Mr. Woodbine is Here ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The nurse came in and took Erwin’s blood pressure. He opened one eye and looked at her and asked if he was dead yet. She ignored him and a little while later she was back again, fussing with the equipment beside the bed, turning dials and flipping switches and writing things down on her clipboard. A clear bag of liquid hung on a pole beside the bed and drained into his arm. He wanted to ask what it was but he was too weak to get the words out. He was sure he was dying, but he told himself he didn’t really mind. Life was far too much trouble, anyway.
In between times when the nurse was fussing someplace else, he saw people in the room with him. They moved quietly around the bed, as if they were keeping watch or waiting—for what he didn’t know. He couldn’t see them very well, but he knew they were there. (Sometimes one of them would lean over and look closely into his face.) If he tried to speak to them, they withdrew. He wanted only to say hello.
One morning after he had been given a sponge bath (he was beyond embarrassment), he opened his eyes and saw a strange man standing at the foot of the bed looking at him—strange because Erwin had never seen him before but strange also because he was wearing a double-breasted, pin-striped suit with a red carnation.
“Who are you?” Erwin asked in his faint voice.
“How are you feeling, kid?” the man asked.
“You know you were shot three times?”
“Feels like more.”
“You know who did it?”
“You had surgery to remove the bullets.”
“They didn’t need to bother. I know I’m going to die.”
The man shrugged his shoulders. “I’m not here to say one way or another.”
“You a doctor?”
“No, my name is Mr. Woodbine.”
“You the angel of death?”
“No, but I appreciate the compliment.”
“No, no, no.” He took a cigar out of his pocket, rolled it around between his fingers, and lit it.
“You’re not supposed to smoke.”
“Well, I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“You’re police, aren’t you?”
“No, but I will tell you that I’m closer to being the angel of death than an officer of the law.”
“I give up then. I don’t feel like guessing anymore.”
“You give up too easily,” Mr. Woodbine said with a little laugh. He puffed on the cigar and blew a big cloud of blue smoke out over the bed.
“That ugly old nurse with the red hair is really mean,” Erwin said. “If she comes in and sees you smoking, she’ll probably stab you.”
“I’m not worried about her.”
“Who are those people standing behind you?”
“Oh, they’re nobody.”
“Well, if they’re there, they must be somebody.”
“They’re just curious. They don’t have much to do with their time and they want to know what’s going on.”
“That doesn’t tell me who they are.”
“They’re people you don’t ordinarily see unless you’re in the state you’re in.”
“Dying, you mean?”
“You said it. I didn’t.
“Tell me more.”
Mr. Woodbine opened his mouth to speak again, but the ugly nurse with the red hair came in and he left. When she pulled back the sheet and started poking at Erwin’s legs, he said, “Do you smell cigar smoke?”
“Why? Have you been smoking?”
“If you smoke in this room, you’ll set off the sprinklers and that will make certain people very unhappy.” She pointed at the ceiling.
“I’ll tell him.”
“That man that was just here.”
“If anybody was smoking,” she said, “I would know it. I’ve got a nose like a bloodhound.”
“Am I going to die?”
“You don’t think I’d tell you, do you?”
He went to sleep again and a large, indeterminate chunk of time passed, maybe days or maybe only hours. Once when he awoke, he was aware of rain pattering against the window and then of Mr. Woodbine sitting in the chair beside the bed smoking his cigar.
“How are you feeling now, son?” Mr. Woodbine asked.
“How do you get in here all dressed up like that, smoking that cigar? Don’t the nurses try to stop you?”
“They don’t see me.”
“Well, that must be convenient. You’ll have to let me in on some of your secrets.”
“There’s nobody around. I thought we could talk a little more.”
“What time is it?”
“Does it matter?”
“Tell me how you came to be shot.”
“An argument over money.”
“And not very much money, either.”
“Not worth dying for?”
“If I live, I’m going to go find the rat that shot me and shoot him. Only I’m going to do it right. I’ll make sure he’s dead.”
“How do you know he’s not in police custody already for shooting you?”
“Maybe he is. I don’t know anything about what’s going on out there.” He pointed feebly toward the window. “The police were here asking me questions but I wouldn’t tell them anything. I want to take care of that rat myself. I never liked that guy anyway.”
“Revenge will be sweet?”
“It already is, just thinking about it.”
“What if I told you he’ll be taken care of and you don’t need to bother yourself?”
“I’m still going to kill him, except I’m going to make him suffer.”
“The way you’re suffering now?”
“Even if you live, you might not walk again.”
“I can kill the son of a bitch from a sitting position.”
“I have no doubt.”
“Why am I telling you all this?” Erwin said. “I don’t even know who you are!”
“It’s all right, because I know you.”
“I never saw you before in my life.”
“You have, many times, but you aren’t able to remember. I was there the time you nearly drowned in the swimming pool in high school. Remember?”
“I remember the incident but I don’t remember you.”
“Some of our memories are blocked out. The ones we’re not supposed to remember, for one reason or another.”
“You’re talking nonsense.”
“Not the first time and certainly not the last.”
“Tell those people to stay away from me. They’re getting on my nerves.”
“You just rest now. I think I hear that mean nurse coming.”
Anytime he was conscious, he expected to see Mr. Woodbine again, but Mr. Woodbine came no more.
Finally the day came when he arose from the bed on his own without any nurses fussing around him. His clothes were there, draped neatly over the chair. His wallet, glasses and keychain were on the table beside the bed where he would be sure to see them. He knew that he was being allowed to leave the hospital. Everything that was wrong with him had been fixed. He was renewed. He was going to have a fresh start. All his thoughts of revenge were gone. He didn’t even remember what had brought him to the hospital in the first place. He couldn’t wait to get outside and breathe the fresh air, even if it did smell like bus fumes. He jumped into his clothes excitedly.
He was going to tell the nurses goodbye as he walked past, but they were busy and didn’t look at him. Instead of waiting for the elevator, he walked down the five flights of stairs to the street. It felt so good to use his legs! Who said he might not ever walk again?
It was a brilliantly sunny day. As he walked down the broad steps of the hospital, he saw Mr. Woodbine waiting for him at the curb. They got into a waiting car and, as the car sped away, he lowered the window to feel the rush of air in his face. He was leaving pain and suffering behind. His problems, at last, were at an end.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp