The old man mumbled angrily under his jagged breath while he waited for the wheelchair lift to get him above his front steps. His partially pursed lips violently expressed a sequence of consonants, “F’kn, sh, f’kn, d’k, f’kn no n’thn,” but they were barely audible under the mechanical rumble of the rising platform.
Through the corner of his eye, the old man saw his neighbor, who smiled and waved. The old man considered whether he could get away with pretending he hadn’t seen the wave, but an anxious dread swept his sober body. Without turning his wheelchair (his head long unable to swivel), the old man lifted his left arm in a gesture reminiscent of a wave, and lifted the corners of his mouth in a gesture reminiscent of a smile.
Real smiles, like real waves, like sincere gestures, remained in a time long past for the old man.
“Gardening on a goddamn day like this,” the old man mumbled through the counterfeit smile. He was confident that the sound of the lift’s motor would bury his words. “Worthless piece of shit, ugly ass roses, waste of goddamn time.”
As soon as the wheelchair lift stopped, and silence returned, the old man quickly pushed down on the wheels to propel himself to his door. Back to mumbling consonants, careful not to perceptively disturb the silence, the old man quickly opened his door and pushed himself inside his home.
He briefly wrinkled his nose at the musty, earthen smell inside his home, but the familiarity and accustomed dissipation made him forget about it, even take comfort in it, by the time the door automatically closed behind him. Then his mumbling finally was set free.
“Fuckin goddamn bullshit. Know nothin pieces of shit. Who the fuck do they think–”
Ping! An electronic chime filled the living room, and made the old man stop momentarily, his eyes widening for an instant with a quick rush of serotonin. But his face quickly turned back to its scowl, his darkness reasserting itself.
“Fuckin shit fuck assholes. Fuckers making me go all the way there, in the middle of a goddamn pandemic. And for what. Fuckin piece of shit doctors, know nothing bullshits. Risking my goddamn life, bullshit. Like I even–”
Ping, the sound repeated, stopping the old man once again.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” the old man called into the empty room. He pushed his wheelchair down the dark, narrow aisle created among an assortment of boxes, stained and sagging moving boxes and frayed discolored bankers boxes and cracked plastic storage crates.
The old man grunted, and gave his wheelchair another firm push towards the desk at the end of the aisle, where an old computer and yellowing keyboard and wired black mouse and single speaker awaited, amidst dirty dishes and scratched notes on legal pads and old coffee cups and discarded tissues and a pair of wandering flies. After one last push the old man lifted his hands in anticipation of the keyboard, but the metal rim of his right wheel clipped the protruding corner of the last moving box.
His inertia spun him into the box, and the old man cried out in pain and frustration as his body jerked forward. Then he helplessly watched as the off-white bankers box stacked in front of him slowly tilted back, and collapsed onto the floor behind the box that he had run into. He listened to the sound of broken glass, and of stacks of papers cascading onto the ground.
“Gaaaa!” the old man roared at the top of his lungs.
Now panting, the old man turned his wheelchair back in the direction of his desk, and pushed himself into position in front of his computer monitor.
He picked at the long white stubble on his cheeks as he scrolled through the messages, quickly catching up.
Go ahead with the raid, he typed into the message box with two fingers.
Where the f*ck have you been, appeared a message from user Kiss_my_axe, accompanied by a Ping!
Casanova007: None of your business, the old man replied.
Ping! Kiss_my_axe: You’re 40 mins late boss
Ping! Collection_of_cells: I got dinner in an hour
The old man grimaced and then typed his reply. Casanova007: Got held up at work.
“Fuckin bullshit motherfuckers,” the old man grumbled. “Making me go all the way there, coulda just called. Know nothing pieces of shit doctors.”
He opened the top drawer of his desk and removed a lighter and small glass pipe. He inspected the pipe’s contents before adding to it from a medicine bottle in the drawer, and then lifted the pipe to his lips. He lit the pipe and inhaled deeply.
Ping! Kiss_my_axe: Hope you cashed out. Almost out of gold bars.
As he calmly exhaled a funnel of smoke, the old man noticed the mess left from the box that he had knocked over. Hundreds of photographs were splayed across the floor. Children. A wife. A birthday cake, candles lit. Bathing suits by the ocean. A loving embrace. A tender look down into a held baby’s eyes. A graduation gown. A kissed hand. A self conscious laugh. A baseball uniform. And a broken frame–the crack in the glass obscuring a proud man with his arms around three grown children.
“Bullshit, worthless, fucking know nothing, assholes, thinking they… thinking I–” but now he was crying, mouth twisted into a felt hideousness, eyes impotently trying to hold back tears, tears that he could feel on his cheeks and taste in his mouth, his head held upright only by the brace connected to his wheelchair.
Ping! Bros_Before_Hoes: Glad you’re back big guy. Let’s rock n roll.
“Nice to see you Mr. Glomb,” said the man through the doorway. He was a large Black man of indeterminate age, wearing blue scrubs and a light blue medical mask. The man was obviously smiling behind the mask, while also anxiously rubbing his hands together.
“Wish I could say the same, Francis,” the old man grumbled, turning his wheelchair back around and pushing himself away from the doorway. “Wish I could say the same,” he repeated, calling the words out into the aisle of boxes in front of him.
“Oh Mr. Glomb,” Francis said mirthfully, following the old man into the house and closing the door behind him.
Francis cleared his throat, but before he could say anything the old man yelled out: “Don’t you goddamn say anything about the smell. I’ve had enough of your–”
“At least tell me the repairman came by,” Francis said, navigating through the boxes in the living room.
“Wouldn’t wear a mask,” the old man called out, still looking away from Francis as he pushed himself ahead. He was careful not to clip the final box this time.
“Mr. Glomb, you can’t tell me–”
“I can’t afford him anyway,” the old man interrupted, slowing down in front of his computer. “But enough of that bullshit. Get to it.”
“Let’s talk for a moment, Mr. Glomb,” Francis said soberly.
Francis looked to the computer. “Tell me you’re not spending any money on that nonsense anymore,” he said, reaching over the old man’s shoulder and twisting the small knob to turn off the speaker.
“Never,” the old man replied.
“Mmhmm,” Francis replied. “Can we go to the kitchen Mr. Glomb?”
The old man grunted, but Francis took hold of the handles of the wheelchair and pushed him past his desk, into a kitchen with black and white linoleum tile floors lit by fluorescent lights. Other than the cabinets and appliances, the kitchen was largely empty other than the round plastic-covered table with three fold-out chairs surrounding it.
Francis pushed the old man into the empty spot at the table, and took a seat across from him. He removed his mask, and, grimacing with tender affection, asked, “How you feeling, Mr. Glomb?”
“You put that goddamn mask back on Francis,” the old man snapped. “Before I call your boss, for trying to fuckin kill me over here.”
“Don’t you ‘Mr. Glomb’ me, Francis. I feel fucking great. The only thing that can get me is that goddamn covid, so if you don’t–”
“I spoke with your doctor,” Francis said, while looping his mask back over his ears.
The two sat in silence for a minute before Francis spoke again. “It’s time to talk about your options, Mr. Glomb.”
“The state doesn’t pay you to talk, Francis. You have work to do.”
“I know, Mr. Glomb. But hear me out.”
“Francis,” the old man grumbled.
“I care about you Mr. Glomb. How many years have I–”
“Francis,” the old man said louder.
“You need treatment, Mr. Glomb.”
“I don’t need shit!” the old man bellowed. “Now if you don’t fucking get to work, I’m gonna–”
“You’re dying, Mr. Glomb.”
The two sat in silence for a moment, the old man’s face flat and unexpressive, Francis’ masked face contorted and pleading, before the old man finally replied, “We’re all dying, Francis.”
“But not from prostate cancer,” Francis said. He wiped a hanging tear from his lower eyelid.
“Bullshit know nothing–”
“Do your kids know?”
“Worthless pieces of shit. Don’t give a goddamn rats ass about what happens to me. Never did.”
“You gotta tell em, Mr. Glomb.”
“I don’t gotta do shit,” the old man snapped.
“What about your ex-wife?” Francis asked.
“I don’t gotta do shit!”
“At least maybe, maybe you could discuss treatment options with them. Maybe they could help–”
“I don’t gotta do shit, Francis!” The old man slapped the table. “I’m just fine, gonna be just fine, nothing to worry about. Now if you–”
“You’ll be dead in weeks!” Francis yelled.
The old man briefly choked on his breath before regaining his composure. He opened his mouth to keep arguing, but Francis spoke first: “If you don’t get treatment, you’ll be dead in a matter of weeks. And don’t give me that covid bullshit. I know you’re scared, Mr. Glomb. But you should be scared. Not of covid, but of the cancer. Of dying, Mr. Glomb.”
The old man tried to interrupt again but Francis kept speaking. “Dying like this,” he said, gesturing toward the living room. “Dying alone.” He waited for a moment before continuing. “It’s time to talk to your kids. To talk to your grandkids. To make peace, Mr. Glomb.”
They sat in silence for a few long breaths.
“I know you feel abandoned, Mr. Glomb. But you know as well as I do, you’re no peach.”
The old man didn’t reply.
“Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, it’s never easy. Especially with–”
“With what, Francis,” the old man replied, venom in his voice.
Francis sighed, and looked around the room. His eyes landed on the flashing red light on a phone and answering machine on the counter. He stood up and walked over to the machine. “Time to check these,” he said.
“Don’t you dare.”
“Doing my job, Mr. Glomb. Like you said,” and he pushed the button.
The first message was from the doctor’s office, confirming an appointment.
The second message: “Hi dad, it’s Cameron. Just calling to wish you a happy birthday. It’s been a while. I’d love to talk. Kids would love to talk. Call me. Please.”
“When was your birthday, Mr. Glomb?” Francis asked.
“You have my goddamn file, you should have known.”
The third message was from a roofer, explaining he was at the front door and needed to get inside. Francis sighed.
The final message, a female voice: “Hi Daddy, it’s me. Umm… happy birthday. Hope you’re… um… ok–” An abrupt click ended the message.
“Now you can’t tell me,” Francis began to say as he sat back down at the kitchen table.
The old man slapped the table again. “Can’t tell you what, Francis. That bullshit? They don’t call for months, maybe a year, and those bullshit birthday messages? And where’s Eddie, where’s his fucking call. That tells you what you need to know. Those betraying mother fucking pieces–”
“Mr. Glomb pull your shit together!” Francis yelled, his deep voice echoing through the house. His whole face grimaced, clearly visible despite the mask. “You’re dying, man. Your kids deserve an opportunity to hear from you. You deserve an opportunity to talk to them. Hell, even if it’s letting them know how you feel.”
“Francis, that’s enough–”
“I can’t force you to get treatment, Mr. Glomb. If you want to die, die. But my daddy died with no warning. And what I wouldn’t give to have had one last conversation with him.”
“Get the fuck out of my house,” the old man said.
“Hell, even a letter,” Francis continued. “Anything, knowing the end was coming. Cuz the end changes things, man. I hated that man, he hated me. But what I wouldn’t have given, just for one–”
The old man lifted the kitchen table and threw it onto its side, and the crashing sound stopped Francis. “Get the fuck out of my house!“ the old man bellowed.
“Mr. Glomb,” Francis whispered.
“You’re getting your mask all wet you fucking sissy,” the old man growled.
“Get the fuck out of my house,” the old man repeated before pushing his wheelchair to the far side of the kitchen, where he waited until he heard the front door close.
The old man keyed in his credit card number on his keyboard and hit enter, breathing slow and shallow as he did so.
Ping! Kiss_my_axe: Woo hoo more gold!
Ping! Mary_Magdalene: Here we come you a***oles!
He smiled for a moment, then jerked a hand up to grab the small trash can on the corner of his desk. He placed it below his chin and immediately retched. On the second wretch a weak trail of vomit dribbled down his chin and into the trash. With his other hand he grabbed a glass of water, but when he went to drink it, the old man coughed and sputtered and most of it also fell into the trash can on his lap.
After placing the water and trash can back in their places, the old man’s eyes lingered on the framed photograph on his desk. While the cracked glass covered most of his proud, smiling face, and erect body, he could clearly see his three children. “Fuckin Francis,” the old man mumbled.
As he stared at the photograph his eyes drifted close. He didn’t know how long he slept for, only knew that he awoke feeling a bitter coldness in his arms. Lifting his hands to rub them together, the old man frowned deeply at how blue they had become.
The old man sighed, turned off the computer monitor, and looked back at the photograph.
“What have I done?” he whispered, feeling an indescribable lightness to his life amidst a brooding heaviness of remorse.
“Cameron, Eddie, Bonnie… what have I done?” He could taste the salinity of his tears.
“A letter…” the old man mumbled, thinking of Francis. He reached for the pen and legal pad sitting next to the computer monitor. Flipping past the computer game notes and formulas and references, finally finding a clean yellow page, he began to write:
My dearest children,
He scratched it out and turned to the next page.
Cam, Eddie, Bon – What have I done?
The old man once again scratched out his writing, and turned to another clean page.
Cam, Eddie, Bon,
I never thought… but here I am. By the time you read this, well, I’ll be dead. And can I tell you? I’m scared. Never thought… but here I am, and I’m scared.
Not to die. Honestly, I’ve been waiting to die ever since the accident. No, that’s not true. And if I can’t be honest now… Waiting, ever since your mom left me.
Sure I was upset, angry, mean, but still. Fuck, was I mean. But, in sickness and in health, right? Right. In good times and bad…
Anyway, waiting to die ever since then. And, well, ever since you guys abandoned me. Left me for her. For your own lives. For spouses and kids. Let me tell you, they won’t be there for you when the shit hits the fan. They’ll
The old man suddenly grabbed the trash can and violently but dryly retched into it, before being overcome with convulsions of tearful remorse. He could feel the end coming, and felt as all of his defenses against people drift away–the defenses that he held to keep himself right, and righteous; irreproachable.
“If I can’t be honest now,” he mumbled to himself, feebly wiping away some of the moisture on his cheeks.
He drew a line between what he had written and the blank space underneath. Taking a deep, if shaky and trembling breath, he continued writing:
Be good to them. To your spouses, and kids. Be good to them so they’re good to you. Because I think, I think it goes both ways. If pride doesn’t get in the way, that is. The hurt can make you hurtful. But that only creates more hurt.
If they hurt you, love them. If they leave you, love them.
Maybe then they’ll come back.
I forgive you, kids. I lost myself, in my hurt. In the drugs. In the anger.
I hope you can forgive me.
I was the father.
I should have been a better father.
Life is shit. You know? We’ve all felt that. But we can be better to each other. Truth is I hated myself. All these years, hated what I’d become.
And blaming your mom, and then you kids, kept me from realizing that. Knew it all along, I guess, but it was easier to blame.
I hope you can forgive me.
Maybe not today. But with me gone, without me yelling at you, and calling you names, and blaming you and your mom, and putting my hurt on you, and on your families… Maybe one day you’ll forgive.
I love you all so much. And I fucked it all up. And maybe this letter, maybe this here is the first step to making it right. Even if it’s also the last. Even if I’m too late otherwise.
Please forgive me. For all that I’ve done. For all that I’ve been.
I’m so, so sorry.
I love you guys more than you know. More than I ever thought possible.
The old man startled awake in front of his computer, a loud Ping! startling him to alertness. “Where the fuck,” he mumbled, before gaining clarity.
Or was it the phone that awoke him?
He had a vague recollection of a knocking at the door. Turning his wheelchair toward the door, he saw that at the end of the aisle of boxes was a turned over moving box that blocked access into the house.
“Francis…” the old man mumbled, remembering the social worker knocking, calling out, trying to get through to him.
The answering machine in the kitchen clicked. Effortfully, the old man spun back around to face the kitchen, where he saw the familiar kitchen table on its side. Realizing that it had been the phone ringing that woke him up, he braced himself knowing that he’d soon hear the caller speaking if they chose to leave a message.
The answering machine clicked on. The old man held his breath.
“Eddie,” the old man mumbled, his body trembling.
“It’s me. I’m just calling…”
The old man didn’t dare breathe.
“Fuck I don’t know why I’m calling. I just… just… aw fuck it.”
The answering machine clicked, message over.
“Fuck it is right,” the old man grumbled, turning back to his desk.
“Fuck it!” he screamed, shoving the keyboard off the desk.
The old man looked at the picture of him and his three children, and the crack in the glass over himself.
“Removed me…” he grumbled. “Fucking ingrate pieces of shit. Just like their mother, piece of–”
Ping! Kiss_my_axe: You there boss?
“At least someone fucking cares,” the old man said. “At least someone is still here.”
His body ached, and his blue hands trembled in a frostbite-like numb cold. The old man opened the top drawer of his desk and took out the lighter and small glass pipe, which still held some charred green remains. Using his blue hands, he put the pipe to his lips, lit it, and inhaled as deeply as he was able.
Upon exhaling he began coughing, which eventually turned to retching, which he had stopped even trying to contain anymore.
Once he was composed again, if body if not in mind, the old man returned to staring at the photograph. He recalled vividly the day it was taken: the walk on the grass, the ducks in the pond, lunch at the boathouse, Bonnie asking a stranger to take their picture despite his objections, the kids confronting him about his mistress.
“Fucking bullshit!” the old man screamed, and hurled the framed photograph as far as he could. The sound of shattering glass gave him a moment of pleasure before another coughing fit took over. He thought briefly of covid, and smiled to himself. His neck hurt. But his soul was numb.
He glanced down for his keyboard and realized it was gone, but the old man noticed the letter he had written for his children. He scanned the letter, his handwriting, vaguely remembering the words, the emotions, the fear.
“Nonsense,” the old man mumbled. “Absolute fucking nonsense. Who the fuck are you, Lawrence. Who the fuck do you think you are. And them. Who the fuck…”
He grabbed the yellow pages in one hand and lifted them in front of his face. He reached into his desk drawer and removed the lighter with the other hand. He flicked the wheel on the lighter, and then placed the small flame on the corner of the letter.
The old man watched as the pages burned, as his words burned, and transformed into dense black smoke.
“Like my life,” he said, and let the entire page incinerate, even letting the lapping flames singe his cold, blue fingertips before forever disappearing from the earth.
“I’m ready,” the old man said, and relaxed into his final breaths.