By Scott Westerman (Audio)
My first job was a dishwasher at an assisted living high rise. They paid me to clean the culinary wreckage of two hundred seasoned souls, navigating the last laps of life. But I quickly learned that my actual job was to fill the loneliness void that was central to individual adventures that had devolved into mere existence.
My best friends Joey and Bill worked with me. At 13, we were the only able-bodied boys in the building after 5pm. The job exposed us to dementia, depression, and death.
Mrs. Grossman’s phone rang in the kitchen as we were filling the cafeteria line with Jello and coleslaw. The sour face inventoried the the three of us. She pointed to Joe and me.
“Mr. Cone has taken a fall and is breathing funny. Go do something.”
We knew the guy as a rotting hulk of a man, at one time a brakeman on the Ann Arbor Railroad, pulling apart boxcars and brake lines with his bare hands, now decaying into a profane, bulbous amoeba, leering at ladies well past their prom night prime.
Joey and I took the elevator to seven, leaving our boss to call the ambulance.
A tiny octogenarian woman held open Mr. Cone’s apartment door for us. She believed she was an angel, chosen by God to minister to the Lurie Terrace population. Once upon a time, she was an Army nurse. She had witnessed a lot of death and understood what was happening inside the souls of these slowly departing spirits. We called her the Elf.
“He’s stoking,” she said, gazing at what looked more like a barren post-atomic Pacific Island than a man. What I would one-day recognize as the halting Cheyne–Stokes breaths of my dying parents emanated from the man’s mouth, his lips flapping with each exhalation.
“What are we supposed to do,” Joey asked. He rarely put over six words together, but they got the job done.
The woman’s bony hand grasped Joe’s bicep. “I just don’t want him to be alone.”
We crouched next to the man. “Talk to him,” the Elf said. “Anything.”
What would we say? The first thing that came to my mind was, “How about those Wolverines?”
Joe caught on. “Bo can’t win the big one, right Mr. Cone?”
Another flapping out-breath. The pace was slowing.
I tried to augment the dialogue. “But nothing beats the sound of one-hundred-one-thousand and one fans cheering when the marching band takes the field.”
The tiny female elf nodded. “More,” she said.
“Why did you quit playing the drums, Joey?”
“Mr. Long was a jerk. He didn’t like me.”
“You never practiced, Joe.”
“I hate practicing anything.”
“So, maybe it wasn’t Mr. Long who was the jerk. Maybe it was you.”
The process of life leaving Mr. Cone’s body mesmerized us. His labored movements softened. Joe watched, hypnotized by the spectacle.
“Yeah, I’m pretty much a jerk most of the time.”
“It comes with being a teenager,” I said, showing some empathy.
The elf smiled. “Never grow out of being a teenager,” she murmured.
We could hear the elevator doors opening down the hall, the squeaking roll of gurney wheels and the padding of adult feet on the worn carpet.
“You could be a jerk, too, Mr. Cone,” Joey said. “But I always gave you points for style.”
I thought about what my parents might say. “You’ve lived a good life, Mr. Cone. Nobody gave you a manual and you figured it out. I hope we can be as lucky.”
The rise and fall of the enormous chest stopped. Mr. Cone’s mouth openend. His pupils were set, staring into infinity.
“He can still hear you,” the Elf said.
Joe shrugged at me as if to ask, “What do I say now?”
He told me later that he thought about the last words we hearf at church group every Wednesday.
“Godspeed, Mr. Cone.”
The ambulance attendants quietly entered the tiny apartment, knowing that they wouldn’t have to do any work, save calling the funeral home.
Later, we studied the Ann Arbor skyline from our corner of the dining area in the silence before everyone descended on us for supper. For the first time, I realized that my own life was progressing ever faster with each passing year. Tomorrow was never guaranteed. What would I do with today?
In the distance, I could see the blinking red beacons atop an array of radio towers. The playlist that continually rotated in my subconscious selected Time Won’t Let Me, by the Outsiders and I tried to put appropriate words together to tell Mrs. Grossman that I was giving my notice.
Time passes quickly, taken for granted by the young.
Until the moment arrives when all your tomorrows are yesterdays.
There is no time for regret, for trepidation, for obstacles.
Feel the fear and chase your dreams. The clock is ticking.