Description

In six-to-twelve well-developed paragraphs (two-to-three paragraphs per story) discuss thematic depth and literary layers in Rick Bass’s “The Hermit’s Story,” Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” and Elizabeth Strout’s “Pharmacy.” Make sure you interpret and analyze rather than summarizing the stories. You do not have to make connections between the stories. You can use headers with story titles and treat them as separate discussions or blend the discussion by using a transition. Whether it’s divided into sections–stories–or not, make sure that the whole discussion meets length requirements.  Answer the question–don’t merely discuss or talk about why you like or dislike the stories.LORRIEMOORE
“People Like that are the Only People
Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Oi
Moore, Lonie. Birds of America. Picador: New York, 1988.
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Self-Help
Anagrams
Like Life
!I Run the Frog Hospital?
)e Forgotten Helper
~
I
R
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SO F
AMERICA
People Like That Are tk,Onfy People Here
PEOPLE LIKE T H A T ARE T H E
ONLY PEOPLE HERE: C A N O N I C A L
BABBLING I N P E E D O N K
A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole
thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is
full of rain. A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby’s
diaper. What is the story? Who put this here? It is big and
bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend, the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim.
But today he looks fine–so what is this thing, startling against
the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?
Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is something
menstrual, something belonginb to the Mother or to the Babysitter, something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for
his own demented baby reasons stowed away here. (Babies:
they’re crazy! What can you do?) In her mind, the Mother takes
this away from his body and attaches it to someone else’s.
There. Doesn’t that make more sense?
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Still, she phones the clinic at the children’s hospital. “Blood in
the diaper,” she says, and, sounding alarmed and perplexed, the
woman on the other end says, “Come in now.”
Such pleasingly instant service! Just say “blood.” Just say
“diaper.” Look what you get!
In the examination room, pediatrician, nurse, head resident–all seem less alarmed and perplexed than simply pcrplexed. At first, stupidly, the Mother is calmed by this. But
soon, besides peering and saying “Hmmmm,” the pediatrician,
nurse, and head resident are all drawing their mouths in, bluish
. and tight-morning glories sensing noon. They fold their arms
across their white-coated chests, unfold them again and jot
things down. They order an ultrasound. Bladder and kidneys.

“Here’s the card. Go downstairs; turn left.”
In Radiology, the Baby stapds anxiously on the table, naked
against the Mother as she holds him still against her legs and
waist, the Radiologist’s cold scanning disc moving about the
Baby’s back. The Baby whimpers, looks up at the Mother. kt’s
1 get out of here, his eyes beg. Pick me up! The Radiologist stops,
freezes one of the many swirls of oceanic gray, and clicks repeat, edly, a single moment within the long, cavernous weather map
‘ that is the Baby’s insides.
“Are you finding something?” asks the Mother. Last year,
her uncle Larry had had a kidney removed for something that
turned out to be benign. These imaging machines! They are
like dogs, or metal detectors: they find everything, but don’t
know what they’ve found. T h a t Swhere the surgeons come in.
~ h e ~ ‘ like
r e the owners of the dogs. “Give me that,” they say to
‘ the dog. “What the heck is that?”
“The surgeon will speak to you,” says the Radiologist.
“Are you finding something?”
“The surgeon will speak to you,” the Radiologist says
e
B I R D S
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A M E R I C A
again. “There seems to be something there, but the surgeon
will talk to you about it.”
“My uncle once had something on his kidney,” says the
Mother. “So they removed the kidney and it turned out the
something was benign.”
The Radiologist smiles a broad, ominous smile. “That’s
always the way it is,” he says. “You don’t know exactly what it
is until it’s in the bucket.”
” ‘In the bucket,’ ” the Mother repeats.
The Radiologist’s grin grows scarily wider-is that even
possible? “That’s doctor talk,” he says.
“It’s very appealing,” says the Mother. “It’s a very appealing
way to talk.” Swirls of bile and blood, mustard and maroon in a
pail, the colors of an African flag or some exuberant salad bar: in
the bucket-+he imagines it all.
“The Sugeon will see you soon,” he says again. He tousles
the Baby’s ringletty hair. “Cute kid,” he says.
“Let’s see now,” says the Surgeon in one of his examining rooms.
He has stepped in, then stepped out, then come back in again.
He has crisp, frowning features, sharp bones, and a tennis-inBermuda tan. He crosses his blue-cottoned legs. He is wearing
clogs.
, The Mother knows her own face is a big white dumpling of
worry. She is still wearing her long, dark parka, holding the
Baby, who has pulled the hood up over her head because he
always thinks ‘it’s h n n y to do that. Though on certain windy
mornings she would like to think she could look vaguely
romantic like this, like some French Lieutenant’s Woman of the
Prairie, in all of her saner moments she knows she doesn’t. Ever.
She knows she looks ridiculous-like one of those animals
made out of twisted party balloons. She lowers the hood and
slips one arm out of the sleeve. The Baby wants to get up and
play with the light switch. He fidgets, h s e s , and points.
People Like That Are the Only People Here
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“He’s big on lights these days,” explains the Mother.
“That’s okay,” says the Surgeon, nodding toward the light
switch. “Let him play with it.” The Mother goes and stands
by it, and the Baby begins turning the lights off and on, off
and on.
“What we have here is a Wilms’ tumor,” says the Surgeon,
suddenly plunged into darkness. He says “tumor” as if it were
the most normal thing in the world.
“Wilms’?” repeats the Mother. The room is quickly on fire
again with light, then wiped dark again. Among the three of
them here, there is a long silence, as if it were suddenly the
middle of the night. “Is that apostrophe s or s apostrophe?” the
Mother says finally. She is a writer and a teacher. Spelling can be
important-perhaps even at a time like this, though she has
never before been at a time like this, so there are barbarisms she
could easily commit and not know.
The lights come on: the world is doused and exposed.
“S apostrophe,” says the Surgeon. “I think.” The lights go
back out, but the Surgeon continues speaking in the dark. “A ‘
malignant tumor on the lefe kidney.”
Wait a minute. Hold on here. The Baby is only a baby, fed
on organic applesauce and soy milk-a little prince!–and he
was standing so close to her during the ultrasound. How could
he have this terrible thing? It must have been her kidney. A
fifiies kidney. A DDT kidney. The Mother clears her throat. “Is
it possible it was my kidney on the scan? I mean, I’ve never
heard of a baby with a tumor, and, frankly, I was standing very
, close.” She would make the blood hers, the tumor hers; it
would all be some treacherous, farcical mistake.
: “No, that’s not possible,” says the Surgeon. The light goes
f back on.
“It’s not?” says the Mother. Wait until it’s in the bucket, she
hinks. Don’t be so sure. Do we have to wait until it’s in the bucket
tofindout a mistake has been made?
“We will start with a radical nephrectomy,” says the Sur-
B I R D S
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A M E R I C A
geon, instantly thrown into darkness again. His voice comes
from nowhere and everywhere at once. “And then we’ll begin
with chemotherapy after that. These tumors usually respond
very well to chemo.”
“I’ve never heard of a baby having chemo,” the Mother says.
Baby and Cbemo, she thinks: they should never even appear in
the same sentence together, let alone the same life. In her other
life, her life before this day, she had been a believer in alternative medicine. Chemotherapy? Unthinkable. Now, suddenly,
alternative mediciniseems the wacko maiden aunt to the Nice
Big Daddy of Conventional Treatment. How quickly the old
girl faints and gives way, .leaves one just standing there.
Chemo? Of course: chemo! Why by all means: chemo.
Absolutely! Chemo!
The Baby flicks the switch back on, and the walls reappear,
big wedges of light checkered with small framed watercolors of
the local lake. The Mother has begun to cry: all of life has led
her here, to this moment. After this, there is no more life.
There is something else, something stumbling and unlivable,
something mechanical, something for robots, but not life. Life
has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick. The room goes
dark again, so’that the Mother can cry more freely. How can a
baby’s body be stolen so fast? How much can one heaven-sent
and unsuspecting child endure? Why has he not been spared
this inconceivable fate?
Perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished: too many babysitters too early on. (“Come to Mommy! Come to MommyBaby-sitter!” she used to say. But it was a joke!) Her life,
perhaps, bore too openly the marks and wigs of deepest drag.
Her unrnotherly thoughts had all been noted: the panicky hope
that his nap would last longer than it did; her occasional desire
to kiss him passionately on the mouth (to make out with her
baby!); her ongoing complaints about the very vocabulary of
motherhood, how it degraded the speaker (“Is this a poopie
onesie! Yes, it’s a very poopie onesie!”). She had, moreover, on
People Like That Are the Only People Here
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,
three occasions used the formula bottles as flower vases. She
twice let the Baby’s ears get fudgy with wax. A few afternoons
last month, at snacktime, she placed a bowl of Cheerbs on the
floor for him to eat, like a dog. She let him play with the Dustbuster. Just once, before he was born, she said, “Healthy? I just
want the kid to be rich.” A joke, for God’s sake! After he was
born she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of
mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over arid over again, like
a novel by Mrs. Carnus. Another joke! These jokes will kill you!
She had told toioften, and with too much enjoyment, t k story
of how the Baby had said “Hi” to his high chair, waved at the
lake waves, shouted ” ~ o o d ~ – ~ o o d ~ – in
~ owhat
o d ~seemed

to
be a Russian accent, pointed at his eyes and said “Ice.” And all
that nonsensical baby talk: wasn’t it a stitch? “Canonical babbling,” the language experts called it. He recounted whole stories in it-totally made up, she could tell. He embroidered; he
fished; he exaggerated. What a card! To friends, she spoke of his
eating habits (carrots yes, tuna no). She mentioned, too much,
his sidesplitting giggle. Did she have to be so boring? Did she
have no consideration for others, for the intellectual demands
and courtesies of human society? Would she not even attempt
to be more interesting? It was a crime against the human mind
not even to try.
Now her baby, for all these reasons-lack
of motherly
gratitude, motherly judgment, motherly proportion-will be
taken away.
The room is fluorescently ablaze again. The Mother digs
around in her parka pocket and comes up with a ‘Kleenex. It is
old and thin, like a mashed flower saved from a dance; she dabs
i
it at her eyes and nose.
“The Baby won’t suffer as much as you,” says the Surgeon.
And who can contradict? Not the Baby, who in his Slavic
Betty Boop voice can say only mumJ&A,cbwe, ice, bye-byeJoutrid, boogie-boogie, goody-goody, eddy-eddy, and car. (Who is Eddy?
They have no idea.) This will not suffice to express his mortal
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B I R D S
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A M E R I C A
suffering. Who can say what babies do with their agony and
shock? Not they themselves. (Baby talk: isn’t it a stitch?) They
put it all no place anyone can really see. They are like a different
race, a different species: they seem not to experience pain the
way we do. Yeah, that’s it: their nervous systems are not as h l l y
formed, and they just h n ‘ t experiencepain the way we do. A tune to
keep one humming through the war. “You’ll get through it,”
the Surgeon says.
“How?” asks the Mother. “How does one get through it?”
“You just put your head down and go,” says the Surgeon. He picks up his file folder. He is a skilled manual laborer.
The tricky emotional stuff is not to his liking. The babies. The
babies! What can be said to console the parents about the
babies? “I’ll go phone the oncologist on duty to let him know,”
he says, and leaves the room.
“Come here, sweetie,” the Mother says to the Baby, who has
toddled off toward a gum wrapper on the floor. “We’ve got to
put your jacket on.” She picks him up and he reaches for the
light switch again. Light, dark. Peekaboo: where’s baby?
Where did baby go?
At home, she leaves a message–“Urgent! Call me!”-for
the
Husband on his voice mail. Then she takes the Baby upstairs
for his nap, rocks him in the rocker. The Baby waves good-bye
to his little bears, then looks toward the window and says,
“Bye-bye, outside.” He has, lately, the habit of waving goodbye to everything, and now it seems as if he senses an imminent
departure, and it breaks her heatt to hear him. Bye-bye! She
sings low and monotonously, like a small appliance, which is
how he likes it. He is drowsy, dozy, drifting off. He has grown
so much in the last year, he hardly fits in her lap anymore; his
limbs dangle off like a pieta. His head rolls slightly inside the
crook of her arm. She can feel him falling backward into sleep,
People Like That Are the Only People Here
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his mouth round and open like the sweetest of poppies. All the
lullabies in the world, all the melodies threaded through with
maternal melancholy now become for her–abandoned as a
mother can be by working men and napping babies-the songs
of hard, hard grief. Sitting there, bowed and bobbing, the
Mother feels the entirety of her love as worry and heartbreak. A
quick and irrevocable alchemy: there is no longer one unworried scrap left for happiness. “If you go,” she keens low into his
soapy neck, into the ranunculus coil of his ear, “we are going
with you. We are nothing without you. Without you, we are a
heap of rocks. We are gravel and mold. Without you, we are
two stumps, with nothing any longer in our hearts. Wherever
this takes you, we are following. We will be there. Don’t be
scared. We are going, too. That is that.”
“Take Notes,” says the Husband, after coming straight home
from work, midafternoon, hearing the news, and saying all the
words out loud-surgery, metastasis, dialysis, transplant-then
collapsing in a chair in tears. “Take notes. We are going to need
the money.”
“Good God,” cries the Mother. Everything inside her suddenly begins to cower and shrink, a thinning of bones. Perhaps
this is a soldier’s readiness, but it has the w h 8 of death and
defeat. It feels like a heart attack, a failure of will and courage, a
power failure: a failure of everything. Her face, when she
glimpses it in a mirror, is cold and bloated with shock, her eyes
scarlet and shrunk. She has already scatted to wear sunglasses
indoors, like a celebrity widow. From where will her own
strength come? Prom some philosophy? From some frigid little
philosophy? She is neither stalwart nor realistic and has trouble
with basic concepts, such as the one that says events move in
one direction only and do not jump up, turn around, and take
themselves back.
< .. B I R D S O F A M E R I C A The Husband begins too many of his sentences with "What if." He is trying to piece everything together like a train wreck. He is trying to get the train to town. "We'll just take all the steps, move through all the stages. We'll go where we have to go. We'll hunt; we'll find; we'll pay what we have to pay. What if we can't pay?" "Sounds like shopping." "I cannot believe this is happening to our little boy," he says, and starts to sob again. "Why didn't it happen to one of us? It's so unfair. Just last week, my doctor declared me in perfect health: the prostate of a twenty-year-old, the heart of a tenyear-old, the brain of an' insect--or whatever it was he said. What a nightmare this is." What words can be uttered? You turn just slightly and there it is: the death of your child. It is part symbol, part devil, and in your blind spot all along, until, if you are unlucky, it is completely upon you. Then it is a fierce little country abducting you; it holds you squarely inside itself like a cellar roomthe best boundaries of you are the boundaries of it. Are there windows? Sometimes aren't there windows? The Mother is not a shopper. She hates to shop, is generally bad at it, though she does like a good sale. She cannot stroll meaningfully through anger, denial, grief, and acceptance. She goes straight to bargaining and stays there. How much? she calls out to the ceiling, to some makeshift construction of holinesi she has desperately, though not uncreatively, assembled in her mind and prayed to; a doubter, never before given to prayer, she must now reap what she has not sown; she must assemble from scratch an entire altar of worship and begging. She tries for noble abstractions, nothing too anthropomorphic, just some Higher Morality, though if this particular Highness looks something like the manager at Marshall Field's, sucking a Frango mint, so be it. Amen. Just tell me what you want, -. People Like That Are the Only People Here 2 2 1 requests the Mother. And how do you want it? More charitable acts? A billion starting now. Charitable thoughts? Harder, but of course! Of course! I'll do the cooking, honey; I'll pay the rent. Just tell me. Excuse me? Well, if not to you, to whom do I speak? Hello? To whom do I have to speak around here? A higher-up? A superior? Wait? I can wait. I've got all day. I've got .the whole damn day. The Husband now lies next to her in bed, sighing. "Poor little guy could s w i v e all this, only to be killed in a car crash at the age of sixteen," he says. The wife, bargaining, considers this. "We'll take the car crash," she says. "What?" "Let's Make a Deal! Sixteen Is a Full Life! We'll take the car crash. We'll take the car ctash, in front of which Catol Merrill is now standing." Now the Manager of Marshall Field's reappears. "To take the surprises out is to take the life out of life," he says. The phone rings. The Husbarid gets up and leaves the room. "But I don't want these surprises," says the Mother. "Here! You take these surprises!" "To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine," the Manager continues. "What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. That is why they do the fateful and amusing things they do: who can say how anything will turn out? Therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovety, and-let's be frank--fun, fun, fun! There might be things people will get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life's efforts bring you. The mystery is all." The Mother, though shy, has grown confrontational. "Is this the kind of bogus, random crap they teach at merchandis- B I R D S O F ing school? We would like fewer surprises, fewer efforts and mysteries, thank you. K through eight; can we just get K through eight?" It now seems like the luckiest, most beautiful, most musical phrase she's ever heard: K through eight. The very lilt. The very thought. The Manager continues, trying things out. "I mean, the whole conception of 'the story,' of cause and effect, the whole idea that people have a clue as to how the world works is just a piece of laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time." Did they own a gun? The Mother begins looking through drawers. The Husband comes back into the room and observes her. "Ha! The Great Havoc that is the Puzzle of all Life!" he says of the Marshall Field's management policy. He has just gotten off a conference call with the insurance company and the hospital. The surgery will be Friday. "It's all just some dirty capitalist's idea of a philosophy." "Maybe it's just a fact of narrative and you really can't politicize it," says the Mother. It is now only the two of them. "Whose side are you on?" "I'm on the Baby's side." "Are you taking notes for this?" "No." "You're not?" "No. I can't. Not this! I write fiction. This isn't fiction." "Then write nonfiction. Do a piece of journalism. Get two dollars a word." "Then it has to be true and full of information. I'm not trained. I'm not that skilled. Plus, I have a convenient personal principle about artists not abandoning art. One should never turn one's back on a vivid imagination. Even the whole memoir thing annoys me." "Well, make things up, but pretend they're real." qot that insured." I',' People Like That Are the Only People Here A M E R I C A 2 2 3 "You're making me nervous." "Sweetie, darling, I'm not that good. I can't do this. I can do-what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet. Sometimes I can do those. Honey, I only do what I can. I do the careful ironies of abydrertm. I do the marshy i&s upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer? I'm sorry. My stop was two stations back. This is irony at its most gaudy and careless. This is a Hieronymus Bosch of hcts and figures and blood and graphs. This is a nightmare of narrative slop. This cannot be designed. This cannot wen be noted in preparation for a design-" "We're going to need the money." "To say nothing of the moral boundaries of pecuniary recompense in a situation such as this-" "What if the other kidney goes? What if he needs a transplant? Where are the moral boundaries there? What are we going to do, have bake sales?" "We can sell the house. I hate this house. It makes me crazy." "And we'll live-where again?" "The Ronald McDonald place. I hear it's nice. It's the least McDonald's can do." "You have a keen sense of justice." "I try. What can I say?" She pauses. "Is all this really happening? I keep thinking that soon it will be over-the life expectancy of a cloud is supposed to be only twelve hours--and ' then I realize something has occurred that can never ever be over." The Husband buries his face in his hands: "Our poor baby. , How did this happen to him?" He looks over and stares at the bookcase that serves as the nightstand. "And do you think , even one of these baby books is any help?" He picks up the Leach, the Spock, the What to Expect. 'Where in the pages or i 4 - x of any of these does it say 'chemotherapy' or 'Hickman : : B I R D S O F - A M E R I C A catheter' or 'renal sarcoma'? Where does it say 'carcinogenesis*? You know what these books are obsessed with? Holding a fucking spoon." He begins hurling the books off the night table and against the far wall. "Hey," says' the Mother, trying to soothe. "Hey, hey, hey." But compared to his stormy roar, her words are those of a backup singer-a Shondell, a P i p a doo-wop ditty. Books, and now more books, continue to fly. Take Notes. Is faintheurt~done word or two? Student prose has wrecked her spelling. Heurted-what would It's one word. Two words-Faint that be? The name of a drag queen. Take Notes. In the end, you suffer alone. But at the beginning you suffer with a whole lot of others. When your child has cancer, you are instantly whisked away to another planet: one of bald-headed little boys. Pediatric Oncology. Peed Onk. You wash your hands for thirty seconds in antibacterial soap before you are allowed to enter through the swinging doors. You put paper slippers on your shoes. You keep your voice down. A whole place has been designed and decorated for your nightmare. Here is where your nightmare will occur. We've got a room all ready for you. We have cots. We have refrigerators. "The children are almost entirely boys," says one of the nurses. "No one knows why. It's been documented, but a lot of people out there still don't realize it." The little boys are all from sweet-sounding places-janesville and Appleton-little heartland towns with giant landfills, agricultural runoff, paper factories, Joe McCarthy's grave (Alone, a site ofgreat toxicity, thinks the Mother. The soil should be tested). All the bald little boys look like brothers. They wheel their People Like That Are the Only People Here 2 2 5 IVs up and down the single corridor of Peed Onk. Some of the lively ones, feeling good for a day, ride the lower bars of the IV while their large, cheerful mothers whiz them along the halls. Wheee! 1 The Mother does not feel large and cheerful. In her mind, she is scathing, acid-tongued, wraith-thin, and chain-smoking out on a fire escape somewhere. Beneath her lie the gentle undulations of the Midwest, with all its aspirations to be-to be what? To be Long Island. How it has succeeded! Strip mall upon strip mall. Lurid water, poisoned potatoes. The Mother drags deeply, blowing clouds of smoke out over the disfigured cornfields. When a baby gets cancer, it seems stupid ever to have given up smoking. When a baby gets cancer, you think, Whom are we kidding? Let's all light up. When a baby gets cancer, you think, Who came up with this idea? What celestial abandon gave rise to this? Pour me a drink, so I can refuse to toast. The Mother does not know how to be one of these other mothers, with their blond hair and sweatpants and sneakers and determined pleasantness. She does not think that she can be anything similar. She does not feel remotely like them. She knows, for instance, too many people in GreenwichfVillage. She mail-orders oysters and tiramisu from a shop in SOHO. She is close friends with four actual homosexuals. Her husband is asking her to Take Notes. Where do these women get their sweatpants? She will find out. She will start, perhaps, with the costume and work from there. She will live according to the bromides. Take one day at a time. Take a positive attitude. Take a hike! She wishes that there were more interesting things that were useful and true, but it seems now that it's only the boring things that are useful and true. One b y at a time. And at leust we have our heulth. How B I R D S O F A M E R I C A ordinary. How obvious. One day at a time. You need a brain for that? While the Surgeon is fine-boned, regal, and laconic-they have correctly guessed his game to be doubles-there is a bit of the mad, overcaffeinated scientist to the Oncologist. He speaks quickly. He knows a lot of studies and numbers. He can do the math. Good! Someone should be able to do the math! "It's a fast but wimpy tumor," he explains. "It typically metastasizes to the lung." He rattles off some numbers, time frames, risk statistics. Fast but wimpy: the Mother tries to imagine this combination of traits, tries to think and think, and can only come up with Claudia Osk from the fourth grade, who blusiied and almost wept when called on in class, but in gym could outrun everyone in the quarter-mile fire-door-ro-fence. dash. The. Mother thinks now of this tumor as Claudia Osk. They are going,toget ~ l a u d i Osk, a make her sorry. All right! Claudia Osk must die. Though it has never been mentioned before, it now seems clear that Claudia Osk should have died long ago. Who was she anyway? So conceited: not letting anyone beat her in a race. Well, hey, hey, hey: don't look now, Claudia! The Husband nudges her. "Are you listening?" "The chances of this happening even just to one kidneywe one in fifieen thousand. Now given all these other factors, the chances on the second kidney are about one in eight." "One in eight," says the Husband. "Not bad. As long as it's not one in fifieen thousand." The Mother studies the trees and fish along the ceiling's edge in the Save the Planet wallpaper border. Save the Planet. Yes! But the windows in this very building don't open and diesel fumes are leaking into the ventilating system, near which, outside, a delivery truck is parked. The air is nauseous and stale. People Like That Are the Only People Here 2 2 7 "Really," the Oncologist is saying, "of all the cancers he could get, this is probably the best." "We win," says the Mother. "Best, I know, hardly seems the right word. Look, you two probably need to get some rest. We'll see how the surgery and histology go. Then we'll start with chemo the week following. A little light chemo: vincristine and-" "Vincristine?" interrupts the Mother. "Wine of Christ?" "The names are strange, I know. The other one we use is actinomycin-D. Sometimes called 'dactinomycin.' People move the D around to the front." "They move the D around to the front," repeats the Mother. "Yup!" the Oncologist says. "I don't know why-they just do!" "Christ didn't survive his wine," says the Husband. "But of course he did," says the Oncologist, and nods toward the Baby, who has now found a cupboard full of hospital linens and bandages and is yanking them all out onto the floor. "I'll see you guys tomorrow, after the surgery." And with that, the Oncologist leaves. "Or, rather, Christ was his wine," mumbles the Husband. Everything he knows about the New Testament, he has gleaned from the sound track of Godspell. ''His blood was the wine. What a great beverage idea." "A little light chemo. Don't you like that one?" says the Mother. "Einekleine dactinomycin. I'd like to see Mozart write that one up for a big wad o' cash." "Come here, honey," the Husband says to the Baby, who has now pulled off both his shoes. "It's bad enough when they refer to medical science as 'an inexact science,' " says the Mother. "But when they start referring to it as 'an art,' I get extremely nervous." "Yeah. If we wanted art, Doc, we'd go to an art museum." The Husband ~ i c k up s the Baby. "You're an artist," he says to - B I R D S O P the Mother, with the taint of accusation in his voice. 'They probably think you find creativity reassuring." The Mother sighs. "I just find it inevitable. Let's go get something to eat." And so they take the elevator to the cafeteria, where there is a high chair, and where, not noticing, they all eat a lot of apples with the price tags still on them. ' People Like That Are the Only People Here A M E R I C A ~ecaus;his surgery is not until tomorrow, the Baby likes the hospital. He likes the long corridors, down which he can run. He likes everything on wheels. The flower carts in the lobby! ("Please keep your boy away from the flowers," says the vendor, "We'll buy the whole display," snaps the Mother, adding, "Actual children in a children's hospital-unbelievable, isn't it?") The Baby likes the other little boys. Places to go! People to see! Rooms to wander into! There is Intensive Care. There is the Trauma Unit. The Baby smiles and waves. What a little Cancer Personality! Bandaged citizens smile and wave back. In Peed Onk, there are the bald little boys to play with. Joey, Eric, Tim, Mort, and Tod (Mort! Tod!). There is the four-year-old, Ned, holding his little deflated rubber ball, the one with the intriguing, curling hose. The Baby wants to play with it. "It's mine. Leave it alone," says Ned. "Tell the Baby to leave it alone." "Baby, you've got to share," says the Mother from a chair some feet away. Suddenly, from down near the Tiny Tim Lounge, comes Ned's mother, large and blond and sweatpanted. "Stop that! Stop it!" she cries out, dashing toward the Baby and Ned and pushing the Baby away. "Don't touch that!" she barks at the Baby, who is only a Baby and bursts into tears because he has never been yelled at like this before. Ned's mom glares at everyone. "This is drawing fluid from Neddy's liver!" She pats at the rubber thing and starts to cry a little. 2 2 9 "Oh my God," says the Mother. She comforts the Baby, who is also crying. She and Ned, the only dry-eyed people, look at each other. "I'm so sorry," she says to Ned and then to his mother. "I'm so stupid. I thought they were squabbling over a toy." "It does look like a toyBd'agrees Ned. He smiles. He is an angel. All the little boys are angels. Total, sweet, bald little angels, and now God is trying to get them back for himself. Who are they, mere mortal women, in the face of this, this powerful and overwhelming and inscrutable thing, God's will? They are the mothers, that's,who. You can't have him! they shout every day. You dirty old man! Get out of here! Hands off! I m so sorry," says the Mother again. "I didn't know." Ned's mother smiles vaguely. "Of course you didn't know," she says, and walks back to the Tiny Tim Lounge. 'I 1 L The Tiny Tim Lounge is a little sitting area at the end of the Peed Onk corridor. There are two small sofas, a table, a rocking chair, a television and a VCR. There are various videos: Speed, Dune, and Star Wars. On one of the lounge walls there is a gold plaque with the singer Tiny Tim's name on it: his son was treated once at this hospital and so, five years ago, he donated money for this lounge. It is a cramped little lounge, which, one suspects, would be larger if Tiny Tim's son had actually lived. Instead, he died here, at this hospital and now there is this tiny room which is part gratitude, part generosity, part fkk-you. Sifting through the videocassettes, the Mother wonders what science fiction could begin to compete with the science fiction of cancer itself--a tumor with its differentiated muscle and bone cells, a clump of wild nothing andits mad, ambitious desire to be something: something inside you, instead of you, another organism, but with a monster's architecture, a demon's sabotage and chaos. Think of leukemia, a tumor diabolically B I R D S O F A M E R I C A taking l i q ~ dform, better to swim about incognito in the blood. George Lucas, direct that! Sitting with the other parents in the Tiny Tim Lounge, the night before the surgety, having put the Baby to bed in his high steel crib two rooms down, the Mother begins to hear the stories: leukemia in kindergarten, sarcomas in Little League, neuroblastomas discovered at summer camp. "Eric slid into third base, but then the scrape didn't heal." The parents pat one another's forearms and speak of other children's hospitals as if they were resorts. "You were at St. Jude's last winter? So were we. What did you think of it? We loved the staff." Jobs have been quit, marriages hacked up, bank accounts ravaged; the parents have seemingly endured the unendunble. They speak not of theporsibility of comas brought on by the chemo, but of the number of them. "He was in his first coma last July," says Ned's mother. "It was a scary time, but we pulled through." Pulling through is what people do around here. There is a kind of bravery in.their lives that isn't bravery at all. It is automatic, unflinching, a mix of man and machine, consuming and unquestionable obligation meeting illness move for move in a giant even-steven game of chess--an unending round of something that looks like shadowboxing, though between love and death, which is the shadow? "Everyone admires us for our courage," says one man. "They have no i d b what they're talking about." I could get out of here, thinks the Mother. I could just get on a bus and go, never come back. Change my name. A kind of witness relocation thing. "Courage requires options," the man adds. The Baby might be better off. "There are options," says a woman with a thick suede headband. "You could give up. You could fall apart." "No, you can't. Nobody does. I've never seen it," says the man. "Well, not really fall apart." Then the lounge Mls quiet. Over the VCR someone has taped the fortune from a fortune People Like That Are the Only People Hen 2 3 1 cookie. "Optimism," it says, "is what allows a teakettle to sing though up to its neck in hot water." Underneath, someone else has taped a clipping from a summer horoscope. "Cancer rules!" it says. Who would tape this up? Somebody's twelve-year-old ' brother. One of the fathers-Joey's father-gets up and tears them both off, makes a small wad in his fist. There is some rustling of magazine pages. The Mother clears her throat. "Tiny Tim forgot the wet bar," she says. Ned, who is still up, comes out of his room and down the corridor, whose lights dim at nine. Standibg next to her chair, he says to the Mother, "Where are you from? What is wrong with your baby?" In the tiny room that is theirs, she sleeps fitfully in her sweatpants, occasionally leaping up to check on the Baby. This is what the sweatpants are for: leaping. In case of fire. In case of anything. In case the difference between day and night starts to dissolve, and there is no difference at all, so why pretend? In the cot beside her, the Husband, who has taken a sleeping pill, is snoring loudly, his arms folded about his head in a kind of origami. How could either of them have stayed back at the house, with its empty high chair and empty crib? Occasionally the Baby wakes and cries out, and she bolts up, goes to him, rubs his back, rearranges the linens. The clock on the metal dresser shows that it is five after three. Then twenty to five. And then it is really morning, the beginning of this day, nephrectomy day. Will she be glad when it's over, or barely alive, or both? Each day this week has arrived huge, empty, and unknown, like a spaceship, and this one especially is lit a bright gray. "He'll need to put this on," says John, one of the nurses, bright and early, handing the Mother a thin greenish garment with roses and teddy bears printed on it. A wave of nausea hits < B I R D S I O F People Like That Are the Only People Here A M E R I C A her; this smock, she thinks, will soon be splattered with-with what? ~ but drowsy. She lifts off his pajamas. The ' ~ a isb awake "Don't forget, bubeleh," she whispers, undressing and dressing him. "We will be with you every moment, every step. When you think you are asleep and floating off far away from everybody, Mommy will still be there." If she hasn't fled on a bus. "Mommy will take care of you. And Daddy, too." She hopes the Baby does not detect her own fear and uncertainty, which she must hide from him, like a limp. He is hungry, not having been allowed to eat, and he is no longer amused by this new place, but worried about its hardships. Oh, my baby, she thinks. And the room starts to swim a little. The Husband comes in to take over. "Take a break," he says to her. "I'll walk him around for five minutes." She leaves but doesn't know where to go. In the hallway, she is approached by a kind of social worker, a customerrelations person, who had given them a video to watch about the anesthesia: how the parent accompanies the child into the operating room, and how gently, nicely the drugs are administered. "Did you watch 'the video?" "Yes," says the Mother. "Wasn't it helpful?" "I don't know," says the Mother. "Do you have any questions?" asks the video woman. "Do you have any questions?" asked of someone who has recently landed in this fearful, alien place seems to the Mother an absurd and amazing little courtesy. The very specificity of a question would give a lie to the overwhelming strangeness of everything around her. "Not right now," says the Mother. "Right now, I think I'm just going to go to the bathroom." When she returns to the Baby's room, everyone is there: the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, all the nurses, the social worker. : 2 3 3 In their blue caps and scrubs, they look like a clutch of forgetme-nots, and forget them, who could? The Baby, in his little teddy-bear smock, seems cold and scared. He reaches out and the Mother lifts him from the Husband's arms, rubs his back to warm him. "Well, it's time!" says the Surgeon, forcihg a smile. "Shall we go?" says the Anesthesiologist. What follows is a blur of obedience and bright lights. They take an elevator down to a big concrete room, the anteroom, the greenroom, the backstage of the operating room. Lining the walls are long shelves full of blue surgical outfits. "Children often become afraid of the color blue," says one of the nurses. But of course. Of course! "Now, which one of you would like to come into the operating room for the anesthesia?" "I will," says the Mother. "Are you sure?" asks the Husband. "Yup." She kisses the Baby's hair. "Mr. Curlyhead," people keep calling him here, and it seems both rude and nice. Women look admiringly at his long lashes and exclaim, "Always the boys! Always the boys!" Two surgical nurses put a blue smock and a blue cotton cap on the Mother. The Baby finds this funny and keeps pulling at the cap. "This way," says another nurse, and the Mother follows. "Just put the Baby down on the table." In the video, the mother holds the baby and fumes are gently waved under the baby's nose until he falls asleep. Now, out of view of camera or social worker, the Anesthesiologist is anxious to get this under way and not let too much gas leak out into the room generally. The occupational hazard of this, his chosen profession, is gas exposure and nerve damage, and it has started to worry him. No doubt he frets about it to his wife every night. Now he turns the gas on and quickly clamps the plastic mouthpiece over the baby's cheeks and lips. The Baby is startled. The Mother is startled. The Baby starts to scream and redden behind the plastic, but he cannot be B I R D S O F A M E R I C A xeroxed list of patientsv names. "That's our little ,boy right there," says the Mother, seeing the Baby's name on the list and pointing at it. "Is there some word? Is everything okay?" "Yes," says the man. "Your boy is doing fine. They've just finished with the catheter, and they are moving on to the kidney." "But it's been two hours already! O h my God, did something go wrong? What happened? What went wrong?" "Did something go wrong?" The Husband tugs at his collar. "Not really. It just took longer than they expected. I'm told everything is fine. They wanted you to know." "Thank you," says the Husband. They turn and walk back toward where they were sitting. "I'm not going to make it." The Mother sighs, sinking into a fake leather chair shaped somewhat like a baseball mitt. "But before I go, I'm taking half this hospital out with me." "Do you want some coffee?" asks the Husband. "I don't know," says the Mother. "No, I guess not. No. Do you?" "Nah, I don't, either, I guess," he says. "Would you like part of an orange?" "Oh, maybe, I guess, if you're having one." She takes an orange from her purse and just sits there peeling its difficult skin, the flesh rupturing beneath her fingers, the juice trickling down her hands, stinging the hangnails. She and t h e ~ u s b a n d chew and swallow, discreetly spit the seeds into Kleenex, and read from photocopies of the latest medical research, which they begged from the intern. They read, and underline, and sigh and close their eyes, and after some time, the surgery is over. A nurse from Peed Onk comes down to tell them. "Your little boy's in recove6 right now. He's doing well. You can see him in about fifteen minutes." People Like That Are the Only People Here 2 3 7 How can it be described? HOW can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler's mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it; one cannot both see and say, not really. One can go, and upon return'ing make a lot of hand motions and indications with the arms. The mouth itself, working at the speed of light, at the eye's instructions, is necessarily struck still; so fast, so much to report, it hangs open and dumb as a gutted bell. All that unsayable life! That's where the narrator comes in. The narrator comes with her kisses and mimicry and tidying up. The narrator comes and makes a slow, fake song of the mouth's eager devastation. It is a horror and a miracle to see him. He is lying in his crib in his room, tubed up, splayed like a boy on a cross, his arms stiffened into cardboard "no-no's" so that he cannot yank out the tubes. There is the bladder catheter, the nasal-gastric tube, and the Hickman, which, beneath the skin, is plugged into his jugular, then popped out his chest wall and capped with a long plastic cap. There is a large bandage taped over his abdomen. Groggy, on a morphine drip, still he is able to look at her when, maneuvering through all the vinyl wiring, she leans to hold him, and when she does, he begins to cry,'but cry silently, without motion or noise. She has never seen a baby cry without motion or noise. It is the crying of an old person: silent, beyond opinion, shattered. In someone so tiny, it is frightening and unnatural. She wants to pick up the Baby and run-ut of there, out of there. She wants to whip out a gun: No-no's, eh This whole thing is what I call a no-no. Don't you touch him! she wants to shout at the surgeons and the needle nurses. Not anymore! No more! No more! She would crawl up and lie beside him in the crib if she could. But instead, because of all his intricate wiring, she must lean and cuddle, sing to him, songs ofperil and flight: "We gotta get out of this place, if B I R D S O F People Like That Are the Only People Hers A M E R I C A it's the last thing we ever do. We gotta get out of this place . . . there's a better life for me and you." Very I 967. She was eleven then and impressionable. The Baby looks at her, pleadingly, his arms splayed out in surrender. To where? Where is there to go? Take me! Take me! That night, postop night, the Mother and Husband lie afloat in the cot together. A fluorescent lamp near the crib is kept on in the dark. The Baby breathes evenly but thinly in his drugged sleep. The morphine in its first flooding doses apparently makes him feel as if he were falling backward--or so the Mother has been told-and it causes the Baby to jerk; to catch himself over and over, as if he were being dropped from a tree. "Is this right? Isn't there something that should be done?" The nurses come in hourly, different ones-the night shifts seem strangely short and fiequent. If the Baby stirs or frets, the nurses give him more morphine through the Hickman catheter, then leave to tend to other patients. The Mother rises to check on him in the low light. There is gurgling from the clear plastic suction tube coming out of his mouth. Brownish clumps have collected in the tube. What is going on? The Mother rings for the nurse. Is it R e d e or Sarah or Darcy? She's forgotten. "What, what is it?" murmurs the Husband, waking up. "Something is wrong," says the Mother. "It looks like blood in his N-G tube." "What?" The Husband gets out of bed. He, too, is wearing sweatpants. The nurse-Valerie-pushes open the heavy door to the room and enters quietly. "Everything okay?" "ThereBssomething wrong here. The tube is sucking blood out of his stomach. It looks like it may have perforated his stomach and that now he's bleeding internally. $k!" Valerie is a saint, but her voice is the standard hospital saint ! , 2 3 9 voice: an infuriating, pharmaceutical calm. It says, Everything is normal here. Death is normal. Pain is normal. Nothing 'is abnormal. So there is nothing to get excited about. "Well now, let's see." She holds up the plastic tube and tries to see inside it. "Hmmm," she says. "I'll call the attending physician." Because this is a research and teaching hospital, all the regular doctors are at home sleeping in theit Mission-style beds. Tonight, as is apparently the case every weekend night, the attending physician is a medical student. He looks fifteen, The authority he attempts to convey, he cannot remotely inhabit. He is not even in the same building with it. He shakes everyone%hands, then strokes his chin, a gesture no doubt gleaned from some piece of dinner theater his parents took him to once. As if there were an actual beard on that chin! As if beard growth on that chin were even possible! Our Town! Kiss Me Kate! Barefoot in'the Park! He is attempting to convince, if not to impress. "We're in trouble," the Mother whispers to the Husband. She is tired, tired of young people grubbing for grades. "We've got Dr. 'Kiss Me Kate,' here." The Husband looks at her blankly, a mix of disorientation and divorce. The medical student holds the tubing in his hands. "I don't really see anything," he says. He flunks! "You don't?" The Mother shoves her way in, holds the clear tubing in both hands. "That," she says. "Right here and here." Just this past semester, she said to one of her own students, "If you don't see how this essay is better than that one, then I want you just to go out into the hallway and stand there until you do." Is it important to keep one's voice down? The Baby stays asleep, He is drugged and dreaming, far away. "Hmmm," says the medical student. "Perhaps there's a little irritation in the stomach." "A little irritation?" The Mother grows furious: "This is B I R D S O F A M E R I C A blood. These are clumps and clots. This stupid thing is sucking the life right out of him!" Life! She is starting to cry. They turn off the suction and bring in antacids, which they feed into the Baby through the tube. Then they turn the suction on again. This time on low. "Whar was it on before?" asks the Husband. "High," says Valerie. "Doctor's orders, though I don't know why. I don't know why these doctors do a lot of the things they do." "Maybe they're. . . not all that bright?" suggests the Mother. She is feeling relief and rage simultaneously: there is a feeling of prayer and litigation in the air. Yet essentially, she is grateful. Isn't she? She thinks she is. And still, and still: look at all the things you have to do to protect a child, a hospital merely an intensification of life's cruel obstacle course. 'The Surgeon comes to visit on Saturday morning. He steps in and nods at the Baby, who is awake but glazed from the morphine, his eyes two dark unseeing grapes. "The boy looks fine," the Surgeon announces. He peeks under the Baby's bandage. "The stitches look good," he says. The Baby's abdomen is stitched all the way across like a baseball. "And the other kidney, when we looked at it yesterday face-to-face, looked fine. We'll try to wean him off the morphine a little, and see how he's doing on Monday." He clears his throat. "And now," he says, looking about the room at the nurses and medical students, "I would like to speak with the Mother, alone." The Mother's heart gives a jolt. "Me?" "Yes," he says, motioning, then turning. She gets up and steps out into the empty hallway with him, closing the door behind her. What can this be about? She hears the Baby fretting a little in his crib. Her brain fills with pain and alarm. Her voice comes out as a hoarse whisper. "Is there something-" People Like T h a t Are the Only People Here 2 4 2 "There is a particular thing I need from you," says the Surgeon, turning and standing there very seriously. "Yes?" Her heart is pounding. She does not feel resilient enough for any more bad news. "I need to ask a favor." "Certainly," she says, attempting very hard to summon the strength and courage for this occasion, whatever it is; her throat has tightened to a fist. From inside his white coat, the surgeon removes a thin paperback book and thrusts it toward her. "Will you sign my copy of your novel?" The Mother looks down and sees that it is indeed a copy of a novel she has written, one about teenaged girls. She looks up. A big, spirited grin is cutting across his face. "I read this last summer," he says, "and I still remember parts of it! Those girls got into such trouble!" Of all the surreal moments of the last few days, this, she thinks, might be the most so. "Okay," she says, and the Surgeon merrily hands her a pen. "You can just write 'To Dr.- Oh, I don't need to tell you what to write." The Mother sits down on a bench and shakes ink into the pen. A sigh of relief washes over and out of her. Oh, the pleasure of a sigh of relief, like the finest moments of love; has anyone properly sung the praises of sighs of relief? She opens the book to the title page. She breathes deeply. What is he doing reading novels about teenaged girls, anyway? And why didn't he buy the hardcover? She inscribes something grateful and true, then hands the book back to him. "Is he going to be okay?" "The boy? The boy is going to be fine," he says, then taps her stiffly on the shoulder. "Now you take care. It's Saturday. Drink a little wine." ; I ; L B I R D S O F A M E R I C A Over the weekend, while the Baby sleeps, the Mother and Husband sit together in the E n y Tim Lounge. The Husband is restless and makes cafeteria and sundry runs, running errands for everyone. In his absence, the other parents regale her further with their sagas. Pediatric cancer and chemo stories: the children's amputations, blood poisoning, teeth flaking like shale, the learning delays and disabilities caused by chemo frying the young, budding brain. But strangely optimistic codas are tacked on-endings as stiff and loopy as carpenter's lace, crisp and empty as lettuce, reticulate as a net-h, words. "After all that business with the tutor, he's better now, and fitted with new incisors by my wife's cousin's husband, who did dental school in two and a half years, if you can believe that. We hope for the best. We take things as they come. Life is hard." "Life's a big problem," agrees the Mother. Part of her welcomes and invites all their tales. In the few long days since this nightmare began, part of her has become addicted to disaster and war stories. She wants only to hear about the sadness and emergencies of others. They are the only situations that can join hands with her own; everything else bounces off her shiny shield of resentment and unsympathy. Nothing else can even stay in her brain. Prom this, no doubt, the philistine world is made, or should one say recruited? Together, the parents huddle all day in the Tiny Tim Lounge-no need to watch Oprah. They leave Oprah in the dust. Oprah has nothing on them. They chat matter-of-factly, then fkll silent and watch Dune or Star Wars, in which there are bright and shiny robots, whom the Mother now sees not as robots at all but as human beings who have had terrible things happen to them. Some of their friends visit with stuffed animals and soft greetings of "Looking good" fir the dozing baby, though the room is People Like That Are the Only People Here 2 4 3 way past the stuffed-animal limit. The Mother arranges, once more, a plateful of Mint Milano cookies and cups of take-out two on coffee for guests. All her nutso pals stop by-the Prozac, the one obsessed with the word penis in the word happiness, the one who recently had her hair foiled green. "Your friends put the de infin de si≤," says the husband. Overheard, or recorded, all marital conversation sounds as if someone must be joking, though usually no one is. She loves her friends, especially loves them forccoming, since there are times they all fight and don't speak for weeks. Is this friendship?For now and here, it must do and is, and is, she swears it is. For one, they never offer impromptu spiritual lectures about death, how it is part of life, its natural ebb and flow, how we all must accept that, or other such utterances that make her want to scratch out some eyes. Like true friends, they take no hardy or elegant stance loosely choreographed from some broad perspective. They get right in there and mutter "Jesus Christ!" and shake their heads. Plus, they are the only people who not only will laugh at her stupid jokes but offer up stupid ones of their own. What G% you get when you cross Tiny Tim with a pit bull? A child's illness is a strain on the mind. They know how to laugh in a fluty, desperate way-unlike the people who are more her husband's friends and who seem just to deepen their sorrowful gazes, nodding their heads with Sympathy. How exiling and estranging are everybody's Sympathetic Expressions! When anyone laughs, she thinks, Okay! Hooray: a buddy. In disaster as in show business. Nurses come and go; their chirpy voices both startle and soothe. Some of the other Peed Onk parents stick their heads in to see how the Baby is and offer encouragement. Green Hair scratches her head. "Everyone's so friendly here. Is there someone in this place who isn't doing all this airy, B I R D S O F A M E R I C A "It's Modern Midd1e'~edicinemeets the Modern Middle Family," says the Husband. "In the Modern Middle West." Someone has brought in take-out lo mein, and they all eat it out in the hall by the elevators. Parents are allowed use of the Courtesy Line. "You've got to have a second child," says a different friend on the phone, a friend from out of town. "An heir and a spare. That's what we did. We had another child to ensure we wouldn't off ourselves if we lost our first." "Really?" "I'm serious." "A formal suicide? Wouldn't you just drink youtself into a lifelong stupor and let it go at that?" "Nope. I knew how I would do it even. For a while, until our second came along, I had it all planned." "What did you plan?" "I can't go into too much detail, because-Hi, honey!-the kids are here now in the room. But I'll spell out the general idea: R-O-P-E." Sunday evening, she goes and sinks down on the sofa in the Tiny Tim Lounge next to Frank, Joey's father. He is a short, stocky man with the currentless, flatlined look behind the eyes that all the parents eventually get here. He has shaved his head bald in solidarity with his son. His little boy has been battling cancer for five years. It is now in the liver, and the rumor around the corridor is that Joey has three weeks to live. She knows that Joey's mother, Heather, left Frank years ago, two years into the cancer, and has remarried and had another child, a girl named Brittany. The Mother sees Heather here sometimes with her new life-the cute little girl and the new, People Like That Are the Only People Here 2 4 5 young, full-haired husband who will never be so maniacally and debilitatingly obsessed with Joey's illness the way Frank, her first husband, was. Heather comes to visit Joey, to say hello and now good-bye, but she is not Joey's main man. Frank is. Frank is full of stories-about the doctors, about the food, about the nurses, about Joey. Joey, affectless from his meds, sometimes leaves his room and comes out to watch TV in his bathrobe. He is jaundiced and bald, and though he is nine, he looks no older than six. Frank has devoted the last four and a half years 'to saving Joey's life. When the cancer was first diagnosed, the doctors gave Joey a 20 percent chance of living six more months. Now here it is, almost five years later, and Joey's still here. It is all due to Frank, who, early on, quit his job as vice president of a consulting firm in order to commit himself totally to his son. He is proud of everything he's given up and done, but he is tired. Part of him now really believes things are coming to a close, that this is the end. He says this without tears. There are no more tears. "You have probably been through more than anyone else on this corridor," says the Mother. "I could tell you stories," he says. There is a sour odor between them, and she realizes that neither of them has bathed for days. "Tell me one. Tell me the worst one." She knows he hates his ex-wife and hates her new husband even more. "The worst? They're all the worst. Here's one: one morning, I went out for breakfast with my buddy-it was the only time I'd left Joey alone ever; lefi him for two hours is all--and when I came back, his N-G tube was full of blood. They had the suction on too high, and it was sucking the guts right out of him." "Oh my God. That'just happened to us," said the Mother. "It did?" - B I R D S O F People Like That Are the Only Peopls Here A M E R I C A "Friday night." "You're kidding. They let that happen again? I gave them such a chewing-out about that!" "I guess our luck is not so good. We get your very worst story on the second night we're here." "It's not a bad place, though." "It's not?" "Naw. I've seen worse. I've taken Joey everywhere." "He seems very strong." Truth is, at this point, Joey seems like a zombie and frightens her. "Joey's a hcking genius. A biological genius. They'd given him six months, remember." The Mother nods. "Six months is not very long," says Frank. "Six months is nothing. He was four and a half years old." All the words are like blows. She feels flooded with afGection and mourning for this man. She looks away, out the window, out past the hospital parking lot, up toward the black marbled sky and the electric eyelash of the moon. "And now he's nine," she says. "You're his hero." "And he's mine," says Prank, though the fatigue in his voice seems to overwhelm him. "He'll be that forever. Excuse me," he says, "I've got to go check. His breathing hasn't been good. Excuse me." "Good news and bad," says the Oncologist on Monday. He has knocked, entered the room, and now stands there. Their cots are unmade. One wastebasket is overflowing with' coffee cups. "We've got the pathologist's report. The bad news is that the kidney they removed had certain lesions, called 'rests,' which are associated with a higher risk for disease in the other kidney. The gdod news is that the tumor is stage one, regular cell structure, and under five hundred grams, which qualifies you' for a national experiment in which chemotherapy isn't done but 2 4 7 your boy is monitored with ultrasound instead. It's not all that risky, given that the patient's watched closely, but here is the literature on it. There are forms to sign, if you decide to do that. Read all this and we can discuss it further. You have to decide within four days." Lesions? Rests? They dry up and scatter like M&M$ on the floor. All she hears is the p m about no chemo. Another sigh of relief rises up in her and spills out. In a life where there is only the bearable and the unbearable, a sigh of relief is an ecstasy. "No chemo?" saysthe Husband. "Do you recommend that?" The Oncologist shrugs. What casual gestures these doctors are permitted! "I know chemo. I like chemo," says the Oncologist. "But this is for you to decide. It depends how you feel." The Husband leans forward. "Bht don't you think that now that we have the upper hand with this thing, we should keep going? Shouldn't we stomp on it, beat it, smash it to death with the chemo?" The Mother swats him angrily and hard. "Honey, you're delirious!" She whispers, but it comes out as a hiss. "This is our lucky break!" Then she adds gently, "We don't want the Baby to have chemo." The Husband turns back to the Oncologist. "What do you think?" "It could be," he says, shrugging. "It could be that this is your lucky break. But you won't know for sure for five years." The Husband turns back to the Mother. "Okay," he says. "Okay." ' >‘
The Baby grows happier and strong. He begins to move and sit
and eat. Wednesday morning, they are allowed to leave, and
leave without chemo. The Oncologist looks a little nervous.
“Are you nervous about this?” asks the Mother.
“Of course I’m nervous.” But he shrugs and doesn’t look
B I R D S
O F
A M E R I C A
that nervous. “See you in six weeks for the ultrasound,” he says,
waves and then leaves, looking at his big black shoes as he does.
The Baby smiles, even toddles around a little, the sun
bursting through the clouds, an angel chorus crescendoing.
Nurses arrive. The Hickman is taken out of the Baby’s neck and
chest; antibiotic lotion is dispensed. The Mother packs up their
bags. The Baby sucks on a bottle of juice and does not cry.
“No chemo?” says one of the nurses. “Not even a little
chemo?”
“We’re doing watch and wait,” says the Mother.
The other parents look envious but concerned. They have
never seen any child get out of there with his hair and white
, blood cells intact.
“Will you be okay?” asks Ned’s mother.
“The worry’s going to kill us,” says the Husband.
“But if all we have to do is worry,” chides the Mother,
“every day for a hundred years, it’ll be easy. It’ll be nothing. 1’11
take all the worry in the world, if it wards off the thing itself.”
“That’s right,” says Ned’s mother. “Compared to everything else, compared to all the actual events, the worry is
nothing.”
The Husband shakes his head. “I’m such an amateur,” he
moans.
“You’re both doing admirably,” says the other mother.
“Your baby’s lucky, and I wish you all the best.”
The Husband shakes her hand warmly. “Thank you,” he
says. “You’ve been wonderful.”
Another mother, the mother of Eric, comes up to them.
“It’s all very hard,” she says, her head cocked to one side. “But
there’s a lot of collateral beauty along the way.”
Collateral beauty? Who is entitled to such a thing? A child
is ill. No one is entitled to any collateral beauty!
“Thank you,” says the Husband.
Joey’s father, Frank, comes up and embraces them both.
People Like That Arc the Only People Here
2 4 9
“It’s a journey,” he says. He chucks the Baby on the chin. “Good
luck, little man.”
“Yes, thank you so much,” says the Mother. “We hope
things go well with Joey.” She knows that Joey had a hard,
terrible night.
.
go,” he says. “GoodFrank shrugs and steps back.. “Gotta
bye!”
e . bites the inside of
“Bye;” she says, and then he i ~ ‘ ~ & nShe
her lip, a bit tearily, then bends down to pick up the diaper bag,
which is now stuffed with little animals; helium balloons are
tied to its zipper. Shouldering the thing, the Mother feels she
has just won a prize. All the parents have now vanished down
the hall in the opposite direction. The Husband moves close.
With one arm, he takes the Baby from her; with the other, he
rubs her back. He can see she is starting to get weepy.
“Aren’t these people nice? Don,? you feel better hearing
about their lives?” he asks.
:
Why does he do this, form clubs all the time; why does
:
even this society of suffering soothe him? When it comes to
; death and dying, perhaps someone in this family ought to be
i more of a snob.
“All these nice people with their brave stories,” he contin; ues as they make their way toward the elevator bank, waving
:; good-bye to the nursing staff as they go, even the Baby waving
i; shyly. Bye-bye! Bye-bye! “Don’t you feel consoled, knowing
i we’re all in the same boat, that we’re all in this together?”
But who on earth would want to be in this boat? the
;
:
Mother thinks. This boat is a nightmare boat. Look where it
goes: to a silver-and-white room, where, just before your eye’ sight and hearing and your ability to touch or be touched dis; appear entirely, you must watch yow child die.
. Rope! Bring on the rope.
“Let’s make our own way,” says the Mother, “and not in this
5 boat.”

B I R D S
O F
A M E R 1 C . A
Woman Overboard! She takes the Baby back from the Husband, cups the Baby’s cheek in her hand, kisses his brow and
then, quickly, his flowery mouth. The Baby’s heart-she can
hear i t a r u m s with life. “For as long as I live,” says the
Mother, pressing the elevator button-up or down, everyone in
the end has to leave this way-“I never want to see any of these
people again.”
TERRIFIC M O T H E R
There are the notes.
Now where is the money?
Although she had been around them her whole life, it was
when she reached thirty-five that holding babies seemed to
make her nervous-just at the beginning, a twinge of stage
fright swinging up from the gut. “Adrienne, would you like to
hold the baby? Would you mind?” Always these words from a
woman her age looking kind and beseeching– former friend,
Adrishe was losing her friends to babble and beseech-nd
enne would force herself to breathe deep. Holding a baby was
no longer natural–she was no longer natural-but a test of
womanliness and earthly skills. She was being observed. People
looked to see how she would do it. She had entered a puritanical
decade, a demographic moment-whatever it was-when the
best compliment you could get was, “You would make a terrific
mother.” The wolf whistle of the nineties.
So when she was at the Spearsons’ Labor Day picnic, and
when Sally Spearson handed her the baby, Adrienne had burbled at it as she would a pet, had jostled the child gently, made
clicking noises with her tongue, affectionately cooing, “Hello,
Pharmacy
For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving
every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild
raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he
turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes
early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were
his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early
fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and
almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the
pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.
The pharmacy was a small two-story building attached to another building that
housed separately a hardware store and a small grocery. Each morning Henry parked
in the back by the large metal bins, and then entered the pharmacy’s back door, and
went about switching on the lights, turning up the thermostat, or, if it was summer,
getting the fans going. He would open the safe, put money in the register, unlock the
front door, wash his hands, put on his white lab coat. The ritual was pleasing, as
though the old store—with its shelves of toothpaste, vitamins, cosmetics, hair
adornments, even sewing needles and greeting cards, as well as red rubber hot water
bottles, enema pumps—was a person altogether steady and steadfast. And any
unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way
his wife often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours—
all this receded like a shoreline as he walked through the safety of his pharmacy.
Standing in the back, with the drawers and rows of pills, Henry was cheerful when the
phone began to ring, cheerful when Mrs. Merriman came for her blood pressure
medicine, or old Cliff Mott arrived for his digitalis, cheerful when he prepared the
Valium for Rachel Jones, whose husband ran off the night their baby was born. It was
Henry’s nature to listen, and many times during the week he would say, “Gosh, I’m
awful sorry to hear that,” or “Say, isn’t that something?”
Inwardly, he suffered the quiet trepidations of a man who had witnessed twice in
childhood the nervous breakdowns of a mother who had otherwise cared for him with
stridency. And so if, as rarely happened, a customer was distressed over a price, or
irritated by the quality of an Ace bandage or ice pack, Henry did what he could to
rectify things quickly. For many years Mrs. Granger worked for him; her husband was
a lobster fisherman, and she seemed to carry with her the cold breeze of the open
water, not so eager to please a wary customer. He had to listen with half an ear as he
filled prescriptions, to make sure she was not at the cash register dismissing a
complaint. More than once he was reminded of that same sensation in watching to see
that his wife, Olive, did not bear down too hard on Christopher over a homework
assignment or a chore left undone; that sense of his attention hovering—the need to
keep everyone content. When he heard a briskness in Mrs. Granger’s voice, he would
step down from his back post, moving toward the center of the store to talk with the
customer himself. Otherwise, Mrs. Granger did her job well. He appreciated that she
was not chatty, kept perfect inventory, and almost never called in sick. That she died
in her sleep one night astonished him, and left him with some feeling of responsibility,
as though he had missed, working alongside her for years, whatever symptom might
have shown itself that he, handling his pills and syrups and syringes, could have fixed.
“Mousy,” his wife said, when he hired the new girl. “Looks just like a mouse.”
Denise Thibodeau had round cheeks, and small eyes that peeped through her
brown-framed glasses. “But a nice mouse,” Henry said. “A cute one.”
“No one’s cute who can’t stand up straight,” Olive said. It was true that Denise’s
narrow shoulders sloped forward, as though apologizing for something. She was
twenty-two, just out of the state university of Vermont. Her husband was also named
Henry, and Henry Kitteridge, meeting Henry Thibodeau for the first time, was taken
with what he saw as an unself-conscious excellence. The young man was vigorous and
sturdy-featured with a light in his eye that seemed to lend a flickering resplendence to
his decent, ordinary face. He was a plumber, working in a business owned by his
uncle. He and Denise had been married one year.
“Not keen on it,” Olive said, when he suggested they have the young couple to
dinner. Henry let it drop. This was a time when his son—not yet showing the physical
signs of adolescence—had become suddenly and strenuously sullen, his mood like a
poison shot through the air, and Olive seemed as changed and changeable as
Christopher, the two having fast and furious fights that became just as suddenly some
blanket of silent intimacy where Henry, clueless, stupefied, would find himself to be
the odd man out.
But standing in the back parking lot at the end of a late summer day, while he spoke
with Denise and Henry Thibodeau, and the sun tucked itself behind the spruce trees,
Henry Kitteridge felt such a longing to be in the presence of this young couple, their
faces turned to him with a diffident but eager interest as he recalled his own days at
the university many years ago, that he said, “Now, say. Olive and I would like you to
come for supper soon.”
He drove home, past the tall pines, past the glimpse of the bay, and thought of the
Thibodeaus driving the other way, to their trailer on the outskirts of town. He pictured
the trailer, cozy and picked up—for Denise was neat in her habits—and imagined
them sharing the news of their day. Denise might say, “He’s an easy boss.” And
Henry might say, “Oh, I like the guy a lot.”
He pulled into his driveway, which was not a driveway so much as a patch of lawn
on top of the hill, and saw Olive in the garden. “Hello, Olive,” he said, walking to her.
He wanted to put his arms around her, but she had a darkness that seemed to stand
beside her like an acquaintance that would not go away. He told her the Thibodeaus
were coming for supper. “It’s only right,” he said.
Olive wiped sweat from her upper lip, turned to rip up a clump of onion grass.
“Then that’s that, Mr. President,” she said. “Give your order to the cook.”
On Friday night the couple followed him home, and the young Henry shook Olive’s
hand. “Nice place here,” he said. “With that view of the water. Mr. Kitteridge says
you two built this yourselves.”
“Indeed, we did.”
Christopher sat sideways at the table, slumped in adolescent gracelessness, and did
not respond when Henry Thibodeau asked him if he played any sports at school.
Henry Kitteridge felt an unexpected fury sprout inside him; he wanted to shout at the
boy, whose poor manners, he felt, revealed something unpleasant not expected to be
found in the Kitteridge home.
“When you work in a pharmacy,” Olive told Denise, setting before her a plate of
baked beans, “you learn the secrets of everyone in town.” Olive sat down across from
her, pushed forward a bottle of ketchup. “Have to know to keep your mouth shut. But
seems like you know how to do that.”
“Denise understands,” Henry Kitteridge said.
Denise’s husband said, “Oh, sure. You couldn’t find someone more trustworthy
than Denise.”
“I believe you,” Henry said, passing the man a basket of rolls. “And please. Call me
Henry. One of my favorite names,” he added. Denise laughed quietly; she liked him,
he could see this.
Christopher slumped farther into his seat.
Henry Thibodeau’s parents lived on a farm inland, and so the two Henrys discussed
crops, and pole beans, and the corn not being as sweet this summer from the lack of
rain, and how to get a good asparagus bed.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Olive, when, in passing the ketchup to the young man,
Henry Kitteridge knocked it over, and ketchup lurched out like thickened blood across
the oak table. Trying to pick up the bottle, he caused it to roll unsteadily, and ketchup
ended up on his fingertips, then on his white shirt.
“Leave it,” Olive commanded, standing up. “Just leave it alone, Henry. For God’s
sake.” And Henry Thibodeau, perhaps at the sound of his own name being spoken
sharply, sat back, looking stricken.
“Gosh, what a mess I’ve made,” Henry Kitteridge said.
For dessert they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream
sliding in its center. “Vanilla’s my favorite,” Denise said.
“Is it,” said Olive.
“Mine, too,” Henry Kitteridge said.
As autumn came, the mornings darker, and the pharmacy getting only a short sliver of
the direct sun before it passed over the building and left the store lit by its own
overhead lights, Henry stood in the back filling the small plastic bottles, answering the
telephone, while Denise stayed up front near the cash register. At lunchtime, she
unwrapped a sandwich she brought from home, and ate it in the back where the
storage was, and then he would eat his lunch, and sometimes when there was no one
in the store, they would linger with a cup of coffee bought from the grocer next door.
Denise seemed a naturally quiet girl, but she was given to spurts of sudden
talkativeness. “My mother’s had MS for years, you know, so starting way back we all
learned to help out. All three of my brothers are different. Don’t you think it’s funny
when it happens that way?” The oldest brother, Denise said, straightening a bottle of
shampoo, had been her father’s favorite until he’d married a girl her father didn’t like.
Her own in-laws were wonderful, she said. She’d had a boyfriend before Henry, a
Protestant, and his parents had not been so kind to her. “It wouldn’t have worked out,”
she said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
“Well, Henry’s a terrific young man,” Henry answered.
She nodded, smiling through her glasses like a thirteen-year-old girl. Again, he
pictured her trailer, the two of them like overgrown puppies tumbling together; he
could not have said why this gave him the particular kind of happiness it did, like
liquid gold being poured through him.
She was as efficient as Mrs. Granger had been, but more relaxed. “Right beneath
the vitamins in the second aisle,” she would tell a customer. “Here, I’ll show you.”
Once, she told Henry she sometimes let a person wander around the store before
asking if she could help them. “That way, see, they might find something they didn’t
know they needed. And your sales will go up.” A block of winter sun was splayed
across the glass of the cosmetics shelf; a strip of wooden floor shone like honey.
He raised his eyebrows appreciatively. “Lucky for me, Denise, when you came
through that door.” She pushed up her glasses with the back of her hand, then ran the
duster over the ointment jars.
Jerry McCarthy, the boy who delivered the pharmaceuticals once a week from
Portland—or more often if needed—would sometimes have his lunch in the back
room. He was eighteen, right out of high school; a big, fat kid with a smooth face, who
perspired so much that splotches of his shirt would be wet, at times even down over
his breasts, so the poor fellow looked to be lactating. Seated on a crate, his big knees
practically to his ears, he’d eat a sandwich that had spilling from it mayonnaisey
clumps of egg salad or tuna fish, landing on his shirt.
More than once Henry saw Denise hand him a paper towel. “That happens to me,”
Henry heard her say one day. “Whenever I eat a sandwich that isn’t just cold cuts, I
end up a mess.” It couldn’t have been true. The girl was neat as a pin, if plain as a
plate.
“Good afternoon,” she’d say when the telephone rang. “This is the Village
Pharmacy. How can I help you today?” Like a girl playing grown-up.
And then: On a Monday morning when the air in the pharmacy held a sharp chill,
he went about opening up the store, saying, “How was your weekend, Denise?” Olive
had refused to go to church the day before, and Henry, uncharacteristically, had
spoken to her sharply. “Is it too much to ask,” he had found himself saying, as he
stood in the kitchen in his undershorts, ironing his trousers. “A man’s wife
accompanying him to church?” Going without her seemed a public exposure of
familial failure.
“Yes, it most certainly is too goddamn much to ask!” Olive had almost spit, her
fury’s door flung open. “You have no idea how tired I am, teaching all day, going to
foolish meetings where the goddamn principal is a moron! Shopping. Cooking.
Ironing. Laundry. Doing Christopher’s homework with him! And you—” She had
grabbed on to the back of a dining room chair, and her dark hair, still uncombed from
its night’s disarrangement, had fallen across her eyes. “You, Mr. Head Deacon
Claptrap Nice Guy, expect me to give up my Sunday mornings and go sit among a
bunch of snot-wots!” Very suddenly she had sat down in the chair. “Well, I’m sick
and tired of it,” she’d said, calmly. “Sick to death.”
A darkness had rumbled through him; his soul was suffocating in tar. The next
morning, Olive spoke to him conversationally. “Jim’s car smelled like upchuck last
week. Hope he’s cleaned it out.” Jim O’Casey taught with Olive, and for years took
both Christopher and Olive to school.
“Hope so,” said Henry, and in that way their fight was done.
“Oh, I had a wonderful weekend,” said Denise, her small eyes behind her glasses
looking at him with an eagerness that was so childlike it could have cracked his heart
in two. “We went to Henry’s folks and dug potatoes at night. Henry put the headlights
on from the car and we dug potatoes. Finding the potatoes in that cold soil—like an
Easter egg hunt!”
He stopped unpacking a shipment of penicillin, and stepped down to talk to her.
There were no customers yet, and below the front window the radiator hissed. He said,
“Isn’t that lovely, Denise.”
She nodded, touching the top of the vitamin shelf beside her. A small motion of fear
seemed to pass over her face. “I got cold and went and sat in the car and watched
Henry digging potatoes, and I thought: It’s too good to be true.”
He wondered what in her young life had made her not trust happiness; perhaps her
mother’s illness. He said, “You enjoy it, Denise. You have many years of happiness
ahead.” Or maybe, he thought, returning to the boxes, it was part of being Catholic—
you were made to feel guilty about everything.
The year that followed—was it the happiest year of his own life? He often thought so,
even knowing that such a thing was foolish to claim about any year of one’s life; but
in his memory, that particular year held the sweetness of a time that contained no
thoughts of a beginning and no thoughts of an end, and when he drove to the
pharmacy in the early morning darkness of winter, then later in the breaking light of
spring, the full-throated summer opening before him, it was the small pleasures of his
work that seemed in their simplicities to fill him to the brim. When Henry Thibodeau
drove into the gravelly lot, Henry Kitteridge often went to hold the door open for
Denise, calling out, “Hello there, Henry,” and Henry Thibodeau would stick his head
through the open car window and call back, “Hello there, Henry,” with a big grin on a
face lit with decency and humor. Sometimes there was just a salute. “Henry!” And the
other Henry would return, “Henry!” They got a kick out of this, and Denise, like a
football tossed gently between them, would duck into the store.
When she took off her mittens, her hands were as thin as a child’s, yet when she
touched the buttons on the cash register, or slid something into a white bag, they
assumed the various shapes of a graceful grown woman’s hands, hands—thought
Henry—that would touch her husband lovingly, that would, with the quiet authority of
a woman, someday pin a baby’s diaper, smooth a fevered forehead, tuck a gift from
the tooth fairy under a pillow.
Watching her, as she poked her glasses back up onto her nose while reading over
the list of inventory, Henry thought she was the stuff of America, for this was back
when the hippie business was beginning, and reading in Newsweek about the
marijuana and “free love” could cause an unease in Henry that one look at Denise
dispelled. “We’re going to hell like the Romans,” Olive said triumphantly. “America’s
a big cheese gone rotten.” But Henry would not stop believing that the temperate
prevailed, and in his pharmacy, every day he worked beside a girl whose only dream
was to someday make a family with her husband. “I don’t care about Women’s Lib,”
she told Henry. “I want to have a house and make beds.” Still, if he’d had a daughter
(he would have loved a daughter), he would have cautioned her against it. He would
have said: Fine, make beds, but find a way to keep using your head. But Denise was
not his daughter, and he told her it was noble to be a homemaker—vaguely aware of
the freedom that accompanied caring for someone with whom you shared no blood.
He loved her guilelessness, he loved the purity of her dreams, but this did not mean
of course that he was in love with her. The natural reticence of her in fact caused him
to desire Olive with a new wave of power. Olive’s sharp opinions, her full breasts, her
stormy moods and sudden, deep laughter unfolded within him a new level of aching
eroticism, and sometimes when he was heaving in the dark of night, it was not Denise
who came to mind but, oddly, her strong, young husband—the fierceness of the young
man as he gave way to the animalism of possession—and there would be for Henry
Kitteridge a flash of incredible frenzy as though in the act of loving his wife he was
joined with all men in loving the world of women, who contained the dark, mossy
secret of the earth deep within them.
“Goodness,” Olive said, when he moved off her.
_____
In college, Henry Thibodeau had played football, just as Henry Kitteridge had.
“Wasn’t it great?” the young Henry asked him one day. He had arrived early to pick
Denise up, and had come into the store. “Hearing the people yelling from the stands?
Seeing that pass come right at you and knowing you’re going to catch it? Oh boy, I
loved that.” He grinned, his clear face seeming to give off a refracted light. “Loved it.”
“I suspect I wasn’t nearly as good as you,” said Henry Kitteridge. He had been good
at the running, the ducking, but he had not been aggressive enough to be a really good
player. It shamed him to remember that he had felt fear at every game. He’d been glad
enough when his grades slipped and he had to give it up.
“Ah, I wasn’t that good,” said Henry Thibodeau, rubbing a big hand over his head.
“I just liked it.”
“He was good,” said Denise, getting her coat on. “He was really good. The
cheerleaders had a cheer just for him.” Shyly, with pride, she said, “Let’s go,
Thibodeau, let’s go.”
Heading for the door, Henry Thibodeau said, “Say, we’re going to have you and
Olive for dinner soon.”
“Oh, now—you’re not to worry.”
Denise had written Olive a thank-you note in her neat, small handwriting. Olive had
scanned it, flipped it across the table to Henry. “Handwriting’s just as cautious as she
is,” Olive had said. “She is the plainest child I have ever seen. With her pale coloring,
why does she wear gray and beige?”
“I don’t know,” he said, agreeably, as though he had wondered himself. He had not
wondered.
“A simpleton,” Olive said.
But Denise was not a simpleton. She was quick with numbers, and remembered
everything she was told by Henry about the pharmaceuticals he sold. She had majored
in animal sciences at the university, and was conversant with molecular structures.
Sometimes on her break she would sit on a crate in the back room with the Merck
Manual on her lap. Her child-face, made serious by her glasses, would be intent on the
page, her knees poked up, her shoulders slumped forward.
Cute, would go through his mind as he glanced through the doorway on his way by.
He might say, “Okay, then, Denise?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine.”
His smile would linger as he arranged his bottles, typed up labels. Denise’s nature
attached itself to his as easily as aspirin attached itself to the enzyme COX-2; Henry
moved through his day pain free. The sweet hissing of the radiators, the tinkle of the
bell when someone came through the door, the creaking of the wooden floors, the kaching of the register: He sometimes thought in those days that the pharmacy was like a
healthy autonomic nervous system in a workable, quiet state.
Evenings, adrenaline poured through him. “All I do is cook and clean and pick up
after people,” Olive might shout, slamming a bowl of beef stew before him. “People
just waiting for me to serve them, with their faces hanging out.” Alarm made his arms
tingle.
“Perhaps you need to help out more around the house,” he told Christopher.
“How dare you tell him what to do? You don’t even pay enough attention to know
what he’s going through in social studies class!” Olive shouted this at him while
Christopher remained silent, a smirk on his face. “Why, Jim O’Casey is more
sympathetic to the kid than you are,” Olive said. She slapped a napkin down hard
against the table.
“Jim teaches at the school, for crying out loud, and sees you and Chris every day.
What is the matter with social studies class?”
“Only that the goddamn teacher is a moron, which Jim understands instinctively,”
Olive said. “You see Christopher every day, too. But you don’t know anything
because you’re safe in your little world with Plain Jane.”
“She’s a good worker,” Henry answered. But in the morning the blackness of
Olive’s mood was often gone, and Henry would be able to drive to work with a
renewal of the hope that had seemed evanescent the night before. In the pharmacy
there was goodwill toward men.
Denise asked Jerry McCarthy if he planned on going to college. “I dunno. Don’t
think so.” The boy’s face colored—perhaps he had a little crush on Denise, or perhaps
he felt like a child in her presence, a boy still living at home, with his chubby wrists
and belly.
“Take a night course,” Denise said, brightly. “You can sign up right after
Christmas. Just one course. You should do that.” Denise nodded, and looked at Henry,
who nodded back.
“It’s true, Jerry,” Henry said, who had never given a great deal of thought to the
boy. “What is it that interests you?”
The boy shrugged his big shoulders.
“Something must interest you.”
“This stuff.” The boy gestured toward the boxes of packed pills he had recently
brought through the back door.
And so, amazingly, he had signed up for a science course, and when he received an
A that spring, Denise said, “Stay right there.” She returned from the grocery store with
a little boxed cake, and said, “Henry, if the phone doesn’t ring, we’re going to
celebrate.”
Pushing cake into his mouth, Jerry told Denise he had gone to mass the Sunday
before to pray he did well on the exam.
This was the kind of thing that surprised Henry about Catholics. He almost said,
God didn’t get an A for you, Jerry; you got it for yourself, but Denise was saying, “Do
you go every Sunday?”
The boy looked embarrassed, sucked frosting from his finger. “I will now,” he said,
and Denise laughed, and Jerry did, too, his face pink and glowing.
Autumn now, November, and so many years later that when Henry runs a comb
through his hair on this Sunday morning, he has to pluck some strands of gray from
the black plastic teeth before slipping the comb back into his pocket. He gets a fire
going in the stove for Olive before he goes off to church. “Bring home the gossip,”
Olive says to him, tugging at her sweater while she peers into a large pot where apples
are burbling in a stew. She is making applesauce from the season’s last apples, and the
smell reaches him briefly—sweet, familiar, it tugs at some ancient longing—before he
goes out the door in his tweed jacket and tie.
“Do my best,” he says. No one seems to wear a suit to church anymore.
In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This
saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five
years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man
with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is
young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about
the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly
tries to deny—that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When
they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore—for Henry—that
God’s presence is blessing them. Olive herself has become an unapologetic atheist. He
does not know when this happened. It was not true when they were first married; they
had talked of animal dissections in their college biology class, how the system of
respiration alone was miraculous, a creation by a splendid power.
He drives over the dirt road, turning onto the paved road that will take him into
town. Only a few leaves of deep red remain on the otherwise bare limbs of the maples;
the oak leaves are russet and wrinkled; briefly through the trees is the glimpse of the
bay, flat and steel-gray today with the overcast November sky.
He passes by where the pharmacy used to be. In its place now is a large chain
drugstore with huge glass sliding doors, covering the ground where both the old
pharmacy and grocery store stood, large enough so that the back parking lot where
Henry would linger with Denise by the dumpster at day’s end before getting into their
separate cars—all this is now taken over by a store that sells not only drugs, but huge
rolls of paper towels and boxes of all sizes of garbage bags. Even plates and mugs can
be bought there, spatulas, cat food. The trees off to the side have been cut down to
make a parking lot. You get used to things, he thinks, without getting used to things.
It seems a very long time ago that Denise stood shivering in the winter cold before
finally getting into her car. How young she was! How painful to remember the
bewilderment on her young face; and yet he can still remember how he could make
her smile. Now, so far away in Texas—so far away it’s a different country—she is the
age he was then. She had dropped a red mitten one night; he had bent to get it, held the
cuff open and watched while she’d slipped her small hand in.
The white church sits near the bare maple trees. He knows why he is thinking of
Denise with this keenness. Her birthday card to him did not arrive last week, as it has,
always on time, for the last twenty years. She writes him a note with the card.
Sometimes a line or two stands out, as in the one last year when she mentioned that
Paul, a freshman in high school, had become obese. Her word. “Paul has developed a
full-blown problem now—at three hundred pounds, he is obese.” She does not
mention what she or her husband will do about this, if in fact they can “do” anything.
The twin girls, younger, are both athletic and starting to get phone calls from boys
“which horrifies me,” Denise wrote. She never signs the card “love,” just her name in
her small neat hand, “Denise.”
In the gravel lot by the church, Daisy Foster has just stepped from her car, and her
mouth opens in a mock look of surprise and pleasure, but the pleasure is real, he
knows—Daisy is always glad to see him. Daisy’s husband died two years ago, a
retired policeman who smoked himself to death, twenty-five years older than Daisy;
she remains ever lovely, ever gracious with her kind blue eyes. What will become of
her, Henry doesn’t know. It seems to Henry, as he takes his seat in his usual middle
pew, that women are far braver than men. The possibility of Olive’s dying and leaving
him alone gives him glimpses of horror he can’t abide.
And then his mind moves back to the pharmacy that is no longer there.
“Henry’s going hunting this weekend,” Denise said one morning in November. “Do
you hunt, Henry?” She was getting the cash drawer ready and didn’t look up at him.
“Used to,” Henry answered. “Too old for it now.” The one time in his youth when
he had shot a doe, he’d been sickened by the way the sweet, startled animal’s head had
swayed back and forth before its thin legs had folded and it had fallen to the forest
floor. “Oh, you’re a softie,” Olive had said.
“Henry goes with Tony Kuzio.” Denise slipped the cash drawer into the register,
and stepped around to arrange the breath mints and gum that were neatly laid out by
the front counter. “His best friend since he was five.”
“And what does Tony do now?”
“Tony’s married with two little kids. He works for Midcoast Power, and fights with
his wife.” Denise looked over at Henry. “Don’t say that I said so.”
“No.”
“She’s tense a lot, and yells. Boy, I wouldn’t want to live like that.”
“No, it’d be no way to live.”
The telephone rang and Denise, turning on her toe playfully, went to answer it.
“The Village Pharmacy. Good morning. How may I help you?” A pause. “Oh, yes, we
have multivitamins with no iron…. You’re very welcome.”
On lunch break, Denise told the hefty, baby-faced Jerry, “My husband talked about
Tony the whole time we were going out. The scrapes they’d get into when they were
kids. Once, they went off and didn’t get back till way after dark, and Tony’s mother
said to him, ‘I was so worried, Tony. I could kill you.’ ” Denise picked lint off the
sleeve of her gray sweater. “I always thought that was funny. Worrying that your child
might be dead and then saying you’ll kill him.”
“You wait,” Henry Kitteridge said, stepping around the boxes Jerry had brought
into the back room. “From their very first fever, you never stop worrying.”
“I can’t wait,” Denise said, and for the first time it occurred to Henry that soon she
would have children and not work for him anymore.
Unexpectedly Jerry spoke. “Do you like him? Tony? You two get along?”
“I do like him,” Denise said. “Thank goodness. I was scared enough to meet him.
Do you have a best friend from childhood?”
“I guess,” Jerry said, color rising in his fat, smooth cheeks. “But we kind of went
our separate ways.”
“My best friend,” said Denise, “when we got to junior high school, she got kind of
fast. Do you want another soda?”
A Saturday at home: Lunch was crabmeat sandwiches, grilled with cheese.
Christopher was putting one into his mouth, but the telephone rang, and Olive went to
answer it. Christopher, without being asked, waited, the sandwich held in his hand.
Henry’s mind seemed to take a picture of that moment, his son’s instinctive deference
at the very same time they heard Olive’s voice in the next room. “Oh, you poor child,”
she said, in a voice Henry would always remember—filled with such dismay that all
her outer Olive-ness seemed stripped away. “You poor, poor child.”
And then Henry rose and went into the other room, and he didn’t remember much,
only the tiny voice of Denise, and then speaking for a few moments to her father-inlaw.
The funeral was held in the Church of the Holy Mother of …
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