She is a traveling circus. Tracy and her Magical Mystery Machine rolls into town, room 194 in the ICU, everyday at noon. She brings with her a processional of elephants, clowns on tricycles, jugglers, fire-breathers, the dialysis machine, and the striking blonde beauty herself. The audience gasps. The respirator respirates.
Tracy got the eggplant purple scrubs on today with them white Keds. She’s the dialysis tech. I got dialysis shift. Noon to four o’clock each day, long enough for my poor father, exhausted and depleted, to run home and grab something to eat, pass out for an hour or two, shower, and store up for overnight in the ICU —
for the long winter ahead, for life ahead —
and then he comes back before shift change to get acquainted with the overnight nurses. That’s what you do in the hospital, you get acquainted.
I like Tracy. Why not. Got nothing better happening. My mom is dying. Tracy’s chatty. She likes country line dancing. She has a cat named Joe. She has ash blonde hair, freckles, and a face like a lemon. There might be a sweetness there if you added sugar and water, but it is mostly astringent and plain. The way she raises her eyebrows when she speaks provides a zest.
She looks twenty-five-years-old, a perfect round quarter of a number, you could buy a gumball with it. She’s a smoker, it comes out of her pores. It makes her skin a rind, a hardened protective shell, but maybe she knows something about life that I don’t. The blend of her cigarette smoke and perfume reminds me of the color crimson.
She’s better than the other tech, Norman. He’s business, don’t chat, just hooks up the plumbing and monitors the vitals. He’s a tired old man who waits until it’s time to go home, so he can eat canned corn right out of the can. That’s what I imagine anyway.
Tracy knows her way around a dialysis machine. She’s more of a plumber by trade, yet she plays the thing like a piano, knows how to make it sing, its mechanical churn. Dialyzing. Singing.
The dialysis machine has a presence in the room. It’s Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Socrates, and Jane Austen. Which persons, living or dead, historical or contemporary, would you invite to your dinner party? I’d invite the dialysis machine. I have questions for it. Why does self-indulgence take precedent over virtue? What is its opinion of pineapple as a pizza topping? Does it dream like a blind person, without sight but sound? Does it know who my mother is, and does it take care of her?
It lurches into the room and presides, the size of a large filing cabinet, and it must have everything on file, all the secrets the kidneys once knew: electrolyte levels, uric acid, excess sodium, every extra soy sauce packet you added once to the take-out chow-mein.
She begins to unravel the tubing. Her hands are not that of a plumber’s — they are lithe, a painter, a dancer. She hooks up the buckets of acid and bicarbonate, clamps off the aterials, connects the saline to the saline port. The beast is nearly ready to be fed. Perhaps she is more like the rancor keeper.
Tracy looks at me. I feel her consider me. I am dried out, disheveled, a husk. I’m in the corner on the wooden chair. It has an orange vinyl cushion, the fancy seat. We also have the pull-out bed. The toilet. Those are all of the seats at this dinner party.
The television is on mute, the flashing providing the only hints of color in the stark room. I look at her.
“What your mom has, this is what Jim Henson died from,” she says.
She says it like it’s a fun fact. A fun fact. That’s all. Chatty Tracy. She’s like a baby doll that burbles when you squeeze the soft plastic belly. This is what Jim Henson died from. A burble.
Maybe it’s all in the progress notes that she reviewed when she rolled in: Patient, female, age fifty-six, diabetic, diagnosed age twelve, rushed to the ER because she fainted a few days ago. Now she’s in a coma, in acute renal failure, Jim Henson case. The progress notes.
There is no progress, that’s all you really need to know, Tracy.
When I wake up from a nightmare, I lie in bed and I wait. To separate. It begins to pull apart, a yolk pulling apart from its proteins. The nightmare fades from me. I fade from it. It goes back to the ether. I go back to bed. And I begin to dream again.
Jim Henson. Like she’s an actress in a film who has peeled back the fourth wall to tell the audience a secret. I’ve watched this film obsessively a thousand times. It’s an awful film. Running time of the feature is two weeks, if you don’t count the previews at the beginning where my mother says she is feeling a little unwell.
It’s your standard hospital drama: Starring the aloof doc, the nurse with the heart of gold, the panicked family. Film reviewers go nuts over the Mise-En-Scene shots with the ice bucket, the three-day-old newspaper, the get well card on the window sill. Somewhere on the Internet, a pretentious film blogger is going on and on about the symbolism of the ice bucket. But it’s just a stupid ice bucket. The ice here tastes like sulfur. There’s another useless detail for you.
The mom dies at the end. Sorry to spoil it, I didn’t want to get your hopes up. The end credits roll. “The events depicted are fictitious. Any similarities to any persons living or dead are purely coincidental.”
Jim Henson. Like we’re in a bar together playing trivia. Team Dialysis. Oh come on, Tracy, I know you’re good with a pun. You’ve got something better than that. Urine First Place, she suggests. You’re in, get it? Oh, I’m in. Deep in it.
The trivia theme tonight is Muppets. We got this. Now we’re feeling smug and warm over knowing the answer to the last question: ping-pong balls! Kermit’s eyes were originally made from ping-pong balls.
Next question, how did Jim Henson die?
Oh damn. We’re all 1980s kids, but we’re not really sure how Jim Henson died, though we remember it. Big Bird sang at his memorial. It was 1990 and we were about ten-years-old. It always seemed shrouded in mystery, a pneumonia of sorts.
Team Urine First Place has turned their answer in. Tracy pulled it out. Strep A for double points.
Jim Henson. Like we’re in the school cafeteria sipping that Capri Sun and talking some Muppets. Tracy got the tuna fish and crackers. She got that Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper, the side scrunchie ponytail. I’m unpacking a peanut butter and jelly. There’s a folded piece of paper next to my sandwich. Quickly I palm it and pocket it before anyone can see. It says “love you sweetheart.” Come on Mom, with the notes. Chill.
Tracy is cool but she calls herself a nerd. Someone calls me a nerd and it stings, but Tracy rocks it like she rocks that side scrunchie look. “Muppets nerd,” she says. She has the videos, the plush dolls, the Hallmark ornaments. She’s naming all the muppets I ain’t even heard of. Sam the Eagle, Bean Bunny, Pepe the King Prawn, Toxic Shock Jim.
Jim Henson. Like she’s breaking up with me. Oh great, now I’m going to lose the Muppets. I’m going to lose all of our mutual friends, the restaurants that were kind of ours, and half of my music because the songs remind me of her. I also lose the Beach Boys episode of Full House. Literally, the physical disc. I have that season on DVD, and thats the disc that’s in the player when she decides to pack up all her shit. That episode rules.
Losing friends is nothing. I can burn through people like a pack of cigarettes. Goodbye, stub out, move on. Our Mexican place had good salsa. But Tracy always called it dip and I sort of hated that about her. Crimson and Clover, Tommy James and the Shondells. That was the song playing the first time we met, as she lugged in the buckets of dialysate bicarbonate. In my mind, of course. You think this hospital has any creature comforts like music? Try the sound of sterile beeping horrifying you to sleep.
Losing the Muppets is losing friends. Burn them all. Fire sale. Bargain basement prices! Kermit Fozzy Miss Piggy, even Rowlf, too, take ’em all for a buck. Don’t bother with the haggling. Fifty cents, they’re yours. Absolutely zero, done. Take them. They’re only matted and ratty because I loved them since childhood.
Jim Henson. Like she’s a grim reaper of nostalgia. I wonder if she rolls through each of the rooms on the ICU and rips pieces of beloved pop culture away from other victims. Nostalgia is supposed to be a door in your past that opens and lets you in. Sit down, relax, remember with me.
Saturday mornings. I’m sprawling on the couch with the TV Guide and a pencil, circling all the programs I plan to watch that morning, crap like The Snorks, The Popples, and The Wuzzles. If it sounds idiotic, I circle it. Ah, but The Muppets Show, I circle that one with a bit of relish, going over it twice with the pencil. And if my sister wants to watch a different show, I’ll just point to the marked-up TV Guide. It’s a binding document.
I bathe in the incandescent light of the television. I crawl closer to the screen, sticking my eyeball to the glass, seeing the thousands of little red, green, and blue dots. I pull my head back slowly, and the RGB dots become the picture. My mother sips her coffee nearby, trying to ignore me burning my corneas out. Mom, I got my own kids now, believe me, I get it.
But now I go to nostalgia’s door. I knock and it’s locked. This is my childhood, and I thought I could visit anytime I wanted. You partying in there with Tracy again? Why does she leave me like this?
I knock again. Louder this time. Banging. I’ll threaten to punch a hole in this thing. Open up.
A note is passed under the door.
I get down on my hands and knees, palming the note nervously. I unfold it, smoothing out the creases so I can read it. It says septic shock. What the fuck is that? It sounds like something you do to a swimming pool. We had a swimming pool when I was a kid. I didn’t know I was going to drown in it when I was an adult.
Mise-en-scene: The ice bucket is still there on the table. Fancy seat is pushed back against the wall neatly. The sheets are stripped. The Get Well card has been tossed in the trash. There’s your symbolism.
Tracy looks at me and she says, “what your mom has, this is what Jim Henson died from.”
“Oh,” I say.
What else is there to say, Tracy.