Timing The Red Light - a short story by Lee Bob Black

Version 1.3

There have been times in your life when you’ve wanted to die, but you’ve never wanted to kill yourself.

Truth is, you’re not that terminal--you have maybe two more years, three if you’re . . . lucky. You drop a million pills a day for your heart problems. Insulin controls your diabetes. But is this living? You’ve got a neurodegenerative disorder, you’re hunched over like a damn mutant because surgery can’t alleviate all the curving of your spine, your blood pressure’s fucked, your bladder’s fucked, you’re impotent. In the last stages of this disease, you won’t be able to speak at all . . . .

You don't really want to end your life. You just want to end your suffering. So you favor euthanasia, yet oppose suicide. Well you don’t strictly oppose suicide--you just can’t do it. You know that if you stopped taking meds and refused additional operations, you’d be finished. But the notion that killing yourself is no worse than letting yourself die--because both have the same outcome--is hardly soothing.

Nor do you have the courage. You have enough physical strength to pull yourself out of your wheelchair, sit on the edge of the cliff, and topple yourself off. But you don’t have the courage. It’s not capability you’re lacking, it’s conviction.

You’d prefer someone’s help . . . to kevork you.

The compromise is spread out on the table.

You’ve always found answers in technology.

Version 2.1

The Great Ocean Road coils the pristine shorelines. Precarious turns are the norm: rocky cliffs tower to the left and plunge into the sea to the right. At any millisecond your car could do a Thelma and Louise. A truck could speed around a bend, lurch over the double-lines, wipe you out, and later cops would be Coca-Cola-ing you off the pavement. With the best bloodstain remover on the market, the cops would be getting rid of the mess that was you. Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

Your house comes into view. But what can be seen from the road is actually just one huge room that extends out over the cliff. With a stretch of the imagination, the room looks like the extended arm of the Statue of Liberty. Except instead of Lady Liberty’s arm coming out of her shoulder, a gigantic concrete pillar comes out of the cliff-face, like buses stacked end-to-end. Instead of her hand holding aloft a burning torch, atop of the pillar is a square room with clear ocean views. Rather than one wall running parallel with the beach, a corner diamond-points two glass sides toward the ocean.

Before buying it, you wondered whether an elevator was inside the concrete pillar so you could access the beach from the ‘jutting out’ room. But since the pillar shoots out of the cliff, the bottom of the elevator would open onto tons of rocks, all of which you’d have to scramble down before even crossing the road to the beach. Even if your legs worked, it’s doubtful you could descend those rocks and live to tell about it.

Your driver pulls into your driveway. Parks the car. Retrieves your wheelchair from the garage. Opens your car door. Rag-dolls you into your wheelchair. You thank him.

You hear the waves.

The sunshine is white.

You smell the salt.

The house moves a few feet closer to the cliff.

Version 2.4

In the kitchen, you powerchair to the liquor cabinet and clink through bottles kaleidoscoping in the sun. Your disease is so progressed, your hands shake. When you finally grab a bottle, it takes all your concentration to pour. Vodka. On the rocks.

Upon the cabinet, the housekeeper has placed white fuchsias in a vase. She believes fuchsias are kept alive by trimming their stems and putting them in water. It’s a deception--as soon as they’re in a vase, flowers are goners. They just give the impression of aliveness, like how if you’re injected with large doses of morphine you’ll appear alive for a few minutes, that is, until your respiratory system locks up and you glide into a coma.

The bay windows are open and you hear the muffled whoosh -- whoosh ------ whoosh ---------- whoosh of cars on the Great Ocean Road between the teeming shore and you.

There are small dunes--just dry sunbaked sand that looks too scorching to walk on barefoot, if you could walk.

The sunshine makes both people and beach-towels vibrant and vibrating, as if cut from a multicolored dragonfly. This reminds you of your Technicolor and Dolby Surround Sound childhood. That’s the crux of the problem: your mind is sharp, and you can’t forget that you were once whole. You didn’t need the shoeboxes full of thousands of Polaroids your mom shot of you as a kid. You didn’t need photographic reminders: five-years-old, skipping gaily when a 747 flew overhead; ten-years-old, climbing trees, building forts and cubby houses, all that blatant happiness.

As you physically fall apart, nothing but disbelief falls into place.

They say that a manifestation of losing touch with reality is doing the same thing over and over and over and over again, yet each time thinking it’s new. Like you’ve got a goldfish-three-second-memory: Hey check out that new castle! When did that get there?!
After your disease hit, and after your mom ended her photographic obsession with you, daily you went to the walls of shoeboxes, yet the photos never revealed anything about your past. Your past you knew. Who you had been was not in question. But each time, hundreds of times, you couldn’t answer, How did I get here?

So in your thirties you burned your mom’s Polaroids, just like how in your teens you burned your suicide letters. Both times a voice in your head all of a sudden screamed, Cleanse yourself! You must cleanse yourself! Both times it was clear that you’d hear it again.

So you burned her photos of you and your school buddies, many of whom you’d written suicide letters to. Dear Karen. Dear Stephaun. Dear Astrid. Dear Martin. Dear Matt. You burned her photos of you and your grandparents, all of whom you’d written many letters to. Dear Grandma, eight letters. Dear Gramps, eleven. Dear Oma, seven. Dear Opa, twelve.

As a kid, you wrote for hours at a stretch while your mom thought you were doing math, science, ancient history. Each letter an apology for your life and your death. Many were about your funeral and how family and friends wouldn't be able to survive without you. You knew it was crazy, but for some reason, you wrote about how your mom would want to die if she’d known that you wanted to die. Then you realized you were writing about why you wanted to live. The next day, you burned every letter. The next year, your mom passed away.

In the distance, sets of waves roll in, silent-movie crashing. Surfers are surfing, surfers are swimming back out to sea to ride more waves, dolphin-dipping oncoming waves. For every wave, there’s an equal force underneath pulling the water back out to sea. The sea doesn’t churn so much as she just changes place.

There’s no comfort in there being probably a million fish in the sea for every human on land. You’d prefer the insanity of a goldfish-memory. You’d choose it any day of the week over the insanity and humiliation of not being able to forget.

Staring at the sea, you free-associate to your daily bathing routine. As the soapy, heavy water drained out of the tub, you often wanted the water to stay for a while, for everything to stop. But nothing stayed and nothing stopped. And there was never anything you could do, other than lie there, waiting, naked, dripping. It was always the same drill: exactly five minutes after the last of the water gurgled and gushed down the drain, the housekeeper and a helper would come in, they’d pick you up, dry you off, plop you in your wheelchair, then strap your legs and abdomen to the chair to prevent you falling out. The practiced demeanors of the housekeeper and her helper--empty, stoical--were why they were hired: you couldn’t risk personal connections.

You swirl your vodka, spilling some on a knee, and look at the concrete footbridge that extends from the main part of the house on top of the cliff, to the ‘jutting out’ room, your favorite room. That room isn’t like a blindspot, because you know your blindspots--you can’t see them, but you know they’re there. Likewise, that’s not a bridge between what you know and don’t know. That’s a bridge between what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know.

Version 3.0

Every move you make divides life into before and after.

Every move you make eats into patience you don’t have.

Years ago, when the disease was slowly grabbing hold, you occasionally used a manual wheelchair. You remember wanting to spin those combination-180o-turn-and-wheelies that healthy, strong men in sporty wheelchairs do. Yet your muscles were hardly able to move your body around as it was. Soon you couldn’t even cross your legs into a sitting position, so you’d lift one dead-weight over the other, as if this lessened the horror of your appearance, somehow made a difference to friends and strangers who pretended to look you in the eye.

Now you putt around in one of those motorized hybrid-Atari-golf-buggy jobs with big fat wheels and a joystick. It’s a Jazzy 337XL with all the accessories: horn, rear-view mirror, fan, power headrest with custom padding. You could have gotten your wheelchair in Jet Red or Candy Apple Red. Black Onyx or Liquid Black. Whichever color you chose, it would have made no difference.

You motor out of the kitchen and onto the bridge. It’s night and the stars do starry things, blinking mainly. The night sky is lit timelessly, like casinos.

You cast your eyes down from the stars and your neck bounces, like a rotting flower stem bounces on the rim of a vase as it’s taken to the garbage.

The very air is foreboding and salty--you could almost choke on it.

The Jazzy’s low center of gravity makes for smooth and stable handling. It could buggy happily along for thirty miles without needing to change batteries, and the world wouldn’t change.
The ‘jutting out’ room. You slide and scrape the glass door sideways. You roll in.

Excluding the columns in each corner that are as thick as those in underground parking lots, this room is floor-to-ceiling windows; none of which are open. No curtains or balconies either. You flick on the lights and the dark outside makes it one big ghosty inside-of-a-mirrored-cube experience.

A profound wood rectangular table takes up the middle of the room. There are a couple vases and a laptop computer. You can’t tell what flowers the housekeeper put in the vases--geraniums? pansies?--because they’ve been deadheaded, that is, cut to stop seeds developing, and to encourage flowers to bloom again. In the middle of the table, the vases are in the exact middle of the square room.

You move to the room’s far corner, the point closest to the beach. Your eyes adjust to the half-reflections, and you look out there. Beyond the road is the sea, now doing its best to appear boiling and oily.

At your feet there’s a gas heater that resembles one of those hot-air blowers that inflate hot-air balloons. You imagine, for an instant, this room, made cozy on a winter’s night by this heater, filled with a hundred friends of yours. Then, memories blur this castle in the sky image; memories of how years ago you dragged the heater and its gas tank out onto the footbridge; how you directed its naked blue flame onto your mom’s Polaroids; how, one by one and illusion by illusion, they melted, bunched in on themselves, glowed. This was supposed to be your very own scorched-earth policy. It was supposed to leave nothing behind that could be used against you by your enemy, yourself. It was supposed to render your past powerless. It was supposed to leave you with only a future.

You swivel your wheelchair to face the computer. You tap the keyboard, and the fish-tank screensaver vanishes. Next to the computer is a big white box with blue buttons and red digital numbers: a patient controlled analgesia machine. PCAs usually attach to a syringe that’s attached to a patient’s intravenous line; with a PCA, patients simply push a button, and pain relief medication releases from the syringe into their bloodstream. Respite on tap.

Your eyes dart to your left forearm and the IV attached to it. The IV isn’t attached to the PCA, yet.

Like channel-hopping, all the visuals and audios of your mom dying blaze back: mom and respirators and artificial kidney machines and tubes and the beeps her PCA made, like reversing trucks, and the machine lights, like strobe lights in strip mall windows at night. It was proof that your mom was not merely being destroyed by technology; it had altered her to such an extent that she was ceasing to exist.

The hospital walls were white-tiled like scummy toilet stalls. The smell was obnoxiously clean and antibacterial, but you knew germs were everywhere. For days, she lay in bed, thinning. Like looking at a solar eclipse, you were afraid to really look, because if you did, you’d see pain. Between you and your mom was a chasm called space; sunlight bent around her. As you death-watched, shadows ran across the earth. The day passed into night. Your mom was a black moon, dying with the halo effect of the sun behind her. So you closed your eyes, all the while knowing that the sun was still there, beaming all over you, seeping through your eyelids, warming the living. The sun tried to deceive you that this was no vigil, that instead this was comeuppance, that it was only right that she brought you into this world, and you would take her out.

Jump-cut to image mind montages of your mom’s wedding photos--she wore white dancing shoes and a white wedding gown. However, you see her in a different light now: it seems as if she wore hospital gown white, shroud white. Love and illness, weddings and death.

Even though your mom was in and out of hospitals all her life, you never expected to be in the front row of a church. The certainty of her funeral had escaped you somehow. You looked at this woman in the coffin; everything was wrong; you were supposed to grow old with this woman.
An electricity cord comes out of your patient controlled analgesia machine and it extends to a socket in the far wall. Another cord pokes out of the machine; it’s plugged into the computer.
You tap the keyboard and the computer screen says:


You’ve always found answers in technology. Of course, you downloaded the software free from the Internet. Free downloadable software is called freeware or shareware. You find sick humor in calling this Self-Deliverance Software killware.

You’ve always been petrified that drugs wouldn’t work properly, or that they’d be administered incorrectly--and you’d die in absolute agony. You imagine yourself OD’ing on barbiturates and everything going haywire. Gasping, your muscles jerking, vomiting--then inhaling the vomit, panicking, maybe losing consciousness--then waking up, confused because the drugs haven’t made you totally unconsciousness, then the worst: it takes a day or two before death gets you.

All at once, you convulse, coughing in death throes. The wheelchair rocks as your hunch forward, hacking. The disease reminds you it’s trying to end your life. The body-straps remind you they’re not letting you go anywhere.

You come clean with yourself--you’re not going to do it . . . because you’re not a devout pagan. Killing yourself would keep you out of heaven. Yesterday you repented, but you’re not stupid enough to rationalize that God would overlook such a demonstration of faithlessness as suicide. A surefire path to hell, a suicide solution would seal your separation from God. Or it wouldn’t . . . .

You play with the laptop. The computer screen now says DETAILS OF HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS and then there are two boxes: VIEW DETAILS and SKIP DETAILS. With a slow hand, you mouse-click SKIP DETAILS, because you know how the software works. You also know how PCAs are programmed to give small, measured, safe amounts. Except for PCAs overridden by killware.

The computer now shows:


And there are two boxes: YES and NO.

The YES box, big and centered and highlighted in white, encourages you every step of the way. The NO box is small and red and hiding in the lower left corner.

You click YES, and suddenly the world becomes jagged. You become afraid of:

--those flowers--

--this computer--

--that black sea--


--not just people, everyone--

--the truth--

But you know this fear, you know it’s trying to trick you. Besides, while you’re busy being afraid of the world, the world is afraid of you. But there’s more: while the people of the world may be afraid of you, the world itself is uncaring, the universe is apathetic, even that sea is absolutely indifferent. You could have gotten your wheelchair in Electric Blue or Artic Blue. Evergreen or Emerald Green. You could have lifted your right leg over left, or left leg over right.

Right about now, death would be a blessing, a choice, and you feel that you don’t know what you’re doing, but that doesn’t mean you’re not doing it. At least you know where you are. You’re on the other side of the world, and this side of the world feels like the other side of the world when you want to be on this side of the world. You can change hemispheres and continents, but there is no happy place for you--you have no reason to be happy.

Whispering words in your head: Jump. Swan dive. Blow your brains out. Pull the trigger. Do it. Cleanse yourself. Go on. Pull the trigger. Jump.

Maybe suicide is natural. Maybe it’s a statement; your own power of life and death.

‘Suicide’ could be another word for:


Just desserts.


Call suicide whatever you damnwell please.

You check your arm and see the tube from the PCA now plugging into your IV.
Solitary car headlights high-beam and bounce along the Great Ocean Road.
You tap keys.


There isn’t a specific NO button. What you presume to be the NO button is in the same spot as the previous screen’s NO button, but it’s not labeled as such. Rather, it’s an unhighlighted graphic of a finger and hand pointing backwards.

Your mind’s cranking overtime, telling yourself that the temptation to kill yourself, your desire to die, is not in itself a sin. So maybe doing it isn’t either.

Means. Ends. Justifications.

Slightly curious, you wonder about talking yourself into abandoning the pretense of belief in God and instead believing that life began merely as a blob of protoplasm . . . that life ends with decomposing into the elements . . . that evolution makes life ultimately meaningless . . . that God is just a statistic.

Curiosity, however, leads to knowledge, and really you’re just curious, you don’t want to know. Sure, you want to be free to by-pass judgment and the sacredness of life, but . . . .

You tap the spacebar twice.


Dying alone--that’s what this is reduced to. No, this is not about your struggle to reject how your mom brought you up piously. Nor is this about the torment of hell. This is about your refusal to be a father, about deciding years ago to remain childless, because you decided your children would resent you, as all children resent their parents. This is about dying incomplete, dying with nobody by your side. Your mom didn’t die alone because you were there, because you did what any good son would do. You granted her dying wishes. Did your duty. Bought a cemetery plot. Signed waiver forms. Turned off machines. Pulled tubes out of nostrils and plugs out of sockets. In her death-rattling last minute, you swam in her eyes and saw the violence of life leaving her. Tear-filled eyes that reflected you back at you. You didn’t kill her, you just stopped keeping her alive. No, no, no--you did not kill her, you just let her die.

‘Mercy killing’ could be another phrase for:


An escape hatch.


Call a mercy killing whatever you damnwell please.

On the computer screen, now, not only is there no NO button, there’s also no graphic of a backwards pointing hand. Your white fluorescent reflection faces out of the computer. Do it, your eyes suggest.

With the certainty of the end, you end the uncertainty. You tap the spacebar once. You tap the spacebar twice.


The screen blackens. A small, white box quickly appears and a small, white word solidifies:


“Goodbye,” you say. You imagine the software saying, “Goodbye.”

The syringe pushes the morphine into the tube. Your leg-hairs tingle as if fastened to thousands of batteries.


Violence everywhere.

After shooting thousands of Polaroids of you as a kid before your disease took hold, your mom always flapped them in the air to make the image appear faster. Pinching them between thumb and forefinger, she impatiently jiggled Polaroids like her nurses jiggled thermometers. Now, as the morphine mists your brain and your dilated eyes shake in your sockets, you’re unsure what to do with this visual mom memory, unsure what it means, unsure what this split screen between now and then is telling you. Because it was only later, lifetimes later, that you learned that it’s light--not air--that causes the chemical reaction and, hence, the photo to develop.

And you want to tell her this, and that everything’s a deception, and that the answer is not in God, and that you’re not a statistic, that you’re not even the loneliest number zero.

Colors are reversing, colors are whitening, they’re leaving you.