Fathom Mag
De Profundis

Bad Theology

A short story

Published on:
September 12, 2022
Read time:
26 min.
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What they need to do, Joanie’s told them, is sign a Do Not Resuscitate—that’s what they need to do. Not in June like Tess wants. Not never like the kids want. Now. 

Because if you think about Joanie’s brother Bruce, if you stop and think for one quick second about who Bruce was—that’s right was—and what Bruce was like, there’s no justification for letting things go on like this. None. 

“I mean nobody wants it,” says Joanie, pressing the phone against her ear as she hoists the orange bottle of Tide across the trunk and then shoves it into place next to the pallet of bottled water. “I know nobody wants it, Chandra. Then again nobody wants to have a stroke. But tell me, Chandra, if you did have a stroke would you want to be kept in hospice with a ventilator shoved down your throat while a nurse comes by every three hours to change your diaper? Tell me Chandra, would you want that? Really?”

Chandra is adamant. She would not want that. Not at all. But also, she has to go. Rick’s home now. He’s brought lunch. 

“Well, that’s fine. I’ve got to go anyway.” 

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Joanie closes the reorganized trunk, turns around, and studies the building that waits for her across the parking lot. Red brick, like a house. Shrubs, like a house. Shutters and curtains and a chimney like a house. Then a cement ramp, a handrail, and automatic doors. 

“I’m here.” Joanie locks the car door. She clicks the button three times so the sedan honks twice. “My root canal. Yes, it’s today. No, I’ll be fine. Mike’ll come when it’s over.” 

Chandra stays on the line after all. Seems she has some things to say about dentistry. She’s got this story about how, when they were first married, Rick needed his wisdom teeth removed but didn’t want to pay for the medication. He said it wouldn’t hurt that bad. But you know what? It did hurt that bad. He came home bellyaching something awful and you had better believe the next time he needed dental work done he paid for the meds. Ha!

Ha, indeed. That’s what Joanie says to Chandra: “Ha.” And then, “Well, better go . . .”

But now Chandra’s in a talking mood. Joanie stands next to the car, wondering how many dental stories Chandra’s got rattling around in that perm-adorned head of hers. Eventually, Joanie runs out of “uh-huhs.” Chandra seems to take this as an indication that she has somehow scared Joanie with her stories of pain, infection, and abscess. Chandra pauses for a while then apologizes for telling ghost stories.

“And anyway,” she says, “I don’t think root canals are near as bad as they used to be. Are they, Joanie?” 

“I don’t know,” says Joanie. “Guess I’m about to find out. Bye, now.” 

Joanie hangs up then locks eyes with the frosted D.D.S. printed across the glass doors. She discussed the pain with the dentist last time she was here. She alluded to it when she called, twice, to postpone the operation. She lifts her hand to her left cheek, tests the tooth with her tongue. Oh yeah, still hurts. Hasn’t gone away, not by a long shot. 

Inside, the receptionist seems happy to see Joanie. She’s got her swivel chair pumped up so high that her heels nearly come off the ground. When she reads the computer screen she leans forward and pushes her glasses against her face.

“Oh,” she says. “I know I said I wouldn’t look, but—I see it’s prompting you to clear out your voicemail?”“That keeps popping up,” says Joanie. “I don’t know how to get rid of it.”

“Well,” says the receptionist, her face an inch or two from the screen. “Looks like your information is up to date.” Joanie turns toward the waiting room and the woman reaches across the wooden desk to stop her: “Ope—sorry! Dr. Winters prefers patients leave their cell phones out here. If you don’t mind?”

Joanie’s hand curls around her phone. “Do I have to?” she asks. 

“No.” The receptionist reaches into a drawer and pulls out a plastic basket. “It’s only a request.”

The woman holds out the basket, and Joanie leans across the desk to read the card that’s been attached to it with clear packaging tape: Dentist offices are some of the cleanest places in the world. Twenty percent of cell phones contain fecal matter. Your call.

“Huh,” says Joanie, looking down at her phone. “All right, then.” 

“Appreciate it.” The receptionist holds the basket across the desk so Joanie can lay her phone inside it. “Promise I won’t look.” 

But then she does look. Instinctively she looks then winces. 

“Oh,” she says. “I know I said I wouldn’t look, but—I see it’s prompting you to clear out your voicemail?”

“That keeps popping up,” says Joanie. “I don’t know how to get rid of it.” 

“My son,” the receptionist sits up straighter, “who is very good with things like this, says you ought to keep your voicemail clear. He says it’s very important. Mom, he tells me, you can’t expect your phone to function if you don’t practice technological hygiene.” 

Joanie leans forward and rests one hand on the desk and draws the other to her hip.

“You know, my daughter Courtney is always saying things like that. She goes into my internet and closes all the tabs so I can’t find anything I’ve saved. She says the phone needs a rest. You believe that? A phone? Needs rest?”

“Now I think there may be something to that. Young people understand technology.” 

Joanie rolls her eyes. She’s so tired of hearing about young people and their technology.

“See, I don’t really agree with that,” says Joanie. “Because I think they’re a little bit obsessed. Addicted even. My daughter comes to pick me up and she texts me from the car. Can you believe that?” The receptionist laughs and nods. “From the car? Instead of ringing the doorbell? There’s a word for that: laziness. Laziness and bad theology.” 

“Well. I don’t know about all that.” The woman runs her long fingernails through her hair. “But Dr. Winters is fussy about phones. He’d prefer you turn it off and leave it up here with me—you can leave your whole purse if you like. Promise I won’t take anything!”

Joanie raises her eyebrows in response. She then takes her phone from the basket and tries to remember which button it is. The round one? No, the long one on the side. Just hold for a long, long time. Her daughter Courtney taught her. “Mom sometimes you got to close all these tabs and give your phone a breather. Just press the side button and hold . . .”

As Joanie slides the power-off circle from left to right, a flurry of messages appears on her screen beneath the semi-dark overlay. She has just enough time to see the name at the top of the messages, and the name makes her smile because there is no person in this world whose messages she would rather ignore than Tess’s.

“Gettin’ a message here,” she says as the circle slides into place. 

“Something important? Because we can wait a few minutes—” 

“No, no,” says Joanie. “Just my sister-in-law. She’s been trying to get a hold of me. Rarely has anything of importance to say.” 

The receptionist laughs then seems startled by her own laughter. She jumps and the swivel chair dances around beneath her. When she finally lands, she’s got her hands over her mouth and a bit of redness on her cheeks. Joanie drops her blackened phone into her purse then slides it across the desk. 

“Besides, Tess and I spoke last week. Said about all I need to say to her.” 

The receptionist clears her throat then tells Joanie it will be a ten-minute wait. She points her to the waiting room. 

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It looks like a real living room—wallpaper, framed photographs, a fireplace—except for the chairs. They have metal legs and are seemingly upholstered in carpet. Joanie sits down  and folds her hands in her lap. She crosses her ankles under her chair. She stares straight ahead. 

Joanie’s fingers itch for her purse, for her phone. What did Tess send? Did she finally sign it? No. Impossible. Better to not have the phone. It’s like she told the receptionist: nothing left to say.

Because the only thing Joanie can say anymore is the obvious, and the obvious is what Tess is least inclined to hear. What Joanie means is, seeing how Bruce is in a drop-dead coma, has been in a drop-dead coma for over six months now, and seeing how stroke victims often recover within six months, if at all—well taking that into account, Joanie is sorry, really she is, but her brother Bruce is dead. Joanie doesn’t like it, Tess doesn’t like it, but it’s the truth. Dead. And seeing as Bruce is dead, it seems to Joanie that her and Tess’s sister-in-lawship is all but dead as well.

That was the word the preacher-in-training had used: theology. He’d given it to Joanie a few months ago, and she’s made good use of it ever since.

Ten minutes, the woman said. Well, they’ve got magazines in here. It’s been a while since Joanie’s sat with a magazine. Elle, People, Real Simple. Let’s see what Oprah has to say these days. 

Oprah tells Joanie this issue is all about the soul, about finding the path that leads to the authentic you. About taking a deep breath then letting it go. About being here now. 

Joanie laughs in Oprah’s face. She closes the magazine, throws it down on top of Elle. A magazine about soul? A path that leads to the authentic you? Psh, Joanie says to the empty waiting room. Then she says, out loud: “Bad theology, that’s what it is. Just bad theology . . .”

That was the word the preacher-in-training had used: theology. He’d given it to Joanie a few months ago, and she’s made good use of it ever since. It was the monthly church potluck, and he’d been sitting all alone at one of the big, round tables. This was a couple of months into Bruce’s coma when Tess was in her emoji phase. Joanie texted her for updates every single day and always got the same response: yellow cartoon hands, folded in prayer. 

“My sister-in-law thinks that if she prays hard enough God’ll heal him. The doctors say there are several things they can do to make him more comfortable but Tess says no—there is only one thing; there is only prayer.” 

Joanie said this to the preacher-in-training over the oilcloth, and he shook his head at the big empty table. He wore one of those suits that are cut real narrow. People at Joanie’s church didn’t much care for narrow-cut suits like that. They also didn’t care much, Joanie knew, for being told what every other word in the scripture meant in the Greek.  

“What do you think?” Joanie asked him. “Is she right about this? Am I meant to expect my brother to leap out of bed and run a marathon any day now? Has God promised me that? Does God even do that?”

“She says there is only prayer?” He didn’t look at Joanie so much as at the crowd of potluckers, the fifty some-odd people who were not shaking his hand, not thanking him, not congratulating him for knowing what everything meant in the Greek. But then he rubbed his hands together and looked at Joanie very sincerely. “I don’t know, ma’am. Sounds like bad theology to me.” 

Bad theology. What a useful phrase. Once she was given the vocabulary for it, Joanie saw bad theology everywhere: in her daughter’s taste in television, during five o’clock traffic, and—God almighty—at the gym. The phrase rattled around in her mind for months before spilling out of her mouth last week after hanging up on Tess. The conversation had begun with another one of Tess’s long-winded explanations: “I know I said I’d sign it today. I know I said I’d do it the day we hit month six. Six months in a coma—Do Not Resuscitate. I know, Joanie. I know what I said.” 

“So I suppose this means you haven’t signed it, Tess?” Joanie had just pulled into the gas station. She unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the windows to let in some air. “I suppose you’re calling to tell me, once again, that my brother’s meant to go on suffering indefinitely?” 

“No, Joanie,” said Tess in her big-girl voice. The voice she dared use with Joanie, a woman ten years her senior, owner and operator of Joanie’s Junkhouse: Antiques & Collectables, which Joanie had built from scratch, and which now comprised no less than ten percent of the small but steady Fredericksburg, Texas economy. Joanie, who had in three decades and with no education done what Bruce—the first Lundy to step onto any collegiate campus—had not. Had not because there had been Tess, and Tess had cared little for the sacrifices made toward Bruce’s education. Because Tess’s daddy sold tires and Bruce could make fast money working for him over in Alabama. So Bruce left college and spent his adult life not building bridges, but rather deciding which combination of hubcaps, spinning rims, and not-yet-but-soon-to-be-illegal taillights would best fund their next trip to Jamaica. 

“No, Joanie,” Tess had said. “He’s not going to go on like this indefinitely—”

“Enough, Tess. I don’t have time for this. If you’re going to subject my brother to life on a machine—which we both know he would not have wanted—then there’s nothing I can do to stop you. Why do you even call me anymore? You’re going to do what you’re going to do and that’s that.” 

It felt good to finally hang up on Tess. To push the red button, throw open the car door, and leave the whole conversation behind.

Tess does what Tess does. How many times has Joanie said this? To her husband, Mike, to Courtney, to Lionel who makes the furniture deliveries every Friday. Tess does what Tess does, she says and they all pretty much agree. Mike and Courtney because they know Tess well enough. Lionel because he doesn’t know her at all. 

“Well, anyway Tess, like I’ve said—I don’t have time for this. I’ve got to go.” 

“You don’t even want to know why I called? You don’t even want an update?”

“Nah, Tess. There aren’t going to be any more updates. None that actually matter.” 

It felt good to finally hang up on Tess. To push the red button, throw open the car door, and leave the whole conversation behind. How many times has Joanie wanted to hang up on Tess in the thirty years they’ve known each other? How many times has her finger hovered over the red circle as she put herself on mute and screamed curses at Tess for her incompetency and selfishness, only to unmute herself, smooth her hair neatly over her temple and say the polite goodbye required of her? 

The six-month anniversary has come and gone. If Tess hasn’t signed it yet, she never will. Bruce will go on living in that hospice bed. White sheets will pool around his disappearing body as nurses weave in and out of his wall-papered room, turning him now and then to rub lotion into his bed sores, to wipe away his feces. They’ll run in from the nurses’ station when the monitor goes berserk—again—calling Tess to tell her he’s had yet another stroke, Tess calling everyone she knows with what she terms good news: “Praise God! He’s had another one, but he’s still alive, still fighting—Praise God!”

Praise God? Praise God Joanie’s phone is off. Praise God she can’t check her messages just yet. Praise God and hallelujah for that. Joanie should be washing her hands of the whole bad business and praising God rather than sitting here, scoffing at Oprah. 

Ha! Joanie laughs aloud at herself and smooths her hair over her temple. Funny the messes you get into in life. The women you yell at, the things you say to empty waiting rooms. Funny how nothing short of a root canal can offer any rest from rattling phones and idiot sister-in-laws. 

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Joanie closes her eyes and takes her big inhale and releases her big exhale. She eyes the magazine table, wondering if Mama Oprah’s proud. She uncrosses her ankles. She listens to the clock tick.

It was probably just another video. Tess tends to send videos. Not of Bruce or anyone else they know. Videos from the internet. Videos that her friends send her, their saccharine little messages still attached when Tess forwards them to Joanie: “Hang in there!” “Brought tears to my eyes—there’s still hope!” and worst of all, “This man was in a coma for eighteen months. You’re right to keep Bruce going, Tess. Keep the faith, woman, keep the faith.” 

Joanie doesn’t watch Tess’s videos anymore. Can’t watch them. She knows the drill: some lost cause who everyone had given up on except for one person, usually the wife. And then one day the poor thing pops out of bed when everyone least expects it and walks his daughter down the aisle or something like that. It’s a miracle, everyone says. It’s a miracle, Tess says. Not knowing the exact condition of the stranger or how it relates to the exact condition of Bruce. Not knowing the real facts of the story. Not caring to know. Then bursting into tears and thanking God for sending her YouTube messages from heaven. 

Joanie looks down at Oprah. Bad theology. The world is full of bad theology. 

The waiting room door opens, and a woman asks for a Mrs. Lundy. 

“That’s me,” Joanie says. When she stands she looks for her purse, forgetting that she’s handed it to the woman behind the desk. “Well,” she says, “Here I am. Is it time?”

“Right this way, Mrs. Lundy. You have someone picking you up afterward? Mr. Lundy?” 

“No, that’ll be Mr. Pritchard.” 

“And Mr. Pritchard is your . . .”

“He’s my husband. Lundy’s my maiden name.”

“Oh.” The woman looks impressed. “We don’t get a lot of feminists around here.”

“Hope not,” says Joanie. “Hate to have to move.” 

The technician doesn’t know how to take this and Joanie has no intention of instructing her. Instead, she follows this dental technician who has decided—for reasons Joanie cannot fathom—to wear a dress beneath her white coat. And no pantyhose. And Doug Winters—Doug Winters from church—works with this woman. Oh, Lord. Such bad theology. 

Anyway, it’s not like the technician thinks. Joanie intended to take Mike’s name after they married, but the task just kept getting ahead of her. Months passed, then a year. Mike asked if she was having second thoughts. “Of course not,” she’d said, and she was telling the truth. Only she didn’t want to let go of her name. That name which situated her as one of the Leon Valley Lundys, the daughter of Ed and Pat Lundy, big sister of Bruce Lundy. Not a statement to all mankind—humankind—certainly not an insult to Mark. Just couldn’t let go, couldn’t part with that name. 

“Right in here.” The technician opens a door to their left and ushers Joanie inside. 

“This used to be a house?” Joanie looks at the wainscoting that wraps around the room then terminates at the medical-looking countertop. A vinyl window blind shuts out most of the light, and a shower of lace flows over it to soften the effect. In the corner stands a tiny, antique writing desk. Joanie sometimes sells this kind. No adult she knows could fit their legs under that desk. People say it’s thanks to the hormones in the milk.  

“I don’t know about that,” says the technician. She’s fooling with the swivel light attached to the ceiling. She pauses for a second, taking in the wainscoting and wallpaper. “It does look like it,” she adds. 

“Yes,” says Joanie. “Dentists’ offices always do. Not doctors’ offices for some reason, but dentists’.”

“Well,” says the technician. “Dentists are doctors.” 

Joanie watches the woman adjust the light. Her patience worn thin from this day, this year, she wants to tell the woman she doesn’t think that’s true. In fact she wants to argue with her. But this is pre-operation and this woman, for all Joanie knows, controls the Lidocaine.

“You want me to sit?”

The technician swings the light off to the side. “Go ahead,” she says. “Doctor will be right in.” 

Doctor. The woman leaves and Joanie rolls her eyes. She lowers her wide bottom into the leather chair. Given how it looks—like an instrument of torture—it really shouldn’t feel this comfortable. Shouldn’t feel quite so like Mike’s LaZBoy. 

Joanie has probably watched a semester’s worth of training videos on palliative and end-of-life care. She could walk across a stage and receive her certificate. She can locate Bruce on the Glasgow Coma scale. She has put his chances of recovery at unlikely.

Joanie pretends it is Mike’s recliner. She leans back into the cushioned leather and closes her eyes. She is here, and she is Joanie. She is not Bruce, a thousand miles away, bones and skin in a puddle of white sheets. She is not Bruce whose mind flickers in and out of existence, whose lungs fill and empty at the behest of a machine. She is not Bruce. She is neither dead nor practically dead. She is here. This is now. 

The thing is, Joanie watches videos too. Watches them late at night, when she can’t sleep. Probably there is some way to go into her computer and find out how many hours she has spent watching nurses insert feeding tubes, empty catheters, and adjust breathing tubes. Courtney’s boss did that recently. Figured out how many hours Courtney and her coworkers spent watching videos while on the clock. Joanie has probably watched a semester’s worth of training videos on palliative and end-of-life care. She could walk across a stage and receive her certificate. She can locate Bruce on the Glasgow Coma scale. She has put his chances of recovery at unlikely.

So she has very little patience for Tess’s miracle videos. She’d like to meet these “friends” who tell Tess to “keep the faith.” She’d like to take these people back through time to that house in Leon Valley, open the closet of Bruce’s childhood bedroom, and watch their faces as a mountain of football pads, hockey sticks and baseball mitts tumble over their feet. She’d like to point out the window of that same bedroom and say to them, “See those houses there? They didn’t used to be there. Used to be field and forest. Bruce practically owned that forest.” 

Bruce, who was ten years younger than Joanie, who before too long had been regarded as the smarter and the stronger of the two, despite the age difference. Her brother who had been long awaited. Whose name was known to Joanie long before Pat Lundy’s hair went gray, before the doctors told her a second child was all but impossible. “No sons?” people would ask during those long, barren years. And Ed Lundy would swallow then answer, “No, but he’ll be a Bruce if we ever get one. Bruce, after my father.” 

Her brother, who was given bells each Christmas. No gift tags or names to differentiate her loot from his—just bells. And she not minding, she so much older, staying up late like a young mother to wrap his presents, sliding plastic ribbons through metal loops, hoping the jingle didn’t travel up through the floor and wake him. 

Her brother, who was given a slingshot at six, an air rifle at eight. Who was good with both. Who went out one afternoon into the forest across from their house and did not return until dusk. Joanie, more worried than either Ed or Pat Lundy, but too afraid to go after him. Sitting instead on the front stoop and staring across the road at the tree line, willing him to appear, praying for him to appear. And then—praise the Lord—his legs folding and unfolding their way out from the trees and toward the house. Bruce with his Lundy knees, not a dimple at the bottom, but a crater, making the tops of his knees wobble with the extra flesh of a St. Bernard. Bruce with his too-big belt fastened tight as possible, the excess lolling from his hip. His lashes so dark Joanie could tell he was squinting even from that distance and she, abandoning herself to relief, not noticing for a while what he carried: a brown jackrabbit, bigger than you want a rabbit to be, strong legs and the sun moving across its pelt and giving the illusion of movement, though of course there was no movement, though of course the rabbit was dead. 

Then Bruce inside the kitchen, holding the rabbit loosely so its feet grazed their mother’s tile, which set Pat Lundy to screaming. Bruce refusing to take it out back where the dog might get it and Pat Lundy refusing to do as he demanded—cook it on the spot. And Joanie—who had never so much as tracked mud into that kitchen—watching the two of them argue from the doorway, wondering at her brother with his wobbly knees and enormous catch. Wondering how he’d come by at eight years old a kind of courage she was unable to imagine at eighteen. Not jealous of the pride her parents took in him, not jealous of the many gifts they gave him, not even jealous of the bells. Thinking he deserved it all and more, happy in her own small ways to make a similar tribute. 

She would like to show them this—Tess and her friends. Show them how this Bruce they think they know is so much more than they have known and wanted him to be. More than a man who can make a lot of money doing easy work. His value ranging beyond the five-bedroom he bought Tess, the BMW he drives. Las Vegas in the winter, Jamaica in the summer. Bruce Lundy of the Leon Valley Lundys, bringer of rabbits, ringer of bells. Bruce Lundy with white hospital sheets pooled around him, tubes at either end. 

“Okay, Ms. Lundy. You ready for this?” 

It’s Doug. He no sooner steps inside the room than he sits down on the wheely chair and rolls over to Joanie’s side. Clipboard in hand, mask pulled down around his chin. He’s got red hair and a red beard. Usually, Joanie sees him from far away, all the way across the auditorium on Sundays. His hair so bright red, like the young Kris Kringle in the claymation. That Burgermeister Meisterburger one. 

“You know,” he says, lowering the clipboard and looking into her eyes, “I had not realized that you didn’t take Mike’s name. People call you Pritchard. Everyone at church says Joanie Pritchard.” 

Joanie smiles and looks away. People call her Pritchard, and she doesn’t press it. She meant to change her name, really she did. Never got around to it. 

“Well,” says Joanie, “I know that. And that’s fine. Technically it’s still Lundy.”

Dr. Winters nods his head. He presses his hands into blue plastic gloves and snaps them over his palms. Pulls up his mask, turns on the light. 

“Let’s have a look.” 

He took a look months ago, the day he recommended the root canal. But he walks his fingers through Joanie’s open mouth, asking if things hurt, which of course they do, especially toward the back. 

“Well, we’ll proceed.” He pushes the light away, lowers his mask, and removes his gloves. “Here’s your refresher: the root of your second molar, number eighteen, is dead, rotting away. We’re going to go in and cauterize it. You’ll still have the tooth but the root’ll be gone. Won’t cause you pain anymore. Minimized risk of infection. Normally it hurts, but we’ve got things to help with that, both during and after. I believe we talked about conscious sedation last time? You won’t be able to drive for a while or eat. Mike, I assume, will be coming for you?” 

“Buddy of his’ll drop him off. He’ll take us home in my car. I’ll call him when we’re done.” 

“All right,” says Dr. Winters. “Sounds good. Any questions, then?”

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There’s a way in which Dr. Winters is quiet. Or maybe he’s just gentle: low voice, one calloused hand massaging the other. Or maybe he isn’t either of those things. Maybe this is how bedside manner feels when the doctor is low down in a chair like this, actually beside you. 

“No,” says Joanie. “Don’t think I have any questions.” 

“Alright then,” Dr. Winters claps his hands together. He rolls over to the doorway, sticks his head out the door, and calls for Catherine, then rolls back to Joanie. “Catherine will get the meds going. I’m gonna take a look at the equipment table, double-check everything.”

Joanie nods as Dr. Winters stands up. Nothing in the room has really changed, but the atmosphere feels suddenly serious. There may be wainscoting and lace curtains, but there is also a metal table with sharp instruments laid across it. Joanie tries to focus on the floral wallpaper but is distracted by Catherine, who comes in with what looks like a tube of pressurized air connected to a vacuum hose. Catherine helps Joanie out of the dentist’s chair and checks her weight, her height. Asks about her medications. Then she preps the liquid valium and rolls up Joanie’s sleeve. 

“You’ll feel this kick in almost immediately. The Lidocaine will block the pain around the tooth, but this’ll keep the rest of you calm. Dr. Winters says you didn’t care for the idea of surgery?”

“No,” says Joanie. Catherine rubs a cotton ball over the injection site. “Can’t say I took a shine to it. Can’t say anyone does.”

“This’ll certainly help,” says Catherine, as the needle goes in. “But don’t be getting any big ideas. After you leave here it’s Tylenol for you, missy.” 

Joanie doesn’t laugh. She feels a bit too heavy for laughing. Feels very grateful for this chair, which is big enough and strong enough to support her heaviness. Her heaviness, which seems to be deepening. To be pooling and spreading. 

Somewhere in this building people are talking. A man and a woman. Somewhere in this building people are putting on gloves. Joanie hears the latex smack. Metal instruments are being moved across a metal table, and a person pulls down Joanie’s lip. This person puts a needle into her gums and Joanie feels its sharpness. But then she doesn’t feel it anymore. Doesn’t even feel the gums. 

They take off her glasses so Joanie cannot see much except the big rectangular light and the plastic caps tied around their heads. What she can see is so strange and otherworldly that she decides to close her eyes. Which is easy to do, because her body is relaxed and her eyes are heavy. 

Occasionally she is aware that an operation is going on. Occasionally she is aware that they are speaking to her. But none of this bothers her. Which is incredible, because she cannot say she took a shine to the idea of surgery. She cannot say anyone ever does. 

At some point, the two heads in their tied-on caps stare down at her and say things that she half-wants to answer. They repeat a phrase to her, and she wants to respond, but then they laugh and go away. A sink is being used, gloves are being peeled away from skin. Furniture is being wheeled across tile. 

Then a man’s voice says, “What do you think, Catherine?”

“At least twenty minutes before we’ll get any answers.” 

“Okay,” says the man. “Twenty minutes then. Twenty minutes, Joanie! You rest up.” 

Then the room is dark. Not the darkness of nighttime or death, just darker than before. The big light that’s been staring at her, a yellow rectangle with a black grid inside it, like the stadium lights at Bruce’s high school football games—that light is gone. Joanie closes her eyes. She can feel the heaviness receding so she closes her eyes hard and tries to keep some of it, to savor it, to make it stay. She imagines sinking further and further into this black, leather chair while her brother, over there in Alabama, rises from the white sheets of his hospital bed. She is in a dream that isn’t fully a dream because she has some choice in it. And what choice she has she uses to tell Bruce to go on and make a break for it. To leave those bones and skin and sheets behind and just float on up. He doesn’t have to float to heaven if he doesn’t want to, but he’s got to break free of the calamity that has become his body. He’s got to break free of Tess. And Joanie sees this happening. Sees her Bruce going on up, the bedsheets falling away, as her brother of the field and the forest roams free once again. 

The heaviness goes but the invisible image remains. Joanie’s eyebrows curl up close to each other as she holds it, the image, right there in the center of her mind. When Dr. Winters and Catherine return, Joanie feels herself at peace. Yes, she tells them, she can feel the strangeness around her gums. Yes, she has Tylenol at home. Yes, she has tomorrow off. “She’s still pretty out of it. I’m of a mind to leave her here a while longer.” 

“She’s getting a ride home,” says Catherine.  

“Still. I like to be sure.” 

And they leave. Joanie’s eyebrows uncurl and the image at the center of her mind vanishes. It’s replaced by Tess’s voice. Tess on the phone last week, Tess leaving voicemails that Joanie can’t bring herself to listen to. Bruce in his bed in Alabama, dead for all intents and purposes, dead but without the relief of death, without the silence and the stillness of it. 

Her brother is dead; her brother is alive. He is both yet enjoys the benefits of neither.

Joanie opens her eyes and sees that there is nothing here. The portable sink has been wheeled away, as has the table of instruments. No tissues anywhere, and she doesn’t have any drive-thru napkins with her. The paper bib they’ve clipped over her chest is soaked with drool. Nothing for it but to wipe her eyes and nose on her sleeve. 

Her brother is dead; her brother is alive. He is both yet enjoys the benefits of neither. “It’s not right,” she says out loud, switching to the other sleeve now, “it’s not right for Tess to do this to him. To keep doing it to him.” 

Dead then, just count him dead. Someday—please, Jesus—there will be a body to bury, but for now, he’s dead, so there’s no need to keep up the pretense with Tess. Between sisters-in-law there is no binding decree. The brother dies and you’re free to go. So. 

Joanie tears at the paper bib. There’s no drool on her shirt, but she still feels like the whole of her needs to be cleaned. She brushes at her blouse, sits forward in her chair, and calls toward the hallway, “Hello! Anyone there? I believe you’ve left a patient in here!”

There is an opening of doors and an exchange of voices. Catherine comes in with her mask around her chin. She stands in the doorway as Joanie says, “I’m fine now. Like to go home.” 

They’ve got a cleaning going, and there’s some paperwork that needs signing, but Catherine gets the ball rolling. A few minutes later the receptionist comes in with a clipboard. Joanie sees the X and signs whatever it is she’s meant to sign before the receptionist finishes explaining it. 

“There,” says Joanie. “Am I free to go?”

“Well . . . Dr. Winters said you had the conscious sedation. You can’t drive.” 

“I know that. I need to call my husband. You have my phone.” 

“Oh, I do!” says the receptionist, remembering. “But Dr. Winters doesn’t like for patients—” 

“Fine. I’ll just come out there with you.”

“No, no.” The receptionist holds up a hand and looks at Joanie’s big body tumbling off the chair with concern. “You’re not meant to get up. Dr. Winters needs to check your walking. He’s doing a cleaning.” 

“Alright.” Joanie swings her leg back over. “Will you let me call from here, then?” 

“Well . . .” The receptionist looks over her shoulder into the hallway. “Sounds like they’ll be a while. Alright. I’ll bring your purse.” 

Joanie stares at the wallpaper again and decides this place doesn’t look like a home after all. She can’t name a single person with either wainscoting or wallpaper. It’s not a home, just a new kind of doctor’s office. A parody of a home. 

“Here you go. Just stay put. You can call your husband, but you’ve got to stay here.” 

“Thank you,” says Joanie over her shoulder. She holds her purse on her lap, rifles through it, and extracts her phone. It takes a full two minutes for it to restart. The first thing that appears is a bundle of text messages, most of them with Tess’s name at the top. So many messages Joanie can’t read any of them. They keep coming in, stacking on top of each other. Seems Joanie has been added to some kind of group text. She’s got messages coming in from people she doesn’t know, talking about something she doesn’t understand. When Joanie unlocks her phone and goes into the group text she has to scroll up through about a hundred messages, each of them blurring into a rising shower of superlatives: wonderful, congratulations, miraculous. 

And then she hits the sideways triangle and the man is moving.

Finally, she makes it to the top, to some video, perhaps the message Tess sent as Joanie shut off her phone. There’s a man suspended within the video’s freeze frame. An old man in a hospital gown. So old that Joanie is crying again. Crying the way she has avoided crying by ignoring Tess’s photographs, avoided by pleading with Tess to send her text only—just the facts. But now she sees him: this old man with the face of her baby brother. 

And then she hits the sideways triangle and the man is moving. Not like he should move, not like he used to move, but still. He’s got two nurses, holding him by his arms. One tells him to lift his foot and he elevates it slightly, just enough for his right knee to fold, enough for Joanie to see even in this low-quality video how the loose skin hangs around his cratered knee like the skin of a St. Bernard. She sees his knees, those fleshy Lundy knees. 

He moves his foot. Doesn’t point it, but it falls into a pointed position. Then he looks up at the camera, to Tess who is likely behind the camera. He looks at Tess but it feels like he’s looking at her, at Joanie, too. His whole face moves. Neither his muscles nor his skin find their exact position, but still, Joanie understands. A smile. An attempted one anyway. 

And then the video ends and there is Tess’s message attached to it: Hello everyone, have to admit we’ve been keeping some secrets over here! Our Brucie’s been making steady progress and I’ve been trying to share the news with family before opening it up to our wider circle. This was several weeks ago. Hang tight for more.

More? Joanie scrolls down through the messages and comes to another video. This time he’s back in the bed. Someone’s tickling his bare feet and he’s twitching. Then another: Bruce’s wrinkled hand rubbing Tess’s, making his way through her fingers and around her enormous wedding ring. Then another: Bruce standing between two metal railings, his hands grasping them, his eyes on a woman in scrubs who whispers into his ear. 

The video goes on for ten seconds, then fifteen. Nothing happens but the nurse whispering and Bruce looking around with his damaged face, his damaged brain. Nothing happens until Bruce’s hands grip the bar, his face goes senile and then ohmygodohmygodohmygod—Bruce!—he’s walking, one foot in front of the other, feet tumbling onto their sides then correcting, Bruce’s baby face on that old man’s body, going silly, going into a new kind of smile. Joanie is wiping her face on her sleeves, on her shoulders. Picking up the hem of her shirt to dry her nose so that her belly is exposed when Dr. Winters returns and says, “What do we have here? Everything okay?”

Joanie pulls the shirt up higher, dries her eyes, and pushes play again. Bruce at the bars: ten seconds, twenty seconds, walking. Bruce walking. Bruce who was dead. Who Joanie wished dead. 

“Whatcha watching there? Joanie? You all right?”

Catherine appears in the doorway as Joanie pushes the triangle for the third time.

“Everything alright?”

Ten seconds, twenty seconds. Walking. 

“She alright?”

“Watching something. Seems okay.” 

The garbled laugh-cry of Joanie into the phone. Some kind of apology, some kind of relief.

Joanie presses her finger against Tess’s name. It rings. Voicemail. Joanie dials again. 

“Joanie?”

Dr. Winters and Catherine cannot decipher it. The garbled laugh-cry of Joanie into the phone. Some kind of apology, some kind of relief. A woman’s voice coming in from the other side—a tone of dismissal, then excitement. A long silence on this end while Joanie listens and muffles her sobs with her shirt. Then a silence on both ends, which Joanie eventually breaks by whispering into the phone, “Tess . . .”

But then Joanie looks up and sees them staring at her. She smooths her hair over her temple, rolls out of the chair, and—ignoring their protestations—walks down the hall and eventually through the door, saying as she goes, “Tess, now that I’ve got you here, I have to explain about my phone. You need a password to get into the voicemail. Where am I supposed to find this password? I couldn’t tell you. These technology geniuses make it easy to play a thousand dumb games but hard to check your voicemail. Why do they do that? I’ll tell you why, Tess. There’s a word for it—”

Janille Stephens
Janille Stephens is a fiction writer from Texas who now lives in Dublin, Ireland with her husband and two sons. She is currently a student in the MFA program at St. Thomas University.
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Cover image by Adam AY.

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