So Much for That
The Borough Press
An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers 2015
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2010
Copyright © Lionel Shriver 2010
Lionel Shriver asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it, while at times based on historical figures, are the work of the author’s imagination.
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Source ISBN: 9780007578061
Ebook Edition © 2015 ISBN: 9780007351886
To Paul. In loss, liberation.
Time is money.
Advice to a Young Tradesman, 1748
about the book
Praise for So Much for That
About the Author
Also by Lionel Shriver
About the Publisher
Shepherd Armstrong Knacker
Merrill Lynch Account Number 934-23F917
December 01, 2004 – December 31, 2004
Net Portfolio Value: $731,778.56
What do you pack for the rest of your life?
On research trips – he and Glynis had never called them “vacations” – Shep had always packed too much, covering for every contingency: rain gear, a sweater on the off chance that the weather in Puerto Escondido was unseasonably cold. In the face of infinite contingencies, his impulse was to take nothing.
There was no rational reason to be creeping these halls stealthily like a thief come to burgle his own home – padding heel to toe on the floorboards, flinching when they creaked. He had double-checked that Glynis was out through early evening (for an “appointment”; it bothered him that she did not say with whom or where). Calling on a weak pretense of asking about dinner plans when their son hadn’t eaten a proper meal with his parents for the last year, he had confirmed that Zach was safely installed at a friend’s overnight. Shep was alone in the house. He needn’t keep jumping when the heat came on. He needn’t reach tremulously into the top dresser drawer for his boxers as if any time now his wrist would be seized and he’d be read the Miranda.
Except that Shep was a burglar, after a fashion. Perhaps the sort that any American household most feared. He had arrived home from work a little earlier than usual in order to steal himself.
The swag bag of his large black Samsonite was unzipped on the bed, lying agape as it had for less drastic departures year after year. So far it contained: one comb.
He forced himself through the paces of collecting a travel shampoo, his shaving kit, even if he was doubtful that in The Afterlife he would continue to shave. But the electric toothbrush presented a quandary. The island had electricity, surely it did, but he’d neglected to discover whether their plugs were flat American two-prongs, bulky British three-prongs, or the slender European kind, wide-set and round. He wasn’t dead sure either whether the local current was 220 or 110. Sloppy; these were just the sorts of practical details that on earlier research forays they’d been rigorous about jotting down. But then, they’d lately grown less systematic, especially Glynis, who’d sometimes slipped on more recent journeys abroad and used the word vacation. A tell, and there had been several.
Resistant at first to the Oral B’s jarring cranial buzz, at length Shep had come to relish the slick of his teeth once the tedium was complete. As with all technological advances, it felt unnatural to go backward, to resume the fitful scrub of splayed nylon on a plastic stick. But what if Glynis went to the bathroom when she came home and noticed that his blue-ringed toothbrush was missing, while hers, with the red ring, still sat on the sink? Best she didn’t begin this of all evenings with perplexity or suspicion. He could always take Zach’s – he’d never heard the kid use it – but Shep couldn’t see swiping his own son’s toothbrush. (Shep had paid for the thing, of course, along with pretty much everything here. Yet little or nothing in this house felt like his. That used to bug him but now just made it easier to leave the salad spinner, the StairMaster, and the sofas behind.) Worse, he and Glynis shared the same recharger. He didn’t want to leave her with a toothbrush that would last five or six days (he didn’t want to leave her at all, but that was another matter), its weakening, terminal shudder providing a soundtrack for his wife’s lapse into another of her periodic depressions.
So having unscrewed the wall mount only a turn or two, he tightened it back down. Restoring his own handle reassuringly to the recharger, he scrounged a manual brush from the medicine cabinet. He would have to grow accustomed to technological regression, which in a manner he couldn’t quite put his finger on was surely good for the soul. Something about backtracking to a stage of development that you could understand.
He wasn’t planning simply to cut and run, to disappear himself from his family absent announcement or explanation. That would be cruel, or crueler. He wasn’t presenting her with a total fait accompli either, a wave goodbye at the door. Officially he would confront her with a choice, one for which, in the service of credibility, he had paid through the nose. Odds were that he had purchased nothing but an illusion, but an illusion could be priceless. So he’d bought not one ticket, but three. They were nonrefundable. If his instincts were all out of whack and Glynis surprised him, Zach still wouldn’t like it. But the boy was fifteen years old, and how was this for developmental regression: for once an American teenager would do what he was told.
Anxious about being caught in the act, in the end he had too much time. Glynis wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours, and the Samsonite was replete. Given the confusion over plugs and current, he’d thrown in a few manual hand tools and a Swiss Army knife; in the average crisis, you were still better off with a pair of needle-nose Vise-Grips than a BlackBerry. Only a couple of shirts, because he wanted to wear different shirts. Or no shirt. A few bits and pieces that a man with Shep’s occupation knew could make the difference between satisfied self-sufficiency and disaster: duct tape; a selection of screws, bolts, and washers; silicon lubricant; plastic sealant; rubber bands (elastics, for N’ Hampshire old-timers like his father); and a small roll of binding wire. A flashlight, for power cuts, and a stock of AAs. A novel he should have selected more carefully if he was taking only one. An English – Swahili phrasebook, malaria pills, deet. Prescription cortisone cream for persistent eczema on his ankle, a tube that would soon run out.
Obviating any further inclusions, his Merrill Lynch checkbook. He didn’t like to think of himself as calculating, but it turned out to be fortunate that he’d always kept this account in his name alone. He could – he would, of course, offer to leave her half; she hadn’t earned a dime of it, but they were married, and that was the law. Yet he would have to warn her that even hundreds of thousands of dollars wouldn’t last her long in Westchester, and sooner or later she’d have to do not “her work” but someone else’s.
He’d had to stuff the Samsonite with newspaper to keep the paltry chattel from rattling in the British Airways hold. He stashed it in his closet, covering it with a bathrobe for good measure. A packed bag on the bedspread would alarm Glynis far more than a missing toothbrush.
Shep settled in the living room with a bourbon bracer. It wasn’t his habit to begin an evening with anything stronger than beer, but habit would have delayed this evening indefinitely. He put his feet up, casting his eyes around the pleasant but cheaply furnished room, unable to mourn leaving behind any aspect of the familiar surround, save the fountain. As for parting with the throw pillows or the nondescript glass coffee table on which it trickled, he felt positively cheerful. By contrast, the fountain had always filled him with that distinctive middle-class covetousness, desire for what you already own. He wondered whimsically if, wrapped in the wadded newspaper that padded his scant booty, it would fit in the Samsonite.
They still referred to it as “the Wedding Fountain.” The sterling silver apparatus had substituted for a floral centerpiece at their modest gathering of friends twenty-six years before, twining the bride and groom’s labors, talents, and very natures. To this day, the Wedding Fountain constituted the only project on which he and Glynis had collaborated fifty-fifty. Shep had taken responsibility for the technical aspects of the gizmo. The pump was carefully hidden by a sweep of mirror-finish metal around the basin; since the mechanism ran continually, over the years he’d replaced it several times. Wise in the ways of water, he’d advised on the width and depth of sluices, the length of drops from one level to the next. Glynis had dictated the flow of the metal itself, its artistic line, forging and soldering the parts in her old studio in Brooklyn.
For Shep’s tastes, the fountain was austere; for Glynis’s, ornate; so that even stylistically the construction embodied a meeting of minds halfway. And it was romantic. Melded together at the top, two undulating silver sluices split and intermingled like swans’ necks, one supporting while the other broke to spill its liquid into the waiting pan of its mate. Narrow at their apex, the two central lines of their creation splayed and swooped in wider, ever more playful variations toward the basin. There the contributions of the fountain’s two tributaries formed a shallow indoor lake, thus pooling their resources in the most literal sense. Glynis’s workmanship was top-drawer. However busy, Shep had always honored her virtuosity by keeping the water topped up, and by periodically draining the contraption to polish the silver. Absent his conservation, the sterling’s accelerating yellow taint might suggest a tarnish on more than metal. Once he was gone, chances were that she’d turn the thing off, and shove it out of sight.
As allegory, the two streams feeding a common pool represented an ideal they had failed. Nevertheless, the fountain successfully integrated their elements. Glynis not only worked with metal (or used to); she was metal. Stiff, uncooperative, and inflexible. Hard, refractive, and shiny with defiance. Her body long, attenuated, and angular like the jewelry and flatware she once crafted, in art school Glynis had not chosen her medium by accident. She naturally identified with any material that so fiercely refused to do what you wanted it to, whose form was resistant to change and responded only to violent manhandling. Metal was obstreperous. Were it ever mistreated, its dents and scratches caught the light like kept grudges.
Like it or not, Shep’s element was water. Adaptive, easily manipulated, and prone to taking the path of least resistance, he went with the flow, as they said in his youth. Water was yielding, biddable, and readily trapped. He wasn’t proud of these qualities; pliancy didn’t seem manly. On the other hand, the apparent passivity of liquid was misleading. Water was resourceful. As any homeowner with an aging roof or corroded plumbing knew well, water was insidious, and in its own quiet way would find its route. Water had a devious willfulness of its own, a sneaky, seeping insistence, an instinct for finding the single seam or joint you’ve left unsealed. Sooner or later, water will get in if it wants to, or – more vitally, in Shep’s case – it will get out.
His first boyhood fountains, knocked together with inappropriate materials like wood, leaked badly, and his frugal father had chastised him for these “bubblers,” as Dad called them, that wasted water. But Shep became more ingenious with found objects: chipped serving bowls, the limbs of his sister’s discarded dolls; later creations lost water only to evaporation. The whimsies grew kinetic, using paddle wheels, cups that would fill and flop, jets that kept a suspended object bobbing at bay, sprays that tinkled chimes of seashells or shards of stained glass. He’d kept up the hobby to this day. As a counterweight to the relentless functionality of his vocation, fountains were fabulously frivolous.
This off beat pastime almost certainly hailed not from some highfalutin metaphor for his character, but from the commonplace associations of childhood. Every July, the Knackers had rented a cabin in the White Mountains, beside which ran a wide, rushing stream. Back then, kids were privileged with real summers, expanses of unscheduled time receding to the hazy horizon. Time whose seeming endlessness was a lie, but the lie was still beguiling. Ripe for improvisation, time you could play like a saxophone. So he’d always linked the lilt of running water to peace, lassitude, and a languid lack of urgency – which, between math camps, get-ahead tutoring, fencing classes, and organized playdates, kids these days never seemed to sample. That’s what The Afterlife was all about, he recognized, not for the first time, and poured another finger of bourbon. He wanted his summer back. All year round.
None of the Sunday school classes or Christian youth groups had taken, but the one truly character-forming education that Gabriel Knacker had provided his son was a trip to Kenya when Shep was sixteen. Through the aegis of a Presbyterian exchange program, the Reverend had accepted a temporary teaching position at a small seminary in Limuru, an hour’s drive from Nairobi, and had brought his family along. To Gabe Knacker’s despair, what made the most intense impression on his son wasn’t his seminary students’ fervent embrace of the Gospel, but grocery shopping. On their first outing for provisions, Shep and Beryl had trailed their parents to the local market stalls for papayas, onions, potatoes, passion fruit, beans, zucchini, a scrawny chicken, and a great slab of beef of an undifferentiated cut: in all, enough provender to fill five string bags to their maximum capacity. Always fiscally minded – one of his father’s objections still was that his son thought too much about money – Shep converted the shillings in his head. The entire haul had cost less than three dollars. Even in 1972 currency, for more than a week’s supplies that was chump change.
Shep had expressed dismay at how any of these traders could turn a profit with such miserable prices. His father was keen to emphasize that these people were very poor; swaths of this benighted continent lived on less than a dollar a day. Yet the Reverend did allow that African farmers could charge pennies for their produce because they counted their expenses in pennies as well. Shep had been familiar with economies of scale; this was his first introduction to the scale of economies. So a dollar’s value wasn’t fixed but relative. Back in New Hampshire, it would buy a box of paper clips; in the Kenyan countryside, an entire secondhand but perfectly serviceable bike.
“So why don’t we take our savings and move here?” he’d asked as they lugged their shopping down a farmland path.
In a rare softening, Gabe Knacker had clapped his son’s shoulder and gazed across the verdant coffee fields bathed in lambent equatorial sun. “Sometimes I wonder.”
Shep wondered, too, and he’d kept wondering. If you could at least survive in places like East Africa on a dollar a day, how well could you live for more like twenty bucks?
In high school, Shep had already been hungry for direction. Much like Zach, alas, in his studies he was competent at every subject, but distinguished at none. In an age that increasingly valued mastery of the abstract – the befuddling world of “information technology” was only a decade away – Shep preferred tasks whose results he could grasp in both his head and his hands: replacing a rickety banister. But his father was an educated man, and didn’t expect his son to work construction. With that heart of water, Shep was never a rebellious kid. Given his penchant for making and fixing things, a degree in engineering had seemed apt. As he’d assured his father many times since, he’d really, really intended to go to college.
Yet meanwhile that whimsy first conceived in Limuru had consolidated to firm resolve. Saving may have gone out of fashion, but surely a middle-class American income still allowed for salting something away. Thus with the application of industry, thrift, and self-denial – once the country’s moral mainstays – it should be possible to inflate a robin-sized nest egg to the dimensions of an ostrich ovum merely by hopping a plane. The Third World was running a sale: two lives for the price of one. Ever since coming of age, Shep had dedicated himself to the realization of the second. He was not even sure you called it industry, when you were working so hard only that you might stop working.
So with an eye to his true purpose – money – Shep had instinctively gravitated to where America kept most of it, and applied to the City College of Technology in New York. For while Gabe Knacker faulted the character of his son “the philistine” for his worship of the false god Mammon, Shep believed fervently that money – the web of your fiscal relationships to individuals and to the world at large – was character; that the surest test of any man’s mettle was how he wielded his wallet. Thus a decent, capable kid didn’t tap a father’s measly salary as a small-town minister (an injunction to which Beryl would prove oblivious when blithely expecting their dad to pay for her film degree at NYU four years later). Ever since earning his first five dollars from shoveling snow at the age of nine, Shep had always paid up front, be it for an Almond Joy or an education.
Thus determined to work beforehand and finance his own degree, he’d delayed his acceptance at City Tech in downtown Brooklyn and found a one-bedroom nearby in Park Slope, which – hard as it was to remember now – was a dodgy area in those days, and dirt cheap. The area’s housing stock was run down, and full of families in need of small repairs but unable to afford the larcenous rates of unionized tradesmen. Having mastered a variety of rudimentary wiring and carpentry skills while helping to maintain his own family’s eternally crumbling late-Victorian in New Hampshire, Shep posted flyers in convenience stores, advertising his services as an old-fashioned handyman. Word of mouth spread quickly about a young white kid who could replace washers and rotten floorboards for a modest fee, and in short order he had more work than he could handle. By the time he’d delayed entry into City Tech for a second year he’d incorporated, and “Knack of All Trades” was already contracting out for part-time help. Two years after that, Shep took on his first full-time employee. A harried entrepreneur enjoyed little free time, and besides, Shep had just got married. So in the service of sheer efficiency, Jackson Burdina doubled, then as now, as his best friend.
It was still a sore point with Shep’s father that his son never went to college, which was ludicrous; Knack of All Trades had expanded and flourished without any benedictory piece of paper. The real problem was that Gabriel Knacker had little regard for manual labor – unless it involved digging wells for impoverished villagers in Mali with the Peace Corps, or patching a pensioner’s shingles out of the kindness of your heart. He had no use for commerce. Any activity that could not trace its lineage directly to virtue was destitute. The fact that if everyone devoted himself solely to goodness for its own sake the whole world would come to a skidding halt didn’t faze the guy a whit.
Up until a little over eight years ago, Life A had had its merits, and Shep hadn’t regarded himself as sacrificing his prime for pie in the sky. He’d always liked physical toil, relishing a distinctive kind of tired you got not from the gym but from building bookshelves. He liked running his own show, answering to no one. Glynis may have turned out to be a handful, and might not have described herself as happy in the big picture, but it was probably safe to say that she was happy with him – or as happy as she was going to get with anybody, which wasn’t very. He was glad when she got pregnant with Amelia right away. He was in a hurry, anxious to rush through a whole life in half the time, and he’d have far preferred that Zach had been born pronto and not ten years later.
As for The Afterlife, Glynis had seemed onboard when they met. His status as a man with a mission surely attracted her to him in the first place. Without his vision, without the ever more concrete edifice of Life B rising in his head, Shep Knacker was one more small businessman who’d found a niche market: nothing special. As it was, picking a new target country for every summer’s research trip had been an invigorating ritual of their marriage. They were, or so he’d thought until this last year’s dawning apprehension, a team.
So when he got the offer to sell up in November 1996, it was irresistible. A million dollars. Rationally he recognized that a mil wasn’t what it once was, and that he’d have to pay capital gains. Still, the sum had never lost the awesome roundness of childhood; no matter how many other ordinary folks also became “millionaires,” the word retained a ring. Combined with the fruits of lifelong scrimping, the proceeds from selling Knack would furnish the capital to cash out and never look back. So never mind that the purchaser – an employee so lazy and sloppy that they’d been on the verge of firing the guy before, surprise, he comes into his trust fund – was a callow, loudmouthed, ignorant twit.
Who was now Shep’s boss. Oh sure, it had seemed to make sense at the time to sign on as an employee of what had been his own company – renamed overnight “Handy Randy,” a moniker not only tacky but inaccurate, since Randy Pogatchnik was anything but handy. The initial idea had been to hang on for a month or two while they packed, sold off their motley possessions, and located at least a temporary house in Goa. Meantime, they wouldn’t spend down their capital, which Shep sank into can’t-lose mutual funds to fatten before slaughter; the Dow was effervescent.
“A month or two” had now stretched into over eight years of submission to the sadistic whims of an overweight, freckle-faced brat, who must have got wind of his imminent sacking and had probably bought Knack – you had to give the guy this much – as fiendishly effective revenge. After the sale, standards of workmanship plummeted, so that Shep’s “Customer Relations” position for handling complaints, never a post at all during his own tenure as CEO, had burgeoned into a demanding and decidedly unpleasant full-time job.
In retrospect, of course, it had been imbecilic to sell their place in Carol Gardens a few years earlier – barely out of a recession, and on the heels of a housing crash – then move up to Westchester and rent. Shep would gladly have stayed in Brooklyn, but Glynis had concluded that the only way she could finally focus on “her work” was to remove herself from the “distractions” of the city. (Sure of his weakness, she had made a sly financial case as well: Westchester’s high-quality public schools would save them the pricey tuition of private education in New York. All very well, for Amelia. But later, when Glynis thought that Zach needed help – which he did – finding a “better school” was the easiest way to seem to be doing something, and now they were out $26,000 a year for private tuition anyway.) Jackson and Carol had stayed put in Windsor Terrace, and even that ramshackle dive of theirs had soared to a value of $550,000. At least having benefited from the real estate boom himself made Jackson more patient than Shep with Homeowner Smugness; these days, a handyman wasn’t in the door five seconds before the wife was crowing about how much the dump was worth now, so watch the wainscoting with that toolbox. It was like that in most big cities now: LA, Miami – a communal hysteria, as if the entire citizenry were on Dialing for Dollars and had won the car. Shep was probably just envious. Still, there was something unsavory about that gleefulness, a mania he associated with slot machines. A preacher’s son, he failed to see the satisfaction in a jackpot that bore no relation to something good or hard that you had done.
Property in Westchester had appreciated by three times over ten years as well, so, yeah, in hindsight they should have bought – thereby making about as much profit from sitting on his ass as he had from selling a whole company, fruit of twenty-two years’ sweat. That was the way people made money in this country now, according to Jackson: ass-sitting. You couldn’t get rich on earned income, he railed. Taxes on wages made sure of that. Jackson claimed that only inheritance and investment – ass-sitting – paid. Shep wasn’t so sure. Certainly he himself had worked hard, but he’d been compensated for his trouble. Limuru lay ever in the back of his mind, and he’d earned far more than a dollar per day.
Shep had opted to rent for the same reason that drove every big decision he’d ever made. He wanted to be able to pick up stakes – easily, quickly, cleanly, without waiting for a house to sell in a market whose climate he couldn’t foresee. That’s what irked him a bit about Homeowner Smugness: all these schmoes with keys to a front door acted as if they’d seen the boom coming, as if they were financial geniuses and not the beneficiaries of dumb luck. He may have regretted missing out on the property windfall; he didn’t regret the reason he’d missed out. He was proud of the reason, proud of planning to leave. He was only ashamed of having stayed.
He tried not to blame Glynis. If that meant blaming himself instead, that seemed fair. The Afterlife was his aspiration – the word he preferred to fantasy – and any dream was dilute secondhand. He tried not to be angry at her for a lot of things, and to a great extent succeeded.
When they met, Glynis had been running her own small business from home, making jewelry of a strikingly stark, streamlined nature during an era of clunk, slapdash, and feathers. She had contacted Knack of All Trades to build a worktable bolted to the floor, and later, because she liked the proprietor – his broad veined forearms, his wide-open face like a field of wheat – a set of racks for hammers, pliers, and files. Shep appreciated her meticulous requirements, as she appreciated his meticulous execution. The second time he showed up to finish the table, she’d left numerous samples of her work lying casually around the studio (deliberately, she confessed with a laugh once they started going out; she’d dangled the glittering baubles before her handsome handyman “like fishing lures”). Though he’d never considered himself the artistic type, Shep was transfixed. Delicate and morbid, a whole series of elongated stickpins looked like assemblages of bird bones; when she modeled the bracelets for him, they wrapped all the way up her arm, slithering like serpents to the elbow. Sinewy, elusive, and severe, Glynis’s creations were an uncanny manifestation of the woman who made them. It was touch and go whether he fell in love with Glynis or her metalwork first, because as far as Shep was concerned they were one and the same.
During their courtship, Glynis was teaching at summer camps and doing piecework in the Jewelry District to pay the rent. Meantime, she was placing single necklaces in second-tier galleries, and her silversmithing barely broke even. Yet she fevered long hours, and paid her own phone bill. Surely any man would have assumed that for a self-starter like Glynis – disciplined, ascetic, and fiery – pulling her financial weight in a marriage would be a point of pride. (On reflection, it probably was.) So he’d never expected to have to save for The Afterlife all by himself.
Less compassionate men might have felt they’d been sold a bill of goods. Pregnancy had seemed a reasonable excuse for letting her metalsmithing tools languish, but that accounted for only eighteen months of the last twenty-six years. Motherhood wasn’t the real problem, though it took him a long time to figure out what was. She needed resistance, the very quality that metal most demonstrably offered up. Suddenly Glynis had no difficulty to overcome, no hard artisan’s life with galleries filching half the too-small price of a mokume brooch that had taken three weeks to forge. No, her husband made a good living, and if she slept late and dawdled the afternoon away reading Lustre, American Craft Magazine, and Lapidary Journal, the phone bill would still get paid. For that matter, she needed need itself. She could overcome her anguish about embarking on an object that, once completed, might not meet her exacting standards only if she had no choice. In this sense, his helping had hurt her. By providing the financial cushion that should have facilitated making all the metal whathaveyou she liked, he had ruined her life. Wrapped with a slackening bow, ease was a poisonous present.
Yet it wasn’t as if she were lazy. Since Glynis still maintained the fiction (even in his head, the word pained him) that she was a professional metalsmith, all other domestic activities therefore qualified as procrastination, and thus were seen to with vigor and dispatch. It wasn’t as if she’d made nothing, either – metalwork, that is. Spurning jewelry as intrinsically rinky-dink, she’d moved entirely to flatware, and through the years had crafted a handful of dazzling implements: memorably, the Bakelite inlaid fish slice; that exquisite set of hand-forged, perfectly ergonomic sterling chopsticks, whose heavier ends bent slightly, achingly, as if they were melting. Yet each finished project was the product of so much agony and time that in the end she couldn’t bring herself to sell it.
So what she hadn’t made was money. Were he ever to have observed aloud once Zach and Amelia both entered school that she was still not bringing in a dime, Glynis would have iced over in cold rage (so he hadn’t). But her income of zero dollars wasn’t an objection. It was a fact. That when they married Shep hadn’t imagined he would carry the whole household in perpetuity was also a fact. But he could carry the household, and he had.
Besides, he understood her. Or he understood how much he couldn’t understand, which was a start. Making his own geographical inertia all the more perplexing, by and large Shep decided to do something, and then he did it. For Glynis to get from the deciding to the doing was like leaping the stumps of a washed-out bridge. To put it another way, she had the engine, but a faulty ignition switch. Glynis could decide to do something and then nothing would happen. It was an interior thing, a design flaw, and probably not one she could fix.
Having kept his mouth shut for decades, he should never have let it slip out tentatively over breakfast a couple of years ago (during a particularly galling week at Handy Randy) that it was a shame they hadn’t been socking away the remnants of two incomes all this time, with which they could have left for The Afterlife long ago … Before he had finished the sentence, she’d stood from the table without a word and marched out the door. When he came home that night, she had a job. Apparently all this time he’d have had better luck lighting a fire under the woman not by cajoling but by giving offense. Ever since, she’d been fashioning models for Living in Sin, an upmarket chocolatier whose factory was located in nearby Mount Kisco. This month, the company was already gearing up for Easter. So rather than polish off avant-garde flatware of museum-piece quality, his wife was carving wax bunny rabbits to be cast – aptly – in bitter chocolate, and stuffed with orange cream. The work was part time, without benefits. Her salary made a farcical contribution to their coffers. She kept the job out of spite.
In return, he may have let her keep it out of spite. Besides, she couldn’t help herself. They were very good bunny rabbits.
It was disconcerting to be systematically punished for what might have engendered a modicum of gratitude. He did not require the gratitude, but he could have skipped the resentment, an emotion distinctive for being disagreeable on both its generating and receiving ends. Glynis resented her dependency; she found it humiliating. She resented not being a celebrated metalsmith, and she resented the fact that her status as professional nonentity appeared to everyone, including Glynis, to be all her fault. She resented her two children for diverting her energies when they were young; once they were no longer young, she resented them for failing to divert her energies. She resented that her husband and now her thoughtlessly undemanding children had thieved her most cherished keepsakes: her excuses. As resentment produces the psychic equivalent of acid reflux, she resented the resentment itself. Never having had much of substance to complain about was yet one more reason to feel aggrieved.
Shep was temperamentally predisposed to feel fortunate, although he himself had plenty of substance to resent, had he been so inclined. He supported his wife and son. He subsidized his daughter Amelia, though she was three years out of college. He subsidized his elderly father, and made sure that the prideful retired reverend didn’t know it. He’d made several “loans” to his sister Beryl that she would never pay back, and had probably not made the last; yet they were officially loans and not gifts, so Beryl would never thank him or feel abashed. He’d picked up the entire tab for his mother’s funeral, and since no one else noticed Shep didn’t notice either. Every member of a family has a role, and Shep was the one who paid for things. Because every other party took this state of affairs for granted, Shep took it for granted, too.
He rarely bought anything for himself, but he didn’t want anything. Or he wanted only one thing. Still, why now? Why, if it had already been over eight years since the sale of Knack, could it not be nine? Why, if it could be this evening, could it not be tomorrow night?
Because it was early January in New York State, and it was cold. Because he was already forty-eight years old, and the closer he got to fifty the more The Afterlife, even if he did finally get around to it, looked like routine early retirement. Because his “can’t-lose” mutual funds had only last month recovered the value of his original investment. Because in his idiotic innocence he had broadcast for decades to anyone who seemed interested his intentions to leave behind altogether the world of tax planning, car inspections, traffic jams, and telemarketing. (As his audience had aged, other people’s youthful admiration had long ago soured to mockery behind his back. Or not always behind his back, for at Handy Randy Shep’s “escape fantasy,” as Pogatchnik flippantly tagged it, was a regular source of merciless entertainment.) Because he himself had started dangerously to doubt the reality of The Afterlife, and without the promise of reprieve he could not – he could not – continue. Because he’d tied a carrot in front of his own nose like a goddamned donkey’s, soothed by the seduction of infinite delay, never sorting out that if he could always leave tomorrow then he could also leave today. Indeed, it was the sheer arbitrariness of this Friday evening that made it so perfect.
When Glynis opened the front door, he started guiltily. He had rehearsed his opening lines so many times, and now the script had fled.
“Bourbon,” she said. “What’s the special occasion?”
Still clinging to his last thought, he wanted to explain that the occasion was not special, which was why it was special. “Habits are made to be broken.”
“Some of them,” she reproached, taking off her coat.
“Would you like one?”
She surprised him. “Yes.”
Glynis was still slender, and no one ever pegged her at fifty, though there was a fatigue in her bearing tonight that made it suddenly possible to envision her at seventy-five. She’d been tired since September at least, claiming to run a low-grade fever that he privately failed to detect. Although she’d lately developed a subtle paunch, the rest of her body was if anything thinner; such reapportionment of weight was normal in middle age, and he was too much of a gentleman to pass comment on it.
Their both indulging in hard liquor at barely past seven fostered a warm collusion that he was reluctant to undermine. Yet his innocuous “Where have you been?” came out like an accusation.
She could be evasive, but it was rare for her not to answer at all. He let it go.
Curling protectively around the highball in her usual armchair, Glynis pulled her knees up and tucked her heels. She always seemed enclosed, balled up in another sense, but tonight she seemed uncommonly so. Maybe she intuited his purpose, so long in coming. When he reached into his inside pocket and laid three sheaves of e-ticket printouts silently on the glass table beside the Wedding Fountain, she arched her eyebrows. “Show and tell?”
Glynis was an elegant woman, and he was interested in her – in that way that simple people were so often captivated by the fucked-up. He paused to consider whether, without Glynis, as partner or opponent, The Afterlife might prove desolate.
“Three tickets to Pemba,” he said. “Me, you, and Zach.”
“Another ‘research trip’? You might have thought of that before the Christmas holidays. Zach’s back in school.”
Though she never used to couch the term in quotes, the sour twist she now gave to “research trip” recalled Pogatchnik’s sneering pronunciation of “escape fantasy.” He noted how readily she concocted a reason that his caprice was impossible, nimbly dismissing even the brief getaway she mistook it for. In his work, Shep applied his intelligence to solving problems; Glynis applied hers to inventing them, to constructing obstacles to throw in her own path. He wouldn’t mind the eccentricity if her path weren’t his own as well.
“These tickets are one-way.”
He would have expected that when she got it, when she registered the true nature of the gauntlet he’d thrown on the coffee table, her face would cloud, sink into solemnity, or constrict with the wary rigidity of preparing for combat. Instead she looked mildly amused. He was accustomed to ridicule at Handy Randy (“Yeah, sure you’re moving to Africa, any day now, you and Meryl Streep”), and sometimes, though it filled him with self-hatred, he’d joined in the fun himself. But from Glynis any suggestion of the same blithe, pitying cynicism slew him. He knew she wasn’t into it anymore, but he hadn’t thought her attitude had got as bad as that.
“Wasteful,” she said calmly, with a thin smile. “Not like you.”
She’d correctly intuited that the one-ways had cost more than round-trips. “A gesture,” he said. “This isn’t about money.”
“I can’t imagine your doing anything unrelated to money. Your whole life, Shepherd,” she announced, “has been about money.”
“Not for its own sake. I’ve never been greedy like that, as you know – wanting money to be rich. I want to buy something with it.”
“I used to believe that,” she said sadly. “Now I wonder if you’ve any idea what it is that you really want to purchase. You don’t even know what you want out of, much less what you want in on.”
“I do,” he countered. “I want to buy myself. I’m sorry to sound like Jackson, but he’s right, in a way. I’m an indentured servant. This isn’t a free country, in any sense of the word. If you want your own liberty, you have to buy it.”
“But liberty isn’t any different from money, is it? It’s meaningless unless you know what you want to spend it on.” The observation sounded hollow, even bored.
“We’ve talked about what I want to spend it on.”
“Yes,” she said wearily. “Endlessly.”
He swallowed the insult. “Part of going is finding out.”
Shep could not have contrived a conversation that should have riveted his wife more than this one, but he could swear that her attention had wandered.
“Gnu,” he appealed, pronouncing the G; the endearment went back to their very first research trip to Kenya, where she had done cracking impressions of wildebeests, hooking her hands over her head for horns and wrenching her long face into a pleading expression that was sad and dumb. The antic had been girlish and beguiling. He used to call her Gnu all the time, and lately – well, lately, he realized with a shock, he hadn’t been calling her anything at all. “These are real tickets. For a real airplane, that takes off in one week. I would like you to come with me. I would like Zach to come with us, and if we leave as a family I will drag him down the Jetway by the hair. But I am going, with or without you.”
Damned if she didn’t seem to find his declaration hilarious. “An ultimatum, then?” She drained her glass, as if to stifle laughter.
“An invitation,” he countered.
“A week from now you’re getting on a plane to fly to an island you’ve never been to, where you’ll spend the rest of your life. Whatever were all those ‘research trips’ for?”
In her use of you as opposed to we he read her answer, and he wasn’t prepared for the sudden falling sensation in his chest. Although he had tried to be realistic with himself, apparently he had held out hope that she and Zack might come with him to Pemba after all. Still, this face-off was young, so he held out further hope that – for the first time in the history of the universe – he might change her mind.
“I picked Pemba precisely because we haven’t been there. That means you can’t have already come up with a zillion reasons why yet another option is off the table.”
When she said nothing in response, he was able to remember some of what he had recited over the steering wheel earlier this afternoon on the Henry Hudson Parkway. “Goa got the all-clear until you read about that expat Briton who was murdered by a local acquaintance in her house, and then it was too dangerous. One murder. As if people never kill each other in New York. Bulgaria would have been a steal when we first lit on it, and in the Western world, too, if barely, with broadband and a postal service and clean water. But the food was too bland. The food. As if we couldn’t rustle up a little garlic and rosemary. Meantime, the property prices have already started to escalate, and now it’s too late. Ditto Eritrea, which piqued your imagination: proud new country, warm people, espresso on every corner, and the fifties architecture was a kick. Now, lucky for you, the government’s gone to hell. You loved Morocco, remember? Cinnamon and terra cotta; neither the food nor the landscape was bland. It seemed so promising that I agreed to stay on when my mother had her stroke, and we got back half a day too late to say goodbye.”
“You made up for it.” Ah, the funeral expenses. If Shep did not resent his family’s impositions on his finances, Glynis resented them for him.
“But after 9/11,” he plowed on, “suddenly all Muslim countries – including Turkey, to my own disappointment – got knocked off the list. We had a terrific opportunity when the currency collapsed in Argentina. Before that, we could have bought just about anything in Southeast Asia during that financial crisis. But now all those currencies have recovered, and our resources would never stretch for thirty or forty years in any of those countries today. In Cuba, you couldn’t live without shampoo and toilet paper. Croatia’s residency requirements entailed too much red tape. The slums in Kenya were too depressing; South Africa made you feel too guilty for being white. Laos, Portugal, Tonga, and Bhutan – I can’t even remember what was wrong with all of them anymore, though” – he indulged a bitterness – “I’m sure you do.”
Glynis exuded an aggressive mildness, and seemed to be enjoying herself. “You’re the one who ruled out France,” she said sweetly.
“That’s right. The taxes would have killed us.”
“Always money, Shepherd,” she chided.
It struck him then how people who acted above money – arty types like his sister, or his Old-Testament father – were the same folks who never earned any to speak of. Glynis knew perfectly well that The Afterlife had to add up financially or it would solely constitute a long, ruinous vacation.
“But you’ve paralyzed us at both ends, haven’t you?” he proceeded. “Not only is no destination good enough, but it’s never the right time to go. We have to wait until Amelia is out of high school. We have to wait until Amelia is out of college. We have to wait until Zach is out of primary school. Middle school. Now it’s high school, and then why not college? We have to wait for our investments to recover from the techstock crash, and then from 9/11. Well, they have.”
Shep wasn’t used to talking so much, and babbling made him feel foolish. He may have been as dependent on resistance as Glynis, which is to say: hers. “You think I’m being selfish. Maybe I am. For once. This isn’t about money, it’s about” – he paused in embarrassment – “my soul. You’ll say, you have said, that it won’t be what I expect. I accept that. It’s not as if I nurse a misguided idea about parking myself on the beach. I know sun gets boring, that there are flies. Still, I can tell you this much: I plan to get eight hours of sleep. That sounds small, but it’s not small. I love sleeping, Glynis, and” – he didn’t want to choke up now, not until he got it all out – “I especially love sleeping with you. But when I say I crave eight hours of sleep, at a Westchester dinner party? They laugh. For commuters around here, that’s such a preposterous ambition that it’s actually funny.
“So I don’t care what else I’ll do in Pemba or whether the power keeps cutting off. Because if I back down this time? I’d know in my heart of hearts that we’re never really going to go. And with no promised land to look forward to, I can’t keep it up, Gnu. I can’t keep cleaning up the messes that the untrained klutzes at Hardly Handy Randy leave behind. I can’t keep sitting in traffic for hours listening to NPR on the West Side Highway. I can’t keep running to the A-and-P for milk and getting ‘bonus points’ on our store card so that after spending several thousand dollars we qualify for a free turkey on Thanksgiving.”
“There are worse fates.”
“No,” he said. “I’m not sure there are. I know we’ve seen plenty of poverty – raw sewage running in gutters and mothers scavenging for mango peels. But they know what’s wrong with their lives, and they have a notion that with a few shillings or pesos or rupees in their pockets things could be better. There’s something especially terrible about being told over and over that you have the most wonderful life on earth and it doesn’t get any better and it’s still shit. This is supposed to be the greatest country in the world, but Jackson is right: it’s a sell, Glynis. I must have forty different ‘passwords’ for banking and telephone and credit card and Internet accounts, and forty different account numbers, and you add them all up and that’s our lives. And it’s all ugly, physically ugly. The strip malls in Elmsford, the K-Marts and Wal-Marts and Home Depots … all plastic and chrome with blaring, clashing colors, and everyone in a hurry, to do what?”
It was not his imagination. She really wasn’t paying attention.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’ve heard this before. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I really will skulk back home a few weeks later all hangdog and sheepish. But I’d rather the humiliation of trying and failing than give it up. Giving it up would be like dying.”
“I think you’ll find” – her voice was so measured, piped full of some great new wisdom he did not care for – “that it would not in the least be like dying. There is nothing like dying. We use it as a metaphor for something else. Something smaller and silly and much more bearable.”
“If this is your idea of getting me to change my mind, it’s not working.”
“When is this you’re planning to depart our shores?”
“Next Friday. BA-179 out of JFK, the 22:30 for London. Then on to Nairobi, to Zanzibar, to Pemba. You and Zach can come with me up until the minute the flight closes. In the meantime, I thought I’d clear off and give you a chance to think.” A chance to miss me is what he meant. To miss me while you can still un-miss me. And in all honesty he was afraid of her. If he remained here, she would be able to talk him out of it. She was that good. “I’ll be staying with Carol and Jackson. They’re expecting me, and you can reach me there at any time before I go.”
“I do wish you wouldn’t,” she said idly. Having picked up her glass from the table, Glynis rose and smoothed her slacks in a gesture that he recognized as marshaling herself to prepare another ordinary dinner. “Randy is for once entirely handy, and I’m afraid I will need your health insurance.”
Later that evening, while Glynis was still tidying the kitchen, Shep slipped upstairs and pulled the bathrobe off his suitcase. He put the two shirts back in the third drawer of his dresser, smoothing them so they’d be in respectable condition for work. He removed the needle-nose Vise-Grips, the screwdrivers, and the hacksaw, then fit them back into the tiers of his battered red metal toolbox. When he was down to the comb, before laying it in its accustomed place beside the cigar box of leftover foreign currency, he ran it through his hair.
He’ll never go, said Carol, rinsing arugula.
“Bullshit,” said Jackson, as he stole a piece of Italian sausage from the sautéed peppers. “He’s bought the ticket. I’ve seen it. Or them. I told him not to waste the money on the other two. She’ll never go, that’s for sure. I figured it out way before Shep did. Glynis thought it was a game, all those trips. A game she got tired of.”
“You always think I mean he’s too much of a coward. That’s not it. He’s too responsible. He’ll never leave his family high and dry; it’s not in him. Pick up his carry-on and never look over his shoulder? Start a whole new life from scratch, when he’s almost fifty? Have you ever known anyone to do that really, and why would they anyway? Even if he does go, to make a point or something, he’ll come right back home – Flicka, it’s been at least half an hour. Have you put in your tears?”
Their elder daughter emitted a nasal sigh, halfway between a groan and a bleat. Its tonalities were refined, managing to convey both no and yes. She rustled begrudgingly into her sweater pocket for the Ziploc, then dosed both eyes from one of several dozen tiny plastic squeeze tubes of Artificial Tears, whose shape always reminded Jackson of Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki. As usual, Flicka’s eyes were aflame, the lashes caked with petroleum jelly.
“What, tail between legs?” said Jackson. “You got no appreciation of male pride.”
“Oh, don’t I?” Carol shot him a look. “Where is this ‘Pemba’ anyway?”
“Off the coast of Zanzibar,” said Jackson. “It’s famous for growing cloves. Whole island stinks of them, or that’s what Shep tells me. I picture my man leaning back in his hammock, breathing in the smell of hot whisky and pumpkin pie.”
“I bet he’ll go,” said Flicka. “If he says he’s going to. Shep’s not a liar.” Though often mistaken for her eleven-year-old sibling’s younger sister, she was sixteen: just as one calculated the relative age of pets, her true age in terms of human suffering was closer to 103. The here and now having proved an eternal trial, Flicka was naturally captivated by the idea of somewhere else.
Jackson ruffled his daughter’s fine blond hair. They’d kept it close-cropped in her childhood to prevent it from becoming constantly contaminated with vomit, but since the fundoplication surgery she could only dry-heave, and Flicka had been letting it grow out. “There’s a girl with a little faith!”
“But what would he do?” Carol pressed. “Make clever water fountains for the Third World? Shep’s not the kind of man to be happy lying around in a hammock.”
“Maybe not fountains, but, hell, he could dig wells. Shep’s useful. He can’t help it. If I was living in a little mud hut, he’s the guy I’d want for a next-door neighbor.”
“Flicka, get away from the stove!”
“I’m nowhere near the damn stove,” said Flicka in her usual slurred deadpan. She always sounded not only adenoidal but slightly drunk, like Stephen Hawking after a bottle of Wild Turkey. She also sounded surly, and that part was real. It was one of the things that Jackson adored about her. She refused to play the sunny, chin-up disabled kid who lit up everybody’s day with her amazing pluck.
“Cut it out!” said Carol, removing the paring knife from Flicka’s hand and slamming it back on the counter.
Flicka lurched back to the table with a gait that most people considered awkward but that Jackson always found strangely graceful: her trunk slopping to one side and then the other, while her hands compensated with an elegant little flail, feet placed carefully heel to toe as if walking a tightrope. “Whadda ya think,” she said. “I’m gonna lop my fingers into the salad ’cause I mistook them for little carrots?”
“That’s not funny,” said Carol.
It wasn’t funny. When Flicka was nine, she’d tried to help out by making coleslaw, and it was only due to the fact that the cabbage had changed varieties – from green to red – that Jackson had noticed the end of her left forefinger was missing. They’d sewn it back on in the ER, but he’d never been able to stomach coleslaw since. Maybe it seemed a mercy that your kid’s limbs were so insensitive to pain that stitches required no local anesthetic, but when he forced his co-workers to really think about it, they blanched. Some of these kids, he’d explain, can break a leg, drag it behind them for blocks, and only notice something’s wrong because it keeps getting in the way. For Flicka, of course, banging into things and bleeding everywhere was purely an annoyance, along the lines of tearing a hole in a bag of rice and having to sweep up the floor.
“I’ve never understood why you seem so eager for Shep to leave the country,” Carol resumed. “He’s your best friend. Wouldn’t you miss him?”
“Sure, babe. I’ll miss him like a son of a bitch.” Jackson grabbed himself a beer, reflecting that one thing he would not miss would be defending Shep to all the doubting Thomases at Knack. (The company was still Knack of All Trades to Jackson, whatever embarrassing, cheesy, goofball name that fat prick wanted to call it.) Maybe he should have waited until Shep was on the plane, but he hadn’t been able to contain himself after lunch today when the website designer made another snide remark. So it was with enormous satisfaction that Jackson had announced, no, actually, Shep had already bought the ticket, loser, and would never see the inside of this overheated office as of this very afternoon. That had shut up the cretin pronto. Besides, he hadn’t introduced the idea to Carol yet, but he had a notion that they could visit when Shep had had a chance to establish himself. In fact, though it wasn’t a picture he was willing to confront yet, he’d a hazier notion of taking his family and joining the guy in Pemba for keeps. Obviously, Carol wouldn’t think about it now, but there was looming on the horizon a dark time when a change of scene could be therapeutic.
“Still, somebody’s gotta be able to get out of here, to do better than this, right?” he continued after a slug, putting his feet up. “Jesus, let the immigrants have it. I love the idea of the whole native population of this big scam of a country packing up, closing the door behind them, and throwing the teeming masses the keys. Moving to these hip, super-ethnic villages in Mozambique and Cancun, into all those houses standing vacant because the owners are cleaning toilets in Cleveland. They want to live here so damn much, let ’em. They can work their butts off and pay half their wages to a government that paves the occasional sidewalk if they’re lucky, and invades other countries without asking at their personal expense. Where two-bedroom dumps cost more than they’ll earn in their entire lifetimes, and their kids are never taught to count but are masters of ‘self-esteem’—”
“Jackson, don’t start.”
“I haven’t started. I’ve barely started—”
“You don’t want to get Flicka overexcited.”
“I making you overexcited, Flick?”
“You stopped talking about taxes and spongers and ‘Mugs and Mooches,’” Flicka drawled. “About how the Asians are taking over the world. How ‘nobody in this country makes anything anymore that doesn’t break the first time you use it.’ How ‘we’re turning all our kids into pussies’? Then I’d get overexcited, yeah.”
The girl may have looked ten years old and sounded semi-retarded, but Flicka was a smart cookie – or “high functioning,” an expression that had always struck Jackson as insulting. It wasn’t fair, since Carol did most of the parental heavy lifting, but Flicka was always in cahoots with her father. She may have been a pale, scrawny kid with limp hair, red blotches, and – a biological network he’d never heard of before her diagnosis – an “autonomic” system on the fritz, while he was a dark, burly, half-Basque tradesman of forty-four, but their emotional default setting was identical: disgust.
“Don’t you go repeating that stuff about ‘the Asians taking over the world’ without adding that your dad said they deserve it,” Jackson chided; in the presence of anyone who could decode her slurred whine, that kind of charged racial rhetoric could get Flicka, or more to the point her father, into massive trouble. “The Chinese, the Koreans – they work hard and ignore their teachers’ sad-ass advice to wait to learn the multiplication tables until they feel like it. They’re the real Americans, like Americans used to be, and they’re colonizing all our top universities not from some patronizing helping hand of affirmative action, but from merit—”
As usual, Carol wasn’t paying the slightest attention. Fucking off at Knack, he garnered plenty of little-known information on the Web, but his wife figured she’d heard it all before, and dismissed it. Some women would be grateful for a man who brought home new, fascinating (if enraging) factoids every day, and who had an unusual, incisive point of view that made (if depressing) sense of the world. But no such luck with Carol, who would apparently have been more content with a docile drudge who credulously washed out his mayonnaise jars even though most of his “recycling” ended up in landfill, who cheerfully donated to the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in defiance of the fact that the word benevolent didn’t belong within five miles of a cop, and who championed the sacrifice of nearly all his disposable income to bureaucratic shysters and incompetents as an act of civic-mindedness. In sum, she’d have preferred a husband who bought into the whole brainwashing hoax of “patriotism,” which slyly converted an arbitrary accident of birth into the kind of mindless go-team frenzy of pom-pom waving that had driven Jackson to get stoned in stairwells during pep rallies in high school.
Sure, her politics had always been wet, but otherwise Carol didn’t used to be like this. When they met she’d been doing the landscape gardening for a house where he also had a big Sheetrock job; they’d found common cause in the owner’s being an asshole, and their both being underlings had put them on the same level. So it hadn’t been a factor then that, despite the just-out-of-college scut work, she turned out to have a degree in horticulture from Penn State, or that her father (who always thought his daughter had married beneath herself) wasn’t any old seat-of-the-pants “handyman” but a property developer. Back on that job, Jackson had been drawn to a pretty woman who wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, and who hefted her own thirty-pound bags of peat. But most of all he’d liked that she could spar. She disagreed with him on everything, but had seemed to enjoy disagreeing with him, and over beers after work they’d really got into it. Nowadays it was as if she’d summarily won already so why bother, which was a puzzle, since Jackson couldn’t remember losing a single argument.
And she never used to exude this killjoy seriousness. She’d been a hoot before, or she’d at least laughed at his jokes, which gave him an even better feeling than laughing at hers. He put it down to Flicka. The responsibility, it changed you. One of the reasons that Carol hardly drank anymore: at any given time their daughter’s life might depend on her mother’s mind being sharp. It was like being a doctor yourself but without the golf. You were always on call.
So Jackson returned to the subject that at least seemed to engage his wife. “You don’t understand why it’s so important to me that Shep follows through with his exit from this travesty of ‘freedom.’ But let’s turn it around. Why is it so important to you that he doesn’t?”
“I didn’t say it was ‘important’ to me,” said Carol. “I said he’s a kind, considerate person who would never leave his family in the lurch.”
Jackson slammed his boot back down on the blue parquet of their Forbo Marmoleum (and who had helped him to install it? Shep Knacker). “You just can’t stand the idea that somebody might get out! That somebody might not trudge through their life like an automaton and march in lockstep to the grave! That there might be such a thing as a real man. With courage! With imagination! With volition!”
“So you want to pick a fight? Great, that’s a surefire, hundred-percent-guaranteed route to upsetting your daughter. But go ahead, make her tense,” Carol murmured temperately, with that calmness she had that bordered on insanity. “You’re not the one who has to shove the diazepam up her anus because she can’t keep down the oral kind.”
At the mention of pharmaceuticals, on cue Heather flounced into the kitchen and demanded, “Isn’t it time for my cortomalaphrine?” Jackson had no idea; he could never remember if they were pretending she had to take it before or after meals.
“Heather, I’ve got to get this dinner ready because we’re having a guest, who could be here any minute, so why don’t you take them when Flicka grinds her meds after we eat.”
“But I’m starting to feel funny,” Heather objected, introducing a slight weave to her stance. “Dizzy and prickly and sweaty and stuff. I can’t concentrate or anything.”
“Oh, all right then; pour yourself a glass of milk.” Carol unlocked the high cabinet; keeping sugar pills under lock and key was obviously gratuitous, but part of the theater. So was “cortomalaphrine,” a name they’d effortlessly made up after years of the Catapres, clonazepam, diazepam, Florinef, Ritalin, ProAmatine, Depakote, Lamictal, and Nexium that filled out Flicka’s pill chart like nonsense rhymes from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “Cortomalaphrine” and its recommended dosage were printed on formal Rx labels. Jackson had been dumbfounded to learn that pharmacists keep sugar-paste placebos as part of their standard stock, so presumably it wasn’t only Heather who was scarfing down little brown vials of Good & Plentys at ten bucks a pop.
As Carol shook out three capsules, Jackson looked away. He didn’t believe in this crap. Oh, he took Carol’s point that Heather always had to assume a backseat to her sister’s ceaseless medical crises. But if Heather needed more attention, a fake prescription wasn’t the answer. She should be taught to treasure her good health, to be grateful for it. Sure, back when Carol was pregnant with Flicka the labs didn’t have a test for familial dysautonomia, and once they were told that the baby was fine they’d relaxed. (Ha ha, big surprise in the offing. When their pediatrician finally stopped hiding behind his lame nineteenth-century diagnosis of “failure to thrive” and identified why their newborn couldn’t suckle, was losing weight, and puked all day, that false reassurance from the first trimester made the news much harder to take.) But Jesus, by Carol’s second pregnancy a test had just been developed, and they already knew the chances of another FD kid were one-in-four; getting the results of the amnio, they’d been nervous to the point of stroke. When the obstetrician beamed a big smile and gave them the all-clear, Heather’s mother-to-be was so relieved she cried. Did Heather have any idea that if her fetus, too, had carried the two copies of the FD gene she seemed so foolishly to envy she wouldn’t be here? Well, no, you didn’t tell children that they had ever been an inch away from an abortion.
And you didn’t let your older kid know that, either, since the obvious implication was that if they’d known they’d have marked Flicka “Return to Sender,” too. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that they would have, or should have, but he’d wondered about it. During some of the worst of it – once the corrective surgery for scoliosis had barely healed, they then had to break it to her that it was time for a “Nissen fundoplication” to cure her chronic acid reflux – he’d suspected that Flicka was angry not just in that why-me way, but angry at her parents in particular, who made her be here. Just be here at all.
However much it cost her, he’d assured Flicka many times – and thanks to her very refusal to embrace that hackneyed angel-of-innocence shtick, which would have bored her father senseless – that she really did brighten their lives. It was his fault that she was a brat – a caustic brat, an entertaining brat, but still a brat. Yet how could you not spoil the girl, at least a little? As hard as he tried not to see it, FD was a degenerative condition, and Flicka was duly deteriorating. She used to be so cute. If she was still cute to her father, he sometimes recognized that her chin had started to round upward and jut forward like Popeye’s, lending her face a permanent pugnacity. Her smashed-looking nose was growing in the opposite direction, its tip rounding downward and curving inward, as if the nose and chin were trying to touch each other. Her mouth had grown disproportionately wide, her eyes had migrated too far apart, and as the chin grew up and out she had started resting her front teeth on the outside of her lower lip. He wasn’t concerned about her having grown less fetching; he was concerned that these were outward manifestations of something much more dire happening that you couldn’t see, something he still didn’t quite understand, although it wouldn’t matter if he did.
He’d started out thinking about Heather and then ended up thinking about Flicka again, so maybe Carol was right about Heather’s feeling neglected. A few sugar pills were probably harmless enough, and she got to name-drop to her friends about taking “cortomalaphrine.” Most of the kids at Heather’s primary school were drugged to the eyeballs, and apparently a diagnosis was her generation’s must-have, the equivalent of fringed suede jackets in the sixties. But what really floored him about this placebo business was that as soon as she started popping those pills Heather, already on the stocky side, had started to put on weight. It wasn’t the pills themselves, which couldn’t have been more than five calories apiece; it was pure suggestion. All her classmates on antipsychotics and antidepressants and every other anti-be-difficult prescription were porkwads.
Jackson was disheartened to detect that already at eleven Heather showed signs of being a joiner. He’d never understood this impulse to be just like everybody else when everybody else was a fucking moron. Even as a boy, Jackson had always wanted to stand out; his daughters’ peers seemed driven to blend in. The sole exceptions, the only truly ambitious kids determined to draw attention to themselves as a cut above, clinked to school with an arsenal under their trench coats.
On the other hand, maybe he was more of a conformist than he liked to admit. Take Heather’s name. They’d picked it because they thought it was unusual. Now there were three other Heathers in her class. What was it with this name thing? You think you’ve never heard it before, but it’s in the air or something, like a smell or a gas, and meanwhile every other pregnant couple on the block is deciding to name their kid Heather because it’s unusual. At least by some miracle their firstborn’s high school wasn’t chockfull of Flickas. Thank fuck for Carol’s hang-up on stupid horse books as a kid. Look at you, he kicked himself. Flicka again. You can’t keep thinking about your second daughter for ten seconds. Still, there was sure to come a time, no telling how soon, when he would have to think about Heather because Heather was the only daughter he had.
“Jackson, should I go ahead and feed the kids? It’s getting late.”
“Yeah, probably. Shep and Glynis likely got into a thing. If I know Glynis, she won’t let him go without a fight. No telling when he’ll get here, really.”
“Sweetheart,” Carol said gently. “You should prepare yourself for the possibility that he gets cold feet. Or sobers up and realizes that he has a son and a wife and a life, and this Pemba thing is ridiculous. Cloves. I mean, really.” It was a particularly female form of condescension: men and their juvenile notions, their vain, impractical little projects.
Jackson glared. It was one more of those moments when looking at his wife was an outright torture. She was unbelievably beautiful. It sounded mean-spirited, but he’d been a little exasperated that as she’d grown older she’d remained as sexy as ever, tall – taller than he was – with long amber hair and perfect round breasts the size of halved grapefruits. She never gained an ounce. Not from dieting or jogging either, but from hauling eighty-five pounds of writhing, gagging human flesh to an upstairs bed or emergency room. He was no longer sure whether Carol’s face had always been set in that serene, impassive expression, as if carved in marble, or if she had developed that stillness and infuriating composure in order to project a soothing, tranquil presence for Flicka. In any event, for years now she’d been so hard to rile that she inspired him to try.
He was always proud to be seen with her in the company of other men and their washed-out, lumpy wives, but here at home the only adult for Carol to be better looking than was her husband. He wasn’t outright ugly or anything, but he worried that they were one of those couples about whom other people wondered in private, Carol’s a knockout, but what did she ever see in him? Why would such a fox pick a short, stocky working-class stiff with hair on his shoulders? He’d read somewhere that one of the things that made for a successful marriage was that both parties were roughly the same level of physical attractiveness, which had made him nervous. Most men would think him crazy, but he wished she were a shade homelier. The fact that homelier and homier shared so many letters didn’t seem a coincidence.
Jackson laid out plates for the kids, catching Flicka’s look of dread. Sausage and peppers was one of Carol’s signature dishes, always a crowd-pleaser, but fennel seed and garlic were wasted on Flicka. With little sense of smell and a tongue smooth as shoehorn, she couldn’t taste for shit. She may have learned, painstakingly, to fold down her epiglottis to prevent food from leaking into the trachea, but she still chewed every bite so long that she might have been gnawing her way through the table itself, and if her mother turned her back for an instant she’d scrape the remains of her plate in the trash. The weird truth was that she made no association between hunger and food. Accordingly, she found the amount of time squandered on cooking bafflingly disproportionate. The cultural folderol to do with eating – separate salad bowls and fish forks, anguish over orders in restaurants, shared disappointment over a soggy homemade pizza crust that was keen enough to ruin an evening – was as impenetrable to Flicka as the sacrificial rituals of an arcane animist cult. Her chunky sister’s stuffing down chocolate when the organism didn’t strictly require more calories seemed simply nonsensical, as if Heather were continuing to squeeze the nozzle when gas was bubbling out the cap and running down the side of the car.
“Flicka, I made you a separate portion, without any sauce.”
“Keep it,” said Flicka sullenly. “I can just load in a can of Compleat.”
“I don’t want to have this fight with you every night.” Carol’s delivery was so smooth that anyone listening would have thought, what fight?
“Yeah, yeah, the family that swallows together stays together. Makes a lot of sense.”
“Your feeding therapist says you have to try to eat something every day, and that serving is very small. Being able to eat even a little bit is important for making friends.”
Flicka’s intended snort came out more like a gurgle, and she wiped the drool from her chin with the terrycloth sweatband on her right wrist. Since it was always soaked, the rash underneath had grown chronic. “What friends?”
“We pay for that therapist out of our own pockets—”
“Yeah, well how’d you like some goon sticking their fingers in your mouth all the time? Karen Berkley’s not for me, but for you—”
“Just eat it.” Good Lord, Carol almost sounded flustered.
After filching into her school backpack for a large battered Ziploc, Flicka pulled herself up with Carol’s cornflower-print curtains and lurched to the small pan of undressed sausage and peppers on the counter. Before Carol could stop her, she’d upended the pan in the blender, sloshed in two mugs of water, and turned the appliance on high. The meal churned to an aerated brownish pink that immediately put Jackson off his dinner. With a malignant glint in the Vaseline around her eyes, she fastened the wide-bore syringe to its clear extension tubing, the other end of which she connected to the capped plastic port on her stomach – one not much different from the screw-off pour spouts on cartons of Tropicana. She removed the plunger and drained a measure of the blitzed pink gunk into the plastic syringe. Its clamp released, the tube’s translucence made it all too easy to follow the progress of the vomit-colored drizzle. Flick raised the syringe high in her right hand, with a victorious look on her face, like the goddamned Statue of Liberty.
Okay, it was hostile. Rubbing salt in the insult, Flicka announced, “I’m eating it.”
“That tubing will be very difficult to clean,” said Carol, giving in to a hint of iciness as the phone began to ring. “Sweetheart, could you please get that? It seems I have some tidying up to do.”
Well, that’s that,” Jackson announced curtly on return to the kitchen. “He’s not coming.”
“He’s not coming, or he’s not going?”
Carol fetched two more plates, and he caught a flicker in her face.
“So what makes you so fucking happy about that?”
“I didn’t say anything!”
“You’re glad, aren’t you?”
Carol nodded discreetly in Flicka’s direction, and shook her head. He may have been shouting. “I’m glad,” she said, her voice like a spatula spreading cream-cheese icing, “for Glynis.”
Though Handy Randy had expanded into other boroughs, the main office and supply warehouse were still on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, less than a mile from Windsor Terrace. Since he could walk to work, it wasn’t hard for Jackson to arrive early the following Monday, hoping to ensure that when Shep walked in the wisecracks would keep to a minimum. He deliberately projected a protective air of pent-up explosiveness and impending violence, which under the circumstances came naturally enough. Still, the atmosphere in the office was of barely suppressed hilarity; the accountant, the Web page designer, the dispatcher – everyone down to the receptionist wore expressions as if they were stuffing fists in their mouths to keep from busting out laughing. When Shep did walk in, he didn’t appear to make anything of the fact that the rest of the staff suddenly fell silent, and he glided toward his cubicle with a robotic passivity that seemed familiar; maybe Shep and Carol had something temperamental in common. No matter what life threw at him – “life” was a gentle way of putting it; other people, more like it – Shep absorbed it, like that blithe, look-the-other way shit his family pulled when he paid for his mother’s funeral, from casket to pâté, as if covering all those expenses was like farting and you didn’t mention it in polite company. When Mark, the website guy whom Jackson had put in his place on Friday, asked archly, “What, no suntan?” Shep returned mildly that the weekend had been overcast. He sat at his terminal and checked his email for complaints; Jackson could tell at a glance from across the room that there were plenty.
It was hot. Jackson had learned to wear short sleeves in the winter months, or he’d have come home drenched. Pogatchnik kept the heat cranked up full blast, if only to irritate Shep, who deplored the waste. According to their dickhead boss, waste was the point: a business that kept its premises tropical in January and arctic in August encouraged customers to feel confident that the enterprise was thriving. It was a sign of prosperity, just as fat used to be a badge of affluence: once you could afford to overeat; now you could afford to overheat. Shep had countered that he couldn’t understand why any red-blooded creature would be comfortable at eighty-five degrees in one season and fifty-five in another, but every position Shep ever took with Pogatchnik backfired, and the last time Shep had politely requested that they lower the thermostat the setting went up another two degrees. For that matter, just about every innovation Pogatchnik had installed was specifically tailored to goad Shep Knacker, down to the special seminar on “Getting Along with Difficult Co-Workers,” when Pogatchnik himself was the difficult co-worker.
Their boss finally deigned to shamble in at 11:00 a.m. He headed straight to Shep’s cubicle. “Seems like you owe me an apology, Knacker.”
“Yes, I do,” Shep said stonily.
Pogatchnik continued to loom over Shep’s desk, as if wanting something more.
“I humbly apologize,” Shep provided. “I may have had a bad day.”
“Just because you used to own this outfit when it was an itty-bitty local operation doesn’t give you special rights. I’ll cut you slack this time, but any other employee I’d have shown the door. In fact, since you are any other employee—”
“I appreciate the second chance. I never expect special consideration. It won’t happen again.”
Listening to this grotesque public shit-eating from twenty feet, Jackson had a good grasp of why employees were arriving at work with canvas bags full of automatics all across the nation. The “itty-bitty local operation” was particularly hard to take. Shep had sold Knack of All Trades right around the time that the World Wide Web was just taking off big time, and how was he to know that the handyman biz would burgeon online? After Pogatchnik registered the domain name www.handiman. com (www.handyman.com had already been taken, but they got all the clients who couldn’t spell; this being America, that hadn’t curtailed their business in the slightest), their customer base exploded. Pogatchnik took all the credit, as if he’d invented the Internet itself, like Al Gore. Now the company was probably worth four times what that pond scum had paid for it, and Pogatchnik had started running television ads of himself tunelessly belting an excruciating variation on Sammy Davis, Jr, “The handyman, oh, the handyman can!” that drove Jackson to change the channel with an urgency bordering on hysteria. It had seemed so cool at the time, that check for a million smackers, and now it turned out that selling Knack was the dopiest thing Shep had ever done.
When the two grabbed their customary sandwiches at a café up the street – Jackson could have lived without all the buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto nonsense, aka ham and cheese – he had to ask: “What was all that mea culpa ass-lick with Pogatchnik?”
Shep was always a contained character, but even for Shep his affect all morning had been inhumanly flat, cooperative to the point of non-existence. As if you could run him through the paces of a DUI stop and he’d touch his nose for you and stand on one leg and count back from a hundred by sevens and it wouldn’t matter that you weren’t a cop and he hadn’t even been driving.
“Oh, that,” said Shep in a monotone. “When I left Handy Randy on Friday” – the guy never called the company Handy Randy, he always called it Knack; Christ, the poor chump sounded like Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke after he’s been in that tiny sweat box for days and he says, Yah sir, yah sir, because his will is broken – “I think I said something like, ‘So long, asshole.’ It was an indulgence. I didn’t think I was coming back.”
“Okay, I can see saying sorry, but did you have to crawl?”
“Yes, I did.”
Jackson thought about it. “Health insurance.”
“That’s right.” Shep took one bite of his sandwich and put it down again. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the impression that my colleagues were aware that I’d originally planned on an excursion. The fact that I came to work today seemed to be the source of some amusement.”
“Look, I’m sorry. Last week Mark was being sarcastic again, and – I guess I should have kept my trap shut. But I was so sure you were really going to go this time … I’m not making any excuses, but it would have been easier on both of us if you’d kept your grand plan to yourself years ago until you were good and ready to press the Eject button.”
“Years ago there was no reason for me to keep it quiet. It was just what I was going to do.”
“Still, I wish you’d let me tell the staff at Knack, about Glynis. Not let them think you didn’t go to Pemba because you’re chicken, or some loony fantasist. They’d give you a lot less grief.”
“Glynis doesn’t want it out. I got permission to tell you and Carol. But otherwise, it’s her business. I’m not going to use her to make my work life more agreeable. It isn’t agreeable anyway and it never will be, so really it doesn’t make any difference.”
“Why do you suppose she wants to keep it a secret?”
Shep shrugged. “She’s private. And letting it be common knowledge makes it real.”
“But it is real.”
“All too,” said Shep.
“Listen,” said Jackson as they headed back. “You want to swing by the house for a beer before you drive back to Elmsford?”
It was obvious that the prospect of doing anything for fun or for comfort or for any reason that had to do with himself and what he might “want” had become foreign to Shepherd Knacker overnight, but Jackson had asked him to do something, so he would do it. “Sure,” he said.
I can’t stay long,” Shep warned as he drove them to Windsor Terrace.
“That’s all right. We have to meet with that FD support group at nine anyway. Which I dread. Oh, it would be okay if it were only sharing info on the side effects of medication and stuff. It’s the whole Jewish thing that gets a bit much. I mean, don’t take me wrong, I’m not one of those ‘self-hating Jews.’ I’m just not especially, well, Jewish.” Jackson was babbling, but with a zombie at the wheel someone had to say something. “My mother isn’t observant, and my father has this Basque thing going, which is kind of cool – not that I’d blow up any Spanish politicians over it or anything. And then Carol, well, she was raised Catholic. She had one grandfather on her father’s side who was Ashkenazi. So we get all this pressure at the support group to stuff Flicka full of gefilte fish, and technically Flicka’s not even Jewish.
“And these Orthodox loons … When they get married, the couples refuse to get the DNA test. Even after they’ve had an FD kid, they won’t get amnio. There’s a family in Crown Heights has three of them. Perfect punishment for being that stupid. Because, sure, Jews are down on abortion. But despite that, the rabbis in every form of Judaism – reform to ultra-orthodox? They all tell you that if the fetus has FD, get rid of it. Like, God doesn’t want them to suffer. It’s that bad.
“It just slays me, you know? Supposedly it’s the Jewish faith, and you’d think you could choose, right, what you believe in? But no. These fucking genes have been stalking me, man, one generation after another. It’s like being mugged by a rabbi.” Considering, Jackson shouldn’t be complaining about anything on his own account, and he shut up.
Carol and Shep hugged, and Carol said she was so, so sorry. Settling in the kitchen, Shep explained that he’d spent most of the weekend on the Internet, and told them what he knew. He said he was taking a personal day at the end of the week, to go in with Glynis and meet with an oncologist, after which they’d be better informed. Carol asked how he thought Glynis was taking it, and Shep said that she was pissed off but that she was always pissed off, so it was hard to tell. Then Carol asked how Shep was taking it, and he seemed to find the question irrelevant. Obviously I’m scared, he said, but I can’t afford to be scared, or to be anything else, either. I’m the one who has to keep it together. So it doesn’t matter how I am. I don’t matter anymore. It was the first thing he’d said all day with real passion.
Carol commiserated over Pemba, though Shep knew perfectly well that she’d thought the whole idea was nuts. He said that deep-sixing his “Afterlife” already seemed like small potatoes, like something that happened a long time ago. He said that the only good aspect of this awful turn of the wheel was realizing what was important. Now he didn’t have to decide whether to leave or not, because as soon as Glynis told him there was no decision. There was no Pemba. It was as if the whole island had sunk into the sea. You wouldn’t think it, he said, but I’ve never experienced any other moment in my life in which everything suddenly got so simple. Shep wondered aloud whether this thing happening out of the blue amounted to a sick sort of divine intervention. He hadn’t wanted to go to Pemba without Glynis and Zach. He shouldn’t have gone without them and now he couldn’t. It was neat and clear. So in this sense the game changer was a relief. The lack of hesitation. The great, glaring obviousness of what he had to do. And wanted to do, Shep added emphatically. Glynis needs me. Maybe she did before, too, but it wasn’t as apparent. When Shep said that your wife needing you, it’s a good feeling, Jackson felt a stab of envy that he didn’t understand.
Shep wasn’t commonly this confiding. He wasn’t a heartless person, far from it, but he was like a lot of guys. It was a perfectly decent way of being, in Jackson’s view, a dignified way of being: he tended to let other people take his deepest feelings for granted. He didn’t name them or wear them on his sleeve. So when he spelled out that he loved Glynis and had not realized until now how much, that now he was remorseful about what he had planned to do when only last week he had cast it as last-ditch self-salvation, Jackson was both offended, and moved. Jackson thought about how much Flicka had changed him and Carol, and how some of that change was bad, like getting so under-slept from the late-night feeding regime that they rarely had sex, but how some of the change was good, too. They had an imperative. They were doing something together that was more vital than sex, and even more intimate, it turned out, which had surprised him. So maybe your wife announcing that she could be about to die would have a similar effect of rearranging everything, focusing everything, and bringing you together in a way that wasn’t totally, hopelessly, and unremittingly terrible.
Still, when Shep went on about how glad he was that he no longer had to take responsibility for “abandoning Glynis” and “abandoning his son,” Jackson was taken aback; he had never before heard his friend use that harsh and unforgiving word when describing his intentions: abandon. Shep said that the diagnosis “took this cup from him,” as his father would have said, and Jackson thought, but kept to himself, that the one transformation he was not up for was Shep suddenly going all Christian on him. Instead Jackson said that’s funny, you get out of responsibility by having it dumped in your lap wholesale. Shep said yes, but I feel more like myself now. More normal. Doing the right thing. Taking care of my wife. I did think, Carol hazarded, that walking off into the sunset wasn’t like you. No, said Shep, with a tinge of sorrow. It certainly wasn’t like me. Anyway, said Carol. You know what they say about life and making other plans. Yes, Shep agreed, it’s surprising that we bother to make them. In sounding so philosophical he also sounded older, and there was a boyishness in his best friend that Jackson noticed only now that it was gone.
But with your better cut of people, trouble reminded them that everyone had troubles, that there was an everyone. So Shep didn’t stay on Glynis and Pemba, but asked after Flicka – the girls were upstairs doing their homework – and had the decency to ask after Heather, too. He even asked about Carol’s work, which hardly anyone did because it was so dull, and he wondered whether Carol missed landscape gardening. Yes, she did miss it, she said, doing something physical, involved with the earth. Shep said that he felt the same way, that he missed fixing things, making people’s lives palpably better and seeing the results of his labor, instead of arranging to clean up someone else’s botched job over the phone. He apologized, but he couldn’t remember; he knew that Carol went to work for sales at IBM partly because they let her operate from any computer terminal she liked, be that at home or in Tahiti; she could put in whichever and however many hours she wanted, so long as she did the work – a policy that they all agreed with a laugh shouldn’t be revolutionary but was, that the criterion for performing a job was getting it done. Still, the landscaping had been freelance, with flexible hours, too, and she’d not had a problem, as Shep remembered, being home by the time the girls returned from school, ferrying Flicka to therapists, even rushing her to the ER. Had it really been worth the sacrifice, he asked, for a bigger paycheck? Jackson suppressed an irritation; it bothered him that Carol made more money than he did, as it bothered him that she’d had to give up work that she loved for the reason she had, but everything between men and women was meant to have changed, and this stuff wasn’t supposed to bother him.
“Oh, it wasn’t really for a better salary that I took the job with IBM,” Carol explained. “When Randy took over Knack – you know what a corner-cutter he is, what a bottom-liner – he switched to a cheaper health plan. With all our expenses with Flicka, the therapies and surgeries and bouts in the hospital, we couldn’t depend on Jackson’s coverage anymore.
“See,” she went on, “this World Wellness Group outfit is the health insurance company from hell. They levy co-pays on everything, including the meds, and we have to fill dozens of prescriptions every month. With their whopping deductible, you’re out five grand before you’re reimbursed a dime. Their idea of a ‘reasonable and customary’ fee is what a doctor’s visit cost in 1959, and then they stick you with the shortfall. They’re way too restrictive about going out of network, and Flicka requires very specialized care. Then there’s co-insurance on top of the co-pays: twenty percent of the total bill, and that’s in network. And here’s the killer: there’s no cap on out-of-pocket expenses. Add to that that their lifetime payment cap – you know, how much they’ll fork out in total, ever – is also pretty low, only two or three million, when someone like Flicka could easily exceed numbers like that before she’s twenty … Well, we had to find other coverage.”
“Gosh, I had no idea.”
“But you should know, Shep,” said Carol. “It’s your insurance, too.”
Shepherd Armstrong Knacker
Merrill Lynch Account Number 934-23F917
December 01, 2004 – December 31, 2004
Net Portfolio Value: $731,778.56
While they drove to Phelps Memorial in Sleepy Hollow, Shep kept one hand on the wheel, the other in his wife’s. Their clasp was relaxed; her palm was dry. They both stared straight ahead.
“It wasn’t necessary,” he said, “for you to go through the diagnostics on your own.”
“You were off in your own little world,” she said. “So I went off in mine.”
“You must have felt lonely.”
“Yes,” she said. “But I had been feeling that way for some time.”
By the next exit, she added, “You’re a planner, Shepherd. You always look before you leap. Really, you leap before you leap. In your head, you took that plane to Tanzania months ago.”
He was relieved that she was talking to him at all. He was willing to be castigated, glad for it.
To his horror, Glynis had already been subjected to abdominal X rays, a CAT scan, and an MRI. Memories fell into place. On two mornings in December she had declined not only breakfast but even coffee, which for Glynis was unheard of. He couldn’t recall the excuse, but it mustn’t have been persuasive, because the refusal of coffee in particular had injured him; she had spurned one of the sacred rituals of their day. On two evenings, she had kept rising for another drink of water, and yet another. So she’d not been quenching a powerful thirst, but rinsing contrast medium from her veins. Likewise one odd, floating memory finally lodged into an orderly narrative: of walking into the bathroom before she had a chance to flush, and noticing that the bowl was red. It had been awfully early in her cycle, but she was fifty, perhaps getting irregular; aware that she was touchy about the approach of menopause, he hadn’t passed comment. Now he realized: that was not her period. He also realized that she had started to wear a nightgown to bed not, as she had claimed, because she was cold; it was to hide the laparoscopy scar on her belly, which he had now seen. Though only an inch long, it alarmed him: a first violation, and not the last. The nightgown had injured him, too. They had slept for twenty-six years skin to skin.
Since that signal Friday evening a week ago, she had shared only bits and pieces about the tests. So her mention that weekend of one small technicality had stood out. Before the MRI, for which all jewelry must be removed, they had to do an extra X ray before sliding his wife into the tube. “Because they learned I was a metalsmith,” she’d said. “The imaging is magnetic. Metal screws it up. You can’t have any fragments or filings stuck to your body.”
He should have recognized why she had told him this: because she was proud. He shouldn’t have asked her, “So did they find any?” An effective but infuriating gambit increasing in frequency, she hadn’t responded to his question at all, which in this case meant no. They found no fragments or filings. She had worked so little in her studio for months that she could have taken the MRI just like anyone else. Even at such a juncture, he’d had to rub it in.
Your own little world. Her subterfuge would never have succeeded without his corresponding neglect. If he had noticed that despite the recent fullness around her stomach she’d grown thinner, he had made little of the observation, which was as good as not having noticed. He thought, I’d no idea that our marriage was in such disrepair, and then he remembered that until last Friday evening he was planning to leave her.
“That night,” he said. “You didn’t have to let me go on like that, about Pemba. You could have stopped me.”
“I was interested.”
“It wasn’t nice.”
“I haven’t been feeling,” she said, “nice.”
“How do you feel?” Shep was ashamed. In the last week he’d been solicitous, perhaps annoyingly so. Yet in the months beforehand he could not remember the last time he had asked her how she felt.
She took a moment. “Frightened. For some reason it was easier when you didn’t know.”
“That’s because you can give yourself permission, now, to be frightened.” He pressed her hand, just. “I will take care of you.” It was a big promise, one he would fail. But he would fail valiantly, and that was the promise he made to himself.
Dr Edward Knox extended a hand to Shep, his clasp firm and generous. The oncologist gave off the astringent tang of antiseptic, as if he were one of those rare physicians who really did wash his hands. It was a smell Shep associated with anxiety. “Mr Knacker, I’m so pleased that you could finally arrange to join us.”
In this phrasing Shep detected reproof, and his wife’s outrageous misrepresentations. In other circumstances, he would have taken her to task for them. Since now he would not, he sensed that taking her to task for anything was now pretty much a thing of the past.
The familiar air with which Glynis took a chair indicated that she had been in this office before. These two had a history together, and though Shep was “finally” here he felt excluded. He got the peculiar impression that for Glynis this office was a seat of power.
As the doctor assumed his swivel chair, Shep adjudged that the oncologist may have been in his latter thirties, although he’d grown ever less certain about ages. While he could still tell the difference between sixty and sixty-five, lately his juniors all entered an undifferentiated category of Younger Than Me, which was odd, since he had been that age before, knew what it felt like and how it appeared in the mirror. But from the perspective of a greater age it always turned out that you hadn’t, at the time, understood being thirty-seven at all, what it was, what it looked like. Unfortunately for current circumstances, younger people always seemed callow to Shep now, their confidence, which Dr Knox radiated in pulses, hollow and unjustified – that is, enviably self-deceiving. Still Shep wanted to believe in this man, and rather hoped that with friends he went by “Edward” and not by the flip, less reliable-sounding “Ed.” Fit and trim, Knox probably chose fruit for dessert in the cafeteria and made time for the treadmill in the hospital gym; he practiced what he preached. Personally Shep always had a soft spot for medical practitioners who carried twenty surplus pounds and sneaked cigarettes in the staff parking lot. The hypocrisy was reassuring. From doctors, Shep had always sought less authority than forgiveness.
“I apologize that it’s taken us so long to arrive at a positive diagnosis,” Dr Knox began, addressing himself to Shep. “Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to identify, and we had to rule out a host of other more commonplace explanations for your wife’s fever, tenderness, abdominal swelling, and gastric dysmotility.” Shep didn’t know what dysmotility meant, but he didn’t ask, because then the doctor would know that this was one more of his wife’s symptoms that he hadn’t known about, or cared about, or noticed.
“After all, as I’m sure your wife has told you, peritoneal mesothelioma is very rare,” Dr Knox continued. “And I won’t mislead you. It’s also very serious. Because the peritoneum is a very fine membrane surrounding the abdominal organs, almost like Saran Wrap, diseased tissue can be tucked into corners that are difficult or impossible to get at surgically.” Shep admired the doctor’s locution, which at least pretended that of course Shep knew what the peritoneum was; Knox was loath to imply that his patient’s husband paid so little heed to his own wife’s grave medical distress that he wouldn’t bother to look up her diagnosis in a dictionary. “And I’m sorry to say that symptoms of mesothelioma don’t generally make themselves felt until the cancer is fairly advanced. Nevertheless, we have a range of therapies at our disposal. New treatments, new approaches, and new drugs are being developed all the time. The survival rate has done nothing but improve.”
Shep knew all of this from the Internet, but felt it would appear impertinent for him to say so. Besides, it seemed important to allow the oncologist this formal introduction. Shep had already read enough to have registered that most of the nostrums in Knox’s grab bag of tricks were poisons. In the face of being able to do so little, it must have been comforting to the doctor to seem to be useful in this discursive way. His manner methodical but warm – he smiled encouragingly and looked Shep in the eye – Edward Knox had struck Shep from the start as very kind.
But even when doctors acted kind, the extent of their capacity to be kind was often out of their hands. However gently put, many a message that physicians were forced to deliver was cruel, and if it did not feel cruel it was a lie and thus was even crueler. Personally Shep didn’t understand why anyone would want to be one. Oh, certainly the tasks of stenting an artery and clearing a bathtub drain were technically akin. Yet a doctor was like a handyman who, some appreciable percentage of the time, had to knock on your door and say, I’m sorry, but I cannot clear your drain. That’s all the acting kind was good for: the I’m sorry part. And then he walks away and maybe he waves, leaving you with scummy standing water in your bath. Why would anyone want a job like that.
“And I do have some good news,” Knox continued. “First, as I assured you last week, Mrs Knacker, the MRI did not reveal any anomalies in the pleural – in the lungs. Even more critically, I now have the lab report from the laparoscopy. Mesothelioma comes in two flavors, if you will – two types of malignant cells. The epithelioid are less aggressive, the sarcomatoid much more so. In the samples we extracted, only epithelioid cells were detected. That makes the prognosis considerably more optimistic.”
Glynis gave a schoolgirl nod, as if she had done something right. Shep was about to ask, so what prognosis is that? He opened his mouth and it was dry. He closed it, and swallowed. Instead he said, wanting to be grateful, to play his part, to enter into the spirit of gung ho that was clearly expected here, “Yes. That sounds like very good news.”
At once, he could not help but reflect that only a week ago “good news” comprised the value of his Merrill Lynch portfolio increasing by $23,400 without his lifting a finger. Their son finally passing second-year algebra. Randy Pogatchnik playing hooky at some golf resort, so that for three days working at Knack would be, if not quite the same as the olden days, at least collegial. Glynis being in a playful, indolent mood he could barely remember now, and up for watching an old episode of The Sopranos. Now on a dime he was expected to enter a world in which “good news” comprised his wife’s abdomen coursing with vicious “epithelioid” cells rather than the even more vicious “sarcomatoid” kind and this information was meant to cheer him.
“As for where we go from here,” said the doctor, “you may want to commission a second opinion. It’s always possible that other specialists will recommend an alternative approach, but I thought I’d prepare you for the standard course of treatment for epithelioid mesothelioma. Assuming the diagnosis is confirmed, Mrs Knacker, you’ll probably be scheduled for debulking surgery as soon as possible. This is to remove as much of the cancer as can be reached. We’ve located three patches of diseased tissue in the peritoneum. I’m afraid that the surgeons I have consulted concur that one of those patches is inaccessible. Both to shrink the little bit we can’t reach and to discourage further malignant cell growth, chemotherapy will almost certainly have to follow once you’ve recovered from the operation. To that purpose, a thoracic surgeon will install two ports in your abdomen. This way we can deliver intraperitoneal infusions of heated cisplatin that will wash over your organs, rather than administering chemotherapy through your bloodstream. Unpleasant side effects with this direct application should be markedly less pronounced.”
“Does that mean I won’t lose my hair?” asked Glynis, reflexively touching her crown, as if to make sure her hair was still there.
A shadow crossed the oncologist’s face, a sadness, a pitying, into which Shep could read that such a small damage to his patient’s vanity was bound to be the least of Glynis’s problems. “Patients react differently to treatments,” he said gently. “There’s no way to predict.”
“Besides, it grows back, doesn’t it?” said Shep. This was the role. He was supposed to be upbeat.
A second shadow, and this time one that Shep could not decode. “Yes, once treatments are completed, it certainly does,” said Dr Knox, seeming to rouse himself. “Some patients find it grows back in even more thickly than before.”
Shep had the sudden impression that this visit, if not the whole song and dance from the X rays and the CAT scan to all the scalpels and “abdominal ports” and vile medications to come, was a farce, a macabre charade. As helpful and soothing as this doctor was trying to be, Shep felt distinctly humored. In turn, he also felt co-opted into a collusion with the doctor, whereby together they were humoring his wife. The joke was on Glynis. It was a wicked joke, a despicable joke, for which she would pay with every fiber of her being. He did not want to be a part of it. He would be a part of it.
“But before we go any further?” the oncologist continued. “Because this is such an unusual cancer, I have limited experience with the disease. Phelps Memorial has seen only two cases in the last twenty years. However, there’s a specialist in internal medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian, who works in tandem with a skillful surgeon. They both have extensive clinical experience with mesothelioma, and have a terrific reputation.”
“Are you trying to get rid of us?” said Shep with a strained smile.
Dr Knox smiled back. “You could say that. Mesothelioma patients come to Philip Goldman from all over the world. You’re lucky, because for you two he’s effectively right next door. Now, he doesn’t come cheap. It’s likely as well that he’ll be out-of-network for your insurance. You’d need to get permission from your insurer if you want them to fully cover an out-of-network physician, and you’d certainly have a good case. But even if your provider declined, I’d urge you to consider Dr Goldman. Your insurer would still pick up most of the bill; I don’t know the specifics of your health plan, but you might just be levied a higher percentage of co-insurance. And given the stakes … Well, I assume that money is no object.”
“Of course it isn’t,” Shep found himself saying. “We’ll pay whatever it takes to get Glynis well again.” Given his wife’s milk-money income from a chocolatier, the we was more farce. That the well again might also qualify as farce Shep was not yet prepared to contemplate.
Nevertheless, as Knox wrote out the contact details of this famously expensive shaman of the black arts, Shep considered this quantity now officially of “no object.” Of course it had no value by itself. Money was a means. But to ends not readily dismissed as “no object.” Food, shelter, clothing. Safety, insofar as there was such a thing, and thus also the capacity for rescue. Efficacy, power, sway. Ease, freedom, choice. Generosity, charity; if not love, for his children, wife, sister, and father, the palpable evidence of love. Education; if not wisdom, its prerequisite of accurate information. If not happiness, comfort, which could stand in for happiness in a pinch. Airplane tickets – experience, beauty, and escape. From the description of their apparent savior in Columbia-Presbyterian, raw, animal survival. For in the face of a virulent cancer, they would not simply follow directions, and marshal their forces of will; they would buy life. They would buy Glynis’s life, day by costly day, and in the end you would be able to affix a price tag to every one.
“So far, do either of you have any questions?” asked Dr Knox.
“The side effects …” said Glynis. Of course, there was nothing “side” about them. They were effects – big, brutal, and anything but ancillary.
“Each drug and each patient is different. You’ll be alerted what to be prepared for, I promise. Let’s get through the surgery first. Not get ahead of ourselves.”
In the proceeding silence, Shep looked to his wife, then to the oncologist, beginning to panic. He did not want to shake hands and find himself in the car and have the omission, the elision, the craven evasion, steeping the inside of the vehicle like toxic emission fumes. But he also did not understand why he had to be the one to ask. Glynis might have raised this obvious matter before, but if so she hadn’t shared with him the upshot of such a discussion, and that seemed impossible.
When trying to get up to speed about a disease he’d never heard of before last Friday, through the following weekend Shep had spent hours at the computer. Know thy enemy, he figured. Yet on one medical Web page, well into its patient, hand-holding explanations of every test and treatment that mesothelioma patients might expect, he had finally arrived at a section headed “Survival Rates.” He had nearly memorized the first paragraph, having stared it down for so long:
Following on this page is quite detailed information about the survival rates of different stages of mesothelioma. We have included it because many people have asked us for this. But not everyone who is diagnosed with a cancer wishes to read this type of information. If you are not sure whether you want to know at the moment or not, then perhaps you might like to skip this page for now. You can always come back to it.
It was his initial impression that the authors of the text were being patronizing. His first impulse was to scroll down. He had always faced difficulty squarely. But this was different, if only because it was not his difficulty. It was bound, at points, to seem like his difficulty, but he would have to be mindful about that. Still, there was no question that as that paragraph burned on the screen, what bloomed in his gut was terror. He reached for the mouse. He withdrew his hand from the mouse. He did not scroll down. Taking the page’s advice, skip this page, he had returned to the same point on the same website three other times. He had never scrolled down. He wasn’t ready. In this office, with a fellow human being who could speak with all that useless kindness, it was time to scroll down.
“What are her chances,” said Shep, so leadenly that he was unable to lift the end of the sentence to imply the interrogative. “How long.” This was no juncture at which to be unclear. He formed the question fully. “How long has my wife got to live.”
But it was Glynis who spoke. “There’s no way to say. Every patient is different, you heard the doctor. Every patient reacts differently, and, as he said, new drugs are coming on the market all the time.”
His glance darting between them, Dr Knox seemed to appraise the couple carefully. “It’s important to remain optimistic. I’ve often been pressed for a specific prognosis, and even when I’ve relented I can’t tell you how often I’ve been wrong. How many times I’ve predicted that a patient had such-and-such an amount of time left, and then years beyond the point at which I’d have expected to be sending flowers they’re thrashing their best friends at squash.”
“And it helps, you said,” said Glynis, “that I’m in very good health to begin with. I’m not overweight, my cholesterol is good, I exercise, I don’t have any complicating conditions, and I’m barely fifty years old.”
“Absolutely,” Dr Knox chimed in. “Committing to a specific doomsday date is like going to war and choosing ahead of time the day on which you plan to lose. In medicine just as in the military, it’s a positive attitude that gets results.”
Shep was familiar with this talk of illness as armed confrontation: the “battle” with cancer, whose patients are invariably classified as “real fighters,” with “an arsenal” of treatments at their disposal with which to “defeat” an invasion of wayward cells. But the analogy felt wrong. His small experience so far was more one of bad weather. So it was as if the doctor had declared they would “go to war” with a snowstorm, or a gale wind.
“Yes, well, I didn’t mean to sound pessimistic, and there must be a huge variation …” Shep dutifully backed down. Still, he was surprised. Given her ferocity, her defiance, her darkness – of the two, he was far more constitutionally inclined toward the very optimism that Knox was promoting – he would have classed Glynis as the scroll-down type. Doubtless there were more things he would find out about her as this proceeded. Maybe you never really knew anyone until they were dying.
Thus blocked from “getting ahead of themselves,” Shep worked backward.
“Asbestos,” he said. He found it odd that they had spoken so long without anyone mentioning the word. “Mesothelioma is associated almost exclusively with asbestos. How could my wife have been exposed to that?”
“She and I have discussed this, and I’m afraid we didn’t solve the mystery. She tells me that, to her knowledge, she’s never worked with the material. Nor, I gather, have you ever had the insulation replaced in your home. But it was once so pervasive … and it only takes a single inhaled or ingested fiber … The gestation period for mesothelioma is anywhere from twenty to fifty years. That makes it incredibly difficult to identify a particular product as the provenance of the disease. Does it really matter?”
“It matters to me,” said Glynis hotly. Her demeanor thus far had been so meek; finally in the flash of anger, she sounded like herself. “If some stranger on the street stabbed you in the belly with a butcher knife, wouldn’t you want to know who it was?”
“Maybe …” said Dr Knox. “But I’d be much more concerned with getting to a hospital to be patched up. If the misfortune was the result of ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ who – or in this case what – was the culprit would mostly be a matter of idle curiosity.”
“There’s nothing idle about my curiosity,” said Glynis. “Since I’m about to be slit open and gutted like a fish, then pumped full of drugs that make me throw up and go bald and sleep all day – sleep if I’m lucky – I would rather like to know who did this to me.”
The oncologist chewed on his inside cheek. This office must have seen its fair share of impotent fury. “Maybe I should have asked before. What do you do for a living, Mr Knacker?”
“I run – I work for a company that does household repairs. We send out handymen, basically. Provide the materials …”
The eyes of the physician sharpened. “Do you, or have you done, any of this kind of work yourself?”
Handyman sounded down-market – it had always had a low-class ring to his father, and Jackson had invented all sorts of clunky euphemisms to avoid using the word – but Shep refused to regard the occupation as shameful. If Glynis, too, preferred to describe his more executive capacity at dinner parties, he saw nothing ignoble about physical labor. He was more likely to find ignoble lolling for years at a desk. “Sure, of course.”
“And would you have worked with insulation, or cement products … fireproofing, soundproofing, roofing materials … gutters, rainwater pipes … vinyl flooring, plaster … water tanks?”
Shep felt a flicker of wariness, an intuition that this was the point at which savvy criminals in police interviews took the fifth. The innocent, by contrast, believed that they had nothing to hide, and idiotically blabbed their hearts out. Little wonder that innocent had two connotations: without sin, and ignorant. “All of the above, at one time or another. Why? I never took Glynis out on the job. If any of those materials had asbestos in them, wouldn’t I be the one who got sick?”
“You might have brought fibers home on your clothes. In fact, I came across a story recently about a woman with mesothelioma in Britain, who’s suing their Ministry of Defence. Her father was an insulation engineer at a naval dockyard, and she’s certain that she was exposed to asbestos from hugging her father as a child.”
As a grown man, Shep rarely blushed, but now his cheeks stung. “That seems far-fetched.”
“Mmm,” said Dr Knox. “A single fiber, on the hand, touched to the mouth? Unfortunate, but not far-fetched.”
The wave of heat was followed by a wave of cold, as Glynis turned to him and her expression was accusatory. First he’s so caught up in his “own little world” that his wife doesn’t confide that she’s being tested for a deadly disease, and now he gave it to her.
Shep finally broke their silence as he unlocked the car in the parking garage on Ft Washington. “I thought asbestos was banned a long time ago.”
“It’s still not banned,” said Glynis, bundling furiously into the passenger seat. “The EPA finally banned the shit in 1989, but in 1991 the industry got the ban overturned in court. You can’t use it in insulation and some other whathaveyou anymore, that’s all, or building anything new.”
Shep was immediately struck by the homework Glynis had done on this subject – there was no way that this regulatory timeline had been long lodged in her head as general knowledge – when she had conspicuously refrained from availing herself of the copious information at her fingertips about her illness. She was hazy on the side effects of drugs whose names and downsides were meticulously listed on a host of websites; she would not scroll down. Yet her searches on their home computer had apparently regarded not what was happening to her or what would happen to her next, but who was to blame. The misdirection of her energies was painfully typical.
“I’m not quite sure how I could have known.” He didn’t start the car, though he stared intently out the windshield as if he were driving. “The materials I used to work with were the same ones everyone used. Licensed plumbers, professional roofers … I never cut corners, or used a material that I knew other repairmen were careful to avoid.”
“You could easily have known, and you should have! Evidence about the dangers of asbestos goes back to 1918. The evidence was really beginning to accumulate by the 1930s, but the industry had the research suppressed. The specific link between asbestos and mesothelioma was made in 1964. That was before you even started Knack! By the 1970s, that asbestos could kill you was basically a known fact. I grew up surrounded by these stories, and so did you!”
“Glynis, try to think back,” said Shep, keeping his voice calm, reasoning, quiet. “During the early years I was putting in twelve-, sometimes fourteen-hour days getting Knack off the ground. I didn’t have time to read the papers front to back. Much less to bury my nose in a microscopic list of ingredients every time I opened a can.”
“We’re not talking about your not having time to follow every twist and turn of peace talks in the Middle East. You had an obligation to keep up with health and safety issues that bore directly on your work. And to do whatever modest research might have been required to choose safe products over lethal ones. Never mind just you – or, by the way, your wife and children. What about your employees?”
“I no longer have employees,” he said quietly. “Glynis, why are you doing this? Are you getting back at me for Pemba?”
She was not to be sidetracked. “All these companies being sued up the wazoo for decades right and left, but no, you stick your head in the sand and totally ignore it!”
Shep himself had never been a man for causes. It was his nature to see two sides of things; worse, many sides, so that acquaintances often mistook him for having no opinions at all. He was attuned to particularities, complexities, and extenuating circumstances. He wasn’t critical of ideologues; he found Jackson entertaining. There were causes whose proponents had prevailed and improved matters. He was glad that his wife could vote, and that blacks no longer had to use separate water fountains. It was clearly a fine thing, too, that some firebrands had demonized asbestos, so that his own co-workers were no longer replacing insulation that could kill them, and wouldn’t risk being cast in this terrible role of contaminant by their own wives.
Nonetheless, he had also founded a company, and had a better-than-average understanding of what a company was: neither ogre nor abstraction. It was an amalgam of many people – including the odd slipshod employee or ruthlessly bottom-line zealot who could single-handedly undermine decades of collective diligence. It was an intersection of many products, each of which was connected to yet another company, also of many people, decent people who didn’t always feel like going to work every morning and still did, and each with its host of obligations – to stockholders, investors, health plans, and pensions. Yet a company was also an entity that somebody loved. Not that he was excusing poor practice, but corporate malfeasance was therefore both diffuse, and deeply personal. Given the diffusion, he couldn’t see the satisfaction in pointing the finger at “a company,” much less at “an industry.” After all, look at Glynis. In preference to railing at “an industry,” she was clearly far more gratified to locate a guilty party whom she could literally get her hands on.
He wondered if Edward Knox had any idea how anguishing was his suggestion that Glynis would have come by her cancer as the result of an embrace.
Yet if it helped her, if she hungered to tell herself a story, acquiescing to the part of villain was a service Shep could perform. Maybe it was a modest service, although it didn’t feel modest.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I had no idea asbestos was so deadly. Or that it was in all those materials your doctor mentioned. But you’re right, I should have read those articles. Before working with any product, I should have made certain what it contained. I was irresponsible.” He choked a little on that last adjective, never in his life one applied to him, by himself or anyone else. “And now you’re the one who has to pay for that. It’s not fair. I should be the one who’s sick. I wish it was me. I wish I could shoulder it for you.”
He was not sure that this was true. But he suspected that in due course it would become true, which made it true enough.
When they returned home, Glynis allowed that she wasn’t very hungry, but Shep pressed that she had to keep up her strength. Though he knew that the suggestion was a life-long anathema to her, he even hazarded that before the surgery she should probably try to put on weight. After the violence of the Ft. Washington parking garage – no one had raised a hand, but that’s what it had been, violence – they were quiet, moving around each other with exaggerated deference. Shep volunteered to make dinner, not his usual duty. He wasn’t trying to imply that this was penance; he meant instead to imply that preparation of one meal was merely the beginning of a very long penance, more gestures and sacrifices and many more meals. She was not up for fighting, as she was not, really, up for cooking either, and she let him.
“Dad’s making dinner?” said Zach, shuffling into the kitchen. Whether from his age or nature, their fifteen-year-old was at a stage where he strove for invisibility. He turned to his father, who was peeling potatoes. “What’d you do wrong?”
Kids’ unerring intuition always impressed Shep, and made him nervous. “Where do you want to start?”
They had resolved not to tell the children about their mother’s illness until they were better able to prepare them for what to expect, and they’d confirmed her diagnosis with a second opinion. Or that was the excuse; doubtless they were simply putting off a painful scene. But Zach knew something was up. Since he almost never ate with his parents anymore, this sidle into the kitchen was a spy mission, the nosing through the fridge mere pretext.
Yet Shep was grateful for a third party to cut the tension, and to help manifest the appearance of a normal family – hungry foraging teenager, parents begging in return for some morsel from the well-guarded larder of his private life. A hackneyed tableau soon consigned to the past. In the months to come, Zach would have to learn to be a “good son,” and therefore an artificial one.
“You going out?” asked Shep.
“Nah,” said Zach – “Z” to his friends. His parents had christened him Zachary Knacker before they knew the boy. They’d liked the assonance, the clackety-clack steam-train cadence, which to its bearer sounded “like a character in Dr Seuss” (The Cat in the Hat probably being the last book Zach had read cover to cover). The name was too high profile for a kid desperate to keep his head down, so now he huddled at the end of the alphabet in a cryptic single letter.
“But it’s Friday night!” said Shep, who knew better. He was merely trying to keep his son in the kitchen. Zach never went out. He stayed in his room. His rare forays were to other boys’ rooms. They all lived online, and spent hours at computer games, a diversion of which Shep had initially despaired, until he got it. The attraction wasn’t blood and gore, or aggression. In the days he’d had spare time – whenever was that? – Shep himself had enjoyed solving crossword puzzles. He wasn’t very good at them, but so much the better; they only served their purpose incomplete. Comically low-tech in comparison, but the draw was the same. The reward of all these games was concentration, focus for its own sake; it didn’t matter on what. You couldn’t object to that, and he didn’t.
“Just another night of the week to me,” said Zach, throwing a pizza pocket into the toaster. Lanky, he could afford the grease. Shep peeled his last potato slowly, appraising his son. The features of the boy’s face were growing at wildly different rates, his brow too broad, his lips too full, his chin too small; it was all out of proportion, like a jalopy cobbled together from different cars. Shep yearned to reassure the kid that in two or three years these elements would settle into the same strong, square symmetry of his own countenance. But he didn’t know how to say this without seeming to flatter himself, and promising Zach that he would be handsome soon would only mean to his son that he was ugly now.
“Hey, Mom.” Zach side-eyed his mother, who sat at the breakfast table at an angle more acute than usual. “You tired? It’s only seven o’clock.”
She smiled weakly. “Your mother’s getting old.”
Shep could feel it, that for Zach suddenly the whole happy-family playacting was too much. The boy didn’t know that until a week ago his father was about to abscond to the east coast of Africa, and he didn’t know that his mother had just been diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer, much less did he know that as far as his mother was concerned the disease was his father’s fault. But these hardly incidental unsaids emitted the equivalent of the high-frequency sound waves that convenience stores now broadcast outside their shop fronts to keep loitering gangs from the door. What dulled adult ears could no longer detect was unbearable to adolescents, and the same might be said of emotional fraud. Zach popped his pizza pocket early from the toaster and took his half-frozen dinner in a paper towel upstairs without even bothering with “See ya.”
Roast chicken, boiled potatoes, and steamed green beans. Glynis commended his preparation, but only picked. “I feel fat,” she admitted.
“You’re underweight. It’s only fluid. You have to stop thinking like that.”
“Suddenly I’m supposed to become a different person?”
“You can be the same person who eats more.”
“Your chicken,” she said, “is probably not what I feel so little appetite for.” This was surely true. Given the purpose of food, an appetite at meals implied an appetite for the future.
Just then Shep was filled with the useless but overpowering sensation that he did not want this to be happening. It was almost as if, should he refuse to allow it staunchly enough, much as he had sometimes to stand up to Zach and forbid any more computer games until his grades improved, it would go away. It did not go away, and the feeling passed. He stood behind her chair and slid his hands down her shoulders, leaning to nuzzle her temple with the butt of his head like an affectionate horse.
“This is not why,” she said, “any self-respecting woman would want her husband to stay.”
“Oh, I don’t think I’d have been able to go, up against it. Even without this.” Another small sacrifice – of his opinion of himself. But then, maybe he really wouldn’t have gone to Pemba, in the end. As the Wedding Fountain purling in the next room reminded, he was made of water.
“What if I’d found out a week or two later?” It was understood that they would keep their discourse allusive – never specifying this what is not why any woman wants her husband to stay, go where up against it, found out what a week or two later – in case Zach came back downstairs. Elliptical dialogue that most parents would recognize, it reliably backfired; eavesdropping children filled in the blanks with their worst fears. Little matter. From this conversation, Zach would be hard pressed to infer anything worse than the facts.
“Then you’d have told me,” he said, “and I’d have come back.”
“You just said that you’d never have gone in any event.”
“You were being hypothetical. I was, too. Please, don’t hold onto it.”
The request was ludicrous. Ten years ago her sister Ruby sent a present of a desktop pen set, and a logo on the base betrayed that it was a freebie from Citibank; Glynis had unfailingly recalled the insult on every subsequent birthday. More recently, Petra Carson, her best friend-cum-nemesis from art school, had foolishly taken at face value Glynis’s urging to be critical, and tentatively ventured that her Bakelite-inlaid fish slice was “maybe a little chunky”; the poor woman had been trying to make up for the gaffe with over-the-top compliments on Glynis’s flatware ever since, but to little avail. If Glynis couldn’t relinquish grievances over re-gifting or underappreciative comments about her metalwork, the likelihood that she’d forgive and forget attempted marital desertion was on the low side.
Depleted, Glynis decided to turn in early, and Shep promised to join her soon. Once she went upstairs, he walked onto the front porch. The golf course across the road lost its prissiness in the dark, and could almost pass for wilderness. It was cold and clear. Coatless, he braved the chill, following the course of an airplane accelerating across the stars, waiting until the distant whine subsided and he could see the red taillights no more. Then he went inside, locked up for the night, and padded upstairs to his study. A line of light still shone from Zach’s bedroom, so he closed the door. He unfolded the e-ticket printouts from the bottom desk drawer. They bore today’s date. Sheet by sheet he fed them to the shredder. The maw ground the pages with an intestinal growl; in the basket below, The Afterlife curled to crushed confetti. He’d bought the shredder to guard against identity theft; queer that the machine itself was now stealing who he had been.
Finally, he settled before his computer and went to the Web page whose address the search engine brought up after three keystrokes. When he reached “Survival Rates,” he refused to pause even briefly; taking the plunge without hesitation had always been the best approach to diving into the icy White Mountains swimming hole of his boyhood. He scrolled down. He read carefully to the end of the section, and then read it a second time. Once he shut down the computer, he tried to cry softly, that he not wake his wife.
At Randy Handy – a salacious staff sobriquet so obvious that you’d think Pogatchnik would have headed it off with a company name less vulnerable to perversion – Jackson had adopted a new perspective. He’d let his co-workers make all the sarcastic remarks about Shep and his pathetic “escape fantasy” they liked. Eventually they were bound to find out why the former owner was still yes-massahing Pogatchnik, and then they’d feel bad. Really fucking bad. Jackson was looking forward to it.
He’d concede that in the friendship he’d long played something of a sidekick, but starting with the god-awfully stupid sale of Knack, which demoted Shep from boss to fellow schmo, and now with the plain godawful business of Glynis and the Fall of Pemba, that dynamic had subtly flipped. These days he was Shep’s protector. The role came at a price. He couldn’t ask for anything. When Shep had been the stoic stalwart, he could lean on the guy. No, he hadn’t ever put his hand out (like everybody else in the schmuck’s life). Still, what with Flicka, an on-again-off-again predilection for gambling, and a not-unrelated little difficulty with credit card debt, he’d always been the one with the problems who needed advice. Now he had to keep his mouth shut, and for Jackson keeping his mouth shut, ever, about anything, was unnatural.
That said, there was one subject he’d been tempted to raise for some time, and at least on this point he was relieved to have a better reason to put it off than the usual cowardice. It wasn’t the sort of thing you talked about with other men, even if it should have been, since you sure weren’t going to talk about it with women. Besides, there was something to be said for the restoration of the concept of privacy in a country where at the average bus stop you were as likely to be regaled with the story of some stranger’s abortion as asked for a light. He’d set the date anyway, so there was nothing, really, to discuss.
When they left at 1:00 p.m. for their stingy forty-minute lunch break, Shep asked if maybe they could walk instead of eat; intent on getting straight home to Glynis after work, he could no longer make time for their tri-weekly weight-lifting sessions at the Fifth Avenue Gym. (Jackson was a little relieved to get out of the team workouts; Shep always showed him up.) Though forgoing his sandwich made him petulant, Jackson had to say no problem. Basically in the face of cancer, even of cancer once removed, you had no rights.
“You know, Glynis would never have been able to keep her secret much longer even if she’d tried,” said Shep as they hustled down Seventh Avenue; it was too damned cold for a casual stroll. “The bills have started to arrive.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” said Jackson. “Let me guess: it’s not one bill, it’s dozens, right? Going on for fifteen pages, from every little radiologist and every little lab. And that ‘EOB’ thing!”
“Explanation of Benefits – or lack of benefits, more like it. It’s byzantine.”
“Carol does the paperwork for Flicka, and I’m so grateful I could cry.”
“What kills me is how near-impossible it is to figure out what you owe. Before I brought in an accountant, I used to do the books at Knack myself, and I’m no slouch in that department. But it took me hours to sort out what to send in and where.”
“Fucking hell, you’d think they’d make it easy to give them money,” said Jackson. “Still, I think it’s deliberate. The blizzard of paper, all the numbers and codes. It’s a smoke screen. Behind which you get charged three hundred dollars for a Band-Aid and you don’t notice.”
Jackson shot a ritually despairing glance down the avenue. He missed the old Park Slope – a few failing pizza joints, coffee shops that didn’t charge four bucks a pop, hardware stores with barrels of screws instead of little packets of four all wrapped in plastic. “Gentrified” – though he was hard pressed to see how an army of whiny Barnard grads plowing them into the gutter with strollers the size of troop transporters qualified as “gentry” – it was all yoga parlors, organic smoothie bars, and pet therapists.
“And, you know, what Carol mentioned?” said Shep. “But I didn’t understand at the time. This World Wellness Group. They cover procedures according to prices that are ‘reasonable and customary’ in your area. In other words, what the fee should be, and not what it actually is.”
“This stuff is news to you, pal?” Jackson felt a surge of pitying condescension.
“I did some digging online. The outfit that generates this ‘reasonable and customary’ figure? It’s another unit of the same company. They’re under no legal obligation to tell you how they arrived at it. And it’s in both outfits’ interests for that figure to be as low as possible. As far as I can tell, they could be making it up.”
“Here’s how it works,” Jackson explained benevolently. “We’re going on a trip, and it’s your car, so I’ve agreed to pay for gas. We stop at a station, you fill up the tank, tell me the gas was fifty bucks, hold out your hand. With an expression on my face like I’m doing you a big favor, I hand you a twenty. You say, what’s this? I say, but that’s what a tank of gas should cost – since that’s what it cost when I was twelve. Basically, the insurers live in a fantasy world, and we Mugs are stuck in the real one.”
Shep shook his head. “Glynis and I have always kept to a tight budget. Trying to build that nest egg for The Afterlife. We’ve waited for the two-for-one offer on shampoo. Bought toilet paper in the economy size of twelve rolls, single ply. Got the special on turkey burgers even if we were more in the mood for steak. Now it’s five hundred for this, five thousand for that … And they never tell you in advance what it costs. It’s like going on a spree, piling all this shit on the counter, and none of it has any price tags. We only pick up twenty percent in co-insurance, but that’s after the five-K deductible. One single lab bill – that’s a hell of a lot of toilet paper.”
“Double-ply,” said Jackson.
“I’m thinking, why did we ever eat turkey burgers? And then I remember that I’m not supposed to care. Ultimately, I don’t care. All that matters is Glynis.”
“That’s what they’re counting on, bud. That’s the whole scam in a nutshell. Same with Flicka. It’s your kid, right? So what are you gonna say, no we’re not going to treat her pneumonia – again – cause we want the kind of DVD that records? And, friend … I hate to say it, but for you this is just the beginning.”
“I know,” said Shep quietly, as they hung a left on Ninth Street and headed for Prospect Park. “Even to cover the last stack of bills … Well, you know I’ve kept this other account, where I put the proceeds of the sale of Knack once I paid off the feds. It’s earmarked for The Afterlife, and I’ve never touched it. But there wasn’t enough in our joint checking, so I had to tap the Merrill Lynch. I’d never written a single check on it. Number 101 went for the CAT scan.”
“My guess is you’re already on 115. Take my advice, and order another checkbook pronto.”
“Signing that first one was strangely emotional. Even if it’s ‘only’ money, as my father would say.”
“Yeah, ‘only’ the proceeds from over twenty years building your own business. ‘Only’ eight years of humiliation with Randy Pogatchnik.”
“It doesn’t matter. I just didn’t realize at the time what I was really saving for.”
“You ever think about it? Pemba?”
“No,” said Shep, and changed the subject. “I guess we’re lucky, though. We live in the States. Hey, we get the best medical care in the world.”
“Think again, pal. In comparison to all the other rich countries like England, Australia … Canada … I don’t remember the rest. Look at all the statistics that matter – infant mortality, cancer survival, you name it? We come in last. And we pay twice as much.”
“Yeah, well. At least we don’t have socialized medicine.”
Jackson guffawed. Shep wasn’t stupid, but he could be painfully cooperative. That “socialized medicine” bogyman went all the way back to the 1940s, when Harry Truman had wanted to bring in a national health service, just like the Brits. Nervous that doctors wouldn’t keep raking it in, the American Medical Association concocted this inspired cold war buzz phrase, which had struck terror in the hearts of their countrymen ever since. A genius stroke of labeling. Like when supermarkets came out with that “no frills” line, packaging a perfectly standard, decent product in stark, ugly-ass black-and-white, thus ensuring that no one with any class would buy it, at half the brand-name price. It worked. Even Jackson’s cash-strapped mother hadn’t wanted to be caught dead with no-frills tissues in her cart.
“You realize fortysomething percent of this country is either on Medicaid or Medicare?” said Jackson; history lessons always put Shep to sleep. “All this ooh-ooh about how we don’t want ‘socialized medicine.’ Well, we got socialized medicine, for nearly half the population. So the other half is paying twice. Your Mugs are paying for your Mooches’ CAT scans with confiscatory taxes” – confiscatory was a wonderful word Jackson had learned only about a year ago, and he used it at every opportunity – “and a second time for their own damn scans.”
“You sound so down on Medicare and Medicaid. But you’re not saying that you wish old and poor people didn’t have access to health care.”
Jackson sighed. That line was so predictable. Shep was a class-A Mug. For the ranks of complacent dupes to which, alas, Jackson also belonged, Shep Knacker could be the mascot. “No, I’m not saying that. My point is, guys with health benefits don’t think they’re paying their own medical bills. They cling to their precious employee health insurance as if it’s this great freebie. It’s not free! They don’t understand they’d be getting, like, fifteen grand more in salary if it weren’t for the damned health benefit! It’s fucking sad, man.”
“Money’s gotta come from somewhere, Jacks. Some big national thing would send taxes through the roof. There goes your fifteen grand. Worse, if you earn a decent living.”
“It seems like it’s all the same dough, but it’s not. Think about it. Every piece of paper that just landed in your mailbox cost money. Some officious twit was paid to fill in all those codes, and tick the boxes, and fire off copies to five other places. Thirty percent of the money spent on medical care in this country goes to so-called ‘administration.’ Fact is, there’s a wholly fatty layer of for-profit insurance companies larded between Glynis and her doctors, a bunch of bloodsucking greedy fucks making money off her being sick. And not one of them knows how to set a broken arm. Kick those assholes out of the picture, and for the same cost the whole country would be covered, without fifty different bills a week arriving in your mailbox.”
“You of all people want the government to take over health care?” said Shep, shaking his head with a lopsided smile. “Jacks, you hate government. You’re an anarchist.”
“These companies are so in bed with government that they might as well be the government,” Jackson charged back, irked by Shep’s superior bemusement; yeah, maybe he wasn’t totally consistent, but at least he read stuff, he thought about things, unlike some people, who took everything they were told as gospel. “Why else do you figure that no halfway credible presidential candidate, Democrats included, ever dares suggest eliminating the bloodsuckers altogether? Besides, if the feds wouldn’t do it much better, they couldn’t do it worse. And the whole concept of insurance is to spread the risk, right? To pool the healthy people and the likes of Flicka together so it all evens out in the end. Well, what could be a fairer ‘risk pool’ than the whole damned country? Health care is about the only thing the fucking government should be good for. And maybe, just maybe, if you could at least go to a doctor without having to take out a second mortgage, people would figure that, okay, they pay taxes but at least they get something back. Right now, you get dick. Oh, sorry” – Jackson kicked a rim of raised concrete – “you get sidewalks. I always forget.”
He’d promised himself to shut up, to focus on Shep’s problems for once. Still, none of this stuff was off-point. “Hey,” he said, as Shep stared dully into the blanched, glaucous vista of the park, which in winter looked like a drawing that had been erased. “This isn’t an off-in-the-clouds rant, bud. This is about you and Glynis, right now, what you’re going through, and you’re not even paying attention.”
“Sorry. It’s just … well, we got our second opinion. From this pair of hotshots at Columbia-Presbyterian. They work as a team, an internist and a surgeon. And don’t get me wrong; they were great. In a way.”
“In a way,” said Jackson, forcing himself to listen. It wasn’t his strong suit.
“I wanted them to say something different,” Shep said glumly. “This mesothelioma thing, it’s incredibly rare. Nobody gets this disease. I didn’t realize how much I was counting on their saying it was all a mistake. When they confirmed the diagnosis, I thought I was going to be sick. Honest, my vision went blurry and black around the edges, as if I was going to faint. Like a girl. Glynis was the one who took it like a man. She’d already resigned herself.”
“This is some hard shit, pal.”
“It’s mainly hard for Glynis. She’s weak, and exhausted, and scared. Alone most of the day, too, so when I come home all I want to do, and should do, is keep her company. No such luck. Like, you think other people will take care of at least the paper-shuffling side, but they don’t. Just to get the second opinion, I had to request the pathology slides. The radiology reports. The ‘tissue blocks.’ The results of every frigging test from each separate hospital department – all in writing. I had to fill out forms giving Glynis’s medical history a dozen separate times. I was up til two a.m. every night. Meanwhile I have to cook. Shop. Show up at work and at least look like I’m doing my job.”
“Yeah, I meant to warn you. I overheard Pogatchnik grumbling about how many personal days you been using up. You’re gonna have to watch the absenteeism.”
“I haven’t had any choice. I lost two solid days wrangling with the World Wellness Group. The hotshots at Columbia are out-of-network, just like that Dr Knox warned me. So I had to beg these HMO people to agree to cover Glynis going to the dream team, which meant talking to a human being. You know, ten different automated menus. Then you’re on hold for forty-five minutes, listening to ‘Greensleeves’ several hundred times. I can’t get it out of my head; it’s driving me crazy. Finally get connected, turns out it’s the wrong department. Back to ‘Go.’ With that open-plan office, I can’t sit on the phone for hours at work unless I’m talking about the fact that, thanks to our expert services, some lady’s boiler just exploded.”
Shep was usually so cool-headed, and Jackson had rarely heard the guy talk so much.
“Anyway,” Shep went on, “I can appeal, but. This provider Pogatchnik has signed onto, they’re real assholes, and so far they’re not budging. Edward Knox has treated one case of mesothelioma in his whole career. As far as World Wellness is concerned, that makes him a mesothelioma whiz. If we go to Columbia, we’ll have to eat forty percent co-insurance.”
“Forty percent of what?”
“Forty percent of a blank check.”
“Jesus. Can you really not use this Knox guy?”
“This isn’t a question of putting up with single-ply toilet paper. If these doctors at Columbia know what they’re doing, then I’ll spring for them. We’re talking about Glynis’s life—”
“Jim!” Shep would usually have found the allusion to Dr McCoy’s sanctimonious refrain in Star Trek funny (We’re talking about human life, Jim!), but he didn’t even crack a smile.
“I’m not going to buy turkey-burger medical care.”
“At least you’re lucky you got a cushion. Most suckers in your shoes would be putting this crap on their credit cards.”
“It’s a pretty weird version of lucky. But yeah, I am lucky. Shit, I’m rich.”
“Not these days—”
“I’m rich,” Shep cut him off, and Jackson knew this preacher’s son well enough to know that he wasn’t bragging. He felt guilty. Shep may have been a lapsed Presbyterian, but with this deep-down stuff there was only so lapsed you ever got. “You haven’t traveled enough.”
“Well, excuuuse me. I plumb forgot to put in my ten years with the Peace Corps in Malawi.”
“I shouldn’t be talking about money at all. Maybe I’m just getting this out of my system, because in comparison to Glynis … I have no business complaining. You should always remind me of that.”
“I hardly ever heard you complain about anything. I’d recommend you get more practice. It’s not good for a man to take every lump of shit life throws at him lying down.”
“We both take it lying down, Jacks. You just lie down with a mouth.”
“Speaking of which, I came up with a new title for my book,” said Jackson, hoping to lighten the tone. “Ready? FLEECED: How Shrewd Spongers from Vagrants to Vice-Presidents Are Living Off Us Poor Spunkless Sheep.”
A half-smile. “Not bad.”
“I liked the fleeced and sheep thing. You know, keeps up the metaphor.”
“But the ‘spongers’ doesn’t quite fit in. Do you sponge sheep?”
“I’ll work on it.”
“That ‘spunkless.’ Ever notice how almost all your titles have something to do with dicks?”
Jackson shot an uneasy glance at his friend. “As in, having mine cut off? Like, every day? Obviously the experience is central to my thesis.”
“The castration thing is … well used. My favorite of yours is cleaner.”
“Democracy Is a Joke.”
“Yup. Nice and punchy,” said Jackson with satisfaction. “Good thesis, too. It’s theoretically possible for fifty-one percent of the population to soak the other forty-nine percent for everything they’re worth. This guy in Venezuela, who’s it’s, Howard Chavez or something. That’s how he does it. Really, he just sends the underclass checks. You give the Mooches other people’s money, and then they vote for you.”
“Think you’ll ever write it?”
“Maybe.” Jackson was noncommittal. “But the key is the title. Get that right, and it doesn’t matter what’s inside. You could sell a pile of blank paper called How the Irish Saved Civilization. All those micks are so flattered they’ll pay twenty-five bucks to put it on their coffee tables even if they never read past the copyright page.”
“Maybe that’s the trouble with your titles. PENISES AND PRICKS,” Shep remembered. “How We Gutless Weenies Are Being Bilked Dry While the Other Half of the Country Is on the Tit. You couldn’t call that complimentary.”
“The idea is you make your book buyer feel like a little less of a sap because he knows he’s a sap, unlike everybody else, who’re such incredible saps that they don’t even know it.”
“I bet they’d prefer to save civilization.”
“Not my book buyers. They’d rather light it on fire.”
On the way back, Shep put his collar up and huddled into his scarf.
“Anyway. Glynis is scheduled for surgery in just under two weeks.”
Jackson grunted. “Been there. Flicka’s operation for scoliosis was terrifying. Personally, I didn’t want a knife within a mile of my kid’s spinal cord.” He would have to watch himself, always claiming seniority in the medical nightmare department.
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to apologize,” said Shep.
“What the hell for?”
“All you’ve been through with Flicka. I don’t think I’ve been sympathetic enough. I didn’t have a feel for what it must have been like for you guys until I sank up to the neck in the same shit myself. I should have been a lot more understanding.”
“Balls, my buddy. You been plenty sympathetic. And how you supposed to be ‘understanding’ til you understand it?” Still, the exchange was gratifying. Shep hadn’t had any idea, and the truth was he still didn’t.
“Anyway, I’ve heard about people ‘going in for surgery’ my whole life. I never thought about it. Now it seems medieval. Like taking your wife to a slaughterhouse.”
“It really wipes you out. You think the hard part’s going under the knife, but the real hard part’s after. Takes forever. Flicka said she’d lie around and have to think for, like, an hour about whether it’s really worth the trouble to ask her mother to hand her a magazine from the dresser. Not to go get it herself; just to ask for it. It’s like you been taken out back of some bar and had the crap beat out of you.”
“Thanks,” said Shep sourly. “That really helps.”
“Look, whadda you want, I should tell you fairy stories? Glynis is a ‘tough cookie’ who’s gonna ‘pull through in no time’ and be ‘right as rain’?”
“Sorry. No, I’d rather know. We might as well be prepared.”
“Don’t bother. You won’t be.”
Jackson shot a contemptuous glance at the heavy jogger (whom they walked past) clutching his Evian with that distinctive sense of righteousness conveyed by bottled water. It was a wonder how the Western frontier was ever crossed, their forefathers trudging between watering holes hundreds of miles apart, when after five minutes without a chug modern Americans like tubby there were parched.
“I wondered if you and Carol might come to dinner,” said Shep. “Next Saturday, if you can find a sitter. Just the four of us. It’s a last … It’ll be our Before Picture. I know it sounds inconceivable, but I’d like us to try and have a good time.”
“We’ll do better than try. Wouldn’t miss it,” said Jackson, calculating that the timing was not ideal. “Though if you want it to be all happy as Larry – should we be sure and avoid the asbestos thing? Get the feeling it’s a sore subject.”
“If we avoid sore subjects, we won’t talk about anything.”
“She still holding that against you?”
Shep snorted. “What do you think?”
“That it keeps her warm at night.”
“Toasty. Far as I can tell, cancer doesn’t change people.”
“You wouldn’t want her to change.”
“I walk around feeling awful. I’d feel awful anyway, so it’s hard to tell how much of the awfulness is this whole thing being all my fault. I was sloppy. Inconsiderate. I’m starting to understand how gays feel, when they give their partners AIDS.”
“Plenty of those sausage-stuffers know damn well they’ve got HIV and keep porking away without a casing. But you didn’t know. It’s not even certain that the fibers were from you, that doctor said. You’re fellating …” Jackson said unsteadily. “I mean, whipping yourself. Because you feel guilty about Pemba.”
“Glynis is determined to sue, to make ‘them’ pay. But we can’t go for any company if I can’t remember what I could have worked with that was contaminated. How am I supposed to remember the brand of the cement I poured in 1982?”
“Yeah, I’ve done like you asked and put my mind to the same thing, but I can’t remember, either. That whole list of products you gave me – a brand of roofing tile, well, it’s just not the kind of thing that sticks in your head twenty-five years later.”
“But if she doesn’t get her hands on a corporation, she’s going to keep wrapping them around my neck. I’d bear up if having someone to blame really seemed to help. But I’ve apologized until I’m blue in the face, and every time, after I’ve finished, she still has cancer.”
They were good friends and all, but it hadn’t been the form for Shep to get all choked up, about anything, so Jackson did him the favor of watching a cyclist ride the wrong way around the park while the guy got himself together.
“Nuts,” said Shep, in hand again. “Between now and Saturday, I’ve got to tell everyone.”
“About the surgery?”
“About the fact that Glynis is sick at all. Nobody knows yet, except you and Carol.”
“You don’t think Glynis should do the honors?”
“Nah. It’s better for everyone if I do it. Especially with her family in Arizona. You know Glynis. She’d probably call up and lean back and let her mother go on for half an hour about how the Mexicans next door have five pickups and don’t separate their recycling. Once her mother had hung herself good, Glynis would call her a racist, so Hetty’d get huffy and offended and say something insulting back. Whoom, in for the kill! ‘Is that so? Well, I just wanted you to know that I have cancer!’ Bang, down with the receiver.”
“I can hear it!” Jackson chuckled. “God, I love her.”
“Yeah. I do, too.”
Nearing Handy Randy, Jackson started to whistle “Greensleeves.”
“You fuck!” Shep exclaimed, though at least Jackson had made him laugh. “I’d finally got rid of it!”
Shepherd Armstrong Knacker
Merrill Lynch Account Number 934-23F917
January 01, 2005 – January 31, 2005
Net Portfolio Value: $697,352.41
After work, Shep had to swing by and pick up Beryl, who’d called earlier in the week hoping to come up to Elmsford and “hang,” meaning invite herself to dinner. The timing was bad in one way – that is, as the timing of anything was bound to be bad for the indefinite future – and good in another. Since Zach was spending the night in another boy’s rank, cable-strewn bedroom again, Shep could practice delivering the news in person to Beryl. They’d resolved to tell the kids tomorrow, and he wanted to work on the wording. He was still unsure whether to share the prognosis when he hadn’t discussed it with Glynis herself.
“Swing by” was an inaptly carefree expression, since picking up his sister in Chelsea meant crawling from Brooklyn into Manhattan during rush hour. It would never occur to her to take the train. (Were the situation reversed, of course, Beryl would never have offered him a lift, nor would Shep have expected one. But he was resigned to the fact that he gave and his sister took, as if they simply had different jobs. It was Jackson who railed about how his friend was constantly doing favors for people that Shep himself would never demand of others in a million years. But he’d rather the double standard work that way than the other way around.) For that matter, Beryl’s volunteering to take time away from her busy creative schedule to slum with her boring brother meant that she wanted something. Something more than dinner.
Mesothelioma kept frustration with his sister at bay, likewise whatever sense of mourning he might otherwise have felt about Pemba. He had not been lying to Jackson. He didn’t think about it. He thought about one thing and put all his energies into one thing only. Glynis’s cancer facilitated the same laser-like focus that Zach found in computer games, perfectly replacing the driving single-mindedness previously provided by The Afterlife. Merely relinquishing Pemba with nothing to put in its place would have left him lost, fractured, at sea, and for once in his life maybe angry. As it was, he still hewed to a prime directive. He would do anything to make Glynis more comfortable, or to keep her from going to any trouble. He would do anything to save her.
With Beryl coming over, he’d stayed up until 3:00 a.m. the night before assembling a pan of lasagna and washing salad greens. He had never cooked very much or been interested in cooking, but now his interest didn’t matter. He looked up recipes. They suited a man who was constitutionally obedient, and he followed them to the letter.
Because for now there was nothing left to contemplate that served the prime directive – he’d already read a dozen Web pages on how best to prepare Glynis for surgery in two weeks’ time – while eking over the Brooklyn Bridge Shep allowed his mind to slide to Jackson and his goofball book. Even Jackson didn’t believe he’d ever write it. After all, he was one of these guys who were remarkably lucid in conversation, but who seized up at keyboards. It was weird how some people could be so garrulous and articulate when blah-blah-blahing down the street, yet couldn’t write a meaningful sentence to save their lives. Their reasoning went spastic, their vocabularies shrank to “cat” and “go,” and they couldn’t tell a coherent story of a trip to the mailbox. That was Jackson. This afternoon, he’d liked that idea of a title on a pile of blank pages because titles were all he was good at. Still, CHUMPS: How Behind Our Backs a Bunch of Bums and Bamboozlers Turned America into a Country Where We Can’t Do Anything or Earn Anything or Say Anything When It Used to Be a Damned Nice Place to Live – well, at titles he was very good indeed.
As for his friend’s half-baked theories, Shep had never been sure whether he himself bought into them even slightly. (It was difficult to attach these views to a political party, since Jackson thought not voting was a political party.) They went something like this: Americans were divided between folks who played by the rules and folks who simply played the rules (or ignored them altogether). Jackson spoke of one “half” leeching off the other for ease of reference, but allowed that the proportions were likely far more dire; the fraction of the population that was being soaked by the savvier sorts who knew the ropes may have been closer to a third, or a quarter. Over the years, Jackson had christened these two classes with a series of homespun shorthands whose children’s-book alliteration Shep remembered with affection: Patsies and Parasites. Freeloaders and Fall Guys. Saps and Spongers. Slaves and Skivers. Jackals and Jackasses. Lackeys and Loafers. He’d used Mugs and Mooches for three or four years now; maybe the tags were going to stick.
According to Jackson, the Mooches comprised first and foremost anyone in government, and anyone who lived off government: contractors, “advisors,” think-tankers, and lobbyists. He reserved special contempt for accountants and lawyers, both of whom slyly implied that they were on your side, when this bloated, parasitic caste of interlocutors effectively constituted a penumbral extension of the State, their extortionate fees amounting to more taxes. Other Mooches: welfare recipients, obviously, though Jackson claimed they were the least of the problem, and as much victims as perps. Marathon runners with sprained thumbs on disability. Bankers, who manufactured nothing of value, and whose money-from-money deployed the suspect science of spontaneous generation. On the opposite end of the spectrum: any mastermind who refused to earn any appreciable income – why bother, only to be robbed of fifty cents on the dollar? (Jackson was indignant at having been raised on anti-communist propaganda. When for half the fucking year, he said, you were working full time for the government, your country was communist.) The recipients of inherited wealth, which covered Pogatchnik. Illegal immigrants, who would remain “undocumented” in perpetuity if they knew what was good for them; synonymous with becoming a card-carrying Mug, citizenship as an aspiration was pathetic.
Criminals were Mooches, too, of course. Yet while Jackson scorned establishment Mooches, who concealed their rapacity behind a façade of rectitude, or even, gallingly, of self-sacrifice (the expression “public servant” drove him wild), ordinary decent criminals won only his admiration. Drug dealing, Jackson claimed, was an intelligent, well-considered career path for the average young person, enterprising self-employment sans the Schedule C. He esteemed anyone who worked off the books or serviced a black market. He had a soft spot for Mafia movies, and had seen Goodfellas five times. To Jackson, criminals embodied the seminal American spirit.
As for the Mugs, Jacks cheerfully confessed to his own lifetime membership. They comprised all the remaining schmucks who got with the program, but mostly because they had no guts, and lacked imagination. Mugs exhibited neither resourcefulness nor innovation, ostensibly core traits of the national character. Having never undergone proper adolescent rebellion, Mugs were developmentally retarded, and as grown-ups were still figuratively setting the table and taking out the trash. They may have learned to say “fuck” in front of their fathers, but they could never bring themselves to use the word with the IRS. Even on the five-point scale of moral reasoning (where Jackson had dug that up Shep had no idea, but its exposition had consumed one of their ritual foursome get-togethers last summer), Mugs were stuck at the bottom. For Mugs weren’t motivated by virtue, but by fear. They sweated bullets over their taxes, adding up tattered receipts for $3.49 and $2.67 and getting flustered when the calculator didn’t produce the same result to the penny on a second tally – despite the fact that the recipients of their fervid bookkeeping would blithely drop $349 million through the cracks in the GAO floorboards or fritter $267 billion on a dead-end war in a sandpit, a dizzying shuttle of decimal points that never struck Mugs as unfair or bitterly hilarious. They got their car insurance payments in on time; able to afford only collision, these were the same suckers who’d be T-boned by an uninsured Guatemalan running a solid red light and get stuck with the bill. They didn’t put extensions on their houses without getting a building permit, belying that they really owned their houses to begin with. To the degree that these poor flunkies were not tippy-toeing through their lives abdicating everything they ever worked for out of terror, they were stupid.
But it wasn’t meant to be this way, Jackson insisted. Sneakily, little by little, the Mooches had hijacked a system that hadn’t started out half bad into a situation that would have mortified the founding fathers, who’d never intended to create a monster. Nor did they design democracy as an evangelical religion or a self-destructive export business, whereby it actually cost you money to sell your product abroad. What Thomas Jefferson’s crowd had in mind was a country that left you alone and let you do whatever you fucking well wanted so long as you didn’t hurt anybody – in short, “a cool place to hang out,” and not “this big drag.”
For government was now, in Jackson’s view, a for-profit corporation, although a sort of which the average industrial magnate could only dream: a natural monopoly that could charge whatever it wanted, yet with no obligation to hand over a product of any description in return. A business whose millions of customers had no choice but to buy this mythical product, lest they be locked in a small room with bad food. Since all politicians were by definition “on the tit,” none of them had any motivation to constrain the size of this marvelous corporation that didn’t actually have to make anything. Occasional conservative lip service notwithstanding, sure enough, over the decades USA Inc. had done nothing but expand. Jackson predicted that at some point in the near future the last remaining Mugs would get wise and sign on. Once the entire American populace was either working for or living off the government, the country would shudder to a halt. It was happening in Europe, he said, already. With a ratio of all-Mooch to no-Mug, there’d be no one left to squeeze dry, and presumably they’d all sit around waiting to die, or kill each other.
Shep was reluctant to believe that he got nothing from government. Roads, he’d point out. Bridges. Streetlamps and public parks. Admittedly, this is what Jackson meant by the umbrella term “sidewalks.” The nominal infrastructure required to conduct ordinary life was largely provided by municipal authorities, which commanded such a tiny sliver of the pie that on a plate it would fall over. As Jackson frequently observed, if every citizen threw the same ante into the pot, they could cover all their primitive communal needs with “chump change” – and that was what George Washington had in mind, as opposed to “this obeisance to the king bullshit.”
While Shep enjoyed the game of coming up with another vital service from on high that was worth the price of admission – drug testing, air traffic control – he conceded that citing the palpable benefits that his taxes accrued to him personally was surprisingly difficult. Yet he also felt that the totality of the many agencies that controlled his life still approximated an order. Even a rough, inequitable order, as opposed to the gory havoc of animals running in packs, was priceless.
Besides, even if he accepted Jackson’s cartoonish categories, he’d still rather be a Mug than a Mooch. Someone on whom others depended, a man as he understood the word. Although he believed in an implicit social contract – that you agreed to take care of other people so that when the time came they would take care of you – he didn’t keep up his end of things in order to incur a debt he’d any intention of calling in. He would remain a resource rather than a drain to the end of his days if he could help it, if only because being reliable, self-sufficient, and capable felt good. This big, round, grounded solidity surely beat the thin, tittering tee-hee of putting one over on people. It beat the sneering self-congratulation of a confidence trickster and the huddling sneakiness of a cheat. There was nothing enviable, either, about the resentful gratitude of the beholden. Curiously, although forever ridiculing the gullible stalwart who was responsible, dependable, and steadfast, Jackson had long admired Shep Knacker for embodying these very qualities.
More perplexing still was why Shep’s best friend would lavish so much effort on a paradigm that cast himself as weak, powerless, and craven. It was thanks to Shep’s stipulations on selling Knack – an assurance in writing from Randy Pogatchnik that the workforce manager would get a six-figure salary, replete with an elevator clause – that Jackson made enough money to begrudge the taxes he paid on it, and sometimes Shep wondered if he’d done the man any favors. What was it about his life that made him feel so taken advantage of, so diminished?
Miraculously, Beryl was peering through the window of her lobby, so he wouldn’t have to do circuits of Sixth and Seventh Avenues waiting for her to come down. She bundled into the front seat in nubbled layers of cape, sweaters, and scarves, clunking in jewelry of the rocks-and-feathers school that Glynis detested. Though no thrift-shop confabulation – he suspected that she paid through the nose to look that casually rumpled – Beryl’s faux bohemian dress was typical of a generation that just missed out on the sixties. Although her older brother had almost missed the era himself, Shep encountered enough of its tail end not to be nostalgic about the hippy thing. Now, those guys were Mooches. Always borrowing money, or stealing it, promoting free this and free that, parroting a lot of anticapitalist twaddle only made possible by the hardworking parents they lived off. He was sorry about the boys who died in Vietnam. The rest of it was a crock.
Beryl kissed his cheek and cried, “Shepardo!” the neo-Renaissance nickname from childhood still imbued with a measure of affection. “God, I hope no one sees me in this SUV. You remember I did that film on SUV-IT, the activist group that smashes these things up as a political statement about global warming.”
Were Beryl truly concerned with carbon emissions she’d have volunteered to take the train. “This one’s a Mini Cooper,” he said mildly, “compared to the new ones.”
She asked perfunctorily how he was. He was relieved that she didn’t notice when he declined to say.
“So what are you working on now?” he asked. It was safest to return to the subject of Beryl. She never inquired about what was up at Handy Randy; the assumption ran that nothing was ever up. It was a business, a prejudice against which she had unquestioningly inherited from their father.
“A film on couples who decided not to have kids. Particularly homing in on people in, you know, their mid-forties, right on the cusp of not having any choice. Whether they’re content with their lives, whether they think they’re missing anything, what put them off about having a family. It’s really interesting.”
Shep made a ritual effort to care, but it was harder than usual. “Are most of them resigned, or regretful?”
“Neither, for the most part. They’re perfectly happy!”
As she went into the particulars, Shep reflected that his sister’s body of work might seem incoherent from the outside. The one documentary that she was known for, insofar as she was known at all, was a paean to Berlin, New Hampshire – pronounced Ber-lun, a provincial mangling of its European roots that he’d always found strangely sweet, and hailing from a patriotic disassociation from Germany during World War I. Using interviews with residents of its dwindling population, many of whom used to work for the paper mills that were now nearly all shut down, Beryl’s film Reducing Paperwork had captured something archetypal about New England’s declining postindustrial towns that was reminiscent of Michael Moore without the smirk. It was warm, and he’d liked it. He was truly pleased for her when the hour-long elegy made it into the New York Film Festival. She’d done a quirky documentary on people who don’t have a sense of smell, and a more serious one on graduates saddled with crushing debt from higher education.
But her subject matter only seemed all over the map until you realized that Beryl’s lunatic then-boyfriend was a member of that group that shattered the windshields of SUVs, and that Beryl herself resented cars of any description because she couldn’t afford one. Beryl was in her mid-forties, and Beryl didn’t have children. Like Shep, Beryl grew up in Berlin, New Hampshire. Beryl was born without a sense of smell – rather impairing a full grasp of her signature material, since throughout his boyhood Berlin reeked – and Beryl still hadn’t paid off her student loans. The self-referential nature of his sister’s work reached its apogee when last year she made an independent documentary about independent documentary makers, a project tainted with a whiff of self-pity that involved most of her friends.
In general, the feisty, spunky determination that was driven by inspiration when she was younger had aged into a grimmer, glummer resolve that was driven by spite. She would “show them,” whoever they were, and churning out yet another film project on a shoestring now seemed as much habit as calling. Too old now to be an aspirant, Beryl hadn’t established herself sufficiently to qualify as anything but. Oh, she did get the smell doc on PBS, and she’d won the odd grant from this or that arts council. But the New York Film Festival coup was years ago. The technological advances in compact cameras that enabled her to keep going with minimal funding also meant that plenty of other wannabes could buy the same cameras, and she faced more competition than ever. Maybe he was too conventional, but her hand-to-mouthing it in middle age was starting to look less like a gifted woman sacrificing for her work, and more like failure.
“You give any more thought to participating in a documentary about people who dream about quitting the rat race?” she asked as they sat, stationary, on the West Side Highway. “I was even thinking about calling it something like Belief in the Afterlife.”
He rued having shared the private argot. “Not really.”
“You’d be surprised. It’s a pretty common fantasy.”
“I just mean you’ve got company. Like, it’s kind of a club. Though I’ve had a hard time finding anybody who’s actually done it. With the two cases I’ve stumbled across, they both came back. One couple went to South America and the woman practically died; another guy sold everything he had and moved to a Greek island, where he got lonely and bored and didn’t speak the language. None of them lasted more than a year.”
Shep was determined to avoid any entanglement with her projects, which had already cannibalized most of her life and would hungrily move on to her kin. Thank God he’d kept his mouth shut with Beryl about Pemba.
“But anyone you run into,” he observed, “has obviously come back. The people who’ve left for good aren’t here.” It was theoretical for him now, but stuck in this agonizing creep of cars he still wanted The Afterlife to be possible for somebody.
“Hey,” she asked. “You made any new fountains lately?”
A safer subject. Unlike his own family, Beryl thought his fountains were charming.
When he turned onto Crescent Drive, Shep realized that he could have told his sister on the trip up, and that might have been nicer. Yet he understood what Glynis had meant by “I haven’t been feeling nice.” For some reason he was inclined to make this as difficult for Beryl as possible.
His wife and sister greeted each other coolly in the kitchen. In the absence of a theatrically commiserating embrace, Glynis could tell that he’d kept quiet about her diagnosis in the car; a shared glance confirmed that she approved. They had a secret, and when they decided to impart it was their business. In fact, as the uncomfortable evening got under way – uncomfortable for Beryl – he began to understand what his wife might have got out of keeping all those tests and appointments to herself. There was something powerful in the withholding. Like walking around the house with a loaded gun.
Glynis had been fussing with the foil on the lasagna. Shep chided that he would take care of the food. Beryl was too unobservant to find this odd, since in times past dinner would always have been her sister-in-law’s province. She didn’t seem to note, either, the care with which he led his wife gently to a chair in the living room and settled her with a drink. Glynis wouldn’t be having wine in two weeks’ time, and he hoped that she remembered to enjoy it. Beryl hadn’t brought a bottle. She never did.
As they waited for the main course to warm, Beryl helped herself to a top-up glug and began noshing through olives in the living room, ignoring the bowl provided and laying the pits on the glass coffee table beside the Wedding Fountain, where they left a smear. She seemed nervous, which put Shep at a contrasting ease.
“So, Glynis,” she said. “Done any new work lately? I’d love to see it.” To the degree that the inquiry was not knee-jerk conversation filler, Beryl was betting on the high likelihood that her sister-in-law hadn’t visited her studio in months. Glynis and Beryl hated each other.
Ordinarily Glynis would have bristled, but she had a smug feline purring about her this evening. “Not since you asked me that last time,” she said. “I’ve been distracted.”
“The house and shit?”
“A house of sorts,” said Glynis. “And shit. Lots of shit.”
“You still making molds for that chocolate shop?”
“Actually, I recently retired. But if you mean do we still have the usual box of rejects on hand, yes. A little deformed, but they’re fresh. You’re welcome to take home as many truffles as you like.”
“Well, that’s not what I meant …” It was. “But if you’re offering, sure. That’d be great.”
Shep put the box from Living in Sin by the door as a reminder. Glynis had admitted to missing her ridiculous part-time job more than she’d expected. Because even Glynis could see that the quality of chickshaped molds for raspberry creams was inconsequential, the work had been her first experience in decades of creation without fear. Sadly, had she embraced the same liberated playfulness in her attic studio, she might now be a metalsmith of some renown.
He refilled his sister’s glass. Keeping the evening’s main agenda under wraps may have been cruelly gratifying, but it might soon seem impossible to raise the subject at all.
“Hey, you know I took the bus up to see Dad last week?” said Beryl, who rarely headed to New Hampshire without getting a lift from her brother. “I’m a little worried about him. I don’t think he’s going to be able to live on his own much longer.”
“He’s managed pretty well so far. And his mind is – almost horribly – sharp as ever.”
“He’s almost eighty! Most nights he sleeps in that chair in the den to keep from tackling the stairs. He eats nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches. His former parishioners help with the shopping, but most of them are pretty old by now, too. And I think he’s lonely.”
Routinely visiting Berlin three times more often than his sister, Shep knew about the chair, more a matter of lassitude than incapacity. Dad fell asleep reading detective fiction – thankfully not the Bible – and he liked grilled cheese sandwiches. Still, Shep should be glad for his sister’s concern. “What did you have in mind?”
“We should probably consider putting him up in one of those assisted-living places.” His sister had a funny way with pronouns.
“You know they’re not covered by Medicare.”
“It doesn’t matter why not,” Glynis said with exasperation. Beryl imagined that if you established why something should be otherwise then you changed the way it was.
“Technically, they’re not medical facilities,” Shep said patiently. “I’ve looked into it. These places run to seventy-five, even a hundred grand a year. Dad has no savings, since he gave away anything he ever had to spare, and his pension is peanuts.”
“Shepardo! Typically, I bring up something like our father’s increasing infirmity, and you immediately start talking about money.”
“That’s because what you’re suggesting involves a good whack of it.”
“A good whack of our money, more to the point,” said Glynis. The fact that Shep had “loaned” his sister tens of thousands of dollars had always outraged his wife, whose minimal income made her only more proprietary about his. “Or were you planning to make a contribution? He’s your father, too.”
Beryl raised her hands and cried, “Blood from a stone! You think the day I won the lottery you just forgot to read the paper? I’ve already run through the grant for this childlessness documentary, and I’m finishing it with my own money – what little there is of that. It’s not that I’m some kind of asshole. I’m completely strapped.”
Poverty had its stresses, but for a moment Shep envied his sister its relaxing side. Penury reprieved Beryl from responsibility for a host of matters, from maintenance of the Williamsburg Bridge to his father’s care. But then, if in legalese Beryl was “judgment-proof,” that did not necessarily reprieve her from judgment of other sorts, and it seemed important right now to side decisively with his wife. “It’s your idea to put Dad in a retirement community, but you expect us to pick up the bill.”
“Didn’t you sell Knack of All Trades for, like, a million dollars? Jesus, Shep!”
In his next life, he would keep his mouth shut. “My resources aren’t infinite. I have – other commitments. And if Dad stayed in decent health for another five to ten years, what you’re suggesting could leave us completely strapped.”
Beryl’s eyes smoldered; she obviously pictured his other commitments along the lines of an iPod for Zach. “Well … what if Dad moved in here? There’s Amelia’s old bedroom.”
“No,” Shep said flatly, irked with himself, since breaking the news in the car would have obviated much of this discussion. “Not now.”
“What about your place?” said Glynis. “It’s palatial, in Manhattan terms. And if you can’t do your part financially …”
“True,” said Shep, playing along. “And then I could help you out with incidentals.”
Of course his sister’s newly forged filial concern would never extend to her personal inconvenience, but he thought they’d cornered her sufficiently to at least make her squirm. Instead, her eyes lit from sullenness to rage.
“Sorry, won’t fly,” said Beryl, her tone clipped, victorious. “That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.”
It was, Shep intuited, the thing she wanted to talk about. They moved to the kitchen, where the lasagna was starting to burn.
For many years Beryl had lived in a vast, high-ceilinged apartment with all the original fixtures on West Nineteenth Street for which she paid a pittance. Possession of the three-bedroom walk-up had delivered her disproportionate power in her many volatile romances. She could always threaten her partners with exile from a residence whose pantry was larger than the apartment they could afford outside her door. Shep wouldn’t claim that her swains loved her for her lease, but even if they did fall in love with Beryl, they fell in love with her apartment first.
For hers was one of the diminishing number of buildings still covered by an anachronistic regime of rent control brought in after World War II. So desperate were owners of these protected buildings to dislodge sitting tenants, thus restoring the apartments to “fair market” rents, that whole codes in the statutes addressed the rules of vacancy and re-inhabitation when landlords set their own buildings on fire.
“Every time a tenant has died,” Beryl regaled them, stabbing her salad, “and I mean, while the body is still warm – whoosh, in sweep the workmen to ‘renovate,’ and never mind ruining those glorious old cornices and chandeliers! They rip the guts out. The landlord’s completely redone the lobby, though it was in mint condition, and converted the basement to disgusting little studios, so we don’t have laundry facilities anymore. Anyway, he finally got his hands on my neighbor’s place down the hall – AIDS – and that did it. Seventy-five percent of the building is now officially ruined, which qualifies as ‘substantial renovation.’ That takes it out of rent stabilization, totally. I don’t know what I’m going to do!”
“You mean he can now charge you what your apartment is actually worth?” asked Glynis.
“Yes!” Beryl fumed. “Bingo, my rent could go from a few hundred bucks to thousands! Thousands and thousands!”
“I’m surprised,” said Shep. “Sitting tenants under that regime are usually protected like endangered species.”
“We are an endangered species. I might have been okay, except the moment my landlord hit that seventy-five percent mark he hired some goons to go on a witch hunt for illegal subletters. The guy who’s purely as a technicality on my lease and lived there, like, five tenancies ago, back in the Stone Age, moved to New Jersey. I paid him a fortune in key money, too. But the idiot changed his voter registration, so they found out.”
“You mean it’s not even your lease?” said Shep.
“Morally, of course it is! I’ve been there for seventeen years!”
Despite Shep’s intuition that Beryl’s headache was about to become his as well – her problems often exhibited a transitive property – his sister’s real estate welfare coming to an end was insidiously satisfying. “On the open market,” he observed, “that place might go for five or six grand a month.”
Glynis didn’t look insidiously satisfied; she looked delighted. Ever since her diagnosis, she’d seemed to relish anyone else’s misfortune; so much the better if it was Beryl’s. “So what’s the game plan? Don’t tell me you want Amelia’s room.”
“I’d like to sue.”
“Whom for what?” asked Shep.
“That guy has been scheming to reach the seventy-five-percent threshold for years, and practically none of that ‘renovation’ was necessary.”
“It is his building.”
“It’s my apartment!”
“Only if you can afford the rent. Listen,” Shep forked a black rippled edge from a noodle, “maybe you should think ‘glass half full’ here. About how lucky you’ve been. What a great situation you’ve had all these years. Okay, it’s over—” His voice caught. How lucky you’ve been; what a great situation you’ve had; okay, it’s over. He could’ve given the same speech to himself.
“Nobody feels lucky,” said Beryl, “when their luck has just run out.”
“You can say that again,” said Glynis. Rare accord.
Shep served second helpings. He’d broken out Glynis’s famous sterling fish slice for the meal, a little unwieldy for lasagna, and admittedly incongruous with the beaten-up aluminum baking pan. But he wanted his wife to feel accomplished, to take advantage of a rare opportunity to show off on her behalf. When they’d first sat down to dinner, the lithe line of the silver, the oceanic Bakelite inlay of sea green and aquamarine, had obliged his sister to admire the very metalcraft that she was loath to concede Glynis ever got around to fashioning. The transparent insincerity of Beryl’s compliments provided his wife a backhanded pleasure.
Glynis declined another serving. Please, he whispered. Please. He placed a small square on her plate anyway, mumbling, You don’t understand. It’s not about food anymore, about whether you want it. Beryl was too caught up in the loss of her rent stabilization to infer what the exchange might mean. With no idea how to bend the evening’s subject matter around to the real issue, he tried to shift it by degrees.
“You know, speaking of bum luck,” Shep raised offhandedly, “do you carry any health insurance?”
“I’d hock my firstborn child, but I don’t have one.”
“So what would happen if you were in an accident, or got sick?”
“Beats me.” Beryl’s manner was defiant. “Don’t emergency rooms have to take you in?”
“Only for immediate care. And they still stick you with a bill.”
“Which they could shove where the sun don’t shine.”
“That could ruin your credit rating,” he said, cringing inside; the likes of credit ratings were exactly what he had yearned to flee in Pemba.
“That’s your world, big brother. Out here in mine, I could give a shit.” Apparently Beryl’s furious resentment had leached from her pending eviction to encompass her staid brother, his conventional house in Westchester, his gas-guzzling SUV, and his spoiled dilettante of a wife.
“But if something terrible happened to you …” Shep ventured. “Well, the person who would really end up paying for it is me, right? Who else, with Dad on a pension? In fact, that’s why I pay for Amelia’s insurance.”
“I’m not stopping you, if you want to buy me health insurance, too. Since from the sound of it you’re not really worried about me, but about yourself.”
“An individual policy at your age could run to a grand a month.”
“QED,” said Beryl. “Some months I don’t net more than a grand. So, what, I’m living on the street out of garbage cans, but, boy, do I have the best health insurance that my entire annual income can buy!”
“When you’re not covered,” said Glynis, “hospitals charge twice as much.”
“Which makes a lot of sense,” Beryl fumed. “Double charge the folks who can least afford it.”
“I didn’t make the system,” Shep said quietly. “But you’re getting older, things happen, and this is something you should start considering.”
“Look! Fortunately right now I’m not about to keel over, because I’ve got a problem a lot more pressing, okay? If you’re really worried about me, then, yes, you can help. Assuming I’m not going to fight this thing – which I also can’t afford – I’m going to have to move. I thought for the time being I could haul my crap up to Berlin; Dad says that’d be okay. Maybe even hole up there a while, to save on expenses. But to get another lease in New York I’d still need help on a security deposit. That’s three months’ rent up front. And you know what’s happened in Manhattan – a studio the size of a Porta Pott goes for three thousand a month! So, look, I hate having to do this, but … Well, doesn’t it make more sense for me to buy something? Instead of pouring all that rent down a rat hole? If you could just cover, I don’t know, maybe a hundred grand or so for a down payment … Think of it as an investment.”
“You want me to give you a hundred thousand dollars. Or so.”
“I never want to be in the position again where some prick landlord can kick me out of my own home. I mean, this is an emergency, Shepardo. I’m begging here.”
Shep reached for Glynis’s hand under the table. They’d had some dreadful rows over Beryl’s loans; a glance reassured her that this time he wouldn’t slip his sister a check when Glynis wasn’t looking.
“Beryl,” he said evenly. “We are not buying you an apartment.”
Beryl looked at her brother as if confronting a hitherto reliable appliance that suddenly wouldn’t turn on. She tried the switch again. “Maybe you’d like to think about it.”
“I don’t need to think. We can’t do it.”
“Why not?” As usual, presumably an unsatisfactory justification would effect a reversal of policy.
Nevertheless, this was the opening that Shep had been waiting for. He took a deep preparatory breath, one just long enough for Beryl’s temper to rev. She seemed to register that, unlike the intrinsically ambiguous matter of sexual consent, with money “no” really does mean “no,” consternation at which drove her recklessly to burn her bridges.
“Don’t tell me,” she said blackly. “You have to keep my down payment salted away for The Afterlife. You have to keep stashing away millions and millions of dollars for some fantasy Valhalla, and meantime your own sister is thrown out on the street. You have to go on expensive vacations year after year, on the pretense that you’re doing ‘research.’ But get real! If you were ever going to decamp to a Third World beach sipping piña coladas, wouldn’t you have gone already? You could make a huge difference to my life right now, but no! We all have to pay for your delusion, for this hubristic idea of yourself as special and above the common ruck, when the truth is you’re an ordinary corporate salary-man like practically every other drudge in the country. I’ve tried to do something interesting with my life, and make challenging, imaginative films that make a difference to people’s experience of the world, and it’s not my fault that doesn’t pay much. I work just as hard as you do, and maybe harder, a lot harder. But I’ve got nothing to show for it, and now I don’t even have a place to live – thanks to rich capitalists just like you who have to get even richer. Meanwhile, you drive around in a fat car and live in a fat suburban house with a bank account that’s busting at the seams – for what? You’re only going to see one afterlife, my brother, and it’s going to be a pretty scorching experience if while you were alive you weren’t a little more charitable toward your own family!”
Assessing that Beryl appeared to have finished, he gave his wife’s hand a gentle squeeze before interlacing his fingers on the table squarely opposite his sister.
“You’re right,” Shep said calmly. “Despite how long I may have hoped to, we are not likely at this point to start a new, fascinating, relaxing life in a more affordable country. I’m sorry about that. I’m far sorrier for the reason.”
“And what’s that?” Beryl sneered.
“We just found out that Glynis has cancer. It’s a rare and virulent disease called mesothelioma. I may have given it to her myself from working with products that contained asbestos. I will need to conserve both my energies and my funds. Between Glynis’s health and buying my sister property in the most inflated real estate market in the country, I have to opt for saving my wife’s life.”
It wouldn’t have been appropriate to smile, but he did have to suppress one corner of his mouth from rising in a curl of recognition. He’d told Jackson in the park this afternoon that he wanted to “do the honors” and inform his in-laws about his wife’s condition, since Glynis was sure to bait her relatives into saying something nasty and then to cut them to the quick with her zinger bad news. Maybe the two of them weren’t such different people as Shep had often feared.
I know this is perverse,” said Glynis, languishing in a chair while he washed up. “But I had a wonderful time tonight. I never realized that having cancer could be so much fun.”
“She’s always thought that, you know. That The Afterlife was a ‘delusion.’”
“Beryl’s the creative one, and you’re the dullard. People get very attached to these designations. She wouldn’t want you to be capable of doing anything brave or strange.”
He turned to her from the sink. “Would you?”
“Maybe,” she considered. “But not without me.”
“Be honest,” he said. “Without – this. Would you seriously have considered dropping everything and coming along?”
“According to you, you never would have gone.”
“Moot point.” He went back to scrubbing the blackened crust from the lasagna pan.
“It isn’t moot,” she said, “whether you love me.”
He stopped. He rinsed his hands, and dried them on a towel. He knelt by her chair, and took her face in both hands. “Gnu. In the next few months, you will discover,” he promised, “how much I love you.” He kissed her, and let his lips linger until he could feel her spirit still.
He returned to the task at hand. It took a minute for the water to make it to the sink again. When it first became apparent that they had moved into their Elmsford rental “temporarily” in the adult sense of the word – i.e., as a synonym for forever – he had consoled himself by constructing a fountain at the kitchen sink. It was a whimsical contraption, with a culinary theme: the water ran from the faucet up a rubber hose that ended in a turkey baster, whose jet spray spun a round metal whisk, then cascaded down a chipped delft teacup, a bent soup ladle, an old-fashioned glass lemon juicer, a cow-shaped coffee creamer, and a wooden-handled ice-cream scoop he’d picked up at a stoop sale that must have been a hundred years old, finally landing in a tin funnel that directed the water back into the sink. Pleasingly, the water maintained roughly the same flow and pressure provided without the journey he imposed upon it, even if the hot water did drop a few degrees along the way. The mechanism was a kooky, childlike affair reminiscent of the game of Mouse Trap he’d grown up playing with Beryl. Yet his fondness for this homemade toy had taken a blow when he and Glynis came back from Puerto Escondido several years ago. In their parents’ absence, the kids had disconnected the hose. Presumably they dispensed with the nonsense over the kitchen sink whenever they had the house to themselves, and reconnected the hose when their father was due back; for the first time they’d forgotten. He didn’t tell the kids they’d hurt his feelings. Naturally he would have liked them to cherish the product of his playful side. But he couldn’t force his children to treasure in their father what he treasured about himself.
“I wonder, did you put it all together, that business about Berlin?” Glynis asked, once he had resumed battle with the pan. “While you were busy buying her a new apartment, she was planning to move all her stuff into your father’s house. Meantime, you were supposed to put him in an assisted-living facility so she could live there without the bother of his company.”
“Losing the rent-stabilized place – she’s not thinking straight, and she’s panicking.”
“You’re too kind.”
“Lucky for you.”
“God, the indignation! As if rent stabilization were a human right. And what was all that about how hard she works and how it’s ‘not her fault’ she makes no money? She made her choices. It’s called making your bed. So you lie in it.”
“We’re better off than she is,” he said, adding, “monetarily anyway. She’s jealous.”
“But she holds you in contempt.”
“It makes her feel better. Let her.”
“I mean, the nerve! A hundred grand! Which would just be the beginning, since she wouldn’t have made the mortgage payments, either. I warned you a long time ago that if you kept giving in on the smaller amounts, it would only get worse.”
“I didn’t mind helping her out now and again.” A doubt crossed his mind over whether in different circumstances he might have been amenable to his sister’s proposition after all.
“Did you get a load of that ‘millions and millions’ crack? Where’d she get that idea?”
“Beryl’s like a lot of people who’ve always been hard up. They think there are people like them, and then everyone else is unimaginably wealthy. Some money is the same as infinite money. She doesn’t have kids, and she doesn’t know what things cost. Zach’s tuition. Car insurance in New York. Taxes—”
“You can bet she doesn’t pay any. And it’s people like your sister who think people like us should pay even more.”
“Well, I hate to sound like Jackson. But Beryl is completely unaware that her life is subsidized. That her trash is collected, that she can go for a walk in a park, that emergency rooms really will treat her without insurance if she’s bleeding – it’s all paid for by someone else. I’m dead certain that thought never enters her head.”
“To the contrary,” Glynis agreed. “She doesn’t feel like a beneficiary, but like a victim. She has a chip on her shoulder the size of a redwood.”
That the same might be said of Glynis Shep kept to himself.
“My favorite part of the evening wasn’t even your announcement,” she continued. “It was the crocodile tears afterward. All that histrionic solicitation and despair. So fake! Just like all that overdone fawning over the fish slice. She’s a terrible actress. She was mostly aggrieved that from now on she can’t put her hand in your cookie jar.”
“Well, I guess the expectation is that in the face of serious illness, all the – friction – between people, like you and Beryl—”
“Friction?” Glynis laughed, and the sound was wonderful. “She detests me!”
“Okay, but even that – it’s supposed to go away. She can’t feel that way about you anymore, and then she still does and it’s awkward.”
“There’s something delicious about it. I can’t explain it, but I loved watching her so obviously play pretend. I get the feeling there are just a few bits and pieces of this mesothelioma thing that I’m going to enjoy.”
As he lovingly dried the fish slice, the fact that Glynis roused herself to get up and wrap her arms around him from behind was strangely moving. She was so depleted that small gestures of affection must have cost her an extraordinary outlay of energy.
“Oh, and did you notice?” Glynis mumbled into his shirt, laughing again. “She still remembered to take the chocolates.”
The timing of the Before Picture dinner up at Shep’s was even worse than Jackson had foreseen. The night before, the Saran Wrap that Flicka wrapped around her eyes to seal in the Vaseline had come off while she slept – he should never have bought that off-brand surgical tape – so that morning her eyes had been flaming. While he was out for a few hours, she apparently got – well, “irritable” was an understatement.
For while Carol was always urging him to avoid subjecting Flicka to “stress,” by far and away the biggest source of stress for their elder daughter was the very condition that made her so sensitive to it. She didn’t mind her father’s familiar mouthing off about isn’t it a coincidence how every sanctimonious new “green” law legislators proposed, like a tax on plastic bags, a tax on airline carbon emissions, just happened to make the State more money. She did mind waking up with puffy red eyes halfway to conjunctivitis before breakfast. She did mind not being able to talk right when she had plenty to say. She did mind drooling all the time, and sweating all the time; even if the kids at school had been lectured on not making fun, she might have preferred a little regular-kid teasing to the outsized politeness and looking-the-other-way she put up with instead. She got sick of having to pour that water-sugar-and-salt solution into her g-tube every hour and a half, which produced none of the gasping satisfaction she witnessed in her sister after a deep, thirsty quaff of Coke. She got tired of wearing that big black “airway clearance system” vest for fifteen minutes every morning and night, as if bracketing her sleep with two rounds of boxing.
Flicka might have been grateful that the Vest now spared her parents’ uncomfortably intimate double-fisted pounding on her back while astraddle her buttocks. She might have been grateful, too, that they’d given up on the chest drainage sessions that had tyrannized her childhood: the tube worked unpleasantly down her nose, the pump’s sickening gurgle and slurp, the grotesque accumulation of mucus in the waste container; it had always amazed Jackson how much thick, viscous gunk could derive from those two tiny lungs, and though Carol had always dispensed with the effluent with her usual no-nonsense officiousness, he could not have been the only one to have found the gloppy, stringy substance nauseating. But if he himself was grateful that dislodging her congestion had grown less revolting, for Flicka gratitude was a foreign sensation. She suffered so many other annoyances that she simply transferred her vexation to something else: chronic constipation from all those meds, the humiliating enemas.
Moreover, the biggest trigger of a dysautonomic crisis was surely sheer dread that, for fuck’s sake, she was about to have another dysautonomic crisis.
The signs would have been falling into place in his absence, while Carol was making a German chocolate cake to bring to tonight’s feast at the Knackers’. He knew the drill. Flicka had endured more medical indignity by sixteen than most folks abided over a lifetime, and her true nature was stoic. Sure, she grumbled plenty, but if she ever got outright whiny, that was a red flag; “change in personality” and “emotional lability” were textbook indicators of a crisis. The thing was, most kids with Riley-Day – an older tag for familial dysautonomia that sounded like a pop duo who sang perky numbers on Christian radio – would “whine” that their sister was hogging the family computer. But Flicka had an existential streak a mile wide, and her personality never altered as much as all that. Her version of “lability” was a lot harder to take. She would “whine” about the fact that she hated her life and hated her body; about how she had nothing to look forward to besides submitting to more bouts in the hospital, ending up in a wheelchair, and having her whole cornucopia of symptoms – the wild blood pressure fluctuation, the chronic congestion, the lousy balance, the cornea infections, the seizures – get worse. Flopping and perspiring about the kitchen, she’d “whine” that she’d rather be dead. That was rough for any parent to listen to, since the declaration couldn’t be put down to regulation teenage histrionics. She meant it. This wasn’t a kid who “didn’t understand the concept of death,” either – the likes of whom Jackson had never met anyway. Like most children, Flicka understood perfectly well what death was, and on days like this she thought it sounded wonderful.
Sure enough, he could hear the girl’s nasal screech from the back of the house while he was still out on the stoop. (“No, I didn’t wear the Vest, I hate it, I hate everything, all this stuff about how great it is at least to be alive, I don’t know what you see in it!” Brief lulls were doubtless filled in with Carol’s ritual assurance that she shouldn’t talk like that, that “life was a precious gift,” sentimental homilies guaranteed only to further their daughter’s rage.) He was still feeling afloat and unfocused himself; he’d been warned not to drive, and had ignored the injunction. The sedative seemed to have brought on an after-high, for when he’d filled the tank over on Fourth Avenue his chatter with the attendant had been manic even by his own standards.
“Why don’t you just let me cut out? It’s not worth it!” Flicka wailed from the kitchen.
Walking in on this foofaraw confirmed his conviction that, Christ, he’d earned doing one thing for himself, hadn’t he? Just one?
“I don’t want your stupid scrambled eggs!” Flicka was wheezing when her father entered the room. “I don’t want to spend all Saturday afternoon with my speech therapist, and occupational therapist, and physical therapist. I’m going to die anyway, so just let me watch TV! What does it matter?”
Carol had grabbed the girl’s hair and was squeezing more Artificial Tears in her eyes. (One of the first signs of FD, that the baby couldn’t cry, was something of a sick joke; any infant with a future like this had every reason to weep.) As Flicka was rasping, “Just leave me alone! Let me fall apart in peace!” she started to hyperventilate.
Granted, it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the symptoms of FD from the side effects of the meds; nausea, dizziness, tinnitus, canker sores, backaches, headaches, fatigue, flatulence, rashes, and shortness of breath came with both territories. But the nature of this episode grew clearer when in the midst of her gasping Flicka started to retch. The dry heaving was excruciating to watch, somehow more so than before the fundoplication, when she’d have spewed what little she’d ingested of Carol’s unwanted plate of scrambled eggs in a six-foot projectile plume. At least proper vomiting had seemed to offer relief. The retching was ceaseless and unavailing, as if an alien embryo in her guts were clawing its way out.
“It’s a crisis,” Carol told her husband grimly. Most wives would make such a statement in the spirit of hyperbolic melodrama; for Carol, the verdict was coolly clinical. “Thank God you’re back. Hold her.”
Jackson clutched his tiny writhing daughter to his chest. After wrestling with the button and zipper with some difficulty from behind, Carol pulled Flicka’s jeans down, hastily coated her own middle finger with Vaseline, and slipped a tiny tablet the color of marshmallow peanuts as far as she could up her daughter’s ass. Without taking a reading that they didn’t have time for, it was always tricky to discern whether Flicka’s blood pressure was soaring or plummeting, but Carol made an educated guess at low – the girl’s skin was clammy, pale, and cold – and administered a pink tablet of ProAmatine in the same rude fashion. Flicka’s whole digestive system would already have shut down, and even meds administered through her g-tube wouldn’t absorb.
“Now, remember—” said Carol.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jackson interrupted. “We gotta keep her upright for the next three hours.” Carol never gave him any credit. He knew perfectly well that lying down after ProAmatine could send Flicka’s blood pressure from knee-high to through the roof.
All this time, Heather had been mooning on the sidelines looking envious, and envy in these circumstances made Jackson worry that she was far dumber than she tested.
For good measure, Carol inserted yet another tablet of diazepam, and within a few minutes the convulsive retches in his arms spasmed farther apart. Fortunately, Carol had crammed Flicka full of Valium fast enough to avert a full-blown crisis – the human equivalent of a hard-drive crash – which would have sent them straight to New York Methodist. However, the rescue did cost the cake, which was now filling the room with the sharp, not altogether unpleasant smell of charred chocolate.
I apologize for the store-bought cake,” Carol said at the door. “We had a mishap with the home-baked one.”
Carol never used Flicka as an excuse, a discipline Jackson admired. Nor would either of them mention how much they’d be out of pocket for the sitter. Flicka having been volatile, they’d called Wendy Porter, their usual registered nurse, who was FD au courant. Hell, they’d have cancelled altogether if it weren’t for Flicka. “I like Glynis,” she’d stressed while they hovered, making sure that she didn’t lie down. “She never treats me like an idiot. She asks me about my cell phone collection, and not only about my stupid FD. She can be, like, sort of wicked, too, which I like tons better than all that goo-goo sweetness I get from those fawning therapists. And now she’s sick. Sicker than I am, even if that seems totally impossible. She’ll be looking forward to tonight, and if you suddenly don’t show up she’ll be crushed. So if you stay home on my account, I swear I’ll swallow some milk the wrong way and give myself pneumonia.” Blackmail, but it had worked; Flick didn’t make empty threats.
Jackson bustled into the kitchen with an overkill of booze – two bottles of wine, two more of decent champagne – meant to impose festivity on an occasion that didn’t easily pass for celebration. Marking the end of an era, this was the last gathering of their traditionally garrulous, fractious foursome that wouldn’t be undermined by dietary restrictions, fatigue, pain, or disappointing blood test results, and the very end of any era was really the beginning of the next one.
Shep had taken the same obfuscating approach to the food. Enough appetizers crowded the table on their enclosed back porch to feed a party of twenty-five: hummus, grilled chili-shrimp on skewers, out-of-season asparagus, and scallops wrapped in bacon; the dim sum, which didn’t quite fit in, had clearly been provided in order to employ Glynis’s forged silver chopsticks. The windows were lined with tea lights. Glynis came downstairs draped in a floor-length black velvet number, which matched Carol’s glittery jet cocktail dress; between the candlelight and the women’s attire, the atmosphere on the porch was that of a séance or satanic ritual. When Jackson wrapped their hostess in a fervent embrace, his fingers sank alarmingly into the velvet; that was a lot of fabric and very little Glynis underneath. Her shoulder blades were sharp as chicken wings. That was no size in which to undergo major surgery, and now he got it about all that food.
“You look fantastic!” Jackson cried. She said thanks with girlish shyness, but he had lied. It was the first of many lies to come, thus another reminder that tonight marked more beginning than finale. Glynis had applied more makeup than usual; the blush and rich red lipstick were unconvincing. Aging anxiety was already etched into her face. Nevertheless, she was a tall, striking woman, and this was the best she was liable to look for a while. That it could well be the best she would look again, ever, was a thought he tried to block.
They settled into caned armchairs while Shep fetched champagne flutes. In the olden days, meaning six weeks ago, Glynis would have hung back on the sidelines conversationally. Wised up to the fact that sparse comment carried greater weight than garrulity, she was the sort who let everyone else argue forever over details, and then made the one sweeping pronouncement that brought the fracas to a close. But now her bearing was regal, as if she were holding court, Queen for a Day. In turn, he and Carol were solicitous, careful to stop talking as soon as she opened her mouth. They let her lay out the procedure scheduled for Monday morning step by step, though they’d already got the whole lowdown from Shep. If Glynis was the center of attention tonight, it was the kind of attention that anyone of sound mind might gladly have skipped.
“At least I got contacting Glynis’s family over with,” said Shep. “Telling her mother was a trip.”
“She’s such a prima donna,” said Glynis. “I could hear her bawling through the receiver from the other side of the kitchen. I knew she’d hijack my drama into her drama. You’d think she was the one who had cancer. She even managed to make me feel bad that I was making her feel bad, if you can believe that.”
“Isn’t it at least a relief,” Carol said tentatively, “that she cares?”
“She cares about herself,” said Glynis. “She’ll milk this for all it’s worth with her book club – you know, the terrible wrongness of a child falling ill before the parent, et cetera, et cetera. Meanwhile, my sisters are saying all the right things, vowing to visit, but they’re mostly glad it’s not them. Maybe I’ll luck out and Ruth will send me some scented candle she got on a free offer from MasterCard.”
There was a harshness about Glynis in the best of times, and Jackson wondered what reaction her family might have had that would have pleased her more.
“And how was telling your kids?” asked Carol.
Glynis visibly flinched.
“More difficult,” Shep intervened gently. “Amelia cried. Zach didn’t, and I wish he had. I think he took it harder. I hadn’t imagined it was possible for that kid to get more closed up, more burrowed into his room. I’m afraid it’s possible. He just – shut down. Didn’t even ask any questions.”
“He already knew,” said Glynis. “At least that something awful was afoot. That I slept too much and my eyes were often red. That we whispered too much, and stopped talking when he walked in.”
“I bet he thought you were getting a divorce,” said Carol.
“No, I doubt that,” said Glynis, taking her husband’s hand and meeting his eyes. “Shepherd has been very tender. Very, obviously tender.”
“Well, I hope a little affection isn’t so rare that it’s what set off Zach’s alarm bells!” said Shep, looking grateful but abashed. “You know, this room thing the kid’s got going … Nanako, our new receptionist, told me about these Japanese kids who never leave their rooms at all. What are they called, something like haikumori? The parents leave meals outside the door, collect the laundry, sometimes empty bedpans. The kids won’t talk, and never cross their thresholds. Mostly hole up with their computers. It’s a big phenom there. You should check it out, Jacks, right up your alley. A whole subculture of kids who say, fuck you, I’m not interested in your shit, leave me alone. We’re not talking dysfunctional eight-year-olds, either; lot of these opt-outs are in their twenties. Nanako thought it was a reaction to Japan’s hothouse competition. Rather than risk losing, they refuse to play. The indoor version of The Afterlife – without the airfare.”
In widening the discussion to Japan, Shep implied that it was now all right to talk about something else besides disease. Even Glynis seemed relieved.
“Those hiki-kimchi, or whatever,” said Jackson. “Precocious moochery is what that is. You gotta give these guys credit for figuring out so young that when you refuse to take care of yourself, someone else will come along and roll your sushi for you.”
“But it’s hardly an enviable life,” said Carol. “Not what any of us would want for Zach.”
His wife’s persistent sincerity sometimes grew trying. “Hey, Shep, I been thinking about that problem of my titles not being sufficiently flattering to my would-be public.” Jackson plunged a triangle of pita bread into the hummus with the pretense of an appetite. “So check this out: Just Because You’re a Quailing, Lily-Livered Twit Who Folks Smarter and Gutsier Than You Are Bleeding White Doesn’t Mean You’re Not Still a Nice Person.”
It went over well.
“Speaking of being bled white,” said Glynis, “Beryl came over the other night. Can you believe she expected us to put up the entire down payment on a Manhattan apartment?”
“Why not throw in a yacht while you’re at it?” said Jackson. “Christ, that woman is Mega-Mooch. Ever notice how these arty bohemian types think we owe them a living? As if we’re all supposed to feel so grateful that they’re creating meaning and beauty for us poor uncultured Neanderthals. Meantime, they’re always shaking a tin can in our faces – for another government grant, or a Midtown penthouse courtesy of Meany Capitalist Older Brother.” He and Beryl had met once: oil and water. She thought he was a heartless right-wing kook, and he thought she was a soft-headed liberal pill. Whenever Shep’s sister came up in conversation, Jackson couldn’t contain himself.
“But, sweetheart,” said Carol, “I thought Mooches were supposed to be ‘smarter and gutsier.’ I thought you admired them. In which case, you look up to Beryl, right?”
“I prefer folks getting away with murder who know they’re getting away with murder. Instead Beryl has that attitude like she’s the victim of some terrible injustice. As if the world needed another documentary. She should turn on the box. They’re chockablock, and most of them bore the shit out of me, frankly.”
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