Hamilton Stone Review #17
Lori stood anxiously at the patient’s bedside. Dr. Sitz, the ICU director, squeezed the shoulder of the comatose Mr. Jones and scribbled the order to make him comfortable, code for morphine, sedatives and shut off the ventilator. Dr. Sitz stroked his goatee and walked out. Again, Lori was left alone to push dreamy drugs through the IV in lethal doses. Lori dutifully turned off the ventilator. The quiet clapped her ears. She steadied herself on the now lifeless Mr. Jones and cleaned his bruised and ulcerated body.
For weeks she’d been Mr. Jones’ nurse, became friendly enough with his wife and daughter to call them Fanny and Crystal. Lori found them in the ICU waiting room, tearful lumps in each other’s arms. She froze in the doorway, pulled and rubberbanded her wild, dirty- blonde curls wishing time could be wrestled and tied this easily. Only two days to the 1st anniversary of her son David’s death and she was still lost about what to do, or how to feel.
Lori wanted to kneel before Fanny and Crystal, envelop them in her sympathetic arms. But when they looked up, their glare screamed betrayal. How could she? Hurt balled in her throat. She knew there were times when words were inadequate, even toxic. So she ordered two cups of coffee from the cafeteria. Spying them sipping, Lori relaxed. She had finally done something that felt right and undeniably good. Then Freckles, the nurse manager, emerged from the waiting room, holding signed papers for disposition of the body and two empty, lipstick stained Styrofoam cups. Her boyish body confronted Lori. “We can’t offer coffee to family members of patients who die in the ICU.”
“You’re kidding, right?” said Lori, though Freckles wasn’t known for her humor.
“If we did this for everyone the hospital would go broke.”
From the pocket of her scrub shirt, Lori handed over four one-dollar bills. “I’ve been nursing for eighteen years,” she said, “and I know caring means different things to different people, but when did kindness become a mistake?”
* * *
The two vehicles crashed at an intersection on a dark, leafy street, at an angle that blurred fault. David’s twenty-year old, gangly, ultimate Frisbee playing body was found splayed in the back seat of his twelve-year old Honda. The driver of the Cadillac Esplanade was an intoxicated county judge, who, privileged to be the sole survivor and witness, claimed David ran a red light. A week later, the judge left the hospital, returned to his wife and three children, and quietly resumed hearing cases. Lori had had little contact with him outside of her nightmares.
That night, as Lori sleeplessly replayed the Jones’ incriminating opinion of her, the judge called. “Hello?” he said, tentatively explaining who he was.
“You!” Lori’s blood froze.
“I’m sorry. I know this must be shock.”
“A shock? No, a shock would feel good,” she said, and hung up.
She sat up at the side of her bed, head hanging between her knees. The phone rang again. Letting the answering machine to pick up—and record his voice--wasn’t an option.
She answered, but didn’t say a word.
“I can’t sleep,” he said, voice slurred. “It’s been a tough year. Hell, I know it was worse for you.”
Lori gripped the phone with both hands.
“The boy didn’t have to die. Your son was drinking and driving, but he didn’t have to die.”
“His blood alcohol level was .09,” Lori said, her voice creaking into outrage.
“DWI is .08,” said the judge.
“Other states use .10.”
“But he was driving in this state,” he said.
Lori grabbed her head, horrified to be in this debate with the killer of her only child. An ED nurse for many years, she counted many police and medics as friends. Those at the crash scene, intimate with the damage and tire marks, agreed the Esplanade appeared at fault. The official investigation, however, proved inconclusive.
Lori’s best friend Tess nursed on the trauma floor where the judge recovered from three broken ribs. Lori knew the judge’s alcohol level had been four times the legal limit, and he wasn’t even slapped with DWI. Most people couldn’t breathe with so much alcohol bubbling in their blood.
“My son is not a drinker,” Lori said, trembling with the slip of the present tense. “He ran college track. He took care of himself. His girlfriend swore he had two beers at dinner.”
“Lori,” the judge whispered, “our kids do many things we don’t know about.”
She clenched her fist. David’s father, her ex-husband, was an ugly boozer. Alcohol cracked memories into pieces with sharp edges.
“Lori?” the judge said, “are you there?”
* * *
“What were you thinking? He was going to be made comfortable.”
Dr. Sitz, Freckles and other nurses assaulted Lori with these questions the next morning after she saved Mr. Smiley from cardiac arrest.
“It was reflex,” Lori said, defending her actions. “The chest thump never works.”
For weeks, Mr. Smiley had been dying next door to Mr. Jones. He hadn’t left an advanced directive. Two days before, Dr. Sitz had broken the grim reality to Owen.
“If our goal is to get him off the ventilator, off pressors, and off dialysis, we’re in trouble,” said Dr. Sitz. “I hate the term, but treatment is futile.”
“If futile treatment works,” said Owen, “then do it.”
Lori thought Dr. Sitz would strangle Owen, if only Owen didn’t have thick shoulders and tree-trunk thighs. She imagined his baggy corduroys and a loose flannel shirt concealed raw, mulish strength that could lift cars. Other nurses thought Owen a little off. Lori enjoyed his good cheer, but found it unsettling too, considering his father’s rapid decline from healthy sixty-year old widower to mostly-dead ICU patient.
No other crash-cart saviors had charged into Mr. Smiley’s room. She, alone, captured V-fib waves worming across the monitor screen, caught death in the act. Instinctively she struck Mr. Smiley’s sternum with the fleshy part of her fist. This year she lacked energy and stopped going to the gym, but the thud was surprisingly loud, her thirty extra pounds put to good use. The alarms paused. A train of steady beeps celebrated his successful return to a state of perpetual dying.
Her motivations left her uneasy. Did she want to save Mr. Smiley or rough up death a little? Did it matter? Her actions were arguably the only successful intervention in Mr. Smiley’s care.
Lori felt sorry for patients like Mr. Smiley, those described as going downhill fast. Four weeks earlier, when informed he had appendicitis, Mr. Smiley told the surgeon on-call for the ED to get it out and get him home. A post-operative abscess complicated the uneventful surgery. The antibiotics treating the abscess caused C.difficile colitis, an inflammation of the colon. During surgery to remove part of the colon, Mr. Smiley suffered a heart attack and cardiac arrest and never regained consciousness.
“Complication dominoes,” Lori overhead the residents and nurses say. “He’s circling the drain.” They avoided his room, as if misfortune was contagious.
When visiting hours began, Owen stood waiting outside the ICU as he did every morning, with a Great One coffee, a dozen donuts, and two daily papers. He and Lori exchanged polite smiles. Nobody else ever visited Mr. Smiley. Owen stayed all day.
Dr. Sitz explained what had happened and pointed to Lori. You have that nurse to thank,” he said. Lori couldn’t decide whether his tone carried praise or condemnation.
Afterwards, Freckles pulled her aside. “You need to be more careful,” she said.
* * *
“Watch out for Freckles,” Tess warned her that evening as she seared two steaks in Lori’s kitchen.
“What can she do?” Lori said. “I did the right thing for my patient.”
“You’re so responsible,” Tess said. “By now you should know it doesn’t protect you from being fucked with.”
They became best friends in nursing school twenty years earlier. Tess had been Lori’s only choice to be David’s godmother. Over the years, Tess had bought him his first baseball mitt and tennis racket, and once in college, after he began dating his girlfriend steady, a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. She promised to keep fresh roses at David’s roadside cross. Only twelve miles away, Lori couldn’t steel herself to visit the crash site. Three separate times she came close, within a block. But then her imagination stormed. She felt his ribs snap, spleen fracture, skull slice with light. Rage and self-pity replaced blood in her body. Her legs couldn’t support that much weight.
After Tess left, Lori cleaned the kitchen, showered, and tried to read in bed. Then the phone rang. “I hope I didn’t wake you,” said the judge.
“Do I have to call the cops? Stop harassing me.”
“Don’t think that, Lori. I want you to forgive me.”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“I feel awful, Lori. If there’s anything I can do, you must ask. I mean it.”
“Yeah? I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Do that, please.” She heard him ordering cheeseburgers, fries and a large coke.
“But you’re drunk. Don’t lie to me.”
“I respect you too much to lie.”
“You killed my son.” She swallowed hard. “Doesn’t that mean anything? Doesn’t it make you want to change?”
“Sure,” the judge said. “But it’s a far away want. You can’t just put it on your ‘To do’ list and cross it off. Besides, I wasn’t drunk at the time of the accident.”
“What? Your blood alcohol level was over 400. The lab work showed it.”
“Have you ever looked at what’s written in smaller print on the lab results? It says, ‘Not for legal use.’” Lori heard him chewing. “I must go,” he said.
* * *
The next morning, Lori was reminded to be grateful the ICU was three floors up from the ED. A young father, a high school chemistry teacher, stopped by the ED for flu-like symptoms and coded in the waiting room. Lori had transferred to the ICU believing it would help her cope with David’s death. Here, death was rarely sudden, arbitrary, and unexpected. Death was buffered. Making patients comfortable was an end to a deliberate process. It wasn’t less tragic for family and friends, but it was easier for her.
A pulse and blood pressure returned, but the young father was critical, suffering from severe myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle. But there was no room in the ICU. All the beds were occupied. Dr. Sitz decided to make Mr. Smiley comfortable and called Owen at home to inform him. Owen’s voice threw sparks. “I’m coming,” he said.
Owen hurried through the ICU, bearing his usual Great One, donuts, and newspapers. He waved to his father, nodded to Lori, and made camp on a wheeled tray table as if it was another typical morning.
Dr. Sitz strode into the room. His narrow face and sharp nose were focused to a hard point, his prematurely gray hair, usually combed neatly to the side, fell over eyes that were dull and exhausted.
“We can’t treat your father indefinitely.”
“It’s futile,” Dr. Sitz said. “I told you that.”
“What do you mean, futile?”
“What have we been talking about the past few days? Futile. From the Greek word futilis. It means brittle, leaks easily. It means your father will never get better.”
Lori’s jaw dropped. She thought she could hear the tumblers clicking in Owen’s mind as he tried to make sense of futile and futilis. Dr. Sitz waited, arms crossed over his wrinkled scrub top. Lori noticed drops of blood on the goggles hanging from his neck.
Owen opened the box, found a jelly donut. “You’re saying he’s better off dead?” “If he’s suffering terribly with no possible benefit. What kind of life is this?” asked Dr. Sitz, gesturing to Mr. Smiley.
“A quiet life,” said Owen. Lori considered what was worse. To have a loved one ripped away without warning, or forced to witness the slow assault by disease and technology.
“All I know is the surgeon made him like this, and you haven’t fixed him.”
Dr. Sitz dug his fingers and thumb into the circles sagging beneath his eyes.
“That he’s not getting better doesn’t mean we’ve done anything wrong. Sometimes the disease wins,” said Dr. Sitz, and stormed from the room.
Owen’s face was ashen. The box trembled when he offered Lori a donut. After hanging one of Mr. Smiley’s three antibiotics, Lori accepted a jelly on a paper towel.
“This is a good donut,” she said.
Owen smiled shyly. “They go stale really quickly.”
“You must get them first thing in the morning,” said Lori.
“You understand,” Owen said, chewing slowly, eyes bright with admiration.
“How are you holding up?” Lori asked.
“It’s only me and him,” Owen confessed. “My mother died three years ago. A bleeding ulcer, they said. She was a nurse in this hospital a long time ago. Alice Smiley.”
Lori remembered working with Alice Smiley as a young nursing intern. Heavy make-up, long-sleeves under scrubs in the thick of summer, a bright but strained smile. Lori wondered if Owen’s daily vigils were attempts to get closer to her memory.
“It must be scary to be alone?” Lori asked.
She stared at Mr. Smiley—skin the color of chicken fat, gooped-up eyes, bloated body rising and falling to the rhythm of the ventilator. Owen never asked about his father’s condition. He agreed freely to Dr. Sitz’s plans, never questioning until now.
“Do you have kids, Lori?” asked Owen.
Lori’s eyes floated to the bangs of his hair. Cut coarsely, as if done in a mirror. His entire body seemed pasted together: large head, big hands and shoes like rowboats.
“I don’t,” she said.
“Too bad,” he said. “You seem like somebody who’d be a good mother.”
Lori licked the sugar off her fingertips. “Time to get back to work,” she said.
“He used to say I was slow,” said Owen. “He called me a tard.”
Lori stared at Mr. Smiley, helpless in his decay. She dabbed his forehead with a damp cloth, listened uncomfortably. He was her patient, her responsibility. He belonged to her.
“When he lost the store, he blamed me. My mother’s death was my fault, too. Caring for me was too much for her. When she died, he said, ‘Look what you did?’”
Lori wiped Mr. Smiley’s chin. Maybe vengeance, and not love, drove Owen to keep his father alive, and lingering between suffering and death was entirely the point.
Dr. Sitz entered the room again, sat down, smacked his knees.
“Get out,” Owen yelled. “Leave him alone.”
Dr. Sitz pinched his eyes. “He’s had his chance. Let someone else have a turn.”
“Why should I care about anyone else?” said Owen. “Nobody cares about me.”
Dr. Sitz looked at Lori. She tilted her head, prodded him to answer.
“I make the decision when enough is enough. It’s not like it used to be, when patients’ decided, or their families if the patient couldn’t do so.” Dr. Sitz gestured to all the rooms, the machines, the nurses and staff staring at him. “All this isn’t yours to use at will. Nobody lives in the ICU. Patients get better and leave, or they die.”
Owen stammered, stared into the donut box as if help could be found there.
“A young man just died in the ER,” said Dr. Sitz. “If I had gotten him up here he might have lived. A young boy will now grow up without his father.”
Owen’s eyes reddened. Lori wanted to lay her arm over his shoulder, establish space between herself and Dr. Sitz, whose words were accurate but cruel. But she remained still, silent, stone-like. After all, won’t it be her hands pushing the drugs?
“I’m writing the order to make your father comfortable,” said Dr. Sitz.
Owen frantically tossed his empty coffee cup in the donut box, collected his newspapers under his arm and bustled out the room.
Dr. Sitz gestured for Lori to gather the necessary medications.
“Not this time,” said Lori.
“I’m the doctor,” said Dr. Sitz. “I’m the one ultimately responsible, here.”
Lori looked up from charting, smiled tensely. The sparse room was chilling. No silly or flowery cards, no silver “Get Well” balloons, no bright but crude drawings from grandkids. “Mr. Smiley is my patient, too,” she said.
“C’mon, Lori. Caring for someone who won’t get better can’t feel good.”
“If I only cared for patients with a good prognosis, I wouldn’t be caring for many patients. Especially here.” She stopped writing. “Why don’t you ever stay in the room after writing the order to make a patient comfortable?”
Dr. Sitz slouched down in the chair, set his chin on his chest. “This decision is hard. It would be impossible if I had to watch.”
She flinched, startled by his honesty.
“There’s no hope for him,” he said. “I’m not obligated to provide useless care. It’s fraud.”
“His son has hope,” said Lori. “Irrational hope, but isn’t that something?”
“Irrational hope? You’re saying there’s value in unfounded beliefs?”
“Who’s making that judgment?” asked Lori. “You were fine with Owen when he agreed with the treatment plan. Now he disagrees, and that means he’s crazy?”
“OK, not crazy. But his elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.”
“Perhaps,” said Lori. “But does it go high enough?”
Dr. Sitz shifted restlessly. “His elevator doesn’t matter anymore.”
Lori knew better than to tell someone there wasn’t hope without being certain what that person was hoping for. She’d been living off irrational hope the past year. David’s death felt absurd. Her amazing boy had been reduced to a cliché, a statistic, another cross at the side of the road. She hoped the absurd circumstances of his death would thin out, permitting memories of his life to reemerge in vivid detail.
“You can’t make Mr. Smiley comfortable with Owen off somewhere.”
“We need the bed.”
“The whole thing hurts.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Dr. Sitz asked.
“Get Freckles. Find another nurse. Do it yourself. Maybe you won’t do it at all.”
* * *
Lori was driving home, the middle lane on I-95, focusing on what her headlights allowed, when a woman on a cell phone plowed into her lane. Lori leaned on the horn and swerved to the far lane. The woman never waved or acknowledged her mistake. She kept talking and changing lanes as if the other vehicles, and the people inside them, didn’t exist. Lori gunned the gas to catch her. But then what? She imagined David watching, didn’t want to embarrass herself for revenge, an impulse with a short half-life.
She was happy and stunned to return home and find Tess sitting in the kitchen, sipping red wine and making a veal stew, David’s favorite meal.
“What are you doing?”
“We’re celebrating David,” said Tess.
Lori smiled kindly, but didn’t talk about David, voice her emotions, or even submit to the occasion. She immediately described her near-accident.
“The world is made of the inconsiderate selfish and those who must look out for them,” Tess said, pouring Lori a glass of wine.
“I feel so powerless,” Lori said. “What do you do? You must do something?”
Tess clinked their glasses. “You eat. You drink. You laugh.”
Lori tipped her wine glass in a toast of thanks for the meal, but only picked at her plate. Part of her wished to be alone, only Lori couldn’t identify which part that was, and if it could be trusted.
“I think I’ll stay here tonight,” said Tess. “I’ll crash on the couch.” She held up the wine bottle. “If you’re not going to help with this, more for me.”
* * *
Later, the clock on Lori’s nightstand read 11:27pm. Lori called down to Tess.
“I haven’t heard from the judge. Nothing.”
“Maybe he’s in a ditch somewhere,” Tess yelled back upstairs.
“What about drinking and eating and laughing?”
“Symptom management only,” Tess said, then paused. Lori felt the silence take on an electric charge. “You’ve dealt with David’s death so well, too well.”
“Yeah, right,” Lori thought. She refused to let on even to her closest friend how far down she had sunk. Instead of rising, she had pushed through the bottom, emerging into an alternate reality that looked miraculously like the old one. In this new place her chest wasn’t crushed by sadness; it only ached. She could breathe and think. Contradictions were cradled easily. She could pine for a call from the judge and at the same time wish he was bloodied, decapitated, and wrapped around a telephone pole.
A few hours later the doorbell rang. Lori jumped awake. The doorbell in the middle of the night, every mother’s nightmare. But David was already dead. Lori chuckled and almost cried. She heard voices downstairs. She crouched at the top of the stairs, angled a view through slats in the banisters. Filling the doorframe was a tall, handsome man, gray hair trimmed above the ears. He wore a dark suit, a striped tie loose at the neck. He held a dozen roses, each individually wrapped in plastic, the type sold in all night bodegas. When he gave them to Tess there were tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Lori.” Lori instantly recognized his voice.
The judge mistook Tess for Lori, and she was going along with it. Lori had dreams where she confronted him, clawed away his skin and showered him with acid. But actually seeing him, and not thinking about him, had tamed her rage. She wanted him to leave so she could restore the barbaric hatred he deserved.
“I don’t know how it happened,” he said, voice clogged with tears.
Tess buried her face into the roses. Lori imagined the petals smelled of plastic. Tess cradled the bouquet like a newborn infant. Too fragile and melodramatic, she thought. Tess needed to get it right. But Lori wasn’t certain which gestures, which feelings, were the right ones when she hadn’t been close enough to her own grief.
“I’m used to getting my way,” he said, almost apologetically. “If I could give you your son back, I would. You must believe that.”
Tess placed her arm on the judge’s shoulder, kissed him awkwardly on the cheek. He winced. Lori white-knuckled the rail, eyes bulged through the banister slats. “No. Definitely no,” Lori silently screamed. She wanted to strangle them both. She watched herself pushing the judge away, telling him to get home. The door slammed and locked on a man pleading his case. Dry-eyed, she saw herself sobbing from that place she had yet to find.
* * *
Early the next morning, Tess and the roses were gone. Lori found the roses placed among the crocuses around David’s roadside cross. She wasn’t religious, but the cross was squared, like the symbol for the Red Cross, so she didn’t mind it. She’d never made it this far, but the occasion of the 1st anniversary of David’s death brought with it terrible shame and great courage. She drove to the block where she could never cross, parked, and took short quick steps, gathered momentum until she was almost running. She discovered she wasn’t alone. The Esplanade was parked across the street. In it, the judge was fast asleep, drool and dew on the driver’s side window. She knocked on the window. His flat face moved against the glass. An eye opened, a weary, washed-out blue. She waved at him, a haunting wave, a recognition from afar.
She stood at the cross waiting for the tears, the sound of smashing metal, waves of anger and rage. She pulled a few weeds, propped up the roses. She inhaled the morning, waited a little longer, listened to a dog barking in the distance, then drove to work.
* * *
Owen arrived his usual time, offered donuts to everyone sneering at him, including Dr. Sitz, who refused at first, then picked up a powdered crueler.
“We’re setting up,” Dr. Sitz said. “Would you like a few minutes alone?’
Owen ran to his father’s bedside. “You can’t touch him. Please.”
Owen gulped at the sight of the security guard in the doorway, which surprised Lori. The kid had good size, but against Owen, Lori guessed he’d snap like kindling.
“I don’t know how I’ll live after he’s gone,” said Owen.
“What were you doing before he got sick?” asked Lori.
She had accepted his constant presence without thinking how he squared long hours at the hospital with a regular job. Owen looked at everyone waiting for his answer.
Lori stared at Mr. Smiley. Unable to survive without the assistance of drugs and machines, there was one thing Mr. Smiley could do, she realized, simply by not being dead.
“His social security checks,” she said. “That’s why you need to keep him alive.”
Owen’s head hung as if she snapped his neck. His arms fell helplessly to his side.
Lori spun away from him, flush with disgust and disillusionment.
“Do you want to stay?” Dr. Sitz asked Owen, who turned and shuffled out.
Dr. Sitz raised one of the syringes. Lori thought his movements slow, his breathing quick. Freckles appeared, asked what was taking so long. The ritual, at this moment, was swarming with misdirected emotions, at the center a hole where dignity and respect belonged. But treatment wasn’t honoring Mr. Smiley’s dignity either. It was time to end the drama and move on. Lori grabbed the syringe from Dr. Sitz. Her hands cared for Mr. Smiley, and only from her hands could this act be considered part of that care.
She worked quickly, skillfully. Dr. Sitz stayed at the bedside. His color paled as the drugs pushed through the IV tubing into Mr. Smiley’s veins. Dr.. Sitz bit his lip, closed his eyes as the dancing waves on the heart monitor kneeled and laid down flat.
Lori found Owen slumped in the ICU waiting room.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Coffee. I want coffee. Please.”
She called the cafeteria, ordered up four coffees: one for Owen and herself, one for Freckles and Dr. Sitz. Lori sat beside Owen, who found the small size of the Styrofoam coffee cups amusing. He sighed contentedly with each sip. Lori imagined herself inside his inscrutable mind. Keeping Mr. Smiley alive reeked of manipulation, selfishness and necessity. She understood, but couldn’t accept, what Owen had done.
She cleaned Mr. Smiley’s body, made sure the sheets were fresh and a stiff, starched white. She sensed David’s wiry body over her shoulder and wished she would cry. Had he survived, he would have forgiven the judge. Her hatred for the judge was growing sympathy, but she needed the hatred. Without it she faced the full thrust of her grief, the severity of how much she missed her son.
Of What is Sweet and What is Terrible
All the way down to Long Beach, Laura's body was importuning her. She felt a sick readiness below her navel, where somewhere a deep, bloody part of her body was tense and churning. Her husband was driving the new Toyota gingerly, with the tips of his fingers on the wheel.
"We haven't passed the 710?" he asked.
"I think we'd notice it."
"Can you check the map?"
"It isn't on the map. I didn't print the map, only the directions."
"Check the Thomas Guide, then."
"We haven't passed it," she said. "Long Beach is just really far away."
Into the space between them, Laura then added, "This is going to take up our whole evening."
"It was your idea to come down here."
"I know that, I'm just saying that it will take up the whole evening. I had a lot of work to do."
Laura had the outline of a paper written at home, "The Mytilenian Debate and the War on Terror," and a stack of index cards thick with notes in English and Greek.
Her husband was leaning forward over the steering wheel now like an old man, squinting at the signs with a keen, worried look.
"Will it even fit in the car? I don't see how it can fit," Laura said.
"We can take it apart. The guy said it would fit in a standard-sized hatchback."
"I don't see how."
"Then why did we drive down here? Do you want to ask someone with a truck?"
"We don't know anyone with a truck. They won't hold it more than today."
"Then we can fold the back seats down and take it apart, or take it in two trips."
"Two trips to Long Beach?"
"It won't take two trips," he said with confidence.
After another three-quarters of a mile, he added, "If it won't fit in the car, maybe it won't fit in the room either."
"It will fit just fine in the room," Laura said tightly. She had spent the last few days cleaning all the boxes of books and papers out from her study, sagging manila folders full of old Latin exams and one box of yearbooks that had never been opened, elementary school to high school, all the bindings shining new and perfectly intact.
"It took you two weeks to clear out that room," her husband said.
"It didn’t take two weeks."
"And now you're filling it up again."
"One elliptical machine doesn't fill a room."
"I thought you were clearing it out –" he began and then trailed off as he caught sight of the 710 onramp.
"I did clear it out, there is plenty of room for whatever we need there."
She added, "We have room for a crib, and an exercise bike, and whatever else we need."
"And we have the money?"
"For what? For the elliptical machine? The money is fine," she said. Her body was tense and roiling; she felt as if her churning insides were stirring up some sort of sediment that was filling her lungs and making it hard to breathe. Would it feel this way the entire time? she wondered. Or would it feel worse?
"I thought you were using Craigslist to find baby things," her husband said.
"This is a really good deal for an elliptical machine," said Laura.
"What do they cost new?"
"I don't know."
The first week after the home test, but before the doctor's confirmation, Laura had gone into the bookstore at the student center and bought a tiny UCLA t-shirt decorated with a bewildered-looking cartoon bear. She had left it at the bottom of her school bag for the rest of the week, wrapped in bright blue tissue. Later she found out that her former officemate's sister was having a baby and so she sent the shirt to him via interoffice mail, the gift and its price tag still in the blue paper wrapping.
Laura's best friend Angela had had her baby in the winter, over the holidays. Laura had known Angela since undergraduate days at Stanford and they had come down to Los Angeles together, Laura, Angela, and Angela's husband, who taught at Loyola. Laura had caught a quick glimpse of Angela's belly a few months after the birth, when she rose and stretched once after class and her shirt rode up. Angela's body was thin and slack, and her depleted abdomen was spackled over with crazy white lines. It looked like the baby had clawed its way out; it looked desperate and wild.
"I miss Chaplin," Laura said softly to her husband as he pulled the car up in front of the apartment on Wardlow Road.
Last week, on the walk from the car to the shelter, Chaplin had been high-stepping, looking every few seconds over his shoulder. While Laura filled out the intake papers, Chaplin had whined a bit, and tugged impatiently, then lay down and started to chew meditatively on his leash. His resignation was quick and without malice, it left no trace. She thought of the last glimpse she had had of his face, his dark eyes wide and guileless as Laura receded back down the concrete corridor with his empty leash in her hand.
"I said it might be hard to take care of the dog and the baby. I meant we could give him to your parents for a little while," he said in the particular cadence he used to indicate he was saying something he had said many times before.
"I called—" she began and her voice tipped dangerously and she was quiet.
"Someone else probably already took him. He was a really cute dog," her husband said. "But he wasn't that young."
Laura leaned against the iron security gate while her husband called the phone number from the Craigslist ad and waited to be buzzed up. Her back ached. Something inside her was sick-heaving, jagged and relentless. She felt wetness between her thighs.
A short, heavily muscled Mexican man met them at the gate. The skin on his face was thick and wrecked with acne scars; on the back of his neck, Laura could see the tops of a tattoo that might have been an eagle. He spoke with a quick, eager sort of kindness, shaking their hands in turn. He looked a long moment at Laura and she wondered whether he could notice somehow that she was pregnant. She wasn't showing, but she felt like she looked different now, marked and separate.
Upstairs in the apartment, the Mexican man showed them into his living room. In the kitchen, a heavy young woman was unpacking groceries into the cupboards with her back to them; she did not turn when they came in. In the small room there was an easy chair and matching sofa, upholstered in tan suede and covered in a thin, even layer of cat hair, and a pile of car magazines on the glass coffee table. A blown-up cover of Hot Rod magazine printed on cardboard was leaning against the far wall; the driver on the front had some resemblance to the man they were standing beside, only with shorter hair and better skin. The living room and kitchen were curtained off from the back part of the house by a thin, wide piece of tie-dyed fabric. The small living area was dominated by the elliptical machine sitting in the corner, incongruously new, made of the same bulbous grey plastic as car seats and baby strollers.
"So there it is?" Laura's husband asked.
"Yes, it's in really great shape," the Mexican man said, "it's pretty much brand new."
"Where did you buy it?"
"Sears. We've hardly used it."
"And it comes apart?"
"You can unscrew the seat and the—" the Mexican man gestured, "the feet. This part down here, I’m not sure."
Laura scanned the living room as she gathered her breathing: there was a bright blown glass pipe on the bookshelf and a number of religious books and pamphlets in Spanish and English. Lying horizontally across the shelf was a stack of thin children's picture books with new bindings. Seeing Laura's interest, the Mexican man began showing her and her husband around the house, gesturing first to the magazine cover.
"That's my cousin," he said proudly of the cover photo, but the comment was directed mainly to Laura's husband, and it was he who answered it. She tensed across her shoulders to hear his false manly patter, and somewhere around her waist something tensed, too.
"May I use your bathroom?" Laura asked the woman in the kitchen. She was seized now with a sharper pain, a sudden stab with a long tail of nausea and a deeper resonating ache echoing from somewhere at the base of her spine.
"Of course," the woman in the kitchen said without turning around.
"It's behind the curtain," the man added.
The bathroom was a narrow closet around a tight corner. Inside there was only a toilet, a stall shower, and an empty plastic laundry basket. Plastic-coated wire shelves were affixed to every wall and corner with little white suction hooks, slowly sliding down the walls with the weight of so many shampoo bottles. The bathroom sink was made of pitted pink porcelain set unevenly below a wide, unframed mirror, and beside the sink were more tubes, bottles, and cosmetic containers, arranged in dry, neat rows. All of the shampoos and conditioners were cheap supermarket brands in riotously colored bottles, and some were brands Laura had never even heard of before. There were four bottles of Johnson's baby shampoo in four different varieties, all unopened.
Despite the clutter, the entire bathroom was spotlessly clean. Laura lifted the bottles that surrounded the sink – underneath each bottle there wasn't a trace of water, soap, or mold. Laura imagined the woman wiping daily underneath each bottle. There were no hairs on the bathroom floor or around the tub or in the sink. The walls appeared to have been wiped down clear to the baseboards. The linoleum peeled up and cracked where it collided unevenly with the wall – in the gap between the faded lemon tiles and the peeling walls, there was not a speck of dust.
Laura sat on the toilet and leaned down over her knees. She tried to exhale in rhythmic pulses like women she'd seen birthing on TV.
It had taken Laura two months to realize she was pregnant. By the time she knew, the baby was the size of a kidney bean. When she told her husband, he was surprisingly pleased.
"No one lives forever," her husband had said. "Then there's this hole where you used to be."
"Isn't it a little early to start training my replacement?" she asked.
Of course, the idea wasn't new to her. Even before her wedding, the idea of pregnancy had crossed Laura's mind. The urge was always there, like the urge to throw yourself in front of a subway train: the wicked, giddy urge to throw your life away.
Laura had been present at the birth of Angela's baby. She remembered the too-bright room and everyone's eyes glued to her friend's damp, desperate face. Then, there was the baby, and a great cry went up, and there was this shift in attention, the moment when Laura's best friend ceased to be. While everyone else gazed at the baby, wet and screaming, Laura kept concentrating fiercely on Angela's face, as if willing her back into the world she'd so newly left, but her friend's eyes, too, were glued to the face of this new person, to her replacement.
Outside Laura heard the sound of the television, and her husband talking to the man about the wrenches in an easy, boastful way. Something somewhere in the bathroom was whirring, somewhere up in the ceiling, but Laura couldn't find a fan. She felt an easy letting-go of tensions, an exhalation.
Laura had read Thucydides first as an undergraduate, and she changed her major from biology to classics because of it. In Book Four of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides discusses a trick that the Spartans played on their helots in order to stifle rebellion. The Spartans proclaimed that the helots should nominate among themselves those who had done the greatest military service for their state, implying that these heroes would be given their freedom. The best helots came forward, 2,000 men, and the Spartans decked them with garlands and lead them through the temples in a great celebratory procession, and the helots rejoiced at their coming freedom, and then of course the Spartans killed the lot of them, and here Thucydides says, "no one ever knew exactly how each of them was killed." The day Laura had taken the home test, she had sat on the bathroom floor and imagined herself back at her graduation with her mortarboard cap, her victory garland, being led away and no one knew where.
A pile of bloody tissues was piled now around her feet. Too many to flush, and too many to hide in the empty wastebasket. The tissues at the bottom were staining the floor. Laura turned on the sink, and under the cover of running water, she opened the under-sink cabinets without making a sound. There were boxes of tampons, rolls of toilet tissue, and stacks of diapers, Elmo grinning on their Velcro bands. Laura looked for a stray plastic bag, but there was nothing there that wasn't in place. The area beneath the sink was darkly damp and humid—the painted backboard bore thin grooves where the woman must have used steel wool to scrape down the mold from the walls.
Finally Laura wrapped the pile of bloody tissues with a generous roll of clean, white tissue and then stuffed the entire bundle into the front of her pants, where it settled like an old man's belly. She wiped down the floors and all the surfaces of the toilet. She turned off the water in the sink and flushed the toilet one more time. Then ran water in the sink, again.
In his funeral oration, Pericles had said, "For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb," and then, "Make up your minds that happiness depends on being free," and then, "and freedom depends on being courageous."
"The man who can most truly be accounted brave," Laura had translated in her first graduate year, "is he who best knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come."
All the noise outside seemed to have died off. It occurred to Laura that they were listening for her. Everyone turned at the sound of the bathroom door opening. She parted the tie-dyed curtain. The elliptical machine was lying in three awkward pieces on the carpet. Her husband was holding a wad of paper towels around his right thumb. Laura felt instantly ashamed, for the both of them.
"Did you-?" she asked her husband.
"I will, wait." Using only his left hand awkwardly, he dug into his pants pocket and drew out his wallet, then fumbling, tried to take out the nine hundred-dollar-bills as quickly as possible. He passed them to the Mexican man without unfolding them. The Mexican man glanced at the bills and slipped them quickly into his pocket without counting them. When he pulled his hand out again, Laura saw him wipe his palm quickly across his pants leg.
Everyone stood expectantly in the living room.
"Well-" her husband began again, and the Mexican man cut him off, "I'll help you carry them down to the car."
The Mexican man bent down and picked up the flat foot pedals; Laura's husband took the digital display panel. The woman gathered some screws into a plastic sandwich bag and tucked them into her husband's pocket as he stood with his hands full.
"I can't—" Laura said to the woman.
The woman smiled, "That's okay, of course. You shouldn't lift things."
There was no longer any reason why Laura couldn't lift things.
On the way home, Laura drove while her husband dozed in the passenger seat, his head pressed up against the window glass. Two pieces of the elliptical machine were wedged harshly in the back; they ground and wheezed whenever Laura slowed the car. Along the side of the freeway, Laura saw the body of a dog, much bigger than Chaplin, his four legs stretched out comfortably, as if he were only dreaming.
The weekend started with a private talk about my suicide. Nothing dramatic, just a one-sided talk with an ex-colleague about something that had to happen, like mowing the lawn before the For Sale by Owner sign went up. I expected nothing, no pleading to think it over, see a shrink, no sympathy, no shoulder to break down on and suddenly go chicken. But she offered me a job she was in no position to offer, as if I had changed my mind.
It was late and I had to catch the last Amtrak back to Washington. The concourse I wandered to was deserted and I thought I'd made some huge mistake. The architecture called attention to itself. I'd never noticed that it was all naked girders and spidery steel, or that there were actually benches that had been hidden by people scurrying, pacing, or standing. There was one lone woman on one of the benches and I thought she might be Amish since she was dressed in dark clothes with a long skirt.
My colleague had taken me back to a room full of cubicles occupied by people thirty to forty years younger than me. She was introducing them to me when I checked out mentally and sunk deeply into the depression and held hands with suicide. "No, you got it all wrong," I told her and walked out.
The woman was still on the bench at the station and I was looking down on her from a sixty degree angle. Now I could see a baby lying face down next to her right thigh. I was concerned she might have rolled slightly onto the baby, which I now zoomed in on and saw its wrinkled nakedness. Then the woman turned to look down at the baby which still had not moved and made a diagonal line across the baby's back with a wide red marker. Soul and breath were sucked from my body as she made another line that crossed the first, the baby’s flesh rippling ahead of its red swath.
Michaela handed me a wine cooler. The label was maroon with green lettering and its golden edges were slightly frayed. I ran a thumb over it while she struggled with the cap on her own bottle, attempting once with her teeth and twice with her sleeve.
"Won't your mom notice if these are missing?" I sheepishly asked. She shook her head as she raked the bottlecap against her dresser. The metal ridges carved small crooked paths into the wood of the bureau.
"Fuckin' a," she whispered, slamming the bottle down on top of the dresser. I watched the suds bolt toward the cap. "Hang on while I get a bottle opener," she said, sliding off of the bed.
As she walked away, I silently scanned her room: baby blue from canopy to wall to cotton-candy carpet. I lifted both denim-clad legs to keep my dingy white sneakers from touching her comforter and dazedly milked the neck of my bottle in upward strokes. Michaela stormed back in, determination scrawled on her brow.
"Gimme yours first," she ordered, brandishing the small metal opener and reaching for my bottle. I watched in amazement as she attacked it with an unnecessary fury. She finally pried the cap off and it soared into the wall with a sharp clink. I leaned over to lift hers from her dresser as she took a large swig. "Watch out," she belched. "It's a little intense." We exchanged bottles, giggling with mischief.
Michaela cracked her knuckles before fearlessly attacking the until-now elusive cap on hers. "Come on, you little fucker," she snarled through clenched teeth. She finally worked the cap off and a pinkish torrent erupted up and over the bottle, drenching her sweatshirt and corduroy pants in cherry-flavored lava. I choked on my own laughter as she flailed and screeched, shaking droplets all over her spotless floor.
I was tingling all over a half-hour later, giggling at the soft, sweet burn rising up and around my neck and shoulders. We had spent our drunkenness making fun of our former algebra teachers and our joint fear of what 9th grade and high school would bring. Michaela sighed heavily and rested her head on the pillow, body inches away from mine. "Have you ever made out with a boy?" she asked. I looked over and noticed her raspberry lips were parted with expectancy.
I decided to shrug and lie. "Once... It sucked."
She giggled and turned on her side, reaching up to softly tug at a stray hair that had escaped my ponytail. "Maybe you made it suck!" She stuck out her tongue and lovingly stroked my forehead with her thumb. I gazed up at her, examining her dusky, dark pupils. My eyes alit her mouth again and this time I imagined how she might have tasted. My tongue slowly slid out to moisten my own lips and before I could control myself, I was pushing myself into her, breathing in her cherry scent and pressing my liquid, languorous body against her welcoming softness. Her hands stroked my back as I crawled atop her, nipping at her lips with my tongue and teeth. A slow, tortured groan escaped her throat and I answered her with a sharp gasp. I lifted my head up from hers and gazed at her half-closed eyes as she panted. Her hands ventured from around my waist and up my sides, thumbs stroking the worn cotton of my shirt.
We remained in that position for what seemed like hours; our eager, hypersensitive bodies pressed against each other and our mouths inhaling in the other's hot, searing breath. I shifted so that my thigh rested between her legs, savoring the warmth radiating from beneath her zipper. She whimpered and I softly began to push myself against her thigh as I brushed my lips over her flushed forehead and cheeks.
"Hey," she whispered. I pulled back.
"...Can we switch?"
I wordlessly lifted myself from her prone form and settled my head in the crevice of her dented pillow as she repositioned herself, straddling my knee. With a lusty moan, she dove down; her tongue forcefully and sloppily wrapping around mine as she rhythmically rocked against my knee. I closed my eyes, straining to hear her soft grunts of pleasure above my pulse pounding in my ears. I reached down and slid my hands over her firm, fleshy rear, running my fingers in between the fabric creases as I squeezed. No longer joined at the mouth, we conversed in gasps and breathless half-sentences. I let out a soft sigh, feeling a familiar creep and surge between my legs intensify the way it never had before. Before I could explain what I was feeling to her, though, I felt the all-new sensation of internal explosion. I stiffened up, unable to do more than twitch and spasm as Michaela slammed her face into her pillow. Her muffled screams echoed in my ears as I felt my heart swell and throb in time with the contracting muscles in my pelvis. I lay there with my eyes closed, trapped beneath Michaela's panting form, shuddering from a blow so exquisite, it had to have been hand-delivered by God.
An Act of Contrition
There’s a little dirt on my forehead, a smudge.
I feel strange walking around, knowing it’s there, wondering if people can see it, if they’re going to stare, if they’ll think I’m weird. Can’t rub it off, though, or the nuns will say something, punish me, send me to the principal. Then I’d get a note sent home and my parents would be angry. You’re supposed to keep it there until it goes away on its own, but that takes forever.
My hair’s a little shaggy. Maybe if I shake it the bangs will fall down and cover the ashes. Let’s see. No. I can still see something black at the top of my nose. Better stop. That’s giving me a headache.
My mom took me to 6:00 Mass so we could get our ashes. Man, that’s early. Ash Wednesday is a real pain in the ass. Shit, better add that to the list. That too. Two curses. And a possible blasphemy.
It’s weird being in church when there’s no Mass.
My turn soon. There’s four people ahead of me. I scoot down the slick wooden pew toward the end. Sean McGinley, Dave Gibson, George Prince, Chris Bewlay. They’re doing something with Sean’s pocket comb. It’s cool. Flips out like a switchblade knife: comb on one side, brush on the other. They’re laughing at something. My stomach hurts when I don’t know why people are laughing.
Uh-oh. Mrs. Nelson has George by the ear and she’s taking him down the aisle and out to the vestibule. His ass is grass and she’s the lawnmower. I like that one. Better add that to the list. That’s three curses.
I hate Mrs. Nelson, I really do. And not just because of that big ugly mole next to her lip with the long hair sticking out of it. She’s mean and she never laughs. She doesn’t like me. Once, we all had to put our names into a hat to win a special prize-it was actually just a book about the Lives of the Saints, big whoop. My pen ran out of ink, so I put in a blank piece of paper. Smart, right? And she pulled it out of the hat! But she got really mad and yelled at me. She said, You’d cut off your nose to spite your face! I didn’t get what that meant, and I didn’t understand why she was mad. Anyway, I got the prize book, but I never read it. I threw in the garbage a few weeks ago.
Greg, Mrs. Nelson’s son, is in 8th grade. He’s two years older than me, but I called him a dork once and he didn’t do anything. He’s fat and slow and stupid and once these older kids took his basketball, threw it in the toilet, and pissed all over it. Crap, that’s four curses. My dad says crap is alright, so that’s not five. I wonder if that’s why Mrs. Nelson is so angry, because her son’s a dork.
She’s always angry, just like the priests. Except Fr. Dare, sometimes.
We’re supposed to be in a state of purity for Lent, the holiest season of the Church, so that’s why we’re going to confession. 46 days until Easter. 43 days until they kill Jesus, and three more until he’s born again and rises into Heaven.
Ash Wednesday, A month of nameless days, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Something Saturday, Easter Sunday.
Friday isn’t so good, actually. Not during Lent, anyway. Fish sticks, green beans and macaroni and cheese every Friday, for six weeks. And no candy the whole time. Mom made me give up candy for Lent. You have to give up something you like, and I had two cavities last time I went to Dr. Cincinato, so she made me give up candy. In the homily last Sunday, Fr. Browne talked about giving something up for Lent. He said that we should “consult our conscience,” find something that we truly enjoy, and give it up as a personal sacrifice to God, who sacrificed his only son for the salvation of our souls. I don’t get why Mom decided for me. I also don’t get why God, who’s omnipotent, which means all-powerful, didn’t just save our souls all by himself, without having his son tortured. Seems cruel and totally unnecessary. I really don’t get religion at all.
Getting closer now. Danny Shanahan said he was going to confess looking at Playboy. I looked at it too. A lot. But no way I’m going to tell the priest. He knows my voice. He might even be able to see my face through the screen. He might tell my mom and dad. They’re not supposed to, but I’m not taking any chances. Anyway, I couldn’t stand to look at him if he knew what I did.
I’m a bad person. I wonder if I’m going to hell? Hope not. I wonder if I’ll be excommunicated? It would be cool, getting a letter from the pope. Martin Luther did. Back then you could buy forgiveness, but it was expensive. Man, that would be great, long as you were rich. I forget what Fr. Pinterbone called it, but if you paid enough money they’d let you off for all your sins, forever. That’d be so cool. Doesn’t seem fair, though.
Bryan Herrity is sitting next to me, on the left. He’s weird, but his mom packs a great lunch. Two desserts. You can remember how to spell dessert cuz there are two s’s and dessert is something you want two of. He’s looking at me sorta weird.
“Rob?” He’s got a creepy smile and is laughing a little. He shoves his hand in front of my face. “Look.”
There’s a picture of a naked lady on the palm of his hand. Herrity is always doing stuff like this. I think he’s a pervert. He talks about masturbation a lot.
I raise my eyebrows. He starts having sex with the woman with his finger. It’s hard to tell if he’s really into it or just joking around. He looks sorta crazy sometimes, all hyper and goofy.
“Cut it out. You’re gonna get us in trouble.”
He flips me the bird with his right hand, covering it with his left.
“Seriously,” I whisper. He doesn’t stop, so I scoot down and turn my face away.
Mary Sweeney and Kim Beranski are talking. They’re in the row in front of me. Hope they don’t get in trouble. Mary’s hair is so pretty and it smells so good. I lean forward just a little, close my eyes. The other girls have hair like Farrah Fawcett Majors, but hers is just straight and blonde.
What are they-? Oh, good. It’s Fr. Dare in the confessional. I don’t think he knows my voice. Anyway, I’ll stick to the usual. Talking back, hitting someone, lying. I’ll get a couple of Hail Mary’s and maybe a Glory Be, no big whoop. Is it a sin not to confess some of your sins? I hope it’s not a mortal sin. You’re not supposed to take communion if you have a mortal sin on your soul, but if you don’t get in line with everyone else then they’ll know you have a mortal sin. I’d be in big trouble. Still, I’m not talking about Playboy or anything like that. Wonder what happens if you confess to killing someone? Would Fr. Browne call the police? Would they make you say a million rosaries?
“Hey, is it Fr. Dare?” Bryan Herrity has slid up next to me, way too close.
I nod. He’s not so manic and jumpy now. He’s playing with a really small action figure in his lap. I want to tell him to get lost, but his eyes are watery.
“You’re an altar boy, right?”
“Yeah, so what?” I say this kind of mean, which I feel bad about afterward. I don’t know why I’m mean to him. He's harmless.
“Did he ever do anything?”
“Like what,” I ask.
“You know.” He’s pulling the action figure’s arms. I think he wants to see how far they can stretch until they break off.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man.”
“No?” Herrity starts punching the action figure and making weird faces. I slide down the pew, away from him. Mrs. Nelson has her eye on me. I fold my hands and pretend to pray.
My turn, Christ. Oh crap, I said Christ. I’ll throw in a Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain.
Dave Gibson sticks out his tongue as we pass in the aisle. He’ll go up to the altar rail, say his penance, then return to the pew. Once, Billy Sewart only knelt there for a couple of seconds, and he was in big trouble afterwards. He tried to say something about how God could read his mind and that he could do it super-fast, which makes sense, but he was sent to the principal anyway. When he got back to the classroom, he was crying. Someone teased him, then he threw his books on the floor and hid under an empty desk. We’d never seen anyone do something like that. We heard Sr. Marie Immaculata, the principal, spanked him with her wooden paddle. He sees a psychologist.
I’m inside. Close the curtain. It’s so dark in here. It smells musty and I’m scared. The priest opens his little window. There’s a metal screen so I can see his face a little, but only in shadow. Good, not too much light. Once, I could see Fr. Browne’s whole face, like he had a lamp in there or something, and it was so creepy. I heard that in 7th grade, before you make confirmation, you have to do a face-to-face confession. Oh, man. I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.
“In the name of the Father-” Fr. Dare lisps and he wobbles down the aisle in Mass, like he’s drunk or something. I feel really weird around him. But not now. But there are so many things in my head right now. And it’s dark and the confessional scares me, but it’ll be over soon. “-and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
“Amen,” I say.
“You’re here for the Sacrament of Reconciliation?”
“Go ahead then.”
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned.” Do you think Father means the priest, or God? Could I ask Fr. Dare right now, or would that be a sacrilege? Can I ask him on Sunday before 8:00 Mass? I don’t want to be an altar boy anymore, but I don’t think my dad'll let me quit. “It’s been…? It’s been about three months since my last confession?”
“That’s a long time. You must have a number of iniquities on your conscience.”
“Go ahead, son.” He’s fighting back laughter, I think. I know the sound. I have to do it every time I’m in church. Is he supposed to be enjoying himself? “Tell me your sins.”
“Well, I. I.” What should I say? What should I confess to?
“Don’t be afraid, son. Go on.”
Easy for him to say. I can hear him moving in his seat. Now he’s coughing. Do you think they ever get bored? Is that a sin? It’d be neat to hear everyone’s secret sins. I’d like to hear what Mrs. Nelson has to say. I was mean to children 10,000,000 times. I stroked my mole hair in front of the class, really grossing them out. Mmkf. That was close. I almost burst out laughing. It was really trying to get out, like a fly trapped in a frog’s mouth. Man, would I be in trouble.
“Yes, Father. I’m thinking. Sorry, I just want to have a perfect confession.”
“It’s alright, son, but let’s move along please.”
“Yes, Father.” I wonder what his sins are? I heard mom and dad say he drinks. Alcohol, they mean. They drink, so I don’t know what the big deal is. Maybe he drinks like Jon Schneider’s father, who ran off with all the money from the cub scout troop. “I lied to my parents.”
“Just the once?”
“No. Approximately seven times,” I admit.
I hear that sound in his throat again. It’s not funny, though. Now I’m almost laughing again, because I’m thinking about not laughing. Don’t laugh, c’mon. Rob, this is not funny. Think about the Playboys. Think. Whenever I’m about to laugh in Mass, like when I’m holding the book for the priest so he can do the reading, and Danny Shanahan makes a funny face, I just think of my darkest sins, God's wrath, the pits of hell. I know it’s a really serious sin and I wonder if it means I’m going to Hell. I mean, I like looking at Playboy, a lot, and I’m going to keep doing it. I know I am. So it’s a mortal sin and I’m not really absolved. I’m not in a state of grace, not even right after Confession.
“And. And I talked back to my dad. And-”
“-How many times?”
“Oh just once, Father. If you knew my dad, then-”
I think he just coughed to cover up a laugh. I’ve done that. “And I looked at someone’s paper once, on a quiz, but I didn’t see anything, and I never did it again. I know it’s not right. I’ll never do it again. I swear. And, let’s see… And I got into a fight at school and they gave me a detention and my dad got really mad at me and wouldn’t let me go to Todd Caldwell’s-”
“-The editorializing is not necessary.”
He sighs. “You only need to tell me your sins, Rob. No need to explain anyone’s reaction or… You understand?”
“Yes, sir. Father. Sorry.” He knows who I am, crap. “Oh yeah, and I cursed, Father. A whole lot of times. I couldn’t even tell you how many.”
“Okay, son. Anything else?”
“Let’s see…?” At least he’s not laughing anymore. I think he’s getting frustrated. Maybe I’m not doing it right. Was I supposed to say the Act of Contrition? No, I think that comes at the end. Did I leave something out? “No, Father.”
“Are you sure?”
“I-” He knows. Do you think he knows? Oh my God. “-I. Don’t think so, Father.” I want to get out of here, now. Right now. This is terrifying. It’s like he sees right into my soul.
“Very well. Please say an Act of Contrition.”
“Yes, Father. Oh my God, I am hardly sorry-”
“Hardly means ‘not much at all.’ You mean heartily, ‘from the heart.’”
“Sorry. Heartily sorry for having offended Thee-”
I’m always getting these things confused. Funny, because they keep saying that things should come from our own hearts and souls and minds, that our personal relationship to God is the most important thing, but then they always tell us what to do and say and think. And we say the prayers so fast we don’t even know what they mean half the time. Heartily. That’s like the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, healing of the sick. I thought it was Extra Munction and Fr. Pinterbone got angry. How was I supposed to know? I’ve never heard of unction or munction. Once he made Mary Sweeney cry cuz he yelled at her so much, and she didn’t even do anything. The teachers do stuff like that all the time, and priests are even worse. Mrs. Nelson got really mad when we were supposed to color a Bible passage and I chose “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Only I wrote “Many are cold, but few are frozen” and drew all these people shivering. My dad says it all the time, but the teacher didn’t laugh. I was the only one whose picture didn’t get hung up for the Bishop’s visit.
“-and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who are...all good and deserving of all my love.”
Mouth is getting dry. It’s so hot in here. I’m sweating all over.
“I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.”
Fr. Dare clears his throat and speaks with a deep voice. “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Amen,” I say.
“Say five Hail Mary’s and three Our Father’s.”
I wonder how he knows what Penance to give us? Is there a formula, like with math? If I’d told another lie, would I have to say another Our Father, or maybe a Glory Be? “Yes, Father.”
It’s hard to stand up because my knees are stiff. I pull back the curtain and start walking out, but the light hurts my eyes. There’s more air out here, though. Easier to breath, not so hot. Never noticed how dirty it was in the corners, by the wall. I guess the old women who volunteer to clean the church don’t pay much attention to what they’re doing. The floor is yellow, sort of gross. Dad says people won’t do a good job unless you pay them.
“Hey, watch it!” Bryan Herrity almost knocks me over as we pass in the narrow aisle.
“Jerk,” I mutter, without much conviction. Screwy pervert. I’m just as bad as him, though. I want to kiss Mary Sweeney. French kiss, with tongue and everything. I’d like to get to second base, but I’m not sure what it is. I know it’s wrong, but I want to do it anyway.
Is Frenching a mortal sin, or just venial? Fr. Pinterbone comes by once a week for Religious Instruction. Once, when he was talking about a schism or the Diet of Worms or something, somebody asked him if it was a sin. I think it was Mark Williamson. Fr. Pinterbone got really really mad, which surprised us. It was strange. He accidentally knocked the globe off Mrs. Nelson’s desk.
It’s a long walk back and I take my time. I go to the altar railing, kneel, say my penance. I finish in a hurry, but then I wait a few seconds so it doesn’t seem too quick.
Mrs. Nelson is standing at the end of the pew, keeping guard. She’s checking her watch, bored. I can see her jaw get hard and tight when she’s impatient. Looks like a nutcracker. She gives me the eye, so I go faster, sit down. Everyone scoots down one place, almost at the same instant. Everyone is quiet. They don’t put up with much nonsense at St. Bernadette’s.
I try to look up and see my ashes. Still there. I get a headache doing cross-eyes. Oh my God, I am hardly sorry. It is sort of funny, I guess. It’s true, actually. I’m not sorry, not really. I want to kiss her with my whole heart and whole soul. I don’t care if they say it’s wrong. I’m going to French her, or at least try to.
I don’t believe in all this, not really.
I can’t believe I even thought that, but it’s true. I half-expect to get hit by lightning, but nothing happens. Man, the crucifix is really gory. Never noticed that before. Looks like real blood trickling down his head, hands, feet, side. It’s terrifying.
Bryan Herrity comes back, so we all slide down. He’s sitting really still and quiet, but I think he’s crying. I close my eyes and try not to listen. I make myself think about something else.
Mary’s so pretty. It can’t be a sin. Maybe the nuns and priests are wrong. Maybe my parents are wrong. I don’t believe anymore. I’m sorry god, but I don’t. I believe in other things, though. I believe I’d like to French kiss Mary Sweeney. I almost start laughing, but I don’t. I take my thumb and wipe away the ashes and I don’t care who sees me.
Mrs. Nelson is scowling but I can’t tell why. There, my hand’s stained with it. I’m worried there might be some ash left on my forehead, even just a little. I want to get rid of it all, every last black smudge, but I don’t think I can. I wonder if it’ll be there forever.
Think of John riding down the street on his bicycle, pedaling slowly, legs sore and weak.
Imagine his black hair, grizzled with burgeoning streaks of gray around the ears.
He’s huffing and puffing. Can’t you hear him huffing and puffing? He may, he thinks, blow your house in.
It’s reaching dusk. Streetlights on. Children have been called in to dinner.
I never get called in to dinner, John thinks. I never get called anywhere. I never get calls. I’ll blow your house in.
He stops at the big red STOP sign, reaches his left hand in to his pocket—well his Mom, two years ago, before she died, said that that was his left hand—and pulls out a dollar.
It feels so crisp in his hands. So straight. Taut. Smooth.
He wonders where dollars are made.
John always wonders about things.
John wonders why his mother left to go to heaven. He wonders why his father keeps drinking bottles and bottles and bottles, and then, always, yells at him, calls him a ‘retard. A stupid, lazy man.’
John wonders if his father is right.
I wish, I only wish, I could blow my house in, he thinks. Kill him. Kill my father with my breath.
He blows a huge breath into the air, touches the STOP sign with his palm, like he always does, and pedals on—down the steep hill, past the barking dogs, the late-evening lawn mowers, past the verdant woods.
He begins to pedal faster.
He has nowhere to go.
Imagine John having nowhere to go.
He can’t go home. He knows he can’t go home; his father is still up, still about, still smoking and drinking, still cursing and yelling.
Picture John pulling into the corner store, the one that’s two blocks from his house, the one he goes to every evening.
“What can I get you today, John?” the young, blonde clerk, Michelle, says to him.
“Another ticket, Shelly,” John says, smiling, bashful, his cheeks imbued with a faint red hue.
John loves Shelly.
Can you feel the love John has for Shelly?
Shelly, the only one who makes him feel good. The woman who makes him smile, gives him weird tingles in his body. Shelly, his girlfriend.
Do you think Shelly will be his girlfriend?
“Shelly will you be my girlfriend?” he asks, lowering his head, putting his shaking hands into his pockets.
“John… …I would, but… …you know I’m seeing Bobby… …your neighbor.”
She laughs. It’s funny. John’s funny.
John knows that Shelly is with Bobby.
John likes Bobby.
But, he knows, verily, that he could treat Shelly better, make her ‘more happier and most prettier too,’ like he told Bobby last summer.
Shelly gives John a penny from the register, and watches him scratch off another ticket—a loser, always a losing ticket.
But, don’t you know that John won TEN DOLLARS last moth?
TEN WHOLE DOLARS.
He bought Shelly candies. Chocolate candies. And, she loved them, ate them all. She told John she ate them all.
Why wouldn’t she eat them all?
Candies are good. Chocolate candies are good.
John likes chocolate candies, but he knows that he can’t eat them. The doctor says chocolate makes him hyper, makes him different and strange.
“I’m already different and strange,” he remembered telling the doctor.
“You’re quite fine, and normal,” Dr. Norris had replied, and laughed.
Think of John walking out of the store, slowly, sadly. Defeated. Defeated by Shelly’s blue eyes, her blonde hair. He truly loves her, wants to marry her, have children—have little boys, a boy named John, like him.
Can you feel that sadness?
Can you feel his heart, heavy with grief and disappointment, trying to pedal back up that hill?
He stops at the stop sign, after pushing his bicycle halfway up the hill, touches it with his palm again: STOP. And pedals on.
Huffing and puffing, casually riding home, past all the houses and trees.
Huffing and puffing.
John hopes his father is asleep, drunk, on the couch, the empty bottles strewn across the living room, the ashtray full.
I want to blow my house in, he ponders, pulling into his driveway. I want to blow the stupid house in.
Don’t you think he would, if he could?
Don’t you think he’d blow the house in?
Them asleep, Pen would go out to the woodshed for an armful of logs. Then she'd get the idea to detour down to the cellar. Hit the light and stand still a second until the mice stopped skittering. Then—well, well--there would be the bottle of Jameson lying on its side, hidden behind some ten-year-old jars of pickled beets.
She'd head back up and put the logs on the fire. Open the stove door so she could see the flames lick. Turn out the lights. Call the dogs. Sit back.
Twenty minutes, half an hour, and she'd just be laughing. Wondering what the hell the problem was anyway. Always forgetting she was going to wake up at two or three in the morning, slumped over in the cold, the bottle down five inches, the fire out; even the dogs gone off.
It was to head off those trips to the cellar that Pen would, instead, slip out the back door. She'd climb into the pickup, leaving the door ajar so as not to slam it and wake up her mother, Shirley. Shirley with her loaded hunting rifles propped up in her bedroom closet; Shirley always hoping somebody would finally come along who'd heard it was three women alone on an isolated farm.
Pen wouldn't turn the key just yet. She'd just release the hand brake to go gliding down the lane like a ghost in the dark. Only when she'd passed the mail box and rolled onto the blacktop would she slam the door shut, turn the key, hit the headlights.
Probably none of this was needed, really, the way Shirley and Grandma slept. The way everybody slept. There probably wasn't a soul awake in the whole valley so late to see her go by.
She'd drive on through town. She never went there in the daytime. She couldn't take it anymore, the way everybody glanced up, then looked away when she walked in the store.
Everybody was sorry of course. Most people were on her side probably; probably lots of them thought it was a shame. That didn't keep them from giving her the little sideways look, checking to see if she were going to go kill herself or kill somebody else or what.
But it was night now, and everybody was in bed. And soon she was through town and then up and out of the valley and onto the blacktop road blasted into the side of the high rock canyon wall. Not too forgiving of a road. Sheer rock face on one side; drop off into Powder River on the other.
Some nights she'd go both ways. First finding the Jameson, then going out to get in the pickup.
Drunk, she drove up the canyon with the lights off, all the windows open to the white ice night. Feeling the smooth, hard steering wheel felt slipping through her palms.
Like that until a too-close-to-the edge shimmy jarred her awake and she told herself to cut it out. Then she'd take a deep breath, hit the lights, do a U-turn on the narrow road, and drive on home at a reasonable speed. Creep in real quiet, sleep a few hours until Shirley's six a.m. market report came on in the next room.
Coming in, though, from one of those little moon-light drives on a January night the phone was ringing.
She couldn't think what it could be. She'd never known that phone to ring past ten p.m.
Things had happened of course. The time Dad died of a heart attack out in the milking parlor. The time Shirley dropped a plow on her leg and almost bled to death one spring afternoon.
Things happened, sure. It was just that they usually got wrapped up in the daytime; people still got to bed by 9:30 or ten, latest.
The phone though did seem to be ringing. She checked her watch. Two-twelve, what looked like two-twelve. Could have been twelve-two. Anyhow, it was late.
At one point say six months ago, you might have thought, well, maybe it's Bill. Now though, as was well known by everybody in the valley, Bill was lying in bed with his new schoolteacher wife by his side. He'd be curled around her, no doubt, like he always slept, the back of his big foot curved against the bottom of hers. No more than three miles away. One and a half miles if you were to fly straight over the dark winter fields.
No, it wouldn't be Bill.
And now she was wondering. Had that even been the phone?
But the next night—this was a just give-up-and-drink night--damned if the phone didn't ring again. This time there was no question that it was ringing. The dogs jumped up and started to dance. Pen waded through them and make a grab for the receiver.
"I am calling for Kitty," some woman said.
Pen had to reel back into time, already loaded of course.
"I am calling for Kitty," this person said again.
"Well, you missed her," Pen finally figured out to say. "Kitty hasn't been here for almost twenty-five years. We don't know if she's even alive or what so I'm afraid I couldn't help you there."
"No," the person said. "I've got her here. I'm calling for her. She's sick and can barely talk. Not loud enough for the phone anyhow."
"Well, you probably want my mom, Shirley Thomas, but she's. . ."
"No, I'm trying to reach somebody named Pen Clouston. Kitty wants Pen to come. She's real sick here all alone. Is this Pen Clouston I am speaking to?"
"Yeah. That's me. Come where?"
Right then though the little table the phone sat on got knocked over. The phone fell off. Dogs got mixed up in it. Pen finally got hold of the receiver again but by then nobody was there.
Some type of prank maybe. Kind of elaborate.
Now that Pen had moved back home, Shirley gave her the job of feeding the cattle twice a day. For help she had Charlie, one of these old cowboy types who'd worked for them since before Dad died. He wasn't good for too much anymore except to gab but you couldn't cut him loose now.
"Damn shame," was all Charlie ever said about it. The whole Bill thing.
Charlie of course knew them both since they were kids.
"Yeah. Well," Pen said. "Guess you never know."
"No. I guess not," Charlie had agreed.
Winter mornings, Pen and Charlie were out early to feed in the frost-bristled fields. It was nice in the early morning, the mountains high and blue; the close-in foothills skiffed with white; the sagebrush poking through like purple-gray knots on the backside of embroidery.
They had the first batch of big old dim-witted Herefords fed by around ten and would come in for coffee. Usually it was just the two of them sitting at the kitchen table since Grandma drove into town most mornings on some business, to pick up groceries or see about things at the church. Shirley was always out tinkering with her trucks in her big heated shed. She had her KWEI from Weiser with its fiddle music and market reports. Later in the day she'd listen to Paul Harvey and spend a half hour getting all hot about Creeping Socialism.
When Grandma wasn't there, Pen would turn on the oven and she and Charlie would sit with their chairs tipped back, their boots propped up on the oven door to dry, their mugs of coffee warming their hands.
"Somebody called up last night," Pen mentioned. "Real late last night. She said she was calling for my aunt."
"Who's that? Kitty?"
"Yeah. You knew Kitty?"
"Oh sure. I knew Kitty."
"We haven't heard from her for years. Since I was a little kid."
"Yeah. I don't know why. Do you?"
"No, I wouldn't know anything about that."
"They never talk about her."
"Oh?" Charlie said. "I wouldn't know."
They watched steam rise from their boots.
"What does your mom say?" Charlie asked.
"I didn't tell her yet."
Pen got up and refilled the coffee.
"Who was it that called?" Charlie finally said.
"I didn't find out. The connection went bad."
That night, after Grandma and Shirley were in bed, Pen sat down and popped a beer. She waited but naturally the phone didn't ring.
After she'd sat for an hour nursing that one beer, she decided they'd had their chance. She got up and went down to look around the cellar.
Two days later, though, Marla Williams called and said Pen had to come down to the post office and sign for a special delivery letter.
"What's this?" Marla said from inside her post office cage. She was still holding onto the envelope. "New York City? What on earth? Something you sent for?"
Pen got it away from her finally and drove home; she sat in the truck to open the envelope addressed in a flowing handwriting. She knew—suddenly remembering weekly letters that used to arrive a long time ago—that the writing wasn't Kitty's.
Inside there was no letter. Only what appeared to be a plane ticket, round trip Boise-New York. There was nothing else but a slip of paper with an address and a phone number.
"Look what I got," Pen told Charlie the next morning. "Somebody sent me a plane ticket to New York. It must be that woman calling from Kitty."
Charlie held his cigarette in his teeth and took the envelope, held it out at arm's length in his big red hands. He and Shirley both needed glasses; neither one would admit it though.
Charlie took the greenish ticket and studied it, his head tilted away from the smoke.
"Expensive ticket," he said. "Six hundred dollars."
"Oh yeah? It gives the price."
Pen took it and saw where it gave the price.
"Lot of money," Charlie said.
"What do you think?" Pen asked. "Do you think it's safe there? You hear about all these drug dealers and things. From what you see on TV."
"Probably all hype," Charlie said.
"What? About the drug dealers? You never watched that show. What was it called? Cars chasing through the streets; shoot-outs."
" No, I don't look at television."
"Well, that show was about New York City."
"Maybe they overdo it, but I guess it's based on something."
"Not necessarily. Could be all hype."
"You don't know that. Have you ever been there?"
"No, I never was there but I met some boys from New York City one time in the service. They were all hype."
"So you'd want to go, if you had the chance, then? If somebody sent you a ticket?"
"No, I wouldn't go."
"But if you say there's nothing to worry about, wouldn't it be fun to see the sights? Empire State Building? Statue of Liberty?"
"Probably a disappointment."
"Why? The Statue of Liberty?"
"Well. I tell you. One time I went to Reno."
"I'm not talking about Reno."
"It's the same idea. You hear about a place. Like Reno."
Pen got up to clear the coffee things away but she knew she was still going to have to hear about Reno. About the time some guy told Charlie that behind the bottles in a certain bar, instead of a mirror there was a big fish tank and that they had girls swimming in there, holding their breath and swimming underwater.
Pen was pretty sure she'd heard this story before. She couldn't remember how it ended though.
"So," Charlie said, "I finally decided to go see what it was all about. I got up before daylight and drove to Reno; got there by nightfall. I had the name of this place—Patty's, I think was the name of it--that was supposed to have this big fish tank with the girls in it. It wasn't naked or nothing. Just bathing suits. Two piece bathing suits I guess it was supposed to be."
"Well, when I got to Reno I asked a fella at a gas station if he'd heard of a place called Patty's. He said he had and he told me where to find it."
"Well, I found it, and went in. Set for a while. Drank a beer and watched those fools put their money in the slot machines. Some of them running two, three machines at once. Men. Women. Old ladies in hair curlers, all their money in a coffee can. Course that's why they want to get you there. That's why they spread these stories. So I watched that for half an hour. Then I just got in my truck and came back home. Didn't spend more than six bits the whole time I was there."
"No fish tank?"
"Nope. All hype."
"Well. That's Reno. I doubt if the Statue of Liberty is all hype."
"Probably not what you expect. Probably a disappointment once you take all the trouble to go there. Half this stuff, they show it real big in the picture. You get there, it's like four feet tall. Nothing like what they showed."
"I don't think the Statue of Liberty is four feet tall."
"Well. I wouldn't know."
"The thing is, it sounds like Aunt Kitty's real sick."
"Oh, well, if she's sick you've got to go. What'd your mom say?"
"I didn't tell her yet."
"Well," Charlie said. "I wouldn't know anything about Kitty."
When they'd done feeding and finished their mid-day dinner, Pen made some excuse and drove the forty miles to Bonner. She went in to the county library and looked up a book of New York City. She saw a picture of the Statue of Liberty that looked quite a bit taller than four feet.
There were lots of pictures of people walking around seeing the sights, taking pictures, having a good time. Not a word about drug dealers or be careful or anything.
The three of them sat together for breakfast though they each had something different. Shirley had her big plate of ham, potatoes and eggs along with three cups of black coffee. Grandma had toast and homemade blackberry jam and a pot of tea. Pen irritated them both by eating Frosted Flakes.
"Somebody from Aunt Kitty called up," Pen said once they'd all started to eat.
Grandma and Shirley both looked up and out the window toward the misty blue mountains far away. Both seemed to look at the same spot.
"What do you mean somebody," Shirley said finally, going back to sawing on her ham with a steak knife.
"Kitty's too sick to talk on the phone," Pen said. "So some lady called up for her. Kitty wants me to come to where she is in New York and help her and she sent a plane ticket. Six hundred dollar plane ticket."
Grandma sat still, her teacup lifted three inches from the saucer.
"Figures," Shirley said. She took one last bite of ham, put on her hat and went out.
Pen remembered seeing Grandma cry. It had been a long time ago when Pen was little. It seemed like Grandma cried a lot in those days. She sat in her blue chair and cried into a handkerchief. Pen used to marvel at the change in those handkerchiefs, how one would come out of the drawer snowy white and ironed into four crisp squares, bright with pink embroidered roses and trailing leaves. Then, next time you looked, it'd be crumpled into a gray, tear-filled wad that seemed like it could never recover.
But that was a long time ago. Pen didn't remember Grandma crying since then. Now though she did. After breakfast, instead of putting on her girdle and stockings for her trip to town, Grandma went to sit in the old blue arm chair. She sat with her hand pressed to her heart, looking out over the high foothills they called Sheep Mountain. In the barnyard you could see Shirley's legs in jeans and boots sticking out from under her pickup, her roll of sockets laid out on the ground beside her.
"I think I should go, don't you?" Pen said.
Grandma took off her glasses and cried, sopping up the tears with her handkerchief.
"Grandma, what? Are you worried about Kitty?"
Grandma clamped her lips shut as tears rained down.
"What? Are you worried about me?"
Grandma seemed to be thinking and finally nodded that she was.
"Well, I'll be careful. Don't worry."
Grandma sobbed once out loud in a way that was frightening.
"What? I'm not going for more than a week. At most."
Grandma nodded as if trying to see that it wasn't so bad but not really able to.
"Shouldn't I go help Kitty? If she's real sick and alone there?"
But Grandma only cried more and wouldn't talk.
"I guess I ought to go," Pen said to Shirley. "Since Kitty's so sick. And all alone, it sounds like. I don't know who this woman is. A nurse or something maybe."
Pen and Shirley were standing out in the barnyard. Shirley had taken off her hat and the wind whipped up her hair. Years of lifting and pitching had given her the wide shoulders and the biceps of a twenty-five-year-old farm hand. Now, though, the short dark hair was threaded with silver. In the afternoon sunlight, you saw the fine lines criss-crossing her face and you could believe she was pushing sixty.
"Fine trick," Shirley said.
"What's a trick? To be sick? Maybe dying?"
Shirley scraped mud off her boot heel.
"She's probably no more dying than anybody else. She's three years younger than I am. Anyhow. She's been dead a long time already as far as I concerned."
"Why? Because she went off and she wanted it like that is why. She went chasing off and broke Mom's heart. You see her crying? It's bringing it all back."
"Bringing all what back?"
Shirley looked up to the dark hay loft window where some old chunk of equipment dangled from an ancient rope, clanking a little like it always had in the late afternoon when the wind came down from the mountains.
"I don't know why I don't get up there and take that thing down," Shirley said. "It's going to crash down and kill somebody one of these days."
"How did Kitty break Grandma's heart?"
"How? By taking off, like I said."
"You don't have any idea why?"
Shirley smoothed her wind-whipped hair, fingered her hat. These were signs that their talk was almost over.
"You must have some idea."
" I guess that's just how she wanted it."
"Well. I'm only going for a week or so. Because she's sick and I guess she needs help."
"Kind of late for her to remember she has a family."
"Yeah. But if she's real sick."
"Think she'd know if we were dying? If Mom was dying, say?"
"No, I guess not."
"No, I wouldn't guess so either."
"Well, usually they say two wrongs don't make a right."
"I don't want you going. It's not safe in these cities. Maybe you don't hear the news."
"I'll just stay at Kitty's and help take care of her. Besides. It wouldn't hurt me to go somewhere for a little while. I'm not doing so great here. I don't know if you've noticed."
Shirley turned to look into the sun.
"I can see you're dying to go. Looks like Kitty's playing you like a fiddle."
"That's silly. I wouldn't know Kitty from the man in the moon."
"You want to go. I can see that."
"You begrudge me going somewhere for a little while on a free trip? See some sights? Take a tour to the Statue of Liberty maybe? When I'm walking around here like a ghost? Everybody's sorry for me. It's gotten so nobody even wants to look at me when I go to town. Did you know that?"
"That'll pass. You're still young. You've still got time. Get married again. You'll have your kids, have a family."
"Got a man for me? I haven't noticed too many around."
Shirley studied inside her hat. Ran her finger along the sweat-stained leather band.
"I saw Bud Baxter in town."
"Come on, Shirley."
"He's working for the Company Ranch now. He's a hard worker. Always has been."
"How else is he going to finance a green Chevy Impala with a little green knob on the steering wheel?"
"He's a good strong boy. He knows how to work."
"He's slow in the head. That's why he's not married yet."
"Well. The stutter keeps him from getting his thoughts out."
"You know he's slow as well as I do. The only smart thing he's ever done was stutter so people could say, 'Oh, he isn't slow, he just stutters.'"
Shirley put her hat back on.
"So go find somebody else. Meanwhile you've still got the place that'll come to you some day. Still got your work. You still walk out and every morning and see the mountains. Breathe the air. You're still who you are. These other things. . ."
Shirley squinted into the sun.
"I tell you one thing," she said. "Going off to New York to hobnob with Kitty and her crowd sure isn't going to help."
"She must not have a crowd or she wouldn't need me."
"I doubt very much if she's back there all alone. Knowing her."
"Well," Pen said. "I'm going. Tomorrow. I called and set it up."
"Suit yourself," Shirley said.
She reached up, squashed her hat down onto the crown of her head. About finished.
But then she took off her hat again, and held it out to the high misty mountains
"For god's sake, look," she said. "Where do you think you're going to find something like this again? What do you think you'll get in some city? Some little job for wages where they can wad you up and throw you away like a Kleenex? What do you think you're going to find that's better than this? That's yours? Here you are who you are. These cities--you're nothing and nobody. They'll chew you up and spit you out."
"Well. I've been spit out already. Right here at home."
"You're still yourself. You know who people are and they know who you are."
Shirley put her hat back on.
"I'm only going for a week or so," Cam said but Shirley was already walking away.
After supper Grandma sat in her blue chair with one of her embroidered handkerchiefs in her hand; she looked out toward the mountains even though the windows were black.
Shirley was working on her accounts at her desk in jeans and sock feet.
"What are you using for cash?" Shirley said. "Because I sure as heck am not throwing good money into any such scheme."
"I have money. I went in this afternoon and took some out of the bank. I don't need that much. All I have to do is get to Kitty's from the airport."
"You're driving over to Boise? Where are you leaving your truck?"
"I thought I'd park it at that parts place over on Overland. Get that kid J.P. to drive me to the airport."
"Be interesting to see how much of it's left when you get back," Shirley said.
Shirley opened her desk drawer, rummaged around, then pulled out a pistol.
For a second, it looked like maybe Shirley was going to shoot her rather than to let her go off to get stolen away by Kitty. But instead Shirley took hold of the barrel and handed the gun over. Handed over a little cardboard box of bullets too.
"Might as well take it," she said. "You never know."
Then she got up and walked off to bed.
The plane took off at 9 a.m. which meant leaving home at three in the morning to drive the four hours to Boise, leaving time to drop off the truck and get driven to the airport.
It was nice walking out the back door at three instead of coming in. Sober. Stone sober, now, she promised herself. She'd have to have her wits about her now.
The sky that was usually kind of blurry was full of ten thousand cold, white stars. Each of them all alone and not a one of them giving a damn.
Pen loaded the suitcase into the truck, then felt her way into the pitch black barn, all the way to the back. She felt around for the rotting old barrel against the back wall and hid Shirley's gun and bullets inside.
She stood for a minute in the dark, breathing in the freezing air. It was crisp with odor, so that she seemed to breathe in all the years of spilled feed and dried manure, mouse dropping and pigeon wings, bag balm and axle grease.
Finally she went back out and got in the truck. She released the brake and eased silently down the lane.
Let them sleep.
When she was down on the blacktop, she turned the key, hit the lights, and cranked up the radio. Instead of turning left toward town, she turned right, heading up the canyon. Forty miles later, she turned onto the ramp for I-80 East, heading to Boise.
The kid from the parts place drove her up to the airport and dropped her in front with her suitcase. She went in the big bright airport and found the check-in desk. She gave them her ticket and when they saw her name they told her they had a message for her. The message was that they'd gotten a call at home not long after she'd left. The call was to say that her aunt had died. She was being cremated this morning and there would be no service. Her aunt's helper there was packing up her things and shipping them home.
The girl at the desk said she was really sorry.
"Thanks," Pen said.
She took her ticket and walked over to the huge plate glass windows. The morning sun was pouring in and you could look out over the snow covered foothills. Down below were the big, silver airliners, glittering in the morning light.
Four Faust Variations.
Mephistopheles crouches glumly on the desk chair in his obscure study, chin on fist. When two curious demons dare to stick their heads around the doorway he barks at them to go away. They are yet another reminder that he is neglecting the work of gathering many souls because he has become obsessed with just one. All devils are elitists and he feels that this singular soul outweighs tens of thousands. The Wittenberg professor has become his demon. His erudition is exasperating, his wisdom an affront. Mephistopheles’ dignity demands that he gain control of this soul, that if he shirked this challenge expressly meant for him then Hell would never cease to be maimed, under-populated.
His patience is being tried. Faust might never summon him, not because he was incapable of invoking the secret ritual, certainly not because he was immune to temptation, but simply because the man was too busy. He was always reading, conducting experiments, giving lectures, looking into recondite questions and delivering answers to the high and the low. And so Mephisto, having already discarded scores of them, formulates yet another plan. He will wait until a midnight when his prey is alone in his study—just as he himself is now—then disguise himself as a gorgeous female savant, one who knows just enough less than the great Magister to make her adoration irresistibly seductive, then, at the right moment, at the instant when Faust is overwhelmed by shame, he will reveal himself. Then, if things proceeded as they should, negotiations could commence.
So long as things proceeded as they should? This was what rankled, that Faust’s intelligence should make his responses unreckonable when they ought to have been as predictable as a syllogism and as easily corrupted by a treacherous premise.
Though Mephisto assured himself that in the end there must be a contract, he wondered if it would ever be entirely clear just who had sold himself to whom.
Faust’s contact in Salamanca sold him a mushroom brought back on a galleon from the New World. According to the Spaniard it had the power to give those who ate it unique visions. At midnight, his compunction overcome by curiosity, Faust dipped the desiccated, ear-like thing in strong wine and began to chew it. He closed his eyes. It had the taste and consistency of pine resin.
His vision was clouded, as if smoke stood still in the room. When it cleared he found himself standing in the center of a pentagram, declaiming the pompous Latin words. There was a small explosion, a trapdoor swung open, and there stood before him a three-foot gargoyle with stunted wings and a dead man’s rictus. Their conversation was brief, rushed, then his vein was pierced by a pen and he saw his hand sign the vellum with his heart’s blood. The grotesque little creature rolled up the contract, bowed mockingly, and withdrew.
Next came laughter. The University faculty was seated before him in rows rising to the rafters, howling as he made the ghosts of dead rectors dance, pulled doves from the Dean’s beard, juggled spheres of lightning, made himself invisible and dealt the Chancellor a box on the ear. Then he was in a tavern. He made himself twenty again and expertly seduced the bookseller Herse’s new young wife. The sheer pointlessness of his powers drew him on to one absurdity after another.
Finally, he sought out a carpenter, the man who had tossed his precious copy of Hermes Trismegistus into a pile of swine excrement when they were children, and murdered him with an adze.
After weeks of doubting, an activity at which he was a virtuoso, Faust has at last been overcome by the yearning to transgress.
It is midnight and Mephistopheles, gotten up as an urbane lawyer complete in soft hat and spotless linen, lays the contract before him with a polite flourish. Knowing what is at stake, Faust scrutinizes the document while the demon peers eagerly over his shoulder, extolling the benefits of signing, suavely answering Faust’s largely perfunctory questions. Questions are always to be expected, he murmurs cordially.
Everything is going in a brisk, business-like manner until Faust’s finger reaches the final clause: The Party of the First Part may not reveal the existence of this Contract or its provisions to Anyone on pain of the immediate Forfeit of his Soul.
Faust raises his finger and wheels around. He does not object to the forfeit of his soul after the agreed-on period—for that he is, of course, prepared—but he will not accept the secrecy of the deal. “I will never be understood,” he protests. “A reputation for selling my soul will make me glamorous.”
Mephisto smoothly replies, “Oh, glamour is easily arranged. Nothing easier.”
“It’s not just that,” says Faust, frowning. “The contract being known only to the two of us places us in an exclusive relationship, an absolute relationship.”
The devil turns serious. “The clause,” he says, “is not negotiable.”
Faust takes a moment to think then shrewdly asks, “Why? To have it known—indeed, to have it publicized as widely as possible—would be excellent advertising for you, wouldn’t it? I have some small fame and, unless I am mistaken, I will be regarded as a coup.”
Mephisto shakes his head. “We do not require to advertise. As I said, the clause is not negotiable. No one else has ever objected to secrecy. Indeed, most insist upon it.”
Faust considers. He has learned something. His quick mind foresees the consequences of keeping such a secret. He refuses to sign.
On the other side of the door Faust’s famulus has been eavesdropping. The following night, drunk in a student tavern, he gives out the tale that his master, the professor mirabilis, has been negotiating with the Devil. This quickly turns into the rumor that Faust has sold his soul to attain forbidden knowledge. In this way, for the first time in his life, Faust becomes an object of general interest, a cause of fear and fascination. In short, he finds that he is now glamorous throughout Wittenberg and beyond. He is invited to hunt with the nobility, to gorge himself at their banquets; women are drawn to him. His colleagues are in awe, bowing as he passes, whispering behind his back. It is not surprising that he believes he has attained all the benefits of signing while incurring none the costs.
Knowing the way of the world and the nature of academics, down in Hell Mephistopheles smiles and contentedly rubs his hands together.
Mephistopheles wound up his standard lecture on Temptation by asking for questions. As usual a claw shot up right away, as though the demon had been impatiently waiting for the lecture to end. Mephisto knew what the question would be, or at least about whom. Since he had begun these lectures, it was always the same; somebody always wanting to hear about his famous victory. Still, the questions were not invariably the same; sometimes they were technical, about the peculiar stumbling-blocks presented by intellectuals, for instance, or the proper deployment of flattery and lust. Queries of this sort came from the keenest listeners, the studious, intense ones with bright futures, those who were like Faust in his youth. The majority were more ingenuous and less ambitious; they merely wanted to hear the story from the horse’s mouth.
Today’s question was new and quite a good one, about timing. “My Lord, I’ve always wondered about your address to Faust. You could have approached him—or, I expect, you could have arranged for him to summon you—at any point in his illustrious career and yet your encounter came rather late. At least that’s what I’ve heard. If so, what puzzles me is this: the subject’s desire for knowledge was, I presume, more consuming in youth than middle age; moreover, as a young man he would have been under the convenient human delusion that death is only a theoretical possibility while life seems without end, its potentialities boundless. Why then did you wait until Faust had reached the time of life when even intellectual passions cool and even the most delectable temptations can seem empty? The data clearly show our greatest successes are with the young.”
“I see you’ve given the matter some thought, even consulted the official graphs. That is good. I compliment you on your diligence. And your question is a crucial one. That it is founded on a vulgar misapprehension is hardly your fault. Here in Hell, no less than on earth, pretty myths easily shoulder aside unprepossessing history. The popular view, of course, is that Faust signed our contract to satisfy that insatiable human curiosity for which his name has become a byword. But consider the matter more deeply. You’re quite correct to say all human passions cool. By the time he was forty Faust’s lust to be an Alexander of the intellect had lost so much warmth that it was, in effect, gone. So, you see, the myth has it just backwards. My success with Faust was not owing to an access of curiosity but precisely its opposite. Only despair could lead a man of Faust’s caliber to such a desperate act as selling his soul. Always bear in mind that statistics can be correct without being true, especially when one is dealing with the exceptional. I had to wait patiently, wait two decades for the right moment, for the crisis I knew was bound to come. Then—and please take note, because this is important—I had to seize my chance at once, because the opportunity might have slipped away at any moment. I knew it would be futile to approach Magister Faustus before he had concluded that all his knowledge was a vanity of vanities. Until then he would simply not be vulnerable. What I required was, quite simply, that insidious form of exhaustion humans call boredom. Even so, it wasn’t easy. I had to winkle out and carefully caress his waning desire for stimulation. I had to make the right promises, knowing he would be quick to dismiss anything meretricious and shallow. I tell you, even the weakest points of that man were better fortified than the virtues of your run-of-the-mill human. No, my ally was not Faust’s longing to know but his loss of interest in knowing, his fatal ennui.”
The claw shot up again. “My Lord, if it wasn’t knowledge you promised him, then what was it?”
Mephisto gave the demon his proudest and most subtle smile. “What the most distinguished of human beings can never resist. . . a worthy opponent.”