* * *
Nikki hops up to slip another five into the juke box, and it strikes me that sometimes love is not interrupting a person who likes the sound of their own pity. I swirl the lukewarm remains of a Surly Furious, force a smile for Ella’s sake and take a stab at humor.
“Babe, I think your juice is getting warm.”
Ella doesn’t drink, so that apple juice was the first of many things my estranged sister has found funny enough to laugh out loud about.
Even I have to laugh at the absurdity of the day so far.
Less than six hours ago, I’m talking to Nikki for the first time in almost a decade and now we’re her captive audience. Should have hung up when she started whining about the folks, but I just walked away. Runs in the family, I guess. So Ella picks up the conversation, invites her over, and don’t get me wrong, she means well. Another day, maybe different circumstances, and that would have been a nice gesture.
But now, it’s far too late to get back to Milwaukee tonight, and with the storm rolling in across the Dakotas, heading our way, she’ll have a hard time getting home tomorrow, which means she’s here for the weekend.
What was I supposed to do? Ask my sister to stay in a hotel? Uninvite her altogether. Before I knew what was happening, Ella’s already put sheets and a quilt over one end of the couch and she’s beaming, excited to have our first guest in the new apartment.
Sometimes, love is when you don’t tell a person they’ve just made a bad situation worse.
I nod at the bartender for another beer when Ella snaps out of it.
“I’ve just never seen you like this, Evan. So…”
“So cold. She needs help, people to talk to.”
“She needs a support group, sure. But babe, it’s been over an hour and she’s completely avoiding why I called her in the first-”
From across the room, leaning over the juke box, Nikki screams, “Oh my God. No. Way.”
The guys at the next table were not at all pleased, having to sit through Journey’s Greatest Hits beginning to end for the last hour. Now they’re throwing glances my way, guilt by association, I guess.
“She’s stuck on the same issues she had when she moved out, back in high school. I mean, literally, stuff that happened in the last century.”
Nikki skids across the floor, bumping into the table as Livin’ On A Prayer starts cranking out of the juke box.
“What happened in the last century?”
Always a quick thinker, “The death of rock and roll thanks to jackasses like this.”
The guys at the next table chuckle.
“Whatever, Junior. When you work at a tattoo shop, you have to listen to metal non stop, it’s what people expect. I never get to listen to this stuff.”
“So you’re saying no one you hang out with wants to listen to Bon Jovi?”
“Dude, Bon Jovi…” she pauses for effect, “…is awesome.” Her eyes are getting droopy, her smile stretches wide and meaningless.
“Seriously though, you’re not playing another entire album are you?”
She muffles drunken laughter inside her scarf, “Just most of it.”
Ella’s stacking Nikki’s empty shot glasses, who, in turn, points tentatively to each, counting them off, “One, two, three, floor.” Giggling, she pulls out her cell phone and snaps a picture.
Ella forces a smile, “So Nikki, how did you get into tattooing?”
“Well, see, it was illegal in Milwaukee until ninety-eight. Had something to do with the ports in town, centuries ago. TB outbreaks or something. Tattoo shops got blamed.”
Ella elbows me.
“Years, decades, centuries, whatever. It’s a long time ago. Anyway, in Waukesha,” she lets out a tiny belch, “it was always legal, and I was getting ink done at Black Dragon here and there.
“Hey Junior, bet mom and dad still don’t know about this.” She pulls down her scarf and shirt collar, turning halfway around. High up on her shoulder is a heart wrapped in a scroll that says ‘Gavin’. “Didn’t last, but it was my first, so…” She trails off.
“Isn’t he in jail now?”
“No. God. He went to military school, or something. I don’t know. But it wasn’t jail.
“Anyway, this guy Jase opened a shop, and since we were best fucking friends and all, when I moved to Milwaukee I started hanging out there and what do ya know? One night I’m doodling this penguin and-”
“Penguins are my favorite, so fuck off.”
She pulls up her sleeves. One arm is covered in snowflakes and homicidal-looking penguins, the other is all demon-penguins wrapped in flames.
The bartender drops off another round, glances a little too long at Nikki.
“The fuck is your problem?”
He walks off without a word.
She flips him the double bird.
“Seriously, what crawled up that guy’s ass?”
I’d been nursing my first beer all this time, so now I take a long pull, a third of the bottle gone when I slam it down on the table. Foam begins to bubble up and out of the neck.
Ella furrows her eyebrows at me. I wipe my face.
“Anyway, so Jase said I was pretty good. So he let me start practicing and-”
Then the juke box dies. I bury my face in my hands.
When I look up, Nikki’s already halfway to the bar as at least a half dozen people sarcastically applaud.
I grab Ella by the wrist and start looking for the exits.
“Evan, she met us here. She doesn’t even know how to get to our place.”
“You can’t just ditch her.”
“Ditch her?” Oh, where to start. “Why do you think she hasn’t told you how she got the scar above her eyebrow? Cause back in- Oh man.”
Nikki’s getting flat out shrill when the bartender slams a plastic tray down on the bar.
“How about I don’t charge you for that last shot and we call it even?”
Her shoulders drop and she steps back. Sliding out of the booth I try to make whatever motion might keep the bartender from…
“And how about you take off without pissing off any more customers?”
… doing exactly that.
Nikki grabs a bottle, half full, from a nearby table and I’m running headlong to grab it before she can wind up, but my lower back still aches from the biopsy and I falter. The bartender’s eyes give me away so Nikki turns, her wind up changes direction and she catches me across the face. The bottle doesn’t break. Just my nose.
“Oh shit, Junior. What the fuck? I thought you were-”
I shout through the blinding pain.
“Shut up, Nikki. Let’s just go.”
The tables aren’t bolted down, so pulling myself up from one turns out to be a bad idea. As it tips a bowl of peanuts flies over the edge, dumps right onto my face.
“What’s your problem, Junior?”
“It’s Evan. Holy living fuck, my name is Evan, and I only called you because I have cancer. I need a bone marrow transplant, okay? Alright? And since God is a sick, twisted bastard, you are my best shot at seeing another birthday.”
Everything to my left looks liquid red and the salt is beginning to sting my eyes. Trying to rub them only further opens a pulsing wound on the bridge of my nose and grinds the salt deep into the flesh.
“So enough with the sob stories. Can you get a test or not?”
The bowl of peanuts wobbles to a stop and the bar falls dead silent.
Nikki steadies herself, it’s clear from her eyes the room is spinning.
“Cancer?” She rolls her eyes.
Sometimes, love is not telling a person that because of them, more blood than you got in your last transfusion is flooding down the front of your shirt.
“Are you sure-”
“Let’s just go.”
Her demeanor turns from drunken-rage to sobering-up-concern.
“Evan. Evan. Evan. I had no idea.”
“Well what did you think I meant by ‘bone marrow donor’?”
“I don’t know, I…”
I pull my off my winter hat, hold it against my nose.
“You think I shaved my eyebrows off cause that’s what’s in this season?”
Her hands shoot to cover her mouth, “Junior, your hair. It’s gone.”
As I pull out a couple twenties, the bartender motions for me to wait, grabs a clean rag and runs it under cold water. He shoves the money back across the bar, but I leave it.
I say thanks, press the rag against my face and start walking. Nikki grabs the cash, grabs the door and here comes the blistering wind, chilling the blood on my face, my shirt, the dampness of the rag.
Right then the world gets quiet, full of distant love and glowing with warmth. I think about telephones ringing and fireworks and spinning lights, and diving headlong into swimming pools to get away from the heat. I think, for one last lucid moment, about losing too much blood.
About a week later, Nikki emails pictures she took with her cell phone from that night. Subject line: ‘a night to remember, if only I could lol’.
There’s the juke box, then a freshly drawn penguin on the mirror of the women’s room, the tower of shot glasses. Then there’s the bloody face print I left in the snow bank, and some pictures of Ella helping me into the car. The last one is of her car stuck in the snow that night because she decided to drive home anyway and only made it forty miles.
After detailing how long the tow truck made her wait, how horrible the hotel was, she gives me some blood-is-thicker-than-water line about not backing her up to ‘that asshole bartender’.
She sums it all up with, ‘Well, it was nice catching up. We should do it again sometime.’
Sometimes love is not saying exactly what’s on your mind. Because it won’t change anything.
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX