I Wait to Die!
(No -- I really mean it this time!)
One of my first novellas is a piece about a professional criminal who mistakenly robs a Russian Mafiya money laundering operation. In typical noir fashion, his crime dooms him: the Mafiya boss intends to make him an example for others with the temerity to try a rip off.
(Incidentally, the book is still for sale. You can find it here.)
I deliberately wrote the story as a retro, hard-boiled yarn, told in the first person. The title, which could easily have appeared on the cover of a Jim Thompson paperback, suggested itself automatically: "I Wait to Die!"
The darkness of the story's title is characteristic of much of the fiction I write. I have a rather bleak view of the world. I expect the worst to happen and I am rarely disappointed: heroes turn out to be assholes; creeps get rewarded for their misbehavior, good people suffer terrible fates. I spent nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter and I found myself writing stories about the triumph of the human spirit only a few times during that period. Most of the news I covered was bad -- and getting progressively worse.
A few years after I retired from the newspaper business I was diagnosed with cirrhosis, the product of over-indulgence in alcohol over the years. I quit drinking immediately and haven't had so much as a sip in more than three years, but I have been getting ultrasounds ever since because my liver was chewed to hell by the disease and had only limited efficiency.
My doctors were worried that I might take a turn for the worse, hence the stepped-up lab work. For year or so, nothing seemed to change. I looked stable. But when I got my last ultrasound a couple of weeks ago, there were new abnormalities in the images of my insides.
Kaiser ordered a CT scan Oct. 5 which took all of about twenty minutes. Still, I had to wait a week to hear the details of what it showed: at least three major lesions on my liver that had appeared since my previous ultrasound. There was also evidence of lesions on my lungs.
The diagnosis: liver cancer. The prognosis: it appears to be particularly virulent and no treatment is likely to help. I may have only a few months left to live.
In other words, like the gunman in my novella, "I Wait to Die!"
A few years ago, I sat down and started writing a completely unrelated short story called "Legacy" about a tough old bird named Frank Trask who finds out he is dying of liver cancer and tries to do something worthwhile with what's left of his life.
I wasn't sure the story amounted to much, but one of my former students, Peter Fleming, read the beginning and said the words every author lives to hear: "I want to know what happens next."
I finished the story and it finally saw print this fall as one half of my double novella book from All Due Respect, Dead Heat with the Reaper.
This short story that metastasized into a novella took shape because I wondered what it would be like to suddenly learn you were dying of a disease that was past treatment -- a disease that was going to end your life in a matter of weeks or months. How would you spend the rest of your life? What would you do with your final days?
Well, now I am finding out.
For one thing, I am trying to keep my life as sensible as possible. I am not crossing streets without looking both ways or taking up skydiving. I won't be running out and buying tickets for the lottery (though I may buy one, just so I can say I've played before I die). I don't intend to start drinking again -- for some reason, the idea of getting half a heat on just doesn't appeal to me.
And I am trying to be reasonable in my expectations. I doubt I am going to plan trips to Scandinavia, the Mediterranean or even the East Coast, all places my beloved wife Margot and I had talked about going.
What I will do is continue writing. It's all I have ever been particularly good at. I have more stories and novels in my Work in Progress file than I can possibly get through, but I intend to try my damnedest to do just that. I have literally dozens of books to read and review for this blog.
I also have a wife and a son, Garth, that I dearly love and I plan to spend as much time enjoying their company as I possibly can.
I guarantee you that I won't be spending a lot of time regretting things I never got around to. I've done a lot of shit already, so there is no need for regret.
I've worked at a lot of different jobs and remember things about each fondly -- even if it only involved cashing my check at the end of the week; my wife and I spent two years in Japan when I was in the U.S. Navy and I enjoyed seeing a lot of that country and enjoying its people; I graduated from the University of California when it was a world class school and not a trade institute for corporate miscreants; I spent nearly four decades writing about crooks, cops, bent building inspectors, dirty and dangerous jobs, and a variety of other subjects; I even won a few prizes for the journalism I did -- not that anything changed much as a result of my stories. I visited England three times, paid visits to Vancouver, Ontario and Quebec, and criss-crossed the U.S.
I've seen condors riding the thermals over the Grand Canyon, sea turtles paddling in the Pacific off Waikiki, red-winged black birds perched on fence posts alongside I-5. I once even surprised a Cooper's hawk on the balcony right outside the office of the student newspaper at Ohlone Community College.
As Roy Batty says in Blade Runner, "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.”
I have had a good life and it isn't quite over yet. I am going to try to enjoy every minute of it I have left.
Stick with me. We still have time for a little fun. Not as much as I had hoped, maybe, but that's life.