A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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In the dream, I am packing lunch boxes, making peanut-butter sandwiches for children who will grow up to be famous: cutting off the crusts for Gertrude Stein, packing steak tartare for Charlie Manson, putting ketchup and cottage cheese in separate little sterilized containers for Richard Nixon. As I awaken, I am polishing an apple for the bishop.
I roll over, open my eyes. The bishop. Cancer. Our new bishop has cancer. Bone-marrow. Only one in a hundred people who get cancer get that kind, and one in a hundred people who get that kind get the exact kind he’s got. If they give him chemotherapy and radiation for five months, he has a 30 percent chance of a three-year remission. It seems when you get cancer, they load you up with numbers and probabilities that make you wish you had paid closer attention in your statistics class.
I pull myself out of bed. In fifteen minutes I am packing lunches in real life and thinking, What would you give Ernest Hemingway for lunch? A fishing rod, a spear?
“Mom. Mom.” My son Judd drops a handful of chocolate chips into his cereal bowl.
“What?” I say.
“You’re not paying attention.” The boy is wise beyond his years.
“I am,” I say, “I am. I’m just paying attention to something else.”
“Well, will you be at my game today? I might get to play first base.”
“Of course I will.”
I would give Babe Ruth six candy bars for lunch. He was not a man held captive by his lipid count.
The bishop’s wife says he has started having fried eggs for breakfast, and sausage, and butter on his toast.
I am late for work. I am almost always late, but not this late. I hate my job, but there is no way I can leave it until two weeks after I am dead, and even then I’ll need a death certificate in triplicate. Driving to work, I stare at other drivers while I’m stopped at lights, looking for a likely candidate to assume financial responsibility for me and the kids. It’s not exactly the fast track to remarriage, but at least it avoids the bar scene.
“You’ve got your review today,” my secretary says, as though this were something a person might forget. Actually, I had forgotten. “Mr. Peterson was looking for you a half-hour ago.”
I tap lightly on Peterson’s door, hoping to sound soft and fluttering, like a sparrow or a thrush beating gently, trying to get in. I’ve got birds on the brain. A demented robin has been hurling his full weight, all seven or eight ounces of himself, against the picture window above my kitchen sink. I can even hear him from upstairs. The first time I heard him, I was afraid to come downstairs. It sounded like a burglar who was having trouble finding things. The robin bangs against my window four or five times a day now, but the moment I walk into the kitchen, he flies away.
“Ms. Welsh, please sit down,” Peterson says. Peterson calls everybody Ms. except his wife. He calls her “the missus.” “I’m afraid I was expecting you some time ago.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumble. “Traffic.”
“Yes. Well. Ms. Welsh, not to put too fine a point upon it, but I am afraid your work has been less than satisfactory. Babson says your creative work is strong, but he finds you rather lacking in application. What do you think?”
I think this man watches too much British television.
“I mean, Ms. Welsh, what exactly can you point to in the way of recent accomplishments?”
I packed Gandhi’s lunch box: two tin thermoses of tap water and four grapes. I don’t say it.
“What do you have to show for your time?”
I see the row of lunch boxes lined up across his desk. And, oh, yes, I want to say, I spent three hours of my workday yesterday sitting with a dying bishop.
I hardly know the bishop. I don’t even call him by his first name. But I know his wife, Patty, and I told her to call me if she needed anything. So when she had to go to Baltimore and asked would I mind too awfully much sitting with the bishop until their teenage daughter got home from school, I said of course not.
“He gets pretty loopy sometimes with the sedatives they give him — for the nausea,” Patty said. “Unsteady on his pins.”
He’s doing chemotherapy at home. I always thought chemotherapy had to be done in hospitals with large gray machines.
“Oh, but I forgot,” Patty said. “You’ve got to work.”
“No problem. Really,” I said. ‘‘They hardly notice me when I am there.”
Before I set out for the bishop’s house, I put on earrings and extra lipstick and my low black boots (my only winter footwear, not counting fuzzy slippers and serious snow boots; I am not a shoe person). The black leather is scuffed in several places, so I grab a magic marker and start coloring in the worst spots. This takes a good two winters off their age, but as I start on the second one I catch a mental glimpse of what I must look like from the outside, and I suddenly feel pathetic. I can afford to buy a pair of boots I don’t have to ink in for special occasions. I can buy them, but I don’t.
“Come in, come in,” Patty greets me at the door. “You’ll have to take your shoes off. Tom’s a closet Buddhist.”
At first I think she means he’s in some trance state that my loud footsteps might disturb; then I remember that Buddhists favor bare or stocking feet.
“I hope you brought a book,” Patty says. “Tom will be working. Joan will be home from school at four. Come this way.” She leads me to the paneled den. Her voice gets chipper. “The worst part of this entire disease is that it meant we had to buy a La-Z-Boy recliner. We held our coats up over our faces in the store so no one would see us. We were absolutely mortified. Ta-dah!”
She’s pointing to the La-Z-Boy. She’s also pointing to the bishop, who looks skimpy in the enormous chair. “Tom, this is Phoebe. Phoebe, this is Tom.”
“In short, Ms. Welsh, I think we shall have to consider very carefully indeed to what extent, if any, your continued association with Peterson and Bland Associates is in the best interests of the company — or, for that matter, yourself. Come, come. You can’t be happy here.”
I look at the mole on Peterson’s left earlobe. The first time I met him, I thought it was an earring. I try to think when was the last time anybody wondered out loud whether I was happy. Does Peterson want me to be happy? Is it expected of me?
“I ’m happy you could come,” the bishop says. His eyes are just as nice as in the pictures I have seen. “Nice of you to sit and watch me work.” He speaks as if he is a novice at this business of being sick: self-conscious, awkward in his role. He would probably feel more at ease in his cone-shaped hat and heavy robes, with his tall shepherd’s crook, standing in an Episcopal church somewhere, laying hands on bent heads, touching them just as he was touched by someone who was touched by someone who was touched, and so on, and so on, back to Saint Peter or Sir Thomas More — I can never remember which. In the 1680s, two priests took a boat from Virginia back to England just to have their heads touched in that way, then turned right around and sailed back to America. They spent five and a half months in a smelly boat on heaving seas so that the succession might remain intact, the line of bishops be unbroken. I look at this bishop in his La-Z-Boy and imagine he would rather be fighting nausea on a swelling tide out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1687 than be sitting here with his wife’s friend, waiting to be sick.
“Well,” Tom the Bishop says. That’s what I call him in my mind. Tom is too familiar; Bishop Heminger, too High-Church. “Well,” he says. “I guess this is it.”
I’m not sure if he means his life or the arrangements for the slow part of the afternoon.
“Can I get you anything?” I say. “Coffee? Tea? Something cold?” Whenever things threaten to get complicated, I offer liquids. I think a lot of people do.
“No, no, sit down. Please. Tell me something about yourself.” He smiles with tired eyes.
Well, I don’t have cancer, or not that I know about is the first phrase that comes to mind. The words stop just short of my lips, and I smile back at him. I feel dopey and wordless, as though anything I might say would come out sounding like hopeful gibberish. It seems so unfair that, even in the face of death, we must sit and struggle to squeeze all of our accumulated sadness and puzzlement through the narrow funnel of words, making do with the same tired language we have used everywhere for everything, just as, in the middle of his dying, this bishop must depend on La-Z-Boy recliners and Tums and Rolaids and his wife’s new friends.
“I guess you know I’m sick,” Tom the Bishop says, and I’m relieved the spotlight is back on him.
“Mmm,” I say. “Yes.”
“I never figured on this,” he says. “Not in a million years. I thought I would have a heart attack at eighty-eight at home in bed. I am not a remarkable person, and this is a remarkable disease. But I’m sure you don’t want to hear this.”
What to say? “Yes, I do”? “No, I don’t”? I look at his eyes.
“I can’t get over the surprise,” he says, and lifts himself a little to resettle his weight. He is floppy-looking in his big chair. “When I was a boy, my brother got TB. He was away at a sanitarium for eighteen months, and every day that he was gone, I stayed healthy. All day, every day, I was so very healthy. For my mother. She needed it so much. I wasn’t sick one time in a year and a half. I couldn’t be. And ever since then I’ve been the healthy one, the one who never catches anything. And, you know, the surprising thing is that it was me my mother loved best. You’d think it would be the other way around, that she would love the one who needed her most. But no, I was the favorite son. I keep thinking she would be really pissed if she were alive to see me now.”
I blink. I didn’t think bishops said people were pissed, not even their dead mothers. But then, it’s not as though I’ve known that many bishops. Come to think of it, Tom is my first one.
“What your family thinks of you makes so much difference,” he goes on. “My son, Max, is furious with me for getting sick. I feel like I’ve let him down. But Patty — Patty continues to march unimpeded, though all the forces of hell be arrayed against her. She is a formidable woman, dauntless. It’s frightening, really, how strong she is. Even when she breaks down, she’s tough. She breaks down into tough little nuggets.” He takes a careful drink out of an oversized Pittsburgh Steelers mug, using a bent plastic straw. “I played the trumpet when I was in high school. I always wanted to play football, and instead I played trumpet in the marching band. It’s funny how things like that still matter when you’re coming up on dying. Do you want to play?”
He motions at my hands, and I realize I’m shuffling a deck of cards I have picked up from the table. “Oh, no,” I say. “I don’t even play cards, really. It’s just a nervous shuffle.” I put the cards down and clasp my hands together in my lap.
“Do I make you nervous?” The bishop gives me a church smile.
“No, no,” I say. “I’m always like this. I get relaxed about once a year.”
“I’ve always been relaxed,” he says.
“And healthy,” I say.
“And healthy.” He leans back in the chair and lets his eyes flutter shut. “Maybe I’ll sleep, then.”
“Oh, sure. Yes. Please do.” I pick up a book from the end table beside me to show him how OK it is.
He sleeps for a long time, and I enjoy the quiet of the afternoon while everybody in the world is off being busy. It brings back a feeling I remember from when my children took naps, a sense of being somehow outside ordinary time and space. I flip through the book, which is all about how you can control the vicissitudes of your immune system through what you think and how you breathe and how much broccoli you eat. I study the picture of the author on the back of the book jacket. She’s wearing enough eye makeup to stimulate any number of immune-system reactions.
The bishop slowly blinks awake. “Lie down,” he says, all fogged over. “Lie down upstairs.” He gets up and wobbles, so I take his arm and match his steps, as we hobble like two eighty-seven-year-olds across the slate floor, take the single step up to the living room, and then are another century getting up the stairs. Once in the bedroom, the bishop falls across the bed still holding tightly to my arm, so that he pulls me down beside him. At first I think it’s accidental, but when I try to rise, his grip remains firm. I look at him. His eyes are closed, and I think maybe he’s in pain and holding on until the spasm passes.
“Be still,” he says to me. It sounds like something from the Bible.
What’s the Christian thing to do? I don’t want to go on lying here, but I’m nervous about moving. I know the bishop’s bones are brittle; Patty told me he has broken two or three. I don’t want to break another of these bones, so fragile, thin, and I think hollow. I lie here beside this man, who is still clutching my arm, and suddenly I want nothing in the world so much as to let go, relax, and allow my full weight, all of me, to be absorbed into the bed; to sink in, to fall into a deep sleep, into that surrender. Instead, I need to be getting up and out of here without doing any serious injury to the bishop.
He turns his face to mine. “Lie still,” he says. “Just hold my hand.” He’s asking me to tie his shoes, to button up his coat and knot his scarf and kiss him on the cheek. To save his life.
“Dad? Dad?” The bishop’s teenage daughter, Joan, is standing in the doorway. “Dad.” Her tone is the same one adolescents use to speak to healthy parents.
“Oh.” He struggles to sit up. I help him and give her a stupid, guilty smile.
“Your father told me he could feel something sharp sticking up through the blankets,” I say. “I can’t feel anything.”
She turns away, disdainful. “You seem to think this interests me,” she says. Then she leaves the room, leaves her disdain behind.
This girl will be a lifetime taking back the things she does today.
“What I am recommending is a new direction,” Peterson says, pulling me back to Thursday morning, to his office, to my future.
I’m almost certain now that this will be the last day before the first day of the rest of my life.
“I’m thinking sales,” Peterson tells me, feigning spontaneity. “Something about you says sales to me.”
Sails, I think at first: as in “Red Sails in the Sunset.” But I know better. The man is saying sales, as in “fire” and “going-out-of-business”; as in death of a salesman.
There was a woman who lived on my street when I was growing up, a slight old woman, frail and bent, named Myrtle Carlson. I can still see her walking across her front porch, a bag of birdseed or a large metal watering can in her hand. Her house was a shade of green I have no name for. She had a son, a grown man, who lived with her. He puttered in the little flower bed that was planted along the street side of the house, digging with an old, square-edged coal shovel and watering everything in sight, managing the floppy garden hose with jerks and tosses. A man living out his whole life in a single spot.
Then one day, the summer before I started junior high, a salesman came calling at the Carlson house. He stopped at our house first, but my mother drove him off with her proffered gospel tracts and talk of Jesus and salvation. (We were not often troubled with repeat solicitations.) I can see him walking away, climbing the blistered gray steps to the front porch of the Carlson house, rapping on the flimsy green screen door, the old woman standing just inside, staring out of small gray eyes that drooping lids and cataracts are closing over, pulling her thin sweater tighter, as though the double layer of old orlon might offer some protection.
There she stands, confused by the shadowy stranger waiting with his sample case, silhouetted by the sun that warms his back. Say it is three o’ clock. And the old woman’s pasty-skinned, pudgy son comes up the porch steps with his square coal shovel held out before him like a crucifix, then raises it overhead and brings it down with a smart-sounding thud across the Fuller Brush Man’s head, striking him dead. And that afternoon the son, who had never been anywhere, went off to live in jail, and a week after that his mother went to live in heaven.
Change does not come easy. Sometimes it takes a strong arm and a black coal shovel. Other days, no less than dynamite will do. It took his impending death to make the bishop eat fried eggs, put butter on his toast, and offer up his old, familiar prayers to a stranger, petition her for salvation, or for mother-comfort, that next-best thing.
We ought to be glad for change. You want to tip your hat to anything that slits open the seams of your life, even just a sliver’s width, allowing for the possibility of minor rearrangement. You want to bow and curtsy, even if you cannot give the thing a name.
“Well, Ms. Welsh?” Peterson is looking for answers here.
“Actually,” I say, “my reason for coming in today was to give you this.” I open up my scuffed briefcase, rifle through the pantyhose and juice boxes, the head scarf and the Handiwipes, and grab a legal pad.
PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION, I block print. YOURS TRULY, and I sign it. I rip off the sheet, fold it twice, and hand it to Peterson, who unfolds it as though it were some invitation he has been hoping for.
“But why?” he says.
“What if I told you,” I say, “that I’m very sick? Cancer. The six-month kind.”
“Are you sick?” he says.
I weigh and measure.
There are two women who, for the the last handful of Sundays, have sat in front of me in church. They cling to one another through the hymns and prayers, caressing each other’s head and neck and arms during the early stages of the Eucharist — not sexy touches, really, just comforting, soothing strokes. But I hate it anyway. I fret to myself, How can they, in this heat? But then last Sunday, during the Creed, right in the middle of the part about the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come, it occurred to me: What if one of these two women is sick, very sick, dying? What of their caresses then?
And I wonder why I and everyone I know require some dire disease to clear a little floor space for forgiveness — for forbearance, even — of each other and ourselves. It takes such heavy life-and-death matters to get us to lighten up. Why do we need catastrophe to provide definition, cancers and leukemia to give us clarity, to spell it out: You get one lifetime. This is it.
“Well? Are you sick?” Peterson asks me.
“No,” I say. “No.”
We are both disappointed. Neither of us has a clue what comes next.
“So.” Peterson slides his fingers around the edge of a stack of yellow message pads. And I wonder, in Peterson’s case, what medical diagnosis it would take to make me cut him a little slack.
“So,” I say, and I am standing up and offering him my hand, and before I know it I am walking down the hall, my steps quick enough to make me look important, busy, like a woman with someplace she needs to be.
Linda Moore Spencer