The glare of surgical lights exploits the man’s ashen flesh.
“Airway,” someone yells.
Gurgles escape with each thump as gloved hands—fingers interlaced—depress his chest cavity inwards, ribs snapping.
Another pair of hands, lank and willowy—not the thumper’s, but someone whose keratin digs into the tender flesh on his neck, thrust his jaw forward. The man envisions polish, red and meticulous, his mind-body connection having not yet severed. With his mouth jimmied open, curved metal flattens his tongue to accommodate a breathing tube—semi-rigid and ropy—that slides deep into his trachea. Once attached, the man’s lungs inflate with the aid of humming artificial bellows, though his heart remains at a standstill.
An hour earlier, at the Great Clips, resentment engulfed the man as another customer packed his fat ass into the swivel chair of his hairdresser. The shaggy-haired patron shimmied and shuffled and groaned until the wholeness of his over-fed torso settled into the seat. The man attempted to swallow his anger, but decades of nagging regret hijacked his ingest. He ate his lip instead, as the nausea stirred; his impatience strangling his blood pumping vessels.
Thirty-five years ago, he’d snuck out of fatherhood after two months. The pregnancy, a mistake. For a while, he’d felt the weight of the sleeping baby girl on his chest, overtaken by the punishing burden of regret.
The familiar eyes of the hairdresser crowded the lens of her speckled pink frames. Mismatched animal prints divided her upper and lower torso as if two distinct predators butted against each other. Her peroxide blonde hair overhung her significant forehead; baubles jangled as she draped an apron over the man’s shoulders. A tattoo crept from the crack in her ass when she bent.
“Happy Father’s Day,” she said.
The man mouthed a soft thank you as the chair spun and the pssst of the spray bottle deposited water on the shafts of his uncut hair and the nape of his neck.
“Weather’s coming, rain,” the hairdresser said.
Cloudless sky occupied his periphery. The scissors sssssst.
“I watch the news,” she said as graying snippets of hair float to the floor. “Every morning. To see who’s killed who.”
He’d come every four weeks, listened to her babble as she trimmed the little hair he had, and tipped her well as they flubbed the back and forth of hairdresser-customer conversation.
“I’ve been on 19 cruises, and not a single bout of norovirus,” she chuckled, her laugh placeable.
“Are you going to see your father today?” The man asked.
“He split when I was little,” she said. The spray of freckles across her face sagging.
“Are you going to see your daughter after I make you presentable?”
From his larynx the man’s words ferried on desperation to within a flick of his tongue, but a bell clanged, the front door opened, and a woman approached the counter. Said she wanted to speak with Lucy, the stylist who cut her hair yesterday. She sounded thick, angry.
The man slumped to accommodate the clippers as Lucy scuttled to the front, a snuffed cigarette pinched between her thumb and forefinger, her clunky shoes drowning out the clatter of scissoring. The closer Lucy got to the front desk, the tighter the stylist’s fingers are on the man’s neck. Her attention hijacked.
“No one ever comes to thank us,” she whispered. Her voice fading as bile rose in the man’s throat and the wrenching squeeze in his chest provoked frantic gasps with the permanence of chopped hair.
Thump was the man on the floor.
Nineteen cruises with old folks had familiarized the hairdresser with CPR. Her efforts—compressing the man’s heart between his sternum and his vertebrae while waiting on the ambulance—were enough to keep his brain viable and his regret retreating to his marrow.
The man lies dead center of the resuscitation room. A slab of meat on a gurney: pale and distended amidst the polyphonic alarms, reptilian hiss of suction, IV tubing, emptied drug vials, discarded gloves, large catheter that snakes from his penis and connects to a bag suspended over a pool of blood that resembles a Rorschach; a butterfly, perhaps.
“Clear, clear, clear.”
A last ditch effort by the nurse stuns the man’s heart with electricity as a lullaby announcing a new birth plays overhead.
Rob Hengsterman is an emergency room nurse who writes. He lives in North Carolina with "the family" and sometimes wears pants. His work can be found at www.rehengsterman.com and the occasional tweet @robhengsterman