Monday, May 02, 2005


In Which I Hear Voices Too...

The heart attack that killed my uncle David was sudden, and a complete shock to everyone, except David.

He hated doctors and had an extreme reaction to them, as a rule. He always swore they were out to kill him, and had never seen any evidence to the contrary.

Not that he had a regular doctor. And not that any doctor would have him for a patient. Not after he broke the nose of the least one. He told me that story the last summer I ever worked for him as a trash collector.

"Bab-ra made me go in for a physical. Knew I shouldn't a done it, but I did," he told me. "Got in there and they made me take off all my goddamn clothes. So there I am, bollicky bare-ass, and soon as my back was turned, what do you think that bastard doctor did?"

"What?" I asked.

"Jammed his hand up my ass. Jammed his whole arm, actually, all the way up to his elbow. Goddamn sumbitch pre-vert! Said it was normal. Normal my ass!"

My aunt Barbara was listening to the story from the next room and felt compelled to provide commentary.

"Now David, you know the doctor was supposed to examine your prostate. It's called a rectal exam and it IS normal."

David looked affronted. "He never said nothing about running his arm up my ass. All's he said was, 'Turn around David. We need to perform a dee-aree. What in hell was that?"

"David, he said D.R.E. That's a digital rectal exam."

"Why didn't he just say, 'Brace yourself, ol' fella, I gotta squeeze your prostrate and the only way in is through the escape hatch? Nossir, without so much as a by-your-leave, he just rammed his arm in, right up to his shoulder."

"What did you do?" I asked. Barbara sighed and put a hand to her forehead.

"Soon as he got clear, I turned around and dubbed him. Right in the nose. He's lucky that's all I broke. Sumbitch."

So it was a good 10 years before David could be dragged into a doctor's office again. By that time, he was in his early 60s and had been having palpitations and was a little short of breath, so the doctor had ordered a stress test. When David found out that he'd have to run on a treadmill, among other things, he just shook his head. "They're gonna goddamn kill me," he told aunt Barbara. And he turned out to be right.

Everything about their visit to the hospital that day rubbed David the wrong way. For a start, David had not cared for the orderly who hurried them into a cubicle that morning and barked at David to change out of his patchwork overalls and into a hospital gown. The man was as big as David, but much younger. He had a brusque manner about him and was overbearing to the nurses, David observed as he and Barbara waited.

David wasn't exactly a gentleman, but in his life there was one thing that set him boiling faster than anything else, and that was a man who was rough--in word or deed--with women. I mentioned before that he was famous for single-handedly beating the town bully, Joe Philbrick, and his friends at a dance one night. What I didn't mention was that the fight started because David didn't like the way Joe was manhandling the girl he had brought. Joe's girlfriend was a young woman named Barbara, by the way.

Nearly 50 years later, that woman remained in the waiting room while David followed the rude orderly back to the room where the test would begin. He gave her a wink and said, "Next time you see me come out that door, it might be feet first." It was the last thing he said to her before he died.

I was living in Chicago when I got the news. I tried to imagine my uncle hooked up to monitors, in a sterile exam room, running on a hospital treadmill, doing something he must have absolutely hated doing.

In the middle of the test, he clutched his arm as though he'd had a muscle spasm, and then fell right over. The nurse who was monitoring him was by his side in a moment. She couldn't detect a pulse. She was about to begin CPR when the orderly came in and started hollering. He yelled at the nurse to get away from David, and when she was slow in answering, he put a hand on her and pushed her roughly aside. She let out a surprised scream. A second later, so did the orderly.

Because that was when David opened his eyes and shot up from the floor with a great whooping gasp.

As soon as he caught his breath, he bellowed "You get your goddamn hands off my wife!" Then in his confusion, ol' Dubba let fly one of his hamlike fists and punched the orderly in the side of his head. The guy slid across the room and lay in a heap, blood trickling from his ear. David looked over at the stunned nurse. "You all right Bab-ra?" he called. Then he lay back down on the floor, swearing the whole time. When two more nurses showed up with the crash cart, they weren't sure whom to take care of first, the cursing man on the floor, or the unconscious orderly.

"So you weren't really dead," I said, speaking to David on the phone later that week, when he'd finally been released from the hospital.

"Ol' fella, I was deader 'n dead," he insisted. "Those machines made that wailing noise just like on TV. That little nurse said later there weren't no heartbeat. That heart attack killed me, I tell ya," he said, then paused. "And it were somethin, by gorry!"

David had always had a connection with the mystical. As I came to learn over our summers working together, David's great-aunt, the local witch in their village in Maine, had raised David from a toddler until he was 10. When she died, David lived by himself in a cabin in the woods for another couple of years. Aunt Barbara said growing up alone like that probably caused David to talk to himself as much as he did. But David claimed his great-aunt's spirit hung around, keeping an eye on him. "Eventually, she just got to be a voice in my head, telling me what to do when I weren't sure," he had explained once.

Aunt Barbara took a more philosophical view of my uncle's apparent communing with the dead. "We all have voices in our heads," she said one time, when we had been discussing her husband's eccentricities. "When your conscience speaks up, that's a voice in your head, isn't it? They used to say that the voice that told you right from wrong was your guardian angel. David just chooses to believe it's one of his dead relatives looking out for him." She paused, cocked her ear. "Who's to say he's wrong? I know I sometimes hear my father--your grandfather--talking. I don't have a conversation with him like David might, you understand. But I'll hear a saying of his, or some piece of advice he used to give me. When you get old enough, you may do the same you know, and then it won't sound so crazy."

But on the day he died for those few moments, David didn't just hear the voice of his great-aunt. "Yessir, I was dead as a fart on that floor," he went on as we talked on the phone. "And then I flew right up in the air. Bollicky bare-ass, I was. I saw the nurse running in, but I went right past her. I saw Bab-ra in the waiting room. And next thing I know, I was up over the interstate and coming into town, right over Nichols Hill. Saw the whole town right underneath me, like it was one of them model train set-ups. I saw the lake, saw the cottage. Even saw the trailer, although your folks moved it a long time ago. It were there, though. I saw the marsh, where Philprick drove his old Hudson into the drink one night--it's still down there. You know I pissed in that gas tank? I did! That's what made it stall that night and the stupid bastard coasted right into the marsh."

I had never heard my uncle talk so much. And I was never so glad to hear his voice. Tears were rolling down my cheeks. From laughter, you understand. From laughter.

"Anyways, it dawns on me that I'm goddamn dead. Doctors finally killed me, like I always knew they would. And then here comes Aunty. I seen her a ways off, under the water in the marsh, moving like a fish in a dress. And then by Jesus, out she comes and up right next to me, dry as a bone. 'Well, I guess this is it,' I says to her. 'If you're here, I must be a goner, ain't I?'

"And then she says to me, 'David, you get off your dead ass and get back there. Somebody's muckled onto Bab-ra!' And just like that, I was back on the floor, and that great bag of shit was shoving the nurse. I got a mite confused there for a second, but that nurse didn't seem to mind. Them girls took good care of me while I was there, gettin' over being killed."

Counting that time, David, now in his 70s, has had three heart attacks, but only two have killed him, and only one killed him long enough for him to have a near-death experience like the one he described.

Barbara retired as postmaster of our town about 9 years ago, and not too long after that, David turned his rubbish route over the Dallas, the young man who had cleared a field with me all those years ago. I hear Dallas doesn't have quite the luck finding treasures that David and I did, but he enjoys his work.

David sold his land development business and all its holdings a few years back. "Cashed out" he called it. He sold off his road equipment. The rusted-out remnants of that old chain-drive dump truck went to the scrap heap, a fitting end for our old garbage truck. David eventually sold the cottage, and he and Barbara now divide their year between summers in Maine at a cottage not far from where David grew up, and winters in Arizona, near one of their kids.

The selling of the cottage was a hard thing for me to bear. My son was just born at the time, and the company Her Lovely Self had worked for went out of business while she was on maternity leave, so there was no way we could have afforded to buy the place, but I dearly wanted to. I have no doubt my uncle would have given me decent credit terms, but there was no way he'd have given me a break on the price (I was only his nephew, you know!) It would have been poetic if the comics I had bargained for all those years ago had been worth enough to buy the cottage, but they weren't. Not quite.

And so all the people and things I remember from those strange, wonderful summers in that strange, wonderful town are gradually vanishing. In time, they will be gone. But not completely. All things and all people who go away leave behind an echo. I know that some day, if I listen hard enough, those echoes will form words I can hear.

When I do hear those words, I know I'll hear them spoken in a voice that sounds just like my uncle David.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I absolutely love this post. I was braced for a sad story when I read the first paragraph, then I was laughing my ass off.I'm happily surprised to find out that David is still alive and kicking and enjoying his twilight years. You ended it with a bit of melancholy and truth that just made me feel like all was right with the world.
Awesome story. The distinct personalities really come through clearly. I don't get how you can be so prolific, yet so darn good at the same time.
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