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The Discreet Charm of Chemotherapy

He reads Ragtime while being poisoned by a nurse with a woodpecker tattooed on her ankle, and afterwards he describes this to Lily over hamburgers and beer--he is ravenous (go figure)--and she chuckles as he'd hoped and they both think, This isn't so bad, but the next week he is a little weaker and the woodpecker nurse is gone and the boy across from him--he can't be more than fourteen--hums Puff the Magic Dragon as he's pumped full of what looks like tobacco juice (dark is bad? he asks the nurse; she shrugs) and he wonders why his own solution appears so harmless, like something he might have found in a bottle on his grandmother's dresser (eau de toilette is good? he asks the nurse; she shrugs), and that night he dreams of a monster chasing a red balloon and somehow he knows he is one or the other, but he doesn't know which, and when he wakes Lily is kissing him, then she murmurs sleepily that he tastes like Ajax, and he thinks, This will end eventually, but two weeks later he's even more tired and his veins have turned a deep purple and the woman across from him, wearing false eyelashes and an Eva Gabor wig, is being pumped full of something that looks like molasses (thick is bad? he asks the nurse; she shrugs) and he knows there is no way of describing to anyone, even Lily, the way she'd fished a worn tennis ball from her purse and dropped it between her feet, then rolled it back and forth as the needle went in.

©Stephanie Harrison, appeared first in Hayden's Ferry Review