Errata Literary Magazine

Bucks County Writers Workshop

Actuarial Table
by Don Swaim

I was skinny when I was a kid. Skinny enough to be embarrassed when I had my clothes off like they do when the kids hit the showers after gym in junior high. Skins against the shirts. I hated that. I was always a skin. If I could only have been a shirt. Just once. There's a photo of me on the beach in Galveston squinting behind my horn-rim glasses into the camera. My thin arms and shoulders are all hunched together as if to make a greater shape. But it was worse than that.

I had cancer.

I knew it. No one else did, but I knew it.

I'd read the American Cancer Society's Seven Deadly Warning Signals (like moles that change their shape or unusual bleeding and stuff) and I read enough to know that cancer killed people even though nobody knew what caused it. And it couldn't be cigarettes because every kid I knew sneaked them. Even I had a few puffs on a Lucky until the kid next door who showed me how knocked the butt out of my mouth when he saw a neighbor lady park next to us outside the bowling alley and was afraid she'd tell his mom we were smoking.

The lumps. The lumps in my fourteen year old breasts.

I could feel them. They didn't hurt but I could feel them. They were hard. And I knew I had cancer and I didn't want to tell anyone. The shame, the embarrassment. They'd make you go to the hospital where you had to take off your clothes and the nurses would sneer at you and see how skinny you were and they'd shove tubes up your rectum and then look into the toilet bowl, and if they didn't like what they saw they'd shove more tubes up there. And the crappy hospital food they made you eat, even though I knew my mother would smuggle in White Castle hamburgers and risk getting arrested because you weren't allowed to smuggle White Castle hamburgers into a hospital. It was the law. And maybe they'd put me under ether again. I couldn't stand the smell of ether because I remember what it was like when I had my tonsils out and they'd put an ether mask over my face, and when I woke up it felt like someone had cut my throat with a knife, and all they gave me for the pain was lemon sherbet.

The lumps that made my boyish nipples push out.

Look at that kid! someone shouted in the shower. He looks like a girl. And he's skinny too!

I was going to die. It was certain.

I'd read the American Cancer Society's Seven Deadly Warning Signals and I had one of the warning signals and I was just fourteen and had only kissed one girl on the mouth and didn't do that good because I forgot to use my tongue and I was too young to die but I was going to anyway.

I went through junior high school hiding my breasts and my skinny shape and, Jeesus, the lumps eventually went away and I didn't die after all.

Then I picked up my mom's The Ladies Home Journal and read that hormonal adjustments among adolescents in puberty are common and that sometimes girls find themselves developing male characteristics like mustaches and boys often develop female characteristics like puffy breasts and they all go away and you are what you are. So I survived adolescence and my skinny shape and even put on a few pounds when I was thirty which I thought looked good until the doctor said I was getting middle age spread and my fat girlfriend told me to start dieting. But even though I conquered puberty and cancer I knew I was going to die anyway. Sometime. Somewhere.

So I worked up this theory and I developed it into an actuarial procedure I'm going to sell to Aetna or Prudential or Metropolitan or State Farm and retire with the bucks they'll pay me so I can buy a seventy-nine thousand dollar A-frame in the Poconos. And what I don't spend I'll save for an emergency.

The way I look at it you'll die somewhere between the time of your father's death and your mother's death. For example, your father dies when he's seventy-eight and your mother dies when she's eighty-two, that means you're going to die when you're eighty. If your family has a history of premature death and your father dies when he's forty and your mother dies when she's fifty that means you'll live to be forty-five.

You don't have to tell me there are a few problems with my concept. Say your father dies when he's eighteen and your mother dies when she's sixteen that means you'll die when you're seventeen. That's a problem. Or say your mother gets knocked off by an R-55 SEPTA bus on South Main Street when she's thirty and your father keeps drinking the hard stuff at Kelly's Bar and Grill until he's ninety. That kind of throws the table off because it means you'll die at sixty which may not be all that bad but could have been a lot better if it hadn't been for that fucking R-55 bus. And what if you're born without knowing who your father is, and your mother dies when she's thirty. Then you're simply going to have to take half of your mother's age which means you're gone at fifteen.

Too bad and you were such a nice kid, like me. Not like my younger brother. They used corporal punishment when he and I were growing up, and he'd always do something that got him a licking. The principal would phone my mother and get permission to wallop my brother with a yardstick. After my brother got home my mother would smack him around, mostly in the puss. And when my father came home my brother got it with a belt, usually in the butt. There was no such thing a double jeopardy back then. Or even triple jeopardy. And no appeals. Trouble with life is it doesn't last long enough. But it's tough all the way.

Especially when you're fourteen. And your nipples stick out. And you've read the American Cancer Society's Seven Deadly Warning Signals.

And you're dying of cancer.

Bucks County Writers Workshop