Edition 9: Serial Fiction: Intangible (Part 4 of 6) by A. A. Garrison
Hack’s machinations continue to influence Jeannie’s life. She seeks to help her mother’s failing health with her radio prize money. As an aside, we follow the strange existence of a Utah penny… GDH
VII. January, 1990
The hospital was in Pemberton, Ford’s sister town. The doctor dimpled in smile, and shook Jeannie’s hand.
“I’m Doctor Mills. How do you do, Miss Tuttle?” he asked robotically. He was middle-aged and small—not so much short, just insubstantial. Like a sandwich missing the meat, Jeannie thought.
“Good, hope you are,” she placated.
“Indeed I am,” he answered, then deliberately removed his glasses. “Now, about your mother—”
A dazed-looking man sidled by, and the doctor gave a confidential pause. The moment spun out, Jeannie’s mind running rampant—it was cancer, she knew, a fatal, malignant kind, with fangs and claws and a tail. Cancer had been in her thoughts since Mom had gone ill two months ago, but never so much as now, in this ammonia-scented hospital corridor. Part of her remained hopeful, but only in the way a child hopes Santa Claus is real.
The passerby passed and Dr. Mills looked up. “Miss Tuttle,” he resumed. “We’ve given your mother the usual battery of tests, and, well…” He trailed off, fixing Jeannie with a telling look.
Jeannie filled with ice. “And you don’t know what’s wrong, either,” she supplied, as brittle as she’d intended. She’d already taken Mom to one doctor—what had devoured a cool five hundred smackers of the prize money—and the quack had tested the woman to the moon and back, found nothing, then slapped Jeannie with that same nonplussed expression. She felt she could literally pull out her hair. Enough tests. No more tests.
Dr. Mills ignored her: “We are facing some…difficulties in her diagnosis.” His brow furled. “A physical revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Her blood tests show abnormalities but nothing conclusive. We’re still waiting for some of the deeper blood-work to come back, but that will probably just—”
“So you don’t know,” Jeannie interrupted.
The smallish doctor begrudgingly made her eyes, his face coloring; he could’ve been naked. “We don’t know,” he conceded.
He wore an expression Jeannie had seen before.
It evoked a sweaty summer day from her childhood, when Mom had won her divorce from the alcoholic adulterer who was Jeannie’s father, placing the girl at a delicate nine. To celebrate, she and Mom had stopped at some roadside burger stand—Bill’s Burgers, she wanted to call it—but when little Jeannie had ordered whatever clever moniker the place used for a hamburger, the teenage cashier had shaken his head. “All out of buns,” he’d said casually, then corrected a stray lock of hair. Not my problem, his face had said, I just work here.
And now that same indifference stared back at her, transposed over Dr. Mills.
Jeannie hung her head, her anger deflating into defeat. “How long does she have?” she asked softly, studying the checked linoleum.
The doctor sucked a short breath. “Oh, I couldn’t say, Miss Tuttle,” he said, with renewed aplomb. “Her condition could abruptly improve, or it could continue to…deteriorate. We just don’t know.”
Jeannie’s hands played with each other. “Okay, thank you, Doctor.” Her thready voice was too much like that of her dying mother.
Taking the hint, the doctor disengaged from Jeannie and disappeared down the hall.
She took the two steps to Mom’s room, number 111, and peered through the wire-mesh window. The room was hideously white: floor, drapes, walls, bedrail; sheets, ceiling, furniture. Even the machinery pumping God knows what into Mom. Mom was white, too, as daytime fog. She sat vaguely upright over the mechanical bed, smooshed small, eyes closed. For the first time Jeannie could remember, the woman looked old. Even when lounging around the house in curlers and a Mother Hubbard, she’d avoided old—stagnant, maybe, and a tad used-up; but not old. And when on a rampage, she certainly wasn’t old: rage seemed to turn back her clock, like a kind of makeup. However, as she vegetated in the pallid hospital bed—Jeannie wasn’t quite ready to call it a deathbed—the years had seemingly caught up all at once, leaving her a shuck of a woman.
Jeannie discreetly cracked the door and called, “Hello, hello,” creeping through. A force met her then, repellant and black and suffocating, what could only be looming death. Her steps were weighted and clumsy, as if treading water.
Mom’s eyes parted wrong, like tangled blinds. “Hey, shuguh pie,” she wheezed.
Jeannie unfolded a metal visitors chair—also white—and sat at bedside. She took Mom’s hand, cradling it as she might a wounded animal. It was cold and clammy, a papier-mâché mockery. The bones stood out, like sticks wrapped in butcher paper.
“I talked to Doctor Mills,” Jeannie said in a canned tone unlike her, as if addressing a large body of people. “He says you’re getting better.”
Mom laughed in controlled spurts. “I’m not deaf. Don’t be coy with me, Jeannie Mae,” she said, with an undead smile. There was a hint of her old fire, but it evaporated.
A rogue tear escaped Jeannie’s right eye and she wiped it away. “I’m sorry…” She reached for an excuse for her lie, but there was nothing. It was agony.
“S’okay, Jeannie. S’okay…”
Brightening the best she could, Jeannie changed the subject, with the usual inane questions: How’s the food? Nurses treating you good? Need anything? Any good-looking neighbors? The last dislodged more deadpan laughter from her mother.
The words ran out, and Jeannie gazed the room’s plainspoken window, kneading her mother’s hand. Then she was saying, “Do you remember hitting up a burger joint right after we left Dad?” The words came unconsciously, for no reason she knew, but she let them stand.
Mom’s face changed. “The place that ran outta buns?”
“It was Buck’s or Bill’s or Bob’s—”
“Bill’s, I think.”
Mom nodded. “Bill’s.” She appealed the room. “Whoever heard of a burguh place outta buns?” Sigh. “Made a helluva chili, though. Burned on the way out, but what a dish,” she added, then worked up a stringy wad of phlegm. Only her head moved, like a flower in the wind.
Jeannie gave her some water, feeling around the memory. Bill’s. Yes, definitely Bill’s, a little fifth-rate trailer just past the turnoff for Highway 11. And they did get chili. It was the last restaurant before home, so, after learning of the dearth of buns, it was either chili or a hotdog. Despite her age, Jeannie was well aware of what goes into the average frank, therefore making the choice for her. The chili was hot and peppery, the kind that hoovers your sinuses, but Mom was right: it was good. Excellent, actually. The two had cleaned their respective bowls, and left with compliments to the cook. And Jeannie was glad afterward, glowing in her little-girl way. It beat a burger any day, and it was cool, too, how her treat had come from someone’s ineptitude, good from bad.
“What about it, Jeannie-girl?” Mom uttered, staring pensively. It was the dope talking now, whatever they had her on.
“No reason,” Jeannie said, telling the truth. She squeezed the frail thing in her hand. “Love you, Mom,” she said, still truthful. It too came from nowhere, like her asking about Bill’s. Only weeks ago they’d been speaking with their backs turned, and now this.
“Love you too,” Mom replied, returning the ghost of a squeeze. Something passed between them then, and Jeannie saw movement in her mother’s eyes, a soft flicker, what may have been a forthcoming apology. Then Mom coughed more and the flicker died, the eyes again deficient and faraway.
“Do you know when Lincoln’ll be back?” Mom asked, recovering.
Jeannie dropped the hand like it was hot. “Lincoln?” she asked. Her guts lifted into her throat.
Concern bunched Mom’s face, crowding alongside the ruin there. “Doctor Mills,” she said, then paused. “His name’s Lincoln. What’s wrong, baby? Look like yuh seen a ghost.”
“Oh, nothing…” Jeannie said, lying now. She reclaimed her mother’s hand, a broken smile forming above her chin. “Nothing at all.”
VIII. The Utah Penny
The penny started life in the place known as Utah, as a chunk of copper, in the bowels of the earth since time out of mind. There it slept until 1969, when Jones Enterprises dug an open-pit mine, disturbing the tumor of metal. From there, the ore was brokered to a mafia front named Hoech-Shek, after which it was consigned to a dusty warehouse for nearly a decade, dodging sale after sale as other stock was taken over it. Then, in the fall of 1980, the United States Treasury placed a large order from the brokerage, and six months later the penny in question was born, along with thousands of its brothers (or sisters, if it does you). This was 1981.
The coin saw immediate circulation in Philadelphia, its city of birth. After a short layover in a local bank, it was dispersed in a fifty-count roll to one Peter Poletta, the owner of a small bodega in the city’s downtown metropolitan area. Due to a lack of change-making transactions, the coin remained in Pete Po’s change till for the better part of a year (the bodega specialized in marijuana, illegal fireworks, and deviant pornography, all untaxed and priced in whole dollars). It wasn’t until one muggy afternoon the following summer, when a chagrinned William Stitch happened upon the store that wasn’t a store, that the penny saw use.
Bill Stitch was a wreck: bloodshot eyes, clenched teeth, sweat-blossoms down his “I Saw The Tennessee Terror!” tee-shirt. A fellow child-rearer may have recognized him as being neck-deep in the American Vacation. “I want a Pepsi! I want a Pepsi!” his backseat tyrant had cried for nearly an hour, and despite traversing the seediest stretch of city the Idahoan had ever seen, Bill couldn’t take it anymore, had to get the brat a Pepsi if it killed him. After passing the suspiciously vacant shelves, Bill had selected a can of the stuff from the store’s lone cold case, but when he went to pay, all he had was a twenty, wouldn’cha know’t. Hence the register opened, with the Utah penny atop the mound, begging Pete Po’s greasy fingers.
There followed a long, strange trip for the wayward coin. It stayed with Bill Stitch and family until Virginia, where the man used it to buy yet another soft drink for William Jr. There, Craig Tucker, a long-haul trucker out of Maryland, became the coin’s beneficiary, when receiving change for a pack of smokes (he’d officially kicked the habit two years prior, but it never hurt to have a pack). Deep in Tucker the trucker’s warm jeans pocket, the penny hitched a ride down to Florida, kept company by three less-shiny pennies, a Trojan condom, and some stowaway lint. The ride was dark and uneventful, much like its journey from the Earth’s crust, until Mr. Tucker stopped in Orlando and went digging for his condom, liberating the penny in the process. Transfixed on the cleavage of his hired companion, the man took little notice of the penny as it chimed over the pavement and out of his life.
Here the penny’s tale takes a sad turn. Tucker’s expensive rest stop occurred at a parking lot in the shadowy outskirts of Orlando, a scene unforgiving to man and currency alike. The lot, terminating a lonely avenue with no name, had fallen to disuse when the Fernando Brothers Lumber Company succumbed to a structure fire three years prior (miraculously, the mysterious fire had held off until (a) the predawn hours of a Sunday morning and (b) after a rival franchise had opened its doors across town, allowing a continued supply of lumber to the surrounding area, thank God). Rain pelted the penny as it bivouacked in the open lot, robbing its luster. Stray feet trampled. Dogs cocked their legs. Worse, it was run over by several U-turning cars, grinding Lincoln’s bust into the gritty concrete. This trauma etched three craggy lines into the metal, a ragged arrow pointing to In God We Trust.
Nearly a year after the coin’s term with Craig Tucker, it at last saw rescue. In the summer of 1983, a vegetal young man known locally as Nectar coasted into the lot, his brand-new motorcycle sputtering on fumes. The silly bike dealer had kept only a dribble of fuel in each of his stock, so Nectar stashed it at the old Fernando Brothers place while he siphoned some gas. He returned an hour later, and was so excited that when he used his screwdriver-cum-key, it slipped plumb to the ground (he hadn’t slept in a day or ten, and the meth-hand was acting up again). As he frantically clawed for the screwdriver, his dilated eyes fell over Craig Tucker’s misplaced penny. Misidentifying it as a dime-bag of heroin—more bike-excitement—he snatched it up and shoved it into his leather jacket, to join his snips and pills and wiring diagrams.
After quitting the lot, Nectar headed north from Orlando, since he hadn’t quite paid for his new ride. However, there were cop-lights before he could leave the city, the officer apparently not appreciating Nectar’s seventy-five in a thirty, nor his running the red at a four-way intersection. Nectar ignored the flashing squad car, like he did sleep and food and the burning that came when he urinated, and the two cat-and-moused for the next ten miles, Nectar weaving agilely through traffic as if he weren’t hopped up on various substances. The policeman’s friends joined in just beyond the city limits, and soon a wailing flotilla was in pursuit.
Before long, the highway opened under Nectar’s two wheels and he gained on the blinking horde at his back, enjoying this very much. The night blurred into carnival shapes, alive with color, and just when he felt he couldn’t lose, the young daredevil approached a particularly sharp turn, known to the locals as “Dead Man’s Elbow.” Hitting it at a cool ninety-five, he remembered a timeless lyric he’d heard several times in his misbegotten life: Oak tree, you’re in my way. It was his last sentient thought before plowing sans-helmet into one such specimen flanking the road (the tree was a birch, but no more forgiving). The impact was brutal enough to UFO the penny from his pocket and into six inches of earth, nothing less than a bullet.
And there it stayed for over six years, buried, sleeping, waiting…
A.A. Garrison is a twenty-nine-year-old man living in the mountains of North Carolina. His short fiction has appeared in dozens of zines, anthologies, and journals, as well as the Pseudopod webcast. His horror novel, The End of Jack Cruz, is available from Montag Press. He blogs at synchroshock.blogspot.com.