Steven R Malikowski
A sharp clink came from the coffee cup when it hit the saucer. Coffee leapt out, and hot drops stung Kelly’s skin. She hadn’t meant to set the cup down so hard, but she expected respect and decency from people, as unfashionable as that had become.
She tried relaxing while wiping coffee off her hands. Kelly sighed, looked at her hands, and felt annoyed by the wrinkles. They seemed darker than before.
Still looking at her hands, she said, “There’s no need to raise your voice.” She wiped the rest of the spilled coffee off the table.
“I’m sorry, Aunt Kelly.” Lauryn replied from across the booth, “But you should listen to your doctor.”
Kelly looked out the window and gazed at the old bank across the street. It was built from stone with spirals carved into the rock toward the top. Some of the spirals were covered with moss, and below, boards covered the windows.
Kelly kept looking at the bank. “You’ve always had a lot of spirit.” She sipped her coffee and slowly set down the cup. “Your grandpa would be so proud of you. He would have never expected to have a nurse in the family.”
“Thank you,” Lauryn replied, in a calmer voice. “I miss Grandpa, but he listened to his doctor. You should listen to yours.”
Kelly looked at her coffee. “He was a really good man, not many like him anymore.” She raised her head and looked into Lauryn’s eyes. “But his doctor didn’t help much, did he?”
Lauryn leaned forward and spoke up. “They did everything they could!”
“You don’t have to yell.” Kelly looked out the window. “We don’t get to see each other much, and I like talking with you. But nobody likes to hear yelling.”
Lauryn sighed and sipped her coffee. “I’m sorry, Aunt Kelly. But I’ve worked with doctors and patients for over ten years. Sometimes, patients don’t get better, but usually, they do—when they listen to their doctors.” She spoke with more authority. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to tell patients to just take their meds or do PT. If they would just do that, they almost always get better. This is the same. You need to listen to your doctor.”
Kelly kept looking out the window. “Lecturing me is about the same as yelling.”
“I’m just talking the way I talk! And this is important.”
“Yes, it is.” Kelly looked at Lauryn. “But I’m not one of the patients you can order around. I’m your aunt, please show a little respect.”
Lauryn sighed, looked down, and watched steam rise from her coffee cup. “I’m trying to show respect.” She sipped some coffee. Still holding up the cup, she looked over it and asked, “Can we talk about what your doctor said?”
“Yes, but there’s something else I want to tell you first. It involves my doctor.”
“OK, but I don’t have a lot of time,” Lauryn grumbled.
“It’s short, promise. And please, try to relax.”
Kelly looked out the window and asked. “Did you know your grandma worked at that bank?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“It was only for a short while, but she liked it.” Kelly grinned just a little. “Everyone wore such nice clothes every day. Sometimes, I’d meet her here, in this café, for lunch. The bank looked so good back then, with big and bright windows.” Her grin faded. “Even the boards over the windows look bad now, falling down with foul words painted on them.”
Lauryn looked out the window. “It is a nice building, or was, but I’m not sure what that has to do with your doctor.”
“This whole town used to be better. We had a movie theatre, a little grocery store, and this café was busy all day.”
Lauryn sighed. “That’s wonderful, Aunt Kelly.” She raised her voice. “But—”
Another clank came from Kelly’s coffee cup hitting the saucer. Both women looked at the empty cup.
Kelly spoke calm and clear. “I will talk about my doctor, but right now, talking about this town is more important.”
“OK, fine.” Lauryn crossed her arms. “Tell me about the town.”
“Sweetheart, could you please calm down? I’m almost finished.”
Lauryn nodded and relaxed her arms, which were still crossed.
Kelly gazed out the window. “Your grandpa and grandma used to take me and your mom to the movie theatre, but it closed around the time you were born. We used to go shopping at the grocery store. It had old wooden floors that creaked a little. Your mom and I used to pick out fresh fruit and vegetables.” Her grin returned. “That was fun.”
“I remember that store,” Lauryn nodded and sipped some coffee.
Kelly smiled and looked at her niece. “We used to take you there, when your parents brought you here for the holidays.”
“I remember that too.” Lauryn sounded more relaxed. “You let me pick out any candy I wanted.” She mimicked a stern version of Kelly’s voice. “But only one piece!” Lauryn smiled at the memory.
“I enjoyed that so much, even when you took more than one.” Her smile faded. “That grocery store was by the bank. It’s a bar now, and not a very nice one.” She sighed. “We had no grocery store for a long time, had to drive about an hour to get groceries. We have a Dollar Store now, by the freeway, but it doesn’t have many fruits and vegetables.”
“That is sad, Aunt Kelly, but this is still a nice little town.”
“Can I give you guys a refill?” a waitress asked.
“Thanks, darling.” Kelly said while moving her cup toward the waitress.
“How’re you doing, Kelly?” asked the waitress. “Haven’t seen you for a while.”
“I’m fine, thanks. Do you remember my niece, Lauryn? I think you two were in high school around the same time.”
“Lauryn! I do remember you.”
Lauryn paused. “I’m so sorry. My memory’s always been horrible.”
The waitress pulled down her mask. “How about now?”
“Janet?” Lauryn asked.
The waitress nodded and smiled.
“It’s so good seeing you again.” Lauryn said while moving a hand toward Janet. “How’re you doing? It’s been so long.”
Janet pulled her mask back up. “I’m alright, considering what we’re all going through.” She filled both cups of coffee. “I’ve heard you’re a nurse.”
“That’s so cool. I had one of those ‘Health Care Heroes’ signs in my front yard.”
“I appreciate it.”
Janet had to step aside when a group walked by. “I better clean up their table, great seeing you again!”
Lauryn nodded and watched her friend walk away.
“She’s such a nice girl,” Kelly said.
“Aunt Kelly, I can’t stay much longer, so I’d like to talk about what your doctor said.”
“My doctor is very certain about what I should do.”
“Yes, she is.”
“Do you know why your grandma left that job, at the bank?”
Lauryn shook her head.
“It closed. The whole town knew there were problems, but the bank president said everything would be fine. Then one day, it just closed, the same way the grocery store closed, and the movie theatre closed, and almost every shop in town.”
“That’s sad, Aunt Kelly, but I’d like to talk about your doctor now.”
“I am talking about my doctor.” Kelly looked into Lauryn’s eyes. “My doctor is so confident, just like the bank president was confident, just like the mayor was confident, and just like governors and presidents are confident.” She looked at the bank and shook her head. “And now, look at this town. I have a lot of friends who say that natural medicine is better.”
Lauryn spoke to herself, “This really is like people who don’t take their meds.”
“And maybe that’s OK.”
“Natural medicine is OK, but It’s not the same as drugs that have been tested.”
Kelly replied quickly. “So now, you’re saying we should trust Big Pharma?”
“When our doctors tell us to!” Lauryn leaned back in the booth and crossed her arms.
“I’m just saying there are some good reasons not to trust a vaccine.”
Lauren quipped, “And there are good reasons to trust it,” keeping her arms crossed.
Both women sat silently. Kelly looked out the window, and Lauryn sipped her coffee.
Kelly sighed. “We’re bickering. I’m so tired of that. Aren’t you?”
“Of course, but this is important.” Lauryn leaned forward. “This could kill you! And it could kill your friends!”
“We’re not going to stop bickering by bickering more.”
“I’m not bickering! I’m talking about facts.”
“You’re talking at me with facts and raising your voice. That feels like bickering.”
Lauren blinked and looked at her coffee cup. “I’m sorry, but this really matters to me.”
“I know that,” Kelly said still looking out the window. “I just don’t know why there’s so much bickering these days. Your grandpa and grandma had a lot of important conversations, but they didn’t bicker so much, neither did your aunts and uncles.”
Lauren nodded. “I never thought of that. But I still trust my doctor, and I think you trust yours.”
“I’m not sure if you understand what’s happened here. We’re wore down just like that old bank. We’re getting older, and doctors keep telling us to take more pills. Vaccines, pills, they’re all the same. They didn’t help your grandpa, and they’re not helping my friends, at least not much. I lost two friends just last month.”
“I’m sorry. What happened?”
“One died of the same cancer your grandpa had, pancreatic cancer.” She looked down at her coffee cup. “The other had a few problems, but they say it was that damn virus. I’m not sure if I believe them.” Kelly wiped away a tear. “I couldn’t even say good-bye since the ‘experts’ didn’t allow visitors. I feel so sad for him. He died without any family or friends around.”
Kelly picked up a napkin and wiped away more tears. “That’s not a very nice way to die.”
Lauryn spoke softly. “No, it’s not.”
She slid a hand across the table with the palm up. Kelly took her hand. They both squeezed gently.
Lauryn’s voice stayed soft. “A friend at work caught the virus, a few months after it showed up. I help patients every day, but it was different with my friend.”
Kelly sighed and nodded.
Lauren let go of her aunt’s hand and looked out the window. “My friend died from it. He was in his fifties and ran marathons, no other health problems.”
Kelly nodded again.
“He left behind a wife and two kids. And like you said, they couldn’t be there when he died.”
“But I was there, had to be. I have to tell you, though. There’s not much left to see when someone dies from the virus. Their skin is so pale, and their bodies look so weak. Even if they were awake, they couldn’t talk with the tubes going to their lungs.”
“But people with the vaccine get sick too. I hear about breakthrough infections all the time.”
Lauryn clenched her teeth, took a deep breath, and let it out slow. “Yes, they do get sick, but I rarely see them in my ICU. Almost everyone in my ICU is not vaccinated—like ninety-nine out of a hundred.”
“That’s not what I’ve heard.”
Lauryn clenched her teeth again, looked down, and after a moment, spoke. “It’s what I see, every day. I know a lot of nurses in other hospitals. It’s what they see too.”
“It still seems hard to believe.”
Lauryn looked into her aunt’s eyes. “Do you believe me?”
Kelly blinked and looked out the window. “I believe you, but I’ve believed a lot of other people, like the bank president. Your grandma believed him too. They gave a lot of numbers and facts.”
“Aunt Kelly, please look at me.”
“I’m not the bank president or anyone like that. I’m your niece, and I love you.”
“I don’t want you to end up in an ICU. I’ve already seen too many people die from the virus.”
Kelly nodded again.
“Would you please get the vaccine?”
“Please! Get the damn shot.”
“Stay calm, sweetheart. I don’t want to bicker before saying good-bye.”
“But you won’t get the shot.”
“I’m not sure, but before having coffee, I was sure that I would not.”