Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Excerpt from Cocktails & Cancer

This was not the life I’d planned for. I wanted something in beige.

Time tumbled on and I made it home after an agonizingly long visit to Walgreens for Percocet. The excruciating white spotlight of the drugstore scrambled my head even worse than usual; I had to appear normal again but it was hard. I was among them. As I self-consciously scanned my way through the bright aisles (monstrous, fluorescent shimmers) the products on the shelves made less and less sense. Feathers and Claws. Boxes of brown LARD. Products, products. A blood-spitting blowhole locked next to a fortress of Q-Tips. An old woman stood hunched like a vulture in the candy aisle, brooding over the sugarless chocolate. She was surrounded by a moving aura of thin, colorless filaments and I watched the spikes of no-color as they radiated around her. I felt like saying something. I felt like screaming at her. Warning her. She turned and noticed me noticing her and I quickly averted my gaze. I don’t need this. I made my way down the aisle to the pharmacy. I could barely stand in line and wished for the relief of a collapse. A seizure would be nice. I was standing with a stoop due to the pain of the staples and the cumbersome dressing on my balls (ball, I reminded myself—singular now). I was walking like Groucho Marx without the humor.  Do people still say egad? There was one person (?) ahead of me, a man with hands like eels. He glanced at me; his eyes pitted gray cinders in a crumpled paper face. Get me out of here, please. The man (?) was buying vials of ochre pus. I wanted to scream again. I wanted to scream a blood-curdling aboriginal screech of the universe exploding. The man paid for his pus with the smooth swipe of a card. That’s when I realized I had to pay too. How was I supposed to cope with the mystery of money? Did I have money? How much will it cost? I felt separated from myself. My hands were loaves of bread dough. How would I get them to work when I’m locked in the Sudden Singularity of the cash register? Fire at me with a hellish flare gun. Biblical questions dribbled from an old hole in my head and puddled on the floor behind me. I smelled orange juice. This was no good. Standing in line was an absurd rite. I felt a spiritual sickness, like black fluid spurting from an infected tooth. The guy (?) ahead of me winked something in code with his nictitating membranes. The sound they made went, snik snik snik...

     And then he was gone and it was my turn. I somehow maneuvered my way forward and placed the prescription (now a dried origami abstraction) on the counter. I felt like an intruder in a dead realm, a taste like muck in my mouth. The girl-thing behind the counter went, “Wuh wuh bluh wuh wuh bluh,” with a blubbery mouth and I nodded and think I answered, “Yes...”

     She raked her nails across the slip of paper with sharp, boundless horror. My mind was melting and the fear of fainting returned. I needed a sharp slap in the face. I needed a hard kick in the ass (for several reasons). It finally occurred to me to open my wallet. I handed the girl-thing (I think) my ID. She said something. I think I said something in return—a verbal volley of twaddle. The girl-thing turned and disappeared behind shelves of drugs. I wanted to (but didn’t) drool.

      She came back with a little white paper bag. “Wuh wuh bluh bluh...”


     She lowered the bag into the wrinkled jaws of a dead albino lizard. She handed me the lizard—now a big plastic bag—and I took it. I took it and I think I said, Thank you. And then I accidently looked into her shining face of reflections; convex, fish-eyed mirrors of myself; glistening, bone-marrow skulls leaking the bloody seepage of my personality all over the floor. All over the floor, splattering like hot gore on the cement deck of a slaughterhouse. I handed her the money and mumbled something and then pushed toward the doors, pushed myself outside where the cool air revived me a bit, bringing a measure of sanity to the tilt-a-whirl landscape.

     When I got home I crushed and snorted the Percocet. It paired well with the Ambien[1] that I sometimes swallow for insomnia (fake insomnia I invented for my doctor). I couldn’t stretch-out because of my new handicap, so I lay curled like a fetus on the couch, clouded eyes staring unfocused at the TV screen. The chemotherapy started next week. I had arranged for transportation after my fictional Aunt Roberta shot me down (she’s attending a nonexistent dog show in Topeka). The hospital, Dana Farber Cancer Center would provide a ride. Dana Farber is the cream of the crop (I hear) but I secretly hoped they wouldn’t be able to cure me. I wanted the cancer to snuff me out, like permanently, man. Y’dig?

     I dozed off watching a rerun of Hello Larry. I dreamed McLean Stevenson and I were performing Satanic rituals at the end of the world. I awoke at 3:00 a.m. and swallowed three more Percocet. Then three more. Then three Ambien. I chased everything with tepid beer. A serene, dead feeling overcame me. I was floating above a warm grave. I thought, Nothing is better than this. This was bliss the way it was intended. I tested my serenity by thinking about my cancer, I contemplated a horrible, lingering death. I saw black tumors secreting caustic lymph. Bald-headed leukemia kids screaming in pain. Bottomless despair. Needles and nausea and bad TV.

     But nothing fazed me. I had no fear. I still felt like a cloud with a sweet, gooey filling.

     I spent the next three days lost in a Percocet and Ambien haze. The thing about Ambien is that if you stay awake after it takes effect you will probably hallucinate (more than usual). You will trip balls (or in my case, ball).

     My memories of my post-op drug binge are fragmentary and vague. I napped a lot. Here are a few highlights I remember from those two wonderful days:
 1. Standing (or floating) in the kitchen eating sugar out of the sugar bowl with my calm hands while an aging invisible college professor lectured me about microeconomics, the sweet granules jittering on my tongue like crunchy white fleas. If I’d thought of it, I’d have snorted it.  
2.  Sitting in my living room in the bright light of day, surrounded by giant floating cells. Like big misshapen soap bubbles they were, with clearly visible organelles: mitochondria, vacuoles, ribosomes, Golgi apparatus, (and so on and so forth etcetera). They floated like friendly jellyfish before my astonished eyes and I could make them move like balloons by waving my hands in the air and blowing on them. I could see an incredible amount of detail in the strange, lucent organisms. It was as if a dream had gotten loose from my subconscious and hit the atmosphere in my apartment, semi-solidifying into soft, runny matter.

     The little floaters kept me occupied for hours. I WILL MISS THEM.

3. I woke up in the warm sun one morning and thought I was a baby. I wasn’t but I did wet the bed. I cried happy, grateful tears.

4. One dark, moist night I believed I was being swallowed by a giant black giraffe, its mild saliva slowly breaking down my cellular integrity, dissolving me to warm, unthinking fluid.

     Again, I wet the bed. Warm urine pleasure.

5. Overall, I had never felt so tranquil. So clean and peaceful despite the bladder spills. But all good pills must eventually end. My pleasure slowly dried to dust.

     Drugs, huh?

     And then I heard a blaring trumpet fanfare and it was chemotherapy time.

* * *

     I got picked up on a chilly, vaporous day by a supernatural girl named Wendy who drove a battered orange Miata. I had forced down a calming breakfast of Klondike Ice. I was buzzing into my chemo. Wendy had onyx eyes and spoke with a Maine accent. I immediately recognized her psychic abilities. She was as clear and sound as a bronze bell. Her car smelled of patchouli and factory-produced pine.

     “Well, hello there... Henry?” She was consulting a clipboard, moving her finger along the lines of information. I fastened my seatbelt and said, “Yes.”

     She drew a checkmark with a nub of pencil and put down the clipboard.

     “So, yuh got the cancer, do yuh?” she said. “That sucks.” She jerked the car into DRIVE and we were off.

     “It’s no big deal,” I told her.

     “What kinda cancer yuh got?”

     “Ball cancer.”

     “In your tentacles, huh?”

     “My testicles. Yeah.” I gazed out the window, watching things in my life blur by.

     “Yeah, that really blows for yuh, huh?”

     I ignored her, looking out the window.

     After realizing that small talk with me was impossible, she began to whistle. She didn’t whistle a tune; it was more like one long birdcall. It lasted for ten miles. I walked around in my head. Around and around. An endless loop. The private pornography of my SELF.

     “I’m starved,” said Wendy. “Skipped breakfast this morning.”

     No comment.

     “After I drop you off I’m, like totally going to McDonald’s for chicken McNuggets.“ She turned to look at me and I felt the familiar sting of fear. I felt icewater in my bowels. “Do you like chicken McNuggets Henry?”

     I felt stunned as I replied, “They’re okay I guess.”

     “Damn straight.”

     And then finally, we reached the hospital. My new home away from home. I told the driver (magical Wendy) “Thanks a lot,” and started to disembark the car.

     “No problem. Hey, good luck in there. I’ll send positive vibes your way.”

     “Okay. Thanks again.”

     I walked toward the building fighting the urge to look back at the Miata. I imagined the car vanishing like rising fog. Magical Wendy’s Miata ascending into outer space to pick up a cancer patient on another planet. Making small talk with Ptoth-23 from the Andromeda galaxy...

      A glass door slid open for me. I was in.

[1] Have I not mentioned the Ambien before?

Friday, July 27, 2018

On the Rocks

On the Rocks
“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can’t take quiet desperation.”
--Don Birnam, Lost Weekend  (1945 Paramount)

July 28th 2018

Sven and Lola were together again after four lonely (for him) weeks apart (Lola was a model and had assignments in Italy; he had to work at the restaurant). Now that they were reunited, however, Sven felt strangely distracted, preoccupied with something. Something lurked just out of reach. He hoped Lola wouldn’t notice his odd mood.  He had no idea what was bothering him aside from the smothering heat.
     The ridiculous heat wave was in its third day. Sven had never bothered to buy an air conditioner for his small apartment and the little fan in the window wasn’t cutting it. Lola stood in front of the fan. She lifted her caramel-colored hair above her sweaty neck and held it up while she turned in the weak current of warm city air. It was a model move, Sven recognized, and why not? Lola was a model. Besides, he was looking at her. Her sexy moves were a playful little show for his benefit.
     Or so he believed.
     “God, I hate this heat,” she told him. “It’s ridiculous.”
     “It is ridiculous. I was just thinking the same thing. My exact word.”
    The heat was working for her though. She looked sexy as hell with her sweaty, tousled hair, her aristocratic neck shining with perspiration. Her face was flush. She was a natural beauty. Sven wanted to drop to his knee and propose on the spot, but no. His proposal had to be special and specific, well-planned. He hadn’t yet formulated a plan but he was working on it. Sven, his whole life, had lacked inspired ideas. His imagination was a flat, arid, colorless void. He hadn’t even been able to think of a name for his cat. Lola had named her for him—Cranberry (a name Sven wasn’t crazy about but what could he do? he was bereft of ideas). Sometimes Lola teased him about his lack of original thought. He’d try to make a joke or speculate about something and whatever he said inevitably landed like lead. Lola would laugh and make the sad trombone sound, “Wa waaa.” It was the only time she hurt his feelings (which she didn’t mean to do, he knew). He was probably just too sensitive.
     Lola lifted her glass of Lipton ice tea and drained it, leaving the glass of ice cubes on the coffee table. Sven didn’t believe in coasters so the table was decorated with a variety of circles and half-moons from past beverages. It looked like art.
     “Well,” she said. “I can’t take it anymore. I gotta get out of this heat. No offense but you really need an air conditioner up here.” His apartment was on the top (fifth) floor, so the heat was increased by the immutable laws of physics. Up rose the hot pollution, collecting around them in a thick, stifling pocket.
     “Yeah, but then my electric bill will go high-sky.”
     “Cheapskate. And I think you mean sky-high.”
     “So, I’ll see you tonight?” He asked her, making sure they were still on for the movie. A part of him was always waiting for her to break up with him. Sven’s self-esteem crawled across the carpet with the dust mites.
     “Of course,” she said. She gave him a quick peck on the lips and then she was out the door and climbing down five tiring flights of stairs.
     Things were in motion. The events of the day would alter Sven’s life forever.
     He picked up his cool, sweaty glass of tea, took a sip, and then went to the window, swirling his glass, making the ice cubes clink. Hearing the clinks, Cranberry lifted her head and looked over but was too hot and depleted to properly investigate the sound. She resumed her nap there on the cool floor.
     Sven waited for Lola to emerge from the building. He never got tired of watching her and sometimes felt creepy and voyeuristic but hey, she was a model. She was used to being gawked at.            
     She had parked her burgundy Mercedes across the street. Sven’s car was in the fenced-in parking lot behind the building. He drove a battered, rust-covered Hyundai. He was a cheapskate, he admitted to himself. He made decent money at the restaurant; there was really no reason for him to drive a shit-box and live in this hot squalor anymore. But still...
     And then there she was coming out of the building directly below him. She’d put on sunglasses and held a cigarette in her slender fingers. He hated the fact that she smoked but what could he do? She was a model. She also drank wine when they went out to dinner. He insisted it didn’t bother him, but it did.
     What happened next seemed to occur in excruciating slow-motion.
     Lola was standing on the curb waiting for the traffic to pass. A big brown UPS truck pulled over and stopped in front of the building. There was a gap in the traffic and she started across the street.
     Then Sven noticed a speeding Chevy Malibu veer into the left lane to pass the UPS truck, heading straight for Lola who had just crossed the center line.
    Sven slapped his hand against the glass and yelled, “Look out!” as if she might hear him from five stories below. In all that traffic.
     The Malibu smashed into Lola without as much as a chirp from the brakes.
     Lola was hurled like a ragdoll up and over the Malibu, landing like an explosion on the dark pavement. She came to rest after rolling seven bone-crunching times. Her arms and legs were fractured and tangled, bending in shocking, impossible directions.
     Sven threw himself out the door and had bounded down three sets of stairs before he realized he should have called 911. His phone was up in the apartment. He almost ran back upstairs but no. Keep going.
     Someone will call. Please god someone call.
    Traffic had halted around the accident and Sven ran across the street. A crowd was beginning to accrue around the scene as Sven approached the broken body of the only woman he’d ever loved. It was bad it was so fucking bad.
     It was even worse up close.
    He lifted his gaze to the gathering crowd. “Did anyone call an ambulance?” he said, knowing it was now a pointless, ludicrous question. Part of her head was missing. He could see her exposed brain. There was so much blood. He turned away and staggered through the crowd and sat down hard on the curb just as sirens began to wail in the distance.
     Oh good, someone did call 911, he thought and felt—maniacally—like laughing. His sanity was breaking apart at the seams, it seemed. This was more than a person should have to bear and he wanted to scream.
     A fire truck was the first to arrive. It stopped in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. A police car arrived next.
     Where the fuck was the goddamn fucking ambulance? Sven thought and the urge to laugh/scream surfaced again. He knew there was no need to rush anymore. Lola was dead. It was over. He had become a man with a tragedy.
     Finally, the ambulance came.
    A tall cop approached Sven. He had a mustache and shaved head. He held a pad of paper and a pen. He seemed to be sizing him up.
     “Excuse me, sir.” he said.
     “Yeah?” said Sven, not bothering to stand. Another police car arrived on the scene. More people came to gawk. The paramedics were standing around Lola’s body, looking, talking. One of them laughed and Sven wanted to grab the cop’s gun and shoot him in the face.
     “Sir? Did you see what happened?” the cop asked Sven.
     It took him a few seconds to say, “Yes.”
    “And do you know the deceased?”
     The deceased. “Yes. She’s my girlfriend.”
     “And can you tell me her name?”
     “Lola. Lola Pittsman. She’s a model.” He turned to the left and squinted into the distance. The guy that hit Lola was standing on the sidewalk, talking to a cop. He was short and white and apparently unharmed. Sven hoped the man would go to prison for a long, long time.
    A Channel 7 news crew appeared. A female field reporter and cameraman rushed out of the van. A cop raised his hands to stop them from getting too close. Above them, a helicopter circled the scene.
     Sven’s cop said, “Excuse me sir. Are you okay?”
     “No. Definitely not.”
     “What’s wrong sir?”
     Sven looked up at the cop like he was a moron and said, “I just watched the love of my life die before my eyes. So no, I’m not okay. Okay?”
     “I’m sorry for your loss but I just have a few more questions.”
     Sven looked up at the cop’s gun and said, “Shoot.”
     He continued to answer the cop’s questions as the scene slowly morphed around him. They scraped Lola off the road after taking pictures and measurements. A second ambulance moved in. It was tan-colored and sleek, less boxy than the first ambulance.      
     The dead people’s ambulance.
     They put handcuffs on the guy in the Malibu and took him away. Drunk, probably. The female reporter questioned a couple of other witnesses and then the news unit packed up and drove away. Eventually the fire truck left, along with the first ambulance. The cop stopped asking Sven questions and he thanked him and left with the others. Traffic resumed. The helicopter flew away. Dusk began to fall.
     People continued to gather along the street. They had built a small, makeshift memorial already and were beginning to show up with flowers and candles and stuffed animals.
     What brings them here? Sven wondered. What were they looking for? Did they think they were being helpful? Offering solace? And to whom? Were they here because Lola was a model?
     No, they were here for themselves. To be part of the excitement. Mourning vicariously, safely; without all the mess and loss and trauma of a more personal tragedy. Sven saw no sincerity in their actions. They were animals.
     God, he wanted a drink.    
    He stood up on unsteady legs and headed back toward his building. The stars were coming out and he made a point of not looking at them. He entered his building and started up the stairs.
      When he entered his apartment he wondered why he wasn’t crying. He wanted to cry and was not averse to tears but nothing came. He felt emptied and wondered if he was in some kind of mild shock. He had no idea what shock felt like.
     He considered calling his sponsor but no. Not now. He didn’t want to have to think of things to say.
     He sat down on the couch and the terrible events ran through his mind and the awful words IF ONLY stabbed him like daggers. IF ONLY they had remained in the apartment a few extra minutes. IF ONLY he had walked her to her car. IF ONLY he’d gotten an air conditioner, she might still be alive in his apartment, watching television instead of going to the movies. The lunatic idea that he needed a time machine occurred to him. A time machine would fix things. He could change things with a time machine.
     His phone rang, startling him from his absurd reverie and he ignored it. He couldn’t talk now. He had been violently severed from the most important connection in his life and it left him feeling drained of some vital, important essence. He didn’t turn on the television either. The thought of seeing a news report on the accident made his chest hurt. It was hard to breathe.  He wondered why reporters weren’t banging on his door. After all, Lola was famous; a model. They were probably already talking about her death on TMZ.
     And then he noticed the ice. HER ice.
    Lola’s glass was still sitting on the table, still half-filled with ice cubes. How was that possible? Sven had been outside for almost three hours and it was a hundred fucking degrees. He stared at the strange little still-life and his chest ached. The glass and the ice were like surreal testaments to Lola’s last moments on earth. It all seemed impossible, unreal. And why hadn’t the ice melted? The ice in his own glass was long gone...
     He looked at the odd little miracle as if it might change or do something. It wouldn’t have surprised him if the ice suddenly floated out of the glass and rotated around the apartment like little orbiting planets.
     He could see Lola’s lipstick on the rim of the glass and he shivered despite the heat. The glass of ice was like another presence in the room. The thought of ghosts occurred to him but he doubted Lola would haunt him. Wherever she was she was probably busy. After all, she was a dead model...
     Fuck, why was he thinking such crazy thoughts?
     He sat there for a long time, looking at the glass, going over his last moments with Lola...
     And eventually he realized the ice was finally starting to melt.
     Panic seized him. Oh no! He stood up and approached the glass—slowly, as if it were a small animal. The ice was the only evidence that their last precious moments together had actually happened. It was proof that their time together was not a dream. Lola had existed. He existed. He had nothing else, aside from a few magazine ads. He had nothing of hers. Nothing personal anyway. Even though Lola had been a model, she’d hated having her picture taken. She’d refused to let him take photographs of or with her.  He had to curate his own mental snapshots of their time together and his poor alcoholic memory was full of holes and tatters.
     Sven realized that he was already referring to her in the past tense and felt ashamed. He stood over the glass of ice and tried to cry, scrunching up his face, trying to hyperventilate and force some tears.
     And then a new urgency struck him: HE HAD TO SAVE THE ICE.
     He reached for the glass and hesitated, as if afraid to touch it. As if his hand would contaminate the glass, destroy the evidence. The absurd notion of using tongs or forceps occurred to him and he started to pull his hand back and...
     He grabbed the glass. For some stupid reason he was surprised by its cool feel. It shocked his fingers. He carried the glass into the kitchen and opened the freezer. He had gone shopping recently and it was packed. He pulled out a box of popsicles, a bag of spinach and three empty ice cube trays and dumped everything into the sink. Then he placed the glass of ice next to a box of Eggo waffles and shut the door.
     He stood and stared at the refrigerator. The ice was safe. He had rescued the ice. He felt a weird kind of relief.  He deserved a drink.
     But no...
    He went into the living room and looked out the window. People were still hanging around the scene of the accident. Another news crew was down there; a guy with a shell of hair talking to a camera.
     Sven considered calling his sponsor again and as soon as the thought hit his mind, the phone rang. He looked at the number.
     It was his sponsor, Dave. The guy was psychic.
     “Hey man. How you doing?”
     “I was gonna call you. Did you hear?”
     “Yeah. I saw it on the news. How you holding up, man?”
     “Lola is dead.” It seemed important to say it. He was stating a fact.
     Silence on the line.
     Dave said, “So what are you going to do next?”
     “Oh, please don’t launch into AA shit. Not now.” Sven just wanted to deal with the disaster, not think about recovery. He wanted to hang up and forget Dave’s name.
     “Sven, I’m your sponsor. I’m very sorry for your loss. It must be agonizing. But I have to get it out of the way. Are you gonna pick up?”
     “Not now.”
     “Not now you don’t want to talk about it or not now you’re not going to drink?”
     “I don’t know,” he said, but he did know. He suddenly knew exactly what he was going to do. “Look, I appreciate the call and everything but I don’t feel like talking. I’ll be alright. I’ll call you later.” He almost added, If I need you...
     “Okay, man. I understand. I’m not going to bug you. But I’m here for you. Stay strong. Please don’t let this tragedy ruin your sobriety. You’ve worked too hard.”
     There’s a scene in Lost Weekend when the drunk, Don Birnam (Ray Milland) says about booze: “...I’ve got to know it’s around. That I can have it if I need it. I can’t be cut off completely. That’s the devil. That’s what drives you crazy.”
     Sven had been sober for two years. He went into the bedroom.
    He opened his closet. Hidden under a pile of old clothes was an unopened bottle of Heaven Hill bourbon. His emergency bottle. He grabbed it and went to the kitchen. He grabbed the glass of Lola’s ice and went to the couch and poured the whiskey.
     He sat staring at the glass on the coffee table covered with rings.
     Another scene from Lost Weekend occurred to him: Nat the bartender moves to wipe away the ring that Birnam’s glass has created and Birnam says, “Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning...”