by Nate Waggoner
Nate Waggoner's work has appeared in Electric Literature, Barrelhouse, the literary parody anthology Loose Lips, and elsewhere. He lives in Brooklyn.
Everyone / Eventually
Dante is 19 years old, has high cheekbones, soulful hazel eyes, and bright teeth he flashes cockily when he antagonizes my aunt Jai, doing something like reciting the Chris Rock “Who the fuck reupholstered your pussy?” monologue from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at the dinner table. It would be fair to compare his appearance to that of an Adam Levine or a young Luke Wilson or a James Franco. We start watching Game of Thrones after he pitches it to me like this: “You gotta see this show, dawg. This bitch? Has dragons.” He leaves his socks on the kitchen island and drops the newspaper on the floor after he’s done with the sports pages. He does things like borrow my car to go buy pot-growing equipment and shoot off guns with his boys, get pulled over, then fail to tell me about that, or about how I’m now driving around with bullets in my backseat. It’s 2012, and we’re both living with Jai—I’m there while I’m in grad school, and he’s starting chemo back up again.
I’m working at this tutoring center in Daly City, all white walls and ecstatic mountain-climbing “SUCCESS!” posters. I’m talking to some stone-faced eighth-graders about Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist.”
“Y’all know about this guy, Franz Kafka?” I ask. “He wrote some messed-up stories. He was just a regular working slob, in some office doing accounting or something, right? Then he goes home and writes all these sick and twisted stories, and people still read them to this day. So this one is all about a guy who starves for a living. Like as an act in the circus. Everyone comes to see him, but then they get sick of him. Like the way people now feel about, I dunno, ‘Gangnam Style’ or something.” At this moment in pop culture history, that reference lands and the kids both groan and chuckle. “So he just keeps starving and starving and no one cares! Can you believe it?”
I go to print something out and find separate texts and voicemails from both Jai and my uncle Gary asking me to please walk the dog, Chance, tonight because Dante is going to be in the hospital for a little while. Of course I will, of course.
I get home, get Chance’s leash around, and take him around the block. On a dark side street adjacent to us, a man and a woman are screaming. As I get closer, I can tell that their cries are sincere and desperate, pleading for anyone around to help. Soon I can see that a stray pitbull is attacking their dog. Their dog is about the same size and build, but is utterly bewildered and helpless. The couple kick the pit and scream and pull and pull at their dog’s leash but the stray is relentless, snarling and biting and scratching. Chance perks up but doesn’t bark. A man runs out of his house and gets on his phone. I ask the man if he’s calling 9-1-1 and he says yes. I hurry Chance back home.
The next day, the power goes out. I say out loud to no one but the dog, “Trials of Job up in this motherfucker.” I call the power company and the representative says, “Yeah, the power’s out all over your area. About 2,928 homes have been affected.”
“Sorry, did you just say 2,928?”
2928 is our address. All this feels significant, connected, although of course it’s not.
Dante’s sister Theo interrupts a vacation to Singapore, a twenty-hour flight, to come see Dante. Jai gets the okay from the hospital to bring Chance for a visit, so Theo and I push the dog into the back of the car and drive with him through rush hour traffic across the Bay Bridge. Theo puts her iPod on shuffle and Jeff Buckley’s ethereal, heartbroken version of “Hallelujah” plays as we drive past Oakland’s AT-AT cranes and a deep blue and salmon sunset. The car joins all the others in lock step waiting for the light. Some lights take longer than others but everyone goes and pays the toll eventually. “Hallelujah” cuts off halfway through. Something wrong with the file.
Theo and I meet Jai outside the hospital. Jai has taken to wearing a black hoodie with an especially long hood, like a wizard’s robe. Chance freaks out in the hospital elevator. He gives me this pleading look like, “Come on man, make sense of this for me.” Someone told me dogs don’t understand elevators, how you can come in one side, seemingly not move, then the way out is on the other side in an entirely different place. I guess, on some level, I don’t get that either.
When someone is in the hospital, you can’t greet them with “How’s it going?” or “How ya doing?,” my two default greetings, because you don’t want to hit them with stupid questions when things are already hard enough. Chance, normally a very affectionate boy, doesn’t want to get close to Dante, who is hooked up to machines through his nose and can’t get out of bed. Jai beckons to Chance over and over to come get on top of the bed, but no amount of sweet-talking or treat-offering works. Pretty soon Dante thanks us and says he’s going to sleep. The thought occurs to me that I love and admire him, and that I should tell him right now, but that I know I won’t. On the room’s TV, the Heat are beating the Bulls by 12.
“Have they been up this much the whole game?” I ask.
“I dunno, man, I’ve been asleep. The game started at zero-zero.”
A growth in Dante is obstructing his digestion. The doctor says removing the growth would be too big of a risk in his condition—there’s nothing they can do for him anymore. He’s moved to in-home hospice care.
A bed with all the necessary equipment is set up in the room next to his. Nurses come and go but there are spans of hours where they’re not around, and Jai is left with weird complicated tubes and bags to figure out how to deal with.
On Easter Sunday, a nurse is two hours late. Jai goes off on some people over the phone, then vents her frustration at the nurse when she arrives. I go to Walgreens and buy us a bag of Skittles jellybeans, a couple of chocolate bunnies, and a bag of Reese’s peanut butter eggs, and leave them on the kitchen island. We finish most of it that day.
The word comes down that Dante only has a few days left now. He has to be moved back to UCSF for more intense care. Jai and a nurse have to help him down the stairs. This is someone who used to love to play basketball every day. As they load him into the vehicle, I finally say it. I say, “Alright man, I love you dude.” I put my hand around my mouth, turn around and rush back into my room to sob on the bed.
Dante exceeds his prognosis by several months. Jai finds him a hospice facility. It’s a nauseatingly bumpy and winding drive up this big hill, so you’re disoriented, light-headed, by the time you arrive. It’s incredibly verdant and bright up there, and you can see deer and wild turkeys wandering around. The place is designed for kids, so there’s a playground and a playroom and kids’ art all over the walls. Each room has a theme, and Dante’s is “The OK Corral,” with cowboy wallpaper. I offer to bring his Biggie poster and he declines the offer. Crying family members walk around slowly, holding hands, and the wailing of infants reverberates.
Dante grows a thick beard. He turns twenty-two. Per his request, the family and some of his boys come over and eat pizza in his room, even though he can’t eat anything solid himself. They take him, in a wheelchair, to the mall and to a Giants game.
He’s on a lot of morphine. He loses his old quickness, seems to forget he’s dying. Asks for his college applications. He starts saying things like, “Why’s that guy in the room? I don’t want him in here,” when there’s no one else there. He asks, “Where’d the girls go, Mom? Are the girls still here?”
The happiest memory I have of Dante from when I was living with him:
We’re upstairs watching baseball. The Giants are losing. This is early on, so he’s mobile, alert, and there’s still hope. He’s prepping for a colonoscopy, which means that I actually do know a little bit about what he’s going through at this moment—when he was first diagnosed, I got one too. Something about how if one family member has colon cancer, others are at risk of it.
Preparing for a colonoscopy consists of fasting and drinking this godawful fluid with the worst fucking texture you can imagine. You’re supposed to drink it “until the stool is clear”—that is, until you’re shitting purely clear liquid. It feels like it’s sleeting inside of you. We laugh and joke about how unpleasant it is.
“It tastes like fucking cum!”
“It’s like those pornos where they have women drinking cum out of those big wine glasses.”
The next year the Giants will win the World Series, and at one point, in a home game in the thick fog, I’ll feel compelled to write down announcer Tim McCarver’s words: “The driving mist is a mist like rain. Wet like rain, but a mist, which is wet on the field like rain. It’s the guys who can breathe. It’s the guys who have moisture in their mouth. It’s hard. The water goes down in lumps. I live in the real world, not fantasy, pal.”
The all-time happiest memory I have of Dante:
We’re at my grandmother’s house in Indiana, we’re maybe six and ten at the time. After a day spent swimming in the lake and pretending to be pirates and going along with our parents on a scenic drive to pick up cantaloupe and corn to have with dinner, someone asks us to take the Diet Sprite cans to the recycling. This is the best part of the day, because we get to line up the cans along where the garage door closes, push the button, then watch as the door crushes the cans all at once. Our parents discourage it because it’s maybe not great for the door, but they still give us this job. When all the cans are flat, we re-open the garage door, throw the flattened metal discs in the recycling, then hit the button again so we can run under the door as it’s closing, like Indiana Jones.
I almost get into a physical altercation with somebody at Dante’s wake. A young man with a tenuous connection to the family, who shows up with his shitty little dog and keeps talking about his job as someone who lectures kids about how they should eat organic, starts talking about how people need to stop Instagramming their meals and live in the moment. “It offends me as a photographer and a foodie,” he says. I snap at him and he says under other circumstances he would knock me out. Theo, my sister Hope, and I take Chance for a walk and I rant violently to them about the incident, and my language upsets Theo. Hope throws the man out of the house. I drive home smiling.
Late morning on Thanksgiving, 2013—we’re still waiting for Hope, who hasn’t left the Mission yet, and Jai starts to prepare the turkey. She barbecues it on a grill outside, with a pan at the bottom to catch the drippings. The gravy she makes is a masterpiece, dark and dense. The sun has set by the time the turkey has cooked for a little while, so we have to take it inside to see if it’s ready. I hold a pan, and Jai impales the turkey at both ends, lifts it, and—straining, concentrating—places it in the pan. Inside, I jab the side of the turkey and see bright pink. I carry it back out.
“Naw. Still pretty raw deep in there.”