Abyss & Apex : Third Quarter 2007: Being Blue

BEING BLUE Illustration

Being Blue

Shane Nelson

 

On Thursday morning, Noel began turning blue.

He hung his robe on the back of the bathroom door and stared at his face in the mirror above the sink. Pale complexion, receding hairline, rheumy blue eyes that lacked spark. Cursing the mirror, he turned and stepped into the shower.

That’s when he noticed his legs.

They were blue, from the bony ridge of his knees, up to the meatiest part of his thigh. It was the faint, unhealthy tinge of a fresh bruise.

He touched the blue marks, fingertips dimpling the flesh. The blue remained.

Perhaps it was residual dye from the blue jeans he’d worn the day before. They were brand new.

Stepping into the shower’s spray, he grabbed a bar of soap and tried to wash away the morning lethargy. He also worked feverishly to clean the blue stain from his legs. By the time he finished his shower, both the lethargy and the stain remained.

Noel dressed in his bedroom, casting glances through the window at a view of an asphalt parking lot. He grabbed his pants from the closet. Giving the blue tinge on his thighs one more glance, he finished dressing and headed for the kitchen.

He filled a mug with water and set it inside the microwave. While the water heated, he turned on the television that sat on his dining room table. The morning newscast was on, inanimate faces spewing more bad news. They chattered about the war in Iraq and rising gas prices. The microwave dinged. Noel set his mug on the counter and dumped in a few generous spoonfuls of instant coffee.

“Now we’ll go to Entertainment News,” one of the talking heads announced.

They switched to a colourful set where a lanky blonde woman stood in front of a mock Hollywood sign.

“Box office receipts are down yet again,” she pretty blonde intoned, “which leads us to wonder: what is keeping everyone from finding escape in the movies?”

Noel couldn’t concentrate on what was being said because the colour seemed off. The leggy blonde reporter had blue shadows around her forehead. Noel fiddled with the settings and made it worse. Now everything on the television had a blue tinge. He turned off the TV and tossed the remote onto the counter.

Finishing his coffee, Noel grabbed his briefcase and made his way down the hall. He paused at a mirror hanging by the door and adjusted the knot on his silk tie. The suit he was wearing was uncomfortable and expensive. Everyone at his office admired appearances and Noel wanted to fit in.

He left his apartment and walked to the rear parking lot to where his Chevy Flemming waited. It was a big, structurally unappealing SUV with tinted glass.

With his briefcase for a passenger, Noel drove to the Baxter Ad Worx building, barely noticing buildings as they passed. He made his way to the freeway and stalled among bumper–to–bumper commuters, each one idling exhaust and waiting for an opening in traffic. He turned on the radio and listened to mindless pop music while inching his way onto the freeway. He was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel when he noticed the faint blue shadows between his knuckles. Like the marks on his thighs, the blue tinge resembled a bruise.

Noel raised his other hand and found the same blue shadows.

Behind him, a horn blared. Traffic was moving again. Noel gave the driver behind him an apologetic wave before sliding into traffic, his Flemming following the other commuters off to face the day.

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The Baxter Ad Worx building reminded Noel of a beehive, cubicles pressed together in some indiscernible pattern. He meandered between other milling employees, briefcase swinging at his side.

“Hey,” Charles Corman called, “you’re late.”

Noel glanced at his watch. “Just.” He slipped into his cubicle and Charles followed.

“We’ve got a meeting at eleven, don’t forget,” Charles said.

“I won’t.”

Noel sat in his cubicle, staring at the dull sunshine coming through the windows. He couldn’t understand how anyone who worked in Baxter’s second–floor beehive could be happy. Noel wanted out. He didn’t even want elevation to the third floor, where men wore two thousand dollar suits. He’d wanted that once. Now he wasn’t sure what he was after.

Noel edited advertising copy for Baxter and was presently engaged in a campaign for medical supplies. He stared at pictures of walkers and wheelchairs. He scratched a few unenthused comments next to the company’s tagline: McLean and Smith Med–Supplies: From Appendectomy to Colostomy.

There had to be more to life than this.

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Noel went to the bathroom during his morning coffee break. The men’s room was empty. He unzipped at the urinal and went about his business. When he glanced down and saw that his penis was blue, his urine stopped mid–stream.

He turned his penis between his fingers. Fear curled up between his ribs and lanced his heart.

He didn’t hear the door open, so when Charles Corman said, “It can’t be the first time you’ve ever seen it,” Noel almost screamed.

Tucking everything into his pants, Noel offered a weak chuckle. “Caught me wool gathering.”

Charles sidled up to the urinal next to Noel. “Didn’t look like wool to me.”

Noel washed his hands. The bruise–like discolouration on his knuckles had spread up the back of his hands. As the warm water washed over his skin, he could barely feel it.

“Something wrong, Noel?”

Noel turned off the water and dried his hands. “No,” he said, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Why?”

“You don’t seem like yourself this morning.”

“Just under the weather,” Noel croaked.

Charles slapped him on the shoulder. “You need to get out more, get laid. Something. But whatever you do, just make sure you don’t miss our meeting.”

Noel nodded at himself in the mirror. He thought the shadows under his eyes were a bit darker.

“I won’t,” he promised.

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Noel spent most of the meeting staring at his hands and thinking of his experience in the bathroom. At one point he noticed a lull in the conversation. Everyone was looking at him.

“Are you going to join us this morning, Noel?” R.T. Baxter, head of Ad Worx, asked.

“Sorry,” Noel said.

“You gotta stay focused,” Baxter said, in his usual gruff–and–grumble voice. He drew his bushy eyebrows together and delivered one of his patented lines. “Remember: Focus Now, Win Later.

Baxter was full of inspirational one–liners. Most belonged on one of those framed prints that hung in offices of corporate managers. Noel replied with an inspired, “Got it, sir.”

“Now,” Baxter said. “Where were we?”

Across the table from Noel, Lee Piper said, “The memo about the new memo sheets, Mr. B.”

And off Baxter went, down some boring corporate path, spewing one inspirational platitude after another.

Noel left the meeting, Lee Piper at his heels. Piper was a junior copy editor, all brash enthusiasm.

“You all right, Noel?” he asked.

Noel glanced over his shoulder. “Just tired.”

“Anything you want to share?”

Noel shook his head and quickened his pace. He hated intrusive personal contact with others.

“You sure?” Piper asked. “You seem a little blue.”

Noel shot Piper a wary glance. The kid had stopped next to a gurgling water cooler, eyebrow raised.

Noel gave Piper a parting glance. “I’m fine.”

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Noel got through the day without leaving his cubicle. The work he did was negligible and by the time five p.m. rolled around he had two dozen unanswered e–mails. He was switching off his computer when Charles Corman leaned around the edge of the cubicle.

“Hey, Noel,” he said. “You ignoring me?”

“What?”

“I sent you five e–mails regarding Baxter’s memo about new memo sheets.”

“I never received any messages,” Noel lied. “Must be something wrong with the server.”

Charles blinked in surprise. “Oh. I’ll have to memo the IT guys about it. We have to get e–mail running smoothly if we want to take care of this memo problem.”

Noel felt a fog dropping over him. Ordinarily he would have quickly pounced on whatever problem Charles presented. Today he felt like an alien species, unable to relate.

“Guess I’ll call it a day,” Noel managed.

Charles fell into step next to Noel and, together, they walked to the elevators.

“You coming to Ming Speed’s for a drink?”

Noel shook his head. He couldn’t put up with bad Karaoke and over–priced drinks today.

The elevator arrived, doors opening. As Noel stepped inside, he felt the sensation of being swallowed whole.

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Noel thought he was lost. He pulled his Flemming to the curb and looked out the driver’s window. All the apartment buildings looked the same. Four stories, plain wooden balconies and lawns in serious need of hydration.

At last he spotted his building and swung his SUV into the lot. He locked it up and went inside. He could smell the aroma of something cooking on his floor. It smelled delicious; much better than the microwave meal he prepared.

He ate in front of the television, plate balanced on his lap, while a mindless reality TV program unrolled in front of him. Even though he couldn’t understand the program’s appeal, he sat through it, only getting up when the telephone rang.

He set his plate in the sink and glanced at the call display. Unknown Name, Unknown Number. He left it unanswered and headed for the bathroom.

Noel stripped down and stood in front of the bathroom mirror. The blueness had migrated, spreading up his thighs to a place just above his hips. His ankles and feet were a deep, rich blue. His fingertips were darkening.

He turned. Between his shoulders were matching blue smudges.

Noel did his best to silence his worries with a steaming shower. He scrubbed at the patches, trying to convince himself that it was nothing. His shower finished, he pulled on a robe, avoiding the mirror.

He stood in the centre of his living room for a few minutes, listening to the crushing silence. It rushed over him like a cold Atlantic wave, threatening to drown him. He wanted something to block out the sound, so he turned on the TV. The raucous roar of a laugh track soothed him.

Crossing the room, he paused at his bookshelf. It was small—four shelves lined with paperbacks. He ran a finger along the spines.

He looked at his blue fingertip.

It was dusty.

With a resigned sigh, he sat down in the television’s flickering glow and pushed away his thoughts for a while.

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Noel called in sick the next morning. Then he stood naked in front of the mirror, terror running over him.

The blueness pooled around his nipples and across his pectorals. It ran down the centre of his stomach in a quavering line. His shoulders were dusted blue. His face was spared, except for bags under his eyes.

Dressing in jeans and long–sleeved shirt, Noel drove to the Medical Clinic. It was early on Friday morning but the waiting room was filled. He took a seat and found a copy of Time to keep him distracted until his name was called.

“You can wait in here for Dr. Maynard,” the nurse said, leading him into a small room.

The room was like most every other hospital or clinic room Noel had been in. A small desk. An examination table. One window with the blinds half–drawn against the morning sunshine.

A tall man with white hair entered the room. “Morning. I’m Dr. Maynard.” He set a manila folder on the desk and sat down. “What seems to be the problem?”

“Well,” Noel explained. “The past few days I’ve been feeling a bit off. Not sick, just… disconnected, somehow.”

“No fatigue? Depression?”

“No, nothing like that,” Noel said. “I feel kind of… nothing.”

“Apathy?”

“Beyond that.”

The doctor stood. “Anything physical?”

Noel hesitated. He had to tell the doctor, but didn’t want to. If he didn’t ask the question, he wouldn’t find out the answer.

“Yes,” Noel said at last. “I’m turning blue.”

“Once we address the physical,” the doctor said, “we can look at the emotional.”

He took Noel’s blood pressure and reflexes. Shone a light into Noel’s eyes. He made speculative sounds and jotted notes. He pressed a dry wooden stick into Noel’s mouth and made him say ahh.

“I’ll get the nurse to take some blood. But I think it’s pretty simple.”

Noel breathed a sigh of relief. Simple? That beat serious.

When the blood was drawn, the doctor sat down again, tapping a pencil against his thigh.

“So what is it? Nothing serious?”

“Simple can be serious,” Maynard said. “That depends on your point of view.”

“What is it?”

Dr. Maynard leaned back in his chair and said, “You’re dead.”

Noel drew a breath. “What?”

“You’re clinically dead,” the doctor said.

“But… I’m talking to you, breathing, and— “

“I know,” Maynard said. “But that doesn’t change my diagnoses. Your motor functions work, but that’s because your brain is keeping you going. You’re body is smart enough to know that it’s dead, but your mind is forging on. You’ve taught it well. It accepts its existence. So you accept it.”

“Being dead?”

Maynard nodded. “Exactly.”

“That’s crazy.”

“It’s more common than you think. I’m seeing it more and more.”

Noel raised his shirt to expose his blue chest. “This is common?”

Dr. Maynard prodded the flesh with one finger. “Very common,” he said. “You just don’t hear about it. Most people don’t mention it. Are you going to?”

“No.”

“And some refuse to accept it. The idea that they’re dead… that they’re too stubborn to lay down, well… it doesn’t fit into a human being’s line of thinking.”

Noel felt as if he had been on the receiving end of a heavyweight’s punch. “What do I do?”

“I suggest you take a long inventory of your life. Friends. Job. Schedule. Routine. Diet. Change as much as you can.”

“Change?”

“It’s tough, I know,” Maynard said. “You’ll want to make a complete and radical shift. Change your thinking. That’s what put you here in the first place. At least you talked to someone about it. Most people don’t. But, outside of these things, you can just do what everyone else does. Live with it.”

Diet? Change? Christ, Noel was dead and this guy was telling him to eat better.

“Spend the weekend thinking,” Maynard said. “You have to start making some decisions.” He got to his feet, effectively ending their appointment.

Noel stood. “Thank you, doctor,” he said. He didn’t know if he meant it.

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Live with it? That was out. Not only did he look like someone on a serious ink overdose, he couldn’t stand the strange and unsettled feeling he had. Check that… the lack of feelings.

He returned to his apartment and checked his telephone messages. Two from work, one from someone he didn’t know. He erased them. He grabbed the remains of some Chinese take–out and sat in the living room, spooning cold chow mien into his mouth.

Noel had no idea how to take an inventory of his life. But he had to do something.

For starters, he carried the take–out to the trash and dumped it. It was a small step, but a step just the same.

He went to his refrigerator to see what else there was to eat.

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On Sunday night Noel sat down on the couch and switched on the TV. His stomach felt full— an unfamiliar sensation— after his supper. He had cooked for the first time in ages. Other than burning two fingers and almost setting himself on fire, it had gone swimmingly.

The room seemed to have the colour sapped out of it by the TV’s glow. It made the books on his shelf appear sun–bleached.

Noel crossed to the shelf and read the titles. Behind him, the TV sputtered its nonsense. He selected a book and carried it to the couch. He turned off the TV, then settled into the couch, wriggling until the cushions seemed ready to envelope him, and began to read.

He fell asleep reading, and slept the night through on his couch.

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Noel slept until almost eight a.m. He bolted upright, knocking the book off his chest, mind screeching: you’re late! He was halfway to the bathroom when he answered himself.

So what?

He took his time in the shower. He was blue from the tips of his toes all the way to his waist. His stomach was indigo. His pecs were a nice cobalt. Some blue shadowed the area around his jawline and cheeks. It was noticeable, but not too noticeable.

Commuter traffic had slowed to a crawl and cars had moved along like slugs, bumper–to–bumper. Noel’s impatience had given way to quite acceptance and he felt almost relaxed when he reached his cubicle forty minutes late.

Charles appeared the moment Noel sat down.

“Friend, you’re very late this morning.” He frowned. “Baxter won’t like it.”

Noel said, “What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Or are you going to tell?”

Charles’ face reddened. “Of course not,” he said. He looked at Noel. “What’s wrong with your face?”

“What do you mean?”

“It looks bruised.”

“I was sick,” Noel said. “Now, if you don’t mind, I have work to do.”

Charles gave him one more glance. “Staff meeting at one. Don’t forget.”

How could he forget? They had one of those pointless meetings every Monday afternoon.

Setting his briefcase aside, he turned his attention to his computer.

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Noel was just finishing up lunch at his desk when Charles appeared.

“Hey,” he said, “missed you at lunch. We went to Gonnigal’s.

Noel could smell Charles’ martini breath.

“I ate at my desk.”

“Oh,” Charles said. His eyes wandered to the cubicle wall above Noel’s computer. That morning it had been decorated with a calendar and a random sampling of Ad Worx materials. It had been in keeping with the No Personal Decoration mandate of R.T. Baxter. Now it was papered with various images, most of them cartoons and slogans printed off the Internet.

Charles said, “What the hell’s all that?”

“I wanted to colour things up a bit.”

“R.T.’s gonna have a bird.”

“He won’t find out,” Noel said. “Will he?”

Charles beetled his brow and frowned. “You printed those on company paper? On company time?”

Noel brushed a few crumbs off his keyboard, saying nothing. When it became apparent that Noel was going to offer no response, Charles grunted, “See you at the meeting,” and disappeared.

Noel leaned back in his chair, feeling oddly satisfied.

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The staff meeting was dull but when R.T. Baxter said, “We need to discuss corporate policy regarding in–office decoration,” and his eyes fell on Noel, Noel knew that that his days with Ad Worx were over.

“Employees must keep their offices clean, professional and free of personal accoutrements,” Baxter said.

“Is this the most important thing we have to discuss?” Noel asked.

Baxter looked surprised. “Pardon?”

“Surely we can discuss memos about memos. Perhaps someone can start another riveting conversation about proper placement of the recycling box.”

“Is there something you’d like to share?” Baxter asked.

Noel stood. Everyone around the table drew a collective breath. No one stood at meetings. No one except R.T. Baxter.

“They’re not offices. They’re cubicles. Tiny little holding pens. Who gives a damn if we hang up a picture of our kids or tack a funny saying on the wall?”

“It lessens the integrity of the company.”

“How?” Noel asked. “We deal with clients over the phone. I could come to work in a neon thong and scuba flippers and no one would know.”

“Hmph,” Baxter snorted. “That’s a fine attitude. I would think someone who cares about his job would—”

“But I don’t!” Noel said. “I don’t give a damn about this job. It’s a lousy, dead–end, go nowhere joke.”

Eyes widened. Charles had a smug smile on his face, pleased with Noel’s breakdown.

“And what kind of professionals are we when we have to tattle to the boss because someone hangs something in his cubicle?” He speared Charles with a glance. “It’s like a bunch kids in the playground.”

“Now see here—”

Noel pushed his chair back. He meant to move it aside but it toppled, and when it hit the floor, even Baxter jumped.

“I quit,” Noel said. “You can stuff your job, R.T., along with the rest of the people around this table. You can discuss memos, go for drinks and get laid.” He glowered at Charles. “I don’t need it anymore.”

Noel turned on his heel and marched out of the room, leaving a dozen stunned faces in his wake. Even R.T. Baxter, bluff and bluster, could think of nothing to say.

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He was halfway out the front doors of the Ad Worx building, a box of possessions in hand, when Lee Piper caught up to him.

“I heard what you did,” he said. “Do you think it was a smart move? I mean… you only have so many options.”

“I’m thirty–nine,” Noel said. “I’m not ready to retire just yet.”

“But you’re already blue,” Piper said.

Noel stopped. “What?”

“You’re blue,” Piper repeated. “Tell me you’re not.”

Noel looked at Piper for a few seconds. “I’ve got to go.”

Piper pushed back his sleeve. His forearm was the colour of a deep, painful muscle bruise. “You aren’t alone, Noel.”

“I know,” Noel said. He couldn’t take his eyes off Piper’s forearm.

“So what are you doing? Running away? You’re blue… it’s something you’re going to have to deal with. Lots of us do. Take a look around— half the people you see are just like you.”

Noel did look around. A few passers–by gave him a curious glance before moving on.

“They deal with it. They hide it. Fake tans, designer clothes, permanent flesh–coloured tattoos. It’s a profit–rich business, hiding the fact that most of us are already dead.”

“I don’t care,” Noel said. “I’m going to go somewhere else and start fresh. I can—”

“You can’t,” Piper said. “You might as well learn to live with it. It’s better than the alternative.”

“What’s the alternative?”

Piper rolled his sleeve down. “Regret. Rejection. Suffering. Struggle. Real death. For what? Some concept of ‘being alive’? You don’t even know what that is.”

Noel remained silent for a few minutes. Then he set his box of belongings down. A few items stared up at him— a clock, a coffee cup, a stack of business cards.

“I don’t know what it is anymore,” Noel admitted. “But I’m going to find out.”

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“I’m going to get the mail,” Noel told Robin.

Robin looked up from her place on the couch. “It’s raining. Don’t dawdle.”

Noel smiled at her. He’d known her for seven months and they’d been living together for five. Everything about her amazed him. Even now he looked at her with awe. She was on the couch, contorted in a way that should have been awkward but was graceful. She hummed as she painted her toenails bright red. It clashed a little with her blue toes, but soon it would look fine.

“I won’t.”

Noel dashed down the front sidewalk, splashing through a few puddles. He was tugging the last of his mail out of the box when someone climbed out of a vehicle parked at the curb.

“Noel?”

Noel hadn’t seen Piper in nine months, since that day in front of the Ad Worx building, but the kid hadn’t changed much.

“Piper?” Noel said, surprised. “What are you doing out here?”

“I decided to see how you’re doing,” Piper said. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

Noel glanced at the ranch house he had bought after leaving Ad Worx. It was large and rustic, situated in a quiet neighbourhood. “Thanks.”

“What have you been up to?”

“I’m teaching,” Noel said. “It’s much more rewarding than Ad Worx.”

Piper nodded. “New house, nice neighbourhood… teaching must pay well. How’s the money?”

“I’m happy.”

Robin opened the front door and came to the edge of the porch. “Noel? What are you doing?”

Noel waved. “Just ran into someone I used to know.”

“You’ll drown out there,” Robin replied. “Why don’t you invite him in?”

Noel gave Piper a glance. “Would you like to…?”

Piper shook his head. “I can’t,” he said. “I have to get going. Work.”

Noel nodded. “Well, it was nice seeing you again.”

“You look different,” Piper said. His eyes roamed over Noel’s face, seeking a hint of the blue discolouration. He found none. Noel wore a short–sleeved t–shirt and his arms looked healthy and tanned. “You look better.”

“I feel better.” Noel paused, eyes darting to Piper’s hairline. “You’re running.”

Piper touched his brow. His fingers came away dark with heavy foundation make–up.

“Rain’s a bitch,” Piper said. “I guess I should start tanning.” He looked at Noel again. “Is that what you do?”

“No.”

“What do you use?”

Noel glanced up at his house. Robin was waiting, one hand on the porch rail, the other touching her long red hair.

“Natural sunlight and good company,” Noel replied. He patted Piper on the shoulder. “I gotta go.”

Piper watched as Noel walked up the sidewalk to his house. He paused at the top of the steps, putting an arm around his wife’s waist. They kissed, oblivious to Piper’s gaze. Then they turned and went inside the house. As the door swung closed, Noel gave Piper one last smile.

After a moment Piper turned and headed back to his car.

 


Shane Nelson has been writing full-and-part time for several years. His fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and online markets, including ‘Green’s Magazine,’ ‘The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature,’ ‘Storyteller Magazine’ and ‘Dreams & Visions.’ He received the Harding Prize for best short story of 2003, and had two stories nominated for the Journey Prize Anthology Competition. When not writing, he keeps busy as a substitute teacher and tutor.

 


 

Story © 2007 Shane Nelson. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press 





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