A Perfect Waste
By Alissa Nielsen
“That’s Jim’s car,” I say.
“Why was your husband—” the officer flips a page in his notepad, “Jim Richards driving Jim Schumacher’s car?”
“We all share it.”
“All three of you share the car?”
“We all live together.”
He scratches words into his pad. “And how long have you known him?”
“We met several years ago. Wait. Do you mean my husband, or Jim?”
He looks up and stares. “Both,” he says.
The exterior of Legacy Medical in Fergus, Minnesota, used to display three golden figures of a father, mother, and child holding hands. Several years ago, the child came loose and nearly fell on a startled outgoing patient. The rusted-out figures were removed—when I rushed into the hospital today, there was nothing outside but a blank stretch of wall.
“I’ve known my husband forever,” I tell the officer. “Since we were kids. Jim, I met three years ago. He was our landscaper.”
“And now he lives with the both of you.”
The officer squints, feigning concern—or maybe it’s just the fluorescents overhead. There’s a hint of trepidation in his voice that reveals his youth when he says, “In your opinion, did your husband have any cause to damage the vehicle? That is, do you think the accident was premeditated?”
“No. He’s not that type. He’s the let’s-get-fucked-up-and-drive type.”
The realization of the accident surfaces suddenly, sending a brief shock through my middle. The doctor had told me my husband’s injuries were “significant, since there was already internal organ damage.” She carefully enunciated each word in an accent I couldn’t quite place—maybe Persian. “He was conscious for a moment after the accident, but has been comatose for the last hour. Do you understand?” My skull had felt tight as a fist as I asked if he would be okay. She told me it was too soon to say, that there was an officer who wanted to ask me some questions.
“The tests show Vicodin and alcohol,” the officer says. “Does your husband use other drugs or narcotics that you know of?”
“Of course he does,” I say. I look around, wondering if Jim’s arrived. “But I’d really like to see him now.”
The kid nods toward the room, almost proud that he’s letting me do this.
hen I walk in, Jim is standing over my husband’s bed, still in his dirty Carhartts, seeder sticking out his back pocket. He leans his heavy chest down, gently caresses my husband’s left hand, and then kisses it. My first impulse is to leave them alone, to keep it private, but I fight the old, hard-wired response and sit, uncomfortable, until my heart starts to open. Seeing those hands, the same hands that have held me close now coupled together, somehow makes me feel solid in my body, like a pebble between two palms.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say. A wash of relief fills Jim’s face as he stands and hugs me. I hold him tighter.
“I got here and he was like this,” Jim says. He glances down at my husband’s feet. “God, he just can’t help himself, can he?”
Jim stands back and looks me in the eyes. “You seem so calm,” he says. I feel faint, protected in silence.
A nurse comes in and starts adjusting some tubes. He is tall and lean, with piercing sea-green eyes. “The doctor wants to do some tests,” he says. “There’s a cafeteria on floor two, or you can have some coffee in the waiting room. It shouldn’t take too long.”
I look at my husband. Even with his sunken eyes and the huge purple knob on his forehead, he looks the same—same as that kid stealing Pop Rocks, same as that seventeen-year-old stoned at graduation, same as when he stood next to me in a tux. Just…the same. And all I can think to whisper is, Don’t go.
n the waiting room, Jim drinks slowly from a bottle of water, his face haggard, spent. His hand shifts awkwardly from my knee, back to his heart. A man of action, he fidgets his fingers to keep steady. I’m the polar opposite, retreating into the inner prison of myself. He finishes the last gulp and sighs monumentally, stands.
“Where’s the recycling?” he asks a man in scrubs who is quietly eating his yogurt. With his plastic spoon, the man points to a bin in the corner.
“That’s recycling?” Jim asks.
“It’s the trash,” the man tells him.
“I see that it’s trash,” Jim says. Suddenly he’s become the environmentalist. “Where does it go?”
The man doesn’t say anything. He flat-out ignores Jim.
Jim glances around with a Can you believe this guy? look. “You know,” Jim bursts. “Jerks like you make it hard to do any good on this crappy planet.”
The man stands. He’s nearly a foot taller than Jim. Assesses him with his eyes. They’re close enough; the smell of banana-strawberry yogurt is nauseating. I know I should say something to stop him, but I don’t. “What’s your problem?” the man asks.
“It’s goddamn careless, is what it is. It’s unethical bullshit!”
The man breathes in deep. I get the feeling he’s dealt with situations like this before. Then he laughs, shakes his head, and sits back down. I see Jim’s body tensing. He lifts the bottle over his head, aims for the guy. Heat starts coming back into my body, a warm thrush under the skin. It feels stunning—a bright reprieve from dark interiors.
Months ago, when I told my husband, everything was already understood. Explaining my relationship with Jim was like some awful performance of the reality my husband had already felt. We were both pretty well wasted, and I’m just now recalling how he sloughed it off, super chill, said something like: Yeah, no, gotta do your thing, sweetness.
For reasons I’m still not sure of, Jim and he were solid after that. My husband said it was because they got trashed and bonded. Jim talks like it was a massacre. He said: All our blood and guts and shit on the table, how could you not look at each other as anything but animal? I have to say, I was envious of their equality. Anyway, they were tight. As a goodbye, they’d always say, Don’t take shit from nobody.
Jim turns and chucks the bottle aggressively into the bin. He collapses into the chair, looks at me a bit sheepish. With my fingers, I find the spot at the base of his neck. “Well, it is bullshit,” I say, finally coming back into the world. I can feel Jim’s pulse steady. This simple beat makes me wonder how death, the ultimate stasis, can seem so rapid.
“Have you ever thought about it?” Jim says—and this, this is why: not because of any kind of help or refuge or stability he provides, but because we’ve shared enough utterly messy and sobering moments when one of us turns to the other and says something so raw and thoughtfully bare it’s alarming—“you know, that word ‘garbage.’ It could mean anything.”