The Recovery of Marcus Ray


Marcus Ray is convinced that it’s a man’s obligation to take full control, and that’s paid off for him: married to the same woman for forty-two years, employed by SunCertain his entire adult life, mortgage paid, money in the till. He retired four years ago at age sixty-six, studied the market and invested well, put his son through Boston College and Fordham Law, supplied the funds his daughter needed to open her own gallery in Tucson.

But he never talks about what happened, not even when he’s drunk, not even when his wife asks, which she no longer does. Bring it up in his presence, and he’ll shift the conversation as quickly as a real estate agent steers you away from a leaky roof.

Kit, his wife, has been content to stand on the periphery. A loyal soldier, a pillar of support. A small woman, five-foot-nothing, a hundred pounds-and-change. Raised the kids almost singlehandedly. Nobody makes a better meatloaf, and Marcus Ray will proudly tell you that their kitchen floor is cleaner than your average maternity ward. Only once has Kit become concerned about life’s unpredictability. Her younger brother was struck dead by the family curse—a heart attack—while backing his 18-wheeler up to the loading dock at a Tennessee Walmart. Following the funeral she sat Marcus Ray at the kitchen table, poured them both coffee, and admitted she wouldn’t know what to do if she was a widow.

“I don’t even know where stuff is kept,” she said.

“Relax,” Marcus Ray told her. “The way you stress about things, I’ll be walking the earth years after.”

He’s been having hip problems for some time now, and things have gotten bad enough that there’s difficulty climbing stairs and doing things around the house. An annoying stiffness in his left thigh seems to have developed into a sting around his crotch. He’s been advised to lose weight, upward of thirty pounds to take some pressure off his joints, but Marcus Ray believes a man should be able to fight through pain and eat what he likes. What he doesn’t like, what embarrasses him, is being unable to keep up with his sixty-eight-year-old wife when they walk back from church.


One week before the scheduled surgery, he’s told to come to the doctor’s office along with his “coach.” Marcus Ray doesn’t see the necessity in this, but he takes Kit none-the-less. She’s been on the computer and has compiled some questions, most of which will embarrass her husband the second they’re asked: Are the replacement parts gender specific? How high should the toilet seat be raised? Will a stool softener be prescribed or can I buy one over the counter?

The procedure is scheduled for the last Wednesday in May. Dr. Stillinger, a natty orthopedist whom Marcus Ray dislikes, tells him he’ll likely be discharged on Saturday or Sunday.

“I’ve heard about people going home that same day,” Marcus Ray says.

“Apparently,” Stillinger says, “those were folks in a big hurry.”

They leave the office and Kit tells her husband not to worry. She’ll find him plenty of reading material. She’ll smuggle in real food. She’ll even sleep overnight on the sofa in his hospital room.

“Won’t be necessary,” Marcus Ray says as he eases into traffic. “I’m not planning on spending more than twenty-four hours in some hospital hellhole.”


The surgery goes smoothly and that same evening, as Kit stands by with a copy of Field and Stream under her arm, Marcus Ray slips the hospital’s physical therapist twenty dollars and asks to be helped out of bed and walked down the hall. The P.T., a young man with a full sleeve of tattoos and a nameplate that says “Bradley,” brings in an aluminum walker and the three of them go the entire way to the nurses’ station and back.

“I’m impressed,” Bradley says. “A lot of patients don’t even make it out of bed their first day.”

“What do I have do to get out of here?” Marcus Ray asks.

“Well, we’d like to see you go up and down some stairs.”

“Can I do it in the morning?”

Kit looks at the physical therapist uneasily, and Marcus Ray recognizes this as what he calls her “innate pessimistic nature.”

“It’s up to you,” Bradley says. “We don’t want to keep you any longer than you want to stay.”


Kit drives him home the next afternoon, but Marcus Ray allows her to do little else. She can cook for him and keep his clothes clean, but the big things—his daily injections of enoxaparin, his struggling in and out of compression stockings—he’ll handle on his own. In his absence, she’s removed the throw rugs, rearranged the furniture, brought all the suggested pieces of hardware that will make dressing and reaching for things easier. Marcus Ray holds back on telling her she’s wasted both time and money. When the hospital calls and offers to have a physical therapist stop by the house, he tells them thanks, but he can flex his toes and march in place without supervision.

They live in suburban Connecticut where their three-acre plot backs up to a town park and their closest neighbor is a football field away. Both kids call, but neither can get home for a visit. Thomas is involved in a federal racketeering case that’s scheduled for jury selection, and Paige is a single mother unable—as she puts it—to “upend my world just now.” This is fine with Marcus Ray who doesn’t want their sympathy and has little desire for his children to see him at his weakest.

He gets out of bed from time-to-time, hobbles around the house for a few minutes, sits propped up by throw cushions in a chair in the living room. He’s recovering in the downstairs bedroom, the one that used to belong to his son. Marcus Ray has always found the room rather preposterous—more like some young nerd’s idea of a mini-study—with the glass-topped desk, the shaded window, the prison-thin foam mattress the boy seemed to favor, the eight-foot high bookcase stuffed with texts and framed photos and useless do-dads. Worse still is the ceiling covered with plastic glow-in-the-dark stars that Thomas stuck up there when he was eight.

“Well I hope you learn to love them,” Marcus Ray had said when he came home from work that night, “because you’re gonna be looking at them for a long time.”

“They’re adhesive,” Thomas informed him. “They peel off.”

“And they take paint and sheetrock with them,” Marcus Ray said. “You might as well pull the entire ceiling down and start from scratch.”


Kit, the eternal peacemaker, tries to run things smoothly but by Friday things threaten to bubble over. When Marcus Ray shambles around using his cane, she suggests the walker might be easier. When he sits in the living room alone with his thoughts, Kit asks if he’d like to be read to. The minute he gets settled in bed, there she is by his side, raising the window shade or propping up his pillows or bringing him the newspaper along with some fresh water.

After a lunch of plant-based protein which Marcus Ray scarcely touches, he sees her fooling around with the bedroom door and notices a screwdriver in her hand.

“What are you doing?”

“This doorknob is loose,” she says. “I thought I’d tighten it.”

“Leave it,” Marcus Ray says. “I’ll take care of it later.”

“I’m trying to help out.”

“I appreciate that,” he says. “But the problem is you’re over-helping.”


Late Friday afternoon, Fischer phones and asks Marcus Ray if he’s up for a weekend visitor. Fischer lives less than thirty minutes away and the two men have been friends for years. Retirees from SunCertain, members of the same Rotary club. Kit, however, finds the man repulsive. The racist jokes, the sexual innuendo, the braying laughter. And once, several summers ago at a church picnic, he put his hands on her in what she considered an inappropriate manner.

“He had too much to drink,” Marcus Ray said when she told him about it a week or two later.

Now Kit says, “I’m not totally comfortable with him staying here. Especially with you unable to negotiate.”

“The man’s a tonic,” Marcus Ray says. “If anybody can get me feeling better, it’s old Fischer.”

“Maybe I should go someplace,” Kit says. “I don’t want to stand in the way of you two getting your jollies.”

Don’t be silly, she expects to hear him say, but he doesn’t.

“That’s probably not a bad idea,” he tells her. “Take some time off. Get out of the house for a while.”

“Okay then,” she says. “I’ll do that.”

As pissed off as she is, Kit still makes her husband promise to keep his cell phone turned on, still writes out a list of emergency numbers and sticks it on the fridge, still prepares a huge pan of vegetarian lasagna and portions it into meals.

“Where are you gonna be?” he asks her the following morning while he sips his coffee and she wrestles her suitcase down from their bedroom.

“I’m not sure,” Kit lies. “Maybe I’ll rent some cheap motel room for a few days. Maybe I’ll go to Foxwoods and join the high rollers.” She parks the suitcase by the front door. “Or I might stay with my sister. I haven’t decided.”

“Tell your sister I said hello,” Marcus Ray says.

“I called a lawn service to come by this afternoon and cut the grass,” she says.

He thinks about protesting this, but the idea is a good one. Nothing outside has been touched in weeks, and the front yard is starting to look like some Halloween corn maze.

Not long after, there’s a knock on the front door, and when Kit opens it she finds Fischer saluting like Benny Hill.

“Nurse Nancy reporting for duty,” he says.

Kit goes into the bedroom and kisses her husband’s cheek, breezes past Fischer, grabs her suitcase and is gone. Fischer watches her leave, then helps Marcus Ray from the bed to the kitchen table. Once his friend is settled—as soon as Marcus Ray is adequately teased regarding his black t-shirt and camouflage sleeping shorts—Fischer excuses himself, walks out to his car, and returns with deli sandwiches, chips, and a six-pack of Molson.

“There’s a bottle of Old Forester in the liquor cabinet,” Marcus Ray tells him.


It’s not even noon when the two men uncap their first beer bottles and pour their first shots. Their more sober conversation involves Marcus Ray’s surgery, then moves on to sports, and by the third round they’re reinforcing one another’s mutually shared political opinions. What they don’t discuss—even though they were both present at the time—is what happened.

It’s past two by now, and all that remains is a half-bottle of bourbon. Fischer lights a cigar and gets to the real reason he’s come.

“I’ve got a bit of hard ask,” he says.

“What’s up?”

Fischer explains that he’s met someone, a fifty-year old married woman who cleans his house once a week, that they’ve gone beyond handshakes and head nods.

“You old skunk,” Marcus Ray says. “Your wife doesn’t know?”

Fischer shakes his head.

“I was hoping I could spend the evening with her. Use you as my alibi.”

Marcus Ray is disappointed, but he tells Fischer of course, he’ll be fine, a man has to do what a man has to do.

“I’m just amazed an old mule like you can still get it up.”

Fischer smiles. “Better living through chemistry,” he says. He gets to his feet, returns the partial bottle of booze to the liquor cabinet, clears the table. “I owe you, big man,” he says right before he heads out.

It’s after he hears Fischer’s car pull away that Marcus Ray stands up and it hits him. He’d been told by Stillinger to avoid staying seated for more than half-an-hour, and he’s allowed two-and-a-half to pass. His left leg is stiff, and the muscles around his new hip feel fiery. Marcus Ray becomes aware of his pain—somewhere around a four on a scale of ten—and stumbles somewhat drunkenly into his temporary bedroom.

Outside, the piercing grind of machinery that he recognizes as one of those monstrous, stand-on lawn mowers. He pulls the bedroom door shut in an unsuccessful attempt to block out the noise, and when he does the doorknob comes off in his hand. It’s not a huge deal, he can carefully reinsert the handle back on the spindle and give the knob a twist, but for now he puts it on top of the desk, sits on the edge of the mattress, and reaches for the prescription vial of hydromorphone which Kit has set on a folding snack tray. TAKE 1-2 TABLETS BY MOUTH EVERY 4 HOURS AS NEEDED FOR PAIN the label advises, and Marcus Ray consciously avoids reading the warning concerning simultaneous alcohol consumption.

He unscrews the cap and decides that four tablets will be more effective for a man his size. He washes them down with the swallow of water left in the bottle on the snack tray, but when he goes to place the pill vial back, it slips from his hand, hits the hardwood floor, and skitters under the bed like a roach. Marcus Ray listens and hears it tick against the wall the bed is pushed against. He remembers some of the cautions he’s been given, the ones he’s hardly listened to, instructions about not crossing his legs, not standing pigeon-toed. When he gingerly lowers himself to the floor, his pain intensifies. Cane in hand, he manages to take a position flat on his right side, legs together, head resting on his bent right arm. He uses his can to swipe under the bed but only succeeds in unplugging the digital clock on the desk.


He fishes around more carefully, pulls forward a dusty sock followed by a crumpled pink tissue and a plastic golf ball. Finally he hooks the pill bottle with the handle of the cane and draws it out. He flops over onto his stomach, tries to maneuver his good leg and both arms into a position that will allow him to get to his knees, and quickly realizes it’s a feat he’s too feeble to accomplish. He is able to grasp the side of the bed, but as he pulls, the skinny mattress moves with him until it’s almost halfway off the box spring.

With effort, he returns to the less uncomfortable position of lying on his right side. He sets the hydromorphone by the leg of the bed where he believes it will be out of harm’s way. His pain begins to lessen and Marcus Ray concludes that if he can lie still awhile, some of his strength will return.

His cellphone goes off and his mind flashes to the last place he recalls setting it: on the window sill above the kitchen table. Four chirps, then is stops.

This is good, he thinks. This is Fischer saying he’s changed his mind and he’s coming back. The hospital checking up. One of the kids, maybe Kit.

Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes pass before Marcus Ray considers a second attempt to rise. His pain is still tolerable, but his mind is underwater and he worries that his balance is shot. He considers flipping back onto his stomach, using his elbows to pull himself along the floor, somehow open the bedroom door, make it into the kitchen and pull himself up using one of the sturdy wooden chairs for support.

But when he repositions, the pain surges and with it a new discomfort. The incision on his left side feels tender and moist and when Marcus Ray touches it, the dressing seems to have swelled out like a jelly doughnut. I’ve popped the stitches, he thinks, and the possibility of him lying there and bleeding out is almost enough to make him panic.

The lawnmower, which sounds as if it’s drifting away from the house, goes silent.

“Help!” he calls. “Aqui!”

But the picture in his mind is clear. Some poor bastard with noise-reducing earmuffs still hugging his skull, maneuvering the mower onto its trailer and thinking about the cold beer that’s waiting for him.

“Por favor!”

No response.

Using his cane, Marcus Ray is able to roll back onto his right side. He considers things in the room that he can possibly use. There’s the desk chair, but it’s on wheels. The snack tray, with its thin tubular legs, is too flimsy. The surface of the desk? Too high to reach.

The bookcase. Six shelves high in thirteen-inch graduations. Hand-over-hand until he gets to his feet, then a few steps to the bed. He can right the mattress, place himself gently down, and wait.

He gets there with effort, grasps the bottom shelf, pulls himself closer. The second shelf allows him to raise his torso from the floor, and the third almost gets him to his knees. This is going to work, he thinks, but as he strains and actually gets a grip on the fourth shelf, the unsecured bookcase tilts away from the wall and teeters forward. Books and knickknacks rain down on him like construction debris before the bookcase itself falls and buries him beneath.


What happened was this.

Seven years ago in North Western Sri Lanka. Marcus Ray and Fischer were two of the few white faces among the many locals who gladly accepted employment at SunCertain’s nine-hundred acre refinery. Free meals in the company cafeteria, plenty of overtime, an on-site childcare facility.

It was clear and hot on the morning of March 22, and the events that followed have been argued in courtrooms and boardrooms and bars. A few blame an indicator light that was ignored, others point at an inoperative overflow vent, some say it was laziness and a basic lack of communication. Virtually all agree, though, that the most dangerous time at an oil refinery isn’t when it’s operating, but when it’s started back up after a shutdown. Standard operating procedure dictates that the plant be evacuated of all non-essential personal during this period, the responsibility of the Chief Operating Officer.

Marcus Ray.

But that involved time, and time—as the axiom goes—is money.

Scheduled maintenance had been performed. A steel isomerization unit was among the components taken offline. Shortly after the isom was fired back up, a department supervisor noticed liquid vapor shooting up the vent stack and spilling to the ground like rain during a monsoon. He shouted a warning, but it was too late.

Exactly where the spark came from that ignited the liquid fuel remains a matter of speculation. But many on the scene that day blame a pickup truck that was left idling close to the spill itself. Fischer, the driver, had left it outside his office trailer while he dashed inside in search of a set of blueprints.

The blast itself, as described by the department supervisor who survived despite burns over ninety percent of his body, was “biblical.” Hardest hit was the daycare center, a poorly constructed three-story building less than five-hundred feet away. The explosion toppled the structure as if it were a bunch of cereal boxes piled too high.

SunCertain had its own fire brigade along with strategically placed water cannons, and the fire caused by the detonation was contained in under two hours. But digging through the remnants of the daycare facility—uncovering the fourteen dead and the thirty-nine injured—took longer.

Marcus Ray has little idea how much time has passed once he opens his eyes, but when he glances toward the window he sees it’s still light out. He notices too—indignity of indignities—that he’s wet himself. His pain now is almost unbearable and he feels an overwhelming thirst. But he is able to move from under the rubble and crawl free. He stays like this, on his stomach, when he again hears his cell phone from the kitchen.

He pictures what he now considers the more obvious: an aluminum siding salesman, the cable TV people with a new package, a wrong number.
The phone goes dead.

Marcus Ray discovers he’s capable of reaching forward, latching onto his pills, shaking a few more onto his palm, and dry-swallowing them. He closes his eyes and an uneasy drowsiness—too soon to be the effect of the medication—comes over him. It’s not sleep, it’s more like a stupor. He doesn’t know how long he stays like this, but this time when he regains consciousness, it’s darker out. Once more his phone rings and once more he listens until it stills. Marcus Ray feels hopeless. Nauseous. A result of the goddamn pills, he tells himself. He tries not to dwell upon his discomfort, flips over onto his back with all the grace of a beached whale, and stares up at the dully glowing plastic stars on the ceiling.

There were stars the night he proposed to Kit. He the senior at the University of Maryland, she the woman who’d served him, almost every night that entire semester, at the Dairy Queen. They were at her parents’ house off Liberty Road, just the two of them standing in her backyard, swatting mosquitoes and looking at a sky peppered with light like holes in a colander.

“Baltimore stars are different from other stars,” she’d told him.

“Stars are stars.”

“In other places, you pick a star and wish for something you want. Here, you pick a star and wish for whatever you hope will never happen.”

“That’s kind of negative,” he said.

She shrugged. “It’s the way I’ve been taught.”

They remained still for several moments before he asked her what she was wishing to avoid.

“I hope,” she said, “that I’m never a burden.”

Marcus Ray thought for a second, then said, “I hope neither of us is ever left alone.”


On the floor of his son’s bedroom, Marcus Ray feels his eyes begin to moisten and knows this is not good. He remembers the “Rule of Threes,” which states a person can live three weeks without food, but only three days without water. And he remembers the stories he read as a kid. Kabloona. “To Build a Fire.” Tales where men, trapped in the cold, simply surrendered to the elements and allowed eternal sleep to overtake them.

Marcus Ray closes his eyes. He feels himself beginning to enter some new delirium. He hears something. A door opening. A woman’s voice.

“Honey?” it calls.

He doesn’t bother answering, but he does open his eyes just enough to see. A light shines in the space beneath the bedroom door. Footsteps approach.

“Marcus, is everything all right?”

After a bit of fidgeting, the bedroom door opens and a white glow washes over him.

“Oh my God,” she says, this specter of a woman who seems light as a shadow but is somehow bringing him up to his feett. And now Marcus Ray, no longer concerned about dehydration, lets the moisture fall from his face and spot his t-shirt.

“Hold on to me,” she says, and he complies.

Marcus Ray notes the plastic stars on the ceiling have all but faded completely, but the ones outside the window look close enough to touch.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, published in 2015 by Whitepoint Press. More recent fiction has appeared in Litbreak, New Ohio Review, Eleven Eleven, 2 Bridges Review, Bird’s Thumb and The MacGuffin. Z.Z. teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University.[/author_info] [/author]