FICTION




  




Then she died, Nancy. I saw Bill in the Family Room the next morning, emptying his part of the refrigerator, clutching a paper bag.


    

"Hey," he said dreamily.


    

I shut the door behind me and locked it. I hugged him and the paper bag. He patted my back with his free hand. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I kept saying to him.


    

"It isn't what I expected," he said.


    

"What did you expect?"


    

He set the bag on the floor. "I'm not taking these. They're those frozen dinners. You can have them if you want."


    

"Okay," I said gravely. His face was pale and puffy. He smelled like worn-out peppermint gum and french fries. I hugged him again and cupped my hand around the back of his neck and he pressed into it the way a baby who can't hold his head up does.


    

"Look," he said almost inaudibly. "I feel that I should apologize."


    

"For what?" I let go of him.


    

"For what's gone on with you and me."


    

"There's nothing to be sorry about."


    

"I feel that I behaved badly," he said.


    

"No," I said.


    

"I didn't want to leave the room. They took her — her body — out after a couple of hours. People came to see her, to say goodbye. Her folks, her brothers, a couple of her best friends and then they took her away and I just didn't wanna leave, you know, the room."


    

"That's understandable," I said. I was holding myself, my arms crisscrossed around my waist. "I can see wanting that."


    

He sobbed. He made small, whimpering noises, and then he found a rhythm and his cries softened. I rubbed his shoulders. He went to the sink and leaned deeply into it and rinsed his face and then dried it with a paper towel. He took several deep breaths. "Anyways, you know something? I never cheated on Nancy up until now. That's the truth. Maybe you don't know that, but thirteen-plus years and I never cheated. I almost did once or twice, but I never followed through. That's normal human temptation. That can happen in any marriage. But I didn't do it. I honored the vows." His voice quavered and he took more deep breaths. "The vows meant something to me once upon a time." He paused. "And don't get me wrong. None of this is your fault. I hold you responsible not one iota. You're a beautiful girl. A top-notch young lady. I was the one married. It has nothing to do with you."


    

The bag of frozen dinners shifted without either of us touching it.


    

"It didn't take anything away from what you had with Nancy," I said. "I never thought that."


    

"No. Definitely not. My allegiance was always with her. No offense, Claire. I think you're wonderful. I mean, you are one very, very pretty girl. And smart too. Kind." He clutched the edge of the counter with one hand. "And what am I when Nancy needs me the most? I'm a pathetic old man."


    

"You aren't old."


    

"No. Not old, but to you I am. I'm too old for you. I lost my morals."
I stared at the floor. A spoon had fallen there, crusted with hair and what looked like bits of chocolate pudding.


    

"Plus, what was I doing gallivanting around and meanwhile she's dying?"


    

"She was sleeping. She probably didn't even know you were gone."


    

"Oh she knew. She knew." He put his hand on his forehead and pressed hard.


    

"We weren't gallivanting anywhere. We were at your house," I said softly. He stayed with his hand pressed to his forehead. I picked the dirty spoon up and set it silently in the sink. It seemed the least I could do.


    

"Well," he said after a while. "I wish you the best. I'm hoping for a miracle for your mother."


    

"Thank you." I patted his hand on the counter and we looked at each other, serious as animals. He took my hand and kissed it and then pulled me to him and held me hard against him. His breathing was heavy and I thought he had started to cry again but when I looked at him, I saw that his eyes were calm and dry.


    

"Claire," he said, but didn't say anything more. His fingers began to slowly graze my throat, down over the top of my chest, over my breasts, barely touching me. Suddenly he grabbed my face with both of his hands and kissed me fiercely and then stopped kissing me just as quickly. "What am I doing?" he asked sadly. He pulled me to him and squeezed my ass, hips, thighs.


    

"Stop it then," I said. I unbuckled his belt, unzipped his jeans. I got down on my knees.


    

"This is completely wrong."


    

"Stop me then," I hissed. I took his cock in my mouth. I had the sensation that he was going to hit me; that he was going to smack the side of my head or yank me away by the hair. I also had the sensation that I wanted him to do it. I had never wanted a man to do this, but I wanted it then so that something would be clear, so that something would be right and that he would be the one to make it that way.


    

"Jesus," he whispered. He leaned against the wall and held onto it to keep him up. I smelled his man smells, his cock smells: a sour salt, a sharp subaqueous mud. He came without a word and I swallowed and then sat back on my heels. I touched the hairs on his thighs, kissed one knee.


    

He reached for the sides of my face. "Oh," he whispered, "I can't stand up."




"Something about you sitting in the window reminds me of when you were little," my mother said. "Sometimes I see your face and I can see just exactly what you looked like when you were a baby and other times I can see what you'll look like when you're old. Do you know what I mean? Does the same thing happen to you?"


    

"Yeah, I know what you mean." I pulled a chair up next to her, coiling my way through the IV lines.


    

"Yes," she said. "Come sit next to me." Her words were slurred from the morphine. Tomorrow she would become delusional. In three days she'd be dead. "That's what I'm glad of. That you're here with me. I'll never forget that you were here with me. And sitting the way you were, in the window, it made me think of that, of all the things, of you being little and everything and now being grown up."


    

"Do you feel better?" I asked. "You slept for a long time. You slept for twelve hours straight."


    

"It was the same way as when you used to sit in that window in Pennsylvania. Do you remember the window seat in the apartment when we lived in Pennsylvania? Oh, you were too small then. You wouldn't remember. That was your spot. You liked to sit there and wait for the mail to come."


    

She paused. I thought she would have to vomit, but she didn't.


    

"You liked to see the mailman come and put the mail in the box and then you wanted to be the one to go and take it out."


    

"I don't remember." I leaned forward and rested my head on the bed. I would not be with my mother at the moment of her death. She would wait to die until she was all alone in her room and this would kill me. It would kill me for a long time.


    

"That's how you were," she said happily. "It's how you are."


    

"How's that?" I asked.


    

"The way I taught you to be. Good."


    

She lifted her hand from the bed. Softly, she stroked my hair.

  

           




©2001
Cheryl Strayed and Nerve.com

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.