“Would you please repeat that, Arthur? It sounded like you said you want me to cook you some crack.”
“Now, why would I want you to look at my crack?”
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve asked.”
“What did you say about my ass?”
“Forget it. I’ll be there in a few minutes. Why don’t you look for that new hearing aid you lost while you wait for me.”
The madness of the grocery store right before a holiday weekend makes a phone conversation near impossible. As a rule I avoid shopping around holidays, but Arthur sucked down the last of his Pepsi so I have been assigned to restocking duty. I load my shopping cart with ten large bottles of Arthur’s swill of choice. I should have biceps like Mr. Universe. Instead, I have the beginnings of a nasty hernia.
Libra Coletti, sucker for seniors and diva of adult diapers at your service. Most people work normal jobs and spend their time with normal-ish people. I shuttle around neurotic blue-hairs who have exceeded their expiration dates and exist for the sole purpose of pushing me closer to a life with twenty cats and a two-pack-a-day habit.
I hear Fox News blaring from Arthur’s television well before I reach the door of his nicotine-encrusted cocoon. Inside, Arthur, sporting khaki shorts and swollen ankles, slouches in his beige leather recliner. A cigarette dangles from his lips. He rolls his portable oxygen tank aside so I can haul his precious Pepsi into the kitchen.
“Now what did you want when you called me at the store? I couldn’t hear you,” I say to the top of Arthur’s sparse, white buzz cut as I pull Pepsis from plastic grocery bags and begin lining them up on the floor near the refrigerator.
“Oh, yeah. There’s something on my back I need you to look at. It feels like a melon’s growing out of my shoulder.”
Why do these geezers always have me looking at abnormalities growing on various parts of their bodies? Things that should really be donated for scientific research? I roll my eyes and blow out a sigh of resignation.
“Fine, but you’re gonna have to come into the kitchen where the light’s better.”
Arthur hauls himself out of his recliner. I watch him walk through a haze of Doral smoke that would make Philip Morris proud and the Surgeon General shudder. Arthur enters the kitchen, turns, and presents his back to me. Amidst a relief map of moles, sunspots, and those weird little red dots that old people get, my eye is drawn to Arthur’s bony right shoulder blade.
“What the hell is that?” I lean in for a closer look.
“Do you see it?”
“Do I see it? I think it just waved at me and offered me a smoke.”
Some scary, evil looking, parasitic precursor to a second head had found its home on Arthur. Being no stranger to his regular ailments, I know that whatever this bizarre looking growth is, it should be seen by a doctor.
"So, what is it? A bug bite?" Arthur's hand flaps over his shoulder and he tries to scratch. I swat his hand away.
"Only if the bug was sent from the mother ship. You're going to see Dr. Fields."
"Whatever." Arthur plods back to his recliner and takes a long drag from the cigarette that went out in his absence.
The following week, we find ourselves in Dr. Field's crowded waiting room. It seems everyone and their dog has a health problem. Arthur doesn't do well when we have to wait for long stretches. He gets bored and ends up entertaining himself in some way that usually results in me speaking with management or security, and always apologizing profusely. This time I am ready. I have a goody bag for Arthur, packed with things to keep him amused and out of trouble.
"Hey," Arthur whispers as he elbows my ribs. "See that lady over there in the pink shirt? I'll bet you I can guess why she's here."
"I'm sure she has a good reason for being here. A private reason. How about working a crossword puzzle?" I reach into the canvas tote and pull out the crossword book.
"Nah. What about that guy sitting across from her? The one with the cowboy hat? He looks sorta familiar." Arthur squints behind his bifocals.
I glance in the direction that he's looking and jump in my chair as I stifle a gasp. Oh, yes, that guy looks familiar. He and Arthur got into it one evening in the buffet line down at the Sizzler. All of the fried chicken had been eaten except for one scrawny drumstick. Both men reached for it but Arthur wasn't quick enough on the draw. Every patron in the place received a refresher course in profanity and things to do with one's mother, courtesy of Arthur. Those unfortunate enough to be sitting near a window were treated to the view of his bare white ass, when, from the parking lot, he decided to moon everyone. The manager was kind enough to reduce Arthur's ban from the restaurant to one month after I offered to cart his mother in-law around for free.
"You know, the more I look at him, the more I think I know him." Arthur's eyes remain on Cowboy Hat.
"No you don't."
"Yes, I do."
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do."
Like a magician, I begin pulling item after item out of my tote bag in hopes of distracting Arthur.
"Hey, how about a game of cards?"
"Chinese finger trap?"
"Okay, stay here. I'm going to go see if I can find out how much longer we have to wait. Don't move. I mean it."
"Yeah, yeah," he lies, his eyes still glued to Cowboy Hat, who appears to be oblivious of Arthur's piercing stare.
I approach the girl behind the sliding window. She pushes the glass to the side and gives me an impatient/expectant look.
"Hi. I was just wondering if you have any idea how long –" My question is drowned out by the sound of loud voices coming from behind me. I turn around to see Arthur and his cherry red walker parked in front of Cowboy Hat. Arthur's cane points at Cowboy's face. A shouting match is underway. I push my way through the gathering looky-loos in time to hear Cowboy Hat threaten to extract Arthur's liver by way of Arthur's nostrils.
"I wish you'd try it, big man!" Arthur doesn't budge from his position in Cowboy Hat's face.
I step in and wiggle my way between the two men until I stand nose-to-nose with Arthur.
"Did I, or did I not tell you to stay where I left you?"
"I don't know, I can't find my hearing aid." He tries to look innocent but I know better.
"Nice try. What are you doing?"
"Well, I was just talking with this man."
"About what, Arthur?"
"Really. Then why all the yelling?"
"Because he owes me an apology for stealing that last chicken leg at the Sizzler and he knows it!" Arthur looks around me at Cowboy, who steps to the side and aims a thick finger at Arthur's nose.
"He's nuts! I had every right to that chicken! All he had to do was wait a minute and they would have brought more out to the buffet! Crazy old coot!"
"You want crazy? I'll give you crazy. Libra, get out of the way. I'm fixin' to clean this guy's clock!" Arthur plants both hands on his walker and lowers his head like a bull preparing to charge. I grab each side of the walker and look Arthur straight in his rheumy eyes. He surprises me by lifting the walker and moving it to the left. I step left to block, my hands never leaving the walker. Same exercise to the right. My patience has worn way past thin.
"We are in a waiting room. You cannot behave this way. Let it go."
"Yes, you can."
"No, I can't."
"Dammit, Arthur, yes you can. Now straighten up."
We stood there, staring, saying nothing for maybe a full minute. Our standoff is interrupted when a nurse calls Arthur back to an exam room. I redirect the walker and give Arthur's arm a little tug. We shuffle on behind the nurse.
Dr. Fields arrives just as a shirtless Arthur dozes off in his chair. I nudge him awake and Dr. Fields has Arthur haul himself up on the exam table so he can take a good look.
"Huh." Dr. Fields pokes and prods the new planet on Arthur's back.
"What? Is it the cancer? I knew it. It's the cancer, isn't it." Arthur looks at me and throws his arms up in resignation.
"No, it's not cancer," Dr. Fields smiles.
"It's not? Then what is it?" Arthur looks relieved but skeptical.
"It's a zit."
"Dr. Fields, language please! There's a lady present. Besides I already took one of those this morning. I don't see what my bowel movements have to do with my back."
"No, Arthur. A zit! Z-I-T!" Dr. Fields makes a valiant effort at maintaining composure. I just shake my head, roll my eyes, and wonder again why I didn't take that course in medical assisting.
"I'm not an idiot. I can spell, you know. Well, I suppose you're happy Libra. You dragged me down here and made me wait for forever for nothing. I don't know why I listen to you." Arthur crosses his arms and shoots me a look of blame.
"I do. You listen to me because no one else will put up with your butt. Now here's what's going to happen. We are going to walk through that waiting room and leave. You will not so much as look in that man's direction if he is out there. I don't want another security escort to the parking lot. Got it?"
"He still owes me an apology and a chicken leg."
"I will buy you and your zit a bucket of chicken on the way home."
"You're too good to me, Libra, but I wish you wouldn't use that kind of language."
"Yeah, I know, Arthur. Let's get out of here."