. “Do you have a heart murmur?” he asked.
He stood and wrapped the stethoscope into a ball, returning it to his bag. “Can an insect bite affect the heart?” Ralph asked.
“Take a slow, deep breath,” he said.
When she couldn’t get a deep breath, Marlene grabbed Ralph’s hand. The doctor picked up the room telephone and called for an ambulance.
By the time Marlene arrived at the ER, her leg was numb up to her knee and her thigh was throbbing with pain. She was receiving IV fluids; an epinephrine syringe lay on a tray next to her bed in case the pain or numbness advanced to her torso. The nurse had been given instructions to stab her thigh with the epi syringe if the patient’s lips turned blue or if she grabbed her throat to signal choking.
Outside the room, Ralph reported what he could remember of Marlene’s medical history to the Indian doctor who had taken her case. The doctor seemed especially interested in any allergies she might have, especially to bees. “Sometimes an allergy to one kind of insect venom indicates a tendency toward another. You are sure she is not allergic to beestings?”
“No, I’m not sure,” Ralph answered. “I don’t think she’s ever been stung. Not since I’ve known her. But I think I would know. I think she would’ve told me, and I don’t remember that she has any allergies, much less to beestings. She’s a total rock. She’s never been sick a day in her life. The only time she’s been in a hospital is when our daughter was born.”
“All right. That is a good sign.”
“Can you give her something for the pain?”
“I cannot give her anything right now until we see how far the numbness and pain proceed. If the numbness advances into her torso, then we are into a different kind of situation.”
“What kind of a situation?”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Right now, she is in pain, and she is panicked. But if I can get her to relax, and if the progress of the numbness stops, then I will be able to give her something. Already I’ve given her an antihistamine. Let’s give that a few minutes.”
“And in a few minutes?”
“It may be necessary to start her on a steroid treatment.” “Is that the standard protocol for a giant centipede bite?”
“There is no standard protocol beyond the antihistamine. This is a very rare reaction your wife is having. Most people don’t experience symptoms beyond pain and swelling around the puncture wound. Beyond the antihistamine, we are making the treatment up as we go along. I did a quick Google search as your wife was being transported. There is only one other case like this in the literature.”
“Only one other rare reaction, you mean?”
“In one young man on Oahu two years ago, the ER staff reported an acute myocardial infarction brought on by the bite of a giant Scolopendra.”
Ralph spoke the words mechanically: “A heart attack.”
“He survived. Right now, I am more concerned about your wife’s lung function. If her shortness of breath advances, it might be a sign of Anaphylaxis.”
Then we are at a new code level.”
“What should I do?”
“You mentioned a daughter. It might be a good idea to notify her. She should be apprised of the situation in case your wife’s condition does not improve. But please go into the waiting room to call her. There is no need to alarm her; however, you should let her know what has happened.”
Ralph walked down the hallway, through the heavy ER doors and into a waiting room with the usual chairs, magazines, and vending machine. A young boy sat sideways in his mother’s lap, his thumb in his mouth. The woman looked vacantly out the window. In a corner of the room a flat-screened TV was playing infomercials for a variety of medical procedures. Ralph had seen them all before, in the waiting room of his internist back home. He found the remote control. “Do you mind?” he asked her, lifting the remote. She shook her head. Ralph clicked the mute button.
Marlene lay flat on her back with a moist towel across her forehead. The nurse was applying adhesive patches with wires to her chest and arms and legs. She would soon plug these all in to a heart monitor. The pain in her leg had begun to subside. The doctor didn’t know why; that is, he wasn’t sure if that meant that the numbness was advancing or if the venom had run its course. He and the nurses were clearly mystified by her symptoms. They had all seen insect bites before, but nothing like this. They were polite and deliberate in their actions. Mostly they watched her. She hated being the latest “interesting case” in the ER. She was a person, with a history, a life, a family that depended upon her. And even though her husband had acted like a nincompoop lately, she loved him. Where had he gone anyway? The doctor had guided him into the hallway when they began applying the heart monitor, but now the thing was up and running, beeping and sending little lines across a screen. The doctor was there but Ralph was gone.
The doctor seemed pleased with the results the heart monitor was giving them. He shone a light into her eyes. He took hold of her wrist. “Things are looking up,” he said, smiling. “I think that nasty centipede has done its worst.”
“Where’s my husband?” she asked.
“Forgive me, I sent him on a small errand. He will be back soon.”
The doctor said this with an air of confidence. Whereas Marlene would not hesitate to ask for more details from a white doctor, she felt a bit intimidated by this Indian man, whose manner suggested superiority and cool detachment.
What sort of a doctor sends his patient’s spouse on an errand? What was Ralph doing? When she thought of the word errand she pictured Ralph pulling the garbage cans to the curb, walking the dog, or picking up the mail. She wanted him back at her bedside. Lately, he had a tendency to withdraw from her. He had disappeared for long stretches of the afternoon at home. Her Bunco friends had spotted him out walking, head down, hands shoved deep in his pockets. Newly retired, he didn’t know what to do with himself. It was this tendency of his to withdraw from her that Marlene thought a trip to an exotic locale might reverse.
Ralph got their daughter on the line and explained what had happened. He told her they were in the emergency room and that they were monitoring Marlene’s reaction to the centipede’s venom. He tried to downplay the situation, but the daughter was upset. “Should I fly there?” she asked.
“I think right now there isn’t any point in that. This Indian doctor seems very sharp. He has a few tricks up his sleeve.” Ralph did a poor imitation of an Indian accent. “He comes from a long line of snake charmers in Delhi.” He smiled at the mother and son. The woman glared at him.
“Oh my god, dad,” his daughter said. “That is so racist! Are you saying that with the doctor right there?”
“No. Of course not.”
Ralph heard a siren in the distance, approaching the hospital from the opposite direction of Highway 30, the same road they had arrived by only twenty minutes earlier. He turned away from the mother and son and looked out the window.
“Mom would kill you if she heard that. Are you sticking by her?”
“I’m right here with her.”
“Are you in the room with her?”
“I’ve been in the room with her. Right now they want me out of the way.”
“Dad, don’t leave her side. Go back in there with her.”
“Stay with her, dad.”
“You don’t need to tell me that.”
“Daddy, sometimes you can be . . . aloof. She needs you near.”
Ralph could see the ambulance approaching the hospital now. It was turning off the highway and coming up the access road toward the emergency entrance, lights and siren still going. Two police cruisers followed.
“Who are you calling aloof?” he asked. “Let me talk to her.”
“She’s being treated right now.” “Just hold the phone up to her ear.”
“I can’t do that. They don’t allow cell phones. They interfere with the fancy equipment. Later, when things have settled down. They’re working on her right now.”
“What does that mean—working on her?”
“They need her quiet right now. I’ll call back in a little while after the antihistamine takes effect and then you can talk.”
“I’m getting a flight.”
“Look. I’m only calling to let you know what happened. She’s going to be fine. It’s crazy to book a flight right now. By the time you got here, we’d be packing to come back home.” The ambulance approached the special turn-around at the back of the building. The sliding door of the hospital whooshed open; two nurses and a doctor in green scrubs emerged.
There was a long pause on the line. “Sylvie?” he said.
“Dad. I’m going crazy here.” He could hear a quiver in her voice. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“I can’t lose you two. You know how much I depend on you. I’m scared to death of losing you.”
“Listen to me now. You’re not losing us. Her. Or me. Nobody’s losing anybody. It’s just a bug bite. She’s going to be fine.”
“Go back to her side.”
“I’m going back to check on her now. We . . . I just thought you should know what’s going on, that’s all. Other than this, we’ve had a good trip. Your mother swam with a sea turtle yesterday. She’s having a blast. I’m going back to the exam room now. I’ll call you later, OK?”
“As soon as you can.” “As soon as I can.” “Tell mom I love her.” “I’ll tell her.”
“I love you both.”
“Love you, hon. Give our best to what’s-his-name.”
“That joke stopped being funny a long time ago. Derek and I have been married ten years.”
“How did I get a daughter so old?” The ambulance backed up to the open doors. “Everything’s fine. I’ll—we’ll call back in just a little while.”
Ralph put the phone in his pocket and stood looking out the window. The siren pinched off in the middle of a whine. The back doors of the ambulance popped opened and the EMT’s pulled the gurney out. An unconscious man lay under a white sheet, an oxygen mask covering his face. They hustled him inside. There but for fortune, thought Ralph. He had felt the odd pain in his chest lately—more than the usual aches and pains—and wondered how much time he had before he was the man on the gurney.
Ralph turned back to look at the mother and her son. The boy was asleep. She was stroking his hair and humming a soft tune in his ear. Ralph gestured toward the TV. “Do you want me to turn the sound back on?”
“My husband is Indian,” she said.
“Oh. I didn’t mean anything racial by that. I was trying to keep my daughter calm. You see, we’re going through a stressful time here, and I was trying to keep things light.” The look on the woman’s face told Ralph that he was not going to be able to justify himself. People were so serious these days. They took things like this so literally. Sylvie did, too. Young people, he thought, they don’t know how to laugh anymore.
“I need to sit for a moment. Do you mind?” He took a seat beneath the TV. He glanced over at the magazines on the table next to him. They were all celebrity stories and storm news. There had always been gossip rags around, but he wondered about the whole global warming thing. Since when was the occasional hurricane a sign of looming apocalypse? He had grown up shoveling snow six months a year in Wisconsin. Weather was just weather, he thought. No need to get excited. Deal with it, folks.
Noticing the vending machine on the opposite side of the room, he stood and fished through his pockets for change. He squinted at the machine. “Since when do they charge a buck and a quarter for a Diet Coke?” He approached the vending machine counting the change in his palm. “It was two bits for a Coke just yesterday. Yesterday being Nineteen-hundred-and-fifty-five.” He smiled at the woman; she turned away.
He put the coins into the slot. “The Hawaiian fellow who drives the little tourist train from Kaanapali to Lahaina told us that these hills back here used to be covered with sugar cane.” Ralph sang a bit of the old commercial jingle: “C & H. Pure cane sugar. From Hawaii. Growin’ in the sun.” His can of Diet Coke dropped with a loud thud into the dispenser. The boy startled in his mother’s lap. “Oh, sorry,” Ralph said. “So sorry.” The boy turned to one side and sucked harder on his thumb, eyes still closed.
Ralph opened his can and took a sip. He looked out the window again. The black and green hills that rose up above Lahaina were lined with deep, shadowed ridges of moist basalt. The afternoon sun accentuated the texture of the mountains as they rose steeply above the backside of the hospital. Somewhere up out of his view was a dormant volcano. The bell boy at the hotel had
told him the name of it on the day of their arrival, but he couldn’t remember. It wasn’t Haleakalā—that was down in the lower half of the island. This one wasn’t as high, but it was partly responsible for the birth of this island, nevertheless—the valley island, Hawaiians called it.
They had planned a dinner cruise for this evening, on a ship that went up and down the coastline of west Maui. He would have had to eat seafood, yes, but there would also have been live music—a jazz combo—and an open bar. Probably right now, down at the dock, they were readying the boat. If not for that damned centipede, they would’ve been sipping Mai Tai’s this evening while taking their seats at a table on the bow. Ah, well. C’est la vie. It was a phrase he repeated to himself often. C’est la vie. It was the only French he knew.
Ralph wondered what might happen if he walked out of the hospital right now and kept walking. How hard would it be to lose yourself on such an island? What would happen if he took all the cash he could get from the ATM, left his wallet with his credit cards and his ID, all his luggage and his cell phone too in the hotel room, and launched out on a new life? The bell boy had told him you could live cheaply upcountry—that was the local word for the small towns that dotted the slopes of Haleakalā at the two-to-four-thousand foot level. He could find a job in a coffee shop or a bookstore, live simply, take walks everyday along the ridges overlooking the Au’au Channel. Start over. He wouldn’t need much. He would grow a soul patch. Maybe even get a tattoo. Nothing too fancy, just one of the island designs he saw wrapped around the arms of the young men in Lahaina Town. Hell, he might meet a local woman and set up house with her in a small cottage surrounded by tropical flowers. Vegetables must sprout easily and grow year-round in the rich, volcanic soil. He could see himself growing old gracefully here, with dignity and freedom. The guidebook said people lived longer in Hawaii because of lower stress levels, surrounding beauty, warm climate, and the clean, fresh environment.
One of the nurses from the ER poked her head in the door of the waiting room. “Your wife’s asking for you,” she said.
Ralph nodded. He looked at the young mother and her son. He thought maybe he should apologize. But what for? For being himself? He had offended her somehow. He had disturbed her. If she would just return his gaze, he might think of the right words to say. The nurse was holding the door for him.
Marlene had taken Ralph’s hand as soon as he returned to her side. She would not let go. She was breathing easier now. The doctor wanted to keep her plugged into the monitor for 24 hours, even though he was confident that she was out of danger. He had given her some Hydrocodone for the pain. He had consulted by telephone with a neurologist in Honolulu. He would begin a regimen of steroids, in a slowly ascending dosage, until the swelling subsided. He believed the feeling would return to her leg in a few days time. He had moved on to other patients now; however, the doctor wanted to interview Marlene later, take some further notes on her case; it might make an interesting paper for the Emergency Medicine Journal.
“I always knew you’d be famous,” Ralph said. “I’d rather be famous as a dancer.”
“You were doing some pretty fine tap moves there in the sand.” He drew a smile from her when he imitated her spastic movements in the restaurant.
“We can never go there again.”
“I think we should, and we should bring that manager a big bag of ice as a reward for his heroism.”
Ralph pulled his cell phone from his pocket and called their daughter. He handed Marlene the phone. “Tell Sylvie you’re all right,” he said. “She was this close to getting on a plane.”
She held the phone to her ear. “Hi hon . . . I’m fine, I’m fine,” Marlene began.
Ralph slipped out the door while Marlene spoke to Sylvie. He walked down the hallway. The waiting room was empty now. He wandered a bit, peeking into exam rooms. In one of them he saw the Indian doctor speaking to a young man with his shirt off. He was showing the doctor a bright red rash on his shoulder. In another he saw a table on wheels loaded with all sorts of electronic equipment. Ralph thought it resembled an old ham radio set. Edging up to the doorframe, he could see the tubes and wires snaking behind a curtain. He pushed the curtain aside. The tubes and wires ran up beneath the covers of the man on the gurney, the one who had arrived in the ambulance after them. The man’s vacant eyes stared up at the ceiling. A clear plastic tube stuck out of his mouth. Where was this man’s doctor? Why had the nurses abandoned him? Ralph stood for a moment before he realized he was looking at a corpse. He stepped further into the room, pulled the curtain behind him, and stood beside the gurney.
The wreckage of machinery and packaging scattered about the room suggested that they had worked hard to revive the man. In the end, someone had switched off the equipment, lowered the lights, and gone to notify his next of kin, if he had any. This had all happened while Ralph and Marlene were down the hall celebrating that she was not going to die today.
He wasn’t sure if he should, but Ralph felt compelled to touch the man. He rested his hand upon the man’s exposed arm. It felt cool and rubbery. His body looked bloated beneath the sheet; his face was puffy and gray. It occurred
to Ralph that the man had drowned. The eyes held their color, the same color as the ocean that had swallowed him, but they were blind eyes now. He remembered learning in school how the ancients used to place coins on the eyes of the dead. Why? Was it to pay their fare into the next life? Ralph passed his hand over the man’s face, closing the eyes.
His own eyes began to blur; he felt a warmth rising within, as if a balm had been applied to his chest. The warm feeling spread across his shoulders and up into his throat. A whimper pushed through his lips. The strange heat of tears rolled down his cheeks. His shoulders began to heave. There was no stopping now. He had not cried since the day Sylvie was born. Standing at the deathbed of a stranger, he gave himself over to it. As if swept by a strong current, he relaxed his hold on himself and allowed his body to be taken by a hundred emotions that he had stifled for years, for decades.
There was a rustle in the hallway. The doctors and nurses were going about their business. Clutching a clipboard, a nurse abruptly moved the curtain aside, exposing Ralph in his grief, and then she drew it slowly back again, apologizing as she backed out. Perhaps she thought he was a relative, the man’s brother, come to say his farewell. Over the intercom a woman’s voice called a certain doctor to radiology. Murmurs and footsteps approached and receded. The elevator bell rang a single note of arrival. The Indian doctor spoke into the telephone at the desk, calling in a prescription. Down the hallway, Marlene assured her daughter that she would call her again once she was transferred to a regular room. A nurse injected an amber fluid into the tube of her IV. In the room next to her, a mother and her young son stood at the bedside of an elderly woman who had slipped into a coma earlier in the day.
Outdoors, the ambulance driver tossed his spent cigarette to the asphalt, stamping it beneath his boot. The radio in his unit crackled as a voice announced that he was needed at the Pineapple Inn, Kehei. Looming above him, the steep mountains of Mauna Kahalawai caught the full brilliance of the afternoon sun. And in the harbor below, the morning excursion boats returned, dock boys dragged hoses along the wharf, spraying down the decks while the shorebirds hovered and called out for scraps.
David Denny‘s poetry and fiction has appeared in numerous journals, such as The Sun, Narrative, Rattle, Catamaran, and Chiron Review. His most recent books include Sometimes Only the Sad Songs Will Do, Some Divine Commotion, The Gill Man in Purgatory, and Fool in the Attic. Honors include The Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, The Steve Kowit Prize, and a Broadside Award from The Center for Book Arts. You can visit his website here.