Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Violets For Dusty - - Bill Schweizer

“That’s quite a friendly dog you’ve got there.” I had just been joined on my customary park bench by a young woman accompanied by a large black dog with eyes as dark as his coat. The dog was nuzzling my chest and sniffing my pockets.

“Not really. He’s usually not friendly at all. You’ve got cancer.”

“What the heck are you talking about? Cancer?”

She responded matter of factly.
“That dog, he’s trained. We work at the Med Center. He can smell cancer, and he’s more accurate than a scan. So unless you have a roast beef sandwich in your shirt pocket or a bunch of violets, it’s cancer. Count yourself lucky. You’ve had a screening, and now you have to deal with it and right away.”

I turned back to my paper ignoring this lunatic, but she would not be denied. In the same rude tone she snapped out instructions.

“See your doctor right away. Get a sonogram, a complete blood panel, and calcium.”
I ignored her, and the rudeness turned to anger. “Listen buddy, some deserving people pay good money for the advice you’re getting free. I want your promise that you’ll see your doctor today.”

I shook my head, “Lady I’m not promising anything. You may have a problem, I don’t.”

She got up, and the friendly dog was beside her, sitting but facing me.

She shook the leash, and the dog lunged, taking my right hand in his mouth and biting down as though it were soft cheese. Four fangs broke through the skin and sank in deep at the same time crushing the flesh. He let up as though to bite again but backed off.

“Son of a bitch. Are you crazy?” I was shaking my hand and spraying blood.

She answered flatly.

“Now you’re gonna have to get that seen and, when you do, ask for those tests. Don’t forget the calcium.”

Then they were gone.

The only thing handy to stanch the bleeding was my tie, and, as I wrapped it around my hand, lamenting its loss as much as I did the pain of the bite.

At such times it’s good to know a doctor. Left handed I speed dialed Bret’s office hoping he had not yet left for lunch. I knew my buddy would wait.

“This is not a difficult diagnosis my friend. You’ve got a nasty canine bite. I wouldn’t be worrying about rabies. The last case of rabies in the City was fifty years ago, and that came from a bite by a sick bat in a flowerbed on Park Avenue. Besides your dog was on leash. Not likely to be rabid and, sorry to speak ill of my own profession, but there’s not much we can do for punctures.”

“What about antibiotics?”

“I’ll give you some of course. A dog’s mouth is relatively clean, but that microbe catcher you wrapped around your hand was not a good idea.”

“For your information that microbe catcher is a ninety-five dollar Sorrelli.”

“Excuse me. Anyway, your obvious worry is that with four hard stab wounds you’re likely to have had a nerve bruised or, worst case, transected. Right now your hand looks like a rubber glove on a garden hose. In a day or two we’ll know if Fido nicked a nerve.”

“What about those tests the woman mentioned?”

“I would say you don’t need a sonogram of the gut, not for an animal bite. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some blood drawn. You haven’t done that in a while. I’ll order it. So get to the lab pronto. It’s on the first floor. Now can I trust you to stay out of anymore dogfights?”

I was in and out of the lab and back on the street in twenty minutes my hand still throbbing like a toothache with fingers. In lieu of a strong cocktail, I took a long walk avoiding further animal contact especially dog or bat. I had switched off my cell phone on the walk, and, when I turned it back on again left handed, it rang immediately, Bret calling.

“Listen closely. I need you to clear the decks tomorrow and meet me at SK Hospital at oh eight hundred, not a second later. I’ll meet you at the 68th Street entrance.

“What’s the emergency?”

“I got your blood work back and there’s something I don’t like.”

“SK. That’s a cancer hospital. Why there? Don’t fool around or you won’t see me.”

“OK, your results are consistent with a variant of leukemia.”

“What does that mean, a variant of leukemia?”

“It means leukemia. Please have a drink buddy, and try to sleep. I’d go into more detail now, but I want to see the lab work myself. Just be there O.K.” and then my best friend hung up with me standing a bit wobbly at the end of a rickety pier.

Next morning they repeated the tests adding some others and did the sonogram the “dog lady” ordered. Initial bad news was confirmed and more added including a mysterious prominence on the pancreas and a mass inside the spleen. Crazy. I had not even thought of those words since college biology. I learned a clinical term for the last two problems, neoplasm, and a non-clinical term for my ‘variant’ of leukemia, ‘Brushfire’.

Nobody had to explain anything. The dry discussion of these discoveries had taken away their shock value, and the bare facts remained which didn’t require a diagram to explain. I was screwed.

Bret seemed to confirm this when we sat for a heart to heart, “You’re screwed pal. There’s no other way to put it.”
“Don’t sugar-coat it, Bret.”

“There are some things we can do, bone marrow, surgery, chemo’, but they’re less effective when you get this as an adult.. Sorry I’m so pessimistic. I’ve never seen this before. A hat trick. Good news is I’ll go into the medical journals on your case.”

“So what’s the bad news?”

“You won’t be here to read them. Here’s what you need to know. Your treatment is going to be torture and maybe for nothing. You’ll need luck, which seems to have run out, and motivation, which, knowing you, will be even tougher to come by. You think you’re ready to fight but, believe me, depression is going to drop in faster than winter in Buffalo. You would have had a better chance if you had hung onto that wife, but a depressed divorced guy with your white count is a bad bet. Not to mention finding a donor.”

“So what’s my prognosis?”

“There isn’t one.”

“Except for the fingers I don’t feel bad. Is that going to change?”

“Don’t get impatient. The treatment will make you feel bad enough.”

“Suppose I don’t want treatment, then what?”

“Then you will start to feel bad and you’ll never, ever, feel better.”

“Bret, you’ve never steered me wrong, at least not lately, so I’ll play along for now. I suppose there’s no point in going back to work?”

“You don’t have time for work, and, before long, you’ll have no energy. Get yourself a hobby because your oncologist is not going to want you roaming the city and picking up some bug that’ll take you out right away. Just be back here on Monday with a clean calendar. Can you have someone bring you? Your sister, Marnie, maybe?”

I was sure the fear would set in, but it hadn’t yet, just a bout of low caliber soul searching.
Taking stock of life, the balance sheet looked spare, career stalled in that twilight zone between a glassed in cubicle and a private office, friends, a half dozen if you count bartenders and pari-mutuel clerks, marriage failed and forgettable. By any standard, ‘a trim reckoning’. So, Thursday to Monday to say goodbye to the normal world. And then what? Nausea and vomiting I supposed, something, at least, to keep my mind off the negative.

In the waiting room for my first consult I was feeling surprisingly good having self hypnotized myself over the weekend to a tentative fatalism. What was it Yeats said? “The years to come seemed waste of breath...”

The man opposite me was not taking things as well. He sat trembling, sighing, picking imaginary lint from his shirt. How soon would that be me, I wondered. His wife, a stylish lady with luxuriant black hair, was utterly relaxed reading a magazine, and unforgivably callous to her husband’s pathetic condition. So when the clipboard lady called a name it was a shock that the dark haired wife went in, and the jittery husband took her handbag and remained. I wondered had she been reading Yeats, and then I thought, a bit maliciously, kiss that hair goodbye.
When my turn came, I sat in the doctor’s office as though anticipating being fired. My specialist, Dr. Lang, was a serious young woman ten years younger than me.

“We’re going to start you on some injections, and ignore the tumors for now. Surgery is out of the question.”

“What are the chances of the therapy working?” I asked.

The doctor frowned at the question. “Your best chance is remission. Most of our positive results are just the disease burning itself out.”

“How frequently does that happen?” I had to ask.

“Maybe two per cent.”

“Damn. One in fifty, that’s less than poor. Would anyone ever get on a plane that had a two per cent chance of landing safely?”

The doctor pointed out the obvious flaw in my analogy. I was already on the plane.
My therapy days seemed to coincide with the black haired lady, and we became conversational friends, bantering about trivialities, the weather, taxis, and hospital bureaucracy, at first pretty much denying why we were both there.

Her name was Lucia. The nervous guy who had come with her the first day was her brother. “Robert gets creeped out by illness.” she explained.

I was proved wrong about the hair. I had cut my own in brush style anticipating loss, but Lucia was unaffected. As time went by, we both became paler and thinner but the lustrous black hair never changed.

For some odd reason I started to measure my own progress by how Lucia was doing. I knew little about her condition, but I assumed we were peers. We had pacted not to discuss our treatment, but I was curious. I asked the techs what was her situation, but, of course, they wouldn’t discuss other patients. Lucia was so compliant, so stoic, it made me feel ashamed.
I came late for my Tuesday, and Lucia was sitting at the far side of the room near the windows, as per usual, composed and serene. How could that be? I watched her until I became annoyed with her calm and quiet and then sat next to her.

“How do you do it? I asked. “How do you stay so cool? What are you thinking? You do know where we are?”

She turned and looked at me directly.

“Dusty.” she said.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know. An animal, maybe an aunt, or a song. I don’t know. It’s just a comfortable word.”

“Meaning what?”

“When I say it to myself, when I hear it in my mind, I go back. I remember something, I remember hearing my mother’s voice, and I feel safe and secure and, well, I guess you might say, happy.”

“You’re lucky.”

“Don’t you have something like that?”

“Afraid not.”

“Then use mine. Say it to yourself. ‘Dusty’ and let your mind go.”

I shut my eyes and pretended to try, “Sorry I just keep thinking of that quote from Shakespeare. You know, ‘And all our yesterdays…’ ” and then I thought better of invoking nihilism, hoping she didn’t actually remember the lines that followed.
“Sorry, I think I meant Will Rogers. I was thinking ‘Dusty Roads’, something like that. Anyway, you keep your own charm. Maybe I can find my own.”

We sat for a moment and then they called her name.

Next visit I violated the pact, and brought up the forbidden issue of the future, “What would you be doing if you weren’t here? If you had your way?”

“Well, maybe I would like to have a baby, a little girl to dress up fancy, and maybe a goofy dog, and a window that looks out on a pond.”

The modesty of her dreams broke what was left of my heart. I lashed out, but at the wrong target. Punish the victim.

“Hey, isn’t that a little self indulgent. What about world peace, helping the poor?” I was about to add “curing cancer” but caught myself in time before continuing.

“ How can you make a deal with God by asking for a happy life for yourself? Why not offer something attractive? You can always back out later.”

I was sorry when I saw her shock at the flash of bitterness.

She shook it off.

“You’re right, of course, but you’re more practical than me. I’m just not able that way. To me life isn’t a biography, degrees and contest ribbons, wheeling and dealing, if it were I’d surely lose. For me it’s minute to minute, day to day. Doing your best to be happy. Selfish I know.”

Then Lucia looked at me and took my two hands in hers.
“I am so afraid.”
She spoke so softly I almost doubted what I’d heard. The pact was utterly shattered.

“I’m afraid too. We all are.”

“No. You don’t understand. It’s for you. I’m so afraid that you can’t remember how beautiful the world is, how beautiful life can be. I‘m afraid that you won’t do what is asked of you so that you can live. Because you don’t want anything. It’s not a crime to want to live, everyone wants that. Please promise me that you’ll try, that you’ll give yourself a chance.”

I’m sure I promised, but my words, whatever they may have been, were drowned out by the sound of the clipboard lady calling out her name.

Dr. Lang decided suddenly that I try some new drug which I would take at home. I was confined to barracks, putting a halt to the outpatient party.

Marnie had given me a stack of inspirational magazines filled with apocryphal anecdotes of people confounding the experts through the power of prayer. Dutifully, I read them all, but Marnie’s good intentions were misplaced. The cute stories with their pat endings only reinforced the unlikelihood a two per cent shot. One of the stories did make me laugh for the first time in months and once the dam broke it felt better. In the story an army chaplain was comforting a soldier about to die. The Padre told him that dying was like going home. “We all go home from work at the end of the day, some take the early train, some the later ones.” He told the soldier he was merely taking the early train, and the soldier felt better like he was getting a sweet deal. I thought to myself, “What a colossal scam. To hell with the early train, I’ll wait for the bar car”. And then I laughed, and I it seemed couldn’t stop, and, when I finally did, I started laughing again. “Yeah I think I’ll just wait for the cocktail train.”

Bret was wrong, depression did not drop in. It insinuated itself like a tunneling worm, first disguised as boredom and then as fatigue. For someone whose days were numbered they became interminable, and so I read and when that activity grew stale turned to the hobby that Bret had decreed.

Marnie had left me a video tape of elementary oil painting, and I watched and then dutifully practiced. The activity was diverting to a point, but my body failed me, and after a while I couldn’t hold a brush for trembling. I developed an alternative where I used my pinky finger to apply the paint, not crudely like finger-painting, but in little strokes with the smooth face of the nail, strokes that I made add up. I imagined that the reds and blues I was applying to the canvas was the color leaving my blood as it turned to water, and this idea gave me the unexpected but pleasant sensation that by painting I had been allowed some participation in my own destiny.
The days passed, and the paint tubes flattened.

I dabbed and smeared my paints until something vaguely familiar began to take shape day by day and week by week and then the instant it seemed recognizable it was finished. Marginally better than a cartoon and almost qualifying as a portrait, a lady’s face against a blue background, stoic, somber. I hadn’t known who it was until I finished. Lucia.

Marnie walked in at that moment and agreed, “That’s beautiful, like a photograph. Isn’t that the woman from the waiting room?”

I argued with myself whether to actually give Lucia the picture. Would she see it as the tribute intended, evidence of having kept my promise, and not a crush, or worse, an obsession?
I brought it with me to my resumed outpatient schedule, knowing it was unlikely our schedules would coincide but hoping otherwise. I could leave it at the office.

When I asked the new receptionist to keep it for Lucia, she seemed not to know her. I asked a familiar tech if Lucia would be back soon and she didn’t respond. I asked again if Lucia had finished her treatment and this time she answered in a whisper, “For what she had there was no treatment.”

Then she turned and hurried away, and, just like that, a friend had become just memory,
At that moment, I yearned to trade places with her, the lady in the picture so that she could have her little girl and her dog and her silly pond. But, all that I could do for her now was to keep my half-assed promise. I sat down and waited for my turn with Dr. Lang.

My anniversary gift was to learn that two percent had ballooned to one hundred. Remission had slipped in quietly through a side door.

The spleen had to come out, and, with it, intact, came its capsule of poison cells. Then the third miracle necessary to qualify me for sainthood occurred when the prominence on another vital organ became less prominent and finally melted away on its own. I was cured. Bret invited me for a day game at the Stadium but first a debriefing.

We sat at his desk tossing and catching one of his autographed baseballs.

“Welcome back old chum. ‘Recalled to life.’ Remember that one from Dickens? I’m happy for you, but I’m amazed too. You had one foot in the grave and the other on a Teflon banana peel. A year of hell, I know, a couple of weeks in a coma, but count yourself lucky. You’re back and fit and when all’s said and done you’re only minus a spleen that wasn’t working very well anyway.”

“You’re preaching to the converted Bret. I know I’m lucky so a couple of numb fingers was worth it all.”

“What are you talking about numb fingers?”

“You know Bret, the finger nerves from the dog bite.”

He looked back blankly, “Dog bite? You had cancer, man, times three, don’t joke now.”

“No joke. I mean the dog bite that brought me to lab where they did those tests by accident instead of rabies shots.”

“Do you really want to relive that day?”

Now it was my face that went blank. He leafed through my file, “Here goes: ‘Patient arrives at ER via ambulance. EMT reports eval of malnutrition and dehydration. Delirium and intermittent consciousness. History of night sweats times six months, abdominal pain times six months and vomiting with blood. No nutrition or hydration times two days.’ Now you’re telling me a dog bit you?”

“Check out the scars.” I held out my right hand to show the punctures, but they weren’t there.

He flipped the baseball, and I caught it cleanly. Right-handed.

There was no returning to the glassed-in cubicle. Afternoons I help Hank and Marnie in the shop. Mornings are to squander on sunlight and deep breathing. Now, I take things day to day, minute to minute. I have a dog I call Dusty. He’s occasionally independent, but we’re best pals. Most days we go to our favorite place in the park, the same bench where another dog, an imaginary one, once prowled.

I paint pictures, with a brush of course, modest cityscapes, the park, the buildings, people in motion, no portraits. I don’t have another in me. I paint and I smile at the passers by, and Dusty greets them as well, squinting his black eyes and methodically sniffing at them, searching for the scent of roast beef and violets.

Photo Credit: DavePress

About The Author:
Bill has resided in Southern California almost long enough to pass for a native despite the occasional pang of nostalgia for snow falling on steam grates, pizza by the slice, and Jones Beach. Enjoyments are movies (Manhattan locales - caper flicks - film noir), California history, Linda’s biscotti, Linda, Saturday football, the ocean (either one), and, once in a while, serene travel. His fiction has been published in the Los Angeles Times, Thieves Jargon, River Walk Journal, Bewildering Stories, Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine, Green Silk, Lunarosity, The Cynic Online Magazine, Skive, Static Movement Online (frequent contributor), Crime and Suspense, Mysterical E, and Twisted Tongue. “The Cold Reader” was recently anthologized in the Crime and Suspense Anthology “Ten For Ten”.