Length of Days
Burton sat across from the digital MRI of his prostate. No matter where he looked in the room, the splotch of tumor on the computer screen seemed to fix on him, like the eyes in some portraits. He conjured up his young partner's face for comfort. Paton's face, radiating warmth, brown eyes liquid with gold flecks. Like rich earth, like sod. And innocence. It had not been difficult for Burton to convince the young man that he was speaking at a conference in Seattle, that he had to be back at the college the next day, so there was no time for the two of them to make a trip of it. He started when the door opened, then rose hastily and faced the entering specialist.
Dr. Wei was a small man. Usually, this would have given the six-foot-five-inch Burton a sense of advantage, but even with his back to the computer, he felt the weight of the digital image in his shoulders and had to work not to stoop. Wei's face was as smooth as a child's, though he had a wing of white hair on either temple. He wore round lenses in gold wire frames, and his irises were almost as dark as the pupils, giving the impression of flat, black buttons peeping from their epicanthic folds, a Pacific Rim version of Raggedy Andy. A badge on his white coat read, “Seattle Memorial Hospital, #1 in Cancer Research.” Burton had seen pennants in the downtown area with the same slogan and the hospital's logo (cartoon cutouts of a family—father, mother, son and daughter—all holding hands).
“Andrew Wei, Mr. Burton,” said the doctor, offering his hand. He made a tight smile that transformed his face, aged it. They shook hands. “So, you know my old roommate David Mitchum.”
Burton winced. On the defensive already. “Yes.” The doctor waited for more. Burton's blood grew warm as he wondered what Mitchum might have said about him.
David Mitchum was not a friend. In fact, as provost at the Oregon college where Mitchum taught, Burton had successfully opposed his tenure application. Mitchum had left—for a university hospital post that brought him professional glory, as it turned out. Burton's was a small college, politically incestuous. Someone may well have told Mitchum about his role in the tenure decision. And Mitchum could have told Wei.
The doctor's eyes traveled from Burton's tight jaw to the ropes of his neck, noting the tension, Burton thought. He'd never felt so vulnerable and had to resist his instinct to grab the offensive. At the college, even with his back to the wall, he was capable of wielding scorn like a weapon. But this was not his turf. And the stakes were as high as they could be. He invoked Paton's face again, squeezed the vision close in his heart to calm himself.
Wei opened the file he had brought into the room with him and scanned it quietly. “Let's take a look at the picture,” he said and turned to the screen. Burton imagined the tumor swelling with triumph under the eye of the doctor. He forced himself not to think of them, tumor and doctor, as allied against him.
“Your physics department must miss David,” Wei commented, his back to Burton, “especially now that he has won such a prestigious grant to complete his research in radio-physiology.”
All right, Burton thought, all right, you little bastard. He took a deep breath, talked through clenched teeth. “He was one of our best professors, our very best. A fine teacher. A brilliant man.” He would never have capitulated like this under other circumstances.
But Wei had become absorbed in the MRI. He touched the keyboard to enlarge the image. When he faced Burton again, he had shed the false smile. Something profound in his expression set off alarms for Burton.
“You've talked with your primary physician, Doctor…” (Wei consulted the notes in Burton's file again) “Doctor Dhiri—and also with Dr. Benson the urologist—on the course of treatment?” He pored over the file.
“Yes. But I remembered that Mitchum—David—said you were getting excellent results with long- and short-term seed implantation.”
Actually, Burton had learned this a year before his own problems started, while Mitchum was still on the faculty. Burton had been eavesdropping during a Curriculum Committee meeting. Though he only paid half a mind to the conversation, he heard Mitchum say that his roommate from college was perfecting a new treatment for prostate cancer, something that could eliminate the most distressing side-effect of surgery, impotence.
Burton's first symptoms had appeared at the start of the current semester. They were vague and intermittent. He suspected his bourbon habit and cut down. By March, he was up several times a night trying to empty his bladder. To reduce the risk of alarming Paton, he listened for the sound of the younger man's deep-sleep breathing and then slipped from bed to spend most of the night nodding off on the toilet, his legs too weak from exhaustion to hold him while he stood and waited to pee. Finally, he made his first visit to a doctor in five years. The news was bad enough for him to choke down his pride and phone David Mitchum, whose professional contact with Burton, even before Burton's role in the tenure decision, had never been exactly cordial. But then, whose had?
He spoke to the top of Wei's head. “David said—told me—”
“Yes, yes,” Wei cut him short. The doctor continued to read, or pretended to read, the file. Finally, he looked up, his face empty. “You were hoping that radioactive seed implantation could mean avoiding some consequences of surgery—erectile dysfunction.”
“Yes, of course.” Burton returned a determined stare, but his stomach had gone tight. He was tapping the fingers of his right hand on the counter next to him in time to the overture of La Forza Del Destino, which had been playing off and on in his mind the past few weeks. Now he stopped.
Wei put the file on the counter, pulled up a chair and sat, motioning for Burton to do the same. Burton ignored this. Wei's mouth gave a wry twist; he crossed his legs. “Mr. Burton, how old are you?”
“Fifty-four. It's in the file.”
“Are you aware how surprising that is? You're young for such a large tumor. And it is a very aggressive cancer. The tumor is already pressing unacceptably on the urethra.” He pointed to the screen, but Burton fixed his eyes on the doctor, as though discounting the picture's authority. “You're experiencing difficulty and discomfort with urination, aren't you?”
“Nothing I can't handle.” Burton shifted his weight, trying to ignore the familiar urge stimulated by the word “urination.”
Wei frowned. “It will get worse, not better.” He took a breath. “It's too late for radiation. The tumor is palpable. The Gleason and the PSA are very high, and the PSA is rising. I agree with your doctors. You should have a radical prostatectomy—right away. Cut the entire thing out, with the vesicles and nodes. That's the only way to cure it.” He took a pen from his pocket and reached for the file.
Burton was silent until Wei met his gaze. “Would you perform the brachytherapy, if that's what I wanted?”
It was Wei's turn to pause. “With the object of achieving what?”
“Buying time.” Paton, Paton, Paton.
Wei grimaced. “I don't perform seed implantation on such a tumor. It would be a waste of money and resources.”
“But if it is what I want—”
Wei stood up abruptly, taking the file from the counter. “I have cases that can benefit from brachytherapy. I won't treat yours.” Burton felt the words like a slap and swayed. Again, Wei's expression changed, softened. “Mr. Burton, are you married?”
Burton didn't even miss a beat. “Yes.”
“I realize you may think it's none of my business, but maybe you and your wife should talk with someone, a psychologist, or a spiritual counselor? In any case…” Wei took a step toward Burton, touched his arm, “in my experience, wives are more likely to want their husbands to live.”
Burton reared back. His was squeezing his fists so hard that his knuckles had turned white. “Bottom line. Without treatment.”
Wei's face closed. He shrugged. “Three months, or less.”
Burton's legs felt weak. He lowered himself into the chair. Finally, he closed his eyes and nodded.
The doctor withdrew a form from the file, made a few scratches on it with his pen and handed it to Burton. “I don't perform prostatectomies, but an office assistant will give you the names of people I recommend here and in Portland when you check out at the reception desk.” He paused, held out his hand. “I'm sorry, Mr. Burton. I wish you all the best.”
The drive south on I-5 was tedious until he got through Tacoma, but once he had the verdant stretch of highway before him, he realized that there would be little or no traffic or construction until Portland to distract him from his thoughts. He searched in the console for music to take his mind off the visit, popped an Andreas Scholl recording, Bach's St. Matthew Passion, into the CD player and raised the volume before the music even started. When the countertenor's pure voice came in on the alto part, he caught his breath, reminded suddenly of the old practice of castrating boys, and he ejected the disk. He decided instead on Mozart—Le Nozze, with women in the women's (and even one of the men's) parts, knowing that he would need something very silly and very lively to sing along with. When he was still an hour north of Portland, the rain came, bludgeoning his windshield with manic determination.
Finally, Burton decided he would have to stop, have some coffee at least, rest his shoulders, which ached with the stress of the last few days, secret visits to doctors, the embarrassing call to David Mitchum, who couldn't hide his confusion over hearing from the provost he had known only as the scourge of the faculty. He took the next exit and pulled into the first in a line of dreary, familiar franchise restaurants. It was a pancake house. He parked the Lexus near the entrance, but instead of getting out, he put his head in his hands and cried. The rain pounded against the car and Burton wept. The pounding echoed in his head. The individual drops seemed to gather themselves into a fist and hammer away at the car, as though the entire universe were furious with Burton. As though the gods couldn't wait to rip him limb from limb.
“Sir?” (pound-pound-pound) “Sir!”
Burton raised his head to look through the side window. A teenaged waitress, holding a newspaper over a head of bleached-out pigtails, was peering in at him.
“You all right? You hurt or something?” The voice was less confident than the fist had been. The waitress backed away tentatively. A powder-blue windbreaker hung open over her uniform. The newsprint was dripping onto its shoulders. “You sick? Open up, and I'll get help.”
It was the mess the newsprint was making of the girl's jacket that brought Burton around. It was disgusting. He unlocked the door and opened it. The rain pelted him immediately. The girl reached forward to hold the paper over his head, as though for someone infirm, an old person. He waved her off. “Just let me get inside.” She backed out of his way as he stumbled up the steps and into the pancake house.
He stopped just inside the door. The rain had washed his face clean of tears, but his hair and shirt stuck to him and chilled him, and the chill was adding to a headache that had developed since the visit with Wei. His jacket and coat were spread across the back seat of the Lexus, but he didn't want to leave the shelter for them. There were about a dozen other diners in the restaurant, all in booths. They hardly filled a third of the front section. Another darkened area was roped off behind the register. Several people had stopped talking at his entrance and watched him curiously. His height and looks had always drawn stares, but he had never been as unprepared to meet the attention as he was now in his condition.
“C'mon in. It's seat yourself. I'm off now, but I'll get Meg.” The girl had followed him in and she passed him as he stood indecisively at the entrance. When he didn't move, she turned and looked at him. She must have read something—panic—in his face. “Wait a sec.” She slipped around the cash register and unhooked the rope barrier to the dining room. “You can sit in here at one of the smaller tables—over there, by the window. I'll take your order. You probably want something to drink.”
Burton couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes. “Coffee,” he said hoarsely. “And a glass of—”
“Water,” she said. She dropped the windbreaker from her shoulders into a booth. Once she had her back to him, Burton watched her swinging her way to the kitchen. She stuffed the sodden newspaper into a waste bin in one deft movement. He turned heavily toward the empty dining area and settled at a table by a bank of windows from which he could see the highway.
He watched the headlights, dulled by the rain, streaming along with a kind of authority he could only imagine in his state of mind—locals, he decided, who were used to the highway and could feel what they were doing.
He whirled around. “No. No. Nor sugar.”
“Nor sugar? You're not from around here, are you?”
He shook his head, which was throbbing. He wanted her gone, but he could hardly speak for the pain.
She set the coffee in front of him. And a glass of water. The tumbler was cloudy with the fingerprints of more than one busboy, probably, and waitress, and dish-washer, and he decided he would drink the coffee instead, from a heavy china mug which had more shame than to reveal its secrets that way.
“Something to eat? You look hungry.”
This struck Burton as absurdly trivial, funny even, given the context of his trip, and he started to laugh. That made the girl smile, and when she did, he saw she had a gold molar. Combined with the goofy pink and purple balls on her hair-bands, this seemed even more preposterous, and his laughing became spasmodic. The girl lifted the glass to his lips and tried to have him drink. He was fully choking now, but he shook her off, grabbed the coffee and gulped down a searing mouthful. The pain made the tears come to his eyes again, and he dropped his head into his hands. He had counted on the coffee being lukewarm—wasn't it always lukewarm in places like this?
“Oh, man! That had to hurt,” she said, grimacing. “Not your day, huh?” When she slid onto the seat opposite him, he began to really worry about getting rid of her. He tried raising his head to look at her. “Amy” said the ID badge on her chest. He had known Amy's all his life. It was a country name, and then a popular nostalgic name among the academic community. Faculty daughters were often Amy's. For some reason, it seemed to suit her remarkably well. She had the pale, lightly freckled face and sharp nose of an Amy. Her uniform was brick red and white in accordance with the color scheme of the restaurant chain, but she had fragile thin threads of blue liner on her lids, which made her seem breakable, precious, like porcelain.
“I just need some time alone.”
“I don't think so.”
This was disconcerting. “I'm serious. I'm all right. Just a bad day, as you said a moment ago.”
It took Burton a few minutes to understand. He was so used to carrying an air of alienation around with him that the question seemed like something spoken in a foreign language. When he realized what she meant, he coughed to stifle the hysteria that had started bubbling in him again.
“No, no, it's—I'm just not feeling well right now. As you say, a difficult day.”
“God, you're cute when you talk like that.”
Burton frowned. There were very few words she could have applied to him that would have offended him more. In spite of the pain, he sat up straight, pressed the creases from his shirt, ran his fingers through his hair.
“I mean…” she leaned forward. “You're like C-3-P-O or something, trying to be like a real person.”
“You know, like a droid. Not any droid. Like a stuck-up droid.”
Burton's head began to throb with a vengeance.
“Ibuprofen,” he gasped. “Advil, aspirin. Anything like that.”
“Yeah, I've got loads of stuff. Waitresses pretty much have to. We get headaches all the time.” She pulled a small foil packet from a pocket in her tunic and blushed. “Oh, shit, only Midol—speaking of girl trouble. I forgot. It's all I had when I left home this morning.”
Burton took it from her before she could stop him, tore it open and downed the two caplets with a gulp of water, trying not to think about the rim of the glass as he drank.
Amy giggled. “Well, you won't have to worry about bloat nor cramps, neither.”
Burton looked at her. He couldn't help himself. He smiled. For the first time, she became self-conscious, lowered her eyes. She stood up.
“Look, I'll get them to fix you something. Pancakes? Soup?”
Burton was shaking his head when it occurred to him that he hadn't eaten all day, not since leaving home at seven, after Paton had fussed over his breakfast. No wonder he had a headache.
“Toast. I'd really like some toast.”
“White or wheat?”
“Butter or jelly?”
“You got it.” She bustled off with an exaggerated air of efficiency. He knew the attitude. She was trying to act as though she wasn't attracted to him. He was surprised to find it pleasant, instead of irritating or pathetic, to be the object of this girl's naïve interest.
For the first time that day, Burton began to feel a calm come over him. He felt suspended inside this seedy little outpost in western Washington, held close in a safety bubble, immune from cancer and heartache and aging.
“Here you go. I made it myself,” she said proudly when she returned with his plate. “Otherwise you'd have to wait on it with the rest of the orders.”
He ate the toast with a satisfaction he couldn't remember having felt about food since he was a child. It was simply toast, white bread toast.
“How about I warm that up for you?” She had grabbed his coffee cup and started off again. He took her wrist, surprising himself as much as her.
“No, wait. I'm fine. Sit down. Just—just—”
“Keep you company.”
Burton let out his breath and nodded.
“Okay.” She smiled. Cocked her head.
“What in God's name is that?” Burton asked, touching the thing dangling from one ear. It looked like the remains of a tiny bird caught in a spiderweb.
“It's a dream-catcher.” She turned her head to show him the matching earring. “The Indians make them…well, not around here, not really. Like Navahos do or something. I don't know. My dad got 'em for me in Arizona.”
“Yeah, like they keep your dreams from getting away. Or bad dreams from getting in. Or something, I don't know. I just like them.” The idea of her dreams made him sag with its weight.
“Don't you get them caught on things?”
She laughed. “Yeah, some. On some guy walking the other way at Oaks Park—where they got that Looping Thunder ride?—and I had to walk along with my ear stuck to the back of his sleeve, and I couldn't do anything, couldn't stop to tell him 'cause I was afraid he'd tear my ear right off.” She was laughing heartily at the image she had recalled.
“Captive to your dream.”
“There you go again.”
“I can talk like anyone else, you know. I just don't care to.”
“Right. That's a space alien talking if I ever heard one.”
He smiled. “No, really. The fact is, I'm a farm boy.” When was the last time he had told anyone that? Even Paton?
“Born and bred. My father had a farm in New York State.” A warmth filled his chest as he said this. His mind swooped suddenly, dizzyingly, over fields, outbuildings, the store with its serried ranks of jewel-colored jars. “We made things like jams and relishes—fancy prepared foods, fancier than we ate ourselves, to sell in New York City. Burton's Wild Blueberry Preserves.”
“Get outta here!” She shrieked this. He jumped. He glanced at the counter to see if anyone had noticed.
“Burton's! God, everybody grows up on Burton's!”
“Well,” he said quietly, “you're thinking about the company after my father sold it.”
“You don't make jams anymore?”
“No, not anymore.”
“What do you do?”
Burton grew tense. “Oh, just drive around. Cry a lot.” He felt stupid for saying it. He began to feel anxious about having sat there while he was expected at home. Every minute away from Paton. “I should go.” He meant it. He started to move out of the booth.
“No!” All color had drained from her face. He was startled by her intensity. “I mean, you're not feeling well. You should wait. Just, just wait a bit more—”
“I'm not that sick. I can drive. I wasn't crying because I'm sick. I mean the sickness—it's not why I was crying.” This was true; this was fact. If there had been no Paton, nothing, not even a deadly prostate, or the prospect of impotence, could have made him cry. But the thought that Paton might find him too old, used up, that Paton couldn't wait out the years with a crippled old man for a lover.
“Well, I figured that. I mean, it's a headache.” She paused as her color returned, cocking her head as she had before. The gesture was becoming familiar, comforting. “Look, whyn't you come home with me? My trailer's only about three miles off the highway.”
“Your trailer?” Burton was confused. She couldn't be more than sixteen.
“Yeah. My trailer. I mean I rent it. I can't afford to buy a place. But it's nice. It wasn't when I moved in, but I made it nice. C'mon, you'll see.”
“Amy, you don't have to—”
“No, I want to—to make you feel better. Be happy. I mean, you're not married?” She looked at his naked ring finger, as she must have earlier.
“No, not married.”
“Right. Well, I'm legal. You don't have to worry about that.”
“What's legal around here…thirteen?”
“I'm nineteen, smartass. You can ask anyone.”
“I don't think it would be a good idea.”
She stood up, wrapped her arms around herself and looked away when she said, “Just come over. You can just have a beer and relax. Watch TV or nap or something 'til the storm's over.”
He paused. “Thank you.”
She wouldn't let him pay, said that Juan or Dawn or someone would understand when she told him or her the next day. He helped her into her thin jacket. She came up below his shoulder and he could see the dark roots along the part in her hair. The vulnerability of her pink scalp made his heart ache.
“Whyn't you park your car around the back and we can go in mine?”
They stood outside the restaurant squeezed together beneath the overhang. Burton took her chin in his hand and tilted her head up to look at him.
“You're not coming, are you?” she said.
“No, Amy, I'm not. But thank you for asking me.”
She turned away, but one of her earrings got caught on his sleeve and he moved his arm toward her quickly so that she wouldn't be hurt.
“Oh no, oh God,” she said, fighting back tears and trying to disentangle his sleeve. Finally, with a twist of her wrist, she released the earring from her ear. He unhooked it from his sleeve and held it out to her. Her hand closed around it, and she looked down. Burton touched her hair, tracing the line of her part with a finger. Then before she could say anything else, he left her, got into his car and pulled away quickly.
Paton was in the shower when he arrived home. Over the sound of the water, Burton could hear his lover singing Britten. (“I give him songs, he gives me length of days…”)
Britten and boys. Beautiful singing boys. He dropped his keys on the table in the foyer and shook off his coat, letting it fall to the floor. He stood just inside the door, his head hanging, feeling his young self, the farm boy who had visited him briefly that evening in a pancake house on I-5, slip from his diseased shell and dissipate like smoke.
“Hey, I was getting worried.” Paton was naked except for the towel around his waist. With another, smaller one, he was drying his hair, which stuck out around his head like a halo.
Burton straightened up to face the man he loved more than his life. “The weather was terrible. I had to stop at a restaurant.”
Paton continued to rub his hair vigorously with the hand-towel. “Don't tell me: middle-aged waitresses with pie-faces and bouffant hair and—”
Burton gently took the towel from his hands and drew the young man to himself, held him tightly, resting his chin on his shoulder. Reaching around with his neck as though he couldn't get close enough. He inhaled the clean smell of Paton's shoulders and back. The damp ends of Paton's hair brushed Burton's cheek, soothing.
“Ralph? Didn't it go all right?” Paton pushed him back and looked at him.
“The conference, idiot. What's wrong?”
Burton sighed. Smiled. “It went fine. I'm just tired. I'm getting too old for this, for conferences.”
“Thank God.” Paton pulled him close again, kissed his neck, ran slender hands inside Burton's suit jacket, down Burton's back to his buttocks. “That means you won't be traveling for a while?” He was talking softly in Burton's ear.
“I'm not going anywhere.”
“You mean let's do it in the hall?” Paton teased, pressing himself against Burton. “Okay.” He drew back and dropped the towel from his loins.
“No, upstairs. In bed. Properly.”
The two men climbed the stairs with their arms around each other, one light with the anticipation of intimacy, the other heavy with its impending loss. Paton's thin shoulder blades had the fragility of wings. Burton cupped one in his hand and let the beauty of it drive straight through his heart.