|Apr/May 2014 Fiction|
Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream
"You'll have to use a pediatric needle," Jane said.
The nurse adjusted the stethoscope around her neck. She was obviously new, as the orange walls of her cubicle had not yet been overrun by the usual assortment of kitsch and personal snapshots. She had only a calendar, pinned dead center on the wall nearest her and sporting a pink-toned photograph of a Persian kitten with aggressive eyes, and angled on her desk, a framed 8x10 of her toddler daughter posed on a rocking horse. The child had the sort of fake smile that telegraphed her future as a pageant queen. Jane could picture her tarted up and teenaged, sinking under the weight of an oversized crown. She pictured her old. She pictured her dead.
"Tiny veins. It's on your chart, sweetie," the nurse said. She was younger than most of the nurses Jane had seen in Admissions before, close to her own age in fact, but she'd already mastered the little grandmotherly endearments so common to her profession. She flashed her teeth and continued. "But I'll remind them next door, dear, don't you worry."
Next door, they forgot to use the pediatric needle. Jane reminded them, and on the third poke, they eked out 14 vials of her blood. Afterward, a silent candy striper with remnants of black nail polish on her pinkies rolled Jane up to her room, 317 this time, with a view of both the hospital parking lot and the dumpsters. The faded backless robe was laid out on the bed, and all the rest of the sanitary accoutrements were in place: the rose-toned kidney-shaped puke bowl, the skeletal IV stand with its pygmy arms, and the bed, which moved a body when it could not move itself and spoke in creaky whispers: I can make you disappear. Don't you want to disappear?
The shift nurse would soon be in to do her duties. Jane set about changing. She folded her sweater and draped her jeans over a chair. She gazed down at the rack of her ribcage and the hipbones that held up her panties. She'd stopped eating for a week when Jimmy was killed. When she started again, she couldn't taste anything. Her doctor said this could be a residual effect of all the chemo, or just the grief—hard to say. Hard to say.
In the year since Jimmy's accident, she was often assaulted by the memory of the bread dough she'd been kneading that afternoon, as if its yeasty bacteria had invaded her pores when the phone call came. She'd had no difficulty identifying his body. His torso had been crushed, but his head survived the pile-up remarkably well, with only a minor gash beneath the left eyebrow. She studied his face for about an hour, convinced his eyes would pop open, and when they did, they would be changed in some terrible way. They'd be silver-red reptilian slits or all pupil, fat black holes. But they stayed shut. Stubborn. Finally, she rested the palms of her hands over each of his eyelids. His wiry lashes pushed against her lifeline like they were wishing her away.
By the time her parents delivered her home that evening, the bread had risen into a monstrous bubble and the house reeked of life. She sat under the kitchen table all night and stared at the whorls on its oak underside. The next morning, her parents found her there, cross-legged and catatonic. They'd come with a dozen bagels, fresh lox and cream cheese, coffee. Her father tried to lure her out. Her mother cried; she knew they shouldn't have left her alone all night. Her father gave up and dialed 911. The paramedics gave her a little oxygen and something sweet from a needle.
Jane dropped her panties to the floor and leaned against the foot of the hospital bed, fingering the chain on her neck. Her wedding and engagement rings hung from it, little empty Os. Jimmy would have found this funny, this whole scene—Jane, the girl with a life in dog years, still wearing her skin, while his peeled off his nice strong bones six feet under. He would have laughed. Or maybe he wouldn't have, if he was dead. Which he was.
Jane unhooked her bra. She slid on the hospital gown, tucked the chain into its neck. The rings were cold against her skin. She could measure her breath by the way they scraped and swayed across her sternum, like a hypnotist's watch.
She woke in the middle of the night. The IV needle in her hand felt like a shard of glass, but she knew better than to complain. Nurses assigned to work the night shift could be vengeful when disturbed. She shifted over and over again, angling her wrist to ease the throbbing in her hand. It was the kind of pain that gnawed with greedy noises like an ugly baby, a preemie with a dark prune face and the stink of seaweed.
Nausea was setting in, the patient kind she'd walked off a hundred times before. She flung her feet to the floor and crept into the deserted hall, keeping in the shadow of the yellow night lights and the fleshy glow of the exits. Rounds were completed not long ago, and her room was not in view of the nurse's station. Relief. She could expect to pace alone, sucking in the scent of disinfectant with its undertones of piss and feet.
She reached the end of the hall, pivoted, repeated. Reached the other end and pivoted, repeated again.
The voice came from somewhere behind her. She stopped and braced herself for an encounter with a toothy night shift attendant armed with rules against wandering and needles full of sleep. But when she looked over her shoulder, she found herself alone.
The voice came again. This time it made a long, sibilant and mechanical noise, a call for attention.
"Psssst!" A sliver of light darted out into the hall. "In here. In here!"
She turned and approached the light. The door it escaped from tilted open. Just beyond it was a room identical to her own, and in an identical bed, a figure shrouded in a white sheet, which from here could have been her twin—except for the voice, which might have been male or female or neither.
The figure beckoned with one of its hands. "Come closer. Please."
She slid into the room. The figure in the bed turned out to be male, bald as a spent dandelion, with a stem of a body, narrow and long. He held a metal device, a microphone of sorts, against the hollow of his neck. The device issued a stream of static until he spoke into it again.
He dropped the device from his neck, revealing the hole in his throat below and the plastic mauve tube that kept it open and symmetrical. She'd seen it before. He'd sacrificed his voice box to nicotine. Half his esophagus was gone, too. The cancer would soon erode his jugular, and he'd bleed out—the heat, the tumult, the gush. The end.
She tiptoed nearer to the bed, rolling her IV stand in front her, a shield against who knows what.
The man stared up at her, his eyes pinpricked from painkillers. He looked like a ceramic saint. She half expected him to raise a palm to show her his blooming stigmata.
"What do you need?" she whispered.
He sighed through his neck hole and raised the microphone to it again.
She gave him a look. Did cancer make perverts out of little old men?
"Not like that," he rasped. "I need to know."
What did the cancer pervert need to know?
"I need to know if you're living. Or if you're dead."
She wanted to taunt him. She wanted to say: Good question. And you? Are you living or are you dead?
But she didn't.
"Please. Let me feel you."
She wanted to answer: But I can't. The dead can't touch the dead.
But she didn't say a word.
He looked helpless in the face of her silence. He closed his eyes and sobbed.
"Oh, no," he said. "Oh, God. Are we ghosts? We're ghosts, we're ghosts!"
She wanted to scorn him: Purgatory, isn't it? Hell on earth.
But she couldn't. She leaned close and put her lips to his cheek. He tasted crusty, of day-old bread.
He sighed and rasped out a word. It sounded like a name: "Angeline."
Bertie hasn't started smoking yet, in the year before Pearl Harbor. He's on the Pavilion of the Lighthouse Inn, under the big white tent. A polka band plays. It's a June night but cold as March, the wind off the Atlantic Ocean darting and slicing, making the strings of lights shudder. A few feet away, a boy stands on tiptoe, staring through the penny binoculars at the black sea. No moon at all. The binoculars so big the boy's head looks fragile and tender in comparison, an egg. Angeline steps from the beach onto the boardwalk. She pauses and turns her face to the Pavilion, her back to the water. The wind rustles her hat. It looks like a plate-sized peony, with petal-like folds that rise from her forehead and fall in a gentle cascade behind her ears.
The hat is grey-blue like water, but that will eventually escape him. He'll forever remember only the dress: ice-white, scoop-necked, sleeveless, tight through the bodice, wider at the hips, narrow as a pencil at the calves. He'll remember it even ten years after they've married, when Angeline says, "Bertie, I'm going to puke," and he shoves the tin bowl under her chin with one hand and with the other strokes the back of her neck. In this moment, he'll see in front of his eyes and clear as a movie the folds of that dress against her skin, white on white.
And again the year after, when she's lost all the hair on her head and body and taken to sleeping naked in spite of it, and then again when her body shrinks to a narrow shifting thing, all strange angles disappearing into each other until she seems to have no edges, no boundaries at all, and finally once more when she's in the hospital the last time, alive and dead all at once. Damned if he can't still see her, his Angeline, all abundant in that dress.
Those days at the end were all alike.
"Bertie, I'm going to puke again," she'd say.
She'd heave and gasp, all to eke out a little stream of yellow-green bile and spit.
"Can't you do better than that?" he'd joke. "What happened to the good old days?"
She'd give a gentle snort. "You sentimental boy. Wish I could still I puke up enough to splatter your shoes?"
"Oh, yes, my love. I miss that so."
She'd smile, close-lipped, and turn away from him, ease her head back onto the meager hospital pillow. He'd carry the cold metal bowl full of her bile to the bathroom and empty it into the toilet. Watch it pool on the surface of the toilet water, smell the bitter skunk scents, close the toilet lid, flush, sit.
Jane returned to her room. On a usual night in the hospital, she'd consider it a little miracle that her escapade into the halls hadn't been cut short by the staff, but now she was consumed with something else, a something she was trying to name. A desire to return. Or go. Fear. Beauty. Panic. Dread. Déjà vu. These had overcome her, and against her will, as she'd drawn away from the old man's room. Something ancient and sleek had tapped on her shoulders and nestled round her ears.
But this was a fancy, as her father would have said. Jane had been always impractical, with morbid notions. Changed by cancer. By a flirtation with death. Or, now, since Jimmy, with the dead.
She climbed back into the bed, drew the sheets up. The starched fabric scraped the back of her calves, pinched the tender skin behind her knees. A nurse would be in soon to take her vitals and replace her fluids bag. She decided she'd pretend to be asleep, even when the nurse stuck the thermometer in her ear.
After the nurse skulked off, duties done, Jane drifted in and out of sleep, but mostly lurked in the strange and liquid space between the two. She floated back a decade and found her hands inside the crocodile purse her mother used to carry—that sharp-cornered abomination with the huge faux-gold buckle.
She's stealing money from the purse's toothy jaws on a Saturday night, just because she can. She's seventeen. Cash in pocket, she'll drag her idiot pug Jasmine for a walk to the corner gas station where Jimmy works. He'll sneak a bottle of beer for her from the stash he keeps in the back room to cannibalize for friends. His lips will find her neck, his teeth scrape and chew. She'll leave the gas station with the beer bottle tucked in the pocket of her coat, the long purple one that was always too light for the winter, too heavy for the spring.
The spot on her neck that Jimmy bit aches in the cold air. The voices of some neighborhood kids drift over her head. They are behind the abandoned Lighthouse Inn, desecrating the fountain with their ashes and urine. Pigs. She prefers to hide alone in the staff tunnels or in the bends of the disintegrating side stairwells. She climbs through overgrown hedges and crosses what's left of the Pavilion floor. Stupid Jasmine whimpers behind her and plants her feet, refusing to move. She does this every time Jane decides to climb the old side stairs. Jane scoops her up and makes her way up the brittle steps. She takes her usual seat at the bend of the hidden stairwell, where the staff used to come and go with platters full of food. From here, she can stare at the contours of the abandoned dining room, still set for Christmas dinner, no one knows why. Each plate is graced with a frosted glass ornament in the shape of a reindeer, a snowman, or Santa's head. Just his head, with his eyes wide open and blue. If she looks at him long enough, she knows he will appear to move, a little to the left, a little to the right. An optical illusion. It's not—it's never—enough. She wants him to give her the proof she needs. To levitate. Wink. Speak. Tell her about the afterlife. Tell her there is one. Please. She can be polite if she has to be.
Jimmy likes to tell Jane he's seen the ornaments float. They float to the ceiling, he says, like birds.
Birds don't float, Jane protests. They fly.
Like birds with no wings, then.
She doesn't bother to say birds with no wings can't float either.
He tells her he saw a shadow down at the Pavilion, silver-white and shaped like a woman—no arms, no legs.
Was she floating, too?
Like a bird?
Like a bird.
He tells Jane his ghost stories in the tunnels under the Lighthouse Inn, with his hands between her thighs. When he's got a better chance of convincing her they're true, when she's all blade-sharp with want and anxious to live forever. He's so earnest, and god-if-god-exists knows she wants to believe him. But who is Jimmy to know anything about the dead? He's just too alive to be trusted.
About a year after Angeline dies, Bertie goes back to the Inn. He drives for almost an hour. Ice spits at his windshield, and his tires are so uncertain on the sleek road, the car feels like it may flip into the air at any moment. It's the kind of winter evening where gravity seems pointless. Up and down are the same—gray and more gray. He's been drinking bourbon from a bottle that's been under the kitchen sink for a year, untouched until tonight. Fred and Edna had brought it to the house after the wake, Fred handing it to him with a nod of his head and a solemn wink. Bertie had no idea what the nod or the wink meant, but he'd smiled back in a way that implied agreement. Truth was, he'd never been much of a drinker, and when he did indulge it was always beer, never anything hard.
The car drives itself into the parking lot. Turns out Bertie likes bourbon a lot. It rolls around his mouth like a foreign language, one he can't speak or read but understands anyway. He takes another swallow and rests the bottle in the passenger seat, Angeline's seat. It looks alive sitting there, as if it might sprout legs and arms and grow a nice-looking head at the top of its skinny neck. It looks good in her seat. Maybe he'll leave it there for always.
He's not sure he'll get out of the car. The Pavilion's closed for the winter, and he never did find much to like inside the Inn. It smelled of decay, and the chandeliers looked like a hazard, the way they swayed on their narrow chains. And then there was that night a few years back. The bed in room 317 creaked and shimmied when he'd been on top of the girl, and the ceiling stared back at him like a big white eye when he'd been on the bottom, where he'd never been before. She'd hurt him, leaving bruises on his upper thighs where her bony haunches had struck again and again. He still wasn't sure if she'd actually relished the night as much as he'd hated it, but going just on appearances, he'd have to say yes. This was an outcome he'd never expected, and it still mystifies and disgusts him in equal parts. If he's being honest with himself, and the bourbon's helping him feel like coming clean in a whole new way, she'd chosen him more than he'd chosen her. The fact that he'd succumbed to temptation instead of seeking it seems almost as much a horror to him as the knowledge that he'd betrayed Angeline in such a way.
All eyes to the future, Bertie. Forward. Forward. After all, it was only the once, and even then it was when they were having a rough patch, and doesn't every couple have a rough patch? He couldn't have known Angeline would get sick soon after, as if his sin had somehow appeared inside her and made itself manifest as retribution. Anyway, he doesn't believe in such ideas. If there is a God at all, He's the sort that just lets folks have at it—no punishments, no rewards, only progress, failure, or a good lot of both. Or neither.
He throws open the car door. The sun's almost down, and fat flakes of snow have begun to fall, just a few at a time. He should never have taken that bourbon from under the sink. He needs a toilet, a pot of coffee, fresh air.
He's supposing he'll be forced to go inside the Inn, at least as far as the lobby, when he sees her. Since the funeral, this happens sometimes around town, at the library, the grocery store, the neighborhood pharmacy. He'll turn a corner, and there she'll be, her back to him, dressed in white, her hair the color of honey. He'll feel his throat fill up and his heart jump around, but always she will speak or she will move, and the spell will break. She'll turn out to be someone else, of course. Some living woman dressed in ugly plaid or crumpled linen, too short or too tall, too fat or too thin. Not Angeline at all.
But the woman he sees now is different. He slowly begins to identify what's wrong with her, as if he's deciphering one of those pictures for children where oddities are hidden in an otherwise normal tableau—a snowman in a hula skirt, a surfer in ice skates. The woman stands with her back to him, just beyond the Pavilion. She's dressed in white, yes, and yes, the dress is narrow at the shins, with folds at the hip. But where the dress ends, so does she. She appears to have no limbs at all. The back of her head is visible, but the snow seems to fall through it and disappear into her torso.
He wipes a few flakes off his own head and passes the back of his hand across his eyes. She's still there.
His breath comes so fast he has to stop himself from panting like a dog. He sweats ice water. It pools in his wool socks, between his toes, and runs in narrow streams down his back. He has never felt so cold, but he thinks if he stays long enough to watch, just watch, the illusion will right itself. The woman will show herself a whole woman, probably overweight and dressed in a parka. His problem came out of the bottle in Angeline's seat, not out of his head or the ocean mist. But the snow starts falling faster and thicker, his skin frosts, his lungs seize, and still he can make out the curve of that white dress, snow floating through it and swirling below the skirt, where her legs should be.
He shakes himself. He coughs in syllables that sound like her name. His feet begin to move without him, slipping across the snowy ground. All the while his body rushes forward, his mind retreats in a kind of panic he hasn't felt since he was under German fire. Just as in the War, his brain assesses what it sees and draws the rational conclusion that it should turn and run the other way, but his body obeys his higher self, the one that says you must persist, you must confront, you must combat. Which is madder, the body or the brain?
See the phantom? Do you see?
You have to see. You have to know.
By the time he reaches the far end of the Pavilion, she's gone. He has watched her shimmer as he approached and vanish as he arrived. He slumps down onto the snow-soaked stone bench near the penny binoculars, just feet from where she'd hovered. He swears to himself he'll never take another drink as long as he lives. At least the exercise has cleared his head. He sees everything for what it is, even the pack of cigarettes that sits on the far end of the bench. It's perched untouched on top of the wet snow, the colorful camel on its glossy cover staring him down. The lighter rests near the cigarettes. It's very fine, a slim rich square of shiny brass, quick to light and with a flame exceptionally hot and blue. He lights it many times, click click, click click. He holds it up against the snowflakes and the wind. He puts its terrific heat to the palms of his hands and then against the underside of his chin, where he allows it to singe him just a little. His first cigarette feels sweet between his lips even before he sets it alight.
Dr. Cohen patted Jane's sheeted thigh. "So," he said. "Another morning."
Don't touch me, Jane said, or thought to say. Or thought.
Cohen had a sidekick six steps behind him, a man-boy with a koala clipped to his stethoscope—a pediatric resident slumming in oncology.
Cohen flipped open Jane's file. "So, your blood work's good enough. What say we start the chemo prep today?"
Jane rolled her eyes, just a little. She'd capitulated to the transplant only a week ago, after a particularly harrowing morning with her parents during which her mother had wished Jane didn't have a death wish and her father had cried, hard, as if he had more to cry about than anyone else.
The man-boy spoke. "This is good news."
The cheerleader type—she could have predicted it. Perfect for pediatrics. "Who are you?" she said.
Dr. Cohen smiled in pseudo-apologetic kind of way. "Sorry, Jane. This is Dr. Trent. He's doing a study as part of his residency."
"Bone marrow transplant outcomes in adult survivors of juvenile leukemia," said Dr. Trent.
She contemplated his last name, which could also be a first name. Dr. Trent Trent. "If I stop surviving, do I still get to be part of your study?" she said.
Dr. Trent Trent studied the floor. "The success rate's good. But we include all outcomes, of course."
Jane almost felt sorry for him. He was earnest. "That's very egalitarian."
Dr. Cohen touched her again, this time on the wrist, briefly. He had big hands, stop signs.
"You made the right choice," he said. Translation: the transplant was a little less likely to kill her than the cancer itself. Which was why she hadn't wanted it in the first place.
Living. That was all some people could think about.
Cohen turned to leave, Trent his shadow. The door whooshed behind them, a sound that always struck Jane as cinematic in a B movie kind of way. Seconds before the latch closed with its usual decisive click, she caught a glimpse of motion. A yellow piece of paper slid under the door. It had a crisp edge where it was folded in half, as if someone had run his nail over the crease again and again. Something was scrawled in cursive across its surface.
She swung her feet to the floor, untangled her arm from her IV tubes, retrieved the note. The paper felt damp and cold. Its surface asked "For You?" in blue ink. The slant of the letters was stiff and uniform, the loops on the Y and the F elegant—old person penmanship. She put the paper to her nose: disinfectant and tobacco. The old man. Was he still smoking? Was he smoking through his throat hole?
She carried the note back to bed with her and held it between her fingers. The question mark after "For You" seemed like a possible sign of authorial insanity, an idea only reinforced by the night before.
She opened the fold. She peeked inside.
"Dear Angeline," the note read. "Is it you? Truly Yours, Bertie"
Every year after seeing the phantom in the white dress—Angeline or not Angeline, both or neither—Bertie goes back to the Inn. Once or twice he goes in a different season, or at a different time of day. The timing really doesn't matter. He knows he'll never see her there again. He goes instead to double and triple check reality, to confirm the solidity of the bench, the square angles of the Pavilion. The uniform roar of the ocean and the invisibility of the air, the rusty decay of the penny binoculars, the unchecked growth of the hedges and vines, the sinking foundation of the dance floor: these he needs to remind him that everything's nice and solid and steady, just as it should be. It is hard for him to admit to himself how much this reassurance means, how it is the difference between the sanity of routine, the evening cigarette and the morning paper, and the kind of senility that creeps up on men like him when their wives die, and they go a little crazy, and a little crazier, maybe even see a thing or two they shouldn't.
So he keeps going back, even when he has to push through the overgrown hedges and pick his way across a path of litter—broken bottle glass, junk food wrappers, even a used condom once or twice. The last time he comes, when his voice box is long gone to cancer, it's the cigarette butts that disgust him the most. He's always been a considerate smoker, and a neat one.
For two nights, Jane kept Bertie's note under her pillow. There had never been any question she would answer it. What consumed her thinking, when she had the power, the momentary wellness, to think at all, was how to answer it.
Is it you?
Possible replies came to her on the edges of sleep. These were usually existential.
I can be whoever you choose.
We are all Angeline.
I am you. You are me.
From the deep hollow pain of chemo, the waking pain, different answers kept coming.
No, I am not Angeline. I'm her evil twin.
Yes, it's me, Angeline. I want a divorce.
Yes, it's me, Angeline. I'm dead.
She made a solitary game of it, but it took on the intensity of competition. Sometimes, it even felt like she was competing with someone other than herself, someone who knew the best answer but refused to deliver it. Someone who wanted to keep the game going more than she wanted to win. It gave her the same feeling she'd had that night in the old man's room. A fancy. A thrill. Dread and beauty.
The answer—the true, the final one—came to her a few nights after the transplant. She awoke around two a.m., her brain stiff, braced first against its own noise and then against the sound from the hall outside, the rattle and the clack.
Stretcher wheels? Approaching?
Shake the head. Rearrange the thoughts. Sit up and train your eyes on the glass in your door. Not clear enough. Can't see.
Did the old man die in his sleep?
Force yourself to stand, cross to the door, open it.
The stretcher's in the opposite hall. A corpsemobile, for sure: fully sheeted, one unshaven orderly weaving it toward the elevator where he'll press the down arrow. No rush. No drama. The dead aren't urgent.
She'd watched a scene like this once before. She was ten then, and the corpse was probably six or so, half the length of the stretcher, dog-sized. The shape under the sheet this time was long and narrow, the feet high ridges at the far edge of the stretcher. She imagined the toe tag that would be looped on the left big toe or the right big toe, saw how the toe might look, maybe black at the corners, maybe clean as an infant's, maybe scaled with fungus and a deep pollen yellow. She couldn't quite stop the pictures in her brain.
But wait, slow down, look at that, the shimmer of light—it all but erases everything else. Watch. It takes on the shape of a woman. She's perched on edge of the stretcher, riding shotgun, her dress a starlet dress, white and narrow at the waist, and her legs... does she have legs?
When the orderly rounds the far hallway and disappears, she fights the urge to chase after him, pull at his sleeve and say, Did you see her, did you? To look under the stretcher, peek beneath the sheet, demand some facts, an explanation. She's entitled, in her condition, to a little reality. Isn't she?
What is true? Jimmy, crushed. Rotting. Loosed in the timeless world of the dead. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
Jane followed the stretcher. Anyone could be wandering these halls, hitching rides with corpses. She imagined Jimmy's face affixed to the top of the white dress. His eyes accused, of course—it's impossible for the dead not to hold a little grudge against the living, especially the living who by all rights should be dead. But his mouth, did it smile? Did he laugh at the dress he found himself wearing? Did he call out to her? Beckon? Jane, did he say, do you remember? The ornaments float to the ceiling, Jane.
When she woke up the next morning, the nurse told her she was a bad girl last night. That's exactly what she said: "You were a bad girl last night, Jane."
Jane had no time to correct a patronizing attitude. She needed to know. "The old man, you know, throat hole guy," she said. "Did he die last night?"
The nurse gave her a corrective look. "We found you passed out on the floor in front of the staff elevator at three in the morning."
"Right. But the old man. Dead?"
The nurse sighs. "No," she said, elongating the "o" for effect. "As a matter of fact, he's going home today. This morning."
The game was over, just like that. When the nurse left, Jane took the old man's note out from under her pillow. She had the answer to his question. It didn't matter that she had no idea what it meant, or that it wasn't really an answer at all.
I forgive you. That's it. I forgive you.
She slid the note under the old man's door. For the rest of the day and all the week after, Jimmy's disembodied face appeared to her now and then. No white dress, no words, no smile, no accusing eyes. Just a square of fine paper held between his lips. A love note. An invitation.
Bertie dies in the hospital. It's all an accident. He's supposed to be returning to visit a very sick friend—well, not exactly a friend, just a girl he'd met when he was there last week. He's been insistent about it for days, bargaining with Helen, his home health care aide, until he talks her into driving him.
"She's still there," he tells her. "She looks like a breeze could knock her over."
"I hate to say this, but maybe she's passed already, Mr. Bertie," says Helen.
"Oh, no," he rasps through his throat hole. "No, no. She's still there. She's got to be."
So Helen relents. He's got the note in the left breast pocket of his suit jacket, his favorite wool gabardine. He feels a little ridiculous in it now, because it hangs so baggy on his bones, but if it was good enough to marry Angeline in, it's good enough for this girl, too. He hasn't told Helen he doesn't even know the girl's name, and he certainly doesn't tell her about the note. He's too embarrassed to admit he'd gone around the bend enough to write to the poor girl in the first place—the shame's terrible. When he'd discovered the note she'd written back to him, he'd wanted to make it disappear, eat it bit by bit, like he did with that bad report card when he was ten—how wonderful that tasted, making failure vanish like that, once and for all. But he'd opened the note instead. He'd read it, every sweet word. Of course he had.
The hospital smells cleaner than he remembers. He catches the scents of pine trees and saltwater. The nurses at the third floor desk remember him. They don't stare at his throat; they smile and give him patient looks. He feels comforted. Maybe it wasn't as bad here as he thought.
He takes the note from his pocket. It's just a simple thank you, but on a fresh piece of his best ivory stationery—not just scribbled on notepaper like the last one. He's no wordsmith, but he's grateful, and he's done what he can do. His intention is to give it to the nurse on duty, for delivery to the girl. She'll know which one he means, if he takes the time to describe her wasted frame and her long pale hair. He doesn't have the courage to see her himself. He's accepted this.
While he waits for Helen and the nurse to finish exchanging pleasantries about the weather, he fishes his lighter out of his coat. This is his other mission today, to leave this thing behind. He could never bring himself to just throw it into the household trash. He's used it every day since he found it on the Pavilion so long ago. He's fed it with butane a thousand times and kept its brass well-polished.
Now, he's let the lighter go dry; he's had his last smoke. He thinks about dropping it there, into the little bin of miscellany on the nurses' desk, where it could fade into the paper clips and rubber bands. But it's harder than it seems. He's taken with a sudden impulse, an unexpected need to send the lighter with the note. The girl might finger the brass. The girl might put her lips to it.
This is when it happens. He starts to bleed out. The note slips to the floor, forgotten and trampled by the nurses rushing to help. Does he drop the lighter? He doesn't know. He doesn't feel much of what he thought he'd feel. Warmth. Vigor. A wide, knowing welcome skirted in white.
Jane knows the news is good when Dr. Cohen holds up her chart like a trophy. He flips it open so she can eye its jumble of tiny equations. He says, "Your blood work's right on target."
"Better than on target." Dr. Trent Trent hovers his usual six steps behind Cohen. The man's a specter. She looks through him to the wall. She gives the wall her blankest look. The ceiling, too. Remember, Jane? The ornaments float to the ceiling.
Dr. Cohen seems to interpret her silence as skepticism or cynicism. "He's right," he says. "Extraordinary. Damn near perfect."
She has the appropriate response somewhere inside her, but since the transplant, she's found herself less and less able to lie, at least to other people. They harvested her new marrow from an adolescent, a boy or a girl she doesn't know, but she can tell she's been invaded by fresh, frank cells, young enough to love their own malice and joy in equal parts. Truth tellers. Finger painters. Sometimes she looks around her own brain and can't snatch out the memories she wants. Jimmy's face has faded and morphed. He's parted his lips now, and the invitation has slipped away.
She can't hear the rest of what Cohen's going on about. Under her skin, loss and grief sidle around, conjoined as they usually are, at the ankle and skull. In her hand, the brass lighter warms its slim cool body near her lifeline. When she discovered it yesterday next to the elevator, she thought of bringing it to the nurse's station for the Lost and Found. But she didn't. Couldn't.
Found. One lighter, the old brass rubbed rich by someone's thumb. Empty now, but with such a satisfying click she can almost see the hot blue flame it will make when she fills it again. She'll go home in a week. Her parents have been at work in her apartment, sanitizing the place, an antiseptic exorcism. Every time they come and go, some piece of Jimmy disappears with them—his toothbrush, his running shoes, his boxers. Morbid, they say. Time to let go. Maybe one night, as they load their car with what's left of him, she'll walk to the corner gas station. The cigarettes she'll buy will be sweet between her lips. The smoke will float, like birds.