The ER in Chadron, Nebraska is crowded. We’ve driven down from the rez because they won’t take a white guy at the IHS hospital. They tell Calvin and Augustine to bring me here. They say I’ll be okay. At least half of the people in the ER are drunk, so we fit right in. I finish off an Old E while we wait, which helps with the pain. When I finally get a room and tell the nurse that I’ve been drinking she accepts the information in a kind of hangdog way and thanks me for being honest.
“Lots of people lie,” she says. I tell her that I’m trying to become more truthful, which is the whole point of this story.
We wait a long time for the doctor, and eventually Calvin and Augustine head off to catch the last couple hours of bar time—it’s after three before they send me to surgery. I’m still not very sober and the doctors know it. They put me under general anesthetic anyway, and in the void there is nothing to do.
It was Ash Wednesday when Saint George returned home from killing the dragon. It was Ash Wednesday, and he hitched his way to White Clay, and when he got there, he bought himself all the 24-ounce cans of Hurricane he could carry. And walking back home, he sang a song for the dragon’s memory. He sang about its mother and its father and its desperate claws and its hapless unrealized dreams, but no one who heard him understood what he was talking about, so after drinking all the malt liquor he could hold down, Saint George got onto his horse and rode to the gates of the spirit world, and the road was rocky and steep, and when he arrived, he reached for his last can of Hurricane, the one he’d saved back, only then realizing he had left it behind on earth. It was a disappointment—further proof that things never go the way you want them to.
And Calvin and Augustine stay with me in my room, drinking all night in the hospital. I’m not sure how they manage this, but this is just a story anyway. And when I wake up it is morning, I have a hangover from the alcohol and the anesthetic, and I can’t move very well; I am still coming out of it, and my body feels foreign to me.
And this is the moment for the poetic ending. The ending I’ve been teaching myself to resist—the poetic ending that is the death of flash fiction—that bad place where the writer’s itchy hands force all this chaos into something meant to cheaply inspire. The poetic ending is here if you want it, but I am not writing it down—or rather, I wrote it and then I deleted it. I am hoping that, as a result of my omission, this story will be more honest. I am hoping this non-ending will be like a hand, reaching out from my past self, drunk and lost, to the person typing these words—the person I’ve become, and after I have finished this, I hope to go find my past self in that Nebraska ER, his hand outstretched toward nothing, stupid and uncomprehending. And what will I do if I actually find him?
Kaj Tanaka is a PhD candidate at the University of Houston. His stories have been selected for Best Small Fictions and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the fiction editor at Gulf Cost. You can read more of his work at kajtanaka.com and tweet to him @kajtanaka.