- Long Term
“Iron lungs,” pitched Carl. “A theme restaurant.”
Phillip and his kid brother—if you could still be a kid brother at sixty-six—sat face to face in what had recently been Phillip’s examination room. The cabinets stood open and bare, as though looted. Phillip had already locked his personal effects in the trunk of a colleague’s car. All that remained in the oncologist’s suite were a single wooden chair, a scale, a stainless steel magazine stand, a removable wall clock, and two posters. One of the posters depicted foods high in fiber. The other was titled “What Every Man Should Know about Cancer of the Testicles.” It was the same throughout the hospital: ghostly wards, gurneys stacked in the nurses’ stations. The desolate surroundings made Carl’s pleas somehow more desperate.
“We’ll have people dine inside the iron lungs,” Carl said. “Or maybe on top of them. We can work out the details later.”
“I take it that’s a royal we,” answered Phillip.
The words came out harsher than he’d intended. But it had all happened so fast—his tumor, the closing of the hospital, the iron lung hullabaloo—that words had acquired new and surprising meanings. If he weren’t dying, he’d quipped to his great-niece, he’d have written a Berlitz guide to cancer.
Carl looked down into his big hands. Phillip, on the rare occasions he was asked, described their relationship as “brotherly.” The antithesis of intimate, a distance tinged with regret. Carl’s prison stint hadn’t helped any. One of his earlier restaurants, a Tex-Mex grill on Staten Island, had also served up laundered money. He’d done three years for conspiracy. Phillip’s marriage had failed around the same time, and the two brothers struck up a correspondence. They exchanged frank, soul-bearing letters. These were the only personal letters Phillip ever wrote, so he lathered them with emotion, expressing what he’d never have thought to say. It had ended abruptly with Carl’s parole. After that, they’d drifted. [End Page 135]
Phillip circled aimlessly in his wheelchair, forcing his brother to twist his neck. He had already pledged the iron lungs to the hospital rabbi. For charity.
“Look,” said Carl. “I know I haven’t been the greatest brother. The greatest anything. But I need this, Phil. Please.”
“I know you do.”
“It’s a bit nuts,” added Carl. “I recognize that. But people fall for all sorts of wacko things. Hula hoops. And what’s that Corn Castle people visit in Nebraska?”
“Corn Palace. It’s in South Dakota.”
“You know what I’m saying.”
Carl sat with his elbows propped on the back of his chair. He removed his spectacles and cleaned them with his handkerchief. His brother had reached the age, Phillip noticed, when you could no longer distinguish his eyelids from his brow. “You’ve had all this media,” said Carl—his voice suddenly enthusiastic. “It just might work.”
Not in a million years, Phillip knew. Not for Carl. His brother took after their father, the Michelangelo of poor judgment and second-rate ideas. But whether the restaurant flopped wasn’t the point.
“Let me think it over,” said Phillip.
He followed Carl to the door. In the corridor, a janitor was waxing the floors. His blower spun and bellowed angrily. Hadn’t they told him?
Phillip recalled an argument with his ex-wife. About why the musicians on the Titanic continued playing. Sharon thought them heroic. Phillip suspected they didn’t know what else to do.
Two weeks after the hospital closed, they delivered the iron lungs. The men from the shipping company—three bare-chested Israeli teenagers—set the capsules down on Phillip’s front lawn in near-perfect rows. It was a sticky spring morning, and the oncologist rolled his wheelchair under the lindens to watch their efforts. He would have chosen the same patch of shade, most likely, even without the delivery. While his marriage had lasted, he’d never understood Sharon’s passion for gardening. Her labor always seemed a no-win proposition, part of an...