Choices A Short Story By Hilding Lindquist Copyright © 2006 by Hilding Lindquist Permission for non-profit use with

attribution hereby granted by Hilding Lindquist, author. Some profanity ... pretty much "PG" ... with mature theme. "Allen told Gene not to do it," Fred said as we sat down in a window booth overlooking Elliott Bay. It was shortly before noon on a rare sun drenched Tuesday in January. Fred and I were in The Athenian Inn in the Pike Place Market in Seattle, a market workers' hangout during winter when the tourists were gone and the Christmas rush was over. Before Fred arrived I got coffee at the counter just inside the entrance. The counter was a U-shaped affair with stools, bowing out from the kitchen toward a bar along the opposite wall. Back a few years the coffee was only fifteen cents at the counter. It became a sit-in for the homeless and the price went up. "What?" I gasped as I looked at Fred and spilled my cup of coffee, misjudging the cramped fit of the table and high-backed bench. The thick ceramic mug hit the corner of the dark wood table and clattered to the polished plank floor. The rich aroma of fresh coffee filled the air as the hot liquid splashed and spread across the worn wood of the restaurant’s floor. "Getting clumsy in your old age?," Fred bantered back as he smiled and shook his head at me. "And you said you knew your way around this place." Fred was in his late sixties to my fifty-nine. Gene was between us in age. We were three old farts who had been friends since the pipeline days in Alaska in the mid-seventies—twenty-five years before—when we chased women around Fairbanks, all of whom we thought were available to us. I picked up my fallen mug as Fred continued, "Allen told Gene not to have the operation. That Gene should trust God to perform a

miracle." "A miracle?" I sputtered. "Yup, I was at Gene's when Allen called. Yesterday. Darndest thing." Allen was Gene's fundamentalist Christian brother from Georgia. He came up before Christmas to visit Gene for a week. Fred and I met Allen then. "I'll get that cleaned up," our waitress said, gliding up to our booth. She took the empty coffee mug from my hand, giving me a mock look of disapproval as she bumped my shoulder with her hefty hip. She was a little younger than me. Over the past couple of years on my return trips to Seattle we had gotten to the point of showing each other photos of our grandkids. I never could remember her name. Turning to Fred she asked, "Coffee?" "Why certainly," he replied, giving her his lopsided grin from beneath his gray handlebar mustache. "Cream?" "Hot, black, and barefoot," Fred answered. "Nothing added," I said quickly, self-consciously. She responded to Fred with a slight smile and a wink. I grimaced at him as she walked away. He shrugged his shoulders. "Whatever works." I nodded and nervously flipped my gray ponytail out from under the collar of my worn brown leather jacket. Gene was facing the Big C, an almost inoperable tumor in and around his right lung. The cancer threatened to invade the sack surrounding his heart. I shivered. The bartender came over carrying a damp rag and mop. He wiped off our table and started mopping the floor in front of the booth. Our waitress returned with our coffee and multi-page menus placing them on the table in front of us. She stood back.

Fred and I raised our feet. The bartender made a few energetic swipes under them and the table and left. "I'll be back in a bit to take your orders," the waitress said. She turned and walked off to another booth. I bent closer to Fred, showing the intensity of our concern. "I intend to support whatever decision he makes." "Hell, yes, so do I,” Fred responded. I settled back as we paused for a moment. I spoke first. "Who's to say quantity isn't better than quality." "Huh?,” Fred grunted. "Of life, quantity of life,” I replied. “Gene's trying to get a longer life." "Well, sure,” Fred said. Again we paused, then I broke our silence once more. "God, I just had a horrible thought. Gene's lying on the operating table just about to go under and he starts thinking maybe he shouldn't be doing this, that maybe he's about to be punished by God for showing a lack of faith. He believes that shit, you know. What if it is the end for him? What a crappy way to go." "Hey, Jack, I feel the same way,” Fred added. “You do what you gotta do and you make the most of it. Friends should support that." "Hell yes," I agreed. "How do you think he's taking it?" "Who's to tell,” Fred answered. “Gene just stuffs it outta sight." I looked at my watch and then toward the entrance to the restaurant. "Where is he anyway? I thought I was late. Then I thought you were late. Gene is late." "I was late,” Fred said. “Gene'll be along. Don't worry about it. We're not going anywhere."

"What'll it be, gentlemen?" Our waitress returned with order book and pen poised. "Actually, we're waiting for another person," Fred told her. "And speaking of the Devil, here he comes now," I added and then stood up and called out, "Hey, Gene, over here." I waved. Several heads turned, first toward me and then toward Gene as he ambled over. The waitress tucked her order book and pen into her apron pocket. "I'll come back after you all have had a chance to decide. Coffee?," she asked Gene as he walked up. "Sure." "Cream?" "Sure." "Is it Shirley?" I questioned myself silently as she walked away. "Surely it's Shirley," I said out loud when she was out of hearing, and then chuckled to myself at my comic brilliance. Fred and Gene gave me funny looks. Maybe I wasn’t the comedian I thought I was. She was back with his coffee, cream, and a menu by the time Gene was settled into his seat in the booth beside Fred. "Sugar's on the table," she said. “Thank you, ma'am," Gene responded, smiling up at her. "You seem to be pretty chipper today," I said, taking a sip of my coffee. "No reason not to be," Gene replied. "Today." He settled back and stirred his coffee. I looked out the window at the Washington State Ferry plying the waters of the bay, headed west to Winslow on Bainbridge Island across Puget Sound, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains rising in the distance. I thought how great it was to be with good

friends. "So what's up?," I asked, turning back to Gene. He was still rhythmically stirring his coffee. "Not much,” he said. Just looking around the market." "Pretty quiet now that Christmas is over and only lifers left in the stalls,” I said. "Nuff stuff for me,” Gene responded. “There's always something around here I'd like to have." The ferry kept moving, getting smaller. Sunlight glittered off the facets of the small waves, water ruffled by a slight breeze. I turned back once again to Gene slowly and methodically stirring the heavy mug in front of him. "When do you see the doctor again?" Fred asked Gene. "Thursday." "This Thursday?," Fred pressed. "Yup." "Have you decided anything yet?" I asked. "You gentlemen ready to order?" Our waitress had returned. "No, I'm afraid I'm not," I answered and looked at my menu. "I am," Gene said. Gene and Fred ordered and by the time it was my turn, I was ready. "Guess I’ll stick with the usual. Scrambled …” Shirley interrupted me, “With bacon, wheat toast, no butter, small orange juice." I nodded. Shirley took our menus and left. "You know," Gene said, "when I was in Alaska I went fishing a lot. One time I was on the Chatanika River up by Long Creek off the

Steese Highway. What's that, 44 mile?" He paused and looked at Fred then me. Fred shrugged. "I think so," I answered. "Anyway, the greyling were biting and I was doing catch and release fly fishing, meandering along through some willow brush and scrub spruce, following the river as best I could for a little ways out of camp, when I heard something moving around up behind, between me and the highway. I said to myself, 'Damn!.' It was grizzly country and there I was without my twelve gauge. Now wasn't that a dumb-ass move. I had left it in the tent and I was now maybe fifty yards up-river from my camp, up until that very moment having the time of my life fishing and not thinking about where I was.” "Then I got into that adrenalin zone, everything just slowed down. I was—I hate to say it—cool as a cucumber." Gene laughed at himself and then continued, "And for some god-awful weird reason I thought about what if I played it safe and wound up in a nursing home strapped to a bed with tubes stuck in my veins because I had played it safe. What would I say to myself then? That I didn't go into the wilderness so I could wind up swimming in my own piss on a rubber sheet?" Gene paused and looked out the window, then went on. "I never did find out what made that noise. I probably spooked a moose." Gene paused again and looked at each of us in turn. Fred and I waited. "Y'know," Gene continued, "some of us come down to the last minute of our lives and know it's that last minute. And if it happens at twenty-five years of age or seventy-five, or sixty-two, it's still gotta be somethin'. I'd like to see it coming with the adrenaline flowing rather than with me crying for someone to help me out of my misery, wallowing around, and for sure not because I was afraid to live life, to feel the old blood pumping. Now that's a natural high I can live for." He paused. "Die for? Who knows?” "Anyhow, I'll take the surgery if there's a chance. This is lung cancer not prostate cancer. It acts fast. But listen, if I wind up on

a rubber sheet, you guys are my friends. We've got that covered, right?" "Sure, we’ll help you out." I said. "Uh huh," Fred echoed his assurance. We both knew what Gene meant. Shirley brought our orange juice. "I'll be right back with your order." "She married?," Gene asked, leaning forward and whispering across the table to me. I laughed. "Yes, and I'm sure her husband keeps his shotgun handy, my friend." "Well, hell, I got at least until Thursday." The End

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