T A Mazac
As the elevator ascended, its low whine coupled with a pulsating moan. The mechanical noises stopped with the car at the fourth floor, but the moaning continued its cadence. The doors slid open and the noise became voice, an exhausted child’s voice, reciting mantra with a slow, drug-slurred hopelessness.
“Da dee.– Da dee.” The voice, Kyle’s, led me to his room.
Kyle, only six, rocked slowly on forearms and knees. He looked small in the bed, a little mummy, swaddlings stained brown and yellow where his skin was gone, burnt away. His thick body fluids wept from skinless tissues as bags dripped clear liquid into tubes hanging down into his veins, replenishing his loss. He pleaded help, comfort, with each breath. I didn’t know how to reduce his pain, fatigue, and confusion. I stood close and spoke softly to God and my son. His calling didn’t stop, even in his closest state to sleep, when the rocking would cease for a few minutes. He pled with one word for me to come, stay, never leave. But I will leave, and when I return, before the elevator reaches his floor, I will hear the calling, accusing, because I had left him, alone in his room, to burn to death.
I tried to come. The melting carpet stuck to my knees and finger tips. I scrambled, naked, up the stairs. The others, adults and children, had come down to flee through the apartment door. When it opened, air rushed in. The fire exploded. Windows blew out and flame rose from the burning couch to the ceiling, like a thick fluid falling up and splashing, flowing over my head and up the stairwell. I had turned and followed it. It burned my back as I crawled the landing to the boys’ room. I tried not to breath. In the black and red haze I felt Kyle in his bed and pulled him to the floor, pivoted on my knees, flopped across his brother’s bed and groped for him. Pushing forward, I dug , searching between the bed and wall. I jumped up, and standing between the beds screamed for Timmy. My chest convulsed into uncontrollable coughing. I purged burnt-rubber tasting air, squeezed my lungs empty, then couldn’t stop from gulping to refill them. My ears rang. The orange glow of the third floor bedroom window began shrinking into its center. I was going under. A cowardly panic seized me, and I vaulted headfirst through the window, leaving my son. Leaving Kyle.
God is merciful. Neighbors tugged me away from the inferno that was the apartment’s front door and wrapped me with a towel. I repeated with shame to those around me, “I’ve lost my boys. My boys are gone.” But as I was helped from the court-yard landing by neighbors, firemen, strong men and heroes every one, were tipping ladders to the third floor from the street. Returning from an early morning call, they saw the windows blow out.
I found Tim, Kyle’s older brother, standing unhurt on the sidewalk. Out front, near the wet street, I found Kyle. He was lying where the soot-blackened fireman had just placed him, between hoses, on a thin patch of grassy parkway. He was black and smelt of smoke and burnt meat. His jaw hung open and over to one side, even his baby teeth blackened. The only light spots on his little face, from eyes rolled up and turned inward, were glassy and dead. The fire fighter had pulled his breather and pressed it to Kyle’s face before dashing through the flames with Kyle clutched tight against his chest. The fireman was close to Kyle, on all fours, hacking and wheezing to keep air in his burnt lungs. I dropped next to my small son and prayed. Then helping people swarmed around us in the flashing blue and red darkness and buoyed us up and into waiting rigs.
They rushed Kyle to L A County, and me to a private, Catholic hospital. I was allowed to leave after five days and went to Kyle wearing a pastel print gown and paper slippers. “Third degree burns over thirty percent of his body. Lungs looking better, less fluid,” the young intern spoke without looking over the clipboard’s papers he was flipping. “The back of his torso, buttocks, legs, and most of one foot.”
“When will you start skin grafts?” I asked. The doctor looked over his glasses to me and then the clump of people at the nurses’ station. He took me by the elbow and led me down the hall, speaking softer now, watched me more than where we headed.
“Well, there are two schools of thought about when, if at all, to close deep burns, that have, you know, burned away muscle with the skin. Some believe scar tissue will form thick, regardless, and the expense and pain of the grafting process may just as well be avoided.”
I stopped, forcing the young man to turn and face me. “Bull shit! You’re just feeding me bull shit.” He raised his hand, but I raised my voice and cut off his protest. “I’m taking my boy out of this place if you don’t do what’s right.” The doctor’s face was going blank. “Fuck the money!” I yelled. His eyes dropped to his papers then looked up coldly.
“You have no insurance. We will not release your son to your care. He will not receive grafting,” he talked through me, turned and walked back the way we had come.
“I’m not leaving Kyle here,” I hollered at his backside.
Emanuel Hospital in Portland, Oregon had a good burn ward and would help Kyle if I got him there. I called every resource possible to move him: Armed Services, Red Cross, churches, social services, but none would fly him up or pay the cost of six seats and an extra flight attendant (in case of an emergency requiring evacuation) on a commercial flight. Without a doctor’s release they wouldn’t help. But I was taking my son. So I bummed an old Dodge police car, and after scrubbing the back with Lysol, built a bed, a nest of sheets. Then I served the hospital papers absolving them of all responsibility, admitting I was going against their sage advice, and I came for Kyle.
I picked him from the bed with my arms under his chest and belly. He screamed and begged to be left alone. The anointed care givers — doctors, nurses, and orderlies — all looked on. Frowns and folded arms conveyed their disapproval, and none offered assistance. I pressed the elevator button with my elbow. After propping Kyle, who never stopped calling and moaning, into a crouch on his healthy knees and forearms, we rolled the big blocked Dodge down an on-ramp heading north. It was Christmas Eve.
“Please, Daddy, stop. Stop. It hurts!” Kyle pleaded between moans, every time the big Dodge would rise on its worn shocks and then bottom out as we crossed road swells, weaved slower traffic, or thumped over overpass expansion cracks. I fed him Valium. After topping the Grape Vine I gave the old Dodge a workout. The faded orange needle in the dash wagged around the one hundred mark. We pulled up at Emanuel’s emergency room Christmas day. Kyle saw the large building with its glowing windows through the foggy back glass.
“No Daddy. Please. No.” He knew this was the place of pain.
ER workers peeled his fouled dressing and Kyle writhed and screamed, “Daddy! Noooo! Noooooo…” The exposed muscles of his calf balled and stretched as he tried to kick. Disbelief crept into the workers faces as I answered their choppy interrogation.
“How long ago was he burned?”
“About two weeks.”
“How long have you had him out of the hospital?”
“Why were his wounds left open?”
“Funding?” I asked back. Something other than disbelief painted these men and women’s faces. Around their busy eyes and set jaws hovered the tension of caring. I trusted them. The pain of cleaning his burns had put my thinning, sunken eyed baby boy into shock. I V’s were inserted and Kyle’s pleas once more assumed their regular cadence, that of his labored breathing; all the agony and hopelessness was still expressed with one word: “Daddy.”
A nurse entered the ER with a long stainless steel pan. She unwrapped, then pulled up, like wet clothes for the line, a fogged sheet of film. She wore gloves and surgical mask. “What’s that?” I asked. She glanced over to see who trespassed her concentration.
“Cadaver skin,” she answered. ” It will cut the pain threshold. Pig skin also works well.” The doctor accepted the ghoulish membrane and covered Kyle’s twitching leg muscles. Next the foot, butt, back and other leg were blanketed like a patchwork quilt. Kyle’s breathing slowed, and he stopped calling. He turned his dark-haired head to one side, searched me out with his large glassy brown eyes, and after pinning my eyes, to make sure that I understood, said, “Thank you Daddy. You can leave me here.” I fled to a corner of the waiting room and cried until my throat hurt, and thanked my God.
Grafting, to close Kyle’s wounds, started the next day. Skin was shaved from his thigh fronts, perforated and stretched, then stapled in place. Kyle would call me from his isolation room (he’d picked up a staph infection that needed containment) many times over the next three months. The phone would ring at midnight or three in the morning, after I’d sat by his bed all afternoon, and my lonely little boy would just need to hear my voice.
In 1994, I was in a small Oregon hospital. Dr. Stone was afraid he was losing me. I’d picked up food poisoning on Father’s Day. I was burning up and chilling down in a vicious cycle that had prompted Stone to require my every orifice tubed, my chest wired, two I Vs inserted, and my body being laid on a torture rack that burned when I shivered and iced when I cooked red. I only became aware of these bodily intrusions when the numb wanting-to-die dark would occasionally part, and through a dull fog of sick I listened to people trying to communicate with me.
And I heard Kyle.
“Dad. Dad?” I knew it was my tall, broad-shouldered son, a grown man. Strong in heart and mind. I could not pull myself out of the sick to see him, but I knew he had come. I could hear him calling.
Samples of Papa’s Poetry
After sinking dad into the ground
I began flunking biology
obliging my motoring out
beyond jetties and onto green water
to measure turbidity and
cast treble-hooked bait to screaming gulls
like erratic kites
reeling in memories
of their graceful glides gone
tangled and pinwheeling
down translucent strains of line
dropped from a pier filled with elbowing men and boys
hoping for halibut or bass or mackerel
with his grappling hooks breaking up mussel clumps and
his baskets straining out crab
to stay all night with me
up and down a thinning line of killers
or hunkering down in a damp sleeping bag
with the glint of pier lights winking
from slime glued scales
on rails, benches, forearms and
when I stood nose high to sinks
where goo was pulled from meat
and flung out and down
into the rolling swell of the dark
robust waves rushing to a rumbling past
of vibrated timbers and then mist
gone to halos
over lamp posts
boot to spade
and founding a cloister
of quaking aspen
No Hippie Nomad
would hang drywall
and drive a pickup truck
until his buddy’s wedding keggers ran dry
and he starts pulling draft
from the kitchen tap
and goes healing the unclean
with his callused hands
while preaching hell
and the drowning of child molesters
like gunnysack cats
eight stepping out
your Aryan way;
who knew they’d wrap
your bo tree swastika
and golden Buddha
in barbed wire?
turning away on the bureau glass
the me of bent hands
pained at pulling bills from her purse
and the hoisting of quitting-time draft
among those soiled
after washing your face
pits, crotch and socks
at their sink,
steal toilet paper
and a shaker of salt
for brushing your teeth
and check the dumpster for cans
to cover the heads
of on-ramp sprinklers that may
in the shrubbery
where you sleep
Short Drive from Munich
Expecting only effigy
I find the hide of ghosts
who seeped by creak of oven doors
the chamber’s tallow coat.
Horizontal Butt Stroke and Slash
Fat-ass inertia, they said
would drive my rifle’s butt
to break gook’s head–
then step in
ride the bayonet
down zipper ribs and shirttail gut with him
slant-eyes wide and falling.
Jump, they said,
shove the blade until the barrel
thumps his chest.
Stomp his whimpering throat,
it helps the steel pull free
from warm muscle’s grip,
and by now I was gasping
and had to piss
thinking of facing
that gook being trained
to do the same.
I’ve not the faith of Paul
around his kitchen table
how the pulling
of a hollow needle
through his dirty hair
sharp and clean
their blunt lover
the slow slide,
swaying line of lashes
that rolled me,
but a leaning pass
a hot-boxed ash,
and the lap of sticky air
between our cheeks.