Poet ~ Essayist
Mr. Baylor's Escape
It’s only when he’s old and dying that I remember. While I sit by his side day and night, those months I practically live in the blue recliner next to the hospital bed set up in our living room. He gets weaker and demands less and less and his breathing gets noisy. I watch his right leg make a peculiar rhythmic motion, bending at the knee and moving up and down, as if he’s trying to shove something away with his foot. There’s a terrible moan that goes with that shoving, more than a sigh, not quite a cry. It’s hard to listen to it, it reminds me of the sound he used to make when he had an orgasm.
At one point, he calls to me in the dark: “Help me, Lindy.” His voice weak and raspy. It has only half the power of his former voice.
It’s almost dawn, he’s been restless all night, I haven’t slept at all. I get up from the recliner, sit down on the stool next to the bed and lean toward him. My face is so close I can smell the illness rising out of him like steam, an oily mist from his pores, from his breath. “What can I do to help you, Sam?”
“No more pain,” he says, his voice almost like a dog growling, his throat so dry. I don’t know what to say, so I hold his hand until he falls back to sleep, back into the narcotic stupor. Take away his suffering? I’m as helpless as he is, I can’t even help him up to the bathroom anymore, he’s too big, too weak. Surely it must be almost over. Yesterday, the hospice nurse said just a few more days.
I walk into the kitchen and blow my nose, go outside and sit on the back patio, smoke cigarettes as the sun rises huge and red and glaring over the desert just beyond our back yard.
He flirted with the girls to get them to pay attention to the subject at hand: geometry. He told me that from the start so I wouldn’t get jealous. I hated any kind of math and always came into class stoned from my lunch hour out on the field between the high school and the city park. The dope made for good floating through things I didn’t understand. I tried to cruise as much as possible that year. School was boring, my parents were getting divorced. They didn’t seem to care what I did as long as I didn’t bother them.
”I stared down at my notebook and traced the shape I’d drawn on the cover with a blue pen. First, you draw a square, then a line straight out from each edge of the box, then a longer line out from each of those, then a horse-shoe-shaped hump thing on each of the four longer lines, then connect it all together with four huge curved lines. Voila! A pretzel. Who taught me that?
“Lindy!” Mr. Baylor said, louder this time.
My head jerked up, long blonde hair flying in all directions. All the kids snickered. I squinted at Mr. Baylor through the dope haze. He sure was cute, wavy brown hair and mustache, those green eyes, that muscular body from running all the time. He was the cross-country coach, had actually been to the Olympics.
“Lindy, did you do your homework?”
“No, Mr. Baylor. I’m sorry. I didn’t understand it.” I smiled at him from behind my hair.
“And what didn’t you understand, Miss Carter?” He grinned. He said that to me a lot, in class and out. Our private joke. The whole thing was so complicated because he was one of the youth leaders at the church.
“Well …” The bell rang. I looked down at the pretzel I’d drawn. Is this geometry, Mr. Baylor? Is this what you want from me? Is this geometrical enough for you?
I got up and walked out the door to sixth period. Thank God, only one more class, then I could go home and take a nap. I’d been up late with Mr. Baylor the night before, necking in the parking lot of the farthest playing field, out by the freeway frontage road.
After Sam loses his appetite, I eat my meals alone at the kitchen counter. Loud noises irritate him, so I lay one of my red-checkered towels on the counter to deaden the clatter of the dishes. I feel like a thief as I chew my boiled eggs and bread with butter; I don’t even toast the bread because cooking smells bother him. I stop brewing coffee and drink only instant. I never run the dishwasher.
One of the last times I help him to the bathroom, he stands, shaking, in front of the toilet, holding his penis. I reach over and help him tuck it back into his shorts. He grins at me: “Just like having a child in the house, isn’t it?” he says. I help him back into the bed and crank it down the way he likes it, rearrange the pillows behind his back.
“What time is it? Where’s that clock?” he demands. I wind the Big Ben and move it to the bookshelf beside him. He always needs to know exactly what day and time it is, as if by tracking the hours and minutes, by knowing these particulars of the living, he’ll remain a part of it longer.
I sit in the recliner and watch his chest rise and fall as he slides back into sleep.
“What if I got pregnant?”
“You won’t. I’ve had a vasectomy.”
“Where they cut these tubes inside me and no sperm can get out.”
I know he can’t hear me anymore, he hasn’t said a word in days, he’s half in this world, half in the other. There’s nothing I can do for him, except make sure the I-V is dispensing enough medicine to make him comfortable. I’m afraid to leave the room, convinced he’ll be gone when I come back. His children should be here. I don’t want him to die alone.
I sit and stare at him for hours, watching each intake of breath. He doesn’t seem to be struggling, except for his leg. I imagine its movement to be his soul protesting its lack of control, its inability to just kick death away. Or maybe his leg is trying to compete with death, as if he’s running one of the marathons he won as a younger man, the alarm clock next to his bed a stopwatch of sorts.
His hands make slight fluttering movements. I picture his fingers trying to fold death into one of the newspapers he used to throw into driveways on the weekends to supplement his teacher’s salary, while I nursed sick children on the pediatrics ward at St. Joseph’s, before he had me quit because it interfered with my wifely duties. On the weekends, the black newsprint always stained his palms, got under his large square fingernails. I had to remind him to wash up before I’d let him touch me in any sort of intimate way.
The first time we made love was cramped and awkward. Sam fashioned a space in the back of his blue VW bus: sleeping bag, yellow cotton blanket, pillows.
“Almost a real bed,” he told me on the way up to the lake. There were lavender paisley curtains in the back windows that his wife had made. Their kids slept there when they went on trips. They were almost grown now, the youngest, two years older than me.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Just for a drive. We’ll catch up with the others later. You really like the woods, don’t you?”
“Yeah. I wish I could live in the forest. I can’t wait until Father Tom takes us to the Trinity Alps again. Last summer’s backpack trip was great.” Sam winced at the mention of Father Tom. The Trinity trip was the first time Sam paid attention to me. Never around other people, only if he caught me alone somewhere.
I wondered if being late to the church camp-out would look suspicious. I wished I could talk to Father Tom about the whole thing, but Sam told me not to. “He’d never understand, he listens to the damn Pope too much.”
“Are you nervous about this?” Sam asked.
I glanced at him. “Yes.”“Do you want to talk about it some more?”
I didn’t say anything for a while, just stared out the window. The pine trees along the road reminded me of huge green birds with their legs stuck into the earth. Grounded.
“I don’t understand why it has to be a secret.”
Sam pulled over to the side of the road, leaned over and put his arm around me, kissed my neck, then my mouth, a lingering kiss, his tongue giving me the answer. A shiver ran down the middle of my body.
“The way we feel when we do that is what shows us this is right,” Sam said, looking into my eyes. “Making love is a beautiful thing that God created so we can express love. Love is the most creative energy in the universe. I love you. We love each other. It has to be a secret because no one else understands any of that.
”I looked down. “What if someone finds out?”
“No one will find out. Don’t worry.” He smiled at me, tipped my face up with his finger and kissed me again. “Come on. It’s your birthday, Lindy. I want you to remember it for the rest of your life.”
I adored Sam when he talked like that, so gentle the way he always calmed my confusion. Jackson Browne’s “Rock Me on the Water” played on the radio as he pulled the bus back onto the road. I felt the warm energy of his body mingling with mine, like heated water flowing into a swimming pool. He reached for my hand. Soft, invisible electricity moved from his fingers to mine, up through my veins and arteries to my heart. Every once in a while we glanced over at each other at the same moment. I was never more alive than when I was with him. He parked the car way back off the road, in the trees.
Today will surely be his last, he’s been still almost all night. But early in the morning he stirs and his leg starts moving again, his hands struggle with each other, tug at the blanket. I get up and tuck it in around his distended stomach. His eyes open slightly, but I know he can’t really see me. The movement of his leg gets faster and faster, the moans come closer together, then it all slows down and he falls back to sleep like an exhausted child, and all I can hear is his raspy breathing.
Maybe I have it all wrong. Maybe it isn’t death he’s trying to be rid of, maybe it’s life itself he’s attempting to kick away with his restless right leg, trying to throw life away with those fluttering hands. After years of getting whatever he wanted, of working his sexual magic on dozens of women, perhaps he’s welcoming death, not fighting it. Maybe he’s trying to make his life disappear, as if his hands are capable of performing an illusion as powerful as that, a magician’s trick on such a universal scale.
After he got divorced and we’d been married a few years, one of his students committed suicide. She left a note: “He told me he loved me. He told me what we did had God’s blessing. Fuck God.” I remembered the student as a beautiful, red-haired girl with pale skin who’d come to the church youth group a few times and never returned.
The moment he dies seems like just another moment. It’s the morning of his birthday and somehow I know it’s time. I haven’t slept all night, listening to his ragged breathing, unable to shake the feeling that each tortured inhalation will be the last. I get up from the recliner and sit on the edge of the hospital bed, lean down and hold his hand.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I murmur while he takes in a rattly breath the same as any other he’s taken the last week of his life. Shallow and weak, but noisy. Then he lets it out and that’s it: twenty-five years of marriage ended in one exhalation.
“Good-bye, Mr. Baylor,” I say, sitting back up on the stool.
His hands are still now, one on top of each other on his pelvis, as if cupping his genitals, protecting them. I wonder if that’s where the pain centered, or had it been everywhere, at the end?
I reach over to close his eyes and sit looking at his face. No one ever dies on an intake of breath, it’s a misnomer when people say took his last breath. They should say gave his last breath. His last breath sounded like air leaking out of a bicycle tire, but quieter.
I can’t believe I’m thinking about it in such everyday terms, he’s only been dead a few seconds. I can almost see his soul energy flying around the room in circles—ever-wider arcs like one of those deflating balloons, searching for the chimney or a window that’s cracked open just a little. Desperate. Looking for a way out.
Is his whole life flashing in front of his eyes? Is he afraid? Or is he warm all over, staring into the Light?
Maybe if I’d really listened, I could’ve heard his spirit whispering something profound at the moment of his death, instead of only noticing that small amount of air escaping his mouth. Maybe I could feel him giving up, letting go. Finally. That’s what I want, after all, isn’t it? To know whether he finally gave in to it? Begged for redemption, finally confessed all his sins? At least to himself.
Sam turned off the car, leaned over and kissed me, then got out and came around to my side. He opened the door and took my hand. We climbed in the back and lay down. The forest showed green and lush through a small gap in the curtains. I yanked at them, giggling. Silly. We were miles from nowhere. The whole thing reminded me of hiding in the closet during hide-and-seek when I was a kid. He kissed me and unbuttoned my shirt, caressed my breasts and then kissed them. He unbuttoned my jeans, his tongue made all boundaries between us disappear, something inside of me exploded.
We had talked about everything. I was prepared for the hurt when he entered me, but his grunting noises scared me. When he came, my eyes were open, I saw his scrunched eyes, the circle of his mouth, felt his breath rush out onto my face as he moaned.
“That’s got to be what dying is like,” he said as he pulled out of me and rolled off. He leaned over and kissed me again.
©1998 SandScript Literary Magazine