There’s no good view from the hospital room. The ER was the only thing outside our window. Ambulances came and went as routinely as any other public transportation.
It was daylight saving time when Joe, my 87-year-old roommate, was admitted into the ICU with chest pains. The nurse wound the clock in his room forward. It seemed like a lousy thing to do—stealing an hour from an old man lying in a hospital bed.
Joe was my girlfriend’s grandfather. The three of us lived together in Brooklyn. He had lived in that same apartment for over fifty years, alone mostly, since his wife died at 29. It was like living in someone’s walk-in time capsule. He kept things. A steel fan that was older than he was. A 1929 Underwood no. 5 typewriter. Two Holtzer-Cabot car motors in his closet for “tinkering.” Holy Bibles, shofars, and postcards. But his most beloved artifact was his 1924 Victor Victrola.
Nancy and I would wake up to Joe winding his Victrola, spinning 45s, letting the old wartime love songs and fox trots fill the apartment. He’d transport us back to another Brooklyn. The Brooklyn he knew as a kid in the Great Depression. I think listening to his old tunes was the closest he got to slowing time down to a manageable pace.
Joe was mugged on Coney Island once. Since then, he carried two wallets. One was a decoy, with just a little cash, for any potential thief to run off with. He liked to stay a step ahead of the common criminal.
The sounds of the ICU were void of nostalgia. The beeping, whirring, buzzing. The all night nurses making their rounds. Patients screaming in pain. You become consumed by the machine-noise that it takes to maintain a human life.
Joe hated hospitals. He had already been fighting multiple myeloma—a cancer that settles painfully into the bone marrow. Like all cancer, it was cruel. No matter the pain, Joe stayed tough. He even bounced back from a heart attack a few years ago. Overtime though, the cancer bent his spine into the shape of a question mark. His posture was bad. It forced him to walk very slow. He shuffled. Which was hard for a man who spent his life traveling the world. Still, he made his way around Brooklyn. He drove in and out of the city. At 87, he could still parallel park better than me.
He was mugged on Coney Island once. Since then, he carried two wallets. One was a decoy, with just a little cash, for any potential thief to run off with. He liked to stay a step ahead of the common criminal.
Joe would remind us to shut the windows when we left the apartment. “They’ll come up the fire escape. They’ll cut you and take your computer,” he’d tell me. He’d make the switchblade motion with his hand and chuckle. I didn’t take him seriously at first, but then some guy threw a Molotov cocktail into the bodega down the street, set the clerk on fire and burnt the place down. I triple-checked the windows from then on.
Even though we were together all the time, Joe remained a mystery to me. He’d never talk about his past. Even to his family. Everyone only knew pieces. They knew he traveled a lot. He was in the Corps of Engineers during the Korean War, but never spoke about it. His past was vague. He was a man of secrets, but I had my theories.
Was he in witness protection? Was he in the mob? Was he a spy? He was old-school Brooklyn. Born in the Bronx in 1928. The kind of guy who’d tip his hat to say hello. He wore suspenders and slacks and combed his hair extra neat for holidays. I had to know more though. Not just for myself, but for Nancy. Of course, there were some clues around his time capsule of an apartment. Like the time Nancy’s family found his birth certificate and discovered that his real name was actually Giuseppe. Or the old letters from Sicily from names no one recognized talking about land ownership. Or the old photos of Joe in Italy or wading in the Miami tide. Or the time I climbed into the crawl space above the hallway and found his Remington Targetmaster bolt-action rifle. I had been in the crawl space before and it wasn’t there then. So he must’ve recently climbed the ladder and hid the rifle. Where was it before? The trunk of his car? Under his mattress?
His oversized hospital gown made him look smaller than usual. Like he was shrinking. His skinny arms were covered in bruises from the needles. He put the TV volume all the way up, because he refused to get hearing aids.
While the nurses made their lunch rounds, I watched the Trinity Broadcasting Network with him. It gave him hope. I sat beside him and watched people pray in mega-churches because it made him feel a little less terrified about being in that cold hospital. The nurse gave Joe his pills and fed him applesauce as the IV dripped morphine into his system. He gave me a big smile, hooked up to all the machines, and said, “it’s just like going to church.”
This wasn’t all that different from our living arrangement in Brooklyn. I spent a lot of time sitting with Joe watching TV. He’d recline on his special orthopedic bed with the TV so loud you could hear it three flights down in the vestibule. We lived next to another hospital in Brooklyn, so we were already immune to the sounds of ambulances. Instead of morphine and applesauce for lunch there was Joe’s mini bottles of wine or Sambuca and his preferred dish of angel hair pasta with ricotta cheese and garlic. Instead of watching Trinity Broadcasting, we watched cartoons, BET, and Soul Train, but mostly, he had a thing for Telemundo. As far as I know, he didn’t speak any Spanish. Italian maybe. Once, while we were watching Speed 2, I said, “you know this is in Spanish, right?” I had to repeat myself until he heard me. He said, “yea,” like duh, and we watched the whole thing without subtitles.
It wasn’t always easy between us. Joe wasn’t fond of me at first. I didn’t blame him. We both loved the same woman.His granddaughter. And like any good father figure, he wanted to protect her. I’d do my best to impress him, because he was more than just her grandfather. He was the closest thing to a real father that she had. He’d be the one to walk her down the aisle. So I didn’t let it eat me up too bad when he refused to remember my name, even after years of dating. On a good day, he’d refer to me as “Nancy’s friend.”
It wasn’t always easy between us. Joe wasn’t fond of me at first. I didn’t blame him. We both loved the same woman. His granddaughter.
His first real impression of me wasn’t great. It was the day I moved in. We had plans to fix the apartment up for them. The place could use some work. Plus, it’d be good to have someone else around for Joe in case of an emergency. Even though Nancy gave me a key to the place, it didn’t feel right using it. I couldn’t open the door, for the first time, to this man’s apartment like it was my place. This was his place. Knocking felt like the right thing to do. I knocked, but he didn’t answer. Knocked again. Nothing. Eventually, I decided to use my key. I opened the door just as he was walking out of the bathroom—naked from the waist down. I fell back into the hallway. Thought about running down the stairs and leaving. I heard him cursing me. I’m lucky he didn’t grab his rifle.
It only took a few days for him to walk in on me naked, changing after a shower, asking me to fix something on his phone. None of the locks inside worked. It felt like some sort of awful justice.
Families loitered around the ICU waiting room. You start to hate that you recognize each other as the days wear on. Some pushed chairs together to make beds. There were pamphlets in a variety of languages, from a variety of religions, which listed ways to prepare us for the possibility of grief. They were neatly fanned out on a desk in the corner, but everyone ignored them, because none of us were ready to accept the worst.
When you live with an 80-year-old you can’t help but brace yourself every day for the worst though. I hated the thought, but when I’d walk through the vestibule and didn’t hear his TV as I came up the stairs, I’d panic. I worried that one day I’d come home to find his body. The child part of your brain just wants them to live forever. But all you can do is hope that when they pass they pass easy, painlessly, and in their sleep. Not hooked up to all the machines in the hospital.
The longer Joe stayed in the ICU the worse it got. His body was vulnerable. His immune system already weakened by the cancer. He contracted pneumonia within days. He wasn’t getting enough oxygen. They put him on a respirator. A big plastic mask hid his face and pushed air into his lungs. His pain meds made him groggy and when he looked at me it was as if I were a stranger again.
Somewhere over the last few years, without saying it directly, I think he gave me his blessing to be with Nancy. Somehow, I won him over. I just couldn’t remember when.
The pneumonia worsened. He ripped off the respirator mask every time he woke up confused. I wanted to rip it off for him and break him out of the place and drive us home where we could drink wine and watch Telemundo and leave the whole nightmare behind.
The respirator wasn’t doing enough, so they had to put him on a ventilator. The doctors warned us that people Joe’s age didn’t bounce back easy from ventilators. He wouldn’t be able to speak with the tube down his throat. The word ventilator doesn’t sound as barbaric as the contraption looks. The technician lowered the tube through Joe’s mouth, down his windpipe, flipped on the machine, and said, “another happy customer.” I had it in me to put the technician in the ICU myself for his goddamned sarcasm. Later, I made a mess of the grief-pamphlets in the waiting room instead.
“What if I never hear his voice again?” Nancy asked. We all started to wonder what the last things he said to each of us were. The last thing he said to me before he went on the ventilator was, “take care of her.” Referring to Nancy. But Nancy thinks he said, “take care of the horses,” because we were going back to my family’s farm after the hospital. I think she’s wrong. Somewhere over the last few years, without saying it directly, I think he gave me his blessing to be with Nancy. Somehow, I won him over. I just couldn’t remember when.
We got the phone call that his organs were failing. They put a sign on his door saying we had to wear masks and gowns to sit with him. He had contracted Clostridium or c-diff. A nasty bacteria. The nurses gave him propofol. The drug that killed Michael Jackson. One nurse spilled some on the floor. A milky liquid. I understood then why they call it the milk of amnesia.
Time blurs when you spend a week inside the ICU. The ambulances still rushed in and out of the ER. The world outside still happened at full speed, but we tuned it out. There was only Joe and the noises it took to keep him alive.
He taught me to remember to take my time when I can. I learned to let the world rush on without me sometimes.
Joe’s big gripe with the world, other than having to grow old, was the awful rush everyone was in. “Everyone’s rushing. I just want to sit down and have a glass of wine,” he had told me only weeks before. This isn’t to say he didn’t embrace modern technology. The man was addicted to the weather app on his iPhone. When it didn’t load fast enough he’d curse it. He loved to Google Earth on his laptop. I think since he couldn’t travel like he used to, he would Google Earth as a way of revisiting the places he used to explore. He’d hop around the world from the safety of his bed. From Paris to Rome to Israel and all over the states. When Nancy was a little girl, the two of them spent a few years traveling between Buffalo and the Hudson Valley in his clunky RV to visit her aunt. All these places he cherished in his past life, before the heart attack, before the cancer. But with Google Earth now, the whole Earth was at his disposal and no one could to tell him to pick up the pace. He could take as long as he wants zooming across the planet.
I tried to see the world as Joe saw it. To understand how the mad rush felt to him. I remembered how I witnessed what I’ll now call Death Shaming. It happened just a few blocks from the apartment. We were in traffic behind an ambulance on a narrow street in Brooklyn. No room to pass. People honked at the ambulance. After a few minutes, they jumped out of their cars and approached the EMTs with clenched fists as some old man was dying on a stretcher. “Pull the fuck over!” they screamed. Someone else yelled, “it’s just two stupid women pushing a stretcher.” The man’s family cried on the stoop as they watched the ambulance take him.
After that, whenever I walked around the neighborhood with Joe, I learned to slow my pace to his. He taught me to remember to take my time when I can. I learned to let the world rush on without me sometimes.
You had to walk past the gift shop to get to the ICU. People buying balloons and stuffed animals and ceramic angels. Joe was still deep under on the meds. He didn’t even know he was hooked up to the ventilator. He looked like he was just taking a nap. Like he’d wake up any moment and jump out of bed. Since his kidneys stopped working, his body retained all the IV fluid. His hands were so swollen, they didn’t look like they belonged to him. His skin was taught which made the wrinkles disappear. We played him his old songs through the phone. We hoped he could hear the jazz over the machines.
The doctors decided to try dialysis. It was a risk, but if they could get his kidneys working maybe he’d bounce back. It was almost selfish of us to want him back, knowing that even if he came-to he might not have the quality of life he once had. But you have to fight for it. You have to prove the grief-pamphlets wrong.
After days of limbo in the ICU, Joe’s heart stopped around midnight. It was abrupt and it was final and even though it was over it didn’t feel real or make sense. All we could do was readjust to the void. To the soundlessness.
We left the hospital for good and felt like sailors returning to land after years at sea.
We buried him on the first day of spring. It snowed. I put on my best suit for the funeral. Still trying to impress him.
With his coffin suspended over the hole, the open Earth reminded me of the turning point in our relationship. It was the day a meteor exploded in the sky above Russia. He barged into the bedroom, in his long johns and white tee and uncombed hair and said, “the Earth wasn’t working.” He was a wreck about it.
The meteor’s blast made the blue Russian sky a scorching blank white. You heard windows shatter. The sonic blast was unnaturally loud. Like the thwack of hearing a home run in a stadium, but times a million. The news replayed the footage. The TV, at Joe’s volume, made it sound as if the asteroid was crashing right into our living room. The news said that an asteroid, no relation to the meteor in Russia, was due to fly over Earth later that same day. Joe was right, Earth wasn’t working.
Turned out Joe called Google Earth, Earth, for short. And he was pissed he couldn’t get it to work on his laptop. He thought maybe we could watch the next asteroid fly by in real time via Google Earth. I said, I wish, but tried anyway. I had to impress him. I told him I had Google Earth on my phone. We sat together on my bed staring at the screen. I opened the app and there we were floating in the computer-generated image of outer space. As we were free falling through the app down to Earth, I explained that it’s all satellite images and we probably couldn’t see a meteor in real-time. But hell, I’ll try, Joe.
We flew over Earth. He asked me to bring up our building. The planet spun and we flew over the Atlantic and up the Eastern Seaboard and zoomed into New York, stopping just above our neighborhood.
“Maybe the comet will come down on us,” he laughed.
“Can you pull up Buffalo?” he asked. He told me he wanted to find a specific intersection in a suburb of Buffalo. He didn’t give me much else to go on, but the closer I zoomed in, Joe started recognizing the roads and names of towns I’ve never heard of and he said, “stop.”
We hovered above some abandoned warehouse in an empty lot.
“What are you looking for?” I asked. He pretended like he didn’t hear me. He took the phone out of my hand and zoomed in for himself, until you could zoom no more.
He gave me the phone back and said thanks. We forgot about the meteors and the asteroids and worried about breakfast instead. I took a screenshot of the intersection to ask Nancy later.
I flip the 45 to play the other song. It’s called I Don’t Know Enough About You. It’s like he left it there as one last joke for me.
She said that that must’ve been where he left his old RV. The one they used to take their road trips in years ago. Maybe he wanted to know if it was still there? Maybe he wanted to go back and get it? One last adventure. Nancy remembered the RV. “It broke down on us. It was so hot in that thing. It was a mess. Like how the apartment was when we first moved in. The bathroom didn’t work. Flies everywhere. We were somewhere in the middle of nowhere between home and Buffalo. But he was so nonchalant about it all.”
Not long after Joe and I flew over Google Earth together, I heard him ask for me by name when he was on the phone with Nancy. In all the years I knew him, he never once used my name. Even after that, he’d sometimes call me Stain instead of Shane, but I took it. When we sat together on that bed and zoomed through Earth, it was as if we were on our own strange journey and it was an honor.
The first time I walked through the vestibule since Joe died, I half-expected to hear his TV at full volume. Instead all the outside sounds followed me in: taxis, buses, ambulances, low flying planes, police cars and car alarms, pedestrians and dogs.
I went through his stack of 45s. I find the first one that looks playable and throw it on the Victrola. I crank it up and sit by the open window—in total disregard to any Molotov cocktails or thieves on the fire escape. What do I care? I have Joe’s rifle in the ceiling. Benny Goodman and his orchestra do Blue Skies on the Victrola. I can still hear the whole wound-up city gritting its teeth at red lights and ambulances and traffic. I flip the 45 to play the other song. It’s called I Don’t Know Enough About You. It’s like he left it there as one last joke for me. Art Lund’s voice sounds like it’s coming out of a tin can. I make the music as loud as it gets. It drowns out all the noise outside. I let the city rush on without me. If I close my eyes it’s computer-generated outer space. It’s 1929. It’s 1946. It’s every Brooklyn Joe ever knew. It’s the old jazz tune singing, I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don’t know enough about you.
Shane Cashman’s writing has appeared in the Observer, Word Riot, Inkwell, Juxtapoz and elsewhere. In February, his “Story of My Hair” won first place in PEN Center USA’s 500 Word Short Story Contest.