n the end, my mother still knew a few things. She knew, for example, that telephones existed; that they had been a part of the world that she had been a part of. She yelled, “Answer the phone! Please stop the phone from ringing!” and then she sobbed and sobbed and asked why I was torturing her until she coughed and lost her breath and then gasped madly for it. (The phone was not ringing, but I put it in a drawer anyway.) She knew what an enchilada was. She demanded that one be gotten for her and heated up in the imaginary oven near her hospital bed. Given this, it would not be too much to suppose that she was aware of Mexican cuisine altogether. Likewise the existence of Mexico. Of Mexican people. Of people, though she did not, in the end, acknowledge them. She knew about cats and dogs and horses and believed them to be in the room with her. She hollered, “Don’t sit on the bed or you’ll squish Mister Carpaccio!” She knew that there was rain, especially raindrops. She sang a song that featured them and waved her fingers to the melody. On the very last day she panted, “What! What!”
“What? What?” I asked, begged.
“Oh,” my mother said and moaned. She swung her head mournfully in my direction. She opened her eyes: blue, beloved, uncomprehending as a buzzard. “Now there you go again,” she said. “Always interrupting me.”
Before this, a couple of weeks before this, when she’d first been admitted to the hospital, she knew everything. She said, “For heaven’s sake, open the curtains.” She declared, “I’m not using any damn bedpan. I don’t care. I’ll die first! I still have my dignity, you know.” How little she knew.
I sat and watched her for hours, days. I stroked the top of her head. Her hair — she had hair — was sharp and dry like the weeds that grow flat along the cracks in rocks.
“Oh,” she moaned. “Don’t touch me. It hurts. Everything hurts. You wouldn’t believe the pain.” She closed her eyes. “Let’s sit and not say anything. That’s what I want more than anything. Let’s just be together and rest.” I was twenty-one; my mother, forty. It was cancer, but not the way we’d imagined it would be.
Everything went very quickly, but it took a dreadfully long time.
There was a place called the Family Room where I went when I needed a break. There was a rainbow painted on the wall with a pot of gold at the end of it and a dancing elf doing a jig. Also, an itchy orange couch, a refrigerator, a microwave oven, a coffee pot and a water dispenser with one spout that was hot, the other cold.
I went to the Family Room and drank tea from a pointed paper cup and read the bulletin board.
There were signs advertising groups for people with AIDS, with chronic fatigue; for parents of premature babies or twins; for drug addicts and anorexics.
I stood and read those signs each day as if I’d never read them before. I stood perfectly still and erect and I was acutely aware of my stillness, erectness. Grief had suddenly, inexplicably, improved my posture. It had also, more understandably, made me thin. These things combined to give me the sensation that I had become an inanimate object. Something brittle, like the branch of a tree, or a broomstick.
Usually I had the place all to myself. One day a man walked in.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Bill Ristow.”
“I’m Claire. Claire Wood.” I shook his hand and held onto my empty paper cup. It was pliant and soft and wet as the petal of a lily.
Bill’s eyes were hazel, sunken. He scratched his head with a pinkie finger. “My wife’s in six-ninety. She’s got cancer,” he said. “Are you new here?”
“Kind of,” I said. “My mom, she’s been here a week. We didn’t know anything. She had this bad cold and then all of a sudden it was cancer everywhere.” I looked up at him, smiled, stopped smiling, went on. “Like three weeks ago they found it. And now the doctors say there’s nothing they can do.” I stared at the absurd green bumpers on the toes of my tennis shoes. I didn’t know what I would or would not say. I didn’t feel like I would cry. I had no control over either.
“Christ,” he said and jingled the coins in his pocket. He was making coffee. The water fell one drop at a time into the pot. “Well, kiddo,” he said, “I hate to say it, but in a way you’re lucky. It’s no vacation to drag it on. Nance and I — we’ve been doing the cancer thing for six years.”
He was older but not old — my mother’s age. I thought he might have been a wrestler in high school; his body dense and wide, like a certain kind of boulder; his face too — primitive. He wasn’t good-looking. He wasn’t bad-looking. He took a mug that said WYOMING! from the cupboard and another one with a chain of vegetables holding hands and filled them both with coffee. He handed me WYOMING! without asking if I wanted it.
“You and me have a lot in common,” he said.
I didn’t say anything. I cradled the coffee in both of my hands. I didn’t drink coffee. I didn’t like coffee, but I held it anyway. With pleasure.
“I was thinking about the time that I locked myself in the bathroom,” my mother said.
“What time?” I sat with my knees pulled tightly up to my chest in the wide bay of the windowsill in her hospital room.
“You remember the time.”
“I don’t remember any time.”
“I was furious with you. You were about six. I don’t remember what you did. Probably a combination of many small things.” She paused, looked over at me. Her beauty, even then, was like a Chinese lantern hanging in an oak tree. “It was just after I’d finally left your father. Anyway. Nobody tells you how it will be. I was so furious that I wanted to hurt you, I mean do you physical harm. Well, I didn’t really, and I wouldn’t have, but right then and there I felt capable of it. They don’t tell you that when you become a mother — and nobody talks about it — but everyone has their breaking point, even with children. Especially with children.” She laughed softly. “So. I went and shut myself in the bathroom to calm down.”
“That was probably good,” I said passively.
“Oh, were you ever mad! Just seething. You couldn’t bear that I wouldn’t let you in. You hurled your body against the door with all your might. I thought you were going to hurt yourself. I thought you would break a bone. I had to come out so you wouldn’t.”
I hopped down from the window and went and stood at the foot of her bed and rubbed the tops of her feet. It was the only place I could get at freely, without the tangle of tubes and plastic bags of fluid and tall carts holding the machines that sat near her head. We were quiet then. My mother fell asleep and I watched her face for signs of relief, which did not come. She held an expression of permanent tension and I could not discern if this was a new thing, or if it had been there all along, masked by the ordinary light of real life. Her chin hung slack, making the flesh beneath it baggy, but her mouth was strangely alert, puckered, and faintly streaked with vomit. I thought of the commercials of starving African children, the flies gathering at the corners of their eyes, the kids too weak to swat them away. How unbearable it was to see that, more so than anything else, more than all the other things, which were so much worse.
I got a T-shirt from my mother’s duffel bag, wet it with warm water and wiped her face.
“Thank you honey.” She opened her eyes. In slow increments, she turned her head to face the window.
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.
“There aren’t many people you can talk to. People in this situation, so to speak.”
“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.
“You like Leo Kottke?” he asked, holding a record, blowing on it, putting it on the turntable. “I thought we’d have some music. I’ve got all kinds of music. Country, rock, classical, bluegrass, jazz. You name it.”
“Me too. I mean, that’s what I like. All kinds.” The skin of my face was tight from the soap. I sat down on a blue couch and instantly stood up again. “So come here,” I said, smiling like a maniac.
He took my hair by the ends and pressed it to his nose and smelled it. He wound it around his fingers, pulling me toward him, to kiss me. His mouth was cool and shaking and strange, but nice. Nicer than anything. I shoved my hands into the back pockets of his jeans and felt his ass. “I’m glad I met you,” he said.
“Me too,” I said. “Take this off,” I said impishly, tugging at his shirt. He gathered both of my wrists in his hands and pulled me into his bedroom. The walls were the same color as the comforter on his bed: amber, with an edge of smoke.
“Now,” he said, unbuttoning my shirt. We laughed awkwardly, pawed at each other. He bent down and kissed my breasts, bit my nipples tenderly. We teetered, finally, onto his bed.
“Do you have a condom?”
It seemed impossible that I would get pregnant. Nothing could take root. I knew it, he knew it. It didn’t make any sense to think this, but we were right.
I watched his face while we fucked. It was haggard and tense, as if he were concentrating on something either very far or very near; as if he were attempting to remove a splinter or thread a needle or telepathically shatter a glass in France. He saw me watching him and then his face became animated again, wide-eyed and carnivorous.
“That was nice,” he said afterwards. We were laying on our backs on his bed. A mobile of fat chefs dangled above our feet. Over our heads was a birdcage without a bird. He turned on his side and placed his palm delicately on my stomach. He found my birthmark and petted it and outlined it with his finger as if he’d known me all of my life.
“Was that weird for you?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he said.
“How do you feel then?”
“Like a million bucks,” he said. He stood up, jerked his jeans on.
“There’s a lady down the hall who’s a high school teacher,” I said to my mother, even though it appeared that she was sleeping. I went to the window and stared out onto the street below: snow, cars, a slice of the lake. A long silence, and then my mother’s low voice.
“What’s her name?”
“Is she a visitor or a resident?” She smiled, a small glorious smile.
“Resident. She’s a history teacher.”
My mother kept her eyes closed and we were silent for a long while. Then she said, “Ask her what she thinks happened to Amelia Earhart.”
“Why?” I snapped.
“Well, you said she teaches history, right? History interests me. I’d be curious to know what her theories are. She might have a theory since she’s in the know. I always liked Amelia Earhart.” She opened her eyes and tried to push herself up to a sitting position against the pillows, the tubes swaying around her. “I think of her going off like that. Can you imagine? I mean, can you imagine? Having no idea what would happen? Imagine how brave she was. She was one of my personal heroes.”
“Is,” I said.
“Is. She is one of your personal heroes.”
“Well, yes,” she said. “Is.” My mother sat looking carefully at me. “Where have you been?”
“Nowhere. You were sleeping. I walked around.”
She continued to look at me. Pale. Drained. Regal.
“You’ve been somewhere.”
“I told you.”
My affair with Bill lasted only four days, but we had a ritual nonetheless. After sex we dressed and drank warm apple cider and ate toast with peanut butter in the kitchen before we went back to the hospital. We told each other stories about the lovers we’d had. My list was short, but interesting and multi-ethnic and it also included a man who was surely gay. Bill got a kick out of this. He told me about losing his virginity with Janet in a closet where his mother stored cleaning supplies; about Vietnamese prostitutes; a series of alcoholics in Alaska; and then Nancy. They went to Puerto Rico for their tenth wedding anniversary. They’d lolled in bed and made love and ate a bag of plums they’d bought on the street. In jest, Bill put one of these plums into Nancy’s vagina and it sucked itself up inside of her and they couldn’t get it out.
“Well, it came out eventually,” he said, laughing, rubbing his face, laughing again, laughing so hard that his eyes filled with tears. I sat with him and smiled. I nibbled my toast. “Now there’s something,” he said, finally getting a hold of himself, wiping his tears away. “There’s something you don’t do twice.”
I caught glimpses of Nancy as I passed by her room. She had a position she liked: on her side, her thin hip a tiny triangle, her blond frizzy hair matted into a flat nest at the back of her head. Besides my mother and Nancy, there were the old people. Old old. They were so old that no one knew them anymore, or, if anyone did, they only came to visit on Sundays. As I passed their rooms, I came to know them the way one knows the houses along a familiar street: the lady with a hole in her throat, the endlessly sleeping bald woman, the thrashing man tied to his bed, the other man who beckoned and yelled, “Jeanie! Jeanie!” when he saw me walk past until, finally, one day I stopped.
“Jeanie?” he said.
“Yes,” I said. I stayed in the hallway, peering into his open door.
“Jeanie,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. I twisted my hands into the wrists of my sweater.
“You ain’t Jeanie,” he said at last, gently, as if he were sorry to hurt my feelings. “I know my Jeanie and you ain’t her.”
How impossible it is to hoodwink the nearly dead.
Often I saw their private parts. Gaping and grappling among the sheets, musty and chafed, dimly shimmering like the rinds of hard fruit. I didn’t care, they didn’t care. Who cared? Nobody.
I never saw Nancy’s, but I imagined it, that plum. Purple, red and black; sweet, soft and bruised. Held warm inside her, as if it were still there: a thing she would not release.
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.
Cheryl Strayed and Nerve.com