WHY WOULDN’T they admit it? He knew. You had to be an idiot or drugged into oblivion, which obviously he wasn’t, not to know. Take this tube out of my mouth and I’ll tell you. Look at me. There is no need for sugar coating. Tell them hope is a gaseous vapor. And I mean like a fart, not fog. Time to roll down the windows and let the stink out. Somebody get behind the wheel. Time for this bus to go in the ditch.
This is day three and Ben can only move his eyes. The tube in his throat, a nail fastening him to the bed. When he was a boy he would catch butterflies, suffocate them with formaldehyde, and pin them to a board. That’s what he is. A display of death his wife, daughter, son and friends can look on with delusion, intoxicated by hospital scent. It smells like formaldehyde to him. Why isn’t Judy reading his mind? She claims he’s more predictable than the dog. No wonder he likes the dog. So does Judy. At times she certainly prefers the dog’s company to his. But then so does he. The dog would know what to do. Yank this tube out! See that he can’t fly, lick his face, and let him die.
Oh great. The purveyor of hope, Dr. Dolittle, as in exactly what his name says. He is short and rotund. Ben likes to picture drilling three holes in him and then rolling him down the bowling alley hallway taking out the nurses’ station, STRIKE! What is the maestro of dying saying? How can you smile about death? Because he isn’t talking about death. He’s talking about hope. We’ll try this. We’ll try that. There is no we. Eisenhower recognized the military industrial complex but it is being eclipsed by the medical monetizing empire. Death used to be easier.
At least they turned off the beeping, insect in heat, monitors. The machines blinking like they were trying to hold back tears. The incessant insistent beep reminding Ben of a back up alarm. A truck left in reverse next to him, ready to be loaded. Where to? He didn’t know. But at least the nail in his
throat would be gone. Well, that is an assumption. Maybe that is hell? The tube: life’s connection stuck in your throat. Heaven if they removed it. But then, who believes in either of those places?
Good. The good doctor is smiling, holding Judy’s hand with both of his, readying his exit, a ritual that practice has perfected. If the woman cries, he hugs her. The empathetic doctor. Who knows, maybe he is sincere? Nah. It is an escape plan. There is more money down the hall to be collected. At this point in his career, death would be numb. Maybe he could charge more if there was hysteria. A patient he could sedate. But that’s why he offers hope instead of truth. Dr. Dolittle knows few people want the truth, can actually hear it. People believe in hope. No matter the odds. Take the bad bet, the long shot, any chance. Medicine: the ultimate casino.
There he goes. He doesn’t even glance at the machines much less Ben. Judy comes to the bed, takes Ben’s hand but can’t look at him. Her thoughts are elsewhere. Is she thinking of the past? The future? The present? They never discussed burial, cremation, a funeral. Did she still think he would recover? It had been three days on the down slope. The infection a swelling flood. His body: a septic field. “Judy!” His eyes yell but she isn’t looking. “You’re in your forties. You could live another forty years.” Wow, he’s right. She could live longer than he has known her. She could have a whole other life. Find some sugar daddy that would show her the world. Or maybe a young hunk that will reawaken her sex drive. Nah. She will find some dud. Some schmuck that comes home every night. That she will cook and clean for. Provide perfunctory Saturday night sex. He’ll be a nice guy but they will go on pathetic, once a year, one-week vacations where you drive to the shore. Or, God forbid, the epitome of middle America: a guy with a travel home. Not a pop up trailer, not a slide in camper, some chump that would pay more for a house on wheels than a house anchored to a lot. And she will ride along, set the GPS, navigate the interstates and parks of America. And he will tow some little foreign car attached to the
back of the motor home monstrosity so they can go into town, buy groceries and see a film. And every night he will have a single shot of bourbon four times while they play gin rummy and then he will smile sweetly, give her a kiss good night, whisper I love you in her ear, then lay down on the couch and fall asleep. The pathetic pathology of the older man who’s first wife left him the week their third and last child went off to college. Judy! You can do better than that!
She turns and looks toward the door. It’s Dave, buddy Dave. That’s a long hug. No crying, please. It’s sad but let’s buck up, let’s be strong for your buddy and husband lying in this bed. Does he have his hand on her ass? If only I could move. All right with the hug. Move on you two. OK. Sniffles. That’s more like it. A little commiseration. Tell each other I’m going to make it. But I have to be honest with you. I don’t think so. This weight on my chest is getting heavier by the hour. I am not a fighter. I have never been a fighter. Acquiesce. Follow. Stay in the middle of the herd. Be happy with second, third, fourth place. Hell, take tenth or twelfth. Maybe I never finish in the money but at least I finish. Why are you two going out in the hall and whispering? Come back in here where I can hear. Gosh, I’m tired. Let me close my eyes. Take a little nap.
Oh wow. What kind of dream was that? Talk about mixed metaphors. Janet, the skinny little girl from junior high, nice smile, no idea how to be mean, sitting like a Buddhist spewing some Zen-like comfort prayer while her friend, Lucy, smiles at her, flat on her back, legs in the air and Danny Boyd ravaging her. How did that jerk get in the dream? Some random choice? Did that guy ever grow out of being a jerk? Hey, at least I knew Janet for the first twenty years and I had an adolescent thing for Lucy, but Dan? One year in high school when we had three classes together if you counted P.E. A loathsome jackass who pinched all the girls’ butts and then pointed at some other guy. Is that why I dreamed that?
Because he pointed at me every day in math class when he pinched Lucy’s behind? Hey jerk-off! She only believed you the first time! Well, maybe two or three. Gosh I wanted to pinch that derriere.
Hey, where’s Judy? You won’t believe this goofy dream and I remember the details and it had people from the teenage angst period but the guy had graduated from pinching butts to salivating all over this girl I had a crush on and she was smiling at her best friend lost in some meditative trance mumbling mumble jumble. What does it mean? Was Janet praying for me? Was Lucy saying you could have had me? Was butthead Boyd letting me know he got what he wanted in life because he took it? Judy!
She’s not here. That’s right. She went out in the hall with Dave. They probably don’t want me to hear what they are saying. What are they saying? Discussing if I will make it? Whether I would want to be buried or cremated? Don’t stuff me in the ground! No box! No plaque that says, Here lies Ben the Butt Pincher. They lower me in my metal box into the ground like burying treasure. Judy and Lucy stand over me, grasp each other crying, their bodies shutter in grief. Sixteen-year old Lucy and forty-two year old Judy.
Geez, where did that come from? That makes no sense. I never pinched Lucy and haven’t seen her in over twenty years. And Judy never met her. What’s my mind doing? Wandering around like my life was a zoo?
Oh, Charlotte honey, you came to see your Dad. I look like shit. Go ahead and say it. I don’t need a mirror to know. Hold back the tears. You’ll make me cry. Yea, my hand is warm. My whole being is warm. This infection is a huge warming blanket. Hey! There’s no one pinching your butt is there? I’ll break the kid’s fingers! Whew, how did I end up with this butt-pinching fixation? What kinky infection is this? Hey Doc, I need a pill for stupid, bizarre cheek pinching disease. Pinching cheeks, is that a fetish?
So Charlotte, do you look so sad cuz I look so bad? Is that tear really fear? Instead of blinking you should be winking. Count to five I’m still alive. Hey, Doc! More drugs! These rhymes are bitter as lime. It appears I’m about out of time. My mind’s rambling like a bird heading south without the herd. You know what else rhymes with heard, turd. I dumped that one on you. Yay God!
That’s what happened to my father. He started hallucinating as the grim reaper came scything. For a couple of days, it might have been a week, he would say the strangest things. He would suddenly wake up and spew a lava flow of meanness and disconnected sentences. Weird shit that if you answered he didn’t seem to hear. He stared at you and kept rambling or yelling or both. And then, the day before he died, he came back. He became recognizable. Sweet, cheery, rational, logical conversation as if we were going to pop beers and watch a ball game. Good thing this nail is in my throat. Otherwise they would hear every thought. Charlotte, Judy, Dave smacked with bewilderment. Attempting to answer my rant, exchanging quick glances at each other that whisper what the heck? This is what the heck! Our behemoth medical monetizing empire is selling you schmucks’ hope. Ten thousand dollars a day hope. And if you don’t like that price, they have a higher one. This bed is my cross! Pull this tube, this nail! Let me have my last words! Criminals get last words. Why not me?
I got plenty to say. Just because it’s meaningless shouldn’t matter. So what if opinions are a dime a dozen. I have a dozen dozen that less than a dozen have ever heard. There’s that herd again. I’ve stayed in the middle so I won’t be a target. Predators pick off those on the edge. Ones that wander. Mainstream! That’s me!
Gosh, that’s detestable. The edge is where the thrills are. Hey guys, especially you Charlotte, get out on the edge. You’ll drown in the middle. All those people around you will pull you under as they sink. I know that wasn’t me. But hindsight, or rather flat on your back staring at the ceiling sight, says the middle is for losers. Look at me. A good job, plenty of money, a good wife, a great wife except for
the ration card she uses for sex, two kids ready for the world. I’ve succeeded in being what everyone wants to be.
Screw that! I should have had lust for life. I should have gone French! I don’t mean an affair with a married woman. But a concubine, a courtesan, some femme fatale! How cool would that have been? The most interesting man in the world with all three! Then this would be justified. A life that lead to this bed after having been in so many others. But no, I’m just a regular putz. The guy that lives by the alarm clock. Who checks his email before going to bed. Goes to church on the holidays. Contributes to the school he graduated from because of what he was taught outside the classroom. You know, the ugly American.
I should have learned Italian. Had my hair cut by Luigi. My nails done by Carmella. Bought suits made by Guido. But nobody wears suits anymore. Ate at Guido’s Ristorante. But no. I was a pizza guy. It really wasn’t that bad. I like pizza. I like baseball games on the weekend. Freezing my butt in January cheering for linebackers and fumbles. Seeing my kids fall down then get up. Pinching Judy’s butt. Geez, I’m dying and I keep bringing up butt. What’s with that? Did Danny Boyd affect my life that much? Why am I so tired? Time for another snooze.
Oh man. I feel awful. This tube is choking me. Whoa. Why is the room so crowded? Why is everyone crying? Oh yea, I’m dying. I remember now. Cheer up people. This is an opportunity to change your life. Hey Dave. Divorce your wife. Marry Judy. Just because they are best friends doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Hey everybody. Remember that. It can happen. Whatever it is. Snow in July.
Judy. You wanted to be a journalist. Work for the New York Times, not the Daily Herald. And last year it was one more child. Sorry I can’t help with that but there are plenty of guys around who would like to get their dick out of their own hands. When did you change the Times for a child? When
did the goalposts come down and you punted? Kicked away the dream? Decide to take a different road? Get on the family highway? I didn’t want another kid, did I. So you didn’t get what you wanted when life as an adult began and I didn’t let you have the family you replaced that desire with. Why wasn’t I on that page with you? And soon it will be Charlotte’s turn. Oh my gosh, Charlotte? Pregnant? No no no! She has to have a boyfriend first. Well, maybe not in today’s world. Or yesterday’s world. Don’t get pregnant! Tell those guys phooey! Go whack it! That’s what they do most days anyway. And don’t let ‘em pinch your butt.
No butt pinching everyone! Do you hear me? I said no butt pinching!
Weren’t we supposed to be telepathic by now? I mean come on. We’ve figured out how to keep guys in my shape alive for days, sometime weeks, beyond all common sense. It’s time we got the message through. Or is it a case of: we don’t really want to? You know, get the message. We all want to deliver it, but who wants to hear it? Listen to me people. I, Ben, have a message! Forget God. Ben is here. Not for long, but he is now. Here’s the message! Get this ef-ing tube out of my mouth! No, that’s not the real message. But I can’t deliver THE message with this tube down my throat. Pull it out, pull it out. Come on, chant with me. Pull it out, pull it out. Doesn’t anyone want to hear the message? Pull it out, pull it out. Come on people! Don’t be distressed. Listen and you will hear me! Pull it out, pull it out.
Oh man, I’m losing it. I keep seeing butts. And a thump and finger. Pinch pinch pinch. I’m going to die hallucinating about pinching butts. Is this the end? No flash back as a kid? No counting the pieces of ass. Oh there it is! More butts! No reliving Judy and I? No rerun of Charlotte and her brother? Little Ben. Where is little Ben? Don’t tell me he got in trouble at school for pinching some girl’s butt! I can’t live with that. Is that why I’m dying? Little Ben pinched some girl’s butt and I can’t live with that?
Oh good, the nurse. Wait. What is she doing? Why is Doc DoEverything back? Why is everyone here all at the same time? Why is everyone crying? Doesn’t this hospital have rules? Too many people
in the room! This guy is critical! Please, a limit. Two at a time. Wait. Wait. You’re praying. When did God come into this? I don’t need a God. Come on Judy, Dave, Charlotte! God has nothing to do with this! It was little Ben’s fault. He couldn’t resist. He just had to. Why didn’t I teach him better? Bring him up to respect butts? The nurse is going for the plug. Doc! Stop her! Oh no. She’s bending over. Her checks are right there. Right where I can reach them. I have to get my hand up. I have to…to…
I can’t do it. My hand won’t cooperate. This is it. This is it, people. Judy. Dave. Charlotte. Little Ben. The message is: don’t pin…
Doug Van Hooser is a Chicago playwright active at Three Cat Productions and Chicago Dramatists Theatre. His fiction can be found in The Riding Light Review, Crack the Spine, Intrinsick, and Red Earth Review. His poetry has appeared in Poetry Quarterly, Gravel, Chariton Review, and Black Fox Literary Magazine.