by Ron J. Cruz
part 1 of 2
Steven Ferris didn’t have to look over his shoulder to know he was being watched as he worked in his front yard. It invigorated him and he felt stronger, gloved hands clenched the rake harder. His strokes, pulling the big yellow head across the grass, grew longer and dug deeper. Wet leaves stuck to the rake and he fought the urge to stop and pick at them. He wanted his watcher to see a strong, unflinching man working hard, even though he was dying.
The watcher, his eight-year old son Nathaniel, was looking down from his bedroom window on the second floor. Steven wanted to demonstrate an example of hard work. He wanted to give his son something to look back upon, a memory he could hold long after he died. Concentrating on this goal allowed him to ignore some of the pain that shot like sparks from his groin and fired through his abdomen.
As a boy he had liked raking leaves and pretended he was shaving the backyard. The leaves were the cream and his rake was the razor. He was the barber and hummed while he worked.
His dad would watch and laugh while drinking beer under the carport. “Leaves are a waste of time, boy,” his father would say, wiping beer foam from his mouth with the back of his hand. “Waste of time. Next week, there’ll be more leaves. Just leave it and mow it later.”
That was not the example Steven would leave for his son. He would not wait until the “tree emptied out” and then roll over them with a lawnmower. He would show him how to work, shaving the back yard with his rake, throwing the stubble into bags. The boy would learn.
The cool, crisp air of September widened his nostrils, dried his sinuses and filled his lungs with chilled breath and a feeling of life. The sky overhead was gray and there were plenty of leaves in the air, desperately clinging to branches for one more day.
Steven half-hoped the sky would let loose with some wind or rain and knock the rest of the leaves from the tree. His pain was sharper and deeper; he hoped to live long enough to finish the season. He looked up and studied the tree.
The front door of the house creaked and popped opened. He caught a glimpse of his son darting away from the upstairs window. His wife, Bobbi, wiggled through the door while fighting to keep their dog from darting out.
She made long strides down the steps and across the grass. “Yard looks good,” she smiled. She pulled the front of her flannel jacket closed, crossed her arms and locked her hands beneath their folds. “Are you about done?”
“Just about.” He stopped to look at the yard. There were already some leaves scattered about.
“How are you doing, Steve-ferr?” She reached out and touched his arm.
“I’m fine.” He looked at her hand and took a short breath. “Everything is good.”
She didn’t believe him, but continued to be enthusiastic. “Big day tomorrow! Doctor said you’ll be fine tomorrow night. We should go to dinner! It’ll be nice, no more trips to the hospital. You’re getting better.”
“Yeah,” he replied. He wanted to tell her he wasn’t getting better. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t believe everything would be fine the next day. He started to choke up and said nothing at all.
“You should come in and get some rest. I don’t think you were given all this time off work so you could kill yourself doing yard work.” She winced when she realized what she had said.
Steve didn’t reply.
She quickly turned and trotted back up the walkway to the house. She turned back to him on the porch, smiled at him and motioned for him to come inside.
He smiled as he took off his gloves to open a garbage bag and bent down to pick up leaves. As he did, he felt his mouth slowly collect the metallic, copper taste of blood and he bit down on his cough and spit both blood and phlegm. It was getting worse and he knew it.
In time, the leaves were gone, the bags were tied and in their bin and he stood in front of his house which had been their home for the past ten years. He remembered driving up for the first time and thinking it was like a movie. The bricks at the base of the façade were bright and ruddy, the windows sparkled in the sun and the freshly painted shutters were pure and white.
Bobbi and he had wondered how they would pay for such a beautiful home, even with his good job and good pay. Now he thought of it being paid off with a portion of his life insurance, and it made him sad. There was too much life left! Too many questions!
Would Nathaniel go to college? Would Bobbi marry someone else? Would she love him? Would she make love to him?
He wiped his bare hand across his mouth and found more blood. He wiped it off on his jeans and walked into his house. He suddenly felt like a renter. He paused by the hall closet and looked at a collage of family pictures framed by the coat rack. There were many, Bobbi smiling, him smiling, life just beginning. Young legs, strong arms, no pain.
Like a person with strep throat forgets what it’s like to swallow without pain, Steven couldn’t remember what it was like to live without the cloud of death hanging about his head. He felt like a temporary member of the family, a renter, and he didn’t want to eat.
He hung up his jacket, went upstairs and crawled into bed. The smell of dinner filled the house and there was warmth that was almost comforting. But he didn’t like being a tenant, renting a house with a leafy yard, a wife with a cheeky grin, and a son whose future would be shaped by a step-dad, someone who would take him to someone’s favorite places and do someone’s favorite things.
Steven didn’t come down for dinner that night, instead he cried. He slipped off to sleep, but it wasn’t restful. It was like slipping from a ledge, arms flailing, legs kicking. There was nothing to grab as he fell.
Unlike the dreams of falling he had as a young man, where there was darkness, swirling vapors and an abyss, this fall was detailed. The side of the hill was covered with flowers and ice plants. He could smell the flora and fauna and it hung on his pallet and in his mind like the smell of baking bread. Everything was in fine detail, and it was beautiful.
Landing on the ground, the pain of his sickness could be felt shooting bolts that stretched from the top of his legs to the base of his neck. He twitched and clutched his stomach. He cried blood and could see their paisley patterns twisting in the darkness, whirling around in small circles. His teeth gnashed.
Steven could feel himself being lowered downward, a small rectangle of light above him growing smaller. And there were faces looking down: Nathaniel, Bobbi, and a faceless man with his hand on Bobbi’s back. Then Bobbi’s hand reached out for him and he reached up. He stretched and struggled, but then recoiled with explosions of pain that shook his entire body. Her hand opened up and dirt fell free, landing on his face, in his open mouth and he couldn’t spit it out.
As more dirt tumbled through the small, dimming opening, he fought to stay awake, alive, and he found his way through his mind back to the first visit in Dr. Wen’s office. He was reclined in a padded but papered chair with wires and electrodes protruding from seventy-two different points in his body. The set-up alone had taken the better part of two hours. And Dr. Wen, a consummate professional, had told him that the needles were painless. Like acupuncture, he said.
Dr. Wen was a small Chinese man with small, round, cloudy glasses that Steven had wanted to pull off and clean with his shirt tail. His dreamscape painted the glasses completely white so that the doctor’s dark, black pupils could not be seen at all. And he worked with insanely large hands and incredible dexterity, fleshing new needles through wires, twisting them off, dabbing with alcohol and gel and then pushing them into Steven’s skin, seemingly in two motions. They were not painless.
There were fourteen different sessions with the wires and Dr. Wen. Fourteen times he tormented his patient with a procedure that Steven wondered was any more effective than leeches. But if Dr. Wen had produced leeches the next visit, he would give it a try. He would try anything.
As the sequence of visits played through his mind, each needle more painful than the last, each paisley circle now creating new paisley circles, each more detailed and colorful, with red textures, yellow and violet patterns, he could feel himself rising, transcending, up through the dirt and towards the light. This time, not a dimming rectangle, but a bright circle of light not unlike the sun.
And as he rose, he could hear Dr. Wen’s voice congratulating him on completing the procedure and reminding him of one more visit; just one more remained and then he would be done, and better! But if getting better was progressive, Steven didn’t feel any better. He tried to act like he was getting better, but it got more difficult every day.
* * *
Then the alarm clock shrieked and pulled Steven from his dream and he looked at his wife, who was still asleep. He reached over and switched the clock off. There was blood on his pillow. He flipped the pillow over, but there was another night’s stain on the other side as well. He got up and pulled the cover from the pillow and threw it in the closet.
“Is it time?” Bobbi sat up and stretched.
“It’s time,” Steven replied as he walked into the bathroom and started the shower.
Bobbi sprang from the bed and met him at the shower door to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Last day, this is it. Are you excited?”
“I am. Are you guys going to grab breakfast?”
“If you’re not eating this morning,” she smiled and kissed his cheek, “then I think Nate and I can skip breakfast as well. We have a nice dinner planned tonight! Reservations!”
“That’ll be good, a nice dinner.” Steven got undressed and began to climb in.
“Don’t you want to know where?”
“I like surprises,” he replied dryly and pulled the shower door behind him.
The trip to the clinic was nice. Nathaniel was in the back with headphones on and a portable radio playing. His wife hummed to herself and looked out the window. The sky was blue and the temperature high enough to allow not a single cloud overhead. There was crispness to the colors along the way, even the cars parked along the side of the road seemed beautiful in their own way. There were joggers on the side of the road and people working leaves in their yards. Steven looked to see if Nathaniel was seeing this, but found him intently staring down at his radio, tuning it to his liking. Steven smiled.
Dr. Wen was expecting them; he must not have had much going on that day. He led Bobbi and Nathaniel to an extended-waiting room, equipped with a television and small video collection. There were new books on the shelf and a small refrigerator in the corner that they could help themselves to if they liked.
Once the family was secure, the two men walked down the hall but passed the room that Steven had visited the thirteen times prior.
“We’re not doing the whole needle treatment thing?”
“Yes,” Wen replied, “but different room.”
Copyright © 2013 by Ron J. Cruz