The Slope of a Line

So many mistakes. The heaviest of them rests on Rattle’s thighs and flattens its palms atop his chest. The rush of the freeway nearby surges through his veins. He once raged down Route 23 at criminal speeds. He was sinewy and strong then, steering the straight line.

Rattle is hooked up to tubes and beeping machines in a room with a moaning roommate and the non-stop noise of a flat-screen. He lives compartmentally: rest and forced interactions with dry-eyed, over-sanitized nurses who serve him spongy, beige foods. He waits.

All of the nurses look tired except one—an over-attentive young man who calls himself Sandy, whose nametag says Sanderson, who is currently knocking on the door as he opens it.

“Hello, gentlemen,” he says. His eyes lock on Rattle. “Lovely morning today, absolutely lovely. Would you like me to open the blinds?”

Rattle doesn’t answer. The roommate grunts, turning over as much as possible to face the wall. For all his moaning, this roommate will be fine. He had gallbladder surgery and will be released in a day or two. For all his moaning, he is not the one in this room who will soon die. His family visits daily. Sometimes the kid or wife throws Rattle a casual smile that he absorbs like sunlight.

Sandy eases open the blinds, pausing briefly in case of protest, but Rattle welcomes the lines of warmth on his multi-colored skin. Many of his tattoos are fading, now a greenish gray, especially the number 18 penned jaggedly on his thigh, a gang symbol, a mark—least significant to his life but most problematic. Others are holding up; two birds for his children, a tree. A snake. He blinks against the newly light-washed room.

Rattle is actively dying, charging toward death. Every sensory shift is felt more acutely than the day prior. He’d planned on being buried long ago, on an island off the coast of Honduras, but due to the unexpected accumulation of years, even decades, he will die here in Toledo, Ohio, between the Maumee River and a barrage of abandoned buildings.

Suffering from slow, deep stomach bleeding that cannot be stopped, Rattle was supposed to be moved to hospice yesterday, but he is headed there today instead. He is on pain medications that rival those he used to crave, only he feels no rise and no relief; he feels only the shutting down of machinery.

“I want to write my own obit,” Rattle tells Sandy.

“Then write it,” he says, handing Rattle a pen.

Rattle shakes. He would be survived by two people he selfishly considers his children, and neither would know till after. Alex was not kin by blood, but he was Rattle’s son nonetheless. The boy, for his part, wouldn’t come anyhow. The boy is lost, somewhere in San Pedro Sula, trying to create a sturdy life on shaky ground. Elena is here in Ohio, somewhere near enough the suburbs, but she’d reached out too many times before Rattle was incarcerated.

He never wrote them. Rather, he had, but the letters were never mailed. He was fearful of the secrets in his lifeline, worried about his influence, especially on his granddaughter. His absence was his greatest gift. Rattle saw Emma once. She was a plump little bundle then, swathed in pink and white, a girl whose eyes surveyed the room that day, settling on everything but him.

Rattle opens his eyes, as though to see if he can. Then pen has been removed from his grip and placed on the side table. Sandy saunters into the bathroom and then out; the scarf around his neck is tucked neatly into his scrubs.

“Nod off there, snake man?” Sandy asks with a half-smile. He reaches for the scarf when Rattle looks up, to ensure it is secured and in place. There is a glimmer to it, some sparkly strings weaved into the edges that catch the light and dance along the shadows. “They’ll be coming in to get you soon.”

“Wait. You’re not coming? Did I sign the papers that say you won’t keep me alive for no reason?” Rattle asks.

“You did. We’re taking you somewhere more comfortable. Like I promised, remember?”

“If you’re lying, I’ll come back and haunt you.”

Rattle’s voice sounds plucked, reverberating in a hesitant way. When he arrived, it was still strong and low, intent.

“You think people don’t threaten me with that on a daily basis?” Sandy says. “I have a ghost entourage.”

“How can one man fuck up so many times in his life and make it this far?” Rattle asks.

Rattle asked the same of Sandy last Friday, the day of his eightieth, when there was still talk about surgery—when there was still hope. Sandy had responded by smuggling in a cupcake which, Rattle was pretty sure, had enough TCH in it to put a lesser, healthier man in catatonic shock.

“An outlier, almost ten years beyond the average of a healthy man,” Sandy says again.

For bikers, eighty is damn near double the average. For men in prison, for smokers, for red meat eaters, for people with no close relationships, for those with a history of addiction—Rattle knows he’s an outlier, alright, but this doesn’t answer his question. “The good die young,” he says.

“Original theory you got there.” Sandy waves the comment off and crouches down to add,

“You’ll like our comfortable unit, doll. You’ll like it much better. Better company.”

Rattle notices the way Sandy looks at him, into him, as though searching for a map or clue to something. “At least I have a theory,” he says.

When he closes his eyes, sleep washes over him. Dreams come rapidly, as though they’ve been ready to pounce. Sleep consumes most days now. Some days his dreams feel more near to reality than wakefulness. In dreams, it is easier to breathe. He sees his children without regret.

Rattle dreams of the past, memories like film that bends and skips time. His children are shadows, running toward him. The world is a Dali painting; Rattle stands on a clock.

When he falls back to consciousness, he falls back to pain. Sandy is gone, and the room is warmer; it has two windows, not one, the feel of a cottage in the woods, not a hospital extension hugging 23. There is a burnt orange wall to his left, a couch and a chair by one window where he can gaze out. No roommate, no groaning, no beeping or blaring.

Each blink comes with sleep now, and the dreams blend with air and are breathed in. He can make out the fuzzy lines of a shape by the window. The woman sitting there is hunching forward, looking into open palms. Rattle falls, only to rise into a world where he could still hop on his motorcycle, where he is fully alive, hair blowing behind him, the wind rapping against his face and loosening the skin on his arms.

The slope of a line determines a trajectory. Rattle’s descent is steep. He dreams of rapping on Elena’s door; he sees his granddaughter again, a tiny bundled thing wrapped up like a package. His daughter, angling herself in the doorway is a wall, a barrier. He sees Alex, calling him father then nodding, losing himself in drink, becoming a wall.

When he wakes to find Sandy gently dabbing up the sweat from his forehead, he searches the room for a clock. He wants to ask the time but can’t find the words.

Some patients get to Sandy. His mother had been a nurse, able to put up a barrier made of detached niceties that allowed her to deliver bad news, pierce the skin, replace an IV bag, wipe away blood speckles from the cheeks and chest of lung damaged cancer patients. She’d taught him to insist they call him by a different name, to create an alter ego.

“Think of yourself as a sort of superhero,” she’d told him. “We usher people to health, and sometimes, oftentimes in our unit, we usher them toward the next world.”

He’d lost the ability to see himself this way when he’d lost her, but today he tried.

This patient, who asked Sandy to call him Rattle—the embodiment of ego armament—collapsed in a mall seven days ago, a warm oatmeal cookie in his hand, his body covered in tattoos. He collapsed again behind the wheel, lost control. When a truck hit, his insides crammed together in an unsolvable puzzle. He occupied room 402 for three days because community hospice was full. He’s been in and out of a consciousness since.

Sandy visits the still, small room with its warm paints and pumpkin smells. This is not Sandy’s unit, but he is here because he has to be. There is something about this patient—the tough guy, the vulnerability, the apology. He is an ex-banger, an addict. But he is also an old man who has no one else.

Sandy imagines his own father, the runner, the lack of remorse for never being what he was meant to be, and he imagines how much it must weigh on a person at the end—that armor. “It is not the children who miss out,” his mother used to tell him.

“So many mistakes,” the patient whispers. His body, a vaguely familiar collage of regret and hope. His blood is releasing slowly, filling his organs, but with the pain meds there is little physical anguish. So Sandy is told. There are only thoughts, the experiences that linger. More pain than medicine can reach.

The patient wakes as Sandy sits cross-legged in a chair, staring out at the courtyard during lunch. The patient says hello with timidity, he asks who is there, he asks, “Are you my granddaughter?” When Sandy stands, the patient says, “I’m glad you’re back.”

There are no clocks in this room, nothing to tick. Sandy is sure to be late to return. Walking over to the man whose skin is like thin paper and eyes like milky glass is a journey in of itself.

“Right here,” Sandy says. Rattle repeats his daughter’s name over and over. This, the same patient who insisted Sandy not call anyone, that there was no one to call.

Sandy wipes the man’s head gently with a towel. “They’re here,” he repeats and presses two fingers into the patient’s sternum, just firm enough that he knows the impact will be felt. The patient’s chest responds by expanding completely, if for an instant, before deflating. His eyes become fixed on a distant corner of the room.

Sandy feels the man’s shoulders soften, a predictable thing, and glances at his smartwatch to get the time. He eases the eyelids shut and stands, noting the peace on the man’s resting face before shutting the door for the last time.

Jen Knox lives in San Antonio, where she teaches fiction and directs the Writers-in-Communities Program at Gemini Ink. She is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press, 2015), and her short work can be found in The Adirondack Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Crannóg Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Istanbul Review, PANK, Per Contra, Room Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. Find Knox here: