Chapter Fourteen

Surprisingly, our situation got boring.

We were used to the routine. We became unclear about our former life, what it was like. We didn’t have the luxury of strong emotion, because the unending dread sapped us of the ability to feel.

We were reduced to a dull waiting. We went through the motions, took our chemo drips sitting in armchairs, watched each other lose our hair. Occasionally one of us would leave to go have a bone marrow transplant. If it was here in the city the kid would be back in a two or three weeks. If it was in some remote place like Arkansas or Houston, the kid might be away for a month, two months. Or not come back at all, if things didn’t go well.

We played Checkers, Scrabble, Monopoly, video games. Some of us read. Some kids watched Jeopardy and tried to guess the answers. Some kids played cards. One little girl played solitaire all day every day, without moving from her bed.

Basically, we just waited. Waiting for Godot. I heard that title somewhere, and I’ve heard people use that expression. There was nothing to do but wait. Until you knew the verdict about your survival, you couldn’t really live. You were on hold, you were on standby.

We struck up relationships, we even had cliques. Some kids thought they were better than other kids. Some kids had lunch together and wouldn’t let anybody else eat with them. Some kids were “creeps”, and had to keep to themselves. I used to see the “cool kids” strolling through the ward looking like movie stars, very conscious of their own importance.

By some kind of osmosis we heard about the miracle cures for cancer that were being developed every day. Chinese cucumbers, rare herbs from India, special diets that were all fiber and nothing else. Intentional starvation to starve the cancer cells. Some of the kids would whisper about this. Some of the parents would fly off the handle with the doctors, accusing them of not trying out alternative therapies.

It all mingled together in one long siege of boredom. Even the parents’ explosions were part of the routine. Everything had a place, and nothing was new. Not even the bed that was empty because some kid had died.

Then Bart arrived. He was like a firecracker, he shook everything up. His energy transformed the ward.

He was nine years old, with fiery red hair, freckles, and bright green eyes. I didn’t see his parents, who were outside with the nurses, but Bart strolled in as though he owned the place.

Immediately he noticed Katie, one of the best-looking girls. Katie was very cute, more so because she still had her hair. Bart went right up to her and started talking a blue streak. I saw her eyes widen in surprise, then quickly become compliant as he conquered her. He took her for a walk around the ward, and to my amazement, he was holding her hand and kissing her by the time they got back.

Bart didn’t let the grass grow under his feet. He got all the girls on his side within a day, mostly because of his confidence.

“They can’t hold me in a place like this,” he bragged. “I can get out any time I want to. I’m thinking of going to Wyoming. They have horses and ranches out there. You can pitch a tent under the stars and never have anyone bother you again.”

His father, he said, was a professional baseball player, a big star in the International League. His mother was an opera singer, famous for her recordings all over the world. He had two sisters, but didn’t bother to describe them. They paled in comparison to his bigger-than-life persona.

“I have a little touch of leukemia,” he told people. “I gave it to myself. I wanted something a little different. There’s a medicine in Switzerland that will cure me any time I want. I’m only here because I wanted a change. My parents are boring.”

We all suspected that he was talking through his hat, but his enthusiasm was infectious. If his feet weren’t quite on the ground, that was fun for us.

He organized games that involved all the kids. He put on plays with all the dialogue written by Bart, and directed by Bart.

He taught us how to gamble. We would bet on whatever sports event was going on that day, which nurse would come through the door next, even which color the next car to come around the corner would be.

“Babe Ruth could read the numbers on a license plate so far away that other people couldn’t even see what color it was,” he said. “So can I. Anything that needs seeing, I can see.”

He claimed he was a genius at computers. “I invented my own word processing program,” he said. “It’s all they use in Australia and New Zealand. I get royalties in the hundreds of thousands. It’s patented and everything. I’m going to be the next Bill Gates.”

His sheer bravado made him irresistible to the girls. A day never passed without me seeing Bart in a corner with some girl, whispering to her, making her laugh. He would try to give them all a feel, but sometimes he wasn’t successful.

“You have to try, Max,” he would say to me. “That’s the main thing. How are you gonna know if you don’t try?”

He took a liking to me because I was so quiet.

“Don’t worry about it, Kid, I’ll do all the talking you need.”

He became a sort of chaperone for me, squiring me around the ward and telling kids wild stories about me.

“Max has the highest IQ of anybody here except me,” he said. “He’s in the books, his IQ is a record practically. But he’s too modest to talk about it. Why, he can tell you what Mozart had for breakfast on March 23, 1784.” (He knew about my love for Mozart.)

“The fact is, Max was actually there. He’s had more lives than you and me put together. He goes all the way back to ancient Egypt. He taught Cleopatra how to French kiss. He taught Julius Caesar how to juggle three balls. Half the hieroglyphics you see, Max knows what they mean, because he was there when they wrote them. There’s one in Luxor that he wrote all by himself. If you go over there you’ll actually see his signature in Egyptian.”

This crazy stuff made people laugh, but it did give me a bit of glamor that I didn’t have before. Bart enjoyed throwing a little of his fairy dust on me.

Everything was better now. We didn’t realize how desperate we were before Bart came. We forgot about that and started enjoying ourselves.