Friday, May 27, 2016

OF GODS AND MEN
Chapter 12: Tom is Inappropriate

           There was no sleeping the night of the storm.  Deck hands, oarsmen, the navigator, and even Amelia all worked to get the ship put back together.  Debris was scattered everywhere, and sailors worked feverishly plugging up some holes below deck that leaked onto the ship; but all in all, the Defiance had come through the storm in tact. 
            Tarsus did not allow himself to linger in self-loathing now.  In this situation, it was very easy to determine the useful work that needed doing.  Tarsus noticed a few of the deck hands cleaning debris off of the deck.  There weren’t many of them.  He guessed it was because this was the job that no one wanted to do.  So he rolled up his sleeves, and began to help them.
               They collected spared bits of wood, wire, cloth, old food: anything that had been damaged in the storm and had not flown overboard.  Items were separated according to what they were, and every few hours they brought whatever they had collected to a foreman to see if it could be salvaged.     
               Every now and then, Tarsus looked around to see what Cassius was doing to help the ship.  The half-god could always be found on the quarterdeck, looking down on the sailors who worked so hard to put the Defiance back together. 
          On one of these stolen glances, Cassius caught Tarsus’s eye.  He flashed the sunsword a wry grin.
          “Finally,” the half-god declared in a booming voice for all to hear.  “My chosen finds something useful to do.
          “Just trying to help,” Tarsus called out in response. 
          Tarsus was struggling with one side of a heavy piece of driftwood.  Try as he might, he couldn’t lift it all by himself. 
          “By lifting,” Cassius mocked.  “Though it seems you’re not very good at that either.  Imagine the stories they’ll tell of you.  The chosen of Cassius, Tarsus Cole the sunsword, charged with finding the legendary sword Malthir for the son of Malthus.  Did he do it, they’ll ask.  No, the minstrels will sing, he couldn’t even lift a piece of driftwood.  I wonder if that girl is interested in being my chosen.” 
          Some of the other sailors laughed at this jeer.  Most kept working without paying Cassius any attention.  One deckhand, Tom, approached the other end of the driftwood and bent down to help
          Tarsus let his head fall for only a moment.  Tom was a nice enough fellow, but everyone onboard agreed that he was odd.  He liked to talk, in great detail, about many things that didn’t concern him.    
          Still, Tarsus raised his head and offered Tom a quick smile as thanks for the help.  Together, the two of them grit their teeth and did what Cassius was eager to mock them for: lift. 
          “Tell me Tom.  What does Cassius do on the ship?” Tarsus asked. 
          “Nothin,” Tom answered simply.  “He stands up there, watches.  When he gets bored, he’ll take a nap.” 
          “It’s his ship, I suppose,” Tarsus mused. 
          “It’s not,” Tom said as they let the driftwood fall in front of the foreman.            
          “Useless.  Throw it overboard,” the foreman commanded. 
           Tarsus and Tom bent at the knees to lift the heavy, rotted thing.  With raised wood, they moved toward the ship railing. 
          “Defiance belongs to Captain Amelia,” Tom went on.  “Only reason this god is on it is because she likes him.” 
          “Likes him?” Tarsus asked, bewildered. 
          “Yeah.  Likes him,” Tom gave an awkward wink and a sloppy grin that Tarsus understood, even if it unsettled the sunsword’s stomach.  “Really likes him.  Like, they sleep in the same bed kind of likes him.  And they don’t wear clothes, if you catch my meaning.  No sir, no clothes." 
          “I understand,” Tarsus said, trying to convey that he had heard enough. 
         “We hear screams in the night sometimes,” Tom continued.  “And not screams of pain, mind ye.  No sirrey.  Screams of ecstasy, if you catch my drift.” 
          “I do,” Tarsus firmly posited as they threw the driftwood overboard.  “You’re being explicitly clear.” 
          “I stood guard outside the captain’s quarters once or twice, when it was goin on,” Tom gave Tarsus a nudge of the elbow.  “Peeked my head in.  Quite a show.  And not a stage show, mind.  Not some lute player or juggler, though there were acrobatics involved.  Plenty o’balls bein thrown…” 
          “TOM,” Tarsus turned to the good-natured sailor and grabbed his shoulders to stop him.  “I understand.  They’re lovers.” 
           Tom’s smile grew even wider.  “Don’t think love’s got anything to do with it, if you pick up what I’m trying to put down.” 
           Tarsus smiled, despite himself.  He did indeed pick up what Tom was trying to put down.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

COMFORTABLE UNKNOWNS

       “I’m afraid, Mr. Reyes, that the tumor in your grandmother’s lung has more than doubled in size over these last four months,” the doctor said.
       “What does that mean?”  David asked.  He put his arms around his mother and held her tightly.  He could feel her looking up at him; this 68 year old frail Spanish woman who could only catch every other word of what the doctor was telling her.  After the doctor told him all the details, she’d immediately ask David to recount them in their native tongue.  He’d never hated doing that before, with normal things like buying a washing machine or ordering at a restaurant.  But ever since his grandmother was brought to the hospital it had gotten harder to have the same conversation twice in such rapid succession.  He felt like he had no time to take anything in.  No time to wade into the pool and get used to the temperature of the water.  He heard bad news and had to dive into telling his mother, which meant that in the space of seconds he was being forced to live with some very hard truths.
       “It means she’s over ninety and at this rate…” the doctor stopped himself.  He became thoughtful for a moment, clearly thinking about how to proceed.  But the silence was enough to give David the answer to his question.  
       The doctor finished his spiel.  He said he was sorry, that they were doing all they could, that David’s grandmother was comfortable.  Then he tentatively placed a hand on David’s shoulder, squeezed in consolation, and walked away.
       “What did he say?”  David’s mother immediately asked.
David exhaled.  “Do I really have to tell you?”  It came out angrier than David meant it to.  He immediately looked down at his mother to apologize, and he saw that she was crying.  “I’m sorry mama.” 
       “It’s ok.  This is hard,” was all she could get out for a while as she sobbed.  Unbelievably to David, he noticed how quiet she was in her tears.  She kept looking around, making sure she wasn’t bothering anyone.  It was overwhelming to David.  He’d never seen his mother look so alone.  He reached out and hugged her tightly.  Then the tears came to him too.
       “Should we tell her?”  he asked.
       “No,” his mother said flatly.  ”You know how she is.  She’ll worry.  She’ll panic.  Did the doctor tell you how long she has?”
       “Not long,” David answered.
       “Then we definitely don’t tell her.  We have to be strong.  Both of us.  Can you promise me…” she couldn’t finish.
       “I promise mama.  I promise, I promise.”

       Susan sat up in her bed as her daughter and grandson walked into the room.  “Finally!”  she thought to herself.  
       “What did the doctor say?  Can I go home now?”  Susan asked impatiently.
       “Not yet mama,” her daughter told her.  “You have to stay in the hospital just a little while longer so they can make sure you are fine.”
       “She sounds tired,” Susan thought to herself.  But only for an instant, before her mind jumped back to the topic of home.  “But I want to go home.  I feel fine and I’ve been here too long.”
       “I know mama,” her daughter replied.  “Just a little longer.”
       “Why are you so quiet over there?”  Susan asked David who had been standing at the foot of her bed staring off into nothing.
       “Hm?  I’m just thinking teta,” David replied.
       “Thinking about what?  What did the doctor say?”  Susan pressed.
       “He said things are looking good, but they can’t let you leave yet.  Just like mama told you,” David said.
       “Don’t get mouthy.  I helped raise you.  Cooked your meals, washed your clothes, wiped your butt,” Susan declared.
       “Teta!”  David said, as his eyes went wide and he tried to suppress a laugh.
       “Teta what?  I did!  You pooped a lot.  I had to change you at least four times a day,” Susan yelled as David started to laugh. 
       “You…you did poop…a lot,” David’s mother managed to get out through hysterical laughter.
       “So how long do I have to be here?  And be specific!”  Susan ordered.
       “We don’t know.  The doctor doesn’t know, but he said not much longer,” her daughter said.
       Susan sat there, silent for a few minutes as she scrutinized her daughter and grandson.  They sat down and began talking about their days and asking her about how she was feeling, and if she was eating alright.  “They’re trying to act normal,” Susan thought.  “But something is wrong.  Did the doctor give them bad news?  But if he did, why wouldn’t they tell me about it?  Oh God…”
       “David, remind me we have to get Teta’s favorite blanket from her house and bring it tomorrow,” her daughter said.  
       Susan’s grandson nodded his head and opened his mouth to reply when she cut him off.
       “Am I dying?”  
       “No.”  Susan’s daughter said flatly.  There was no blink, no hesitation.  It was a calm and quick response.
       “Thank you God,” Susan let out in an audible whisper as she sat back in her bed, relieved.  
Her daughter and grandson stayed for a bit longer after that, but before too much time had passed they got up to leave.  They promised they’d be back the next day and kissed her goodbye.  Then they were gone, and Susan laid back in her bed and turned the TV on.  For the first time in a long time, she looked for something light and fun to watch.  And she laughed.

       Susan had a few more days of calm after that.  Her daughter and grandson came every day.  She kept insisting that she could go home, but they kept telling her the doctor needed to keep her there.  After four days without any update, Susan began feeling a little nervous again.  Then her younger brother came to see her.
       “Hello Susan!”  he said, being helped into the room by Glauria, David and a walker.  “How are you?”
       “Did he fly here from Phoenix?  He hasn’t flown in years!”  was Susan’s most immediate thought.  She sat there blankly staring at her younger brother struggling to make his way to her bedside without saying a word.
       “Mama?”  her daughter asked, after gently placing her younger brother in a chair next to her.
       “Glauria, am I dying?”  Susan asked forcefully.
       “No mama,” her daughter replied again reassuringly.  “Uncle Roberto was just very worried.”
       “It’s true,” Roberto said.
       No one said anything for a few minutes.  As though they were all sitting at a game of poker trying to read what each other had.  Waiting to see who would make a mistake first.  Finally, after what seemed like several minutes, Susan smiled and exhaled in relief.

       The next few days were very much the same.  So many relatives came to see Susan in the hospital as she waited for the doctor to discharge her.  Some lived near, some lived far, but they showed up anyway to spend time with the sick matriarch of the family; always accompanied by Glauria and David.  They all asked after her and prayed with her.  They serenaded her with stories of the past and how much they admired her.  She felt loved.

       The night before she died, Susan couldn’t sleep.  She was sitting up in her bed with a sharp pain in her chest, coughing up blood consistently into one tissue after another.  
       “Oh God…” she pleaded in her mind as she kept coughing.  “Light.  I need some light,” she thought as she reached for the nearest thing she could; the remote control.  She turned the TV on and the sounds of a late night talk show filled the room.  But all Susan could hear was her own coughing.  All she could see was the blood on the tissues.  All she could feel was a stabbing pain in her chest.
       “I’m scared,” she thought as she kept coughing, helpless to stop it while tears streamed down her face.  “I don’t know how to face this.”
       “No living soul ever does,” she heard her own voice say.  Susan looked up and coughed hard.  On the TV there was no talk show.  The screen was blank.  White.  “Light.”
       Suddenly, she stopped coughing.  Her breathing became easy again.  Steady.
       “Am I dead?” she asked the TV.
       “No.  You’re breathing.  Dead people don’t breathe,” the TV replied, again with her voice.  But it wasn’t quite her voice.  It was distant and calm.
       “It sounds like me,” she thought.  “But from years ago.  When I was young.”
       “Am I dying?”  Susan asked fearfully.
       “You know the answer to that question,” the voice replied calmly.  “You’ve known ever since they brought you here.”
       “Why did they lie to me?”  Susan pleaded as fresh tears welled in her eyes.
       “You know the answer to that too,” the voice returned.  “Haven’t you enjoyed these last weeks?”
Susan was quiet as she reflected on all the relatives and friends she had seen.  Thinking back on all the conversations and the laughter and the stories; it struck her now, in this moment, that they were goodbyes.  
       “Very much,” she said quietly.
       “You are so loved, Susan.”
       A sudden pain struck Susan in the chest.  She clutched at her heart, not knowing about the tumor in her lung or that she even had cancer.  All she knew was the moment of death was on her.
       “I’m not ready,” she said to the TV.  “My daughter is at home.  Shouldn’t she be here?  I’m supposed to tell her thing.”
       Susan coughed again.  The pain in her chest was getting worse and now both her hands were resting above her heart.  A little blood dribbled from Susan’s mouth onto her chin.
       ”What would you tell her if she were here?”  the TV asked.
       “I don’t know,” Susan said and broke out into fresh tears as she tried to think.  “Don’t I have more to teach her?  And my grandson?  I’m old.  I thought I was supposed to have more wisdom to pass on.  But I can’t think of anything.”
       “Then you’ve given them everything,” the TV said warmly.  As though whoever was talking on the other end was smiling.
       “I’m scared,” Susan said as she lay back in her bed.  The pain in her chest was getting worse. 
       “So is everyone at this moment,” the TV replied.
       “It hurts,” Susan said softly.
       “Not for much longer,” the TV comforted.
       “Will you stay with me?”  Susan begged.
       “I will,” the TV promised.  “Now, and beyond.”
       Susan closed her eyes.  She saw black.  The pain in her chest intensified instantly.  But just as she opened her mouth to scream out, it suddenly faded.  As though it were being drained from her body like bath water draining from a tub, the pain left her.  She saw grey.  Her hands released the gown around her chest, that she had been clutching when the pain was bad.  Her head felt heavy, so she let it roll to the side.  She felt a breath leave her body.  She saw white.

       “Hello?  Mr. Reyes?”  the doctor’s voice asked.
       “Yes, this is he,” David answered as got up from the breakfast table and walked into the living room.  He heard the sound another chair being pushed over the linoleum floor of their kitchen.  He didn’t need to look back, his mother was right behind him.
       “Mr. Reyes, I’m so sorry but your grandmother passed this morning,” the doctor said sympathetically.
       “How…” David tried to hold back his tears, but it was too much too soon.  Behind him, he could hear his mother starting to cry.
       “You should know that she didn’t suffer,” the doctor answered David’s question before it could be asked.  “A nurse found her this morning in her bed.  There were no signs of struggle around her bed, like kicked out sheets or hands on the side rails.  She had her hands on her chest and she looked incredibly peaceful.”
       “That’s good,” was all David could get out as he turned to his mother and tried to smile at her.  
       “I’m sorry about this, but we’ll need you and your mother to come in today.  At some point,” the doctor said.
       “Of course,” David said.  He was grateful he didn’t need to say more in response.
       “Mr. Reyes, I want to offer you my deepest condolences.  Losing a loved one is never easy.”
       “Thank you.  We’ll be in later today.”
       “Alright.  We’ll see you later then,” the doctor said.  “Oh, and Mr. Reyes?”
       “Yes?”  David asked, hurriedly bringing the phone back to his ear.
       “Sorry, just one more thing,” the doctor said.  “You should know that when the nurse found her this morning, she had a smile on her face.”