The boy sat next to his mother on a charter bus headed to a Cincinnati Reds game. The open windows blew sticky air past his nose, but he could still smell beer. The grownups passed around cans and guzzled. Voices grew louder and ran over the top of each other. The boy wanted to cover his ears but didn’t. He’d heard an aunt tell his mother that he was way too sensitive.
A balding man stood up near the rear of the bus. His gut bulged over white polyester pants. Sweat stains circled under his armpits. He clenched the soggy butt end of a cigar between two sausage fingers. He shouted, “Pull the bus over! I gotta pee!”
Someone cried, “Hang it out the window, John!” John bellowed with laughter. He pulled the nearest window down as far as it would go and pretended to do just that.
A few weeks passed. The boy couldn’t remember much about the baseball game. Maybe Johnny Bench had hit a home run. The grownups drank at the stadium till their speech slurred. One aunt fell into another man’s lap when she stood and waved to get a hot dog vendor’s attention. John shouted, “Ya dumb cocksucker!” at an umpire after he called a runner out at second base.
His mother talked to Aunt Martha on the phone one evening after supper. Mom said, “So we’ll meet at your house and then head to the hospital. How’s John doing? Uh huh. All right.”
The boy’s mother hung up, turned to him and said, “I’m going to a prayer meeting at the hospital. There are snacks in the bread box. Keep an eye on your brother.”
Mom came back two hours later. Her eyes had a peaceful glow. She told the boy, “Well, we prayed over him. I could feel God’s love flowing from me to John.”
“Is he getting better?” the boy asked.
“He does for a while after we lay hands on him, then the cancer comes back and gets worse. We’re going to come more often,” she said.
Mom went the next week on the same night. The boy and his brother drank milk and ate Oreos, wrestled on the carpet, and watched “Gunsmoke”. Mom trudged in an hour late. Lines etched her brows. She took her time shrugging off her coat and hanging it in the closet. The boy waited. He could tell something had happened.
She addressed the closet door when she said, “John’s dying. He knows it and he’s scared. I guess it’s God’s will.”
“How do you know he’s–“
Mom cut him off: “It isn’t hard to tell.”
The boy babysat his brother while his mother attended the funeral. She checked her lipstick twice in her pocket mirror before walking out the door. Her rosary tangled with the keys as she pulled them out of her purse. When she came home, her face was smooth and untroubled. But she said, “I just don’t know what Jocelyn’s going to do without John.”
The boy grew up and became a sixty-year-old man who called his mother every Friday. They talked about the weather, books, politics. One day she said without preamble, “You know Jocelyn, John’s wife? She passed away last week. I didn’t know anything about it till your Aunt Martha called and told me. She lived alone all those years, never remarried.
“She must have really loved John,” he ventured.
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Martha told me that she’d been getting along fine, but she woke up one morning with a pain in her belly. It got so bad she drove herself to emergency. She never left the hospital. She hung in there all those years without John…and then went just like that.”
The man said a prayer that night. He felt God’s love flowing toward Jocelyn and John. He hoped it would do them some good this time.