By Andrew Landolfi
51 years since the day. Has it been that much time? 51 fucking years. Really. Behind him, a brass alarm clock sputters ahead—perfectly rhythmic, of course—as opposed to the sporadic pulsing between his eyes. He shifts awkwardly, twisting the lower half of his torso so his knees lay sideways on the bed while his back and head remain flat on the lumpy mattress; he is paper folded over onto itself—he is actually folding into himself.
He thrusts out his hand, groping for a towel soaking in lukewarm water lying on the nightstand beside his bed. He grasps the towel, pulls it to the surface and listens to the excess water drain back into the basin—a momentary melody to accompany the incessant thumping of the damn clock. Tick. Shit. He squeezes the water out of the rag. Tock. I’m absolutely ruined. He unravels the towel. Tick. What’s left for me? He moves the towel toward him and gently lowers the towel onto his face.
Tick. Tick. Tick. That incessant fucking ticking.
Outside, the sun sends twisted light across an empty autumn sky; some unfortunate light dribbles through the old man’s window and spills helplessly across the floor—what an unlucky way for orange-tinted light to spend the evening. On the sidewalk, a blank piece of paper tumbles over itself down the road. The wind subsides momentarily, and the paper lurches to a halt—the world stops too. The autumn air is crisp and thin like the blood pulsing back and forth between the old man’s heart and his withering extremities. A bird screams out. Then, as if to carry the heartbroken cry, the leaves rustle back to life and the wind grabs hold of the helpless appeal and sends it onward—it is a child trapped in rapids.
The wind clutches the paper again, spinning the crumpled mass wildly down the road.
Inside the twilight colored bedroom, light continues across the room; sliding, floating, crawling—a creature dragging itself away from an imminent death—a death impossible to avoid, but a death that fails to arrive punctually, too. Light spreads across the old man’s face, hits his retina and refracts into brilliant diamond threads. In his lifeless hand he clutches a bottle of Ambien; the warm rag still lingers upon his wrinkled face. And all this time he continues to think one thing: 51 years. 51 fucking years. What have I done?
“Hey John, do you promise you will love me forever?”
“Of course I will, why do you even need to ask?”
He rubs his right hand lightly across her cheek and looks—not into her eyes but through her eyes—at the girl he often said I love you to. He thinks about words, and how every utterance and syllable and phrase is meaningless; just sounds that will inevitably tumble into the bottomless void to be forgotten—maybe all things are better left unsaid.
“I love you, John.” Tears begin to stream down her face, puddle on her chin and then plummet toward the ground—the same force that drew them together is the same force that pulls her tears from her eyes and to the Earth. She looks disgusting when she cries.
Her tears fall like liquid crystal, and as they fall, her tears catch the fleeting rays of evening light, capture them, fracture them and then hurl them outward in a thousand different directions. He notices the snot pooling on the delicate hairs above her upper lip.
“I love you.” His left hand lifts her chin, and tilts it towards his lips. A smile creeps across her face, timidly, while mucus slides toward the dip in her smile. Her tears stop flowing and her damp cheeks, smeared mascara, and empty look are the only remnants of her recent tears.
He moves her lips towards his; he shudders with the anticipation of her lips—the imminent euphoria of a first kiss. Her hands edge around his waist and begin pulling him toward her, pulling until his hips press firmly against hers—pulling until two became one.
Their lips lock and, then, linger. He feels the warmth, the safety, the addiction of new loves first kiss; he remarks at the feeling because he never deserved love, because he had never been loved, because he thought he would never love—but here he is shaken by loves first embrace.
A car horn rings out in the distance. A tire squeals. A metal crunch rips the air apart.
He kisses her again. He tastes her salty tears.
His brother Joseph is breaking. He is a Faberge Egg hurdling toward a marble floor—beautiful and priceless, he is the ideal aesthetic. He glistens until the last instant, showing brilliantly in my mind’s eye. The paramedics say when the steel framed 61’ Chevy smashed into his vintage white and red Schwin bicycle—the one Mom and Dad gave him for his 13th birthday—that he died on impact; they say he felt no pain.
He imagines death hurts more than anything else, but he wouldn’t know—some experiences can never be elaborated upon; habitually, dead men tell no tales.
On impact his body shot parallel to his handlebars, and flew into a thicket of thorns and ferns and prairie grass; nature assertively reclaiming what it owns. The paramedics tell me his face hung loosely to his skull when they found him convulsing on the side of the road. His baby-smooth skin—torn by the force of his body sliding like an ice skate on slick ice across the hardened autumn Earth—turned the color of charred oak.
They tell me the collision was gruesome, so I imagine this instead: The Faberge Egg smashes upon the white marble and scatters like water on a hot skittle across the floor. Priceless pieces of crystal scurry outward and onward without losing momentum, and before long, the floor is empty again, and the only evidence remaining—aside from complete silence hanging solemnly in the room—is the knowledge something beautiful has been destroyed long before it should have been.
Time rewards some and obliterates others. Hitler died at 56. Joseph died at 14.
My parents choose to have a closed casket; they think he is too purple to be seen by the children—I imagine Joe doesn’t mind. Neither do I, though. I never cared for the color purple—I haven’t cared about much since.
He breaks up with her the following day. He loves her—he says he never loved anything more—but rather than turning to the ones who care, he turns away—a dying patient denying medical treatment. He often says he loves fried eggs and bacon, too; maybe she is like bacon and eggs to him: he digests her love and then shits it out.
He turns inward until he sees nothing other than himself: he notices the internal cracks and prays they will kill him.
Two years later, she marries. The wedding—a quaint ceremony held on the fertile hips of the Mississippi—takes place two weeks before he decides to leave home. He attends the wedding; a deed done out of principle, not desire. She makes a big deal out of him attending; her high-pitched squeal, her pseudo smile, her outrageous hand movements—all an act to create the desired effect: look at me, she says, I am still friends with the emotional hand grenade.
The ceremony proceeds beautifully: her husband is quite a handsome devil. He returns home and begins packing his bags; maybe a change in scenery will fix his heart. Maybe nothing will. Nothing.
The Ambien rattles intermittently in his hands from the first tremors of developing arthritis. He looks like a sick child struggling with an ailment; rattle in hand, awaiting the relaxing touch of a young mother. Instead, he lay writhing in the depths of pain fermented in a half century’s time; pain that grows increasingly acidic with each slam of the second hand—pain that lingers like wind, eternally.
Tick. It’s over. The pain smashes between his eyes. Tock. It’s so simple. He opens the Ambien. Tick. Just do it. He dumps the contents of the bottle into his sweaty palms. Tock. Where does the time go?
Tick. Tick. Tick.
He swallows hard. Orange light fills the room until a voice catches him before he drowns.
“I love you.”