"Mr. Harris, I'm sorry, but you have cancer," the thin, white-haired doctor had told him. The man said it without emotion, without sympathy, without the slightest look of sadness in his eyes. Julius had to let it sink in a moment and decide whether his doctor was telling him the truth or not. He remembered sitting in the chair, stone-faced, unable to move.
Julius Harris shook the old thought out of his head, knowing he shouldn't dwell on the past. He pushed open the bathroom door, and there, sitting in the middle of the antiseptic room, was the toilet. He walked cautiously up to it as though it might snap at him like a small angry terrier. He unzipped his pants and stood poised above the bowl. He stood there holding himself, the bright bathroom light splashing across his slumping head and shoulders as he waited for the flow of urine to make its way toward his urethra.
It will be a while, he told himself, and when it finally comes it will hurt like hell. Julius took deep breaths. Deep cleansing breaths, hoping the action would trigger something inside him, release the old dam gates and let the fluid flow. He tilted his head back, closed his eyes, and tried to relax.
Come on, dammit, he urged himself. I don't want to be here all day, not again. The thought of just saying "screw it" ran across his mind. He'd zip his fly back up and busy himself with some simple task, just forget about it. But past experiences told him that wouldn't work. Even though he didn't have to urinate that minute, it sure as hell felt as though he did, and that feeling would remain with him until he let his contents out. So he stood and waited.
Then he felt it. It was coming, and he was able to relax for the most part and just let it flow. He always felt normal at this point, like he was a kid again, when pissing was something that you never thought two seconds about -- feel your bladder getting tight, whip it out, piss all over the side of a tree and push it back in. One, two, three. Didn't even have to worry about shaking it, because dried piss stains in the front of your Fruit of the Looms were commonplace at that age.
But, like always, he soon realized it wasn't just like normal. The flow of urine was approaching its exit when Julius felt an extreme pain. It was like a bolt of lighting striking the tip of his penis, then flowing up his urethra and exploding somewhere just behind the center of his pelvis, very close to his anus. He shrugged, gritted his teeth, then relaxed a little as the pain subsided. The urine shot out in spurts at first, two streams flowing in different directions, one stream stronger than the other.
A lot of blood came out this time and the water was pink from the quantity. Some had managed to land on the rim of the toilet and the floor, speckling it like a weird abstract painting; pink drops on an all-white canvas. He rolled out some more toilet tissue, dropped to his knees and began to wipe it clean. He inspected the floor, and it was clear of all droplets. But wait. There was one...and another, he thought. But the droplets were not urine and blood, but tears. Two fell quickly from the corners of his eyes and splashed to the floor before he even realized he was crying. He sat up, pushed himself against the vanity, and smoothed the tears away with the heels of his hands.
"No. Don't let it get to you," he told himself in a hushed voice. He had to accept it. That was all. There was nothing he could do. Nothing would change, the disease would take its course whether he filled himself with self-pity and dreaded waking up every morning, or took each remaining day as a blessing. His doctor had told him that. But what the hell did he know, he wasn't the one dying.
Julius stood, telling himself he was stronger than his actions displayed. He looked in the mirror and a man of fifty-five years stared back at him, dark under the eyes; two days of hair growth dirtied his face. "Pull yourself together," he told himself. The doctor was right, and he knew it.
"Two years, thirty months on the outside," the doctor had said. That was all he had left to live. Julius had swallowed hard and tried to stop himself from breaking down. He had tried instead to focus on the man who had just condensed the rest of his life into a number of months. He looked in the doctor's eyes, and the doctor looked back, a blank stare, not at him but past him. Julius understood. The old guy couldn't get too involved with each individual poor sap that happened to be dying in two years. It would be too much to take.
Outside of the hell that was taking place in Julius's head, he had heard Cathy, his girlfriend of twenty years, crying. She was grabbing both of his hands, had pushed her chair very close to his and was bawling, sobbing heavily on his shoulder, a combination of tears and mascara falling to his sweater. Julius wrapped an arm around her. The sight of her experiencing so much pain made him furious.
That was a couple of months ago, and the memory still devastated him. To think that in a matter of months he would no longer exist. Julius reached for the sink, bracing himself there for fear he would fall. He looked up at himself in the mirror again, a desperate look on his face. Why me? he wanted to cry out. He wanted to yell at the top of his lungs, look toward the heavens and demand an answer from the so-called God that lived there in relative comfort while he suffered like an animal beneath him. He wanted to feel pity for himself, but he had done that so many times over the past two months that he knew it would do no good. It would just increase the despair he was already feeling, and pitch him into a deeper hole.
Julius heard footsteps above him, Cathy's gentle movements about the house, which signaled that she had awakened. She had probably reached a hand across the bed, felt that he wasn't there, and immediately become worried, wondering if something tragic had happened to her dearest friend. She cared the world for Julius and he knew that. She would have gladly taken the pain for him, taken the death sentence that he had received just so he could go on living. It was one of the hardest things about accepting the knowledge of his dying -- knowing he would be leaving her behind to grieve painfully for probably the rest of her life.
Julius heard her descending the stairs, making her way just outside the bathroom door; he could feel her weight, her presence there waiting. He turned on the water to mask any sounds that would betray the fact that he had been wallowing in self-pity again.
"Jay, are you in there, sweetheart?" Cathy called. Her voice seemed tentative, as if she hadn't known the man she was speaking to for the past twenty years, but had met him yesterday and now found him in her bathroom.
Julius didn't answer, just rubbed his face with a hand towel, peeked in the mirror, and slipped on the most authentic smile he could manage. She'll never buy it, he thought, as he heard her voice again, more frantic this time.
"Right here." He opened the door. "Just washing the old mug before breakfast." He smiled, feeling unnatural. Cathy looked up at him and didn't say a word. She stared in his face as if trying to decode some puzzle that was hidden there.
"What?" Julius asked, extending his arms out to his sides in animated bewilderment. She threw herself into him, her arms around his neck. He closed his arms around her small body and could feel her trembling within his embrace. He felt how her heart was rapidly pounding in her chest. Her grasp on him was tight, and he knew she knew exactly what had gone on in the bathroom, could read it in his face like she could read everything he was thinking. He squeezed her tight, rubbing his cheek against the soft curls of her hair, smelling the natural sweetness of her scent. The love he felt for her at that moment was too intense to bear.
"I'll fix you a big breakfast. Pancakes, sausages, eggs, grits, everything, well, not sausage. That's bad -- turkey sausage. I'll call off from work, and we can -- "
"No. Don't. I'll be fine," Julius said, pulling her hands away from his face, holding them in his hands. "I'm fine, really." He tried the plastic smile again, feeling just as phony as before.
She stared into his face with her big brown-orange eyes. She always did that, as though she couldn't say anything without first really thinking it over.
"Why didn't you wake me when you got up?"
"Because you were up with me late last night, and you needed to get your sleep."
"I thought you said you'd wake me if you weren't feeling well."
Julius let go of her hands and took a couple of steps back. "Yes, I did agree on that, but I'm feeling fine. I'm fine, Cathy."
"Then why -- "
"Cathy, stop. I'm dying. I accepted that. But I'm not dead yet. I don't even feel that bad. I'm all right, and I'm going to be all right for who knows how long. Now, I love you to death, but I don't think I'll be able to handle you on my case like you are now for the next couple of years. I'll go crazy before it's time for me to check out. You wouldn't want that, would you?" He laughed a little, feeling more genuine.
"I'm sorry, Jay. It's just I don't want you to feel alone with this thing. I want you to know that it's not just your problem, but ours. I'm here, whatever you need. Whatever you want."
"What I want is for us not to dwell so much on my, I mean, our problem. Can we just live like we have been for the past twenty years, huh?"
"Okay. I'll...I'll try that." She smiled, giving him a small kiss on the lips. "I'll go to work, but I'm still going to fix you that breakfast."
"No. That's all right. I have a lot on my mind. I was really just planning on going out and finding somewhere nice to sit. You know, something beautiful to look at."
Cathy didn't say anything, but he could see her making an effort to try not to ask to accompany him.
"Okay, sweetheart. I'll eat all by myself, but don't complain when you miss out on the best breakfast I've ever made."
Julius parked his car, a 1970 Mercedes two-door coupe, on the bank of the Pacific Ocean. It was spotless. He had just washed and waxed it two days ago and it looked brand new. He looked back at it as he walked toward the water, remembering when he had first purchased it so many years back. Fifteen years to be exact, from some old guy. It was spotless then, and looked just as good now, if not better.
It was his gift to himself for making it, for doing what he set out to do and accomplishing it, even though he had to sacrifice a wife and three sons. He stood, the water to his back, a gentle breeze in the air, looking at the car. A solemn look covered his face. What a gift. He had bought the car in celebration of leaving his old life, venturing out in the cruel world where no one knew him, and making a new life. Yes, he had bought the car five years after he left his family, to commemorate the year his business was finally in the black, and he could feel accomplished.
The car had meant so much to him then. It helped mask the pain he was feeling for abandoning his family, helped him forget that he was still a married man with three boys that were probably missing him as he drove through the streets in the small two-seater, declaring how single and carefree he was. It had meant so much to him then, but now it really wouldn't matter to him if the brake slipped and the thing slowly started rolling toward the water. He would let it roll. He'd probably even give it a nudge and watch the water eat his car, leaving behind only ripples and bubbles, then nothing. It would only be fitting. But then he would have nothing, neither the car nor his family. He would only have his diseased shell of a body, and soon that too would be gone.
Copyright © 1999 by R. Marcus Johnson
The Harris Men
"Mr. Harris, I'm sorry, but you have cancer." Although devastated to learn he has just one year to live, fifty-five-year-old Julius Harris has always known that the day would come when he would pay for walking out on his wife and three children twenty years earlier. Now, with a sudden and passionate determination to make his family whole again, Julius begins trying to find a way back to his sons.
Caleb, the youngest, struggling to support a son and make his way in a relentless world, couldn't care less about his own absentee father. Middle son Marcus can't abide even his father's memory, which gets in the way of his committing to the one woman who has turned his life around. And Austin, Julius' eldest child, so adores what he remembers of his father that he's following in his footsteps, abandoning his wife and children just as Julius had done.
Inspired by RM Johnson's own fragile family history, The Harris Men is his poignant exploration of the increasing problem of absentee fathers -- and of the compromises made by the families they leave behind. As the Harris men grapple with their fears and their choices, Johnson gets to the very heart of what it means to be a man.