Stuart started as a patient in the hyperbaric oxygen chamber about a week after I did. We were both part of the early afternoon treatment group, which meant we had to be changed into our hospital-issued scrubs and waiting for our vitals to be taken by 12:15 each day. He always got there before me, his motorized scooter stored off to the side, leaning on his fold-up walker and chatting with one of the staff. He couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall, and even the smallest of the scrub pants they issued us dangled over his blue tissue booties. His wounds involved acute circulation problems in his toes, and for some reason, he wore the booties over his bare feet instead of his socks or shoes like most other patients; the sight of his smaller toes through the tissue reminded me of dried cranberries, and his big toes of prunes.
The wound clinic and chamber were in the basement of the Sharp Grossmont Hospital just up the freeway from San Diego State University’s campus. Along with an alternating staff member serving as our “tender”, there were usually one or two other patients with Stuart and me on our chamber “dives”, although those others changed fairly frequently. Stuart and I were the only patients that I was aware of who’d been authorized for forty dives, each of which lasted an hour-and-a-half and consisted of three thirty-minute sessions with a five-minute break in between. The chamber itself resembled a small submarine that had benches along one side with bed pillows for seats and back supports. Once the patients were settled inside and the chamber was sealed, it took about seven minutes for it to be pressurized to a depth of forty-five feet. Then the tender secured a clear plastic hood over our heads that snapped onto a snug rubberized ring around our necks, and the flow of concentrated oxygen was started inside of it. The theory was that the oxygen would promote blood flow to wounds that otherwise hadn’t healed naturally. While Stuart’s were in his toes, my own wound was internal and involved the cavity that had formed where my cancerous tumor had been located at the base of my tongue. That cavity was the result of extensive radiation treatments and was about an inch-and-a-half long and a centimeter deep; secretions that collected in it flooded my mouth, often mixed with phlegm, which I usually had to spit out every few minutes. Because of the secretions, it was difficult to make myself understood when I tried to speak, so I didn’t much. Consistent throat pain and swallowing issues were additional side effects. It was a struggle for me to make it through a half-hour chamber session without choking on accumulated secretions as I waited anxiously for the tender to remove my hood so I could spit into a small paper cup. Stuart’s only accommodation in the chamber was a stool with an additional pillow on it so he could keep his feet somewhat elevated. The remaining patients had a variety of other wounds for which they were seeking relief. It wasn’t uncommon for them to also need ambulatory assistance or be in wheelchairs; all told, we formed a pretty motley crew.
I guessed that Stuart was about my age, mid-sixties or a little beyond, with a bald dome of a head ringed with a rim of thin, graying hair that made him appear almost monkish. He was as talkative as I was reticent, engaging the tenders regularly with questions about the chamber’s features or sharing stories with them about his own long career designing prosthetics, which it seemed to me, he deemed related in some way. Once hooded in the chamber, it was difficult to communicate easily, so Stuart mostly conversed with the dive’s tender while descending, ascending, or during those short breaks. He never read or slept during the sessions, so when his hood came off, it seemed as if he’d been considering for the prior thirty minutes what would next come out of his mouth. He’d ask about the saturation of gasses in the chamber, its various valves and equipment, why the enriched oxygen knew to seek specific wounds in the body, the application of Boyle’s law to the dives, why it was impossible to whistle at low register at maximum depth. He’d also talk about himself by comparing challenges he’d encountered in prosthetic design to ones he noticed in the chamber, commenting on unusual ebbs and flows he’d faced regarding the supply and demand of various limbs, and elaborating on some of his most difficult and unusual design requests.
“I once worked on a prosthetic nose,” he told one of our tenders. “That was tricky. Getting the mucous membranes and tiny tissues just right.”
The tender, I remember, looked at him blankly, and said, “I bet.”
“It was,” Stuart told him. “First, a mold of the person’s original nose had to be taken and sprayed with a polymer scaffold. Then bone marrow cells were added to the nose shape, which, believe it or not, eventually grew over it. It’s all about aligning the minute elements involved, the science of it.” He gestured with his hand at the chamber’s intricate interior. “Just like this finely crafted vessel.”
One young man named Randy, whose long hair could have been used in a shampoo commercial, was most frequently the tender on our dives. Stuart’s conversations with him sometimes extended to other topics. For example, I heard him tell Randy that he’d always lived alone with his mother out in the eastern part of the county, had recently retired, and had taken up baking as a hobby. While these discourses went on, I pretended to read whatever book I’d brought, spitting periodically into my cup, until it was time for our hoods to be reattached.
After his first few mornings as a chamber patient, Stuart also engaged me in occasional cursory conversations. When those brief exchanges took place while we were seated next to each other in the chamber, they mostly had to do with our wounds and the related healing process. He claimed to have noticed a bit of improvement after his first couple of weeks; I told him I didn’t feel any real difference at all at that point, even though I’d completed more sessions in it than him by then.
“Shucks,” he said once after I’d repeated the same report. He shook his bald head. “And all that spitting you have to do. Must get old.”
“You know, you’re never going to get any better unless you truly believe.” He tapped his forehead, then his chest above his heart. “That’s what counts. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your breath. Time to raise those spirits!”
I felt my forehead furrow and color creep up my neck.
“Say, how about if I bring you some fresh-baked raisin bread or lemon bars?” His eyes widened happily. “That’ll pep you up. Which do you like better?”
“Thanks, but I can’t eat by mouth.” I lifted the bottom of my scrub top so my feeding tube button was exposed. “Still have to take all my nutrition and hydration through this.”
“Shucks,” he said again, but the curious way he studied my button seemed almost clinical and tinged with technical admiration.
The unfortunate truth was that Stuart wasn’t far off about my diminished spirits. My cancer had come as a complete surprise. I’d never been a smoker, but after seeing an ENT because of some minor gagging episodes, the follow-up biopsies he ordered showed that I had Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma at the base of my tongue that had spread to the lymph nodes. My treatment plan called for two months of daily radiation and once weekly chemo. The first couple weeks of that weren’t too bad, but the accumulating toll afterwards gradually began to wipe me out. I was told I should start feeling better a few weeks after treatments ended, but that never really happened. Instead, the excessive secretions began in earnest, as did increasing pain in my right ear and forehead. The pain eventually became so excruciating that I had to be hospitalized for almost a week while the doctors worked on a cocktail of meds to control it. They determined that my original cancerous tumor site was not healing as it should have been and that, instead, nerve problems there were causing my distress. The combination of meds they settled on helped, but left me listless, and no further interventions could be attempted until a PET scan three months after the course of treatment would determine whether or not I was cancer-free. Once that finally and thankfully occurred, they decided to give the hyperbaric oxygen sessions a go. At that point, I was up for trying anything, although after over half a year of feeling pretty awful, I guess my demeanor must not have been a picture of hopefulness.
Stuart, on the other hand, always seemed buoyant. Sometimes, he even did a silly little soft-shoe dance leaning on the tender’s arm for support before entering the chamber. And he frequently hummed…mostly popular Broadway showtunes. I’m not sure when someone’s smile becomes a grin, but he seemed to wear one more often than not, displaying a set of nearly perfect front teeth except for a slight gap between his two middle incisors on top. His eyes had a sparkle to them.
One morning when we were waiting next to each other for the staff to stretch our neck rings over our heads, he looked up at me with that twinkle in his eye and said, “You must have played basketball, am I right?”
“I did, yeah.”
“High school, college?”
“Both, but only small-time college…Division III.”
“How tall are you?”
I spat away some secretions, then mumbled, “Just south of six-three.”
“Just? I’d kill to be anywhere near that. I’d be a rich man if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I looked like Danny DeVito.”
A little chuckle escaped me.
“See,” he said, his eyebrows shooting up. “That laugh didn’t hurt too much, did it?”
I shook my head.
Stuart grinned some more, then stuck a foot out and wriggled the darkened toes under his bootie. He looked up at me again and said, “Getting better every day. You?”
I shrugged and spat again into my cup.
The daily chamber treatments plodded on. It took me about twenty-five minutes to get to the hospital from my place near the coast, so along with the prep beforehand, changing clothes afterwards and using the stall’s privacy to give myself a scheduled med through my feeding tube, then making the required co-pay on my way out, the whole ordeal took close to four hours door-to-door. But I didn’t really mind too much; it filled the time. I’d lived alone for the past decade ever since my wife had left and had recently retired myself as an elementary school principal, so had long hours each day without many responsibilities to speak of anyway. I did tinker with various woodworking projects in my garage, played pickle ball a couple times a week once I started getting some strength back, watched sports on television and went to the occasional movie, but otherwise had nothing and no one special to attend to.
Stuart began bringing baked goods for the chamber’s staff once or twice each week. I could hear them thanking him and fussing over the treats while I was having my vitals taken or waiting to enter the chamber. They had a little break room off to the side of the big control panel manipulated by staff while we were on our dives, and I could see the things Stuart brought through the open doorway on its tiny table, always arranged neatly under cellophane on paper plates adorned with festive prints. Sometimes, I could smell their sweet aromas: cardamom, powdered sugar, nutmeg, vanilla, ground mace. I’d sort of pushed the idea of eating food out of my consciousness, but I admit those smells made my mouth water. They did.
It wasn’t until after my sixth week that I happened upon Stuart as he was leaving the hospital’s parking garage in his little sedan with a handicap placard dangling from the rearview mirror. His motorized scooter was held aloft on the back in a wrought-iron contraption controlled by a hydraulic lift. The wave he gave me as I pulled towards him in my own vehicle was full of animated surprise, his head barely higher than the dashboard. I stopped my car and gestured for him to pull out of his parking space in front of me. He saluted with a big grin, gestures I marginally returned, then I stayed behind him down the circular ramp, through the turnstile, and out towards the traffic light that led onto the main thoroughfare fronting the hospital. We both turned left there and stayed in the far-right lane; I figured he was probably heading for the same set of freeway onramps I was where he’d go east while I went west.
But we didn’t make it that far because just past the next intersection, a loud thump came from the front of his car, it tilted left, then limped hissing into the adjacent mall parking lot. I felt a grimace deepen and swore once, but followed him into side-by-side parking spaces serving a popular Mexican chain restaurant that anchored one end of the mall. It was an area without many other parked vehicles at 3pm on a Friday afternoon. I climbed out of my car and walked around the front of his hood, watching him shove his door ajar, grab his fold-up walker from the passenger seat, and snap it open as I approached. By the time I’d come up beside him, he’d hoisted himself into a standing position. He rubbed the dome of his head, looked from his flat tire up at me with those big eyes, and said, “Well, shit. Shit, shit, shit.”
I managed what I hoped to be an understanding smile and said, “Yeah, not the best way to start your weekend, but if you have a spare, I can get it changed for you.”
“Only have one of those damn donuts.” He blew out an exacerbated breath.“But it’d get me home until I can bring it to the dealership tomorrow for a real replacement.”
“Okay,” I said. “Pop the trunk, and I’ll get started.”
“Don’t want to bother you. My insurance might include roadside assistance. I can give them a call.”
“No need. I used to work in my dad’s service station growing up. Changed these all the time.”
He cocked his head, then shrugged. “Well, okay, if you’re sure. Would do it myself, but…” He pointed at his feet, which were secured in thick socks inside rubber sandals with Velcro straps.
“No problem,” I told him. “Go ahead, pop your trunk.”
He pushed a button under the dash while I walked to the back of the car. The trunk lid lifted just free of the suspended scooter, and I found the things I needed under its floor. I carried them around to the front where Stuart had closed his door and flipped his walker around so he was facing it.
“I think the notch for the jack is on the frame just under the door there. I can get the manual out of the glove box if you want.”
“Shouldn’t need it.”
I stretched out on the blacktop along the front side of the car, felt with my fingertips, found the notch, and raised the jack up to it until it met the frame. Then I loosened the lug nuts on the flat tire and finished raising the chassis off the ground. While I worked, I could hear Stuart humming softly a song from West Side Story, the name of which I couldn’t recall. It was a warm day for mid-November in San Diego, and I was already sweating a bit in my jeans and light fleece, but it didn’t matter much because, aside from a few spits under the car, I had the donut secured and the flat with the other tools back in his trunk in less than fifteen minutes.
I returned to where Stuart stood and said, “All set. You’re good to go.”
He took a wallet out the pocket of his rumpled khakis, opened it, and folded open the section that held cash. I put my hand over his and said, “Forget it. Not necessary.”
“I mean to repay…”
I shook my head. “Nope. Won’t take it. Piece of cake.”
“Listen, I would have been up a creek without your help. I want to do something to show my appreciation.” He searched around him, it seemed to me, a little desperately. “Look, that Mexican restaurant has neon beer signs in the windows. Means they have a bar. Let me at least buy you a quick drink.”
I frowned to cover my smile. “You do remember about my feeding tube…”
“Sure, but you take liquids through that…water, medications, what-not. Hydration, you said. So, you can also have a beer that way…or whatever you want to drink.”
I snorted a little laugh. It was a thought that had never even crossed my mind. But he’d already started shuffling to the back of his car on his walker. He hit a button on the hydraulic lift, and I watched it whir and lower, rocking a little, until it was flush to the ground. Stuart opened a short gate on its front, yanked the scooter’s front wheel onto the blacktop, and said, “Let’s go. I won’t take no for an answer.”
I stayed where I was. The sun had already begun its late-fall descent. Stuart wasn’t looking at me, but I supposed that was intentional. I noticed that his cream-colored sweater had a geometric pattern on it and the turtle neck peeking up through its collar appeared to be a dicky; I hadn’t seen one of those since junior high school. I watched him snap his walker closed, stash it in a slot on the back of his scooter, climb aboard, and turn its key. It made a whirring sound not unlike the hydraulic lift as he zipped around the back of the car up next to me. His eyes met mine, and there was something almost pleading in them.
I said, “It’s getting late.”
“Twenty minutes.” He glanced at his watch. “I have to get home and give my mom her insulin shot anyway. So, twenty minutes, tops. A quick drink. To say thank you. I insist.”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but whirled past me towards the restaurant bar’s open door. I stood for a moment shaking my head. Then I heaved a sigh, returned to my car, got my daypack with my feeding tube supplies, and followed him inside.
The bar seemed dark after the glare outside. A sound system played quiet Mariachi music, and the walls were adorned with Mexican memorabilia. Stuart had already slid away a chair from a table near the door and settled his scooter in its place. I sat down next to him with my daypack in my lap. There were only a handful of other patrons in the place.
I watched Stuart’s eyes travel around the interior until they met mine and he offered his gap-toothed grin. “Not bad, huh?” he said. “This place I mean. Nice enough.”
“You ever been in one of these before?”
“Food’s not bad. There’s one not far from our house. I’ve brought home take-out from it a few times for my mom and me. A little cheesy for my taste…melted cheese over everything no matter what you order, but all in all, not bad.”
I kept nodding until the bartender came up to us carrying a basket of tortilla chips and a little bowl of salsa. He was blonde-haired and blue-eyed, but wore a wide colorful sash that intersected his white shirt and black pants and a red bandana tied jauntily to the side around his neck. He set the chips and salsa down, then said, “So, what’ll it be, fellas? You need menus?”
Stuart jockeyed the scooter a bit in his direction before saying, “Just drinks.”
“Well, happy hour already started, so you’re in luck there. Pitchers of margaritas are half-price.”
Stuart looked over at me with raised eyebrows, his grin widening. I shrugged, which I guess was answer enough for him.
“Sounds good,” he told the bartender. “On the rocks will probably work better than blended for my friend here. I’ll have salt on the rim of my glass. Don’t think he’ll need one.”
The bartender turned to me, his own eyebrows knitting. “You don’t want a glass?”
“No,” I told him. “I’m good.”
The confusion still hadn’t left his face, but he turned and left. Stuart shook his cloth napkin free from its silverware and tucked it into the gap between his sweater’s collar and the dicky. He scooped up a glob of salsa with a tortilla chip, then paused with it midway to his mouth, looked at me, and asked, “You mind?”
“Go for it.” I jockeyed my tongue to keep my secretions at bay, then mumbled, “Doesn’t bother me a bit.”
He munched away while I unfolded my own napkin and unzipped my daypack. I took out a 60 mL syringe, which is the biggest I had, my extension tube, a bottle of water, and the green plastic cup with a snap-on lid that I’d previously used for coffee while commuting to work before I’d retired, and set them all on the napkin. I popped off the cup’s lid, turned my head to the side, shielded my mouth with my hand, and spat as surreptitiously as possible into the cup. I dropped my daypack at my feet, then set the lid loosely on top of the cup before clenching it between my legs; the edge of the table came level with my belt, just high enough to hide the cup. I saw Stuart watching me.
“Sorry,” I told him.
“Don’t worry about it.” He made a waving motion with another chip before dipping it in the salsa. “Do what you have to do. We’re all dealing with our own shit here.” He popped the chip in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, then said, “So, I’m guessing you had some sort of oral cancer, am I right?”
I nodded and gave him a truncated summary of my related history between spits into the cup. When I finished, Stuart said, “And you never smoked…go figure. Lousy hand of cards.”
I pursed my lips and opened my palms.
“But I guess it’s all pretty arbitrary in the end. Hell, I had no circulation problems until I turned sixty, then, boom…nothing but trouble. My mother has been battling diabetes since she was in her teens, and she’s skinny as a rail. People deal with unexplained birth defects every day, or get born into famine and strife. It’s all relative, arbitrary, isn’t it? Misery, misfortune, bad luck, good luck, the color of your eyes, how tall you are or aren’t…”
I answered with another shrug and spat again. He ate a couple more chips, then the bartender came back to our table with a full pitcher and an empty, salt-rimmed glass, which he set in front of Stuart. He poured margarita into the glass up to where the salt began, then said, “Well, enjoy, fellas. Can I get you anything else?”
“No, we’re good, thanks,” Stuart told him.
We both watched him until he’d returned behind the bar. Then Stuart lifted his glass in my direction. “Go on and get busy now,” he told me.“So we can toast properly.”
I picked up the extension tube and the syringe. But before securing the tube, I glanced around the bar at the other patrons. An older, well-dressed couple sat a few tables away sharing a carafe of white wine and a huge plate of nachos. And a trio of guys sitting with their backs to us at the bar nursed draft beers, construction workers of some sort by the looks of their dress and hard hats perched on the bar.
“Don’t worry about them,” I heard Stuart say. “Gear up and let’s go.”
So, I lifted the bottom of my fleece up under my armpits, snapped the extension tube into my button, and twisted it back and forth to be sure it was secure. As I repositioned in the chair, some of the med I’d given myself back at the hospital crept up the extension tube. It wasn’t a pretty thing to see, but it retreated once I sat straighter. I screwed the syringe into the tubing’s fat end, made sure that was clamped shut, and picked up the pitcher. I looked over at Stuart, but he just gave me a short, expectant nod. I answered with an equally short shrug and tipped the pitcher so that margarita poured into the syringe, careful to avoid ice spilling after it. I only filled it about three-quarters of the way to start, the equivalent, maybe, of a couple of sips.
“There you go,” Stuart said with his gap-toothed grin and sparkling eyes. He reached over, and I tipped the top of the syringe slightly so he could tap it with his glass. “Here’s to you fixing that tire.”
He tapped my syringe with his glass a second time. “And here’s to wound healing and you kicking cancer’s ass.”
I said, “I’ll drink to that.”
“Damn straight, you will.”
Stuart gave another nod and took a swallow of his drink, licking away some of the salt. I spat again, took a breath, then released the clamp on the syringe. The margarita mixture was thinner than my regular formula and emptied more quickly out of the syringe. I watched it flow past the calibrated numbers etched on the side. It was cold entering my stomach, exposed and hairy like a dog’s belly; otherwise, there was no sensation. I felt the woman at the table a few tables away staring at me. When I looked her way, the expression on her face was a mixture of astonishment and disgust. I gave her a nod, but she didn’t return it; instead, she shook her head, then leaned towards her companion and whispered something to him. He quickly glanced over at me, shook his head, too, then looked away and squeezed the bridge of his nose. Her head kept shaking. They both took healthy swallows from their glasses of wine.
“So, how’d it taste?” Stuart asked me and laughed.
I looked back at him and said, “Delicious.”
“When’s the last time you had a drink, anyway?”
I cocked my head, considering. “Oh, seven, eight months, I guess. Since before my cancer treatments started.”
“Well, then, you’re damn well overdue.”
I shrugged, but felt my shoulders ease a bit.
He nodded several times, his expression gradually growing serious. He asked, “You have anyone at home to help you out?”
A little shiver passed over me. “Not anymore I don’t, no.”
I shrugged again. “Had a wife.” I paused. It was something I never really spoke about, but in spite of that, I heard myself say, “She left. Traded me in for a better model.”
Very briefly, Stuart’s eyes widened. “Shucks,” he said. “That stinks.”
We both nodded. I watched him drink from his glass again, licking at the salt as he did. The piped-in music changed from one song to another. A little burst of laughter rose from the guys at the bar, and a breeze from the open door lifted the napkin under Stuart’s chin. He raised the margarita pitcher, refilled his glass, then extended it my way, and asked, “May I?”
I felt a tiny smile crease my lips and tilted the open end of the syringe toward him. He took his time filling it. I hadn’t set the clamp, so the liquid started descending right away, the same coldness spreading momentarily under my button. I felt the eyes of the woman from the table on me again, and from the corner of my own, I could see that hers had folded into squints of revulsion. She’d become quite stiff. She whispered something to her companion again, and he raised a hand to call for the bartender who draped a towel over his shoulder and headed their way.
Stuart drank, licked, then shook his head and said, “I can’t imagine what I would have done without my mom’s help through my ordeal. You know, having someone there who cared.” He brushed some flakes of salt away from his lower lip. “I mean, she’s old, real old, near ninety, but she’s helped me plenty over the years. More than I can say. She’s a scruffy old bird, but she’s my scruffy old bird.”
“Here’s to your mother.” I tipped the top of my syringe his way again. It was empty, but he tapped his glass against it and swallowed off more of his drink. His smile had softened somehow. I found myself imagining him as a little boy and his mother as a young woman. I pictured her taking him to his first live musical at a theater, his eyes and gap-toothed smile expanding as the curtain opened, her hand on his wrist.
The bartender interrupted those thoughts when he appeared suddenly at our table, his mouth in a thin, tight line. He looked back and forth between us, then settled on me, and said “I’m afraid that couple over there…” He gave a quick, sheepish glance their way. “Well, the woman, to be specific…well, she’s offended by the way you’re drinking.” He fixed his uncomfortable gaze on me again. “That tube into your stomach and all, the syringe. And also your spitting. Unsightly, she called it, in a public restaurant. Says it’s ruining their meal.”
I looked up at him, growing warm, as Stuart said, “Oh, she does, does she?”
He backed out quickly from our table, then whirled past the bartender on his scooter over to the couple, the napkin fluttering under his chin. Stuart pulled up between the couple as easily as if he was joining them for a get-together, and they both stared at him with dancing eyes.
“I understand you feel my friend over there is disturbing your meal.” I watched Stuart gesture with his chin. It wasn’t hard to hear him; his voice was plenty loud. He rolled his small shoulders and asked, “Is that accurate?”
The man and woman looked at each other, then back at Stuart. The man nodded.
“Well, that’s too bad,” Stuart said. “That’s really awful, seeing as it’s the only way my friend can hydrate. So, I’m wondering how we’re going to rectify this situation.” His face was at an angle where I could see him look back and forth between the two of them, it seemed to me, almost serenely. “Oh, wait a minute,” he said. “I have an idea.” He reached across their table, lifted the plate of nachos, and dumped it on the floor. He replaced the plate, centered it on the table, brushed his hands together, and said, “There you go. Problem solved. He won’t be disturbing your meal any longer.”
As quickly as he’d arrived, he zipped back to our table, took three twenty dollar bills out of his wallet, and handed them to the bartender.“This ought to cover both tabs,” he told him. Then he swallowed off what was left in his margarita glass, and said to me, “Not what I had in mind when I asked to buy you that drink. Sorry.”
He dropped his napkin on the table, made a kind of punctuated three-point turn with his scooter, and whirled away out through the open door. I sat still for a moment, blinking rapidly, then began breaking down my things as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, it took a while because I had to flush the syringe with water several times due to the stickiness of the margarita, unsnap the extension tube, shake it free of moisture onto the napkin, then store everything back into my daypack. At first, the bartender and the couple at the table did nothing as I hurried through those movements except watch me, the woman’s mouth like a fish’s out of water. Eventually, the bartender shifted the towel from one shoulder to another, and walked past the mess on the floor back behind the bar. When I finally stood up slinging on my daypack, I avoided looking at any of them and left through the same open door. By the time I got back outside, though, Stuart’s car was just leaving the parking lot. I raised my hand to wave, but if he saw it, he gave no indication of it. He turned towards the freeway onramps, his head just visible above the steering wheel, while I stood alone in the clean, white light of the dwindling afternoon.
Stuart wasn’t there after I’d finished my prep at the chamber before the next treatment on Monday afternoon. I thought he might just be delayed, but when the staff started loading a couple of new patients into the chamber, I asked Randy about him.
The look Randy gave me wasn’t a happy one. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m afraid he’s not coming.”
I felt my eyebrows knit. “He’s never missed a session, that I can remember. What’s up?”
Randy shrugged. “I can’t really say. Patient confidentiality, you know.”
“Is he okay? Can you at least tell me that?”
“It’s not him.” Randy eyes flitted furtively around him; no one else was nearby. He lowered his voice and said, “It’s his mother.”
I felt my fingertips move over my mouth and said, “Oh, no. Is she all right?”
Randy just looked at me.
“Will he be back?”
“Not for a while, that’s for sure. Maybe someday.” He shrugged again, then patted my shoulder and said, “Let’s get you loaded on. We’re already running late.”
I finished my chamber treatments a couple of weeks later. When they concluded, my secretions had improved a bit, to the extent that they didn’t overwhelm my mouth as frequently as before. And I could also speak a little more clearly. The throat pain and swallowing issues remained unchanged. My oncologist asked me if I wanted her to see if my insurance would authorize another round of chamber treatments, but I told her, no, not yet. I said I wanted to think about it for a while. What I didn’t tell her was that I’d grown pretty accustomed to the spitting and tube feeding. And the meds continued to control my throat pain to a manageable level; if I wasn’t eating by mouth, then the swallowing issues were also kind of a moot point. I was sixty-seven years old.I didn’t know how many years I had left, but I lived alone, and there were worse things I could imagine than continuing on my own with those inconveniences for whatever time I had remaining. After all, I’d beaten cancer, that was the important thing.
Stuart never returned to the chamber during my last two weeks there. On my final day, I thought about asking for his contact information, but knew that regulations would prohibit that disclosure. However, I did think about him quite often afterwards. Him and his mother. I wasn’t religious, but in my own way, I suppose I sort of prayed for them. Whatever that might mean.
Winter came on, and with it, the shorter days, the longer hours of darkness. Something about those changes chilled me inside more than in the past. The passing of the seasons, time dwindling, irretrievable opportunities. But then I’d think about what Stuart had said while we sat next to each other in the chamber, and that helped. When those memories of him crossed my mind, I’d pause and smile. I hoped his toes were okay and that he didn’t have to use his scooter or walker anymore. But even if he did, I hoped he was still humming, still grinning, still baking, and that his eyes still had that sparkle. I sure wanted that to be the case. In fact, there were few things I could have wished for more.
William Cass has had over 250 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Zone 3. He was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He has received one Best Small Fictions nomination, three Pushcart nominations, and his short story collection, Something Like Hope & Other Stories, was recently released by Wising Up Press.