A Better Life

By Michael C Keith

I have, alas, only one illusion left.
–Sydney Smith

It was the last thing he was in the mood to hear as he finished his morning coffee before embarking on his dreaded daily grind.

 

“Can you pick up some half-and-half on your way home?”

 

Seymour Bauls’ retired brother and housemate, Gil, sat across from him at the kitchen table in his soiled t-shirt and boxers, crumbs from a piece of toast stuck to his upper lip.

 

Why can’t you do it? You’re going to be home all day, for Chris sakes, thought Seymour, disgustedly.

“Yeah, yeah, I’ll get it,” he conceded, grabbing his briefcase and heading for the door.

 

“See you tonight,” mumbled Seymour’s elder sibling.

 

Gil Bauls would spend the rest of the morning in the kitchen reading the newspaper before shifting his base of inactivity to the living room to watch game shows.

 

“Sure, whatever,” responded Seymour, shutting the door behind him and heading to his car in the driveway.

 

What a piece of shit, he reflected, taking in the length of his dilapidated 14 year-old Escort.

 

Not surprisingly it took him a couple of tries to get its engine to turn over, and as usual the highway into the city was clogged with traffic, inflaming Seymour.

 

“Goddamn it!” he shouted, pounding the steering wheel and giving drivers in adjacent lanes dirty looks.

 

Long commutes invariably raised his blood pressure, which was already a problem requiring daily medication. Despite giving himself more than enough time to reach his workplace, he was fifteen minutes late. In a fitful mood, he ignored the greetings of colleagues and went directly to his small office in the tax and accounting firm. Closing the door, he sequestered himself until lunch.

 

***

 

“Well, hello, Mr. Grumpy,” said Mark Hiller, the closest thing he had to a friend at Boyle Tax Services. “You sure were in a funk this morning, pal. Another miserable drive in, I gather?”

 

In the warm weather, Seymour typically ate his bag lunch at the picnic table in the so-called green space provided by the firm. He could escape the frigid air of the office for the warmth of the desert sun, relishing the seldom-occupied refuge.

 

“What are you doing out here, Mark? Why aren’t you at the Pig Trough?” asked Seymour, snidely referring to the local ‘all you can eat’ buffet restaurant nearby.

 

“Saw you come out, so I thought I’d say hi before heading over. You want to chuck that PB&J and join the rest of us for a change like an adult?”

 

“Baloney,” replied Seymour.

 

“Ugh,” grimaced Mark.

 

“Bye, Mark,” said Seymour, waving him off like he would a fly.

 

“Wait a minute. My wife knows this gal who’s unattached. She’s not bad either. Maybe a little on the chubby side, but who isn’t? Why don’t you come by Saturday, and we can hook you up.”

 

“No thanks. Not interested,” said Seymour, biting into his sandwich. “Never any luck in that department. I gave it a good try. Women always hide something from you, and then when they’ve got you, they reveal their true nature. I’m done being disappointed.”

 

“Jesus, fella. You aren’t dead yet. How long has it been since you’ve been with somebody, a woman, I mean?”

 

“Not long enough,” responded Seymour, pieces of chewed baloney falling from his mouth.

 

“You got to get out, your brother, too.  At least he had a wife. It’s not normal to be single all your life. Think you’d want to give your calloused palm a break.”

 

“Up yours,” muttered Seymour.

 

“Well, think about Saturday night,” said Mark looking at his watch. “Shit, I got to get to Old Country Buffet before they eat up all the honey-barbequed chicken wings. You know how those guys are.”

 

“You mean the Gout Brigade?” said Seymour, sarcastically.

 

Mark dashed off in the direction of the waiting buffet, while Seymour consumed the remains of his lunch in the restored silence. On his way back into the excessively air conditioned office building, he experienced sudden dizziness, accompanied by a sharp pain behind his eyes.

 

“You okay, Seymour?” asked Vera, the receptionist.

 

“Sure. Think I just ate some bad baloney,” replied Seymour, weaving his way down the hall to his office.

 

“There’s no such thing as good baloney,” shouted the receptionist after him.

 

By the time Seymour reached his desk his equilibrium had returned and the pain in his head was mostly gone.

 

Maybe it was the baloney, considered Seymour, digging into the pile of papers before him. For the balance of the day, he endured a dull headache, which four Tylenol failed to alleviate. On his way home after work his cellphone rang, and it was his brother again reminding him to pick up cream. It really perturbed Seymour that it had not occurred to Gil to get off his rump and perform the simple errand himself. After all, he pouted, his brother had the time and a car that was much newer than his own crumbling jalopy.

 

Exiting the 7-Eleven, Seymour suddenly grew dizzy again and this time could not keep himself from toppling to the pavement. He was certain someone had plunged an axe into his skull. Then he felt nothing. There were voices from somewhere in the darkness that enveloped him, but he could not understand what they were saying. Nor could he respond.

 

***

 

Gil sat beside his brother’s bed in the hospital’s ICU. According to the attending doctor, Seymour had suffered a stroke caused by a blood clot. He had been tended to by the EMTs outside the convenience store. While this sounded very dire to Gil, the physician indicated that the clot had been taken care of and that there was every reason to believe his brother would soon be fine. At the moment he was in a medically induced coma to calm the trauma caused by the clot and surgery.

 

“How long will he be unconscious?” asked, Gil, still jarred by what had befallen his younger sibling.

 

“Not totally sure, maybe a couple of days, or five at the most. His vitals are good. He was very lucky. Should be okay. Don’t expect any paralysis.”

 

“Thank God,” said Gil, sighing.

 

In his foggy mind, Seymour heard muffled voices. He could not determine if his eyes were open or shut, since he was unable to move his lids or touch them. He was immobilized, yet what was happening aroused more curiosity than any sense of foreboding. Then the seemingly distant sounds faded as he floated in a starless sky––a gently rocking motion soothing him. In the encompassing blackness appeared a speck of light that slowly gained substance and morphed into countless iridescent lines and circles that pulsated and spun around him.

 

“Seymour,” beckoned a softly compelling voice. The geometric shapes fell away, leaving in their wake a field awash in bright flowers.

 

“Who…?” asked Seymour, finding that his voice had returned. “What is…?”

 

“Look,” replied the disembodied voice. “Over here, beyond the willows. You’re home.”

 

Seymour moved his eyes across the colorful landscape and saw a picturesque two-story cottage. A figure beckoned him from its trellised doorway.

 

It’s a woman, thought Seymour, and his heart filled with joy. He knew he loved her.

 

Two small children emerged from the house and waved excitedly at him.

 

“Daddy,” they called, and Seymour looked around to see if they were addressing someone else.

 

He then realized they were his children and this brought tears to his eyes. Ardent embraces awaited Seymour when he reached them.

 

“You’ve been gone so long, dear. We’re so happy you’re back. Dinner is on the table,” said the woman acting for all the world like his spouse.

 

Her beauty caused him to become faint for a moment. She was the very woman he had always fantasized marrying. Every aspect of her being was perfect to him. Her warm smile ignited his affection and passion.

 

“Sweetheart,” he whispered in her ear. “I’ve missed you.”

 

That evening, after the children were lovingly tucked away, Seymour and his magnificent consort retired to the bedroom. As he lay on the bed, the woman of his dreams removed her clothes and stood naked before him. The vision of her perfect body was too much for Seymour and he could not contain his sobs of gratitude for what had been given him.

 

***

 

“Nurse, nurse? He’s making a noise. I think he’s crying,” shouted Gil, as he stared down at his brother.

 

“He’s coming out of the coma,” reported the nurse, arriving at the scene.

 

“Why’s he crying? Is he in pain?” inquired Gil.

 

“Coma patients return to consciousness in all kinds of ways. Some laugh hysterically, others scream and wave their arms frantically. Some even sing and quote Shakespeare. Mostly they just open their eyes though. Criers like him are fairly rare,” observed the nurse, checking Seymour’s vitals on the monitors.

 

Within hours, Seymour was sitting up and showing signs of a full recovery, according to his attending physician.

 

“So he’ll be able to come home soon?” inquired Gil.

 

“I’d say in a day or two if all goes the way I expect it will,” answered the doctor, beaming at his patient.

 

“I don’t want to come home,” argued Seymour.

 

“What do you mean?” inquired his brother, mystified.

 

“I liked it there.”

 

“There? Where?” asked the doctor and Gil in unison.

 

“With my wi…” responded Seymour, catching himself mid-sentence. “I mean I’d like to go somewhere else.”

 

“You’ll be happy to be home,” offered Gil.

 

“It’s not my home. My home is with…Oh, never mind,” muttered Seymour, frustrated.

 

“Look, it’s normal for someone who’s been through what you have to feel a bit disjointed and out of sorts, but you’re in pretty good physical health and this medical event will quickly recede in your mind,” assured the doctor, checking his watch. “I’ll be by in the morning to check your progress. We’ll spring you from this joint soon.”

 

***

 

And so it was. Three days later, Seymour was back home where he was told to remain for a couple of weeks before returning to work. During this period, his brother reverted to form, providing minimal assistance, and only a handful of meals.

 

When his convalescence was over, Seymour actually looked forward to returning to work, but his enthusiasm was short-lived as the numbing routine of his job once again depressed his spirits. His thoughts kept returning to the adoring family he’d found while unconscious, and his longing for them grew in intensity. If he’d had the choice to return to that perfect otherworld, he would do so without a second thought. Everything he ever wanted was there. Was it only a dream? Seymour wondered, as he sat at the picnic table with his usual bag lunch before him.

 

“You okay, buddy?” asked Mark Hiller, standing across from Seymour. “Mind if I join you? I’ve decided to drop a few pounds, so I’m eating rabbit food.”

 

“The Gout Brigade will miss you,” quipped Seymour, reaching into his brown satchel that contained his noonday meal.

 

“Baloney?” asked Mark, nodding at Seymour’s sandwich.

 

“Tuna,” answered Seymour, whose eyes suddenly rolled back into his head.

 

“Jesus, Seymour, what’s the matter?” asked Mark, quickly moving to catch Seymour as he began to fall backward.

 

***

 

“He’s had what’s called a focal cerebral ischemia stemming from a lack of oxygen to his brain during his last stroke,” responded the doctor to Gil’s inquiry.

 

“Why? What does that mean? Is he going to come out of it?”

 

“These things are not uncommon, but their outcome is a bit hard to predict. Many patients soon regain consciousness. However, damage to some neurons will be irreversible. Some physical therapy is usually required to regain motor skills when they regain consciousness. On the other hand, the results could be different, Mr. Bauls. We’ll just have to see what happens. He could be under for months.”

 

This time, Seymour could understand the words he heard while inside the void he occupied. The doctor’s statement filled him with anticipation. I’ll be reunited with my wife and children, he thought. He waited anxiously to see the spec of light that had presaged his extraordinary experience in his first coma, but it failed to appear.

 

Weeks passed as Seymour’s desperation to reclaim his dream got the better of him. It was just a sad man’s pathetic fantasy, he concluded.

 

In the hospital room where he lay unresponsively for weeks, his brother was informed that his sibling was failing.

 

“Doesn’t seem like he’s got much fight left in him. His system is shutting down, and I don’t think he’s got much longer,” reported Seymour’s doctor.

 

“But I thought you said he’d come out of it and be okay,” protested Gil.

 

“That’s usually the case, but your brother hasn’t shown any signs of recovery, especially lately. At first, he seemed to be slightly improving, but in the last few weeks there have been no gains, and now he’s deteriorating quickly. I’m sorry, Mr. Bauls. We’ve done what we can. In these cases, recovery is often more up to the patient than we medicos.”

 

When the doctor departed, Gil whispered emotionally charged words of encouragement into Seymour’s ear, but he heard nothing. A week later, Seymour’s brain scan flat lined and no attempt was made to resuscitate him per his living will.

 

“My condolences, Mr. Bauls.”

 

“No problem, doc. He’s probably in a better place,” replied Gil, gloomily.

 

***

 

At the instant Seymour’s heart stopped, he found himself standing before the cottage of his beloved family.

 

Thank you . . . thank you,” he muttered, looking upward as he swung the door open.

 

As he stepped inside, he saw someone in the dim interior and excitedly moved forward.

 

“Sweetheart, I’m back, and I’ll never leave,” he called out, joyously.

 

“My love?” answered a quavering voice, and from the shadows emerged an elderly woman who faintly resembled his once beautiful wife. “You’ve been gone for so long, but now we’ll be together forever.”

 

Seymour stood silently for several moments and then smiled tenderly at the stooped figure before him with whom he would spend eternity.

 

“Okay,” he shrugged. “Okay.”

 

_____________

Michael C. Keith is the author of an acclaimed memoir and two books of short fiction.

 


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