Most good people go quietly.—Frank Serpico
Steven walked briskly up the stairs, signed forms, entered the crowded elevator, strode down the corridor, finally entered a small overheated room. He looked about. Curled up beside Theo on the hospital bed, Sarah lay sleeping.
“Sarah.” He gently tapped her foot. She roused herself. Rubbed her eyes. Fluffed her hair.
“Oh,” she said, blinking. She yawned. Stretched.
Theo was dying. “Inoperable,” she’d told Steven the week before last. He lay there, blind, inflexible, as though sealed in amber, lips pulled inward, his mouth contracted to a rictus hole. A faint yelp escaped from the infinite yawn. What was that, Theo? What was that?
Sarah cradled Theo in her arms, repeatedly stroked his hair.
“There’s nothing we can do.” She kissed him again, looked up dreamily, winced, and asked, “Would you like something to drink?”
Steven had known them for years, visited often. He and Theo sitting for hours at the round kitchen table. Theo, chain-smoking, recalling his travels: in Beirut, as they roamed the desert, the one-eyed Dutchman who taught him the German word for “butterfly.”
In Spain, the perfectly timed uppercut dropped a man with deadly intent. “Like this,” Theo had said, illustrating how he planted his heels, dipped his shoulder, launched upward the spectacular blow. The day in Brazil when he woke from a dream led to a story which became a book. Or he would tell the most ribald jokes. The most outlandish stories.
When Steven recalled his own less fortunate events, Theo would fold his hands, peer over his glasses, look into Steven’s tear filled eyes, quietly listen as horror spilled out. “It’s over,” he would say. And Theo would take Steven’s hand until Steven calmed down.
Sarah too. She would listen. Comfort him. Sarah and Theo.
Unused to the sight of it he stared at the dying man. He’d known only sudden deaths. Frightful. With no time for grieving. Tried to settle himself. Eyes closed, inhaled. Exhaled.
“Coffee?” Sarah repeated.
A woman’s voice. Lighthearted. “Knock, knock.”
“Joe and Gail. Family friends,” Sarah whispered. “Come in! Come in!”
“We’re very sorry,” said Gail.
“Yes. We’re sorry,” said Joe.
“Why, thank you,” said Sarah, accepting the flowers Joe gave her.
She introduced Steven. The four of them sat on folding chairs, chatted pleasantly, recalled Theo’s wit and charm. As if all were well, thought Steven. As if fixed-face, frozen body Theo is happy and all is right in the world.
“Honey, show them what you brought,” said Joe, brightening.
Gail reached into her pocketbook, with both hands held out an array of small tinkling glass bottles. Vodka. Gin. Whiskey.
“From the connecting flights,” she said. “It was the least they could do, all that traveling. Aren’t they precious?”
“Don’t let her fool you. She collects them,” said Joe.
Playfully, Gail punched Joe in the arm.
Sarah fetched four paper cups. Ice from the tiny fridge.
“What’ll it be? What’ll it be?” asked Gail.
Joe’s eyes widened. He pointed to the cylindrical shaped bottle, its red and white label.
“Vodka it is!” said Gail. Handily, she unscrewed the foil caps of two bottles. “One for Gail and Joe. One for Sarah and Steven. Vodka it is!”
She poured the liquor into the cups. They sipped. Talked. Steven listened politely to the outrageous jokes. To the stories Theo once told. Sat still as the couple laughed loudly, Sarah nearly doubling over at their parodies. As they continued their antics his mind wandered. Why isn’t Theo telling the jokes or tales? Where are his reading glasses? When will he pluck that last cigarette from the crumpled pack, smoke it to the very end, thoughtfully grind the butt into the ashtray, before bidding “Good night, old chum.” He glanced out the window. A light rain speckled the roofs of passing cars, blurred the windshields of whooshing buses, patted the slouched backs of hurrying passers by. He peered at the dying man. Wake up, Theo! Wake up!
Gail refilled their cups, now with gin.
After a time, to clear her head, “Don’t mind me,” said Sarah. “I’ve been here all afternoon. Just going for a walk outside. Steven, why don’t you tell these nice people more about yourself. Steven’s a good talker,” she said. “He and Theo could talk for hours!”
When Sarah had gone Gail asked, “So tell us, Steven. What is it you do?”
“Book?” said Joe. “You write books? Now that takes discipline!”
Work never changed. Real estate had its cycles. Buy at the dips. Sell to the market. You make good money.
“It’s a living,” said Steven..
The book? He did not care to tell them that early each morning he would stand and contemplate the topographical maps which lined the walls and ceiling of his study. Their elegant pastels, marred by muddy finger prints, helped recall the rich organic scent of earth, the fragrant green jungle, the crackling chorus of AKs and M16s. The green time he called it. A framed photo on the wall: eight armed men, shocked out and weary.“Steven,”they seemed to be saying, “Always remember. Do not forget.” Clear as day, the year of shells and bodies and stink and squalor would ricochet inside him, and Steven would sit and methodically write it down.
“It’s coming along,” he said. “Short stories. Run of the mill. Coming along.”
“Well, good for you,” said Joe. That’s good to hear. Isn’t it Gail?”
“More gin?” she replied. “Oh! I’m so sorry. We’re all out.” She selected another bottle. “What’s this one, Joe? What’s that say?”
“Your favorite,” he said. He took the bottle and poured whiskey for each of them.
“Well, cheers,” said Joe.
“To Theo,” said Steven.
“Here’s to Theo! Cheers!”
They gulped the liquor. Immediately afterward, Gail switched on the wall mounted TV set.
“No, no, no,” she muttered, flicking through channels. “Music. I want music!” She found an audio channel. 70’s rock. “Now that’s more like it!”
She refolded the chairs, set them aside, raised her arms, swayed her body in time to the music.
“Come here, Joe. Come dance with pretty Momma. C’mon, now. Come dance with Momma!”
Joe, sizeable, ungainly, made more so by drink, flailed his arms, wiggled his hips, stared at the ceiling.
“Oh, Joe. Honey, you can’t dance. Poor little Joe. You just can’t.”
Out of breath, mopping his brow, he stepped away, leaned against a wall.
“Spoilsport,” said Gail. “You’re nothing but a big fat no good spoilsport. Now close the door, will you sweetie? Turn that music up, will you now?”
Joe shrugged feebly. Did what he was told.
“That’s it. Not too loud. That’s my boy.”
She turned to Steven. Raised her hand. Beckoned him with one finger. “Come here, handsome. Come dance with pretty Moma.”
Head thrown back, mouth open, Gail clasped her hands behind her neck. Lewdly, she thrust and rotated her pelvis side to side. Steven, excited by her titillation, approached her, angled his shoulders, swung his arms, nimbly pivoted left and right. In their stark gyrations, the tipsy couple whirled their hips, bumped their loins, pressed their lips together, their sinful speed increasing their tempo.
“Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!” cried Gail. “Oh, Steven….Steeeeven! You are such a good dancer! Such a good boy! “She pressed a long kiss to his mouth. “Where did you ever learn to dance like that?”
Steven, breathing heavily, stood silent. Abruptly, the room went still.
“What happened?” exclaimed Gail. “Where’d my music go? Who stole my goddamn music?”
“That’s enough,” shouted Joe. “You hear me, Gail? “That’s a goddamn ‘nuff.”
“Oh, you. You’re such a big old…a big old…”
Gail turned her gaze to Theo. Ambled to the bed. Took a drink from her cup. Talked to him.
“Sarah told us alllll about Steven. How interesting he is. All the things he’s done.”
She sipped. Smacked her lips. Savored the whiskey’s slow burndown.
“Said Steven came all the way from New York City. Come to see his best, best friend in the whooole wide world. Dear old Theo.
Who is dying. Dyyyiinnnggg! Isn’t that right, Steven? And Steven. Oh my, my, my, my, my. You were in war, weren’t you? You sweet thing. It hurt you some, didn’t it? Joe, isn’t that the saddest, saddest thing in the whooole wide world?”
She snickered. Recited her favorite ribald joke. At the scandalous tagline guffawed loudly, twice punched the near corpse in its unfeeling arm. “Get it, Theo?” she cried. “Get it?”
Even drunk—they were all drunk—Steven rushed to her. Grabbed Gail by the shoulders. Pulled her away, shouted, “What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy, Gail? Are you out of your mind?!”
She broke free from him. Slapped Steven hard in the face. Slap. Laughed loudly. Screamed, “You bastard! You…” Walked away.
He adored Theo. Loved him. Dedicated the book of joy and death and sorrow to him. He stared at her. From somewhere deep inside felt a great steel door, long locked shut, suddenly burst apart. CrackBoom.
“What was that, Steven?” asked Gail flippantly, drink in hand. “What did you say?”
“No more,” said Joe. “Honey, please. No more. Can’t you see the boys not right?”
Ordinarily, the rocket-like punch would have broken a man’s jaw. Shattered his skull. But as Steven swung at Gail she turned to set down her cup, and he sailed past, collided against the folded chairs.
“Jesus!” said Sarah, entering the room. “What’s going on here? I could hear you two from down the hall.”
Joe tried to speak. Gail raised her arms.
“It’s nothing,” said Steven. “We were just… we were just…
The room stunk of alcohol.
“Never mind,” said Sarah. “We’ll talk later.” She tugged and hustled Gail and Joe out of the room. “You two. Out! Get home safe!”
She turned to Steven. “Go wash up. Get yourself some fresh air. Go!”
“Just a bruise,” said Steven, patting his swollen right arm. “Thanks for understanding.”
“I should have known,” said Sarah. “They do like their liquor.”
“It’s getting late. I’ve got a long drive. If you don’t mind, I’d like a few moments…”
While Sarah stood in the hallway, calming the nurses who’d heard the shouts, Steven knelt bedside. A strange harmony of sobs and words escaped him. How long it lasted he did not know. Finally, Steven whispered, “I love you, Theo. Goodbye.”
In the hallway, he embraced Sarah.
“He had a good life,” she said. “He loved butterflies. He could name them in twenty-five languages.”
“In German,” said Steven, “Schmetterling.”
Sarah smiled. A final embrace, a kiss on the cheek, and Steven was gone.
Marc Levy’s work has appeared in New Millennium Writings, Stone Canoe, CounterPunch, The Comstock Review, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Stand and elsewhere. It is forthcoming in Queen’s Quarterly, Fiction International and Black Scat Review. He won the 2016 Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families Writing Prize. He was a finalist in the 2022 Cuddy Foundation/Military Writers Society of America Writing Contest. His website is Medic in the Green Time.com.