My name is Winston Churchill. Yeah, my father thought it was a hoot too. As far as I know, it’s the only thing he ever gave me. That and his damned defective genes. As I walked into the bank that muggy Florida morning, I had reached the end of my rope.
I lost my job three years ago. I hadn’t had real work since.
I was an IT guy for a reputable firm that was making money like they owned a printing press. I was a junior executive, not living in luxury, I mean, this was California, but I could afford a nice house, a decent car and the love of a fine woman. Given where I started in life, this was pretty damn good.
We moved to Florida when the firm decided to relocate from California. I hate the cold so when the choices were the New York office or the Florida office, everyone agreed Florida and Disneyworld were the ticket.
We packed up our small California home, sold it for a pittance in a slowly collapsing market and considered ourselves lucky to be leaving the Golden State, where you needed to have gold to do anything at all. My wife, Emily had bought the house before we met, but we had lived in it for a decade and had done a lot of work on the property, re-tiled the roof, put up a new fence with our own hands, no contractors, painted, had a little garden in the back; a home we were proud to own.
Things started going wrong as soon as we got here. We had come out to find a house and the Realtor failed to secure a deal on the home we had chosen. We ended up in a tenement on Mirror Lake. She promised this would be a temporary condition but we ended up there for a year.
Then came the financial collapse in 2009. I lost my job. Unexpected. Unprepared for. My wife was a trooper, she found a job as a office admin to keep the money flowing and our son, a bright and funny ten year old, kept a stiff upper lip.
“The only thing we have to fear Is fear itself,” was something he would always say to me after I spent the day looking for work. It was my own fault, since I taught it to him after his first altercation with a bully. I know he was trying to cheer me up and I held it together most of the time until I started getting ill.
It wasn’t serious at first, just a bit of a cough. A flu which seemed to take forever to go away. I have to admit I enjoyed the attention. Being home all day was maddening. My wife’s chicken soup however was to die for.
It has been a couple of years and the economy was completely in the tank. I hadn’t been able to find anything resembling my previous pay scale and after a time, I couldn’t find or keep any work at all.
After a few more months, my wife tried to force me to go to the hospital. I refused at first, telling her hospitals are where people go to die. The truth was I was terrified of hospitals. Everyone I ever knew who went to one died there. I never remembered leaving a hospital in a state of happiness. I was not disappointed.
We ended up going to the emergency room on Christmas Eve. I was sick as a dog, fevered, chilled, throwing up all over God’s green Earth. At two in the morning, wearing my pajamas and slippers. My wife could barely get me into the car before I passed out. I know she violated several traffic laws getting me there.
God, I love that woman.
I woke up on a gurney in what I would describe as a hospital in crisis. The place was just shy of a bachelor’s pad in terms of cleanliness. Complete with flickering lights, patients queued up in the halls, angry-looking medical staff with dark circles surrounding their bloodshot eyes. I don’t remember talking much, the nurse who was taking my insurance information didn’t look very happy and then my wife went berserk. There was screaming and shouting and then I was admitted. Hurling bloody vomit didn’t hurt, I’m told.
I was stabilized, tested and kicked out as soon as they were able to do so. Which was just as well. I thought I might die there by catching something like flesh eating bacteria from the dirty damn toilets in that place.
I got the call from their diagnostic center a week later. You see, I have stomach cancer. The doctor gave it an extensive and impressive name and I completely tuned him out, because the phone conversation I had before he called had completely unnerved me.
My insurance was cancelled. The company has gone on the cheap when they purchased it the previous year, they hadn’t bothered to tell us. So just like that I learned I needed thirty thousand dollars worth of treatment and I needed it yesterday.
I didn’t know what to do, but panic wasn’t my thing. My wife was making about twelve thousand dollars a year, but I discovered we made too much for Medicaid or any other kind of government social program. We could get food stamps but that would not cover my medical bills. I wasn’t disabled so I couldn’t get Social Security benefits.
I was simply ass out.
“Mister Churchill, you need to begin treatment right away.” The doctor was talking to me behind the hospital having a smoke break. This was the only place any of the hospital staff could smoke without any difficulties. I agreed to talk to him there because he felt compelled to help me but didn’t want to have to explain to anyone why he wasn’t getting paid for his time.
“Does it have to be here?” I was hoping there was someplace else but I would do it here if I had to.
“No, Florida has plenty of places you could be treated. Your cancer is treatable if we get to it early.” Another long drag as if he were lifting the world from his shoulders. He looked at me with rheumy eyes. “I know you don’t have any medical insurance. Does your wife work?”
“Part-time, and she won’t be getting benefits until she works there for a year.”
Dr. Fadi hurriedly lit his next cigarette from the one he was already smoking and he leaned in close to me in a way that made me believe he was going to tell me a state secret. “Prison.”
“Excuse me, doctor?” I wasn’t sure what he had said or what I heard, so I asked again.
“The Florida penal system has a medical capacity capable of treating your cancer. If you were treated for two years, the prognosis would probably be better than a seventy-five percent chance of recovery, even under those conditions.”
“You mean under prison conditions. You’re joking right? You are advocating I go to jail?” In that moment, I realized where I was standing and the smell of rotting garbage from a nearby dumpster overwhelmed me. But it was his body language which revealed the truth. He was slumped over, his not-so white lab coat, rumpled, his hair disheveled. This was an unbidden and unwanted truth, something he spoke of with shame, both of the need and his inability to offer anything else.
“No… If anyone asks me, I will say we haven’t spoken since your admission to the emergency room. I have no recollection of any conversations except for me informing you of your stomach cancer. I won’t remember any such conversations regarding anything which might have caused you to go to prison in the state of Florida where you might be able to receive treatment for your cancer which requires aggressive and immediate treatment, but not so immediate any emergency room will take you or try to treat you long term. Without such treatment, you will likely die in two to three years.”
“In other words, good luck.”
“Good luck, Mr. Churchill. I have to get back inside.” I think it was the scent of urine or garbage which drove the poor man back inside. I never saw Dr. Fadi again. He would be kind enough to provide the test results later when I needed them. He was, as best he could be, a good man.
I left the hospital parking lot, marveling at my freedom. My ability to walk the street, seeing people shopping, smelling spicy foods I hadn’t noticed until now, suddenly aware of what I would have to do. I stopped and borrowed a pen and a piece of paper from a young man sitting at a fast food restaurant. A quick flourish and the deed was done. I thanked him and folded up my note. I meant to call my wife but I knew if I did that she would talk me out of what I had to do.
I knew I wanted to be there for my son. My father left me before I could walk. I couldn’t do that. But if I died, it would be the same thing. A prison sentence meant I might never work for anyone important again. No one hires ex-cons.
No one hires dead people, either.
I was fifty years old when I walked into that air-conditioned bank. It felt so good after the heat of the coming noon. My mind raced. God-willing, I will be fifty-three when I walk out of prison. If I walk out of prison. So much could go wrong with this. Don’t think. Just do it.
I am grateful this bank doesn’t have those impersonal four-inch plexiglass shields so common in California banks. The nice young lady behind the counter smiles at me. Her makeup and hair were perfect. On any other day, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. Today, she was a goddess. I hand her my note, careful to keep my other hand menacingly in my windbreaker pocket.
She stops smiling and waves to her manager. He turns a pale shade of grey and fades into the back of the bank. She gives me one dollar. The one dollar I asked for in my note indicating this was a robbery. Once I have it, I take my hand out of my pocket and I fold it up slowly and deliberately while people wonder what’s happening.
I waited patiently until the police arrived. I cooperated fully. Knelt down, put my hands behind my head, and I lay face down onto the floor. But, internally, I questioned what drove me to this. As they march me to their patrol car, I coughed a deep wracking thing, pain so sudden, I am surprised as my body spasms uncontrollably in the too-tight handcuffs. Unconcerned, they pick me up and throw me into the police car, ensuring I don’t bump my head as they put me in.
Another spasm and coughing fit struck.
Blood splashed my lips and the interior of the patrol car. My mind was made up, written in the crimson stains as they dripped inexorably down the glass. The cops looked back, momentarily unreadable, their gazes flinty and cold. They turn away, disgust flickered across their faces.
“Goddamn druggies,” whispered the driver under his breath. I was past caring. The metallic smell of my blood mixed with the unpleasant perfume of other effluvia whose remnants also lingered there; the scent of unwashed bodies, cologne from some dandified pimp, vomit from a heroin addict de-toxing. I was in excellent spiritual company.
The judge sentenced me to thirty-six months citing it as my first offense.
I’m alive to tell you this story five years later and I’m still in remission. I now work for myself.
A Dollar’s Worth of Cure © Thaddeus Howze 2012, All Rights Reserved