The irony of my life as an MD ending because it was believed I had killed someone, and my life as a bar owner growing because I actually had killed someone, is not lost on me. As both events in this small town engendered a great deal of publicity, in a lot of minds I am a killer. In some twice.
Meanwhile, I’m being killed by cancer. That’s definitely not public. I’ve told only one person. It’s all beyond irony. It is, as my friend Ronnie used to say about such things, ‘absurd as a fucking dicky bird.’
Eight years ago malpractice suit, diagnosis, divorce. All within twelve months. So, I liquidated everything and bought this little corner bar. Nine hundred square feet of poorly lit dark oak and the smell of stale beer. Yet people still call me ‘Doc.’ Go figure. I don’t give a shit if anyone comes in and few do. But quality over quantity.
Like Jacquie. She is definitely one of the more interesting persons who drop by. You could argue that everyone is interesting at some level, but I’ll tell you this—Not everybody who comes into this bar spins the craziest, most delightful of tales. Maybe she does it because she doesn’t want to talk about anything real. Maybe there’s something real in her telling them.
Tuesday night I was doing the books and was pleasantly surprised that I’d taken in enough for next month’s rent. Jacquie came in, straight from work, wearing a grey skirt of some soft fabric and a blouse that was also grey but darker. I waved and started mixing a weak Tom Collins.
Jacquie drinks because she’s thirsty and likes to visit. She doesn’t like being drunk. I think it’s because the few times she has, she’s started crying. I was comfortable with that, but she was really embarrassed.
I handed her the drink. She tossed back her mane of straight auburn hair and took a sip. Her hair is beautiful, but what’s most attractive is a face that loves to smile. You know the kind—cheeks that are round and eyes that squinch up. They’re hazel with gold flecks. One other thing. When she first came to my bar, she was Jack.
She took a sip and started with this. “Doc, the twenty-seven years I spent as a tree were probably the most difficult.”
I smiled, and she knew she got me with that one. She smiled back, and my night was made.
I delivered a pitcher of beer to four guys in matching bowling shirts at a table and went back behind the bar.
Jacquie just sipped her drink and tried to look nonchalant, like a conductor waiting for the train to pull out.
I climbed aboard. “A tree huh? What kind of tree?”
“I was a quaking aspen. Forty feet high. With a minimal sense of self.”
“So, what’s so hard about being a quaking aspen?”
She took another sip and frowned. “It was two things. First, I couldn’t move. Oh, I swayed, I bent, I even fluttered, but only if there was some air movement. Otherwise, I just stood. I was rooted in place. In the winter, leafless, I moved even less.”
She slid off her barstool and stepped back with her hands flat against her sides and stood stock still for a bit. “I’d like to say that after a year or two or ten I became accustomed to it. I never did. Maybe it was an aspen thing. All of us aspens groused about being non-ambulatory. The hickories never mentioned it.” She climbed back on her stool and took another sip and sat quietly waiting for me to ask the obvious, which I did.
“What was the other thing?”
“Location. I was right at the edge of an old cemetery. Not that I have a problem with death. Death is a door, Doc. But I couldn’t keep half of my roots from expanding into the area of transformation, if you get my drift. That’s not a door. That’s a container of last month’s tuna salad.”
I laughed, and she winked at me.
“My roots would creep into those boxes of rot and draw up liquified nutrients from who knows where. From who knows who. Or whom. One more please.” She slid her glass toward me.
I fixed her drink and got myself a coke with a wedge of lime. We were quiet together for a bit. Then I said, “Some days that door feels pretty damn near, Jacquie.”
She put her hand on mine and left it there. “I know, Doc. I don’t forget. Ever.”
Goddamn. I couldn’t say anything. I could hardly breathe. Her hand is on my hand but it was on my heart too, you know?
She delivered us from the discomfort of my reality and ushered us back into hers. “Yeah, being a tree I knew we’ve all be mold; we’ve all been one bacterium or another. But that doesn’t mean we enjoy cohabitating with those previous life forms once we’ve moved on. Not unless we’re some greaser named ‘John’ hanging around his old high school.And that’s just sad.”
“Or some guy named ‘Jack’?”
“You got it, Doc. Or some long-dead guy named ‘Jack.’”
I don’t know why. Maybe because last week my oncologist was a pessimist, maybe because it was Tuesday, maybe because Jacquie tells me those stories knowing I need the escape, but I asked her another question.
She looked at me for eighty-five poundings of my heart, as I watched her face go from puzzlement to surprise to calm. She didn’t smile. And again, I couldn’t find room in my chest to take a breath. Then she looked at me with those hazel eyes, nodded her head once and did smile.
Which meant I was left with one more question. Where am I going to find someone to marry a dying guy named Doc and a beautiful transitioned tree named Jacquie?
Don Niederfrank lives in Wisconsin, delights in the companionship of his wife, the wit of his friends, the forgiveness of his children, and the growth of his grandchildren.
His short story “A Number of Problems” was published in the May 2020 issue of Ariel Chart.