Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

In Sickness and In Health

  

 

 

A conference call:

“I can’t believe he’s gonna marry the little witch,” Max said.

“Witch?” Jennifer asked. “Don’t you mean bitch?”

“I hate that word,” Max said. “A woman should never use it, no one should ever use it.”

“There are worse things you can be called,” Tiffany said. “The new one is THOT.”

“THOT?” Max asked.

“THOT, that ho over there.”

“We’ve been away too long. We’re out of it.”

“That doesn’t sound that bad.”

“Been called worse.”

“Anyway, I can’t believe the bastard’s gonna marry the little, call her whatever, but that girl is cold.”

Max got angry.

“Do not call my son a bastard. I worked hard to get him his last name.”

“We all worked hard to get Jason his last name.”

“It was just a slip of the tongue,” Tiff said. “I’m sorry.”

“Be more careful,” Jenn said.

“I’ve never been careful with my tongue.”

Max flashed back to twenty-two years ago when she read her son’s birth certificate, and where it asked father, Unknown was typed in. Unknown was bullshit She vowed to, and did, change that. The girls helped.

His father was a player. So he was an easy set-up. Pictures of him with Max, Tiffany, and Jennifer in a foursome would have ended his political career. Max didn’t like to do the blackmail shots, but sometimes there was no choice.

Besides, politicians should behave.

Rickie-boy married her, gave her son his name, and the two were divorced six months later, as agreed, and of course child support. She kept the pics in case Rickie started talking annulment or wanted to stiff her son’s inheritance.

Rickie had ambition and that made him vulnerable.

Rickie went to prison, so there was not much to inherit.

“Come over,” Max said. “I need you to help me.”

It seemed like hours before her friends arrived. She did not want to take OxyContin. She wanted to be clearheaded. Besides, the cancer was so advanced, oxy hardly controlled the pain. She could wait this out.

Max would trade everything to be able to get out of bed and get into the shower. She tried to make it, but the tumor was now on her spine so she couldn’t walk. She still had strength in her arms; she fell to the floor and dragged herself to the bathroom. Pain paralyzed her. She turned around.

She needed their help.

She made it back to bed on her hands and knees. Max did not want them to see her on the floor. She was beyond humiliation but to see her that way, she imagined, would be upsetting to her friends.

She heard them enter the mansion. Stiletto heels echoed as the two walked across the marble foyer. Max smiled. 

They entered her room. The two were forty, looked thirty, and acted twenty. Max felt proud of how she developed and managed them. They prevailed. They had stuck together since grade school.

Tiffany’s hair was dyed a daring red. Jennifer was now platinum blonde. They still wore too much makeup. They removed their sunglasses. Despite their daily visits Max realized they never got used to how she looked. 

Max wore one of her ex-husband’s Brooks Brothers button-down shirts and gray sweats. The four-carat wedding ring looked enormous on her skeletal hand.

“You don’t look so bad,” Jennifer said.

With that Max took off her wig. She was bald. Purple crosses were placed on areas of her scalp to guide the x-rays that tried to shrink the cancer cells.

“I’m dying,” Max said. “But it’s not the dying that bothers me. It’s that I’m dying too fast. I’ll never make it to Jason’s wedding. I only want a few months.”

“Doesn’t he know you won’t make it to his wedding? Can’t they move it up a few months?” Tiff asked.

“The bride wants to get married at the Blue Pearl. She can’t get the hotel until November first. They think I’ll be dead by July. I think May is more like it. My son told her about my cancer. She refused to change the date.”

“I don’t think they want us showing up at the wedding,” Tiff said.

“We’ve been thrown out of better places,” Jenn said.

“Your son should walk out now. It will never last. That marriage is cursed. You have to marry someone with a heart.”

“She’s stone.”

“Yeah, and he’s stupid.”

“Don’t talk about my son like that. Come on.”

“We know women better than he does. What about her parents? Can’t they see what they’re doing to you?”

“There’s something wrong with them as well,” Max said. “They have a lot of money.”

“But they’re heartless.”

“You can’t buy class.”

“He’s in love,” Max said.

“He thinks he is. How long can you love a thing like that?”

“Have you seen her?” Max asked. “She’s got world-class legs, ending high up into a world-class ass, and her boob job was better and more expensive than ours.”

“How did she get the money? Ours were so expensive.”

“Her parents got her the breast implants when she was sixteen, and a BMW.”

“You met her?”

“Once. That was enough. He can’t see what we see. I don’t understand what she sees in Jason. They come from different worlds.”

“Jason is gorgeous and if he plays professional ball, he’ll make more money than her father.”

“And she’ll be on his arm, in the limelight.”

“Playing professional ball is a big ‘if.’”

“I’ll bet on Jason,” Jenn said.

“If he doesn’t make it, her dad will give him a job, a future.”

“Oh God. Jason will be kissing their ass forever.”

Max took a sip of water. “I’m not getting out of this one alive, but there is a chance I can buy some time. I need your help. We need to raise some money fast.”

“How?”

Max looked at them and smiled.

The women caught her glance.

“Just like the old days?”

“Yes,” Max said. “I’m sick of being sick. I want to be done with this. I’m ugly. I only have one breast. My implant is the only thing that looks healthy and it’s fake.”

“Honey, you will get better,” Tiffany said. “You just have to fight it.”

“I had the stem cell transplant, but stem cell transplants don’t work for stage-four breast cancer. They ran that doctor out of town. These purple crosses on my head mean the cancer is in my brain. I’m having headaches. I can feel the pressure building up. My vision’s getting blurry.”

“How can we help you?”

“There is this new treatment. There is a doctor who will help hopeless cases like mine.”

“It’s not that guy who was giving chemo to people who didn’t have cancer?”

“No. I would have tried him but he’ll be in jail for the next forty years.”

“What that doctor did was terrible.”

“They should inject him with that poison. Have him barf all the time, lose his hair, and die slowly of an infection.”

Max took a sip of water.

“You have to watch cancer doctors,” Max said. “They sell hope and cancer treatment is a seller’s market. But there is this new treatment called immunotherapy. It’s supposed to work in advanced breast cancer. It costs one hundred fifty thousand dollars a year. It’s my last chance.”

“How are we gonna raise one hundred fifty thousand?”

“I only need six months. Seventy-five thousand will do.”

Silence.

“I don’t see how we can do it.”

“Dance and escort.”

“Like the old days?”

“We’re too old.”

“No, you’re not. You guys look great.”

“And we’re experienced.”

Tiffany bit a fingernail. “A woman needs one of three things: brains, looks, or money.”

“We have two of three.”

The old spark returned to their eyes. Things had gotten routine and dull since they became trophy wives and went legit.

“I never told you guys how I got you to clean up your act,” she said.

“How?”

“I was dealing cards at the casino in Vegas and watched how the two-thousand-dollar-a-night escorts looked, dressed, and acted.”

“You used whores as our role models?”

“At that price they’re entrepreneurs. In Japan they would be called Geishas.”

“We learned fast.”

“We were American Geishas.”

“Sort of,” Max said. “We were born twenty years too soon. Today women have opportunities. They can be doctors, lawyers, and heads of major companies. But when we were young, we had to choose nurse, teacher, or housewife.”

“Or something more exciting,” Tiff said.

“It was exciting,” Jenn said.

Max looked at her friends.

“We have to go back to Las Vegas to make the kind of money I need.”

“I love Vegas.”

“I haven’t been back there in years.”

“I love adventure,” Tiff said.

“Seventy-five thousand shouldn’t be too hard.”

“It’s a cinch,” Jenn said. “I wonder if some of the old concierges are still there.”

“Should be.”

“I miss them.”

“Let’s go.”

“I can’t go with you,” Max said. “I can hardly make it to the bathroom. You two are on your own.”

Tiff and Jennifer looked at each other. They smiled.

 

* * *

 

Max heard them leave. She knew they would be okay.

Max fell asleep. She dreamed they were kids again. All three of them ten years old, Jennifer, Tiffany, and Maxine wore Walmart blue jeans, t-shirts, and knock-off gym shoes. They sat on the cement steps of Maxine’s home, putting stickers of rock stars and movie stars in a scrapbook.

“I’m gonna marry a doctor when I grow up,” Jennifer said. “They make lots of money, and I can watch him deliver babies.” She took out a brush and pulled her red hair into a ponytail. You could smell the perfume of her Bazooka bubble gum as she chewed and blew bubbles, then broke them with a snap.

“You better lose those freckles,” Tiffany said. “Nobody wants a redheaded stepchild with freckles.”

“My mom says if we had money, we wouldn’t have to be bussed to school,” Max said.

“I don’t mind,” Tiff said.

“If we had money,” Max said, “we could do a lot of things.”

“Like what?”

“Go to Disney World in Florida,” Jennifer said.

“Like move out of this crummy neighborhood,” Max said. “That’s why they named me Maxine.”

“What?”

“They named me after some relative. They hoped the old lady would give them money when she died. Then we would be out of here. It didn’t work.”

“Why not?” Jennifer asked.

“She left it to a charity,” Maxine said. “When I grow up, I’m gonna make my own money, I don’t want a husband. Men like my stepdad give me the creeps. Most men give me the creeps. I’m gonna be rich and I’ll make you guys rich too. We’re gonna be known as the Heartbreakers and Moneymakers.”

“I just want to be pretty,” Jennifer said.

“I just want to be beautiful,” Tiffany said.

“I want huge boobs,” Max said. “Mom says you can take them to the bank.”

The girls giggled and ran off to find their friends.

Max plotted their future.

They prevailed.

 

* * *

 

It took six weeks. Jenn and Tiff looked tired but very happy.

“We did it,” Tiff said.

The two women opened their suitcases and poured out stacks of one-hundred-dollar bills.

“We got one hundred ten thousand, you can go longer than six months.”

“Don’t want to,” Max said. “This has gone on long enough. Cancer kills too slowly. If it weren’t for the wedding, I would never think of slowing it down. I’d speed it up.”

“You mean?”

“Absolutely.”

 

* * *

 

The three went to the oncologist’s office. 

“Dr. Shep, these are my friends. We have raised the money for the immunotherapy.”

Max handed the doctor a legal-sized envelope.

“It’s all there,” Max said.

“I believe you,” Dr. Shep said. “I have to give the drug company the money or they won’t release the medication to me. Big Pharma goes by the book and wallet. You will not receive a bill from me.”

“I need six months,” Max said.

“I can’t guarantee six months,” Dr. Shep said.

“For seventy-five thousand?” Tiff asked.

“A successful cancer drug has to prolong a patient’s life six weeks.”

“Six weeks? It’s not worth it.”

“I’m sorry. At your stage it’s the best I have to offer. If you wish to decline, I’ll understand. I’m not sure I’d do it. I see what my patients go through.”

Max said, “I’ll do anything. Will I get out of the wheelchair?”

“If you respond. If your spinal cord is not damaged too much. If the tumor shrinks.”

“I need to be able to walk—not far, just down the aisle.”

 

* * *

 

The three flew to Tampa. Max got sick on the plane. They took her off in a wheelchair.

Tiff and Jenn had a lot of extra money for traveling, and they took a limo to the resort. They walked into the lobby, pushing Max in the wheelchair.

“It’s very expensive,” Max said. “I’m sure her family picked this place hoping the riff-raff couldn’t make it.”

“Couldn’t afford it.”

“Our side of the aisle won’t be very full. I feel sort of sorry for Jason.”

“We’ll really feel sorry for him a year from now.”

“We made a lot more than we needed,” Tiff said. 

“Did you see their eyes light up when we paid in cash?” Jenn said.

“They’ll remember us,” Tiff said.

“In more ways than one.”

“Wait till they see what I’m wearing to the wedding. When the men see me, they will come over to our side of the aisle, at least the young ones.”

“The horny ones.”

“Most men are horny.”

“Except our husbands,” Jenn said. “The old goats are too old now.”

“Low ‘T,’ it gets them all eventually.”

 

* * *

 

Max was sick that night.

“Do you think you can make it?”

“I didn’t come this far. I may die walking down the aisle, but I want the bride to wish she had changed the date. Nine months ago I could have made it, easy. But now I don’t know. His fiancée knows how much this means to me.”

“So does Jason.”

“He’s a disappointment.”

“Don’t talk bad about my son. He can’t help it.”

Jenn looked at Max. She asked, “You’re going to try to walk? I thought we were going to roll you down in the wheelchair. We were going to decorate your chair.”

“You really think you can walk?”

“In small steps, but I think the medication’s working. I have more strength and feeling in my legs. My headaches are gone.”

They didn’t talk for a while.

“Let’s get ready,” Tiff said.

“Max, we’ll help you.”

“Thanks. I want to check you guys out. See what you’re wearing. Don’t shock them too bad.”

Tiff and Jenn looked at each other and smiled.

“Sure, Max.”

Tiff and Jenn wore three-inch heels and very short skirts.

Max wore a crème-colored dress.

“That’s a very appropriate mother-of-the-groom dress, Maxie.”

“I don’t want to draw attention away from the bride. You guys will. You look like expensive escorts.”

“Yes,” Jenn said.

Max shook her head. “Let’s go.”

 

* * *

 

The limo met them in front of the resort. Tiff pushed the wheelchair. They approached the black-and-gray Bentley.

“Stop here,” Max said. “I want to walk to the car.”

The driver opened the door. Max stood and slowly walked to the car. She got in. Jenn closed the door.

Tiff sat up front. Jenn sat next to Max.

They drove to the church.

“I better take the wheelchair to the entrance of the church. I can’t waste any steps. It will take all I have,” Max said.

Jenn pushed Max into the church. Tiff followed behind.

Men watched. Their wives elbowed them.

The wedding guests assembled. Most were on the bride’s side of the aisle.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Max said. “I’ll walk down the aisle with this gentleman here. You two take your seats.”

Tiff and Jenn walked to their seats. Several young men left the bride’s side to get closer.

Pachelbel’s “Canon” played.

Max stood. The wheelchair was placed to the side. She entwined her arm into that of an usher. The two walked down the aisle.

Jenn and Tiff watched with tears in their eyes and fingers crossed.

Max made it. Tiff started clapping. Jenn grabbed her arms and pulled them apart.

“Don’t clap.”

Jason and his groomsmen were waiting. The minister in the center. Bridesmaids took their places.

The “Bridal March” played. The guests stood. Max stood.

Jason kept looking back at Max. Tears coursed down his face.

The bride walked down the aisle. Her train was very long. Her dress was cut very low.

Jenn and Tiff whispered calculatingly loud enough to be heard.

“I can see her butt crack,” Jenn said. “Plumber’s butt.”

Guests laughed.

“She’s got a tattoo, a tramp stamp, fits.”

Guests stared at them.

Jason observed his mother.

Max saw the same eyes that watched her when Jason was an infant. When he was sad or hurt or happy, when their eyes met, no matter what happened, the two knew everything would be okay. He was the most important thing in her world, then and now.

“Hush,” the wedding planner warned them.

“Okay,” Jenn said. “We’ll be quiet.”

The bride walked like a queen.

“She looks like the Evil Queen,” Tiff whispered a bit too loudly.

“Off with his head.”

“She won’t give him head.”

The bride’s facial expression changed. She was mad. Max left Jason’s gaze and met that of the bride. Her eyes said, “Why, oh why, aren’t you dead?”

Max looked away and locked on Jason’s eyes.

Her father walked her down the aisle. He was tanned with hair dyed a blond-orange.

“We can get the old man in a threesome, guaranteed.”

The bride faced the minister. Jason turned awkwardly toward Max. He could not take his eyes off of his mother.

“If anyone can give reason why these two should not be joined in Holy Matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

“I can,” Tiff shouted. “She is a heartless, spoiled monster who put the groom’s mother through hell.”

Max looked at Tiff. Max shook her head.

“Don’t,” Max whispered. “This is not what I wanted.”

“I can,” Jenn said. “The groom’s mother had only six weeks to live, and she would not change the date of the wedding so my friend, the mother of the groom, could see her only son married.” 

Jenn’s voice cracked.

“Somebody get those two harlots, Jezebels, out of my church,” the minister said.

Eight young men accompanied Jenn and Tiff out of the church. They were smiling. They seemed to side with them. They definitely wanted to be with them.

“You tried,” one of them said.

“Too late.”

“Let’s get a drink.”

“She’s always been cruel, disgusting her whole life, just like her old man.”

Jason continued to observe his mother. He ignored the bride. He did not pay attention to Jenn or Tiff or the commotion at the back of the church.

It was just Max and Jason, like the old days.

Max took her seat.

Jason went to his mother.

He held out his hand. Max took it.

Memories of Jason putting his trusting child’s hand in hers returned. Her throat ached.

Mother and son left the church, arm in arm.

The Bentley was waiting for them. They piled as many people as they could into the limo and safely drove back to the resort.

“Mom, I’m sorry.”

Max smiled and patted his hand.

 

 

 

 

Olaf Kroneman, MD, entered private medical practice in 1983. He writes: “My interaction with patients and other healthcare professionals prompted me to write. Inspired as well as horrified by the things I have witnessed, my writing is influenced by actual situations but is fictionalized to protect people's identities.”

 

Work has appeared or is forthcoming in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Forge, Hawaii Pacific Review, inscape, The Healing Muse, The Helix, Left Curve, Quiddity International Literary Journal, paperplates, riverSedge, and Gemini Magazine. "Fight Night" won the Winning Writers Sports Fiction and Essay Contest, and "The Recidivist" won the Writer's Digest short story contest. His essay "Detroit Golden Gloves" was selected as Editor's Choice by inscape, honoring the top nonfiction piece of the issue in which it was printed. In 2010, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for "A Battlefield Decision."