Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
by Lionel de Maine
"Your pipe smoke smells worse than a horse's fart."
I hoped for the usual comeback. A normal response might counter the signs of worry I had seen elsewhere. A hearing aid forgotten beside his bed. A bottle of marmalade open on the kitchen counter. A slice of burned toast in an unwashed dish in the sink. Our antique family Bible open under a newspaper on a coffee table with the sixteenth verse of John 3 (For God so loved the world...) underlined in pencil.
"This bandage is too tight," he said. "Next time make it looser."
Last night he had asked me to bandage his hand. His rough, leathery skin reminded me of the day he delivered a calf for a neighbor. After the birth he washed his bloody hands under a steaming tap. Without thinking the neighbor plunged his hands under the same tap. He had yelped with pain. I grasped Dad's hand in mine and examined the growth on his knuckle. A shiny red bump the size of a rat's nose pushed through the skin flaking from the tumor. I squeezed the bump gently.
"Ouch." He snatched his hand away. "That's damned sore."
"Sorry. Maybe the doctor will inject the knuckle again."
"The lady professor's good," he said. "I see her tomorrow."
Hershey Medical Center was two hours away. I offered to drive.
"What for?" he asked angrily. "There's nothing wrong with me."
His words had started me thinking "cancer?" My mother had died of the disease the year before. Our family doctor had ignored her complaints of stomach pain until the cancer was terminal. After her death Dad and I talked each day by phone. During those calls we never allowed ourselves to cry or show emotion. We never mentioned cancer either. He only spilled the beans about his knuckle when I invited myself home for a week's vacation. Later I learned he was being treated at Hershey.
"I'd rather visit the chocolate factory than the hospital."
"There's nothing to worry about at the hospital," he said.
On the road ahead a lantern swung like a pendulum from the fender of a black Amish buggy. Dad slowed and then passed. The sound of horseshoes tapping on the concrete soon faded. A mile later a roadside billboard proclaimed, "He that believes in the Lord shall be saved." The next buggy we saw was yellow. The paint was fresh and called to mind sunflowers slowly turning to follow the sun across the sky.
"Bright yellow is unusual for the Amish," said Dad.
"Maybe he's not a true believer."
"It doesn't really matter -- we all die eventually."
"I thought you believed in eternal life?"
He laughed. "The worms get us all sooner or later."
Silence crawled between us again. I closed my window and opened one of the newspapers I'd tossed into the car. My mind refused to settle on the news. I cranked the window down again. Pennsylvania's fields gave way to tangled woodland and air laden with the smell of rotting leaves. We passed the remains of a deer. Tires had crushed the body to a pulp and smeared scars of blood onto the road. The skull lay on the gravel verge with black holes for eyes. A shock of putrid air rushed into the car.
"What a horrible death," I said. "To be crushed by trucks."
Dad's pipe had gone out. He flicked his lighter alight and sucked orange flame into the bowl. When the tobacco was burning he blew smoke at me. I coughed and beat the air with the newspaper. Some of his usual humor twinkled from his eyes before the breeze whisked the smoke away. I kept fanning with the newspaper.
"Well," he said, "at least she died quickly."
The growth had burrowed into Dad's knuckle like a worm. The injection was only one of the possible treatments. Doctors could cut the joint away. And the finger. Maybe two joints. Two fingers? Three? Four? A shiver crawled up my nape. I shushed my brain and turned my eyes to the scenery. We cruised through a string of farming towns with unexpected names. Locust Run. Center. Mexico. A harvester spat out tightly coiled barrels of hay. Silver grain silos thrust skyward like missiles ready to launch. Tall barns painted rust red broke the lazy green of pastures perfect for sheep farming. Men dressed in preachers' black raised a barn ribbed with tanned timber. In an adjacent field, loose sheaves of hay stood in crooked rows like drunken sentries.
"Looks like that hay was cut by hand," I said without thinking.
I pictured a scythe slicing through yellow stalks. Some of Dad's favorite stories were about harvesting hay with a scythe during his childhood. A bulky farmer swung the blade back and forth as regularly as a heartbeat. His fingers were rough and the knotted creases in his skin stained with accumulated grime. Straw collapsed over the hand and scythe. Suddenly the hand gave way to white wrist bones. The joints rattled as the hand swung the gleaming blade. My nose crinkled with the smell of putrid flesh.
"Horse drawn mower," said Dad. "The cut's too even for scythes."
"Do you have cancer?" The words tumbled from my lips.
"You know," he said. "We used scythes when I was a child."
"Why not listen," I said. "I didn't ask you about cutting hay."
He clamped the pipe stem between his teeth and inhaled deeply. The plug of tobacco in the bowl glowed like hot coal for five seconds. He pursed his lips and blew a lazy smoke ring. I hadn't seen him blow smoke rings since childhood. The ring of smoke collapsed and then he blew another and another. He sucked on the pipe again but the tobacco was exhausted. He handed me the pipe with his bandaged hand.
"Time for a refill," he said. "My tobacco's in the glove box."
I stuck the warm pipe into the pouch and scooped tobacco into the bowl with my forefinger. The strands of tobacco were rough and oily. While my fingers recharged the pipe I prayed silently, reminding anyone listening that Dad had believed all his life even though today he sounded contrary. I packed the tobacco tight with my thumb.
Dad grinned and said, "Why not light that when you're finished."
"That's your job," I said. "Your tobacco tastes like engine oil."
I handed him his pipe and kerosene lighter. He sucked on the stem and yellow flame dived into the bowl. Wayward strands of tobacco frizzled and then smoke swirled from the pipe. The car drifted across the two-lane highway while he inhaled.
"That's better," he said. "This tobacco is super stuff."
"Yeah," I said. "The horse in the back seat agrees."
He smoked steadily until we arrived at the hospital. Fluorescent tubes bathed the waiting room with sterile light. Dad disappeared into the intestinal maze of corridors. I opened a Conde Naste Traveler and willed myself onto the dude ranch described on its glossy pages. Wind and sun scrubbed my skin while I roped cattle. At night I squatted around a blazing campfire with craggy-faced cowboys and drank whisky from a tin cup. Warmth from the fire oozed into my boots. My only worldly concern was moving a herd of bellowing longhorns. Insects sang me to sleep. Dad's voice woke me.
"Everything's fine," he said. "Are you ready to leave?"
"Is the growth dead?" I asked. "What did the doctor say?"
"She squeezed and pus squirted from my knuckle."
"Wow," I said. "That must have hurt like hell."
"I hardly felt anything," he said with a grin.
He suggested stopping for a fancy lunch in a town called Fishing Creek. The restaurant was squeezed between two Victorian houses dressed in pealing paint. A scrawled note tacked to the door read "closed for vacation." Thirty minutes later we saw a billboard shaped as an arrow advertising homemade meals. The road to the restaurant had a crumbling surface. We passed a pigsty and a sign to an Amish bakery. Dad had discovered Amish pies after Mom's death. He liked telling the Amish that the only pies better than theirs were Mom's rhubarb pies. I liked Amish pies too.
"I'll buy you a pie for dinner," I said rubbing my stomach.
"Find the restaurant," he said. "My stomach's growling."
"Don't be mean," I said. "You're the one with a sweet tooth."
He spotted the restaurant first, a squat building beside a green field. Inside the door was a rack of religious brochures. "Be Born Again," urged one of the pamphlets. Skin showed through the fur of a stuffed bear that adored the lobby. The smell of fresh bread and pies filled the restaurant. I insisted on a non-smoking table. Our waitress brought us menus and put some religious brochures on the table between us.
"Here's a message from the Lord," she said. "He loves you."
"I don't want these," said Dad. "They're a waste of time."
"Sorry," I said uneasily. "But my father needs redemption."
"Everybody needs help sometime," she said. "The Lord saved me when drugs took my soul." She flipped opened her pad. "And when cancer took my husband the Lord comforted me -- he sat with me at the hospital every day. Without him -- "
"Time to order," said Dad. "What do you want to eat?"
"Entrée du jour is turkey," said the waitress. "It's real good."
When the waitress had gone I read a brochure titled The Matchless Pearl aloud to Dad. In the story a pearl diver wants to make a sacrifice to smooth his way to heaven so he decides to walk to Delhi on his knees. Before leaving he gives a missionary friend a priceless gift-a pearl that his only son had died harvesting.
"This is bullshit," said Dad. "Why are you reading it to me?"
"Because you won't talk about the growth on your hand."
"You ask too many foolish questions," he said angrily.
"They're not foolish," I said. "I just want to hear the truth."
Dad stared at me fixedly. His glasses magnified his pupils.
"Okay." he sighed. "This is my fourth... no the fifth growth."
The waitress returned midway through his sentence. Our plates clinked on the tabletop as she set them down. Dad started eating while she served me. He gripped his sandwich with both hands. Tomato seeds squished from between the wheat toast and juice trickled into his beard. I forked some turkey into my mouth. Two slices of Wonder Bread and a thick slab of turkey on my plate were smothered under yellow gravy.
"Jesus," I said. "This gravy looks like... like... like pus."
"There's more," he said. "The growths are only half the story."
"How's your sandwich?" I asked. "I hope better than mine."
"There's more," he said. "You wanted the truth didn't you?"
I shook my head and looked away. After that we ate in silence. Once or twice my eyes touched his by mistake. I noticed things I hadn't seen before. A cataract clouded the lens of one eye. His eyelashes had turned gray. The edges of his eyelids were swollen and sore. We finished eating and walked over to the cashier in silence.
Dad examined the pies inside the display case. Some had scorched edges and some had cracks across their crusty faces. One had a wedge missing. The apple filling underneath was stained with cinnamon. Purple juice oozed from the holes pieced into the face of a blueberry pie. A boyish smile spilled over into Dad's eyes.
He said, "I'll bake you one of my rhubarb pies for dinner."
"Sounds risky," I said. "Unless you use Mom's recipe."
"What do you know?" he asked. "About baking pies."
He grinned when he handed me the keys and said, "Drive." The road we followed back to the highway twisted through rich farmland. A field heavy with corn waited for a farmer's harvester. Green rows of a late-season crop squeezed from the earth. Sprinklers tossed water onto a distant field. A tractor hauling cattle rattled along the road. Cows bellowed and the smell of manure wafted into the car. When we reached the highway Dad lit his pipe. Thick smoke filled the car. He opened his window and the draft sucked the smoke away. "Doesn't this tobacco smell good?" he asked.
From the judges
Tom Parker: A vibrant, live-affirming story driven by a
son's interrogation of his vital, yet aging, ailing father. I was
alternately amused and affected by "Rhubarb Pie;" by the
son's musings. The waitress' proselytizing and, above all, by the
narrator's indomitable Dad.