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Fiction

Arid

by Rebecca Donner

You sit in your cubicle on the 37th floor of a multinational pharmaceutical company, paging through a stack of medical journals. Each time you spot the name of a drug that the pharmaceutical company manufactures, you underline it, and stick a Post-It on the page. The pages will be photocopied and sent up to the 38th floor, where they will be processed and sent up to the 39th floor, where they will be processed further and sent off to the FDA, but you do not care much about how you figure into the whole sausage-works scheme of things. Your job is tedious, but you feel lucky, especially now, to have one that is in an air-conditioned place, and does not involve carnage. Or that much, anyway.

Your job has benefits. You have privacy, for example. You can shut your cubicle door when your mother calls from Cleveland, and sob with abandon when she tells you what has happened to your brother. Then, after you hang up, you can focus intently on the work at hand. You pride yourself on your efficiency, and have worked out a system: your left hand flips the pages of the medical journal, while your right hovers above, clenching the pen. Admittedly, the Post-It poses problems. With both hands occupied, you can’t figure out which one should be responsible for sticking it onto the page. And then there are the words, which are sticky in their own way. The trick is to scan your eyes over them, to ignore the gruesome details and just go on underlining and Post-It-ing, but this has become increasingly difficult. Terrible things happen to people. They take a pill, hoping to cure a debilitating ailment, but then the pill has side-effects, producing yet another debilitating ailment. A clot forms in a vein and a leg grows monstrous. Spots appear on cheeks, cheeks sprout hair, hair falls out in clumps. Hearts develop an arrhythmic tumpty-tum, or stop altogether.

Sometimes, when it is just too much, you must leave your desk and retreat to the staff kitchen for a drink of water. Along the way, you pass by the other cubicles, small and glassed-in, steamy with perspiration. Now and then someone snickers, lets out a mirthful “Hoo-ha!” You have not worked at the pharmaceutical company long enough to develop gallows humor, and you wonder how long it will take. How many hundreds of thousands of medical journal pages will you have to flip before a patient’s “painful, oozing pustules” will cause your lips to curl into a wry grin?

A 36-year-old man diagnosed with bipolar disaffective disorder was prescribed thiothixene, sertraline, and clonazepam. You draw a black line under sertraline and slap a Post-It on the page. Today, you are alternating the Post-It-Hand—right, left, right, left—to keep things interesting, and to evenly distribute the paper cuts. Your eyes flit past the next sentence and the next, making it halfway down the column before they rest on a picture of a mouth, open wide, above a caption (Fig 1: Hyperkeratosis of the filiform lingual papillae). There is something dark and fuzzy inside the mouth, and at first you think the ink is smeared, or that the photographer has jiggled the camera. You read on: The patient’s oral condition did not improve following vigorous brushing and the administration of tretinoin 0.025% gel. This is the first known case of sertraline-induced BHT (Black Hairy Tongue).

You gasp and push the journal aside. You make your way to the staff kitchen, fill a Dixie cup to the rim and drink, then fill it again. The thing to do is to stop letting things get to you. The thing to do is to close your cubicle door and call your husband. Your husband is a first-year resident at Columbia-Presbyterian, and he lavishes you with husbandly attention when he isn’t exhausted, which is, if you stop to think about it, pretty much all of the time. But stopping and thinking is what got you into trouble in the first place, so you dial his cell, pushing all thoughts out of your mind except for one.

“It was hairy!” you cry. “And black!”

“Can’t talk, hon,” he says, “I’ve got rounds in, like, two minutes.”

Then he hangs up. Later that evening, you are too frazzled to do anything except make microwave popcorn, stretch out on the futon couch that doubles as your bed and watch the news with the volume off. You try to relax, but you feel as though you are back at work, flipping through a medical journal: there are the glossy advertisements, and then there is the nitty-gritty. A commercial shows old people smiling widely as they play golf, dive into pools, heave grandchildren onto once-creaky hips, their rheumatoid arthritis miraculously cured by a pill taken twice-daily. Then the news comes on again, and a building is burning, tongues of fire lick at the walls. Soldiers march into the mouth of a tunnel, and you wonder if your brother (who is in a hospital somewhere overseas, according to your mother) will ever make it back to Cleveland.

It is past midnight when you awaken to the sound of your husband’s keys fidgeting in the dead bolt. You meet him at the door, and cover his face with kisses. He stretches his arms above his head and lets out a great, big yawn.

In the bathroom, he brushes his teeth while you gaze at the reflection of your tongue in the mirror.

“Do you see that?”

“What?”

“Right there,” you say, pointing, “the black thing. I think it’s a hair.”

He spits his foamy toothpaste-spit into the sink.

“Tongues don’t sprout hairs.”

“Oh yes they do,” you insist. “They absolutely do.”

Your brother’s last postcard is scotch-taped to the bulletin board above your desk. He is in the National Guard, and in the postcard he assures you that his tour of duty will be over soon. The postcard depicts a camel walking through the desert. Just one more month! Getting over the ‘hump’! He has written. There is an arrow pointing to the camel’s back, just in case you didn’t get it. Your brother, always the jokester. Your brother, so sweet and smart. But never school-smart. You got straight A’s in high school, while he barely scraped by with C’s. You went off to an East-Coast college, and he remained in Cleveland. You got your B.A., and he got promoted to Assistant Manager at Domino’s. You married, and he joined the National Guard. You landed a job at the multinational pharmaceutical company, and he got shipped off to a distant desert plain.

Now, the British Journal of Psychiatry is before you. You are reading about a 78-year-old woman with macular degeneration in both eyes who has reported seeing miniature camels wearing patchwork quilts marching across her bedroom ceiling. The patient was diagnosed with Charles Bonnet Syndrome and was prescribed cotherapy with an anti-seizure agent (gabapentin 100mg/bid) and an alpha-2 adrenergic agonist (clonidine 0.1mg/qd).

You underline “gabapentin,” Post-It the page, then head off to the staff kitchen. You drink a Dixie cup of water, your tenth this morning. You are parched, and feel as though you are a lone camel in a desert, the resources in your hump drained to nothing.

Getting over the ‘hump’!

Your brother sent that postcard before he stepped on a landmine, of course.

“What the hell are you doing?” your husband asks that evening, when he finds you in the bathtub, drinking straight from the running faucet. “I mean, we have cups,” he says, “at least you could use a cup.”

Your coworkers on the 37th floor of the pharmaceutical company are chummy, and call each other by nicknames. Bison is the leader of the pack, having been at the pharmaceutical company the longest. He plays guitar, and claims to have been the fourth Beastie Boy way back when, before they recorded “Pollywog Stew.” Bison often reeks of really good stinky pot.

Gazelle is a bottle-blonde, borderline anorexic from Houston who wants very, very much to break into show-business, specifically Broadway. She has long, lithe legs, and hums Kander and Ebb songs while she works, taking teensy-weensy sips from her Diet Coke.

Hound is a kick-dog of a person, mangy and pissed-off, with a Master’s in philosophy from Florida State. When a temp asks him if the medical journal he’s underlined and Post-It-ed is ready to be photocopied, he will bark, “Would you rush me if I were Hegel? I mean, would you?”

And then there is Pig. Pig is a forty-year-old man caught in the body of an eight-year-old. A very obese eight-year-old. Pig will ask you to pull his finger, at which point he farts. Pig likes to sing “Halitosis! Halitosis!” to the tune of Handel’s Messiah. Pig’s body is one huge jellyroll that quivers obscenely when he runs down the corridor, his arms spread out like airplane wings as he makes engine-sputtering noises with his spitty lips.

Nobody here on the 37th floor likes Pig.

When you look up from the Journal of Clinical Pathology, you see that Pig has his snout and tongue pressed against the cubicle glass. His cheeks are puffed out and his eyes are crossed. He thinks making such faces is very, very funny.

“Scram!” you say, and thankfully, he does. Your heart melts, for a moment, when you consider how unlovable he is. Then you see that he has left a gross saliva smear on your cubicle glass, and you mutter, “Pig.”

Your brother’s nickname for you is “Lil,” which is short for “Lily” and “Lil’ Sis.” Now he is in an overseas hospital, with bandaged stumps where his legs used to be.

The patient, though his legs were amputated, reported “itching” and “painful” sensations, and was subsequently diagnosed Phantom Limb Syndrome. The patient’s sensations can be attributed to brachial avulsion, a condition that has been demonstrated in phase-one rat studies.

You push the journal away. Your legs are numb and wobbly. There is a pawing at your cubicle door. Gazelle glides in, clutching her Diet Coke.

“Hey, can I borrow some Post-Its? The supply closet’s been ransacked.” She wrinkles her pert little nose. “Pig’s probably hogging them all.”

You fall to the floor, thinking only of a Dixie cup, a Dixie cup of water. Your legs are useless now, and you wonder how you can manage to propel yourself to the staff kitchen.

“Gazelle,” you say, shakily, “I can’t feel my legs.”

She takes a teensy-weensy sip of her Diet Coke. “Really?”

“I don’t think I can walk.”

Gazelle says, “Woah, weird.” She blinks her long lashes once, twice, thrice, then high-tails it out of there.

Everything, you observe, seems to be slipping into everything else. You are now flat on your stomach, heading for the staff kitchen for that drink of water you are so desperate for. Snakelike, you slither past Bison and Hound, who are outside their cubicles, kicking their legs in the air, snorting and howling with pleasure. Hound has the Journal of Clinical Pathology clenched in his paw.

“Oh, shit, man,” Bison cries, “that’s fucking classic!”

“What’s so funny?” you hiss. Yesterday, they were in hysterics about a patient’s Testicular Rupture. The day before, about someone’s Colonic Distress.

Hound shows you the case report, which concerns a 62-year-old farmer in Argentina who developed an amorous attraction to a boar. The title is Zoophilia: a Case of Traumatic Injury to the Rectum.

“Ha! The hazards of husbandry!” Hound barks.

Bison gives Hound a high-five, and they collapse into another fit of uproarious laughter.

“Puerile beasts,” your husband quips, when you recount the episode in bed that night. Then he yawns. “Hon, I’ve got rounds at six, can you set the alarm for five?”

You slither over to the alarm clock, depress the button with your forked tongue, slip under the covers. You drink long and deep from the vat of water you’ve positioned by your pillow. You lay your head on your husband’s broad, naked chest.

“I am,” you sigh, “a hairy-tongued, camel-humped snake.”

Now it is his turn to sigh. “There are medications for this.”

“No there aren’t,” you say. “I really don’t think so.”

“Will you think about it, please? An antidepressant? I mean, this is getting ridiculous.”

He falls asleep before you can respond. When he starts snoring, you close your eyes and will yourself to drift away, away from this bed, this man, this marriage. In your dreams, a menacing hawk swoops down and carries your brother off to a distant desert plain. And there is no good reason for your brother to be there, on that desert plain, not a single fucking one.



Rebecca Donner' photo

Rebecca Donner is the author of the novel Sunset Terrace, and the editor of the story collection On The Rocks: The KGB Bar Fiction Anthology. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Bookforum, The Believer, People Magazine, and Post Road. She has taught creative writing at Wesleyan, Barnard and Cooper Union, and is presently working on her second novel. Visit Rebecca at RebeccaDonner.com.

Sunset Terrace: A Novel by Rebecca Donner