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The Choice by Richard Seltzer

(from Saint Smith and Other Stories)

            He was in a long winding corridor of a hospital-like building.  The man beside him, who was acting as his guide, kept referring to him as "my lord".  That felt good and comforting.  But there was something about this place that reminded him of a nightmare.

            "It must be a recurring nightmare," he explained to his guide, "because I remember it so vividly.  It was so real -- the blazing heat, the smell of fresh sweat layered on weeks of unwashed filth, the pain so sharp, like nails pounded through flesh."

            "And that reminded you of here, my lord?"

            "In my dream, I was given a choice.  I could be born into that world where life was brutal and short, where I would die in nail-sharp pain.  Or I could live in another age and another place."

            "Well it's hard to imagine a time and place better than this, my lord.  Here life is sweet.  There are billions of people in the world and many find a vocation that suits their talents and their interests -- work that they can take pride in.  And through their combined efforts, all benefit from an abundance of goods and pleasures."

            "My memory must be failing me.  What you say rings true, but it sounds new to me.  I feel disoriented.  I feel uncertain of things I should know as well as my name.  This world feels less real to me than that other one I dreamt of.  In that world most people died by 40 of accident or war or disease.  But I've forgotten -- what is the average life span here and now?"

            "Over eighty, my lord.  Healthcare has eliminated many diseases that used to be fatal.  And our world is far safer and more peaceful than that other horrid place and time you dreamt of."

            "And forgive me for asking -- it must be the aftermath of that dream, the shock, the pain in my feet and hands: this real world around us pales in contrast -- what  do people do with that life time?  How do they spend their golden years?"

            "It's interesting that you should ask that, my lord, in this very place."

            "What is this place?"

            "It's a home for the elderly, my lord."

            "A special home for them?  They don't live in their own homes or with their families?"

            "Here they get special care, my lord.  Their meals are made for them, and all the tedious chores of life are taken care of for them. They benefit from controlled diet and exercise and the very best geriatric healthcare -- to extend their lives even more.  And trained staff are ready to take care of any contingency twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week."

            "But what do they do for themselves?  What do they do with their time?"

            "They watch television.  They play bingo and scrabble and double solitaire.  Some read."

            "I imagine with their advanced age, their bodies must be frail.  They must be limited in what they can do."

            "Indeed, my lord.  many are confined to wheel chairs."

            "Like this one?"

            "Indeed, my lord."

            "It's so nice of you to take me for a stroll like this while I recover from the pain in my feet and hands, the aftermath of that terrible dream.  And you are so kind and patient to explain all this to me -- what I should know as well as my name."

            "It's no problem at all, my lord.  It's always a delight to talk with you."

            "And these people, these elderly in this happy happy world we live in, while their bodies may be weak and their activities limited, they have their memories to enjoy over and over again, right?  That's the reward of a long virtuous life -- to remember all the good times and the good friends -- am I right?"

            "Yes, my lord, more or less."

            "And where does this long winding corridor end?"

            "What, my lord?"

            "That door we're headed to -- all the others we've come to have been double doors that swung open as we approached.  But that one is a single door with a handle.  And as we get closer now, I see there's a keypad next to it, like a telephone keypad.  Yes, my memory is getting clearer now.  I remember telephones, now, with touchtone keypads."

            "Excellent, my lord, you'll be back to yourself in no time."

            "But what's beyond that door?  I don't remember."

            "Don't trouble yourself about that, my lord.  No need to trouble yourself about anything.  We'll be in there in a moment.  I just need to enter the code."

            "The code?  You mean that's some kind of a lock?"

            "Exactly, my lord.  You are your old self again."

            "Then this is..."

            "The Alzheimer's Wing, my lord."

            "And I live here?"

            "Yes, my lord."

            "And I have no memory?"

            "It comes and goes, my lord.  On a good day, you can remember my name, and your own, as well, my lord."

            "But this is a mistake, a terrible mistake.  I fell and hurt my feet and hands.  I'm in rehab until they get better and I can get out this wheelchair and go home to... to ... Where did you say I live?"

            "You live here, my lord."

            "But this is a mistake.  I didn't choose this life."

            "None of us does, my lord.  None of us has a choice."

            "But I did.  I did have a choice.  I was special.  I was chosen.  I was the son of God."

            "We are all God's children, my lord."

            "But it was real.  The sun was blazing.  I was coughing with dust in my throat.  I would have done anything for a taste of water.  Then I was lying on my back on the ground.  My arms and legs were tied to boards.  They drove nails through my hands and feet.  And when they raised the cross and planted it in the ground, my weight pulled me down, tearing my flesh against the nails.  The pain.  The pain.  And I begged for water.  The thirst was almost worse than the nails."

            "Here's some nice cold apple juice, my lord.  That should make you feel much better."

            "But there's been a mistake.  Take me back!  Take me back!  Nail me to the cross!  Please, God, nail me to the cross instead!"  privacy statement