A work of serial fiction by Noah Sanders
Earl’s first day in the hospital was one of the best days he had ever had; he thought he was dead. He didn’t know too much, or really anything, about religion. But he did know that heaven was a place religious people talked about, and he was pretty sure where he was fit almost exactly with the descriptions of heaven he had heard. His bed was soft, everything was white, and the people flitting in and out of his room, dressed entirely in white, had to be angels. They brought him food and water, changed his sheets, clipped his toenails, shaved his head, and even sponge bathed him, a task that usually required at least three angels – two to lift his fat and one to scrub.
On Earl’s second day in the hospital, he learned that he wasn’t the only person in his room. The wall to the left of his bed was not a wall at all, but a white plastic curtain, and he could hear sounds coming from the other side. During the day there was the ruffling of sheets interspersed here and there with sighs of impatience, always followed by the soft padding of bare feet on linoleum, back and forth, a shadow pacing just visible in between the end of the curtain and the floor. And during the night there was the snoring, loud and constant, starting late in the evening, when Earl’s white room was completely bathed in dark, and ending almost immediately with the rising of the sun. The curtain and the sounds behind it confused Earl. At the very least, he thought, heaven’s occupants should have their own rooms.
On Earl’s third day in the hospital – when a doctor finally made it around to see him and tell him why he had been hospitalized, why they had shaven his head (to prepare his scalp for the five lines of stitches zigzagging up and down and across it), and when he could expect to be ready to leave (exactly at that moment; please leave; space is short and they need beds) – Earl learned he was in a hospital.
He was initially shocked by this revelation – as would be anyone who had mistaken a hospital for heaven, who had grown accustomed to a comfortable and cushy life inside the pearly gates – but he quickly settled into a hospital life he found comparable, if not preferable, to his past life in prison. The doctors and nurses, for their part, hated Earl. They wanted him out. But it was clear Earl would take no initiative in the matter himself, and they couldn’t exactly force him out. That would require a crane. So Earl’s fourth, fifth and sixth days in the hospital were very pleasant, aside from the noises and the shadow pacing on the other side of the curtain.
“I am the man from beyond the curtain! At long last we meet, Earl!”
Earl stared. It was his seventh day in the hospital and he was spending it lying in bed, happily eating the Jell-o brought to him by his increasingly impatient angel-come-nurse. Suddenly, the curtain to his left shot to the wall, revealing the short, emaciated man standing behind it. His hair was dyed blue and cropped close to his scalp, and his knotted brown beard extended all way to the floor, brushing the tops of his bare feet.
“Or is it you who is the man from beyond the curtain?”
Earl continued to stare. His Jell-o, on its way to his gaping mouth, fell from the spoon now frozen in mid air and landed on his chest. Earl’s eyes flicked down to the Jell-o, then quickly back up to the man standing before him.
“Earl…Earl…” The man fingered his beard and stared at him.
“Don’t you want to know how I know your name?”
Earl was silent. He did want to know. He was starting to think that he had misjudged his environment again, that the hospital was, in fact, heaven. And this man, suddenly appearing, this man who knew Earl’s name just by gazing upon him, was surely God.
“It says it above your bed. Right on that white board there. See? E-a-r-l. Earl.”
Earl looked up. Directly above his head was a white board, and written across it in green dry-erase marker was his name. Taped next to that on the wall was a flyer outlining the correct hand-washing technique, and below that was a dispenser full of hand sanitizer. He was, he decided, definitely in a hospital.
“You, my friend, are fat. Fatter than I imagined. I’ve been sitting in my bed trying to figure out what you look like, but all I have to go off of are the heaves and pants of the nurses when they wash you, which isn’t that much to go off of, really just enough to tell me that you are fat.”
“What brings you to the hospital?”
Earl wasn’t sure how to answer. Slowly, he raised his hand (the one without the spoon formerly holding the Jell-o) to his head and felt for the first time his scars. They were raised and soft, and they burned when he traced his fingers along them. When he brought his hand back down, flakes of dry blood floated down with it, a small cloud of red dandruff.
“Never mind. That’s not important. That’s not what I wanted to talk about with you. I have come to you, all the way from the land beyond the curtain, across bed and linoleum floor, to ask you a question of magnitude indescribable in any language known to human ears.”
His eyes sparkled with intensity as he spoke, and his beard bounced up and down and side to side as he hopped around with child-like enthusiasm.
“My dear friend, would you like to come with us?”
The road wormed its way from distant lands, some lands closer than others, some dark and some bright, some cold and some warm, some full of trees or rocks or grass or nothing at all, all of them known or unknown, waiting for discovery or return. From those places the road came, sprawling out in different directions before curving around and back and converging into one straight line shooting straight through the city and ending at the hospital doors.
The road had recently been repaved. The tar was deep and black below the bright yellow dashing through the middle, catching the sun and throwing it back upwards into the glass buildings lining the road, into the cars beside and beneath the buildings, and into the protruding and perfectly round, white, and hairless belly of the man on the side of the road, leaning against a motorcycle and lazily swirling a toothpick in his mouth.
His name was Bubba. He was short – somewhere around five foot five – and had long, nut-brown hair that he brushed behind his ears, hanging down to the middle of his back. He wore tattered red flip-flops, stiff blue jean shorts, and a black leather vest draped around his huge and distended belly, a belly that seemed not so much fat as round, the skin stretched tight around it like he had swallowed a beach ball.
Bubba’s belly had a lot of peculiar uses. It could be a drum (not a very loud one), it was a very efficient shock absorber (Bubba had learned many crashes ago to land on his belly), and if he sat down, back against the wall, it was a fantastic table. At this moment, however, it was doing an excellent job of reflecting the sunlight off of the the road and straight into Earl’s eyes.
His sudden introduction to Silas, a doctor’s appearance with what Earl was sure must be the world’s largest needle (it was a normal sized needle), and Earl’s immediate and impulsive decision to heave himself up and out of bed, coaxing his stiff and weak legs into following Silas out of the hospital as quickly as they could (extremely slowly), left Earl feeling very overwhelmed and very confused. The addition of this mysterious figure lounging on the side of the road in leather and denim, only partially visible through the glare from his belly, was not helping. But Silas was heading straight for him, and Earl had no one else to follow and nowhere else to go.
So, slowly, Earl lumbered after Silas. Pausing now and then, doubled over wheezing and praying for the burning in his lungs to subside or consume him, whichever would be fastest.
When he finally reached Silas, he found him standing in front of Bubba, talking and gesturing wildly with his hands, while Bubba watched, presumably listening, standing still save for the swirl of his toothpick.
When Earl reached the two, Silas turned around suddenly to face him, hopping in surprise and glee.
“Welcome! Welcome! Let me introduce you to our friends!”
“This,” he continued, draping an arm around Earl’s huge, sweaty shoulders, “is Bubba. And this,” he continued, “Is Mama May.”
As Silas spoke, Bubba stepped aside, moving his belly and revealing the sidecar, along with the woman – tiny, old, and wrinkled, wearing a pink sundress and a green motorcycle helmet – strapped inside.
“Those two won’t go anywhere without each other, and I don’t know where I’d be without them! Isn’t that right Bubba?”
Bubba nodded slowly, staring at Earl and swirling the toothpick in his mouth.
“But that’s all I’ll say for now. We’ve got places to go and people to meet. So I ask again, my dear friend, are you coming with?”
Earl was more confused than ever. He was pretty sure he had died in the hospital and was now living in some nonsensical purgatory that lay at the intersection of his nightmares and, well, something weird (Earl didn’t know enough about the world to articulate that part). As he was about to respond, to shrug his shoulders and say “sure”, he collapsed on the ground. Briefly, he made eye contact with a very concerned Silas, a completely unmoved and stoic Bubba – leaning against his motorcycle and swirling his toothpick – and a Mama May who, as far as Earl could tell, was either dead or asleep, before passing out from heat and exhaustion, sprawling in the middle of the road.
To be continued…
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