When I worked for the Cancer Shoppe, I worked at the front desk, alone. It was very quiet, and calm, and most of the time I was by myself almost all day long. We did research and I didn’t often have actual humans in front of me. A few times a day, aphaeresis patients came by, with shunts (tubes the size of garden hoses) sticking out of a big artery in their neck just where it disappeared into their chests, all taped to their throats so they didn’t wave around too much. They’d walk up stiffly and smile small pained jaundiced smiles and I would smile a nice kindly smile and get them a wheelchair or walk with them to the aphaeresis rooms, where they’d be hooked up to a machine and their blood, removed the previous week and treated, would be pumped back into their bodies in a sort of vampiric rinse cycle. Sometimes their bottles of plasma, colored the same as weak beer, would have been waiting on my chair when I got in that morning. It’s a weird kind of intimacy, knowing you held somebody’s blood in your hand earlier that day.
But the the thing I can’t stop thinking about was the day the elevators opened in front of me and an anxious man got out. He was wearing a faded tshirt with a firefighter’s union logo on the front, and dirty old jeans all sagged in the back where his legs just sort of divided, where his ass should have been. His belly hung, weighing the front of the jeans down, like somebody must have elbowed him in the ass and it swung around to the front accidentally. He had a toupee. It wasn’t a good one. I took it all in and smiled my kindly professional smile at him.
He leaned on the counter and looked at me, eyebrows pushed up under the toupee with worry.
“I gotta ask you something and you CAN’T LAUGH AT ME,” he said.
“I won’t laugh! Ask me your question,” I said, mentally cataloging this as another one of the guys who wanted to sell me his testicles or something like that. (Every three months or so, some rumor started up that we were buying balls, $10,000 a piece, make all your mobile home payments for the YEAR on that, Bob, and you ain’t usin’em none, are you. We were never buying balls of course.)
Anyway so the man in the toupee leaned forward and said, very quietly, “I want to give you my cat.”
I said, “I don’t want your cat.”
“Well not YOU, personally, I don’t want to give YOU my cat. Of course NOT. Heh.”
I kept smiling and waited for him to come to the point.
“My cat. See, my cat…” He gulped a little and stared a the ceiling, trying to keep the tears back, his eyes going red and glossy. My smile started to waver as I suddenly realized that he wasn’t joking.
“My cat’s my friend, my only one, you know, I’m retired. I was a FIREFIGHTER.” He stood up straight and puffed out his chest. I nodded.
“Yeah well. So, now, I’m not. So I live by myself and I have my cat, and he’s, well he’s sick. And the vet says he can’t do nothin’ for him. He’s all riddled up with cancer.”
He blinked rapidly and then met my gaze, and his eyes were filled with a terrible hope. You only see that kind of look a few times in your life. It’s the kind of look that feels like a gutpunch because you always know, when you see it, that fate’s just given you another opportunity to be a disappointment.
“I thought you could mebbe try one of those new drugs out on him, you know, one of them ones I read about in the paper, couldn’t you? You can have him, you can test out your drugs on him, just if you think it’d make him well. The vet says he can’t do nothing more for him and he’s, you know.” His voice got softer and scratchy. “He’s my FRIEND.”
I tried not to cry myself and I told him very gently that we couldn’t take his cat, that we couldn’t test our drugs on him, that the animals they test drugs on don’t get better, they just get killed and looked at under microscopes. I told him that the drugs were for humans and we couldn’t give them to his cat. I wrote down the number for the emergency animal hospital and the number for the veterinary college on a post-it note, and I told him I had friends who were cats too, and I was so sorry but I couldn’t do anything more for him or for his cat.
He thanked me and he swallowed a few times and he took my goddamn post-it note with the phone numbers on it and he told me he was sorry to trouble me. Then he ran into the next open elevator so he wouldn’t cry in front of me.
I stood around feeling foolish and wishing I’d been able to go buy him a cup of coffee, but he was just gone, probably back home to the cat. And I still cry when I think about him and his cat, every single time, and I can’t stop thinking about him right now.