Old men lie pale and shrunken, their blood pressure cuffs wheezing, their heart monitors beeping, their oxygen levels flashing bright green numbers on small computer screens as their brains sigh and shudder with dreams of summer slumber, of supple thighs and willing bodies, of late-night assignations and the creaking back seats of cars. They inhale, then exhale, snoring contentedly as if at home in their beds, thwarted only by age and distraction, ignorant of the plastic urinal, perched like a sentinel on the metal railing, and the thin cotton blanket twisted beneath a leg, exposing a grey-toed sock. Dozing, they laugh at the memory of a plump girl turning cartwheels, the incandescent anger of a mother-in-law, the lulling pleasure of evening rain. In some, a vessel has exploded, blood sluicing in pools and eddies, a sly current flooding the swamp of white matter. In others, a vessel has been blocked, the blood stymied, trapped, sabotaging its ordinary flow. Their problem is one of drainage and containment, a treacherous course, a vigilant balance between escape and shrinkage measured by the constant whir and thrum of machines.

When they wake, they’re surprised by tubes and needles, by an orderly web of constraint. Instinctively, their hands reach out to touch the dogs not there, the wives not there, the grown children and loud grandchildren not there, the friends and neighbors and competitors who seem to peer at them like affable ghosts.

Their voices, when they speak, barely manage a whisper, more mutter than shape as they worry about the need to read today’s mail, to have more butter in their mashed potatoes, to acquire softer blankets, and yes, yes, the necessity of a larger constitutive force to maintain world peace. Finally, they tire of unanswered desires, of barely remembered words, and they sleep, their inner gravity seduced as blood flows through arteries and veins, delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells while the IV drips in near-silent, calculated drops.

Only later, when they wake more fully—aware of the hospital bed and the monitoring machines, the nurses and the orderlies—do they wait with a martyred consciousness for the specialists—the neurologists and neurosurgeons—the virtuosos, the miracle workers, the fixers. Now, their faces are haggard, new whiskers furring their cheeks, their lips dry, their hands knotted and bruised, their minds burdened and anxious. At first, they stare at the nurse’s station—men and women answering phones and typing into screens—and then they settle in to watch the clock, noticing the sly, slow movement of time, the minute hand a new adversary, arduous and interminable, another problem of flow. Only now do they understand that waiting is what they are here for: waiting for clarification, for the end of precariousness, for accretion or erosion, re-invention or benediction, waiting as the most vital actor in their own denouement.

­­Patricia Foster is the author of All the Lost Girls (PEN/Jerard Award), Just beneath My Skin (essays)Girl from Soldier Creek (SFA Novel Award), a forthcoming collection, Written in the Sky: Lessons of a Southern Daughter, and the editor of four anthologies, including Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul.  She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Clarence Cason Award, a Theodore Hoepfner Award, a Dean’s Scholar Award, a Yaddo Fellowship, and a Carl Klaus Teaching Award.  She has been a professor in the MFA Program in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa for over twenty-three years and has taught writing in France, Australia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Spain.  Her contact information is: patricia-a-foster@uiowa.edu

Art by Sheila Squillante