Visions and Burdens
an excerpt from The Last Game We Played
by Jo Neace Krause
Man in Bed 13A LAS VEGAS, NEVADA I must have been looking down until the last second for what I remember is the feet of the people...all kinds of shoes. Then just before we were hit, feeling how the air changed, a sudden gush of air lifted and swirled the fine blonde hairs on the girl's neck in front of me. Her wild sweeping arm gesture startled me as she arched her back screaming, clawing at the sky. All those shoes flying off. Hey, look, I know cars cant fly .I know they can't swim either. But in my sullen dark sleep, I see this one off the ground. Sometimes she's driving it upside down, parting the foaming water just to get at me it seems, the car aimed at us like a rocket. And then she hits us, carrying me backwards, dropping me down like a mouthful of spit. Somehow imagined I had yet to be picked up. They kept walking past me. Picking up the others. Taking them away in the ambulances but not me. Overlooking me on purpose. Why did they pretend I had been thrown so far from the others that I can’t be located or calmed? I belong to the others. I want to be included. In the hospital a cruel dangerous yearning to meet these others takes hold of me, so as soon as I can bear the pain I ease myself into a wheelchair and wheel off down the hospital corridors, my hand firmly extended, introducing myself all around to patients as if we are now bonded forever by the event…like the Jews and their holocaust. I want to know their names, get their phone numbers. All about them, for we all stopped at the same instant. We almost died together. We… Even that young couple on their honeymoon--I don’t leave them even for meals. If they have visitors in their room I remain present, assuming a place in their lives now. I will never let any of this be forgotten, I nearly died in that accident I tell another man, who has mentioned my Blue Cross Insurance, laughingly saying, "I sure hope you are paid up like I am." As if all the hardships of modern violence can be taken care of with an insurance card. A piece of plastic. Look at my face, I tell him, at my jaw that hangs out like a broken drawer. My teeth smashed out. The blood I had to pull out of my throat in strings. I stare at him with the cold intention of letting him know we are all in this together, forever. He will never escape this, none of us will. The nurse came and spoke to me. She stared down at me. "Mr. Lewis, I don’t know how to say this…but…the other patients are complaining about you, saying you're worrying them out in the halls. Soon as they see you, they hobble off in the other direction, or haven’t you noticed? “The doctors too are puzzled by your excesses, coming at them with all your showdown questions…You might get moved to another ward. For harassing everyone. “What is it you want from them?” I would like some soul like mine carried on the wings of fate his pain made golden with a song that finds some meaning in this wrong. “Nothing, I tell her. I want nothing.” A woman from the apartment where I lived came to see me "Why won’t you see
Your girlfriend? She's crying all the time."
The woman had her daughter with her. Her daughter had her two friends. They turned pop cans up to their heads and drank, studied me with their big cow eyes slanting over the rims of their pop cans, looked at me sideways. One suddenly bent forward as if I were something at the far bottom of a well. "I can’t get over that accident," I tell them. "I don’t even know the people's names who died. I wanted to write down their names. No connection to me now---its all dropped out of the news completely...except these dreams are with me yet. These dreams start out so smooth. Like the calm neon spangled town you see out our window here at dusk. You know when you walk up to the windows and see the city through the thick air conditioned glass, so thick and chill you can’t hear the city itself. Like a carnival seen from a distant hill, a view without music or sound of any kind. But I know something is going to happen. Something is coming. I feel the air moving, then the sound breaks in, jarring me like I'm hit by a train. I try to run but my legs turn to stone, then I'm smashed against the street. I wake up sick. My hands reach to see if blood is draining out of my mouth." The women stare at me. "You never used to be such a gloomy bastard, Mr. Lewis." The woman says. Then there came the day of the party. The little cross eyed woman who changes the light bulbs, empties the waste, came shouting out about a party. There's going to be a going home party! She had a cart full of discarded light bulbs, hundreds of them. Like little fragile white skulls. "Everyone who was going to die from the accident has died," she cried. "So everyone else is now safe! Even you, Mr. Lewis, with your crushed forehead. Your skull had to be sawed all the way around, then lifted like a little beach house upon stilts. You kept crying out for me to come drive the flies off your brain. Remember that? And now you're well and there's going to be a party. And the news cameras! Come on, Mr. Lewis, everyone is going to sign each other's casts. You should not sit here brooding!"
Part II: Wings Beat At The Gates of Fate
The Man in Bed 13B Soon as I saw the new patient I wanted to wake him Start slamming my mouth to him about the accident. Some things you cannot control. They had brought him in about three in the morning. And he was still asleep. I kept walking over to him to look down at his face. A tall dark man, too tall for the bed…so his feet were sometimes propped up on the footboard, then they swung down off the side of the bed. Elbow bend across his face, breathing heavily through his lips. At last I bend and tug gently at his shoulder, lightly, until his eyes open, startled by a face bending so close to him in a strange place he doesn’t recognize. "What do you want?" he shouts. Then he jumps out of bed and looks around with wild confused eyes. ”What time is it? They took my watch. This here our sink?” He walks about, rubbing his stomach. ”My stomach. Christ, I haven’t eaten in days. They took my watch I need a match. You got my ashtray? " I look at him. "No, I don’t have your ashtray. You got my refrigerator?" "All I want is a cigarette. You got a match? Bathroom down the hall? What the hell time is it? One thirty? In the afternoon? You mean in the afternoon? Is it morning or what?" Long bare feet on the floor, muscular legs exposed from his wrinkled hospital gown. He goes to the sink and begins splashing water over his face. His hands tremble as he dries his face and combs his hair, black as lacquer when wet. "Look at this,” he tells me, holding out his hand to show how it trembled with a thin ungovernable convulsive quiver. I stare at him. "Were you in that same accident as the rest of us? "Accident!" he scoffs. "What accident? You call that an accident? Three days ago you know where I was? In a delirium!" He runs the comb through his hair. Several rapid strokes. I see he is a talker. "In a delirium?” "Yes. But in another part of the hospital, having a delirium! Yes, a delirium...but It was the medication they were giving me. I was under arrest, you see. My connection with the event got me in trouble. The medication went bad. Began to feel slow waves traveling up and over my body. Over and over, these waves. The doctors couldn’t stop them. Had this cut place here on my leg. Just below the knee. And each time a wave came to this cut place, guess what would happen? It would stop, hesitate, catch on fire. Glow icy blue hot, like a thought you hate to have, like it was bursting into flame I almost went out of my mind. I started to scream,” I can't stand my leg! Can't stand my leg!" He lifted his gown and showed a jagged cut, a mass of black stitches splashed over with red disinfectant. "That accident was bad on a lot of people," I tell him. " All those people like flies bouncing off a light bulb." "Yes, that so called accident was hard on a lot people, that's for sure. But I just wasn’t one of them. In fact," he said, his face in rapt gratitude, "I was saved by that incident. That event was my salvation!" "I think you mean you survived it." "No. I cannot claim that. Not yet. " He continued after a moment. “My situation was different. Unbelievably different. “I was involved in the event Yes…But my involvement was private....because I wasn’t exactly present at the scene." "Where the hell were you then, eating fried chicken in Barcelona, Spain or something?" "I was standing five floors up, facing my reflection in the hotel window overlooking the main drag of Vegas. I had been up there a long time. All night. Locked in alone. Something horrible had happened to me. I was ready to die." "You were going to jump? Kill yourself?" "Yes, jump. I was going to jump out the window. It was an awful feeling." "I can imagine." "It was my gambling." "We all come here to gamble." "Yes. I know that. But I had wasted my company's fortune. So I was going to jump. At ten o'clock A.M. “Nothing was going to stop me! I had the alarm clock set. I had it set behind me on the table, for ten o'clock, a signal I would obey without hesitation when the time arrived. You see, fate has always served me from the sidelines, you might say. “It is hard to explain," he sat down and combed his hair some more. He was silent for a long time, then he said, "But you see I was a prodigy. You know what a prodigy is? I could do complicated math at two years old. Play Mozart at four. Something great was supposed to come to me. But nothing ever did. I was fourteen years old and burnt out .It is strange, but all these years something down in me has been waiting, clamoring, clamoring to be elevated, like a kid crying to be lifted up to a window to see. It’s like an ache, pushing at me, my old self. “Like something big is going to happen at last. Well, back in March, I came out here and the mania was on me again. Like something big was going to happen at last. “Passing the casinos I felt something enormous was again within my reach. I” looked good in my clothes that night. “That's what started it off, a little thing like my straight black hair lying the way I like it. Had on a tux. “Nails scrubbed, evenly clipped. I take pride in my looks, my physique, and this pride spread to others in the room that night. I could feel it. The way they looked at me, as if a switch had been thrown starting up a low chill current of excitement. A crowd came and stood by my elbow as I started to win. “Then for the next five hours I was taking this town. I could feel my brilliance stuck in me all these years beginning to fire ball." "What do you mean, ‘stuck in you?’" "Well, its possible to have intelligence but not the capacity, biologically speaking, to use it. To have it suck in you. .Like with the dolphins, to use an extreme case.. They have intelligence, but not the biological means with which to develop it. " "Yes, it looks that way. Like all they know is fun." "Ha, yes. But for us we know...we know what fun costs. They were suddenly leading me somewhere…into the fresh air, across the back streets. I was like a fish hooked by the mouth. “Remember just a vague picture… a pair of shiny shark skin shoes walking around the room. A voice went with the shoes. Not my problem to tell the company. Let an undertaker tell them. I hate small talk myself. “The owner of the shiny shoes sent me out of there in a taxi, back to my hotel. “In the hotel room was a case of liquor. Ordered especially for the victory party. I had been that certain of victory! “Now all was lost. Pension funds. Treasury bills. Bonds Even the change in my pocket went to the taxi driver. Once inside my room I ripped open one of the cases and stood with the bottle tilted to my head. I had not had a drink in five years.
“The first long swallow ran everywhere in me, transforming me at once. “I could feel it splash over my trembling lips and teeth. Into my throat, into the poised muscles of my back and calves, to the very roots of my hair. Spreading like a little fire in sweet blinding diminution, into the bottomless pit of my pensive life. “The grief inside me was static now, bearable until the time came to jump. It
was now 8:30 in the morning.
“I checked the alarm clock. Death was fixed on its face Death was time and time was the alteration of whiskey inside the bottle. I never looked at the clock again. I drank in quick sharp sips, trying to reach a climax of intoxication before the alarm went off. But the climax would not come, only the heaviness eased me, and I stood like a horse gone to sleep in its harness Weaving before the window in a daze. “Beyond the city lay the great toneless spreading desert and blue rolling mountains bolting forever into the sky. “For a long time I stood this way. Hardly realizing the sun was striking the roofs and that half consciously my eyes were looking at something moving. My drunken eyes following a car. “An old battered up job. Ascending into sight off the desert.” “Ha! I know who that was!" I cried. "Yes, it tantalized me. The way it was going around and around the streets. Provoked pursuit. I had to follow it. When it went from view, I tore the drapes off the window to keep it in sight." "Yes, I used to think about her when I was intensive care, I told him. “I had the nurses read the newspapers to me about her. And I could imagine her driving out of the city...Buffalo, New York it was, heading for us across the looming thruways, the wind shaking the old car to pieces. Half asleep on some song she's listening to. I don’t know why I have this picture of her. " "Buffalo? I read she was from New Hampshire?" the man said. "She was. But her husband was from Buffalo. It's hard to keep it straight without writing it all down. Her husband was ill. He had been stuck on a kidney machine for years. And when he died she went there to Buffalo because she wanted to see where he had grown up. Walked around the snow packed streets under the big elm trees there, secretly watching the boys playing hockey as her husband had done. Started showing people his pictures, a school photograph of a kid in a soccer uniform. Asking everyone if they knew him." "I never think of Buffalo." "Its an old canal town," I told him. "One of those old salted down outposts on the Great Lakes, crumbling to rust. The railroads cut through it ever which way. I was there once, laid over on my way to Canada.” "Well," the man continued. "I was up in the window looking down. Watching this car. Driving in this erratic way. Then it happened. It rocketed…went into the open center lane of the main drag It surged, almost alive. Heading straight towards those people on the crossing. “She's going to lay those people down, I thought in that crazy lucidity drunk people can have. “It knocked me completely awake. “I forgot all about jumping out the window .But you know the weirdest thing is this: Just at that very instance the alarm clock went off on the table for me to die! The sound exploded like dynamite. I grabbed at the thing but fumbled. I must have looked like a starving man in the wilderness trying to catch a screaming chicken. “Anyway, I dropped it and it rolled out of reach under the bed. You know how hotel beds are fastened to the floor and can’t be budged. I swore at the clock and when I looked again I saw the car had cleared the street of people and was slinging them around like they were attached to a clothes line. “I ran for the stairs, falling several times, nearly going over the railings. Behind me the clock was still ringing like it had yet to let anyone down. I had wound it that tight! It belonged to my family, an antique piece of junk. “Into the street I came, breathless. I could see blood spreading everywhere. “I stood there gasping, my back pressed to a wall. This could be me, splattered on the ground! My eyes filled with tears. “The police were all around, traffic stopped. People screaming. “They were pulling the woman out of her car. Throwing her back against the side of the car. Cursing her, jamming her back.” "You saw her!" "Face to face. Yes. Fate rolls in the fog like a bell… You know from the papers she was from a wealthy family. And that she had broken down after her husband died. He had a horrible disease of some kind that kept him attached to tubes. And she had sit by his side for nine years. “And she looked it… “She had this queer thin plainness certain rich women have. A queerness. A certain lame servant girl melancholy that fascinated me. A silent, unpeaceful female strength I have seen before in loners. So she was like that. Hidden away, taking care of her husband. Well she looked it to me, like I said. Like something that has lived out of the light, even her hair...her hair with this somber blondeness, like the light around...certain apples....you know, apples picked hard and green and forced to ripen in the dark, forgotten in drawers or cellars. “The ghostly perfume of them. “I looked at her pale face, but her eyes shot away from me, hard as two iron bolts. I ran on foot after the police car with her in the back seat. I knew I had to see her again, speak to her, touch her in some way. “So the next day I went to the holding center and told them I wanted to see
“It was a dangerous thing to do. “The officer in charge was a rough sluggish sort. He looked at my messed up tux "'You a lawyer?’ he asked. “I nodded. I was holding my breath, my heart was really up there. “For he rose and took me back through a chasm of iron gates to a concrete room, a grim little holding place with two metal stools and a desk, dank and smelly as an old urine soaked city park. I waited for what seemed hours. “Then the gates whined and opened with a hideous crashing jar. “I looked and saw her coming in a narrow tunnel of a walkway, walking silently next to a blunt faced female guard, the sun crossing and coursing on their faces as they passed the barred windows “I knew I had little time. The guard was already suspicious of my rumpled clothes. “I put out my hand out to the prisoner. I looked her straight in the face, “I whispered her name: Leanna. Leanna. “I needed to meet you. We had to meet. I had to see you... “Had to tell you that your appearance here in this town--- “That your appearance here in this town. It had an extraordinary effect on me.” The guard's face changed, like a shade going up on a window and she saw. She seemed to actually crouch down like a watch dog that hears a key click. “’Who? Who did you tell the people out front you were?’ she asked. Did they make you sign anything?" "So that's how you got in here! The cops decked you! You've been in jail. For running after her, crying out your thanks to a mass murderer!" "Well, it meant everything to me," he said. "Just to meet her, to hold her gaze, to thank her for my life. “I can’t believe my luck!" "No one ever believes his luck." I said, stretching and yawning. Soon I was moved to another room. I shall sleep there in peace.
JO NEACE KRAUSE was born in eastern Kentucky, in Breathitt County during WWII. Her family migrated to a town near Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended Ohio State University. She married John Thomas Krause, a historian, and lived in Buffalo, New York where he was a professor at State University of New York. Ms Krause is an artist whose work hangs in the Kentucky Folk Art Center at Morehead, Kentucky, in various fine art galleries, and on the cover of this book. She presently lives on a farm on the Duck River in Nunnelly, Tennessee. Her short story collection, The Last Game We Played, was selected as the first winner of The Hudson Prize, (formerly The Ontario Prize) and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.