My dad had a box of fishing tackle he kept in the garage, a great silver box that accordioned into eight levels when you opened the lid. That’s how I remember it anyway. The glints on little hooks. The feathers. The spools of iridescent fishing line. Later he’d carve his own out of bass wood and hang them on handmade racks to paint and epoxy them to a high shine, writing names on the tails he’d picked out of an English to Spanish dictionary: Pescado, Nadar, Niño Malo. But these in the box were store bought, some still in their clear plastic containers that snapped shut. Lying stretched straight in a tray — a rubber worm twice the length of my finger and the purple color of an old bruise. I was six or seven, living in Arkansas. One month before my breast cancer diagnosis, D. R. (Duke) Haney and I were working on a piece about Frankenstein and Duke told me that growing up in Virginia he was able to tune into a D. C. station to watch Detroit-based Sir Graves Ghastly present films like Whale’s Frankenstein in the middle of the night.
I told him that there was nothing cool in the seventies in Arkansas for 600 miles (unless you count that someone spray painted “Nugent” on the Dairy Queen wall) and that when I looked up the possible horror hosts out of curiosity I found this notice: Sadly, the scariest thing that has come out of Arkansas is Roger Clinton’s music. To our knowledge there have been no horror hosts in Arkansas. So that’s where I lived once, carefully carrying a rubber worm into the kitchen on two palms so I could saw a mouth onto its small face with a butter knife, a mouth that I could pinch open by squeezing the sides so we could sing songs together. We sang we are Siamese if you please, we are Siamese if you don’t please while I dangled my legs off the balcony at the back of the house, both of us staring off into the dogwoods that lined the barbed-wire farm fence of the pasture behind us.
I did have two human friends, one named Christy who lived down the street and, I suspected, was part of an arranged friendship forged by my mom with Christy’s mom. I got stuck in Christy’s locked bathroom once, and, after what seemed like hours, the adults had to squeeze me out the bathroom window and into the boxwoods below. The other was an only child on the other end of the street, older than me, and bigger, oafish, two large turned-in teeth always showing in a snarl. She had a lace-covered double bed with twenty pillows in frilly cases, a white Victorian dollhouse precisely her height, and a blistering left hook. If she would have seen my pet rubber worm, she would have smacked me in the shoulder so hard the worm flew out of my hand. Once, she chucked a volcanic landscaping rock at my eye, and along the socket it turned the color of the rubber worm. My whole family gathered around me as I stretched out on the sofa with my arms sloppily crossed over my striped tank top while mom patted at the bruise with an ice cube wrapped in the dishtowel. After that, I drew black rings under my eyes with crayon so maybe this could happen again. It never did. But that’s the same sofa I sat on one October night, the rubber worm coiled in my fist, to watch Whale’s Frankenstein.
The monster walks into the room backwards and pivots into the light for a closeup. He stands, shifting his weight, his arms lock-jointed straight by his sides. He drags his boots when he steps to Henry Frankenstein. He’s talked to like a child. Sit down. Sit down! He tries to hold a light beam. Sit down. Go and sit down. His hands, palms up, tremble, empty.
74 Days after diagnosis, two days after the oncologist switched my chemotherapy treatment to Taxol for the home stretch, my hands and feet swell up sunburn red, painful to the touch, and I’m shuffling around the kitchen, the “V” of my loose robe showing the mechanics of the mediport just under my skin, a thin cap slouched on my bald head, trying to figure out how to open a water bottle with Boris Karloff creature claws. Like holding sunshine, it can’t be done.
So I sit on the sofa with the bottle and quiet cry until everyone else wakes up.
“Why didn’t you come get me to open it?” Joe wants to know.
Because it’s been awhile since I drew black around my eyes for pity and maybe even longer since I admitted there was something I absolutely couldn’t do on my own. It turns out I’m in the slim margin of people who experience what’s called hand and foot syndrome from chemo, and I start to think of all the other slim margins I belong to. I’m in the slim margin of breast cancer patients diagnosed as “triple negative,” for example. I’m in the slim margin who are under a certain age or weight when diagnosed. I’m in the slim margin without a family history and on and on. So after Joe sets the opened water bottle down on the side table my dad built for me and turns on the television to find that Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, I fumble to open my laptop with my thumbs and slip into the internet vortex of doom. My fingers can bend just enough to tap at the keys in search of Hoffman news, then “hand and foot syndrome and chemo,” then “triple negative breast cancer,” then “statistics of breast cancer survival.” Within a few clicks, I’ve bought a book with a chapter called “Preparing for the End.”
Later in the evening, as the Superbowl unfolds on the front-room television, I direct my melancholic shuffle toward Hannah in the hallway and ask if I can borrow one of her make-up removal wipes. She brings it to me, her eyes almost level with mine, her hair swept up in a topknot to show her bare, thin neck stretching in earnestness.
“How should I wash my face now?” she asks, blinking.
“Like you usually do?”
“But this is the last one.” Her eyes well up. “But you can have it because you have cancer and I can’t take away a face wipe from someone with cancer and I’ll just cry if you don’t use it just because now you know it’s my last one.” She blinks again, brown eyes the size of moon pies, fat curls of lashes glistening. Really, those lashes. She was born with them.
Luna moth-like in their velocity when they bat. They used to attract strangers in grocery stores and restaurants.
“My god those lashes!”
“That one will always get her way.”
So I tell Hannah she can have the last wipe if she can help me wash my face with a warm rag. She takes the wipe back and follows me to the bathroom where we stand toe to toe on the gray rug as the sink faucet runs. “Is this warm enough?” she asks me, touching my chin with the edge of a wet, pink washrag.
Eyes closed, I shimmy my hat back just enough to reveal my forehead but not the sparse stubble at the edge. Hannah’s not fond of the bald head, unlike the Firecracker who’ll sometimes pop my hat off and call me Caillou or rub the top to see if it still feels like the shorn belly of our Shih-Tzu.
“This is like being at the salon,” I say as Hannah dabs the rag at my cheeks.
But it’s not like that at all, I’m thinking. I’m thinking this is that essay she’s going to write one day in tenth grade about the saddest thing she’s ever had to do in life, the essay that begins with something like, “my mom with her eyes closed looking all dead and stuff while I wiped her face clean.”
But after she’s done and I say “thank you,” she replies in a sing-song voice “you’re welcome” before pivoting on her tiptoes to walk away and I realize that’s probably not what she was thinking at all. Maybe she was thinking how grown-up it felt to be able to help. Maybe she was thinking how glad she was I didn’t use her last make-up wipe. Who knows, but I decide then that maybe I’m not Frankenstein’s creature to anyone else but me at my worst. And I decide there are different sorts of slim margins I also fit – the slim margin whose cancer responds so quickly to treatment, for one. Mine, after all, is one place, one small mass that’s at least halfway gone already. Then the swollen hands and feet I thought were in the slim margins of those that stay this way forever begin to ease back to their usual proportions again.
Previous “Box of Monsters” blog posts: