40 • Cafeteria
“Joe doesn’t waste any time, ” Will said.
“No, I suppose he figures we’re not getting any younger.” Cameron smiled and smoothed Joe’s blanket at his chest.
“Hey, did you see that?” Will asked.
Will pointed to Joe’s hand. Joe’s thumb twitched. “He’s waking up. Look.”
“Oh, Will, you watch too much television. People’s fingers and toes move involuntarily all the time. It doesn’t mean he’s waking up. I’m sorry.”
Will put his hands on the rail and set his jaw. “I’ve owned a television for just slightly longer than I’ve been Joe’s son. This isn’t me watching too much TV.”
“Right, ” Cameron said. “I’m just a sleepy killjoy. Sorry about that.”
Will turned and leaned his back against the bed rail. He crossed his ankles and put his hands in his jeans pockets. “You’re probably right, though.”
Joe’s hands balled into fists.
“Will, look.” Cameron pointed at Joe’s hands.
“What, is it real as long as you’re the one who sees it?”
“No, seriously.” She tugged on his sleeve. “I’m sorry, okay? But look—”
Will turned. Joe’s eyelids fluttered and his lips pursed, then relaxed. Will leaned over the bed.
“Joe? he said. “Hey, Joe. Is that you in there?”
Will turned to Cameron and grinned. “See? It’s not just wishful thinking. He’s waking up. He’s really waking up.”
“He is, Will. He is.” Cameron returned Will’s smile and rested a hand between his shoulders as he leaned down.
“I’m going to go get a nurse, ” he said, rushing for the door. “Stay here and keep him awake.”
“Oh, right. I’ll just use my secret magical power to keep a man alert.”
“Umm. You have them. You might as well use them, ” Will said and ducked out the door.
When Will came back into the room with Myrna, Joe’s eyes were open and Cameron was leaning sideways with her hip against the rail talking to him cheerfully with her hands. She turned her head when the door opened.
“Look who decided to join us, ” she said.
Will hurried to the bedside. “Hey Joe. Nice of you to wake up for your party.”
“Is it time for the party already?” Joe asked, his face shadowed with confusion. His voice was raspy. He turned to Cameron and said, “Millie, could you get me a drink of water?” He cleared his throat and winced in pain. “I feel parched.”
Will reached behind her for the water pitcher and cup. “Yes, the water’s right here, Millie.” He filled the cup and handed it to Cameron. “Mind the straw so you don’t poke out his good eye.”
She took the cup and turned back to Joe, holding it so he could sip from the straw while Myrna held one hand on his forehead and the other on his wrist.
“It’s good to see you’re waking up from your nap, Mr. Murphy, ” she said. “How are you feeling?”
“Feel like hell, ” Joe said, then turned to Cameron. “Sorry, my Love. I know you don’t like me to curse.”
Cameron looked at Will and mouthed, “My love?”
“It’s okay, Joe, ” Will said. “Millie will forgive you a little cursing after the scare you gave us all. I think I heard her use a word or two herself. I’m sure she’s just happy like the rest of us to see you up and at ‘em.”
He took Cameron’s arm and stepped back from the bed. “Millie was his wife. I guess we’ll have to rethink our engagement since you’re already married.”
She put a hand to her mouth to cover a laugh. From across the bed, Myrna said, “Listen, Will. Why don’t you take Millie down for a cup of coffee? Maybe your mother would like a cookie too. We called the doctor and he’ll be in to see Joe shortly.”
Cameron gasped audibly. Myrna winked. Will smiled and took Cameron by her elbow toward the door.
“Yes, that sounds nice. Let’s go, Ma, ” he said.
Cameron’s mouth dropped open.
Will guided Cameron through the door and let it close behind them.
“I can’t believe you are going along with this whole Millie thing, ” Cameron said as she and Will walked into the small hospital cafeteria. The overhead lights were off, and the room was lit by just the sickly glow of an assortment of vending machines and the hanging lights over the food service area, lined with clean scrubbed stainless steel warming pans. A stack of colorful melamine trays sat at the start of the line. Will drummed his fingers across the top one, in 1960s pink.
“Hey, you ever take these out sledding in the winter where you came from?” he asked, an impish grin on his face.
“We weren’t allowed to take them out at my school, ” Cameron said, still annoyed.
“Yeah, I never did, ” Will said quickly. “I knew some people though.” He scanned the machines and reached into his pocket. “Coffee? It’ll be terrible, but maybe you’d have some?”
Cameron walked over to the line of machines. “Good heavens. This is a hospital. How can they feed people this garbage? Flaming Hot Triple Spice Tortilla Chipsters, Double Cheese Dipped Cheezy Balls, Super Frosted Sugar Dipped Toaster Pops, White Chocolate Covered Gummi Bears? Do they have a conveyor from these machines straight to ER? I wonder if they dispense cigarettes somewhere here too.”
Will put his hand to his shirt pocket and found it was empty. “Shoot. Did you want one? I can run out to the truck.”
Cameron turned to face Will. Her look was in keeping with the cold stainless steel in which he now found himself enclosed. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Right. I would imagine I’m kidding. That’s exactly what I am doing.”
“You’re going to let those go one of these days, I hope.”
He felt the chill of the last time he was asked not to smoke. He turned in a circle scanning the room. “Coffee. Weren’t we looking for coffee?”
Cameron wiped her hands on her warmup pants and stepped away from the vending machine. “Yes. Coffee. And yes, it’s going to be terrible.” She pointed to the last vending machine. “Over there.”
Will rubbed two quarters between his index and thumb and jingled two more in his pocket. “But look. It’s gourmet.” The machine boasted fresh brewed coffee drinks featuring Tommy’s House Blend, a mellow cinnamon roast and a dark New Orleans roast, all of which could be whipped into a frothy cappuccino in a paper cup right before your eyes.
“How can they claim to be mixing a fresh brewed cappuccino with instant coffee granules and powdered milk? Nobody believes there’s a tiny barista trapped in that machine running on a caffeinated hamster wheel. Do they make the executives at these companies actually drink this swill?”
“Does who make them? There’s a reason they’re called the company executives, Cameron.”
“I think I might just like a glass of water.” She walked away toward a fountain in the corner.
“I want to watch the machine whip my coffee.” Will grinned and pushed his quarters into the coin slot and pushed the backlit square buttons for New Orleans Roast, Extra Dark, Whipped Milk.
As the cup dropped into the compartment he thought of his trips to the airport to pick up his father after his monthly business trips. Before the 9-11 attacks, parties could meet arrivals at the gate and he and Molly became familiar with the concourses at O’Hare, running up and down the wide corridors on plush carpet patterned with brightly-colored geometric shapes in the greens, golds and oranges of the 1970s. Molly took the left side and Will took the right, sticking his fingers into the coin return of a hundred pay phones, usually making at least a couple of dimes a night that would net him a packet of Hot Tamales at the corner Tom Thumb superette the next day. One night as they hopscotched over the colored squares on their way back to the gate, he pushed the Coke button on a soda machine and felt the small lurch of the dispenser activating. A cup dropped into place and the fizzy brown sugar syrup flushed out on top of a deposit of crushed ice. Will stood frozen in place and Molly clapped her hand over her mouth. They looked at each other, turned and ran for their lives back to the gate, abandoning the ice cold Coke in the machine to a traveler with more courage to claim the spoils.
“Why didn’t you take the Coke, ” his mother asked, looking up from Better Homes & Gardens, amused at their hasty return to the black vinyl seats in the waiting area of Gate E107.
“We didn’t pay for it!” Will had exclaimed, certain he would have been arrested and charged with petty theft had he made off with someone else’s drink. If only they’d pressed the coin return instead, they’d have been 25 cents richer and far less out of breath. Will dared to press a drink button on every soda machine he saw for the next seven years, seeking to redeem his cowardice, never seeing another drink drop for free from the cosmic testing center he often credited with so many of his unexplained circumstances.
Will pulled his cup from the coffee machine and held it under his nose. He shrugged and motioned to a table in the corner off the end of the serving area that was reasonably well lit. Cameron lifted her water glass to her lips and walked ahead of him. He slid a chair out from under the table for her and sat down on the opposite side.
“Nobody believes you’re old enough to be Joe’s wife, Cameron. But who’s going to argue with an old man who just regained consciousness?”
“You were ready to argue about not being his son.”
“Well, yeah. But that was different. And I got over it as soon as he woke up.”
“You mean as soon as he woke up and took the attention off his good-for-nothing son and put it on his old lady? Is that what you mean by as soon as he woke up?”
Will took a sip of his coffee and winced hard, trying not to spit it out.
Cameron laughed. “It’s as bad as I thought, yes?”
He swallowed and grabbed Cameron’s glass, gulping down half her water.
“No, no. Not at all, ” he said, wiping his mouth. “Much worse.”
Cameron picked up the coffee cup and sniffed it, turning away quickly. “I’m not kidding. This hospital is in the business of patient-creation.”
Will chuckled and pushed out his chair. “Let me get you another cup of water.”
“Yes, please. Backwash, you know?”
Will smiled. “I know.”
Cameron looked up at Will as he came back with the water. “So really, when are you going to quit?”
“What?” he asked, sitting down.
“Smoking. When are you going to quit for real?”
“I can quit whenever I want, ” Will said, taking a long drink from the ribbed plastic cafeteria cup.
Cameron burst out laughing. “Can you, now.”
Will smiled. “Of course I can’t. Otherwise I would have already. I’ve cut back, over time. Used to smoke a helluva lot more, but then I had reason to. But it’s kind of like the last five pounds people can’t ever quite lose. I have my five cigarettes a day I can’t quite break myself of.”
“What’s that about?” Cameron wrapped her hands around her glass rubbing her thumb along the nicked plastic rim. “What’s the hurdle?”
“Equal parts nicotine and Barbara, I imagine.”
“Barbara? The Barbara that doesn’t matter anymore?” Cameron’s brow wrinkled.
“Mr. Phillips?” The young nurse stuck his head in the cafeteria door. “Mr. Murphy is asking if you’re still here.”
“It’s Mark, right?” Will asked. “Remind me to commend you to your boss for an impeccable sense of timing.”
Will smiled at Cameron and stood. He swung a hand toward the door. “Well, Millie. We should go see how Dad’s doing.”
“You’re terrible, ” Cameron said, pushing on her chair. “I’ll see about having him ground you.”
(to be continued)