MEDIEVAL MUSIC FROM MIDWESTERN UNIVERSITIES
By Ted Morrissey
An ER nurse called Frannie’s name, and she and Beth walked through the extrawide double doors which then swung closed behind them. He half dozed in the chair. The implanted chip seemed to vibrate beneath his skin but as he became more awake the vibrations ceased. For a time he drifted between the dream of Elizabeth Winters’s words humming subcutaneously and the more wakeful sense that they were not. He recalled an electric train set from his boyhood and using the transformer to make the locomotive go faster or slower, and the sensation with the teeming chip was like that—not on or off, rather a rapid rise or fall.
He checked his phone and its battery was on the brink of dying. He hadn’t charged it for hours and of course didn’t have a charger with him. Maybe Beth did, squirreled in her ample purse, more the size of an overnight bag. Their phones were similar. He sent a last text to Beth—phone nearly dead—and turned it off to conserve what little life he had left.
He dozed for a bit longer in the chair, his head resting against the hard wall, then came around enough to pay attention to others in the emergency room waiting area. It was just as full as when they’d arrived. A few new grimacing faces were mixed in, suggesting a steady supply of patients on this wintry night. It could be hours before Frannie is discharged—x-rays, calling in an orthopedic, setting the bone, making the cast, probably meds to pick up somewhere. He wished that he had Beth’s journal of haiku which was still in her purse, now securely behind the ER’s giant doors. There were magazines scattered here and there, and sections of newspapers in disarray. No one that he could see was reading, except perhaps a few people whose faces were bent toward their phone screens. Anyone who wasn’t content to be gazing inward at their own misery was staring blankly at one of the three flat-screen TVs angled against the ceiling, carefully positioned for optimum viewing. They each displayed a different channel—the local Fox affiliate, the Weather Channel, and The Waltons on TV Land—all muted but with blocky closed captioning moving in black boxes over their highly defined images. He recalled seeing the episode of The Waltons when he was a child: a snowstorm interrupts the family’s Christmas plans.
The Waltons TV was nearest so he spent a few minutes reading the dialogue and the stark scene descriptions—sound of truck engine, howling wind, woman crying. He thought of typing the descriptions on his phone’s memo pad to create a found poem then remembered his phone was convalescing, its battery near death. After a while he realized there was something not right with the closed-captioning boxes. At first he thought they were simply out of sync with the action on the screen. Then he realized it wasn’t the correct captioning at all; it must’ve been for a different episode, perhaps even a different show. Weirdly, much of the time the captioning made some sort of sense with the scene being played out on the screen. He remembered the episode well enough to determine that at times the erroneous text revealed something profound via its accidental irony: something more profound than the original scriptwriters were able to capture in the first place.
A man’s voice at the in-take desk attracted his attention. He was too far away to comprehend his words, but the tone and rhythm of his voice seemed familiar. He wore a blue parka, the kind with the hood trimmed in faux fur, except the hood was down revealing a balding head of gray hair. The man shifted his position at the desk and he recognized him in profile: Marian Tate’s companion, the fellow with the ice bucket.
With that realization the scene came more fully into focus. Marian Tate was there too, standing behind a woman in a wheelchair. The woman kept the hood of her red coat over her head, blocking a view of her face, and a blanket covered her from chin to ankle.
After another minute or two of discreet conversation with the ER receptionist, the big double doors swung open and Marian Tate wheeled the red-hooded patient in for examination. The man followed, and the doors swung shut. It seemed they had bypassed the normal in-take procedure, perhaps receiving VIP treatment. He turned on his phone. By the time everything initialized he only had four percent battery life. He typed an abbreviated message to Beth—Marian Tate et al in er examining—and pressed send just as his phone faded completely. He didn’t know if the message was sent.
He was thinking that he needed to go beyond the double-doors and see Beth and Frannie when the lights blinked once . . . twice . . . then went out altogether.
A hush came over the entire waiting area—the entire hospital it seemed—for the moment or two before the emergency lights came to life and provided some illumination; and with the dim light returned the din, but intensified. A toddler or two who’d only been moaning in discomfort before were now sobbing with anxiety. Whispered discussions were replaced by lively debate. The receptionist at the in-take desk stood and assured everyone all was well—it would no doubt be a brief interruption in power. Subtext: stay calm, be quiet. People’s phone screens glowed phantasmally here and there.
He glanced at the dark gray TV screen: the Waltons and their snowcovered mountain were gone for good. He took a final look at his phone’s equally lifeless screen before putting it in his coat pocket. Red lights blinked above the various exits. He wondered if Beth received his message about Marian Tate, and if so what she might be able to do with the information, other than extend the antennae of her vigilance.
Suddenly he was feeling isolated, cutoff. Something significant was unfolding beyond the ER doors, and he was barred from it, banished here among the strange lights and enlivened strangers. His hip was bothering him, itching and burning where the chip had been inserted. Could there be some sort of inflammation or allergic reaction? He’d never been prone to allergies or dermal irritations, no eczema nor rashes, not even acne as a teenager.
What if it was Elizabeth Winters on the other side of the emergency-room doors, and the words sensed the nearness of their author, of their mother, and they were trying to return to her? They wanted to claw their way through the confinement of his skin and fly to their source, migratory birds returning to their hatchling grounds.
He rubbed his temples. It was a ridiculous thought, one which may have grown from the shattered remnants of an old Twilight Zone episode, buried in the black soil of his imagination.
He stopped rubbing his temples and turned to a window, where he was met by his own ghostly reflection. Sensing his isolation profoundly, he stepped close to the familiar image and pretended to be watching the snow scene beyond himself, but in truth he studied his oddly lit visitant—familiar, yes, but something strange too. He blinked at the visitant’s unshaven reflection and it was in the eyes where the strangeness chiefly resided. There was something penetrating about the other’s pupils—and instantly he knew the meaning of the word tattooed on his shoulder: it was just these sort of pupils Elizabeth Winters had described. He was certain of it by a means he couldn’t begin to explain.
He turned toward the voice with the Scandinavian accent.
I thought that was you. What are you doing here?
It took him a moment to recognize Too, who was still wearing his colorful stocking cap as he stuffed his gloves into the side pockets of his puffy jacket.
Frannie—Germanness—slipped on some ice when we got back to the hotel. Looks like she may’ve broken her arm.
Oh no. Too pulled off his cap and immediately began smoothing his thinning blond hair. It is an epidemic. He stepped aside and motioned toward a man in a wheelchair some distance away.
In the subdued emergency lighting he was able to discern it was Deliberately. One leg was propped up by the chair’s footrest. That foot was absent its tasseled loafer.
Possibly a fractured foot, said the Norwegian.
Deliberately was filling out information on a hospital tablet. The Aussie, Here, sat in a waiting-room chair next to him. The Aussie waved hello.
How long has the grid been down? asked Too.
Just a few minutes. I’m not sure. I was lost in thought or maybe half asleep.
It must have gone down just before we arrived.
You’ll never guess who else is here. He paused. Marian Tate and her gentleman companion and presumably whoever else was in the hotel room. They were whisked to an examining room VIP-style. Then the power went out.
Too stared at the shut ER doors as if attempting to divine something beyond their unwelcoming façade. After a few seconds he looked at Deliberately, who was just finishing his in-take information. We must reconnoiter, said Too. That is the word, yes? In there. He nodded at the doors.
I think so. I’m stuck out here. They only allow one visitor per patient in the ER, unless immediate family.
You must accompany our friend Deliberately then. You have seen the fox. You know who you are chasing.
That casts me as a greater expert than I am, to be sure—but if Deliberately doesn’t mind I’ll give it a go.
Too required a moment to process the slang before taking him to Deliberately and the Aussie, and explaining the situation. Deliberately, it seemed, was in too much pain to care about the particulars. Deliberately was also complaining of a racing heart and shortness of breath—probably the pain’s adrenaline surge—but the symptoms moved him to the top of the triage list, so momentarily they were pushing Deliberately through the ER doors; he hurried on their heels, and wheels.
The lighting was better but still deeply shadowed in the hallway paths between examination cubicles, which were mainly curtains on U-shaped tracks in the ceiling. The nurse or attendant, whatever he was, in maroon scrubs, wheeled Deliberately to a bed and helped him into it, asking him a litany of questions. Other bescrubbed staff were coming and going disrobing Deliberately, taking his vital sign numbers, connecting him to machines, and entering information on their tablets. They seemed unaffected by the power outage. States of emergency, varying only by degree, must have been their natural habitat so the small matter of an interruption of power appeared to barely register.
He didn’t want to be an uncaring friend to Deliberately, whom he barely knew, but he was eager to find Beth and to snoop around for Marian Tate’s party, even though hospital policy almost certainly discouraged snooping around in the ER. Deliberately’s cubicle was quickly crowded and chaotic—at the moment they were more concerned about a coronary event than a broken leg.
I’m going to slip out for a second, he said. Four to six is a crowd. The harried staff seemed to approve of his departure. Beyond the curtain he asked someone speeding past where there was a restroom he could use, and she motioned around the central nurse’s station, to the right. On your left. The young woman in light-blue scrubs had an African-sounding accent.
His request had begun as a ploy to move around the examining area unattended, but he decided the restroom wasn’t a bad idea. Walking the frenetic path, he attempted to peek, discreetly, into the various cubicles, ones which had curtains that were withdrawn a foot or two. The vibes emanating from the spaces varied from tense to traumatic, from amused to annoyed. The waves of disparate emotions seemed nearly to alter the air through which he moved, its temperature and density, even its scent, although beneath it all was the tartness of antiseptic, and fragile, if not feigned, optimism.
An impression formed. The emergency room was a living organism, but in spite of the medical (and thus biological) subtext, his sense was that the body-ER was driven by personal narratives, not the illnesses and injuries of the patients interacting with the knowledge and skillsets of the staff; rather, the stories of how the people needing attention came to be there at that given moment, combined with the stories of their friends and family who accompanied them, intersected with the stories of the doctors and nurses and other staff: life choices and career paths which brought them to the ER on this overnight shift after a late-season snowstorm, one whose narrative included an electrical blackout. All of these texts tangled and mutated—collided and replicated, reversed and revised, and at times vanished—to make the tale of his being here, now.
He found the bathroom. When he was finished, he decided to take the long way back to Deliberately’s exam cubicle. He assumed the ER formed a large square or rectangle, so if he kept walking, turning at right angles, he’d manage his way back and in the process cover the entire room, surreptitiously examining each exam space, as much as he could see at least. He was pricked by a twinge of hesitation: such surveillance felt like a violation . . . a violation of privacy certainly but more than that: a violation of someone else’s pain, almost an act of sadism, to peer hopefully into a stranger’s personal upheaval, perhaps even tragedy. To poke around in their fear and sadness, even if only for an instant.
He was reminded of Katie’s objections to the Logos project. Mainly she objected because she felt Elizabeth Winters was more grandstander than serious artist, but there was also a sense of violation: an author offers up their life, their psyche, for the reader to enter if they so choose—at least, an author worth her salt—but the agreement is that it’s a one-way probing: the author is not allowed to probe right back, Katie had said (no, Katie had argued—it was an argument they had had). He disagreed. An author—a masterful author like Elizabeth Winters—is always probing the reader, getting in their head, under their skin, colonizing their psyche and planting their flag. With Logos, Elizabeth Winters was just doing it all more overtly, more honestly even—in fact, educating us about the process.
They’d been cleaning the dinner dishes while having the argument: Katie washing, he drying. He’d become so animated in his defense he was punctuating his points by absentmindedly jabbing with a meat fork, not into Katie of course, but generally at her. For emphasis.
He couldn’t see into all the examination cubicles, as some had curtains which were tightly drawn. It seemed likely that Marian Tate’s party would try particularly hard to avoid prying eyes, especially if Elizabeth Winters, risen from the dead, was with them, if she was the one requiring medical attention. He didn’t believe that Elizabeth Winters was alive, but, still, the fact he was willing to entertain the possibility, even as a remote one, suggested he thought the author could propagate such a hoax, and thus supported Katie’s contention that Elizabeth Winters was more entertainer than artist, more showwoman than sage. No, he reminded himself, that issue aside, there remained the beauty of her prose, as crystalline and as piercing as icicles plummeting from an unseen height. No matter whether one viewed Elizabeth Winters as risk-taking or attention-seeking, there remained the work.
He turned. Beth was in the hall, her hand still on the curtain of the cubicle from which she’d emerged. Frannie’s cubicle apparently.
I came back here with Deliberately, seems to have broken his leg in a fall.
Those loafers. The Swede brought him in. The Norwegian: Too.
They took Frannie to radiology.
But that’s not all. Did you get my text? My phone was dying.
No, but the reception in here is terrible to the point of nonexistent.
He had Beth retreat into the exam cubicle, and he closed the curtain behind them. The lighting was subdued, even more so than the rest of the ER, with its redundantly named emergency lighting. The dimness made him recall how long it’d been since he slept. Marian Tate is here, she and two companions. The one from the room, apparently, came in a wheelchair but I wasn’t able to get a good look before they were spirited beyond the ER doors, very-important-person-esque.
Definitely a woman though?
Yes, well, ninety-nine percent yes. I’ve been skulking about since Deliberately arrived and presented an opportunity to be admitted to the sacred chamber.
Have you checked all the exam bays?
Exam bays—huh. I think of them as cubicles. I like exam bays better. Sounds more sci-fi. But, yes, pretty much—the ones I could peep into.
Ours was open just enough for me to spy you passing by. It was probably too dark for you to see in.
Definitely haven’t been able to check them all. Maybe only half.
The lighting just then improved, and a barely audible hum returned: the power had been restored.
That’s better, said Beth. Maybe we should both check on poor, ill-shod Deliberately. She batted her eyebrows conspiratorially.
Indeed. Four eyes are better than two—well, not four-eyes. How about, two sets are better than one . . . set.
Please, gentlemen first. Beth held open the curtain.
The light was nearly dazzling in its revived brightness. It seemed to intensify all of his senses, and for the first time he noted the rubbery squeak of the rushing ER personnel through the white-white halls. The chill in the air bit at his bare cheeks. So, too, the antiseptic smell like lemon-infused chlorine, which had been there all along, suddenly catapulted to the foreground, the effect practically vertiginous. His impulse was to reach out and take Beth’s arm, for added support, but he resisted and focused on keeping his balance until the disoriented feeling passed. Meanwhile they’d managed to reach Deliberately’s bay without any sign of Martian Tate and company.
They checked on their fellow Logos, who was now attached to several machines, including a cardiac monitor. Deliberately’s heartbeat spiked and receded across the screen in a regular dual rhythm. He was alone and his eyes were shut, dozing it seemed. He was in a hospital gown, and his leg was stabilized by a plastic splint. He looked thin and frail beneath the ER’s blanket. His round face had shed its puffiness. He seemed to have aged. They left him to his peacefulness and returned to Frannie’s vacant bay, where at least they could talk. Before leaving Deliberately he had glanced at the heart monitor, and for a brief instant the rising and falling line seemed to form the word pupils— in a cursively blocky script. He’d blinked and the pulse returned to its normal pattern. He didn’t say anything to Beth, deciding it was evidence of his need for sleep.
They were almost at Frannie’s bay when the door of the restroom he had used earlier opened and Marian Tate’s companion emerged. He wasn’t paying attention and nearly ran into them. They all paused for a moment to avoid a collision, staring back and forth. The fellow was fairly tall, having half a head on Chris, and likely in his fifties, with white in his dark beard and thinning hair. Bloodshot eyes peered from behind black-rimmed glasses—he looked a bit like Allen Ginsberg at middle age, but better groomed and tailored. He wore an expensive-looking gray suit and a silk tie with a diamond pattern, except every piece was disheveled and wrinkled. He presented the picture of a professional who’d had an unending day of travel and terrible shocks.
Chris felt the pang of guilt again, at disturbing the man’s privacy by this more or less accidental encounter. Perhaps the disturbance of privacy had to do with how carefully he considered him, seeking more details than one would normally and naturally do in a typical chance meeting. The fellow was at a disadvantage knowing nothing of his and Beth’s intentions.
They each said their excuse-mes and continued on their way. After a moment he and Beth turned to see where the man was going, but the ER was suddenly bedlam, with medical staff moving every which way. One bearded nurse spoke to them as he rushed past, telling them they needed to return to their patient and stay put. We’re about to be slammed, he said over this departing shoulder. In the confusion they lost sight of Marian Tate’s frayed friend. They did as they were instructed and retreated into Frannie’s nearby spot, still vacant.
Well, we know they’re around here somewhere, said Beth, leaning against the empty bed.
Yes, somewhere in this tightly managed chaos. He was thinking about seeing his Logos word on the monitor. He rubbed his shoulder and the tattoo beneath his sweater. He had the odd notion that pupils— had escaped his skin and was on the loose in the ER, possibly trying to escape the hospital altogether. He had an impulse to remove his sweater and t-shirt to make sure pupils— was still inked into his skin. He also found himself wondering where Beth’s tattoo was on her body: her shoulder, too? her hip? thigh? He sat in the only chair and willed himself to cease his speculation on the whereabouts of Beth Winterberry’s radiant tattoo, except to wonder for a moment if it was somehow actually radiant.
You look exhausted, said Beth.
I think the Jameson and everything else have caught up with me.
You should take a siesta in Frannie’s bed. In a minute I’ll go check on Mr. Practical Shoes, poor guy.
You’ve talked me into it. I think I’ve started to dream on my feet.
It’s no wonder. It’s almost two in the morning.
How are you still going strong?
I’m a night owl. My second-wind kicked in about midnight. Even so, I wouldn’t describe it as going strong, just going.
They traded places, and he stretched out on the hospital bed. It felt too good to lie down to fret over its also feeling a little awkward. There was a white blanket on the bed. He didn’t get under it exactly but pulled part of it over his chest and shoulders.
At first he thought he would feel too strange to sleep, plus there was the commotion in the hall, just on the other side of the half-drawn curtain, but he slipped off within seconds. Instantly, it seemed, he dreamed of a many-roomed house, every room empty as if the occupants had moved out. The house, with its echoing wood floors, was unfamiliar. Certainly he had never lived in such a large, rambling house. He walked into a room painted light green, the color of a fancy mint at a wedding reception. He was admiring the pleasant color when he noticed a dark smudge on the far wall. He went to see what it was, possibly to wipe it clean. As he came closer, the smudge took the form of a word—closer still, his word, pupils— —as if written on the wall in indelible black ink. Who would do such a thing? Who would mar such a perfectly painted wall? He was still pondering the question when he walked into the adjoining room, this one painted in a glacial blue, and on the wall was another black mark—his word, he knew—larger, more noticeable. He confirmed his suspicion before moving to the next room, of saffron hue, where pupils— was larger still. He stepped more quickly to the next, mild lilac, larger yet. Fog, cream, sand, the palest pink . . . growing, growing . . . until his word filled a wall, the understated umber framed in the heavy black of the p’s’ rounded heads, and brimming to the rim of the u’s chaliced vessel, and surrounding the i’s island dot like a perfect murky swamp. A sudden light distracted him from the word. Shielding his eyes, he walked toward the next room (it was a never-ending series of rooms). A figure stood in the middle of the space emitting a brilliant white light, a feminine figure, radiating the glow that enveloped him—
Beth was speaking to him. The light in the exam bay had been turned up. He squinted against its harshness and also against the pervasive disorientation. Frannie is back, Beth was saying. We need to take her to the hotel. I Ubered us a ride.
Frannie sat in a wheelchair, her arm in a cast and a sling. Her sunburst parka was over her legs. He thought for a second she’d broken a leg too, then recalled that was Deliberately.
What about Deliberately? he asked sitting upright and pulling himself together.
He’s going to be awhile. Too and Here are staying with him.
Frannie appeared to be dozing in her wheelchair.
They gave her something for the pain, said Beth, plus I’m sure she’s exhausted.
You must be most of all. Sorry I checked out for a while.
It’s o.k. I wrote a couple of poems, well, first drafts at least. She patted her large purse. They may be awful. I’ll see what they look like after some rest. The Uber chick should be here any minute.
I think the uber chick is already here. He put on his coat and got ready to push Frannie’s chair.
Got her all right? asked a nurse in the hall, where Frannie was parked. The nurse looked frazzled.
Yeah, thanks. He released Frannie’s brakes and got the chair rolling.
They’re having a night too, said Beth quietly. Several gunshot victims came in all at once. That’s what all the running around was about before. It’s been pandemonium for the last couple of hours.
Holy cow. Is that how long I was out?
You clearly needed it. Looking forward to some out time myself.
I bet. What about Marian Tate et al.?
Don’t know. I lost track of them. They may still be here somewhere.
A nurse at the station pressed a button and the ER doors swung open. Be safe! called the nurse. He and Beth smiled their farewells and pushed Frannie into the waiting area. Outside, he saw, it was still fully nighttime, still a couple of hours until dawn. There was of course the city’s electric glow, which reflected in its artificiality off the pure white of the snow.
About the Author:
Ted Morrissey is the author of six works of fiction, including Crowsong for the Stricken, Weeping with an Ancient God (a Chicago Book Review Best Book of 2015), and the forthcoming Mrs Saville. His stories and novel excerpts have appeared in more than fifty publications, among them Glimmer Train, PANK, ink&coda, Adelaide, and Southern Humanities Review. A Ph.D. in English studies, he’s a lecturer in Lindenwood University’s MFA in Writing program. He and his wife live near Springfield, Illinois, where they direct Twelve Winters Press and its imprints.