The tumor hung in his belly like an anvil.
A very small anvil. A round one. Maybe not an anvil, that was too heavy, it was more like a baseball, or an orange, one of the big, really juicy ones. Or it could be – yes, this was it – a cluster of grapes. The fat, globe-shaped kind, with the seeds. Big seeds. He never got them, because of the seeds, but they looked delicious and he could imagine how good they would be, without the seeds. Tangy skin popping open, heavy juicy spherical fruit-flesh. But those damn seeds.
The seeds were the problem, of course, that was obvious but he couldn’t ever explain it to the Doc. Hey Doc kill the grape seeds in my tumor didn’t come out quite right, didn’t convey it exactly, because they weren’t grape seeds. They were tumor seeds. But you couldn’t say tumor seeds because what did that mean. To them, nothing. They didn’t know. They didn’t know. But there might be something to this fruit picture, if he could find the right one, the right way to explain it, and all the fruit started zipping, blip blip blip, across his vision. Tomatoes, tangerines, avocado – that one gave him pause; a chuckle; No, it was totally wrong, these were tiny seeds, specks, that’s why it was so hard to get them, why they need the best tech to do it – grapefruit, pomegranate, strawberries, plum, peaches, apple, so many apples – no – kumquat, mango, kiwi. His head was full of fruit and he was tired of this game but now he couldn’t stop, it wouldn’t let up until…
But then he heard the door’s motion, the creak, like the crack of a whip through those lines of produce. He was so grateful to be off the fruit train he could’ve kissed her, the nurse, for knowing, for coming in to save him. His face must have held too much of the feeling. He could never get it right. Too much of that rabid eagerness painted on his skin, his eye lines, his mouth lines, because when the nurse glanced from her clipboard to his face, she said, “Oh,” like that, a perfect vowel, a single syllable of surprise with a little terror thrown it. An “Oh” the exact size of a kiwi. Maybe he was drooling again.
“Oh,” she said, and stepped back, one step, graceful, a kind of instinctive involuntary dance move, twist of hips, jig jag here we go back, and he could hear the beat of the music. But then he remembered “oh,” what that meant, shock not singing, and he slowed everything down so he could get his face right.
It was always so difficult to get his face right, to match the sides even and the eyes wide not too wide and the mouth smiling not leering not smirking and a little tweak here on the eyebrows and maybe relax the forehead and the cheeks, they feel so tight, and the whole time he was adjusting his face and watching the nurse’s foot come down solid on the floor in her back-step dance and her chest rising, rise rise rising. A single delicious breath of inhalation, a pull in of oxygen ah and that was easy enough to do, the slowing down bit. Once you knew how, you could mess with time that way, no problem, because time is a lie and time is nothing and each spark of time is just an energetic fragment of the universe trying to expand into something else so all you do, see, is tell it how, how to pull and slow and stretch like taffy and it would, because that was expansion, in a sense, wasn’t it, maybe not quite the significance those little blips wanted but it’s what he could give them.
And it didn’t seem like it mattered, either.
Nobody else ever noticed. He always got bored at this part, though, wondering about hypothetical long-term effects, like was he accidentally creating an atom bomb that would find itself and explode tomorrow but he’d never know because he knew tomorrow was a myth, time is a lie, but still all those people – every other person in the world, he guessed, except for one or two, maybe – all of them believed it, lived it, walked in time like in a soup and so they would wake up in the atom bomb of tomorrow. And then because the silly fools still also believed in death, (which was so naïve, he couldn’t comprehend it sometimes, anyway) they would all die. Which seemed inconvenient, for everyone.
It was a strange game and the truth was he was tired of it, in the existential sense. But right now he was bored bored bored out of his skull by the nurse’s slow inhalation and the shoe coming down on the slick white floor, by the lights and the curtains and the machines, by the doctor’s inability to understand something as basic as tumor seeds, which should be so obvious.
Tumor has life, all life grows, growth comes from seeds, kill the seeds and you stop the growth. So simple. But no. Not simple to explain. To them. And most of all he was bored of rearranging his facial muscles into something acceptable and so he let them snap into whatever shape they wanted and he released time like a rubber band and everything snapped into blessed quickness again.
“Well,” said the nurse, firmly on her own two feet, a wide step back from the bed. “How are we feeling today?” He wanted to say luminous or phantasmagorical, two excellent words which were seriously underused, but his lips were dry and cracked and syllables hurt so he croaked out, “Fine,” and pondered the collective pronoun use so inexplicably favored by bedside medical professionals and elementary teachers who have clearly missed their vocational calling as high-security prison guards.
Things were strange here on earth, that was all he knew.
The customs were awkward and seemed meaningless, even by the earth people’s own estimation, he could tell, though they masked their despair as capably as they could.
Poor stubs, what a backward sad underdeveloped group of space pioneers they’d turned out to be, what a mistake, what a giant colossal planet-sized mistake. He wondered who, exactly, had made that call. If they still tried to believe in the potential rightness of it, or if they’d swallowed the sure bitter pill of waking up to your own ineptitude, the pill that waited on everyone’s bedside tray. You could ignore it for a long time but eventually, well, there it was, and —
“Here’s your breakfast, then,” said a very sharp small tight head with a moving mouth in it.
When did this apparition appear? A floating white roundish cone on a short striped column of a body, with winky flashy movey flesh-colored bits between, a face, was it? A face, forming shape, between the white hat and the blue-and-white shoulders.
“Grape juice or orange juice today, sir?” said the voice that came parading out of one of the movey bits, as natural as you please. He wasn’t sure what it could possibly mean.
All these words, and this pain. It was a prison of unknowingness. He couldn’t tell how they controlled the hundred thousand small methods of discomfort. Or how they knew. How did they know that these, just these, added up to the worst kind of incessant torture, the twitching muscles and numb toes and growing solid weight suspended bomb-like in his belly and the way his paper skin crackled and his dry rasping voice seeking escape through his glued-shut mouth.
How they did all that was their main accomplishment, of course, and he was mostly absolutely sure it was something related to the needle in his arm. But he’d only managed to get it out once, and then the pain had blossomed, had grown, had ruptured his head wide open, split his eyes into a billion particles and he could feel the separate agony of each one.
“Grape,” he croaked, since the white hat was still there looking at him like she wanted a word or a sound or a prophecy. He chose the short-syllable word and watched as the apparition slid a cup of something onto his tray, then wheely-dealy spun her big silver box around and meandered to the door. There was something he was supposed to do, he thought, and swung his eyes around to find the nurse who had stepped several steps back, more, and was huddling in the corner near the door talking to a tall flapping white sheet. The doc! He could tell him. He could tell him. The fruit. The seeds. The sheet came closer and coalesced into a man-type person, and he was pulling his lips apart to tell him, to tell him everything, the kiwi, god yes finally, the seeds, the tumor, it was all going to come together this time, and the nurse click-clacked right beside the bed – guess she wasn’t scared of his face anymore – and chirped at him. And pushed a tiny tiny tiny cup on his tray, beside the bigger cup. And looked. And chirped again. It was words.
“Take these first, sir,” the nurse chirped, and used her pen to edge the tiny cup closer to the edge of the tray near him, near his face and withering hands. He studied his hands, lifted his face up to the tall sheet of a doctor again, whose dark brown face was smiling above his white coat white collar white lapels white room white light white tiny cup with the white tiny pills inside. He remembered, this had happened before, he knew what to do, and he wondered in that instant as he tossed the tiny white pills into his gaping mouth. He wondered what they were for. Were they the cause of the pain, the torture, the slow going melting that his body was doing in this bed?
Too late to refuse them now, he’d already swallowed, using the stuff in the bigger cup to wash them down. Tasted foul, like seaweed and molasses. He grimaced and swallowed again, willing them down, down his throat, down his esophagus, down into wherever they wanted to go to do whatever they wanted to do. The light was shimmering in the window. The nurse was gesturing with her hands. The doctor was working the hinge of his jaw, his lips opening and shutting together, pressing tight together, and he knew. This time they would understand. This time he could make them understand. They would see. He could explain.
The light was right, coming in like waves, and it only did that once, maybe twice in a long day, and the images were there, in his head, the fruit was ready to roll forward and bring his meaning with it, lined up in his brain like soldiers waiting for the command go now go goddammit! and the sparks of time were at his command and he could slow the moment and hold it here until they understood, until they all understood, and he would be well and they would set him free and he would leave this place and this tumor and this whiteness and this imperturbable torture behind him, leave it all, like a scarf that he’d dropped in the doorway.
Suddenly there was a shockwave, a snap, a burst from behind his brain.
He blinked, rapidly, two three four five times, and everything came into focus. The orderly was sliding breakfast on his tray, lovely, eggs again, his favorite, he hoped they hadn’t burned the toast today, he gave her a little smile and looked up to see the doctor, his favorite doctor, standing there, so attentive, so thoughtful, so ready to serve him, the nurse on hand, all of them here, for him.
How kind they were, how kind!
All of them. All of them. And the orderly gave him a little smile back and said, “I got them to put in extra bacon, today, for you, I know how you like it,” and spun out of the room, and the doctor began to talk about the baseball game.