“Doc was just too scared of looking at your shriveled wiener,” Abby said matter-of-factly, and that settled it for her. I refrained from correcting her degrading remark, because it was simply not worth the effort. Pa sighed in agreement with my silent surrender and shook his head back into his newspaper. Ma Boor was already on the phone scheduling another appointment for me. I plopped onto the free corner of the plaid sofa, and Pigeon, as though there were no other soul in the room to take advantage of, immediately sprung onto my lap, cushioning my thighs and curling up with an asthmatic purr. I shoved him off in disgust and marched to my room to read Captain America, eventually falling asleep and dreaming about a world with naked Doc Hamiltons and a skinned Pigeon.
The MRI wasn’t as painful as it sounded, although I must have spent the rest of the day with the sound of the machine buzzing in the back of my head. The entire test took very long. I later told my mates I spent the day frozen in a tube. They never believed me.
It wasn’t long before the phone call. As Pa had recently bought the family a new device with a speaker phone, Ma now had the unnerving habit of answering any and all calls as publicly and loudly as possible by pressing the convenient speaker phone button. It matched her loud clothes.
“Hello, good morning?” Ma answered that day with her quaint northern English accent. She was wearing three shades of yellow—if that is possible.
“Good morning, may I speak with Mrs. Boor, please?” crackled the lady’s voice on the other end of the line.
It was Doc Hamilton’s secretary-lady-person. There was an appointment scheduled for Thursday that week.
Thursday that week. It was then that the pretty doc, with a now somber, yet distressingly and tantalizingly beautiful face, gave me less than five months to live. Why not more? I asked defiantly. Why not more than five months? She shook her head with disgusting melancholy. Ma cried, her makeup running. The doc gave Ma a few medical options, none of which gave me more than five months, none of which was offered to me directly.
There was a pigeon on the windowsill. It tapped on the glass twice, eyed me with a cocked head, and then flew away.
On the way back home, before we got into the car, Ma called Pa on the cell phone and told him she had terrible, horrible news but she was only going to tell him when he got home. I heard Pa telling her to shut it as he hung up on her. Ma stopped crying and started growling like an animal as she turned on the engine and backed up ferociously quick. I stared out the window the entire ride back home. Five months? What could you do with five months?
That evening, when Pa got home from work, Ma told him that I was dying and that he had to do something about it. Pa eyed me from nose to toe and told me to stick out my tongue, so I did.
“We’re going back to the doc tomorrow,” he announced after scrutinizing my tastebuds and wincing at my bad breath.
So we did, and Pa sat and listened to the same words the doc had said yesterday with the same somber tone of voice and the same sad head shake. She gave him the same options, once again, without looking at me. Only, there was no pigeon, this time, on the windowsill. I found it on the sidewalk when we stepped out of the clinic. Dead and rock hard, a swarm of ants pillowing around it.
On the way back home, Pa muttered something under his breath and then said, “Quite a beaut that doc, eh, Joey? She could knock you dead with those eyes.”
I almost indulged him but figured as I was the one going to die, perhaps it would bring very bad luck to refer to death so casually. Bad luck in a short period of time would probably be horrible luck. And then, after a while, dad took in a deep breath and sighed slowly.
“So you’re going to die, eh, Joey,” he said, soft, almost to himself. Pa was quieter around Ma, but never spoke that soft round me. Without the women nearby, we could be as loud as we wanted. But not today. Today he spoke soft. Gooseflesh crawled up my arm. What did that mean?
That night, dinner was immersed in a morbid silence. Ma had cried herself hoarse after Pa had confirmed the news; Abby was in utter shock, it seemed; and Pa and I were just enjoying the speechlessness of them both. By the end of the beef and peas meal, the men’s plates were clean and Ma’s and Abby’s had not been touched. There was a strange moment in between where everyone seemed to have been frozen still: the women staring at their peas, each with a fork in a lifeless hand; Pa staring at Ma from his end of the table, both hands on the sides of his empty plate; and I, staring at Abby’s red face and trembling bottom lip. Pigeon sat on the floor to my left, his eyes fixed on me, his head slanted in that peculiar fashion, the drool already beginning to trickle. A fine Norman Rockwell painting it would have made. When Pa invited me out to the porch, I immediately accepted, making Pigeon fly out of the way before I kicked him in the ribs for being such a disturbed animal and leaving the two ladies blubbering anew.
“You know,” Pa said. “Doc Betty Boop says you only got five months. But let’s plan on three, just in case. They are always giving plus or minus dates.”
We were sitting on the front porch bench, and it was hot outside. Stifling hot. I felt a drop of sweat slide down the middle of my neck and back.
“So… what do you want to do?” he asked me suddenly. Oh, I had no idea. First thing I thought of was that I wanted to quit school, but Pa said I should stick to it… just in case. Just in case? I asked him if I could at least sleep late and sleep in on weekdays and not go to class when I did not feel like it, and he said, “Just as long as you don’t drop out.” By the time I was negotiating two school day weeks with him, Ma called for Pa, and he left me to my thoughts on the porch, watching car headlights zip by our street. Three months. What could you do with three months?
I frowned and looked to the side. There was Pigeon, the fat, demented cat, sitting next to me on the bench with his slanted flat head and boggling yellow eyes.
“Pa said three months,” I retorted in annoyance and went back to watching the car lights.
“Twenty-nine days, two hours, thirty-five minutes, and fifty-seven seconds.”
I swung an arm around to throw him off the bench, but he was gone already. The bushes in front of the porch rustled, and he scattered off from there to the back of the house. I was alone again. Twenty-nine days, two hours, thirty-five minutes, and fifty-seven seconds? What could you do with twenty-nine days?
Before going to sleep that night, I opened my school agenda—which I never wrote in—and flipped through twenty-nine days of pages. I was going to die on a Saturday. If my parents were Jewish, they’d save a trip to church. If they were Protestant, I’d rot until Sunday. If they were agnostic, they might ask a reverend or priest to speak something nice and philosophical, just in case. If they were atheists, what would be the point of anything? Truth be told, I did not know what my parents were. Ma wore a crucifix and made us say grace before meals. Pa always said we’d talk about it later. Abby was the only one who insisted on going to church now and then, because the Christian boys were hot and seemed not to notice her lisp. And I, I was just plain Joe Boor, no flabby belly, no lisp, no quaint northern English accent, no sex, and no idea. The only thing I knew for sure before I conked out that night was that in twenty-nine days, I’d be as dead as that pigeon on the sidewalk. Maybe without all the ants.