I can't get her out of my mind. It's something my little brother can't understand, or maybe tonight he won't let himself understand it.
"Are you supposed to be drinking in your..."
"In my what? In my condition?" I reply, downing a shot of Jack Daniel's and chasing it down with two slugs of Bass Ale. "No." The inside of Jackie Keelen's pub is just a little too bright so the stains on the barstools and gouges on the wooden bar are obvious. I know the room smells sour from years of beers spilled into inaccessable corners and exhaled tobacco smoke. It gets into your clothes and pores so eventually you become part of the fauna and smell the same way.
But I can't smell anything, so I have to imagine it.
"Phillip..." he says, annoying me that he can't finish a sentence.
"Cut the Phillip shit, father Saccone. I'm your fucking brother. We slept in the same bedroom for eighteen years. You call me Phillip one more time I swear I'll deck you."
Bernie comes over wiping a glass with a dirty dishtowel and asks me if everything's okay, and I assure him it is. He walks away backward, eyeing me.
"I'm not going to hit a fucking priest in your bar, Bern. Besides, that would make some story, eh? So this duck with bone marrow cancer comes into a bar and says, 'Gimme a shot, a beer, an unfiltered cigarette, and a hooker with a heroin habit.' And the bartender says, 'Should you be acting like that in your condition?' And the duck says, 'Well, the odds of me dying from liver cirrhoses, emphysema, or STDs are pretty damned low.' And the bartender says, 'It's not you I'm worried about. People find out my girls are fucking cancerous ducks, I'm going to start losing business.' And the duck says, 'In that case tell them I got dengue fever.' Get it?"
My brother's hand clamps onto my shoulder. Since when did he get so strong? Or is it I'm so weak?
He pushes the drinks away from me and stares into my face, eyes red. "Okay, bro, fine. I don't give a shit. You wanna self-destruct, it's fine with me. The collar is off between us. I'll deal with my sins and you deal with yours. Just don't take the rest of us down with you. The old man hasn't slept in weeks crying over you. Your friends don't see you anymore. You've become a ghost and you're not dead yet. Not close."
"You don't know how fucking close I am," I tell him. The little bit of energy I have left is seething in my chest. I want to hug him and clock him at the same time, so I do nothing. He doesn't get it.
"I know everything," he says. "I've got the oncology reports. I know you're stage four. I know what the survival rate is."
"There is no survival rate," I say. And I reach over his forearm and grab my beer. I say, "A shrimp meets God at a bar and says, 'Hey God, what's with this whole issue of divine order? I mean, seven heavens and love thy neighbor, and then people go off and kill each other in your name--what's it all supposed to mean?' And God looks at the shrimp and says, 'I knew there was a reason I put you at the bottom of the food chain.' Get it?"
Brian smacks my arm and the beer spills as the glass falls and shatters behind the bar. He apologizes to Bernie and offers to get me out of there, but Bernie relents. He served us our first underaged beers and he's not about to kick us out thirty years later.
But he warns me to straighten up. He hates seeing me this way,and I assure him nobody hates seeing me this way more than me.
"Cut it out, Phil," Brian says. "You can play the martyr for only so long, and then you gotta get real about things."
"About what?" I yell at him. "About death? Why don't you put a fucking gun to your head, spin the cylinder and squeeze the trigger and show me how you act not knowing if there's a bullet there or not. Christ. I know there's a bullet and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Then come back..." he says. He drops his hand from my shoulder and slides into the seat beside me.
He cuts me off. "God will take you back. You just have to ask forgiveness."
Now I'm pissed. This is why I left the Catholic Church in the first place--illogical bullshit. How can a God who's everywhere take you back? You can't leave everywhere--ever.
"Forgiveness? For what? For dying of cancer instead of saving souls? For not believing that Noah had two of every single animal? Forty days, forty loaves, Abraham and Issac, the good thief on the cross? None of it makes any sense little brother and I can't believe you're still buying it after all these years. But tell me--don't you ever miss fucking girls?"
His fist connects with my jaw and I see a flash of light as the bar comes up to hit me on the side of the head. When I can see straight again, Bernie is kicking us out and Brian is hauling me out of Jackie Keelen's and into the gravel parking lot.
The pain in my face gives me something else to think about. I'm not mad at him anymore.
I say, "They teach you that in priest school--to hit crippled cancer patients?"
"That was courtesy of your tax dollars and the U.S. Army," he says, reminding me it was his experience in the chaplain's office in Panama that led him to the priesthood.
When we get to my car I tell him, "You're wasting your time with me, bro. There's no god that wants me anymore."
He opens the rear door and sits me down facing outside. I can't believe how weak I am. Between the drink, his sucker punch, and a three months of chemo, I'm dizzy.
"I've dealt with people in a lot worse shape than you," he says. "I've been in the worst mankind can dish out to itself and you gotta believe me, there is a God. In the middle of all this mess, there's a plan, a divine order. It's there even if you refuse to believe it."
I drop my head into my hand for a minute when the screaming inside gets too loud. I can deal with it. Push it back.
"Explain the plan to me, then. I get to watch my wife die of cancer. Just when I think I'm back on my feet I watch my girlfriend die of cancer. And now I'm dying of the same fucking disease. Where's the divine majesty in that?"
"Fuck--everyone--dying," I say. "You know--I wouldn't come back to the church now if you told me it would cure me forever and you know why? Because it would be goddamned hypocritical. I'm not going to run back with my tail between my legs because the big bad world scared me. Like John Fogarty said, I ain't no prodigal son."
He stands up straight and takes a few steps backward. Stares into the sky and damn, how I remember him when we were young. How I helped him rebuild the carburetor on his first vehicle, a broken down Jeep CJ-5. How I gave him my ID so he could drink when he was 15. How we talked about our girlfriends and fumbled through learning about sex by experimenting with our dates and reporting back. Covering for each other when Dad knew we were coming home late or drunk or both. I was so proud of him. Class valedictorian. Most likely to succeed. God how I love my brother. What ever made him decide to become a priest?
When he looks at me I can see tears in his eyes.
"Oh don't you start that," I tell him. "I don't want anyone crying for a bastard like me. You can't save me, bro. This is going to happen and I would think a man of the cloth would be best prepared to handle it. I'm going off to your heaven, right?"
"I want you to come back with me," he says, voice choking off with emotion. "I'll take care of you."
Because there is no other way, I tell him the truth. I tell him what I've learned.
"I can't go with you because she's in here," I say, tapping my temple where the screaming comes from. "Jennifer screams to me night and day. Did I ever tell you what happened?"
He shakes his head and leans on the open car door. I have to look up to talk to him.
"She was getting treatment just like me. This was the first time. Before I went into remission and then had the relapse. We'd talk. You got a lot of time there when you're taking chemo, you know? An hour to let the bag of shit drip into your veins. Then another hour of sitting while they wait to see if you have a shock reaction that kills you right there. You get to know people under those circumstances, you know what I mean?"
He nods that he does. I continue.
"We sort of became lovers. As much as anyone can who's crippled by radiation and chemotherapy. I mean, we tried to have sex once, but it didn't work. It just wasn't right. But it was like we did. She moved into my place. Slept with me in my bed. We helped each other with our meds. Sort of like an elderly couple in their eighties who's been together for fifty years. She got so close to me it was like we knew what each other was thinking.
"Well I went into remission and she didn't. I stopped the treatment and she kept going until one day, she'd had it. I couldn't talk her out of it. She had no family to speak of. Her husband had left her with a house and some furniture. She sold all of it and bought the sweetest Porsche you ever saw. And so the two of us drove away..."
Brian looks at me confused. "What do you mean you 'drove away'?"
"We went off to find God," I say. "See, neither of us were particularly religious, but when you're that close to death, the meaning of life becomes rather important. In fact, it becomes the only thing. And as neither of us knew what our lives were about we decide to take off and find out what we could."
"But she still needed treatment?"
"She was dying, father Brian. Stage four melanoma. You don't wake up from that bad dream," I tell him.
The story gets stuck in my throat. I have to swallow a few times and in the silence he asks, "So what happened?"
Looking at the gravel in the parking lot I say, "Well, like I said, she died."
He offers me a hand and I get out of the back of the car and go around to the front. I slide into the passenger's seat, and my little brother drives.
I tell him, "I miss Jennifer. I miss Dani. Sometimes I wish this would just end one way or another. Just kill me or let me live."
We drive through the night in silence. It begins to rain and Brian turns on the wipers. We stop at a traffic light and when it turns green he stares ahead blankly, letting the car idle on the empty street.
"Did you find him? Did God find you?"
As calmly as I can tell him what happened. How Jennifer and I found ourselves trying alternative healing. Praying in Navajo hogans. Doing sunrise chants in the Great Smoky Mountains. And eventually winding up meditating in isolation chambers while a physician read our vital signs for the tell-tale markings of communication with spirits from the great beyond.
Brian looked at me, his eyes narrowed. "Some of that stuff, some is part of the black arts, you know."
"You can make me believe Jennifer's pain could be the work of the devil, but I'll never believe anything she did was," I tell him.
"She was meditating, telling us a story when her graphs went haywire. EEGs, EKGs, galvanic skin response. All oscillating like the place was getting blasted by lightning. Jenny started screaming, and it didn't stop. She'd been okay for a long time but the pain got to her in the isolation booth. I took her to the hospital. They admitted her. Couldn't understand how she went so long without treatment, but what was the difference? They couldn't fucking cure her so they doped her with morphine so we wouldn't have to listen to her.
"I was there when she died. I want to say she was in my arms but I couldn't get my arms around her. She held my hand right till the end. I wanted to see the moment her spirit left her body, but there was nothing. That's what you get at the end. Nothing. Soon I'll become nothing. And now all that's left in my head is the sound of her screaming in that damned isolation chamber and that stupid story she told me."
Brian touches my shoulder, and then apparently satisfied he's gotten something from me, starts to drive. But I'm sure he doesn't understand.
"I can't get Jennifer's screaming out of my head."
He says he knows, but I don't think he does. "When she was in the tank she had a vision, a sort of out of body experience. She dreamed she saw me driving the Porsche through a desert. She kept talking to me and I kept answering, but I didn't believe it was her. I kept getting weaker and weaker and she knew I was going to die and she was trying to help me, but I wouldn't listen to her. And then she realized that she was dead. She was seeing me as a ghost would see me, or an angel. That's why I wouldn't talk to her, because I don't believe in ghosts."
When we stop at the next red light we pull up behind a truck for a furniture store. The words from the back of the truck shout under our headlamp blare.
Brian looks at me. "There are a lot of invisible things in this world. Some are the work of God. Some not."
I nod toward the truck as the light changes. "I don't know about God. I don't know the rituals or the right verses to quote for different occasions. I only know I loved her. And now she's gone and soon I probably will be, too. And I don't have a lot of patience left for things that take a long time to understand."
When we get to the house the rain stops. As we move toward the front door Brian stops me. We hug. I slap him on the back. He says, "God's plan isn't always obvious to us. It's complicated. He sees a lot more than we can, so things seem illogical sometimes."
"She didn't want to die, bro. She wasn't happy about it at all. When I got her out of the tank, the one thing that scared her more than anything is that she was the ghost. That's what she was screaming to me. She'd seen her own death and she wasn't ready for it. She thought she'd live. She really felt everything we were doing--loving me--would save her. The last thing she told me..."
Brian starts to say that everyone dies, but when he looks into my eyes he has to stop himself after the first word. He asks me a question so I'll talk and he won't have to. He says, "What'd she tell you?"
"I couldn't save her. All the love I had in the world wasn't good enough. And you and your God aren't going to be able to save me, either. So be a good brother and stop crying. I don't have any time left for it."
I start for the door but he stops me, rubs at his eyes once and repeats his question. "What the hell did she say to you? You gotta tell somebody. Let it be me."
I take a breath and steady myself. "She told me I was making a mistake trying to go on like nothing was happening. I had been given enough excuses to change. That I had to do something for both of us instead of just me."
"Did you?" Brian asks.
I don't feel I have to answer him. I hug him again and we go into the house.
Last episode: Jennifer screamsNext episode: In the time you have
First episode: Somewhere there's a God who wants me