"IS ANYONE COMING TO TAKE YOU HOME, NOLAN?" SHE SAID. I SHUFFLE INTO THE COLD, STERILE SHITHOLE OF A HOSPITAL (CAN SHITHOLES BE STERILE? IF SO, THIS JOINT IS THE FUCKING PROTOTYPE) AT FIVE THIRTY IN THE DAMN MORNING LAST FRIDAY FOR THEM TO CUT MY ASSHOLE OPEN, RIP OUT MY PROSTATE ALONG WITH MY ERECTION NERVES, AND FEED ME JELL-O FOR SIX DAYS, AND THIS SCRUBS-CLAD BROAD AT THE FRONT DESK HAD THE BALLS (OR I GUESS THE GALL -- IS THAT THE WOMEN'S VERSION OF BALLS?) TO ADDRESS THE FACT THAT I SHOWED UP ALONE.
She had to be four hundred pounds, and she’s sitting there in her zany scrubs like its Friday fucking Fun Day. I say ‘zany scrubs’ because these weren’t the blue or green, these were the bullshit white ones with the pattern of multi-colored squiggly shapes and dots, draped over this lady’s torso like a bed sheet with Mardi Gras confetti spilled on it. So Zany’s sitting there being all fat, smiling and calling me by my first name like we’re drinking hot cocoa together at a ski lodge, and I’m standing there thinking, first of all, you’re thirty and you work in the health care industry— you know better than to weigh that much. Don’t the cardiologists pull you aside and tell you to lay off when someone brings nachos into the break room? I’m seventy-nine goddamn years old and my body fat percentage is right where I decide it is: below average, like it has been since World War II (I was an eighteen year old reinforcement in Europe during that final winter and spring – I think Hitler killed himself as soon as he heard I came across the pond). The fact that Janice or Austin hadn’t shown up was none of her business, and it didn’t need to be on my fucking chart, or in my file, or whatever the hell they do to keep tabs on people: “Blood pressure is 130 over 90, patient recovering well, illness uninteresting to bitch wife and fruity artist son.” I held my tongue, being the gentleman I am, but she must have perceived something behind my eyes, because she looked down then, at her clipboard, and said, “Just our check-in information policy, Mr. Schaumberg, since you’ll probably be on meds when you leave next week.”
I wanted to explain to her that it was my policy to not talk to people who don’t deserve my time, but once again, perfect gentlemanly silence. She folded first, saying something like, “We can figure out the transportation thing later if you want, sir.” Yeah. That’s right, young lady. I want. I signed in without acknowledging her further and took a seat, waiting for them to come get me. Lecturing some girl for her mouthy greeting wasn’t worth the effort. I spent forty years lecturing dumbass junior high kids on the importance of lubing the drill press right or keeping their hands clear on the table saw, but let’s just say I went through a lot of drill bits and put more than one finger on ice during my career. People don’t listen, so I’m just about done talking.
My shop doesn’t have that problem – kids running around fucking everything up all the time. If such an infestation were to occur, I swear I’d buy a half-starved Siberian tiger on the black market to run around in there and take care of it like a barn cat keeps the rats down. That’s how much that place means to me. My shop is pristine, my thirty by sixty foot masterpiece. I took my time setting it up, too: some real Michelangelo shit. It’s the world created by Nolan Schaumberg, crafted over the course of his first six decades or so, and in his seventh he’s sure as shit gonna sit in there and rest, thinking, ‘It is good.’
My father and I poured the foundation during the dustbowl. I was nine years old, plotting it kitty-corner to the house on the lot’s southwest corner. My baby sister Ellie watched us from her window of the standard white farmhouse – her little alveoli inflamed and shit-clogged from the last black blizzard that came through (‘alveoli’ were her lung parts where the gas went into the blood – like the combustion chamber on a little Briggs and Stratton four-stroke). Bad as it got, my mother kept quiet, and Pop kept saying, “We aren’t Jews and this isn’t Egypt, so we’re not gonna be a part of any goddamn Exodus.” So we stayed put, but we sure as shit didn’t sit around with our thumbs inserted—we built. Pop did most of the work, the stubborn bastard keeping busy audaciously building a shed for his dormant farm equipment. I helped him, stirring cement with a big stick I found and not asking who he’d stolen the mud from.
When Janice and I finally moved in there, we were postwar newlywed kids with a kid of our own on the way; I tore his shitty wooden building down, but I found the slab to be just fine – a guy pours it thick when he’s not paying for the mix. Pop had been something of an artist with a hand trowel. I can still remember the gloss of water and bubbles rising to the top as his big hand hovered over the surface, smooth and wet the way ice puddles look in March. Ellie would tell me in the evenings how she pretended all day that the wet cement was a pool and she could go underneath the surface. She’d tell me all sorts of bullshit about holding her breath for hours, and all the adventures she had underwater, adding a new dimension to her fantasy world every night. Five years old, and I swear she had the fucking imagination of Stephen King.
That slab, it was still straight and true, which was more than you could say about the building, even though it was only twelve years old. I dropped that rickety son of a bitch like a bad habit before breakfast one Sunday. If Pop was alive at the time, he’d have been hot, seeing me pull his half-baked shack down with one of his old tractors—he’d have wore my ass out. My mother wouldn’t have cared, but she’d gone away a couple of years prior to that. The fact is: she went away precisely because she didn’t care about anything. I think she used up all her give-a-shits on Ellie, quarantining her in that back bedroom as she got worse, like she was contagious and she would cough dust into my lungs too. Toward the end, she wouldn’t even let me talk to Ellie from the hallway, said it took too much effort for Ellie to shout answers at me. When mom went away, I found out she went and found herself a room to die in, too. I didn’t go visiting.
Selling most of Pop’s land and taking the job at the school here in town, I had the wherewithal to build on that old slab, and I wanted to build my shop nice and slow. I learned quickly that working outside beat the shit out of sitting around in the farmhouse listening to Janice and the crying baby, so I had a motive for milking my projects. In the summers I did the big stuff, but I could get a lot done after school, too. After the first year or so, the smart shop teachers realized they didn’t have to hunch over a desk full of lesson plans till five o’clock. It’s all reruns: pass out the plans ditto for the cutting board, the coffee table, the magazine rack. Walk around and get them started for the first few minutes of each period, then go back to your own plans for a real project. It wasn’t bad, to be honest. I always say, “I taught them how to work with wood; they taught me how to work with words.” For all the bitching I do about those kids, they could really cuss, and as soon as they realized I didn’t mind, they saw it as their reciprocal duty to teach me to swear properly. Either way, by three o’clock, I’d just stop by the hardware store, give Roger Hamblin shit for charging so much for supplies, and get home and get to work without even going in the house. I had a coffee maker in the shop almost from the beginning, and an Irish coffee or two unfailingly makes an afternoon’s task that much more pleasurable.
So I was sitting in the waiting room Friday morning with pastel paint and fluorescent lights reflecting off the glossy copy of Popular Mechanics I was thumbing through, waiting for them to come and do more things to my poor old ass. Thursday had been a real trip to the fucking candy store. I almost choked on the horrible “cathartic” solution they gave me (I used to think I knew what that word meant. This sludge they gave me was “cleansing” I suppose, but not even close to “therapeutic”). If that weren’t enough, the instructions that came with my little enema bottle read like one of the porno “confession” books I keep in the shop’s office, next to the magazines from back before the advent of high speed internet. As a rule, I’ve always hated instruction manuals – I called them ‘destruction manuals’ in class until a few of the smartasses told me it was a lame joke. I was obliged to agree. These particular instructions said to kneel with my head and chest lowered to my bed and insert the tip of that little bottle you-know-where. A guy like me can laugh about this sort of thing, but really, getting rid of all that buildup is no damn walk in the park. I’m glad I was in my little apartment out in the shop, because I just bet Janice would have considered my little butt-bath a hell of a spectator sport if I’d chosen to venture into the house that day. Not that I would have.
The apartment idea actually came early on in the Great Schaumberg Creation Story, soon after I separated the shack from the slab. I originally thought, ‘Here’s a hell of an idea, Nolan: put a little mother-in-law job in there to take up about a third of the area, and there you have it: six hundred square feet for someone to live in.’ So as soon as I had the basic pole building up (six by six treated lumber skeleton, with red tin on the sides and galvanized on top of a gently sloped roof of three-ten trusses), I framed in a simple, insulated living space on the far end of the shop, windows facing southwest across the pasture, away from the house. A flooring guy Roger knew gave me some leftover carpet samples that I stretched to cover up the cold cement, giving it a kind of cozy feel. I thought I’d rent it out to college kids or an old widow for some extra cash, or just have it as an investment to raise the property value of the old farm place. But wouldn’t you know it, that little son of a bitch started looking pretty good to me, once Janice started getting even more mouthy during the sixties.
She would never let on about it, but I think she saw how much I was doing with the shop at that time and got jealous, wanting to take on a project of her own, give her life some meaning or something. She got caught up in the changes like a college kid, and started to act up against the roles we’d taken on, the roles we’d played since the day we walked down the fucking aisle. As it turned out, the “Summer of Love” was the summer I finally moved my ass out into the shop’s apartment for good, and breathed a big fucking sigh of relief. Odd as it was, that summer still had plenty of love in it for the two of us. A few nights a week, one of us would sneak across the yard after supper and let the other one know they needed “servicing.” Maybe it was part of all that “Free Love” bullshit, but she was real tigress. She never turned me away, but just got this smirk on, and pulled me in the house. And it was nice when she would spend the night in the shop afterwards, good to have her next to me. Sometimes now I think I should have slept in the farmhouse the nights I went over there, but something about the place kind of spat me back out as soon as we finished.
The Women’s Lib movement became her pastime. She recited political speeches in the gravel after I parked my truck in the drive. I can still picture her thin, self-important face, kind of pretty as she stood between our two places, recounting some ridiculous tale of an afternoon of bra-burning. She had dark hair chopped down into one of those bob-and-bang jobs, a nice frame around her big eyes. I suppose it was okay that she found herself a project. Even so, I’ll be damned if all that bullshit didn’t get me fired up back in those days.
By the seventies, she thought she was Mary Tyler fucking Moore, and I told her I wasn’t going to play the part of Rhoda—listening to her whine, a sassy comment here and there. Austin was in his twenties at an art school back east by then, so I spent all my time in the shop, adding little luxury features or just sitting down to watch TV and take it all in. Janice seemed fine with the arrangement; I think she saw it as “progressive” or something. “Unbridling my independent spirit” is the phrase she repeated whenever I asked her what the hell she did all the time in that old farmhouse. Sad to say, but we weren’t young kids anymore, so our little “conjugal visits” tapered off almost completely by the late seventies.
“Mr. Schaumberg, are you ready?” The nurse that finally called my name looked a bit more professional. I don’t remember being nauseated by her appearance as I followed her back into a little curtained-off cubicle. She was a bit bubbly for my situation, now that I remember it, making chit-chat while we walked as though she were a waitress leading me to a booth at T-G-I fucking Friday’s. For what came next, I would have guessed a frail old codger like me would get an actual room with doors. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—they seem to mistake cancer for Alzheimer’s the way they introduce themselves to me every time they come into my room. They probably think, “Old Schaumberg will forget sooner or later that we shaved his ‘taint behind a flimsy curtain, clippers buzzing away for everyone to hear.” Well, I haven’t forgotten, even though the events of that morning are admittedly on the hazy side. ‘Taint’ is probably the best word that little group of ninth grade boys taught me toward the end of my career. It refers to that no-mans-land between the scrotum and rectum, named the ‘taint because, “After all, ’taint your balls and ‘taint your ass.” Those kids were priceless, but Janice is right—it’s good I live out in the shop, because language like mine doesn’t belong indoors. It’s also good she wasn’t here, because who the hell knows how big of a kick she would have gotten out of my pre-op haircut. I probably wouldn’t have heard the end of it the next time I go in the house, which will be to deliver end tables I’ll finish varnishing as soon as I can be up and moving.
That’s what the shop is. Back before I added all the accessories (from TV’s to ATV’s) to the shop, I obtained the basic tools for woodworking, using money from Pop’s land to get the nice shit. First and foremost, my shop has always been a fully functioning woodshop where I create sturdy, useful pieces of furniture of all kinds. I say ‘useful,’ while some (Janice) would say ‘Utilitarian’: I don’t go in for any of that ornate Victorian bullshit on my furniture. Clean, purposeful lines mark my style, and not just because it’s easier—I have the lathes and chisels and skills to get fancy, but I build simple. It’s just less full of shit that way. Even as a thirteen year old, I remember looking through Ellie’s old dollhouse that had been in her room, wondering to myself why all the little chairs and tables and beds had all that cutesy detailing on them, lacy curves carved into the hanging edges like fucking doilies made of wood. It’s just not the way to make things. Janice would never say it, but I think she has come around. I think she’s probably thankful she doesn’t have a house full of silly, fragile garbage that could turn an Oklahoma farmhouse into a nineteenth century Cape Cod fantasy. She keeps on ordering shit from me, anyway.
I think they usually do the ass-shaving once a guy’s fully under, but I wasn’t having any of that shit. I’m proud as hell to say I’m the oldest bastard they’ve ever given a perineal prostatectomy (the “low incision” type of prostate removal, instead of the standard belly entry) here at the University Medical Center while only using spinal anesthesia and an epidural instead of the full cocktail. Honestly, I’ve been around enough to know this: you never know what sort of fetishes people have. So I sure as shit wasn’t going to let anybody, M.D. or not, knock me out and have free rein of my ass all morning. Not Nolan Schaumberg. And since I’m in great health for my age (other than my obvious recent malady), they were forced to comply. I didn’t care how bad they said it is, or how much they think it has spread. I told these people more than once, “If you want to put me under the knife down there, I’m going to be conscious all the way.” But common courtesy says they could have started numbing me up with some of the local shit before starting in with those vibrating clippers. Just because you’re old and stubborn doesn’t mean you aren’t ticklish.
After that came the parade of nurse anesthetists and anesthesiologists and however many other people an insurance company has to pay to make one person “lose” his lower half. I’ve read in a few places about the addiction rates of these guys who dish out the narcotics, so I was watching pretty closely for some cloudy-eyed fucker trying to work on me while he’s high on some shit he scored writing a fake prescription. They all seemed reasonably sober, though, and soon I started to lose feeling from my belly button down, being careful to remain awake, though I was very relaxed. I reminded them, once again, that I needed a play-by-play of some sort. I’m not a total asshole. I know that’s not a part of their job, but still, I asked them. How hard could it be for them to at least tell me when they were starting to cut? At that point they kept calling me sir and telling me to hold my horses; that we weren’t even in the operating room yet.
When I finally did make that move from the farmhouse to the shop, that’s when I really turned up the juice on making that place really nice. I’m not talking about changing light bulbs, either. I’m talking about a dark mahogany wet bar with custom leather-padded stools. I’m talking fucking billiards. I’m talking about big color TVs, one for the workshop and two inside the apartment. I’m talking about a plush sleeper sofa, so that Austin could stay out in the apartment and have some privacy when he came back to visit (rare holidays and a week or so in the summer). Whether he ever used it or not is another issue. That little shit would always play pool with me and watch TV until late, but always seemed to end up sleeping in the house’s back bedroom, probably just to piss me off, or to hide from me back there and do his meditations or his froo-froo artsy bullshit. But, to his credit, that son of a bitch (and I kind of mean that literally) would always play pool with me, and he could crack them, too. By the time the eighties came around, I was sitting pretty in my luxury apartment with a head start on the yuppie thing; Donald fucking Trump would have lounged in there with a martini, I had so much cool shit. Evenings came and mornings came, and I saw that my shit was good.
By a certain point Friday morning, I was feeling pretty good, like I had three Irish Coffees in me and I had just finished a perfect oak dinette set, better than Janice could have won on a “Price is Right” showcase. I was relaxed, except for the worry that they had given me too much to stay up for the big show. Next thing, the bed I’m on is wheeling around like I’m a kid in a grocery cart, the fluorescent light tubes passing over my head one by one. They were moving me into the operating room to cut me up, mixing platitudes of support with small talk about the Sooners football season and how they got fucked over by the coaches’ poll. I guess they don’t teach you normal empathy in med school, or nursing school, or candy-striper school. But at that moment, I didn’t give two shits about their social graces.
I said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, I don’t care about the Sooners’ bowl game hopes. I want to live more, and I want you guys to fucking make that happen.” I had the same feeling then as I did with the middle-schoolers toward the end—they thought, “What a quaint, funny old man who curses a blue streak like he’s fifteen years old.” And they were silently planning to tell their friends about it later. When is it that people stop taking life seriously? Either way, I resigned myself to the fact that these kids were going to be working on me. I just hoped they had the name brand tools and knew how my machine works. We bumped through one set of double doors, then another. The second brought an atmospheric change, but I couldn’t tell worth shit whether it got hotter or colder. Even in my state, I could sense we’d made it to our destination.
You might say Nolan Schaumberg is from the old school, because one thing I’ll adhere to no matter what else changes in this world is this: you don’t go sniffing around someone else’s wife, no matter the state of the marriage in question. In the last ten years or so my shop has become less of a building, and more of a work of art, but in the good sense of the word. Flat screens, satellite dish, high speed wireless connection, remodeled twice-already-remodeled rooms, granite countertops, hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances. Top notch stuff, and everything’s simple and easy. Turns out I made some good investments during the seventies and eighties; this shop teacher can retire in a shop a little better than most. And it is very good. Nevertheless, there’s one investment that started having a real sour fucking return.
She says he’s gay now, and they are just very dear friends, but all I see is this shit head Ron, a retired art history professor from the university whose wife died twenty years ago, parking his Volvo in the gravel between the shop and the house probably four nights a week. He comes around in his turtlenecks under navy jackets and they go see plays and concerts. She said he shouldn’t drive when he’s tired, and insisted that he sleeps in the back bedroom, like that makes me feel a whole hell of a lot better. A younger version of me would have made sure to deliver her woodwork when he’s over there and accidentally club him with a coat rack, but I’ve held back, kept my distance for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. Janice seems to think it’s really hilarious if I ask about him, getting this little smirk on her thin, still-pretty face. A couple years ago, I gave up my bitching simply because I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction. Except for the night I told her to keep Ron out of that fucking bedroom—he can sleep on the daybed I built for the sewing room. She looked at me longer than she had in years, and agreed when I looked away. I suppose I have no reason to believe they haven’t honored my wish.
Now, I do believe that those doctors were pretty good, but what came next was some pretty fucked-up shit. I’m sitting in this special bed that makes me spread my legs out like I’m leaning on my hands on some white sand beach, knees making ninety degree angles. I kept asking for them to let me know when they were starting with the incision. Begrudgingly, they agreed and kept talking to each other in surgeon code, surely about what a bitch I am. When the main guy, Dr. Singh, finally said, “Here we go, Mr. Schaumberg… and… making the initial incision,” I swear I felt everything. I’m not one to make outlandish claims, but when they cut me, I could see it happening like my Skil saw grinding into some innocent two by six. I could feel it fully, and I knew it was a lot of pain, but I had no inclination to flinch or cry out. I deserved it. What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Even talking about it now, days later, it doesn’t make a bit of sense to me. Even I think I’m a crazy old coot. But when their tools hit my skin, it was like some workers finally breaking ground on a building project for which blueprints had been in a can for decades. Like I was waiting on the funding to go through or some shit like that. They were ruthless down there, and the thing was, I wasn’t rooting against them. I just kept my mouth shut for one goddamn time in my life, and left it to Singh, trusting the badass technician that he was. While they were working, I wondered if Singh knows anything about the dust pneumonia from his studies, and I decided that I’ll talk to him about it before I get out of here. I might as well learn something before I die of this or something else. They took it all—my prostate, the nerve bundles that allow me to get a hard on, and hopefully all of those poisonous fucking cancer cells. I felt everything. It was good.
Janice finally came in my hospital room this morning. Her face is still framed by a cropped shock of silver hair. I said she looked like a million bucks and, no shit, she did. Right out of the box I told her not to give me any of that shit people get when they’re sick, the “canonization of cancer”—I came up with that term. I’ve been to too many funerals where it’s all this hot air about how great of a person this fucking guy was, just because he got sick. I’m always sitting there thinking, that guy was kind of an asshole most days, like the rest of us. Austin won’t fly out, and I’m glad because that type of thing is in the same category. Cancer changes everything, but they don’t have to act different just because of the disease. He’ll be here in November. Janice said no dirty old man has ever been canonized, so not to worry about it. Then she went out to get me some real food. Based on the bitchy way she said that last thing, when she gets back, I bet she’ll ask if I want some more help on account of the chemo they’ll start up. She already cooks for me on Sundays, saying: “Most Sunday dinners are recipes for two to four people” as she hands over the tinfoil bundles. I bet she’ll ask if I want to move into the farmhouse again, to take that southwest bedroom and talk about what happened with Ellie in there. Maybe she’ll ask if I want a ride home tomorrow. If she does, fuck it, I’ll go.