Fiction | ‘The Ballad of the Almost Cancer’ by Craig Loomis | Issue 36 (Nov, 2020)

My harbour days are full of a sameness that, secretly, I enjoy. Old women holding their grandchildren on their laps while the mothers and fathers swim, snorting, blowing bubbles like river horses. I listen as Grandma talks to a grandson of two, maybe three years old, as if he’s an adult. “And what are your plans for today? Shouldn’t be fearful of the water, you know. Learn to swim. Important, don’t you think?” And he, nodding a little too fast—more a bobbing than a nodding—says, “Yes, Gama,” as hand in hand, they move back into the shade, under an umbrella the size of a small car.

Meanwhile, a parade of eager tourists ambles by. The Germans and the English own the same body type, fleshy and red with a splash of tattoo here and there, the men shouldering strangely small backpacks, as if they are on a trek, a journey, and will most certainly need supplies.

Two Russians stop in front of my table to argue: red-faced, more tattoos, pointing to the sky, as if this particular argument is up. Mysteriously, it isn’t long before they both seem to run out of argument at the same time, their red draining away, moustaches quivering; they continue on their way, one that way, the other this way, while the one with the biggest tattoo tries one last time to make a point. I hear the word Crimea, a finger pointing straight up, but the other will have none of it, and shrugs, walking faster.

When he begins his screaming, his older sister takes his toy from him and walks off to stand in the shade under the palms. The punishment is simple enough and he crumbles to the ground, wailing. But this elder sister is a good one, and patiently she waits for him to right himself. Meanwhile he continues to squirm on the pavement, rolling in and out of the grass, red-faced, the noonday sun relentless. She waits in the shade with his toy. In the end, slowly, painfully, he loses the struggle, this clash of wills, and like some old man, rights himself piece by piece, one leg at a time, before making his way towards her, tear-lines streaking his cheeks, along with assorted snot. When he finally arrives at her place in the shade, she does three things: wipes his nose, gives him a drink of water, and picks him up. Immediately, as if this play acting is not as easy as it looks, he lays his head on her shoulder. And she smiles a smile that has nothing to do with victory.

Like always at the old harbour fort there are tourists who think nothing of spending five euros to walk around a square mud building that, in places, might have once been painted red, maybe orange. Men step out of the shade to offer their services as guides, to show them the hidden secrets of the fort. ‘Aphrodite slept here, her brother there. A roman general was assassinated there, and look,’ pointing at a hole in the wall, ‘a pirate’s cannon ball struck here. See that? See that?’

As I get ready to leave, the dark-haired woman, with cigarette and beer two tables over, turns to give me a look that says you aren’t as important as you think you are, which hurts my feelings, but never mind because I smile anyway, even though by now she is looking somewhere else, blowing cigarette smoke into the air.

In the beginning, when I didn’t know any better, I walked to the harbour and back every day. It took most of the morning and was exhausting, leaving me weak, sore-legged and unhealthy for days. However, they say that’s a good sign, sleeping muscles waking up, being used. Now, I walk to the harbour three times a week, and the vendors know me and no longer urge me to buy, to come closer to take a good look at their seashells and sponges, special all-day fishing trips. ‘How about a seat on a glass bottom boat?’ Now when they see me coming, they look the other way, at the newlyweds behind me. Although in the middle of the day, the outdoor cafes are too hot and windy and squirmy with cats, when the sun sets they are almost perfect, except for the cats. The cats have no problem clawing one another over scraps that the children throw down, thinking it is all good catty fun. At sunset the lanterns are turned on, big yellow globes necklacing the harbour rim. It is quite a sight, and families will come from miles around to see the twinkle of electricity. 

It all started in the hills above Paphos, in the village of Tala. The telephone I had inherited from Mrs. Agnes Collar, who, at 85, died of a stroke, doesn’t ring like other telephones; it sounds something like a tinny clatter, as if something isn’t quite right, or getting ready to be wrong. And when it does ring, the neighbor’s dog howls, and nearby crows swoop down to see what’s what. Its metallic chattering sets off an aching in my chest, a throbbing in my wrist.

The call is from Dr Khan’s assistant, who, I remember, as being strangely long and tall, who has perfectly square white teeth and clawy fingernails, whose purple lipstick leans off her lips. I secretly wondered why any doctor would have someone like that all dressed in blue working the front desk, saying things like ‘Good morning’ or ‘May I help you?’ or ‘Do you have an appointment?’ 

 “Hello, is this Mr. Courier? James Courier?”

“Yes, of course, but it’s John. Who is this. . . ? But wait, I know this voice.”

“Of course, John. Yes, you are in Cyprus now, is that right?”

“Yes, yes, but I know this voice. Who is this?”

When she tells me, I say, “Yes, that’s right,” and she thinks that’s funny and I can see her laughing in her long blue uniform. “Anyway, Dr Khan would like a word with you.”

That’s what she said ‘a word’. And I am almost certain I answered with a ‘Fine,’ or ‘Good’ or ‘Yes”, maybe even an “OK.’ However Dr Khan’s word turned out to be many, and it was not pleasant news. He had just gotten around to taking a look at my test results of three weeks ago and there appears to be something like a cancer with a small c. That’s what he said, “with a small c.” I could tell he’d practiced that with others, this, ‘with a small c,’ as he waited to see if I thought it might be funny, reassuring, comforting. When I answered, “Tell me more,” I could also tell that that wasn’t what others had said. And so he told me what it meant, and in the end I grew weary of hearing about my own body and wanted him to stop, but what I really said was, “I see.” Of course I didn’t but there is only so much a man can take at one sitting, with one long distance phone call, as I watched the big yellow cat walk across the patio, a cat that nobody seems to own, take credit for, but everybody feeds. After I say my good-byes, I immediately stretch out on the cool marble Cyprus floor and go to sleep—if not real sleep then something like it. When I wake, the room is still a warm yellow afternoon, and I have to remember why I am on the floor, and when I do I don’t believe it, thinking I must have dreamed Dr Khan’s words; some dreams are like that: more real than the stuff of dreams. I look at the telephone: harmless, the clock on the wall, the window and beyond, the summery saffron of Cyprus in June, and by now a cat-less patio. All I can think is: That was a close one. Even saying it out loud, “A close one, like, dodging bullets or a near car accident.”

Later, the sun now in the trees, a shadowy porch, I call Doctor Khan just to be sure, to double-check, but by now the time is all wrong, and I hear her dull citation, “Dr Khan’s office is closed right now, but if you care to…” 

That night there is a fire in the hills. I can see the blush from the porch. That, and there is a light mist of ash, not even ash but a grainy falling, and that brings my neighbours out of their houses to point, to look into the far off treetops to see which way the wind is blowing, to call their children to come outside and see this. The Russian family with the poodle think nothing of the fire that has grown from blush to glow. They are in their pool with the poodle splashing, laughing at what can only be some kind of Russian joke.

My neighbours have bigger, greener yards than I do, and whenever I walk by they are busily grooming, watering, raking, weeding, snipping here and there. We say Good Morning, mentioning how hot it has been, will be, could be. To talk sports and politics means I would have to slow, even stop walking, and we are not those sorts of neighbours. And so I stride on, as they, wiping the sweat from their brow, go back to watering, trimming; all the while their dog watches me suspiciously, as if I have all the makings of a potential enemy. 

With night and fire in the hills, I have more time to think about my ‘cancer with a small c’, and the more I think about it the more I recall what Dr Khan said: ‘Not serious now, but could become serious and dangerous. It’s a small c now and you want to keep it that way, know what I mean? Keep it that way. Of course there are medicines to take, exercises to do.

Exercise is important, you know. If nothing else, walking. Everybody knows this. In fact, some studies indicate walking is the key—always has been. That, and fasting. Fasting and walking. Hello? Are you still there? Exercise is everything at your age. Exercise, walk, swim. Can you swim? Never mind, something like a dog paddle is good enough. Three, four times a week. Over the long run it can make a difference, you’ll see. Make a difference. So, is there anything else?”

I answered, “No, that about covers it.”

“Right, Ok. Until next time, or not.”

I try rereading the newspaper, but my heart is not in it, so I turn off the light, and with Dr. Khan, the fire in the hills and the big yellow cat crowding my thoughts, toss and turn until the whiskey-light of dawn.

When I awake, the cat is on the patio statute-like, waiting. As a reward, I toss it a piece of yesterday’s ham, and we are friends for another day. 

This is the day I decide to ignore the harbour and go the other direction, to the top of the hill. At the top of the hill is a small shop that sells candy, newspapers, cigarettes, bottles of water. Not even a shop really, more like an outpost on the edge of the wilderness. The man who sits there all day, every day, has some of the yellowest fingers I have ever seen, and when he smiles it has nothing to do with being happy. There is a small plastic table with three plastic chairs under a nearby olive tree and as I sit, his radio playing, I watch the lizards that are minding their own lizardly business and lazing in the sunshine. I watch an ant dragging the carcass of a bumble bee, three maybe four times its size. How does it do that? It has latched on to the bee’s body, pulling it over pebbles, dirt and sand, stopping every now and again to catch its anty breath.

Like always, once at the harbour, I take a left at the scuba diving club and do my short walk to Andre’s café at the end of the street. Andrei is the waiter who works there, who never seems to have a day off, who sits in a chair in the shade, under a red umbrella, reading a magazine, who will only come to your table if you motion to him. I am the only one who seems to appreciate Andrei, and by now once he sees me, he brings me black coffee with bread and cheese, and we don’t have to say a word.

 The town of Paphos is thataway, a dusty sprawl of wheat-colored houses and sometimes buildings, fields and olive trees, next to the bluegreen Mediterreanean that stretches hazily to the edge of the world. Over there, beyond the goaty hills and olive trees, in the shallows, is Aphrodite’s birthplace, and someone official has placed a sign at the foot of the gigantic rock that asks you please not to climb the rock, the goddess’s sacred birthplace, the goddess of love. Of course people swarm over the rock, a dusty path zigzagging to the top.

And so, to keep this cancer with a small c small, even smaller, I walk. When I return, the yellow porch-cat is usually waiting, watching me huff up the drive, watchful, as if wondering what took me so long and oh by the way, what’s to eat?

It has been weeks since Dr Khan’s phone call, and of course right in the middle of thinking this, that afternoon, the telephone rings and two crows almost immediately swoop down to the porch. Dr Khan says hello, asking how I am, how’s the weather, what’s the exchange rate, “I need a vacation myself,” until finally, he asks, “You know, we all make mistakes, James, right? Human nature.”

“John, my name is John.”

“Yes, yes, of course, John.”

“You said something about a mistake?”

“Yes, a mistake. It happens. It happens to us all, you, me, everybody.”

“A mistake?”

When the neighbour’s dog starts barking, the crows step off the porch, flapping loudly.

“About this cancer stuff. The lab people tell me it’s never happened before, you know. This is the first time. That’s what they said: ‘first time. First time for everything, right?”

“Yes, I guess so.”

“Well, long story short, they tell me your tests were wrong. About you and cancer, they got it wrong. Said it was a computer glitch. A misreading. That’s the word they used ‘misreading,’” Happens to the best of us, you know. So sorry about this, James, and that’s why I am calling to give you the good news. A good mistake, right?”

There is a harsh crackle of long distance static that eats up his voice, and so I ask, “Sorry what? One more time.”

Laughing, as if there is something funny with having to repeat himself, ‘I said they got it wrong, you don’t have anything like cancer, never did. Imagine that, never did.”

The yellow cat is at the screen door, peering in, its tail flicking like a second pulse.

“Can you hear me? Hello, James, you there?”

“Yes, I hear you. Yes. A glitch you say, misreading?”

Suddenly, Dr Khan is no more and his long, blue assistant is on the line, saying, “Hello, who is this? James in Cyprus, is it? James, is that you?”

I have not stopped walking. In fact, if anything I do it more often. Even when I feel terrible and have headaches, sore legs, back spasms, never mind his cancer with a small c I trudge down to the harbour. And so the next day when I am at Andre’s and he brings me my coffee with toast and jam and I say, “Nice day. Clear sky, beautiful sun,” he stops to look at me and then up at the blue sky and then back to me, shrugging, before returning to his chair under the umbrella with a magazine.

For the last sixteen years Craig Loomis has been teaching English at the American University of Kuwait in Kuwait City. Over the years, he has had his short fiction published in such literary journals as The Iowa Review, The Colorado Review, The Prague Revue, Sukoon Magazine, The Maryland Review, The Bombay Review, The Absurdist, The Louisville Review, Bazaar, The Rambler, The Los Angeles Review, Five on the Fifth, The Prairie Schooner, and others. 

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