Fifteen Minutes by Mark Svoboda

There is a young man on the telephone sitting on a hard,
steel octagon under the invasive Arizona sun. He begins to
perform the numerical ritual with the operator in order to make
his weekly Sunday call to his mom. He is a prisoner…an inmate.

His mom answers in distress and reveals that dad is in the
hospital. He had a backache the last few days but shrugged it off
attributing it to his working days before the collapse. He found
solace in the bottle hidden in the chopped wood by the fireplace,
the one he gave up fifteen years ago. And he found extra relief
by taking Sunday’s dose of Oxycodone on Tuesday. Mom says
nothing was out of the ordinary. He made his routine pilgrimages
to the back porch to smoke his Marlboro reds, methodically
rubbed his rosary beads for the six kids, and continued making
“to-do” lists for the things that would never get done.

She freaked when she found him keeled over in the
kitchen and, for the first time in their thirty-five year marriage,
she heard her stoic husband wail like a child. The doctor said he
needed emergency surgery and he might not make it, so he gave
him a few seconds to say goodbye to his wife. When the doctor
came out he informed mom that the artery leading from his heart
to his small intestine had burst several days ago, and the small
intestine, being deprived of blood, died a slow death like a man
buried alive in a coffin. He said if he would have come in when
he felt the initial pain he would have been fine.

He’s still alive she says. During surgery they removed his
small intestine, several feet of his large intestine, and his
gallbladder. If he does survive, he’ll never be able to eat again.
He will have to live with an IV for nutrition, coupled with a
colostomy bag, for the rest of his life. Mom says she’s not sure if
dad would consider that living and didn’t know what to pray for.

She said if only—

“You have one minute remaining,” the operator
interrupted.

Well, I love you and I’ll be praying for both of you and
I’ll call back as soon as I can, he said.

Love you, too, she says.

As the young man walked across the dustscape of the
yard back to his dorm room, his mind swirled in many directions,
like a compass trying to find its north. But there was one
pernicious thought that he couldn’t seem to get rid of and left
him riddled with guilt for thinking it. He wondered if life would
really be any different if his dad did die. After 12 years in prison,
hadn’t everybody already left? His friends never wrote, his
family never came to see him, the line separating the dead from
the alive was blurred at best. All he really had were memories
floating through his mind, leaving faint impressions like a bird
leaving footprints in the sky.

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