Authors: Peter Meredith
"I ain't got no money for no sitter," John lied. He had plenty of money, however there was no way he was going to trust some stranger to watch over his baby-girl.
What about when you kick off?
A voice inside him asked.
Where is Jaimee gonna go then? Who'll watch over her?
He still had no idea. His was a family of deadbeats, while Amy Lynn's kin had disowned him. He was practically shitting himself over the idea that his daughter would end up in fuck-all foster care when the cancer finished doing its number on his lungs and sent him to ride out all eternity in a cheap pine box. There'd be no teak casket for him--they was for martyrs who could gin up a hundred-person funeral service. Pine was for fellas like John who could only attracted people who he still owed money to and were there for one last shot at getting paid.
"She can sleep in mah bed. I can do stretchin' out on the floor." He had slept on worse.
"Mr. Burke, that's not how this facility is being run. We won't have people sleeping on floors like vagabonds." The admin nurse was stout and thick, almost the size and shape of a refrigerator. Her hair was the color of iron and cut short; if it wasn't for her dress and the nametag that read
, John would've thought she was a butt-ugly man.
"Then maybe this facility ain't right for me." He stood to leave and he wasn't bluffing. He had zero faith in a cure that he understood to be no more than jock itch powder in a test tube. He was there on a count of the money and since he'd already been paid..."Y'all have a nice day."
"Wait. Hold on, Mr. Burke. You can't just leave," Mrs. Evans insisted.
"Why not? I done spent all the money you'ins sent me." Another lie. The ten-thousand, along with Amy Lynn's insurance money was sitting in a trust account that couldn't be touched by anyone, including him, until Jaimee turned eighteen. John reckoned that if, by some miracle, he got a cure in him, he'd just go on back to work. The world was always in need of a good mechanic.
"It's not the money, Mr. Burke. It's the fact we have an honest to God cure for cancer on our hands."
"Y'all gotta cure for cancer, but y'all cain’t round up another fuck-all cot or nothing?" Just then he remembered his promise about cursing and he glanced out at the waiting room where Jaimee was parked on a row of cold hospital chairs, swinging her feet a foot above the floor. She seemed very small and her skinny legs looked thin to the point of appearing brittle.
Mrs. Evans followed his gaze. She took a deep breath and sighed in defeat. "I'll see what I can do, but I don't think they'll let you keep her in your room." She picked up the phone and dialed and explained and then dialed and explained again.
She got nowhere.
Her immediate supervisor could be heard to scoff into the phone before offering to lend John fifty bucks for a sitter; Ron Blair, the trial recruiter gave up the number of one of the kitchen staff who had a sister who did daycare for a reasonable fee; the head nurse, a woman with two master’s degrees and a blood pressure that was spiking near one-eighty yelled, "Are you kidding me?" and then slammed the phone down.
"Everyone's under a lot of pressure," Mrs. Evans said.
"You tried." John stood and had to grab the back of his chair as his head went light and his chest constricted. It was only a momentary thing and he took as deep a breath as he could, making a wheezy noise like a shot up bagpipe sitting in a mud puddle. "Y'all have a good evenin'."
"Wait, I got one more person to call."
She seemed so distressed that he sat down again, stretching his legs out in front of him. Jaimee wasn't the only one who looked brittle-thin. John's faded jeans hung off him and his ol' work shirt was so baggy he looked like a boy who'd raided his daddy's closet.
Jes 'bout done in
, he thought.
An' still no one to watch over Jaimee
The thought, the long day of driving, the disease chewing him up and spitting him out had exhausted him. He dropped his chin to his chest, just thinking he would close his eyes for a moment. Thirty minutes later he woke as Dr. Lee, brusque and short, harried to the point of being rude, came in. "This does not constitute an emergency," she said after Mrs. Evans explained the issue. To John she asked, "Where the child's mother?"
John blinked in slow steady beats as his mind tried to come to grips with being kicked out of a dead sleep. Before he answered Dr. Lee, he glanced into the waiting room to see Jaimee playing with another little girl. The two seemed like a matched set: equal in size, both pale and blonde with coltishly slim legs jutting from their pretty dresses. They looked ready for church.
John, in his grease-stained Levis might have been a bare step up from a hobo, but he made sure to keep Jaimee properly clothed. He turned back to Dr. Lee and spoke in a flat tone, "She dead. The cancer what got her two years ago."
Thuy's mouth came open for half a second, expelling nothing but a stunned sound, "Uhhhh...That's...I'm sorry for your loss, but that doesn't change the fact that we can't have extraneous personnel living in the rooms with the patients. We can help you find someone to watch the child. I'm sure there are a few daycare facilities around here. We aren't all that far from the city after all."
"But he doesn't want to use a..." the admissions nurse started to say.
Dr. Lee interrupted, "Mrs. Evans, it's a sad truth but sometimes we don't always get what we want."
"That's 'bout what I thought," John said, getting up. This time he forced himself to ignore the dizziness in his head and the ache in his chest, which made each breath, each second of his life a chore. "Come on Jaimee. We gotta get movin' on."
She looked disappointed that her playtime was being cut short and at the same time pleasantly surprised. "Did you get fixed already, Daidy?"
Up close the "twin-ness" between Jaimee and her new friend failed. The little girl smiled up at John, showing a rich man's set of teeth: straight and white--Jaimee's were already yellowing, and she'd be needing braces to close up the gaps in her ranks. The little girl also had perfect hair. It wasn't just cut, it was styled, and framed her face making her look like an angel. Jaimee's blond hair was limp and cut at right angles to box in her face, the limit of John's hair cutting ability.
The little girl's perfect smile slid away when John said, "I don't think there ain't no cure, darlin'."
"Mr. Burke!" Dr. Lee hissed as she hurried to catch up to him. "I can assure you there is a cure. But we have rules...the CDC has rules regarding this sort of thing. There are certain toxins involved that may not be healthy for children to be around."
"What about her?" John pointed at Jaimee's friend.
Dr. Lee glanced once at Maddy Rothchild. "She's different. That's the granddaughter of Edmund Rothchild, the man who fronted the money for all of this."
John smirked. "So she rich and so the rules don't apply. Typical."
"No...no that's not it at all," Thuy replied. She was having trouble grasping how a man, who was clearly in the end stage of cancer could walk away from a cure. It was mind-boggling. "Yes, Mr. Rothchild has a separate facility for his daughter, but Maddy still won't be allowed in the same room. You see we have to take special precautions against any pathogen with a measurement larger than point zero, zero, one micron."
She thought that was perfectly clear however John's brows came together to form a line across his forehead. "No disrespect, Doc, but you may know spores, an' varusses, an' macra-scopes, an' all, but you sure as hell don't know people. Tellin' me the rich got it better ain't exactly no surprise."
He started again to the lobby doors, but stopped when Thuy cried out, "But there is a cure! You can't walk away from it."
There were quite a few people in the lobby: two guards at the front desk, trying not to appear as bored as they felt--Chuck Singleton with his back to the far wall where he could keep one eye on the elevators and another on the clock over the guard desk—Dr. Wilson who had stopped in mid-stride to respond to a text sent by his wife, she was unnaturally afraid that he was cheating on her and had texted and called eight times that day--Ms. Robins, chatting with one of the radiologists and wondering if his hair was real or if it was a rug.
They all stopped and stared at Thuy who only then realized how loud she had been. Her voice had echoed along the pristine white walls and the dust free glass. She'd even been heard down the hall where the secretaries in the admin offices all raised their eyebrows.
John shook his head. "So you say. People been sellin’ snake oil since Adam and Eve. Iffin there's different rules from one to another then I'm a-guessin' there's gonna be different results, too. An' we both knows who'll end up holdin’ the short end of the stick." He jerked a thumb at his own chest.
She glared at the insinuation. "You are being obtuse. Clearly, purposely so. And you're being offensive. Perhaps it would be best if you did leave." Her voice carried to every corner of the lobby and now people didn't even pretend not to have heard.
Dr. Wilson hurried over. "Did I hear someone mention snake oil? I have a case of it out in my car." Over the twenty years he'd been an oncologist, Wilson had developed a soothing presence. It was hard to be upset when he unfurled his broad grin in your direction. Thuy calmed, slightly, still her words were clipped as she explained John's irrational fears.
"What Mr. Burke is feeling is normal," Wilson said. "Doctors don't seem to realize how many times we are just flat out wrong. I had one patient who'd received sixteen different diagnoses before she found out that she was dying of endocrine pancreatic cancer. Each of her previous doctors were one hundred percent certain of their diagnoses and each was a hundred percent wrong. This affects the patients view, especially those in a terminal situation. It drains the hope out of them."
"But this time..." Thuy started to say.
John scoffed, "But this time y'all got it right? Sure." His skepticism was so obvious that even the two little girls, who were now almost an afterthought to the adults, caught it and shared a look.
"Right or wrong, Mr. Burke, this is your only chance," Thuy said, practically begging now. Yes, she needed him to flesh out her trial, however it was also clear to her that he couldn't last out the month without help. He was so bad off, swaying in place with sweat running from beneath his ball cap that she was on the verge of offering to watch the child during the evening, when little Maddy Rothchild spoke.
"She can stay with me. We can do a sleepover. It'll be ok, Mr. Burke. We'll just be in the big cabin. It's right nearby to the hospital."
John had seen the newly built houses on his way in; they didn't seem like cabins to him. Each was twice as large as his house back home and the largest was like a mansion.
"Asking permission first would've been nice," Ms. Robins said, cocking an eyebrow at Maddy. She wasn't going to argue too much. She had not been looking forward to entertaining Maddy single handily for the entire week. "But since you've offered already, I don't see why we couldn't have a guest. As long as it's ok with Mr. Burke."
Before John could spit, Jaimee had him by the hand and was begging, "Can I please? I ain't had no sleepovers in forever."
John wavered both in his mind and in his body. He staggered a little before righting himself. "Well, I don't know...I guess it'll be ok. If it ain't all that much of an imposition. And if y'all got the room."
"We have six bedrooms," Maddy assured him, holding up six little fingers. "And two of them are empty. But I think we should build a fort in the entertainment room. What do you think, Jaimee? We have all sorts of extra blankets."
The girls fell to planning and John was stuck with the real possibility that he could actually be cured. It was slightly unnerving.
Chuck watched the little scene in the lobby with a level of understanding that none of them docs could possibly comprehend.
They weren't living with death practically hanging on their arm or constantly looking over their shoulder like some over-eager spy. They were able to sneeze without wondering if this was the little cold that would trigger pneumonia and then death.
Chuck felt like he spent every day with a cartoon piano hanging over his head suspended by an unraveling length of rope. When you lived like that it made little things huge and giant things small. He could see what that sick fellow valued and it wasn't his own fish-belly white skin, neither. It was the little girl and who would take care of her in the here and now.
For Chuck the big thing was seeing Stephanie Glowitz smile one more time. He was sure that when death punched his ticket he would miss icy beer on a summer's evening after work, and the feel of a woman's breast as he ran his hand up her shirt when she weren't wearin' no bra, and he knew he would miss all those Friday nights he got shit-faced with his friends down at Black-eye Pete's, but he knew what he'd miss most of all was Stephanie's smile.
He was tall and lean with a strong jaw and wide shoulders--there had been plenty of women before Stephanie, but there had never been that instantaneous connection before. Whenever he looked her way, he felt something he would've been embarrassed to admit to the
good 'ol boys
back home: he was in love.