The cholesterol study ended and the next day he was hungry again, glaring at the diners through restaurant windows on Halsted, yanking at the collar of his thin, incompetent coat. Only October and already too cold; just the next day and hungry again. The human body–a bad design–always about to die, and nothing in the sky but cracked slate.
Through the windows of a chic Greektown restaurant women and men sat chatting instead of eating, dangled their loose cuffs over the bones of their fashionably thin wrists. A silky woman in olive and mauve knocked a chunk of bread on the floor and laughed, kicked it under the table with the shiny point of her shoe. Rupert watched them so he could hate them, sneered at each face in turn until, unexpectedly, he came to one he knew: it was the girl with the grapefruit cheeks, just on the other side of the glass, sitting at a white-clothed table alone with her books. She looked up–right at him. He started to run away.
“Mr. Dieckman!” She came after him on the street. “Mr. Dieckman!” Put a large dimpled hand on his arm. He tried to keep walking. “I want to talk to you!” She had a little girl voice, small in the noise of the traffic and wind. “Wait!”
He stopped and narrowed his eyes at her. Her face was too big for her hair, which came apart in brown strings at her ears. She was somehow like his daughter Emily.
“I thought you’d like to know,” she said. “There’s a new study starting–no meals but you get 150 bucks. They can’t get enough subjects. I can write down the names for you.” Pretending to be caring. He stared at her, didn’t reply. She stared back. “Or I can mail you the information,” she said in a crisp, knowing, know-it-all tone. “Give me your address.” Daring him.
He fixed his eyes on hers. She had some curiosity about him, some need to find things out about him. She’d been a sort of assistant in the cholesterol study and had scrutinized him as he ate, no matter how far down the table he sat, as far as possible from the other subjects. He’d been the only one who wasn’t a medical student, the only one past 50.
“No thank you,” he replied.
“All right.” She didn’t go away. “Well then can I buy you a cup of coffee? A snack?”
He hardened his eyes into the wind: a snack–food. He tried to think of a sharp comeback but couldn’t, all his thoughts loose and scrambling up a hill. “A snack,” he repeated, unintentionally.
“Sure, come on.”
She took him back into the warm restaurant and they sat at her table of open books, the heated air velvet against his skin. A fat waitress came and the girl ordered coffee and bread and a plate of fruit and cheese. She smiled, watched him, said, “Excuse the books. Always studying.”
“Are you a nursing student?”
“Let me guess: gynecology.”
So that was it. She saw him as an interesting case study. She was after a publication. She was scheming to ask him about his sad past, would wonder aloud how such an obviously well-educated, intellectual man came to be living in his car with winter approaching. How did this happen? she’d wonder and wonder. How did it happen? She’d pry, ask trick questions, come up with an incorrect explanation. She’d assume he had a substance abuse problem.
“My name’s Jillian Glenn,” she said and reached across to shake his hand. From then on he thought of her as Jigglian, with her Jell-O-like breasts and upper arms and borderless cheeks.
“Are you in this new study?” he asked.
“No, no, I don’t need the money. I’m a rich poor girl–that’s what I like to call myself. When I was 11 years old my mom was in an awful car accident and we got a ton of settlement money–she was hit by a very wealthy drunk.” The food arrived and she picked up the smallest apple slice, held it. He sat waiting, not wanting to eat in front of her. She chattered on: “Her entire face was torn off in the accident. My dad freaked and took off and she and I got all the loot.” Like his daughter, she spoke in clipped, certain sentences about perceived injustices. Then she grinned weirdly: “The paramedics had to go back to the car to look for her nose.”
“You should’ve gone into plastic surgery.”
She paused, studied the apple slice. “I’m researching the long-term psychosocial effects of trauma and disease on family relationships.”
So that was it: she expected to hear all about his sad family medical history. He could make up stories to screw up her database.
“You’re obviously an educated man… ” she said, holding the plate up to his chin and making him take a piece of bread, a chunk of cheese. He set the food down on the napkin in front of him, not eating. “Maybe you could help me with something.”
“Why would I do that?”
She tried to not look startled. “Well, because maybe I could help you.”
“I doubt that very much.”
Her face deadened. She stared across the restaurant, at two lovers: she was such an ugly girl, she probably never got a date. Suddenly she ripped a page from a notebook and wrote down two names and a phone number. “In case you change your mind. These two doctors are starting a study of irritable bowel syndrome and they need healthy volunteers to compare with patients.” She grinned the weird grin, to show him she knew something he didn’t, then folded up her books. “I have to go now, Mr. Dieckman, you stay and eat.” She put down two tens to cover a nine-dollar check and didn’t say good-bye.
He took his time eating and when he finished he stayed at the table to annoy the waitress. He stayed until the afternoon light broke up into hard purple bruises, then walked out, stood, buttoned the old overcoat. All summer he hadn’t been able to imagine the weather growing cold. He’d had no physical memory of winter. Now he couldn’t recall warmth. He remembered the numbers from last year, when he still had his apartment over the thrift shop on Pulaski–five below zero for ten days in a row–and the TV weatherman saying, “We’re paying for that warm fall weather now!” Everyone was an idiot.
He walked to the end of the block, through a cold belch of bus exhaust, and turned west, down a street of boxy old warehouses and vacant parking lots, brown grass sprouting from wide cracks in the concrete, clumps of chicken wire strewn around. Ahead was a construction site–one of the many warehouses converting into condos. What kind of idiot would buy a place in an area like this, treeless and full of blowing trash, at the juncture of three highways? Four blocks away, across one of the highways, was the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus, urban and modern and bleak, constructed of dark cement, always dripping and gray. Rupert had completed his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago, surrounded by brilliance, but that was decades ago.
He walked another block to his car–a ’78 Buick that had never run well but had bigger seats than any foreign car. He climbed in and Ibid jumped into his lap.
She licked the side of his neck and he scratched her wiry ears, got her Mighty Dog out of the glove compartment. Mighty Dogs had pull rings: you didn’t need a can opener. Sliced Beef in Gravy was her favorite. He found her blue bowl under the seat, dumped the food in, and tried to get some reading done before the evening light was gone. He reread a passage from Joseph Butler:
“But there is a superior principle of reflection or conscience in every man, which distinguishes between the internal principles of his heart, as well as his external actions: which passes judgment upon himself and them; pronounces determinately some actions to be in themselves just, right, good; others to be in themselves evil, wrong, unjust… ”
He let his head drop back against the seat. Now he wished he hadn’t dumped his friend Bill, who’d said he could pull strings and get him a class at Roosevelt in January. He missed teaching. And Bill knew a hotel doorman who let them sit in the lobby, where they talked university politics, lent each other books, argued about the place of Joseph Butler, an 18th-century philosopher, in a contemporary discussion of ethics. Bill had been his only friend. He’d taught Rupert how to sleep in his car without getting caught: move the car twice a day, keep the dog dish hidden under the seat, and for Pete’s sake take the framed five-by-seven photo of the granddaughter off the dashboard. But one night Bill had turned up disgusting and drunk, sobbing in public about his wife who’d left him and his daughter who’d called him a drunk, and when a policeman moved toward them Rupert had stepped back, pretended not to know him, kept stepping back.
When the light failed he clicked on his flashlight and continued to read:
“But to deny a present appetite, from foresight that the gratification of it would end in immediate ruin or extreme misery, is by no means an unnatural act: whereas to contradict or go against cool self-love for the sake of such gratification, is so.”
Bill was wrong: this new generation of students–this new horde of irresponsible moral relativists–needed Joseph Butler. Some things were simply wrong. Young people needed to know this.
Ibid lay asleep on his lap and he stroked her coarse head, felt calmer. Thank God for Ibid. “You take the dog,” Francine had said, almost kindly, as though she cared about him, showing off her grand magnanimity, the bitch, keeping everything but the dog. Second wives are bitches, Bill had remarked. It was true. Rupert shouldn’t have left Ruth for Francine. Ruth at least was not a vindictive bitch.
Night collected in the car and he switched off the flashlight, sat in the orange glow of the streetlamps and the city sky. He let his eyes close and tried to shut off the images in his mind, but there was Francine’s face, bloated and self-righteous. No, he should not have left Ruth for Francine six years ago. He should have left Ruth for Hazel, back in 1971, back in Philadelphia. He should have run then, when he was still young–but he was so young and still in the ministry, going around believing in duty and responsibility and loyalty and God. He’d let his chance get away; he hadn’t seized the day.
He closed his eyes harder and tried to recall the details of her face. Hazel. The sound of her name stretched out, lazy and luxurious, in his head. Where was she now? He remembered her hair in light piles on her shoulders and bare arms, the shape of her smile, her droopy eyes. Remembering her was an indulgence. Hazel, she’d said, smiling, because my eyes used to be, but they’re really brown, and my name is really Isabel. Standing in her pristine nurse’s uniform, her legs thin and strong in her chunky nurse’s shoes. She was small like a child, frozen in that moment, running her eyes all around his face. But he’d been strong–been up her stairs only once, inside her apartment only once, on her mattress on the floor, inside her only once. He let his thoughts go, let himself remember.
They’d met in line in the hospital cafeteria. She was sympathetic. The more he talked about Ruth’s health problems, the bigger they got: Ruth was incurable, Ruth would be an invalid, Ruth would die. They only had one child and now there would be no more. Hazel smiled and gazed and listened, seemed to understand everything. In her eyes was something he couldn’t identify–a look of incredulity, of laughing. He saw her every day at the hospital, and after a week he walked with her to her place, ten blocks through the breezeless gritty Philly heat, around corners and into her neighborhood of old row houses and little convex lawns. Her apartment was the second floor of a duplex, next to a drugstore called Lipshultz’s. She lived in three square rooms with no furniture: she preferred wide-open spaces, she said. Unlike other women, ordinary women, who wanted houses crammed with bulging sofas, mahogany china cabinets, matching recliners, claw-footed coffee tables. He stood next to the mattress on the floor and looked through the open curtainless window, at the flat asphalt roof of a garage in the alley. The air smelled of pizza. She went to get him a bottle of Coke. He took a sip and set it on the floor and they kissed and unbuttoned each other quickly. She pressed him onto the mattress and she stayed on top, slid up and down on him as he lay still, the upward motion effortless, the downward motion full of struggle, grasping, broken breathing. Never again, he said to her afterward and she examined him with the laughing eyes and drank some of his Coke. They stayed on the bed talking. She spoke in mottoes: “Never own more than you’re willing to leave behind,” she said, half singing. She had a plan to work her way west, across the U.S., then to Australia. “Never pack more than you can carry.” He nodded, nodded–he knew just what she meant. Yes, yes. His life had become so heavy. His life was a weight he could hardly drag along. “Never wear shoes you can’t run in!” she went on in her laughing tone, dressing now, wiggling her feet into the practical nursing shoes.
“I can’t see you anymore, Hazel,” he’d blurted. “It’s wrong.” She didn’t reply. What had she been thinking? At the time he hadn’t even wondered–he’d assumed she was thinking what he was: that they’d say it was over but it wouldn’t really be, couldn’t be–not this passion. They’d pretend it was over and dream of each other every moment and they’d wait–she would wait for him–until Ruth died and he’d be free to have Hazel with a clear conscience.
So every moment he dreamed of her. He sat stoic by Ruth’s bed during the ACTH treatments, got up to lean out the door and look down the long blank corridor for a glimpse of Hazel. He would walk past her at the nursing station and stare, and she’d raise her eyebrows. Then, one day, Hazel wasn’t there. His anticipation intensified, his dreaming grew wilder. The next day he rushed back and again she wasn’t there. Another nurse told him: she’d quit. She was gone–simply gone–no one at the hospital could say where. He phoned her and got no answer. He walked to the duplex and no one had seen her. Gone.
He couldn’t stop suffering. He had to walk slowly and sit slowly to keep the pan of acid in his chest from spilling over. For months he couldn’t get over it, but he had to get over it, so he left the ministry and found a teaching job and never missed another chance–he took up with a waitress, a secretary, a woman on a bus, the teenager next door, and finally Francine–women and girls who wouldn’t stay frozen in moments, who jumped out of the picturesque, got bitchy, made demands.
Ibid jingled awake and he shook himself out of this trance. He stretched out on the car seat, his boy-sized frame an advantage now, tucked the edges of the overcoat under his legs and arms, shuddered. A list of debts played in his head: credit cards, $700 a month; storage bins, $174 a month; gas, $40; post office box, $15; Mighty Dog, $60; food. He’d need boots. He owed checks to Ruth and Francine. His daughter had sent him money, but he’d spent it on blue jeans, which wouldn’t wrinkle while he slept in the car. The list played and replayed, each time with a new addition.
Every morning when he woke, he wondered how he’d fallen asleep the night before.
The names on the page were Dr. Garry and Dr. Rose. He assumed these were last names but was insulted by them anyway–names like characters on a kids’ show. He packed his bag of books–his Joseph Butler, some Kierkegaard, a new book on ethics–and reported for the screening.
The interviewer was a typical grad student assistant, a stiff, pale young guy who moved in jerks, tried to make jokes, then suddenly tried to be professional.
“Family history,” he said with the face of a statue. Rupert sat in a plastic school desk across from him and read the form upside down. The student was reading off a list of possible illnesses, translating the medical terms into simple lay terms–“heart” for cardiovascular, “tumor” for cancer–apparently thinking Rupert was an idiot.
“My wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of 26,” Rupert barked.
“This is just blood relatives.”
Of course. Rupert burned. “My father died of a myocardial infarction when he was 57 years old. Two years later my mother died of carcinoma of the breast.”
The student showed no emotion, made marks in boxes. Then he asked, “How many medical studies have you participated in to date?”
“You think I do this for a living?”
The student waited for an answer.
“Have you ever sold any blood or blood products?”
“Yes and I’m HIV-negative,” Rupert sneered. In the ensuing silence, he made himself relive the plasma experience. He’d only been able to do it once, though the pay increased with the number of times you sold it–he couldn’t bear the feel of the blood pumped back into his body cold, like an eel slithering up inside his arm, the way embalming fluid must feel. He had a horror of hospitals and all medical procedures.
The student explained the study: “We want to know if patients with irritable bowel syndrome are more sensitive to pain in the colon than normal people.”
“You want another publication on your CV. Your name goes last, you know, if it’s on at all.”
The student tried to look cavalier, went on: “It goes like this. First we have you drink four liters of PEG 4000 to drain you. I mean, to produce a watery stool. The PEG’s OK–it tastes kind of like warm Jell-O. Then you undergo an enema procedure, then the colonoscopy, to make sure you don’t have polyps. That won’t hurt, though sometimes the upper colonic sphincters remain tense due to psychological control.” He began to talk too fast and Rupert’s skull began to feel fuzzy. He tried to concentrate, focused on the blank wall behind the student’s head, where a window should have been.
“The next day we do the study procedure.”
“The next day?”
“They told you you have to stay overnight, right?”
Overnight? Rupert shifted in his plastic seat. Who would feed Ibid? She’d get lonely by herself in the shut-up car, all night long. He could see it, feel it: she’d be alert every moment, thinking that the door was about to click open and a friendly hand would reach in. Waiting, all alone, wondering where everyone was, why nobody cared, hours passing with no click, no tender hand. Eventually she’d give up and fall asleep. Then in the morning she’d wake up and begin to hope all over again.
“Mr. Dieckman? Are you listening?”
“Of course I’m listening.”
“The study itself is done in two stages. First is the stepwise inflation. The balloon is inserted up the anus and inflated in 100-mill increments until you experience a perceivable sensation of pain. Two hours later they’ll do the intermittent inflation to discomfort. The balloon is held at that volume to make sure you’re feeling pain. You pick up your check Friday at the cashier’s office. Here it is on the map.” He gave Rupert a map, Xeroxed many times, with a much-Xeroxed circle around the office where you could get money.
Rupert hesitated. “Just exactly how big does this balloon get?”
“You mean in theory?”
“You don’t know in actuality?”
“Well, we don’t know how big it’ll get in you. Big enough to hurt.”
“How big do you think it will get?”
“I have no idea.”
“OK, then, how big in theory?”
“These balloons can inflate to 700 mills.”
“Steel mills? Paper mills?”
“Milliliters.” The student began to vibrate.
“This is a lousy explanation. Do these doctors know what a poor communicator you are? You’re giving me no point of comparison.”
“As big as a mayonnaise jar!”
Rupert rose, imagined himself very tall. “You’re not doing the procedure, are you?”
“No,” the student heaved and stood up between Rupert and the door. “You ready? You still want to do this?”
They began walking. At the end of the first blank hall were the two dim windows of the nursery, watching them like dead eyes. Around the corner was another long corridor, empty of people but full of gurneys, metal carts, and wheelchairs, abandoned, askew, prickly with fluorescent light. Down another hall the doors closed one by one just as Rupert and the student reached them. Around another corner, by a pair of elevator doors, two men in surgical masks stood on either side of a woman with burn scars on her arms and neck and no face.
“Here we are,” the student called out cheerfully, then left him in the “research room.”
It was almost empty–no shelves, cabinets, or drawers–just a table along one wall and a few spotlights. It must have been a converted storage closet. Rupert changed into the hospital gown and crinkled onto the examination bed. A mute nurse came to give him giant cups of goop to drink and returned to finish him off with enemas. He waited for hours after this procedure, he supposed so that he wouldn’t splat on the doctor during the colonoscopy.
Jigglian leaned in through the door. “Kevin told me you were here. How are you?”
“How do you think?” He lay on his side, knees tight together in front of his stomach. “Who’s Kevin?”
“The grad assistant who did your screening and who is currently in a bar on Taylor Street doing shots of tequila.”
Rupert grinned. She stepped into the room and let the door swing shut, rested her back against the wall.
“You’re a college professor, aren’t you? I can tell by your bag of books, and the way you talk–like you expect everyone to write down everything you say.”
He listened to his own loud breathing.
“So why are you living in your car?”
“You’re trying to use me as a case study.”
“Please–it takes all my energy just to listen to you. I’m just concerned.” No reply. “OK, I’ll take a guess. You have a drinking problem and you made passes at undergraduates and they fired you for moral turpitude.”
“I have never had a drinking problem.” He paused to give this proper emphasis. “They wouldn’t give me tenure because I’m not female or a minority.”
“Oh I see. You were shut out by all those women and minorities holding senior faculty positions.”
“I am not personally responsible for all the injustices in the world.”
“I didn’t say you were, did I? All right, so you lost the teaching job, then what?”
“I’ve had several high-level positions.”
“And you keep getting fired because your bosses are always idiots, right?”
“You’re a lousy analyst.”
“You’re a big asshole.”
Their eyes met, and they got the joke in the same instant. She laughed and he almost did, but instead suspected she was making fun of him.
“I don’t need to lie here and be abused,” he said.
“No, you don’t. So why are you?” Silence. “What are you going to do when winter comes?”
“What are you going to do when you’re an insufferable old maid with nothing better to do than try to help people who don’t want your help?”
He didn’t watch her staring at him. He heard her footsteps thump toward him, and her hand appeared on his shoulder. “You’re icy. Do you want another blanket?” More silence. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
He thought of asking her to walk by his car to check on Ibid. But he paused, and she must have gotten tired of waiting, must not have been sincere: he watched the backs of her thick legs go out the door and the door swing shut.
Alone, he imagined Ibid alone. What if his car were stolen in the night? What if it were towed away? He imagined returning the next day and not finding it, finding only an empty space. Finding it gone, simply gone. The sound of gone howled through him, cut him into a canyon and echoed there.
He closed his eyes and saw himself as a paper doll, one of his daughter’s paper dolls, then as the boy with a hole puncher, crimping away until he was confetti.
Dr. Rose came to do the colonoscopy. She was a strained, compact woman with a leathery face who seemed eastern European, South American, Indian–the accent came and went. She was not gentle or caring.
“This won’t hurt,” she told him and shoved the colonoscope up his rectum. He gasped, tensed, tried counting to 20 in German. Tried thinking about Joseph Butler, Bill, Francine, Hazel.
“Relax, relax, Mr. Rupert.”
Dieckman, he could not say. The instrument telescoped deeper inside him and his muscles kept tightening, making the pain worse. Relax, relax. She only got rougher, irritated by his reaction, and the more he wanted to escape the pain the worse it got, tensing, tensing, until he came unstuck from his muscles and bones and started to drift away. It was like falling asleep. He began to dream. He drifted over cornfields, slow and soundless, across rows and rows of yellows and browns. He tried to dream of Hazel, of her arms around him, but he felt himself start to move faster over the fields, faster, faster across rows and rows of months and years, swept across the flat landscape from dreams to memory–to Ruth, the color of cornfields, sitting in her brown recliner in the small blue living room, always sitting, watching reruns of M*A*S*H, the upholstery-colored age spots on the backs of her hands spreading upward, fading her into the chair. Faded and mute as he clanked hangers together in search of his coat, as he shoved his arms into sleeves, ran for the door, late for his date with someone–some woman, who knew which–making sure not to look back but accidentally seeing her reflected in the mirror by the front door, short and lumpy in the flabby chair. Before he could stop it, his own voice cried out in his head, Why don’t you just die? Just die! He tried not to think it. Five years, maybe less, he’d thought, and 15 years later here she was, still, and he was old, his whole life wasted on responsibility, on an invalid wife who sat disintegrating in a chair, whom he couldn’t stand to be near. Look away, go, go fast, run! Find a woman who isn’t always dying. He had to turn to close the door behind him and he saw her again, disappearing in the crack, her eyes suddenly on him, full of helpless sadness, and he recalled a time when they were young, when she sat tilted back on the front porch steps of her parents’ house, with blond bangs and a ponytail and pink lipstick, a smooth neck above a round neckline. How he’d worshiped her. He pulled the door shut and made her vanish, but she stayed with him, behind the door, sitting, waiting to die, waiting to be done.
“Done!” Dr. Rose announced. “See? No pain at all.”
His voice croaked, “It was a nightmare.”
“Such melodrama!” she scolded, packing her things and shutting him in the room for the night. He slept dreamless on the thin cool mattress, and the next morning woke having to remember where he was.
Dr. Garry and Dr. Rose came together to do the mayonnaise jar procedure. Dr. Garry’s explanation seemed different from the graduate assistant’s: “First we inflate the balloon.” He was loud, too familiar, waggling a piece of rubber in Rupert’s face. “Then we increase the pressure, which makes it harder, not bigger. Like a football.”
Was it or was it not going to get as big as a mayonnaise jar? Rupert pretended to understand, detesting this lively man who bounded across the room and talked in football metaphors. Dr. Garry was himself like a football, with nubby tan skin and a tight oblong belly. Rupert was more like a bread stick.
“Just do it,” he said.
The catheter up the anus was not as bad as the scope. Then Dr. Garry began to pump. Dr. Rose stood by with a clipboard.
“You just let us know when it starts to feel uncomfortable,” said Dr. Garry’s peppy voice.
Rupert could feel the thing inside him: a Ping-Pong ball, a tennis ball…”Ow,” he said.
“What, already? Are you sure? You’re experiencing discomfort now? Let’s do another hundred mills to be certain.”
Dr. Rose whispered in her dark accent: “It’s not consistent with our previous data.”
Rupert said, “It hurts.”
“It hurts really? Now be certain–is this pain you’re feeling, or is this discomfort?”
“This is–this–fuck this.”
The doctors’ whispers were frantic behind him. Dr. Rose pretended to be offended by his foul language.
“Now we’re only at 300 mills,” Dr. Garry complained. “Most of our control subjects report only mild discomfort at this point. Are you sure of your response?”
“I’m sh–sh–shit, shit.”
Silence. Papers rustled behind him: they were looking at his medical history. His rectum began to throb.
“OK!” Rupert yelled out. “Mild discomfort! It’s mild discomfort!”
From behind him came a pleased murmuring. Dr. Garry pumped up the balloon three more times.
“Now it hurts,” he gasped.
“All right!” Dr. Garry cheered. Dr. Rose scribbled. Rupert felt the air wheeze out of the balloon and the catheter wiggle out of his anus.
“Back in a couple hours,” Dr. Garry sang out, and they left.
Alone again, wanting to sleep, he could still feel the sensation of the balloon, growing harder, larger, suffocating him from the inside. A long pain shot up his back and he couldn’t catch his breath. Maybe he’d die. He imagined himself dead, crumpled up on the thin mattress, discovered eventually by Jillian, who would shriek out and hug his shoulders.
If he died, his daughter Emily would have to come all the way to Chicago with the baby, stay in a motel, make long-distance calls, look at caskets. She’d be inconvenienced and angry and she’d think about how he’d left her mother. He knew how she would feel: time would go by and still she’d be angry, wouldn’t know how to settle herself, lacking the skills to make peace with the past. He knew how it would be: time would pass and she would realize that life was not going to be what she had expected–not full of joy, but full of death–and like him, she would not know how to bear it: she would try to escape from it. She would try to run away and find there was no place to go. The losses would pile up and she would begin to feel suffocated by them, restless to break free of her shrinking life, angry at everyone because there was no one to blame, pushing people away to get more space, leaving people so she wouldn’t have to suffer their loss, growing lonelier and angrier, pieces of herself falling away, falling away, until she was nothing but falling, a rock slide, leaving no land on which to build–only a place to abandon.
When he slept he dreamed he was a young man again, at his first job in the ministry, back in Virginia, sitting outside their front door on a pink kitchen chair. And Emily was two years old, running across their cool bright yard of 31 pine trees, wearing a sundress that Ruth had made–a dress of big red and white checks, like a tablecloth, which he’d laughed at. Ruth came out the door with a tumbler of lemonade for him and asked didn’t he want to move into the shade? Wasn’t he too warm? Should she run in and get his sunglasses? And Emily galloped up with a big droopy leaf to show him and climbed onto his knee and his heart was bursting with dreams of their future.
He was wakened by the doctors returning to do the second procedure. He would not be able to return to that dream. This time he lay still as a corpse as they inserted the catheter up his anus. He refrained from saying fuck, let them inflate their balloon until it hurt and hurt more and became unbearable.
They were elated, all their data consistent, their faith in predictability intact.
Dr. Garry bounded out and Dr. Rose gave him a coupon for a free cafeteria meal. He sat up, pieces falling away.
The day he was paid he had dinner in the same restaurant on Halsted: calamari, saganaki, Greek-style chicken and potatoes, baklava, and a Coca-Cola. He sat in the window at the table he’d shared with Jigglian, the radiator toasting his feet. Outside the traffic was silent, cars and taxis gliding on a light polish of snow, like a ballet.
Jigglian walked by. She looked in, saw him, smiled, came in, and settled into the chair across from him. “May I join you?”
“Cold night,” she said. “It’s going to be a rough winter.”
“So? What will you do? Stay in shelters?”
“Me? In a shelter?” She didn’t reply. He said, “I’m thinking of going to California–Los Angeles,” and grew dreamy. In LA they did research on radiation–warm, peaceful beams, unearthly particle streams that caused no sensations. But the car–so unreliable.
“You’re too proud. You ought to get a job at McDonald’s or something.”
“The pay at McDonald’s wouldn’t cover the rent.”
“Isn’t there someone you could ask for help? A daughter or a son? Even an ex-wife?”
“No,” he replied, and wondered what had become of Jigglian’s father.
Her chin wrinkled. “OK.” She handed him a scrap of paper with two new names on it. “There’s another study starting. It’s not as bad as the last one–no invasive procedures. And it might not be so bad for you. You’d be out of the cold and you could read all day.”
He took the paper, squinted at the writing without reading the names. “What is it?”
“It’s a bedsore study. You’d have to lie in a hospital bed and keep as still as you can, like you’re paralyzed, until you get bedsores. But you’d be out of the cold for 12 weeks.”
“You’d be off the street during the worst part of winter.”
“I can’t do that,” he said inaudibly. Right now Ibid would be lying on her blanket in the backseat, quiet but alert, waiting for the heart-stopping click of the door.
“Keep the names,” she said.
He thought of asking Jigglian to take care of the dog. But she looked like the type of girl who had cats–three or four in a studio apartment–big, lanky black-and-white cats. Black with little white noses. He pictured them sitting like tall thin statues in a bay window full of hanging plants.
“I gotta run,” she said and squeezed his hand. Where are you going? he wanted to ask. Are you going away? He watched her lumber down the street and tried to recall the name of the candy striper in Philadelphia, the homely girl who’d held his hand and given him a tissue when he stood crying in the corridor, after Ruth’s diagnosis and before he met Hazel.
Warmth, food, but no movement. The human body so needy. After two days he was sick of reading in bed. After three, day and night were no longer opposites, diluted to the same white liquid in a fluorescent pool. He’d put out all the dog food he had. Would it be enough? How much time did she have left?
He fell asleep, woke up, remembered not to move, started to hope again: at any moment, Jillian would lean in and ask how he was and this time he would not be sarcastic. He’d motion to her. Jillian. He’d ask her to get his car and take care of Ibid. He’d ask her nicely, softly; he’d grasp her hand. She would smile and give his hand a squeeze and everything would be all right.
He fell asleep, w0oke, started to hope, fell asleep again. He dreamed he was leaving, closing the door, abandoning her, her paws up against the glass, stretching up to say good-bye, good-bye, her eyes full of helpless sadness. Don’t leave me. He awoke almost crying and spent a long moment realizing that the dream was true. He’d left her behind to die. He’d left her behind alone to die, because he believed it was the only way he could survive.
But surely Jillian would come. The noise of the television and the nurses at the door and someone’s laughter was muffled by his not moving, by his absence from time. Time was far away, in Francine’s house, in Ruth’s house, in Emily’s house. Time was in his car. His body oozed white onto the sheet; thin cotton bled into him. She’d be in. People he didn’t know came in, left.
He fell asleep and didn’t dream. The layer between mind and world thickened, hardened, but there kept being the instant of waking before remembering, when he thought of himself as whole, and he was hopeful.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Hornschemeier.