Bernie’s last day on Earth. He put on his good suit. Had a good cry. (The cry lasted two hours.) Then 10 a.m. Time to say goodbyes. Time to call those he loved and tell them they meant the world to him. Yes. The world. The world that, today, like every day for the past while, he would leave.
Best to call Susan first. That way he could say goodbye to the kids. When Susan didn’t answer, he called again. This time Wendy answered. Sweet, little 6-year-old Wendy. He loved hearing her voice usually, but now he choked up. “Hello?” she said. He couldn’t respond. Finally Wendy continued, “Daddy, is it you again?”
“I love you, sweetie,” he stammered.
“Daddy. It’s okay. You’re not going to die.”
“Is Bernie Jr. there?”
“No. He’s with Frank.”
Frank. Taking Bernie’s only son away when he was going to tell him goodbye; that was just like Frank, always thinking of himself. (Like when he married Bernie’s ex-wife — didn’t give a damn about how Bernie would feel. They’d only been divorced for six months!)
“Is Mommy there?” “Yes, but …” “But what?” “I don’t think she wants to talk right now.” “This is important, Wendy.”
“She’s —” Wendy said. “Busy.”
“I can call back later,” Bernie said, starting to tear up. “I love you, Wendy. I love you, and I love Bernie Jr., and you’re both going to do just fine, okay? After I’m gone?”
“Quit being silly, Daddy.”
Bernie called his parents next. His mom answered and she didn’t seem to want to talk either. Her exact words were, “Bernie, quit this dying nonsense, you sound like a fool! Six or whatever months of this and I’m sick of it, you hear me? Sick of it.” Then (surrendering to the very last option), in a quiet but stern voice, “Go out and get laid, all right? Your father did something similar when I quit giving it to him back in ’80s. Bunch of pansies, the both of you.”
Bernie knew they loved him. His parents. Wendy. Bernie Jr. Even Susan, but in a different way now, of course. Their harsh words (or lack of words) were just the way they were coping with the impending grief. Of his death. Of when he would be gone from this world and on to whatever was next …
Bernie had coped with his own grief in a similar way after the divorce: He bought a bottle of Jack Daniels, poured himself a shot, and managed to swallow down half of it before dumping the rest of the bottle down the drain.
“That’ll show them,” he’d said. As if by dumping it out he was proving some victory over whoever had sold him the bottle.
He’d bought a pack of cigarettes, too, despite not being a smoker. “A broken man turns to vices,” he told himself. “And I am broken.” So grief-stricken was Bernie, he lit three of the cigarettes at once and positioned them in the spaces between his fingers. But that had been in the park; a police officer came by and told him he couldn’t smoke there. And what the hell was he doing smoking three cigarettes at once? Bernie apologized and snuffed out the cigarettes, wondering what it was he was doing wrong with this grief business.
It was the self-help books, ultimately, that brought him to the revelation of his mortality. What was the line in the book? He’d read it over and over and over. Wrote it on the dry-erase board on the fridge (erasing the month-old grocery list with food for the kids who no longer lived with him). Bought wooden-block letters and arranged them above his bed (except he’d forgotten a letter and so took them down in sobbing frustration. “I can’t even spell!”). He’d tried to brand himself with the line, marking the words in blood on the skin of his forearm, but the first prick of the knife left him groaning in pain. “It hurts to bleed!” But what was the sentence that he’d read in that book? Live each day like it’s your last. That was it.
Well, so he had. Every day in the last six months had been his last. Which is why he had the coroner prepared to certify his death, the embalmer ready to pretty up his corpse (there were specific instructions: for example, he wanted to be smiling so that his family remembered him as happy), and the stonecutter paid in advance for the tombstone.
BERNIE BENNIS — March 3, 1971–“TODAY”
EVERY DAY WAS HIS LAST
His affairs had to be in order. After calling his family, he reconfirmed his life insurance policy and then called his lawyer. As always, the secretary answered. “Oh yes, Mr. Bennis. I’ll make a note of it. He’s at lunch right now.” (Her legs propped up on the desk, eating a homemade turkey-cucumber sandwich, writing no notes, and looking at her boss who was in fact right there trying not to laugh.) Bernie thanked her. He thanked her graciously. He thanked her profusely. It meant a lot that she would pass along the message.
A little past noon, and what did a dying man do knowing his last day had finally come? Well, a dying man still had to eat, so he drove himself to the deli where most of the staff was familiar with him.
He sat in his car for a while, in the parking lot. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. The employees at Halula’s Deli would be sad to see him go. He was a regular. (Inside the store, the cashier, making change for another customer, glanced out the front-store window. She turned around, to the kitchen, where the manager was texting on his phone. “Izzy, Bernie’s here!” Not looking up from his phone, Izzy gave her a thumbs-up.)
Bernie walked into the deli dragging his feet, staring at the floor. How to break it to them? Quick and easy, or long and drawn-out? Mumbling, he ordered the usual: French onion soup and a grilled cheese, no jalapenos. But he couldn’t meet the cashier’s eye. “That’ll be $9.51,” she said. Bernie gave her a 20 and glanced up at her.
Watery-eyed, eyebrows like two capsized boats (in an ocean of despair!), he said, “Keep the change. I won’t be needing it.”
“Thank you so much,” the cashier said, looking somewhere else — anywhere else. She didn’t inquire as to what he meant by “not needing it.”
He sat in his usual booth. The man in the booth in front of where Bernie sat craned his neck over. “Bernie?” Then another voice, quiet, a boy’s, “Frank, don’t.”
It was Frank. And Bernie Jr.
A food-runner brought Bernie’s food.
Bernie immediately broke into tears that dribbled down and off his chin. (The French onion soup was plenty salty enough, but it was too late to do anything about it now.)
All three of them stood up to greet each other, and after a prolonged hug between Bernie and his son (Bernie Jr.’s arms by his side, mumbling, “Dad, stop.”), Bernie left the deli in a hurry. Didn’t touch his soup or the grilled cheese. He’d lost his appetite.
Bernie’s vision was blurred by tears, and in the heat of passion he drove faster than he normally would. Six miles above the speed limit. And he only put on the brakes lightly when he turned, making big, sweeping arcs into other lanes. This was a man who was soon to die! The world would just have to suffer him as he’d suffered it. Grief left no room for empathy.
Six miles over, seven, eight. What a rush! The thrill of driving fast was amazing — why hadn’t he ever done this before? In the movies when characters were upset or emotional they drove like maniacs, but it always seemed so reckless to Bernie, who was, as Susan had once called him, “too prude.” Bernie muttered this to himself in the car. “Too prude.”
And he drove faster, faster, and faster — 10 miles over the speed limit, now. Ten miles!
By the time he came to the sharp right turn off the service road, it began to rain. It was now or never. He’d driven 10 miles over the speed limit, so why not take the (final) chance to try and drift? Like they did in the movies. Handsome, sensitive men with perfect stubble and nice form-fitting clothes that contrasted their inner misery. Yes, he would try to drift. It was now or never.
He didn’t slow down. He pressed his foot hard on the brakes. And then, with reckless abandon, he yanked the steering wheel to the right.
The car skidded as it should, and then started to skid as it shouldn’t; the newly wet road was too slippery and the car wiggled and wobbled and whirled full-speed off the shoulder of the road, off into the neighboring field and headfirst into a wide-trunked tree.
When Bernie woke, there were many lights flashing. People’s voices could be heard as if from a great distance, but in reality they were quite near. The rain had stopped. The picture came to him in pieces at first before coming together all at once: a splintered, heavy-breasted branch from the wide-trunked tree had shattered the windshield and pierced through the headrest approximately a half-inch, at most, from his head.
He should’ve been dead. But he wasn’t. Was he? It hurt to breathe a little, but yes, he was alive. He’d run headfirst into a tree at full-speed, and he hadn’t died!
Bernie waited until the police cranked the door open with a crowbar to get out. One of the cops walked Bernie away from the scene to ask him what had happened. But Bernie wasn’t listening. Eventually the cop put his hands on Bernie’s shoulders and shook him.
“Mr. Bennis! Are you all right?”
“Am I,” Bernie said. “Alive?”
“Yes, but are you all right?”
“I’m not dead?”
“No. Your car is totaled, but you’re not dead. Listen, Bernie, if you need any assistance, there’s an ambulance here. Just let us know.”
Bernie placed a hand on his ribs and pressed down. His jaw clenched. “Oof.”
A different police officer drove him home. Inside the house, alone, he immediately went to the kitchen and sat down at the table. His mind was blank — or at least on a conscious level it felt so. He pulled out his cellphone and set it on the table. No voicemails. No one had called him back from this morning (meaning Susan and his lawyer), and no one had called yet to check up on him. Not that anyone would know, just yet, about the wreck.
Bernie got up and stepped over to the fridge. He frowned.
LIVE EACH DAY LIKE IT’S YOUR LAST, the message on the dry-erase board read.
And what a frown it was, that frown! Bernie was certainly a crier, but frowning was different somehow. One was a release and one was quite the opposite. Something had changed. Hadn’t it? He erased the last word of the message and wrote a new one in its place.
LIVE EACH DAY LIKE IT’S YOUR FIRST.
He went to the table, picked up his phone, and dialed the number for his lawyer’s office.
“Hi Bernie,” the secretary said. “Sorry, he just stepped out.”
“That’s okay. Write this down, please. I have some news.”
“What is it?”
“I had an accident today,” he said. “Ran into a tree.”
“You ran into a tree?”
“In my car. Not on foot. I crashed into a tree and a huge branch went through my windshield and almost killed me. I have a bruised rib, I think, but that’s it. I was very lucky.”
This time she scrambled to write down what he said. “I’m so sorry that happened.”
“I’m not finished. I won’t be needing the will drawn up. I’m not dying today.”
“You’re — not?”
“No. Tell him to tear it to shreds.”
“O — kay. Will do.”
“And one more thing.”
“Five seven one, six three four, nine six three seven. That’s my mother’s number. I need you to call her and leave a message for me.”
“Um, well, it’s not really my job to call your mother —”
“Tell her I almost died. But that I’m not taking her advice. It’s hard to do what she suggested with a broken rib.”
“I don’t —”
“She’ll understand. Promise.”
Bernie hung up. Immediately after he did, Susan called.
“Bernie, I just got a call from the police — are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” He paused. “Listen, I want to take the kids camping this weekend.”
“You — wait, what? Camping?”
“Yes. First time for everything, right?”
There was the half-hope that his assertiveness might make her remember why she fell in love with him. But, and he knew this, it was never really his assertiveness that made anyone love him in the first place — it was his careful way of life.
“Don’t give them a choice,” he continued. “I think it’ll be fun.”
“Aren’t you — I mean, what about the? —”
“Dying?” He paused again. After all, it was just this morning that he’d been sure today would be his last day on Earth. The memory was still fresh. “No. Not today, anyway. I guess you never know. But today is different. Today’s my first day in a long, long time.”
“Bernie, are you sure you’re okay?” Then, “Does this have anything to do with your mother’s advice?”
Better than he’d ever been.
He didn’t ask how she knew what his mom had suggested.
That night Bernie went to an art gallery, spent far too much money on a painting he liked, and hung it over his bed where the wooden-block letters had been for that brief, misspelled moment. It was an abstract painting — so a little less than realistic — but the colors were beautiful. And so long as you had someone to tell you what it was supposed to be, you could just sort of make out the phoenix rising from its own gritty, abstract ashes.