By Olivia Kate Cerrone.
My father’s hair comes out in chunks. He pulls it loose from his head like it’s been pasted on with cheap glue. I sit in a chair beside the hospital bed and pick at the strings of my mask. Where the fuck is the nurse?
The first time after chemo this is expected, though no one told either of us that it’d look like a Brillo Pad when it grew back. This morning I come in to visit like any other Saturday, and I find him lying there with the hairs on his pillow. Pop looks past me, up at the television screen. The motherfucking Sopranos. I can’t stand that guinea shit, but it’s all the old man likes to watch, so I bought him the complete season when he was first admitted into the Dana Farber. Then I leave his room and go to the nurse’s station down the hall. An aging blonde in a pink tunic types at a keyboard and tells me that someone will be with us in a moment. Intensive Care is bustling with visitors at this time of day; it’s an inconvenient time to be needy over non-life-threatening situations.
I go back through those clean, white corridors soaked in fluorescent lighting, and stand outside his door for a moment to use the sanitizing dispenser, a mandatory ritual. Hand sanitizer is the smell of hospitals and illness; traces of it will linger in my skin for the rest of the day. Then I adjust the mask over my face and reenter.
James Gandolfini sits across from some bespectacled woman, immersed in conversation. Pop watches them intently, like his life depends on it, and continues to pull the hair out of his head. An absent-minded tick. I study his pink scalp through the uneven patchwork of white curls, and don’t tell him to stop, because I think I’d be doing the same fucking thing if it was me. We sit together in this room of soft, muted gray and wait. Finally, a nurse arrives.
She wheels in a cart with a tray of food, a plastic dish of what looks like sausage casserole, fruit cup and a can of ginger ale. The nurse’s name is Victoria. The short, feathery hair that frames her face makes her look like a sparrow.
“Mr. D’Augusta, do you think you can try and get down some solids today?” she says. Often, the chemo kills his appetite, makes hunger an afterthought. Victoria takes one look at Pop and forms an ‘O’ with her lips.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen again,” I say, but she ignores me, checks his vitals and the IV machine that funnels transparent liquid from a plastic bag into the underside of his arm. Then she helps him sit up and places the tray over his lap. My father takes the plastic fork and knife in hand, uses them on the steaming congealed meat. Victoria looks at me and tells us that she’ll have someone come in this afternoon to fix his hair. By “fix”, she means “shave off completely”.
“Dr. Gordon said this wasn’t supposed to happen again,” I say. We’ve got bigger problems to deal with than whether Pop’s got hair on his head or not, but I can’t help myself. Victoria gives me a tired look and says I’ll have to take it up with the Doc.
“Christ, Ben, will you drop it already?” My father sighs, annoyed at us for distracting him from his show. Victoria takes this as her cue to leave, and wheels the cart out of the room. When she’s gone, Pop tells me to sell the house and use the money to go back to college. Now I know the state of mind he’s in. He only spouts off this shit when he’s depressed enough to start talking as if he’s already dead.
“You know I ain’t doing that, Pop.”
“What are you going to do then? Be a laborer for the rest of your life?”
He hasn’t taken a bite of his casserole yet. “You should eat that,” I say. “It’s gonna get cold.”
Pop throws down the plastic utensils against his plate. “I can’t cut shit with this. Come here and take it away from me. I got to piss.”
I take the tray and deposit it onto a side table with a sink and a jar of antiseptic swabs. When I turn around, the blankets are drawn back and he’s already got the urinal between his legs. I look away because I can’t stand the sight of his legs, the way his skin is pulled so taut over the bones, makes his limbs appear brittle to the touch. The stream of urine stops and I turn my head to catch him putting the bedpan back on the nightstand. Just looking at it reminds me of a gasoline container without the nozzle. I’ve grown used to it by now; in this place, privacy is a thing disregarded.
“You need to use the bowl?” I say, and Pop lowers his eyes and nods. I lean over the bed and he puts his arms around my neck, as if I’m about to lift him up in my arms and carry him over the threshold like a bride. But instead, I help my father to his feet and match his slow, careful steps to the private toilet in his room. I keep an arm wrapped around him at all times, feel his heart flutter beneath the sticks of his ribcage. He lets a fart slip as we walk, though neither of us acknowledge it. There are big metal rails on either side of the bowl, meant for keeping balance while seated. I guide him onto the toilet seat and ask if he’s alright. He nods, impatient for me to leave. There are still some things he tries to keep boundaries on.
I pace outside his room, unable to go any further. If I return to the nurse’s station, I might just keep walking to the elevator, then the parking garage to where my motorcycle waits. Already, I’m carving up back roads, the infinite strip of highway.
I like to come here after seeing Pop. Red Lace is crowded for a Saturday night; the heat brings everyone out, but I still get my usual table up front, away from the lounge sofas that hug either side of the room. On stage, a topless blonde wraps her leg around the pole and pulls herself against it. The strippers dance out of sync with the loud hip hop that’s pulsating out of the speakers, though it doesn’t matter what plays, just as long as there’s something heavy and fast to move to. Girls in lingerie and sparkling bikinis walk the floor, making small talk with the patrons and selling tableside lap dances and private sessions in the backroom. I catch Allyce’s eye and she saunters over.
“You going to take me for a ride on your Harley tonight?” she says.
It’s an ongoing joke between us. Once I left the club on my bike while she was outside having a cigarette and she never let me forget it.
“Tonight’s a good enough a time as any,” I say.
Allyce is dressed in a violet bra, mini skirt and knee high boots that have the same leopard print design. Her long black hair looks glossy under the dim pink light. The top portions of her breasts sparkle with iridescent glitter. I tell her how good she looks. The boots and skirt really do it for me. Allyce smiles. She can’t be older then nineteen. I’d like to put her in a school-girl uniform and bend her over my knee.
“Take me to Del Mar,” she says.
“Southern Cali. Beautiful little surfer town. I lived there once as a kid.”
Bits and pieces. This is how I learn about her, through these little exchanges. I sniff out the details and store away what’s interesting, like I’m a detective hired by some jealous boyfriend. She’s in her third year of pharmaceutical studies at some college nearby. Her favorite drink is a Malibu Sunrise. She hates photographs of herself; she tells me about this time she got drunk and made a small bonfire out of some family albums in the backyard.
“There’s this whole period of my life now, maybe from ages nine to seventeen, where I’m completely gone,” she says.
Allyce closes her eyes and begins to sway to the music. For a moment, I imagine her alone in a library, dressed in sweatpants and sitting over a desk cluttered with books. Then she runs her hands over her breasts and I can’t see her as anything other then what she is right now. She dances close, gyrates up against my thighs and face. I stiffen at her touch. The mini skirt slips off easily from around her waist. Allyce grips the sides of her thong and moves it up and down, manipulating the material over her vagina without revealing herself. Then she turns and bends forward so I can see how far her thong fits up the crack of her ass. Goddamn it if I don’t want to stick it in her so fuckin’ deep. But I keep my hands still. When she stands upright, I slip a twenty into the thin strap of her thong against her hip.
She takes the bill in her hands and smiles; she knows I don’t throw it around for just anyone.
“Come on,” she says, and I follow her to a room behind the stage.
There comes a point when the anesthesia of the club wears off and you’re left sitting at your table, feeling like a jackass. Maybe you put in a good two or four hours admiring the girls and getting your chub on. You get a little buzzed, but not too much, ‘cause you aren’t part of those packs of rabid baboons that come in on the weekends, those fuckin’ rowdy kids who get blitzed and hoot at the girls. Fuckin’ kids. Just shut up and watch the show.
Red Lace is packed. Men crowd the tables, spill beer on my shoes as they squeeze past through the throng of others to the bar or bathroom. The stage lights put shadows on the faces of some, or expose others – makes their cheeks puffy, glisten with sweat, as if they’ve just consumed a six-course meal. I watch one guy receive a sidetable dance; his eyes grow large and wet like a child, his lips tremble as though he’s ready to start sucking on her titties. I want to crawl out of my skin.
I take my bike and hit the streets. It’s too early to go home; I need a little Johnnie Walker first and maybe some pretty face with a cunt. Or maybe I should just keep driving – drive the fuck to Boston and catch the next flight out of Logan. It doesn’t matter where.
I meet her in the first dive I stop at. She’s plain in the purposeful kind of way that older women dress when they’re too busy raising kids and being comfortable in their own lives to attract any attention. But her face is cute. When I sit next to her at the bar, she’s working steadily through a pint of Guinness.
“If you drink that too fast, you’ll get a headache,” I say.
“Like ice cream?”
“Yeah. Like ice cream.” I catch a whiff of the booze on her breath. Holy Jesus.
“That’s what I tell my husband. But he doesn’t listen to me,” she says.
I sense the weight of her life and instinctively I want to run. The bar is full of loud college kids and a few old fogies like us. “What’s your name?” I say.
“That’s a pretty name. So you go to Salem State with the rest of these jokers?”
“No.” She sips big. “You?”
“I dropped out in ‘91. Went for half a semester. I think.”
“So what have you been doing all this time?” There’s no trace of malice in her voice. It’s just a question like any other. She could ask me anything.
“Living, I suppose.” It doesn’t sound like much of an accomplishment.
Maura takes another sip of her drink. “I’m a home aide,” she says.
The phrase reminds me of a conversation I had once with one of Pop’s doctors. “What’s that – like a nurse or something?”
“Yeah. I work with the elderly.”
“You must help a lot of people,” I say.
Maura orders another Guinness and tells me that she hasn’t been alone inside of a bar for seven years.
“So what’s the occasion?”
“My friend came to visit,” she says. “From New York. She’s from New York City.”
“Yeah?” I’m not impressed. “Where is she now?”
Maura shrugs. “She took off with some guy.”
She squints at me and starts laughing. Just like that. One minute she’s drowning and then the next minute she’s laughing at me.
“What? Do I got shit hanging out of my nose or something?”
She shakes her head and puts a hand to her mouth to stifle her laughter. Then she leans in real close to me.
“Why the hell are there sparkles all over your face?” she says.
I cut my eyes to the mirror behind the bar and see the patch of iridescent glitter that covers the right side of my face. Allyce…
“Do you know how long you’ve been walking around like that?” Maura says.
“Forever,” I say, smiling despite myself, and down the end of my scotch. I excuse myself for the restroom. There’s only one toilet. Inside, it’s the size of a closet and reeks of piss. I almost get the door shut when she pushes herself in behind me.
“Don’t wash it off,” she says.
I pull her into me – start kissing her face. We slam against walls and the tiny room plunges into darkness.
“Hey, what’d you do?”
Maura answers me in giggles. Hysteria bends her voice, makes her laugh and cry simultaneously, and I scrape my hand along the cool plaster wall for the light switch. I find the door handle instead and out we go into the throng. Bodies push and pull against us until we are outside, stumbling onto the sidewalk.
Forward to nowhere. Maura presses against me as she walks; one hand swings a purse while the other clings to my bicep.
“Where’s my car? I need to get home,” she says. Maura’s black heels get stuck in the cobblestones, tripping her. She laughs and hops out of both shoes. I stoop to grab them and notice a bench across the street.
“You need to sit. Let’s sit down a minute,” I say, and lead her past cars to the other side, where we flop down and breathe heavily in the darkness.
“Do you have a phone? You need to call somebody. You can’t drive.” Something thrums inside the cavity of my skull.
She shakes her head and is quiet. Before us is a tall chain-link fence that encloses a wide, green space – a soccer field. And a playground. Nothing elaborate – just a swing set and a plastic slide in an oversized sand box.
“Maybe we should jump the fence and camp out there for the night,” she says.
I grab around the back of her neck and she kisses my face, guides my hand up under her shirt. I cup a breast and squeeze. I get hard and am surprised that I am so hard. She unzips me, reaches inside. Takes me in her mouth. I turn my head to catch who’s watching, but all I see is my bike parked along the curb. I study the motorcycle washed in streetlight and close my eyes against it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Olivia Kate Cerrone is currently an MFA student in the Creative Writing program at New York University, where she taught creative writing to undergraduate students. Before attending NYU, Cerrone earned a BFA magna cum laude from the Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College. Her fiction has previously appeared in The Summerset Review, Arabesques Review and other literary journals. Debased is her first novel. You can contact Ms. Cerrone at Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 28th, 2009.