UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Manly Thing
He was six feet tall, pale blond, beefy of build and dressed in Hell’s Angels chic - leather vests, shirts with the sleeves ripped off. He wore thick, block-like rings on his fingers as if they were brass knuckles.
“Really, Mike wasn’t like this when I married him,” he’d overheard her tell a friend. “Then he wore three piece suits and was an officer in the Young Republicans.” That had been true, though during the day he worked for Spruce Trucking and now was garage manager.
He knew Karen liked men with a corporate look - to her, it was sexy and powerful. But he was nothing like that and while he knew it irritated her, he didn’t feel it mattered. What mattered was that he looked and behaved like a man and taught his son to do the same. If he left the boy nothing else on this earth, that would do.
To personify his ideal, Mike spoke very little. He followed the example of Clint Eastwood characters, men of the condensed sentence, the monosyllabic answer. If someone should attempt to start a conversation such as, “Boy, that war is going on forever, isn’t it? Wonder how long Congress will put up with it,” Mike would grunt, “Good thing.” (He was a devotee of Fox News.) If one of Karen’s friends was stuck waiting for her to get ready, she might ask, “So what have you been up to lately, Mike?” And Mike would say, “Nothing worth noting,” and that would be it. He’d snap open his newspaper.
Mike and Karen had a son. Brad was born with paler hair than Mike’s and a Mensa IQ. Right off the bat, Mike trained him to think macho above all else. Only on Brad, it didn’t fit quite right. If the boy had been born to other parents, the academic or progressive sort, he would have developed quite differently. He might have learned to fend off predators with a quick sense of humor or risen to tops in his class so that his acquaintances would have been intellectual and respected him for his clever and knowledgeable conversation. As it was, his brains went to waste while he put himself through the wringer to please Mike, ending up as a clumsy little freckled kid trying to look dangerous. Other kids couldn’t resist kicking his ass, which only reinforced Mike’s belief, that THEY ARE OUT TO GET YOU, so you’d better be tough. And Brad, worshipping his dad, obediently believed the same.
Brad also believed his father was invincible. “I got relatives who lived to a hundred,” Mike bragged. Karen would elaborate, “His mother’s eighty, but her mother and her mother’s sister lived to over a hundred.” Mike figured he’d inherited their genes.
“I’ll show you how to use a crowbar,” he told Brad when the kid was twelve. This didn’t take much demonstration. “Try to hit them anywhere but the head,” he said. “Do the head and you’ll end up in prison for manslaughter. Or worse. If you can get the knees, you’re set.”
Though he tried not to, he remembered when he was twelve. Chubby, shy and reclusive, his body white and freckled, soft like bread dough. He’d hated himself. And those prick Bianchi brothers who tormented the shit out of him every chance they got. They’d be waiting, with or without their friends, always somewhere different so he couldn’t count on anything, behind clumps of trees, up trees for that matter, inside open garages, behind parked cars, you name it, then jump out and grab him and twist his arms, shove dirt up his nose, punch him hard in the stomach, spit in his face. Soft little Michael Rhodes, reminded him what a useless pantywaist he was. He was humiliated on an almost daily basis. They gave him a break on Saturdays and Sundays if he stayed inside. He stayed inside.
It was some consolation when he shot up to six feet and the soft flub transformed into beef. He would have preferred hard, cut muscle, which he occasionally tried to obtain by basement weight lifting, but lost interest after a few weeks. Beefiness looked fine when you added tattoos and “sawed off” shirts. By his mid twenties, he could pass for slightly scary, which was enough to get by.
As Mike explained to Brad, “The skill is to walk a fine line. You wanna look mean enough that nobody wants to mess with you, but not so tough that they want to knock you down a peg. Get it?”
“Yeah,” Brad had answered, but Mike never knew if he really understood, because he kept getting beaten up.
“I want him in the Catholic school,” Karen finally demanded. “I don’t care how much it costs.”
Mike gave in. Why put the kid through hell? Today it was worse than Bianchi brothers. This was New Jersey. You had blacks and Hispanics and everybody else out to kill you any chance they got.
So that’s where Brad had gone, where he could arrive in one piece, and finally graduated with decent grades. There was talk about his going to regular college, but Mike persuaded him not to. Waste of good money. Instead, he could put in some time at the local community college until he was old enough to join the police force. “I have connections,” Mike told him. “You won’t have trouble getting in.”
Brad pumped iron in the basement and got “big”. He shaved his head and wore a couple of earrings. He grew over six feet tall and his shoulders widened. Though Mike wasn’t real happy about the earrings, he had to admit that Brad looked tough enough. Somebody might think twice before they harassed him now.
Mike was shaving when he noticed a swelling on the side of his neck. He went stone cold. It took him a few moments to work up the nerve to feel it. The bump was hard and irregular. How did he miss this before?
His heard pounded while his chest felt hollow. He leaned forward to look into the mirror, into his eyes. He felt a certainty that this was going to be bad. He leaned back and looked out the small bathroom window. Cars were going by; a dog was chained in the neighbor’s yard. Life was going on as usual for all of them, but for him, everything stopped.
Eventually, he took in a breath and, heart still thudding, reached back up to reexamine the lump.
For weeks, going on months, he kept it to himself. He had to digest it. Somehow he’d always known, all those years spent breathing truck exhaust, he had known that it would lead to this. But though he had known, it came as a betrayal. A man does his job, takes care of his family, doesn’t run around on his wife, keeps everyone comfortable and this is what he gets?
“We’re going on a vacation,” he told Karen.
“Why?” she asked, though she looked happy. “I mean, it’s a weird time, September. You didn’t want to go anywhere this summer.”
“I’m just in the mood, that’s all,” he said firmly. “Let’s go to Maine.”
He knew she loved Maine, the rocky coast, lobster dinners, the sounds and smells of the sea. “We’ll leave on Sunday,” he told her. “Be packed.”
They took their time driving up. He made a point of being nice, complimented her on her hair, held her hand once in the car. Though he didn’t make much conversation, he did, in every way he could, make the trip perfect for her. It might be the last one they would ever take.
She seemed to notice nothing out of place, didn’t turn suspicious. He supposed he liked that about her, that she was naive and trusting. He kept holding off going to the doctor and the thing kept growing. Finally, (how could she miss it?) Karen asked in an alarmed voice, “Mike, what is that?”
“It’s shit,” he said. “It’s not good.”
“Why don’t you go to the doctor?” she asked, clearly alarmed.
It was an obvious question. The thing was really growing now, starting to deform his neck. He kept his voice hard. “I always knew I was going to die of cancer from that fucking exhaust.”
She started to cry. “Well, go to the doctor!”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he barked. “When I’m ready, I will.” He saw her face close down, but he had to make things clear. If he was dying, he didn’t want her fawning on him. It was enough to stand the one thing.
“I’m going to be straight with you,” said the throat doctor a week later. Not a good sign when the family doctor got you in to see a specialist the next day. “I’m ninety-nine percent sure it’s malignant.”
He scribbled something on a notepad and picked up the phone. “Sherry,” he said, “get an appointment for Mr. Rhodes here with Janson. He’s with Wayne Memorial. STAT.”
He turned to Mike. “It would have been better if you’d come in sooner. Why did you wait?”
Mike didn’t answer. He wasn’t really sure why he’d done it.
He had a leaden feeling of doom that pressed on him by the second. Sleep was nearly impossible. If he did manage to drift off, it was hot-wired and frightful and would end with a sudden jerk. He’d find himself with eyes wide open and heart skipping in a fast, exhausting beat as if he had swallowed a load of speed. In the dim light from the window, he could see Karen lying on her side, her back to him. Was she really asleep? Was she terrified? Most likely, she was going to be a widow. And that was weird because he was younger than she and he had the relatives who lived long, while hers died young. He had always assumed that he would be the one to see her out.
It seemed that everyone else was vibrantly alive and taking it for granted, like someone throwing away food unaware that another person would scramble across the floor for a crumb. Everyone around him had no idea how alive they were. Now Mike saw death, smelled its rot, shuddered in terror to imagine himself laid stiffly in his coffin and lowered into the dark, damp earth.
“Are you awake?” he whispered into the dark, but there was no answer. He could have sworn, by her breathing, that she was awake.
At first, he told his family he was not going to do anything. What was the point? He’d seen and heard about people they made suffer horribly only to die anyway. But the doctor was blunt. “If you don’t do anything, you’ll be dead in six months, and it won’t be fun.”
Did he really want the tumor to keep growing until it filled up his throat and choked him to death? Was that how he wanted to go?
The course of treatment would be grueling. The doctors were adamant about doing what Mike considered enough to kill a buffalo. But if that’s what the bastards insisted upon, he would do it. Two operations, the chemo, and radiation too.
“We want to put in a stomach tube before we start the radiation,” they told him. “Otherwise, you won’t be able to get food down. Your throat will swell and be very sore.”
“Never mind,” Mike said. “If I say I’ll get the food down, I will.”
He could tell they thought he was an idiot, but he didn’t care.
“Listen, Mr. Rhodes, this has nothing to do with your masculinity. If you think ahead, you’ll want your nourishment. Good nourishment is important when you have cancer. Once we begin the treatment, your immune system will be compromised and there is danger of infection. The time to put the tube in is before beginning the treatment.”
“No,” Mike said. They were not going to put a hole in his stomach on top of everything else. “Believe me, I’ll get the food down.”
He watched them sigh and give each other what they thought were discreet looks. He didn’t care.
“You might regret your decision, Mr. Rhodes,” one of them said.
All the way home, Karen nagged at him. “Why are you doing this? If they tell you the best thing is to get the stomach tube, they know what they’re talking about! What’s the matter with you?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. “Drop it.”
Sometimes he himself didn’t know why he acted like this. It just felt it was important to do things his way. And why should he listen to doctors? They were money grubbing idiots, most of them. He could rattle off stories about people who’d almost been killed by them. A hundred years from now, they’d look back and laugh at what doctors did today, at what butchers they were. Doctors kept changing the rules and forgot all about what they’d claimed was the God’s honest truth just five years before! Everyone in his family knew they’d killed his uncle Bill, gave him some medicine that damaged his heart. A friend of Karen’s - they almost killed her too with some drug that made her stop making white blood cells. Doctor’s were quacks. Why should he listen to them?
On the other hand, there was no denying he had cancer and that at the rate it was growing, he was beginning to resemble the Elephant Man. He could not believe this was happening. Was it real? Or had he fallen asleep and was stuck in some nightmare he couldn’t wake from?
“Don’t fawn over me,” he snapped at his wife, as they strapped him into the gurney to wheel him to the OR. He saw her face shut down, saw her lip tremble, but he didn’t have the energy to deal. The shot they gave him was taking effect and he was caring less and less about anything.
“I love you, Mike,” Karen said.
Things quickly went from terrible to worse. They had to mutilate him to get the tumors out, even removing nerves and transferring one from his leg to his shoulder. One shoulder blade was now out of place and he could not get his left arm up on the table without lifting it with his right. The side of his face was deformed. He had prided himself on being a good looking man, but not now. There was no way anyone would call him that now.
He had a couple of weeks to “heal” before the radiation and chemo began. “I never heard of doing that at the same time,” he told the doctor.
“Well, it’s not common,” the skinny little twerp said, “but in your case, we’re bringing out all the guns.”
“We’re going shopping for a living room set,” Mike told Karen after the operations.
“Why?” she asked. “What’s wrong with the stuff we have?”
“I want new,” he said firmly.
She mumbled something, but he didn’t ask her to repeat it. “You wanna come with me or not?” he barked. Apparently, she did.
He fixed the place up like he’d always wanted - big black leather sofa and love seat, flat screen TV, steel end tables. Got rid of all that fluff. He didn’t care what Karen thought about it - she was going to be alive for a long time. She could change it after.
He felt inordinately angry at Karen, at everyone. She didn’t know it, but several times during the day, he would get so worked up he wanted to punch her. Smug, healthy little thing, being solicitous and clingy. She accompanied him to most everything, the radiation sessions, the chemo. She was his wife, that’s what wives do. Was she his friend? He didn’t know. He didn’t know if he had any friends. Speaking of which, he refused to go to the bar. To have them all pity him, whisper behind his back about how bad he looked? No, he couldn’t take that, wouldn’t take that.
Chemo started off all right, but evolved into pure hell. His throat felt like burned flesh, but by God, he got that food down! It took him a long time, maybe two hours to chew it to a pulp, then carefully swallow. Eventually, as the weeks wore on, he took to grinding it up in the blender until it was a gray-brown soup, then labored to down a half teaspoon at a time. Hours sitting in the kitchen forcing it. No flavor, no texture, no sensation except raw, hot pain.
When Brad was around, Mike was careful to let nothing show - not a wince or groan, no hesitation when moving about. He saved every bit of what little energy he possessed to cover himself.
“How you feeling, Dad?” the boy would ask politely and Mike would say, “Fine, son. I’m doing fine.”
“But how’s the chemo and stuff going?”
“It’s going fine. I’m doing what I gotta do to take care of this. That’s just what you do.”
Stoic, tough, what a man’s gotta do. He pulled it off, or so he imagined. Once he caught Karen shooting him a cynical look, but she said nothing. Did they discuss him behind his back? She probably talked to her friends and sisters, or God forbid, Brad. The thought of anyone feeling sorry for him made him cringe.
He told Karen, “I only did this for you and Brad. If it were just me, I’d have skipped it all and waited for the end.”
But was that true? The thing was, when you were standing on the edge of the abyss, you did things you hadn’t expected. Some of the time, he did believe that he endured these tortures for his family, but other times a small voice inside his head told him otherwise. He dismissed that voice because if it were telling the truth, wouldn’t that mean he was a coward? He had not, in his life, been really tested, not having had to go to war or do anything dangerously physical. Was simply surviving a terrible illness a courageous deed? Women did that, even old ones. No, manliness called for more than that, didn’t it?
He finished the chemo. Now though the soreness of his throat was lessening, he could not taste his food. “I’m a ruined man,” he told his wife. “Look at this useless arm too.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “The measure of a man is not whether he can taste or if his arm works.”
“Is it whether his penis works then?” he snapped. “I don’t think that’s working either.”
“That also doesn’t make a man,” she said.
“Then what does, in your scholarly opinion?”
She didn’t answer, but gave him a look he could not interpret. They were not a couple who discussed much. Or maybe it was that he didn’t discuss matters. He didn’t usually see the point. But now, sometimes, he wondered. He wondered what other men thought about. Maybe even women too.
It would hit him again that he’d had cancer, a very bad cancer. And nobody would understand what it felt like to have tried so hard all of his life to behave how a man should behave and now to find himself physically unable to do so. But what was he saying? How many men had fought in wars only to be disabled, deformed and worse?
At least he had not let Brad see him falter. At least, through it all, he had held up in front of his son.
One afternoon, however, he received a kick in the gut. He had thought he’d hung up the phone when Karen got a call. He figured he must have pressed the reset button instead of hanging up. A while later when he saw the phone lying there with the little red light on, he put it to his ear to see if anyone was still using it, and heard Karen say, “I don’t know why he’s got this macho thing all the time. It makes him look ridiculous. The thing is, we’re all gonna die and if we’re lucky, get old before we do and the longer you go, the more all that silly stuff melts away. Sometimes he just embarrasses me with that shit, but I’m hardly going to say so. You don’t kick a man when he’s down.”
He was shocked. So that’s how she saw him? After all he had been through, she was saying that? He pressed the off button hard and hoped she knew he’d been listening, the bitch. He had a sudden almost overwhelming urge to weep. If women only knew what men had to do, how they had to stiffen up in every imaginable way, to hold everything up. Everything up, so women like her could relax and laugh at him after being deformed, being made weak and ugly, after having been basically castrated!
Mike felt a lump push up in his throat, bigger and harder than the cancer had ever been. Not since he’d been a child had he felt such a thing. Knowing it was about to erupt, he darted to the basement door. His feet hit the stairs and as he rushed down, a terrible sob burst from him. It was followed by more, a continuous explosion, so that when he made it to the bottom, he had to sink onto the last step and curl up as if he were a child, his whole body shuddering uncontrollably.
He did not know how long he cried. His ass felt bone cold against the step. For a while, he was not sure he could catch his breath, but eventually, he managed. It occurred to him to fear that he might have torn something inside of his throat, though by now all the incisions had closed and the stitches dissolved. He checked to see if he was all there, as if he’d just survived a cataclysm.
He felt a stillness unlike anything he had known before and realized that he was lighter. As if he had released something dark and hard, something of cold metal that had lived inside of him for eons. He stood up and looked around gingerly.
When he was halfway up the stairs, he wondered if anyone had heard him. Did he care? He realized that he did not. It was a relief not to care. Was this how women felt? If so, it was good.
Brad was in the brightly lit kitchen when Mike reached the top of the stairs.
“Dad, you were in the basement? What were you doing?”
“How long have you been in here?” Mike asked instead of answering. He wondered idly if his eyes looked funny from the crying.
“I just got home, why?” said Brad. “Dad? Are you okay?”
So he’d noticed, thought Mike. Mike was silent a moment, then said, “That’s a good question. Do you want me to answer it honestly? For a change?”
Brad looked startled. “Uh, yeah, I guess so.”
“Physically, I don’t know how I am. Is all the cancer gone? Who knows? Will I be dead this time next year? Who knows? They made a mess of me, although I guess they did the best they could, but I look like hell and my arm is useless. Mentally though, I’m pretty good all of a sudden. You know what I just did?”
Brad shook his head, his eyes wide open. Mike knew the kid had never heard his father talk like this.
“I bawled my eyes out. I sat in the basement and sobbed up my guts. And you know what? It felt damn good. Take my advice. If you ever feel like you’d like to blow your brains out, forget about being manly. Just cry like a girl. It clears up the air.”
“If you say so, Dad,” said Brad, looking slightly wary. “You want something to eat?”
Mike thought about it. “Yeah, yeah, I do. I want some ice cream. A huge bowl of it. Can’t taste it much, but it’s cold and it feels good going down.”
“You got it, Dad,” said Brad, opening the freezer.
Mike sat down at the table, lifted his bad arm onto it, and smiled.Margaret Karmazin's credits include over ninety stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, North Atlantic Review, Potomac Review, Confrontation, Virginia Adversaria, Mobius, Chiron Review and Aim Magazine. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards and Piper’s Ash, Ltd. published a chapbook of her sci-fi stories, COSMIC WOMEN. She helped write the introduction for and has a story included in STILL GOING STRONG (Haworth Press) and a novel, REPLACING FIONA, published by etreasurespublishing.com. One of her stories will be included in an upcoming anthology, TEN TWISTED TALES.
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