by Gary Fincke

THE HOSPITAL CALLED at seven p.m. ‘We’re so sorry. Come quickly while there’s time.’

His wife was unconscious, the respirator breathing for her, but he was allowed to stand at a window and stare. For the past decade, she had been someone who watched her diet and exercised more often he did. Surely, he’d thought, she would outlive him, yet now she was dying.

That wasn’t the half of it, he thought. He was younger by eight years than his father had been when his mother died, and his father had lasted twenty-seven years alone, the last ten of them, nearly helpless, dependent upon his unmarried older sister. Their only child lived on the other side of the country. She had four children, a full-time job, and had just turned thirty-one.

He began to speak aloud, praising her. He repeated endearments that included the word “love” as if declaring it would breathe life into the cells of her lungs, the words like antibodies that might rescue her body like firemen. When he saw a doctor approach his wife’s bed, he remembered her wish to be cremated and couldn’t imagine honoring it. Air seemed to vanish. Light-headed, he took deep breaths that made no difference. He gasped.

For a moment, while the doctor seemed to hover close to the ominous tubing, he believed the doctor was there to disconnect her from the machinery. He uttered compliments and wishes. When that wasn’t enough to slow his breathing, he began to tell lies about where she was going, how he looked forward to reuniting, throwing out the old bromides he’d been raised with by his parents, all of them full of light and happiness and forever, saving that impossibility for last before he turned away and nodded at the nurse.

He walked back into the imperfect summer twilight, his wife not close by to remind him about mouth breathing, how it made him look exhausted or stupid, take your pick.

“Like an idiot,” she’d said once, then apologized before he’d even objected. Now he was entering silence. Years of it. He pressed his lips together and concentrated on breathing through his nose.

He remembered his recurring dream about falling up, how levitating was a wonderful sensation until he kept rising, going higher and higher until he screamed in his dream and woke, not knowing whether he had shouted out loud. That dream always reminded him of the photos in the Powers of Ten book he’d bought years ago, the pictures of a couple on a picnic in a park taken from 10 feet, then 100 feet, then 10,000 feet and so on until even the Earth disappears, a distance his dream had never reached. He’d shown the pictures to his wife, but she’d lost interest as soon as the couple disappeared. He was about to be someone he had never imagined – a widower. A walking absence.

Sitting in his car with the air-conditioner running, he decided to call his daughter in California. As he tapped on her number, he realized the time difference meant she would be eating dinner with her family. Her phone, as an example to her young children, was always on mute when they ate together. After one ring, he thought of hanging up. After the second ring, he was panting, inhaling and exhaling through his mouth, what an idiot would think was necessary in order to feed his lungs sufficient air.

oOo

Gary Fincke’s latest collection is The Sorrows (Stephen F. Austin, 2020). His flash fiction has appeared in Wigleaf, Craft, SmokeLong Quarterly, Vestal Review, Atticus Review, and Best Small Fictions 2020. He is co-editor of the annual anthology series Best Microfiction.