Aphelion Issue 219, Volume 21
July 2017
 
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People Glue

by Dimitrije Medenica




With his rolls of floor plans under one arm and his backpack bouncing, Philip walked the hot streets of Hoboken. He stopped at Chocopain, the little French café on First and Hudson Streets by the Town hall, and walked the ten remaining blocks sipping an iced tea. At the construction site, he unrolled his drawings on the floor of what would one day become the living room. His eyes followed the corners of the room and back to his floor plan: something failed to match.

"Henry, turn that machine off!" Philip waived his arms in front of the tiling contractor.

Henry, deaf in one ear, unplugged his other. "Ah! The little architect is here, what's up?" He turned the water saw off and wiped his hands on his pants.

"What happened to your gloves?" said Philip.

"They're a pain and it’s too hot. Tossed them somewhere. So! How d'you like the floor?" Henry stood and tugged on his not-so-white shirt, stretching it over his belly. After he spat in his palm to adjust abundant curls, Henry extended his hand to greet Philip. The rookie architect swallowed and shook hands. He felt intimidated by the massive man, but he had to speak.

"Henry, I see that your tiles don't quite match my floor plan," said Philip, pointing at the diagonal pattern in his drawing.

"What, no! Come on, it's perfectly fine, Philip. I've worked on this all day today, and we don't have anymore tiles, man," said Henry.

Philip wiped his balding forehead and adjusted his glasses. "Wow, it’s so hot in here!"

"Yeah, stinking hot I say," said Henry. "Come, show me what's not right."

"Well, I don't mean to be annoying, but I designed a diagonal pattern in the tiles--in the tiles of this living room."

"And? Can't you see they're diagonal?"

"But, that's the thing, they're not. When I look at them from the double-doors, they're straight, and in my drawing, the one you have on the floor, they're diagonal!"

"So? Picky, aren’t we?"

Philip swallowed. "The owner's approved this pattern and he's going to throw a fit."

"No, he won't."

"He won’t?"

"Look, follow me to this corner, you’ve got a lot of stuff to learn. Tell me, aren't the tiles at a diagonal now?"

"Yes, but from where we’re standing they’re supposed to be straight, not diagonal! It's got to be taken out and redone or we won't get paid," said Philip.

"You guys are not gonna pay me? Who's not gonna pay me?" Henry grabbed Philip by the collar and the young architect’s eyes popped.

"No, no, you'll get paid, but you've got to change this!"

"I don’t have to do anything and I sure as hell know how to lay the damn tiles," said Henry, his grip tightening.

"Fine, you’re right, you know--you know how to lay tiles," said Philip, gasping for air.

"What? I didn’t hear well?"

"You know what you’re doing! Let go of me," said Philip.

"Ah, that’s better. Give me some respect, will you? Listen, I don't want any trouble and I've spent my last dime on these tiles. What's done is done and you tell the owners they've gotta pay me or I put a mechanic's lean on their house! Tell them the tiles look diagonal the way you guys wanted it--and--and, after all, it's just a matter of perception," said Henry. He dropped Philip down and adjusted his victim's sweaty collar. "It's diagonal and--and why don't you try cutting one of those tiles? I've got a couple broken ones left, you’ll see how hard it is."

Henry walked to the wet saw, turned it on, and watched it spray the floor. "Come on, try it! It's not gonna eat you and didn't your boss say you should try your hand at some work?" Seeing Philip hesitate, Henry sat him by the machine. Then he positioned Philip’s trembling hands on the saw and guided him with a few tiles. The exercise diffused a tense situation, and after a few tiles, Philip loosened.

"That's pretty cool! It's definitely different than sitting at the desk all day," said Philip.

"You're probably right. Listen, I'm gonna take a leak and I'll be right back, don't do anything stupid, ok?"

Philip looked up and smiled. "Ok, Henry, no problem!"

But as Henry turned his back, a scream tickled his deaf ear. He looked toward Philip to receive a spray of blood from the water saw. In slow motion, Philip watched his fingers slide under the blade. Each appendage rose, riding the hot air amid a rainfall of blood. Henry rushed by his side to turn the saw off, and found himself more drenched from blood than he had ever been from the saw’s water.

Having lost his voice to so much pain, Philip lifted carmine stumps, his index finger dangling by a thread, and his life gushing through five open nozzles. Henry grabbed a towel and wrapped Philip's hand. "Oh! Little architect, it's all my fault! Oh my Gosh!" The incessant screaming alerted neighbors and, without even having to call an ambulance, it materialized at the doorstep. By then, Philip had lost consciousness.

In the sweltering evening, Philip was taken to the trauma unit. Henry left the doors open and collapsed on the bench. He felt awful, so horrible that the following day he decided to retile the living room as "his little architect" had instructed.


* * *

Rogers, the project manager, loosened his tie under the hallway's sterile lights, his sunken cheeks puffing with each step to the patient's door, every breath hijacked by the smell of disposable gloves and Clorox. "How goes it, Philip?" he said.

Tied to his bed by intravenous drips, Philip opened his eyes to look at his boss: "Could be better, I guess!"

"Philip, I’m so sorry," said Rogers.

"Why?"

"Well, for one, I didn’t mean for you to get hurt when I said you should try some contracting work, I--"

"I’ll be ok, Rogers, it’s not your fault." Philip smiled. Then a senior physician walked in, his walk impeded by years of aches and pains.

"I see you've got a visitor," said the intruder, his white gown sweeping the linoleum floor. He rolled a stool next to the bed and grabbed Philip's bandaged hand. "Let's see what we've got." When the doctor pulled the wrapping, Philip wiggled five skinny fingers ringed with dried cream, and Rogers opened his mouth to swallow some air.

"You've got 'em all back, but how?" said Rogers.

"Don't know, but doctor Grünwald's got me moving them all over again! I think Henry found my fingers and gave them to the medics." Dimples dug into Philip's hollow cheeks.

"Yeah, poor old Henry felt so bad he redid all the tiles a week ago, then he said he had to take some time off and I haven't seen him since," said Rogers. "I guess that's not what I meant for you when I told you to get your hands dirty!'" Rogers laughed and wiped a tear.

"Never mind, Rogers, look--I'm--I'm moving them again!" Philip wiggled his fingers as before until a chunk of transparent crust fell off his pinky.

"All right, all right! Enough playing around young man, the binding agent hasn't completely dried yet and it was the first layer only!" said the physician with a frown. "Stay still!"

"But, doctor, it hurts, the pinky's starting to hurt again!"

"Stay still, I said. Of course it hurts, your finger’s about to fall off. Let me deal with this quietly! I'm going to apply some more of this cellular binding agent and you'll see these rings for some time. Don't wiggle your fingers for at least two hours and I mean it!"

"But how is he wiggling his fingers? How?" said Rogers.

"Well, he'll shake them again, you'll see. Philip, you'll need physical therapy after the agent dries." The physician pulled a small tube out of his coat pocket, squeezed it, and contoured the injured appendages, leaving a thick trail of cream. He blew on the fingers, tugged and they colored. He said: "Good, get some rest!"

"But, you've got no pain?" said Rogers.

"Nope. It just tickles when doctor Grünwald puts the stuff on! I do feel better again, now that it doesn't hurt."

The physician stood. "Well, as I said, get some rest. It was nice meeting you, Mister?"

"Just call me Rogers--but how did you?"

"How did we glue them?"

"Well, not glued--I mean--how did you put them back?"

"We did glue them, sir."

"Let me guess, with People Glue?" asked Rogers, hands on his hips and one eyebrow raised.

Doctor Grünwald scratched his chin. "You know what?"

"What?" said Rogers.

"That's a great name for it!" said the doctor. "And one more thing before I forget!" He glanced at his wristwatch.

Philip looked up. "Yes?"

"The 'glue,' as your friend just called it, is not waterproof."

Philip swallowed and looked at his project manager. "But, my job? What's gonna happen if I spill a drink or if I get wet on a construction site?"

"They'll fall off, so I wouldn't recommend getting wet. The pain would come back. This product hasn't been perfected yet."

"What's he supposed to do then?" said Rogers.

The doctor frowned and took a deep breath. Then he measured his words and tossed them over his shoulder on the way out: "Sir, I suggest your friend wear gloves. For all your other concerns, I'll be glad to give a referral."


* * *

Philip suffered through physical therapy for two months until the middle of Fall. He went to work wearing gloves, typed on the computer with no problem, and even visited the site. He perfected his drawing and design techniques. He spoke with Henry several times, but the latter never again talked to the young architect with disrespect.

In early December, Hoboken approved the townhouse’s certificate of occupancy, and the owners organized a party for the architects and their contractors. While the snowflakes whirled in the streets, the little gathering occurred in the living room, where each guest could admire everyone’s reflection flowing in the marble floor. The double-door entrance was now framed by leafy Corinthian columns that stood guard over a sumptuous "little museum," as the owner liked to call his sculpture-filled living room. Red and yellow garlands hung from the window frames and the owners had splurged on a fountain of champagne, something quite unusual for a small architecture firm.

Under dim lights, Philip partook of the festivities, standing by Rogers and the firm’s owner. With vinyl gloves, he handled champagne glasses and time stretched into the early morning hours. Outside, the wind had awakened and begun piling snow against front doors, resting on windowsills, but after three or four glasses of champagne, Philip fought against drooping eyelids. "I think I will be going home, now," said Philip. He lived blocks away in a one-room apartment on Washington Street, Hoboken's main street.

"All right, Philip, take it easy, will you? Do you need someone to walk you back home?" said Rogers. Since the accident, Rogers had taken particular attention to his pupil’s well being at work. Burr and Burr architects, just as any small architecture firm, prided itself on fostering a family atmosphere. Although the firm could not pay its employees much, it offered a lenient schedule, affordable health insurance, and always passed down rewards from grateful clients.

"No, thanks! I'll manage. Good night everyone," said Philip as he stumbled toward the front door. He zipped his jacket to his neck and pulled his vinyl glove farther. He did not add winter gloves, because ever since the accident, his injured hand had felt hot. The doctor had said it would be so while his body fought potential infections. As he stepped out, he grabbed the iron handrail and negotiated wide ice patches to reach the front yard’s iron gate. Angry snowflakes battered his face and, alone on the blanketed street, he focused on a far away light.

Around the corner of Eleventh and Washington Streets, Philip’s right foot slipped. He parried the fall with both hands, but ice shards cut through his thin glove and he buried his right hand into his pocket, hoping to keep it dry. The ice melted on contact, dissolving the bond holding his appendages, and pain followed with the efficiency of a deep paper cut.

Bathed in the silence of a night only the wind had dared disturb, Philip’s plight did not go unheard, and an ambulance soon arrived. Medics rushed him to the hospital emergency wing. They scrutinized his chart to find that their patient had been treated by doctor Grünwald as part of a special experiment. Nearing retirement and teased by regular chronic pains, the doctor braved a violent night to reapply the binding agent, not without scolding Philip for failing to wear winter gloves.

Philip returned, shaken but in no pain, to his apartment early that same morning. Although this time, he called a taxi that followed the snowplowed street home.


* * *

The following Monday, Rogers scolded Philip for not wearing gloves. "What were you thinking? Do you think you can go on like this, not listening to your doctor? Yes we know we're a kind 'family' in this office, but we can't have one-third of our staff, since we're only three, mind you, miss random days here and there."

"I'm sorry, Rogers, it won't happen again," said Philip, lowering his head. "I know this office has been really helpful, and I'm thankful for everything. I wish there was a way I could repay you and the partners for your kindness!"

"You can by being careful, all right?"

"Ok, but it's just that--it's just that my hands--"

"It's just that what, Philip?"

"Well, it's just that I've got to wear my glove all the time and my hand feels so hot," said Philip. "It's just so uncomfortable; I can't even take showers without the glove and I can't feel a pencil anymore when I sketch, and--"

"Enough, Philip, everyone has things they wish were better, but you at least have got working fingers; you were lucky Henry found the fingers in time to reattach them and now you can use them almost as before," said Rogers, patting Philip's hunched shoulder.

"Yeah, I guess you're right! I should be grateful," said Philip. He wiggled his fingers, then he took off his vinyl glove and replaced it with a new one. He dipped his hand into a bucket of ice.

"Perhaps what you need is a change of ideas?" said Rogers. "You've been with us for just about a year now and you haven't taken time off."

"But I've been out of the office for over a month when you add all the weeks of physical therapy and the aftermath of the accident! I can hardly ask for vacation time," said Philip.

"Well, I know you can't, but I can--and--and if I can convince the partner to let us take our drafting outside in the spring, we could go fishing, for example?" Rogers, well into his sixties, would not suggest wild excursions, but he loved fishing. "Of course, you'd have to use waterproof gloves!"

Philip loved the idea. For the next month-and-a-half, both men labored without tiring. When the weather let out, they took their laptops and Rogers drove Philip up the Hudson River. They found a quaint little pier and set up fishing rods. Rogers threw his line far into the river and encouraged Philip to follow suit, teaching him how to wind the line. Philip cast farther than Rogers.

"Wow! Good job," said Rogers.

"It’s not as hard as I thought," said Philip.

"I told you it wasn’t and you’re doing better with your glued fingers than I am with my fingers," said Rogers with a large smile.

Soon enough, they pulled little fish from the waters and their buckets filled. They took a working break on their laptops, sent emails, and then dove into their sandwiches. Though Philip's hand felt hot, he refrained from complaining, and he dipped his waterproof glove into another bucket of ice-cold water. He felt some relief, sufficient to let him enjoy the day.

"Why don't we walk to the end of the pier to throw our lines?" said Rogers, excited at the prospected of catching a larger dinner.

The pier seemed somewhat precarious to Philip and he feared the dark depths. "Well, I'm not so sure about this, Rogers," said Philip, licking the salt of his sweat. "I'm going to stay back, why don't you go ahead? But be careful, the planks look a bit shaky to me!" He looked at his watch and at the falling sun. "We should be packing up soon anyway."

Rogers strutted to the pier’s end, threw his line into the river and, within minutes, the line pulled him closer against the handrail. Philip watched with weary eyes as the older man bowed to the fish.

"Rogers, be careful!"

"Don't worry, I've got--I've got this fish and I'm gonna have myself some mighty dinner tonight," said Rogers. Then Rogers followed his fish into the river.

"Rogers! Rogers, are you ok?" said Philip. He stood. "Rogers, hang on, I'm coming!"

"Help, I can't swim," said Rogers. His arms flapped in sticky waters, and as a tired sun tickled the treetops, Philip swallowed waves of fear with each plank he crossed. Beads of sweat grazed his skin to lose themselves in his gloves, so he slid his fingers between the ice packs he carried in his pocket.

"Rogers, I'm here, hold on to the pier!" said Philip. He leaned over the handrail, hoping it would not give way.

"Philip, jump--I can't breathe!" Rogers' eyes had turned as red as the sunset, but Philip could not move. He looked at his companion and at his own hand. With his left hand, he pulled the glove. Then he stopped.

"Rogers, I just--I just can't do it! The pain was so bad," said Philip. "Rogers, grab the pier, I'm so sorry!" But Rogers looked at him, eyes bloodshot, filled with fear. His arms soon stopped flaying.

"Save me, you idiot, have some courage! Come on, jump and sa--" Rogers never finished his sentence. Philip ran back to where the laptops stood under the trees and dialed 9-1-1. He sat staring at his wiggling fingers. After the river yielded a shriveled body to the rescuers and after enduring waves of questioning, Philip left the scene lonelier than he had ever been. He spent that night thinking, sleep visiting him soon before daybreak. When he awoke, he took a decision.


* * *

Philip sat in Dr. Grünwald’s waiting room, a block from Hoboken's Hospital. With his glove off, massaging guilty fingers, he sighed. On that warm and cloudy spring day, he had asked for a day off to which the partner had agreed out of compassion, the office having closed for mourning and restructuring.

"So, young man, I see you’re wiggling these fingers of yours!" Dr. Grünwald smiled. "Come, let's see how we're progressing." He led Philip through the door that he always kept ajar, showing him a chair that faced an interior court.

"Lay your hand here, right here on my desk," said the doctor. He picked it up and turned it, massaging each finger. "I see it's working quite well, although I see your hand's on the warmer side!"

"Yes, it is, doctor," said Philip.

"I'm sorry there's not much we can do about that, but as soon as they update the binding agent, I'll make sure to 'update' your hand," said the doctor.

"But what about the waterproof thing? Any improvement in that direction?"

"No, Philip, nothing in that direction I'm afraid," said Doctor Grünwald, scratching his beard. "Any pain?"

"Not at all, but I'm afraid I can't continue like this."

"Like what?"

"I mean I can't keep avoiding things and I need my life back! I miss swimming, washing my hands, taking showers without my gloves, enjoying the rain and snow! I miss not having to worry about spilling my morning coffee, or my iced-tea in the afternoon," said Philip. He wiped a tear with his ungloved healthy hand.

"So, you're saying, you ... " Doctor Grünwald opened his eyes wide. "Think about it very hard, young man. I don’t think this is such a great idea. Let’s wait and see the experiment through."

"No, doctor, ever since my friend Rogers, such a caring man drowned, I felt such guilt. I watched him sink and was such a coward. I let him die because I could not face the pain I would feel in the water!"

"I see," said doctor Grünwald. "You want me to take your fingers off, don't you?"

"Yes, doctor, I want you to free me!" Philip snorted and wiped tears that kept rolling.

The following morning, doctor Grünwald met with Philip in the minor surgery room. "Are you sure you want to do this? Such a pity," said doctor Grünwald.

"Yes."

"I think you should reconsider, this is pretty rash, and we’d need to see how the experiment progressed," said the doctor.

"The experiment? The experiment? Is that all this is to you? My life is an experiment to you?" said Philip. He rose from his chair, his face blushed, and tears streamed anew.

"No, no, absolutely not! Your health is my greatest concern, so--"

"Cut them off!"

Doctor Grünwald scratched his chin, pretending to consider his options, of which he only had one. He breathed to stop his shaking, and he had no wish for a patient to report him to the medical board. "Fine, fine, no need to get so excited. It was just a suggestion, so please sit down."

After administering a dose of morphine to his fuming patient, doctor Grünwald dripped some water to dissolve the binding agent. Philip bit his lips as the doctor cauterized the stumps, and he emerged from the hospital, his hand wrapped in gauze.

By the end of the week, Doctor Grünwald unwrapped the stumps to examine them. "They're fine, although I’m sorry not to have seen this experiment come to fruition!" Doctor Grünwald waived goodbye.

"Never mind the experiment! I’m a free man today!" said Philip. As he walked out the front door, lightning struck, followed by deafening thunder. Then the first summer drops bounced on Philip’s scalp and he raised his naked hand in the air.


THE END


© 2015 Dimitrije Medenica

Bio: When Dimitrije Medenica retired from architecture and healthcare design, he began writing fiction often centered on architects, artists, and physicians throughout history.  A graduate from Columbia University, a content developer, and a translator, he is working on short stories and a novel (thegoodhealer.com).  His work has been published in Bewildering Stories and Latchkey Tales. His last Aphelion appearance was Your Sleep is My Sleep, in our August 2013 issue.

E-mail: Dimitrije Medenica

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