Where have I been?
Completing the multitude of tasks, large and small, that attend the approach of a new book’s release date. The jacket needs work; the website needs work; proofs must be read and re-read; reviews must be sought.
Sample chapters are usually a buzzkill on a blog, but here’s Chapter One anyway. Eventually this and a few more chapters will be up at EbbPress.com.
Everything’s finalized; “The End Is Near” will be out the last week of September.
The End Is Near
The first Angel of Death came to me on my seventh day here.
My seventh conscious day, I should say.
I woke from a sweaty, haunted nap and there she was, sitting in the wooden chair by the door.
Napping is most of what I do here at the Hudson Maxim Long-Term Care and Rehabilitation Unit, since I emerged from five weeks of coma, minus my jaw and a lot of my face, my head a beanbag of buckshot. Napping and filling one notepad after another with hastily scribbled replies and requests.
“Well! Hi there!” the Angel of Death said.
I knew right away that this visitor was different from other visitors I’ve received since I awoke here. She was wearing a lime-green pant suit with matching lime-green, strap-buckle shoes. And a little hat. A round, lime-green hat with an orange band. Death’s Angel was sitting very straight in the chair, an opened magazine in her lap.
I did what I usually do upon waking and finding someone in my room. I tried to say something. Something like, Who are you? I couldn’t say anything though, because the lower part of my head now consists of a temporary prosthetic device, an elaborate enamel contraption bristling with drains and shunts and clamps and plastic tubing.
“My goodness,” the woman said. “That all looks like it hurts. Does it hurt?”
I had retrieved my notepad from my bedside table and was looking around for the pen I usually keep clipped to its cover.
“I’m sorry,” Death’s Angel said. “I borrowed your pen.” She closed her magazine, rose from the chair, and offered my pen to me. I saw that the magazine was, in fact, The Big Book of Word Finds.
I took the pen and pushed the nurse call button. Then I started writing. Death’s Angel returned to her seat and watched me, amiably enough. She had a cherubic round face, a mole at the left corner of her mouth, and red hair tied back severely into a bun at the nape of her neck.
After a moment, a nurse entered the room, a young black guy with a lifter’s build, a goatee, and a ribbon pin in the lapel of his nurse’s coat, one of those ribbons commemorating this or that disaster or disease.
“What’s up, Nathan?” He didn’t look pleased. His name was Jordan. He wasn’t one of my favorites.
I held up the pad. On it, I had written, Tell me you don’t see this one.
This is my primary means of communication now. I write on the pad, hold it up for inspection, write on the pad, hold it up. I pointed at the chair Death’s Angel was occupying.
Jordan didn’t bother looking at the chair. “Come on,” he said. “I’ve got forty-five minutes left on this shift. Save it for Shaniqwa.”
I pointed again.
“He won’t be able to see me,” my visitor said. “They never do.”
Fine, I wrote. Then I don’t see you either.
“It’s a chair, Nathan. It’s just a chair.” Jordan was looking around for something. “Why don’t you watch some TV?” He lifted a remote from the foot of the bed and clicked on the TV.
Turn that thing off.
I can see, right away, that I’m going to have trouble distinguishing my notebook-scribbled communications to others from my unconveyed thoughts. I could put my written statements into quotes, as if I’d said them. But I don’t really say anything, do I? Not aloud, as others do. I think what’s required is a new form of notation. Let’s try this:
*Turn that thing off.*
No, maybe not. Little stars give this account a kind of Girl’s First Diary feel, I think. Like any minute I’m going to start dotting my i’s with hearts. Hang on.
Turn that thing off.
How about that, huh? From now on my notebook communications to others will be in blue, everything else in black. For your reading convenience. So let’s get back to our first Angel of Death.
“But you do see me,” she said. “Some people see me and some people don’t. The ones who see me, I think, must be closer to me and farther from them.” I should point out here that the Angel of Death doesn’t call herself any such thing. She calls herself Estelle.
No. Fuck you. And your little friend, too. The girl in the pinafore who keeps running around painting blood on the walls.
Jordan had clicked off the TV and was watching me write. “Enough with the girl already, Nathan. There’s no girl.”
“Oh, that sounds scary. I haven’t seen anything like that,” the Angel of Death said. “That could be your imagination. You never know with some of these medications.”
And you’re not, right?
“Alright, Nathan.” Jordan was backing toward the door. “You want to do this the hard way, we can do it the hard way.”
I was looking at Death’s Angel. The problem with her was that she was nothing like my previous otherworldly visitors. She looked as substantial as Jordan. She possessed quite a bit of finely realized surface detail. Her eyes were painted up like a cartoon peacock’s; her lips were a happy crimson bow of enthusiasm. She was no wispy hallucinatory fragment. She looked like a young housewife. Granted, a housewife who did her clothes shopping at some mod-hippie-era Sears or Montgomery Ward. And she had handed me a pen. This pen. The one I’m writing with.
What do you want?
“I guess I could be imaginary,” she said. “But to be perfectly honest, I don’t feel imaginary. I feel as real as ever.”
I should also say here, in the interests of full disclosure, that I had been having some problems, earlier in the week, with my medication. With the morphine, specifically. Nurses and orderlies without faces. Odd, flickering images of people, moth-fluttering in a kind of half-light, rising up through the floor, walking through the walls. A bad episode with the chicken pot pie on, I think, Wednesday.
It’s no secret. It’s all documented in my chart. As are the doctors’ successful efforts at correcting these problems. Tinkering with my dosages. Medicine isn’t as precise a business as some would hope.
“I’m getting Croate,” Jordan said. “I’m sick of this. You can work it out with her.” He left the room.
“Well, he’s no ray of sunshine, is he?” The Angel of Death rose from her chair again and peered at something on my bedside table. Then she approached and exchanged her Big Book of Word Finds for the untidily stacked, rubber-banded sheaf of paper, about an inch thick, that had been lying there. She went back to her chair and started peeling back the tops of the first pages, glancing at them. “He wouldn’t last a day in my line of work.”
Your line of work?
“I’m a stewardess. Well, I was a stewardess. For NAL.”
She looked up and grinned. “National Airlines. Airline to the playgrounds of the world. You wouldn’t catch me back-sassing a paying customer.”
The sheaf of paper was a transcript of my suicide journal. A court-produced copy of the blood-fouled original found by state troopers and local police next to my shotgun-ventilated body, after they’d stormed into the auto-parts store where I was holding my two remaining hostages. My lawyer, a shiny-suited legal beagle provided for me by the state of New Jersey, gave it to me.
A lot of people are familiar with some of the contents of that journal. Excerpts of it were picked up by the local newspapers here, printed as poignant evidence of my deranged frame of mind, before and during the “Standoff in Sussex.” Even the national news services picked up bits of it, I’ve been told.
The transcript is officially Exhibit C in an ongoing criminal trial, State of New Jersey v. Nathan Huffnagle, that originated with charges filed against me by one Felicia Fowler. Felicia was the woman who I released first among my hostages, unthreatened and unharmed, early in the “Standoff.” She is also, paradoxically, the most vengeful of my four “victims,” and the only one to file charges of any sort against me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I, Death?
Beginnings within beginnings, ends within ends. I have to keep it all straight.
“Some of us have a theory about why we’re here.” Death’s Angel was still thumbing through the transcript.
“People like me. Like you. People stuck in the middle.”
Oh no you don’t. Jordan can see me. You’re the one he can’t see.
“I don’t know why they can see you. Or, since they can see you, why you can see me. It happens sometimes, but it’s very confusing. Every time I think I have it figured out, something new comes up.” She looked vexed. “What was I saying?”
You have a theory.
“Right! I do!” She beamed at me, her dramatically made-up lashes fluttering. “It must be something we’ve left undone. Something we have to finish. What else could it be?”
Could what be?
“The reason we’re here, silly. Stuck in the middle.”
In the middle? You mean dead. Are you dead?
She looked pained. “I don’t like to think of it that way. I like to think of it as, well, stuck in the middle.”
Well speak for yourself. I’m clearly not dead, despite my best efforts.
To illustrate my robust corporeality, I thumbed the nurse call button again.
“But you can see me. Usually, people who can see me—”
“No. Get stuck. Are stuck. In the middle.”
All I can say is your thing isn’t here. Whatever it is you’re looking for. Unless it’s in your Big Book of Word Finds. You can take that with you.
“There’s no need to be mean,” she said, sitting up even straighter in her chair. “I picked that book up in the waiting room. I don’t know what my thing is yet. I might not even have a thing. It’s just a theory. But you have this big . . . letter.”
If I had known dying was going to be this entertaining, I’d have died a lot sooner.
“I’m glad you’re entertained. But all of this is no joke to me, I can tell you.”
How did you die?
Her brow furrowed and she looked away. “I don’t remember.”
Maybe it was a plane crash.
“Well now, I think I’d remember that.”
So you’re just wandering around.
“I’ve met some very nice people.”
We looked at each other for a freighted moment. I really don’t have enough face left to convey much in the way of expression, but if I did, you might have said that I watched my visitor apprehensively.
If you’re a figment of my imagination, you can go away now.
She didn’t answer this.
All I wanted to do was die. And then, thinking about it, I wrote, I’m not up for any kind of afterlife thing.
The Angel of Death laughed, a surprising bray of a horse laugh from such a prim, petite figure. “I wasn’t either!” she said. “Believe me, it takes some getting used to!”
Why can’t you just die? Like everybody else?
“My point exactly! That’s what I mean about something left undone. It’s not like the halls are packed with people neither here nor there. There’s hardly any of us at all!”
There’s more of you?
“It must be something we have to finish. Or set right. Or something.”
Who else is there?
“Well, you for one. And me.” She popped up out of her chair and extended a hand to me. “I’m Estelle, by the way.”
I took her slim little hand. It was cool, and light, but certainly not so much so as to seem otherworldly. She had stewardess’s hands.
“There are a few others, too. I’m sure they’ll be by.”
Oh, no. I’m on a suicide watch. Visitors restricted. I can’t just be having people come by. Especially dead people.
The Angel of Death—oh, alright, Estelle—had returned to her chair. She was thumbing through the transcript again. “The thing is, you have this letter. It’s a suicide letter, isn’t it?”
I like to think of it as an open letter to the public. An editorial statement to the world about life as I knew it.
“A suicide letter. Is it finished?”
As much as it could possibly be. Given the hectic pace of events toward the end there.
She leaped up again and abruptly deposited the sheaf of paper into my lap. “You should finish it! This could be your thing!”
Trust me. This is not my THING.
“Well, then, I just don’t know.” She picked up her Big Book of Word Finds from the bedside table and clutched it to her chest. “Maybe we don’t have anything. Maybe there is no rhyme or reason.” She arranged her face into a sorry little pout. “Still, it’s nice to have company, at least. Some of the others here aren’t big talkers, you know.”
I was afraid to even touch the transcript in my lap. I knew perfectly well the pathetic drivel I’d written, back in June, looked even more pathetic in its second incarnation as court evidence.
Like everything else I’ve attempted in my life, my journal was a failure. There’s a lot of bushwah in it about the sanctity of truth and the tyranny of lies. All of which didn’t prevent the journal itself from being packed to the gills with lies. Lies and self-deceptions and empty sarcasms of the sort that I’d thought were funny when I’d also thought that my life was someone else’s fault.
If I’m going to be visited by hallucinations or ghosts of Christmas past or whatever, I hope they’re all as pretty as you.
“That’s very flattering,” Estelle said, still looking sad. “Thank you.”
I wasn’t much of a magnet for hot chicks before I blew my head off. You have an interesting fashion sense.
“Fashion sense?” Estelle said. She drew herself up in her chair and looked at me sternly. “Have I mentioned I’m married?”
Your outfit. It seems a little
But Estelle wasn’t paying attention to my notebook now. “I guess I mean I was married. Almost two years. Tom was a pilot. Is a pilot.” She held up her ringless left hand and tugged at the base of her ring finger. “They don’t like us to wear rings, wedding rings, on the flights. It gives passengers the wrong idea. They want us all to be, you know,” she shrugged deferentially, “sky bunnies, I guess.”
I set aside my notebook and lifted the transcript in my lap. I peeled back the last page. To the last nine words I’d written.
“I’m kind of hoping, if I have a last thing, something that I have to do,” and here I looked up as her voice began to waver, “that it isn’t the ring, you know?” She grinned weakly. “Because where would I find it here?”
I didn’t know the answer to that, and I looked politely away, back to the transcript.
The last full entry in my suicide journal is dated June 30th, 12:15 am. The last nine words of the journal, however, were written twenty-four hours later, in the first hour of July 1st. I scrawled them in the stock room of A&B Auto Parts, as my hostages, the two that remained of the original four, lay sleeping in a heap of foam packing peanuts on the other side of the room. I wrote them just before jamming the cold twin o’s of shotgun barrels beneath my chin and reaching out for the trigger with a trembling fingertip.
It was all for nothing. There’s nothing to say.
When I wrote those words, all I wanted to do was die. And I was thinking, how hard could dying be? People are doing it every day. For the most part, without even trying.
I started to reach for my notebook, to say something else, but I saw that Estelle was gone.
That was two days ago.
It was all for nothing. There’s nothing to say.
If there are any truer words about my life, about the human endeavor itself, I’m sure I don’t know them.