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Volume 12, Number 2

Short Story
The Smell of Coffee

Brian Deady, MD

He burst through the door. Like he was in a rush, and you'd better not waste his time.

"Mrs. Thompson?" he said while shaking my Mom's hand, "I'm Dr. Smith."

"And you must be Michael," he said as he smiled at me. A big phoney smile, it seemed, and I thought, oh great, he's one of these guys who thinks the way to talk to kids is to try and be their best buddy. I was half expecting him to poke me in the ribs and call me 'big guy' or something dumb like that. Instead, he paused and waited for me to say hello. But I didn't say anything. I crossed my legs and looked up at the ceiling.

"So, you must be Michael's big brother, I bet."

I couldn't believe it. Stevie was buyin' it. He thought this was terrific, that the doctor would think he was the older one. He looked at him with his shy little boy's smile and then buried his face in Mommy's shoulder. "This is Steven," Mom said, "and he's just three."

"Oh, just three. And such a big boy." He reached out and patted him on the head. Then he turned back to me. "So. Michael. How are you today?"

I looked at him, pressed my lips together and said nothing.

"He has a stomach ache again this morning."

"Again, Mrs. Thompson?"

"Yes, he wakes up with it nearly every morning. For about four months now."

"Four months? What does his own doctor say about this?"

"Says everything checks out. That it's just going to take some time. But I just hate to see him like this, doctor. Isn't there something we can do?"

"Hmm. Well, I don't know yet. Let's see, today then, was there vomiting?"

Here we go again, I thought. The big adult words for barfing and pooping, and am I hungry or have I lost weight? And, I'll have to check you over, he'll say. Stick out your tongue and go aahh. Big breath. Does this hurt? How about here? And then the part about your bum. Geez I hate that.

"Well," he said, snapping off his rubber gloves. "I don't find much wrong on examination. I just wonder though if there isn't something else. Something I should know?"

I looked at Mom. I could see her hesitating. Starting to give in. "No Mom. Don't. You promised." But I knew it was too late.

"His father," she looked down at the floor and cleared her throat, "my husband. He died four months ago."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"Thanks. It's okay. Well, I mean, we're doing all right. Most of the time." She dabbed at her eyes with a Kleenex.

"So you see, Mikey doesn't want to go sleep at night." Tears, big crocodile ones, began rolling down her face. My brother looked at the doctor, giggled, and buried his face in Mommy's shoulder again.

"Because he knows that when he wakes up his Daddy still won't be there." Then she was really began bawling, her breath making big whooshing sounds, her cheeks and ears and eyes all red. I glanced over at the doctor to see if he would understand all this. How I felt. About my stomach ache and my lonely mornings and my crying Mommy.

You know, it was the strangest thing, I could tell that he understood about me. It seemed he was aware of an empty, hungry sensation-not exactly a pain- in his own stomach. More like a water pail, I'd say, with a great big ol' hole in it, that no matter how hard you tried, you could never fill up.

He pulled up a chair next to the stretcher and leaned close to me. He put his hand on my shoulder and began to talk. The air was warm with the smell of him. Of aftershave. And of sweat, slightly. And another smell I couldn't quite name. Actually, I began to feel very cozy and secure and also sort of off in a distance. Somewhere or something familiar, but exactly what, I couldn't quite remember. I began to lose track of what he was saying. Words like your Daddy's gone. Your stomach hurts. It's okay to cry.

Then he was gone, and Mommy took Stevie and me home.

So I wake up very slowly this morning, with a warmth in my tummy and the feeling of Daddy there, covering me like a blanket. When I realize it is a dream, I let my tears come. They swirl out of my eyes without a sound, soaking my pillow. And then just like that, they stop. Like there is no more pressure. I sit up in bed and begin to stare out the window.

Later, Mom comes into my room.

"You're okay this morning Mikey?"

"Ya, sure Mom."

"Well then, how's the tummy?"

I dunno. When's it gonna stop hurting?"

"Oh Michael, I wish I knew when. I wish I knew."

"Well, akshully. . .it's a bit better this morning." She just gives me a big hug, and squeezes me so hard my bones start to crack.

"Mom, Dad really liked to drink coffee, didn't he?"

"Yes, he sure did. I hadn't thought about that, his drinking coffee. I don't drink it, never have. But, you know, he'd have a couple of cups before going to work. Goodness knows how many he would have during the day. Now that you've reminded me though, I'd say I enjoyed making it for him. How it gave him pleasure."

"I miss the smell of coffee."

"Well, we could make some up right now. Just for the smell of it. For you and me, eh?"

"Thanks, but I think I miss the smell of it on him more. Don't you, Mom? Like when he got up close to give you a whisker rub or to read you a story. Don't you too, Mom, miss that?" She doesn't answer these questions. She just stands there and stares out the window. I'll leave her alone for a while, I guess.

Correspondence and reprint requests to: Dr Brian Deady, Emergency Department, The Royal Columbian Hospital, 330 East Columbia Street, New Westminster, BC V3L 3W7