Now Playing: Going Once, Going Twice
Sid Holloway went to bed before the evening news came on, something he almost never did. It was only Wednesday but the week felt as if it had dragged on for a year. He couldn’t remember feeling so rotten. His head throbbed and his lungs worked as if they had been wrapped in cellophane. He felt like a man floating in sick, stagnant sea water.
I’m only sixty-two, he thought as he gingerly climbed into bed wearing a faded set of striped pajamas. What’s it going to be like when I’m seventy-two?
He rolled onto his right side and then tucked his knees up to his chest even though it pained his knees; but it was the position he automatically assumed when ill. Lights flashed like the after glow of fireworks in his head and he felt as if he were spinning. He hugged himself and took small breaths. Stars burst with more energy than he possessed and then disappeared. Every muscle, begging unmercifully for attention, ached. After what seemed like hours he grew tired, relaxed and then fell asleep.
At a quarter past midnight, as the moon peeped through his kitchen windows, as Australians sat down for lunch, as the air played faint melodies on the hollow sticks of a neighbor’s bamboo wind chime, the heart that had worked without complaint for 62 years, 4 months and 10 days stopped beating faster than a broken drum, and Sid Holloway died almost immediately.
In the morning he heard the coffee machine, which he kept set to start brewing at 6:15, but could not smell the familiar aroma of his morning cup. His headache was gone and his joints didn’t hurt but that was because, he realized with alarm amounting to panic, he didn’t feel anything at all. Everything had gone numb-so numb that he couldn’t even feel the pins and needles of arms and legs gone asleep.
He padded unsteadily to the bathroom, fumbled for the light, and then stared aghast at himself in the mirror. When he failed to find a pulse or feel the beating of his heart, he walked back to bed, sat down and then realized what was even worse. He had stopped breathing.
I should be dead, he thought. Oh hell, what am I saying? I am dead.
This was a dilemma. What should he do now? He considered calling 911 but what could he say to the operator? I’m dead, can you please send someone to pick me up? And what would his friends and the neighbors say? It was hard enough getting anyone to come over on Christmas.
As crazy as it seemed even to him, he found himself getting dressed for work. He shaved-more out of habit than for appearance-and then trudged into the kitchen for his usual coffee and toast. But he didn’t eat or drink. What was the point? He didn’t feel hungry or thirsty anyway. He had to get on the road before traffic got heavy. After filling his lungs with air he sighed, grabbed his keys and then headed for the door.
Inside his black Audi Sedan Sid paused before turning the key in the ignition. Was there a law against driving while dead? He thought about this for so long that the garage light went out. Instead of opening the door with the remote control he sat in total darkness.
This is what it should be like to be dead, he thought. No light, no sound.
It is one thing to think that one is dead; quite another thing to really believe it. Sid had the thought that he was dead, but down deep he really believed that something had come over him and that eventually he would shake it off. Feeling would return and he would become aware once more of his own respiration and heart beat. Like most people, he thought of himself as a kind of mysterious being inhabiting a body-the world peeking at itself through a lens of flesh. Now he felt absolutely buried in flesh, as if he had been wrapped in layer after layer of moist toilet paper. But surely it would wear off. The dead, after all, don’t get up and walk around. Only crazy Hollywood directors come up with those ideas.
Telling himself that he would go to the doctor if he didn’t return to normal after a few hours, he opened the garage door with the remote, turned the engine on and then backed the car out. He drove without turning on the radio, wanting quiet so that he could think.
It could be a brain tumor, he thought. Or a stroke. No, one side wouldn’t work and I’d be confused. Maybe a virus. Call the doctor at nine as soon as the office is open. Should have stayed home. What if I pass out while driving? Feel funny, pull over and stop the car. At least I don’t have to take the freeway. Hold on, Sid. Almost there. Steady, old boy. Steady, steady.
The car seemed to float above the road. A trash truck, flashing red lights, slowed down ahead of him but he gracefully maneuvered around it. The streets were dark, just as they always were this time of year in the morning. There were only a few other, less expensive cars on the road, and that was usual, too.
But I’m dead and driving to work, Sid thought, chuckling soundlessly since his lungs were empty. I wonder what the garbage men would think about that. Hey Ed, you see a corpse just drive by?
He parked the Audi in the small lot behind the office, shut the engine off and congratulated himself for handling the car so well in such a weird state. Well, it was a great car, and he had often thought that it nearly drove itself. As he had often said, it pays to buy the best.
For a few minutes he stood in front of the door to Sea Cliff Property Management, staring thoughtfully at the white lettering on clean, clear glass. Fifty miles or so from the ocean, but his wife Sheila had the idea of calling the company Sea Cliff because it conjured up pleasant images of exotic landscapes, warm, salty breezes and happy, suntanned people living in luxury. It had seemed silly to him then and even sillier now, but he had always been eager to make her happy. And who knows? The business had done well for the last 32 years and maybe the name had helped.
Sid stood in front of the door feeling neither warm nor cold. He felt the weight of his clothes, the pressure of gravity and the way his shoes and wedding ring felt tighter than usual; but that wasn’t enough to physically convince him that he was really there, key in hand, a man occupying real space and not a phantom about to fade away like an idea in someone else’s mind. Because he didn’t feel real nothing around him seemed real; and he wondered if he was at the right place. Could he make it vanish by making a wish? Was he something only held together by thoughts? No one had seen him so far. Would they?
He looked again at the window, at the words Payroll and Mortgage, and wondered if all the numbers he had added up for so many years really represented anything. Decade after decade he had relished working on the kind of forms other people dreaded. At parties, when he spoke to strangers about what he did for a living, he could always tell, by the look in their eyes, that what they wanted to say was, “I’d be bored to death.” A woman once told him that if she had to work with numbers all day she would throw herself off a bridge.
But he had always enjoyed the work, knowing how much he helped those who placed their trust and confidence in him. The business had always been enjoyable if for no other reason than it gave him a sense of order, and the office was always warm and inviting. Now, as he looked through the glass, it seemed cold and empty, a place far removed from the hum and deep complexity of life outside of glass, screens, charts and reports.
He went to his office, closed the door and then sat down at his desk without turning on the lights or his computer. It was only then that he became aware that he had forgotten to put on his watch. A day had never gone by without the presence of a watch. Mechanical time keepers, it seemed to him, had always regulated every aspect of his life, from when he got up, ate, worked and went to bed. Perhaps time had ceased to exist. Life can be broken down into discrete, measurable parts moving through cycles of duration. Death, on the other hand, is an empty stillness so final and complete that no time can measure where it begins or ends. He had once heard death described as the infinitely small point of nothingness at the center of everything.
But I can’t be really dead, he thought as he sat without his watch in his dark office. It’s, it’s, it’s too, too ridiculous.
A minute or an hour passed. He sat quietly, looking with unblinking eyes at the blank screen of the computer. He was aware of no physical sensation other than a weight and pressure that made him feel huge, as if he had grown the size of the Hindenburg. Outside cars chugged wearily uphill, and a group of noisy children walking to school passed the office sounding like a flock of birds. He clapped his hands and then slapped his face but didn’t feel the slightest sting or tingle.
He heard Mary Aaron clatter into the office on her stiletto high heels, heard her as she snapped on the lights and then set her paper cup of coffee down. Her swivel chair squeaked, a drawer opened, papers rustled uneasily and her desktop computer hummed to life. She still had the light, trim body of an athletic teenager but in the last few years her face had grown worn and lined. He pictured her scanning the screen to see where the market was heading and the price of everything, from corn to a barrel of oil. He could almost see numbers, arranged in columns and plotted in graphs, flashing on the screen and then flowing through the thick bundle of nerves behind her eyes.
Her swivel chair squeaked, creaked and then, like an animal sensing danger, grew quiet. Something wasn’t right. Stiletto high heels tapped and a bracelet jangled toward his door. He debated hiding under his desk but decided to stay where he was. His only small hope, tiny as a speck of dust orbiting Jupiter, was that she would see his condition differently and thus turn everything around; but just like a speck of dust, it was too small to grasp.
When his door swung open the light from the front office did not hurt his eyes. He saw her shape, then her face when she switched the lights in his office on. Her mouth formed an O, she clutched her chest and then clattered and jangled backward.
“Sid,” she said. “I didn’t know you were here. Are you all right?”
He drew in a breath but said nothing. Her short hair was the color of wheat and honey. She had on a tan skirt with flecks of green in it that reminded him of a hunting jacket his father once wore. Her white blouse was open at the neck, revealing a thin gold chain on pale skin that had started to loosen and sag. Her faint blue eyes, which he always thought gave her an icy look, bore into him with wide, unblinking alarm.
Before he could say anything she came up to him with tiny, quick steps that made him think of a pigeon going after a crust of bread. She put her hand on his forehead and then drew back. Her pale skin turned paler.
“You’re cold as ice,” she said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Sid said. He looked at the little gold coins on her bracelet. They twitched and trembled, animated by the first burst of adrenaline starting to flow into her veins.
“What?” she said.
“I don’t feel anything,” Sid repeated. “I’m numb all over.”
“Sid,” she said, starting to turn around. “Stay there. Don’t move. I’m calling an ambulance.”
He had no intention of leaving but wanted to see if he could still stand up, and so he did. Rising into the air like the doomed German airship, he hovered over the floor and then moved toward the window. There was only one window in his office. In all the years he had worked there he had never stood where he stood now to look through it. He saw the parking lot, his car, a wooden fence and a strip of blue sky. But there was more to look at, he realized. The parking lot was paved with asphalt, a mixture of black and gray, bumpy, rocky and cracked. A few weeds grew in the cracks in stubborn, naked defiance. The fence was splintery and as gap-toothed as a kid’s mouth. A strand of ivy dipped over the upper right corner of the window. He wondered if it liked the glass, or if it wanted to see in as much as he wanted to see out. It seemed that everything he saw was the expression of one thing he could not name or see. The whole world, he thought, right there and right here.
The paramedics showed up in less than a minute. Both men, young, lean and in their twenties, they walked briskly toward Sid with the open, friendly expression of salesmen or hotel clerks.
“Mister Holloway,” one of the paramedics, the slightly taller of the two who had a crew cut, said. “How are you, sir?”
Sid drew in a breath.
“Don’t feel anything,” he said.
Greg and Tyler, as he learned by their name tags, put their equipment down and set to work. Within minutes their open, cheery expression changed; and by the time they had finished they looked like men who had found themselves in the middle of a horror film.
Sid had seen that expression before. As Greg paced back and forth in the front office talking into his two-way radio to a doctor, he found himself thinking about the last camping trip he had taken with Sheila.
They had driven up to Angeles National Forest in the middle of July. The heat below had been suffocating but the forest was cool, the air bone dry. Sheila put up the tent while he unloaded the car. They sat across from each other at the heavily knife marked table, sipped beer from bottles and munched on trail mix, cheese, pita bread and hummus. Kids at another campsite played rock music but they always expected that sort of thing. It didn’t spoil the feel of the sun through the trees, the smell of smoke and food cooking on camp stoves, the song of doves and flycatchers. They held hands and looked at each other without talking. She wore hiking boots, shorts that came down to her knees and a yellow t-shirt small enough, he thought, to fit an adolescent. At fifty she didn’t have an ache, pain, wrinkle or one grey hair on her head. Her face was rose tinted, heart shaped and graced by a perpetual smile. He had never known her to be petty, mean, unforgiving or ill-tempered even under the most trying circumstances; and all at once it struck him that the woman sitting across from him was perfect. Later, he often wished that he had told her that.
After dinner he took the flashlight and went to the latrine. He had the feeling, on walking back, that he had set off in the wrong direction, and blamed his confusion on too many beers. Should he have turned right or left at the door? Every direction looked the same. He decided to return to the latrine but then, moving perhaps too quickly in the dark, stumbled over a rock, lost his balance and fell. A small black and white cat ambled over to him.
Allergic to cats, he told the animal to “shoo,” but then discovered to his horror that the cat before him wasn’t a cat; and before he had time to react the vilest smelling liquid he had ever smelled in his life arced over him.
The odor almost blinded him. He wondered if this is how people feel when their clothes catch fire. For what seemed like hours he stumbled along, trying to breathe through his mouth without gagging. He lurched into the campsite but it wasn’t their campsite. A man with a fuzzy red beard, a woman holding firewood and two little girls looked at him as if he were Bigfoot. It was the same look as the paramedics.
The next day they drove home. He sat in the backseat wearing nothing but a towel. Sheila held the wheel in one hand while pressing a washcloth soaked in orange soda over her mouth. She complained of feeling sick but couldn’t stop laughing.
Two years later their son, Eric, drove home one night with his girlfriend. Stopping the car and then getting out to help an injured animal, he was struck by another car and died on the way to the hospital. The wounded animal, it turned out, had been part of a cardboard box. A star football player in high school who was never injured, he went on to serve six years in the Marine Corps without so much as a scratch. He was so gracefully built and good looking that Sid used to joke with Sheila that she must have slept one night with someone else. Everyone adored him, everything came so easily to him and yet he was the kindest boy and the gentlest man Sid had ever known. He could never answer the question of how that was possible. In two years his son would have earned his PhD. Then marriage, a good job, children. And all of it thrown away like the tattered remains of a cardboard box.
Not long after the death of their son-it seemed like months rather than years-a routine visit to the doctor gave their marriage its final blow. A lump under the right arm was found. He tried all he could to reassure her, to persuade her that the disease could be faced, fought against and defeated. But she had no fight within her. Grief, like a stone, carried her down. In less than a year, gray and as withered as a woman twice her age, she died. He held her hands and watched her go. The pain of losing her gripped him from the inside like fingers of knives, and he could only think, “Now I’m alone.”
The last surprise of his life, or existence, was the arrival of the astronauts. At least, in their protective suits, they looked like astronauts. Two of them entered his office but only one spoke.
Sid took a breath and then said, “That would be me.”
“My name is Doctor Swinson,” the astronaut said. “We need to examine you.”
“Yes,” Sid said. “Of course.”
Twenty minutes later Sid sat in the back of a large white van. Men in protective suits who acted with solemn military precision sat with him. No one spoke. The drive was so long that Sid began to wonder if they were still in California. The windows were coated with a plastic film that made it difficult to see where they were. He began to think that maybe they weren’t really going anywhere, that they were in fact just going in circles.
Sid closed his eyes once. He didn’t fall asleep and yet he had what felt like a dream. He stood in the living room of a house that didn’t seem familiar. Sheila was next to him although he couldn’t see her. The van stopped and he opened his eyes. Footsteps approached the van as the doors slid open. Wherever they were, they had arrived.
The astronauts put him in a wheelchair and then rolled him into an elevator large enough to park a car in. Then they rolled him into a room that looked like an orange plastic cube, cut off his pants, shirt and underwear, removed his shoes and socks and then gave him paper blue clothes to wear.
“Wait here, Mister Holloway,” one of them said.
Sid shrugged. What else was he going to do, go out for a dinner and a show?
For the next several hours astronauts came in and out, poking him here, poking him there, snipping his hair, drawing blood from his legs, scraping his skin and swabbing his mouth.
There was no clock in the room and Sid began to wonder if it was still the same day. Finally Dr. Swinson came in to talk to him.
Dr. Swinson, Sid realized, was a woman. He peered into her face mask and saw a young face, green eyes and short red hair.
“Mister Holloway,” she said.
“Call me Sid,” Sid said.
“Sid,” she said after a long pause. “I’m afraid the news isn’t good.”
“News never is,” Sid said.
“What I mean,” she said. “Is that your condition…”
“Am I dead?” Sid said.
“I,” Dr. Swinson said. “I don’t know quite how to answer that. All we know is that you are not the only one in your, in your condition. Cases have been found in other countries but, fortunately, not many. We don’t know yet what it is exactly. You may be alive but alive in a way we don’t understand. All we know is the trajectory of the condition or disease. Decomposition sets in and while not painful all I can say from what I’ve learned is that it is, it’s unpleasant. There is no cure but there is something we can do to put a quick end to it. It’s up to you, of course.”
Sid lay on his back, head turned to one side so that he could look at the machines they had hooked him up to. No activity showed on any of the monitors. He had difficulty focusing his eyes and didn’t know if he could control his movements any longer. Out of body, he thought. I’m the faint signal of brain waves in space. Driving a car now would have been impossible, he knew. His only anxiety was that he was evacuating his bowels or urinating in front of Dr. Swinson. Other than that, he was amazed at how calm he felt.
“Well,” he said after struggling to draw a breath. “I think we should end it, don’t you?”
Dr. Swinson only nodded.
“Can I,” Sid said, trying to prop himself up on his elbows and then giving up. “Ask you something?”
“Of course,” she said, moving closer.
“What,” he said. “Is your first name?”
“Grace,” she said.
“And are you,” Sid said. “Are you married, Grace?”
“Yes,” she said, nodding. “To another doctor.”
“Two boys,” she said. “Two and three and a half.”
“I had a boy,” Sid said. He couldn’t tell if he was moving his lips and wondered how much longer she could understand him.
To his relief she nodded and then said, “I know.”
“Wonderful to have kids,” Sid said. “We would have had more but couldn’t.”
“Sid,” Grace said, stepping closer and putting her hand on his arm. “There are a lot of papers to sign. We should get it done now.”
“Will you stay with me, Grace?” he said.
“I will, Sid,” she said. “I’ll be right here.”
He thought he signed, with Grace’s help, more papers than most people have to wade through to buy a house. When it was all done astronauts came in to roll him on his side. At that precise moment Sid knew that it was all a dream. It had to be. He was not in a state of terror and everything was moving too fast. In real life he wouldn’t be destroyed like a rabid dog. No, it had to be a dream, the weirdest, most terrible dream of his life; and this sudden realization filled him with the hope, bright and pure as starlight, that the death of his son and wife was part of the dream, too, and that he would see them again when he awakened.
And so as he felt the pressure of the needle on the back of his head he smiled, wanting to look serene and happy, for he was neither sad now nor in the least afraid.
Copyright 2012 James Hazard
La Verne, California