Have been to the Cancerland Outback, from which there is no dispatch-writing. Hell, for many there is no return either, much less staying in touch while they are away. Dingoes eat their babies, and then eat them. They are next seen, if seen at all, stretched out, rouged, with beatific expressions on their faces, in narrow, high-sided boxes on the tops of sturdy tables in the front rooms of local funeral parlors, with weeping relatives and friends processing by and looking down on them, remembering the last time they spoke. I am lucky to be back in my digs, with pen in hand, to recount how it all happened.
Travel to the Outback is by ambulance, at first to a rough-and-tumble town on the border known only by the initials ICU. One finds immediately on arrival that the name is a kind of Cancerland joke, in that this ICU place ought properly to be called I Can’t C U. It is a man-made jungle of chrome and clear plastic vines, tubes, tendrils and terrarium-like glass boxes of one kind or another which contain pumps, bladders that expand and contract, or glowing screens that show either numbers in large and little digital displays or moving pictures of what seem to be fences, the pickets of which constantly change size from tall to short and back again. Hidden in this wild tangle of wall to wall and roof to ceiling growth, there are in fact human beings — many of the tubes and tendrils actually terminate in their arms, and sides, and noses — but they are as hard to spot as green parrots in the trees of the Amazon, so ICU as an appellation is entirely facetious.
I should tell you at this point that although there may be the very rare Lawrence of Arabia-like Cancerlander nutjob who voluntarily schedules his or her own visit to the Outback, in the main, being transported there requires Something Bad to Happen. In my case, this Something Bad was a matter of feeling queasy enough one day to think I had better go kneel on the bathroom tile before the traditional receptacle for the outcome of queasiness. When I had made the wretched retching sounds, and pulled the puking faces, and caught my breath, I looked down to see, not bits and pieces of semi-digested food, but liquid as clear as consomme, only bright red. The sight would have been beautiful under some circumstances but, in my circumstances, was not. The reddening agent was blood, clearly, and the water of the bowl was as completely transformed by it as was the Nile that time the Great Prankster of the Old Testament decided to teach the ‘Gyptians a lesson.
I got on the horn right away, of course, to confer with a Fizzishun. The Fizzishuns are the nabobs of Cancerland, the top authorities, the Deciders (to use the Bushism). My Fizzishun told me I had better come down and see him, toot sweet and lickity-split. My plan was to hop a Cancerland jitney when, on my way to put on something respectable for the trip, the floor precipitously rose up just where I was standing, so that my head came to be where my feet had been. I had been standing up, in other words, and then, just like that, was sprawled out, presto change-o, without any recollection of how the trick had been done. Light-headed is the wrong term entirely, I am now in a position to tell you. What happens instead is that the head suddenly grows as heavy as a bowling ball, and the body turns to vapor, so that there is nothing to hold the head aloft, and it does what gravity says it must.
There wasn’t going to be any changing of clothes, or strolling to the corner to hail a jitney. The only course of action was to Dial the Dreaded Digits, Nine One One. This I did, and waited, crumpled on the mat outside my door, with (as the EMTs later told me) lips as white as paper. Blood loss will do that to you, as it will do some other things too, like put the fear of God into you.
As I’ve said, the beginning of the trip to the Outback was by ambulance, through the rollicking frontier at ICU, where (this being the weekend) all that happened was that my vital signs where checked, every few minutes it seemed and especially frequently in the middle of the night, and I was treated to the sight of other wayfarers far more wretched than I: Poor old Mister Woo, tube-a-nose, tube-a-side, tube-a-neck, so heavy-lidded his eyes weren’t visible at all, permitted neither to stretch out properly nor properly to sit, but relegated to being propped in a position uncomfortably between the two, with oven mitts on his hands to keep him from pulling his various tubes out and trying to climb out of bed, which is all that he wanted in the world but which, of course, he could not be allowed to do…and a nameless man (nameless to me, anyway) missing one leg, with hands too swollen to clench and a belly bloated into hemispherical shape, who angrily summoned help in pure Brooklynese, yelling, Noyse…and, beside me, flat as a corpse, never moving or speaking, a fellow who looked like an emaciated Santa Clause, with wild milk-white hair spread every which-a-way around his pillow.
Came, finally, Monday morning, and the test to determine why I had turned the water of the toilet as red as Tydee Bowl turns it blue. The culprit was my throat, troubled by the tumor therein, which had grown slightly larger. This meant that the chemotherapy I had been having had ceased to be effective, and so I would need to go, on the Cancerland moving sidewalk, from Chemoville to Radiation City. This I did two weeks ago, having been zapped daily about ten times now. So I currently have something in common with your upper-shelf supermarket fruits and vegetables: I too have been, am being, irradiated. Alas, however, I do not look as red, robust, and juicy as the apples so treated. Rather the opposite, I’m afraid: Kind pale and peaked, y’know.
For the rest of it, I have to tell you several things. Whereas initial travel to Cancerland’s Outback is by ambulance, as I have said, other travel, once you have passed through the portal at ICU and are actually Out There, is by pill and potion, Alice-in-Wonderland-style. You take this, that or the other, close your eyes, and find yourself in a new landscape every time.
And, oh yeah: There are spirits in the Outback. They are neither visible nor audible but make their existence known by pilfering things from you, strange things, things it would never dawn on you to put a guard on because who in hell would take them? Pilfered, for instance, has been the feeling in my right forefinger, the tip of which might just as well now be made of wood. What the devil do these leprechauns want with such as oddment as that?
Also, they stole my voice. For a long time, I could produce only a hoarse, croaking whisper, making Don Corleone sound like James Earl Jones. Nor did the blasted sprites return my voice. One of them is still playing with it somewhere. Luckily, however, there was a fix. A plastic wedge has been inserted into my throat, to nudge my paralyzed right vocal cord over towards the middle of my larynx, so that, between them, the working left and the now near-enough-by right, have the correct gap to produce my old voice again. (In FDA labeling terms, this means I am 99.9 percent organic, and .1 percent post-consumer recycled plastic.)
Gotta say one more thing. I honestly thought (honestly and stupidly, it now seems) that I was growing accustomed to Cancerland. But I realize now that was because I had only been in its Civilized Parts till then. This is like visiting Morocco and spending time exclusively in Casablanca, which is a city enough like Miami Beach to gull you into thinking that you’ve got North Africa licked. But travel to where the dunes are, where there is nothing but wind and sand and sky, where you can be bleached and buried at any time, and where all ways forward look exactly the same, and you understand that you don’t know a blessed thing about the place to which you’ve come.
I have been faithless to you readers of these dispatches in the recent past, frittering away my time sanding wood and hanging pictures instead of writing the travelogue I promised at the outset. But that is not what happened in this long gap, as you now know. What happened was that I was on a forced march to the Outback, from which I am lucky to be returned.
I mean that literally.
I am lucky to be.