AN EXCERPT FROM MISSISSIPPI SUNSET, A NOVEL IN PROGRESS
I like the way the new preacher sounds. The sound of his voice, I mean. He’s loud, old timey, calls a spade a spade. Not that I listen to what he preaches, but the sound of his voice gets me through the nights when I can’t sleep, pretty much every night now. The nights are easier to take in the gray light of the television, and the voice of the preacher drowns out the sound of my heart.
Some nights it’s the pain keeps me awake, a gnawing pain that won’t go away no matter how hard I grip the arm rests of the chair. I haven’t started using the prescriptions yet. I’m not going on their dope until I can’t stand it. I just hold on with both hands until I’m through the deep ruts and back on smooth gravel. But it’s not always the pain that won’t let me sleep. Some nights it just won’t come to me, no matter how tired I am. My legs start to hurt the minute I lay down and my mind rambles a hundred miles an hour. Nights like that it’s just as well to set in my den and wait it out.
Everything in the room is old, like me, and reminds me of Elizabeth, now more than thirty years passed. The pictures of our life stare back at me, still arranged the way she left them before the last trip to the hospital. The doilies she tatted to cover the furniture unravel in the night, and dust puffs off the chair when I ease myself down at the end of the day. Even in the daylight the room is dark from the paneling, cave dark, and at night the brown wood sucks up whatever light escapes the television.
My hands shake now when I tap out a line of tobacco into the paper. My tongue sticks to the paper as I try to wet it, and my fingers don’t work well enough to roll a proper cigarette any more. The paper tears before I can shape it and I end up dumping the makings into a fruit jar and start over. Sometimes I think it’s time to switch to pre-rolled cigarettes, but not at six dollars a pack.
The wolves’ howling got me out of bed tonight, not the pain, and now I can’t go back to sleep. That boy and his woman don’t go to bed at night like decent folks. They walk them wolves all over the country. Some nights they only go as far as the river. which ain’t so bad, because I know exactly where they are; some nights I can track them across the river and into the big clear-cut hills on the paper company land. Even on a good night, one with no pain and no memories running through my brain, I can’t sleep until I pen them wolves.
The first time they woke me tonight I wasn’t able to track them. I got up and drove my pastures, counting cattle. The moon was out full and it was easy to count. I even found the newborn calf I’d been waiting on, lying in the tall grass with its mother standing guard over it, but I couldn’t put my mind to ease not knowing where the wolves were. I parked and walked down to the river and up the trail to Matthew’s sand bar, and then on up the trail to the pen.
I’ve gotten to where I can walk that trail in the dark now. Most nights the animals keep to the cover, but I always know when they’re there. Tonight they were nervous, and I could sense movement in the deep shadows cast by the moon. Their pen reeks of piss, and I have to say the only good thing about a wolf is it keeps the coyotes away. No coyote is foolish enough to cross a wolf’s territory, even if the wolves do live in a cage. They lay their scent all over this valley in their nighttime rambles. Ever want to know what it smells like go down to the co-op and buy a bottle of fox urine they sell to fur trappers, buy a million of those vials and spread it over a acre of ground and then stand downwind. I’ve walked past women in Wal-Mart and seen them wrinkle their noses at the cow manure stuck to my gum boots, and when Matthew was a boy his friends at church used to make fun of him for smelling like cows, but those people never stood downwind of a wolf den before
Tonight I could tell the wolves were in their pen, even though I never saw them. It’s more of a feeling I get when I know they’re there, or maybe it’s the absence of sound. Usually when you walk through the woods at night you move in the absence of noise. The animals freeze up as you approach, but when you stand still for a while they get used to you and the noise will start up again. You can feel the sound close in around you like the patter of raindrops starting to fall. Tree frogs squawk and whippoorwills call. But when the wolves are in the pen it’s like the woods holds its breath, and you feel like everything in creation is waiting for you to go on and let them get on about their business.
But even penning the wolves wouldn’t let me sleep tonight. I kept thinking about Doctor Lyle. My lungs are eat up, he’d said. The cancer was probably spread throughout the lymphatic system. He tried to tiptoe around it, said medicine had come a long way in the past few years. What they knew about fighting cancer when Elizabeth died was like the dark ages. There were new drugs, new treatments. Aggressive treatments. He kept saying “aggressive treatments” over and over. The worst thing was to give up without a fight.
“I’ve seen aggressive treatments,” I told him. “Even if the cancer don’t kill you the medicine does. A man walks into the hospital with cancer, feeling fine, and once you start pumping that poison into him it just gives the cancer something to grab ahold of and start killing you.”
“It’s what we do,” Dr. Lyle said. “One day we’ll look back at this time and probably shudder at how we treat cancer. Like we look at medicine from the middle ages now. But we do have some success with your type of cancer. People do survive the treatment, even though it won’t be easy.”
“I didn’t ask for easy,” I said. “That’s the problem with people nowadays anyway. Want everything to be easy.”
“I just want you to have a chance,” Dr. Lyle said. “I know what’s going to happen if you don’t pursue the treatment.”
I nodded my head. Nothing he said surprised me. Cancer was a death sentence, no matter how they try to put it off, and I’d been preparing for that since he’d found the spot on my lungs three months ago.
“Anything else?” I asked. I was ready to get out of there, get some clothes on and get back to work. I felt like a naked baby bird fell out of the nest wearing that robe they make you put on.
The doctor looked through his chart like he’d written the answer down but couldn’t find it. He was stalling.
“You still feuding with your son about those wolves?” he finally asked.
“They’re still there.”
“Well, you might want to think about clearing the air.”
“While there’s time, you mean.”
“You never think about time much,” the doctor said, “until there’s not much left.”