Friday, February 23, 2018

The Visit by Jim Bartlett

When Jacob visits his dying father he wonders whether it is better to let sleeping dogs lie; by Jim Bartlett.

Jacob slows as he rounds the corner, the double doors ahead tucked in a shadow of ashen gray, almost as if the damp fog clouding the sun outside has slipped unnoticed into the hospital. He shivers, shaking the color from his face, then stops and turns to Mark.

Mark smiles and points at the entrance. "We've come this far. Just a little more. You can do it."

With a nod, Jacob leans to take another step, but his leg remains frozen in place. "I dunno. Why am I even here? I haven't seen the man in like twenty years."

"It's the right thing. You said so yourself. Stay on the high road, Jacob. Otherwise buying that, ugh, flannel shirt and those Levis will be a total waste." He cocks his head. "You sure you don't want me to come along?"

Jacob slips his arm around Mark's waist. "Yes... and no. You're my rock, you know that, but the one thing I do remember Mom saying about him was that he was one of those old-school dudes. You know, smokes Marlboros, drives a pick-up, eats lots of meat and potatoes... you know what I mean."

"Okay. A real cowboy. But, come on, Jacob, that was twenty years back." He gives Jacob's shoulder a squeeze. "This is 1999. Being gay isn't a big deal anymore. You know, Love the one you're with..." Mark spreads his arms and spins a quick circle. "Especially here in Frisco."

"Yeah - what about that? I mean, sort of weird, right? We were livin' in Lincoln, Nebraska - at least till Mom died - and somehow, all this time later, I end up in the same town as... as... him." He looks down at his 501 jeans, pressing the crease, hoping they'll somehow look more worn than the hour that's passed since he bought them. "Anyway, thanks for offering. But if this is it, like I'm being told, let's let him think his son was, ah, normal."

"Pretty forgiving for a guy who split on you for 'the love of his life.'"

"I dunno. Maybe. Maybe twenty years have beaten him down with guilt."

Mark steps up to Jacob and wraps him in a hug. "I'll be out here if you need me."

Leaning in, Jacob lays his head on Mark's shoulder. "You always are." Then, with a deep breath, he turns and pushes his way through the swinging doors.

The corridor is long, yet only four doors line the right side, two of which are closed. What little remains of the sun's rays are making a valiant effort trying to slip through a row of windows on the left, but the harsh fluorescent lights overhead will not relent. The crushing defeat leaves the hall washed out and colorless, the floor and walls seemingly merging together.

Maybe the lighting suits the moment. Maybe, rather than the caustic outpour of the fluorescents, it's his mood that paints this corridor. After all, from where he stands, there is no black or white, there is no normal. His father lies in one of these rooms taking his last breaths, and yet, though he's here to pay "respect," Jacob can summon no feelings. No sorrow, no regret, no sympathy - definitely no love. He might as well be stopping by to say hello to a complete stranger.

Mustering up some courage, he moves halfway up the hall, being sure to stay on the window side. He winces as his sneakers squeak on the tile floor, stopping only when he catches a glimpse of the room numbers above the doors. The closest is 4West23, which means the last door, an open one, is the room.

Three months prior, could have been four, Martha, or Marta, his "aunt," or whatever you call your skipped-out father's sister, called with the news. How she got his number, he still has no idea. He'd barely known her when his parents were married and his only real memory of her came when, a few months after his dad split, she showed up at their door stinking drunk. Until his mom finally slammed the door closed, she stood there shouting that "it was all her fault."

He never saw her again, and neither she nor his dad bothered to show up at his mom's funeral less than a year later.

So when she called a second time to say he'd taken a turn for the worse, his first reaction was: and I should care because...?

He moves across the hall, his hand now brushing the outer edge of the open door. Still hesitant to peek inside, he instead tries to paint a picture of what the man looked like twenty years back. Jacob was only six at the time, so the only image he can muster is a vague faceless silhouette who left for work, coming home late in the evening. He remembers the arguments, the shouts, and the red puffy eyes of his mom the following day, but little about the man at which she directed her screams of anger.

Then one day he was gone. He only knew because she tossed all his clothes and smashed all their pictures.

For the next year, in fact, right up to the moment she died, she took every opportunity to berate the man. None of it was pretty - she called him a two-timer, a fraud, a drunk, and a dozen more things that a six-year-old shouldn't be hearing - leaving him to believe, as time went along without any contact, there might be some validity in her rantings.

Yet through it all there was an underlying contradiction in her words. An attempt to paint his father as a man's man. Tougher than nails. Drank hard and drove fast kind of guy. Nothing was going to slow him down.

Except cancer.

Closing his eyes he tries to imagine what he is about to see. Will the man be hooked up to breathing machines? Tubes and cables draped around his bed, soft beeping machines ticking off his last moments?

He steadies himself with a hand to the wall - can't let his thoughts get away - and slides around and through the open door, but stops dead. There are no beeping monitors. No cables or drip tubes. In fact, the room is empty, the bed stripped of its linens.

"Is'choo looking for someone, seƱor?"

The soft voice causes Jacob to jump, take in a deep gasp, and he spins around to see an older Hispanic woman in scrubs holding a set of folded sheets. "Sorry. I didn't hear you walk up. I'm looking for a patient. His name is William Mason. I was told room 4West25."

The woman breaks into a slight smile, but her eyes tell a different tale. "Choo need should go to da... ah... nurses' station. Ess true zeese doors." She twists to the side, her hand poking out from under the linens, a single finger pointing.

"Uh, thanks."

He slips past her and through the doors to a large open quad. Quite the opposite of the empty quiet of the corridor just behind, here an electric charge fills the air that practically knocks him back through the opening. A steady flow of fast-moving doctors and nurses, coffee cups, charts, or trays in their hands, slipstream through an obstacle course of visitors, most seemingly lost in the hope of finding their loved ones. Others just drift, their hopes lost because they already have.

On the far side of the flowing river of humanity, he can see the nurses' station, a tightly grouped set of desks marked off by a rounded counter. He moves across, and once again stops, the mini-beehive of activity stealing away his breath.

He scans the little area, counting at least five nurses. Or at least he assumes them to be, judging by their uniforms. To the front and closest to him, two receptionists and one of the nurses hold phones to their ears, writing vigorously on either pad or keyboard, while along the back wall a small mixed group has gathered around a doctor. One waves his hands in obvious frustration, while others pound their fingers on charts, as they try to persuade her to see something their way - but it doesn't seem to be working. She shakes her head and turns, joining the rush hour-like traffic in the hall, disappearing, or more so blending in, within a few steps.

So much on everyone's mind. So many lives in the balance. He thinks back to Mark waiting outside, and for a moment debates going to him. Leaving the hospital. Getting back to their own life. Making life their own.

Maybe this was all a mistake.

"May I help you?"

Jacob turns to the voice. One of the nurses - a large black woman, her hair hinting at some gray - is just hanging up the phone and looking his way. She leans back in her chair and draws in a deep sigh as if needing a recharge, then, her eyes meeting his, breaks into a smile, giving her face a nice oval shape.

"Can I help you?" she repeats.

"I'm sorry... yes. Yes you can, thank you. I'm looking for William Mason. He was supposed to be in room 4West25."

The smile wants to fade. It works hard at dropping the corners of her mouth. But she is a pro, Jacob can tell, and she won't give in. No surrendering, no white flag.

"Are you a relative?"

"I'm... I'm his son."

The smile disappears, leaving no trace in its wake. The nurse's eyes are now wide and she gives her head the slightest cock. "Son?" She juts out her chin, a sort of point in the direction of a glassed room across from where she sits. "Uhm... maybe you should come with me."

Rising from the desk, she slips around the counter, a move more dance than walk. Jacob finds it funny, despite the circumstances, watching this large woman with moves like a ballerina. She steps to his side, places a hand on his shoulder, and walks him into the small room.

"Have a seat, honey."

"I'm guessing this is not good news," he says, sitting. "But, if it makes you feel better, I didn't really know him. He left us like twenty years ago. I got the call that he was sick, I guess with cancer, but sort of blew it off."

The nurse - Karla is her name, Jacob sees her tag for the first time - sits next to him and places a hand on his knee. "I'm sorry to be the one to tell you, but your father passed yesterday. It was pneumonia that took him, not cancer."

"Pneumonia? Isn't that something old people get? He wasn't that old, was he?" Jacob regrets the comment the minute it comes out of his mouth, but Karla takes it in stride.

"Anyone can get it, hon. It sits waitin' on the corner for that moment when our bodies become too worn down. That's why you see so much of it in the elderly. But twern't the case here, I'm sorry to say. You see, he had AIDS."

The word takes Jacob out like a receding tide. In just the last two years he's lost three of his closest friends to the poison of AIDS, to say nothing of several others dealing with being diagnosed HIV positive. With that looming threat, he and Mark have made testing a yearly ritual.

But how could his father have possibly contracted AIDS? He didn't use needles... did he?

He looks up, realizing that Karla has been talking, but he's missed most of what she's said. "I don't understand," he finally says in a shaking voice.

"I'm sorry, hon. I know this's tough. He might'a been able to tell you this himself, but the man refused to fight. He pretty much gave up when his partner passed away with the AIDS 'bout eight months back. Said he was the love of his life..."

13 comments:

  1. A powerful story - with an earthquake of an ending for Jacob. Beautifully told, many thanks, Jim

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  2. Well written, easy to read and very engaging. A beautiful story....thank you J. Bartlett.

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  3. Very moving and with a powerful ending. Well written, too. I knew I was in for something good with the first paragraph (“the double doors ahead tucked in a shadow of ashen gray, almost as if the damp fog clouding the sun outside has slipped unnoticed into the hospital”).

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  4. Beautiful and moving story and I did not want it to end. Thank you Jim Bartlett for your amazing writing.

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  5. Thank you Ceinwen, Carol, Dave, and Lynn!! I much appreciate you taking the time to read the story, and even more so your wonderful comments!

    Thanks again, Jim

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  6. Hi Jim, first class story. I suppose we don´t really know anybody, even our "nearest and dearest". Beautifully descriptive and a sledgehammer ending for Jacob. I wonder how how or if he was able to process it.
    Mike McC

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  7. Thanks, Michael. I think we all do our best to "know" someone, but often, maybe too often, we go with what we are told about that someone. Much appreciate your call out on descriptiveness - I know if it passes your test it must be decent ;-) I think I sort of assumed that while Jacob would carry that the rest of his life, he would be fine. Thanks again for the read and your comments!

    Jim

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  8. Very well written, and lots of details that put you right there! Good ending.

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  9. Thanks, Roberta! Much appreciate you taking the time to read the story and more so taking a moment to make such nice comments!!

    Jim

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  10. Hi, Jim. I am not sure what the expectations are on this site for comments. Everything seems fairly positive. I'm a really negative dude, however, and would like to make some comments that are not so positive. Hope that is okay. I thought the setup of your story was very good. It drew me in, initially. I think you could use a strong edit, however. Some lines like, "On the far side of the flowing river of humanity ..." seem overwrought. There are a few in the story. I also knew that the father did not have cancer, but AIDS, a few paragraphs into the story. It seemed really obvious to me. And I don't buy it at all. The story would be just fine if the father had cancer and was dying of cancer. It's kind of like you set up a story that you never gave us. I for one was interested to see how the son and the father were going to interact. The twist, in fact, ruined it for me. Anyway, sorry if I am a bit harsh. Take it as you will. You don't know me, and I might be a complete bonehead.

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    1. Hi Matthew!
      One of the many appeals of Fiction on the Web for me as a writer (and reader) is that comments are allowed. I don't think that there are any "expectations" other than the reader express how they felt about the piece. As a writer (or just a human) it's always good to hear the feel good comments that help make it worth it. But also as a writer, who wants to continue to improve, there is a need for constructive criticism and for a "different" look at the story, as we all view things from a unique vantage point. That said - I really do appreciate you reading the story and more so taking the time to comment. As I said, seeing the story from a different view is important. And, nope - not too harsh, and you most certainly are not a bonehead!!
      Thanks again
      Do appreciate it
      Jim

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  11. Well, that's kind of a hard act to follow, but I just want to say their were very nice descriptive passages, and I did not see the end coming at all. Nicely done.

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    1. Thanks much, Edward! Appreciate you taking the time to read the story, and even more so appreciate your kind comments!
      Thanks!
      Jim

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