I shit you not. Hey, I’m a totally reliable source, eyewitness, in fact. I, Richard Casey—aka the Incredible Dying Boy—actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I’m telling you about. Third floor, Columbia Memorial Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York. And right in front of the elevator that spits you into our hospice, there is—get ready for this—a harpist. This old lady with white hair and a weird long skirt sits by a honking huge wooden harp and strums. Or plucks, whatever. The harp makes all these sappy-sweet notes that glom themselves right onto your chest, no matter how hard you try to keep them off.
How sick is that? I mean, isn’t that like a teensy bit premature? I sit there in my wheelchair, on good days, and I just watch people get off the elevator. They’re here to visit their dying whoevers and they think, just for a second, that they’ve skipped right over the whole death and funeral mess and gone straight to heaven. You think they’d be pleased, right? But no. Let me tell you, those visitors don’t like the harpist a bit. Most of them actually back up and some of them press the elevator button, trying to escape. Because, after all, they’re not the ones dying, right? So why are they here? How did they end up in harp-land? It freaks them right out and I laugh my ass off. The counselors—and believe me the place is crawling with them—they tell me that harp music is soothing and spiritual and good for the patients. Okay, I say, fine. Maybe for the 95% of the patients that are ancient, like sixty and above, it’s good. But what about for me? Or Sylvie? Me and Sylvie, I say, we’re kids. We’re fucking teenagers and we’re dying, too, and what about our rights?
Okay, that’s kind of harsh, I admit. Because the counselors really are sort of cool and they get all teary when I say that because no one, and I mean no one, wants to think of kids dying. But we are, so I say, Deal with it.
Anyway, this is what me and Sylvie did, one of the days when she was feeling decent enough to get up. Listen to this. It was a riot. We waited until around 5:30 p.m., when all of those long-faced loved ones show up, and we went to the lobby and moved right into the harpy’s space. I know, I know. Harpy’s a pun, folks, that’s what me and Sylvie call her. And we covered up the elevator button with a big black arrow pointing down and we sat in our chairs, with, like, insane death-mask make-up on our faces—pale green with big black circles drawn around our eyes and streaks of red blood dripping from our lips—and we had my collector’s item Black Sabbath T-shirts over our clothes and Sylvie—it surprised me that she had the energy—she had made a big red devil fork thing out of an IV pole—I think she actually painted the whole thing with nail polish, I mean a real project—and she was holding onto that. And I’d put one of my uncle’s rave tapes—all screaming cool distortion—into the CD player on my lap and we blasted that sucker. I held up my hand-made sign—GOING DOWN—THIS MEANS YOU!—written in fake flames and we both did, honestly, cackle and screech like insane demons. Okay, so it was just a joke, but Sylvie—that girl is much tougher than you’d think, given she’s about five feet nothing, all shrunk up and bald—she took it maybe an inch too far when she pulled out a lighter and a box of Kleenex—you know, those cheesy cardboard ones they give you in hospitals, peel the skin right off your nose?—and she lit those babies up and threw them on the floor. Made great flames, for about one millisecond.
Then all hell really did break loose. Nurses and doctors and custodians and volunteers and counselors and probably the priests and the rabbis, too—there are always about six guys in black wandering our halls—they all came running and shouting and about nine thousand feet stomped out that one little fire. And me and Sylvie, we laughed our asses off, even when they started yelling at us and telling us to go back to our rooms and not come out again. And that was pretty funny, too. Them sending us to our rooms like little kids. Some punishment. I mean, what were they going to do to us, kill us? Sentence us to death?
The best part, for me, was when some visitor—well, not just some visitor, Mrs. Elkins’ son, I actually know him, I play gin rummy with him in the visitor’s lounge when the nights are long, as in, when aren’t the nights here long?—grabbed me by the arm and screamed in my face: “What’s the matter with you, Richie? Where’s your respect? What’s the matter with you?”
And I got to say one of my favorite lines, the one I pull out umpteen times a day, whenever some new priest/therapist/rabbi/nurse/intern/visitor/whoeverthefuck asks me what’s wrong with me. They can’t ever seem to quite get it. Obviously I’m way too young to be here, so what’s the story? They go: “Why are you here? What’s wrong with you, son?” And that’s when I always say—straight face, big innocent eyes—“I have SUTHY Syndrome.” And when they go all blank and say, essentially, “Huh?” I get to say it again. “SUTHY syndrome. It’s an acronym.” Some of the dumbfucks don’t even know what that means, but I always wait a beat and then spell it out: “I’ve got the Somebody Up There Hates You syndrome.”
And, you know, really, it’s a pretty good diagnosis, don’t you think? For me, for Sylvie, for all the way-under-sixties that end up here and places like it, usually after what our obituaries will soon call a “courageous battle with fill-in-the-blank.” How else you going to account for us? Hell, somebody up there hates us and that’s that. SUTHY is the only answer that makes any damn sense.
Anyway, that was the last day Sylvie came out of her room. I think it took a lot out of her. Shit, at least she got to get in trouble, though, like any other kid. Her father bawled her out for like an hour. That man has a temper. But Sylvie got to wear make-up, too, and that was a real plus. I know she likes make-up. She’s a girl, you know, even if she looks like some Halloween joke, now, all the time. I can see it, a little, the girl under the mask. Sometimes.
There’s this other thing that happened between me and Sylvie, about a week after our Devil’s Night event. This thing—which I promised her I’d never talk about to anyone and who the hell am I going to tell anyway?—had to do with virginity. I’m aware it’s not usually a hot topic around hospice, but for me and Sylvie, yeah. Kind of key. Anyway, I had rolled into her room one day and she whispered through the steel railing on her bed—“Richie, please, I don’t want to die a virgin”—so soft I almost missed it. But, hell, you have to talk soft because there’s absolutely not one fucking iota of privacy in this place. I mean, at home, we’d have KEEP OUT signs on our bedroom doors and all of that shit, but here? Here, Sylvie’s mother and three little brothers hang around her room all day. The little ones play with Matchbox cars under her bed and the biggest one sits in a corner with comic books and her mother hovers non-stop, all red-eyed and swollen-faced. Once, I heard Sylvie yell at her mother, who’d asked her something simple, like, “Do you want another pillow, honey?” Sylvie sat up in bed like a screaming banshee and wailed, “No, I don’t. I want to be left alone. Leave me the hell aloooooooooooooooooone.” Swear to God, that last syllable went on for like twenty seconds. Then her mother—short little dark-haired Italian lady, all round and soft—and the three little boys scooted their asses out of there. Then I heard Sylvie crying in her bed, saying, “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.” And so I didn’t go in that afternoon.
And the mother and boys didn’t come back that night. No, that night—and every one after that —it’s Sylvie’s father who camps on the cot in her room. And that man scares the bejesus out of me. That man is so mad, so furious and so sad and so, I don’t know even how to say it, so like fucking nuclear-blasted by his daughter dying that he gives off toxic fumes. Swear to God, the man glows orange and he hates everybody and, once, he was escorted off the floor by two big security guys after taking a swing at a nurse—a male nurse, okay, so that’s not so bad—and they only let him back in when some therapist assured everyone he’d settled down. Settled down? Ha. That guy won’t settle, ever again, I figure. He’ll be batshit mad for life. His little girl gets a death sentence and he gets a life sentence. Sweet, huh? SUTHY, I’m telling you.
And that’s another thing that drives me crazy here. Families. Back in the regular hospitals—where, believe me, I’ve done my time, over and over, repeat offender—they kind of keep check on how many family members can show up at one time and bother the shit out of you and so on, so you get a little time off. Except for the Puerto Rican families in the big hospital in the city. Man, no one could keep those people out: grandpas, great-grand-somethings, seventeen aunts with three or four kids each, never mind the parents—every one carrying some kind of food in an aluminum container, smelled like garlic and onion and spice—the whole familia showing up day and night. Best damn meals I ever had, whenever my roommate was PR or Dominican or some other kind of Spanish dude. Good times, actually. But, here, no. There ain’t no big rules about visiting hours and shit. Here they say they’re “treating the whole family.” So it’s, like, mad crowded, in some rooms. But some rooms, and maybe this is worse, some are empty. Where some nine-hundred-year-old somebody who looks like a mummy already is dying all alone. That’s sort of sad, to me. So sometimes I roll in and stay a few minutes with the old guy or woman, sort of pat their hands. Whatever.
My room, by the way, isn’t full of folks but isn’t totally empty, either. My uncle came here once. Cried and left after about three minutes, but, shit, he showed up, right? And my mom comes in late every night and sleeps on a cot. She’s got to keep working, so she’s not here during the day. And before anyone thinks, man, what a cold mother, let me tell you something. My mom had me when she was my age, exactly—seventeen. And there’s only us and she works two jobs and she keeps us in health insurance and if you think that’s been easy, if you think she doesn’t care, if you think her heart isn’t torn into little tiny shreds, you can go fuck yourself. My mom is here nights and she looks sicker than me and she shakes and cries and has to go out for a smoke and when she comes back in, I let her kiss me, just so I can taste tobacco, and then she falls asleep and I look at her curled up on that crappy cot, her cheeks all sunk in and her eyes all puffy, and I think I’m going to lose it. And sometimes I do, the only time, the only fucking time the sadness comes through and I want to kill anybody who hurts her and, yes, I’m aware that there is nobody else on earth who could hurt her like I am doing, right now. And that is the last I’ll say about my mom. That’s the one thing I can’t talk about. So don’t ask.
So, okay, back to Sylvie and me and our “date.” Of course, to be honest, at home, a girl like Sylvie used to be wouldn’t look twice at a guy like I used to be. I mean, I’ve seen the pictures of her that her mom’s got plastered all over the walls of her room. Sylvie on the swim team, all long legs and nice round boobs in a stretchy suit; Sylvie going to her junior high prom in a pink gown; Sylvie as a brown-eyed, black-haired baby; Sylvie with a bunch of friends, all the boys tall and handsome; Sylvie on the front porch of a big white house, her baby brothers on her lap; Sylvie, tan and glowing; Sylvie, Sylvie, Sylvie. So you know that somewhere inside this yellow-skinned, bag-of-bones, bald-headed Sylvie, there’s that other one—cool, popular, smart. And inside the ditto- ditto-ditto Richie, there’s the kid-raised-by-single-mother-on-about-three-cents-a-month, not-so-cute, mouthy-and-smart-but-not-even-half-popular kid doomed to walk ten paces behind the Sylvie-type girl, mooning and yearning and never once getting up his nerve to speak. Oh yeah, my mom has one picture of me, taped above my bed. I’m seven years old and wearing my Little League uniform. Says Ajax Hardware across my chest. My cap is about five sizes too big and I have no front teeth. Makes me cringe, but Mom likes it, so what the hell.
But here in hospice, miracles do happen. As in, the once-beautiful Sylvie asks the once-and-always-dorky Richie to help her get over her virginity. Sovirginity. So, okay, I’m a little nervous. I prepare a few witty lines to say, just in case. Because, hey, I’m not so 100% sure that I can even do it. I mean, come on, man. I’m not exactly in tip-top condition here. Anyway, I wait until Sylvie’s first-shift guardians go home—her mother stopping in the hallway to cry for like twenty minutes and the little bros all sucking their thumbs, looking totally lost—and her second-shift hasn’t yet shown up. Her dad usually blasts into the place around 7 p.m. So, it’s like 6 when I wheel myself into Sylvie’s room. Here’s what it’s like. Big window that looks out over the city of Hudson and, way off down the hill, the river. Great view, except that Sylvie can’t sit up anymore to see it. One bed. No tubes or monitors or anything. That’s the one good thing. In a hospice, they stop torturing you. No more burning the shit out of you with radiation. No more chemo poison into the veins. No more puking, no more physical therapy, no more poking and prodding and telling you to fight to get better. Think positive. Like it’s all in your head. Like your fucking attitude counts. No more. Because if this was a battle, hey guess what, dude, you lost. So, for a booby prize, they let you eat if you want (I don’t want), they give you whatever dope you ask for, they let you sleep, they’re all sort of gentle and kind. So here Sylvie is, in the bed, covered with a quilt that her mother and her aunts all made, by hand, with bits and pieces of, I swear, Sylvie’s baby clothes and shit, all pink and fluffy and soft. Sylvie told me once that she nearly pukes every time she looks at it. She wanted, she said, black Polartec with a picture of a wolf on it, howling at the moon. Right now, she’s curled into a ball and she’s asleep, or at least her eyes are closed. Light hurts our eyes, did you know that? That when you’re this far gone, you want to see sunlight and all, but it hurts. You’re heading for the dark, that’s what that means. (I’m not going to go into what we feel like because it’s just so boring. Just this one thing—it’s like being hollowed out. Like a cantaloupe or something, after your spoon’s been in there scraping. It’s all shell, man, with the last little bit of juice leaking out.)
I don’t know what to do about Sylvie and the bed and the virginity and all. I mean, what’s the etiquette here? I’m here to take care of business, I understand that, but I don’t think I can just crawl into bed with the girl. And I’m getting scared, you know? I mean, I’m what you’d call new to this whole thing, too. Didn’t ever, not even once, convince some kindhearted pretty nurse to give a guy a parting gift. Tried. Failed. Okay, so I’m about to back the chair out of the room, just roll off into the sunset, when Sylvie opens her eyes. They were, you can tell from the pictures, some of the darkest, biggest, brownest eyes you ever saw. All fringed with black eyelashes and all. Now, they’re bald and red-rimmed like, I hate to say it, but like reptile eyes. But there’s still some spark there, you know. Because Sylvie winks one eye and says, “No escape, Richard. Get your ass up here.” And she moves over in the bed—I mean, there’s like room for three Sylvies and two mes in that bed—and pats the sheet.
So I get up out of the chair. And, I can’t lie, that takes me some time. My legs are like toothpicks, pathetic. But my arms, from rolling this chair all over hell, are all right. So I take my weight on my arms and sort of winch myself up onto the bed and I slide under the quilt. We lie eye-to-eye, just kind of staring at each other. I want to lighten things up and so I bring out one of my pre-prepared lines. “Should I wear a condom, prevent us from getting some awful disease?” I say. And, same exact minute, we both start to laugh. I mean, funny just doesn’t describe it: two bald-headed, wrinkled-up raisins. We just lose it. We laugh until our faces hurt. And we giggle for a long while after that. So that makes all the rest okay. I can touch her now. Her little bird-bones and her skin so fragile that it’ll tear if I’m not careful. And I can kiss her. Our cracked dry lips give it a try, anyway. And I can hold her tiny breasts in the palms of my hands. And that’s all I’m going to say. My mama raised a gentleman. But, okay, here’s a hint: it wasn’t exactly totally successful and I guess that we’ll both die virgins, technically. But, hey, we gave it a shot. And it was worth it, just for that long, sweet laugh. That’s all I’m saying.
Oh, except for one semi-creepy thing. I’m pretty sure that sometime in there, while me and Sylvie were sort of sleepy and nodding off together in her bed, her father was in the room. I mean, I’m not 100% certain, because if he was wouldn’t you think he’d have dragged my naked ass out of bed? Kicked my butt from here to eternity? Nope, nothing like that happened.. But there was a smell of bourbon in the room, for a minute, and Wild Turkey is Sylvie’s dad’s painkiller of choice. And, as I’ve mentioned, there ain’t no locks on these friggin’ doors. But, if he was there, he didn’t do a damn thing and when I left, he was just sitting at the nurses’ station, not even bothering them. Just sitting there. Looking into space.
Couple days after that, Sylvie stops talking and she doesn’t open her eyes or her mouth, except to sip water. Her little brothers come back only once and each one of them leaves one thing on the end of her bed—one red car, one blue car, and one DC comic. Her parents come in together and they never leave. Once, I see my mother go into that room and Sylvie’s mom and my mom hold onto each other like the Titanic is sinking under their feet, like ice-cold water is up to their armpits, rising fast. They rock, swaying together. And they fucking wail. You never heard such a thing in your life. Hope you never do. It damn near kills me and I start asking for a whole lot more morphine, not that I have that much pain—I don’t anymore—but I just want to go to sleep and not hear anything, ever again.
Once, though, when I’m sleeping, all fogged up with drugs, the harpy sneaks into my room, swear to God, and plays that goddamn angel music. I’m so stoned I haven’t got the strength to tell her to shut up. And that music gets into my chest and it makes me cry, right there in the middle of my swirly dope-dreams. I’m crying and crying, in my dreams, and I can’t stop and I’m blubbering like a two-year-old and I hate this fucking shit and I can’t stop.
And that makes me so scared that I stop asking for the drugs. I decide to see it out, eyes open. Yeah, to be honest, I’m scared to sleep.
SSo I’m pretty alert for the last big event on our floor. I’m up and conscious at something like 3 a.m. Down the hall somewhere, the harpy is at it, in some poor sucker’s room for the all-night last-watch thing. I’m just trying to read, even though the letters on the page are all blurry, just trying to close my ears to the music. Glad it’s far away. I’m keeping my light on, pretend-reading. My mom, finally, she takes herself into the lounge to rest; she never could stand a light on when she’s trying to sleep. Anyway, who’d have guessed it could happen, shit, Sylvie’s father goes around and organizes a poker game. I mean, the man’s face is like a skull, no sleep for days, but suddenly, he walks by and sees that I’m awake in my bed—I can’t get out of it anymore—and he says, “Hey, you, Mr. Smart-Ass. You up for some cards?” and I say, “Sure.” I mean, it’ll pass the time, right?
So the man rounds up a couple of other late-night waiting-around-for-someone-to-die folks and they all edge into my room and pull up plastic chairs around my bed: Mrs. Elkins’ son, Sylvie’s father and some old lady I don’t really know, who I heard has been sitting with her twin sister. And, it’s Sylvie’s dad who comes up with the stakes. You ready for this? No, you’re not. You can’t be, it’s such a mad brilliant idea. What we’re playing for, he says, is days. You can win—or lose—however many days of life, for yourself—they all look at me—or your mother or your twin sister or your daughter. Simple five-card stud, nothing wild. Basic, hard-ass poker. And we’re playing for days. I love it.
We have no chips so Sylvie’s dad rustles around in my bedside table, during which I smell booze on his breath and the heat from his body almost knocks me out. Anyway, there’s all kinds of crap in there and he pulls out some stuff. This is what we decide. Little plastic pill cups are worth one day each. Small gauze pads, two days. Big gauze pads, three. That’s it. No one even considers saying anything is worth, like, a week. That’s too much. We just go simple. We take it one day at a time.
Here’s the thing about me and card games. I’ve always been lucky. (Yeah, yeah, I’m aware, lucky at cards, unlucky at love. Seems right-on, for me.) I mean, ever since I was a kid. I was beating my mom at Go Fish when I was four, no kidding. So I am psyched and I’m sure I’m going to win myself a whole bunch of days. And that’s not a joke. Because maybe in that last week that I win, some brilliant scientist geek will come up with the cure, right? Could happen. It’ll be some South American jungle serpent venom drug, I know it. Only something made from snakes is going to work on SUTHY, I’m convinced.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with the whole play-by-play thing. We’re not doing some cheesy Texas Hold ‘Em broadcast here. It’s pretty standard poker and everyone’s winning some, losing some. That old lady, I got to say, she’s tough. Can’t read a wrinkle on that face and she’s dead serious. I can see that she wants to win her sister some time, for real. Mrs. Elkins’ son, he’s all half-assed about it. You can bet he’s ready for his mother to check out and he’s just passing some time here. But the one who’s dead-ass scary is Sylvie’s dad. I mean, he’s not playing cards, he is in a fucking war. His skin is gray, he’s got stubble sticking every which way out of his face, he smells like someone pissed Wild Turkey all over him. Couple of times, I catch him staring at me and I kind of shudder. I mean, the man is on fire.. If you took an infrared picture, swear to God, there’d be little flames leaping off the guy’s ears. So, yeah, if you really want to know, I’m getting into this weirded-out mental state. I think Sylvie’s dad is the devil and I think I’m playing for my soul. No joke. I’m sweating here.
By let’s say 5 a.m., Mrs. Elkins’ son has dropped. He’s flat asleep in his chair, snoring like a chainsaw. And the old lady, she started to curse last hand when she drew nothing, and then she threw her cards onto the bed table and marched out of the room, stamping her feet.
Hey, you could see this coming a mile away, right? Yep, it’s down to Richie vs. The Devil. Try to get the whole picture: There’s a harpy making creepy angel noises way off down the hall. Dawn’s just coming into the sky outside. And there’s a whole heap of days lying on the table between us and we’re both out of anything to add to the pot. It’s one of those moments, you know? And I’m looking at the three jacks I hold in my hand. All mine. Sweet. And he’s looking at…who knows? Well, he’s looking at me, that’s what. He’s waiting for it. He ain’t got shit, I can tell. Here’s the trick. It’s not the eyes, like some people say, that give you away. It’s the lips. Lips tremble, you know? When you really, really, absolutely, positively, no shit have to win, lips’ll betray you. And Sylvie’s dad—Mr. Lucifer, let’s call him—his mouth looks like a pair of bat’s wings, all fluttery.
I look hard at the pot. I figure there’s three weeks of life there. Maybe more. More than enough time for the scientist-dude to come through, right?
I’ve got the winning hand, no question. And I’m just about to lay it down and claim my days, when the man pulls a nasty trick. First, he lays down his hand, face up. He’s got a pair of queens. Both dark-haired, dark-eyed ladies. Then he looks right into my eyes and he says, “She’s fifteen, Richard.”
In other words, I’ve already had two more years. I already lived something like seven hundred and thirty more days than Sylvie. I look at my three-of-a-kind: Jack Spade, Jack Diamond, and Jack Heart. Two of them are those shifty one-eyed guys, little skinny mustaches, slicked-back hair, look like pimps. I think about Sylvie’s tiny breasts, soft as baby birds in my hands. And I fold my cards up and put them down, their faces hidden. Doesn’t matter, he’s not going to look. Can’t stand to look. Doesn’t want to know. “You got me, sir,” I say. “Congratulations.”
Mr. Lucifer sweeps all the days into his arms. He’s laughing like a hyena.
Next morning I hear that, overnight, two people died. Whoever the harpy was playing to and Mrs. Elkins. I figure she hurried herself to get it done while her son was out of her room. No fuss, no bother. But here’s the cool thing. Over that same night, Sylvie rallied. I hear from the morning nurse that Sylvie’s sitting up and drinking coffee. That’s what she asked for. Not water, not ginger ale—coffee. Black and hot. That’s my girl. Maybe she’ll grab her three weeks and walk on out of here. Maybe she’ll get two years. Maybe forever. Shit, any way you look at it, me and Sylvie, we won.on.