SHORT STORY CONTEST
by Jeff Lyon
I flashed awake to find the room dark. Santiago, the night nurse, must have snapped off the light at some point. The throbbing in my head was like a blender on pulse, and my feet seemed immobilized. I sent my hand down to scout around and learned that my coat had slipped off my knees and was now draped across my shoes. The scout, dissolute bastard that he was, sensed hooch nearby, and began feeling around in the inner pocket for the fifth of scotch inside. We shook the bottle in the darkness, he and I. There was just enough left for a decent eye-opener, and like they say across the pond, bottoms up. It was liquid cashmere, just what you’d expect from eighteen-year-old single malt, but even as an anniversary gift to myself I had no business handing over a C-note for it, given our huge medical bills. What sold me on it was its age. It had entered the world the same year as our son. How often do you get to drink a totem?
The digital clock next to Gretchen’s bed read six forty-five. I studied her inert form and wondered if she was up yet. You couldn’t tell without standing right over her. Not even then, if she wanted you to think she was asleep to avoid fielding questions.
My head felt like a demonstrator being dragged off by the cops as I got up to peek through the blinds. Night, too, was challenging the order to vacate. Only a faint blip marked where the sun ought to be through the great tent of clouds that loomed over the city like a sinister big top.
I let go of the blinds. My gaze flitted to the wall-mounted TV where CNN was airing footage of earthquake damage in Central America. Gretchen liked the set on all night. She seemed to find comfort in the personal injury lawyers and infomercials, the has-been entertainers flogging songs of the ‘70s and impossibly buff people ready to rid you of your belly fat. Onscreen, the picture had returned to the newscaster, an Asian woman whose lips worked soundlessly while her voice emerged from the speaker on the bed rail. This disconnect seemed apt in a place where people ate through their abdomens and breathed through their necks.
Soft footfalls at the door announced Santiago. Time for reveille.
“Helloo, Mr. Dave,” she said, in her peppy morning voice. As she advanced breezily into the room, I couldn’t help but notice how the tubing of her stethoscope rode the attractive swell of her chest. She went into the bathroom to wash her hands. “You no sleep?” she called over the water.
“Been up for ages,” I responded. We both knew it was a lie, but it was better than saying, “I just came to after passing out for six fucking hours.”
The yells made the issue of Gretchen’s sleep status moot. Her eyes were fully open by the time Santiago leaned over her, crooning, “And bueno to you, Senora. How you sleep?”
My wife considered the dozen or so nuanced replies she might give to such a question, and answered in the only way she could. She moved her eyeballs up and down.
I’d come to think of her predicament in New Testament terms. She had a camel of information to convey, but it had to pass through the eye of a needle—eyes, plural, in this case—those of a 42-year-old accident victim with a crushed brain stem. Bobbing eyeballs signified “yes” or “OK.” But they could just as easily mean, “I was sleeping fine until my besotted husband woke me with his snoring and I had to watch part of an old Abbott and Costello movie and I hate Abbott and Costello.” A steady gaze meant “no,” or “never.” Or possibly, “Get me the hell out of here, I‘m going mad.” It’s all about verbal economy in eyeball-speak. She could express complex thoughts, but only by spelling things out laboriously as I pointed to letters on a chalkboard.
I mouthed a silent “Happy Anniversary” to her, hoping she would blink a few times—our signal that she wanted to reply. Nothing doing.
“It’s our anniversary,” I told Santiago.
“Ooooh, how especial!” she squealed, patting Gretchen’s leg under the bed sheets “How many years?”
“Nineteen,” I answered. Gretchen remained impassive.
Santiago let the side rail fall and quickly took Gretchen’s temperature, pulse and blood pressure before changing the urine bag. The used bag she held to the light as if it might be counterfeit.
A nurse’s aide helped with the next chore: suctioning and cleaning the trach, the hole in Gretchen’s windpipe that linked her to the ventilator. It’s an intricate job and I dreaded Gretchen coming home because I’d have to do this daily, along with cleaning the feeding tube that snaked into her stomach through the hole in her belly. The thought creeped me out.
With the aide’s help, Santiago turned Gretchen on her side facing me. My wife was no sylph. Though she’d lost weight here at the rehabilitation hospital, she was still on the chunky side. I studied the cryptic blue of her eyes. One could only guess at the thoughts that crashed against the seawall within. Desperation for sure, likely mixed with guilt, frustration, anger and loss, the gamut of negative emotions that we cannot stop our brains from churning out, any more than we can will away a tumor.
Santiago was gone less than a minute when one of Gretchen’s doctors appeared. He was a short, bull-necked neurologist who favored tasseled loafers and liters of Canoe. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. He was a hard man to catch. He was also kind of a dick.
He pointed his little flashlight into Gretchen’s eyes, panning slowly back and forth, then ran a pin along the soles of her feet. She flinched ever so slightly.
I took heart. “She’s moving, isn’t that a good sign?”
I didn’t expect him to click his heels, but his response was a distinct letdown. He folded his arms and pulled at his earlobe. “In one sense, yes. In another, no. She’s probably going to start feeling it when she gets an itch.”
It took me a minute to appreciate the full horror.
“You mean . . .?”
“I do mean. There are other lousy aspects to locked-in syndrome than an inability to talk or move. More than one circle of hell, so to speak.”
I saw Gretchen’s eyes widen in alarm. The doctor saw it too. Belatedly, he pulled me into the hall.
“No need to upset her prematurely,” he said, though the damage was already done. “So, yes, she’s regaining some feeling, but it could cause more harm than good. Whatever discomfort she experiences she’ll have to bear in silence.”
I imagined a maddening itch that I could neither scratch nor seek help for—nor even explain what needed scratching without enduring a torturous spelling bee. Definition of eternity: the time required to say, “M-Y S-C-R-O-T-U-M I-T-C-H-E-S.”
“That sounds demonic,” I said.
He shook his head sadly. It was hard to say whether the show of empathy was genuine. It’s a look they probably teach you in med school for when your juju runs out. He put his hands in his pockets and fiddled with some change. “I will tell you that in my book, this is the worst thing that can happen to you short of full-body, third-degree burns. But usually you die from that. Your wife could survive in this state for years. She’s an otherwise healthy woman. Pretty banged up by the crash, but that’s mostly been taken care of.”
I was loath to let go of my fleeting glimpse of hope, which had done an Amelia Earhart since the accident. “But if she’s getting some feeling back, couldn’t that at least mean she might recover some other functions?”
He took a while with the question before giving me another empathic look.
“Probably not. I hate to say it, but with LIS, what you see after a few months is generally what you get. On the good side, it’s not a vegetative state. Her cognition is fine. On the bad side, it’s not a vegetative state. She knows acutely what’s going on. But the damage to her brain stem is so extensive that neurological messages can’t get through. And that’s unlikely to change.”
This raised a delicate issue. Before the crash, Gretchen had often told me I should put her out of her misery if she was ever in a situation like this. We all say such things when we’re healthy, never expecting to face the actual question till we’re old and senile.
He must have read my mind. Looking around, as if we were under surveillance, he said, “Just between us, if it was me, I wouldn’t want to be kept alive. Imagine the isolation. Too bad we’re not in Switzerland where they can help people die. Here, our hands are tied.”
I nodded. The guy was letting me know where he stood. You have to respect that.
He looked at his watch. It was Saturday and he appeared to be in a hurry. “Look, I’m sorry to run off, but I have to finish my rounds. We’ll keep monitoring the situation, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
He called goodbye to Gretchen, then extended a hand that felt as hot and dry as a desert breeze. I still had questions. Weren’t there treatments on the horizon? I’d read about brain implants that let patients move artificial limbs just by thinking. Stem cells that make nerve tissue grow back. But he was already motoring off in his Fendis.
“So I guess we have no options?” I bleated.
“Think Zurich,” he called over his shoulder. “I hear it’s nice this time of year.”
* * *
I needed a walk around the floor. I passed a room where an old woman was screaming, “Help me, somebody, for God’s sake, help me!” while the staff resolutely ignored her. In the corridor, a man struggled to walk on two heron-like prosthetic legs. He cut a chimerical figure, as if I’d wandered into an Arcadian forest where at any moment I might run into a centaur or a griffon.
Feeling edgy, I realized I hadn’t had a cigarette since last night’s dinner. That sent me to the parking lot, where I stood coatless under the threatening skies. For all the gloom, the clouds’ output seemed limited to a pervasive mist, but it was enough to dampen me to the skin. On my way in, I stopped at the first-floor men’s room to dry myself off with paper towels, but there was only a hand drier on the wall. Gambling no one would walk in, I stripped down to my Jockey shorts, and let the hot air flow over my flesh while I did a grotesque adagio. The heat was good, so good I went all in and took the Jockeys off too. Something about it was more restorative than the cigarette, and I felt like a new man as I rang for the up elevator.
By the time I got back to Gretchen, she had been turned so she was once more supine, eyes closed. I stood over her while the ventilator kept up its reptilian hiss. Swaddled in sheets, she looked disturbingly enigmatic, like the mummy of Ramses II that I’d seen once on a trip to Egypt. Enigma was not a term I’d have applied to her before the accident. She was a passionate, impulsive woman who was never at a loss for words. Could there be anything more ironic?
Our marriage was a cancer survivor. We’d had our early rough spots, mostly over my drinking. She used to harangue me about my getting ripped every night. I argued that the liquor made me mellower, but she said it was like spending your life with a bobble-head doll of the person you married. “Loss of consortium,” she called it, giving it her customary legal spin—a vestige of the eighteen months she spent in law school before getting pregnant.
One night I arrived home looking forward to the first of the Johnnie Walkers that illuminated my evenings, when I discovered that she had locked the liquor cabinet. Formerly an armoire, it was an intricately carved piece of cherry taller than me that dated back to her great-grandparents.
“You’re joking, right?” I said.
“It’s no joke, David.”
“I agree, it’s not funny. So open it, okay?”
She dug into her slacks, extracting a small key, which she dangled over her mouth.
“Very dramatic,” I said and put out my hand.
Her response was to place the key on her tongue, where it sparkled like a piercing. “Wath ith,” she said, and proceeded to swallow it. “Mmmmm” she went, as if it were a petit four.
I could only gape. “You’re insane. What did that accomplish?”
“It’s going to take a couple of days to work its way out of me. You’ll have to poke around in my shit to find it.”
“For Christ’s sake, there’s hundreds of bucks worth of alcohol in there.”
“I’ll force the motherfucker open.”
“You wouldn’t dare. You’d scratch it up and my mother would cut your heart out.”
“I’ll hire a locksmith.”
“It’s my property and I won’t let anyone touch it.”
“Screw it, I’ll just stop at the store every night.”
“You’re too goddamn lazy. Not to mention cheap.”
“May I ask what you’re trying to prove?”
“That you’ve sunk so low you’d rummage through a navy of turds to get a drink.”
She was right.
Eventually, she left, took Travis and went home to Minneapolis, refusing to come back until I went into treatment—an ultimatum for which I will forever bless her. It ushered in twelve golden years of sobriety during which, like some people in arranged marriages, we awoke one day to realize we actually liked one another.
But that was before ten thousand pounds of truck annihilated our universe. She and Travis had just left his swim team practice in our old Saturn when she ran a red light. The car had no side air bags, so the impact killed him instantly. Gretchen’s injuries occurred when the Saturn rolled over, lashing her head around like a tetherball.
It was hard to say what she remembered of the crash. She was out of it for weeks. When at last she regained full consciousness, and I told her she’d been in a wreck, I left Travis out, not wishing to heap too much on her initially. But days passed and not once did she ask me about him, a fact I found incredibly strange. Not that she lacked opportunity. Every day I’d engage her in conversation. But other than to spell out, “T-H-I-S R-E-A-L-L-Y S-U-C-K-S” or, “F-O-R-G-E-T M-E. I-M J-U-S-T D-R-A-G-G-I-N-G Y-O-U D-O-W-N,” she rarely volunteered any feelings. Finally I concluded that I had to say something about our beautiful son, if only for my own mental health. I thought by consoling her I could console myself.
“You need to hear about Travis.”
She blinked as though her eyelids were on motor drive. I readied myself for anything except what she had to say.
“S-A-V-E Y-O-U-R B-R-E-A-T-H. H-E-S D-E-A-D. I A-L-R-E-A-D-Y K-N-O-W.”
“Don’t you want to talk about it?”
“I B-E-G Y-O-U N-O-T T-O P-U-T M-E T-H-R O-U-G-H T-H-A-T.”
I had little choice but to let it go. Once again, I tried to picture what her interior life was like. She had never been one for self-pity, but these were extraordinary circumstances. Why was she being so miserly with her feelings? Was she aware that I was attempting to be strong for her, and that her refusal to lean on me was hurtful? Did she know the accident was her fault (I had left that out too) and if so, how was she managing that?
Managing. What an impoverished term, like you’re keeping an office humming. It doesn’t begin to describe the effort that goes into holding oneself together in the face of the unthinkable. Had I been managing these past months, burying a beloved son by myself while adjusting to the fact that my wife would never again be able to so much as straighten my tie? I guess I had, though there were days when I felt like a grocery bag with the bottom soaked through.
As I stood there, Gretchen’s eyelids popped open suddenly and she began to flutter them wildly, like leaves before a squall.
I almost knocked over a water pitcher reaching for the chalkboard. As my finger leapfrogged through the alphabet, I concentrated on her eyes. They had always had a translucent quality, hinting at unseen worlds within—it was one of the things that first attracted me to her—but now I found myself drawn below their surface, plunging swiftly through a dreamy blackness as if towed by a whale. Down, down I went on my fathomless journey, until all at once I was yanked back to the surface by her emerging message.
“I W-A-N-T Y-O-U T-O K-I-L-L M-E.”
Pain slashed through me as if I had the bends.
* * *
The storm clouds, after dithering all morning, chose to let loose just as I left the hospital. Bad luck, but it was my own doing. I hated the cafeteria coffee so much that I’d made the espresso bar a block away my base of operations. Even sprinting with a newspaper over my head, by the time I got there, I was drenched.
Balancing a steaming double shot on a saucer while stamping my wet shoes like a bedraggled sumo wrestler, I made my way to a table and settled down to take stock. Gretchen’s plea had ripped open a cache of feelings I had been pretending weren’t there. I had no moral qualms about ending her life, I just lacked the balls. But that was only part of it. The shameful fact was I could not do without her. Her existence, however impaired, was the thing that made my own possible. Since childhood, I’ve been petrified of being alone. Before Gretchen, my love life consisted of frantic leaps from one relationship to another. I visualized myself that way, hopping video game-like from rocky pinnacle to rocky pinnacle above a sea of fire. Gretchen ended that. She may not have completed me, but she saved me. Now I needed her to keep doing the job by staying alive at whatever cost to herself in suffering. Essentially, her ventilator tube was my umbilicus.
As I faced this ugly truth, I became aware of someone watching me. Looking up, I noticed a huge, very unkempt man in a nearby armchair peering darkly at me. He wore a soiled maroon sweat suit and his great round face, weathered enough to place him in his late forties, reminded me of how political cartoonists used to portray the world—as a person with a globe for a head. The chair was absurdly small for him and I almost laughed, thinking it might stick to him if he stood up. But his eyes, small and black behind thick spectacles, glinted with a flame that reminded me of a refinery in the night sky. It made him seem slightly deranged.
He went on staring at me well past the time for hellos. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Can I help you?” I said.
He looked startled, as though I were a mannequin he hadn’t expected to come to life. “Yes,” he answered. “What are you? I would very much like to know this.” His voice was crackly, like he didn’t use it very often.
The accent was Eastern European. The question itself I couldn’t make sense of.
“What am I?”
“Yes,” he persisted. “Your people. What are they?”
It dawned on me he meant my heritage. I don’t know why but I felt I should answer, though the question was not only nosy but touched a nerve. I’m Italian, which I dread disclosing. When people respond with some mob joke as they will (and even if they don’t, I know they’re thinking it), I’m left with the choice of sucking it up good-naturedly, or acting pissed and sounding like a jerk.
“I’m Greek,” I lied.
“Oh. I see.”
I had the absurd feeling that I’d let him down. “What did you think I was?”
“Give me a moment and I will tell you.” He got to his feet stiffly and started piloting his great bulk in my direction. It took a full thirty seconds before he was lowering himself, uninvited, onto the chair opposite me with an alarming creak.
“Nothing against you Greeks,” he assured me, “I just thought from your looks you might be a countryman of mine.”
“And what country would that be?”
“Why, the historic republic of Moldova,” he announced grandly, “the gem of the Danube.” He spoke with such pride that I wondered if he hadn’t asked for my background just so he could declare his.
He offered a gigantic hand and we shook vigorously, as if we had exchanged names, not ethnicities. I searched for a rejoinder—but all I knew about the Moldovan people was from a travel article that said they drink an awesome amount of wine.
“Well,” I improvised, “that’s not too far from Greece. All on the Mediterranean, right?”
His smile faded. “Absolutely not. Your geography is atrocious, sir. Where did you go to school? Moldova, it is hundreds of miles northeast of Greece and landlocked.”
He tapped his fingers on the table for a while. His knee was jiggling too, rattling my cup as if a jackhammer was on outside. Though he was not the most disheveled person I’d ever seen, he was in the ballpark. Hair hung to his shoulders from his balding crown in long greasy ribbons, as from a maypole, and the lower half of his face was a savanna of stubble that continued down his neck, dark whiskers like flyspecks against the gray ones. Beneath his sweatshirt, I noticed he had an appreciable pair of man tits.
At length, as though I were a child to whom he was granting a second chance, he asked what part of Greece my people hailed from. I told him I didn’t know.
“Not good,” he said. “Confound it, man, life is a mysterious enough journey. At least you should know from whence you sailed.”
As if someone so grungy-looking could be a source of wisdom.
“Where did you set sail from?” I asked.
“Chisinau. It is a lovely city. There is none like it.”
“Do you return often?”
“Almost never. I travel the world. You know, like your man Odysseus.” He shot me a sly grin, and I felt shabby. Here he was, making congenial jokes, and I’d betrayed him with false information.
Suddenly, he placed a finger under his nose and, unable to stave it off, sneezed twice with almost gale force. Sighing, he brought forth a very soiled handkerchief, in which he blew his nose with all the grace of a cape buffalo. “I have a damnable cold,” he said, placing the snot-stiffened rag on the table in front of him. “Something warm would be most welcome. I will take a cup of coffee, if you would be good enough.”
He might as well have made some Mafia reference because once again I had to select between bad options: Saying “no” and sounding ungracious or “yes,” and coming across as a chump. I was this close to telling him to shove off, that I didn’t fetch coffee for people with such terrible manners, but he seemed vaguely combustible and I decided to humor him momentarily.
“Sure thing,” I said, with a sarcasm I hoped wasn’t lost on him, and started for the coffee line.
“Mit schlag,” he called after me. “Lots of cream. And don’t forget sugar. Two spoons.” The man was beyond presumptuous.
My plan was to suddenly make for the door, but a look outside cured that. The rain was pelting down harder than ever and I’d had enough of being wet. And to be frank, there was something compelling about the guy. He was a curious mix of sensitivity and arrogance and part of me wanted to know his story.
I brought coffee back, along with two blueberry muffins.
“What’s your name?” I asked, cutting into mine.
“Just that. Arkady.”
“Well, I am Dave, Arkady. Pleased to meet you.”
My new companion took up his muffin and bit into it on the bias, like a shark. He came away with most of one side, which he proceeded to chew with his mouth open. I watched the purple-yellow mash spin around like clothes in a dryer.
As much to banish the sight as make conversation, I asked him where he lived.
His muffled reply, accompanied by flying specks of muffin, sounded like “Hawaii.”
“Come again?” I had visions of him in hibiscus-patterned bathing trunks the size of a wall hanging. “You live in Hawaii?”
“Eh?” He looked at me as if I was nuts. “No, no, I’m living at the Y. The YMCA.”
I was taken aback. Despite his boorishness, something about him didn’t resonate with rooming at the Y. “It’s just till early June,” he said, “until I leave for a conference in Kiev.”
I tried to imagine someone like him in polite society. “What sort of conference?”
“Mathematics. It’s on high-order, three-dimensional, reshocked Richtmyer-Meshkov instability.” He seemed amused by my consternation. “In other words, applications of WENO simulations. You have heard of WENO simulations, no doubt?”
I couldn’t tell if he was being condescending or truly thought I’d be conversant with such things.
“You’re a mathematician, then?”
“No,” he said solemnly. “Actually, I am a ballet dancer.”
He stared at me deadpan for as long as he could manage, then his face burst open like a cake at a bachelor party and he fell into convulsive laughter, supremely tickled with himself. “A mathematician. I am this, yes.”
Allowing his merriment a slow death, he took a long pull of coffee before smacking his lips and saying, “You may also be interested to know I am the world’s largest mathematician.”
“I believe it. Is that by weight or height?”
“By any measure. Circumference, surface area, total volume, whatever you wish. ”
He explained that he was in town for a semester-long residency at the University of Chicago. The school had offered to put him up at the faculty club, but he’d declined, choosing instead to bunk at the house of a math professor he knew slightly who, it appears, was as much of a piece of work as he, for they soon quarreled over some arcane point of number theory and it came to blows, with the host, who was from Dublin, swinging a shillelagh, and Arkady defending himself with a cafe chair. Needless to say, he moved out that night, taking refuge at the Y.
“In hindsight, I should have gone there in the first place,” he told me. “I stay in Y’s whenever I can in the U.S. Believe it or not, they have a lot of amenities.”
Aside from a certain crypto-gay song from the 1970s, you seldom hear endorsements of the Y as a hotel chain. I was still contemplating this when he began asking probing questions about me: my work, et cetera. Very quickly I came around to telling him about Gretchen. I’ll admit he made an imperfect sounding board, but I’d gone months with only Gretchen’s bitchy mother to confide in and it felt good to pour my heart out to somebody I’d never see again—even one as odd as he. Far from being surprised, he said he knew something about locked-in syndrome. He had first encountered it as a boy reading “The Count of Monte Cristo,” in which an elderly nobleman suffers from the condition. “On a more personal note,“ as he put it, there was his twin brother Modest, who, while not a LIS victim per se, was severely autistic and rarely communicated with anyone.
“There’s a reciprocal here,” he said. “My brother has the necessary equipment to speak but cannot formulate words. Your wife has the words but lacks the equipment. The net effect is the same. But I’m curious. How has her condition affected you?”
It was like asking me my opinion of my lungs. “There aren’t really words for it,” I said. “All three of our lives came to an end that day.”
A look I interpreted as compassion crossed his face. “I see.”
“Now she wants to make it official.”
“She’s asked me to help her die.”
“And what did you say?”
“Nothing. She caught me flat-footed.”
He blew his nose into the handkerchief pensively then said, “Some people would consider it the humane thing to do.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think I’m the man for the job. Besides . . .” I hesitated to air my shameful secrets to a stranger, though he was not just any stranger, he was a very strange stranger. Somehow that made it easier. “I’m not sure I can face living without her. I don’t do very well on my own.”
He took another generous chomp of muffin. For several minutes, he lapsed into silence, seeming to have retired to some inner sweat lodge. Not daring to interrupt, I waited like the guy in the joke who climbs a mountain to seek out a guru. Only I wasn’t after the secret of life. I was just hoping someone with his brainiac credentials could suggest a way out of my trap. What he came up with was almost as good.
“You know what you need?” he said abruptly, a grin opening like a fissure in the midst of his stubble. “You need some sort of deus ex machina to swoop down and save you. As a Greek, you should know that better than anyone.”
For the first time in many weeks, I laughed.
As I would learn later that day from a search engine, his last name was Sadovici and not only was he a mathematician, he was a renowned one, legendary as much for his reclusive ways and dreadful people skills as his brilliance. The previous autumn he’d been awarded an international prize worth a million dollars for solving a problem that had baffled peers for two centuries. But at the ceremony he had mumbled only a few incoherencies, and if he was spending any of his prize money, it was not apparent in his daily life. He had no home, but traveled incessantly, staying in hostels and the like, sometimes even sleeping in railway stations and airports. He had never married, had few, if any, friends, and lived almost exclusively inside his head, where his furniture consisted of integrals and derivatives, slopes and asymptotes, theorems and prime numbers. “A world-class eccentric,” was how one blogger described him. “A towering but ultimately pathetic figure,” wrote another.
In the days that followed, Gretchen became ever more obsessed with death. All of our exchanges flowed toward that sad, oppressive realm, the way a valley’s waterways always find the river. Even her coloring had gone ghostly white, so that she resembled a carving on an alabaster sarcophagus.
No conversation was immune to her morbidity. When I’d play audio books for her—thrillers I hoped would fan her interest—she’d start fluttering her lashes in the midst of the denouement, making it plain her thoughts were elsewhere.
“W-I-L-L I S-P-E-N-D E-T-E-R-N-I-T-Y L-I-K-E T-H-I-S W-H-E-N I D-I-E?” she’d ask.
“I wouldn’t know why. Most of us are sickly wrecks at the end. It would be hell to go through the afterlife like that. Why should God sentence everyone to hell?”
She would spell out elaborate ways that I could cause her death without ending up in prison. Undetectable poisons. A microscopic hole punched in her breathing tube. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria I could get on the black market that could pass as a hospital-acquired infection.
I’d pretend to seriously consider these Hitchcockian schemes, never once telling her the truth, that I don’t have the stomach for them.
She would propose trips to Oregon, the Netherlands or other places where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. I would tell her that these jurisdictions require you to be a longtime resident—precisely to discourage such suicide tourism.
As you’d figure, my occasional pep rallies were poorly received. I’d suggest that the nervous system has its own timetable and she should give the recovery period a fair chance. She’d look at me with scorn (how someone with facial paralysis could bring that off is beyond me). “F-O-R W-H-A-T?” she would sneer. “T-O S-E-E I-F M-Y P-I-N-K-Y C-O-M-E-S B-A-C-K? “
Then there was the weeping. This is how I knew she had gone over the edge. In all our time together I’d never known her to cry. She was a woman who reveled in her hard-boiled persona. Now tears routinely overflowed their levees to wend soundlessly down her cheeks—proof that whatever else nature may rob us of, our anguish is out of its reach.
And all the while, one thought ran through my mind: “I’ll be here for you forever, just please don’t die.”
One evening, when she seemed particularly down, I told her about meeting Arkady, and how he had found a way to wring value from an alternative life. She shocked me by saying she would like to have met him. This after she had given me strict orders not to let any of her friends visit.
I took it as a sign that she could still feel a modicum of interest and was momentarily buoyed. But then something made her add: “B-E N-I-C-E T-O T-A-L-K T-O S-O-M-E-O-N-E B-E-S-I-D-E-S Y-O-U.”
Was she joking? Needling me? Did she really mean it? Who could say? All I know is that right after that, her eyes closed. The sound of it was deafening.
That night, as usual, I brought along my friend Johnnie, but he was unable to help me sleep. Around three a.m. I slipped out of the room for a 360 around the floor. I found Santiago putting pills in little paper cups.
I announced myself with a cheery, “So this is what you do all night.”
She spun around so quickly that she spilled the pill bottle and dropped to a crouch. “Oh, it’s you, Mr. Dave,” she said, holding her throat. “You frighten me.”
I bowed like a comic butler, and said, “I apologize most sincerely, dear lady.”
“Is okay. No importa.” She turned back to her task with a smile that, in a previous life, might have inspired Leonardo. I noticed how beautiful her earlobes were, covered in velvety down and barely visible under the sweep of her luxuriant brown hair. They reminded me of pink cedillas.
“Did the doctors tell you your wife might be going home soon?” she said.
I felt a steel ball start down the raceway of my gut. “No, that’s news to me.”
“She needs a little more PT, and then, maybe…”
Physical therapy on someone who might never again move so much as a toe seemed like bill-padding to me. ”Isn’t that wasted effort?”
“Not at all. We no want her to rust, do we?”
“Heaven forbid,” I started to say, but the moment seemed wrong for irony.
When each little cup on the tray contained at least one pill, and all the name cards had been filled out, Santiago put away the medicine bottles and locked the cabinet.
I was suddenly conscious of the way her perfume mingled with the pina colada scent of her hair, and especially of the proximity of her bare skin under her baby-blue scrubs. There is something undeniably erotic about scrubs, maybe the ease with which they are surrendered to lust.
“When did nurses stop wearing white uniforms and caps?” I asked.
“I don’t know. These are more easier to clean.”
“And white nylons. Do you guys still wear them? Underneath?”
She giggled. “Next you are mentioning the Scotsman and his kilt.”
All at once, I reached out and drew her close. I felt her body relax against mine for several seconds, but then, as I went to kiss her, she gently, if firmly, pushed me away.
“Mr. Dave, you are the bad boy,” she said, with a good-natured finger waggle. “You go back to the Senora now.”
I could have made a second stab. Her heightened breathing belied her words. But my passion had deserted me like a fickle friend who finds my life’s vagaries tiresome.
In the morning, wooly from lack of sleep, I touched my lips to Gretchen’s porcelain cheek before going home to the suburbs to get ready for work. If she was awake, she gave no sign.
I was shaving when it occurred to me to play the Arkady card. For whatever reason, Gretchen had shown she could be intrigued by something besides oblivion. Perhaps his brilliant otherness might be what could pull her back from the precipice. I was so impatient to catch him on my way in to work that I got pulled over and nearly arrested. The cop smelled alcohol on my breath and made me walk a hypothetical balance beam. By the time I got to the Y, Arkady had left for the day. I scribbled a note inviting him to the hospital. “Come any night,” I wrote. “Help me drink my hemlock.” I signed it, “Socrates.”
Three evenings later, a nurse pulled me into the hall to tell me we had a visitor. Arkady was at the nurses’ station wearing a once-elegant Russian cap whose fur had contracted some sort of mange. He cradled a hefty green plant and was lugging a portfolio. His pants cuffs ended well above his ankles and his reindeer sweater was so ratty it could have been a throw-in from a thrift shop. Above one boob was a visitor’s pass. You could have assumed the place he was visiting was Earth.
I was already half in the bag as I led the way to Gretchen’s room. He ignored my light banter and assumed the air of a consulting doctor called in at an inconvenient hour.
“What’s her status?” he demanded. “Is she asleep?”
She had seemed so when I left the room, but on pushing open the door, we found her fully awake. What’s more, she seemed expectant. Luster had returned to her face. How she knew we had a visitor is beyond me.
Arkady set the plant on the nightstand and, grasping her hand, bent down and kissed it. The courtly gesture from him was like parquet flooring in a monkey house, but Gretchen seemed flattered.
Without releasing her hand, he said, “Dave has told me a great deal about you.”
Her eyes batted. “She has something to say,” I noted, and picked up my trusty chalkboard, but Arkady shooed me away. Unzipping the portfolio, he removed a magnetic board featuring plastic letters and numbers. The letters were in alphabetical order, but had been divided into five numbered rows of five letters each, and a sixth for the letter “Z”. Gretchen had simply to move her eyeballs to designate a row, and voila, there were eighty percent fewer letters to point to. The simplicity of it shamed me.
“Ingenious,” I said.
“Hardly,” Arkady replied. “It’s a very basic code.”
He motioned for me to help turn Gretchen on her side. Then he pulled up a chair, and holding the board where she could see it, said, “Let’s try this out, shall we? What was it you wished to say?”
“T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U F-O-R C-O-M-I-N-G,” she spelled out much faster than usual.
He smirked at me before turning back to Gretchen.
“Poor girl, you’ve really had a time of it lately, haven’t you?”
You could tell she was surprised by the question. It seemed to offer a measure of release. “Y-O-U H-A-V-E N-O I-D-E-A,” she said.
”Indeed,” conceded Arkady. “But I want to understand. It might help you to let your feelings out.”
She hesitated, searching for words. ”I-T-S L-I-K-E I-M B-U-R-I-E-D A L-I-V-E. M-Y B-O-D-Y-S B-E-C-O-M-E M-Y C-O-F-F-I-N.”
Arkady nodded. Sitting cross-legged in his threadbare hat and clownish pants he might easily have been a seedy psychiatrist with offices on a park bench.
“Totally understandable,” he nodded. “But the way I see it, we are all in coffins from the day we are born. We’re rolling along on a funeral train that we don’t remember boarding, with no clue to where we’re going or when we’ll get there. It’s an incredible outrage, when you think of it. Above all, there’s no way to stop the train.”
She appeared unmoved. “F-I-N-E F-O-R A-N A-B-S-T-R-A-C-T-I-O-N. B-U-T T-H-I-S I-S H-O-R-R-I-B-L-Y R-E-A-L.”
“A matter of degree, wouldn’t you say? The difference between you and everyone else is you have no distractions to take your mind off your plight. You should see these distractions for what they are: a monstrous fraud. What we call life is misdirection thrown up by a fiendish magician who wants to draw our attention away from our destiny. Each of us is the star of our own horror film.”
Gretchen’s lashes beat like hummingbird wings.
“W-H-A-T A S-T-U-N-T-E-D V-I-E-W,” she said. “H-O-W D-O Y-O-U G-E-T T-H-R-O-U-G-H A S-I-N-G-L-E D-A-Y T-H-I-N-K-I-N-G L-I-K-E T-H-A-T?”
Arkady shrugged with a look of amusement, and they were off and running. For nearly an hour I sat by while they argued about the value of living, with Gretchen the unlikely apostle of hanging in there. When the evening ended, she was infinitely more engaged than I had seen her since the accident.
I escorted Arkady to the elevator.
“She’s delightful,” he said.
“Misdirection,” I replied.
He laughed. “May I come again? Please?”
“By all means.”
And so he did. The next time he showed up with a laptop that he had talked a U of C neuroscientist into lending him. By calculating what he called “evoked potentials” and other data picked up by sensors taped to her skin the computer could discern what letters she wanted without any eye movement from her, then displayed the words onscreen.
As the weeks wore on, he started coming every evening, then most afternoons as well. I’d find him already at the hospital when I got there. Often he stayed till midnight, the three of us watching movies on the laptop.
He read the newspapers to her. He introduced games: computer chess, with Gretchen’s eyes indicating moves using board notation; Monopoly with Arkady flinging the dice and advancing the little pieces. There were onscreen crossword puzzles he helped her work. Goofy videos he found for her to watch. When he learned she liked classical music, he made her mixtapes of Vivaldi and Mozart.
When June came, and it was time for him to leave for Kiev, he was clearly chagrined. His farewell sounded heartfelt, as did his promise to return.
“I shall be back in a month,” he vowed, his big hands enveloping Gretchen’s. “You are now my family and I will be thinking of the two of you at all times.”
In the following weeks, Gretchen seemed to retreat into herself, initiating few conversations and replying in monosyllables to everything I said. On the plus side, she’d stopped asking me to murder her.
When I reached the limits of my tolerance, I broached the matter as casually as I could. “What’s on your mind?” I asked her late one afternoon.
She was slow to respond. I noticed how the window blinds were casting the fading sunlight into gold ingots across the bed.
At last, she answered, “I M-I-S-S A-R-K-A-D-Y.”
Out in the corridor, I heard the dinner-laden food cart rumble by. “That’s not surprising,” I said. “So do I.”
“B-U-T T-H-E-R-E-S M-O-R-E T-O I-T.”
Deep within me, I felt something load-bearing start to give way. “Tell me,” I said.
She closed her eyes. When they reopened, they were wet.
“I T-H-I-N-K I-M D-E-V-E-L-O-P-I-N-G F-E-E-L-I-N-G-S F-O-R H-I-M.”
I didn’t say anything, so she added, “H-E M-A-K-E-S M-E F-E-E-L A-L-I-V-E A-G-A-I-N.”
My mind was suddenly flooded with irrelevancies: How hot the room was with the sun beating in. How Arkady’s plant could stand watering. How strange our conversations must sound to those in the next room, like I’m delivering an endless soliloquy.
“O-H D-A-V-I-D I-M S-O S-O-R-R-Y. I S-T-I-L-L L-O-V-E Y-O-U T-O-O.“
I remained speechless.
“H-E W-A-N-T-S T-O H-E-L-P M-E S-T-A-R-T A B-L-O-G. I-L-L C-A-L-L I-T ‘F-R-O-M W-H-E-R-E I L-I-E.’ “
“That’s a wonderful idea,” I managed to croak.
“H-E A-L-S-O W-A-N-T-S T-O H-E-L-P M-E F-I-N-I-S-H L-A-W S-C-H-O-O-L O-N-L-I-N-E.”
I nodded. It seemed beside the point that I could have helped her with these things. I hadn’t thought of them.
“What should I do? Go away?”
“N-O,” she said, though the word, lacking inflection, left in doubt how strongly she meant it.
“Do you want me to stay?”
Y-E-S,” she insisted, “V-E-R-Y M-U-C-H. B-U-T I-T-S Y-O-U-R D-E-C-I-S-I-O-N.”
And so it was. To the extent that free will exists, anyway. Not surprisingly, my choice was stasis, the term biologists use for when an organism tends to stay put. Inertia, a physicist would call it. By any name, it led to a peculiar living arrangement once Gretchen was allowed to go home. For months, the three of us existed under one roof in a sort of sexless ménage-a-trois, with Arkady and I constantly bumping into one another tending to Gretchen, like the Alphonse and Gaston of caregiving.
Not that he was trying to muscle me out. In fact, he made a show of deferring to me. “Ooops,” he’d exclaim, backing off with hands high to allow me to pick up the catheter bag or whatever. If I were alone with Gretchen, he’d knock discreetly but stay out of sight, as though we might, however improbably, be in flagrante delicto.
This farce continued until I gradually perceived myself becoming odd man out. The bond between the two of them continued to strengthen, despite my attempts to obstruct it, and there seemed to be no place for me anymore. No amount of pleading or breast-beating was going to change that. What shreds of self-respect I had left demanded that I leave.
I announced my departure on a Sunday night. Gretchen put up a token fight, but seemed immensely relieved. If Arkady felt triumphant, he didn’t show it, but neither did he try to change my mind. I’d come to realize that in his eyes all human beings, with the exception of Gretchen, were simply points on a graph. All I was doing was changing coordinates.
It had an unearthly feel, my last day. The moving truck showed up at nine in the morning and by ten all my things had been loaded. Fighting to control my trembling, I kissed Gretchen for the last time, squeezed her hand when her tears began to flow, and waved bravely from the bedroom doorway, as if about to step onto a gangplank.
Arkady walked me outside. How implausible it all was, the accident, Travis’ death, Gretchen’s fate, but nothing was more implausible than this outlandish suitor standing next to me. A true sui generis, he seemed all the more striking against the Mobius strip of suburbia. I marveled for the hundredth time at the mysteries of human attraction.
He held out his bear paw. “Stay in touch,” he urged. “Don’t be a stranger.” His Old World diction and formal manner added ludicrous gravity to the throwaway expression. It also drove home how utterly we had exchanged roles.
I knew to the bone that it was this image I’d carry with me into my exile. Not Gretchen in her crystalline repose, but Arkady hulking amidst the hydrangeas, the sprinklers and the recycling carts. Why that should be, I had no idea.
I climbed into my car and followed the aged moving van as it coughed and bounced toward the storage facility, a run-down affair that was adjacent to a long, gloomy underpass beneath the expressway. To the swoosh of vehicles overhead, the movers, a gray-bearded Jamaican man and his twenty-something son, bent to the embarrassingly brief task of unloading everything I had in the world. The son, whose dreadlocks poured down his back, kept shooting me apologetic looks while making trips that often consisted of a single table lamp or a coffee table book. When they were finished, I paid them in cash, per our understanding. Then I impulsively cleaned out my wallet and pants pockets, down to the penny, for a tip of nearly two hundred dollars. On my wrist, my watch seemed to raise its hand, so I threw that in as well. The father eyed me as if I was crazy.
“You na have to do that, mahn,” he said, affronted.
“I’m losing weight,” I said.
He took off his glasses, breathed on the lenses, and held them up to the sun before wiping them on his work shirt. Something in his manner suggested he’d stood at a crossroads sometime in his past.
“Then I say to you, God bless,” he proclaimed, and made a tiny ceremony of strapping on the watch.
With a wave, the two of them rumbled off, and I watched as they disappeared the way we had come. When I couldn’t see their taillights anymore I got back into my car and coaxed it slowly into the murkiness of the underpass. Long ago the city had installed tinted lights to render its walls a blushing pink but now the color was mostly obscured by decades of grime and the spray-painted cuneiform of street gangs. About halfway through, I stopped. A homeless man was stretched out in the shadows. All I could see of him were his brogans poking out from under a filthy woolen blanket. I stood over him a moment, and the blanket peeled down like the top of an anchovy tin to expose two terrified eyes.
“I won’t hurt you,” I said, and he sat up painfully. His cheeks were crusted with eczema and his beard curled into itself like an ancient Assyrian’s.
“Put out your hand,” I said gently, and still looking fearful, he complied. His fingers were knobbed and arthritic, but they curled up well enough from long practice.
“This is for you,” I said, pointing at the car and laying the keys onto his palm.
“But I got no place to put it, Senator,” he said, sensibly.
“It’s okay. Drive it, sell it, sleep in it. You’ll come up with something.”
He continued staring at me stupefied while I folded my windbreaker over my arm and began heading for the far end of the underpass. The day was heating up and in the semi-darkness I felt the flesh-toned walls suddenly come to life and press in on me, their dampness and the gathering warmth enveloping my body like a second skin as I pushed on toward the distant light.
Jeff Lyon is a former newspaper columnist and editor whose journalism has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and Chicago Today. He was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He now teaches journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and TWO large dogs who are of invaluable assistance to him in his fiction writing. His most recent short story appeared in Blue Lake Review.