by Max Dinkman
"The snow’s really starting to come down," I said, entering the house kicking off my wet shoes.
"They should’ve let school out early," my fourteen-year-old sister, Maddy, added with indignation. But as she took off her snow-caked boots, she paused, looking down the hallway. Our sister, Melissa, was sobbing again.
"What’s wrong?" I asked.
"How should I know?" Maddy replied. Then her eyes widened. Turning away from me, she began yelling for our father.
"Dad? Dad, where are you?" she darted for the kitchen. "Those people that called, those blood bank people, they’ve figured out what’s wrong, haven’t they?"
"Yes," Dad’s voice, loud and empty, sounded from around the corner. He appeared between the dinning room and kitchen, "It’s leukemia."
"What do you mean leukemia?" I dropped my book bag.
"It’s a form of cancer," Dad replied with a cracked voice.
"I know what it is."
"I have it pretty bad, Max."
"How bad is ‘pretty bad?’"
Maddy tossed her purse on the dining room table as she ran to our father. He leaned against the kitchen sink, looking down. She wrapped her arms around his ample waist, "Dad?" she asked, "How bad?"
Dad sighed and put one hand on Maddy’s shoulder, "Maddy, we don’t want to lie to you," Dad looked at me, "to any of you." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"He’s got the worst kind there is," Mom said, walking into the kitchen. Her eyes were bloodshot and her cheeks were tinted red. She had been in Melissa’s room and the sobs, though dulled, had trailed her into the kitchen like ghosts. She looked at Dad, "Ah cain’t be in there with her anymore. She won’t stop cryin.’"
"The worst kind?" I asked. "What does that mean?" I moved closer. My dog, a Doberman named Moses, ran up to me and shoved her head under my hand. She was wagging her tail and dancing around my legs. I patted her away, "Moses, it’s cold outside, no, not now."
"It means it looks like I’m in a bad way, Max," Dad chuckled as I shoved Moses.
"Don’t laugh," Maddy whimpered, still clinging to our father.
Dad closed his eyes. "Your mom and I are going to see a specialist at four and we’ll know more after that."
Maddy’s face was shoved into Dad’s belly and her knuckles, holding her hands together tight, had become white. "You’re not gonna die, are you, Daddy?" she asked, looking up into his pale face. Tears were streaking her cheeks and Dad’s blue, tie-dyed tee shirt was wet where her face had been buried.
Dad smiled. "Dads don’t die, honey," he patted her back and moved away. "But I have to go talk to your sister now. She’s taken this news pretty hard and I need to calm her down before she goes into labor."
"Shouldn’t Jack be here comforting her?" I smirked.
Dad gave me a quick, cold stare and said, "Not now, Maxwell."
I lifted up my hands and backed away. "So, um . . . . Did you guys just find out, then?"
"About an hour or so ago," Mom said, "Ah didn’t make any supper. Sorry," she opened the refrigerator. "D’y’all want me ta make ya somethin’ else?"
"No," Maddy answered.
"I just need something to drink." I said, noticing Mom had let her normally caged Missouri accent out in full force.
"Well, you guys stay in here," Dad sighed again, studying us, then left the kitchen. The way his footsteps tapered off down the hall reminded me of something I once saw in a horror movie. I heard Melissa’s bedroom door open and his voice quietly fight through the sobs.
"So she’s been crying like that for an hour?" I asked.
"She’s been cryin’ like that fer about eight months now, Max. Ya’ll know that. At least today it’s been about her father’s condition and not whatever fool thing Jack did," Mom placed a can of Mt. Dew in my hands. "Come sit down with me fer awhile," she looked at Maddy, "you, too."
Uncharacteristically, we followed Mom and took our seats at the small round table in the kitchen. For a long time, we were silent. I was staring at the sweat on my soda can. Mom was looking out the sliding door to the large, snow-covered oak in our backyard. When we first moved into the house she had said the tree reminded her of her childhood spent in Hannibal, Missouri’s ghetto. There was an oak in her backyard then too, and she spent most of her formative years under its healthy shadow. The dog she had as a child, a brown-furred mutt named Champ, had lived in a shack she built at that tree’s base. She used to say Champ was the only friend she had until she met Dad.
Maddy opened a box of bite-sized cracker sandwiches and was stacking them in the middle of the table.
"That looks like an obelisk," I said.
"What does?" Maddy asked.
"Your cracker stack."
"What’s an obelisk?"
"Like the Tower of Babel."
"I don’t know what that is either."
"It was a tower these guys a long time ago—"
Maddy looked up with a frown, cutting me off, "I don’t care and I might be wrong, but I don’t think that was an ‘obelisk.’"
"Ya’ll know," Mom interrupted, "my old dog, Champ, died a cancer. So did mah mama, yer gramma."
"We know," Maddy said.
"Dad’s going to be okay, Mom," I added.
"He is, yer right," Mom agreed, "but cancer’s pretty damn tough,too."
"But they found it early in Dad though," I hoped, "right?"
"That’s what they’re sayin,’ yeah, but ah don’t know. Yer dad hadn’t given blood in over a year when they caught it," Mom didn’t take her eyes away from the tree. "It snows too much in Iowa. It never snowed this much in Missouri."
"We should all give blood from now on," Maddy said, not really talking to either of us. "There’s a blood drive at school in a couple of weeks."
"That’s a good idea, Maddy."
Mom reached into the box where Maddy stored her building material and took out a handful of crackers.
I stood. "Well, I’m going to take Moses for a walk before I have to go to work." I put my hand in my side pocket and felt the tightly rolled joint I stashed there during sixth period algebra, "I want to get a walk in now because I don’t think I’ll be able to do it when I get home, what with all this snow."
"Just try’n be back ‘fore we leave," Mom said.
"You want to come, Maddy?" I asked, giving her a knowing glance.
She weighed the idea for a moment, thinking better of it, "No, I want to talk to Mel when Dad’s done."
"That’s good, because she wants to talk to you," Dad said, stepping into the kitchen.
"How is she now?" Mom asked, walking over to him and reaching for his hands.
"Well, she’s not crying anymore," he answered. "She wants to talk to you too, Tabby."
Mom shook her head, "Are you sure? Me? We just spent twenty minutes doin’ nothin’ but cryin’ together."
"You and Maddy," Dad said. He looked at me, "She said she wants to talk to you too, Max."
"Whatever," I shrugged. "Moses!" I yelled , and she came galloping into the kitchen with her leash hanging from her mouth.
As Mom and Maddy left the room, Dad grabbed my wrist, "You’re not going to talk to Mel?"
"Why?" I asked. "I don’t want to talk to Mel. What is there to talk about anyway? I just want to take my dog for a walk."
"How about you talk to me for a minute?"
"Why does everybody in this family suddenly want to talk?"
"It’s how we should get through things like this."
"We never talked before."
"‘Never’ is a bit harsh, don’t you think?"
I sat back down, "Okay. What are we going to talk about?"
"I want to know how you feel."
"How I feel?"
Dad stared at me with a small smile on his lips. His long dark hair was heavy on his broad shoulders and his normally red cheeks I noticed were pale.
"Are you serious?" I sighed, glancing at the tree in the backyard.
"I feel fine."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, other than the fact that I just found out like half-an-hour ago my dad could most likely be dead this time next year, yeah, I’m okay," I snapped.
Dad didn’t reply.
"Can’t I just take my dog for her walk?"
"That doesn’t sound like the kind of talk from a guy whose ‘fine,’" Dad said. "This is some big stuff, Max. And you’re right; I could die. I’ve been thinking about that since the blood bank called," he sat down. "Look," he ran his hands through his hair, "this is scary and its about to get scarier. I’m probably going to have to go to Omaha to the hospital there."
"Are we all gonna have to go?"
"I think that would be best, don’t you?"
"But I’ve only got five months of school left. And I got that scholarship contest at UNI in a few weeks," I said with an empty voice.
"I’m sorry, Max."
"There’s nothing you can do about it," I looked at Moses while speaking to Dad. "It isn’t like it’s your fault."
"I know, but I’m sorry."
"No, no, no, no, no," I waved my hands at him, "don’t say that. You’ve got cancer," I stood and began to pace. "I shouldn’t have said that stuff. I’m sorry," I looked outside, there was so much snow on the oak that some of the branches were drooping, struggling against the weight. I could feel tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. "Look, I know we need to do a lot more ‘talking’ about this, but I really want to take Moses for a walk right now, so can we just do it later?" I ran my hand across my face, hoping to catch the drops before they fell. Why didn’t I want him to see me cry?
Dad smiled and lowered his eyes, "Yes, we can, as soon as you get home from work," he said.
"If you want, I can call in sick." I suggested through a cracking voice.
"I’m sure you can," he laughed, "but don’t do that. We’ll talk more about everything later. We’ll know more then anyway." He followed my gaze outside, "But be careful, that snow is really coming down."
I waved goodbye and walked out the door with Moses in tow. The snow was drifting higher than it had been when Maddy and I arrived home only twenty minutes earlier. I probably should have skipped taking the dog for a walk, but the joint in my pocket, combined with the news of Dad’s cancer, forced me along. It had been building up for weeks.
Since the blood bank had called with their ominous message indicating that Dad could have cancer, all of us had been on edge. Then, for three weeks he had seen doctor after doctor until there was no shadow of doubt. Cancer had indeed invaded our working class life. Waiting on the definitive call was almost like a formality. But now that it had come, now that an oncologist had reported it over the phone with what I was sure was a mechanical dry voice, the reality was overbearing.
I put my head down against the wind and tried not to think about it. There was a small patch of trees a few blocks from our house. It was far enough back from any roads that I felt comfortable letting Moses run free when we went there, and it was private enough that I felt comfortable sparking up in the middle of the afternoon.
The woods were barren and I walked on inches of fallen brown leaves covered by a deceitful blanket of white snow. The gray sky and the smell of death permeated the woods in the winter. The trees were like aged sentries, guarding something long forgotten that nobody cared about. The dried up creek running through the center of the small forest seemed sad and alone.
I brushed the snow off a damp log in a clearing and let Moses off her leash. She dashed through the snow, chasing some winter rodent or dream I could not see. I watched the snow kick up behind her feet and followed her barks as they trailed off on their own adventure. When she was out of sight, I pulled the joint from my pocket, placed it against my lips, and lit it. I breathed in heavily, wanting to take the first hit strong.
In a few moments I began to regard the forest around me. I stood, ignoring the cold and the snow. Somewhere in the distance I heard Moses scratching at a tree trunk. Suddenly thirsty, I leaned back and opened my mouth. The snow had a metallic taste I attributed to living so close to the polluted Mississippi River. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to taste it. Snow was water. Water was life. Life is what I needed there, then. After a few minutes, I returned to my moldy, cracked seat and resumed smoking.
Moses came back and flopped down beside me. "How’s it going, girl?" I asked.
She looked up, her tongue out, panting.
"You look like you’ve been having a good time," I laughed and puffs of smoke blew out my nostrils. "That’s cool. At least somebody’s having a good day."
Again she looked at me, intent on listening.
"You know, we knew something like this was gonna happen. We knew it," I took another hit. "Ever since those people called being all, ‘there is a discrepancy in your blood.’ What the hell is that supposed to mean, anyway? A ‘discrepancy?’ We’ve even talked about the possibility and like what we would do if . . . . So now we find out for sure that he has cancer and what do we do? What are we gonna do?" I stood and spun in the clearing with my arms wide. "It’s like the universe wants to torture me—torture us."
Moses jumped up, following me around the clearing, happily.
"And I’m not gonna be able to hide this when I go to work. People are gonna be able to tell there is something bothering me. I think maybe I’ll skip tonight. It makes me want to quit altogether, just give up. You know? I mean, what did my dad ever do to deserve something like this? He worked his ass off his whole life, just to get fucking leukemia when he’s like thirty-five. That’s bullshit," I squatted, taking the last few puffs, and scratching Moses behind her ear. "And we’re gonna have ta move away?" I coughed, "What the hell is that all about?"
I wanted Moses to answer. But she gave only a light, playful bark.
I petted her. "Well, shit, if I’m gonna call in, we better get back home," I put out the smoldering joint and placed it in my coat pocket. "Gotta save this," I said, "I don’t think we should stay out here much longer anyway. We might not be able to find our way back home."
As I walked, my legs seemed to float just above the ground and the cold was beginning to get to me. I didn’t notice the scenery, none of the houses covered in snow, the men shoveling, or the cars slowly creeping down the street for fear of a slippery spot. I walked. My eyes were open and I saw what was in front of me, but I wasn’t taking it in, wasn’t letting it register. I knew I had to be home and I knew how to get there. I walked. Everything else slipped to the back of my mind. I walked.
When I was a short distance from my house, I saw Mom and Dad drive by in their gray Saturn sedan—a family car. I wondered just how long it had been since my whole family had ridden together in that car. I waved at my parents and Dad leaned over, giving me a thumbs-up from the driver’s side. I couldn’t help but think there was some form of irony being presented in that gesture.
When I reached the front porch, Moses was trying to race for the door, but my slow, heavy pace held her back. Maddy banged on the window, looking outside, "Hurry up, Max," she said, her voice muffled through the window, wind, and snow, "You’re gonna die if you stay out there in that snowstorm too long."
BIO: Max Dinkman is a writer, poet, teacher, husband, son, brother, and father living in the the midwest. His work can be found both online and in print at such fine journals as Plum Ruby Review, Because We Write, and With the Three-Legged Cat. (And also in the archives of GSJ!) Questions or comments can be emailed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org