General Fiction posted October 5, 2020

This work has reached the exceptional level
on breaking the chains and shackles

The Return Trip

by Mark Valentine

My name is Andres Salazar. It’s important to me that you know that, that you remember that. Heretofore, in my sixty-one years on earth, I’ve always been content to be anonymous, to blend in with the crowd. All indications though, are that this is my last day on earth, and so I feel the urgent need to be acknowledged and remembered.
When I was a child, there was a television show for preschoolers called Romper Room. At the beginning of each show, the ‘teacher’, Miss Elizabeth, would look out at us children in our living rooms. Using her ‘magic mirror’, she would look straight into the camera and rattle off a list of fifteen or so names of the children she could miraculously see: “I see Julie, and I see Charlie, and Edward is having a special day today”  – different names each day. How cool! How does she do that?, I wondered. Every day, I waited excitedly for her to say – “I see Andres” – that’s all I wanted. But Miss Elizabeth never saw me. Too late now.
Now, I am in Room 228 of Little Company of Mary Hospital. The patient wards on this hospital, as they are on most, are arranged so that the nurses’ stations are in the middle, and the patient wings radiate out in a hub-and-spoke pattern. It is the literal opposite of patient-centered care. I am at the far end of one of those wings, as far on the periphery of their attention as possible. If I could get out of bed and go to the window, I would be able to see my house for I live only two blocks away. So close and yet so far.
It is the middle of another long, dark night. Hospital nights are longer and darker than regular nights. Often, one wonders whether those nights will be followed by a dawn. I wonder that tonight. I am alone, unseen, forgotten. Hidden from society. I am allowed no visitors for I have Covid-19. Have it bad, probably terminal.
My obituary is likely to describe me as a “loving husband” and “devoted father”. I am both of those things, and proud of it. They are the two most important roles I’ve had the privilege to embody in my time on earth, but they’re not the only ones. There won’t be room to capture all the other things I am. I’m also a shower singer, an armchair philosopher, a Cubs’ fan, and a backyard cook. Put a few beers in me at a party and I can do a pretty good Elvis imitation.
I’m a do-it-yourselfer, but not a very good one I’m afraid. Lots of cost-overruns and f-bombs when things don’t work out as they should.
I’m really good at Jeopardy and really bad at golf. My wife Linda tells me I have no sense of style when it comes to dress, but that I make her laugh. She probably could have done better, but all in all, she’s happy with the deal she made when she married me.
I’m no saint, but I try to be kind. I volunteer in my parish’s PADS shelter and coach little league. I hold doors open for people, vote in elections, pay my taxes, and fly the flag on the appropriate holidays.
In my younger days, I was an athlete - ran track in college. That was a long time ago – been forty years now. My arthritic knees haven’t let me run for the last twenty. As you might surmise, arthritic knees are currently the least of my worries. About an hour ago, a priest came to administer last rites to me.
But, even that, even the fact that I am dying is not my primary concern right now. No, right now, the thing that is grating is that I am dying in a hospital. Ten years ago, my father died in this very hospital, as I sat by his bedside. His last wish, expressed emphatically and indelicately to me and my sisters, was that we get him “the f@#! out of here”. The doctors assured us that he would die if we took him home, so my sisters and I acquiesced to their ’expertise’. Well, guess what? He died anyway - the next day. I have regretted not honoring my father’s dying wish every day of my life since. Every day.
I know now how he must have felt. We have precious little freedom in this world. Too little to surrender to institutions. So, I am claiming my last ounce of liberty to declare that I am not going to die in this hospital. I’m going home - Thomas Wolfe and the doctors be damned.
As I steel myself for the ordeal to come, I close my eyes and recall a verse from the Bible, Psalm 2:3, I believe: “Let us tear off their shackles and cast off their chains.” Amen. In my case, the chains and shackles come in the form of IV tubes and a respirator. I haven’t thought my plan all the way through, but I know it begins with untethering myself from these harbingers of death.
Dad, this one’s for you.
Removing the IVs is easy. Now for the ventilator tubes. I wonder how long I’ll be able to survive once they’re out. Long enough to make it outside? To make it home? Longer, perhaps? It’s been six days since I’ve breathed on my own. Six days since I’ve stood up. Will my legs be strong enough?
I clumsily pull the tubes out of my nose. It burns, but no bleeding. No alarms go off alerting the hospital staff to my mutiny. Next, without hesitating – I do not want to provide any space for rethinking my plan - I slowly, but firmly pull out the tube from my mouth, the one whose southern terminus is my lungs. It is painful and difficult. Was this a mistake? Never mind, keep going. I pull more firmly. I gag for a moment and close my eyes hard.
Everything seems to stop for a moment. I hear the beep of a machine, but it seems to be coming from down the hall. Hard to tell – I am in a fugue state. I keep my eyes closed for just a couple of seconds as I try to regain my bearings. Then, I open my eyes to find that I have done it – the tubes are out!
Now I just need to get on my feet. I press the ‘up’ button on the bed to bring myself to an almost sitting position. Then I swing my legs over the side of the bed and gradually lower them until my feet feel the floor. Can I stand? I push myself up from the bed and Voila!, I am standing. So far, so good.
I take slow, short, quiet steps to the closet where my clothes are. I don’t remember what I was wearing when the ambulance came for me last week. I open the closet door to find a t-shirt, some shorts, and some running shoes. I don’t remember owning these – they seem new. Maybe Linda bought them for me just before I got sick. Anyway, they’re my size and they’ll do.
I feel a shred of dignity return as I take off the ridiculous hospital gown and carefully put on my new garments. Now, there is nothing left but to leave.
I could just walk out – straight past the nurses’ station and to the elevator. I don’t need their permission. And yet, especially given that I have a highly contagious disease, something tells me that it wouldn’t be that easy. There is a stairway at the end of the hallway closest to my room, away from the nurses’ station. That might be my best bet, and yet there’s a good chance I could be spotted.
Fate takes a hand when I hear an announcement that there is a “Code Blue” on the floor. All of the medical staff will be rushing to that room, probably the room where that beep was just coming from, leaving me an empty hallway. Add one more name to the Covid count - some poor bastard has bought the farm. I feel bad that I will be taking advantage of his demise to make my escape, but eventually the Code Blue bell will toll for each of us. I hope he can take some solace from the fact that he did not die completely in vain.
With purpose, and without a backward glance, I walk from my room to the stairwell, my feet steadier beneath me than I anticipated. I open the door and begin my descent to freedom. As luck would have it, when I open the door at the bottom of the staircase, I find myself twenty feet from the employee entrance, next to the parking lot. Not a soul in sight. I raise a defiant fist in the air, a la Tommie Smith in the 1968 Olympics, then, I open the door and step through. I am outside.
It is a magical transition. Like the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy steps out of her black-and-white house and into Technicolor. After having endured nothing but sterile whites, benign beiges, and institutional greens for six days, the vivid colors of the city at night are almost too much to take in: the green-to-amber-to-bright-red stop light on the corner, the neon blue sign that says “Roseangela’s Pizza” and the neon red one below it, letting the city know that they are currently “CLOSED”. The bright white cross that sits atop the Catholic hospital from which I have just emerged.
The air is fresh. No more hospital smell – the smell of sanitized sickness. And it is not stagnant. There is a breeze that washes over me. It is cool and gentle and caressing. It does more for my body and spirit than all the machines and medicines that I’ve been subjected to this past week.
Heaven is a cool breeze.
The night is perfect. The bank sign across the street tells me that the temperature is sixty-eight degrees and the time is 2:48 a.m. A full moon illuminates a clear sky as I stand on the corner of 95th and California while the rest of the world sleeps. A line from Silent Night comes to me - The world in solemn stillness lay. I’m thankful that I am here to be and to bask in this silent and holy night. If I died right now, it would be okay. I made it out. Heavenly peace has come upon me.
In my reverie I almost failed to notice the most sublime detail of all – I am breathing! What a tremendous gift! How had I never appreciated this before? I am more aware of my blessings and my freedom than I have ever been. I stand in the employee parking lot of Little Company of Mary Hospital a free man, endowed by my Creator with certain unalienable rights. My future, however short it may be, is mine to choose. I choose to go home.
As I walk the two blocks to my house, I pass the houses of people whom I’ve seen hundreds of times, but don’t really know. People whom I see only when they’re mowing their lawns or walking their dogs. Tips of icebergs who lead private lives that I know nothing about behind the four walls of the houses I now walk past.  I’ve never given them much thought until now. Now, for some reason, I care about these people deeply, and I hope they are okay tonight.
Before I know it, I arrive at my house. Now what? It’ll scare the crap out of Linda if I just walk in at 3:00 in the morning. Will she be mad? I imagine I’m still contagious. Will I be putting her at risk? I’ll promise to wear a mask and stay in the spare bedroom. Just to be in my own home and know that she is on the other side of the door would be enough. I’ll call her. Where’s my phone? Crap – it must be inside. Should I just bang on the door?
All this worry is harshing my mellow. It’s such a beautiful night, and it doesn’t feel like my death is imminent, so I decide to wait until Linda wakes up before I go inside. I’ll sit on the swing in the backyard to pass the time. I figure I’ve got about three hours to kill. I can wait. I am home.
 It is a small lot with a modest house on it. Virtually indistinguishable from the other lots and other houses on the block. But it’s ours. This is the only house we’ve ever owned. It’s where we raised our three children. I think of all the whiffle ball games we played in this yard, all the snowmen we built. The barbecues, the basketball games in the driveway. We bought a small tent once and I tried camping out in the yard with the kids. Someone felt a bug on their leg and that was the end of that. We would have made lousy pioneers.
Maybe it’s the elation of my new love affair with freedom, maybe it’s some hospital drugs that are still coursing through my system. Whatever it is, I feel as good as new – better even. Maybe the Covid is gone.
What the hell? I’m in a bit of a rebellious mood tonight, think I’ll go for a bike ride while I wait for Linda to wake up. I go to the garage and get my bike and realize that my helmet is in the house. You know what? To hell with the helmet, I’m gonna ride anyway! Okay, I know – as rebellions go, it’s not exactly Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”, but it’ll do for tonight. As I set out on my maverick ride, I recall Brando’s opening line from the movie: “It begins here for me, on this road.”
I last rode this bike two weeks ago, before the cough and the fever, before the positive Covid test and the stay-in-my-room quarantine. Before my breathing became so labored that Linda had to call an ambulance. Before the hospital.
As I ride now, sans helmet, through empty streets, I feel as if I could ride forever. The wind must be at my back. It’s hard to tell sometimes when you’re riding which way the wind is blowing. You think you’re riding into a headwind until you turn around. Then you realize that it had been at your back the whole time and the return trip becomes more laborious than anticipated. I tell myself not to go too far, to save some energy for the return trip.
It feels odd to ride without a helmet. It reminds me of my childhood, when summer days consisted of pick-up baseball games, playing in fire hydrants, and riding bikes. As we gathered our bikes, our moms would ask us “Where are you going?” Our answer was always the same – “Around”. We weren’t being sassy, just being truthful. We were riding for the sake of riding. Just as I am doing now.
So much of life back then was doing-for-the-sake-of-doing. Life, unexamined. Socrates would have disapproved, but it worked for us. Laying on our backs and watching clouds roll by in the sky, playing baseball without umpires or uniforms, improvising games in the street until the streetlights came on. The halcyon days of youth.
I’m sure my childhood was not as Edenic as I now remember it. For better or worse, we tend to create narratives out of the experiences of our lives. Inevitably, some details get left out to allow for a more coherent story. Thus, I’m sure there is some footage from those days that lies on the cutting room floor, not part of the story because it didn’t fit the flow. That footage, unpreserved in any ‘Director’s Cut’ version of my life, is now irretrievably lost to time and memory.
Nonetheless, I didn’t fabricate my story out of whole cloth. My childhood must have furnished enough positive relationships and experiences to make this narrative possible. For that I give thanks. This narrative tells me that I was once loved by my parents, not perfectly, but unconditionally. It tells me that people are basically good, and that life, in spite of its pains and sorrows, can be beautiful. It is a narrative that has sustained me throughout these sixty-one years.
It is sustaining me now as I ride my bike farther than I thought possible. I’ve gone quite a long way and my knees feel surprisingly good. I really need to think about the return trip, though. There are corn fields on either side of me. Corn fields! I must have ridden twenty-five miles. I stop riding and disembark to turn around. As I stand there, looking at miles of open farm roads, I wonder…? Nah.
Did I mention I used to run track? The 10,000 meters to be exact. I was pretty good. Trouble is, my teammate at the University of Illinois was better, way better. His name was Craig Virgin and he was the American record holder for the event.
In the spring of my junior year, I broke my arm and my season was done. I didn’t stop running though, I just stopped running competitively. It was a revelation. I found that once my mind was not preoccupied with stopwatches and meets and catching the uncatchable Mr. Virgin, running transformed, for me, from a sport into a sacrament.
It became my religion. I still went to church on Sunday, but farm roads like these were where I truly encountered God. Surrounded by corn on both sides, with miles of open road ahead of me, I was no longer interested in running 10,000 meters. That was just getting started. I found that, when I ran farther, I would break through some barrier at about the 7-mile mark and then it was just me and the corn and God and eternity. Other distance runners explained it as endorphins and ‘runner’s high’, but it seemed to me that it was more than that; it was transcendent. It was as if I were entering sacred space, the innermost room of the Temple.
The following season, once my arm was healed, I politely informed the coach that I would be declining my track scholarship for senior year. The excuse I gave was that I needed more time to focus on my studies, but the real reason I gave up track was that I loved running.
I haven’t run in twenty years, but there is magic in this night, and so I stand here, looking at miles of open farm roads, and I wonder.
I jog about 100 yards and stop. Hey that felt pretty good. I run a bit faster for about 200 yards this time. I stop. Knees feel ok. I’m not out of breath. I run another 200 yards - this time I don’t stop. I settle into a pace and keep going. Just like old times, nothing but open road ahead and corn on either side of me. It’s still dark, but the moon illuminates enough of the road so that I can see, and so I continue. Picking ‘em up and laying ‘em down, as we used to say.
I feel like I’m in college again. Back then, Nike’s ad campaign for their running shoes featured the tag line “There is no finish line”. It was featured, along with a cool running photo, on the back of every Runner’s World magazine. I practically wallpapered my room with those ads. “There is no finish line” became my mantra when I ran.
I have lost all track of time. I feel myself once again enter that sacred space. My God, can I have run seven miles already? I really should be heading back. I’m going to have to run all the way back to where I left my bike, and then ride all the way back home. This cautious voice in my mind cedes primacy to the message of those Nike ads and I keep running. Five more miles maybe? Ten? Fifteen? Who knows?
I feel as if there is no distance that cannot be covered. That last line sounds familiar - a lyric from a song, perhaps. The other lyrics won’t come to me. What is the name of that song? It’ll come to me later. That cautious voice in my mind won’t go away and so my thoughts again turn to Linda and the need to head back. She’ll be waking up soon. I should start my return trip. I am running out of time.
My mind repunctuates that last sentence so that it no longer reads “running out of time”, but “Running. Out of Time.” Yeah, that’s what this feels like. It’s as if all over the world clocks are advancing, but not here, not in this Central Timeless Zone I seem to have entered. Here, the world has stopped, even as I keep running. It’s just me and the corn and God and eternity. Sacred space.
And now that I recognize where I am, the scales fall from my eyes and I see the deeper truth; an epiphany that is at once unbearably sad and sublimely peaceful: there will be no return trip.
I realize that, while my rejuvenated spirit runs effortlessly along these farm roads, my body lies back in Room 228 waiting for someone from the funeral home to come claim it. I guess that Code Blue I heard earlier tolled for me after all. At least it was painless.
Surely, they will have notified Linda by now and she’ll be calling the children to break the news to them. They’ll fly back tonight or tomorrow for the wake and the funeral. I hope they know what I know – that I haven’t really left them. They are not alone and never will be.
I see a sliver of light peeking over the corn. After this long night, the sun is finally rising. As it does, I am able to make out a stripe over the horizon. It appears as a shadow at first and gains definition with each advancing step. I run another minute or so and now I see it more clearly. Those Nike ads were wrong. It is a finish line.
More lyrics from the song I was trying to remember come back now.  “You are not hidden /There's never been a moment / You were forgotten / You are not hopeless.” And then the chorus: “I will send out an army to find you / In the middle of the darkest night / It's true, I will rescue you.”
Those words comfort me. You know what I said at the beginning? The part about it being important that you remember my name? Never mind, I’ll be okay.
The finish line awaits. As I prepare to cross it, a cool breeze washes over me.


Story of the Month contest entry


Lyrics to "Rescue". by Lauren Daigle:

You are not hidden
There's never been a moment
You were forgotten
You are not hopeless
Though you have been broken
Your innocence stolen

I hear you whisper underneath your breath
I hear your SOS, your SOS
I will send out an army to find you
In the middle of the darkest night
It's true, I will rescue you

There is no distance
That cannot be covered
Over and over
You're not defenseless
I'll be your shelter
I'll be your armor

I hear you whisper underneath your breath
I hear your SOS, your SOS
I will send out an army to find you
In the middle of the darkest night
It's true, I will rescue you

I will never stop marching to reach you
In the middle of the hardest fight
It's true, I will rescue you
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