Solid Gas

by Willie Smith


“When it starts to hurt, and you feel you need more gas... raise a finger. When you drop it... we’ll know you’ve had enough... for a while. Sometimes an extraction like this can get sticky. Don’t be afraid to lift that finger, and let us know you’re experiencing pain. Breathe through the nose. That way you’ll inhale anaesthetic through the mask. And don’t worry about blacking out. When you do, your finger will go down, and we’ll switch off the gas.

“In any event, the autonomic nervous system will take over. You’ll automatically start breathing through the mouth. Nancy here, and myself, will both be keeping close tabs on the gas, and monitoring your breathing, while we work on the extraction. Gas is safe, effective, and there’s no hangover. But don’t be surprised if maybe you fall asleep, and have a funny dream. When that happens, and you come out of it... lift up that finger, and let us know you need more gas... OK?”

“Ung... guluck,” I said. Meaning fine, yeah, sure... go ahead, get it over with. My jaw was wedged open. A rubber dam snapped tight. Other gizmos, pins, needles and crap jammed into my gums, teeth, tongue, lips. I was jacked up, like an astronaut awaiting ignition.

They put their fingers in my mouth. Mumbled to each other in code. A tool scrunched against my molar. I took several deep breaths. Through the nose. Counting carefully. When I got to the third... or maybe the fifth... or the ninth,

I was knocking on Peter’s door. Peter was inside practicing. I could hear him. Scales, scales... up and down three, four, five major scales. The door was unlocked. I let myself in.

“Hey, man, how are you?” he said. “I’ll be with you in a sec,” then went back to blowing sax.

Told him I had to talk. It was important. He did honks and squeals, then bizarre Dorian licks. Couldn’t he practice later? It was important. I yanked the sax out of his mouth. I had to talk now. To emphasize my point, I raised a finger.

“OK, man, just a sec.” Peter slipped out of the sax, headed into the kitchen. “C’mon out here. I gotta pull apart this pullet.”

As I entered the kitchen, Peter dangled by the wings a Safeway chicken.

“Charlie Chicken!” he menaced, swinging the cadaver. “Eight minutes in the microwave and he’s ours! I get the breast... but first we skin Charlie.”

He banged the chicken down on the cutting board. He slipped fingers between skin and meat. He ripped back a fold.

Looking on, I remembered a previous lecture by Peter on the poisonous nature of chicken skin. Environmental toxins concentrated in the pullet’s outermost organ.

“So you came over to talk about a dream?”

I told him I hadn’t said a thing; yet. But, yeah, it concerned a dream.

“You always come by to talk dreams. Not that I mind. Sometimes I find them sick, crazy or exquisitely dirty. Would you hand me that knife? After I peel back the breast to the skin knotted where thigh meets drumstick, I need to pinch it down with a knife... get some leverage... you tend to forget I live here. Until you have a nightmare you can’t handle. Then you bust in on me. Usually when I’m on the verge of discovering a fantastic riff... no, no... not a fork, I asked for a knife... I always use a knife on a distal, you know that, Nancy...”

I heard and felt a crack in my molar. Like a rifle crack. But hit by the bullet, heard the shot simultaneously. Jerked my finger up. To let him know I was friendly.

“We got a live one here, Bill... that’s right, breathe deep... through the nose. Shouldn’t be more than a minute... we’ll have it all done. Nancy, would you hand me a number eighteen pick? No... that’s a nineteen... get another xylocaine ready.”

My dream was of being a lobster in one of those tanks in the front window of Lion O’Reilley’s. A rubber-gloved hand dove in. My number was up. I was destined for dinner. Scuttling onto my back, riding the disturbance the invading hand created... managed to avoid the grab. The digits instead clamped around Elizabeth, my wife. She appealed to me with her frazzled feelers, as she left our watery slum for the world of air, steam and unspeakable appetites.

I was worse than helpless. Guilty, in fact. Since my swerve led directly to her capture.

Turned red with grief. Crouched in an algae corner. Disgracefully hung my feelers.

That panel of pearly buttons down my chest? Bubbles? Nope... buttons. A tube. Clutched a couple legs to my thorax and fiddled. Holy cow — my guts were a tv!

Situation comedy? Didn’t recognize the characters... at first... two guys out in a kitchen... chatting. Charlie Chicken flayed. Cold and pink. The familiar cutting board. Fluorescent lights. Midday. Peter reaching inside Charlie, groping for something, saying, “Now I suppose you want me to tell you what the dream was about, right?”

I cleared my throat. Raised a finger. Mentioned that, yeah, that’s the idea.

“The problem is, you don’t understand the process. Here, hold on a sec.” Peter grunted, squinted, leaned back and pulled a waxpaper sack of half-thawed chicken guts out of Charlie’s thoracic cavity. “Do you realize what the sixth sense is?” He flopped the sack into the sink, where its brownpink contents leaked over the porcelain. “I don’t mean balance or pressure or temperature... whatever other newfangled subtlety tomorrow’s science turns up... I mean number six in the sense of the one we possess in addition to the classical five of touch, taste, smell, hear, see. Do you know what that is?”

Said I didn’t know. While my wife scalded to death on another plane. I had no idea what he was talking about. I simply wanted my nightmare explained. So I’d know where to place the guilt.

Why does he paint it on so thick? Why the bullshit? Why not just spit it out?

“And tell me, Bill,” Peter slammed the chicken into the microwave, set the timer at 8. “Exactly how is it that you experience a dream?”

Confessed ignorance. Get to the point, dammit!

“Nancy, this is one of the nastiest... I mean, this is a real shark! I’ve never seen such a live one. Roots must be wrapped around the jaw. Give out with a little more gas there, huh?”

I stared into the snout of my lobster wife. She said, “Experiencing a touch of pain? That’s right, keep that finger up... breathe deep. Only be a sec... we’ll have the last of it out. Splintered on us, Bill. We’re going to have to dig a little deeper than we thought. All be over in a minute... hand me a number five pick, wouldja, Nance? When you run up against a shark like this, it pays to use the five...”

That didn’t seem to have anything to do with me. Drooped my feelers back to the tv where my belly had been.

Peter was rubbing greasy fingers on his apron. Snuffling. Eying the onions in a basket hanging from the spackled ceiling. Saying, “You remember it. Otherwise you’d never realize you had one. Oh sure... you envision it, have a feel for it, leaves a taste in your mouth... all that. But only through the sense of memory. When you ‘see’ a lobster, or a chicken, in a dream, it’s like observing the violinist bow a note, or the rifle crack. The audio is the attraction. You secondarily notice the image. Sound is the instigator. Assuming we’re talking smokeless powder and the violinist is no amateur. Reach me an onion, wouldja?”

I did, crying at the thought.

“Sensitive still, huh? Is that gas all the way up, Nance? Good... okay... breathe a little deeper, Bill. Go ahead... fill your lungs... that’s the stuff... gimme a wedge, the scraper... we’ll have a go with that number two pick.”

Peter was on a talk show demonstrating onion mincing. Out of the side of his mouth, he said, “As a matter of fact, until you wake up and remember it, you haven’t even had it. Follow? Every night, the average specimen undergoes three to five dreams. That includes you. You’re pretty average, Bill.

“You only come around once or twice a month. That means you ignore about ninety to one hundred fifty dreams per month. The other couple, the ones you come by to bug me about, you carry through to the final process — perceiving them through memory. For the unrecalled eighty-eight to one hundred forty-eight, it’s like the sound was off, and all night you watched a guy draw a bow across a violin, or stared off at a distant rifle. But the one or two you remember — it’s a brandnew Beethoven. Or you heard exactly where the shot came from that killed Kennedy. Jack, I mean.

“You mentioned your wife. The lobster an alien devoured — thanks to your cowardice? But, look, seriously, while we’re waiting for Charlie to get done... ever dream of experiencing climax?”

Somewhat taken aback, I muttered yeah, then corrected myself. Explaining I’d been titillated; come close; sometimes erect, or even wept a bit. But never rang the bell while in the dream. The spurt, when it came, when I had one of those messy affairs, always happening upon awakening and distinctly outside the confines of the dream.

A bell rang. The chicken came out. Peter dumped it on a platter and fell to carving.

“That’s because you can’t climax in a dream. Same way you can’t die. Contradiction in terms.” He severed legs from body; split the breast. “Because dreaming... like the orgasm... is a glimpse into death. A vignette you perceive through the sense of memory. None of the rules of time and space hold. Tape measures and tick-tocks are the ribbon and wrapping.

“When you come, or die, as Shakespeare loved to pun,” he cut the breast-halves from the back; then removed the pope’s nose; grinning with hunger and superior insight, “the wrapping and ribbon fall away — exposing the contents: emotion.The gift of pure feeling. Which is the soul of music. Rhythm outside time... sculpture without space, drama without persona... lyrical statuettes.

“So you never die; and never quite come. Because the final unravelling of the surprise is reserved for your seat on the plane of death. That’s why you had to sacrifice your wife. Would you hand me that algae sauce? And I think a little more alum and another bite-pad, Nance. A deep incision and curettage like this can cause profuse bleeding... rinse him out again, wouldja?”

Coming out of it, I worried about the onion. Sprinkle it raw on top of Charlie? Giggled at the image.

The long nosed, pointy chinned dentist came into focus. “OK, Bill...? Coming out of it?”

“Glung... gull,” I said. Meaning go back... I’ve got a chicken leg to eat.

He shot me up with a morphine substitute. Nancy, his foxy assistant, placed a codeine script in my fist. He told me the taste of blood would linger. But there wouldn’t be any pain. The narcotic and the codeine pills would see to that.

I was staggering out of the chair. Rolling down my sleeve. When asked if I’d arranged to have somebody come by and pick me up. Three days ago, upon first examining the abscess, he informed me I would be in no condition to make it home alone.

“Yes...,” thickly, around bite-pads, xylocaine, opiate rush. “Peter’s coming by.”

“Oh?” Nancy smiled, putting a hand on my wrist, guiding me to the door. “Who’s Peter?”

I stopped. Stood still. Couldn’t remember. “I don’t know.”

He was right about the blood. But he never mentioned the rubbery intuition of a sack of guts festering in a sink I could not remember where.

My wife picked me up. We drove home carefully in her bright red Toyota. The next three days I spent in front of the tv.


Copyright © 2005 by Willie Smith

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