John Wayne Always Played a Bachelor | JJ Smith
“Now, I’d like you to know this isn’t something I’d normally do. Jan either, for that matter,” he said to the lawyer. He had been taught the value of self-sufficiency. Never a time to ruminate. No need to gab someone’s ear off. Definitely no need to call a lawyer. “The thing of it is, we aren’t getting what we expected from the VA, and we’re living on a fixed income. Jan and I, that is.”
He heard clacking across the phone line. “Just a second, sir. What did you say your name was?”
“And was it you or your wife that was exposed to Roundup?”
“It was my wife.”
“Ok.” More clacking from the lawyer’s end. “Are you currently represented by another attorney?”
“No, that’s what I was trying to mention earlier. We’re a bit out of sorts when it comes to things of this nature,” Richard said. He was quiet for a moment and looked at the light-up green buttons on the telephone. He wrapped the laminate coiled wire around his index finger. “We’ve never really been ones to ask for anything if we could help it. We just like to chew on it if we can. But we have co-pays and such,” Richard trailed off. “We’re only month to month right now.”
“I understand, Mr. Broster. Did you say you’re currently represented by another attorney?”
“No. Not currently.”
“Ok. Great.” More clacking and a sip of something.
“Let me get some contact information from you just in case we get disconnected.”
Richard gave what he could.
“No email, no cell phone for you? Is that correct?”
“Yes, it is. The kids broke Jan down, so she has one. They’re too much for me. The cell phones, not the kids. I humped a PRC Portable Receiver in Vietnam, and I’ve never wanted anyone to get ahold of me ever since.” Richard laughed to himself. The lawyer didn’t laugh back. No one in the house did either for that matter. He uncurled his finger from the wire.
“Great. I understand one of you was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma?” The lawyer asked.
“Well, actually, my wife was diagnosed with what I believe is called a multiple myeloma.”
The lawyer made a sound. “Just give me a second, Mr. Broster.”
“You can call me Richard, young man.”
“Just a second, Richard.”
For a moment he just sat there on his sofa listening to the birds wake up and looking around at Jan’s paperbacks. He’d never much cared for romances, especially the ones that had real people on the covers and not artwork. He thought maybe he’d go to Target after this and get her another one. Anything to keep her out of that garden. Jan said that there was no use getting mad at the garden, especially because she wasn’t mad at him, and there wasn’t even really a person to be mad at so much as a-
“So, we’re not sure they’re accepting cases pertaining to MM. I can still take your information if you’d like.”
“You don’t know if your own firm is accepting cases?”
“Well, we aren’t actually handling the class action lawsuit-”
Richard grabbed the telephone base and walked into the sunroom. He tried to ignore the Menard’s smell of peat moss and limestone. Old tarps. Freshly potted basil. “What was that, young man?”
“I said we are just doing intakes for the firm, and then we send them cases if the criteria are met. We can still finish the intake if you’d like.”
“You know, I tried to make Jan a garden inside. She’s always had a real green thumb. I don’t think she’s taking to it, though.” Richard looked at his feet. A bag of Miracle Gro had spilled over the blue tarp onto the slate tile by the door. It was the pink kind, the Bloom Booster. He’d have to get the dustpan out later. He didn’t want Jan to trip, not that it was particularly easy to trip on potting soil, but Jan’s meds listed dizziness as a side effect.
“Mr. Broster, when were you, your wife, rather, exposed to Roundup?”
“It was Jan. In the garden most likely.” With the Roundup, he thought to himself. The boys had always loved Clue. Jan happily tolerated it, saying he looked like a fatter Colonel Mustard. Richard plunked down in his rocker and looked at the basil.
“And when were you first exposed to Roundup? Excuse me-”
“Well in July, I used to sit under the sprinklers on my father’s farm and let the Roundup cool me off. We didn’t know-”
“Pardon me, sir. When was your wife first exposed to Roundup?”
“That would have been the summer of 2004.”
“And you said she was exposed to it in her garden?”
“That’s correct.” Inside, he thought he heard Jan’s footsteps. Used to be he could hear the creak of the mattress when she got up, but she’d lost so much weight he couldn’t hear much of anything.
“How long was the exposure?”
“Well, I suppose it was two to three days a week every summer for about eight years. Give or take a week in May.”
“Ok, great. Just a few more questions.”
Fingers playing with the chord again, Richard stood and looked around. He decided the garden was as garden-like as he could make it. Not the best, but at least the sun wouldn’t beat down on her so much. He walked back inside through the family room and into the kitchen to wait for Jan. He clutched the phone between his ear and poured Jan a bowl of bran flakes with oat milk. Bad for the soul, good for the roughage, the doctor had said.
“Was Jan ever in the military?”
“Just me.” Richard sat at the kitchen table. It seemed now that his mornings weren’t much besides sitting in one room, growing restless, relocating to sit and kill time in another. Jan got up later and later each day.
“Has Jan been exposed to any other chemicals, radiation, or does Jan have a family history of cancer?”
“No, sir. None of that. That is, a heart attack a few years ago but nothing else.” Just a husband with a hatred of weeds and an affinity for Roundup. He bit his lip and pushed the thought away. No need in this house for a weak husband. Be Cary Grant, Richard thought.
“Has Jan ever used tobacco products?”
“Definitely not. Not even before the boys.”
“Does Jan have HIV or AIDS?”
Richard opened his eyes wide. “Excuse me?”
“It’s a question we ask everyone.”
What kind of lawyer is this? Richard thought to himself. “We’ve been married for 52 years.”
The lawyer clacked on his keyboard, filling Richard with an irrational sense of indignance. Then the lawyer said, “I will write down no. Has a doctor ever told you that the cancer could be related to Roundup?”
Over the line, Richard could make out some hushed tones. Words covered by a hand over the receiver. “No. Doctor Lusteen has been awfully mum about the whole situation. That’s another thing I was hoping to speak to someone about. Mostly it was just tests at first, but no real answers. Then he had a different woman, an oncologist, come in and look at Jan. And then the diagnosis. Is that normal, young man? For a doctor to be cagey like that?”
“I’m not exactly sure.” The lawyer sounded distracted. “I just have a couple more questions…” But the man’s voice was drowned out by the soft pitter-patter shuffle of Jan’s footsteps as she walked into the kitchen. She smiled at him. She smiled at him with the same loose, prematurely grey hair that she’d had when she saw him home from Vietnam back to this very house, with eyes that had never been anything but forthcoming, no secrets, nothing but awakeness for him and the boys. When she smiled at him like that, well there was nothing much to do but pay her attention.
“I made you some breakfast.”
Jan smiled and raised a finger to her lips. Then made a hang loose gesture to him. No, a telephone symbol. He smiled.
“Mr. Broster?” The lawyer repeated.
“Sorry about that, young man. What were you saying?”
“I asked if you had ever personally purchased Roundup.”
“That is correct. I have.” Richard looked at Jan by the fridge. The mini quilts that the boys had made at Camp Kiffawac hung there. She smiled at him again and walked out. “Jan, the cereal-” but Jan raised a finger to her lips.
She mouthed a word to him. “Gardening.” She shuffled into the hallway, hands on her hips, shoulders forward.
“Do you have proof of use or purchase?” The lawyer asked in the tinny, landline buzz.
“Nothing on paper, I don’t think.”
“So no receipts of any kind?”
“No, I mostly use cash if I can help it.” He wondered if the sunroom garden provided enough cover for Jan. Too much sun could shine through the windows, and he knew she’d have to avoid any extra radiation, solar or otherwise, if the treatments were going to take.
“Do you still have the containers of Roundup?” Was this young man getting frustrated with him?
“No. I threw them all out when I learned what I did. I mean, well, maybe I have one? I don’t go into the garage much anymore.” He looked around at all the places they had cooked together. Where they’d hung perfect, terrible crayon drawings. The cabinets where they kept the art supplies next to the cat treats. Richard wondered if the boys were ever going to have boys of their own.
“Mr. Broster, I just spoke to-”
“Young man, I actually have a few more details.” With a drop in his heart, it suddenly seemed very important that this young man didn’t put Richard on hold again. “It wasn’t as if Jan was just using it for the weeds in the garden. I would actually spray it on parts of what she’d grow, and she’d spend hours sitting in it. So it wasn’t really Jan’s fault.”
“It’s not anyone’s fault, Mr. Broster.”
“I’m the one that sprayed it.” Again, Richard had the urge to explain himself. Not to ask for a handout but just to let the lawyer know that Jan hadn’t done anything wrong. He didn’t need consolation, no one ever gave John Wayne consolation. But John Wayne always played a bachelor.
More muffled talking from the other line.
“And we have no grudge against Monsanto, for that matter. We understand that mistakes happen. We don’t want anyone to go to prison or anything like that.”
“Of course not. Mr. Broster-”
“Jan’s so damn anemic that she can’t even get up to watch the TV sometimes, you know?” Richard laughed a little, a quiet, unfunny laugh.
“I imagine it’s very difficult. I just spoke to an associate of mine, and we aren’t sure that this case fits the necessary prerequisites.”
“We likely won’t be able to refer your case. Roundup has only been linked scientifically to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There’s no discernible grounds at this point to pursue a case with a plaintiff diagnosed with multiple myeloma.”
“Young man, Jan sat in Roundup for years.”
“I’m not saying that there’s no connection. I’m just saying that there’s no grounds at this point. Additionally, these personal injury cases are often complicated when the injured party themself does not use the product. Does that make sense?”
Richard realized his fist was clenched. He unclenched it, reclenched it after he felt the trembles coming back. Sure, it made sense. “You’re a lawyer, son. Isn’t there something you can do?”
“Oh, I’m not a lawyer, Mr. Broster. I’m a legal assistant.”
“You don’t think there’s anything you can do?” Richard leaned back in his chair and looked at the bowl of cereal and the boys’ little quilts.
Richard was fairly sure the man sighed, like he was about to do something he’d regret. “Mr. Broster, I can look a little more into it. If I learn anything helpful someone will reach out to you this afternoon. Is there anything else I can do for you right now?”
“Um. No, son. That’s all right. Thank you much.” Richard hung up the phone with a hollow clack. He stood and brought the cereal out to the sunroom. Maybe he could get Jan to eat a few bites before it got too soggy.
It was hot in the sun/garden room. But no Jan. Just the smell of peat and the soil he still had to pick up. Bowl in hand, Richard walked outside to the back of the house.
“Hey, Dick,” Jan said. She was in her overalls sitting in the garden. It was sunny out. She was smiling.
“You think you can eat a little bit?” he asked.
“Not quite hungry yet.” Jan pulled a weed and then another. With the tenderness of a mother who had yet to be a grandmother, soft hands with no trembles, Jan removed a marigold from its plastic home and placed it in a small divot. “I don’t think I’m going to plant more perennials this year. Is that ok with you?”
“That’s fine, Jan,” Richard said. His face felt warm. He told himself it was going to be a hot one.
“How’d it go with the lawyer?” she asked.
“They said they were going to think about it.”
“Is everything ok?”
“Everything’s fine, Jan. I’m just thinking about the store later. I have to get you something, that’s all.”
She leaned back from the Marigold. It looked safe in the ground, like it had been born there. “Say, Dick, you think you could help me with something?”
He brightened. “Yes, of course. What do you need?”
“Do you think you could help me bring some of the supplies out here?” She smiled. Bright white teeth. Real teeth, not veneers or dentures.
He debrightened. “Are you sure you don’t want to try a little gardening in there?” He knew this was silly, made sillier still by the bowl of soggy roughage in his hand. “The doctor said you shouldn’t be getting too much extra radiation.”
“You have any uranium buried out here?” Jan winked this part.
Richard knew he’d concede then. There was nothing he could do against a wink and a smile like that. “Will you wear a sun hat at least?”
“Ok. As long as you go up and get it. I need all the energy I can for this here.”
Richard went back inside and left the cereal on the kitchen table. Upstairs he grabbed a sunhat without too many holes and a little purple band around the base. He didn’t grab her favorite, a flopsy number with a ring of plastic flowers. That one had too many holes.
He was panting by the time he got back out to the garden, and the sun was hotter, but Jan just sat there, Marigolds in a perfect little row. He dropped the hat on her head.
“Better?” She asked.
“I don’t think I’m going to plant more perennials this year. Is that ok with you?”
“Fine by me.”
“You’d have to water them when they come back, and I don’t want to tie you into anything you aren’t ready for.”
“You should’ve told me that 52 years ago.”
They smiled. It was all ok.
“Do you think you could go get me the angelonias from inside? They say angelonia on the sticker.”
He did. He brought out the little plastic cartons and watched her plant them.
“I think these’ll grow up first, so I’m putting them in the back. That way they won’t cast too much shade on their sisters.”
She finished with the angelonias and he brought her out the pimpernels and azaleas and the geraniums. He watched as she put the geraniums on either side of the main patch. She said that she was putting them there to frame the rest. To put them right in the middle would ruin the scene, but on the edges, she could look from start to finish. In front of the angelonias, she planted the rows of pimpernels and azaleas, digging the trowel down and packing the dirt over. She packed it harder than he thought necessary, but he wasn’t the one with the green thumb.
“You want to try one?” She asked.
He stood there sweating. Flower toting was hard work. “I think I’d rather watch the master at work.”
“Well, the master needs her verbena and her begonias.”
He saw her squinting when she said this. It made him anxious to see her on the ground like that. Had any of the Roundup he’d sprayed over the years infected the grass? And the squinting. It was too bright out. Too much sun. Her blood couldn’t take much more of this. He thought about telling her this but didn’t. He brought the verbena and begonias. He was sweating up a storm.
She put the verbena outside the azaleas and put the begonias on the outside rows. “If these things grow like they should, we’ll have bumblebees and Monarchs here all summer. It’ll be alive. More alive than it already is. Which is plenty.”
“You trying to get us bee stung?” He asked more crossly than he should’ve, a fake laugh in his voice.
“Bees bring life with them. They make a garden wake up in the morning.”
That was just like Jan, to not let things bother her. How many terrible movies had they watched that Jan could stomach because of a performance or because the director did charity work. “I don’t know,” she said as Richard complained, “I liked it. The sets were really nice.” Jan was always capable of controlling what she gave her energy to.
Inside, he heard the telephone ring and forgot about the flowers he was supposed to grab. He went inside past the decluttered green room and answered the phone. “Broster residence, Richard speaking.”
“Mr. Broster?” It was the young man from the law firm.
“You have any updates for me?” Richard didn’t want to hope. John Wayne never hoped, he took action.
“I do actually. So, I called Davis and Brock, the firm we refer these types of cases to, and I actually have some good news.”
“Yes, young man?”
“So they’ve just started accepting cases for MM related to potential Roundup exposures.” The boy sounded excited. He was proud of himself.
“Is that right?”
“It is. Obviously it’s no guarantee of acceptance or payout or anything like that, but it’s better news than before. Would you like me to refer your information to them?”
“That would be great, young man. Thank you much.”
The legal assistant took a little more information from Richard, and quickly as he could, Richard left the house for the garden.
He saw Jan there, a carton of pale blue flowers at her feet.
“Jan,” he said, “you’re not going to believe this.”
A look of concern crossed her face. “Is everything ok?”
“It is. It’s great. The firm Davis and Brock are accepting cases of MM pertaining to Roundup exposures. This could take care of so much for us. The bills mostly, but other stuff too. Hell, if they settle we could even take a vacation.” Somewhere shady. Without too much sun. The northwest maybe.
She smiled, but it didn’t have any feeling in it. “Did you grab the flowers, Richard?”
Richard breathed away his excitement. “Aren’t you excited?”
“I am. I’m excited for all you’ve done for me today.” She pushed back the sun hat with dirt-spotted hands. She squinted as she did so.
Richard wiped away more sweat. He didn’t know what else to do. The sun seemed so damn bright.
“You know, Jan, you really could use a pair of sunglasses. Let me go grab some for you.” He turned to go inside.
“Richard, stop.” There was finality in her voice.
“Jan, you need to start taking care of yourself. You see how bright it is out here? All sorts of radiation comes from the sun. And you didn’t even eat your breakfast today. You won’t be-”
“Richard.” She inhaled through her nose. Deeply. “Stop.”
“Why? I can’t just stand here and wait, Jan.” Anger rose in his voice.
“Then don’t wait. Do two things for me. Ok, Richard?”
He swallowed and nodded his head.
She paused for a second and stared at him, like she was reading something on the back of his skull. “Will you quit your goddamn fussing and come plant some flowers with me?”
What could he say to that but yes? The grass was warm and dry and he felt the sun beat on his head.
“Here,” she said, handing him the trowel. “Dig down about six inches.”
He scooped out the earth and set it to the side. The ground was yielding and moist, rejuvenated after winter.
“Take this.” She passed him one of the pale blue flowers. “Put it in the hole. Make sure you press the rest of the dirt on top of it. That’s right. Make sure you tamp it down nicely.”
He looked at his little flower, perked up out of the ground.
“You’re good to me, Richard. But I am 82 years old, and you just don’t know when to pipe down.”
He looked at her. She was smiling again. “What are these ones called?” he asked.
“These are scorpion grass. They’re the forget-me-nots.”
He looked down at the flowers, the clusters of periwinkle blue. They rounded at the edge, like little saucers. As he looked closer, Richard realized that a ring of yellow filled each and every center, yellow that bled to white and then blue, almost indiscernible to a casual watcher. Flecks of dirt covered some of the clusters, and Richard felt a sudden urge to reach out and touch one of the petals, to remove the earth that covered up the soft, natural blue. He worried that if he touched the petals he might mar them in some way, bend or twist their concave form. He lowered his head and tried to blow the dirt off. They bent underneath his sputtering breath, the stems so limber, the crowns of flowers so unapologetically alive.
About the Author:
JJ Smith is a graduate assistant who is currently pursuing an MFA at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. As a lad, he was primarily concerned with video games and raising havoc in the house. In time, that shifted towards becoming a professional writer and his game obsession has transformed into a chess obsession. Smith considers Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, and Carmen Maria Machado to be masters of the form.