The Boiler

Jennifer Popa

THE CURRENT

I.

When, in a flush of sweat, the neighbor boy began the task of dying, the whole neighborhood turned up—a congregation of down-turned, worried faces. I only recognized him by the port wine birthmark stretching from his brow to his collarbone. On his warm body it was now dull, muted. He was the only altar boy at Mass that I could pick out each Sunday. He usually delivered the chalice to the Priest. I used to do the same when I was an altar boy many decades ago, long before brick laying ravaged my knees. Though we’d only exchanged polite nods after Mass, I felt compelled to visit his mother as he declined. She smiled when I turned up, though she didn’t pretend to know my name.

The current had arrived for the child a few days earlier accompanying the storm that pulsed at our homes’ gutters. At the time I hadn’t known it was the current; the two of us were strangers then. Still I saw her coursing through him, felt her percolating below his bloomed skin and sensed her briny breath upon me whenever I sat near the child. Perhaps she’d found him through a spark of static buzzing in a doorknob, or perhaps he’d ridden his bike home in the rain, absorbing her then. She didn’t seem happy to be there, a bit bored if I’m being honest, but she clutched to his small body without flinching. The boy’s bed had been moved to the living room: a tiny brass frame tarnished with pocks of age. We layered wet terry cloth on his forehead and the mother rubbed the arches of his feet.

“To draw the fever down from his head,” his mother nodded, animating the chubby foot until it looked like it was pumping a pedal. Though the foot flapped, his little body was still, consumed by the vapors inside his caged lungs, the bubbles where the current thrummed in his veins. The mother prayed aloud, asking God why, but the current was unmoved. The whole ordeal felt a bit routine. The current surged on, oblivious to our attempts. She would take him soon, as she’d undoubtedly taken many before. I’d seen death before, on the blood-tinged axe at the chicken’s throat, the spider-webbed crack of a windshield, but the current had not been there in either case.

I lit candles for him at Mass, and prayed three days for his little life, but when I saw him on the mattress, dampening his sheets with that dumb look on his face, I knew he was very nearly gone. The current wouldn’t be dammed by our trifling efforts, and so with the moon lodged between her teeth and cheek she lapped him up.

Sometime in the night his mother’s wails confirmed the child’s turn. Kitchen lights flipped on, and lit boxes of helpless worry illuminated our block. The storm had passed, as well as the current with the child in her keep.

II.

When I saw the current again it was many years later, just after my diagnosis. I found myself wanting for everything and nothing. I’d taken out the sailboat with no intention to return, because if I was going to die it would be at my own hand, not while waiting around to be snuffed out. The boat’s engine sputtered, gave a cough and whined like a bumblebee turned inside-out. I set out without destination, and steered my vessel toward the dark until the shore was a faint fissure of light. Lying down with my back on the boat’s deck I searched for stars between the clouds to little success.

The barefaced current approached in silence. I felt her draw the boat to the south. Tugging with such force I suspected a whale was spinning me. I sat up. When I squinted toward her crest at the stern, attempting to discern her curves, it was as if I were moving in to kiss her, or look up her skirt—and with a small splash she bit me. It wasn’t so much that she was mad, but however benign the violence was, it made her eyes flicker.

Had she wanted to level me, to tip my vessel or submerge me she could have, but instead she came aboard, slipping from water to mist before finally becoming air. She raked her metallic fingernails through my hair, and her breath was cool on my skin. She told me she’d migrated great distances, skirted entire continents, plotted with the moon and the sun. Water was her medium of choice; she could manipulate it—the tides, waves, direction, force—it had all been her. She puffed when mentioning how she’d known malleable liquid morphed from crystallized flakes at the North Pole, and sighed over some drops she’d known who were mere degrees from a gaseous dissolution. She placed her head in my lap. She said other days she preferred to waft along as a breeze, sometimes she sought out diodes and other semi-conductors so that she might flow to predetermined destinations. She was electric when she didn’t want to think. For her it was boarding a train which traced the same path again and again; these were the days when she only went through the motions. Even then, depressed myself, she seemed quite sad.

She whispered that many looked to her for absolution, to trickle on the foreheads of infants in baptismal gowns. I realized she was flirting. She slithered over me, into my ears, along my brow and her silky tongue probed the gaps between toes. Parting my lips she teased and sucked my breath from me, but never the whole lot. She was careful to leave just enough.

I told her to stop, pushed her from my waist, but she whistled and only pressed further. She clung to me, wrapped my wrists with a grip so tight I thought she had rope. Then she told me of the men she’d swallowed, the suicidal jumpers thudding in her straits. She had a taste for the ones who fought it, who thrashed and clawed at her swells. She became excited. The current said there was water water everywhere, in every fiber of tissue, in the lazy eye of the tarot card reader, the damp cries of the sirens luring sailors beyond the stern. Once she conspired with the moon and snatched a whole village in one swig. Though when I asked her where these villages go all she could say was that they’re sent to the belly of the earth, somewhere beneath the mantle, near to the core.

I was weeping by then. After a string of wet hiccups clicked in my throat I asked her to swallow me up and stuff me toward the core. I stood and moved toward the bow of the boat, preparing to jump. But she rolled her eyes, slipped into the water, and shoved my boat back toward the marina. I suppose she realized that like the others I sought an end, and not her. The who of it mattered very little to me.

III.

Tonight, my lungs fill with fluid, and my breath is labored, punctuated with a sporadic gurgle. It’s peculiar how a man can drown within his own body, miles from the sea.

The current has returned, but she’s now at the foot of my bed. With a flick of her hair in my periphery she ignores me, avoiding my gaze and pretending we’ve never met. A spurned woman is the least of my worries tonight. I want to tell her that many times I looked for her whorls along the sandbars, squinted, hoping I might find her tapping a weather vane, and one time I thought I recognized her murmur in the humming telephone lines. Apologizing for my rebuff would be useless now. I cannot abate her loneliness with false apologies. It won’t change the isolation of her duty.

The boy with the port wine birthmark sits beside her thumbing through old magazines. He wears his altar boy robes from Sunday mass. My eyes struggle to focus while battling the morphine. In lucid moments, I can see her squared metallic fingernails, her swirling hair so thick—I remember its coolness slinking across my shoulders in the boat. Tonight her bare feet are tucked beneath her in the chair.

When I focus too hard, straining, the nurse asks me about these hallucinations. I tell her nothing. Now I am swimming upwards. There’s a deafening compression on my lungs, and I can feel the current palpitating within me. While my eyes throb, and my nostrils burn with bubbles, she is my bedside companion. She spared me once, but again she is indifferent to my state and files her nails. I suppose even drowning can be tedious.

 


Jennifer Popa recently relocated from the interior of Alaska to the South Plains of West Texas where she is in her second year as a PhD student of English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories, some of which can be found at Grist, Watershed Review, Monkeybicycle and Fiction Southeast.