Mass by Craig Holt

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Earlier today, they cut the growth from my throat. Now I’m home in our bed, trying and failing to sleep, and I envy my religious friends who can appeal to their Almighty pal for aid and succor. What a relief it would be to know that earthquakes, mass murders, and the tumor that sprouted in my mother’s chest last year—so big it crushed her right lung before finally blooming into death—were all grist in the mill of God’s intent. But I know that whatever comes next for me will mean nothing to anyone but me and the small handful of people whose love I’ve been lucky enough to hold.

Lacking the comforts of faith, I swallow, painfully, and reach for my sleeping wife’s hand. Sara’s touch reassures me even as I work up a bug-eyed panic attack about my pending biopsy results. For a moment, I’m comforted.

But just as my breathing slows, my beloved bride lets go of my hand and bogarts the blankets. She just turns away, dragging our bedding with her so the covers slither across my chest, exposing me to the winter night. Now, I’m shivery from cold as well as fear.

We like our little gravel road cottage encircled by evergreens, but this place is old and the closest thing we have to insulation is the bee’s nests in the walls, and for reasons inexplicable there’s no heat in the only room big enough (barely) for a queen bed. Most nights from November to March, our shared breath fogs in the marital bedroom, the creaky pine floor ices our feet, and Sara rolls onto her side, taking the bedding with her. And I’m left too chilled to sleep but too dozy to do anything but consider the clean clothes forever piled on the dresser and the wonky bedroom door I’ve been promising to rehang since our boys were in grade school.

Tonight, I turn away from our reassuring clutter and look out at the old maple I don’t have the heart to cut down, its dying branches waving Hello! Help! Goodbye. When I grab a handful of bedding and pull, Sara clamps down on the blankets, as stubborn in sleep as she is in daylight. And I relent. Because once, I pried her fingers apart to lever her arm up and reclaim some warmth, and I swear she growled at me.

Rather than fight a losing battle every night, I’ve learned to match my shape to hers—as I do now—and slip an arm over her hip. And when I do, the woman who so recently snarled at me like a cornered badger, finds my hand and pulls me closer to fit us more perfectly together.

Despite the pulsing ache of my sliced and cauterized windpipe, I manage to fall asleep for a bit. But soon enough I rise from the nightmare of bears and stumble to the bathroom to piss away my fear, to lap water from the tap like some scared old dog. Back in bed, Sara lies peaceful in the heat I left behind, breathing my fear into dreams. And I am comforted. Healed, maybe, if such a thing is still possible. But also, unsure how to climb in next to her again without eliciting more snarls.

Sure, I could walk to the other side of the bed, switch places, and claim her space as mine. But this is a marriage and some rules just cannot be violated, senseless as they are. So, shaking off my dream-lingering vision of black-lipped, avid Death, I slip between the sheets on my side, glad for more time. Slowly, I cajole my wife across the mattress until I am settled and, for now, safe.

She’s lovely, my blanket-stealing bride. More so every year. But she does snore. Such a bright mind, those warm eyes and elegant features, her forgiving humor. But when she sleeps, a great ripping noise escapes this gorgeous person and I can’t help but wonder if there are issues of universal balance in play right here in our bed. As if beauty demands a measure of disarray to maintain the equipoise of our shared life. Mindful of cosmic stability, I don’t shake her awake. Nor do I, much as I want to, record her nocturnal snorfle-and-wheeze for later playback when I bring her coffee into bed tomorrow morning. I just listen, tasting the rust of my own blood, grinning at the ceiling.

Almost thirty years of this, pilfered comforters, snoring, the annexation of what I once laughably considered my personal space. This bed holds headaches, stiff necks, garlic breath. Our stomachs rumble and groan, our bodies sharing vital secrets in the night. We drool, sniffle, cough. We’ve bled here and wept. All these messy intimacies of our nesting.

Just try explaining this stuff to the bride and groom propped up before their dearly beloved three decades ago, those gorgeous, vivid babies trussed in shiny waistcoat and tie, shrink-wrapped in lace. Those round-cheeked denizens of basement apartments who could afford a Sunday cup of coffee or a newspaper but never both, but who still shimmered with excitement about the spooling out of their shared days. Such gleaming children couldn’t even hear you speaking the truth of marriage. It would be like teaching physics to a cedar sapling; they lack all mechanism for understanding. What could they possibly know about high cholesterol, supple skin gone dry and loose, arthritic toes? How could you prepare them for the too-soon loss of parents, or for rushing a son to the hospital and learning he will live but cannot be cured? They simply could not believe, those sap-crazed kids grinning in the long-ago spring sunlight, in Time’s inexorable damages, its casual cruelty.

Years pass regardless of our idiot joy and the harm we endure. And now, my scratchy throat has turned into a month of ghoulish tests: blood drawn, contrast dye injected, my body pushed into machines that bang and clatter, mapping my internal geography. I have opened my mouth to say, “Ah,” a hundred times in four weeks, letting that mournful sigh stand in for a scream. One after the other, doctors peered down my throat and spoke softly, gentle as morticians, about the concerning mass they’d found. At last, today, they cut it out of me for final analysis. And it is hard to sleep knowing that one of us, my mass or I, will turn out to be nothing.

For the moment, though, me and my wife are home, our worn-down bodies nestled in the marital bed with its dodgy smells and the barely visible stains that map our decline even as they mark our passion. So much for the glamor of youth. So long, fairytale marriage.

But listen —

We have enjoyed more good time together than most. And I am daily grateful that every path we walk winds back to our cold little room, this warm bed. If the news is bad, I will have no right to feel cheated.

But dammit I would like a bit more time. So tonight, even though I’m already warm beneath the covers, despite the rusty trickle of blood in my mouth and this staticky panic, I move closer to Sara and wrap myself around her. While she sleeps, I clear my throat and use such voice as I still have to whisper, Here we are, you and me, living our life together. No poetry here, just gratitude. It is the closest I have ever come to prayer.

Meet the Contributor

Craig Holt author photo, balancing manuscript on his headCraig Holt’s flash fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Cutleaf Journal, Psychopomp Magazine, MicroLit Almanac, and elsewhere. His first novel, Hard Dog to Kill, won the 2018 Independent Publishers Book Award gold medal. He received his MFA from the Bennington College Writing Seminars and he is a graduate of the BookEnds novel incubation program at Stony Brook University. The two things he fears most in this world are sharks and clowns.

  6 comments for “Mass by Craig Holt

  1. A real Romeo and Juliet story without all the unnecessary theatrics. Enjoyed it. And wish it upon everyone in the world.

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