He is sitting outside again today. The bench on the front lawn of my apartment building. Probably forty yards away. Far enough so that I can’t make out his face, not clearly. It is late November and the breeze keeps passing dried brown leaves between his legs, some sticking to his feet, others to side of his face, hanging there for a moment, gently lilting before moving on. And through it all he does not move. Not an inch. I’m not sure he can, at least not yet. He just stares. Watching me watch him through my basement floor window. A cat—one of the strays I feed—comes up to the window and taps with her paw. Staring at me, too. I pull back the curtain.
Usually I would go get her some food, but I don’t have the strength. And right now I don’t want to open the door.
When I pull aside the curtain again, he is gone. The bench empty, and dead, brown leaves still blowing across the lawn. The gray sky broken in the west by dull, yellow light.
It was just a few months ago that I got the news. My brother Jack and his wife Clarissa told me, or at least sort of. They sat in my apartment as I made the call to the doctor. Clarissa works with the doctor who did the biopsy, and when Jack called me at work and told me to meet him at my apartment, I knew it wasn’t good. Was worse when I saw Clarissa there with him. She was wringing her hands together, and looked as if she were about to cry.
They took a seat on the couch, and I turned my back, went to the refrigerator to get a beer. Cracked it and took a slow sip.
“So am I going to die, Clarissa, or what?” I asked.
She was quiet a moment. “I think Dr. Tanum wants you to call him.”
I made the call. The doctor’s voice sounding as if it were coming through a wind tunnel. Distant. Not real. Words meant for someone else. Progression. Options. Very Rare. Someone so young. Prognosis. Words that shouldn’t be spoken for me.
I tried to drink the beer. I couldn’t drink the beer. The beer did nothing, meant nothing. Everything suddenly meant nothing. Jack was talking a lot then. Too much. About: fighting, beating, modern, medicine. All the things he probably should have been saying, I guess. But nothing he was saying seemed quite real either. And I just wanted to tell him to shut up. I wanted them to leave, and yet I did not. I didn’t want to listen, and I wanted to be alone, but as soon as they left I knew I would be alone with it, helpless and confined. Everything I have known both fading away and closing in.
It was later that night that I first looked out the window and saw the shadow sitting outside. Just a shade in the dark, a little more substance than the darkness all around it, a little more solid. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except when I looked again, two minutes later, it was gone.
I am forty. I left my job running numbers for Regalis Department Stores, a small chain here in Massachusetts, but I guess I’m still on the books; they say they are holding my position for me. A hired car comes to take me in for treatments—cutting isn’t an option—and to meet with the oncologist. The car is black and long, and the driver wears a dark suit and dark glasses. I feel like I’m going to a prom or a wedding, or a funeral, and not to the hospital to be nuked. He even wears black gloves. Keeps the radio on low, as he drives. Usually talk radio—people proselytizing, pontificating and arguing—but sometimes classical music. Soft and old and coming from somewhere not of here. Mozart’s Requiem, I think. Vivaldi’s? I try to amuse myself with thoughts like this, but I don’t get very far. What I find strange is that the driver will never look at me.
Someone always rides with me—one of my brothers or sisters, or my father. Never my mother. She can’t handle it. Instead she stays at home, sitting in a chair in the corner, her eyes shut as she worries her hands over her beads. Ten Hail Marys. Ten Our Fathers.
My sister Susan hires the car. She lives out of state and can’t go with me, but she can afford to pay the car service. The rides started because my father wanted to come along but he gets too nervous driving on the highway. Gets lost. He’s old.
Jack is going with me today, but when I come out, he isn’t here yet—he is always late—but the car is. Idling. The exhaust clouding the cold November air. The driver is fooling with something on the console. It is a driver I don’t recognize; I know most of them by now. This one wears a cap. Square jaw. A few of the feral cats are waiting in the bushes, and I see them as soon as I come down the walkway. I go back inside to get some deli meat, then come back out and crouch down to call over one of the kittens. A small white and gray tabby that is missing one eye. The socket is crusted over, but the kitten can’t be more than eight or nine weeks old. She’ll only come within six feet of me, so I put the meat on the lawn, stand and back away, and she hesitantly starts forward, taking each step as if testing thin ice. I’m about ten yards from the car when I notice Him on the far side of the parking lot. Hunched over. Shoulders like a vulture. I can just see the back of his head. He looks like he is going through the dumpster.
For a second I’m not completely sure it is Him, but then I feel something on my skin. A biting, tightening pull, metallic and cold, everything inside me going hollow, and then I am sure.
Jack pulls up, parking at an angle and hurrying out of the car, and when I look towards Him, he is hobbling away, dragging his left leg behind him. I look at Jack, and then at the man, but the man is gone. When I look again behind me, the kitten is gone, too, the meat left sitting on the cold ground. Left to rot.
Jack is making excuses when he gets in the car about why he is late. It’s always something. I snap at him a little, irritated. The heat is blasting in the car, and Jack is sweating at his temples, but I am freezing. A raw sour cold feeling to come more from inside than out. I can hear the wind blowing through my ribs, the dead leaves catching inside them.
I rest my head against the side of the door. There is no such thing as too much sleep. Not anymore. And three-quarters of the time, I can’t. Last night I lay in bed and heard much noise outside my bedroom window. Wheels and boots and horses. A grinding noise moving on repetitiously, over and over. Tires on the pavement, others stuck in mud, spinning. The grinding was from the engines. I rested my chin on the windowsill beside my bed, and then I could see them. Or at least their shadows. Most of them.
It was an army of soldiers, and going by the looks of them, the uniforms and both horses and motorized vehicles, I guessed they were from somewhere around 1918. Each soldier moved slowly—mechanically and painfully, loose, drab uniforms hanging upon fleshless limbs and shoulders—and each carried a carbine slung over his shoulder. The horses breathed steam into the cold night air, but when they looked at me, their eye sockets were empty. As were those of the soldiers. All in varying stages of decay, and some barely half a man, legless and pulled on horse drawn carts. Heading towards the medics, the field doctors, but never arriving. Never.
There were primitive jeeps and tanks, a few anyway, but most of the convoy were on foot, all retreating. One without a helmet and missing the right side of his head turned to look at me. He knew I was watching, I was sure of it, and I wondered if he was only there for me to see. I lay back down, but I could still hear them, and then a half hour later, the noise began to dwindle into the distance. The clopping of hooves fading. I thought of my friend down the hall and wondered if she heard them, too.
My friend has compassionate eyes and auburn hair. We used to drink a few beers on my couch together, watch tv and sometimes fool around a little. She lives here with her ten year old daughter and usually she waits until the daughter is asleep to come over. I would tell her about the spirits, and she would believe me—she’s into that sort of thing, goes to mediums and séances—but ever since I got my news I haven’t seen her much. I make excuses, say I’m tired—which is true—but I also wonder if she had something to do with all this. Messing with the occult and bringing this bad luck down. She would never do it on purpose, she’s a nice person, but most people who mess with that stuff don’t realize what they’re messing with. Now every time I look out the window, and every time I see him, I know what they’re messing with.
I wonder if she’ll try and contact me. After, I mean.
Jack is talking to the driver about the last Patriots’ game. They are on a roll, a winning streak. We have season tickets and used to go to all the home games together. The things that mattered, the things that now don’t. I like listening to the hum of the engine, like to feel like I’m traveling, moving through space, time. Not just lying there. Stagnant. I’m thinking about the soldiers again outside my window, tuning Jack out, and that gets me thinking about Brother Sweetheart. The army helmets, and the eyes.
Brother Sweetheart was wearing his older brother’s army helmet when he blew his head off almost twenty years ago. We had been friends since kindergarten, he lived just down the street, and I moved in with him after college. Me and this other kid, Danny Hurley. It was all right for a while. A lot of parties, a lot of drinking, and probably too much coke. Brother called everyone “brother” and once all drunk, he told me Danny was “such a sweetheart”—I think he might’ve had a thing for him—and that’s how he got the nickname, if I remember.
Anyway, he was in my room when he shot himself. He had been acting nuts, telling us he had been floating around the house—“out of body experiences”—and watching us, and Danny had been ignoring him, and that was making him even crazier. Kind of a puddle of anxious self-pity, but you couldn’t really say that to him because he was pretty big and pretty violent, had a bad temper—and it didn’t take him much to start swinging. Chicks liked him when we were younger though—blonde hair and ice blue eyes. Eyes that got emptier as he got crazier. I woke up from an afternoon nap on a day right around this time of year—the dusk gathering outside and creating dark shadows in my bedroom—to see him sitting by the side of my bed with the helmet on, watching me. He had a handgun resting on his lap. I asked him what he was doing, and he just smiled and said, “I don’t know.” And then he put the gun to his temple, and pulled the trigger.
The sound still rings through my head. That and the immediate aftermath, my face and the wall splashed with blood.
When we get into Boston I have to walk slowly over the frozen sidewalks, thin sheets of ice. And I have never felt so weak. The oncologist is a young woman with a long, oval, flat face. Narrow eyes, and perfect, full lips, “M” shaped. Jet black shoulder length hair. She looks like she stepped out of a medieval painting or tapestry. She wears her white lab coat with her name stitched on the pocket. Dr. Kwon. I am an experiment.
And that is what she is talking about today. An experimental trial. I am only half-listening.
It’s funny. Sitting in the waiting room I could look around me and pick out who would be dead soon, who would not. The soon-to-be dead give off a quieter beat. The flatline on the horizon. There was a little girl out there, almost bald and just about my niece Kiley’s age, nine or so, and she was giving off the quietest beat of all and that broke my heart a little.
The doctor looks at her notes, then looks at the X-ray of my chest cavity again up on the computer screens. Lungs, heart, outline of my rib cage and spine. A clearer image of me a few months down the line, I think, almost laughing. She points out the mass encasing my lungs still there.
“The chemo has done very little to reduce it, Chris,” she says, contemplating the image. She points. “It stopped it from expanding, but we were hoping between the chemo and the radiation it might shrink a little, and as you can see, it looks about the same.”
Jack isn’t looking at the screen, and he’s not looking at me. He’s looking away.
“This is why I think maybe we should consider one of the trials that should be available next month. What do you think about that? Would you be interested in it?”
I nod. Sit up a little straighter. “Definitely,” I say. “I’ll do whatever it takes.”
She looks at me blankly again. Jots some notes on my clipboard. Is quiet. Everyone is quiet, too quiet.
“Do you have any questions about it?” she asks. “There are risks.”
I chew my gum a little. The gum helps with the nausea. “I guess I’m just wondering, if I do the trial, what are my chances?” I ask.
She leans forward, chin on her hand, narrowing her eyes, looking concerned. “Chances of what?”
I swallow. “Beating this thing.”
She is quiet again.
“Chris,” she says after a moment, “When you say ‘beating this thing,’ I need to know what you mean,” and at this second we all know exactly what she means. Jack is silent, but from the corner of my eye, I see him start to cry. Make a strange sound in his throat.
“I guess I just mean making it to summer,” I say at last. “I’d like to see summer again.”
We are back at my apartment when Jack cracks a beer. He offers me one, but I can’t have a beer. No desire. He wants to keep me company, but I don’t want any company. I just really want him to leave. He starts to talk about faith, the importance of faith right now. He goes to church every week, he says, it helps.
I laugh a little. “Helps with what?”
“Not feeling so alone,” he says. “In the grand scheme of things, I mean.”
But I know we’re not alone, and maybe it would be better if we were. I know what is out there, Jack does not. Besides, I’ve been to enough churches, been to healing services with my mother. An octogenarian priest met me at the back of the enormous church, the Basilica, on Mission Hill up in Roxbury just about a month ago. Both my parents’ childhood parish, the church where my father served as an altar boy. Bundles of crutches—dozes of them tied together—were strapped to the walls inside. Souvenirs of polio days gone by, one of the few illnesses with concrete evidence of survival to leave behind, to prove it was cured. The old priest is famous in the church, a healing priest. But he has Parkinson’s or something now, has maybe had a few strokes, and he is barely vertical himself. His speech was impossible to understand, and he was drooling. He recited an incantation, a plea to someone—a favorite saint or the Blessed mother—and he put his finger tips against my chest, over my lungs—began to push. I was supposed to go backwards as he did, but I resisted at first. I felt nothing. But he kept mumbling, praying, kept pushing—little to no strength behind his fingers, hand, body as a whole—and his eyes, watery and red, were beginning to look agitated, sad, so then I gave a little, and I saw something spark in them. He pushed harder, and I began to go over, relaxing back into the arms of my mother behind me, and the further I went, the happier the old man looked.
By the time it was over, he was gasping for his breath. He prayed a moment more, blessed me in the sign of the cross, his mouth stoic, but his eyes now happy. And my mother was happy, too. Crying, but happy. It was the least I could do for them, I figured.
I used to like the big churches, but not anymore. They used to give me a feeling of hope, of something beyond us, but now they just give me a feeling of emptiness. The void. The way sound echoes inside them used to comfort me, listening to it rise, echo, travel somewhere, but now it just feels like it echoes because it has nowhere to go. But churches are all about death. I know that. Statues of martyrs, their effigies laid to rest inside their crypts, and of course statues of Jesus. The Passion, the Crucifixion, pain and suffering. I don’t need any reminders of it anymore. I see it enough every time I sit in the waiting room at the hospital, and every time I look in the mirror, my cheeks sinking in even further, my skin turning yellow, gray, and tight on my skull, pulling back from my teeth, like I am already a corpse. Mummified. I don’t need any more reminders about mortality.
Jack sips his beer. It is wet on his lips. “You must think about things.”
“I think about plenty of things,” I say. And then I tell him I’m tired. I need to rest. He nods, finishes his beer.
He is almost to the door when he turns, and I can see that he is crying again. “You’re my brother,” he says. “I love you.” His chest is heaving.
I hesitate a moment. I want to snap at him, tell him to shut up, knock it off and maybe go fuck himself, he is not going through this, I am, he is alive, he will be alive in six months. I won’t. But I can’t say any of this. There is no point in being cruel, and then I feel awash with something, even if that something is just concern for my younger brother, a brother I’ve watched over for years even though he’s never even noticed.
“Don’t do this to yourself, Jack,” I say at last. “We can only do what we can do. You’ve got a family to worry about. Kids.”
When he’s gone, I don’t know why, but I know that is it for his social visits. We won’t be drinking beers together anymore, won’t be watching football games, shows about the pyramids on the History Channel. We’ll go into Boston in the long black car, and then sit in the sterile doctor’s office, look at more pictures of my lungs on the computer screen, get more bad news. And wait. From here on in, that’s all it will be about. Waiting. Watching time.
Time is a funny thing now. The river of it all. Going by both too fast and too slow. You want it to pass to move on to something better, get out of the cancer, end the waiting, end the watching of the calendar, but you also don’t for obvious reasons. Panic sets in as I waste the little I have left, but I’m thinking more and more that time is an illusion. Just the empty space all around us. The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with time and obsessed with death. I’m guessing because their lives were so short to begin with, you had to look forward to something. They believed there were five concepts of the soul: The Ba—the personality, the Ib—the heart, the Ren—the name, the Ka—the vital essence, the thing that distinguished between the living and the dead, and the Sheut. The Sheut was important because it was essentially a person’s shadow, or the mark they left upon the earth, kind of like a back up copy of the soul, and it could be used to transfer the soul back from oblivion if you were pardoned by Osiris. And if you were lucky you would eventually pass over the Nile into the Field of Reeds, a place they called Aaru. Reeds stretching on forever, and abundant with food for the dead. Their idea of heaven, I guess.
Anyway, people always say they would do this, and they would do that—they would get in touch with old friends, travel and see the world, celebrate life before it ends—if they knew they only had so much time left, and maybe I have said it too, but you don’t think that way, not once you’re here. At least I don’t. How can you when nothing makes sense anymore, so much has become unimportant? Seeing the pyramids some day might have been important to me just a year back but how can it be that way any more? For me, it will all soon cease to exist. The world will continue, but does it really if you’re not there? Or does it always? And will we always be here? Aaru?
It is the following Thursday, early, just moments after sunrise, the sun weak and watery yellow as it climbs into the sky, when I see him out on the bench again, but this time, he has someone with him, has his arm around her. A little girl, maybe eight, maybe nine. Hollow eyes and barely any hair, and I know her—I just saw her last week.
It snows. Christmas is dark, and nearly everyone quiet. I sit on the couch in my parents’ house, and just try to nap, just wanting it to pass, the holiday to be over. I feel nauseated, and my body is aching. I can’t see him, but I can feel him with me, feel his cold, stale breath slipping beneath the collar of my shirt. And I think everyone else knows he is there. Jack tries talking to me, but I can tell by his eyes he is having a hard time looking at me, or at least what is left of me. After a while, my nieces and nephews run about making noise, and it irritates the hell out of me. That has never happened before. But they are young, have a full life ahead of them, and as awful as it sounds, I find myself resenting them for it, these small children that have always meant the world to me, made me laugh and been the light of my life. It makes no sense, but what does anymore?
A Christmas Carol is on the television. Scrooge. The musical version. Alec Guinness. Albert Finney. The mid nineteenth century London December is muted grays and browns and shadows, everything dark, and Marley rises to the ceiling, wrapped in chains, flailing his arms and moaning and hollering. I doze for a while, and when I wake, a man in a ratty top hat is dancing atop a coffin as the people carry it down the street. Everyone is singing.
The next day I go for a walk in the snow, the park beyond the woods behind my house. Walking is hard, but I have to do something—the doctor tells me that, to keep moving. Once you stop moving, when you stop and just wait, then it is over. I drink a can of Ensure—the cases bought by my mother and stacked in my kitchen—before leaving, and I have to force it down. It is cold outside and the landscape is deserted. No one in the park, not in sight anyway. Just skeletal trees, dusted with snow, and the big half frozen pond. I used to walk here, sometimes run even, when I was well. In the good weather, you would see kids and parents—mostly Brockton poor—and sometimes old people, and a lot of gay men, sitting in their cars, engines idling, waiting for a score. It is something of a pick-up spot for them, I think. They wait and then meet each other inside the trees, and then spew their loneliness and guilt into each others’ mouths. A few have tried to pick me up in the past, but I just shook my head, let them know they had me all wrong.
I am tired and I sit on bench on the land strip that cuts the pond in two. It is a long strip, a few hundred yards long and twenty feet wide, man-made, and lined with trees and long grass, reeds, on either side. Now all brown and dead, encased in thin ice. My nose is running and my breath is fogging the thin air. My breath. I am warm and cold at the same time, the way I always am now. When I get up and start walking again, I come across footprints, starting in the middle of the land bridge, as impossible as that seems, and heading off towards the far side. I know I shouldn’t follow them, but then I think going back the way I came may be even a worse idea. The day is too quiet. Quiet ahead, quiet behind.
I move slowly across the land bridge, stopping to rest every thirty or forty feet. The snow seems deeper, the further I go, and I know the bridge can’t possibly be this long—I’ve walked across it enough times before. There is movement in the trees above me, and I look up to see a bird fly away. Soon just a black spot disappearing into the white of the sky. And then it is quiet again.
I expect to see him, back turned, hobbling away from me at any moment, but I don’t. And then I half expect to see a child’s footprints—the little girl’s—suddenly falling in line beside these, but I don’t see that either. I’m careful not to step in the prints. I don’t want to touch them, walk in them, for fear that if I make direct contact everything will just come faster.
It starts to flurry again. When I reach the end, there is no one. Nothing in sight. And the footsteps have stopped. But in the pit of my belly, I know this can’t be the case, because I feel eyes upon me. I turn then, but when I do, it is not Him I see standing behind me. It is Brother Sweetheart. Artie. In a cutoff sweatshirt, the sleeves gone, and jeans. Standing with his hands on his hips, and looking just as he did twenty years ago. He smiles a little, and then he turns and starts back the way he, I, came.