A Tangled Web

In a drone, Doctor Weller assured Jim that a great number of his patients had benefited from Prozac. The doctor’s small brown eyes sank deeper into his square head as he preached, appearing to pull back from Jim, checked-out already. Even his smile looked dismissive. Jim leaned across the dark cherry desk, accepting the prescription like it was a snotty tissue. He struggled up from the leather chair, a bitter taste flooding his mouth. He was still reeling from the shock. His tests had all come back negative. They hadn’t found a single thing wrong. Doctor Weller had as much as told him his pain and exhaustion, his misery, were all in his head, that he’d gotten inert and maudlin in his old age.

If he’d told Jim he was terminal it wouldn’t have hurt nearly as much.

Jim arrived home, the house so quiet the fridge’s whirr carried up the hall. Peg must have gone shopping. He entered the kitchen, surprised to find his wife home after all. She sat hunched over the breakfast table, absorbed in some glossy magazine. He moved to the coffee-maker. Did she want coffee?

Peg lifted her head. "How did you get on?"

She asked more out of duty than any real concern, he knew. She, too, accused him of being too stuck in the house and in his head, of not getting out and doing.

He whirled around, gripping the edge of the granite counter with both hands. "It’s not good."

"What?" she asked, her voice catching.

"It’s cancer … terminal cancer."

Her hand flew to her heart. She rushed him with questions.

His mind raced, drumming-up answers. She wanted to phone this new doctor, whoever he was. He told her to let things sit for a while, it still all raw. Lung cancer, too far gone, a matter of months.

She insisted they phone the children. His heart quickened, sweat popping from his pores. He felt sickly. She ordered him to bed. He nodded, dazed. She led him upstairs like a child, sat him on the bed, removed his shoes, peeled off his damp socks. He watched her shoulder blades rise and fall as she bent over his feet, their points threatening to cut through her skin.

They were both shrinking and thinning, fading with each passing day.

 

Someone touched Jim’s shoulder, starling him awake. His eyes cleared. He’d slept for several hours, Peg told him, the girls waiting downstairs. He rolled onto his back, groaning. He’d asked her not to say anything, hadn’t he? Of course she’d had to tell the children right away, she reasoned.

"I can’t even die on my own terms?" he snapped.

She drew back, looking wounded.

"I’m sorry," he said.

After several minutes, he followed Peg downstairs. The women’s necks snapped-around when he entered the kitchen, their eyes red-rimmed, make-up tear-stained.

Shauna hugged him first, then Catherine.

He pulled from their embrace, clearing his throat. "More coffee?"

"Sit down," Catherine said. "I’ll make a fresh pot."

While the coffee percolated, his daughters sat either side of him, squeezing his hands.

Shauna assured him that her Bobby had close ties to a top oncologist in the city. They’d get a second opinion.

Despite his guilt, Jim couldn’t help enjoying the fuss. He hadn’t felt this attention, this visibility, in a very long time.

Catherine, ever practical, steered the conversation to his personal affairs, asked if he’d a living will in place?

Peg looked stricken.

"I’ll get to all that in time," Jim croaked.

Shauna moved behind him, placed her hands on his shoulders. "Of course you don’t have to be bothered with all that yet."

Catherine looked chastened.

Jim rehearsed his confession. He needed to end this now. It’d gone far too far.

The telephone rang, Jack on the line.

Catherine muttered into the phone, breaking the news to her brother. After a brief exchange, she hung up. Jim waited, but Catherine wouldn’t make eye contact, didn’t share whatever Jack had said. He swallowed. The boy couldn’t ignore this, could he? The prodigal son would have to come home now, wouldn’t he?

Peg invited the girls to stay for dinner.

"I think I’ll head home," Catherine said. "Let this sink in."

Shauna nodded. "Yeah, I think I’ll do the same."

Jim put his face in his hands.

Shauna touched his arm. "Unless you’d like us to stay, Dad?"

He shook his head.

The doorbell rang. What now? Jim thought.

A man’s voice sounded in the hallway. Jack?

Peg reentered the kitchen, Bobby following.

Jim slouched with disappointment.

Shauna hugged Bobby for too long.

"Baby," Bobby said, anguished, his thin mouth hidden in her hair.

Jim winched. There was never that sort of public affection in his day.

Bobby rushed at him, his hand outstretched.

"I don’t know what to say, Sir."

Jim shook his son-in-law’s girlish hand, his eyes averted.

Shauna tugged on Bobby’s arm. "We’ll go. He’s had enough for one day."

Bobby promised to have his oncologist friend contact Jim’s doctor. Jim dismissed the offer. They pressed him.

He banged his fist on the table. "Can’t you leave me be?"

"I’m dying," he continued. "There’s nothing more to be done."

He hurried from the room, out the front door.

 

The pharmacist filled Jim’s prescription, coached him on how to take the medication, speaking as if Jim were a retarded child. Jim plodded back to the car, heartsick. He willed the day to start over, to undo his lie. What had possessed him to do such a terrible thing?

Agitated, he drove faster than normal, wondering where to go.

He ended-up in Golden Gate Park, meandering as far as Stow Lake, the vial of green pills pushed inside his jacket pocket. He sat down on the first bench he came to, a young mother perched on the opposite end, watching her toddler feed the ducks. The woman– Asian, stick-thin, her straight black hair swept high in a bun—didn’t acknowledge him.

He and Jack had come up here on Sunday mornings, when Jack was five or so. They raced their remote-control boats on the water, devoured ice-cream topped with chocolate syrup afterwards. That was back before he got his first promotion, when he didn’t have to travel so much.

The mother called to her son, warning him not to get too close to the water.

Jim looked at her askance, his lips pursed.

"I just learned I’m dying," he said.

She didn’t really react, just hitched her shoulders, as if to cover her tiny ears. Yet he felt sure she’d understood him. Moments passed. She stood up, lifted the boy into her bony arms, carrying him off. He complained, kicking his shorts legs against her impossibly small thighs. The plastic bag fell from his grubby hands. A storm of pigeons dived on the breadcrumbs.

As the birds attacked the bread, bullied each other, Jim remained paralyzed on the park bench, seeing without watching joggers, cyclists, teenagers, dog-walkers, mothers and strollers. No one looked back at him, sat down next to him. He removed the Prozac from his pocket, opened the brown-tinted vial. The first pill tasted bitter. The second also awful. The third sickening.

Moving again, Jim passed several more park benches before deciding to sit next to the pretty girl reading a book. They exchanged hellos. Encouraged, he asked about her book.

"The Five People You Meet in Heaven," she said. "It’s good."

He laughed bitterly.

"I’m dying," he said.

Her eyes widened and jaw dropped. "I’m so sorry."

"May I share some regrets?" he asked.

"Please, of course."

"If I could do it all over I’d talk to people more, listen more. I’d really try to get to know people, especially my parents and siblings, my wife and daughters … my son." He laughed. "Also old people on park benches."

He continued. "It’s terrible to reach this point in my life only to realize that I never knew my own parents, what they were really like, you know? I’ve no idea what they liked, what they wanted, what really mattered to them? And I don’t know my own children all that much, either." He floundered, overwhelmed by astonishment.

The girl couldn’t hold his gaze, but seemed compelled to respond. When she spoke her voice sounded watery.

"I’ve heard about that–the wisdom that comes to the dying…" she stopped.

His pain bled into his body, spasming his limbs, twisting his face.

"I’m sorry. I just lied to you. I don’t know why. I’m not dying. I just made it up, gave the same bull to my wife and kids this morning, told them I’d only weeks left."

Aghast, she hurried off.

"Wait, please!"

Her pace quickened.

 

Jim eased his front door closed. He’d heard the shouting all the way out at the front gate, Peg and Jack arguing.

"I don’t know what more you want from me," Jack said. "I’m here, aren’t I?"

"For Christ’s sake, Jack, he’s dying," Peg said.

"So I’m supposed to just forgive him? Forget everything because of that? He’s dying, not me, I can’t make it all go away just because he is."

Peg slapped something, the table or one of the cabinets. "How can you be so selfish? What’s the matter with you anyway? Your father and I did everything for you, everything! How can you say we didn’t do our best by you?"

"You might have done your best, Mom, but Dad? Dad abandoned us for some fat salary, always off everywhere, never home."

"Oh, Jack," Peg said, muffled. "He did all that for us!"

"I’m sorry, Mom. I can’t do it. I can’t lie. Dad’s never been there for me. I’ve missed him my whole life. His dying’s not going to change that."

Jack pulled the kitchen door open, too sudden for Jim to hide. Father and son faced each other, both breathing hard.

Jack strode up the hall, passing Jim as if he wasn’t even there. He looked so handsome in his hard, rugged way, his pock-marked face saved by startlingly green eyes. Jim watched his son leave, his insides keening. I hate that this is the way it is with us. He truly had no idea how they’d gotten to this point.

As much as he wanted to go after his one and only son, he couldn’t bring himself to follow him. How can a father not know how to talk to his own son? How was it easier for him to reach out to strangers on park benches? Look, look here, see me? I’m hurting and bleeding and dying inside.

There was so much he wanted to say to Jack. What was stopping him? The same thing that had stopped him talking to old people when he was young, he realized. That had prevented him from talking to every disabled, crazy, homeless or mentally handicapped person he’d ever encountered: embarrassment and fear. He simply didn’t know what to say, where to begin.

He stood alone with himself in the hall for what felt like a very long time, teetering.

Peg hadn’t seemed to realize he’d come home. Eventually, he crept upstairs.

Minutes later, Peg entered their bedroom, gasping when she saw him sitting on the bed. She recovered, tried to hide her tears. He stroked her face, her hair. She melted into him. He kissed her forehead, her cheeks and lips—soft, hesitant brushes that grew firmer, more urgent. His hands trembling, he reached for the buttons on her blouse.

She pulled back, searching his face. "Is this okay?"

He nodded, his throat filling. His thick, arthritic fingers couldn’t manage the small buttons, and she took over. He tugged on her bra, unclasping the hooks. She faced him, her arms covering her breasts.

"Please," he said.

She dropped her arms to her sides, her limbs twitching like wings.

"Not bad for an old broad," he said.

They laughed.

She sank down next to him on the bed again. They kissed some more. He lifted her long thin breasts, his thumbs rubbing her nipples. Why had they ever stopped making love?

His hand moved up inside her skirt.

"I’m sorry," she said, "I don’t know if I can."

He smiled sadly. "Neither do I."

Her dentures snagged her lower lip.

He eased her thighs apart.

"Wait, please," she said.

She stood up, ordering him to close his eyes. Her clothes swished and incontinence pad crinkled, releasing the scent of talcum powder. The floorboards groaned, bedcovers cracked.

"Okay."

She lay beneath the blankets, her eyes bright in her heart-shaped face, her long white-white hair fanning the pillow.

He asked her to close her eyes, too, and undressed.

They held each other, making love with all the excitement and terror of that first time.

 

After, Peg cried into his chest. He hugged her, shushing. His heart fluttered and stomach churned, grasping at how to begin? Look at where they’d gotten to via a lie, he reassured himself. Surely the truth could only take them to an even better place?

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