By Terry Sanville.
Sasha pushes open the screen and slips onto the ratty porch couch. With a hand shielding her eyes she stares into the distance. Far across the flat Lost Hills Oilfields, a van streams toward her, chased by a rooster tail of dust. She glances at her wristwatch. He’s early today…beat the kids home from school. Ducking back inside their double-wide, she checks the fridge to make sure it’s stocked with beer, then stares at herself in the hall mirror. Christ, five years in this place and I look like I’m right outta the Grapes of Wrath.
Sasha returns to the porch and watches her husband advance. The minutes tick by and Jerry doesn’t seem to get any closer. The shimmering heat distorts distances. The van turns off Brown Material Road onto the highway and streaks toward their trailer at the western edge of town. She raises her bird-watching glasses and studies her man: bare armed, close shorn and wearing a battered Angels baseball cap. He looks horny…better get him inside before he takes me right here on the porch… or maybe it’s just me.
She hurries to the kitchen and returns with a cold Bud longneck just as he pulls up. Standing on the edge, her dress blowing in the wind, she waves. “Hey babe, how was your day?”
He grins, “All right, I guess. Wasn’t much goin’ on, so I came home.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“How long till the girls get here?”
“Half an hour, maybe more. We’ve got time.”
Jerry takes the beer and pushes inside. She follows him to the back bedroom. He smells of sweat and tastes salty. She’s grateful for his touch and their time alone, before the rumble of the school bus makes them scramble to get dressed, before their daughters’ high-pitched voices fill their home.
They move to the living room where Jerry bends to receive hugs and kisses on the cheek from Linda and pipsqueak Marie.
“You stink funny,” Marie complains.
Sasha and Jerry look at each other and laugh. He slumps onto the sofa and clicks on the sports channel with the sound turned off. Sasha asks, “So what did you girls learn in school today?”
“Nothin’ much,” Marie mumbles.
“That’s nothING much,” Sasha corrects her and the second-grader rolls her eyes.
Linda sits next to her father. “Miss Shaffer, ya know, my science teacher, talked about global warming.”
Jerry lets out a low groan and takes a pull from his beer.
“Go ahead, Linda, tell us what she said.”
“She said burning oil, gas and coal is causing the, ya know, earth to get hotter and the ice caps to melt.”
“What kinda junk they teachin’ y’all in fifth grade?” Jerry asks.
Linda makes a face at her father. Marie giggles. “It’s science, Daddy. Smart people around the world have been studying the weather and…”
“It’s bull, I tell ya, a buncha Chinese propaganda. It gets hot sometimes…that’s natural. It’s happened before.”
“Yes, but the scientists have done lots of studies that¬ show–”
“Yeah, all of them paid for by those polar bear-lovin’ fools in Washington. It’s all a big hoax.”
Linda’s cheeks redden. “But Daddy, Miss Shaffer has been teaching us how science works.”
“Linda, that’s enough,” Sasha says.
Jerry grins and jabs his daughter in the ribs. “I’ll tell ya what works, kiddo, it’s me workin’ the oilfields. It pays our mortgage, puts food on the table, buys your school clothes. Do ya think any of those eco-freaks care about that?”
“Come on, Jerry. Ease up.” Sasha motions to her daughters to help her set the table. “They’ve got to learn about science.”
Jerry mutters something, peels off his shirt, and turns the fan in his direction. Sasha retrieves another beer from the kitchen. She massages his shoulders, pressing her thumbs into his tight muscles, feeling them shudder, then relax. After a few minutes, she stops.
“How long have you had this?” she asks, touching a tiny reddish spot on the back of his neck, just inside the hairline.
“What you talkin’ about?”
“This thing on your neck. It looks like a freckle.”
He rubs a hand across the spot. “I don’t feel nothin’. Probably just a
“Yes, maybe. I’ll put some cream on it.”
“Thanks. I got spots all over this ole bod. One more’s not gonna make a
“Ooooh, Daddy, that’s gross,” Linda says. “My gym teacher always wears a big hat when she goes outside. Says she burns easy and gets freckles.”
“There you go again, talkin’ about those know-it-all teachers.”
“Jerry, don’t make fun of them, please.”
“Yeah, yeah, sorry.” He pushes himself up and goes outside to smoke a cigarette, water his pampered apple and peach trees, and set gopher traps.
Summer rolls into fall. The tule fog socks in the San Joaquin, making driving treacherous. It engulfs all but the very tops of the few derricks among the hundreds of pumpjacks in the Lost Hills Oilfield. The morning after Thanksgiving, Jerry lies in bed next to Sasha, the blankets pulled to his chin, teeth chattering.
Sasha clicks on the light. “Are you okay? I can feel the bed shake.”
“I’ve got these chills, then I sweat like a pig.”
“Come on. We’re going to the clinic in Wasco.”
“Forget it. It’ll go away. It did the last time.”
“You’ve had this before?”
“Yeah. Must be some kinda flu. But I feel okay, just a little tired.”
Three days later, Jerry wakes gasping for breath with a high fever. Sasha packs the kids off to school, then drives the thirty miles to the clinic. An Asian doctor gives Jerry a complete physical.
“Well, what do you think?” Sasha asks.
“I can’t tell much without a biopsy. But you need to get that lesion on his neck checked out right now.”
“What…what do you think it is?”
“I don’t want to guess. His lungs seem clear, but that shortness of breath could mean something else. They’ll know more when they remove the growth and do a biopsy and various scans. How long has that spot on his
neck been there?”
Jerry studies his shoes, seems content to let Sasha do the talking.
“Maybe six months.”
“Has it changed?”
“Well, he says it feels like it’s more raised.”
“I’ve phoned in orders to Delano Medical Center. They’re expecting you. The doctors there will take care of him. They’ll be able to answer your questions.”
“But, our daughters are in school and we don’t have…”
“I suggest you call a neighbor or the school. You need to get this looked at today.”
In half an hour Jerry and Sasha pull into the hospital parking lot and check in. The nurses and PAs spirit him away. She blows him a kiss as he disappears behind swinging doors. He looks scared… I wish they’d let me stay with him.
She sits alone in the waiting room, fingering her cell and constantly checking the time. Their neighbors, a young couple she hardly knows, agree to take the girls. After a long wait, a nurse escorts her to a room where Jerry lies in bed, tubes protruding from his arms.
He flashes her a weak smile. “Don’ look so worried, hon. They cut it off me and I already feel better. I’m jus’ so damn tired.” He yawns and closes his eyes.
A salt-and-pepper-haired doctor wearing bifocals and a spotless white frock joins them. “Hello, I’m Dr. Spanner. Are you Jerry’s wife?”
“Yes, I’m Sasha. Will you tell me what’s going on?”
“Why don’t we let your husband rest and I’ll talk to you in my office. Come this way.”
She follows him to a shoebox-sized room and sits in the only chair opposite his desk. Dr. Spanner clears his throat. “I won’t keep you long. We’ll know more about Jerry’s condition and prognosis when the biopsy comes back in about three days. He can go home in a couple of hours. But you and Jerry must come back to see me at end of this week.”
Sasha wraps her arms around herself and shakes her head. “The poor guy’s scared. If we leave here now, I might not be able to get him back. Can’t you tell me something? Can’t you keep him here?”
Dr. Spanner loosens his tie and leans back in his chair, as if trying to gain distance from her. “Well…I’ve seen many cases like this before…and the scans show us a lot. I think you need to prepare your husband and your family.”
“What… what do you mean, prepare?”
“Jerry is showing all the signs of Stage IV melanoma that’s spread to
the lymph nodes throughout his body…and to his lungs.
“What does Stage IV mean?”
“It means the disease is advanced…and very serious.”
“But… but he’s been going to work… hasn’t complained about anything.”
“That’s often the case until the cancer invades the vital organs. In your husband’s case, it’s the lungs, and most probably his heart.”
“But…but what are his chances?”
The doctor sucks in a deep breath. “Not very good, less than a ten percent chance of surviving five years.”
Sasha leans forward and sobs. Her tears drip onto the tile floor.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am. There is always surgery, chemotherapy, and some new drugs. But those would only slightly delay the disease and make his last days very uncomfortable. We can control the pain but…”
Sasha chokes on sobs that threaten to shake her body apart. Minutes pass before she quiets. “If…if only he’d come in right away.”
“Yes, studies show the cure rate is very high if it’s caught early.”
“Well, Jerry doesn’t believe in scientific studies, thinks they’re rigged.”
“That’s unfortunate.” The doctor stares at his hands. “I’m afraid it’s time for your husband to believe.”
Sasha wipes the tears from her cheeks. “That time has already passed.”