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M. van Tool

by Caia Hagel

M. van Tool was so long that the end rails were removed from his bed. He had a lemon-shaped face with far-apart eyes and his teeth were as straight as plates in a cupboard. When he motioned me to sit in the chair next to him, his hand moved as if he was going to challenge me to a game of paper, rock, scissors, but then it landed abruptly next to his torso. He looked at me as though assessing the correctness of his calculations, but I felt comfortable now, all my anxiety abandoned in the elevator; readied as any employee could be with printouts. But he said:

    *I have cancer.
    *I wish I had known earlier.
    *I don’t know anything about sickness or psychology or how to be

    *Can you help me?

My tongue froze at the bottom of my mouth. I had the same foamy feeling I had had as a schoolgirl when my teacher had made me stand in front of the class to retell my daydream, since, she said, I was obviously very good at it. The purse with the data slid down my leg. My heart went in to visor-mode and I might have fallen asleep, which is so embarrassing, but there was nothing I could do, I have one of those bodies that turn off without warning.

This kind of emergency might be called an Alpha state. It’s the type of state where everything normal is so shut down that something sub-normal happens. For example, at some point, I remembered a pamphlet I once read about animals and their health benefits to humans. Then I thought of a line from Gloria Steinem about how she doesn’t mate well in captivity. Then I recalled a game I played as a girl on the night of the full moon, where I’d light a pretend fire and howl softly through the window glass so my parents wouldn’t hear, like I was a wild dog longing to return to the lunar sphere where I could be someone better. Then, without knowing what would happen next, I opened my eyes and reached over and held M. van Tool’s hand. Let’s light a pretend fire, I said to him, surprised to hear my own voice so assured — And look out at the pretend moon, and howl like we are the happiest pretend dogs in the world. I hummed a note as if I was a music instructor giving the cue to a choir. I went on like this, taking deep breaths so my note could stay steady for long enough to inspire him. My voice broke and I was getting dizzy but gradually I heard his voice join in with my voice, and felt his hand squeeze tighter against my hand — and we built a little crescendo that did feel like freedom, and soon we were howling as hard as can be, our passionate voices not strangers at all, until those wild sounds were the only sounds in the world.

Caia Hagel’s work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Elle, Highlife, Hotshoe, Indesign, Madame, Marie-Claire, National Geographic, Oxygen, Rolling Stone, The Believer, The Sydney Morning Herald, Travel & Leisure, Vogue, Wallpaper, and elsewhere. Her film week has won awards at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the New York Folio Media Awards, and the Brooklyn Film Festival, and her piece, "Desire", was selected as a notable essay of 2011 in The Best American Essays. She wrote Acts of Kindness and Excellence in Times Tables for The Cupboard Pamphlet.

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