“The Doomsday Clock at 11:54,” a short story

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The Doomsday Clock at 11:54

            He had no idea why he was there, staring up at the board full of words that made no sense to him.  He didn’t, as a rule, stop at Starbucks on his way to work.  His wife stopped there every day.  Or at least she used to, when she had her old job and money was not so tight.  He had no idea if she still did; it was not the kind of thing he would know.  He wasn’t even much of a coffee drinker.  Sure, if someone offered him a cup, or if he was seriously dragging after a sleepless and dreamless night. 

            “What can I get started for you, sir?” 

            The green apron was familiar.  The super helpful perky pleasant tone.  He stared at the board again, the jumble of names, categories, numbers, trying to make sense of any of it.  “Something warm,” he thought. “That’s why I’m here.  The need for something warm.  Inside.  Oh my God,” he thought.  “I am sick.  I am so fucking sick.” 

            The green apron’s smile faded just a little, a barely perceptible perplexity showing as a faint line emanating from the top of her left eyebrow.  “Thank you,” he said.  And then, for lack of anything else that seemed right, once again, “thank you.”

            He could not remember ever feeling so exhausted.   Driving the less-than five miles back to his house, making the call to his office to declare his illness, all of this seemed completely unmanageable.  The need for sleep was overpowering.  No thought was in his head; not one.  The act of curling onto his left side, pulling his knees up tight, drawing up the billowy, soft comforter and carefully tucking it all around his bowed chin – nothing seemed like it could ever be so magnificent.  The scent of his own body in sleep, and his wife’s, just reached his nostrils from the glorious comforter before he was out.  His shoes were still on.

            “Where are you?”   She knew she sounded mad.  She feared she always sounded mad, despite her continual effort to maintain a certain cool and polite detente.  In truth, she was more baffled and worried than angry just then, the bulk of her afternoon and evening engaged in an attempt to arrange a few slim pieces of a massive jigsaw puzzle into some sort or order.

            She had called him around lunch time to work out the details of who-would-pick-up-whom and how they would get themselves and the girls to the game that night.  His not answering her call was hardly unusual, but his not emailing or texting back was.  At the moment that her second call to him was ringing, unanswered, she opened her desk drawer to grab a paper clip and saw the post-it with her divorce attorney’s name and number staring up at her.  She fingered it, moved it a few inches, picked up the clip, and ran her fingers over the indentations that the attorney’s phone number had made on the paper, closing the drawer as her husband’s voice message clattered in her ear.

            With swift efficiency and more force than necessary, she hung up the call and punched in the numbers for her husband’s office.   “Cynthia, it’s me,” she said.  “I can’t get hold of him.  Is he around?” 

            “No!”  She said all eager helpfulness and not even a hint of surprise or disapproval that his own wife would not already know.  “He called in sick today!”

            “Really?”  He had left that morning, same time as always, same everything as always.

            “Yes!  He called from a Starbucks parking lot.  I guess he was on his way in before he realized he was really really sick.”

            “Starbucks,” she said with utter incredulousness, “He doesn’t go to Starbucks.  Hates it!” 

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A small wave in the vast ocean of tamped-down rage burbled to the surface for just an instant.  She shooed it away and said, “Thanks, Cynthia.  Thanks so much.”

            She called both his cell phone, and the house phone, every half hour for the rest of the day.  The first time that she dialed, a faint annoyance still lurked at the corners of her consciousness.  But each time thereafter, the phone call was just one more task on a long list, one more event that happened in the rapid-fire course of a breakneck work day.  He did not exist as a person or even an image in her mind when she made the calls, and there was no feeling whatsoever.

            As the clicking of her heels on the granite stones of the entry way yielded to the softer tones of the living room’s parquet floor, she entered, as she did every evening, a household of occupied females who scarcely registered her arrival.  The babysitter and the younger daughter had an art project spread across the full space of the dining room table, while the older daughter lolled on the living room sofa, vaguely watching a TV show while scanning through her iPod.

            “Where is your dad?”

            The babysitter looked like someone caught in a game of freeze tag, the glue stick in her hand and her facial expression frozen in place.  Her younger daughter thought she was kidding, and continued coloring while saying in her scolding voice, “He’s at work!  You’re silly.” 

            She let her purse slide off her shoulder and on to the living room floor as she said, seemingly to the fallen purse at her side, “He called in sick.”

            The babysitter leaped to her feet as if she were somehow responsible for something she did not yet comprehend, “Really?  Well, we haven’t heard from him.  He’s not here!”

            “Well, this is all very odd.   How am I supposed to…”  This last she muttered to herself as she took the few steps that brought her to the bedroom door.  It stood open just a crack, perhaps an inch.  She knew she had closed it on her way out of the house that morning; there was no question.

            Pushing the door fully open, she saw her husband in the bed.  Even with the mountainous covers pulled about him, she could see that he was curled into a tiny ball, as if he were actually making an effort to compress his 6’ 3” frame into the smallest space possible, the kind of thing he might do to amuse the girls.  As if she had stuck her finger in an electric socket, a jolt of rage ran through her body seeing him lie there.  Coming around the side of the bed, his side of the bed, her hands clenched themselves into fists in an effort to contain her fury. 

            His eyes were open.  And she saw one impeccably polished shoe, poking out from beneath the comforter.  A slight gasp escaped her mouth as she sank onto the bed and said, “Jesus Christ, what’s wrong?”

            Everything was wrong.  She knew that moment that everything was wrong.

            “So tired,” he said.  “So tired.”

            “You’re sick.  Are you going be able to make it tonight?   If you’re too sick, that’s fine, of course that’s fine, but then I really need to get moving.  No one even knew you were here!    Do you need anything? ” 

            “Yes.”     “Yes.”      “No.”

            “What?”

            “Can go.  Tonight.”

            “OK, if you’re sure.  I need to hustle if we’re going to leave here on time.  Why don’t you take your own car, assuming you think you can drive, so if you start feeling too sick, you can just come home.  I’m going to get dinner on.  Homework had better be done, that’s for sure.  Do you want to take your own car?”

            “Yes,” he said.  He knew it was not really a question; she was already on her way to the kitchen.

           

            “Jesus Christ,” she thought, “whoever decided that indoor soccer was a good idea.”  The amount of noise that fourteen ten-year-old girls plus their coaches plus their enthusiastic parents made was truly brain-jangling caroming around the walls of a school gymnasium.   The younger daughter knelt on the floor between them, coloring intently in a book she had set on the bleacher seat, humming her favorite song from that musical she watched over and over with the babysitter.  She glanced from the coloring project, to the mess of her daughter’s markers, to her older daughter who watched the soccer action with grave and unsmiling attention.  She thought of how terribly somber the older daughter had been as a baby.  Hardly ever cracked a smile.  Never chortled or giggled the way she had expected.  Then one day, at the age of ten-and-a-half-months, they were at the park on an afternoon in the early spring, one of those days when the temperature remains frigid but the feeling of the sun is entirely different, carrying genuine warmth for the first time in months.    The bundled-up baby in the swing could barely move for the padding of outerwear.  She pushed the baby from the front, rather than behind, so they could see one another.  With one push, her gloved hand slipped on the rubbery swing surface, she lost her footing, and waved her arms in big ridiculous circles to regain balance.  The baby threw back her head and let out a deep, long belly laugh, as if she had been waiting all that time, as if she were saying, “Well, finally, now that was funny!”

            He may have run some errands on the way home.  That would be typical.  But two hours seemed too long, way too long, really.  It was the first time she had the sense of missing him in as long as she could remember.  They used to work every evening at their respective computers, his desk facing the wall in the family room and hers facing the wall of the dining room, their backs to one another and two rooms apart.  For so long, she had the sense of an imaginary arm that would bud from her right shoulder blade and reach out behind her as she poured over her work, its tendril fingers winding, reaching, and finally intertwining with his own ,meeting exactly halfway and binding the two of them together.

            Finally, finally, he answered his cell.  “Where are you?”

            There was silence in her ear.  More gently, then, she repeated, “Where are you?”  But there was still no response.

            “Are you there?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you all right?  Where are you?”

            She strained to hear his breathing in her ear when no response came.  “Listen, I don’t know what’s going on.  I need to know where you are.  I’m going to call you right back.”  

            “Cynthia, hi, I’m so sorry to bother you at home, but, did he mention any meetings he may have had this evening?  Anything going on with work?”
            “No!  Sorry!”

            “Did you hear from him at all after he called in sick this morning?  At all?”

            “No!  Wait, no, that’s not right.  He called in for the conference call that was scheduled.”

            “Did you talk to him?  Did he seem OK?”

            “Come to think of it he didn’t really say anything.  I don’t think he said a word the whole time.”

            “OK, thanks.  Thanks.  I have to go, I’m sorry.  Thanks.”

            When she called him back, he answered right away, and she heard him sigh.

“Where are you?”   She knew she sounded mad.  She feared she always sounded mad, despite her continual effort to maintain a certain cool and polite detente.

            “Listen, we have to figure out where you are.  Are you at the drugstore?  Did you stop there?”   When she was met with silence, she tried again.  “Video store?  Did you return some tapes?”  Nothing.  “OK, let’s see, let me think where else you…”

            “Library,” came the word.

            “Library!” she said, “Good.  Library.  Good.  I’ll be right there. We need to go to the hospital.  I’m taking you to the hospital.”

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            She was reminded of a long-ago New Yorker cartoon where a man is jabbering away at his dog, and the dog is raptly attentive, while only catching about one in every ten or twenty words, the rest nonsensical gibberish.  The word she did hear, over and over, the word that did register, each and every time, was the word “stroke.”  As tidal waves of doctors and technicians and whoever-the-hell-they-were listened and looked and felt and shined lights and ordered tests and wheeled him in and wheeled him out, the blur of words was nearly non-stop.

            She stood at the side of the bed, letting the waves of words wash over her.  She was thinking only one thing.  The whole time, she was thinking it.  She hated herself for what it was, but she could not stop it.  “Fuck him,” she thought.  “Fuck him.”

            She spent the night in a giant, institutionally ugly gray chair that sort of reclined, her coat tucked around her shoulders like a blanket.   Never able to fall into a deep sleep, she became accustomed enough to the blips that measured her husband’s every heartbeat, the tones that marked his every breath, the whoosh of the automatic blood pressure cuff, the inhalations and exhalations of the pressure sleeves that constricted his legs –a virtual symphony of mechanized life support that became the not-at-all unpleasant soundtrack to her falling in and out of a lovely doze.  The hospital fell into a lull in the wee hours, a comforting quiescence that left her fully confident that everything possible had been done, and she could close her eyes and truly rest.

Her watch said 6:00 am when she tossed aside her coat.  A couple of medical people surrounded her husband, just as there had been at various points throughout the night.  They spoke in quiet, straightforward tones.   Her husband’s eyes were unnaturally wide, though, and his concentration ferocious as he gazed at the person on his right side.  I think he is trying to smile, she thought, but the two corners of his mouth did not match; they faced in different directions entirely.  His left eyebrow was raised in expectant attention towards his doctor, while his right brow laid stubbornly flat, the lid somehow deadened.

            “Oh my god,” she said, “oh my god.”

She sat at her husband’s left side, the side that was not paralyzed, throughout the day and its long procession of specialists:  rheumatologist, neurologist, cardiologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist.   The speech therapist arrived last, carrying a boxful of objects that she held in front of him, one at a time, each time saying, “Do you know what this is?”  And after a second, “That’s ok.  Take your time.” 

            She knew the day had been an immense effort for him.  She knew that all he wanted to do was sleep.  Yet each time a new set of footsteps hit the linoleum floor of his room, he snapped to attention through sheer effort of will. 

“My husband is completely exhausted,”  she said.  “It has been such a long day.”

“Straw!”  her husband said.

            “Very good!” the speech therapist responded.

            And just as suddenly, he cast his eyes in the direction of his wife’s coffee and said, “Cup!!”

            “Yes, that is a cup!”

There was a deep burning sensation high within her nose, and she reached over without thought to grasp her husband’s hand, just as the tear emerged from the corner of her eye.   With enormous effort, he turned his head in his wife’s direction.

            “Sharon,” he said.

            “Clark,” she sighed.

           

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