Peggy’s hospice nurse answered the door and solemnly ushered Betty inside. She was a black woman with a tidy bun of braids bundled in the crook of her neck. Betty lingered a tad too long in the front entrance, clutching the cooler that held the box of chocolates. The house smelled toxic, like dirty metal burning.
“How’s she doing today?” Betty managed to say as her stomach churned.
“Not good, I’m afraid,” the nurse replied with the hint of a Caribbean accent. “She’s got company right now but she’s in a lot of pain.”
This was already too much for Betty. She removed the elegantly wrapped box of chocolates from the protective cooler. “Perhaps, I can leave these chocolates with you and I’ll come back another time –”
Betty looked at the woman, not sure what to say. Her reply suggested that time was of the essence if one wanted to see Peggy outside of a casket. With reluctance shading each step, Betty walked down the dim hallway and around the corner. The foul aroma grew more penetrating the closer she got to Peggy’s bedroom. Betty knew it all too well; Frank Sr. reeked of the same odor just days before he died. Reaching the doorway, she stopped in her tracks. There was an older gentleman around eighty years old on one side of Peggy’s bed. But the young man with his back to Betty, holding Peggy’s hand looked like…Betty clutched at her heart, fixated. Peggy was clearly out of it, tossing her head to the side and mumbling incoherencies. But Betty couldn’t take her eyes off the young man.
He gently rested Peggy’s hand against the comforter and turned. Betty stared at him. He was about five feet eight inches tall, with a chaotic swath of dark brown hair that hadn’t seen a comb in quite some time. His loose fitting t- shirt sported three large letters in black: G.y.o. His jeans hung dangerously low on his slender frame, giving her concern that the slightest tug would force them down around his ankles.
The young man quietly moved away from Peggy’s bed and stood next to Betty. Once there, she noted a peculiar scent that seemed to be attached to his clothing. It wasn’t awful but it wouldn’t fetch much at the cologne counter.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
Betty realized she must have stared far too long. “No. You just look like…” She peered down at her sweater. The cuff had obviously gotten caught on something and was beginning to unravel. This particular embarrassment had never happened before, and Betty blamed the regular wear and tear on this dreadful mishap. She quickly folded the cuff so as to conceal the unsightly damage.
He leaned forward and looked at her more intently. “Like what?”
Betty turned away. Yes, there was an eerie similarity but on closer inspection, his eyes were different and his lips were thinner. “Nothing. Never mind.”
He waited but Betty remained silent, staring straight ahead but avoiding Peggy with every ounce she could muster. “And you’re….who?” he asked with an unusually purposeful manner.
“Betty,” she said in a hushed tone, never looking at him. He checked out her dress. “Did you just come from church?”
“Church?” Now she turned. “No.”
“Oh. It’s just that you’re dressed kinda formal.”
Somehow she relaxed a bit. “Formal? This is not formal. I simply believe that it’s important to present oneself in a proper manner when one is visiting a sick friend.”
Peyton eyed her closer as if he were reading tea leaves. “Well, you may not dress formal but you sure do talk formal.” His voice was nowhere near as low-key as Betty’s. “And, to be dead honest, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. Aunt Peggy won’t know who you are, let alone what you got on. Seriously, dude, I’m not kidding.”
Any imagined sense of kinship she might have felt for this boy was lost at that moment. “Dude? Do I look a dude to you?”
Peyton looked confused. “No. I think you, like, misunderstood me. It’s just, like, a word. You know, like…‘hey.’”
“Can’t you throw another ‘like’ in that sentence. I don’t think you’ve exhausted the word enough.”
“Are you, like, a school teacher?”
This was growing tedious. “No, dude, like I’m not.” Peyton caught the sarcasm and let out a stifled laugh.
He looked at the elaborately wrapped box in Betty’s hand. “What’s that?”
“A box of chocolates.”
“Oh, yeah? Where from?”
Betty let out a tired breath. “Behind the preposition.” Peyton cogitated briefly. “Huh?”
“Never mind. I made them.”
“No shit? Are they any good?”
“What?” She turned to him, irritated and appalled. “Who in the hell raised you?”
“She did.” He pointed to Peggy. “My mother – her sister – wasn’t really invested in my emotional, physical or spiritual development.”
Betty colored with embarrassment. “Sorry. I didn’t know you were Peggy’s nephew.”
Peyton visibly pondered that statement. “So, it would make a difference if what I just told you wasn’t so?”
“Well, are you sorry because there’s suddenly a family connection here and I’m not just some ass-wipe hangin’ out, or are you sorry because you think that’s the ‘proper’ thing to say?”
She turned to Peyton, unable to fathom how the exchange degenerated to this level. “I can’t have this conversation with you right now.”
“Oh, dude, hang on! I know who you are! Yeah, my aunt talks about you a lot. You had that whoopty-whoop choco- late store that went belly up, right? And you got the big, fancy garden with all the prize winning shit in it.”
“All the prize winning shit? They’re called flowers, dear.”
“Dude, I didn’t mean any offense. ‘Shit’ is just an all-encompassing word that means a group of stuff. It’s like the word, dude. You can be a dude. I can be a dude. The dog can be a dude. It’s just a word.”
“Thank you for the clarification.”
Peyton leaned a little closer to Betty. “Hey, you wanna know something? I’m a gardener too, just like you.”
Betty smoothed the fabric on her dress and checked to see that the hem on the sleeve of her sweater was still turned under. “Oh, I seriously doubt that.”
“That I’m a gardener or that I’m as good as you?”
He waited, watching Betty observe his aunt who was still fighting to get comfortable. “So, are you gonna go sit
with her or just stare at her from this doorjamb?” Peyton waited but Betty remained reticent. He regarded her with more intensity. “Hey, I’m sorry. This is really hard for you, isn’t it? I can see that.”
“Oh, please, don’t be ridiculous. I just don’t want to… she looks preoccupied. I’d hoped the chocolates would lift her spirits.”
“As much as she loves your chocolates, she won’t eat them. She can’t hold anything down. Fuckin’ chemo.” Betty turned to him with admonishment. “Hey, it is fuckin’ chemo. It’s fuckin’ poison, too. You know, you don’t die of the cancer anymore. You die of their ‘cure.’ She can’t even connect to anybody. All she can do is just lay there and moan until it’s time for another happy dose of morphine. And then she’s out until she wakes up and the nightmare starts all over again.” He traced the lines in the carpet with his foot, obviously distressed. “It’s tough, you know? All I want to do is to be able to look into her eyes and have her recognize me, even for just a second, before she dies.”
Betty softened. “I understand. Truly I do.” She called up a phrase she’d used many times in the past few years. “Remember, Peyton, this too shall pass.”
He shook his head. “God, I hate that saying. Want to know why? I hear that from a lot of people who play the victim game. And when they whine, ‘this too shall pass,’ what I really hear is ‘this too shall pass so the next miserable event can move in to take its place.”
Betty felt indignation worm closer. “I didn’t mean it that way. I simply meant that this will pass.”
“And so will my Aunt Peggy. Sooner rather than later. I can handle her death, but I can’t handle her suffering. Hell, I offered to bring a vaporizer over here but Nurse Ratched isn’t cool with it.”
“A vaporizer? To help her breathe?”
“No. A vaporizer. To inhale some medical grade cannabis. It’s a million times cleaner than smoking a blunt.”
Betty’s soft stance and gentility ceased. She stiffened, moving a few inches away from Peyton. “Get away from me.”
“This conversation is over.” Her tone was succinct and unforgiving.