I got a request to put this out. So here is one of my short stories.
James Milford Parker III
James Milford Parker III stared at the gravestone with his name etched out in block print and realized that he would never be the same. James had seen tombstones before. Many times, in fact. But they had all been part of a set. His father had been a movie producer and his mother an actress of some renown in her early days. Now, they were just aging celebrities who lived quiet lives in as stress-free an environment as possible. They deserved some rest and fun. After all, they had given their best years to the world of entertainment. They ought to keep their golden years for themselves.
James stared and wondered why the stone in front of him did not seem real. He stepped forward and pressed his fingers against the marble slab in an attempt to dislodge it from its foundation. It did not budge. It was stone all right. He could feel the firm, smooth foundation under his casual shoes. Patting the stone, he smiled, as if asking the stone if it could take a little joke. You don’t mind, do you? I had to make sure. The image of a plastic tombstone being carried off in one hand by a prop man turned his smile into a grimace. So hard to be sure, you know.
James turned, got into his car, and drove twenty-seven miles home. He lived in the country on a sprawling estate. He never knew why his wife had insisted on having a place so far out, but he respected her wishes as he had respected everything about her. She was a good woman and that was why her sudden death baffled him to the point of incomprehension. He got out of his car and looked around. Everything was very quiet. It was early autumn, but the days were still quite warm. California seasons change almost imperceptibly. It was hard to realize that anything had changed. But he knew the night would bring a chilling breeze and he shivered at the thought.
I could use a drink, he mumbled to himself, but brushed the thought away with a flick of his hand. He had suffered the pains of hell trying to sober up permanently. He wasn’t going to risk a rerun of that life, not without Cindy. Cindy had been the bedrock of his sanity when alcoholism almost destroyed his will to live. It had cost him his job at the studio and many of his friends. Though his name alone would always assure him of a following, it would not always assure him of friends. There were very few people he called friends, and he just lost the best of the bunch four days ago. Shaking his head to ward of any other dangerous thoughts, James punched in his key code and then slid the glass door open and walked inside. The echoing silence nearly deafened him.
He scratched his head and wondered if perhaps he should have just one drink. After all, his wife had died and no one would blame him for getting drunk. Standing in the middle of the foyer, he lifted his head and his gaze fell on a small marble statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that Cindy had installed in a little niche as you entered the house. Good Lord, how he hated the thing! He tried for weeks to convince Cindy that it made them seem like religious fanatics, like real provincials, but she had just smirked and said that at this point in her life, she didn’t give a hoot what people thought. Maria, her maid, had given it to her just before she died from liver cancer, and she wasn’t about to remove it. Cindy had said that it reminded her of something important. When James had asked her what was so damn important about it, she just told him that when he grew up, he’d figure it out. She said this with a smile, so James didn’t take it as an insult, though as he thought of it now, he wondered if it was an insult ― he’d just been too besotted to catch on.
He moved toward the expansive living room, all done up in wood paneling, shag rugs, and Native American themes. He found it rather revolting. His boyhood had been immersed in ultra-modern chromes and sleek metals and this reversion toward mother-earth had struck him as somewhat barbaric, but once again, this was what Cindy wanted and as he had his own place closer to work, he was willing to allow her decorators do their worst. And they did. Oh, Lord, did they ever.
James suddenly realized that he would have to sell the place, and he would need help. He considered several options for a moment. There were so many ramifications of Cindy’s death that his head spun. Too much to think about. Ever since Thursday morning when he awoke and realized that Cindy, lying there beside him, was not moving, that she was too still and too cold, he had existed in numbed shock. He had called an ambulance and his personal physician, but it was too late at that point. He then called his secretary and after telling her the news, she had promised to clear his calendar. All his projects had been shoved to the side. His father had said that he might come for the funeral, but as his mother hadn’t been feeling well, she probably wouldn’t be able to make it. James knew. His mother never liked Cindy, and it wasn’t in her nature to do anything she didn’t want to do. He was grateful for his father though. He didn’t have any other family to call, and Cindy’s family was spread all over the globe. Her brother flew in from Texas, but that was it. Her father was in a nursing home and her mother had died years ago. Cindy had wanted to go to her mother’s funeral, but they had been in the middle of a big movie opening. James insisted that he couldn’t break away and since his sobriety was still in question, Cindy had elected to stay at his side. Later she told him that she felt like she had betrayed her mother by not going to her funeral, but James had just laughed.
“Good God, Cindy! The woman was cremated! What kind of funeral can there be for a pile of dust?” He had not realized how cruel he was at the time. Cindy had walked out of the room. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that she reminded him of the incident and asked him if he remembered. He said he didn’t remember his exact words, but he supposed he had said something like that. She asked him if he still felt the same. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t like to think about death. It was a long time ago, Cindy, forget it.” She seemed to. But it nagged at him now. It more than nagged at him. It felt like a hammer blow to the heart. How could he have been so cold?
James turned and walked toward the steps. Well, if I can’t have a drink, I’m sure as hell not going to stand around here thinking about the past. I can’t change anything. It is – what it is. He walked into his study and turned on a large screen television. He picked up the remote and began flipping through the channels as he pulled at his tie. He stopped at a news channel and then threw his cell phone on his dresser and tugged off his dress shirt. He began talking to himself “Why did I go today? The funeral was yesterday. I didn’t need to check to see if the stone was set. Totally neurotic. I could have sent Edwardo. Damn, I am such―”
James turned at the sound of his cell phone ringing. He snatched it off his dresser and stepped over to the window only dressed in his casual pants and shoes. His chest was bare and he allowed the sunlight to warm him through the window. “Yeah?”
It was Dalton, his friend and buddy from days long past. He hadn’t heard from Dalton for years. Dalton explained that he had just heard about Cindy’s death, and he was in the area. Would it be okay if he stopped by for a moment? He was on his way to a screening, but he really wanted to see him for a bit. James squinted, trying to remember what had happened at their last meeting. He had a vague feeling that their last conversation had not gone well, but he couldn’t remember the details. He shrugged in the afternoon sun. “Yeah, sure. I’m not doing anything.”
James could almost feel Dalton’s relief. He stared out over the vast expanse of scrub brush and rocky hills and tried not to sigh. He wasn’t sure what would be worse. Sitting here alone or having an old friend come by and try to comfort him. Well, it was moot point now. Dalton made sure of the address and punched it into his phone. He was as good as in his living room.
James pressed the end button and threw the phone back on his dresser. Well, so much for immersing himself in some stupid movie or another. He looked at the screen and scowled. There were images of his wife’s face and then scenes of the funeral. What? Couldn’t people ever leave them alone? Voyeurs and parasites! Then the screen blinked to the most recent war victims. It showed the fragmented remains of a school that had been bombed. Bodies were everywhere. The sound was muted so James couldn’t hear the grisly details, but he could see the reality for himself. “Christ! Do they have to put that up all the time? Isn’t there ever any good news?” James looked for the remote but he couldn’t find it. He began to scramble madly around the room, searching for it. He wanted to turn the bloody thing off but in his confusion, he felt his face flush with fury. “Where the hell did it go? Damn it! Where―” He saw it under his shirt and grabbing it, he squeezed the off button. When the screen turned black, he flopped down on a chair and buried his head in his hands. “God, Almighty! I just can’t take things like that. Not today.”
James sat there for a moment and then remembered that Dalton was coming. He tossed his used shirt into the over-flowing hamper relieved that the cleaning woman would come in the morning. He tried to remember her name. Cindy was the one who hired and managed their help. He didn’t know a thing about them other than they came and went like invisible angels of mercy. He supposed he’d have to find out what their names were. He opened his closet and pulled a casual shirt from the rack. He could smell a faint odor coming from the closet and realized that Cindy had come in the other day night before they were heading out to a party; she had practically reeked of perfume. Funny I can smell it now. I didn’t notice it this morning. I never smell anything anymore… James realized that this wasn’t helping him get ready for Dalton, so he strode to the bathroom, splashed cold water on his face, and returned to the first floor.
He meandered into the kitchen and decided he would fix a little something for his old friend. He took out a package of fat free chips and a platter of cut vegetables that had been left over from the funeral, and he poured some ranch dressing into a container. He put these on the counter with some cold meat and cheese that had been carefully wrapped away, in case he got hungry, someone had said. Who had said that? James tried to remember who had been at the funeral dinner, but it was a blur.
James was about to open the refrigerator when his hand accidentally brushed against the counter and sent the chip bowl sprawling. He bent down reflexively to catch it and slammed his head against the edge of the marble counter. The blow sent lights flashing before his eyes, and he lurched backwards from the sharp pain. He clasped his hand over his temple and realized with shock that he was bleeding. He knew that head wounds tend to bleed profusely, and it did little to stem the rise of panic as he felt drips of blood slide through his fingers. He rushed to the bathroom. He looked at himself in the mirror and suddenly felt sick. Before he even thought out his next move, he found himself retching into the toilet. Grabbing roller-spinning wads of toilet paper, he tried to wipe his face and temple and stem the flow of blood. After a few moments, the dripping slowed, and he cautiously moved toward the living room. He plopped down on the couch and lay his head back with a muted groan.
Does it get any worse? James closed his eyes and tried to calm down. His stomach was empty now and the blood was definitely congealing though he feared that if he got up, it might start up again. He lay as still as possible and tried to think. He should call Dalton and tell him not to come. He probably should call someone to take him to the doctor. He envisioned Dalton forcing the door open and fining him in a pool of blood. He saw himself floating above his wife’s tombstone…also his tombstone. He realized that it was his now as much as hers. He would die and he would lie there and his body would never bleed again. He would never breathe again. He would never answer the phone or have old friends coming over to comfort him. He’d never make another deal or handle another movie project. He’d never give advice or slap down a stupid idea. He’d…
He saw Dalton entering the room calling for him. He tried to tell Dalton that he wasn’t here anymore, to go look at his wife’s tombstone, but his tongue felt thick and his mouth was glued shut. Someone was tugging at him. James grew frightened. He felt himself fighting, trying to slap with cardboard arms that couldn’t move. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t know where he was going. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t know what death meant. He hadn’t decided yet.
“James! James for God’s sake, wake up! Jenny, call the doctor! I think he’s tried to kill himself or something!”
James’ eyes fluttered open, and he saw a salt and peppered swatch of hair way too close to his face. He tried to lift his arm but it was too heavy. He decided to scream.
Dalton heard the merest whisper brush against his ear. He stared at James lying prone beneath his inquiring gaze and when he saw eyes staring back, he jerked backwards. “Oh, James! Looks like something happened. You looked so bad lying there, and you didn’t answer the doorbell. I got worried and we just walked in. Hope you don’t mind.”
James tried to sit up but the pain in his head throbbed him into submission. “No, not at all.” He whispered. He tried to pull off the messy swath of toilet paper and found that it was glued to his head. He grimaced and pointed with his other hand. “I hit my head against the counter – stupid.”
Dalton smiled, relieved. “Oh, I’ve done that a hundred zillion times. Hurts like hell doesn’t it?”
James grimaced his agreement. Jenny came over and inquired if she should call for an ambulance. James looked at the sleek blond in front of him with her large worried eyes and realized how bad he looked. He felt like a fool and wanted nothing more than to get them out of his house and take a hot shower and then crawl into bed. He envisioned some sleeping pills that his wife occasionally took. They were probably still in the cabinet. He waved his hand benignly.
Dalton got up from the couch and took Jenny by the arm. “Hey, honey, why don’t you get James something to eat? It looks like something spilled over there. Maybe you could―”
Jenny nodded and turned to accomplish her domestic duty. Dalton turned back toward James and smiled. “Well, I know better than to ask if you want a drink. But perhaps a soda or something?”
James smiled at the incongruity of having a guest treat him to his own food. “Yeah, that’d be fine.”
Dalton stepped away to perform his act of mercy. James forced himself into a sitting position and tried not to groan as his head swam. He pulled the tissue away from his head, tearing it, and was disappointed by how little blood was actually there. It was hardly the excessive blood bath he had imagined. “Huh.”
Dalton returned a moment later with a tray with drinks and the cut vegetables with the little ranch dressing poured off to the side. Dalton nudged the end table a little closer with his foot and set the tray down. Then he sat in a chair next to the couch. He handed James his drink and leaned in. “So apart from nearly smashing your head in and your wife dying, how’ve you been?
James merely mumbled something about the fires of hell, so Dalton accepted the mantle of charming host and continued talking.
Seven months later, James sat in his office, staring out a large bay window, his swivel chair facing away from his top aide.
Todd was gesturing enthusiastically as he outlined his newest great idea. “Do you know what the term ‘forged by fire’ really means? Some guy, Ignatius something-or-other wrote about it. I had no idea. I think that’d make a great title for a movie – don’t you? How about if we take that surreal concept by that new writer – you know the one who’s always acting so damn deep – and throw that at her and see what she comes up with. It might be good – we can always add in some fast action sequences and a bit of sex to spice it up. Besides, deep is in right now.”
James wondered if it would be considered first-degree murder to strangle an idiot. Why do I let this man work here? Why do I listen to him? James continued to stare out the window overlooking one of the highest priced pieces of real estate in Los Angeles and heard the answer in his head. Because he turns stupid ideas into multi-million dollar winners.
James turned and looked at the well-dressed man in front of him. Todd was sharp in the worst sense of the word, yet he also had a boyish charm that made even those who had suffered at his hands care about him. He really didn’t mean any harm. He merely had an incredible knack for taking the pulse of the movie-going public and serving up what they wanted. If they were obsessed with scary aliens landing on our shores, he found a script with the scariest aliens possible and if New York had to be smashed to bits once again – so much the better. If the public was subconsciously feeling a little guilty, he didn’t bother to know why, he just found a way to address that hidden psychosis through a cathartic heroic-romance where even the worst sinner alive could feel a dash of patriotic hope. If they were looking for their lost childhood, he found a way to update one of the oldie-but-goodies. Todd was a gifted man all right but who he was working for, James was never certain. Todd was a natural chameleon. Perhaps that’s what made him so good at what he did. He understood every one because, in truth, he was no one.
James rubbed his chin. “Funny you should mention Ignatius. It’s also the name of a priest. Ignatius of Loyola.” James turned and stared at Todd’s blank expression. “I only know because Martha, my cook, has her daughter dropped off at our house after school and she studies in the kitchen until they go home at seven. The other day I went in to ask Martha something, and I saw the book on the table, so I asked the kid about it. She got excited telling me all about him – she went on and on. She goes to a Catholic school and they fill her head with all sorts of stuff.” James stared right into Todd’s eyes. “The kind of stuff that you should steal and turn into a movie, maybe.” James briefly wondered if Todd would jerk away shielding himself like Dracula did when presented with a crucifix. Todd merely stared back, his mouth slightly open. Finally he smiled and nearly giggled.
“Damn it, James, you had me going a minute.”
James smiled. “Yeah, got’cha.” He leaned over his desk. “Well, if that’s all you have to cover, I think we can quit for today. I’d like to get home early. Jimmy wants me to attend his party tonight and I need to get ready. Besides, I’m feeling kind of tired. I think I’ve been working too much lately.”
Todd nodded, his appraising glance telling James more than he wanted to know. He already realized that a lot of people thought he was having some kind of break down. There was even a rumor, months ago, that he was drinking again, but he had put that one down by showing up for work early and in perfect form every day for six months. He usually stayed over time and he had never been as successful as he had been in these last months. Everyone was full of admiration for how well he had handled his wife’s death. Until recently. Recently he had started to leave a little earlier and come in a little later. Though he still looked good and was at the top of his game, he realized, along with everyone else that something had changed.
Todd shut the door quietly behind him after saying that he’d see him at the party. His parting shot to demonstrate that he was invited “everywhere” too. James closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. God, what’s happening to me? What’s wrong? James realized that he wasn’t merely speaking rhetorically. He was really asking a question of God – well, of Someone anyway. When did this start?
It started with the dreams. After selling the house and reorganizing almost his entire life, James had felt that he deserved a little break and a change, so he took a week’s vacation. He went to a resort in Nevada that someone had insisted was just the place to get his mind off his troubles. It was the worst vacation of his life. He not only didn’t get his mind off his troubles, he found he was being haunted by his grief, a grief he thought he had already worked through. He started dreaming about Cindy. He hadn’t done anything she would have disapproved of, well, maybe a couple things, but she’d understand. He was no longer a married man. He had his needs. It took him the better part of the week and three very unpleasant encounters to realize that his needs had changed. He may not be Cindy’s husband anymore, but he wasn’t the man of his youth either. There was no going back, only forward, but without some kind of a road map, he wasn’t exactly sure where the future led. He cut his vacation short and threw himself into his work with a vengeance. It worked for a while. He was able to concentrate amazingly well while in his office and he found himself arriving early and staying late. But then there was that incident with the cook…
James rubbed his face and tried to shake off his recollections, but before he realized it, he was staring into space again. It had been nearly four months ago when his life took the next unexpected bend in the road. His old cook had been a rather eccentric old fellow by the name of Filippo. James figured that he was Malaysian though when he’d ask him, Filippo would just smile and say that he came from a lot of places. James always felt like he was on the outside of a joke. But one day, Filippo didn’t show up for work and James was having a few friends over for an important get-together that night. He got pretty worked up about it. He ended up having to order some food in, and it wasn’t nearly as good as what Filippo could dish out with a snap of his fingers.
The next day, when Filippo again didn’t show up, James sent someone to his place to find out what the hell he was doing, and they reported back that Filippo had died in his apartment and no one had realized until the landlady had been alerted. James sat dumbfounded on his couch as he took in the news that his cook was dead and had laid there cold and stiff in his apartment for two whole days while he had secretly, and not so secretly, raked him over the proverbial coals for not doing his job.
It was when Filippo’s daughter came to the house asking for any personal items Filippo had left behind, that the whole event began to really sink in. There was this beautiful twenty year old girl standing in his door way asking with her big honest eyes, if she could come in and collect her father’s things. It was then that James realized that he knew absolutely nothing about the man who had worked for him, other than the fact that he was a great cook. He stepped aside and let the woman in and he followed her to the kitchen, opening the closet where Filippo usually hung his sweater and stored whatever stuff he had brought with him. It was there that James discovered that Filippo was Roman Catholic, for there, hanging on a little nail inside the closet door, was a set of rosary beads. What? Did the man recite prayers in between courses? James felt as if his head would explode.
He watched from the side as Filippo’s last remaining worldly possessions were gathered into his daughter’s arms. As she stepped over the threshold, James felt a resolution form in his core and he decided to act on it at once. “Can I ask your name?”
She looked at him with those sad, sweet eyes and spoke so softly that James had to lean in to hear. “My name is Martha.” James nodded and then, before she could retreat into the outer world again, he put out his hand and stopped her.
“And what do you do for a living, Martha?”
She whispered, her eyes downcast. “I was training to be a cook, like my father.”
James felt a spark of life flicker in his middle. “Really?” He appraised her. She could not be more than twenty. “How old are you?’
James’ eyebrows rose. He was used to people under cutting their age, not adding to it. But – who knows. He leaned on the doorframe. “Why do you say, ‘was’?”
“My father helped to pay my tuition. I cannot pay it by myself. I have a daughter to raise.”
James stopped leaning. “Where’s your husband?”
“He is away.”
James nodded. “Well, I just happen to be in need of a cook. Do you think you might consider working here?”
Those luminous, black eyes stared into his soul, searching, and he stared back uncertain for what she was looking for. She barely nodded her head.
Perhaps, James realized, as he propped his head on his hands in his silent office, perhaps he had been infatuated with those eyes and that perfect face. Perhaps he felt just a tad guilty for the way he had behaved toward Filippo and wanted to right some wrongs. Perhaps, he was just a mercenary jerk who just wanted to banish all grief and doubt from his mind. But as the weeks passed and as Martha came dutifully each day, he kept true to his resolution. He had decided that he would know more about the people in his life, no matter who they were. They could be the lowliest trash collector to the highest producer; he would ask more questions; he would get to know the people in his life.
He was never more surprised than when Martha’s husband showed up one day asking for her, and she threw herself into his arms like some sticky, sweet version of a movie he had dubbed a failure to express real life. Apparently the husband, Max, really had been away. He had been working in Alaska and was home, at least until he found another job. James discovered opportunities a little closer to home. Max was grateful to take one. So Martha and her daughter, Elizabeth Grace, and husband, Max, became members of James’ household – though he never mentioned this fact to anyone. There was never any need. Not really. How does one casually bring up the subject that you’ve practically adopted an entire family?
But the dreams about Cindy never really stopped. Despite everything. James wondered about that, but he figured that Cindy would be pleased with him. She was always so kind to the servants. Really, she was very kind to everyone – especially him. James realized that now.
James got up from his desk and looked at his watch. He gathered up his keys and his cell phone. He didn’t want to go to this party, and he really didn’t want to have to appear happy. Wasn’t he happy? James sighed at the question and moved across the room. The sudden image of a plastic tombstone being carried away made him stop. Counterfeits were such a part of his life; he had to wonder if he’d ever really been happy.
Five years later, on James 47th birthday, when he was returning home from a long day at work, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a minivan barreling toward him. In a split second, he realized he was not going to be able to avoid being hit; he realized that he was probably facing his final moments on earth. As he lay in the car, after the smashing, grinding impact, he could not think. Everything was immensely quiet. Then, just as suddenly, there was more noise and confusion than he could tolerate. As he blacked out, he hoped that someone nice had decided what death meant for him – he still didn’t know.
When he woke up, he was on a hospital bed in white walled room with large vinyl curtains blocking out the sunlight. He blinked and attempted to move his head. He discovered he could not move anything but his eyes and his mouth. He felt like his whole body had been frozen but his face was still free. His brow furrowed as he pictured a man buried up to his neck. As his mind became alert, James started to realize what this meant. Frantically, he tried to remember what had happened. Panic began to rise as he felt his breathing becoming faster and shallower. A nurse bustled into the room looking right at him with a laptop clasped to her chest. She saw the fear in his eyes, and she placed the laptop on the counter and moved to his side.
“Mr. Parker, it’s alright. You’ll be all right. You might feel rather numb right now but that’s from all the medication and the nature of your injuries. Most of your injuries should heal in time. Right now, you should just be happy you’re alive. It was a close call.” He knew she was patting his arm from the rustling of her sleeve against his hospital gown. He did not feel the pat. She bent closer and stared him right in the eyes. “Mr. Parker, it is very important that you stay calm. You’re in good hands. I’ll call Dr. Freeman and let him know that you’re awake.”
James wanted to say something to the effect – “Yes, you do that, and by the way, while you’re at it, would you mention the fact that I’m practically dead. He might find that interesting as well.” But he found his mouth was too dry and his tongue too thick to form articulate words. He just mumbled something that the nurse took to mean “Thanks.” He watched as her upper half moved to the head of the bed, her arm adjusted his drip line, and then her shoulders and head moved away from him and bobbed out the doorway. He imagined getting one of his men in here and whispering a desperate plea to pour a pint of whiskey into the drip bag. Todd might do it. It would be just the thing that might amuse him – offbeat, gritty realism. Only problem would be that Todd would need an audience, so he’d have to tell the whole floor of nurses and they’d freak out, end of scenario. James wondered if he could be arrested for attempting to spike his own drip bag. He closed his eyes. Can it get any worse than this? When had he thought that before? He couldn’t remember. But he realized; he’d have a lot of time to play memory games. Lots of time to consider the direction his life was taking.
A white-coated doctor entered the room. He looked Indian; his smile seemed genuine. James swallowed and was relieved that he actually felt the sensation. He did not smile back, however.
“Hello, James. My name is Dr. Joshi. I was on the team that worked on you. It was a mighty good fight you put up. We were relieved when your heart started again. I just want to let you know that though you did sustain serious injuries, it looks like the worst is behind you. With some physical therapy and perhaps a couple minor reconstructive surgeries on your right leg, you should be able to get up and move around again. But right now, all you need to know is that your paralysis should be temporary, and you’ll be feeling more like your normal self in a few days, though I don’t suggest you attempt to do anything too strenuous too soon.”
If James could have burst out laughing, he would have at this bit of incongruity. Was Dr. Joshi blind, or was it no big deal that he had just about died? What did he say about getting his heart started again? Was returning to life just a mere blip in the day’s events? Everything will be back to normal? Yeah right! James merely blinked rapidly and attempted to shake his head. Dr. Joshi took that for agreement and smiled again.
“Your nurses will be close by if you need anything, and they’ll check on you regularly.” The doctor straightened and turned to the nurse, giving her directions that James could not understand, and he started walking away, his head bobbing slowly out of the room. The nurse checked James’ drip line, took his pulse, and did various other duties and then patted him on the arm. Rustle, rustle. She ordered him to get some rest. James didn’t bother to watch her head bob out the door.
He stared up at the ceiling and realized that before long he’d know exactly how many tiles comprised the ceiling and how many dots in each. This was life right now. Surely they had a television, a way to listen to music…something to occupy his mind. James realized he felt very relaxed and sleepy. Apparently, he didn’t need to spike his drip bag – they’d done it for him. Perhaps later, when the nurse came back, he’d ask a few questions. James would learn all about life here and find a way to survive. He closed his eyes. He wondered who would care that he was here. His mother? She was slipping into another world ― dementia at its best. He’d leave her to go gently into her private world. His dad? Yeah, his dad would come and be very pleasant and upbeat, trying to cheer him up so that no one need feel sad. Tears were just for critical moments in movies. Tears weren’t intended for real life. If one got sad enough for tears, it was time to pack it in. There were those who took that way out. But Dad wouldn’t be one of those. He would die cheerfully, pretending that death wasn’t getting the last word, even when it did. James wasn’t sure he wanted his dad’s pleasant ignorance at this point. James sighed and was infinitely relieved when he felt his chest heave painfully. He wasn’t quite as numb as he thought. He tried to feel some other part of his body, but it still felt still absent. Damn. I’m living in a dead man’s body.
There were visitors those first days, mostly people from work and a policeman who wanted to go over the accident report with him. The friendly visits were painful as James attempted to do more each time to appear less disabled than he was, but he got through them with as much aplomb as he could muster. He assured everyone that he would fully recover and be back at work by the New Year at latest. When the policeman entered, James felt the greatest flutter of excitement since he had first awakened. He told the officer what he could remember and then waited for him to explain what had actually happened. After the officer told him, James felt his spirit go as numb as his body. A woman and child had been in the other car. No one was exactly sure what made her drive into him, could be the slight drizzle obscured her vision, or she just wasn’t thinking and didn’t see the red light directly in front of her, but she rammed into his car full speed. She and the child died. Their names were Mrs. Carol Jones and Sylvia Jones. Sylvia had only been five. They think that Carol had been driving so fast because she was hurrying to pick up her son from soccer practice. Sylvia had been at tumbling class and they had gotten behind schedule. James wondered at the value of his life when it had almost been snuffed out because of soccer practice. It wasn’t until the officer mentioned that the husband was outside waiting to see him that James wondered if it would have been easier to simply die. He merely mumbled, “Yeah, sure, what can it hurt?”
The police officer had tapped his notebook closed and left the room with a nod, hoping that James would “get better soon.” Mr. Jones entered the room slowly. His eyes had dark circles under them. His hands hid in his pockets as he moved to the side of the bed. The nurse had raised James’ bed so he was in a semi-sitting position. James wasn’t sure why this man had come or what on earth he was supposed to say, but he figured that he should be compassionate. After all, he did know how it felt to lose a wife and the officer had said something about there being another child. So, along with everything else, this guy was a single parent now and that couldn’t be easy.
Mr. Jones shuffled his feet and then looked at James. “I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am that this happened, Mr. Parker. My wife was a good woman, and I know she’d never have wanted this. It was just some stupid accident and…” Mr. Jones’ voice cracked and his stricken eyes filled with tears.
James felt his own eyes ache. He realized that he was hurting inside in ways he had not admitted to himself and he did not want to face. He could not lift his arm well, but he could gesture feebly. He attempted to do so. “Please, Mr…” James tried to control his voice. “What’s your name?”
“Listen, Eric, I know it was an accident, and it looks to me like you’ve suffered more than me. I’ve just got bruised up a bit, but you’ve lost your wife and kid. I lost my wife a few years back; I know how hard that can be. We never had kids… but I can only imagine the hell you’re going through. So please, no apologies―”
Tears were flowing down Eric’s face. “My son blames me. He said I should have gone to pick him up. I knew Carol was behind schedule, but I was at work and…”
James felt his breathing quicken. He couldn’t handle this. He wasn’t a therapist. He was a recovered alcoholic who made a living by faking reality. “Eric, your son is just lashing out at you because you’re all he’s got to lash at. Who else is he going to blame? God?”
Eric stood there mute with tears falling freely. James stared at the ceiling tiles and tried to remember how many he had counted before he gave up. “Oh, God!” He looked back at Eric. “I can’t help you, Eric. I don’t know how. I wish I could. But if it means anything to you – I don’t blame you or your wife. I don’t blame anyone. I can’t say why. But you and your son are still alive and you’ve got to figure out how to live through this. Just like me. It’s a hell of a world, and I’m the last person on earth to give anyone advice, but if I did, I’d say it’d bet better to try to make the best of this rather than let it tear you to pieces.”
Eric nodded, wiping his face with his arm. “I’m sorry I fell apart like this. I didn’t mean to. It’s just when I saw how bad you got hurt and I remember… It just kills something inside me.”
James shook his head. “Well don’t! Don’t let it kill you. Not yet. Death gets its way often enough. Don’t give it anymore.”
Eric stuck out his hand and gripped James free hand lying on his bed sheet. “I meant to come here and apologize for hurting you – but you’ve helped me – more than you realize. Thank you.”
James watched as Eric left the room and for one astounding moment, he realized that he thought of death as an enemy – one that must be avoided at all costs. Problem was, he knew he couldn’t avoid him forever.
When James was sixty-eight years old he was diagnosed with a severe heart condition and was hospitalized in the hope that he would undergo a heart transplant. But that transplant never took place. He died two days before the planned surgery. But the day before he died an old friend came to visit ― his cook’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth Grace, now grown into a matronly woman with four kids.
She had taken his cold, papery hand in her own and stroked it gently as she smiled through her gentle laugh. “Hey, Mr. James, how you doing today?” They bantered about her mother and brothers and sisters, about all the “goings-on” in the world, and recent events in the family they shared. James suddenly realized that with Elizabeth Grace at his side, he felt brave and comfortable. She looked at him with eyes that could peer directly into his lost soul and she loved him anyway.
“Hey, my little love, I have a question for you. You were always so smart in school and read all those books about saints and heroes of old―”
Elizabeth stared at him, keeping his eyes held in her own.
James felt he could go on. “So what’s death, anyway? I mean, where is it? What happens when the old, grim reaper shows up?”
Elizabeth’s eyes grew round and her smile widened. “Wow, Mr. James, you always know how to surprise me.” Her smile faded as she saw something in his eyes that saddened her. “I don’t know anything about grim reapers and such, but you know, I was taught that death is a doorway ― from this world to the next. It’s a chance to go home, really — if you want to.”
James shook his head. “I don’t get it. I’m home now. I mean; I want to go home to my place on the hill. I want to get back home – not leave it forever. Death is about leaving.”
Elizabeth Grace shrugged. “I guess; you can look at it that way. But my dad used to say that he never really had a home here. He wasn’t so worried about leaving since he knew that he’d be going to his real home later. I miss him, but I don’t worry about him. He was right. He was a good man who loved a lot of people. His love didn’t disappear – I think it just led him home.”
James nodded. Then he squeezed Elizabeth’s hand and closed his eyes. “I’ll have to think about that. I’ve never understood death, but I like your version. I’ve tried to love more, to really care, and ― it has led me home ― already.”
Elizabeth smiled as she let his hand go and then bent down and placed a kiss on his white cheek. “Good night, Mr. James. You’ll always find a home in those you love.”
James smiled as he drifted into a peaceful slumber. He still didn’t know exactly what death meant, but he did know what happiness was. And he figured that knowledge would lead him past the tombstone.