Seated by the window and looking toward the hospital bed, I notice the bag of my stepdad's urine. It's at eye level, hard to miss. Yellow liquid travels slowly through a clear tube into a plastic measuring hold, which is recorded every fifteen minutes and dumped into a larger pouch by a nurse with an Aryan demeanor whom we call Herr Dreyer. Herr Dreyer also records numbers on the LCD screen behind my stepdad's head, which is steep with mountains of bandages.
"It does look like a turban, but why call yourself Osama bin Laden?” I ask. “It's too obvious. Go for the little teapot, short and stout.”
My stepdad giggles and does the teapot dance the best he can while in the clutches of a fussy hydra of narrow tubes sprouting from the top of his turban. The tubes drain fluid accumulating in the space between his brain and skull. Each tube ends in its own separate pouch with measuring marks. The drained fluid looks like blood, but it could be something else. It's creamier-looking and not as thick. While sleeping, if he rolls over on the pouches then alarms will go off. He has already burst one pouch under the weight of his shoulder. The accumulated liquid leaked, and had to be discarded. "I had to start over," he said, flicking a newer pouch with less liquid than the others.
This is what we do while we are waiting for God.
That's what my stepdad calls the neurosurgeon. "God." He can't remember the surgeon’s actual name, but that's nothing to do with his injury: he's just bad with names. He’s so bad that I once diagnosed him as part of a college psychology project. "You have nominal aphasia disorder," I concluded, effectively paving the runway for decades of jokes in which he could not recall the name of the disorder responsible for his inability to recall names.
"I feel like…" he says, then pauses. "Who is in that movie where the pre-cogs are floating in that liquid?"
"Yeah!" he says. That's what happens every time. It's like reminding someone of the name of a song once loved, connected to good memories of simpler times and people long gone. He just lights up. "And the movie?"
"Minority Report," I say.
"Yeah!" He wants to slap the bed like you'd want to slap your knee at the thought of a grand old time, but he catches himself and flinches when he remembers that he has to sit very still. He says the tubes inside his head, pipes he calls them, squeak and hum if he moves too much. From the way he talks about his pipes, it sounds like his body is now an old house with poltergeist plumbing behind the walls, banging and singing at all hours, scaring the occupants with unrecognizable and unpredictable noise.
God whooshes through the airtight ICU doors. He is wearing a leather bomber jacket and pressed khakis. His flyaway blond hair is cropped short around the sides. His gold wedding band compliments his creamy yellow mock turtleneck. He speaks from the moment he crosses the threshold. I cannot understand what he's saying, not because he speaks too technically, but because he seems to have no soul. He is a blank space in the universe, talking and moving in a vacuum of intonation and interest. He might as well be taking out his garbage or wiping his ass, although it's likely he does neither. He has people for that.
He handles my stepdad with his bare hands, a stark contrast to the nurses who will glove-up for any and all contact, even to clean my stepdad's eyeglasses with a paper towel. My stepdad had screamed at Herr Dreyer for that. His glasses, like his classic vinyl collection, have their own cleaning protocol involving a properly proportioned mixture of dish detergent and distilled water applied with varied pressure in a circular motion using a lint-free cloth of 100% cotton. But now, he's oddly cowed in the brazenly bare hands of God. He's even forgotten the list of questions he had listed earlier, questions that came with the addendum, "He'd better have good answers or I'll sue." My stepdad swings his eyes toward me and beseeches: "What questions did we have?"
God looks at me for the first time. His expectancy of my prompt speech is evident in his unblinking stare. He's not used to observant, steady gazes before questions. He is used to questions directed at the back of his head. But to him, I am the daughter, the only relative of this ICU patient who is present. He must wait for me to speak. I want to make an impression.
I ask, "Are you going to put a cork in his skull and just leave it that way so we can pop him open and peek at his brain when we get the hankering?"
My stepdad turns to him as if he'd like to know that answer as well.
"Excuse me?" God asks.
"A hole in his head," I say. "Will there be one or not?"
God's lip rises ever so slightly. A calculation has been made. In his index of patient/relative personalities, he has identified and categorized me: smartass.
He replies, "I couldn't stitch it, but there's no need. It will close on its own." Then he turns his back to me so any follow-up questions could be posed to the back of his leather jacket. But I have none. My stepdad has none. God is washing his hands when he says,
"One of these tubes can come out now. There's no more drainage."
Without any further warning or ceremony, God grabs the bandage turban and, with a long arc of motion, draws one of the tubes out of my stepdad's skull just as one draws an oil dipstick from an engine. The surprise at length of the tube inspires nausea. Then the hissing, gurgling sound from the tube hits me. It sounds like a straw suctioning the last of a beverage from the bottom of a glass.
Earlier, a woman with bright red hair had cleaned the corner toilet very well, just as everything else in ICU is cleaned very well. A sparkling white porcelain toilet is the kind of toilet that, if one finds oneself headfirst inside pleading for the nausea to give way to vomit, will not help one along that path with any foul odor or spot of leftover funk under the rim only visible to those on hands and knees. Praying to the porcelain god, was the college-era name for this, though with my binge drinking days long behind me the occasional flu-related vomit is the only praying I ever do.
God slings the extracted tube on the floor, for that is Herr Dreyer's job to deal with such things, and washes his hands again. He is talking again, the language of the toneless dead echoing in a sparkling porcelain chamber. He is probably saying something terribly important about my stepdad's condition. My stepdad is quiet. Unlike with the nurses, with God he utters no vulgar jokes, no complaints about how the catheter burns, and no offers introduce me as, "my daughter, who invented the term 'bonus Dad.'" There, by the toilet, I think about that. He never calls me "stepdaughter."
God asks if there are any more questions. His expectant gaze slides above our heads. I release him with a wave. He is gone.
My bonus Dad and I exchange the same puzzled, worried expressions. The absence of him has left us uncertain and afraid. God is able to open a man's skull, repair of brain injury, and close up in less time than it takes to rotate a set of tires. Ten minutes. And the fear of what could happen during those ten minutes that God had his hands inside my Bonus Dad’s skull propelled me onto an emergency flight in a winter storm. That fear seeps into others, and they react as if in the presence of a contagion. Those in line for the few rental cars available in the blizzard had all pushed me ahead of them to the front desk where a man handed me keys and slurred something about settling up later. Brain surgery. Those two words can part the sea.
After we take a moment to register the absence of God, to adjust to the accustomed silence punctuated by blips from machines attached to his turban, I spoke. "Well, what was that like?"
"Uh," he replied. It wasn't normal for him to be at a loss for words. "I could feel it, but there aren't any words for it."
"That sound was nasty."
"I made that sound," he said. He puckered his lips and smooched the air with squealing smacks.
"Your head made that sound, not your lips."
"Your head was in a toilet,” He is off now, galloping toward normalcy. "You were always squeamish. I remember when you wanted to be a doctor and you signed up to be a candy striper. One day is all you lasted…"
He flushes with the joy of this memory, perhaps because his brain will allow him an unprompted memory from a life he was recently so frightened to lose. He is talking non-stop now, so I can rest back in the chair, at eye-level again with yellow liquid wandering through the plastic tube.
Who was it that wandered the earth as a punishment? Was it Cain? An ancient sage meandered around China, taking the path of a butterfly, and found spiritual truth in it.
It's the word "meander" I'll prefer while pondering this bag of urine.
The liquid is making its way down the tube without any urgency—free of the rules of gravity inside the vacuum of a plastic tube, meandering toward another chamber where it will be measured, recorded, and then released.
About the author:
Amy Minton’s fiction and poetry appears in Indiana Review, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Hobart, and others. Her short story, “Overhanded,” was selected for inclusion in Best of the Web 2008 (Dzanc Books), edited by Steve Almond. Her non-fiction appears in Hobart and The Collagist. She was a finalist for the 2013 and 2012 Artist Foundation of San Antonio Literary Arts Award as well as the 2009 Indiana Review Fiction Prize. She sips fine tea while her three dogs keep her feet toasty. Follow her on Twitter: @mintonamy.