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john tavares

New Fiction


by John Tavares

      As a form of therapy and as a psychological exercise, P.W., a nurse Schaden had loved as a dear friend, a friend with benefits, suggested that Schaden try drafting his own obituary. Schaden wasn’t certain what kind of therapy she had in mind, but he decided that he would give the writing a try, a twirl.
      Now another nurse, Nurse Hilliard, found that Schaden no longer had control of his lower jawbone, this part of his face now seeming to have what more or less amounted to a life of its own. The movement in his jaw and lower face and cheekbone more or less resembled that in his hand, rhythmic, unintentional, involuntary, a movement of his body over which he had little, if indeed any control. The chomping was also motion, he knew, that would drive Nurse Hilliard crazy. However, those tics, spasms, and reflexes were something over which he had no control. Lately, he had started to fear Nurse Hilliard, realizing that his presence and tics and involuntary motions as well as his habits were annoying and aggravating her. He had begun to fear that she would do away with him in the same style and method with which she had done away with the other residents of the senior citizens complex he had known.
      He had not in the past said anything about the fates of his fellow residents because a long life of hard and difficult work in the pharmaceutical industry warned him to keep quiet. For years and years, he had worked as a pharmacist in his own independently owned and operated pharmacy in his hometown of Beaverbrooke. But he didn’t even have a degree in pharmacy or medicine or science. He had even lied about dropping out of high school—since he didn’t even have a high school diploma. He had never had a legal and official license to practice pharmacy, but had acquired knowledge of the profession through his own researches and training, having taught himself. He had read, studied, and memorized the texts and pharmacopoeias. Then he had bluffed his way past the inspectors when they dared to visit his lucrative store in Beaverbrooke, in an isolated corner of northwestern Ontario. He knew the pharmacology and chemistry of numerous prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications better than any doctor, or family physician he had ever encountered. Whatever the case, his experience as a druggist had taught him the value of keeping his mouth closed and not saying anything as a survival technique. He also thought and firmly believed he was correct in these conclusions, but he was also starting to realize now that at least if he had spoken up earlier he might not fear for his own safety and indeed his own life. Even if he had only a few years to live, even if that was stretching his own life expectancy, at the age of eighty-nine, he still felt as energetic, sound of mind, strong, and healthy as the day when he retired. He had never even wanted to retire, but the corporation that bought his drugstore and allowed him to operate it as a franchise in their chain of pharmacies had mandatory retirement rules. The big drug retailing, wholesaling, and distributing corporation had forced him into position he found untenable, but he had no choice but to retire from the pharmacy trade. In fact, within a few years of retirement his driver’s license had been revoked, after he drove some teenage girls who had gotten intoxicated at the bar home late at night. Moreover, those same rules about forced retirement reduced his annual income so he was forced to sell his retirement home in Florida.
      Nurse Hilliard had allowed him to know that he was getting on her nerves. Usually in the evening he enjoyed taking his satellite radio to the lounge to listen to Canadian Football League games, major league baseball, or ice hockey broadcasts. But Nurse Hilliard would momentarily appear in the lounge, after refilling her coffee cup in the staff kitchen, or check to see if some figure skating was on, or the outcome of her favourite soap opera or serial drama. She let him know that the radio was bothering her to the extreme. Her comments angered and upset him since he did not intend to create a bothersome environment for her. Then, when she visited his room in the evening, even though she was only there long enough to monitor his blood pressure, pulse, and temperature—and half of the time she didn’t even bother to check his vital signs—and administer his medications she complained about his head bobbing and nodding and his jaw chomping.
      “We’ve got to speak to the Doctor about your Parkinsonian symptoms.”
      “We’ve talked to him already.”
      “And what was the outcome, Mr. Schaden?”
      “We don’t need to talk to him again.”
      She stared directly into his blue eyes.
      “If you’re trying to intimidate me, you’re not succeeding.”
      “What was the outcome,” she said, sternly.
      She rapped her knuckles on his head, which still had plenty of dark hair.
      “You need to take some more medication.”
      “I’m not taking more medications.”
      Knowing the side effects of those anti-Parkisonian medications, he found them personally unacceptable and intolerable. A lifetime of working in the lucrative pharmacy trade, moreover, had totally inured him to the adverse effects of many therapeutic drugs and medications, particularly turning him off to the use of the psychopharmaceuticals. After he witnessed the numerous side effects of these drugs and tended to the patients who had overdosed, either accidentally or intentionally, there was no way he was taking these potent drugs.
      “I can live with the symptoms, and the doctors know that.”
      “But the rest of us can’t.”
      During the first round of the hockey playoffs, when the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Edmonton Oilers, and Montreal Oilers, and the good old Winnipeg Jets—so close to his hometown—were still in contention, he grew excited and passionate, shouting at his radio, and so Nurse Hilliard grew especially aggravated with him then. She had been born and raised an American, who enjoyed figure skating and ice dancing but hated ice hockey. However, he had shuffled into the lounge wearing his housecoat and pyjamas and slippers virtually every evening, and he tuned his satellite radio into the hockey games during the initial part of the playoffs. Even though the majority of the male residents in the lounge listened to the broadcasts, if they weren’t watching the same telecast game on television, she would visit afterwards in his room and command him to stop bringing his satellite radio to the lounge. He refused, even though he realized it was not a wise decision or move to be open and vocal about his position. However, his satellite radio, which his son, with a degree of thoughtfulness and considerateness totally uncharacteristic of him, had given him for Christmas, and the hockey games had become important to him.
      The next evening Nurse Hilliard had her dose on the medication tray beside her.
      “Somebody told me—somebody who has lived in this town almost as long as you have—that your original name was Schadenfreude.”
      “Who told you that?”
      “Just somebody. Another patient.”
      He considered probing further, but realized the only purpose that would serve would be to aggravate her. “Do you know what it means?”
      “No. But you went to court and had it changed legally?”
      He nodded and saw the same instruments he had seen the nights the other residents and so-called “patients” or “clients”—and the terminology deployed depended upon which support worker or nurse was on duty that night—passed away. He recognized the hypodermic needle and the ampoules that contained the large doses of potassium and the barbiturate. He could see the dosage of the medications even without his eyeglasses; his vision was still that sharp.
      Nurse Hilliard didn’t realize that he remained vain of his appearance, and that he wore contact lenses, which made his vision probably sharper than hers, since up to his retirement, he got a kick out of attending appointments for eye examinations and vision tests at the optometrist only to hear that he had better than 20/20 vision. And he still fancied himself a ladies man. He still hoped for the company of a nurse like P.W., who had recently attended university to obtain her master’s degree in public health. Nurse P.W. had given him oral pleasure whenever he wanted—at least whenever they could find the privacy. He had even paid for her to return to university, writing her several cheques amounting to a few thousand dollars for tuition and rent and the meal plan at the student residence over an eighteen month period. In fact, he thought that was the reason for so much friction between him and Nurse Hilliard.
      “Whatever was it that transpired between you and that nurse.”
      “That nurse? That’s none of your business,” Schaden often told Nurse Hilliard. “We were good friends. That is all.”
      “It doesn’t sound as if she was very professional.”
      “Professional or not, she’s the director of public health in a city in the Maritimes now.”
      Those remarks usually left Nurse Hilliard silent.
      In any event, although he knew that she had come to terminate his existence that evening, he was not afraid and remained cool and clearheaded.
      “What made you think that you’re better than the others?” she demanded, as she went through the motions and pretense of measuring his blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, and respirations.
      “I don’t think I’m better than the others.”
      “With your radio, you’d think you were running the place.”
      “They like to listen to the radio, too.”
      He actually shouldn’t have said that, he realized, because most residents who came into the lounge late in the afternoon or early in the evening, preferred, like Nurse Hilliard, to watch reruns of syndicated series like Coronation Street.
      “For heaven’s sake, it’s the playoffs. Hockey is the national religion of Canada.” He looked at her accusatively, as if she had committed some heinous sin by being American.
      “You know that you’re going to die like the rest of them.”
      This he took as a warning that the threat was real. He shifted his position on the bed to be closer to the intravenous needle.
      “I’m going to die just as you’re going to die.”
      “But you’re going to die sometime soon,” she asserted.
      “Sooner than you?” He sounded distracted.
      “Most certainly,” she replied confidently.
      Realizing he was running out of time and the time to act was now, he reached over to the tray of medications. He plunged the intravenous needle into her arm. Her face contorted in shock, astonishment, and amazement, as she gazed at the needle protruding from her arm.
      “You need to call the doctor.”
      “Because I’ve a needle in my arm and it injected medication into my system that wasn’t intended for me.”
      “It was for me?”
      He pulled out the needle, which contained what amounted to an overdose of potassium and barbiturates, but only after he squeezed the plunger down.
      “There was enough barbiturates and potassium in there to kill someone, isn’t there?”
      “Just call the doctor.”
      He left the room to go to the lounge to watch the news, which might have depressed him if it wasn’t for the fact that he didn’t occasionally derive a certain amount of glee from the misfortune of others. Besides, he didn’t want to be in the room when Nurse Hilliard suffered the catastrophic consequences of the overdose. It might not be a pretty sight to behold, the bodily fluids, bubbling salvia and mucus dribbling down the side of her chin, the vomitus that might potentially be discharged, the cyanosis, the struggle to breathe, the involuntary jerks and spasms, the eyeballs rolling. Death could be a nasty business.
      Schaden decided the time had arrived to call his son, whom he hardly ever telephoned. He was surprised that his son answered the telephone on the second ring. Schaden and his middle-aged son usually did not get along, but now was not the time to be picky and choosy. After all, at his advanced age there were actually few people in the world he actually knew these days—few of his nearest and dearest friends and relatives were still alive. Those younger friends he had usually didn’t know how to talk to him. Keeping the conversation overly simplistic, or basic, or about safe topics like the weather, and shouting, always raising their voices to a loud level, an unbearably obnoxious sound volume, as if he was deaf or extremely hard of hearing, could be annoying, frustrating, and disheartening to him.
      The news about the manner in which Nurse Hilliard died was as hushed as were the deaths of those residents of the senior citizens complex and extended care facility which she had caused. Her death was attributed to heart failure as a result of a previously undiagnosed and undetected congenital defect. Even though he anticipated his own demise was approaching, Schaden thought he could now accept it with even greater peace, equanimity, and tranquility. He resumed work on his obituary.

John Tavares has written a lot of fiction, short stories, and novellas since 1986. His previous publications include stories published in Canadian literary journals: Blood & Aphorisms; Green’s Magazine; Filling Station; Whetstone; Broken Pencil; Tessera; Windsor Review; Paperplates, and a chapbook by Plowman Press. He’s had stories and creative nonfiction published in The Siren, Centennial’s student newspaper. John published articles and features in East York Observer, East York Times, Beaches Town Crier, Outreach Connection, Our Toronto as well as community newspapers such as York University’s Excalibur and Hospital News. He recently wrote a novel and is avid photographer. Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John attended college and university in Toronto, where he lives.

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