Originally, I wrote this short story for a 750-word writing prompt Writer’s Digest features in its magazines. The challenge is to write based on a person sitting in a taxi outside a house and relunctant about going in. I wrote two different stories for this prompt and decided to submit the other story. As I wrote this one, I decided it was too fascinating of a short piece to limit to 750 words. So, I added and came up with something that looks decent. You decide.
It’s Not Fair!
By Richard Zowie
The cab drive from the San Antonio International Airport to my parent’s house took about five quick minutes from the terminal to Broadway and then into a subdivision, but the time lagged on forever. As I rode, I succumbed to another violent coughing fit. Each cough felt like a heavyweight boxer salivating for and driving a crushing hook into my ribs.
“It’s not fair!” I sputtered when the coughing subsided. Pain muffles anger.
What isn’t fair? I left home at 18 to pursue a music career. I play a fiery electric guitar, both rhythm and lead, and I can sing: Eddie Van Halen meets Steven Tyler. For years I played in public events like night clubs and in talent shows in hopes of catching a break. Finally, I managed to save enough to record a demo of 12 of the 500 songs I’ve written. It took about two months of working 18-hour days, but it was worth it. And at 24, I had several record labels interested in signing me to a multi-million dollar contract. Forget about American Idol, one executive told me. You have talent! Besides, Simon Cowell wouldn’t know real musical talent from Milli Vanilli!
That was a few months ago, around the time I started to cough and feel exhausted all the time. Too much work not enough sleep, I thought, figuring the cure as sleep and lots of Nyquil. Neither worked, which made me nervous enough to visit the doctor. He was jovial, a man who seemed to love his work, but when he saw a strange white smudge on my chest x-ray, his wide smile vanished.
Off I went to an oncologist, Dr. Stark. I knew it meant “cancer doctor”, and as I sat in the office and waited to talk to him, I wondered how long I’d have to put off my music career. It’s a brutal business and this might be the only window of opportunity I’d ever get. How long would I have to sit out? Six months? A year? Two years?
Not even close.
Dr. Stark’s news couldn’t have been worse.
Lung cancer, advanced.
It also had spread into my pancreas.
Both were inoperable and terminal.
I had six months, maybe a year, to live. My promising music career was ending right as it was just starting to take off.
I didn’t want to tell my parents over the phone, so I called them to say I’d be stopping by and flew home to tell them in person. And as the plane landed and I waited outside the terminal for a taxi, I realized how much I really didn’t want to go to their house. Both Mom and Dad are heavy smokers, like a refinery working 24-7 in a desperate attempt to keep up with the demand for gasoline. Dad’s smoked four packs a day for 35 years while Mom’s smoked two a day.
I’ve never smoked, but yet I’m the one with lung cancer. Irony really sucks, doesn’t it?
Their smoking has always bothered me and made it difficult for me to breathe, but whenever I’d ask them to stop smoking, Dad would normally take a drag and tell me, “You want me to stop smoking in my house?”
“But I can’t breathe, Dad!” I’d say. “You and Mom’s cigarette smoke makes me sick!”
“Oh, bull,” he’d say dismissively, using a word that was the closest he ever gets to swearing. “It’s all in your head.”
Dad, of course, believes non-smokers have far too many rights and that he’s entitled to smoke wherever and whenever he wants. No smoke-free restaurants for us. He doesn’t even fly anymore since planes have banned smoking. Before they did, all three of us-against my protests-would sit in the smoking section. They would complain about how I’d spend most of my time in my room at home, avoiding watching TV with them since the air became too difficult to breathe. I’d even put towels under my bed to keep the smoke out.
Whenever we’d drive in the car, they’d get angry at me when I’d crack open the back window to get some fresh air. Don’t you know how much air conditioning that wastes, son? Dad would thunder at me. Finally, he or Mom would open their window a half inch, but it didn’t do much good.
I wonder what they’ll say now, knowing their only child will never be able to give them grandchildren? Will they just keep smoking? It angered me enough to make me wonder if I should just leave what money I’d earn from my album to the American Cancer Society.
“How much is the fare?” I asked the cabbie when we arrived.
I handed him a twenty and asked him to wait and got out of the cab.
Dad was outside in the driveway, washing his blue Toyota Tundra truck and spraying off the remaining soap. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. He looked at me, smiling, and I could tell he was in a good mood. “Hey, son, how are you doing?” he asked, his voice slightly muffled from the cigarette. The late-afternoon sun cast a fierce glare off his bald head.
We’ve always been a private family, one that handles our issues indoors. But this time, I had no desire to tell my parents the news in an environment that was killing me. I looked at the cigarette smoke and said to him: “Dad, I visited the doctor yesterday. You know that cough I’ve had?”
“Yes. What about it?”
“It’s lung cancer. Inoperable. Terminal. And it’s spread into my pancreas. I’ll be dead in about six months.”
He looked at me for the longest time, his face morphing from surprise, to shock, to disbelief and then to a sadness I’d never seen before. As I studied the wide, astonished look on his face, I felt sorry for him and found my anger towards him dissolve. “You’re joking, right? Please tell me you’re joking.” he finally asked.
I shook my head.
Dad’s lip quivered as he slowly took the cigarette out of his mouth, dropped it and slowly ground it out. It was amazing to think, considering the cigarette wasn’t even half-smoked. Dad had grown up in the Great Depression, and from his childhood he’d developed a lifelong discipline that you don’t waste anything. “H-h-how? You don’t even smoke!”
“Some of the clubs I played music in allowed smoking. You and Mom smoke. And we always had to eat in restaurants and go places where they allow smoking.”
Tears formed in his eyes and for the first time in my life, I saw my Dad cry. “We’re the ones who should have lung cancer, not you! This isn’t fair!”
“I know, Dad,” I said.
Dad continued weeping as Mom came outside. She held a lighter in her left hand and an unlit cigarette in her right. “What’s going on?” she asked.
And so I told her also.
I’d always hoped my parents would quit smoking before it was too late. They did quit, but it was still too late.
Copyright © 2009, Richard Zowie. All rights reserved. Do not republish without permission.