Sunday, January 08, 2006
WHAT WE HAVE
by Grayson Harper
You feel something there. An irritation, a swelling. On your arm. On your neck. On your leg. Just there, under your sleeve, under your blouse. Each time you sit down or stand up, a nagging sensation you worry about during the day. Or when walking, your clothes chafe against it, repeatedly reminding you—just when you thought it was nothing. You want to get off somewhere alone, unfasten your clothes, have a look.
And then you find it, this thing, just there, perhaps, on the inside of your leg, the soft flesh of your thigh. Nothing much. Just a boil, a small one, the size of a pebble. Slightly yellow. Nothing you can’t handle with needle and antiseptic. Nothing that won’t clean up with ease.
So you lance it. And squeeze. And the little bulb oozes out, then dab with cotton. And poof! It’s gone.
But in the morning, after the cup of coffee, after the shower, you look down, and there it is. What you have. A little bigger now, a little more yellow. So, out with the needle, the antiseptic. And, just like that, it’s gone again.
But then, driving to work, you begin to think about it. Feel it inside your clothes when your foot presses the pedal. You shift around, trying to get comfortable. But it won’t leave you alone. At work, in the restroom, there it is, just the same. Only now, you have no needle or cotton. It will have to wait.
By noon it has grown. You think of mentioning it to someone; but you’re embarrassed, you don’t want to talk about it. On your lunch break, you stop at the drug store. Maybe you’ll tell the pharmacist, try to describe what you have. But his eyes, when he looks at you, seem like an accusation. Instead, you purchase needle, cotton, alcohol, and, tucking the sack in your coat, you leave in a hurry.
On your way back to the office, at a store window, you pause. There's a wide-screen TV you’ve been coveting for some time. Four thousand dollars. Too high. A clerk reaches into the window with a device and the TV pops on. It's the Congress in session. You stand there, watching, as a white-haired senator expounds on his position. His fist pounds the podium. But his voice is distorted by the glass, a sound almost animal-like, as if he were under water. You squint, trying to make out what he’s saying. At the bottom of the screen are the words: “WAR APPROPRIATIONS.” Beside him on an easel, sits a chart with a graph. The red line zigzags in one direction, the black line zigzags in another. The senator gesticulates, his finger slicing the air like a knife. And, then as you watch him, something curious seems to appear. Squinting to see, you move closer to the glass. And there it is, incredibly, a redness, a swelling, on the pale skin of his cheek.
Back at your office, in the restroom, the boil has grown to the size of a china berry.
And so it goes, day after day, the morning ritual, trying to make it go away, this thing that you have. But it keeps coming back, always the same, like an old habit. Even after lancing, it merely swells again, filling the empty sack before your eyes with dark, viscous fluid. So you frantically lance and dab. Lance and dab. . . .
And at night, tossing and turning in your sleep, you dream of an angry, a fevered furuncle, growing out of control, putrid yellow and green, taking over your leg, creeping up your body, enveloping your arms, your neck, your face. You see men and women lined up to speak, their faces corrupted with vicious red ulcers, words scrolling across the sky: WAR. . .WAR. . .WAR. . . . Paralyzed with fear, you lie there in a fever, drenched in sweat. By morning, you feel almost a weight on your leg. You want to reach down, search with your fingers, but dare not, afraid of what you will find.
Then, in the glare of the bathroom light, indeed, it has grown even larger, ever more hideous, your whole upper leg red and inflamed. There’s no stopping it.
At work, you think of calling a doctor, but it seems wrong, now. He won’t believe you. He will dismiss it, say it’s nothing, your imagination. You see your boss walk by. You almost call to him, but he’s in a hurry, you hesitate, and he’s gone. Perhaps your secretary, but today, she seems cold, indifferent. Your colleague walks in, drops a file on your desk, starts out. On impulse, you call him back. “Paul, have you got a minute--can we talk?” He turns, frowning. “What is it?” Distracted, unfriendly. You start to tell him. “Well, I have this friend. . .he has a boil. . .on his leg—“
“A what--?” Paul's face a scowl of revulsion.
“A boil. . . .”
“I have to finish a report.” He turns to go. And then, stunned, you see it. There, on the back of his neck—white gauze covering something unsightly, bulging. Horrified, you follow him to the outer office, where your secretary sits filling out forms. And you see it. A swelling on her arm, a pustule in the middle of an ominous red circle.
And you stand there, mute, watching, as others pass by, as they go about their business. They barely nod in your direction, they don’t speak, their eyes are unsmiling. And on each one, each one passing by, you see clearly, for the first time, what they have: red and inflamed, yellow with pus, on their arms, on their necks, on their faces.