It didn’t take long for word to get around that our buddy Pooter was dying of lung cancer. Some of the guys got to talking one day and decided we should drive the four hours to go and visit him. Earl knew where Pooter lived so we agreed to meet at his house around eight on Saturday morning. I hadn’t talked to Earl in six years. But I had called him up and he gave me directions to his house and told me he’d drive the lead car down to Pooter’s.
I’m early and Earl is wiping Armor-all on his tires and I’m inside talking to his wife, waiting for the rest of the guys to show up. I’m watching Earl through the kitchen window.
“He sure loves his truck, doesn’t he?” I say.
“That’s about all he loves.”
“Yeah, I’d say you’re right about that.”
She hands me a cup of coffee and I watch the bouncing under her night-shirt. Now, that’s a pair. That’s what my dad would say if he were here with me. He’s long dead. Lung cancer. The same death Pooter is about to take.
Earl comes into the kitchen. “You’re driving your car too, right?”
“Yes Earl, you can pack in two more in the front of your truck and I can take a total of four in my sedan.” The sedan I’ve had for fifteen years. My grandmother left it to me when she died. She smoked cigarettes but lung cancer didn’t get her. She was knocked down dead by another sedan out in front of her house, while checking her mailbox one day.
Earl’s wife looks out the window. “That’s the same car you had in high school.”
“You remember that car?” I ask.
“No, I mean do you really remember that car?”
She thinks for a minute, pours more coffee into my cup. Then she looks right through me. “I forgot all about that night.”
Earl comes back inside and asks what all the giggling is about. I wipe the smirk off my face and tell his wife she makes good coffee.
“Thanks,” she says and smiles like it’s her birthday.
“Look,” Earl says.
“Well, so where is everybody?”
“I don’t know, Earl; we may be driving down by our twosome.”
“Looks that way.”
Earl’s wife picks up the coffee pot, “More coffee, gentlemen?”
Earl and I sit down at the kitchen table, glancing outside from time to time. Earl’s picking at the grease on his fingers and I’m watching his wife prance in and out of the kitchen.
“You boys going to drink coffee all day or get a move on?”
Earl looks at me. I shrug my shoulders.
“I’m going down the street and give Stewart his 5/16th back,” he tells us.
Earl’s wife tells me she’s going to go take a shower.
“Can I come along?” I say jokingly. She gives me a naughty-naughty point of the finger. Then she says yes.
His wife takes all her clothes off in front of me without hesitation. She holds a foot in midair, under the flow of the water. She doesn’t look the same as I remember her. But then again, that was more than ten years ago, a long time ago. I don’t even remember her name.
“Aren’t you coming in?”
“Oh yeah. Sure. Be right there.”
I sneak a peek down the hallway and close the bathroom door. She has the shower curtain pulled back so I can watch. That’s how some girls are. Half would die if you saw them naked no matter how good they look. The other half wants you to stare no matter how awful they look.
“Do you know what cancer looks like?”
“Come here a second, I want to show you something,” she says. “I got this thingy down there, a bump, here take a look.”
She pulls back the rest of the shower curtain, angles the shower head towards the wall to keep water from spraying onto the already mildewed floor.
“Do you see it?”
I have no idea what I am looking at. Her belly button is there and her hair is where it should be, it looks normal to me. She’s working her fingers down there, trying to get at something.
“You know,” I tell her, “you should probably let a doctor check it out.”
“I know, but I just wanted your opinion. Earl won’t even look at me down there, let alone touch me.”
I hear Earl’s truck start up outside. He’s gunning the engine. Then it stops. He guns it again.
“What is he doing out there?” she asks.
“Hey! Aren’t you a little worried, if Earl happens to come in here and sees us like this?”
“That would’ve been my guess.”
Then she kisses me.
The thing you have to remember is that our friend Pooter is dying and we’re supposed to be going to visit him. Poor guy is only twenty-nine and he’s already got cancer splattered every which way. The doctor said it started in his lungs. When I first heard the news, I wasn’t surprised. Pooter was the only kid in our high school who had a smokers cough. The guy smoked two packs a day. I feel bad though. He always said, he’d quit when he turned thirty. Even when we were younger, he’d say, “Hey, I know this is bad for me, but I’m going to quit when I’m thirty, before I get the cancer.” Poor fucking Pooter.
The phone rings. Earl’s wife stops kissing me and listens. I listen too, even though I don’t know what I’m listening for. It rings, rings, and rings. “Get it,” she says.
“Yeah, you, Earl’s outside.”
“This isn’t my house.”
“Just get the damn phone.”
I pick up the phone.
“Earl?” the voice says.
“No, this isn’t Earl.”
“Sorry, wrong number.”
“No, no, wait! You got the right number.”
“No, this isn’t Earl.”
“Then I have the wrong number if you ain’t Earl, asshole.” I recognize the voice.
“Half Pint?” I say.
“Yeah this is H.P., who is this?”
“This is Tom.”
“Oh shit, I was looking for you.”
“Where are you?” I smile, relieved that this who’s-who has been resolved.
“What about Poot?”
“Not going to make it today, I’ve got the funny shits so bad it ain’t worth it.”
“All right, thanks for the call. We’re about on our way out.”
Half Pint starts to say something else, he pauses, then I hear this groan, a loud, and obnoxious, anyhow I hang up the phone and look out the window. Earl’s underneath his truck. I walk back into the bathroom.
“Who was that?”
She’s got a robe on and is drying her hair.
“What did he want?”
“Not going to make the trip.”
“Look, no one else is going, haven’t you figured that out already?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
She leaves the bathroom.
“Where you going?”
“Bedroom,” she smiles, “coming with?”
“Oh yeah. Sure. Be right there.”
Half Pint is pathetic. The guy worms out of everything, usually on the account of an imaginary illness. The funny shits is a new one though. He’s the oldest and the biggest of the group we all run with. He used to play football in high school, defensive end. A couple of colleges recruited him but he never left town, not for one play. He was kind of the star in town back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. Dumber than a doorknob but all the folks in town still loved him. He got written up in the papers a few times. When Skipton Wells, the local sports reporter, asked why he should get offered a scholarship to play Division I ball, Half Pint offered up that he could “jump real high” and “memorized the play book four times.” How do you memorize something four times? I don’t know either. Anyhow, his name. We call him half pint because that’s all it takes him to get fall down drunk. Funny how that works. It’s always the scrawny, wiry, big ‘ole-ball-cap-too-big for-their-head wearing ones that can drink 19 beers in a sitting and can still drive home during a snowstorm in reverse.
One thing though, Half Pint can bounce some skulls together. This guy could punch grits out of grandma. That’s why we still lug him around with us. There’s trouble everywhere, never know when it will pop up. That’s why H.P. comes along. One more thing on the scrawny guys, they can’t fight for shit. They talk about being quick and jab this and jab that but to tell you the truth, in a real fight, it takes one punch to win it. One punch to turn the tide of the fight and usually it’s the bigger guy. Enough about H.P., our friend is dying.
In the bedroom, Earl’s wife is naked again. The robe is on the floor and she is combing her long blond hair in the mirror.
“Do you know that Earl can’t give me an orgasm?”
“Uh, no. I don’t recall Earl mentioning that to me actually.”
“He can’t even do it with his mouth. I mean most guys can at least do that.”
“You can, can’t you?”
“Are you playing stupid on purpose or you really this slow?”
“Look, uh. Earl could come inside at any minute.”
“Uh huh.” She continues combing her hair, watching me in the mirror. For lack of anything better to do I lay down on the bed. Then I hear Earl’s voice. He’s calling for her. Honey? Honey? Honey? “In here, Cupcakes,” she shouts. Cupcakes?
Earl politely stands outside the bedroom door.
“Honey, have you see Tom?”
“He’s in here.”
“What’s he doing in there?”
I look at Honey. She ignores me.
“What are you doing?” I whisper to her.
“The door is open, Cupcakes.” Earl opens the door.
“What’s going on?” Earl asks. I stand up off the bed.
“Cupcakes, Tom was asking why you can’t bring me to climax.”
“What’s that mean?” Earl asks.
Honey snaps her fingers to get my attention, “See what I mean?”
I tell Earl about HP and all he has to say about it is, “He’s got the funny what?” About that time the doorbell rings. I figure this is our out. One more shows and we’re gone. But it’s a little girl with a box of cookies in her hand. Earl invites her in and eats the little girls’ entire box of samples. “Sir, this is just to show you what they look like, they’re not really for you to eat.” Earl tells her whatever they are he wants more of them. “You place an order and I come back in a year with your cookies,” she explains. Earl fishes for some bills out of his wallet; the girl prefers checks but takes his cash. At the end of the sidewalk is the little girl’s mother. As she walks back down toward the street, I hear the girl tell her mother, “That guy ate my whole sample box. We got to go home and get another one.”
“He ate the whole thing?” The mother shakes her head and looks up at me. I wave at her and smile.
“So what are we going to do? We going or not?” Earl is getting impatient.
I look at the clock; it’s a little past ten.
“Where does the time go?” Earl asks. I tell Earl that time doesn’t actually go anywhere. It’s just the clock that makes it seem that way. “Yeah anyhow, get on the phone and see where everyone is at, I got other shit I could be doing.” His wife steps in, “Go do your shit Earl, when you all go, you go, until then get out of the house and do your shit.”
“Fine then, I’ll be back in an hour or so,” and Earl leaves.
His truck really roars. Earl hauls off down the street. Then we hear the screeching of brakes. “What in the world?” I start to run to a window.
“It’s nothing. Earl and I have lived here nine years and he still forgets there’s a stop sign at the end of the street.” His wife struts off to the bedroom where she removes her robe, which she had temporarily put on when Earl came to the room and then kept it on for decency sake when the little girl with the cookies banged on the door. I stand outside the open bedroom door.
“So how are things going, Tom?”
She’s putting lipstick on.
“She’s fine too.”
“I hadn’t seen her in years, what’s her name again?”
“That’s right, the little redhead?”
“That’s the one.”
“Tell me something,” she says stepping into a pair of black heels.
“Nice outfit, is that all of it?” I ask.
“I knew you’d like it.”
“Tell me something,”
“Promise me you won’t tell anyone what happens.”
“What happens, when?”
“I don’t want Earl to find out, it’d break his heart.”
“Find out about?”
Earl thought it was strange that my hair was wet when he came back an hour and a half later. “Just jumped in the shower real quick, that’s all,” I explained to him. “Not have a shower where you live?” Earl is quick. Not quick enough though.
His wife is making lunch and Earl was surprised to find out I hadn’t made any phone calls. I was worried about Earl’s toothbrush. I had used it after my shower. People say they can smell sex, so I figured a shower would erase all pheromone indicators that could still be floating around in the bedroom or anywhere else for that matter. His wife cautioned that I needed to brush my teeth, you smell, she told me. Like sex? I asked, looking for a toothbrush in the drawer. No, like me. I had never done this before. Not in all the years I’ve been married, never even close. I’ve known Earl as long as I’ve had the sedan.
We sit down to eat lunch.
“Looks like it’s just you and me buddy,” Earl says, chewing on a huge bite.
“Yeah, I don’t know Earl. I don’t think I’m up to it.”
“Come on, we got to go see Poot.”
“I don’t know.”
His wife stands up, grabs some pickles out of the refrigerator. She sets them on the table. Earl is studying me.
“We have to go see him. The guy may not be around much longer.”
I look at his wife. Then I look at Earl.
“I don’t want to.”
Earl’s wife says, “Jesus Tom. Y’alls good friend is dying. You haven’t seen him in how long? And you don’t want to go?”
“No shit, the guy’s dying, Tom,” Earl adds.
“I don’t have it in me,” I tell the both of them.
“What does that mean?” Earl asks. We sit in silence and eat our lunch. Earl keeps giving me this pissed off look. His wife is doing the same.
“It won’t kill you to go see Poot,” his wife says balancing a kosher dill between her fingers.
“I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
Earl gets up, so does his wife. They drop their plates into the kitchen sink. “I’m going to go see him, you going or not?” When I don’t say anything, he darts out of the kitchen. His wife goes into the bedroom. I hear his truck start up. Then I hear the screeching of the brakes. Then I hear the phone ring. Then I hear her heels clicking in the hallway, coming closer and closer, when I turn around, I hear, “You’re a real asshole, you know that?”
Matt Baker lives in Arkansas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cimarron Review, Santa Clara Review, FRiGG, and elsewhere. His work has not been translated into any languages.