He loved words though they worried him. It was a result of being named Javier, a name no one ever know how to say (have a beer, boys turned it to; and she wanted to know about the month, this month, whether he was named January). Janus, the month of two faces, forward and back, death and life, dolphin zeppelin.
He remembered the first time he saw a dead man, really saw death. It was a story he often told. This morning he had told it to the new resident (they had lost a woman in the OR as she came off pump; sad-eyed and black hair he remembered her from pre-surgical rounds). He watched the resident shut off, as clearly as the heart monitor, as he began to tell the story. The young doctor had already learned to make his face form a mask of interest but his eyes behind it were dull as a drowned man. It was words, he knew, they didn't trust words, words made them shut off, float away into this remove.
It was in Iowa in August (August and September always seemed to rhyme for him, the same month in inverse, one cold white and one white hot) and I was in med school, quite used to cadavers and death on the floors and wards, or so I believed. I was walking, it was white hot did I say?, along the river toward Hancher auditorium. Anner Bylsma was playing Bach there that day, the cello sonatas, a matinee.
"Suites," the resident said, "Cello suites."
So he was listening, behind the mask, and took this risk to correct the senior man. It was brave really. Suites of course.
Suites of course. In any case (ah a bit of annoyance here, surprising himself, so he too played his part in a masque: the senior surgeon irritated at the correction), I was young, it was the first time in weeks that I had a day off.
An afternoon really, stolen from the day.
The sun was a blanket, woolen, wet. My collar clung to my clammy neck, already burning. There were fishermen at the river and the had two great hemp lines strung to what looked like a zeppelin out in the slow river, a white billowing. Someone watched from the bridge, it was curious, a man in a long green overcoat on such a hot day. It was something alien, this scene, men holding hemp ropes against the stream, as if flying a kite in a muddy swirl. Perhaps they have captured a UFO, I thought, a small craft like a cocoon. fallen in the river. But it couldn't be a zeppelin, not in the water. It was a dolphin (the words forever linked for him that afternoon, zeppelin and dolphin; as a young man he had been a hypnotist's subject, the words television and Massachusetts likewise ever linked in post-hypnotic suggestion: any time he heard the word television, he thought inevitably of the name of the state).
"Did you wander so much, when you told this story to the poor boy?"
He looked at her like a creature from a dream. It was a dolphin (he said), he realized they were steadying a dolphin in the river and that it was dead. And then suddenly it was clear. The arched back of a drowned man, the shirt billowing like the shape of a balloon or a manatee, white and puffy but faintly blue in the places where the wet shirt clung to the puffed flesh. He had been in the water a long time. The men with the ropes looked around. They were waiting for something, angels or the morgue wagon. It was death in the water. He began to retch, first along the hot gravel path, then into dry evergreen shrubs, prickly things, holly or some poison berry. He could make out parts of things in the spew in the dust, the contents of a stomach. Inside the auditorium it was cool and dark, air conditioning and velvet and the burnished wood of the proscenium. Bylsma sat up on a small platform with the cello held between his thighs. His hands were peasant hands, lovely, strong and gentle gripping the cello and the bow. Fingers like his father's hands, like sausages. For awhile, he wasn't afraid of death though he didn't want to go out for awhile. He waited through the movements of the Suite No. 6 in D Major.
He waited through the inevitable (though gentle) encore, waited through the rest of his life for death to touch him so again.