His room had been turned into a hospital room. The man lay in his bed with an oxygen pump beside him. A niece was staying with him. At John’s request she left the room.
“How are you?”
“How do I look? I’ve been better.”
“I hope you get well.”
“A bit early for drinking,” the man said.
“I have something to ask you.”
The man waved his hand.
“Why did your wife leave, all those years ago?”
“Because we couldn’t have kids, I suppose. That always disappointed her. She had it in her blood to have a family and I couldn’t give her one. And after years of childlessness, I suppose we got at odds, and I didn’t treat her very well. He paused. “I had more of a temper back then.”
“So did I.”
“You always had a thing for her,” didn’t you? A lot of men in town did. She was dark and exotic – it was the gypsy in her. I suppose it was the same blood put a wildness in her and made her run off.”
“Do you miss her?”
He looked at John. “Well, I didn’t marry since, did I?”
John looked at him.
Aise continued. “I was her ticket into this country, maybe never anything more.”
“I have something I need to tell you.”
“You get as close as I am to seeing death and only then do you realize there’s a hole in your heart.”
“Let me talk. I have to tell you something.”
“You can’t tell me anything. I never liked you.”
“It was years ago.”
“Toss it on the altar yourself. I’m clean. I’ve found God.”
“Your wife and I…”
The man looked at him from his bed and his face clenched just for a second then smoothed.
“You can’t tell me anything I don’t know. I’m surprised you’re fool enough to say it.”
“It was long ago and I was a different man.”
“I forgive you.”
“I didn’t ask to be forgiven.”
“Then what the hell are you here for?”
“I want you to get mad at me.”
“I found the Lord and got clean.”
“The Lord isn’t real.”
At this the man reddened. “More real than you. You stand before me a remorseful shell.”
“Where did she go?”
“Maybe I know, but I wouldn’t tell you. You need to put that away.”
“Damnit, get mad at me!”
“You always were weak in the flesh.”
“Where did she go?” his voice rose.
“I am shent of her and you too. I am ready for what lies beyond.”
“Nothing lies beyond.”
“My rage won’t cleanse you. Only God can cleanse. You have a hole in your heart. Only He can fill it. Lay it down at the altar.”
John stood there, and for the first time he thought he saw a little crazy in the man, the quirk of an oxygen-starved brain. One bright eye cocked a little askew. “Get thee behind me – you are in your own Hell.”
“Help me out of it!”
Aise called to his niece. “Sarah, turn up my oxygen. And see this man out. He’s trying to get between me and Heaven!”
“That’s it,” John said.
“Oh how I pity you.”
John felt bile and hot drink rise in his throat.
“I have what you can’t have yet, and it’s not my wife. You need to leave it at the altar.”
“To Hell with your altar.”
The niece came in. “Mister,” she said.
John put on his hat. “I’m going,” he said, and pulled his elbow away from her arm.
He found himself outside in the quiet street and the air was cool but he felt hot.
“Goddamnit.” He felt like ash inside. Nothing burned inside of him. He wanted to burn but there was nothing.