When I was in the hospital watching my father die, I couldn’t help but think of how much the old man reminded me just then of the first car I’d ever bought with my own money. I’d spent $200 and a case of beer to liberate a beat-to-shit Dodge Shadow from some hick’s backyard. The car’s hood and passenger door didn’t match the rest of the body, and the interior was cracked and musty. It needed new brakes, new tires, new everything. “She don’t look like much,” the hick told me. “But she’ll run.” And run she did, often begrudgingly, frequently absorbing my verbal abuse, transporting me to and from classes and my job until I’d finally saved up enough money to put her out of her misery and get myself a truck.
In Dad’s case, the only thing telling me he was still running was the steady beep of the machine he was hooked up to. I’d always remembered him as a stocky man, nearly neckless, stout-gutted, and wide across the shoulders. But in that bed, he looked like a half-melted statue of himself. The weight was gone, and the remaining colorless skin hung limply on his bones like a sheet. I could scream his name a dozen times and I knew he didn’t have a prayer of hearing me. In that room, in that moment, it didn’t matter who he was or what he’d done. The sight of him was damn sad to see, and I had seen more than enough.
Escape came by way of elevator ride to the hospital’s cafeteria, which at that hour was a ghost town. I spied a cluster of nurses gathered ’round a rectangular table, but I knew better than to bother a nurse — even to say hello — when it wasn’t her shift. Being married to one had taught me that much if little else.
The only other soul in the cafeteria was this biker-looking guy hanging around the coffee. He had one of those leather vests that the bikers wore, and his hair was down to his shoulders (which, truth be told, could have made him any number of things besides a biker). Leaning against the wall, he sipped from a Styrofoam cup and stared steely-eyed at the cafeteria door as if it would burst off its hinges at any moment.
Like the nurses, he looked like someone best left alone, but I’d had my fill of alone. Besides, pissing off a maybe-biker was still an improvement over standing vigil in room 322, so I walked over to the coffee, poured myself a cup, and took up a post right beside him.
“Hey, brother,” I said.
He gave me a look like he was trying to figure out if I was drunk or crazy or nothing worth worrying about.
“I know you?” he asked. His voice had a surprising twang.
“Nah,” I said. “I’m just here watching my dad die.”
“That’s tough shit,” the biker said.
“Yeah, well, he was a prick.” I sipped the coffee, which was bad even by hospital standards. It took two sugars just to bring it to drinkable, and I doubted it’d have much kick. No wonder nurses were grouchy all the time. Although in my ex-wife’s case, that may have had more to do with me.
“You know how it is,” I told the biker. “Guy works a shit job for twenty years and takes it out at home. Everything’s everyone else’s fault. The world’s out to get him. You ever know anyone like that?”
The biker finished his coffee, pitched it in the trash, and turned his attention once more from me to the door. What or whomever he was waiting for hadn’t shown yet, so he probably saw no harm in putting up with me a little while longer. “A few,” he said, quietly, at last.
“The funny thing is I got the worst of it, but I’m the only one who’s here. Mom’s gone, of course, but my sisters? My brother? Forget it.”
The biker said something that I couldn’t quite make out on account of someone paging one of the doctors over the P.A. the moment he opened his mouth. It sounded like it might have been “answer,” in which case he was fucked because I had none.
“Is it cancer?” he repeated after the announcement had finished.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. Cancer. It started . . . I forget where, but it’s all over him now. Man’s barely even a man anymore, ya know?”
The biker nodded solemnly, and I thought that’s all I would get out of him, that he’d go back to door-watching and threaten me to leave him alone. Instead, he leaned further back against the wall and stretched and drew in his breath.
“Listen, bud,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you your business, but if I were you, I’d go up there and grab a pillow and finish it. That’s what I would do.”
I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. His suggestion wound its way through the gears of my sleep-starved brain, setting off ethical tripwires by the dozen. Part of me suspected he was right, that anything short of that was just dicking around and biding time that needn’t be bided. But could I really do something like that? Should I really do something like that? Did the beatings, the fits of rage, the drunken declarations that I was a mistake and would never amount to anything, the time he damn near broke my arm, the fact that he couldn’t even lift a finger now, did all that make it mercy or revenge or some emotional chimera I struggled to define?
“Right,” I said at last, suddenly anxious to leave the topic. “Anyway, what’re you here for?”
The biker smacked his lips and shook his head. “Couldn’t tell ya,” he said. “Personal business.”
“Personal business?” I asked. “After what I just told you?” I must have sounded like some kind of jilted lover, but fuck it, I thought we’d had a moment.
“That’s you, though, innit?” the biker said. He stared me down with the same intensity he’d shown the door a moment earlier. It was a 72-point-font declaration that our conversation was finished.
Stung as I was, I knew, as I left the cafeteria, that he was right. That was me: forever drowning the world in my troubles. “It’s like you have no off button for anything bad,” my then-wife once told me. “It’s not even your fault. It’s not even something you know you’re doing half the time. But Christ, honey, I just can’t take it anymore.”
Neither, it turned out, could anyone else. The elevator ride back up wasn’t nearly as desolate at the ride down had been. I filed in next to a family of four, the parents young and fit, one tike cradled in the mother’s arms, the other hand-in-hand at the father’s side.
“Anyone ever been stuck in one of these?” I asked, the words fleeing my lips before I thought to lock them in. A post-chili bowel rush would have been a better conversation starter. As the ensuing awkward silence stretched the seconds between floors to eons, the mother’s face went tomato red and the father pulled his child closer. My only saving grace was that the kids were too young to comprehend and panic at my suggestion.
Maybe I really couldn’t help it. But then again, maybe the old man couldn’t either. He’d been sick for weeks, if not months, before he finally called me; that’s how stubborn he was. “Listen,” he’d said, his voice reduced to a wheeze. “I know none of you want jack to do with me, but I need you. If this goes the way I think, then somebody’s gotta settle my affairs.” That was how he put it: no “I’m dying, son” or “I’m sorry.” He knew I wouldn’t want to come but that I would anyway.
Some psychologist — maybe Freud, maybe Jung — once said the most terrifying thing was to accept yourself completely. If the old man had truly crossed that bridge, then whatever choice I made when I got back to 322 wouldn’t be any choice at all.
ZAC GOLDSTEIN is a New Jersey native turned Southern exile. He holds a BA in Journalism from The College of New Jersey and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where he served as fiction editor of The Greensboro Review. He currently teaches at Guilford Technical Community College.