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by O. J. Anderson

part 1 of 2

Riley turned the ignition key and drove the car around the parking lot to the St. Anthony’s hospital entrance where his wife Anna waited. She wore a white knit cap with some kind of flower on it. The cap was pulled down low, touching her ears, and she held a small stuffed rabbit in her arms.

He stopped the car by the curb and got out to open the door for Anna. She was very happy to be going home; all her teeth were showing. She hugged the rabbit as Riley helped her with the seat belt. Anna let out a long sigh, as if anything were better than that. She always transformed herself when she left, as though she had just dumped the day’s worst files from her memory.

Riley knew what she meant. He didn’t, however, know what to say; he never did. In all the times that he had pulled the car around, helped her in, and seen how happy she was to be going home, he never knew what to say. He was unfamiliar, even then, with the protocol of the situation. If she wasn’t so damn happy, then he would have something to work with; he would know the role. But she had broken ranks with the formation and left him to catch up.

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“Umm...” His chin quivered; he hated when it did that; he hated weakness. “I could eat.” They came to the end of the parking lot and waited for a break in the traffic.

The posted speed limit was 35 m.p.h. Based on the loosely-estimated acceleration capabilities of his Honda, he factored in the also loosely-estimated seventy-degree angle turn from the parking lot onto the road, a three-foot wide pothole, and what looked like a green shank of glass lying on the edge of the same pothole, and guessed a five- to six-second sprint from rest to the posted speed limit.

This meant that in order to get those five or six seconds, he would need a minimum gap in traffic extending back to the sign with the St. Anthony’s cartouche, or, better yet, the telephone pole just past the sign.

This, he thought, assumed that everyone was doing the prescribed 35 m.p.h., which wasn’t too likely. He first added five, then ten m.p.h over for a buffer zone, then compared what he thought might be the more likely speed of traffic versus his acceleration and that minimum gap needed, then factored the probability of driver awareness and braking: either early, late, or non-existent, and then hoped that someone would just slow down and give him the wave.

They couldn’t catch a break, the cars were moving too fast. Everything was moving too fast. Riley asked if she wanted him to make something.

“If you don’t feel like it, we could order something. Chinese? Pizza?”

He wasn’t up for making anything, but would, if that’s what she wanted. “I’m up for some Chinese, or pizza. You make the call,” he said.

He had to cut someone off to pull out onto the road, but that’s what he had to do.

“Pizza it is,” she said. “Now let’s discuss what kind. I’m thinking... veggie.”

Riley was quiet, with a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. Anna reached over and put her hand on his leg.

“Okay,” Riley said, “but it isn’t quite so simple. Pepperoni is the default pizza. That’s the starting point. All modifications are made from there.”

“Right. Well I’ll leave the specifics in your capable hands.” Anna laughed; she loved it when he called it the “default pizza.” This wasn’t the first time they’ve had this conversation. It was part of their routine. They both tried to stay within the routine of things.

“You haven’t noticed anything different today?” she asked.


Anna leaned closer to him. “My makeup, silly. Donna was there today.”

“Sorry, the traffic and all. It looks really great though. I mean... you do. You look really great.”

“Thank you.” She twisted her face in the mirror for an up close inspection of Donna’s secrets. “I don’t know how she does it. I’m lucky I’m there on Thursdays; that’s the only day she can come in.”

A yellow Dodge Dart with only one functioning brake light drove in front of them. Riley’s eyes were fixed on the brown rust spots that pock-marked most of the rear end with several germline mutations of coincident transmission to the bumper.

“By the way,” Anna said, “you missed the holistic Jell-O social today. We had a lot of fun. Where were you?”

“Doing more research.” Riley mapped a Mendalian pattern of inheritance from the trunk to the bumper by its genetic linkage to the long arm of chromosome 17. He thought of his old Honda and the developing rust it had around the rear quarter panel. With the rust’s penetration determined on the longitudinal study of mutation carriers and controls, he scoured with limited growth rust-suppression sandpaper to the gene p53 and then lacquered the retinoblastoma gene 13. Problem fixed.

“Jen told me about this flea market out in Willamantic today. She says Fiestware is making a comeback.”

A large rust spot, the largest one he could see, and most likely the one that started it all, with lines of evidence, including pathologic, cytogenic, and preliminary rust-gene expression data, covered a frisbee-sized circle on the curve of the trunk and threatened to take over the keyhole any day. The spot had phosphorylated residues of malignant paint bubbles around its perimeter.

“I was thinking, maybe I’ll smash a bunch of those old dishes and start that mosaic I’ve been talking about. We’ve got boxes of the stuff just sitting in the basement. I’d love to do that old table my mother gave us. What do you think?”

The Dodge turned right and took its dirty rust and its pathogenic mutation BRCA-1 with it. Just like that it was gone. “I’ll do the smashing for you,” he told her.

Riley parked the car in the driveway. He helped Anna out of the car, then unlocked the side door by the garage. Anna said that perhaps the ferns could us some water. The waft of home drifted out from the open door.

* * *

Anna put her rabbit on the chair with the other animals and sat on the couch. She turned on the TV and asked for some orange juice like a child would ask: she was cute and said, “Pleeeeease.”

In the kitchen, he opened the cupboard. He looked inside and wondered what he was after. There were three kinds of cereal, baking powder, muffin mix, sea salt, kosher salt, bullion cube, soy sauce, chips, tooth picks, plastic bags, tin foil, pickles, four cans of tuna, one other can that the label had come off of but looked about the size of what he thought a small can of tomato paste would look like, one empty mason jar next to three more filled with strawberry preserves, brown paper bags, straws, chocolate chips, almonds, as well as cashews and a small tin of mixed nuts, ramen noodles, cake frosting, pudding mix, matches, white non-bleached flour, and some other things.

He closed the door and opened another. In it he found: white rice, brown rice, and long grain rice. He found the black pepper, some dried herbs and spices, one bottle of Centrum One-A-Day next to a bottle of vitamin C that he hadn’t taken in a while, freezer bags, yeast, a large bottle of vegetable oil, white vinegar, balsamic vinegar, extra napkins, measuring cups, coffee filters, parmesan cheese, sugar, and a few other things.

Only a few moments ago he knew what he needed, but it had disappeared. The harder he tried to think of it the more he kept reading the same labels; the more he read the same labels the more he lost all concept of their meanings; they became foreign and insignificant.

Minutes had passed, and then there was little hope for recovery. “I’m sorry, hun,” he said. “What did you ask me for?”

“Orange juice, pleeeeease.”

The juice was in the fridge and everything was back in its place. He smelled it before pouring; it was a habit he had started just to make sure there was no biting odor, rancid flotillas, or latent fermentation. If there had been, or any pedigree and susceptibility analysis concluding trace or multiple endocrine neoplasma type 1 provoking either Li-Fraumeni syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, or any ataxia telangiectasia whatsoever, he would have administered the angrogenesis inhibitors quickly based on kappa score data. Or, he could have just poured it down the sink, but he didn’t, he poured it into a glass.

Anna had put the TV on mute. She had a blanket over her lap and was reading Glamour magazine. She took the juice and pointed out some suede boots to Riley. “I love these boots for the fall,” she said. “They’re exquisite.”

He bit the inside of his cheek. The taste of blood covered his tongue. “I’m going to make the call,” he said.

At the sink he tried to spit. Thick strings of blood-stained saliva hung from his mouth. He coughed and tried to clear his throat. It was so much easier to be weak; to sit down and give up, rather than carry the weight.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said. “Just fighting off a cold I think.”

He made the call, then made coffee, doubling the grounds. They had a thirty minute wait. Riley checked the clock and saw the time, then realized that he forgot the time as soon as he looked away. He checked it again and it was still the same time. This was a new habit: checking the time, forgetting, checking again.

“We’ve some options to consider,” Anna said.

Riley felt a tug deep in his gut. It was a tug reminding him of his slight capacity for the consideration of options. There were options, the everyday, the dull, mundane, which hardly called for any kind of consideration worth mentioning, and then there were those options that mentioning them alone meant that all other options had been exhausted.

Because of the severity of those options, their timing should not be at all optional. Those options, he thought, ought not be considered until the consideration of those options is, in fact, the final remaining option.

The time, whatever it was, warranted the postponement of considering those options; he was told that there were plenty of other options, the kind of which the mentioning is also optional for an unspecified amount of time, prior to any need for considering those options. He resented her for bringing up the options to consider... so soon.

“Hello,” she said, waving at him, “remember me?”

He cleared his mind of those options and tried to focus on the options at hand. The options at hand, which he had been assured of by a first, second, and then even a third professional considerer and informer of options, formed, and should continue to form for that unspecified amount of time, the main system of option analysis for any considerations that were being made at the time, whatever it was.

It was also advised by the very same professionals that the options at hand were the ones to consider, and should continue to be considered until notified otherwise into the near future, and probably, with a little luck, into the extended future also.

Another new habit: winding his mind into a vertiginous, convoluted mess. He asked her, “What were we talking about?”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2006 by O. J. Anderson

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