I’ve been working steady now for two years, since I finished high school. I throw tires at Klemen’s Tire Wholesale. I work in the warehouse where used tires are dropped off, and we decide which ones are at all salvageable and put them in containers based on make and level of wear, and the others we throw in bins for trains to take to a recycling factory in Indiana. The tires that are to be recycled are also subdivided by content— whether or not they have steel, how much steel they have in them, etc. I took the job because I thought it would be funny to pitch tires around and because, truthfully, I didn’t have any other offers. I worked hard enough in my first year that now I don’t have anyone check up on me.
My mom is waiting on her Irish citizenship papers and she’s dying— she’s got ovarian cancer, like her mom. I live with her on Cicero in a one-bedroom, and I walk to work. I sleep on the couch, and she gets the bed.
Her duplex went after her hospital stay, as did her car, a new-looking ’84 Reliant. In one month, she used up all her medical insurance. She was very sick from the get go, and the hospital knew they couldn’t do much. They insist that she knew she had cancer long before she finally asked me to bring her to the emergency room. She couldn’t take the hospital after a while, and she asked me if she could live at my apartment for as long as I could manage. She’s been living with me for three months now.
I work with this American Indian, that’s what he tells me to call him, named Russell Means Greening. He’s named after some activist, the Indian equivalent to Malcom X, he says. He talks more than I do, about a lot of things: Ford cars, he knows everything about every model; rap music; and he talks about history a little. Not Columbus and George Washington, he talks about what Sioux really means, and how the Lakota were killed off for no reason, just as, he says, the Irish were killed off before my grandfather came over. He even says Indians gave the Irish the potato.
Russ doesn’t get hurtful when he talks. He isn’t speaking to get at you, like my uncle. He never gets loud or distant, so I like his stories. I take more of his load when he talks, and I try to push him to tell more. He gets going on how Crazy Horse was set up, and I’m tossing the steel-belted into the bins, and our shift ends nicely. I go home to my mom, and my body aches at the joints. Something about that tired pain lets me think about running around in canyons, or fighting for Russ’s ancestors. After a good day, I’ve got three movies going through my head to get me through the night. I can cook for my mom— always some canned soup and buttered dark bread; help her with her shots, and even help her write letters to Ireland without feeling bad. Without even being there.
The way Russ talks, I wish I could speak like that. I wish everywhere people were talking like him: low, relaxed, taking time to breathe, but pushing out these little points. “Custer really started the scalping,” he might say. “Do you know Custer had lice and the clap? Every day of his life he burned and itched. His eyebrows were loaded with them. You can understand why he got so full of hate.”
I never have to answer his questions if I don’t want, but if I do, he turns and follows where I’m coming from. “Shay,” he says. Really my name would be spelled Sea, for Seamus, but even I write Shay so no one gets confused. “People have to keep the US powerful, so they put the details where they want,” he says, when I say I was told that the Irish brought lice to America during the famine.
The doctor from the clinic explains cancer to me. He says that the lump on mom’s inside starts like a colony and grows and grows. Then, he says, if the lump is malignant, or bad, the lump sends things into the blood stream and attacks her whole body. Mom’s lump is bad, he says. She gets more pain medication, and the doctor says I should think about putting her in the hospital for good. “Just admit her into the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial,” he says. “They can’t reject her, and you’re too broke for them to go after money from you. At least then she’ll be able to go easy.”
I really appreciate the doctor helping me, but Mom doesn’t want to go to any hospital for a while. It costs me more to keep her at home, because I have to pay twenty-five dollars for every prescription with my mom’s insurance, whereas at the hospital they’d have to provide it.
So after Mom’s cancer spreads, and I have to carry her to the bathroom when she’s in pain and when the pills to take the pain away make her sick, Russ has a cold streak and stops telling stories at work. Part of it is because we have a heavy load in the winter—this happens every winter because people ditch their tires for snow tires, and the dealers convince them their old tires won’t be any good after winter.
Part of it is because one day he says my mom should get a divorce.
“We’re Catholic,” I say.
He looks me straight in the face and says, “Does that mean you have to act like you’re brain-damaged?” I tell him that we’ll be Johnsons instead of Murphys for the rest of our lives. And I tell him if he talks about the church I’ll kill him. I only go to mass, haven’t been to confession in a long while, but I know my mom needs the church, and I can’t let anything get in the way of that. In any case, Russ hardly tells any stories, and I need something to help me when I carry my mom around, or when I have to send another letter to “Immigration Services, Dublin, Ireland.” That’s the whole address. In Ireland they don’t use zip codes and things like that.
Russ is pissed at me, for good reason. I can’t stand how quiet it gets at the warehouse and how quiet it is overall. My mom has my tv in the bedroom, but she’s at the point where she can’t stand very much light or noise.
I start reading comic books and listening to Kiss, like I did before everything got bad. Mom doesn’t like the noise, and she thinks the church would have a problem with some of my comics, but now that she’s really sick, I need something to help me along. I once brought home a bottle of whiskey to help me get to sleep and to keep me busy, but Mom cried through her tight throat. She can’t smell enough to taste the difference between tomato soup and beef broth, and yet she can smell the whiskey on my breath after one drink. No booze has been allowed in my house since my dad left, since I was six, and I have to observe that until Mom’s gone, and even then I know she’ll cry if I take a drink in the house.
When I’m at home now, I turn the stereo on quiet; I have to hear if Mom gets choked up. But if I keep the level low, I can make out all of the music that I want and hear most of the lyrics, and I can still hear Mom’s wheezing: slow when sleeping; high pitched and quick when awake; high pitched and loud when she’s gonna throw up or she’s in really bad pain. Conan and Thor, both by Marvel Comics, are the only comics I get into. I go to a shop that sells comics, baseball cards, and alcohol, and is between the train station and my place, and I buy the old Conans, which are the only comics there that get cheaper the older they get. When I get a big stack collected, I bring them in and trade for new ones. The owner of the store is a heavyset black guy who always tries to talk about comics, but I feel guilty being away from home and not working, so I can never listen to what he says. I know that he gives me a deal on the comics; every old Conan and Thor that he’s taken from me on trade ends up going in the ten cent box, even though he gives me a lot better price.
Comics aren’t that stupid, especially Conan. He’s from an ancient country, Cimmeria, where there aren’t any green trees, and there aren’t newspapers and buses like in the other comics— even Thor, which I like, always has some reference to newspaper reporters or alter-egos. If you look through the issues, what I’m saying about Conan really being different holds true.
I have one issue that I’ll never sell back, where Conan has to save this really old guy from a pack of mystic wolves. The Watcher, he’s the guy that tells Conan’s stories, explains that the old in Conan’s world aren’t worth saving, but Conan is too stubborn to let this guy get eaten. The comic actually shows the blood that the wolves get out of Conan, but he fights it out, until, eventually, he strangles every one of them— his sword couldn’t cut them.
Mom finally can’t leave the bed. The cancer is all over her body, and she has to take so many pain pills that she just can’t move. I have to put a bed pan under her, but I get worried about her throwing up when I go off to work. She won’t go to the hospital, though. She says she wants to stay where she’s wanted. Uncle Dan offers to come and check up on her while I’m at work. He makes a deal with mom that she’ll go to the hospital if life at home is too difficult. He takes me aside and says I’m wrong for letting her stay home, and I should live my own life. He says I shouldn’t sleep on the couch like a bum, but he’ll help out for a little while.
I really hate having my uncle around. He does anything to get a rise out of people. One of the things he talks about is how all the rest of the family got their citizenship papers years ago, and how I probably messed up the applications. But he pays for the medication, now, and he really takes good care of Mom, his sister.
Russ starts to talk a little more as the load lightens at work. I tell him I don’t like my uncle, and that my uncle said I was probably a Viking.
“Everybody’s a Viking,” Russ says. “Those fuckers raped everyone. They were like the American government going after Indians. Nothing to get that upset about. I’m even part Viking.” Then he explains how Vikings were from a place with no trees and not much sun. The way he describes their home, it sounds just like the place in Conan. He says that being so far from any natural life, they didn’t have any perspective.
“Hey Russ,” I say. I carry a fresh load of tires to the bin without checking if the tires even have any wear. “Was Conan a Viking?”
“Probably,” he says. “He was a big dumb-ass white rapist
“I don’t think he was a rapist,” I say.
“Then he was a fag. That’s the way the big white heroes go. Rapists or fags. Like Alexander the Great was a fag and Thomas Jefferson and Columbus were rapists.”
“Columbus?” I ask.
I get home late because I buy a few new comics. When I get there, Uncle Dan’s sitting in a chair next to the bed. I can tell he’s been there a while. Mom’s breathing is slow and heavy.
He gets up, holding a letter, and walks out to the couch. “Your mom’s ready to go to the hospital,” he says. I thought eventually she would decide to go, but I expected Uncle Dan would be happy about it. He’s not. “She got a letter from Dublin.”
“Yeah?” I say.
“She didn’t get citizenship yet,” he says.
I feel like I want to break something. I know I messed up the letters somehow. “What’d I do wrong?” I say.
“You did everything right. They’re just changing the rules on you. They’re only going to take so many a year now.”
I nod my head.
I have to take Mom to the hospital, because my uncle doesn’t want them to notice she has any relatives with money. The only reason she can get good care is because there’s nothing more anyone can take from me. The nurse at the hospital knows what’s going on, but she’s really nice to Mom.
“Maybe Conan was a rapist,” I say the next day at work. When I first started reading the comics, I would imagine my work area was Cimmeria, and the tires were loose rocks or hunks of enemies or anything that might be part of a story. I can’t get myself to imagine today, though. When I pick up the tires, I always get my hand jabbed by a piece of wire.
“No,” says Russ. “I was thinking about this. Where was he from?”
“Cimmeria,” I say.
“Where’s he really supposed to be from. Well, never mind. I think he was probably one of those people from the Russian mountains. A Cossack. Which means he’s not white, and may not be that bad.”
“So he’s not a Viking like me,” I say.
Russ laughs at me. “No, he’s probably one of my great great grandfathers.” I’m carrying four tires to the recycle bin for all-rubber, and he struts up beside me and lifts two tires up above his head. “You see,” he says. “I’m definitely part Conan.”
I go to the comic store after work. I know I have to go to the hospital, as my uncle and I have figured out that tonight will be the hardest night for my mom.
“You know what you want, you want the Red Sonja comics,” the owner at the store says. “It’s like Conan only the bitch has got a nice set of tits.”
Every day before I have ignored whatever he has said and replied that I only want Conan or Thor, which spooks him a bit. Now I say, “I want something about a place outside of the city and without any tits. And I want something without any white hero,” I say.
He smiles. “Are you trying to start shit? Is that what’s going on?”
I smile back.
“I guess the Silver Surfer’s not white. Someone just brought in a whole bunch of those. They’re not as cheap as Conan. I’ll sell you them for a buck a piece.”
I spend fourteen dollars on comics, which is more than I’ve spent in a while on just myself. On the train in to the hospital, I open up the Silver Surfer and I forget all about my mom and anything unpleasant. The first page is full-color—deep greens and purples and yellows make up this huge planet which is the backdrop, and in front is this tall, naked, chrome, bald man on an old-style surf board. The words in the upper right say “Silver Surfer, once Herald of Doom, now Explorer.”
There isn’t anyplace in Chicago where I’ve seen this light purple set against the deep green that makes up the planet in the background. The areas in the Conan comics always reminded me of the places I walked through, they made me imagine myself in an area more dangerous than it really was, but Silver Surfer, coasting past planets with intense colors and taking on clouds of men or machines or his old boss, an enormous god-like thing called Galactus, those are completely outside what I’ve ever seen. I flip through six comic books on the ride to see my mom.
I wait for her to wake up for three hours. While I’m waiting, I keep the comics out of her view, just in case she does open her eyes for a second. Finally, at ten o’clock, the nurse tells me that, even if I’m family, the hospital prefers that visitors only stay until nine. She points at the curtain, behind which is another woman a few years older than my mother who has been talking to her tv.
When I get home, I realize that I can’t sleep without hearing my mom’s breathing. Every time I start to lose consciousness, I dream that my mom has stopped breathing. I wake up and it takes me a while to realize that she’s in the hospital now. I spend all night reading the Silver Surfers.
Issues number eight and nine contain the origin of the Silver Surfer. He is from a planet called Zenn-La, which is on the other side of another galaxy. An enormous being comes to his planet and says that he must consume it, make the planet a part of him. One man, Norrin Radd, steps up and tells the being, Galactus, that his planet is beautiful and peace-loving and shouldn’t be put to waste. Galactus agrees to spare the planet, as long as Norrin will work for him, touring the universe in search of planets that can be consumed. Galactus takes the full-grown, white man, Norrin, and blasts him until he is completely chromed and bald and naked. Galactus says, “It’s a fair trade. You can see worlds you’ve never imagined, you just can’t come back to your home again. And I will spare Zenn-La.”
“Have you ever lived anywhere outside of Chicago,” I say to Russ the next day at work. I have been looking at the green lines on the 84-89 all terrain tires—it’s the same green that is in the background in some of the planets that the Surfer cruises by.
“I used to visit my grandparents in Minneapolis,” he says. “I decided that I’ve got the best chances in Chicago. Either that, or I’ll push East. I’m going the opposite direction that the US wants me to go.” He’s already told me about Jackson’s attacks and the marches West, but he goes on anyway.
My arms are completely exhausted by noon. There’s no way I can get through another four hours of carrying tires. When our lunch break is over, I don’t get up from the edge of the bin where I sat to eat.
Russ is quiet for a while. He carries tires at double speed, trying to make up for the fact that I’m not doing any work. After an hour of doing both my work and his, he sits down next to me.
“Maybe you should tell the office you’re sick. I don’t know if I can make it look like both of us were working,” he says.
I go into the office and tell the secretary I’m sick for the day. She says she can see that. On the walk home, I’m so tired that it feels as though I’m coasting by the Dominick’s supermarket and the six blocks of duplexes before I get to my apartment building. I fall asleep on the couch and dream that I am standing on a massive tractor tire, gliding past my mom’s hospital and past Ireland and up into space where I can see the Earth as a perfect circle with neat blotches of light blue and red. Still, as distant from the Earth as I am, I see a tiny white dot over the blurb that looks like the United States. It grows and erases, slowly, first the East part of the country, and then it heads West. In my tractor tire, I take off past the Earth. I hear Chicago get sucked up by the white mass, but I don’t turn around. I am able to imagine, as I ride in my tractor tire across a swirl of purple dust in the middle of space, that my home in Chicago is bright and alive, as long as I don’t turn around.
I am holding the phone when I wake up. It is the nurse who threw me out last night. She says she’s sorry and that I should come down with arrangements for what to do with the rest of my mother.
Bart Cameron is an English Professor at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus and runs the writing center at Stern College. He lives in Carroll Gardens.
Bart Cameron is an English Professor at Long Island University Brooklyn Campus.