Donald McMann

One

Cancer—it’s a crab-shaped constellation found in the sky between Gemini and Leo. It’s the fourth sign of the zodiac. Cancerians, those born under the sign, are reported to be nurturing people devoted to both caring for and propagating family. The Tropic of Cancer is an imaginary line around the Earth. The line represents the northernmost point at which the sun can be directly overhead. And cancer is what they found in Fred Sissons’s left lung. Doctors removed the lung and poisoned Fred with radiation and chemicals. At the end of the treatment, he would be cancer-free and much reduced.

Two

It was mid-July, and the weather was sunny and hot. Fred shivered slightly, though, because his wife May, perpetually warm these days, had the air conditioning working overtime.

Fred sat in his living room and looked around as a stranger might. It was his first time in this room since the Emergency Services workers had rushed him, gasping under an oxygen mask, out the front door and into the waiting ambulance. He was still using oxygen. A tank of it was attached to the back of his wheelchair, and the gas made a faint hissing sound as it passed through a clear plastic line and into a small nosepiece held in place with a skin-toned elastic strip that ran from his nose around the back of his head. Fred squinted as the afternoon sun poured in through the two-story windows.

The house smelled of roasting beef. May, his wife, and Terri, her sister, were getting Sunday dinner ready. They spoke in Pilipino, but Fred, though he’d been married to May for nearly four years, could pick up very little of it—mostly the Spanish-based words, and few of those.

May emerged from the kitchen with a tray of sushi and set it down on the coffee table next to Fred. Her long, black hair was pulled back and tied with a pink elastic. Her face was carefully made-up. He found her as beautiful as ever, even given the almost comic awkwardness that comes when a tiny woman has reached the final term of pregnancy—and she was pregnant with twins.

“Here you go, Fred, a little something to nibble on while the dinner finishes cooking. But don’t eat them all. W.T.’s coming too, you know.”

Fred smiled at the mention of his friend.

May returned to the kitchen, and Fred stared at the sushi. After a minute or two, he took a piece, held it, looked at, then leaned forward and dipped the edge into some green chile sauce. He bit the piece in half and chewed it tentatively. The sauce burned his mouth, ignited little jets of steam that penetrated his nasal passages and emerged through his tear ducts. He swallowed too quickly and choked. He coughed so hard, little lights exploded in his eyes.

“You all right?” May called.

“Fine,” he sputtered.

More coughing, but finally, the food cleared.

It was Terri who answered the door and let W.T. in. He carried a telltale brown paper bag with the prominent “Don’t Drink and Drive” message printed on it.

“Always with a bottle or two, W.T.,” Terri said with only a tinge of admonition in her voice.

“Thank God,” Fred called out from the living room.

“It’s champagne,” said W.T. “If ever there was a day for toasting good things, this is it. Fred’s first visit home after all that nastiness in the hospital, and, of course, the impending arrival—arrivals, I mean.”

Fred sat by himself in the living room and listened to the other three in the kitchen. They organized flutes and found an ice bucket and some ice. Fred finally heard the welcome pop of the cork, followed by screams from May and Terri as the bottle evidently overflowed on something—the floor, a foot, something. Soon the four of them were together as they had been so many times before. They charged their glasses, drank to May and the babies, drank to Fred and his health.

Two days later, husband and wife were both in the hospital. Fred to continue his convalescence; May to deliver Fred’s two baby sons.

Three

The trouble between Fred and his daughter, Lynda, went back to an exchange that took place between them over breakfast one morning months before Fred’s marriage to May. W.T. remembered opening his door and knowing at once from Fred’s expression that things had been contentious. Fred was flushed, and his eyes were watery, as though he had cried—or worse, from W.T.’s perspective, that Fred was about to cry.

“I’m just guessing here, but things didn’t go well with Lynda?” W.T. said as Fred thundered past and headed for the kitchen. He went straight for the cabinet where W.T. kept the liquor. Fred winced as he reached up for a bottle of single malt.

“Goddamn it. I don’t know why you can’t put this stuff within reach. Your boys are grown up. Unlike my daughter.”

“So, she didn’t take to the news with much enthusiasm?”

“Well, let’s see. It all depends upon what you mean by ‘enthusiasm.’”

He found a clean glass in the dishwasher.

“Her response was certainly energetic. ‘May?’ she said to me. ‘Your little Asian whore is about to become my stepmother? Is that what you’re saying?’”

“Whoa.”

“Then she went on to describe me as an ‘over-sexed, dirty old man.’ She said that May’s only a dozen years older than my grandson, and that of course makes me a ‘virtual pedophile.’ So, no, I don’t think it went well, and I don’t think she’s planning to come to the wedding. Even a card seems unlikely, though a letter bomb may be possible.”

Fred poured a drink, and, forgetting about the splash of water and the single ice cube that were usually an important part to his scotch ritual, downed the scotch in a single gulp. He shuddered slightly and poured another.

W.T. sat at his kitchen table. Fred paced.

“It’s the money,” he said. “It’s the goddamned money. She’s afraid she’ll get shortchanged on the inheritance. Like the only function remaining for me in this life is to guard the fucking estate, die as soon as possible, and pass the whole thing into her nasty, grasping hands.

“I told her that May and I are selling and building a new home in Cider—Cider whatever…”

“Ridge.”

“What?”

“Ridge. Cider Ridge Estates. It’s where you’re building.”

“I know that. Anyway, I told Lynda we’re building there and she started shrieking about how ‘that Asian whore’ and I are selling her house—her house. That’s the problem with this, you know. Lynda’s already got me dead and buried. And probated. She didn’t even grow up in that house. It’s my house. My house. I built it. I paid for it. It’s mine. Drink?”

“Nice of you to offer, but no, never before ten.”

“‘What’s wrong with being a grandfather, just loving your grandchild?’ she asked me, and I said, ‘Nothing. I love being a grandfather. Todd’s a great grandson. That doesn’t mean I have to live alone. It doesn’t mean I can’t be a husband, too.’ And then she says, ‘Yes. It does. Your grandfathering days are over. Do you have any idea how hurt Todd already is over this little tart of yours? I can only guess how upset he’ll be to find out she’s his new grandma.’ And then I said, ‘If he’s going to be upset, it’s because you’ll have manipulated him into it.’

“Okay, maybe I went a little too far with that last one. But, honestly, she got me riled. She’s one deeply selfish woman.”

With that, Fred poured more scotch into his glass and slumped into a kitchen chair opposite W.T. Fred pulled a well-used tissue from his pocket and wiped his forehead.

“What a mess,” he said.

“Yes. A mess.”

Four

W.T. hardly knew Lynda Sissons, Fred’s only child. Margaret and Fred’s wife, Lois, had been close since grade school, and when Fred and Lois moved back to Edmonton from Toronto, and Margaret and Lois resumed their friendship, both families’ children were already grown. Lynda stayed in Toronto to finish her degree, and when she eventually moved to Edmonton, it was into an apartment of her own.

W.T. and Fred had been drawn together through their wives’ friendship. The two couples would golf together spring, summer, and fall. In the winter, it would be bridge twice a month—an occasional play or symphony concert added in. But the men never saw one another apart from their wives, and conversation was kept light, superficial. It wasn’t until after Margaret’s final stroke, and Lois’s death from cancer the following year, that Fred and W.T. began a friendship of their own. It was during this time that W.T. met Lynda and her son, Todd, one afternoon at Fred’s. It was brief—W.T. was arriving; daughter and grandson were leaving. There were introductions, handshakes, smiles.

“Now don’t you boys get into trouble. I don’t want to be having to post bail for anyone,” she’d said to her father and W.T. with a laugh. The boy hugged his grandfather. He and his mother left. That was it—the full extent of W.T.’s acquaintance with Lynda.

“I’m scared to call her, W.T.,” said May. “She hates me. Last time I tried to talk to her, she called me all kinds of loathsome names.”

They were sitting in a waiting room at the hospital. They’d been told that Fred had lung cancer. He required surgery. It would be performed within days. Given Fred’s age, there was an elevated risk to a procedure that was already risky. Someone had to tell Lynda. Reluctantly, W.T. accepted the commission.

He phoned her that afternoon, and felt a guilty sense of relief when the first call he made to Lynda’s number went unanswered. He left a message giving his name and a short reminder of their one and only meeting. He asked her to call. He debated about whether or not to leave additional information, but decided against saying anything that would alarm more than necessary.

“I’m phoning about your dad. Please give me a call back when you have a moment.” Innocuous, he hoped. Perhaps too innocuous, because hours later, and finally relaxed in his own family room, he’d still not heard from Lynda. He stared at his cordless and knew he had to try again—but not before he cleared the dishes from the coffee table, loaded the dishwasher, wiped the counter. Then he remembered the violets in the living room. They must need water. He went to his computer and checked his email. One message carried the subject line, “Big News.” Clearly, it had to be opened and read.

“Do you want you’re dick to be in million of womens screensaver?” it began. “Your tiny penis is dissolving in her. With Penis Enlarger Patch you penis won’t dissolve anymore.”

“Tempting,” he said to the screen. He wondered what the patch contained, and where and how it might be applied.

Then, there was a “confidential” email from a banker in Nigeria who apparently needed W.T.’s help dealing with the dormant bank account of an assassinated government official, and if W.T. would just agree to pose as a beneficiary and receive the proceeds of this account, the Nigerian banker would give W.T. sixty-eight million dollars as a reward. W.T. had received similar requests for help before. This time, he read the whole email carefully.

When W.T. could think of nothing else that needed his attention, he picked up the telephone’s handset, looked at it for a long moment, and then punched in Lynda’s number. This time she answered. He could tell she had call display; she was cold. Icy.

“What do you want?”

Again, he explained who he was. She said nothing.

“Look,” said W.T., “your father is quite ill, and I thought you should know.”

“I see.”

“He has cancer. Lung cancer. He’s going to require surgery. Emergency surgery sometime in the next few days.”

“What do you expect me to do about it?”

“Well—um—nothing. I guess. I just thought, you know, since you’re his daughter, that—um—you should be told. That’s all.”

“Fine. You’ve told me.”

“He’s at the Grey Nun’s…”

“Look, are you expecting me to do something—to visit or provide care or something?”

“The only expectation I had was that you might want to know. Maybe that expectation was misplaced.”

“Yeah. It was. What happened to his chink whore? Isn’t she by his side, standing with her man—her very best customer—in his time of trial? And, for that matter, why isn’t she calling me? She’s supposed to be my stepmother, isn’t she?”

“You know, having spoken with you now for what seems like an eternity, I’m not at all surprised she didn’t call you. Good evening.”

The phone rattled slightly as W.T. put it in its cradle. He was shaking. “Time for a drink,” he said to himself. “A couple of drinks.”

Five

“I keep having this dream,” W.T. told Terri.

“Do you yell and hit people?”

“No. Not that dream. Another dream.”

“Well?”

“I’m out somewhere—some public place—with Fred. Maybe it’s a department store or a shopping mall. Someplace like that. He’s using a walker, and he’s very slow. We’re being jostled by people. It’s like walking underwater, we’re so slow. Then, he tells me he needs to use the washroom. He wants me to take him. Suddenly the dream flashes forward to a toilet stall. There’s no room for his walker, so we leave it outside, and he leans on me while I try to maneuver him to the toilet. He isn’t helping, and he’s so heavy I can hardly move him. He’s anxious. He keeps telling me to hurry. He can’t hold it much longer. I finally back him in, get the door closed behind us, start helping him take his pants down, and I realize to my horror that he’s wearing a diaper. My friend is wearing a diaper. It’s not like I haven’t seen diapered adults before. Margaret was in a nursing home for years. But Fred. And then another shift; we’re in some kind of nursery. The room is all white, and the light’s so bright it hurts my eyes. Fred’s on this big change table. It’s as though the thing is designed for some giant, mutant baby. And I have to change Fred’s diaper. I peel back the sticky tabs, and start pulling off the diaper, and as soon as his penis is exposed, he starts spraying, just like a baby boy sometimes does. Only this is a fire hose. I mean, the stuff is going everywhere. With one hand, I’m trying to protect my face. With the other, I’m trying to cover him up again. Stop the flow. But I can’t. I can’t get him covered. And I’m getting soaked. The whole room is wet. And I’m telling him—‘Fred. Stop it! Stop it!’ And I’m still struggling with that stupid flapping diaper. And I look at his face. I need to make contact. And he’s just looking back at me. It’s an empty, resigned look. Like this was some minor unpleasantness that we just had to accept. ‘Stop it,’ I say to him. ‘Fred, stop it.’ And then I wake up. Drenched. In sweat, I should add.

“God, Terri. He’s my friend, but sometimes he just disgusts me. Is this it for all of us? Is this where we all end up? Lost to ourselves—without a grain, a tiny fleck, a hint, even, of dignity?”

His voice caught. He looked at her. He looked in her eyes.

“You should run, Terri,” he said, “run. Run fast and far.”

“Is that what you want?”

“Yes.” He paused. “No. I want…I want less horror. I want less despair. I want less fear.”

“I love you.”

“I can hardly let myself believe that. But I love you, too.”

Six

Fred and May Sissons are proud to announce the arrival of

Frederick Xavier Sissons

Five pounds, 6 ounces

and

William Emilio Sissons

Five pounds, 8 ounces

July 20, 2001

Fred and Will are little brothers to Lynda Sissons

and little uncles to

Todd Sissons LeClerc

Seven

Chrome was a quiet bar, edgy, cool—the sort of place you could go and actually have a conversation. It was contemporary. Low couches. Stone floors. Glass. Leather. Designed lighting. Chrome, of course. A place to meet. A place where people of the right age could arrive alone, but expect to leave with company. Not a male server or bartender in the place.

W.T. had been to Chrome a couple of times. People of his vintage could be there, in the early evening, and not feel too conspicuous. He was surprised, though, when Fred suggested they meet there at five for drinks. First, Fred wasn’t a meet-you-for-drinks kind of guy, and second, when Fred went out, he leaned toward the kind of place where “hot” described the coffee, not the patrons.

W.T. spotted him right away. He was perched on a stool at a tall table by the window. There were two martinis on the table.

“I ordered for you. Hope you don’t mind.”

“I do mind. It was presumptuous of you. I had planned on having a nice glass of milk.”

Fred moved to take W.T.’s glass.

“Touch that glass and I’ll tear your arm off.”

When W.T. raised his glass to Fred’s, he noticed that Fred’s eyes were a little glassy, and he appeared just a bit flushed.

“You did say five, didn’t you?”

“Absoloootly. I did. And you’re as punctual as ever. That’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you, W.T. It’s your punc-tu-al-i-ty. It’s one of your many fine, fine, fine qualities.”

W.T. could swear that Fred was tearing up.

“Fred, did you get here perhaps a little early?”

“Yes, I did. Being early is the next best thing to punc-tu-al-i-ty.” W.T. noted that Fred was pronouncing this word with what seemed to be a great deal of care, precision even.

“Fred, this isn’t actually your first martini of the evening, is it?”

“Absoloootly not. No, my friend, I’ve had,” he paused here as if performing a complex calculation, “several. No, I must be more precise about that. Precision is very important. It’s right up there with punc-tu-al-i-ty. I’ve had three. Big ones.”

“I see,” said W.T. This, he thought, is going to be a long, long night.

“Well, it’s like this: I was a little hungry when I got here, and I thought some olives would really hit the spot. But it seems the only way you can get a serving of olives around this joint is in one of these drinks. So, what’s a fella to do? I ask you.”

“What, indeed?”

“You know, W.T., you’ve been a truly great friend to me through these last couple of years. So much better than that stuffed shirt you used to be when we first met.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“No, really. You’ve been such a big help to me, to May. And Terri thinks you’re great. She’s completely in love with you, ya know.”

Sure. Up to a point, thought W.T.

“I think some food might be a good idea, Fred.”

“Not hungry.”

“Miss?”

The server arrived. She was put together to appeal to every appetite, and W.T. immediately worried about Fred’s current lack of inhibition.

“What will it be, gentlemen?”

“More martinis,” said Fred. “And kisses. Lots of big, juicy kisses.”

“No. We’re fine for drinks. And kisses. Bring us a side of beef.”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry. My friend here really needs food.”

They settled on an appetizer platter. W.T. finished his drink. The server brought two more.

“You did want another round, right?”

“Sure,” said W.T. “Why not?”

Each for his own reason, both men fell on the drinks as thirsty desert wanderers would grasp a tin cup of cool water.

“So, Fred. Where’s your car?”

“Home. I believe in responsible drinking. It’s as important as—”

“I know. I know. Punc-tu-al-i-ty.” They pronounced it in unison.

The food came. They ate. W.T. ordered coffee. Fred made his way—carefully—to the washroom. W.T. took out his cell and called May. He needed to let her know they’d be late, and that Fred would arrive home perhaps a little too relaxed.

When May answered, she sounded congested.

“May. Everything’s okay. Just wanted to let you know I’m having drinks with Fred. Well, I should say Fred’s has had a few more drinks than I have. But I’ve got some food into him, and I’ll get him home soon.”

“He didn’t tell you, did he?”

“Tell me what? May?”

“It’s back, W.T. The cancer. It’s back, and it’s everywhere.” She began to sob into the phone. “What are we going to do? Please bring him home. Bring him home now.”

W.T. watched Fred emerge from the men’s room at the far end of the bar. Fred’s face was red. He was a little stooped, a little unsteady. He concentrated as he moved among the tables. He reached theirs, smiled at W.T., and climbed carefully onto the stool.

“Back,” he said.

THE END