A journey punctuated by stinks. Crossing a street in Jackson Heights in Queens mother and son drifted from open-sewer smell at one corner to the reek of piled garbage at the next. All manner of mechanized traffic on slush begrimed Roosevelt Avenue proceeded at a crawl, emitting cruel vapors, outpaced by foot traffic of varying colors costume and unwashedness, the aged staggered in their poverty, children in mingy coats over stained tee-shirts, noses running and fingers busy, all seemingly inured to the insults of garbage and standing water.
They had stepped off the curb when an orange van began its right turn and after it halted with a screech inches from them Jacob took his mother’s good arm and yanked her back.
“Let’s keep you alive,” he said magnanimously.
“Don’t wait for applause.”
After a moment she was eager to continue on. She wore a fine raincoat belted at the waist and a silk scarf low on the neck, bravely tinted prescription lenses too dark for her pallor. Her physical condition close to intolerable so that he regarded every opening between parked cars for a place from which to hail a cab.
A block later and they were in front of a flower shop and next to the shop was a door with four deadbolts and the address painted by an unsteady hand on the brick arch overhead.
“Don’t tell me this is the place,” she said.
“I can afford better than this.”
“This place is supposed to be good,” he said. “They have places in Brooklyn and Manhattan but let’s try this first.”
Two hours later they were done. They went out walking slowly again along Roosevelt Avenue. The temperature had risen a few degrees since they’d entered the macrobiotics institute, but they were both still cold.
“I can get us a cab,” he said.
“I’m all right. We’re not in a rush, are we?”
“We can still make the chemotherapy.”
She shook her head and looked away.
“Puddle,” he said, gently tugging her good arm.
“Don’t hurt me! I asked you to cancel the chemo. Tell me you didn’t cancel it. Why is it so hard to do what I ask?”
“I’m your advocate,” he said. “I’m here to support you.”
She was rubbing her bad arm. “The chemo’s doing more harm than the cancer.”
He was careful not to let her see his satisfied look. He was a hero, after all. Anyone must see that. He had come back to the unequivocal prognosis and resigned himself to see her to death’s door, but then decided to fight. They would fight the cancer together.
The light changed. He as the advocate shepherded her across the avenue, beneath the elevated contrafraternally, wary of other allegiances, families in baseball hats and lacy head coverings, the tongues and isolate smells of men and women in jumbled migration, trains overhead casting divisive shadows. The cross streets offered the upblock perspective of twin lines of bare trees, the offspring of ancient elms that had given this region its name, Elmhurst, lorded over by Germans one hundred years ago, ceded to Jews, divvied up in recent years between Latins, Koreans, and East Indians. A neighborhood of tongues and tastes and shifting boundaries. He could drive over here easily enough when he needed to get out of the house.
“Are you hungry?” he asked most diplomatically.
“How about those meat rolls from the Spanish bakeries? I’ve had them before.”
He was quiet.
“It’s against the diet, right? They said at that place they want me to eat vegetarian. That place you took me to. That dive.”
“Yes, it’s against the diet.”
“So you want me dead?”
“I want to see you better.”
“I thought you just wanted me dead.”
He pulled her gently around a delivery of boxes on the sidewalk. She did not protest.
“The diet is stupid,” she said.
“You’ve got to give it a try. And of course we’ll continue with the traditional treatments.”
“Only if you take them too,” she snapped. “I’d like to see your hair fall out. I’d like to see you retch for hours.”
They walked on. On the avenue narrow brick buildings featuring ground floor eateries with posted menus in Spanish, Korean, Hindu; they passed butcher shops, magazine and newspaper outlets, realtors. A fair number of signs in English were misspelled. In second story windows there signs with illustrations: the scales of justice, a sewing machine, an upraised hand with a single thick-lashed eye in the palm. He pointed to it.
She laughed. “When I was a girl we used to have a fortune teller on our street in Binghamton. Scared the hell out of me.”
“Not that I ever consulted her,” she went on.
“You didn’t want to know your future.”
“I sure as hell know it now.”
They were silent for the length of a block. At the next corner they passed a storefront above which hung a blue globe intersected by white lines; written on the window in red marker were abbreviated destinations, all in the Americas, and the current round trip fare. Across and on the opposite corner in a window was a storefront with a yellow globe and prices to Asia and the Middle East. The fares couldn’t be cheaper here, he thought. It wouldn’t hurt to keep that in mind. Though he had just got back and was committed to seeing her through this; he was committed to fighting. They would fight together. In the lower corner of the window were a poster of Mecca and a cracked Buddha behind it with sleeping tabby’s tail resting in its lap.
Some new stink enveloped them, and she cursed him for bringing her here. “That’s enough for me. Get us a cab, Jacob. A clean cab. I don’t care if it comes out of your inheritance.”
“I don’t either, Mom.”
“Well we know that isn’t true.”
He did not need a rejoinder, only to be strong for her. “What’s important to me is your comfort,” he said, and he braced for her laughter.
But she asked: “Who was driving that orange van? Friend of yours?”
She looked at him seriously. “Say it.”
“Just say it. Go ahead.”
“Say it. I’m not stupid, you know.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“That you’re frightened out of your mind.”
The walk upon which he stood was whatever, he was hearing whatever, he could smell the aroma or stink of whatever. Because he had gone somewhere else, and it was all ringing in his ears—his complete existence was a ringing sound in his ears. Then he returned.
“It’s okay if you’re scared,” she said.
At the curb the orange van had backed into a space with a fire hydrant. The passenger door swung open. Moments later a young woman wearing a parka over a sari and leggings appeared at the side door and slid it open and in climbed a boy and girl clutching balloons. One of the balloons got loose but the mother shut the door and got in the front. The tail lights flickered and the van returned to the traffic.
His mother walked on. He let her move the distance between them sufficiently before he continued on behind her.
Arthur Diamond received degrees from the University of Oregon and Queens College and has published twelve nonfiction books used as school texts. His stories have appeared in Ascent, Fiddleblack, The Gettysburg Review, Guernica, and other publications. He lives in Queens, New York.2