Charles Leibnitz worked in the finance department. Every day he wore the same blue t-shirt. Sometimes he wore a hockey cap. He worked there long enough to feel secure, and he didn’t care what his coworkers thought of him, or at least, that’s what he told himself. He carried himself with jolliness and pluck and often told people where they could stick their problems, but never used obscenities because it would be “too unprofessional.” Sometimes Leibnitz gave his coworkers nicknames like “Jellyfish” and “Sunflower.” One unfortunate looking worker was given the name “Slugface.” The worker, however, continued taking lunch with Leibnitz. Leibnitz considered this a testament to his charisma and likability.
One day, Leibnitz woke up in his one-bedroom apartment beside the wife he’d loved for thirty years and felt a terrible aching in his back. He knew he had back problems, but never had he felt a pain like that. He lumbered into the bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. A red lump protruded from his forehead. He squinted and pulled the skin around the lump, trying to flatten it, but no luck, so he pressed his thumb against it, as though to push it back into his skull. His wife mumbled from the other room, “Charles, what’s all the fuss about.”
“My back is killing me!” he said. “I’m gonna take some medicine.”
“Well, take some medicine and come back to bed,” she said.
He opened his medicine cabinet. “I’m trying, woman.”
He opened a bottle of painkillers and took a few. He liked how they looked the color of grass. He also liked their candy coating. Medicine’s come a long way, he thought. He squished the lump between his thumb and forefinger once more, then returned to bed and fell into a deep sleep.
A small voice woke him. The voice was so quiet, he wondered if his wife heard it, but she was in the living area, listening to the news. He tried to make out what the voice said, but it
suddenly stopped talking. Leibnitz climbed out of bed, changed, kissed his wife on the cheek and started a pot of coffee.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “My back was killing me, and I have this lump on my head. I think I’m getting old.”
“That’s alright, darling, you were old before.”
They left for work, where Leibnitz typed on a computer all day. He focused on the numbers, checked for inconsistencies, where the company could save. Once in a while, he scratched the lump on his head. It didn’t itch, but it felt interesting to touch. He figured he would schedule an appointment with a doctor. At least his back had stopped aching though. During lunch, he opened a tab on his computer and looked up what the lump could be. Maybe it’s a tumor, he thought. Or a cyst? His grandma had a cyst. It grew on her big toe. She couldn’t walk when she had it, and she couldn’t walk for weeks after they removed it. He wondered if doctors wrapped rubber bands around cysts or if they drained them. Either way, the liquid separated from the body. It fascinated him how much medicine relied on expelling rather than absorbing. Sure people took painkillers to feel better, but painkillers didn’t actually remove the problem, they just hid it until it healed. A real cure, Leibnitz figured, extracted the root of the problem.
Slugface looked up from his pudding cup and said, “I don’t mean to be too invasive, but what’s that?” He pointed to the spot on his forehead where Leibnitz’s lump would be.
Leibnitz touched the lump. “I’m not exactly sure? I think it might be a cyst.”
“It looks pretty red.”
“The skin might be irritated.”
“Once my wife had a lump in her breast, and we thought it was a tumor because her mom had breast cancer, but then the doctor looked at it and found out it was a cyst.”
“How did you treat it?”
“He believed a lot in herbal medicines. I don’t believe in the stuff personally, but my wife wanted to try it. He gave her this dried root from Albuquerque and told her to take it once a night. Lo and behold, the cyst disappeared in five days. Isn’t that something?”
Leibnitz looked at his computer. “Yeah.”
At the end of the day, Leibnitz packed his things and a little voice said: Say hi to Jenna.
Leibnitz looked around to see where the voice came from, but he couldn’t find a source. The voice said again: Say hi to Jenna.
Jenna was the receptionist. She wore navy jackets and had short brown hair. In the right light, Leibnitz saw light brown freckles on her nose. She never said much, but sometimes, he heard her laughing. Her laugh sounded soft. He also knew she met with friends from her sorority each year, but aside from that, he knew little about her. This voice compelled him.
Go to her, said the voice. Say hi.
Leibnitz approached Jenna’s desk. She’d just finished putting on her coat and was checking her phone. Leibnitz waved. Jenna smiled, but didn’t make eye contact. He took a moment, and said, “Hi.”
“I’m kind of busy,” said Jenna. “Sorry.”
“Well what’s going on?”
“Well—Well—” She looked around the office. She met his gaze. She said quietly: “My brother passed away.”
“Oh Jenna. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s alright.” Her eyes watered. “He was a good brother. He always bought me pudding on my birthday, and he taught me how to play mini-golf. He never, ever asked me for anything.”
Others in the office began to look. She sat back in her chair. She pulled her coat tightly around herself, as though locking herself away, and said, “It was a heart attack. It was so sudden. We had just gotten into an argument over the Christmas ornaments to use. The next thing I knew, he was lying on the floor. It was awful.”
“I’m really sorry to hear that.”
“It’s alright. He lived a very fulfilling life. I’m just sorry we couldn’t have separated on a happier note.” She wiped her eyes. “Hey. Thank you for listening.”
“My pleasure,” he said, and she stood and gave him a hug.
That night, Leibnitz ate Chinese takeout and watched the news with his wife. He thought the living area’s yellow light made her skin look dry and softened the shadows under her jawline. They met at a big accounting firm. She was the firm’s youngest partner, and she still grabbed coffee for the others. Leibnitz practically worshipped her. He caught her attention in small ways, picking up extra bagels for her, giving her his cab, easy favors. After a few years of this, on a rainy Friday afternoon, he lit her last cigarette and she asked him out. He remembered the sharpness of her features, the darkness of her eyes, the heaviness of her brow, the strength of her cheekbones. Sometimes she didn’t look a day older. He cherished her. He set out bowls of cherries for her when they were in season because they were her favorite fruit. He delighted in shopping with her, even though her errands consisted of dreary tasks like picking out lightbulbs and replenishing their supply of batteries. That night, he said, “I made an appointment with the doctor.”
“For the back?” she asked.
“For the lump.”
“You know, I knew a girl with a lump like that. We were friends in college. She had the best hair. Of course, when the doctors learned the lump was a tumor, they put her through chemo and all her hair fell out. I think she considered selling it at first, but she didn’t want to accept her illness or something, and she didn’t go through with it.”
“That’s messed up.”
“Illness is messed up. It screws with people.” If she kept smoking, Leibnitz knew she would’ve inhaled smoke right then. As it stood, Leibnitz hoped that she wouldn’t develop lung disease from all the years she smoked, or the times he smoked with her, or even when he stood in the same room as her when she smoked. It was weird to think about a time when people smoked often. He wondered if everyone alive then was poisoned, or if their genes mutated from constant exposure. He hoped not. It wouldn’t have been fair.
“I don’t think you have a tumor, though,” she said. “You’re too healthy to have a tumor and if you did, my love would cure you.”
“Your love would cure me. That’s good. That’s fresh.”
That night, Leibnitz touched the lump. It wiggled under his touch and his eyes shot open. That’s not normal, he thought. His wife sighed in her sleep. The lump said: You know, you’re a good one. Content yourself with this. It’s gonna be alright Charles. You don’t need to get rid of me. I like it here. I’m good for you. You’ll see.
I don’t really believe it, thought Leibnitz.
It’s alright. The lump wiggled. I’m good. Promise.
The doctor pulled on his thin rubber gloves and touched the lump. His face looked angular and shiny, and his hair looked black and slick. Leibnitz said, “So how does it look, Doc?”
“It doesn’t seem to be a tumor,” the doctor mumbled. “But I’m not sure. We’ll need to take a sample.”
“You think it’ll need surgery?”
“Possibly. A growth of this size usually does. Nothing too invasive though. You’ll probably be in and out of the hospital in the same day.”
“Sounds good, Doc.”
The doctor nodded and stepped out of the room, and Leibnitz was left alone with the lump. The lump said, You should ask about his dad. He had a good relationship with his dad. He looked up to him.
Why do you care so much about death? Leibnitz thought. The lump was silent.
As the doctor readied his long syringe, Leibnitz said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot.”
“Your dad, huh?”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about what he’d say about this. He died from a stroke a few years back. He was driving at the time.”
“Really. My dad died the same way.”
“That’s a crazy way to go.”
“Isn’t it?” The doctor smiled like he had a secret. “My dad said he always wanted to go in his sleep. Peacefully. He asked us to put on the news when we pulled the cord. He said he
wanted to be caught up with the latest catastrophes, so he when he met his Maker, his complaints would be current.”
“That’s pretty funny.”
“He was a great guy. Hold still.” The doctor held Leibnitz’s head as he pushed the syringe into the lump. Leibnitz swore he heard it squeal. Once the doctor finished extracting the sample, Leibnitz shifted uncomfortably.
“We’ll get this tested. It shouldn’t take very long,” said the doctor. He paused as though to say something, then shook his head. While he tested the sample, Leibnitz read a golf magazine. He was overcome with a strange feeling that he shouldn’t have the lump removed. Really, he thought. Are you growing attached to a lump? It’s a vile protrusion feeding off your life source. You’re not friends here. You’re competitors, like two lions going after the same gazelle. No way are you keeping it. Plus, it looks ugly.
I’m telling you, man, said the lump. We’re the same now. You and me. You’ll see it. The doctor returned and said the lump was a cyst, and it probably wasn’t a huge deal, but they should remove it as soon as possible, so they scheduled a surgery for the following week. The doctor warned Leibnitz that there were various risks associated with the surgery, but he chopped off a million cysts before, and he even went to Africa and chopped gargantuan cysts off there, so he had a lot of experience and there was nothing to worry about.
Leibnitz called his wife from his car and told her the news. He tried not to cry about it. For some reason, he felt himself choking up though. He wasn’t sure why. It was only a surgery, and it wasn’t even to remove a tumor. Was it possible that he felt some kind of attachment? No, surely not, he thought, though the surgery did evoke something beyond his control.
That night, his wife looked at him sorrowfully over the leftovers of the takeout Chinese from the previous night. Leibnitz slurped the last of the noodles. The bags under her eyes looked heavy, and her skin looked dry. For a long time, she seemed to want to speak, but she just watched him. She said, “I love you.”
“I love you too,” he said. “But I’m not going anywhere.”
“You’re not well.”
“It’s not me, it’s the lump.”
That night, they spooned for the first time in a long time. Somewhere between work and the news, they’d forgotten that they were supposed to hold each other, how nice it felt, how much they missed listening to each other breathe, waking up beside each other. At one point, Leibnitz’s wife even reached up and touched the lump in a sort of half-dream. She thought she was holding a water basin and it was about to spill, but when she touched the lump it stabilized. She drew back her hand in contentment.
The days before the surgery, Leibnitz talked to his boss about his sister-in-law, his mailwoman about her cousin, his parents about his uncle, the neighbor about his dog. Everyone had lost someone. It was odd to think about. There were way more people dead than people living, and most of the dead were forgotten. It was actually pretty scary. There were so many who deserved to be remembered, but they’d been lost. He didn’t like it at all. He liked to think their names were on rocks or on plaques somewhere or someone at least remembered them. He hoped when he died, someone would remember his name, maybe scatter flowers on his grave if he had one. He touched the lump on his forehead and it filled him with solace.
The day of the surgery, the anesthesiologists stood before his bed. They wore white scrubs. He imagined them as his escorts to heaven. The one on the left had spiky brown hair, and
the one on the right looked pale and tall. The one on the right said, “We’re going to put you under now. It should only take a few minutes. You won’t remember anything once the drugs are in your system.”
A sleep like death, Leibnitz thought. Great. That’s exactly what I need.
“Let’s do it gentlemen,” he said. They inserted the IV and his body went limp.
In his mind, however, he stood across from a figure that looked like him, and sounded like him, and even wore the same blue t-shirt. The other Leibnitz waved and said, “You’re going through with it, huh?”
“Well, yeah,” said Leibnitz. “I can’t have a lump on my face the rest of my life. It would be unseemly.”
“There are tons of people who go through life with lumps on their faces, and they’re perfectly happy.”
“But I have the option to get rid of you.”
“What about how close I made you with others? You haven’t had this many meaningful conversations in years.”
“And I appreciate that, but I really can’t have you around any longer. It’s just not right. You have to do your own thing somewhere else. I don’t know what’ll happen to you, but again, I thank you for your service. Really. You’ve been great. You didn’t hurt me or anything.”
“Thanks,” said the other Leibnitz. “I tried, I really did, and I like you too much to take you down with the ship.”
“Shh,” said the other Leibnitz, and he whispered in Leibnitz’s ear.
Leibnitz woke up in Recovery. A nurse monitored his IV. The lights were too bright. He felt where he last felt the lump and felt a smooth patch of skin.
“Oh,” the nurse said. “You’re awake.”
“I need water,” said Leibnitz, and the nurse brought him some water. As he drank, he began to cry. He felt like he heard something scary or forgot something important, but he couldn’t remember what. Leibnitz chalked up the tears to the enormous relief he felt from removing the lump, and he did feel relieved, but he felt as though something was missing. He asked the nurse about these feelings and she said it was probably just a side effect of the drugs. He felt the scar and thought: This is what you once were. This is what you’ve become.
He sat in the front seat beside his wife. She looked at him sorrowfully, but when she looked at him, it felt unfamiliar.
“I’m really sorry you went through that,” she said.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said. “It wasn’t anyone’s.”
“If I had paid more attention—”
“Don’t worry. I’ve come out of this a new person. A better one. I feel patched up. Rejuvenated.” He kissed her cheek. “I promise.”
They drove off. It was spring, so the birds finished their nests and laid their eggs. They said every set of parents saw themselves in their offspring. Of course, kids and parents are genetically related. On top of that, the songs of parents become the songs of their children, and the songs of their children become the songs of their friends. Eventually you can’t tell them apart.
Rebecca Kaplan is a J.D. candidate at the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Apex Magazine, Likewise Folio and The Daily Palette.