Artwork and photo by Baird Stiefel
Anne was a yeller, not a crier.
She was calling from the hospital to tell me she had leukemia. They were taking her to the city.
I drove into a ditch, fucked the car.
Me: I'll be there.
Lily was fifteen and fucked up. Dressed in black, chains, sucked her thumb with black lipstick. I loved her soul. I woke her.
Me: Mom needs us.
We drove the hour. Time stopped. Stars streaked. Jets soared. Lily sucked and slept. She sighed.
We found Anne. Tiny room on floor eight. Lily spread her wings. Loved the darkness out there.
Anne laughed at a movie. Bolt, the little dog. Tears streaked her face. She had long red hair. Freckles. Eyes too blue and beautiful for this. I hugged her. She tensed. I had smoked.
Anne: No more of that.
We watched the movie. Lily laughed. First time since she was ten. It made us feel good.
A young doctor arrived. Gave us the plan.
Doctor: Plan. Plan. Plan. Blah.
Funny looking in a primate way. We laughed, and he slanted from the room.
Anne: Fucking Ativan!
Lily: Fucking Ativan!
I took Lily next door to the Hilton. We could stay because of computers. Lily did school on hers. I worked on mine.
The check-in guy had shaved head, pierced face, tattoos. NATHAN.
A secret language.
But last week Lily said she was gay.
We were on floor two so Lily couldn't fly. She spun around. I watched the silver scars on her arms. We smoked. I was too tired to fight about it.
Lily: Sharon's mom beat it.
We reviewed the monkey doctor's story. Chemo, drugs, transplant. It seemed hopeful. We had laughed.
Lily took her pills. Without them came voices of the hooded strangers.
When she was knocked out, I smoked a joint outside. I looked up for Anne's room. I listened to the night sounds. Tinkling bar, woman singing, dog barking.
Me: Giggle, giggle.
Anne: Fucking Ativan!
I stood with Lily outside the procedure room. Three monkey doctors were in with Anne.
Anne: Show me the fucking needle!
They were doing a bone marrow aspirate.
Anne: Fucking cocksuckers!
Me: Now, now.
Monkey doctor: Here's an Ativan.
Anne: Give me two!
Lily: More fucking Ativan!
A monkey doctor poked his head through the curtain and stared.
Lily: We're fucking brilliant.
Anne: OWWWW! Oooohhhh, fuuuuuck!
Monkey docs: You are very brave. A good fighter. A survivor.
Anne: Screw you, big-eared asses!
My girls. What can I say? Such disrespect. And for the ones in charge of life!
We went back to the room. We watched some more movies and laughed our asses off. We cried. A pastor came by and was so alarmed by our crying that he wanted to pray.
Us: We don't believe in god.
He took off.
Later the monkey docs came by. The news was good. Anne had the easier kind: ALL. They recited the plan again. Blah, blah.
We cried some more.
A Barbie nurse came in. I couldn't take my eyes off her. Anne kicked me.
Barbie: They want to put in a central line. For chemo and any other drugs.
Anne: That goes in my neck?
Barbie: Don't worry. They do thousands.
Anne: Monkey docs?
Barbie: Excuse me?
It was a sterile procedure, so I took Lily back to the hotel for lunch. Nathan was there. Eating fries. Lily rattled her chains at him. He nodded.
After that I lay on the bed. Lily smoked on the balcony. She was talking to someone about her mother. I got up. It was Nathan. He threw a rose to her. It made her thumb bleed. She sucked it like always. He bowed.
I had a smoke and shower. We went out to get a vase. We went into the hospital gift shop for a stuffed animal. Lily picked out a cat because we had one at home. Roger. We weren't allowed to bring Anne flowers. The monkey docs were shutting down her immune system.
Lily said she wasn't feeling good. She wanted a nap. I went back to see Anne.
Me: Here is Roger the cat.
She held Roger to her face.
Anne: I love him.
I examined her neck. Barbie came in and mooned over the cat.
Barbie: We'll be starting the chemo tomorrow.
She proceeded to read about the drugs and all the side effects. Blah. It was scary. The nausea and hair loss were of greatest concern to Anne.
Barbie: We have a good drug for the nausea.
After she left, we had to watch another movie to laugh.
Nathan was coming out of my room.
I could tell he was stoned.
Me: Hey! You better get going.
He trotted down the hallway.
Lily was wearing different clothes. Her red pants with chains. A band t-shirt.
Me: Did you smoke pot? Of course, you did. What else? How old is he?
Lily: We just talked. He's cool.
Me: How old is he?
Lily: It doesn't matter.
Me: You're fifteen.
Lily: So. I could get leukemia and die. You live your life.
Me: Did you sleep with him?
Lily: That's crazy. We talked. You don't trust me?
I was too tired to fight anymore. She smoked a cigarette on the balcony. I fell back on the bed and looked at the ceiling. How did it get this way?
I wouldn't tell Anne about this incident.
I drifted to sleep. I had a dream about how Anne took on characteristics of her donor. Her donor was a plane mechanic. Anne fixed planes on our lawn. She took off and landed there. She told me to move the fucking cars, move myself. She had a lot of work to do.
When I woke up it was dark. Lily was not in the room or on the balcony.
I called her.
Lily: Chillax, old man. I'm with Mom. You don't have to come. We're bonding over the F word.
I was a little jealous. But still I felt exhausted. I went back to sleep.
Later I was aware of Lily in the room, talking softly on her phone.
Lily: We'll be here a while, I guess.
She went onto the balcony so I couldn't hear her.
When I woke, I didn't know where I was. I felt the bed next to me for Anne. My eyes were stuck shut. I heard a faraway voice. That was Lily. She laughed that precious laugh. Then there was singing. Well, not really singing. More like suppressed guttural screaming, the kind with kill-me-death-core lyrics like Lily listened to. I realized this was Nathan, serenading her.
I went to the balcony.
Nathan: Hey, Mr. K!
Me: Yeah. Come on Lily. Let's get breakfast before we see your mother.
Nathan: Good luck with everything!
Lily: See you later.
We walked down to the café.
Me: Where will you see him later?
Lily: Around. You know.
Me: Yeah, I know.
We ate scrambled eggs and toast with jam. And black coffee. Her nails were the shade of the coffee. So were her lips.
Anne was beginning the chemo when we got there.
Barbie: Blah, blah. I ran the nausea drug first.
Me: Bleeping shit.
I just wanted to say random stuff.
Lily: Fucking awesome. Can she get some pot? They do that now.
Barbie: Maybe for at home.
Lily gazed out the window at the Hilton. She waved. She rattled her chains with boredom.
I watched Barbie's splendid ass through her scrub pants.
We watched a video about whales until Anne said she was seasick. Then there was one about somebody's otters in the bathtub.
Lily did some schoolwork on her laptop and I checked in with a few clients who were uncertain in their futures. I talked them down from rooftops.
Me: There's a lot to live for.
Anne: I know.
Lily: Fuck, yeah.
Anne: Dear, stop it!
We sat with her for a couple hours, then went to get lunch at McDonald's. We went back to the hotel. I smoked some cigarettes and took a shower. Lily smoked on the balcony after me, looking down for her friend. He was working. I'd seen him in the lobby. Now and then he had a smoke break.
I asked Lily if she was still gay. She said she wasn't sure. I gave the birth control speech again and she rolled her eyes. She reapplied her black eye makeup.
I went to the lobby and told Nathan that Lily was fifteen. He didn't change his expression.
Nathan: Nice kid.
Me: Fifteen going on twenty. Impressionable.
Nathan: Don't worry about me.
And I decided not to. I was too tired. Whatever happened would happen.
I went back to Anne. The anti-puke medicine was not working. She had a little puke bag which was blue.
Anne: Barf, barf.
I felt sick along with her.
I went back to the hotel and put my finger down my throat.
Lily fired me up a little pipe.
Me: Is this his?
Lily: Shhh. You'll feel better soon.
And I did.
We passed it between us. When it was done, we stretched on the carpet on our backs and laughed like hell. I couldn't stop. Whenever I was almost done, and Anne was calling, I'd start back up. So would Lily. I peed a bit. The ceiling was moving.
Lily: Remember when you held my legs and spun me around, and you kept falling. Then the buildings were falling, and you had to stop and get me out of the house. We went to the playground because you didn't want to hear it on the news. We spun on the merry-go-round thing until we couldn't stand up. A jet flew overhead, and you held me tight. I kind of feel like that now.
Me: I can't spin you. My back.
Lily: Then hold me.
We woke up like that.
Chemo marched on. Anne took her nausea meds. We took our pot.
Anne's beautiful hair came out in clumps. We collected it in zip locks. Then I shaved her head. Lily was jealous. She could get ideas. She was close to another head shaver. When she went back to the hotel, I was nervous over shavings, tattoos, piercings. Seductions.
I held Anne's head. Like it belonged to someone else.
Anne: I want to walk with it in the rain.
I made up my mind.
There was a CVS nearby. I bought clippers.
Back at the hotel I found I didn't need them. Lily had Nathan's. She had done the deed. She was decorated with little Band Aids. Proud.
She did me. She was careful. She didn't nick me once.
We stood looking in the mirror. It was funny—the lumps and craters you have in your head.
It was raining a soft rain. It was warm. We stood on the balcony and felt the delicious feeling. We could stay that way forever.
We went to the restaurant. Nathan took pictures of us.
Lily smiled a coy smile for him. She was acting less tough. We plucked Band-Aids and rolled them in napkins. Then we walked in the rain, singing that song. I sang in a normal voice while they used their murderous ones. We scared some old ladies on the sidewalk.
Anne looked pale. But was a ragdoll come to life when she saw us. She laughed and cursed.
We giggled. We smelled like weed and Anne sniffed and said she wanted some.
She reminded me I was an adult. She was jealous of my good-time freedom.
Nathan: Hey... Mrs. K.
Anne's eyes popped. She looked at me and I shrugged.
Barbie checked in.
Barbie: My goodness! That is showing support!
Nathan and me and Lily were all checking out Barbie's behind.
Anne put the puke bag over her mouth, but she was empty.
Nathan had to go back.
I explained him to Anne. She made eyes at me and then at Lily.
Lily: He's just cool.
Me: It's cool.
Anne: Did you feel the rain on your heads?
Lily: It was awesome.
The chimp docs weaned Anne's chemo and we could take her home.
Lily and Nathan had their heads together in the hotel lobby and I cleared my throat.
Me: We come back in three days.
They had laid the schedule out. Lots of driving, but no more hotel bills.
I had thought briefly about hospital bills but then covered the thoughts with words like "Cocoplink."
It rained and we walked Anne around the parking lot. She looked at the flowers that had just come out.
She slept in the car.
Lily announced she would not grow her hair back.
I admired my head in the mirror. Maybe I wouldn't, either.
I chased Anne around the garden. Her energy was up.
The sun was warm on our bald heads.
We had just done the bong.
Lily slumped out with no energy.
She had been moping. Tired of hearing of Nathan's age.
Lily: I can't do the bong. I took a test.
Me: Knerp. What do you mean?
She handed me the plastic stick with the + sign.
I tipped over on the bench. My wind sucked out.
Anne took the stick and tipped over. We were a pathetic heap.
Lily pulled us up.
Lily: I think it's true.
Anne: No. It's not. You're gay.
Lily: I guess I'm not. Or it was a one time thing, just to see.
Anne: It was the old one. The friend.
Anne held her chest and said she had pain.
She caught me with a left hook, a hard knuckle to my jaw. She had new strength.
Anne: This is your fault. With your fake words and weed.
Me: You're the one who wasn't there for her, with your real estate.
Lily: It was no one's fault. I suffered a seduction.
She rattled her chains.
Lily: It's not as bad as cancer.
Anne pressed her heart. She could say I did the same to her way back when.
Lily: I'm going to keep the little bleeder. We're all going to keep it right here. And Nathan can visit.
Nathan was high when we broke the news.
He spoke in a second guttural language.
I let loose a string of nonsense expletives to scare him
I said I would not press charges.
Lily: I'm keeping it. You will visit.
Nathan was on his knees in the hotel lobby, crying. People were looking.
I picked him up and hugged him.
Anne went on a drug to keep her white cells from multiplying. This drug, which cost the insurance company five thousand a month, messed with some receptors which were responsible for turning on the crazy process.
Meanwhile, Lily had some cells multiplying.
She was distressed over the lack of maternity pants with chains, so she got a sewing machine and made some. Then she made some for me and Nathan and Anne. Black and red. If you can't beat them.
We rattled around the house, heads still stinging from a recent shave.
Lily played head-banging music to her belly.
I told her the baby would be born hard of hearing.
They were looking for stem cell donors for Anne.
I was working on some new words, like Spermdix!
Life went on.
Two things happened at once.
Anne got pneumonia.
Lily got contractions.
I took them both to the medical center, to be safe.
The chimpies and a new rat doctor infused Anne with strong antibiotics.
A chubster doc fawned over Lily. He seemed alarmed by her PJs with the bleeding devils.
And Nathan showed up singing about bleeding devils.
Chubster recoiled and rolled rapidly on a couch.
Chubster: Bedrest. Do not do this.
Then Anne took a turn for the worse.
She was at death's door, but then kicked the shit out of it.
She screamed for Lily: Help me face-fuck this thing.
And Lily had the lyrics.
And they did it.
Ratty doc said it was astounding. He would write a paper.
Nathan didn't have a car. I picked him up twice a week. Lily was supposed to be on bedrest, but they head-banged in her room. The music shook the floor.
One day, when Anne and I were smoking the bong in the garden, stroking each other's heads, we got the call from her case manager.
There were three potential stem cell donors. German men. Germany had a big program.
They narrowed it to one who was the healthiest, narrowed the date.
Lily had more contractions. She was at 32 weeks.
One chimpey told Anne she might take on characteristics of the donor.
Chimpey: This is confidential, but your donor is a motorcycle mechanic.
We needed one of those.
Lily's baby girl was born early. Four pounds. I held her in one hand. Lily named her Dee Kay, after her initials.
Nathan wrote a song which was growly and ghastly. They sang it outside the incubator and frightened the nurses.
But one doctor, who resembled an anteater, said he liked it very much.
Oh, what wonderful animal docs we have seen!
And what is left to see. Whole lives coming up.
I was so high.
The stem cells were flown into Anne's central line. Some lab techs and chimps and nurses fretted over the process.
But they took off in her body.
Soon she had the healthy white cells of a 25-year-old man.
And soon our living room exploded with motorbike parts.
Dee Kay played with pistons instead of pacifiers.
And with our freshly shaved heads, dressed in our chains and listening to Slipknot, we watched her.