Volume and Dirt – Jennifer Benningfield

Paradise: sprawled on a soft surface, hand underneath his shirt, fingers inattentively tracing designs on skin. Paperback in the other hand, turning pages with his thumb, reading until the book slipped from his fingers.

Brady thought of his uncle whenever he read fiction. Uncle Perry loved to read, loved to inform others of his love, before specifying–only nonfiction. Fiction represented a waste of his time, since it didn’t teach any useful lessons.

Brady argued with the thinner, dimmer version of his father–sometimes loudly, sometimes filthily–until he learned a quite useful lesson in distressing futility. Still, the teenager couldn’t help but resurrect the debate whenever the opportunity presented itself, since he viewed his uncle’s mindset as one to resist with the fury of Dwayne Hoover on an empty stomach.

Brady amazed himself with the angles each assertion could be twisted into. The week before Thanksgiving had been especially productive, a formidable barrage of carefully chosen words: Do you listen only to instrumentals? Do you watch only documentaries?

Brady never received the answers, since he never asked the questions, since he died.

Or didn’t. He couldn’t say with certainty.

Evidence he’d indeed Charleston’ed off the planet abounded in the room: the ceiling and walls were white and bare. Likewise the sheet over his spindly legs.

His legs…his legs?

A breathtaking thought–he’d lost his legs. In however many hours of blackness, the lower half of Brady’s body somehow disappeared. The brain’s insistence that his lower limbs remained did little to deter Brady’s doubts–no organ in the body was less trustworthy than the brain. One second it told him, young man, your lower body is perfectly intact. The next, A majority of amputees experience what is known as the “phantom limb” sensation.

He left the sheet alone. He just didn’t know if he could bear the disappointment.

He sat up and sent a sigh towards the ceiling. When the dimensions of the room failed to change, another followed.

T’was not Heaven; t’was a hospital.

He laughed aloud for suspecting otherwise. Not that Brady doubted the existence of an afterlife; he just never cottoned to the fanciful scenarios favored by fearless and fearful alike. Even purgatory, the fate supposedly reserved for no-hopers of his caliber, is represented by a mountain. If he had to guess (all he could do), Brady would bet the house on a disobedient plane populated by bisected bodies and intact souls–the opposite, to his mind, of life on Earth.

Such highfalutin’ thoughts, when left unattended, became inclined to gather. Their final shape depended entirely on how long the process of formation was permitted to continue. Brady’s ignorance of the creation left him unprepared when the runaway globe struck his skeleton. He wobbled in wonderment at the echo of the impact. Weariness, so tantalizingly close to absolute, urged Brady to assume the position.

The brain–or was it the mind?–kept him upright. Any rest he enjoyed would be short-lived due to the regularly-scheduled disturbing of a patient’s peace by beasts not easily beaten back to the antiseptic abyss from whence they came.

So, he decided to take some measure of control over the situation and summon them. Before he could turn and press the call button, though, he spied a feminine figure dressed in white lingering outside the doorway. The impatient young man went to yell, and learned a vital lesson: forming words with a mouth full of straw is impossible.

Panic sent his hands slipping along the bed rails. He sent profane encouragement at his labored breaths, to nudge the stalks towards the precipice. Unable to wait a second more, he jammed his fingers into his mouth–where they touched nothing but tongue and teeth.

His chest deflated. He wiggled his toes and fingers to save face. (Could the dead make their digits dance?) He went to take a deep breath, only to feel it stolen by a heat with some moves of its own to showcase. Persistence overcame clumsiness, and the threat expanded without a care for any tricks the young man tried to pull.

Now, he feared for the sanctity of his throat.

The skin did not burn. The view in front of him offered no relief, and the woman outside had moved on. With a groan, Brady extended his right arm and snatched a large styrofoam cup from the otherwise bare overbed table. Barely any liquid remained, and the rippling agony prevented him from finishing it off.

Once freed of responsibility, Brady’s hands began shaking. The consequences of survival struck at his core with the force of a renegade bumper car, leaving him in the unique position of giving a pep talk to a body part.

Words failed. His hands needed action; soothing action, specifically. Back to the side: a sink carved from oriental black marble, covered with bottles of hand sanitizer and boxes of latex gloves. Futile weapons against the germ of death which resides uneasily within all living creatures. But Jesus, they felt so cool against the skin.

He thought all that marble lovely to vomit upon. Perhaps the hospital could be cajoled into summoning a priest for an exorcism. Forget the bed and the sink; Brady wanted to splatter the TV screen and the wall clock. He wanted to laugh without gasping.

Smiling felt fine; he’d remember to smile.

*      *      *

Not quite nine. The time Brady normally awoke. Normally? Usually. Lately. He’d met the day even earlier yesterday. Was it yesterday? That day, then.

Had he thrown up? If so, the taste had faded away. Did doctors administer emergency breath mints or on-site brushings? He’d never know for sure, even if he asked. Who’d tell him? Certainly not the oxygen-sucker draped in plaid who’d entered the spartan room without so much as a knock against the door jamb.

“Hey Brades.”

Smile. Adjust top sheet. Raise hand.

“Ohhh, guess you can’t talk yet. Sorry.”

Uncle Perry stepped gingerly across the room, all the better to ambush the armchair furthest from the patient.

The pros of forced silence included the potential for improved listening. The cons of increased listening included relatives who didn’t let a little thing like complete ignorance get in the way of rambling solutions to his situation (which was, in reality, a series of situations, wearying in their complexities, but breaking that down for people who valued domestic discipline more than academic discipline redefined “futility.” Better their well-washed bromides smacked into him like birds against windows).

Before Brady could celebrate his guest’s eventual exhaustion, another body passed through the entryway. Not quite as sizable as the one preceding, nor as covered. Brady could see questions all over his mother’s lips, but the decency she lacked in dressing herself had spread to other areas.

He felt like wincing at the hesitance which staggered her every movement. He actually did wince when she started in on the state of his hair, bitching at both the hospital and the other man in the room for not having a brush handy, all while looking as though numberless suction cups were leeching out every happy thought she’d once been fortunate to call her own.

“Jeannie, sit down. The boy needs to relax.”

Brady felt an odd combination of relief and rejection as his mother left his side to wrap her arms around the indefatigably greasy man before joining him in the callous punishing of a poor armchair.

His mother and her brother were deep in shallow conversation. Every third word stabbed his nerves. Occasionally, his mother let loose with an extravagant sniff. Another torment for the young man’s young mind, as if the contrapuntal motions outside the room–the footsteps, voices, wheels, machines–weren’t sufficient.

He should apologize, he would, as soon as he pinpointed the reason why–the attempt, or the failure? He should’ve known, when fashioning a noose proved troublesome. Anyone flustered by rope didn’t deserve to have their last wish fulfilled. Option two, though, seemed foolproof. Damned if he wasn’t just the fool to prove it.

A cup of bleach, no matter how hastily swallowed, or how generously filled, did not guarantee a quick escape. With the gift of hindsight, Brady would have made a screwdriver.

Oh well, he thought, swallowing back a pebble. Live and learn. Surely a nurse would soon saunter in with a clipboard or a tray of liquids. Perhaps Auntie Jackie was next up on the familial carousel. (She reigned unchallenged as his favorite “sibling of a parent,” if solely for teaching him how to drive while wildly distracted).

The pros of forced silence included repentant looks beyond reproach. Included being left out of conversations about miraculous gas tanks.

“Brady. Look at me, baby. Sweetie. We found your pills.”

He squirmed as his stomach started an amateur somersault routine. His brilliant idea to transfer Ambien and Seconal into a Tylenol bottle. They’d probably be keeping the Tums under lock and key, now.

He knew she would return later, for some heartfelt one-on-one time with her troubled boy. In the meantime, he’d work on that apology. I’m so sorry, Mom. For being so clumsy I can’t even tie a noose, for my fear of guns, for becoming queasy at the sight of a paper cut. For triggering the gossip which even as they spoke (or not) shot around the town with dizzying speed, muddying the family name and rocking the foundations of otherwise happy homes.

She’d wipe his face, brush his hair, and profess undying love. She’d pummel his defenseless frame, intent on making him understand how valued, how loved a young man he was, and how fortunate he was to be surrounded by people who cared for his future. Why wouldn’t one so blessed look forward to higher education, extended family, and accumulated wealth? There was truly no dress code in God’s Kingdom, but the “weak and wrinkled” look earned the most respect, there was no denying that.

Meanwhile, he’d try not to cough forth flame onto the parade of hypocrisy and misdirected shame.

Brady wanted to ask how long he’d been indisposed. He wanted to ask if Tracy knew. Nearly the entire family considered her a verminous influence, the man sitting less than ten feet away most avidly, once averring, “That girl is a heart-smasher. If you’re lucky, she’ll set it on fire first. But you haven’t ever been too lucky.”

He wanted a book. He wanted to get up in his uncle’s overstuffed plastic bag of a face and explain to him the grand purpose of reading: to retreat from an untenable world.

“Do you think I should draw this shade, Jeannie? Maybe I should roll the kid over here so he can get some sun. Brades, you are so white, whenever you pass through a prism, it makes more prisms! And skinny, good Lord. I could swing by Tina’s and get’cha an ice cream cone. Although, you won’t be able to eat the cone. Not to mention the ice cream would probably melt by the time I got back.”

“You could just go to the store and pick up a quart of ice cream,” Brady’s mother suggested. “It doesn’t matter.” She turned to face her son. “They’ll be putting you upstairs soon, sweetheart. Once you regain your voice. Honey, please don’t get upset, you’ll just make yourself tired.”

Perry cleared his throat and stood at the foot of the bed. Brady made eye contact with him, just to stave off another indignity.

“All right, now I wanna say just this one thing before I go. Now I admit, mental health is not my forte.”

Brady gritted his teeth and pleaded with the fickle pile dawdling between his ears to buck up and send a telepathic message to a nurse–please pop in already and chide this frog-voiced fool for being loud and dumb and dirty and I promise I won’t abuse the call button.

“But one thing I do know, you’ve got a good brain in your head. You’ve just got to realize, knowing a lot doesn’t mean you know everything.”

Long after the adults had departed, he was still scowling at the wall. A second clock had appeared, its numbers the size of pinheads. If a song and dance were his heart’s desire, he’d rise from the bed, rip off the hospital gown, and do the barefoot shuffle along heart shards, drawing lines over scar-resistant skin while his sparse audience beamed with pride. Gnarled grips of a merciless infirmity be damned, the boy’s got moves.

Brady knew precisely what his heart yearned for. He knew only that his fate had been read as written, and no beaver, however eager, could construct a dam capable of staunching the poison’s flow.


Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Dandy, The Sonder Review, Fiction On the Web, and Maryland Literary Review. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving “Green Eggs and Ham” as a birthday present, her writings can also be found online at

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 28 Contents Link

Image via Pixabay

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