Mouth Full of Fish
My blood ailed and I sunk with it. Doctors brought their slow death to me on clean forms. I drove far away to make myself absent. While steadying through Texas my nose gave in and started to leak. I pulled off the interstate and drove through a town. I blinked twice and was in front of a hospital. The white stucco popped out from the surrounding desert red. My sweaty hand greased the door lever open and I spilled out onto the pavement. I blinked twice more and was seated inside. Sterile syringes and bleached seats encased me. A nurse showed me the blood she wooed out of my arm into a bag.
“I’ll be right back,” the nurse said. I nodded my support and waited.
The squeak of wheelchairs breached the hush. I was in Balmorhea, a two-spit town between Marfa and Taos where people stop to pump gas. Sunlight dulled the colors of the floral drapes. I was going somewhere and that somewhere did not end in Balmorhea and that showed through my teeth.
“Frank,” my nurse called, to someone else. “Frank, can I do anything else for you before you scoot yourself back to Moonlight Gems?”
I turned my head. I wanted to get a good look at this Frank who was getting special attention from my nurse.
Frank sat in an electric wheelchair with an oxygen tank attached to the back. Clear tubes ran from the tank up Frank’s nose and across his cheeks, giving his smile added lines. A digital voice box stuck to his throat above his wrinkled Adam’s apple.
“I’m good, honey love,” Frank gurgled. “I’m all set to go.”
Frank’s words came out broken like a speaker sunk in a shallow bucket of water. After he spoke there was static instead of silence. He looked over at me from across the hallway and smiled big.
I watched Frank as he moved around the hospital on his electric wheelchair and bid the nursing staff goodbye. He whispered digital well wishes into their ears, and breathed heavy as he maneuvered. I watched the back of his head. He finally made his way to the handicap exit and scooted down the ramp out into the desert.
When my nurse finally returned, I was informed that my blood and I needed to rest, so I checked into a nearby motel. I closed my eyes and opened them. I folded my body up and out of bed and looked out the window and at the TV and decided I had to walk. A walk, I thought, would do me good. I left my room and went into the night. I walked down the main road and passed through Balmorhea by foot. Yellow street lamps gave me a shadow. Light also radiated from a single building. A run-down wood two-story with a generous porch and a sign reading “Moonlight Gemstones.” It seemed to hum in the night. As I approached the building the sound grew louder. I walked up the stairs, crossed the porch and pushed open the swinging door of the rock shop. In a panic I covered my ears. Everywhere I looked there were hundreds of noisy black machines spinning full force. Going around and around with stones inside and metal cords running from their bodies into the walls. On shelves, on the floor, hanging from the ceiling. All that registered was a blur. The allusion to an object. The sound deadened the space around my body. I could not hear the sound of my feet walking, the hands on my ears, the in and out of breaths. The everyday sounds were missing.
These machines, these rock tumblers entering my ears, the sounds they made were annihilating my blood cells one by one, like birds on a fence. Bam bam. I could feel the liquid inside me die.
I tried to figure out these spinning baskets just as Frank appeared and pulled the plug. Silence descended upon the room like a cloud of black.
“Hey there, stranger,” he smiled at me through his nose tubes. “You like rocks?” Frank machined his way from behind a desk and rolled out to greet me.
“Rocks, fossils, dinosaurs—just giving them a good polish while the town sleeps. Come here, let me show you the best ones I have. I bet you don’t have rocks where you come from.”
I followed Frank to a jeweler’s desk. He took out a worn velvet tray and a series of stones from a drawer. The silence wrapped us in close. He clicked on a desk lamp.
“See these veins of red reaching out towards the edges? The black circle at the center—that is how you know it’s from Balmorhea. These stones from here, right here, go all over the world. People like the red bits—universal beauty ain't it?”
“I’m driving from the East, heading West,” I said.
Frank’s smile dropped slightly at the tips of his mouth and he picked up one of the rocks. His neck was stiff and couldn’t move much so instead of leaning in to tell me his secrets he stretched out his hand from his body and lifted his skin-sagging arm up towards me.
I looked down at Frank’s wheelchair. It was a sophisticated machine. On the right arm were remotes and controls and a small red button under a clear plastic box. Frank flicked the box open, poised his finger above the red button, winked at me and said, “That’s how I send off my torpedoes.”
“You want the world tour?” he asked. I nodded.
“I have remote control everything.” he beamed. “The counters are low so I can reach them in my chair.”
All the surfaces were coated with grime because Frank couldn’t clean.
“I sleep in the back,” he said. “Pull that curtain aside.”
Past the curtain was a fancy mechanical bed.
“Damn good bed,” Frank said. “Beds like that cost more than a good pick-up truck.”
“Have you seen the springs?” Frank asked me. “They’re just up the road. You could carry me.”
It was night and the air was hot and swimming in a spring didn’t sound crazy. “They’re world renowned, these springs. Concrete man-made sides keep the water in. But the bottom is raw rock, regular Texan granite. It’s deep in parts and during the day or by the light of the moon you can see all the fish and spring creatures swimming at the bottom. They’ll brush your legs, these fish, and swim in between your toes and, if you stand still gaping long enough, the little ones will even swim into your mouth.”
Frank’s eyes were wet and I couldn’t tell if it was because he was excited or had a leaky eye.
He showed me how to unharness him from his chair. I hoisted him up. I carried Frank to the springs first like a child then over my back like a sack of rice. Carrying a man like that makes you feel like you are worth something. Walking was the only way to get there and I was glad for it. We were in a jungle of desert. Frank’s oxygen tank weighed heavy on my left hand. My right hand kept Frank balanced on my shoulder. He wheezed into my ear, the sound of his breath as close to life as a recording of waves crashing on a beach. Frank and me, we are our own machines, I thought. We are going to make it and let fish swim in our mouths.
Holding Frank in my arms, his oxygen tank hooked on my side, I wondered how far I had to climb. The heat crept up through my feet as he urged me on. I could see where we were headed. Pavement turned to gravel and I struggled to keep our balance.
When we got to the springs I put Frank at the base of a tree. I removed my shoes and tested the water with my foot.
“It’s like I told you,” Frank said. He smiled his gaping smile, and his tubes lifted up.
I looked up at the moon and the bright stars. Something flew overhead. Frank sat at the base of a tree, head stretched back, his neck hole facing me like a little puckered mouth. I placed his oxygen tank between his knees. It rested there like a sleeping child.
“I like the way you look,” I said. “I like the way you look with that tank between your knees.”
His head came back down, chin stiff again, teeth covered by his upper lip. “Five minutes and I’ll get rid of this damn thing. I’ll catch my breath and you can carry me in.”
I took off everything but my underwear and jumped in the spring. I could feel the nature in the water. The water reeked of life and mold and rot. The silver moon put scars on the water. I waited for the fish to nibble my legs but none came.
“You lied, Frank,” I said. “No fish—just a fancy granite bottom.”
Frank stood, which was something I had not yet seen him do. He pulled the tubes out from his nose and placed them on the tank. He teetered there for a moment. I heard the steady rhythm of his voice box breathe in and out. Slowly he undressed. I couldn’t help but watch his old broken body. He wore white military-looking underwear.
“Come here,” Frank croaked. “I might be standing but I sure as hell can’t walk!” I swam to the side and pulled myself out of the water. Up close, Frank’s body looked like a misshapen piece of fruit. I stood next to him.
“I’ve shrunk,” Frank said. “We don’t have all night. Carry me to the pool.”
I lifted him up, his atrophied legs draping over my elbow, and I placed him down on the edge.
Frank brought his hand to his neck and unscrewed his voicebox. He put it to the side, a couple feet from the edge of the spring. Frank spoke again but said something I couldn’t understand. His voice was small. He pulled air with his hand in the direction of my head.
“Closer,” he mouthed. “I have to be careful of getting water in my neck.”
With that hard K I heard him, and I pulled away and looked at the gaping, sagging hole. Through the opening I saw the muscles in his body and I stiffened. Frank breathed and looked at me and said, “I’m ready. Bring me in.”
Without his voice box, Frank could only mouth his words. We were lucky the moon was so bright or I wouldn't have been able to see them.
“What’s wrong with you?” Frank asked. “What do you got that’s so bad?”
“Something domestic,” I said.
“You’re awful young.”
“Is there an age where your body is allowed to start hating you?” I asked.
“What about you? Didn’t they take a bag of your blood out here in Balmorhea?”
“Yes. I knew I had to get my skin around a needle.”
“Ain’t that the worst,” Frank said.
I looked up at Frank sitting on the side of the spring, his legs dangling in the water, his head tilted slightly back. I looked at Frank and looked at the stars and imagined all the stars gathering and funneling down into Frank’s neck hole. I looked for holes on myself. Places where stars could gather and enter. There were just the usual ones.
“Come on, in we go,” I said. I was already in the water. I put my hands under Frank’s armpits and pulled up. His skin slipped out from under my hands and I was afraid it was going to rip. His body lifted off the concrete side and fell into the water. I still had a hold of him.
The water took away his weight and let his bones float. I swam over to the other side. It was quite large. There were several alcoves that jutted out from the main spring that looked like natural hot tubs. We had entered through one of these slight curves. I ducked my head under water in each one. In some, the moon shone bright and I could see the bottom clearly. Others were dark. The granite shifted under my feet and I realized I might cut myself. In the dark Frank wouldn’t even see the blood leaking. No one would know what had happened until morning when they found Frank wheezing, short of oxygen in a spring of my blood.
I looked back at Frank from across the spring, but I couldn’t see him. I looked harder into the dark, but still no figure appeared.
I got out and ran to the other side where Frank had been. Over in a corner I saw bubbles rising up. I prepared to jump in and pull Frank out, to take my mouth and put it on his neck hole and breathe into him, but as I approached I saw Frank smiling at me. He was breathing bubbles out of his neck hole, spewing them in a pattern, listening to the sounds they made and seeing how many bubbles he could blow before coming back up for air. He looked at me and tilted his head back again, his neck hole open wide. A single bubble emerged, birthed out of him.
“You lied, Frank,” I said. “I don’t see any fish.”
“They’re here,” he mouthed.
I slid back in and looked around my feet, at Frank’s feet. Out of the edge of my eye I thought I saw a fish. A small black zinger no bigger than my smallest finger. I looked over at Frank. He had his head half in the water and his mouth open. His eyes were looking ahead at some faraway tree. I didn’t move. And then it was in. Frank shut his mouth and pulled himself over to the edge to spit it out. The fish shook there on the cement like a glass toy. It was shiny and black and pretty. I realized it was dying and made a move to put it back in the water but Frank stopped me with his bony hand.
Its flopping got more violent, and the fish’s mouth gaped, opening and closing for water, but none came. I left Frank where he was and got out of the spring. I didn’t need to look at Frank or the fish. I could have just left him there in that pool.
I put on my pants and tennis shoes and wore my shirt around my head like a turban until my chest dried. It was clear I didn’t know Frank at all. He waited on the side for me to pull him out. I tried to forget the dead fish. I didn’t look at it or acknowledge it was there. The horizon got yellow. I lifted Frank up out of the spring. He twisted his voice box back on and cleared his electronic vocal cords. I was glad the hole in his neck was covered again. I’d had enough.
I helped him to stand. He dripped onto the cement.
“Get me my tank,” he said.
I did, and he put the tubes back up his nose. His white underwear clung to his legs and his balls, and he looked like the least human thing I had ever seen. With the morning light his body showed skin spots with growths and moles and brown patches.
We exited the same way we came. I carried Frank, the both of us still dripping, through the desert path and back to the Balmorhea strip. The sun rose behind us and we traveled wet and broken in the middle of the street.
“How do you think we look?” Frank said.
“Good,” I said. “We look good.”
As we walked I saw Frank and me shoved in the mouth of a doctor, reclining under a giant tongue, living in pools of spit together, Frank's tubes anchoring him to a cavity-ridden molar further back in the doctor's jaw. I saw us playing cards under the palate and popping canker sores for fun and harvesting dead taste buds for a grill we had set up near the esophagus, me swinging on the tonsils like a tube swing over a river, pumping my legs, pushing my momentum back and forward, back and forward out of the doctor's mouth and onto the hard cement below.