Furnished Rooms

Don Smith

Before many doors of light
Photo Credit: Lori E. Burleson

Death comes sure as Sunday, he thought. It comes inch by cold inch till it has taken the exact measurement of your life. He had not expected it so soon, but here it was, and he didn’t care much.

He wasn’t sure that he had ever cared. He had lived his life in the rooms of others, among the things they had chosen, arranged in their way—as a son, an employee in one office or another, and a husband to two wives. Now, his final resting place and whatever arrangements attended his departure would be for others to decide. He had no preferences.

Death came to all whether they wanted it or not—but so did life. He hadn’t chosen to be born. His parents chose, presumably. And if he had a soul, it wasn’t his; presumably, it was God’s. So, God would get it back, as he understood the arrangement. God was welcome to it.

Life’s choices came down to very little. It was like you found yourself at a station with trains coming and going, all bound by different routes to the same eventual destination. Which route you took and who went along with you and where you stopped along the way made no difference in the end. Every passenger on every train wound up eventually at the same destination, the end of all lines.

Looking back, what had he actually chosen? He more or less chose a field of study and a career, though much of his progress in the latter depended on variables beyond his control. He chose to marry, twice. He did not choose to have children; his first wife chose, though he was glad and loved them very much. They kept in touch, but as they grew up, they had inevitably grown apart. They loved him, and would say that he had been a good father or at least that he had tried to be one.

His first wife divorced him when the children were still young. She got the house and custody. He did not contest the settlement; it was best for the children. She soon remarried and moved to another state. After that, he seldom saw the children. He called them, sent gifts, and contributed to their support, but it wasn’t like being in the same house, eating meals together at the same table, and sharing the routines of school and work.

They did not yet know that he was dying. They would be upset when they learned. He guessed they might look back at old photographs and perhaps share memories from the early years when they had all lived together in one house. They would come to the funeral. But they had their own lives now, and he would be little less a part of those as a memory than he was as a distant presence. And they would still have their mother. He remembered when his own father died. He felt the absence, but not so much as he did when his mother died a few years later. Maybe it didn’t matter which parent went first. As long as one remained, there was someone who had known you longer than you had known yourself and who would always be genuinely interested in every detail of your life. He was glad that the children would still have their mother.

He had not told her, either. They did not keep in touch. So, she would learn from the children, once he told them. He did not look forward to calling them.

His wife knew, his current wife. She had not been married before but had a home of her own, and so he had moved in with her. No children—they had agreed it was past time for that. They had a good, close relationship, the kind that maturity offers perhaps in compensation for the more intense passions of youth, and he loved her more as the years went by.

She had not taken the news well at first. He guessed he would have wondered if she had. She accepted the reality of it after a while, as one must, and they came to treat his impending demise in a sportive way, forced though the bantering might be. Gallows humor, though the gallows in his case were very real and not distant.

He heard the garage door open, and shortly she walked into the room, smiling as usual, and came over to the bed to fluff his pillow and kiss him on the forehead.

“How’s the pain?” she asked. “Still bearable?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The pills do a good job. Better than I deserve.” Actually, they took away the acute pain, but there remained a constant ache and therefore restlessness, which competed with immobilizing weariness, so that he kept shifting uncomfortably in the bed—but not by much.

“I’m fixing lunch,” she said. “What would you like to eat?”

“Oh, it doesn’t matter; I don’t get hungry just lying here.”

“Look,” she said, “even the condemned have to eat, and they get to choose their last meals.”

“So I have to come to the table even if death is at the door?”

“I could bring you a tray,” she said, “but the exercise might do you good.”

“I guess I’d have to eat your cooking either way.”

“I hope it isn’t my cooking that has done you in.”

“Oh, you’ll find someone else willing to eat it,” he said. “My chair at the table won’t be empty for long.”

She drew back at that and made an effort to steady herself, her lips trembling. It had not been the right thing to say.

“But,” she said, as the tears came, “I don’t want someone else. I belong to you.”

At that he was suddenly stilled, staring at her as she sobbed without reserve, her face abject yet now seemingly radiant. His love, his life. Then he too wept.

Don Smith has retired from a career filled with writing a lot of memoranda, reports, plans, manuals, and professional articles. He published a few stories years ago, has started writing fiction again, and has now published a couple more. He tends to focus on the small dramas that mark our daily lives.

Email: smithdon37[at]sbcglobal.net

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