Steve Dimeo

"Catching My Death"

Tall Tales Anthology IV (2006), pp. 21-29 - September 01, 2006

Catching My Death

A Short Story by Steve Dimeo 3,200 words

800 N.E. Third Ave. Hillsboro, OR 97124-2321 (503) 640-1375

Catching My Death

Like any good hunter, I laid a trap that didn’t look like one. To draw it in, I set out the razor on the rim of the tub and filled the Jacuzzi with water and vanilla-scented bath foam that reminded me of the fragrance of Livie’s skin. I had already lit the candles on the counter and strategically positioned the Maglights so their beams intersected. I’d also placed the portable heater just out of my reach to counteract the cold I knew would come. When the bath had filled enough, I tapped the faucet shut and slumped back, luxuriating in the pleasure of the warmth that steamed up around me. Then after spraying my wrist with lidocaine, I sliced it laterally with the blade. The blood dripped slowly into the froth, folding down like rain does at first in fresh snow. I closed my eyes but only partially. I could see it slink in through the gray gap in the door. Even if I hadn’t, I could have told it was near by the plume of my breath its coldness brought–though all this lent an eerie effect to the steam shifting towards the large window I had half-blocked with the accordion blind. Still, I’d expected something much different. It loomed more as a pointillist shadow–not total darkness but not light either. And it pulsated like an amoeba-shaped bubble, reminding me of those colored water-and-oil projections during rock concerts and dances back in the late Sixties. A high-pitched humming made me flinch. It wasn’t anything even remotely close to that hollow breathing James Earl Jones made famous behind his Darth Vader mask. It resembled more a medley of a chicken hawk’s screech, the shriek of fingernails on a blackboard and the skirl of violins Bernard Hermann made a horror-film cliché in “Psycho”–and sounded like it was all somehow trumpeting up out of the toilet bowl.
When I saw that it had draped its presence close enough across the vinyl floor, I sat upright suddenly, clicking on the flashlights that reflected off the mirrors on the other side of the bathroom, catching it in a crossfire of light. The movement, aside from swashing waves over the rim of the tub, also made me feel light-headed. I guess I’d lost more blood than I thought. Nonetheless, I kept my presence of mind enough to let out a weak but vaunting, “Gotcha!” The figure billowed with laughter that forced me to put both hands to my ears. It now flapped like a wind-filled cloak resembling the one the wicked witch wears in “Snow White.” “Since when do you think you could ever catch me?” “And yet,” I managed, trying to wince away the throbbing in my skull, “here you are.” “Because you called me, not because you entrapped me. No human can.” I stared at its strange figure which still remained fixed at roughly the center of the “X” the flashlights’ rays made. Could it be that Death saw only what it wanted to see, too, the same as we mere mortals often did? I certainly couldn’t risk riling it any more than I needed to–not until I got what I wanted. It gave a shudder I interpreted as a peculiar kind of shrug. “Not to put too fine a point on it,” it went on, “but you know you’ve sliced your vein across rather than along its length if you really wanted to do it right.” “Everybody’s a critic,” I clucked. I knew what I was doing, of course. I’d remembered, too, what Livie had said five years before when she overheard the nurse blurt out, “We’re losing her.” Livie was undergoing what was at first a successful angioplasty to clear her left anterior descending artery. The only problem was the nurse in her haste had punched too big a hole in Livie’s groin to breach the femoral artery. Livie was losing too much blood too fast--and her Jehovah’s Witness leanings forbade blood transfusions. She later told me bleeding to death seemed a truly “peaceful” way of going. That was, of course, long before we knew about the latest problem. “Besides, how do you know that I haven’t been effective?” “Ahhh,” it offered, the ejaculation sounding like the autumn wind sluicing through the cedars outside the window. “So the real question must be why have you invoked me now, my dear Devin Segnari–as if I didn’t know?” I wasn’t sure where its “eyes” were but I felt it fixated on the dripping wound from my wrist. I had staunched it as best I could with the base of my free hand. What with the warmth from the bathwater, though, blood still continued to ooze out. I should have reached for a hand towel behind me on the wall but I was too absorbed in this bizarre conversation. “You clearly haven’t understood my real intent,” I corrected the creature, holding up my wrist. “This was only to lure you here to my ‘lair.’” “Of course.” I didn’t like its mightier-than-thou tone–but then this was Death I was talking to. Arrogance came with the territory. “I need to know,” I said, mustering what I hoped was my most sincere version of a scowl under these circumstances, “why you took our toy poodle Taffy so soon after Livie–and on the eve of a birthday that was supposed to be a milestone, the start of my sixth decade.” “You mean, I think, why you took Taffy’s life.” I swallowed hard. “Well, yes, technically.” I’d eaten up most of the morning deciding if I should have her put to sleep. “But you led me to do it with those four severe seizures the day before that left her so weak.” “Didn’t you induce that first one yourself by clipping her jaw against the wooden arm of the bar stool at the center island while you were getting lunch ready for you and your dad?” “It was an accident,” I said, looking down at my wrist. “I didn’t do it on purpose.” “I’m sure you didn’t–but the results were the same.” “It had been only a year-and-a-half since you took Livie.” “Your little Taffy was, after all, 13 years and six months’ old–a long time for that breed.” “Not long enough. She’d been a comfort because she was really Livie’s dog.” Livie had beamed when she’d brought this new pet home on Independence Day in 1992–more than two years after we’d lost our cockapoo-dachsund that lived over 18 years. “You think yours is an unusual complaint–‘not long enough’? You’d gotten an extra year after those first seizures around your 59th birthday.” “True enough.” The convulsions back then had occurred over the space of a couple of weeks and had been different than the last ones. About four months prior, Taffy developed a peculiar but brief cough whenever she got too excited seeing me. The vet figured they’d happened because of insufficient blood flow to the brain stemming from congestive heart failure–an enlarged heart that also allowed too much water build-up in her lungs. Lasix and Elanapril had staved off a repeat of those episodes. But these new seizures were alarmingly worse. She didn’t wrench her head back with a howl and stiffen. Instead, she scissored her jaw open, tongue lolling, her feet paddling out of control. When the vet observed one of them himself after I’d left her for an hour over dinner, he surmised their source this time to be neurological. A brain tumor, he suspected–too advanced for her age to be operable. “I can, please note, be quite merciful. You’re seeing the cup half empty again.” I glowered at the shadow which seemed to be growing larger even within the confines of those light beams. This thing was eerily echoing what my therapist had been saying all along since Livie died February last. “I didn’t want to let her go so soon,” I said, my voice thickening. “She was weak, couldn’t even stand up on her own.” “My day in a way revolved around taking care of her.” As it had, I was thinking, when Livie had gotten sick after we’d both retired. “Be that as it may, you yourself laid the groundwork for what happened to her.” “For Taffy?” “Remember a couple months before when you and your father weren’t paying attention and Taffy fell off the bar stool, landing hard on the side of her head?” I did. She had lain there a moment, stunned. But when I picked her up and set her back down on “her” chair, she seemed to return to normal. “You’re saying–“ “Man usually causes his own miseries,” it said, undulating, what I interpreted as its grotesque version of a nod. “I’m often just the messenger of ill tidings, not their maker.” I had trouble finding my voice again. “Sure,” I said, gravelly, “appeal to that latent guilt in a lapsed Catholic. As if I don’t blame myself enough!” “Glad to be of service,” it said. “Messenger, my ass,” I muttered. “Remember what they say about the messenger and the message. I mean, if you could shoot me–which you can’t.” I pinched back my lips and glared. “Besides,” it added with sangfroid, “she was such a little life.” “Sometimes,” I said, “a little life is all we have left.” “There’s still your father.” Dad had built his new house right next door to ours when he’d bought the lot that allowed Livie and me to come up with our own home we’d dreamed of having after twenty years together. Though he didn’t think he’d live much longer either after Mom had died of her own version of congestive heart failure almost seven years ago, Dad had just turned 87 this year. “You nearly snatched him away too soon, too!”
“And yet,” it defended, “I didn’t.”
“Granted,” I had to admit. “But that teenager and his girlfriend did run that stop sign at top speed in his Cherokee. He did plow into Dad’s Envoy, sending it into a spin that toppled-- and totaled it!” “He suffered only a scraped finger and a mashed hat.” After being dropped off by one of the neighbors, Dad had managed to stagger into our house on his own, shaken though otherwise unharmed. “But coming only three months after losing Livie,” I said, “it was just too much too soon.” “You saw three therapists that month. One actually wanted to commit you.” “You sound proud.” “I am. In spite of it all, you’re still here.” Now he sounded disappointed. I looked at my wrist. The bleeding had soaked the washcloth instead of the face towel I’d applied, but it had clearly slowed. I looked up at the creature, half expecting it to begin fading. It didn’t. “I don’t know why,” I said. “I’m surprised I’ve lasted this long without Livie.” “You did make quite the couple,” it admitted. “We were always together.” I remembered those favorite photos of us on that Caribbean cruise and on Kauai for our 22nd and 25th anniversaries and even that last one taken our last Christmas together. “She loved to hold her hand flat against my chest as though feeling for my heart.” “You did ‘love, honor and protect,’” it said, “’till Death did you part.” “Longer,” I said. “That’s the problem. I still love her.” “I know.” “And ‘protect’? I don’t think so.” “You took care of her at the last–even after her heart attack when she was 52.” “She thought I helped cause it.” That hurt even though I knew it couldn’t entirely be true. Plaque had built up over many months to block that artery. It hadn’t helped either that she’d gained twenty pounds. I was proud of her after her week-long hospital stay for taking them back off over a year later. We did go through a tense time those three months after Mom died that led up to her heart attack, though. I didn’t want to let go of my grief then either. But Mom had been 81. Livie complained that after a respectful couple of months, I should have focused more on loving her instead because she was still here with me. She’d been right. “Her heart attack did bring us closer than ever. But this leukemia. How did Poe put it? It was like a wind that ‘came out of the cloud by night, Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.’” “An English teacher to the end,” it intoned. “How could you let such a rare, insidious disease take her away just three months after we both took early retirement?” “No one knows where leukemia comes from,” it countered. “But I’ll give you a hint. I’m not the one behind it.” “You’re not going to blame man again, are you?” It didn’t answer but its figure quivered. Another shrug? Laughter? I couldn’t be sure. I just shook my head. “She’d gotten her weight down to what it was when we first married 27 years before. We ate healthy, lived and exercised well. Why her? Why us? Why then?” “Why anything?” A silence washed between us. I felt the chill of this thing’s proximity and shivered. What exactly was I accomplishing, holding Death like this? “That really helps.” “At your service,” it said, billowing what must have been a mocking bow. “But you forget I took Livie in only one day, too--as quickly as Taffy.” I remembered early that last morning putting Livie back in her hospice bed after having helped her to the bathroom. She fell asleep once we kissed and both told the other, “I love you, honey.” The coma merely deepened over the next ten hours until she just slipped her head to the side of the blue-flowered flannel pillow like a doll and let out one last lilting breath. “They left with little pain, I know,” I granted. “But the shock of seeing them go so fast–“ “They were, compared to most, still rather merciful departures.” “And yet I felt we were picked on. It was as if Livie and I–and Dad and even Taffy-- found ourselves in some sort of ‘Twilight Zone’ shooting gallery–characters picked off in an Agatha Christie mystery like Ten Little Indians.” “‘And then there were none,’” it said smugly. “Like today’s more mindless mad-slasher imitators.” “Except here I still am. What’s left for me now?” “The world, my friend.” “What kind? Dad at 87 is on borrowed time. And most spouses as close as Livie and I were don’t last very long without the other. I might go before he does. All that lies ahead is–what? More loss?” “Good question,” it intoned. “Something you should have considered before picking up that razor.” “There must be a point to all this,” I said. “I mean, even in Poe’s ‘The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,’ why are the two of them even talking when a comet’s ended everything? Just empty words.” “You’re talking about the literal end of the world.” “Aren’t we?” “It’s all a serpent eating its own tail,” it soughed. “What seems like an end is a circle that never really does. Sharing words is like that.” “I do have my writing–even if all I write about now is what we’ve lost.” “You see? Ex nihilo: something out of nothing. The glass half full while half empty. We still have each other.” “Jesus,” I said. “After all this, you want to be my friend?” “You invited me here, didn’t you?” I guess laying a trap did qualify as a sort of invitation. “Who’s really the captive audience here?” I muttered. “Why don’t you dry yourself off and we can continue our discourse under more civilized conditions down at The Inferno lounge?” Somehow this encounter seemed weirdly appropriate right where it was. “Now you think you can become my new ‘drinking buddy’?” I had often jokingly called Livie my best. Dad had for the time being taken her place, but it hadn’t ever really been the same. “People have made worse choices.” I didn’t see how. “You actually drink?” “Poisons of all kinds,” it boasted with a new-found ebullience that almost made its darkness glimmer. “We all need a little escape now and then.” “You?” “This is, after all, just a job.” “But you’re a blob. An amorphous shadow. A thing!” “Compliments compared to what others have called me.” “I’ll bet!” “You can’t let mere labels get you down either.” “You mean like ‘widower’?” “Among others.” I tried to pull myself up out of the bathtub as I reached for the towel. Woozy, I half-fell back down before I forced myself to arch a leg up and lift myself to a sitting position on the ledge. That knocked one of the “imprisoning” Maglights askew. I tried to pat myself dry. When I rose, I had to catch myself, clawing at the cabinet’s corner. “So you just want to mosey down to some local saloon and belt down a few with your captor?” “Would-be,” it amended, reaching out for me, free now, slithering across the floor to my feet. I felt a coldness that seared my skin as it snaked up my leg. “Got a better offer?” It didn’t exactly seem inclined to undo taking Livie, the option I’d rather have tendered. Taffy hadn’t really mattered as much. Her death had just been the final straw. “Won’t it look like I’m bellying up to a bar with a cloud hanging over me like some new-fangled version of Al Capp’s Joe Btfsplk?” “Who cares what other people think when we’ve got each other?” It was patently echoing Livie the way we felt especially those last three months together. I shrugged on my white terrycloth robe. “So I suppose you prefer something exotic like a Zombie?” It slithered a pseudopod “arm” up around my shoulder. “Haven’t you always considered martinis more of a class-act?” “This is a class act?” “What else would you call it?” I began idly sorting through sports jackets and slacks I hadn’t worn much after losing Livie, preferring jeans and sweatshirts since I seldom went out. “I guess I’d better put on something more than just a robe and a bandage.” “Good idea,” it said, spiking its darkness towards the autumn weather shearing through the cedar forest in our back yard out the window over the Jacuzzi, “or you’ll surely catch your death.” I thinned my lips. “So you do have a macabre sense of humor.” “What other kind is there?” “I could use a laugh or two.” “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” “Surprise me then.” “It’s what I do best.” And with its cloak-like darkness scything down around my other side, hugging me against itself as I cast eyes askance at what I was getting myself into, we jounced out the front door into the disparate rain. -- 30 --