By Shawn Yager
Until recently, when Frank Jones had started dying, this room had been filled with books. Boxes of books had been stacked to the ceiling and covered the only window. The room had become more of a storage unit than a place to read. With his end in sight, all of his books had been sold, except for a select few: a poetry anthology, a short story anthology, a collection of essays, and to round out his “End of Life Collection,” as he called it, The Brothers Karamazov. These books, representative of his once enviable collection, took up a six inches more or less on a metal table on wheels. He had lived in a book-hoarder’s paradise, but no more.
Medical equipment replaced the books. White plastic, brushed-aluminum, glowing red indicator lights asserted their modernity and confidently contrasted with the hundreds-year-old pine and oak and faded stain.
Medical Big Brother monitored his life. He had a team that knew everything about his physical being, down to the stirring of his bowels. He wasn’t sure, however, if they were working for him, or he was working for them.
He was wired to plastic boxes that beeped, chirped, blinked. A bag of morphine dripped, at a rate determined by another beeping plastic box, down a transparent tube into his arm. The visiting nurse spent more time making sure the boxes were working than interacting with Frank–but then she seemed the type who didn’t relish human contact: Frizzy hair and a permanent grimace. Maybe she’s seen a hundred Frank Joneses, she’s jaded. Maybe her supposed familiarity has bred this apparent contempt. Sometimes he felt sorry for her.
His wispy hair lay against the pillow. The tips of his eyelids were red and sore, his eyeballs bloodshot. If it weren’t for the liver spots, his flesh would be colorless. A child could learn where the body’s veins and arteries flowed by studying his skin.
His lips were chapped. When he spoke, his words fell out in gasps.
Sometimes it took all of his strength just to move his finger.
People would come into his house to talk to him.
“All men end this way,” Gordon Paquette said to him one afternoon. Years ago, Paquette and Jones had shared an apartment while they pursued their advanced degrees and slept with each other’s women. They competed to see who could spew the best intellectual bullshit. And they actually found women who fell for it? Yes, there were a few, but as soon as they caught on, they left as fast as possible.
The sun illuminated the room by a white light. The room was much brighter without boxes of books blocking the window.
Frank frowned, his eyes closed.
“Yes, all men end up this way, don’t they? No matter what kind of life they lead; scholar, artist, wise man, or bottom-feeder, or criminal. All men end up in a bed and dying. Takes the good and the bad. I’d like to shake my fist at death, yell ‘No! Take the scum, but the leave the good ones! They’re needed!'”
The old man was trying to say something. He pushed air through his vocal chords, but only grating sounds came out.
“What? What is it?”
Paquette moved his ear closer to Jones’ chapped lips. He expected a hearty “Amen, brother!”
As if his nose had been burnt by a hot light bulb, Paquette turned quickly and left the room, closing the door behind him with a slow click.
“Get some rest, Frank.”
Bastard! Jones thought. If I had the strength, I would tell everyone to shut the hell up and leave me alone. The last thing I need is people coming around uttering platitudes and thinking they are making me feel better.
“Any time now,” he had heard nurses say, or hoped he had heard nurses say.
“Well, I’m ready.”
There was a plastic box that he liked to look at. This box held a TV screen. On this screen an orange dot bounced along at an even rhythm. It reminded him of a sing-along cartoon about the word Mississippi. Along the bottom of the screen were the words “M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i, that used to be so hard to spell, it used to make me cry/But since I started spelling, it’s just like pumpkin pie/M-i-s-s-i-s-s-i-p-p-i…,” and the little ball bounced along on top of the letters.
Does this happen to everyone as they die? People come in, take advantage of the fact that I’m tied to a bed, and start blathering? Should I take these visits as an indication of how I’ve lived? An indication of what kind of people I surrounded myself with?
I liked to think of myself as an intellectual. I was really an imbecile. Now I’m paying for being an imbecile, and a phony, with these visits by fellow imbeciles and phonies.
A chill went through Frank Jones’s body like an orgasm of pain. The smell of plastic and rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide filled his nose. The bouncing ball that had helped him learn how to spell Mississippi grew larger and redder, like a drop of blood spreading on a white sheet. He watched it bounce, hoping it would stop, but it didn’t.