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Ketman was driving back from the clinic, wiper blades whupping across the glass. The lashings of water on the windscreen reminded him of a car wash and how he used to take his son, Kenny, there to wash the truck. The boy would scream and giggle as the brushes whirred to life, his small hands clinging to Ketman so he wouldn’t be swept away in the deluge. So there were good memories of Kenny!
Out of nowhere, a cyclist materialized, dressed all in black, begging to be hit so that he or his grieving relatives could sue Ketman. Normally, Ketman would have laid into the horn, but the doctor came to mind then, smiling like he was trying not to. In the clinic, his lips had compressed in his boyish face and his eyes, unlocking from Ketman’s, had flicked to the side. This doc—the luck of the draw at a walk-in—was half Ketman’s age and weight. Half the man that Ketman was, in other words, and that much further from death, sitting there on his swivel stool, trying half-assedly to conceal his smug amusement. That was the moment when Ketman should have brought up what had happened to his mother, which really was suable, though Ketman had taken the high road.
“Two years ago, she went in for a knee job. Came out dead,” he told the tyke doctor who was not, in fact, in the cab of the truck with him. “So I have a good reason to feel it’s not worth the risk.”
Ketman nodded several times, the last to his own reflection in the rear-view mirror.
Shelby wasn’t home, but the cats greeted his arrival like faithful dogs whose crap you didn’t have to pick up. They wove themselves around his legs—loam-coloured Linus, Muffy the calico—while Ketman checked the fridge for inspiration. He rustled around in the produce drawers, sniffed inside containers.
A few years back, to help burn off the slack season’s unexpended energy, Ketman had stepped in as cook. (It was the counsellor’s suggestion, so that hadn’t been a complete waste of money.) With Shelby’s Hilroy of stained recipes as his guide, Ketman had faithfully reproduced her uninteresting meals. Encouraged by his success, he’d bought an actual cookbook, one with a golf-shirted guy on the cover. Guy as in the type who held his knife and fork in fists on either side of his grub-filled plate, guarding it. Blue-eyed, muscular, stiff brush of blonde hair—much like Ketman in his youth, right down to the nose destined to overwhelm his face. Ketman had boiled and basted his way from Beer Dip to Bananas Foster and then struck off on his own.
At last, he settled on half a butternut squash perspiring face down on a plate. Where was Shelby? The gym, probably. It would irritate her if he phoned.
The doctor had called him Mister Ketman. Nobody did that, not even his landscaping crew. Nobody called him Ken either. He was just Ketman, checking the cupboard now for arborio rice. At fifty-five, he must have seemed prehistoric to that smirking medical minor. The risks of the procedure might have been “minimal,” but puncture was one of them.
There was nothing to do now but wait for Shelby, so Ketman went downstairs in search of televised distractions. He was still there, watching the Food Network with the cats, when the back door slammed an hour later.
“Shel?” he called.
“Just a sec! I’m texting Kenny!”
Ketman waited through the next commercial and then transferred Muffy from lap to couch. Linus had a diagnosis, petting aggression, and couldn’t be handled. Ketman stood, forcing the cat to leap.
Upstairs, he found Shelby in the kitchen, bags at her feet, her rain-sprinkled glasses seemingly suctioned to her forehead as she twiddled. Ketman’s bratwurst thumbs were barely opposable. He’d never gotten the hang of texting.
“What’s the matter now?”
“Exams. He’s nervous.” She had yet to take off her wet coat or make eye contact. Did she even remember he’d gone for a physical?
The onion waited on the cutting board. Ketman got started peeling it, wondering, not for the first time, what was the point of going away to university if you ended up texting your mother ten times a day. Yet Shelby, for her part, looked so much happier when she was communicating with Kenny. In a week, he’d be back for Christmas, a reunion Ketman dreaded. The kid would barely look at him. He spoke to Ketman in grunts. Ketman got more conversation out of the guys on his crew, some of whom barely knew English.
The phone blooped. She lowered her glasses and gathered up her bags. “I’m just going to change,” she said, walking out.
Shelby was gone as long as it took to make the risotto, and when she finally appeared, she was texting again.
“Tell him we’re eating,” Ketman said.
“I just did.”
She took her seat across from him and smiled. Though her face was thinner from all the hours she clocked now at the gym, her hair was comfortingly the same, adding inches to her height, dyed auburn to cover the grey. Ketman’s moustache, chest, and stubble were still only lightly sprinkled with age. He’d gone beige instead of grey, his work-weathered skin too. He pictured his own reflection in the rear-view mirror driving home—aghast and mushroom hued—and cut to the chase.
“I finally got that insurance thing done.”
Shelby was eyeing her risotto. “This looks great, Ketman. But why’s it orange?”
“That’s the squash from last night.”
Nodding, she took a bite. A root ball of hurt formed in his chest, but where in the past Ketman wouldn’t even have recognized its presence, now he grabbed his mental shovel and attacked it.
“The physical. Remember?”
She glanced at her phone. “Oh, right. Everything okay?”
The doctor had provided a pamphlet. It would have been easier just to hand it to her now, but he’d left it in the truck. Linus sashayed over. Ketman heard his motor-like purring, felt soothed when Linus rubbed against his leg. He found his words. The procedure, its risks. He spared her the unspeakable puncture.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Shelby was forking at the risotto like she was aerating a compost heap. “What do you mean?”
“Should I have it?”
“Everybody’s supposed to, right?”
“So you think I should?”
Ketman recalled the doctor’s face. Now this matter-of-fact response from Shelby, who seemed to have forgotten what had happened to his mother. That had been a minor procedure too. The morning he was supposed to pick her up, she’d phoned Ketman to say she was being discharged and would be in the waiting area. Barely an hour later, Ketman had walked unawares into a scrum of white coats and flowered scrubs.
“I’d have to have a general,” he told Shelby.
Her dark eyes, magnified by the stronger prescription of her glasses, met his. Finally, some sympathy! The dregs left over from Kenny, no doubt.
“It’d take longer to recover from the anaesthesia than the procedure. Are you worried it’s going to hurt?”
“I just don’t want to be awake for it,” he said. “I mean, would you?”
“For heaven’s sake, Ketman. Do you know how many medical indignities women are subjected to?”
Ping! Beside her plate, the phone lit up, and Shelby pounced.
The next day, Ketman called the clinic. “Knock me out. That’s all I ask.”
The receptionist laughed and gave him a date four months away.
Christmas came and brought Kenny with it. After a couple of days of watching his adult son stretched out on the couch, his body a sleeping platform for cats, laptop on his chest, Ketman asked Shelby, “The kid still can’t find two socks that match?”
“So?” Shelby replied, which brought back those 150-buck-a-pop sessions where she’d perfected this devastating syllable.
Ketman got on the computer himself and booked an all-inclusive in Puerto Vallarta.
In Mexico, while Shelby and Kenny scuba dived or caught the shuttle bus to town, Ketman conversed brokenly with the groundskeepers. He checked Kenny’s browser history just for the hell of it and discovered yet another aspect to their generational divide: hairy pussy on one side, shaved on the other.
Halfway through the trip, he observed to Shelby that she was swimming not only in the hotel pool but in her bathing suit.
“I’m okay, Ketman,” she said.
“Come. I want to treat you.”
In the shop in the lobby, he stationed himself outside the change room. A pink one-piece. He couldn’t convince her of the bikini.
“Hot mama!” Ketman told her when she emerged. Before she could escape, glaring, back into the cubicle, he stepped in front of the mirror with her.
“Look at us, Shelby. Thirty-two years and going strong.” An arm around her shoulder, he pulled her to him with the whole raw force of his love.
In the mirror, Shelby’s head snapped to the side, setting her glasses askew on her face.
The days grew longer, the rain less torrential. Galanthus, Muscari, Crocus. Whether Shelby had finally accepted Kennylessness, Ketman couldn’t say. He was back on the job and outside, not “breathing down her neck all day.” And Shelby was too busy managing the work schedule to go to the gym. She joined a women’s book club instead.
This time of year, yard maintenance overtook the design side of Ketman’s business. He hired extra crew, stepped in for the no-shows. Then, after a long day power raking and pruning, he would putz around in their own yard, meaning they ate dinner later. Over one of those twilight meals, Shelby brought up the procedure.
Ketman was jolted in his chair. “Did they call?”
“It says on the schedule that you’re supposed to confirm it,” Shelby said.
Now he remembered. He’d written it down himself then apparently frittered away the months of his reprieve. He could hear that, outside, among the bud-swollen Camellia japonica, the birds were laughing at him.
“Could you confirm it, Shel?”
She was in charge of the phone. He’d put her on the payroll around the same time she’d stopped cooking, which had made no sense to Ketman—his money was already hers—but the counsellor had said to.
“No, Ketman,” she said now. “It’s not a work thing.”
He felt his whole being sag. Elbows on the table, head propped up on his fingertips, he scrubbed worriedly at his eyebrows.
“I understand,” he said, though he didn’t.
The next morning, Ketman went to the room they called her office. It was decorated with Kenny memorabilia, the shelves lined with dusty consolation trophies and Mother’s Day crafts: tissue-paper roses in a papier-mâché vase, a pottery turd. The schedule, kept in a large hardbound book, lay open on her cluttered desk. Ketman cleared it off, replaced the cordless phone in its stand to charge, set aside the nail file and clippers. The miniature scimitars of his wife’s trimmed nails he swept lovingly into his palm and deposited in the wastebasket.
Now, the week spread before him, his own back-slanted hand surrounded by Shelby’s sweetly looped letters. Each day was overcast with pencilled addresses and phone numbers except for the clean coming weekend. There was nothing on the Friday, even.
Good Friday, Ketman read. Easter Monday.
Easter? They’d just had Christmas!
Ketman clutched the edge of the desk. His mind’s eye saw the bubblegum Crocs again and his mother’s legs immodestly splayed on the floor. It was Ketman who’d bought her the Crocs, yet he’d failed to recognize them at first.
He picked the phone back up and dialled, dispelling that image from his head but not its aftermath. He gave his full name to the receptionist who answered and heard her clacking it out on the keyboard. At the funeral home, they’d blown the floral arrangements. Ketman had said no lilies. There he’d sat, stewing in the pew while his brother, Mark, freely sobbed. Ketman had originally asked Mark to pick up their mother from the hospital. Ketman was supposed to be out in Langley xeriscaping an industrial park that day. Mark had said no. Yet, if Mark had picked her up, she might have died in the arms of a son, her own flesh and blood, instead of surrounded by strangers.
According to the receptionist, the complicated preprocedure instructions had already been emailed to him months ago. She re-sent them now along with the list of dietary restrictions.
“Easter dinner,” she said, as if the statement were a question.
“Pardon?” he asked.
“Watch the rolls. No seeds.”
“Got it,” Ketman said and hung up.
Ketman left for work, but for the rest of the day, he fretted. About the procedure. About his mother and the way she’d died. Fretting led to haranguing. One guy on his crew got surly and muttered a Punjabi expletive that Ketman knew. Chitterchort. Ketman blew his top.
Ketman’s brother, too, was on his mind. Mark who had only him, Ketman, his big bro. Yet Ketman and Mark hadn’t spoken in more than a year.
Coming to bed that night, he found Shelby reading her outdated feminist tome. She left the CBC on all day, and Ketman was pretty sure he’d heard there were three sexes now, possibly more.
When he asked her about inviting Mark and Sunita to Easter dinner, Shelby’s eyes widened. “Seriously?”
“Remember what you said to me after Mom’s funeral?” Ketman asked.
Shelby said no.
“‘Mark is your flesh and blood.’” His only remaining blood relative apart from Kenny. “Without Mom and Kenny here, what would be the point of cooking a ham? But I won’t ask them if you don’t want me to. We just won’t do Easter.”
Weariness settled in her voice and on her face. “They don’t bother me, Ketman. And you’re the one cooking.”
“It will be three days before the procedure,” Ketman reminded her as he got up to pee.
When he flicked on the bathroom light, the cats appeared as if by magic. Linus batted at the toilet paper hanging off the roll while Ketman stared down into the bowl. At least he had no prostate worries.
He preferred it when Shelby participated in the decision making. Apparently, though, he overconsulted and Shelby didn’t want to be consulted on everything. The problem was that, even when Ketman heard the alarm bells signalling an error of judgment, he ignored them.
Because, despite the ding ding ding clearly audible now, despite the fiasco of their last holiday meal with Mark and Sunita, he couldn’t ignore this fact: with his procedure only six days away, it might be Ketman’s last supper.
Ham, scalloped potatoes, minted pea soup, lemon pie. Ketman went a little crazy with the meringue. Mount Fuji in his oven. The reasonable foreboding in the concrete six-pack of his gut he’d channelled into a pussy willow centrepiece with matching sprigs for the napkin holders.
Shelby was mad at him. After hours of the silent treatment, with their guests about to arrive, she suddenly had at him again while tucking in the pussy willow sprigs.
“What you are, Ketman, is a bully.”
The surly worker who’d failed to show up had called the office line that morning, demanding a cheque and giving Shelby his version of what had happened, which apparently counted for more than Ketman’s.
“The guy swore at me,” Ketman said—again. “What do you expect me to do?”
“What did you call him?”
“He was dragging his ass around. How come I never get credit for not blowing my top? I only get demerits when I do.”
The doorbell interrupted them. “Don’t mention the procedure,” he told Shelby. “I don’t want Mark to worry.”
Shelby made a sound through her nose and went to answer the door.
There were cries of surprise from down the hall, followed by exclamations. “You’ve lost so much weight,” Sunita said. “Isn’t that he-man feeding you anymore?”
When Ketman joined them at the door, Sunita thrust the chilly bottle she was carrying into his hands. She was dressed in a teal-blue shalwar kameez embroidered in gilt instead of her usual drab pantsuit. Like Mark, she was a lawyer.
Sunita scooped up Muffy and the sisters-in-law headed for the kitchen, as though Shelby had something to do with what was happening in there.
Mark had removed his shoes and now stood blandly in his socks. His grip when Ketman shook his hand was slippery and soft, as though he’d applied lotion in the car. Behind the chunky glasses, a curious look. He was probably wondering about this sudden invitation.
“Beer?” Ketman said, waving him through to the living room as he carried off Sunita’s prosecco.
The women fell silent the moment he entered the kitchen. Shelby frowned. Then Sunita exclaimed, “Ketman, this pie!” She pointed to where it towered in his mother’s Pyrex pan.
He took down a pair of flutes from the cupboard. Shelby and Sunita watched while he opened the bottle and poured them each a glass, Sunita smiling as though she couldn’t believe Ketman possessed the motor skills for the task.
With two beers in hand, he left.
In the living room, Mark had installed himself on the couch, dress shirt straining across his paunch. He looked heavier, or maybe it was just the beard. With a smile that seemed worked with strings, he accepted the bottle from Ketman.
“Did you want a glass?” Ketman asked.
Ketman sat in an armchair, took a sip, and rested the cold bottle on his knee. Mark stared at the rug. In one room, the women were gabbing ruthlessly; in the other, the men were at a complete loss. Why the hell had Ketman invited them?
Linus leaped onto his lap. Distracted by the tension, Ketman petted him. Predictably, Linus bit, prompting Ketman to react exactly the way the vet had told him not to in the case of petting aggression. He swore and shoved Linus off his lap. Mark puckered with disapproval.
“I’m having a procedure on Wednesday,” Ketman blurted out.
Mark’s brows lifted above his designer frames. “What kind of procedure?”
Shelby and Sunita entered then, prosecco off-gassing in their flutes. “Is this men’s talk?” Sunita asked. “Should we leave?”
Shelby dropped into the other armchair. Ketman tried to signal to her his distress, but she countered his look with one approaching dislike. He’d seen it so often since Kenny went away that it was becoming her default expression. This was why he’d invited Mark and Sunita. He didn’t want to have Easter dinner alone with his wife.
Sunita settled next to Mark, tucking her legs under her broad rump and resting her beautiful bangled arm on his shoulder. “Oh, the procedure. I thought you would’ve had it by now, Ketman.”
“Nope,” he said.
“I haven’t either,” Shelby told Sunita. “Have you?”
“I’m only forty-eight. Mark, you should have it.”
“Ketman’s freaking out,” Shelby said.
“I am not!”
But Mark nodded. “Because of Mom.” He grew pensive, the sandy brows sinking below the fancy frames. Ketman could hardly believe that his brother understood him. Just as he became convinced of it, Mark put on a faux-British squawk.
“No one expects the pulmonary embolism!”
Everyone laughed except Ketman. He went to the kitchen to check the potatoes.
Done. Gruyère convulsed under the foil. The others were still laughing in the living room over his mother’s corpse. The sooner they ate, the sooner they’d leave.
Just then, Shelby slipped into the kitchen and pulled her phone from her cardigan pocket. “I’m just wondering if he opened my Easter package yet.” Bloop went her departing message. She offered to carry in the soup.
He ladled at the stove while Shelby delivered the bowls to the table, one at a time. Either their guests or the prosecco had taken the edge off her mood. “It’s going okay so far,” she whispered on the last trip.
Ketman took his place at the table, Jesus’s place, and fixed his eyes on the centrepiece.
“But, seriously, Ketman,” Mark said. “The procedure? Is this a fear of death thing?”
Partly, yes, he wanted to say. But, over the last few days, Ketman had begun to sense a murkier terror. He shrugged, sending Shelby a yearning glance at the same time. “I’ve lived a good life.”
Sunita said, “Well, if it’s not a fear of death, then it could only be one thing.”
Mark nodded. “Squeamishness.”
Sunita said, “It challenges his heteronormativity.”
“His what?” Shelby said.
Sunita took Ketman for a redneck, which technically he was. The Redneck Gourmet. (The time she’d called him that, Ketman had imagined his own cookbook with that title, or better yet, a Food Network show.) While Sunita and Mark took turns explaining Ketman’s toxically masculine world view to his wife, Ketman bowed over his bowl and began delivering soup to his mouth in a steady crank-turning motion. He found it impossible not to recall their last get-together, the Christmas after their mother died. It had started jokingly too, with Mark telling Kenny he was lucky to be an only child, but had ended up as a free-for-all of accusations going back to boyhood. Sunita had even brought up how Mark used to walk himself to school. “Can you imagine?” she’d told Shelby. “Six years old. A busy road to cross. Ketman was supposed to walk with him.”
“There was an underpass,” Ketman said.
“Yes, the underpass! The underpass with scary graffiti!” the others had chorused. Yet no molester had been lurking there to snatch Mark. He hadn’t been struck by a car.
“He was lucky,” Sunita had said.
What next, Ketman had wondered. Mark’s long-standing grievance regarding the unequal division of Halloween candy? What was this whinging compared to letting your mother die alone on a cold floor? he’d asked Mark, who’d taken umbrage and stormed out with Sunita.
Shelby was listening to them now as she sipped her soup, wearing the same expression she wore while reading—a Rip Van Winkle fascination at everything she’d seemingly slept through. Main course, salad, then pie to get through. And, if they tried to linger, Ketman had the excuse of needing to rest up for the procedure.
He went to get the ham, wobbly as a buttock, smeared with mustard, doused in maple syrup. When he returned, Shelby finally spoke.
“Actually, you’re both overthinking Ketman. He’s a big baby, that’s all.”
Ketman released the platter two inches above the table. It thunked.
The rest of them held out their plates for him to load.
The next day, Easter Monday, Ketman drove out to Delta to pick up some compost for the backyard. Shelby, in a hurry to finish her book, made it clear she didn’t want him hanging around the house.
On the drive, he pondered Shelby’s comment to Sunita and Mark. Had she been defending him? Possibly. But then the argument over the no-show squelched his hope.
Ketman wasn’t as heteronormative as they thought, though. Not with his preference for cats over dogs. Or his cooking. He’d doted on his mother. And what about the pussy willow centrepiece he’d spent two hours creating, which no one had commented on?
Ketman was nearing the Massey tunnel by then, and when he realized it, he pictured himself pitted against Sunita in court, citing this further, irrefutable proof of his tender nature: every time he drove through the tunnel, he thought of Princess Di.
Irrelevant, said Sunita, who was not, in fact, in the truck with him.
No bottleneck on a holiday. Ketman breezed right through, remarking—also as usual—on its untagged state while every other stretch of bare concrete in the Lower Mainland bore the spray can’s jagged testaments.
He spent an hour shovelling in the compost. Its sour aroma infiltrated the cab of the truck all the way back home.
That night, Shelby claimed she wasn’t hungry. So Ketman’s actual last supper before the dreaded liquid fast was a plate of leftovers he chomped through at the counter. He swallowed the pills from the kit he’d picked up at the pharmacy and then went downstairs to pace the den.
Shelby still had a hundred or so pages to go in The Second Sex, eyes glued to it as he climbed into bed.
“Fasting tomorrow. You’ll have to go it alone.”
“I’ll survive,” she told him.
What happened to us? Ketman wanted to ask her then, but he didn’t dare.
The next morning, he concocted the slippery solution from the foil packets and drank it down. Something happened then—a purging the likes of which Ketman had never experienced. The litres sluiced through him, a car wash in the penultimate stage, before the hot air starts up. But, instead of him being inside it, it was inside him. By the end of the day, he felt like a discarded rubber glove.
An image came to him, ignominiously, while he was still sitting on the throne. He pictured the Massey tunnel again, but not clean like it actually was. The murky thing he dreaded waited there. And, in the middle of those gangland ciphers, actual legible words. His full legal name and, beside it—asshole.
The possible jagged truth of himself, sprayed huge.
The next morning, Shelby dropped him off at the hospital entrance and drove off without a backward glance. Ketman rooted himself on the spot, confusing the automatic door behind him. It opened and closed, opened and closed, while he stared at the Honda’s blinking indicator. He couldn’t see Shelby. She was shorter than the headrest. The car merged into the flow of traffic and vanished.
Signs pointed the way to gastroenterology, where they handed him a gown. In the change room, his thick fingers struggled with the ties and then with the weird socks with no-stick scales on the bottoms. Clothes, wallet, and phone he loaded into the plastic drawstring bag.
A large, regal, grey-permed nurse handed him a clipboarded form to fill out in the intake area across from the nursing station. A few minutes later, she came over and saw his shaking hands.
“You must be cold.”
She returned with a blanket, which she tenderly spread across his lap. With the majesty of a cruise ship berthing, she slid her bulk into the chair beside him, took back the clipboard, cooed the questions, and ticked the boxes on his behalf. She checked his pulse and wrote it down. Ketman thought of his mother’s loving ministrations, the honey-sweetened Aspirins crushed in a spoon, the thermometer slipped under his tongue.
“Please,” he said. “I have to talk to my wife.”
The phone was at the very bottom of the drawstring bag. The nurse found it for him.
“What?” Shelby answered.
Ketman heard café sounds in the background. She’d said something about meeting someone for lunch. “Come back, Shel.”
“I’ll be there at three like I’m supposed to be.”
“Ketman? It’s a colonoscopy. Grow up.”
She hung up before he could speak of his love, before he could vow to submit again to the counsellor and her pitiless judgments, submit to anything Shelby wanted. He loved Kenny too, he wanted to say. Of course he did! It was just that Kenny irritated him much the way he, Ketman, irritated Shelby.
“Better now?” the nurse asked.
She escorted him to the holding area beyond the nursing station. A half-dozen beds separated by curtains. He lay down. Another nurse took charge of him there, cheery and round faced, lifting his hand and gently slapping the back of it, as though to scold him. She was coaxing out his veins. The IV port slid right in.
“You’re putting me under, right?” Ketman said.
“You’ll get a sedative. You might fall asleep.”
“I asked to be knocked out,” he told her.
Another gurney was wheeled in, bumping Ketman into the hall. As they traded places, Ketman saw the back of the incoming patient, who lay curled on his side. Deflated shoulders, the freckled top of his bald head with a wispy brown fringe beneath it. He seemed shrunken. Destroyed.
They left Ketman, whose breathing came now in fishlike gasps. Crepe-soled orderlies brisked back and forth. A poster hung on the wall above him. He read it to calm himself. Code White: Disruptive Individual. Code Green: Internal Evacuation.
Ding ding ding ding ding.
Then a new face loomed above him, young and rosy, his actual nurse. Staring up at her nose-ringed innocence, Ketman understood that his mortification would be boundless. “I want a general,” he whimpered.
A gapped smile. “You’ll be fine,” she said.
The nurse wheeled him across the hall into a huge night-black room where the blinking eyes of the machines in one corner were the only source of light.
“Turn onto your left side, please, Mr. Ketman.”
The doctor must have come in then, or she’d been lurking in the shadows the whole time. She introduced herself, placing a warm, reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“How do you feel, Mr. Ketman?”
“I asked for a general. They said it would be okay.”
“Why? Don’t you want to watch?”
She began rattling off the terms of the consent. Hearing that word again—puncture—Ketman gave up. Meanwhile, the nurse was fiddling with the IV. He felt the vein in his hand stretching to accommodate an incoming flow, distracting him from the same intrusion elsewhere, the actual chitterchort.
A scene bloomed on the monitor just above his head. He knew the place. He’d been there, either in a nightmare or in one of those computer games he used to play with Kenny. A long pulsing passage glistening with moisture.
“All right, Mr. Ketman. Here we go.”
There are mysteries. Drowsy already, less agitated, Ketman accepted their existence though his inclination had always been not to dig too deep, to stay in the topsoil, far from life’s profundities. He wasn’t interested, preferred instead the beige surface of things because, in the end—Was that what this was, the end?—his life, however unexamined, satisfied him. Shelby, the cats. Business was good. Kenny might come around. Ketman didn’t have huge expectations. His one complaint? He missed his mother.
“Here’s the first corner.”
He saw it up ahead, a bend, and now a sour taste flooded his mouth and he wanted to call out to the doctor to slow down, but his tongue only lolled, he, too, helplessly under the control of she who moved the cursor. She was pushing him deeper inside his own slimed coils, into the more distant loops, where his fear had organized itself into that monstrous shape, where it squatted in the extended cave of who he actually was. Except, when he did round the corner, the same pink walls came into view.
“You’re doing great.”
Maybe it was relief, but he sensed a different presence now, not malignant, the opposite, an almost universal benignity, a protecting and fostering spirit maternally gathering him up, his own mother, in fact, here with him, always, even in his colon, infusing him to the cellular level with such a ludicrous sense of hope that, when the next corner appeared, he abandoned all resistance and moved glad heartedly toward it, so certain was he that she would be there when he rounded that curve—smiling, her heavy arms open, glasses fogged from the humidity. She understood and loved him. She loved him best.
She wasn’t there. His disappointment gave way to shock, then to the shocking truth of her absence. Its permanence. He dug in his feet to stop himself but got no purchase from the socks. What had he been thinking? His mother would never come here, not with her lifelong distrust of germy places, especially public toilets — which was secondary to the fact that she was dead.
Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.
“We’re near the end, Mr. Ketman. It’ll be over in a moment.”
He wanted to close his eyes but couldn’t. Around and around again to the penultimate bend until he saw it hunkering ahead—the thing he dreaded. Ketman was alone with it. Ketman alone.