by Sherman Alexie August 10, 2009
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MY KAFKA BAGGAGE
A few years ago, after I returned home to Seattle from a trip to Los Angeles, I unpacked my bag and found a dead cockroach, shrouded by a dirty sock, in a corner. Shit, I thought. We’re being invaded. So I threw the clothes, books, shoes, and toiletries back into the suitcase, carried it out to the driveway, and dumped the contents onto the pavement, ready to stomp on any other cockroach stowaways. But there was only the one cockroach, dead and stiff. As he lay on the pavement, I leaned closer to him. His legs were curled under his body. His head was tilted at a sad angle. Sad? Yes, sad. For who is lonelier than the cockroach without his tribe? I laughed at myself. I was feeling empathy for a dead cockroach. I wondered about its story. How had it got into my bag? And where? At the hotel in Los Angeles? In the airport baggage system? It hadn’t originated in our house. We’ve kept those tiny bastards from our place for fifteen years. So where had this little vermin come from? Had he smelled something delicious in my bag—my musky deodorant or some crumb from a chocolate Power Bar—and climbed inside, only to be crushed by the shifts of fate and garment bags? As he died, did he feel fear? Isolation? Existential dread?
Last summer, in reaction to various allergies I was suffering from, defensive mucus flooded my inner right ear and confused, frightened, and unmoored me. My allergies had never been this severe. I could barely hear a fucking thing with that side, so I had to turn my head in order to understand what my two sons, ages eight and ten, were saying.
“We’re hungry,” they said. “We keep telling you.”
I was embarrassed.
“Mom would have fed us by now,” they said.
Their mother had left for Italy with her mother two days before. My sons and I were going to enjoy a boys’ week, filled with unwashed socks, REI rock-wall climbing, and ridiculous heaps of pasta.
“What are you going to cook?” my sons asked. “Why haven’t you cooked yet?”
I’d been lying on the couch reading a book while they played and I hadn’t realized that I’d gone partially deaf. So, for just a moment, I could only weakly blame my allergies.
Then I recalled the man who went to the emergency room because he’d woken having lost most, if not all, of his hearing. The doctor peered into one ear, saw an obstruction, reached in with small tweezers, and pulled out a cockroach, then reached into the other ear and extracted a much larger cockroach. Did you know that ear wax is a delicacy for roaches?
I cooked dinner for my sons—overfed them out of guilt—and cleaned the hell out of our home. Then I walked into the bathroom and stood before the mirror. I turned my head and body at weird angles and tried to see deeply into my congested ear; I sang hymns and prayed that I’d see a small angel trapped in the canal. I would free the poor thing, and she’d unfurl and pat dry her tiny wings, then fly to my lips and give me a sweet kiss for sheltering her metamorphosis.
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When I woke at 3 A.M., completely deaf in my right ear, and positive that a damn swarm of locusts was wedged inside, I left a message for my doctor, and told him that I would be sitting outside his office when he reported for work.
This would be the first time I had been inside a health-care facility since my father’s last surgery.
After the surgeon had cut off my father’s right foot—no, half of my father’s right foot—and three toes from the left, I sat with him in the recovery room. It was more like a recovery hallway. There was no privacy, not even a thin curtain. I supposed this made it easier for the nurses to monitor the post-surgical patients, but, still, my father was exposed—his decades of poor health and worse decisions were illuminated—on white sheets in a white hallway under white lights.
“Are you O.K.?” I asked. It was a stupid question. Who could be O.K. after such a thing? Yesterday, my father had walked into the hospital. Yes, he’d shuffled while balancing on two canes, but that was still called walking. A few hours ago, my father still had both of his feet. They were black with rot and disease, but they were still, technically speaking, feet and toes. And, most important, those feet had belonged to my father. Now they were gone, sliced off. Where were they? What had the hospital done with the right foot and the toes from the left foot? Had they been thrown into the incinerator? Were their ashes already floating over the city?
“Doctor, I’m cold,” my father said.
“Dad, it’s me,” I said.
“I know who you are. You’re my son.” But, given the blankness in my father’s eyes, I assumed he was just guessing.
“Dad, you’re in the hospital. You just had surgery.”
“I know where I am. I’m cold.”
“Do you want another blanket?” Stupid question. Of course, he wanted another blanket. He probably wanted me to build a fucking campfire or drag in one of those giant heat blasters that N.F.L. football teams use on the sidelines.
I walked down the hallway—the recovery hallway—to the nurses’ station. There were three women nurses there, two white and one black. I am Native American—Spokane and Coeur d’Alene Indian—and I thought my darker pigment might give me an edge with the black nurse, so I addressed her directly.