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The value of life
He woke. Birds were flitting in and out the view of his window. The sun shone gloriously down on the dewy grass. He could see the flower gardens, put by the state to “cheer” the seniors, the prisoners, waving gently in the morning breeze. A glance at the clock, it was almost six. The nurse would be in soon to give him his daily ration of pills, that one to take away the knee pain, this one to take away the back pain, that one to counteract the other two’s side effects. Then she’d insist on walking him through the halls, a peculiar punishment it seemed. Why would he want to walk among these old, decrepit strangers? Why would he want to see human suffering in full blow when he could lounge about in his thirteen by twenty four cell all day? Well, today it mattered not. He would walk the halls; make polite conversation about his grandchildren, the weather, what was on the lunch menu for next week. It didn’t matter because today would be the day that he would die.
* * *
It was noon. He had eaten his morning meal, eggs and sausage maybe? He knew that’s what the board had said, but he could never remember eggs coming in patty form. He dug under his bed, dust balls and tiny spiders rolled away, fleeing from his touch. At last he came to the box. Opening it, he found his treasures: a pair of dusty much loved and subsequently worn out army issue boots, his collapsible digging trowel from his time spent panning for gold in Alaska and the compass. His father had given it to him when he was just a boy, shortly before he left for the first Great War. He had never returned and all that Herb had left now was this cracked old compass and a few foggy memories. He sighed, now wasn’t the time for that, he needed to be done, to stop the anger and pettiness before dark, so he laced up his boots, threw on his old rucksack, loaded down with his trowel, and his lunch and headed for the door.
Getting out was easier than he had planned. No fuss, no stares from the nurses; everyone must be down for the sanctioned nap time. He tipped his hat the Betty sitting blankly at the television. As he reached the lobby, a smiling old man and grandson smiled thinly at him from the poster on the wall. He knew the desk would be empty, no Mr. Johnson greeting family members today. Families never visited on Thursdays. He reached behind the desk and popped one of the keys off the hook, then slipped it into his pocket. From there he simply walked out, past the patio, across the lawn, toward the garage. He glanced back. This was not as much fun as he had planned. No sirens going off, no men in white coats running around with tranquilizer darts. The simplicity of leaving made him wonder why it hadn’t been done earlier. But no time for that now, it had to be at least two, and although it didn’t get really dark until nine in this lazy summer, his journey would be long, and he knew the nurses would eventually discover he was gone. He briskly walked, as fast as his old knees would allow, down to the garage, to were the “day trip” vans were kept. He felt terrible, but figured in a few hours, none of it would really matter, it’s not like they could kick him out of the home. Fishing the key out of his pocket, he let himself into one of the smaller vans and started for the U-Store Storage buildings on the other side of town.
* * *
It had started months ago; he had been hospitalized with persistent headaches. From there it had escalated, doctors talked in hushed tones to his kids. The four of them looked at him gravely as they entered the room. They had explained to him he had an aggressive form of brain cancer. He needed to write a will. He needed to get ready for the inevitable. At first he had been scared, he was old and he knew it, but that still didn’t make him ready for death. But days spent in bed, staring out the nursing home window calmed him. It was life, he needed to accept it and do what needed to be done. He wrote a list, it was what Ella would have done.
Write a will.
It was as far as he could get. He called his children. Four boys, three girls, all vultures. They fought, the squabbled, and after an entire day’s worth of writing and revisions, he was still no closer to splitting up what would be left of him. They boys wanted his old fishing gear. It surprised him at first, his boys had never been interested in fishing, they were the educational type. In fact, he was sure at least one of them didn’t eat meat. Vegetarian maybe, or vegan. Hell, he couldn’t keep them straight, but it made him smile that they were interested in things he couldn’t have paid them to use as teens. It made him smile until they started talking prices.
“Do you realize what an old Remington rod is worth?!”
“No, no. I’ve got a dealer near my apartment that would pay top dollar for that old reel. These things are in these days.”
He had to leave. They didn’t care about sentiment, they couldn’t be bothered to know the history. His uncle Bill had given him that reel when he was six. A price couldn’t and shouldn’t be put on it. Yet as the lawyer wrote his lists, it became clearer to him that they would never be interested in anything but face value of his life.
* * *
He met Lenny at the front desk. Grumbled hellos, how are the children’s and isn’t it nice weather’s finally ended as Herb brought to the table the matter at hand. He was old. He needed the contents of his rental shed to be moved into his van, and as soon as possible. He was selling them at auction he told Lenny, and silently breathed to himself how pleased he was the poor boy was so dull. No questions, no looks, just a “Yessir, Mister Herb sir,” and a jump into action. He glanced at the clock hanging behind the desk. He was making good time. If Lenny could get the van loaded by three, he’d be able to be on the mountain by five, and could have the whole ordeal over and be back in bed in time for his last episode of M*A*S*H. He frowned, and hoped it would be a good episode. Not the one were they paint all that junk gold to keep Frank from transferring. That was such a stupid episode. Sometimes he wondered how such a good show could create such bad episodes. Maybe they changed writers on shifts, like at a factory. He wasn’t sure, but another glance at the clock surprised him. He’d been in his daydream for almost twenty minutes. He bustled out back to the van. Lenny had finished and was putting bubble wrap around some of the more fragile looking items. He moved to a box and started fishing around.
“Hey, Lenny, you like to fish, don’tcha?”
“Yessir, Mister Herb sir.”
Herb tossed a small package at the kid.
“You take good care of that, ya’ hear? It was my uncle Bill’s, brand new in ’37, it’s caught a lot of fish in its day, and I reckon it ought to catch a few more.”
He smiled as the boy’s face lit up. Now that was appreciation. He climbed into the van and pulled out onto the highway, squinting in the sun.
* * *
It had been early February when he decided what he needed to do. The ground wouldn’t thaw for another few weeks, giving him the opportunity to plan. He had read stories as a boy of pirates, burying their worldly possessions, and as he saw the uprising among his offspring, he knew they’d never be happy until only one of them had it all. He had tried to be a good father. He read the books with Ellie, played ball when his young sons were interested. Went to dance and piano recitals for the girls. He wasn’t sure how things got away from him. But as his family grew up, they grew out, away from him and his Ellie. And before they knew what had happened, their cars were gone, their house was sold and both were in the elderly prison that was “Sunset Acres”. At first it hadn’t been bad. A bedroom, living room, bathroom and kitchen. What more did they really need? But as they slowed, Herb watched his Ellie wither. They were old, they both knew it, but they never felt it until they were forced to be around it. Playing bridge with the decrepit of biddies, Ellie’s face seemed to die, like a rose left in the sun. And suffering through what seemed to be endless hours of bingo, he had watched her slip from a vibrant, smiling mother and grandmother into the perpetual vegetative state lived in by the residents of “Sunset Acres”. It was in fact, if the sun had set on her. Then she had just gone. They told him she was old, she had a bad heart, it was her time. But he knew the real reasons and he loved her for it. She had finally grown tired of the monotony and in her typical fashion, had decided to explore what came next. But he had always been behind her; he wasn’t ready to make the leap. He knew she’d be with him when he did it, laughing about how long he took, poking fun at him for being such a coward. But he still felt fear at giving up. Like memories of jumping into the swimming hole from the top of a tree. She’d be floating in the glittering water, laughing her sweet melody at him until he could take it no more. And only when he couldn’t stand being at the top while she was at the bottom would he leap. Flying down into the water, his stomach falling the whole way, the great splash, he felt nothing but terror. But then he’d be with her, floating side by side, watching the birds snatch bugs overhead as the sun set behind him, and the fireflies began blinking in and out of the rushes.
* * *
This was it. He was finally here. He clambered out of the truck, his knee had been giving him problems since he left the U-Store. The sun was begging to set in the west, he didn’t have much time if he wanted to be done digging before dark really set in. He grabbed the digging trowel out of the cab and walked around. The woods were deep up here, silent. He figured he was about two miles from the nearest hiking trail, it had been miserable trying to wedge that van between trees to make it up here. The mountain seemed steeper than he remembered it, but then again, he hadn’t been up here in years. He smiled at the happy old trees, bigger around than he could reach and knew this is were it needed to be. He began to dig. As he dug he thought of everything. Of Ellie, of the kids, of all his regrets and all his success. As darkness fell, a calm stillness fell over him. He was glad he was dying. Things had gotten pretty grim in the past few months, he didn’t think he wanted to be around to see how they turned out. This country and that country had developed all kinds of biological, nuclear and all kinds of other scientific weapons he had never heard of. He chuckled to himself and wondered what happened to the good old days when countries just shot at each other until one of them gave up. Ah, giving up. A sudden realization hit him. He was giving up. He didn’t feel shame or embarrassment. He had lived a good long life, and he was in control. He was making the decision to die, no one else. And he was ready. Herb could almost see his Ellie, smiling up at him from that placid pool, but not yet. He wasn’t finished yet. He looked around at his hole. It was a good five feet deep, about three wide, he decided it was big enough to hold his cargo. He moved to the van, and drug out the four heavy army boxes. They were waterproof, fireproof and nuke proof, but he didn’t think he’d have to worry about it too much. Opening them, he looked at his memories. Pictures of aunts, uncles, dogs and grandmothers filled one. Another held his fathers’ army dog tags, along with a triangle folded flag and some letters he had sent to Herb and his mother from Germany. The third box held what his son had called “valuable”, old handmade lures from his grandfather, his uncle’s duck call, some rods and collapsible reels from the thirties and his father’s wolf trap, brought back from a trip to the Yukon before he was born. He closed these three boxes and set them in the hole. It was very dark now, and he feared he wouldn’t have enough time to bury all four boxes. He opened the last one anyway, and a tear fell from his eye. The final box was filled with pictures of Ellie and he on their wedding day, the lace ribbon used to tie up her bouquet. Underneath it all he had his life savings, not much, around six thousand dollars. He clasped the top and gently laid the final box in the hole. As quickly as he could he shoveled the dirt back over the hole. It was done. He drove the van back to the home. Upon arriving he found cops and nurses running everywhere, he laughed, now this was what should be happening. He pulled into the drive, news media, nurses, police officers swarmed the vehicle. He blanked his face and stuttered nonsense into their faces. How could they press charges, he was nothing but a helpless old man, confused about whose vehicle was parked out back. The nurses led him to his room and laid him down in bed. He smiled quietly and closed his eyes.
* * *
Nurse Sarah screamed as she came to give Herb his morning regiment. The place was suddenly in a bustle, crazy old Mr. Taylor had died. After the fiasco last night, his heart must have been in a terrible weakened condition. So much to do, he had children didn’t he?
So the children were called arrangements were made, allotted time for mourning passed. Finally, the reading of the will. The family hungrily leaned in across the big oak table as the lawyer shook his head.
“It doesn’t make sense. Weeks ago, he sent me a sealed letter with a note attached. That he didn’t want to legalize anything, that his children would get what they deserved. But this is nonsense. He must have lost his mind.”
One of the boys barked, “But were is all his stuff!? He had thousands just sitting in those old boxes of junk in the storage buildings! It can’t all just be gone.”
“I’m sorry sir. This is all he gave me.”
The kids drew in close as the oldest boy opened the envelope. Two scraps of paper fell out and one of the girls grabbed it greedily and read,
“’A cynic is one who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’. I’m sorry I could never teach you the value of what you were given.
“But this, this is nothing! Where is his money?! Where is his stuff!”
The lawyer calmly shook his head and talked of the money still to be had from the sale of the few odds and ends of furniture, but could leave the kids with nothing else.
In the hubbub, a young boy, the youngest son of Herb’s oldest son gently picked up the other paper.
“Dad, what’s this?”
“Oh, how should I know! It’s some stupid piece of paper you’re crazy old grandpa left us instead of real money.”
“No, Dad, look. It looks like a treasure map!”
“Oh be quiet boy! The adults are trying to talk. Can’t you go play outside with your sister? Christ.”
The boys quietly tucked the paper into his shirt pocket and ran out the door. Once outside, he met his sister by the swings and showed her the paper. She agreed it looked like a treasure map, and although the names and letters didn’t make sense, they both knew it was something special.