Tuesday

THE PROGNOSIS

I’m supposed to be dead going on two years now. On my last visit to the clinic, the physician’s assistant told me to get my things in order. I was tempted to say, Based on what facts, but as soon as she stepped out of the office I got on the scale and for the first time since my sophomore year in high school, when I topped out at six feet two, I was under one hundred thirty pounds. And, of course, all day long there was that unmistakable taste of blood at the back of my throat.
I was living at the time in this little studio apartment over a travel agency in downtown Cave Creek. I spent the afternoon just laying in bed, picking my acoustic, watching Oprah, and drinking Bud after Bud because it was the only thing that seemed to keep my throat from hurting so bad – I don’t know if it was just because it was cold and wet or maybe the alcohol was working like some kind of slow-drip tranquilizer, just enough booze to ease my nerves, not so much to make me sick to my stomach – when who should stick her head in the door but my third wife, Theresa. Scared the shit out of me because at first I thought she was one of those ghosts you’re supposed to start seeing a day or two before you die.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” I said.
I know you’re not supposed to think the worst of people, but I was sure she’d come sniffing around hoping somehow to get her hands on the more than three hundred Ks that had built up in my T-bill fund. Her explanation was she’d come to stay with me these final couple of weeks to help ease me over to the other side.
But after just two weekends and the week sandwiched in between, she couldn’t take it any longer, what with me coughing up blood and going to the bathroom in a bedpan. So bright and early on a Monday morning she up and left, just as she had once before. I guess as much as Theresa loves money, another couple of weeks of sitting around with me just wasn’t worth it.
Anyway, when Lily, the only child of my four marriages, called and found out I was all alone again, she said she’d catch the first plane out. I thought, what the hell’s she being so nice for? I hardly know the girl. Sometime just after eight – I’d already fallen asleep – there was a knock on the door and there she was.
Lily looked around, got the lay of the land, and next morning before I got my bearings, I was woken up by the sound of walkie-talkies in the parking lot downstairs. I dragged myself over to the window, and there was an ambulance with a couple of EMTs hauling a stretcher out the back.
Lily explained she didn’t like the way I looked – I felt like saying, Well, what the fuck do you expect, I’m in the end stages of throat cancer – and that she was checking me into the big state-of-the-art Mayo down off Tatum. Frankly, I didn’t care what they were doing with me. As long as there was a TV, I’d just as soon lie around in one bed as another.
Well, they hooked me up to an IV, and that afternoon a team of doctors was pouring over me, taking blood, MRIs, looking me up and down like an old woman buying a chicken in a supermarket. Knowing what these big time hospitals and docs cost, all I could think of is, it wouldn’t be long before my three hundred K was gone and I was owing them money. Then I thought, what do I give a shit, the physician’s assistant at the clinic said I probably wouldn’t last another six weeks. I began to like the idea of sticking Mayo with a great big unpaid bill.
Lily must have sensed what was on my mind, because when we had a few moments alone she explained her grandfather was paying for everything. That was a shocker, since about thirty years ago the guy paid me seventy-five grand to get out of his Arizona house, split with his daughter, my first wife, and stay away from our kid – Lily. “What the hell’s he doing that for?” I said.
“What do you think, dummy. Guilt.”
Anyway, all week long they kept on poking and prodding me and marching in specialists and then Lily came in with this nice-looking lady doctor who was from China or Thailand or something and they explained that they wanted to put me on this experimental drug that could possibly prolong my life another couple of months.
Well, I said, no thanks, that with having lost my job singing at Joe Steak – with my throat hurting the way it was, I couldn’t sing much anymore anyway – I really didn’t have anything to do all day except watch TV and so I didn’t really mind dying all that much. I didn’t tell ‘em the biggest reason I wanted to get it over with: the goddamned Marlboros hurt my throat to the point that I couldn’t even smoke anymore and so most of the time I was jumping out of my skin.
Lily said, “You’re only sixty-two years old, for Christ sake.”
“Well, I never thought I’d make it to sixty. So you could say everything else is on the house.”
“I want you to do it for me, Daddy. If not for yourself, then for me.”
Up to that point, I don’t think I’d ever been called Daddy more than half a dozen times, and that was during sex with chicks who hadn’t worked out all their father issues. I waited a few seconds, as if I were giving the matter great consideration, and then I said, “Okay, give me the goddamn paper.” And I signed the consent form.
First thing next morning the Chinese doctor was back and they started me on this stuff called something like dihydropentahethanol, a thick purple liquid that tasted just like Robitussin times a thousand. They said there was a chance it’d make me nauseous, extremely nauseous, but over the next few weeks I took it every morning, and it really didn’t bother me all that much.
Every other day the Chinese doctor and her gang came in and looked me over. They seemed to spend most of their time in the back of my throat. Once, when they were poking around back there, I pictured a cartoon drawing of a mouth with a whole bunch of feet and legs and rear ends sticking out of it, and I started to laugh. The Chinese doctor asked me what was so funny, but when I saw how serious she was looking at me through her rimless glasses, I just said, “Nothing.”
A month went by. I gained eight pounds. I was able to get up and walk to the bathroom by myself, although you don’t want to know what came out when I did. Lily came and visited me for at least an hour every single day. She seemed so excited and happy when I told her my throat didn’t hurt quite as much that it scared me. Women, I thought. Taking genuine pleasure in the happiness of others. More than a different sex, a different species altogether.
After six weeks, right about the time I was supposed to be dying, my appetite came back – with a vengeance. Without realizing it, I’d started listening for the meal cart coming down the hall, kind of like a dog getting all frisky and excited when he senses he’s about to be fed.
The next morning, they weighed me and I was up near one fifty, and that night while she sat with me at dinner, Lily mentioned they were going to release me the next day.
In the morning, an orderly pushed me to the door of the hospital in a wheel chair, then Lily took over and pushed me out to her car. It was mid-September and the sky was blue and the humidity had broken and I remembered that I hadn’t been outside once since July. And I thought, you know, it ain’t half bad to be alive.
We drove up Scottsdale Road, and then when we got to Cave Creek Road, Lily turned right instead of left toward my place. “Where we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see.”
“Oh, shit.” I had an inkling, and sure enough we made a left into this big fancy gated golfing community called Desert Vistas. It had been built up a whole lot since I was last here thirty years ago, and the golf course we passed on the right side of Desert Vistas Turnpike hadn’t been anything but desert, but I knew we were going to make a left into Eagles Nest Village, then a right as soon as we got through the gate.
We pulled into the driveway at the far end of a cul de sac, and there it was, a little more weather-beaten perhaps, but all in all pretty much as I’d remembered it. I took Lily’s arm and she helped me up the walk, which was damn steep, and before I knew it I was huffing and puffing and it brought back in an instant how sick I was, how close to death I’d been.
While Lily was fishing in her handbag for her keys, I flashed back to the first time Lily’s mom Rachel and I spent the weekend here. I think we fucked eleven times in three days.
Lily pushed the door open and waited, like a man holding a door for a lady, while I hobbled in. I almost had a heart attack. Sitting in a wheelchair, not ten feet in front of me, his shock of white hair sticking in all directions like Einstein, was a very old man. He tried to smile, but on account of a stroke or something, his mouth twisted into this strange jagged line, making him look a lot more like he was in some kind of terrible pain than happy to see me. I smiled back, trying to make it look like I didn’t know who it was. But it was my ex father-in-law, alright. I’d recognize him anywhere.
“Say hello to Skipper, Grandpa.”
Out came this strange, agonized bleat, like from a sheep or a pig.
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. For some reason I had always felt weak and clumsy and undereducated around Miles, and I was determined not to let myself slide back into that kind of relationship again. Even though he was wasting away in a wheelchair, he had a certain power about him. Then there was the fact that since I’d seen him last he’d lost his wife, his only son had come out of the closet, and, finally, and saddest of all, he’d lost his daughter, my first wife. I knew I was supposed to hate him on account of his taking my wife and kid from me, but to tell you the truth, I’ve never been much of a hater. So I did what I’ve always done when I’ve been unsure of myself: I thought, how would Willie Nelson handle this? I simply nodded at the old man and said, “Howdy, Miles.”
He nodded back and said something that I imagined was also supposed to be Howdy.
“Grandpa’s been suffering from Parkinson’s for about ten years or so.”
“Sorry to hear that, sir,” I said, cursing myself for saying sir.
“You two boys hungry?” asked Lily. It’s funny how when people come out to Arizona it doesn’t take long before they’re speaking with a bit of a cowboy twang.
She pushed Miles into the kitchen, and I followed behind. It surprised me how familiar the house still seemed, so many years after I’d been banished from it.
Lily had set out a wonderful lunch of smoked salmon and bagels, salad and fruit. I cut my food up real small so it wouldn’t hurt when I swallowed, and she did the same thing for Miles, feeding him like he was a baby. She chattered away as we ate, filling the silence of the kitchen by catching Miles and me up on each other’s lives. Grandpa just turned eighty-five on Tuesday. Dad’s tumor has shrunk by almost 70%. Grandpa began to develop Parkinson’s symptoms within months of Mom passing – I think there’s a connection. Daddy had three albums released back in the early nineties, and one of them sold over a hundred thousand copies.
When we were finished eating, Lily put the kettle on to boil. “Okay, Grandpa,” she said, “Nap time.” She wheeled Miles over to me and he put out his hand. I shook it, and before I could let go he pulled me to him. I leaned down, and we gave each other a stiff little hug. He mumbled something that sounded like “Sorry, Skipper,” but maybe it was just wishful hearing on my part.
Lily was gone for what seemed like a long time. The kettle started to whistle, and I nosed around and found cups and teabags right where they used to be all those years ago. We sipped our tea and I thanked her for tracking me down and bringing me to Mayo.
“No big deal,” she said, “I decided I was going to move out here to take care of Grandpa anyway. Figured I might as well kill two birds with one stone.” Sitting there listening to her, I could see her mother in both her features and her funny, direct way of talking. Not to brag, but you could see some of me there, too – she was a lot prettier than her mom.
We had a second cup of tea, and then I said, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hitch a ride back to my place now. Getting a little sleepy myself.”
She laughed. “Come with me.” She took my hand and led me to what used to be my favorite room in the house – the den. Only now it had all my stuff in it, the big framed posters of Merle and Willie and Waylen and Hank Williams, Senior. My guitars, my boots, my clothes, everything hung up and stowed way neater than I would have done.
“What the fuck did you do!” I said. I try not to swear in front of women, but sometimes they really fuck with your head.
“You didn’t think I was going to let you go back to that shit-hole, did you – not when we’ve got half a dozen rooms going empty up here.”
I decided to play hard to get. “I want you to know that in 1972 I signed a divorce agreement that stated I was to vacate the premises immediately and never come back.”
“Then sue me.”
About a week after installing me in the den, Lily came home from what was supposed to be a trip to the supermarket and told me she’d taken a job running a fancy florist shop down in the fashion center in Scottsdale.
“Well, shit, who’s going to take care of Miles all day?”
“I thought it’d give you guys a chance to kind of heal your relationship.”
“Yeah, fine,” I said, “but who’s going to change his fucking Depends.”
“You can’t believe how great the diapers are these days. And there’s all kinds of wonderful wipes that make cleaning him up a snap.”
“I’d rather die from throat cancer,” I said, “than wipe your grandfather’s ass.”
Lily agreed to have a health aide come in during the hours she was at work. Of course, health aides can be a half hour late and ask to leave an hour early to catch their fucking son’s piano recital. And on several occasions I did wind up cleaning Miles’ bottom after all – God has some sense of humor.
As it turned out, though, Miles and I actually wound up having a pretty good time together. Mostly it was playing these long, hard-fought chess games. Here was a guy whose brain was slowly being destroyed by Parkinson’s, and yet at least half the time he’d wind up blindsiding me. “Check mate,” he’d bellow in his scary, nasal bleat. Other than that, though, we didn’t talk much. It was just too hard for him too speak and for me to decipher what he was saying.
I was under strict instructions from Lily to take him outside – weather permitting, which it almost always is in Arizona – and walk him around the cactus garden. She kept stressing how important it is for Parkinson’s patients to stretch their limbs. Sometimes, though, one of his legs would freeze up, and I’d have to stand there and let Miles lean on me till the seizure ended. It’d leave him exhausted and fretful, and the only thing that would calm him down was if I played the guitar for him. So there we were, him lying back on one of the patio chaise lounges, and me singing old Hank Williams’ songs to him best as I could with my hoarse, irritated throat, thinking You old cocksucker, you ride rough-shod over my life and now you got me wiping your ass and singing lullabies to you. Miles died about a year ago.
So now it’s just Lily and me living in the big house here, except those nights when her boyfriend Raymond stays over. The fucking guy’s older than I am – although a heck of a lot better looking, I must say. I call him the Silver Fox. He hasn’t lost one single hair on his head since high school. I don’t exactly love the idea of some guy deep into his seventies climbing on top of my thirty-four year old daughter, but I guess it’s not my call. And judging from the noises that come from her room, she seems to like him quite a lot.
Yesterday, I drove down to Mayo for my bi-weekly radiation treatment. Lily followed me in her car.
The Chinese doctor told us that although my tumor has pretty much disappeared, she’s a little concerned that my markers have risen consistently over the last three treatments. Best as I can understand, markers are these chemicals they test for in your blood that indicate whether the cancer is on the decline or is making a comeback. Mine seems to be making a comeback.
“I don’t like this,” said Lily as we walked out to the parking lot. “It scares me.”
“Relax. I’ve lived a good two years longer than I was supposed to. And about fourteen months longer than the experimental drug program was supposed to buy me. Anything else is just gravy.”
“I can’t believe how passive you are. Every single person in your life has fucked you over royally, in particular my mom and her parents, and you’re just like, la de da, everything’s hunky dory. Where’s your fucking anger, Dad? If you want to live, you’ve got to get your anger out.”
I wanted to say, But I ain’t angry, I can understand where Miles was coming from, I wouldn’t want my daughter marrying a fella like me either. But I just got into my car, she into hers. I headed north, back to an afternoon of sitting around at Desert Vistas, she south to her job at the florists.

At breakfast this morning, Lily informs me that she’s made an appointment for us with a family therapist, that she’s worked this hard to keep me alive and she’s not going to give up now.
“What’s the big deal,” I say. “You grew up barely knowing I existed, and you turned out just fine. Let it go already.”
“Uh uh,” she replies emphatically. “A terrible injustice was done – not only to you, pal, to me, too. If Grandpa hadn’t forced you out, who knows – maybe Mom wouldn’t be dead, maybe you wouldn’t be sick, and maybe I wouldn’t be dating a man old enough to be my fucking grandfather.”
The phone rings. Lily says, “It’s for you.” In the two years I’ve been here the phone hasn’t rung for me once. I look at her in shock, and she shrugs.
“Hello,” a voice says in a New York accent, “You probably don’t remember me, but my name is Ethan Lerner, and my wife and I were some of your biggest fans at Joe Steak and were heartbroken when you stopped singing there.”
He waits for me to say something, so I go, “Uh huh.”
“Well, my son Adam is getting married in two weeks at the Hopi clubhouse up here in Desert Vistas to a woman named Meg Hanratty – her parents are also big fans – and I was wondering if you do weddings?”
“Well, I’ve never done one before.”
“Oh.” He sounds disappointed. “It would just be a couple of hours, and we’d pay you, uh, let’s say twenty-five hundred dollars.” I’m dumbstruck. I’ve never made more than six hundred dollars for a gig in all my years of performing. Before I have a chance to say yes, he says, “Alright, how about three thousand?”
“Um, I should warn you, Mr. Lerner, I’m a little rusty. Haven’t done much singing over the past couple of years.”
“That’s okay. That’s one of the things I love about your voice. The rustiness. What do you say?”
“Well, sounds okay. Just a little curious. How’d you know where to find me?”
“Ray Phayer’s a good friend of mine. We play golf a couple of times a week. His girl friend said you were looking for work.”
I hang up, and Lily is staring at me like a bird dog. “What was that all about?”
“Since when was I looking for work?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Some of your boyfriend’s Desert Vista’s pals – they want me to sing at their kids’ wedding.” I pause for a little for dramatic effect. “The guy said you told him I was looking for work.”
Lily doesn’t say anything for a while. “I want you to be happy, Dad. I want you to have a life.”
“Who the fuck do you think are! Stop feeling sorry for me, for Christ sake. Life has been good to me.” I am yelling at her at the top of my lungs, as loud as my perpetually sore throat will allow me. I don’t usually yell at people, but somehow I feel I have something Lily wants – I don’t know what to call it, fatherness, maybe – and so I have her over a barrel and I can say any fucking thing I want. “And if you think it’s so wrong, get rid of the codger for Christ sake. He’s too fucking old for you.”

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