Varsha 2020 Issue, Stories - Keltie Zubko



One Last Pizza

By Keltie Zubko


Her eyelids crept upward on their long, dry journey open enough to see a pizza delivery guy in her hospital room. The door swung shut behind him, cutting off the surge of lunchtime activity outside. She didn’t want to hear it if she couldn’t move from her bed. Her shrouded meal tray with its untouched liquids and puddings waited on a side table to be picked up.


But the guy stood there, holding out the pizza. How strange that they even let him in without a gown and mask, but even stranger that the pizza wasn’t in a box, but open, held out to her. It was like her husband when he’d just taken one of his handmade pizzas out of the oven, bringing it over to the table, as he always did, every Saturday night.


Why hadn’t they confiscated it? The guy resembled him, with that woeful expression on his long face, bonier since her diagnosis, the surgery, the chemo, and would be even gaunter by the time she got radiation. If she got it, that is, and wasn’t ferried upstairs to the hospice, instead. After all, this was where they collected the patients balancing on the edge of going home eventually, or never.


But it wasn’t Saturday, she felt sure, and it wasn’t suppertime when he’d make pizza for them, from scratch, everything deliberate, crafted with fresh oregano from his garden, a hand thrown crust, the special sauce she created, distilled from herbs, meaty Roma tomatoes and potent garlic from the tall plants with their flamboyant purple seed head she’d grown in his own garden. Her eyes almost closed, too tired to think about the lush little plot where he grew it all, that she’d never helped him weed.


This pizza guy seemed just like him, but she didn’t want to look too closely at the pizza. Lucky she was long past the first stages of chemo which twisted every smell and taste, before finally blunting them entirely. The thought, however, could still make her gag. Why had they let him in? Her mouth and throat barely let in water, much less solids, just as some of her veins had closed up in rebellion.


Pudding and jello were impossible now, but the sharp edges of his crusts would be like blades, the sauce like acid, inflaming and burning and make it all spill back up over the blankets in a corrosive sour soup, of caramelized onions, green peppers, sausage, and bile.


She couldn’t even talk to ask him what he was doing there. Blisters hid beneath the white yeast caked on her tongue and at the back of her throat. Instead of even whispering, she wrote notes to everyone, nurses, doctors, kids, and him. He didn’t say anything, but stood there, imploring her with unreadable eyes.


She looked back, hers barely opened from their cocoon of silence and weariness, her ears muffled, plugged or just withdrawing, she couldn’t tell. Her immune system had stopped guarding her, instead allowing infections everywhere on her body, inside and out. She dared not contemplate what was going on with the cancer itself, that battle on a miniscule level she’d tried to visualize as a victory, but couldn’t, anymore.


At least this was a change from the usual visitors creeping in with gifts to placate the faceless enemy, a stack of books she couldn’t hold, magazines with pages too slippery to turn, flowers she saw briefly before the nurses took them away. Some smuggled food in but it lay forgotten on a shelf in the corner.


She knew she made a sound but didn’t know what kind. It wasn’t a word, she knew that. More like a groan. And he just stood there, waiting. So typical, except it was not like him to break the rules about the gown and mask. He was courteous, and respectful, timid, even, while she had been the aggressive one, always working at everything: marriage, family, her business. So he could afford to be like that, she thought.


She’d given him the time to do such things as grow his garden, make his finicky meals, be there for the kids when they were little, while she had worked and fought to pull them all through.


She had cared about her job, her own hard-won business. And now it was relinquished to their son, her tight grasp disentangled. Her hands rested on the bed covers. She couldn’t talk or gesture to tell this guy to beat it, take his pizza and leave. He just stood there, extending it to her, like some prize she’d never wanted.


Surely a nurse would come in and throw him out. But meanwhile, there he was, tall and gangly, just like their children had turned out to be, his forehead sweating a little inhere, as it did under the kitchen lights. He put so much effort into the whole process of making a simple damn pizza, not like it was anything lasting, that it had to be made so carefully. He put all that care into such a trivial thing, only for it to be devoured until he’d go through the same painstaking process again, next Saturday night.


Often she hadn’t even tasted it, ate it so fast, taken for granted like you do with something that’s always reliably good. They’d watched movies, talked and caught up with the kids, who came home just for the ritual of his pizzas and a visit Saturday night. Sometimes that pizza routine had made her crazy with impatience but she had never told them that, tapping her fingers on the table in reflex, feeling the pulse of restrained energy, beating there.


If she could have spoken, she would finally ask him, “why not Thai food, or Greek? Why couldn’t we just get take-out? Something different? There are only so many Saturday nights in the course of any life, you know.” She was nearing the end of her allotment. Her grasp on whatever she was holding slipped. The morphine pump control lolled somewhere on the bed beside her. A nurse had wrapped her fingers around it, but it slipped away. Her fingers felt thick and cumbersome, and she couldn’t hang on much longer.


This seemed to be the end, despite the way she’d guarded the days of her life, unwilling to spend them carelessly. But no matter how hard she fought, despite her tight grip, this seemed to be the end.


She would never eat a pizza again, felt the creep of bile up her throat at the thought, as bad as the corrosive tomato sauce that would burn her mouth, throat and all the way down her raw oesophagus into her stomach. She didn’t want to think of the whole process, all the way through to burning diarrhoea that flooded her bed, so that the poor nurses had to clean her up, couldn’t scrub her raging skin, but still patiently swabbed and soothed her while she could do nothing for herself. Now she couldn’t even drink water from the plastic glass with its lid and bendable straw without spilling it on herself, unable to feel her lips.


That shadow of her old self leaping out of bed every morning tried to move her, pick her up and make her reach out with her usual confidence. She had small hands, but they used to be capable, strong hands. She tried to make them curl, make a fist, grab something, but didn’t know if they even moved. With that, the pizza man melted before her eyes into the shapes of the furniture in the room around her. She didn’t know the time, only that the sunlight outside hadn’t moved to this side of the building. Her striving hadn’t moved her own body, but at least it made him fade away and leave.


She let her lids descend her grainy eyes to almost meet. A slit of light from beyond her window fended off the shadows. She couldn’t lift her hands, much less her head. And he knew she couldn’t speak because of the mouth sores. What made him think she could eat his pizza, ever again?


A clock somewhere marked the minutes flowing past as the fluids and antibiotics dripped into her, falling gently through the clear tubes like plastic blood vessels to infuse her body. Sometimes they brought chill, not heat, like her veins were taking in ice water. Her arm with the veins so hard that they couldn’t start an i.v., rested inert on the covers.


She’d stopped putting it under the blanket, let it rest there while the fluids siphoned into her other arm. She was just a one-celled organism of numbed pain, blind, deaf and dumb, and hairless like a slug, curling in on itself, her feelings so remote she didn’t know where they were. All except for that one hand out there on the bed, exposed. Hers, she thought, still hers, trying again to make a fist or just wiggle one finger.


She wondered who would discover it first, the lifeless hand, lying in the pool of dissipating energy that had once been her. Maybe the phlebotomist, come to draw another sample, with her clattering cart like she could create life by making noise, then jabbing and poking and digging till she found the vein, tapped what little remained.


Maybe she would come this time, not so long from now, and find nothing. Patting her arm, seeking the scarred and shrinking veins, they had brought in the i.v. Wizard, the last resort, used for old people and addicts and the chemo hardened patients like herself, plied her with every technique, every skill, smaller needles, butterfly needles for children, heated blankets, dropped her arm, moving it, until finally trying her feet. That hurt.


She alternated between shivers from cold and shivers from fever and couldn’t tell if the infections were building or abating. Her body hovered over the bed, not rested in it, didn’t even dent the mattress, like her substance had already seeped out of her body like every breath emptied her lungs and new ones never came back in. She’d tried, but she was like her husband’s stock pot that after 30 years of making soups and stews, suddenly sprung a pinhole leak, trickling everything he was trying to make out over the stove to evaporate in a split second.


The hole was so tiny, but incontrovertibly real, and leaking. He hadn’t been able to get it patched, but still refused to throw out the whole pot, and so there it waited on the shelf, above the stove.


In her mind, she clenched her fist and tried to grab hold.


Her hand lay at the end of that arm, at the end of the butchered chest and dissected armpit and shoulder, scarred now and feeble, skin raging red and inflamed, that arm with the collapsed veins. Her hand lay in a half curled, half open, or half open, half closed position, where it came to rest entirely without her will or control.


And it waited, along with the rest of her, body and mind, heart and soul. Waiting for what, she did not know. But as it rested there, she could feel how easy it was for life to escape through her fingertips. She could feel it ebb, seep, disappear and there was nothing left for her to hang onto.


No nerves in her fingertips drew the tendons in, to make a muscle, make a fist, as if it was not by her choice or decision. Her hand just lay there, its pulse a weak thread, still clinging for now, but yet, somehow, retreating. She knew that, and watched it, unable to shake it, wake it up, tell it to live, to live, to grasp life and live.


A shadow moved across the light. She pulled her eyelids open again, to another figure now against the late afternoon sunlight. This one brought no pizza, and wore a stethoscope. She remembered his voice from before. She tried to focus on him, but the effort sent her eyeballs rolling backwards with vertigo.


“Easy now. Don’t try so hard.”


He repeated that dispassionate litany of her recent test results, all the same stuff that she used to pay attention to, being a good proactive patient. She always applied her brain, her business skills to what they told her, trying to anticipate what she needed to do. Now she barely heard him. She knew already the chemo had done its work on the cancer presumably, but also on what they called the good cells, everywhere, like they were talking to a four year old.


After all, she’d picked the most aggressive combination they’d offered. Overkill, perhaps because there she was with massive side effects. Death by cancer or death by the treatment. At this point, his words trickled in a thin stream of sound to her plugged ears that echoed and buzzed.


He was the one who’d stopped and talked to her when she had still been able to hoist herself up out of bed and trudge the hallways, dragging her i.v. pole like she was in training for something. Forcing herself up and walking as if she could out walk it, out-strive the cancer. He’d thought she was overdoing it, suggested all that effort wasn’t necessary. “But I’ve got to,” she’d told him. That was miles ago, no, years or days or maybe just yesterday.


She didn’t know if she could ever do that again, get up and walk a few feet to the doorway, out the door. But even now, she was glad she’d done it while she could.


He came closer, bent over her, blocking out the light and laid two gentle fingers on her wrist where it had been abandoned on the blue cotton hospital blanket. For a few seconds his words came louder and clearer, like someone had turned up the sound on a television.


“You don’t have to fight so hard. Learn to hold life with an open hand. Let it rest right there, on your palm. Stop squeezing it out. Let it stay. Let it rest in your palm. It won’t leave.”


He spread her half-curled hand out on the bed so that it was flat and open. She felt the warmth of his fingers there. Or was it something else, her pulse, travelling to the tips of her own fingers, a heart of gentle heat, resting in her palm.


Her eyes couldn’t stay open. She let go and drifted in some strange realm, letting shadows and light play on her eyelids while her mind finally stopped trying to muster any strength or will she had to resist, to visualize, to do any little thing to fight and hang on.


Instead, she let her mind lay in her hand, open on the blankets. She felt how close the life was to just dribbling out like a little pool of water that would fly into the air if she tried to close her hand and grab it. She lay there, feeling the tiny puddle in the creases of her palm, maybe even getting a little bit warm. Her hand rested on the bed and she didn’t feel whether he was there or not.


Pizza or no pizza, pizza or die. Did she even have a choice?


She always had a choice.


She saw herself sitting in her chair, her frame, starved and frail, but upright at least, hands not clutching but resting, just waiting, open on the padded arms. Fuzz curled around her skull in a light-filled halo, and roasted tomato and garlic filled the air, the onions and olive oil brushed on the crust rising and golden, a dusting of parmesan cheese, not too much spiciness, but that would come later if she didn’t rush it. The smell of crushed basil and oregano from his garden, fresh and strong, wafted over the kitchen. She waited in her timeless bubble while he worked, finally bringing it to her, not rushing.


She let it all unfold as it would without her interference or help. Her mouth sores were healed, but she took tiny bites and chewed it all slowly and well. She left the edges of the crusts. Her taste was still distorted, she supposed, but at least she could eat and could almost taste it. She had a little bit of substance, now, cushioning her bones so that they didn’t poke awkwardly out. Her shirt rested definitely on her shoulders, didn’t bag around her like she was shrinking inside it.


Fuzzy socks clasped her feet and the needle marks there had faded. The veins where the drugs had burnt on the way inside lay taut and collapsed, but she remembered that same doctor telling her that others would take over, with some small and constant effort, exercise and attention. Not too much striving, he’d cautioned, but others would take their place.

Something had seeped out of her, but something else had remained. She didn’t bother giving a name to any of it, but sometimes noticed a tiny niggling thought that wouldn’t go away before her, as she got up when she could and walked the halls, pushing the i.v. pole until she didn’t need it anymore.


It didn’t matter where she was or what she did, it was all living. It didn’t matter what she ate, if she could eat. She wouldn’t tell him that, though, standing before her with another hand-crafted pizza, held out to her like a tribute.


That thought came in the door of her hospital room with him the first day she spoke without pain again, came to her with her first words when her mouth sores healed, and she could sip a drink and a mouthful of pudding slid down her throat like a benediction.


The door opened and he entered, diffident as ever, his hands empty, by his sides, bringing her nothing but his quiet presence. She asked him, “Where’s my pizza?”


Keltie Zubko is a Western Canadian writer with an extensive background writing about freedom of speech legal cases. Her writing explores human relationships, and with technology. Her work has appeared in literary publications in Canada, international publications.


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