A short story by Scott Archer Jones
(Originally published in The Otter, no. 2 (2014).)
I, Joseph, am King of all I survey. The steam roils off the water and into the dry crisp air over the village, anointing my subjects like incense. I loll back, silver hair streaming from my temples. They always say that I look like Leonard Bernstein. The principal difference is that I am tone deaf, and he is dead.
It’s been a perfect day for me, so far. My contentment stretches out before me. I turned sixty-eight last week and the proper number of people paid obeisance – this I remembered at the moment of awakening. The market opened up in New York, rendering life even easier. I arose at seven and shaved away all my body hair, taking due care with the razor. I then drove here to the gym. After the tanning bed, I visited with Becky of the Black Tights and attended a spin class, followed by the easy version of water aerobics. Now, here in the hot tub float three of my friends and a ravishing stranger. I recline in the hot water, sense the morning’s strain of body maintenance melt into liquid magic and into camaraderie, flawed as it is. We all paid the price, spent our hour or more panting and heaving. In that shaky, ragged feeling from the workouts, we’d retreated from the fitness center to our hot tub outside. To my regret, our stranger rises up, water cascading from her hair and body, and in the twenty-degree weather flip-flops for the door. She’s quite young, about forty-five, and I undergo that stirring I call the Viagra Aftershock. I’ve felt it several times this morning.
Across from me sits my old friend, Carl. Besides being the best orthodontist in Taos, he is the original comb-over man. I’ve stared at that comb-over for twenty-five years. Now though, it has parted from his scalp and flies away as a crumpled up wing out over his left ear, angling off towards the Taos Mountain that looms above us. The Viagra and my hypertension medicine make a potent mix and they have improved my fantasy life – the drugs help me see his thoughts. A cartoon text balloon forms over Carl’s head. It reads, ‘Just this once.’ Carl’s voice comes through the steam. “Let’s troop over to the Plaza Café after we shower. I want a five-thousand-calorie salad and a Pinot Grigio.” The bubble flashes ‘Bacon, cheese – lots of cheese.’
I count nods of assent all around. I announce, “And so it shall be.” Beside me, my Egyptian beauty Noha stirs, irritated by my patronizing tone. Her thought balloon reads, ‘Really, Joseph. Shut up.’ She perches upon my right hand as I drape my arm around behind her. Her delicious bottom presses up against my palm. She is a full and charming woman, with beautiful skin and black hair, long and luxurious. Her eyes are huge and brown. I feel her weight shift as she leans forward and her thigh presses into mine. Noha is our cougar. We hear of all of her encounters, real and imagined, with the young men that she – well – hunts.
“Philip was my trainer this morning. We did lunges on the half ball. Each time, as I moved from the floor onto the ball, you know,” and she glances over at me and flares her eyes. They are enchanting eyes, like fireworks. “He’d steady me on each lunge. At first he gripped my waist, but then he moved to my knee, to keep me from drifting. At least, he started at my knee. By the end, his hands had moved up my leg – just below, nearly there. I became all flushed. He’s so strong.”
I say, “Noha, they are always strong, or you wouldn’t be interested.” She squirms just that little bit and my loins tingle. I have had that ample plump dessert – and I would go back for more.
“Yes, Joseph. You’re not jealous of youth, are you?” Her bubble indicates, ‘Time for another face lift, my friend.’
“Unlikely, sweetheart. They have stamina, but I have guile. They have a certain charm – not to mention supple and unwrinkled skin. But I have a true appreciation and understanding of women.”
Mara, the fourth friend in the hot tub, interrupts us, once again about her mother. She and Carl are burdened by family, unlike Noha and I. Instead of flying free, they drag their aged parents along behind.
Mara is Irish-fair, and as we say, beat-all-to-hell. Even for seventy, she would be rough and hard – and she’s sixty. She had plaited her hair, really iron gray but dyed to its original red, up onto her head, but it has begun to fall in the steam. The balloon over her reads ‘I’m twisted off!’ She leans over to Noha and touches her knee under the bubbling water. I believe Mara must have been a lesbian, before she gave up sex for bitterness.
“Noha,” she says. I watch the bubble spell out, ‘My angel.’ Mara pauses, a claim for our attention. “Your Mother and Dad are dead, aren’t they?”
“Yes, Mara. You know I flew home to Egypt two years ago when my mother passed on.”
“That’s right. Lucky you.”
Noha shakes her head, a furrow chasing sadness across her forehead. “Mara, that’s cruel. I loved my mother. I miss her every day.”
Mara’s thought balloon reads, ‘Typical.’ She snorts, an ugly sound of mockery. “Be glad you got out when you were young. I remember the old joke about life begins when you’re forty sleeping with twenty.”
We all chuckle for her, but she doesn’t want a laugh – she wants a tirade. “I always thought life began when your parents died.”
“But Mara,” I say. “Your mom lives in a home in Kansas. Surely she can’t be ruining your life from there?”
“She expects a call most every day. And I have to visit, every couple of months.”
Carl’s bubble displays, ‘My turn! My turn!’ Carl stutters when he’s in a hurry. “My mo mo mom lives over in Arroyo Seco and it’s a lot of work, taking care of the details she can’t handle anymore. WhWhWho would have believed I’d be babysitting when I turned sixty-three?”
Mara’s bubble reads, ‘Who gives a shit, Carl?’ She ratchets back up. “Mom will live to a hundred and ten. She looks like it already.”
Noha tries to defuse the so-unpleasant rant, “It’s only natural, Mara. They took care of us. So we take care of them.”
“No, it’s unnatural. Old people should croak in their late seventies, not hang on-and-on ruining our glory times. All those drugs and treatments, they drag it all out. It’s just pathetic, that’s what it is, a horror.” Mara’s cartoon bubble shows, ‘I could kill the old bitch.’
I think, who wouldn’t hold on to the last bitter second? A bed you’re dying in is better than the casket on the other side. I say, “Mara, it’s not that much of your time. You have a great life here with us and I don’t think you miss much. With a butched-up body like yours, you’ll outlast us all, much less your mother. Don’t worry so much about it.”
She says with raised eyebrows, “Why thank you, Joseph. That makes me feel all better.” The balloon reads, ‘Screw you, you old lecher.’
“You’ll see, darling,” says our delectable Noha. “This weekend will be our usual round, as Joseph says, of parties and laughter. I promise you at least a good meal and lots of wine.” I see her bubble waver up over her head, half-formed, murmuring, ‘A long afternoon with my trainer. A private workout.’
Carl heaves himself up by grasping my hand and jerking. Water cascades from his meager shoulders and off his pendulous belly. His balloon reads, ‘You’ll be dead in a month.’ My mouth drops. He shakes his head over me, dripping down into my iconic face.
He sloshes to the tub edge, grabs his towel. “Mara, I promise you a drink right now. Come with me to the Café and we’ll eat spinach salad with fried cheese croutons, with sliced egg and hot bacon dressing. We can even split an order of truffle fries. That and a margarita will hold the Living Dead at bay.”
I stand, turn for my towel. The wind at twenty degrees cuts through me. I shiver like the damned.
It starts slow, a perception of fullness, a distension of the belly. I get so the wine doesn’t work – I experience nausea after, and sugary desserts give me intense diarrhea. My back hurts. She hovers across from me, my Doctor. She wears a new perfume – its high-dollar scent wafting towards me. But I don’t care. Not today. “Okay, Joan, I can take it. Is it a brain tumor?” My ancient joke.
She flashes me that beautiful smile, the one so nice to wake up to. “Joseph, you wouldn’t be peeking down my lab coat and blouse if it were a brain tumor. However, it’s definitely something. I don’t like your weight loss – I know you think you worked off those love handles by yourself, but your legs and arms look, well, spindly to me. Far too thin.” A cartoon forms over her head, ‘You look like shit.’
“Then I shall return to lifting weights and guzzling growth inducers, dear. I shall bulk up enough to please you.”
She ducks her head to the paperwork. “And your blood work isn’t right. You’re hyperglycemic, with some ketone buildup in your urine. I’d swear you were diabetic if you had any history of smoking and obesity. Then there’s that back pain.”
“Admit it, Joannie. You’re puzzled. A beautiful mind in a beautiful body, but once again I baffle you.”
She chuckles, but she does it for show. “I’ll write you a referral. I want you to see an old classmate of mine in Santa Fe – he’s the best. He’ll order the workup, and we’ll find out what we’re dealing with. I’ll call ahead – I want you in quick.” Her bubble pops up, ‘Cancer. It’s always cancer.’
I am bloody cold lying here in this hospital bed. Off and on for two weeks they have scanned me, probed my orifices, inquired about the health of my sphincters. They have whittled all of my dignity away. Now they have thrust a hollow sword into my back, through my intestine and into a mass the CAT scan detected and the MRI paints like a bird’s nest in violet hues. I have a foreign body lodged within me, a frightening plague of my own cells.
Mara sits beside me. She has driven down from Taos, a two hour journey, by herself. She actually appears to care. At least she has all the right behaviors. My cartoon bubbles have failed me, so I don’t know what she really thinks. Probably ruined by the extra drugs.
She hitches forward in her chair. Now I will have to suffer through the explanations. “How big’s the mass, Joseph?” She appears distraught – amusing.
“Oh, the size of an orange. Perhaps a grapefruit by today. Of course, it is not a simple round thing. Rather messy, tangled up with my pancreas. And gut.”
Her eyebrows arch and her pupils dilate. “Pancreas!” The bitch already knows, from Noha, but we must pretend.
“Yes, Mara, we all know about pancreatic cancer. That’s why they thrust that huge, painful needle into me.” I hold up my hands, eighteen inches apart. “A monster.”
Ridiculous, playing the role, she nods. “Biopsy. You’re taking it okay.”
I know different. I am a little man inside my godlike head, screaming away. My smart phone delivered the web-page news days ago. Only a one-in-four chance to live a year. I summon a smile – it feels plastic on my face. I work harder, try for sincerity. “I am less worried than you think. I’ve always had luck on my side.”
She leans forward to take my hand. “I’m sure it’ll all work out. How long before they get the results?” Her red hair floats forward across my arm. Ghostly.
Her kindness makes me want to smash at her, and I would too, if I were not so tired. At least with unkind words. “It’s about a week. But they will peer at it through the microscope before it goes off to the lab. That should tell them something.”
“And then you’ll know.”
I try on the condescending grin. Silly woman. “Oh, no. They won’t tell me. If they were wrong and it’s not malignant, they would have to explain later. And I would sue for mental anguish.”
“Surely not. They’ll tell you.”
My turn to pat her hand. I know the conventions. “I have become a cog in the machine, Mara.” The little screaming man is louder now – I think he wants out.
She slips her hand out from under mine. “So it’s a week. Do you stay here?”
“Oh God no, not here. But I have a room at the Residence Inn. The drive back and forth to Taos, it’s too much.”
She frowns. Her lips have those vertical trench-marks of a woman who doesn’t care what she looks like. “Joseph, you should have told us. We could drive you.”
“Hah. You think that I drive myself? No, Carl chauffeurs me. But speaking of back and forth . . .”
“They’ll check me out in a couple of hours. Can you give me a lift to the hotel? Drive me back to my modest suite, tuck me into bed for the night?”
I watch her grin, the first genuine thing today. “Why, I believe you are trying to get me in the sack, you old fart.”
I can feel the burning in my eyes. Tears want to form. I hate it when she is right. I ache for a woman’s coddling, even a burned-out grizzled lesbo’s. At least a distraction.
No chemo, no radiation, no surgery. Oh, to be Mara’s parent, lying in a Kansas nursing home, waiting for my centennial so many years away! Instead I lie in this unimagined terrain – hospice. A morphine-infused wait for the cancer to explode out of my abdomen and vomit across the room. A wait for blood to cascade out of my rectum and float me off the sheets and onto the floor. I hear a skritching in my ears, like dog’s claws on the linoleum. It is my anger.
Her head eases round the door, hesitant. Noha is still the most beautiful woman I have ever taken to bed. But now, when I see her, I see what I will lose.
“Are you awake?”
She among all still deserves a smile from me. “Come in, come in. You’ll relieve this continuous tedium.”
She leans across the bed, touches her lips to my forehead. I had imagined they would be hot, like her blood, but they are cool and dry. She asks, “Why are you all the way down here in Albuquerque?”
“No one at home, Noha, no one to shuffle my bedpans or stick morphine patches on me. Carl took my cats over to his mother, and the house sits empty.”
“Can I watch the place for you, water plants?”
I nod. “That would be lovely, dear. Or better yet, throw them all in the trunk and take them to your place. You can have them.”
She tosses both hands up in protest. “Oh, but you’ll be coming home.”
“Noha, you saw the sign on the building. I’ll not be coming home.”
Her face collapses like a melting milk chocolate. She didn’t have to confront the imminence of death as long as it went unsaid. I have spoiled it.
She dabs at her eyes with a pink kleenex. “How are they treating you here?”
I see no need to swamp her with complaints about the service, service that cannot matter compared to my Big Event. “They’re quite kind. Sit beside me, beloved.”
Not in the chair. She perches on the edge of the bed, bundles my hand up in both of hers. She presses her tush up against my side and my glance flickers there before proceeding up past her breasts. She gazes down into my face. “We’ve had happier times, Joseph.”
I clear my throat. “This morning I was thinking about our trip to Florida, five years ago.”
She has the sweetest smile. “All that lovely sand and the sun.”
I chuckle, for her benefit. “You didn’t want to spoil your complexion. Instead you lay under the cabana.”
“And you burned bright pink, racing around in the sun.”
“But the pain of sunburn did not inhibit my performance.”
Now her face flares pink, beneath that luscious Egyptian chocolate. “Just at dusk, lying together, the sides of the cabana hanging down to give us privacy.”
I remember that the fabric fluttered like wings as the evening breeze drifted in from the ocean, showing me flashes of the hotel, of the beach, of the lights at dusk. As I poised above her. “Dearest Noha.”
She is pleased by the memory. She smiles, her full lips open slightly to show white teeth gleaming. “Yes, Joseph. It was so lovely.”
“Noha, would you do me a favor? The smallest of favors?”
“What is it, Joseph?”
“Perhaps one last time. Could you… ”
Her eyes open as wide as they can. She stares at me from head to toe. My hair, no doubt sticky and matted, the beard stubble-gray across my cheeks. The gown wrinkled, and perhaps odiferous. Crumpled sheets. The squalor of sickness.
I gaze up into her face. “No, not the full shebang. Just a little manipulation. For old times sakes.”
Her forehead crinkles, then clears in a beautiful smoothness. She hops down, whirls to the door, and locks it. Back by my side, she fishes the sheets down, raises the gown. “No catheter? Thank God.”
“I should allow a man to thrust a tube up my penis? Not until the very last, my dear.”
Using the lotion on the overbed table, she straightens me, rubs in the lubrication, begins her motions. “How wicked you are, Joseph.”
I stare at her, the part in her hair, her head dropped, concentrating on me, on this thing we share again. “That is so very nice. It’s like we are teenagers, in the back of a car.”
She raises her face, a grin appearing at the corner of her mouth. “I grew up in Egypt. Father had a chauffeur and we dared not use the backseat.”
“Oh, oh, ah.” My body contracts, three times. I curl up in the final shudder, and she hesitates, then strokes me a few times more. She catches all of it in her other hand – it pools up and looks like lemon curd. Nothing. I feel nothing, though my body performed the oldest dance. I have ejaculated without an orgasm.
She kisses my forehead again, fishes a tissue out of the box and wipes her palm. “You scandalous old man. Promise me you won’t do this with anyone but me.”
“I promise.” My voice gags in my throat. I promise to let it go, cast it away from me, not to think about it.
“I can’t wait to tell Mara. Or perhaps it should be our secret.” She reaches up, strokes my face with the hand that brought me to my sticky end.
I want, I need a moment by myself. “Noha love. Can you fetch me a cup of ice. My mouth is so dry these days. The nurses station on the hall will tell you where.”
She is so pleased, her face soft and adoring. Some domestic task, after having done the dirty. Taking a Styrofoam cup, she unlocks the door, slips out like a courtesan leaving the chambers of the king.
I stare about the room. Institutional, florescent light eradicating all shadow. A giant TV hung from the ceiling, a black vacant slab. The side table and the overbed table filled with bedsore ointments, tissues, a box of alcohol swabs, bedpan and urinal, moisturizing wicks for cracked lips, abandoned Styrofoam cups. A litany of objects, my final possessions.
It’s been a perfect day for me, so far. My contentment stretches out before me. Unlike Mara, I am not dragged down by paternal constraint. Unlike Carl, no gluttony gnaws at me. Unlike Noha, the need for sexual congress has disappeared. The air conditioning blows down upon me. I feel a cold wind.
He launched a novel in 2014, entitled Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas, available from Southern Yellow Pine. Jupiter was a finalist in the 2014 “New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards” (New Mexico Book Co-op) in four categories and in 2015 won a bronze “IPPY” (Independent Publisher Book Awards) and a silver award in the FAPA “President’s Book Award”. (Florida Authors & Publishers Association.) His novel The Big Wheel, for which he received both a silver and gold “President’s Book Award”, appeared in 2015. Fomite Books published one of his novels, A Rising Tide of People Swept Away, in March of 2016, and garnered him three FAPA silver awards.
A publication list of his short form work is dull but available – what is more important is that he cuts and splits all of his own firewood, lives a mile from his nearest neighbor, and writes grants for his community.