Kindling

by Benjamin Scott

            I sat on the side of my stiff bed. It was freshly made, the starched comforter pulled tight over the mattress, resembling the pursed skin in the corners of my mouth. I lurched forward, elbows on bent knees, hawked, and spat. My sputum landed heavy. It splashed crimson against the linoleum floor, but I paid it no mind. I knew a crew would come to clean it as they wiped away all my messes.

            It’s been just under six weeks since I moved in here. Forty long and arduous days. Every day the same, watching the hands of the clock sweep the time away. Forlorn and forgotten, like the bullied kid at sleepaway camp. Pining for the home that I no longer have. Missing a family that is no longer here.

            I hate this hospice center. Thirty suites, five living rooms, three dining halls, two walking trails, and a church. Thirteen-thousand, six-hundred and eleven square feet of brick and Bermuda grass designed to make my last days congenial. A monument to my own demise. I hate it.

            I hate the greedy and grinning doctors. Their polished Oxford shoes clack through the hallways and my mind and always seem to reflect my surly face. They tap their feet and cross their arms and check their Rolex’s when talking to me. Lecture me on the detriments of my health then go home and sniff up my boarding fees in powder. It’s hard not to see the size of their nostrils when they look down their nose at me.

            I hate the nurses. Their orange-sprayed-tan skin and false eyelashes, mascotting for their own misplaced pompousness. Daddy’s little girls with childhood dreams of being veterinarians, who learned they weren’t bright enough to tend to strangers’ pets. So now they care for me. Torpid and slovenly. Focused more on their college credits than my well-being.

            I hate the counselors, the social workers, the chaplain, the fucking yoga instructor. I hate every trifling pissant that has made a livelihood and legacy based on other peoples’ suffering. My suffering, and everyone like me. Our last wages, literal life savings, scraped up and cast indiscriminately to the young and healthy and happy.

            And I hate my family for bringing me here to die. To die far enough away to make it easy on them, but close enough to make it easy for them. A spiteful daughter and incompetent son, each equipped with their own set of twining and taciturn children. Their sparse visits bring comments on how terrible I look, with my mottling scalp and unkempt facial hair. Then they say that I seem to be doing better than the last time they visited, oblivious and ambivalent to the hundreds of minutes and ups and downs that span between. Living in selfish bubbles, they only come to offer their sorrows and sympathies when it suits their interests. Watching over my electrically powered bed like I’m already gone. Thank the Lord that my dear, Willow, has already passed. Seeing our family treat me like this would have surely killed her.

            It was their idea to move me out here in the first place. They said it would be a better place for someone like me. More comfortable, more convenient, more rewarding. I was better off before. Before the hospice center, before the hospital, and all the tests. I was better living in my own ignorance, in my home, and on my land. Better off expecting to one day dry up and fall into the dust. Destined to catch the wind and blow over the land forever like my father and his. But, here I am. Coughing and sputtering in a cold and unfamiliar room, in a town much more crowded than my own. I hate it.

            Lurching to my feet, I slid the rubber sole of my shoe through the viscous puddle. Nearly all the bubbles had burst, and the spit lay flat like a blood moon. I sucked my teeth and pushed to the bathroom.

 

            In the mirror I was gaunt. Scraggly tufts of beard stretched across my face like a mask and my dark eyes sunk deep into my skull. My heavyweight cotton top – a Walls work shirt that once clung to my stomach and tucked under my tool belt – draped over me, shrouding my haggard frame. Wranglers and a cheap pair of Walmart moccasins underneath.

            My two-egg breakfast set heavy in my stomach. I’ve had no appetite for well over a year, at least since my diagnosis. But still, the nurses heaved me to the mess hall every morning, to put something on my stomach before I took my pills. Eleven medications in all. They come to me every day in a plastic Dixie cup, a pile of many colors. Whites and oranges and grays and blues. Two for my diabetes. Four for my cholesterol and blood pressure. A pill and an inhaler for my lungs. Vicodin for my pain, Zoloft for my head. And a multivitamin.

             I rubbed my eyes, sauntered out of my suite and into the hallway. The Delightful Days Hospice Center of East Texas is a long, motel-like structure, with halls that have no clearly defined end. Constructed in a massive rectangle, every hallway and path and nook and cranny of the building led you back to where you started. The sick, drooling, and feeble-minded will walk the perimeter for hours without ever realizing they went nowhere. Sometimes I think that’s the point.

            I cut a right and went towards the back exit of the center. Where the facilities main trail is located. I moved with my head down, scanning the carpet, chin nearly touching chest. About fifty paces down, the corridor opened up into a well-sized lobby, adorned with peeling leather chairs and floor-to-ceiling windows. Centered, facing the entryway with her back against the cream wall, sat Erin, the receptionist for the south wing of the building. Always with a cheery temperament, she’s among my favorite of the Delightful Days staff. That short list. She’s unable to cause my much strife from behind her wide and wooden desk, though sometimes I felt she could be a little prying.

            Today, she seemed to be occupied scrolling away on her iPhone. As I passed by her station, she noticed me.

            “Going for a walk?”

            It was only then I realized how ridiculous I looked. Standing there, costumed like a workingman, my oxygen tank in a carrier slung over my shoulder, heading for a walk in the sharp spring sun. A walk. Something like that. Running the risk of inspiring a line of questioning from Erin, I offered a half-smile and nod.

            “It’s a peach of a day.”

            “Sure is.” She diverted back to her phone.

            The automatic doors whirred open, leaving me bare at a cross-section. A cool breeze whistled through the trees behind the center and rushed over me. Concurrently, I was blasted by the blazing afternoon sun, which cut through the wind and glared at me. It was a superb springtime scene; I thought I heard Vivaldi’s strings. I sprung away from the building and towards the trail.

            Despite having only one entrance and exit, the main trail at Delightful Days forked and jutted every-which-way, allowing the patients to choose their own adventure. The concrete roved around trees and fields alike. It traveled aimlessly around beds (coffins) of parched petunias, piled with dead leaves from the fall and asphyxiated by the winter. In some spots, the walkway even turned into dirt, or faded altogether.

 

            Pebbles set in the cement scraped against my shoe soles; the friction seemed to be doing most of the work of walking for me. I pushed on towards the woods, towards the edge of campus. Two or three others were on the trail aside from myself, yet I was alone. Alone with the sighing leaves and whispering mosquitos. Alone with my thoughts and my breath and my lungs. Alone. In harsh silence, I heard the metal clink of aluminum hitting cowhide, followed by distant cheers. I always wanted my son to play Little League, to be a ballplayer like his old man. Alas, alone.

            I scaled the right edge of the sidewalk, trying to put as much distance between me and Delightful Days as possible. Arriving at the southernmost point of the hospice center’s land – the top of a concrete loop surrounding a pitiful spice garden – my feet screamed to a halt. I inhaled deeply, letting my machine do most of the work.

            Just past the far side of the trail, off of the hospice property, was a dell. A small depression of land that has been worn by generations of water trying to make its way down the hill and find the pond. Along the whittled ground were trees as tall and ancient as the sky. They cast a welcoming shadow over the field; a shade that was sorely missed while walking the sun-beaten trail. The plot of land was beautiful, better maintained by nature than the property tended to by the Delightful Days staff. Despite being directly adjacent.

            My first step off of the path sloshed. It had rained the night before and the clay soil hadn’t fully absorbed the aftermath. I looked over my shoulder, back towards the hospice center, to see if anyone was around; nobody was. How long had I been out there? My second step led me to a dry stretch of land, and I proceeded. Ambling down the hill, I ran my hands against the trees beside me. Half for stability, half for the sensation.

            Under my cracked and calloused palms, the hard bark felt familiar. It pulled against my skin, intentionally, pausing me for a moment as I passed. The old oaks seemed to be as wide as they were tall. When the wind kicked up, the leaves whispered mossy stories to me. Stories that only the trees bear witness to, fleeting. Stories older than the doctors and nurses, older than Delightful Days, older than this plot of land and the town it sits in. Older than me.

            I sighed when I made it to the pond’s edge. It was only about a half-mile walk from the trail, but the downward slope through tall grass did a number on me. Still panting, I took a few sips from my tank. I swatted bouncing gnats away from my face and looked over the water. Sunlight peeked through the trees and splashed over the pond, shining like polished steel. Heads of turtles bobbed along the water’s surface as they snuck a quick breath of air or view of the scenery. The land was lush and green, laced with oak trees that shielded the lagoon from the outside world. A little pocket of nature that Hemingway would call an oasis in school books. I was alone in all its beauty.

            From my denim pockets, I produced a metal lighter, weathered. The Zippo was emblazoned with the words Monticello Mine surrounding a rough outline of Texas. It had been a gift from my work, an award for five million minutes of safety. Nearly ten years without serious injury or death in the cruel mines. They gave me a lighter. To burn myself down.

            With my other hand, I tapped my heart, fingered into my shirt pocket, and pulled out the contents. Tucked in a sandwich bag, and rolled tightly, was a loose cigarette. Marlboro Red 100. Long. A man about my son’s age sold it to me for seventy-five cents outside of a convenience store during an unauthorized trip to town. We hurried the exchange while Erin was at the register, paying for scratch-offs and snacks. That was a week ago. I took the loosie out of the bag and rolled it in my hand.

            I quit cold turkey about six months prior, after strenuous persuasion from my doctors and kids. I smoked the last just days before I started chemo. Some days I think it would have taken if I hadn’t changed my lifestyle so suddenly. When they moved me to Delightful Days, they remarked that I was becoming increasingly agitated, and had the shakes something serious. Who knows what they might have said if I told them I just needed a cigarette? Five full-time counselors on staff, but all I needed to calm my nerves cost seventy-five cents.

            I leaned against an old oak along the water. The tree’s rind was rough against my back, but resting my feet – even if slightly – brought me great relief. I stuck the Marlboro in my mouth and balanced it between soft teeth. The cold lighter clicked open and I struck the flint wheel, igniting it. When the cigarette made contact with the torch, the circular edge burned clockwise like a gas stove.

            The first drag was deep and deliberate. Holding it in my lungs, I took two breaths through my nose; my oxygen tank gasped. I exhaled, smoke pluming out of my mouth. It hung in a thick, white cloud before being whisked away in the wind. Swirling and tumbling over itself in the breeze. Inside my head looked similar. The smoke sped up my spine and surrounded my brain, finding ways to mingle deeper into my mind. It bounced boundlessly among all of the day’s thoughts and feelings, sending them swirling and tumbling over themselves. Every neuron tingled tightly and tensed like a closed fist. I smiled.

            The flavor was robust. Tobacco tasted wooden as it traveled over my tongue and down my throat. That day, last week, I’m sure I had enough time and money to snag a full pack from behind the counter. But there was a significance to the loose cigarette from the seedy man. It was solitary, untaxed and pure. Puffs sent prickles through the skin of my arms. With every inhale, the loosie burned lower. Warmer on my fingers. Smoldering orange.

            I started laughing when it was halfway to ash. For several seconds, I croaked out laughter before I realized why I was laughing. I was alone.

            Here, in this shrine to healthcare, I stood alone. None of the doctors or nurses, whose pockets my family fills, had come running down the trail to check on me. They likely hadn’t realized I was gone. They tended to their clipboards and computer screens and couldn’t possibly be bothered by a missing inpatient. Reclining against the tree, I mused and toked the Marlboro. Alone. None of the family, who had split for the suburbs of Dallas and Fort Worth at first chance, stood out there with me, under the shady oaks and looking over the water. I remember them saying they were doing what’s best for me. Every decision was made with me in their hearts. But they were hours and to-dos separated from where I stood with my cigarette. My cigarette. The only one always by my side, that kept me from being alone.

           

            The tobacco had burned well past the Marlboro logo and had started charring the filter before I put it out. I flicked it into the grass and stamped it ragged with my shoe. The last lingering smoke mixed with the green of the meadow and smelled sweet. I let out an unwaveringly raspy cough, one that had been rolling and building in my lungs but was ignored in favor of my smoke. I spat and it landed, cloudy, next to the cigarette butt.

            Walking back up the hill to the trail proved to be more difficult. With each step, I gulped from the oxygen tank. I felt fluid reverberate in my ribs. Every time my feet landed, shock shot up my legs and through my chest. Still faintly tasting the stale tobacco, I smacked my tongue a few times to bring it closer. My hands alongside the trees. Individual ridges of my fingerprints rubbed against the bark, telling their own bygone stories. Rings in the wood grain. When the grove cleared, I spotted the concrete path ahead. The great, white sun enveloped me. I pushed on and disappeared over the valley.

About the Author

Benjamin Scott is a Substitute Teacher from Garland, Texas. In 2020, he graduated from the University of Houston with a Bachelor's degree in English Literature. He began writing early, creating poems and stories well before the age of 10. Although he is previously unpublished, he has received remarkable reviews on several thousand Tweets. When he is not writing, Benjamin can be found exploring new walking trails, creating a ruckus with friends, or people-watching to develop a new character.