Suddenly, I was awake. The luminescent dial on the bedside digital clock read 4:44 AM.
Quietly I arose, dressed and padded down the stairs. I found my coat and cap in the darkness, and pulled the collar up around my neck when I stepped outside. The wind was up; I could hear it howling through the tree branches overhead. Quickly I stooped to gather the remnants of the recycling that had blown out of the bin. Standing up, I cast a glance at the sky. There, in the west, a full moon hung behind wisps of grey clouds. It would be two more hours before the early January sunrise.
The car started easily. I checked the side-view mirror and pulled out onto the street. Town trucks had sanded the road some time during the night, anticipating freezing rain; but the air had turned unseasonably warm. I tested the brakes at the stop sign—solidly, with no skidding, they held.
I drove on through the darkness in silence. Leaves blew across the road, dancing momentarily in my headlights. Ten minutes later I pulled into my friend’s driveway, backed the car around, and waited. Shortly, he appeared, overdressed in his winter parka, holding an ancient leather suitcase. He slid into the seat beside me, extending a hand in greeting.
“All set?” I asked.
He nodded; but then, snapping his fingers, he suddenly remembered the outside light. “Oh, well, too late to turn it off now. Left my keys inside. They told me not to take any valuables.”
We pulled out of his driveway, leaving the sentinel garage light burning outside in the darkness.
As we headed toward the city, my friend reviewed some last minute details. He told me that he had paid all the bills up through the middle of the month, where he had left certain things I needed to know about, how to disarm the security alarm if I needed to access the house. Afterwards, we chatted about the price of home heating oil, and then he told me a funny story he had heard on the radio about a hillbilly family that lived so far out in the boondocks, they had to drive to town just to go hunting.
Minutes later I turned into the main driveway and followed the short loop around to the entrance of the hospital.
“Want me to go in with you?” I asked.
“No need to.”
“Well then,” I said, extending my hand, “good luck.”
He chuckled. “Everybody keeps saying that. At this juncture, faced with open-heart surgery, I’m not sure what that means.”
He opened the rear door of the car and extracted his suitcase. I watched him enter the hospital through the huge glass sliding doors like a weary traveler stepping into a public transportation terminal, anxious for his train to depart.
Driving home through what was left of the night, I noticed the sentinel garage light as I passed by his house, still burning in the darkness.