August 1, 2002
Do you understand now, like I do?
by Josh Capps
wo weeks after Theresa and I leave the Center, she still keeps the laces out of her Nikes. By no means is she warning off this most recent brush with darkness, though. We've both taken to sipping horse in our coffee. We've got a couple of mugs as we sit around our Econo Lodge room table. The giant butcher knife Theresa stole from Wal-Mart sits near the little cardboard triangle that advertises the area's perks and restaurants and entertainment venues.
'Cream or sugar,' I joke.
Theresa makes a face at the taste of coffee. But it has to be this way.
My arms and toes and stomach look like dart boards.
'You love it,' I say.
About her shoes, tongues like a dead cow's, sometimes left on the sidewalk as she steps right out of them, she says, 'It's more comfortable. Less pressure across the tops of my feet. I hate that. I hate the stretching.'
I just wear sandals now. But I still wear my hospital wristband, though the lettering's faded. Unlike Theresa, I don't want to kill myself. Just to live.
'You think you're hot shit with that band,' Theresa says, 'like you're some survivor.' She says, 'Well, ha.'
'My feet feel swollen, anyway,' I tell her, pointing at my ugly sandals.
'You would say that.'
'What in the world is this green piece?' she says, holding it up, three round sides and a point and a half-moon. There are overlapping scars on one wrist. Her other wrist is bandaged.
'Find the corners and border pieces first.'
We're on this jigsaw puzzle now, one of those big daddy puzzles, five thousand pieces even. It advertises this on the box. The lid shows a ratty barn, a windmill, and a fresh stream. There's a blistering forest of turning leaves surrounding it all. Serenity is a word I've learned. Serenity and Peace, like it said on one of my many pamphlets. A puzzle, in general, was Theresa's idea, though. She says they kept her from climbing the walls at the Center this time.
She says this with some edge she expects me to blink at. I'm done blinking.
'I could scatter up a wall right now,' I tell her. I mix us some more coffee, cooking over the well-sanitized motel toilet. I feel good about myself in that bathroom, the white towels stacked so neatly on the rack, the shower curtain with a bright logo.
'There's a chance,' I say.
After a sip or two, Theresa's put her fighting gloves down. 'I found it,' she says. The green piece didn't even belong among the nature of the puzzle. It was the painted base of the windmill.
'How about that?'
'This thing's gonna be a tough one.'
'It's quite a puzzle,' I add.
We've got the border, mostly, and a few strips bound across the middle. Most of that damn barn. Theresa's connected a few pieces outside the border, and puts them off to the side.
'Have another sip,' I say.
'I never even did a puzzle before this visit,' she says. 'You know that. Did I say that? Maybe in first grade and those grades. What's that called?'
'Grade school,' I explain. Ah, grade school.
'I love you,' she tells me.
'Well,' I say, 'I thought that's what we had to live for.'
'I hate you, though.' She finishes off the coffee.
'Hey, there. Save a little.'
'Didn't you hear me?' she says. 'Why can't we just die?'
'Personally, I'm not wanting to die too badly.'
She has tears in her eyes. She holds up her wrists. 'Why can't I just die then? It's hard. What's in here?' She's moving her arms all over, like she's speaking of her entire body. 'I just don't understand what's keeping it together. Why does it struggle?' She puts the empty coffee mug to her lips, then takes mine.
'We need more help then.'
'I'm not going back to that place yet. No more.'
The last time, after checking into the same facility, she was in the suicide wing, and I was down in CD. We didn't talk about death so much down on my end. I think that suicide wing kept it on Theresa's mind. She spoke of all the ways her fellow patients had tried to off themselves: Hanging. Pills. Or, running in front of a goddamn train. That one took the cake for me, but there were more.
Bonnie tried electrocution but blew a fuse.
Marnie actually shot herself in the temple with a gun from her husband's closet. The pellet knocked her out cold, cracked her skull.
Some of these patients weren't much for brains.
Christie tried drinking anti-freeze. Apparently, it doesn't taste bad at all. Apparently, it's a tasty attempt. But, unless you drink a lot of it, you're only going to end up alive, with fucked up intestines. Christie said she tried anti-freeze because she couldn't stand pain.
Neither can Theresa, though her wrists are nasty. But she didn't feel a thing when she gashed them.
'Don't go back,' I tell Theresa. I study that puzzle, but I'm not. It's tough love I'm trying.
'I won't,' she screams, 'I'm cured, too, then.'
'Shh,' I say, 'The rooms.' There's an adjoining door, and I poke a thumb at it.
'Oh, fuck. This place is just full of us!'
She stands up and with a sweep of her hand knocks the pieces to the floor. Some of them stick together in the fall. Some are left on the motel's little table. Her bandage has peeled. The stitches are thick and horrible as Satan's eyebrows.
'Well,' I say, going into her cigar box for the pain pills, 'find the border pieces first.'
She goes to the cigar box, too, and grabs a needle and the little vial of street anesthetic that she'd bartered for with Tumor Johnny.
Two weeks ago, despite all the junk we buy, no one wanted to sell us a gun. Or, we didn't have the cash at the right places. Even Tumor Johnny said, 'No way, chief. You fools'll kill yourselves.'
'He couldn't do it,' Theresa said. She looked at me with disgust. She said, 'Only me.'
I just stared at that big, nasty lump on Tumor Johnny's neck.
'Either way,' Tumor said, 'they'll trace that shit back to me. I run a fucking business here. I'm a businessman. I make a living.' He showed off his pawn shop like a game show host.
'I'll scream,' Theresa told him. 'I'll scream my guts out.'
'She will,' I agreed.
Tumor put a hand, the deformed one, to his chin. I wondered why he just didn't rub his giant lump. What a thought!
'What if you fuck it up,' he asked Theresa. 'What if you put that bullet in the wrong lobe and you're a fucking vegetable like . . . like a pal of mine. What of that?'
I found it mildly amusing at this point that Tumor didn't even question the whys of Theresa's wishes, just the hows. I rubbed my arms. Theresa leaned against the glass counter and listened. I don't know how she kept from staring at that living, breathing tumor. The vein running through it. The zits. The patches of hair.
'And when you put a bullet in your brain,' Tumor said, 'if you do it right, that is, well, you'll be dead in fourteen seconds. Fourteen. Then you shit yourself, and all that. You know that right?'
'She didn't know that,' I said. I thought of the mess I'd have to clean from her little blue panties.
'Fuck you,' she said. 'I know things.'
'Well,' I said, 'Be sure to shoot yourself on the toilet then.'
Tumor said, 'Fourteen seconds, though. And in that fourteen seconds, did you know that the pain is worse than any pain you'd imagine?'
'You've read this?' I asked. 'How in the world could'
Tumor shot me a look. He knew, alright. 'Fourteen seconds of the worst pain you'd ever imagine, a hundred times over. Fourteen seconds of pain so bad you'd trade a lifetime of pain for it. You really would. And then,' he said, 'well, then there's hell.'
Bullshit or not, Theresa's eyes were wide. Fourteen seconds of needles was too much for her sometimes. Well worth it, but still.
'There's always something, though,' Tumor said. 'Jesus, you two.' He shrugged. He led Theresa into the back of his shop and I stayed by the counter, pretending I didn't know what was going on behind the brown curtain. I also felt a sudden surge of authority. I looked over the merchandise like some entrepreneur. Vacuum cleaner. Television set. Toaster. All dusty.
'This shit's dusty,' I told the little old woman trying out the recliner. 'I need to get the help to dust. Get out the old dust mop.'
She stared at me and for a moment I hoped she wasn't dead.
'That's quite a recliner,' I told her. 'I'll take off ten dollars, just for you, ma'am.'
She must have felt my tone hostile because she suddenly wasn't dead and she shuffled to another part of the store. 'Let me know if I can be of assistance,' I told her, in the voice I'd used in what seemed a past life. I took the recliner. I kicked it up, put my hands behind my head.
Oh, what I should've contemplated! I loved this girl, my Theresa, who wanted to die so. But I also thanked her for introducing me to what would surely get me by in her death. She gave me this little friend, you see, that makes me feel and I want more of it than I can ever steal, then I'll arrest myself, and for a while, wear a shield, then go out of my way to prove I still want Theresa alive. But if not, I could smell her.
I wished she'd ever felt that of me. I knew I'd met her too late.
The bell dinged as the little old lady left. She stuttered on down the street. From my spot in the recliner, I saw the radio that Tumor had been pulling apart when Theresa and I had arrived. What seemed like hours ago! I needed something, I knew that. The wiring of that radio was ridiculous now. Who knew what parts held together a radio? I waited for those pieces to blast out noise at any moment, those wires and screws and disconnected speakers. Horns and trumpets. All kinds of music. Rock, and jazz and classical.
A fellow might croon from it, 'One baby to another said I'm lucky to have met you . . . I don't care what you think unless it is about me . . . it is now my duty,' and this guy has quite a voice, 'to completely drain you.'
But the serenade got nuked. Tumor bellowed, 'If you fall asleep in it, you buy it! Fucker!' He chuckled. His lump didn't jiggle. I shook myself from the recliner.
'I run a tight ship,' I joked in return.
Theresa's cheeks were flushed, especially in comparison with the rest of her gray body. I didn't try, but I could only imagine. She held the cigar box in her hands.
'You're covered, too,' Tumor smiled. He nodded to me.
'You think I could buy that radio when you fix it up?' I asked.
He laughed some more.
I manage to get most of that puzzle back in the order we had it. This is to say, the barn and the windmill and the glowing forest and the serene creek are still out of reach. Serenity and Peace, I tell myself again. It's a phrase I've picked up that actually makes me hopeful, though I'm not sure if it's even a phrase.
Some near-phrases that don't pick me up: Destroying Yourself.
Day to Day.
But I have taken my time with this mug of coffee. But I can feel the last few. The last six cups of coffee. I keep a grip on those puzzle pieces I'm trying to place and wander to the window. There are no cars in the parking lot. Theresa was probably right about the rooms. It's Wednesday. It's April. It's daytime. I take another look at the lid of that puzzle. All that nature puts a tear in my eye. I'm no softy, but I can't explain it. I watch from the window again and see only interstate. Cars racing. An overpass. As for nature, it's no explosion. More concrete than grass. More billboards than trees. Golden Arches high into the sky. And the clouds don't look like cotton. Fuck, they don't even look like clouds. Just sewage.
My insides feel a little like cotton, though.
'Glorious cotton,' I tell myself.
Smile. I fall back onto the bed. The pizza box falls to the floor. The starched sheets and flowery comforter are full of failed sex. I smell everything. I finish my coffee and want more.
Yes, I'm hooked. I've figured this out. It doesn't torture me anymore. I'm hooked and my life will be that. I've come to this agreement. My body's instinct is to keep this feeling inside me. This softness. For a long time there was a pain in not being able to figure this out, which is funny, seeing as the junk was supposed to fix the pain as it was. But all that's mumbo-jumbo. I wish I could just lay down the cards and tell it like it is, like Tumor Johnny, maybe.
There's this, and there's this, and there's . . .
But I do understand, you see? I'm not blind, and I've figured it out, and I can accept it now. But Theresa? That's her deal. She just doesn't understand why she can't seem to die. She doesn't understand the body's some complicated shit. She doesn't realize a body's instinct is a powerful, powerful thing. Our bodies want to live.
She moans, though. She's moaning, and I'm staring at the ceiling. I figure it's the wrist again. Maybe a little higher. Maybe she slashed across all those track marks, connected the dots, a smiley face.
Tumor knew his shit. That day in the pawn shop, he'd introduced Theresa to an anesthetic she could shoot into her body, numbing a given area. 'It's what they use for surgery,' he said, 'when they don't want to put the person out.' Theresa grinned.
Me? Fuck that. I'll stick with something I can feel. You know that now. But Theresashe could shoot this into her right arm, let it go numb, numb like some doctor might work on it and fix a bone or cut out a cyst, and then she'd wait, and she'd sip something, she'd put her hands down the front of her pants, and when her arm went limp, when it fell asleep, she could take a razor with her left, slice across the right. Just see the blood's slow drip, then its splash against her kicking legs.
Or, maybe, Tumor Johnny introduced us to the anesthetic after Theresa had already tried one wrist. Maybe it was the day I heard beautiful tunes on a dead radio and met an old lady I'd never be old enough to fuck. Tumor hooked me up with more horse that day. Theresa tried out the anesthetic that night. Then we spent our time in the Center.
Theresa's groans are strange now.
I felt bad that no one visited Theresa at the Center. I had a visitor. But I don't want to remember her name now. I also had half an hour a day with Theresa, though we were both pretty medicated. Methadone is nothing like a poem, I tell you.
'I'm working puzzles,' Theresa told me then.
'I've got the shakes.'
'Look at my floppy shoes,' she said, in a way that made me remember when we'd met, and I was nostalgic, though it was foolish longing for a time that was too far gone before it even started. I had sold mattresses and worn a name tag with my name on it. Theresa had tried to break into my car and then danced with me at a place called The Fox Hole.
'I told you about the puzzles, right?'
We repeated a lot of things at the Center.
'I told you I love you, right?'
She sighed. She smiled. She whispered, 'When we get out of here, I want to buy a puzzle.'
'We can do that,' I told her. 'Goals,' I said, rather proudly, 'that's something we talked about in session. How do you like that?'
'I also want to see Tumor,' she said. She was still whispering, occasionally looking over her shoulder.
'They can't stop me from killing myself,' she said, 'no matter what special news they have for me. No matter what responsibility they say I have now.'
'Baby, we can get us a puzzle,' I said. I put my hand on her shoulder. I was angry, too.
From the motel bathroom, Theresa calls my name. She moans it.
Somehow we had the money to buy a puzzle from Wal-Mart the day we walked away from the Center. Actually, I'd gotten out two days prior, but I'd hung around the block. Maybe some kind stranger had given me the money, thinking I was a helpless, homeless person. It was later that Tumor gave us the cash for this Econo Lodge. Either way, I put down those nasty, folded bills for the cashier at Wal-Mart. She gave us a look I'm sure she believed to be harsh, but really, those looks aren't special anymore. We had change. We had enough change that Theresa shouldn't have swiped that glue, that tape, and that giant butcher knife, hiding it under her roomy shirt with a cartoon mouse on it.
Wal-Mart's armless greeter didn't give us a second look as we strolled out of that store, Theresa cradling the loot in her shirt.
'Good day,' the armless greeter offered.
I waved at him.
This time when Theresa moans my name, I take notice of the missing butcher knife. Then her tennis shoes, at least five feet apart, leading to the bathroom. If I told you my heart expanded like a balloon just thenthat at that very moment everything started to matterwould you believe me?
A moan. Then audible words. Things like, 'You've gotta see.' Or, 'I can see clearly now.'
I laugh at that one because I think of the song. I frown and my balloon pops when I push open the bathroom door.
Theresa is sprawled in the tub, her panties gone. Her shirt in the sink, needle poking from it. Her left arm dangling over the side of the tub, the crimsoned butcher knife resting on the toilet lid. The first thing I should've noticed, been aware of, was the last thing that fully registers.
She's sliced open her stomach. I'm no surgeon, for Christ's sakecould I perform surgery on you?so I can't understand all her parts so clearly. I believe I see guts, though, twisting and plump and settled like dog shit. Is that a stomach? My God, is that a stomach? I see a chunk of green meat that's what I believe a stomach should look like. The blood's angry and filling the tub. Theresa's lopsided breasts look so normal now. Is that a kidney? How would I even know? There's so many parts there inside of Theresa. I don't understand.
But Theresa seems to. Her voice startles me, because I knew she was dead. She speaks to me like my mother might speak, twenty years from now, on her death bed, weak. Or, like Theresa speaks now. She says my name. She says, 'Look at all of me.' She says, 'All this stuff working and pumping and trying.'
I imagine there's no way she can possibly see what I'm seeing, but she puts her hand on what I assumed were guts. 'Fourteen seconds,' she mumbles, 'fourteen seconds, my ass.'
'It's true,' she says. 'All this inside me. Now I know.'
'What were you doing?' I brace myself in the doorway like it's the big one, the big one that splits open the earth we stomp across and swallows us into hell's throat. Hell can gag on this. I say, 'Theresa, why?'
She says, 'It's so clear now, but I can't do anything about it.'
I say, 'What?'
She says, 'I know what's keeping me alive.' She says, 'All this work.'
I say, 'Fuck.' I say, 'Why the fuck did you cut open your stomach? You're spilling.' The guts aren't so settled any longer.
'I wanted to see why,' she says. 'And how.' Where she gets the strength I do not know, but she puts her hand in the middle of all the goop and slop and starts pulling. She screams. Even if nobody's in this entire motel, they'll hear this scream.
I move closer, then back off.
She blinks. She whispers, 'Tell me something.'
'You tell me.'
'I know nothing.'
'Tell me something,' she says, 'that I don't know. I know,' she's still got her hands in her guts, 'this now. Now, tell me . . .'
'I had a visitor at the Center,' I tell her, for no good reason.
'Do you understand now, like I do?'
I shake my head. I say, 'Yes.'
She closes her eyes and I wish I'd said something about that puzzle out there instead, that we could stick together all those pieces. Tape them. Glue them. Then I wish I'd sung to her a song from a broken radio. Something meaningful. Something that connected this awful mess.
Sections in this story borrow lyrics from the following:
Drain You and Lounge Act, (Cobain/Nirvana), performed by Nirvana, off 'Nevermind,' David Geffen Company, 1991.
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