I won’t make it through the night. I can feel it, deep inside. It won’t be the cancer that kills me, though that’s what the doctors are all in a tizzy about; it’ll be old age, plain and simple. I’m old, my body is falling apart, the parts are worn out, and nothing works right anymore. Not hardly.
It won’t be long now. I hear the night nurse come on. She told me her name, ages and ages ago, when they first put me in this ward; but I don’t remember it.
“How are you tonight Mr. Holder?”
“I’m fine,” I croak. It is an old man’s voice, and it’s a lie. I’m not fine, I’m dying, and we both know it. But there are appearances that have to be kept up, the little untruths that make conversation work.
She looks over my chart and tut-tuts. She gives me a sponge bath, quick and efficient. I can feel myself getting hard, and despite everything, I am self-conscious about it. She rolls me over, changes the sheets, adjusts the electrodes, puts in a new IV.
I hear her taking off the latex gloves, and I really am hard now, rigid with anticipation and desire. Is it ironic that this part of me still works, when all the other systems are failing? I don’t mind, no not really at all.
I’ve never seen her. I lost my vision when I had the stroke that landed me here in the first place. Not long ago, I’ve lost track; a couple, three weeks, I suppose. She’s a black girl, I can tell that from her voice. Just a trace of an accent. Her parents were from the deep south, she was born in Chicago. She’s young enough to be my daughter, my grand-daughter even. I wonder if she’s got children of her own. She’s a big woman, though I wouldn’t call her fat. Solid, no-nonsense. Christ, I wish I could remember her name.
She wraps her soft, firm hand around the shaft of my cock. “That’s right Mr. Holder, just relax. It feels good, doesn’t it?”
It does feel good, and despite myself I moan and squirm under her touch. She starts off slowly, like she always does, and it always makes me want it more and more, harder and faster. It is that same old hunger, now nearly a century old, the same old hunger that made me follow Susie Pearson up into the hayloft, hoping against hope that it wasn’t really hide-and-seek that she wanted to play.
Susie had a reputation already, not a good thing for a girl to have, back in those days. Susie didn’t have a dad: Mr. Pearson went away to the war—the Great War, the war to end all wars—and when he came back, Mrs. Pearson had a little baby. They got by, I guess, but people talked. Susie was smart though, smarter than any boy I knew, and damn she looked good. She was nothing but curves, busting out all over, and a wicked, hungry gleam in her eyes.
I still remember the smell of that hayloft. I can’t bring her face to mind, but I remember the way she tasted. Her kisses, not that. Later on Susie taught me other, more esoteric, less socially acceptable uses for my tongue, but on that first afternoon I just kissed her mouth, which was plenty exciting enough for me. She fished my dick out of my dungarees. I was hard as ironwood. “This is happening,” I remember thinking. “This is actually happening to me.”
She told me I had a real nice one. She said it was the biggest she’d ever seen, which may or may not have been the truth. She said, licking her lips like a cat, that it would win first prize at the county fair. She let me play with her boobies while she sucked me off, and I spent right into her mouth, and she swallowed it all down like I was feeding her candy, and I knew what heaven was right then and there.
I wonder what ever happened to Susie. The last I heard, she was going to law school. She had to sue them just to get in. She was the smartest girl I ever knew. She got old, I suppose, just like we all do, if we don’t die trying.
The nurse—God I wish I could remember her name: Mary-Ann? Sue-Beth? Something hyphenated—is gently jacking me off. Her hand is strong and warm and professional, and it is moving up and down my cock just slowly enough to make me beg for more, just fast enough to keep the desire building. I grunt something, and she squeezes the shaft playfully before backing off to just a feather-grip. She wants to draw this out, make it last.
Mary, my wife, used to do this for me, back before we were even married. We did everything before we were married, of course. You had to be more careful back in those days, but nobody really was. Even so, we mostly just used our hands on each other. I wasn’t her first lay, but I was the first to ever bring her off, which always made me proud. She never liked to suck my cock, though I would go down on her for hours; and fucking was fun but routine, an old habit; but man that woman could give a handjob! Right there in church, or when I was driving us to town. ‘What’s that old man so happy about, driving down the road with a big fat smile on his face?’
Nurse is moving her hand faster now, deliberately. I can feel it coming, building up inside me. My heart is thumping in my chest. I wonder what the doctors would say. They found a tumor, a malignant growth on my pancreas, the size of the battleship Missouri. Inoperable, they said, as if I couldn’t have told them myself. Terminal. Tell me, what isn’t, when it all comes down to it?
She is playing with my balls, which never really did it for me, but I can’t bring myself to tell her that. Her hand is moving up and down my cock in a steady, sewing-machine rhythm. One finger explores down behind my ball sac, squirreling up in between my cheeks, pressing softly, questioningly up against my bunghole.
There was a boy in our unit who liked to take it up the ass. Fredrick, it was, or maybe Simon, I forget. It was supposed to be a secret, but we all gave it a go, deep down in the belly of the troop ship. It wasn’t like fucking a pussy; not better, not worse. Just different. In the dark it didn’t make no nevermind anyway. I was always curious to try it myself once, to trade places with him, but I never worked up the nerve to ask, and he bought his ticket home at Caen, courtesy of a sniper’s bullet. Now and again, Mary would ask me to do it to her that way, and when I did it I always thought of that poor kid; and how he always insisted he wasn’t really queer, and used to volunteer to walk point just to prove it; and I wondered who he left behind waiting for him.
The nurse is moving her hand fast now, steadily pushing me over the edge. “Let go, Mr. Holder, let it go…” For a fleeting moment I wonder if she does this for all the dying old men in her ward, or if I am somehow special, but then I do let it go and surrender to the rising tide of bliss.
It always feels, in some strange way, just like the first time. I finally give in to the insistent pumping of her hand, her finger worming its way up my ass, and at last I come, groaning and gasping like a horny teenage, squirting warm, sticky semen halfway up my belly. She prolongs it expertly, like she always does, milking every last drop of pleasure that’s left in my withered old body, making the moment seem like forever.
I wonder if she’s wet. I wonder if doing this turns her on, or if it’s merely an act of charity. I wish I could reciprocate, pull her to me, make her breath come in little gasps, make her whole body go rigid and then relax, but that is no longer my place. It would be presumptuous, unseemly. My breathing slowly returns to what passes for normal as she efficiently wipes up the mess with a wet warm towel.
I want to tell her ‘Thank you’. I want to ask her to tell my wife I love her, but Mary’s dead and gone now, isn’t she? Aren’t the women supposed to outlive the men? I never had the strength to be a widower. I don’t think she’d begrudge me this small pleasure, anyhow.
I wonder where my son is, and then I remember that he hasn’t spoken to me, for reasons I don’t understand, in decades. I want to see my granddaughter again, but she is dead too, torn to pieces by a roadside bomb in Iraq, my daughter-in-law phoning me up in the middle of the night to tell me the news in a low, shaky voice. Christ how I wept that night! I cursed George Bush up and down, swore I’d never vote Republican again as long as I lived. I never did, neither, for whatever that’s worth.
“Good night Mr. Holder,” the nurse says softly. “If you need anything, just buzz for me. Otherwise I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
I want to reach out and touch her, ask her to stay just a minute, tell her all these things before it’s too late, but I can already feel the sleep coming, washing over me like a tide, and before my mouth can form the words, I am gone.