Stories

No Reply

Copyright (c) 2002 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved

"Answer me." I kneeled and glowered at my daughter, trying to be stern but not frightening. She was at that touchy age of three where a big grownup daddy can be both an entertaining toy and the monster of nightmares. She puckered her lips and shook her head from side to side -- she was concealing her answer. I twitched my nose. "How 'bout this..." (I'd try a little persuasion) "... you tell daddy how come Bob is locked in his room crying and Mommy's not home, and then afterwards we can go to 31 flavors and get some ice cream." It was like slipping forty dollars to the traffic cop even while explaining that you were certainly only going a mile or two faster than the speed limit. I deplored my words as soon as they came out of my mouth, but having said it, I would now have to make the best of it. Her eyes grew wide as peaches and she partly opened her mouth, but then closed it again. Well, it didn't make a lot of sense to take this line of questioning any further. I stood and walked down the hall to Bob's room, knocked gently, and put my ear up to the door to see if he was still sobbing.

 


 

I lay next to Laura on the grass, little bugs hopping about, her with an intriguing smile, me completely fascinated. The mixture of her perfume, the smell of the warm grass, and the nearby lilacs was intoxicating. She was the most gorgeous thing that I had ever seen. The sun was passing in and out of the clouds; with each passing moment she looked slightly different amongst the revolving shadows. I tried to read into her thoughts. I mulled over the idea of holding her on a summer evening under a full moon with the chirping crickets. "We should get married," I smiled, and felt a bit like a fool. "Hmmm?" she hummed quietly, making me feel even more ridiculous. I sighed and rubbed her thigh with my hand. She gave me a hug; I blinked back some wetness. I turned slightly so I could look into her eyes and cleared my throat. "Will you marry me?" She smiled and then pursed her lips slightly, pulling me toward her for another hug. I was suddenly completely out of breath. A puff of breeze lifted some of her hair up to waft against my forehead. I placed my mouth next to her ear and whispered, no sound really, just air coming out of my mouth "answer me," I said, reaching down with one hand and tickling her side.

 


 

"Answer me!" she shouted, as if turning up the volume would squeeze more justice into her ranting lunacy. She stared at me -- her eyes red -- tears streaming down her cheeks. I had nothing more to say. I shrugged my shoulders... what else could I do. I felt as separate from her as an iceberg from a jungle. I had my own life to live; it had its own mysterious forces. Things happened to me and I didn't particularly have any strong sway in the matter one way or another. It frequently was a struggle just to decide what to do next; the currents dragged me to and fro at their leisure. So many people wanted so many different things from me: it was like I was in a meat grinder getting squeezed out of little holes with the twist and heat of added spices. She turned so that I would no longer see her weeping. I sighed, clicked off the remote for the TV that I had been ignoring, and hoping to clear my head with a walk, I stomped out the front door.

 


 

When mom opened the door, I rolled over on my side and slid the magazine under the covers. Damn, I hated when she barged in without knocking. "Huh?" I grunted out, although it came out more like "ugh?".

"Oh hi dear, I didn't know you were in here," my mom said. "I just had some clothes that I was putting away," she said, shuffling over to my dresser, making an attempt to be discreet, but prying all the same. I breathed in deeply and didn't say anything, although I felt a bead of sweat form on my forehead.

"Are you going to church with us this Sunday, young man?" mom asked.
Damn, mom, leave me alone already. "Yeah, I guess so."

"You know Tim, we missed you last week. I know that sometimes sitting through mass isn't the most exciting thing, but religion will help you build a balanced life."

Oh great, now a sermon. I groaned. "Geesh mom, get off my case already -- I said that I'd go with you guys this Sunday. It's just not a big deal to me one way or another, okay?" I added a sigh, just for effect.

Mom was quiet for a little bit as she placed my folded T-shirts in one drawer, then closed that drawer and opened the one above it for my underwear. "Tim, your drawer is a mess! Look at this. How do you ever find a pair of matching socks in this jungle?" Mom held up a fistful of white and colored socks. "Suzy always keeps her stockings paired up. I don't see why you can't do something like that."

I inhaled and began counting to myself. I figured I should calm down by the time I got to a couple hundred or so. Mom got on my nerves lots of times, but it was especially a pain when I was hiding a boner under the sheets. Shoot, I wish she'd just leave already. I pulled a blanket up over my head. Maybe if I just hid away for a while, then when I came out again she'd be gone.

"Tim, what's wrong?" mom asked, coming over to the bed and pulling the cover off of my head and putting a hand on my forehead. "You feel warm."

Ah Jesus. "Mom, I'm alright." I was nearly in tears. "A guy just needs a little privacy once in a while, okay?"

"What are you hiding from me, Timmy? You better not be doing drugs or anything!" Mom always called me Timmy when she got mad.

"Ah shoot mom, give me a break -- I'm not using any drugs -- I'm not stupid for chrissake." I was starting to fantasize about how I could get back at her. Maybe hide a frog in her bed or something. Maybe pull some kind of a prank on her friends at one of her parties.

"Well then what are you hiding under there? Timmy, answer me!"

 


 

I sat in the back pew for a half hour waiting for the place to empty after services ended. Small clades of parishioners huddled in corners or in the aisles discussing relatives or jobs or just socializing. Occasionally the minister would join a group of folks, chat for a bit, and then move on. The altar boys folded up the communion cloth and left. To make sure that I was completely alone I waited ten minutes after the place was quiet. In the empty church I could sense the smell of the brass pipe organ. Dipping a knee to the floor and crossing myself, I approached the altar. I had never felt so alone in my life. When Tamara was killed I was adrift in my grief. Overwhelmed. I needed to know why this had happened. I knelt at the altar; sunlight streamed through the stained glass clerestory; dust speckles lazily floated in the colored rays. The front of the church smelled musty and a little antiseptic. I was blinking back tears. Although no sound came out, I moved my lips while I looked up at Christ on the cross. I mouthed the words, "answer me."

 


 

I was half way through my third beer, and as Jerry finished his second beer and clonked his mug on the bar I saw Frank walk in with a couple of his buddies. Shit, this is going to be trouble. It smelled worse than a skunk grilled on a pickup.

Frank had an absolute babe of a wife, and yesterday she brought her 'stang down to the shop for a tune-up. Jerry and I spent the usual half hour on the thing -- it was a mid-80's model, 84 or 85: the last of the carburetor years. After I wrapped up my share of the work, the plugs and timing, I went back to the front desk to ring up the receipt. Frank's wife (let's see, shoot what was her name -- Melissa) was flirting... she had a reputation of being a cockteaser.

I knew better than to pay her any mind, but I couldn't help sneaking a long look at her legs -- she has absolutely perfect drop-dead legs -- the kind that make you just want to, well, never mind. Then Frank drove in, his pickup just appearing through the window out of nowhere. I suppose he may have seen me staring at Melissa or something. Or maybe he was just having a bad day at work and needed to take out his anger on somebody. Anyway, he was hotter than a bear with a bee up his butt.

To make things worse my boss popped out of the back office precisely when Frank let loose on me. So of course I had to take the attitude of The Customer is Always Right. I mean it wasn't like I had done anything wrong, but I wasn't about to confront the guy in front of my boss either. My boss managed to defer Frank's anger by flipping open his cell phone and pretending to call the Sheriff. Later I told Jerry about the whole thing. He said I was just lucky to be able to tell the story and still be alive.

I lifted my head and eyebrows in the direction of Frank, and Jerry turned his head to see what I was indicating. "Well look what the cat just drug in, Jerry said, standing and sliding his barstool back. I tried to grab his belt and pull him down, but the beer slowed my reactions and I was off the mark by a couple of inches. "Hey Jerry, let it go," but it was too late -- Frank spotted us.

Frank's eyes narrowed and he turned to say something to the couple of monkeys that he had brought along. I suddenly had the idea flare across my brain that they had specifically come here to find me, and I felt a rush of adrenaline. Then I simmered down thinking that it was just a coincidence; jumping to my gut emotion would probably just get me into more trouble. Determined to be rational, I stood and pushed the stool under the bar top. Before I knew it Frank was standing nose to nose with me; I gagged on his ashtray breath. His two buddies grabbed Jerry and wrestled him with his head down on a table -- arms held pinned behind his back. A half dozen customers got up to leave; another half dozen stood and backed away, more settled on watching the action. As I reflexively straightened up Frank grabbed my shirt collar.

"Hey shithead, what the fuck do you think you were doing hitting on my wife."

I had about three conflicting thoughts running through my head at the same time. The first was that I should turn to the bartender and ask him to call the police. The second was that I should practice some kind of defensive jujitsu or something, even though I didn't know any martial arts. I should knee him in the balls or something. And the third thought, just plain out of nowhere, was that whatever happened I would end up with some good stories to tell the guys back at work. This third thought, partly because it was so cockamamie under the circumstances, made me smile; then the idiocy of the fact that it made me smile made me shake my head.

Frank tightened his grip on my shirt and lifted me so that I rocked slightly forward onto the balls of my feet. "Hey dickhead, what's so funny?" I didn't have anything to say. His eyes narrowed further. "Answer me!"

 


 

It was that humid kind of hot where your shirt clings to your body -- my sweat a glistening layer on my bare arms. Small sand flies would stick to my arm briefly, then detach and fly away. Up ahead I recognized some stands, sticks holding up canvasses, some kind of bazaar. A haze of dust roiled up in front of me from a crossing donkey cart. As I tramped through the dust cloud I was quite suddenly smack dab in the middle of the bazaar. A marketplace of sorts: the vendors seemed broken of life, cardboard cutouts with human eyes, plastered into evanescence by the heat. I looked at some of the jewelry laid out on black cloth, chotchkas really, nothing of much value -- mostly copper and silver pieces, some gilt or with gold inlay. Camel jockey bric-a-brac.

I looked directly at a couple of the vendors, but their shifting eye contact skirted my gaze. One of them stroked the whiskers on his face, glimpsed me for just milliseconds, then looked away to his left and slowly raised a finger to point. I followed his gesture to a stall two booths down where an older vendor, bald and wrinkly, indicated that I should come by rolling his wrist in a small circle with one finger extended. As I approached his stand he cleared his throat and folded back a fabric coverture to display some fob watches. I would have walked right past him, but something caught my notice and a double take. My eyes focused on a familiar watch when I fancied that I shouldn't allow him to surmise that I might have an interest in anything.

I shifted my gaze to another timepiece, picked it up, and turned it over to inspect the back engraving. "This is nice," I commented. "Yes," was his simple reply. "How much?" I asked. He thought for a moment, then a while longer. "Three hundred fifty." I nodded, placing the watch back onto the fabric. The bald gentleman made a languid flick of a finger along the table edge to shoot away a meandering beetle. I nonchalantly picked up the conspicuous timepiece; my pulse quickened. Although I was striving to stay calm, I was bothered that the old man could see straight through my veneer. I was pretty sure this had been my Dad's. His initials were engraved on the back and as I popped open the front case and peered at the face it looked familiar. The minute hand even had the slight upturn in the right side of the arrowhead. "This is nice too," I said. "Yes," again, same reply. "How much for this one?" He thought for a moment, and then for a moment more. Outside beyond the tent a camel snorted and spit.

"You like this one?" he asked. "Uh, yeah, maybe," I replied. "Where did you get it?" He didn't answer. I looked up and met his gaze. It seemed like he touched deep inside of me, and then he turned away. He stood slowly and pulled the coverture back over the watches. "What are you doing?" I asked. Looking at the watch that I was holding, he put his hand out. I hesitated. "Where did you get this?" I insisted. "Answer me," I grabbed his outstretched arm. He cleared his throat loudly -- out of the corner of my eye I saw the vendor in the next booth and the one over from him face my direction and rise. I hesitated, smiled, and placed the watch back into his hand, releasing his arm. He placed the watch back beneath the cloth, turned, and left.

 


 

So it is growing there then. I felt the tears on my face; the doctor looked at me and I heard him think "it's okay to cry of course." I had a million thoughts racing through my head -- would it kill me, would it be painful, would I lose my breast, both breasts? What would my husband think, what would we tell our daughter? Would it kill me?

"What's the prognosis?" I asked the doctor through my tears.

Although he answered, I didn't hear a word that he said. My thoughts were so loud in my head that all I heard was a rumbling and the tinkling in the hallway from an instrument that somebody dropped. Some of it was just an overwhelming flow of love and connections from my relatives. I breathed in deeply and sighed; another burst of tears flowed from my eyes. For a moment I placed myself in my doctor's shoes, and it was comforting to know that for him this was just a regular occurrence. The thought gave me some solace and I stopped weeping.

Even though I didn't hear him, I felt that it would be stupid to ask the same question again. I thought of a different way to word the question, although it didn't come out the way I wanted.

"Will it kill me?" I asked.

"No," the doctor answered, and smiled. "Most probably not. You'll have some tough choices to make though about what you want to do for treatment. But we'll talk about that later. Go out to the waiting room and take some time to settle yourself... there's no rush on this thing. Have a cup of tea, and when you're all settled down talk to the nurse to set up another appointment. Go home and talk to your husband, do some research on the internet, call our office if you have any questions. I'll want to see you and your husband again in a week."

-*-

Steve gave me a long hug. After a minute or so I gently pushed him away, feeling a little guilty of my thoughts; I wondered if he was just getting another feel of what I existed like before the damage would be done. Tears welled up in my eyes -- a combination all at once of about ten different emotions. I started laughing at the same time, recognizing that understanding myself or communicating my multitude of feelings to Steve was beyond hope. It would be like trying to grab the eggshells out of a whirring blender. I was sinking and drowning, my brain called out the only thing it could to cast out a lifeline. "Steve, will you still love me?"

"Of course dear," his mouth said, but I wasn't listening with my ears -- instead I was probing his thoughts with my mind. Dammit Steve, answer me.