Last Word

by John McCaffrey

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Time spent at the hospital was once a pleasure for Maurice, a stimulating break from the narrow tasks assigned to him as one of several priests at a large Episcopal church.  At the hospital he felt more needed and useful tending to the spiritual needs of sick and dying patients.  But over time the continuous pull on his adrenals that came with providing support and comfort to the terminally ill wore him down.  The strain caused him to question God’s motives, even His existence, and eventually he took leave from the hospital.  When he returned, he began to implement a plan to recapture his faith.
    The plan was a borrowed one.  Maurice was a reader and during his convalescence had taken Thorton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”  from a local library. He found the book’s theme transferable to his own situation:  the story of a monk who sets out to prove God’s involvement in the affairs of man by researching the lives of five people who die when a suspension bridge they were crossing suddenly collapsed.  A line from the book particularly resonated with him:  “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”  Maurice needed to prove this bridge between the living and the dead existed.  If he could, then his doubts about an afterlife, about God, would be erased. 
    Maurice’s plan relied on a single word, a word which he would whisper into the ear of the dying, those that had fallen into an unconscious state they would never recover from.  He hoped the word would “come back to him,” would be spoken by a living person directly to his ears, signifying it had traveled the bridge between life and death, had passed from his mouth to God’s ears and back again.  The word came to him one morning while walking to the hospital, against the natural rhythm of his strides along the gum-scarred sidewalk.  It came into his head and stuck.  He thought it right for what he wanted to accomplish.

    “Where did you get the cake?”
    Maurice turned away from the hefty slice of chocolate wedding cake in his hand, its weight folding a flimsy paper party plate inward.  The cake was reward for presiding over the wedding of a dying cancer patient, a woman in her early 30’s.  She and her fiancé decided to marry to bring some joy to her final days.  Maurice conducted the ceremony while she lay hooked to IV’s, morphine dripping into the long vein of her right arm, her left held up by her husband as he slipped the ring on her finger. 
    “A wedding.”  Maurice smiled at Maggie, a nurse practitioner with a flat nose and black marble eyes. She was Nigerian by birth but had lived in the United States since a child and had only the slightest trace of an accent.  She was a short and fleshy woman and wore high top basketball sneakers with her pink scrubs. 
    Maggie passed by and placed a dollar bill in a vending machine.  She pulled out a candy bar and walked back toward Maurice.  “Whose wedding?”
    “A patient.”
    Maggie tore off the top wrapping of the candy bar and took a bite. “Everyone’s getting married except me,” she said, chewing.
    “You want to be married?”
    “Of course.”  She eyed Maurice.  “Are you allowed to marry?”
    “But you’re not, right?”
    “How come?”
    Maurice picked up a plastic fork from the table below.  He stuck it into the center of the cake.  “I’m not sure.  Maybe because of my vocation.”
    “Don’t tell me you’re married to God.”  She shook her head.  “Don’t know why God needs so many men when so many women need husbands.”
    “Maybe I’ll talk to Him about it.”
    “I’m serious,” Maggie said.  “I was on a dating site last night.  Believe me, there are no ‘perfect matches’ out there.”
    “What kind of man are you looking for?”
    Maggie straightened.  “I want a man with a job.  He has to be able to dance.  And he has to be fat.”
    “Not obese, just chubby enough that he’s embarrassed to take his shirt off at the beach.”  She took another bite.  “Fat men appreciate women more than skinny men.  And they like to eat.  I like men that eat.”
    Maurice eyed the cake.  “Is that why you like me?”
    “I like that you don’t curse. That’s something I won’t tolerate in a man.”
    Maurice natural curiosity about people kicked in.  He formulated a question in his mind to learn more about Maggie’s aversion to cursing, but never got it out when he fumbled with the plate and the cake slid off and down his shirt. 
    “What did you say?”
    Maurice blushed.  “I’m sorry,” he said, heading to the sink.  He picked up a hand cloth and soaked it under the faucet.  He wrung it with his hands and wiped away the dark brown smear of cake.  He looked down at his white button shirt and frowned. 
    “I thought you didn’t curse.” 
    “It just slipped out.”
    “So it was in your mind.  That’s just as bad.”
    Maurice stared again at his shirt.  He would have to go home, change and come back.
    “You shouldn’t be a Reverend.”
    “Excuse me?” 
    Maggie nodded her head.  “If you’re really a man of God, you wouldn’t talk like that.” 
    “People sometimes say things they don’t mean,” he returned, defensively.  “It doesn’t mean they’re bad.  Sometimes it doesn’t mean anything.”
    “Yes it does.”
    “You’re being too rigid.” 
    “Frigid?  Is that why you think I’m not married?”
    “I said ‘rigid.’  But maybe ‘frigid’ is in your mind.”
    Maurice regretted the statement.  “I’m sorry,” he said. 
    Maggie pursed her lips.  “Fuck you.”  She turned and walked out of the room.
    Maurice stood by the sink.  Guilt washed over him.  His distress was interrupted when another nurse entered with a rush. 
      “We need you to come and be with a patient. 
    “Ms. Reynolds.  Room 15-A.”
    Lydia Reynolds had come to the hospital after a fall down stairs that had broken her hip and several ribs, and collapsed a lung.  She was 88 and extremely frail.  Breathing with the help of a respirator, she had been unconscious for several days and was not expected to recover.  Seeing her grave condition, Maurice had taken the initiative to whisper his word into her ear.
    Maurice followed the nurse down the hall.  They made two turns and passed through a foyer in silence. When they entered the room, he saw that Lydia’s respirator had been removed.  She was propped up in bed, her eyes closed and her chest rising and falling noticeably under her hospital gown.  A middle aged woman and man stood on one side of the bed, a young male doctor on the other.  The doctor pointed his long chin at Maurice. 
    “The family would like you to perform last rites.”
    Maurice was self conscious about the dark, brown stain on his shirt, but he tried to affect a somber dignity.  “How are you related to Lydia?” he asked.
    “I’m her daughter,” the woman answered. She squeezed the man’s hand.  “This is my husband.”
    Maurice reached down and took Lydia’s right hand.  He cleared his throat.  “When God calls us….”
    Lydia’s eyes suddenly snapped open.  She yanked her hand from Maurice’s and pointed at him, her mouth opening and closing.  She leaned closer, pressed the point of her finger into Maurice’s chest, into the heart of the stain.  “Shit,” she said, her voice deep and guttural.  And then she was silent, dying with eyes open, her body no longer taking in air. 


John McCaffrey is a former New York Times Creative Writing Fellow.  His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous literary publications, including the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward.

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