Matador Review

A Quarterly Missive of Alternative Concern


In the Skin of a House Fire


When I come out of the Benadryl haze, when the water they left me tangs like a basecoat primer and that Bravery Bell is the first thing I see, that font with broken serifs cut into cheap copper - when I see all of this, I feel my face fall. Bravery is a peer-appointed quality I'm not really feeling these days. Today the bell mocks me. Today I hate the bell and bravery and the fonts with broken serifs.

I swig back the paint water. I've been told to drink as much as I can and as I do so, I stare at the totem of courage. I Google it. I think about spitting on it. I think about how at some point in the brief history of television "Name A Kind of Bell" has been a clue on Family Feud and Steve Harvey is just waiting to lose it when someone says Jingle Bells. Well, Steve, this bell is a cancer bell. I can guarantee you nobody says cancer bell. You only get to ring it when they tell you the surprising news, when you've won a stayed sentence and you've been granted your life back. I've watched three people bang this gong and it's always a sublimely weird time.

Just this morning, I looked on as a heavily painted crone wearing a Kathy Lee Gifford Edition wig celebrated her blood mitzvah. She was quickly whisked off by a congregation of her relatives and book club buddies. They were having lunch at a Sicilian establishment called Terroni that they insisted upon pluralizing:

"Ladies! We're going to the Terronis!"

I was not going to the Terronis. Instead of the Terronis, I was finding out the fun way that everything was taking on the flavor of embalming fluid. The Del Monte fruit salad with all of its maraschino cherries and overtly sweet fragments of pineapple, the grainy President's Choice applesauce, even the Brita water had this chlorotic quality to it. Their flavor profile speaks a sameness, a much of a muchness as my father would say and that muchness tastes like a stucco and formaldehyde smoothie. My meditation on the physiology of taste is interrupted by the radio pumping in through the swinging door of the nurses' station:

"... been down, isn't it a pity, doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city..."

As I wheel the I.V. drip over to the tinted window of the tenth floor, I note that I've been drooling. This should be embarrassing, but after a month of surrendering mucus and bile unprovoked to my adoring audience, drool and its byproducts are an occupational hazard.

It had been a cloudy July and thankfully, the sun was nowhere to be found. But today, the sun finally found its voice, loud and clear, punching through the ozone, wheeling haymakers towards us suckers on the fifth floor. No amount of deflective tint trapped in the windowpane could stop this fighter in its tracks and we, the scantily haired few, cowered beneath pink blankets and drawn shade. Though even a daytime you come to loathe has a habit of being downright gorgeous. In the tiny sliver of infinity, I can see between the high rises. The sky conjures up hues of Jasper lakes. A Cessna tugging an aerogrammed banner advertising Diesel Jeans flits by, the pilot oblivious to the wonder of human flight.

"... all around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk hotter than a match head..."

I look out at the rush hour, swollen and fast, as it converges and gels, coagulating for seconds and dispersing sporadically on the patchwork asphalt. A boulevard of war memorials dotted with flags of the world separates the six lanes of traffic down the middle of University Ave. Tiny bodies perch on the curbs, ready to sprint through the breaks between bumpers. It goes back and forth and to and fro and I feel this rise in my gut, an untouchable itch mounting my taste buds, my whole tongue fattens in my throat - stewing in the saliva welling up above my gum line.

"... but at night it's a different world, go out and find a girl..."

My Chuck Taylors and I jiggle to the bathroom, a bald little bonfire of meat and bone, cuss words hitting the ramparts of my clenched teeth. As I swing on my heel around the corner, the levee breaks and as I cross the threshold of the bathroom door, an arc of pale upchuck leaves me, nailing the bowl like a three-point jump shot from half court. People sort of notice – but this is the nature of the place – everyone is too busy worrying about keeping down their own lunch.

I blow memories of canned fruit out of my nose, wipe down with Purell Winter Blush, noting that when winter blushes, it smells like bathtub vodka. I throw up again, this time, just water and bile. I piss out, white hot and feel the ground shake. I steady myself at the sink, running on empty, wiping the spew off my grin. I go back to the window.

"... cool cat, looking for a kitty, gonna look in every corner of the city..."

When I first made my reservations here, the place had a five-star rating from my oncologist and the Yelp reviews of the Druxy's in the lobby had been stellar. I loved Druxy's. Before everything started to taste like paint, I really enjoyed the beauty of the Reuben sandwich: an edible architecture of rye, kraut, Swiss and corned beef. I had often joked with deli thespians behind the counter that the term reubenesque had been coined by the sandwich itself. It was a bad joke, like so many other things, that I enjoyed alone.

On my second stay here a few months ago, following recovery from a feverish bicuspid infection, I found myself ravenous and starving as I'd been on my very first day of puberty. Enter Druxy's. As I was about to tuck in to my precious Reuben, something had changed. I was overtaken with a new sensation. Something had changed and the smell was no longer arousing, the air around my face didn't warm - I was in the middle of losing a religion.

When I took that first bite, my teeth crushing through spongy rye and nutty caraway, the color drained from the room. To have that all fade away and to know the essence of gray so intimately. I at once knew the aroma of blood maroon, the mouthfeel of decayed banana, the odor of a leaf mold brown – all the colors of a rainbow that had been dragged face first through a septic tank.

With this loss of power, I had made a short list of things I could control; everyday things, like the smiles on children's faces, whether or not that potted begonia outside of my neighbor's house would live to see another day, the number of likes I won on the internet. This was not enough – I have an anger about me, punk and deliberate.

In this rotten state, this state of frown, I expanded the list into things I wanted to control; transcontinental weather patterns, the Glock .22's in a standard issue cop belt, suburban roadside bombs, the rotating miracles of the human ego in the short breath of a civil war. If the lights were going to go out for me, I'd rather go out like a billion-hectare forest fire than snuff out like a blue angel. My love affair I had with the world's greatest sandwich had been robbed from me – my mind obviously resorted to terrorism. All I had was this swinging string of drool, vapor of vomit breath, backlit by the blinding window where the sun filled my eyes with liquid razor wire. I realized that my anger was probably just a super fantastic side effect of corticosteroids and burnt hospital coffee.

"... and babe, don't you know it's a pity, that the days can't be like the nights, in the summer, in the city, in the summer, in the city..."

I look down to the nurses on lunch break. They lay free on the sunburnt turf smoking cigarettes, eating turkey bacon clubs and chicken Caesar salads. They were arranged in a circle, as if they might start playing Stella-Ella-Ola and I could almost hear the jokes about biopsies gone south and other bedpan follies. Everyone on this floor shares this burden with me, this helpless voyeurism of everyday life, squinting until our eyelashes get caught in the recycled air and drift through miles of ventilation. From this high up, we're the closest thing to angels University Ave. will ever know.

"... till I'm wheezing like a bus stop, running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop..."

There's an ever-rotating cast of characters on my days here. Today, there's the sweet nineties Mom, featuring her Stage 3 Carcinoma. She is in the pod to my right, pretending to read the Michael Fassbender issue of Vanity Fair; drifting in and out, speaking in tongues in her sleep.

On my port side, there's the Portuguese Foreman and his pet emphysema. He's coughing up sputum into a ShamWow cloth behind the curtain and pretending to not watch Ariana Grande music videos on mute, intermittently screeching about the intemperate nature of the ward: is it time to switch bags yet, is anyone paying attention, it's as if they're trying to kill me, you bastards, if my daughter was here you'd all be fired, she went to McGill for god's sake, why is the internet not working, it is UEFA CUP, where is my idiot doctor, when I was his age, I built the CN tower, bare hands... 

A bubbly volunteer skirts past him wearing the face of a Juilliard player, flashing a smile that could set the moon ablaze and bring down the stars. He floats past with the applesauce and concrete chip arrowroot cookies and asks if I would like to get involved. Since we're all in this business of make-believe, I grab a pack of arrowroots and make a series of funnies about the watching of my weight and the indistinct future of my beach body during swimsuit season. The volunteer can't decide whether or not to laugh, cry or spontaneously combust, so he floats on: the patron saint of gastroenterology. This place is beginning to make me wonder if my career as a palliative comedian is over before it has even started.

I pocket the arrowroots, plotting in advance for the next time I have the courage to swallow. My alarm goes off. It is time for a sunkissed nurse to switch the stock of my own private re-up. This is the time for my "push," when the nurse comes over and gives me the artisanal, bespoke section of my treatment, hand-plunging the Kool-Aid red vincristine into my veins table-side. I stay at the window, leaning into the warm glass with my forehead. The I.V. beeps on and I'm sweating terrifically, the beads of perspiration sliding into my socks without a single follicle of hair to hang onto.

"... All around, people looking half dead, walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head..."

The commercial monolith across the street spits a carousel of suits from its revolving door. The tower is new progress, a binary smattering of green crystal. I can't remember what was there before. I follow the plates of glass up the sides of the looming stronghold, past the perpetually stressed hedge fund managers, the Twitter disaster analysts, the travelling Bay St. shock troops, content administrators and their bleached teeth, the Etsy strategists and their Filipino custodians, the red-nosed daredevil window washers and their dangling boots, all the way up to the cell phone towers bending underneath the weight of all the small talk. And they are all at once careless and fast, a quickly unraveling human current, forgetting each face they meet as soon as they're swallowed into shadow.

I turn around and the blind nurse who can never find my veins lumbers towards me, snapping back the latex gloves and laughing at some joke about neutrophils. I close my eyes and for a split second I can vaguely remember all the trappings of a well-layered Reuben, crunching and mashing in the warmth of my mouth, the caraway bursts, my tongue bathing in the acid of the sauerkraut, the road salted beef, the ballpark mustard and all the flooding memories that come with it - a pickle in cellophane at that spot in New York, the hangover breakfast just south of Mount Royal - the one, the best one I ever had, I made all by my lone damn self in a Best Western hotel just outside of Port Coquitlam – and I could die right here in this daydream, Steve Harvey and the bells, jingle and otherwise, be damned.

Her white croc squeaks to a halt just short of my kneecaps, interrupting the Benson & Hedges symphony of flavor I can barely recall. But a quick escape, for just a moment, and no July sorrow could take it from me. She pats down my arm with an alcoholic swab and squeezes and prods my forearm, prospecting for veins.

The bell on the other side of the ward rings. A hollow cheer erupts and even the ones who have their fingers four knuckles deep in heaven muster up a light clap. A few minutes pass and the plunger is slowly depressed into me. I watch another live one stroll out the front door, their waxed crown gleaming white, wig free, slowly disappearing into the swell. There's a great freedom out there - a radial bliss swarming until it collapses in the vista at the end of the artery.

"... and babe, don't you know it's a pity, that the days can't be like the nights, in the summer, in the city, in the summer, in the city..."


Joel F. Brown is a Cordon Bleu trained chef, world traveler and university dropout currently writing out of the back of a 1979 Dodge Winnebago in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. His work has appeared in Go Home Magazine. He is a cancer survivor going into his second year of remission. Mini memoirs can be found on his Instagram: @joeleffbrown.