By Jamie Watson
Honorable mention, Fiction
A preacher once said Dave Wooten was smooth as silk. He could talk you into anything, including, one time—to that preacher’s embarrassment—a lemon of a 1964 Ford. It was something about his smile. Or his eyes. I don’t know, really, but when Silky looked at you, you felt seen.
He never lost that look. Not till the very end, anyway. Even when he was lying in a hospital bed, twenty pounds too thin and coughing up a lifetime’s worth of tar, he could turn his head a little, squint one eye so that it sort of gleamed, and smile a smile that would tenderize the heart of a tax man.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the cigarettes that laid him up like that, and he did not hesitate to point that out to anybody who suggested he might should have stopped smoking sooner. Not meanly or sarcastically, of course. He would flash that toothy grin and tell you softly what a pleasure it was to enjoy such a bitter vice for so long and still escape the specter of that demon so reviled by physicians and their confederates. It would have been cruel to disagree, and it was hard not to feel like he might be right.
For the record, I don’t think Silky was all that much of a liar. He bent the truth every now and then, as it served him. As most folks do. But I’m writing this down because a lot of people didn’t believe Silky at the end. About his friend Maria and what she could do. I ain’t so sure he was making it up. I knew Silky a long time, and when it came to something serious, there was no impurity in him. No prevarication.
By the time I made it up to see him, he’d been in that hospital about a week. Something to do with his liver, even though he was never much of a drinker. There was probably some irony in that, given how long he smoked. But he never saw fit to comment on it, so I didn’t mention it either when he told me. I could tell he had something else on his mind.
A twinkle came into his eye, and he nodded toward the corner of the room. There was a big chair by the window for visitors with cushions covered in a green vinyl. Now, I could’ve sworn that chair was empty when I came into the room because I had looked at that green vinyl wondering who in their right mind would’ve chosen that color. But now, sitting in front of me, as if she’d been there the whole time, was a woman in a dark red dress with a big piece of black cloth tied around her middle like a belt. She looked dead at me, no smile or nod—like the kindness had been sucked right out of her. Of course, she might have been a little put out that I hadn’t seen her. She was maybe sixty years old, though I might have said younger if the light was different. She had dark skin and deep lines in her face like she worked outside a lot, so it was hard to tell.
I startled a little, I won’t lie. I backed up and nodded my apologies and introduced myself. She didn’t speak, but Silky told me her name was Maria. Said she had come up to church a few times, and they had talked about the weather and the farming, and this and that. At some point, she told him she was a healer. Well, I’m sure Silky loved that. He had styled himself as a bit of a medicine man for years, selling pills and elixirs out of the trunk of his 1975 Pontiac Grandville Coupe.
Now, I’d been Silky and his family’s doctor for as long as I had been practicing, and I didn’t approve of this at all. I want that on record. Nobody could be sure what was in that stuff he was selling. The only way I found out was that one of my regulars had been taking some pain pills they bought off of him. He didn’t deny it when I asked, but no matter how much I pleaded with him, he wasn’t interested in my opinion. Said he was doing a public service.
Anyway, I’m sure he and Maria hit it off. Silky wasn’t one to worry about competition. If anything, he’d be scheming to partner with her. On this occasion, Silky said she was just visiting, seeing how he was feeling. She stood up, nodded to him, and left the room. When I looked at him, he just shrugged and said he guessed she was through visiting.
Of course, I was not convinced in the slightest that she was a healer. So, more out of spite than anything, I asked if she couldn’t help his liver some. Silky closed his eyes and shook his head, said she couldn’t do anything big like that. Just minor things: lower your blood pressure, help you sleep better, heal gout. In one case, she told him she kept a woman from dying from diabetes for fifteen years. I asked what happened after fifteen years, and he grinned a little. Said the woman made Maria mad, so Maria stopped coming around. The woman got gangrene in both feet and died within the week.
I think I coughed or grunted at this, not one bit convinced that the healer had anything to do with it. Silky must have caught my skepticism because he smiled real big again. Told me there was more to medicine than the medical school taught me. Told me I would see as soon as he was out of the hospital. I was right to suspect he’d been concocting something with this woman. He wasn’t one to skip an opportunity when it came his way. That’s how he got into the pills business in the first place.
Silky’s primary interest was used cars. He co-owned a dealership with a man named Dan Connor he had met in the Army during Vietnam. Dan was from somewhere outside of Houston and had told him there was a big car auction down there twice a year. After they were back stateside, Silky would go down to Houston and bid on cars with Dan. Then Dan would ship the cars up to Little Rock where they would split the profits from the sales.
But at some point, and I don’t know all the details, somebody down there in Texas told Silky that there was a little boat that left out of Galveston a few miles offshore, where it met up with another boat. Out there, Silky could get all kinds of medicines for dirt cheap. He told me he could charge twice what he paid for them and still be cheaper than any pharmacy.
I asked him if that wasn’t dangerous, and he just shrugged. Said it wasn’t hurting anybody. In fact, he said, lifting a long, bony finger like an old schoolmaster, it was the same stuff the doctor gives you—penicillin, ampicillin, water pills, and what not. Most everybody he sold to already had a prescription, so they knew what to buy. They could even put in orders for specific dosages. Said they had anything people wanted on that boat.
Silky said he did get nervous when truck drivers started asking for high-dose caffeine pills and Benzedrine inhalers—they were illegal by then—and then again when pain killers became the big thing. He was afraid word would get ‘round to the wrong people. But apparently it never did because the business kept steady, and Silky had him a new Pontiac about every year. He only kept his merchandise in the ’75, though, which he kept parked with the nose out the back of the dealership’s garage where nobody could get a close look at what was in there. I wondered if Dan Connor knew about the side business and whether Silky split those profits with him. But I never asked him about that.
Anyway, by the time he met Maria, Silky was as much a medicine man as he was a used car salesman. And if he exaggerated one or two of the benefits of those pills, nobody complained too much.
I can imagine he didn’t think too much of Maria the first time she came around. He probably thought her healing had something to do with herbs or roots or whatever. Some of that hippy, natural medicine trend had come into Arkansas from Austin and Memphis, so she could have been part of that crew. Or maybe she was Native American. Like I said, it was hard to tell from her face. She could have been what we used to call an Indian Healer. He never told me what she told him, but that little bit of small talk must have turned serious real fast because when Silky asked Maria about her herbal cures, she stiffened up and told him she didn’t use any thing for healing. She said she could heal just by thinking about it.
Well, I’m sure Silky flashed her that hundred-dollar smile and told her kindly that he didn’t know what that meant. Maybe it was that smile or the way he said it that put her off. Maybe she didn’t like anybody thinking she was one of those hippie types or whatever. But he said that before he knew it, she was looking at him real funny, and his skin got all hot and itchy. He started feeling around in his clothes thinking maybe some ants had crawled up his britches. But there wasn’t anything there. He was just hot all over, and he was getting hotter every second. He said he was squirming around and about to come completely out of his clothes when he looked over at Maria. She was scowling and staring, but as he looked at her, that scowl smoothed out into the sweetest little demur smile, and then, just as quickly as it started, the heat and the itching stopped. I mean, stopped dead, and he was normal again. Right then, he told me, he knew exactly what she had meant.
She said that little trick was good for infections, then listed off ten or twelve other things she could cure just by thinking about them. As you might imagine, Silky saw dollar signs all over that. He asked her two dozen questions about how often she used that gift of hers, how many people knew about it, whether she’d ever thought about opening a practice. He even offered to bankroll a storefront for her. In exchange for a percentage, of course. She frowned and said she didn’t use her gift that way. Said it was for people who needed it, not to make money.
Silky said he was deflated for all of about ten seconds when an idea dropped into his head like a spring tornado. She wanted to help people—that was good. He wanted to make a little money—also good. She was clearly the real deal. So, he decided they could take a little road trip. Make a big circle over to Wynne, up to Mountain Home, over to Fort Smith, down to Texarkana, and then back to Little Rock. Nowhere too big, you understand. He didn’t want Big City attention. He wouldn’t be able to control the demand. Silky was always thinking like that, one step ahead. He had it all worked out. The used car business wasn’t going anywhere. And Silky’s brother’s boy could run the shop. They could slip into town with a tent, just like the old revival preachers, heal a few dozen people, fill an offering plate, and then slip right out again. A trip like that a couple of times a year, and he figured he could bump his take-home by a third.
“And they would really be healed!” he said, and his thin shoulders came up off the bed. I could see the yellow in his skin, and I worried whether he would get over that. But his eyes were as bright as I’d seen them, so… maybe. To Silky it was the perfect scam because it wasn’t a scam.
They had things pretty well worked out, he said, when he started getting a pain in his belly. Then his skin turned a sickly color. Idiopathic liver failure is what we call it. Unknown cause. Your liver just stops doing its job.
Silky was hopeful that Maria would pull him out of it. He wasn’t sure all of what she could do, but if she could treat diabetes, surely she could help his liver limp along a bit longer. I guess by that time he’d bought into this Maria woman’s bag of tricks wholesale, like the saps who followed his smile down onto the dotted line of a questionable automobile. At least I thought he was a sap.
I could see that Silky was getting tired, so I told him to rest and that I’d come back the next day. He nestled himself down on his pillow and closed his eyes, but he still had a smile when I left.
That must have been a Tuesday, and I confess I didn’t go back the next day. I wish to heaven I had. Maybe I would have seen something or thought of something. Figured out some way to keep that woman out of his room.
On Thursday—his last day, I’m sorry to say—I saw Maria, same red dress with the black cloth around her waist, turning down a hallway. She must have just come out of his room. I should have said something to her. Stalled her. I don’t know. What could I do?
I went into Silky’s room, and that sidelong grin was gone, no hint of a smile at all. No gleam in his eye. There was only fear. Silky was pale as death. His eyes were shifty and wild. He didn’t speak to me even after he’d seen me. Just pulled at his sheets, this way and that, up, down. Like he couldn’t get comfortable.
I asked him if he was okay and whether he needed me to get somebody for him. Then he fixed on me. And I swear I got cold chills. He laid stock still and held that stare on me, and he said, “This is it. It’s over. I’m gone.” I asked what he was talking about.
He stopped looking at me started fidgeting with his sheets again. He told me, “You don’t believe, Doc. I understand. You ain’t seen it. But I have. She’s the real deal, and I can’t escape it now.”
I asked him what happened, and he looked over at the heart monitor. “Watch it,” he said. “It’s slowing down. It’s just gonna keep going down. That’s what she said.”
I have to say, I figured he was talking out of his head. Maybe his blood pressure had dropped or he had some infection or something. So, I stepped out and told the nurse he wasn’t doing too good. She said she knew and that they had been keeping an eye on him all morning. He was getting worse, but they didn’t know why.
Silky must have heard this last part because he started shouting. “I know why! I know why! It’s that woman! Find that woman!”
As gently as I could, I pulled the sheet up around his shoulders and talked him down. I got him to breathe deep and slow, and then I asked him to tell me about Maria, about what happened when she was in there.
He told me it was her plan all along. To meet him at the church. To show him what she could do. To get him to trust her. She told him that, about eight months ago, he’d sold her mother some pain medicine. Silky said he didn’t remember that, but she corrected him and said oh yes he did. Because she came back, and came back again. And again. And before long, her mother couldn’t do anything without taking the pills. And Silky just kept right on selling them to her.
Then he got real quiet. He told me he did remember the woman. Remembered she did look a bit worse for wear the last few times he saw her. But she had a prescription. Showed it to him every time. Her doctor said to take them as she needed them, so Silky said he didn’t see the problem. It was the doctor, really. He was just helping her to afford her medicine.
Maria said that her mother started having trouble breathing. Less than a week later, she died. She told Silky that’s how he was going to go. It would get harder and harder to breathe. And his heart would slow down. He could watch it, she told him. Watch it and remember what he did to that poor woman who just wanted some relief from her pain.
Silky said he asked her why she couldn’t have stopped her mother’s pain. He told me, “I can’t believe I actually asked the question,” he said, “the impertinence.” He said it “im-pert-nence,” with the last little spark of the old Silky I knew. By way of an answer, she told him that his only grace would be that it would happen quicker than it did with her mother. Then she left.
From what I can tell, nobody’s heard from Maria since. Half the nurses say they never saw anybody visit Silky but me. The ones who remember Maria tell different stories. Some say she was young, some old. Some say she walked with her chin high, others say she slouched.
Silky Wooten passed away while I was asking around the unit about Maria. If there’s a heaven, I like to think his wily ways weren’t to the level that would keep him out.
The body is a strange thing. If the mind gives up, the body often goes along with it. They say some kinds of monks can raise and lower their blood pressure by dint of thought. Silky wasn’t always a straight shooter, like I said, but I believe there was some truth to what he was saying. Either way, I don’t think he laid in that bed and scared himself to death. Maybe only Maria knows for sure.
Jamie Watson, Ph.D., is a clinical ethicist at the Cleveland Clinic.