Word Association. The full pitch, taken from a song, is "I'm gonna die in a place that don't know my name."
The old man was speaking, but no one was listening. His lips moved, thick and gray, off-white smears sticky at the edges of his mouth, but I couldn't hear anything over the click and whirr of the dialysis machine. His eyes, like strange flags painted in brown, red and yellow, seemed so tired to me, but they were still clear, in that way you can tell someone on the inside is looking out at you. After changing his bed pan, all but empty anyway, I leaned into him, my shoulder on his shoulder, my ear at his mouth, and the smell of him heavy like a wet cloth over my nose.
He said "Do you know me?"
I said no, I just work here.
He said, "I don't know you either."
I asked him if I should know him, if he was someone famous.
He said "No, I'm just a person." and his voice sounded like it had been run over a cheese grater, all stringy and fragile at the edges.
I asked him if he wanted to talk about anything, about his life. I didn't offer to answer questions for him, that's not my job. I get in trouble when I try to do that.
He said "No, not really. It's over now anyway." I thought that must have been hard to say, but when I looked at him, he didn't seem sad, just tired.
He saw me looking and said "I'm okay." And I believed him.
He tried to sigh, I think, but it came out as a wheeze, and he coughed weakly, like a sick kitten, not a grown man. He looked at me, his eyes watering, and said
"Dying is strange. I…used to think what it would be like. All the memories, or…maybe I thought I'd be angry or scared. But…" he started coughing again, and this time he didn't stop for a long while. I raised his head and held a pan up to catch the thick cloudy mucus that he spit out. There was a lot of it.
"I'm not scared though, really, I'm not." He said at last. He was still breathing heavily, and the air coming out of him was hot and wet. His skin seemed thin enough to see through. I looked at my own hand resting on the metal frame of his bed, and wondered if my hands would ever turn to wax paper, like his had. I tried to imagine what his hands had looked like when he was young and strong and healthy, when there was meat and fat on him, instead of just an over-starched bed sheet.
I wondered if I should get another job.
Then he was speaking again, his gaze sliding slowly over the white walls of the room, with their deeply impersonal floral prints. He glanced at the machines, silently hissing and chugging away in a corner, but his eyes didn't linger there. Eventually, he just stared at the window. It was dark outside, and even with the plastic blinds closed, you could see the yellow-orange spark of the light posts down on the street.
He said "It's just strange to die." He waited for a moment then said "It's so different from living."
I didn't know what to say, so I sat there for a second then said "I guess things are never like you expect them to be."
He didn't say anything else. I stayed with him for a while longer, until he went to sleep. When I left I turned off the overhead lights.