Neon by Sharon Dean



“Name?” the receptionist asks.

“Conrad West.” I study her face. No blink of recognition. I sign the waiver and give her the phone number of my wife, who will pick me up.

I look around the waiting area, deciding where to sit, and choose one of the sofas that face each other. Between them, a curved coffee table holds neatly stacked magazines. From here, I can look through window-walls that join in a 90 degree angle. The view is spectacular. In the distance, the Cascades, green from the spring snow-melt, rise against a blue, blue sky. Soon they will purple over with vetch and when they burn in the summer heat, we’ll call them golden. Below the hills, I watch cars moving along I-5. Picturesque, but closer I would feel the treachery. The noise, the smell, the speed of trucks that carry food, fuel, lumber into thirsty California.

But for now the view is distant, like everything in the waiting room, meant to soothe. Upholstered chairs line the glass walls. Behind me on another sofa, an elderly woman sits with a young companion, her driver, I assume. They don’t speak, as if lulled into silence by the soft contours of the waiting room. Everything says relax. The pale green of the walls isn’t broken by a painting or a photograph. The subtle geometric pattern of the upholstery matches the walls. The plush yellow carpet mirrors the golden hills of summer. Even the reception desk is softly curved.

Dr. Cutter, such amusing name for an eye surgeon, told me he does as many as a dozen cataract and laser procedures in a day. Low risk, high return. I see where my six thousand dollars go. You get what you pay for, says the room. You’re in good hands. We have taste. We’ll give you eyes that can see the stars says the telescope that stands in the corner between the two walls of glass. I wonder if anyone comes in at night to contemplate the universe.

I bend to the coffee table and pick up the neat pile of magazines. You can tell a lot about a medical group from the magazines in the waiting room. I look at the covers of each one. Time for those who want weeks of old news, only slightly liberal. Architectural Digest for those who covet wealth. Scientific American for those impressed by knowledge. The New Yorker for those who think reading cartoons makes them sophisticated.

I open last week’s New Yorker to page 48. I’m still there.

April 1st
Sparse tongues of grass
taste the dew
of the softening air
Muted crocuses reach
toward a sky
the color of hyacinths
In the pines
a cardinal blows,
its beak so orange
its cry is neon

Conrad West

Was it only my mind’s eye seeing that neon? Remembering New Hampshire where the hills stay green all summer? Dr. Cutter says my cataracts cause me to lose 60% of light. He claims that colors will soon be more vivid and my ReStor lens will give me the vision I had as a child. I take off my glasses, pull The New Yorker close to my eyes and read again.

its beak so orange
its cry is neon

I look up and everything is blurred. The distant Cascades bleed into the sky. There’s no speeding line of highway.

“Conrad West,” a female voice says. I see only her shape at the edge of the waiting room. I put on my glasses and leave The New Yorker on the table, open to my poem, conscious that what I get paid for poetry wouldn’t cover the price of subscriptions to the carefully chosen magazines.

Inside one of a half-dozen cubicles, a nurse tells me to put a gown on over my clothes. She motions me to the hospital bed and I lie down. When she puts booties over my shoes, I want to say it would be more comfortable with them off.

Before I can speak, she asks, “What is your name?”

“Conrad West,” I say, looking for any sign that she recognizes it.

She barely smiles when she says, “State your date of birth.”

“July 7, 1950.”

“What eye are we performing surgery on today?”

“My right,” I say. When she puts a mark above that eye, I’m thankful for the protocol. At least I won’t become a blind poet like Homer.

She’s brisk, but young and rather pretty. She tells me it’s a blood pressure cuff that she is putting on my arm, as if I were a child who had never felt one tightening.

“I’m going to numb your wrist then put in an IV. An anesthesiologist will give you some medicine to relax you when the surgery begins.” She says nothing personal. Nothing about how I use my eyes. Will I be happy for an improved golf game? Will I be able to read the fine print? Do I watch a lot of TV? I’m just an old man and she’s a nurse who’s on her tenth patient of the day. All the same protocol, all the same dull routine.

I feel a brief prick at the top of my wrist. When she finishes, she tells me about the drops. “You’ll get four different kinds of drops a few minutes apart, then one more before Dr. Cutter begins.” She takes my glasses. Everything blurs, the cart that holds whatever she is giving me, the curtain that hides me from anyone passing through the corridor, her face whose expression I can no longer read.

She puts in the first drop. She doesn’t conserve. It stings and dribbles down my face. I wipe it with the kleenex she hands me before she leaves the room. She returns three more times, puts in three more drops, then tells me the anesthesiologist will be in shortly.

This time when she leaves, I’m conscious of a funny taste in my mouth and an arrhythmia in my heart. It passes, but then I begin to shake. I can’t control it, as if I’m in some kind of epileptic fit. My hands are cold and despite my shoes, my feet are ice-fishing cold. I tense my muscles and the shaking stops but as soon as I try to relax, the shaking starts again. I tense and relax, tense and relax. If I don’t stop shaking, Dr. Cutter will cut through to my brain.

Slowly the shaking stops and I begin to warm. By the time someone comes into the room again, I’m quiet.

“Hello, Dr. West.” The voice is female, familiar, but I can’t place it. Behind a surgical mask, she could be anyone, any age, and I wonder why she calls me “doctor.” I never list my PhD on a form. No one since my teaching days has called me doctor and, even then, most students called me Conrad. We’re all equals, we trust each other, was the code of my classes.

“Do I know you?” I ask.

The voice is crisp. “I’ll be your anesthesiologist, Dr. West. Administer your soporific.”

I don’t like how she avoids my question, how she stresses doctor, uses a word I used to level at students who failed to pay attention.

“I’ll give you something in your IV to relax you, but you’ll still be awake,” she says.

“What made me shake?” I ask. “Was it from something in the IV?”

“Nothing in there yet. There’s epinephrine in the drops. You absorbed it too quickly. You had an adrenalin rush.”

She leaves the room as she says, “Not enough to kill you.”

Moments later, the pretty nurse reappears. She seems less brisk now as she says, “You’re up next” and wheels me into the operating room. She stops the bed under an overhead light and tilts it upward, says “Good luck” and leaves.

“Can you tell me your name?” says a gowned figure on my left. A male voice this time.

“Conrad West.”

“Your date of birth?”

“July 7, 1950.”

“Which eye are we doing surgery on today?”

“Right,” I say.

Surgery. The word sounds ominous, not the standard procedure Dr. Cutter explained. A nearly error-free routine. Why he chose ophthalmology. He and his six thousand dollars, ten times a day, minimal risk of lawsuits.

“I’m giving you something to help you relax,” says the familiar voice of the anesthesiologist to my right. “Dr. Cutter wants you awake.”

Silence for a moment, then I hear Dr. Cutter, who’s standing in front of me. “You comfortable, Conrad?”

“I’m fine.”

“We’ll begin in a moment. If you need to cough or sneeze or anything, signal me. I don’t want to slip. Fifteen, twenty minutes, and you’ll be done. On your way to 20-20 vision.

He’s a proud man, this Dr. Cutter. I hope he’s right.

“Is he ready, Dr. McArdle?”

The name is as familiar as the voice that says, “Let me know if you need more of the drug, Dr. West.” I’m struggling to remember who she might be when Dr. Cutter asks me to look down. I forget everything as I see the unexpected.

Neon images float before me. What is seeing? My eye? My brain? Residual memory of the view I’ve just had of the mountains? These images aren’t impressionist. They’re crisp, modern, brilliant. Fuchsia drifts like a cloud from the left into the center. Above it cobalt. Two rectangles, turquoise and pink, sit in front of what must be Dr. Cutter’s eyes. They seem to move in and out of his eye sockets, then into his skull. It would be terrifying if it weren’t like the trips I used to take in my LSD days. The cobalt and fuchsia turn to gold the shape of the Cascades. Dr. Cutter’s skull and eye sockets look like Munch’s The Scream except for the brilliance of the flattened pink and turquoise marshmallows moving in and out to the rhythm of his scalpel. To the right of my vision field, I see the orange beak of a cardinal and realize that what I’m seeing is what I have seen. A dream image imprinted in technicolor.

A beak sucks color from my eyes
A rainbow straw
screaming neon into Munch’s eye sockets

Too soon, Dr. Cutter says, “That’s it. It all went perfectly.” He removes the clamps from my eye and leaves the room. Someone wheels me back into my cubicle and draws the curtain to close me in. I blink and the room comes into sharp focus. I know that the surgery has been successful, that my right eye is doing the work my left myopic one can’t. I want to take the trip with my left eye now.

Dr. Cutter comes in. His mask is gone and I can see him clearly. “It all went perfectly,” he says. “Textbook. You feel okay? No nausea? No dizziness?”

“It was extraordinary,” I say.


“The colors. Like a neon lava flow.”

“Best image I’ve heard. You sound like a poet.”

“I am,” I say.

“A physician poet? I heard Dr. McArdle call you Dr. West.”

“PhD in literature, I’m afraid. Dr. McArdle’s name sounds familiar. Do you know where she went to school?”

“I don’t. Back East somewhere.” He reaches out to shake my hand. “See you tomorrow for the post-op. Maybe you can write me a poem about what you saw. I’ll add it to my collection. Yesterday someone gave me a painting. Always happy when the trip is good.”

He leaves the cubicle, drawing the curtain behind him.

I’m still struggling to remember where I’ve seen Dr. McArdle before when she comes in. She’s removed her mask and with my right eye I recognize her face. The strawberry mark over half of her right cheek.

“Dr. West,” she says. “We meet again.”

“Yes,” I say.

“Still staring at my birthmark, I see.”

“No, I’m only half-seeing anyway.”

“Better than how you saw when I was in college. Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back to take out the IV.”

She leaves the room, drawing the curtain. I wonder why she doesn’t leave the IV to the nurse. While I wait for her to return, I think about what happened. Jaimie McArdle had been difficult all semester, challenging every interpretation that didn’t jive with her skewed view of the world. I lost patience the day we were discussing “The Birthmark.” She insisted that Hawthorne’s Aylmer was right to remove his wife’s birthmark. Science triumphs even if a few people like Aylmer’s wife die in science’s experiments.

I should never have said what I did in front of the class. “And what profession do you plan to pursue, Ms. McArdle? May I suggest anesthesiology? It’s a good soporific.”

Someone in the class asked for a definition. “Soporific,” I said. “Sleep inducing. Hawthorne’s point. Aylmer’s potion brings the sleep of death to his wife, but he’s the one who’s been asleep while he tries to play God.”

I can still see McArdle spring from her chair, pointing to her own birthmark and saying, “You all avoid looking at my face.” In a line that could have been straight out of Hawthorne, she said, “Would that any one of you could remove this mark.” She stormed from the room. I laugh now to see how she became the anesthesiologist I suggested. A good choice, no doubt. Someone who doesn’t interact with patients, who only puts them to sleep.

Jaimie McArdle returns, her eyes squinting so the birthmark puckers into a sinister line like the grin of the Cheshire cat. She takes something out of her pocket and I watch her insert it into the tube on my wrist

I hear her say, “Just one last soporific, Dr. West.”

A cardinal fills the screen of my eyes. It flies backwards, it’s beak so orange, its cry is neon until it darkens to pumpkin, then brown, then to a dim light shining at the end of the dark tunnel.


Sharon Dean


Banner Photograph: [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (, via Wikimedia Commons (Cardinal Bird)

7 thoughts on “Neon by Sharon Dean

  1. I enjoyed reading this as it is so full of wonderful descriptive prose. There was also the building tension , my concern that the operation would go well but still in the back of my mind thinking of all the possibilities of what will go wrong. The ending of course is a classical clichéd end, where I am am left wondering if this is true, then who wrote this?


  2. Beautiful and sinister. The build-up and uneasiness of the situation hooked me. Good job. All the very best


  3. I am surprised the New Yorker doesn’t pay more for poems, but you’re right.
    Don’t believe Conrad as a man. Why mention his wife if you’re not going to use her. It’s a short procedure, wouldn’t she be there to drive him home? The elderly woman has a companion.
    Hawthorne’s search for perfection is something of a mismatch with revenge. Poe could do it, but . . .
    The birth marked doctor and Hawthorne come much too late, I think.
    Fine description, though. I just don’t get a sense of foreboding.


  4. Sharon Dean’s evocative description, filled with color images that point subtly, yet clearly, to the vivid vision the protagonist experiences immediately following his surgery creates a believable (although, perhaps, not likeable) character, as well as a fast-paced narrative that definitely holds the reader’s attention.

    In addition, the realistic sense of setting in the impersonal medical office shows that the author has done her homework. As someone who has experienced cataract surgery, I can confidently say that the check-in procedure and the details of the surgery itself are accurately depicted. For instance, patients may or may not be accompanied by someone to drive them home. The mention of Dr. West’s wife makes clear that the office requires someone to pick up the patient, yet her absence suggests the protagonist’s isolation as he faces the operation (and an unfamiliar situation).

    During the brisk preliminaries, Conrad West shows an important side of his character. He deeply wants to be noted as an individual, someone who is singled out and special. In addition, his wish that the receptionist recognize him as a published poet relates subtly to the complex possible motives of Dr. McArdle, who, as a student felt that her own particularly identifying quality (the birthmark and her concern about it) had not been given what she considered its due.

    While the details of setting and of Dr. West’s reaction to the place and anticipation of the procedure may seem banal, in fact the notes of menace are there. For example, the blurred vision that takes away the patient’s ability to see clearly and the pain of the eye drops. These immediately precede the panic attack Conrad West experiences before the anesthesiologist, hidden behind a mask and mysteriously cognizant of the patient’s academic title, enters the room. Dr. West says the word surgery sounds “ominous”; he then experiences the terrifying colors, which he likens to an LSD trip (clearly, a bad one) whereby the surgeon becomes the horrifying, skull-like figure from Munch’s “The Scream”. All of these details evoke a sense of menace leading into the final events of the story, whereby Dr. West’s former student may – or may not – be administering a lethal dose of medication. The final image of the dark tunnel suggests death, of course, yet this tunnel could also represent the death of the professor’s view of himself as an instructor who created a classroom where both he and his students believed that “we’re all equals, we trust each other.”

    The author’s nods to American literature enrich this fine story. Most directly, she summons up Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark”, while the stunning conclusion builds on the tradition of Poe. The evocation of place and of darkly ironic characters brings to mind Flannery O’Conner, while the climactic action offers an homage to the modern playwright Margaret Edson, whose 1998 drama “Wit” also features an academic who finds herself in the hands of a former student (now a physician) and where the word “soporific” takes on deep meaning.

    Yet, in the end the story is purely Sharon Dean’s creation: A remarkable achievement in every element of fiction.


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