Sunday, December 20, 2015

Poetic Justice: A short story

By William Lazarus

Evan Delacourt knew he was dying.  He could feel energy simply draining from his body, although his senses seemed acute.  He clinically analyzed his surroundings as if making notes on a patient. He could still scent the medicinal odor that leeched onto him at the hospital and remained even after his doctors sent him home.  His vision was cloudy, but still working.  He no longer could lift his head from his pillow, but stared upward at the overhead light and the spinning fan in his bedroom.  The moving blades created almost a kaleidoscope of images, visible for only a split second during every revolution. 

He could hear someone sniffling softly to his left.  His wife, he thought.  Someone came into the room and touched his leg gently in greeting.  That could be his son, Delacourt decided.  He would have acknowledged the caress, but could not.  All he could manage was a brief tear from his left eye.  It tricked down his face.  She dabbed at it with a soft tissue as she wept herself.

“He’s crying,” she murmured. 

“He never cried,” his son said.  “He was always so stern, like granite.”

“He’s crying,” his wife insisted.

Delacourt expected to see his life flash before him, but nothing similar happened.  Instead, he had one thought continually echoing through his mind: why had he failed as a writer?  It played over and over.  He did not want to write a novel or a play.  He just wanted to write a good poem. He almost smiled at the thought. 

“Is he in pain?” his wife asked.  No one answered.

Just metaphorically, Delacourt told her silently.  He wrote her poems, but everything he contributed to literary magazines came back with kindly and firm rejection letters.  Something was always missing.  He didn’t know what.  The poetry seemed good enough, but no one liked it.  He wrote poems for his wife, for her birthday, their anniversary and once even for Christmas.  He left each one in a folder where she would see it first thing in the morning.  He knew she read them, but she would just thank him and leave the poem where it was.  He kept all the poems in a folder, but she never asked to see any of them again or even what happened to them.

Writing a good poem became an obsession.  He wasn’t sure why.  Maybe it was because he had never really failed at anything.  He wanted to be a doctor and had succeeded.  He had built a good practice, treating heart disease.  He wrote multiple articles, all published in leading journals.  Even his golf game flourished a byproduct of a competitive spirit and hours of practice. However, his poetry languished. 

He studied good poems; he even took a couple of night classes in poetry, although he didn’t tell his wife what he was studying.  He wrote whenever he could, often just 15 minutes during lunch or while preparing some report.  A line would pop into his mind; a word someone said would initiate a thought.  The source didn’t matter.  He would quickly record it.  Later, he would play with it and try to match it to some other poetic sentence.  Nothing ever did.  As a result, his writing file on his computer remained stuffed with one-liners and feeble attempts at an entire poem.

None of that existed anymore.  Before going into his oncologist’s office for one last visit two days ago, he erased that file.  He did so with great sadness, but was fully aware that the time for puzzling over such lines was over. 

Nevertheless, Delacourt could not escape the clutches of poetry.  It was his outlet, his way to escape the intense study needed to succeed and to stay on top in medicine. The obsession lingered as his energy waned.

His wife knew something of his interest, but no one else did.  Poetry was not a topic discussed with fellow physicians.  Nurses didn’t care.  He didn’t write any poems to them anyway. They were his assistants, not his friends.  At work, he was strictly professional, intense, somber.  Once, he did write a brief poem for a retirement party, and everyone seemed surprised that the dour, driven cardiologist could produce a few light lines.  However, Delacourt was fully aware that his eight-line effort was nothing more than a momentary spark, quickly forgotten.

He felt his head sink into the soft pillow.  He had seen too many patients die not to be aware what was happening.  He thought fear might overtake him, but no emotion did.  He was ready for whatever came next.  Besides, he had no control.  If religion’s insistence on a heaven or hell was correct, then he would face that judgment when it came.  Besides, he felt so exhausted.  He simply wanted to sleep.  The tumor in his brain was taking over, and there was nothing he or modern medicine could do about. 

Like everyone, he asked his doctor how much time he had left.  The oncologist shrugged.  “Not long,” he finally replied, knowing Delacourt would accept the verdict with stoic intensity.

He stared again at the ceiling.  There was no pain.  There was just emptiness, as though his brain was draining memories and thoughts the way someone who was moving empties a house.  Then, a strange line suddenly burst into his head, the way a diagnosis sometimes did or plans for treatment.  This time, however, he thought the lines of a poem.

            When time moves not at all
            Like a ship on a doldrum sea
            Or a drunk, against a wall,
            Eyes open, breathing heavily.

Delacourt blinked.  He needed a pen and paper.  He needed to write this down.  More words flowed through him.  In an instant, he saw the present, past and future wrapped up in a few lines of poetry.  In that instant, he was Dunne and Shakespeare, Pope and Milton; he was Elliot and Pound, Khayyam and Wordsworth.  He was Shelley, Byron, Keats, Longfellow, Lovelace and every poet.  He felt their spirits unite in him in the same way he could feel the rhythm of the words as they flowed, unchecked through the empty shelves of his mind.

Paper, he cried silently as the words cascaded through him.

“He’s struggling,” his wife said, touching his shoulder.  “There, there,” she soothed.

A pen, Delacourt wailed, crying in mute desperation as words raced through him.  He was on the second stanza, the third.  The words blazed in front of his eyes like neon lights.  He could scroll backwards and forwards.  They remained visible, extending in dark lines back across a flat plain and then ahead, growing slowly.  Each word appeared as if the surface had been stripped off to reveal the gem beneath.

He was not writing, but revealing, the way a sculpture would unlock the image in a stone block. 

No longer did the fan revolve above him. He saw only dazzling words, a rainbow of colors as each syllable seemed to have its own hue.  For the first time, he understand how a great writer felt as the words emerged in a burst of color and appeared to glow in front of him.  He could not reach up and touch the words.  He couldn’t even acknowledge their existence, but he felt their presence, their shimmering glow.

After a moment, he relaxed as the words tumbled on and on.  There seemed no end, a thought that elated him.

“He’s calming down,” his wife said.  “This must be so hard on him.”

He wanted to tell her what he was seeing.  He wanted her to understand that, finally, he knew that it didn’t matter.  For this moment, he was free of social demands, insurance forms and rigid conformity.  He could descend from the pedestal patients forced him to climb; he could drop the mask maintained for colleagues and staff.  He could step away from his disinterested wife and his ingrate son.  He was the sole audience of this magnificent show.  As it rolled by him, unfettered, he relished every moment, overwhelmed with unfamiliar and long-suppressed emotions.

He felt warmth spread through him.  Words rolled through his veins, filling him with color.  He could taste the spicy red, the mellow green, the tangy yellow, the succulent black, the chewy brown, the juicy purple and the crystalline blue.  He closed his mouth.  If he let the wondrous shades emerge, they would no longer be his.  Instead, he absorbed them, allowing himself to be overwhelmed with their richness.

Then, abruptly, he realized the poem was ending.  With that, saturated, he sank back into his pillow.

The two people in the room almost stopped breathing, too, as they watched Delacourt slowly lose the pink coloring suffusing his face. Delacourt’s wife buried her head in her hands for a moment.  Then, with tear-streak cheeks, she kissed her husband’s cold hand.

 “He’s gone,” Delacourt’s son said softly, standing up. Knowing what he was supposed to do, he bent over his mother and hugged her.  She stood and embraced him.

“I’ll tell the others,” the son said and almost tiptoed from the room.

Delacourt’s wife sat down.  She studied her husband’s face.  He was always such a serious man, working so many hours, always devoted to his patients, his career.  He shunned her help.  Even the bits of humanity that came through his poetry were limited and fleeting.  If there was one consolation, she thought, for the first time, there at the end, finally, he seemed happy.


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