1st place – RSR Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction judged by Khanh Ha. Read his comments here.
George grappled with the remote control, trying to read the tiny goddamn print on the buttons, unable to hold it up close enough to his face since it was secured with a thick, black wire to the side of his hospital bed. Finally he located the power button and the screen on the little TV that tilted precariously over the far corner of his bed went black. The Tigers were losing, again. They’d been playing lousy for a few weeks already. Those slackers had nothing on the Bless You Boys—Whittaker, Gibson, Trammel—the guys who took the team to the Series. How long had it been—1984? He felt too tired to do the math. The pitching was off this year. It had to be the pitching. They had thrown themselves into a losing streak.
“Time for your pills, Mr. Brinkhammer.”
George sat up. He hadn’t noticed the day nurse come in. She was a new one, in a bright pink smock, navy blue pants, and running shoes. When did nurses start wearing such crazy get-ups? Her hair fell over her shoulders in long braids, like some flower child from the sixties. By golly, the last time he stepped foot in a hospital, the nurses were wearing white dresses and little hats, their hair tucked away in tight buns. They looked respectable, back then. But this one, she looked like she should be teaching kindergarten. And bossy too, with her hands on her hips—not a drop of compassion. He scowled at her.
“Those things just make me tired, and I don’t wanna sleep right now. I haven’t got that long, you know,” he squawked. “I’ve got the cancer, didn’t they tell you that? Didn’t you read my chart?” He fumbled with the blanket to cover himself.
“I can’t leave you alone until you take your pills, Mr. Brinkhammer. But I can get you some apple juice if you’d rather take them that way.” She waited, smiling, and shook the little paper cup full of pills in his face. Her fingernails were painted purple.
“I don’t want any apple juice, woman.” He crossed his arms.
“Well, what else can I do for you then?” She stepped back and took a good look at him.
George grunted. “How about putting the Tigers in the World Series and finding a cure for me?”
“I’ll see what I can do, Mr. B.” She held out the cup. “Take your pills, or I’m going to put the game back on and make you watch every last homer by the Blue Jays.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’ve been watching?”
She winked at him. “We have a TV in the lounge. I’ve been passing by it as often as I can. The Tigers could sure use some help with the pitching, and they look like they couldn’t hit a ball if you threw it underhand to ‘em.” She reached over and drew the window curtain back, letting the harsh afternoon sun fall on George’s scrawny white legs.
He perked up a little, taking the pill cup from her and shaking it into his gaping mouth, then taking some water through a straw. She smiled at him.
“Atta boy, Mr. B.” She patted him on the back and turned to leave just as Margaret walked in. Sweet, normal Margaret. George needed her stability. Nurse Crazy Clothes and the rest of the brightly dressed characters on his floor made him feel like he was in the circus. The women nodded at each other and passed, like the changing of the guard. George watched as his wife stopped to take a deep breath and put on a happy face for him. His momentary joy turned to aggravation. He didn’t want her to be his boppy cheerleader. He grunted a hello and thought about turning the game back on. See if she could take a hint.
“Hello, my love. How are you feeling today?” She studied him up and down, just as the nurse had, but he could read her better. He saw the truth in her eyes, the way the corners frowned at him. They told him he didn’t have long. They told him Margaret knew. He softened.
“The Tigers are down by 6, and my nurse is a pill pusher. How are you?” He puckered up for kiss, and she plopped her sturdy frame sideways on the bed, leaning over to meet his lips in a quick smooch.
“I’m sure they’re just trying to keep you comfortable, dear.” She fluffed up his pillow for him.
“I’m tired of all the tests and diagnoses and prognoses. They should just bring me some cyanide-laced applesauce and be done with me.”
“You don’t mean that.” Margaret patted his arm.
“Maybe I do,” he said quietly.
“Who knows what the cancer’s going to do to me, Margaret? Sometimes I’m afraid to find out.”
She took his hand, smiled stiffly. “I’ll be right here with you, dear. We’ll face it together.”
“That’s what I mean, Margaret. This might be too hard to handle for the both of us.”
She shook her head and widened her eyes at him. “The doctor said you should be able to come home tomorrow, and I’ve made some plans for us.” She smiled more sincerely then and pulled a brochure out of her pocketbook.
“They’re letting me go home?” George wasn’t sure if this was such good news. The doctor had said they would try some new treatments on him, but there were no guarantees. The cancer was too advanced. Maybe there was nothing else they could do for him after all. Maybe they were just sending him home to die. He took the brochure from Margaret. It was from the Martingale Dance Studio.
His brow furrowed in confusion. “You’re taking dance lessons?”
“No, we are, George. I signed us up for a six-week class for couples. Isn’t it exciting?”
“But the doctor said—”
“Doctors! What do they know? I really think that if we take this class we might be able to loosen up and have some fun. You’ve always been light on your feet, George.” She nuzzled him with her shoulder.
“Heh.” He caught himself smiling at an old memory of swinging a younger Margaret around a dance hall. He chuckled.
“So let’s do it. I already put down a deposit. And you can sit and rest any time you get tired. I told them you haven’t been feeling well.”
“I’ve got the cancer, Margaret.”
“Look what it says, George.” She pointed to the brochure. “We can learn ballroom style, Latin, salsa, swing, tango, or night club!”
“Sure! And then we can go over to that disco down the street and show off our stuff.” She rocked her round hips back and forth on the bed, making him bounce.
He shook his head at her, but what else did he have to look forward to besides doctors’ appointments and experimental treatments? The pills started taking effect, and he yawned, laying his head back on the pillow, a smile lingering on his lips. She had won, again. He knew he couldn’t fight her with what little strength he had left, so he gave in and let himself get carried away in her crazy optimism.
“I better rest up then, Margaret. Sounds like we’ll busy for a while.”
They had met decades ago at a dance. He had noticed how pretty she was, full-bodied, and how she was always smiling. That smile of hers had knocked him over and picked him back up again. She hadn’t been dancing with anyone all night and didn’t look like she even came with a fella. He asked her girlfriend for her name, and at the last song, he swatted at his butterflies and approached her.
“Margaret, would you give me the honor of a dance, please?” and held out his hand, hoping she wouldn’t mind a fella with big ears, the left one even bigger than the right, if you stared. At least he could dance.
“How did you know my name,” she asked him.
“An angel told me,” he said, waiting for her smile.
“Oh, really?” She raised an eyebrow. Her girlfriend smiled and waved. “Well, she’s no angel,” Margaret said, leaning in to him, lowering her voice “and neither am I.”
George didn’t know what to say, and she giggled at him. That smile. He swung her around the dancehall as gracefully as he could manage, holding her close, breathing her in, his eyes locked on her cherry lips, and all he could think about was how much he wanted to taste them. After he walked her home, she gave him the opportunity. And after that, he never left her side, other than to sleep and work. He adored her, and six months later offered her a shiny diamond ring in exchange for having to put up with him forever. It was the first time he saw her cry.
They were the oldest couple in the dance class, by at least 40 years, George reckoned, but that wouldn’t slow them down. He worried that maybe the cancer would. The new pills he was taking made his tongue swell, and he had wanted to skip class. Margaret wouldn’t hear of it.
“YOLO, George,” she said, patting on some makeup.
“You only live once.”
“Cancer thuckth,” he mumbled, getting his shoes on.
“What’s that, dear?”
“Nothing. I’m coming.”
He caught sight of himself in the mirrors that lined the wall of the dance studio and straightened his posture. There. He sucked in his small gut and looked ten years younger. It was all about the posture, the young instructor said. That guy didn’t even look old enough to shave, George thought. He imagined himself with hair again, muscles. He’d show those kids.
Margaret wore a tight top and a silky skirt that he hadn’t seen before. The skirt’s layers floated in the air when he twirled her. He couldn’t stop watching them rise up and slowly slide down the backs of her thighs. He felt his manliness expanding in his drawers—she could still do it to him. He worked in as many twirls as he could.
“Stop it, George, I’m getting dizzy,” she said, trying to swat him and missing, almost falling on the wood floor.
He took hold of her and tangoed past the couple on their right, an awkward fella with two left feet. His girlfriend let out a yelp as the fella stepped on her toes. George waved and waltzed Margaret to the left around two other couples who were hanging on to each other, staring at their own feet, trying to get the steps right. He was on a roll.
Dancing made George feel strong again, dashing even, and it was just the thing to bring him back to life. Margaret seemed younger too; her face let go of some of the worry wrinkles. After a while, the whole class stopped to watch them, so he tipped Margaret back in a dip. Not an easy task, since she outweighed him by several pounds, but George pulled it off. Margaret even raised her arm dramatically. The other couples clapped as he pulled her to her feet, and she beamed at him.
“Bravo,” said the instructor.
“Thee you nekth week,” said George.
But he was terribly worn out the next day, barely able to climb out of bed, his legs too feeble to hold his fluttering weight, his arms too weak to lift his toothbrush. He looked at himself, hunched over in front of the bathroom mirror. His grey hair had fallen out, and his face was a mass of sagging skin with hollow eyes. At least his tongue wasn’t swollen any more.
Who was he trying to kid? He was an old man with a serious disease. He had no business being out on the dance floor again. He’d embarrassed himself, and Margaret too, trying to act like a stud. Trying to keep up. Trying to seem healthy. Bah! Margaret would have to understand. He was a sick old man. She’d been so thrilled the night before that he’d summoned enough energy for a little hanky-panky. He’d felt like Superman, but the cancer was his kryptonite. He had to respect it. It was stronger than he was, and it was taking him down.
He and Margaret had been married 51 years when they found out about the cancer. He’d been feeling kind of weak and more tired than he should have and had been losing weight, his pants falling off of him. Margaret nagged him to see the doctor, but when they got the news, they both wished he hadn’t. He knew she was as scared as he was, but she’d never admit it. She was trying to be strong for him, cooking his favorite pot roast to fatten him up, pretending his nausea was just a bug. She tried to make it seem like it was all no big deal, and he loved her even more for it. But he was done dancing.
She found him sulking in the bathroom.
“Nonsense,” she told him. “You’ll be fine in a day. Our next lesson isn’t until Tuesday.”
“I might not make it that long.” He limped over to the tub and sat down on the side of it.
“Don’t be dramatic, George. Try some of my bath salts; they’re good for sore muscles.” She spritzed something flowery-smelling on her neck and smiled. “I’m signing us up for salsa lessons next.”
“Look at me, Margaret. I can’t even stand up.”
“And afterward, we can go to the salsa club downtown and boogie.” She spun herself in front of the sink.
“Another class, my ass. He rubbed his sore legs. “I can’t do it.”
“Sure you can.” She flounced in front of him.
“Dammit, Margaret, listen to me for once! I’m dying!”
She stopped and dropped her arms. Turned away from him.
“You’re not. You’re fine.”
“I’ve got the cancer, and it’s eating me up. Don’t you get it? I’ve got nothing to dance about, and I’m sick of pretending for you.”
She whipped around and faced him again. “You’re pretending for me? Were you pretending last night? Because it was—we were—“. She caught her breath. “It was real. You were fine. Damn you, George. Don’t give up! Stand up and fight this!” She pounded her fist into her other hand.
“Make sure they give you a refund for those classes when I kick the bucket.”
She reached for her hairbrush, threw it in his direction, and left the room.
They could never stay mad at each other for very long. By evening they were snuggling again, working the crossword puzzle together, after he told her it wasn’t all pretending, hehe, and she said she didn’t mean to throw her hairbrush at him. By Tuesday, George felt better, except for an itchy rash on his chest, probably caused by the goddamn meds again. He knew Margaret wouldn’t stand for his dropping out, so he scratched his way through class. The cross-eyed guy with two left feet was actually making some improvement, bounding along with his worried-looking girlfriend. He threw George a smile, but George didn’t reciprocate. He was having trouble concentrating. Someone bumped him from behind, and he growled a “Watch it!” at them.
The instructor worked in the corner with the youngest couple, a tall redhead with a pierced eyebrow that gave George the willies and her tattooed boyfriend. Margaret had heard that the two were getting married soon and were taking lessons so they could dance together at the reception.
“Let Tyler lead, Brittany.” “Eyes up, Tyler.”
George’s rash seemed to be spreading to his arms and legs. He itched all over and bounced nervously to the music. Even Margaret sensed that something was wrong.
“Are you OK, dear? You seem a little antsy.”
His neck felt hot and swollen, and his breathing came in wheezes. His brains sloshed around in his head, and the dizziness made him stumble. A curtain was coming down over his eyes. The music stopped, and he heard the instructor shouting.
“Somebody! Quick! Call 911!”
Waking up in the hospital was the last thing he wanted, aside from not waking up at all. Margaret sat in the chair beside his bed, playing Scrabble on her cell phone. The room smelled antisepticky. The machine they had him hooked up to blipped and hummed. The doctor’s tone was low and serious. He wore checkered golf pants under his white coat.
“I’m afraid the treatment regiment isn’t working, Mr. Brinkhammer. You’ve had an allergic reaction, so we’re discontinuing the medication.”
“But what about the cancer?”
“I’m afraid there’s nothing else we can do.” The doctor patted George’s shoulder and turned to Margaret.
“Just try and keep him comfortable,” he told her. “Enjoy your days together.”
Margaret put her phone in her pocketbook and stared at her hands. George swallowed loudly.
“I’ll take a look at my will. Make sure it’s in order,” he said quietly. Margaret wouldn’t look up. George waited. Swallowed again.
“I’ll get you a new pair of trousers for dance class. You tore the knee on the old ones when you fell.” She picked a piece of fuzz from her dress.
She looked up. “You just need to dance, George. It worked. It really did. We were young again!”
Her eyes weren’t even watery, and she smiled wide for him. He’d seen her cry through the birth of their daughter and every wedding anniversary and birthday, but she hadn’t yet shed a tear about the cancer. It frustrated him. He wanted her to let go, let him comfort her, but he didn’t know how to say it or how to do it.
“OK dear, we’ll keep dancing, if that’s what you want.” He patted the sheets next to him and lifted up the blanket for her. She nudged him over gently and crawled in, weighing down her side so that George rolled into her. She put her arm around him and he slept.
In the Night Club Class, they learned disco, hip-hop, and modern. George would have thought that he could dance his way right past his expiration date, except that he could feel the weight of it coming down on him. He could feel it taking control, leaving him weary, with a tired so deep that it owned him. It made him angry, the simple things he couldn’t do anymore, like bending over to tie his shoes or lifting his leg over the side of the tub. Margaret bought him loafers, and helped him into the shower every night. He’d eventually taken to using a cane when he walked. He could lean on Margaret when they danced, but he knew he wouldn’t last forever.
He called his lawyer to go over his will. He’d leave his baseball card collection to his freckled grandson, Jake. He’d only gotten to take him the ballpark once, a double-header against St. Louis, but the boy never fidgeted. He’d be in middle school next year. Next year. George’s throat turned too dry to swallow.
Meanwhile, Margaret remained stoic and cheerful. He spent his days thinking of ways to break her.
“I think I’d like you to have my body cremated, Margaret,” he told her one morning during toast and coffee. “I don’t think I want our friends gawking at me in the casket when I’m dead, saying how thin I look, how frail. Poor George. Sheesh.” He rolled his eyes and took a slurp from his steaming mug, while the percolator over on the Formica sink burped and hissed.
Margaret sat across from him, poring over the newspaper. Her bathrobe fell open above the waist, revealing her lacey nightie. He’d barely managed an erection last night, despite all of their efforts. She had even tossed his boxers in the dryer for a few minutes to warm them up, while they shared a glass of Martini & Rossi. He watched her now take a bite of toast, the crumbs dropping onto the shelf of her breasts and falling into the abyss between them. She licked her lips. His pecker twitched. He looked down. Too late, you numb noodle.
““There’s a new dance class I want us to try.” She didn’t even look up from the paper.
“Margaret, who is going to take care of you when I’m gone?”
She set the paper on the table. “I’m sure if anything happened to you, Janice would be here often, with Jake.” She rose to fill her coffee cup.
“Our Janice? The girl who mailed her hat and put a letter on her head, that one?”
Margaret sat back down with a steamy cup.
“She’s a grown woman now and not nearly as distracted. Besides, look at you, dear, you’re fine.”
He looked back down at his half-swollen pecker and grimaced.
The Tigers managed to make it into the playoffs that summer. With any luck, they’d be back in the Series, just like in ’84. But George knew he wouldn’t make it that long. He couldn’t stay awake for more than five innings. On a few mornings, he couldn’t get out of bed, the cancer holding him down, his legs like dead weights. One morning, he drifted in and out of sleep, while Margaret rose and made some toast and coffee and came back to the bedroom to check on him.
She crept up on him. His body was still, his face frozen in a peaceful expression, his chest silent, not rising and falling in breaths. She said nothing at first, just held his hand.
“You can’t go, George. You just can’t.” Her tears splashed down on his face.
He opened one eye. “Enough with the dance classes, Margaret. Are you trying to kill me?”
She jumped back, and he grabbed her hands so she wouldn’t fall off the bed, but she pulled him down with her. And there was her smile, lighting up her face through her tears. It might be the last time he’d see her cry, and that single thought made him cry, too. He couldn’t leave her. He couldn’t leave his dear Margaret.
Jan Ramming was a freelance journalist until she decided to write her own stories. Her work has appeared in Bohemia Journal,Foliate Oak Literary, Gravel Magazine, and Pithead Chapel. She lives in Geneva, Illinois.