“Who would have ever thought performing oral sex on a woman could kill you?”
Age had not caused Roger Tucci to lose his Mediterranean good looks. If anything, maturity had made him even more handsome. He still had his dark skin and, even in his mid-60s, only flecks of grey in his naturally dark hair and moustache. Men half his age wished they had his muscular physique. Women of all ages just wanted him and he had always been glad to accommodate them.
“Human papillomavirus. HPV,” he read from the wall chart in the doctor’s office. It smells like a doctor’s office, he thought. If he been brought in blind-folded, the smell would have made him think he was in a doctor’s office.
Dr. Takahashi gave Roger a few seconds to collect himself before continuing.
“An HPV infection that doesn’t go away can cause cancer in the back of the throat, including the soft palate, base of the tongue and tonsils. The technical name is oropharyngeal cancer. ‘Throat cancer’ is a general term that covers a couple of other kinds of cancer, but it’s good enough.”
Roger had turned and was now looking out the office window, thinking about how lovely the blue sky was. “Is there any way to figure out when I got it?” He had been very calm as the doctor broke the news to him and he wasn’t going to get excited now.
“By ‘when’ I’m assuming you mean whom did you get it from. That depends on how many partners you’ve had. This kind of cancer develops very slowly and may not be diagnosed until years, or even decades, after a person initially gets infected with HPV. Seven years would be a fair estimate of how long you’ve had it, but it can be much less or much more. If you’ve had more than one partner over your lifetime it probably wouldn’t be possible to narrow it down. Even if you were to test every woman you’ve been with, they may have been infected then but are free now.”
“What’s the prognosis?” He could tell by the doctor’s demeanor what the answer was, but he asked anyway.
“HPV-caused cancer is different than other forms of throat cancer and the prognosis is typically very good. If we had caught it early this kind of cancer would have been easily treatable. Your cancer is advanced, though. The real problem is it has spread through metastasis and isn’t just in the throat anymore. It’s in your lungs as well. We could start a regimen of surgery and chemotherapy, but I’ll be honest – your chances are not good. That kind of treatment is likely to reduce your quality of life while increasing your lifespan only a short while. I’ve put together some literature for you to review.”
Tucci took the literature Takahashi was holding out and glanced at it.
“The fact you haven’t already booked me for surgery tells me everything I need to know. How much time are we talking about?”
“That’s hard to say. Six months, maybe less. You should get your affairs in order.”
Tucci nodded his understanding. The doctor was being more honest than he probably should be. He interpreted the doctor’s time estimate to be on the ‘maybe less’ side of things.
Roger was resigned to the situation. He had done his own research and had been pretty sure of the situation before he had first seen the doctor the week before. The problems had started with a sore throat some months earlier. Throat lozenges had helped and he hadn’t thought anything of it. Then he developed some ear pain and a chronic cough, but Dallas can be brutal for allergies and he had had problems with his allergies before. Again, he treated it with over-the-counter medication and hadn’t thought anything more about it. When his friends commented on the change in his voice and how he had been losing weight, Roger began to wonder. The throat lozenges weren’t helping as much and he had developed problems swallowing. To top it off, he always felt tired. He did some searches online for his symptoms and what he found made him call Dr. Takahashi at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center for an immediate appointment.
Takahashi had examined his throat before taking a tissue sample for a biopsy and ordering a CAT scan. He had been very noncommittal at the time but Roger had become successful by reading people, and the doctor’s body language was clear. He had known his fate long before the test results had come back – the results sitting now on Takahashi’s desk.
“What can you do for me?” he asked.
“I can prescribe some treatment that will help some. I can also give you some pain killers. The pain will get worse, but that will be later. Right now, it will be manageable. I can also prescribe medication to relieve the ear problems and help you swallow. We can up the dosage as the cancer progresses. Eventually, you’ll need to check into a hospital.”
Roger waited while the doctor filled out the script. When Takahashi handed it over, Roger shook his hand and said, “Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate your help.”
As he started to leave, he turned to the doctor and said, “In case you’re wondering, let me tell you, it was worth it. There’s nothing like making a woman scream in passion. What a great time!” And he left with a smile and low laugh.
As he made his way back to his office, he began a list of people he needed to call. His three children, his mother, a couple of business associates. He thought momentarily of calling his ex-wife, Kristen, and decided it wasn’t a good idea. They had been on very bad terms ever since she had decided she wouldn’t put up with his philandering anymore and had kicked him out of the house. He was afraid she would enjoy the news.
“Hey, Christmas is coming up,” he said to himself. “Maybe I’ll give her a present and tell her she’s the one who gave it to me. On the fifth day of Christmas my ex-wife gave to m,e h pe-ee-ee vee! She would love it.” Rationalizing his actions, he followed up with, “Of course, if there had been more screaming in passion and less plain old screaming things might have been different. I’ll let the kids break the news to her.”
But, there was one person in particular he needed to call – Patricia Kennealy.
In 1919, 31-year old Conrad Hilton traveled to Cisco, Texas to purchase a bank, but the deal fell through when the bank turned out to be too expensive. As Hilton was wondering what to do next, he became aware of the housing shortage due to all of the migrant workers attracted by the oil boom. Consequently, he purchased the 40-room Mobley Hotel and founded a business empire.
A town of about 4,000 in the middle of North Texas, Cisco is more reminiscent of the way things used to be in Texas rather than the way things are now in a twenty-first century city. Depending how you measured it, the drive from Dallas was either 130 miles, 2 hours or 50 years.
The heavy end-of-school traffic on Conrad Hilton Blvd had put her in a bad mood, and Patricia Kennealy silently cursed. The knowledge she had done it to herself didn’t help. She knew she needed to go to the grocery store but had failed to take care of her chores earlier while the kids were still in school. She could only deal with it and live with the fact she had no one else to blame. Fortunately, the weather that October afternoon was pleasant and she was able to drive with the windows down. Texas summers could be brutal at times and winters had periods of bone-chilling cold, but the rest of the year was near perfect. She thought of how this afternoon was a classic example with mild temperatures and clear, blue skies.
She turned her pick-up truck into the parking lot of Brookshires, the closest thing they had to a grocery store, and her phone rang just as she was parking. The screen said it was Roger Tucci calling.
“Roger, what a nice surprise,” she said as she answered.
Patricia Morrison’s childhood in Dallas had been simple and routine with nothing more than her flaming red hair to set her apart from anyone else. She attended Southern Methodist University after graduating high school, majoring in horticulture with the intention of working in greenhouses. Along the way, she met John Kennealy.
He saw her while walking down the sidewalk one day. A panhandler approached her and was rebuffed, but that wasn’t enough and he continued to follow her. Maybe it was her slim build and short height that made him think she was vulnerable, but when he continued to harangue her, he was caught off guard when she suddenly turned on him and berated him. She didn’t stop there. As the panhandler tried to get away, she chased him down the sidewalk, loudly hurling insults at him until he was able to escape. The crowd on the sidewalk cheered her. All John could think was how beautiful she was and decided he wanted to meet the red-headed fireball.
Taking the chance he was going to get his face ripped off, he approached and asked if he could walk with her. To his surprise she agreed. She liked his dark hair and rugged good looks. They passed his destination and he kept walking with her until she told him this was where she was going. He asked for her number and, on a whim, she gave it to him. She told him later his personality made her feel calmer. He understood. He was the anti-red-headed fireball and they made a good pair.
They got married three years later, right before graduation.
John was a hydrologist and got a job working in the Dallas office of the Texas Water Development Board after graduation. They were able to rent an apartment in Dallas’s artsy M Streets, a short distance from the TWDB office, and they moved in right after their graduation with the typical youthful illusion of starting an idyllic life.
John’s job began right away, but Patricia was still setting up their home before beginning her job and spent the day cleaning the apartment. The M Street area had very liberal standards and the warm May weather made her decide the idea of cleaning topless sounded refreshing, even when cleaning the balcony of their second-floor apartment, hidden behind a vine-covered trellis. That’s when she found out the door to the balcony locked automatically when it swung closed, leaving her stranded with no way to get in and no way to contact John.
After reviewing all of her options, she resolved herself to climbing down the trellis on the outside of the building. Once on the street, she had to decide what to do next. Not wanting to let their new landlord see her like this, she brushed her long red hair over her small exposed breasts in the hope no one would notice and set off like Lady Godiva to find a payphone at the nearby convenience store.
Things were going well until she reached Greenland Hills High School with some of the students sitting outside while on their lunch break. Once they noticed the topless woman walking down the street the word spread quickly and before she knew it she was entertaining a raucous audience of whistling and cat-calling teenagers.
Changing her plan, she fled down a side street with laughter and whistling chasing her from behind, and rang the doorbell of the first house she came to, using her hands to cover her bare breasts. A medium-height, dark-skinned, middle-aged man of uncommonly good looks answered the door. Taking one up and down look at Patricia, he said, “Well, young lady. I think we need to find you something to wear.”
She waited in the living room while he went to the bedroom and returned with a purple dress shirt, identical to one he was wearing, discreetly looking away while she put it on.
“Thank you so much. I got locked out of my apartment and was heading to the corner to call my husband on a payphone, but the kids at the high school started getting carried away.”
“Can you blame them? They were just having a little fun, that’s all. Listen, I’m having a late lunch with some friends in the garden out back. Use my phone there to call your husband and then come join us.”
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful...”
He interrupted her before she could finish. “I might remind you, those students are still out there and would probably love for you to make an encore.”
She hesitated and he took the opportunity to hold out his hand.
“I’m Roger, Roger Tucci.”
She took his hand and shook it.
“Patricia Kennealy. Pleased to meet you.”
Lunch turned into storytelling and she was still there with Roger and his friends when her husband arrived after work. She and John became regulars in Roger’s circle after that and they ended up becoming close. Roger, they learned, was a successful self-employed businessman who would build up a business before selling it for a handsome profit, simply to turn around and do it again. He would have been very wealthy except for the way he would burn through money with a lavish lifestyle, helping people out, and supporting various causes. Over the years, he made several offers to help Patricia and John, but they always turned him down. They spent time with him because they liked him – not because they liked his money.
The fly in the ointment was Roger’s wife, Kristen. She had been more than tolerant of his escapades with women but a woman could stand only so much and she viewed Patricia as another of Roger’s conquests. No amount of good behavior on Patricia’s part was ever able to convince Kristen that Patricia wasn’t sleeping with her husband. The irony was she was probably the only one of Roger’s female acquaintances who wasn’t. Kristen stayed with Roger for the sake of the children and the luxurious lifestyle he provided her. She would make the required appearances at parties and public functions and made the effort to present the face of a businessman’s happy wife. Kristen Tucci wasn’t the most pleasant of people, but no one could fault her for the effort she put into her role. When she split up with Roger she called Patricia and told her, “He’s all yours now. I’m done with him.” Patricia never heard from her again.
By that time, John and Patricia had moved to Cisco where John worked in the local hydrologic office. Life had been good to them and they raised a son and a daughter together.
Then, Roger told her he was dying.
“He wants me to be his power-of-attorney agent. That’s the proper term, I learned.”
She had broken the news to John after dinner when they were alone. She didn’t want to discuss the news in front of the children. They were in the kitchen, together cleaning up.
“Why you?” he asked as he handed her a clean plate to dry.
“He didn’t say, but I’m probably the only person he trusts. I may be the only woman he has ever known who never went to bed with him and we’re the only friends he has who aren’t holding a hand out for money. It has to narrow the list down.”
“I always suspected he wanted to go to bed with you.”
“Well you can quit suspecting because he did want to go to bed with me. Ever since I showed up at his front door with my tits hanging out.”
“I’m sure he thought he had won the Lotto. Did he ever make a pass?”
“No. He was always a perfect gentleman. He never did anything improper with me. I could tell, though. It was flattering. He’s such a good-looking guy. It was nice to have a man look at me like that every now and then.”
John was a little hurt. “You mean I don’t?”
“Oh, you sure do. That’s the difference between us and him and Kristen. We’re happy together. They never were.”
John let the water drain out of the sink before asking, “What are you going to tell him?”
“If you’re okay with it, I want to do it. He has always been a good friend to us. It will mean I’ll be tied up with things at times. You and the kids will have to pick up the slack.”
He thought about it and sighed as he answered. “You’re right. He’s a good friend and now he needs someone to help out. I’ll talk it over with Greg and Chelsea. We’ll be fine. Go take care of Roger.”
“I won’t have to do anything for a while. As long as he can make decisions for himself he won’t need me. I’m sure it won’t be too bad. I’m guessing he has everything in order.”
John gave her a skeptical look before answering. “Dear, this is Roger Tucci we’re talking about.”
She slumped down a little and admitted, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s going to be a mess.”
They were walking together in the garden, surrounded by walls that kept it private. It was a beautiful house and well maintained, but not ostentatious. It allowed her to live luxuriously, without the appearance of being overly wealthy or attracting attention. She was using clippers to trim the flowering plants as they went, with the young man hanging on her every word. He found her gravelly voice incredibly sexy and easy to listen to.
It was a warm, late spring afternoon and she was wearing a light sundress with nothing on underneath. When the sunlight was right, he could see her lithe body through the fabric and felt himself getting aroused by the sight. Pleased with the way he was pretending to not look at her, she brushed a strand of her sandy blonde hair out of her face and made sure to stand with the sunlight coming from behind her to give him the best view possible.
“Remember, every one of our actions affects all living things,” she told Roger. “When you do something - when you do anything - it starts a series of events that goes far beyond anything you can perceive or plan for. There are consequences for all of our actions.”
She was handing him cut flowers as they went.
“If we can’t know what happens, we can’t plan for it, so why bother worrying about it?” Roger asked. “Couldn’t you say taking path A is just as good as path B? If we don’t know the consequences, how can we take those consequences into account when making our decisions?”
“That’s the simple answer, but it’s wrong. A certain level of awareness must take place before we can truly communicate with what is all around us. Once we realize there are consequences, we can use that knowledge in our decision-making. But, an important thing to remember is we are not talking about only ourselves. This is true of all things. Maybe the animals don’t have the ability to see the consequences of their actions, but we can. I mean, we can see the consequences of their actions. For example, by careful observation and by paying attention, ancient medicine people learned from the animals which plants were edible and which were poisonous.”
Roger sucked at his finger where it had been pricked by a thorn on the roses he was carrying.
“I’m missing the point,” he told her.
“The actions of everyone around you will have consequences. By paying attention you can learn which actions are productive and which are poisonous. This not only can serve to make you better, but it will give you opportunities. By knowing actions will have consequences, you can be ready and you can profit in many ways.”
“I think I see what you’re trying to say.”
“The world is a tapestry and it is being continually woven by our actions. If you observe the actions of those around you with a clear eye, you can see the weave and then, comprehending the tapestry becomes easy. The leaves dropping into the stream may think they are free to choose their path, but the current of the water will take them in an irresistible direction. It’s the same thing with us. We are all in the stream of the community around us and the current of that community will work to sweep our decision-making in some particular direction. Put it all together and you can navigate the current instead of being swept by it.”
She handed him a bunch of yellow flowers with a bright, red center.
“These are Coreopsis. They can really brighten up a room,” she told him.
“The old saying knowledge is power is a true statement” she continued. “It all begins with the individual. You need to see people, which means more than just looking at them. Practice noticing details about people. Begin with some routine. When you meet someone, repeat their name to yourself and then say to yourself what color their hair is, what their clothes look like. Notice their posture and say it to yourself. ‘This is Bob. His hair is brown. He’s wearing a Beatles t-shirt. He’s standing with his weight on one leg.’ All of that means something. As you get better at it, you’ll be able to add to the list of things you see and you’ll learn to do it automatically.
“And, remember, everything is connected. By actually seeing someone, you’ll begin to understand them. You’ll understand their motives and their emotions. You’ll be able to figure out what their actions will be – not just now, but into the future. Their actions will affect everything around them - including you, if you’re involved with them. That will let you decide, is this someone you want to be involved with? How will their actions affect you? Will it be for the good, or will it be for the bad? Knowledge is power.”
“This sounds so mystical.”
“There is nothing mystical about it. All of these things I’m talking about have been studied. Body language is a well-established science. But, just like most of the sciences, people ignore it. It is all there for anyone to learn and use, but few people do. And, if you learn these ways, you can get people to give you almost anything you want. You can make business deals no one else can. And, you can get women to jump into your bed.”
“Is that how you got your money?”
“Yes. People are always communicating their needs. If you understand what they’re saying, you can give it to them. If you pay attention to people and see them, you’ll know what they’re thinking. Then, you can make deals with them. Give them what they want and they’ll react in kind. Every relationship needs a leader. If you don’t provide the leadership, they’ll assume the role themselves. When that happens, you lose the advantage and the other person may not act in a responsible manner.
“Someone taught me the arts, now I’m passing them on to you – and a few others. The thing to remember, though, is how you use your skills will define who you are. Some people use them for selfish purposes, and their personalities and lives reflect it. Others aren’t so greedy and they have much fuller lives. There is nothing wrong with profiting from your hard work, but it’s wrong to take advantage of others. Like I said, your actions always start a series of events. The consequences of your actions will typically reflect the spirit of what you do. Act badly and the consequences will be bad. Act with a good spirit and the consequences will benefit those around you and, ultimately, benefit you.”
She was trimming the lavender, smelling deeply of the flowers. He could peek down her blouse when she bent over and liked what he could see.
“Don’t these smell wonderful?” she asked as she put them on the pile he was holding.
He smelled them and nodded in agreement. “Again, this all sounds mystical.”
“The answer is still ‘no.’ Imagine you take advantage of people all the time. Who are you surrounded by? People who know you can’t be trusted and treat you that way. But, if you take care of people around you then the people around you will treat you accordingly. There’s nothing mystical about that. It is simply a case of reaping what you sow. So, Roger, what kind of person are you going to be?” She stopped and smiled at him, waiting for his answer.
“You surprised me that time. I can’t hide anything from you. You already know what kind of person I am, better than I know myself.”
She gave a quiet laugh. “Yes, I know. You wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t known from the beginning. It wasn’t an accident that you’re here. I just want you to think about it for yourself.”
Roger nodded, “I will. I promise.”
“I’m going to see to it you keep your word. Come on. That’s enough talking for today. Let’s put these in vases. Then, there’s a new position I want to show you in the bedroom before you need to go home. We don’t want your parents to wonder where you’ve been.”
The harsh sunlight belied the fact that it was late December. Patricia’s children, Greg and Chelsea, were on Christmas break and she liked to spend time with each of them individually. Yesterday, she had taken Chelsea out for an arts and crafts afternoon. Today, she decided to take Greg to Twin Lake, a small reservoir on the edge of town. They talked as they walked along the path, enjoying the cool, winter temperatures. The surface of the lake was calm and smooth and they could see the clouds reflected as if in a mirror.
“Mom, I heard you and Dad talking about a friend of yours. You said he’s dying and you are going to do some stuff for him. Does that mean you’ll be going away?”
Patricia was sorry he had heard, but glad he asked. “Yes, Roger Tucci. I’ll probably have to spend time away from you kids and your father when he dies. I hope it won’t be for a while, though.”
“Why do you have to go away when he’s the one that’s dying?”
“Because he asked me to take care of his business. There are things that need to be taken care of and I don’t know how much time I’ll have to spend on it. He’s made decisions about things and there’s no telling what will happen because of that.”
“I don’t understand, Mom.”
“Okay, let me put it this way. Look at the lake. The surface is all nice and smooth. Right?”
Patricia picked up a stone and threw it. It hit the water with a splash, sending ripples out in all directions.
“What about now?” she asked him.
“So, I changed the lake. Roger’s decisions are like those ripples. I don’t know where they’ll go, but I’ll have to deal with them.”
“But, in a little while the ripples will be gone and the lake will be smooth again. Why not just wait? Maybe things will go back to normal.”
They stopped and sat on a bench where they could look over the water.
“That’s right, the ripples will go away. But, the stone will still be in the lake. The lake will never be the same. And, those ripples will spread out over the lake. They will move things. They will cause a little bit of erosion. No matter what, the lake will never be the same again. Maybe the change will be big and unexpected. Maybe it will be small and expected. Either way, I did something to the lake and it will never be the same. That’s what my friend has done. He’s thrown stones out into the lake of life and no one knows what the ripples will do. It won’t be for a while, yet. Maybe a couple months. But, when that day comes, I’ll be the one who has to fix things.”
“Because he asked me to and I promised him I would.”
“Couldn’t the ripples have done something good?”
“Absolutely. In fact, good things don’t just happen on their own. Someone has to make them happen. Generally, all of our actions are never all good or all bad. They will have some good consequences and they will have some bad. That’s something we need to think about before we act. Just wonder, what will be the consequence of you and I spending this time together? Maybe if we had stayed in town we might have bought the winning lottery ticket. Or, maybe we would have both gotten hit by a car. We’ll never know because we made the decision to come out here instead. And, that’s the way of life.”
Greg was thinking about what she had told him and, slowly, the lake surface became smooth again.
“I think I understand. You’re saying your friend has done things and that has changed things for us.”
“That’s right. Those changes might be good, or they might be bad. It’s hard to say. But, we always have to think about it before we act.”
With that, she bent over and picked up a couple of rocks, handing one to her son.
“So, what do you want to do with it? If you throw it, it might cause good things and it might cause bad ones.”
Greg bounced the stone in his hand, weighing it, before he dropped it to the ground.
“I don’t want to decide.”
Patricia nodded. “And, that’s a decision, too,” she said as she threw her stone out as far as she could, making a big splash in the water. Sometimes, you just need to have faith.”
They stood up and she put her arm over his shoulder as, together, they walked away. Behind them, the ripples from her stone spread out over the lake.
Roger looked around his desk before going to the office door and asking his secretary, “Jana, have you seen the file with the conference account paperwork?”
Jana Genova came into his office with a bewildered look.
“What did you say?”
“I asked if you would get me the file on the conference account. Why? Is there a problem?”
“Fried eggs are blue and ride in train cars? Roger, what are you talking about?”
“What? Are you playing some kind of game?”
“Elephant trunks and rabbit ears? Roger, you’re not making any sense.”
“What do you mean I’m not making sense? I just want the paperwork file.”
“Okay, Roger. You’re scaring me,” she said as she took him by the arm and led him back to his desk. “Listen to me. I don’t think you know what you’re saying. Please! Sit down. I’m calling the doctor.”
She was just earnest enough to convince him to sit down.
“I’m fine. You don’t need to call the doctor,” he shouted after her.
What she heard was “Red rubber balls are good for badminton.”
Dr. Takahashi shined a small light into Roger’s eyes and quickly pulled it away, watching the reaction of Roger’s pupils.
“How do you feel, Roger?”
“I told you, I feel fine.”
“You told me you feel fine. Is that correct?”
“Yes! Why are you asking me a question like that?”
Dr. Takahashi sat back and put his pen light away.
“I wanted to make sure that what I heard was what you thought you were saying. Your secretary brought you in because you were speaking gibberish, but didn’t realize it.”
“You had a transient ischemic attack,” he continued. “A mini-stroke. It’s a temporary interruption of blood flow to the brain. The most common symptoms are weakness or numbness on one side of the body, slurred or garbled speech, impaired vision and dizziness. They normally last only a few minutes and don’t cause permanent disability, but they are a warning you may have a full-fledged stroke in the future. Your gibberish was a symptom. You thought you were saying one thing, but there was a disconnect in your brain and you were actually saying something else. From your point of view, what you were saying made perfect sense. To anyone else it sounded like random words.”
Roger was stunned by this development and Takahashi let him think for a few moments before asking, “Is this the first time? Have there been other instances?”
“Yes. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now, looking back, there have been some other events. My left arm went all tingly the other day and I could barely lift anything with it. It went away after a few minutes and I didn’t think anything more about it until now. There was also a time my vision was all screwy. Again, it only lasted a couple of minutes. I thought it might have been a side-effect of the medicine.”
The doctor nodded and looked at Roger’s charts.
“Your blood pressure is a little high, not real high, but it could stand to come down. I want to get you on some medication to treat it. It’s the best I can do, considering your situation. But, Roger, you need to understand either a mini-stroke or a full stroke can occur at any time without warning. You need to consider this whenever you do something. You might want to think about not driving anymore, for instance. Don’t climb anything tall, like a ladder.”
“Is this an indicator we’re entering the final stretch?”
“I don’t know. It certainly means the disease is progressing.”
Roger nodded his understanding. “You originally gave me maybe six months. It’s been more than four now. I got to spend one more Christmas with my children, so I’m thankful.”
Instead of returning to the office, Roger went home to think. He had put off dealing with things but the time had come to make some decisions. He poured himself a drink and sat in his favorite easy chair.
This was it. The end. Everyone knows the day is coming, but that’s an abstract we all learn to deal with. This was no vague ‘we all die’ moment.