Forty-five minutes, and it's time to go in. After cleaning me and giving me the usual speedy checkup, Joseph leaves for the night. Stella got home hours before, but has stayed in the kitchen. She began playing bridge in a club, joined the church choir, started taking walks in the morning, and has never written so many letters or spent so much time on the phone since I've known her. She doesn't love me anymore.
It is not the knowledge of what has become of me that hurts. It is not even as easy as losing my hair or growing stout, but it is not what hurts. What hurts is seeing what has become of her image of me. I am a burden. Joseph does the laborious work of bathing me and lifting me in and out of bed, but it is she who must suffer my presence even when the nurse goes home.
"You don't know how small a house can be, Tina," she said on the phone once when I was within earshot. Tina is our daughter in Tucson. Juan Junior, our boy, is stationed in Germany. "At times, I can't bear to be in the same room with him. It's like waiting for a volcano to erupt, and it never does." Then a pause as Tina speaks. "No, I'm not saying that. Why would you think such a thing as that? Don't be ridiculous. I just mean I need to get out more often these days." A longer pause this time. "Well, Dear, you don't know your father like I do, and you aren't the one living here now, are you? So don't tell me how to take care of things when you're not the one in this prison."
Prison. Who is she to talk about prisons? I can't even rattle the bars of my cage to make her turn around, even though I know she's leaving me.
I can see Schraeder's silhouette through his open curtains. He lives across the street, one house up. All along the rear fence of his backyard he has a fifteen foot deep patch of rutabagas. During barbecues, or when just sitting on his back porch talking, he used to go into the plot and randomly pick one and pull it from the rich earth. Always perfect. His pride and joy. He'd rinse it at the hose spigot and slice it with a pocket knife, leaning over in his lawn chair to hand me the cut wedges. I'd dip mine in horseradish--but Schraeder would rebuke me, saying it hid the taste. "What taste?" I'd say, back when I could talk.
Prison. Before this, all I knew about prison I learned from movies. Don't think about the time, the incarcerated actors said. Don't think about those on the outside, they said. The way to make it through your sentence is to pick up something and focus on it. Either your work detail or a hobby, but something that will distract you from the clocks and calendars. Well, I surely can't whittle. Stella likes to park me in front of her game shows or just put on one of her records, as if she were making up for all the times I chose the station. But I can tune those things out when I want to. What I prefer to do to occupy the time is converse. I converse with whoever's on my mind.
"Schraeder," I say to the Schraeder who can hear me in my mind, where I am not like this, "why don't we head down to Lake Pleasant and pull out some trout this weekend?"
"Why wait for the weekend?" he says. "We're retired. Let's just go. Bring Stella and we'll make a camping trip out of it."
"Yeah, she'd really like that. You know, she used to love camping with the kids. I wish we would have done that more often."
"Hey, hey. Why so gloomy, huh?"
Oops. Reality sometimes interrupts.
After one of his lapses Schraeder mopes around the house, coming outside to trim the edges of the lawn along the walk, then sits inside his kitchen window sipping coffee, staring toward me, not knowing if I'm watching him. Every moment, buddy. Every moment I will to make him believe that there is no reason to beat himself up like that. But it takes a few days until he comes over again, even then still drenched in humiliation and self-reproach. He mumbles needless apologies as his pulls a chair up close to me. He finishes by saying, "You just don't know what it's like."
No. I don't know what it's like to wake up some mornings and not know where I am, or forget the last fifteen years of my life. But I do know what it's like to no longer be in control, and so I can't blame you for anything, Schraeder. With your body and my mind, we could be one whole man again. I need you like air.
She's the one who made it into a prison. Decades of work to pay for this house, decades of weekends spent installing new windows and siding, re-insulating the attic, remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms, putting on the new roof, building the garage, laying the driveway, planting every square inch of the yard, and God knows how many gallons of paint gone into this place; and now I am a prisoner in what was to be my castle. The stroke left me collapsed in the backyard, feeling my breath cease like the last trickle of water down a drain, the side of my face smothered in the grass, my arm pinned beneath me. There was a moment of stillness--stillness in me--when not even my heart was beating, when not even my blood pumped, like turning off your engine and headlights and coasting along a straight, deserted, pitch-black length of Arizona highway on a moonless night. I was not afraid. I could have been happy to die there, oddly calm in the knowledge of what had happened. But her scream, shrill and terrified, then her hands, rolling me over with strength she hadn't shown for years, threatened to break the promise of finality. Not that I had ever wished for death. No. But when it came, it was as refreshing as a glass of icy lemonade on that hot afternoon.
It wasn't only the stroke. When I collapsed, my head collided with the stone border around the garden, the synergistic effect of the two leaving me unable to do much more than roll my eyes. In a few seconds, I would have been free, as it was certainly intended to be. But now I'm as worthless as one of Schraeder's rutabagas. Why did she do this to me?
Now, she says she can't take it anymore. She needs a break, she says to Tina. "Tina," she says, "if you can't stay the whole week, I'm sure we can work something out with Joseph. Maybe he and one of the weekend caretakers can take shifts."
I know Tina won't hear of that.
"All right, then. You know Lorraine? She'll be here on Saturday when you get here." She pauses to listen. "Well, I had to schedule it that way. The only flight out on Saturday was at noon, so I have to take a bus to the airport in the morning. Their next flight wasn't until Monday morning."
Just can't wait to get out of here, can she?
Have you ever walked to the moon and back unaccompanied? A night can be so lonely. And so many nights I do not even blink with fatigue.
Sounds are the only motion I know now. The faint hiss of car tires slithering slowly up the asphalt on the other side of the foothills, the engine shifting lower as it nears the crest, then releasing into high gear like the first urgent breath after swimming underwater. Often you can hear their radios as they descend and breeze by the mouth of our cul-de-sac. I don't resent them that: it gives me something to occupy those hours. But tonight the radio voices are chopped apart by the grating, lethargic blades of the windmill. All the time moaning its rusty tenor soliloquy.
It's not a question of whether the mind will wander: it's where it may go that frightens me.
How much would I give to go hunting again just once? I don't need to shoot anything. I just need to be walking through the hills on my own two legs; my own ears hearing the frailest of twigs crisply crack; my own eyes catching the shadow-mottled hide of an elk skipping away mostly unconcerned, its tremendous mass disturbing the forest no more than a squirrel would. There are a few mounted racks and photos of me and my kills still in what was my den. Stella uses it now, but hasn't taken those things out. I wonder if it is her shrine to the man she married, who I no longer am. When she sees those photos, does her pulse still quicken, yearning for those swaggering days? Does she remember me as the man who cruised around this envious town, one hand on the wheel of his first brand new truck, one arm around her shoulder? Is it the memory of the man whose arms could lift her up, hold her tight? Does she remember when we slept in the same bed?
I can hear her breathing through the open doors between our rooms. Me in the mechanical bed, in Tina's old room, in the dark, in my mind. She in the room, in the bed, meant for us.
"Stella," I say in this attic where I am confined.
"Hmm?" she answers, as she always did, singing with curiosity.
"Why don't we go dancing tonight?"
"Dancing? Since when have you ever liked dancing?"
"Oh, you know, I've always liked dancing with you."
"You have not!" she laughs. As if wiping a foggy window, I see that we are in the garden. Every flower is in bloom. "I haven't been able to drag you out dancing for years."
"Well, then it's about time, isn't it?" I say, coming close to join my hands behind her back, pull her to me, nibble behind her right ear.
"What has gotten into you?" she giggles.
"We can dance right here," I say and start to sway my hips, drawing her along with me. I wonder if she really knew how much I enjoyed it when she "forced" me to go dancing. "Stella, honey?"
"Yes . . . ?"
"I love you."
Schraeder. Please, I need someone to talk to. Please let this be one of your good days. Bring the old photos, bring the stories, bring the chess set if you want, but please bring yourself. Schraeder? Forty-seven cars went by between midnight and sunrise. You just have to come and talk to me. You hear me sometimes. Schraeder?
She has her bags packed, Buddy. She's leaving. She marched them right past me into the sitting room and lined them up inside the door. Each time she passes me, she tries not to look me in the eyes, but then thinks better of it and tries to reassure me with a loving glance. But it isn't love. It's pity and longing and so many emotions she has but aren't meant to be shared. Not love. Love must have dissolved as the doctors described what kind of a life I could have. When they were telling her about all the care I would need, she must have thought it only meant routine maintenance. Don't look at me like I'm a confused puppy, Stella. I need your understanding, not condescension. But how will that ever dawn upon her when I can only speak with my eyes, and I only know one language, and its only word is "hate"? I want to hate her for making me live, but I love her so much and I wish she could read my mind and then go back in time because then she would know, and she wouldn't let me stay here like this. With that grass against my cheek, and the sweat beading on my forehead no longer from toil but sweet relief, how could she not know?
Lorraine arrives with her oversized plastic coffee mug in hand and wheels me onto the porch as casually as flipping the sign in a shop window to "Open" before the day comes to its rolling boil. She is not like Joseph. That which is a routine to Joseph is tedium to Lorraine. Clockwork. She does what needs to be done when it needs to be done, but does not understand that it is these tasks which occupy our days. She goes in to refresh her mug in our kitchen, where she will meet Stella and receive the same instructions she receives every Saturday morning as she guzzles her coffee.
Is it Lois whose white Chrysler crunches to a gradual stop in the gravel in front of our gate? I don't know the name for sure, since Stella has not introduced all of her new friends to me, but I recall her among the faces of the bridge club when they took their turn in our living room. Process of elimination from the ones I know makes me sure her name is Lois. She looks like a Lois. But I was already in bed for the night, so couldn't attach faces to the names they used, though I could hear every moment of their revelry. Perhaps the other women's husbands are dead. Perhaps they like it that way. Instead of coming to the door, the maybe-Lois woman taps her horn twice as if picking up a date. The image of an invalid waiting like a guard dog in front of the door you want to knock on might make anyone opt for the horn. She will drop Stella off at the bus stop. An accomplice.
Schraeder appears on his porch before Stella and Lorraine bustle out of the kitchen, push the screen open and enter my field of vision, only to continue on toward the car, where maybe-Lois pops the trunk and gets out to watch them load the bags. Then she closes the trunk as Stella comes back toward me, but continues on by and into the house. She probably left her purse in the kitchen, like always. Lorraine and Lois exchange talk about the weather over the roof of the car. Meantime, Schraeder has flown in under their radar, let himself in the unlatched gate, and proceeds to the porch, where he sits next to me on the pine bench.
"Tina's coming," Schraeder says, though I already know. He is holding my hand on my knee, which I can't feel, and wouldn't much care for if I could. "Don't you worry a bit. Tina will take care of you until Stella gets back. She's a good kid."
I hear the spring cylinder of the screen door inhale absurdly fast, then Stella is standing over me. "I'll be back soon," is all she says, as if I were a poodle. Then she hustles without running down the walk, where Lorraine closes the gate behind her.
Dammit, Stella! After all these years why can't you tell what I'm thinking? I wasn't intending to leave you, Baby. It was just such a nice invitation and everywhere I've ever worked to go. You have to understand. If it had been you . . .
"Good morning, Mr. Schraeder," Lorraine says as she reaches the steps.
"Good morning, Lorraine."
Accompanied by a single dull clunk, Lois shifts into drive, and the gravel is again hissing.
"Would you like a cup of coffee?" Lorraine asks, extending her hospitality to my kitchen.
Despite the size of her car, Lois makes a U-turn easily in the not-wide street, straightens it out, and gently brakes as she reaches the corner at the highway. I can see the back of Stella's head. Both she and Lois look left, up the hill. Though I can't see any traffic, I can hear the truck swooping down the hill, and know they're waiting for it to pass.
"Sure, that'd be fine," Schraeder says.
Then the car creeps forward. Stella looks ahead as they round the corner, points to something--maybe the flowers in someone else's yard--and talks to this Lois person as she leaves me. They accelerate out of sight behind houses, though I can hear the tires, then the engine, or maybe just an echo of them in my mind until Lorraine reappears with Schraeder's coffee.
Morning hours trickle by.
"Daddy!" Tina exclaims as soon as she steps out of her car. She has her arms poised for a hug as she promenades up the walk, her smile so wide it's a wonder she can carry it on her wiry frame. "How are you?" she says, hugging me firmly, I suppose, but carefully, too. Even though I can't feel it, it feels good.
"Oh, I've been better," I would say.
"You know, I think I passed Mom's bus just the other side of the junction. Well, it had to be, but I couldn't see her. Anyway, it's so good to see you," she says, standing now, leaning against the railing behind her, arms folded across her stomach. "And how are you today, Mr. Schraeder?"
I wonder if he knows who she is today.
Tina pivots my chair, takes me inside to the kitchen, where Lorraine is wiping some spilled coffee grounds across the counter and into the sink after putting on another pot. We talk about the drive down, the weather over the mountain, and whatnot. I say "we" because for once I am in the room, facing the table, and even receiving glances from Tina as if she expected me to answer. Stella gave up on talking to me long ago. I can blink for "yes" and "no," but I guess those simple questions bored her.
After this, she wheels me through the house, as if a guided tour of my own history. "Do you remember this?" she says, and tells an anecdote. "Oh, I haven't seen this for so long!" she says, though she was just here a few weeks ago.
Somehow Schraeder, who had stayed on the porch when we came inside, but later let himself in, works chess into the conversation. When Tina agrees to a game, he heads home to retrieve the set, returning to set it up on the coffee table, where he and she play, while I watch, happy to see someone finally giving him a run for his money. Lorraine is watching TV, and I wonder why we pay her. Then again, if she were fussing over me unnecessarily, I would curse her for days.
"It's about time I got to spoil you," Tina says, taking me into the back yard in the afternoon. "I guess this is how grandparents feel with their grandkids. Oh, Daddy, don't take that the wrong way. I mean, parenting probably gets tedious, day-in day-out. But to me it's a real treat getting to see you."
Schraeder, who has spent most of the day with us, says, "Tina, how is it you can take a week off from school to be here?"
"Oh, it's spring break. There aren't any classes this week."
Spring break. I can't believe she's wasting her vacation time on me.
"But don't worry about it, Daddy," she says, surprising me. "I was planning to come back home, even if Mom hadn't taken her trip."
The first day is so full of action, with me as the center of every turn, until finally Lorraine has gone home, then Schraeder, and Tina is working at something I can't see from my bed. Finally, she comes into view, clears the top of the dresser, pulls out the drawers, then moves the frame to the wall in front of the foot of the bed, replaces the drawers. She's rearranging our furniture? When she leaves the room, I wonder what the living room might look like now. Has she thrown the sofa onto the lawn? But then she returns, back arced against the weight of the small TV set from Stella's bedroom. This she sets heavily on top of the dresser.
"So, what do you wanna watch?" she says. But it is not merely a rhetorical question. She produces the program guide from the newspaper, opens to today's page, and reads the show titles to me. Then she repeats the titles, one by one, watching my eyes for a response. We decide on two movies, together. "I'll be right back," she announces and disappears again. I can hear her wrestling with its ungainly weight though I can't see her through the Venetian blinds, and know even before she returns from the back patio that she will be navigating her favorite lounge chair through the hall. Onto this she plops pillows and a comforter from the hall closet. "There! All set."
We watch the comedy she chose and the classic I chose in a marathon stretch. Then she turns out the light, apparently planning to sleep right there. I'm just glad she didn't fall asleep sooner and leave me in front of the TV all night, unable to change the channel or turn the darned thing off.
"She still loves you," her voice says like an ambush from below my field of sight.
Let's just leave her out of this. She's gone and we've had the most pleasant day in months. So let's just not talk about her.
"I know you love her, too, but she thinks you hate her. She says the way you look at her makes her ashamed. Daddy, you've got to ease up on her. Nobody wanted this to happen, but just because it did doesn't mean there's someone to blame."
What can I say to that? She leaves off, her words punctuated by the stillness of night. In the subsequent absence of immediate sound the constant noises of the world fade into perception. The insects against the screens; the cars a mile away; the jingling of leaves in a sudden gust; and myriad sounds yet to be identified and catalogued by human observation. But like a hoarse voice humming without conviction, those blades scratch over it all. A needle pulled across a record. Could somebody please just oil that windmill?
"Schraeder," I say, "you're a man. You understand, don't you? Am I so hard on her, on Stella?"
"Juan, I don't want to stick my nose in." He extends a slice of rutabaga over the arm of his lawn chair. There isn't any horseradish in sight, so I wave off his offer.
"But I'm asking you to. I need to know what you think."
"Well, you two have always been a great couple, I thought."
"You thought? But what about now? You mean we aren't so good together anymore?"
"See, I don't want to get into this," he says.
"Please. If you're really my friend, you'll tell me."
"All right, then. Lately . . . you two just don't seem so happy. And it surprises me."
"Surprises you? Schraeder, look at me. I'm a rag doll. Is it any real shock that things have fallen apart?"
"Honestly, as your friend, yes. I've lived across the street from you for thirty years, and I never thought there were any problems in your marriage until this happened. But now I wonder what it was I wasn't seeing."
"No, you're right. There weren't any problems until this. I tell you, we were in love every day of our lives."
"Well, if that's true, then how could you have fallen out of love so quickly? Yeah, yeah, I know about the stroke. But what if you had died? If you had died, do you think she would have stopped loving you? Do you really think her love is attached to your body, and not your soul?"
The problem with performing these scenes in one's mind is that in the absence of real interlocutors Abstraction and Philosophy read all the good lines.
Aside from the odd sensation of waking up in anticipation of the day, Sunday morning holds a wonderful surprise. By the time Lorraine and Tina have me out on the front porch, Schraeder is already in our front lawn, tool box by his feet, craning over the propeller of the windmill.
"I hope you don't mind, Buddy," he says, "but I figured someone should grease this thing."
God bless you!
Schraeder pauses like an animal when a person approaches, looks at me, squints as if to recognize me, and I fear he has had a lapse. But then he smiles and says, "Well, you're welcome, Buddy."
This was not all in my mind.
I'm giddy like a toddler with a growing vocabulary, hoping for a chance to demonstrate my skills. In the last months, I haven't felt anything remotely like enthusiasm, and now here it is, swathed in enough energy I think I can walk again, wave my arms, tap my foot, nod my head. Mountainous aspirations. I must be changing, my shell melting from all this radiation. I wish I could smile.
Did I say so much with my eyes? Or was it that Schraeder finally looked close enough to see how I feel? But how could I ever convince Stella to look me in the eye, to linger there, to peer hard enough to see my mind? My heart.
"Honey," I want to say, "we've got to work together. Let's not talk about what happened, or if we had it all to do over again. Let's just go forward. I don't want to be angry, or hurt, and I don't want to injure you anymore."
It's funny how one day ago I thought her leaving would kill me. Maybe it did. Maybe without someone to be angry at, the angry me did die. Maybe it was never her I was angry at, but myself. Infuriated to be shown pity. Frustrated that what I saw in the way she looked at me was true. There is sorrow here. There is shame. There is anger and remorse and a colossal burden of heartbreak. But these are not because of the stroke and the fall. These are because her eyes have been mirrors of my own, and I was the one who suffocated the love.
These days go by so quickly, but with so much progress. It hasn't come back, that sinister side of me. When Stella returns, will the situation revert to the way it was? Will I start to hate myself again? Or will she be ready to accept that I have changed? Just a few days ago, when someone would look into my eyes, I would stare ahead without blinking, as if someone were knocking on my front door and I were remaining perfectly still to suggest that no one were home. Playing possum. It was my last defense.
Here is how much I have accomplished: today I am sitting on the back porch, watching the orioles feed from a fresh bag of seed poured into the feeder. Yes! Now that people are not afraid to look into my eyes, we can communicate again. To a limited degree, of course, but after months of life like a wooden Indian, this is as refreshing as an evening by the sea.
"First dancing, and now this?" she says, seated at our single table overlooking the white sands in the moonlight. "What's next? A picnic in a Swiss meadow?"
"Maybe so. I don't know what we'll do next. I just want to make every moment with you as lovely as you have been to me all these years. I know I can't erase all the times I've been gruff and stubborn, but if we make more good memories, maybe those will be what come to mind when you think of us."
I think of things to say to her. Limited as I am, I only hope she grasps the extent of my effort. If I were still able to talk and move around like a king, how easy it would be to woo her: how less moving the same words might be.
We are watching TV in the living room, Tina and I. The hardest part about watching game shows is not being able to say the answers out loud. The rattling sounds of Joseph checking my equipment in my room don't drown out the show. Sunday evening once again. Stella will be home any time now. Her flight should have landed a while ago, and she should be on the bus. Stella, I can imagine how you feel, coming back to this prison after being free for a week, but you're going to be surprised. I really have changed.
"You knew that one, didn't you, Daddy?" Tina says, patronizing me to just the right measure.
Commercials are an exercise in patience when you can not change channels or bolt to the kitchen for a quick snack.
And now the news, which means she should just be getting into town. Then that Lois--it'll take some time to extend my newfound kindness to everyone--will pick her up and she should be home before the sports report. Will she see it in my eyes as soon as she opens the door? I feel like she has to, like I am the cutest puppy wagging its tail, and who can resist these big, brown eyes?
Special Report? Well, that depends on your--Is that our airport? What's she saying? I can't hear with all the clamor in the background. The line at the bottom of the screen says it's our airport. Live.
Tina deflates with an ascending "O-o-ohhhhhh!" which never peaks, but transforms into a dry, squeaking, stuttering sob. Though I can't see her face, I know it is collapsed upon itself with grief, the way my heart has just shriveled into a raisin.
When Lois arrives to tell us that Stella wasn't on the bus and did she change her plans, Tina's face is pink from crying, but she has calmed her sobs and has finally reached the airline on the phone, but is still unable to get any kind of confirmation. Staring blankly at the cable news channel with its continuing coverage of the crash, its repeated use of "killed instantly," I am trying to find something to say.
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