By Daren Dean
Monroe heard a commotion down the hall to his left just before he was punched in the jaw and knocked to the waiting room floor.
His sister, Carolyn, was in the hospital having her gall bladder removed and he was waiting to hear word from the doctor. He had been talking to Ed Travers on his cell about getting a load of hay for his horses when it happened, so it took him a moment to digest the situation.
The man hulking over him was about to give him another wallop, but he hesitated as he struggled to grab a fistful of Monroe’s shirt to yank him up off the newly waxed floor. He recognized the man as his niece’s husband, Rick Barnes. Barnes was a big man at 6’5 and probably weighed somewhere north of 250, not to mention he was at least two decades younger than Monroe. Still, Monroe had never shied from a fight. In fact, he still liked mixing it up even though he was now in his early sixties.
With his left forearm he pushed away at Barnes’ grasping hand, and felt at a waiting room chair with his right and used it as leverage to pull himself up on his feet. Monroe was irate about being sucker punched, but now that he was on his feet again Barnes blanched just a little and that was all the encouragement Monroe needed. Just that little bit of uncertainty because everyone knew his reputation for fighting.
The people in the waiting room had scattered to the fringes. A nurse screamed when Monroe delivered an uppercut to the big man’s ribs. Barnes grunted from the impact. A little more confidence oozed out of him like an old balloon that didn’t know the party was over. Barnes thought he would waltz in here and take care of business with one punch because of his size, but now he knew better.
A wiry, bespectacled young man wearing blue nursing scrubs with yellow smiley faces on them stood ready to pounce on one of them should the need arise, but at the same time he wanted to stay just outside arm’s reach of the battlers. He held his hands aloft as if unruly children had just spilled milk in the floor. If that sissy comes at me too, Monroe thought, I’ll have to knock his ass out.
Barnes snatched up a chair and threw it and before Monroe knew what to do it had him in the chest and knocked him down again. The young nurse rushed forward and got his nose broken and bloody by Barnes. He fell into the fetal position cradling his nose and big bad Barnes stepped over him.
A woman watching the melee dashed forward and helped the nurse up off the floor. Monroe had to admit to being a little stunned and told himself to lay there for a second while he waited for the room to stop spinning. The chair had ripped open a gash on his forehead and he felt his own blood coursing down his face. Better take an eight count. Now the big galoot was pushing down on him. Monroe had the presence of mind to hold him off with his legs. It was like giving a ride to a little kid on your legs, but this was no kid. He managed to kick Barnes over to one side onto the freshly waxed floor.
Monroe had fought in the Army out of sheer boredom when he was stationed in Korea back in the early ‘60s. What a freezing shithole! Once he had sparred with a black man named Larry who said he was a New York Golden Gloves champion. The southpaw had tore him up with his stiff jab. The best he had been able to do was land a glancing blow off the boxer’s shoulders due mostly to the fighter’s superior footwork. Monroe ate a solid left cross just to deliver a glancing blow. It was clear he was going to lose this one. Never one to admit defeat, he finally gripped the southpaw around the waist and threw him down in the center of the ring. They’d fought on the boxing ring floor, using teeth to pull off the gloves, to fight with fists and elbows, foreheads and knees.
Monroe allowed anger, an unreasonable hatred, overcome and fuel him. The rage made him feel like a feral animal living in the woods. It felt good to surrender to such a powerful emotion. Everything else, every other thought and feeling, was shut down. After they were pulled apart, Larry laughed and said Monroe couldn’t box worth a shit, but he could fight! They became good friends after that; no one wanted to spar with either of them.
The head nurse snapped, “Someone call Carl up here!”
Rick’s head snapped to his right, “Don’t call that son-of-a-bitch! I’ll have to kick his black ass too!”
“Bull!” Monroe spat blood. “You ain’t going to whoop anybody today.”
Carl had played tight end at the University of Missouri for two years before concussions pushed him out of the game, but his arms looked like someone had jammed footballs where his biceps should be. He was as big as Rick, but still muscular and athletic.
“Soon as I get up from here, I’m going to lay you out and Carl’s going to carry you off to jail.”
“Who’s laying on the floor with a busted face, Monroe?” He jammed his finger on top of Monroe’s chest for emphasis.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see! I’m about to stomp a mudhole in your ass!” Monroe threw the big man off of him and got on his feet again, wiped the blood from his nose with the back of his shirt sleeve, and held up his balled fists. Monroe was still pretty solid for a man his age and though he wasn’t as massive as Rick, his freckled fists were twice as big as most men his size, and his upper body was like an old bull’s.
“Hello?” Monroe answered the phone. “Carolyn?”
“No,” a belligerent male voice said. “It’s Wayne, Uncle Monroe. Mama told me to call you. She wants to know when you’re coming up to the hospital? She said I couldn’t come up unless you said okay.”
“Is she already there?” Monroe rubbed his eyes trying to wake up.
“Were you asleep?”
“No,” he lied. “I’ve been up for awhile.”
“I thought she wanted me to take her to the hospital? Is she okay?” He tried to make sense of what Wayne was telling him.
“No,” Wayne sighed. “She said she didn’t want me to take her.”
“Well hell!” Monroe said. “I knew that already, but it ain’t time yet. I told her I’d pick her up and get her over there when the doctor said.”
“Why you . . . . is what I want to know?” Wayne said. “Why does she want you instead of me or Jeanette? We’re her kids for Pete’s sake!”
“Well,” Monroe said, “I’m her brother. I guess she’s got her reasons. Even grown kids don’t need to know all their mama’s business. I’ll take her and see that she gets settled in. I’ll give you a call when I know something.”
“Okay then,” Wayne said. “Thank you.” There was a grudging tone to his voice. “It’s just that I wanted to be the one to take her up to the hospital to get her to sign some papers first—before Jeanette.”
And there it was, Monroe thought, the crux of the situation. Ever since their daddy, Joe Bishop, had passed Wayne and Jeanette had been fighting over their mama’s money. It was almost laughable the way those two were trying to beat each other to the lawyer’s office with papers. Someone needed to remind them both that she was still alive.
Carolyn had been afflicted with a nervous condition her entire life. She had never been exactly right in the head. Monroe couldn’t think of a nice way to put it. She had been in the State hospital for awhile and the doctors pumped her so full of drugs over the years she had become a walking pharmacy. She had lived a hard life, but her kids wouldn’t know about that.
“Don’t worry about them power-of-attorney papers just now,” Monroe said. “I got news, your mama yet lives.”
There was silence on the other end of the line.
“I need to know you hear me, Wayne? Say it for me.”
“I hear you.”
“Good,” Monroe said. “I’ll call you tomorrow. She told me she don’t want you up there trying to get her to sign papers. She’s worried enough as it is about the surgery. She could use your company. If you would just sit with her—”
“I just want to make sure she’s okay,” Wayne mumbled into the receiver.
“Well don’t.” Monroe said.
“You can’t tell me what to do,” Wayne said. “What if I do come up there? What then?”
“If you come up here I’ll have to kick your ass,” Monroe said. “That’s a natural fact. Got it?”
Monroe shook his head in disgust. He squeezed the tears out of his eyes. He could still remember Carolyn teaching him to tie his shoe and how to ride a bike when he was little. They had always been close. He stared at the battered old yellow kitchen wall phone after he crammed it into the cradle. Wayne and Jeanette were so busy trying to get over on each other they didn’t seem to realize or care that it was their own mama they were treating like an ATM. Plain greediness. He was the only one really watching out for his sister anymore just like he’d done with their mama before she died.
Monroe knew she didn’t have much besides her social security and Joe’s veteran’s pay. A widow’s might. All the land and farming equipment had been sold off a few months after his brother-in-law died. There was a backhoe and an old GMC flatbed pickup that they couldn’t find a title for so Monroe had been able to sell them both to a farmer near New Bloomfield that didn’t give a care. He only wanted to use it around his farm anyway. That was a good bit of money but he hadn’t had life insurance so a good chunk of it had gone to the funeral. Carolyn’s grievous spawn didn’t even make sure she had groceries half the time and if they did they used her checkbook to buy their own groceries and fill their own vehicles with gas to boot.
Joe had died seven years ago from a sudden heart attack out in the pasture behind a haystack. He was a good farmer and he had a sense of history since he reserved a few acres to thresh with the old steam powered threshing machine like people had done when he was a boy. Joe Bishop hadn’t been good to Carolyn as much as he’d liked Joe personally. Looking back on it, he should have said something but in those times family matters were kept private. A man was king of his own castle as the saying went. Joe had passed on his own disrespectful attitude toward her to his kids. It was sad to see what had become of his older sister. All they really had was each other.
He knew Carolyn loved her kids, but he wondered if they loved her. They had had life easy by comparison to his generation. One Christmas, when they were kids, his Christmas present had been a jar of peanut butter and Carolyn’s was jelly. Their mother had wrapped the gifts up in eggshell white tissue paper she had saved from past birthdays so that they would have at least one present to open. They were glad to get them too! But her kids didn’t know what hard times meant. The Christmas tree, an artificial white job, their mother had for years and decorated with great care down to doing each piece of tinsel one strand at a time each year. And to think their daddy had been off spending oil money from mineral rights he had retained from Landrush land in Oklahoma City.
“You ain’t going to tell Wayne or Jeanette they can’t see their mama!” Rick spat.
“So Wayne ran crying to you!” Monroe laughed. His mouth had filled with blood so he spat it on the floor. You don’t know what you’re talking ‘bout, Rick! You and Jeanette don’t know the half of it!”
Rick rushed at him like an offensive lineman, Monroe stepped aside and with his left arm used his momentum to slam him into the wall. Rick blinked in surprise and held Monroe away from him at arm’s length. Monroe pushed down on Rick’s arms and kept lunging and swinging his right hand at Rick’s face, but his arms were longer so he just manage to hold off the blows from the old man. Monroe was encouraged by the fact that he was getting a little closer to connecting with his jaw each time he swung. Rick was big, but he didn’t have much endurance. All he did was drive a gravel truck for ten dollars an hour.
He knew what had happened now. Wayne had told Rick and Jeanette that he wouldn’t allow them to see their mama, but he probably left out the fact that he was trying to get her to sign all of her accounts over to him so she wouldn’t get anything. He didn’t tell that part of it. So big Rick was going to come charging down here and take care of it. Well, he was about to get his ass handed to him by an old man. Now Monroe was bearing down on Rick. Rick was starting to have to look up at him as he slid down the wall on his back. Monroe swung his right fist and this time he barely felt the tip of Rick’s nose. Just one more swing now was all he needed.
Just then Carl the security guard showed up. He was black and bald with biceps like a professional wrestler. Carl wore an all black uniform that made him look like a real cop. Maybe he was a Carnage police officer too, but Monroe didn’t think so. Carl grabbed him by the wrist and began trying to pry his left arm away from Rick. The three of them grunting and groaning like some kind of savage ménage-a-trois. He didn’t find himself giving a shit how big Carl or Rick was either one. He was going to put Rick’s lights out before it was done. Finally, Carl wedged himself between them and pushed them both away like they were dead weight on some kind of hydraulic weight machine.
“All right!” Carl hollered. “Settle down, damnit! You sit down there, and you sit down there! Mr. Cahalin, ain’t you a little old for this? What the hell’s going on here? Why did you attack this man?”
“Attack him? He attacked me! I was getting some pay back for his sucker punch! Just ask the nurses and all these other people. I was sitting here and talking on my cell phone.”
“That true?” Carl asked. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Rick Barnes,” he said. He took out a pack of Winston’s and began trying to pull out a cigarette with trembling fingers.
“Mr. Barnes,” Carl said. “You can’t smoke those in here. The police will be here directly. You can tell them what happened, but I’d like to know what’s up with you two?”
“He knows!” Rick put the cigarette on the end of his lip where it bobbed up and down, but he didn’t light it.
“I know that you’re an idiot!” Monroe said.
“Screw you, Monroe. You ain’t God! You can’t be telling Wayne and Jeanette that they can’t see their mama. That shit ain’t right. I’d do it again in a heart beat.”
“Mr. Barnes!” Carl said. “Is that true? You took the first punch?”
“You’re damn right I did.”
The nurses standing around shook their heads and told what they had witnessed between the two men.
“You going to press charges, Mr. Cahalin?”
“Why not?” Carl shook his head in disgust. “He’s already going to be banned from the hospital for 30 days.
“I just don’t, that’s all.” Monroe stared at Rick until Rick gave him a nod. “I hope he tries it again.”
When Monroe went in to see his sister she was still unconscious in recovery. She looked like a science experiment and he smiled bitterly to himself. He’d have to tell her that after she woke up. At the moment, laying on her back with her mouth gaping open it was easy to imagine what she might look like in her casket. She looked like she had died already. A drop of water on his hand had him looking up at the ceiling for a leak until he realized it had been a tear. It surprised him because he rarely allowed himself to cry over anything. Only weak-minded men and women cried about things that were inevitable in life. He took her hand in his and held it. It was a plump little hand with delicate green and purple veins sticking out. He felt a palpable relief that she had made it through surgery just fine according to the doctor. She had been sure that she would die in surgery. She had a dream about dying while they had her on the table a week beforehand. It was the first death dream she had ever had in her life.
The same sort of premonition had come to him once when he was caught in a tornado on Interstate 70 in the middle of nowhere in Kansas and his pickup was blown off the highway and into the ditch. He had been racing a black anvil that hovered just above the earth like something out of a horror story. Yellow and purple jags of lightning flew out of the clouds. He had watched the storm blow over upside-down, still seat-belted at the wheel of his truck, in the ditch. Another time he was sure that it was the end of the line was when he’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer. They had put three tattoo dots on each hip, and one well below his bellybutton, so they could align them in the crosshairs of the laser. He had thought the radiation would kill him for sure, but he had survived.
Monroe dreamed he was looking out over a swampy land, but now it was a dried-out sepia landscape. A middle-aged native American woman stood next to him and said, There was much rain recently. She pointed across the dreamland like a sentinel, but for as far as he could see there wasn’t a drop of water to be seen. She grabbed a handful of his jet black hair and pulled it out by the roots and grafted it into her long, shining head of hair with a simple combing gesture of her hand.
A moment later, Monroe found himself sitting in what resembled an old baby swing. A blue metal chair with a slide bar jammed down on his lap to prevent him from falling out. He began to float up and out over a gorge in the chair like an astronaut, but he was tethered by a strong logging chain. He floated to the end of the tether upside down until he jarred to a halt at the end of its length. This happened two more times become more violent and terrifying each time. The chair shook him like a carnival ride that jolted you this way and that. If the chain snapped, he’d be sent into deep space and oblivion.
Carolyn had tried to tell him about her procedure, but he didn’t want to hear it. It wasn’t because he didn’t care about her. He loved her. He didn’t want to lose her like he had lost his parents and older brothers. It was the loss of control that bothered him as much as anything. A person can’t control cancer when it’s in their body. He certainly can’t make a gall bladder whole or cause it to double-up like a fist and smash someone’s face in defiance. These human failings of body and mind just happened as you got older. There was nothing you could do about it except to keep fighting or simply accept it and die.
Carolyn didn’t fight; she prayed instead. Her pastor was a holy roller preacher at Signs and Wonders Ministry. He took her to the little white church on the picturesque banks of the Osage river last fall. The husky preacher looked like Mark McGwire, the Cardinals homerun King, not a preacher at all. The preacher had prayed that God would heal all of his sister’s problems in the name of Jesus, but as far as he could tell there hadn’t been any change at all. The trip to the church had kept her going. It had renewed her faith, but she was still just as forgetful, took all the same medications, and her children continued to disrespect her. As far as Monroe could tell, Jesus had done diddly squat even if he did still believe in God—they clearly had faith in two versions of God. He didn’t pray himself and he took the view that God helps those who help themselves. God was all-powerful and was going to do whatever he felt like doing no matter what you prayed for. He had seen that when he was a boy and prayed for all sorts of things that never came true. When he thought of God, which he didn’t do often, he couldn’t help picturing Charlton Heston as Moses holding the Ten Commandments. His God was an Old Testament God who was pissed off at mere mortals most of the time.
When he left the hospital the sun was just setting a brilliant orange fire ball in the sky with tendrils of pink in the heavens like a painting. On the other side of the parking lot he saw Rick and Jeanette standing in front of their pickup arms crossed. He remembered a time when Jeanette and Wayne both had sat on his knee at holidays over the years. Look what it had come to. They had called it in the cavalry against him when they were the ones who were about to have an all-out war if their mama died. Standing next to them was Steve, Rick’s brother, who was every bit as big as Rick, and Wayne was just a little behind all of them next to his own work rig. Monroe stopped and looked back defiantly at all of them with his head held high. His hands doubled themselves into fists.
“Those are some big boys,” Carl said. Monroe hadn’t heard him walk up. “You want me to call the police again?”
“No,” Monroe said. “I’ve known all of them since they were little babies. No matter how big they get, they will never get big enough to whip my ass. They’re the ones who are going to need extra help. And they know it.”
“I just wanted to say,” Carl began, “I’m so sorry for your loss. Miss Carolyn was a good woman. We’ll be lifting you up in prayer come Sunday.”
Monroe nodded thanks to Carl and shook his hand. A vision of holding Carolyn’s hand just after she had passed illuminated his mind like a candle before softly dying away. He nodded to Carl and blink the tears from his eyes. He’d let the boys in the truck know she had died, but he was afraid they wouldn’t listen. He could remember watching the Lone Ranger and Tonto on the black and white television with his sister right by his side just like it was last week. She had always liked playing with the little boys on their road best. Now he would have to tell his nephew, niece, and his niece’s husband but he wondered if they would care or simply ask about the contents of her bank account.
About the Author: Daren Dean is the author of Far Beyond the Pale, I’ll Still Be Here Long After You’re Gone, and The Black Harvest: A Novel of the American Civil War. He has been featured in Bloom, The Huffington Post, Missouri Life, and Ploughshares online. “Affliction” was a Finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Fiction Contest for New Writers. His short fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Currently, he is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at Lincoln University of Missouri.