The Visitor

By Patrick W. Andersen

The nurse appeared in the doorway. “Sir, the doctor has arrived and is starting his rounds. Should I send him in?”

Lawrence, with an effort, raised one forearm to acknowledge the nurse. His hand hung forward limply. “Just give me a moment to say farewell to my friend.”

Stephen, sitting in a chair beside Lawrence’s bed, waved to the nurse. “I’ll stop by your station to let you know when I’m leaving.”

As the nurse continued down the hallway outside, Stephen turned to Lawrence with a touch of sadness in his face. “Well, I guess I should leave so you can see your doctor.”

Lawrence smiled weakly. “Thank you so much for dropping by.”

Stephen had an apologetic tone in his voice. “I would have come to visit sooner, but there was just so much going on at the office.”

“Yes, I understand.”

“And there’s barely time to do household chores after work, plus paying bills and returning calls to people who have left messages on the machine.”

“Yes, it can be very time-consuming,” Lawrence said in a weak voice.

“Of course, it wouldn’t be quite as bad if it weren’t for the fact that half the messages turn out to be from telemarketers. I can’t tell you how many callers tell me I’ve won an expense-paid trip to Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe. But, of course, you don’t really get the trip unless you agree to go to a sales meeting where they force you to buy a timeshare or a new life insurance policy.”

Stephen interpreted Lawrence’s thin smile as an expression of sympathy, so he continued.

“And then, of course, there are the callers offering to refinance your mortgage! If I want to refinance, I’ll go to the bank, thank you. I don’t need someone calling and disturbing my dinner with an unsolicited sales pitch. Of course, you can’t convince them of that. You can’t get a word in edgewise. And if you do, they talk even more.”

Lawrence said, “Well, I’m glad you found time to visit me today.”

Stephen laughed. “Oh, listen to me go on! Here you are waiting to see your doctor, and I keep talking about inconsequential matters as if we were just neighbors chatting over the backyard fence on a Saturday afternoon while taking a break from gardening. Oh—I do hope we get a chance to do some gardening together, by the way. Well, I really should get myself out of here so that your doctor can come in and make sure your recovery is proceeding on schedule. We don’t want to do anything that might delay your speedy recovery.”

“You’re so thoughtful,” Lawrence said, his voice barely above a whisper.

Stephen beamed at the compliment. “Oh, you’re too kind! Well, I guess I’ll see you later.” He stood up from his chair.

“Yes, later.”

“You know,” Stephen said, “even though we live so near to each other, I realize now that I’ve never made the time to drop by and just say, ‘Hi, neighbor, how are you doing?’ People used to do that a lot more in years past. Life was so much simpler in those days.”

“Yes.” Lawrence closed his eyes. The rise and fall of the sheet covering his chest was barely perceptible.

Stephen sighed. “Well, I’ll see you later.”

Lawrence gave a slight nod, and the corners of his mouth rose slightly in a smile. His eyes remained closed.

“Well, so long, fella. It’s been good to see you,” Stephen continued. “Sayonara, Ciao, or Auf Wiedersehen, as they would say on the Continent. In fact, when you get out of the hospital, maybe we can find some time to travel together. I’ve always wanted to see the Continent.”

The heart monitor had been beeping somewhat steadily. Suddenly, it shrieked with an uninterrupted monotone. Stephen looked up at the machine and saw that the monitor was displaying a flat line.

The nurse and doctor dashed into the room and went to each side of Lawrence’s bed.

“This is so sudden,” Stephen cried out. “We were just talking about his plans after he leaves the hospital. He said he was looking forward to a trip to the Continent.”

More hospital personnel rushed into the room. The nurse turned to Stephen. “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Stephen seemed dazed as an orderly ushered him out the door. “It was so sudden. He had just asked me to go traveling with him.”

In the hospital waiting room, several people looked up from their magazines as Stephen was led to a chair.

“I was there when it happened,” Stephen said to the woman in the next chair. “One minute my friend was chattering away like a songbird, making plans for the future. The next moment – wham! His heart stopped. You’d think with all the doctors and nurses in this building, they would have been able to see that coming.”

Two of the people returned their attention to their magazines, but the third listened politely as Stephen continued. “It’s a good thing I was there to hear his final words. He was so full of life, and he was looking forward to traveling.”

The stranger nodded in sympathy, as Stephen added, “Did I mention that we were going to take another trip together to the Continent? He was such an adventurous traveling companion. One day we might be in Northern Italy and then out of the blue he would say, Let’s get a rail pass, and the next day we find might ourselves in Budapest! But he was not just a traveling companion. He was the sort of person you could just pop over any time and say, Hi, Neighbor, how are you doing? Or if I was gardening in my backyard and he was gardening in his, either one of us might just start chatting with the other over the backyard fence, and we might go on for hours. I remember one time he had such an amusing story about all the telemarketers calling him on the phone offering him free trips to Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe or offering to refinance his house. But before they could bombard him with a lot of useless sales talk, he would jump right in and cut them off. He was smart in that way. Why, I remember one time…”

(First published in Sisyphus Quarterly.)

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