Issue Five - February 2003

Dying Like That

By Lorna Reese

Death dogs are all around us. They bark, they bite and gnash their teeth, they howl in the night for your soul. They lurk in the shadows but they’re there, too, in a day like this, so pure and blue and faultless, it makes your heart ache.

The last time I see Annie is in the rear view mirror of my rented Dodge Neon. She is standing on the concrete front stoop of her suburban house, her shoulders low and resigned, her face in shadow. But still, solid, and alive. I am driving back to my girlfriend’s in the city.

I had flown to Minneapolis to see my old friend after a mutual acquaintance told me Annie wasn’t doing very well. “It’s in her brain now,” this friend of a friend had said. “They don’t think she’s going to make it.”

When I called Annie that night, I lied to her about the reason for my trip. “I’m going to visit my parents, so I thought we could catch up, too,” I said. My real objective was to get her to talk about things she was afraid of. She had to be afraid, I thought.

“That would be great, Rae,” Annie said, her voice huskier than I remembered, her vowels still Midwestern flat. “Do you think you could take me to get my chemo? My neighbor was supposed to but she just started a new job and can’t take the time off. Would you do it? I’d love to see you. It’s been too long. ” Her voice was full of forced cheer.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be glad to.”

Because I live in California, I hadn’t seen Annie in years. A Christmas card I received a couple years after her abrupt marriage showed her alcoholic husband Bud holding a round-faced infant. Annie had her hands on Bud’s shoulders. Subsequent cards presented them on either side of Justina as she grew. The last card just showed Justina, grown into a little girl who looked uncomfortable in dress-up clothes. There was the rare letter and even rarer phone calls. So I didn’t even know what Annie looked like anymore. Was she still bleaching her hair blond? Had she ever lost the weight she’d complained about since college? Did she still have that great laugh that shook her whole body?

Until I moved and she married, Annie and I had always had that ability to fall right into the other’s world, to re-connect immediately, as though it had been days since we’d seen each other instead of years. After she met Bud, she seemed to close up somehow, as though she was protecting something deep inside, and we couldn’t read each other like we used to.

I met Annie in the 1960s when we were both getting our degrees in elementary education. She taught me how to use eyeliner and tweezers on my brows. Whenever I wanted, she lent me the burgundy v-neck sweater her mother had knit. Incredulous that I was a freshman in college and still using pads, she gave me a box of tampons and instructions and made me stay in the bathroom until I managed to get one inserted. She sat right outside the door murmuring encouragement. She was my roommate when I lost my virginity and congratulated me on that, too.

Annie had a few foibles but they were endearing. She had to vacuum and dust every week. She couldn’t go to sleep if the closet door was open. She liked her shoes in precise rows, next to and touching each other. She needed neatness. And she never went to bed until Warren, her steady from high school, called, always precisely at twenty of eleven.

In 1967, I introduced Annie to marijuana. We were sitting on a blanket in the back yard in late May, getting a start on the tanning season. I’d been smoking dope with my new boyfriend for a few months already and longed to tell Annie, even though Rick had specifically told me not to. There weren’t many students at our college doing dope then and he was paranoid about it. But he was the first boy I’d ever slept with and I tended to give his pronouncements more weight then than I did later.

Annie tugged at the straps of her suit, making her big breasts fall into a pleasing and more comfortable shape. She squirted baby oil reddened with iodine onto her palm and began to smear it on her freckled chest.

“I can see why you like him,” Annie said, making sure the oil on her shoulders was even and bringing her slippery palms down both upper arms simultaneously. “He’s cute, and he seems different. You know? A little mysterious.”

“That’s because he’s a head,” I said. “You know, someone who smokes pot.”

“Rick smokes pot?”

Annie had stopped in mid-stroke and was clutching each arm above her elbow. Her skinny eyebrows looked like those smile buttons, only upside down.

“I do, too,” I said, squeezing some Coppertone onto my thighs and rubbing it in. “We smoke dope almost every night.”

“Really, Rae? You’re not kidding me?”

“I’m not kidding you. We take acid, too,” I said, even though I’d only tried it once and been pretty much freaked out by it.

“Can I try it?”

“Maybe. I’ll ask Rick.”

After we graduated and started teaching at different schools, Annie and I shared a one-bedroom apartment for a while. My boyfriend was in the Army in Germany and Warren had broken up with her by then so she was flitting from guy to guy, looking for Mr. Right. There were raucous weekends with Budweiser and dope and chocolate-covered mint cookies to eat when we were high. Annie smoked dope — we usually had a nickel or dime bag around — but her preference was beer. It tastes better, she said. I was never able to get past the bloated feeling I got from beer. “You’ve got to get it coming out as fast as it goes in,” Annie said. But I never could.

We’d drink beer, get stoned and do peculiar — child-like, I see now — things for fun: We’d brush each other’s teeth. We’d move around the apartment by walking only on furniture, no touching the floor. We’d play Five Hundred, a card game for two sets of partners. I’d play my hand along with her partner, “Dave,” and she’d play her hand along with my partner, “George.” That way, we figured, each of us would always be on a winning side. I had never been that playful as a child and I loved Annie for being nine years old again with me.

We both learned rudimentary lip reading so we could have conversations across the room during parties. “I want to go home,” I would mouth to her through marijuana haze and over the music of Iron Butterfly. “One more hour, please,” she mouthed back if she had her eye on someone. On those nights, I drove her car home alone.

Annie and I had had that inexpressible capacity to be in each other’s mind at the oddest moments. Hours after I asked Annie something, she might answer the question out of context and without any preface, yet I knew exactly what she was talking about. “It’s on the top shelf in the front closet,” she’d say a day after I asked if she’d seen my fringed scarf. It was as though we shared minds somehow.

But there were plenty of times I didn’t know what Annie was thinking. Where men were concerned, she was even needier than I, but she went after who she wanted. She was brave — or foolish; I’m not sure which. I was supposed to be waiting for Rick to come home from Germany but two years was a long time and there were guys everywhere. I had a few crushes. But when I liked someone, I always waited quietly, hoping he would notice me. Sometimes I went as far as to be in places where I had seen him before, same time, too.

Whereas Annie let her urges drive her forward. She’d put herself out there, so that the guy in question could, if he wanted to, throw stones at her heart right in front of everybody. Sometimes he did.

One time, at a party when my latest crush, Jake, was in the bathroom, her current boyfriend, Arnie, reached out and grabbed my boob, right in front of her. “Nice,” he leered. “Really, really nice.” Arnie wasn’t very good to her and was always staring at my boobs but he was really cute and good in bed, she said, so she pretended not to notice.

I’ve forgotten more of my twenties than I remember but it was fun — mostly — while I was going through it. Annie and I were close and we stayed that way until Arnie dumped her for that hot blond he married about five minutes after meeting her. Arnie and Jake were roommates, even after Arnie got married. I was practically living there, too, and that’s where all the parties were so Annie didn’t hang out with us anymore. We began drifting apart. For a while, Annie was out of sight, like some sailboat that had passed behind a huge island, but, at least, I knew where she was.

By the time I arrive at Annie’s house, I’m running a little late and she’s waiting on the stoop. “The road is all changed,” I apologize. She’s wearing a white baseball hat with “Friends Forever” embroidered on the brim. A thin strand of hair sticks out here and there, and her face is puffy. For a moment, I’m looking at a stranger in the shape of my friend. Then I reach for Annie and give her a soft hug even though she has never been comfortable with this kind of display of affection.

“Hey, have you been smoking?,” I ask. My nose has always been ultra sensitive.

“Just one this morning. Bud doesn’t know and I don’t smoke in front of Justina, so don’t start. O.K.? I don’t need any more stress.”

She shoots me a squinty look that strangles any further comment. Her freckles stand out vividly on her pale, drawn face and she looks both defiant and pathetic.

“Thanks for doing this,” she says. “Bud’s already taken so much time off work, his boss is beginning to get pissed about it. He understands why, of course, but he still needs to get his trucks loaded and out.”

“Sure. Let’s go.”

In the car, Annie drums her fingers on her thighs while we talk mostly about the old days. You can’t just plunge into the present; you have to work your way up to it. “What are Ed and Rita doing these days?,” I ask.

“They’re divorced and Ed moved to Mankato. Rita gave me this cap.” Annie takes it off and I get a glimpse of her naked head. Not entirely naked. Wisps of gray hair grow in strange places, forlorn, so vulnerable. Then the cap is back.

At the hospital, I follow Annie as she charges down long corridors so quickly I can’t make mental notes to find my way back. Then she abruptly stops and throws her bag onto a chair in the waiting area — just like all the other waiting areas we passed. Whatever happened to waiting rooms, I wonder, where you can nurse your woes in private. Now we have to sit and watch parades of other patients passing by, wearing their infirmities right on their faces. So exposed.

“I have to get a blood test first to see if my white cell count is high enough,” Annie says, from the counter where she’s waiting for someone to come and take her pink referral sheet. She rings a little bell that sits there and then drums her fingertips on the counter. “If it’s not, they won’t let me have the chemo.”

“What happens then?” I ask while Annie cranes her neck for a look behind the desk in the office.

“Where are they?” she says. “No matter when I come here, whatever day or time, there is never anyone here. I always have to wait.”

“They give me steroids to bring the count back up,” she says, turning to me. “Bud has to give me injections; That’s what happened last time so it should be high enough. I hope it is.” She crosses all her fingers and squeezes out a plaintive smile.

“Annie,” I say, just as the receptionist appears. “Hi, Annie Halvorson here for blood work,” she says, thrusting the pink sheet at her. “I’m due at chemo in half an hour.”

“Right. You can come on back,” the nurse says and Annie’s face brightens, as if the rheostat in her head is turned all the way up. “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she tells me.

Waiting on the purple plastic chair, I study a botanical print on the wall across from me. Dracena Marginata, the label says. It looks a little like marijuana. I’m having a hard time accepting that Annie and I are the same age, 43, but she has cancer and I don’t. I can’t imagine how it feels to have cancer. Not the pain of it, but the knowing it is there, in your body, poisoning your cells for years before you even become aware of its existence. These dark things lurk; there could be one inside me at this very moment, making a nest and hatching more toxic cells that fly to other places in my body to make their own nests. Annie’s cancer has gone from her breast to her brain.

“Now we have to wait,” Annie says, returning. She takes a seat, rummages in her purse for a stick of gum. “Want some?” she asks. “God, I wish I could smoke here. I’m dying for a cigarette. I quit when I got the first cancer, but when it came back, I figured it doesn’t matter that much if I smoke or not. ”

She gets up to throw away the gum wrapper and stays standing. Then she begins to pace, stopping to look at each botanical print along the wall, as if that is why she is standing. She peers closely at each one for a second before moving on, staying a fraction of a second longer at the one that looks like cannabis. Her restlessness is contagious and I begin to shift in my seat. Annie used to be able to sit calmly for hours, poolside, with a bottle of beer in her hand. We’d work on our tans and watch men.

Now she’s like one of those wind-up dolls, stumbling clumsily around and then winding down. She falls back into her chair, but can’t sit still. “I hope it’s OK. If I miss chemo again…. ” her voice trails off. “Isn’t it ironic,” she adds. “I’m, practically begging for them to give me this poison that kills off my cells so I won’t die. I’m not going to die, you know. I’m not.”

I don’t know if it’s a challenge or a plea. Or the opening I’m waiting for.

“People go into remission all the time,” I say, surprising myself by entering into the spirit of Annie’s appeal. “Their cancer disappears and no one can explain why. Who’s to say it won’t be you this time.”

“I’m not going to die,” she repeats softly, as if to herself, this time.

“Annie Halvorson?” a different nurse calls. “That’s me.” Annie jumps up and follows her down the corridor. A lady in a red shirt walks by, rummaging in her purse at the same time. She’s wearing one of those scarves women wear on their heads when they’ve lost their hair. I wonder what her white cell count is. Then Annie is back. Her face is gray and she bites her lip to hold back tears. But they are there anyway, spilling out of her pale blue eyes, down her broad freckled face.

“I can’t get chemo today; my blood count is too low,” she says. “Let’s go.” She grabs her bag and jacket and walks away. “Wait,” I say, picking up my purse. “Wait for me.”

It’s a little like all those old times when Annie was the ringleader and I followed. The time we shoplifted lipsticks and fingernail polish from the Rite Aid. The time we hung around until closing at the River Serpent so we could go home with the cute saxophone and guitar players, who drove a white hearse. That time — I can’t remember it too well; I was pretty drunk — I woke up next to a guy I couldn’t even remember meeting the night before. And then I saw Annie sleeping on the other bed, her heavy arm curled over the waist of a long-haired blond man, and it all came back to me, and it was OK.

Most of the drive back to her house, Annie doesn’t say a thing, just stares out the window. She seems to float off somewhere and I miss one of the turns. That brings her back. “No, you have to make a left back there. Just go around the block and take Pierce Avenue. Follow it until you get to Maple and then go right. That’s my street.”

Then she zones out again. I feel like I’m alone in the car, driving through this long forgotten landscape. There’s a feeling in the air, what is it, about being back in a place you haven’t been to for a long time. You can’t quite believe you’re really there because it looks so different. But then you realize you’re the one that’s changed.

The houses look different from my west coast town, and the light is different, too. There’s a lot of sky in both places but maybe more in the Midwest because the trees aren’t as tall. There’s so much light on this sunny day, it reminds me of earlier times when Annie drove a used Mustang convertible. On days like this, we often talked about getting in the car, turning the radio up loud and taking off somewhere, without a plan, just to see where we’d end up. But we never did it. I used to think it was Annie that held us back. Now I think it was me.

I remember my plan to get Annie to talk about dying and keep waiting for that old connection to kick in, for Annie’s mind to open up to me. I thought this day together would be the time that I can give Annie the gift of listening, of letting herself be honest, real, scared. “Do you want to talk about the cancer?” I was going to say. “Do you want to tell me about it?”

But when I turn onto Maple, Annie turns to me. “I know how this started, you know,” she says. “The cancer. It was because I smoked all that dope. That’s why. That’s my house. Right there on the left. Pull into the driveway.”

She climbs out of the car. I do, too. When she reaches back in for her bag, her head disappears from view and it’s like she’s already gone. Like one of those times when we were stoned and things made perfect sense one minute and then you couldn’t remember what you were saying or had said in the next, like you’d forgotten where you are, right in the middle of a sentence. That’s what it’s like. Have I imagined her there? Then she pops up again with that heavy black bag and tattered old denim good luck jacket with all the pins on it that doesn’t seem to be working any more. Her lips are tight, the rest of her face is smooth as she hurries to the house.

I rest my arms on the roof of the car and watch her go with that resolute, determined walk of hers, all business. Even now. She fumbles in her capacious bag and brings her keys up from the bottom and opens the door. Then, as though she has just remembered I’m there, she turns to look at me. “You coming?” she says and vanishes into the shadowy house.

I stand there, still stunned, for another minute, thinking about what she has just said in the car. I don’t know if it was intentional or not. She was so matter of fact about it. It doesn’t seem pre-meditated. Does she mean she feels she brought the cancer on herself? Does she feel guilty about it? Or is she blaming me?

Then I follow her inside. A strange, acrid smell I can’t identify hangs in the air in the living room but the kitchen smells like Pine-Sol. Annie is throwing a load of laundry into the washer and talking on the phone on the kitchen wall. “Hi, Joyce. It’s Annie. I just got home. Did Justina get there OK?” Her voice is flat, emotionless, as if she has just stuffed everything, all her feelings, back inside. She reaches into the cupboard and takes out a bag of Chunky Chips Ahoy. “Well, they wouldn’t give it to me today. My count was down. Next week maybe. So you can send her home now. OK? Thanks, Joyce. Yeah, I’ll let you know about the next appointment. Thanks again. Bye.”

“Justina stays next door when I’ve got chemo,” she says, “but she’ll be here in a couple of minutes. You want some coffee?” She puts some cookies on a plate and is pouring a glass of milk when the phone rings again.

“It’s too early to be Bud,” she says looking at me. “He usually calls after I get back, so I’m not going to answer it. Did you say you do want some coffee?” she asks, reaching for the Mr. Coffee pot. “I’m having some.”

“I don’t drink it anymore. Do you have any tea,” I ask. “If you do, I’ll have some of that.”

Annie opens another cupboard and holds out a box. “Lipton OK?”

While she bustles around the kitchen, making tea and coffee, I sit at her grandmother’s oak table and look around. The window behind me opens into a big back yard with elms and maple trees. They are beginning to drop their faded leaves. There’s a tire swing off to the right and then a little blond girl comes climbing over the split rail fence into the yard. She stops at the swing and sticks her sturdy little body into it, leaning on her stomach. She runs forward a few steps and then picks up her feet and swings back and forth in low, slow, arcs. I can’t see her face, just her long tanned legs curled backward, slicing the air into invisible shapes. After three or four more rides, she turns toward the house and I look back into the kitchen so she won’t think she was being spied on.

“Annie, how much does Justina know? About the cancer, I mean?”

She puts a mug of weak-looking tea on a coaster in front of me. “She knows I’ve been sick and that I have to take medicine that makes me tired sometimes. She thinks my head is funny-looking, but we don’t talk about it to her.”

I must make a face because Annie says. “She’s only six!”

And then she is here, a miniature version of Annie. The same freckles, the same blue eyes, the same chunky little body. “Hey, Mom, guess what? Willy Taylor had an operation on his ears. So they don’t stick out as much. Mrs. Morrison said we shouldn’t stare at him but I couldn’t help it. Do people stare at you? Oh, hi,” she says seeing me. “Mom do they?”

“What?”

“Stare at you? You know, because your head looks funny.”

Well, honey, I usually wear a hat so most people can’t see my head.”

“Yeah but you can’t see any of your hair so maybe people think you’re a boy.”

“Some ladies have short hair. Look at Rae’s. She’s my friend from college which was a long time ago. Before you were born. Now, here, take these cookies and go play in the yard for a while. I’ll call you for dinner. Run along.”

Justina puckers up her mouth and drops her head for a fraction of a second before grabbing a handful and running from the room.

“Justina, don’t run in the house.”

“But you said run along.”

“That’s just an expression, Justina, and you know it. Just go now.”

She pours herself a cup of coffee and settles heavily into the chair across from me. “Annie,” I say. “What did you mean by what you said in the car? You can’t actually believe you got cancer from the marijuana.”

She gets back up and puts some more cookies on the plate and places it in the center of the table. She takes one and holds it with both hands. “Well, I do.”

The phone rings again and Annie gets up to answer it. “Hello? Oh, hi. No, it wasn’t a very good day. They wouldn’t let me have the chemo.” She turns her back to me, wrapping herself up in the spiraled phone cord, and drops her voice.

I look at Annie for the longest time then. I look at her pale neck, littered with freckles that cover, I know, her shoulders and back, her arms and legs as well. I look at the way she stands, her right arm propping up her left elbow as she whispers on the phone. I look at the slope of her shoulders and the way her hips still swell out. I look at all of this, trying to find the adventuresome, fun-loving, trouble-making partner of my youth, my wild days. But she’s gone. I sit there, surprised, letting my tea get cold.

Annie hangs up the phone and sits back down, glancing at me and then out the window at Justina. “I know it was smoking marijuana that caused the cancer,” she says. She looks right into my eyes and holds hers there. For the life of me, I still can’t understand what she is saying with that look.

I look away. My eyes fall on the spilled sugar on the table between our cups and I push the granules together with my finger, then look out the window into the yard. Justina is throwing a stick for her puppy. I can feel Annie still glaring at me.

She’s talking crazy, I think. You can’t get cancer from smoking marijuana. Maybe the tumor in her brain is so big it’s pushing against the part of her brain that makes sense. Maybe it prevents her synapses from firing correctly, leaving her unable to negotiate her way to logical conclusions.

I remember when I’d offered her the first joint she ever smoked. We were at Rick’s attic apartment. I told her how to suck the smoke in and hold it in her lungs. I taught her to let it burn the back of her throat until her lungs pushed back to release the noxious fumes into the air and her blood stream, like a train rushing swiftly through a circuitous tunnel to her brain.

I look back at her. It’s like being stoned again, that feeling of not being sure what has just been said. My palms are wet and shiny and it’s hard to breathe.

“Are you blaming me,” I say. “Are you saying it’s my fault you have cancer?”

She doesn’t say anything. Her eyes have softened but her jaw remains firm. I remember all the times Annie got what she wanted just by being stubborn and hanging on the longest until I gave in. Like the time we moved into the apartment she wanted though I hated my room. An old boyfriend of Annie’s had claimed she was high maintenance and I was low maintenance.

We both keep quiet and the silence seems to stretch out and cover everything else in the world for a moment. Then I hear the kitchen clock ticking away behind me and I think a car drives by, but everything else seems very still. Finally, she takes those eyes away from me.

I look away, too. She’s taken her shoes off and they are on the floor, perfectly lined up, touching each other. “I’d better be getting back to Suzanne’s,” I say, pushing my chair back.

“You might as well,” she says in a low voice. “Justina will be in soon and I’ve got to start dinner. Thanks for taking me to chemo.”

She pushes herself up from her chair and walks quietly to open the green-painted front door. She turns around to collect my jacket and purse and holds them out to me. I take my things and reach out to hug her but she stiffens when I touch her. I pull her close anyway and her body relaxes, just a little. Then she steps back. “You’d better go now or you’ll hit traffic,” she says.

“O.K..,” I say. She stares down at the plastic doormat that spells out “Welcome to the Halvorsons.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” I say. But she just stands there, almost like stone, so I turn to my car.

I get into the Neon and fasten my seat belt but don’t think to find the keys. Instead, I sit there for a moment, thinking she will surely come over and apologize, tell me it’s the terrible stress of the cancer. But there is no movement or sound from the doorway. It’s as though the death dog has moved from the shadows in the corner where he’s been crouching and lunged at Annie and Justina both. I can hear a small breeze move through the maple in the front yard, turning the leaves into the sun. Some of them break loose then and float softly to the bright green grass below. A Volvo station wagon drives by, a woman at the wheel with three kids in the back seat. Annie is still standing there as I finally back out into the street. I drive slowly away from the house that already stinks of death, the house receding into a small blue rectangle in my rear-view mirror.

I don’t call her the next day. I mean to but I decide to let her cool down and try to connect again after I visit my parents. But the longer I wait, the harder it gets to pick up the phone and dial her number. What am I going to say?

A month later, I’ve just gotten home from work and the friend who told me Annie was sick calls again to say she died. My entire body seems to crumple, like the air has been let out and my whole interior structure has collapsed. I have to sit down and put my head between my knees. So the death dog has pounced and done his work. Where is he lurking now? I can almost feel his breath on the back of my neck and hear his low breathing in the air behind me. I turn quickly around but all I see is an open window and big puffy clouds chasing the southward-moving sun. One is shaped like a dog.

Copyright Lorna Reese 2003

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