Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Written Word Weds. - Last Chance and the Mourning After

Capstone update: a little over 1,000 words done on each essay, odds are good that I'll be pretty much done by tomorrow night *knock on wood*

As you may have guessed, since I'm back in school mode, that also means I've been back in can't-read-unless-it's-school-related mode. Which is a shame, since practically every book I had on hold at the public library came in for me right before I left for Miamuh. What's a double shame is that one of them is Thud!, the latest book in Terry Pratchet's Discworld series, which is, if not my all-time favorite fantasy series, at least my all-time favorite humorous fantasy series. And it's not just a new Discworld book; it's a new Discworld book about Commander Vimes and the Watch, and the Watch books are my favorites. Other books just sitting there waiting for me to read them are Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel; My Father the Spy; Wellspring of Chaos; Spanking the Donkey; The Last True Story I'll Ever Tell; Kushiels' Dart; and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Presents America (The Book), A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction.

Anyway, since this is Written Word Wednesday, I figured I'd post some of my own scribblings in lieu of any reviews. So, here's a short story I wrote for my Creative Writing class many moons ago. 'Tis a bit clunky in parts (I cringed at some of my phrasing while re-reading it just now), and while I haven't the wherewithal to do a total rewrite just now, I did do a significant bit of rewriting, as anyone who's read the original could tell.

Moving on

"Can I help you?"

The voice snapped Josh back to reality from whatever world he entered when he was daydreaming. He turned towards the speaker, a middle aged nurse with peroxide blonde hair. "No thanks," he replied, "I'm just here with my roommate. His Grandfather's sick, and - - "

"Oh, you must mean Shel Barnes!"

Josh looked at her in amazement. "How did you...?"

The nurse laughed, which struck Josh as odd, until he realized she was just trying to put him at ease. "It's no big trick. Ol' Shel's the only Grandfatherly type in the ICU with any visitors right now, and I just saw Billy walking in. You really came with Billy all this way from school just because of Shel?"

He nodded. "Yeah, Bill's mom called a few hours ago and he didn't seem to be in any shape to drive here alone, so here I am."

"Well, I'm glad Billy's here. It'll mean a lot to Shel to see his family one last..." Her voice trailed off. She started to move down the hall. "Well, if you need anything don't be afraid to ask."

As he watched her go off to make her rounds Josh found himself marveling again at the magic small town Oklahoma. From the instant they had walked into the hospital, Bill had been bombarded by sympathetic hugs and handshakes from practically everyone they saw. It boggled Josh’s mind that everyone knew everyone else so well. It was nothing like that in the "big city" where he grew up, as Bill insisted on calling it.

Josh and Bill had met each other their freshman year due to the wonderfully random process of Residence Hall roommate selection. When he first received his letter notifying him that his future roommate, named William Robert Sheridan, was from some rinky-dink town Josh had never heard of, his first thought was "Great, I get to spend the next year with some hick named Billy Bob." But from the instant the two boys met, they clicked. Bill found out that some things are universal no matter how large a town you came from: sports, cars, and the opposite sex. And what differences there were seemed only to amplify their friendship. Josh, an only child, began to view this small town boy, on his own for the first time, as the younger brother he never had. As he put it, he was determined to “show Bill the ropes,” a pronouncement Bill always met with rolled eyes. Bill on the other hand, grandson of a minister, seemed determined to save Josh's pagan soul. An odd duo, perhaps, but Josh considered Bill the best friend he had ever had.

Bill's mother had called a few days earlier to tell him that his grandfather had come down with a nasty case of pneumonia, but he was doing OK and there wasn't any reason for Bill to make the long drive home. Bill had been uneasy ever since then, and Josh had known something was wrong the instant he had heard Mrs. Sheridan's shaky voice on the phone earlier that evening.

"I'll get Bill for you," he had begun.

"Wait a minute Josh," she interrupted before he sat down the phone. "I want to talk to you for a minute first."

"Umm, sure. What about?" he asked, unsure of where this was heading. In his experience, when a friend’s parent asked to talk to him, it was generally to gripe him out for being a bad influence.

"His granddad has taken a turn for the worse, and I think Bill should come home as soon as possible. It's late, and it'll be even later by the time he gets here. He won't be in any shape to make the drive alone, so I want you to promise me that you'll ride with him."

Josh was stunned into silence for several moments. The thought of having to be cooped up with a depressed Bill for the long drive made him extremely uncomfortable. He briefly considered telling his friend’s mom “But I really suck at this stuff,” but quickly decided that would probably prompt something a little more heated than the usual bad-influence speech.

"You know how your son is, Mrs. Sheridan," Josh protested, taking a different tack. "He'll never agree to let me make the trip just for his sake."

"Then tell him it's for MY sake, okay, Josh?"

The worry in her voice broke down Josh’s last ounce of resistance. "OK. I promise." He then called Bill to the phone and went straight to his room to pack a change of clothes. Bill was so shaken by the call that he didn't even object to Josh driving.

They left immediately and arrived at the Miami (pronounced Miam-UH if you valued your life) Regional Health Center around midnight. After getting a medical update (kidney failure), Bill had asked to go in to see his grandfather alone, leaving Josh stuck in a waiting room full of Bill’s nosy, noisy relatives. After hearing the eccentric Aunt Charla proclaim loudly that the Living Bible was written by a bunch of foreign lesbians with plans of world domination, Josh decided that he would be more comfortable waiting in the hallway.

Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the doors to the ICU swinging shut and barely caught a glimpse of his roommate hurriedly rounding the corner of the nurses' station headed towards the stairs. Knowing that Bill’s frantic exit presaged an emotional encounter, Josh steeled himself and headed after his friend, muttering to himself “Man, I suck at this stuff.”

The small hospital's parking lot was fairly well deserted at that time of night, making it easy for Josh to find his car. Bill was leaning up against the hood, arms clutched tight around himself.

"Want to talk about it?"

Bill's fingers groped at his jacket. "I had to get out of there, man. I couldn't lose it in front of him. I just couldn't."

"I thought your mom said he was sedated."

"He is. It's just that he hated all that sentimental crap, y'know? It'd be like letting him down if I broke down in front of anyone."

Josh shook his head. Bill was one of the most sentimental guys he knew and had never been the least bit apologetic about it before, no matter how often Josh razzed him about it. "From what all you've told me about your grandpa, I don't think he'd find any fault in your being just a tiny bit emotional."

"Since when have you expected me to think about things rationally?" Bill asked, trying to lighten the mood. There was a brittleness to his tone that kept it from being wholly effective, but Josh decided to play along.

"Since never, I guess. But one can always hope, right?" Receiving no response, he decided to change the subject. "Y'know, I think it's pretty cool the way your fam- - "

"Look at that," Bill interrupted. Josh glanced in the direction he was pointing, but all he saw was a nurse entering the hospital.

"Look at what?"

"I'm pretty sure that nurse thinks we're a couple of stalkers. She got halfway across the lot, saw us, and did a 180. She probably went to get a police escort."

"So much for small town openness."

"Hey, we may not be in the big city, but we're not exactly in Hooterville either."

"You're right, Hooterville's about twenty miles south, isn’t it?" Before Bill could frame a response, they noticed the hospital's automatic doors opening for the nurse, along with the predicted police escort. Both of the boys had to struggle to contain their nervous laughter as the uniformed duo walked past them to the car parked directly in front of Josh's blue Pontiac. The cop's eyes seemed to drink in every detail of Josh's face for a future lineup before lighting up in recognition as they turned to Bill.

"Hey Bill, almost didn't recognize ya, it's been so long. Sorry to hear about Shel. He doin' all right?"

"It's touch and go right now, Jess. Won't know anything until some of the tests come back tomorrow."

Jess-the-policeman nodded sagely. "Well, me and the missus will keep you guys in our prayers." He finished his escort of the nurse and started back towards the hospital. "You boys might want to consider a different place to talk at this time of night," he said as he passed. "Some of my co workers might be a bit more trigger happy than m'self."

Josh waited until the cop was out of earshot and then turned to Bill, ready to make a sarcastic remark, but stopped when he noticed the tears welling up in his friend's eyes. While Bill had always been a tad emotional, Josh had never seen him come this close to crying before. Unsure of how to react, he was somewhat relieved when Bill spoke first.

"I think I could have handled this just fine if I hadn't seen him," he began. "I mean, as long as I was just dealing with the concept of his death in the abstract, I was fine. A little sad, sure, but still relatively all right. But when I saw him..." His voice broke.

"Bill, you don't have to "

"He looked like a mummy," Bill said. "A damn mummy. With his hands strapped down, tubes tied all over him, his mouth taped open, eyes rolling back in his head...This was my last chance to see him, my last chance to tell him how much he meant to me, and all I could think of was how much he looked like a reject from some B movie. He just looked so . . . so LOST." And with those final syllables Bill finally broke down, tears streaming down his face. Josh watched in silence, wanting to reach out, wanting to comfort his friend, wanting to do anything to stop the flood, but not knowing how.


Josh quietly opened up the side door of the house and crept outside. He eased the door shut and then went through the open gate into the back yard. He sidestepped large piles of junk littering the yard, leftovers from young children at play, and sat himself on top of a beat up picnic table. He stared up into the clear night sky and tried to process the events of the previous week.

The boys had spent the weekend in Miami before being ordered back to school. "There's nothing you can do here," Bill's mother had told them. "And I doubt either one of you can afford to miss any classes.” Josh had assumed that was aimed more at him than straight-laced, straight-A Bill, and found himself oddly touched by her concern. “Besides, it'll do you good to go back and get your mind off this whole mess." They had barely gotten settled back into their schedules when they got the phone call Bill had truly been dreading. When Bill asked him to come back for the funeral, Josh couldn’t think of a graceful way out of it. Besides, as much as the thought of seeing Josh’s family in full-on mourning had terrified him, he also had felt strangely obligated to see this through to the end.

Josh's head was currently throbbing due to the intense amounts of perfume worn by all of the elderly women attending the funeral, several of whom also stopped by Bill's grandparents' house to deliver food for the family. That had been several hours ago, but the offending fragrances seemed to have bonded to Josh's clothes. He began to rub his head gently, hoping to offset some of the pressure from his sinuses.

The sound of the side door opening caused him to cringe with the panicked thought, "Oh crap, the rugrats have escaped." Bill's young cousins, in an unconscious effort to exorcise all of their pent-up aggression, had claimed the back yard as their private battleground, constructing forts from piles of bricks stacked under the picnic table. They had also built "dummies" to practice their karate skills on, made from the planks of wood on which the bricks had been lying. The results of this mayhem were now scattered throughout the yard. He braced himself against the arrival of the howling mob, but was immensely relieved to hear instead the voice of his roommate.

"What, did my family give you a headache?"

"In a roundabout way, yeah, I guess they did."

"They do have that effect on some people." He gave Josh an appraising look. "Are you OK?"

"Nothing a frontal lobotomy wouldn't cure." He waved off any further questions in favor of one of his own. "So how in the world did you notice I was missing from that press of humanity?" It was a legitimate question. The house, which had been barely big enough for Bill's grandparents by themselves, was filled to overflowing with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends of the family.

"Well, I admit I didn't realize you were gone at first," Bill said, stooping to pick up a miniature soccer ball about the size of his fist from underneath the table. "But then little Bev came up and asked me where Flunky was."

Josh groaned. Earlier that day following the funeral, several of the children began to pester the adult members of the family about going to the park. Finally Bill's Aunt Charla exclaimed, "Oh, just get Bill and what’s-his-name, Flunky, to take you." The slip up had stuck in the young ones' minds.

"Oh, don't be like that," Bill said, laughing. "You always said you wanted a nickname." Josh just shook his head, which caused another groan to escape his lips, this time from pain. Bill sat down beside him on the table and handed him some pills. "These are from my Aunt Tina, the walking pharmacy. She said they should help."

Josh grunted his thanks before swallowing the pills dry. The two of them sat in silence for several minutes, staring into the nighttime sky, appreciating the relative quietness. Bill was the first to break the silence, staring at the ball in his hands as he began to speak. "Josh, I really wanted to tell you how much I. . ."

"Oh, no, you don't!" Josh interrupted. "You were getting ready to gush, weren't you? You know how much I hate it when you gush."

"I was just going to say - -"

"How much you appreciated me coming, that I didn't have to do that, what a nice guy I am, and so on and so forth. Am I right?"

"All except for that thing about you being nice, yeah."

"But you've already said all of that. Several times. And so has most of your family. I didn't come up here to hear what a great guy I am. I can hear that anytime."

Bill laughed. "I'm sure you can."

The two boys sat in silence once again. Bill began to toss the mini ball back and forth, from hand to hand. Finally the temptation became too great for Josh, who reached out and snatched the ball in mid toss. He then began to throw the ball in the air and catch it again, all with his right hand, positioning himself so that Bill couldn't reclaim the ball without lunging across the table.

Staring intently at the ball as he tossed it, Josh decided to break the silence this time. "Y'know, your family kinda took me by surprise."

"How so?"

"Well, the only other funerals I've been to have been for a couple of my great aunts and an uncle, none of whom I could remember ever meeting. It's amazing, really, how my entire family falls to pieces over these people they almost never see, and even if they do it's usually not on very good terms. I actually looked forward to the funerals since mom and dad were too busy trying to out mourn one another to think of anything to fight over."

"That's awful."

Josh shrugged. "That's just the way it was. But with my highly dysfunctional family having that strong of a reaction to a death, just think of how I imagined your family's reactions would be."

"You were expecting, what, a house full of babbling hysterics?" Bill asked, making a sudden reach for the ball.

"Well, to be fair, I think most of your family babbles hysterically at the best of times," Josh replied, successfully fending off the attack. "Frankly, I was half expecting to see your darling Aunt Charla decked out in a Biblical sack cloth, wailing and gnashing her teeth through the whole ceremony."

"Ah, so you were disappointed that we didn't put on more of a show?"

"On the contrary, you guys put on a great show. From the moment I stepped into your grandparents' house last night I felt like I was surrounded by a mob of Theatre majors. Everything they did and said was so extravagantly done I felt like I should applaud. Your Uncle Mark was cracking jokes all the way to the cemetery, for crying out loud."

"That's just the way my family deals with stuff," Bill explained. "Mom's always saying that if you don't laugh you gotta cry, and none of us like having puffy eyes. So we laugh, if we can."

"I wasn't trying to be negative about it," Josh said. "It just wasn't what I expected."

"Yeah, my family has that effect on people too." And with those words Bill launched himself at the ball, tackling Josh in the process. The hit the ground hard, and began to wrestle over the ball. They struggled for several minutes, until Josh finally wrested the ball away from Bill. He rolled out of reach, sat up, shot a quick, smug smile at his roommate, and then casually tossed him the ball.

"So you feel better now that you worked off some of your aggression, or do I need to set up some ‘dummies’ for you to clobber?"

Bill chuckled. "Feeling a little better, thanks. And yourself?"

"Oh, great. Nothing like having your head slammed into the ground to help ease a monster headache." He waited just long enough for Bill to start an apology before continuing. "Don't apologize, dork boy, I was joking. Jeez, you’re so predictable. Your Aunt's wonder pills have already kicked in. I am feeling no pain."

Bill started to get up. "Well, we'd better get going. I'm supposed to drive my cousins over to my folks’ place so they'll have someplace to sleep."

Josh motioned for him to wait. "There's something else I want to talk to you about, real quick." Bill gave him a puzzled look, but settled down into a crouch and motioned for him to continue. Josh took a deep breath before plunging ahead. "I, um, well, I . . . aw, hell, you know I suck at this stuff. But, I was just wondering how you're holding up through all of this. You've been pretty quiet about everything."

Bill didn't speak for minute. "It's like I said when I first saw him in the hospital, with all of those tubes coming out of him. I could handle all of this in the abstract: my granddad's dying, my granddad's dead. No problem. It's only when I'm confronted face first with it that it starts to get to me. Did you notice how, even though it's standing room only in there, nobody wants to sit down in the recliner? That's because it was his chair. He never made a big deal about it, never chased anyone out of it. But we all knew it was his just the same."

Josh pressed him again. "You kind of side-stepped the question, bud. How are you holding up?"

Bill's grip on the ball had hardened so much Josh was afraid the ball would burst soon. "Want to know the truth?” he asked, an odd tone coloring his voice. Josh nodded for him to continue. “In a way, I'm kind of relieved he's passed on, isn’t that awful? He hasn't been in good shape since his first bypass several years ago. He was starting to lose his sense of balance. For a couple of years I had nightmares where he would start to fall and I was the only one who could catch him. Only I would always be too weak and he would drag me down with him, crying for help the whole time.

"The pneumonia was really a blessing in disguise. He got to see all of his children and grandchildren one last time. He got to know how much everyone cared. And he got to show us how much he cared.” A slight pause. “Then he decided to move on to the Lord's kingdom, and that was that."

Something in Bill's voice struck a chord in Josh. "What do you mean 'he decided'?"

A small sigh escaping his lips, Bill raised himself off the ground. "He didn't just die in his sleep, Josh." The ball was now noticeably losing its stuffing, but Bill was oblivious. "Early Thursday morning he worked his tongue up underneath the breathing tube and managed to dislodge it from his throat.” The shattered note in his voice sent shivers down Josh’s spine. “Grandma refuses to believe it. She thinks he just got restless in his sleep and it accidentally came out. But mom and dad both talked to the nurses who were there. They said there was no way it was an accident."

Josh was amazed. "But . . . he was a preacher. Isn't suicide a mortal sin or something?"

"Not to us Baptists it's not," Bill answered, laughing a dark little laugh unlike anything Josh had heard come from his throat. "But I don't think of it as a suicide anyway. It's such a negative word. I prefer to think of it as knowing when your work on earth is done and it's time for you to move on." At this the boys’ eyes locked, Bill’s gaze seeming to plead with Josh to agree with his rationalization, to validate his way of coping. Josh, completely out of his depth, could only stare back in silence, until Bill finally broke the tableau, glancing down at the wounded ball in his hand. This glance at the mundane snapped him back to reality. "Speaking of moving on, we better get back inside before they send a search party after us." Bill turned towards the house, mindlessly dropping the ball to the ground as he made his way inside.

Josh quietly watched his friend enter the house, mentally kicking himself for opening up his roommate’s wounds without any idea of how to patch them back up. “I really, really suck at this crap,” he mumbled to himself before heading towards the house, pausing long enough to scoop up the ball, noting as it went into his coat pocket that it would only take a couple of stitches to put it right again. "At least there's one thing I can fix," he thought to himself, taking one last deep breath of fresh air before heading into the boisterous, perfume-soaked mass of mourners.