"[H]e…saw Zev’s face, pale as ash, floating on a large pillow…"


flash fiction

William Wallis

portraitBill Wallis was born in the American South and educated at Hendrix College, Southern Illinois University, the University of Nebraska (Ph.D.in Literary Criticism and Creative Writing, 1972), and the Hanover Conservatory (Opera Performance). He has published twenty volumes of poetry and prose. His volumes Joshua (1994), Twins (1996), and Selected Poems 1969-99 (2000) were nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, Poetry Division. In 2006, his novel Hawk won the Benjamin Franklin Award in Popular Fiction of the Independent Publishers of America. His latest publication is a biography, Prairie Symphony, the Story of Charles Leonard Thiessen, which appeared in 2010. (His works are available on Amazon.com.) He lives with his wife Leslie and their four children just off the Miracle Mile in Los Angeles, where he is a cycling enthusiast.

Other Works:

Late Visit

He and Zev both were teachers who lingered with their best students after class, sharing rather than teaching.

The hospital stretched out along Riverside Drive like three irregular, interlocking blocks a giant’s child might play with. It was ten and the San Fernando Valley’s grid was dimming in mist. Will’s evening class was over, all arrangements made for tomorrow’s classes, and a late arrival home expected. His colleague had collapsed on campus earlier that day, was rushed to the nearest hospital and into surgery, where a tiny transistor was implanted in his heart muscle to regulate the motion of his failing heart. Will did not understand the imperative he felt to seek Zev out, except that the idea of Zev, a little cock of an intellectual, alone in the hospital touched him strangely, coldly.

He parked his car deep in the dim lot behind the hospital and after that was directed to the second floor by an emaciated security guard. Most surgeries occurred on that floor, Will was told. The acrid odors of the hospital flooded him with memories, none good, of his own lengthy stays in the white wards of healing: alcohol, disinfectant, and bleach. (“After all,” Will’s neurologist had remarked, “it was only a small stroke.”) His nausea became palpable in the elevator. The night nurse’s eyebrows rose when he asked to see Zev. She remarked that visiting hours were long over. Then she studied his quiet insistence, shrugged her shoulders, and directed him to 18C by pointing west down the enormously long and dimly lit hall. The hallway’s beige walls, its many concentric doorways sometimes veiled by white plastic curtains, was two hundred yards long. He measured it by his stride, as he had learned in boyhood. And at the very end of the passage, he parsed the numbers faint on a half-open door. 18C.

Will knocked softly, paused, and, hearing no response, entered—after glancing down the hallway, which was utterly devoid of life. He was reminded of the tight passageways leading into the deeply hidden burial chambers of the pharaohs at Heliopolis. Then he entered and saw Zev’s face, pale as ash, floating on a large pillow in the shadowed confines of the room. In bright light, the room would be crisp white and chrome, he knew, but now it was a flux of rippling grey and black, with very slight green, blue, and white lights flashing daintily on dull white and greenish screens. The glowing machines leaned over Zev at the head of the bed.

He whispered Zev’s name. No response. Will walked to the head of the bed and studied Zev’s condition. He was connected to every machine by wires that seemed securely taped to his arms, shoulders, torso, and head—but his naked face was clear of them, the hawk-like nose prominent, the cheeks and chin resolved in deep sleep. His thin beard and moustache whispered as his faint breath caressed them. At first, when he saw Zev so pale and alone, Will thought he was dead and he had been the one to find him. Then he saw Zev’s belly rise and fall, and he breathed easier. After all, the machines all seemed to be in order. He saw the signs and waves on the various screens’ graphs. He felt cold in the light of the machines.

He bent over Zev and kissed the pale slope of his forehead. It was so dry, as if powdered—and bitter-sweet in taste. As he stood up, Zev’s eyes were open. Zev frowned, searching for meaning. His face took on a shadow of its usual expressiveness.

“Will,” he murmured through a slight smile, “Who told you I was here?”

“No one,” Will answered. “I heard about it on campus.”

“What happened?” he whispered.

“You collapsed in front of Monarch Hall. I wasn’t there when it happened.”

“Ah,” he said. “But here you are.”

“Yes, here I am.”
“I remember now, the light and falling back,” Zev murmured. His eyes focused on something far away. In a trick of light, Will saw in them a slight of memory flicker and then surrender to the whiteness.

Zev’s eyes blinked and then closed. His face faded again to the pale mask of sleep.

Will remained for some time, studying his colleague.

In the parking lot, he saw an irregular, cinder-block wall to the north. It was broken and collapsing in one place. He heard running water beyond it. He walked over, made out the huge concrete trough in the darkness, and saw the dark, toxic trickle of the L.A. River flowing south to the sea.

The hall, the Valley’s grid of wide, dim streets, the freeway with multiple exits into Hollywood, the endless rows of lights leading deep into the shallow desert valley of Los Angeles—all the way home Will considered the steadiness of his heartbeat and its ties to the tempos of the Mahler streaming from his car’s speakers.

The house was dark, even the side door locked. He did not unlock it, but rather went to the still-moonlit enclosure on the north side of the house. He knelt and smoothed the white river rock he had arranged so carefully last summer. He pressed his hands flat against the velvet chill, gleaming lunar. He knew without looking that the crescent moon was fading in the southwest.

He recalled now when he had last seen Zev. It was late at the college parking lot, a night in mid-winter, around eleven. Will had lingered in the silent box of his office after class, analyzing a promising student’s essay then drafting a letter of recommendation. Traversing the empty hallway of the Humanities Building, he considered what he carried, because once out the door he was separated from anything he’d left behind until tomorrow—Security locked the doors at ten sharp. He had his notebooks, fountain pen, a fascicle of student essays. As the heavy iron door clicked shut behind him, he began to hum a folk tune. As he approached the parking lot, the lyrics began to shape themselves in the cold night air, breath made visible.

There was Zev by the open trunk of his car, glancing about him distractedly. He and Zev both were teachers who lingered with their best students after class, sharing rather than teaching. Sometimes they met at their cars with a hoarse salutation before heading home. It was after eleven.

Then Zev saw Will, studied him with narrowed eyes; and then he smiled almost in relief and his eyes widened, his lips parted.

“Will, it’s you, my friend.” He chuckled, lightly. “I thought it was an angel singing. The nigun was so beautiful.”

Will smiled Zev’s plaintive Bronx English, sprinkled with Yiddish, while pronouncing beautiful with four distinct syllables: bee-you-tee-ful. Will had to love him, smiled remembering his own wrestling with Hebrew and Yiddish—Nigun, nign, melody—perhaps the purest representation of the divine on earth.

“A fallen angel, perhaps?” Will offered, opening the passenger door to his car.

Zev had stuffed his overfull, worn briefcase firmly among stacks of papers in the trunk of his old Honda Accord. He crowed softly from within the cramped enclosure. “Or perhaps simply a messenger.” He straightened and handed Will several photocopied sheets stapled together. “My commentary on a critique of my latest book,” he announced and began intensely to discuss its epistemological importance. He began to explain the levels of argument, emphasizing each corollary with a thrust of his small pale hand. The man was so insistent! Will wanted only to reach home safely, glance through the day’s mail, and carefully and quietly enter into the night’s ritual of approaching the pillow while not disturbing his wife.

Now Will undressed silently, leaving the contents of his pockets to avoid the clicks and clanks of keys and coins; he carefully cleaned his teeth, and sighed deeply as the slipped under the covers. His thoughts entered the soft white dimension that opens out onto sleep’s plain. Zev was resting quietly, saved by technology that glowed in the darkness, waiting. The buzzing of the day faded to the dry whisper of the hummingbird. Will smiled deeply; and he was not, for that moment buried in the knowledge of his frailty and the gift of words, afraid.

Editor: LinckeN@WLAC.edu | West Los Angeles College | 9000 Overland Ave, Culver City CA 90230 | www.wlac.edu
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