A Life in The Day
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An Homage to Ingmar Bergman
“Bertram?” the vicar peeked around the door, scanning each hospital bed for his quarry. “Bertram?” Three beds were empty; the fourth held a sleeping figure. Bertram was laid out on his back, angled by the cruelty of hospital beds, and propped into that unnatural sleep by a drip of some sort and hot pillows. A third time the vicar called, venturing nearer the bed, “Betram?”
Bertram’s eyes came open, looking upward into the white of the ceiling. He scanned. The vicar drew near to him and sat down. The rustle of the vicar’s jacket pulled Bertram’s eyes away from the ceiling and toward the vicar. “Vicar!” he tried to exclaim, but phlegm blocked the greeting so that the vicar was greeted by an exuberant, thick cough.
“Lois told me you broke your hip.”
“Darnedest thing, Vicar,” laughed Bertram. “I was walking to turn off the lamp—you know where the lamp is—we run the cord for the lamp under the carpet there. Well, I tripped over the cord, fell down, and I heard my hip go ‘snap.’”
The vicar nodded. The nurse came tumbling in, saying, “His hip broke, then he fell.” The vicar nodded again.
“Well,” said the vicar, “at least you’re getting good care.”
Bertram forced a little more phlegm forward, smiling over it, and he said, with a sad glint in his eye, “Darnedest thing: tripping over a lamp cord. That thing’s been there fifty years! Never tripped over it, not in my memory.”
The vicar nodded. The nurse did her duty, the vicar did his, Bertram thanked him profusely for visiting, and the vicar stood to leave. “Eighty-six in ninety-six!” exclaimed Bertram, looking up into the vicar’s face.
“I’m eighty-six years old this year. Always ten years behind. Eighty-five in ninety-five, seventy-five in eighty-five, and so forth.”
“You were born in 1910?”
“Well, we’ll see you at ninety-six in 2006.”
“Ha,” chuckled Bertram. “Wouldn’t that be something?”
The vicar blessed him again, then departed, making a beeline for the nurse. “So he broke his hip and fell?”
“No one knows for sure, but that’s probably what happened. Bones wear out and break all by themselves.”
“What’s going to happen to him?”
“They put a pin in it. He might heal,” she said, shrugging.
“Oh.” The vicar had come to love Bertram and Lois in the four months he’d been assigned to the little frontier settlement in central Nebraska. He perished the thought Bertram might not heal.
A week later, the vicar came to visit Bertram again. Again, three of the beds were empty, and Bertram lay there in the fourth, asleep, propped into an ungodly sleeping position. “Bertram?” three times roused the old man from his slumber.
“Vicar!” he coughed, then wheezed. “So nice of you to visit.” They visited.
Another week later, the vicar returned to find Bertram sitting upright and taking nourishment by himself, working through standard hospital fare: a piece of sliced turkey, a scoop of mashed potatoes topped with sticky yellow gravy, some squeaky green beans, and a few cups of fruit juice. Bertram waved the vicar over, chewing his food furiously to politely swallow it before he said with a grand smile, “Vicar!”
“It’s good to see you up and—”
Bertram launched into a story. “You know the property I live on: I was coming in last month from the back forty, before I broke my hip here—the darnedest thing, vicar, tripping over that lamp cord, ha ha! I was coming in last month from the back forty, and I noticed that a few of the split rails had come tumbling out of the fence. ‘Wife!’ I called out to Lois, ‘Hold dinner in the oven for me this evening. I’ve got to mend the fence!’ Well, don’t you know, she came out and took the horses from me, pulled the plow harness off them, brushed them down and gave them their oats and hay? I was under the one rail, there, pushing up, you know, trying to be real quiet about it, when, suddenly, I saw a square helmet. Quick I grabbed my M-1 and squeezed off a round. Pang! Right through that German’s head. Well, he won’t be making sauerkraut no more, no sirree!” Bertram paused to laugh. Before the vicar could ask, he continued, “Once that German was dead, I popped the rail into place, then ran into the kitchen, where mama had strawberries waiting for me, in a bowl of the leftover cream. ‘Bertram,’ she said to me, ‘You watch yourself when you go jumping over that fence. If you catch your foot in a crooked rail, you’ll break your front teeth on the ground.’ Lois sent the boys out with a lemonade and a flashlight while I fastened the last rail in place. Vicar, what a wonderful day that was.”
The vicar looked down at his watch, noticing that he was about to be late for a meeting with his bishop.
“Physical therapy starts next week,” said the nurse. The vicar nodded at the good news.
He muttered to himself as he drove to the church building, “Ol’ Bert has lost his ability to distinguish days from years. In his mind, his entire lifetime is compressed down to one day.” The vicar shook his head. “What a horrible fate.”
Several days later the vicarage phone rang during an awful November morning, a low, gray, day which was too cold to rain, but too windy to snow. Flakes danced in the air above the ground, waiting to bite anyone who passed near. The clanging came from another world. It was the nurse. “Bertram has had a stroke. At therapy a clot broke loose from his hip and struck his brain. His breathing is labored. You should come.” The vicar called Lois.
The vicar marched down the hallway toward the room, unafraid, shoulders back, missal in hand. He could not do the sacrament, being a mere vicar, but he could pray all the prayers around the sacrament, thus setting right his friend Bertram. “He won’t die, not while—” He burst into the room to see a man poised over Bertram.
There was no mistaking the man for a doctor, for he was clad in what appeared to be an ill-fitting black robe, slung hurriedly over a slender figure, with a hood pulled over his head. His hands were around Bertram’s throat. He was choking him. The vicar’s blood ran cold and froze his tongue, which cleaved to the roof of his mouth. Nevertheless, he rushed over to throw the man off Bertram’s sad humanity. The man stood upright to face his visitor. His countenance was pale, yet all of a cheerful disposition.
“You!” hissed the vicar. “You! Let him go!”
“Please be seated, Vicar,” said the man. “Do you know who I am?”
“Hm,” said the man. “We shall see.” Still fully facing the vicar, he reached his left hand to Bertram’s throat. The vicar looked at his friend, Bertram, who was gasping for air, filling the oxygen mask with the vapors of his life, then sucking them back in. He was staring into the white of the ceiling. The man caressed his throat with his index finger, then applied light pressure to the larynx. Bertram wheezed, pulling air against too much phlegm. The vicar moved to stop the man, but the man held up his right hand, stopping the vicar. “Do you know what that sound is?”
“That’s the death rattle,” said the vicar.
“Do be seated, Vicar,” said the man, relenting from pressing on Bertram’s larynx. Bertram breathed a little easier. “I have my work to do.”
The vicar seated himself.
“That’s better,” said the man. He resumed pressure on the larynx, first with one hand, then relenting, then with both hands, entirely cutting off the air passage, against which Bertram struggled, thrashing as he could in his weakness, then the man relented again. For several minutes, the man labored in this way. He paused for a moment to wipe his brow.
“You’re playing with him,” the vicar accused.
“Playing?” said the man, turning his face toward the vicar. “I might play, I suppose, but this is not play.”
“It’s cruel. And heartless,” the vicar said, ashamed that he was, in fact, a cliché.
“And preserve us from an evil death,” said the man. The vicar perceived he was being mocked.
“Your missal has that petition in it, does it not?” asked the man, nodding toward the vicar’s hand.
The vicar thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said, “I suppose it is in there.”
“And do you suppose you have found one?”
The vicar mulled the question. The man returned to his work. The vicar watched with new eyes. Tears welled into them. “Why does it hurt me when you do that to him?”
“Now we are in the same realm of understanding, are we not?”
The vicar surveyed the situation. “Hurry up,” he commanded, “and do what you came to do. Enough with this.”
“A merciful death? That’s not in your missal anywhere.”
The vicar blinked, wondering. He watched Bertram continue his struggle to live. “Can’t you take me instead? He and his wife can still have some happiness together.”
“A substitution? No, I will indeed take you, Vicar, when it’s your turn. Or don’t you know these things? When it is your turn, you shall see me, even as this one sees me now.”
The vicar’s blood froze once again.
“No, Vicar, not at this moment, but when the end of your day comes, you shall see me, not as your interlocutor—or didn’t your bishop tell you of these…lessons?”
The vicar wiped tears with the back of his hand. His nose began to run. He wiped that, too.
“You’ll learn to carry a tissue in your missal.”
“Why…” croaked the vicar, struggling not to break into sobs, “…why does it hurt so bad?”
“For reasons you cannot understand,” said the man. “You’ll find that line in your missal, too.”
“Who are you?” asked the vicar. At that moment Lois came into the room. The vicar started to speak to her, but immediately after her came her friend Helen. The moment was too personal for so many people, so the vicar said, “I’ll leave you with your husband.” He hurried from the room and fled to the nurse.
He blubbered, “There’s a man in there, and Bertram…” his lip quivered, causing him to look into the nurse’s eye. When he did so, he could bear the grief no more, so he slumped into her arms, weeping like a child.
She said, “It’s very hard the first time, isn’t it? It’s hard for all of us.” She smoothed the vicar’s hair. “But we have a job to do.”
The vicar went to his apartment and lay in bed. He heard the bishop’s car on the gravel driveway. He peeked his head out the door, watching the bishop gather his paraphernalia, having just administered the Last Rites. The vicar could smell the unction. The bishop, wrestling with the wind over some papers from the archdiocese, caught sight of the vicar.
“By the way,” he said, “Bert died.” He slammed the car door shut with his foot.
“Bertram,” thought the vicar. He waved at the bishop and closed the apartment door.