Spike Slips His Grip

 

 

“Hold your horses, I’m coming!” Spike struggled, limping on his sore foot, through heaps of memorabilia, towers of books and magazines.

The doorbell buzzed again.

He tightened his ratty bathrobe around his hefty belly, ran a hand over his sparse grey hair, and declared himself presentable.

He swung the door open to his niece, Beth.

“What are you here for?” he barked. Damn, it’s good to see her. He hoped for a hug.

Beth’s smile dropped. “We’re taking you to the doctor, remember?” Beth was a hospital nurse, a wife and mother, daughter of Spike’s only sister, who was six years dead.

“Not me. I’m not going,” he growled.

“What?” She splayed her hands toward his foot. “Your purple toe is getting black now, see that? It’s spreading into the next toe. This is gangrene, Spike!”

“That’s what I told you! Don’t tell me what I already know,” he snapped.

“I try to be here every week,” she said. “You should have called me sooner. It’s a miracle I snagged an appointment for you this quick. Let’s go. Put your pants on.”

“No! They will not cut my toes off. I decided that a long time ago.” He felt his eyes get moist, and blinked them dry.

She shook her head with an angry heat that cramped his heart.

No hug today, he figured. “I don’t need nothing,” he growled. “Go on home.”

“Uncle Spike, geez!” She bypassed him into the cluttered living room. “There are some newer treatments for gangrene. But even if you had to get it cut off, it would save your life!”

He shut the door and followed her through the stacks of junk and the television racket.

“How can you live like this?” Beth shoved aside the clutter on the couch to make space for herself. “You can barely get around these piles.”

“I lean on them,” he muttered defensively, approaching his shabby chair. “Might not get across the room, otherwise.”

“Oh, like they won’t collapse? Sheez. It’s a fire hazard. The firemen won’t be able to find you, much less save you.”

“I don’t wanna be saved.” He carefully aimed his behind into his busted recliner, then plopped down.

“So, you want to die,” she declared fiercely. She grabbed his TV clicker and muted it. She looked at him, and her face softened.

“Extinction is not a good time,” he said, “but the pains would be gone. Not that I’d know it. What else can I do?”

“You-can-go-to-the-doctor-with-me!”

“No! Not today! Maybe never!” His whole head heated up.

Her lips crimped into a tight line, her eyes on fire. She squeezed her phone and stabbed it with her thumbs, typing a message or something. “You will pay a sizeable fee to cancel the appointment, Spike. Are you sure about this?”

“Not going!”

“Hm!” She poked the phone once more, with prissy triumph.

Spike almost smiled, but didn’t. She had a lot of her mother in her.

“You should keep your feet up.” Beth dragged a box of books closer to him.

“Up!” she commanded. “Look how swollen your ankles are.”

“The least of my worries.”

“What else is worrisome?”

“Stuff,” he shrugged.

“What stuff?”

“Nothing. Aches and pains.” He gazed out over the room, refusing to mention his dizziness, headaches, jitters, pressure and strange bouncing in his heart.

“We should get you one of those lift chairs, where you can recline, get massaged, and be lifted to stand up.”

“Let’s not, and say we did.”

“Let’s weed out your crap, that’s what I say. Who knows what’s in all this junk? You have way too many lamps. You could donate some of those.”

“I like lamps.”

“You must have a dozen in this room, alone.”

“Yeah.” He needed every last one of them for his long nights in front of the TV.

“So, which ones would you like me to take?”

“None! But your chair idea - that might help me sleep better.”

“Okay, let me find it.” She whipped out her phone again.

Gotta let her do something, he figured. She was so much like her mother, Donna.

Lately his tricky brain remembered Donna a little too often. Whenever he dozed off, Donna popped up, visions of her, young or old. Sometimes she talked to him. He could never remember what she said.

Last night they were both kids on the old swing-set in the schoolyard. My head is just dumping old memories.

He didn’t mind seeing blips of Donna. She was the one person who had never crossed him.

“Okay,” Beth sighed. “Your chair will arrive next Monday. God knows how the man will wedge it in here.”

“Hmm,” he grunted. “Thanks for arranging that.” She was handling his bank account too, these days. Made things simpler.

“You know,” she said, “my neighbor kid is on the varsity football team now, big strong guy, and he has a lot of buddies. I bet we could hire them to box up a lot of this stuff and carry it out - under your supervision.”

“No! Leave my stuff alone! I’m doing it myself!”

“Okay-okay-okay. I’m just trying to help.”

“I’m going through it at my own pace.”

“Good. Thaaat’s good,” she nodded.

“How do your boys like the Encyclopedia Britannica I gave them?”

“Yeah, they’re, ah - playing with them.”

“Playing? Not reading?”

“Well, even fifth graders do their research on the web these days, Spike. Your encyclopedias are . . . oh, I hate to tell you.”

He frowned deeper. “Tell me.”

“My sons piled them into tall ramps for their little cars.”

“Oh.”

“They’re having a ton of fun, Spike.”

He shook his head sadly. “Those cost me fifteen hundred dollars, back in the day.”

Beth shrugged apologetically. “Times are changing.”

“Yeah. Well, I have more antique books for those kids. Get that white box, I’ll show you.”

She grabbed the small box and pulled out a paperback. “Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Hey, I remember these! Oh, and Strange But True!”

“Yeah,” he grimaced. “Two-headed sheep, child prodigies, spontaneous combustion, all that crap.”

“Aww, they will love these, Spike! And look, the cover says seventy-five cents,” she laughed.

“Yeah, overpriced at that. Tell the boys it’s a pack of lies. Don’t let them get duped.”

She raised her brows. “This stuff, they will read. Great idea, Spike.”

Then she wanted to clean up his kitchen, as she often did.

He started to argue, like always, but he gave in. Why fight it? He didn’t have much strength left.

He gazed upon his assorted clutter and felt it dragging him down. His foot throbbed, despite his pain pills. He punched the TV clicker and relaxed into the loud urgent voice of the commentator.

 

After a while Beth brought him a beautiful sandwich on a plate.

She said, “Okay, I have errands to do.” She swung her purse over her shoulder and put the box of paperbacks under her arm. “I hope you have a great day.”

“I’ll see you out.” Spike leaned forward.

“No, no, you don’t need to.”

“I want to,” he grunted, and he was up, following her down the narrow trail between his scrappy possessions.

Beth stopped at one of the stacks. “Hey, what if I take that old Windows XP to donate? Or at least the CPU? You haven’t plugged it in for years, have you?”

“You can’t donate that. You’d have to put it in an incinerator. It has my personal information on it.”

“Okay, maybe I can find an incinerator.”

“Naw, that’s way too heavy for you to carry to your car.”

“Right. We’ll get the football kids on it, one of these days.” She shot him a wink and a smile.

He squeezed the corner of his mouth. This was the moment, maybe, for that hug.

She reached out and wrapped her arms around him.

It felt like a moment of heaven, although he kept his hands in his robe pockets as always, out of respect. Wouldn’t want her to get the wrong idea.

 

Spike carried the glow of her embrace back to his chair, to his lunch, bless her.

As ever, he lost himself in the drone of the TV presentation. Commercials burst out loudly and woke him again, but eventually he dozed off.

At some point Donna suddenly stood before him, Donna in her older age. She reached both arms to him, gazed at him like a hypnotist.

Creepy shit. He coughed and woke up with barbs of fear in his chest.

“Dammit, don’t creep me out,” he muttered. “You’re a kink in the wrinkles of my brain.”

He slapped his forehead a couple times to clear that crap out. You’re a figment, Donna, stop it.

Mid-afternoon light poured into the room, highlighting his clutter.

My nest, he thought sourly. He usually didn’t think about it, but Beth was right. Something should be done.

He hated to admit what a nest of misery it was, with such pain in his foot, chronic backache, sore joints, weakness, and other tortures. He lived in a loop of pain and catnaps, woven into his TV programs.

What else can I do? Can’t walk more than twelve feet at a time.

The two friends he’d had were dead. Nobody to talk to, so he railed at the TV people.

He wasn’t crazy, but his head had learned strange new tricks. He could hear the rush of blood in every vein. But that was impossible, that whole-body blood rush. Even Google didn’t know what that was.

A stroke was one thing his body had not done yet. He’d had two heart attacks, gallstones, the usual belly surgeries, pneumonia, severe diabetes, partial kidney failure, and now gangrene.

He sat in the stew of his failing organs. Who knew which one would kill him? If he had more courage, he would end it.

But he was terrified of extinction, the total end of him, the jaws of the big Nothing. Part of him welcomed his pains, because they distracted him from his future oblivion.

He focused again on the TV. He turned it up a couple notches.

Within twenty minutes he was back to his mental wrestling.

He knew his situation could only get worse.

Beth had promised to keep him out of the nursing homes.

She was a trained nurse, but he hated to burden her. Even more, he hated to go to a care home.

But damn, he could not bear the thought of himself bedridden and Beth tending to his sorry ass - literally.

Hell, maybe he would let them cut off the front of his foot, after all. He would hobble around on the stump.

Gotta stay upright as long as I can.

He flipped his TV clicker and stared firmly at the reruns.

In time, his eyelids grew heavy and closed again.

 

He saw his stacks of rubbish grow taller around him. They had personalities. They started reminding him how he had adopted each of them, so many years ago.

They nudged in closer, all friendly. His belongings belonged with him, they said. They knew him well, as he knew them.

All his trappings came in quite close around his chair, crowding in tightly, towering over him.

Then their collective weight imploded upon him, making him sink through the floor.

They sank with him.

His hoardings pushed him under the floor, deeper and deeper into the earth, miles deep, into a pine coffin, his face smack against the tight lid.

 “What?!” He woke up sweating. Wiped his face. Reached for the glass of water Beth had left there.

He caught his breath.

I should be nicer to Beth, he thought. Get her to bring her rambunctious boys over here again. Life is short. Hope they like those paperbacks. Ripley and those other goddamn shysters.

Spontaneous combustion, what a crock. They throw a pile of ashes on a bed, burn a crispy fringe on the sheets, snap a photo, and claim the unsuspecting guy cremated himself alive?

Stupid shit. Gotta be staged.

At a stretch, maybe a cigarette fire.

But even that couldn’t consume the entire body.

Oh yeah, sometimes they put a leftover limb in the photo. Nice touch, Guys.

Gimme a break.

The sunshine dipped low through his windows now. The sky drifted toward dusk.

Spike heaved himself to stand up, and got dizzy. Nearly blacked out, but that was nothing new, either. He hung onto the side of his chair, waiting for his vision to clear.

Most of his lamps were plugged into two extension cords, operated by a wall switch. That part was easy. But he had to drag himself around to light a few more by hand. His foot was one big stabbing pain now. But he did it. He lit up the darkening room.

He took a breather, leaning on the kitchen countertop.

“What a mess I am,” he muttered.

He pulled a can of beef soup out of the cabinet.

“Ahh! You’re too much trouble.” He returned the soup and opened the drawer of candy bars. Yep. Nuts and chocolate, perfect mix to knock him out a while.

That perked him up briefly for the evening news, then took him under again. Somewhere on a human-interest story, he dozed. The loud TV voices carried him along. Thoughts and memories came and went.

 

Much later Donna drifted in again. She reached her zombie arms out toward him.

No! He could not open his throat, but he tried to yell, “No! Get away from me! Get the hell out of my head!”

Her face crushed into hurt and anger.

“Aw, Donna, come on,” he said in the dream. “This is not you. It’s my brain putting you into a horror movie.”

“It is me, Spike.”

He woke up with a dry tongue and a foggy head.

Boom boom music sounded off the beginning of the late-night news.

Donna’s wounded look haunted him. Maybe he was too tough on her.

“Yeah, but then again, you were a wimpy woman,” he muttered.

“I am not!” He heard her say.

That creeped him out.

It sounded like middle-school Donna, he rationalized. Another short circuit.

He glanced around his brightly lit room. Ready for another long, long night.

He felt a tingle behind him.

Is somebody here?

He craned his neck around.

Nothing.

“Fine time to go crazy, Spike,” he told himself.

Heaving up out of his chair, he saw dark splotches. Dizziness unfurled for an extra-long time, swirling, swirling. He heard his blood rushing. His chest bubbled with a shaky sensation.

It cleared.

He picked his way toward the kitchen. Every bone in his body ached.

He felt trapped in his feeble body and foul nest.

But on the other side of all this - extinction.

He poured a tall glass of scotch, five fingers, his nightly glass.

Trudging back to his chair, he accidentally rammed his gangrene toes into a hard heavy object. Intense pain shot up his leg. He almost dropped his glass.

“Goddammit, Spike,” he yelled, “Goddammit!” He leaned on a precarious stack to steady himself and clear the spots from his eyes.

“This is not working,” he spat, “this whole damn thing.”

He gritted his teeth and struggled to reach his chair.

“This stupid body! This obscene shit! This trash on trash on trash!”

He fell into his chair, splashing more alcohol on his arm. Licked it off and took a swig.

“Goddammit!” His head was spinning again, even sitting down. He saved his scotch on the end table.

“Goddammit, come on, straighten out!”

It did not straighten out. It swirled faster.

His chest shook with anger. Pain thumped from his heart all the way up to his head.

“Stop!” He shouted, trembling with rage, every tendon taut, every membrane on fire.

Tighter, tighter, tighter, unbearably tight.

Pulling, pulling, pulling apart.

Now, trillions of teeth began tearing his flesh.

He tried to yell, but had no breath.

The gnawing jaws intensified.

The harder he pushed against them, they harder they devoured him.

Eruptions burst in every cell.

He felt them pop like tiny volcanoes, each biological cell pressurized to its breaking point.

His flesh became a vault of unearthly pain.

A galaxy of trillions erupted and finally burst into one big explosion, as bright as the birth of a star.

 

Suddenly, neutral.

He sat in a haze, with zero visibility.

Then the haze cleared.

Spike saw a pile of ash on the seat of his chair.

Flames flickered inside his glass of scotch.

His two swollen feet sat on the floor, just where he’d left them.

What? What?? How?

Were the feet too wet to burn?

Or too far from the main explosion in my torso?

But what? Why does my mind still work?

What the hell is going on?

“See? It’s really me,” said Donna, right next to him. Floating, or whatever. He could not tell how.

Donna looked radiant.

Damn, it’s good to see her.

“Did it hurt?” she asked.

“Yeah, but mostly it was insane.”

“It’s the way you wanted to go.”

“Did I?”

“You did. Your curiosity played out. The dichotomy in every cell is what did it. You told them to stay and to go at the same time. You asked the impossible of them.”

“Huh.”

“Every cell is a being. The spirit infuses every cell. You stayed in your body so fiercely that your spirit could not detach. Every cell had to explode itself in order to release you. That’s how much they love you.”

Stunned, he stared at her.

“Come with me now,” she urged him.

His lamps still flooded his room with light. They remained that way for days.

 

 

Previously published in the short story collection, What, No Death? Sheer Fiction by Diane Langlois Stallings, 2021


Submitted: September 04, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Diane Langlois Stallings. All rights reserved.

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