Meg Tuite

How Don Quixote Took Possession and Stood Guard over Agnes’ Deathbed

            Yes, of course Agnes knew she was dying, had known it most of her life, and now here it was dangling in front of her like another holiday, dragging itself out like everything else before it. She sat up in bed rolling slivers of ice over her cracked tongue, cancer gurgling in her abdomen and her damned bald head. Who knew she’d end up a sitting Buddha?

Agnes racked up two jobs in her life before she ended up stuck in this hospital bed. She’d been a stewardess for United Airlines until she got married, then she’d settled into the exquisite routine of a librarian for over three decades at a small but pleasantly docile building filled with books and silent people reading.

What Agnes had never counted on was the perpetual boisterous babbling before death finally tolled. There was no peaceful rock-a-bye-baby kind of crap going on here. Continuous parties and parades left Agnes even more depleted than she’d been before, lying in bed for what seemed like forever. She found herself at cocktail parties with dead stewardesses she’d worked with back in the ’50’s. Agnes didn’t know they’d beat her to the final plunge until they showed up at these phantom get-togethers. Still laid out in her hospital bed, Agnes was somehow transported to these wild-ass parties with the departed. She relished the taste of the whiskey sours, a damn nice bonus from the lifeless ice-chips the nurses gave her to suck on. Raucous friends sang, laughed, and bitched about fiancées from long ago. This time-zone freeze frame had frozen everyone else in the height of youth with great skin and outfits while Agnes, still wearing a hospital gown, was fifty years older than the rest of them and bald as an accountant.

There was also the odd arrangement of characters in armor and calico: fat, drunken men in sodden attire and a few togas that appeared in her room, pacing past one another, roaring out their soliloquies as though a thousand tongues from a thousand books had opened to the climax of each character’s most pressing matters.

Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho sat down heavily in chairs by her bedside, smelling of decayed leather and bathless centuries, both with downtrodden faces. “Dulcinea del Toboso, the flower of beauty, was worth every battle, my poor, decrepit Sancho. Why weepest thou? Though they looked to be windmills, enchanters had transformed them.” Sancho remembered when Quixote had stampeded some windmills with his sword drawn, convinced they were monsters. How could Sancho have left everything behind for this madman?

Agnes adored Quixote since that first time she’d opened Cervantes’ book. “Don Quixote, you are a true knight-errant. You’ve shown these dimwitted humans how to live and die by the sword with compassion and conviction. Can anyone do better than that?” Don Quixote kicked at the heel of his holey boot. “Oh, your ladyship! I know not how to pay you for the glory you have bestowed on me.” He blushed, and Agnes was smitten.

            “My wish is your command.” He lifted his sword. “Let me know when I am needed, my lady.” Agnes smiled at Quixote. He’d never given a rat’s ass about peer pressure, now that was a true hero.

Nurses, daughters, and the dead rolled around her bed in a wind of voices and shadows. It sounded as though she were in a theatre during intermission, catching clips of conversations, some closer, some further away, laughing, whispering, and hacking out coughs. It was an incessant wall of cacophony that Agnes couldn’t break through. She demanded her daughters turn down the volume and let her get some sleep, but they ignored her.

Socrates and Plato, garbed in white togas, were screeching at each other like two old bats. Each claimed he had made a bigger impact on the world. Socrates ranted about all the books written in his name and the great arguments he had propagated. Plato bragged that platonic had become a household word. Agnes told them both to can it. No one gave a damn anymore. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “maybe a few dead-wood academics sniffling in corner offices still write papers about you two and publish their articles in even more obscure periodicals, but who the hell reads them? Maybe a few other sniffling colleagues with rattling lungs as close to death as me.” Socrates and Plato looked up briefly at Agnes, glared at her, and then kept arguing.

Authors she’d loved surrounded her in the tiny hospital room. She followed their banal discussions, no more illuminating than the living. They talked stocks, politics, religion–all senseless debates that led nowhere. Faulkner had a fondness for hog calling, Dickinson, eyes half-drooped, was sitting with Thoreau listening to him recap the measurements of his hut. Even Dylan Thomas was rattling on about the bloody price of a good pint instead of reciting some of his mesmerizing poetry. Agnes was tired of both the living and the dead marching around her hospital bed with their endless blathering. She was the one who was dying here and yet no one had bothered to ask whether she wanted to be included in this riotous gathering.

She muttered, “To hell with them all.” She opened her raw, parched lips and took a long labored breath, clutched either side of the iron-bars. Her lips rolled inward and disappeared like an efficient window blind. She barreled her vision just over the hordes of overdressed transients and with all the remaining color left draining out of Agnes like paint from a can, she bellowed, “Who the hell’s in charge of SPIRIT CONTROL?”

The room shut itself off as if a fuse had been blown. Agnes smiled at the wild-eyed stares she got from all of them. At least she was still in control, even if she was stuck in this bed. She folded her hands over her sheets. Daughters shuffled around her while the rest of the crew picked up swords and paraphernalia and started to slink from the room.

“Mom’s really losing it,” hissed the one daughter. “Spirit control?” She lowered her voice. “You know, they said the morphine would do that.”

“How much longer is this going to go on?” asked another. “Maybe we should get the nurse in here to up her dosage?”

Her daughters whispered and sobbed around her like they were preparing for the funeral, while the TV flickered from above, the announcer yelled TRIP TO HAWAII, a woman jumped up and down, and the roar of a game show audience blasted through the room.

Agnes grabbed Quixote by one of his cloth-torn arms before he lumbered off with the rest of them. “Where the hell do you think you’re going? You made me a promise, and I know you’re as good as your word, unlike the rest.” Agnes eyed Sancho as he tiptoed out the door, narrowed her eyes and studied Quixote’s soiled face. “I can’t take anymore of this crap. Don Quixote, it’s time. Take me out,” she said and closed her eyes.

Quixote knelt beside Agnes and grabbed her hand. “Please, my lady. This sword is for the wretched of heart and soul. It has never touched the bosom of a lady, nor will it release itself toward that end now. I believe my services can be provided in another direction.”

Don Quixote spotted Merlin, the enchanter, sneaking in from behind them. He stood up, swung around and smacked the sword across Merlin’s chest. “Out you magician of the devil! Out, before your blood besmears this dying lady’s bedside.” Merlin looked around bewildered, realized the room was empty now, and charged off down the hall without saying a word. Agnes opened an eye and smirked. She’d never been fond of the Merlin trilogy. She could still detect the stench of Quixote, but at least the room was quiet. Now this was the hush of a deathbed that she’d read about forever, excluding Thomas’s “Rage, rage, against the dying of the light,” which Agnes had no intention of doing. She was going to go out with that sublime cliché: ‘rest in peace.’ She smiled and closed her eyes.