The following is a work of fiction.
We’d been dating for three months when Carla broke up with me. This is confusing to describe, because I’m saying we broke up, though we never technically said, to each other or to others, that we were dating in the first place, and she never actually used the words “break up”. She didn’t say any words that even sounded like break up – not “time out”, not “take a break”, not even “pause”. She just said she was leaving. She was leaving for Africa.
“How long will you be there?” I said, and though I tried, I could not force back the tremor in my voice. It was that tremor which is a precursor to guttoral tears. By her expression, by the hush in her voice, I already knew this was not a short trip she was planning. Carla did not believe in short-term missions; she’d told me that once.
“I don’t know yet.” she answered.
“How can you not know?” I said, more loudly and more sharply than I intended. She shuddered. I quieted myself. “I mean, you have a whole life here.” I said, and even as I heard the words come from my own mouth, I realized the statement was bullshit – she didn’t really have a whole life here – not anything that was all that valuable to a girl like her. What did she have? Friends? Carla could make friends anywhere, and more quickly than just about anybody. What else? Her shitty job, taking care of my invalid father? Or there was me. The invalid’s kid.
Then the fear came; it came in a freezing river – with tears of grief, of anger, of agonizing humiliation – for there is nothing so humiliating as wanting and needing another human far more than she needs you. To Carla, I was just a small thing, and now I was certain I would always be just a small thing to her – a passing Autumn fling during that time before life truly began for her. While for me, Carla was my life. In three, rapid-fire months, she’d become my life.
“Maybe…I could -” I stopped myself, or she stopped me by placing her hand on mine. I stared at her hand. I loved her hands – the way she kept her fingernails trimmed so short, but she always painted them bright colors. Today, they were painted blue, and the blue was chipped up here and there, because Carla used her hands a lot. And that’s what she’d be doing in Africa – using her hands to touch people and to make them better just by being near them. “I can’t go with you, can I?” I said. And I already knew the answer.
“Your dad.” she said, in a whisper.
“My dad.” I said.
For several days, I disappeared. Aside from the occasional trip to the bathroom or kitchen, I remained in my room, watching TV. I scrolled through acres of nebulous cable television, seeking reruns of the worst, most obscure films to watch; the more obscure the film, the better dulled was my anxiety. On days Carla cared for Dad, I killed the volume on the television and only watched the pictures. I killed the sound because I didn’t want her thinking about the fact that I was home, and I killed the sound because I wanted to catch an occasional bit of Carla’s voice when she talked to Dad. I always loved the way she talked to Dad. She didn’t raise her voice, like he was hard of hearing. She didn’t talk like a baby as if he were one. She spoke to him like he was a normal person. Of course, he wasn’t a normal person, but Carla had too much respect for him to speak to him as if he were otherwise.
Once, on a Thursday she was working – I think it could have been her last day before she was ready to fly away to Africa – I sensed that she was outside my door, just standing there. I could hear “Judge Judy” on the living room television, and Dad usually fell asleep in his chair during Judy. Usually, I could hear Carla clinking dishes around in the kitchen or running the vacuum cleaner, but this day, I heard nothing, except what I thought was a creak from the hardwood floors outside in the hall.
I wanted to see Carla’s face on the other side of my door. I wanted to do more than just hear her voice; I wanted to see her voice as it escaped from her lips into the open air. But seeing and hearing was not nearly enough. I wanted to touch her and hold on to her, to pull her inside the stagnancy of my room and not let her go until she gave up on her damned idea to leave the country, and I could convince her she ought to stay and marry me. For several seconds, I pictured her and I, living as a married couple in my same house, sleeping together in the worn out bed in my dingy bedroom. And I pictured her, feeding and bathing my father, like a mother would a child.
Then I fully understood, Carla and I could not be together.
I imagined she was still standing in the hallway, a word caught in her throat, delicate hand raised, poised to knock on my door. I slipped off my bed and grabbed my shoes from the floor. I crept to my window, opened it, and climbed outside, into the October gray, my feet landing in the soggy planter outside my room.
My face met the branch of a windswept tree with a crack. I barely felt a thing, preoccupied as I was with escaping the place, worried Carla may have heard me opening the window and my awkward stumble over the sill. It was raining – not hard – just the tedious drizzle so common for the time of year, and as I emerged from a shin-high smattering of bushes, my toe caught a scraggly root, caused me to pitch forward into the moss-infested lawn. My hands broke my fall, then sank deep into the marshy grass, eliciting a noisome waft of wet mildew. I paused, thought about climbing back to my room, but realized it was unlikely I’d be capable of heaving myself back up and through my window, and I refused to go through the front door, so I remained there, face inches from the earth as a new sadness trickled through me – a sadness more subtle than what came with Carla’s crushing rejection. It was sadness over everything – the inevitable decay beauty. It was over the grass; for, though it was manicured and maintained by a local landscaping company, it was not the same as it had been when Dad cared for it. Hoarding patches of moss glimmered transluscently beneath and within the sparse blades of grass. Dad would have hated it, were he capable of noticing. He’d always hated moss.
I extracted myself from the ground, the sopping earth gripping my hands like suction cups; as I rose, I looked down at myself and saw how wretched I was in that moment – a slick of mud past my wrists, a crusty “Go Navy” t-shirt hung on me, and a pair of black jeans that were too short for me; they’d always been too short for me, and now they revealed that I’d neglected to put on socks. A moisture more thick than the drizzle pronounced itself upon my cheek, and I instinctively touched at it with my mud-coated fingers. Blood. The tree branch.
I’d forgotten my keys, so I could not drive anywhere. I began to walk. Making my way down the block, I cleaned my soiled hands on my “Go Navy” t-shirt, obscuring the logo. I walked along to no destination.
They say if you are hungry enough, you’ll end up anyplace that can quickly make the hunger go away. They say this explains why there are so many Denny’s and Waffle Houses. In a sideways fashion, it may explain why my feet made their way to the Shady Acres. I must have been hungry for something, and it wasn’t their crappy cafeteria with its stingy portions.
I’d been to see Frankie enough times that the ladies at the front desk never bothered to give me directions or ask me any questions. I always just signed the sheet on the counter – the one I figured they never read, so I sometimes signed my name as “Howard The Duck” or “Superman”. This time, when I arrived, rain-soaked and smeared with mud, blank in the face and addled in the brain, I must have caught the front desk lady’s attention, because she sat there staring at me – her hand halfway to meeting her mouth for a sip from a chipped, black mug with red lipstick marks along the rim that read Sexy Granny. Mud, mingled with blood, obscured the name that I wrote on the sign-in sheet. I signed it, “Fortune’s Fool”.
The hallway leading to Frankie’s room was silent, but for the sound of water squeezing and releasing from the insides of my shoes. Sometimes, I knew, Frankie napped around this time of the afternoon, and I suppose, had I found him napping, I would have turned and left, maybe even apologized to the ladies for tracking mud on the shiny tile floors.
When I arrived at the door with the label that said Captain John Franks, I saw that it was slightly ajar, which meant he wasn’t napping, so I opened it the rest of the way and found an empty room. Not empty like, he wasn’t in there. Empty – as in, nobody lived there anymore.
“I didn’t have a chance to tell you.” came a voice from behind. It was the lady from the front desk, the one with the Sexy Granny mug.
“Tell me what?” I said. Not that it made much sense, but I really figured the coffee mug lady was ready to tell me that Frankie had switched apartments, or maybe he’d gotten fed up with the shitty food in the lunch room and decided to leave Shady Acres for a place with better choice in cuisine. I did not expect her to tell me Frankie was dead.
“It happened night before last. You’re the young man who came to see him sometimes, right? I’m Irene. I’m sorry. I, I don’t remember your name.” she fumbled. I turned my eyes from the bland, cream-coated walls of what used to be the stronghold of a proud hero, and I looked at the face of Irene – ashen, but for her cracked red lipstick and a set of drawn-on eyebrows. Her forehead was creased in a way of forced empathy, like that of a woman who was so accustomed to having these sorts of conversations, she was unable to fully veil her abiding apathy.
“How did…” and I stopped myself. I wanted to know. I wanted to know, not how he died – not exactly. I wanted to know where. Was it away from here, out in the open air, like he’d told me he wanted? I didn’t need to ask. The answer was obvious. Captain John Franks died right here, in his room, like anybody else. The most uncommon man I’d known in my life, died like any common man – in his sleep. In his bed, with shit in his pants.
Imagine that. A man who survived WWII – who survived for days in the open ocean – a man like that shouldn’t ever die, not like we think of dying. A man like that ought to be zapped into eternity or picked up in a chariot like the prophet Elijah, but no; he died in his damn bed, like any other oxygen sucker in the world.
The Shady Acres became for me in that moment a suffocating prison. With no further words, I wheeled around and pushed my way back down the hall, leaving another trail of mud beside the one that followed my arrival, and by the time I reached the doors, I was sprinting. I ran toward the road that runs by Shady Acres, and I crossed it to a park that backed to a river with a bridge, and across this bridge was a stretch of woods that I always supposed Frankie would escape to when he knew it was his time. He’d missed his time in these woods. I would make it up for him.
The bridge was a modern, unimpressive thing – no quaint cobblestone or brick to give it an old world look; those sorts of adornments would have provided nesting grounds for the rampant moss of the area, which would have made the bridge high maintenance, and since our age is one of a perpetual quest for convenience, the decision was made to make the pedestrian bridge appear industrial, much like a miniaturized freeway overpass. My legs took me across the bridge in a few strides before launching me into the wild woods.
Fragrance of earth and pine filled my nostrils – of moist detritus, fern brush, and the omnipresent moss. Disregarding the lashes of low hanging tree branches across my unguarded face and the hazards of raised roots along the path I forged, my eyes began to scan for a place. It was not escape I sought. It was home.
Here, I would find a place the World would not find me. Though some time would pass, eventually they would come looking. Carla would search for me once she realized I’d left and not returned. She would look for me, likely even ask about me at the Shady Acres, but I’d never told her about Frankie’s plans to take off and die alone, so it would not occur to her to look for me out here. It may even be that she would postpone her trip to Africa out of worry for me; this was Carla’s way, to put others before herself, but it was the same reason she would eventually give up, for there are plenty of “others” in the world, and Carla would find herself compelled to rescue them as well. Perhaps this was why I could not bear to face her after she’d told me she was leaving – because I was unsatisfied if I could not be the most important “other” in her life.
Tall pines of the deeper forest converged above and about me, blotting out the already sparse daylight, granting the appearance of premature twilight. The trees appeared to me as rugged, haunting sentinels – protecting and obscuring me from the world – whispering, whispering, “Disappear, boy, disappear.”
Until that moment, it never made sense to me, why Frankie had taken such an interest in my life, and why he’d chosen to entrust me with many of his personal reflections. For Frankie, I was all that was left. He’d outlived his kin, and he had no children. All there was for him to do – all that remained for him to pass on – was for him to depart the world as something better, something more than human, something capable of transcending death. Fate, with her cold tendrils, had stolen this from him. Now I, with Carla leaving and little else to lose, would be his substitute.
Blessed few understand the agony of drowning, for drowning adjoins itself to a parting from this life, and so those final fading seconds – those that delineate between near-drowning and death itself – they remain a mystery to all but a handful still among us. Frankie was one who understood. Thanks to him, so do I.
I’ll tell you the worst part of drowning. It isn’t the burn within your starving lungs that radiates to every nerve and tissue of your body. It isn’t the tricks your tortured mind plays upon you, causing you to spasm and thrash involuntarily, eventually seizing control of your diaphram in order to draw in water to the part of the body where only air ought to be. It isn’t the last seconds of consciousness, when you understand that this is the end, and you’re abandoned to the mercy of a cold, alien world that has simultaneously invaded and enveloped you, and it will hold you forever. No, the worst part of drowning comes prior to any of these; it is when you still have a parcel of strength in your body, but reason enough in your mind to understand that you will not survive, that this is the end for you, and the World will go on. It will go on without you.