July 1, 2015

Fiction By Matt McGowan: "Saint John's"

Matt McGowan grew up in Southwest Missouri, primarily in Webb City, a small town founded on lead-ore and zinc mining. He finished high school there and attended the University of Missouri, where he earned  a bachelor’s degree in history and master’s degree in journalism. He works as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. Before that he was a newspaper reporter. Recently, his stories have appeared in Pennsylvania Literary Journal and Open Road Review.

Saint John’s

The brothers crested the hill on McClelland, the road leading down to the black cemetery and the river, which is where they had been, fishing, talking some, drinking beer.
    “There it is,” said Gabe.
    Dallas pushed his heels against the floorboard and sat up straight. “God almighty,” he said.
    They parked the truck and got out.
    “I was born there,” Gabe said. “And my kids.”
He spat in the dirt. There was a chain-link fence at his foot. The fence stretched all the way around the property, forty acres or more.
    “How many died?” asked Dallas.
    “Here?” said Gabe.
    Dallas nodded.
    “About twenty, I think.”
    Dallas scanned the property. It wasn’t pretty. Previously manicured medians had gone over to brown, brittle weeds, parched by late-summer drought. Bulldozers and backhoes had buckled pavement and shattered median curbs like dropped pottery. Beyond the parking lot, closer to the base of the hospital, a huge pile of rubble circled the building like an inverted moat. This pile contained concrete slabs of various sizes, mangled strips of sheet metal and rebar snaking out in all directions.
The hospital itself was nothing more than a shell, a massive skeleton of platforms and vertical supports. Except for the top-floor penthouse, which was decorated with fractured sheetrock and shredded Visqueen, the structure was empty. Sunlight streamed through the platforms.
Dallas spotted an office chair perched on a pile of junk crammed inside a battered dumpster on the other side of the fence. He thought about his father-in-law.
“Maybe that was his chair,” he said.
“Whose chair?” said Gabe.
“Jesus. I forgot all about him.”
Dallas remembered his father-in-law as a patient here, rather than employee. He had been both.   
“I saw his penis,” he said, pointing at the building. “Right up there.”
Gabe laughed. “You what?”  
Dallas was staring at the wasted building. “It’s a strange world,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t make any sense of it.”
“Hang on a sec,” said Gabe. “Did you say you saw his penis? Do I even want to know what that’s about?”
“He had the stroke,” said Dallas. “I was helping a nurse move him on a bed, and his gown caught on something. I guess I was trying to figure out what it was snagged on, to get it loose. Anyway, I looked down and there it was.”
“Damn,” said Gabe.
Dallas looked away from the building. “I don’t want that to happen to me,” he said.
““I’ll shoot you in the head,” said Gabe.
“You promise?” said Dallas.
“Promise,” said Gabe.
After spitting again, the younger man started climbing the fence.
“What are you doing?” said Dallas.
“Reconnoitering,” said Gabe. “Come on.”
    Dallas watched his brother balance himself on top of the fence and then jump down to the other side, just as they had done as children when someone hit a ball over the fence. When Gabe landed, his boots kicked up a thick cloud of dust that hovered about his knees. He clapped his hands and rubbed them together. Then he held one hand out in front of him. There was blood on it.
“What’d you do?” asked Dallas.
“Scraped it,” Gabe said. “No big deal. Come on.”
“No,” Dallas said. “I don’t think I can do it.”
“Come on, man, don’t be a pussy.”
Dallas asked his brother to hold the fence, to stabilize it while he scaled the links. Gabe accommodated, and Dallas managed to reach the opposite side unscathed. But when he landed, his hip snapped, and he felt a sharp pain knifing across his lower back. He grimaced and favored the leg as he stepped forward.
“You all right?” asked Gabe.
“Fine,” said Dallas. “What are we doing?”
“Here,” said Gabe. “Hold this.”
    Gabe handed Dallas a canister, a small oxygen tank that had been used in the hospital. Someone on the demolition team had missed the target when trying to toss it into the dumpster.
“Why?” said Dallas.
“I’m going to keep it.”
While Dallas held the canister, Gabe removed his shirt and wrapped it around the injured hand.
“Let me see that,” said Dallas.
Gabe smiled again and took the canister back from his brother. He held it in his good hand and started walking toward the hospital.
“This is silly,” Dallas said. “We’re not supposed to be here. And you need stitches. Blood’s already soaked through your shirt.”
    “I’m fine,” said Gabe. “Stop being such a worrier.”
Dallas followed his brother toward the annex, where a new entrance to the hospital had been built about fifteen years after construction of the original structure. He thought about the time he had come here after breaking a glass washing dishes. He had sliced open his pinkie, and his wife, the daughter of the man who had the stroke and later died alone in a pool of his own blood, had brought him here to get the finger fixed. That was nineteen years ago, when Dallas was twenty-four.
They moved slowly, Gabe wanting to investigate every item strewn in their path. There were hoses, broken and battered wheel chairs, a gurney twisted like a corkscrew, mattresses, more oxygen canisters and a smashed heart monitor, its guts spilling out in a complex cluster of multi-colored wires, electronic boards, panels and sensors.
    “Do you still believe in God?” asked Gabe. He was crouching on a sidewalk while opening a box of latex gloves and surgical masks. The masks were dirty around the edges but still neatly stacked. He looked tormented, his face twisted up like a wrung towel.
    “More or less,” Dallas said.
    “What the fuck does that mean?” said Gabe. “Seems like that’s sort of an all or nothing deal.”
    Dallas kicked a cafeteria tray. He could not explain why he believed. “Right now,” he said. “Looking at all this shit, I don’t know… Mostly I believe in mother nature.”
    “But those two things are not mutually exclusive,” said Gabe. “They can be reconciled.”
    Dallas wasn’t sure what his brother was trying to do. He seemed sad and introspective but also wanting to argue. For so many years – their whole lives, really – they had fallen into that pattern. They argued about everything, even if it was something on which they agreed. That’s just what they did, and Dallas was always prepared for battle.
“I think people need something to believe in,” Dallas said.
“Yeah okay,” said Gabe. “But what do you believe in?”
“I already told you,” said Dallas. “We talk about this too much.”
He looked at his brother and dropped his head. There was the canister. To Dallas it was a random and inconsequential souvenir.
“Why the fuck are you carrying that thing?” he said.
“I told you that already,” Gabe said. “Why aren’t you answering my question?”
    Dallas grunted. With nothing else to kick, he mindlessly swept dust off the sidewalk. While waiting, Gabe set the canister down. He finished opening the box of gloves and started putting them on his hands. Blood smeared one of the gloves.
“Can’t hurt,” he said.
“You need to get that fixed,” said Dallas.
Gabe tore off the tip of the middle finger of the latex glove. Blood dripped out. Two drops landed on his boot. He looked down at the hand in apparent confusion. Why had it not stopped bleeding? It was not painful. The bleeding was inconvenient, a mere nuisance.
“I’m turning around,” Dallas said. “I don’t like this place. Feels like Road Warrior.”
“You’re neurotic,” said Gabe.
“This isn’t safe,” Dallas said. “You’re already hurt.”
“There isn’t anything unsafe or wrong about us being here.”
“We’re trespassing,” Dallas said.
“Hell,” said Gabe. “Nobody cares.”
They walked on, drawing closer to the entrance of the annex. As they approached the structure, Dallas could see that they would be able to enter the building. There were no obstacles, no plywood fixed to the doorway, no construction vehicles parked in front of the entrance. He fretted that his brother would go inside and roam the macabre environs.
“Well look at that,” said Gabe, pointing toward the entrance.
“I see it,” said Dallas. “Don’t go in there.”
Dallas stopped. His instincts were dragging him back.
“What is it?” said Gabe.
“Don’t do this,” Dallas said. “I don’t feel good about it. I’m not scared or neurotic or whatever. It just feels… wrong. Sacrilegious. That’s not it. It’s disrespectful.”
“Toward who?” asked Gabe.
“The people who died.”
“But there were people dying here all along,” said Gabe. “Every day. Long before the tornado hit.”
It was true. But that wasn’t what bothered Dallas. Those deaths were expected. He was disturbed by what had become of the hospital, the violence that was simultaneously natural and unnatural. These things weren’t supposed to happen. You never expect to see a public building in this condition. It was disorienting. The pall of death and now this omnipresent exhibition of destruction were more than he could bear. It felt ominous, apocalyptic.
“This way,” said Gabe.
    Dallas sighed. “Why do I feel like we’re digging up graves?”
    Inside the entrance, they walked down a long hallway that connected the annex to the hospital’s original structure, the one that took a big hit from the tornado, the one they showed on CNN. Once inside the entrance, Dallas remembered a meditation garden on the other side of the hallway. The Sisters of Mercy had built it for the aggrieved. Dallas stopped walking and looked out the window at what used to be the garden. He expected to see his grandmother sitting out there. She prayed a lot. But the garden was gone. The only evidence of its presence was a small cast concrete statue of St. Francis. Francis was wearing a robe and holding a book, which Dallas assumed was the Bible. He stood out there among all the debris like a tightly anchored buoy in the middle of choppy waters. “Better to love than to be loved,’” Dallas said quietly, to himself.” Dallas stepped back from the window, but he kept his eye on the statue. He could feel Gabe standing to his left, about twenty feet down the hallway. “Better to forgive that to be forgiven.”
    “What’d you say?” said Gabe.
    “Nothing,” Dallas said.
    “Come on,” said Gabe. “Not much farther now.”  
    “Not much farther?” said Dallas, mocking. “What are we looking for?”
    “Just follow me,” said Gabe. “I’ll show you. If it’s still here.”
    “What are you talking about?” said Dallas. “It won’t be here. Look at this place! It’s a fucking disaster. What is it? What are we looking for?!”
    “Don’t make me explain,” said Gabe. “I just have to find it. Come on.”
    Dallas stopped in the middle of the hallway. He looked up at the wall, as if he expected to find directions.
    “I think he was on the fifth floor,” he said.
    “Well we’re not going up there,” said Gabe. “There’s no time for it.”
    “No time! I thought we had all the time in the world.”
    “Not now,” Gabe said. “Come on. I can’t deal with your shit right now.”
    Dallas followed his brother to the end of the hall, which placed them in the main building. There were six support columns in front of them and several walls, which had not yet been knocked down. It was dark and difficult to see. Natural light barely reached that area of the building. Gabe stopped and spun around.
    “What is it?” said Dallas.
    Gabe focused on an area at the far north end of the room. He recognized the layout.
    “There,” he said. “It has to be there.”
    Dallas followed his brother deeper into the building. They came to a corner of the main floor and stepped into the remains of a room that had been decorated differently than the typically sterile environs of a hospital. There was carpet instead of tile, and the color of the one remaining interior wall was dark green. Three vertical, stained-glass windows adorned this wall, which separated the room from a hallway. They were standing outside a small chapel.
    “This is it,” said Gabe.
    “Yeah?” said Dallas.
    “It should be right here.”
    Gabe walked past the room and started down a dark hallway. There were no windows, so it was difficult to see.
“Damn it!” said Gabe. “Why didn’t I bring a flashlight?”
“Tell me what you’re doing,” said Dallas.
“You said it earlier,” said Gabe. “Exhumation. Now go find me a fucking flashlight.”
Gabe dropped to his knees in front of a bank of small cabinet drawers that looked like an old-fashioned card catalog. He scrambled around down there, running his hands along the surface of the doors.
“What is that?” said Dallas.
Gabe didn’t answer. His hands groped in the darkness.
“Were you serious?” Dallas said.
“Yes,” said Gabe. “I need a flashlight and a screwdriver. Something to pry it off.”
“Pry what off?”
“Can you just do what I asked? It’s too dark. I can’t see the names.”
“What names?” said Dallas.
“Fuck dude! Just go get me a fucking flashlight!”
Gabe was panting, desperately searching.
“Are you okay?” said Dallas.
“I’m fine,” said Gabe, still on his knees, still searching the cabinets, his hands sliding across the surface like a blind man reading Braille.
Dallas thought about going back to the car to drive somewhere to buy a flashlight. But that would take too long. He did not want to leave his brother there that long. Then, an idea: He remembered visiting his father-in-law’s office. The man had every tool and gadget imaginable. If engineers used that office until the tornado hit, there might be a flashlight there. But the tornado probably blew it away. Or maybe demolition workers had already cleared it out.
He decided to try. Dallas couldn’t remember where the office had been, but he knew it was on the first floor. He ran down the dark hallway. It was darker even, farther into the passage. He tripped on debris.
As he ran, Dallas saw the man sitting at this desk, his glasses set near the tip of his nose, an unlit cigarillo dangling from his mouth. He was a deliberate man who moved and spoke slowly, always carefully considering his words, which did not mean they were kind. That day he was handling the insides of an electronics device, a board or some other piece of equipment that fit into a health monitor. His hands slowly rotated the part, and he studied the wires that came out of it. Dallas sat on the other side of the desk with his wife and his brother-in-law, and they waited for the man to figure out what was wrong with the part before he would rise from his chair and take them to lunch.
At the end of the dark hallway, Dallas turned to his right, only because there was light coming from that direction. He walked until he came to a room that faced the east side of the property. More light. There were no exterior walls. He could see beyond the boundary of the structure. The chain-link fence was out there and beyond it trees stripped of their leaves and small branches. It looked like the end of a species out there, a hostile, post-apocalyptic world of paucity.
Dallas knew that he would not find his father-in-law’s office. As soon as this thought came into his head, he spotted a pickup truck, an older Ford moving slowly across the scarred landscape between the fence and the trees.
He ran out of the building and all the way to the fence. He waved at the truck. The man driving it saw him and waved back. Dallas kept waving, motioning for the driver to come toward the hospital. The man stopped and got out of the truck. He was an old man. He wore overalls and a t-shirt on underneath. His baseball cap said “Allis Chalmers.”  
“I need help!” yelled Dallas.
The man started walking toward him.
“I need a flashlight,” Dallas said.
    The man touched his ear.  
    “Do you have a flashlight?” Dallas said again. “I need a…”
    “I’m sorry,” interrupted the man. “I can’t hear very good.”
    He was still walking toward the fence. His boots were old and scuffed, and there were liver spots on his forearms. Dallas waited until the man spoke again. When he did, he was about fifteen feet from the fence.
    “What was it you said?”
    “I’m sorry to bother you,” said Dallas. “Do you have a flashlight in your truck? I’m trying to help my brother. He needs a flashlight. Oh… and a screwdriver. Flathead.”
    The old man simply nodded and turned around and started walking back to the truck.
    “Should I follow you?” Dallas said.
    That man waved him off.

There was blood on the plaque when Gabe handed it to his brother. Dallas shined a light on it. The plate was small, less than an inch wide, three times as long. One end of it was bent and curled at the corner where Gabe had pried it off.
    Dallas studied the plaque. There were letters on it, a name.
“’Russell McDonald’,” he said. “What is this?”
As soon as he said it, Dallas remembered. He felt stupid, ashamed.
    “It’s what I wanted to show you,” Gabe said. “What we came here for. Now we can go.”
    Gabe ran his fingers through his hair, showing tracks of blood along his forearm. His eyes were red.
    “I’m sorry,” Dallas said. “I just forgot… that’s all.”
“It’s okay,” said Gabe. “You all were living in Texas then.”
Gabe lifted the injured arm and held the hand of the finger that bled. He had found a white towel at the same place he found the screwdriver, a closet that had not been affected by the tornado. Half of the towel was red.
    “Now we can go,” he said. “I can’t get this to stop bleeding.”
They left the same way they had entered. Dallas told himself he would drive around the building to find the old man and return the flashlight, even though the man had told him to keep it, that he had many. But instead they drove straight to Freeman, the other hospital that barely escaped the tornado’s wrath. Dallas drove around to the backside of the building, where the emergency room used to be.
    “It’s not here anymore, I guess,” Dallas said. “Do you know where I should go?”
    “Doesn’t matter,” said Gabe. “Just take me home. It’ll heal.”
The brothers faced the road and Gabe fell asleep, the hand with dried blood resting on his thigh. The plaque was there, on the other thigh. Dallas thought it would slide off, but it didn’t. He would drive Gabe to his house, where Gabe would drop the plaque into an old cigar box that contained two dried-up and shriveled umbilical cords and the primary teeth of his living children.

~Matt McGowan

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