The Whisky Blot
Journal of Literature, Poetry, and Haiku
Three weeks ago, August 25th, just before the Labor Day holiday, my computer buzzed loud enough to awaken the household—Mr. Jimmy Smith, DOB—, SS#--, your EOL score has reached one hundred! Please read below and follow the instructions….
The news is blunt and painful, painful like a Band-Aid I should have removed in the shower but forgot. I feel well despite my slowly progressive neurologic illness, but the concept of “feeling well,” is not integrated into the Formula.
The EOL (End of Life) Formula (this is an example): three points for pancreatic cancer multiplied by your age over one hundred, minus factors such as your BMI (body mass index), treatment possibilities, family history, and other variables depending on the minutiae provided in the Formula. Don’t worry about calculating your score, the Formula does it for you. On your 21st birthday you are “chipped” or “E-LODED,” as it is called. There are no exceptions, the scar on your upper right thigh is universal. Your score arrives on your computer the first Tuesday of every month ad infinitum until you reach the magic or tragic number of one hundred, when you are graciously asked to end your life for the good of humanity.
Too many cars, too many people, too few hospital beds, too little food, too little potable water—a third of Medicare money, billions of dollars, is spent on our final six months of life—our way of life is unsustainable. The sticking point is numbers. Zero population growth is a laudatory but difficult goal. Begetting is inherent in our biological heritage, just like walking or talking. There is no need for instruction. Deciphering the tangled novels of William Faulkner or the plays of Tennessee Williams, contraception, religious exception to abortion, abstinence, anti-government beliefs, those need to be taught.
The Formula plots the intersection between productivity and obsolescence. When the input (birthrate) is too high, the output requires adjusting. At a score of one hundred, societal support stops. There are no further medications or hospital care. Simple is the order of the day: a pinewood coffin, no formaldehyde, and a quiet farewell. There are small groups of deniers who hoard their medications and live off the land, but they are misfits and outcasts. They are not my kind of people.
As youngsters, we had gathered in August after summer camps and summer jobs ended and lazed at beaches and in each other’s homes, boys slicking their hair, flexing their muscles, and eyeing the girls with their new bumps and curves. Now I sit on the deck soaking up the late summer sun as if it has a short half-life and reminisce about my past as the days bleed into the night. The sun and warmth hold while I fathom the reality of my coming death. Obituaries attest to dying peacefully in one’s sleep—I will soon discover the truth. I am chilled with the memory of my wife and our lost love and the need to finish our conversations that I trust will occur in the hereafter.
It was my second year of teaching, school started in ten days, and my lesson plans were complete. Sandra, our new science teacher, who held up well to the scrutiny at teacher orientation day, attracted me with her confident smile. After we had made our introduction and the dissection of the weather and baseball, I asked her to join me for dinner. I’m the math teacher, I boasted, my room is across from yours and I’ll be there when you need common sense advice or for that matter advice about anything and being a math wizard, I can figure out the gratuity and the accuracy of a dinner bill without even needing a calculator. She gave me a nod and a half smile like someone recognizing the words of a favorite song—and it had been a long day and I appeared safe.
We walked outside without urgency, the grounds were green and lush, the air fresh from a late August rain, and the late afternoon shadows making us a couple. I know a good Italian restaurant, Sandra said, and you won’t have to struggle with the math, they automatically add 18% to the dinner check.
Months later, after dinners and picnics, and laughs, joyous laughs, I awakened one morning realizing that I didn’t wish to live without her sweetness and intelligence, but it was Sandra who whispered I love you so quietly it was as if she was telling me the time of the day.
Sandra collapsed after the rupture of a brain aneurysm that had dwelled silently during our years of serenity. Her final Score made public—thirty becoming one hundred. The holdouts accused me of homicide as I arranged final plans. The groundbreaking, intrusive and irreversible legislation behind the Formula ignored the grief when arranging the death of your loved one.
My computer overlooks the garden with the show-off rose bushes and the bird feeder that is inherently incapable of keeping the squirrels away but spreads enough seeds to attract the birds. I reflect on my past and assess the future, the latter sliding backward and morphing into the present. Blue jays, cardinals, robins, house sparrows, my garden is laced with the choir of late summer songs.
The pre-Formula times offered hope with surgery and newer medicines for Sandra and physical therapy for me. But my enthusiasm for life has weakened. I only have enough strength to oversee the planning and benediction of my funeral. Old age mellows expectations and questions my dreams about the afterlife; although perhaps there is a teacher’s section up there or maybe I’ll find that love triumphs like in Brigadoon.
I carry at least one disappointment in my old age: My piano skills are amateurish. I will admonish my parents—they should have made me practice more, but in my dreams, I play like Dave Brubeck. I don’t know why I only play the Beatle song “Hey Jude,” but maybe because it was easy and slow, and don’t be bad, don’t be afraid, and don’t let me down resonated with my life.
Hanging on the wall to the left of my computer, but always in my sight, is Berenice Abbott’s black and white photograph of Edna St. Vincent Millay wearing a jacket and tie. Vincent, as she was called, and I burned the candle at both ends in our youth. The first woman awardee of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1923, she was widely popular, reading her poems in front of packed audiences often picturing death as “the shutting away of the living hearts in the hard ground.”
For rain, it hath a friendly sound
To one who’s six feet underground:
And scarce the friendly voice or face,
A grave is such a quiet place.
There is no further need to purchase lifetime warranties or hire a personal life coach when death will be several dry martinis away—and I understand now and with great certainty that it is best to leave before the candle becomes completely dark.
Michael Ellman is a retired physician from The University of Chicago and a writer. His collection of published short stories, Let Me Tell You About Angela, is an Eric Hoffer Award Finalist. His novel, Code-One Dancing, is an Indie Award winner and describes the intersection between a resident physician and the Chicago mob.
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