Saturday, August 25, 2012

Fiction #38: Tim Conley

Saving the World

There were two shifts at the clinic, a day shift and a night shift.

On the day shift were Grace and Reggie and Olympia. Grace had worked there the longest but never made mention of the fact; she was known for never having a hard word for anybody. She was always asking after the patients’ families, always remembered the name of every child and grandchild, and Reggie often joked about her perfect memory in that way of his. Olympia was the quietest of the three but she had the most energy, had to be told when to take a break.

On the night shift was an amorphous, gelatinous-looking blob that could raise itself to the ceiling or slink through the lowest crevice. It did not have a name.

Word came down, not altogether directly, from the City Health Office: in recognizing the surplus of clinics within the municipality, and in the interests of tightening the fiscal belts (just like everybody else had to), the clinic would be closing in three months. “I’ve been coming here for my pills for twenty-six, no, twenty-seven years,” said Mrs. Underwood in a voice neither exactly angry nor exactly sad, and had a quiet but fatal coronary right in front of a horrified Reggie, who had to be sent home for a few days.

I was the only one who consoled the blob, if consolation it may be called. Some years ago (though not nearly as long as Mrs. Underwood had been coming for her pills), it had enslaved my mind and I was utterly at its bidding on any night it chose. The phone would ring, I would answer, there would be no one on the other line, and I would know.

With two months to go before the closure, Olympia had a breakdown. At first she fell into an even deeper silence than usual, to the point that even recalcitrant folks tried cajoling her, but ultimately she exploded with a low howling. For over an hour she sat shaking in a chair dragged into the broom closet for the purpose, and the sound of her shook everyone. “Poor girl, this job may be all she has,” said Grace.

The doors to the Director’s house were locked but the windows weren’t. It is hard to say which one of us found the other first. “Are you sure that’s a real gun?” he asked. “There’s a sure way to make sure,” I answered, precisely as the nocturnal blob had instructed.

After the news broke the next day, it was all Reggie could talk about. He tried to insinuate that Grace was probably the kidnapper: it was obvious that she was a criminal mastermind, nobody ought to cross her, only the first step in a scheme. The investigating officers both told him not to make light of the matter.

The motel room in which the trussed Director of the City Health Office spent the next six days and nights was dingy enough to set a definite mood. I only left him to get food or, a couple of times, to meet up with the blob at the clinic. I noticed the usually translucent pink surface of my mind’s master was clouding, greying, perhaps the result of stress. The Director declined to negotiate. “Just say you’ve reconsidered the distribution of health services, or recalculated the budget,” I soothingly suggested. “Never,” he answered.

There was less than a week left before the clinic’s last day. Olympia emitted sudden but short howls from time to time and avoided extended discussions of any kind. When Grace inquired how Olympia’s mother was doing, shrieking laughter came as the reply. “There’s nothing funny about your mother,” Reggie remarked, and altogether accidentally admitted that he had been having a semi-torrid affair with Olympia’s mother for nearly a year. Grace slapped him, aiming for the face but hitting his left ear with her wedding ring, drawing blood.

The Director said he was getting tired of fast food. “I have a delicately poised digestive system,” he said. “Everybody says so.” Because I had no holidays owed me, I figured by now my job at the air control tower was probably gone. There was this game we used to play with newbies: we’d all talk about this plane that wasn’t there, we’d have worked out its ID and flight plan beforehand and of course totally freak out the newbie. “But one time,” I told the Director, “there was this new guy in the tower named Zachary, and when we pulled this one on Zachary, he didn’t freak out at all but instead called out that he had it, meaning he had it on his system and was going to guide this nonexistent plane from Bolivia or Madagascar or somewhere. Zachary was certainly one of the strangest guys I’ve ever met.” After a few bites of hours-old burrito, the Director asked me what happened. I didn’t understand. “What happened to Zachary?” the Director wanted to know.

Grace did not return to the clinic. She and her husband put up their house for sale the day before the clinic was to close, the same day that Reggie told Olympia that he had broken off with her mother and sincerely hoped that they might remain friends. A man dressed in pyjamas and a raincoat spoiled the moment by trying to shoplift thirty bottles of cough syrup.

The blob summoned me just before midnight. It was grey and mottled, stiffer in its movements. I began to cry, perhaps fearful of freedom, but was rebuffed: I was to build an exact replica of the clinic, as quickly as possible but without skimping a jot on accuracy, on the far outskirts of the city, behind the dump. The fruitlessness of the endeavour obvious to me, I agreed, and I think I would have agreed even if I could have resisted.

*

Tim Conley’s short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in journals in eight countries. His most recent books are the poetry collection One False Move (Quattro Books, 2012) and the anthology Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity (co-edited with Jed Rasula; Action Books, 2012). He teaches English and Comparative Literature at Brock University.

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