THE MAPLE LEAFS
“C‘mon, please! It‘s just eight dollars. That‘s like a 25 percent discount or something.” Axel whined like a child, but that was just part of their game. Dale looked at the bright blue foam maple leaf encircling Axel‘s puffy bald face – it did go nicely with the light blue surgical mask that was intended to filter out the assorted Staples Center germs before they booked passage into his lungs.
Hockey was not one of the larger draws for the sizeable arena, particularly on a weeknight when most Angelinos had already fought traffic twice, so Axel assumed that the inner city youth working the tchotchkes kiosk had nothing better to do than barter with him.
“If I told you how much I‘m spending on your treatment, you wouldn‘t even have the nerve to ask me for food,” Dale assured him.
“If I don‘t die, I‘ll reimburse you. Just keep a running total.”
“You‘d have to give back to back hand jobs for 200 years to make that kind of money.”
“Eight bucks will buy you more laughs than whatever it is you‘re spending to poison me with chemo and turn me radioactive.” Axel paused, not entirely certain that was true. “Besides, Toronto is your team, ya fuckin‘ Canuck. I‘m only trying to be supportive. I don‘t even know if I like hockey.”
“If you really want to be supportive, you‘ll catch your breath so we can go find our seats.” A rational person would have told Axel to shut up long before now, but Dale was too well-bred for his own good. A native of Vancouver, Dale was indeed more of a Canuck fan than the Toronto Maple Leafs, but hockey was hockey, and everything in the tiny northern province of Canada seemed to bleed together in the arbitrary storybook land of Axel.
Axel took several deliberate deep breaths and stood up. Even with VIP parking, he needed to stop and rest twice on the way into the arena. He looked like shit, and he felt like even shoddier shit, but he had talked his way out of the house, and he wasn‘t about to give up on the head gear. Dale could see him preparing to launch a final pitch, so he supplied a preemptive and uncharacteristically firm, “No.”
Axel clutched at the boy‘s sleeve, and his eyelids dropped to half-mast. “Please, kind sir – I‘m dying of cancer – may I keep the hat?” The young proprietor nodded apprehensively, as if denying a deathbed request might trigger cataclysmic karmic repercussions. Axel‘s eyes flooded with crocodile tears as he threw his arms around the horrified youth and muttered “Bless you. God bless you and your immortal soul,” with what sounded like his dying breath. Dale pulled Axel off the kid and led him away before he could inflict further trauma.
When they were out of earshot, Axel slapped his way out of Dale‘s grasp. “I can‘t believe you made me play the cancer card, you prick.”
“I wish you would stop doing that. You‘re not going to die,” Dale sighed.
“Statistically speaking, death has a 100 percent rate of success, at least with regard to carbon-based life forms, but you‘re right – I‘ll probably be the exception.”
Dale didn‘t bother reiterating that Axel wasn‘t going to die now or of stomach cancer. Pursuing it would only result in Axel building a case for his own imminent demise. And Dale supposed that it could happen, though such an outcome would more likely result from the treatment than from the disease itself.
Axel‘s initial diagnosis came about by accident, resulting from the physical exam and blood test required for a part-time job at a Beverly Hills gym and day spa. The pending job offer was quickly withdrawn, presumably based on the grim diagnosis.
The diagnosis was Stage 2 (T1) stomach cancer, which meant that the cancer had only reached the lining of the stomach, but nine nearby lymph nodes also contained cancer cells. So cancer had already packed up its evil offspring and sent them off to college. This was bad news, but certainly not horrible news in the age of radiation and chemotherapy and hope, as portrayed in Lifetime movies by nobodies (who usually survived) and in cinematic releases by Meryl Streep or Debra Winger (who usually didn‘t). The horrible news was not having adequate medical insurance, and if Axel didn‘t make it, there would be no cheery consequences for those who stuck by him. At least Shirley MacLaine had won a Best Actress Oscar for her support.
Worse news came a few weeks later when it was determined that Axel had a “dihydropyrimidine dehydrogenase” deficiency, which in simple terms meant that he was missing the necessary enzyme that would assist his body‘s elimination processes to cleanse the chemotherapy out of his system – the “DPD” enzyme. It was a disorder rare enough that there wasn‘t even a test for it. If chemotherapy was accompanied by alarmingly high fevers, hallucinations, severe nausea, or uncommon combinations of side effects, some kind of DPD deficiency was possibly present; and in Axel‘s case, was all but certain.
When asked about his family medical history, Axel explained to his Oncologist that he had been raised by jackals and the only information he could provide was that there was no information to be had.
Dale and Zoë were the only two friends Axel had told of his illness, at least as far as Dale knew. The news was troublesome and inconvenient, and Axel didn‘t have the social finesse to spread the word without traumatizing the hordes. Dale and Zoë stumbling into the chaos was unavoidable, as Axel‘s free associating mental riffs inevitably spewed forth enough clues to complete the puzzle.
Following his first round of fluorouracil chemotherapy – otherwise known as 5FU – Axel became neutropenic, which meant that his white blood cells (specifically his neutrophil granulocytes) dropped so dangerously low that he was threatened by bacterial infections and neutropenic sepsis: symptoms of which included fevers and tremors. Fortunately, his doctors reacted quickly with hydration and antibiotics. He also had to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, crowds, the outdoors, and anything having had a recent or cozy relationship with dirt. With round one of chemotherapy complete, radiation was suspended for two weeks to allow his body to regroup and his white cells to rally for round two, which ultimately led to his perplexing nocturnal journey into Beverly Hills.
Though feeble and exhausted, Axel had begged to venture out when he discovered that a client had sent Dale the hockey tickets. And Dale had relented when Axel Googled “O, Canada” so that he could sing along at the appropriate moment because resisting at that point would have been futile. Axel hadn‘t done badly with the lyrics, though he substituted “We stand on guard for thee” with “We stand on cars and freeze.” Dale appreciated the effort nonetheless and overlooked the new lyric because it still worked.
Dale couldn‘t enjoy the match because keeping an eye on Axel took both eyes and most of his focus. As with all public events, Axel was captivated by the crowd, the vendors, the jumbotrons, the gum stuck to the bottom of his seat by previous patrons, the bright chaser lights, and anything vaguely shiny. Chemotherapy had dulled his rapidly idling senses, which surprisingly didn‘t help even one little bit with regard to his limited attention span.
The Maple Leafs led the Kings by a significant margin, so Dale thought it best to remove Axel from the crowd at the beginning of the third period, which Axel had already managed to refer to as the final quarter, the ninth inning, and the tenth frame. Dale was unalarmed because even if Axel had been in his right mind, the subtle differences in rules and time periods between any two sporting events would still have been a lost cause.
They were resting on a bench outside the stadium when an over-the-hill hipster on a cell phone whipped out a cigarette and asked, “Do one of you have a light?” Dale cringed and braced himself because whatever was coming couldn‘t possibly be good.
“I have cancer, asshole.” Axel hoisted himself to his feet and headed toward the car without waiting for a response. Dale envied Axel‘s freedom, though he didn‘t always appreciate being in his orbit. Axel‘s brain usually engaged sometime well after his mouth was off and running, and he was lucky that his overall spirited nature and intimidating height generally protected him from trouble. Dale supposed that Axel was now shielded by whatever supernatural forces were in place to protect drunks, imbeciles, and the hopelessly infirm.
“Do you want to drive?” It wasn‘t the wisest offer Dale had ever proffered, but he knew that Axel was having difficulty letting go of the freedoms that come with fitness. He thought getting him behind the wheel again might help.
“You‘re not serious?” The Lexus was relatively new and top-of-the-line, and Dale was not widely known for throwing caution to the wind. “You only had a few beers, right?” In truth, Axel hadn‘t monitored Dale‘s beer intake and had no idea what to expect.
Dale chucked Axel the keys, which bounced off his jacket and dropped to the ground. “You‘re still a better bet in case there are alcohol checkpoints.”
“Holy fuck, Dale, my eyesight‘s mad blurry from the chemo. You really don‘t care what happens to you, do you?”
Axel picked up the keys, unlocked the car, and they got in. He rested as he adjusted the luxurious driver‘s pod and mirrors to fit his gangly frame. Before he started the car, he turned solemnly to Dale. “Do you think that maybe I‘m black?” Dale didn‘t respond. “Not totally black, of course. But maybe a little?”
Dale could tell the question was sincere, so he didn‘t laugh. He gave Axel‘s familiar features a once-over. They were both technically around 36, though Axel‘s true age was thought to be somewhat younger. He‘d looked younger too, until recently, but now he was looking worn and haggard and old. Axel could possibly be Greek or Italian or Latin or Jewish or Middle Eastern, or any number of mystifying combinations, but Dale saw no obvious outward signs of African ancestry. “Maybe. Why do you ask?”
“My Oncologist said that DPD deficiency is more common in blacks than whites.”
“That doesn‘t mean you‘re black, Axel. It doesn‘t really mean anything, necessarily.”
Axel hadn‘t really expected confirmation from Dale and would have laughed if he‘d gotten it. Dale couldn‘t be expected to understand – his family‘s lineage was well documented on both sides. He had a coat of arms hanging in his living room, for God‘s sake. “I know. It‘s like I‘m composed of these useless tidbits, and sort of vaguely identifying one of them doesn‘t change anything. I probably need to stop thinking that it will.”
Axel gingerly put the car in gear and carefully headed out of the parking structure. “I jus‘ hope the bruthus don‘ catch me wheelin‘ ‘roun this middle-age cracka-box. I needs me some rims or somethin‘, I gonna be drivin‘ yo hack.”
The drive to Silverlake was uncharacteristically steady and more meticulous and careful than anything Dale had ever witnessed Axel do up to that point, as if he were rallying his remaining clarity to compensate for the hack job the drugs were doing on him. After successfully negotiating his way onto Dale‘s parking slab, Axel took a brief time-out before trekking up to the house. If he had saved any of his get-up-and-go for the hike up the hill, it certainly wasn‘t evident to Dale, who had to drag him most of the way. Dale didn‘t complain, though he worried that Axel might reach the point where he would no longer be able to make the journey with minor assistance and might have to be carried.
The attention Axel currently demanded allowed Dale to put off dealing with his own issues, and that was exactly the way he wanted it. Axel fading away slowly in his downstairs den kept Dale connected to Tommy in a peculiar way that couldn‘t possibly be healthy, but again, he didn‘t care. If that was the only connection he could make, he would take it. And if he could save Axel, it might in some small way help him get past losing Tommy. Maybe it wouldn‘t; but Axel urgently needed saving, and he and Zoë had emerged as the most likely candidates to do it.
Axel had taken up residence in the downstairs den in order to chase Dale back upstairs to the big, empty California King he had shared with Tommy. Besides, the den had cable and a fast wireless connection, and the furniture was overstuffed and warm and cozy. Dale had spent the months since Tommy‘s death sleeping downstairs, and Axel figured that if there was healing to be done, the downstairs den had been established as the place to do it.
After the incident in Beverly Hills, Axel had consented to being handcuffed to the sofa at night for his own protection. Dale held the key, however, and was a notoriously heavy sleeper. Unable to access the bathroom the first night, Axel dragged the sofa part of the way into the hall so that he could take a dump into a potted palm that died two days later from exposure to whatever mixture of chemicals were sent to assassinate his abnormal cells, so obviously new arrangements were going to be required.
Axel decided that if he were going to die in a fire or earthquake, in what investigators would no doubt determine to be a compromising position, he might as well throw in the towel and let the cancer get him. Not that the notion of a little scandal there at the end had lost its appeal entirely, of course.
So now he was handcuffed to the elegant neck of a wooden art deco greyhound dog. Axel couldn‘t tell if the greyhound was tacky, or just some kind of sophisticated good taste that he failed to understand. Dale had assured him that, even if it were made of the more traditional marble, it would be tacky. The greyhound in question was fashioned of mahogany and in such unforgivably poor taste that it could only have been a housewarming gift from Dale‘s housekeeper who breezed in on Thursdays to sweep up for the weekend. The greyhound had some heft, but was mobile enough to drag around efficiently, and would theoretically permit bathroom access and possible escape from natural disaster; though wearing handcuffs would still require more explaining than he would ever be able to comfortably manage.
Axel resisted giving his petrified pet a name because he did not wish their association to be ongoing and thought it best not to form any sort of attachment beyond what was absolutely necessary.
As he drifted off to sleep, Axel reckoned that if he had possessed any shred of his former self, he would have asked Dale what he was doing with a set of handcuffs. It was always the quiet ones with the uptown manners that harbored the coolest and most unlikely secrets. At least that‘s what Axel hoped, for Dale‘s sake.