By Keegan Gore
Hank works the mid shift. When he gets in at nine am, they radio for him to mop up some
blood on the fourth floor. Blood isn’t too hard to clean when it's fresh. It only becomes a
problem when the blood dries, and then Hank has to really put some muscle into it. The new floor cleaner the head janitor bought makes the floors glow white like the moon. When he squints he sees someone staring back at him: a disheveled old man is trapped inside the tile. The man looks a lot like Hank. He waves at Hank and smiles. But Hank scowls and refuses to wave back. He splashes more mop water on the floor and scrubs hard until the man disappears under the suds.
Some days are worse than others. This is a phrase Hank says. On break, when the sun is tauntingly high in the sky, he scours the parking lot for pretty stones. If he can squeeze a stone, even for a moment, maybe he can gather enough strength to go back in.
Thirteen years. That is how long Hank has been working at the St. Mary’s Hospital. Thirteen years. A quarter of his life. In the morning before work, he makes earl grey tea and sits by his window. He records the weather.
Rainy today, he writes.
A low mist hovers over the mountains.
Jim always thought it was silly that Hank wrote about the weather.
“Who cares?” Jim once said. “Why write something down that no one will read?”
“I’ll read it,” Hank responded. “Later on.”
“Why would you want to read about the weather?”
“Because I know I will want to remember.”
“Oh, c'mon,” Jim shook his head. “Give me a break. When you’re old you won’t know your ass from a hole in the ground. And when you’re dead, you won’t know anything at all.”
Hank would sketch Jim in the margins of his notebook. He had a long face, like a horse. Some mornings Jim would take Hank’s cold hands and breathe warmth onto them. He’d be the first to wake up, hunched over the woodstove in his dirty old long johns, lighting the fire. Out the window, Hank would see tiny droplets of dew on the twisted branches of the pine trees. They looked like little pearls.
Jim had two missing molars. One on each side of his mouth. Sometimes, while kissing, Hank would accidentally tongue the empty sockets where his teeth used to be.
“Hey,” Jim would say. “I told you to knock that out. They’re sensitive.”
“Sorry,” Hank would whisper with his eyes still closed tight, one hand on Jim’s cheek.
It was always so dark when they kissed. Dark like the mountains: you know there’s a lot out there—ridges and textures, inclines and declines—but in the night it looks like nothing.
Sometimes Hank would wake up to Jim shaking. He had bad nightmares where he would be paralyzed, figures emerging from the shadows.
“They look just like normal people,” he said. “Like people you’d see walking around the grocery store or out at the movies. Except they’re missing something on their face. Either their eyes, or nose, or mouth. They stand over me and I get the feeling they want me to do something, but I don’t know what. And I can only lie there and waste away while they come closer and closer, and soon you’re gone and I’m gone and all the trees and the rivers are gone, and the mountains are flattened, and there is nothing, except for them, as far as the eye can see, and it feels like drowning.”
Jim grew up very religious, and he couldn’t help but think these nightmares were somehow tied to his childhood.
Whenever they drove past a church or religious sign, Jim would recoil. Regarding Jesus’s body on the cross, he thought it was obscene.
“Why do they have to always show the poor guy suffering?” Jim said.
After he gets off work, Hank walks around the river near his cabin. He has a big canvas bag that used to belong to Jim. Mostly he collects medium sized stones. He likes the oval stones best, the ones that have been worn smooth by the river. Those are the prettiest. It isn’t the shape so much as the texture, the way they feel in his hand. Their feeling helps him forget himself.
He has found several stones that resemble people. One of them was shaped exactly like a human head with two eye holes, a nose, and a small slit for a mouth. He keeps this stone in the bottom drawer of his nightstand. Another one looks like a man with his arms spread out in a T. He keeps that one tenderly under his pillow. One year ago he stumbled upon one that could’ve
been said to resemble him, with his same bad posture and remarkably slender figure. But he quickly threw that one back. All of this would’ve been remarkable to Hank if he didn’t believe in God.
With God, nothing surprises him anymore. The world itself is a miracle.
He puts a small stone on the bed of his tongue, sucks out the copper taste of the mountain, spits it back out onto his palm, and then throws it wide against the skin of the river.
To Hank, God isn’t a voice per se, but a feeling. An urge. Like wanting to eat or drink or smoke or make love. The urge of God lights a kindling inside his mind that drives him out of bed. He uses industrial strength glue to cover every inch of the walls in his cabin with flat, oval stones. For the wall facing east, every stone is red. For the wall facing west, every stone is blue. A constellation of iridescent rocks shimmer from the ceiling. Using fishing wire, he has tied some to the rafters above his bed. They sway ever so slightly every time he opens or closes the door, appearing to nod to him.
Seven years ago Jim was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease. Jim’s body began to attack itself. He grew very weak, and eventually could not stand anymore. During this time, Hank often fantasized about a third Jim—a Jim stronger than these two warring Jims, who could step in and put an end to all this nonsense.
Of course there wasn’t a third Jim. In reality, there weren't even two Jims. There was just one, and that one was going to die.
Around the end of his life, Jim had to stay in St. Mary’s. Jim’s family hadn’t seen him in a long time. He rarely talked about his family, but when he was dying, they all came to visit him. Every day, as he cleaned up various spills and messes, Hank had to walk past his room.
In the evenings, when Jim’s mother and father and brothers had left, Hank would come in. He’d sit by Jim, move his hand under the sheet, and squeeze his wrist. Jim was so sick and they had him on so many drugs that he couldn’t really talk, but when he looked up at Hank he smiled. His eyes were sweet and milky.
Hank thought strongly.
Hank would stand up and make sure no one was about to walk by before he did what he really wanted to do: kiss Jim on the forehead. He’d let lips stay on the wrinkles of Jim’s skin for a minute or two, and then he’d hum.
The hum was tuneless but it had a rhythm. Hank could feel the electricity inside Jim’s brain. His lips tingled with it. Jim might’ve giggled or grunted or hummed back. He might have closed his wet eyes and fallen asleep.
A couple days before Jim finally died, Hank was sitting by his bed when Jim’s mother walked in. She had forgotten her purse.
“Who are you?” she asked, startled.
Hank was startled too. He stood up immediately.
“I’m Jim's old friend,” he said.
“Oh my,” she said, a hand to her chest. “Bless your heart. We didn’t know he had friends.”
“He has a lot of friends, “ Hank said. “He was very popular.”
“We went to church together,” he added.
Jim’s mother looked down at Jim. His eyes were closed and he looked like a mummy. All shrunken and small. She put her hand on his cheek.
“Did he ever mention us?” his mother finally asked after a long silence.
“Of course. All the time,” Hank said. “He talked about you all the time.”
They had lived together for thirteen years. When he passed, Hank was lying awake in his cabin, an hour away from the hospital. He knew Jim had died because he felt it. The feeling was like a stone stuck in his windpipe. What else could he do but choke?
If God allowed the devil to strip Job of his wife and children, If He reprimanded him from a broken sky, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" If He blinded to Paul on the road to Damascus, If He commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Issac, ordered Noah to build an ark, appeared before Moses as a burning bush, visited Jacob in a dream, and came to Constantine in form of a cross in the sky, brighter than the sun, then surely it was not out of reach that He would command Hank to collect stones. After all, every rock was born from Him. What rock does not contain within itself some parts of God?
At night, after he has filled the canvas bag with stones, he comes back to his cabin and showers, lights the woodstove, and makes jelly toast. He goes outside and looks at the stars. Sometimes, he finds they have lost their luster. On the best days, they stir nothing within him that isn’t already present.
Keegan Gore is a writer from Orlando, Florida. He holds a B.A in Creative Writing and Literary Studies from Goucher College and is currently pursuing an MFA at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. His work has been previously published in Five Points.