The Cancer Job
"My sister dug the Jack Kavorkian types, spry mummies holding otoscopes to the ears of the world’s Tommys and Tracys with spotted hands."
Whenever the cops bust some sad klepto on TV, the first thing you’ll hear Mommy Nimblefingers gurgle is that she did it “for the rush.” What a joke. I see that and imagine Bin Laden’s big Oprah interview, the one where his eyes go anime and he admits that 9/11 was a cry for attention from a boy who, tall as he was, never grew big enough to be seen by dad. Any bubble-nosed confession like that, a real crook will tell you, is just another con. Me and my sister ran plenty of scams and it wasn’t for fun, or desperation, or because our parents were secret Satanists who sacrificed our baby brother to Larvock, the Worm God. No, every time we did it was because we wanted something we didn’t have. It’s just my luck that the thing she wanted most was the impossible: a doctor to say, “Miss, your daughter is cancer-free.”
To be clear, my sister never had a daughter, so you can see the problem there pretty easy. No little bald one sprouting tubes like a potato, no big moment where they wheel the happy spud to the curb with a kiss. It’s not that Sis wanted attention, exactly. More like she always had a thing for doctors — and not the ones you’d think. Any girl can crush on the young guns sweating through scrubs in the trenches of medical science. My sister dug the Jack Kavorkian types, spry mummies holding otoscopes to the ears of the world’s Tommys and Tracys with spotted hands. Her big romantic fantasy starred Count Dracula, MD, but conning him would be the easy part. What we really needed was the kid.
Sis was driving the camper van when she pitched the cancer job. She told me to imagine the Pepsi girl, but with her storybook locks buzzed clean. “Isn’t that just tragic?” said my sister. “Doesn’t that just break your heart?” When she got to that part, she was tearing up so bad she had to pull over. That’s her great talent: telling stories so lonesome they fool herself.
Don’t get it twisted. I didn’t do the job out of charity or love for my sister or some other Hallmark crap. I work for cash. In this case, though, I owed her and she knew it. For 15 years, it’s been just us, and for the first five I was too young to help. She could’ve held this over my head, reminded me every day what she gave up, but she never did once. So you tell me, what would you do when your sister tells you about the thing she wants most in the world? Tell her to get lost?
“Her big romantic fantasy starred Count Dracula, MD, but conning him would be the easy part.”
I put out feelers into the underworld, by which I mean the dozen or so other lowlifes in our group chat. They had some ideas. For three weeks me and Sis dragged the van across the country and back. We felt like real talent scouts, scouring America’s dive bars and pizza parlors for America’s Next Oncology Star. Some of the actual kids were promising, but I wouldn’t turn a back I planned to keep un-stabbed to a single one. Little Hitlers, the lot. Then there was the disgraced carnival dwarf in Orlando. My sister got all excited when we spotted her wobbling on a bar stool, whispering “she’s already bald!” like what, I can’t see? Now I don’t mind a doper, I’ve known plenty who could pencil time in for both work and naps. But the dwarf’s mind was like two jigsaw puzzles shook up in one box. Half the time she was Sally, like we told her, the other half she was the Incredible Flea-Girl, ready to pirouette out of the wheelchair with a “ta-da.”
Finally, we caught up with the Dutch imposter in Vancouver. He had passed as eight different missing children, girls and boys. Better yet, he was cheap. Dutch was facing charges in Canada and would do it for passage to the States. “It’s my one vice,” he said. “I don’t care who I am, as long as I’m free.” A little guy like that, I learned, crams pretty nice into a Yeti cooler. It wasn’t until we crossed the border that we found out the name wouldn’t work. When Dutch said “Sally” it came out all wrong, like “Hsally” or something. We made it “Emma” instead.
The night before the job, I was so focussed on the paperwork I didn’t realize something was off. When Dutch asked for his own motel room, I figured that was just part of his process, like how Hollywood stars need a private trailer where they can pretend they’re not rich before the cameras start rolling. The day we’re supposed to go to the hospital, though, I knock on Dutch’s door and he’s gone. Bounced in such a hurry he didn’t even close the door. “Son of bitch,” said my sister. “I never trusted him, you know?” Then we remembered the wheelchair. That was gone, too, of course. I guess Dutch thought he could do better going independent with the act.
Even with no kid and no wheelchair, my sister wasn’t ready to give up. She said we had to do it, which is exactly what you say when you shouldn’t. “Do it how?” I asked. “We’ve got nothing except for some phony papers and a set of Spongebob pajamas, sized for ages 8 to 12.” She just gave me that broken-heart look. I couldn’t believe what she was asking. I said no, of course, no way, not happening, forget it. Then she started crying and I started putting on the pajama pants.
“I said no, of course, no way, not happening, forget it. Then she started crying and I started putting on the pajama pants.”
I made a lousy cancer kid and we both knew it. I’m skinny, sure, but even with both of us pulling we couldn’t stretch Spongebob's face past my ribs. “Emma” wouldn’t work anymore, either. All the records had to be updated to “Cody.” At hospital reception, Sis did her best, though, and her best is pretty good. New to the area, she said, trying to get away from someone who it wasn’t safe to be around. According to her, the doctors had cleared me for travel, but I still needed one last test.
With the doctor we won the lottery. He looked like Christopher Lee if he gave out lollipops instead of sucking the blood of Romanian villagers whose big sin was living castle-adjacent. "Cody, yes?" he said. "My mother tells me you've been a very brave little boy." I was worried he'd see through my not-so-great kiddo disguise, but my sister gave him the whole routine, making it all about her struggle without being too blatant. The guy barely looked at me. After 10 minutes of the Sis Show, he ordered a core sample of my hip and disappeared.
The test didn't hurt so bad. What was agony was the wait. I knew how much this meant to my sister, but that didn’t make it any easier to live with her. For a week, I was shushed every time I spoke louder than a whisper or took the TV off mute — anything that might make her miss the call. If they left a message, it was game over. She needed to answer the phone and insist we get the results in person or her big moment would never arrive. We were eating lunch at a Subway when she caught the call. For added realism, she forced herself to wait two rings before picking up. I've seen my sister a lot of different ways, but I want to remember her as she looked when she put down that phone. You haven't seen someone really happy until you've seen a woman whose fake son’s fake cancer might be cured.
On the way to the hospital, I had a special present to show my sister, something I had already paid for and just needed to pick up. "Be patient," I told her as we pulled up to the Goodwill. "You'll see soon enough." I went in alone and came out a moment later pushing it toward the van. A new wheelchair, even more dented and sorry than the one we lost. "Sit down, sit down," she said. Once I was in it, my sister fell to pieces all over again. "It's perfect," she said.
“You haven't seen someone really happy until you've seen a woman whose fake son’s fake cancer might be cured.”
I said before that we've run a lot scams, but I don't think we ever had our game as down as we did that day. Wheeling into the hospital, we were perfectly pathetic, the sorriest family of two in the world. In the waiting room, me and my sister exchanged one last glance before committing fully. Maybe it was just our faith in the con, but even the pajamas seemed to fit better that day. I really believed I was Cody, my short, sad life in the balance.
The doctor, Dracula guy, came out to see us and the moment Sis had been waiting for all this time was finally there. Then disaster. Dr. Kavorkian looked at my sister all priest-faced and said she should sit down. Leukemia, he said, stage four, which I knew well enough was the worst one. My sister, what a pro, she didn't even flinch. "We'll get through this, Cody," she said. "We've already gotten through so much." See, that's what a real crook does. No matter what the world throws at you, you adapt, find the angle you need, and keep going. So Sis didn't get her daughter, or her perfect doctor, or the diagnosis she wanted to hear. We still had each other and, better yet, a new scheme — the one where little Cody and his Mom do whatever it takes to get cancer-free.