SHORT STORY

Taking Control

(Published in RE-VISIONS 1998-1999,
The Literary Magazine of Tompkins Cortland Community College)

Frank’s key found the lock at the third attempt. His hand trembled as the doctor’s words rang in his head for the hundredth time.

“I am sorry Mr. Francis... a degenerative disease of the cerebellum... loss of muscle coordination and control... six to ten years of functional life, no more than fifteen total... I am sorry Mr. Francis...”

His slim six-foot-four frame hesitated for a few seconds before he stepped over the threshold into the odor of burnt toast.

“What the hell is non-functional life?” he wondered to himself while hanging up his coat.

“Well?” Suzette’s rasping voice uttered from somewhere. “What’d the quack say? Athureyetis? An aspirin a day? An aspirin a day helps real men fuck and play. So they say.” Cackling to herself, she emerged from the kitchen, with a clever-me grin on her puffy, gray face, squinting and blinking through smoke from a short cigarette held grudgingly between dry lips. He noted with customary disappointment that her peroxided thatch remained uncombed.

“Well?” she repeated, with the same I-told-you-it-was-nothing intonation.

Frank stood looking out the window at nothing in particular, avoiding her gaze and hoping to God that she wouldn’t say ‘athureyetis’ again. Under the circumstances he just might strangle her, right there and then.

“Not arthritis,” he said quietly. “Aspirin won’t help. Seems I have a rare disease. So rare it has no name other than some unpronounceable medical term.” He paused in the hope that it might rivet her attention so that she’d listen to him. “My cerebellum just happens to be aging faster than the rest of me, apparently. It’s already affecting my fingers."

Seconds of silence hung in the smoke.

“Aaah, so what?” she said, her bulky body plummeting onto the sofa, the television set flickering to life with a nonchalant gesticulation of the remote control. To admit that she didn’t understand something was impossible. “So, your penny-whistle-playing days are numbered, what the heck.” She lit another cigarette and grinned broadly as bedlam erupted on a talk show. People shouted and punched each other while others laughed and cheered.

Ten minutes later, throwing her head back, blowing smoke directly upwards at the ceiling as a narwhal expresses sea water from its blow-hole, she managed, “Will this cere-whatsit-thing affect your cock?”

“Maybe she’s getting the message that it’s serious,” he thought.

* * *

Suzette interpreted almost everything of import with a blatantly self-serving slant. Unwilling to relinquish the arthritis theory to explain her spouse’s obvious symptoms--he kept dropping things, a teaspoon here, a plate of spaghetti and meatballs there--she felt certain of Frank’s exaggeration. A week later, he arranged for her to meet with his doctor.

Curiously quiet, she kept to herself for three days thereafter, a respite that Frank accepted as manna. However, if he’d remembered the First Law of Thermodynamics (to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction) he would have braced himself. For, in Suzette’s case, to every period of quiescence there was a commensurately compensating explosion.

She sat gathering her eyebrows and thoughts over breakfast that Saturday. Her breakfast, his lunch. He had already clipped the front hedge and washed the downstairs windows. She was tackling her second cup of black coffee and third cigarette. He surmised to himself that her extra poundage resulted from other than the most important meal of the day.

“Listen,” she said.

His stomach tightened in pavlovian response more to the serious tone than to the word, although listening to anything his wife of 20 years had to say had long since become a tedious exercise in futility.

“That doctor told me that there are other causes for symptoms like yours. Not just your genes. Poisons can affect the brain, make you crazy, make you drop things. Maybe something you did at the lab caused this!”

He took a deep breath and gave a heavy sigh. Two long decades of frustration suffused his inflection: “Mother and father gave blood samples for tests that proved that I inherited a rare gene from both of them. They’re not affected, but I am. A ten-million-to-one chance. Some people win the lottery, others get sick.” He chuckled in spite of himself.

“Maybe... maybe,” she retorted, her voice rising, measuring for the kill like a toreodor angling the sword for the final thrust. “But, listen. Who is to say that some innocuous chemical in that lab didn’t make this thing worse, didn’t bring it on earlier, eh? Eh? Who can prove that didn’t happen?”

He smiled as he had a thousand times before at her ambitious but faulty phraseology. “Whether it was last month or last year when I started spilling coffee on myself, what the hell difference does it make? I’m still going to end up vegetating in a wheelchair before I’m fifty.”

“What difference does it make? Maybe a big difference.” She slapped the table top as her melodrama graduated to triumph: “Maybe a very big money difference.”

* * *

Suzette asked around, and found possibly the most unprincipled lawyer in town. It was a tough choice. There were more than a few snakes in that particular cesspool. Jack Conroy Esquire caught her drift long before she got to the punch line.

“Mrs. Francis,” he said, pumping himself up like a rubber frog, shaking scruffy red curls around his scrawny freckled neck in excitement, “we will sue Thompson Laboratories for $40 million dollars. We will find experts to testify under oath that Mr. Francis’s condition was 25% caused by a chemical he used in their lab and presto! We will have $10 million dollars.”

Had they known each other just a little better, they would have joined hands and danced around the room.

* * *

It took rather longer than Suzette expected to have their day in court. Thompson Laboratories provided Frank with a generous early retirement settlement that they hoped would result in Francis v. Thompson Laboratories being dropped. It had the opposite effect on Suzette and Mr. Conroy; they tasted blood. When it was clear to the Thompson brothers that the suit would not be dropped, they instructed their lawyers to be as obstructive as possible in the expectation of an eventual, quiet, out-of-court settlement for a couple of hundred thousand dollars.

Frank did all he could to dissuade Suzette from her chosen path. With his pension tinkling into their bank account each month, she gave up her job at the Motor Vehicle Bureau, ostensibly to be home to tend to the needs of her ailing husband. Then, as Frank’s faculties diminished, she demanded of the local welfare authority that she have the assistance of a home help.

Rita’s Wednesday-morning visits were a breath of the purest fresh air in Frank’s life. Her spark and easy laughter reminded him of the Suzette with whom he had fallen in love, several lifetimes before. Perhaps, if she could have had children, motherhood would have aided Suzette to resist the calling to slovenliness. Rita made him realize how much he had compromised in accepting the sad deterioration that was his marital commitment. He began to harbor fantasies of the fortyish, attractive, slim, auburn-curled, smiling Rita pushing him in his wheelchair down the garden path, leaving behind the stale ashtray that was his house, taking him to her sweet-smelling, orderly home. And he allowed himself the fantasy of sexual love; even in his fumbling clumsiness, Rita would understand and accommodate him.

* * *

One fall day while Suzette visited the offices of Conroy, Slick, Conroy and Frodd, Frank wheeled himself out to the garden shed. He hadn’t been that far from the house in months. He opened a cabinet, and, still there, was an intact 1-pound jar of slug bait.

SLUGGIT
Danger Poison Arsenic
Handle Strictly as Directed See Label

He sat for a long time shivering in the cold, staring at the jar.

* * *

It was a cold windy evening in early December. Suzette was already in bed, sleeping off the effects of an excess of Jack Daniels and ginger ale. Frank ponderously opened a cassette tape and worried it into the player, then turned up the volume as Scottish Dance Favourites with Jimmy Shand and his Band brought cheerful accordion music to his tired ears.

Rita had filled the oil-burning space-heater that morning, and Suzette had shakily ignited the wick before heading upstairs to obligingly pass out. Frank repositioned his wheelchair, locked the wheels, took his cane and placed the rubber-tipped end on the top edge of the heater. He pushed with all the grimacing effort his wasted muscles could muster until it teetered, then, with a few more ounces of force, it fell over with a dull thump. Oil spread instantly over the carpet in an ever-widening dark circle as fumes caught his breath, then... WOOSH! The flames enveloped him to the jaunty strains of Scotland the Brave.

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