The Old Man Speaks and I Speak as Well
The room is very dark, and the curtains are pulled tight to stop any kind of light making its way through and shining on his face. He’s dying and he looks like he’s dying, and I don’t want to say anything. I thought I’d want to say something. Something that might make him smile a little. The room smells of damp and mold and there are piles of dirty plates around him. The walls that were painted a light green years ago have peeled and faded until they don’t even look like walls anymore.
He’s lying in the bed and the blanket is pulled up to his chin and I can see his thin mouth and his thin nose and his thin eyes peering out and they’re pointing upwards and his eyes are on the ceiling. I’m sitting next to him on a wooden rocking chair that used to be in his study. I have my hand on the side of the chair and my feet are propped up on the end of the bed and I can feel him breathe through my feet.
Son, he says, and his eyes are yellow, and his teeth are yellow, too, and I can see all of them when he opens his mouth. I don’t say anything.
Son… my son.
Yes… I’m here, I reply, and I rock forward and take my feet off of the bed.
My son? He says and he says it like a question and his eyes don’t look for me; they stay on the ceiling.
Yes. Your son, I say.
Do you remember the house in Sutton and the way it used to look? He asks and his voice is weak and pathetic and there is a wheeze at the back of his throat that sounds like a gutter in the rain.
No, I say, I don’t remember.
He frowns a little and the skin on his face bunches around his eyes and they are almost black in the light. They look like holes. He pulls the blanket down.
It was the house you were born in… we lived there for a few years. It was small and you slept in the kitchen until you were two in a wooden crib your mother’s mother had made because there was only one bedroom. Sometimes I’d wake up in the night and I’d go to the kitchen to get a drink of water or milk and you’d be lying there. Sometimes you’d be awake and sometimes you’d be asleep. Sometimes you would stare at me as I drank, and you wouldn’t make a sound.
I don’t remember, I say again.
He stares up and he shakes his head.
Why did we leave? I ask.
He coughs suddenly before speaking. I see some spit fall onto the blanket, and he leaves it there.
Too small. Too cold in the summer and too hot in the winter. It was downwind from a paper mill as well, and every few weeks when they burned chemicals, the smell of it would be everywhere. You couldn’t get away from it and your mother couldn’t stand it.
What did it smell of? I ask, and I try to think of the things I’ve smelled that were bad. His face twisted for a second. He reached out from under his blanket and he tugged on some loose skin on his cheek and he stretched his eyebrow. The holes in his face flicker towards me for the first time and the holes look deep and endless and empty.
Have you ever smelled a car tire burn? Or sewage burn? It’s a little like that and a little more than that.
Maybe I have, I say, maybe somewhere.
You’d remember. It’s a smell you want to run away from. A smell that seems to run after you if you do. A smell that seeps into your face and your nose and your mouth and sleeps there. Not dead or alive. Just there. Like a rock in your shoe or a hole in your hand.
I haven’t smelled anything like that, I say. I can’t even picture the forgettable smells I must have smelled.
You’re lucky, he says, and his voice sounds weaker.
I let the chair rock me back away from him, and it moves me back and then forward and then back again. I stand up and I walk to the curtains. There is a line of light on the wall where the curtain can’t stop it. I can see dust and dead skin floating in the line, and they mix together and separate and mix again. I want to move the curtain back and let it all in, but I don’t. I look at the curtain and it doesn’t move, and then I turn, and I look at him again. His breathing sounds worse and his skin is turning yellow like his tongue and his teeth. I think that I’d like to smell something like a paper mill someday.
There is a patch of dust next to his bed in a perfect square where the IV used to stand. I put the end of my foot in the square, and when I lift it, more dust flies up and joins the rest in the line of light. The line is between him and me. The line looks nice. Like the sun yawning.
Do you remember your mother? he asks.
Of course, I do, I reply.
Do you remember how she looked?
I can remember her hair. It was all orange and blonde. Like fire.
The holes in his face flicker towards me and they don’t move and I stare into them and he nods.
Like fire, he nods, that’s what I used to say to her… she got into religion before she died you know.
Did she? I ask.
Yeah. She used to say she had dreams about Jesus, and he would be leaning towards her across a great lake. A big lake that was blue where the sun was shining on it and black where it wasn’t. She said he leaned towards her in the dream and then he stepped onto the lake and he walked across the water. She said he didn’t step where the sun didn’t shine, but whenever he walked past a black part, it became blue, so soon the sun was shining in a circle around him. Like he was the sun.
I nod again and the holes go back to the ceiling as if they expected more. He starts giggling and then chuckling and then laughing quietly, and the laughs turn to coughs, and he stops. A bit of blood is on his lips. He tastes it with his tongue and leaves it there. I walk over, and I pick up a tissue and I dab it away and then I walk back to the rocking chair.
You know what she used to say about Jesus in these dreams? he asks me, and his thin lips are smiling, and he looks like a piece of crumpled yellow paper.
What did she say?
She said he was almost the most handsome man she’d ever seen. That he was as beautiful as the sun yawning orange in the morning as it wakes up.
Well that would turn anyone to religion, I say.
He shakes his head and he closes his eyes. Then reaches from under the blanket with one hand and he strokes his jaw. He traces it with his fingers, and the skin folds and moves as his finger moves over it, then he opens his eyes.
She said he was almost the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Almost. And I would ask her… who was the most handsome?… and she would look at me and she would look scared. Then she would smile. A little bravely, like she was doing something dangerous, and say I was the most handsome.
I look at him and his small, shrivelled face with its yellow skin and yellow teeth and black holes for eyes and his ugly little body, and I think he looks like a grotesque puppet with its strings cut.
She said you were handsomer than Jesus? I ask, and he nods again, and his thin lips look proud.
Handsomer than Jesus, he whispers, and I lean towards him.
You’ve never believed in that though, I say.
No… I didn’t, and he frowns.
Didn’t? I ask.
Didn’t, he says.
You always told me it was for cowards, I say.
Your mother wasn’t a coward.
She turned to religion… and you said only a coward does that.
He doesn’t say anything. He closes his eyes and he wheezes. I carry on.
Remember when I wanted to go to church? I ask. Remember? You told me that I was a wimp. You said life was hard and that it was sad, and you said the world was dead and it didn’t care. You said that it took a real man to live in it and not have to believe in a happy ending.
He coughs and then wheezes again and he keeps his holes closed. When he coughs, his breath moves the dust floating in the line of light and some vanish and some others move to take their place.
Have you had a dream like that about Jesus? I ask.
No. Or I don’t remember, he finally says.
I stand up and walk over to the window, and I open the curtain wide and a weak sun shines through as if it’s surprised it’s been allowed in. I open the window as well and cold air comes in smiling. He opens his eyes and the holes have vanished and light shines into them and I can see his brown eyes and the white around the brown has turned yellow as well.
Close the curtain, son, he says, and he turns his head away from the light.
You might never get a chance to look out there again, I say.
Close the curtain, he says.
Look, the sun is starting to go down.
Close the curtain.
You can see birds flying.
Please close the curtain… he says weakly.
Jesus made all this, I say. He made the big tree you planted in the garden that those birds are nesting in. Can you hear them? He made those noises.
There weren’t any bird noises, and all you could hear from outside were cars rushing back and forth somewhere behind the big tree.
I can hear them, he says, and he turns his head back towards the window.
You can hear them? I ask.
I can hear them. He nods, and in the light, I can see thin blue veins in his cheeks and I can see little red lines running above them.
I can’t hear them, I say, there aren’t any bird sounds. That’s the cars. That’s the sound of their engines.
No, I can hear the birds. I can hear them. They sound like those bells you hear at Christmas. The ones your grandmother used to hang on the doors, so they would ring whenever you opened one. They’re tinkling.
No, they’re not, I say, they’re not making any noise.
Did Jesus really make those sounds? he asks, and I can feel anger in my chest, and I can feel some anger in my legs. I can feel it everywhere you can feel anger. Outside the sun is going down and everything looks beautiful. The sky is amber, and the clouds are black, and in the distance of the sky, I can see some purple. Planes fly through the clouds and disappear and then appear again.
Jesus didn’t make any sounds, I say, and I shut the window hard and I pull the curtain closed. The room is dark again and his eyes turn back to bottomless holes searching for me.
God then, I suppose, he mutters.
I guess it was God who made them, he says. He pauses. He made Jesus as well.
I shake my head. I run my hand over the curtain, and it feels cold.
Son, he calls, and I turn to him. I stand next to him again.
Sit down, son, he says.
I like standing, I say.
Sit down, son.
Dad, I don’t want to sit down.
I want to sit with you for a while.
I don’t want to sit down. God damn it. I don’t want to sit down. I’ve sat with you for hours. I want to stand here now.
He looks at me sadly, his thin mouth drooping down. He grunts and tries to move further up in the bed. His little body wriggles in the blanket like a fish on land, and it doesn’t get anywhere. Eventually he pulls the blanket further down. It just covers his lower chest now. He isn’t wearing a top. His body is thin and there are black and blue marks on his skin that would look like bruises if they didn’t have thin red lines leaking from them deeper into his skin, and around his neck he’s wearing a thin silver chain. I remember the chain. My mother used to wear it. The bottom of it is hidden by the rest of the blanket. I don’t need to see the bottom.
Disgust grows somewhere in me and I can feel it strongly. I feel it and I can’t spit it out. I cough. I don’t cover my mouth, but all that comes out is germs and spit. Oh, you coward, I think to myself. You God damn coward. You hypocrite. You son of a bitch.
Was that mom’s chain? I ask him.
What chain, son?
The chain, Dad. The one around your neck.
Yes. She left it to me.
I haven’t seen you wear it before.
It’s usually just under my clothes. It’s always there. It’s always there, he wheezes, and he pulls the blanket back up to cover it.
You haven’t worn it before, I say, and I lean down and I pull the blanket down and he tries to pull it back up, but I push his little hands away. I pull it down to his stomach and I can see the crucifix and it’s resting in the hairs on his chest and it looks like it’s drowning in them. It used to be painted gold when my mother wore it, but now it’s a dull silver. I shake my head and look at him and my hands are still on the blanket and I can feel his stomach move up and down and I try to see his eyes through the darkness in the holes, but all I can see are some tears leaking out of nothing.
It reminds me of your mother, he says and he is breathing deeply. The breath sounds like it’s breaking as it’s forced out of him. He is shaking a little.
It doesn’t remind you of anything, I say. And I want to hurt him badly. I want to hurt him.
It reminds me of her, and it reminds me of Jesus. Maybe if I wear it, I’ll see her in heaven, he says. And the tears spill out of the holes and they shake as they fall down. His stomach moves faster and faster under my hands.
You won’t see her again. You won’t see anyone again. You’re dying, old man. You’re dying. You’re dead already.
I stand back up and I take my hands off the blanket. He is shaking his head and muttering under his breath. He’s shaking his head quickly. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, he is muttering. The mutters sound wet and weak. I’m dying, Lord. I’m dying here. I’m dying, Lord. I accept you, Lord. I accept you. I am dying, Lord. But I’ve never been so alive. There are people who doubt, but the doubters are wrong, and the wrong people are doubters and they may grieve for me as I die, but they are wrong to grieve because I will always be alive. I’ll be alive with you, Lord, and I’ll be alive with her and I’ll be alive throughout.
I put my hand on his shoulder and I squeeze it and he looks up at me. Damn it, it isn’t fair, I think.
It isn’t fair, I hiss and then shout at him. There won’t be a God to comfort you. There won’t be a Lord to take you in. There isn’t a God and there isn’t a Lord. There isn’t a damn thing, and I know that because it’s what you taught me. It’s what you said to me. It’s what you shouted at me. It’s what you said. You. You. You. You. Why should you get that now? Why should you get what I could have had? Maybe I didn’t even want it. Maybe I could never have had it. Maybe it was something I didn’t deserve. You didn’t let me make a choice. You don’t get a choice. I won’t let you.
I cough when I finish, and I turn away. He looks up at me and I can smell him, and he smells of fear and cowardness and hope and decay. He smells like an animal already dead. I walk back to the window and I open the curtain and then the window again. It is night now, but the streetlight outside the window is on and it shines an amber light into the room. I don’t feel anything now. There isn’t anything left to feel. I want him to hurry up and die, so I can leave. That’s all.
I know he will speak and then I hear him speak and I sigh. Son, he calls me again. He coughs as he speaks. He coughs for a long time. He doesn’t stop coughing. I walk back to him. His face is turning red and covering the yellow and his eyes are wet and wild and leaking. He leans forward in bed and coughs again and again. He leans over the side of the bed and some spit falls out of his mouth. I lean over and rub and pat his back until he stops. His back under my hand was warm and wet and I can feel the little bumps of his spine dance under my hand. They move and heave and I move my hand up and down over them and I trace them up to his neck. They stop just before his head starts and they go somewhere inside him I can’t feel.
Get off, he grunts, and I take my hand away and wipe it on my leg. He leans back in his bed and he lies back against the pillow. He looks at me and I look at him. His eyes are still watering, and it looks like he’s crying. Maybe he is crying.
Don’t cry. Don’t cry, I say.
I’m dying, he says, and his eyes carry on watering. I’m dying, he says again.
I nod. I nod up and down and up and down and I speak as I nod. Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Everybody dies…
He nods back at me nodding and we both do that for a little while.
William Hayward was born in Birmingham, England. William is an undergraduate student at Newman University. He has been writing for several years, mainly short fiction. He’s previously been published in The Emerald City Review, The White Wall Review, Underwood Press, Terrain.org, and The Waking. You can find more of his work at williamhayward.com.