Jerry Mikorenda is a writer living in Northport, New York. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, The Boston Herald and various other magazines and blogs. His history profiles are included in the 2010 Encyclopedia of New York City. A recipient of a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, his short stories have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle andTurbula. He has a master's degree from Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School.
Emma Britson stopped crying just long enough to believe that maybe her husband was in on it from the get-go. He looked too grim behind the wheel of their Chevy Astro with his shoulders all hunkered up and his neck slung low like a vulture to betray any emotion other than his own disconfusionment. No question, Karl lived in the Grimatorium. Grim was him. He wore it as a shield even on those grey Saturday afternoons driving back from the Adult bookstore off Route 50 with three rented tapes stacked between them, knowing he was about to get laid. Yeah. Old stone face was perfect to pull this off.
She said nothing for a while, dabbing the creases around her eyes with remnants of a paper tissue strangled in her hands from eight exits back on the Interstate.
"Should we stop?" she finally asked, as they passed a sign for a rest stop.
"I suppooose," he replied, in that low-pitched foghorn of his.
"Bathroom-wise," she added, accidentally flipping the tissue on the floor with the rest. "There's no rest stop for thirty-eight miles."
"We can stop, let's stop."
"No, no need. Better to keep going."
"Coffee sounds good about now," he mumbled, veering onto the service road. "Want some?"
Emma watched her husband drop into the crowd like an upended log floating downriver toward the mill. She should've kept her mouth shut, she thought, trying to follow his movements through the large panes of glass. This is the perfect setup. He's probably in there making contact, getting advice from the crew, or giving one of those little side interviews they always show before commercials. Him with that Frankenstein gash jutting across his forehead trying to tell everyone how sensitive and caring he is. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that's exactly what was going on.
Emma was ready to burst out of the van blasting the whole lot of them, but she couldn't unsnap the seatbelt before the pain in her back made her quit. So she sat there sucking wind, imagining herself walking up to that hot shot host Dan Decker and pulling his black corduroy "You've Got Cancer" baseball cap down over his eyes while giving Karl a big on-camera shove in the chest. The glee from that thought made her hop off the cracked vinyl seat only to be restrained again.
After four seasons, "You've Got Cancer" was still their favorite TV show. Karl thought it educational because of all the helpful tips at the end of the program and Emma, Emma became a stat rat. She kept score of every contestant—which ones actually had cancer, which ones were let off the hook. Every time she guessed right, she marked it down in a pocket-size spiral notepad with a mahogany-like cover that made it look leathery and important. Out of the show's 107 contestants so far, she had 68 correct with the guessing-right part about the cancer.
The hardest one to figure out was last season's finale. Everyone thought it was the Bayonne butcher with melanoma. The week before his fiancée locked him naked in a tanning booth for sixteen hours. All the interviews with his doctors pointed that way. Karl and 72 percent of the viewers thought it was him too. But not Emma. She knew it wasn't the colonoscopy from Cleveland or the pancreas in Pittsburgh either. Whom was the show lying to this time with all its fancy hidden webcams?
Trailing around four healthy people and making them believe they're sick sounded cruel at first, but five years of free healthcare and a Winnebago for the spouses, significant others, or associated family members who accurately predicted the contestants' reactions was worth it. Plus, every player—win or lose—got to keep all the product placements used during their episodes.
"You could never guess right on me," mocked Emma, thumbing through her notepad on that sweaty May night waiting for the finale to start.
"Maybe I know you better than you think," Karl replied, throwing his huge bare feet next to hers on the ottoman. They looked all bumpy and gnarled like the withered roots of an oak. Emma hated feet. Especially the way hers looked like a pair from a porcelain doll next to his.
Thinking back, she knew this was the moment of her demise. Carefully freeing her coffee cup from the cardboard tray, she glanced up at those bloodhound eyes of his, wondering how he could do this to her. At the same time, she was utterly amazed he could pull it off. Him handle all those calls? Fill out the applications? Pass the screen test? No way! Yet here they were ten months later. She challenged the big galoot and this is the way he accepted—no pronouncements, theatrics, or fist pounding. Karl just did what he was going to do. Emma's father always said it's what made him sneaky good, even if he couldn't skate very well for a hockey player.
Emma chose not to say anything as life fluttered around them in the parking lot. Instead, she sipped her coffee in little half draws under her upper lip focusing her thoughts on remembering that May night clearly. One-by-one Decker and the cancer-cam crew burst in on the shocked contestants to give them a written reprieve from the show's medical team, followed by a retrospective on each family member's predictions at the beginning of the season.
"It's the cameraman," snapped Emma, slapping the notebook on her thigh. "It has to be."
Sure enough, Decker started talking about the staff interviews, annual physicals, and the waivers everyone on the show signs as a second hand-held zoomed in on the cameraman. This season was dedicated to his memory.
Karl rolled down the car window, using his thumb where the knob used to be. The drizzly afternoon air filled the silence as he watched a stray dog sniff and paw about the garbage bins. It slinked beside any family returning from the rest stop as if it belonged to them, only to be kicked away as the last door shut.
"They should just shoot those strays," mumbled Emma, her face going sour.
"Ruby used to do that," he said between sips of coffee.
"You know the Raiders' mascot."
"Don't remember any mangy mutt. Team was bad enough."
"Almost made the playoffs, twice," he added. "You used to play with Ruby."
Karl did this to her all the time. Pulled memories out of his back pocket like missing playing cards, expecting her to know where they belonged in the deck. The only things that stood out to her from that fall were being pregnant six months out of high school and worrying about walking across the ice alone. Three sons in three seasons before she was old enough to have a drink seemed punishment enough for agreeing to hold hands with a friend's cousin at the roller rink.
"What difference does it make now?" Emma asked. "This whole thing is asinine, really. What are we going to do? What are you going to say to them?"
"We don't have to say anything," moaned Karl, stunned by the question. "Let's just get there."
Reflexively, he started the car and began to drive away, pushing the pedal hard up the ramp past the weigh station. Back on the interstate, he realized he didn't top off his fluids or refill the five-gallon jug on the backseat with water. It was marked so every 100 miles he could add exactly one gallon of water and every 500 a quart of oil. Not to worry, Peter the raging son who gnarled at her breast was less than a gallon of water away. From there, Karl assured her, it was straight run to see Marian the warm son she nuzzled and sang to at night; and Anton the setting son who drifted away at age fourteen was just down the coast from there.
What Emma worried about most were the grandchildren she had not yet met. They must not learn anything about her condition. She didn't want them to remember her as Grandma Death. Selflessness always racks up tiebreaker points with the audience. Instead, she pictured herself filling their heads with silly family stories like the one about how each of their fathers was named after one of the Stastny brothers who played hockey with Grandpa Karl in Red Oak before jumping to the Nordiques.
Knowing those sneaky webcams were still running, she wanted to take the high road and talk lovingly about Karl. She'd tell her grandsons how the gash across his forehead came from the stick of Knuckles Gourdin and rained blood into Karl's eyes throughout a triple overtime win while reminding her granddaughters of his oafish charm. They were still too young hear to about how Karl carried her two miles through a blizzard after she twisted her ankle skating and then had to sleep together with her in a cabin until the storm blew through.
Emma yearned to teach the girls the Canadian anthem. She always felt it sounded so much more beautiful and passionate than the tinny plodding off-key Star Mangled Banner. God willing, all those things were hers to claim as memories someday, unlike those three ungrateful sons who denied her everything, never caring to call or listen. The sour sweet smell of warm antifreeze began to filter into the cab. Karl closed off the outside air, but the smell still lingered. Suddenly, a burst of steam spewed out the seams of the hood like a pressure cooker opening. Unable to see the road before them, Karl drifted lane to lane. Power steering gone, he gripped the rigor mortised wheel and turned it as hard as he could. Emma stomped her foot on an imaginary brake pedal.
"Stop the goddamn thing for Christ's sake!" she screeched, smashing her empty coffee cup on his head. They glided to a stop near the "Central Valley Exits—Next 10 miles" sign. Three semis roared passed in short order, rocking them with the rush of air in their wake. Karl opened the hood and backed away from the sizzling steam. The sound reminded Emma of Saturday morning Canadian bacon. Still buckled into the front seat, she rolled down the window halfway.
"Can you put the air on for me?" she asked as if it should've been done already.
"Air?" he snorted. "Not sure we even have an engine."
"No need to take it out on me," she snipped, motioning to leave.
Karl unsnapped her seatbelt and lowered Emma to the ground. She squirmed away from him like an animal that didn't want to be held and scurried over to a large boulder on the median.
"You ought to call Peter and tell him we'll be late for dinner," she said, pacing in a circle. "Yes, you. You call, I don't want to speak to anyone yet," she repeated, answering herself several times.
"When we get to town," said Karl tossing the words like a wrong tool back in the box.
"Of course, when we get to town," she mumbled, looking down the Interstate. "We don't own a cell phone. I'm not an idiot. Why do you always talk down to me?"
Busy searching for duct tape, Karl simply waved her off. He used a box cutter to repair the ragged edge of the hose and taped it to the radiator flange. He pushed the O clamp along the swollen hose like a wedding ring over a pregnant bride's finger before tightening it with his thumbnail. When his nail tore, he used a dime to fasten it down. This will hold until we get to a gas station, he thought. Once the engine cooled, it needed what little water they had left. Not wanting to spill a drop, Karl picked up a stray beer bottle from the grass and put three pebbles in it. He shook the bottle until the bottom fell off.
"See, a funnel," he said, placing it neck first into the radiator. Emma spied about, not paying any attention to him. She knew that the camera crew was somewhere out in the weeds using a telescopic high definition lens to capture all her facial quirks. She sat there with a blank stare trying to out Karl Karl, making long Easter Island faces.
"Are you okay," he grimaced, sucking the blood off his thumb.
"Always thinking about yourself," she added, agreeing with herself.
"You always manage to do this!" he said, spitting the remains of his nail on the grass.
"This what . . . what do I do?"
"Start arguments over nothing. I asked how you were, it's a simple question."
"Oh, no it's not. Don't think I don't know what you're up too. I know exactly what's going on."
"Damn it, Emma, nothing's going on," he said, slapping his open hand on the green road sign. "This whole trip's about you. You wanted to see your sons so I said to myself, okay let's see the sons."
"If you say so," she said, coldly looking skyward. The downturn at the ends of her mouth expressed her disbelief. Karl fought the urge to say something. All the years of accusations gushed by. Stupid stuff. She said he hid cereal boxes from her, gave away her favorite earrings to a neighbor, told her sons not to talk to her. The thought brought a smirk to his face. It was the patter of everyday things that eroded the trust between them until they both sagged together, unable to move under the weight of their own mistrust. Knowing if one fell, surely the other was next to follow. Long ago, he had accepted that she never believed a word he said.
Karl kept to the task at hand. It was twilight when he slammed the hood shut and a friendly driver stopped to give him directions into the next town. During the ensuing moments, Emma had wandered off again. He glanced across the median and saw her dark housecoat through a thicket of damp pines. As he approached, Karl realized that she was kneeling as if in chapel praying aloud, "deliver me from evil, deliver me from evil, deliver me . . ." she repeated again and again sounding like a scratched vinyl record. Karl reached into her coat pocket as he helped her to her feet.
"You're not taking your medicine," he said dryly.
"I don't want chemo. It's too late anyway. You know that."
"Take one; it will make the ride easier."
Emma plodded back to the car and dropped the pill on the ground when Karl opened his door. As he turned on the ignition, he handed Emma the map he had written on. There was a big Citgo station near a bowling alley off the first exit. He could replace the hose there and they'd be back on the road in no time.
Emergency blinkers on, they labored down the road at 35 mph, cursed by passing motorists. A light drizzle began to fall again as they rolled down the ramp at Exit 17. Before long, they hit bumper-to-bumper traffic. "It's a right at the second light," he said, not expecting a reply. Over the hill's crest, Karl saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser blocking their turn. The officer waved them to the left with his flashlight.
"How do we get to Citgo?" Emma asked breathlessly.
"Blocked off. We're flash mobbing City Hall," someone shouted.
"There's a Shell on Du—" she thought another said, waving them on.
"Dumont?" Karl yelled back as they drifted out of range.
From a distance, the rows of flashlights looked like Chinese lanterns to Emma. Inching closer to the city, they were greeted by crowds of young people rushing back toward the intersection they came from.
"Ask about that street," mouthed Emma, poking Karl in the ribs.
"Anyone know where Dumont is, looking for a Citgo?" he asked.
"Never heard of it," came a reply.
"There's a 24-hour place by the arena on Constitution," said a middle-aged woman leaning into Karl's window and pointing. "Go straight three miles, make that first left, you can't miss it."
The mass of people drained passed them, clear voices fading into whoops and yelps as the van picked up speed as it passed exits for Luggersville and Jesus Falls. They laughed simultaneously. It was the first time in years Karl remembered seeing his wife smile. He tried to imprint that snapshot on the back of his mind, but as they approached the bright lights of downtown, the image began to fade into an overexposed Polaroid. By the time he glanced at Emma again, the bitter frown lines that receded so quickly had etched themselves around her eyes and mouth as if dragging her down with invisible wires.
Karl shook his head and nodded toward Emma as he made a left onto Deuschane Street. He pushed forward, squeezing the van between double- and triple-parked cars. The engine light had been on since they left the crowd and now the entire dashboard turned red as if the van were having a seizure. Although he could see the service station in the distance, he had gone as far as he could and pulled over. The huge neon sign for the Catamount Center rose over them as low as a harvest moon. "Hockey Night in July 7:00 PM" it said in huge block letters.
Karl got out and checked his wallet; $200 was all they had left. Emma understood her moment had arrived—that inside the big building Decker was lurking and at just the right moment he was ready to blast across the globe that she was the only contestant to ever figure out everything from the start. He would show clips from all those hushed doctor's visits where she told each one of them that she had figured out they were part of the game. There was no pulling the wool over her eyes.
She watched Karl slam his door shut three times before the lock caught. He seemed more befuddled than usual. It would serve him right if he bet against her and lost all that money. Emma congratulated herself for not taking the meds; she didn't want to be woozy for any of tonight's festivities. Besides, they always swapped the real ones for fake when the winner isn't sick. Decker never put a real sickie under such a huge spotlight. She was starting to feel much better now, regretting that she had spent most the trip crying.
"So what made you do it, Karl?" she said, with a coy lift in her voice. "What made you turn against me?"
Karl stumbled as they cut across the arena toward the gas station. Emma's back still hurt, regardless of her potential un-cancerous state of mind, so they stopped at a planter to rest.
"I'm not against you, have never been," he said, placing his hand on her shoulder.
"Don't worry dear; I won't say anything on camera. It'll be our little secret," she said, sitting down.
"Camera?" he said, getting his bearings. "You think this is about that that cockamamie game show of yours? You're sick Emma, very sick."
"Of course I am, Karl. Anyone can see that, even my dreadful sons."
He turned and walked away, then suddenly pivoted toward her.
"We have no sons, Emma. There's no game show and I was never a hockey player," he shouted, thinking loudness might make a difference. "I shouldn't have gone along with your stories."
"You always forget, Karl—look at yourself, so modest."
"You mean this," he said, rushing back to her and putting her hand to his forehead. "This was from you, Emma. You hit me with an iron skillet four times because you thought a stranger was in the apartment!"
Karl was on his knees in front of his wife, looking up into her thick-rimmed glasses. They hung yoke-like across Emma's humped nose, forcing her to look out upon the world.
"There's something we need to talk about," he said, his voice starting to shake. Emma rocked up on her bowed legs, jowls quivering nervously like those of a rabbit.
"Mymymy notebook, where's my notebook?" she squawked, her chin disappearing into the folds in her throat.
"Just . . . forget the notebook for once," said Karl, leading her back to the planter.
"Emma, we can't do this," he said wiping his eyes. "There's no more healthcare and I lost my job three months ago on account of all the sick time I had to take for you. Do you remember that?" he asked, grabbing her hands. "I found this really nice place to take care of you, but we ain't gonna make it there on account of the car and . . . it costs money, Emma, real money."
"You're doing good," she whispered, with a wide grin breaking out across her face. "Keep it up."
"I need you to focus, Emma; can you do that?"
He looked into the folds of skin around her eyes. Underneath, he thought, they were still beautiful.
"This is all on me," he said. "I never appreciated you for what you were when you were here and now that you're not, I don't know what to do."
"I am here, Karl," she said, brushing his cheek. "All the answers are in my notebook, see. Everything will be okay."
"I wish I could've learned to love you better Emma," he said, taking an envelope from his jacket. "You at least deserved that."
He tore off the heading "Dear Administrator" from a note he had scripted before they left and read it over once more to make sure it still made sense. "My name is Emma, although sometimes Agnes works too, I have no family or home. Please find a place for me to live as I am well behaved, kind-hearted and enjoy games. I soil myself at times but clean up nicely. Have mercy on my soul."
He put all the cash they had with the letter in the envelope and pinned it to her coat. "There, you look fine," he said, "a winner if I ever saw one."
Karl gently kissed her forehead and slipped into the darkness as he yelled back that he was sending someone for her. How to look surprised after all this drama, she thought. Emma waited for his return until she heard the foghorn blasts and the crowd's roar.
"Goddamnit," she said shuffling toward the lights. "I'm not gonna miss everything sitting outside."
Hurriedly, she made her way into the rink through the unattended turnstiles. She scoured the seats for that Dan Decker, but he was nowhere to be seen. The Zamboni's elliptical orbits over the ice had a calming effect on her. She loved how the spinning lights on the hood queued to the organ music and pictures on the hanging scoreboard: 1-1 after the second period.
Emma stood by the player's entrance and stared though the thick Plexiglas at the microphone stand at center ice. It would be just like Karl to bet she wouldn't go out there. If she did, Decker would have to come out of hiding. Emma waddled onto the ice. The crowd started to whistle and rhythmically clap as her baby blue slippers slid like bald tires toward their destination.
Everything was so bright and light it whitewashed her brain. Each hoot and holler brought her closer to the mic until she stood breathing into it as heavily as a Saint Bernard. Behind her, she could see Decker's security team gathering at the gate. After a lifetime of waiting, Emma had so much she wanted to share with the world.
She took a deep breath, and suddenly remembering the most beautiful song she ever heard, let it fly.