Goodspeed ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He was in a high bed at the end of a long room. To the right of the bed was a window with a view of a brick wall. When he raised himself up and looked to the left, he could see all the way to the other end of the room and through a doorway that gave onto a hallway. Sometimes there were loud noises coming from the hallway, like small calamities, and sometimes disembodied voices that might have been coming from the walls. Of the three other beds in the room besides his own, two were occupied by what appeared to be wax figures. The bed opposite his own was empty; the man who occupied it died at two in the morning and was quietly removed to the morgue.
Someone approached the bed. He heard the footsteps from a long way off, like tapping with a small hammer. He closed his eyes so as not to be bothered and when he opened them again, a nurse in uniform and cap was standing over him, reading something off a paper.
“What’s the matter with me?” he asked.
“You’re a patient in the hospital,” she said.
“There’s nothing wrong with me.”
“Just lie still.”
“I want to go home.”
“Just lie still.”
Two doctors came in and grimly examined him. They prodded, hammered and probed, looked into his mouth and down his throat and when they were finished they made some notations and were gone. He failed to see any good in anything they did or might do.
Between disturbances, he dozed because there was nothing else he could do. Once when he was halfway between waking and sleeping, he heard these words whispered in his ear: This is not a prison.
He made sure no one was looking and then he got out of the high bed, shakily at first because he hadn’t been on his feet in so long, and shucked off the ridiculous gown and dressed in his own clothes. He pulled on his shoes, tying them with some difficulty, and then he walked out of the room and down the long hallway to the stairs.
He expected a nurse to come howling after him, but they were all occupied elsewhere. He took the stairs slowly and when he came to a door at the bottom, he pushed it open and was astonished to find himself out of doors. There was a tree there and birds were singing and the wind on his face was better than any medicine that came in a bottle. He walked around to the front of the building and found a taxicab waiting at the curb.
He took the cab to the train station and went inside the enormous building and found the place to buy his ticket and, once he had it in his hand, sat down on a hard wooden bench to wait.
To anybody who might have bothered to look his way, he was just another nondescript old man like hundreds of others, dressed in rumpled black clothing and with a slightly shuffling walk. He spoke in a low voice at times to no one—to himself—but except for that nothing about him was worthy of attention.
He didn’t have to sit on the hard bench for long. His train was announced and, as soon as he boarded and took his seat, it began to move.
From the time he was a small child, he had liked the train. It was something of a thrill to be going from one place to another in this manner, with wheels underneath carrying him along. The passing scenery was endlessly fascinating: the city itself with its impressive buildings, cars and pedestrians, and then the outskirts of the city and after that farms and flat pastureland, with the occasional river crossing and small town not unlike the small town that was his destination.
He was seeing these things for the last time, he knew, but he didn’t mind it so much. He believed he had seen just about everything there was to see. He was old by most standards and had lived a good life. He’d been a successful businessman and property owner. He owned a large house and had a garage with two cars in it that only he drove. He had a wife and five grown children. Of his three sons, the two oldest were married and had children of their own. His older daughter was forty-one years old and already a widow with two children.
In the spring he had purchased, at a considerable sum, a cemetery space with twenty-four individual plots. To mark the space and make it easily visible from a good distance away, he selected a massive granite marker, six feet high, bearing the family name: Goodspeed. He’d go into the first plot and then his wife, Lonzie, in the second, and after that, twenty-two more plots for all the others who must all die in their own time.
The time passed quickly and before he knew it the train was pulling into the familiar station in his own hometown. He got off the train slowly because he was bone-tired now and weak. He could have asked anybody to take him up the hill to his house, but it was a matter of pride that he make the last half-mile on his own.
When at last he appeared at his own front door, Lonzie came running from the kitchen, a rag in her hand.
“How did you get here, Augustus?” she asked. There were no smiles or welcoming kisses.
“Magic,” he said.
“We weren’t expecting you today.”
“If we had known the doctor was going to send you home this soon, one of the boys could have come up to get you.”
“The doctor didn’t send me home. I sent myself home.”
“What do you mean?”
“I absconded. I escaped. I flew the coop when nobody was looking. I exercised a little free will. You’ve heard of free will, haven’t you, Lonzie? It’s a wonderful thing.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying no more hospitals.”
“But you’re a very sick man.”
He laughed at this and, after he had a good drink of water, he went up the steps to his bedroom and closed the door and took off his clothes and got into bed. He had never been more tired in his life. The effort of getting himself home cost him every ounce of his strength.
He died five days later, with a private nurse in attendance and the town doctor, Dr. Hess. While he was dying upstairs, his entire family was below, talking in low voices, eating food the neighbors sent over, sometimes barely able to keep from laughing. When the children became too rowdy and restless, Lonzie sent them outside to the yard or gave them some change so they could walk downtown and get a soda.
The funeral was large and well-attended. Everybody in town knew him or had had business dealings with him. The service was held in the Methodist church, with barely enough room for everybody to sit, and when it was finished, all the cars lined up for the slow procession to the cemetery five miles out of town.
His granddaughter, Elizabeth Goodspeed, age twelve, was in the kitchen eating potato salad and fried chicken at the moment of his death. She cried when her mother came and told her her grandfather was dead and later, when everybody else was downstairs, she crept into his room to steal a little peek at him before the undertakers came and took him away. She didn’t want to get too close to the bed. She had never seen a dead person before and was a little afraid he might rise up and scare her.
Elizabeth Goodspeed never married. At age eighteen, she went away to State Teachers’ College and got her teaching certificate. She taught grade school children to read and write and count to a hundred in the same school for almost fifty years until she was forced to retire at age seventy. She died at the age of ninety-eight, eighty-six years after her grandfather, and came to occupy the twenty-fourth, and last, space in the family plot. The circle was closed. Her grandfather would have been proud.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp