9 of Spades: A Challenger at the Table

The walls in the bathroom were yellow; I didn’t choose that; my parents did, back when this was their house. The walls cast their color on the white counter-top, the linoleum, and the toilet water. It always needed flushing, just in case.


My pasty skin looked tan in this mirror, thanks to the walls, and I could never tell if normally I appeared sickly, pale, like I never left my computer – I rarely did except to earn my paycheck. Usually I didn’t check the mirror because it lied, but on this sweaty afternoon when my deodorant had evaporated but not my sweat so it clogged the air of the half-bath, I needed a lie.


How could I have a tattoo?


These black marks ran up my side, over the front and back of my ribs, and formed a point at the armpit. The base was at my hip. The craftsmanship was impressive, I’ll admit; each line was straight and done by a sure-hand. But tattoos hurt, right? A thousand tiny needles imprinting your poor choice on your skin till you turned to ash – that sounded painful. Not that I was a wimp. I used to do boxing! I wouldn’t cry even if I was bopped in the nose. Those were different times, happier ones, thinner ones.


Molly sped off. She probably thought I was crazy. Who could have a tattoo without knowing it? I hadn’t been drunk ever, or high, or drugged except when Dr. Scannura cut out my wisdom teeth and put me on Vicodin for a week as an apology for nicking my gums. But I had one, and didn’t know how, and Molly probably thought I was crazy. Actually, no, she didn’t think anything because she was upset. Tears dripped to her lap or the steering wheel and she’d plow through schoolchildren. She was thoughtless when upset. I hope she got home okay.


The doorbell chimed and echoed through the halls with enough force that a deaf man in the basement could feel the reverberations. Whenever someone rang it, I considered snipping the chords to my doorbell, but the reminders were too few as I never had company polite enough to ring it.


Maybe it was Maria, or perhaps Molly had returned and in the awkwardness of the situation, she had adopted manners unbefitting of a friend.


In hopes that it was either of the ladies, I answered the door without donning my shirt.


But it wasn’t either of the ladies.


It was an old man with a fishing cap in his hands, though the holes were still there the lures had been removed, and there was stubble on his otherwise smooth head. His jaw was strong, but trembled like the rest of him. Had he stopped by because he was in the midst of a minor seizure and needed an ambulance? His face was liver-spotted, as were his hands, arms, neck and anywhere else he had skin. Perhaps his ancient heart had them too. He was small as muscle atrophies with age and now, even greeting at Wal-Mart thinned the fat storage. His suit was old, about the same age in the life-cycle of clothes as he was in the human life-cycle; why hadn’t he just thrown out the ratty jacket? Too many parallels.


His eyes were clouded over with cataracts, yet he looked past the eclipse of his irises and stared dead in my eyes. “Hello!” he greeted me with a smile where his lips curled beneath – did he have teeth? He clasped his hands around mine, a hand-sandwich, then explained, “I heard from Maria about that terrible fall you had. Normal people don’t walk away from that without a few scratches. But it seems like you get a few scratches each day when you return home to your pup. Well let me look at you anyway.” He reached for my belly.


I closed my shirt. “Usually I know who people are before I let them feel my flab. You’re not pretty enough to be an exception. Maria sent you?”


“Oh yes, forgive me. With my age, I often forget what people do and do not know and so I forgot that we are not yet acquainted. I work at the university, over in pre-med, with all the boys and girls who dream of euthanizing me,” he cackled at the thought.  “Dr. Sable, MD. But please call me Lloyd. It’s been too long since I was in a hospital and rarely feel like a doctor. It’s a painful reminder of a previously life. Now let me check your sides. You might’ve bruised a rib.” He opened my shirt for me and felt the spade tattoo. He traced it with rough hands, getting an approximate measure on it. The hand he used also had a tattoo, but of a red diamond.


“Is that also a reminder of a previous mistake?”


“This? No, it’s recent, though I’ve sought it for years. I got it when my vision started going. I figured if I’d be blind, then it shouldn’t matter how gaudy it looks.” He finished scrutinizing my side with the spade, but didn’t check the other side. “It’s remarkable that you seem perfectly okay. But let me check your back.” He pulled from his leather bag a scalpel. “Don’t worry about this. I brought it for good measure, in case you had popped a lung. That’s common among falls.” He reached in again and pulled out his stethoscope. “This is really what I was looking for so don’t you fret.” He sat me on the stairs by the front door. He was a stair above me. “Breathe in for me.” He lifted my shirt and the cool metal ring chilled my back like a child torturing his friend with an ice cube down his shirt. “You’re definitely a young healthy man, despite your figure. Not everyone can take tumble like yours and not suffer a few discomforts.”


In my head I multiplied the negatives of his sentences and looked for a positive phrasing with the same meaning, but the situation was too uncomfortable to think properly.


“Once you get to my age, a fall will kill you. It killed a few of my friends, years back. But those deaths are easy. They’re quick and you don’t see much suffering. Even if they lie in agony on the landing, bleeding out, it’s quicker than cancer or AIDS or old age. My son passed within the last year – it was his time, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And my wife caught cancer nearly a decade ago. She made it past the expiration date doctors set for her, but not by much. Maybe that’s why all the gods left us. They couldn’t stomach the loneliness. If they get attached to a mortal, they blink, then they’re burying him. It’s hard enough doing it a few times, but for eternity? I’d leave too. With divine power, you’d think they’d grant us immortality too! But no, we’re fortunate to make it to 80; unfortunate to make it to 100. You got a thread coming from the seam. I’ll clip it for you.”


It pinched. “Ow!” I scowled at the rug by the front door. The flowers were covered by dirt.


“You’re not bleeding.” He slapped my back. “You’re perfectly healthy! Not a scratch. Call it a miracle or call it luck – it’s the truth.  But don’t think Maria was just babying you for worrying. She was babying you, but it means she cares. Enjoy your time with her.”


He packed up his bag and left, creeping down the steps. I offered him my arm but he waved it off. He held his back with every slow step. He trudged through the grass to an old Ford Bronco with one tire in the gutter. A man got out and opened the door for him – perhaps his grandson. They waved before backing into my driveway, then sputtered off.  


I watched from the doorway holding my shirt closed. When the smoke of exhaust dispersed into the air, I closed the door and sat in my favorite chair. My feet were up on a furry ottoman, the sweat drying in the air conditioning. It was finally time to relax. Then the doorbell rang. Perhaps the old man had forgotten his fishing hat.


I buttoned my shirt, but wished I hadn’t when I saw through the peephole that Maria had rung the bell. When I cracked the door, Pickles, my chocolate lab, pushed her way inside. “Can I let go?” Maria asked as the dog dragged her inside.


“Yeah.” Pickles’s tail thumped the door and her toenails scratched the hardwood. She plowed me over so I sat on the stairs so she could climb onto my lap and licked my face, tasting my lunch and sweat. “I missed you too. The doorbell is getting a real workout today. The doctor just left.” Pickles bolted through the house and found her Tigger, crusty from dried saliva. A seam was ripped on her favorite toy.


She chauffeured me over to the chair with her hand on my back and Pickles shoving Tigger into my butt. “Oh good! What did he say?”


I grabbed at Tigger but Pickles shook her head and the tags of her collar jingled while her ears slapped her head. She played keep-away with her toy, teasing me to try again, snorting through her nose and breathing through the sides of her mouth. “Stuff about gods and the stressors of getting old – everyone lucky enough to die but you, so on so on.”


Maria clapped her hands, but Pickles glanced over then ignored her. “I meant about you! Are you okay? Are you dying?”


“He said it was miracle or luck and he didn’t care which because I was unharmed.” I grabbed Pickles by her ears and growled at her. She growled back, bearing her teeth but a few were missing after they had gotten stuck in her tug-toy rope.


She got up to leave. “I suppose we should believe the doctor, but let me know if you need anything though. Just in case you have a few injuries tomorrow or something. Did you know you have a hole in your shirt? It looks like you stabbed it with scissors or something.”


“It must be where that crazy doctor stabbed me. I’m not bleeding am I? He was going for a thread when his trembling hands slipped and he nearly skinned me with a scalpel. I’m surprised I’m not bleeding. Hurt like a—well, whatever.” I opened the door for her and held Pickles by her collar. She choked herself trying to get out that door for an adventure around the neighborhood – she’d probably eat a squirrel, ruining her diet. “If I need to take a day, I’ll call you for soup and pain meds, but I should be fine so stop your worrying. And please, don’t send another crazy doctor.”


“I’d never do that without asking you first.”


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