DYING’S NOT SO BAD. AT LEAST I WON’T HAVE TO ANSWER the telephone.” Frazier Armstrong breathed deeply, which wasn’t easy, since the oxygen tube stuck down her throat had rubbed it raw. “Then again, I will never have to fill out the IRS long form, buy a county sticker for my car, be burdened with insurance payments that stretch into eternity, to say nothing of my business license and the damned money I pay to the county each year on my depreciating business machines. No more mortgage payments and no more vile temptation as the doors of Tiffany’s yawn at me like the very gates of Hell.” She burrowed ever deeper into the hospital bed. Porthault sheets brought from home made the bed more comfortable but every time she glanced at the saccharine wallpaper, a dusty rose with tiny little bouquets, she thought, “One of us has to go.”
Nestling should have made her feel better but it didn’t. What certainly made her feel better was the morphine solution dripping into her left arm. She laughed to herself: “I pay a business tax, an amusement tax, a head tax, a school tax, a poll tax, a gas tax, a light tax, a cigarette tax. I even pay tax on Tampax. I hate paying and paying and paying. All I do anymore is work and obsess about money, which is how I landed in here. Still”—she wistfully noticed the slanting rays of the afternoon sun through the Venetian blinds—“I wouldn’t mind living.”
Thirty-five was too young to die, especially for someone with as much energy as Frazier. At first the shortness of breath and tightness in her chest had irritated her but hadn’t bothered her. Stress. Well, stress and two packs of Muleskinners a day. Her assistant, Mandy Eisenhart, hounded her to go to the doctor but Frazier had better things to do with her time than plop her butt in Yancey Weems’s office. He was a nice enough doctor but too fond of needles.
Over the last year her breathing had deteriorated until she could hear an odd metallic rattle in her bronchial tubes. Billy Cicero, her best friend and rent-a-date, told her she had hairballs. He stopped laughing when she was rushed to the E.R. two nights ago. The pain in her chest hurt so much that each time she breathed, tears came to her eyes.
The admitting physician ordered a battery of tests. She heard the head nurse mumble something in the afternoon about “blood gases were obtained.
Being canny as well as highly intelligent, Frazier paid a young nurse to interpret the lab work currently reflected on her chart. She had bilateral inoperable carcinoma of the lungs which had spread to the chest walls and invaded her spine.
The only remaining test—which seemed a waste of her evaporating time—was a lung X-ray, but the X-ray equipment was under repair, causing a backup mess not only for the hospital patients but for those physicians sending patients to the hospital for the procedure.
Poor Billy, that corrupt choirboy, wept when Frazier told him what she had so recently learned about her condition. She’d known the handsome Billy since their cradle years. It was the only flash of genuine emotion she’d ever seen in him and his response provoked a fierce spasm of love on her part. If only things had been different for them. They weren’t exactly star-crossed lovers. Hard to be star-crossed with a man who enjoys snorting cocaine off erect black penises but still, what if things had been different?
No more “what ifs.” No more anything. Death, the long dirt sleep, promised peace.
Frazier sat bolt upright in the bed. She emphatically hated the idea of being locked in a casket. Cremation. That seemed more civilized and sanitary. Who wants to be a worm’s hamburger? Just yesterday she and her mother, Libby Armstrong, had battled until the tears flowed and the nurses had charged in like a remnant of some old Austrian regiment clothed in sparkling white. Libby just screamed and hollered about a Christian burial and Frazier screamed and hollered right back. “I don’t want to get stuck in the ground like hazardous waste!”
Libby’s luminous green eyes glowed. “Well, it’s certainly preferable to being fried—fried, I tell you, Mary Frazier Armstrong. Just crisp like chitlins. You’ll be reduced to ash like the tip of your Muleskinner cigarettes and how many times did I tell you not to smoke? No willpower, Mary Frazier, no willpower and here you are wasting away with lung cancer and I don’t know what to do. And your poor brother is just prostate with grief.”
“That’s what I said. He’s on the floor.”
“Carter’s on the floor because he’s dead drunk.”
“Don’t you talk that way about your brother. He has an affliction. The Irish blood, you know, from your father’s mother. Every one of them a victim to strong waters. Now our family—”
“Mother, I don’t care anymore. I don’t care where Carter’s alcoholism came from, he has to stop drinking.”
“You didn’t stop smoking.”
“And I’m about to expire, which I must say will be a relief because I won’t have to hear any of this shit anymore!”
“How dare you speak to me that way? I am still your mother.”
“Not for long!” Frazier shouted with jubilation. “You know what I think the family is, Momma? The family is the transmission belt of pathology. That’s what I think. You always take Carter’s part and Daddy always takes mine and who gives a flying fuck? I don’t. I’m dying. I’m checking out of Hotel Earth. Sayonara. Adios. Ciao. Toodle-oo, auf Wiedersehen, and bye. Roger, wilco, over and out, Mom.”
Libby shrieked, “You are hateful. You’ve got a mean streak in you, girl.”
As the grammar disintegrated, Frazier began to cough violently, her spittle flecked with blood. The nurse rushed in as her mother rushed out, tossing her worn Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church onto Frazier’s bed. Libby had tried to control Frazier’s life. Now she wanted to control her death.
Libby hadn’t returned and as Frazier recalled their “little outburst,” which was how Libby would describe the scene to her husband, an outburst she would chalk up to the morphine for “pain management,” this formerly, dutiful daughter hoped she wouldn’t see her mother again in this life. And if there was reincarnation she didn’t want to see her in any future lives either.
Copyright © 2009 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.