Hello everyone! Hope you’re enjoying the daylight on this beautiful Monday morning, and enjoying a coffee to go with it. As for me, I’m getting some work done on my various writing projects today, and looking forward to sharing more about my upcoming radio play Something in the Nothing very soon. In the meantime…
Excerpt from Pale Highway
Gabriel woke up in bed. He stretched out his stiff, aching arms, feeling years of trivial injuries, hey-this-will-get-better-soon wounds, and supposedly healed muscle tears ripple throughout his entire body. The years went by so fast. One day he was young, strong, and athletic, and the next, he woke up in a place like— Wait. Hold on. Where the hell was he?
A sky-blue curtain hung on his left, blocking off the other side of the room. A bulky television set was suspended from the ceiling. The walls were the same color, and he caught the faint stinging odor of antiseptic. To his right was an open door exposing a hallway, from which came the sounds of sirens, loud voices, and beeping.
He carefully rolled over onto his side. His aching muscles resisted the turn, and his bones weren’t much friendlier. His back immediately felt as though it had been exposed to dry ice. He realized that he was wearing a bare-backed johnny gown instead of his usual pajamas.
Tied to the railing of the bed was a vine-like wire, with a red push button on the end. Oh, no. He was in the hospital. But how? When? Was he sick? Had he gotten into a motorcycle accident?Why couldn’t he remember?
Gabriel panicked, breathing heavily. His heart raced. His skin was coated in a hot, syrupy sheen of perspiration. He struggled to sit upright, but his entire skeleton felt so stiff that it might snap at the slightest strain. He was trapped. He threw off the blanket and examined his body for wounds.
Instead, he found wrinkles. His thin, nearly transparent skin had become a crumpled-up piece of tissue paper. Liver spots. Reticular veins. Painful varicose veins on his ankle.
Oh. That’s right. Slowly, tentatively, Gabriel’s memory volunteered its services to him again. He wasn’t in a hospital. He was in a nursing home in New Hampshire, the same nursing home where he’d lived in for five years. Bright New Day Skilled Nursing Center. Yes, that was it.
He frenetically cycled through his usual checkmark system. His name was Gabriel Schist. That part was easy. The president was Bill Clint… no. George? No, Barack. Barack Obama. Wait. Was that the last one? Well, how about the year? The year was 2018. He knew that, at least. As far as his age, he was… what, seventy-five years old? Seventy-two? Seventy-three?
Well, his age had never been important to him, anyway. As long as he remembered the sequence, he was still okay. That was the most important part, the only way to determine if the gears of his mind were still turning properly.
“Zero,” he whispered. “One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty-one, thirty-four…”
Finally, he felt strong enough to pull himself up into a sitting position. He shivered, his bare feet resting on the cool linoleum floor. He waited for the sharp lines and blurry geometric figures of the world to come into sharper focus.
“Fifty-five, eighty-nine, one hundred forty-four…”
Tacked on his wall were dozens of graphs, a small blackboard with hundreds of tiny equations written on it, analytical essays on his work, and articles on the latest medical advances. Several hastily-written scraps of notebook paper were haphazardly taped wherever they could fit. Beside those were photographs of all the people who’d once loved him. A photo of Yvonne, her arms raised to the sky, was next to one of Melanie. Yearbook-style Polaroid photos of the various nurses, staff, and housekeepers at Bright New Day had been added so that he would remember their faces more quickly.
“Two hundred thirty-three, three hundred seventy-seven, six hundred ten, nine hundred eighty-seven. Okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”
Gabriel sighed with relief. His mind was intact, for the time being. He almost smiled until right then, right at his moment of liberation, he felt a soggy dampness beneath him. He’d wet the bed again. Gabriel slowly, shakily rose to his feet, and a spasm shot down his sciatic nerve. The sight of that moist, miserable yellow circle on the white sheets was as horrifying as that of a mutilated corpse. He yanked the blanket up to cover the wet spot.
A stream of urine dribbled off the mattress and onto the floor. Wetting the bed. It was degrading to see, degrading to smell, and even more degrading that he had to hide it like a scared little boy. But he refused to wear diapers. Briefs. Depends. Elderly water-soaking-underwear-devices.
The stench was nauseating. He grabbed a face cloth from his counter, intending to wipe up the urine that had escaped to the floor. A gruff cough interrupted him. Someone was moving about on the other side of the curtain, the window side of the room. When did he get a new roommate?
“Ah, hell!” a man shouted. “Did you piss the bed?”
“No,” Gabriel answered. “Certainly not.”
“C’mon, man. Don’t be shy! Y’kiddin’ me? I do that shit all the time!” The man laughed uproariously.
Then, much to Gabriel’s chagrin, his new roommate rolled over to Gabriel’s side of the room in a wheelchair. He was a stout, potbellied man with a scraggly grey beard and lots of skull tattoos. “How are ya?” The man’s mouth stretched into a wide, gap-toothed smile. He was a rough-looking character, though his wheelchair and pale atrophied legs managed to counteract the fiendish menace he probably once wielded. A dangling purple stump hung as a memorial to his right foot’s prior existence. A nasal cannula was plugged into his nostrils and hooked into a cylindrical oxygen tank on the back of his chair, feeding him a constant stream of O2.
Hoarse, raspy breathing that sounded like someone was dropping a bag full of dirty rocks into a rusted gutter filled the room. He had clearly been a heavy smoker. End-stage COPD? Probably.
“The name’s Robbie.” The gruff man offered his hand. “Robbie Gore.”
Gore’s fingernails were dark, almost black, and spoon-shaped, likely because of all the smoking. It could also be diabetes, judging by the missing foot. He seemed to have arthritis, as well. Lymphatic system disorders. Possibly a lack of vitamin B-12.
Gabriel shook his new roommate’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Gore seemed friendly enough. So far, Gabriel liked him, which was rare. He’d always had difficulty adjusting to new roommates.
“So you’re new to this room, I take it?” Gabriel asked.
“Man, you high or somethin’?” Gore scoffed. “My stuff’s been in yer damn room for two weeks. I keep tryin’ to introduce myself, but you’re always out walkin’ around or somethin’.”
Two weeks?Marvelous. “Oh, right,” Gabriel mumbled. “Of course.”
“It’s all good, roomie. If ya weren’t already havin’ bladder problems, I’d ask if ya wanna take a shot of some tequila with me. I got me a bottle hidden in the bureau there.”
Gabriel’s mouth watered. Tequila? Wow. How long had it been since he’d tasted tequila, of all things? He could drink a shot, only a… No. Absolutely not.
“No thank you,” Gabriel muttered. Trying to block the entire exchange out of his mind, he hurriedly stumbled over to his closet, careful not to trip over his own feet. Since the stroke, he’d had enormous difficulty walking without his cane.
“I can’t… drink. Not with the Seroquel I’m taking.”
“Ah, sucks. Probably a good thing, though. I’ll tell ya, liquor makes me piss my bed all the time.”
“So I’ve gathered.”
“Yep. Can’t help it. Happens in my sleep. My problem is that the only way I can piss right—while I’m awake, I mean—is that I gotta be lyin’ sideways, and then I have to piss into that plastic bottle… what’d they call it again? The urinal. Yeah, the urinal. But see, I got one other problem, too.”
Gabriel put on his glasses. Tired of parading around in a johnny gown, he carefully stepped into a pair of slacks. He pulled on and buttoned up a long-sleeve dress shirt then glanced back at the bed to make sure the bunched-up quilt was effectively hiding the wet spot. The spillage on the floor could easily be dismissed as having been caused by an overturned glass of water.
“See,” Gore continued, “when I had the surgery done to cut off this damn leg, the doctors screwed up. After the surgery, I can’t pee straight ’cause those asshole doctors fucked up my dick. Y’wanna see it?”
“Um…” No, he certainly didn’t care to see it. As if his own problems weren’t enough, being in a nuthouse like Bright New Day only amplified everything. Gabriel took his cane out of the closet and leaned on it for support, both physical and moral.
“C’mere, brother. It’s messed up, man! Look at this!” Gore tugged down the waistband of his red shorts.
Gabriel looked; he couldn’t help it. Had it really come down to this? He felt like a neutered dog. Had he really reached the point of being so utterly desexualized and dehumanized, that this kind of scene was normal? Surprisingly, Gore’s penis appeared completely normal. “Um…”
Gore glared down at his crotch. “Don’t you see it? Look, man! Those asshole doctors cut my dick off!”
“Oh.” Gabriel shook his head. He glanced at his reflection in the mirror on the wall to Gore’s left. When did his hair become so white? God, when did he get so damn old?
His self-pity was interrupted when he noticed a tiny brown slug crawling up the surface of the mirror as if it owned the place. He’d seen a lot of slugs lately. The nursing home seemed to be infested with them.
“Well… hey, Mr. Gore, I’m dying for a cigarette, so I’m going to step outside to the smoking area.” Gabriel put on his tan trench coat and fedora. He wore the same outfit every day, no matter the weather; he was always cold, anyway. Together with the cane, he felt he cut a striking figure like something out of a Bogart movie. In the last year, the nursing staff had come to refer to him as the Detective, a nickname he wasn’t quite sure how to feel about. He tightened a Windsor knot in his black tie. He stepped toward the door, ready to get the hell out of the room. “See you soon. You can—”
“Hey,” Gore said, squinting at him. “Before you go, what’s your name, buddy? I forgot to ask.”
Gabriel hesitated. He subtly positioned his body toward the doorway. He just wanted to get outside and put this morning behind him. Was that too much to ask? “Gabriel Schist,” he answered finally.
“Schist?” Gore chuckled. “Ha! Y’know, I actually just got the Schist vaccine again the other day. Y’know, that vaccine that protects ya from AIDS and stuff? That’s funny! It must be weird whenever ya get the vaccine, since ya got the same name and all. It’d be funny if the guy who made it was related to ya or somethin’.”
Gabriel stiffened and bit his tongue. Relax, Gabriel. Relax, relax, relax. His cane wobbled underneath him, barely holding him up. “Actually, I’ve never taken the Schist vaccine. See you later, Mr. Gore.” He left the room and entered the corridor.
South Wing was the most populated of Bright New Day’s five longterm care wings and occasionally referenced to by staff members as the blue wing. After five years, Gabriel should have grown comfortable. There were days when he felt a sense of familiarity from those indigofloored hallways, recognizable faces, and repetitive daily routines. And some days, he even felt at home. But most days, he loathed every doorway, corridor, and scrap of blue wallpaper.
At the moment, none of that mattered. After the horrific wakeup he’d just experienced, the only thing he cared about was getting a cigarette. Until he felt smoke in his lungs, everything was an obstacle. He needed an escape—an escape from his morning, an escape from his misery, an escape from people—and possibly more than anything else, he needed to hear the ocean outside the building. He didn’t need to touch the water—he knew that they’d never permit him to actually touch the ocean again—but just hearing it would be enough.
So Gabriel bravely marched down the bleach-scented corridors of Bright New Day. He passed a long series of identical open doors leading to identical bedrooms. His home. His total institution. His prison. His cane tapped along the floor, striking out into the future and carrying his sagging body along with it. Tap. Tap. Tap.
He walked slowly. Everything was always slow for him, or maybe he was normal and the world around him was just a dizzying blur. He couldn’t tell anymore. As he walked, nurses and LNAs—licensed nursing assistants—rushed from room to room, following the ominous rings of ever-present call bells. Fellow residents laughed, screamed, and argued.
The staff gossiped. Within the rooms, television sets were cranked up to maximum volume by nearly deaf residents, most of whom were watching the same old TV Land reruns that they’d been watching for the last twenty years.
As usual, the Crooner was sitting outside his room, beaming with enthusiasm. A small, silver-haired man with no teeth, the Crooner offered Gabriel an overzealous, gummy smile and a voice excruciatingly loud enough to match it. “Laaaahhh! La-la-lah! Upstairs la-la-la upstaaaaiiirs is where I must be upstaiiirzzz. Laaaa-deee-daaa-deee-daaahh! Laa! La! Laaaa! Upstairs!”
The Crooner never stopped singing, from early in the morning until well past midnight. Together, he and the call bells were like an ambitious but untalented garage band.
As the Crooner belted out his music, he continually backed his wheelchair against the wall like a battering ram. Gabriel tried not to listen, tried not to look, but the Crooner was staring right at him with big eager eyes. Rumor had it that the Crooner had once been a highly renowned history professor at Yale.
Tap. Tap. On the other end of the hallway, Gabriel approached Bob Baker, a Vietnam veteran with a mouth sharper and thinner than razor wire. He liked Bob. Bob didn’t speak much. That was nice. It was easy.
Bob spent his days sitting in the hallway and scowling at passersby. Gabriel suspected that Bob had auditory schizophrenia because of the way he’d often perk his ears up as if hearing sounds that weren’t there. Bob probably had OCD. He smoked exactly four cigarettes a day, and the only thing he ever ate was hot dogs. According to Dana Kleznowski, an LPN on North Wing and one of Gabriel’s favorite nurses, Bob demanded that the hot dogs be arranged in a special dish and cut into little pieces exactly three-quarter-inch squares.
“Hello, Mr. Baker,” Gabriel said. “Having a good day today?”
“Noooooope,” Bob growled with a voice that punctured the air like a can opener.
Tap. Tap. The door to the smoking area was still so far, far away. His heart quivered. He just wanted to get outside, have his cigarette, and be done with it. His desperation for tobacco, sunlight, and the sound of the ocean became increasingly severe. He’d already had his social fill for the day. He just wanted to—
A cold, shaky hand grabbed him.
He stared down into the grimacing face of Edna Foster. She clutched his hand with a death grip. He tried to pry himself loose, but she wouldn’t let go.
“Pleeeeeease…” she murmured pitifully.
Gabriel’s heart sank. Edna spent most days roaming the halls, one foot permanently stuck out like an arrow and the other bent inward. Her Parkinson’s symptoms caused her to shake uncontrollably.
“Pleeeease…” she repeated.
Her features remained in a constant scowl, her eyes continuously glaring with reptilian intensity. Her mouth was pulled back into a tight, open-mouthed smile she had little control over. She had no teeth, no dentures, and a long beak-like nose.
But still, there was something amazing about Edna’s face. A powerful tenacity, a century’s worth of strength, and a fierce will to live resided in those eyes. Gabriel admired her, and yet, inside every line, inside every furrowed brow, her pain and loneliness was made just as agonizingly apparent as her strength.
“Hello, Edna,” Gabriel said.
“Hi…” She peered up at him suspiciously.
“How are you, today?”
“Ohhh my God,” she groaned, her face contorting into an angry, flesh-colored raisin. “Everything is terrible. So terrible. Like it always is.”
There was a long pause. Edna often had difficulty finding the right words. “I didn’t see you at first, dear. I’m nearly blind, you know. Blind as a bat. Please give me a… ah… push me somewhere. Please.”
Gabriel knew the routine. She would want to go to her room then to the lobby. Then back to her room. Then to the communal kitchen. No matter where someone pushed her, she would never be happy. “I can’t right now, Edna. I—”
“Oh, cram it. You’re no good. Get outta my way, sonny boy.” She threw Gabriel’s hand away.
Sonny boy? As a man in his seventies, Gabriel couldn’t remember the last time he’d been called that. “But Edna—”
“You go take a walk somewhere and think about what you’ve done, dummy.” She forcefully grabbed the wheels of her chair and slowly rolled away.
Gabriel, not sure how to feel about the interaction, returned to his previous course. Panting with exhaustion, he finally reached the door to the smoking area and pushed it open.
Air. Wind. Sun. The invigorating sunshine was like salve to his wounds. He looked up at the cloudless blue sky, smiling with rapture. Then, he heard it. The ocean. Waves crashed, water collapsing upon a beach, somewhere just out of sight.
A tall, impenetrable, cast-iron gate surrounded the smoking area, equipped with ear-shattering alarms in case anyone tried to escape.
Safety… at the cost of freedom.
Gabriel stepped up to the gate, wrapped his fingers around its frosty metal bars, and stared out at the mundane gravel parking lot that was his excuse for a view. He could smell the saltwater. The beach was so close, just a short way down the big hill on the other side of the building. Out of sight and out of reach. He’d asked numerous times if he could walk down to it, but they’d never permitted him to do so, not even with supervision.
He closed his eyes and listened to the waves, trying to feel them and to remember the sensation of water splashing against his bare skin. He imagined his old sailboat and the gentle rocking motion beneath his feet as the moon shimmered over the ocean.
“Zero,” he whispered. “One, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen…”
He placed a cigarette in his mouth and sat down at his regular spot over in the white gazebo, where all the smokers were supposed to do their dirty business. He patted his pockets, searching for a lighter. Nothing.
He’d forgotten to bring it.
But it wasn’t his fault. He was expected to forget everything because he was the lucky recipient of life’s final going-away present, that red velvet, chocolate-covered cake of wonderfulness that the doctors liked to call Alzheimer’s. With Alzheimer’s, suddenly nothing was his fault anymore. No fault. No blame. No choice. No freedom.
Many decades ago, someone had once told Gabriel that he had “an amazing mind.” The compliment had meant a lot to him. His mind had defined him.