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  • Serpentine
  • Ember Johnson (bio)

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[End Page 164]

At the funeral home, they tell me to slide the partition door open, so I do, just enough to angle my body through, and I enter the room alone. I approach where my husband's body lies inside a cardboard box, on top of a wheeled gurney, and I see that a white bedsheet covers him to his chin. There is a chair in the room, and I drag it across the floor and sit next to him. His lips, glued together, have dried into the faint shape of a kiss. Eyelids, too, glued shut. A ragged zigzag of sutured skin reaches from his eyebrow into the receding hairline above his temple, and a dark purple bruise the size of a salad plate has settled beneath the skin in the center of his face. His neck tilts to the side. I untuck the sheet from around his neck, draw it down his naked body, and begin. [End Page 165]

First I trace each branch of the deep Y carved into his chest by the medical examiner. Then I touch each short dash, each stitch, that had closed him back up. All I've been told is that he was hit head-on, that it was not his fault, and that he died instantly. Still, I am looking for clues. Answers. I'm a military wife. And he'd come back from a combat zone alive. Twice.

I consider the dragon tattooed on his upper arm and trace a finger along the green hairpin curves of its spine, from the tip of its snout to the tip of its tiny, forked tail. His skin is cold. Refrigerator cold. A deep gouge presents between two knuckles of his hand, and a large flap of torn skin with a thick maroon edge lies over his hand bones, not sutured.

I remember his eyes are gone. Donated. But the closed lids with their delicate lashes whisper against his face in the concave curvature of two small smiles. Warm tears drip from my chin onto his bare arm. I close my eyes and begin to search inside the dark recesses of my living body for a doorway. A lamplight. A path. Something—anything—to tell me which direction to go tearing after him.

"Where," I say, frantic now that I know what I truly want, "where did you go?"

Whether he was going off to the war in Iraq or to specialized training for his army job or to VA appointments at the hospital here in Minnesota, I accompanied him, always, as far I was allowed. This meant being left in a lot of waiting rooms, hallways, and parking lots. Behind roped-off areas and security gates. And now a funeral home. And Earth.

________

The waiting room at the VA hospital is an upper-level atrium with large skylights and plastic plants. It's easy to know if the sun is up or down, but not whether it's doing any good. Rows of sectional couches with thin, worn cushions make a semicircle around a monster console television that plays the Military Channel on mute. World War II tanks silently rumble down a rutted European road. This is what I remember from the last time I waited for my husband there, only a week before he died.

It was early enough to still be dark outside, and the large Plexiglas windows that lined the walls streamed the only light, a dim fluorescence from the adjoining hallways, where earlier I had seen Authorized Personnel Only lettered across a set of heavy steel doors. For a long time during the morning of his surgery, I sat and watched those hallways for hospital workers to push empty gurneys by, imagining the click of the wheels as they passed from one window frame to the next. [End Page 166]

Earlier, before I left him in his pre-op recliner, a surgical nurse issued him a tall brown paper sack with Jacobson scrawled in black marker across the front. She flicked her hand toward it as she turned to leave, closing the curtain behind her...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 164-176
Launched on MUSE
2019-07-31
Open Access
No
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