Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Four Hours by Fred Skolnik

Fred Skolnik narrates the last four hours of Jake's life in stream of consciousness style.

The day of your death is a very special day. Ideally it should be planned, but of course we seldom know precisely when we are going to die so we come downstairs feeling just slightly unwell, thinking maybe it's heartburn, and don't pay much attention to it because we've had that feeling before, as when Jake came downstairs and saw Edna in the kitchen making breakfast though she knew he never ate before nine and here it was only eight so they started bickering right away and when he went into the dining room he saw that the paper was just thrown down on the table instead of being laid out at the proper angle beside his place mat where his coffee cup should have been as in the early years of their marriage when he had called her Edna Too Good for Too Good To Be True, which was a play on her maiden name, and had loved her madly. He sat down and glanced at the paper. From the kitchen Edna shouted, "You want coffee?" and Jake said, "I'll get it myself," but didn't get up because he wasn't in the mood for coffee either and that too happened occasionally though his life was perfectly ordered, machinelike even: downstairs by eight, the newspaper, the coffee, a quick look outside to see what the weather was like, breakfast at nine, and the house to himself till lunchtime because Edna was still working half a day as a cashier in the family delicatessen and would bring cold cuts back for lunch though she warned him time and again that they weren't the healthiest thing to eat. He'd been eating restaurant food for forty years and figured it was no worse than any other kind of food, not paying much attention to the health faddists just as he paid no attention to the antismokers being a cigar smoker himself so in any case there wouldn't be a problem there, as he saw it. Jake usually had his first cigar after breakfast sitting out in the yard and finishing the paper and often went down to the club where men like himself played gin rummy or pinochle most of the day, settling up outside because gambling wasn't allowed on the premises, but today he didn't feel like going out just as he didn't feel like having coffee or his breakfast and Edna said, "You all right?" and Jake said, "Yeah, yeah," in the tone he used when he didn't want to be bothered.

Edna left at eight-thirty and this always gave him a little lift, being rid of her for a while and being able to collect his thoughts without her nagging at him and enjoying the sunshine before it got too hot, letting his mind drift sometimes while he read the paper, laying it aside and thinking of the past. These were the golden years. Edna had been cashiering all her life and couldn't live without it but Jake didn't miss the deli at all. In the early days they'd get all excited when they counted up the receipts and always had sex on a good day so clearly the two were related, especially in Edna's case, but who was he to talk, money had always excited him too. The restaurant had only given them a good steady income but playing around in real estate had made him rich. He'd never told Edna what he was up to because he knew she wouldn't like it, but when he told her what they were worth he could swear her eyeballs started spinning in her head and she had all kinds of big plans which were not exactly to his liking though he couldn't very well deny her the big house and the furs and diamonds.

Jake still wasn't hungry but that was all right, it happened sometimes, sometimes he didn't feel like eating till very late in the morning, as when he had a cold or the heartburn. He made himself tea instead of coffee and drank it at the dining room table because he didn't feel like going outside this morning or even reading the paper. It was a peculiar feeling he had, like heartburn but not like heartburn, and it baffled him somewhat though it didn't occur to him that he might be very sick or even dying, in which case these moments would assume a monumental sense even if he did not know what they meant. Jake didn't know that he was going to die at noon, give or take a minute or two. Consequently, as in one of those illusions where a mirror seems to be bending space, he saw the time that was left to him in an infinitely extended line, for time could not be seen as ending though his time was. He had always figured he'd live till ninety and in fact had been counting on it, no other possibility was acceptable, and that was a time so remote he never thought about it though people his age were dying all around him. Jake was just seventy. He had the aches and pains, blurred vision, ringing in his ears and some flatulence but otherwise things were fine. Had he known he was going to die in another few hours he might not have had this peace of mind, not that it would have made a difference. His affairs were in order, as the saying went. Maybe he owed Edna a few explanations but what she didn't know wouldn't hurt her. It was good that the boys were carrying on the business. One of them was a lawyer and didn't spend too much time on the premises but Nate looked in every day and Edna of course kept everyone in line and had her hand on the till. Things would go on as before even if he wasn't around to put his two cents in and that was good. He'd built something that ran like a clock.

Nate called at nine o'clock and said, "What's doing, Pop?"

"Nothing much," Jake said.

"Mom says you weren't feeling well."

"Is that so? Where'd she get that idea?"

"She said you didn't drink your coffee."

"I had tea instead."

"So you're okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm okay. What's with you?"

"Nothing much."

"Are you at the restaurant?"

"Yeah."

"People coming in?"

"It's pretty empty."

"You have to push the breakfast special."

"Yeah, I know."

"Give it to them for a dollar ninety-five."

"With the two eggs?"

"One egg."

"Okay."

"That's it, I gotta go."

"Take care of yourself."

Jake put down the receiver and felt the burning sensation high and deep in his chest, and for a moment a slight wooziness or numbness. These special signs were always mixed in with the ordinary signs so you couldn't really tell them apart. He sat down and felt a little better. He didn't feel like moving. He just breathed evenly for a while and stared at a painting of Paris and the Seine that Edna had picked up for two hundred and fifty dollars from an artist in the street, the only original painting they had and one she never stopped talking about as though she'd become a patron of the arts though Jake had to admit he liked it too, all those lights and the murky water almost surreal. He'd never been to Paris but could imagine certain dangerous nighttime streets like the streets you had in the cities here though there you had the mystery too, something you couldn't put your finger on or trace to its source. Jake felt a little strange so he kept staring at the painting though he really wasn't seeing it. It was nine-thirty now. He had another two and a half hours to live. As far as he was concerned, though, he had all day and many more to come so he thought about going down to the club after lunch though generally he took a nap and got up at four or five and had a drink and sat outside until the sun started going down and in the evening they watched TV or the kids dropped by and sometimes they went out on a social call, two tiny people in a huge Buick that moved majestically through the narrow streets like an ocean liner. Jake got up and went to the bathroom. They used an orange-scented air freshener in all the bathrooms and that always picked him up. It was a pleasure to relieve yourself in the big house just as it was a pleasure to turn in at night in their big air-conditioned bedroom with the giant bed that made it feel like they were sleeping on opposite sides of the room. Roughly once a week he dragged himself over to Edna's side of the bed and planted himself between her legs though without fail she let him know that he was annoying her. The next morning he always slept till nine or ten and got up feeling rejuvenated.

Jake didn't know he was about to die and it was this misalignment between the subjective sense and the hidden processes of time and history that was the greatest incongruity in the universe. All around him and certainly inside him unseen forces were conspiring to shut down all operative systems while he looked out at the horizons of his life like someone standing at the edge of a cliff and looking out to the sea on a calm day while a madman who has been lurking in the underbrush rushes out to send him hurtling toward the abyss. It was ten o'clock. He thought of lying down but didn't feel he could climb the stairs and wasn't the type who slept on sofas. He thought of going outside and lying on a lounge but it would be too hot already and he preferred to stay in the house where it was always cool. On very rare occasions, or rather in certain periods, he had thought about the possibility of not waking up in the morning, dying like that in his sleep, and that had caused him some anxiety and he had toyed with the idea of not going to sleep at all, remaining ever vigilant as it were, but that was clearly impractical and would have left him exhausted in the morning.

At a little after ten Edna called and he said, "Why'd you tell Nate I wasn't feeling well?"

"You didn't look too good. How do you feel now?"

"Fine," he said.

"Did you eat breakfast?"

He didn't want to lie but he also didn't want her to start making a fuss so he didn't answer her. "How's business?" he said.

"A little slow."

"It'll be lunchtime soon."

"What do you want me to bring you?"

"Bring some tongue."

"You want a knish?"

"Yeah, bring a knish."

"You got soda in the house?"

"Yeah, there's plenty of soda in the house."

He hung up and went into the kitchen. Someone had mentioned to him that drinking milk was good for heartburn because it neutralized the acids but he didn't like milk so he fixed himself some bromo-seltzer. It didn't help so he went back to the living room and turned on the TV. He watched a game show for a few minutes and then got the news where the shrill voices of the reporters and analysts made him feel a little sicker so he turned the TV off and stared at the fish tank for a while. The grandchildren had bought it for them on their anniversary and always counted the fish when they came over as if they didn't altogether trust Jake to care for them properly, but Jake liked to watch them too though they didn't do much and probably didn't know they were stuck in a tank, taking it for granted as a condition of life just as Jake took his heartburn for granted or the fact that he was stuck on the surface of the Earth which went flying blindly through space and could be blown apart at any moment. He felt he had to sit down again and brought the paper over to one of the easy chairs opposite the sofa and turned the pages without really thinking about what he was reading. Generally the headlines registered in a given way and that was part of the process of absorbing information which was then converted into a credo of dogmatic views that remained embedded in the mind for thirty or forty years like bricks in a brick wall. Jake had an opinion about everything. Edna generally deferred to him in matters pertaining to the international scene but had to have her say when it came to buying a new car. She was also a back seat driver so Jake would start singing "It's a Long Way to Tiperrary" every time she opened her mouth but she never took the hint. Nonetheless he had to give her credit for ruling the restaurant with an iron hand. He thought he might call her now on the pretext of changing his order from tongue to roast turkey but in truth felt the need to hear a familiar voice and none was more familiar than hers. The restaurant was a short drive away and he'd loved that drive in the morning with Edna by his side, a small attractive woman with a big bust, both of them raring to go as the saying went, and Jake's eyes drifting toward the register as she stuffed in the bills. Jake had served the takeaway trade and pitched in on the slicer. It was like working from a bottomless barrel; you always took in more than you dished out, the surplus going into real estate and Edna's fancy underwear.

The maid was coming at one o'clock today. It was she who would find the body. In the meanwhile it was only ten-thirty so Jake still had about an hour and a half to live. Generally he'd have been on his way to the club by now and if he was on a hot streak might have Edna drop off sandwiches for the whole table, which was something she resented doing so he had to explain the arithmetic to her. Sometimes the grandchildren stopped by at the club on the way home from school and he'd give them a few dollars to treat themselves to something. They all loved Jake who was a soft touch and denied them nothing, leaving it to their parents to straighten them out if they got the wrong ideas about cash flows and credit lines in the workaday world. The lawyer son had a big practice and Nate had all kinds of hotel and restaurant interests and they both had expensive wives and enormous houses. There were four grandchildren, two for each son, and when they married and had their own two children there would be four more families of four and so on and so forth for many generations to come, he imagined, though occasionally someone was bound to break the mold and upset the perfect symmetry that was as satisfying to Jake as having his paper laid out at the proper angle on the dining room table in the morning. Maybe they'd get a drug addict or drag queen or someone who wanted a houseful of children somewhere down the line and then they'd all have to adjust their way of looking at things.

At a quarter to eleven Jake got a call with one of those recorded telemarketing messages, slamming down the phone as soon as he heard the voice. It was his ambition to compile a blacklist of telemarketers and other disturbers of the peace and organize a boycott throughout the city, though when he thought of it, it seemed to him that it might be a good idea for the restaurant. He'd never given much thought to advertising because business had always been so good but there was stronger competition now and fewer people seemed to be eating hot pastrami. On another day he would have called Nate right away to talk the whole thing over but today he didn't feel up to it. In truth, it wasn't his problem anymore. You started off counting forwards and ended up counting backwards from a hypothetical zero point that marked the end of your life, as in Jake's case now where the clock read zero hour minus one at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning in the middle of May. All systems were starting to shut down. Someone with an ear for such things would have heard the switches being thrown and the little gasps of expelled air. Jake was aware of increased discomfort but nothing too alarming. Though he couldn't stand up he was breathing easily. He waited for the discomfort to pass and began thinking again about how he'd spend the day. He'd wait for Edna to get back and after lunch take a nap. He looked forward to a good long sleep but looked forward too to the tongue, or had he ordered the turkey in the end? He couldn't remember. He hoped she'd bring whatever it was on rye. He could always count on her to bring the pickles and the coleslaw though they probably had gallons of them in the refrigerator, which was generally pretty full. She'd left his eggs on the stove and they must have been pretty cold by now. Of course he wasn't hungry. If he went on feeling like this he'd never eat again and that would have been a shame because there were so many good things left to enjoy, even at the deli where the cold cuts never failed to make his mouth water. Jake's mouth felt dry and he felt a little dizzy so he went into the kitchen again and had some ginger ale. He felt a little better so he took in the mail. Then the woozy feeling came over him again, something like a cold sweat, so he sat down. It was eleven-fifteen. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply a few times, as if taking in the air in great swallows would restore his equilibrium. He felt a little tightness in his chest. He didn't know what to think.

The phone rang again. This time it was Burt, the other son. "Mom says you weren't feeling well," he said.

"What's this business about not feeling well?" Jake said. "All I did was drink some tea instead of coffee."

"Just checking," Burt said. "You going to the club today?"

"I think I'll stay in. It's a little hot outside."

"You want me to drive you over?"

"I'm not going nowhere. I'm staying in."

"When'd you have a checkup last?"

"Don't start in with me. I'm fine."

"You want me to make an appointment?"

"I can make my own appointments."

"Will you?"

"What?"

"Make an appointment."

"Yeah, sure."

"I'm going to check on you."

"Don't worry so much."

Jake put down the receiver. For a moment he couldn't remember whether it had been Nate or Burt who had just called. He got these calls nearly every day and two or three from Edna before he left for the club when it was slow in the deli and she didn't have much to do aside from bothering him though sometimes he called her too though on practical matters like telling her what to bring him for lunch. She was a small energetic woman and the big bust was kept in place by a reinforced brassiere that could have held up a pair of watermelons. She hated his cigars but must have smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, keeping them under the register together with her restaurant slippers, so you could say she had taken over the deli entirely, not that Jake begrudged her. It was in fact a good thing, giving him some peace and quiet, unless she had some new idea and started nagging him and that would never stop until he gave in or threw the responsibility on the boys.

Jake tried breathing less deeply, in a nice even rhythm, unobtrusively, as though trying to sneak in some oxygen through a back entrance to his lungs. Dying was inevitable so it was inevitable that sooner or later you would come down to the last four hours of your life, which was a unit of time unlike any other, unless it was the last three hours, or two, or one. In Jake's case, since he'd come downstairs at eight, and from his point of view that was when the day began, and since, likewise, he was going to die at noon, these four hours were the ones that counted though it could not be said that in themselves they had a special quality just as the black waters in which a man drowns cannot be differentiated from the rest of the sea. Of course one could argue that all the hours of a life could be regarded in this manner and as such were also a unit of time with a very special sense, and some have done so in fact, and we would not deny it, and yet the fact remains that the specialness of the case is magnified a thousandfold when time is about to run out.

Jake did not know he was about to die. He spent the last four hours of his life as if he had twenty years to live, the chest pains notwithstanding. Finding these four hours in the sea of our lives was no simple matter. Some were given signs, some were not. Some just drifted along until the undercurrent seized them. It was not as if we were on a freeway with a tunnel up ahead. Sometimes you didn't see it coming and even if you did you could never really be sure. Only in retrospect did everything fall into place, and then of course it was too late to do anything about it.

Jake sat down again. He was still there. His field of vision was crowded with the objects in the room, a great deal of chintzy furniture and bric-a-brac. Where there was space between them his eyes came up against a wall or window. The air was colorless, the walls were white. Edna's style of interior decorating had evolved over the years, from dark to light, from schlock to chintz. Jake's mouth was dry again but he couldn't get up to get a drink. The phone rang but he ignored it. It might have been Edna and it might have been another telemessage. For all practical purposes they amounted to the same thing. He watched the fish darting around in the tank. They were like skiers giving themselves a push and then coasting along. He thought of the way birds jerked their heads around and imagined they might have some innate nervous disorder like someone with a tic. The nature films he sometimes watched had made him conversant with the ways of the wild. On the whole, given the hazards and the filth, he didn't envy these creatures at all, free or not. Freedom had never been a factor for Jake and he was glad of it. He liked being chained to things, to the restaurant, to the club, even to Edna. It put solid ground under his feet. Sometimes, of course, he liked to get away and maybe have an adventure or two. There had been a Rosalie quite a few years back, when he was just beginning to settle into middle age and she was not quite there yet, a lively little woman who liked to dance so they danced in her hotel room and she was like a bird too now that he thought of it, the way she was always chirping away and darting back and forth, never sitting still for a minute. Small people tended to be full of life, he thought, though he himself tended to be lethargic.

Edna, after a certain point, had been more like a pincushion, soft and pliant, absorbing his little pinpricks with a long-suffering look, her thin legs sticking out of her round belly as in a clay figure crudely slapped together by a child and the big breasts without any shape. Jake of course wasn't any prize himself though he had a nice tan. He wasn't self-conscious though. He always had a big roll of bills in his pocket and that generally did the trick. He'd always envied men with big rolls and now he had one too. He hadn't really looked at himself in the mirror for years. He didn't have to. He remembered having a somewhat large head and must have been completely bald by now. The boys were getting bald too. It must have come from him though they were a little taller. That must have come from the diet. They were always taller in the next generation.

At eleven-thirty someone rang the bell. It might have been someone looking for work. You had these gardeners who came by occasionally holding up a pair of pruning shears to convince you they weren't thieves but Jake already had a gardener. He ignored the ringing and soon enough it stopped. He wasn't a Pavlovian type so he had no qualms about not responding to stimuli, unlike Edna who thought every ring of the doorbell or the phone might change her life and therefore got distraught if she didn't answer it in time. Jake had his own problems now, a bit of turbulent weather rattling the anatomical crockery and setting off certain alarms in the kitchen of his mind. It was a little harder to breathe now and the feeling of nausea rose in his throat. He thought it might be a good idea to phone someone but could see that he wasn't going to be able to reach the phone. An image of a river flashed before his eyes and then was gone. Something was about to happen there, he thought, something extraordinary that might have brought him to another shore.

These random thoughts were the last thoughts he was going to have. The nausea became a giant wave that filled his chest and nostrils and it was like being under water and running out of air. Death captures us in medias res, like an angry hand coming down on a fly or a collector with a net. The last hours seldom have a shape. The mind coughs and sputters, leaving our thoughts and often our lives unresolved. Death speaks to us privately and closes the door when our foot is still in it. It was after twelve o'clock now. Jake sat on the sofa with his mouth half open. No one would have thought he was asleep. The maid said, "Oh my God," when she saw him and raced to the sofa as though he could still be revived. Then she called 911. Then she called the deli.

7 comments:

  1. Extremely insightful and skilfully written; this piece moved me and is lodged in my thoughts. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I liked how the dialogue provided breaks ("push the breakfast special") from the narration.

    Jake's whole life in a few thousand words, plus his lunch order.

    I'm glad his sons called.

    Thoughtful imaginings - thx!

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  3. Jake may not know it, but as deaths go his was a good one after what sounds like a better than average life. A good break from dramatic literary deaths.

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  4. what a fantastic piece of writing. totally absorbing with a nice line in humour. his thoughts as he became more incapacitated interested me, looking back on a life enjoyed.
    Great piece of work.

    Mike McC

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  5. Wonderful story of death without despair - a natural event with just the right touch of detail. Bravo and thank you!

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  6. THis is a powerful, believable, skilful story, which I really enjoyed and it lest me feeling quite breathless!
    The only little detail for me is that I think the story has already shown the information in the section in the last paragraph from "Death captures us..." to "...our foot is still in it", so these words are superfluous.
    Still, an excellent and memorable story.

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  7. Inevitable that the reader should contemplate his/her own eventual end, their perceptions distilled into cartoon-like images and overseen by an omniscient being - unsettling. What did make me laugh was the foray into metaphysical calculations and statistics...It made me think of 'The Book' in The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy. Odd isn't it - 'stream of consciousness' when it takes far longer to read it than to think it. I suppose you could call it 'glacier of consciousness'?
    B r o o k e

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