The Varieties of Pain
Early afternoon, Sunday, and James lay awake on the big bed. He was so weary, but couldn’t sleep, and his mind was tangled up in thinking of his body’s broken parts and the endless litany of tasks just to stay alive. And he wondered too, what the odds were that he’d live out the rest of the year. Above him the ceiling fan ticked faintly and drew his dreams up like smoke through the sweeping blades that mixed them with all the air and they were forever lost. In restless despair, he threw off the blanket, turned on his side and watched his wife, Christine, who lay very solemn and still, so deep was she into hard, dreamless sleep. Yet as close as her open mouth was, he could not feel her breath on his face.
Then he needed to pee. James eased his stiff legs over the edge of the bed and sat up. And the blinds, the walls, the mirrored dresser, the whole room, reeled like crazy around him and threatened to dissolve into nothing. He clung to the bedpost, shut his eyes, which seemed like all he ever did, and waited for everything to stop, then slowly, slowly he stood, tottered across to the bathroom and with both hands gripped onto the sides of the sink. James stared into the mirror. He scowled at the lined and loose skin, the gray stubble, the old eyes of an old man. Where was that dapper dark-haired young man? Where was the witty, quick-eyed, do anything salesman? James touched the hollow wrinkled cheek, the thin creased lips. That young man’s long gone--flushed down the crapper along with everything else. “Bloody hell,” he growled.
James stood over the toilet and peed a heavy burning cloudy stream, and with the last drop, a grabbing pain made him shudder. Damn those quack doctors. You’d think they could fix a simple infection. But they wanted him coming back just to scam the insurance. That or they didn’t know their brains from their asses. With anger lurching inside him, he felt the beginnings of a cramp in his chest. It was his tattered heart flailing uselessly and crying out in pain. Next thing that damned aneurysm would pop, and he’d bleed out like he was shot from inside. It would all be over--no doctors, no hospital, no surgery. He was thinking about next month when they were supposed to drive to Lexington so he could get a hook-studded thing shoved into his aorta to shore up the weak spot. He hated hospitals.
By turns James felt numb and hot and cold and unwell. He needed a cigarette. With one hand pressed hard against his chest, he staggered in short steps to the bed, where Christine lay motionless, soundless, lost somewhere inside her head. He thought she’d probably had a few beers on the sly that morning as she worked in the yard -- something she did more and more. James grabbed his old lighter and the cigarettes from the nightstand. Halfway down the narrow hallway, he lit one, took a deep drag and the pain eased. Everyone wanted him to stop smoking. What did they know?
In the kitchen their brindle pit bull, Brutus, lay in the corner, his big slug of a body pressed against the cool tile floor. “Hey, you big Brute,” James said. “Come here.” Brutus half opened his dark luminous eyes and watched James, who called to him again. With a weary sigh, the dog closed his eyes. “You stupid shit,” said James. “Well I’m through with you too.”
There was coffee, hours old, in the pot by the sink. He poured a cup and gagged on the first sip but drank it down anyway. As he sat there, the pain in his chest became a crushing pain, which made him think of killing himself–something he thought of probably dozens of times every day. But the way things were going now; a heart attack might kill him first. He sat very still, waiting for the pain to turn one way or the other, all the while thinking it didn’t make much sense to live the rest of his life letting his body decide how and when to torment him. If he didn’t die now, he should end it himself. And how would everyone take the news of his death? There’d be a party, for sure. And the son, who never called; he’d finally visit.
James breathed steady in, and steady out, until by some miracle the pain relented and he was able to stand without falling over. One hand, he kept pressed over his heart; and with the other he pulled the stepladder from the pantry, dragged it into the living room and stepped up to reach to the top of the entertainment center. The room gyrated around him. He closed his eyes, gripped onto the wood and kept thinking this must be some kind of test of his determination. But then the dizziness passed and his head cleared. He flipped open the cigar box, he’d hidden up there, and took out the snub nosed Colt 38--a small compact molded thing complete in itself and comfortable in his hand. Back in the kitchen, he set the revolver on the glass top table and poured another cup of stale coffee and lit another cigarette. He sat there thinking maybe this really was the day. Why wait endlessly for the heart to give out? Why not end the thoughts always playing in his mind, of himself, naked and helpless, on a narrow metal table with the vultures picking over his insides--them doing what they wanted and him not even aware.
If he were to shoot himself, he wouldn’t do it in the house or the yard. He was not so despicable that he could leave a bloody mess for Christine to clean up, although she might not mind as long as he was gone. She avoided him, hardly talked anymore, and there was that damned hurt look in her eyes that she always tried to hide. Yes, he had wounded her too often with his words, just because he felt that way and didn’t want to stop himself. He was being mean, and without cause because she’d tried very hard to keep him healthy and all he ever did was accuse her of meddling and treating him like a child.
James imagined how he’d do it. It was just a short walk to the dirt road and halfway down was the little stream where no one else would be around. He’d sit in the shade, smoke a last cigarette, press the muzzle against his chest and shoot his dammed heart to smithereens. No more pain. A faint smile curved his lips; his eyes relaxed. The tightness in his chest further lightened, floated up to his throat and out in a stream of smoky air. The obsessing over doctors and surgery fell away. Not thinking about troubles felt good. Planning a purposeful action felt good. Perhaps death would feel as good. At least, the endless varieties of pain parading through his body would be cut short with one quick and sure pain.
But how would Christine know where the body was? Not finding him home, she’d look around for hours. Then she’d call the police, but they wouldn’t stumble across it for days. By that time, the crows and the opossums and then the maggots would have half-eaten him. No, he didn’t want that. He would leave a note. He ripped a sheet from the pad by the phone and scribbled his message. But it felt incomplete. And what if she missed it? To be certain, he’d call. He took the cell phone from the counter.
James looked around the room. What else did he need? Just his old hunting jacket from the closet. Nothing else. On the way out he locked the door and walked down the street past the neighbors’ houses. Mostly they were a useless bunch. He wouldn’t miss them. What Christine found so interesting about them and what they blabbed about, he didn’t know. He didn’t want to know. She talked too much.
The highway was quiet. He crossed it, turned down the dirt road and trudged along the side in a narrow ribbon of afternoon shade. To his right, behind a row of poplars, was a field of young grass and to his left, the newly greened forest, where, on this mild spring day, life chattered at him from deep in the scrubby bushes and from high in the trees. There were no houses in the woods, but over the years, his neighbors had plowed rutted trails with their noisy trucks and dumped trash–old paint cans, sofas, mattresses, like it was their yards--for the forest to choke on and try to swallow. Slobs, wastrels, the lot of them. He grimaced. The pain in his chest worsened. Even in the sun’s warmth, he had the sweaty, shivery feeling that came before a heart attack. A sour lump kept coming up into his throat. And he kept trying to swallow it back down.
His legs felt heavy and numb like he’d been slogging through mud. He should have driven. Why didn’t he think of the car? The answer was obvious; it would have been too easy to drive back. He rested against a tree then dragged on some more. His legs ached. His chest hurt. He had to rest again. A few years ago he could have done this jaunt in no time. Now it was like climbing the tallest mountain. And he kept thinking that this was too hard, too much of a struggle just to find a place to die. The droning in his mind went on and the fight against his weakness occupied him--so that it seemed too sudden when he came upon the familiar gap between two large oaks. Here was the path that led to the hidden stream. He closed his eyes and remembered how the frogs would leap when he threw pebbles at their hiding place in the weeds, how Brutus splashed in after them. And the look on Christine’s face, her smile.
James left the road, brushed aside the gangly weeds that leaned over the trail, and pushed into the woods. The stream, all shining and gentle, was not far. He rested beside it. His mouth felt terribly dry, so he dipped his hand into the stream and moistened his lips. The water was cool and sweet; he cupped his hands and drank--no matter the germs. Christine would have berated him about that. Close to the stream, he found a thick-trunked oak, a bed of fallen leaves beneath it. As he had pictured, he sat with his back against the tree, the cell phone and gun in front of him. He lit a cigarette, inhaled a long, deep drag, leaned back and watched the patches of afternoon light, like sprites, driven by the breeze, dancing over the leaf littered floor. Something, a bird or a squirrel, thrashed through the branches above. Then everything was quiet except for the trickle of water flowing over the stones in the streambed. His chest heaved and fell with a sigh.
Maybe he should go back. He could call her on the cell phone. She’d come get him and not scold too much. He just wouldn’t let her see the gun. He’d put it back later. Of course they’d have to continue with the plans for the surgery next month. Make sure there were enough pills for the trip--blood pressure pills, heart pills, bladder pills, cholesterol pills--then make plans for the house sitter, the hotel, then the endless hours in the car, and of course the bloody vultures were waiting for him there. His chest ached and even with his hands pressed hard against it, the ache wouldn’t go away. Then he needed to pee. He stood up, unzipped and aimed; a weak rusty stream emerged. He winced at the burning. Tears came to his eyes and he rubbed them away with his knuckle. What a lousy, crappy life. Why did he have to die in so many little ways every day? He couldn’t stand it. He picked up the cell phone and pressed the numbers. The phone rang and kept ringing.
“Pick up,” he muttered. “Pick up, god damn it, pick up.”
“Hello... hello,” answered Christine in a confused, sleep thickened voice.
“Christine, it’s me. I’m on the back road, you know, where we used to walk. I’m going to shoot myself…. You know where to find me.”
“Bye Christine.” He set the phone down, and felt sick inside.
He lit another cigarette, sucked the smoke in deep, pursed his lips and exhaled. The smoke rose and dissolved into sky. In the tree branches above, a squirrel whipped its bushy flag and clicked a warning at another. The two quarreled until the loser leaped away through the branches. The winner remained perfectly still, looking down at him. Will you? The squirrel seemed to say. “Will I?” mocked James. Once again his chest relaxed and he felt halfway normal. How ironic, when he was on the verge of killing himself, when he had really decided to end it, he felt good enough to keep on living. That was obsession and nerves for you. He looked down at his withered forearm. A mosquito crouched there, blissfully feeding on his blood. You sucker; don’t you know there’s enough drugs in that stuff to kill you? “Ha….” He slapped at the mosquito anyway, and left a bloody crumpled smudge.
Just then he heard a voice in the distance. The voice grew louder. It was Christine calling for him. He imagined her worried eyes searching the side of the road from the open car window as she slowly drove by. “James, James…” she screamed. Her voice had a forced, desperate quality that cut him. He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to shoot the gun when she could hear it. Then her calls for him grew faint and then grew louder again. She had turned the car around, come back up the road, and was still shouting “James” over and over until finally she had driven far enough so that his name had become the faintest of echoes and then the woods were quiet again. Maybe she went to find someone to come back with her. Why hadn’t she already called the police? Did she think he wouldn’t kill himself? Well he hadn’t done it yet. But then a sick anger took hold of him. She thought he was gutless. That this tiresome woman presumed to know him better than he himself did enraged him. His heart leaped painfully in his chest. He growled at the pain.
Now was the time, before she came back. He sucked in a last chestful of smoke, stubbed the cigarette butt on a rock and took the pistol–something, a mosquito, was whining in his ear. He cocked the hammer--squirrels were chattering above--then pressed the muzzle against his chest exactly at his heart--that bastard heart crying out--and steadied the muzzle with his left hand--life screaming at him from the trees--and he pulled back the trigger hard-- a sharp whack striking him--and it blew a perfect hole in his heart. The recoil flung his right hand, gun still clenched, out to his side. The pain was hard and pure, a strange ecstasy. His left arm lowered and he sat there with blank astonishment on his face. Slowly, slowly, his head dropped to his chest. All his muscles relaxed; his hand released the gun, he peed the last burning drop.
The heat energy of his body gradually found its way to the ground, to the fallen leaves beneath him, to the rough bark he slumped against and to the molecules of air, shimmering around him. Similarly, his spirit began draining from his body and inhabiting the surroundings with residual consciousness. Some awareness still remained inside his body; he could feel the air against his lifeless face, the energy of the myriad creatures crawling under his butt and legs and behind his back, and the life fluids of the tree channeling up and down under the bark. That his consciousness was spreading around him and seemed without boundaries, and that he could recognize himself in these varied forms was sublime revelation. The diffusion of his spirit continued unstaunched, causing the delicate bonds that linked the particles of his consciousness to stretch longer and longer, almost to the verge of breaking. And then they were breaking--he knew--because the sense of himself was dimming. Still, there was enough coherence for him to realize that someone was tapping on his body’s shoulder. “James... James... are you OK?” said a voice. Some of his consciousness flowed into that person and he recognized Sam, his neighbor. Also, a little further away, was Christine, her body trembling and her heart beating very fast. With what little feelings he had left, he felt sorry for putting her through this. He wished he could tell her it was the right thing, that he felt very fine about it, that he had no regrets at all.
He vaguely saw, through his neighbor’s horrified and curious eyes, the body of a shrunken old man with its back leaning against the furrowed oak, a gray head slumped onto the chest and legs stuck straight out in front. There was no blood to be seen, only a sooty hole in the front of the tan jacket. The body’s arms were relaxed at its sides. A gun lay by the right hand.
But this vision was fading. The links that held his consciousness together were breaking more quickly now. Nothing could hold back the spirit from diffusing away and reaching final equilibrium with the universe. His consciousness now flickered like a light on a shorted connection and he did not know how long the dark periods lasted except that events became disconnected. One moment, men were hoisting the body onto a stretcher; then there was a sensation of cold and dark; then he heard crying and quiet talking--Christine and Sam in a room of strangers. Eventually, he did not sense images at all, but vague snatches of feelings very unconnected to any sort of logical structure. But even these bits of intuition disappeared as the particles of his consciousness became too dilute to encounter and form bonds. Finally his consciousness no longer existed as a separate entity but had become part of all consciousness. He was everywhere and nowhere, inseparable from all matter and all energy and all existence.