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November 28, 2022

The Middle

By Pete McArdle

Edward dragged the trash bin into the room where he liked to write and set it up so he could turn at a moment's notice and throw up into it. He'd also brought along a roll of paper towels and his morning coffee, which he took a sip of while waiting for the computer to warm up. The coffee tasted like shit, the damn Cisplatin made everything taste like shit and worse still, it wasn't doing a damn thing to his cancer.

Some wisdom of the flesh told Edward he was losing this battle, the rogue cells in his lungs were replicating madly, forming vast battalions that marched off to the far corners of his corpus, there to commit acts of vandalism upon his brain or his bladder or his spine. Edward was going down for the count and he didn't need doctors or CT-scans to know this was so.

Still he went for his chemo and his scans and his blood work, what else could he do? He'd certainly written enough characters who, faced with their imminent demise, drank wine in the smoky cabarets of Paris, shot up heroin with pretty young prostitutes, or simply winked at the world and put a .44 in their mouth.

These men, Edward now realized, were figments of a weak imagination, one-dimensional cartoon characters without a speck of truth. The reality of facing Death was much more mundane: buying extra bed-sheets and changing them daily.

Out of habit, Edward checked his email. Borderline friends wishing to pay a visit, reminders of future doctor's appointments, frantic pleas from his publisher, he deleted them all unanswered. He'd only ever had but two good friends, really. One had already said his goodbyes and the other, sadly, had already gone bye-bye.

Edward had written a long, passionate ode to his dying friend, Greg, and had been most disappointed when Greg had given it short shrift. His pale, wasted pal had put it down halfway through the second page and asked for some cool ginger ale. Cool, not cold. Edward chuckled at the memory.

Part of him did feel a little guilty about blowing off his publisher. He'd been pushing them hard for a release date on "Gideon's Journey" when he'd first been diagnosed. He assured the publishing house that a little fatigue and hoarseness would not stop him from promoting his new book, he could handle the travel, the TV appearances, and the endless inane interviews.

Of course, he'd been wrong. From the moment he'd begun spitting up blood, "Gideon's Journey" had essentially been forgotten. It would sell well enough on his name alone and probably garner the same, old tired reviews. "Formulaic . . . overwrought . . . a road already well-traveled."

Edward had to admit that, in the end, the critics were right. He'd followed the same narrow, tree-lined path in every book, taken his readers on a comfortable, cushy ride from point A to point B, and dropped them off safely at point C. Millions of people had enjoyed these bland but familiar offerings, and thanks to them, Edward had more money than God. And almost as many followers.

But it was all crap, huge cardboard-bound piles of the stuff, Edward could see that now. No professor of literature would ever wave one of his books in the faces of aspiring authors and editors; the novels of Edward M. Proudy belonged in the teacher's lounge or the cafeteria or perhaps, most fittingly, in the john.

It seemed the same tumor cells that were tearing down the walls of his alveoli had also torn the veils from Edward's eyes, he could see things so much more clearly now. He had little time left, he would do the only thing he knew -- write -- and despite his paltry, vanilla skills, he would write the sad yet amazing story of his life.

A huge acrid bubble rose in Edward's throat and he vomited into the trash bin, continuing long after there was nothing left to expel. Holding his head over the pail, he waited for his breath and equilibrium to return. After he'd recovered somewhat, he took a sip of his coffee and swished it around in his mouth, erasing the taste of stomach acid with something practically as bad.

He had to laugh, despite the fat jungle cat languidly sharpening its claws on the inside of his ribcage. Could there be anything more nauseating than the story of one's own life? Should not his autobiography start, not with birth but with our hero puking his guts out into a garbage pail, a violent outpouring both of words and stomach contents, an unsubtle "echoing" if you will?

Edward's legion of critics would certainly be caught off-guard by his latest spew, especially that bitch from the Times who'd called him "linear." For this piece would start, not at point A -- No, ma'am! -- but at point Q and fly shakily towards point L, leave the rails at point R and rocket off through the Horseshoe Crab Nebula with no clear destination in sight. For the working title of his autobiography, Edward chose "The Middle," to remind himself that it should have neither beginning nor end, and above all, no discernable plot thread.

He typed "The Middle" by Edward M. Proudy and then a donkey-kick of pain doubled him over. It was the cancer reminding him who the protagonist of this story really was. The voracious malignancy clearly wished to co-author this particular piece, in fact it would be glad to take over the entire narrative if Edward would only let it.

But he would not, God-damn-it, this was his story.

Edward concentrated on his breathing, as if it were a recently-acquired skill, breathing in with a long, sustained effort and then remembering to breathe out. If the beast within wished to write, then so be it. But Edward was not without weapons when it came to lion-taming. The doctors had given their gravely-ill patient a cornucopia of pharmacological marvels: sleeping pills, morphine, Oxycontin and muscle relaxants, even a little pot to help his appetite.

The story of his life would be a collaboration then, "The Middle" by Edward M. Proudy, Small-Cell Carcinoma et al, and "et al" would be whatever combination of pills he chose, based solely on their size and color. And since Scotch had been his steady companion since he first began writing, Edward decided that Johnny Walker should also get a byline.

The pain in his gut having subsided to a dull roar, Edward limped to the kitchen and grabbed a glass and a bottle of Johnny, black, the way he liked his women. That joke had always been a hit with Edward's boyfriends.

Edward then visited the downstairs bathroom medicine cabinet, and returned, arms overflowing, to his writing room. He assembled all his new friends on the table next to the computer and poured himself three fingers of Scotch.

Let's see, he thought, one of these . . . and one of these, and a couple of those, they're so tiny! He washed the pills down with a big gulp of Scotch and then rolled himself a loose, lumpy joint. He'd never smoked pot before, in fact he hadn't smoked a cigarette since his diagnosis but not for altruistic reasons, only because they made him so damn short of breath.

Edward previously had had zero interest in pot or the sort of folks who smoked it. Potheads had always impressed him as lazy and disorganized, two things he'd never been called, not even by that bitch at the Times. But in sharing tales of chemotherapy with fellow patients at the hospital, he'd noticed how many of them spoke fondly of marijuana, even the former cop whose shoes were always polished to a high shine.

What the hell, thought Edward and he lit up the joint.

He smoked about half of it before the coughing became too much, and the Scotch glass was empty by the time his cough had calmed down.

"I'd better write down a basic skeleton of what I want to get done, before all this shit kicks in," he whispered to no one.

"Great!" he exclaimed, cracking up. "I'm talking to myself, about friggin' skeletons, no less. Perhaps I should write about the body of my work, or the little death of rejection, or the fatal flaw in all my heroines. See if I can't cause my readers to commit hari-kari." Edward laughed long and hard until a pang of nausea cut short the hilarity.

He stared down at the keyboard, at all the letters in their seemingly-random arrangement, and then he looked up at the white space staring back at him from the screen. That's what he'd been doing all these years, he now realized, filling up white space with black letters, 12 pt. Courier New. He'd merely been throwing words at the screen and seen what stuck -- and what paid. And that had been enough. Hell, his house had rooms he hardly ever visited.

But it wouldn't be enough now, no, not by a long shot. This was his last chance to write boldly, to fill page after page with terrible clarity, to offer up his heart of hearts before the real one crapped out. Edward felt tears welling up in his eyes.

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls," he intoned and then somehow managed to laugh and cry simultaneously.

All the drugs were kicking in now, a Greek chorus of strange thrummings, tics and palpitations. While the morphine grappled with the carcinoma, the pot softened the punch of the damn Cisplatin. And the Scotch? Well, the Scotch just left a nice taste in his mouth.

With increasingly-blurred vision and nary a hint of premeditation, Edward wrote. His fingers were a blur at the keyboard, tap-tap-tapping to a snappy jazz rhythm, and the sentences splashed across the screen, no punctuation necessary.

Edward wrote about sand on the beach, how it gets in your swim-suit and your sandwich, and in all your private places. How the salt air tastes and how the seagulls sound, how the waves roll in and out as the sun slowly burns your body.

He wrote about hot dogs, how they contained the very essence of baseball and how they set the stage for picnics and parades. And why, with the proper amount of mustard, relish, and sauerkraut, they must inevitably stain one's favorite slacks.

Edward stopped counting modifiers, the beloved pooch of his youth was a furry, feisty, fun-loving, fleet-footed friend, always barking, sniffing, licking, piddling and generally running amok, marking time with his tail and drooling like a broken faucet.

The years of Edward's schooling flew by rapidly, learning this . . . and now that . . . and then marching, in black cap and gown, toward the big, bad world.

Slowing down, he described how being in love feels, so terribly dangerous yet beckoning, so right yet frightening, so sublime when it's there and so crushing when it's gone. He had to admit, despite all the lust and romance in his novels, he did not know love at all.

As the room started to spin, Edward threw letters together to describe sounds, sounds like p-f-f-f-t and gaar! and nuh-uh. He wrote brepped and frootled and bandy-snatched, words with no sense but infinite meaning. He wrote "The hair-challenged man harrumphed rather heartily" and then needed a full minute to recover, he was laughing so hard.

Edward was now a drug-fueled dragster, the tumor growling loudly under the hood and Johnny Walker at the wheel. Words streamed onto the screen as he sat back and watched. A list of all the colors found in M&M's, all the cities he'd visited in reverse alphabetical order, an in-depth classification of farts. Edward roared, he retched, he drank and he stank as the words flowed like a bounding mountain stream, the most effortless writing he'd ever done.

When he was done here, the world would truly know him, the real him, the small myopic man behind the curtain. They'd know that he laughed at his mother's wake, he'd cried when the Red Sox lost the World Series, and he actually felt sorry for all the men who'd slept with him. Edward had been born to write -- to write alone -- and none of those men ever had a chance.

His life had been rich but much too narrow, full of surprises yet always well-planned, all too wonderful but all too short. And this was the proper ending, it had all pointed here, to this sick-smelling room where he was filling page after page with the unvarnished truth.

Edward was exhausted, still his fingers flew. God knows, he could rest soon enough. He popped more pills, drank Scotch from the bottle, and peed himself where he sat. He laughed, he hacked up bloody phlegm, he wept, he periodically blacked out.

The sun was slowly sinking behind the royal palms in his back yard when Edward knew he was done: the last word had been written. It didn't matter how this manuscript looked, hell, that's what copy-editors were for. And it didn't matter what anyone thought of it except him. This was his, it was real, by far the best thing he'd ever written, and he knew this with uncanny certainty.

Edward would lie down now, and if he woke up later, he'd send this, his final manuscript, to his long-suffering publisher. If not, they'd surely find it on his computer. Either way it would get published, he knew, if only to stir up interest in "Gideon's Journey." There was only one thing left to do.

He sat back in his chair and took a deep cleansing breath. And as he patiently waited for the room to stop spinning, Edward pondered his stupid, selfish, lovely little life. And then he typed in the definitive title of his masterpiece, "Last Words."

Grinning crookedly, he got to his feet and staggered over to the couch, to sleep, perchance to dream.

Article © Pete McArdle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2013-05-20
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
1 Reader Comments
Sand
05/25/2013
10:38:56 PM
Yep. Write on!
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