Tuesday, June 2, 2009

BLEEDER chapter 1 excerpt

by John Desjarlais
Chapter One Excerpt

My Volvo’s windshield wipers slapped away spots of mid-March drizzle, chanting shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t. The traffic thinned, the road narrowed to two lanes, the sky turned gun-metal gray, and the Chicago music stations crackled away into static.
The patchwork fields of rural Illinois rolled away from the ditches in soft waves, with snow laying in stripes across the rows of cornstalk stubble, like a lathered but unshaven face. The rusted road signs became harder to read through the chilly mist. When I saw more cows than cars, I wondered if I’d taken a wrong turn. To err is human, to forgive bovine, I told myself, checking the cell phone. Was the signal too weak to reach any place civilized? Even if it could, I’d wait a long time for Triple-A to show up out here in the boonies if I had any trouble.
I imagined the operator saying We need a street address, sir. There isn’t one, I tell you; I’m in the middle of nowhere. What is the nearest address, sir? I’m near a barn with a faded Mail Pouch Chewing Tobacco ad. Community college teachers can’t afford a new car with a global positioning system or the monthly fee to have the service on a cell phone Even I have that, sir. That’s great; maybe it can tell you where I am. Very funny, sir. The truck will still need a number.
I glanced at the torn Triple-A map, draped on the passenger seat. The blue capillaries of county roads spidered out from the state roads’ red arteries. The towns pimpled the white page like blackheads on a freshman’s face. A muscular pick-up truck hissed past, spitting into my windshield. Gun control means using both hands, snickered the bumper sticker. Distracted, I ran over a dead raccoon and the thump of it turned my stomach.
That’s when a familiar heat arose in my chest and my breastbone pressed into my heart, crushing it. The double yellow lines in the road writhed like serpents. I slipped my foot off the gas, angled the wheel, and rolled to a stop in the gravel shoulder. Breathe in, breathe out. In, out. Focus on something. That sign up ahead—the one with the big red star.
It’s not uncommon for gunshot victims, the doctor told me. Anxiety attacks can be a response to a stressful event: an act of violence, a job change, the loss of a spouse by divorce or death. Lucky me: I had all three. I was shot. I was on a Leave Of Absence from the college. And Peggy died when the leukemia came out of remission two years ago.
Breathe in, two, three. Breathe out, two, three. Wait quietly. It will pass. You are not going to get lost. You are not going to die in this lonely place.
The sky lightened. My breastbone released its grip. A pick-up with a horse trailer whooshed by and the Volvo shuddered. My heartbeat returned to a trot from a gallop. You are going to be OK. Keep going. The roadkill and that bumper sticker set you off.
Gun control means using both hands.

The sign ahead was for Red Star Gas and I decided to swallow my city pride and ask for directions. The concrete was veined with cracks and the weeds reached up from them like the hands of buried men clawing their way out. One pump, shrouded in silvery spider webs, was out of service. Discolored paint flaked off the building like scabs. A man with high Indian cheekbones and black hair spraying from a White Sox cap reached my window before I gathered the nerve to unbuckle my seat belt and get out.
“Hey, meester?” He knocked at the window with a gold ring. Tik tik. “You want fill ‘er up?”
His corn-colored teeth spread in a two-octave grin and the dark eyebrows undulated like caterpillars. I checked the gauge, nodded and popped the gas-cap lock.
While he circled to the back, I shouldered open the door and swung my cane into position. The film instructor gave it to me in the hospital and we joked that it should be called Citizen Cane. I dug the rubber tip into the cement, gripped the brass head, and rehearsed how to get out. For six weeks after the hip surgery, my physical therapist Paula taught me in the transfer training how to sit up, how not to twist or cross my leg, since the pin was screwed in, not cemented. She said I’d be OK to drive after two months, provided I kept up with the treadmill, the isokinetic leg presses with ankle weights, and the balancing exercise where I walked through the rungs of a ladder laid on the floor. I’d been good about it, all so that I could retreat to my brother Dan’s hunting cabin by mid-March and get started on the book I’d always wanted to write on Aristotle in peace and quiet. I just expected to do it during a sabbatical leave. Not like this.
The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances, Aristotle reminded me.
I levered out.
“You Chicago, eh?” the leathery attendant called.
He aimed the gas pump at me like a pistol.
“Yes,” I replied.
“All the way out here?”
“Visiting relatives.”
“Yeah, sure.” He lowered the nozzle, pumped gas and pointed at Citizen Cane. “What’s wrong with the leg, señor?”
“I was shot. In December.”
The eyebrows turned into Mexican jumping beans. “Ay, caramba,” he said with a whistle. “An accident, no?”
“A college girl with a touchy 9 millimeter in her purse. She pulled it on a rival in a hallway catfight over a boy. I broke it up and—”
When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of Peggy. Is this what it feels like to die, not in pain, really—the shock prevented that—but in wide-eyed surprise, that it should come so soon and so stupidly? Once the second shot shattered the head of my right femur where it forms step in the acetabular groove of the pelvis and I dropped to the tiles with my blood fanning across the floor, I wished Peggy could have gone like this, not by having her blood poisoned by leukemia, draining her life away.
“¿Señor? Then wha’ happen?”
“Well, I got in the way, that’s all,” I concluded.
“Anyone else hurt?”
I shrugged. “Just me. Some guys have all the luck.”
“So you are here to see the healer, eh?”
I squinted at him. “The what?”
“The healer in River Falls? You know, for the leg.”
“I’m going to River Falls,” I conceded, “But I’m not going to see any—”
“Ees ok,” the man said with a cackle. “I talk to a dozen people like you today who are lost. The only reason people from Chicago are on this road is to find him. I hope, señor, you have made your motel reservations.”
“I’m staying in my brother’s hunting cabin in Tall Pines Park.”
“That is good, very good,” the man said with a wag of his head, “for there are no rooms for twenty miles around.”


A miracle? Or bloody murder?

Coming August 2009

Sophia Institute Press
for more information, visit www.johndesjarlais.com

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