Never Alone

Dedicated to Toby Hall

by Rob Crandall


Roy woke up.

It was still gone.

Of course it was. As much as he would like to believe it, and despite all of the dreams he had about it, things like legs didn’t regenerate.

In his dreams, he could stick his leg back on and it would stay there. The same way that he sometimes had dreams about his penis falling off, and how he could stick that back on too.

Truth was though, when he woke up, he was still equipped with a penis, but sans one leg. It was the left leg. Not that it mattered much. Losing either was bad. And no matter which one was missing, there still remained the fact: Roy could never play football again.

He didn’t play pro ball — wasn’t old enough yet. But he did play... had played... high school ball. He had been the first-string quarterback, and he could chuck that pigskin right into the hands of any open receiver. He had always been able to. Even as a kid. It was just a knack he had. Throwing thousands of times through a swinging tire helped to refine his talent, but it was mostly just the knack. His mom told him it was a gift from God.

So then, he wondered, why had God taken it away?

Roy knew about the book of Job in the Bible. He knew about how Job had everything taken away from him. He knew about all of that, and that didn’t make it easier. In fact, it made him mad. It made him feel like God was impersonal, and cruel. Even made him wonder if it was all just an elaborate joke. His whole life... just a passing amusement for a bored Creator. But thoughts like that made him scared, so he pushed them away. It was better to be mad than scared.

Two days after the operation, his stump still hurt a lot. He had a button that he could press to inject more pain medication if he needed to. He pressed it every chance that he could. Like a little white rat pressing a button for pellets. Was that what he was reduced to? A beady-eyed brainless rodent?

He wondered for the thousandth time if...

“Hey ya? You finally awake, pal?”

The voice was scratchy and had a drawl to it. And in just those few words, the man’s advanced age was obvious.

Roy turned his head toward the voice. He wasn’t in the mood for talking. But what was he going to do... get up and run away? Ha... fat chance.

The man was old all right. Ancient, in fact. His face looked to Roy like a leather coat that had been through all four seasons — more than once. Past the web of wrinkles, the face had inherent wisdom in it too. Roy didn’t know why he thought that, but he was sure it was true.

The old man blinked at him. The eyelids seemed to stick when they came together like there was gum on the edges. Then they popped back open.

“Yeah, I suppose I’m awake.” Roy shifted in his bed. More pain from the wound. His face contorted, and then smoothed out again.

“The room’s got a TV at least,” the man said. “We can’t be in too much trouble if the room’s got a TV, right? Operating room ain’t got no TV. ICU don’t. See what I mean?”

“Yeah, I suppose we’re not on our way to the graveyard yet,” Roy said, without much humor.

The old man chuckled. It sounded like raspy newspapers. “Well, I don’t know if I can make that claim, but I think I got enough life in me yet to make it through today.” The man scratched his chin with one long gnarly fingernail. “Name’s Hubert, by the by.”

Roy lifted his eyebrows. “Roy,” he said, “I’d get up and shake hands but....” He looked at his body with mock surprise. “Cripes! Seems I’m shy one leg.”

Roy said it more with tired sarcasm than with good humor, but Hubert laughed all the same. Laughed until he went into a coughing fit. Now it sounded more like sandpaper than newspaper, and it made Roy’s own throat tickle just to hear it. He was willing to bet that the old man’s lungs had inhaled many a cigarette in their day.

Probably some reefer too, judging by how goofy he was. That’s what pot did to you. Made your brain into silly putty. That’s why Roy had never laid hands on the stuff. Not even when Laurie Novers had passed him a joint at that party in Kline’s field. He had just passed it on. Like a good b...

“Well call me double-trouble then!” Hubert said, clearing his throat again afterwards.

“Huh?” Silly putty.

“I say, call me double-trouble. You shy one, and I shy two! Ha!”

The old man whipped his bedspread down like a matador, to reveal two battered stumps that ended just above the knees.

Then he lifted what was left of his legs and shook them in the air. Roy thought it looked like some absurd cheerleader, raising her hands to signal a touchdown. Just like Laurie Novers used to do on Friday nights when Roy would pull the quarterback sneak and...

Roy saw where the legs had been cut off, and where the surgeon had folded the skin over the best he could to cover the massive wounds. It was heavily scarred and salmon pink.

It was clear that Hubert thought that the whole thing was a big joke, but it made Roy sick. Who did this guy think he was? He was actually flaunting them!

“Stop it!! Just stop it!” Roy said, his face burning red with shame.

The old man slowly lowered his legs back onto the mattress, and he covered them up, making sure to tuck the sheet under them carefully. He was no longer laughing.

Roy ran a shaky hand through his hair. “Sorry, Albert,” he said quietly.

“It’s Hubert actually... and it ain’t no big thing. Takes a while to get used to is all. You’ll see.” His voice was thick with empathy.

They were both silent for a while, and then Hubert coughed politely. “How’d it happen? If’n you don’t mind my askin’.” He blinked that long sticky blink again, and Roy thought it was somehow kind.

Roy looked straight up at the ceiling. “Cancer. The kind that spreads real fast. They had to cut it off or else it would have spread to the rest of my body. Ain’t that bum luck?”

“I suppose it is, Roy.” Hubert pulled out a small paper bag from a drawer next to him and pinched a bit of tobacco into his mouth, in between his gums and his bottom lip. “But you ain’t got the cancer now, do ya?”

“Naw. Naw, I don’t have it now. What did you do, sneak that stuff in?”

“Then I’d say that your luck has turned for the better, wouldn’t you?”

Roy was looking over at Hubert, but Hubert was busy spitting his chaw into an old pint milk carton. A small rivulet of brownish liquid ran down his chin.

Roy looked back at the ceiling. “How’d you lose yours?” he asked.

Hubert took a deep breath and let out a tired laugh. “Tractor. My own son ran me over. Would you believe that?” Hubert wiped his chin. “Was my fault. I let ‘im drive it by hisself, and he wasn’t no more than five years old. I motioned for ‘im to come forward, and he shifted into high gear. Bless his heart, he didn’t mean it, but he ran me clear over. That was...” Hubert counted on his fingers. “forty-five years ago. Seems like a lifetime.” He smiled wanly.

“Bum luck,” Roy said simply.

“Still alive,” Hubert said. “And no, I didn’t sneak it in. My wife did.” He spat again.

Roy pressed the pain button, and shifted again in his bed, this time to get a better look at Hubert.

“So what are you in for now?”

“Ticker.”

“You have a heart attack?”

“Congestive heart failure. Picture a balloon half blowed up, farting out its air. That’s my heart. That’s what it feels like anyway.” Hubert spit into the carton again.

“Sorry,” Roy said.

“Don’t be. I’ve had a long life. I gave it a pretty good go.” He smiled gently. His teeth were stained brown with tobacco. “I’m ready for that graveyard. They can go ahead and chisel in the final date. Don’t bother me none.”

“You’re a braver man than I am,” Roy said. They locked eyes and Roy could see that they both knew that it was true.

“You’ll get there,” Hubert said. “Just keep doing what’s right and you’ll...”

The old man’s eyes went wide, and his hand went to his chest. He looked back over at Roy, and the eyes communicated it all.

“You all right, man?... Hubert... Talk to me, buddy.” No. Not now. He was fine. They were just talking. He was fine.

Hubert stared. His chest was hitching now. He was gasping for air. The bag of tobacco slipped and fell to the floor, spilling out half of its contents.

Roy pressed the nurse’s button, and yelled into the little speaker. Then he threw it aside and yelled out loudly into the hallway. He wanted to get up... but the leg... Where were the damn nurses?!

“Hell with it,” he said and pulled himself to the side of his bed. The pain was enormous but he struggled to the edge, and stood up on his good leg. Lightening bolts of pain seared through his lower body. He ignored them. With tremendous effort, he hopped over to Hubert’s bed.

He knew that it was too late for Hubert, but that was not the reason that he wanted to get to him. That he needed to get to him. It was because of his friend, Toby, and how Toby had held that man’s hand on the side of the highway as he died. And how Toby had said that it was the best thing that he ever did because that man didn’t die alone. That was why he needed to get to Hubert. Because of Toby.

Roy clasped the old man’s hand. The bones felt like old matchsticks, but Hubert squeezed back with admirable force. He looked directly into Roy’s eyes, and the panic was gone. It was replaced with gratitude. The look said, “Thank you.” Roy saw that just as clearly as if it were written in magic marker on Hubert’s forehead.

It was only a moment until Hubert’s grip weakened, and his eyes fell closed forever, and just like that, the pain in Roy’s leg demanded all of his attention and thought. It throbbed so hard that it felt like someone was beating it with a sledgehammer. Slamming it with more force with each impending blow. Roy sank to the floor in agony. His hand released Hubert’s. He didn’t realize it, but he was crying out with great yelps. His throat was already going hoarse.

A nurse ran into the room, took one look, and immediately called for backup. And then, mercifully, Roy passed out.

* * *

Four days later, Roy awoke to the sound of a little girl’s voice. He opened his tired eyes, and saw a nurse pushing a wheelchair. In the chair was the little girl. He smiled, and she smiled back shyly.

With one look it was obvious that the little girl had been burned quite badly. Half of her face was colored a deep pink where the skin grafts were trying to heal. That face made Roy sad. He knew the pain of disfigurement.

When the nurse left the room, the girl looked over at Roy. One eye was swollen shut. She smiled again, and this time the brilliant smile made her beautiful, despite the damaged countenance that it was shining through, but there was still a deep sadness about her.

Roy pointed up at the wall. “The room’s got a TV at least,” he said. “We can’t be in too much trouble if the room’s got a TV, right?”


Copyright © 2008 by Rob Crandall

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