by Joseph Scapellato
The old man went with his son to a restaurant. The restaurant was in a bowling alley where the old man used to take his son to bowl when his son was a boy. When they sat down, in a booth by the door, the old man said, “This is a terrible place to die.”
The son said, “I can’t believe we used to bowl here. Remember? Boy, was I lousy.”
The old man didn’t say anything.
“My wife is pregnant,” said the son.
Their food came. It was as expected. The son paid.
Outside it was bright and clear and cool. The son, who had driven, opened the car door for the old man. The old man shuffled in and sat down. He said, “A terrible, terrible place.”
The son drove the old man for a long time, for longer than it took to get to the old man’s house, the house where the son had grown up. The old man grunted. He tapped the window. The son turned on news radio. They passed a chain of strip malls, a forest preserve, and three ugly rivers. The man on the radio laughed.
When they arrived at the old folks home the son opened the car door for the old man, then the door to the lobby, then the door to the receiving office, and left. A nurse, who was fat, led the old man to his room. It smelled like an airplane smells between flights. Some of the old man’s things were already there: sweaters, slippers, pictures of his wife, his son, his son’s pregnant wife, and the ticket from the boat that had carried the old man across the ocean from the Old Country when he’d been an infant.
The old man did not sit down. He said, “This is a terrible place to die.”
The fat nurse handed him a cup of water. “All places are terrible places to die.”
The old man coughed. That was how he laughed. He drank his water slowly and pointed at the bed. “All places are terrible places.”
She shook her head, but in agreement. “All places are places of dying.”
“But dying, dying itself is not terrible.”
“Believe me,” said the nurse, preparing him for his bath, “dying is terrible. Not death. Death can’t be terrible.”
“Nope, you’ve got it backwards.”
The summer ended. “Tell me,” said a different nurse, male, “don’t you have a son?”
“You bet I have a son.”
The nurse reloaded the old man’s IV. “Well, won’t you live on through him?”
“I want to read a book.”
The nurse helped the old man into a wheelchair and pushed him to the tiny library near the cafeteria. The single bookshelf sagged with thrillers, mysteries, and romances, all donated. The room was empty.
The old man chewed his tongue.
The nurse gave him a cookie and said, “We don’t disagree.”
“We do disagree,” said the old man five years later, seated in the cafeteria. He raised his swollen fists. “Dying isn’t terrible because dying is knowable, it begins and ends, but death, death is unknowable. Therefore terrible.”
This nurse, in her first week of work, laughed. She was young and skinny and she planted her hands on her hips. “Death doesn’t end?”
“Right,” said the old man, “only dying ends, it ends and that’s that. Now how about dessert.”
The next day the son returned to the old folks home with the old man’s grandson, a quiet little boy. The son offered cookies his wife had baked, but the old man pretended not to smell the cookies and not to know his son and grandson, he stared through their heads and chests like they were broken televisions. The son, who was sweating, told a story about this one time when they bowled together, when he was lousy. He pretended to be telling the story to the quiet little grandson but was really telling the story to the old man. He told it three times. The old man wetly cleared his throat.
When they left, the young nurse dressed the old man for bed. “Good of them to come,” she said.
“Wasn’t terrible. Wasn’t good. But could have been either.”
“It was terrible,” said the nurse, crying.
“Terrible?” he said, and, not wearing any pants or underwear, touched his thigh as she watched. His thigh was soft and gray and stank like dumpsters in the sun. Then he touched hers, which was white and firm and smelled like an imaginary fruit.
“I know, I know,” she said, and kissed his scalp. She kissed again.
He tried to push her. “Dying! Is! Not! Terrible!”
Ten years later the old man, bedridden, exhaled fiercely and declared: “Dying is terrible.”
The young nurse wasn’t young anymore. She was pregnant. “What about death.”
“Death is a place.”
“What kind of place?”
The old man waved. “I am a place.”
The summer came. The old man was very old.
The grandson returned by himself, a teenager. He looked strange, with strange hair and strange clothes.
The old man met his eyes and said, “You are strange with strange hair and strange clothes but beneath that you are a man, and beneath that you are a place, like me.”
The grandson said, “Nice.”
The old man grunted. Some of the tubes that were plugged into him rubbed together. “Death is a place.”
The grandson gently touched the old man’s arm. “We have to move you to a hospice.”
“Tell me something that I do not know.”
The grandson took his other hand out of his pocket and counted off on fingers: “You don’t scare me; I respect you; you may know you are a place but the place itself remains unknown; the known is more terrible than the unknown; my dad won’t tell us he has cancer and always wants to take us bowling but when we go he can’t even throw the ball, he just starts crying and runs outside and waits in the car and when we knock on the window he gets out and pretends like he just showed up; my mom is awesome, super-awesome, she’s teaching me how to bake; my girlfriend’s pregnant; I’m not so sure I’m straight; today is Father’s Day; happy Father’s Day.”
The old man coughed a real cough—it took a while, but he cleared it. “That’s good,” he said. “Don’t go.”
Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. Currently he teaches as an adjunct professor in the English/Creative Writing departments at Susquehanna University and Bucknell University. His work appears/is forthcoming in The Collagist, SmokeLong Quarterly, UNSAID, Gulf Coast, and others. He occasionally blogs at http://www.josephscapellato.blogspot.com/