I went to the hospital first thing on a Wednesday morning because I knew I was dying. I called and called and had to wait and that was the earliest I could come. I told Doctor Simon that, and he did not look up at me because he probably did not know how to tell me that, yes, I was in fact dying, and at a faster rate than most of the schleps that came into his office every day.
“All I can taste is butter,” I said.
“Ira,” he said. His voice was low, the way a voice gets when someone is trying to make you listen. I like Doctor Simon. I’ve known him for a long time, long enough that he knows my brain and the way it works and how my body breaks and how it heals and there’s something good about people like that. The kind that stick around. That’s what I think.
“I am not sure, either,” I said back to him. Doctor Simon narrows his eyes a bit. I put my hands up in the air. I knew that look. He wanted to know if “this time it’s different” and it is. My mouth is all buttery and that was not the problem the last time I saw him. That was for my ankle. The time before was my spine that I was sure was sprouting cancer cells and I was still kind of sure has something wrong with it. This problem was in my mouth.
I wanted to tell him that I was a different person than when he last saw me a month ago. I knew this, because the skin replaces itself every twenty-seven days, so he had never seen me like this. I had lost all my skin cells. Everything about me was different, except maybe my hair and the mole at the bridge of my cheekbone. It is right beneath my eye, and sometimes I hate it. Other times I think it is great. Depends on the day. Now, if he had seen me seven years ago, then I would be a completely different person. Every cell in my body replaced, in and out. A brand-new human that looks exactly the same.
Doctor Simon looked at me, and I looked back at him. I am not sure for how long, but he looked away first. I don’t need to look away as often as most people, and I’m proud of that. Eyes are the windows to the soul, I read that once. I can look at souls for a long time.
“Why do you think you’re dying?” he said.
“I can taste it,” I said. I said it with a lower tone, so he knew I was serious, too. “We have talked about that before.” I was worried. Did he remember? I remembered.
“We have,” he said, “But you’ve never died.” I could tell he is being honest with me. He remembered when we talked about this before. You see, I have a gift. The kind of gift that only helps me, I know, but it is still a gift. I can taste sickness in my mouth. I know when I am dying, because my tongue goes sticky or acidic or chalky and strange. I can taste illness. I’m gifted. A true masterpiece.
“Are you still experiencing sensations in your mouth?” Doctor Simon said.
“Yes,” I answered. “Everything tastes like butter. I think it is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.”
Doctor Simon raised his eyebrows at me, but he still looked bored. His eyes didn’t change. I was hoping he’d be surprised at how much I know about my own lungs, but he wasn’t. He sighs.
“You need to stop looking things up on the internet,” he said.
“400,000 people die a year from it, it is a lung disease. COPD. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.” I practiced saying it out loud, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease for five minutes in my bathroom mirror, just for this. Because the tongue is a muscle and it remembers things. Muscle memory. Taste memory. I remember taste. It could be chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that is making my mouth taste like butter.
Colds have a messy taste. They are gooey and warm. Pudding under a layer of whipped cream kind of taste. Croup is vinegar, it is ripe and sharp on my tongue, bronchitis tastes like an orange. Bright. Acidic. Then there is sun sickness – I got it once when I sat on my front porch for too long in January – and it is salty. My mouth felt sore for a week.
Doctor Simon said, “Alright, Ira, I’m going to level with you. It's not COPD.”
“What is it?” I was shocked. I looked at his face and tried to figure out if he was lying. People lie when they don’t know the answer to questions sometimes. They pretend they know things when it is too hard to say the real thing.
“Your insurance isn’t going to keep paying out for these visits,” he said.
“I do not care if they pay for it.” I tried to not be frustrated, but I was dying and how can anyone be calm when they are dying?
I squinted my eyes at his face. I wished we were friends. If we were friends, then insurance wouldn’t matter because he would be so worried about whether I was okay and if he should ask his wife to make me casseroles and call just to check in. A text would be fine too. If we were friends we would drink a beer together and sit on the front porch and he would tell me about some lame-o patient that he did not like as much as me. He would talk to me about movies he saw that he liked. About how pickles should never be sweet and there is something weird about people that hang holiday flags off of their porches and that I always bring the best beer over could I please tell him where I buy it?
I was thinking about this when Nurse Mary walked in. She did not knock on the door, even though it was closed. I like Nurse Mary, even though her sneakers squeak and sometimes she is sharp with me. Only on bad days, though. I understand that everyone has bad days.
Nurse Mary said, “Room 308 needs that prescription written.”
Doctor Simon said, “I’m surprised that guy’s still kicking. This has to be the fourth, fifth time this year.”
“How much longer will you be?” Nurse Mary talked without looking at me, even though I cleared my throat and smiled at her. It could have been a bad day.
“Just finishing up in here.”
I did not appreciate that. He was not just finishing up in here. I was waiting for him to tell me how much time I had left because there was something that made my mouth taste weird and it wasn’t bright or acidic or tart and I did not know how to figure it out. I tried to be patient, but I felt my face get red. I don’t like the way I look when my face gets red. I especially don’t like it when Nurse Mary is in the room and my face gets red. She has a birthmark on her face, and I normally like it. It is red, and it covers the whole left side of her nose and her cheek. It looks like someone took a paintbrush to her. If I get red when she is in here, I thought, will she think I am trying to look like her? Like I am trying to make my whole face go red, when she only has part? It seems horribly unkind.
I breathed in and out deeply and put a hand on my heart. Calm, I thought. I can be calm and not red.
“You can go and come back?” I said. Kind. Calm.
Nurse Mary looked at me and her face was soft. Soft faces are kind faces. Some people call them fat faces, but I think that is rude. People don’t know where their fat is going to go. Some people store it in their thighs and other people keep it in their bellies and people like me don’t have much fat at all. We are rope and bones.
Doctor Simon looked at me. He looked tired.
“Look, Ira. If I don’t go check on this guy you’ll be writing about him, and no one wants that.”
Doctor Simon was talking about my job. I have a desk that has a nameplate on it and my name is on it the full name not just the first name the full name “Ira Haskins.” I have to sit most of the day which is kind of bad because I do not want to compromise my posture but I walk once an hour around the block so it should be okay.
I write obituaries for the Anza Valley Times, and when I do not write obituaries I usually read a book or do a crossword puzzle. It is not a very hard job. I just have to wait for people to die, and then I have to wait for their kids or their grandkids or their best friends to tell me what they want in the paper. Sometimes they send a lot of things. Stuff about growing violets on the kitchen counter and falling in love with someone very young (wouldn’t it be nice to fall in love?) and knowing how to win the church chili cook-off contest every year. When people die, I write nice things about them, and I think that is a very good way to spend a day.
So when Doctor Simon says I would be writing about him it means this guy is going to die. I felt bad.
“But I don’t want to die, either,” I said in a small voice.
“Ira,” Doctor Simon said, “there’s nothing wrong with you.”
What Doctor Simon said was not true. I’m as wrong as I ever am right, I know that. There is something wrong with everybody all the time. There is something wrong with babies, you see they are growing. The spines are stretching and their baby fat is getting eaten up by the body and their skulls are closing up over their brains. Something is always wrong but something is always being fixed, too. Balance.
“That is not true. I can tell that something is wrong,” I said back.
“We’ll take a urine sample,” Doctor Simon said, “but that’s it.” He makes a chopping motion in the air, straight across his body.
“Okay, Doc!” I say it loud like I’m happy, but I’m not. I pressed my hands into the table. The paper sheet crinkled, then I pressed too hard and it ripped beneath my fingers. I shifted my thigh to hide it. I was embarrassed. Do not go red, I thought, and I looked at Nurse Mary. I could not see her birthmark, but I knew it was there.
“That’s a great idea,” Nurse Mary said. “I’ll take it from here.”
Doctor Simon closed the door too hard and it made me jump. Here then gone and maybe back again, I thought? Would he be back to talk to me about my pee? I closed my eyes and focused on my belly. Did I even have to pee? Had I had anything to drink? Nurse Mary knew what I needed.
“Here’s a cup of water, and the urine container. The bathroom’s down the hall and to the right.”
“Thank you, Nurse Mary.”
“You can just call me Mary, you know.”
“I know.” I smiled at her, and she smiled back, but less so. A half smile, maybe. It barely moved her cheeks.
I blinked when I stepped out into the hospital hallway. The lights were so bright. I used to wonder why hospitals were so white and so bright and once I learned it I couldn’t unlearn it. I should tell Doctor Simon that. I should tell him that hospitals are white because it helps with maximum contrast so doctors can see everything wrong with bodies on some people’s very bad day. It is white for a reason. It is bright for a reason. Imagine that.
I walked by the examination rooms and I peeked in, but just for a second and quick to the side. Hopefully no one thought that I was actually looking at them. I just wanted to see their room for a minute. No one ever came with me to the hospital. Some people have people and some people do not and that is just okay. I was here last week and I must have been here during visiting hours because all the doors were open. There was a birthday party with a whole heap of balloons, and the colors were so bright. Maximum contrast I thought. Those balloons would look better in a hospital than in any other place.
When I walked down the hall with a urine container in my hand, I walked down the hall all by myself. There wasn’t even any equipment in the hallways. No people. So many doors were closed, too. There was nothing to look at but the lights and nothing to hear but my own shoes as they thwapped on the floor. Believe me, I’m not no Looky-Lou, no eavesdropper, but it made me sad that no one was there. Almost no one. First there was nothing, then there was Jimmy.
“Hey. Hey there!” It was the first thing I heard him say.
The voice was coming from a room with an open door. I peeked in like I normally do, my head quick and to the side. The room was dark. I looked closer, had to really get in there to focus my eyes, and I saw a man with a sharp face lying on a hospital bed.
“Hello?” I felt bad that it sounded like a question. I tried again. “Hello!”
The man laughed at me.
“What’s your name,” he asked me.
“Ira Haskins.” I said my first name and my last name because it felt right and proper.
“I’m Jimmy,” he said. “James Andrew Lighton.” I did not ask him his name but he gave it to me, so I guess that is a good thing. Some people like to give things even when they are not supposed to, but this was an okay thing. I needed to know his name.
He was under a blanket that must have only been a sheet because I could see his bony legs and knees. It looked weird, all stretched out like that underneath. The monitors beeped above him, and the light from their screens left small, blinking marks on the blanket.
Jimmy did not look very good. He was more than sharp. His face looked like someone took a knife to it, and not very well. I know everybody needs angles and curves but there was nothing soft there. His elbows were sharp and his shoulders were sharp and even his fingers were sharp. Not sharp sharp like scissors, but bony sharp. I clenched my fists because I felt so weird about all of these bones right there in front of me and heard the plastic cup pop. Careful.
“Good to meet you,” Jimmy said. He raised his hand to wave, but it stopped short. I heard metal and metal. Handcuffs. His hands were handcuffed to the bed. I sucked air in but I got a little spit in there too and it hit my esophagus like a big old punch and it made me cough. I mean, really, really cough. I was hacking something up in there. When I stopped, Jimmy was still looking at me. It made me embarrassed and I know I know my face turned red then.
“Why are you in here?” I asked him. It was the question I wanted everyone to ask me. Jimmy laughed.
“They think I ate something bad.” It was a weird answer, but I did not push it. I did not like Jimmy’s laugh. It was rough and made my teeth hurt even though it was a sound.
“What kind of bad thing?” I said.
“The kind of bad thing that would put me in here.” Jimmy tried to move his hands again but nope, nope those handcuffs stopped him. Good, I thought. He is handcuffed for a reason. I wondered why but then I stopped because bad things should not take up too much time. Unless I made them better.
“Anyway.” Jimmy kept talking. “I haven’t talked to someone in hours. Even that damn guard went off somewhere, probably for a burrito or a coffee or something. Whatever guards eat.” He smiled and I saw that he was missing teeth. Even his eyes were a bit wonky. One of them swiveled away from me, and I never really saw where it was looking or what it was looking at. I did not want to talk to him but maybe it would be rude to leave so I figured I would ask just one question then I could go pee. I started to feel pressure in my gut. That water was really working. Nurse Mary knew what she was doing.
“Are you sick?” I asked.
“Are you sick?” he answered.
“Yes. Very sick.”
“With what?” Jimmy asked me this like it did not matter, but I knew being sick always mattered. In the head and in the gut and in that gristly bit of the neck. It all mattered.
I hesitated. “I think I am dying. From lung disease, even. Maybe.”
Jimmy sighed. “Death is always just right there, you know. Just at the gates.”
I knew that he was speaking in metaphor but metaphor means poetry and poetry means beauty and there was nothing beautiful about Jimmy. I did not know how to respond, but I did not have to worry because he spoke instead. Some people just really want to be heard.
“I don’t know how we get here, man. With bodies broken like this. I feel like some beat up old thing, a guitar with strings stretched out.” Jimmy tried to raise his arms but, you know, the handcuffs.
“I played one of those you know, as a kid. A guitar. I was pretty good. I never would’ve been anybody, but hell. I can’t play a single good note anymore.”
“I should probably go,” I said. I did not want to talk about guitars. I had to pee. I showed Jimmy the container in my hand, held it right up there as if it was not going to hold my piss. Pee. Pee, it sounded less crass than piss. I needed to be better with my words.
“Oh ho!” he said. “You have to pee in a cup.”
“Yes. I have to find out what is wrong in my body.”
“There’s always something wrong in your body, man. You think your piss is going to tell you anything?”
I did not know what he meant so I asked him to be clearer. I tipped forward on my toes but not far enough to fall over. It is important to only go as far as you are able.
“Your body is getting rid of your pee, so it’s all bitter. Wouldn’t you be bitter too, if someone didn’t want you?”
It did not make any sense, but I let him ride with it. Sometimes you just have to let people ride.
“See you, Jimmy,” I said, and I really did mean it that time. I meant it but I stopped because he asked me to.
“Will you do me a favor?”
“Probably not,” I said.
“Can I have it?” he asked. “Can I have it once you’re finished with it?”
“My…pee?” I said.
“I’ll pay you for it. I’ll send you $100 bucks, right in the mail.” Jimmy gestured towards the side table, where he had a plastic pee container just like mine. I felt embarrassed that we had to do the same thing, even if it was using the bathroom. I did not like him much yet. Maybe if we talked for a long time and became friends, but not yet. Not then.
“Why do you want it?” I asked.
Jimmy snorted, but then he looked at me real hard. As if he was trying to figure out if I was lying, but of course I was not lying. I wanted to know why he wanted a plastic container of my urine. Honest question, right? Right.
“I just have a few things in mine that might, you know, set off a red flag or something.”
“They can tell you what is wrong with your body.”
“Aw, c’mon man. I already know what’s wrong with my body. Hell, you probably already know what’s wrong with my body.”
At first I think that of course I do not know what is wrong with your body, I am not a doctor, how could I ever know. But then I looked at his veins and his bones and the knobby bits at his neck and I thought yes, I probably do know what is wrong with you. I almost asked him what his mouth tasted like but I did not.
“You should eat more things,” I said. “Lots of bread and oatmeal, maybe. Something with sugar.”
“$100 bucks,” Jimmy said. He wasn’t letting me go. $100 was a good amount of money. I could do a lot of things with it, like maybe go to the beach or buy a new notebook with graph pages instead of lined pages or order two coffees and drink them both one in each hand. $100 is a good amount of money for a little bit of pee.
“I will think about it.”
“It would be a good thing to do, you know. We don’t get the chance to do really, really good things very often.” Jimmy was not looking at me but something else, maybe something over my shoulder. When I looked there was nothing there.
“I had an old buddy.” Jimmy shook his handcuffed hand, and I gritted my teeth. “He was my cellmate for a while. He asked me for a spare piece of bread at dinner one night. But you see, I was tired and it was late and I was hungry, so I didn’t give him anything. Ate it there right in front of him. And you know what he did?”
I did not know what he did.
“He died,” Jimmy said. “Swallowed a damn lightbulb. It goes down smooth and cracks in your stomach, then slices you up from the inside out. There’s no surviving that one.”
“Are you going to swallow a lightbulb?” I asked.
“The thing is, sometimes people need a little help. You never know how close to the edge they are, until it’s all over.”
I thought about the pee and I thought about the lightbulb. I thought about my lungs and how they were probably breaking down as we spoke and I thought about the pee that just might tell me why. I licked my lips. I remember this, because they felt chapped and tasted like dust.
“C’mon, man.” Jimmy smiled, and it was the worst kind of smile. The broken kind, turned down at the corners, the kind that says more than it should.
“I am sick,” I said, as if I could make him understand. Jimmy closed his eyes.
“If you’re doing alright, don’t go out there and look for trouble. It’ll find you well enough. Trouble has no problem finding people like us. The ones on the edge.”
“I just want to know if I am going to die,” I say to him. I know it sounds silly. He does not know.
“Here’s the thing, Ira Haskins,” Jimmy said. “Sometimes it’s not what’s going to kill you that matters. Just what’s keeping you alive.”
I wanted to ask him another question, but I could not. I did not know what to say. When I looked at his face, his very sharp face, there was something like me there. Somewhere.
“Ira? What are you doing in here?” It was Doctor Simon. He stood at the doorway, and next to him was a police officer in his blue uniform. There was a gun on his hip and it made me swallow hard. A gun. A real gun! I started to sweat.
“Lay off him, Doc.” Jimmy was talking, but his voice was all rough and raw. “He’s just talking to a lonely old guy.” Then he winked at me. Like we were friends.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.” The police officer walked in and his boots were heavy and his voice was heavy and he made me feel heavy so I got out of there real quick. Doctor Simon followed me.
“Did that man ask you to do anything? Anything at all?” Doctor Simon looked at my face like he was interested but I knew he was not. He grabbed my forearm and it all felt wrong.
Some people do not like smart people and I think Doctor Simon is one of them. He does not like people like me, he does not like people like Jimmy. I think he forgot how to be kind, because I felt my arm burn where he touched it.
“Do you know who that man is?” Doctor Simon kept asking me questions, and I kept not saying anything. I do know who that man is, I wanted to say. His name is Jimmy and he was nice to me and you were not! “He’s a junkie,” Doctor Simon said. “Don’t believe a word he says.”
I did not say anything, but I gave him back the cup. There was a white crack down the middle of it. Then I went home because sometimes there’s nothing left to do but leave.
I know that Jimmy did not swallow that lightbulb, because guess what? I saw him at my work a few days later. Not him, not Jimmy with his missing teeth and that sour smell and maybe the red marks beneath his handcuffs.
I was just sitting there minding my own business and eating a sandwich when the little “bleep!” noise that means EMAIL went off. Subject line: James Andrew Lighton. Oh, I thought, this is not good. I opened it.
There was a picture of him. He looked a lot younger and he didn’t smile with his teeth so I could not tell if he had lost them yet. Date of birth: 04.27.78. Date of Death: 04.27.12. He died on his birthday, I thought, and I felt very, very sad. Then there was his birthplace: Des Moines, Iowa. I had not been there and I still have not been there. Place of death: Anza, California. That was it. Nothing else.
I do not like these kinds of obituaries. The kind where no one says a gosh darn thing because they did not know the person or they forgot about the person or the person died alone and a nursing home attendant sent something in to be nice. No one had said anything nice about Jimmy.
I called the jail and I asked for him for his whole name James Andrew Lighton which is kind of funny if you think about it because it sounds long and good and easy and Lighton has the word “light” in it and so does “lightbulb.” I called the jail and they told me he wasn’t there. I said, yes, I know he is not there, but I need to know something about him. I’m writing an obituary.
“Oh ho!” the person on the phone said, and I thought they were talking to me but they were not. They asked someone for a cup of coffee. I wondered who they asked.
“Do you have something to say about the life of James Andrew Lighton,” I asked politely. I asked because some questions need to be asked. Like if the taste of butter means our lungs are dying and curling up like picked flowers, or if someone will give us their pee because it might help them pass a test. I asked because there should be something to say about someone like Jimmy. Because if there is nothing to say about Jimmy, what could someone say about me?
Over the phone line, I heard a keyboard and the sound of someone breathing. I waited and waited until they hung up, because I guess they forgot I was there.