Round and Round
  Charles Pinch

Nick Freeway, the next Kerouac or Faulkner, was writing in his notebook. He wrote: ...this was my farewell, my last goodbye, my swan song for a dying swan, you could say. I listened with my ear cocked to the Universe for a voice that spoke kindly, with patience and tenderness, rather than remonstrance, with silly, passionate, shameful indulgence desired by a fool where neither silliness nor passion was appropriate. I never heard it...

When he looked up through the windshield of his cab there was a guy waving to him. He was standing at the corner of the block just beside a utility pole hung with a "We Care" banner that flapped in the light breeze. There was a logo under the words but Nick didn’t recognize it so he wasn’t sure what he should be caring about. He slowed on the approach and put the cab in neutral beside the utility pole where the fare stood. Nick observed the guy. He was dressed in a peculiar mismatch of gray flannel dress pants that sort of Forrest Gump’d or Li’l Abner’d above the ankles. With this he wore a light jacket over a red and white checked shirt. No, not a shirt, really, because the checks were loud. It was a tablecloth with buttons.

“Hey,” Nick said.

“Can you take me to Rushmore Road?”

“You bet.”

“But do you know where it is?” the fare asked.

“I know it. Hop in.”

The fare did. “Hi,” he said. When he said it he waved. It was a little wave, no more than wiggling the fingers.

Nick smiled. “How you doin’?”

“Oh, pretty good,” the guy answered.

Nick glanced in the mirror after setting the meter. The fare at that moment wasn’t looking at him; he was glancing apprehensively out the window. He looked to Nick like he was watching if somebody was following him. But there was no one on the street that packed a rod or carried a knife unless some of the chicks breaking for lunch had guns or knives in their purses or the old age pensioner on his way to the bank had a bomb in his pocket. From the look of him, the fare might have been a kid just out of high school. The sorry side of life seemed to grip him with both hands, and given his scrawny frame and bulging Adam’s apple and eyeglasses that would do a nerd proud, he was the kind of guy you automatically felt sorry for. Nick didn’t even know him and he felt sorry for him.

They set out. They hit the first set of lights and waiting for the green. Nick thrummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“You know what’s fascinating?” the fare said behind him.

“No, what?” Nick asked.

“All the stuff inside you. The human body, for instance. I’m thinking specifically of all the veins and arteries.”

“Okay,” Nick said. He glanced again in the mirror.

The fare was glancing back at him with not so much guy’s eyes but golden retriever or cocker spaniel eyes. It looked like he was waiting. “You don’t think so?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I haven’t thought much about it.”

“No? I think about it all the time,” the fare said. “It’s pretty fascinating. Especially the veins and arteries inside you.”

“Are you like studying medicine or something?” Nick asked.

“No. Just Google. I’m always looking up stuff about them.”

“Okay,” Nick said.

“What’s interesting is the arteries are red and the veins are blue. Did you know that?”

“Are they blue?” Nick asked. “I haven’t seen any veins lately but I think they’re more purple, aren’t they? I mean they’re not blue like the sky or something blue like that.”

“I think they’re more purple actually than blue.”

“Right,” Nick said.

“It’s pretty fascinating,” the fare repeated.

“It’s pretty fascinating when you think about it.”

“There’s something like sixty thousand miles of plumbing inside you,” the fare told him. “What gets me is you’d think carrying around that many miles, of well, anything, would be heavy, but you don’t even feel it. At least I don’t.”

“No,” Nick said.

“Do you?”

“No, I don’t feel it.”

“You know why they’re different colors?”

“God made ‘em that way?”

The fare laughed. It came out sounding like a snuffle, between a laugh and a sneeze. “You know why?”

“Why?”

“It makes it easier for doctors when they operate.”

“Okay,” Nick said.

“Is this the way to Rushmore?” the fare asked, looking out the side window.

“This is the way,” Nick said.

“It’s pretty fascinating. I’m probably a little obsessed with it.”

“That’s cool,” Nick assured him.

“You might think I’m crazy but I’m not and I can prove it.”

“How can you do that?”

“Cause I just told you I figured I was a little obsessed. I know that’s sort of crazy but it’s not actual crazy if you know what I mean.”

“Certifiable.”

“Right. Because I’m aware I’m obsessed. Not a lot. Just a little bit.”

“I’d say you’re highly interested rather than obsessed. How’s that?”

“Thanks,” the guy said. It appeared he wasn’t used to getting any kind of compliment, about anything or from anyone, at least not for a while anyway, and this one went all over his face. He blushed a little and lowered eyes that really belonged on some kind of spaniel.

“What I can’t figure out is where does it start?” Nick told him.

“What start?”

“Well, the blood inside you, man.”

“I think that’s the heart.”

“Yeah, it goes through the heart but the blood never leaves your circulatory system. It’s always somewhere there; it’s just that it’s always moving. So like, where does it start, right?”

“That’s a good question,” the fare said. He was thoughtful for a minute. “You should maybe think about becoming a doctor if you ever get tired of driving a cab.”

“No,” Nick said. “I was just curious, that’s all.”

“Well, it’s a good question.”

“Thanks,” Nick said.

“Can I tell you something you probably don’t know?”

“Sure.”

“There’s three seminal arteries in the body, well, the human body, I don’t know if it applies to animals—I mean lizards and that kind of thing. Anyway. By seminal I mean if you cut one of those suckers they’re so important you die. Do you know which ones they are?”

“No,” Nick admitted. “Okay, your heart. The aorta going into your heart. That’s one.”

“What are the other two?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay,” the fare said. He sat back, crossed his arms over his chest, like I got you now.

“Are you going to tell me?”

“You want their names?”

“Sure.”

“The carotid artery.”

“Okay. Where’s that?”

“In the neck. It’s behind a lot of other stuff. A good way to describe it is ganglia.”

“Ganglia.”

“You can just picture it, can’t you? Lots of muscle fibers and stringy stuff all packed into your throat or neck like stuff inside a pipe.”

“I get the picture. It’s a good word.”

“Isn’t it? I nearly crapped my pants when I first heard it.”

“What’s the third one?”

“That would be your femoral artery.”

“Okay, where’s that?”

“You promise you won’t laugh?”

“Why would I laugh?”

“It’s to either side of your cock and balls.”

Nick glanced at the face averting his glance in the mirror.

“Okay,” he said. “I think I know where that is.”

The fare looked relieved and he laughed. But one of the emotions — embarrassment or maybe shame — washed his cheeks a light strawberry.

“So what’s the story on the femoral?” he asked.

“Well, this is a pretty important artery. I would describe it as seminal. By seminal I mean if it’s cut or punctured accidentally you got three minutes to live.”

“Three minutes. That’s not a long time.”

“This sucker’s rapid transit.”

Nick shook his head. “Well, I’m gonna take good care not cut it.”

“Ditto from behind the driver’s seat.” The fare’s eyebrows contracted. “It depends on how it’s cut, though.”

Nick frowned. “Say again?”

“If it’s cut and the break is a straight line then there might be a chance to save the guy if 911 got there quick. Do you know what I mean?”

“No.”

“If it’s cut straight across there’s a pressure in the arteries that operates to close the wound. The two walls of the severed artery according to Google squeeze together. That slows the amount of blood loss.”

“Okay.”

“So it might be more than three minutes. A little more.”

“Right.”

“But just make sure it’s not cut on a diagonal because, buddy, then the whole picture changes.”

“All right. How does it change?”

“The arterial walls can’t squeeze together because they’ve been cross cut. The blood just pours out. I mean like a torrent or something.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Oh, yeah. Hematology 101.”

“You know a hell of a lot about this.”

“Well, I looked up a lot of stuff. I type artery and stuff into the search bar.”

“You know a hell of a lot about it.”

“Do you live with your Mum and Dad?”

Nick was a little surprised by the question. It came out of nowhere and was like a 360 spin from talking about veins and arteries. But it was just a question. Actually, he got asked it a few times.

“No,” he said. “My Mom moved to the States after my Dad died to live with her sister.”

“Your Dad died? Jeepers, I’m sorry!” His voice sounded like he took it personally.

“It’s okay. It was a while ago. I mean it’s not okay that he died, but it was a while ago. I was nineteen, I think. Yeah, nineteen. Year I got my driver’s license.”

“How old are you now if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Twenty-four. My Dad died a little over five years ago. He died just after New Year’s I remember so I guess it’s more like six years if you figure it that way.”

“Gee, I’m really sorry to hear it. I think the worst thing that could ever happen to you is losing one of your parents. Or both.”

Nick shrugged. “Shit happens, right? I don’t like it but it happens. But thanks.”

The fare nodded. There was a lump in his throat.

“Did you love your father?”

“Sure. He was great.”

“But did you love him?”

“I loved him,” Nick said. “I didn’t see him a lot, though. He was a shift worker.”

“Right,” the fare said. “What about your mother?”

“She’s living in Florida now.”

“Do you love her?”

“You bet. I mean, she’s my mom, right? Do you love your mother?”

“Oh, Jeezuz. What kind of a question is that! Of course I love her! She was the greatest person whoever lived.”

“I didn’t realize she was dead when I asked. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Nick said. “I guess you miss her.”

“Oh, sure. It’s not the same. It’s not the same at all. I don’t mean to brag but she was the greatest person whoever lived.”

“I can believe it,” Nick said.

The fare had taken his glasses off and set them on the seat. He put his hands to his face and the next thing he was bawling. Nick’s eyes widened when he looked in the mirror. Then the guy started to cry full throttle, not only his hands over his face, but his shoulders shaking and his hair standing on end.

“Jesus Christ!” Nick cried. “I’m sorry!”

“It’s not your fault,” the fare sobbed.

They were stopped at a red light. On the next block was a coffee shop. When the light changed Nick drove through the intersection and parked in front of the shop. He switched the meter on standby.

“Wait here,” he said.

The fare was still bawling. He was smaller than he looked a minute ago, almost like a little kid, a kind of beanpole guy. Whatever he felt for his Mom ran deep and every bit of it had taken hold of him and was shaking him from the inside out. Nick went into the coffee shop. He didn’t buy coffee. He bought four donuts. Two chocolate and two honey glazed. He paid for them and came out with the bag. In the car he opened it.

“Lookee here,” he said. “The white death of refined sugar. The certain death of trans fats.”

The fare looked up. “You bought these for me?” Tears streaked his cheeks.

“Sure.”

The fare swallowed.

“Take one,” Nick offered. “Take two. Take all of them if you want.”

The fare reached out like a kid in a story by Dickens. His hand trembled and Nick thought his fingers looked too thin. Everything about him in fact looked thin. He took a chocolate donut.

Nick took a honey glazed.

“Mmmm good!” he exclaimed, sort of making more of it than he ordinarily would. He smacked his lips. “That’s good, isn’t it? How’s your chocolate?”

The fare had already taken a bite and was chewing it.

“We can sit here for a bit if you like.”

“How much is it going to cost me?”

“No charge. I’ve switched the timer off.”

“Okay. Thank you.” The fare sat holding the donut but didn’t take another bite. “What a day,” he said. “I knew this would be the day. Like you get up in the morning and you just know.”

“Right,” Nick said.

“I experienced three things I really loved today.”

“Oh yeah? Like what?”

The fare sat looking out the window, his head turned away. He looked out for a minute or so and Nick could see he was thinking about something.

“Number one I had cocoa puffs for breakfast even though my Mum used to say they weren’t good for me.”

“They won’t kill you.”

“They won’t kill you but they’re not good for you. Butter won’t kill you either but it’s not good for you.”

“Butter’ll kill you.”

“It will?”

“Sure. Your arteries we were talking about, remember? Hardening of the arteries, man. Seminal arteries, too.”

“Oh, yeah. Right.” He looked down at his donut. “The second thing was I slept in. Sometimes I have nightmares that will wake me up but last night I had probably what you could say was the best sleep of my life. I slept in.”

“Cool,” Nick told him and nodded. “I love sleeping in. When I can. What’s the third thing?”

“Guy buys me a donut.”

“Hey,” Nick said.

“What were we talking about before this? You can switch the meter back on. This feels like the longest and certainly the strangest day of my life.”

“Why’s that?” Nick asked.

“I don’t know. Do you ever have days like that?”

“Sure.”

“What were we talking about?”

“We were talking at one point about the femoral artery.”

“Oh yeah,” the fare said. “They have this video on YouTube that shows how it works like a cartoon.”

“You mean animated?”

“Yeah.”

“All right.”

“You know what always gets me? You watch some movies about sword fighters or Japanese samurai and they’re always stabbing each other. Like they stick the knife in the guy’s throat and boom! There goes the carotid artery. It’s actually quite difficult to hit it directly.”

“The ganglia,” Nick remembered.

“That’s right. Those movies always break me up. I watched this western movie that took place in old California. It was called Hacienda something.”

“Okay,” Nick said.

“Well, these two Spanish or Spanish-American — no, they wouldn’t be American because it wasn’t part of the States then. These two Spanish conquistadors are having a sword fight. The one guy sticks the other guy in the place where the femoral artery is. Well, he thinks he does but he misses by a mile. They show a close up and the blood’s really pouring out, sort of fake though, like you’d see in a fountain.”

“Well, that’s movies for you,” Nick said.

“Okay. But why does the guy writhe around on the ground for ten minutes before he dies. Even with a straight across cut it would be under ten minutes. It wouldn’t be three but it would probably be less than ten. The other guy who stabs him stands laughing at him, watching him bleed. But it’s ludicrous. If he stuck the guy in that artery — and it looked like he’d struck from an angle, so that would mean a cross cut — why wouldn’t they know that when they wrote the script? That doesn’t make sense for him to be alive so long. I mean, don’t they research this stuff?”

“Depends on the studio, “ Nick said. “I guess not. Sounds low budget.”

“It always cracks me up!” The guy shone, big smile.

“Hollywood. Nuff said.”

“There was another movie where a war hero sticks a German with a stiletto in the neck. It was so funny. I mean, not funny to do that, right, but—.” The fare set his donut on the seat beside his glasses and grabbed his neck with both hands and started gagging and pretending to die from being choked. He was laughing, too. Then he took his hands down. “The German said, just before he died finally, ‘You did me a favor, Americano.'”

Nick laughed. Two streets away from Rushmore. He switched the meter off. What the hell.

“He probably wanted to die.”

“I think so. But if a guy wanted to kill himself, like, the carotid? No way, Jose! Try and find that sucker with all the stuff in your neck. What he wanted to do was stick the femoral artery because it’s the easiest to find unless you want to stab yourself in the heart. Three minutes if you cut on a diagonal. You pass out after one minute and in three minutes you’re dead.”

“You don’t want to do that,” Nick said.

“No, no, I was just talking,” the fare said. “Like how do you put it all together?”

“What...?”

“The worst thing that ever happened to me was when my mum died. This? This is nothing.”

He pulled a knife, so sharp it sang, out of his pocket, the pocket of the jacket over his tablecloth of a shirt. He rammed the knife into the inside of his leg about four fingers width from his groin. The blade pierced the femoral artery. The blood shot up high and sudden and red just like it was being shot for that effect in a movie.

The fare’s head lobbed back, jerked by a violent spring. His eyes looked ready to explode in their sockets. Also, they looked surprised. He made a sound like gargling and his hands and fingers danced for a minute but not much more. It was three minutes, just like he said.

And in all that time, what seemed like both a second and an eternity, Nick watched him in the rear-view mirror. He saw his own mouth open and his lips curl but he couldn’t hear the screams climbing out of his throat until the three minutes were almost up.

And then he heard himself.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!”

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