The Significant Form

In the seat opposite, the harsh florescent light bathing him like a corpse, the man held up his left hand and examined three broken fingers as if they were connected to a wax statue, a flaw in his design that he would have to see about correcting.  Their eyes met and the man smiled apologetically.  Luke looked at the floor where a pool of rain had collected, running off his overcoat.  He slithered free from the wet garment and stepped up to the admissions desk where a weary looking nurse bent her head over a stack of papers, the look on her face suggesting that these were but the first steps into a river long and wide.

Excuse me, Luke said.

The nurse swung her war correspondent’s gaze up at him, a pair of drugstore bifocals the only thing standing between him and her deeply uninterested expression.

Mm-hm?  She set her head sideways, her face already prepared for yet another request with a mildly tolerant grin.

Um…is there a towel around here that I could maybe use?  I’m pretty wet…there’s a puddle, he said, feeling like he was asking for her last dollar.

She sat back in her swivel chair and turned to where another younger nurse was chatting with a man in a dark blue jump suit.  The man was leaning in on his elbows and the young nurse was laughing at something he said.

Percy, can you bring a mop out here and clean up the water?

The man looked Luke over, shook his head, and walked off down the hall.  Luke stood before the desk for a moment before accepting that a towel would not be forthcoming.  He went back to his seat, retrieved his dripping overcoat and his camera, and walked down the stark hall to the bathroom.

Standing before a sink, he took off his shirt and twisted it into a rope watching the rainwater fall away.  A doctor in green scrubs walked in and elected to use one of the stalls rather than urinate in front of the shirtless man.  He put his shirt back on and repeated the process with each sock, filling his boots with paper towels before putting them back on, and then his overcoat.  Sufficiently dried and wrinkled, Luke ran the hot water and splashed his face.  He felt filthy.  He looked at himself in the mirror.  Hospital lighting always makes people look old.

He returned to his seat to find the puddle mopped up and the man with the broken fingers gone.  It was just him and the lackluster nurse.  He tossed his slightly drier overcoat over the back of the chair and stepped out into the searing lights of the ambulance bay for a cigarette.  The city pulsed around him.  Cars and trucks rumbled past, the lonely, rickety, sound of night air on the empty highway racing after them.  He could see a few stars through the glare.  He sucked on the cigarette feeling guilty because he’d said he’d quit.  He had quit, did all right for a few weeks, and then fell back onto it.  He promised he’d give it up for real if that girl came out of this ok.

He saw her face all sweet and soft and turned a little too far to the right, propped against the permanence of the gutter.  The rain pulling her hair up and away from her head as it raced toward the sewer.  She almost looked as if she were smiling.  From three blocks away, he’d heard the scream of the tires and just started running.  There could be a picture in it and he needed the money.

The last time he was in the hospital was with Natalie.  She’d admitted herself, taking a cab when she couldn’t get a hold of him.

Why didn’t you call an ambulance, he asked standing next to her bed.  One of her feet stuck out the end of the bed.  She could never lay with both her feet under the covers.

Too expensive, she said, her thin arm thrown over her eyes.  Cab’s cheaper and faster.

Cabbie didn’t mind all that blood in his car?

She didn’t say anything.

They were mostly just friends, sometimes more.  He’d known Natalie for a few years and neither one of them could stay with anyone very long.  When they got lonely, or wanted to celebrate something, or were just bored, they’d pick up a phone and have company for the night.  When she found out she was pregnant they hadn’t been together in a while and she called him in tears.  He’d gone to her apartment and consoled her, told her that he’d help her out where he could and it would be ok.  After he drove her to the doctor, she told him she wanted to keep the baby.  After all, she had lots of family and friends.  He’d wondered why none of them were there that day, entertaining the idea that she’d never actually told them.

I’m sorry I wasn’t around, he said, I was on a scene.  He held up his camera to show her.

It’s all right Lucas.  Nothing you could’ve done anyway, she said, lazily rubbing her vacant belly with both hands.

He watched her, her head turned away from him toward the dead daylight that oozed through the hospital curtain.  No one could get better in a room like that.

Are you ok Nat?  He asked because he needed to fill the air with something.

She turned slowly, her eyes fierce and tired.

I’m not.  I am not ok.  I know I haven’t seen you in awhile, but that’s because I was trying to get…trying to be ready for this.  No more running around and that bullshit.

Luke looked at her, managing what he thought was a sympathetic facial expression.  It wasn’t that he didn’t feel bad for her, but his empathy was overwhelmed by a feeling of staggering inadequacy.

Just take a picture and get the fuck out of here Luke, she said suddenly.


She rolled onto her back, staring up at the ceiling with her fists clenched.  There was a glass hardness about her stare, a beautiful rigidity to her small body, her dark hair spreading across the pillow like a bloodstain and her small, pretty foot poking out off the bed.  Slowly he pulled his camera around and placed it to his eye.  The camera clicked and he let it fall.

Do you want me to call anyone?  He asked.

I want you to go away.

Well, you know how to get a hold of me, he sighed and turned and left her there.

That was almost a year ago.  They hadn’t spoken since.  He’d tried to call her regularly at first, left messages, but when she didn’t call him back, he finally accepted that maybe he was a part of something she wanted to leave behind.  He’d thought maybe she’d even moved away.  Somewhere west.  She always talked about the beach.  Standing out in the bay under the cool city lights, he imagined her in a little house somewhere where she could walk to the ocean and go swimming every day.  Maybe she would’ve met someone nice, someone different from him.  Maybe they would’ve had that kid.  He watched a group of ambulance drivers huddled at the bottom of the stairs throwing dice against the brick wall, laughing, or cursing their luck.  He lifted his camera and took their picture.  One of them flipped him off.  He tossed his cigarette away and went back inside.

He stepped up to the desk and cleared his throat to get the nurse’s attention.

Any word on that girl I brought in, he asked.

Without looking up she said, Are you family?

No, but I’m the one came in the ambulance with her.  I found her.

The nurse gave a cursory glance at the computer screen in front of her and said, No update as yet.  They’re still working on her.

Luke turned and headed back to the seats against the wall.  He stood looking down at them for a moment and then headed back to the desk.  He didn’t waste time being polite to the nurse anymore.

Is there any way you could get in touch with me when you know more?  Like, call me or something?  He spoke to the top of her immovable head.

Son, she began, her eyes fixed on the paper before her, the only way I’m telling you what happened to her is if you marry her before she wakes up.

Luke stared at the part in her hair, willing it to burst into flames, then shook his head and took a card from his wallet.  He scribbled a note on the back and put his hand before the woman’s down-turned eyes.

At least do me a favor and give this to her…my phone number and address.  She can call me herself that way.  If she wants to.  I just want to know that she’s all right.

With a practiced and perturbed tolerance, the nurse took the card and nodded.

As he left, he passed the payphone he’d used to call Natalie’s roommate to tell him she was ok and to come down to the hospital if he could.

The phone rang wildly for a few seconds before Matt picked it up.  It was early in the morning on a Saturday.

‘lo?  The groggy voice said.

Matt, Luke said, Matt it’s Luke.  You need to get down to the hospital, St. Joes.  Natalie’s there.  Luke heard Matthew’s ragged cough and the sound of another man waking up, complaining about the early hour.  Matthew shushed the other voice.

What happened, he mumbled.

She lost it, Luke said, she lost the baby.

And she’s alone?

Yeah, just left her.

What the fuck did you leave her for you?

Before Luke could respond, Matthew had hung up the phone.

Luke stood before the phone booth picturing himself making that call.  How he must have looked.  How unbelievably drunk he’d gotten afterward.

He rubbed his tired face and headed for the street, a blade of sunlight threatening over the broken stone backs of the low downtown buildings.  He took a cab to avoid being outdoors when the sun came full up.  The morning air smelled of decay, ripping at him over the glass of the cab window.  He smoked without asking if it was all right and the cabbie said nothing.  When he got back to his apartment, he peeled off his coat, shoes and wet socks, and carried his camera into the pantry he’d converted into a darkroom.  He set the camera down and looked over the shots he had hanging over the developing table.  His angular face, unshaven, rawboned, tilted to one side, looking uncertain as to how the photographs had gotten there.  He peered intently at the third picture in.

Two nights ago.  Two boys, both 16, joyriding the top of an elevated train.  One boy had a better grip than the other.  Luke was waiting on the train and spotted them as they came round on the track.  It looked fun.  They were laughing and their hair was flying back off their heads, their hooded sweatshirts flapping behind them.  Luke raised his camera and snapped a few pictures as they approached.  Through the cold eye of the lens, he saw the larger boy falter, loose his grip and then vanish behind the barreling silver car.  His hands popped up like someone trying to start a wave at a football game and he was gone.  Luke walked to the edge of the platform, past the last car, and pointed his camera over the edge at the broken boy below.  Snap.  The body had just missed a passing car.  A crowd formed cautiously.  The other boy slid slowly over the side of the train to the platform below, a wasted and doubtful look on his face.  A man in a baseball cap grabbed both of his arms.  Snap.

It was the picture of that boy, the living one, torn so suddenly from reckless bliss, with a stranger’s hands on him, a stranger’s voice scolding him for foolishness.  The dead boy, his friend, would receive a slight sort of sainthood, but the other would have to bear the queer looks and the hollow whispers of neighbors.

Luke lit a cigarette and let it hang over the side of the table as he went about developing the most recent roll.  The smoke seemed to follow him no matter where he went, creeping through the air to nibble at his tired, red-rimmed, eyes.  After an hour or so, he stepped out of the darkroom and into the apartment, wincing at the harshness of the daylight.  He went around the room and released the heavy wool blankets he’d nailed to the top of the window frames in place of curtains. They flapped open and down like leathery bat wings. Keeping odd hours, he often needed to create the impression of night.  The darkness complete, Luke took a beer from the refrigerator and headed to the living room.  He turned on the record player, some Joe Oliver, and sprawled in the chair, his feet up on the beat-up coffee table.

Natalie hated his camera.  She sneered at it enviously.  He remembered one evening when they lay in his bed, the sheets strewn about them, sweat pooling in the creases and dips of their exhausted, exhilarated, bodies.  He was propped on some pillows with his back to the wall.  She lay on her stomach with her head at the foot of the bed, a slice of sheet covering her naked backside, her small feet aloft, lolling back and forth like hands working a rosary.  They could see the redness of the sky through the window as the sun set.  He took up his camera from were it lay on the bedside table and framed the shot.  Just her small feet and the dark red sky through the window.  She heard the click of the shutter and turned to him.

Jesus, she breathed.


You don’t even see it if it’s not through the lens, she shook her dark haired head, scowling at him.

What does that mean?

She sat up and whirled around, snatching the camera from his hands.  She leveled it at him.

What are you doing?

This is what it’s like, she said as she clicked away at him.

You don’t even know how to use it, he said.

She kept snapping pictures.

We just had sex Luke, she hissed, and your first instinct is to pick up this fucking thing and start shooting away.

It was a nice picture, he shrugged.

She let the camera drop to the bed and he reached out and grabbed it, concern on his long features.  She stood, gathering the sheets around her to cover herself.  He sat naked, his skinny legs spread grotesquely before him.

I was right here with you asshole, she said as she bent to gather her clothes.

Nat, c’mon…

She vanished into the bathroom.

It’s my job Nat, he hollered.

He slid to the side of the bed and pulled his pants on.  The phone rang.  Pulling a white t-shirt over his ruffled brown and gray hair, he walked to the living room and plucked it from the cradle.  He could hear Natalie banging around in the bathroom.

Hello, he said.

Luke?  It’s Hartley.  We need you at 45 west Hillcrest.  You up and running?

Yeah, mm-hmm.  I can be there in 20 minutes.  Who’s on the scene?

Uh…Jorgen, the voice said, You know him?

Yeah, no problem.  What are we looking at?

Well, it’s my guy in homicide…

All right.  Have the lab guys been through yet?  They won’t let me near it until they’re done.

Half an hour.

Ok.  Luke hung up the phone.

Natalie left without speaking.  Luke tried to tell her he had work, but she swept past him and out the door and didn’t look at him.

Luke arrived at the scene and snapped a few pictures of the exterior of the building.  A low apartment block just off the interchange.  Patrolmen milled around in the foreground, smoking and trading stories.  A few of them waved or nodded as he approached.  Detective Jorgen stood at the doorway examining the busted remains of the doorjamb.  Luke took a picture of the door, then of the hinges, and then the busted chain.

What’s up Crow, the detective said by way of greeting.

Hey Stanley, Luke nodded.  SOCO here yet?

The detective nodded his large, serious head, Already come and gone.

Mind if I step through, Luke asked.

By all means, entre vous.

As he entered the small apartment, death smell and the sweat of cops, Luke had the familiar sensation of his stomach starting to heave.  He lit a cigarette.  He could still smell cordite in the air.  As he came around into the kitchen, the sound of the policemen in the room began to whither until it was a magnetic hiss in his ears.  At the sight of the body, a man in his early forties with part of his face spread on the front of the oven, he lifted his camera and started shooting.  After a few minutes, his breathing returned to normal and he could feel his heart slow and his gut settle.  It took him about 10 minutes to completely cover the scene, after which he walked out to stand with the patrolmen in front of the house.

Fucking messy, he said to no one in particular.

One of the officers laughed.

What do you do with the pictures the paper won’t take, someone asked.

Luke turned to see a younger patrolman, one he’d never met, standing with the others watching him.

I keep them, he said, sometimes I sell them if the family lets me.

That’s kinda fucked up, said the patrolman.

Detective Jorgen chuckled, That’s why we call him “Crow.”  Circling around the bodies, seeing what he can get.

Luke nodded his head, a resigned half-smile on his face.

Thanks for letting me through Stan, he said to the badger-like detective.  He walked back to his car watching the strobing of the cruiser lights on the leaves of the trees that lined the street.

Back in the apartment, he developed the two rolls he’d taken.  The picture of Natalie’s feet and the sunset side by side with a shot of where the blood had sprayed on the kitchen window.  He cursed quietly thinking he should’ve taken one from outside too.

The phone woke him.  The Joe Oliver record was crackling as the needle scratched the inner edges.  He sat up and rubbed his eyes.  He couldn’t tell what time it was with the blankets down over the windows.  He stood slowly and went to the phone.

When he’d come around the corner, running hard after the sound of the squealing tires, his camera already in his hands, he noticed how eerily quiet it was.  For a moment, he thought he had the wrong block until he saw the downed light post, snarling wires spitting sparks onto the rain soaked asphalt.  He began to lift his camera to his eye when he caught sight of something moving off to his left.  It looked like a black trash bag until the hand lifted and stretched for a moment, the fingers splayed and then closing into a shaky fist before slapping wetly and motionless to the pavement.  He ran.  He noticed the lights coming on in the windows of the houses on the street as if they were chasing him toward the body.  He skidded to his knees and almost picked her up. He could see now it was a woman.  He put his hands close to her and thought of baby birds that fall out of the nest.  You can’t touch them or their mother’s won’t take them back.  It was her neck.  She could have a spinal injury.  His hands froze before him, hovering over her crumpled form like some witchdoctor in the middle of a healing.  The porch light of the house in front of him snapped on and an older man in a ragged t-shirt and sweat pants poked a befuddled head through the door.

Call an ambulance, Luke screamed at him.

The man nodded feverishly and disappeared.

Luke looked back down at the woman.  He straddled her and held the tails of his coat out like wings to keep the rain from her face.  He could see that her body was bent awkwardly, in a way that bodies weren’t meant to bend.  Her left arm was broken in at least two places he could see and there was blood all over her face and running through her dark hair as it floated on the tiny river of rain that ran down the gutter to the storm drain.

It’s ok, he said, you’re gonna be ok.  An ambulance is coming.

The devastated shape in front of him coughed wetly and said his name.

This is Luke, he said into the phone.

Did I wake you up?  She sounded like she was speaking through clenched teeth.

Hey, yeah, no…I nodded off.

It’s 1:30 in the afternoon.  She said.

Is it?  Mm.  Are you ok?

I’m ok. You left your number for me.

yeah. I’m kinda surprised they gave it to you.

Can you come back?

He decided to walk to the hospital.  The cool air of the fall tugged at his thinning and graying hair.  He moved slowly along the river, watching the few boats that braved the chill of open water in October, and the Chinese men lined along the edge, fishing poles poised like reedy soldiers.  He noticed that he could smell winter in the air.  Someone somewhere was burning wood and the erratic trees were all changing colors.  He pressed his elbow to his side, feeling the weight of the manila envelope under his arm.  His eyes felt strangely electric, as if they worked better than before.  He had that rare sense that everything around him had a significance that, while he could not put a name to it, he could sense purely.  It was as if each movement, his eyes blinking, the passing of a bicycle, the pigeons drunkenly reeling around an upended garbage can, the honking of a car horn, was connected and toward some greater purpose.  Each thing necessary, each essential.

There was a new nurse on at the front desk.  A young man this time.  His demeanor was the perfect reverse to the night nurse.  He smiled as Luke stepped to the counter.

How are you, he asked, his tight lips snapping almost violently into a smile.

Fine, good, yeah…thanks …you?  Luke said, unprepared for anything pleasant.

Good, good, what can I help you with?

I’m here to see Natalie Tate.  She came in late last night.

Are you a relation?  Even his bureaucratic questions came gently.

Uh, no.  No, I’m not.  She asked for me.  She called me and asked me to come down.

Well, he swiveled around in his chair, let me just check.

Luke leaned on the counter as the nurse chattered into the phone.  When he spun back around, he was grinning mildly.

Down the hall to the right.  Room 120.

Thanks, Luke said, rapping his knuckles on the counter top.

I could tell you were all right, the nurse said.

Luke looked at him queerly as he walked away.

She had the room to herself.  He stepped in and closed the door behind him.  She was immobilized beneath a collection of plaster.  Left arm, right leg, her chest wrapped.  Her head was bandaged on the left side, her dark hair sprouting like brown tundra grass.  Her left foot poking out from beneath the blanket.

Nat?  He said her name quietly.  She groaned but didn’t turn toward him.

Sorry, I can’t move, she said, you’ll have to come around in front of me.  He walked around the bed and looked at her.

You gotta stop taking me here, he said, it’s morbid.

You aren’t funny, she smiled.

He saw that her jaw was wired shut.  Unintentionally Luke’s head dropped and he came close to her.  He leaned in and kissed her on the forehead.  He took a piece of blank photo paper from the envelope and held it in front of her.

I went back today, he said, back to where I found you last night.  I took my camera with me.  I walked around for a while just sort of framing up shots in my head.

He cleared his throat and shook the paper.

This is what I came back with, he said.

Luke, she said, her face uncertain.

I…every time I’d start to, start to lift my camera up, every time I’d start to take the picture…it would start to become a picture.  I’ve never been so scared in my life.  Last night on the way here.  It felt like something…I think it was important that I found you.  That I was there.  I think I’ve made myself into the kind of person who doesn’t think anything’s important, or, not that, but the kind of person who feels like things are important but acts like nothing is.  Which is worse.

He put the photo paper on the bedside table and sat on the bed.

I didn’t want it to be a picture, he said to the curtained window.

You have cigarettes Luke?  She asked.

He turned and looked at her, one eyebrow raised quizzically.

I mean it, she said, everything in my body hurts.

He opened the window and put a cigarette between her lips, lighting it. He dragged a chair to the door and jammed it under the knob then returned to the bed.  Plucking the cigarette from her mouth, he took a drag and lay next to her.

You should take a picture of this, smoking in the hospital, she said.

I forgot my camera.


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The Significant Form by Andrew States is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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