Ferris Wayne McDaniel
One, two, three times today, Jett’s graduate students in Modern Odysseys have to finish a sentence for him. His stammering makes them impatient, he can see them shifting in their seats—until he slams his fist down on the lectern, shouting at them to stop doing that. Then he lets them go early, apologizing. They have nothing to say now. They don’t even look at him. They think he will be here forever like a golem in the way of their self-fulfillment. It’s lunch break between his Modern Odysseys and Representations of “Madness” in Literature lectures now anyway, except he can’t hold an appetite anymore. Instead, he has an appointment with the brain doctor, to get more bad news. First all he has to do is find his keys. First all he has to do is keep it together.
Leaving campus is when he first sees the group of black guys fishing at the man-made lakes there. They’d pulled their cars and trucks up real close to the water, he assumes, to keep the white family who owns the house behind them from coming out and fussing. Then he realizes, for all he knows, that maybe it’s actually a black family who lives there. Or even one of the fishermen. He shakes his head at himself, at these stupid unconscious prejudices, but once around the bend, his mind drifts to other issues: traffic, his new clumsiness, Iran sanctions, a new roof, Renata.
In the clinic parking lot, he reads an unnoticed text from Renata from an hour before. Her period started, it says. Another month without a baby, it says. Except it’s early, and she’s bled in her good panties. The ones she likes to make him strut around the bedroom in sometimes, with his boots on, too. She plays that song by Garth Brooks he can’t remember the name of now, and he dances for her. He used to at least. An elderly lady in a Buick honks her horn—again, and again. She’s pointing her finger at him sternly, yelling but muted behind the windshield, because he’s standing in the middle of the row. He steps out of her way, waves, and she gives him the middle finger at the side of her wizened face. He wonders what’s killing her, or if she’s just dying like normal people do. Ornery and old.
Jett texts Renata back that if the blood doesn’t come out, they can use the panties as a dish towel. Haha, she replies. Hahahahahahaha. Anyway, she wants to know what he’s having for lunch, the cogs of long-term monogamy’s conversations, and he lies like he never used to: a pastrami sandwich from that new deli.
Another month without a baby, he thinks. Another month, he thinks.
The doctor’s mouth is so dry Jett can’t quit staring at his lips. Nearly inaudible smacking, a little kitten’s tongue licking at your wrist. He asks the doctor if he could say it again, whatever it was he said, and Jett tries to slip the bad news into his pocket like a receipt of his life. On his way out, a nurse glances side-eyed when he plucks a purple lollipop from the small wicker basket on their counter, so he takes another. A man with nothing to lose, right? He eats them both at the same time, flooding his mouthy with sticky grape spit, and from the automatic front doors of the clinic to his car at the rear of the lot, he’s content.
But on the way back to campus, he thinks about options. He puts quotation marks around the word in his mind, capitalizes the O. His tongue is a deep, fat purple in the rear-view mirror. Thirty-four percent chance, the doctor had said while Jett focused on a stain on the left pocket of the man’s pants. Looked like mustard. And who is his doctor’s doctor? They put you under and bring you back. They could be tapdancing on your anesthetized meatsuit in the interim. Wake you up mid-procedure with your skullcap removed, all that gray matter kissing the air. Stick a sterile, gloved finger in the mushy-mushy and make you name images of dogs, houses, fruits on brightly colored cards, but if you say houses, fruits, dogs, then something has gone wrong. No more driving was one of the doctor’s prescriptions. No more driving? In case of seizures. And you can’t keep it from Renata any longer. Never should have.
He cancels Representations of “Madness” in Literature, emails the students with instructions instead to work on their papers due in a week. Still, he goes to the classroom and sits at the desk with the lights turned off. Someone somewhere is also sitting in a classroom right then learning how to cut the sick out of his head, as if the two of them are connected by a string you can see only if the light shines right. He leans back in the chair as far as he can without disturbing the balance, something his mother used to scold him about until he fell and split his head open. What’s it called—the occipital ridge. Maybe that’s when this all started.
A student slips in for another class, barely opening the door, and asks Jett if he’s a substitute. He shakes his head, and she asks what he’s doing then. Thinking, he tells her. A row of safety pins pierces the upper lip of her backpack. What about, she asks. Why there are certain rules to the physical world instead of other rules. That’s what he tells her. Then he leaves and walks for some time around the Quadrangle, the Parade Grounds, the street of shops adjacent to north campus. Counting the steps until his feet ache.
On his way home, he takes the route along the lake from earlier, looking for the men with their poles and tackleboxes and beer cans. It’s an hour later than when he usually leaves. The sun is yawning low in the sky by the time he reaches the water with his windows down, the smell of cut grass lingering in the air from someplace unseen. People jog in pairs. Cyclists weave between them. For their health. Well, he exercised his brain his entire life, and this is what he got.
The fishermen’s group has doubled in size, and he pulls over where the other cars are parked. Why not. He needs to make amends with himself about earlier, about what he assumed of them. Plus, it seems like he’s being duped, it’s so nice outside.
The men sit on buckets, on milk crates, on ice chests. Smoking cigarettes. Spitting in the water. Pointing at mysteries over in the distance. The sunset has thrown itself onto the lake in a beautiful, shimmering mess, like some wild sherbet he could eat if he was still a child and didn’t let the laws of physics stand in his way.
He rolls up his shirtsleeves and asks the men what they’re doing.
“Fishing,” they say.
“Right,” he says.
Could he sit and watch? Fishing reminds him of his grandfather who worked on an oil rig where a metal pipe fell on his head and broke his neck but didn’t kill him. Lucky was the word. The pancreas was what got him, eventually. But he was an alcoholic diabetic.
“It don’t bother us none,” the fishermen say.
One of them offers Jett a palmful of sunflower seeds that he shoves inside his cheek, the flesh quickly starting raw from the salt. The men cast their lines out as fast as they can, while the light still lends itself. They make jokes about the women they love or need to take to bed. They mention other names in their lives Jett doesn’t know but likes the sound of all the same. None of them are Renata, though. The three syllables of love in his sick head.
She’s home now. Already cooking dinner, she told him over the phone while he walked to his car from Allen Hall. Because she was hungry from working all day, and he was late.
“Go ahead, baby,” he insisted. “Don’t let me keep you from living your life.”
She thought he was giving her attitude, but he wasn’t. He was offering her good advice, better than she even knew yet. Meant it sure as those men told him they were fishing when he stupidly asked what they were doing.
Now he can’t grasp how he’s supposed to go home and release the words from his mouth and leave her to deal with them, how he’s supposed to find some fissure in her faultless movements and wedge in his misfortune. Our misfortune, she would say.
“Look like your best friend just died,” one of the men says.
“She might as well have,” Jett says. “I’ve got tumors in my brain.”
They turn their heads, watching him wrench fistfuls of grass from the earth.
“Hell,” they say.
“What’re y’all catching anyway?” he asks.
A bobber dips below the water’s surface, then emerges again. They put you under and bring you back.
“Catfish, hopefully,” they say. “Fucked up,” they say. “About the tumors,” they say.
“Yeah,” Jett says. “Sure as shit is.”
Then it’s time to go.
Ferris Wayne McDaniel works as a copywriter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and holds an MFA in fiction from the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. His work has appeared in DIAGRAM, Puerto del Sol, Bellevue Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, Hobart, and elsewhere. He is from a small, Cajun town in Evangeline Parish, Louisiana called Mamou.