"I was a hero, you know."
I jumped at hearing the old man's raspy voice break through the hushed quiet of the hospital room. Turning back I stared at him in some sort of wonder that he could even still talk, considering the condition he was in.
Hesitantly, I said that I didn't know that about him, my voice a bit louder than usual to make up for his failing hearing.
"Oh yes, quite the hero..." his voice trailed off as his eyes rested on the wall opposite his bed, as though he were focusing on a distant memory.
After he was quiet for a time I thought he was finished, but just as I was turning to leave again he found his voice once more.
"I used to own the whole building. Everything, right down to the nooks and crannies in the boiler room to the flagstone out on the patio lunch area. I owned it all."
"Oh," I said, unable to come up with anything more profound to say than that.
"I knew everyone's name too, even the interns, provided they stayed at least a week. I could hear everything, that was why, so I learned everything about every one of them.
I had to, you see, because nothing could happen in that building without me. They all depended on me for all the most important decisions and even the less important ones. Nothing could happen without me there."
The man seemed to drift back into his silent dreamworld and, again, I waited to see if he was done.
"Are you that important to this business?" he asked, though it took me a moment to realize he was talking to me and not some memory.
"Ah... no, I don't think so sir," I responded as politely as I could while still speaking at a volume he could hear.
"Bah, what good are you then?" he said. I'll admit I was a little taken aback by the insult but Ive been learning that people in his condition were oftentimes mean, and not necessarily because of anything I might have done to offend them.
"I was always the most important person. Nothing could be done in that building without me ," he repeated, as old people will do.
"And I was a hero," he continued, his voice quietly prideful in the afterthought.
"What kind of hero were you?" I asked, partly because I was curious and partly because I felt it was what he wanted to hear.
"The best kind!" he responded with more vigor than I thought he was capable of.
"Saved that whole business from going under. Do you know how many jobs would have been lost if I hadn't been there? How many families would have been ruined?"
I waited for him to continue but the length of silence told me he expected me to answer.
"I... have no idea, sir. How many?"
He harrumphed at me as though frustrated at my inability to read his mind.
"Thousands!" he said, as though that was the only number I should have thought about picking.
"There were thousands of them, all across the country and every one of them with families. If I hadn't been there they all would have been lost!"
"What did you do?" I asked, seated in a folding chair beside him now. He was a rude old man but I was now genuinely interested in the rest of his story.
"My job," came his surly answer. As with his earlier responses, he said it as though I should have already known before asking the question. As annoyed as he seemed though, with my apparent 'slowness', he continued his story like a proud war veteran.
"Everyone thought they were about to lose everything because of one mistake someone from before had made. But not me, I knew the building codes had been recorded wrong and I still had the original ones. I was the only one who thought to keep the original codes and it's a good thing I did! The whole company could have been closed overnight and all those jobs lost if it hadn't been for me."
I have to say that I was rather amazed. I didn't know things like that could happen to big, national companies.
The man started coughing hard and his heart monitor speed up to a frantic beeping. I got up hurriedly to get help but he stopped almost as soon as he had begun and laid back with a tired sigh.
"Do- do you want me to get the doctor?" I asked, not sure if he was still conscious.
"No, no, there's no need for that. I haven't much time left and that whole building is going to shit anyway."
"Why? I thought you saved it?" I asked while cautiously taking my seat again. I kept an eye on the heart monitor, just in case.
"I did! But they've replaced me since then, got some upstart in my place and they don't know what they're doing anymore... those young folks, they don't listen..."
I straightened my back self-consciously. I thought I was a fine listener.
"No, I'm all washed up now. Even heroes eventually die and let me tell you something," he paused and I thought for a moment he might tear up, but the moment passed, "it doesn't matter how many people you saved... when you get this old no one gives a rat's ass."
"I don't think that's true," I said with some sense of defiant hope. "I think it sounds like those people will always be grateful for what you did!"
The man looked at me with some surprise and then rested back into his pillow with an amused chuckle and a sigh.
"Well, what do you know anyway..."
I was going to respond but he closed his eyes, a silent dismissal.
The next morning the man died of a heart attack. His son came to get his body and settle everything at the hospital.
I saw him and felt I had to say something, even if I hadn't known the man very long... I could at least offer my condolences to his son.
"I'm sorry, sir, about your father. I- he told me how he had been a hero and I think he must have been a great man."
The son looked at me with a confused expression on his face.
"Miss, I think you've mistaken me for someone else... my father was just a janitor."