Cassie’s arms were numb from the elbows down. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been gripping the steering wheel on the drive to the dull orange medical building that seemed to sprout like a branch from the trunks of gray financial towers. Sitting stiffly on the thinly padded bench, staring between her knees at her red sneakers, she heard her children, Josh and Mattie, as if they were in another room and not beside her. Everything seemed empty and unreal. She imagined taking off her shoes and not finding any feet there. The room’s acoustics, formed by bright, metallic surfaces, made her eardrums ring as if afflicted by tendinitis. Bernard sat slumped over and nearly motionless in his low black power chair. Dressed in dark blue slacks, white shirt and tie, he squinted down at the crossword puzzle on the screen in his lap as if waiting for a plane at the airport. He looked, as he always did, utterly composed and placid, a scarecrow of an elderly man unaware or unconcerned about his surroundings, the time of day and why he had to be anywhere. She looked at Buster, their ailing, nine year old Golden Retriever, and let air seep out of dry lips that felt scorched. Today is the day, she had told herself as she crawled out of bed; and she thought it now. Today is the day. It was like the phrase, “this is it”: words used when we’d rather not speak our mind honestly least hysteria take over.
A writer she had read as a child called who they were about to meet “Old Man Death.” Maybe it had been better in the past, she thought, when the end came of its own accord, without the assistance (or insistence) of modern medical science. But that had been a long, long time ago, and she knew that there was no going back to some remote, idyllic past that had probably not been all that idyllic to begin with. Yes, she thought, we’ve sanitized death but is that really so terrible? Did our ancestors derive some kind of authentic spiritual being from watching so much slow suffering and agony without benefit of pain killers? Or did it just spawn cruel gods that brutalized them?
One of the workers, a thin blonde girl wearing the clinic’s loose fitting, powder blue outfit that reminded Cassie of pajamas, whose mouth was set as if hiding bad teeth, looked in their direction from the receptionist’s desk to say that Dr. Dean would be with them shortly. Josh and Mattie were now on the floor, petting and hugging Buster, chatting to him as if the dog understood them in some deep down part of his canine consciousness.
Cassie rubbed her arms and looked bleakly down at the old yellow dog. The red and blue colors of the floor’s tiles seemed to fade as she stared at them through hot, swollen eyes. The back of her head ached as if her hair had been grabbed by a machine and then spun into a knot. She wanted to say something but the right word to get anything started wouldn’t come. The kids shouldn’t be here, she told herself reproachfully. But they had pleaded with her and Grandfather, cradling Mattie in his lap, said that what children imagine is always worse than the reality of whatever they must sooner or later face.
Last night, after the children had gone to bed, she and the old man talked in the kitchen until well past midnight. Two widowed insomniacs, she thought ruefully. What a pair we make.
“Been up since four and can’t sleep,” he said in his thin, wavering voice, sipping a large mug of coffee mixed with cream, sugar and Irish whiskey. “At exactly three fifty five in the morning it occurred to me that my father was born one hundred and twenty years ago. Before two world wars, before half the state had electricity, before women could vote. And you know, the damndest thing, but I can sometimes hear him as clearly as if I had heard his voice yesterday. Kind of auditory hallucination because I can’t hear the two women I married no matter how hard I try, damnit to hell.”
Cassie nodded, averting his perpetually mournful eyes. She was well aware of how fickle the memory of voices could be, and found it frustrating that she had to rely on telephone messages she had saved to keep Tom’s voice intact in her head. The fact that she could always hear the voice of Mr.Warner, her deep throated, toad-faced high school biology teacher, made her suspect that memory has its own deep set of rules and is not the passive, mechanical recorder we like to imagine.
“He was, my old man, short, pudgy, a second-generation German,” he said. “A Church of the Brethren pacifist who hung pictures of Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs instead of Jesus on the walls, a look of loneliness and disdain stamped on his face, a woodworker who lived half his life in the garage mainly, I think, to get away from my mother, the parent I took after physically but not in temperament. Always something wrong with the house, a broken heater, a leak in the roof, knobs coming off the cabinets in the kitchen and my poor mother nagging him night and day only to hear him mutter, yes dear, I’m getting to that. I had to learn how to be the handyman of the family. By seven I was up on top of the house fixing rain gutters and by eight I was driving my mother, who had bad eyesight, to the store every Saturday morning.
“Didn’t resent it. Loved the old man. I would sit with him all day in the garage, surrounded by art books, his table saw, antique radios he restored, the smell of wood and varnish. He lived to tell stories, for some reason the sadder the better. Most of them urban legends, I think, but they left their mark. They came back to me not as stories but as events I witnessed in a previous life. Funny how over time we transform memory that way.
“The one I remember the most vividly may have happened, it was passed down in the neighborhood, a real Shakespearean tragedy. Gunderson, a painter by trade, married late in life to a woman named Ruth or Helga – I’ve heard variations of the story but I’ll stick to Ruth. Has a nice, biblical ring to it, Ruth does.”
“An artist?” Cassie said.
“Gunderson? No, a house painter when that was a viable trade. A big man, powerfully built, broad shoulders, thick muscular arms. German but I always see him as Italian, with dark curly hair, square jaw, large fleshy nose and booming voice. Met Ruth one night at a dance but was too shy to say much of anything. But he met her again a week later. A summer night, the moon was full, they had a few drinks and talked. A rough, good-natured man and a girl still living at home with her parents. Not much in common but they fell in love and a year later married in the Catholic Church.”
“Is this Beauty and the Beast?” Cassie said, looking at Buster. The dog was dreaming, twitching and woofing. It had always amused her to see dogs dream. There was a time when he could run for hours in the park or on the beach. Now he only ran in his sleep. Old man, old dog and, in the not too distant future, old woman. It made her think of a line from another book. Why are we born to suffer and die? Answer: to make us feel that much better when it’s over.
“Why so it is”, he said, nodding and folding his arms across his flat, thin chest. “A Beauty and the Beast story but not fit for the little ones. Only so many stories to go around. Our lives are just variations of them. That he was madly in love with her and madly possessive is the basic motif of a very old tale.”
“And I think I see where it’s heading,” Cassie said, feeling as if she were frowning deeply inside herself. She wondered if her children were dreaming and, if they were, what of. After Tom died Josh had nightmares. For several weeks they all slept together. She awoke every morning to find herself wedged between them, Josh curled up on her right side and Mattie, thumb in mouth, curled up on her left. It helped them and it help her, too; and she wasn’t reluctant to acknowledge that there were times in the middle of the night when she wished they would climb in with her again.
“So we’ve all heard it,” he said, glancing at Buster, a look of anguish passing over his thin, deeply wrinkled face. Thoughts like lost souls seemed to hang over his head. Well, what could one do? Isn’t grief the ultimate price of love? And yet, whenever it comes to the real and bitterly painful experience of separation, nothing about it is in the least fair or right. Suckers and gluttons for punishment, we get taken every time.
“A philosophical interjection,” he said, clearing his throat. The stubble on his face was as silvery as salt. “Plato believed that learning is in reality remembering. And it’s stories like this that seem to cling to the walls of our DNA, that make us feel we’ve always known them since before we were born.
“They are a good, happy couple. He works, brags about his wife, lifts furniture, carries ladders, stirs the paint, applies layers of blue, orange and yellow colors, sometimes singing in Italian but that’s just what I hear in my head. A man happier, he feels deep down, than he should be but unconcerned nonetheless. Until one day a thin, nervous looking man with protruding eyes that never stop shifting from one side of his head to the other, a man everyone called Slick, an unknown variety of weed blown in by a diseased wind, who looked as if he had grown up eating soap, paused to look at his brush and say, ‘your brother, he visits you and Ruth?’”
“No,” Gunderson said, laughing, a fish heading straight for the bait. “Ain’t got no brother.”
“Oh”, Slick said, shrugging. “I thought I saw her with a man the other day and I thought he looked like you, only younger, wearing nice clothes. Thought maybe he is your brother.”
“Slick playing games with the big, lovable ape?” Cassie said. She liked urban legends. The first one she had fallen for had been about psychotic teenagers who drove at dusk with their lights off, following and then killing the first good Samaritans who blinked their headlights at them.
“Slick has crawled out of the pit,” Bernard said, gripping his cup in both hands to warm them. “The father of lies. A rope of dried, bloodless flesh and feverish, fetid brain in stained overalls smelling of sweat and paint thinner. The kind of kid without spirit, imagination or intellect, who tortures insects and small animals, who grows up to bully his wife and children, who assumes political power and sends men to their muddy death for glory and profit.”
“Well, there must be a lot of them,” Cassie sighed.
“Oh, they are legion,” he said softly. “Charming and utterly believable. We may resist the bait at first but sooner or later most of us bite because, deep down, we want to believe. A lie told skillfully and at just the right time goes to work like a virus, taking over its host. Most of us don’t know just how infected we are.”
The refrigerator hummed to life. Somewhere in the wall behind her wood, sawed, treated, nailed in place and plastered over, made a faint snap like a tap tapping ghost, a spirit protesting its violent removal from the forest and the green world of the living. She liked to listen to the creaks, groans and pops of the house. They made her feel as if she were surrounded by some living force. Electricity circulated through plastic coated veins like fiery blood, giving her children their television programs and video games. Were they viruses of the mind, too, telling them that violence is harmless fun; that clothes, gadgets and goopy, invented food make us happy?
“He believed the worst without a thought,” she said. “Am I right?”
“Most of us do, to be honest, and as for him, he was jealous already,” he said. “Like a walking stick of dynamite, all he needed was a spark. My father, I remember, sanded a table by hand as he told me the story. He would stop, glide his fingers over the surface, and then sand some more, careful to follow the grain. It was always cold and dark in the garage and I never liked being in there because I was afraid of spiders. So I sat there with my hands in my pockets and listened, keeping a sharp look-out for eight-legged monsters.
“Gunderson waited till his wife was out of the house and then looked through everything- drawers, closets, her old, empty purses, cigar boxes full of receipts, old gray photo albums overflowing with old, gray photos and even her collection of cheap paperback books. One day he found a frightened looking scrap of paper beneath a stack of neatly folded clothes. Ah ha, a phone number. He dialed it the next day at a drugstore, and when he heard a man’s voice hung up.”
Cassie closed her eyes and listened to the story’s climax that was no less horrific because of its predictability, seeing in her mind’s eye not the heavy, barrel chested ox Gunderson but the slim, shy boy her grandfather had been. Behind them, as if on a vast movie screen, Gunderson stalks his wife. Like Bigfoot, he is hairy, strange and terrifying, and like the mythical beast just as invisible. One day, as he pretends to be away on a job, a big black Buick parks in front of his house. A man wearing a brown suit steps out. Hatless and carrying a briefcase, the young man turns his head to the right and almost sees the lurking lug. Gunderson is dumbfounded by the man’s brazen audacity. Parked in front of the house, he seems to announce his self to the whole neighborhood. Here I am in my brown suit, spats, trim figure, strong jaw, small blue eyes and wavy hair parted in the middle to spend an afternoon of lovemaking to another man’s wife in the sad bastard’s own house.
Ruth opens the door before lover boy knocks. She has been expecting him. Of course they are formal with each other. We do as we please but we’re not putting on a show.
Still, she has on her one pair of high heel shoes and red dress. Gunderson, like a bull, wants to charge but somehow manages to keep himself under control. There are different versions about what happened next. Some say that Gunderson stormed into the house but the version passed down to Cassie’s granddad has a more natural and believable feel to it. Ruth steps out of the house to get the mail. There, on the porch, the cuckold, murderous meatball confronts her. He doesn’t take into consideration that she is completely dressed, that her hair has not been mussed, that her lipstick has not been smudged, that she looks as cool as a cucumber. He sees what his shriveled ounce and a half paint bucket of brains tells him to see.
“Frankie and Johnny were lovers”, Cassie sang flatly under her breath.
“They thought, perhaps, that they were in love,” Bernard said, leaning back in his chair. His wispy silvery hair looked wilted, like tired slivers of paper about to disintegrate. The hand not clamped to the mug trembled. “Maybe most of us only think we’re in love. The real McCoy might be a pretty rare commodity. Love could very well be the illusion most of us cling to and I suppose, if looked at scientifically, it’s only an emotion created during the evolutionary process to help us pass along genetic material. William James believed that if we are to be free we must start by accepting the possibility of freedom. Perhaps the same is true for love. They thought they were in love, and if we accept the possibility of love then they were no matter what.”
She wasn’t sure that either freedom or love can exist simply because we believe they are possible. The story of Ruth and Gunderson had long ago run out of possibilities; and the old, she thought, totter down the short road that gets narrower every day until, at the end, all the choices we’ve made lead to the same result. When she was in college her roommate never tired of the same joke. Whenever Cassie asked her what she was going to do the plump redhead, a chemistry major, replied, “Get old, get sick and die.” Tom wasn’t old when he died and now she has bouts of worry that she won’t last a long time either. All I need, she has gotten into the habit of telling herself, is twenty years to see the kids through. And then? You buy a flashy car, drive too fast, drink too much, laugh at your own jokes or get on your knees and beg God, your “higher power”, The Force or dumb luck for a second chance.
“I know what you’ve been doing,” Gunderson says.
“You do?” she peeps, paling beneath her makeup.
Gunderson takes Ruth by the shoulders, actually lifts her off her feet as if she’s a child and then smashes her against the house, crushing the back of her head, breaking her neck and killing her instantly.
For a few seconds of silence Cassie feels in her gut the full moral horror of the worst crime a person can commit. Stolen money has been known to come back. The confession of truth can restore trust and repair a damaged friendship. One may apologize, make amends; but the delicate wheels, springs and gears of life cannot be reassembled by even the master watchmaker Himself.
“A woman is murdered every minute,” Cassie says, her mouth and throat dry. “And most of the time by the idiot she married.”
The old man seemed to loom above her like an avenging judge as he said, “and now the dénouement. Mister Brown suit creeps out of the house, stares in shock at the lifeless body, feels the blood drain from his head and in an instant of understanding so terrible he knows his mind will never be the same, wails, “Oh for Christ’s sake she wanted life insurance!”
“A salesman,” Cassie says.
“The archetype of every sexual joke in America,” he replies. “And Gunderson, broken like dropped porcelain, knows the truth, perhaps knew it all along. He falls to his knees, cradles the dead body of Ruth in his arms, and says the last words he will ever utter.”
“Now I know why you turn him into an Italian,” Cassie says. “He’s a tragic figure in an opera. So what does the oaf say?”
“My father, I remember, spread his arms, threw back his head and, in his most theatrical voice, cried, “Why was I born to destroy the only one who ever loved me?”
Cassie rubs her eyes. The words are thrust at her like the dark point of a sharp knife, making her flinch. She hunches her shoulders, preparing to shrug it off, but feels herself redden anyway.
“And so what’s the moral of the story?” She says, looking him in the eyes.
“Oh I don’t know if there’s a moral to any story,” Grandfather says, drawing himself back with a face that, for the first time, looks sleepy and slack. “I thought, when I was young, that the story had to do with a particular kind of man, that it had to do with circumstances beyond anyone’s control, a tragedy decreed by fate that had nothing to do with the wider human condition. I thought most of us-at least I thought I did- lived on a higher plane of existence. And yet I destroyed my first marriage by committing acts of infidelity. After two years of therapy I married Marta. I thought we were happy but I could not stop her slow descent into depression and when she was ill I treated her as if I had turned to stone, sitting by her bed, reading books to manage my own anxiety and feelings of helplessness.”
“Grandfather” Cassie said, aware that she had seldom called him by that title.
“And the truth is,” he said, holding up a hand as if to ward off a blow. “I wanted her to die. At the end I did.”
Cassie felt her blood sugar drop. She felt weak and light headed. Was the man incapable of love? Had she taken in a stranger who was all brains and no heart?
“Why?” She said. Her lips felt numb. “What do you mean?”
“I didn’t want her to suffer anymore,” he said, letting a careless tear wind this way and that down the folds of his face. “She was withering away right in front of me. There is nothing lovely or romantic in that kind of death or, for that matter, any kind of death. I felt guilty because I didn’t have the courage to take her life. It bothers me to this day that I didn’t.”
“I need some sugar,” Cassie said, getting unsteadily to her feet. “You want a donut?”
“No,” he said. “Maybe more whiskey.”
Cassie sat back down, chewing a glazed old-fashioned donut she had plucked out of a long box. She felt like an actor having a nightmare about being in a play she hadn’t read. It was the kind of feeling she often had in moments like these. We make up life, she thought, as we go. Scripts are for the blockheads who cherish simple, stupid rules.
“Your story,” she said, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “That you didn’t kill the only woman who loved you…”
“A hell of a thing to feel,” he said. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said, wishing she hadn’t heard a word of what he had just said. It was the kind of unasked for honesty that always felt like a rock to the head. Wanting her not to suffer wasn’t the same as wanting her to die. Why do men, she thought, have to turn grief into a confession? Since we can’t control the world we’re to blame for every bad thing that happens? And the bad world always makes us do bad things that we’ll regret even if we don’t do them?
“We don’t want to see anyone we love in pain,” she said. “You were good for each other. I always thought the two of you should have been famous.”
The first time they met she had nearly been a teenager, visiting the famous ivy league university with her slightly awkward parents, feeling a bit like Dorothy in the land of Oz. She had found Grandfather, a tall lanky man with waxy skin and a hook nose, intimidating and somewhat repulsive. His second wife, Marta, was short and stocky with closely cropped, coal black hair and cold, sharp flinty eyes. She thought her stupid at the time but was astonished to learn, years later, that she had been in the presence of one of the greatest minds on the planet. Without using a computer or even a pad of paper, this brooding looking woman had solved, in her head, some of the greatest mathematical riddles belonging to a branch of physics known as string theory, a feat many scientists said should have earned her the Nobel Prize.
“I didn’t write enough books,” he said. “And anyway, I paled like everyone else next to Marta. Neither of us wanted fame. We liked our quiet life.”
“Did you know,” Cassie said, leaning over on her elbows. “That in high school I wanted to become a mathematician? I had, I suppose they were, romantic notions of being like Marta.”
“Why didn’t you?” he said, smiling just enough to crinkle the corners of his eyes.
“I majored in math for two years,” she said. “But then I got more interested in business. Practical side of me I suppose.”
“The practical side of human nature has its own romance,” he said, reaching out to pat the top of her hand.
Buster lay curled up on his kitchen bed, peacefully snoring. Can’t animals, even without language, sense the approach of death? she wondered. Do they feel its presence with a sense we don’t have? She had no premonition of Tom’s death. They had spent the last few hours of their life together in their store, talking to Rick Schofield about wine and beer for the annual Chamber of Commerce Oktoberfest. Tom complained of a headache behind his eyes, went home and died in bed from an undiagnosed astrocytoma tumor.
It was only late at night or early in the morning, when her mind refused to shut down, that she sat cross legged on the couch in the living room and let the past, a beggar always patiently tapping on the back door, in. This gave her the kind of comfort she knew she would regret later on. It was like the high she got from eating too much ice cream. Feelings of saturation gave way to feelings of emptiness, hunger and weakness. But she cannot revise the terms of this emotional contract. The beggar must be fed, and then allowed to fill his pockets before stealing away.
But for a few moments, while she imagines the sounds of her children breathing in their sleep, restless longings, like throbbing nerves, quiet. A color, or a scent, begins the process of reconstruction. If it is scent, it is of semi-sweet grass. On a summer day they are all in the backyard blissfully wearing nothing at all. She strokes his chest, brushes her lips against his, watching the children run, squealing and pink as fish, through the sprinkler.
The sun makes her drowsy, she is nearly asleep, and her thoughts, as close as they can come to forming herself physically, are of stopping the gears of time that are in everything, of staying in this perfectly happy and peaceful moment forever.
She gets off the couch to get a glass of ice water. Once, in only her night dress, she stood barefoot on the porch and let rain pelt her skin and hair. In bed she lets her hand slip between her legs but stops herself. If she is going to do that it will be while she is asleep, when Tom makes one of his rare nocturnal visits.
The store and the kids keep her busy night and day. She doesn’t think of herself as a lonely person and yet there are times during even the most hectic moments of stress and strain when an acute awareness of loss hollows her out, when she feels utterly drained, a burned out wreck going through the motions in order to prove to the world and to herself that she can go through the motions.
Two years after Tom’s death, while video chatting with Bernard, she opened up to him about how it felt to raise two small children on her own. He talked about his own loneliness after Marta’s death, and before long he had moved in.
Perhaps it had been a faulty assumption all along that bringing the old man in to live with her would forge bonds, useful in their different ways, to both of them. Everyone warned her that he was too old, too fragile and that she would end up taking care of an invalid. True, the retired professor wasn’t usually a fountain of good cheer. He was often bleak and grumpy, sometimes silent and aloof for days. Her own father, a gentle, soft spoken man who worked all day managing the legal affairs of a small city and who tended to shy away from ideas, looked at her with near horror in his big brown eyes when she told him of her plans. But Bernard, for a man who ate bacon every morning, drank coffee all day and had sucked on a pipe half his life, proved remarkably strong despite a growing list of health problems.
They were strangers who sometimes became good friends. If he hadn’t quite become a second father she hadn’t quite become a second daughter; but neither of them expected such transformations to occur anyway. They were content to see what would happen, like gamblers who had made a modest bet.
Now, as she sat in the clinic looking down at Buster, she felt the shame of giving into pressures she should have had the strength to resist. But the old man had persuaded her, using what the doctor had said to crumble what few defenses she had left. There was no hope of a miracle cure; and what was the point of needless suffering? Better to be Buster, she thought. The only one who didn’t know what was about to happen. She reached into her purse, took out one of her blue “happy pills”, and then swallowed it while no one was looking.
“Good bye, Buster,” Grandfather said, reaching down to pat the dog’s head. “You’re a good old dog you are.”
Forty-five minutes later it was over. She embraced her children, dried their wet, swollen eyes and then lifted the limp body of Buster onto the front seat, where he immediately fell asleep and began to snore.
“Granddaddy’s going to heaven,” Josh said, so softly that she didn’t know if he was talking to his sister or to himself.
Cassie climbed in, closed the door and then turned around to look at her children.
“Hey,” she said, “We’ll get to see Granddad in his new home. Now who wants ice cream?”