Man of Text by Tamika Thompson

Man of Text by Tamika Thompson

The hospital’s outer walls crumble. Outside the window, red flecks of brick float past the glass. His ragged breath escapes his body with a whistle. In the leather chair, he shifts his skinny frame. His end is near, he suspects, but he waits for the good doctor to come and tell him how long.

A knock at the door. He turns his head and the needles of bad circulation prick his neck. The knob twists, and in walks the doctor, wearing her stethoscope over a pale blue collared shirt and carrying a stack of papers against her bosom. The doctor mostly keeps her eyes on the cracked tile floor. More bad news is coming.

“You’re out of bed, Mr. Faster?”

He glances toward the opposite wall at the gurney with starched sheets and a scratchy brown blanket, thin as paper.

“You call that a bed?”

She looks down at the papers in her hands. She will only hold his gaze for seconds.

Will he see Rachel graduate? Will he be able to slip the class ring on her earnest finger? The inside of the ring’s band he had engraved with “Even before you were a thought, Daddy loved you.” Dr. Waymund will level with him, he is sure, about his blurred vision, the limp, the nightmares in which his speech seems to be snatched from his mouth.

“What have you been experiencing today, Mr. Faster?”

“Well, now, let me see. The pages of Sentimental Education are blank when I look at them. The words, instead, appear on my arms and legs. Across the boulevard, you see out there? That billboard usually reads “Cash Fast,” but now it’s green with no text. When I go to roll up my pants, I see “Cash Fast” on my right shin.”

He pulls up the silk pajama leg to show her. He scratches his shin. She looks at his leg but doesn’t seem to see anything there.

She places the papers on the side table near his chair and clicks on the lamp above his head. When he glances at the papers, as he suspects, the sheets are blank. He wonders where those words will appear on his body next.

“Have the tremors begun, Mr. Faster?”

“Yes. Last night. Just before I fell asleep.”

To scratch an angry itch on his stomach, he unbuttons the bottom of his pajama shirt. His nails are sharp pleasure against his skin. He discovers the letters there on his belly – “Character Contract.”

“Mr. Faster, may I?” The doctor asks as she places her bottom in the leather chair opposite him.

He nods.

“Mr. Faster, you are dying to this world, but you must understand that your nightmares are not dreams. You have been communing with an artist in another realm.”

He laughs at the doctor’s serious face. His laugh becomes a coughing fit, with tears shooting out of his eyes. The cough subsides, but the giggles continue.

“It sounds absurd, I know. It’s usually difficult for people to understand. But you are in a type of purgatory here, Mr. Faster. We all are. We’re merely biding our time, until our artist, our creator, if you will, is ready to render us.”

“Just tell it to me straight, doc. You don’t have to make up fancy, nonsensical stories. I’m not going to make it to Rachel’s graduation.”

“No. You are running out of time. Your story is being written, Mr. Faster. If you want to suffer through every bit of your body and mind being snatched away piece-by-piece until your ultimate rendering, then be my guest. It will be painful. But if you sign this contract now, the transition will be painless. You will fall asleep here and wake in peace, immediately situated in your story.”

Prague's Memorial to the Victims of Communism courtesy Flickr user Daniel Wabyick

Prague’s Memorial to the Victims of Communism courtesy Flickr user Daniel Wabyick

She slides the document across the table’s wood. From her shirt pocket, she retrieves a pen and sets it on top of the blank paper.

“I’ll sign this if it will get you out of here with this foolishness.” His hands are swollen and tight as he scribbles Jeff Faster on the page. He tosses the pen onto the table with a clack, and rests his shoulders in the chair. His left forearm itches. The signature appears on the skin there, but this time it quickly vanishes. He needs to call Rachel.

“I’ve got my daughter to worry about. Preparing her for my demise. Her pain is my concern. My pain? Let’s just say, the next time you consider visiting me, bring some morphine or don’t come at all.”

“It’s good that you signed, Mr. Faster. There’s no use fighting your creator when the time for your story draws nigh.”

The door closes behind the doctor, and Mr. Faster descends into a deep sleep right there in his chair. Moments later he wakes in the same position, though he’s no longer at the hospital. He’s home now, seated in his bedroom.

The sun is brighter. He turns to Sentimental Education, the text is right there on the page, where it belongs. He rises and struts to the window. No red flecks float past the glass. The beautiful red brick on the side of his home is intact. With the intention of walking out the bedroom door, he turns and finds his feet frozen in place. A force outside of him with a voice that speaks in his head says, “Mr. Faster remembers his ex-wife Lucinda. He wants to call her.”

He doesn’t want to remember or call Lucinda. He wants to walk out of his bedroom door, descend his stairs, make himself a double espresso, and phone his daughter. But his fresh, powerful legs march over to the phone. His hands, no longer under his control, pick up the handset and dial from memory. Whose memory? Why does he remember Lucinda’s number after fifteen years?

The voice in his head continues, “Mr. Faster dials feverishly. He has so much to say to this woman – the only woman.”

His fingers dial. He wills himself to hang up, angry and frightened that he is being manipulated. By whom? He tries to think back to that blank contract that he signed. He tries to remember the text that had been on his stomach. Tries to reach his hand down to his middle but his fingers remain firmly attached to the handset.

The voice in his head says, “He waits with bated breath, hoping that Lucinda will answer his call after all of this time.”

He hears three rings on the other line, and, to his horror, someone answers. How can he stop this from happening? How can he prevent his body from doing its own bidding, making him into a man he does not want to be? A man who would call his ex-wife after she left him for his steel mill foreman Raul?

“Jeff, is that you?” She sounds astonished. His name on her tongue is shrill like an alarm at dawn.

The words that he is commanded to say spring forth in his mind, but he fights them. Hang up, goddammit! Tell her you’ve accidentally dialed the wrong number!

But he can’t hang up. He can’t control his mouth. His lips and tongue form the words before he is able to bite them back.

“Yes, it is I, Lucinda. I have always, always loved you, don’t you know?”

TamikaThompsonTamika is a writer, producer, and journalist. Her fiction has been published by or is forthcoming in Kweli, Huizache, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Hazardous Press. Her non-fiction has been published by The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and PBS.org. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Columbia University and a Master of Arts in Journalism from the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter. Find her on the web at tamikathompson.com.