By Nadja Maril
Coach said “no excuses.” And what was he going to say anyway when no one wants to hear the word “cancer”?
His father has the “C” word, and no one wants to talk about it. It is 1972 and lasting cures for prostate cancer are few. His sister avoids the topic completely by saying stuff like, “Dad is sick. Maybe he’ll get better.” But who is she kidding?
And Mom, she avoids his questions by taking on an extra job teaching summer school and coming home just as the dinner dishes are being dried and put away. Mark knows someone has to pay the bills. He is too young to get a job, so he is the one assigned to stay home.
Watch Dad. Sit with Dad. Bring him a glass of water. Make him a sandwich. Boil water for tea. Initially he’d volunteered. This was his opportunity to spend time with his father. He said, “Sure, I’ll do it.”
Before the cancer, Dad’s schedule had been crowded with classes and projects. “It’s an unstable time for engineers,” Dad had explained. He’d been laid off several times, the family forced to rely on Mom’s salary.
To insulate himself from future job losses, Mark’s father had forged a new path by earning a teaching certificate. “A steady paycheck is worth its weight in gold,” he liked to say.
Maybe, if his father started feeling better, they’d go out in the back yard and rebuild the old shed, like they’d planned, and Dad would jabber on about the right way to pound a nail or line up a corner. Or maybe, Dad will get well enough to attend one of Mark’s track meets and see how fast he can run. Now he barely speaks.
In another hour Mom will be up, getting ready to leave for work. The house will remain quiet until his older sister Debbie wakes and self-importantly bustles back and forth from her bedroom to the bathroom, primping for her day job at Mr. Kent’s law office.
Debbie checks to see if the red dots on the top of her electric rollers have turned from red to black. If she is lucky, her light brown hair will easily wrap around the heated rollers. She’ll leave them in for two minutes and the bottom of her hair will curl and the curls will hold and she’ll look like Marlo Thomas. Boys will take a second look and forget she is smart.
She’ll look as pretty as Sally, another sales clerk who is always getting compliments. Not that Sally has much of anything going on inside her head, but she knows the right lipstick and nail polish to wear. Sally says boys don’t like smart girls and she is probably right, because Sally has lots of boyfriends and Debbie has none.
Debbie wants to wear nail polish, but she doesn’t have time to labor over a manicure. She uses her hands too much and the polish will chip.
As she fixes her hair she wonders, is Dad awake? Does he need the bathroom? She prefers using the bathroom because it has better lighting and a large mirror. Dad has a potty chair, what Mom calls a commode, to use if he is too weak to make it across the hall. Anyway, he is probably asleep. She hasn’t heard any sounds coming from his room.
Debbie stares at her reflection and thinks of Mom’s younger sister, Aunt Beverly, who is always saying, “Keep your chin up.” The first time she heard those words, she thought her aunt was worrying about the predilection in the family for double chins. But no, she is talking about something else because she uses that exact same expression every week when she telephones. “Keep your chin up, even if your neck is dirty, and everything will be fine.”
“Easy enough for her to dole out advice about carrying on despite your troubles,” Mother says, “When she gets a month-long summer vacation.”
Aunt Beverly, who has two little boys of her own, hasn’t visited in two months. Mom, who sits up with Dad at night, is gone during the day. Sometimes Debbie takes her father to his doctor’s appointments, but she has her two jobs.
It’s not fair. Her friends are off on camping trips and going to the beach with their families, but Debbie doesn’t get to enjoy her summer.
“Think you could do some laundry?” Mom says. “Clothes don’t wash themselves.” With Dad stuck in bed, there are all those sheets to do, and Mark, just a year and a half her junior, doesn’t even keep up with washing his dishes. Barely lifts a finger. It is Deb’s job to keep the place clean.
If she fills her mind with worries, such as whether the Pinto will run out of gas and whether the dress she bought for her first day of classes is going to shrink, there is no room left in her mind to think about her father.
She is going to Notre Dame in the fall. She’s been awarded a scholarship for academic achievement. Dad said, “I always knew you were a smart cookie,” when she opened the acceptance letter.
She is the one who gets good grades (unlike her lazy brother), but she worries that choosing a school so far from home has been a mistake and that college will be harder than anticipated. “Don’t worry about it,” Mom says, “You think too much.”
The black dots in the center of her rollers indicate they are ready to use. She concentrates on not burning the tips of her fingers as she wraps the strands of hair around the hard plastic.
Oh, she is going to look beautiful, if only the pimple on her chin would come to a head. She heats up the water to soak a washrag. Mom suggests hot compresses when something is inflamed.
“You going to spend the whole morning in there?” Her brother is rapping on the door.
She opens the door a crack. “Relax twerp, I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
What does her brother do while she’s at work? He probably lounges around the house reading comic books. Yet as the youngest and the boy in the family, he is Dad’s favorite.
He can wait. Mark has nowhere special to go.
She starts unraveling her hair, and it looks perfect. When she arrives for her shift at the department store, she is going to impress her supervisor with how professional she looks. The old dried-out people who work at the law office barely notice her appearance, but the people who come into the Jordan Marsh department store will notice. Maybe she’ll earn a 25-cent per hour raise before summer is over.
In the fall, she is off to college, and she’ll be spending the money she’s earned buying new clothes and knick-knacks for her dorm room. She’s even started a hope chest, so when she does meet Mr. Right, she’ll have some of the things she’ll need to set up their household. It’s nice to dream.
Debbie is eating her breakfast, toast spread with cream cheese and jam, when Mark enters the kitchen. He rifles through the cupboards looking for a box of cereal.
“We’re out,” she says. “You’ll have to wait until Mom goes to the store again or walk there yourself.”
Mark starts to ask his sister why she can’t go to the store for the family but doesn’t because he needs to ask for a favor. “Deb, what time do you get back from your receptionist job?”
“Time?” she drums her fingers on the Formica surface of the table. “You want to know what time? Why the interest in my schedule?”
“I need a ride to track practice,” he says. “You get home about three o’clock don’t you? My practice starts at four.”
“Well, I don’t always get home at three. Sometimes, they need me to stay longer, and then I have to get ready to head over to Jordan Marsh.”
“I thought your shift didn’t start until five?” Mark says.
“Jeez. I’m not a machine that works non-stop. I need time to eat dinner and freshen up.”
“You need almost two hours to eat and wash your face?” he says. “Come on.” Demonic Deborah, he almost says.
“Don’t you have any teammates who might give you a ride?’ Debbie asks. “Some juniors or seniors with driver’s licenses?”
Mark walks towards his sister and leans over her, his face a few inches from her own.
“Yuck. Get out of my space you creep and stop breathing on my food. “
“Didn’t Aunt Beverly give you that deal on her Pinto with the caveat that you help with running errands, shopping, and taking Dad to the doctor? Wouldn’t part of helping the family be to give your brother a ride?”
“Using big words, are you? I didn’t know you even knew what caveat means.”
“Caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. Miss Brilliant you are not the only one in this family to take Latin.”
Debbie looks down at her wristwatch “Rats, it’s getting late. Okay twerp,” she says while heading for the stairs. “Be ready at 3:30 sharp.”
During the day Mark feels alone as he struggles with his father’s care. His sister is no help. Yes, Debbie drives Dad to a doctor’s appointment now and then. Yes, she does some laundry. But she isn’t the daily caregiver, and she isn’t responsible for giving Dad his injections.
In the beginning, the doctors prescribed Percocet to ease Dad’s pain, but the pills stopped working. Now, the only way the pain can be endured is with morphine shots. They need to be administered every four hours.
It was Mom’s idea to have Mark give the injections. “I know I can rely on you,” she said. The responsibility made him feel important.
Dr. Milton agreed with the plan. “You’re almost a man. You say you’re interested in science,” he said. “Maybe one day you’ll be a doctor yourself or work in a lab and find a cure.”
Mark practiced on an orange. With a steady hand, you slowly pierce the skin and then the flesh.
The injections become Mark’s responsibility, a tangible way to show his love. Mark wants to make Dad feel better. His father is in such agony some afternoons that he begs, with a slight grimace in his face and terror in his eyes, for the next shot. He can’t wait four hours. Addicted to the morphine, his father’s body craves for more.
Mark watches the clock and acquiesces by carefully drawing the morphine into the syringe thirty minutes ahead of schedule. He flicks at the glass vial with his finger to make certain there are no air bubbles. “Be certain. It is a matter of life and death. No air bubbles in the syringe,” Dr. Milton said.
Mark knows that tomorrow he will have to wean his father back to waiting longer for the injections. By evening, Dad will be twitching, and he’ll start asking for an injection every three hours. Too much morphine and his father dies. In the morning, his father will have to wait a full five hours between shots, cold turkey, until the cycle begins again.
His father’s arms, once strong enough to lift a heavy beam and hoist it into place, have lost their muscle. In order for Mark to find a spot to inject the morphine, he gathers and squeezes together a section of flesh. He swabs the chosen spot with alcohol and recalls his own fear as a child in the doctor’s office bracing for the stab of the needle. He doesn’t want to inflict pain on someone he loves, but no one in the family wants the job. His mother wakes him in the night telling him Dad needs another shot and looks away. Mark doesn’t want to see his father suffer, grows to hate the smell of the rubbing alcohol, but the responsibility of administering the morphine has become his burden.
While he waits for the drug to take hold, he reads a scary Steven King novel or a classic adventure tale like Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Some days he tries his hand at telling Dad a few jokes, trying his best to make him laugh. He reproduces a skit he’s seen on the Red Skelton Show, and sometimes is rewarded when his father pats his hand and says, “You’re a fart smeller, I mean a smart fella,” once the drug has taken hold.
Joining the cross-country and track teams his freshman year was a good decision. He’s a rising sophomore and already he’s earned two varsity letters.
The feeling of exhilaration, breeze blowing against his hair and face as he speeds along the trail, clears his mind. The sound of his feet pounding the ground establishes a comforting rhythm. There is no need to think of anything except the placement of one foot ahead of the next. Grass, trees, buildings, cars, people are left behind, as he propels his body forward, mile after mile.
At practice, he forgets about everything else in his life and focuses on Coach’s instructions. Running five to eight miles each day has become part of Mark’s schedule. He can feel himself improve. Each time he runs, he gets stronger.
As fatigue starts to set in, he thinks of his father. He pictures his drawn haggard face wincing in agony, refusing to let go, and Mark pushes himself harder. It doesn’t matter if his feet ache, legs burn, and throat feel dry; he keeps up with the other runners until he reaches the front of the pack.
The passenger side of Debbie’s Pinto is littered with papers and magazines. As concerned as she is about cleanliness inside their home, Debbie doesn’t take pride in her car. Mark transfers the clutter to the back, sits down, and readjusts the seat to make room for his legs. “Thanks again, Sis, for the ride,” he says.
Debbie shakes her head and rolls her eyes. “Sure thing. I’m just a chauffeur service. I just live my life to drive my little brother around.”
“Last time I checked, I was taller than you,” Mark says.
“Little as in little mind,” Debbie says, “And worth even less. Not that you are capable of earning any money. I had to spend 20 minutes scrubbing the ink off my hands. Mrs. Solomon, the office manager, made me run 100 copies of papers off on the mimeograph machine today when I’m supposed to be a receptionist. Why couldn’t she do it herself?”
“Poor Deb. Your hands must be so chapped,” he says.
“Ha, like you know anything about hands and skin,” she says.
Mark thinks of his father’s skin turned sallow and all the dark purple and yellow bruises on his arms. Has his sister even noticed? He studies her profile as she drives. Is she attempting a new hairstyle? The ends of her hair are curled. He doesn’t want to say anything because she might take offense. Her driving is painfully slow. One foot hovers over the brake. She doesn’t deserve a car.
Up ahead, two bicyclists hug the edge of the road. Mark admires their racing bikes equipped with multiple gears and hand brakes. He’d been dreaming of taking a weekend bike excursion with his friends this summer, but there hasn’t been any time to get away. The woman’s blonde hair blows in the breeze. She is pretty.
Debbie sharply turns the steering wheel and slams on the brakes, almost hitting a tree.
“What are you doing?” he says, trying not to raise his voice.
“Avoiding the cyclists, you idiot. They were in the way. I could have hit them.”
“They were on the side of the road. Maybe you need glasses,” he says.
“I need glasses? Like you’re the medical expert. My vision is perfect, ungrateful jerk. I’m giving you a ride and you’re criticizing my driving. I should kick you out of the car right now.”
“Please. I don’t want to get in trouble with the Coach. I’m an important member of the team, and I’m supposed to be there on time,” he says.
“Important member of the team! You’re only a sophomore. What are you talking about?”
He thinks about the Mid State Regional Track Meet three months earlier, riding on the yellow bus to Springfield with his teammates. He’d qualified for the two-mile race.
“Don’t be concerned,” Coach had told Mark “After the first mile there’ll be plenty who fall behind. Just keep and establish your pace.”
Around the track stood parents, siblings, coaches, and students ready to call out words of encouragement to their teammates and friends. Mark paced, waiting for his event. He felt queasy. Twelve other boys were competing against him. How fast could they run?
The bang of the starting pistol propelled him forward to claim a place in the center of the pack. He jockeyed to take a position where he would not be vulnerable to the stabs of his competitors’ spikes. He kept running to hold his position and fell into a trance. His mind became detached from his body. He focused on one thing—passing every runner. By the time he’d completed the first four laps, there were only four runners ahead of him.
Some of the runners, who’d started off with a fast burst of energy, appeared to be slowing their pace. Had they encountered the feared brick wall? Mark’s teammates were always talking about “the wall”, the enemy of the runner who runs out of energy too early in a long race. They talked about legs growing heavier with each stride.
The stabs of pain in his calves, the burn in his thighs kept building, but he ran faster and faster, his father’s face before him. He passed one, two, three runners until first place was within his grasp. And then he heard the cheers. The whistles. The shouts. He pushed harder, until he was in front by more than ten yards.
All his teammates and their parents were shouting, “Go Mark Go!” Every cell in his body had been tingling. He’d felt invincible.
His eyes welled up with tears when they’d placed the first-place medal around his neck. He’d won the race. It was the biggest accomplishment of his life.
It wasn’t something he wanted to share with his jealous sister. He’d tried to tell his mother and his father about the race, but they hadn’t been listening.
“What I’m talking about,” he says to Debbie, “is I run the fastest two-mile on my team, “
“Well they’re in trouble if you’re one of their best runners. Must be a bunch of losers,” she says and reaches for a cartridge to push into the eight-track player.
The last few miles, they listen to Simon and Garfunkel. Debbie carefully rotates the steering wheel of her Pinto to turn into the school driveway and turns the engine off.
“Well, we’re here. I hope you’re grateful because I’m probably going to be late to work, just so you can go to that stupid practice of yours.”
Mark thinks of Dad and the way his eyes look while waiting for his mid- afternoon injection. Too weak to talk, miserable and in pain. How much longer can he hold on to life?
“I’ll be back in two and a half hours,” Mark had told his father before he left. “Mom will stop by around 5:30 before she goes out to teach her class. You’re all set. Should I turn the radio back on?” Dad shook his head and shut his eyes.
Running, all he has to do is focus on putting one foot in front of each other. It isn’t easy to talk about what he is feeling, but when he ran fast and broke the school record, and everyone yelled his name and he won the trophy, that was his reward.
How dare his sister try to shame him? How dare she call his practice stupid? It is the only good thing he has. He slams the door with his anger. Crash. The glass in the door breaks and shatters. The small fragments scatter to the ground.
He looks down at the broken pieces, amazed by his strength. He looks at the small blue car with his sister sitting inside.
“What did you do?” Debbie screams, “What did you do? You broke my window.”
Mark shrugs his shoulders. He feels numb. The team on the field is warming up.
“You’ll have to get this fixed,” she hollers. “You’ll have to pay.”
Mark looks at the fragments of glass scattered across the ground. He thinks of his mother and sister never home. He thinks of the nights and days he’s spent caring for his father.
“I already did,” he says.
Nadja Maril is a former magazine editor and journalist living in Annapolis, Maryland. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine and her short stories, portions of her novel in progress, and essays have been published in a number of small literary magazines including Change Seven, Lunch Ticket, Thin Air and Defunkt Magazine. She blogs weekly at Nadjamaril.com and is the author of two reference books on American Antique Lighting as well as two children’s books. Follow her on Twitter at SN Maril.