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Dream Quest One Second Writing Prize Winner -

 Summer 2017


J. F. Callahan

of San Diego, California - USA




by J. F. Callahan


Everyone goes on about courageous Benny, fighting cancer and living two years longer than the doctor projected. You call that living? Maybe it's courageous for him, but what about me? Where are my accolades? I'm the one who's been taking care of him all these dragging-on months.

This morning Benny suffered a coughing fit. Handkerchiefs saturated with blood and phlegm. I know it isn't communicable, but it still feels like I'm living with someone suffering from HIV.

Of course I'm the one who gets to clean up the mess. Pick up all those handkerchiefs and drop them into the old top-loading washer. An hour later, transfer them to the dryer. Discover I forgot to bang on the left rear of the washer lid, necessary to start the cycle. So BANG and back to Days of Our Lives. Next pass, load the dryer. At least no other tenant's jockstraps and other untouchables are still there. Fire up the tired appliance, which starts protesting like the load was tennis shoes, not handkerchiefs.

Nowhere in the apartment to escape the vibrating floorboards and maddening thump-thump-thump drumbeat of the dryer. Now I have a headache. Unloading the dryer doesn't help.

Leaving for work, I check on Benny. He lifts a withered arm--really bones with a thin overlay of once-tattooed, mottled skin--in farewell. Curse me for being the hypocrite I am, wishing this were truly farewell as I clamor down the stairs.

Wending my way through the shopping-cart domiciles of the homeless who populate this slum, I trudge resolutely past Andy's Tavern—where good-time Charlies like those of my drinking days drown their sorrows while I wallow in mine—to the incongruous MacDonald's on the corner. Maybe a Big Mac will cure what ails me and to hell with Benny. And to hell with my boss at Hooters, who won't give the hired help a discount.


Benny and I started out friends needing a place to stay. His copywriting job provided the money; I guess I offered charm. (I didn't have any money--I carried a major at CalArts paid for by my dad, along with a dole that couldn’t feed us both.)

I saw Benny at several AA meetings; his three year's sobriety looked impressive from my almost one. Plus he cleaned up nice. When he hit on me, it didn't matter that he violated AA's unwritten rules about flirting with newcomers--13th-stepping, we call it. I'm a gal with normal healthy needs. Screw my sponsor's interdiction, no relationships in the first year. Eleven months was enough.

We moved in together. All was platonic for about a month, then his libido and my willingness fused, his bedroom becoming the office and mine the playroom.


After a blissful six months, the cancer bomb dropped. Benny's insurance claimed a pre-existing condition, so he had to pay for everything. He missed too much time and got laid off. His financial reserves tanked, forcing us to move into this tenement. During brief periods of remission he free-lanced to bring in some income, enough to keep us going in this dump.

No money for recreation. Sometimes we would go to the park down the street; he liked to watch the children play because he would never have any. He tried to be self-reliant: insisting on going to the bathroom by himself; making coffee and lunch when I wasn't there; even conquering the three flights of stairs to the mailbox in the lobby, using the handrail to pull himself along on the way up. But you could see the pounds dropping off and his strength ebbing. Benny needed a caregiver and we couldn’t afford one, so I quit school over his protests—dad was happy not needing to pay the tuition— and went to work part-time as a Hooters waitress, flaunting my teats for tips.

Benny heard about Right to Die and wanted to end it. I cried and clung to him, begging him not to give up. My mistake? Maybe in hindsight, but what kind of person would I be? I'd rather live with the pain I'm experiencing—and the grief I'll have to endure later—than go through life thinking I killed him.

After work, I stopped at Krogers and used my tips to pick up the ingredients for his favorite pasta, Cajun Chicken. Breast drenched in Cajun spices, sautéed with vegetables, and served in a basil-cream sauce over linguine. I knew he would only nibble at the feast, but that wasn't the point. He'd made it clear I should never apologize. This constituted my amends.


So tired after six hours at Hooters, I almost dropped the potful of water before I started dinner. Perhaps the added stress of caring for Benny on top of being on my feet for my entire shift got to me. No breaks for part-timers. But I finished the dish. I loaded his acacia platter with iced green tea in a blue crystal glass and a Lenox silver place setting wrapped in a linen napkin. No napkin ring, though; he considered those too hoity-toity. Mint-chocolate ice cream awaited in the freezer.

I swept into the bedroom as gracefully as I could and set my offering on the hospital table tray. As I swung it into position over Benny I noticed he did not move, like he didn't sense I was there. Like he couldn't smell the aromas of Cajun spices--cayenne pepper, garlic, onions and oregano--now drenching the air. I used the test I'd seen in movies to discover the reason; his skin was cool, the carotid artery lifeless. He would hate me if I tried resuscitation. I plopped on the tattered wing chair where I spent so many hours and cried.

After a while I pulled the bedspread over Benny's face, tossed the pasta, and trudged to the midnight meeting at St. Paul's.



- 30 –


About the author:

I'm a retired 82-year-old technical writer hoping to transfer some of those skills to fiction. Except for a piece of flash fiction that appeared online in 101 Words, I'm unpublished.

~J. F. Callahan