Harry lived across the alley from a bar in the old downtown. He had a basement apartment in a block, once a fine old building now run down. But Harry didn’t mind; he preferred it that way. The bathroom was ancient with a six foot tub and he liked a good soak at least once a day. Besides, when a building is down at the heels the rents are cheap and Harry didn’t have a lot of money.
Harry didn’t drink but nonetheless he liked having a bar across the alley. He received a disability check the end of the month but it wasn’t enough to pay all his expenses. In the bar he could swing a deal now and then to make ends meet and to do so he had only to walk across the alley.
Like the building the alley was a beat up affair. The concrete was cracked and flaked. The garbage bins at the back of the properties were overflowing. Weeds grew everywhere. You had to watch who was around when you walked down such an alley. There were punks who would slit your throat for a hamburger or merely for the pleasure of slitting your throat. Harry had long ago developed the sixth sense necessary for people who live in poor areas. He would stand inside the door at the back of his building and listen. One thing about punks is that they are not silent. They rave. They rant. They snort. They strut. There is no such thing as a silent punk. When he was satisfied the coast was clear he opened the door, looked once each way and walked quickly across the lane.
The bar had a mix of people in it. There were very poor people, bums and street people with enough money for a beer or two. There were workers, some of them with good jobs and flush. There were even the odd suit still drinking four hours after work with old pals from the neighborhood. Then there were the prostitutes either resting from tricks or looking for one. Then there were the pensioners and the marginally funded out for the noise, color and the feel of people around them. The waiters were beefy, loud men who carried huge trays of beer glasses in arms as muscled as a wrestler’s. If you got too loud or aggressive two of these would throw you out into the back lane, beating the piss out of you on the way if you put up a fight.
Harry liked to sit in a shadowy corner just inside the door. Along the wall there were two chair tables, a long row of them. Bum’s row this was called for the loners sat there, sad men who after a period of alcoholic rumination would suddenly break out into a round denunciation of an imaginary enemy and after being chastised by one of the waiters sink back into murmuring waters of their boozy memories. The bums didn’t bother Harry. He saw them as ordinary men like himself who had gone farther into the interior, so to speak, and for whom the every day world had become a series of shadows, mostly dark and threatening. He kept his distance for they were bums and constantly on the mooch but still he felt toward them a brotherly feeling. Both he and they were on the bottom and exactly what shelf at the bottom was of little consequence. Sometimes when he made extra from his cigarettes he would lend out a little money to a few of the more cogent. It always surprised him when most of it came back.
It was Tuesday night, slow as usual. Of the ten two seat tables only two were occupied by men Harry didn’t know. The place was perhaps a quarter full or three quarters empty. There were only two waiters. The weekend nights had six. Harry went up to the bar to get his tea.
“A glass of milk, Outlaw Kid?” asked the young bartender with his usual joke.
“Right you are bartender,” answered Harry. He carried the tea to his table and sat down.
After waiting for a half hour Jim came in the front door, crossed the floor and sat down opposite. After a few moments of conversation they walked out to the parking lot outside, took a large bag from the trunk of Jim’s car. Harry took this across the lane to his apartment and met Jim back in the bar.
Nobody in the world had a more lived in face than Jim, worn and folded and creased but essentially kind. It was the kind of face that has successfully risen from its sorrows into a somewhat careful yet vigorous embrace of the world. He was tall and heavy set and wore an old brown suit which made him seem, at least to Harry, a preacher at a skid row mission. He wasn’t, of course. For much of his life he was a boilermaker but in the past few years arthritis had cut him off from his old occupation and he now sold contraband cigarettes. The waiter brought him a glass of beer and he took a long draught and then placed the glass down on the table.
“Well,” he said, “he’s almost gone, Harry. I went over there tonight before I came here and by the look of him I would guess he’ll be gone in the next day or two.”
Jim was talking of a mutual friend dying of lung cancer.
“Still puffing is he?” Harry asked.
“O yes. He says he plans to quit two hours before he croaks.”
Harry laughed. “He always says that.”
“Yes he does, every time. But he’s a great master of timing and it always strikes you as at least a bit funny.”
When George, their mutual friend, was given the diagnosis, the doctor told him they could cut out the affected lung and he would live for another twenty years. But George was having nothing to do with that. “I’d rather have my liver torn out with needle nose pliers,” he told the doctor, a young man who was very shocked by such a grim and gory image. He tried to convince him to undergo surgery but it was useless. George had no faith in ‘the knife’ as he called it. It was his opinion that ‘the knife’ merely spread cancer and pretending that it didn’t was a trick of the doctors to get in some practice on ‘chopping people up’ as he put it. No good could come of it as far as George was concerned. The doctor offered radiation treatment but George wasn’t up for that either. “Radiation didn’t do a lot of good for those poor bastards in Hiroshima, did it?” The doctor, flummoxed by this line of reasoning, gave up. He gave him a prescription for painkillers and later on syringes and morphine.
George lived in a one bedroom three blocks down from Harry. Even now, if Jim was right and he was a few days away from dying, the place was as neat as a pin. When George gave himself his morphine shot he didn’t lay down on his bed and enjoy himself. He couldn’t anyway for the shot to him now was merely a lessening of his pain rather than a high. But he took advantage of this lessening of pain to clean up. As time went on the time he could do this was shortened so that now it was only ten minutes or so. But, as George said, ten minutes six times a day was an hour and the apartment wasn’t very big. After his ten minutes of cleaning he slept for three hours until the pain woke him up.
George was a lover of opera. When his illness stopped him from going out to the local junk stores and buying music he sent Harry. He gave him a printed list of titles for he didn’t trust Harry’s memory. One time Harry had brought him back a CD of atonal music which George put on, right afterwards lying down on the bed for he was in pain. His pain was so bad that he figured he wouldn’t be able to make it back to the stereo without blacking out so he had no choice but to listen. He claimed that listening to that CD had taken a month off his life. “It was like being tortured with hot knives,” he said. All the time the ‘music’ was playing he wondered if the pain of listening was worst than the pain he would have walking over to the stereo to turn it off. “So I had three kinds of pain,” said George, “ the pain of listening to the music, which was probably the worst, the pain of the cancer and the pain of arguing with myself whether to try turning it off or not.” After that he carefully printed out a few titles on a sheet of paper and gave it to Harry before he went off to the stores.
It was Harry’s practice to go see George in the evenings, Jim’s to do so in the morning, but occasionally they went together. The morning after meeting in the bar was one of these occasions. Jim parked his car in the empty bar parking lot, knocked on Harry’s door and they walked down lane to the back of George’s building. The mornings in the back lane were very different from the evenings. Granted the bright May sunshine of that day illumined the ramshackle surroundings cruelly so that every fault, every crack, crevass, and over spilling garbage bin was clear as a super realist painting, yet this revelation, to the two men, was a welcome thing, a thing of beauty rather than one of ugliness. They were both in their mid fifties and the extreme entropy of the alley was to them a companion, a fellow traveler, its torn textures and variegated surfaces like an old, patched work coat one has developed an attachment for, making it the superior of all the clean, shiny, unpatched work coats in the world. Their brief sojourn filled them with an unaccountable lightness of heart and happiness although each remained silent saying nothing about it to the other. Perhaps something told them that such happiness on the way to visit a dying man was reprehensible.
The stairs at the back of George’s building were reached by passing through a short brick tunnel, arched, gouged, cracked and scraped. Its opening evoked an ominous feeling as if one were entering a medieval monastery or some dreadful dungeon. There was graffitti on the back wall - rough and unskilled – the names of gangs with their appropriate symbols. When they reached the stairs they had to climb three floors up a set of wooden stairs until they reached George’s floor.
His apartment was at the back. George always chose an apartment at the back for in such buildings the worst place to be was near the stairs where all night long the drunks clambered up and down like deranged squirrels, stopping now and again to shout encouragement to their friends, or curses at their enemies. When they arrived at the door Jim, after knocking, used his key to enter. George was sitting in his lazy boy on the east side of the apartment at the window overlooking a parking lot filled with scraps of paper and old clunkers.
“Coffee’s on,” he said as they came in the door. They could barely hear him for the stereo was blasting out an opera.
George was a living skeleton or at least that’s the impression he would give to a stranger but to the two visitors who had known him from when he was a boy he was George, whittled down by the cancer, yes, but still George. When he moved now it was very slowly in a sort of rachetting process of many stops to study the effect of the movement on his pain. His face was that of a movie zombie, a ghoulish thing, paper thin flesh barely covering the bone. His hands and wrists stuck out of his shirt sleeves like the talons of a slain bird. His hair was wispy and disordered and lay defeated upon his skull like grass blown flat by the wind. His eyes, however, were very intense, as if he had gathered all the losses of his dying body to give to them a greater glow. The whites were bloodshot but the pupils a deep, bright blue.
Jim put the groceries they brought into the fridge and cupboard. Harry walked over and turned down the volume. Then both men sat at the little kitchen table a few arms length away from where George sat in his chair.
“One of the things about liking opera,” said George, “is that there is a lot of dying in it so you get some practice, at least in the imagination. You have to be an emotionally extravagant person to love opera. If you stand back and look at it objectively it is absurd, bizarre. Sometimes I wonder what a primitive person would think of it. They would probably be seized with terror by all that effusion. But then again, maybe not. Maybe they would find in it something of the rawness you find in a thunderstorm or a blow at sea and thus find it not unusual at all. Opera is an art form suited to the social structures of old Europe. It arose from them and here, where it has been kept up, going to the opera is cultural thing indulged in by the elites. Other than the odd loony like myself for whom it is intensely alive and present, it is like watching a diorama of old forms, a visit to the museum.”
“It’s like drinking acid while sitting in a pot of boiling water if you ask me,” said Harry. “That time I went with you years ago I thought I would never get out alive.”
“But you did, Harry.”
“Yes, but barely.”
George coughed out a few barks which had taken the place of his former liquid, musical laugh. “You refuse to give yourself over to it, that’s why. The wailings of country music are just as ridiculous and yet when you hear them the tears roll down your cheeks like falling rain as one country song I remember puts it.”
“Each to his own, George,” said Jim.
“True. Each to is own. Yet this is a new one or new to you guys I suppose I should say. Turn it off and bring up 6:23 and then crank it up to eight. And then you have to listen. It’s the least you can do for a dying man you philistine bastards.”
Jim did as he was asked. When he came back to the table and sat down George said, “Now close your eyes so you can get the full impact. Listening with your eyes open is like fucking while watching reruns on TV.”
Jim and Harry obediently closed their eyes. It was a song from the Pearl Fishers sung by Jussi Bjoerling. It was a gorgeous, heart rendering song and even Harry and Jim, resist as they might at first, were moved by it. When it was over and Jim had turned of the machine, there were tears in their eyes, partly due to the beauty and pathos of the music but also to the awareness of listening to it with a dying old friend. George, satisfied, leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes.
After George rested for a few minutes they continued to talk for a half hour or so until he suddenly became very tied. They offered to leave and George said OK. Before going the two men cut up a plate of fruit and filled the water glass on the table beside George’s chair. Then they went down the stairs and out into the alley.
Two days later Harry got a phone call at five in the morning. He was instantly fully awake after the first ring and leaned over to pick up his cell from the table beside the bed.
“He rang me, Harry,” said Jim. “He says he’ll be going in an hour or so. He said first he wasn’t going to bother us but then he thought with two old friends that would be a rotten thing to do. “If you don’t mind the blood and gore come over,” he said.”
“I’ll meet you there.”
George was in his chair. His face was as white as a ghost but very serene as if all the usual human emotions had left him. When Harry got him a fresh glass of water and put on the coffee pot Jim came in the door. The two men sat at the table as they always did. George had his eyes closed waiting for them to settle. When they did he opened them wide and smiled.
“That nice young doctor came to see me yesterday. He said I should go to the hospital and I asked him why? Cause it’s the proper place to die he said. No it isn’t I said. The proper place to die is where you lived not in some fish holding tank like the hospital full of busybodies and bossy nurses. It would take twice as much energy to die in a god forsaken place like that. But he is a nice young man and it is only to be expected that he have the usual views on things having lived in the world too short a time to have acquired others. He’s a book reader you know. When he’s not patching up the sick people he’s got his nose in a book so that’s why when it comes around to understanding things in the real world, he’s a bit retarded you might say. So I’m giving him the books. Or I should say you two are. You will have to box them up and deliver them because with those skinny arms of his he will never get them down the stairs.”
Jim suddenly burst out into a heart wrenching sob.
“Now, now Jimmy. Don’t go soft on me, lad. You can cry all you want when I cough up this load in my lungs but until then I would ask that you pay attention so you don’t get things all mixed up and then I will not be able to go unburdened into the land of the dead. The music goes to the Opera Society. They have a garage sale every spring. The Cremation is paid for at Snows. It includes picking up the corpse, cremation and a pottery urn, so don’t let them cheat you. Here (he pointed to a lacquered box on the table beside him) are all the necessary papers, the receipt for Snows, income tax stuff so you can get the pension benefit. You two can split that. As well there is almost ten thousand in hundred dollar bills. After the telephone, hydro finals, the rest is for you two to divide. I already gave some to charity so don’t worry about that. This is for you and I want you to take it. Promise me you’ll take it.”
Harry and Jim nodded their heads.
“Good. The pottery urn is mean for convenient conveyance, not as the centrepiece of a shrine. I want you to scatter the ashes in the river under the bridge where I used to fish. Then wash out the urn in the river water and use it for something else, holding packages of gum or change or whatever. The rest of the stuff in here split between you or give away. OK?”
Again the other two nodded.
“Now the doctor left me shots already prepared. They are in the fridge. Bring me three of them. The syringes are there too. Three of them as well.”
Harry went to the fridge and got what he wanted and brought them to the table. George loaded all three syringes and laid them in a row on the table. Then he looked at them for a time and smiled a wry smile.
“Even all three wouldn’t kill me, you know. I’ve built up quite a tolerance over the past six months. I loaded all three just in case. “Be Prepared”, as the Boy Scouts say. There is a bottle of morphine capsules in the fridge. It’s almost full. Keep them. They last a long long time and there are a lot of sadistic doctors in this world who think relieving pain is a sin. Either yourselves or someone you know will need them before they expire. There is nothing wrong with relieving pain. I don’t see the purpose in useless suffering. Morphine is natural you know. It comes from opium plants and if God didn’t want us to use it he would not have put it into the world.”
George rolled up the right leg of his pants, found a vein and injected the contents of one of the syringes. He sat back in his chair. His face became relaxed and he let out a small sigh. He closed his eyes and did not open them for five minutes. Harry and Jim looked at one another but didn’t say anything. When they were starting to get worried George opened his eyes and said,
“Bring your chairs over here boys, one on either side.”
They did so.
“Now hold my hands. I know there is not much left but skin and bone but do your best.”
They each reached out and cradled a hand between their own.
“O your hands are so warm,” he said. “They are like hot water bottles.”
Then he hemoeraged. He twisted and shuddered and curved his spine backwards in an arch. The blood came out of his mouth in a great fountain, spilling over the white blanket he had wrapped about himself. When the spasm was done he slumped back in the chair, eyes still open. He looked at each of them for a few seconds, a fond yet piercing, penetrating look and then he closed them for good and his body relaxed into the great giving up of death.
Jimmy got two wet towels from the bathroom and cleaned the blood off his face. They stripped the bed and put a clean blanket on it and, unwrapping him from his bloodied blanket and taking off his slippers, they laid him out on the bed. He didn’t weight any more than a ten year old child.
Harry was on the phone. “Bring it around the back up the lane. That’s the best way to take him out. I’ll go down to meet you.”
Jim was stuffing the bloodied blanket and towels into a garbage bag. George was gone but his dead yes were still looking up at the cracked ceiling.