Doctor said I had thirty days. “You can’t predict that close. Why don’t you peck it down to the minute if you’re that precise?”
“It’s a rough estimate. Denial is just one of the stages of grieving.”
“I’m not grieving. I’ve wanted to be dead for a long time. Like if I had an on/off switch on the side of my head, I would have flicked it off a long time ago.”
“No need to be pessimistic. You don’t have to hasten the end now. Just enjoy your final days.”
“If I’m dying, I’m supposed to enjoy my final days? Won’t there be a long crawl of agony inside my body? Bowels twisting up like serpents and such?”
“It needn’t be so melodramatic. It may just be a quiet expiration, the kind most people dream of.”
“Good. Then I won’t pay your bill either,” I said, putting on my fedora and stamping outside his glass doors.
The day itself stood positively golden, the sun ratcheting itself up in the sky. I walked down to the piers and sat with my feet in the water, imagining the mercury and parasites clinging to my skin.
My skin, aged and wrinkly like a raisin. It had a bluish cast to its otherwise darkness. I was a tall man, and gangly. The cancer was having a quiet gorge inside my belly. I hid my frail bones beneath a blue jumpsuit like I used to wear to labor in.
Along came a pregnant lady.
I tipped my hat to her. “Good day, miss.”
Her tone was sharp. “What’s good about it, old man?”
“That’s disrespectful. Show some manners.” I maintained a smile. She was lighter-skinned than me, with her hair in cornrows and her eyes something aqueous. She had to be half my age if not less. I had no kids so I saw nothing incestuous about it.
She halted as if to inspect me. “What have you done to earn my respect?”
“Sometimes living life as long as I have is enough to merit some respect, wouldn’t you say?”
“I wouldn’t know.” She had to have been a good eight months underway, concealing it beneath some silky black and gold outfit.
“Sure you do. Your folks taught you some manners, I just know they did.”
I could see the tongue running under the upper lip. “So they did. So what?”
“Sit here,” I said, patting the ground.
“In this condition?” She rubbed her belly.
“I’ll help you.” I stood up and took her arm real precious-like, smelling all the while like bananas and plantains. It nearly made me swoon and fall into the sea. She eased herself down slow and we sat together, side by side, since she had taken off her golden pumps and placed them by her side.
“Now, isn’t this nice?” I asked.
“Nicer than I would have thought,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Where you headed in such a rush?”
“To the clinic. I need another exam. My contractions are coming closer together.”
“So it’s almost time.”
“The doctor thinks about a month.”
“Thirty days,” I said, mostly to myself. I knew irony and, like its name, it tasted like iron in the mouth.
“It’s a boy,” she said.
“Daddy is, but he isn’t worth much for that.”
“I see. What if I coached you?”
“Coached me in what?”
“How to breathe.”
“I already know how to breathe. Wouldn’t be sitting here if I didn’t.”
“Not like that. Like to ease off the contractions. Deep breaths, like you really mean it.”
It was clear from her expression that she had never heard of such a thing. Girls from my neighborhood seldom did. Lamaze, it sounded like a lovely child’s name and not much else.
I put my hand on her back and felt her flinch, just a second, before she let up on it. “Breathe in hard,” I said.
“Now hold it.”
She did that too, her cheeks puffing up like Dizzy Gillespie.
“Let’s count to ten,” I said. I did the counting, out loud, like to match the slapping of the water on the posts. “Now let it out, nice and slow.”
She puffed it out through her lips, her eyes closed, like it took all her concentration and energy to do.
“Now, wasn’t that nice?”
“It was fine. But what’s the point?”
“To ease your pain. It’s all about easing pain for the next thirty days.”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I know all about it,” I said, knowing right off I sounded ridiculous.
“You give birth before?”
“In a way.” I didn’t want to say that I gave birth to my death because that sounded all philosophical and some folks just don’t trust a man who talks that way. “I know something about pain, that’s all.”
“You going to give me some sad story, daddy?”
“Nothing of the kind. I want nothing more than to see a smile on your pretty face.”
“Walk me through this breathing thing again.”
So I did. I coached her like she was my star player on varsity.
“You do that for the next thirty days, lady, and I guarantee you the birthing will go fine.”
“You going to be there with me?”
“Say what now?”
“You going to be there with me for all this? You know I won’t remember.”
“I don’t know.”
“See how men are? Always with the ‘I don’t know.’ You do know, you just don’t want to commit.”
“I may not be able to commit.”
“Another lady then?”
“Nothing like that?”
Again, I didn’t want to crimp the scene with my displeasure. “Nothing, then. I’ll be there with you.”
“You best keep your promises, old man. I don’t have much else.”
“You got thirty days,” I said. “To some folks, that’s a lifetime.”
So we sat, mapping it out, with the sun making its way down the sky like a drop of honey, and both of us breathing, only breathing.
Michael Fontana writes in Arkansas.