No matter how many times I turn the damn thing off somebody comes
in to flip it right back on. They don’t like the idea of an
old man looking at a wall. They think I’m staring at nothing,
and it makes them uncomfortable. But I’m just reliving my
life and don’t need to close my eyes to see the days gone
The orchestra drifts up and down till the baritone breaks through
announcing “Like sands
through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”
“Today’s the day I’m gonna die,” I announce,
but it comes out like a crackly whisper with a
phlegm grumble at the end.
“What’s that Mr. Stais? Couldn’t hear you with
the TV up so loud,” the blond girl says as she opens the drapes
and walks to the bed.
I don’t say another word as she slides the blood pressure
cuff around my wrinkled arm. I’ve decided that I will choke
and drown. The inflating squeeze is like little Maggie grasping
on as she squealed with fear and joy next to me in the wagon when
I’d let the horses open up all the way home.
“I hear your girl Maggie’s in town.” Thinking
I can’t hear, she shouts, “That’s mighty nice
of her to come all this way to see you.” Pulling off the cuff,
she turns to go to the next room.
My girl Maggie is sixty four years old. She’s coming here
because my boy Russell is dead. Four days ago he died while he was
just sitting doing nothing, they said. But I know he wasn’t
sitting doing nothing. He was living in his head. I’ve been
imagining what Russell was living, if he was deep in the past, with
me, when he died. I picture it being the day he hit the winning
shot at sectionals. When the ball swished through the hoop like
magic the crowd opened up in a roar, and Russell, hustling down
the court, looked right at me, pumping his fist in the air, and
smiled. I live it like it was yesterday. Maggie’s next to
me on the wooden bleacher screaming for her big brother. Mary’s
over with the other mothers standing, clapping her hands over her
head, healthy, beautiful, hair in soft auburn curls, cheeks flushed,
My boy is dead. He’ll be joining Mary in the ground tomorrow
and I can’t go. I’m too weak, they say. They think I
don’t understand as my days drown in blue television light,
beeps of machines, cries of the folks down the hall, meals sucked
through a straw. My real life was under the sun, listening to the
wind rustle corn, crying for the cows to come in, eating Mary’s
Room 16B is mine for now. It was someone else’s, a good man
named Charlie they said, and it will be someone else’s again.
My life’s been whittled down to a hospital bed, a picture
album, Mary’s porcelain Holy Mother, and framed photographs
of Maggie’s grandchildren that I don’t even know.
I have a spot waiting for me under an oak tree next to Mary. We
picked it together when she first took sick, a shared stone thirty
eight paces off the main path. Grey granite, rough round the edges
like we are, we joked, with two hearts of ivy entwined. Mary’s
to the left, just like where she slept for fifty four years in our
bed. She went to rest so long ago. Seventeen years waiting for me.
I thought I’d be soon to follow. When Johnson did the engraving
I said he might as well put my dates on there too; marking my place
just seemed the right thing to do. “James Paul Stais 1913-19--”
carved in next to “Mary Anne Stais 1917-1991.”
But then I lived. Eight years ago Johnson had to go ahead and sandblast
out that nineteen and chisel in a twenty. It’s all wrong.
God won’t let me go, no matter how much I wait and pray.
Some days I let out all the breath I can and I think it’s
time, I’m empty, let’s go home. But then the old lungs
just get to working and breathe in despite what I’d like them
I know suicide is a mortal sin. My Mary would up and kill me herself
if she knew how much I think about it. I see her leading the rosary
ladies every Sunday, starting the Hail Marys with her clear strong
voice. The morning sun casts a glow on her curls as they turn from
auburn to gray to white. Those prayers were a part of her heartbeat.
But I’m so tired of this room that I hope she’ll understand.
At my age it should be simple for a man to die. People die all
the time before they’re ready.
Russell wasn’t ready to go, but he went, like that. No waiting.
No praying. For a while I thought if I prayed to live I might be
let go, but nothing. There were all the times in my life I missed
death by a blink. The time Goldie hoofed me in the chest and my
heart stopped. The time the Ford got stuck on the tracks as the
4:05 came barreling down. The time I choked on next to nothing and
fought like a drowning man clawing for air.
Now I can’t let more days pass, waiting and praying. The
days of my life are over. When
Maggie comes I’ll give her a kiss. We’ll visit for a
while. Watch TV. Talk about Russell and old times. I’ll tell
her I’ve got no fight in me anymore. When she’s about
to go I’ll fill up my mouth, picture my Mary’s loving
eyes, swallow, breathe, choke, and die. Please God. A simple swallow.
An everyday act. An accident. My girl will be here. She’ll
squeeze my arm, holding me as I travel home.