George sat at his desk battling his brain. He wished he could punch it. It was not the brain he once knew—always quick with the comeback and able to find the right words. Gradually it had changed, shedding words and abilities under the guise of supposedly normal aging, turning into the alien entity that had taken over his head.
There were tests and more tests, of course, followed by meetings and counseling to determine how much living assistance he would require, and more to the point, whether he had enough money left to afford it. And if he couldn’t, there was always the state run nursing home, where old men like him sit and stare while waiting for final release.
But he would not let this half-wit brain win. There was one more thing it must do.
George had weighed his options as carefully as his plaque-clogged cerebrum would permit. Everyone around him was full of encouraging advice about new treatments and therapies that can delay the worst symptoms for years. They told him to be brave and fight back. Never give up, they chirped. We know how difficult this must be for you.
Yeah, right. They can all go to hell. None of them can possibly know. I wish they would just leave me alone. Let me and my brain disintegrate in peace. But they won’t do that, of course, especially not my son-in-law, Frank, who thinks this is some kind of boxing match. Just because he was a middleweight in college, he considers himself an expert on boxing and life in general. “You have to visualize yourself in the ring with this thing. Give it a right jab, then a left. Give it everything you’ve got. You got to feel it, George. Everything depends on this match. Nobody can fight it but you.”
Of course, Frank never won any matches himself. His closest victory was a draw, after his opponent, suffering from the flu, fainted during the first round.
But as with so much of Frank’s bullshit, the boxing analogy was all wrong. What George had in mind was more of a writing contest—but one to the death that neither Frank nor George’s wife would understand. He thought about Anne, and the story she had told him about when she was five and couldn’t stop crying because her pet rabbit had to be put to sleep. For her ending the rabbit’s suffering was simply not enough to accept the monstrous decision to take its life. No, she would never accept it. And she would not forgive him for what he had planned.
George stared at the words he had written in his journal and frowned. Now what was it? Anxiously he flipped back the page and scanned his words looking for clues. Yes, there it was—the plan. Now he remembered why he had started writing everything down, even the most trivial things. It was his only defense against the alien. And soon, he knew, there would be no more words and their rich connections. There would be only vague thoughts and orphan memories. He must act while there was still time.
Each day the alien was gaining in strength, threatening to destroy what little order was left to him. Often when George looked back at what he had written, instead of the soaring prose he had imagined himself writing, he would find gibberish. There would be whole pages of inane words and phrases like “the hydrocephalous ensemble of vertiginous polymorphs,” or even completely made up words such as “tvzzyajjy” and “hyyyyaaapporree!” One of his chief failings as a writer had always been his lackadaisical editing. Ironically, in the past few years he had become a better editor, detecting and deleting all the crap his brain was now attempting to pass off as prose. His journal was more a patchwork of rational bits, interspersed with crossed out blocks of some madman’s ravings.
His goal was to write a perfect letter of his intentions—one that both Anne and others would at least understand, if not accept. It had to be a masterpiece.
So where to begin?
I, George L. Pettingill, being of sound mind…
No, that isn’t quite right. His mind isn’t sound. But starting with “being of unsound mind” would hardly inspire confidence in his readers. Besides, it’s no secret that his cognitive functions are in the toilet. Why dwell on the obvious? Cut to the chase.
When in the course of a human life it becomes necessary for a man to terminate the bonds which hold him to this earth and all that he holds dear, and to achieve a final state of dignity denied him by events beyond his control, a respectful consideration of the feelings and thoughts of others around him requires that he provide a full accounting of the causes that compel him to this separation…
Much better, he thought, but too much like Thomas Jefferson.
The tone needed to be just right—not too formal but not too casual either, lest his readers think he wasn’t taking this seriously. He thumbed through his Letter Writing Handbook. In the section devoted to formal letters were the following general guidelines: to write as clearly and simply as possible, to make the letter no longer than necessary, and to avoid informal language. Unlike casual letters that bounce all over the place with no set purpose or logic—much like his brain sometimes—formal letters got right to the point. There was a comforting structure to them. There was the salutation, followed by a pithy first paragraph stating the purpose. The middle paragraph, however, contained the real nuts and bolts, setting out all the relevant information behind the writing of the letter. Finally, the last paragraph delivered an ultimatum of sorts, stating what action you expect the recipient to take, which in his case would be to at least accept if not understand his final act.
There were missives for every occasion, ranging from cover letters and letters of intent to birthday invitations and congratulatory notes. George smiled at the last one, recalling the letter of congratulations he had received last Christmas from the CEO of his company. This is to inform you that, based on your many years of exemplary service to Diversified American Family Insurance, the board has unanimously voted to grant you the Outstanding Achievement Award along with a bonus of $50,000. The amount took his breath away at first, but he was worth it, goddamit.
But when he tried to expand upon the memory, George found he couldn’t. He shook his head and scowled. Then he remembered. There had never been an award except in his head. Three years ago—or maybe ten—he had written the letter to himself, then posted it. Upon receiving it, he gave in completely to the fantasy, tearing open the letter and poring over its words as if he had never seen them before.
It was just one of the many tricks the alien played on him. But not this time. This letter had to be for real. He was the CEO of his life, and he was stepping down. And here were his reasons. He would write a letter of intent. But to whom should he write it?
To Whom It May Concern:
No, too wishy-washy, he thought. Whoever picked up the letter could read it as they saw fit, whether it concerned them or not. What did he care when he was gone? There was really only one person he still cared about—only one person to convince.
You of all people know what I have been going through, so I hope you’ll try to understand what I plan to do. “Till death do us part,” we promised, and I intend to keep my end of the bargain, sooner rather than later. By the time you read this, I’ll be gone from this world of confusion, or in other words, dead.
I know you have different views on this matter, so I won’t try to convince you. At least permit me to explain my reasons for self-termination (which sounds so much less harsh than “killing myself,” don’t you think?). As you know, Anne, I am a proud man. How often you have reminded me. It will be the death of me, you always said, if I don’t learn how to be more humble and accepting of things I cannot change. Well, I can’t accept this, and I don’t want you or anyone to see me become a zombie while this alien thing I once called a brain takes over. No, Anne, loving creature that you are, even you must not see me like that. I can just see you spoon feeding me, talking to me as if everything you said didn’t sound like pure babble. You would dab the drool from my face, and then cry softly when I stared back at you with an empty look. It is too much to bear. I need to go out while there’s still time. I won’t go into the details of my departure. Suffice it to say that I have researched all the usual methods, and have found one that is relatively painless and won’t mess up the kitchen. I will try to make it look like an accident, though please forgive me if I do not succeed. I have never been good at this sort of thing, and this will be my first and thankfully last time (I hope). And please tell Frank for me that he’s an asshole (OK, so you’re probably not going to do that).
In conclusion, I will not try to tell you here how many ways I have loved you, for you already know. Of course, you might think my action in leaving you proves otherwise. That is something you must work out for yourself. I can only hope that you will understand and someday forgive me.
Your loving husband, George
George read back what he had written and nodded. Then he painstakingly rewrote it in his best cursive on the linen stationery he had saved for the purpose. He folded the letter and stuffed it into one of the matching envelopes, and filed it away in his desk for later reading. There was still time for one last edit. It had to be perfect.
But the alien had other plans. Later that night, it took the letter out of the desk and addressed it to Anne. Then it took George out for a walk to the mailbox.
Two days later, while walking past the living room, George heard a guffaw. Was that Anne he heard?
Sure enough, there was his wife sitting on the couch, or rather rolling on the couch in convulsive laughter.
“Who’s it from, dear?” George couldn’t imagine what would make his wife laugh like that. She was more the gentle tittering type.
“Why, it’s from you, silly.” You’ve written a suicide note. Of all people, George. Oh, for goodness sake, you couldn’t kill a rabbit, much less yourself. Were you trying to be funny? You’ve always had a strange sense of humor. But some people might take you seriously. You shouldn’t be writing such stuff. Now go get changed. Don’t you remember? Frank and Lois asked us over for dinner. Now stop frowning, George. Hurry up, we’ll be late.” ©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in the Fall 2013 print issue of Sheepshead Review, a creative writing and visual arts journal of the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay