IN PATIENT by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

When the IV pump pings to warn of an occlusion, she no longer waits for someone in scrubs to respond; she unkinks the tubing herself. In the hierarchy of beeps the IV occlusion alert is low, outranked by the chirping pulse-Ox monitor and the angry squawk of the bedside fall detection mat. King EKG checkmates them all.

He dislikes her charts and schedules, cringes when she calls the nurses by name and remembers their children and hobbies. Order is a dangerous illusion. He imagines himself on a science fair poster, her little bean sprout in a milk carton. He is in exactly the same position on Monday when the nurse from Friday says, Yes, the beach was lovely, thanks for asking. The beach can go fuck itself.

She has noticed they’re the youngest people here. They are the ward’s doomed lovers: buds severed before blooming and all. Yesterday she saw a patient making her shuffling rounds, hugely pregnant, her belly a prow. He was sleeping when the woman walked by. “Perspective,” she tells him later. “I can’t even imagine.”

His hands and feet are numb, rubbery and distant as if he’d sat on them too long. Barefoot on the sand would probably feel like walking on the moon. Compression boots on his calves perform a programmed sequence of rhythmic squeezes. A gentle hiss accompanies each release. In the time it takes to count to eighty-seven, they will begin squeezing again.

She can imagine, she has envisioned all the worst things. Each prognosis a coin to flip: an 84% chance of five more years leaves 16% of design space. It was her job to create optimized solutions for stakeholder specs, before it was her job to dose him with Ativan and rub his extremities with mint oil for the neuropathy. This is the only time he does not shrink from her touch. He says he feels unlovable this way. But she has already imagined that this may be the only way from now on; this may be the best it will ever be.

Again with the damn peppermint oil. Somebody on one of her message boards must’ve claimed it gave auntie or grandma relief. He hasn’t been online in weeks, but he is tempted to grab her phone to broadcast: The oil is bullshit. Also, forget the antinausea diet, smuggle in burritos. He misses food that wasn’t engineered to be bland.

His first week in the hospital, she was putting away his laundry when she found the ring box. She does not know whether he’d bought it before the diagnosis. She does not know whether she cares.

On the TV mounted in the corner, he watches nature shows. He resisted these – a message board favorite – at first, afraid of zither music and gazelles loping in slow motion. He does not want to be lulled into anything like comfort. Yet he’s compelled by the red foxes taunting a grizzly bear lumbering behind; the squirrel who thinks he’s outsmarted the hawk only to be swooped upon by a thunder of talons and beak.

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In previous years, the Mandozas hosted the New Years’ parties. They reared sheep and goats, and they invited the whole village to enjoy roast mutton. There was beer for the elders, but the young ones were relegated to raspberry and fizzy beverages. I learned about balloons and tissues at the Mandoza household. Mandoza himself was once our Father Christmas, until time burned his years into old age.

But to my surprise, the Mandoza homestead this New Year was quiet. It was as if somebody had poured a bucket of ice-water to wet the embers of life in their home. The silence indicated deep secrets behind those concrete walls. The magnetic ears of the village had failed to attract any news from the walled homestead, so no one knew what was happening.

Despite this, this new year boomed to life with cheap firecrackers, sparking the heavens open for blessings. The faint scent of Christmas had vanished, long since fading into the burning heat. The latest music vibrated the entire village. We enjoyed so many assorted meats, their tastes were all as one in our mouths. Fanta and Coca Cola drinks soaked our okra-hardened bellies. We ate English and drank American that day.

Our farting was American. We called it civilized farting.

We hummed Nigerian’s P-Square. We imitated and recited Pidgin. We did everything, said everything, and ate everything. We even sighed in Chinese, as Coke fizzled through our black, soot-tamed nostrils. Cousins from Egoli and our capital city had brought niceties. Such was the merriment. Everyone present was high-over-the-hills with excitement.

Yes, our joyful morning went by with its gossip-beat; the afternoon elapsed with sweet odors of roasted meat and sunset shadows, and then, the once-silent Mandoza took over our night by spewing gunshots, death threats, and insults.

Through the roasted-meat-oiled air, the moon peered over our land, and Mandoza’s wives--Ndaneta, was leading the pack, followed by Ndagura and a whole swarm of children behind them--dove into our merriment. The fearful intruders sardined themselves into the far end of our packed hut. Mandoza’s lips quivered as he glared at them. He refused to blink.

Merry-makers dumped their drinks. The jukebox screeched to silence. Cockroaches scrambled into their closet. Rats followed suit. Children screamed. Dancers packed themselves underneath dinner tables, and some lucky others ducked out behind the hijacker.

Mandoza cuddled his long gun with that devilish grin each of us knew so well. Our murmuring ceased. I heard nothing but the rippling of blood through my heart, although I knew the elders were wishing Mandoza bad omen. Mandoza fired another gunshot, the echo stirring birds from sleep.

The stampede aroused the headman from his sleep. His eyes were blind with sleep and heavy with hangover. He had been dead drunk an hour ago. Now, he lazily scrubbed the sleep off his face. Mandoza was the headman’s closest drinking mate. They were as close as dirt-water and fungi.

Mothers clutched their breasts, and young girls winced and wiped their tears with their armpits as Mandoza pointed a gun at the headman, who froze before tottering and falling softly as a cotton ball. Mandoza clobbered Ndaneta with the back of the gun. She barked like a wounded baboon as he crushed his clenched fist into her terrified face .A shower of blood sprayed from her mouth, and she fell--thud. The acrid stink of urine wafted under our noses.

Mandoza shoved his steel gumboot into Ndagura’s chest. His daughter waved a thunderous, blinding blow that shook pots and mugs around. It landed on his mouth. He stammered a mouthful of threats. His son gave him another surprising scissors-boot to Mandoza’s throat. He lost control, and the gun fell away from him. His eyes drooped, and he stumbled into the silent speakers with a bang.

What happened to cause all this violent commotion? The gossip buzzed around the room. Mandoza’s family had refused him to bring his third wife into the homestead. They had boycotted his New Year, his goat and sheep meat. They denied everything from special food to new dresses. He was infuriated and decided to kill all of them.

Now, the headman gained his strength and grabbed the gun from Mandoza’s daughter. “Chivara, you want to kill the whole village, vomit your anger?” He dragged him outside for some air.

The headman sent out messengers to bring Jokonia and Jokochwa, the headman’s advisers, and the elders would not sleep without answers. The village court gathered with the Mandozas and all interested villagers in attendance. The council of elders sipped from calabashes of sweet frothing brew (it was their custom).

Jokonia was the strictest of headman’s advisers, and now, he wiped splashes of sorghum off his mouth with the back of his hands before calling the court to order. He read from the Book of Rules and instructed Mandoza to rise. Mandoza fixed Satan’s gaze on him, but Jokonia refused to be cowed. Instead: “Speak! What got into your mind? Speak. The elders want to hear your side. Do not waste our time. The villagers are tired of your games.”

“Jokonia I cannot answer anything. You are a tired, corrupt--corr--corrupt--li--lizard.” He spat in Jokonia’s direction. The court rumbled with reluctant laughter. The headman shook his grey head.

It was now toward midnight. He stood up in haste and waved Ndaneta to stand in the box. She dragged herself from her seat, wiping a rivulet of blood off her face. She made a disturbing loud grunt; she was in deep pain. “Baba want to kill us because we refused his new wife. The new lover is young and is a relative. It’s a taboo. Myself and Mainini, we are enough for him.” She heaved defiantly. The packed court let out another collective, muffled laugh. Ndaneta sat, wiping away a storm of tears.

Ndagura and the children also testified, and the village women wept bitterly. Mandoza shouted more delusional threats. He cursed his wives’ mothers, their cats, their poverty, and their donkeys.

Jokochwa, the self-anointed adviser-in-chief, known confidante of the headman, and staunch drunkard yawned thrice before whispering into the headman’s ear. Jokochwa, who drank everything he could get his lips around--crank, malt whiskies, skokian, traditional brew--and had an insatiable craving for meat and cheap gossip, clapped his hands and pulled a cough from the pit of his tobacco-ridden chest. His dirt-coated teeth were only upstaged by his three missing fingers, lost long ago in a robbery tussle.

He stood up to give the final judgment. With a groan, the villagers lost their spirit for a fair call. Jokochwa folded his torn sleeves, as if he wanted to fight; yes, he was good at dampening people’s hopes. The headman made a drunken grin before he nodded to signal agreement.

“Mandoza, for disturbing the celebration and wielding a hunting gun, you are charged with breaking the peace of happy villagers. You must pay five bottles of Chateau Brandy, three gallons of skokian, and three goats tonight, now. The council needs to enjoy and celebrate the remain hours of New Year--” Jokowchwa grinned-- “and your new bride.”

The crowd waited patiently for more in anticipation of further punishment, but to no avail. “Ndaneta, Ndagura, and your puppies, you have two days to pack your belongings and leave the village. We do not keep witches and killers. You can’t go against the head of the family. Mandoza has the right to marry more women as long as he wants.” He cleared his throat, and with that, the court was adjourned.  

Although the grannies of the village beat their chests in disbelief, it came to pass that Mandoza later married his concubine. The village enjoyed meat and beer, and soon after that, he reclaimed the title of Father Christmas.

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In spite of my better judgment, I remain on Facebook for that awkward blurring of my professional, personal, and public lives. In that domain, I recently received a friend request from an older relative. Just a glance at this request and I knew it was the same advance-fee scam I’ve encountered a hundred times over; someone had acquired my relative’s likeness, name, and a few scant details. I decided to take the opportunity to create a reply with two primary goals in mind: 1) wasting the offender’s time and 2) creating a sustained and satisfying narrative arc out of the encounter. What resulted was a mixture of fiction writing and Improv. Aside from changing the format to be more “reader friendly”—the dialogue soon involved a third character on a different platform—I made no changes whatsoever to the text.

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