Sam Leuenberger




Innumerable long red hairs of a mysterious origin began appearing in the sink of my hospital room. They did not belong to any of my nurses, who were all men: stocky, bald wrestling-coach types.

My first night, I vacillated in and out of sleep so that it became difficult to tell when I was awake and when I was dreaming. I remember hearing my men nurses talking about their weekend plans. I remember the one named Rod saying that he and his buddy were going fishing for river sharks. Then the one named Todd asked if he needed a license for that. And Rod said, “Hell no; they’re an invasive species. They’re practically paying people to catch ‘em. And keep ’em. In fact, they are paying ‘em,” he clarified. That was in a dream, I thought, I heard Rod say that. Then I heard the toilet flush. But they were both out in the hallway, chit chatting. I must have a third nurse, I thought, somewhere around here . . .

The second night, there were no nurses talking in the hallway, but still I heard my toilet flush. Again this was peculiar, since the door to the bathroom was not closed and I did not share the room. And although I do not think it is taboo for the nurses to relieve themselves in a patient’s bathroom, I think it is, at the very least, discouraged. “You gotta diddle, do it in the Men’s Room.” That sort of thing. They probably have their own bathroom, the men nurses. Perhaps they have a trough in there and they all diddle in that. There is the possibility, still, that one of the men nurses is not comfortable diddling in the trough. Maybe one named Dustin. Is there a Nurse Dustin on my floor? That’d be nice. Hey, Dusty. Maybe Dusty has a shy bladder. Prefers the privacy of a patient’s lavatory, which has a lock on it. Can you blame the man? Working a sixteen-hour shift, as so many of these brutes do, who wouldn’t want to steal away and sneak one in in solitude?

Almost immediately after I woke up in this place, I made up my mind that I was going to fall in love. I cannot explain why I decided this, only that it felt due to me and also inevitable in much the same way I think that one feels when he is the owner of a lakefront home and looks out on the frozen lake in winter and is the owner of a speedboat. “I know I’m going to get to drive my speedboat,” he thinks, “because the earth is tipping back toward the sun and it will be spring, summer time soon.” For me, I guess, it feels the earth is tipping back toward love again, and all I have to say is, it’s about time.

I began by making meaningful eye-contact with my nurses, testing the old superstition about nurses falling in love with their patients, the Florence Nightingale Effect. There is, apparently, no such thing as the Frank Nightingale Effect. I don’t know if this is my fault or the fault of my eponymous, attendant Franks. In any case, I am not attracted to the name Frank. Even if I met a Frank and was attracted to him before I knew him for a Frank, I suppose I would have to tell him, after I found out about it, “Frank, I can’t. I just can’t.” Frank would understand. Frank would have gone through all this before, having sought the companionship of other men while being named Frank.

Once they started letting me wheel myself in to use the toilet, I realized that whoever it was that was using my bathroom was leaving long red hairs in the sink. It was at that time I began to wonder if my premonition of love had been a false one. And, more curious than anything else, I resigned myself to forming some sort of platonic bond with whoever the secret long red-haired lady nurse was that was popping a midnight squat on my commode. Actually, I did not do that. Actually, I rolled myself into the bathroom and filled the sink up with warm, cloudy water and held my head under the faucet. They tell me I did this for quite a while. You are not allowed to do that if you want to stay on the second floor. The second floor is a privilege. They moved me up to the sixth floor, which is where they expect that you might try and do something like that. And where there are fewer privileges.

The long red hairs followed me up. I told my new nurse, Floyd, about it. “You don’t wear a flaming red wig by night, per chance, do you, Floyd?” Floyd has a tattoo of a mermaid posing under a waterfall on his arm, which appeared initially, from a distance, to be a promising detail on his anatomy. Floyd bent over and fastened my arm-restraints and I could see that the mermaid’s face was a skull’s face. And when I asked him, “Floyd, why is the mermaid’s face a skull’s face?,” he told me that it had not originally been a skull’s face. Originally, the mermaid had had the face of his first wife. Her name, he said, was Dabney. I sighed and said, “Roger that.” Floyd turned out the lights.

I watched the moon through the window and thought how strange it was that there could be millions of people on earth, at that moment, who were also experiencing night time, that were also looking at the moon. And it brought me some comfort to think that someone who might love me was looking at the moon now too and that even though we could not know it yet, we were connected in that moment by a shared experience. Then the toilet flushed. A woman emerged from my bathroom. She was soaked from head to foot and her hair was flaming red and bedraggled-looking. She smiled at me. “Larry!” she exclaimed. “At last!” I said, “Who are you?” She seemed surprised, even stung by that question. “Why, Larry,” she said, “I’m your godmother.” I said, “I like your hair.” She said, “Do you want to touch it?” I tittered and said, “Can I?” She tapped my arms with a wand and my arms were freed up and I told her thank you. “Go ahead,” she said, “touch it.” Her hair was hot and sticky as if it had been cooked in a pot. She sat down at the foot of my bed and put her hand on my ankle. Of course I couldn’t feel anything. Not since the accident. She put a hand on my forehead and said, “Jesus, Larry, you’re burning up.” I said, “Really?” She said, “No, you’re cold as ice. You feel like you’re on blood thinners.” I said, “It’s probably got something to do with my medication. Sure as hell ain’t blood thinners though.” She said, “You got any grub around here?” I pointed to my tray next to the bed and she punctured a hole in a container of peaches and slurped them up. 

While she was eating, I said to my godmother that I wasn’t sure but that I’d felt lately as if I was on the cusp on experiencing something really special, like love. “The wait is over, Larry.” She speared a chunk of chicken and tore it off the fork with her teeth. I asked what exactly did she have in mind. She got up and looked out the window at the city and at the rippling dark water of the river below. “I’m getting you out of here,” she said. I laughed, “Where to?” She tapped my legs with her wand and my legs turned into one unified muscular appendage. Where my feet used to be there was a broad, teal scaly fin. “You’re going to be a tremendous help to me, Larry,” she said. “You’re a beauty and a competent delight.” I said, “I am?” She said, “Uh huh” and winked at me.

Next thing I knew I was sitting on the edge of a huge, wet black rock underneath the boardwalk. I was breathing in the steamy sour fragrance of river weed and garbage. The rock was slick with slimy dark river weed. It looked like cooked spinach. “You better eat some, Larry,” my godmother said, “before we get swimming. You’re going to need the calories.” “Ha ha, good one,” I told her, “don’t make me barf.” She slurped a noodle of river weed off her lip. “Suit yourself,” she said. “And by the way, you’re gonna want to take your shirt off.” I hesitated and she said, “Don’t gimme that, Larry; you’re not that fat.” 


It is more satisfying to breathe underwater. You feel yourself getting filled up and it feels like you are in harmony more with the atmosphere you are living in because your inside and your outside are 98% the same substance. Although it was dark at first, my eyes soon adjusted. My godmother was towing me by the hand. We passed a school of glow fish and my godmother greeted them and the fish said, “FYI, there’s a couple of river sharks down thata way.” And my godmother said, “Whicha way?” And they said, “Thata way.” “Well shoot,” my godmother laughed, “good thing I’ve got Larry with me, then. Right, Larry?” I whispered, “You never mentioned anything about river sharks.” She said, “Well, there hasn’t been a heck of a lot of time, now has there been, Larry?” The fish chuckled and swam off and we waved goodbye. The cloud of glow went with them.

I tugged my godmother’s sleeve. “There are river sharks?” I said. She said, “Don’t listen to those guys, Larry. They’re a buncha little ninnies. Of course there are river sharks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t stop trying to live meaningful lives. Should we just live in fear and not try to make our dreams come true? Of course not, Larry. You’re making me start to sound Jewish with all these rhetorical questions I’m asking you. Did you put a spell on me, Larry? Did you turn me part Jew? Dijew . . . ? Haha. I’m kidding of course, Larry. Jeez-louise, lighten up. Now where were we going? I’m all discombobulated.” I asked her if navigation wasn’t her responsibility. Then she beckoned me close to her and pushed up my hair with her hand and examined my forehead, squinting. She was less beautiful up close. Kind of old. “What are you doing?” I asked her. “Reading the itinerary,” she said. I asked her if the itinerary was on my forehead. She said, “Well duh,” and mumbled to herself, then darted away. “Got it!” I floundered after her. “Wait up,” I called out, “where are we going?” “To the bridge, Larry!” she announced, “To the bridge!” She’s not easy to keep up with underwater, I told her; she hadn’t given me hardly any time to get used to having a tailfin. She said, “You know what they say, Larry. Excuses are like butts; everyone’s got one and they all stink.” I said, “Technically, I don’t really have a butt anymore,” and fluttered my broad teal tail. She said, “You have an anus, though, Larry, and that’s pretty much the same thing.”

Soon we arrived at a stone wall. The wall was at least twenty feet wide and was pebbly-looking and had slime on it. As we approached, a school of green-blonde colored fish got spooked and darted behind the wall. They had thick, boney-looking lower lips. “Hey bassholes,” my godmother called after them, “it’s me!” The alpha fish peeked back around the wall and laughed, very relieved. “Whoo,” he said, “you scared me. We thought you were—” “River sharks,” godmother said, “so we’ve heard.” The alpha fish winked at me then looked at my godmother. “So,” he said to her, “who’s the rookie?” She said, “He’s my godson, Larry. Larry, Rodney. Rodney, Larry.” “Nice to meet you, Rodney,” I put out my hand and Rodney looked at it. “What do you want me to do with that,” Rodney asked, “nibble it?” I apologized, a little embarrassed. “Anywho,” Rodney said, “we’re gonna scoot. No telling when these river sharks’ll be back, am I right? Heh heh heh, goodluck with the—” “Wall,” my godmother said, gesturing to the pebbly stone pier behind us. “We’re gonna work on this wall.” “Right,” Rodney winked at me again. “Good luck with that wall, Larry.” I felt uncomfortable, as if I did not know their language or as if they were conspiring against me. The school of bass darted away.

“Well,” my godmother said brightly, “shall we?” “Shall we what?” I asked sharply. “Are you plotting against me?” My godmother gasped and touched her throat. “Oh, Larry,” she said, “good heavens, no! What would make you say a hideous thing like that?” I explained that I didn’t like the way she was talking with that fish right in front of me. “It felt very exclusive,” I said, “all those winks. I mean, what is with the winks? If I get winked at one more time, I think I’m going to—” “Larry,” she said, “you’re stirring up the water. Settle down. You wanna get ambushed?” Behind me, my tail was churning like a propeller on a motorboat, stirring up a dense brown cloud, obscuring our sight. “Sorry,” I said, “it just felt like you and him both knew that I was shark bait or something.” “Larry,” my godmother swam close and held my hand, “can I show you something I’ve had to keep secret until this moment?” I said yes. She reached down into her shirt and pulled out a square lock. On the lock it said in yellow marker, “Larry + David Forever.” She gave it to me. “What is this?” I asked. “This is your future, Larry,” she said. “You see this wall?” She said, “This wall is one of the base supports for the Ralph C. D’Amorè Memorial Bridge. Ever heard of it? If you walk across this bridge, you will see a collection of thousands of locks much like this one you hold in your hand. Each of the locks features a pair of names who have fallen perfectly in love with another. They are so confident in this love, Larry, that they went out and bought a lock and put their names on it. Then they locked the lock to the bridge so that it’ll be there as long as the bridge is, which they hope, will be forever.” Then I said, “But this lock’s got my name on it. And it says, plus ‘David.’ I don’t even know any David.” My godmother beamed. “Not yet,” she said. I felt my body tingling with excitement in places I had never felt before. “Well, tell me who he is!” I said.

She laughed. “Larry,” she said, “David is who you are waiting for. He’s waiting for you, too. Or, should I say, he will be.” “We meet at this bridge, don’t we?” I said. “We meet here and fall in love!” I did a corkscrew in the water and rose up a few magnificent feet. My godmother laughed delightedly. “Of course you do, Larry,” she said. “But there’s one more thing, I’m afraid.” I stopped twirling and kissed her hand. It tasted salty. “This bridge is going to collapse,” she said.

I felt myself sink. I dove down and scraped my chin on the river bed then thrashed back up, turning over rocks as my godmother called out, “Unless!” The brown cloud surrounding us dispersed. “Unless, you and I can prevent it, Larry.” She took back the lock and put it down her shirt again. “Which we can.” Her expression was a very serious one. I begged her to tell me how. She explained that the central pier of the Ralph C. D’Amorè Memorial Bridge was being dissolved by a vicious and invasive form of algae. The algae, she explained, had been brought by river sharks, which came from China. The algae attaches itself to the river sharks’ backs and tries to devour them from the outside. Obviously the river sharks don’t like this. So, they try to scrape the algae off. She gestured to the horrible black streaks of slime which had nibbled grooves into the pier. “What can we do?” I asked. She sighed; “The only thing we can do.” She handed me a toothbrush. “Get scrubbin’.” I asked if she didn’t have any bigger scrubbing tools to work with and she said, “You got any on you?” And I felt stupid for asking, then we got to work.

“How long do think this is going to take?” I asked her, a couple of minutes in. “As long as it takes,” she said. She was working a few feet below me, closer to the river bed.  “I’m hungry,” I told her. “You shoulda  thought a that before you spurned the river weed I offered earlier.” I asked her if she knew that I hadn’t eaten a complete meal since before my accident. She said, “I know, babyface. I ate your peaches, remember?” “Peaches are gross,” I said. “Peaches are delicious,” she said, “you’re gross.” We laughed like that a few minutes, scrubbing algae and making progress. I was able to scrub vigorously and to great effect, motivated by urgings of a voice I imagined to be David’s. I imagined that this voice was a tenor voice, the kind of voice that would be addicted to its own sound in the shower and that I would be reading a magazine most nights, before bed, listening to this voice as it resonated in the walls of our apartment. “Do you know David?” I called out. At first, my godmother did not answer me. I looked down below. I did not see her. “Godmother?” I called out. “Godmother!” I felt terrified. What if she’s been taken by river sharks, I thought, and here I am oblivious. I darted around behind the pier and peered down and saw her below, scrubbing devotedly. “Hi, Larry,” she said, smiling up at me. “Hi,” I said, “did you hear me calling you?” “No,” she smiled, “sorry; I was humming to myself.” “That’s okay,” I said, “just wanted to make sure you’re okay.” She asked if I was making any progress. I said, “Lots.” She said, “Still hungry?” I said, “Starved.” She laughed, “Oh, Larry! You crack me up.”

I swam around to my side of the pier and started scrubbing again. Where the algae had been the wall had relinquished two to three inches of its thickness. Lots of loose gravely stones were eroding from the wall and, in some instances, rebar was visible. I finished cleansing my fifth stripe of algae from the pier and ascended a few feet higher. By this time, the bristles of my brush had turned black and were bent but worked still. I scrubbed and my stomach rumbled. I looked down at the river bed, now fifteen feet below and felt a rash of dizziness. “Whoo,” I said to myself, “I gotta eat something.” My godmother called out, “What?” Her voice sounded like an echo from far away. She was humming again.

The image of a meatlover’s pizza appeared before my eyes—festooned with spicy, savory meats: pepperoni, sausage, beef, ham, bacon . . .  I coaxed a slice of pizza from the pizza pan and dangled it above my mouth. Cheese dripped down, slathered in grease and sauce. I whimpered and fed it to myself and the pizza disappeared. My stomach roared. I shook my head and looked at my toothbrush. It was getting bent from all the pressure I was applying to it. I returned my brush to the wall. “You can thank me later, David,” I said. And then I saw it: the glint of an almost imperceptible string suspended in the water. The string intrigued me. Several feet below it, there was a hot dog. The hotdog was roasted to perfection and had little appetizing sear-marks on it. I inched toward it. My stomach groaned with longing. I reached out and poked it, to determine if it was real or another figment of my imagination. I touched it and it swayed. Here was this hot dog, I thought, provided just for me. I cradled the hot dog in my hands and carried it toward my mouth. I nibbled the end of it, still unable to believe I wasn’t hallucinating. I tasted its sweet and salty meat and my every atom thrilled. “Scruby-dub-dub,” my godmother called out to me, “in the tub!” I chomped down on the hot dog and felt a sharp flash of pain stab my mouth. I screamed and yanked away but instead of being propelled to escape by my tail I felt myself being pulled violently and rapidly upward, as if I had been picked up by some invisible elevator. My godmother darted out from around the wall and looked up, her cheeks puckered with surprise. “Larry!” she shrieked.

I was ripped up out of the water, thrashing wildly and cursing the air. Through the cables of the bridge I could see dark bruises on the surface of the moon, that piece of pale fruit. “We got one!” a man cheered. I hung there, rasping, furious and terrified, swaying left and right. I scrabbled pitifully for an escape. “It don’t look no river shark.”  “Well reel it in!” a second man squealed. They pulled me closer and the hook ripped deeper into the meat of my mouth. He wrapped his arms around me and laid me down on my back. My tail was flapping. My mouth bleeding profusely.

The men loomed over me. They were the size of bears. They smelled like beer and mints and the skin on their faces was oily and green, sprouting prickly black hairs. “What do we do?” the first one asked. “What is it?” the other said. “I don’t know . . .” “Maybe we should throw it back.” “Wait,” the first said. They turned their heads. I saw holsters attached to their hips. “What’s that?” the first said. Blue and red lights came on, chased by a siren. “Shit.” The men snatched their poles and fled.

I lay there and wondered if the purple blotches on the cheeks of the moon were lakes. If they were cool grape lakes. And, if they were, why the astronauts had not dipped their cups and quaffed from them. Surely, this would have meant eternal life? I heard David singing. He was singing a song I didn’t know and I wanted to ask him to sing one that I knew or save the singing for another time. David made a sound like he was going to pout about it and then he disappeared and left behind a garbage-smelling cloud. “David?” I said. “Wait up.” I tasted my blood in my mouth. It tasted like copper and lime. There was absolutely no breathable air. There was a container of hot dogs on the sidewalk next to me. All pre-cooked.

A police officer with a pretty, pale face and flaming red hair appeared over me. She took off her cap and knelt down and caressed my cheek with cool, delicate fingers. I said, “I like your hair.” She said. “Want to touch it?” I giggled and blood burbled in the back of my throat. “Can I?” I said. “Don’t be scared, Larry.” She took out her wand. The world was dissolving before my eyes, like a flame devouring a page. It started in the corner and was working its way across.