Forgotten Folk – Joe Baumann
“Oh, god. Jan Frances.”
“I take it that means I win?” Cam was already rolling onto his stomach.
“Yes,” I said, writhing like a salmon trying to drag itself upstream as I untangled myself from the sheets. “Jan Frances will do that.”
Cam and I were playing Forgotten Folk: we each had ten seconds to muster up the name of someone from our past that neither of us had mentioned in recent memory. Jan Frances tried to give Cam a blowjob during senior prom, blitzing him in a dark corner of the gym where the temporary disco ball and laser lights couldn’t reach. I’d been in the bathroom at the time, unloading a night’s worth of punch into a urinal. She’d managed to unhook his cummerbund before I rescued him.
The winner received a back massage.
Cam laughed into his pillow. “Fuck. Jan Frances. Poor girl had no clue, Allen.”
“Didn’t she wear braces?” I said.
“No, that was Patricia Marques.”
I pressed my hands into the center of Cam’s back. Most former Division I athletes lose it after a few years of dormancy, but Cam’s body was still hard and lined like a map full of highways. I didn’t mind when he was the victor.
“Patricia also tried to give you a few blowjobs, I’m sure.”
“She might have succeeded once.”
I rolled my eyes before moving my hands lower, onto the high ridge of his coccyx where it met the bulb of his glutes. I licked at his spine.
“That’s not usually part of a back massage,” Cam said.
The blinds were cinched shut, but through the darkness came a sudden flood of blue and red. Not wholly unusual in our neighborhood, not because our area was crime-riddled but because a fire station was situated down the street. At least a few times a month the crone of a siren pierced the night, emergency lights spangling our bedroom ceiling. I, at least, took comfort in knowing rescue was close by.
The light intensified and then stuck, static and shifty.
“Huh,” I said, prying myself away from Cam.
“Hey,” he said. “What gives?”
I speared my fingers through the blinds. “There’s a cop car, an ambulance, and a fire truck at the Gettemeyers’ house.”
He flopped out of bed and we both pulled on boxers and t-shirts and slid into flip flops. When I pulled open the front door the August air was tumid and thick, like we were surrounded by a cavalry of creatures panting out heavy, wet breath.
Cam shaded his eyes from the blinding lights rotating atop the police cruiser parked along the curb. A firefighter’s Nomex gear flashed neon green against the sharp blue and red. I was pinged by a small BB of sorrow when I saw a pair of EMTs guiding a body bag through the front door on a rickety stretcher. We lived in a neighborhood populated by people who would be described kindly as retirees and harshly as geriatric. Only two weeks after we moved in fifteen months ago, Paul Martin, our neighbor to the left, died from a massive stroke; on our right, Todd and Katherine Hummel both used motor scooters and were picked up by a Missouri OATS van to go to the grocery store or visit their grandchildren. Mrs. Gettemeyer, who had to be in her seventies, had creaked up to our door with a tin of stale popcorn and a post-it note with her phone number affixed to the lid to welcome us the day after we moved in, a blistering May scorcher. She and her husband sat on their porch swing most afternoons if the weather wasn’t too hot or too cold, and they would wave as Cam and I came and went. Although we lived in the midst of conservative country—during election season, red signs adorned with elephants popped up in lawns like a plague of bloated dandelions—none of our neighbors had batted an eye when I introduced Cam as my partner.
Cam sat down on one of the Adirondack chairs he’d installed on the porch. I sat next to him and took his outstretched hand. He’d helped the Gettemeyers plant hyacinth bulbs in their front yard around a decorative wooden well that one of their grandchildren had constructed in a woodworking class he was taking through the continuing education department at the nearby community college as part of his outpatient recovery program from a heroine addiction. Cam’s fingers had swelled up in a bizarre allergic reaction, and Mrs. Gettemeyer had rushed about searching through her various medicine cabinets for Benadryl, and then her husband insisted he take Cam to an urgent care center for a steroid injection.
I wondered which of the Gettemeyers was being hauled away by the silent ambulance. Cam started crying, and my heart peeled at his sensitivity. He’d spent years in the NCAA spotlight as a fiery, pugnacious point guard for the Miami Hurricanes before being oustered by a superstar freshman during his senior year; Cam’s replacement went on to be a first-round draft pick at the end of the year, while Cam graduated and followed me back to Missouri. Commentators had painted him as an angry kid (he did rack up his share of technical fouls), but I knew that he was actually tender and bendable, easily broken by things like the death of an aging neighbor. I pulled at his t-shirt and lifted him up.
When we moved into our house, Cam surprised me with a reupholstered wing-backed chair and a mahogany side table that he stationed in a corner of our bedroom, calling it a reading nook where I could stack novels and short story collections to traipse through on cold, rainy days. Although the table was home to a handful of books, the chair was overrun by our discarded jeans and t-shirts, balled-up socks nestled in the corners of the seat cushion. I hadn’t sat in it in months. I pulled Cam into the bedroom as the red and blue lights blinkered out in the street, leaving the room shaded with zebra stripes of moonlight.
The ghostly form of Mrs. Gettemeyer was perched atop our mound of loose clothes, a pooled pair of Cam’s corduroys like a buoy beneath her.
“Well,” I said as Cam sat down on the end of the bed. “I guess that answers that question.”
Like most people, Mrs. Gettemeyer didn’t stay long. She offered Cam and me a quick wave of the hand. We waved back, and then she was gone, wisping into the night like a reflection lost on the surface of a choppy lake. Neither Cam nor I said anything, looking at the swirly spot where she’d been. Eventually our clothing settled back into focus, a pair of running shorts draped over the back of the chair regaining its sharpness.
Cam stared at the chair. I looped an arm over his shoulder and pulled him close. He didn’t sniffle or cry or anything, but his body had gone hard as stone, muscles tensed up as if he’d had a seizure.
“Michael Houser,” I said.
“Who?” Cam said.
“Your friend Cecelia’s boyfriend. He came down to Miami the same weekend I did. We hung out. Went to that frat party where he puked all over the couch while he was dancing on a coffee table. Pretty sure she broke up with him before he left.”
“What? You got someone better?” I could feel him loosening, his spine unfurling from its cocked position.
Cam sighed. “How in the world do you remember him?”
“He took his shirt off after he vomited. I remember liking his abs.”
“God dammit,” Cam said.
The night of the first snow of the year, I was home alone. Cam, an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team at SLU, was traveling for a pre-season game against Dayton. A layer of hoarfrost had fallen across our lawn and flowerbeds that morning, a preview of the thick, wet flakes that hoofed down in chunky curtains that afternoon.
At around six-thirty, the doorbell rang. The noise was clunky, heavy; I was convinced that an actual bell was dinging somewhere in the architecture of the vaulted ceiling. When I opened the door, a kid, maybe sixteen, was standing on the porch, propped up by a steel snow shovel.
“Hi.” His entire face was blurred by the green of our LED porch light; the past owner had installed it, something about supporting the troops, and because it hadn’t gone out, neither Cam nor I had reason to switch it to a normal soft-white, though it did give visitors and deliverymen an alien hue. “Would you like your driveway shoveled?”
“How much?” I said.
The kid shrugged, clusters of acne on his cheeks flashing. “Twenty bucks?”
“Hang on,” I said. “Want to make sure I actually have a twenty.”
I did, and took his offer. We didn’t own a snow shovel, one of those things that it does and does not occur to first-time home owners to purchase and you never remember until after you need it, and then you forget again. The kid threw in the sidewalks free of charge, and for the next forty minutes. I listened to him scraping at the concrete, long steady ratchets of noise. I told him to ring the bell when he was done.
When the bell bing-bonged forty minutes later, the kid was panting. In the green porchlight, I could see tracks of sweat gathered in the folds of his nostrils, drizzling down his chin like he’d just devoured a peach.
“All done?” I looked past him. “Nice work.”
“Thanks,” he said, panting. “I’m really tired.”
“Don’t overdo it,” I said.
“You got any Gatorade or anything?”
I told him I could find him a bottle of water. I waved him inside, trumped into the kitchen and pulled one from the fridge. Once I’d delivered it, he ripped the cap off and took a deep glug. I handed him the twenty.
“Thanks,” he said, extending his hand for a shake. I took it. “Name’s Kevin Douglas. I’ll be around.”
“Thanks for the shoveling.”
I’d have thought nothing of it had the news the next morning not reported that, on the next street over, he’d collapsed of heat exhaustion and died in the hospital.
Which I already knew by then, because he’d shown up at my dining room table as I was brushing my teeth only a few hours after ringing my doorbell.
Kevin waved a gloved hand at me and dripped invisible snow onto the hardwood before he vanished. I pressed my toe against the floor after he was gone. The ground was dry.
I went to sleep unsettled, not at the boy’s appearance but at my miniscule hand in his death. If I hadn’t taken him up on his offer, would he have still overheated? What if I’d told him to take off his knit cap and sit down on the couch for a while so he could catch his breath, lower his temperature? But what would we have talked about? How would I signal that it was time for him to go?
I said nothing of it when Cam came home two days later.
“How about Frederick Moinahan?” Cam’s hands were cradled under his head, arms akimbo. He trimmed his underarm hair with an electric razor, and it was freshly short and fuzzy. I gave his right pit a poke and he spasmed, chuffing out a half-annoyed, half-shocked giggle.
“We talk about Frederick Moinahan all the time.”
“We do not.”
“We did just three weeks ago.”
“Contextualize,” Cam said.
“Well, you had just lost when I mentioned Amber Phillips, that girl who got popular after she was hit by a car one day our junior year, and maybe ten minutes later you mentioned Frederick Moinahan, how you always wondered if things would be different if he and not you had been sitting in my usual spot in study hall.”
Cam had been gone for two straight weekends as the Billikens traveled for conference play. Valentine’s Day had come and gone, which really meant nothing to me; we didn’t celebrate it, because mid-February was palled by the anniversary of my youngest sister Emmy’s death. She was born with progeria, one of those shocking, rare disorders with no cure; this one prevented her from growing up, freezing her body in youth while also rapid-firing her aging process. She’d managed to get to age thirteen, miraculous for someone with her condition, but suffered strokes, arthritis, and eventually fell into a coma she didn’t come out of.
The night of her death, she appeared in my dorm room desk chair. I was nineteen and drunk, having gotten a call about the coma from my mother that afternoon. My roommate had found an upperclassman to buy us a bottle of Popov vodka that we’d mixed with Sunny D from the on-campus convenience store. We invited friends on our floor into our room, where we crammed on our bunked beds and got hammered, playing Fuck the Dealer and Circle of Death. The room was crinkly and blurred within an hour, and at some point when I tottered off to the communal bathroom my roommate tossed everyone out so I could fall into drunken sleep alone, and when I stumbled back in, there was Emmy, perched on the lip of the blocky chair. She waved at me, smiled the healthiest smile she’d ever managed, and then disappeared, the space where she’d been going woozy. I wheeled back out of the room and puked in one of the bathroom stalls, a parade of awful orange. At first, I was sure I’d hallucinated, but a year later, when my grandfather died while I was on spring break, he showed up on my hotel bedspread, his rheumatic fingers twisted in his lap. He unfurled them and offered me a wave just like Emmy’s before shimmering away, too. I was sober at the time.
“It’s cold in here,” Cam said, knees pressed around my lower ribs. I could feel the cool rub of his testicles against my skin when he bent low to dig at my neck. “You know, after all that heat.”
“Mmm.” He liked to talk while he worked at the kinks in my back, where my spine was compacted from hunching over a computer all day. We were both slightly broken, him from working with his players, crouched low to demonstrate defensive posture, me from typing. I wrote freelance, working from home in the small office whose window peered into our neighbors’ back yard, which was currently piled with another dumping of snow, covering the dormant azaleas and tulip bulbs Cassandra Martin planted every spring. One night a week I taught a creative writing class at the nearby community college because it helped me feel engaged, alive, involved. Cam made jokes about me turning into a lazy sort of writer, the kind who sat around in a bathrobe, drinking coffee and staring outside until inspiration struck. It didn’t matter that I didn’t own a bathrobe or like the taste of coffee.
Cam ran his fingers into the hair on the back of my head with one hand, the other pushing at the soft wall of my right side. He slid his palm against my belly.
His phone chirped, lighting up the dim room with its technological glow. I left my phone on the kitchen table at night, but Cam couldn’t sleep without the world nearby, ever since his younger sister had been in a car accident at two in the morning and his parents couldn’t reach him to tell him to hurry to the hospital. It had been serious—she’d suffered deep lacerations to her abdomen and a bad concussion—but she’d made it. Ever since then he’d heard phantom noises of his phone ringing in the kitchen, and I finally told him to just bring the thing to bed.
“It’s my mom,” he said. I turned over. Neither of Cam’s parents ever called—they liked texting, his mother especially fond of communicating via bitmojis—and I felt a silvery jolt in my chest.
“Hello?” he said. He put her on speaker. Mrs. Riggs’ voice came through crackly, delayed as though she was in outer space.
“Cameron, it’s your dad.”
I sprung from the bed, Cam frowning at me but saying nothing. I took a naked lap of the house, pausing in the living room, the dining room, my office. The guest room and basement were both empty. Nothing in the laundry room. By the time I came back to our bedroom, Cam had hung up the phone.
“He’s not dead,” I said.
“No, he isn’t.”
“Heart attack. I told him he’d been grilling too many steaks now that he’s retired. It was a doozy, apparently. He’ll live if he survives the quadruple bypass.”
I could hear the pinch in his voice, that curly high reach that settles in the throat when someone is trying to stop themselves from crying. Cam was crunched up on the end of the bed, and I sat down next to him, curling my arm over his shoulders. His skin was hot, still flushed with sex, but I pressed my fingers into his hair, swishing at the back of his skull. I kissed his throat, just under the jut of his jaw, then slipped around behind him and kneaded at his shoulders. Sometimes, games aren’t necessary for declaring a winner.
Cam’s parents still lived in their empty-nest nearby; getting to their house took less time on the road than it took for us to get dressed. At her request, we met his mother there rather than at the hospital, where his dad had already been wheeled into surgery. We arrived at nearly one in the morning, bundled in cable-knit sweaters and earmuffs, and Cam nearly wiped out on the driveway, sliding along a patch of black ice the size of a cauldron. His mother was sitting at the kitchen table, an untouched glass of wine and a mess of paperwork in front of her.
“Insurance,” she said by way of greeting. “I swear to god this country is fucked.”
I couldn’t help but smile. Cam demanded his mother step away from the table. She leaned back in her chair and accepted each of our hugs sitting down, and we slid in across from her, Cam mussing her piles and telling her that these technicalities could wait.
“Please,” she said, trying to reorient what he’d scrambled up. “If your father doesn’t think every duck is in a row when he comes out of anesthesia, he’ll just have another heart attack no matter how well they clean out his gutters while he’s konked.” She straightened one stack. “How are you boys doing? Sorry for the late-night call.”
“We’re fine,” I said. “How’s Phil?”
“Like I said, we’ll know more once the doctors open him up.” She giggled, and I wondered if the glass of wine before her was the first she’d poured. “Sorry. I’m just imagining your father getting unzipped and pew! All his insides come shooting out like a piñata.”
Cam smiled, but I could see the tears forming. I reached under the table and squeezed his leg. The only other person he let himself cry around besides me was his mother, who usually opted to ignore his shows of tenderness. She reached for her wine glass, finally, and took a long, three-gulp sip, leaving it nearly empty. When she set it down she stared at it, her whole body swaying just so, as though she was crossing the ocean in a bouncy dinghy.
“I appreciate you boys coming, even though there’s not much you can do.”
“We thought you shouldn’t be alone,” I said. Cam’s sister was due to fly in at the end of the week, the earliest she could take time off work.
Cam’s mom waved away my concern like a pesky swarm of gnats. “I’m not alone. I’ve got vino and paperwork. What could possibly go wrong?”
We sat in silence while Cam’s mother hummed and looked through more tri-folded sheets of thick, embossed paper. Periodically she frowned, or nodded, or shook her head, or took another—this time much tinier and daintier—sip of wine. Sometimes a piece of paper earned a spot on a stack off to the side. Cam and I watched her, he with a narrow, tight diligence, while I tried to surreptitiously look around to make sure I didn’t see Phil Riggs suddenly pop up slouched on the ottoman in the living room or leaned up against the dishwasher.
Cam’s mother poured herself another glass of wine, offering both of us a helping of the bottle. We declined. Halfway through her drink, she sighed and rubbed her eyes. Her fingers were unpainted, chipped at the distal edges.
We slept in Cam’s childhood bedroom, which was still adorned with a bevy of trophies from kiddie basketball. They stared down at us, gloomy and faceless, their burnished surfaces gleaming in the moonlight that dipped in through the window. We groped at each other with a desperate need; I could feel Cam’s worry in every touch and kiss; his body’s pressure was heavy and leaden, as if his sorrow and concern had turned every muscle fiber into a strand of poured, hardening metal. The bed squeaked underneath us, but Cam didn’t care; his mother was out, already sawing snores when we dumped her in her bed, where she had immediately rolled toward the center, arms outstretched into the empty space where her husband belonged.
“Okay,” Cam said when we were done. “Umm, Alison Markle.”
“Oh, that’s a good one.” She had worked on the high school newspaper and written a nearly-erotic profile of Cam when he received his scholarship to Miami, a thinly-veiled love letter imploring him to hook up with her. “I’ve got nothing.”
As I shuffled to climb on his back, Cam pressed a hand to my chest. “It’s okay, Allen. Not tonight.”
“Since when do you not accept the fruits of your victorious labor?”
“Since my dad’s in the hospital getting carved open.”
I said nothing, instead falling back to the sheets and pulling Cam close. He buried his head in my neck and I felt his warm, doughy breath on my throat, soon joined by the silent roll of his tears.
We left for the hospital at ten, Cam’s mother’s eyes glassy and puffed. But her voice was rich and lively, as though we were headed to a holiday party where she could slosh herself on eggnog and make the other married men feel weird when she stalked the mistletoe, as I’d seen her do more than once while her husband looked on, taking delight in his friends’ deer-like fear. She’d gobbled me up in her arms once and kissed me on the cheek, laughing, her rummy breath pungent with star anise as she said she just couldn’t bring herself to really plant one on her son’s beloved.
Cam drove, hovering at the speed limit, while his mother sat in the passenger seat next to him. I rode behind her but kept my eyes on Cam. He was a careful driver, eyes always alert; he glanced in the rearview mirror so many times I took a furtive look back, wondering if we were being followed by a police car. He signaled every turn, clicking on the blinker well in advance, and he slowed for yellow lights even if he had plenty of time to make it through them. His mother didn’t seem to mind his lack of urgency; in fact, as we waited at one long red light, she started humming a show tune whose name was on the tip of my tongue, her hands beating out a soft rhythm on the leather of her purse.
We dropped her at the entrance and went swerving into the tiny intensive care parking lot. Cam cruised the aisles twice before a gargantuan SUV’s reverse lights twitched on; by the time we went inside, we were probably ten minutes behind Cam’s mother.
My parents, at the end of Emmy’s life, spent almost all of their waking hours in the very one where Cam’s father was laid up, and I always felt the lead of guilt if I didn’t go with them. When I would be left alone in our house I would hear all the little noises that homes give off—humming refrigerator, chuffing furnace, settling, moany floorboards and joists—and imagine that they were all groaning at me, embarrassed by my refusal to be at my sister’s bedside. So I went, my nostrils filled with the antiseptic smell of the hallways, ears blasted by heart monitors and defibrillators. The children’s ward was the worst place to be, full of bald, hollow-eyed pre-teens who looked like they hadn’t slept in months. The rooms were all decorated in bright, cheerful colors, the floors and shelves that would otherwise be steel and bare filled with toys and video games and books, anything to distract visitors and patients from the fact that people were dying way before they were supposed to.
Until Emmy died, I only saw the living at hospitals. But then afterward, on the three occasions I’d be to one (first: when I fell out of my bed in my dorm room during a particularly violent nightmare and broke my ankle; second: when my father went in for a biopsy thanks to a strange—and fortunately benign—growth he felt beneath the skin of his armpit; third: when Cam came down with scarlet fever only days after we moved in together), the dead popped up like little flashing ghosts. I knew when someone crashed and didn’t come back up; I knew when a cancer patient finally succumbed or a DNR in the gerontological ward slipped away, because they would pop up wherever I was, looking peaceful and prepared, offering me, the only one who could see them besides Cam, a departing wave, like they were on the bow of a ship headed out to sea.
Phil Riggs was in recovery, awake but groggy and unable to sit up or talk due to the fresh sutures on his chest, which were covered in a stack of thick gauze that made him look like an unfinished mummy. Cannulas and IVs swam in and out of his hospital gown, which bowed over him like a glittery shawl. The machinery surrounding his bed purred and bleeped and belched. I felt queasy.
Cam and his mother perched on either side of his bed, blinking at him. Phil tried to speak but all that came out was garbage noise, and Cam’s mother shushed him.
“We don’t need you to say anything.”
When my sister died, my mother wasn’t in the room in the final moments. I was, along with my older sister Mel and my father. Mel and I had backed ourselves into the corner furthest from Emmy’s bed, as if we could burrow into the wall if we pressed our shoulders hard enough. Dad had shielded us from watching our younger sister’s final breath, but we could hear the flat blare of her heart monitor. There was no dashing rush, no clamor of noise like on Grey’s Anatomy or ER when someone’s heart stops. A cavalry of nurses didn’t come screeching into the room with a crash cart. No sweaty, suave doctor came sprinting.
We didn’t stay with Phil long, but I saw at least two dead people glimmer into existence, one in the visitor’s chair next to me, the second right behind Cam. The first was a curly old woman, her back so humped that it looked like her head was trying to emerge from her spinal column. The second was more youthful, a man in his late twenties, with shimmering, shellacked hair. He peered from Cam to me and back before sparking into nothing. The room swam with their departure. Cam’s parents were none the wiser, and Cam only seemed to recognize what was happening at the last moment, when he turned toward me and saw the swirly, nauseous space behind him. He frowned in my direction and I shrugged just so. We were, after all, in the hospital.
Death didn’t take Cam’s father. He was out of it for two days—not entirely unusual, his doctor said; some patients suffered lingering lethargy from the anesthetic and pain meds bashing at their insides—but he slowly emerged from the carapace of his cut-up body, the gregarious smile crowning his face once again. Cam’s dad was an insurance salesman who had somehow made what I’d always thought of as a dregs-of-the-sales-world job into something lucrative; their house was all expensive crown molding and flashy electronics and steel appliances. He was capable of charming the most curmudgeonly prospective clients. His laughter sounded like Santa Claus offering up good tidings at Christmas. When he was released from the hospital into the care of Cam’s mom, who was burdened with a list of doctor’s orders about as thick as a Dickens novel in one hand and a sack full of prescription medications in the other, he waved at the nurses and doctors while Cam wheeled him to the elevator bay like he was a beauty queen leading a parade.
“Well, that was a horrible week,” Cam said when we finally crashed into our house. He flopped on the living room sofa, thrusting an arm over his face. We spent several days at his parents’, until his sister arrived; Cam used a hearty swath of his accrued sick time, begging off a slough of away games right before the end of the regular season. We’d spent the time plucking through his house on tip-toe, as though we were wandering through a museum.
That night, after Cam won a game of Forgotten Folk by bringing up a member of our high school marching band who showed up to the Homecoming parade drunk and sprayed his fellow trumpet players with vomit when he lost his cookies during the school fight song, we were interrupted by the sudden appearance of Todd Hummel, our aging neighbor on the right. He sat where Mrs. Gettemeyer had appeared, on the edge of the wingback chair. Cam didn’t see, his face smashed into a pillow—I’m pretty sure he’d fallen asleep—so it was only me who gave him a wave goodbye. He smiled, revealing a toothless, gummy mouth, and then vanished off to wherever he and the rest of our ghosts went.
I thought sometimes about what it would be like to see Cam go. Somehow, I’d become convinced I would outlast him despite his better overall physical fitness, his smarter eating habits, his better family history—Phil’s bypass excepted—when it came to heart disease, cholesterol, and high blood pressure. I tried to imagine where he would show up, what he would look like as a dilapidated old man, still kind and glowing even if he was weathered and bent. And, of course, what I would say to him in that dazzling last moment.
But whatever forces run the world had other plans. I was only thirty-six when I started suffering explosive migraines like ice picks were being buried in my skull above my right eye. Other symptoms came: flashes of horrible light. Nausea. Memory problems. I was hit with, most terrifying of all, periods of aphasia, words clinging to my skull but refusing to come out of my mouth. When my doctor came into the exam room with the results of my battery of tests—blood, lymph, spinal tap, CAT scan, MRI—I could see the words in his mouth before he opened his lips.
The tumor was malignant, and I dripped and drizzled away in a haze of pain medicine. Exploratory surgery confirmed that it was too huge and gangly, reaching out into the folds and gyri that made me who I was, for extraction to be an option. I spent hours tilting through nausea following intense chemotherapy and radiation. Cam bought me marijuana from a kid some of his basketball players knew at SLU, which took some of the edge off and gave me something of an appetite; I could stomach wheat toast with a small pat of butter. Cam leapt to the toaster the minute I had it in me to eat.
I didn’t see another dead person after my diagnosis. All of our parents were still around, even Phil Riggs, who had lost a ton of weight when he switched his diet to kale smoothies and vegan burgers that he glumly blinked at as he cooked them on his five burner grill, pretending they were his favorite sirloins and baby back ribs. Everyone walked around me on tip-toes, pretending to ignore that my hair was falling out, my eyes were sunken, my back curved with atrophy. I tried to make jokes about my exhaustion and decay; I couldn’t even sit at my computer long enough to type up a paragraph, so I laid on the couch and dictated to Cam, but only for an hour at a time because he would start crying.
We still played Forgotten Folk, though sex was no longer on the table; my bevy of medications came with horrific side effects, including erectile dysfunction. Cam still kissed my now-sunken chest from time to time, his lips silky like rose petals, but he would cry as he held onto me at night. I lost my sense of memory. I know I repeated names, but he never said a word. He always let me win, though he could hardly give me back massages because the lightest touch would hurt, and I couldn’t lie on my stomach without feeling like I was about to vomit.
“What about Jolly Farberger?” I said once. Jolly had been my best friend in high school, a football star smacked down by an ACL tear when he went to Michigan.
“You may be sick,” Cam said, “but you know neither of us has forgotten Jolly Farberger.”
I was in the hospital. Cam visited every day, even though I told him he didn’t need to. I could feel it coming, the end: I could hardly see straight anymore, and the word palliative had slipped out of more than one nurse and doctor’s lips within my hearing range. I barely ate. I lived in a bubbly haze from the morphine drip sluicing into my veins. Sometimes, I thought I could see the dead again, bodies showing up in blurry flashes at the end of my bed, but that was usually just a night nurse or one of my parents or Cam, watching me and, in the latter case, trying and failing not to cry.
Cam was in the bathroom when my final moments came; I could hear his urine hitting the sharp inner curve of the wide, squat toilet with its grab bar. I didn’t call out for him or groan. A corkscrew feeling jammed into my navel, and my throat closed. If there was any pain, I didn’t feel it.
I did manage to wait, to perch on the edge of the bed, feeling amorphous like loosed water, and it took every last bit of my will not to dissipate like mist before Cam finished washing his hands. When he stepped out of the bathroom he saw me, and while I wanted to say goodbye, all I could do was wave. He cried out and tried to rush to me, but in a heated flash I vanished, gathered into a bright, demanding warmth before everything blinkered out. I was calmed and comforted, though, knowing that as long as Cam was around, I would not be forgotten.
Joe Baumann possesses a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he served as the editor-in-chief of Rougarou: an Online Literary Journal and the Southwestern Review. He is the author of Ivory Children: Flash Fictions, and my work has appeared in Electric Literature, Electric Spec, On Spec, Barrelhouse, Eleven Eleven, Zone 3, ellipsis…, and many others. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at St. Charles Community College in St. Charles, Missouri, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Gateway Review: A Journal of Magical Realism.