by Scott Forman
My life ended when I wasn’t looking.
The low murmur of customers in the car dealership waiting room, a soundtrack behind the sing-song language of children oblivious to their parents’ financial problems, one or two melodies of dire straits buried in the optimism of tomorrow, created an invisible haze of depression. They were not even buying a car.
It was easy to make up people’s problems, judge them from their expressions or body types, and seal that judgment with a confirmatory word or phrase spoken in ignorance of casual eavesdropping. Service was a paradox, and they all needed it, but without cost.
I was good at judgment, seldom wrong, but being right without wisdom of empathy, seeing the bigger picture of life, finding the right point of view, cancelled out right and wrong in the present. I enabled myself too many times to make the mistake of dispensing judgment without understand or empathy. Forgiveness for the same defects that always stare back from the mirror is easily forgotten in life’s petty competitions that pit I’m glad I’m not in their shoes against how can I help.
I watched the service technicians. Each tech would come and go, hovering around a spoken name like a bee harvesting pollen and returning to the hive in slow increments until each and every flower had been harvested or raped, depending on the financial situation of each plant. This garden was seldom sowed, only reaped. The flowers, in most cases, seemed determined to die in debts that were well on their way to debilitating. I watched the color of death emerge in the pallor of the petals that made up each individual’s reaction to the required service or cost. Later, after resigning themselves to the required procedure, they would settle their bills and return to their cars, oozing decay. They would become food for other plants waiting to bloom, only to repeat the process by a continual submission to stinging insects.
I thought of the honey harvest. It was the last thing on most of the minds in the noisy waiting room, and the first to reveal itself in the invisibility of success. I felt like a weed, determined to grow and only willing to give the minimal amount of honey-producing pollen.
Money flowed, like the seasons, new life and growth followed by heat, storm, and winter, transitory and meaningful only in the moment, not in the eternal, not in the fabric of my soul. There was nothing but my time, given freely, agency and freewill as hidden from my mind as breathing and the beat of my heart.
I was hidden in the slow, steady pulse of ingratitude and guilt.
I did not look for a light the end of the tunnel, nor did I harbor any death-bed regrets or last minute peccadillos that would require repentance. The self-awareness that that had become second nature, like my breathing, allowed me to fade into the shade of peace. My skin was aging, old, and almost used up. My bones felt calcified and opaque, protesting at directions that had been second nature only a decade before. The flicker of spirit that coated my frame winked like a naked 60-watt bulb on the verge of the blue crackle, the last thing one hears before eternal darkness consumes life, a mosquito’s body blinking in a bug zapper. I imagined the smell of ozone in the same moment my soul detached itself, and realized, just before the endless night, that it was evaporating in the fires of Hell and rising to a final, compassionate judgment.
If life was a Thanksgiving turkey, my tender-timer had failed, and the dark meat was as dry as the white. Whatever probationary plan Mortality had given me was now very visible, my actions, words, and deeds bleak when held up to the checklist of human kindness. There were no missed appointments or forgotten birthdays staring back at me from the rear view mirror, no regrets, but a subtle nudge that I could have done more.
Borrowed Time, a hitchhiker I had mixed up with the panhandler, the do unto others obscured by the transient will work for food. What had I left undone.
“Mr. Smith, your car is ready.”
I blinked. I was not dead, only reflecting on a life well-lived, filled and lacking, the seeds of doubt and regret unplanted. I was suddenly aware of a non-native speaker talking about a vaccination for her dog and finding an animal clinic that would cater to her aging pet. Children playing a complimentary video game in discord to the peace of mind I had only moments before embraced. The daily grind of life, insignificant and unfeeling, a small spark of time on the great space-time continuum. I thought of my wife, my children. Could they see my small spark?
“Did you want your car washed?”
“Yes, that would be great, thank you.”
“There is no charge, you have our signature service. I just need you to sign the paperwork and we’ll have you on your way.”
The time was insignificant, but the journey…
I was half-way home when I realized I felt guilty. Did I have a self-inflated sense of well-being? Was I selfish in my desire to help others? Was there an underlying want or need to be met by my noble acts that really wouldn’t be so noble if the motive was known?
The radio was playing the things that people saying, her mama didn’t now she was there.
I don’t know why the lyric to an old KISS song played in my mind, or why I couldn’t hear the NPR broadcast on the radio. I had an overwhelming desire to stay out of other people’s lives, including my own. I reminisced about high school. The garage band I loved. The girl I should have stayed in contact with, the friends, now dead or lost. The rest of the KISS song rattled back there, back then.
Take me, any way you want it, just take me…
K. Scott Forman’s most recent address appeared in Baltimore, and his most recent work in Old Scratch and Owl Hoots, Morpheus Tales, and 605 Magazine. He retired from the military in 2010 after several enjoyable trips to Afghanistan and Colombia. He makes his home in the Rocky Mountains.