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Maybe You Die and Spend Eternity in Your Empty Bedroom by Jennifer Clements

Maybe You Die and Spend Eternity in Your Empty Bedroom by Jennifer Clements

Fiction, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013

He’s hungry. He yanks the two sides of his tweed trousers to meet over the familiar bulk of his oversized old-man belly. He tucks, buttons, and zips. He thinks about the package of Jimmy Dean sausage links for after he gets home from Mass, thinks about the rich pork smell when he opens the door of the microwave. Life as a single man has its perks. He refuses to think of himself as divorced.

He’s taken his morning pills, six of them, marking them on the chart he keeps in the top drawer under his week-at-a-glance pillbox. He slides his hand into his watch. Merle will be here in a few minutes to drive him to church. They both like being early. They always have. Summers, when they were kids, they’d meet halfway on their bikes before heading to the river to fish. If one of them managed to get all the way to the other’s house and, best of all, find him still asleep in bed, well that was a win for the day. He sips his cooling coffee and remembers. He wasn’t always a fretful old man.

He hears the scrape of the snowplow on the lower road and looks out at swirls of snow between him and the black trunks of the walnut trees in the ravine. No fishing today. He shuffles through the papers on the desk. At the bottom of the pile is Faye’s letter.

He needs to sit down. He’s not feeling one hundred percent this morning. He’ll rest a minute.

He picks up the letter. It smells like her. He slaps it down, pushes it away. He can’t believe it says what it does. She’s doing the same stupid thing she did before. Three years ago, she left him, for Cole, after twenty-eight years of marriage, said she was in love, said she had to follow her heart. And now, already, she’s leaving the guy. She’s already made him move to some apartment. All that, and for nothing.

She better not be thinking she can come back here. He answered the letter, told her what she needs to do. Not that she listens to him. Faye always knows better. He slams both hands to the desk. He pushes to his feet. The chair tips and bangs into the closet door.

Leaning forward, he squints at the letter. Everything’s gone double. His sleeve catches the handle of the coffee cup, sends it flying, wetting his trousers. His right leg, the dry one, gives way. He sags toward it and tries to grab the edge of the desk, but his arm won’t do what he tells it. He sees the carpet approaching—the one Faye couldn’t live without when they were in Turkey. There’s a coffee stain the size of Texas.

He knows exactly what’s happening. The same thing as four years ago, and he can’t do it again, he can’t. Hospitals, bedpans, walkers, people heaving him around like a butchered pig. He just got rid of the call-for-help gadget Faye made him hang around his neck when she left. Silly to pay for it month after month and never use it. Maybe this is one of those little strokes. The carpet needs cleaning. He hasn’t paid the light bill. Everything’s a blur, and then there’s nothing.

He wakes to an astonishing lack of pain. His back, his gut, his knees, even his teeth. He’s born again. Well, not that. He opens and closes his hands. He grabs his shoulders, bounces in place, punches the air like a boxer. Like that ad on the backs of comic books. Tired of being a 97-pound weakling? He’s Charles Atlas.

He sees the old man on the floor, white hair, pink scalp, legs tangled in the rungs of the chair. He recognizes the rucked-up pants, recognizes himself. His maroon-striped tie, flung over one shoulder like he’s running to catch the bus. He’s up here, but he’s down there too. That’s impossible.

Faye would know what to do. Think. He needs to sort out those legs, get to the phone. Then it’s happened—somehow he’s back in his body. His head feels like there’s an axe in it. He can’t move, can’t think. As quickly, he’s back out. Man-oh-man, that’s not the answer.

The doorbell rings. It’s Merle. Swell, there’s two of you, and neither one can answer the door. He waits. The bell again, this time with knocking, and then, eventually, the key in the lock. Merle calls, soft at first and then louder. He stamps his boots on the mat inside the front door. His voice works its way down the hall, inquiring at every room, getting closer, but sounding less and less sure. He gets to the bedroom, the end of the line, knocks, pushes the door open. The room fills with the smell of winter. Merle sees, comes over, kneels.

“Aw, Art.” A crust of snow falls from Merle’s collar, landing on the tweed trousers. He moves to brush it off, but doesn’t. His hand lingers, trembles—fingers with blunt-cropped nails outstretched but not touching. He straightens up on his knees. Maybe he’s praying. Then he stands, hitches up his pants, and goes for the phone.

Better than lying on the floor for a week, but Christ almighty. He’s glad he doesn’t have to say anything. He watches Merle call 911. Watches him circle the room, touching things, Art’s Knights of Columbus sword, his Peterson Guide to Freshwater Fishes, the folded-to-size crossword puzzle from yesterday’s paper—all the while glancing at the scene on the floor—until the doorbell rings, and he can rush down the hall to let in the EMTs.

7:20. Responded Code 3 to 1575 Elm Dr. on possible CVA. 7:25. Arrived at pt. side, found right lateral recumbent in bedroom, unconscious.

He’s alone. His body’s been wrapped and strapped and shipped off to somewhere. Merle’s gone. Everybody’s gone. Except he’s still here, and he has no idea what’s supposed to happen next. Maybe this is the beginning of forever. Maybe the church is wrong. Maybe you die and spend eternity in your empty bedroom. The snowplow grinds past again, going the other way. Snow ticks on the window. No. He’s not dead—the EMTs found breath, found a heartbeat.

He thinks of Faye. She always has the answer, whether you like it or not, and usually you don’t. It’s her fault he’s alone. She’s supposed to be here for things like this. He reaches for the phone and isn’t surprised when the black plastic fails to catch his hand. It’s early in California, but he thinks about how she never can sleep and gets up way before it’s light and sits in her robe drinking tea before she makes breakfast or even reads the paper that she’s made sure is right there. Doing nothing. He would arrive in the kitchen, showered and dressed and ready for some French toast, some crisp bacon, and she’d be staring at the wall. Drove him nuts.

And then, there she is. Somehow he’s managed to get to her. She looks so young. She’s in her yellow kitchen next to a still-black window with the streetlight outside and cars parked at the curb. She’s holding the cup he bought for her in Orvieto, with the sleepy-eyed bella donna painted in the bottom. Faye’s blue eyes, electric, even though the rest of her is in no hurry, deepening lines from how she sets her mouth when she’s working at something.

This is where she lived with Cole. Art looks for signs of him, sees things of hers he recognizes, but nothing belonging to a husband. Well, he’s moved out now. Art jingles the change in his pocket. He’s done it. He’s here. He’s still in the game.

The house begins to groan. Faye’s body responds before her mind. Her perceptions and her thoughts are more real to him than his own—compensation for what he’s lost, maybe. He hears what she hears, sees what she sees, knows what she thinks.

What’s under jolts and grinds. Sinners in the hands of an angry God. Her mind finally names it an earthquake, and decides it’s just another little one, though her body’s not so sure. The teacup rattles in its saucer, tea splashing everywhere. The shaking ends. She dumps tea from the saucer into the cup, carries both to the sink. She wads the sodden newspaper into the garbage and thinks about how he, Art, would spread out every sheet to dry.

Art slides into the seat opposite her. Of course he would dry the paper. A waste not to use what you’ve paid for. But that’s not why he’s here. He speaks in a low careful voice, knowing it’s going to be a shock, him turning up in her kitchen like this. “Faye, I had to come see you.”

She gets up and fills the kettle to make more hot water, gets the teabag from the one of those little dishes she’s always saving them in, wraps her robe tighter, sits.

7:35. Oral airway, type 5, no gag reflex, atrial fib, unresponsive, Glasgow E1. 7:42. Sacred Heart Hospital notified. 7:46. Arrived at destination.

Airway inserted, IV started, oxygen, cardiac monitor, screaming approach to the emergency entrance. That’s the ticket. Unlike Faye’s disappointing response, the action here thrills Art. It’s better than TV. He’s getting the hang of getting from one place to another. He follows himself through swishing doors into an eruption of noise and movement, his body on a table in a bright room, people examining and measuring, priests in the hallways.

Dr. Iris Fisk enters the room, and the crowd lets her through. The tiny woman has a fondness for the color of her name, and several shades of it show under her white coat. She’s doctored Art since the beginning of her practice, when both of them were too young to know much of anything. He feasts on her affection, her concern.

7:50. Admit ER, pt. unresponsive. 8:20. Warm fluids infused into bladder, immediate return noted, abnormal ECG. 8:48. Dr. Fisk w/ pt.

When he comes back, Faye is in her living room, sitting forward on the edge of the couch, toes tucked, hands on her knees, watching a piece of paper on the floor as if she expects it to make a sudden and lethal attack. It’s Art’s reply to her letter, and he remembers every word of it.

He wrote that marriage is the willing agreement of a man and a woman to live together until death, and that divorce is a violation of God’s law. Divorcing once is shocking, he told her. Doing it again, worse. Marriage requires sacrifice and discipline, qualities she seems to be lacking.

He had composed draft after draft, wondering why she wrote to him, what return she expected. He’d said he wasn’t thrilled when she left him, but now she is married to Cole, in sickness and in health. She knows the vows she’s taken. Vows. He told her she needs to go back to Cole, to apologize for her careless disregard, to ask for forgiveness and a chance to make it right.

He watches Faye pick up the letter and crease its folds again and again between thumbnail and forefinger before dropping it back to the floor. She’s suffering, and he’s glad. Maybe she’ll do the right thing. Fat chance. Faye has always been her own church with beliefs and behaviors that change from one day to the next. Their wedding almost didn’t happen.

They were children. He’d have done almost anything to marry her. He swallowed his disapproval of her nightclubby friends and the way she wore her skirts. He made allowances. But marriage is marriage. She wanted a wedding in Ewing Park among the lilacs with bouquets of sunflowers and ribbons looping in the wind. He was patient. He told her that Catholics don’t marry outdoors. He took her to meet with the priest. She wasn’t happy, but she agreed. She even went to Mass with him for a while, but she complained about the sermons, said the priests made her feel guilty and angry. She stopped going, and he gave sermons of his own. He supposed that was why she took up with Cole.

He watches her carry the phone to the other end of the couch, the end away from the letter. She’s thinking she needs to talk to someone. That she’ll even risk a shouting match with Cole.

A good scolding could solve everything.

Cole doesn’t scold. He says he’s getting the bed set up in his apartment. He says he forgot his skis in the furnace room, and he’s going up to Tahoe this weekend. He’ll call before he comes by. She’s fine with that. She tells Cole about the letter she wrote to Art and the one she got in return. “He was really upset. He went on about God’s laws and discipline and sacrifice.”

“He’s an old guy, Faye. Give him a break.”

Art is annoyed. Old guy. He’s barely fifteen years older than Faye.

“I don’t want him to hate me.”

“Faye, you’re not married to him any more.”

“I know, okay. Forget it. It’s Sunday, and I’m supposed to call him. We can’t talk about the letter, and what else is there?”

“You do not have to call him, but I know you will. My advice is pretend the letter never arrived. You know he’s not going to bring it up.”

Sometimes Cole is brilliant. Faye walks over and stands by the page, pushes at it with the toe of her sock. “But what if…”

“Hold on, I’ve got somebody at the door.” Cole covers the phone, shouts something she can’t understand. “Call you back.” He’s gone.

Art needs to explain. He needs to shout. They are mocking things they know nothing about that are fine and true and holy and ancient.

Faye stoops to pick up the letter—it’s only a piece of paper. This divorce with Cole will be one of the civilized ones—a clean-cut, no-strings, no-regrets parting of two adults. She’s sorry Art doesn’t get that. He must have suffered when she tried to debate his beliefs, before she decided it was better to avoid them. They do better talking about other things.

Art longs to set her straight.

She smooths the letter open, fingers one corner like a page in a romance novel. On it are the same dear blocky letters as on his every-year homemade Valentines, except since his stroke the words trip and lurch from one side of the paper to the other. If she’d stayed with Art, she wouldn’t be in this fix. Cole is no prize. She’s made a mess. She longs for penance and absolution.

Art supposes he should be touched by her affection, but she’s got to understand that marriage is not something you put on and take off like a pair of shoes.

She wraps her hands around her shoulders and bows forward like she’s praying or crying. What she always feared about Art was that he loved the church more than he loved her.

Ridiculous. Even she must know you can’t love anybody more than God.

She wonders if Art is right. Maybe she has to give Cole another chance. She tries to jam the letter back in its envelope, can’t, drops it on her desk. No. Cole used up all his chances. She remembers how he swore each affair was the last, and how, eventually, there would be lipstick or matchbooks or some other trite thing, and here would come doubt and accusations and lies and evidence and blame and promises all over again. No way to tell Art about that. No point.

No point. Art goes to the window. He sees day’s first light, winter-golden, waking strings of tiny houses that wrap the hills toward the Pacific, other lives, other disgraces. Cole is unfaithful. Shocking. Disgusting. Unforgivable. A man learns to manage that kind of temptation.

He remembers, a long time ago, an argument when Faye went to her mother’s. At the office, Sally was comforting. One thing led to another. He shoves the memory away, but it won’t stay put. Okay, he’s not perfect. This is different.

9:40. CT scan shows massive cerebral hemorrhage. 9:55. Prognosis very poor for any functional neuro recovery, breathing per ventilator, pulse irregular.

*

Faye has emptied the dishwasher and vacuumed the cat hair off the furniture. She’s reorganized the utensil drawer. She’s put off calling Art as long as she can. If she doesn’t mention the letter, he will know she’s avoiding it. It has to be done. She takes the phone to the couch. Sets the letter beside her. Punches the number. Do both phones ring at the same time? She’s always wondered.

Art’s machine picks up. She’s relieved. This will be easier. His imperious message. Funny, sweet, self-important Arthur. He should be back from church by now. Is he okay?

Art feels he should do something, but can’t think what. Maybe if he goes to the other end of the call. He knows how to do that now, get from here to there. Standing then, by the phone in his bedroom, he hears Faye leave a message. He looks at his watch, a useless habit. He sees his Knights of Columbus sword on the wall and remembers the sound, the sweep, the joy, of drawing it from its scabbard.

The Boy’s King Arthur had seeded a fascination he never outgrew. Knightly virtues, fair maidens. He dated a girl named Gwen once in high school, but she took up with the president of the debate team. He did find Merle. The old book is down the hall, but he doesn’t care enough to go find it. The house feels different, like it belongs to somebody else. Wind makes slow-shifting patterns on the snow outside the window.

10:00. Pulse 86, BP 128/84. 10:50. Pulse 95, BP 81/57.

Faye is pulling turtlenecks out of the dryer, when she hears the phone. Certain it is Art, she hurries up the stairs.

“Faye? This is Iris Fisk, calling from Des Moines.”

“Of course.” Faye reaches for a pen and pulls a sheet of used-on-one-side paper from the ragged pile on the shelf. Changes her mind and reaches for a clean page. She knows.

“I’m calling about Art. His file still has your name as the one to notify, and I’m afraid I have bad news.” Iris talks details at length. Doctors must be taught to do that to give people time. Faye thinks about whether she left the dryer door open—she needs to remember to check for the cat. And what’s Cole doing all this time? And where is Art? No, that’s what Iris is telling her. Pay attention. She takes notes. Iris tells her that if she wants to see him before he dies, come now.

Art looks at the words on Faye’s page. Massive stroke—significant brain damage—ventilator—Sacred Heart, sixth floor, Room Nine. Some words have boxes drawn around them. Some have multiple boxes. She’s drawn little circles at their corners and doodled connecting wavy lines and dots. It’s a work of art, a work of Art, Mortality in Blue. It seems he’s dying. Well then.

Her cheeks are wet. She feels nothing. She tries to see him on the floor—wonders if he was there long. Wonders about pain and fear. Blames herself that he was alone. She was his wife. She needs to go. Does she have a dress for the funeral? Navy blue versus black. Dress versus pants. Get a plane ticket. Reserve a car. She will stay at the house. Her old house. She has the key somewhere. Two days? Maybe longer. He will look shocking. Maybe she will be there when he dies. Maybe she will be the one who has to decide to make it happen. Maybe he will recover. No way. The funeral. The people she used to know. She will be Faye, the ex-wife, the one who left him.

Art is glad she knows—glad she realizes she should have been with him and feels responsibility for what she’s done and what she’s failed to do. He imagines her at his funeral, her tardy tears of regret. What does he know about her really? Sometimes he wonders if the reason they never had children involves birth control or even abortion. Faye always had her secrets. When you wander off the path, you get caught in the brambles.

11:00. Ex-wife notified. 11:14. Pulse 102, BP 122/100. 11:35. Pulse 90, BP 64/42. 12:18. Pulse 66, BP 128/82.

The phone again. It’s Cole. “Sorry, it was the cable guy. You feeling any better?”

“Cole, Art is dying. I tried to call him at home, and there was no answer. I should have known. He’s had another stroke. Our old doctor called from the hospital.”

“Sorry.”

“You keep saying that.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“Someone I love is dying.”

Silence. “That’s the problem isn’t it, my dear?” He makes “dear” a dirty word. “It’s why I’m down here in the Walnut Towers messing with my cable set-up instead of living in my own house. I have to say I’m up to here with how much you love your first husband. Art this and Art that and sending each other birthday cards, and I probably don’t know the half of it. I fucking married you, not him. Fine, go for it. He’s all yours.” The line goes dead.

Art jams his hands in his pockets, fingers his jingling change, strides down the hall to the kitchen, stands at the window looking out. A guy with a briefcase gets into a BMW and starts the engine. So Cole is jealous. Of him. He chuckles. He jingles.

Forget Cole. Faye starts a list. She calls her assistant, asks her to get a flight and a car reservation, tells her what meetings to cancel. What else? The obituary.

She’s known this was coming, and she’s prepared. She pulls a folder to her desk. The first page is done by hand with accompanying boxes and wavy lines like her notes from the call with Iris. It’s a list of Art’s origins and accomplishments. The next page is the completed obituary. After that, a photo. She shot it herself the time Cole thought she was in Chicago on business. She picks up the photo in both hands. Art looks like he’s just told one of his jokes.

Art likes it too. You rarely like photos of yourself. He’s wearing his favorite beret, and there’s snow falling on the black of it. Faye took it, out in the driveway, with him leaning on the door of the Lincoln, one knee cocked, head back, laughing. More than anything, he wants her to see him, to know he’s with her in the room, right now. He wants her to look at him the way she’s looking at the photo.

It feels to her like more than a photo. It feels like he’s here. She wants to know he isn’t afraid. She wants to think some angel has taken him in hand and is leading him in some happy direction.

His eyes fill. She loves him. Imagine that.

12:35. Pulse 141, resp 14, BP 80/100. 13:05. Pulse 131, resp 11, BP 132/87. 13:35. Pulse 84, resp 9, BP 97/70.

“Through the holy mysteries of our redemption, may Almighty God release you from all punishments in this life and in the life to come.” Father Larry stands beside the bed in Room Nine, his black canvas bag next to the patient’s legs. Merle’s up out of his chair. Has been since the priest appeared at the door.

Art admires the scene. The room is tidy and efficient, wheezing, humming, pumping, measuring, beeping, numerical and graphic updates, hoses, tubes, loops and coils. “May he open to you the gates of paradise and welcome you to everlasting joy.” The priest’s dangling plastic ID badge catches on the bedrail, and he frees it. Art watches himself being anointed.

It’s happening. He’s not afraid, but he’s unsure. He hopes for Faye’s angel, but maybe that’s a childish dream. Perhaps there’s nothing. Or worse than nothing. He needs to believe. He needs to say what he’s said every night since he was seven, part of his nightly routine, after teeth and before sleep. “I believe in God, the Father Almighty…”

13:40. Anointing of Sick, Fr. Ferris. 13:51. HR 44, A 37, BP no reading. Code blue called, removed from ventilator, begin CPR. 13:57. HR 99, A 0, BP no reading, code stopped, asystole rhythm. Death pronounced by Dr. Fisk.

Art misses the drama. Instead he’s spinning, revolving in wide arcs, spiraling upwards like Dorothy’s Kansas tornado, but no winds, no wreckage. No heavenly choir and no hellfire. He feels unprepared. Perhaps he should pray, send out a sort of beacon for whoever’s supposed to be meeting him, the messenger angel. He imagines the angel rowing a lifeboat through heavy seas.

“Hail Mary, full of grace,” he begins. He’s still revolving. No lifeboat. His left shoe drops from his foot. “The Lord is with thee.” His watch shatters, and his pockets empty, releasing a galaxy of coins including the New York subway token Faye made him keep that time. “Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” His clothing lifts into an inflating balloon. “Holy Mary, mother of God.” No more whirling. His body is gone. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.” He is only awareness. No fear, no sadness, no thoughts, no Faye.

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