Ninety Capsules



Linda Norlander, Fiction

“Ninety capsules,” he tells me. “It takes ninety capsules and five minutes to go to sleep and never wake up. It’s easy. You open up those capsules and pour the powder out into chocolate pudding. Mix it up and swallow it down. They say you just drift off.”

George is shaking the brown plastic prescription bottle like it’s a baby’s rattle. He grins at me and his dentures are too white for his sallow skin. When he holds the bottle near my face, I see that the label says, Take as directed.

I’m breaking out into a sweat as George talks to me about killing himself with those ninety capsules. He’s done all the paperwork, gotten the signature from his doctor that says he’s terminal and that he’s sane, and now he’s filled the prescription. George and I have argued about this death-with-dignity crap in the past. I say it’s suicide; he says it’s his right to choose.

I’m not a pro-lifer or anything, but I find the idea of “suicide by doctor” reprehensible. You see, I’m HIV-positive, and I’m expensive to my health insurance company. I worry that someday someone will insist that I take those ninety capsules as my duty to relieve society of the burden of my existence. And sometimes I don’t like my life much, but I’ve gone to enough pathetic little funerals for the people I’ve met over the years to know that I’m not ready for mine.

So why is George telling me about those capsules? I’m not his friend—my job is to deliver his medicine as a volunteer for the Mercy Hospice. George’s trailer park, Park Row, is a rubble of broken glass, broken cars, and broken lives. The local police call it Park Rowdy for its drugs and parties. George has lived here for thirty years now. Across from his place is a boarded-up double-wide with police tape around it. He says they had a meth lab going at one time. Even George was scared of the guys who lived there.

I once asked George why he stayed in Park Row. He shrugged and said, “It’s home.”

I’m the only female Mercy Hospice volunteer who isn’t afraid to deliver pills here. I’ve been to the Park Rowdys all over the county for my job as an investigator with the coroner’s office. They send me out to find next-of-kin when someone dies without known family or friends. I sift through old letters, bills, photos and whatever. Sometimes I come up with a cousin or an ex who will take responsibility for the remains. If not, the county is stuck with the cremation bill.

Down the rutted drive from George is a green trailer that an old guy lived in. I remember the place because no one had told me there was a dog. Poor mutt had been locked up inside for days while his master lay in the morgue. Weak as he was, the dog almost took my face off when I opened the door. Animal patrol had to put him down.

George starts coughing and he drops the bottle of pills. I watch it fall to the floor by his recliner and think about snatching it up and flushing the capsules down the toilet. When I look at George, though, I see he’s in distress. He’s fanning his hands in front of his chest like he’s trying to move air into his lungs. Right in front of me his face is turning the color of blue-tinged putty. I set down the white paper bag with his prescriptions and take giant steps over the old, green shag carpet to his recliner. I see the problem right away—the oxygen tubing is caught between the arm rest and the back of his recliner.

“Jeez,” I say. “You’re kinked up good.” George’s eyes are wide as he struggles to get air.

I’m not an expert in this stuff, but I’ve taken care of a few friends with ruined lungs and I know some of the tricks. I straighten the tubing out and turn the Sears floor fan at the foot of his recliner up to high. It blasts enough air that the bent venetian blinds rattle against the window behind him.

I point to a bottle with a medicine dropper in it. “Take your morphine,” I say.

He’s too panicked to draw up the morphine, so I do what the hospice volunteer coordinator says never to do. I reach over, suck up what seems like the right dose into the dropper and squirt the medicine into his mouth. In a few moments, his breathing settles. I turn the fan down.

The setting sun casts long shadows in his sparse living room. Other than his recliner, a worn love seat, and a television set on a metal stand, the room has little but stacks of magazines and newspapers. The walls, paneled in a cheap walnut, are bare.

“I’m doing those capsules when I’m ready,” he says when he can talk again.

I shrug. I want to say, I wish you wouldn’t, but the words stick in my throat. Instead I say, “Don’t look at me to buy you the pudding for it.”

He smiles before he starts coughing again. He spits up a wad of crap. I turn away. One thing I can’t stand is green crap. If I start hawking up that stuff, I might think about the capsules, too.

“Ninety pills,” he says again, picking up the bottle from the floor. “My doctor prescribed them. Imagine that.”

I don’t want to hear any more about the pills. They scare me.

“I’d better get going,” I say, “before it gets dark and the vampires come out.”

George chuckles. He thinks it’s funny that I call his neighbors vampires. They’re just dumb kids with dyed hair and lots of mascara and piercings and tattoos thinking they’re grown-ups. They suck the electricity out of George’s place with a long, thick, yellow extension cord. George doesn’t mind. He says he likes to help out. At least they don’t steal his morphine.

I was a kid like that once. I haunted the raves, did the drugs and found myself a dark-haired, velvet-voiced DJ. I followed him from gig to gig. He was tender and his kisses were like chocolate cream. Then one day I walked in to see his naked butt on top of Tattoo Gary, another DJ. I backed out and never saw him again. He and his other disappeared, leaving me with the virus that rules my life. I’ve searched for him over the years, but he remains disappeared.

So, who knows who sleeps around. And who knows how clean those needles are when they shoot up. But I don’t tell George. The kids next door in the pink trailer with the caved in carport stop by from time to time to watch television with him. He says they like the old black-and-white horror movies best.

I do too—especially Hitchcock. A couple of weeks ago I watched Psycho with George when he could still sit through a movie without hacking his lungs out. He even made popcorn. He’s gone downhill a lot since then.

Too bad George’s own children don’t stop by. A faded color snapshot of George and two little kids sits on the window sill beside his recliner. They’re posing in front of a big rig that says “Nelson’s Transport.” All three are squinting into the camera, and no one is smiling. A couple of weeks ago I put the photo in a frame for him because it was getting all curled up. George says his boy calls sometimes, but I don’t think so.

I look at his unshaven face, sunken from the large man in the old photo. The cancer in his lungs and liver has eaten away the pounds on him and turned him a yellow color. Every time I see him, he looks worse. When I first started delivering meds to him, he was standing in the kitchen holding a mug of tea. I thought it strange that a crusty old trucker would be drinking tea. Now I never see him up. I wonder how he gets to the bathroom, but I don’t ask.

“I’ll be back,” I say, “the next time you forget to order your pills, and I have to make an emergency trip to the pharmacy. Sometimes I think you do it on purpose. You’re a pain in the ass, you know.”

George smiles before he starts coughing again. I turn away.

“Jackie wait,” he gasps. “Wait a minute.”

I stop, far enough away so I don’t see what he’s coughing into the tissue. Outside, a motorcycle roars by spitting gravel in its wake. Several dogs start to bark and a shrill voice shouts, “Shut up already.”

“I want,” he starts. He looks beyond me as if someone is at the door. I glance back but no one is there.

“I want,” he says again.

“Yeah?”

“I want you to be here.”

The dogs are still yapping but the woman has stopped shouting. I know immediately what George is talking about. He wants me around when he takes those pills.

I shake my head. “George, it’s not my thing.”

He looks down at the tissue in his hand and suddenly I feel sorry for him.

“Hey,” I say, “can’t you talk to your hospice chaplain about this?”

He shakes his head. “Mercy Hospice is Catholic. She says the Sisters have ordered the hospice staff not to talk about it because it’s a mortal sin or something.” He pauses. “But you’re not like that.”

I want to say, yes I am, but maybe I’m not. I don’t believe in sin any more than I believe in suicide. My mother did the suicide thing when I was fourteen—parked the car in the garage and turned it on while my little sister and I were staying with Grandma. I always wondered if she hoped it would take Dad too, but the bastard survived. I’m still pissed with her for making that kind of exit.

Maybe if Mom could have talked with someone she wouldn’t have sat closed up in that running car. It makes me angry that the hospice people can’t talk with George.

Outside the woman shouts again. “Goddamn motherfucking dogs. If you can’t shut them up I’m calling the cops!”

I have my hand on the door now and I’m backing out. George has closed his eyes as if an arrow of pain has shot through his chest. He seems small in that ratty old recliner. The only big part of him is his ankles. They’re swollen twice the size.

He doesn’t look at me when he says in a soft, raspy voice, “Some people—Hemlock people—said they’d come if I wanted.” He stops to clear his throat. “I thought you could be here, too.” The gruffness in his voice has fallen away.

I see how tired his eyes are and how they’ve lost their luster. George used to kid with me a lot more. I frown, and it pinches my face and sends an ache into my eyes. Why me? I don’t say this to George.

“You know, you remind me of my daughter Rosie,” he says before I can ask.

“Rosie?”

He points at the photo. “She died a couple of years ago—breast cancer. But she looked like you, and she was tough as nails.”

This isn’t for me. I’ve fought for years to not need ninety capsules to put me to sleep. I don’t say anything to George. I just walk out. I know it’s a shitty thing to do, but I have to leave.

As I drive through the litter-infested Park Rowdy and onto a rutted back street, I think about George and his request. The law in Washington says that people can get a prescription that will put them down like a sick pet if they’re going to die anyway. Many of my friends from the HIV clinic have talked about it. Most like having a choice. I don’t want a choice, though. It’s hard enough facing all the prescriptions I take on a daily basis and worrying that every cough and every sneeze might signal the end for me. I made my choice twenty years ago and shared myself with a boy who liked needles and other boys.

I stop for a red light and sit halfway through the green before some jerk in a shiny red SUV honks at me. I wonder what it would be like—to choose your own time of death. I think about the guy from the clinic, the one with the curly blonde hair and sea green eyes, who jumped off the Narrows Bridge. Did he know he was going to jump that day? Or was it an impulse? Did he want to take it back as he dropped to the concrete of the water below? Did Mom want to take it back after she locked the doors and started the car?

Can you take back those ninety capsules?

I nearly run into a car ahead of me as I turn onto the I-5 on-ramp. What would it be like for George to know that at a certain time, he would fall asleep and never wake up?

I’m halfway home, and I can’t get a full breath of air. I pull over onto a side street and stop. My hands are sweaty, and my face is flushed. I roll down the window and let the Sound’s salt air breeze in.

Once, when I was really sick and it looked like the virus would eat me up, I thought about death. Wouldn’t it be nice to be out of this body whose bowels have run me raw? Wouldn’t it be nice to sleep?

But, I always wanted to wake up.

I’m not religious. I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I lost my faith long ago, before the sweet-voiced boy, when my father demanded that I memorize the Bible so I wouldn’t be damned. I can still recite the whole book of Genesis, and when I get really sick, it comes to me over and over and over and I can’t turn it off. In the beginning God created the heavens and earth

A full moon is rising behind the ramshackle warehouses near the harbor. I don’t believe in much of anything, but I do believe that the moon has an invisible power. On nights of the full moon I like to sit on the balcony of my apartment and bathe my face in its light. Sometimes I invite my neighbor Raul over for a beer. He lost his leg in Afghanistan and hardly leaves the building. We don’t talk much, but his warmth next to me and the brightness of the moon soothe me more than all the anti-anxiety pills my doctor can prescribe.

I sit in my car with the window down and let the moonlight in. I see George holding that framed photo of a time long gone wishing Rosie was by his side. I see George, fighting for air that never quite makes it through his wrecked lungs.

I pull out and do a U-turn. I need to apologize to him. For what? For leaving without saying good-bye? For not being willing to watch him die? Or maybe for not being his beloved daughter Rosie?

George is dozing in his chair when I rap on the tin siding of his trailer. He has a bowl on his lap and a spoon held loosely in his hand. Down the washboard road of Park Rowdy I hear the bass thump of a guitar and the high-pitched laugh of a woman. The air has a spring dampness to it that smells of budding leaves and fresh growth. It’s hard to imagine spring renewal in a place like this.

I jerk the door open. “George!”

He opens his eyes halfway. “I knew you’d come.” His voice is slurred and drowsy. Chocolate pudding stains his T-shirt. The prescription bottle sits on his table with the cap off.

“George, you goddamn motherfucker. You took the ninety capsules, didn’t you?”

George smiles dreamily. “You came for me, didn’t you, Rosie?” His eyes drop shut and his head lolls forward.

I can call 911. The phone is right by his recliner. They can come and pump his stomach or something. His chest is still rising and falling. I kneel down by him and touch his hand. It’s warm and his fingers curl around mine.

The full moon rises over the scruffy trees of Park Row and sends a beam of yellow light into the trailer. His face is bathed in it. I remember that he once told me that he loved driving his rig in Arizona. He said he liked the open highways and the desert at night when the moon was full. I said I didn’t like the dust and heat and the endless sky.

I hold his hand and suddenly the words are coming out of my mouth, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth

Down the road the party is getting rowdier. Two men are shouting and a woman is yelling in a hoarse cigarette voice. “Now cut that out. I don’t want no swearing around here.”

I’m up to Genesis five, verse one. This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man he made him in the likeness of God.

George’s fingers go slack.

Male and female he created them, and blessed them and named them Man when they were created.

He gives one small fishlike gasp before he is silent. I stop reciting.

The moon rises further and takes its beam away. After a while I get up; I need to call Mercy Hospice. I pick up the prescription bottle and hold it to the moonlight. Through the faint yellow glow I see that the bottle is still full.

I picture George saying, “Ninety capsules, imagine that.”

I smile, put the cap back on the bottle and slip it into my pocket.