Midway along the hospital ward the man stopped walking. The familiar pungent odor crept up his nostrils while his brain churned as he recalled the assault that resulted in murder. He was disoriented, dazed.
“Roger, that you? I didn’t know you heard about Emily. So kind of you to stop by.”
“Oh—” Roger blinked, and his emotional befuddlement was obvious as he tried to recognize his former neighbor, Glen Dingle. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t… I mean… I’m just dropping this off.” Roger lifted a box of chocolates and an envelope as if clarifying his response.
Glen patted Roger’s back as if they were still close friends sharing a beer at a barbecue, still cheering their sons on the football team, their wives still teaching colleagues at Lincoln High, and forgetting the shame that had long buried their friendship.
Tugged onward by Glen’s hold on his elbow, Roger entered the intensive care room, his eyelids fatigued from blinking. The scene too familiar: a large tube traversed the bedridden woman’s throat below two closed blackish-blue patinaed eyes. He blinked again, yet failed to recognize Emily Dingle.
Roger stepped closer, unsure what to say. Should he let Glen in on the cruel joke that sooner or later the machines would stop? Tell him his wife was already dead, only neither she nor Glen knew it? Tell him about the nauseating feeling that would suffuse every cell of his body on agreeing to pull the plug on his wife? This had been Roger two weeks earlier.
He decided this was not the time, not yet. Glen has hope. He’ll believe me less than doctors. He doesn’t care about electrical brain activity. Let him hope for a few days more. Ha. He’ll soon hate the nurses and doctors for… what did they say to me? Mr. Bryant, people react differently… take time to let it sink in… it’s your decision, but your wife is…
Roger looked at his outstretched hand with the chocolate box and gift certificate thank-you he brought for the nursing staff. That day could not be scrubbed away. Roger yelled at the nurses. Cursed and criticized them. Insisted they knew nothing, and that his wife would recover. The nurses tutted, patronized: “We understand, Mr. Bryant. Take your time. It’s your decision.” He fumed until the day he accepted the medical team’s diagnosis. Alice would not recover because she was already dead.
With his sixteen-year-old son Ken, thirteen-year-old daughter Katy, and Alice’s mother and sister they huddled waiting for the silence. The hush was brief, broken by their collective wail. The day Alice officially died the family ceased to care about each other.
No, thought Roger, I’ll not be Glen’s prophet… what was that sonnet read at Alice’s funeral…? Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date. Roger looked from Emily to Glen. Different people take different amounts of time to process bad news.
“Why are you here if you didn’t know about Emily?”
Yes, why? Roger mumbled about thanking the nurses. He told Glen of Alice’s early retirement at fifty; her celebration with colleagues; her call around ten that awful night to say she would fill the car and pick up a few items for the weekend at their Jersey Shore cottage. Roger’s lips widened as he repeated his oft-told quip that Alice counted groceries like a five-year-old. His smile dissipated as he recalled the midnight knock at the door—two men, porcelain faces lit by the outdoor lamp, hats in one hand, the other pushing metal badges forward like lances. Talk of a metal object and a beating. An offer to escort him to the hospital.
“Geez, Roger, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. It wasn’t in the local paper… well, it wouldn’t, would it, since you moved away. Big house in Ridgewood, right?”
Roger looked at Glen sitting at his bedside guard-like chair and realized he had never liked him. Emily he could take or leave. Did he dislike Glen for his lack of ambition? He abandoned the Big Apple competition to start his two-man New Jersey firm, minuscule compared to Roger’s financial group on Madison Avenue and Sixtieth Street. It was no secret Roger’s earnings tripled Glen’s, and explained why Glen struggled to make ends meet.
Or maybe his dislike for Glen came after he had no choice but move his family to the big house, the upper income neighborhood, not that Roger didn’t appreciate the prestige. But everyone knew the Bryant family didn’t move for a better zip code, Glen more than most. Roger rewrote history to include that he never liked Glen.
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