The First Grave ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
He was in a high bed at the end of a long room next to a wall. Near the bed was a window that let in some light, but there was nothing to look at out the window except a brick wall. When he turned and looked to his left, he saw other beds and a double doorway leading into a hallway where people were walking back and forth all the time. Sometimes he heard voices coming from the hallway, but he was never able to make out what they were saying.
One of the other beds in the room had been occupied until recently, but the person in the bed died and was quietly removed to the morgue in the middle of the night. He hoped all the other beds would remain empty because he liked the feeling of being alone and having the room to himself and not having to hear people talking.
Someone approached the bed and he closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep. He or she stood beside the bed quietly, breathing. His curiosity compelled him to open his eyes and he saw the face of a large, middle-aged nurse in a uniform and cap studying his chart.
“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. Your doctor will be in shortly to have a look.”
Not one doctor, but two, came in and smiled grimly at him and then examined him. They studied his chart, listened to his heart, looked in his mouth, in his eyes, fingered his abdomen. They made small noncommittal sounds in their throat that might have meant either there’s nothing wrong with him or he’s going to die right away, and then they were gone.
He slept for a while because there was nothing else to do, but he was tired of sleeping—sleeping and waking and going to sleep again. He couldn’t remember how long he had been a patient in the hospital, but he was tired of it and he wanted to go home.
“This is not a prison,” a voice whispered in his ear. “You can leave whenever you choose.”
He had heard the voice before but had been inclined to ignore it. Now when he thought of the endless day of tedium and futility stretching out before him, he wasn’t sure if he could bear it. And then, after today, there would be tomorrow and then the day after that. No, he wasn’t a prisoner. He was an American citizen and he had the free will to do as he pleased. He would get himself home without any help from anybody.
Standing up from the bed, a little shaky at first, he took a few steps forward and then a few steps back. He stretched his arms above his head to make sure they still worked, went to the door of the room and looked up and down the hallway. He saw no one, so he went to the closet beside his bed and took out his clothes, shirt, pants, jacket, hat, underwear and shoes. With heart pounding, he slipped out of the gown-like thing they had him in that he hated like poison and slipped into his own clothes, quickly before a nurse came into the room.
The hallway for the moment was deserted. He went to the right and then to the left until he came to some stairs. He went down, one flight and then two, without seeing anybody, and when he opened a door on a landing he was surprised to find himself out of doors. It was easier than he thought it would be.
There was a tree and grass; birds were singing and the cool breeze in his face was better than any medicine. He walked around to the front of the building, expecting at any moment to meet someone who would ask him what he was doing and where exactly he was going, but he met no one. He walked half-a-block away from the hospital, where he found a taxi cab waiting at the curb, which he took the short distance to the train station.
He went inside the enormous train station, looked around until he found the place to buy his ticket and, once he had the ticket in his hand, sat on a hard bench to wait for his train. He had only three-quarters of an hour to wait.
In his rumpled old suit and his bowler hat pulled low over his eyes, he was a nondescript old man like so many others. Nothing about him would ever attract anybody’s attention. He muttered to himself from time to time, but what he said was not of any importance, like a tiny child speaking nonsense words. He watched other people, from afar, with a certain amount of interest.
When he saw a man and woman and several children, he thought of his own children, who were no longer children but all grown up. His older daughter was forty-one years old and already a widow with two children of her own. (We must perpetuate the line.) His younger daughter was in school to become a teacher of music. Of his three sons, the two oldest were married and had small children of their own. The youngest son vowed he would never marry.
Looking back on his life, he supposed it had been a good one. He had seen just about everything there was to see and done everything worth doing. He’d been a successful businessman and property owner. He owned a brick building downtown that yielded monthly rental income and a large house with a garage containing two cars that only he drove.
His train was announced, all too soon, and he hurried to the platform, even though he still had plenty of time. He took a seat next to a window and waited impatiently for the train to start moving.
It went slow at first and then picked up speed. The passing scenery was endlessly fascinating: the sprawling city itself with its buildings, cars and pedestrians, and then the suburbs with its neat houses and perfect lawns. Past the city limits were hills and trees and then farm and pastureland, with the occasional river crossing and scenic small town. He dozed after a while and the two-hour trip was over before he knew it.
The little town he lived in was as familiar to him as his own hands. Of course, there would be no one to meet him at the station because he didn’t tell them he was coming, but he didn’t mind. He would be able to say later that he made the whole trip on his own without any help from anybody.
He walked the four blocks from the station, mostly uphill, to his house, and when he got home he was bone-tired but happy. He seemed to be seeing his home for the first in many months, even though he had been away less than two weeks.
When he went through his own front door, the dog yipped and ran to him to be petted. His wife, Lonzie, came in from the kitchen drying her hands, frowning as usual.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“If I remember correctly,” he said, “this is where I live.”
“Well, how did you get here?”
“Are you home to stay?”
“Until I leave again.”
“If we had known you were coming home today, one of the boys could have come up on the train to bring you back.”
“I wanted to do it on my own.”
“Well, what did the doctor say? Are you going to live?”
“I’m in fine shape. I have the body of a twenty-one-year-old man.”
“Oh, I never can believe a word you say.”
“Here’s one thing you can believe: I’m done with doctors and hospitals.”
“Why, whatever do you mean?”
“I mean I want to be let alone.”
“Do you want me to fix you something to eat?”
“Not now. I’m going upstairs to lie down.”
He went up to his room, closed the door, took off his clothes and got into bed. He had never been more tired, but it was a good kind of tired, like at the end of a happy day. He went to sleep, hearing the familiar, comforting sounds of his own home. The dog barked at the mailman. The boy across the street yelled to another boy. A delivery truck chugged up the hill in second gear in front of the house. Lonzie clomped up the stairs in her hard-soled shoes and then down again.
He had a couple of good days in which he could take care of his own personal needs and go downstairs for meals, but after that there were no more good days. He went to bed and didn’t get up again. Lonzie called in Dr. Cutrere and when he came he brought with him a private nurse named Opal Stag who stayed around the clock. Lonzie installed her in one of the upstairs bedrooms and the two of them became fast friends.
Five days after getting himself home from the hospital, he died peacefully in his own bed, in his own home, with only Lonzie and Opal Stag in the room with him. As he was dying, his family members gathered downstairs to await the moment of death. They talked in low voices, ate the food neighbors sent over, and at times were barely able to keep from laughing. When word finally came that he was gone, they felt relieved to be able to go back home and decide what they were going to wear to the funeral.
More than two hundred people attended the funeral. After an hour-long service at the Methodist Church, the funeral procession wended its way through town, out six miles to the spacious country cemetery where he and Lonzie, only six months earlier, had purchased a tract of land containing twenty-four graves. The huge, red-granite marker bearing the family name, Dannenberg, was already in place and could be seen from a long way off.
The first grave, of course, was his. In a few weeks, after the ground settled, his own, separate, stone would be installed, bearing his name and the dates of his birth and death. In the natural order of things, when her turn came, Lonzie would go into the second grave. Then would come the third and the fourth graves (who would occupy them?) and so on through the years until all the graves were filled. It was only a question of waiting, of course, and wondering who would be next.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp