This is most likely the last bit of my unpublished novel I'll be posting here. It takes us up through about page 30 of the mss., roughly 8000 words into a ~100,000 word mss. I am grateful for all the comments you all have been kind enough to proffer so far. If you have the stomach, tear into this little set piece as well. Revisioning, recasting, redoing may follow—I'm questioning, e.g., the consistency of tone. Thanks, again, all. See you in a couple weeks.
"She wants it there," he said, "by the fountain." It was her favorite spot, he told me, summer and winter, day or night.
"Sure," I said. I dragged the plastic Adirondack chair out of the way and lifted my end of the bed over the rock rim of my mother's flower bed. My left foot slipped from under me in the damp mulch. I twisted out of the way to keep from dropping the bed on my toes. A thunderbolt ripped up the left meridian of my spine into my forehead and behind my eyes, blinding me for a shattering instant. Half bent over, half trying to stand, I pressed my hands against the back of my hips and yelped.
I had nearly fractured my back in the same place early on in my relationship with Nina. Her family kept horses at their farm in Connecticut, and she had been riding since before she could walk. She had wanted me, as a token of my commitment to her and all things hers, to adopt this lifelong passion. We had been seeing each other for several months and things were going well enough, so we decided to take half-shares in a house in Amagansett for the summer. As we left the lawyer's office building after signing the share agreement, Nina handed me a sealed envelope.
"Don't open it until you get back to work," she said. "I want this for you. For us." She surprised me with a moist kiss full on the lips and a deft, covert squeeze just under the front flap of my jacket, then spun on her heel and disappeared into the February afternoon sidewalk crowd. I opened the envelope: riding lessons.
That summer was glorious. We abashed our housemates, strangers all and still, with our long, loud bouts of blunt lovemaking. By the end of the fourth weekend of progressively less sore thighs and deeper golden afternoon sunlight, I had gotten used to the hornless, sensitive English saddle Nina preferred. She wanted to celebrate my accomplishment on our fifth, and last, weekend—Labor Day—with a trail ride. We trotted our horses through rows of melons and late corn, their broad hooves thudding the soft ground, their heavy chests and knees parting the tall wild grasses surrounding the fields with a whisper. My saddle creaked and groaned beneath me. Mid-afternoon, we stopped under a broad locust for sandwiches of fresh tomatoes and goat cheese and kalamata olives and grainy French mustard on thick brown bread. We kissed chastely on a bluff that commanded a view of white-bellied sails—one of which looked remarkably like Brad's, Nina pointed out—in the slate-gray Sound and afterward mused over a new white wine and fresh-picked strawberries while the horses bent their bulging necks to graze.
As we headed back to the stables just before twilight, something in the woods—a snake, a rabbit, a quail—darted across the narrow path and spooked my horse, Blaze or Snow Cone or Star or whatever cutesy horsey name she had been given to denote the solitary patch of white on her narrow forehead. She screamed and reared, nearly unseating me, and bolted off in an ungaited run, bucking her hind legs wildly every few yards. The reins slipped from my fingers. I lurched sideways, my head barely dodging a tree limb, then somehow managed to right myself by grabbing the horse's mane as it whipped my face. Falling forward, I clung to her racking, lathery neck; the reins were useless. My feet and knees hugged to her big belly. I shouted her insipid name and Nina's. From behind me, I heard Nina's voice—preternaturally commanding—trying to calm her own horse as mine shot off the path and into the forest. I ducked my head under low-snapping branches as the horse made for what daylight she could find. She stopped short as we burst into an open field and flung me over her broad neck. My head missed the large rock my back landed squarely on by mere inches.
"We could've moved the rocks," my father said. He laid a hand on my shoulders and tried to raise my stooping body.
"Jesus Christ, Dad, don't touch me," I said. "Just don't touch me." I hobbled around the bed and side-stepped back across the rocks and eased myself down onto the grass. Sharp stabs of pain checked my every movement. "I need to stretch. I've got to do this before we can carry her out here. Could you help me?" He glanced back toward my mother's bedroom window. The cool, damp grass prickled through the backs of my cotton shirt and woolen pants as I lay down.
"What do you want me to do?"
Painfully, I hugged my knees to my chest and felt the muscles in my lower back stretching. I twisted my knees toward my outstretched right elbow. "Now I need you to sit down on my knees." He couldn't seem to fathom what I was saying. "It's all right. It's a yoga move. I learned it from my osteopath. I'm going to use your weight as a counterforce to try and force my back into place."
"You know, I do something similar to this before I play golf."
"That's great, Dad."
"I didn't know it was yoga, though."
"It doesn't matter." I didn't want to argue. He sat on the side of my knees, pressing them into the moist ground. I turned my head to the left, chin to shoulder, pressing both my shoulder blades into the ground. I twisted against his entire weight. "That's great. That's how Nina does it."
"I'll bet she doesn't weigh as much as I do."
"Ow. You can say that again." I laughed, wincing at his comment, at the pain, at the absurdity of the moment, and felt a dull crack deep in the bowl of my pelvis. "That's it." A wave of relief gushed up my spine. I knew this feeling. The immediate injury repaired, I would still be hobbled by the insult—the echo of the pain—until I could see Dr. Green back in New York.
That Nina stayed with me after that little episode on horseback proved something to me then, I reminded him as we headed back into the house. "It's a basic design flaw of the human body anyway," I said. I could nearly stand straight.
"Hmmm?" He seemed distracted.
"An evolutionary flaw, Dad. Practically everybody experiences lower back pain at some point." I stepped gingerly in the wet grass. "In most people it's chronic. It happens to me when I do something stupid." There had been a time when I could goad him out of a dour mood by picking an argument about religion, but that time had long passed. He said nothing. "No matter. Listen, do you have anything I can take for my back?"
"There's bound to be something left." He led me into my mother's cramped bathroom and slid open a mirrored cabinet door. I caught a glimpse of my face, contorted with pain. My hair was matted on one side. From the smudged glass shelves, I examined a series of plastic bottles with progressively later expiration dates that revealed the pilgrimage of my mother's pain and the increasingly urgent measures they had employed: aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, Darvon, Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin, Dilaudid. I took something from roughly her middle passage: two Vicodin. Though they had, effectively, expired, I figured they wouldn't yet have turned into cyanide or something worse.
My mother, or what was left of her, now lay on a small cot in their bedroom. She was dressed in a new robe of quilted Chinese silk, patterned in red and gold panels of dramatic mountain scapes. Dad had bathed her, he told me, with the delicate lavender soap she had grown fond of over the years. I had forgotten it, but Nina had sent her the first bars from our honeymoon in France to thank her for helping plan—read interfering with—our wedding. Mother had pestered her local apothecary for months until he finally special-ordered more for her. The faintest hint of lilac and dried honeysuckle seemed to have banished the antiseptic smell from her cramped room. She appeared placid and incongruously coiffed.
Earlier in the afternoon, Dad had asked 'Cinda, my mother's hairdresser, to come over. While she was beautifying my mother, he had driven over to see Dr. Milton. He returned with a small, white cardboard box just as 'Cinda was finishing up. He set the box on a shelf in his closet.
"Don't you look pretty," 'Cinda was saying as she bent over to pinch some color into my mother's flaccid cheeks. Dad sat next to Mother and took her hand. I escorted 'Cinda to the front door and gave her a twenty-dollar bill. "I'm holding your momma's regular appointment open, you know," she said. "For when she gets better."
"I'll tell her."
"She talks about you all the time," she said. "She is just so proud of you." She shook her head for emphasis.
"You did a great job. She looks..." I fumbled for the right word. "Beautiful," I said, settling, to hustle her along. "I mean, the way you fixed her up."
"Why thank you. She'd be so proud. She always was. She likes to get done up for your father."
Indeed. My mother had always prided herself on her appearance. I don't think I ever once saw her hair unkempt or her fingernails unpainted—and I'm not sure my father ever did either, at least until their later years when she took up gardening. She always rose before he did to "put her face on" and, as best as I could tell, she always went to bed after he did—after the lights were out, with her tissue curlers in and her cold cream on. And she always smelled of fresh soap and perfume and hair spray. To this day I shied away from eating fresh salads because the memory of the soapy taste of her perfume on the lettuces she handled lingered in some inaccessible region of my brain.
After 'Cinda had gone, my father drew back the drapes above my mother's bed. The last light of the sun glowed red in the sky above the silhouette of the willow tree in her garden. Her hair was darkened auburn at the roots, thickened like mascaraed eyelashes, and I could see clumps of dried henna flaking on her pale scalp between the sparse follicles. Her eyebrows had been plucked and drawn back in at a quizzical angle. What once had been wrinkles of pale skin now lay caked and rouged across her blunt cheekbones. Her lips, which she once wore brightly puckered and red, now seemed thin and pale as if they were curling inward. She wore a pair of red velvet slippers embroidered with golden seahorses. I had never seen them before. "Are you ready, honey?" my father said to her. "It's nearly time." Her eyes appeared to roll underneath her blue-painted lids.
We let her rest while my father and I ate a silent meal of canned soup and buttered white bread and strong coffee in the kitchen and later watched the evening news and an early-season college basketball game on the small television set in my mother's room. She liked basketball. He held her hand the whole time. We drank more coffee. He spoke some close words to her, reminding her of a trip they had taken or a meal they had shared or telling her not to worry, that he would be okay now that I had come back. She lay quietly on her cot with only an occasional click from the morphine drip or a slight catch in her breathing that caused my father to start.
Finally, after midnight, Dad rose and wordlessly bent down to take her in his arms. He seemed to be struggling. "I can carry her," I said.
"No, no. I can do it," he said. "I want to do this." He groaned as he lifted her body a couple inches off her cot, but he could not straighten up. He eased her back down.
"It's not a problem if I lift with my legs. Really," I said. "Here."
He rose, resigned, perhaps thankful. Perhaps shamed.
The Vicodins had kicked in; the stiffness in my lower back was merely an echo of the blinding pain that had nearly struck me down outside. I took my mother's hands in mine. Her skin was translucent and cool and covered with khaki spots. 'Cinda had painted and buffed her nails a wholesome pink, the color the skin on her fingers should have been. The tips were white crescents. The muscles in her palms gave way with my grip, and her long carpal bones seemed to float by each other beneath her loose skin.
I took hold of her feeble wrists and raised her limp body up from the cot. She offered no resistance. Her head lolled forward and to one side, but my father caught it gently amid the clear tubes running to her nose and arm. I let her body collapse across the tops of my shoulders, and though I felt a dull pain I tried not to show it. Dad took the clear plastic bags off their metallic stand and snaked the tubes around and over my head. I leaned forward and lifted her into the fireman's carry, her thinned haunches grazing my ear. Steadying myself, I made sure my back could handle the strain. She was insubstantial. I eased her up the hall and out the broad glass patio door, careful not to bang her head on the walls or doorjambs. Dad trailed us with the tangle of tubes and bags and oxygen tank.
In the cool, night-time yard, we lay her gently on the inclined hospital bed, my father cradling her head, like a newborn's, onto the pillow. I tried to raise up but her hand clutched at my lapels. Our faces were nearly touching. Her eyelids were closed, but I sensed something behind them, in the straining muscles around them. A pleading? Sorrow? Pain? I could not tell. I felt the stiffness in my back from my awkward posture and reached around to press my hand against my hip. With the other hand I balanced my weight on the mattress. Soon I felt the strength flow from her fingers and she loosened her grip.
Dad set up the steel stand for the drip bag. I cranked the bed to elevate her head further, each turn an exercise in evading further injury to my back. My father tucked a comforter up under her chin. He kneeled beside her, leaned his folded hands across her legs, and said a tearful prayer—Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane—asking that this cup be taken from him. "Nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou wilt." What moonlight there was shone blue on his face.
A deep silence came over him, and he rested his head on the edge of the bed.
"Looks like she's going to get her wish," I said after a few moments.
"Hmmm?" He looked up at the sound of my voice and began to rise.
"Remember the night you spoke to Nina and me about marriage?"
He gazed into a distracted distance, perhaps indulging a memory, or grasping after one.
"You made us answer that question about which one of us we felt should be the first to die."
He nodded his head. "I did that with all the couples I married."
That night, sitting around my parents' living room, perhaps sensing our discomfiture, Mother had jumped in: "Every couple needs to resolve the issue for themselves," she'd said. "But for your father and me, there was never any doubt. It's a simple matter of faith, really. I am sure of my salvation. I know I have been saved. So when I die I am going to a better place. A place where there will be no more suffering or grief, beyond this vale of tears."
"How can you talk like that?" I asked her.
"I have hope," she said flatly. "Look, in First Thessalonians, God tells us that the dead in Christ shall be raised first. And what a day of rejoicing that will be, eh, honey?"
"Mrs. Bethune, these are the best brownies." Nina interrupted. "Did you make them from scratch?"
"Mary Helen. Please call me Mary Helen. And yes, dear, I made them from a recipe given to me by my mother." She indulged Nina's diversion then arched an eyebrow in my father's direction. "And, Lord knows, Joseph loves them," she said.
My father ignored her fond dig and reached for another.
"What? My brownies or the Second Coming?"
He had laughed. "Both. Leastways," he took up Mother's point, "we figured that, of the two of us, I was the stronger," he said. "If I were to be first to go she would be left here all alone. We're not sure she could handle it. You know, the grief, the finances."
"Oh, heavens no. I couldn't possibly." Mother nodded her automatic assent.
"Don't be preposterous," I said. "What about me?" Nina slid an ebony strand of hair behind her right ear and turned toward me, catching my eye in her cool gaze. The better corner of her mouth curled up into a soft, supportive smile I recognized as ironic even then. She placed a silent hand on my knee.
"You have your life in New York now." My mother nodded toward Nina. "Besides, I would never want to be a bother."
Well, she was no bother now as she lay motionless on the hospital bed in her night garden.
My father patted my mother's hand and delicately kissed her forehead. His back trembled with restraint. Her breathing faltered for a beat, maybe two. He clicked the morphine drip four times, five times, then removed the tube from the catheter in her arm. He took a bag of clear liquid from the cardboard box he'd brought back from Dr. Milton's and reached to hang it on the metal stand beside the bed, but his arm failed him. The bag dangled from his hand. "Please," he said.
Its weight seemed to pull him down. I slid the grommet over the cool steel hook. He took the clear plastic tube dangling from the bag and tried to slip it into the catheter in her arm. The tremors in his hands made that impossible. "Here," I said.
A few rolls of the dosage wheel, a fizzle as I turned the valve on her oxygen tank, a brief audible sigh, a catch in her throat as if she were trying to say some last something, and quite possibly a desperate grimace behind her eyes, a slight stiffening—perhaps a last instinctive struggle she was quickly able to stifle—and it was over. Her entire body collapsed in on itself. Even her eyes seemed to sink deeper into their sockets. Who would have thought such violence could seem so easy? The taking of a life so casual?
My mother expired in her garden, as she wished, beneath the fingernail moon and the pin-prick stars in the liquid indigo sky, the wheels of her bed sunk like the bulbs of the stinking irises she loved till the last in the soft blue soil, and the low, leafless canopy of her favorite willow, to the incessant dribbling of her beloved wedding-cake fountain.
We sat silently, my father and I, two distinct bodies. Two separate minds complicit in this act, in this moment, yet no closer now across the span of my mother's deathbed than we had been this last decade across the span of miles that separated us. We stared after the sounds of the distant stream of late night truck traffic whisking down the interstate and out of town.
I would not miss my mother. I had let go of her years ago. Distance and Nina had come between us, had further loosed the ties that bound us. And now she was dead, consigned permanently to the past, to the walks of my memory. In a sense, I was free, though I did not feel it; I was too exhausted from a lack of sleep, too numb from the Vicodin to feel anything. I allowed my thoughts to drift, in the haze of that animal moment, to the obstacles that stood between me and whatever sleep awaited me that night: her body would need to be untethered from the apparatus of her death; the bag of barbiturates my father had gotten from Dr. Milton disposed of; her bed wheeled in—its trail of muddy grooves...would anyone notice? would anyone care? My head ached with the pressure, my back too. The doctor would need to be called. And the morticians. There would be yet more coffee. It all seemed endless. And then there was the flight back to New York tomorrow, and the hearing. My shirt and trousers were heavy from lying in the damp grass; they clung to my skin. I shivered in the chill night air and tried to close my eyes for an instant.
Then, through all that haze of possibility, the thought struck me with a jolt as crippling as the one that had wrenched my back. I shot upright, eyes wide. What if all was not as my father had promised? How could this act possibly go unremarked? What the hell had I been thinking? What had we—no, what had I done?