At night I sit in the wheelchair next to my bed and stare out the window at the glowing city. I have zero white blood cells, but I’m eating again. I may also have C Diff and so that I don’t infect my roommate, with whom I share a bathroom, there is a small steel dish mounted beneath a hole in my wheelchair. I must call the nurse, and she comes in gowned and masked and gloved and collects the dish, takes a sample, rinses it, and puts the dish back into the wheelchair. I am mustard gas and platinum now, alchemical, inhuman. I curl into the blankets and pull them over my face and try not to move or think, the negative air vents whooshing overhead, cold IV tubes wrapped around me like kelp, and I don’t know what the lesson is.
An old couple sits near the hospital water fountain, close, their knees touching. Window light pools in the dishes below the woman’s eyes. Her hair is the color of ice. The man has no hair. He’s dying. The thinness. Like a child’s drawing of a person. She holds up a tissue, and he blows his nose. A minute later she holds up another tissue and he blows again. And again, and again, and it doesn’t stop, this ragged bleating. I don’t stare. I pretend to look elsewhere. The woman holding each tissue like an orchid, with a particular fold, practiced. On the woman’s lap is the kind of shallow box that holds twenty-four soda cans, and she places the used tissues inside it. Her having brought the box, knowing how it would be. The box will need to be emptied soon. Judging by the sounds that come from him, the tissues must be despoiled, but in the box they all look white. I realize he isn’t blowing his nose. A white plastic spigot juts off his throat just below the Adam’s apple. She holds each tissue over the end of the spigot, collecting. And then folds the tissue and places it in the box with all the others. The box so full now it looks like the preparation for a raffle.
After the stem cell transplant and grad school I am broke, unemployed, and look like the kid from the movie Powder. But I’m alive, back in remission. For a term, I teach a workshop at the university, but the tenured professors come back from sabbatical by spring, and that evaporates. In the meantime, I max out my credit line and liquidate a mutual fund I’d been putting fifty bucks a month into for four years. The fund not mature, taking the loss. For months I send out resumes and don’t hear back. I start at good jobs that pay well and work my way down to a hair above fast food joints.
After several dozen applications with no interview, I remove the MFA from my resume—then, even the BA—and immediately get called back by a grocery store’s deli. It’s pouring rain the day I bus there to speak with the manager, water in rivers down the street, the sky a grey wound. He meets me in the cereal aisle, centering boxes as we talk, and asks what I’m expecting for pay. We’re surrounded by Corn Flakes and Lucky Charms. I ask for more than minimum wage, and he offers fifty cents more. Okay. It’s not enough to live. Nothing is. But I’ll need less from my parents. The stress of asking them for money again and again fills my mouth with ulcers and I can’t take it anymore.
Now to sell chicken wings, stuffed olives, pepperoni, Greek pastries. And meat. Mountains of it. We have sliced meat in the display, but customers want it fresh. Black forest ham, honey ham, prosciutto, Soppressata, Capicola, fat-rimmed pancetta, speck, bleeding roast beef, every kind. Endless meat. It coats me. Is a mist. And they always want it thinner. Thinner, they say. No, thinner than that. I cut a piece and bring it to the counter, hold it up. They look, head tilted to one side, indicate No. No, that won’t do. Charcuterie, guests, entertaining. I understand, right? It must be thinner. See through, paper thin, falling apart. And then it will be too thin, turning to pink slurry against the slicer blade, and they’ll say well, no, not that thin. Faced with the limitations of tissue.
Panic attacks start around this time. Tunnel vision. Standing in the food freezer until they pass. I don’t take a sick day for three years. There aren’t sick days.
Working with high schoolers. Blast from the past. Some middle-class or rich kids, their parents making them work to build character. But also, other kids, the no-choice kids. Helping families with rent. Paying their own. Saving for who knows what. One girl is sixteen. Adopted from Russia, then into the system, group homes, bounced around. Fired from the last six jobs, can’t understand why. Says she’ll stop showing up, smoke weed, steal. Failing all her classes at school. She asks me if she should drop out. No. Try and finish. But it’s so hard, the school, the math, the assignments. Why is it so hard? What is different about her? Questions. Why can’t she succeed? And I stand there, having had every advantage, ham all over me, and I don’t know what to say. I want to say: you need this job. I want to say: don’t drop out of school, get a certificate, find good people, something, anything, because when you age out of the system these institutions will not give a fuck about you, if they even do now, and you will land wherever you fall. Instead I ask her to get the chickens from the oven, the bell is going, to make sure the seasoning doesn’t rub off on the rim of the bag. And soon she quits or gets fired. Don’t see her for months until I’m taking the bus, and she’s there, and waves, and says we should hang out some time, and I lie and say sure, let’s do that.
Jason Jobin’s nonfiction has appeared in Cleaver Magazine and been longlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize. His stories have won a National Magazine Award and been published in The Malahat Review, EVENT Magazine, and the 2018 and 2019 Writers Trust / McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize anthology. Last year he was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize and named a finalist for American Short Fiction’s Halifax Ranch Prize. He lives and writes in Victoria.