8 October 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 3
There was order to the world under my father's microscope. Order that could be plated, identified, and named in 24 hours. Examination, diagnoses, positive verification. Truth alive and well in a Petri dish. I believed it. I followed my father through the hospital, his extra lab coat to my ankles. It was his world—sterile, orderly, familiar.
In my world, I am cleaning my house. The air is pungent with ammonia and Mr. Clean. It reminds me of Mr. Foster at Riverview Medical, his floor buffer spinning back and forth across the tile floors, orange cones dropped behind him, trail of orange cone breadcrumbs. He spread his hands out for me, purple half-moons sunken into his fingertips where he had been treated for a staph infection.
"Remodeling the lounge by pediatrics," he said. "Pulled up the carpet with our bare hands. Didn't think nothing of it."
I plunge my rag into the bucket of foam and wring it out. My bare skin stings. At the top of the stairs, cardboard boxes are marked for donation to the ARC. Salvation through charitable contribution.
James comes into the kitchen in his boxers. He looks out the window. His back is white and doughy, and a roll hangs loose over his waistband.
I scrub at the baseboards. "It's ten o'clock," I say.
He pours a cup of coffee. "I called in sick." He never used to drink coffee. Now he drinks it black. "God. It stinks in here." He retreats to the bathroom. His razor buzzes, then the shower. A single tear wets my lip. No salt.
The doorbell rings, and I point the man up the stairs for the boxes. The furniture is in the garage. The name on his uniform says Jimmy. He is soft and gray, hair thin and combed over the top of his head. I should offer to help. I punch the garage door opener and go to the kitchen. Under hot water, I wash my hands.
The doorbell rings again. Outside, the back of the truck is still open. The white bars of the crib tilt sideways over the matching changing table. The bentwood rocker is stacked with the cardboard boxes.
"Here's your receipt, ma'am," he says. He holds a white slip of paper toward me. "Hang on to it. It's all tax deductible." The paper flutters in his fingers.
I shut the door, crush the paper in my hand.
When I was in first grade, I drew a picture of my father marching stiff-legged on an airport runway in his blue uniform, bald head protected by the square blue cap pinned with silver bars, a rifle jutting up above his shoulder. It wasn't until after my parents divorced when I was nine and he took me to the lab on weekends that I knew what he did every day. He talked as he worked, labeled and ordered everything.
"Treponema pallidum," he said. The blinds were drawn. Under the microscope, spiral corkscrews writhed in the circle of light. "Genus and species. See the shape? It's a spirochete because of the shape." The cells tumbled against each other, against the stationary matter trapped under the glass slide cover. "Bacteria."
"I thought it was a parasite."
In the dark, my father was the shape of a white lab coat. "No nucleus," he said. "The DNA isn't contained. See how it floats inside the cell walls? Bacteria." He slipped another slide under the light. "Look at these," he said.
"Pretty," I said.
"Now apply antibiotics." An empty flash of white, then the organisms returned, bulged with fluid. "Cellular walls break apart. Cells burst and die. Lysis complete."
He snapped on the overhead lights.
"Genus and species," I mimicked. "What is it?"
He scribbled into a yellow notebook. "Syphilis," he said, without looking up.
James comes back with a pound of sirloins. He lights the barbeque on the deck. I finish cleaning out the refrigerator, fill the trash can with little juice bottles and squat numbered jars, round-cheeked faces smiling on all the labels.
He stands upwind from the grill, drinks a beer. On the railing at the top of the stairs, there is a Campbell's soup can full of dandelions, perhaps left by one of the neighbor kids. Across the chain-link fence, Mrs. Peterson waters her azaleas, the leaky nozzle of the hose wetting the hem of her housedress.
"Saw your Uncle Bartell at the store," James says. He waves an empty beer can at me. "Want one?" I shake my head. He brings back two beers and opens one. "He told me ‘He's gone to a better place.' Like that's supposed to make me feel better." His eyes are glassy. "Better," he says. "You know what I think?"
I roll the dandelion in my fingers, snap off the yellow flower with my thumb.
"I think we missed something," he says.
I throw the limp stem over the rail. Across the space of the deck, James slaps the meat to the grill where it sizzles and pops.
"We missed something," he repeats. "How can it just be ‘sudden.' There must have been something." He stabs the meat fork in my direction. "A sign. I think me and you missed the sign. And this," he waves his beer at me, "is our punishment."
Heat rises from the grill, quiver of translucent heat. A wave of smoke drifts toward me. Burning meat, sweet savor. Dinner.
The neighbor lady bends over the petunias planted in a circle around a tree. The backs of her bared thighs are white and curdled. I press my hands into my belly, kneading its softness.
It had been a month. We stood together, held hands, endured the endless line of people we should know. Roses, gardenias, lilies. Babies' breath. Little white lambs and angels wired into the flowers.
"Thank you," I said. "You're very kind."
"Thank you for coming," James said again and again. His mother wept and clung to his neck, held up the line. My mother wired from Lisbon. My father came late and stood in the back.
I tip the soup can. Yellow flowers spill to the grass. "Can we not talk about this?" I say.
His eyes narrow. He finishes his drink. "Sure," he says. He leans towards me. His voice deepens to a flat growl. "Sure, Amanda. We can not talk about it. We can not talk about anything you want." His eyes are blue ice. He crushes the empty can against the railing, hurls the smashed aluminum into the yard where it clatters against the chain link. His snaps open the other beer.
I reach for his arm. "James."
He jerks back, snarling. "Let's not talk about everything!" Beer sloshes across the grill and sizzles into the charcoal. He glares across the fence at the neighbor who is staring, the garden hose limp in her hand.
"We've got nothing to lose." He raises a single middle finger at Mrs. Peterson.
"You're an idiot," I say.
James waits until after dark to leave, out to some tavern, sympathetic bartender or waitress off at twelve. The Audi's tires spit gravel back into the driveway. On the kitchen counter, a plate of charred sirloins. On the answering machine, a message from my dad. "Come by the lab," his recorded voice hesitates. "I'm here late."
When I was seven, I dropped a can of floor wax on my foot, and after several days, my big toe swelled up like a sausage. My father lured me into the examination room, told me he would just look at it. Then with one powerful forearm, he pinned me down on the white paper of the exam table and slit open the toe with a scalpel. The infection drained and the incision healed under a strip of butterfly tape into a neat iridescent stripe.
It's after ten. My father is still in the lab. He waves me in. "Come and look," he says. He peers into the double black goosenecks of the microscope, glasses in one hand, adjusts a knob on the side of the microscope with the other.
I lean across the counter, match the dual circles of light through the lenses.
"Can you see?" He nudges the edge of the glass slide with his finger. Light illuminates the animated paper Christmas chains, transparent skins as fine as wet silk.
"Streptococcus," I say. He changes the slide. Pulsing orbs cling together in geometric clumps like grapes. "Staphylococcus." Old stand-bys.
His lab coat is crumpled over a chair. I pull it on over my clothes. The left breast pocket is black with the ink of an exploded pen. Across the counter, stacks of clear agar plates, wire netting, rows of glass pipettes, and brass burners tethered to silver gas fixtures. The air is dull, masked by old coffee and gram stain.
"Smell." He opens an agar dish. The clear media is stained green, a rash of white dotting the surface. "Smells like fruit," he says.
"Tortillas," I say. "Pseudomonas. Smells like tortillas."
His arms pull me into his chest, white lab coat, pocket of pens, a stethoscope clinging to his neck. I hug him back, a quick hug and then release.
He sits down on the stool at the counter. His hands repeat movement: draw, measure, mix. Nanograms, micrograms, milligrams. He doesn't look at me.
"Isolate the genome. Amplified by injection into an organism. E. coli." His hands move while he talks, reads me his recipe. Dr. Julia Childs. "Bacteria, plasmid, chemicals for support. Heat to 42 degrees. Cell walls begin to collapse. Plasmid infiltrates the cell. Cool. Plate with corresponding antibiotic. Grow. And then we've got… an antibiotic-resistant genome."
"E. coli?" I know the answer.
"Normal enteric bacteria. Doubles every 20 minutes. Tagged with radioactive phosphorus in PCR…"
I twirl a glass pipette in my fingers, catch it in my other hand. "Polymerase chain reaction."
He nods. "Amplified, we observe methylation, the organism's response to change, loss of primary processes, identify active operons…"
"End world hunger. Promote peace. Repair the greenhouse effect."
His motion falters. "Transferred to human pathology, we can…"
"Answer all the questions."
"Answer all…" His hands flounder. The pipette tip stabs into unfamiliar space, breaks the rhythm.
I grab his hand and press it down to the table. My father's eyes are wide, lined with puckered skin, paper thin. The metal-frame glasses cling to his nose like pincers. Under the button-down collar and tie, his neck is thin, skin webbed with creases.
I release his hand. The lingering ache rises from my chest to my throat, uncurling heat and pressure to the inside of my skull. At the edge of my vision, the pricking aura of a migraine begins to pulse and spin.
"I'm tired." I peel off the stained lab coat.
"Amanda," my father says. His voice is small, a child's. His hands are still. He looks past me, over my shoulder.
I drop his coat on a chair and close the lab door behind me. "I'll call you later."
Lying in my bed, alone, my skin prickles. Microbes hang in the air, spirals and pulsing chains of single-celled organisms. I breathe them in through raw nasal passages. Disinfectant, heat, the char of burning meat. In the dark, pain pulses inside my head, against the backs of my eyes. The walls press in around me. Nothing slows the motion. Nothing stops the endless spinning.
About the author:
Sherri H. Hoffman is a working writer in the Pacific Northwest and graduate of Weber State University. After nearly ten nonproductive years, she returned to writing fiction, inspired and encouraged by a very supportive group of writers in and around Portland, Ore. Recent publications include "Black Bird" (Editor's Choice Award) and "Thicker Than Water" (Editor's Choice Award)—an excerpt chapter from a novel in progress. Other works are published in Etchings, Noneuclidean Cafe, Poetic Diversity, and upcoming in Duck & Herring Pocket Field Guide and Lunch Hour Stories. Read more at www.sherrihhoffman.com.