Wicked pain, awesome agony, bootylicious suffering—I am all about moving forward into the future
All the nurses’ names here end in nda: Rhonda, Randa, Amanda, Linda, Little Linda, Panda. No, I made that up. No one is named Panda, though one of Rhonda’s tunics is patterned with little pajama-clad bears. Is tunic the right word? Probably not—it’s too close to panic, which is not encouraged in the ward. People do anyway, but quietly.
Look, says Doc B. What I’m telling you doesn’t have to be the end of the world. You should think of it rather as an opportunity for personal growth.
Well, I think, aha. Now we are getting somewhere.
An Opportunity For Growth! was, funnily, also the title of the informational pamphlet that came through my mail slot just a few days after the BGD chemical plant opened, a few blocks down from my house. It pictured a spry fellow who was either a blob of soft-serve ice cream or a frozen waterfall, with bandy legs, white gloves and a top hat. Hi, I’m B.B. Begood, and I’m the Newest Addition to Your Neighbourhood! I am looking forward to moving into the Future with You! These words, speech-bubbled, came out of his mouth.
Well, I really believe in coincidences. They are the universe’s way of saying Hey sister, you’re on the right track! Keep on trucking, somebody up there likes you! And so on. So when Doc B gave me the speech about Metastasis and Prognosis Poor and Recovery Unlikely, not to mention the Opportunity For Growth, it seemed like a sign. Not like a traffic sign, not big and sharp-edged and full of neon warnings. More like a subtle gesture, a twitch in an eyelid or at the corner of your friend’s mouth when you ask her how’s she feeling, so subtle you barely notice, so subtle even she barely notices. And it means this: You have no idea, but something important is going on here and you are a small but fundamental part of it. Have faith. Hold on. Or something like that.
BGDs, I learned from the pamphlet, are manufactured molecules that are used primarily in the making of industrial degreasing fluid. Helping the Wheels of Industry Turn, as the pamphlet says. Think of it: something that never existed before has been created in the interest of progress, in making things go smoothly and uninterrupted. If they made BGDs for my life, I would be the first in line.
A documentary filmmaker has been dogging me, emailing and sometimes even showing up at the ward, where Randa or Linda has to shoo her away like a stray dog. She wants to interview me for a “new project” she’s working on; something about the environment and corporate accountability, toxic groundwater, the bloom in my bloodstream—all are related. Which, you know, I wholeheartedly believe. But every time I read one of her cheerfully threatening pleas, I get a case of the squirmies. Maybe it’s her evident distaste for punctuation and capital letters: believe me this is the only way we can raise awareness of what they’re doing to people like you monsters every last one. But it’s more than that. How can I explain to her that the monsters are all in her head?
Jeannie, the woman who shares my room here, wants me to do it. Make those bastards pay for what they did to you, she tells me. Because of her nose tube, make sounds like bake. I understand her bitterness—this isn’t a good place for young people. If only she could know for sure that she was a part of something bigger, the way I do. But she was gut-shot by a hunter who mistook her for a bear. I keep telling her that that is a much more interesting subject for a documentary, and she keeps rolling her eyes and grumbling into the latest issue of the Utne Reader. She thinks I’m a wimp, but maybe she’s really jealous of the changes I’m going through. Some people have no concept of the importance of growth.
Rhonda comes in to change Jeannie’s tube. Oh dear, will I be able to play the piano when all this is over? I say. It’s this little routine we have. You gals, Rhonda smiles. She calls me pet names that sound violent but are actually full of affection: a cut-up, a caution, the living end. I think Jeannie finds our relationship alarming.
The wooded area at the end of the street where I used to live, before I ended up here with Jeannie, was once a landfill. Landfill is a much better word than junkyard or garbage dump—it sounds so purposeful, like hair gel or cake icing. And the land being filled was the wooded area where I would walk Cocoa Beans. Once enough used diapers and Pop Top Puppies and laptop batteries and torn pantyhose had been recruited, grass was laid over the pile like thick green linoleum, and regularly spaced trees planted on top—Siberian elm, chosen for its ability to grow quickly and in poor soil. And that was my next-door neighbour, the trees that lined up like doormen, until the plant moved in. Things are always moving in and expanding, the new crowding out the old.Which is pretty much the situation in my uterus at the moment, as Doc B tells me. Well Doc, I say, I guess you know what you’re talking about, you are on the right end of the catheter, ha ha!
On TV the other day there was a story about a man who had a genetic defect that was slowly turning him into a tree. We do not know exactly why these things occur, said the host, a comforting David Attenborough type, but we can say for certain that each incidence pushes the species toward greater understanding. Amen, I think.
Incidentally. I believe that when you die, among other things, you get to see the Log Book. The Log Book keeps track of everything, absolutely everything, in the universe, with strict numerical accuracy. How much money you spent on presents for relatives who didn’t like you. The total volume, in litres, of lime rickeys you drank. How many people thought about you while they yanked off. And so on.
The documentary filmmaker, a jean-jacketed woman with a silver crescent in her nose, shows me clips from her body of work, to try to convince me to Share My Story. A man, a union organizer for a coal mine, stares past the camera and speaks in a flat voice about The System, which is apparently very hard to beat. There are shots of a wasted moonlike landscape, a crumbling bungalow, a man lifting his shirt to show a scar from a bullet that grazed him on a picket line. At the end, a line of text appears on the screen, severe block letters in cinnabar red: CORPORATE ACCOUNTABILITY NOW! Isn’t it a little, you know, grim? I say. It could use a bit more pizzazz. How about, like, a dancing cartoon miner’s pick? It could be singing that song, the one that goes ya load sixteen tons, and whaddaya get… I sing in a gravelly voice and do jazzy hand gestures like Liza Minnelli in Cabaret. The filmmaker narrows her eyes at me like she’s checking how I will look in widescreen.
Corporate accountability isn’t about pizzazz, she says. It’s about—
Yeah, I know, I say. Growth.
When the BGD plant first started posting its Opportunity For Growth! signs in the wooded area at the end of my street, there were all sorts of protests. Women who looked like the filmmaker except with bigger and more colourful patches on their jeans, men with beards that made them look like perverted old codgers way before their time. They held homemade signs with slogans like BEGOOD? NO GOOD! and NOT IN MY FORMER LANDFILL. One, surely a relic from causes past, read ABSESTOS? ASWORSTOS! I don’t know where they came from—they sure weren’t from around here. At the end of the day, a miniature school bus came and they all piled into it and drove away, leaving their picket signs and stubs of hand-rolled cigarettes scattered on the ground. Later, while I was walking Cocoa Beans around the block, I saw that someone, probably the Johansson kids, had arranged the sign sticks on the ground in such a way that they spelt out a dirty word. I bent over and moved a couple of the sticks. AUNT. Much better.
That’s when I noticed another woman in the wooded area. She was muttering to herself and tossing the protestors’ cast-off recycled paper coffee cups into an orange garbage bag. She was about my age, petite, dressed in a puffy insulated coat that made her look like the Michelin Man. You don’t have to do that, I said. She looked up at me, startled. If I don’t, who will? No, I said, I meant talk to yourself like that. You could talk to me instead.
And she smiled. You live around here?
Moving in this July.
Well, I said, welcome to the neighbourhood! Cocoa Beans trotted up and dropped a sandwich wrapper with the words GUTLESS WONDER printed on it in front of her. What a pain in the keister, I said.
Yeah. But they’re not bad kids. They just don’t understand that there are bigger things than them. God knows I didn’t, at that age.
You are so right, I said. About the bigger things, I mean.
I’m glad you understand, she said. Like, all this—she gestured at the wooded area in a non-specific way—all this once would have been considered unnatural, freakish. But we adapt, we develop a new concept of normal. And we evolve, move forward.
Into the future, I say.
Some of the trees were showing signs of disease—pulpy orange thatches on the bark and weird noxious bulges that made me think of acne. Look, I said to the woman, pointing. Get this tree an Oxy Pad. And she laughed like I hadn’t heard in ages, before or since. You are something else, she said.
When the B.B. Begood informational pamphlet came a few months later, I noticed a photo in the bottom right-hand corner. Shyla Cervenka, General Manager and CEO. It was the woman from the woods. The Michelin Lady. Well, I thought, good for her.
Today I have a meeting with Grace Showalter. Grace is a Legacy Coach. That is, she helps people figure out how to influence future generations through their stuff. Assets, investments, furniture, artwork, house. Since I have no offspring, my legacy can do all kinds of good for all kinds of people. Grace sits on the edge of my bed holding a very nice leather-bound binder. She is a pleasantly filled-out woman with what they used to call legs that go all the way up.
I have a few ideas to run by you, she says. How about KancerKids? They have some really great programs, like FinalFantasy, where you get to—
No, I say. No kids’ stuff.
Hmm, says Grace. Well then, what do you think of Womb For More? They work with survivors of uterine, um, trauma. It might be appropriate.
Why? I ask.
Well, because of, you know—
Gosh, I say, isn’t there something with more of a, what do I mean, positive outlook? Grace frowns at her binder. Maybe we need to move away from the not-for-profit sector.
I wholeheartedly agree.
I will tell you about my other legacy, which probably no one will receive. It’s a collection of positive adjectives. Incredible, great, awesome, fantastic. Most of them come from Reader’s Digest and are all-purpose. Some are from women’s magazines, and others I picked up from music videos and the Internet. Some of them I’m less sure about: wicked, sextastic, sweet, bootylicious, rad. The thing about each of these adjectives is that when applied to the noun pain they both retain their original sense and create a whole new meaning. Incredible pain. Wicked pain. Awesome agony. Bootylicious suffering. Sweet affliction.
The filmmaker kneels awkwardly on the edge of my bed, balancing her video camera on one shoulder. A skinny man hovers a boom mike on a long pole over my head while Jeannie tries to keep out of the way of its other end, which is jabbing dangerously close to her glucose bag.
How long ago did you receive the diagnosis? The filmmaker’s voice is calmly inquisitive.
I breathe in. That video camera—did you know it comes from dinosaurs?
Dinosaurs. Fossil fuels come from the decayed bodies of dinosaurs, oil products are dead animals from a billion years ago. See? I point to Jeannie’s pink plastic hairbrush. Triceratops. The tubes coming out of our bodies, Jeannie’s and mine—brontosaurus. The sound guy’s vinyl pants—
Lemme guess, the filmmaker says. T. Rex?
Actually, he says, these are genuine leather.
I take another breath. Anyway. The dinosaurs couldn’t adapt, so they died, but they’re still with us, driving our cars and making our records and whatnot. Human beings probably won’t adapt either. But—I sit up in bed and try to look prophetic. At least we can try.
I just received the paperwork for the Foundation for the Advancement of the Human Animal from Grace Showalter, who thoughtfully left it on the night table while she thought I was sleeping. In fact I was in a drug-induced stupour, but how was she to know the difference? Sometimes I’m not sure I do. It’s going to be a small foundation, funding research on environmental factors in physical evolution of the human species. Like B.B. Begood, like the tree man, like the dinosaurs, I am all about moving forward into the future. I push the paper back into its manila envelope and inhale the gluey smell of the seal. I close my eyes. It’s been a long day.
Fifty-two miles of floors mopped. Two car accidents. Seventy hours watching movie stars kiss. Three thousand and seventy-seven Styrofoam cups. Three people who called me Darling. Thirteen funerals. And so on.