My Friend is Dying, fiction by Matt Baker

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.
“Of course.”
“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.
“What?”
“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?”
“What?”
“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.”
“Right, hmm.”
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?”
“Not real­ly.”
“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.
“Who me?”
“Yeah, you, Earl’s out­side.”
“This isn’t my house.”
“Just get the damn phone.”
“Okay, okay.”
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.”
“Earl!?”
“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.
“At home.”
“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, an
d 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?”
“H.P.”
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 ‘olé-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.”
“Uh, huh.”
“You can, can’t you?”
“Can what?”
“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.
“Oh, relax.”
“The door is open, Cup­cakes.” Earl opens the door.
“What’s going on?” Earl asks. I stand up off the bed.
“Noth­ing.”
“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?”
“Fine.”
“Just fine?”
She’s putting lip­stick on.
“Yeah, fine.”
“Your wife?”
“She’s fine too.”
“I hadn’t seen her in years, what’s her name again?”
“Con­nie.”
“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,”
“What’s that?”
“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?”
“About us.”
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.

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