EVERYTHING TASTES LIKE TIN
by Bari Hein
Wherever Joe’s youngest son goes, trouble follows.
His older two, Jacob and Luke, managed to grow up without breaking a single bone between them. Matthew, on the other hand, broke both legs, one arm, and his collarbone. Oh yes, and a toe. Not all at the same time.
Another example: The only phone call Joe and Shirley ever received from a school principal on Jake or Luke’s account was to commend Luke’s perfect attendance during his sophomore year. Matthew, on the other hand; well with Matthew, there’d been too many phone calls to count, and always over stupid things. Things that showed no common sense. Like refusing to dissect a pig in science class. Or telling a teacher her presentation of U.S. History was skewed, whatever that meant.
Since his arrival to New York a week and a half ago, Matthew has programmed two left-wing news stations onto his parents’ television set to make them more easily accessible (as if they would ever want to access such reporting), clogged their shower drain with his long, unkempt hair, and purchased caffeinated tea instead of decaf and the wrong brand of toothpaste, despite having been issued a very specific shopping list. Joe will have to make a return trip to the market to exchange those items; while he’s at it, he’ll pick up a bottle of heavy duty drain cleaner.
Most perplexing, on Tuesday, Matthew forgot to bring Shirley’s blanket to her third round of chemo and left her alone for nearly two hours while searching the hospital for croissants and coffee, instead of offering his mother one of the perfectly palatable snacks from the little kitchen area of the infusion therapy unit. As if all that weren’t enough, he got lost coming back and ended up on the wrong floor of the hospital. He returned to find poor Shirley hooked up to her drugs, shivering and quivering and on the verge of tears.
How, for the love of God, does that constitute taking good care of one’s mother?
Well, it’s almost over now, this so-called “help.” Today’s the last day, and tomorrow cannot come soon enough. When Joseph walks into his kitchen on Saturday morning, he decides that for his wife’s sake he will keep the peace through this last day and a half. For reasons that make no sense whatsoever, Matthew has always been Shirley’s favorite, although she will never admit it. When Matt joins his father about five minutes later, Joe does not greet him with the usual, “What’s the matter? Forgot to pack your razor?” Instead, he says, “Good morning. How’d you sleep?”
Matthew looks around the room, and then slowly and cautiously says, “Good, Dad. How ’bout you?”
“I slept well. Your mother’s still in bed.”
“She’s usually the early bird.”
“Yes, well, you know in the movies, how the cancer patient gets sick right away from chemotherapy? In real life, the side effects don’t come on for about three or four days. Same thing happens every Saturday.”
“Hopefully, it’ll all be worth it.”
There’s Shirley’s optimism again, spilling from her youngest son’s lips like goddam honey. These drugs are going to kill the cancer cells and she’s going to beat this thing. Blah, blah, blah. Joe wishes he could believe that. He feels like he’s torturing his wife, making her go through these treatments so that she can die a few months later than she will without chemotherapy.
“Can I make you some coffee, Dad?”
Joe looks up, realizing he has accomplished nothing since coming into the kitchen. “Sure.”
“Still take it black?”
“You’d better believe it.”
Joe remains seated and listens to the trickle of water, the thud of cabinet doors and rustle of coffee grounds being scooped into a filter. A faint fragrance of coffee starts to revive him.
He straightens in his chair. “Hey, I didn’t ask you. How’s that girlfriend of yours managing in your absence?”
“Yes, Tara.” He hasn’t forgotten her name, for God’s sake. He just sees no point in saying it. “How’s she getting on?”
Matthew keeps his back turned to his father. “We broke up a couple of months ago.”
“I’m sorry, son. That’s a tough break.” Joe’s sentiment is sincere; Matthew and Tara lived together for years.
For several seconds, the only sound in the kitchen is the fizz and hiss of the coffeemaker. Matthew tinkers with mugs, scoops some sugar into one of them and brings them over to the table. “It’s better, knowing what a cheating bitch she is, instead of not knowing.”
Joe considers his options for response. He doesn’t want to invite any more details into the conversation than are necessary. No sir. At this point, the fact that Tara cheated on his son is already more than he cares to know. “Well, at least there’re no kids. No divorce proceedings to go through, or anything.”
He has obviously picked the wrong thing to say. He can tell by the disgusted look on Matthew’s face. He’s messed up this whole father-son bonding crap already.
“Who’s getting divorced?”
Joseph and Matthew turn their heads in disturbingly similar fashion. “Shirley. How are you, sweetheart?”
“My head is killing me. Who’s getting divorced?”
Matthew says, “Nobody,” while Joseph says, “Matthew and Tara broke up.”
“Oh, no! What happened?”
Matt kisses his mother’s cheek and offers her his chair. “Is there anything I can get you to make your head feel better?”
“I’m taking enough drugs already, honey. When did you and Tara break up?”
“In July, when I found her in bed with another guy.”
God almighty, why does he have to keep bringing that detail into it?
“Why didn’t you tell us?” Shirley says.
“I don’t know. Because it was painful? Because I wasn’t ready to talk about it right away? With everything you have going on, I saw no point in bothering you with my problems.”
“Oh, honey. You’re never a bother to us.”
Joe clears his throat. What about the time Matthew wrecked the Volvo when there were still eleven payments due on it? Or the time he nearly set the kitchen on fire with his science fair project?
Matthew passes his mother a cup of tea, brewed from one of the last decaf teabags in the cabinet. See? Why did he bother going on this quest for coffee Tuesday, when he knows perfectly well that she’s a tea drinker? After thanking him, she says, “I’m probably going to be sleeping on and off all day. I think the two of you should go have a nice lunch together. Joe, take Matthew to the top of the Empire State Building or something. Do a little sightseeing on his last day here.”
“We can’t just leave you alone, Shirl.”
“Of course you can. Having cancer hasn’t turned me into a baby.”
“Can we bring you back something to eat, at least?” Matthew asks.
Shirley shakes her head. “Don’t bother. Since I started chemo, everything tastes like tin.”
Joe studies her narrow face, her jutting collarbone. He wishes he could convince her to join them for a meal. She needs to put back on some of the weight she’s lost. And she needs to provide a buffer for two men who will surely butt heads if they’re left alone. But there’s no arguing with this woman. No sir, not once she’s made up her mind. After breakfast, she practically pushes her husband and son out the door and onto the elevator.
In the lobby, Matthew greets a couple of Joe’s neighbors. A woman from the fourth floor, or maybe the fifth, asks Matt about his plans to return home, while the gay guy from the second floor asks Joe how his wife is feeling. God almighty, how much of his personal business has his son shared with the neighbors?
When they reach the sidewalk, Matthew says, “You know, Stan told me you can come talk to him any time.”
“Stan? I thought his name was Sam. Why on earth would I want to talk to him?”
“He just lost his partner to cancer, a couple of weeks ago. You didn’t know?”
“I was wondering where his boyfriend went.” He’d assumed they’d broken up.
They reach the subway station and board a train. Joseph sits down; Matthew leans against a pole. “He’s a great guy, Dad.”
“My neighbor? Well, good for him.”
“What does that mean? ‘Good for him.’”
“I don’t need Sam or Stan or whatever his name is telling me he knows what it’s like to have the love of my life dying of cancer.”
Matthew swivels himself around the pole so that he’s facing away. It almost makes Joseph want to hug him, believe it or not. He was such a precocious little boy. Whenever he didn’t like what was being said to him, he would turn his chair so his back was to his parents. “I just don’t understand you, Dad.”
“That makes two of us. Tell you what. Why don’t we get off at separate stops, and we’ll tell your mother we had a nice day together.”
No doubt the kid is going to get lost in New York City on his own. He has a knack for that.
Shirley is still very much alive, but recently Joe has started imagining her as a spirit, watching over him, approving or disapproving his every move. She would not be happy with the way things are going right now. No sir. Not at all.
The train rattles on for a while, people continue their conversations, board and disembark, do not seem to notice two men intentionally turned away from one another. After the doors slide shut for the third time, Matthew asks, “Where should we tell her we ate?” He has lowered his shoulders some.
“Katz’s. That’s where I’m going, so we’ll say we went there together.”
“That’s not fair, Dad. You live here. You can go to Katz’s whenever you want.”
“Do you know how long it’s been since I had a decent pastrami sandwich?” Matt stares out the window without acknowledging he’s heard. Does he really think it’s that easy for Joe to go out whenever he wants? He has no clue, no clue, of what his father is going through. “Fine, I’ll tell you what. You go there too, but we’ll eat at separate tables.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I think it’s a perfect solution.”
“Separate tables? On a Saturday? We’ll be lucky to get one.” There’s a brief exchange of reluctant smiles, and then Matthew sticks his hands into his jacket pockets and gets off the train with his father.
The sidewalks are bustling on this sunny Saturday, but Joe feels as if he’s walking alone, inside a shadow. Lately, sounds have been muffled, smells have been muted, and that goddam shadow follows him everywhere.
Walking a pace behind his father, Matthew drops the big bomb of a question, the one that Joseph had hoped would go unasked. “What do her doctors really say?”
Joe stupidly thinks that if he walks faster, his son will fall behind. But Matt is right there, relentless, on the periphery of the shadow. “What more do you need to know? She has cancer. She had a mastectomy. She’s getting twelve rounds of chemo.”
“On the train, you said you don’t need Stan telling you what it’s like to have the love of your life dying of cancer. Why did you say that? Is Mom dying?”
Matthew has stopped walking. Joseph had hoped to send him home without the whole story. It must be the look on his youngest son’s face, or maybe it’s a sudden realization of the goddam unfairness of everything that the poor woman has been through in the last several weeks that causes Joe to blubber out his answer. “It’s in her lymph nodes, Matt. And her lungs. And her bones.”
They’re standing beside a plate glass window, in whose reflection Joe sees his brows turned inward at the same angle as Matt’s.
“Mom knows the prognosis, right?”
“She wants to fight. She says she’s going to beat this.”
“The oncologist gives her six months to a year. That’s if she goes through all twelve rounds of chemotherapy. If she doesn’t fight, she gets three to six months.”
“Jesus, Dad,” Matthew says, more quietly this time. His eyelids are red, and again Joe sees him as his little boy, crying over one thing or another he deemed to be a gross injustice. At eight years old, Matt burst into tears over a magazine photograph of a girl who’d lost her legs to a landmine. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I guess for the same reason you didn’t tell me about Tara. It’s painful. It’s hard to talk about.” They have begun to walk again, although Joseph cannot recall taking the first step.
“Do Jake and Luke know?”
“Of course not.” He hadn’t planned to tell any of his sons. He’s beginning to wish the secret hadn’t slipped out. Matthew is asking too many questions. “I don’t want you to tell them, either.”
“Dad.” Matt has stopped walking; they’re at the restaurant; it’s as if the place has plunked itself right down in front of them.
“We should see if they have a table,” Joe says, although it’s obvious that Katz’s is not as crowded as usual. He motions to the hostess, hoping his son will just shut up already and pretend the exchange never happened. She brings them to a table in the corner. Joe places his palm on his unopened menu. “I already know what I’m getting,” he says, smiling at the waitress. “Matt?”
His son is staring at the framed photographs beside him with his fist over his mouth and his red eyes glistening.
Joe looks up. “Maybe we need a minute,” he says.
The waitress is being very kind, very understanding. She deserves a big tip. Joe struggles for a way to distract his son. “The corned beef here is good too.”
Matthew lowers his fist and a strand of saliva follows and snaps. He blows his nose onto a napkin, which he then shoves into his jacket pocket. The kid is a mess. “I know. I’ve been here before.”
“Bunch of times. With Mom.” Matthew studies his father’s face for a moment. Would it have killed the kid to shave this morning? “Before you retired.”
Sarcasm escapes without warning. “My life has been just dandy since I retired, let me tell you.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
Joe shrugs. Why should Matthew be sorry that his father’s life has gone to hell in the past few months?
“You know, Mom is the glue that holds this family together,” Matthew says.
“Yes sir. That she is, son.”
“So what’re we going to do if the doctors are right? What’s going to happen to us if she dies?”
Joe shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
Glasses of water are set down in front of them, and the waitress scurries off again.
“Dad, I know you don’t want to talk to your neighbors about any of this. But you can call me any time. You know? I stay up pretty late.”
Joe can’t help grinning. “I know you do.”
“You can call me for anything. Even if you’re just lonely. I’ve been finding out what that’s like, lately.”
“Thanks, son.” He looks at Matt for a second, gives him half a smile. It’s the least the kid deserves. Then he looks up at the wall beside their table and points to one of the photographs hanging close to his shoulder, of the restaurant’s owner shaking hands with a Republican senator. “Now this here is one of the best senators we’ve ever had.”
Matthew sits up straight. “You’re kidding me, right? That clown?” Then he stops and smiles. “Nice try, Dad.”
“It was worth a shot.”
Matt opens his menu. “Mom loves the roast beef sandwich here. She goes on and on about how good it is; then she barely makes a dent in it. I might get that and bring back half for her.”
Joe opens his mouth to remind Matthew that his mother had turned down his offer of food. But he stops, picturing his wife sitting where he is, across from her favorite son, eating her favorite dish at her favorite restaurant. She must’ve been in heaven. She’s never actually come out and said that her youngest is her favorite, but it’s obvious. The way she brightens every time he calls. The way she lit up, a few weeks ago, when he offered to come help out, and then danced around the house, anticipating his arrival. The way she chastises her husband whenever he gives the boy a hard time.
Yes sir. Matthew is Shirley’s favorite. That’s starting to make a lot of sense to Joe.