Tuesday, November 1, 2022

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins

        I hate you, I mentally transmit as I step across the threshold and through the great maw of House. 

Past the entrance is a reception area with softly playing muzak that agitates my senses.  This is House’s first attempt to lull me into security, but I won’t waver.  For as long as I must be here, I’ll remain observant, attentive and vigilant.  A small waiting area contains comfortable chairs and a large mural depicting a school of rainbow trout.  Their iridescent scales are striking, they are commonly eaten as food.  I approach a scowling receptionist and ask directions.  She hears me but does not look up from her work.

‘Ward Five.’ she says.

SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins

Drilling my hands into my pockets I proceed down a hallway festooned with directional signage punctuated by obligatory art.  More fish.  I breeze past the hard-working people who prop up House.  Each one is dressed in their appropriate costume, no doubt hard won by years of school.  Matching aqua shirts and pants made from harsh fabric and the occasional white coat.  I imagine what it must be like to casualise this place – to work here every day.  To exist inside this gently undulating organism which dispenses life and death in equal measure.

My thoughts bring me to the dead possum I’d found the other week.  The awful drama of death played out on my front lawn.  I recall with shame how I’d averted my eyes from his pristine corpse.  It was a truth I was still reluctant to accept.  Our bodies fail, and when they do, they end up here, populating the veins and arteries of this House.  Each day, the costumed workers perform their tasks.  Halfway between a butcher shop and a body shop, they punch a clock at the nexus of fate, time and magic.  I hate them and admire them at the same time.

I stare at my shoes as I walk.  They are too tight and they squeak in a manner that annoys me.  Sometimes I think about throwing them into a river, but ultimately, I don’t.  I’d only have to buy new ones, which is always a gamble.  I hate to gamble.   Proceeding as instructed, I walk through a pair of automatic doors that bolt open as I approach.  Discreetly, I steal glances at the rooms that branch off from the hallway and catch sight of sleeping people encased in rough-hewn blankets.  Some of them sit upright in their beds and eat sandwiches, the kind that come in triangular plastic containers.

I take note of words not used in daily vernacular, at least not in the circles I’d come to frequent.  Radiology.  Oncology.  These uncommon words frighten me and conjure vivid images of sickness and prolonged suffering.

Nice try, I tell House.  You can’t scare me with your ten-dollar words.

I am here to see my friend Petrov who’s undergone surgery to remove his gallbladder.  Poor Petrov.  His short stay inside House had punctured his uneventful life.  Now, he’d been moved to a different ward.  As his friend, I was here to visit with him during his convalescence because that’s what decent people do (or so I’m told).  I don’t enjoy my visits with Petrov here.  They’re stilted and different from the usual way we are together.  We talk for about half an hour each time.  Post operative, he sits there in his hospital gown and his underwear, graciously accepting my halting conversation and pretending to like the magazine I’ve brought him.  I don’t know what a gallbladder is exactly, but I find the very idea of it disgusting.  Sedated and alone, Petrov had been taken into a sterile room where he’d been opened with a blade, his innards exposed and adjusted like obscene watch repair.

At fifty-one years of age, the prospect of having to endure such a procedure is fearful inducement to remain healthy.  I do not smoke or drink, take regular exercise and avoid unnecessary sugars.  Such measures are by no means a guarantee of health, and no insurance against injury or accident, but I savour the illusion of superiority.  As though I can permit myself a certain modicum of aggrievement should genetics or fate suddenly serve up cancer or a surprise stomach ulcer.  Despite efforts to conserve my body (begun in earnest in my early twenties), I am tired in a way only a man of my age could be.  Day by day, I perceive my body gradually slowing down, succumbing to the twin bitches of gravity and time.

Further into House, more automatic doors reveal more fearful words against beige and pastel-coloured walls.  The liminal nature of this place stirs the slowly churning anxiety that’s brewing in my belly.  This is how old people exit the world, quickly replaced with newer, fresher versions that assume their place.  Admittedly, death is not always the outcome of an internment here – undisputed marvels of modernity had shrunk mortal injuries into routine outpatient procedures.  One could visit and leave many times during a lifetime – until one didn’t.   My own parents had endured the same process, one followed closely by the other.  No matter how beneficent it seems, the House always wins.  Sooner or later, it summons and digests us all.

I’ll die by the side of the road before I let you take me, I curse under my breath.

Still seeking Petrov, I pass beds containing small bodies, most of them ancient, looking so reduced, cocooned in blankets atop adjustable beds.  Men and women in their seventies, eighties and nineties, the scaffolding of themselves incrementally collapsing under the combined stresses of a life well lived, or at least, well played. 

It’s at this moment, in my periphery, that I see a face I thought impossible.  A face so familiar, I freeze.  Not caring that I am obstructing the doorway to an old man’s room, I gawk at him, slack jawed and disbelieving.  He is much older than I remember, but I do remember.  Vividly and with frequency, his countenance visits me in daydreams when I am low.  When I consider my early childhood a sad and solitary affair, his memory begs to differ.  Every line, every contour and imperfection still present, but distorted, his face affected by the decades like wind upon sand dunes.  It is the face of The Man who was my friend when I had none.  I never thought I would see his like again, let alone here, in the bowels of this creature, being digested himself.


I wait in the kitchen for The Man to arrive like he always does after Mum and Dad leave for work.  Work means they go away in the morning and come home when I am sleeping.  I sit on top of the kitchen table and swing my legs over the edge.  Mum always tells me off when she sees me, but she’s not here to see it.

Nana is in her bedroom, watching her stories.  She tells me not to bother her.  I know she doesn’t care about me, but I don’t mind.  I have my own games I play, and I have The Man.  He lives behind the fridge.  Only I can see him.  He says it’s better that way.  That adults only cause problems.  So I keep him secret. 

‘What do you do all day by yourself?’, Mum would ask sometimes. 

‘Nothing.’ I’d reply. 

I know it’s bad to keep secrets, but if I told them, Mum and Dad would only start yelling.  I hate it when they yell.

The Man is fully grown, and much taller than I am.  He steps out from behind the fridge wearing a black suit and a tie.  He looks very fancy, like he is dressed up special, but he is always that way.  His hair is black and shiny and he always has a cigar.  

‘Not till you’re fifteen.’ he tells me when I ask if I can try it. 

That’s ten years away.  Ten years is forever.  I wonder if I will wear a suit when I’m fifteen?  I don’t know his name, so I just call him The Man.

The Man and I spend our days playing in the house, running through the big corridor being aeroplanes and sometimes trains.  I sit high upon the The Man’s shoulders and pretend that I’m a crane.  I’m never scared when I’m with The Man – I know he’d never let me fall.  Sometimes we are noisy and Nana comes out to yell at me.  I like noises, and I wonder why they’re bad.  It scares me when she yells, but then she stops and I can go back to being an aeroplane.  Nana is very old and her hands are very wrinkly.  Dad says she’s just bitter.

I like The Man more than Dad.  Dad is always tired when I ask him to play.  He comes home late and sits by himself.  I only ever see Dad at night.  I never get a good look at his face, but I think it is sad.  The Man is different.  He is funny and clever and I like to ask him all kinds of questions.  Sometimes the questions are small, other times they are big ones that I think about at night. 

‘What is time?’ I ask The Man. 

‘Nobody really knows.’ he says, ‘But you only get so much of it.’

In the living room, The Man and I do drawings in crayon and colour pencil.  Once I ate six crayons and had to go to the doctor.  I ask The Man what work is.  He says that grown-ups have to go away sometimes, but it doesn’t mean they don’t love you.  The Man goes away every day, back to behind the fridge.  He says goodbye and shakes my hand.  The Man treats me like I am a grown up.

When it’s raining and we can’t go outside The Man and I play board games.  The Man likes to play games with Nana’s cards.  One day, he tells me he’ll teach me a card game that grown-ups play.  I bet my set of coloured pencils, twenty cents and a train from my train set.  The Man warns me not to get greedy. 

‘The house always wins.’ he says.

The man has to go away – but he promises he will see me again, sometime in the future.

‘What is the future?’, I ask.

‘The future’s just like the past, only with the lights on.’

‘Will I be there?’

‘Sure you will, but you won’t recognise yourself.’


He was a physical impossibility, an absurd living artefact of a thing I’d since discarded in the wastebin of my mind.  A makeshift big brother, surrogate father, conjured by the nascent psyche of a lonely child.  No matter.  My feelings were real – still simmering warm and bright through the fog of the many decades that separated that moment and this.

As I stare at him, discreetly enquiring after my own sanity, I attempt to apply reason to the situation.  The Man would have been my age when I was a kid, but this poor soul looked a great deal older.  Even so, the resemblance was uncanny, the same slicked back hair (now white) unperturbed by the rumpled pillow.  I move towards his bed to view his chart.  Coronary artery atherosclerosis – loathsome words so jagged I cannot form them in my mouth.  I check for his name: John Doe.

The Man opens his eyes and sees me, so he extends his hand.  I sit with him, beside his bed, Petrov be damned (he could wait).  I speak to him, but I’m not sure he can hear me.  Nearby, a bouquet of devices makes their presence known with a symphony of rhythmic trilling and beeping.  A nurse appears in the doorway, words of admonishment already in her mouth, but she sees me, holding The Man’s hand and hesitates.  Her eyes soften, and her face marked by overwork is awash with understanding.  Quietly, she floats away and goes about her business.

The Man’s eyes are dull and milky and his hand is spotted and ugly with age and bony with protrusions.  My father looked this way just before he’d left us, his path cut short by drink and a deep, abiding sorrow.  Strange that I should conjure him now, in the presence of this stranger, his ample shadow casting ably from the grave.  As I hold the man, I can feel the embers of his flame growing dull.  I stay with him, determined not to let him to be digested all alone in this charnel house.

I ponder how from a certain perspective, the present time can always be regarded as “the future”.  It is a distant, unwritten shore as far away from us as adulthood is to a child.  I consider this notion as I recall The Man’s promise, now fulfilled, as I soak in the exquisite symmetry of the moment.  Here we both were, together, just like he’d prophesised.  I decide then and there the veracity of his identity is immaterial.  He, or at least the ghost of him, had been there for me when I needed him.  Returning the favour was the least I could do.




1 comment:

  1. Jim, I've been saving reading this for a little while, and I'm glad I did. That was intense. Thank you.


SHORT STORY: The House Always Wins