* * *
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
* * *
The first time, I get the machine.
With Smells Like Teen Spirit in the background, a raspy voice shouts, “Thanks for calling Nikki’s Needlework. No one’s here. If you were calling for Steve, his number is six-oh-four, not six-oh-three. The listing is wrong. Deal with it. We’re open noon to midnight every day. Now, when you hear the beep, resist the impulse to give me your life’s story.”
Ella shakes her head.
It beeps and I hang up.
Ella leaves me on the couch, walks to the Seven-Eleven for coffee filters, comes back ten minutes later with a steaming cup in each hand.
“They were out, so this will have to do. I’m not digging the car out for coffee filters.”
It’s a tolerable dark roast, so it was probably made within the last hour or so. Last year I would have been jokingly angry she’d bought convenient store coffee. Within the last couple months, maybe angry for real, and she knows it, visibly bracing herself for something. God, I’ve been an asshole lately.
“Well, we’ve got cream and sugar right?”
She smiles relief, stomps the ice and salt off her shoes and un-bundles.
“I could stir in some honey and cinnamon?”
“It’d either be the best Seven-Eleven coffee ever, or the world’s worst Café Vienna, but I’m game. Just bring the codeine on your way in.”
She waits a beat, and I’m thinking exactly what she’s about to say.
“I think it’s a little early, you just had some at six.”
“Dammit. So ten o’clock then?”
“Just a couple hours, hon.”
I set my watch alarm.
The wind whistles outside.
“You want my take on Hell? It ain’t hot. Hell is where you shovel snow, naked, for all of eternity, and you never quite go numb.”
The windows rattle.
“Sounds like we’re already there.”
“Compare that to burning forever, and at best it’s a draw.”
We laugh tentatively, pretending to like the coffee and go on watching morning news shows to kill the time.
Around one in the afternoon I dial Nikki’s Needlework.
It’s a girl’s voice over music and lots of people, and there’s this weird intermittent buzzing sound.
“Hi, I’m looking for, uh-”
“This is Nikki. What’s up?”
“So, interesting message.”
“Heh, yeah. I just hate it when people call, all high and shit. Leave their ideas for the best design ever in a fifteen minute voice mail. I don’t have time for that shit.”
“So, you do monograms or something?”
She laughs, and if there was any doubt, it’s gone. If you bred a hyena with a banshee, the offspring would still sound maybe half as shrill as Nikki’s ear-piercing cackle, but to be fair, you’d have the demeanor about right.
“Look kid, you want a monogram, you’ve called the wrong place.”
“No. Look, I’m not really sure how to put… you know, it’s just… it’s been a while.”
She covers the phone, there’s some muffled shouting, then the music dies. After a beat, that intermittent buzzing picks up again.
“Junior, is that you?”
My stomach sinks.
Nikki had this thing, back in high school, since I was always taller, but she was older, she had to make sure people knew I was her ‘little’ brother. So when I was a freshman and she was a sophomore she called me ‘Junior.’ It translated to ‘younger’ in her mind, but sometimes it backfired. With my height, people who otherwise didn’t know me assumed I was a junior instead of a freshman and bam, I’m in like flint. It was the nicest thing she never meant to do for me.
“How’s it going, Nik?”
Her voice was tentative.
“Well I don’t know. If you’re calling me, I mean, it’s just so wild. Totally out of the blue, you know.”
“Yeah, definitely out of the blue.”
“You’re killing me here. What’s up? Like, are mom and dad okay?”
“Do you even care?”
I don’t actually say that. What I say is that the folks are fine. What she says is, well, okay. But she draws out the “a” in such a way, it’s more like a question. I don’t know what the next step is, so I take a stab at small talk.
“So Nikki’s Needlework?”
“Oh yeah, it’s my tattoo shop.”
“No shit?” I chuckle, completely surprised. I never saw her as an artistic personality. Like, at all.
“My, my, my, how things change. Swearing? I suppose you’ve taken up smoking and drinking as well, Junior.”
“Oh, I penciled them in for the New Year, but things kept coming up.”
She laughs a little easier at that, different than before. Still a notch too loud, but not entirely disaffecting.
“So that’s cool. Tattoos. Thought about getting one of those, myself.”
“What kind of tattoo does a music pastor get, anyway?”
“Oh, well there’s that whole thing.”
Her voice drops an entire register, old-fashioned, town-gossip style.
“Yep. I’m no longer in ministry.”
“Well, my, my, my, indeed.”
‘My, my, my’ was always her catch phrase, but somehow she avoids sounding like a sixty-year-old nanny.
“But you didn’t call to tell me that,”
“No, I guess not,”
“… so the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is,”
“… why am I calling.”
“… so spit it out, Junior.”
I put the phone against my forehead, depress the speakerphone button then slide the receiver gingerly into the cradle. In the silence, the wind outside whistles against the windows.
Nothing to do now but say it.
“I need you to get a blood test.”
You can tell if someone is smiling by how their voice sounds, even over the phone. I learned that working customer service for a bank during college. Well right now, if you asked me, Nikki is definitely not smiling. It’s not a change in pitch, it’s more a change in tone and demeanor.
“Oh, hold on now. What are we talking about?”
“I need, uh…”
“Aren’t there, you know, blood banks? I mean, trust me, you don’t want my blood. I can’t even donate.”
My stomach drops.
“Way too many tattoos, Junior. They won’t even test me to see if I’m carrying anything… I mean…” She trails off. Her voice, relaying from tower to cell phone tower may as well have been broadcasting into the emptiness of space. I was out of my head, watching myself talk.
“Are you? Carrying anything?”
“Jun-…” She sighs. “Evan, what do you need?”
“What I need,” I closed my eyes, “is a familial bone marrow match.”
After that, the line dies.
I open the door to the porch. Ella smiles until she sees I’m not, then folds herself into my chest.
The icy wind takes my breath for a moment.
“I guess she hung up.”
My words hang clouded and meaningless in the space between us until another gust of wind carries them away.
My bones ache, but it’s not the icy wind. It’s the leftovers of the chemo, the pills I take now, and the stiffness of the biopsy wound. The wind is almost nice, just to feel something other than a codeine-induced haze that numbs a person from far more than just side effects.
Ella squeezes me, crying quietly, and it hurts my bones, but I bear it. Those first couple days out of the hospital, I took so much out on her when the pain killers weren’t enough. I probably still do.
My socks are getting wet, with the snow so deep it’s melting down into my shoes.
“God damn snow.” But I don’t say it out loud, because Ella still has this thing about taking the Lord’s name.
My ears are numb, ringing, but then it’s not my ears and Ella’s pushing me inside, toward the phone.
I don’t recognize the number at first, but it’s the same area code I remember dialing for Nikki.
“Evan, are you there?”
Her voice is composed, but cautious.
“I dropped my phone. Are you there?”
“Jeeze, Nik, I thought you hung up.”
“No, but my phone didn’t survive the fall. Now would mind telling me why I’m about to lie to AT&T so they cover a new one?”
“It doesn’t sound like it would make a difference, Nik.”
She waits a long moment, the buzzing sound moves further and further into the background until I hear a door close.
“Are you still in Minneapolis?”
Oh, here it comes.
“Yeah, I’m still here.”
“I can be there in a few hours. If… you know, you wanna start that drinking habit, talk this thing out.”
I glance over at Ella, she’s frozen. “Evan?”
“No time like the present, right?”
“Jesus, Evan. What did mom and dad say? Are they up there?”
“They have,” I begin drumming my fingers on the desk, “They’ve had prior commitments.”
“Why didn’t they call me?”
There it is. Where does Nikki fit in? What story does Nikki get to tell her friends? Start with blaming the folks for not visiting me, add a dash of it’s always been like this, then move right on to how they never treated her right, either.
“You know, Evan, some people never change, do they?”
Right on cue.
“I mean, when I was in high school, they never…”
I can’t listen. It’s not that ‘we’ were in high school and the folks never did this or that, it’s that ‘she’ was in high school. Like I’m a sideline character in her story, even when it’s my recital, my art show, my life hanging in the balance.
I head back out to the porch, silent as my chest begins to heave opposite the rhythm of my breathing. The snow on the railing is so perfect, I can’t bear to touch it. And maybe I’m too cold or too numb to notice anyway. And what then? I don’t want to know.
Inside, Ella tries to sound upbeat.
“Hey Nikki, this is Ella.”
“Why hello, Ella. Are you the one taking care of my little brother?”
“Doing my best.”
“I can be there in a few hours. Let’s call it six o’clock. Does that work?”
Nikki takes a deep breath. “What do I say? To Evan, I mean. What do you say to someone?”
“Sometimes you just sit quietly. Other times, if you talk, you talk about anything else. Except the weather.”
“That sounds like Evan. Still aiming for the West Coast?”
“Mm hm. Alright. I’ll be there, soon as I can. Can’t wait to meet you, Ella.”
* * *
© Anthony David Jacques MMX