Volume 24, Number 2

Beep, Beep, Beep

Stephen Bartlett

His son’s hand, large for a 16-year-old with its thick, cracked and calloused knuckles, felt small in his own as he sat in a narrow, thin-cushioned chair pulled close to the side of the hospital bed in the dim light as the machine reading Lawrence’s vitals steadily beep, beep, beeped, the hand fragile now, like it would break if he squeezed, or even moved his own hand abruptly, his son’s breathing much slower, shallow and congested, like the beginning of a muffled cold, and always the beep, beep, beep, a reassurance of life, reminder of ravaged mortality, in a sterile, windowless room filled with medical supplies and monitors and extra blankets in case the father is cold. The father watches for Lawrence’s frail chest to rise, barely noticeable, but there, if he concentrates long enough, a subtle promise that life is still worth living for the father, whose every breath and heart beat became for the boy the moment a tiny head of dark hair crowned, and his reason, early and weak, but alive, in his arms, not crying and eyes closed, but alive, and in his arms, the father crying as he cries now, that promise to protect on his lips, which tremble as he gazes upon the bandaged eyes they just kissed, “I love you,” now, as then, kissing closed eyes and promising and loving and knowing everything has changed, and love, and love, and love, and love as a baby’s heart grew stronger, and a baby to a boy to a young man, now, lying on the bed, bandaged, broken, barely alive, and the father looks at Lawrence’s neck, bruised from where they hung him from the tree, in a park where two young black men cannot walk hand in hand, and now one young man is dead, and Lawrence lies in the hospital bed, a thin pale blue blanket pulled over him to just above his belly.

“Lawrence,” the father whispers, shortly after the police leave, and the young man, during brief consciousness, can tell them nothing, moderate mental retardation, a condition that hinders verbal communication, so he cannot speak to his father as he turns toward his voice, unable to see through the bandages, wondering what they did to him, wondering where his boyfriend is, and his father cries and says, “I love you,” as Lawrence falls asleep, and now the father says it again, “I love you,” and he promised to protect him, a 3-pound, 15-ounce baby, in his arms, heart slow and barely squeezing, and he has failed the baby, the boy, the young man, broken and bandaged…”I love you”… beep, beep, beep, a promise kept and broken.

The father needs air.

He leaves the room, tall, lean and solid, yet slumped and balancing on a frayed thread weaving between realities as he passes doctors and nurses, barely there, their conversations spoken through water, ruptured drums, except there is no ringing, only the faint voices he walks through, unable to answer when one speaks to him, or even nod, because he is tired and weak, and he broke his promise, and love is broken, and he needs air or he’ll slip though the cracks, and Lawrence needs him, and he makes it down the hall, the steps, without falling, and in his mind lunges for the door, but really he reaches slowly, with sweaty hands, and pulls the door open, and it is bright outside, the sort of sun Lawrence would look up to and smile at without words, his father silent beside him, the sun kissing their faces.

The father walks to the right and around the corner and sees the sign that reads “No Smoking on the Premises,” and he pulls out the first pack of cigarettes he has purchased in 16 years, watching the baby after open-heart surgery and promising to be strong in everything, and now scared, and small and failing in everything as he lights and inhales and exhales slowly on the sign and cries because he can no longer hear the beep, beep, beeping of Lawrence and his eyes bandaged, neck bruised, one arm broken in two places—the baseball glove fit snug over the hand connected to that arm as Lawrence, excited, made sporadic nasal noises as his father threw the ball to him—skull cracked, rectum torn, genitals badly bruised and three ribs broken, the only promise kept that day, not that of the father to protect the baby, the boy, the young man, but that of a rotted tree branch that vowed it would break under too much weight, on that day keeping its promise and breaking shortly after those who hung Lawrence left, and only a second before Lawrence would not have been able to make the beep, beep, beep on the machine.

As the father smokes he imagines how frightened Lawrence, his baby, his boy, his young man, must have been when his attackers tortured and hung him. He knows his son wanted to call out for him, but could not and likely moaned incoherently as they laughed at him and attacked him, this black, mentally retarded young man with his boyfriend, and his son only loves and he, the father, loves and promised, the tears coming again as the father wants to be with Lawrence and hear the beep, beep, beeping and puts out the cigarette and decides to throw the rest away and not break another promise, but he reaches into the wrong jacket pocket and feels the MP3 player that contains the speech of a scientist jailed for treason, which his friend had given him and said he would appreciate it, but be careful because it is banned, and only listen to it when he is alone. He takes the MP3 player out, but he wants to be with Lawrence and starts to put it back in his pocket when a shadow crosses his vision, and he looks up, and standing across from him, a man, much taller than him, and wider, with short blonde hair, nearly shaved and a pot-marked face that is not smiling, but seems to smirk, as the man, dressed in faded blue jeans and a tight white T-shirt says, “Faggot, nigger, retard.”

The father, still thinking of Lawrence, bandaged and broken, knows, but does not think he knows what the man said.

The man, still smirking, repeats, “Faggot, nigger, retard.”

The words cut into the father as he thinks of Lawrence, his baby, his boy, his young man, and the words cut deeper, and his son, so small, his heart barely functioned, they cut deeper, Lawrence, in the park with his boyfriend—and the man did it—they cut deeper, because his son cannot talk and ask them/him to stop as they brutalize Lawrence because he is mentally retarded, and they try to kill him for being black and gay—“faggot, nigger, retard”—and they cut deeper, and the father—he wants to smash and break—approaches the man, who cannot see his baby, his boy, his young man and says, “Why would you say that?”

But as soon as the father utters “Why” and his breath hits the man’s skin, the man whips out his smart phone and calls the police and reports the assault on free speech, which, according to the Ultimate Protection of Cherished Freedom of Speech Act, includes any physical response during its application, an outcome of the assault on free speech by Dr. Joseph Neal, whose speech is on the MP3 player, still in the father’s hand, shaking, needing to stroke Lawrence’s thick head of hair, squeezing, wanting to strike the man and protect Lawrence, naïve and gentle and only wanting to love and be loved.

“Faggot, nigger, retard,” the man repeats to the father, growing taller, his shadow eating the air around him, around the father.

Law enforcement arrive, two hulking police officers with dark shades, and they grab the father and push him against the side of the hospital, and the MP3 player falls from his hands, hitting the ground and turning on as they cuff him.

“You are under arrest for violating the Ultimate Protection of Cherished Freedom of Speech Act,” they say in unison, every syllable synchronized, like their shiny black shoes and stiff lips and square police hats and swollen chests and biceps.

First, I would like to point out that the brain’s receptors process physical pain and emotional or psychological pain the same. In other words, pain is pain.

“But what,” the father’s breath hits the officer closest to him.

“Sir, we are attempting to read you your rights, and that assault violated the Ultimate Protection of Cherished Freedom of Speech Act, which could mean another life sentence for you, sir.”

Except further studies have overwhelmingly shown that psychological pain is in fact worse or has a greater negative impact, even lethal at times, in comparison to physical pain.

Suddenly—“faggot, nigger, retard”—all the father can think about is Lawrence, and the beep, beep, beep, and he needs to be there—he can’t see him/he hurt him—with his baby, his boy, his young man, bandaged, possibly awake, unable to speak, just out of the womb, barely breathing, and now, broken promises as the father breathes deeply and wonders if Lawrence’s chest is rising.

“Sir, when your chest expanded just now, your back slightly moved as well, grazing my shoulder, another felony and another lifetime sentence. Please cooperate, sir.”

Thus a word can be more harmful than a punch.

The man dances around the father and police, snapping his fingers and jutting his hip out and singing, “faggot, nigger, retard.”

Thus the saying, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will kill me.’ Yet we recognize and punish “sticks and stones,” not that we shouldn’t, and we treat psychological pain like it is the price to pay for living and being an American, and marginalization of the voiceless becomes a brand.

The father struggles to remain still, even imagining his breath as shallow as Lawrence’s, his baby, his boy, his young man, upstairs, awake, needing his father, who had already broken promises, but the man—he (not them) put the noose around his baby, his boy, his young man’s neck—still dancing and singing, “faggot, nigger, retard,” and Lawrence, and where was the beep, beep, beep, and the baby is too weak to open his eyes, the young man unable to see through the bandages, bones broken by him/not them, tubes through the baby’s nose and into his belly so he can eat, and the father—needing to crush pain in his hands—sneezes and his shoulders jump, touching the police officer.

The police officers let go of the father and jump back, pistols drawn.

Emotional pain can be significantly damaging through words, such as a young woman who is gay and has been disowned by her family. For her, a comment as slight as, “That’s gay,” reinforces the notion that she is different, less than, other than, marginalized, and adds to her pain, possibly pushing her over the edge. So I ask you to think, to feel, to consider.

The man dances, “faggot, nigger, retard.”

He tortured him, and his heart, they cut his chest open, to save him, the tree saving him, but the father failing him, and when he saw the scar, down the middle of the baby’s chest, he cried, sobbing now, his body shaking, because the man can’t see his baby, his boy, his young man, and the father couldn’t/can’t save him.

“Sir, this is your last warning.”

The father spinning in anger and sorrow, his brain about to split, stands there, face wet, wrists cuffed behind his back, and upstairs his son, beep, beep, beeping, and it took him longer to walk, but that was alright because his father crawled beside Lawrence, from feeding tubes to fishing poles, first step, first kiss, a promise, always a promise, beep, beep, beep, heart tests every year, a new heart someday, a promise, and on the trampoline, bounce, bounce, bounce, and Lawrence can’t say it, but those beautiful noises sing, “I love you,” and every time, he loves Lawrence too and he promises, beep, beep, beep.

To think. To feel. To consider.

And the man dances and crushes the MP3 player under his foot, “faggot, nigger, retard.”

And the father, who wants to escape and choke life in his hands and feel something other than heart’s tragedy, is defeated and asks, “Why?”

Bam. Bam. Bam.