A Perceptible Break

Gus Porter woke from slumber at precisely 5:45 a.m. as he did every morning and sat up in bed, stretching his shaking arms above his head as far as his arthritic elbows would allow, the flab of the skin on his biceps drooping back down into his pajama sleeves. The light was just peeking through the cracks in the Venetian blinds adorned to his frost-covered window, and he yawned to welcome the new day. He groaned with the aches and sleepiness of a man in his ninth decade, and when he swung his veiny legs off the side of the bed into his worn suede slippers and stood up, he walked straight out of the room without turning around to notice thad he had left his body lying prone and deathly still in the bed behind him.

His bedroom was much colder than all the other rooms of the assisted living facility where Gus had lived for the past six years — it was a lifelong habit of his to snuggle under piles and piles of blankets as he went to sleep to maintain the perfect body temperature at night. The hallway to the breakfast nook was a welcome warm embrace in the middle of the growing autumnal chill outside, which still seeped somehow through the cracks of the building. Gus was always one of the earliest risers in the home and walked through the empty hallways where only a few employees milled around idly, readying the day’s doses of medicine for the residents or starting the coffee machine in the dining area.

He sat down at a table in the corner by himself, relishing the wafting smell of coffee beginning to come through the kitchen door to the dining area. Today’s newspaper sat in a stack a dozen high at the doorway to the dining area, and Gus had grabbed one on his way to a table, part of another lifelong habit of reading the newspaper each morning and attempting the crossword puzzle. In his better years, Gus had worked for nearly two decades as the city manager and followed today’s local political news with resigned chagrin and an aversion to the younger generation’s utter failure to live up to its elders, in his humble and unwavering opinion. As he read the headline this morning, he scoffed aloud at the current city manager’s inability to manage the city’s finances in the same smooth way that he knew he could have done it. Gus couldn’t help but mutter under his breath at the monetary situation, and on one of these quiet outbursts his breath overcame him and he suddenly felt a burning in his lungs as he wheezed up short, hacked breaths. The coughing fit lasted twenty or thirty seconds before he was able to breathe normally again, and Gus stood up in a slight daze to ask for some water.

“Excuse me,” he said between lingering coughs as he approached the window between the kitchen and the dining room. No one turned to notice him. “Excuse me,” he said louder. “May I have a glass of water, please?” No response. None of the kitchen staff even looked at him. Gus scoffed again. Typical. The employees at this facility were hardly qualified to care for the elderly, especially when they all had terrible manners like this, Gus consistently thought, scorning what clearly must have been a generational difference between him, a respected geriatric, and the majority of employees at the facility, recent graduates who still suckled at the teat of the older generations’ hard work. Impatient, Gus grabbed a plastic cup from a table beside the door and walked out of the dining hall to fill it up at the drinking fountain himself, unaided by the facility staff.

Other residents were filing into the dining hall now, passing Gus without a word. He muttered a gruff “Good morning” to his friends from the other wings of the building, but none of them replied. He shuffled back to his table with the rest of the residents only to find his down-the-hall neighbor, Cary, snatching Gus’s newspaper — still open to the local section — from his table.

“Excuse me!” Gus spoke up feebly from a few steps away. “Cary! Hey! I wasn’t finished with that.” Cary didn’t pay any attention. That son of a bitch, Gus thought.

By now coffee, bagels and fruit had been set outside for the residents to choose from, and Gus walked over with the rest of the group to get breakfast, protectively holding a new copy of the newspaper under his arm the whole way. He moved to an isolated spot across the dining room from everyone else, glaring at the people who walked past him and guarding his own space in the corner.

Today was a special day in the dining hall: the facility director was paying a visit. A stern-looking woman with a grey perm and glasses that hung from a chain around her neck, Jan Armstrong preferred to remain in her office, a private citadel away from the actual goings-on in the home, but some days she would pay visits with the residents and ask them how they were doing. Today she was walking around the room greeting people, and they replied sleepily back with toothless, aging grins. She made her way from table to table, eventually meandering back to the corner where Gus had retreated. She stopped at the table next to his, where Gus’s other hallway neighbors, June and Leonard, sat sipping their coffee in silence together. Gus watched irritatedly as the three struck up a conversation and laughed blithely together; the sound of their ringing laughter permeated his space and he had trouble focusing on the newspaper. He knew Jan would stop by at his table next, but he was in no mood to speak to her. He peered apprehensively over the top of his newspaper at her and read the cues for when her conversation with June and Leonard was done. Then he saw it: she turned her body from the couple and began to walk toward his table. Gus put his newspaper up over his head again instinctively, trying futilely to create a paper barrier between himself and any conversation that morning.

But to his surprise the dreaded greeting from the director never came. She had passed right by his table and gone on to the next set of people, a trio of inseparable old ladies who were seldom seen without the others by their side. Their laughter together was even more gregarious than the table before, and relieved though Gus was to avoid boring small talk with the director, now he resumed his annoyance for the distractions around him. He just wanted to read his newspaper and drink his coffee in peace.

Just as he began reading a new article, a loud voice from the dining room entrance broke his focus again. “Jan!” the panicky voice said with an urgent tone in it. Without even looking up, Gus could tell it was Katie, one of the young, incompetant — in his opinion — nurses who took care of the residents in his hallway. “Jan!” From the other side of the room, Jan looked up to see the girl striding toward her, and Gus looked up at the commotion too; his was not the only head that turned toward the noise. The girl whispered something into Jan’s ear, and Jan promptly ended her conversation with the old ladies and followed Katie hastily out the door. Must be old Edwin had another heart attack, Gus thought uninterestedly, craning his neck at the thought to notice that his next-door neighbor was nowhere to be found at breakfast. Edwin had had three heart attacks during the six years Gus had lived in the assisted living facility, and he was quite frankly surprised the old man hadn’t croaked yet. Maybe this was the day.

Jan’s abrupt exit caused as a hush and a murmur to buzz around the room for the next several minutes, all undoubtedly wondering what business had called her away, what friend or neighbor of theirs had likely had some serious health malady that needed urgent care. But soon the fervor died down and the geriatrics nibbled back into their donuts and bagels and forgot that any fuss had occurred. Gus had just finished the final section of the paper and had barely folded it and set it back on the table before two old women approached him. He was in the slow process of standing up and grabbing his cane that he’d dangled from the back of his chair when they approached and set their trays down on the table. The old woman noted the newspaper on the table. “Oh, look,” she said quietly, in the wobbly voice common among aged spinsters. “The old City Center project is going to be redeveloped.” Gus couldn’t help but snort. “Too bad the city has no idea what it’s doing,” he retorted. “What a waste of all our tax money.” The woman only continued to stare through her bifocal lenses at the paper in front of her and said nothing in reply to Gus.

Both women sat down. Gus began walking away, but one of the women’s chairs was now stuck so far out into the pathway that it blocked his way through.

“Excuse me, could you push your chair in, please?” His tone was politer than his intent. She didn’t move. “Excuse me!” Gus said louder. Still no acknowledgement. Bah. Someone forgot to put her hearing aid in today. He tapped lightly on her shoulder. She didn’t appear to notice anything. Frustrated, Gus turned around and hobbled to the other side of the room, taking a long detour to get back to the tray deposit spot adjacent to the kitchen.

He was just about to cross the threshold from the dining room to the hallway back to his bedroom when he happened to look to his immediate left — at just the right time, it proved, for three emergency personnel were speed-walking through the hall pushing a gurney at hip level. Gus stepped back just in time to avoid being run over as the crew made its way down the hall and turned left to the wing where Gus lived. Ha, he thought with a slightly sinister sense of glee. I was right. Another one bit the dust.

When Gus finally ambled down the hall toward his bedroom, his heart suddenly flipped over in his chest to see the crowd of people — EMTs, director, nurses, staff and all — gathered in the hallway directly outside of his room. He sidled up to a young nurse leaning against the wall watching the action unfold. “What’s going on?” he asked her quietly, but she didn’t respond; she didn’t even turn to look at him. Confused and annoyed, he kept walking closer to his door, leaning on his cane with fragile fingers as he approached.

A few seconds later the EMTs emerged from his room pushing the gurney out again. Jan stood outside the door expectantly, although Gus could detect something of a bored expression on her face. One of the EMTs shook his head, at which Jan stood back and whispered something into one of the nurses’ ears. The nurse nodded and immediately stepped away. Gus stood against the wall watching curiously until one of the EMTs began pushing the gurney further down the hallway past Gus’s line of sight. He could see the translucent skin of a still man lying on the stretcher, both arms bouncing slightly as the gurney moved past him. Gus’s eyes followed the movement from right to left, eyeing the deceased’s bare feet, his striped blue state-issued pajamas that every resident received, the arms slipping slowly off the side of the gurney, the slight loll of the dead man’s head as it drooped to the left, his neck no longer able to support its weight.

And then, as the gurney rolled to the left, carting away another casualty of time, Gus’s eyes saw the face of the man who had passed away in the night and found he was looking at himself. The same slight curls to his grey mane, the same jowled neck muscles, the same wide nostrils on an arched nose and the same gaunt cheekbones pulled down by the gravity of eighty-seven years of life. The specter of Gus stepped back against the wall as he saw the death mask of himself roll past him. He was struck by horror and confusion all at once. He placed his wrinkled fingertips on his cheeks but his fingers met no resistance, only air. Gus seemed to dissolve into the wall behind him as the figures in front of him stood staring at the dead Gus in the gurney. As Gus watched, he felt pulled toward the grey body on the gurney, as if a hook just behind his neck was ushering him toward his fate. He spiraled closer, the memory of his long life flashing before his eyes as the facility staff in front of him became blurry in his periphery and then ceased to exist in his view at all. The double of the dead man turned ethereal. His form in the bed remained unmoving as its soul returned inside of himself, accepting the death of the body that had occurred sometime the previous night. He fluttered up above himself, drifting up out of his body and his earthly being, becoming fainter and fainter as the body on the gurney became the only remaining Gus.

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