Who the Hell Wants to Live Forever, story by Bruce Snyder at Spillwords.com
Rick Medlen

Who the Hell Wants to Live Forever

Who the Hell Wants to Live Forever

written by: Bruce Snyder


Sylvan Schreib’s searching left hand found the buzzing alarm clock and slapped it into silence but not before he was aware of his sour mouth and acid reflux. He rubbed his eyes, scratched his beard, lurched upright, and staggered to the bathroom. Tuesday, a day he thought he’d rather do without since it encompassed his mandatory annual physical as well as a visit to his brother Howell, both lacerating reminders of his own impending sixtieth birthday. He showered and shaved and felt a little better but he couldn’t eat anything – they insisted on a twelve-hour fast. And he badly needed a drink. But they’d smell it on his breath. Impatient, he jerked the closet door open (it slammed against the dresser) and noted the absence of Yvonne’s tumble of shoes and racks of dresses, belts, pants, and god only knew what else. He jerked his suit off a hanger, grabbed a clean shirt, and tried repeatedly to button the collar until, totally pissed off, he ripped the shirt off and threw it in the wastebasket.

Sylvan considered his trembling hands. Jesus, look at yourself, calm down, don’t break anything, just settle down. An hour, you can hang tough for an hour. Thoughts of Yvonne kept popping up: her damn lawyer after his IRAs; the way she left — packed up one afternoon, left a note, “I can’t put up with this anymore,” and gone. Just like that. He took a deep breath and picked up the shirt, buttoned it deliberately, and finished dressing. He went downstairs to the kitchen, swallowed his blood pressure pills, grabbed his briefcase and cigarettes, and headed to the garage.

He took 394 into downtown Minneapolis but his thoughts followed the 35W turnoff, which was the route he took to Grove Hill Manor, Howell’s nursing home since his stroke two years ago. Boot Hill Manor, Sylvan called it. Howell was Sylvan’s older brother and business partner, the person Sylvan had always relied on and certainly the only soul capable of tolerating his volcanic temper for more than thirty years. Of course, Howell knew what their father had put Sylvan through and cut him a lot of slack. They’d been at a dinner meeting in San Diego when Howell raised his cigar, then dropped it and stared with amused disbelief at his flaccid hand lying in his dish of cheesecake. “I think I’m having a stroke,” he said and finished off his Manhattan while an ambulance was called. By the time they reached the hospital Howell’s face was blank, his left side a limp rag, his strong baritone a gurgling whisper.
Sylvan visited Howell at least weekly, either sitting in his room with him or pushing him slowly through the nursing home corridors, which smelled of disinfectant with occasional whiffs of urine. Sometimes they ate together in the dining room that was so depressing it was all Sylvan could do not to flee.
Aside from Howell’s daughter Simone, Sylvan was Howell’s only relative. Simone lived in Seattle; she ran a bill collection service out of her home and called once or twice a year. Occasionally she sent a card saying she was praying for him.


Sylvan edged through the downtown traffic and finally pulled into a parking ramp. He stalked onto the elevator, shoved his way through several skyways, and checked in at the clinic ten minutes late. He liked to think of himself as distinguished, vigorous, a man that women still looked at, his hair colored back to its original sandy brown and only a bit thinner. Going to a doctor made him feel old, mortal. “Who the hell wants to live forever?,” he muttered as he entered the office. A young woman took his ID and insurance card and he glared at her. She gave him a cautious look and turned him over to the nurse.

They weighed him — too much. Checked his blood pressure — too high. Had him breathe into a gizmo — too little. Had him pee into a cup — too slow. He was marched down the hall to x-ray where a tech pressed his chest against a hard cold frame. A lab tech stabbed him in the arm and drew off four tubes of rich purple blood. Sylvan was told to sit still and press on his arm while bending it up; he felt like a fourth grader trying to get a bathroom pass. At least they had coffee in the waiting area. He couldn’t grab a smoke so instead he sucked on breath mints until even his belches tasted good. He did not want a stop smoking lecture, not this morning.

“Sylvan…?” An aide called for him in a neutral voice.

He bristled. ‘Mr. Schreib, dammit.’ His anger was rising, and he gave himself another talking to, settle down, don’t say anything… be out of here in a half-hour. Smile. He followed the woman along the beige carpet, down the vanilla corridor to the skeletal white walls of the examining room, where he paced the floor in his shorts and T-shirt for an interminable five minutes until with a jarring rap on the door Dr. Fints came in, pumped the sanitizer dispenser, and logged in to the terminal on his desk. Fints looked about 50, slender and tan, with a short trim beard. He wore a plaid shirt and rumpled Dockers with a lab coat thrown over that and the inevitable stethoscope slung around his neck. Sylvan found him totally annoying.
“Good morning Sylvan. Has it been a year already? How are you feeling? Any worries, concerns?”
“I’m fine doctor, just great. Routine physical that’s all. You look good, you’re keeping in shape,” he said gathering his dignity. Fints acknowledged this by mentioning that health is all about lifestyle. Sylvan sighed.

Sylvan said he felt much better since he’d quit smoking and “cut way down” on his drinking. But the tobacco stains on his fingers, the tremor in his hands and the smell of smoke on his clothes gave him away. He answered the usual questions: weight change, bowels, chest pain, and so forth, with a tight smile and quick ‘no’s’.

Fints began the examination. Sylvan felt the cold knob of the stethoscope on his neck, his chest, and his belly. The doctor was muttering, something about arteries and noises and his breathing. Sylvan tried to sit up but the doctor eased him back and thumped and prodded his abdomen. Sylvan winced with pain here and there. Fints jotted a note, typed something into the computer. Sylvan leaned over and tried to read the screen — he saw check marks by ‘ulcer’ and ‘COPD’. More typing, labs — a cholesterol level and liver tests were ordered. And here came the lecture: taking your aspirin? The stop smoking program? Diet and exercise? Sleep? Then he told Sylvan to roll onto his side and pull his shorts down. Sylvan reddened, “Look, I don’t have any trouble down there. I’ll just skip that part if you don’t mind.” He eased off the table and reached for his pants.

Dr. Fints looked troubled, “Sylvan, prostate cancer is not uncommon at your age and…”

“My age, huh,” he lapsed into muttering and kept dressing.

Fints tried to think of something to say, then shrugged and washed his hands. “Okay, I’ll look at your test results and be back in a few minutes.” He left quietly.
Sylvan stared at his shoes for a moment then pulled on his clothes roughly and cinched his belt so tight it pinched which was just fine, he could take it and he wanted to put a fist through the wall so he said to himself take it easy, don’t say anything you’ll regret…listen and forget it…get the hell out in five minutes…don’t say anything. Another ten minutes crept by.

Finally, Dr. Fints reentered with his clipboard and a mug of coffee. He sat down by the little desk, crossed his arms, and said, “Sylvan there are a couple of things I’m concerned about.”
Sylvan, his professional smile firmly in place, began standing up. “Fine doctor, sorry I’m a little rushed; I’m due at the office in ten minutes.”
“Your lungs don’t sound too good — your chest x-ray is showing some emphysema. I don’t see where you followed up on that stop smoking program we talked about last year. Are you still at two packs a day?”
“More like one,” Sylvan said, his brows crawling together into a knot. “And I golf quite a bit, never use a cart. I haven’t noticed any trouble breathing.”
“Well, I’d definitely recommend the stop-smoking program. That bout of bronchitis last fall was a warning you shouldn’t ignore,” Fints looked up from his notes. “I want to check an ultrasound of the carotid arteries, they carry blood to the brain Sylvan, and your cholesterol is pretty high, over three hundred. Also, you need a liver scan and some more tests. How much are you drinking these days?”
“Glass of wine with dinner, that’s all. Hell, the papers said that a little red wine cuts the risk of heart disease.” Sylvan was standing.
“Thanks for your time doctor, my secretary can schedule those tests for me. I’ll see you next year.” He nodded coldly, then turned and left the exam room.

Sylvan retraced his steps and lit a smoke when he got to his car. He climbed in, slammed it into drive, and bolted out of the ramp. When he got on the freeway he reached under his seat and felt around for the pint of Absolut. He held it in his lap and unscrewed the cap while steering with his knees. He checked all the mirrors, no cops, and took a long, deep swallow, then four more. The heartburn was a knife through his chest but he had Maalox in the console and took a swig of that. Then he set out to find a place for breakfast.


His workday came to a stuttering halt. He glanced out at the August sun’s gold reflection off windowed office towers. He stuffed his papers and files in his briefcase, stalked out of his office to the elevator. He forced himself to nod and smile at the faces he passed, some familiar, others unknown and besides he didn’t really give a damn who worked where. He walked the two blocks to Delano’s for dinner and a vodka Martini (with an onion, shaken). Then, with the traffic thinned out, he drove over to Grove Hill. He wheeled Howell around the community room, read him part of the newspaper, and then returned him to his room. Sylvan sat down beside Howell whose long and now thin frame was slumped to the left, a rope of clear drool settling on his pants leg, his eyes looking fixedly at his knee as though some answer lay there. Sylvan coughed, drew closer and whispered, “Howell, I need your advice.” He waited but there was no response. “Howell, Yvonne left me, I don’t know what to do.”

Howell’s head slowly pivoted a bit to the left until he was looking at Sylvan’s tie clasp. “Help…I…to die,” he said, his voice all liquid and thick.
Sylvan put a hand on his shoulder and got to his feet, “I can’t do anything about that Howell, you know that.” He pointed Howell’s chair toward the TV set, turned it on, and left.


Sylvan spent the weekend at his lake cabin in Wisconsin, a tidy log home with a dock, a bulb garden that he liked because he could forget it for weeks at a time and it still looked nice, and a rusty grill. Saturday it rained and he mainly puttered and napped but Sunday was clear and he got his gear and motored out to some tall weeds to try for some walleye and crappie. Redwing blackbirds yelled at him for coming too close, a loon ducked under the water. It was a perfect day except that he kept hearing Howell’s plea, felt his desperation, like a fish in a net but the fish would soon be out of its misery and anyway fish were too dumb to worry. Howell liked the cabin and Sylvan reflected that Howell hadn’t been up since the stroke, but there it was, how could Howell do any of this? Which brought to mind the question he’d been avoiding, how do you kill a man, your own brother? If he ‘helped’ Howell, would he be doing it for Howell or for Howell’s money, or for himself, to quell the guilt he felt? Or all three? Could they try him for murder if he gave Howell some pills and Howell took them of his own free will? Could a man with half a brain have free will? He thought somberly about going to jail. He didn’t know the law, but if he asked anyone they’d figure out what he had in mind. He had to keep this to himself.


A few weeks later Sylvan checked in at Mercy Hospital’s x-ray department for his carotid ultrasound. He folded his clothes on a little bench in a cubicle and put on a faded blue gown with a ridiculous tiny floral print. He wondered how many hundreds of washings and usings it had seen, who wore it last, and what they had had. He was told to lie down on a gurney and was rolled into a dim hall where he studied the ceiling tiles for fifteen minutes before being rolled into a darkened room. A stocky woman positioned him under a machine and rubbed goo on his throat then slid a plastic probe up and down each side of his neck. The whooshing of his pulse sounded loudly from the ultrasound screen. Sylvan closed his eyes and soon it was all done. He dressed and having taken the Friday afternoon off, drove out to the cabin.
He was napping when Dr. Fints called around five; the ultrasound showed that both carotid arteries had a lot of cholesterol deposits, especially the left; it was almost blocked. There was one chance in five of a stroke in the next few years, but surgery to open the arteries could reduce the risk quite a bit. No, it wasn’t too painful. He’d only miss a few days from work, but there was a small risk of having a stroke or heart attack from the procedure. Fints recommended the operation. And stop smoking and don’t forget the aspirin. Sylvan said he’d think about it and would call back in a few days. He hung up the phone and then let his arm drop and his mouth hang slack like Howell’s, just to see what it felt like.


The next Tuesday he went to see Howell; he brought along a picture of the lake and talked about the fishing. He had a bottle of brandy and two shot glasses in his coat pocket. Howell hung over the side of his chair, his head looking too large for his thin neck, a drooping blossom on a bent stem. Sylvan had a drink then poured Howell a shot and carefully fed it to him. He put a folded towel on the older man’s lap to catch the falling saliva and they fell silent. The sunset and shadows grew across the little room. Sylvan hunched forward in his seat and stared at his sandals. “Howell, I’m sick. I need an operation or I might have a stroke too.”
Howell raised his head a bit, and after several gargly breaths coughed out, “Help…p..p..pills.” He labored to repeat this twice more and then seemed exhausted by the effort and closed his eyes. Sylvan rose, rubbed his face, and left quietly.


Sylvan tried working harder, the market was volatile, tech stocks a roller coaster, his clients nervous. He traded LEAPS, ETF’s and options trying to protect his portfolio from a major correction that could happen anytime, you never knew when, you just knew it would happen eventually. For all his maneuvering he was up just 7% on the year, like running in sand. Manage the risks and catch the upside — that’s the game. Thoughts of helping Howell die kept coming up. Sleeping pills, he had some, but how many would it take, and couldn’t they do a blood test and spot it? What about Simone? She’d never agree; if he did something could he tell her? Could Howell swallow so many pills, maybe he’d throw them up? Did Howell really want to die? What would he, Sylvan want? He’d rather die than live like Howell but that was the catch, if you were healthy enough to commit suicide you didn’t actually want to and if you were sick enough to want to you usually couldn’t do the job. Catch-22. His eyes glazed over as stock quotes scrolled across the bottom of his screen.


He took the van to work that Friday, Labor Day weekend. He beat rush hour by leaving early and drove out to the nursing home. He loaded up Howell and his wheelchair, his walker, his supplies, and medications and then headed for the cabin. It was hot and humid and his shirt was sweat-stained by the time he got Howell into the wheelchair and out onto the dock. He lit some citronella candles to keep the mosquitoes at bay. He made a pitcher of gin and tonic. Howell sipped his drink through a straw and seemed more alert.

Sylvan sat in a deck chair next to Howell, lit a cigarette, and watched the sunset and the blue heron across the way taking cautious steps. Water lapped gently at the lakeshore, a soothing rhythm, the air scented with pine and wood smoke, good smells. Later Sylvan got out the CD player and they listened to oldies: Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Springsteen. They had some sandwiches and smoked their way through a few more drinks until sundown. Then, at dusk, Sylvan helped Howell into the little boat and motored off slowly for a tour of the lake, everything buzzing, the motor, the flies, the sound in his own head.

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