I am a true man. A man of vigor, steel, wit and undeniable grit. I know that men fear me; they fear to be like me, and they fear that they already are. And the women? Hey, when the Crystal is flowing and the baubles are large enough to cast a shadow over a small state, you bet they love me. I am a Judean among Gentiles and Pharisees. I know that's arrogant, trust me. But it doesn't make it any less true. That's what makes this all the more ironic. I was a Goliath that stumbled across David.
Last week I was outside of Prague to purchase a tiny village that would be used as an outdoor museum. Proceeds would be funneled back to me and provide a little culture, of course, for the poor and working class. Today, I'm paralyzed. I can't even scratch my own nuts if I wanted to. They feed me through tubes, I breathe through a tube and they medicate me through tubes. Tubes. God, I'm fucking sick of these tubes. I can't even close my own eyelids; that's how useless I am. If I were a horse I would have shot me by now.
Cathedral ceilings, French doors with silk curtains, a custom made double queen size bed, wet bar and paintings so ugly that you know they must have been exorbitantly expensive. This is my master bedroom on the island of Manhattan, where I wish I was this very moment. Where I am now is the sixth floor of Roosevelt Hospital in the neurology ward. The walls are vomit green so when you do throw up that wonderful food they give you, no one will notice. I have a metal bed and a metal night stand with metal bowls that waddle on top when they set them down. The lights are fluorescent and what little natural light there is leaves a sterile glint across the room. It's no wonder so many long term in-patients become suicidal. Day by day I understand the maddening hand pushing me to that border.
At this moment I am staring out my small window. I can see a Mountain Dew billboard with two young men enjoying their sodas a little more than they should. It's makes me suddenly wonder what they actually put in that drink. Just barely in view, like an image creeping in off screen, is a small tree with leaves battling an early winter. It makes me a little sad. I can hear the murmur of hushed voices and the silent whoosh of the hydraulic door as it closes. If I were able to turn my head I would see particular members of my family, some welcome, some not.
First there's my wife Daniella, love of my life. Sure, I fool around, but I will never leave her. As much of a pain in the ass that she is, I'm worse and I know it. She always looks over the top with her high blonde hair and big jewelry but no one has the guts to tell her. Oh well. Then there's my oldest daughter Melanie. If she had her choice she would have been born to another family, some lower class family who played monopoly in the evenings and looked forward to the Dairy Queen on Sunday afternoons. I love her for that. Money means nothing to her and the genetic make up of a human means everything. I don't understand it, but I love it. Next there's my brother Lenny, or Leonardo as he likes to be called in the business world. It doesn't matter what you call yourself; a schmuck by any other name is still a schmuck. One by one they come around the side of the bed that I'm facing, where I can actually see them in my peripheral vision.
"Can he see us?"
Of course I can see you. I'm paralyzed not blind.
"Yes, he can see you. There's nothing wrong with his vision, we're just not sure how much he understands."
"What exactly is wrong with him? I mean, he's not even blinking, it's kind of creepy."
Creepy? What kind of vocabulary is that for a CEO? What are you, twelve? Jesus.
"Well, we're still doing tests of course, but from what we can tell he's completely paralyzed, physically and mentally. He's just not responding to any tests."
"Well, if he's physically paralyzed, then how can you tell how his mental state is? I mean, if he's unable to respond then you really don't know how much he understands."
The voice of reason speaks, thank God.
"Well, that's true, but we do have our best doctors on this case, some of them are the best in their field, the best in the country. "
I could sense them all looking into my dead doll like eyes with the itching wonder of what's going on in the background.
Daniella stroked my hair in a childlike way that made me want to stroke her back, made me want to take care of her. Then she was gone. She took as much as she could and left. Lenny took after her; bastard always was looking for ways to get into her pants. It was only Melanie who remained.
My sweet Melanie. She had been born into money, I had not. I covet it, she does not. I guess I understand it though. One thing I've learned in my years of dealing with people is that they will spend their whole lives striving to be someone their parents were not. All those psychological and physiological tests are bullshit. It's all genetics and will. You can't help the way you were born but you can sure as hell help the way you live.
I remember vividly a birthday party we threw for Mel's seventh birthday. It was disgustingly rich. And, to be honest, looking back, it was more for us to show how much money we had than it was to celebrate the birth of our little girl. There were clowns and carriage rides and small parades. Like I said, we just wanted to flaunt our money and rub it in peoples' faces. Our greed extended too far. One little girl Mel invited from her second grade class lived off of a two dollar a week allowance and bought her the best gift she could with her meager stipend. After watching her open one expensive present after another she began to cringe when Mel opened her second rate five and dime gift. What did Mel do? She fawned over that thing so much that those rich bitches actually lowered themselves to shop discount. Hey, they trusted Melanie's taste. And K-mart was the only place you could get a Flintstones' paint by number set. I learned a lot about my daughter that day.
Now she strokes my hair softly in the same fashion as my wife, but with strength of heart. "It's okay daddy, I know you're in there." She speaks in whispered tones and leans into me, as if telling me a secret.
"I won't let anything happen to you." That was always my promise to her. How things can change.
The room is quiet once again. That was quick. People always feel the obligation to visit the sick gnawing at them, it's a duty. They just don't want to stay with them. I guess sooner or later they begin to think about their own mortality. I must have been a pretty frightening sight.
Once again I'm left to my own devices and my own thoughts. I don't think that's a place, as humans, we should ever be left alone to. When you're in a bad place as it is, the only direction to go is down. Who ever cheers themselves up? It just doesn't happen. Immediately my mind goes to what brought me here. It's okay. It does this fifty times a day, I'm just getting better at fighting it off. But it's hard sometimes, you know? Maybe you don't, but that's all right.
I was in the board room with my executive officers and team leaders gearing up for our monthly meeting. I had so much to tell them, so much to convey. They were brilliant men and women but they would never match my vision. This was, after all, my company and my vision so how could they? I was excited about Prague but upset about their lackadaisical ways. Why must I still do all the work? How can I leave this company to anybody when they're only willing to do half the work in twice the time? Jesus. It seemed so clear to me and it scared me.
There was so much on my plate, so much responsibility, so much pressure. They just don't get it, they're no help. I have so much paperwork and still so many layers of people to deal with and convince. How can they sit there so smug, so content? It must be easy to just work for a paycheck. You don't care what happens to a company. Well, it's my company and I do care. What am I going to do? I'm responsible for all these people, no matter what. This is the biggest chance I've taken, ever. If I'm wrong about this, if I screw this up, I could never look in their faces again.
Suddenly, my right temple felt as if it were welling up. I feel it, but I don't stop screaming at my people. My people I call family. I can feel my vein throb but I don't say anything. It's probably normal, right? It'll go away once I calm down, which isn't going to happen until I've said my peace.
Well, I'm about half way through my peace when I feel my pulse race and my heart beat faster than I can possibly breathe. There's an involuntary shaking deep inside my bones. The shaking reaches my skin. I'm like a pot of water reaching its boiling point. Stan Delano gets up at the end of the table, odd, I thought. He's never done that before. No one has ever dared leave while I'm still talking. But he gets up all the same and heads straight for me. It's a strange thing when your employees grow balls after so many years; all you can do is watch.
My hand shakes, my breath unsteady as I reach for a glass of water on the table in front of me. I could feel the cool sweat hugging my Armani suit to my body. Then suddenly, thunder cracked in my skull and it drove me to me knees. Delano was the first to comfort me. He demanded a call to 9-1-1 as he laid me out on my back. I saw him come at me with his mouth while I grew dizzy and the room fell dark. That's the last thing I remember until I woke up here. I heard one doctor say that had it not been for Delano, I would surely be dead. If I ever get out of here, I honestly don't know whether to promote him or kill him.
The halls are hallowed now at midnight. Every once in a while you hear the scuffle of a nurses shoe, the scrape of a walker or...
"Gene, are you sure this is safe?"
...the sound of young doctors in love.
Their whispers are forcibly quiet and unmistakably forbidden. I can hear every word, however, because they are using my bathroom for their little tension breaker.
God dammit anyway. This is the last thing I need. Not that it's making me horny or anything; I haven't been able to feel my lance since I got here. But, to distract myself from the virtual spice channel, I cloud my mind with other thoughts. Thoughts that are anything but sexual. My mind is suddenly flooded with all the people I know and see on a regular basis and their absence is glaring. Co-workers, so called friends, family members. Where the hell were they? All the if you ever need anything's or the let's get togethers' suddenly mean shit. Not that I don't understand it. I'm the king of pleasantries to your face and the lord of filth when the deal is done and you're back is turned. But you never think that people feel the same way about you. I guess I can forgive that, though. Even friends I can rationalize away. But family, that's different. There's a certain obligation there. I can't possibly count how may Saturdays I've wasted on some cousin's, niece's or in-law's wedding that would have been much better spent on the golf course. Or if it's not a wedding then sure as shit it's some funeral, graduation, birthday party, bat-mitzvah or talent show. Christ! No one wants to be there but it's family. Am I the only one who understands this? I had gotten so worked up, I hadn't noticed that the porn show had traveled on and I actually had a visitor. It was my son Ian. He was sitting in a chair in front of me with his head in the palm of his hands. Though he was trying to muffle them, there were tiny sobs that he just couldn't restrain.
When he finally pulled his hands away, he was red cheeked and glassy eyed from the tears. For the first time in a long time I wished that I could hold him and tell him it was going to be all right. And for a very brief moment I had forgotten about the indifference that had crept into our lives. But, of course, there it is, like a stone wall unwilling, unable to move. He breathes in a deep air of courage, stands and turns to lean against the window. I prefer to look people in the eye when I speak to them, otherwise I find it suspicious. But I know my son and he is searching for words.
The funny thing about my paralysis is that it seems to bring the honesty out in people. It's like a beacon of light exposing the truth in murky water. People will say whatever they feel if they think you're not listening anyway. Delano was in not too long ago and told me I was a 'thick headed son of a bitch' but that he liked me anyway. Up until that point I was not fully convinced that he wasn't just a lip serving executive.
Ian is still staring out the window blankly. I can tell by the way his jeans hang that he's lost weight. It must be that whole life on the road thing. His hair is longer too. He knows I've always hated that. I don't know how many times I've told him that people won't take you seriously until you've taken yourself seriously. Cut your hair, dress impeccably and it almost doesn't matter what you know; people will already think you know it anyway. Why does he insist on looking like a ...
"You are a rotten bastard." <
The silence swallowed the room. Even if I could have said anything there were no words.
"All my life you fuck with me."
It's called parenting, son. It was my job.
"...Fuck with me to the point that I just can't stand you anymore. All you ever wanted from me was a cloned version of you, and when you couldn't get that you just shut me out of your life."
What the hell is he talking about?
He turns from the window to pace around the room but he still doesn't look at me.
"Maybe you never said it in so many words but it was there, like a tick under your skin. And believe me, I knew it was there. You treated Mel like a princess and me like.... like the red headed step child asking for too much allowance."
I'll bet he's waited all his life for this moment; to tell me off at a time when I can't possibly argue with him. There was an awkward silence again, awkward for me anyway, and then he sat down next to me on the bed.
"And just when I think I'm rid of you in my life, you do something like this. It'd be just like you to pull something like this on purpose. The truth is I don't hate you, no matter how many times I've said it. Truth is I love you. You're my father and I can't change that."
Again, he gets up and paces the room. I think he's just embarrassed at admitting all this aloud. And then there's the silence again. Christ this kid thinks too much.
"I was twelve when you gave me my first guitar, remember? A 1959 Fender stratocaster made out of mahogany wood with double hum bucking pickups. There were char marks from where Jimi Hendrix had tried to light it on fire and failed. He took it as a spiritual sign. Gave it to a roadie and said 'this thing has a soul, get rid of it.' Maybe that was just some bullshit story but it meant something to me."
That wasn't bullshit, son. I didn't even know what it meant. I thought it was some kind of metaphor.
"You gave me that guitar and it set me on fire. That was my passion. I feel the same way walking on a stage as you do walking into a boardroom. I get a hard on playing something that I created and watching them get off, whether they like it or not."
Maybe it's all the perkidan they're giving me but that actually made sense.
I just don't get this obsessive need to live like a pauper and travel with the thing. I mean, look at you. What are you really doing with your life? You dress like a walking hamper, fine dining is a burrito from the 7/11 and last I heard, you live in a van.
"You want to know what I've been up to? You're gonna love this. A record company offered me the deal of a lifetime. I sign with them, record my songs, trust in their business sense and with one song I can sit back and watch the money roll in. It doesn't even have to be a good song. Just let them steer me in the right direction and I'm set for life."
You stubborn fool. You're going to tell me you didn't take the deal. Don't you know that everything is negotiable?
"But you know what? I couldn't do it. The ironic thing is it's because I'm just like you and I can't live life on someone else's terms. I wanted to tell you because I wanted you to be proud of me. But I knew you wouldn't understand."
He sits down next to me again, only closer. He looks dead into my glazed stare and I can see a fierceness in his eyes that I had never seen before.
"I would rather play to a crowd of fifty people for beer and gas money than be owned by some corporation. I just wish you could understand that even though we're rooted in the same ethic, it doesn't mean that we grow into the same man."
The tension disappears as quickly as it seemed to come.
"I love you dad, I really do. I just needed to get that off my chest, even if you don't hear a word I'm saying."
I hear you son. Loud and clear.
Death is a rite of passage both spiritual and physical. You can't avoid it, elude it, ignore it or run from it. It doesn't come knocking on your door like a salesman expecting to barter. It comes like a thief in the night, taking what it will while you sleep. In the stillness of this September night, I wonder if these are the thoughts of every man standing on the threshold, groping. DiMaggio, Kennedy, Wayne... all my heroes have died, and now I'm dying too. I just wonder if God can look in my heart, find my sorrow and feel my regret for every broken promise and misspent moment. Or maybe he really is omniscient and knows that last regrets are just safety measures for desperate men. I mean, for fifty years the only supreme being I believed in was myself. And now all of a sudden I want forgiveness? Well, whether there's a God, a Devil, a Heaven or a Hell, I rue not being the man I knew I could have been, but am content knowing that I leave a son in this world who knows what that means.
My heart beats softly and slowly as the machines rhythms become erratic. And I am tired, so tired. As I close my eyes, the moonlight blurs into the darkness of my room, and I finally sleep.
About the author:
Kristin Julio lives in the Northeast where she is an avid reader, writer, on and off Pilates follower, coffee hound and snood junkie. She has had a few stories published online and is currently working on several short stories and her second novel.
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