I gave him what was left of my hand because he asked for it with such a kindness; he even called me miss. It was the kindness you forget about when you run out of family and end up in a home off the soggy edge of the Everglades. Rosecliff, they called it, to make it sound less like swamp muck. I didn’t know how well I could stand anymore until that man, the father of the head doctor, told me we were leaving for somewhere better. You don’t get feet to disintegrate like mine unless you traveled, and traveled I did, and travel I would. All that man had to say was please, you know, before I remembered how to walk again.
I stopped talking so much at seventy-four, when I had my real surgery. Knocked out the tumor like Ali, that uppercut of drugs and slices. Knocked out my voice too, for a time, and I realized I had been wasting my ears for ages. Perked those right up, started paying attention too late. I didn’t speak the whole way out of Rosecliff, and he was okay with that. He had his airboat parked up on the dock that no one was young enough to use, and I got on, my IV getting caught on the seatbelt. I took it off the stand and laid the sloshing bag in my lap, to save the nurses the trouble later of plugging me back in, as a matter of habit. I wasn’t thinking about coming back, out of the Everglades; that mangrove paradise sat outside my window, damp, thick with childish life, all of it unafraid, complete, and rooted in the deep, good water.
He was the father of the head doctor at Rosecliff, but he must have been twenty years my junior. His ragged shirt hid anaconda muscles, the kind that made me wonder if he wrestled gators. When he turned the airboat everything swayed but him; he called it having mangrove roots. It was a shaky old thing, that airboat, but he said you can’t give up on your first. When we were kids they didn’t let the black children on the airboats, and when he got one, he kept fixing it up, fixing it up. When I did ask where we were going, he said into the glades, deep. He heard I had stories. Stories are gold around these parts.
Fifteen ancients sat on a marooned barge around a barrel fire. They were all runaways, sort of, the types that had to grow up fast and were done being so serious. Veterans, retirees, never-workers. The one on the end had this little guitar, a ukulele, because he was never in a band. It didn’t matter to him that the arthritis had settled in, he still kept it with him. Family, or something.
I began to tell my stories. Meadows and Zeppelins, steeples and heroes. I lulled two to sleep for the first time since those private wars that scarred their smiles. The airboat driver that brought me there tapped his foot beside mine, to the melody of my words. I didn’t want to go back to Rosecliff, I had forgotten what it was like to step into darkness, to feel the insects buzz at the nape of the neck, to have the stars beat down on you like a million beautiful needles. Living was where the stories came from.
When I finished, they began to hum. And they sang; they sang until the orderlies came, all with white coats and flashlights. The head doctor was among them, brow furrowed like his fathers, and his coat masked those same sinew arms. He had more hair too. Shaking his head he tried to shoo away his father, herding the grizzled ones that belonged to Rosecliff onto a much larger airboat. It was clean and new, and the head doctor didn’t drive it. They buckled me in tight, and I saw the head doctor argue with his father. Not this again, was all I heard before we left, following the glinting spheres of light that was our home.
When I was back in my room I said a nasty thing to that head doctor, and he said we had to grow up, have some dignity. I counted the seconds until he left, and flicked the light on and off, staring out at the forested waters. That old boat pulled up at the dock again; I knew we’d die if we grew up anymore.
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