My Favorite Season

For recent high school graduate Eric Sterling, the summer of 1980 will be his last. He wants to spend that summer alone, but new neighbor Jayson won't let that happen.
Jayson has also just graduated, and is seeking his own final summer adventure before college and "adulthood" change him forever--a change he fears more than he lets on.
For reasons he doesn't fully understand, Eric is reluctant to tell the truth about his leukemia to his brilliant, capricious friend. Will Jayson pity him? Avoid him?
However, Jayson finds out anyway... and their real summer adventure begins...

[Thirty Chapters]

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6. Chapter Six

               He and I

               Opened skipping-stone season,

               A feast for more than us—

               But us!

               Was all there was

 

                                       Unorchestrated Songs

 

     I am writing this story on index cards, a handful out of four thousand I once received from my tenth-grade writing teacher, who also made a gift of this advice: write down everything.

     The index cards were misprints; the one red and ten blue lines ran vertically, leaving a blank space at the bottom.

     I carry a pocketful everywhere; I remember that I had some when I tried to kill myself with Thorazine, a drug which is supposed to disrupt your thinking so that you won't dwell too long on a single problem. By the way, it didn't work for that either.

     The cards were still in my pocket, in the closet of my private hospital room—my reward for attempting suicide, or perhaps for not succeeding. Suicide is a sin in most churches, including mine, Presbyterian. I wondered what that old agnostic, Jayson Murdock, would say about suicide, if he ever heard about mine.

     I have, indeed, written down everything that has happened to me, including The Diagnosis, a four-hundred-fifty-card novel about that day they explained why I was getting thinner and weaker, and how October rain and January snow could fall on the same bruises.

     The Diagnosis actually had all the elements that this story deserved, but did not receive: a New York winter; days that lasted, perhaps, as long as sparks in a campfire; a major holiday, for irony; and a love interest for me.

                                                *                  *                   *

     Would my life be more interesting if I threw the cards up in the air, let them fall, then stack them up and relive them in that order? Until Jayson came along, then left, I would not have noticed the difference. Jayson's departure, which I had lobbied for all along, actually had the effect of throwing the cards up in the air.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I had not expected to wake up. Thorazine is a fearful narcotic: one relaxes me, two makes me drowsy, and three (an experimental, depressed fling) put me to sleep for ten hours. There had been, as I said, eleven left in the bottle, and I had taken them all. They had looked so lonely.

     As for narcotics being traditionally addictive: I had started taking them in February; and while by June I had not actually felt that I couldn't live without them, they had become very good friends.

     Friendship, after all, isn't like money.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I've taken a few cards from my masterpiece, The Diagnosis. This is not my favorite chapter; it only clears up a minor detail —how I came across Thorazine, a drug that was never prescribed for me.

     I was walking alone in the hospital corridors. The diagnosis itself was only an hour old, still spinning— unbelieved, unwelcome, unloved—inside my head.

     There was white everywhere: the floors, the walls, the gowns, the coats, the air.

     Suddenly I turned a corner, and there was a man in grey—not a gown, but an operating room uniform. He sat rocking back and forth on the bench, but stopped when he saw me. He invited me to sit down, and I did.

     He looked in his thirties, but his voice was grey, decades older.

     "You look," he said, "Like you have a problem."

     I told him. I had not yet learned to censure what I say.

    "Dying." He tilted his head thoughtfully, then looked at me. "I do hope you are frightened out of your mind."

     The spinning had slowed somewhat. "I don't know."

     He blinked, and reached into a pocket of his shirt. "Well, when you do, take one of these—" he pulled out a small beige plastic bottle—" and call me in the morning."

     "Are you a—"

     "I wish I could die."

     I stared at him.

     "I mean, in a normal lifetime. I'm going to live another one hundred and forty-seven years."

     "A hundred and forty seven years."

     "And three days. They told me."

     "The doctors?"

     "Oh, no. There are no doctors on their world."

     I closed my eyes and shook my head. "This is the mental wing, or ward, isn't it?"

     "What's in a name? Here, take them."

     "I can't take your medicine."

     "I don't need it. I have a long life. I may marry someone whose grandmother hasn't even been born yet."

     I stared at his clothes. "Aren't those supposed to be green?"

     He offered the bottle again. I didn't move, so he continued talking. "They're always telling me to do things, like help people, or write operas. Or break all the glass around me.

     "Sometimes I wish they'd stop, and they do. Then I realize that there's no one else, so I listen for them again. And there they are."

     I sighed. He went on. "So they—this they—" he spread his hands, indicating the hospital— "gave me these. Thorazine, 'to calm me down.' But I overheard the interns; it's supposed to keep me from thinking about something for too long—like sitting in an easy chair and switching channels with the remote when you get bored."

     He began to rock again. "They don't work." He turned to me. "Take them."

     I still did not move. I was just then beginning to realize that I was going to die, and very, very soon.

     My companion continued. "I can't wait to get to Heaven. What I'm looking forward to most is hearing them greet me. It's the same for everyone. All the angels—all the souls that have ever been—gather around you, and they sing."

     And he sang:

          Welcome to the Happy-Ever-After

          Together we can surely find the Answer

          Welcome to the milk and honey

          Welcome to a brand new day

          Welcome to the Happy-Ever-After...

     "There's a Hell, too. But you know who goes to Hell? People who don't care. And everlasting hell is better than they deserve."

     I took the pills. 

                                                *                  *                   *

     It just occurred to me: "like switching channels when you get bored." Good God. Jayson does that. He's been doing it all along— all his life, from what I know.

     Once too often, from what I know.

                                                *                  *                   *

     As I've said, waking up was a surprise, until I remembered the energetic measures they—the strangers in the ambulance and the hospital—had taken to empty my stomach. I was not amazed to find myself in such a room, but with my parents? —it was just odd to see them standing together like that.

     I actually had the gall to look around for Jayson Murdock, before real life woke up, too.

    I was angry at the two people who stood at the foot of my bed. This had been going on for awhile, sort of an undercurrent of our relationship, and I finally knew why.

    Dad had told Uncle Ben, and Uncle Joe, and Uncle Lefty that I was sick. Mom had told Aunt Evelyn and Aunt Janie and Aunt Shirley and Aunt Sue. The aunts and uncles told the cousins, and the in-laws, and the strangers who would listen.

    I never got to tell anyone. Not even myself.

    And now, not even Jayson. They had taken away the only thing I finally thought I could do right. Jayson and I matched each other so closely, see, that telling him would be telling me. At last.

    That opportunity was forever lost. I may never know how I would have reacted to the news.

     Mom and Dad looked pale, and frightened, even more so than in their famous scene in The Diagnosis. In fact, I may as well describe them now as I did then, since, in the intervening four months, they have not changed.

     Dad, at the time the coach at my school, simply stood, confused. He had given me these Viking good looks—and I knew he was wondering whether he had given me leukemia as well. He did not look six feet three, he did not look athletic.

     Mom, a product of Brooklyn, brown-haired, wide-eyed, kept looking around, blinking. She did not believe that anything at all was happening.

     They looked like two dandelion-feathers, so I held my breath.

     And they reminded me of what Jayson once said about being the parents of a teenager: it must be like being outside a theater while a movie you produced and directed is showing, then rushing in at the end, at graduation, searching frantically for your name in the credits, and hoping someone will tell you what happened, secondhand.

     I left high school behind in New York, with everything else, before I could graduate.

     Oh, God, I thought, why did I do this? Why did I try to kill myself? Why did I get sick? Why was I even born?

     So we continued to watch each other. I found myself wishing that the scene were more dramatic. The walls should have been white instead of beige. I should be surrounded by monitors, and IV's and an oxygen tent, instead of a nightstand with a telephone and a pitcher of water.

     But my parents were in place, and they knew their lines.

                                                *                  *                   *

My other parents, the Murdocks, were here too; they had appeared in my room briefly, then withdrawn, embarrassed perhaps at what their real son had done.

                                                *                  *                   *     

     I should have mentioned that in the past four days, Jayson rescued me from many things: boredom, thinking about my disease, and loneliness. Now all three things had returned, and with a vengeance, and with my parents. I remember thinking that I would have given a lot to be rescued from the next few minutes: Mom was about to apologize for telling Jayson something that he had a right to know, and Dad was about to say something totally inappropriate; for better or worse, he had no experience at this.

     There came a knock on the door.

     In fiction, timing is everything. And Jayson, as I have said, is fictional.

                                                *                  *                   *

     The moment I heard the knock, my heart leaped. I knew that by now he was miles away; that's why I was here. But the knock was so Jayson: there was more than ordinary force behind it, behind him: confidence, more concession to custom rather than a request for permission to enter.

     He was announcing his presence.

     Dad moved to the door, opened it, and stared.

     "Greetings," Jayson said, "I return to Mount Caucasus."

     He explained later that that had nothing to do with us being white.

     Dad stood aside, and Jayson entered, slowly for him but still quickly, and turned to them.

     They spoke in low voices, but I heard them:

     Mom reached out and touched Jayson's arm. "We'll leave you two alone."

     He bowed his head. "Thank you. I have an embarrassing task to perform."

     Dad shook his hand, and they left.

     Jayson stared at the door as it closed, and murmured, "and yet a welcome one."

     I watched him approach, wondering what on earth either of us was going to say.

     He sat on the bed. I sat up.

     Jayson Murdock, the Rocket Man, put his arms around me.

     We pulled each other close. Well, closer.

     I knew what it was for this fictional character, burning out his fuse, to do this: the stripping of his intellectual shield. I could feel his heartbeat, and more: trembling horror, and chagrin.

     I sent back answers: relief, anger, terror, grief—and there, for a long moment, we resonated—a dark, rippling pool in a hidden, measureless cavern.

                                                *                  *                   *

     Jayson's initial reaction to this room matched that of his reaction to the last room he had seen me in—my own bedroom. He had a point: the two enclosures were frighteningly similar.

     He said, "When I found out, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do....I've never not known what to do before." He looked surprised. "It was interesting—"he shook his head "—but frightening."

     Ah, I thought, I didn't know how he'd react, because he didn't know.

     He stood, and began to walk around the room, rubbing his hands for warmth, and careful not to touch anything. "When I found out that you were just another one, all I could think was—"

     "A what? Another one what?"

     He stopped and looked at me. "A retired person. Belltown is supposed to be a retirement community." He sighed. "It's a hospice. People go there to die in peace, in a place where they look like they belong, because no one else wants them. They want to look like they still have control over their lives; if you drove down the street, you'd think you were in a nice suburban camelot. You'd be wrong...those people aren't waiting for the milkman.

     "I have always been amazed by the cruelty in that little town. The way the people treat themselves...they proclaim, or allow someone else to proclaim, retirement to be the end of their lives; so they go indoors, and they don't come out for the sun, or the rain, or the stars—buried, essentially."

     He looked at me. "I was so tired of that...I thought you and I could get away from it. We did for awhile." He smiled, but it was so terribly different from the smile he used to wear. My eyes burned.

     "All I could think was, 'Oh, God, I'm alone again.'"

     I nodded. "Me too."

     There were a lot of things I wanted to ask him, but the first thing that occurred to me was, "Where did you go?"

     "I was on my way home, to Scotland West. But it hit me, right there on the freeway, that if I was afraid, how must you feel?"

     My eyes widened. "So you came back..."

     "To find out." Then, the smile that should never have left was back. 

     I said, "Most of the time I feel pretty good—like there's nothing wrong. Sometimes, though, it hurts, and I can't really tell where. You know what I mean?"

     Jayson took a deep breath. "No, I don't."

     I was surprised, and impressed. In all that worrying about Jayson's reaction, it never occurred to me that it might be the one I was waiting for. Everyone else had said "of course, Eric, I know just how you feel." That was right up there with "You're so brave..." Pretty soon I'd just stopped telling—or asking.

     There was a strange expression in his eyes. "Maybe you could tell me."

     I wanted to, but not here. No one ever asked me that before.

     Jayson said, "When I got back, I went straight to your house, but of course it was empty. I saw that the door to your room was open. But after learning what had happened to you, it seemed strange to me that the door had not been forced."

     I blinked. I hadn't even remembered that until now. But it was coming back; the pills, blurred into smudges in my palm, beckoned again.

     As I swallowed them, one by one, a life had passed before my eyes—not my old one, just this past week with the Rocket Man. In reverse: I had floated back, through seven days, until it was almost summer again, and he was standing at my door.

     I looked up at him now from my bed. "I wasn't going to let them in. But I remembered something you said to me—one of the first things you ever said to me."

     "Really? Let's see. I said hello, I'm Jayson, then...then something about the door—no?" He paused. Well, I can't seem to...I wish I had Philip's memory, he can remember what he had for—oh! Lunch! I said I had the same kind of lunch!" He gave a rueful laugh. "Yeah."

     So what I had actually remembered, or realized, was that Jayson and I were the same: I matched him more closely than anyone I had ever met. And with that memory came the desire to be alive again. I mean, if our lifelines could resonate like they had so far, then there must be something left in mine.

     "So I let them in. At least I remember trying to." I fell back to the pillow. "I'm glad you're back."

     He smiled. "Of course you are. When do you get out?"

     "Tomorrow afternoon."

    He thought a moment. "You know, I also came back because I forgot to pick someone up and take him with me."

    "Who?"

    "Who? Pavel Chekov. You!" He sighed. "That was an invitation, if you really need a translation."

    "To where?"

    "We have a place out at the beach—it's where we used to live, before Belltown was born, or whelped, or whatever. Anyway, I go out there every summer. I call it 'Scotland West,' because of our name, right? It would be great if someone else could ride along."

    "I'd like that."

    "Great." He stood and looked around. "Hey, where's your nurse, the one that looks like Jane Russell. You know, with the aerodynamic—well, I'll find her. You rest. I'll go get your parents."

     He left before I could stop him. Well, he was at the door before I could decide whether or not to try. He pulled the door open wide, then peered out into the hall.

     A moment later he returned to the bed. "The hall is empty. They might have gone to the lounge, with mine. I'll check and..." he paused, as if he heard something, then said, "Roxanne." He said it strangely, as if he were posing the question and answering it at the same time.

     He went back to the door, leaned out, and made a beckoning motion. "Hi, Roxanne; we're in here."

     I remember he told me that Roxanne usually works in the hospital during the summer, but I wondered how he knew she was there; I hadn't heard any footsteps. Maybe he smelled her perfume.

     Roxanne Coriander came into view, and I noticed that she was dressed more like Jayson than I ever had been, with a denim jacket and a Charlie Chaplin T-shirt, the cuffs of her jeans tucked into her high-top sneakers. I also noticed that she was surprised to see him in the hospital, and even more so to find me there. In bed, no less.

     He didn't notice her surprise because of course he was sappy-eyed again. In fact, if he hadn't been, if Roxanne had been a stranger, I might have said something like, "Talk about aerodynamic ...."

     Jayson, in fact, was saying, "This is a nice surprise, Roxanne, I know Eric will appreciate it," and Roxanne was playing along.

     He brought her to the bed, then said, "Look who's here. I'll bet Philip shows up next. I'll go look for your parents again." He made it out the door; by then I had decided not to stop him. I was ready to see them now.

     "Hello, Roxanne."

     She stared at me, then at the room, then back at me. "Why are you in here?"

     That, I decided, was such a good question, that I started my story by answering it. Instead of answering her, though, I said, "You're not here to see me, are you?"

     She shook her head. "I didn't even know. I was here visiting an old—oh, he's coming back."

     She turned to the door as Jayson entered. I hadn't heard him. How do they do that?

     Roxanne grasped his hand briefly on her way out.

     He reported that our parents were across the hall asleep. He hadn't wanted to wake them. He sat down again.

     I have mentioned how sometimes we just sat together, talking without words, thinking without ordinary archetypes. There in the hospital, we absorbed the final visitor's hour in verbal, archetypal silence—two cold, lonely empaths.

                                                *                  *                   *

     My parents were still asleep when Jayson left. He asked if he should wake them. I told him no.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I woke up. It was dark outside, but moonlight shone through the window and fell on Jayson Murdock.

     "Jayson? What—"

     "Shhh! We're rescuing you." He moved to the closet.

     I sat up, groggy. "Rescue—what from?"

     "That's a long list. Just get dressed."

     "Rescuing me? But I get released tomorrow!"

     "Sure, but what fun is that?" He threw my clothes at me.

     There was a light knock on the door, then Philip entered stealthily.

     Jayson whispered, "Did you take care of the nurse?"

     "No, but I got her away from the desk. I think we've got about three minutes." He kept glancing nervously back at the door.

    Jayson said, "We're not breaking any laws, Philip."

    "I just don't like hospitals. Isn't he ready yet?—Hello, Eric, good to see you again."

     I said hello, but I forgot to whisper, so they shushed me again.

     I was tying my shoes when Roxanne entered, pushing a wheelchair.

     "Good work, Roxanne," Jayson said. "All clear?"

     She nodded.

     He turned on the lights, and I saw that Philip and Jayson were dressed in hospital greens, and Roxanne had a lab coat and horn-rimmed glasses.

     She said to Jayson, "Well, doctor, shall we escort the patient to his car?"

     "Yes, let's. Do you concur, doctor?"

     Philip bowed. "Indeed, doctors; leave us haul ass."

     Jayson stifled our laughter, and we emerged into the hallway.

                                                *                  *                   *

     The rescue went smoothly, except for one incident when Philip led us down the wrong hallway.

"Intensive care! Good work, Phil!"

"It's not his fault," Roxanne said, "He's never been in this hospital before."

Was it my imagination, or was there some accusing tone in her statement?

Philip paused. "You lead, Jayson. I'm shotgun."

Only two or three people passed us in the hallway; the elevator was empty; and, as Philip promised, the lobby was deserted as we passed through and outside.

     There were two cars parked at the curb. I recognized Jayson's and remembered Philip's from the night at the movies. As we reached them, I hopped out of the chair. Jayson turned and pushed it back toward the glass doors.

Roxanne, Philip and I watched each other awkwardly. What, after all, do you say to a suicide attempt? 'Better luck next time?' 'If at first you don't succeed...'

     Roxanne said, "Well, it's good to see you again, Eric."

     "Same here. Are you heading home, now?"

     Philip grinned. "No. We're going with you guys."

     Philip went on to explain that they had decided to take two cars to have at the beach. He and Roxanne would take his.

     I looked back, and could see into the lobby. There were now about a half dozen of the hospital staff around Jayson, shaking his hand and smiling.

     I smiled, too.

                                                     *                  *                   *

     Jayson and I sat in his car, heading south on I-77. At midnight, the only other southbound car was Philip's, behind us.

     For the past few minutes we had been talking about all the great fishing and sailing we would have at the beach.

     Now Jayson said, "how about some tunes?"

     "Okay." I grinned. "Do you have any Elton?"

     "Gee, I'm not sure. You can check, though."

     I picked up a large case. "Is this where you keep the tapes?"

     "No. Oh, hey! That's what I got at the auction today. It's a briefcase. It's locked," he added, as I tried to open it.

     "What's in it?"

     He grinned. "Heck, man, I don't know! It was found in a locker in an airport terminal. No one claimed it, so they auctioned it off."

     It was the kind that had two combination locks. "I don't suppose you know the combination."

     "No. No one did. That's why I had to have it."

     "Oh? How badly did you have to have it?"

     He shrugged. "Fifty-five."

     "Jayson! There's probably nothing in here but an old Wall Street Journal."     

     "Or stolen jewels, or ransom money, or top secret papers..."

     "Well, this is useless. Break it open."

     "Are you nuts? That's half the fun; there's only one way I will open that, and that's with the right combination."

     I stared. "Do you know how long that will take?"

     "Each lock consists of three tumblers, each of which has ten possible numbers. The number of different combinations of ten numbers taken three at a time is ten to the third power, or one thousand. Trying one every fifteen seconds, each lock will take four hours. If the locks are different, it will take eight hours, at the most."

     His eyes glittered in the dashboard lights. "Quite a bargain, eh?"

     I picked up the tape case. "Well, what luck! Here's one, right on top. Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy."

     "Sure, but that's not the album.  That's the only song on the tape."

     "Oh, like the 'Rocket Man' tape?"

     "Yeah. That used to be the 'Rocket Man' tape."

     "...There! Let's cruise, man."

     "Hang a left at Charlotte, then steady as she goes."

     "Steady as she goes."

                                                *                  *                   *

     I realized how dangerous it would be if one of us left the other prematurely—before he was absolutely compelled to; me by a demented biology or Jayson by...that illusive word that defined him.

     Saskatchewan!                                     

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