He opened his eyes and blinked and right before him much too close for comfort was a woman’s face her big eyes pulled together in a frown at first, but then her face relaxed and a smile spread right across it. He was looking up at her from the ground and had no idea how he had come to be there. The woman, her face surrounded by a mane of thick dark hair seemed to read his mind when she told him that she had run him over.
‘I didn’t see you on your bike and when I did I had knocked you off, are you OK? You are alive at least, right?’ She smiled again.
He looked up into her face the sun right behind her like a hallo. He wanted to say something but no word came from his lips, he wanted to sit up and introduce himself to the creature who was towering above him.
“Are you hurt,” she asked again.
This time he shook his head, he didn’t think he was, but his mouth was dry and he wished she was offering him a glass of water.
“I think I will have to get you a new bike, can you sit up?”
She took both his hands and slowly pulled him into a sitting position. His own grip had no strength to it at all.
“You are white as a sheet,” she said. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Dale,’ he said, ‘I need to have some water,’ he whispered, ‘something to drink.’
She knew there was a bottle of coke in the car but that was the best she could do.
‘In the car,’ she said, ‘let me get it.’
His breathing was shallow and his mouth was dry, but he could feel that aside from the shock there was nothing wrong with him.
The woman returned with a bottle of coke and looked apologetic when she said, ‘this is all I have I’m afraid. Why don’t we get you into my car and I take you home.’
‘My bike,’ he whispered his voice small and shallow.
‘I will have to get you a new one of those I’m afraid.’
They got him up at last and with small steps made their way to the car past his bike which was bend badly and made him realise he had just about gotten away with a black eye. He felt very tired when he was sat in the passenger seat. The year was 1957 and he was 27 years old, but at that moment he felt as old as people ever get.
He now knew that to be an illusion.
When they separated 18 years later he knew that to be the moment he had fallen in love with her, right there on the street when he opened his eyes. It had happened the way birds imprint on the first thing they lay their eyes on after they hatch from the egg.
Because of their daughter Olive they kept regular contact, but once she had gone to university calls between them trickled to a halt. The next time he saw her was at Olives wedding. Pride was written in both their faces as he gave her away to a man he had come to respect over the years. It was the last time he saw his former wife, she had looked way too thin he thought and six month later the cancer had eaten her alive and she was carried away, her ashes scattered. He felt a great emptiness encroach and recalled the story of their first meeting at the gathering after.
Olive had a son called Jasper who now in his mid twenties had become an orphan with Olive and his father having died in a crash, a big pile up in foggy weather that had left 7 dead and more than twenty injured. But Dale hadn’t cared about those twenty, nor had he cared about the dead aside from his daughter. His daughter had gone before her time was what he had on his mind and at that time had a stroke that put an end to his meanderings. From then on the only way to get around was with a stick, people tried to convince him to get a mobility vehicle, but he despised those and started fuming at the mention alone.
A few days after his 83 birthday he had a second stroke leaving him paralysed with a badly broken leg he incurred in the resulting fall and that was how he had arrived at the hospital. Trapped in his own body now, he could neither speak nor move and was confined to a bed in a room with a window he could not turn his head towards to see through. In the mornings there was an hour during which a ray of sun climbed through his vision, it was the highlight of his day.
He knew that the place he had arrived at was the place they would carry him from when he had gone cold and the last of his blood had been pumped around his dying body. It wasn’t fair he thought when there was so much else he had been wanting to do.
It was anger that filled him first, anger with himself, anger with God and anger with his useless body, but he wasn’t able to voice his anger and anger does little if anything without being voiced and shared.
That’s where he was now and had been for the past ten days, his leg in a cast and slow to mend and his body somewhat contorted and unable to move, the only thing that remained restless was his mind. It darted, it thought of options and solutions until he had to admit that there were none. He willed himself to die but he could not make it happen, like he could not cure his ailments either.
The next time he opted to open his eyes he saw his grandson by the side of the bed reading a magazine, Jasper looked up at one point and then went back to his magazine as if he was not even there. He was a good boy he thought, they had gotten through a fair bit of life together and now it was time for the boy to go it alone and for him to make space for that to happen. His eyes closed again and stayed that way, there was no sense for him to keep them open, there was nothing to see but a hospital wall painted in what he expected was meant to be a soothing colour, perhaps to make the dying go easier, but it made no difference and if he had been able to talk he would have told them that he preferred a colour that was radiating life. The whole notion of the room pointed just one way and he didn’t need pointing, he knew.
He took as deep a breath as he could and withdrew from the world around him, travelled in time to a moment he had relived before, but had not thought of for years.
He was young at the time and alone in the Universe was what it had felt like, he had shrank in size like that, had become a tiny speck in a landscape, in a world much beyond anything he was able to grasp. The land had stretched around him endlessly, the air was still and warm and the sun shone brightly dipping the moment in a glow he would never forget. He had stopped the car by the side of the road to eat a sandwich somewhere out in southwest Texas. For more than twenty miles there was nothing to break his view in any direction. The only noise came from the motor that cooled in the heat of the day. He sat on a small rock some way from the road in the shade of a mesquite tree ate his sandwich and drank from a water bottle. He listened to the faint buzz of insects and devoured his meal and then continued to sit in a space that was warped by time and just his for the moment and he shared it with a deep heavy silence.
He had felt at peace there he recalled.
Then there was the turmoil of Olive’s birth, they were an anxious young couple and when her water broke he was trying to keep his head but it was Clarissa who did and who somehow guided them to the hospital and kept him calm and after 6 hours in a delivery room she popped out, a tiny bloody creature, screaming for dear life, a life she had just been born into. The thought of her birth made him want to weep, it had been such an intense moment and today 53 years later she was gone and he was still hanging on, getting on his way, willing himself, but to no avail.
He woke when a nurse turned and wiped him with a wet cloth, his arm pits, face and head, between his buttocks which felt sore and his groin, circling his genitals giving him a hint of sensation where he had thought none to be possible any longer. He imagined it to be the last time his genitals would react to any stimulation. After that the cold finger of death would be the only one to probe him. There was of course the wonder whether his thought would live on after his body had gone, whether he would forever reminisce forgotten moments.
When he was a young boy of perhaps nine he had befriended a feral cat. He had mimicked the cats call to perfection and when he did the furry creature would stop in it’s tracks and look at him through big eyes from a motionless little face, its whiskers twitching and then carefully getting on its way again the long tail with its reddish tip raised up straight before it would vanish into the underbrush. He couldn’t remember the cat’s name now, but he remembered the way it looked and the way it would eventually curl up in his lap and purr as he was stroking it carefully.
When he opened his eyes, he saw the last of the sun fade from the wall he was forced to stare at and then the face of Jasper appeared in front of his and the boy took his hand. He smiled and said soothing words that sounded as if they came from far away and which Dale did not understand. He smiled back and saw Jaspers face sadden and then turn away, his hand was held a moment longer, but then it withdrew and he felt alone again.
At the time he had befriended the cat he had often been hiding around the house, sometimes he had spent hours in cabinets or cupboards, underneath sofas or beds or behind curtains. Sometimes they humoured him and pretended not to know he was there and at other times they did not know he was. It was that same isolation he now felt, they didn’t know he was there and he wished he could leave or tell them that he was there and taking count. It wasn’t as if his whole life was flashing past but moments did, moments he didn’t have control over, didn’t know how he came to think of some rather than others. When the sun had last shone against the wall across he had wished that he could smell the fields the fresh scent of grass and flowers and the buzz of bees, but he would have settled for a bunch of lilies, the fragrance of which he had long treasured, it would have penetrated every inch of his room and then the rest of the hospital he imagined, they might not even allow them into the building for fear of contamination.
Take the hospital smell out of the hospital and what are you left with?
Jasper and the nurse thought he was dying.
When he woke up next it was dark and he was alone all he could hear was a burst of white noise muffling all other sounds, it had become his silence he realised, the sound was coming from within him where all sounds are being received like something had cut some connecting wire and caused a hiss because of it. He thought he might be breaking up into his parts, slow but steady like most old machines come apart eventually.
Beyond the hiss there was a distant beeping and he saw a shimmer of red and green lights flashing from inside the room and through the window in the door. He hated the fact that he was kept in a cell, he couldn’t tell what the world outside looked like anymore, he wanted to smell the rain for a last time or the sunshine, but he would not he thought. He would never smell either again, just disinfectant and cleaning products and the stench of his own decomposing body that he had no say over anymore.
They had been camping in the woods when Olive was a little over ten, there was a lake and the sun shone through tall pine trees and the lake glimmered with the reflections. Olive was right in the midst of the shimmer, splashing about with two or three other small ones while him and Clarissa were sitting on camping chairs sipping lemonades from glasses with the heat making perspiration stand on their foreheads. There was a sudden rumble well beyond their position and then a whole tent started moving into the camp and towards the lake until at last a bear jumped from it and ran as fast as he could back into the woods. Everyone was out of it after and screaming and there were tears and the kids elbowed each other grinning as they stood there in their small framed, tanned little bodies wearing swimming trunks and bikinis while the elders talked over what they ought to be doing now. Some started packing up right away and were gone before the sun set that evening but him and his and a couple of other families stayed on and the next day new people arrived and soon it was all forgotten. Olive had given off a high-pitched scream when the bear first became visible but later she pretended to be as cool as a cucumber just like all the other kids. It was a happy time he recalled, on their way back to town they got into a thunderstorm that eventually made him pull over the car because he couldn’t see a thing with the rain beating down hard on the windscreen. They sat in silence in the dark car and just watched as the lightning moved further away and the thunder grew quieter with it. Just before they set off again Olive asked whether the bear had wanted to eat them when he came down into the camp and him and Clarissa started to chuckle, but Olive started to cry and so they had a group hug and told her that the bear was just after sweets and the little things people left lying around not thinking that it might be a snack for an animal. And then they had driven off and back to the nine to five grind they were part of.
All those moments felt special to him now and he wondered why people let them pass so easy when they happened instead of really treasuring them for what they were which would be to say they were good moments. Damn good moments. Maybe they are always better when looked at, at a later date because you get to blank out the mosquitos and the half cooked meat.
He fell asleep with the smell of barbequed meat on his mind, it was stuck there like a song sometimes gets stuck in peoples minds. And when he woke later all he could think of was that he wanted to eat a steak just one more time, a nice medium rare steak. Instead they fed him something intravenously which didn’t smell or taste at all and blended right in with the wall and the smell they kept in the hospital for the patients to remember where they were. They needn’t have bothered.
At night he watched the lights again, the way they kept blinking and flashing on and off and from green to red sometimes faster and other times slower and when they had slowed all the way he fell asleep and dreamed about dreaming and that was what he did.
When they found him in the morning they all agreed that he had a somewhat peaceful expression, almost a smile carved into his face and that was what Jasper remembered when he went out to scatter his ashes the way Dale had wanted.
© Marcus Bastel