by Oliver Brennan
Donna sits as upright as she can, helped by the hospital bed’s automatic lift. She stares at the television above the bed instead of me when she talks. I don’t hold her hand.
“Johannesburg,” she says, eyes glazed, ravaged from the final round of chemo that we both know isn’t going to keep her alive.
A talk show host rants about morality on the TV.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Johannesburg is her name?”
“It’s African.” She turns to me, leans her frail bones against the heavy hospital bed, and looks down at my shoes. The last of her hair is too thin. She didn’t shave her head. Wouldn’t. The few strands left cling to her skull. The circles under her shock-blue eyes are a darkness that don’t make sense, should never be a color taking up space on a human face. Her sunken cheeks look like death—the skeleton inside cutting its way out—sharp and hostile. She hands me a picture. It’s her on the beach in a wetsuit. She has a surfboard under her arm. A massive haystack rock in the distance behind her. The sky above is dark with clouds. She’s laughing. My dog, Harry, is in the background, tongue out, eyes wide—his form of laughing, I think.
I hand the picture back. Still, it’s difficult to look at her smiling, happy when we were together. When Harry was alive. She takes it, puts it against her heart, says, “The happiest day, maybe ever.” There’s life in her voice. Brief but alive.
I put my hands in my back pockets like some kid. I want to ask her why she left me, left Harry, if she was so happy.
“Was he African?” I ask.
She shakes her head, slow, tries to reach for her water. Fails. I help. She gets a sip, says, “It’s a place.” Her voice sounds like it’s seeping out from between her lips. She takes a deep breath and goes on. “What happened there. The change in South Africa. It made the world a better place.”
“Do you know where he is, the father?” My foot is killing me. I shift, foot to foot, relieving pressure.
Donna looks at the TV. “No,” she says. “Johannesburg, she can be that change, make this sad world a little better.”
Johannesburg had come quietly into the world one hour earlier. She was too small, not breathing right away. Surrounded by nurses who promised Donna the baby would be fine, which she is now—still quiet but sleeping next to Donna, breathing so we both can hear. I was there. The one Donna wanted in the room. It scared me to see what life could do, watching the reality between nothing and something coming true. Life.
It’s not why I didn’t want to be there. Donna broke me, cut me to the bone three years ago, almost to the day. Left me for the person who was supposed to be here, Johannesburg’s father. She left me without a word. Not even a note on the fridge we’d shared. I did love her, maybe still do. I might never stop. I got the call about six months back, her telling me she was pregnant, wanted me to be the guardian. When I asked why, and about the actual father, she told me she was dying. With a baby in her belly, she was dying. I had no choice.
All I ever wanted to do was live by the ocean and surf. Tough to do in Oregon, but if I could do that, I knew everything else, life, all the worries, the troubles, the bullshit, would fall into place. I thought I was getting close, could almost feel the pull of the tide at my doorstep.
“I’m not a dad,” I say, hopeful she will understand her daughter’s life might not be in the best hands.
“I don’t know if I want you to hold her yet.” Donna stares at the flashing screen. A commercial about how George W. Bush should get another term, would be the better president, booms against the walls in the tiny hospital room.
Johannesburg won’t breastfeed yet. Something to do with Donna’s medication and transference. My foot, though, Jesus, it’s getting bad. When the doctor comes back, I want to ask what he thinks it might be, but he’s a baby doctor not a foot doctor. I need a foot doctor. I’ll get one later. I’ll make a call when I get home. I have to get my phone hooked up again, but after that.
“Richard, I think I’m going to die next Monday.” Donna lifts her skeletal hand and reaches for her hospital-issue water bottle. Her lips part. A dry, white film tries to hold them together. She slurps the water. I stretch my eyes wide and look for a seat. She puts the water down on the rolling tray that fits over her bed and looks at me. “Don’t change her name after I die. Tell her about her father. Make sure she goes to a good school and has good friends. Don’t be like you were.”
“I didn’t know him, Donna. How can I tell her about him if I never knew him?”
“Richard.” A sharp weak voice thrown at me. “Make it up. You’re a writer. Make him good. Kind. Strong, you know?”
I look up at the TV. An ad for some car wash flashes a clip with a guy getting barreled by an overhead wave, probably Pipeline. Hawaii. “Will she sleep here with you for now?” I was itching to get to the coast. Get in the water. Taste the salt. Wash this away.
“Yeah.” She shifts. Her body gone to waste, muscle clinging to bone, under a thin gown washed and rewashed. Worn by hundreds of others. Maybe some of them died. Maybe some of them just got the exam and nothing was found.
I stand, too quick. The room spins. I grab the rail, my hand next to hers, almost touching. “I’m gonna head out then. Call me if you need anything,” I say.
She turns to me. A tired smile creases her face. I nod at the phone next to her bed then leave.
When the sun comes out in Portland, people get crazy. There’s a heavy haze from the heat. It happens here. Fumes smell, look, feel more intense. Breathing is claustrophobic. I never wanted to be in the city. Never thought I would be stuck inland, have to drive so far to the ocean. Never my plan.
Portland isn’t even a city. Not like San Francisco or New York, but it classifies, I guess, because I can feel it, the pulse. People packed together when it’s time to come home from work. Packed together when it’s time to go out for a drink. Lines building every year. Stores filling up. Tension. I feel it in my chest. A growing ball of rubber bands pushing out, trying to expand and contract like they are made to do, but a man-made experiment holds them down. Holds them together. I keep my windows up and the AC on. I hate the noise of the road.
Pulling out of Emmanuel Hospital and into the river of cars puts me into my fog. I think when I drive. Irresponsibly. Five accidents in three years. I never catch myself.
I’d move closer to the ocean if I could find work. I’d move to Southern California if I didn’t hate it. All the people. On a good day, when the swell is working, even when it isn’t, there are so many surfers out; from a distance the lineup looks like a thousand rats abandoning a sinking ship. Fights, splashing, crammed together in an otherwise open space.
I turn right on Sixtieth toward my house. Time is moving away from me, and I can’t stay the night at the beach. I have about five hours of sunlight left. I’ll drive back in the dark, which is fine with me. I like it better that way. Maybe I’ll get to see something I can’t see during the day. People have seen UFOs that way. I’d like that. I want to know this place is bigger than what I see. I think I’d know it when I saw it, the UFO. I won’t question myself when that happens. I’ll feel it. Things can happen here.
My house looms big and dark against the Portland sky. It faces west, so I can see downtown lights from my upstairs room, the only other room I live in besides the kitchen and the living room. All a mess. I’ve thought about getting someone to rent one of the other rooms but haven’t gotten around to it—not sure I want to. I’d have to clean and talk to them. Make sure everything in the house was fixed, working for them. Not worth the money.
I don’t go inside. I go to the garage.
It’s organized. Two racks against either wall hold four surfboards each. I only use two of the boards, mostly—the retro fish, a six-foot-two quad fin I call the Longboard Killer. Great for the small days when all the longboarders sit outside and take every wave. The other one is my all-arounder, a five-foot-ten quad fin. Surfable in anything from waist high to about a foot overhead. If the swell gets more than a foot overhead, I break out the six-foot-three round pin. It’s overkill for anything less than three feet overhead, but I’m comfortable on that board when the waves get big. I feel safe paddling that thing around when it’s frothing, cold, and unforgiving.
I like having the boards around me. Smell the wax, the resin. They feel good to me, like my actual home, its heart lives in this garage not in the house. I pull the chain above my head. A dim bulb illuminates what it can of the musty garage. I catch Harry’s bed in the corner. Still covered in his dirt and blood. I had laid him there before he finally died, and I had talked to him. Told him that he would be in my heart forever. That he was a good boy. Always was. Then his chest stopped moving and his tongue fell out. I could smell his bowels. I remember him feeling warm but thinking it strange because he was dead. It had been late at night when he had been hit by the car.
With no life to keep him warm, I kept him with me, next to me, until the morning when I took him to the Humane Society and had him cremated. I opted for the least expensive urn. Not because it was cheap or because the others were ugly, but because it was simple, elegant almost—white ceramic. Just fine for Harry. Next year, on the anniversary of his death, I’ll take him to our beach, paddle out, and spread his ashes. A place I can always visit him. Right now, he’s in my car, riding next to me wherever I go. When I’m home for the night, I bring him inside with me and keep his ashes next to me on my nightstand. Sometimes, in the morning, I bring him into the kitchen with me while I drink coffee and eat. I don’t care if it sounds nuts. It’s the only sane thing I do, I think.
I look at the clock in my car when I get to the beach. The digital numbers read six thirty. The sun sets after nine. Plenty of time for a late summer evening session on the Oregon coast. Besides, three hours in the cold water and the body starts to cramp, bones begin
The swell looks small from the parking lot. Two Labrador retrievers, black, and some guy with a thick beard and a dirty beanie walk along the rocks and driftwood in front of me. I like to see that. A heavy mist is settling down on us.
My wetsuit is still wet from my last session. It’s tough to keep something dry here. The cold, sticky reek of wet neoprene fills my mind.
I take the riptide out. It’s strong and runs along the rocks out toward the point, fast as a river. I love the rip. Makes it easy. I don’t have to paddle. Instead, I hold the nose of my board with both hands, float out to sea, and watch. Each wave peels in front of me. A longboarder catches a steep right.
The cold water smells of fish and dead seaweed. Houses and hotels sprawl up and down the shore. I feel sometimes like there is no movement in this water. Like it’s some thick, cold soup brewed up by Mother Nature. No fish jump. Nothing splashes. A seal here and there. If there is a splash, I’ll paddle in because all I can think is that the rent is due and the landlord, Mr. White, is up for a bite.
In the lineup, I’m the only guy on a shortboard, so I sit inside a bit. There are smiles here. Welcomes. All like me, I think, away from one life to be in another. Taken by the open sea.
A set builds against the horizon. I’m the last one to paddle up, so I wait it out. Two surfers on bright longboards—–one red and yellow, the other blue and white–take off on the same wave. They laugh. Friends. I’m in position for the next one.
I dig my tail in and paddle. Lifted, I pop up to my feet. The wave curls behind me and I push into a solid bottom turn. Scream up the face and meet the lip of the wave at the top. Snap. Throw a spray of water for the other surfers, the universe to see. Perfectly contorted, my lower body suspended as if watching what’s happening behind the wave, my upper body faces back down the wave to set up another bottom turn.
Ahead of me, the wave will section off, crumble, break. I can’t make it. I push for a quick turn. Pop up the face, hit the crumbling lip. I fly over the top of the wave. Hands at my sides, I smack into the water behind the breaking wave. I smile and head back over to the rip.
Locals walk the rocky path to the outer point. A spaniel, soaked with salt water, chases them. It drags a stick longer than its body and tries to bark. Seagulls circle in the mist.
Donna made it past Monday, but only by a week. The funeral was small. Short. It rained too hard for people to stay and grieve. Johannesburg’s father never showed. Donna left me a note with directions on living a good life along with the picture of her on the beach with Harry and the surfboard under her arm. I’d had Johannesburg for two days by then. I was lost.
Larry drove me home.
“Is she big? I mean, for a baby?” Larry, hands the size of oars and calloused as the barnacles below his boat, cradles Johannesburg against his thick, wool shirt.
“It’s raining,” I said. “Let’s bring her in.”
“Yeah. Right. Inside. Does she get colder faster and all that?” Larry clomps his feet on the old, wood floors behind me.
“She does, yeah. No hair. That’s why you see ’em wear hats all the time.” I look behind him at the dark blue stroller resting in the corner. Some kind of new furniture I’m not used to yet. Furniture with cupholders, wheels, straps, baskets.
“How are you gonna work?” Larry hands her to me. A bundle in a blanket. Soundless.
“Shit, man. I’m on day two here. Every night my heart starts beating out of my chest for what to do the next day, the next minute. Work? Fuck if I know. Donna left money. I can use it for now. Not all of it, but for now. Some of it. I’m gonna sell this place too. I think we’ll move out to the coast. Manzanita. Somewhere like that. I can get a cheap place out there ’cause of Jake.”
“Yeah. Jake. He still has that landscaping deal out there. He’ll know something.”
“I can get other work too. Out there. Lots of construction.” Johannesburg moves, eyes closed like the day she was born.
“Wild, man. Too wild.” Larry slumps into my old La-Z-Boy chair. It creaks against his girth. Clouds and rain filter the light coming in, sometimes making it seem darker than night.
“So, can Margie come and help out tomorrow?” I ask. Johannesburg moves again. A little cricket in my arms. She opens her mouth like a baby bird. Eyes still closed.
“Dunno,” Larry says. “You’re gonna have to call her. Talk with her about it. Work something out.” He pops the lever on the side of the chair. For a second, I think it might break.
“I just need like an hour, you know, to tell me what to do and what not to do. All that. You know?” My mouth is dry. Johannesburg squawks. “I gotta feed her. Will you get into the fridge and put a bottle in the pot? Water’s already in there, just turn the burner on medium.”
He leans his head to the side without lifting it. Looks me up and down. I look back. His beard is filling in. He smiles and pops up.
“This is definitely a trip, dude,” Larry says, walking to the kitchen.
I follow him. The fluorescent lights I hate but never replaced blast my eyes. I blink hard to adjust to them. Larry’s boots hit heavy on the kitchen floor. I still think of Harry every time I walk into this kitchen. Paws clomping on the linoleum. Rubbing up against me. Looking at the fridge. Wagging around in circles for me. Hard not to think of him.
Larry pulls the fridge door open, slides his hand in for a bottle, and spins around. “You can get this figured out, Rich. Me and Margie’ll help. We can all do it.” He looks away as if he’d never said what he just said. He puts the bottle into the old black pot and turns the dial of the stove to medium. “Turn your heat up in this house, Rich. Can’t be stingy about it now. Get it warmer in here.” He looks at the bundle in my arms. She stirs, squawks, sticks an arm out. “She needs it warm. You forget stuff like that.”
I bounce on my toes; I saw the nurses doing it before. Let Johannesburg feel weightless in my arms. Let her know the food is coming. “I do forget,” I say.
Larry lifts the left side of his mouth and shows some teeth. His smile says, “I’ll get Margie here tomorrow. We’ll get it figured out.” He walks up to me, gets close, kisses Johannesburg on the head, pats me on the shoulder, and leaves.
“Thanks,” I say. He waves the back of his hand at me.
Alone with Johannesburg scares the shit out of me. Light becomes brighter. Sounds louder. “Hold it together, man. Hold it together.” It feels like little balloons popping off in my head. Each one full and tight with little pockets of fear.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
The water pops and the bottle falls over.
I pull the bottle out. Burn my hand. I want to swear and scream because it hurts, but I’m trying to change. I test the warmth of the milk on my arm. It burns. Shit. I boiled it.
One more bottle left in the fridge.
I shuffle over to get it. Lean in to open the door and catch Johannesburg staring at me. “Hi,” I say.
She woke me up seven times last night. Not that I slept much anyway, because I was counting, listening for her chirps.
“Rich, what about the vaccinations? You have to get that done,” Margie says through a smile. I can’t tell if she’s concerned. Her teeth are perfect, but crooked. Her nose not defined, but also perfect; it was like they were made in a factory by Dr. Nose and Teeth. Her eyes, too big for her face, almost steal the stage from the nose and teeth. She’s big, too, like Larry. Heavy hands with a delicate touch reach out for my shoulder. She holds Johannesburg and rocks her.
“I was going to ask you about that. The doctor said to come in next week or something.” I lean into the doorframe with my back and rub it like a bear against a tree.
“Why don’t you see my friend down at the clinic? She’s a naturopath,” Margie says.
“Naturopath. A midwife.”
“She delivers babies without a hospital.” Margie looks down at Johannesburg, says, “She uses natural medicines instead of, you know, Western medicine.”
“There’s a difference?” I ask.
That smile again.
I crane my neck up and to the left, scratch my five-day beard, smile, and say, “I’ll try anything.”
She shrugs and tilts her head. Johannesburg sucks at the air. “She’ll be able to talk with you more about babies and care and the other medicines. Hers and what the hospitals use.”
“Will you go with me?” I ask.
“Sure,” she says.
“Healing Whole” is painted above a sun-orange door. It looks like something from the Oregon Country Fair, painted with flowers, mushrooms, and grass. Margie walks ahead of me, under the sign, through the sun-orange door, and into the gray and green house. Chairs, magazines about natural life, healthy life, and yoga are spread across a dark brown coffee table.
A door to my left creaks open. Two women speak.
“It’s fine. Yes. Yes,” one says.
“Thanks, China,” the other says.
The one not named China looks like an ad for the “active mom.” In a tracksuit and bright shoes, she holds a squirming bundle that stares at me as she walks past. “Hi,” she says.
I shift my feet and blink twice, hard. “Hello. Hi,” I say.
“China,” Margie says, and kind of skips over to a short, dark-haired woman with a slight mustache and hugs her. Johannesburg sleeps. She turns, holds out her hand as if presenting me, and says, “China, this is Rich Cornell.”
Sun breaks through an old four-pane window. I squint against the light. China’s eyes are dark brown, or green. Maybe both. I can’t tell. She wears slight-framed glasses, a smile with teeth that might have endured heavy smoking, maybe still do, but I don’t smell that. Forties, I guess. I reach my hand out to shake. She moves past it and hugs me. I smell the smoke.
“Oh. Hi, China.” I pat her on the back with one hand, grip the stroller with the other. I start to sweat.
She looks past me and says, “This must be her. She’s beautiful. I looove her freckles.”
“She is precious,” Margie says.
“Let’s come in and see her.” China waves us toward her office.
A doctor-type bed. A computer on an old desk. It smells like books and Band-Aids. A cabinet that reaches the ceiling, found at an antique store probably, rests to my right as we walk in. The paint is soft. White or off-white—some kind of white. A couch and a chair line the wall next to the desk.
“Please.” China motions us to the couch. She’s missing two fingers. The middle finger and the one next to it, nearest the pinky. That’s it—like a shiny gem to a sick crow—I can’t stop staring at her hand. I can barely sit. I’m afraid I might say something. I start to sweat again.
“What’d she do to it?”
“What?” Margie said.
“What?” I snap my head up. My eyes catch a squirrel in the juniper outside the office window behind China’s head.
“You were mumbling, Rich,” Margie says.
“Oh. Sorry,” I say.
“Should we weigh her now? See what we have here?” China asks. Her three-fingered hand reaches for Johannesburg.
“Yeah. Sure,” I say. Johannesburg jingles inside her blanket when I hand her to China. My fingers feel frail, like I hadn’t put her down for days, slept with her, rocked her, fed her. She’s attached to me, always.
China wraps her three fingers behind Johannesburg’s head and cradles her body underneath. A seamless interaction between woman and child. I don’t have that. I’m awkward and dumb like a toddler flailing around in a bookstore. China looks at me, smiles, says, “Johannesburg,” then looks down at the little bird in her arms, tilts her head to the side, looks up again, says, “You’re alone here, aren’t you, Rich?”
I stare at her for maybe three seconds, a lifetime fills my head. I turn red. My head feels light. I blink.
“Sit down, Rich,” Margie says.
“What?” I turn to Margie. “What’s that?” My mouth is dry again. I sit in a chair Margie points to. She hands me a glass of water.
China sits next to me. Johannesburg coos in her arms. I hear a little bell jingle, think it’s the door, but it’s a toy in Johannesburg’s hand. The toy. The lights. It’s all too loud and bright. Flooding into me. I drink the water. My foot starts to hurt. “Rich,” China says. “It’s fine. You can do this alone.”
“Yeah.” Margie pats my shoulder.
“What makes you think you can’t?” China asks.
“It’s not that I don’t think I can’t. I’m afraid I’ll hurt her somehow, you know?” I scratch the stubble at my neck. “I want to do this right. Get a cellphone. A steady job. A good one.” I hear the jingle again. I look down at my freckle-faced little girl, but not my little girl, not from me. I’ll teach her to swim. We’ll take Harry to the beach and spread his ashes together someday.
I reach for her, my little girl. China smiles, hands her to me. I cradle her head and body. She jingles again. “I’ll be fine. She’ll be fine,” I say.
“Of course, you will,” China says.
I look at her fingers again. I look at Johannesburg. I smile and think about standing up. Afraid I might pass out or something and hurt Johannesburg. I lean back in the chair. “Of course, we will,” I say. Harry would have loved her. I’ll frame that picture. Put it next to her bed. Tell her stories of her mother every night, wonderful ones that we’ll both create.
Oliver Brennan lives in Bend, Oregon, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside Low Residency Program. He’s published several short stories, one of which was recently anthologized. He’s written a television pilot, collaborated on a horror script, and completed a feature horror/crime script. His first crime novel will be ready for query in September of 2022. He was the Short Story Editor at Close To The Bone Publishing (formerly Near To The Knuckle) and Assistant Copy Editor at The Coachella Review. He occasionally teaches creative writing at Central Oregon Community College and edits full-length crime fiction novels, novellas, and short stories.