(Fiction) Reprinted in adapted form, with permission from Hektoen International: A Journal of the Humanities, Volume 4, Issue 1 – Spring 2012
By Will Smythe
In the hot Texas summer of my sixty-seventh year, my skin turned a little yella, and I lost some weight.
I didn’t know it right then, but come to find out, it was what would end me.
Doc Butler, who I had been seein’ for about thirty years now, told me to go to the “cancer center” in the city. I didn’t want to go, but hell. He says they don’t take care of nothin’ but cancer there, and that the folks up there know more than he does. Hard to imagine anyone knowin’ more than him, but he’s the doctor.
I had been many things in my life, like most my age, but I guess that I could best be described as a farmer during the last few decades – really not much more than scratchin’ at dirt, and gettin’ it under my fingernails, but a farmer, nonetheless. Some corn, some hay, and one big ol’ peach tree in the back yard.
I grew up in a small town in Texas, and when I say small, I mean small. My granny used to say it “wasn’t no bigger than a cooked pea”. We had a grocery, a post office, a barber and beauty shop combo, a fillin’ station, and no stop lights. When I was a young’n, my daddy was gone a lot – drove a truck. Mama took care of the house, and my little brothers.
Benjy, the youngest, we lost to the whoopin’ cough when he was three. I never thought mama was gonna get over that, she laid in bed for what seemed like a month of Sundays, and just cried and cried. The doctor was thirty miles away during the day, and an hour at night, and his throat just shut off before we could get him to anyone that could help. We shoulda’ takin’ him earlier, but I can remember mama worryin’ that they was gonna cut his neck. Daddy had to go to work afterwards regardless, as jobs was scarce and folks was cheap, and Aunt Elma had to drive in from the city to feed us. She didn’t cook very good as I recall, we was awful glad when mama got up.
I was ten at the time, but death wasn’t a stranger to a farm boy, we lived it day in and day out with the animals – some dyin’ natural, and some endin’ up on the table. We had some cows, and some chickens, and as soon as I was able, I tended to both. I didn’t mind milkin’ the cows so much, sort of enjoyed it, but didn’t take at all to cleanin’ out those damn chicken coops. I used to collect the eggs in the mornin’ before school, and would hold them up and look at them, wonderin’ how somethin’ so perfect and smooth and white could come out of the rear end of somethin’ that didn’t care if it crapped everywhere, and I mean everywhere, except just where it sat on that nest.
The cows, well, they was nice and gentle, and seemed cleaner somehow than the chickens – takin’ care of their business in the pasture. They really didn’t smell bad at all, sort of a mix between milk and hay. It got to where they would walk up as soon as they heard the back door screen slam shut in the mornin’, when it was still way too dark for them to see me come out the house. They would just walk real peaceful right over to the little barn out back. Belle, the oldest, would snort and I could hear her walkin’ up with the others before I could see them too. She used to wear a bell, but it fell off and we didn’t have the money to get a new one from the catalog. It didn’t matter, the others followed her around everwhere anyway.
I did a lot of thinkin’ when I milked in the mornin’, while the inside of the barn turned from pitch black to glowin’ grey and finally light blue as the sun come on up behind me through the big door that was swung open to let one of the cows in one at a time to the milkin’ stall. I wasn’t thinkin’ about what my hands were doin’, or about the “pssst, pssst, pssst” sound of the milk hittin’ the bottom of the aluminum pail, but about other things – about growin’ up and leavin’ to live in the big city, and drivin’ a big fancy car. Every now and then I would daydream about havin’ a family – what my wife would look like, how many kids I would have, and such.
I sat in the doctor’s office by myself. Momma was at home with the grandkids, and I had a bad feelin’ anyway, a bad feelin’ about this visit. I thought it might be better for her not to come. I took out my wallet and slipped out the picture of my boy and girl, both in their forties now. It was my favorite picture of the two of them, and thinkin’ about how I used to daydream when I milked those cows made me want to take it out and see it. Actually, I had come to love not just lookin’ at, but the feel of it too, soft and fuzzy on the back side where the paper was rubbin’ slowly off, and sort of crinkled on the front. I ran my fingers over the surface, over the tiny lines, and their little faces – faded to a light yellow by time. Margaret was five then, and little Ronnie wasn’t quite two yet.
They sure were cute. Folks used to stop us when we would go into the city, momma pushin’ the little fella in a buggy, and me carryin’ Margie in my arms, her little patent-leather shoes bumpin’ into my leg each time I took a step, indicatin’ that she was too tired to walk, and that she had just let go of tryin’ to control anything – anything other than me keepin’ on carryin’ her.
“They’re SO cute,” folks would say, and momma would beam, and I would laugh that little laugh that just seems to bubble up suddenly and come right out of you when somethin’ good happens with the kids. I used to get that same laugh when Ronnie would run in a touchdown when he was playin’ high school ball, or when Margie would sing her solo in the church choir – it would just come out of you, a sort of joy that had to get out somehow.
They were both real tow-headed blondes, almost white-headed as a matter of fact, with bright blue eyes. When they were little and you looked at them for long enough, sometimes it felt that some sort of light was comin’ out of em’ and into you. Momma and I used to lay in bed at night, listenin’ to the crickets and the box fan, and talk about how much we loved them.
“I just wish they could stay little, like they are right now” I would say, and momma would answer, “me too Daddy, but it just doesn’t work that way, we have to enjoy them, and enjoy life while we can.” Momma had always knew what to say it seemed like, remindin’ me of things like that, that enjoyin’ life was important. I figured that was good, cause I often needed remindin’. Workin’ always seemed like plenty of fun itself.
The doorknob jiggled, and a woman in a white coat busted into the room. “Hello, uh…,” she looked down at the papers in her hand like she hadn’t laid eyes on em’ before right then, “…Mr…, uh…, Mr. Jones…, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” I replied, “that’s me.” She only looked at me for a second until she confirmed that I wasn’t some sort of imposter, and then plopped right down in front of a computer. She didn’t sit on that stool very lady-like, I didn’t think. “Your date of birth is seven-fourteen-forty four?”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered, “that’s right, don’t seem as if I am that old, you…”
She interrupted me, “your address is twelve-hundred route sixteen?”
“Yes ma’am,” I answered again. I figured pretty quick that this was gonna be a one-way street, and that she was gonna do all the talkin’. She clicked the computer keys real fast – I wasn’t sure I had seen anyone, except maybe our oldest grandkid, Bobbie, type like that. How the hell could she do it that fast?
“I have an email here from Dr. Butler. He says that his preliminary evaluation, which included laboratory assessment, a CT scan and a biopsy suggest that you have a pancreatic malignancy that has spread to your liver, is that correct?”
She was starin’ at the computer screen. I waited a minute to see if she was gonna’ look over at me or somethin’, but she just kept starin’ at that piece of glass. “If that means I got cancer in my pancreas that’s what Doc Butler said he was afraid of, yes.” I knew what a pancreas was, and where it was. We ate ‘em when I was growin’ up, tryin’ not to waste much when we put one of the milk cows down – mama called ‘em sweetbreads, and daddy thought they was delicious.
“Did the nurse get your vitals?” she asked, again peckin’ on the keys like a rooster about to spur, and lookin’ so hard at the computer screen and leanin’ in so far that her face looked like something out of one of them horror movies I used to watch on the black and white teevee – glowin’ white.
“Come again?” I asked.
She seemed a little put off, “your vitals…, you know, your blood pressure and heart rate, et cetera.”
“Yeah, she checked those right before I came in here, but she was in a big hurry, I didn’t see her write ‘em down or nothin’.”
“I TOLD her to log these in!” she said, and then she got up real fast and started to leave the room.
As she grabbed the doorknob, I got up my courage and asked her, “say ma’am, are you the doctor.”
“No, I’m the assist…”, the last part of the word cut off as the door shut behind her.
I sat there for a minute. I thought I might just bust out laughin’, but this time not the type of laughin’ I was thinkin’ about earlier. This is the type that also just bubbles up out and of you, but does it when you are so nervous and confused that no other response seems right, a sort of laughin’ and head shakin’ from side to side at the same time. The kind of laugh the teacher made when you was a kid, and walked up her desk with your head hangin’ down and told her that the cow had eat your homework. It was a laugh, but it didn’t mean nothin’ was funny.
It got real quiet in the room after she left, and took her airs with her. Without all that machine gun typin’ goin’ on, I had time to stop and think and I realized – I was tired. I got up early every day, around five or so, but had to get up at three this mornin’ to make the three hour drive into the city, and find a parkin’ spot before my eight o’clock appointment. I looked at my watch – it was ten already and I hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the doctor that I was sent to see by Doc Butler, some sort of cancer surgeon. I started wonderin’ whether or not I was gonna see him at all, maybe just these assistants and such? Hell, I didn’t know. I thought it was amazin’ that I had to pay the same just to have my car sit somewhere that I would have paid at the café for me and momma to have an entire lunch, with dessert. Didn’t seem right to have to pay for it to have to just sit there on a piece of concrete between two yellow lines.
I hadn’t been sleepin’ real well besides, and my energy had been sort of low to be honest. Margie was havin’ some trouble with her husband, and it was eatin’ on me pretty good, plus whatever it was that was wrong with me maybe eatin’ on me too. The thought of someone bein’ mean to her, that little tow-headed five year old in that crinkled picture that I carried around in my wallet, was almost more than I could bear, and enough to keep me awake, stewin’. I thought a few times that I would just drive over to their house in the middle of the night with my shotgun, and have a man to man with him, but was scared that I might just up and kill him. Even though I knew Margie would get over it pretty quick, the grandkids wouldn’t, and momma would never forgive me for leavin’ her with the farm whilst they whisked me off to Huntsville. It struck me that I might be leavin’ her with it anyway now, and I felt a little panicked.
That passed. I leaned my head back on the wall, and fell right to sleep.
The door bust open again, startlin’ me awake. I sat up on the edge of the chair, and rubbed my bad eye. I say it was bad because it had been the recipient of a big grasshopper movin’ at thirty miles an hour about three years ago. Actually, I didn’t know exactly how fast it was flyin’, but I was drivin’ the tractor on the farm to market road about thirty miles an hour, as fast as it would go, and he flew right into my eye. I never saw the doctor about it, but he must of scratched somethin’, cause ever since when I wake up it’s slow to open compared to the other side, and rubbin’ it seems to speed it up.
Out of my other eye I saw what must have been the doctor stride in, ahead of three others. He was tall, and looked real young. He had on a coat so white that it almost hurt my one good eye that was lookin’ at it, and it looked starched stiff enough to ward off buckshot from six paces. It was immediately obvious that he, or somebody in his retinue had gotten a little overexcited when they were puttin’ on the cologne that morning, it was a nice smell, but a little too much for my taste.
His shoes were real shiny – I wondered if he knew how to do that, or if someone did it for him. I was starin’ down at his shoes, with both eyes now, when I noticed he was standin’ over me lookin’ down. I stood up and reached out, lookin’ for his hand to shake but he was rubbing them together with something that was green and smelled like liniment. I put my hand back in my pocket and sat back down.
“Hi, Mr…,” I be damned if he didn’t have to look at them papers to know who I was too, but this time he had to reach over and grab it out of one of the other’s hands, “Mr…, Jones?”.
“That’s right,” I replied. The other two folks, also in white coats, but shorter ones, moved back to the back wall of the little room we was in. They was starin’ at me like I was a new calf comin’ out breach that they didn’t know what to do with. The doctor sat down on the same stool as the lady before him, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t start clickin’ away at the keys too, just like the “assist…” had done. Thinkin’ about callin’ her the “assist…” was funny to me, I knew full well it was “assistant”, but hell, she hadn’t felt the need to get the entire word out before she waltzed out of here, had she?
“So,” the doctor said cheerfully, like he was the clerk at Macy’s or somethin’, “how are you feeling.” He was lookin’ at the computer, just like the “assist…”, and not at me. I figured he knew how the other two folks were, as he come in with ‘em, and that he was askin’ me, but I wasn’t sure.
“Alright,” I said.
“Good, good…,” he replied, readin’ the computer, and squintin’ a little. He shifted on his stool and I could hear that starched coat folding on itself. “So…,” and he tailed off, clicking away like a madman at them keys, and squintin’ even harder at the screen. I cleared my throat sort of loud to get his attention – I wanted to know what the hell came after “so”. “I’m sorry,” he said, “we have a new computer system, very expensive, and a little confusing, you know?” I didn’t know, but he was the doctor.
I looked over at the two in the back of the room. One of them had taken out her phone and was “thumbin” it like my grandson Bobbie seemed to be doin’ about three quarters of the time, and laughing under her breath, and the other one looked like he was sleepin’ standin’ up. I didn’t think a man could do that until I went to Viet Nam. You can sleep standin’ up alright, and you can do it holdin’ a gun, and in four and a half feet of water if your life depends on it – I knew firsthand.
“Doctor Butler your referring?” he asked me, still squinting at the screen.
“You mean my doctor?” I asked.
“Yes, yes,” he said, and whipped out about twenty more keystrokes, the last one with his right hand, lifting it up and snapping it down like a conductor stoppin’ the orchestra with his baton at the end of a piece of fancy music. He looked over at me for the first time in several minutes, smiling like he had done something important, and clever.
“You have pancreatic adenocarcinoma,” he said, and looked over at the two in the back of the room like he was about to ask ‘em somethin’. The fella on the left was still sleepin’, and the girl looked up from her phone. He then went on, “Ms. Valdez,” can you tell me anything about the presentation of pancreatic adenocarcinoma, say, one located in the head of the pancreas, near the common bile duct?” I had no idea what any of those words meant. I understood pancreatic must have to do with my pancreas, and that that word ending in “oma” might have meant cancer, if he wasn’t talkin’ about someone’s German granny, but the rest sounded mostly like mama’s goulash.
“Yes,” she replied, “elderly, thin, painless jaundice, perhaps Courvoisier’s sign.”
I was old and a little skinny, but I didn’t speak no French… and what the hell are them John dice she’s talkin’ about?
“Abraham?” the doctor said to the other one.
“Yes?” he replied, startled awake all the sudden, “what?”
I was thinkin’ that these two were students of some sort, and I decided right there that the fella that was sleepin’ had some work to do to make a doctor. He didn’t look worried enough to me that he had no idea what his boss was askin’. I hoped that he was just tired from workin’ too hard, and that it wasn’t that he was just short of grain in his silo. I took careful notice, though, that his hair was slicked back real careful and pretty, and thought twice about him actually bein’ tired from workin’.
The doctor looked back at me, “do you understand what this all means, Mr. Jones?” His voice sounded a little bit like the fella that read the news on the radio – real sure of hisself, but like he was readin’ somethin’ that he didn’t have no real connection to.
“Well,” I said, “it ain’t good, right?”
He looked back at the computer, and started typing again. I noticed that both of the students was thumbin’ on their phones now, not payin’ any attention what-so-ever – it seemed like they should. “That’s right,” he said, “nothing that we can do for you surgically, with metastatic disease. You could consider chemotherapy, with some investigational agents…, I’m looking up some biologic agent clinical trials now…, yes, there is a monoclonal antibody trial up in Boston, you should consider that. I have to admit that the biologic underpinnings are sound.” He was smiling like he had figured something out again. I had no damn idea what he was talkin’ about, except the part about havin’ no surgery.
“So let me get this straight, doctor,” I said, trying not to sound too worked up, “there ain’t no surgery option, but there might be some medicine I can take to make this go away?” Both of the students stopped thumbin’ at the same time, like they was on cue, and looked at me, a little anxious. “Well…,” he said, “there are other options, like the trial in Boston.” “Boston Massachusetts?” I asked, “what’s the chance that this “anti-body” medicine there will work?”
“Hard to say, clinical trial,” he answered.
I had no idea what a clinical trial was, but it sounded like an experiment of some sort, and this doctor wasn’t sounding too optimistic. Also seemed to me like it shoulda’ been “anti-cancer”, instead of “anti-body”, but I let that go.
“Listen, doctor,” I said, “I’m not a stupid man. I know a lot about animal husbandry, and fair bit about farmin’ – how to plant, fertilize, grow and harvest crops, and how to take a tractor engine apart, fix it and put it together. That all being said, I don’t know nothin’ about doctorin’. Now, what’s the chance I can beat this thing?”
He kept looking at the computer screen, but took his hands off of the keyboard, and put them in those stiff white pockets of his lab coat. “Hard to say,” he replied. I waited for the next shoe to drop, but it didn’t even come off the foot.
I decided to press my bet. “Okay, is it better than five in ten?”
“No,” he replied.
“Okay then, how’s about two in ten?”
“Probably not,” he replied again, glancing over his shoulder, lookin’ for some sign of agreement from his students, both of which was still thumbin’ around on their phones, and still not payin’ us no mind. I sat there and looked at him for a long moment, not knowin’ what I was supposed to ask now, of if we were done.
He finally looked over at me. “Do you have any other questions?” he asked, not really lookin’ any which way – not happy or sad, just like he was done.
“No sir,” I replied, “I think I get the picture, I get it just fine. What you’re tellin’ me here is that I drank downstream from the herd.” I could tell that I had turned the table on him by the confused expression on his face, he had no idea whatsoever what I meant for a change.
He got up, and put some more of that green stuff on his hands out of an electric spigot of some sort, and rubbed them together again. “Thanks for coming in, Mr…”
“Jones,” I said, “Jones.” He and the students left the room, the smell of that damn cologne still hangin’ in the air like fog on the riverbank in the mornin’. I kept sittin’ there for a minute or two, and figured since no one had said nothin’ otherwise, that I could leave. I started walkin’ down the hall to the exit door, when a nurse came and grabbed me by the arm.
“Mr. Jones,” she laughed, “you can’t leave yet, you have a co-pay that you have to take care of.”
It struck me strange when I left the desk and headed toward the parkin’ garage that it would be called co-any-goddamn-thing. Where the hell was the ‘co-‘ they was referrin’ to? Seemed like I was the only one payin’.
The back screen slammed shut as I closed the wooden door behind me back at the house. “Hi Papa,” Momma called from the kitchen. I could both smell and hear salt pork gettin’ browned in the skillet.
“Little ones gone?” I asked, a little disappointed.
“Yes, Margie came and got ‘em early,” she yelled over the sizzle.
“How’s she doin’ with that no account man of hers?” I asked.
“One day at a time, Papa, one day at a time.”
I changed into my work boots in the bedroom, and went over to the kitchen and kissed Momma on the cheek. She smiled, but was focused on dinner. She was a serious cook – not fancy, but serious. I once heard my daddy tell my mama that she was “only good at cookin’ staples”, and she run out of the room cryin’. I made it a point to only say good things about what Momma fed me, it beat the hell outta K-rations.
I looked over my shoulder as I left her there and walked out the back door again. She was a beautiful woman, I always liked it when her cheeks turned red, like now when she was cookin’ over a hot stove, or other times when she laughed a little too hard about somethin’ we both thought was funny. When she was younger, her cheeks would look like that when we got frisky – she was tow-headed too, you see, and light complected. We had been together now for fifty years. It pained me powerful when I thought about havin’ to tell her the bad news, but knew I had a little time. Not tonight.
I walked through the back yard, ducked under the clothesline, which I had just re-twined earlier in the week, and stopped at the big peach tree over in the corner. No tellin’ how old it was, I had never seen one bigger. I had even drove around in the truck lookin’ for one as big, but as best I could tell, it was in fact the biggest in the county, maybe the state. It marked off the imaginary dividin’ line between the back yard, and where the cornfields started. There were only about handful of peaches left on, and one that looked ready for pickin’, just where I could reach it. Standin’ this close to a peach tree at this time of year is like bein’ baked right into a pie – it was the combination of the heat, and the smell. There are some on the ground that are in various stages of sweet rottin’, and those on the tree that are gettin’ ripe, fragrant and juicy.
I reached up on my tip-toes and plucked off the one that I had spotted, and kept walking south, out of the yard and into the fields. I stood a few rows in, and looked over the stalks of corn, and at the setting sun to my left.
The sky in Texas at times in the summer takes on an unbelievable pinkish orange color, reflectin’ off of the bottoms of clouds, standin’ out against the late afternoon cornflower light blue sky. Tonight the clouds looked like great big angel’s wings, turned upside down. I could smell the warm musky black earth that made this part of the world such good farmin’ country beneath my feet, and the clean green grass smell of the corn plants. The evenin’ heat felt real good on the back of my neck after all that time in the air conditionin’ at the hospital.
Goddamn it, I love this place, I thought to myself. I took a bite of the peach. It was perfect – sweet and tart and crunchy. I wiped the juice off of my chin with the back of my sleeve, and cried. I just stood there and cried until I couldn’t see the clouds any longer, and the moon rose just above the horizon in the darkened sky, a brilliant thin white sliver of an “eights” moon, as my granddaddy used to call it.
That night, momma and I laid in bed, and she turned over on her back kinda quick – like when she was getting’ ready to talk about somethin’. “Papa, what did the doctor tell you anyway?” she asked, with just a touch of worry in her voice. I cleared my throat, and tried to sound like I wasn’t bothered by any of it, “he has to run some more tests, won’t know for a while, but he didn’t seem worried,” I replied, “you know, them doctors look good, but they don’t know much.”
She laughed, “yeah but its good to have ‘em when you need ‘em.”
“I guess,” I replied, “you know, it was funny today. I think I got through the whole damn visit at that fancy cancer center without anyone touchin’ me except the nurse that took my blood pressure.”
“Really?” she asked.
“Yeah,” and there was two students in the room with the doctor that acted like I wasn’t even there. Neither one said nothin’ to me – not hi, bye, or kiss my ass for that matter, and all three of ‘em walked around like they had oil wells in the back yard.”
“Too bad,” momma replied, yawning, “you oughta get some sleep now papa.”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I know.
Say momma, do you remember when we used to lie in bed and wish our two little ones would never grow up, you know, stay little?” “Sure,” she replied, “I always thought that you meant it, too.”
“I did,” I replied, “I did, but I guess that life just goes on, don’t it.”
“It sure does honey,” she said, “it’s the natural cycle of things, like the crops out back – we live, we grow, we bloom, and we die. I guess we hope that we get some love in, and leave something behind us that someone can remember us by. I don’t know, really.” She turned all the way over and snuggled up tight next to me.
“Momma,” I asked, “when its my time, will you bury me under that big old peach tree out back, and angle me so that I can see the sun set in the afternoon every day?
“Yes papa,” she replied, and fell asleep in my arms.