FICTION


  





The next day Bill Ristow and I walked to a place called the Lakeshore Lounge, a few blocks from the hospital. The bar was dark, windowless, lit with yellow light bulbs and Budweiser signs. It was noon. We ordered vodka and grapefruit juice and sat in a booth. The only other person in the place was the bartender, an old lady with painted-on eyebrows who sat on a stool and watched television.


    

Bill told me that he grew up in Fargo and joined the army and went to Vietnam. He'd married his high school sweetheart, a woman named Janet, before he went overseas and by the time he'd returned, Janet had a tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon on her ass and was running around with a man called Turner, who was the leader of a Manitoba motorcycle gang.


    

"Such is life," he said, sipping from his drink. It meant something to him that we had the same kind of drink. He'd ordered a vodka and grapefruit to be polite. Initially, he'd asked for a beer. "Let me ask you this," he said. "You got a tattoo?"


    

I shook my head. He rolled his sleeve up and showed me the inside of his forearm: a cougar, ready to pounce.


    

"Take my advice and don't. It's a bad idea, especially for women."


    

"I've thought about it. Maybe a chain of daisies."


    

"Anyways," he said, "after all that with Janet, I took my broken heart to Alaska to work in a salmon cannery. Now that's good money. That's where I met Nancy.
She worked there too, but that's not where we got together. No, that was about five years later when I moved to Duluth to take a job — I schedule the ships that come in and out of the harbor — and I had never forgotten about Nancy, you know, I met her and never forgot her. Don't ask me why. And I knew that she was from here, so I thought why the heck not call her up? The rest, as they say, is history."


    

He asked where I lived, who my family was, whether I like the Minnesota winters or not and if I'd ever been to Florida. He wanted to know what my favorite movie was, if I believed that life existed on other planets, if I ever wanted children.


    

"We were planning on kids, but then boom — Nancy has cancer." He looked around the room. There was a row of video games across from us repeating a display of wrecking balls and exploding rockets, automobile crashes and little hooded men wielding axes. "It's so nice to talk to you," he said.


    

"Yeah."


    

"There aren't many people you can talk to. People in this situation, so to speak."


    

"No."


    

"Nobody wants to hear it. Oh sure, they wanna know what they can do for you and so forth. That's nice. But no one really wants to hear about it."


    

"No," I said. I was sitting on my hands. I rocked forward every few moments to sip from my straw. A woman with a rash on her face came into the bar with a bucket of flowers and asked if we would buy some and we said no, but then Bill called her back and bought a bouquet after all: red carnations with a tassel of leaves and baby's breath. He set them beside him on the seat.


    

"I know exactly what you mean," I said. People had carved messages and names into the table. TAMMY Z, it said in front of me, CUNT.


    

"You go to bars much?"


    

"Actually, I just turned twenty-one."


    

"No kidding," he said and fished an ice cube out of his glass and tossed it in his mouth. "You seem older. I'd have guessed twenty-five. You strike me as a sophisticated lady. You've got a way that's grown up."


    

He had a small, firm belly and a thick bush of graying hair on his head. The same tufts of this hair sprang from his eyebrows and nostrils and the backs of his hands. His ears were red and burly and sat like small wings. He reminded me, not unkindly, of a baby elephant, in a lordly, farcical way. He was the kind of man that other men did not know well enough to be threatened by sexually.


    

I crossed my legs. I rattled my ice. "We should be getting back."


    

"Well, it was nice to get away. Everyone's got a right to that from time to time." He raked his hands through his hair as if he were just waking from a nap. I was acutely aware of his body across the table, of my own pressing luxuriously back into the ripped-up vinyl.


    

He looked at me. He set his hands on the table and knocked on it with his knuckles. I reached out and put my hands lightly on top of his. He stayed still for a moment, then turned his hands over and laced his fingers into mine.


    

"Shall we?" he said after a while.


    

"Yes," I said in a nondescript foreign accent. "We shall."




Bill's house was white on the outside and cloistered among a thicket of pines. It sat a few steps down from the sidewalk, but above everything else — the buildings of downtown Duluth, the lake. I could see the roof of the hospital far off. It was freezing.


    

I was shaking, but impervious to the cold.


    

"The snow is sparkling like diamonds," I said idiotically.


    

"Diamonds?" Bill smiled at me curiously.


    

"Yes. I mean the ice crystals. They're sparkling," I said and blushed. "I like the word sparkle, don't you? It's one of my favorite words."


    

"I can see what you mean. It has a ring," he said, guiding me onto his porch. I wanted to take my clothes off as soon as possible, so I would stop being nervous.


    

Bill took me on a tour, as if he'd forgotten why I'd come. My boots echoed loudly wherever I went until I finally took them off and carried them around with me. He showed me the cabinets that he'd built, the place where there had once been a wall that he and Nancy had knocked down to let more light into the
dining room, the hardwood floors they'd redone themselves. I oohed. I aahed. Every room was painted a different color, but none of the colors clashed. A cast-iron woodstove stood sentinel in the corner, unlit, with a small glass pane in the door and a gleaming silver handle. It looked like a person, as decorative woodstoves often do. A jolly old maid or Benjamin Franklin.


    

In the bathroom there was a bowl of stiff rose petals on a narrow shelf and a photograph of Bill and Nancy — both of them completely bald — with their heads tilted toward one another.


    

I washed my hands and face with a bar of green soap that smelled like aftershave and then went into the living room.


  

           

  

Commentarium (31 Comments)

Apr 26 01 - 6:22am

Very good.

Apr 26 01 - 7:39am
AW

Whoa. That's a loaded piece. I'm not sure how I feel about the dynamics - social, emotional, moral... This piece was certainly not about the sex.

Apr 28 01 - 6:44am
gfz

I loved this story.

I don't know why but I identify with much of it.

Take care.

Apr 29 01 - 4:19am
s.b.

I've never cried so hard reading anything...

Apr 29 01 - 5:31am
CVS

This story was well written and rang true. For someone who has lost a parent to Cancer, I can relate to the narrator's need for intimacy. Grief makes you do "crazy" things, as does loss. I loved the imagery used to describe Nancy - I'm referring to the plum metaphor. For the author: Keep writing. I'll definitely keep reading!

Apr 29 01 - 6:28am
kay

thank you, cheryl.

Apr 29 01 - 4:31pm
hal

so nice. i remember the hospital, and the people dying and my friend dying and life weaving through anyway. my friend's girl and i sat in the hallway while she cried for her grandpa. we all played with the kids in the sun outside, singing stupid songs and playing statue and tag. we had a party in his room the night before he died, some wine, a couple of joints, some singing.

catching people when they come into this world, holding them while they leave, caring for them while their here. fucking as healing.

thanks for the story.

Apr 29 01 - 4:34pm
hal

re: AW's comment, "this piece is definitely not about the sex..." how is it not? isn't life all one cloth, and fucking and dying and grieving and joy all one thread?

Apr 30 01 - 6:33pm

Beautifully written, very emotional and devoid of crass sentimentality. There's definitely something sexual about death, however slightly it may manifest itself. Perhaps it's simply the urge to procreate in the face of mortality. But whatever the psychological reasoning, the way in which the needs of the two main characters are portrayed - and their unconditional love for those short days they were together - is a lesson to us all. It shouldn't take a death to do, but it so often does. Thank you for the story.
Chu Nagara

May 02 01 - 2:24am
bean

What a beautifully crafted story. Coming from central Canada, images of Manitoba, Fargo, and Duluth rang that much more poignant. I lost a good friend to cancer three years ago. I got transfered before he passed away three months later. I empathise with the desire for intimacy, however I found the last (non-)sexual act somewhat out of synch with the situation, more a psychological musing rather than an actual act.

May 02 01 - 9:12pm
sean

I feel so quiet inside having read your story.
Grief is our milk.
put on Lou Reed's "Pale Blue Eyes".

uncarbon@hotmail.com

May 03 01 - 9:18am
pmh

This is a beautiful story...

May 03 01 - 9:55am
sd

That was a beautiful story. I'm at work & I'm all choked up.

I'm going to call my mother now & tell her I love her.

May 04 01 - 11:35pm
B.J.

What rare vision and heart Ms. Strayed possesses. Her brilliant short story Good is that rare piece of writing that addresses life's unspeakable hardness and beauty with both unflinching clarity and generoisty of spirit. I look forward to reading much more of her work.

May 10 01 - 2:46am
RT

Cheryl

I was surprised by your short story, Good. I enjoyed it! It had an emotional depth that conveyed honesty and the sexual components were integrated naturally within the story.

I do enjoy erotica that is set naturally within general contexts.

Thanks

May 14 01 - 3:08pm
nbs

A great short story. I can relate. Being a sexual person, I can see the same sort of thing happen to me. Looking forward to the next story.

May 15 01 - 5:30pm
TAD

"Good" is more than good. It's the best short story that I've read in a long time and it's the best story I've read in the entire history of Nerve magazine (and yes, I have read them all!!!). Thank you for this great story.

May 16 01 - 6:01pm
jm

Amazing. Wrenching. True. Keep writing the truth and shaming the devil, Cheryl.

May 19 01 - 5:31pm
C.S.

An excellent story. Just excellent.

May 21 01 - 10:21pm
AA

Such a sad story...My mom has just turned 66. I have to remember that she won't be around forever...

May 28 01 - 6:21pm
NG

Ab odd little story, about unusal circumstances. Very well done... Nothing like sex with middle aged men!!

Nick

Jun 03 01 - 1:36pm
C.K.

Touching,yet erotic.Great work like this is rare but welcome.Showing sex as a comforting,healing act rather than just a selfish pleasure.
More soon please. Choco

Jul 05 01 - 1:01pm
Q.S.

Obviously Ms. Sontag's nom de plume, Ms. Strayed unleashes her real metaphor of illness in "Good." Good. Call me (in the afterlife--your next step). Mr. Quintin Crisp Strayed.

Aug 10 01 - 1:56pm

two snaps up and a circle

Aug 10 01 - 2:02pm
LSD

Exelent and tender...Healing and full of the litte wierd little things that we do...Grab "mugs that say Wyoming!" and scrunch up our faces during the sexual act "as though we are concentrating on something very close or very far..."

"It meant something to him that we had the same drink..."

The whole story had a sort of hikou quality to it....Its truth tender, tiny and transient...An amazing work please write more PLEASE...I NEED IT

Sep 15 01 - 11:41pm
KLN

This is a marvelous story, so beautifully written, so deeply true, so incredibly wise. It's precisely what I needed to read at this dreadful time of loss for so many in our nation. Thank you Cheryl Strayed. Thank you Nerve magazine. This story changed my life.

Sep 16 01 - 9:50am
km

What's so amazing, touching, well-crafted and emotional about a story of a man being unfaithful to his wife on her deathbed?

Sep 16 01 - 8:43pm
bd

that was absolutely beautiful. wow.

Sep 19 01 - 1:14am
BET

With my emotions on my surface because of 9-11, I wondered if I would be at my mother's side when she dies - would I be at my wife's side when she dies? Tremulous.

Sep 25 01 - 1:33am
smp

What an amazingly human story. I'm familiar with the types of grief involved in watching a loved one slowly go, and this account made me want to laugh and cry about my own memories of it. I have to wonder if the author is writing autobiographically about parts (or all) of this, because if not, the empathy evident in her writing is nothing short of staggering. I was touched on many levels and wish I could more personally express my appreciation to the author for her insight and her candor. Some of the most beautiful things in life can make a person cry.........

Nov 10 01 - 9:46pm
BB

How intense! There's so much to be said for the healing power of sex. My boyfirend's dad passed away a few years ago, and he and his three sisters and all of their significant others went to stay with their mom. The night after the funeral, after everyone left and we finally went to bed, I remember that while he and I were trying to be quiet while having sex, I could tell that his sisters and their SO's were all doing the same thing. Even though we broke up over six months ago, he still swears that he had the best sex of his life that night. As for me, the best sex I've ever had was the night we broke up. My pain definitely intensified my pleasure.