Excerpts >Summer 2006

Janet Burroway

from the novel Indian Dancer


Simone’s first journey is to the john and the second to the pill box and the third to the porch, where the fresh disasters of the world have been tossed by a black seventh-grader with the droll nickname of Laptop, and where they lie in the comforting ritual of ten-point serif. She carries the news to the kitchen (Diallo cops acquitted, McCain on the attack, bodies of WWII airmen discovered in Icelandic glacier, thousands drown in Mozambique) and flips on the coffee pot that Lizbett readied for her last night. She leaves the news and goes back to the Florida room.

He is probably not awake. It was bad from midnight to two and four to five. For the moment pain sits in his face as an undertow. When the spasm comes again it will surge over the top of his head and under his eyebrows that are still a full tangle of bleached sea-grass; it will sink into the sockets of his eyes. She strokes the foot of the bed (fancy hydraulic hospital rental) and turns to pull up the covers on her couch.

On the wall is a patchwork of frames: the photomontage of “Indian Dancer” that Hester Puig sent years ago; the studio portrait with Darla in movie star regalia, the black and white snapshots of her father fishing in hip boots, her infant self in her mother’s arms; a kodachrome of Larry leaning on a balcony over Budapest.

They sold up and settled finally, as so many do, in Florida. They retired finally, as so many do, to where the grandchildren are. When Larry suggested St. Augustine, she laughed, acquiescing, “Take and read.” The house is a rambling yellow clapboard on the narrow spit between the San Sebastian River and the Intracoastal Waterway. Much too much house for a pair of septuagenarians, too many dust-catching crannies, too many stairs. But it has stained glass sidelights, shade in the breakfast room, and sunset over the river. To the east, the distant pulse of surf. The bedrooms are all up-_ stairs, so he is dying in the Florida room, which is a generous _ rectangle of windows and overweening plants, now reconfigured for the high tech bed, the non-slip rugs, the army of plastic bottles. Little yellow squares yap out instructions from the doors and mirrors. How people died before Post-it notes she can’t imagine.

The pitcher is still full because he drank nothing yesterday. Nevertheless she takes it to the kitchen and changes old water for new. Pours herself a cup of coffee, glances at “The Living Arts” (two documentaries and a docudrama on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey). Now, knuckles on the pine table, she stops briefly for a pain of her own, which is either colon cancer or diverticulitis or flatulence. The old are not hypochondriacal, they are prescient. This slicing at the ribs is heart attack, though perhaps not now. This swelling in the lymph nodes is cancer, just perhaps not here. She takes the coffee and the paper and heads back.

He’s awake. His eyes follow her, and when she says, “Good morning, love,” he rises to “G’m,” a gift. But it has cost enough effort to make him gasp for breath. If he starts to become restless he may try to get out of bed though he is too frail to stand. He may make accusations and demands. He might claim the need to change the oil or fetch Eudora home from school. If he tries to get out of bed she won’t be able to stop him or hold him up. Therefore if she must she will give him the Ativan, but not until she must, because it will make him spacey, alien. She wants him with her. She reaches under the cover to massage his calves. There is nothing there. Ten years ago – yea, six months – she knelt naked in the shower and soaped these calves in which the muscles plumped like chicken breasts. Now the flesh is flimsy as a stocking from which the leg has been removed. He is disappearing bit by bit. Where is he disappearing to?

“There was rain last night, everything smells of fresh-washed dust.” Does that make sense? “Not a cloud left except those little wispy ones high up. Cirrus. Did you know the word ‘cloud’ comes from the word for ‘rock’? I looked it up.” Does he smile? “They must have thought the cloud-formations looked like boulders. Same root as Indo-European ‘clod.’” Dust unto dust.

She pulls up a chair and dandles his hand. His crown has thinned but the stubble grows tenaciously on his sharpened chin. The flesh over his face, for all that it is shrunk-wrapped to the bone, cannot diminish the square substantiality of his head. “Marina will be here any minute, and then Lizbett said she’d stop in with the girls on their way to school.” She resettles his pillow, which may or may not make him more comfortable, but comforts him. She asks, “Do you want anything?”

He says clearly, “Peace for you.”

She holds the veins of the limp hand to her forehead. Something, either the hand or the forehead, registers a heartbeat. His torso contracts, the scapulae closing in on the clavicle. She says, “Shall I get the morphine?”

He says, “First Marina.”

“All right.”

He says, “We spoke of this.”

Then the pain comes, rolling from the hip, shuddering up his spine and snapping at his nape to bow his head. In the absence of a bullet, he grinds his teeth. He has no grip, so she grips his hands and the shudder passes into her. She remembers Break Dancing, how the kids used to stand on the sidewalk fingertip to fingertip and pass a wave one to the other. He subsides, falls back and sucks for breath, his forehead slick.

From the front door Marina calls, “Halloo,” and comes in plump and open-faced, as she comes every morning and afternoon from the hospice where she does the same things as she does here, day after day, year after year. Marina never runs out of energy or customers. She plants herself on her snow-white Nikes. She twists the blinds and lets the sunlight scatter. Her tourmaline eyes and luminous dark hair suggest an Irish ancestry. In fact she is a Soviet refugee; Simone can’t remember which pogrom is responsible for her being here. In any case it is contingent. It is nowhere written that a Ukrainian girl who fled the Communists should become nurse to the son of a Communist who fled the Nazis.

“Everything smells so fresh. Did you hear the thunder?” Marina speaks a perfect idiomatic English and gets everything right except the sound of th, which she pronounces arbitrarily as d or t or sh or z. Larry’s Hungarian accent was better disguised than this, but Simone’s throat thickens at the echo of Eastern Europe.

“Oh, yes. Half the night.”

“Now it’s your turn for a freshening,” Marina says to Larry. Marina is remarkable for her sweetness, for her strength, her ability to lift Larry like a child. Up until two weeks ago she would hoist him, legs dangling over her forearm, set him in the rented chair and wheel him along the waterway. Now she just lifts his top half, cradling his head while with the other arm she smoothes and tucks the sheet. Then she lifts his legs and does the bottom half.

“He needs the morphine,” Simone says.

“I see that.” Marina apologizes, “The dose is pretty high. I’m not sure we can up it yet again.” The problem is that too much makes him incoherent but not enough lets in the pain. It’s always the problem, Marina says. That and the blocked bowels that add petulance to grief. Marina says that morphine is not addictive in the usual sense, but the body does adjust to it. Then you need to adjust the dose. The problem is that like any drug you must proceed with care; an overdose can kill the patient you are trying to help, Marina says. Now she takes a little bottle from her box of bottles, expertly inserts a fresh needle in the hypodermic and snaps her finger against the glass. The thimbleful of elixir is drawn up. Marina discards the bottle, rolls Larry gently onto his side and flicks the needle into his buttock neat as a dart into a bullseye.

“Go take your walk,” she says. “I’ll give him a sponge and a shave.” Marina shoos Simone as she does every day, saying as always, “It’s important for his sake you keep up your strength.”

She takes Ribiera south to South Street, west to Marine (retracing Laptop’s paper route), north along the water, and discards her sandals on the boardwalk to dig her knobby toes in the amber sand. The sea is there, and who shall drain its yield? The real ocean, the Atlantic, is beyond this on the other side of Anastasia Island, so the waves here are little lappers, and the shore is dun and coarse. Sand fleas and coquinas at her feet, uncovered by each plash, dig or scurry back into the wet. The shore presents itself as an undulating line but, really, she thinks, there is no such boundary. All things flow into each other. Under the water the sand continues, under the sand the water seeps. To the sand fleas and the coquinas it is only more wet or less wet, this frothy land, this silted water. To the creatures who live in its element there is no edge, but a feeling, a fullness or an emptiness.

The beach is pocked with last night’s rain; a handful of it smells both organic and immaculate, luminous grit made of the crushed carapaces of several trillion dead things in the final diaspora. Sometimes Lizbett and the girls stomp on the shells in their running shoes; they say they are “helping God make sand.”

It’s too cold for swimmers and too early in the morning for the uproar of the Jet-skis. A single trawler chugs in toward the quay down river. To her left a great blue heron stalks, companion to the fisherman at work with his casting rod. Skittish but arrogant, cer_ tain of its due, the bird makes a semi-circle of hieroglyphs in the sand. From time to time it pecks at sand fleas in the little surf. From time to time the fisherman tosses backward either the remains of a waterlogged bait shrimp or a fish too small to keep. Like the man and the bird, she and the man companionably ignore each other. In five years she has seen him catch, at a generous count, half a dozen mullet large enough to put in his pail.

When she gets back Larry is dozing, clean-shaven, and Marina is seated in the Papasan chair behind The Times. “Imagine. They’ve found four bodies from the Second World War, up in Greenland, and their plane. Someplace called Comanche Flats.”

“Frozen intact all that time?”

“It doesn’t say. Not, is my guess. Summer comes even in Russia.” Then Marina, unusually – she is always matter-of-fact about bodies – veers to another subject. “They’re saying this Cuban boat boy is a miracle, sent to save them from Castro.”

“Elian the Angel,” Simone says.

“What do you think?”

“What do you think?”

“Priest poppycock, I think.” Marina frowns, a complicated business for so round a face. “Though it’s certainly a miracle he survived, and his mother and step-father and all the others drowned like that.”

“Coincidence is a mathematical mystery, Larry says.” Some get to the boat or the shore in time and live to a ripe old age, perhaps in Florida. Some don’t. For herself, Simone is inclined to think the real miracle is the anagram: Alien Elian. And in the year two thousand! That’s enough to put anyone in mind of a second coming. “God help us if he grows up to be the Pope,” she says.

Marina folds the paper and smoothes the spine so that you couldn’t tell it has ever been opened. Larry, in the scant decade they have been allowed together, has never shut a section of newspaper without crumpling and skewing the fold. Simone is visited with the understanding that such irritations are the stuff of loss. She hugs Marina, who says, as always, “I’ll stop by this afternoon.” She says, “Zhis afternoon.”

Simone sees her off and steps into the study, which was made out of the original dining room, the scullery turned into a very satisfactory and spacious darkroom. She tilts the blinds to soften the light. Idly she lays her hands on the Nikon Coolpix with its 3.3 mega-pixels, the bulky Hasselblatt with its battery of lenses. How could she fill her hours without them? She has left some prints on the scanner and goes to put them in their proper pile. Working with _ digitized images now – this one a portrait of her mother holding a _ howling baby up to the window of the Eurostar Express – she is manipulating images on the Nikon into forty-second jpg movies, which she posts on her website, Anachron.com. When you pull up the site it says:

Brief history of the Twentieth Century:

That was Larry’s joke.

Simone turns to face the two walls of shelves. And because the mind can never be done with this (the future as distraction; is that why heaven was invented?) she wonders what she will do with all the books. Sooner or later she will go into one of those retirement “homes” – rendered so Martha Stewart now, so like a genteel mansion in the palmy suburbs, that a woman inclined to independence will choose one before her children have to. Sooner rather than later she will move into a single mauve-and-sandcolored room, and then – she can do without the darkroom because by now she knows technicians she can trust. She can make room for the computer and the cameras and her wall of pictures. But what to do with the books? Because for some reason yet to be followed to its sense, glassware is always heirloomable, plastic toys and painted ashtrays come round to the antique stalls, egg cups and pickle forks and sugar tongs fetch a thousand times their original price. But books, unless they hold their own as things – first edition, signed by the author, something extraneous to the ideas they hold suspended like sand in sea water – books are trash. Well, perhaps that will be the great cultural contribution of the internet: the dog-eared third edition transformed into an heirloom, the paperback as an objet.

When it comes to the couple of shelves she will have to fill in that furbished room, the best thing would be to take books she always meant to read and never got to. God know there are enough of those. But here is The Canticle for Leibowitz with its faded green marker. Here are a full ten feet of shelf packed with her journals, kept faithfully since she was immured in the Heywood household in 1950. Fifty years worth, which she has never reread, and no one will ever now read. More trash, more detritus. When she taps her fingers along one shelf they come to rest on a massive volume bound in tattered linen. Its brown spine is so many times creased with opening that the gilt lettering has flaked off. She pulls it out. Her first French–English dictionary. The book she’s carried farthest, Hove to Hertfordshire to Cambridge to New York to Binghamton to Missouri to Florida. Auntie Womble bought it for her, second hand, of course, only months after Simone escaped from Belgium. Auntie Womble, her first British “Mum,” her first home as a refugee.

She is suddenly astonished at the breadth of such a gesture, how it stretches the boundaries of expectation. Who’d have thought that Auntie Womble – that practical, dull-witted, and self-satisfied woman – would see the intensity of such a need? She opens it to the page marked by a crumbling card with keyhole-punches along one side. This is stuck in a page of O’s, and on the card is written: Opsimath: one who begins learning late in life. She has no recollection of the word. Yet it might have been set there for an oracle; it might serve for an epitaph. The brittle slip looks like one of those early computer cards from as far back as the fifties, when the machines took up whole rooms and only huge institutions owned them. She lifts it out, and there slips from behind it a snapshot cracked with age. A photo of a woman’s torso, cut off at the neck and hips, arms thrusting forward a baby that is squinting in the sun. A forties shot, from the crinkle-edges of the print, and from the square shoulders of the woman’s dress. The baby is wearing a knitted cap, its plump mouth screwed up to match the squint. On the back it says, “Daddy’s girl – 41/2 months” in faded pencil. Simone has no idea who this baby is. She has no idea where she’d have come by such a thing. It’s not good enough to use. But – she sticks it back and replaces the dictionary – imagine Auntie Womble being so kind!

Late February is spring in St. Augustine. It’s not yet eight but the sun is sixty degrees into its arc. Outside again she clips a handful of azaleas from the bush on the river side, and one lush libertine of a magnolia blossom, all unctuous mauve petal and proud gold stamen. She sets these in the Florida room, on the wicker table in front of one wall of windows. Next to them Larry’s glasses are splayed on the book he lay there three weeks ago. From the bed begins the grunting moan that can last an hour or more, the metronome of hurt.

When Lizbett comes she is bearing another pot of soup, which Simone doesn’t need and Lizbett did not have time to make, but which she accepts with gratitude because what it signifies between them is the nothing they can do. Sometimes – rarely, but _ this is one of the times – she remembers Lizbett as a toddler, in a _ peach colored middy dress, when Larry’s first wife Delia was her friend. Simone remembers that she had come, glittering, to announce her pregnancy, and that little Lizbett was fretful, bratty even, with what later turned out to be the German measles that would cost her her only chance of motherhood.

Lizbett, divorced, is the Dean of Students at Flagler College up the road in the sumptuous shell of a twenties hotel. She is substantial, swarthy, sexy, generous with herself and unashamed when she draws the line. There is no sign of the waif toddler Simone knew in Binghamton forty years ago – nor any sign, certainly, of the schizophrenia that emptied her mother’s mind. Nor is the universe under any obligation, if a toddler gives German measles to a pregnant woman, to turn that child, grown, into a friend and daughter. There is no mandate that a childless woman should be offered a pair of grandchildren. The gifts are arbitrary, like the losses. Simone sends Lizbett for coffee for herself, juice for the girls.

Eudora, twelve and desultorily dragging her way through middle school, hangs at the door – it isn’t cool to show any emotion re hospital beds. But seven-year-old Zelda (“Aren’t you tempting fate?” Simone asked, and Lizbett said, “I’m re-vising it.”) comes and wraps her boniness around her step-grandmother, smashes her face stomach-high. Simone collapses back into the chair to take her weight. Zelda is a hugger, an octopus; she seems to have more than the requisite number of limbs. Seven years ago Eudora behaved approximately like this, and seven years from now Zelda will be sullen and withdrawn while Eudora will have discovered compassion like a new continent. This is the sum total of what Simone has learned about the young.

“What’s on for today?” she asks. Eudora from the door says “Nothing,” while Zelda begins a chatter of field trip plans. The second grade is collecting shells; their teacher calls it Marine Biology. Zelda has a starfish and a blowfish and two dozen sand dollars that she bleached in a margarine tub. Silent Eudora has long bleached hair (sun? expensive indulgence?) pulled high on the crown, lips in perpetual pout to avoid the wire of her braces. A beeper hangs from a belt loop on which she rests a hand as on a holster. Her clothing is all brand and escutcheon; her budding breasts belong to Calvin Klein, her thin wrist to Guess, her concave belly to JNCO, her long feet to Puma. Marina’s Nikes are _ strictly nurse-stuff by now. Puma, Simone happens to know from watching too much TV, is the marketing obsession of an Israeli businessman who made his fortune in arms deals to South Africa and now produces Hollywood movies with his own big bucks. The deracinated world re-roots itself how it can. Eudora roots herself at the doorframe while Zelda’s tinkling chatter opens Larry’s eyes. He moans again, rhythmic, soft.

“Grandad knows you’re here,” Simone says. “He hears everything. He likes to listen to us talk.”

Lizbett returning asks, “Shall I give him the morphine this morning?”

Simone hesitates.

Larry says something: “Spoke.”

“Thanks. He did have one bad spasm already.” She pulls open the drawer beside her bed and takes out a cardboard palette of blue pills.

“Oh, good, you got the buccal sort.” Lizbett pushes one from its foil trap. Lizbett does not believe in shielding children from any of this. She says she figures Eudora will absent herself when she chooses, and Zelda’s curiosity has not discovered its squeamish edge. Besides, the buccal delivery system is so low key. You take the pill on the tip of your forefinger as Lizbett now does, slide it inside the gum and under the tongue, lodge it there and remove your finger, and the job is done. The pill will dissolve at some technologically predetermined rate and deliver the morphine into the system over the next four hours. It’s so much less dramatic than the hypodermic – although, of course, your tension raises because it’s so much less dramatic than the hypodermic. It would be so easy to do every time he hurts.

Larry’s girls can’t stay, they are off to their separate school days, they will be back later today. But no, Eudora says she will not be here this afternoon.

“Me’n Laptop’re going down to the Fish Bar.”

“Laptop and I,” says Lizbett.

“What’s the occasion?”

“They’re putting on a leap year fry.”

Zelda singsongs, “Dora’s got a boyfriend.”

Eudora scowls and chips at the doorframe with her fingernail. “Laptop’s gay.”

The scorn is for her sister’s density, not for Laptop.

Zelda looks to save face. “Leap year is every four years, and there’s a February twenty-ninth.”

“Except in years divisible by a hundred, except in hundreds divisible by four.”

“If you’re born on the twenty-ninth of February you only have a birthday every four years and then you’re only a quarter how old you are.” (And if you die on the twenty-ninth, what then? Are you less dead? Is your purgatory longer? Need the anniversary cause less frequent pain?)

Eudora projects an air very nearly too bored to deal with this. “That is not so. Henry the Eighth passed a law that if you’re born on the twenty-ninth, the twenty-eighth is your birthday in all the other years. I looked it up.”

Bested, Zelda pouts. Does Lizbett smile? Lizbett instructs them to kiss their grandfather, which they both do with a touching caution, as of a breakable antique. Eudora allows Simone a hug of her billboard torso; Zelda tangles her in limbs again. Lizbett holds her for a long minute while they share, though they do not this time say, that it’s a blessing to have become such friends. Zelda’s ponytail and Eudora’s blonde fall and Lizbett’s dark crop glister retreating in the sun.

This, then, is the comfort coven: Marina, Lizbett, Simone, Eudora, Zelda.

Simone takes their cup and glasses back to the kitchen, rinses them. She goes to Larry, smoothes his pillow, smoothes his pate. His eyes are closed and his breathing shallow. The cardboard palette of pills is still on the nightstand. She takes it and pushes out another pill. She puts the palette in the drawer. Closes the drawer.

The inside of his mouth is damp and slippery, smooth as a newborn. Lizbett’s pill was on the left so she slides to the right. Rides it down an indentation in the still-firm gum between the roots of two molars, presses it under the tongue. Slips her finger out and leans to kiss him. His breath is slightly metallic. She holds his flaccid hand to her beating brow.

The notion of a “happy ending” is a lexical paradox. Happy ending means “happily ever after,” which means “happy without end,” whereas there is only one end for a sand flea, planet, husband, father. The wall of windows gives onto a section of Ribiera Street. St. Augustine said that Christ was conceived of Mary as sunlight falls through glass. Do they still make glass by melting sand? The beach, cremated into windows, is the made-transparent bodies of ocean creatures? Many times she has sat looking through this window expecting Larry’s white Nissan to appear, willing it in sight when it was not there. Now she expects it to appear although he is dying while she holds his hand. There is no reason to suppose that she will stop waiting for it at this late date. Its absence portends a difference in duration but not in kind.

In any case a window, like language, mostly demonstrates what isn’t there. His glasses – outsized hornrims, because he was always a few decades out of vogue – sit on the splayed copy of Anachron: The Photomontages of Simone Lerrante, under the azaleas in front of the windows. It is open to the one of the Hungarian refugee children superimposed on the main street in Kansas City, hollow-eyed around the cappuchino stall. Larry’s glasses will have to go to whatever organization – is it the Lions? – collects them to recycle, because his sight was skewed in some different way than hers. Yet his eyes, now absent to the glasses, have looked through them at the images that she, with her particular set of astigmatisms and obliquities, concocted out of the misfit of the war and the consumer world. All things flow into each other, altering with the current’s crookedness.

She is holding his hand. She is telling him, over and over, parts of their story, in and out of sequence. About the time she stumbled into him and let loose with the waterworks. The fractured memory of snowlight on his crumpled sleeve. The hotel in Budapest with the river view. His choice of that ludicrous too-small shower cubicle for his declaration. Her skittishness. How the gypsy kid at St. Peter’s tricked her into hoisting him for a look at the Pope while the father went for her fanny pack. How she longed to tell him, all those years ago, that she was leaving Marvin Puig. How the furious little bureaucrat in Vienna lectured the homeless man who had asked for a cigarette. How Zelda was born three weeks after her father took off, the jerk. How the day they found this house, trash in the yard and varnish crumbling, they sat together on the seafront to decide whether they were too old to take on one more broken home. She wonders aloud whether they were fooled, their generation; whether those schmaltzy Jewish exiles in Hollywood had got it right: that the most important thing is to find one person till death do you part.

She touches the thick fringe of his eyebrows, the thinning on his crown, the stubble still, already, growing on his sharpened chin. There is all at once in his face an undertow of something not speaking pain, but affirming absence. He deeply sighs, and with that exhalation seems imperceptibly to shrink. She has for a moment the sense that she too is sucked upward in the force of it, hovering with him, (she feels the whirring of the fan at her back) looking down on the two of them, he in bed and she at his bedside, holding hands. Then he disappears from her – upward? – into the cirrus clods, and she settles stiffly back down into her body once again. She places her free hand over their two clasped hands and presses this packet of hands.

Happily. Ever after. That is as good as ending gets.

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