The old man clutched the young man’s arm. He clasped it with both hands as if he were falling off a cliff. In a way he was. In another way, he was burning.
“Every second counts in this life,” he whispered in his hospital gown. He lay in bed, living through machines for too long, long enough to hold on for the young man to get there from miles away.
“What’s that?” the young man said bending over the old man. “I missed it.” The young man could see the mildew growing inside the old man. He could hear the machines pump electric air into him. He saw the old man’s heart skip rocks along the line on a monitor. But he couldn’t concentrate. Why did he take those mushrooms at his buddy’s house an hour ago?
They can win or lose everything in the jerk of an eye. A horse can be killed. He can have a shotgun to the head out of nowhere, just like that. All for a second. All over a second in this world. Tell me that doesn’t matter. Tell me that the car whose brakes gave out for three seconds didn’t matter when the mother wails to no one at the blood of her infant. Tell me!” He gripped the young man’s arm and pulled him closer. All he had in him thrust forth with each word, each breath.
And the young man couldn’t react. His consciousness could only sit there and watch from its theater as the projector and the lights flashed and the booming speakers under his seat rumbled an ancient language.
“Tell me,” the old man went on. “Tell me that it doesn’t matter. Tell me that we have more than just one breath, one whiff of innocence in this world. Tell me that when I was born I was already in debt. Tell me that! Tell me that I was here for nothing, that I left no mark on someone’s soul, that there’s nobody out there walking around, day in and day out, who doesn’t remember my face. Oh, even my face when it was young. I don’t care about my face. I cut it once to give it character. I don’t care about that. I don’t care about faces. Your face, that doctor’s face or that nurse’s face. I don’t care.”
“What do you want to tell me?”
“No! I want you tell me! Tell me how life still works while I’m gone, how maybe it’s better for me to believe that the world is ending so that I can die easy. Tell me that you can’t tell me anything. Tell me that they, those who are and shall ever be rich and wealthy matter more than you and me. Tell me that and do not lie! You cannot lie to me now. Here, as I am. I cannot lie either. I will never lie. That priest who’s there in the other room blessed me for the last time. I didn’t go to church but I was grateful he gave me his blessing. Maybe those in another room over there who don’t believe will simply rot in the casket. Maybe they’ll have a good time as dirt or ash or dust blowing in a careless world or out to sea or drowning in muck when they’re gone. Is that all they want to believe? All there is? Tell me for God’s sake!”
“I don’t know what to say.” The young looked away from the old man and felt something pass by the window. The wind had picked up in the middle of the day and the sun was not yet set. In a flash he saw a sun beyond the clouds dropping over planets he didn’t recognize. He saw the sands of white beaches and the foam of salt which he could taste with his fingertips. The young man saw the room change size and shape with each pulse on the monitor as he saw stars dancing, hopping on the skin of a drum. Then he repeated: “I don’t know what to say.”
“Tell me anyway, please! Please tell me that the rich don’t live exciting lives without cares, that their lives are even more meaningless as ours because they have nothing to do except paint the walls and ceilings of their minds. Tell me that! Please! Tell me that the poor and meek-minded, those who clean and work and sweat to earn their lives, those who pay off their debt to live throughout their whole life, those who know more about the world than any of those who wear the badge of privilege will ever imagine the world to be, tell me that they, they are the ones who deserve nothing in this world. Let the tall step on the backs of the short so that they can reach the highest fruit and have the choice to eat it themselves or share it. Tell me what they’ll do. Tell me who matters when skin and flesh means nothing in the blink of a second.”
The young man’s eyes unfocused once more and he saw back in time when the white paint on the wall dried. He heard the slurp, slipping glide of the brush against the bare wall and the small pasty bubbles that needed one more coat to smooth and let dry. It took just a second, like the old man had said. It took just one second between when the wall was painted and when it was not painted. One second. One second until the final push and a baby on another floor would inhale the stale hospital air and begin to pay its due to a world that gave it life.
“You see what I mean,” the old man said into the eyes of the youth. “Every second counts in this life. So why are you here?”