Mary Grimm ~ When He Died

They kept the cir­cum­stances of his dying to them­selves: what he said and what he did. The way the nurs­es looked at each oth­er. The way the anti­sep­tic air hung heavy in the room. Who was clos­est when they gath­ered in a cir­cle around his bed, who trem­bled, who cried silent­ly or aloud.

The clock was tick­ing, its hand jerk­ing from one sec­ond to the next. Every round it made was like a year, or maybe it was a year, so that in ten min­utes a decade had passed and they  could­n’t help think­ing of how many things could have hap­pened in that time, had hap­pened, how many faces sur­faced and reced­ed, how many hands were held, how many break­fasts eat­en after a long night, how many rainy morn­ings, how many hot after­noons when the fan had bro­ken again.

Their par­ents weren’t there. They had gone many years before.

The min­utes and the decades piled one on top the oth­er until no one could say which was which or even what time itself might be, whether it was held in the ves­sels called days, or if it was stretched thin like can­dy being made or the strings of melt­ed cheese when piz­za is cut. In that room time was dif­fer­ent from any­where else. The nurs­es grew no old­er, their per­son­al clocks were stopped. If they had stayed there for a hun­dred years they would have emerged look­ing just the same, with their hair curl­ing just so, the same wrin­kles writ­ten on their skin.

But as for him, who was lying on the bed: he was still, but mov­ing fast, chang­ing as they watched. He was still except for his hand that brushed over the sheet. The sheet was drawn up to his chest although it was hot in the room. His hand moved over it, just the tips of his fin­gers, as if he were brush­ing crumbs from a table­cloth. His hand moved and some­times his eye­lids flut­tered. His mouth twitched but he didn’t speak.

The ques­tion hung in the air: Is it time? Is it time now? The cells of his body were speak­ing to each oth­er, com­fort­ing each oth­er. Shall we go on? or shall we stop? It’s been so long, the blood sang as it moved through his veins, that long and con­tin­u­ous riv­er. The neu­rons danced slow­er, their sparks arc­ing across the wastes in his head, dry and arid mem­o­ries that he swam through, hard­ly notic­ing them (pic­nics, dri­ves at mid­night when the radio didn’t work, his hand touch­ing someone’s face). His ribs and his breast­bone expand­ed and con­tract­ed in the way they had learned to do when he’d been intro­duced to the air. His lungs filled but not all the way. Shallow breaths, sips and gasps.

(Is it as if he’s on a train, is it so that he can’t get off although he doesn’t know where the train is going? One of the nurs­es says No, but she might have been answer­ing a dif­fer­ent question.)

When it was time the walls of the room dis­ap­peared. There was a cloud or maybe it was a bird. (The nurs­es were busy but they sig­naled each oth­er with their eyes.) The floor dropped away so that they were all stand­ing on air. People made of fire stood by, wait­ing for their part. When it was time it went on and on which was the wait­ing for anoth­er breath. The clock on the wall had melt­ed so that the min­utes gushed out in a flood. One of them thought she heard a voice. One of them felt a gust of wind. One of them tried to pray but her tongue was heavy in her mouth.

            (After, they kept it to them­selves and said what is meant to be said. He did­n’t suf­fer at the end. It went quick­ly. He’s not suf­fer­ing now. These things might be true but they also made a cur­tain that was drawn. The cur­tain sig­naled: these things hap­pen but don’t think about them for too long or at all if you can help it. The cur­tain said, yes, a dra­ma occurred but it isn’t your dra­ma. You don’t want to see it unless it’s in the form of a fic­tion where death comes as an explod­ing car or a long­drawnout ill­ness which allows time for repen­tance and a deathbed scene. It’s OK, the cur­tain states in a kind­ly way, go on with your lives now, don’t pause here. Don’t ask any­more. Don’t ask.)

He was trav­el­ing far or maybe he was van­ish­ing. He was as dense and bright as a nugget of gold.


Mary Grimm has had two books pub­lished, Left to Themselves (nov­el) and Stealing Time (sto­ry col­lec­tion). Her sto­ries have appeared in The New Yorker, Antioch Review, and the Mississippi Review, as well as in a num­ber of jour­nals that pub­lish flash fic­tion, includ­ing Helen, The Citron Review, and Tiferet. Her book of short sto­ries, Transubstantiation, is forth­com­ing in Fall, 2024. Currently, she is work­ing on a series of cli­mate change novel­las set in past and future Cleveland.