Doug liked his volunteer gig driving Barney to hospital appointments. The guy made him laugh, the way he flipped wildly from one topic to another like a human pinball machine. A fast talker for a guy dying slowly. Doug had Deb to thank for suggesting that he volunteer in the first place. He just couldn`t figure out why she was always so darn nosy about Barney.
Last week Barney was in high spirits when Doug dropped him off at the patient entrance although Doug noticed he`d climbed into the car more slowly than usual when he picked him up.
“How about those Leafs, eh, Doug? And what`s with the weather? Man, could freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Now wouldja look at that homeless guy panhandling by the door? He thinks he`s got problems. He should try coming inside!”
After Doug parked and bought coffee, he found Barney waiting at the lobby info desk flirting with the receptionist. “You and me, honey, we’re gonna go dancing. As soon as I ditch my buddy,” he told her, pointing to his oxygen tank on wheels. Bobby McGee, he called it.
“I’m ready when you are,” laughed the receptionist. “Just let me know when so I have time to get into my fancy duds and dancing shoes.”
“Right on! I’ll be back.”
“Don`t I know it. Trouble always finds me,” she teased, eyes twinkling, as she did a quick pirouette. She just saw a fun guy who brightened her own day, and not his awful plight.
Doug wondered how she did this job every day, joking (or not) with the endless line of patients sometimes waiting four deep at her desk, nervously drumming fingers on appointment papers they gripped like prayer books. She never seemed to flag or be anything but cheerful and she always had time to joke with Barney, which made his sallow cheeks almost blush and his shuffling step lighten as he and Doug made their way to the elevators.
As usual one elevator was out of order and another on service bypassed them. Barney started wisecracking again as the waiting crowd grew, impatiently looking up at the lighted panel tracking each car’s descent as if that would speed it up.
“This wait could kill ya before ya even get upstairs to see the darn doc!”
Everybody chuckled and a few even made eye contact with Barney instead of looking away as people usually did when they saw the tank, grateful they had at least been spared this extra suffering.
“C’mon, Bobby McGee,” muttered Barney when an elevator finally came, and he yanked the tank in fast as the doors started to close on him.
“Geez, these friggin’ elevator doors are the only fast thing in this building.”
“Bobby McGee?” laughed a woman at the back with bright red hair. “As in Joplin? Or Kristofferson?”
“Janis all the way, baby,” said Barney, grinning at the attention. “Man, I loved that girl’s cackle, all those crazy feathers in her hair.”
“I get it, but why for your tank?”
“You know the punch line: Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. And honey, turns out I got nothing left to lose unless I lose my Bobby.” He started humming, off key.
“Hey Bobby, keep taking care of this guy!” the woman said as she brushed past them and got off the elevator at the next floor. Barney half-nodded and continued his tuneless humming.
When Doug and Barney got to the clinic, they settled into seats near the flat-screen TV where they scanned soundless headlines, sports and weather updates, and waited some more. They sipped their coffee.
“At least it’s hot,” said Barney.
Doug waited for the next punch line, knowing from this past year of driving with Barney that he was on his predictable roll, staring down cancer and turning the waiting room into his personal Yuk-Yuk’s.
“But if the cancer doesn’t kill ya, the coffee will.”
“Yeah, man,” hooted the guy across from Barney as he reached over to give him a slow high five. Everybody smiled, and Doug saw Barney relax as he slumped further down in his chair.
Doug was watching the weather forecast scrolling when Barney suddenly asked: “Hey, Doug. You married? Kids?”
Doug was taken aback as they never shared personal stuff during their drives to and from the hospital. “Ah, ah, no,” he stammered. “Divorced. But I have a partner, Deb. We’re together. But don’t live together all the time. She has a son, Rob. Bit of a fuck-up, he is — got into drugs, protests, shit like that. You name it. I don’t see him too much. But Deb’s convinced he’ll straighten up. She never gives up on that boy.”
“Women,” said Barney, shaking his head. “I was married once. Back in ’72. She took me to the cleaners, ya know. Got the duplex, the kid, half my sad-ass pension. The trifecta of hell, man: Life wooing that woman. Life with that woman. Life after.”
Wooing. Doug tried to imagine Barney wooing. Doug had never thought of him in this way. A lover, a husband. A regular guy, a dad. A kid? That kid must be close to forty by now. Before Doug could think of a thing to say, Barney was called in for his chemo. Afterwards, he was completely quiet on the drive home, eyes closed, listening to 680 News.
When Doug pulled into his own driveway, he switched to the all jazz station and listened to the tail-end of some Mingus. He sat, stuck, wondering where Barney`s kid was now and whether he had any inkling that his dad was dying.
Deb gave Doug a chance to start telling her about his day. Instead, he started telling her everything he’d learned about the history of Parmesan. She could practically see the cheese trivia folder spinning round his insatiable brain, slowing and opening the “P” tab.
“But what about Barney?” she cut him off.
Doug broke off his Parmesan dissertation. “He has a kid.”
“A kid? Seriously? Boy or girl?” asked Deb.
“No idea. Didn’t ask him.”
“You didn’t? Why not? What did you say?”
“Nothing. I was so surprised and then he was called for chemo. I just waited and then drove him home again. The usual drill.”
“Honestly, Doug. Aren’t you curious? It’s like he’s a different person now, a guy with history. Mystery!”
“I don’t know, Deb. I just want to help him, not grill him about his life. I’m his driver, not his shrink. The guy’s running out of time. He doesn’t need me poking into his business.”
“But he’s the one who mentioned it. Wasn’t that an opening? Why did he tell you? Maybe he does want to talk about it.”
“He’s just a regular guy,” said Doug. “If you didn’t know it was cancer, you wouldn’t think about it. The oxygen tank could mean lots of other stuff.”
“Lung stuff. Emphysema, maybe. He did smoke. Drank, too, probably. Not exactly a guy who ate kale.”
“Has he told you that, about the smokes and booze?”
“More about the smoking because he said he still misses it every day. That’s all.”
Deb stared at Doug, exasperated. She’d been thinking a lot lately about this cool, remote side of him. She could just imagine him driving Barney around, completely indifferent to his passenger, it never even occurring to him to ask Barney about his kid.
“Geez,” she said, throwing her hands up. “What’s the matter with you?”
Doug just gave her an annoyed look and wandered off into the kitchen. Soon she heard him making a sandwich.
And now Barney. A kid, a wife; a regular life? She had never wanted to meet him before, worried about how she might react, knowing the cancer was galloping, eating him up. But now? She was sure she wanted to; to know more about him when he was oblivious to his fate and would probably have snorted at the mere idea of death already stalking him. To know him before he was needy. To see him as a whole man instead of a disease.
When Doug`s age and number of work years hit the magic formula to retire early, Deb had worried about him. Thought he might get depressed, especially in winter. Doug hadn’t seemed to think about it much, apart from admitting that in the wee hours he sometimes wondered how he had spent fifteen years teaching geography followed by thirty years analyzing land-use policies, and to what avail since all the prime farmland ringing the city had morphed into sprawling designer outlet malls and cookie-cutter suburbs practically kissing the highway. He’d decided it was a good thing not to be able to recall how he’d spent day-in, day-out at a task that had turned thankless.
For a few weeks following his retirement party last March at a rambling Irish pub downtown he’d seemed at loose ends, not sure what to do next. His workmates vowed to keep in touch as they washed down mounds of potato bites and smoked salmon with draft Guinness, but of course office life went on without him and nobody had called. Doug got hooked on Jeopardy.
Deb had no patience for moodiness of any sort after being married to Tom for at least three years too long; irascible Tom who pouted if the edges of his toast got burnt. She resisted the urge to tell Doug to just Snap out of it because the one thing she was rock-sure about was his analytical approach to finding a practical solution to any problem. Besides, she had been far too busy at work navigating a tight deadline to get the company annual report to the printer. And so, she had waited, given him lots of breathing room.
Still, Deb worried, even though his moodiness and Jeopardy habit hadn`t morphed into depression as far as she could tell. At first, she phoned him every day from the office.
“Are you sure you’re okay? Not bored.”
“You don’t have to keep asking. Not bored.”
She was impressed at how he soon filled his days with things that had meaning for him – the morning Sudoku, jogging (when his bum knee let him), a bit of scratch golf here and there, puttering in the garden. He never missed his monthly poker night where he took a twenty-sixer of Canadian Club for the other guys; enjoyed a scotch or three on the rocks and usually smoked a cigar before wandering home before midnight slightly impaired but liking the buzz. He was cooking more, which she encouraged, and had learned that freshly grated Parmesan was vastly superior to the tasteless powder in a Kraft container. And then he got the volunteer gig driving Barney to his appointments. Deb was pleased he’d followed through on her suggestion but then was slightly jealous that Doug had found such a simple yet satisfying new purpose.
In late April, still drab and cold with no speck of spring in sight, Deb called Doug from the office just to check in since he’d still been sleeping when she left for work..
“Hi. Just checking in. What are you up to today?”
“You know. This and that. Go to the Y. Grab a coffee. Don’t forget it’s Barney day.”
“Do you think he’d come over if you invited him? Or I could take a day off and drive with you next week when you’re taking him to the hospital.”
“Why? So you can snoop into his past?”
Deb was stung. It was not like Doug to be mean-spirited.
“Is it wrong to be curious? I still think he might want to talk. Doesn’t sound like you’ve opened that door.”
“You think you can open it and walk right through? Barney’s not some freak in a side show. You wouldn’t be the least bit interested in him if he didn’t have cancer and wasn’t lugging that tank. Isn’t that the truth? Give it a rest, okay? Just stay out of it.”
Doug’s nastiness stung Deb. All year, she’d patiently listened to him when he returned with details of his Barney day cheerful and amazed that he and Deb were still among the lucky ones dodging the dreaded cancer bullet. News headlines and fundraising appeals were increasingly ominous: Forty percent. One-in-two. Will get cancer. In their lifetime. Donate now! intoned the god-like surgeon in scrubs in the TV ads pitching lottery tickets to win monster homes, dream cottages, fancy cars. Deb constantly thought about these dire statistics whenever she was on the subway, mentally wiping out every second or third person. Poof! Her daily meditation of live-for-today did not help her. Nagging, nagging doom was always in the back of her mind; she was indeed the charter President of the Worried Well Club. But not Doug. He had been sanguine, until his strange outburst today.
Deb hissed into the phone. “Message received,” and hung up. Neither of them mentioned their angry exchange again.
She knew it was weird, this nagging interest in all things Barney. She couldn’t reconcile two images consuming her: Barney, the grizzled, skinny, ailing guy dragging Bobby McGee, and Barney once a regular working guy, young and fit, doting on a son, coaching softball, tender with a wife. She thought of her own cousin who had just disappeared in a drug haze in his twenties. She hadn`t heard from him for years until the day he landed at her door, broke and skittish, begging for money. She’d given him a hundred dollars, closed the door, and wept. Haunted ever since that she had turned him away, hadn’t done more to rescue him or at least been kinder to a man she had once loved like a brother.
On Saturday morning Deb decided to stroll around Barney’s neighbourhood. She knew he lived near Dufferin Mall because Doug had told her that sometimes he took him to the No Frills there to buy groceries on the way back from the hospital. The only other thing she knew of this part of town was that her friend Nicky raved about the park across from the mall where she took her little nieces to play under a canopy of magnificent old maples. Nicky had told her about a long, narrow trench filled with sand with a tall water tap at one end that the kids turned on to create what they called The River. Deb had always wanted to see this, remembering her own son Rob’s fascination with the channels he dug and filled with water to float his plastic boats in the small sandbox she and Tom had built in their own backyard a lifetime ago.
From the subway, Deb walked south until she found the meandering pathways leading to the playground. Not a kid or leaf was in sight, only the soggy remnants of the long winter as the last mounds of snow receded – an orphaned mitten, a flattened heart-shaped balloon, a scrunched-up juice box. She found The River, just as Nicky had described it – a deep, narrow trench full of possibility.
Deb wished she could see Barney dancing freely in that park, childlike, mesmerized by The River. Adrift, tethered to a dream instead of to Bobby McGee. But wishes were for children. Still, she’d return to the park when the trees were leafy, to hear their timeless sighing in the wind and imagine the man she never knew. A man who’d be dead by then.
Jane Finlayson is a former journalist and corporate writer whose short stories and creative non-fiction have appeared in Canadian and U.S. literary journals including: The Penmen Review, The Fiddlehead (fiction contest winner 1999; honourable mention, 2007), The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Event (creative non-fiction contest winner, 2010), and Room. Jane lives in Toronto, Canada and has completed a collection of linked short stories titled Some Assembly Required.
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