Marek had a few nights left in him at best. That much he knew. For some reason his illness had given him that little bit of kindness. But it was his secret and Marek was keeping it. He would soon be kaput.
The doctors and nurses that hovered over him, even after a month in the hospital, would just have to figure it out for themselves. It wasn’t his job to tell them what he knew. He was tired of their endless tests with names that he could never remember. Marek was sick of the shameless tubes that poked and probed his body with no sense of decency.
All Marek had to rely on was his still tight Polish gut. It was a good gut, and it hadn’t been wrong yet, and he saw no reason why it would start now. After all this was the same gut that had found his sweetie for him, the same one that had told him to get out of Poland just before things got bad. So why would it be wrong now?
Marek knew that some kind of revolt was going on inside his body. He just couldn’t prove it the way doctors proved things, but he didn’t have to. He knew.
“Back in the Old Country if a Doctor wanted to know what was wrong he just –“
“Shhh!” Barked another bitter dying patient in the bed to the left of him.
“Sorry.” Marek muttered and bit down on his perpetually dried, cracked lip.
He had to do that a lot now. Chewing his lip was the only way he could stop himself from grumbling out loud, which he did constantly. Marek blamed his annoying new habit on his extended hospital incarceration.
This is not where you go to get better, Marek thought. Here all you do is mark your time, and hope to hell that you don’t get the angry nurse at bedtime. Besides, how can anyone get better if they don’t even know what day it is? There’s no Monday, no mid-week. Not even a Friday night to look forward to. The lights are always on, the windows are never opened, and everything smells like a janitor’s closet. Every day is the exact same.
Marek’s enforced stay for the past few weeks had transformed him into a tired, old man. A lifetime of hard work had kept his outside strong, but inside, his body did what it wanted to do and not what he expected it to do. For some unknown reason, a general strike had been called by his nervous system after talks with the rest of his body broke down.
Marek fiddled with his bed for the fifth time that afternoon and thought about that day, that stupid morning weeks ago that had forced him to become an unwilling guest in the critical-care unit. He closed his eyes to help him remember. The strange thing about his hospital stay was that it had sharpened his memory. Now, almost any moment from his past could come flooding back to him with only the barest of nudges.
Mrs. Hunnemacher’s broken and neglected lawnmower lay on his well-worn, but neat, workbench for the fourth time that summer. The blades were thoroughly ensnared with branches instead of clumps of grass, because of his neighbor’s stupid habit of cutting anything that fell on to her lawn regardless of its shape or size. For her, the lawnmower was some kind of portable food processor that should be able to grind anything.
He had just started to clean out the poor machine when it happened. At first, he thought it was a cramp, just a chest muscle that needed to twitch a bit. But then it hit him again – only this time it was a solid whomp that dropped Marek right down to his hairy knees.
In the fraction of a second just before he lost consciousness, Marek thought that he had been transported to a circus that he had loved as a child, the one that always set-up their huge tents in the middle of the dry field a few miles from his house. Someone had grabbed the hammer used for the strongman game, the one that had a bell at the top of the tower – the high striker, and was trying to ring it. But instead of hitting the lever at the base of the tower someone was taking a swing at him.
Step right up and test your strength, hit the old man and win a fabulous prize! Impress your sweetie with your feats of strength! Why is the operator saying that? Is that what they did at the circus these days? Marek thought just before he passed out.
Hours later, Marek was sitting on a paper-lined bench, wearing some kind of smock that let his ass hang out. He looked up, seeing someone who looked to be about fifteen. The young kid had intense acne, and was dressed like a doctor, full of impatience and questions that Marek didn’t understand.
Was this Mrs. Hunnemacher’s grandson? Did he break her lawnmower or something, thought Marek.
After about ten minutes of lecturing from the boy-doctor he understood. He had passed out. A neighbor had found him and brought him to the hospital. But so what? He was still alive. He still could talk; he didn’t drool or mumble like poor Mrs. Krula did. So what was the big deal if he passed out once in a while?
Maybe he could re-do his garage in rubber tiles. Just lay them on all of the floors, heck; they probably sold them for cheap at Costco, especially if he bought them in bulk. That way, if he fell again, his head would just bounce.
It’ll be like exercise, he thought. Maybe I do the whole house in rubber. Why not? Who cares? It’s my house, and my head.
But it was too late for that now. It was a month later, and he was still in the hospital. A battery of tubes in his body made sure of that. One in the still strong arm for his vitamins, another in his nose for his breathing, and even one that they put in for when he had his accidents, which was rare, but still humiliating.
The first few days after his son had admitted him were the hardest. Marek constantly ripped the plastic pipes out of his body. After the third time they strapped him into his bed to force him to stop.
“Don’t you want to live Mr. Putka?” snipped a very plump nurse.
She was large, parts of her spilled out of her uniform as she fixed Marek’s tubes. Why don’t they give this woman a bigger dress, thought Marek.
“Do you think this behavior would make your family proud?” she continued.
Marek shook his head and promised not to pull anything out anymore.
Over the weeks an endless stream of specialists tried to find out what was wrong with Marek. One asked about his chest. Another probed his throbbing legs. And still another, a very short one, asked about his heart, the inside part, not the muscle.
“Did he feel okay?” “Was he tired of life?” “Was he depressed?”
How could he answer such questions? These experts didn’t look old enough to understand. He could tell that by their eyes. They hadn’t experienced a tenth of what he had. And if they were lucky, they never would.
He was just another number in their factory, and that number either did what it was told to do or it didn’t. Marek had worked in enough factories to know how things worked on the line. Everyone had promised he would only be in for a few days, just a couple of tests they said. But, here it was weeks later and still he couldn’t go home.
His family, or what was left of it, came to visit when they could. The visits were always on a Sunday afternoon, cleverly timed just fifteen minutes before his strictly enforced nap. His only child, his son, Marek Jr., who now insisted on going by the name Mark, seemed to barely have time for him.
It all came as no surprise to Marek. It had been like this since his beloved Maria had passed on. The visits, the occasional, rushed dinners, they were all done out of guilt. His son always had to be somewhere or was just dropping in before going somewhere else, like family was a chore that had to be done once a week, like doing the laundry.
Even the few minutes on the Sunday seemed to be too much for his son. It was a shock when his eyes weren’t on his phone checking the scores of some meaningless game.
“Sorry, just another stupid work email,” he would quickly answer when caught.
“I understand. It’s not like it used to be anymore.” Marek replied. But he didn’t understand, not really.
My son, the selfish child, the one I made this way because I couldn’t let him get close, he thought.
What Marek did understand was that for most of his life he had smoked cigars and drank whisky. He always worked hard, survived a world war, and had never been sick for more than a day or two. And yet, here he was, lying in bed and draining away like some kind of inflated emergency raft with a slow leak.
His sweetheart Maria, who had been gone now for almost five years, had grown to respect his nightly ritual of a smoke and a drink. In all of their time together, she had only tried to stop him once. On their first date, Maria had asked her Father to talk to Marek about his habit before they went out. But instead Marek charmed her dad. They spent two hours talking about politics and the novels of Charles Dickens before Mary stormed in and demanded her date back. It would be the last time Mary would ask anyone to speak to Marek about his ritual.
Maria knew his stock, and the people that he came from. My wrinkly mule, she used to call him. It was true, the harder he worked, the better Marek felt. For over fifty years, it had been a proper life; they worked, raised a family and loved each other every day.
But, all of that was gone now, except, of course, his beloved ritual. The only one left who understood these things was his granddaughter, Mary. For some reason, this intense, seventeen-year-old girl knew how life should be. Marek knew that she didn’t approve of his habits. Mary had told him so once a week for almost eleven years – but it never stopped her bear hugs or the surprise visits.
When Mary showed up it was because she wanted to be there, and didn’t have to be somewhere else in twenty minutes. There was never a set time or rhythm to the visits – or at least one that Marek could figure out. When he asked her what made her come, she would just point to her heart, and smile so hard that her eyes would scrunch up.
Even when Marek was admitted to the Hospital she continued to visit him unexpectedly. And like her visits with him at home, she almost always came without her father. On the odd time the two of them came in together, it was awkward. He had always been able to talk to his granddaughter better than his own son.
The last visit, two days ago, had not gone so well. He had made the mistake of telling Mary that maybe her Poppa wouldn’t be around for much longer, that he was getting tired of not being able to look after himself, the blending of the days, and the damn plastic pipes.
“That’s a terrible thing to say. And it isn’t true” she shouted. “You look strong, Poppa. You are always strong!” She marched out before he could see her tears, but he had.