by Michael Cocchiarale

‘You a famous athlete?’ the young woman asked, thumbing a tube back into her nose.

David looked down at himself—polo to khakis to loafers. It was the least mortifying way he knew how to say ‘No.’

‘Sorry, but you don’t have the arms. Or the neck. They all have these necks.’ Her thin fingers made Cs above her shoulders to give him some idea of size.

‘I’m tall.’

‘It helps for hoops.’ She nodded at the TV above. ‘Although it’s not needed.’

Since grade school, David felt as if he’d been on a long, sickening apology tour for one body part or another. Haphazard hair, gobstopper eyes, finger-sized toes—you name it. In high school, even his height became an enemy. Weight refused to keep pace with growth; as a result, he shambled down long hallways, looking less striking than skeletal.

‘One of those character actors? Have I seen you in anything? Modern Family? Grey’s Anatomy? My mom’ll be here in a sec. Maybe she can—’

She squinted. ‘You on the best seller list?’

‘Small press,’ he said by way of apology. Shep, his splendid but strange publisher, was convinced a series of hospital visits would be just the thing to set David apart in an increasingly bloated market. ‘WIN WIN,’ he wrote in an all-caps email, ‘DO A GOOD DEED WHILE GROWING THE HECK OUT OF YOUR AUDIENCE!’ He closed with a suggestion to keep a blog featuring pictures of himself with the injured and the sick (‘WITH THEIR PERMISSION OF COURSE!’). David responded with a simple ‘Sounds good,’ knowing full well he’d hardly have the heart for the first idea, let alone the second.

‘You a famous athlete?’ the young woman asked, thumbing a tube back into her nose.

‘What do you write about?’

‘Well, that’s an interesting—’

‘My ex writes fantasy. Everybody has a secret hole and it’s in a different place. Actually, if I remember correctly, it moves around so no one even knows where their own is at. But for some reason, it’s vital. I think it’s because you can never truly know the person until you find the hole.’

David blinked. What was he supposed to say?

‘Oh, and here’s the thing: it’s not sexual either. With Randy, well, never mind . . .’

‘What happens when you find it? The secret hole?’

‘You jump in. Roam around. Discover horrible truths! I told him the book should end with the door slamming closed behind the main character.’ A quiet laugh meandered in her throat. ‘Imagine being trapped inside an a-hole for the rest of your natural life.’

David made what he hoped were thoughtful noises. ‘Would you like me to read to you?’

Her face clouded. ‘I’m probably going to die. I’ll know for sure on Monday.’

‘No . . . you shouldn’t—’

‘There was this woman here two days ago. Beautiful smile. Mother of three. Some kind of . . . emblemism, if that’s the right word. Want to guess where she is right now?’

‘Well, that doesn’t mean—’

‘Oh, nothing means!’ She slapped the bed, a gesture that seemed to drain her.

For the first time, David considered her closely. She was what? Eighteen? Maybe twenty? Short, thick hair slopped around her ears. Her nose was crooked, tough, and her jaw swooped down toward a blunt, hammer head chin. But those eyes—how weak they looked, how dusty, like trophies languishing on a basement shelf. He imagined her an athlete, a basketball player, fancy shoes and bright headband, dribbling the ball up court when suddenly her legs gave out. Next she knew, there was a wash of florescent light. Through the blur—a smiling teammate, the lipless face of her concerned coach. Moments later, the paramedics, their comforting banter. Her body rising, resting on a bed that began to wheel toward banged-open doors. Was he empathizing or drafting? Sometimes, he found it difficult to tell.

He took a breath before moving forward with Shep’s game plan. ‘My novel,’ he said, ‘is what’s called a coming-of-age story.’

She yawned. ‘I’ve read some of those.’

He took her response for a compliment. The shopping bag by his feet contained twelve signed copies. Enough, he hoped, for every patient in the wing. He’d scrawled ‘Best wishes!’ in each. Banal for sure, but not as bad as ‘Feel better,’ which had been his first choice—that is, until it dawned on him that no one battling serious illness could ever be cheered by such a dumb imperative.

Yes, ‘Best wishes!’ was better, but what did it say about him that he couldn’t come up with words that rose above platitude. Perhaps it only said he’d been in a hurry. Not truly invested. Or maybe the failure had been a deeper resistance to this whole crazy plan. ‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Shep had said in a less strident follow-up email, ‘but you’ve really got to TRUST me on this.’ To cinch his case, he told the story of a first-time YA novelist who’d recently done quite well for himself during a five-city tour of New England pediatric wards.

Fine—trust the plan, David said to himself, preparing to list his protagonist’s rites of passage—his parents’ bitter divorce, an unrequited high school love, the burger job at the mall, a dumb, early marriage to a woman with whom he had only a college major in common.

At that moment, a nurse burst in, saying, ‘Hello dear, time for your yummy pills!’ He stepped back, making himself unobtrusive as possible. It was easy, like always, like as recently as a week ago, when he’d given a reading at a Main Line bookstore and no one showed. Oh, there were people in the shop, but they kept up front, sipping free coffee from tiny cups while orbiting the new releases. The manager went around the store a few times, mentioning the reading to patrons and suggesting they grab a seat soon. He even came back to the mic to read a brief introduction, which included a nice quotation from an otherwise lukewarm review in the Inquirer. Determined, a bit disoriented from a light beer he’d downed at the restaurant next door, he stood at the podium and read with great verve to fourteen empty folding chairs. Half way through, a boy on his way back from the bathroom stopped to listen. When they made eye contact, David stopped and smiled. The boy’s mouth dropped open, and he hurried away, as if David were a stranger trying to lure him into a van.    

After the nurse left, the young woman tapped up the volume on the TV. He turned, craned his neck to see that a game was about to begin.

‘The 76ers,’ he said, happy to know that much.

‘The other team has Kawhi Leonard. He’s a two-way specialist.’

David didn’t know what a ‘two-way specialist’ was, but he couldn’t help reading the observation as a dig against him. If only there were a league for professional writers, complete with huge salaries and lucrative endorsements. Fans crying out, clamoring for selfies and autographs as he stepped off the team bus in his sharp suit and shades. But that would assume he’d be good enough to hang with the pros. That would assume he had both the talent and the drive. And also the ‘vision,’ which his ex-wife in their final days described as his ‘most unsightly flaw.’

‘Okay, Lace,’ he’d said. ‘What am I not seeing?’

She sipped her pinot noir. ‘That’s the thing. I shouldn’t have to lend you my eyes.’

It was a hurtful thing to say to a husband of thirteen years. But as a writer, the words struck him like a fist. Hadn’t he devoted years of his life to working and reworking his prose in an effort to make people ‘see’ in new and meaningful ways? Later, on the way back to apartment into which he’d moved, he thought she might have been right. The truth was, for all his degrees—for all his hard labor—he knew precious little of the world. Perhaps nothing at all. Maybe that’s why ‘What do I know?’ came to be not only his protagonist’s familiar refrain, but also the very last words of the novel. Not that he’d written autobiography. No, no—it was important that readers not be confused by the tall, ungainly, self-doubting first person narrator. His book was a work of pure imagination. Any resemblance between characters and real people was merely coincidental. 

The truth was, for all his degrees—for all his hard labor—he knew precious little of the world.

‘What have we here?’

David turned to see a woman with wet, wrinkly blonde hair standing in the doorway. If he had written a hasty first draft of her face, he might have described her look as ‘bemusedly suspicious.’ 

The patient yawned. ‘Make a Wish was busy.’

‘Please don’t.’ The woman moved into the room, bringing with her a subtle scent of cinnamon that didn’t seem to fit with her tight rhinestone top and red mesh shorts that dropped to her knees. ‘No more jokes,’ she said, patting the bed next to the young woman’s hand.

‘Okay, okay. Mom, this is…?’

He straightened. Cleared his throat. ‘David.’

‘Are you the new boyfriend?’

The young woman laughed—weakly. ‘No, he’s just a writer.’

David said, ‘I have a book!’  

The mother’s look of bemused suspicion returned.

‘Really—I do.’ He drew a copy from the bag, holding it out like a declawed creature she shouldn’t be afraid to pet. After a moment, she took it, walking long turquoise nails across the tree-lined trail on the cover. She flipped the book over, then looked up and down, figuring the degree of likeness between photo and flesh. The picture was about three years old, taken by his ex on a bridge over the Delaware River. Elbows on the railing, legs crossed at the ankles. His eyes open but not bugging out, his smile bright without being overly idiotic. For him, it seemed a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

‘I used to be a huge reader,’ the mother said. She opened the book and moved her eyes across the page. He turned to watch two people in white coats chatting in the hallway. One said, ‘Yum, pad thai!’ The other: ‘I’m fine with whatever.’ When he looked back, he saw that the patient’s eyes were closed. Meanwhile, the mother had sunk into the chair next to the bed and was idly turning pages.

‘You may have it,’ he said. ‘It’s yours.’

She began working the cover back and forth. ‘Tell me this much: Is it going to end badly?’

How readers loved their happy endings! Longed for them. He had developed a careful response to this inevitable question, one that strode fearlessly up to the edge of pretention without (he was almost sure) going over. Today, however, he simply tweaked that refrain from his poor protagonist: ‘I don’t know.’

‘But . . . you wrote it.’ The mother didn’t seem angry. Or even confused. She seemed sad instead, resigned, as if this were exactly the kind of betrayal she’d been expecting all her life.

‘The reader creates meaning.’ It was a lame response. Obnoxious too (so much for that edge of pretension!). But the honest truth was that David never had any good answers about his own writing, except for the one thing he could never really say: that, for all the time he spent on it—all the sweat and tears—he found the whole endeavor embarrassing. Mortifying. A ludicrous indulgence. What he’d give to be one of those writers completely free of misgivings—one possessed of real, unwavering ‘vision.’

The mother stood to slide hair around her daughter’s ear. ‘Out already,’ she said. ‘The drugs here are primo. There’s been a lot of pain.’

David said, ‘I’m sorry.’ He had no other words.

The mother sat back down, ankle over knee, and opened the book again. Again, David had been forgotten. He looked at the daughter breathing easily in the bed. Red numbers blinked on a screen above her head. Occasionally, there was a beep. From the hallway came the sound of soft laughter. An elevator door. Above, he saw the basketball game was now in full swing. The announcer said, ‘Simmons still can’t shoot, but at least he’s got eyes in the back of his head.’

‘Why tell us everything that happens right up front?’ the mother asked, closing the book.

‘If they keep letting him get to the hole,’ the announcer explained, ‘it’s going to be a really long night.’

‘Why do you have the guy standing over the grave first thing?’

On the TV, a player suddenly took to the air and threw the ball with great force through the basket. He swung on the rim, savoring the roar of the crowd before artfully dropping to the floor. That was a dunk, David said to himself. A slam dunk. He nearly laughed out loud, stunned at how good it felt to know those words—to be so certain about what he’d just seen.

Michael Cocchiarale is the author of two short story collections–Still Time (Fomite, 2012) and Here Is Ware (Fomite, 2018)–as well as the novel None of the Above (Unsolicited Press, 2019). His work may be found online in journals such as Fiction Kitchen BerlinStickman ReviewPithead Chapel, and Fictive Dream. For more information about his work check out his website: