by Joseph Lezza

Samuel Wesson didn’t much care. 

He didn’t much care when he woke up to find his left eye crusted shut with dried blood. He didn’t much care that, between the searing flash of red lights, the world out of his other eye stood wrong side up. He didn’t much care at all that a forest of splinters burrowed into his ass as two pairs of arms hoisted and dragged him across the porch. He didn’t care that it took a fair amount of grunting and pulling before the paramedic could fasten the safety strap around his belly. He didn’t care as he listened to his daughter lie to a paramedic about how long he’d been passed out. Five minutes, she said. Maybe ten. He’d known for some time it took at least thirty minutes for blood to dry. No, he didn’t even care that the commotion of an ambulance on his front lawn had become so commonplace that it failed to invoke the curiosity of even a single neighbor. He just didn’t much care.

Inside the compartment, the girl paramedic – Samuel called her a girl because she couldn’t have been a notch above twenty – went about locking the wheels of the gurney in place while her partner stood outside the open doors pelting his daughter with more questions. Janie stood there, batting her half-asleep eyes at the young guy and folding her arms so as to push out her tits. All it really did was send more of her gut bullfroging out from under a Soundgarden t-shirt that hadn’t fit her since high school. She’d said it was her “laundry day” shirt. By that logic, every day for the last two weeks had been laundry day. But it didn’t much matter and he didn’t much say anything cause she hadn’t much listened to him in years. Not really listened, anyway. And, really, it wouldn’t be long before she was shacking up with some new lowlife from one of the dusty pubs dotting the highway that cut through town.

Just behind her, his mother’s silhouette stood framed in the doorway, a short black splotch against the dim glow of the den. He moved his arm that he might wave, but was cut short as two cold fingers pried open his one good eye and flooded it with white light.

“Mr. Wesson, do you know where you are?” the girl paramedic asked, coming into focus as his pupil shrank back to normal size. The doors behind her clapped shut.

“I know where I was. And, I know where I’m going,” he said under the oxygen mask that was pressed against his face.

“Can you tell me what happened?” The truck shook to life and croaked forward. From the cabin, the words “adult male” and something that sounded like sin-co-pee slipped between the hoots and hollers of machinery. 

“Passed out, I s’pose. Was takin’ a smoke on the porch one minute and, next thing I knew you all were hog tyin’ me to a stretcher,” he answered, rolling up his left shirtsleeve.

Fishing a blood pressure cuff from her bag, the girl looked up and found his arm at the ready. “So, this has happened before?” she asked, fitting the strap just above his elbow.

“You must be new, sugar,” he rested his head and let her proceed with the routine. Out the back he watched the streetlights streak across the windows.

The cuff ballooned tight around his arm, stopping just at the point of splitting. The girl panned for a pulse with her stethoscope. “Should a man with a heart condition be smoking?” Samuel could hear her temper her judgment, leaving the release vale to hiss its disapproval.

He could’ve answered the question. He’d done so many times before. But there was no blessing waiting at the end of his explanation. And, what’s more, he didn’t much care what his own family thought of him, much less a stranger. So instead, Samuel closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He caught a hint of tobacco from the hairs of his mustache.

The hospital served him more of the same bunk. Shirt unbuttoned and middle age spread on full display, he lay reclined on the emergency room bed while the mess of electrodes gooped to his chest took account of his heart. To his right, on the other side of the curtain, a young boy lay with a broken leg over which his mother and father argued unendingly about who gave him permission to go do kickflips at the skate park. To the left, behind curtain number two, another man about Samuel’s age writhed and moaned like a cassette tape of haunted house sound effects. Every few minutes the guy would call out for some woman, his wife maybe. “Barbara. Barbaraaaaaa! The nurses had said something about a recent operation, a blood infection. Samuel guessed the guy must have been in a lot of pain. Man needs to scream let him scream, he thought to himself. He closed his eye and lay quiet.

After a few minutes or hours – there was no way of knowing – a nursing assistant came over to clean his face. In possession of two working eyes again, he rubbed at the corners and caught sight of his daughter at the foot of the bed. Cinched like a sausage, she stood there, back towards him, muttering something into her phone about a court date. That is, until someone in a smock told her she needed to take her call outside. CPS had taken Janie’s kids away a few weeks ago, and not for the first time either. In a lot of ways, she was like her mother. She liked the idea of things but she got bored too easy, bored with school, bored with jobs, bored with men. And, when she got bored, she’d leave, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks. Samuel knew one day she’d be gone for good, gone to that place where goners go. And, though he liked his grandkids – even if they came from three different fathers – he thought it was just as well. Probably better off.

Not long after, a staff member came by to bring him water and to let him know the cardiologist would be around after they had a chance to look at his EKG. Just a formality, though. All the nurses and doctors and specialists knew his name. Even if he hadn’t bothered to learn theirs, Samuel had racked up enough points over the years to be a rewards member. During a past visit, he’d even seen fit to joke around, holding a Blimpie card out to one of the attendings, a teenager if he was a day. “Tenth one’s free, eh doc?” The pimple-popper had just cleared his throat, read the charts and asked why a man with alcoholic cardiomyopathy had half a pint of whiskey flowing through his veins.

Whiskey was cheap, he wanted to say. Whiskey was cheap. But, again, Samuel said nothing, mostly because no matter what he said, it wouldn’t change the way they looked at him, the way their eyes from behind their computers and clipboards saw some variation of the same thing: drunk, liar, leech. If their intention was to shame, though, their efforts were wasted. And, if they wanted answers – really wanted them – they could ask each other. They could ask the paramedic he’d told about the scar on his hip, the scar from the bullet he took on a munitions supply run through Thừa Thiên–Huế in ’68. Or the radiologist who spotted his two herniated discs while performing a chest MRI, discs nearly crushed when a falling dock plate at the cold storage company put him both out of work and on permanent disability. Maybe they might take a minute to chat up the shrink who wrote him the Valium scrip after his wife up and left in the middle of the night. For a laugh, they could even check in with the social worker who couldn’t seem to understand why a fifty-year-old man forced to sell his home and move in with his mother might want to swallow a fistful of pills.

All around this hospital were pieces of his story, little threads that people could string together if they wanted to. The answers were there; he’d done his job. But no way in hell was he about to do anyone’s work for them. Let ‘em believe what they want, he thought. In a way he understood, though. The truth is never as exciting as what’s made up. And, if no one around him cared to learn it, then he didn’t much care to tell it.

When the cardiologist did show up, she brought no surprises with her. The tests showed that Samuel’s heart was weak and that the drinking was only making it worse. The lining of the muscle is thinning, she said. Rapidly. She warned that, if he continued on this path, the damage would not be reparable and he’d need to be placed on a list for a transplant.

“The odds of you living long enough to receive one are slim, Mr. Wesson,” she added. “You would not be considered an emergency case. By that point, you might not even be considered a viable recipient.”

There was concern in the woman’s voice, though she tried to squash it. But it was unmistakable, like hearing your native language in a foreign country. The softness around her eyes coupled with her youth was startling to Samuel, if only for a moment. She scolded him the way a daughter would scold her father: quiet, but stern. He’d seen her before, once or twice. But as far as he could remember, this was the first time she’d really looked at him. He didn’t know what had changed and, even though she hadn’t asked him to explain himself, for the first time in a long time he felt an immediate need to.

Whiskey is cheap, my dear. Whiskey is pain, but it’s my pain. It burns and it heals and it does that because I make it so. No one else. It don’t need no prescription. It don’t make me feel bad for needing it. And, when there’s not much else to feel but bad, it don’t make me feel anything. If I’m empty it fills me up. If I leave it on the nightstand I know it’s gonna be right there when I wake up. No matter where I’ve been, no matter where I go, that’s been the one thing in my life that has always stayed true. And if you think I’m shocked to learn that the one thing that makes life livable is the also the thing that happens to be killing me, well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been undersold.

Samuel wanted to say those things. He almost would have, too, had the woman’s next words not pressed themselves against his windpipe.  

“Mr. Wesson, do you understand the severity of the situation?” she asked. 

“Yes.” Samuel nodded. “I do understand.”

When the doctor said it would be a few hours before they could release him, Samuel didn’t say anything. When the fussers fussed and the howler howled louder, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything when his daughter finally found her way back and plopped on the chair without a word, returning right to her phone. He didn’t say anything when the ceiling started to move or when a tingle began to work its way up his arm. He didn’t say anything when it felt like someone had taken to his chest with a potato masher. No, as the alarms screamed and the crowd gathered and the paddles shot three thousand volts to his tissue paper heart, Samuel Wesson didn’t say anything. He just didn’t much care.

Joseph Lezza is a writer in New York, NY. Holding an MFA in creative writing from The University of Texas at El Paso, his work has been featured in The Pointed CircleThe HopperStoneboat Literary JournalStill: The JournalFearsome Critters, Rio Grande Review, Cleaning Up Glitter with work forthcoming in West Trade Review, a Johnson & Wales University publication. When he’s not writing, he spends his time worrying about why he’s not writing. His website is www.josephlezza.com and you can find him on the socials @lezzdoothis. 

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