Subjects for the Smoking Room

by Megan Wildwood

A red-haired woman in a ballgown strolls out of an ER. There is a sky, just enough madness on it. There are flattened, halved pieces of rock for sidewalk. The living spaces here in Glass Pan, Wisconsin, would be affordable if you had a job in a non-affordable city, like Seattle, Hong Kong. That’s where they keep the jobs, in the magical columns that stretch much higher than the ones in Glass Pan. Where all fervor and dreaming are taken.
She passes a woman wearing a green pantsuit, clips down Market, north, taps her phone with her knuckle. Kids mesmerize puppies behind a dumpster on the other side of Oak. Four of the street’s nine traffic meters, the old ones it will use until they die, are bent in different ways. This is the second year the marsh gas has reached down from the thawing tundra low enough to sting the nostrils of Glass Pan. The sting is the only way we know; in its natural state, it’s like the library: no color, no odor. They really should pipe in the old-book smell you expect in a library.
But this is not the kingdom you were promised. You go to church and don’t know anybody. You sit and stand as you’re told, maybe sing, unless that service’s selection is about the beauty of the earth or peace anywhere on it. You leave and don’t know anybody. You pass by other people without incident.
A guy in tight, black sweatpants walks fast up Market, nose a-glow with cell screen. Many people pass each other, halfway through their handheld portals no matter where they are. It’s Tuesday after lunch but it might as well be Saturday; no one looks like they are on their way to work. They say development is coming soon! Is that what people are reading about – effective ideas for beefing up our tourism, proposed renovations to our dinky downtown, requests for investors, either of time or money – as they don’t cross paths on the sidewalk, periodically annunciating clearly and exaggeratedly words, occasionally punctuation, into their phones.
It’s understandable. No one listens in a democracy. You have rights; you don’t have to.
Still, shouldn’t someone have shouted? Someone with their eyes up and about, someone not looking out the windows of the detached psych unit (inexplicably stricken mute; no one even tries to talk to you, either with their voice or their arms) of Glass Pan’s only medical center? Surely that artificially redhead just coming out of the ER who hadn’t yet fished her cell out of her purse and so was still looking up could have seen enough into the future to manage a warning before the woman in the pantsuit and the man in tight, black sweats collide, knuckles on their extended hands first; then arms against respective chests as the phones twirl into the air; dive quickly like they hit a glass ceiling just slightly above the gowned woman’s head and bouncing, one halfway into Market, down to the crack-free sidewalk, leaving their owners in the briefest of unplanned embraces.

Some people will do anything to throw their good times in your face. Like dramatically drop their cheap Androids as if on accident while they uncontrollably reunite after God knows how many days apart. Right as you’re leaving your visit with your son, who’s lung collapsed during a routine biopsy. You’re not allowed to touch him – they assume you’re contaminated – and you can’t find your way through expectation, reputation, hopes that are too fragile to test, to reach for your husband. But please, let’s have Glass Pan’s only non-private display of affection, outside of the three weddings, all of which were held at the Catholic church (rather than one of the four Protestant ones) and all of which you did the flowers for, in the 13 years you’ve lived here occur in this moment at this place.
The phones don’t shatter. Maybe precisely because they’re cheap and fake.
Why is it no longer appropriate for adults to scream their lungs out in public? That’s probably how you get landed in the psych ward. And they removed it from the hospital a ways for a reason.
Disease is no democracy. It doesn’t care about your patriotic fancy for fairness or majority rule. 98% of you could be exceedingly healthy – running Varsity track your freshman year, inventing your own workouts the other kids just haven’t warmed up to yet, bench pressing your mom when she remembers how small her time with you is and lets you – and you could still get lung cancer so bad you’ll die before you turn around back to church, any church, let alone get married.
Your son’s nurse is married. She doesn’t say so – she doesn’t say anything, except whatever it is into her blessed phone on her way in and out of patients’ rooms – but she makes a point of flashing her diamond, almost too big for the eagle talon holding it onto a seed-diamond-studded band, in your face as she hangs a new IV bang, pushes several silent buttons on the monitor. Your intubated, conscious son refuses his phone. “Manual” texting is “too slow” he manages to motion with his hands. (He always won the family’s annual Christmas-Eve game of charades.) You worry about what to do if they reach for you; how could you pull away? They still look too healthy to be here. His legs, his eyes, even his damn chest, except for the jagged rise and collapse. You chalk that up to the foreign object jammed down into it, not a confused heart jackhammering erratically.
Why is it that the kind of development people depend on for their livelihood is so damn slow and must be spotlighted, talked to death, op-ed-ed about every week in The Shattering News and the development that threatens life is swift and silent?
But this, trouble in this world, is what we were promised. Daughters who abandon church and family (precisely for this promise of trouble, no doubt), stop speaking to their own mothers who gave of their own bodies. Sons, never smoked even a puff, dying of small-cell lung cancer in a hospital that didn’t even bother to decorate for Christmas save a scrappy garland around the check-in desk. Pastors who took vacation during your family’s hour of need. And you: selfish for taking him from Arizona when you moved up to Glass Pan. If you hadn’t done that, he wouldn’t have had to start over, struggle all over again to make friends. Clearly, he would have lived.
A woman in a green pantsuit snaps the silence into smaller and smaller pieces as she walks past your son’s room. Hurried? Or determined? Above her footsteps, you hear a soggy sob and tissue-filling nose blow.
Your son remained a good student, threw your promise of relief from the tarmac-melting heat up north in your face, until the coughing, then the bloody coughing, then the fights about taking a break from track, then the winning of those fights. You thought it was the heat, convinced him.
You wanted to take the new puppy your husband purchased as a moving-away consoling present to that first hospital visit but she had tripped you in her exuberance and you banged your knee on several stairs leading up to your condo complex as you fell down them. You had even put on your lucky dress that morning, a full-skirted gown that had gotten you a prestigious research award, entrance to a coveted health-coach guild, your husband’s attention (after that one is when you realized this dress your grandmother gave you for confirmation into the Presbyterian church in 8th grade, yes you still fit into it, had special powers). You tossed her angrily in her crate after checking for damage to the dress and went alone, not realizing your cover for your limp made your stride look too casual for anyone’s pity.
Your condo building is the nicest in Glass Pan, probably the nicest in several of the nearest towns, too, but you’d been complaining about getting the stairs redone even before your blessed fall. In your struggle to get to your feet after colliding both knees with the sidewalk, you now have only one wish: that sidewalks everywhere could take you to as many otherworldly places as the screen perfectly reflecting your face from nostril to crown of head and a stupid, perfect sky behind.

 

 

Megan Wildwood writes mainly about isolation, disability and the misfit experience; her chapbook Long Division was released in September 2017 from Finishing Line Press and she writes for Seattle’s street newspaper Real Change. She lives in Seattle, WA, and is working on a novel and several poetry projects, including one in Spanish. Head on over to meganwildhood.com to learn more about her work.