Family O'Shea


The young face fills the television screen in a display of smooth flesh, white teeth and blue eyes.  She is two things, this one is: young and pretty.  “But isn’t that all that you need, these days?”  John Albert O’Shea says softly to himself.

The focus of the camera lens is so tight on the young face that when she bats her eye in profile it’s like an awning being waved.  If she had a single pimple, O’Shea thinks, it would look like Vesuvius in living color.  But she is flawless and apparently oblivious to the close scrutiny.  It’s as if she’s alone.

O’Shea mutters out loud.  “If she’s twenty-one, then I’m the king of bloody England.”  He casts a poisonous look at the television suspended from the ceiling and then glances around at the empty chairs of the waiting room where he’s waiting, alone, to see the Jap doctor he’s never met before, waiting to be called inside to the inner sanctum to hear the inevitable news about the end of him, the end of the Family O’Shea.

It’s the Joe Peterson show on the flickering tube above his head.  John O’Shea’s seen it before, though never as a willing audience.  Who the hell this Peterson guy must have paid off is a mystery to John.  Right now, Peterson is interviewing the young woman, who was a recent cover girl of some sporting magazine’s swimsuit edition.  O’Shea listens to the back and forth between Peterson and the woman—a girl, really—listening absent-mindedly, as is his habit, more to the accents than what’s being said.  The girl shows the training of a diction coach, no accent detectable, though she has the annoying American habit, especially among the young, of running her words together while slurring over the consonants.  Peterson’s accent, on the other hand, is what O’Shea has come to recognize as the typical American Midwest accent—Indiana or some other nowhere—with the slight nasality and the flat “a” sound and the hard “r”.  O’Shea winces, hearing it.

So far, Peterson and the girl have covered love and the modern woman in the nineties, and relationships and the male ego.  O’Shea half expects that next they’ll launch into the state of the nation as we approach the twenty-first century.  Peterson is seated next to her on a small couch or loveseat, behind which is a fake backdrop of what’s supposed to be palm trees and a view of Hollywood as seen from the hills on a clear day.  The girl is looking at Peterson from beneath downcast lashes, as the camera zooms in for close-ups of her flawless face, showing all of America, or at least as many as watch this stuff every weekday afternoon, her delicate profile with the full lower lip and her even white teeth, as she seriously discusses whatever it is she’s discussing—world peace, O’Shea supposes, or how she’s just a simple girl with old fashioned values.  The guy, Peterson, is seated close to her, half turned toward her so that their knees are almost touching, and he has his arm behind her on the back of the couch as he gazes at her with his big Irish mug of a face while sneaking peeks down the front of her dress.

A word John has always liked comes to his mind.  It was used like a password by the Italian longshoreman on the New York docks, where he worked almost sixty years ago, during WWII, when O’Shea was still in his teens.  “Hey Mook,” they would call one to another, and sometimes to outsiders like him, when they weren’t calling him worse.  Sometimes they said it with a smile and sometimes affectionately—sometimes angrily, mook—but they always said it out of the corners of their mouths with a certain wiseguy look, and it was always clear, though he never heard a real definition of the word, what was meant: slob, lowlife, uncouth.  That was all in the sound of the word:  mook.  Now, looking up at Joe Peterson’s face on the tube above his head, John O’Shea can see that this Peterson character is a mook.  Smooth and well groomed, wearing an expensive suit, with hair neatly slicked back in the latest combed-for-success look, Peterson, nevertheless, has the look of a mook, he smiles with loose lips, and his jaw hangs slack at times and his eyes wander.  John O’Shea knows his mooks, and Peterson is one.

O’Shea sighs, looking away.  “What the hell has happened to this country?” he says out loud, wondering how we take seriously the words of slick fakers like Peterson.  Talking out loud to himself is a habit O’Shea had gotten into over the years.  He glances up again at Joe Peterson who is seriously talking to this model barely out of her teens.  Peterson is hanging on her words like they are the weighty utterances of a statesman.  Everything is showbiz in this country anymore, John thinks, jazz and pizzazz, and everybody takes it serious.

Just then the door to the inner office opens and the young dark-haired nurse sticks her head out.  “Mr. O’Shea, you can come in now.”

She reminds John of the teenage whore he met years ago in Dublin outside the gates of Trinity College, just before he shipped out to America.  That one had a gap in her teeth, just like the nurse, and a nervous way of smiling.

The young nurse smiles, holding the door open for him to enter.  Her blouse bulges, and the barest bit of cleavage shows where she’s left the top two buttons undone.  John pops out of his chair, still tall and erect despite the seventy-six years that he carries and the cancer that’s now eating away at him.  Expanding his chest, he walks through the door, casting a quick glance down her blouse as he passes her.  Then he looks back to see her watching him, her head cocked and her eyes in a sideways glance like she is looking at a naughty boy.  John winks at her and she grins before returning to her desk.

The doctor is waiting in a small, oak-paneled office.  Miles Iguchi.  How does a Jap get tagged with a name like Miles, John thinks as he enters the office, and the small, swarthy doctor stands?  Maybe his old man read about the pilgrims: Miles Standish and all that.  John takes the limp hand the doctor offers and sits down across the desk from the guy, crossing his legs, trying to appear at ease.  He already knows what the doctor is about to tell him, yet O’Shea feels a sudden thump of his heart and a chill runs through him.  It’s been a sure thing to him for some time, after all.  Why the palpitations now?  The doctor, his smooth oriental face a blank, is studying something on his desk.

“Well I was wondering why I came here, after all,” O’Shea finally exclaims, laying the Irish on a little thicker than usual.

“Oh?” the doctor says, looking up.  “What do you mean?”  He has that kind of accentless American speech that you hear on newsreaders, and it sounds odd to John’s ears coming from the swarthy, oriental face.

“Because I know what it is you’re going to tell me.”

“I expect you do,” the doctor says.

O’Shea watches the guy, and the pounding of his heart begins to slow down and the chill passes and he shudders slightly.  Well, it’s not so bad, this, he thinks, and I’m tired enough not to care.  “I figured you were going to tell me I’m done for, after all,” he says.

It wasn’t his idea to come to this guy.  His regular doctor talked him into it, saying he really needed to see an oncologist, and this Iguchi was supposed to be one of the best in California.  Or at least this domain of northern California, which was still a pretty big chunk of country.  The other guy, O’Shea’s regular doctor, was a Jew, but a good guy, sincere.  You could tell he meant whatever he said, not like some of them.  Anyway, he twisted John’s arm for a week about coming to see this Iguchi guy, and John had finally agreed.

“I’m afraid you’re right,” the doctor says.  “I’ve gone over your history very thoroughly.  With this kind of cancer there’s not a very good survival history.”  He pauses, looking across the desk at John, perhaps giving him time to digest the last statement.  “Liver cancer is very hard to detect,” the doctor continues.  “Still, something might have turned up with a simple blood test when you went in for your regular physical.  But you hadn’t had a physical in, how many years?”  He looks down at whatever it is he has on his desk—John’s scanty medical history, most likely, which would show that John hadn’t seen his regular doctor in years, until the fatigue and the weight loss finally forced him to over six months ago.  Then he went to the same doctor who set his arm that time he’d broken it in a fall, way back when.  He can’t remember how long ago that was.  And now, here he is, sitting across a desk from Doctor Miles Iguchi who is looking back at him with a blank expression.


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