I often blog about writing, but I rarely share what I write. So I’ll break the trend by sharing a flash-fiction piece, Regret, that I crafted last summer. The story was substantially improved thanks to the good folks of Phillip Sterling’s flash-fiction roundtable at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. I continue to tweak it and to occasionally sent it to various flash contests. Because I want to retool this piece, I’m no longer going to send it elsewhere — so I’m happy to post it here, for your reading pleasure and your opinion.
One note: The constraint from Phillip’s roundtable is that the piece couldn’t exceed 800 words. This one doesn’t, barely.
Anyway — here you go.
“Kid, ain’t no one ever lay on his deathbed and regret that his credit score weren’t high enough.”
I smile at George—the last patient on my pastoral-care visit list–but mentally I cringe. He’s going to be a talker.
“So, then, what does someone on his deathbed regret?” I ask, without thinking. The question invites superfluous conversation. And, worse, George probably only had a few days left, so my query was insensitive.
He looks up at me, a spark struggling to ignite through the heavy-lidded wetness clouding his eyes. A cannula twists from his nostrils to the oxygen port. Various bits of technology blend into him—a port, IV lines, an oxygen sensor, a pressure cuff—as if he were some sort of elderly cyborg outfitted from parts salvaged from the discount bin at a medical-supply store.
“You have nothing to regret but regret itself!”
“Good point, Mr. Roosevelt,” I joke, positioning myself next to the head of his bed. I raise my pyx and prayerbook. “Would you like to receive Jesus now?”
George’s scowl softens. He chuckles, coughs, swallows, pauses, then mutters, “Look, kid. I know you’re busy. Do what you gotta do, okay?” He gazes toward the ceiling tiles.
I sit next to him, embarrassed that he saw through my impatience. So I say, “George, what do you mean about regretting regret?”
He faces me again, his earlier intensity slipping into a quiet weariness. “Well,” he says, after a moment’s pause, “think of it like this. We all live. Then we die. Along the way, shit happens. Thing is, when you get to the end of the road, and you look back, the more that you regret stuff, the more fuzzy your memories get, ‘til you don’t recognize them no more. It’s like the trip didn’t make no damn difference.”
“So what you’re saying,” I summarize with a nod, “is that people should make good life choices.”
George’s face flashes irritation. “Naw, naw,” he says. “More like, whatever you do, own it. Be okay with what happens, good or bad. Like that serenity prayer.”
“And don’t worry about your credit score?”
He manages a slight smile. “Look at me, kid. All I got with me now is what’s in my head. Not any of the clutter sitting in my house. It’s the life you’ve lived, not the stuff you’ve got, that matters. You know?”
“I get it.”
He raises an eyebrow. “No, you don’t. You’re what? Mid 20s? You don’t get it. Not really. But you will, at some point.”
“So what do you regret, then?”
“Did I say I regretted anything?”
“You’re harping on the subject.”
“Maybe I am.”
I let the silence linger for a moment. “No regrets? Really?”
George rolls his slender frame slightly toward me in a futile attempt to lean up on an elbow. He licks his chapped lips. “Well,” he says, “I ain’t been no angel. But no demon, neither. Been to war and back. Done drugs. Had a kid. All that shit. And none of it bothers me.” He pauses. “But you know what? I’m losing the fight with this damned blood cancer and I know I’m not gonna make it. And the only thing I regret right now is that I can’t say goodbye to Morris.”
Another flash of irritation. “My cat.”
“So you don’t want to see your kid, but you do want to see your cat?”
“My daughter died in ’76. Idiot girl drove drunk into a tree. Last few years, though, Morris has been my friend. And I didn’t get to say goodbye before the ambulance carted me away. My neighbor will take good care of him when I’m gone. He’ll be okay. But still. It’s hard to focus on remembering the last 81 years while worrying—”
His voice breaks, but I understand. My sister euthanized my cat Pascal just a month before, for feline leukemia, but I was out of town when it happened. No closure. I still miss him, fiercely, and I miss having a feline friend around the house.
After a moment of silence, I begin: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We launch into the familiar litany of the Rite of Communion. I take my time.
When the service concludes, I leave George, who had already started drifting into sleep. I close the door then lean against the wall. I look at my patient list; I spot his address.
Now I know where to find the cat.
I’d regret missing this opportunity.