A Fine Death
Harvey Mensch was waiting to die by a riverbed.
He’d spent the last few nights in a tent that sat back upon the grassy knoll just behind where he lay now, on the small strip of sandy dirt massaged by the lapping river water. A small pillow, contained in a hand-knitted pillowcase, lay under his head.
Harvey was wearing a bright red mountaineering jacket, despite the humid weather and the summer sky he was staring at. Most of his legs lay uncovered; he had on tight, pineapple-patterned board shorts. His feet lay bare, save for whatever sand still clung to the soles of his feet and nooks of his toes. His arms lay on his stomach, and a satisfied incline graced his dry lips. He was completely bald; his head shone like a marble dome. The only hair of note sprouted out from his large ears in great tufts of grey.
The air was ripe with blooming pollen. Fat bees lazily danced across the length of the river, jumping between the wattle trees heavy with the yellow flower. Occasionally, one would pass by his face, but Harvey remained still, and the bees continued to ignore him. The water shivered with its current and rays of the sun. It was a place where death felt unnatural, where the process of decay was suspended, but Harvey was quite sure that his own would occur at any moment now.
It was closing in on noon. Harvey interrupted his prone position to walk back to the tent to retrieve his sunglasses and a bottle of warm rum, before returning to his spot on the beach.
He took a sip straight from the bottle and the liquid sizzled down his wet throat.
The afternoon rolled in slowly; the sun shifted from its overhead position to behind Harvey’s head. The blotted skin that stretched across his skull — an accumulation of years of sunburn and clashes with low-lying ceilings — wilted yet again to angry red, but Harvey didn’t particularly care. It was not as though the cancer conceivably being born now under his skin was going to hasten his inevitable death. And besides, he reasoned, one does not worry about sunburn when reviewing one’s life.
This is what Harvey had spent most of the last few days thinking about, through diligent examination of memories. At first, he’d attempted to approach the slideshow chronologically, beginning with the vague imagery from his childhood, but quickly succumbed to the fickle nature of remembrance. Thoughts that danced on one conjured scene lead almost inexplicably to the next; it may have been a small detail as insignificant as a sound or a scent that wrested him away and down another long, winding rabbit hole.
A young bream leapt out of the water, quickly reaching its zenith and crashing right back down. Harvey took this as a sign that he should take another swig of the rum, which he did, and as the glass rim left his lips he abandoned memory and began to think about dreams.
He’d come to the conclusion sometime during the second day of waiting that he wished he could remember more of the dreams he’d had. That the stark, often violent dreams of his childhood would manifest again, alongside the subtler, more elusive ones of his adulthood. Though illogical, these projections of subconscious always had a sense that they were realer, more tangible than other waking moments. Especially the ones that lingered at the edges of his skull and depths of his gut, even after surfacing from sleep. Harvey wished for some kind of recollection, but only one ever came.
It was the most recent one he’d experienced, and the clearest. Since the dream, which had begun two months previously and reoccurred every night until his impromptu camping trip, he’d experienced nothing. Not a single flicker of colour graced his rest; the starless night stretched far off and away.
In the dream, he always found himself on top of a sand dune. The sun appeared to be everywhere at once; there was no shade on either side of the dune and he cast no shadow, but when he looked up, it shone stoutly just before the noon position. The heat was intense, and despite the fact he was dressed in a pair of budgie smugglers and a rash shirt, with flotation devices strapped to his upper arms — like a child at a public pool — there was no water to be seen.
He would stand there for a time, shuffling about on the summit of the dune. He wished he could see somewhere to go — yet there was nothing but sand stretching out into the wasteland.
Then, from the bottom of the dune, he would spy a person wrapped in, of all things, a fluorescent vest emblazoned with the word ‘Ranger’. A female parking officer, climbing up a sand dune in the middle of the desert, ticket machine clenched in hand.
“Hey!” he always shouted, waving his arms in case the parking officer couldn’t see him. But she kept climbing, ignoring him. She marched the final steps to join him on the summit, and met his wide-eyed stare with her own bored countenance.
“Mr Mensch,” she’d begin with. “You’ve overstayed your welcome.”
“What are you talking about?” he’d say, fiddling with his budgie smugglers. The woman in the dream always made him nervous; her straw-like hair was always pulled back into a sharp ponytail that gave her a determined edge. She did not wear any makeup, and her squashed cheekbones tapered to a square-shaped chin. Despite the bright sun, she did not squint, and her voice was similarly unaffected by subtlety. She was brusque and painted this efficiency with her raspy voice, as if trying to spare her damaged vocal cords.
The ranger held out her machine, tapped on some keys, and with a whir, the machine spat out a white ticket. She handed it to him and repeated herself, “You’ve overstayed your welcome.”
Harvey looked down at the ticket in his hand. He examined the black markings on the receipt-like paper.
Sutherland Shire Council
Name: Harvey G. Mensch
Date of Offence: 15/8/2016
Offence Type: Time Violation
Fine Amount: $0.01
“This was almost two years ago,” he said. “And why is the fine only a cent?”
She shrugged. “It’s taken a while to catch up with you. Your lifestyle changes nearly did it in,” she said.
“My lifestyle changes?”
“Yes. Green smoothies, açaí bowls, healthy snacks, your yoga…” she rattled off. “You probably started a little too late, in hindsight.” She reached out and clapped him on a floaty. “Ah well, there’s always next time.” She then darted forward to peck him on his lips, and began to walk back the way she came.
Harvey stood holding the ticket, feeling like the infinite sun had roasted his brain.
“Are you God?” he called out to her.
She stopped and turned, addressing him once more before the horizon shimmered and shook like an earthquake and he woke up.
“Why don’t you go camping, Mr Mensch?”
He must have fallen into another dreamless sleep, for the next thing he knew there was a man standing over him in the setting sun, wearing another fluorescent vest with S.E.S on it.
A mouth surrounded by beard spoke.
“Are you Harvey Mensch?” asked the S.E.S man.
To have another member of the wider vest community standing over him, Harvey nodded nervously and felt it only obvious to ask, “Are you God?”
The man laughed and replied, “Not in the Biblical sense.”
Harvey realised that he was not in fact dreaming and grumbled, “Any sense would do.”
“And you, Mr Mensch? Do you have any sense?” the S.E.S man asked. “Your family has been worried sick.”
“They’ve been worried sick? I am sick,” Harvey said. He pushed himself up and saw the boat behind the S.E.S man. His partner was sitting back near the idling engine. He waved; Harvey gave him the finger.
“If you’re sick then you need to be in the hospital,” said the bearded S.E.S man.
“I’d rather not,” said Harvey. “You see, I’m waiting to die.”
“Well you can do that in the hospital, alongside your family,” said the S.E.S man. It was a blunt statement, punctuated by the other S.E.S man revving the engine.
“Can’t you just say you didn’t find me?” sighed Harvey.
The S.E.S man shook his head. “Afraid not. They’d only send more people out after you,” he said.
The aftertaste of rum in Harvey’s mouth buoyed the frustration flushing to his face. But the cancer, already a spectator in his crowded brain, was now jumping in to make one of his last remaining decisions.
“Alright,” said Harvey, standing. “I’ll come with you. But you can pack up my tent, I get to have my Bundy in the front of the boat, and we drive slowly so I don’t miss any of the sunset.”
The S.E.S man thought for a moment, before nodding his acceptance. “OK, mate. You’ve got yourself a deal.”
The two men didn’t speak to Harvey after they’d packed up his camping site and set off upriver. Harvey couldn’t have cared less. He drank from the bottle like it was beer as they glided over the river, taking care not to disturb the glittering mosaic of sunset and water. At some stage during the journey, Harvey began to weep joyfully.
An ambulance was waiting for them at the wharf. The paramedics, looking suitably unimpressed with the whole situation, bundled Harvey into a bed, despite his protests.
“I’m not legless,” he said, laughing, crying. “I’ve just got brain cancer.” But he had both — the rum had hit him, and his legs were unsteady even after disembarking.
They drove to the hospital, and rushed him to a sparkling white room where, as promised, he was instantly mobbed by family. His daughters fussed over the needles they were putting into him, while his sons gripped his tired hand and spoke urgently to him about matters of reality that were quickly beginning to lose their meaning. The doctor asked him some questions about his condition, and then if he’d agree to them running a few tests.
“Doc,” he said. “It’s brain cancer. God told me.”
So they brought the chaplain, but Harvey waved the poor fellow away because he’d somehow forgotten his fluorescent vest among his black robe and white collar ensemble.
They pumped some drugs into him to try and make him comfortable. The first one made him cry, shake and shiver, then call out for his wife, before his eldest reminded him it had been two years since her own death. He called for his mother instead. They gave him the second drug, which made him laugh so hard his sides ached and his grandchildren laughed along too. Then they got the combination right, he settled back into his pillows, docile and phased out, wondering what was so bad about Death’s embrace, if it was as warm and fuzzy as this?
When Harvey Mensch felt the time was right, he twisted his head right and gazed out of the window. Across the hospital grounds, in the half-empty car park, the brightest object caught his eye. A parking ranger in a fluorescent vest, writing up a silver wagon. The ranger, who vaguely resembled a woman, printed the ticket, stuck it under the windscreen wiper, turned and looked right up at Harvey’s room, raising a hand in greeting.
As Harvey closed his eyes, his trembling lips distilled into a wry smile.