Johnny America


A Miss Is As Good as a Mile


Illustration of daisies and lavender.

Ho­race Ka­vanagh lay in re­pose un­til every­one — the doc­tor, the nurs­es, his wife, Gertrude, his best friend, Mal — had ex­it­ed the room. The ten­der lamen­ta­tions of his loved ones still echoed in his ears, where Ho­race col­lect­ed them like pre­cious jew­els for the plea­sure of fu­ture admirations.

Brac­ing against the side-rails, he held his breath and brought him­self up­right, as­ton­ished to feel no pain for the first time in years. Off came the itchy, thread­bare gown, re­placed by the fa­mil­iar com­fort of pants worn above the hip bones and a sweater that smelled faint­ly of home. New­ly-nim­ble steps saw him past the busy­bod­ies at the nurs­ing sta­tion; the an­ti­sep­tic stench of the ward was his on­ly pur­suer on­to an el­e­va­tor which led back to the ground floor. Care­ful to avoid eye con­tact, he wound his way through the atri­um and in­to the lob­by, where the promise of a new day shone bright­ly through the big bay windows.

Vi­tal­i­ty, adren­a­line, and sev­er­al weapons-grade painkillers coursed through his veins. Ho­race had nev­er felt so alive.

“Ex­cuse me, sir? Can I help you?”

He turned and met the iras­ci­ble gaze of the woman perched be­hind the re­cep­tion desk. “No ma’am,” Ho­race replied with a bash­ful, prac­ticed wave, “I was just vis­it­ing a friend.”

The woman scowled, look­ing point­ed­ly at Horace’s wrist, where a yel­low arm­band with the words FALL RISK glared back at him. “If you’re leav­ing against med­ical ad­vice, we’re go­ing to need you to fill out some forms,” she said, reach­ing in­to a draw­er and ex­tract­ing a slab of pa­pers. “What’s your name?”

Ho­race con­sid­ered his op­tions. There were twen­ty paces to the ex­it, give or take. The old Ho­race would’ve made a run for it. But run­ning away was what you did when you were in the wrong, and Ho­race had nev­er felt more right­eous about any­thing in his life. Hitch­ing his pants north of his belly­but­ton, he strode to the desk and gave his name, adopt­ing a slight brogue for Kavanagh.

The woman clacked her key­board. Her eyes grew wide as saucers, then nar­rowed. She mo­tioned over a near­by col­league, a man with a wal­rus mus­tache. She in­di­cat­ed some­thing on her screen, then whis­pered in the man’s ear. He re­gard­ed Ho­race now, look­ing as if he’d just made a pass at his own moth­er, be­fore dash­ing down a near­by corridor.

The woman cast her eyes around the lob­by, bit­ing her lip. “Sir, ac­cord­ing to our records… you passed away this morning.”

Ho­race winked, rap­ping his knuck­les atop the pile of pa­per­work on the desk. “I tell ya, I de­cid­ed against it.”

The woman traced the sign of the cross up­on her chest. “I don’t — I don’t think you’re al­lowed to do that.”

“Oh?” said Ho­race, feign­ing in­dig­ni­ty. “And why not?”

“It’s against hos­pi­tal pol­i­cy,” she said, her lips trem­bling and ashen. “It has to be.”

They were both silent then, un­til sev­er­al min­utes lat­er when the man with the mus­tache re­turned with three more men in tow — two lum­ber­ing se­cu­ri­ty guards and a waxy-look­ing fel­low around half their size. “Mr. Ka­vanagh, I’m Eu­dy Mar­shall, the hos­pi­tal ad­min­is­tra­tor,” the short one said. “Come this way, please.” The guards flanked Ho­race as the ad­min­is­tra­tor led the group to a spar­tan office. 

“Mr. Ka­vanagh,” he said, seat­ing him­self with a tidy se­quence of crisp move­ments, “thank you so much for tak­ing the time to meet with me, and for choos­ing Pre­cep­tor for your care.”

“Call me Ho­race. What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, ac­cord­ing to pal­lia­tive care, you were pro­nounced dead this morn­ing.” He pursed his lips, in­ter­lock­ing his fin­gers on the desk. “My condolences.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“But you’ve de­cid­ed not to pass on, is that correct?”

Horace’s fin­gers sur­rep­ti­tious­ly guid­ed a few wisps of hair to cam­ou­flage his bald spot. “That’s right. I haven’t had my fill.”

Eu­dy of­fered a pursed smile. “You know…I’ve long sus­pect­ed we’ve dis­charged a few pa­tients who wished for death in­stead.” He an­gled back in his chair and huffed. “But we’ve nev­er had some­one at­tempt to dis­charge af­ter they passed. It’s with­out prece­dent — and our share­hold­ers can­not abide the risk.”

Ho­race winced. “Are you… are you telling me I can’t leave?”

Eu­dy cen­tered the stack of pa­pers on the desk be­tween them and smiled, more nat­u­ral­ly this time. “Not at all. I’ve con­sult­ed with the hos­pi­tal at­tor­ney and checked the by­laws — you’re free to go as soon as we com­plete the ap­pro­pri­ate in­dem­ni­fi­ca­tion forms.” Over the next sev­er­al hours, he walked Ho­race through an ac­cord to be legal­ly re­port­ed as de­ceased to the coun­ty, an agree­ment to pay what­ev­er por­tion of the bill Medicare would not, and a lengthy waiv­er in which Ho­race agreed to set­tle any po­ten­tial dis­cov­er­ies of med­ical mal­prac­tice through bind­ing arbitration. 

When all the pa­per­work was signed, they stood, shook hands, and walked back in­to the lob­by. “God­speed, Ho­race. While the terms of our new nondis­clo­sure agree­ment pre­vent you from re­veal­ing the de­tails of your re­lease, I do hope you’ll feel free to tell your fam­i­ly and friends to keep us in mind for all their fu­ture health­care needs.”

The slid­ing doors opened on­to a bright spring af­ter­noon — the very first day of the rest of Ho­race Kavanagh’s life.

Had the air al­ways been so crisp? Each step brought new de­lights to his at­ten­tion; the once-mun­dane grays of ex­is­tence now ren­dered in spark­ing Tech­ni­col­or. It was one of those mag­i­cal, ear­ly spring days in Mil­wau­kee when the tem­per­a­ture climbs above fifty, bring­ing all the city’s res­i­dents out of their win­ter hi­ber­na­tions. A gor­geous young woman pushed her ba­by down the path in a stroller, each of them smil­ing as they passed. Ho­race wept open­ly, a fierce de­ter­mi­na­tion to live his new life with far greater pur­pose, far greater mean­ing, swelling in­side his breast.

He con­tin­ued west along the elms, mak­ing a list of the things he would do. There were the ob­vi­ous ones — learn­ing to play the pi­ano, start­ing each new day with a jog. Tak­ing the trip to Italy that he and Gertrude al­ways put off un­til next year, when things wouldn’t be quite as hec­tic.  He’d heard they were do­ing mirac­u­lous things for hair restora­tion as of late, and the thought of lux­u­ri­ous new growth sent Ho­race leap­ing in­to the air like a man half his age. He stuck the land­ing like a man very much his own age, legs tan­gling and arms akim­bo, his foot jut­ting out at an un­sight­ly an­gle when the dust had set­tled. A pow­er­ful and cu­ri­ous vi­bra­tion thrummed deep with­in his in­nards, as if some­one had sound­ed the low­est note on a pi­ano from in­side the pit of his stom­ach. He forced his foot back in­to po­si­tion and won­dered how bad­ly it would hurt when the painkillers wore off. It took un­til he ex­it­ed the park and was near­ly home for the res­o­nance in his stom­ach to dissipate.

Round­ing on­to his block, he spot­ted his neigh­bor, At­ti­cus Ferns­by, knif­ing his trow­el in­to a bed of laven­der and daisies. They’d nev­er been close, on­ly neigh­bor­ly, and Ho­race had al­ways har­bored jeal­ousy of the man’s in­tel­li­gence and rak­ish good looks, which had on­ly deep­ened over the years when his thick, still-lus­trous head of hair turned sil­ver. New be­gin­nings, Ho­race re­mind­ed him­self, and of­fered a hearty wave in his di­rec­tion. At­ti­cus ap­peared to take no no­tice, ris­ing and walk­ing back in­side his home.

“Nuts to you, Ferns­by. Look like you seen a ghost!” said Ho­race, be­fore paus­ing at the bot­tom of the dri­ve­way to the res­i­dence he’d shared with his wife for over thir­ty-sev­en years. The ap­proach would take great cau­tion — af­ter all, what good was re­fus­ing the specter of death if it on­ly sent your beloved to an ear­ly grave from fright? Gen­tle steps and a ten­der heart, Ho­race thought, and she would un­der­stand him com­plete­ly. Tonight, they would dine out on the town and re­turn home to bask in their tri­umph, mak­ing love on the kitchen ta­ble be­cause death was but an il­lu­sion now and they needn’t live in fear of its tyran­ny any longer.

He stead­ied him­self and en­tered through the back door. Every­thing in the house was at once so fa­mil­iar and yet brand new. He tip­toed down the hall­way, past the yel­lowed wall­pa­per she’d al­ways begged him to change, and peered in­to the liv­ing room, where he found Gertrude sit­ting up­on the so­fa, a cup of tea in her hands and a hazy look in her eyes.

“Oh, Gert,” he said, and rushed to her side, tak­ing her hands in his and knock­ing the teacup to the floor, crack­ing it in half. “It’s all right, dar­ling. Don’t be scared. I’m here. I’m home.” He kissed the tips of her fin­gers with grate­ful lips.

“Ho­race,” she said, re­mov­ing her hands and plac­ing them in her lap, “that was my fa­vorite cup.”

Ho­race rose and sat next to her on the so­fa. “Gert, I couldn’t go through with it, I couldn’t leave you now. There’s still time, so much for us to do.”

Gertrude squirmed, push­ing her­self in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. “How did you even man­age such a thing?”

Ho­race winked, click­ing his tongue. “It was easy, I just thought about baseball.”

“That’s not fun­ny,” she said, gath­er­ing the bro­ken teacup and ex­it­ing the room. 

Ho­race trailed her to the kitchen, where he pic­tured clos­ing the dis­tance be­tween them to sweep her in his arms. “Gert, let’s hit the town tonight and cel­e­brate in style.”

Gertrude turned to face him. “Oh, I didn’t re­al­ize you’d come all the way back from the dead to take me out to the Siz­zler, then. Hon­est­ly, Ho­race — you’re al­ways think­ing about your­self. Did you ever think I might have been wait­ing all these years to dine al fres­co in Paris, just the once? But we had our time, and you’ve passed on. I was there, in case you’ve forgotten.”

Hands on his hips, Ho­race gazed around the room, grasp­ing for the words to sweet­en, where he spot­ted a sparkling blue vase filled with fresh laven­der and daisies next to the tele­phone. Their aro­ma burned his nos­trils and turned his spir­its to vine­gar. “Boy, you sure move on fast, huh?”

She turned to face him, smooth­ing down her hair. “Oh please. It’s sim­ply a love­ly ges­ture. Aren’t they beautiful?”

“Thir­ty-sev­en years, and she’s out and about be­fore I’m even cold in the ground.”

“God help me,” Gertrude said, slam­ming her hand on the coun­ter­top. “You’re not in the ground, you’re in my kitchen. You can refuse death all you like, but we had our time — a good, long while at that. ‘Un­til death do us part,’ re­mem­ber? No, I won’t go on liv­ing in sin with you now. Imag­ine what my moth­er would say!”

Ho­race rubbed at his tem­ples. “Your mother’s been dead for forty years!”

“Well, that doesn’t seem to count for much nowa­days, does it? Next thing you know, she’ll come burst­ing through the door to re­mind me I should have mar­ried Clan­cy Fitzsim­mons instead.”

Ho­race stormed out, giv­ing the door a sat­is­fy­ing slam. In the gar­den, he lined him­self up be­hind a pot­ted plant, as if set­ting to kick a field goal. Sweep­ing for­ward, he swung his leg as hard as he could, the pot ex­plod­ing in­to pieces. A large, some­what tri­an­gu­lar hunk land­ed twen­ty feet away in the street; to Horace’s tremu­lous as­ton­ish­ment, his foot land­ed an­oth­er ten feet be­yond that, in the mid­dle of At­ti­cus Fernsby’s front yard.

“Clan­cy Fitzsim­mons?” Mal scowled and placed two beers on the kitchen ta­ble. “That guy was a jerk.”

“You can say that again,” Ho­race said, rub­bing the stump where his right foot had been. Af­ter the vi­bra­tions had stopped, he’d col­lect­ed the miss­ing ap­pendage and tried jam­ming it back in­to place for a while be­fore giv­ing up and toss­ing it in­to the cen­ter of Atticus’s gar­den. Luck­i­ly, Mal on­ly lived a few blocks away, and Ho­race had been able to hop over on his re­main­ing ex­trem­i­ty. “Like she’s the on­ly one who had a high school sweet­heart. Do you re­mem­ber Desi —”

“De­siree Steven­son,” Mal said, a wist­ful gleam in his eye. “How could I for­get? She was re­al pret­ty. Smart, too.”

Ho­race laughed. Mal was smit­ten by her when they were teenagers, hard­ly able to speak when she’d been around. “Yes sir. De­siree Steven­son. I won­der where life took her. There’s a gal that’d ap­pre­ci­ate a guy re­fus­ing to buy the farm, I’ll bet. Her smile al­ways lit up the room.”

As if on cue, the sil­hou­ette of Mal’s wife Flo­rence dark­ened the en­try­way. Hold­ing her fin­ger up to pursed lips, she nod­ded at the wall clock above them be­fore shrink­ing back in­to the re­cess­es of the home. “Thanks for let­ting me stay here tonight,” Ho­race said, muf­fling his voice. “Hope I’m not dig­ging you in too deep here.”

“No deep­er than usu­al. Don’t wor­ry about it. She says you can’t come with us to­mor­row, though. Said it would be poor form.”

“Well, she’s not wrong about that. Don’t wor­ry, I’ll make my way.” Ho­race sipped his beer, lean­ing back in­to the chair. “I can’t be­lieve they’re still go­ing through with it. Think they’ll use an emp­ty coffin?”

“Beats me,” Mal said, grin­ning back at him. “I’m just glad you’re back, is all. I know how hard this must have been for you.”

Ho­race sighed, run­ning a hand over his stump. “Oh, you do, do you?”

Mal glanced to­wards the hall­way, then leaned for­ward. “I do. See, the thing of it is…I’m sup­posed to be dead, too.”

Ho­race seized up mid-swal­low, tak­ing a long while to clear his air­way with slow, steady breaths. “You’re kid­ding. But — but how?”

“Last No­vem­ber. Flo and I were get­ting ready for the Fri­day Fish Fry over at the Le­gion. I was sat right here, wait­ing for her to fix her hair, and wham — I go down like a sack of bricks.” Mal pan­tomimed a coro­nary, clutch­ing his chest and flap­ping his tongue be­fore tilt­ing his head to­wards the ceil­ing. “Tell you the truth,” he said, look­ing back again to­wards the hall­way, “I was ready to go. All them years at the fac­to­ry, work­ing over­time just to keep the mort­gage, putting the kids through school, get­ting screwed out of my pen­sion. Let’s just say I wasn’t too bro­ken up about it. Just wish I coul­da seen the Brew­ers win it all, right? Think we’re gonna be wait­ing a while on that one still.”

Ho­race looked up­on his friend, tru­ly took him in for the first time in years, and was as­ton­ished to dis­cov­er Mal was miss­ing an ear. “But how?”

“That’s just it. It wasn’t me — it was Flo. Af­ter they pro­nounced me, she came in and said I had an­oth­er thing com­ing if I thought I was get­ting away that easy. Said I still hadn’t tak­en her to see Spain like I’d promised back in high school. Shoot, I woul­da told her we’d go to the moon back then if I thought it’d get me in her pants, y’know? We was just kids.”

They fin­ished their beers in si­lence. When they were done, Mal threw Horace’s arm around his shoul­der and walked him to the liv­ing room, help­ing him to get arranged on the couch. He paused at the en­try­way on the way out, his fin­ger hov­er­ing over the light switch. “Wel­come back, bud­dy. Oh, and one last thing: be care­ful, okay? Your body isn’t go­ing to heal like it used to.”

Ho­race rubbed at his leg. “Yeah, I kin­da fig­ured that one already.”

“Can I tell you some­thing else?”

His heart heavy with grat­i­tude, Ho­race once more looked up­on his friend. “Tell me any­thing in the world, pal.”

Mal looked up, tears welling in his eyes. “You re­mem­ber Barbarella?”

“The Jane Fon­da picture?”

“Yeah,” Mal said, “that’s the one. It was on TV a few months back, while Flo was at the store.” He sighed and looked to­wards the ceil­ing, his low­er lip quiv­er­ing. “Be gen­tle. If you break some­thing off, it’s nev­er ever com­ing back.”

“Christ, fix your face be­fore Flo sees.” 

With shak­ing hands, Ho­race rat­tled his low­er mandible un­til some­thing clicked in­to place. He’d fall­en af­ter wak­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar set­ting, not yet used to his miss­ing ap­pendage. A glance in the mir­ror con­firmed that his mouth now hung slight­ly ajar, as if he was con­stant­ly off-guard, even when he tried clos­ing it all the way.

“I told you to be care­ful, didn’t I? The world is a scary place for peo­ple like us.” Mal ad­just­ed his tie and ges­tured to­wards the street. “We’re head­ing over now. I left some clothes out for ya, and dug out the crutch­es from Flo’s hip surgery, too.”

The men em­braced. Ho­race swal­lowed back the lump in his throat. “I love you, bud­dy. Thanks for every­thing.” His S’s now hissed when he spoke.

“You got it. Don’t be late, eh?” Mal ad­just­ed his tie and scur­ried out of the room.

Ho­race hopped in­to the bed­room and dressed him­self, tak­ing care not to jos­tle any­thing. There was some­thing ob­scene about the way his pants leg dan­gled with­out his foot to serve as an end­point. He crutched to the cor­ner and got on the bus, women cov­er­ing their children’s eyes in the seats around him. Ho­race pre­tend­ed not to see and adopt­ed a pen­sive pose to hold up his now-per­ma­nent­ly slack jaw. 

He ex­it­ed in front of the church, where he was heart­ened to find the premis­es teem­ing with mourn­ers. He made his way in­side, prepar­ing for the well-wish­es and ac­co­lades of his many friends and acquaintances.

“Dead man walk­ing,” some­one said in­side the lobby.

“Can you be­lieve the nerve of that guy?” one at­tendee asked an­oth­er near the en­trance to the narthex.

“He’s re­al­ly let him­self go,” said a woman as he passed.

Gertrude stood at the head of the transept, look­ing re­fined in a black dress that Ho­race had nev­er seen be­fore. She did not ac­knowl­edge his pres­ence when he took his place be­side her.

“I’m so sor­ry,” said Rose Geb­hardt, Gertrude’s friend from the Red Hat So­ci­ety, ma­neu­ver­ing her walk­er next to them. “I can’t imag­ine all that you’ve been through, dear.”

“Thank you,” Ho­race and Gertrude said si­mul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Gertrude be­gan to cry.

Rose turned and smashed a ten­nis-balled tip of her walk­er in­to the up­per half of Ho­race’s re­main­ing foot, dis­con­nect­ing his two largest toes. 

“At­ti­cus,” Gertrude said, dab­bing her eyes with a wrist and wav­ing to­wards the pews, “thank you so much for coming.”

At­ti­cus strode to­wards them in a dark suit that seemed tai­lor-made to fit his pro­por­tions, car­ry­ing a black trash bag by its knot­ted-off top. “Of course. A friend in need de­serves a friend, indeed.”

Ho­race cleared his throat.

“Ho­race,” said Atticus.

“At­ti­cus,” said Horace.

“Some­thing the mat­ter?” At­ti­cus said, ex­tend­ing the bag at arm’s length. His sil­ver hair shim­mered un­der the spare church lighting.

Ho­race shook his head, his jaw trail­ing be­hind each turn. “Not a thing. I’m a lucky man, Ferns­by. Get to see my own fu­ner­al. Pret­ty well at­tend­ed if I do say so my­self. What’s in the bag?”

“I be­lieve you mis­placed some­thing in my gar­den yes­ter­day, so I brought it with. Be fore­warned, its odor is rather unpleasant.”

“That’s swell. Why don’t you give it here so I can stick my stink­ing foot straight up your ass?”

“Enough,” Gertrude said, turn­ing to face him. “You’re so self­ish. Plen­ty of peo­ple were go­ing to miss you, you know.”

“Peo­ple can still miss me,” Ho­race said.

“Oh, that’s rich. How could any­one miss you when you refuse to leave?” She turned away. “Please don’t sit with me to­day, I would sim­ply die from the embarrassment.”

“Woe be to those that refuse the toll to Acheron,” said At­ti­cus, toss­ing the bag on the floor next to the cof­fin. He placed his hand up­on the small of Gertrude’s back and led her away.

Ho­race hopped his way to an open seat at the back of the church. The pas­tor, who looked im­pos­si­bly young, de­liv­ered the open­ing ser­mon: “In Job it is writ­ten: ‘If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my ser­vice I would wait, ’till my re­new­al should come.’ For when one de­parts, he re­turns to the Earth, and on that very day his plans too shall per­ish. The liv­ing know they will die, but the dead know noth­ing, and they’ve no more re­ward to keep them.”

None of his fel­low parish­ioners of­fered a eu­lo­gy when the time came, and the ser­vice con­clud­ed soon there­after. At­ten­dees were fil­ing out as Mal ap­proached from the side, but Flo­rence reached out and grabbed him by his re­main­ing ear, which made a sharp pop­ping sound when it de­tached from his skull. Mal of­fered a mourn­ful wave be­fore be­ing swept away in the de­part­ing crowd.

Ho­race teetered up to the cof­fin. The lid was rather heavy, and of­fered a groan of dis­ap­proval when lift­ed. In­side was his fa­vorite suit, the suit he’d worn on the day of his wed­ding, and a col­lec­tion of pho­tos from across his life. He’d looked so happy.

The lob­by was emp­ty. It was rain­ing out, and at this tem­per­a­ture it would like­ly turn to snow be­fore too long. The cross­beams above would be an ex­cel­lent place to hang him­self, he de­cid­ed, pro­vid­ed he could find a way to shim­my up there and a rope for the job; per­haps, if he dropped from a great enough height, his head would pop off en­tire­ly. Then the pas­tor could sim­ply col­lect all the pieces and arrange him in­side of his suit with­in the cas­ket. They could re­send the in­vites and start all over again.

“Our dead are nev­er dead to us un­til we have for­got­ten them.”

Ho­race turned to face a woman wear­ing an over­coat and bon­net, both of which failed to hide her strik­ing fea­tures. “Who was it that said that?”

“George Eliot.”

“I’ve heard of him. He was a writer, right?”

“She. Her re­al name was Mary Ann Evans.” The woman’s pale skin seemed to be glow­ing. “She had to use a pen name to be tak­en seriously.”

Horace’s jaw fell so far agape that it un­hinged com­plete­ly and need­ed pop­ping back in­to place be­fore he could speak again. “De­siree? De­siree Stevenson?”

“Hel­lo, Ho­race,” she said, with a smile that turned the vestibule in­can­des­cent. “I saw your obit­u­ary in the pa­per yes­ter­day — and the re­trac­tion this morn­ing. It’s nice to see you again.”

Ho­race bal­anced on his crutch­es and grasped her hand, break­ing off three of her fin­gers in the process.

Filed under Fiction on October 20th, 2023

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