Fiction · 11/09/2011

Lightning

“In the name of God, please let me die in peace!” Those are the last words of Voltaire. Then he looked at the priest standing above his bed and died.

“Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?” Those are the last words of Socrates. Then he drank some hemlock and died.

In the final stages of cerebral meningitis, Oscar Wilde looked around the room and said, “Either this wallpaper goes, or I do.” Then he coughed up some blood and died.

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I’m waiting for my doctor to return and thinking about last words because there’s the possibility that I should be preparing to make my own such statement soon. The examination room is like any other. White walls. A chart with a diagram of the heart. A framed poster with a picture of a matador slaying a bull and a caption that reads “Ambition.” An examination table with white paper that makes crinkling sounds when I move even a little.

Pablo Picasso’s last words were, “Drink to me.”

Frank Sinatra said, “I’m losing.”

Humphrey Bogart said, “Hurry back.”

I wish the doctor would hurry back.

Here’s how Lyme Disease works: it gets inside you and messes with your heart and nervous system. Named after a town in Connecticut, it’s spread by ticks. They bite you. They hang on. And that’s how it begins. First there’s a tiny rash around the bite, then bacteria spreads to the bloodstream. I have three tick bites on my left ankle. In a couple minutes, the doctor will return to tell me how long I have left to live.

The door opens.

The doctor returns.

“You don’t have Lyme Disease,” she says.

“But what about the tick bites?”

“Being bitten by a tick doesn’t automatically mean Lyme Disease.” She shakes her head then hands me some forms to sign, “Besides, those aren’t even from ticks. They’re from mosquitos.”

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The mosquito is the most dangerous animal in the world.

The last thing Harry Houdini said was, “I’m tired of fighting. I guess this thing is going to get me.”

In the evening, I sit down at my desk and do some research. Blue light from the computer screen fills the room. Take the total number of people killed annually by tigers, stray dogs, and rattlesnakes. Add in the number mauled by bears or trampled by elephants. Death by bull shark. Death by lion. Add it up and multiply by a thousand.

The mosquito kills more.

Consider malaria. Spread exclusively by mosquito, over 200 million people are infected each year. Each year, close to a million of these cases are fatal.

The last thing Eugene O’Neill said was, “I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and Goddamn it, died in a hotel room.”

Frederic Chopin’s final request was, “Swear to make them cut me open, so that I won’t be buried alive.”

Chopin likely died of cystic fibrosis. O’Neill, from a neurological condition that’s known to mostly affect horses and dogs. These are both ailments that I’ve thought of before. What I never imagined — and I’m angry with myself for this oversight — was the salivary glands of the mosquito. How something sinister sleeps there, and how what sleeps there enters the body, uninvited. It sets up camp and multiplies and multiplies.

A chill.

A wave of fever.

Your kidneys are failing. You’re gone.

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“Did you know there are over twenty kinds of mosquitos in southeastern Michigan?” I ask my wife, “And did you know all of them are lethal?”

“What?”

“It’s right here on this website,” I say.

“First, darling,” she says, “that’s bullshit. And second, my dear, you don’t have malaria.” She twirls over to my desk, picks up my empty coffee mug and whisks it away.

“And you don’t have leukemia, or a brain embolism either,” she says, retreating into the kitchen. “And you know those wires above the fuse box?”

“Yes?” I ask.

“The electrician was here this morning, and they’re fine. We’re not going to die in some weird explosion. The brakes on your car are fine, and there are no meteor showers scheduled for this evening.”

She laughs as she walks back into the room.

“Don’t laugh. Meteor showers happen.”

“Yes, but not here,” She says, kissing me on the forehead, “and when they do, most people think they’re glorious. Now turn off the computer. It’s time for bed.”

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I go to bed.

The dark swallows me like a mouthful of water.

Inside the dark, I wonder how many men throughout history have died in their sleep. Probably a bazillion. How many of them saw it coming?

The last thing Lord Byron said was, “Good night.”

O Henry said, “Turn up the lights, I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

And Thomas Edison simply whispered, “It’s so beautiful out there.”

I wonder what Edison meant by that. What was beauty to him — he who invented the electric chair and once electrocuted a horse? What a terrible way for a horse to die. That animal could have never understood how or why fate tightens its buckles and fastens its clamps, how or why a hand throws a switch.

I close my eyes and dream of that horse: a stallion running at full gallop through a lightning storm. There’s a beach. The waves are splenetic and sprawl backward forever. Perhaps the lightning is thrown from clouds, delivered by gods from an older era. The gods are muscled and pale with rage, relics of a time when Earth was new, mercurial, rippled with magic. Then, the actions of gods could be explained and their subjects could pray or make sacrifices of flesh to assuage their anger. Not anymore. The horse runs because running is what it knows. Its body glistens and its black muscles shine like heaven, but eventually it wears down, gives in. The lightning is capricious, and cannot be sated, and is everywhere.

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Matthew Olzmann’s first book of poems, Mezzanines, was selected for the 2011 Kundiman Prize and will be published by Alice James Books in April, 2013. His writing has appeared in New England Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review and elsewhere. Currently, he’s a writer-in-residence for The InsideOut Literary Arts Project and the poetry editor of The Collagist.