Stephen Dixon

The Dead

Bartok’s dead. Britten’s dead. Webern’s dead. Berg’s dead. Górecki’s dead. Copland’s dead. Messiaen’s dead. Bernhard’s dead. Beckett’s dead. Joyce is dead. Nabokov’s dead. Mann’s dead. Bulgakov’s dead. Pinter’s dead. Ionesco’s dead. de Ghelderode’s dead. Berryman’s dead. Lowell’s dead. Williams is dead. Roethke’s dead. Who of the rest of the greats isn’t dead? The past century. The start of this century, Bacon’s dead. De Kooning’s dead. Rothko’s dead, Ensor’s dead. Picasso’s dead. Braque’s dead. Apollinaire’s dead. Maybe all the greats are dead. So what am I saying? Soon I’ll be dead. My last brother will be dead. My two other brothers are dead. Robert. Merrill. My last two sisters will be dead. Madeleine’s dead. My parents are dead. My wife’s dead. Her parents are dead. Their relatives in Europe are long dead. My two best friends are dead. I lie on a hospital bed. I can’t get up. I can’t turn over. I’m stuck to the bed by wires and tubes. I can’t get comfortable and I feel so hopeless and I’m in such pain that I almost want to be dead. I ring for the nurse. Usually someone responds. This time no one answers. I wait. I don’t want to antagonize them. I ring again. What will I say? “Make me dead?” “Yes?” “Pain medication, please.” “I’ll tell your nurse.” “I need it badly.” “I’ll tell your nurse.” She comes. “Pain level on a grade from one to ten?” “Nine.” I want to say “ten” but there’s got to be a pain worse than mine. She gives me the medication through my I.V. I fall asleep. When I awake I begin to hallucinate. Too much pain medication, they’ve said. What can I do? It’s the only way to stop the pain and sleep. The room’s become a prison cell. Bars on my windows and door. Then it’s an asylum cell. No bars; just extra thick glass. People pass. I hear low voices. “This,” they say, and “That.” I’ve got to get out of here. I yell for help. People keep passing my room both ways but no one seems to hear me or turns to my glass door. They all wear white doctor outfits. Gowns. Robes. Whatever they’re called, but very white and clean. Lab coats, maybe. Hugging clipboards to their chests. “This,” they say. “That.” Then some muttering and they’re gone. “Help,” I yell. “I need help. I’m going to defecate in my bed.” They continue to walk past. “OK,” I say, “I’m going to shit in my bed.” Dummy, I think; the nurse. I ring for her. I can barely manage the little box. The summoning device. Whatever it’s called. The thing that turns the TV on and off and raises and lowers the two ends of the bed. I don’t know what anything’s called anymore. Not even what brought me in here. Bowel interruption. Obstruction. Even if I got the right term, two operations after I got here, I don’t even know what it is. “Yes?” “Thank God. Pain medication, please.” “I’ll tell your nurse.” She comes. “It should be no more than every four hours. But we’re ten minutes away, so close enough.” “Thanks. And it must mean I’ve slept most of the last four hours. That’s good. More I sleep, the better. And I think I need changing.” She looks. “You’re imagining it. Do you need to go now?” “No. I don’t want to sit on it for the next hour. And I haven’t eaten anything for days, so there’s probably nothing there.” I fall asleep. I dream I’m being devoured by lions. I fight to get out of the dream and wake up. So what was that all about? Literary lions? Ah, who cares for interpretations. I close my eyes and hear voices. I open my eyes and see people in white smocks walking past, all of them holding clipboards. “Build,” they say. “Don’t build.” “Then cut.” “OK.” I’ve got to get out of here. Dreams, awake, there’s always something to be afraid of. The doctor the other day, who was just a resident making the rounds and not even my regular doctor, who said he read my X-rays and I might have to have a bag outside my stomach to collect my shit. If I’m to die, and I’d want to if I had to have one of those bags put in, let me die in my own bed with a big overdose of whatever we got there or they send me home with. And if I’m to live, I need a less frightening room. I want to call my daughters but I can’t find my cellphone. They recharged it today and said they put it in a place I could easily reach, but I don’t see it. I feel around me. There’s the summoning device. A handkerchief. A pen. I’ll say I know it’s late but I’m going crazy and you have to get me another room. “It’s the drugs. But without them I’m even in worse shape. I’m probably not making much sense,” I’ll say, “but I’m hearing voices. Other people’s voices. And seeing people walk past my room who are either dead or intentionally ignoring me, but they never answer my cries for help. If I don’t get another room, I’ll pull all the wires and tubes out of me, even the Foley, no matter how much that might hurt, and escape.” But don’t scare them. Or wake them up. They’ve been so good to you, flying in from different distant cities and staying in your room eight to ten hours a day. Reading to you, though you didn’t want to tell them you didn’t want to be read to. Holding your hand and doing things like putting damp washcloths on your forehead, though you didn’t want those either. Angels, you’ve called them; so let your angels sleep. And you’re not in that much pain now. Comes more often than it goes. And the muttering voices have stopped and no one’s walking past your room but the regular nurses and aides, who’d come if you called out for them. Try to sleep. Time will go faster. I pull the covers up to my chin. I’m warm but not too warm. I’m comfortable. My body feels normal. I fall asleep. I dream I’m in Tokyo, where I’d always wanted to go, but got there without having to take a plane. I wake up and it’s the beginning of daylight. Dusk. Dawn. What’s it called again? I should know. That one’s so easy. Words are what I do. But I’m in pain again, which always makes me confused. I ring the call button. That’s what it is. Call button, call button; remember it. “Yes?” “Pain medication, please.” “I’ll tell your nurse.” A different one comes. “Hi. I’m Martha. Your tech’s Cindy. The new shift.” She erases from a white board on the wall the names and phone extensions of the previous nurse and tech and with a marker writes their own. “You slept poorly, your last nurse said. Lots of agitation and talk. Like you wanted a hot thermal bath. Sorry, fella. We don’t have that here. And how dragons were out to get you and something about your arms being cut off at the elbows by a sword. And you perspired something awful. She had to wipe you off.” “I don’t remember any of it. Well, dreams.” “Because of all that, I want to hold off giving you the pain medication as long as I can. Still hurting?” “Level two or three.” “Think you can tolerate it for another half hour? And you could use a fresh gown.” She takes off my wet one and puts a new one on. “Anything else you need?” “My cellphone.” “You’ve been sleeping on it,” and she pulls it out from under my arm. She goes. Poulenc’s dead. Prokofiev’s dead. Mahler’s dead. Granados is dead. Did I say Bartok’s dead. Pärt’s not dead. Who else isn’t dead? Tanizaki’s dead. Solzhenitsyn’s dead. Hamsun’s dead. Borges is dead. Conrad’s dead. Konrad’s not dead. Did Lessing recently die? The Italian writer whose first name starts with a D and who in one book wrote too much like Kafka is dead. Kafka, of course, is dead, Cummings is dead. Stevens is dead. Auden’s dead. Yeats is dead. Pollack’s dead. Leger’s dead. Kandinsky’s dead. Malevich is dead. Moore, Maillol and Matisse are dead. My pain isn’t dead. I shit in my head. I mean in my bed. Suddenly it came. I piss into a catheter, so there I’m OK. I want to clean myself up in the bathroom. I want to drink a glassful of ice water. I want to stand up and walk out of here. I press the call button. “Yes?” “I’m sorry, but I need serious cleaning up. And I presume new bedding and a new gown and my bed remade. I’m lying in slime. I’m sweating like a pig. I need the thermostat lowered. Please have someone come right away.” “I’ll tell your tech.” A young woman comes. Almost a girl. She has a new gown for me and sheets and washrags and a basin of water. “Oh, I see you already have my name on your board.” “You’re the tech? I’m sorry for the mess I made.” “I’m actually a nurse in training but a tech today. So let’s have a look. Roll over on your side.” I grab the side rail and pull myself up. “I don’t know where it came from. I haven’t eaten for a week. Nor drunk anything. All the nourishment and liquid I get comes from ice chips and what’s in those bags. And this time it’s not my imagination and I did defecate?” “In abundance. Won’t take a minute.” She takes off my gown, wipes and washes and dries me and shakes a can of baby powder over my behind. “Smell’s nice, doesn’t it. It’s one of my favorites.” “This must be awful for you. Cleaning up an old man. It made me hesitant to even call for you, but I had to. I’m locked in here.” “Don’t worry. I’m used to it. And when I become a full-fledged nurse in a year, I’ll mostly have a tech doing it for me. You have an abscess in your anus. Has your doctor or one of your nurses spoken about it?” “Nothing.” “It must hurt and you don’t want the infection getting worse. Tell them.” She puts a new gown on me and then changes the sheets with me in the bed. “It’s a wonderful profession, nursing. Look at the good work you do. I had to go into one that helps no one.” “And what’s that?” “Writing.” “I don’t read much myself. I’m more interested in the sciences.” “Good for you. Keep at it. Every man should have as a wife one who is or once was a nurse. That’s not a proposal. I was just thinking. Once you get sick the way I did, it’d be so comforting to know I could be taken care of like this by my wife, but at home. My wife’s dead.” “I’m sorry.” “Two years and a month. Greatest loss of my life.” “I can imagine. There, you’re as clean as new. And you smell nice too.” “Thank you again. As I said, you do wonderful work. Can you give me something for my pain now?” “The nurse will have to do that. I’m not allowed. Ring for her.” “If I have another accident, and you never know, I hope it’s another tech who takes care of it. I’d hate for you to have to do it again. Once, at least in a short period of time, should be enough.” “Honestly, I’m good with it. I’m on for twelve hours and it’s one of the things I’m here to do.” She goes. I ring. “Yes?” “Pain medication, please.” “Your nurse is very busy with another patient, but I’ll tell her.” “Isn’t there another nurse who can give it to me?” “It’s very busy out here. Sometimes it gets like this, patients who need immediate attention all at the same time. I’ll get you a nurse soon as I can.” Hemingway’s dead. Faulkner’s dead. Paley’s dead. Sebald’s dead. Lowry’s dead. Camus’s dead. Eliot’s dead. Mandelstam’s dead. Akhmatova’s dead. O’Neill’s dead. Williams is dead. Miller’s dead. Hopper’s dead. Giacometti’s dead. Klee’s dead. Miro’s dead. Sheeler’s dead. Soutine’s dead. Arp’s dead. Sibelius is dead. Strauss is dead. Hovhaness is dead. Vaughan Williams is dead. I have to shit again. I need a basin. Whatever that thing is to put under me in bed. It’s comparable to a urinal, but for the behind. Not a chamber pot. I ring. Nobody answers. I ring and ring. “I told you, sir. All the nurses on the floor are tied up with other patients. One will attend to you soon as she can.” “But this is for a bowel movement. I don’t want to do it again in my bed. All I’m asking for is that thing that goes under me while I’m lying here.” “A bedpan?” “A bedpan, yes. You can get a tech to do it. But not the same one; Cindy. She already did it once, and expertly, but I made a mess and I don’t want her to go through that again.” “You don’t get a choice, sir. If she’s available, I’ll get her. And if not, someone else.” If it wasn’t for my daughters, I’d like to be dead. But I can’t have them going through their other parent dying so soon after the first. A different tech comes, gets the bedpan out of the bottom drawer of my side table, “Raise yourself,” and puts it under me just in time. “At least this time I’m not making a big mess in bed for you to clean up as I did with my regular tech.” “There’s always something that makes life look a little brighter. Think you’re done?” “No.” “Ring for me when you are. It’s a crazy house out there today, worse for the nurses than the techs, so one of us should come.” “Thanks.” Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurasawa, Kieslowski — all dead. And Babel. How could I have left out Babel? Babel’s dead.