Fiction

Mr. Penny's Seventh


Illustration by Rolli

They’re tedious places, hospitals. Mr. Penny didn’t have many hobbies (Walking. Reading. There was something else.) and he couldn’t do any of those at present, not without his glasses, or his legs. The feeling in those might come back, and it might not, he was told. A cat’s lucky enough to have nine lives, and a man five senses, so you can’t moan if you lose two or three of them. Mrs. (her name escaped him) had told him that, and she was—she wasn’t still living. “Survive,” she would’ve told him, though, if she was. “No one else is going to do it for you.” Mr. Penny had several senses left to employ; he thought he might as well employ them.

If he couldn’t see well at present, he could at least see. Not that there was much to look at in his new room. Mr. Penny had nodded off the day before, and when he nodded back on again he was—well, wherever this was. The new room was smaller, though there were more people in it. Two old men on either side of him. The one wasn’t really old, but he grumbled as much as an older person. The other man didn’t grumble at all (he didn’t have visitors). He read magazines and slept.

It was a different room but the smell was the same: lemons and cabbages. When he’d been in the hospital once as a child, it had smelled like lemons and cabbages. That had made him want to throw up. This time it didn’t really bother him, not at first. He was grateful to be alive (had something happened?). Gratitude wears off, but not the smell of lemons and cabbages. There was nothing wrong with his sense of smell, at least. And despite a little ringing now and then, his hearing was fine, too.

“How’s Shithead?” said the middle-aged man—to a young woman, a pretty woman, standing by his bed.

“Dad. He’s my husband” (the woman was whispering, nearly). “You don’t talk about Karen’s husband or Katherine’s husband that way.”

“Karen and Katherine didn’t marry a Shithead,” the man answered.

The young woman glanced at Mr. Penny. He looked out the window just in time.

“He isn’t a Shithead.” Barely a whisper.

The man crossed his arms. They were the hairiest arms Mr. Penny had ever seen. His own arms had zero hairs, but he was still hopeful.

“Nope,” said the man. “Just a loser.”

“And he’s not a loser, either.”

“Nope. He just has no job. No prospects. No deodorant.”

The woman’s head stayed still, but her eyes looked at Mr. Penny’s eyes. He admired the ceiling.

“He’s looking for work.” A quiet woman, thought Mr. Penny. But such loud eyes. They reminded him of the eyes of a sausage dog he’d seen . . . recently? (Time wasn’t Mr. Penny’s forte.)

“Jim has a master’s degree,” she said, with very loud eyes indeed.

“Oh right, I forgot.” He almost yelled this.

No one said anything after that, not for a long time. Mr. Penny felt embarrassed—though he hadn’t said anything.

“Gotta take a leak,” said the man.

His daughter helped him out of bed—there were strings attached to him—and into the small room, the bathroom, on the left.

Mr. Penny looked down. There were strings attached to him, too. Lots of them.

The bathroom door opened.

Mr. Penny closed his eyes just in time.

*

“Have they found my glasses?” Mr. Penny asked the woman with the mop, in the bright smock. His voice was sounding better. Slowly, but surely.

Señor?” she said, stepping closer. She was dark-skinned. She had kind-looking eyes. Mr. Penny knew he could rely on her.

“I’d like to read something.” His Ts still sounded funny. Just a little.

The woman opened a drawer, by the sound of it, and sat something on the side of the bed.

“Mmma’am?” said Mr. Penny. He didn’t know the Spanish for it.

Señor?”

“My glasses? I need them. For reading.”

The woman waited a long while before saying:

Señor, you are wearing your glasses.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Penny, after waiting just as long a while. He reached up—that took a long time too, and was painful—and touched . . . his glasses.

Suddenly, Mr. Penny’s vision seemed better. He could see the room clearly, and the woman, too. It wasn’t a mop she’d been holding, it was a machine of some kind, attached to a pole. And it wasn’t a smock she was wearing, but a lab jacket. It was the strangest thing.

And the woman. Her eyes weren’t kind anymore. They were wrinkled and hard, with too much makeup. Her eyebrows were too thin and high up. They looked drawn on.

No, he didn’t like the look of her. He was glad to see her go.

Smelling, hearing, seeing. Three senses, now. Mr. Penny was pretty pleased with his progress.

He lifted up the book. It was a leather book, in excellent health.

Holy Bible,” he said out loud.

He set the book back down, disappointed. He’d read that one before.

*

When Mr. Penny woke up from his nap, his eyes were filled up right away by another pair of wide-open eyes, belonging to a child. He was about—Mr. Penny was no good at guessing ages—but he was about as tall as Mr. Penny currently was, in his lying-down position.

“When my dad gets drunk I’m going to put on this mask,” said the boy, slipping a mask, a doctor’s mask, over his face. Before Mr. Penny could make sense of the remark, the boy slipped the mask back off and said:

“Can you walk?”

Mr. Penny wondered. Considering that he couldn’t feel his legs, or move them, he didn’t think it very likely.

“What happened to your face?”

That gave Mr. Penny a start.

“What . . . does it look like?” he asked, picturing his face as he remembered it.

“Huh?” said the boy.

Whenever he woke up, his voice was numb. He tried again.

The boy thought. He slipped the mask on and off.

“Bread,” he said, at last.

“Oh,” said Mr. Penny. That didn’t sound too bad. That wasn’t so terrible.

“A kind of bread. I can’t remember. We have it at Christmas. Your moustache is bleeding.”

“Joshua!” said a woman, rushing in. It was the same woman, the daughter, he’d seen earlier. She grabbed the boy by the arm. “I’m so sorry,” she said to Mr. Penny. And then she said “Josh” as she snatched the mask from him, and dropped it on the countertop. She dragged him out of the room.

Mr. Penny looked to the left. The old man’s bed was empty.

Hmm.

He was just about to drop off again—hospitals are tedious places—when a nurse, a plump one, popped into the room.

“Oh dear,” she said. Then she left and came back with some bandages and some cotton, and started dabbing Mr. Penny’s upper lip.

It really was bleeding.

Mr. Penny felt weak. He never could handle blood.

He threw up.

“Oh dear,” said the nurse, again. Then she cleaned that up, too.

*

When Mr. Penny opened his eyes again, the doctors were gone. He imagined (or was it really there?) a fox, a cartoon, sitting on the end of his bed. A handsome animal. It was looking intently at Mr. Penny, and licking its lips. Mr. Penny chuckled; the fox had such large, comical eyes. They were like the kind you’d stick on a walnut.

The creature leaned forward, sniffing. And then . . . it vanished.

Imagination, thought Mr. Penny.

Someone came into the room. A plump nurse. He’d seen her before, he was pretty certain. She went behind him and fussed with something. It sounded like air was coming out of something. She wrapped cotton around his head, to protect it (that’s what it felt like.). It was warm but still easy to breathe. It was like being under a blanket.

Mr. Penny looked to his left. The room moved with him, it seemed. The grumbly man was sleeping. There was no one with him.

Mr. Penny looked to his right. That man was sleeping, too. He was snoring.

Mr. Penny looked at the doorway. There was a whole brood of foxes, now, piled up in front of it. One on top of the other. Blocking the way.

Imagination, he thought, is a dangerous thing.

And then he thought, I hope no one trips on those foxes.

*

It was the strangest thing, the funniest. Both men had been sitting there in silence for . . . an hour? The younger man had come in, said “Hello” to the older (who’d lowered his newspaper for a second and said “Hello” back) and now they were sitting across from each other, the old man in his bed, reading, and the young man in a chair, staring at the floor, neither one saying a word to the other. Mr. Penny could hardly keep from laughing. It took all his courage, and hurt his chest a lot, but he didn’t laugh, not even once.

Everything was funny that day. When the nurse who was feeding him (he still had thumb trouble) knocked the peas everywhere with her elbow, he’d laughed. He’d laughed so much that something came back up—and laughed again.

When he was flipping through a wildlife calendar someone had left for him, every last animal had struck him as ridiculous in some way. The giraffe, particularly. It was nearly too much.

It was like having to go to the bathroom; Mr. Penny wondered how much longer he could hold it in. It didn’t help at all that the new man, the young one, wasn’t normal-looking, really. He had an earring in each ear, a big black one. And there was something about his eyes… Mr. Penny wasn’t certain, but he thought the man might be wearing makeup.

“Kass must be running late,” said the younger man, looking at his watch. His arm was as hairy as a gorilla’s. Worse than the old man’s. His face was hairy, only he’d shaved it. There was just a line like a bunch of ants crawling along his jaw. He had something on his neck—not a bruise, as Mr. Penny had suspected, but a tattoo. It was a lizard or something. Strange, thought Mr. Penny. Funny.

The old man looked up from his newspaper, and then looked back down. He didn’t say anything. Mr. Penny didn’t snicker, but it was a close call.

The tattooed man got up and left.

Hmm. When he left the room, this younger man, he dragged the comedy along with him, like a blanket. Now nothing seemed funny. Mr. Penny felt sort of cottony and bored. He closed his eyes for a bit.

“Coffee?”

Mr. Penny looked up. But it wasn’t being offered to him. The bearded man had come back with three coffees on a tray. The smell was like being tortured with a hammer. It was so wonderful.

The old man looked over his newspaper. He moved his jaw around a bit, like he was chewing lettuce. Then he reached out and took the coffee. The young man took the second coffee, then sat the third down on the empty chair next to him.

The two men sat drinking coffees, and not saying word.

“Still writing?” said the older one.

They young one said something—but that didn’t matter. Because he swung his one leg up to cross it and bumped the empty chair. The coffee (it was just in one of those flimsy cups) tipped over. The lid popped off and it splashed everywhere.

“Oh shit,” said the young guy, standing up. “Shit.” He ran out of the room.

Mr. Penny looked up at the old man. He was drinking his coffee and grinning.

That was too much. Mr. Penny was desperate. So he pictured something sad, like a dead dog lying there on the street, a sausage dog. That seemed to hold him, for the moment.

The young man came back soon enough, with an armful of paper towels. The whole time he was bent over scrubbing the floor, the man in the bed lay smiling. And then when the first man stood up again, the smile just drifted off into space.

A scuffling noise. A woman came into the room. Mr. Penny had seen her before. Katherine or something. Karen. She was carrying a tray with three coffees on it.

The sausage dog had big, bloody eyes because he’d been run over. There was even blood running out of its ears. But it was no good. The dog just lifted its head up from the blood puddle and stuck its tongue out. It looked perfectly stupid. When it tilted its head, and the tongue flopped to the one side, that was the icing, that was the end.

Mr. Penny laughed. It was louder than he expected, and one of the nurses stuck her head in the door. She came up to Mr. Penny, and started checking things.

“How are you feeling today?” she asked him. It was a ridiculous thing to ask a man. He was in a lot of pain and laughing. Now he was laughing even more. Some things, once you begin them, you can’t stop, no matter what.

“It’s alright,” she said to him. “It’s alright,” smoothing his hair down, like a pet. He kept on laughing and she kept on talking to him and holding down his arms.

A fat man came in, in a white smock. He didn’t say anything. He fiddled with one of Mr. Penny’s strings.

Mr. Penny thought he might die laughing, but then he noticed—well, the eyeballs. The eyeballs of the old man, the young man, the young woman, the nurse, the other old man and the fat man were all looking at him. A man can stand only so many eyes. It was like having golf balls thrown at you. Mr. Penny wanted to scream.

But instead, he fell asleep.

*

Mr. Penny dreamed about the gypsy.

When he was a boy, he’d met a gypsy. She’d looked at his hand and guaranteed him he’d have a long, happy life. It had cost him five dollars, but it was worth it.

This was the same gypsy. She was a little older now, and plumper. But that’s to be expected, isn’t it? She wore a veil, too, for some reason.

The tent was dark. Mr. Penny couldn’t remember if it had been that dark the last time. The only light was . . . the crystal ball, on the table. It was glowing.

Mr. Penny sat down at the table. He gave the gypsy his hand. She held it close to her face and examined it.

A sixth sense. That’s what gypsies had, wasn’t it? Or claimed to? Mr. Penny wasn’t sure if he believed in that sort of thing. Mrs. (whatever her name was) would’ve called it a lot of nonsense, a lot of rot. She was the wisest woman he’d ever known. He was pretty sure.

The gypsy rubbed his hand. She squinted. This was taking a lot longer than usual.

Mr. Penny wondered. If there was a sixth sense, couldn’t there be a seventh? A seventh sense. It sounded reasonable, sure. But … what on earth could it be?

Hmm.

Before he could decide, the gypsy gave his hand back.

She squeezed her lips together. She didn’t say anything.

“Well?” said Mr. Penny, finally.

The gypsy put her hand on her chin. She gazed into her crystal ball. She gazed for an awfully long time.

Suddenly, her eyes got very wide. She sat up straight.

“Look out for that van!” she cried.

Mr. Penny heard brakes squealing. He turned his head.

He woke up.

The room was dark. Except for the light coming from the machine. The one he was hooked up to.

He could hear—but that was just his ears ringing.

The old men were sleeping.

A sixth sense, Mr. Penny thought.

No. He didn’t believe in that rot.

*

“Fuck,” whispered the man. The father.

Mr. Penny set down his spoon. He closed his eyes. You hear a lot better, he’d discovered, with your eyes closed. It sharpens your hearing, like an axe blade. If you don’t mind listening, you really can hear everything. Besides, the soup tasted awful. Worse than awful. It tasted like nothing.

“Fuck,” said the man, again.

Mr. Penny didn’t approve of vulgarity. But he didn’t mind listening to it, now and then.

“Jesus Christ.”

Mr. Penny’s parents weren’t religious. They were Catholic. They never went to church, though. They couldn’t afford it.

“Why do you have to hate him?” said a familiar voice. Mr. Penny checked—just quickly—to see if the voice was crying. It was.

The man breathed out. He folded up his newspaper. There was a soft gurgling sound, like someone was being strangled to death. Mr. Penny couldn’t resist. He opened his eyes.

Father and daughter were hugging. They hugged for . . . five, ten minutes? Whispering things that Mr. Penny couldn’t quite hear.

When they finally let go of each other, they were both crying.

The girl fetched a tissue and dried her eyes. The man rubbed his quickly on his sleeve. Then they went on chatting like nothing had happened. Only . . . they smiled more.

They loved each other. Mr. Penny could hardly believe it. They’d said awful things (or the man had, anyway). But none of that mattered. They loved each other.

Mr. Penny pictured two people kissing in the middle of an asteroid, even though it was hurtling towards the Earth.

He wondered. Could love be a sense? A sense of love? Was that possible? The seventh sense, love. Perhaps . . . the most important one?

Hmm.

Something peeped up over the edge of Mr. Penny’s bed. The fox! It hopped onto his lap, lapped up a bit of soup and—stuck its tongue out!

Mr. Penny laughed. He laughed even harder when the fox crawled down his leg and took a bite out of it. He didn’t feel a thing!

When the fox bit its own tail (just like a fur coat), Mr. Penny burst out laughing.

No, he thought. Not love. Humour. A sense of humour. That was it. The seventh sense. The most important one. By far.

The fox took another lick of soup—and grimaced.

Mr. Penny threw his head back and laughed.

Yes, he had a good, long laugh, indeed.

Rolli (rollistuff.com; @rolliwrites) is a writer and cartoonist from Regina. His most recent story collection, I Am Currently Working On a Novel, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the High Plains Book Award. Rolli’s cartoons appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, and other popular outlets.

THEWALRUS.CA IS FREE. If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation to the charitable, non-profit Walrus Foundation. Learn More »

SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER. Get the weekly roundup from The Walrus, a collection of our best stories, delivered to your inbox. Learn More »

Elsewhere on TheWalrus.ca