To just keep on living–that is the hope I hold on to every time we march in one of the company’s funeral processions. I saw my face reflected in the side window of a sedan while we were marching last week, and it seemed to say, “On this another fateful day, I have hope.”
The deaths come regularly. Someone is always dying, and then we march. I try to find something positive in it, but it is difficult. Someone’s death does get your attention, I suppose; that’s one thing. And it teaches you to not take life for granted; that’s something. But then you start thinking, Who is going to be next? But I never think it is going to be me because I have hope.
Yes, you do have the formal funerals where the dead are put into the ground. That’s bad enough, but it is the walking dead, the marching dead–that’s another matter. They keep dying so very close to me, and I am thrust up against a wall of doubt, and I am tempted to believe that I am going to die just like they do. My heart and mind are roughed up by this bully Death. He storms into my life and steals dear acquaintances, and I, in shock, wander around asking myself, Why? Why me? Why now? That’s when I think about sunshine warming up a moist green hillside–how the air quivers right before your eyes–and then the nausea subsides for the most part.
Hope. I still got it, though. I have this hope to live. It is not a hope that is taught. This hope in me is innate; it is a part of my very spirit inside. It is as much a part of me as the ability to inhale air. I want to live; I want to stay in this sometimes cruel and inhospitable environment, no matter what comes. In fact, I secretly hope to live on–to prolong my time in this fleshy body. Yes, to somehow cheat or conquer Death, to beat him at his own game–that is what I am after.
I share all this with my wife. I believe that she still understands me. She, of course, doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t have to. She just smiles at me all the time with those playful upturned lips. I can count on that smile because it never changes. It’s always there, believing me and helping me. Her eyes, too. They seem to wink knowingly at me as if to say, You are going to live on, my love. And that reassures me and usually it is enough to get me through the night and on to the next day.
Like this morning, before leaving for work, I pick her up and gently wipe the dust off and hold her to my chest and clutch her there and bring her up to my lips and softly kiss her mouth. I never want to leave her. Sometimes I even want to take her to work with me–just put her inside my jacket and zip her up close to my heart. But I don’t because she would probably just get in the way and be broken. So I just set her back down by the candles. She doesn’t mind being left alone at home. She understands me.
But my coworkers do not understand me. They do not share my desires. They are a strange lot to me, for they all in one accord tell me that I am much too optimistic.
For instance, we are on lunch break last week, and as I am opening my turkey sandwich with mayo and leaf lettuce, Henry says to me, “What are you so happy about?”
“Happy? Why do you say that?”
“You’re smiling like you know something we don’t.”
“I am feeling pretty good today, now that you mention it.”
“How could you feel good in this dump–this, this plastic sewer of a job site?”
“At least we are working. Some don’t have that privilege.”
“Privilege? You call this mind-numbing noise a privilege to work in?”
“Henry, I have a life. We would be destitute if I were not working. Why do you work?”
“Why do I work? I’ll tell you why. A man has to do something while he is waiting for his turn. You know the old saying: Boredom and aggravation are Death’s herald.”
“So you are just biding your time until your time to go?”
“Yes. Isn’t everyone?” Henry sits and stares at me vacantly. He is not eating again. I don’t know why he doesn’t eat. Very rarely does he lunch with me. He is so much like the others. They are all thin and hollow-jowled.
“No, not everyone. I’m not,” I say to the black moons under his eyebrows. I have learned that you’ve just got to look them in the eye and speak your mind. They are not to be feared–only understood. “I am not changing the subject, Henry, but are you eating at home? You really need to eat something.”
“I’m starving myself again. I want it to come soon. It is a miserable and lonely existence.”
“You are selling yourself short. Did you ever really live, Henry? I mean, really breathe in the warm air of love and then clutch the hand of the golden-haired girl beside you and run through a green meadow in spring and chase yellow butterflies and fall down laughing at the baby blue sky smiling down on you, and then turn and press your lips upon her moist hungry mouth and then melt and swirl as one back into eternity?” I look in his eyes and night has fallen in them. Empty streets wind their way down to the center of his darkness.
“No, but then, no one has experienced that! That is just some dream of yours, some wild idea of what life could be. There is no such life. There is only death.”
“No, you are wrong, Henry. And so are all of your buddies. You just haven’t seen what I have seen that’s all.”
“You haven’t seen that because it is no where to be seen!” He is shouting now and getting up out of his chair. “You are a liar! There are no butterflies and grass and, and love, and pretty girls! It’s all lies!”
“No, Henry, you have believed the lie. Life is good; life is sweet. Life is to be lived and not squandered in nothingness. You cannot negate truth with a lie. Life is good. That’s the truth. Your misery is really the lie, for it does not exist in real life.”
“No, the truth is that we are all miserable. We are waiting to die. Death is the only thing that we can count on. And so I have nothing to smile about now. There is no joy here.” He pokes himself in the breastbone, and it yields a thumping sound.
“You are miserable because you believe that a pleasant life is impossible. You have accepted death as the ultimate reality, when, in fact, it is an aberration, an interruption, a temporary detour. You do not accept life today because you long for death.”
Henry’s face is snarling now. He lunges at me and grabs my neck and wraps his bony fingers around it. He is an animal, fighting for…what? He is shaking my head in all directions now, and I see the faces of the others who begin to smile. And I look at Henry’s face, and he is smiling now, too. He is grinning and leering at me as the others begin to yell, “Get him, Henry! Give it to him good!”
And I can see my face flashing in his eyes. I am a little blimp of light passing over the dark globes set in his sockets. I can still hear the shouting, and then I see the Superintendent. He comes in the door and shouts, “What’s going on in here?”
At that, Henry loosens his grip on my neck. He wheels around and stands at attention, and I hear Henry say to him, “I was trying to kill him, sir.”
“So that’s what it was? I thought so. You were choking him all right.” Henry backs up now and joins his coworkers on the far wall of the room. The Superintendent walks over to me, looks at my neck, and asks, “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m okay.”
“I want you to report to my office immediately to fill out the necessary paper work.”
“What kind of paper work, sir?” I ask.
“It is strictly a formality. He was trying to kill you, and that is obviously a capital offense.”
“I don’t understand what you want me to do.”
“Attempted murder is worthy of death, but the law states that you will have to put it into writing before the charges will stick. After that, of course, Henry will get his funeral.”
“No, sir, you have got it all wrong. It’s not Henry’s fault. It’s really all my fault.”
“What do you mean? I saw him myself with his fingers around your throat, and you’ve still got red marks on your neck.”
“I know, but don’t blame him. I was telling him about blue skies, butterflies, and girls, and it made him a little crazy. He’s okay now. I am willing to forget all about it.”
“Suit yourself,” the Superintendent says, and then turns and yells, “Okay. Let’s get back to work!”
I look at Henry and the rest of the guys, and they are laughing and shaking his hand and patting him on the back. He looks at me and says, “Are you ready to go and fill out the paperwork?”
“There will be no paperwork today, Henry.”
“What do you mean–no paperwork? I need to have the papers in order, so that…”
“I am not filling out the papers, Henry. I am not pressing charges.” I reach over and pat his right shoulder. “It’s okay. I forgive you.”
He looks at me and moans, “Why? What have you done to me?”
I just smile. I want to tell Henry that life is too precious, but there will be plenty of time for that later.
I rub my neck. That was close. Death reached for me and almost got me. And yet, I knew I would get through it. I have this hope that I will live for a very long time–maybe even forever.
Kenneth Wayne Hancock
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