Kent: Is this the promised end? Edgar: Or image of that horror? Albany: Fall and Cease.--King Lear
Before she was diagnosed--before the disease--my sister came to visit, to "check on her little brother," she said. It was her joke, had always been her joke, seemingly since she came out of the womb thirteen months before me. I had just moved to town from Iowa City after two aborted attempts at law school. In an effort to erase the last of my college debt I applied for and, still to my mild surprise, accepted a teaching assignment at an underdeveloped junior high in Kansas City, Kansas. A rough neighborhood, I knew, but it was only for two years and I'd be close to my sister. We would both teach.
She came to stay for four days during the last week before the start of classes, helping me unpack boxes and furnish the apartment. It was the heat of summer, and I'd awkwardly hefted up my window unit to find it was too big for the small windows of my new apartment. Carol laughed it off, in typical fashion, and we spent ensuing afternoons in chilly movie theaters, watching comedic matinees, wrists drooped over the rim of gigantic tubs of popcorn.
Carol lived with her husband Dan in Lawrence, where he worked in H.R. at a growing insurance company. They had a six-year-old son, Sam. Carol had made a career as a permanent adjunct of introductory English classes, bouncing around from college to college for shitty pay. But she said loved it. Her students referred to her as "Dr. Pickard" despite never having earned a doctorate, she told me, laughing. The best part was that she was able to design her own classes, so she always taught Shakespeare, her first love, showing the kids how to wrestle with the language for meaning, and hopefully, to glean beauty. She only taught the tragedies, because the kids needed to read those, she said.
On our final night together, I was unpacking a box, the last I would for a number of months, and found something I'd forgotten about: a slide projector. It had been our parents', loaded with pictures from when they were first married, before Carol and I had been born. Our parents had us late, not until Morn was 41. My father had an almost perverse affinity for documentation, part of the reason he'd been such a good lawyer. More often than not, mental images I conjure of him include some kind of camera at his side or to his eye, eclipsing half his face. I looked down at the projector, so old and oversized, and then showed Carol. Her eyes got big, the way they always did when she was excited, and she turned around and sped to the kitchen where she filled two glasses with white wine from the box in my fridge. I set the projector on a card table and propped it up with a dictionary. When it clicked on, a beam of light shot through the motes of dust drifting singly like flakes of snow; the stuff you never realize, I thought. We spent the rest of the night getting toasty on cheap wine and watching pictures of our parents slide over my blank white wall, pictures from when they had fallen in love. In the dark silence of my new apartment I saw my parents come back to life, image by image for only a second, to a time before I had been alive--not the unhappiness, obesity and disease of middle age and retirement, but a time when they were younger, before life had imploded.
"How old are they here?" I asked.
"Early-mid thirties, I think," Carol answered. She was sitting on the floor. Her back was to me, the beam hovering a few feet above her head.
We, too, were nearly halfway through that decade. It's a strange thing seeing your parents at the same age as you, all of their authority and distance shrink away and they might just be folks as lost as you.
"I can't believe they were together for so long," I said. "Before they had us, I mean. What the hell did they do all the time?"
"I don't know," she said, taking a sip from the clear plastic cups we were both using. Then she said, "Look," and laughed, pointing at the next picture. It was our father. On his way to some costume party. He was in rare form: dressed in a cowboy hat with a fake handlebar mustache, smiling that goofy smile he seldom let himself indulge in, a look that seemed to suggest, I know I'm above this, but it's okay to let your hair down once in a while ... once in a while. He was still alive, but today there were only words, not images, by which to construct him: wheelchair, Florida, Alzheimer's, nursing home. They floated around my head like a mobile of planets. Our mother had died in her sleep three years before. Afterwards, our father moved to Florida where his brain began the slow process of forgetting itself.
I received the call from Carol nearly a month later as I was struggling with my new teaching position. I hadn't taught since I was in graduate school (the first time), and the crash course certification program I'd completed the previous summer was mostly an overview of what not to do. These kids were eating me alive. I told her so and she laughed, the veteran. Her classes at the community college were going smoothly. "But they are, you know, college students," she said. She offered advice, jokes mostly, ice breakers, that sort of thing. My mind wandered off as Carol continued. I imagined myself as one of my students, sitting in a classroom with all the other black children, staring up at a goofy white man in a gold sequin jacket delivering pithy one-liners into the void of confused and sleepy eyeballs. Try the roast beef. I'll be here all week. When I came back to, she was telling me about going to the doctor recently to have her breast examined. She had found a lump, she said.
"A lump?" I said.
She told me not to interrupt, she was telling a story. "So they bring me in the room, the examination room, you know. And the doctor--this squirrelly looking fellow--tells me to take my shirt off and lie down on my stomach. And I'm thinking, I'd bet you'd like that now wouldn't you. But I do it. Now the table, you should have seen it, the table has a cutout hole right where my boob is. And I sort of look back at the nurse, and she gives a look like, yes, drop it right in there. So I do. Bombs away. It was like one of those cutouts at an amusement park--where you stick your face through a hole to have your picture taken, so it looks like you're a cowboy or a huge body builder. Something like that." I found myself nodding, thinking, Lump. "But it gets better. Then he hits a button and the table starts to elevate, like I'm a car at the repair shop, and I tell him to give the tires a good rotation, but he doesn't say much. Just whispers something to the nurse. And then finally he goes underneath to do the examination," she said, pausing briefly. "A peepshow," she giggled. "The little perv."
I knew then what was happening and what would happen. I thought of how after Morn died and people told me she was in a better place. (What better place? Better than here?) And when my uncle Terry had survived his first tumor biopsy--before they'd begun to fresco his whole upper torso--everyone said what a fighter he was. The language of coping.
I had called him, my uncle, the day after that first operation, at my mother's urging. I was young and she had to dial the number for me. When he answered, woozy from pain pills, I asked how he was feeling. He had delayed a moment, perhaps gathering himself or trying to summon the words, before answering: "I feel pretty good for having my throat cut yesterday."
It all happens so quickly, like it's been there all along, waiting for someone to notice. After the mammogram, the biopsy, the chemo, and the modified radical mastectomy, there is a recurrence. Her oncologist calls it a "local recurrence," which means, he tells us, looking each one of us in the eye, that the cancerous tumor cells remained in the original site. I picture one of those time-elapsed clips of a flower blooming. Usually, when this happens, the tumor grows back over a long period of time; this is abnormally quick. He recommends a hospital in Omaha that specializes in cancer treatment, where things are "top notch." Within the month Carol is relocated to Omaha. Because she's from out of town, she stays at the hospital full time (unlike most of her fellow patients who arrive for treatment and leave again), while Dan takes care of Sammy in Lawrence and looks for a place to rent in Omaha. The first time I make the three-and-a-half-hour drive north from Kansas City I get lost, spacing off at the snow-covered barns I pass in the early winter afternoon. I miss a sign and end up on another highway, nearly halfway to Iowa City, before realizing the error and turning around.
In the hospital I stop four separate doctors for directions, check in at three different desks, and present my driver's license a handful of times before being given her room number and a clip-on badge that makes it undoubtedly clear I am in fact a FAMILY VISITOR. Walking the halls toward Carol's room, I feel uncomfortable in the same way airports make me uneasy: the hustle and bustle; the worried and reunited families with their Styrofoam cups of coffee, milling about like cattle; the slow walks that explode into sprint at the hint of urgency. And the smell, that sanitized smell my brain can only further characterize as sickly, as nauseating as the smell of jet fuel that forces me to breathe out of my nose whenever I queue up in that discouragingly long line, waiting to find my seat assignment.
I find her room, 44, and enter. She is in bed with one leg on top of her blanket. There is a box of Kleenex by her left leg and a small mound of clumped tissues beside her right thigh. A small army of machines surrounds her, the clear tubing winding all over her body. She's in the middle of treatment. They have decided to try chemo and radiation concurrently, hoping for what her doctor calls "synergism." She is alone, reading. She stares intently at the page and doesn't seem to notice me. For a moment I think about turning around and leaving, driving back to Kansas City. I want no part of watching this. My palm slides behind my back, latching onto the door handle, ready to slowly turn and walk out. But then I'm spotted when Carol laughs at a passage in her book and looks up, eyeing me in a quizzical manner.
"What are you doing, Kojak?"
I take a few steps toward her. "Didn't want to disturb you."
She nods, slowly and suspiciously. "Uh-huh."
"Well, you've got a low room number. That's a good sign," I say, taking off my jacket and slinging it onto a chair that has a stack of magazines on it.
"Yes, welcome to my new abode," she says, lifting one of her arms up over her head. The tubes hanging off her arm slap against each other, and she winces a little.
"How do you like it?"
"It's shit," she answers, which makes me look around the room. "And yet," she says, looking back and forth at the two furthest corners, "I believe it's still bigger than your apartment.
"I laugh, exhaling harder than I mean to.
"What did you mean it's good that I have a low room number?" she asks. "This isn't a waiting-to-be-served line at the deli.
"I realize I have no idea why I said it.
"It's good because I can find the room easier. It was hard enough getting 'clearance.' It's like you're top secret," I say. "I'm lucky I didn't have to take a blood test to get in here."
She purses her lips and makes the face she always does when I try to be funny. It is the face of a parent touched by their child's effort.
"What are you reading?"
"Dante," she says, flipping over the book and showing me the cover.
"I'm going to read Dante before I die," she says, the expression suddenly pregnant with meaning. "I'm in purgatory now," she says, pointing to the cover. "Already finished the Inferno. I want to complete the Comedy before ..."
Her oncologist walks in with his head in a chart.
"Doctor Kim, this is my brother Robert," Carol says, affecting a dramatic English accent, "bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester." She does this sometimes, slips into Shakespeare.
I look at the doctor who looks back at me, confused or interested I can't tell, as if to say, She's been doing this since she came here. What does it mean?
"Pleased to meet you," I say, shaking his hand.
Doctor Kim sidles around, in constant conversation with himself, flipping charts and clicking pens. After he leaves I ask her what she thinks of him. She blows her nose. "Well, he's Chinese," she says, which is her catchall term for anyone from an Asian country. It's an atavism from our grandfather, who lived well into his nineties, and never understood the whole P.C. thing. When I remind her of this, she just snorts and looks away--a look I've seen our father do a thousand times.
She blows her nose again and tosses the tissue into the pile. It's silent, and I feel the need to say something. She sniffs and her nose makes a little whistle sound. She ignores it, and starts thumbing the corners of her book. But when it happens again, the little whistle, she starts to laugh which in turn makes her do it more. Then she stops. "Listen. 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,'" she says, and puts her hands up to her nose, pressing her nostrils open and closed.
Stacks of unpacked boxes still line the corners of my apartment, shrinking my already small living space. It feels like some Lego construction gone terribly wrong, like I'm trying to confine myself to the smallest possible space. For some reason I can't bring myself to fully settle. After school I come home to make dinner and then have to get out. I spend most nights going to bars or bookstores, drinking things that either speed me up or slow me down. Some nights, though, I just walk. Usually, I drive into Kansas City, Missouri, near the Plaza, where it's safer and there's more going on, but tonight I decide to walk around my neighborhood.
I pull on my wool hat and zip up my parka-like jacket that saw me safely through several Iowa winters unscathed. The waning evening light gives way to the click of streetlights that illuminate perfect circles of pavement. Cars are parked illegally, unconcerned, and people crowd around the doorways and stoops of ramshackle buildings. I walk by one house where there's a party going on. Loud thumping music crackles out the windows. From the street the bass feels like the subtle tremors of a baby earthquake. People crowd around the porch smoking and drinking from red plastic cups. I stuff my hands into my pockets, trying to get them warm, and can feel the rings of my nostrils beginning to crystallize. The voices pick up as I walk past. Exaggerated laughs and nonspecific insults fly around the air.
I try to walk fast yet inconspicuous and my brain flashes back to a night in Iowa City, when I'd been standing on my porch smoking, before I quit. It was my last one before bed and I looked up at the great sparkling expanse, trying to connect the dots, when a woman walked by. She was thin and had on a skirt and knee high boots. I watched her disappear when she turned at the cross street after my building and then listened to the horse-hoof clap her boots made against the cement. There was a long quiet stretch that was interrupted by a faint cry for help. I dropped my cigarette, ran up the street barefoot, and looked down a few blocks to see three men standing around the woman. One guy reached for her purse and I found myself yelling: Hey! They all turned to look at me and for a brief instant I wondered what the hell I was doing, wanting to turn and run back to my apartment. No one had really seen me yet; she would never be able to identify me as the coward that chickened out. Then ennobling movie-like flashes came: me vanquishing the three hoodlums; a beautiful woman saying, I'll never be able to thank you; and the mayor giving me an oversized golden key to the city. Before I'd fully made up my mind, I was running towards the men, coughing and spastic, speaking in tongues. I arrived throwing punches and they proceeded to pummel me. I don't remember much except the pain in my ribs and the way I could actually feel my face incrementally fatten. The mosaic of bruises would last for weeks. With my face flush against the street, I watched their legs pump like oil wells, driving them out of sight, and then behind me, the deep exhalations of the woman.
Someone says something to me now and I just keep walking, head down.
"Hey, where you think you're going?"
I keep on, hoping he'll leave me alone if I just walk fast enough. He speeds up and I can feel him just a few paces back.
"Hey, white shadow, you in the wrong part of town?"
"I'm leaving, thanks," I say, sounding my whitest, my fists clinching inside my pockets.
"You separated from the herd, little white sheep?"
I hear the people on the porch yelling things I can't make out.
"Yeah, I guess I am."
Then I feel his hand on my shoulder, pulling on me to turn around.
"Hey!" He pulls harder, and I stop.
"Don't you know where you are, white shadow?"
I look at the ground. He has on big black boots with cleat-like tread.
"Kansas City, Kansas," I say, softly and reticent.
I hear laughter and look up to find him doubled over. His dark puffy jacket makes him look like a tick. He's gasping for air.
"Yeah," he laughs, "yeah, you is." Then he turns around and starts yelling to the others on the porch and it's hysterical pandemonium. I put my hands back into my pocket, the comedian, and walk on, trying to get home as quickly as possible.
I arrive in Omaha in the midst of a huge winter storm. Snow floats about and drops like fallout, trying to bury the city in permanent hibernation. It's before the roads have turned muddy brown with slush, and everything seems new, uncharted, and deathly quiet. A few cars venture out, seemingly to just be out in this. I want to pull over, get out of the car, and look at the sky so I can feel small against it all. But instead I drive. I continue plowing up side streets--one of the tricks I've learned by now--to the back entrance of the hospital. I turn the key, the engine goes quiet, and for a moment it's just my breath. As I get out, my foot sinks several inches before touching the ground, and snow slips into my shoe.
Inside, I now walk with the purpose of those who belong. I nod to the familiar faces whose shifts coincide with my weekly visits. Dan is sitting in a chair by Carol's bed holding Sammy in his lap when I arrive. It's one of the few times I've seen Dan here. Carol says he's been busy holding things down in Lawrence.
Sammy's eyes bloom and he explodes out of Dan's lap when I enter.
"Uncle Robert," he says.
"Call him 'Nuncle,' Sammy," Carol says. She's been reading King Lear again, her favorite, still convinced she'll be back teaching next fall. I give her a muddled grin and move over to her bedside to kiss her head. Her hair has thinned even more since last week.
"When it all falls out, I want you to call me 'Curly,' okay?"
"Sure, sis. Curly," I say, standing up. I walk over to the other side of the bed, Sammy hanging on to my leg, and shake hands with Dan.
On the phone earlier in the week, Carol asked me if I'd take Sammy out for a while. "He's had a tough time with it all," she said, and told me that the last time Sammy came to visit he scraped his knee and instead of coming to her as usual, he ran right past her into Dan's arms. "I think he's starting to realize," she said. I wasn't sure if "realize" referred to sickness or death, and I didn't have the guts to say anything, so I asked her if she had any suggestions. "I don't know. Something fun. There's a great zoo here in town. Dan is going out to look for apartments, and I don't want Sammy to have to sit here and watch me the whole time."
Used tissues still decorate her bed. She brings a fresh one up to her nose. In the quiet of the room the sound is arresting. "Out, out damned snot!" she says in her best Elizabethan. The walls reverberate with laughter. There is an awkward moment after we've caught our breath when the three of us stare at each other, unsure what to do next. Sammy tugs at my belt: "Nuncle, Nuncle, pick me up." I do, and Dan sits down in a chair, looking relieved, like his part is over. He was always quiet, but now seems almost speechless. I remember when he and Carol were dating and she thought he was the one. She wanted me to go out with him and get to know him, to see what I thought. We went to a sports bar near my parents' house in Overland Park and spent the first twenty minutes awkwardly getting acquainted. We ordered a couple of beers and managed to smile at one another, nodding, but gradually our eyes drifted to two of the ubiquitously placed televisions, and for the next hour watched the Royals blow a huge lead in the ninth. After I dropped Dan off at his car, I went to Carol's apartment where she was waiting up for me. "What do think?" she asked, excited, falling into my arms. "I think he's great," I said, embracing her.
"How was the drive?" Carol asks now.
"The storm is heavy, but the driving's not too bad."
"Yeah, several inches of snow."
"Oh, I didn't even realize," she says, looking across the room at the window. "Sort of in my own world up here." She looks for a few seconds longer, as though measuring the mounting snow on her sill and then turns back toward me. "I guess the zoo is out."
Sammy insists on sitting in the back. I check to see that he has put on his seat belt and then turn around. He has one of those old winter hats--with the ears--that make him look like a basset hound. I turn the ignition and adjust the vent settings for defrost. Then, putting the car in reverse, I hear: "Quit looking at me!" My foot hits the brake, and I look in the rearview. He's just sitting there.
"I'm not looking at you, Sam," I say, though, of course, now I am.
"I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to him," he says, pointing at the empty seat next to him.
"There's nothing there, Sam."
He seems to almost chuckle at my ignorance, twisting his pant leg between his thumb and forefinger. "George is hiding from you. Duh."
I turn around and look at him, and he looks over at George. I put the car in reverse again and we're off. The snow is still coming down. I have no idea what to do, so I drive around the city until we're both hungry. In McDonald's Sammy nibbles on his hamburger and fries, patiently searching for his toy in the Happy Meal. I struggle for conversation. Without much provocation he's always seemed to like me, and I'm not really sure why. I hadn't been to visit much during his first few years, while I was in school, but whenever I came back at Christmas he would always want to follow me around.
"No toy," he says, turning the box upside down. One soggy fry falls out on to his tray. "Look."
This is my moment, I realize, to be the cool uncle and fix things. "Hang on," I say, standing up, full of gusto, and march up to the counter. And with visions of making a big scene on behalf of my young nephew--whose mother has cancer, by the way--possibly garnering Sammy an extra toy and an earnest apology, I choke and inform the pimpled manager that there is a toy missing from that little boy's meal over there. Silently, I accept what he slides to me across the counter as he hands over a large fry to a customer: a small figurine in a little plastic baggie.
"Here you go," I say, putting the toy down in front of him.
"You know you don't really have to call me that, right?" I say, but Sammy is busy burrowing through the plastic. He pulls out the toy and looks at it quizzically. Then he smiles and sets it on the table before the seat next to him, for George. "How long have you and George been friends?" I ask. He tells me four months. I nod, finishing the last of my burger, doing the math in my head. It makes sense, I realize, counting backwards to the first phone call and suddenly I want to weep for the boy, my nephew.
In the car I head straight there. I have a sense of urgency. I don't know why, but I'm compelled. It's something I feel I have to do. He asks where we're going and I tell him it's a surprise. Snowflakes hit the windshield and for a split second I see the gossamer before the wipers erase them. I open his door and let him out. The parking lot is nearly empty. Ploughed hours ago, the snow has built a new layer. We walk hand in hand until he realizes where we are and then he takes off in a little sprint. His young legs move slow and awkward, but he goes along, propelled by exuberance. I tell him to slow down, and he looks back--at me or George, I can't tell--and continues on.
Inside is Christmas. It's everything good his mind can imagine, or at least that's what mine thinks. He runs inside through the huge automatic doors--"Come on, Nuncle"--waving his hand at me, and I start to get caught up in it. I remember being his age, pondering cartoons, boogers and cooties. I begin to trot and finally catch up with him in the board games. I look at the titles that flash by as we move. It's one of those mega-toy stores, so the games seem to stretch from the floor to some distant ceiling. Because of the storm the place is empty. He motors on, around corners and up every aisle, past the videogames and through the sporting goods. I'm not sure if he's looking for something in particular or whether he's just trying to take it all in. He stops in the action figures though, and I catch up to him a few seconds later. The rows and colors of the packaging are overwhelming, almost blinding. I look at Sammy and he's just standing there, calm, looking up at them. There must be a thousand different kinds. There's a cart nearby that someone has left, and I walk over and grab it. I target where I think Sammy is looking and reach for the figure, dropping it into the cart. He watches me as I do this, and when I look up there's a moment where our eyes meet. Some unspoken understanding seems to occur, and seconds later we're both pouring toys in the cart. I watch to see which figure he grabs and then start piling in others from the set. Then we're off, running again for some reason, going up every aisle and putting things in the cart that Sammy wants: games, cap guns, balls, a wiffleball bat, cheap electronic things that say the same thing over and over ad nauseum.
When I finally make it up to the checkout line, the cashier eyes me like, it's because of you, asshole, that I have to be here now. She looks like a college student, older than one of my kids, and she laboriously picks out every item from the cart and slides them under the scanner. At the moment I don't care about money, so when the small digital screen comes up with $386.09, I calmly reach for my wallet, not batting an eye.
"You take MasterCard, don't you?"
Carol's rolled over on her side, away from us, when Sammy and I arrive. Dan's gone. I think she's sleeping, so we tiptoe in. The gigantic bags under my arms begin to rattle, the plastic squeals.
"Who doth enter?"
"It's just us," I say as I set the bags down on the floor.
"Good, I thought you were another of the faceless swath, coming to prod The Body," she says, turning over on to her back. "Oh my God," she says, grimacing, and then she catches a glimpse of the bags. "What have you all been up to?"
"A little shopping."
She looks tired, not sleepy but weary. Her voice is softer. "Did you and Nuncle have a good time?"
Sammy nods, coming over to the side of her bed, and rests his head on her chest, where her right breast would normally be. She runs her hand through his hair. He moves his head a little and I see Carol wince. There's a legal pad by her bed with her script all over it and two books, Lear and Dante's Paradiso. "Look, I made it to heaven," she says, nudging the Dante. One of Michelangelo's from the Sistine Chapel adorns the cover. I nod and then ask her what it's all about, pointing to the notepad. "I'm writing my autobiography," she says, flipping the legal pad over so I can't see anything. "I always wanted to write a book, but I could never get past the title. I had zillions of those, but no story. Now I have a story to tell, though." I ask her where she's at now and she says, "The title," and sheepishly shrugs, "I just started this afternoon." She winces again, as though absorbing a blow to the stomach none of us can see, and tells me they've switched her medication again. Soraething called Tamoxifen. "They call it an adjustment," she says. "Fascists. I don't see what was wrong in the first place. This ..." she starts, but her thought dies mid sentence. She looks down at her chest. "Mommy needs to roll over," she tells Sammy, gently lifting his head.
Sammy backs away from the bed and goes over to the chair where the Coke and lollipop I bought him await. He takes a swig of the pop and then sets it down, putting the sucker in his mouth. He looks over at Carol and then goes over to the middle of the room and starts doing a funny little dance he does when he wants to make her laugh. She watches him, mustering a smile, but her eyes begin to shut, and, tired from the medication and treatment, I imagine, she rolls over onto her other side, away from us. Sammy's shuffling his feet and hopping around, his lollipop in his mouth. "Look at me!" he shouts, a waxing smile on his face, but because of the lollipop, or maybe just the situation, it comes out sounding vaguely like, Mastectomy!
The room gets quieter than it already was, and Carol rolls back over, leans forward as much as she can and shouts, "Sam!" He looks at her, still trying to dance his jig. "Don't jump around with that in your mouth" she says, calmer. "You might choke, honey." Then she falls back onto her side. Sammy stops, stares at her with a wrinkled brow, and takes the little white stick out of his mouth. He walks over to the chair and slumps into it, grasping his Coke with two hands, and raising it up to his mouth.
Dan arrives as I'm flipping through channels on the television that's perched in the corner, attached to the ceiling like a security camera. Sammy's having a conversation with George about the toys we bought. Dan bends over and kisses Carol. He says nobody was available to show him the apartments because of the storm. I look at him, confused, half wanting to ask if he actually thought anybody would be, but then I understand. I see it in his eyes; he needed to leave. We shake hands and he says hello to Sammy, who looks up for a moment and then goes back to talking with George. "Say hello to Daddy, Sam," Carol says, still on her side so her words come out mushed. Sammy keeps on talking, holding up the plastic yellow bat. Carol exhales and leans off the pillow. "For Christ's sake, George isn't real, Sammy" she says, weary, hurting, and drops back down to the bed. Sammy's eyes get big as sunflowers and his mouth opens a little, like he's waiting for someone to place an egg in it.
That night I can't stand it and have to leave. I need to get out of the hospital and see people I don't know, people who don't have cancer or imaginary friends. I get in my car and drive down near the Old Market. It's midnight and I pull in front of the first dive I find. It's a country bar and everyone has on cowboy shirts and Wranglers. I make it a resolution to drink as much as I can before close. There's cheap champagne on tap and schooners big as fishbowls. I settle down at a table with two Buds and watch the couples slowdance. The men in cowboy hats stare down into their partner's eyes and sing earnestly along to the saccharine ballads. For the second round I order a Boilermaker. Soon I begin to feel it in my toes, and I find myself nodding along as song dissolves into song. Sometimes they're slow and other times fast. After I order my last drink, the mustachioed bartender leans over the bar and screams last call. And when the lights dim further some sort of ritual begins. A song everyone seems to know comes on and all the women walk onto the dance floor. They move into formation, three or four horizontal lines, knowing exactly where to go. And then the dance begins. It's slow at first, the broad smiles concealing a deep concentration, and they move in synch, step for step--line dancing. I watch them move about the floor, spinning and turning all together with the precision of a professional outfit, and now they are all beautiful. I raise the pint to my lips, and turning to watch the eyes of the other men in the crowd, I see what it is to desire and know that love will never be enough.
Dan answers the door like he's hoping I'm not a Jehovah's Witness. He stands there looking at me through a four-inch crack of the door, unsure, as though he doesn't recognize me.
"How's it going?"
He looks at me a moment longer, then says, "Fine," and opens the door a little more. "Doing fine."
I'm not sure if I should have come. The look in his eyes makes me realize this. We stand there like two gunfighters, waiting for the other to make the slightest move. It's quiet. My breath freezes as it leaves my mouth, floating towards him, and disappears before drifting into the house. I look down at my feet. The doormat, sandy with winter, says, Welcome.
"Can I come in?"
I follow him inside and notice that he's wearing a bathrobe. He knocks a box off of a chair in the living room. It clanks when it hits the ground. "Excuse the mess," he says. There are half-packed boxes everywhere. I haven't been here since Carol went to Omaha, months ago.
"No work today?" he asks.
"Teacher appreciation day," I say. "One of the few." He doesn't smile, just keeps checking out the window every few seconds. "You?"
"I'm taking some time," he says. This explains so much and so little.
I pull off my winter hat and unzip my jacket. My hair is standing straight up with static. He looks at me like I'm insane.
"Are you going up to Omaha tonight?"
"I don't know. There's still an awful lot to do around here," he says, lifting his arm up and letting it fall back listlessly to his lap.
"I thought maybe we could all go up together. You, me, and Sammy."
"Sammy's in school now. Montessori."
"I mean when he finishes today. We could all grab a bite to eat and head up. I'll drive."
He nods, a judge considering a well-timed objection.
"I just have so much to do here. Stuff that really needs to be done."
There is a pause that seems to stretch across the ocean and back. I bite the cold sore on my lip and at the moment it feels really good. Then I say it:
"Carol wants to see Sammy, Dan. It's been two weeks. Please." He stares at me, blankly. I look over my shoulder and exhale. "I mean, the phone," I say, leaning forward a little. "You haven't answered or returned ..." He starts blinking his eyes, like I've just spit in his face. I stand up, thinking he's about to breakdown, but just as quickly he composes himself and stands up. "If there's anything you want to talk--"
He starts to walk toward the door and stops. "That sounds fine," he says, adding, "Sammy should be home in a couple hours." He turns and walks up the stairs, and I stand there listening. I hear him move from room to room. Then he shuts a door, and there's a silence that lets me know he won't be coming.
I walk through the kitchen and into the study where there are more boxes. Carol's books are still on the shelves. I load them one by one into empty boxes, which I begin to realize like the others will never reach Omaha. But I do it anyway. When I've finished, I sit down at Carol's desk and wait for Sammy to come home. There are pictures all over the surface. I don't know how she ever got any work done here. I look over them one by one, the frames organized by color so that they form a spectrum. The pictures are like a storybook: the one of Morn as a teenager performing in a school play, which Carol stole from the family album after she died; our father in gigantic glasses, asleep in his office; several of Sammy taken from when he was a newborn up until recently; a series of smiling family vacation shots that make the present all the more surreal, confusing, and sad. And then there's me. I see it in the corner with the black frames. It's my picture from junior year in high school, the one she always threatened to blow up at my 50th birthday party. It's from my pestilent teenage years, when I'd read a couple of my father's philosophy books and thought I'd figured out the world for the shit hole it was. I'd spend nights locked away in my bedroom with my head in a book, coming out only to debate what I'd read with my father. Things would get pretty heated between us, but I think it was secretly the proudest he'd ever been of me. In some sort of bizarre homage to Foucault I shaved my head completely bald. God, that Gorbachev birthmark I never knew about on the side of my head, purple and slug-like. In my philosophical zeal I hadn't accounted for the fact that none of my schoolmates knew who Foucault was, and accordingly the first thing they said was that I looked like Telly Savalas. I quickly developed the nickname Kojak, which would haunt me up until graduation, long after my hair had grown back.
She's writing on the legal pad when I walk in holding hands with Sammy later that night. She has on a sweatshirt with the hood pulled tight to her skin, so she looks like a cosmonaut. Turning the pad over, she slowly reaches out her arm. Everything is in slow motion now, the widening of her eyelids, the start of speech, the materialization of a smile. Sammy runs to her bed and she leans forward as much as she can to embrace him. I walk over and kiss her cheek.
"Is that a cheeseburger in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?" she says.
I hold up the bag and hand her one. "We stopped on the way. I thought you might be hankering for a burger."
"Oh my God, "she says, her jaw dropping a little, "you're a saint. I've forgotten what they taste like."
"Me too, Nuncle," says Sammy, holding out his hand.
She smiles and starts to peel back the wrapper. I sit down in a chair and begin to eat. After I take the first bite I look at Carol and she is just staring down at the burger, and I realize she's wondering if she can eat it. Sammy chows and I look down at my lap when Carol sees that I'm watching her. A moment later she raises it to her mouth and takes a small bite. Sammy finishes quickly, and I try to pace myself, but when I finally finish half an hour later she is only halfway through. She begins to cough. It's something she's developed recently, these coughing attacks. It goes on for a minute or so, and Sammy and I have to watch her writhe around in bed, helpless. Imagine the worst case of emphysema and double it. She comes out of it disoriented, eyes watery, like someone waking from a nap.
"Hairball?" I venture, and for the first time in a while I say something that makes her laugh.
I turn on the television and Sammy scans the channels until he finds the cartoon channel, eventually falling asleep at Carol's side. She tells me stories of friends who have made the drive to visit and laughs with futility about the treatments she continues to endure. "They won't let me shave my legs because my skin is so fragile," she says, running a hand over the few patches of hair still left on her head. "So I'm all Euro now. At least they could zap my legs, too."
"What do you say Sammy and I stay with you tonight?"
"He looks pretty comfortable," she says, smiling down at him. "I'd like that."
It's late now and the nurse comes in, for the last time we hope. She doesn't put up much fuss about Sammy and me staying. There seems to be a general feeling at this point that there will be no great reversal, no turn for the better, so most things are permissible. She does insist though that Carol get some sleep and we nod our heads, Carol flipping her the bird when she turns around. She holds it out. "They can't wait until I'm gone." Her middle finger is long and almost emaciated to the bone. She turns and points it at me: "E.T. phone home."
I flip around the channels until we come upon an old Bogart movie. One with him and Lauren Bacall. It's the one where he's an escaped convict and you don't see his face for the first half of the movie, until his plastic surgery has healed. She's an artist and falls in love with him. When he begins to pull off his mummy-like bandages, Carol turns to me and asks if I'll cut the rest of her hair. "I look like a psycho this way. At first I kind of dug it, the mongoloid look and everything, but really I think it's disturbing. You should see my friends' faces when they walk through the door."
"I thought they wouldn't let you, skin's too delicate."
"We won't use a straight razor. Electric," she says, pointing to the table against the wall. "I asked Joan to bring it when she came to visit. I've been waiting for you."
I help her out of bed and into a chair on the far side of the room. The absence of her breast is more noticeable when she stands up, making her look lopsided. She sees me staring at her and looks down at her chest. "I call it the green-eyed monster."
I plug in the electric razor and click it on and off a few times so it sounds like I'm revving an engine. And then I move slowly towards her, humming the theme from Jaws.
"Oh, get over yourself, will you."
I stand behind her and tilt her head forward a little. It reminds me of when we were young and to save money Mom would cut our hair. She would lay newspaper all over the kitchen floor and Carol, the older, always went first. I'd sit on the counter, watching, and Mom would stand behind her and say in her best Mae West, "Well, should I take it all off, dear?" She just nods a little when I say it now. Her skull is so dry in places it flakes to the touch. Her head seems as fragile as a newborn's, so I hold my breath when I lower the clippers to her head. I have the urge to keep the hair that falls to her shoulder and off the chair, where it rests on the floor, but I'll wait until she falls asleep. When I click the razor off, she sits there a few seconds, running her hand over her head. "Now I look like you, Kojak."
"Hey, who loves you, baby?"
She laughs, and I feel like I'm on a roll.
I help her back to her bed, moving Sammy over just a little, and we sit there looking at each other, talking, but not having the talk I expect to have. Not the one about Dan and why he won't come to visit, or the one where I ask her what she wants me to tell Sammy about her as he grows up, after she's gone-which stories I should leave out and which are okay to tell. Instead, she asks me about my teaching, how it's going now. I tell her it's going well, that they don't walk all over me anymore. She asks how. I tell her first I got tough, so they knew I meant business, sending anyone to the principal who misbehaved. She nods her head like a Svengali, "Good." Then I tried to make it fun, I tell her. "I began starting each day with a joke, not my own, but one of theirs. They actually want to come to class now." She tilts her head back and smiles.
We fall asleep with the television crackling. I prop my legs up in one chair and lie back for what I know will be the most uncomfortable night of sleep I've ever had. I wake up later when I hear her put the guard down on the side of her bed, rolling her legs over the side. I ask her what she's doing. "I'm not using that thing with Sammy here," she whispers, pointing to the bedpan. She doesn't want my help. She pauses a moment with her slippered feet hovering lightly above the floor, like they're trying to decide if this will really work, this walking business. Then with one push from her arms, an exertion that seems to exhaust all the strength she has left, she wills herself up, letting out a bassy fart that sounds something like a conch at a tribal ceremony. "Woops," she says, inching along. She stops a moment, thinking. "Are these, I pray you, wind instruments?" I look at her, confused. "And the general so likes your music that he desires you, for love's sake, to make no more noise with it." I think a moment and then I get it.
"Othello," she calls over her shoulder as she slugs into the bathroom. "The kids love that one," she says, the door closing, "fart jokes and all."
I get the call when I'm in class. It's Dan. He says she's gone. For a moment I think she has snuck out of the hospital and left, and I imagine her driving down the highway in a convertible. But I know what he means. Arrangements for a service have already been made, as per Carol's instructions. She left Dan a list of how she wanted it done. He reads it to me: an all-purpose wake/visitation/hootenanny, followed by cremation, and the scattering of her ashes. I can't say anything beyond, uh huh, as my mind unspools a movie reel of miniature pictures from the past.
It's one of those weird sunny winter days when I drive to Lawrence. Everything seems to be leaking, the whole town melting. All along the highway the frozen tree limbs drip, the sunlight refracts off the ice, and it's blinding. The fields are like long stretches of glass, shrinking in warmth. The turnout for Carol's big send off is larger than I expect. Students, friends, family, colleagues. Our father is too ill to come. Besides, no one really has the heart to tell him. We all march out of the cold and into the funeral home, cheeks rosy as porcelain dolls. There is a long series of greetings, forced smiles, hushed sobs, uncomfortable silences, and alarming outbursts. I hear the ineffability of grief expressed in the sound made by the bodies of two women make who haven't seen each other since they were bridesmaids at Carol's wedding. After I've looked into the eyes of every person and said, "It's okay," I sit in one of the metal foldout chairs with Sammy on my lap. Dan continues to accept condolences, and a few lingerers come over to talk while Sammy and I smile as much as we can. When we're alone I ask him how George is doing, and he says he didn't want to come today.
They bring out the food and wine and people begin to loosen up. Music starts to play, all songs that Carol chose, upbeat stuff: The Beatles and Beach Boys, and later Blondie and Some Girls-era Stones. The pall lifts, people tell stories, some even dance, and now I know it's as Carol had imagined it.
Sammy spots the package in the bushes by my doorstep when we come home from a movie. He's been spending a lot of time with me. Dan's sister has come to stay with him for a while, helping him to get things back together, and he agreed to let Sammy stay with me on the weekends. The box is from the hospital in Omaha. I set it in my bedroom and fix Sammy some dinner. Later, after he falls asleep, I return to my bedroom with a knife from the kitchen and go to work on the inordinately strong tape job. I lift off the lid and inside are Carol's effects from her room. She must have had them sent to me. I comb over her things: her Dante and Shakespeare, the electric razor, two hats, and a dozen or so pictures. Then I see it, the yellow legal pad. For a moment I wonder if I should read it, but when curiosity gets the best of me and I turn it over I realize she's gotten the last laugh. There are five full pages consisting entirely of titles she'd considered for her autobiography--lines from Shakespeare, from the tragic soliloquies--and they're all crossed out. The script of the final title, the one she decided on, is so shaky that it looks like it was written by someone with Parkinson's. But it's there, unmistakable, something of her own, for her own story: The Cure for Cancer. I grin, looking at the page and studying every curve of the letters. This title seems more appropriate than the Shakespeare--nothing bitter, no "As flies to wanton boys" or "too too sullied flesh." Carol, I think, flipping through the pages.
I put the notepad down and go back into the living room, where Sammy is asleep on the couch. I sit down on the floor, leaning back close to him, and turn on the television, flipping to the old movie channel, where on mute I watch one I've never seen before. I tilt my head back, thinking about tomorrow when Dan, Sammy, and I will board a plane for the east coast, heading to scatter Carol's ashes in the ocean off the coast of Maine, where our parents used to take us every summer when we were little. I imagine her ashes skimming the surface, following the tide out towards the horizon, before sinking to the bottom and becoming coral. And with sleep coming on I can feel Sammy's warm breath against my neck, pulling me into dream.
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