Then, the world seemed so big. Full of endless possibilities. Someday he’d see it all, do it all. He’d visit Paris and Thailand, Japan, New Zealand. He’d jump out of planes, cruise the Nile, write that novel. He’d remember to call his son on his birthday. Next year he would.
Now, the world has shrunk down to this tiny room with its incessantly beeping and blinking equipment, the shafts of sunlight streaming through the blinds striking his half-closed eyes at the wrong angle. Most days it’s too much effort to turn his head away from that blinding light. Lying in this stiff bed, he feels everything, even that constant itch in the sweaty small of his back. It’s a part of him, that irritation, one he can’t reach. There are so many parts of himself he can no longer reach.
Then, he knew his sons had to be successful. It was his job to push them, to force them into Ivy League schools, make sure they achieved the highest grades, won the most prestigious awards. He found them those internships at the bank, set them up to compete against each other until the best man won. He knew all along they’d both win as a result, even if they lost the love for each other brothers should have. Nothing but President or CEO would do for his boys. It didn’t matter if it hurt them when he applied so much pressure, set so many deadlines and milestones. It didn’t matter if they hated him for it. Because they were too young to understand it was all for their own good. Too young.
Now, he wishes they weren’t both CEOs like he wanted them to be, that they didn’t make quite so much money, that there weren’t so many nameless people depending on them to keep working day after blessed day. He wishes his sons didn’t have to say, “Sorry, Dad, but I just can’t get away right now,” when he calls them and tells them how sick he is.
Then, he’d curse those damn kids and their loud music, driving past his two-story on Elm Street, through his respectable, quiet neighborhood with their booming base shaking the pictures on his mantle, interrupting the nightly news, all those stories about murders and kidnapping and political feuds that were so important for him to hear. It was noise, that rap; goddamned noise and he couldn’t comprehend how anyone could bear to listen to such garbage.
Now, there’s only one nurse who can move him without hurting him. He’s big and strong, with soft, black hands. His name is Kenny, and he knows Kenny’s shift is about to begin when he hears the young man’s car pull into the hospice parking lot, the booming rap shaking his bed, rattling the metal guard the other nurses keep raised so he doesn’t accidentally roll out. How he waits for the sound of that droning beat. It matches the rhythm of his own heart.
Then, she stared at him with those sparkling green eyes tucked under that mop of curly brown hair and above her crooked nose. He was lying on the floor, propped on his elbows, and she stretched across the couch, the used one that shifty Indian guy on Sullivan Street sold them from the back of his U-Haul. She leaned against the cushions at one end, her long, lean legs crossed, feet bare. Her red heels were stacked, one atop the other, just inside the door. He kept peeking at them. Behind him, the late night laugh track from some old sitcom echoed in his inebriated brain. She was telling him her dreams again. Where she’d go, what she’d do. As she talked, those sparkling green eyes asked him a question. They asked him to sleep with her.
Now, he wonders if she told anyone else how she got that crooked nose, the backwards tumble from the monkey bars when she was twelve that broke it. The fumbling family friend of a doctor who didn’t set it right. Nearly every night he walked up two flights to her room and, on the rare occasion he didn’t, she somehow knew, and came to his instead. He realizes, for that short space of time, only a month, maybe two, he was her best friend. The idea simultaneously thrills and devastates him. He remembers sending her upstairs without sleeping with her, mostly because his roommates had warned him she was a slut. “Megan’s been places you don’t want to think about, man,” they told him. “I’d stay away from that, I were you.” Besides, she had that crooked nose. And he lets himself picture, just for a moment, that boring boy from Philadelphia, the one who seemed to start coming around almost the very next day. That humorless kid who told the God-awful knock-knock jokes and didn’t care about her crooked nose. The nice Jewish boy, just like her mother wanted her to meet, who wouldn’t hear the rumors and innuendos about her. The one she married. The itch on his back grows worse. He still can’t reach it.
Then, he had IRAs and 401Ks. Stocks and bonds. Hidden accounts that had hidden accounts. Money inside his money. Because there were formulas for such things. Everyone was living longer, and he needed enough money stashed aside in case he was one of the lucky ones. In case he lived forever.
Now, he considers the odd shape of things like Africa and boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. He recalls a boy on a street corner, holding up a box of glazed and a sign that said he needed to raise money for a mission trip to Zimbabwe. He remembers turning his head slightly in the car, avoiding eye contact so the boy wouldn’t step to his window and ask him to buy a box. This was discipline, he told himself. He wasn’t supposed to eat sweets anyway. He wonders whether the boy ever made it to Africa. He wonders what harm there would’ve been in buying the doughnuts, then dropping them off at a homeless shelter. Like counting sheep, he stares at the ceiling and tallies the lives the boy might’ve touched, changed. In the corner of his vision, an abnormally large drip tumbles into his IV bag, sending ripples across the surface of the pooled liquid. It splashes up the sides and fills the bag for a moment before settling down again.
Then, he drank too much. It helped him to feel something, anything, during all the numb years.
Now, his liver is failing. The fibers on the sheets are sharp against his skin, like pins and needles, agonizing. The sounds of the machines increase in frequency, as if trying to warn him of something approaching. “What?” he wants to shout, but his mouth is dry and no words emerge. Desperately, he tries to recall the sound of his own voice and can’t.
Someone else is speaking. He thinks it’s Kenny. The voice is saying, “Hold on, Mr. Davis. Stay with us.” It says this over and over again, somehow more urgent but quieter each time. The light from the sun knifing its way through those slats in the blinds seems suddenly brighter than ever.
And then? Then?
Then, he finally hears the sound of his own voice again, but it isn’t coming from his throat. It’s all around him, calling out.
Calling him home.
Now he hears nothing at all.
Every Now & Then, a short story by Chris Negron. Copyright 2013.