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Saturday, March 26, 2011

No More or Less a Man

by Murray Edwards

The salmon-colored scar erupted just below the woman’s throat and spilled down her alabaster skin, disappearing into a tasteful silk blouse.  Two rows of raised dots paralleled the wound, like a levee channeling a once-angry river.  The cashier, years past retirement age, carefully slid my purchases across the scanner, treating the toothpaste and shaving cream as if they were fine china and delicate crystal.  “Anything else?” she asked, her manicured fingers gently placing the toiletries in a Walgreens plastic bag. 
I grabbed two Tootsie Pops from a display rack.  “Better throw these in as well.”
She smiled.  “You don’t look like a Tootsie-Pop kind of man.” 
“They’re for my kids.” 
“How old are they?”  Under the harsh fluorescent lights, her lineless face reminded me of an heirloom doll – a porcelain figurine accidentally dropped and broken, the pieces sutured together at her chest.    
“Six and three.” 
“Great ages.”  She tapped the cash register’s total key.  “Three dollars, eighty-four cents, sir.”
I glanced behind me.  With no other customers in sight, I emptied my pocket change, selecting dimes and pennies for the exact amount.  “Didn’t get to tuck them in this evening.  Guess I’m feeling a little daddy-guilt.”
She sighed knowingly.  “Enjoy them while you can.  They’ll be grown before you blink.” 
Gathering my plastic bag, I acknowledged her grandmotherly advice with a nod.  “Yep.  Grown up before you blink,” I repeated, stealing one final look at the woman’s scar, which attracted my curiosity.  What caused the wound?  Why was a woman of such refinement working the midnight shift in a store that smelled of shampoo and liniment?
The cashier casually traced the raised ridge with her index finger.  “Ugly, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t intend to stare.”
“That’s all right,” she said softy.  “Heart surgery.”
“How are you doing now?”
            She waited a few seconds before answering, the silence of the empty store magnifying the pause.  “Well, the truth is I’m not doing all that well, and I’m . . .”  Her voice trailed off, as if she had more to say, but felt unsure if she could trust me with such personal information.
“I’m sorry.”  
Diverting her eyes from mine, the cashier stared at the counter and absentmindedly rearranged the pennies in a take-one-give-one ashtray.  “It’s just so hard right now.  My daughter’s in Michigan.  Clarence lives in town, but he’s too absorbed with his own problems to pay attention to anyone else’s.”
            “My . . . my former husband.  We were married 39 years.”  The cashier looked up from the pennies and wrinkled her brow.  “Funny, even now I can’t say ex-husband, for some reason.”
The woman’s body language hinted at additional chapters to the story, chapters she seemed desperate to retell.  Although it was late, I decided to invest a few moments and hear more of her story.  “So, what happened with you and Clarence?”   
The cashier slowly shook her head, like a wounded war veteran remembering combat.  She told me her husband, a deacon in their church, led the congregational singing during worship services.  “They couldn’t open the doors to that building without him being there.” 
“Third Street Baptist.”  Her eyes refocused on the penny ashtray.  “And then . . .” She hesitated and softened her voice to a whisper.  “And then . . . “
“Go on.  I’m listening.”
 “And then one evening, I noticed a lump in Clarence’s groin.  At first, he refused to see a doctor, but it kept growing.  Eventually, he had no choice but to see a specialist.” 
“What was it?”
“Advanced testicular cancer,” she said bitterly, as if she wanted to punish the very words themselves.  “His doctors advised radical surgery, but he refused the procedure.  Clarence said he wouldn’t be a man any longer.”  Her eyes moistened as she reached under the counter for a tissue.  “Can you believe that?”
“It’s hard to imagine.”
She forced a smile.  “I told him it didn’t matter.  He’d be no more or less a man to me.”
The cashier’s emotional transparency made me feel uncomfortable, as if my mother had revealed a dark secret about my father.  But the woman’s unvarnished honesty – her trust in me, a stranger – overrode my discomfort.  “Did the doctors change his mind?”        
“Eventually.  But you know the sad part?  He never went back to church.”  She folded the tissue and dabbed her eyes.  “He said religion didn’t matter to him anymore.” 
            “Sounds like your husband was angry with God.”
            “I told Clarence he’d been treating God like a rabbit’s foot or a lucky charm, but he wouldn’t listen.  Next thing I knew, he asked for a divorce.”
            “A divorce?”
“I think he directed his anger at me on some level, maybe because I found the lump.  I don’t know, really.  He couldn’t divorce God, so he divorced me.”
The automatic doors swooshed open and an elderly couple entered.  Wearing a faded housecoat and a flower-print scarf, the woman cradled the arm of her palsied companion, who balanced himself with a walker.  The cashier and I paused our conversation, allowing the pair to pass the counter.  The thin-faced man, his eyes cloudy with cataracts, relied on his wife for guidance to the correct aisle.
With the couple no longer within hearing range, the cashier continued.  “Clarence and I divorced two years ago, but our retirement and social security aren’t enough to cover separate households.”  She gestured to the wall of cigarettes and tobacco behind the counter.  “No one would hire me but Walgreens.  Thankfully, it’s across town from my church.  At least I don’t see my friends here.”
            “I’m very sorry.”  My mind raced for something more profound to say, a few words of encouragement, perhaps.  Nothing seemed remotely adequate. 
            “Then, six months ago, I had open-heart surgery.”  Her voice quivered.  “Clarence was too wrapped up in his own self-pity to visit me in the hospital.  He called and said it would stress him out too much.  I said, ‘Stress you out?  Like it’s a walk in the park for me?’”        
            “You have amazing strength,” I said, magnetized again by the river-like scar flowing down this China doll’s chest. 
The elderly couple shuffled toward the checkout area.  I stepped aside, allowing the wife, her hands arthritic, to rest a quart of orange juice and a dozen eggs upon the counter.  Shaking, her husband reached for his wallet, but fumbled it to the floor.  Bending down, I retrieved the billfold and handed it to the fragile man.  He smiled, a “Thank you,” evident in his milky eyes, and then struggled to pay for the juice and eggs for his wife. 
It seemed a subtle but intentional act of chivalry, a display of manhood having nothing to do with virility or the presence of particular body parts. 
            After the elderly couple drifted out the door, I turned to the cashier.  “You know, I’d better get home before my wife begins to worry.”
“Thanks for listening.”
 “Things will be okay,” I said, specifically not using the word you.
            “Sometimes I wonder.”  She handed me two more Tootsie Pops.  “Give these to your kids.  Tell them they’re from a friend of their father.” 
            I thanked her for the candy and gazed directly into the woman’s misted eyes, careful to avoid the magnetism of her scar.  “And may God bless you,” I added.  Not normally a religious person, my words – deeply heartfelt words – came as a complete surprise to me.    
            The cashier nodded in appreciation.  “He just did.”
            Gathering my bag of toiletries and candy, I hurried through the pharmacy doors into the sticky, summer-night air. 
Once in my car, I started the ignition, glanced in my rear-view mirror, and noticed the couple from Walgreens.  Huddling beside their tired-looking Buick, the woman floundered through her purse, searching for the keys.  The man wrestled with his walker, trying to fold it up.  Finally unlocking the vehicle, the wife stowed the metal contraption in the back seat and opened the passenger door for her wobbling husband, who latched on to her arm and steadied himself.  Bending down to lower himself into the car, the old gentleman hesitated, straightened up, and turned to face the woman.  He kissed her tenderly on the forehead.
I reached for the plastic Walgreens bag and touched the rounded shapes of the Tootsie Pops inside.  I thought of Clarence.  I thought of what it meant to be a man.

Murray Edwards pretends to be an agricultural commodity trader when he's not pretending to be a West Texas rancher.  His first book of short fiction, Looking for Lucy Gilligan, won a silver quill award and was named one of the ten best Texas books for 2009.

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