A Conversation with Stuart Dybek
The full text of this interview is not currently available online.
We worry, as we should, about First Amendment censorship, but each of us ha s his own personal level of censorship going on. For all the lip service paid to the imagination, getting to it isn’t always easy. The imagination can be a very subversive force, and both society and the individual can be wary of that.
Poetry Feature: Scott Coffel
Featuring the poems:
The Egyptian Theatre
In the Throes of Advanced Study
A Postcard from Cucamonga
The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast
My Liberation from Vanity
The Sway of One Ocean
Norman Bel Geddes: A Modernist da Vinci
The full text for this article is not currently available online.
In 1929 American theatrical and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes drafted “Airliner Number 4,” a plan for a nine-deck amphibian airliner with areas for deck games, shops and salons, an orchestra, a gymnasium and a solarium. He calculated that twenty engines would be needed to achieve cruising altitude. In Horizons (1932), a book on American streamlined design and urban planning, he carefully detailed the airliner’s projected fl ying time and fuel usage, along with the cost of building, equipping, furnishing and operating the plane. To fi nancial backers, the design seemed innovative but extravagant, and it was never built. 
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The bees in the wall had been flying out in suicide pacts of two, three, five bees at once. They went for Rice’s face and he tried to brush them away with his work gloves, but he’d lost count of the stings. He was removing the last section of paneling when a lone bee stung him dead center on his forehead, which made his eyes water. He blinked hard and kept working, jammed the end of his crowbar under the thin, dusty panels and snapped them away from the studs, then again, moving from floor to ceiling and back down on the other side. When everything was loose he dropped the crowbar and reached back for the sledgehammer,smashed the whole section clattering to the floor.
Featured as an Editor’s Pick, July 7, 2009:
One thing at least is certain: water and madness have long been linked in the dreams of . . . man.
For years my wife and I rented a house with people in the basement. Below us lived a string of young families, some with children, some without, willing to sacrifice daylight and good ventilation for a savings in rent. The ductwork connected our two apartments, and at night, while eating dinner and watching television, Katherine and I could hear whoever was below us eating dinner and watching television. We heard them fight, and they heard us. If I tried to shower while someone downstairs was showering or running the washing machine or the sink, the water came through the showerhead in a trickle, and ice-cold. I’d stomp my foot and holler, but it never made a difference. I lost count of the nights we lay awake listening to the mother below us trying soothe her crying child, muted there-theres and shhhs echoing from the floor. Katherine felt guilty when our son arrived and we returned the favor, but I didn’t. They had it coming.
Now, in Wisconsin, it feels strange to have a basement of our own, this shadowy underbelly of our house lurking at the bottom of the stairs beyond the kitchen. Cinder block walls, thin carpet tacked over concrete, a moldy closet filled with spider webs. And behind a folding door, the furnace and water heater, the old coal chimney, the maze of water pipes. The pipes are what I have taken to studying: their path from the main valve to the heater and away again, up and over the air ducts, into the ceiling, right through the cinder block. I follow them with a flashlight, trying to map in my mind the floor above me. Here is the bathtub drain. Here is the kitchen sink. The space is lit by a single bulb suspended from the ceiling and two opaque windows, each the size of a shoebox, looking out on the driveway. It’s the kind of dungeon-like space that frightens children, but my child is down here and is not afraid. Galen is two; he dives into the cranny between the furnace and the chimney, the lightless recess beneath the stairs. “Come out,” I say. He laughs. “Come out,” he calls back, mocking me. The whites of his eyes shine against my flashlight. He’s not a big fan of the dark. Most nights he climbs out of bed to turn on his bedroom lights and falls asleep next to his door. Down here, he stays put. Like me he is drawn toward the very thing he fears.
My fear isn’t of the dark. It’s of water. I have been warned that water is a house’s worst enemy. In Utah and the greater arid West, water is a scarce resource: it can turn the tide in state elections and carve canyons between neighbors. Where we lived in Salt Lake City, the ground was sloped and parched; it would have taken a deluge to flood it, and even then most of the water would have run downhill. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is flat and wet. Water stands in the culverts that follow the roads, oily-black strips buzzing with flies. On windy nights I can smell the algae wafting up from Lake Winnebago. Allowed to stagnate, water spawns mold, and if it finds wood, it can rot a house to dust. So I watch for it. I stand in the basement and scan the rafters, touch every shut-off valve and spigot, hoping my hand will come away dry.
When I eye a puddle beneath a duct this morning, I hope for the best-case scenario. I tell myself it’s just condensation from the air conditioner. I turn up the dehumidifier and make it to the top of the stairs with that conclusion. But then I come back down and begin feeling my way along the top of the duct until my hand detects water, a little pool in a depression in the top of the shaft. A drop falls on the back of my hand. The sewer pipe is beside my head. I look up. Above me is the bathroom. Above me is the toilet.
The ceiling creaks. I hear footsteps, Galen running back and forth. Katherine moves more slowly. She’s suffering through the early, nauseous days of another surprise pregnancy, discovered the week before we left Utah. “Are you up there?” I call out.
“Me. I’m in the basement.”
“I’m in the bathroom.”
“I know,” I say. “Flush the toilet.”
I hear the water rush down the sewer stack beside me. I cup my hand around the pipe and feel the water flow against my palm. Water drips into my hair, and I look up to see a steady drip, two or three drops per second, coming from the seam between the toilet and the floor.
The manager of my local True Value Hardware store diagnoses the problem as a worn-out wax seal, the membrane sealing the toilet to the sewer. It surprises me to learn that a two-dollar wax ring, which I can mold and pull apart with my fingers, is all that separates my family’s waste from the house. In photographs of homes ravaged by tornadoes, the toilet is often the one object recognizable among the debris-white and solitary and steadfast. I expect my toilet to be welded to the sewer pipe. I expect the toilet and the sewer pipe to be forged from the same metal, a single seamless and constant length of indestructible titanium running from the bowl to the ground to the treatment plant on the far side of town. The manager explains that toilets are held in place with only two screws, both of which fit bottoms-up into notched grooves on the flange that caps the sewer pipe; it is the weight of the toilet-and the weight of those who use it-that keeps the seal pressed tight. He sends me home with two new rings and a metal scraper, tells me to clean off all the old wax before reseating the toilet.
Katherine takes Galen to the park, and I get to work. I turn off the water, separate the tank from the bowl, the bowl from the floor, ball up a rag and shove it down the open sewer pipe to hold back the gas. I spend an hour scraping away the grayed, hardened wax, digging it out of the tile, from the underside of the toilet, away from the top of the pipe flange. I scrub the floor with 409. Then I set the screws and the rings and prepare to heft the toilet back into place. Toilets are awkward, cumbersome things. Handling them is like trying to handle a dead animal: most prefer to lift with their arms extended, letting their backs pay the price for keeping the bowl away from their faces. Katherine and Galen come home just in time to see me hefting the bowl this way, my elbows locked and my ass in the air as I attempt to thread the screws in the flange through the two holes at the base of the bowl. It’s no picnic-just a tap knocks the screws over. On my first attempt I miss completely, pushing the screws into the wax ring with the base of the toilet. On my second, I get the screws through the holes, but one comes out of the groove in the flange, which means I have to lift off the toilet and the wax rings, and reset the whole works. The third time, I get it. I spin down the nuts and slowly crank them tight, one side and then the other, careful not to unbalance the bowl, careful not to crack the porcelain. Before declaring myself finished, I kneel before the bowl and wrap my arms around it until my hands meet in the back and my cheek rests on the lid. I rock back to make sure I’ve got it moored. At first the bowl is firm. Then, just as my ass meets my heels, I hear a sucking noise, like the peeling away of the waxed-paper backing of a Fruit Roll-up. I feel the toilet give. It brings with it everything I have touched today: the wax seals, the screws, the flange, the entire top of the sewer pipe. I have broken it off. “Oh, shit,” I say.
“Oh, shit,” Galen says. He squeezes past me to peer down into the sewer pipe.
Young family, first house, plumbing on the fritz-there’s nothing new in it. Everyone has a similar story. My neighbors to the north tell me how their chimney collapsed three months after they moved in. My neighbor to the south, a divorced grandmother, has a wax-seal story to rival mine. My new colleagues at the small liberal-arts college where I teach tell me of water pouring down kitchen windows from upstairs bathrooms, basement fires, exploding garbage disposals. Even my father laughs when I call him. “When our water heater burst,” he says, “I opened the door to the basement and water was all the way up to the top of the stairs.”
But none of these stories prevents my fear of water from growing worse. After the plumber leaves, my inspections of the basement become longer and more frequent. I turn out the lights and walk away, only to come right back, certain that somewhere some pipe has sprung a leak. When Katherine and I were walking through the house before we bought it, I noticed a number of cracks in the plaster where the house has settled over the years, as well as a few soft spots in the walls where, years ago, water leaked through the siding or the roof. At the time none of the cracks looked like a big deal: a little plaster and paint and they’d disappear. Now I measure each crack with my fingertips, the distance between my pinky and my thumb, and each day I find new ones: in my bedroom ceiling, in the stairwell, snaking up the wall from the electrical outlets. I run my hands over the bubbled lappets and worry that not only did water once penetrate the shell of the exterior, but that it continues to do so. Water is leaking in right now. If I stand here long enough, I’ll see it come through.
Weeding my front garden in late-September, I notice the soil sloping toward the house, when it should be sloping away from it. A little digging unearths a line of heavy paving stones, and beneath the stones I find strips of foam saturated with earth and water and mildew. I dig out the foam and then go to Menard’s to buy dirt so I can build up the slope, and when I tell the garden associate what I found in the yard, his eye grow wide. “The last thing you want is water running toward your house,” he says. “Except for water sitting against your house.” He shuts off his forklift and climbs down, leaving the stacked palettes of gray flagstones suspended above my head. He squints into the sunlight, his three-day-old scruff and narrowed slits giving him a Dirty-Harry look. He means business. “The foam will draw water to your foundation, where it will freeze and push your basement wall in,” he says. “Big mess.” He tells me I need to dig out the entire front yard, down at least three feet, fill in the bottom with gravel and the top with dirt, separate the two with plastic, and make damn sure to slope the dirt three feet away from the house.
All I want is dirt. Can’t I just build it up so that it slopes in the right direction? He shakes his head. “At best that’ll be a patch, not a real fix. No telling how long it will last.”
It is a Sunday afternoon, and I am wearing leather shoes and dress slacks, a button-down shirt. By the time Katherine tracks me down, Galen is screaming for lunch and I have a flatbed dolly loaded with topsoil and gravel, a new shovel. My pants are smeared with mud, and the armpits and collar of my shirt are dripping. “This is crazy,” she says. The salesman shakes his head. “Not as crazy as what those people did to your house. Your husband told me about the foam in the ground. Now that’s crazy.”
I’ve heard the stories of dream homes turning into money pits, so to some degree I’m worried about the money. But Katherine is right. What started out as a diligent attempt to evade potential problems and then turned into fear is quickly becoming an obsession. It is becoming madness.
As the husband of a social worker, I have been a proxy witness to myriad forms of madness. Since we’ve had Galen, Katherine has borne a much greater professional burden than have I, often requesting the night shifts so that she can be home during the day. She sleeps with a pager beneath her pillow, ready to be rattled awake at any moment by a call from the crisis hotline, the number people call when their demons have them cornered. The pager chirps, and she answers, groping in the dark for her robe and slipping down to the kitchen to the phone and the table and her notebook. She makes notes while her callers talk and tries not to interrupt too early or too often. Sometimes she’ll advise a caller to go to the hospital, and sometimes the person just needs an ear to speak into. On occasion her voice drifts back to me beneath the bedroom door, and on other nights I make my way down to see her sitting toward the windows, nodding and scribbling, fully present at two in the morning, at three and at four. “It’s okay,” I hear her say. “You’re not a freak; you’re just going through a lot. It’s only been a few months since he died.” I try to imagine her callers sitting against their bathroom doors with their knees tucked up to their chins, or at kitchen tables not unlike ours. In their fear and trembling, they are my brothers and sisters.
Once, in Utah, the call came from our neighbor three doors down, a young mother with a sick infant. Her daughter had been in and out of the hospital more than a dozen times in six months with hip dysplasia, a string of unexplainable infections and sleep apnea that one night caused her to stop breathing. Our neighbor, did CPR to revive her and then rushed her to the hospital. The baby lived, but the mother was afraid to sleep for fear that she’d wake up to find her daughter dead. Katherine recognized her name and the sound of her voice; she looked out our front window and saw her kitchen light on, saw the woman pacing back and forth in her nightgown, her blond hair in a ponytail. Katherine did not identify herself beyond her first name. She did not say, “Hey, it’s me, from down the street. Look out your kitchen window!” Nor did she keep looking out our kitchen window. She sat down and listened. The next day was sunny, and our neighbor was outside, pushing her daughter in the stroller up and down the block. Katherine wanted to invite her in, reveal herself, become the friend she knew she could be and had in many ways already become. But she couldn’t. It’s against the rules.
When the hospital wakes her up, chances are she’ll be going in. A patient needs a psychiatric assessment before being admitted or discharged. Psychiatrists don’t like coming to the hospital in the middle of the night, so the task is given to the social worker. Katherine dresses in the dark, brushes her hair and drives through the empty streets to the hospital. I don’t like the thought of her car alone on the road, and I’m always a little scared when she goes. I have considered calling the police to ask them to keep an eye out. Yet I’ve also grown so accustomed to the pager that some nights I dream right through it. Katherine leaves without me even turning over, and sometime later I wake up to find her already gone, to the paralyzing realization of what it would be like to lose her.
One night, just after Thanksgiving, she arrived home late and woke me up. Her eyes and the tip of her nose glowed in the moonlight through the slits of the blinds. I was stuffed still with dinner, the turkey and mashed potatoes like a weight in my stomach, but her look told me I needed to sit up, so I sat up. She had gone to the hospital to assess a patient whom the police had found at a stop sign screaming, “H2! H2!” He told her he’d been eating Thanksgiving dinner with his girlfriend’s family when an argument escalated into a fight. He’d thrown a glass against a wall and stormed out of the house, tearing off his shirt as he descended the front steps. Katherine recognized his girlfriend from high school-a disheveled but pretty blond who had once swum on the swim team. The patient wore his hair cut short and was clean shaven; with his shirt off, Katherine could see the topography of veins in his neck, chest and stomach. He was compact and muscular. Velcro cuffs around his wrists held him to the bed. He admitted to having a history of schizophrenia; he had stopped taking his medications because they didn’t do him any good-he still heard voices. Katherine said the psychiatrist could prescribe him a different drug that might work better and a sleep aid so he could get some rest. He said he didn’t want a different drug. He wanted to leave. His parents were assholes and his girlfriend’s parents were assholes and the police were assholes. Katherine asked him if he had used other drugs, and his girlfriend admitted they’d used Ecstasy. Katherine could see the muscles in his chest and arms begin to contract, slowly, like a python tightening its stranglehold. He made a fist and flexed his wrist, testing the strength of the cuff. “We’ll need to run some tests,” Katherine told him. “Draw some blood.”
“Am I going to stay here?” he wanted to know.
“We have a psychiatric unit at another facility. They’re better equipped. You’ll be a lot more comfortable.”
“Can I drive him?” his girlfriend asked.
“Ambulance would be better,” Katherine said. If she let them go, there was a good chance they wouldn’t show up at the other hospital.
“I don’t want to go in an ambulance,” the patient said.
“It’s better,” Katherine said. “Safer.” She sat back on the bed and took a deep breath before telling me how the tech came in to draw the blood and could not tap the vein with the cuffs around the man’s wrists. How the tech unfastened the restraints. How the moment his wrists were free, the patient sprang from his back to his knees in one fluid, adrenaline-injected motion, both hands reaching for Katherine’s neck. Had he made it, he could have crushed her windpipe. Fortunately, the tech stuck out his arm, and within in seconds hospital security was in the room, the patient was on his back again and his wrists were restrained. “He never laid a finger on me,” Katherine said. “But he got close enough that I knew what it would have felt like if he had. I felt the air leave his nose. I could smell the cranberry sauce on his breath.”
The euphemisms for madness in the American vernacular-“nervous breakdown,” “cracked up,” “lost his marbles”-all connote a process in which the mind breaks away from the commonsense world where the normal live and takes up residence in a country without logic, a little mental Madagascar, where change comes on suddenly and without warning, where the laws of linearity and orderliness no longer apply. The madman sees things that aren’t there. The madman chitters in a language only he can understand. The images of mental illness that pervade American popular culture-often portrayed as generally embarrassing brands of craziness-reinforce the idea: bipolars vacillate between manic rage and closed-curtain depression (Mommie Dearest); schizophrenics slavishly obey their inner voices (A Beautiful Mind); obsessive-compulsives repeat the same hand-washing ritual until their skin turns cracked and flaky (As Good As it Gets). Scroll the higher-numbered cable channels after ten P.M. and chances are you’ll come across a movie involving Multiple Personality Disorder (now termed Dissociative Identity Disorder)-a villain who is his own victim, his own evil side transmogrified into another self, the me that is not me. Even postmodern theorists Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson use schizophrenia as a metaphor for the schism between the images that constitute contemporary culture and the meanings those images, or signs, represent.
However, the real-life schizophrenic who lunged at my wife showed me that these metaphors can have it backward. Madness may be less a fracturing than a concentration: a fixation on one thing that becomes the head of the pin upon which the entire universe must balance. The one thing becomes the Everlasting Thing: a crushing, overwhelming weight that, when it fails, results not in an explosion but in animplosion which leaves behind a black hole that draws to itself all light, hope, peace, and all difference. Madness is the overwhelming persistence of sameness; it is the absence of change. For the man in the hospital, Katherine became the concentrated figure of all the voices that had tried to control him-the voice inside his head as well as the police, his doctors, his parents, his girlfriend’s parents-and when he lunged for her neck, he lunged not at her but at everyone all at once.
Though neither violent nor controlled by voices, I have become possessed in this way by water. It has saturated every facet of my existence. When I am playing with Galen on the carpet, I am thinking about water. When I am sitting on the couch feeling Katherine’s still-flat stomach for echoes of the baby inside it, I am thinking about water. When I am in front of my classes, I am thinking about water. I watch it spiral down the sink and toilet, the invisible tornado it forms in the bathtub, and I am certain that it is somewhere leaking into the walls, that it will rot away the skeleton of my shelter until the walls collapse and the roof buckles and the kitchen cabinets crash to the floor, which too will have rotted and will fall in. I dial off the tap and stand touching it, feeling for moisture, paralyzed, hearing Galen call my name but unable to listen. When no more water drips from the faucet I go away and come back again. I stand watch and wait. I prowl about the exterior, fixated on the rainwater trickling through the gutters and soaking into the grass and flowerbeds and farther, into the pores of the basement walls, seeping through the cinder blocks, the window jambs. I feel the washing machine vibrate through the living room floor and envision it bursting open, water gushing from its seams throughout the basement, knocking out the furnace and the water heater, then ascending the staircase, consuming our shoes and coats and gloves, filling up the portal windows like a capsized ship sinking into the sea. I lie in bed and listen to the creaks in the walls, straining to detect, in the dark, the sound of a trickle, a drip in the pipes that separate my bedroom from my son’s. I run my hands along the fissures in the plaster until my palms grow sweaty and create the very water I fear. And though I know it has come from me, that I can pull my hand away and make it stop, I fear the water I leave behind. I fear I am the agent of damage, and my madness, not water, will bring the house down around us. And still I cannot pull my hand away, stop feeling for more.
How little I know of madness. How much I will come to learn.
We go in for an ultrasound. I sit in a chair against the wall, abstracted. We’ve done this before. The sonographer squirts gel onto Katherine’s belly, and, a moment later, up on the screen hanging from the ceiling appears the baby’s outline. There’s the head, the back, the beating heart, the penis. Katherine has complained that she hasn’t felt quite right, and of bleeding: the toilet paper sometimes pink, other times a brighter red. I tell her she’s just nervous because we’re in a new place; nothing is wrong. Even the doctor has told her a little spotting is normal. “See?” I say, pointing. “There he is. A-OK.” I’m doing my best to participate, to think about what’s before me, nothing else. The sonographer hits a button and the machine spits out a line of waxy black-and-whites, as well as three sepia-tinted 3-D pictures of the baby tucked against Katherine’s uterine wall, a face like the face of a tadpole. We go home and call our families and friends. “Get ready for another boy,” we say.
Two days later, on Friday morning, I am sitting in my office when Katherine calls me. “You have a second?” she asks me.
“The doctor called about the ultrasound.” She pauses, swallows. “I need to talk to you about what he said.” For the next five minutes she stops being my wife and becomes a social worker, the calm-in-all-weathers woman who has cradled the dead in her arms, dead babies and dead children, who has ferried grieving parents to the morgue and back, who has pressed tiny, lifeless hands and feet into plaster molds in order to give bereft mothers something of their lost children to take home. She takes a big clinical breath and tells me that the ultrasound revealed that the baby is missing a blood vessel in its umbilical cord; it has two when it should have three. She also tells me that cysts were found in his choroid plexus, the membrane in the brain that produces spinal fluid. It’s not a cognitive part of the brain, so the cysts won’t affect function or development, but the danger is that both the two-vessel cord and the choroid plexus cysts are markers for a genetic disease, Trisomy 18. Edwards syndrome. Like Down syndrome, which is Trisomy 21, Edwards is caused by the presence of an extra chromosome-a third eighteenth chromosome. Like Down syndrome, Edwards affects mental and physical development, with one horrifying difference: while most Down syndrome children live relatively happy lives and survive into their fifties (or longer), very few children with Edwards live more than a week. Many are stillborn and many more die within their first hours of life.
I listen to Katherine tell me all of this with my thumb inside Plato’sRepublic, and when she lets out a long, frightened sigh-a maternal sigh, not a clinical one-I feel my heart tighten like a fist. She has seen enough to know the difference between imagined worry and real concern. This is real. Twenty minutes before my first class meets, I feel the implosion begin, the black hole opening, the bottom of the universe spinning through a drain, pulling me down with it.
The only way we will know for certain is with an amniocentesis. In the jargon of baby-making, most know it by its shorthand: “amnio.” The waiting room is filled with parenting magazines, every table and empty seat covered with a glossy photograph of a smiling, healthy baby. We find two seats around the corner, away from the receptionist’s desk. I gather up the magazines and move them away. We sit, staring and silent, until the nurse appears in the doorway and calls our name. We follow her to the same room where a week earlier we had the ultrasound. The sonographer this time is a small woman with dark, spiky hair. Her lab coat hangs to her ankles. She tells us she’s from Reedsburg, Wisconsin, “down by the Dells.” Appleton feels like the big city to her. Kids? we ask. Three, she says. Two boys and a girl. She smiles and rolls her eyes toward the ceiling, unable to keep from thinking of them. She stops herself from telling stories and instead slathers Katherine’s belly with lubricant. “There’s your baby,” she says, excited. It’s obvious that she enjoys her job. We wonder if she knows why we’re here.
The doctor comes in, a diminutive Filipino man in his fifties, still combing the last wisps of his hair on his small round head. He keeps a hand tucked inside his coat pocket. We found him in the phone book the week after we arrived in Wisconsin but have quickly come to appreciate his unflappable demeanor and the fact that the certifications from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that hang on the wall are dated 1985. He’s been doing this a long time. He explains the risks of the amnio: infection, acidemia, a loss of amniotic fluid and, in a small percentage of cases, miscarriage. We say we understand the risks. The sonographer wraps the transducer in a plastic sleeve, which she fills with lubricant and tightens into place with a metal clamp; attached to the clamp is a small slot through which the needle will slide. She moves the transducer along Katherine’s belly until she finds a blank spot, a place where the baby is not. A dotted line transects the screen, marking the trajectory the needle will follow through the skin and into the uterus. The doctor threads the needle through the hole. “Are you ready?” he asks. Katherine nods. “Okay,” he says. “I’m going to count to three and then go in. You’ll feel a pinch and a tightness while the needle is inside.” Katherine nods again. “Okay, then,” he says. He counts slowly, one, followed by a pause, two. He retracts the needle. He gets the th out forthree when the baby’s head emerges on the screen and crosses through the dotted line, right through the needle’s path. “Of course you’d swim over right now,” the doctor says. He laughs, lightly. My heart is racing, but I’m sitting still, holding onto Katherine’s arm. For once my madness is serving me; I have learned to keep it a secret, to sit without moving, even as my mind spins. The doctor moves the transducer to a new spot and begins the countdown again, more quickly this time. He pierces the uterus and pulls back on the syringe. Katherine winces, grits her teeth. The canister of the syringe fills with a dull yellow fluid. “Good color,” he says. “Little frightening there for a moment.” We nod. I exhale. “For you, not for me,” he says.
“Now what?” I ask.
“Now we wait,” he says. “Results in ten days.”
For ten days we do not touch. Even when the desire between us is a third person in the room, an animal growling between us in bed, we resist, afraid of recommitting the act that may have created a doomed child. We have been kicking around names for weeks, but now we choose one, Hayden, aware that it is a name we might have to bury. Home after class, I sit on the edge of the bed and think about the vial of amniotic fluid-Katherine’s water-traveling by van to the lab in Milwaukee. I think of its soft amber color, its protective viscosity, its blizzard of DNA, the helix of Hayden’s existence a braid of Katherine’s alleles and mine. I can’t help wondering if I am responsible, if it is my DNA that caused the cysts and the two-vessel cord. Katherine appears in the bedroom doorway. Her eyes are wet. Without ever speaking of it, we’ve agreed not to reveal our worry to Galen. It is late October, and beyond the window the last yellow leaf flutters on the maple, lit by the sun through the pines beyond the garage. Downstairs Galen bangs his milk cup against his high chair. The thud echoes up the staircase. We’re alone for a moment. She wants to reach for me, and I for her, but we do not. Instead I lie back on the bed and she lies down beside me, and we begin to talk.
For ten days we talk like this: in the mornings lying in bed and in the evenings sitting on the couch. In the first days we conjure forth the worst stories we know. Katherine tells stories from the emergency room, where she worked with the trauma team: of the ten-year-old girl in American Fork, Utah, hit by a pickup truck while crossing in a crosswalk. She was kept alive for two days before support was withdrawn and her heart was allowed to stop and her organs removed for donation. She tells me of mothers backing over their children, babies shaken to death my immature fathers, otherwise healthy eight-year-olds inexplicably bleeding out while having their tonsils removed. I tell her about my grandmother, who slipped on her kitchen floor and hit her head on a cabinet drawer and broke her neck, and about a friend who lost his first child to a chromosomal anomaly not unlike the one Hayden may have. The ultrasound revealed it, the amniocentesis confirmed it, and his wife carried the baby for nine months, delivered her without medication and then held her until she died, just hours after her birth. It helps us to hear each other speak. We try to remind ourselves that the worst can happen and has happened to people we know. Children die and their parents survive; if ours dies, we will survive as well. But I believe we also tell these stories out of the more superstitious belief that if we can possess all the horror in the world, gather it to ourselves and identify it as part of us, then we can dispossess our own narrative of its tragedy. We can bargain our baby to health by convincing God that we have not been immune to suffering. We’ve had our numbers called. Let this one be our freebie.
As the days pass, our stories begin to change. At first we hardly notice. The stories are still as gruesome as ever-babies born with vital organs outside their bodies, car accidents and plane crashes-except that the people we’re talking about aren’t dead. They’re alive. Katherine says that the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Utah brought kids back in ways she never thought possible. Six months in the NICU, most of it in the dark, untouched by human skin to prevent infection or the transference of oil, eating and breathing through a tube, but in the end alive. We begin to see the possibility of a middle ground between dumb-luck avoidance of mishap and the suffocating darkness of our worst nightmares.
On the tenth day, the day we’re to hear about the amnio, we lie in bed and whisper to each other the mother of all come-back stories. I saw it in the newspaper years ago, the story of a twenty-two-month-old boy who had wandered away from his babysitter in Rexburg, Idaho, and had fallen into a canal. He was underwater for thirty minutes and had floated more than half a mile before the police fished him out, cold and unresponsive. Paramedics at the scene and doctors in the emergency room performed CPR for more than a half hour before finally pronouncing him dead. The boy’s mother and stepfather spent more than an hour crying over him and kissing his cold skin and saying good-bye, and when they were finished, a nurse came in and wheeled him down the hall to prepare his body for the funeral home. It was then that she noticed his chest was moving, just a little, and realized that he was breathing. He had been pronounced dead, but wasn’t. He was flown from Rexburg to the children’s hospital in Salt Lake City, where Katherine learned more details firsthand. “He was breathing on his own but then had to go back on the respirator,” she says. “About a week later he was upgraded to fair condition. As far as I know, he made it.” We practically giggle while we tell it. We kiss. It could happen. Sometimes it does happen. Every now and then someone makes it back from the dead.
The mistake we make is in believing that stories like these obey Aristotle’s rules for the unity of a plot: that they have beginnings and middles and endings and that the endings result in catharsis. Once the worst has been confronted, it will become a memory and, as a memory, its power will be blunted by the passage of time. When the doctor calls to tell us that the amnio results came back negative, that the baby does not have Edwards or any other genetic condition, I make the mistake of believing that our fears are behind us. The story is over, and I have bested my madness for good.
Through Christmas and New Years and Katherine’s birthday and Valentine’s Day, I live in the tenuous hope that Hayden will arrive without complication, which means that tucked in the closet of my heart, and Katherine’s too, is the secret expectation that complications await us. An organ, or two, or many, could still grow abnormally. Something vital might not kick on when it should. I pray, and I think good thoughts, and when he finally comes, on a wet day at the end of February when the rain is freezing and turning to snow, I watch the doctor and the nurses for signs that Hayden is okay. For the sign that all my anticipation and worry can finally subside.
Initially he’s cheesy and warm and spends his first hour wrapped in a blanket, in Katherine’s arms and then in mine, but by the time the nurse returns to bathe him, his color has turned dusky, and his hands and feet are a deep, bloodless purple. The nurse thinks he might just be cold, but when she tests his oxygen saturation, it’s lower than it should be. She hesitates to take him from us, but finally she does, wheeling him down the hall to the nursery, where he’s given oxygen and x-rayed and his heels are pricked to draw blood for tests. “Probably just fluid in his lungs,” she tells us, adjusting the prongs of the nasal cannulas that deliver air through his noise. “Should drain out in a few hours. We’ve got him on thirty-percent oxygen, which is hardly anything. A whiff. Room air is twenty-one percent. We’ll wean him down, and when he’s off it altogether, we’ll wheel him back to your room. Probably later on tonight.”
I go to sleep on a cot beside Katherine, covered by the two thinnest blankets on the planet. I sleep poorly, shivering, waking every hour to see if Hayden is there. In the morning he’s still in the nursery. “Twenty-three percent,” the nurse says, “shouldn’t be long now.” But he lingers there throughout the morning, and by lunch I accept the fact that it’s going to be another few hours. When Katherine’s mother brings Galen to the hospital, I volunteer to take him home so we both can nap. I want time to move faster. I want the world to reset while my eyes are closed. I want to wake up and call the hospital and hear that Hayden’s in with Katherine, that he’s been there all along. Despite my exhaustion, I can’t sleep and instead pass the afternoon watching the Discovery Channel. At three, the phone rings. Katherine’s voice is higher than usual and slower, altered by the Percocet she’s been given to manage the pain of tearing during the delivery. It is also altered, I understand quickly, by her attempts to manage her worry. “The doctor’s on her way in,” she tells me. Hayden’s getting sicker. They’ve bumped him up to fifty percent oxygen, and he’s still breathing hard.”
“What’s the problem?”
“It’s hard to say. Maybe residual fluid, maybe pneumonia. Could also be that his lungs are underdeveloped. There’s a NICU a half-hour south, at a bigger hospital. He might need to go there.”
“This place isn’t advanced enough,” she says. “There’s a storm coming, and they don’t want to risk it. To tell you the truth, the nurses here are out of their league. They’re making me nervous.”
It scares me to think that Hayden is sick enough to be out of anyone’s league, and though I have heard Katherine’s irritated accounts of parents defying doctors, thinking they know what’s best for their children by virtue of the fact that their children came from them, I cannot help but fight against the transfer. I ask Katherine if we should call another doctor. Should she call her former colleagues in Utah and arrange to have to test results faxed over? Can we drive Hayden ourselves down to the NICU? Surely he’s well enough for a half-hour ride in the car. “He can’t go off the oxygen,” she says. “Plus, the ambulance is safer . . . in case something happens on the way.”
“Safer,” I to myself as I hang up the phone and rise from the couch to shower and brush my teeth and head back to the hospital. I feel shackled by the word, betrayed by it, and more crazed than ever. All my months of worry and fear seem no longer mad but rather somehow prescient. I was right all along. It’s a feeling far worse than being dead wrong, for now every fear, even the most miniscule, feels rimmed with prophecy. In the shower the water pours over my head and neck and back, filling in my every opening-my ears, my mouth, the cleft of my rear-and I feel strangely sympathetic for the schizophrenic who lunged at Katherine. I understand his rage. I want a neck to squeeze, someone to lunge for. I beat my fist against the shower wall.
By the time I make it back to the hospital, the nursery is empty. The other babies who share Hayden’s birthday are in with their mothers, and Hayden’s bassinette sits empty, waiting for the next infant to fill it. I feel momentarily relieved by the possibility that he’s already gone, that I did not have to bear watching him go and all that will be required of me is to travel to the next place. But around the corner I find a gaggle of nurses standing outside Katherine’s room: three from this hospital and two from the next, and two mustached ambulance drivers in padded navy jackets and cargo pants. Between the two men is a stretcher with a yellow accordion-like base for moving up and down. Attached to the stretcher is a clear plastic isolette. Inside the isolette is Hayden, twenty-six hours old, stripped to his diaper, his eyes closed, his lungs retracting so hard that each breath reveals his ribcage, every last bone. He’s up to seventy percent. The transport nurse slowly tells me the name of the neonatalogist at the NICU. She waits for me to repeat the name back to her. Then she opens the porthole on the side of the isolette and tells me I can touch him. The empty hallway, the bottleneck of nurses, the darkening sky all feel too final, as though if I touch him now I might never touch him again. So I don’t. I claim my hands are cold. The drivers wheel him away, and the nurses follow. I go with Katherine back to her room, where she gathers up her things and changes from her gown to her clothes so we can leave.
I have never taken a longer walk than the one I take that night: the length of the hallway from the room where Hayden was born, past the other labor and delivery rooms, where families have gathered with flowers and balloons, past the nurses’ station, where the women who helped Hayden come sit in a line behind a window with down-turned mouths and watch us leave without him, past the empty nursery, out of the unit, into the elevator, out of the hospital. We don’t walk but shuffle-Katherine’s bag over my right shoulder, her arm looped through my left elbow, her steps tiny and painful, in pink house slippers because her feet are too swollen for shoes. The bottle of Vicodin rattles in her jacket pocket. At the car I help her extend the seatbelt-the movement required to reach across her own shoulder still too painful-and then I climb in behind the wheel and start the engine and drive. Snow is falling, just barely, transparent confetti in the street lamps, but it’s dark and the streets are wet. I keep my eyes fixed on the yellow lines. I have to remind myself to pay attention to the road.
For the next week, madness is a chair beside the isolette, the isolette beside the window, the window reflecting the stack of ever-flowing colored sine waves measuring Hayden’s heartbeat (green), rate of respirations (yellow), blood pressure (red) and oxygen saturation (blue). I watch the monitor for hours, following the nodes on the lines across the screen from right to left, willing them into cadence with my own heartbeat and breaths. If I can slow my own breathing, if I can gulp in enough oxygen to saturate my blood, perhaps I can do the same for Hayden. I lose entire afternoons to this activity, to watching Hayden’s chest fill and deflate, to the view through the window of the parking lot, the school and its whitened playground, where each day at 11:30 children spill out to run, the houses along the road leading toward the highway, the calcified green roof of the Lutheran church, the blackened windows of the defunct paper mill and beyond, in the distance, the puffing stacks of the working mills, silently feeding the gray sky with gray smoke. I listen to the hypnotic percolation of the oxygen through water, and in the course of a day I live my entire life, each event a crested wave on the monitor, each trough the thought of a world without my child in it. I watch Hayden’s chest rise and fall. I pray, and when the priest comes I talk with him and I pray with him, and when he goes I go back to the monitor. I sit with my arms across my chest and my mouth hanging open, my right foot on the heating vent. I listen to the sink running behind me, the nurses washing their hands every five minutes, every time they change a diaper or touch a feeding nipple or move from one child to another.
Only slowly do I understand that I am at peace. I am not conquering madness but surrendering to it. I let it carry me into open water, where I finally come to realize that it will go on forever. When this madness is finished, another will follow it. And another will follow that. The eclipsing worry I first felt that August morning as I watched water fall from my basement ceiling, which metamorphosed into the fear of losing my child, has become an inextricable part of me. Even when Katherine and I carry Hayden through the NICU doors to take him home, it will continue to haunt me. I will wake up and stand in the lightless hallway between my sons’ rooms, or in the basement with a flashlight, and listen to the low, murmuring voice vibrating the bones in my ears with tales of the worst.
Saturday night, and snow is falling. In the awning lights beyond Hayden’s window it looks like orange television static, dense enough that I cannot see through it. Every windshield in the parking lot is white. The nurses lean over the desk and talk about making it home when their shift is over and, more importantly, their shift replacements making it in. One volunteers to make up the beds in the family room. Another calls for roll-away cots to be brought in. A twelve-hour shift might turn into twenty-four. Hayden’s nurse comes to his isolette to check his blood-gas levels. She pauses beside me at the window, and for a moment we watch the snow together. Just beyond the parking lot, a tow-truck winches a sedan from a snow bank. “Even if I get out of here on time, I’m not sure I want to try driving home,” she says.
Katherine is hungry. I tell her I’ll go find her something to eat. She isn’t sure she wants me to. The doctors aren’t allowing Hayden to eat-he gets his calories from a concoction of fatty lipids pushed through a syringe over a thirty-two hour period-and a part of her wants to wait to eat until he eats. “That’s too long,” I say. My voice is calm. I’m happy that the weather prevents us from leaving. “You need your strength.”
The receptionist gives me directions to the vending machine; the cafeteria won’t be open again until the morning. I get off the elevator on the wrong floor and for twenty minutes wander one vacant hallway after another, every turn a turn deeper into a maze. By luck I wander into a waiting area where there’s a bank of vending machines tucked in an alcove. I buy a Snickers and a bag of pretzels and deposit my remaining change into the Pepsi machine. I come up a nickel short. I finger the coin-return trays, and find nothing. I walk out into the waiting room. A woman and a young girl sit facing each other on the couches around the corner, gazing intently into each other’s eyes. The woman is small, curly gray hair cut to her ears and petite rimless eyeglasses floating invisibly on her face. The girl is maybe sixteen, maybe seventeen, her brown hair in a ponytail. She hugs a pillow. The floor around them is strewn with duffel bags and jackets, backpacks and pillows. Snow piles on the windowsill, rising up the glass in a crescent. I ask the woman for a nickel, and she rises to dig in her front pocket. She sets the coin in my palm. A Tupperware container filled with cookies sits on the coffee table. Would I like one? “Okay,” I say. She unfolds a napkin and sets two inside, folds the corners over. I look over to the counter and see four two-liter bottles of soda, a bowl of fruit, a big tray with sandwiches. “You having a campout?” I ask.
“Hardly,” she says. “My nephew is here. Her boyfriend. He was in a car accident nine days ago. A bunch of us have been up here all week. We’re taking the night shift.”
I feel bad about my wisecrack, so I tell her my son is here, too, in the NICU. I tell her I’m sorry. “The waiting is hard.”
The girl nods, and the woman offers me a sandwich. “We have plenty left over,” she says. “The vending machine loses its charm pretty fast.” She finds a paper plate and stacks it high: three ham-and-swiss sandwiches on big, buttery rolls, three more cookies, two apples, a banana. “What’s your son’s name?” she asks me.
“Hayden. Born just the other day.”
“Aw,” the girl says.
“And your nephew’s?”
“Christopher,” the woman says.
“Captain of the universe,” the girl says.
“Of the universe?”
“He was the captain of four teams last year,” the girl says. “Football, basketball, baseball, and wrestling. He’s good at everything.”
“How’s he doing now?” I ask.
“Well, it’s serious,” the woman says. She looks up at me, and I see the worry in her face, the madness of nine days of not knowing whether the story her family will tell every time they get together, the story that will keep them together, will be a triumph or a tragedy. “The injury is in his head.”
“He’s amazing,” the girls says, not letting her finish. “Blowing the doctors away. He never lapsed into a coma, and most people with his injury lapse into comas. Today he opened his eyes.”
The woman rolls her eyes, a movement only I can see. At first I think she doesn’t trust the girl’s enthusiasm, her refusal to acknowledge the wicked possibilities still hovering over them, but then I see that I have misread the scene. The girl is talking to the woman, not the other way around. The girl is telling the story. She’s the only one myopic enough to ignore the tubes and wires and see her boyfriend’s body and brain as whole, their beautiful future together, his open eyes finding her in the room. The woman depends on this. It feeds her. And now it feeds me, too. I need the girl’s unfailing optimism, her story of defied odds and miraculous outcomes, the heat of her belief.
Poetry Feature: Paisley Rekdal
Featuring the poems:
- Why Some Girls Love Horses [featured as Poem of the Week, Dec. 3, 2008]
- Possibilities in Love
Why Some Girls Love Horses
And then I thought, Can I have more
of this, would it be possible
for every day to be a greater awakening: more light,
more light, your face on the pillow
with the sleep creases rudely
fragmenting it, hair so stiff
from paint and Sheetrock it feels
like the dirty short hank
of mane I used to grab on Dandy’s neck
before he hauled me up and forward,
white flanks flecked green
with shit and the satin of his dander,
the livingness, the warmth
of all that blood just under the skin
and in the long, thick muscle of the neck-
he was smarter than most of the children
I went to school with. He knew
how to stand with just the crescent
of his hoof along a boot toe and press,
incrementally, his whole weight down. _ e pain
so surprising when it came,
its iron intention sheathed in stealth, the decisive
sudden twisting of his leg until the hoof
pinned one’s foot completely to the ground,
we’d have to beat and beat him with a brush
to push him off , that hot
insistence with its large horse eye trained
deliberately on us, to watch-
Like us, he knew how to announce through violence
how he didn’t hunger, didn’t want
despite our practiced ministrations: too young
not to try to empathize
with this cunning: this thing
that was and was not human we must respect
for itself and not our imagination of it: I loved him because
I could not love him anymore
in the ways I’d taught myself,
watching the slim bodies of teenagers
guide their geldings in figure eights around the ring
as if they were one body, one fluid motion
of electric understanding I would never feel
working its way through fingers to the bit: this thing
had a name, a need, a personality; it possessed
an indifference that gave me
logic and a measure: I too might stop wanting
the hand placed on back or shoulder
and never feel the longed-for response.
I loved the horse for the pain it could imagine
and inflict on me, the sudden jerking
of head away from halter, the tentative nose
inspecting first before it might decide
to relent and eat. I loved
what was not slave or instinct, that when you turn to me
it is a choice, it is always a choice to imagine pleasure
might be blended, one warmth
bleeding into another as the future
bleeds into the past, more light, more light,
your hand against my shoulder, the image
of the one who taught me disobedience
is the first right of being alive.
Poetry Feature: Rebekah Remington
Featuring the poems:
At one time or another, many of us unconsciously assume that we are clever enough to defy not just nature but fate.Perhaps it’s a good thing. Philosophers call such optimistic self-deception the”vital lie” and acknowledge its value. Ibsen dramatizes it obliquely in his play The Wild Duck, in which an obsessive, truth-seeking “idealist” ruins the lives of an entire family by unveiling the deception behind every hope-inspiring memoryand detail of their lives.
Sisyphus is a mythical example of one agile enough to defy fate, at least for a while. He is frequently thought to be an archetype of hopelessness and the futility of life because he was ultimately condemned to an eternity of pushing the rock up the hill and watching it roll down again. Yet Sisyphus was a powerful rogue, the founder of a city, successful in love with mortals and immortals, capable of talking his way out of trouble with angry gods and once even out of Hades. A destiny of ongoing effort for such a resolute heavy hitter seems a natural fate-and also not a bad deal. Albert Camus says at the conclusion of his The Myth of Sisyphus, “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Several of the pieces in this issue convey life’s enigmatic blend of loss, struggle and accomplishment. Bearskin, by James McLaughlin, is about a man with a past who has been hired to conserve a piece of land that the locals regard as belonging to them. The story conveys the intimate strangeness of isolation as well as a sublime and fearful closeness with nature. Mathew Chacko’s “Ivy: A Love Story” is a dark yet beautiful portrait of a man discovering-partly through his own attempted self-destruction-the extraordinary blessing of his life.
The essay “Hydrophobia” tells of a pregnancy that is threatened by medical issues. Author David McGlynn evokes the concentration and focus that can arise from fear, as well as the importance of simply dealing with such dilemmas. In his confessional essay “Lessons in Amateur Stalking,” John Stazinski laysbare his fixation with his mother’s death due to a traffic accident, as well as his presumption that the other driver was a drunken criminal. It is a heartfelt narrative of obsession and learning the truth.
This issue’s fringe art feature outlines the work of Norman Bel Geddes, one of America’s foremost modern designers. He briefly attended the Chicago Art Institute and then quit to serve as a costume and set designer at the Metropolitan Opera. After more than a decade in theater, Bel Geddes became one of the first generation of industrial designers. Powerfully ambitious and prolific, he believed that design was art intended to make the world more beautiful for all people. As with most other designers, only a small percentage of his work ever came to fruition. His company in New York eventually failed, yet his devotion and overall accomplishment rose above his troubles. Fortunately the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas has done an exceptional job of preserving his collection and making it available.
Michael Cohen’s omnibus review covers several recent nonfiction books by writers such as Andre Dubus, Nancy Mairs and Joan Didion, all of which concern pain or personal disaster. These books, like the contents of this issue, bring to life the paradox of life’s agonies. Inevitably the broad lesson of all these works is analogous to that of many of the world’s secular and sacred philosophies, whether of Siddhartha or Sartre, Jesus of Nazareth or Zeno of Citium: struggle is not always merely a curse but can be a focal point around which meaning emerges.
Lessons in Amateur Stalking
The full text of this essay is not currently available online.
The cop may be looking at the blood, or he may be simply awed by the way the car is crumpled like a candy wrapper. It is a difficult photo to look at but equally difficult to turn away from.
Ivy: A Love Story
[This text is also available online as part of our TextBox anthology.]
Featured as an Editor’s Pick, July 13, 2010:
Mathew Chacko’s “Ivy: A Love Story” (from TMR 31.2) is a vivid portrait of a grief-haunted man redefining the boundaries of his world after the loss of his wife. Vibrant imagery, a dynamic Indian setting and a protagonist steeped in a lifetime of memories make Chako’s story a compelling and layered read.
[Download a PDF of this story: “Ivy: A Love Story” by Mathew Chacko]
Ivy: A Love Story
For thirty-two years he had lived a life rooted in her care; he had eked out a meager existence on that generous soil, so now, how to live?
Coming home from the funeral, he had stood at the door to the flat and, out of habit or disbelief, jabbed at the calling bell button. Joyous peals bounded inside. He waited for footsteps, the clatter of the lock. The flat was silent. He had hurried down the three flights of stairs to the car and driven straight to the shop near Bangalore Club that he had not visited in so many victorious years.
The man there-smaller, dimmer, more defeated, but the very same man-had served him in a state of shock. He had rolled up a liter bottle in a sheet of newspaper, like a mummy, and pushed it across the counter.
Now, four months after her death, he began at sunset-brandy, neat, peg by peg in a plain glass. His body still knew liquor as poison, an old and dangerous ally, and he had to take small sips and suck on a wedge of lemon in between. It was a slow journey, but reliably, every night, he reached a point when the TV became incomprehensible, a vague hubbub in the corner of the room.
Some nights he wept. He covered his mouth with his hands so the neighbours wouldn’t hear. What issued from him was a series of comic explosions. He would stumble around the flat-a big, blubbering bear of a man, shirt unbuttoned and flapping in the wind, lungi tied in a loose knot under the overhang of his belly. He would come to in the dark, early-morning hours, flat on his back, felled across the bed, that side of his body so used to hers unbordered and cold. He spent most of the day behind drawn curtains, stupefied on the sofa.
Outside, people came and went, cars honked, children shouted, dogs barked. He kept the flat a sealed tomb. Once a day the cleaning servant, a rail-thin woman who raced through five homes, slipped in through the back door. Her life was elsewhere; she hurried through her chores without reacting to any of the signs in the intimate places she cleaned. The empty brandy bottles were whisked away, the fact that he left fewer and fewer clothes in the laundry basket efficiently ignored. After she had swept the mosaic floors and scuttled crab-wise across them, whipping a wet rag back and forth in a semi-circular arc, she would come and stand before him in an agony of waiting, while he tried to decide what meal he wanted fetched from the nearby restaurant.
How little you needed! How easy to retract! The newspaper went crisp and unread to the wastepaper basket. He’d had the phone disconnected, and he didn’t answer the doorbell.
It was probably Vrinda. The next-door neighbour. In the lull that followed the ringing, he would hold his breath and listen, imagining her in a similar pose on the other side of the door, silently battling a dozen impulses before moving away. Sometimes there would be two people there and, invariably, a muffled struggle and the sound of something dropping to the floor and a booming shout-UNCLE! or GOOD EVENING!-hurled into the apartment through the chink at the bottom of the door.
There was something wrong with Nithin, Vrinda’s boy. A hormonal imbalance of some sort that could not be corrected. He was overweight and hoarse and constantly lunging at things. They had moved in two years ago-mother, nine-year-old son and a huge, ferocious Alsatian, his collar buried in his bristling coat. The father was dead, in a car accident whose details could not be properly imagined because it had happened halfway around the world, in Canada, and had involved fog and ice.
He tried his best to avoid Vrinda. It was the most care he took about anything. When he had to go to the liquor store, he crept out like a thief. Sometimes Bozzo ignored him; sometimes he barked at once, gleefully alerting Vrinda, who would come rushing out of her flat and catch him frozen on the landing. The inquiries would come hurtling at Mr. Ninan. The boy would tentatively crack open the door the mother had slammed behind her and, ignoring the arm she would hold out to stay him, wrestle himself through the small opening and shut the door, in his turn, on the outraged, howling dog. He would attach himself to his mother, and all the time they were out there he would strain and push against her like a sumo wrestler while she struggled to keep her balance and extract from Mr. Ninan some semblance of a response.
Some vegetables, then? Something simple? I have to cook anyway, no?
Out of nowhere, her eyes would fill up and she would say, I think of aunty all the time, every day. And he would want to shout, Don’t you have your own dead husband to moon over, you bloody, stupid woman?
He drove blindly, through streets he did not recognize. Nothing he saw reminded him that he had lived in Bangalore half his life. The man in the liquor shop had claimed Mr. Ninan as his own shameful secret. He would drop whatever he was doing and hurry over and have him back in the car within minutes, an open cardboard box full of nodding bottles on the passenger-side seat. When he got back to the flats, he would throw a towel over the box and carry it up the stairs like a birdcage.
The brandy went into obscure parts of his brain and stripped old wires bare. When he screwed up his face and drew sharply on a wedge of lemon, his mouth was flooded with the taste of a slash across the heel from a glass piece he had landed on, leaping a puddle as a boy in Fort Cochin. The shady acreage of the Madras Christian College revolved on the squeaky wheel of his rickety bicycle. A black, skeletal arm rose from the pit of an ancient Remington typewriter and smote the paper a stiff, premeditated blow.
That particular sound had echoed across three decades of his life amounting to precisely nothing. The scenery shifted, years flew off the calendar; he went from plump to soft, black-haired to nearly bald. What raged in his mind had stayed there-clotted, unfinished. There were outlines on foolscap sheets, notebooks filled with jottings, the beginnings of an introduction, several titles of a Naipaulian bleakness-a quality that he came by quite naturally.
No book. Not even a letter to the editor. He remembered countless hours at the desk, wretched stasis, the congealing of all forward motion in perfect, marmoreal sentences. All those things he had wanted to say. Those caustic indictments that tripped off his tongue so easily in the petrified lecture hall.
Every summer, after classes were over for the year, he would change the
typewriter ribbon and imagine a fiery, three-month-long crucible from which he would emerge holding a slim volume of beaten gold-a collection of devastating essays on the state of India. He ended up most days motionless in bed, the taste of aspirin on his tongue and a damp cloth stretched over his forehead.
Ivy never lost faith. Each day was a turnstile, and he could rotate out into a future nothing like the past. Every time he cleared his throat and started tapping out a sentence, she could barely hide her pleasure. Precedence, logic, an airtight history of defeats, the savage affirmations of hopelessness with which he punctuated the fruitless days-none of these seemed to make any difference to her.
During her vertiginous decline, he had typed out yards of nonsense. Straightaway in the morning, he would sit down at his desk and put down anything that came into his head. Old lectures. Fairytales. Rows of numbers. He broke only to eat or go to the bathroom. He slept on a narrow cot next to the desk. Things happened in the house-nurses appeared, Vrinda let people into the flat with the key Ivy must have given her, strangers went into the kitchen, food was left on the dining table. Nothing could shake his resolve. He buried himself in typewriter noise.
Towards the very end, the smell of Dettol cut through everything. Bed sheets billowed on the balcony. He glimpsed a heap of pillows in one corner of the bedroom, used, he surmised, to address a rapidly shifting set of discomforts. There was one terrifying evening when he heard a man’s voice in the living room. Vrinda’s shadow fell across the desk. The priest from your church, she said. Her eyes were luminous in her sweaty face. He wanted to bolt for the front door.
How did they know? Who told them? He hadn’t attended service in years, yet here they were, the Mar Thoma women with the Malayalam hymnbooks and the cycle of reading and praying, their saris reverently draped over their heads. And the priest right there in the bedroom, swaying over Ivy, shipwrecked on the pillows, in a passionate, eyes-closed outburst.
They would drag you out and deny you nothing. None of the ghastly rituals or raw formalities. The stench of flowers or the terminal, Biblical pronouncements. The walking-away from the coffin, still Ivy, abandoned in that barren spot.
In his extremity, he had fondly imagined the end of the world-something bumping the globe and everything going up like yesterday’s newspaper.
Instead, there was the slow drip, drip of brandy, a sloppy version of what he suspected Ivy’s doctors had conspired to do: kill mercifully if you cannot cure. Send vials of poison racing ahead of bumbling nature, with its fitful sequence of burst pipes and smoked circuitry.
He was down to one glass and a plate. A cockroach had smuggled its way into the kitchen. When he turned on the light in the morning to boil water for tea, he invariably stranded it on the kitchen counter-a big, glossy fellow who menaced the air with his antennae and showed no inclination to run.
Everything that reminded him of Ivy he nudged out of sight-dropped behind furniture or put away in cupboards. The wedding picture hanging in the drawing room and the row of framed photographs on the sideboard faced the wall. He could not remove them altogether and, sometimes, well into his nightly routine, he stationed himself next to the sideboard and fell into a terrible, boozy weeping.
He was sure Vrinda heard. The doorbell would ring the following day. With or without his mother’s knowledge, Nithin would litter the balcony with paper airplanes hurled from his own sit-out ten feet away. There would be messages scrawled on them in the breezy phrases he had brought with him from North America.
HANG IN THERE DUDE
I’M THINKIN OF YOU!
All along he had blithely assumed he would precede her. A stroke, a blood clot, lights out in mid-sentence. And carrying on left to those who could stomach it.
On the way home with Ivy from the diagnosis, he could hardly drive. At a busy intersection, he dribbled forward onto the path of a double-decker turning laboriously to his right and got the car wedged in the bend between the cab and the body of the bus. The double-decker kept moving. The car, oddly snagged on it, swung sideways. The passenger side tilted up. An envelope skittered the length of the dashboard and fell into his lap. He clutched the steering wheel and raised himself an inch from the seat. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ivy clinging to the passenger-side door to keep from sliding into him. She looked terrified. There were shouts. The bus squealed to a halt. Traffic was knotted around them, and exhaust poured in through the window. People were looking at the car curiously, as if it were a clever dog about to perform a circus trick.
The bus driver was apoplectic. A spray of spittle descended on the car. Mr. Ninan imagined him coming down from his perch in a murderous rage, tire iron in hand. Instead, he ground into first gear and lashed the bus forward, as if to flip the car over and kill them both. Ivy lost her hold and fell heavily against his shoulder.
He would fail her. He had no doubt. Even as the doctor gingerly swept up all the bad news into a monstrous heap. Even as he sat there in the car wedged between Ivy and the door, smiling idiotically.
A young woman jumped off her scooter and stood in front of the bus and matched the driver curse for curse, forcing him to reverse.
A maid Vrinda had arranged for slept on the floor beside Ivy’s bed. He had already moved into the guest room after Ivy’s return from the hastily arranged surgery (nothing more than the prompt closing of a window opened optimistically). A nurse visited twice a day. Things got done. He heard Vrinda’s murmur beneath everything. He made trips to Cash Pharmacy: horror enough in the pharmacist’s pious deference and padded retreat to the back of the room where such medicines were kept.
Some days he could barely get out of bed. On others, the typewriter chattered insanely, and he rubbed ice cubes over his inflamed wrists. His dreams were crystalline, brilliant, each jumpy sequence and surreal scene so precise in the terrors it evoked that he didn’t see how he could have had any part in authoring it. A week or so from the end, he woke up in the middle of the night and, out of some confused instinct, got up and went looking for Ivy. He parted the curtains to the master bedroom. A steel stand flared beside the bed. It was festooned with tubing and plastic pouches. An oxygen cylinder lurked in a corner like a bomb. The room smelled of latex. The maid was curled up on a mat with a sheet over her head. She stirred and confronted him with a bloodshot, addled stare he fled from.
The second hand of the clock ticked slowly, slogging through every soiled bed sheet and bed sore and labored breath; the hour hand raced. In less than three months he was sheepishly bumping up to the lip of a barren hole at the priest’s signal, to release the requisite handful of earth.
In the beginning, he saw her everywhere. A sharply pressed cotton sari, a skinny elbow, prominent collarbones, and there was Ivy for an instant, clear as a heart attack. At four, when the schoolchildren swarmed home, there arose in him, regardless, a habitual excitement. Any minute now the door would swing open and she would come in and drop a load of notebooks on the dining table and head for the kitchen to fry up a plate of plantains and brew a pot of tea, a steaming cup of which he would hold under his nose in squinty, soft-headed pleasure.
Gradually, she went away. Sometimes he heard a word or a sound that seemed to come straight from her throat. There were occasional disturbances in his peripheral vision-the flicker of a sari, the flash of a utensil in the kitchen. Otherwise, nothing.
He lay on the sofa in an amniotic haze, remembering the past.
He owed Ivy to the ill will of his uncle. He had been thirty and languishing as a lecturer in history at a college in Bangalore. His mother had just died. (A cautious road crossing, a rash lorry driver, the subsequent details needlessly cruel.)
Moments after the funeral, his uncle had brought up the proposal. The girl was dark, average looking, twenty-eight and an orphan from the age of three. There were some irregularities in the family-an uncle who had supposedly committed suicide, a cousin who some said was a cabaret dancer in Bombay. But where is the perfect proposal? She was a schoolteacher and spoke English well, an affectation, the uncle implied, that ought to appeal to Mr. Ninan.
The uncle and he went back many years. Two days before his sixth birthday, he had woken up to the sound of furniture being rearranged in the sitting room. His mother was crying in the kitchen. Her brother leaned against the door of Mr. Ninan’s bedroom, smoking a cigarette and contemplating the changed relationship between them. Gone the brave, broad-shouldered father. Swept away by a thrombosis in his sleep. Now, the petty, vindictive uncle, with a vaster envy of other people’s successes than anyone had ever suspected. It turned out that he had begrudged every aspect of his brother-in-law’s charm-his wit, his sunny generosity, his independence-and he referred to his untimely death as proof of the irrelevance of such qualities. His own secretive, scheming ways he valorized, employing them, most noticeably, to advance the prospects of his son, a skinny boy with porcupine hair Mr. Ninan’s age. He plied him with unknown amounts of tuition and tonic, kept him within striking distance of first place in every standard, and eventually heaved him into the last open seat at a competitive engineering college.
Sunday afternoons were reserved for head-to-head competitions the uncle devised to boost his son’s confidence. They were in areas Mr. Ninan loathed-Malayalam grammar, arithmetic, Bible verses. The slate on which the uncle had scribbled an algebra problem would wave in the air, and the cousin would put down his head and sprint the length of his foolscap sheet like a dog after a rat. The quizzes were conducted in the drawing room of Mr. Ninan’s house, which his uncle considered his own. His mother would have retreated to her bedroom. The uncle reclined in his father’s easy chair, tilted all the way back, his legs splayed and resting on the extended armrests, his testicles a droopy convexity in his dhothi.
The cousin was a team player. If someone gave him a boiled egg, he walked the three furlongs to Mr. Ninan’s house so he could peel and eat it in front of him. At every opportunity he lolled in his father’s lap and looked out at the world as if he had a toffee firmly planted in his cheek.
Mr. Ninan’s mother put away her good saris and bled herself voluntarily into insignificance. She came home from the clerical job her husband’s employer had given her, on “compassionate grounds,” swollen with exhaustion. She spent most of the evening in bed. At funerals and weddings, Mr. Ninan learned to look for her among the tedious, older relatives or on the back verandahs of kitchens. For a time he was fiercely attached to her and felt her widowhood grievously, and on one occasion, on her birthday the year after his father’s death, prevailed upon her to open the trunk under her cot and wear her red, Kanjeevaram sari and gold bangles, if only for a few minutes inside the house.
For the most part they fought over her deference to the uncle. It was a chronic, dispiriting struggle that had them both resorting to exaggerated strategies. He poured out contempt; she repeatedly drew for him in dour, dispassionate detail the very narrow box in which she had been placed. What can I, a widow, do? The constant, sorry refrain.
He spent much of his time outside, roaming the hot or flooded roads of Fort Cochin, poking through the gutters or prying flattened frogs from the hot tar road.
The beach he avoided. His father had liked to go there, often sneaking out at night over the protests of his mother to enjoy the sea breeze. Sometimes he went with his father, hand-in-hand or riding high on his shoulders. The beach was broader then, with small fishing boats pulled up on the sand. One humid evening, his father had lifted him into a catamaran, shed his clothes and raced into the sea. A full moon lit the water. He saw his father wrestle with the waves, enter and disappear. A bird slid back and forth like a kite marking where he was for a while; then both bird and swimmer were gone. Nothing on the surface, no shadow, no disturbance of water. He stood on the cross plank of the boat on his toes, searching for a long time. The sea grew emptier by the minute. His eyes stung from the salty wind, and just when he was about to give in to the panic he felt, his father struggled out of the foam, laughing as if he had won something.
He had run ahead and complained to his mother, who-a different woman then-had put her hands on her hips and leaned out furiously and let her sheepish husband have it.
There was a brief period when it seemed possible that she might be returned to a semblance of her former self. A distant relative of his father-a bishop-at a chance meeting suggested that Mr. Ninan should be sent to the Madras Christian College. A recommendation letter was offered and accepted, and before his uncle could marshal any objections, he was on the Madras Mail, trunk and bedroll tucked under his seat.
The world opened up; he discovered the humanities. With the encouragement of some of his lecturers, he sat for the IAS exams. The long and strenuous effort the enterprise required could not be kept secret. The Syrian-Christian community held its breath. His mother’s stock went up. Third parties made discrete inquiries on behalf of well-known families with eligible daughters. On the train roaring north to Delhi, when he went up for his interview, Mr. Ninan felt close to a revolution. The written exams were a miracle; the essays had come pouring out of him. A rumor that he was already an IAS officer, fed by a misunderstanding, swept the bogie, provoking an awe that Mr. Ninan took as a thrilling foretaste. He spent giddy, late-night hours leaning out the compartment door, illegally thrown open to the ripping wind. His photo would be in all the Malayalam newspapers. Who would treat his mother like dirty laundry now? They would remember his father; a ray of the son’s glory would reach back and burnish his name.
He got a bad interview slot. The last one before lunch, and they were running late. A peon came into the room where he was waiting and flung open the curtains. He gave Mr. Ninan an injured look, as if he were holding up the whole hungry building. A pigeon flew in through the window; in trying to chase it back out, the peon increased its panic. It erupted from perch to perch in an explosion of wings. Feathers floated down; a damp smell filled the room. A couple of chairs got knocked over. One of the interviewers came out, furious, and yelled at them both in Hindi.
He didn’t remember much of what transpired in the thirty minutes he was interviewed. There was a general irritability around the table. He mumbled and was distracted by the rank odor that wafted up from the streak of bird excrement running down the front of his coat. He had done what he could with his handkerchief, in the little time he had.
On the trip home, the world felt more real. Someone else’s name had been written over his on the reservation chart, and in the protracted argument that followed with the conductor and the usurper, Mr. Ninan proved the less persistent and ended up in an unreserved compartment.
His uncle, who had watched his foray with alarm, let it be known that he’d always thought the venture destined for embarrassment. And now that that little folly was over, it was time to get on with the business of living.
They dredged up a party of male relatives and went to see Ivy formally at her aunt’s house in Quilon. Mr. Ninan got through it by thinking of the event as farce. She came out with a tray she could hardly carry and nearly toppled into his lap when she stooped to let him lift a cup of tea from it. He had an impression of collarbones that stuck out and stick-like arms and everything else buried in yards and yards of sari. On the bus back home, someone wondered aloud how they could find out without offense if she had ever been tested for TB. There was a large wet spot on Mr. Ninan’s sleeve. While they were waiting for the bus, a crow flying overhead had splattered his shirt generously. He took it as a sardonic sign that everything was as it should be.
His behavior in the early months of their marriage was monstrous. He used the house as a dressing room. He rushed to work in the morning, returned at five, gulped down his tea and under pretext of working on articles, hurried off to the public library in Cubbon Park, where he wandered aimlessly among the grimy shelves. Sometimes he indulged in a compensatory, alternate life in which a trimmer version of himself came home in the evening from the secretariat in a chauffeur-driven car. A young wife, lovely beyond belief, opened the gates. He caught a fragrance as the car swept past. Her shoulders were beautiful, her hair long and glossy. A handful of scenes played and replayed in his mind hypnotically.
In reality, his secondhand Lambretta broke down frequently on the way home from college and he arrived at the gate sweaty and irritated from repeatedly working the kick-start. They had rented part of a house on Richmond Road from one Mr. Balsara, a retired, invalid widower. He spent the evenings hopping about like a wounded bird in his flower beds, and Ivy would be with him, bent over a rose bush, a pair of scissors in her hand. Her vertebrae showed alarmingly. Her sari hung shapelessly. She was always happy to see him.
She appeared to be waiting, with a certain amount of dignity, for him to represent himself in the enterprise they had presumably agreed to undertake together. In the meantime, there were small, judicious gestures. When he got down to washing the Lambretta on Saturdays, she took away the bucket of dirty water and returned with a dry rag. When he was visibly agitated over something one afternoon, she went into the kitchen and emerged with two glasses of fresh musambi juice on a tray.
The house was spotless, strung taut from sitting room to work area. There were cut flowers everywhere. The garden, tilled and pruned by Ivy and Mr. Balsara, had become wildly prosperous, necessitating the constant presence of the latter on the front verandah. A bush would shake from a hand that had sneaked over the low compound wall to tug at a rose, and Mr. Balsara would raise his walking stick and let out a roar incongruous with his desiccated body. During the incident that nearly broke both Ivy and Mr. Ninan, the old man had advanced on him in the parking lot of the hospital and called him a so-and-so and a such-and-such in the choicest gutter language and offered to whip him in the public street.
Ironically, it was Mr. Balsara who had presided over his baby steps. He had invited Mr. Ninan to join him at his nightly whisky and soda on the verandah. He was entirely new to alcohol. It broke over his tongue and sped down his throat, spreading an expansive heat. He felt flushed, roused to a charming state. A cool breeze poured over his skin. The garden bloomed under his very nose, bud by bud. What had happened to the battered, illustrated book about the abused donkey that his father had given him and that he had kept under his pillow? He remembered the torn yellow cover, and felt a rush of love for the characters. He loosened his belt and sank into the chair. The noise and smells of the world came over the compound wall, and he felt as spacious as a bungalow on the beach, lights blazing, every window flung open. Mr. Balsara puffed away on a cigar and gave free rein to an astringent streak, wiping the floor with politicians-pious fools and crooks alike.
Mr. Ninan’s affability spilled over, and he climbed into bed chatty about something or the other. The cot was smallish, and it was impossible to keep their legs from getting entangled. Overtures were made and favorably received. It was dark, and the lights of cars rounding the corner swept across the room, catching isolated aspects of what they were doing. The framed photographs of three pairs of newlyweds-the two sets of parents and them-that Ivy had hung in a flow chart configuration, looked down on the cot like a good omen. Later, after Ivy had removed the picture of her parents and taken it with her to Nilgiris, what remained, amputated and incomplete, became a wretched reminder of everything lost.
It was not polite to drink down Mr. Balsara’s bottle, so he began taking over his own. He kept it open longer and longer into the night. If he found himself facing an empty bottle too soon into the evening, he made up an excuse and sped off at the last minute to the liquor shop, feeling exhilarated when he got there minutes before they closed. Soon, such dashes became unnecessary. He had bottles stashed everywhere-in the scooter, in his briefcase, under a stack of shirts in the almirah.
He woke up groggy and bloated. The world rubbed like sand against his skin. At a rare staff meeting conducted by the Jesuit administrators of the college, he strayed so far in his comments from the general sycophancy practiced by his colleagues that he induced panic among them. Fortunately the fathers, whilst ruthless in the face of petty dissent, had an inexhaustible tolerance for the truly fallen, the criminal or the alcoholic, in which category they saw he now belonged.
One evening, when Ivy and he were on a walk they saw a man beating his wife. They knew the fellow; he owned the tiny kiosk parked on the pavement at the end of the road. He had recently gotten married to a slip of a girl. You could hear them closing up at night, banging pots and talking loudly in Tamil. He slept on the pavement and she in the kiosk, only slightly larger than a coffin stood up. He had the girl by her thick, long hair and he was trying to ram her head against the wall behind the kiosk. Her cries were hoarse and hysterical. The man was drunk, capable of anything. The scene was not unfamiliar. The proximity was disconcerting. You could see the veins on the girl’s neck and feel the heat from the struggle. Mr. Ninan turned to cross the street and saw, out of the corner of his eye, Ivy running towards the couple. He couldn’t understand what she was yelling on account of the pounding in his ears. Luckily a man arrived from nowhere, jumped off his bicycle and right away began flailing at the drunkard. He released the girl and, finding the maneuver of stepping back too much, toppled heavily to the ground. The cyclist picked up a stone and cocked his arm, holding him at bay. The girl sat on the pavement and howled.
They abandoned their walk and returned home. Ivy disappeared into the bedroom. Mr. Ninan fiddled with some wires on the scooter and took furtive swigs at the bottle of rum he kept in the locked, front pouch. He was beginning to feel angry, accused of crimes he was sure he hadn’t committed.
It was a bad night to hear from Ivy that she was pregnant, although in retrospect he understood the logic of her timing. She had known for a fortnight, it turned out, and everything the delay implied only infuriated him further.
He was in the bathroom combing his hair after a defiantly long, hot bath when she came to the door and told him. He reached out and wiped the steamed-up mirror. His face was satisfyingly grim; he looked like a man absorbing a vicious blow.
He remembered the ensuing month in disconnected details and scenes. Here he was, doubled up over the washbasin, watching tightly scrolled up bits of tomato skin floating around in a pool of vomit. Here he was at the library, leafing through a medical textbook that contained graphic pictures of a developing fetus, a sort of flipbook that took you from blastocyst to bloody head emerging. He had a general impression of a parasitic creature with a swollen head and a translucence that confused surface and interior. He remembered a dream about his pretty, imagined wife disappearing into the depths of a mirror and calling out to him as she went. Day by day his fate was clarifying in somebody else’s body, and there wasn’t a thing to be done about it. He would hear her beating eggs in the kitchen and the next thing she would be racing past the bed for the bathroom sink.
One morning she stayed in there longer than usual, and when she came out she said there had been some bleeding. Can we go to a doctor, please? The only one open that early was a pediatrician on Infantry Road, an avuncular fellow whose plump fingers roamed knowledgeably over her stomach. He chatted all the while, as if he were trying to distract her body while he cleverly snatched away information it held. There was nothing wrong. Mr. Ninan, who had been dizzy with relief half an hour previous, felt cruelly abused. The doctor patted him on the back and said, What, you are not believing me? Everything is normal. Some hiccups there will be sometimes, but nothing to worry. Ivy’s face was blurry with happiness. I was so afraid, she told him as she settled on the back seat of the scooter.
There was a space of two days when his head cleared. They went to the Chinese place on Grant Road for dinner, and, while he was rolling a sip of plum wine around in his mouth, the name Asha occurred to him. Asha. HhHHope. Asha Ninan. It had a nice ring to it. He leaned across the table and brought up the question of schools-Bishop Cotton’s or Baldwin’s? There were a lot of details to be taken care of. He got a pencil and piece of paper from the cashier and made a list. He felt very matter of fact. Tomorrow he was going to open an account so he could start saving towards her dowry. He was convinced it was a girl.
During the five years they were separated and Ivy was teaching at the boarding school in the Nilgiris, she had written him in response to an abject exclamation of grief he had mailed her. Everything she said to him then was direct and measured and kind. He was certain he had lost her forever. When I see her, Ivy wrote, she has a smile on her face. She forgives us both; she loves us both. After that, mawkish or not, Mr. Ninan thought of her, the child who hadn’t even been a child, as a young woman, twenty or twenty-one, on the verge of marrying and moving away and provoking by the imminence of that event an especial fondness in her parents.
By the third month of Ivy’s pregnancy, he was drinking a liter a day. Sometimes more. His liver grew taut and impressed its sore presence chronically on his consciousness. He slept in the sitting room, the divan a small, pudgy palm beneath his overflowing bulk. Two oscillating fans kept the room in a perpetual panic.
It was a tribute to the battering, escalating brutality of his behavior that they soon arrived at a dull, dry-eyed evening when Ivy gave him what he wanted. Mind you he hadn’t asked outright; he had merely paved the way. (The bristling silences were no doubt worse than the bitter monologues.) A: he could barely stand to look at her. B: he was on the verge of being buried alive in the most miserable of commitments. And C: when was she going to do the decent thing?
Regardless, her announcement came as a shock. One thing to break the dinner plates, another to receive the bill.
“It is safe, no? Proper doctor, I assume,” he had mumbled sheepishly. She got up from her chair and went down the steps to the garden. She moved gingerly, as if bruised black and blue. A needle of fear entered him.
His lectures the following day were gibberish. There were moments when he came to a blank stop and stood there reeling in front of an audience that from its collective expression thought him completely deranged. There was one instance of notable terror, when he turned from the blackboard and saw a sub-inspector and two policemen marching past the door of the classroom. Their boots rang smartly in the corridor. What were they doing here? He imagined handcuffs, everything exposed in court, the incensed reactions of listeners.
The house was empty and dark. Mr. Balsara, who was sitting morosely on the verandah, ignored him as he came up the front path. He took a bath, a long walk, another bath, and, finally, a taxi arrived at the gate. He heard Mr. Balsara say something, a whisper of a response from Ivy and hasty footsteps. He practically ran out the back door and into the street until she had gone to bed.
A day later, the three of them, Mr. Balsara included, were brought together in violent fashion in the dead of the night. Mr. Balsara, a vest thrown over his pajamas, raced his rattling Ambassador through the deserted streets. Ivy lay in a small, soaked heap next to Mr. Ninan in the back seat, bleeding profusely. They were told they got to the hospital in the nick of time. The lady doctor who admitted Ivy had the truth out from Mr. Ninan in two seconds. “I need not tell you,” she said severely, “the procedure was badly botched.” Mr. Ninan was asked to sign papers absolving the hospital of responsibility should Ivy not survive her operation.
He walked Mr. Balsara to his car. It wouldn’t start, and to make matters worse a freakish rain came down in sheets. Mr. Ninan stood by stupidly, the downpour drumming on his head, while Mr. Balsara worked under the bonnet of the car. His vest was off, and a trapped air bubble chased itself across his back. At some point, Mr. Ninan said sorry or thanks-he didn’t remember which-and Mr. Balsara turned on him, spanner in hand, and let loose a stream of epithets.
“You are lucky she doesn’t have any relatives,” he yelled. “Bloody drunkard, ought to be expunged.”
Where to even begin? How, after he had stopped drinking and rediscovered a rudimentary humanity, to make restitution? There she was, pregnant, alone, locked up night after night with a roaring drunk. What had he said or not said? At some point she stopped responding, and a growing silence that had the quality of a gestation took hold. What conversations had she conducted in the privacy of her mind? What options considered and reconsidered, clung to, then abandoned? At what point did she place a hand on her stomach and offer an explanation?
Imagine it-getting up one morning and taking a taxi all by yourself to some out-of-the-way street with an unusual amount of money in your purse to let go of something that had already become a cherished personification in your mind.
The least he could do was stay away. Common decency. Ivy had gone straight from convalescence to the railway station and the job in the Nilgiris. He went through the motions during the day and survived the nights by pacing the three rooms, composing letter after letter addressed to her, two of which he regrettably put to paper and imposed on her.
An astrologer told him there was no chance. None. He was a young fellow who deftly swept a handful of seashells into a pattern that became the basis for a dry and dispassionate commentary. Mr. Ninan had seen the man’s sign in Shivajinagar during one of his walks and hurriedly ducked into the dingy cubbyhole as one might into a video parlor showing pornography. It was the only time he ever did anything like that. It was an especially low day, and he assumed it was the function of such practitioners to offer relief. The astrologer delivered his prediction with more than a little satisfaction. The job Mr. Ninan would keep; the rest was gone, better forgotten.
Easier said than done. What about the fat heart of guilt? It kept him walking in circles around her, although at a distance. A year after her relocation he rented a room for a month at a YMCA near her school and sent her a trembling note on borrowed stationery. He happened to be in the vicinity; perchance he could drop by, if the school permitted visitors? The astrologer’s blunt voice echoed in his head. He imagined decent people everywhere howling in outrage. First he beats her up, and then he hounds her for absolution. He shows up on the same day he mails his letter, relying on Ivy’s kindness or shock to get him in the door.
They went for a walk around the perimeter of the eucalyptus woods behind the school. He lumbered dumbly beside her. Absurd things popped into his head. Ninachan and Ninachi taking a stroll. A balloon dragging a stick. He was petrified he would blurt out something obscene. Luckily, he stepped on a pile of leaves beside the path and shot thirty feet down a gravel slope. A bush in front of him shuddered violently, and a spotted deer, such as he had never seen in the wild, burst from it and soared away. Then there was calm, save for the measured calling of a bird uphill. The mentholated air seeped into his lungs. He noticed that his left leg, jammed against the trunk of a tree, was oddly bent, as if it had sprung an extra joint.
All is well, he felt like singing. Leg is in pieces. Given the windfall benefits of the accident, he wondered if he had done it on purpose.
His tibia had to be broken again and reset; there was an infection of some sort, a night of high fever and chills, nonstop itching about which nothing could be done. It hardly fit the crime; still, it was something. His blithe and understated fortitude (something he never again managed) won him the admiration of the YMCA staff, which treated him like returning royalty during his annual visits over the succeeding four years. He spent six weeks on the verandah in a rocking chair, his cast weighing like an anchor on the coffee table, and leafed through a stack of old magazines Ivy had scrounged up for him. She treated him appropriately, with consideration, but as a far-flung responsibility-the friend of a friend who had gotten in a fix away from home. He saw her a half a dozen times, and they had tea and vegetable cutlets the evening before he boarded the train back to Bangalore, one leg pallid and thin.
He was heartsick with loneliness. The vibration of the wheels traveled up his shin and probed its fault line, producing a dull, leaden ache. The train wound down the mountain and rolled to a stop at Mettupalayam, where he dragged his pitiful leg from one side of the platform to the other and up the steps of the waiting express. Mr. Balsara was away, and the gate opened squeakily onto a wildly overgrown garden. He stood in the middle of the living room, his bags at his feet, taking in the musty air laced with the smell of something decaying in the kitchen. He had no idea what to do next. If he’d had the courage, he would have fled back up the mountain and thrown himself at her feet.
In point of fact, he pursued his suit cautiously over five years, one ripe moment to the next. One Saturday, during what turned out to be his last visit, they went to the flower show at the botanical gardens in Ooty. He stuck out like a sore thumb in shiny shoes and a brand new safari suit. The place was swarming; they were swept along from tent to tent where bushels of flowers were exhibited. Such crowd conditions prompted automatic solidarity. His bulk came in handy as a shield and for surging through bottlenecks. He babbled on about this plant or the other. The roses were truly astonishing. He was dizzy from the scent. When they took a shortcut to the coffee stall through the muddy corner of a field, he slipped off one of the stones that made a wobbly path and put his foot right in the muck. He tried to extricate himself, but his foot popped out of his shoe and he flailed about and snagged Ivy, who was right behind him and they wound up slipping and sliding clutched together like a couple of drowning monkeys. When they came to a stop, she was grinning at him. A great roar of something went up in his chest.
He couldn’t stop shopping. The notes flew from his wallet and landed in the laps of all kinds of vendors-people selling brooms, tea cozies and other useless stuff, as if he, normally well this side of generous, had absolutely no use for money.
Mere months later, he woke up in his own bed in Bangalore, the pillow next to his smelling pleasantly of Ivy. It was Saturday and sunny. The pressure cooker whistled in the kitchen and wafted a promise of idlis into the bedroom. The voice of the old gatekeeper next door scratched the air. He was explaining something at great pains to his son-in-law, in preparation for a request for money. A goat had fallen into a good rhythm, rubbing his horns against the gate. Lata Mangeshkar’s unvaryingly virginal voice poured from a radio. Sundry other Saturday sounds-children playing cricket with their father, tap water gurgling up a watering can-came through the window.
There were thousands of days like this, days of amnesia and ignorance, thousands of bright mornings and lazy afternoons that sagged towards eternity. And all the time he was rushing towards this. This catastrophe.
Once, he couldn’t imagine the world going on after his death. Now this was the miracle-you ate and slept and read the newspaper and scratched your bum while flying straight on a full tank for the mountainside. It was the one sure thing, and instead of running screaming through the streets, people ironed their clothes, chopped vegetables, did homework, took vitamins, bought calendars.
For thirty years, a false, glassy stretch. The same desk in the same corner of the lecturer’s lounge, the same bits of frozen history thawed and served up to identical batches of students. The same rash hope at the start of each summer and the same three acres of well-worn misery, every twist and turn already known.
Twice a year (birthday and anniversary) he sneaked into a sari shop and fussed over the selections till he settled on one that he dropped casually on the dining table along with a dozen mangoes picked up on the way. Ivy blushed, and he turned away thoroughly embarrassed, and that was that.
He nursed his irritations religiously. Too many people invaded the house. If he didn’t brace himself against the front door, the flat would be overrun and he would wind up squatting on the pavement. Her former students were the worst, dropping by unannounced, towing husbands and children he was left to entertain while the rest of the room collapsed in laughter and reminiscence. He was dragged to too many weddings. Hundreds of Ivy’s girls, each one activating an ache in a phantom parent part, as if he were giving away his very own daughter. “A rose between two thorns,” he would say lamely, stealing a quote from history, as they flanked the resplendent girl and the photographer tensed in a crouch.
There were countless routine annoyances-dust, traffic, the fruit stall fellow at the corner who always managed to palm off one spoiled fruit. Mr. Ranganathan downstairs couldn’t talk on the phone without yelling like the house was on fire. The lift smelled of urine. And why did Ivy have to linger in every conversation with every bloody person on the street, while he hopped from foot to foot?
When Vrinda moved in next door he said, The dog will bark, the lady will shout, the boy will play cricket in the house. It was already too late. He could feel the heat of friendship between them. Vrinda had a hundred questions. They talked like lovers across the balcony. Soon they were shopping together and the boy was bringing over his homework. In between algebra problems Ivy set him to, he sprang up and ran from room to room, flipping over pillows and clambering under the cots. Screw loose, Mr. Ninan said, mother and son both.
When Ivy was sick, Nithin took money from his mother’s purse and bought Ivy a sari. He heard the shouting through the walls. Was it okay? Vrinda asked him the next day, still furious.
Through a gap in the doorway curtain, Mr. Ninan saw the boy march in, ceremoniously bearing his wrapped gift. He plopped himself down on Ivy’s bed. He heard the sound of paper tearing and Ivy’s voice-a trickle in the desert. Her hand rested on the boy’s fat knee.
In a universe he would never inhabit (where needs shook hands with solutions sensibly), the remnants of two households would be gathered to a sum greater than the parts. He would eat at Vrinda’s, they would talk, watch T.V. He would run errands for her, walk the dog, become a grandfather of sorts to the boy.
Not for him! Let Vrinda knock and knock. Let her put a stethoscope to the door. The business end, no doubt, of assurances given. I will take care, aunty, you don’t worry one bit.
Beware of deathbed promises!
That afternoon they had sprung a trap. He had stepped out of the car, a pair of bottles tinkling sweetly in the cloth bag hanging from his hand. Nithin had swooped into the car park on his bicycle and whipped out his mobile. By the time Mr. Ninan had puffed up the stairs, Vrinda was waiting on the landing. Nithin bumped against his back; the dog was going mad in the flat.
He smelled. Now that he was at a standstill he couldn’t help noticing it.
What Vrinda was saying he couldn’t understand. She was between him and the front door, between key and keyhole. Somehow he managed to get the door open.
There were crumpled bed sheets on the sofa. He was surprised to see the framed photo of Ivy in front of a rose bush lying on the carpet.
Vrinda had followed him in.
“This is harassment,” he heard himself say. “Do you have a police warrant?”
Vrinda wiped her face with the free end of her sari.
“Then you tell me what to do, uncle.” She was on the verge of tears. “Every day I am sitting in my flat listening to you going down the drain. What shall I do? You tell. Grief I can understand, even terrible grief, but this is hardly proper, no? Somehow we have to carry on.”
Somehow I am not interested in, he thought.
“What would aunty say?”
“She is dead, dear lady. She has nothing more to say,” he mumbled.
Without thinking he extracted the two bottles from the bag he was still carrying and placed them on the dining table. There they sat, amber coloured and clearly labeled, in shocking view.
Nithin, who had slipped behind his mother, emerged from the kitchen. He was grinning. He was holding something in his outstretched fist.
“Look, amma,” he said.
Vrinda pointed to the front door. “Go,” she said.
Nithin opened his fist and something flew out of it, straight for Vrinda. The cockroach, big as a saucer, landed in the middle parting of her hair, and one wing slightly lifted, veered off across her head. No sound came from Vrinda; only her pupils quivered upward. Then a tentative trilling issued from her mouth. Nithin looked at her curiously.
They stood like that-a tableau under a stuck stage curtain, till Mr. Ninan reached up and swiped the insect off. It went whirring out the front door.
“Shania!” Vrinda screamed and slapped her son resoundingly across the cheek. Nithin’s eyes flew open. He seemed genuinely pleased by the sincerity of the response he had evoked.
Mr. Ninan sawed away at the cap of one of the bottles, trying to break the seal, and by the time he had done it, there was blood all over his hand. The smell had him rushing for the bathroom.
His body seemed to want to turn itself inside out. It went on and on, with the dog matching him bark for bark on the other side of the wall.
In the aftermath, he was weak and light-headed. He switched on the geyser, and while the water was heating up, he shaved. The slash across his palm, irrigated by shaving cream, throbbed-a steady in and out. His eyes, those of a creature hiding in the undergrowth, peered back at him.
He was sweating. His liquor-logged body seemed to be wringing itself dry, squeezing from the inside out. The root of his tongue felt clean. He rubbed a finger against his teeth till they squeaked and spat out the last stale taste of brandy. Somewhere inside him a pulse had reasserted itself, like a beeper in a buried mine.
When he was dressing, he got dizzy and had to lie down on the bed, the damp towel still knotted around his prow. He kept his eyes closed. The ceiling fan was on, stirring the talcum powder he had sprinkled liberally all over himself, as of old. The room had a pleasant, familiar scent. The breeze from the fan knocked the metal hangers in the open wardrobe against each other. The curtains flapped. They were getting ready to go somewhere, to a movie, a reception. He had dawdled, and now they had to hurry. Hence the little burst of energy in the room. What shirt? What pair of pants? Ivy, wearing a pale green sari, so pale it made its own halo, was sitting in front of the dressing table. She wore no makeup and hardly any jewelry, but a dab of perfume under the watchstrap she liked. Or sometimes a little cloud of eau de cologne sprayed in the air and ducked through. He himself had a peasant’s instincts when dressing. He held out and cracked like a whip, first his shirt, then his trousers before pulling them on.
Who had the keys? The car keys? The house keys? Was there petrol in the tank?
Then they would hurry down the stairs, not wanting to risk the cranky lift, get in the car and be gone, earning at the gate a crisp salute from the watchman who liked to acknowledge a special sallying forth.
His mind was clear, clearer than it had been for months, and, now, as he lay there, into it came floating, like a mountain he couldn’t approach or fathom, the thought that Ivy was gone. Gone for good.
He couldn’t breathe.
In a panic, he got up from the bed and went scrambling around the house looking for her, feeling, as he did, a brief, errant sympathy for Nithin’s impulsive hunts.
Each room was empty, dark in all the corners. He stood in the drawing room, the loneliness of the hour and of all the hours and days that would follow crowding around him.
What was there to say?
He had loved her without limit. Everything about her he loved. Her thinking, her ways, her honesty, her great store of kindness, her surpassing loveliness.
When he was a child, he used to eat gooseberries one after the other, suffering the bitter taste till he could stand it no longer because a cold drink of water immediately afterwards tasted miraculously sweet. When his cousin taunted him with the sweets he had gotten from his father, he reached in his pocket for the gooseberries he always carried there. He would gnaw them down to their green piths, then go and catch a glass of water from the tap in the kitchen. These past thirty years had been like that, beneath all the ill-tempered grumbling and petty ingratitude: like standing in the dark kitchen and drinking from that glass.
She knew him inside and out. Saw what he wouldn’t show, heard what he wouldn’t say. Knew what he stepped around. Everything he felt, she understood.
They were like two lost children who had found each other.
Ivy did not remember her father. Of her mother she had one memory: an emaciated young woman with a mass of wild, curly hair leaned over the side of her cot, retching into a bucket. A maid rubbed her back, cooing words of encouragement. An adult hand pushed Ivy from the doorway and shut the door on the scene.
Her uncle, in whose house she had grown up, ran an unsuccessful chit fund. He was frequently attacked by enraged customers, some of whom ran into the house looking for items to take away. When Ivy was six, she had joined the small group of children who gathered in a huddle between the high wall and the back door of the St. Teresa’s school kitchen during lunch period. None of them spoke or looked at each other. After the paying boarders had eaten, they were allowed to go in and serve themselves from the pots of leftovers. Some had been too ashamed to take anything at all.
Several years ago-he didn’t remember the circumstances-Ivy and he had been in a taxi going somewhere with his uncle. It was morning, and they were on the highway between Cochin and Alleppey. An overnight thunderstorm had peeled the dust off everything. The tires swished on the wet road. A cool breeze rushed through the chinks in the car windows. The uncle sat in front with the driver and provided commentaries on passing sights-a temple elephant, a trade union shanty outside a factory-as if he were conducting baffled tourists. He labored away in English, in case they had become foreigners to their mother tongue as well.
Something caught the uncle’s eye on the edge of a small town and he had the driver pull off the highway and reverse along the muddy strip beyond the shoulder of the road. Mr. Ninan had wondered what it was-an acquaintance waiting for a bus? Something he wanted to buy?
The row of little shops they had just passed got larger in the rear window. They whined past a tea stall, a Ladies Corner, a barber shop. A small crowd stood in front of a building looking at something on the verandah: about ten or fifteen men carrying folded up umbrellas, and a couple of absconding schoolboys trying to sneak closer without calling attention to themselves.
A sign hanging from the eaves said:
Pre-Degree, B.A., B.Sc.
The uncle had craned his neck out the window, but it was the driver who first said, “Aiyyo, atmahathya, saar.”
“Suicide,” the uncle had translated for their benefit, twisting around to face them. “Money problems, most probably.”
The crowd parted obligingly, so the occupants of the car that had reeled itself backwards into their midst could see. A man hung from the rafters. A small man, no bigger than a ten-year-old. He dangled at a slight angle, tilted forward, hands swinging free. Sleeves rolled up, stick-like arms. Couldn’t see above his shoulders. His dhoti fell down almost to his feet, which were dusty and swollen. His shirt, once white, looked brackish, and a musty odor reached them. The smell of poverty, debts, malnourishment. Mr. Ninan estimated his age around fifty, enough time for a hopelessly disadvantaged life to wind down to its dismal end. The man looked like he hadn’t been touched by another human being, even a stray dog, in years. He looked like he hadn’t been seen by anyone in years. Or said a word. Or sat in a circle of friends, or talked to anyone, or been invited for a meal, or played, or owned a book.
A rain came splattering down and sent them on their way. Ivy was sobbing in the car. She cried as if there were no end to what she felt. They’d sat there speechless in the moving car, the three of them-the driver, the uncle and Mr. Ninan. Chastened, in the shadow of this outpouring.
He had been the luckiest of men. She had said to him, “Come, sit, this food is for you, this cup of tea, this house, this life.” For thirty years. They had said it to each other because nobody else would.
My father would have loved you, he thought. My mother too. How pleased they would have been.
He was back in the bedroom, lying nearly naked across the bed. His arms were on fire and his body oddly twisted, as if in preparation for the blow that was to come, and all he could think was, What luck!