for M. C.
Hey! There’s a party going on, and everyone’s invited. Cliff’s got cancer, and it’s not your average household malignancy—not your zap-and-run, slap-a-hat-on-it kind. Cliff’s cancer is crafty. It’s pushy. It’s crass. It’s a desperate salesman who shoves through the door with a vacuum no one will buy, who gives a demonstration so sloppy you find the attachments weeks later, one at a time, in all those hard-to-reach places. Deep in the stuffing of the sofa in the living room. Clogging the kitchen drain. Rattling through the A/C ducts like the last cashew in the can. But let’s not get down in the dumps about it. Let’s not think too much, too hard, too loud. We’re in our early thirties and strong, passably fit, wrinkle-free. We remember our childhoods like they were yesterday: the chicken pox that made us scabby brethren—plague for a day. Shag carpet in citrusy shades. Parents with bar soap at the ready, on guard against “potty mouth.” Potty mouth the worst. The sin of sins.
Our childhoods have not prepared us for secret enemies. Think of all those scrubbed, fresh-faced shows. Bewitched, where problems were dispatched with a cute twitch of cartilage. Green Acres with its spunky rural poor and free-range pig. And what about Jeannie? Sulking so prettily in her bottle that the Major forgives her everything. Or best of all, Gilligan’s Island. The characters weathered storms by strapping themselves to trees. They did amazing things with coconuts, and this made us happy. More important, no one got off the island, except in bad dreams. No one left the show.
But now we have an invitation to an exit. The card stock is kicking in our hands. No pity, it reads. Drama okay. Come prepared to amuse. Gifts accepted, and they better be good. I’m dying, for crying out loud.
The news is not fresh; we’ve been denying it for days. Some of us saw Cliff a month ago, three weeks, and he looked fine: good coloring, eyes clear, skinny but not too skinny.
Only Tracy got through the hospital switchboard, the “no calls” order skipping a shift. When the patient answered, she sputtered, “Cliff, don’t let them talk you into it!” He responded slowly, each word a plot point on a wobbly chart: “Call you later, okay? I can’t do this right now.” Then a gentle click.
When she reported the conversation, we pounced: “Excellent, Tracy. Cancer: a matter of choice. Just say no.”
“Right, it’s a doctor conspiracy. No one has ever been mortally ill. They’ve only been made to believe they’re mortally ill.”
Tracy, in tears, wailed, “I know it was dumb. I didn’t expect him to pick up. What was I supposed to say?”
We ponder this, come up empty. What is the proper tone? Not musing: “Hey Cliff, funny how it’s called the ‘live-r,’ huh? Not ‘organ of doom’ or ‘the necessariad’ or ‘the brown peril.’” Not selfless: “Cliff, how much bowel does one, technically, need? Could I donate a yard or two?” Certainly not a measured solicitude: we imagine June Cleaver sitting primly on her young son’s bed, smoothing a coiffure as structured and rigid as coral. “Beaver,” she says, “You’re full of metastasized tumors. Want to talk about it?”
But we must say something, do something. We can’t go on as we are—dread glowing like a campfire within us, drawing snakes to the innocent scouts. And now there’s a party. Yes! Thank God for that party. Cliff has come home from the hospital, and he’s ready to groove. Clear the dance floor, there are new moves on the way. Let’s call this little number Surprise Ending. And this one Youth Wrecked. Clumsy names for awkward steps, your partner hidden in mist. But we’re going to learn them all: the Biopsy Boogie, the Lung-Spot Shake. Everybody! Get in line for the Cancer Conga. It’s the party of a lifetime, of a life’s time. So come on, Professor, shine up those specs. Pull on your pinafore, Mary Ann, and shake out the sequins for Ginger. The monsoon is here with a vengeance, and we’re going to meet it dripping with the Howells’ heirloom jewels. The coconuts can’t get us out of this one. Oh no. Oh me. Oh my. This one’s going to blow us all away.
How it can happen: so subtly. The body’s little fishwife banging away with her cast-iron pan. A twinge here, a knock there. A bit of trouble in the john. Then an easing. More trouble. A bug. Yes, a bug. The passing flu . . . that doesn’t pass. No passing in the john. A swelling felt from the outside, circumference charted with tripping fingers. Phone calls to speculative friends: Something I ate? Dang. No more carburetor fricassee for me! Blood in the water. From straining? An appointment to check things out, thinking gallstones, hernia, a tiny tear. Friends propose space worms. A scribbling doctor who just can’t say. A gamut of tests. Then silence—long, long silence. Lab technicians jacking off in the petri dishes. Playing bridge with the rats. Finally, the call: they just can’t say. But the indelicate problem won’t go away. More tests . . . and a suspicion. The doctor knows something, but she’s not talking. She suggests a brief hospital stay, some special tests that will get to the bottom of it.
Now the parents are flying in—“for support.” Ye gods! But they’re a distraction, yammering on with sun-flare grins, rife with updates on old classmates whom time thankfully forgot. Lew Crudup stages Civil War reenactments; his hardtack is all the rage. And Bonnie Baum? Gets fed to a combine in one of those straight-to-video flicks—but she flails stylishly. That gal has a future.
Then come the doctors—bandits who unmask at bedside, their pink chins gleaming. And this is significant, because outlaws only show their faces to the safe bets. The ones who won’t get away. But instead of six-guns, these bad guys pack film, sheets upon sheets of it. And before anyone can duck or flee or board up the windows, the doctors are hanging it high, flipping their wrists with lightning speed—the problem is here and here and here. The barrage of knowledge has begun: it is not only the worst, but the worst of the worst. It is what showdowns are made of.
We arrive at the party, and right off it’s surreal. Cliff meets us at the door in a flesh-colored bathing cap. We can detect hair, Van Gogh swirls of it, beneath the tight pseudopate. “Boo,” he says, “I’m scary cancer guy. Did I mention it’s a costume party?” He passes out nose-and-mouth masks, and in reflex we clap them to our jaws. Cliff smiles. “You are all the scary doctors.”
We shift from foot to foot, cast each other skittish glances. We have determined, after long discussion, not to expect anything—but this is not what we aren’t expecting. And even discounting the cap, there’s no denying it: our friend looks like death. His face bones, in his short time away from us, have sharpened, his skin become slack, the body revealed itself as hawser—all cording.
Tracy immediately bursts out, “My God, Cliff, is there no hope?”
Cliff’s smile gets merrier. Sweat leaks onto his upper lip. “You won’t believe how hard it is to find a cap this color,” he says. “No one wants to look sick. Can you imagine?”
Tracy is stricken, and we step in front of her, shielding Cliff from her stupidity. Suddenly the costumes make sense. Bless pretense! Indirection is everything: Cliff’s way of easing us into his dire new world.
Victor has caught on to the concept, and now he fondles a ghostly stethoscope, consults a chart of air. “I’ve conferred with my colleagues,” he announces, including us in an emphatic nod. “And we’re all going to give you an enema.”
After a startled pause, Mindy takes the cue. “Yes, yes!” she says. “A nice enema is just what you need.”
Cliff sighs. His face goes haggard with relief. “That’s more like it,” he says. “My colon is your colon. Now where are my goddamn gifts?”
We drag them from pockets and sacks, purses and coats. The presents are many; they are gaudy with wrapping and bows. Some are obscenely large, unrestrained—gift tumors—and we shy from them. But not Cliff. He has viewed his X-rays against a light-board; now nothing makes him flinch. He points to his chest—for moi?—then dabs at an imaginary tear. “Jeepers, you guys,” he says. “Thanks. This is the best cancer I ever had.”
At the hospital the film has flapped away, and the doctors with it. Now prepping is occurring, for there’s no time to waste. The patient’s guts are greedy; they are famished and gobbling him up.
What is to say is to say is to say? What is to do is to do? The room is a crush is a crash of a room, full of fists that ache to be bitten. They don’t know everything, insists the mother, breaking the silence. We’re going to get a second opinion. The father has begun to heave, just a little, in the chest. He’s a big man with a big chest, a man who’s worn boots for most of his shit-kicking life. He’s no good at talk, better at frowning presence. Hulking threat. Now he’s run into something he can’t scowl down. You got to . . . You got to not . . . This is as far as he can go. The sound of a train approaching. The sound of a train passing out of sight.
As for the patient, he is listening, sensing. Trying to gauge his systems’ status cell by cell. The doctors said this had been with him a very long time: he was leading his life; it was leading its. He turns to his mother. They didn’t say anything about my chances, he marvels. Did they say anything about my chances?
The party is off to a slow start. Doctors are perched like ball moss on the furniture while Cliff is in the kitchen, putting final touches on the food. His apartment is the same and not the same: the beloved kitsch artifacts still there—the plaster saguaro floor lamp, the silver platter stamped with the heads of the Dionne quints—but they’ve receded, tucked into niches they didn’t know they had. Cleanliness is a brutal presence in the room, which reeks of piney rigor. No one wants to breathe and foul the air.
“Hey in there,” calls Dr. Guzman with desperate gaiety. “Could you use some help with the dip? Lemme know, okay? I’m great with it. Dip.”
Dr. Hyde has been glowering for two full minutes. “Are you comfortable, Cliff?” he shouts. “Do you need to sit or something? Dr. Feeney! Get Cliff a chair.”
Feeney arches a brow. “And who made you the head of surgery?”
“I don’t know about this,” moans Dr. Poteet, rhythmically gnawing her cuticles. “This is a very strange party. I can’t handle it.”
Dr. Hyde hones his glare to a laser point. “Poor little Poteet,” he croons. “You suffer so.”
From the ottoman, one of the medical staff is muttering unhappily. “I’m Doctor Proctor,” he complains. “It’s the pits. Like Nurse Purse or Lawyer Sawyer. I’m a laughingstock.”
“How does he do it?” asks Dr. Feeney in a stage whisper. “I mean, he’s acting so . . . like himself. I’d be a raving loon; I know I would.”
“Remind me never to let you operate,” Hyde sneers.
Feeney bristles. “Remind me to tear out your throat with my teeth.”
Beaming, Hyde says mockingly, “Very nice, doctor.”
“Now, now. Let’s all settle down,” Guzman intones, electing himself the peacemaker. “I’m angry about this, too. I have rage. That’s a normal reaction. But we mustn’t turn on each other.” Guzman’s eyes have grown moist. “We mustn’t let the cancer rob us of our humanity.”
“Hey Cliff!” shouts Hyde. “I’m going to kill Dr. Guzman right now. He’ll meet you in the big white light.”
We gasp. Poteet’s moan staggers up an octave. Even Hyde pales, shocked by his outburst. Cliff appears in the kitchen doorway, bearing melon balls, and Hyde shows him a supplicant’s palms. “I’m sorry,” he says shakily. “That was horrible.”
Cliff shrugs and attempts a laugh. “It’s okay,” he says, color flooding his cheeks. “I don’t know how to do this either.” His thin face pulls into a shy half-smile. “I thought the party would be good practice. Trial by fire and all that.”
Feeney speaks in a voice that throbs like a gong. “We’ll do anything you say.”
Dr. Proctor clears his throat. “Well,” he sniffs. “Not anything.”
But it’s too late. A gleam has come into Cliff’s eye. “I’ve been waiting for this day,” he says, then simulates a chilling cackle: “Moo-hoo-ah-ha-ha. You are all my puppets!” The thought seems to cheer him immensely. He extends the melon tray. “Honeydew?”
We all rise and lumber toward him: zombies stabbing little sherbet-green balls with their toothpicks.
Poteet sighs and says with great sorrow, “We’re the weirdest people I know.”
Back at the hospital, the Grand Opening is over. The surgery’s a marvelous success. They’ve come away with enough colon for everyone, long loops of the stuff. Bowel boas and muffs. And that’s not all. As a door prize they found more cancer. Right where you would never want to look. A lesion here, a lesion there. Just goes to show you it really pays to snoop around.
Sorry to report, the patient knows nothing of this. He is in a pretty bad way. A lot of his insides have come outside, and what’s left is trying to get some work done during the siege. The parents look on from opposite corners of his room. They can’t touch, because out of their contact rises a question. One that whispers from their cells. In making him, did they make this? Did they give him, along with brown eyes and big feet, an expiration date?
Over at the party, all Cliff’s friends have finally arrived. Here are the Chesnuts, who live on Blight Street. The redheaded Pinker twins, so freckled they can only be brought into focus from a distance. And Fanny Phar, who has hips the way museums have wings—but who won’t change her name, to our delight. Finally, it’s Frankie “Whiz” Noonan, the good-time guy with the bladder he terms “reactionary.” He keeps a bedpan in his car for its militant acts. We wander the apartment, a tribe of medical nomads, restless and squinting with strain. Except for Frankie, who becomes a human whirlpool, sucking jiggers of gin into his deeps.
Cliff observes us from the couch, and his face flexes with fondness. “Could you guys try to be less adorable?” he says. “You’re doctors. You’re supposed to scare the hell out of me.” He leans forward and winces, and our eyes flash to his abdomen, then quickly slither away. But we realize this won’t do, so we make a bold show of disaffection, sending each other our dullest stares. Dr. Proctor yawns extravagantly.
“Want me to start?” Cliff inquires. “How’s this? I’m thirty-one years old and my mother has moved in with me. She makes me take these walks because I’m supposed to build up my strength. So we march up and down the hall until my legs go noodly, and she chats with my rude neighbors, who are suddenly super friendly and act like the sight of me warms their hearts. I’m a regular mascot in the building. Everybody loves a guy with cancer.” He pauses to let our horror grow. “People give me these crazy compliments, like ‘Your humor is so amazing’ and ‘I see such life in your eyes.’ And you know what I say? ‘Why, thank you.’ But that’s just it. This thing is happening to me, and everyone is so pleasant about it.” Cliff’s face has taken on a carved intensity, but now he looks up, self-conscious. “Am I talking too much?”
Our heads buck on our necks—a round of emphatic “no”s—but Cliff appears doubtful.
Guzman encourages him in a soothing radio voice: “Go ahead. We’re with you.”
Feeney snorts; she can’t help it. But this evokes the desired response: Cliff grins, and we can relax. Guzman is pouting so that he must be pinched. “Ow,” he exclaims, rubbing his arm. “Jeez.”
“Anyway,” Cliff continues. “Here’s the scary part. My mother. Every morning she goes out and picks up pinecones outside the complex.”
Dr. Chesnut shakes his head. “You poor bastard,” he says. “Does she collect them for”—he shudders—“crafts?”
Cliff wags a finger in the negative. He can hardly hide his joy. “To be tidy.”
“That,” breathes Dr. Phar, eyes wide, “is some spooky shit.”
Cliff leans back with care, hooking his elbows over the sofa, a smug expression sitting like a Buddha on his brow. The challenge is clear, and cancer or no, we have far too much pride to let it pass.
“Okay, sick man,” says Hyde, cracking his knuckles one by one. “If it’s fright you want, it’s fright you’ll get. Dr. Hyde is in the building.”
We’ve seen this act before, and a thrill runs through us as Hyde turns away and hunches, fussing with his hair. We think, Envision the mad doctor. BE the mad doctor, and Hyde doesn’t disappoint. He swings around, his coif rising in meringue-like peaks, one shoulder dipping as he seethes, “Where are my tubes and wires? My snippers and pincers and blades? Nurse! Nurse! Damn your eyes. You’re supposed to keep my instruments on hand. How am I supposed to operate? I can’t slop around in the patient without the proper slopping tools!”
We clap in grisly delight. Cliff wears a look of transport. “You beast,” he says. “You’re my inspiration.” Hyde makes a little bow and with a flourish presents Dr. Feeney.
She closes her eyes, places fingers at her temples for a mental consultation, then blinks awake. “The sick are all the same,” she complains. “It’s always me, me, me. ‘What’s my prognosis, Doctor? Can you cure my disease?’ But the worst is after the surgery. All the fuss over a missing sponge or two. Either that or it’s ‘Doctor, I’m hemorrhaging.’ ‘Doctor, I can’t feel my leg.’ Everyone’s a critic!”
This has us chewing our tongues in terror, knocking our jelly knees, but before we can comment, Dr. Guzman leaps in, impatient for his cue: “So I’m in the lab, right? And here’s what I say. What I say is, ‘Yo Hal, is that a lung or my lunch?’” Guzman looks eagerly about, seeking affirmation, but Cliff grimaces.
“A good effort,” he says, trying to be constructive, “but I’m looking for more subtlety. Maybe drop the cannibalism angle.”
During the performances, Frankie has been circling the room like a bloodstream, spilling his drink on the carpet. “Hey,” he whines now, tapping one doctor, then another, on the shoulder. “Give me a shot, okay? One little shot.” He grins gleefully and winks: “In my bum!” Phar pulls him aside to reexplain the party concept: Frankie, too, is a doctor. And he must be scary. This is Cliff’s wish. “No bum?” Frankie asks, crestfallen. No bum.
Guzman is muttering under his breath, “What’s wrong with a little cannibalism? It’s in all the best films. Cannibalism is classic.”
“Okay, I’ve got one,” says Dr. Poteet, and we turn to attend her. “I’ve studied your case very closely,” she tells Cliff with gravity. “I’ve really done my homework. And I think everyone else is wrong.” She takes a breath and smiles. “You’re going to make it!”
No one moves. We can only gape, stunned by her cruelty. She wrinkles her brow, puzzled by the lack of response. Finally, Cliff laughs a dry, wood-chipper laugh. “Wow. False hope,” he says. “That is truly terrifying.”
Poteet gasps. “Oh, I didn’t mean . . . I wasn’t going by the rules! I only wanted . . .” Her throat convulses, and for a moment we listen to her gurgling—the unmistakable sucking sound of grief.
Our host, frowning in concern, reaches over to squeeze her knee. “I will die of this,” he says slowly, with studied enunciation, and we imagine Cliff practicing the line before a mirror, watching his mouth make the words. “It’s not okay, exactly, but believe it or not, I’m getting used to the idea.”
Poteet keeps pressing her wrist to her nose to stop its flow, and her words come out oddly dampered. “I’ll neber ged used do id.”
Cliff gives her a couple of pats. “You’d be amazed,” he says, “what starts to seem normal.”
We sit quietly, subdued and strangely reverent—made intimate with our most unthinkable thoughts. Guzman nods with great solemnity. “For example,” he says, “cannibalism.”
Dr. Pinker is the first to attack him, flying out of his chair. He gets Guzman in a headlock and administers a passionate noogie, scrubbing his scalp like a shoe that won’t come clean. “You nut,” he chants, over and over. “You nut, you nut, I love you, you crazy nut.” When Pinker releases him, we’re all blinking back the tears. We’re not accustomed to such tender scenes. Guzman is dazed and mussed, but grinning giddily. Phar reaches out to smooth his hair.
Then someone touches Cliff. Is it Chesnut? Is it Hyde? And we’re surging forward, our hands roaming him, stroking his pitiful limbs and knobs of bone, snapping his rubber cap. “Doctors,” Cliff murmurs, coyly fluttering his lashes. “I didn’t know you cared.”
But we do. We care unbearably, recklessly. Delirium sweeps the room. Dr. Proctor steps back and ties on his mask. “When you think about it,” he says, “some of our organs aren’t pulling their weight. The pancreas, the spleen. I mean, what are they doing really? Who ever hears about them? So when I get in there, I like to slap them around a bit, teach them a lesson. ‘Shape up, spleen! Start cranking out some juice.’ ‘Make yourself useful, pineal gland. It’s my way or the highway.’”
Dr. Phar disengages from Cliff and draws herself to full height. Her large hips swing threateningly, like a demolition ball. “I want a confession,” she demands. “Who popped popcorn with the x-ray machine last night?”
“It was me!” cries Chesnut, shamefaced. “I wanted something to go with my shake. They make the best ones in Radiation. You can hardly taste the barium.”
I could have sworn she said the left leg was gangrenous,” Dr. Pinker is musing. “I distinctly remember her saying left.”
Dr. Feeney smacks her forehead. “Merde. I forgot my glasses again. Help me out here. Does this read morphine or chlorine?”
From his pallor we can tell Cliff is impressed. “Yikes,” he says. “You guys are really sick. I mean that in the sweetest way. Want to see my alien baby?” He pulls aside his collar to expose a mouth at his collarbone. It is neat in its planned protuberance. Rosy and slender and pert. For an instant we wait for it to speak in a cultured voice. “They call it a port,” Cliff says. “I have ports now. It’s where they’ll drip the chemo when I’m stronger.”
We blanch instinctively, despite all our doctor conditioning. Cliff’s ports have crashed the party, and like all bad guests they can’t be bullied away. One by one, we drop our gazes.
Suddenly Poteet steps forward, dragging off her mask. “Oh, Cliff. Enough already. I can’t stand to see you like this.”
The room takes an audible breath. Cliff’s expression is all stabs and twists, protean in its discomfort, but Poteet just rolls her eyes. “We’re still your friends,” she says. “We are always going to be your friends. You’re not going to scare us away.”
For a second, our atoms go still. Then Phar blurts in surprise, “Oh my God, she’s right.” She points at Poteet, a shaking, accusing point.
Feeney breathes in wonder, “This party . . . this awful party.”
We all swing toward Cliff, whose face has gone bland with confusion.
“How could you?” comes Pinker’s soft accusation. “How could you think we would bail on you?”
Cliff shrugs defensively. “The cancer . . . It changes everything.”
“Not us.” Hyde says. “Not you. I mean, not the you you.”
“I understand.” Feeney nods. “It makes people say things like ‘the you you.’”
“Rhymes with doo-doo,” Proctor offers.
“Don’t worry,” Guzman tells Cliff earnestly. “We like all your yous.”
Pinker cringes only slightly. “We’re going to stick this out,” he affirms. “No matter how bad it gets.”
Cliff ducks his head, pleased and trying to conceal it. “I know,” he says. “It’s obvious you people are capable of anything.”
“Well,” sniffs Proctor. “Not anything.”
At that moment, Frankie bursts from the bathroom, and we jump. None of us noticed him missing. He saunters up, straightening a phantom tie. “I am a doctor,” he announces with dignity. “And I would like a shot in my bum.”
At the hospital the patient awakens to gloom, and for a moment he’s at the bottom of the sea. Sacks of liquid float around him like lambent jellyfish, and he can feel a change in the tide, a promise of weightless drift. But there is also sound. A voice infused with a doctor’s calm dispassion. His mother’s watery glubbing. His father’s sleeve snicking dully against her back. The doctor is saying they will need to make a decision. Whether to go on with treatment. Chemotherapy will delay the inevitable, but it will be the more difficult course. Without it, the patient can be made quite comfortable.
Suddenly the patient starts to struggle, fighting to throw off his sheets. Three faces appear over him, but he will not be lulled. Hands clamp down on his limbs—and still he strains against them, rasping, Please, I want to stay.
The party is over—though we can’t bring ourselves to leave. We’re afraid of what happens when our friend is out of our sight. But Cliff insists. “You have to go now.” He leads the way to the door and shoots us with his index finger gun: “Not that I haven’t had a ball, kids.”
We look at him feelingly, and Cliff blushes at his tone. “Sorry,” he says. “I’ve got to work on those defense mechanisms.” He flips a hand in resignation. “You can only be the hip, happening cancer guy for so long.” Our expressions don’t change. “I’m doing it again, aren’t I?” Cliff shakes his head. “Damn. Okay, here’s the truth,” he confesses. “I’m exhausted.”
Phar steps up to kiss his cheek. “We’ll go,” she says. “But promise you’ll call us, any of us, if you want company.”
“Call us anyway,” urges Chesnut. “Let us know what’s going on. I can’t stand the wondering. Wondering is the worst. Except maybe for speculating. Speculating really sucks.”
“And rambling,” says Feeney. “Lord save us from the rambling.”
Chesnut sticks out his tongue.
“I’ll call,” Cliff laughs, holding his stomach. “Now get the hell out. You guys are killing me.”
In the parking lot we hesitate before climbing into our cars—though we know we must practice the trusting art of driving away. Instead we look up, searching for Cliff’s lit window, counting the building’s many burning eyes.
“Oh no!” Tracy cries.
“What-what! What is it?”
“We forgot,” comes Tracy’s mournful reply. “We didn’t open the gifts.”
After a pause in which everyone reins in their bolting hearts, Victor starts to chuckle. The sound is rusty and grating.
Now, when we find Cliff’s window, we imagine him sitting before our immodest mound of packages, tearing at ribbon and tape with a tongue caught between his teeth. We pause our mental footage there and rewind it at will, though we know at the end of this story there will be only one box left. A gift that opens itself—in harrowing increments. Tissue by terrible tissue. Bow by terrible bow.