“I came here to die,” said the old man in the chair next to me beneath the shade of a coconut palm, mere feet from the endless expanse of the Pacific.
Looking over at him with an exasperated sigh, I watched him watch me. His thin, silver hair was brushed straight back from his face, giving me a good look at his tanned, wrinkled skin and weary eyes. Blue, just like mine, but his had seen far more years in the sun, losing the twinkle they once had.
I wondered what had made his body so thin and frail. Disease? A hard life? Or just the fact that he’d long outlived his collagen. The old man was right about having come here to die, but then again, hadn’t we all in one way or another?
Torn away on the currents of thought, I wondered if he were me in thirty years, after countless endless summers in this place? Or was I him that many years ago, before too much rum and too much sun?
There was, I surmised, worse ways to go. A warm beach with the ocean serenading you as it falls at your feet, palm fronds rustling in the breeze overhead, rum drinks being delivered by dark-skinned cabana girls in small yellow bikinis. It beats the hell out of busting your balls in an office all your life.
Cancer, my mind told me, interrupting more pleasant thoughts. It must be cancer that had consumed this old guy and brought him to the tropics to die. He’d probably escaped some mid-west state with cold winters where they grow wheat or corn or something else like that. Hell, he might have been a rutabaga farmer for all I knew… or cared. The fact was that every non-native drunk bastard who lived here had a story. We all did.
Pushing the thought of an old man’s demise out of my head, I laid back, my posture matching the old man. Two bodies lying in state- a state of irrevocable semi-consciousness of a world that only reared its ugly head on hung-over mornings when I wished I lived closer to town where they sold aspirin on every street corner.
Though I tried mightily to keep it out, a thought of the old man squirmed its slimy way into my mind. Opening my eyes, I spared him a glance. Was his statement drunken gibberish? Just idle talk? An ice breaker so that he could endear himself to me enough to bum a cigarette later. Sorry old man, I left that habit back in the ‘States. There were many more new vices that occupied my time now, and a good smoke was hell to come by anyway.
“Did you hear what I said?” the old man asked, reclining with one hand behind his head, a drink in the other.
I sipped my drink and denied to myself that I cared. I didn’t want to know why he was here, and the fact that he was occupying a chair that could have been the temporary residence of any number of cute young tourists wasn’t lost to me either. Better company and easier on the eyes too.
“Die if you will, old man, but leave me out of it.” I watched him, but he never moved a muscle. I was here on vacation, albeit a permanent one, but a vacation, nonetheless. “The days are longer here, so you’ll probably end up living longer than you thought.”
Me? I’ve got plenty of years left. Thirty, forty years, maybe longer if I give up the rum, but that’s not going to happen. Thirty years of long days and even longer nights. Ah, the nights, when the girls smell of coconut and flowers and their bodies feel warm in the darkness when the cool ocean breezes roll in with the tide.
I closed my eyes and smiled, sliding one hand behind my head while the other held my nearly empty glass, lost in the serenity of paradise.
“Death,” the old man went on, although I was a terrible audience. “Is just inevitable. That’s the hell of it all.”
Pursing my lips irritably, I wished the old man would go away. Death is inevitable, but so is the sunset. The tide rolls in, the tide rolls out. Rum ruins your liver. Shit happens. Death is the unpleasantry that comes with life that must be overlooked for the pure extasy of today. Didn’t you read the brochure?
“Well, if you’re going to die you better drink up.” Following my own advice, I lifted my glass to my lips as the smile faded from them. Damned old man. Why must you come here and ruin my day with your prophecies of death? Draining the last of the watered-down alcohol, I looked through the bottom of the glass, watching for a moment as the pacific thrashed against the beach.
I lifted my glass high -the signal for another round- and looked at the empty chair next to me. I looked down the beach for him, but I knew he wouldn’t be there. The old man was the product of a mind drunk by noon, passed out by two in the afternoon, and drunk again by nine. He was a foreshadowing; as constant a companion to me as the rum I learned to love so much.
“I didn’t come here to die,” I lied. I came here to drink and to have fun. I knew I’d see him again, like it or not. He came and went like that. A ghost of a dream, or a nightmare. He was here before me, and he’ll be here after the me I see in the mirror. Wherever I am, he is also, in another dance of denial that we have grown accustomed to.
This union, as strange as it is, would work out for both of us eventually. I suppose we will both get what we want in one way or another. I came here to drink and drink I would. He came here to die and die he would. Every drink I drink will kill a piece of the old man until, finally, I can’t see his face.
Then, after all this time, I’ll find the peace that I came here for.
John Ryland lives in Northport, Alabama with his wife and two sons. A life-long writer, he had placed a few poems inn ational publications, and most recently a short story in Scarlet Leaf Review. He has also recently finished a full-length novel, which he hopes to have in publication soon. For more of his work find him at https://facebook.com/JRylandtheWriter