A last hurrah? A last bow? - don’t think of it like that. Don’t think of it like that. You don’t know what he’s going to say till he says it, right? But I thought I had a pretty good idea.
Lou’s All-Night, now, there was a place. I’d shot it out with Mort the Fink there, hadn’t I? Started over a steak and fries, wound up halfway down the street. He put a couple in me, I put a couple in him. The worst kind of time in the world, except it was all in good fun. Hadn’t seen Mort in a while. Hadn’t been to Lou’s in a while. Ought to just swing on in and—soap on the windows, that’s right, Lou closed it down a while back, didn’t he. Sold out, moved down to Florida. Nobody wanted the old place, seemed like. Empty old building…you could almost feel for it. Or I could, anyway. I don’t know about you.
Oh, the old five-and-dime. Opening Soon, the sign says. One of the new chain drugs. Closest you got these days to a good old five-and-dime. No magic in it any more, though. I grew up around that five-and-dime, in and out of it all the time. Kicked out of it more than once, but what’s being a kid without some hellraising? Almost burned the place down, that one time, old man Linden shouting fit to bust his ticker, chased us clean out of town. He did bust his ticker, too, didn’t he? I was…oh, I don’t know. Fifteen, sixteen, something like that. First time anyone I knew had died. Didn’t even care for the old bastard, but it still wasn’t quite the same. Was it?
See, I might be past my prime, but I’m not out of the game yet. Not quite. I can hear you in here. Oh, yes, you’re trying to be quiet, but you still gotta breathe, don’t you? Seems like you do. That’s the trouble with young ‘uns—oh, quit that fussing, I was the same. We all have to learn our tells, kid. Like that breathing you’re letting bleed through—that somatic imagination’ll getcha every time. Don’t worry, though, kid, you’ll get better with practice, it’s just a matter of tell me what the hell you’re doing in my head and be damn quick about it!
Oh. Is that all? Hell, you could have just asked.
No, I’d have told you it’s no business of yours and you could go to hell. Works out the same either way, but that one would’ve saved you some aches and pains in the morning. Ever get bounced out of a bar, kid? Hell, you’re probably not even old enough. Well, it goes a little like this—
—oh, what the hell, all right, then. But don’t get any bright ideas, kid. I’m only letting you off the hook on account of I’m feeling nice, all right? And keep the damn breathing out of it.
Yeah, fine, so you’ll work on it. Shut up.
And here I am, just like that. Halfway down the last damn block in this town I still can halfway recognize, and I didn’t get to enjoy it on account of you. Oh, well—may as well take my medicine. Hell, I already know what he’s going to say. And I did, too. Soon as I saw his face.
“Joe, I’ll give it to you straight from the shoulder. You had it in your lung. Now you’ve got it in your lung and your liver. Now, lungs, sure. You could get by on just the one and never know a thing except you’d be short of wind sometimes. But your liver…well, you’ve only got the one of those. Do you follow me, Joe?”
“Yeah, Doc, I follow. How long, you think?”
“Hard to say for sure—don’t look at me like that, dammit, I know. If I had to guess…three months, six at the outside.”
I’d got my chin good and tucked, and then the son of a bitch swung for my gut. Of course.
“Joe, listen, now, that three to six months, that’s in a hospital, with proper care. That’s the best you got. Do anything else, and last call comes a lot quicker.”
“Hospital. Hell.” I didn’t have anything else to say, but Doc Brown and I go way back, and he handed me a dose. It lit a fire down my throat, and a hotter fire deep in my belly, right around where I’d first noticed the twinge. Just days ago, it seemed. Right after the last time I’d seen Mort the Fink—no, couldn’t be. He’d blown out of town ages back, hadn’t he? “Hey, Doc, how long you been holding out on me? I can just about tell this is s’posed to be bourbon.”
“Might be your last for a while, Joe. Seemed like the time for the top-shelf stuff.”
“Hell, you’ll spoil me.”
A million things I could’ve said and I couldn’t pick any one of ‘em. The booze, of course. Hitting me a little hard, is all.
“Listen, Joe. You know I wouldn’t try to tell you what to do. But—”
“No, Doc, no. No hospital. What the hell’d be the difference? I’m done either way. Why go out hard?”
“Hard? Joe, you don’t know what you’re saying. I’ve seen this before, and it—well, look. You go to the hospital. At least there they can—”
“Doc, no. No, if I’m done, I’m done. No point making it last longer than it has to, huh?”
“Same old Joe. No one can tell you a damn thing but you run right out and see for yourself.”
“Got me into a good line of work, though.”
“Yeah, and now ask me how many slugs I’ve pulled out of you. No, don’t—I lost count.”
“All right, Doc. All right. I’ll go to the goddam hospital. In the morning, okay?”
“Why the hell not right now? You got a hot date?”
Damn, now, there’s a thought. I guess we all have that one that got away, don’t we?—hah, yeah, ask an infant. You’ll find out, just like I did back in ‘53. What a beauty, too. They don’t make ‘em like that any more—oh, still pretty, sure. Just not the same. One summer, that’s all we had. Family stuff, rich folks, they’d come out to the boonies just to get away from it all, I guess. Flew, if you can believe that. That last night together, the promises we made…boil all of it down, what you end up with is, this isn’t the end. We’ll see each other again. And then of course the next day they went back to their Manhattan penthouse. A few letters back and forth, but—hell, I guess I’d always known. It never could’ve worked out anyway. Hell, can you even feature it? Me a flophouse stumblebum, half drunk two thirds of the time, always looking for trouble—how does it ever, ever work out, me and a drop-dead gorgeous dancer like him? Never in this world, that’s how. Never in this world.
“—Joe? Hey, Joe, you still with me over there?”
“Better ask that one quick, Doc. Sounds like the answer’s due to change any time now. But—no. Just got some walking to do. Walking and thinking. While I still got the chance.”
“All right, then, Joe. In the morning, if you want it that way. I’ll stop in on you there, make sure they’re clear on what you need. Say around ten.”
“Guess I got a hot date after all. But hey, Doc, while I’m here.”
I laid a hand on the side of my neck. “I gotta hell of a pain in my back, Doc. Just here. Musta pulled it hauling Mort the Fink down to the precinct, that last time.”
“Yeah, sure. Forty years ago.”
“Feels like yesterday, Doc. Like yesterday. Especially right here. So I thought, seeing as I was stopping in anyway…”
“Oh, I see. Let me have a look…yes, all right.”
“Wasn’t sure what I ought to take for it. With the liver, and all.”
“Not aspirin, that’s for damned sure. Not on top of that bourbon.”
“Eats up the ol’ undercarriage, huh?”
“And you’re nothing but rust down there, anyway.”
“What d’they call it?—a bedside manner, that’s right. Ring a bell, Doc?”
“Oh, I recall hearing tell of one, back in about ‘83. Never saw the need. Look—I wouldn’t, usually. But…” He handed a little bottle with an eyedropper lid over the desk. “Now you be careful with this stuff, Joe. That’s enough for a month you’ve got there. One drop in a glass of water, understand? Every four hours, no oftener.”
“One drop every four hours. Sure, I gotcha. Obliged.” I pocketed the bottle. The chairs Doc keeps aren’t comfortable—he thinks it reduces malingering. Made it easier to get up, at least, and right then I needed all the help I could find. And what the hell do you say?—no, not you, I said shut up. You in forty years, maybe. But—hell, what was there we hadn’t said after so long? Was there anything that still wanted saying? No…no, but maybe just:
“Well, Doc, I guess I’ll see you around.”
I turned, halfway out the door. “Yeah, Doc?”
“Don’t let on I keep stuff like that in this office, will you? This part of town, I’d need to put three new locks on the door.”
“Sure thing, Doc.” I hoped the smile looked more alive than it felt. “Never you mind. I won’t tell a soul.”
And that was about it, wasn’t it? Not much of the old town still left, these days, but somehow I still managed to wind up in the same old flophouse. How many times? Down on my luck, before the job, or when it left me in a long dry spell between clients. Fickle, the job. Always was. Piss-poor lock, they’re not even trying. Might as well put up a sign: Come On In, We’re Open. Guess the old place is down on its luck too, huh? But…it fits. Where else would I end up? Oh, that damned wallpaper—always hated it. Still do, even with whole sheets peeling off. And that damned old couch! Just dusty, but hell, who isn’t. One drop in a glass of water? Too bad about the glass of water, I’d have liked a boilermaker, but hey. Mud in your eye…lemons? Go figure. Lemons and pennies.
Well, what the hell kind of question is that? You’ve been here this long, you’re gonna pretend you don’t know? Not that you’re welcome at all. You’re trying my patience something fierce, kid. But hey, why take the trouble? Stay or go, whichever. Me, I’ve had a long damn day. So I’m gonna settle in on this miserable old couch, and I’m gonna get me a nice long nap—
Oh, did you want a storybook ending?—sorry, I’m all tapped out. I stayed till the end, see. And yeah, I know, they tell you not to do that, and I guess now I know why. But you’re just full of questions, aren’t you? ‘What did you see?’ ‘What was it like?’ Yeah, and don’t bother, because I wouldn’t know how to say it if I wanted to. Which I don’t. But, hell, all right. You want me to say it was something, right? Well, I’m not gonna say it was anything. But I will tell you this: whatever it is or isn’t, it sure as hell wasn’t nothing.
No, that’s all. Be happy with it. ‘What happens when you die?’—what the hell kind of question is that?