Humidity

Gabriel Morley

     
   

            Sometimes you don’t know your 73-year-old father has cancer until he is cutting down a red oak tree in the yard and it snaps back and hits him in the stomach and knocks the wind out of him. Perhaps there are other things you don’t know about him. Perhaps he wants to sleep with your wife.

            Nine months later he still could not eat solid food. The radiation had withered him. He weighed about 98 pounds. He was never husky, but this was a man who walked with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama carrying all his clunky reel-to-reel recording equipment around his neck and jamming his microphone into the craw of not just the good guys, but the bad guys too. This was a man who laid aside his career at CBS when he turned off his microphone during a bigoted speech because he couldn’t allow it to be recorded and played over and over on the radio. This was a man who bought a nothing AM radio station in Poplarville, Mississippi for $28,000 dollars, moderated the Swap Shop every morning for 43 years without missing a turn and color-coded the pens in his briefcase. The same man who still makes my mother melt and tells me to watch my mouth when I say, “Dang.” Last February he helped me plant 12,000 pine seedlings on 20 acres.

            When he was in the hospital the first time, his tiny frame all but lost in a mound of white blankets and pillows, I could not imagine how he could continue in the world. I could barely hear him when he spoke, his voice whispering away like the flame of a snuffed candle. The skin on his fingers so worn it was translucent and crinkled like cheap wax paper.

            And now? Now he is some other man altogether. He has gained weight, but perhaps he has no energy to reconcile his former self. He sits at the flimsy kitchen table all day fumbling with his hands. He wears dollar store bluejeans and a western shirt with fake pearl snaps like it’s the 1970s. Sometimes he talks into the saltshaker. If he found my mother’s broom I think he’d ride it like a pony.

            In the warm afternoons he gets up and goes and stands on the front porch watching the cars on Highway 10, his body bent just like a question mark. Certainly this man is my father. He looks like my father. He walks sort of hunched forward like my father. Boy can he whistle like my father. But this man is not Aubrey Gaston. This man has no guts.

            My mother has brought him to the hospital again. She says he has a stomachache. His eyes are closed and I can’t tell if he is really asleep or just faking it. No one is sure. Apparently, the old man isn’t sick. The doctor is about 42 years old and has a big afro. Perfect, I think. He and my father can relive the 70s together. The doctor is scratching behind his ear with a ballpoint pen. I notice he has written on himself. He looks at me and scrunches up his mouth. Then he sort of jukes his head motioning me toward a corner of the room.

            I have to lean over slightly and put my ear close to his mouth to hear him. He is talking but his mouth isn’t moving. He is wearing running shoes and his breath smells like sausage. I think I went to high school with this guy.

            “I’ve never heard of ghost cancer,” he says.

            I pull back and look at him. “What?”

            He hands me a clipboard with my father’s chart and points about midway down the page. Under “Symptoms” my father has indicated “Ghost Cancer.”

            My mother is sitting in the only chair in the room staring out the window holding her floral handbag in her lap as if she might get up and fly away at any moment. But they have been married 52 years, long past the time to flee. She has a scarf tied over her hair. My God, she’s old. Nobody ties a scarf over their hair anymore. Who are these people?

            “Ma, is Dad really sick?”

            She nods casually.

            “What’s wrong with him?”

            “He’s got the cancer.”

            “They said it’s not cancer, Ma.”

            She has this dull look on her face as if she’s bored by the whole conversation. “It’s ghost cancer,” she says.

            The doctor has tucked his clipboard under his arm and is biting his thumbnail looking at me. “I guess I’ll come back later,” he says.

            As soon as the doctor leaves the room my father opens his eyes and tells my mother to go to the snack machine and get him some of those chocolate cupcakes with the white stripes. She jumps for the door and I follow her out into the hall.

            “What are you doing,” I ask.

            She brushes past me. “It may be your father’s last meal,” she says scurrying toward the elevators.

            I throw my hands up. “They just said he’s not sick. There is nothing wrong with him.”

            But she is already digging through her purse searching for the black plastic film canister where she stores her loose change.

            Back in the room my father is motioning for me to come closer to the bed. The room is tiny and the furniture seems enormous. The chair where my mother had been sitting is wedged between the bed and the wall. On the other side of the bed is an IV stand, a heart monitor, and two other machines that beep incessantly. I go around the foot of the bed toward the chair and when I am close enough he reaches out like lightning and grabs my arm, pulling me onto the bed, practically on top of him. Then he wraps his arms around my whole body and hugs me. My head is wedged against his armpit and his chest. He is smothering me in the starchy, lemony sheets.

            “I can still whip you,” he says. “Do you believe that? Try to get away.”

            I don’t have any leverage so I can’t move. I can hardly breathe.

            My voice is muffled. “What are you trying to prove, Dad? Get off me.”
Then he is crying. His chest heaving. His heart so thunderous in his cavernous body. Or is it my own heart and my own tears? He finally releases me.

            “I’m dying, Boo.”

            I shake my head and start to say something, but he surprises me again lunging at me and grabbing my shirt in both his fists as if he were trying to intimidate me. He yanks me down so our noses are almost touching and looks me right in the eyes. “This is it for me, Boo. I’m done.” His eyes are swimming. I can feel his lips brushing against mine when he says, “Before I die, I want to scrog your wife.”

            I have never really studied my father’s tongue before. It is thick and puffy and more white than pink. It has several deep cracks and seems too large for his mouth. A pity he doesn’t have tongue cancer. Maybe the doctors would cut it out.
My mother returns and stops abruptly when she sees us practically kissing. She holds up the cupcakes and a Tab defensively. I haven’t seen anyone drink a Tab in a hundred years. I didn’t even know they still made Tab.

            “I got you a Tab,” she says.

            “I don’t want a Tab.”

            “Well.” She clucks her tongue. “Be that way.”

            I throw my hands up. What in the world is wrong with the two of them? I have known these people all my life. These are not those people.

            “Ma, do you know what Dad just did?”

            “I can’t imagine. But don’t worry. Cancer is not contagious.”

            She is looking right at me. Her eyes seem so soft, so receptive. She is pleading with me silently and it occurs to me that she may be in conspiracy with the old man – that she may be the crux of the whole thing. How can this be?

            She says:  “Everything isn’t always about you, you know.”

            I fell in love with the girl who does the weather on channel 144. Desmare Faizon. She is a meteorologist. For her, the world is constantly in motion – a cold front, a warming trend, a low level disturbance dissipating slightly overnight with scattered thunderstorms. She is Cajun with blue eyes, and she knows the best times to catch fish so that strange, salty-smelling men bring her gifts at the television station – quart-sized milk cartons crammed full of jumbo shrimp. She uses the word precipitation in normal conversations.

            She is standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes in her burgundy underwear. The late afternoon sun is traipsing over her shoulders and the shadows cling to her neck like delicate lace. I could follow her from room to room watching her forever as the sun plays scantily across her skin. He body is still so fresh and new to me – so luxurious. That demure smile still so slylock in the early evening. And when it is dark, we talk all night and our young bodies have their own intimate conversation.

            Desmare is flopped out beside me sweating, panting. It is past midnight. The fan is oscillating and the curtains blow in and out of the windows. I am thinking about my father doing what I have just done. How would he do it? What would he say? Would he be such a glutton as me? By God, what would she say?

            “You never told me you had a brother who drowned.”

            “What are you talking about?”

            She turns slightly to look at me and a few strands of her dark hair are matted to her forehead. “Your dad told me about him today.”           

            “When did you see my dad?”

            “Today. At the hospital. Your mom called and asked me to come over.”

            I sat up rigidly in the bed. “Why did she call you?”

            “I don’t know. She had to go somewhere and she said your dad wanted to talk to me. He really is dying. He has ghost cancer.”

            I bang my fists on the mattress. “There’s no such thing as ghost cancer.”

            “What’s wrong with you? Of course there is. Now lay down. Men don’t look good when they’re sitting up naked.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “I don’t know. Your parts are all . . .it just doesn’t look good.”

            “Why would you say that?”

            The phone rings. We are both stunned for a moment and then she laughs and pulls me on top of her. Her body is warm. Her lips taste like baker’s chocolate. She is the only woman in the world who naturally smells like gardenias. I am so in love with her. She makes me feel important. She listens to me.

            The phone continues to ring.

            “Your dad said yall were at the beach in Biloxi. You and your brother were in the shallow water and he was throwing a little plastic football to you. He was sitting on a green beach towel. I’m not sure why he remembered it was green, but that’s what he said.”
I pinned her shoulders under my weight. “Desmare, I don’t have a brother. My dad has lost his mind.”
The phone is still ringing.

            “He said you probably wouldn’t remember your brother. You were only two years old. Your brother was six. They called him Peavine. He had a cowlick.”

            “I don’t believe this.”

            “Your dad had a picture in his wallet.”

            “Big deal. How come I never knew about this?”

            Ring. Ring. Ring.

            “When your mom went to the car to get the ice chest for lunch, your dad threw the ball over your head. Peavine went to get it and you followed. The water wasn’t deep, but the waves knocked you over and you went under and came back up sputtering and choking. Peavine helped you steady yourself and in the meantime the plastic football floated further into the Gulf. When Peavine started after it you followed him again. By the time you went under your brother was having trouble standing up against the waves himself.”

            I rolled off of her and sat on the edge of the bed. “Who in the world is calling us in the middle of the night?”  

            “Your dad was already in the water by the time your mom started yelling. You and your brother were both in trouble, but you weren’t near each other. Your dad said he paused for the briefest moment when the water was up to his waist and looked from you to your brother. He thought it was odd that the water was so warm. He must have known then that he couldn’t save you both.”

            I shake my head. “He made up that story, Desmare. That’s a moral dilemma. In college they made us write an essay about it.”

            She takes my hand and grips it tightly. “Can you imagine having to decide which of your sons to save? What terrible grief to carry around with you for the rest of your life. I didn’t want you to have to do that.”

            I stare at her in the dark for a long time. The phone stops ringing.

            “Don’t worry,” she says. “Cancer is not contagious.”

            I lay down beside her. She snuggles up against me. “The barometric pressure is dropping,” she says. “Can you feel it?”

     
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Gabriel Morley has not published stories in McSweeney's, nor the Paris Review, nor The Georgia Review or The Missouri Review, for that matter. He has also not been published in the Black Warrior Review, TriQuarterly, Ploughshares, Boulevard, The Kenyon Review or The Atlantic Monthly. Work is not forthcoming in Agni, Glimmer Train, Tin House or Crazy Horse. He is currently at work on a memoir about miscarriage, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the pirate Steven Barthelme, which he is confident will not be published in The New Yorker, or Narrative, or AARP The Magazine. “Humidity” was previously published in The Emancipator 2012, an on-campus publication of LMU.