Friday. It was to be a day of doctors with prognoses; some good, some less than optimistic.
Deidra Brook sat in the waiting room holding hands with Hale at the Stropshrift Cancer Center waiting for her doctor to call her back. Before she stepped through the door, she knew that the results from the tests were not good. Her body told her so. Her bones spoke to her at night.
She moved closer to his ear and half-whispered; “Hale honey: now you did remember to tell the folks at the V.A. that you don’t want any more of the Ativan. It makes you feel wrong all day,” She squeezed his hand twice to get his attention. He had been staring at the ceiling instead of the other patients sitting across from them – his way of being polite. A fluorescent bulb was flickering out of phase. She could tell it was starting to drive him crazy.
“You assume anyone ever listens over there.”
“One would hope.”
“Yuh, hope is what we need more of darlin’”
“You shouldn’t drink with it.”
“A beer or two ain’t a thing.”
Deidra decided to drop it, this was not the place to rekindle arguments about mixing his anxiety meds with alcohol. Never went well. He always gives a flip answer, clams right up. Be lucky to speak the rest of the day. She tried to stay positive before trips to the V.A. office in Columbus, a two-hour drive. It was the nearest facility capable of serving combat Vets suffering from P.T.S.D. and traumatic brain injury. It took up an entire day to travel just to be seen by a doctor or case-worker. The backlog was purely shameful. Deidra and Hale decided to make a full day of it, a Friday date to kick off a long weekend – first the Cancer Center, lunch on the road to Columbus, then the V.A. where the wait could be three hours.
As long as we’re together, he’ll be alright. On the way back we’ll stop at the Rib Shack. Fresh Hush Puppies. Warm cornbread.
That always cheers him up.
“Yuh think I could reach that fixture if I stood on this chair?”
“They have janitors for that sort of thing, Hale.”
He sat there a few more minutes. He still had the Gun and Ammo magazine he’d picked up from the stack on the table when they first arrived; hadn’t even opened it. In an effort to make the waiting room more cheerful, someone painted a scene of pus green trees and bile yellow flowers being carried aloft by peace doves that resembled clumsy duck-chickens. There was a message of hope rendered above in a neo-biblical version of calligraphy.
GOD’S PLANS ARE BETTER THAN OUR OWN PETTY CONTRIVANCES
Deidra always had to force herself not to laugh. The script was barely readable. A cynical sense of humor seemed out of place in a cancer treatment facility; mordant humor, part of her secret nature, amplified now by her esoteric correspondences with Thrip, made her see suffering less as a result of the grueling courses of chemo, but of good intentions of those trying to soften the blow by hiding their personal relief that it was your suffering, not theirs. Kindness offered up by endless guilt pie, baked sugar shame cookies, bargained bible quotes and penurious art. It was an extreme sense of personal ascesis keeping her from tumbling off the precipice of humility and mocking the absurdity. Ah, the shambolic and well-intentioned candy-stripers of humanity. They are just trying their best to help me die with a smile on my face.
“Well, hell…let’s see…”
“Hale! Don’t you dare!”
Hale broke free of her grip, pulled the chipped waiting room chair with into the middle of the floor and stood on it at full height, arm outstretched, hiking himself the few inches higher by putting his boot on the arm rest, trying to reach the receptacle with the improperly cycling bulb.
“Hale, you get down this instant!” hissed Deidra, trying not to laugh at his random acrobatics. He was being comedic- the quiet clown, the dry practical joker. He is so rarely like this anymore. Falluja baked the childishness right out of him. Madcap veniality – the very character trait she loved most of all about him, practically nonexistent since coming home, being wounded. If anyone could pull off harmless dead-panning, it was Hale. Before he went to war. Before the plate in his head caused the massive migraines. Before he went dust devil.
“Al-most… got… it…” He was straining more than necessary just to crack her up. He tilted his head and grit his teeth like a charging boar. His face was turning red and the veins in his neck bulging out with his piercing blue eyes. The other patients in the room weren’t sure whether to laugh, offer to help or call security. They sat and looked up at Hale who had pulled an ink-pen from his pocket, adding the two inches necessary to reach the light cover, began to pry it upwards.
“Sir? Sir! Can I help you? What chawl doing?” A receptionist with a blonde puffed out helmet hair-doo stood holding a clipboard looking up at him. He paused and looked down on her. Clearly, she wasn’t amused. He looks at her, wide eyes; mocks her rural Jawja accent.
“This’n blankin’ light is fitt’n to make me fall faward in an epilepsy. Yawl gotta taller ink-peen?”
“No, no, no…please don’t worry. Yawl get down please. I’ll call the building engineer directly. It woont dyew for yawl to get bad hurt doing sometheen that ain’t your job.”
He stares back. “Too late.” He says, cryptically.
“Sir, yawl please get down. Insurance regulations, you understand?”
Hale smiled slightly, put away his ink pen, got down off the chair and pushed it back into place, right next to Deidra, whose eyes were beginning to tear up from repressed laughter. He sits back down, splays both feet out like a drunk on a prison bench, resumes his staring at the blinking bulb.
“Never volunteer for anything.”