American Consequences - September 2018

all that might happen when a man fills his lungs with so much nitrous oxide. Perhaps his gums will bleed until his mouth is a cup of blood and his windpipe a siphon to his lungs. Perhaps he falls into a catalepsy, muttering and delirious, to all appearances awake but his eyes unseeing. You don’t know.” He laughed. “Maybe he’ll piss blue.” Riggs straightened his apron, untied and retied the knot in the back to a tighter crease. He said to Wells, “It needn’t be you. There is the charity hospital. Negroes. We could begin with the incurables at the Hartford Retreat.” “My gum swells, Riggs, and the tooth aches. It must come out anyway. If there are dangers associated with my theories, no one should bear them but myself.” Then Wells motioned to Colton with the fingers of his upturned hand as a scholar demands a theme from a student. “What lines from the poet did you quote in your advertisement?” he asked. “The atmosphere of the highest heaven? Right and good. Make me a temporary angel, Mr. Colton.” Colton handed over the bladder full of gas. He explained again how to use the faucet, then stepped to the side as would an actor

who has finished his role. For the first time, he considered the possibility that the dentist’s theory might be right. Wouldn’t that be something? Seating himself near the caged birds, he found, to his surprise, some admiration for the man’s gumption. Wells adjusted the bladder in his lap as if wanting the gas itself to feel at ease. He placed his mouth over the faucet, turned the key, and inhaled. “Count ten,” said Colton. Wells did, then exhaled. He inhaled again. Another ten count. Then Wells stopped holding his breath or turning the key. He breathed back into the bladder, inhaled from it, breathed again into it, his mouth tight over the faucet. Colton counted breaths, and at six jumped from his chair. “That’s enough!” he said. “We agreed to six.” He seized the bladder, cranked the key to shut the faucet. With a hand to Wells’s brow, Riggs lifted the heavy head away from the spigot and set it to rest against the padded pillow of the chair.

Wells’s skin had blanched like the scales of a fish belly, so his red hair seemed even more like flame. He blinked, his blue eyes shifted, lids half closed but the eyes still seeming to see. But see what? The pupils lazed about, sometimes settling on an object, then moving in the direction of another: from open drawer in the tool chest to a green-glass bottle of chemical

American Consequences 31 THERE SHALL BE NO PAIN

“The atmosphere of the highest heaven? Right and good. Make me a temporary angel."

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