For the third time in a week, Joe Shannon prays for death. In the quiet of his private room at Brigham and Women's Cancer Center, all he has for company is the quiet machine noise of his IV tube and the occasional groan from one of the other rooms down the hall.
Joe looks at the clock on the wall. 3:87 in the morning. He hasn’t been able to sleep for more than two hours at a clip in a month and a half, and he’s tired.
He’s tired of the pungent smell in his nose from the oxygen tubes.
He’s tired of the same four walls.
He’s just plain tired.
Wait a minute. 3:87 in the morning makes no sense. He squints at the clock again. 3:37 – that made more sense. Goddamn Decadron screwing up the works in his brain. Or maybe it was the Velcade. Or maybe the Oxycontin. Or the Vicodin. Or maybe one of the other forty-nine pills that he was taking over the course of each day. Hell, the pills tasted better than the rotten hospital food they tried shoveling down his gullet every day. His doctors were concerned that he wasn’t eating enough. How much could a man eat with a belly full of pills?
Joe adjusts the pillow under his swollen legs. Every pill in North America, and they didn’t have one that could make his legs comfortable.
His daughter visited from New York last week with the kids. It was nice until she started crying an hour into the visit and couldn’t stop. It humiliated Joe to not be able to comfort his daughter – to be so weak as to not even be able to tell her to shut the waterworks off. Worst of all, his grandsons were wearing Yankees hats. Talk about insult to injury.
Well, soon enough he’d be able to apologize to Ted Williams and Tony Conigliaro himself. He just doesn’t know when.
Joe opens his eyes to make sure the IV machine wasn’t going on the fritz again. The amount of money his family was paying for him to be in here, you’d thing those prick doctors would give him some machinery that worked.
As he turns his head, he sees that it isn’t the machine, but the hydraulic door hinge opening.
In the dim light, he sees a tall man he doesn’t know in an expensive-looking black suit. His skin is bone-white, a blood-red tie knotted over a black shirt.
In a gentle voice he says, “Hello, Joe.”
“Nurse! Nurse!” Joe shouts hoarsely, his voice dry and squeaky from panic and disuse. He strains weakly against the weight of his own atrophied muscles. He doesn’t know the guy, but he knows why he’s here. His hand finds the call button and he frantically presses the alarm. Distantly, he hears a bell chiming at the night nurse’s desk.
“Joe, calm yourself. Don’t get your tubes all tangled up.”
“You’re not making this any easier on yourself.”
“And I’m not going to, you son of a bitch. You bastards aren’t content to let me go out on my own terms?” Joe points the buzzer at his guest and presses the button.
“Knock yourself out.” The guy straightens out his coat and sits in the hard plastic chair next to the bed. Casually, he pulls out a gold cigarette case.
Joe hears the squeaking of the nurse’s shoes on the linoleum down the hallway. He laughs dryly. “You missed your chance, buddy. When that nurse gets here, she’s gonna call the cops. You got about five seconds to get out of here.”
Slowly, the guy shakes his head. “I’m not going anywhere, Joe.”
The nurse bursts through the door, flipping on the too-bright fluorescents. Joe is momentarily blinded. The nurse also blinks rapidly in the sudden harshness. As far as he can tell, the visitor doesn’t react at all – either to the light or to the nurse’s presence.
The night nurse is slightly out of breath. She’s a sweet, pudgy little thing wearing a cheap engagement ring and a perpetually forced smile. Through the smile, she says, “What’s wrong, Mr. Shannon? Why are you yelling?”
Her eyes never so much as glance over to the dapper stranger, who smiles at Joe and shrugs, cigarette dangling. He sparks a lighter and touches the flame to the tip of the cigarette. “She can’t see me, Joe.”
“I…I want that man out of the hospital. Call the police.”
The nurse looks around the room. Her smile doesn’t falter, but the strain of maintaining it clearly increases. “I’m sorry?”
“She can’t hear me either.”
Joe sits up, pointing at the man clearly sitting next to his bed. “Him! This greaseball bastard is here to kill me!”
The nurse’s smile wavers a bit and her eyebrows knit up in sympathy. “There’s nobody here, Mr. Shannon.”
The visitor smiles and blows a perfect smoke ring. “Told ya.”
Simultaneously, the nurse and the visitor repeat themselves.
“I said, I told ya.”
“I said, there’s nobody here. You were just having a nightmare, Mr. Shannon. I’ve been at the desk all night and nobody has come by.”
“But…but…” Despite himself, Joe feels a hot humiliation spreading through his chest. The finger he’s pointing at the stranger shakes a little.
“And please don’t yell anymore. The other patients are trying to sleep. You should, too.” With that, the constant smile is planted back firmly where it belongs. The room plunges into semi-darkness again as she turns the light off and leaves the room.
The only sounds in the room…
Joe stares at the stranger. He closes his eyes and rubs at them. When he opens them again, the man is still there, calmly smoking.
“I’m still here, Joe,” he says gently.
“Goddamn meds. Got me so looped up…” He hadn’t had one yet, but Dr. Singh had told him that they were a possibility.
As if reading his thoughts, the man says, “I’m not a hallucination.”
Joe chuffs. “Well, if you’re the tooth fairy, you’re a couple decades too late. My dentures are in the glass by the nightstand.”
The man laughs warmly. “Not quite. I’ll give you another guess, though.”
Tiredly, Joe slumps his head back onto the stiff hospital pillow. “I’m outta guesses, buddy. So why don’t you just tell me who you are?”
He takes one last drag off the filter and drops the butt into the miniature ginger ale can with a sizzle. “I’m the Angel of Death, Joe.”
“You got to be kidding me.”
“I’m afraid not. It’s your time, my friend.”
“Really? Where’s your black robe? That sickle thing?” Joe is laughing hard now. It hurts, but it feels good, too. “Why do look like every wop button man I ever met in my life?”
Death smiles at him. “Did you imagine that I would come to you in a black robe? Carrying a… I believe it’s called a scythe.”
“To be honest with you, I never imagined it at all. I dunno… I just always imagined it was… I dunno. Lights out and that was it.”
“That’s not entirely true. There were many times when you thought that someone – someone who looks like me – was going to end your life.”
“What are you talking about?”
Joe narrows his eyes. “How do you know about that?”
“I know all about you, Joe. You and Sal Bustimante had a dispute about who was supposed to be paying who?”
Joe is silent. In shock.
“You thought that he might send some, excuse me, ‘wop’ to take care of you.” Death makes a pistol from his thumb and forefinger and fires it, making a pop with his lips.
“Yeah. I was real scared.”
“And there was Nino Valleta in ‘81”
“Hey, Mr. Death Big Shot. I didn’t have anything to do with Nino disappearing. You know so much, why don’t you know that, huh?”
Death smiled. “I do know that, Joe. I also know that you were terrified that Mr. Bustimante would hold you responsible – and again, that someone like me would come sneaking up behind you on Boylston. Your strongest visions of your own death have always been someone like me, Joe. That’s why I’m here like this.” He splays his hands wide, presenting himself.
“I appear in whatever form of death the near-deceased have always thought.”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
“Nope. I’ve been a lot of things over the years. I’ve been jealous husbands. Drug dealers selling the last dosages. I’ve been dogs – hell, once I was a Buick Electra.”
Once again, Joe is doubled over in laughter. Half from the force of the humor he now sees in it all and half from the pain that laughter is generating in his ruined stomach. But he doesn’t care. One way or the other, he knows it will all be over soon.
“What’s so funny?”
“I… I’m kinda mad at myself for never imagining that I would get banged to death by Charlie’s Angels. Instead I get you - freakin’ Angelo Death.” Joe wipes away the tears that are streaming from his eyes.
Death laughs again. “That’s a good one.”
Joe finally gets his giggles under control, but the tears won’t stop rolling down his face. It feels like the force of his laughter has chipped something else loose.
Quietly, Death says, “What’s the matter, Joe.”
“I dunno. It’s…I never got to make right.” Joe points up towards the heavens. “Y’know? I never…I never got to make Confession or nothing.”
“Are you sorry for the things you’ve done? Are you truly sorry for life you’ve led?”
Joe thinks about it, trying to associate the acts most vivid in his memory to an emotional response within himself. He’s a little surprised. “Y’know what? I am.”
Death stands up and opens his suit jacket. With one hand, he reaches in. With the other, he points upward and smiles. “Then He knows, too.”
Joe turns his head into the antiseptic smelling pillow and closes his eyes. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to see.”
“You don’t have to. Goodbye, Joe.”
Joe Shannon smiles, even though his tears are still flowing.
And the pain is over.
The visitor buttons his coat back up and walks out of the room. He stops at the nurse’s station. “You got the money?”
“Yes sir. Thank you.” The pasted smile never moves.
“And tell your fiancée that he’s clear of his debts.”
“You know what I have to do?”
“Close your eyes.”
She does. The man in the black suit winds up and punches the nurse full-force to her temple. She crumples to the floor, unconscious. His ring has made a nice gash at her hairline – a convincing enough injury.
He drives out all the way back to an Irish Shebeen in Southie called Conor’s. He knows they’ll be in the back room. The red-haired hostess nods at him as he passes. He walks through the kitchen into the room marked Employees Only.
Sitting around the poker table are five old men. One of them has an oxygen tank strapped to his wheelchair.
The passage of time hasn’t been much kinder to the other four. One holds his cards with knobby fingers ravaged by arthritis. Three of them look up at him with glasses thicker than storm windows.
“Is it done?” One asks, his voice still tinged with the light brogue he brought to Boston fifty years earlier from Galway.
The man in the wheelchair starts to weep softly. Arthritis-Fingers puts an arm around him. “He was suffering, Seamus.”
“I know. I know. It’s a good death.”
“Damn right,” says another old-timer. “Joe Shannon deserved to go out like a man. Not wasting away in cheap hospicthckkk-” The old-timer’s dentures catch on the sibilants and are halfway out his mouth before he catches them. “Gawdammit.”
Those who can, stand. They all raise their glasses towards one man. “We’d like to thank you, Mr. Bustimante, for letting us use your man for this.
Sal Bustimante raises his glass of red wine into the air. He’s met with four pints of Guinness. “Agli amici più con noi. To friends no longer with us.”
“To friends no longer with us.”