Angel of Death
By Brooks Rexroat
When the phone rings at half past one in the morning, Lewis doesn’t fumble for the receiver. His arm arcs straight for it, habit-laden and well practiced.
“Who is it tonight?” he asks, and flips on the bedside lamp while he listens for the name. “I’ll be right there.”
Lewis exhales, drops the phone back onto its plastic cradle, and pushes himself up off the mattress. He hobbles toward the clothes he’s left draped over a chair beside his bedroom door. He slips them on as quickly as he can manage, checks himself in the bathroom mirror to make sure he’s gotten each shirt button through its proper hole. He cups his hands to splash cool water on his face, and walks to the kitchen. In the stillness of young morning, the only sound is the clack-clump of his own gait, his feet striking heavy and heavier on the ancient wood floors of a home his father built by hand.
It’s a drive of three and-a-half miles to the East Ohio Veterans’ Home. Lewis feels the drooping of his heavy head and eyelids. He’s aware of his slumping shoulders. It was a hard day already with a skipped lunch (the Tupperware sandwich box still waiting in the break room refrigerator), two extra hours of paperwork, and late afternoon conferences that simply couldn’t be pushed off to another day. With great difficulty, he’d finally gotten himself to sleep, a solid two hours later than his typical bedtime of nine.
His blood pressure is up lately, his stress levels palpable from too much work, too many late night calls. It’s been the coldest winter in a decade and even on the weeks the paycheck gets cut on time, it’s too often a coin flip between heating oil and meal money. But the worst of it is the quiet, the way he’s hardly spoken to a soul outside of work duties and his Sunday and Wednesday trips to First Baptist of St. Clairesville. Even those church trips have become sad, as the lists of illness and condolence published in the weekly bulletin grow longer while the aging congregation grows steadily smaller.
But this is his chosen job, his chance to serve those who did what he could not, all those years ago when one irregular tick in his own heart kept him from knowing firsthand the many horrors other men recite to him daily. When the phone rings, there is no ignoring it. There is no point in pondering excuses.
He yawns and pauses at the electric coffeemaker in the kitchen. He looks up at the big clock over the stove and the way it just doesn’t stop. He hopes the caffeine is just a want, because that second hand is not worth fighting. It’ll win, every time. On his way out the door, he picks up a weathered old Bible, bound in leather and marked in the most important spots by small slips of paper.
The air bites at his coarse skin. He shivers, and then shuffles along the walkway, careful to bring his feet straight up and straight down so he doesn’t slip on any ice. If there’s one thing he doesn’t need tonight, it’s another fall. He was out of commission for a week after the last one, the doctor at the public hospital refusing to let him get back to work until he’d passed a battery of tests.
He wipes half an inch of powdery snow from the front and rear windshields of his old sky blue Buick, slips into the driver’s seat, turns the key, and shifts into gear without letting the vehicle’s engine properly warm itself. He hates doing this; someday the car will give out for good, and he’ll have no one to blame but himself. More importantly, he’ll have no way to get to work.
He eases backward, turns out of his driveway onto the county throughway. The car continues to move after he depresses the break fully, and he can only wait, hope the thing stops before gliding off the road. Just shy of his own mailbox, the car finally rests, and he grips the icy steering wheel tight, pushes the gas pedal as hard as he dares at this hour, in this weather.
It’s quarter to two, and the bar between his house and the veterans’ home will clear out any moment, his drunken neighbors pouring onto the already perilous roads. He does what they told him at the Elkton Seniors Center and watches the white line when someone comes his way with their bright lamps on. That reflective strip on the road’s edge helps him steer when he can’t see anything else, blinded by oncoming brightness. He hopes, and even whispers a small prayer each time a car comes his way, that the other driver will manage to stay on the far side of the road, and that by focusing on the white stripe, Lewis will manage to stay on his own.
He wonders, though, as he stares hard away from what seems to be the particularly bright lamps of a pickup truck, if this is what it feels like to be one of his clients in those last seconds: something overwhelming and bright taking over every sense until there’s nothing real left around them. He wonders how it really feels to encounter the moment through which he’s held so many hands, the moment over which he’s about to preside once more. In this instant, he wants to look up, to know what it’s like, all that enveloping white.
But that would be selfish, he tells himself once again. Too many others count on him, so he fixates on the side of the road until the lamps have passed, and the going is safe. He nudges the gas pedal just a touch farther and out of habit checks the dashboard clock, even though it’s been stuck on four-seventeen in the afternoon for nearly a decade.
Lewis nods at Jacob, the night watchman. He smiles at Marcy, the evening receptionist who spends most of her shift reading romance novels, still labeled with orange price tags from the thrift store. He returns a wave from Bernie, the custodian, who never stops swaying that big heavy mop even as he lifts his hand to acknowledge Lewis. Everyone is friendly but no one speaks: with so many weak and weary hearts in the building, there’s no need to say the chaplain’s name out loud after hours.
Lewis walks the beige hallway tile as softly as he can manage but there is no hiding a late-night arrival from even the weariest old ears. They recognize his gait. It pulls them from sleep, and because of that he hates his limp, the click-clack tapping of the feet that support an overly thick stomach, a broken-down frame, an artificial knee. He curses himself, curses his ailment on their behalf. Then he whispers a prayer, asking forgiveness for the curse. It’s a spiral of difficulty, always trying to stay on the right side of life.
The men will all be wondering one cold thing: who this time. He tries so hard to make his thick rubber soles press more softly against the floor, but it does no good at all. It never has. He feels the men watch through their cracked doorways as he struggles onward. Lewis stops at the chapel and pokes his head in. Sometimes, the men want to spend their final minutes in that room—by far the least dismal place in the vast complex, softened by wood walls and an arched ceiling, fake stained glass behind the altar, a few oil paintings of a smiling Christ. But the chapel is empty so he walks back into the sterile, florescent white of the hallway and walks to room one hundred seventeen, the one occupied by Stewart Walters. He pauses outside the door, breathes deep, composes himself. He whispers, “Help me do well for him, Lord,” and then steps through the doorframe, hoping he’s not too late.
Stewart’s eyes are barely open. Adrienne, the new night nurse, stands on the other side of his bed, along with the superintendent and the night doctor.
The doctor taps the face of his watch with a finger, just once—the signal that it’ll just be moments now. Lewis nods, glad he skipped that coffee. He forces a moderate smile onto his face.
“Stewart, friend, it’s very good to see you this evening.” His tone is warm, soft, measured. Rehearsed, in the precise tones taught so long ago in seminary. Lewis reaches down and gently squeezes Stewart’s hand, which is cold and slowly trembles. Sometimes the men can’t hear Lewis or even see him by this point. He watches Stewart’s eyes, and finds some small hint of recognition, a tiny dilation. He’s still lucid then, at least partially.
“I’d love to read to you from the Lord’s word tonight, if you’d like that. Is there a story you’d like to hear?”
Stewart nods slightly, but when he tries to move his mouth, nothing happens except a soundless budging of his dry and deeply ridged lips. The nurse, Adrienne, picks up a manila file folder and passes it to Lewis. On the second page, underneath the contact information for next of kin, is a favorite Bible verse, the twenty-third Psalm. Lewis smiles against his internal impulse. He hates reading this at the end, hates reminding dying men about green pastures and shadows of death because part of it is so near and the other so uncertain. He’s read it at bedsides and memorials and vigils and has written it on cards of condolence. If he had his way, it would be stricken from the good book altogether on a blended basis of sadness and absurdity. But this is Stewart’s choice, written months ago in his own shaking hand, and Lewis will oblige.
“Would you like to pray with me first?” Lewis asks.
Stewart slightly lifts his free hand and points to the Bible. He always was one to listen, to learn quietly from others. In the dining hall and at the card tables, during bingo, on outings to the village park—the others would talk and share their tales of glory. Stewart, he would urge them on, compel them for detail, but of all the men who’d ever passed through the building, Lewis had never once heard Stewart offer a battle tale. That was a bond they shared, Lewis and Stewart. Now the task of listening will fall just to the man who claims it as a vocation. This will be a fitting close: Stewart resting as someone regales him onward. Lewis shuts his eyes for the quickest of instants to ask for a calm and painless end to Stewart’s life.
The chaplain opens his worn Bible and begins to read, though he knows the full chapter and most of its neighbors by heart. The men are more comfortable when he appears to be reading, rather than reciting to them. There is warmth in the charade, and so he pretends to read words that have long lost the power of their meaning. After a few words, he looks up and sees the tinge of a smile falling over Stewart’s face. The frail man closes his eyes. His chest rises slowly and pauses before his lungs release the air so that each breath seems, for the slimmest instant, to have been the last.
Lewis returns to the page. Maybe he is fooling himself. Maybe he doesn’t pretend at reading to make the men feel better, but to avoid watching their final instant. So he can see them near death and after it, but never during. He stares at the little black letters on onionskin pages—too small even though it’s a bulky large-print edition—and reads the rest of the chapter. He starts in on the twenty-fourth. He is aware of movement across the room, across the bed, the doctor and the nurse moving and checking, measuring, marking, noting. One hand still wrapped around Stewart’s cool fingers and the other supporting the Bible, Lewis reads on and on, ignoring what’s happening in the room, ignoring the quickness, the beeping machinery, the motion, the rustling of fabrics, the leaning and dipping and whispering. Lewis reads the word of the Lord, the comforting word, the good word, until he feels a firm hand grasping his shoulder.
“He’s gone,” the superintendent says. “He’s gone.”
Lewis squeezes once more on the limp hand of a man who won medals and praise for the way he fought and killed his way across Europe, but who never wanted to talk of anything but those around him, the family he loved, the friends, the obnoxious dog he once raised, the neighbors he kept in this stark building. As the nurse disconnects tubes and cables from the body, Lewis ponders this: the way a man’s life can be defined by the instant when he was asked to fight, rather than the years he chose to love. He takes a ballpoint pen from the pocket of his trousers and marks this thought down in the margins of his Bible, in case it might be meaningful in some future memorial service. Maybe in Stewart’s, if he’s asked to deliver it.
The superintendent calls for a transport to the coroner, which will wind up being whichever commercial ambulance service is closest at the moment. Sometimes, there’s an argument in the lobby if two competing drivers arrive too close together, but at least it’s happened late enough tonight to avoid any of that nonsense. No one working this shift cares enough to fight. Lewis takes up the folder to check on family records: a daughter and two adult grandchildren in Arizona, a third in California. He wonders whether he ought to call them now, or wait until the morning.
“You look tired,” Adrienne says. “Go home. We’ll make the call.”
“No,” he says. He regrets how firm it comes out. “That’s my job.”
She shrugs, and opens a steel cabinet at the foot of the bed. She pulls a plastic wrapper containing a flag off the top of a pile. “Give me a hand with this?” she asks. Lewis helps to drape it over the body. The superintendent’s cell phone buzzes once, and he reads the message. “Transport’s here,” he says. “Quick tonight, at least.”
The three of them lift the flag-covered body onto a steel gurney that Adrienne fetches from a storage room. Lewis leads them out into the hallway. There, standing outside their doors, are the men of the East Ohio Veterans’ Home. Some lean on canes or walkers, some stand straight and tall on their own power, some lean against the doorway, but each holds his right hand crisply against the temple in salute. Lewis leads the gurney through the building, toward the receiving bay. Some of the saluting men’s eyes are damp with tears. Others smile, recognizing that their friend’s acute pain is done. They whisper kind words as the body passes, wishing well their brother.
Lewis picks up the phone and dials the daughter first but gets no answer. The first granddaughter doesn’t pick up either, but the Arizona grandson does.
“Can I help you,” he says tersely, as if he doesn’t particularly mean for it to be a question.
“This is brother Lewis at the East Ohio Veterans Home, and I’ve called to offer my condolences—”
“I see,” the man says. There’s a pause, long enough that Lewis almost speaks up to make sure the line hasn’t gone dead. When the voice returns, there’s a hush to it, but no sadness. “We thought he was going to hang on to the end of time. What do we need to do? Where should my wife send the card?”
“If you’ll call the home first thing in the morning, they’ll walk you through those details. I want you to know that if you need any counseling, I’m more than happy to help you through the grieving process. I’ll just give you my number—”
The dial tone returns at the other end. Lewis sighs and hangs up. He stops by the dining room to see if any coffee remains. Just a little left, and barely warm. He takes a third of a foam cup and downs it, just enough of a swig to keep him awake on the trip home, and not an instant longer, he hopes. He wipes his lips, pitches the cup, and turns—his pivot encompasses three shuffling steps before he can begin hobbling forward, past the lobby, past Jacob, who pats Lewis on the back and past Marcy, who’s put down her book and taken up paperwork and past Bernie, still sweeping, whose head ducks just fractions lower this time as he nods.
He encounters no opposing headlamps during the drive, everyone else in bed for the night. Lewis cranks the key to his front door and walks into the empty home. He strips off his clothes and drapes them over the chair again—just in case—and then shrugs into his bathrobe and slips into bed, pulls the heavy blanket tight against his chin. He regrets the coffee as he clinches his eyes and lays awake, tired but with blood pumping too quick now to allow sleep. He wonders, as he rests quiet, still, thoroughly alone, whether anyone will be there to read him away, to pray with him, to ask him his favorite verse—or whether some anonymous pastor will passively recite the twenty-third Psalm before hired and anonymous hands shovel the loose ground back into place. Whether his grandchildren will weep or shrug. Whether the calls will be made immediately, or whether the dialer will wait until after morning’s strong, black coffee. In the middle of all that three o’clock darkness, he wonders how very bright the lights will be for him, and how soon they will come. He wonders whether anyone will remember him at all since he has only been God’s reluctant soldier and never man’s.
Brooks Rexroat was raised near Cincinnati, Ohio at the intersection of the Rust Belt and Appalachia: the crossing point of mountain and farm field, boarded mine and shuttered factory, the water that splits north from south. The importance of place has always surrounded him, and it deeply inhabits his characters.
After earning a Master of Fine Arts Degree in creative prose from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he embarked on a journey in higher education that has included teaching opportunities at open enrollment community colleges, regional public universities, and rigorous private liberal arts colleges. Now based at Brescia University in Western Kentucky, Rexroat spent the 2016-2017 academic year as a Fulbright U.S. Teaching and Research Scholar at Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University in Siberia, Russia. He was a 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow in Cassis, France and his stories and essays have appeared in more than 30 journals and magazines on three continents.
"Angel of Death" is one of twelve stories in Rexroat's debut story collection, Thrift Store Coats, now available for preorder from Orson's Publishing.