Sunday, October 28, 2007
Sleep Before Evening by Magdalena Ball
Sleep Before Evening
By Magdalena Ball
Link to buy book: http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/A4WMZWTXVNQZ2/ref=cm_blog_blog/105-9326603-7885261
“Mathematical logic holds great promise for an understanding of the world.”
Marianne looked up from the game. “Check.”
Her grandfather's eyes were more intense than usual, a cobalt blue which, just for a moment, was otherworldly.
He reached out a hand to touch her hair, and then twitched.
“Imagine a comprehensive list of all true sentences. This would be an adequate representation of the world as a whole.”
She leaned closer to him as he moved his king out of check, trying to absorb his tremendous knowledge by proximity. His damp pipe tobacco scent comforted her like a warm blanket.
The room was warm, but a light breeze blew in through the open windows, filling the room with the astringent salt of the Long Island Sound beneath them. She imagined herself on the deck of his boat, sitting in her own special co-captain's chair, protected from wind as he turned the steering wheel with his capable captain's hands.
The thought of Eric's boat instantly made her thirsty. Without her asking, Eric passed over her half-drunk glass of orange juice. Then she saw it again. Another twitch, which caused some juice to spill out onto the chessboard, orange flowing like a stain over the black marble square. The twitch lasted long enough for her to note how the upper right side of his face distorted grossly, pulling his eyebrow down towards his mouth.
She stared, unsure of whether he was teasing her or checking to see if she was paying attention, and took the glass from his momentarily frozen hand. Then he moved his king out of check again, oblivious to the spilled juice.
“Grandpa?” His face relaxed and he yawned, ignoring the lightning strike of violence which had just passed through his face. “I'll get a paper towel.”
Eric smiled as she returned from the kitchen. “You're a good girl, Mari. I'm so proud of you. I know you'll achieve great things.”
She moved her knight, putting Eric in check once more. His eyes suddenly cleared and he looked his old self - stolid, nurturing, able to counter her move. He whispered. “Never be afraid of check.”
Marianne leaned back in her chair and sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. She must have imagined the twitch. Eric would counter her check as he always did. She opened her eyes to see where he moved his king, but it was still on the same square, next to the sticky spot where she'd tried to clean the juice. Eric sat still in his seat, staring at her vacantly, his arms dangling at his side.
“Grandpa, it's your move.” Her throat tightened as he fell forward, slowly crumpling on the floor. She waited a moment for an uncharacteristic 'surprise!' or some other indication of a test or unfunny joke, but he lay still on the sisal, his breathing expelled in labored snores.
“Grandpa.” She stared at him, her eyes bulging from their sockets. “It's your move.”
“Breathe, damn it!”
Marianne's own breath was fast and heavy, the fingers on her left hand squeezing Eric's in time to the ambulance's flashing light.
“Come on Grandpa, please.”
He lifted his head slightly, blue eyes watering and bulging with the effort. “I'm sorry, poppet.”
“Oh, Grandpa, I'm the one who's sorry. But you'll be okay.”
She turned to the paramedic behind her. “He's talking. That's a good sign isn't it? Do you have water? He's thirsty.”
Eric's hand stopped twitching. His face was suddenly still, his eyes closed.
“We were just playing chess.”
“We play every Friday.” Her voice squeaked as it moved up the soprano scale. “It was his move. I was sure he'd counter my check, but he sat there doing nothing, his hands were hanging. I thought he was teasing.”
“Mr Cotton,” said the paramedic loudly, holding Eric's shoulders. “Can you smile for me, Mr Cotton?”
Marianne leaned over. “It's Doctor Cotton.”
“Can you squeeze my hand, Doctor Cotton?”
Eric's hand lay still against the stretcher, the pauses between his breathing increasing.
The paramedic tapped Marianne on the shoulder as they began to prepare Eric for movement, tucking his sheets and lifting the bed. “It's okay. You did the right thing. It was good you called us so quickly. How old are you, Marianne?”
“Seventeen. It wasn't checkmate. I'm sure he would have countered my move. He never loses.”
The ambulance slowed to a stop. Marianne followed the paramedics and Eric out and through the glass doors of the hospital. Before she could continue down the hall with them, they motioned her over to the waiting room, ignoring her outstretched hands. “Wait,” she called; but they were already gone.
Sitting in the waiting room, Marianne rubbed her hands, blowing into them for warmth. She looked around, but everything was unfamiliar. Busy strangers with their own tragedies knocked into her as she sucked on the end of her sleeve, a habit she'd kept from childhood. She caught herself and looked up to find Lily walking through the entrance, the sunlight coming in through the glass temporarily blocking Lily's face so that all Marianne saw initially was the flap of her mother's floral scarf, which mirrored
the violet of her perfume.
“Oh god, honey, where's Grandpa? Are you okay?” Lily's voice was louder than the general hum of the waiting room and she moved about manically and without purpose, blowing her nose and asking random questions of any staff members she could find, her voice pitched on the edge of hysteria.
Marianne didn't know whether she was relieved to see Lily, or embarrassed at her mother's usual overt energy. Her stepfather Russell arrived a few minutes later, kissed her gently on the cheek, and tried to corral Lily, who was undoing and redoing her hair while continuing to grill her.
“Was he breathing? Did he hit his head when he fell? Was he still conscious? What did he say to you?”
There wasn't enough pause between questions for Marianne to answer.
Russell was used to Lily's chaos, keeping his own voice measured in comparison and asking no questions while he led Marianne to an empty waiting room chair.
While Lily flapped about within the limits of Russell's containment, Marianne sat silently, her mind rummaging through the final minutes before Eric's stroke. After several hours in the teeth-grinding panic of the waiting room, a doctor arrived to tell them what room Eric was in and then disappeared quickly while Russell led them towards the elevator.
As they entered Eric's room, Lily fell quiet, her restlessness stilled by the regular whoosh-click of a ventilator as the three of them stood dumbly.
Marianne took her grandfather's hand, stroking the raised blue veins and the papery softness of his transparent skin. Would he come back to her? Marianne touched Eric's fingers and there was no response, none of the warm, reassuring squeeze that had gotten her through everything from skinned knees to fatherless birthday parties.
She held his hand and took herself back to the conversations in his study, the piano lessons and gifts, while hissing, almost without consciousness: “Don't do this to me, Grandpa. It isn't fair.”
She felt his pulse, which coincided with the jagged lines on a monitor screen. He was nothing; just another dying patient. Marianne tried to reconcile the body on the bed with the famous Eric Cotton, lecturer, author, confidant.
A doctor entered the room and Russell introduced himself, putting out his hand: “Russell Wilkinson.”
Russell spoke slowly, smiling to an imaginary television camera, his white teeth catching the light. He collected toiletries - hair gel, aftershave, skin tonic, deodorants. Even his tan was out of a Coppertone container, although he spent plenty of time on the beach in the summer.
“Nice to meet you, Russell,” the doctor said. “You're a lucky man to have such a beautiful family.”
Marianne watched Russell's smile tighten and could almost read his mind as the word 'lucky' hit him in the face. Luck was in the eyes of the beholder, she thought. Marianne knew that if he felt anything at all, it was unlucky. He swaggered backwards from the doctor a little, running a hand through his shoulder length hair.
“How serious is he?”
“I'm sorry,” said the doctor, shaking his head. “Did Eric have any directives?”
Russell wrinkled his brow in confusion. “What?”
“Wishes about whether he wanted to be kept on life support in the event of, you know … this. I'm afraid there is no viable brain activity.” He pointed to a machine nearby.
He dropped his voice and the hospital followed suit, the clinking and rushing about from the hallway and other visitors silenced while the doctor's whispers filled the room. “The damage was too extensive. I'm sorry.”
Although she tried to follow the discussion, Marianne was having difficulty working out what was meant by the dissonant words that floated by her; kidney dialysis, ventilators, drips, antibiotics, oxygen, tube feeding, infections. The words felt removed from their normal meanings.
“In a way, death is easier.”
Lily looked sharply at the doctor, her eyes beginning to water, and she sniffed: “How? How is death easier? Easier for us? Or for him?”
The doctor backed away slightly. “We could put him in hospice, of course, if his insurance will cover it. The setting is more pleasant than the hospital, but you know, it would only be prolonging the dying process. Insurance rarely covers long term support, and it can be expensive. He's in what we call a persistent vegetative state. We have a counselor who can talk you through the options.”
Marianne wondered whether her grandfather could hear them debating his life. Did he have an idea that there was something before - a nagging tug of person and meaning? Or was his world now the sum of whatever senses were still working; the repeated beep, the room's smell, the squeak of nurses' shoes and rush of exhalation as they fixed his pillows, turned him and cleaned his body.
Could you still call it life if it went on like this for years? Would he be the same man? Marianne moved as close to Eric as she could and tried to breathe along with him, taking in his breath with her inhalation and blowing towards him with her exhalation. She knew he was there. Alive. Listening and angry. His eyes were closed, but she could still see him looking at her, pleading with her. “Don't let them turn my equipment off. Help me, Marianne. Please help me.”
“Yes,” she whispered back.
“Okay. We'll speak to the counselor and let you know what we decide. Thank you, doctor.”
Russell put his hand on Lily's shoulder. His satin shirt shimmered in the hospital lights and his heeled boots chinked loudly on the yellow and white floor tiles. Leading Marianne and Lily out of the room, away from Eric, he looked ready for the rodeo. Marianne looked at him, the new head of their family. He looked uncertain of the stance he should take - sad or officious.
Marianne heard Aaron Copland faintly up the hall; Appalachian Spring. Was someone else's visitor carrying a boom box on the FM channel? It was probably her own crazy imagination, adding wide open grassy spaces and rolling rhythms to the starched scene; a way of removing herself. She could even
smell grass but, of course, there was a small patch of garden in front of the building, the cheerful daisies mocking them with their perky white and yellow brightness. The flowers felt wrong under the circumstance. If no one was looking, Marianne thought she might stamp on them.
“C'mon, let's go home now. There's nothing much we can do today. We need time to think and talk. Eric won't miss us.”
“Of course he'll miss us,” Marianne said. “We need to stay.”
But Lily and Russell walked ahead, talking together without her. To them, Grandpa was already a ghost, like the Copland Marianne could no longer hear, its echo drowned by the backfiring of their car and Russell's cursing as he drove them home.
When she was little, Marianne was allowed to put her feet up on the dashboard, chalky footprints scattered across vinyl as she danced in time to the music on the radio. Now the car was clean, except for a candy bar wrapper and a half open pack of cigarette papers on the floor. Russell wasn't allowed to smoke in the house, but you could smell ashes in the car. Marianne coughed, breaking the oppressive silence, but an unspoken question still hovered in the air. She wondered who would say something first, when Lily began knocking her fist against the air vent.
“The heating's broken again. One day, I'm hoping we'll be able to afford a car that actually does everything all at one time. If the heating works, the engine stops. If the engine works, the heating stops.”
“Sorry, Lil. Wish I could afford a better car for you.”
“It'll be spring soon enough I guess. It's so damn cold today, though. I just can't get warm.”
“Apparently this is the coldest March on record in New York since 1892.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Can't remember. Maybe the news last night.”
“Everything is always a superlative, isn't it. The coldest spring. The hottest summer. The tallest building. I don't need a weatherman to tell me it's cold. And who cares whether 1982 is as cold as it was in 1892?”
“Oh dear. Excuse me for filling your precious brain with useless facts.”
Marianne sat in the back, her hands pushed under her thighs, which were moving up and down in an effort to keep the circulation going. Had they given up on Eric already? Marianne didn't dare ask. The tension around that question filled the car. She could hear her mother's unspoken plea. “Please don't ask that.”
Marianne kept silent, as usual, not wanting to cause a conflict.
“We should go to Dad's place.”
“Eric's? Why should we go there?”
“I need to look through his papers to get some idea of what he would want. Maybe he's left some kind of will.”
“I doubt it, Lily. Besides, he isn't dead yet. Isn't looking for a will now a little grubby?”
“I'm not looking for a will to see what he's left to us. For god's sake, Russ, I just want to try and find out what Dad wants. I want to do the right thing by him.”
“I don't think you'll find the answer in his house, Lil. This is a decision we have to make. You can't defer to him this time. Daddy isn't here to tell you what to do.”
“Don't give me that shit. He has a right to have us follow his directives, especially if he's taken the trouble to write them out.”
“And why wouldn't he have given you a copy already?”
“I don't know.” Lily's voice dropped to a whisper. “We didn't really discuss things like that.”
“No. He probably thought he'd live forever.”
“You're a prick.”
“I'm sorry, hon. That was callous. This is hard for all of us. We'll go to his house and I'll just wait in the car with Mari while you go in and have a look.”
“No way. I'm going in with you, Mom.” Marianne watched as Russell made a sharp left onto Waukena Avenue. She could just see the entrance to the Middle Bay Country Club where Grandpa occasionally played golf. He took her with him once and she swam in the big white pool. For members and their guests only. No one swam seriously, dressed in designer suits and lounging on the deck chairs. She wanted to materialize him there now, playing golf in his plaid dockers, joking with colleagues from the University.
Russell turned the radio on. Marianne had changed it to the FM station last time they were out. It was Chopin's Prelude No4 in E Minor, which filled the car, easing the rough spots and changing
the mood from fear to sorrow. Marianne felt as though it had been chosen especially by Eric to describe how she was feeling. The music, with its repetitive minor E, was so soft that she had to strain to pick up how beautiful it was, like the warmth of a paternal hand across her shoulder. She closed her eyes, feeling something almost like joy, pleasure and desire, even though the music was unbearably sad.
“Sorry Mari, time for the headlines,” Russell said, abruptly flipping the channel. The presenter's voice intruded into her bittersweet mood, speaking blankly of the Soviet versus US arms race and potential nuclear war.
Marianne pictured her family huddled in an ineffective bomb shelter waiting for their world to become an x-ray image before disappearing in a mushroom cloud of chemical fission. She shivered, remembering her first grade fallout shelter drills; lining up in the hallway with books on her head, the ubiquitous orange and black triangles of the shelter sign permeating her dreams.
Marianne closed her eyes, blocking out the meaning of the words and tried to sleep, but the hospital was only ten minutes from Eric's house. Beyond the billboards advertising designer jeans and surfboard wax, she could see the big elms and grand houses as they drove towards Parkside Drive. Their own house belonged to Eric too. He bought it for them as an investment. The top half was rented out to some of Lily's friends to cover the taxes, but Lily and Russell lived rent free. Marianne remembered a
conversation held shortly before Eric's stroke.
“He doesn't have to keep reminding me. I know it's his house.”
“You shouldn't let it bother you. It isn't like he spends much time here. He declined my dinner invitation again.”
“Thank Christ. You should have asked me first.”
“I have to ask you before I invite my father to dinner?”
“Not for permission, but it would be nice to be included in the decision process. What if I was planning to take you out to dinner as a surprise?”
Lily snorted, coffee running out of her nose. “Ho, that's a good one. A surprise dinner? Sorry, hon. I'm afraid I didn't consider that option. He isn't coming anyway, so you can go ahead and surprise me now.” She laughed bitterly.
“It's demeaning. I hate the way he calls me Jock and talks about the jobs I haven't done - right in front of me, like I'm not there.”
“He isn't coming, okay? Forget it, Jock. The last place he wants to be is here. My work doesn't interest him, and neither does my cooking. If it weren't for Mari, he'd probably never speak to me.”
Marianne walked out, slamming the door, and headed straight for Eric's in protest against their lack of gratitude. Every penny he gave was treated as an act of cruelty.
She always walked the forty-five-minute trip to her grandfather's home, across the busy main street with its shops, cars and not a single sidewalk. People hardly walked anywhere now. They would stare at her out their car windows as if she was doing something odd. Maisy from school once laughed at her: “I
saw you walking. Walking. Imagine that.”
But Marianne knew the route under her skin, her footfall coordinating with her breath, left foot doing rhythm, right foot beat. She'd hum, dum-de-dum-dum and practice her piano pieces with her whole body, ignoring the cars as she moved up the well groomed streets towards Eric's place overlooking the Long Island Sound.
Eric's boat bobbed off the jetty behind the house. He took her out on day trips when she spent the summers with him on Long Island. She was Little Miss with a kerchief in her hair. It was a forty-minute train ride from New York City to Eric's house. Lily let her come out on her own, dropping her off at Penn Station. Marianne boarded the train, an eight-year-old grownup with her book held tightly against her chest.
The train was nearly empty between commuter hours. Marianne felt at home on the Long Island Rail Road, looking out the window and enjoying her invisibility, only a little envious of the tree lined blocks, the small, picket-fenced houses and the 'normal' families she imagined inside them, her nose pressed against the glass of the grimy train window.
Then one day she was in one of those small, picket-fenced houses - Lily, Russell and Marianne, only two blocks from the beach. It was Lily's dream to get away from the city and live in a real house with her own studio. She was sick of having to squeeze her work into their everyday life, with half-finished paintings on the kitchen table, on the tops of their radiators, filling up the nonworking fireplace, stepped on by cats and ruined by spilled drinks.
The apartment was small, although not too bad when it was just the two of them and one cat, but when Cinnebar suddenly proved he was a she by mating with the neighbor's Persian, and Russell began staying the night, leaving his own cartoons on the table and radiators, home suddenly was impossibly small.
Plus, there was a man with a gun hanging around the playground and when Ramona the big black girl from her school teased her everyday - “I'll whup your butt, white girl” - moving near her grandfather wasn't such a bad idea.
Marianne knew she would miss her tiny room where she watched people, invisible behind the home-made Marimekko curtains on the fifteenth floor. On the street below was the endless play of life, with her the only one in the audience. There were arguments in the middle of the night, spontaneous dance parties or conversations that floated up to her as clearly as if she'd been an intended recipient. She hardly ever went outside but felt in the thick of it behind the curtains, tapping a symphonic beat with her
fingers on the windowpane.
Russell pulled the car into the driveway of Eric's house, squeaking the brakes as he came to a stop in front of the garage doors. The small front garden looked well tended, bright green lawn enhancing the white siding of the two story house. Eric valued neatness and mowed every Sunday, although the vivid colors of her grandmother's bulbs had long since given way to easy care shrubs.
If she squinted, Marianne could see her grandfather in front of her, waving happily while he pushed his electric mower across the green patch, his white baseball cap tilted jauntily. He would surely be back in time to keep the grass down, she thought, a lump gathering in her throat.
The house smelled of roses and cinnamon: the potpourri Eric's housekeeper put in little jars on the fireplace. It was mock hominess, a subtle reminder of the real cooking smells that once filled the house when Grandma Cotton lived in it.
Lily opened the refrigerator and poured herself a glass of orange juice. Marianne frowned. “Mom.”
“Why waste it? I'm parched. Now, where does Dad keep his papers? In his study I guess.”
Marianne walked over to the piano and ran her hand lightly across the keys. The chessboard was still there in the living room, scattered black pieces pointing towards her in accusation. While Lily went into Eric's study, Marianne sat down on the living room couch, her head spinning as she leaned forward to pick them up, whispering: “I shouldn't have checkmated you.”
“Hold your horses, poppet. I saw your knight would check me. I had a counter move. Don't forget, there are no external influences in chess; no acts of fate. You only have yourself to blame if you lose or win.” Marianne heard the deep rhythm of Eric's melodious voice, his words echoing in her own head, an imagined conversation.
“But a stroke is an act of fate, Grandpa, isn't it?”
“There are no acts of fate. I lost for a reason.”
“Of course, you won, Grandpa. You always win.”
“No, I didn't win this time.”
She closed her eyes, holding onto the edge of the couch, and remembered the way he looked as he leaned forward, his pale blue eyes simultaneously kind and thoughtful. “I once tried to teach your mother to play chess. She lasted for two moves. No concentration at all. Except when she was painting. I could have
used her touch here. It's too bland now Grandma's gone. All these neutrals. Don't you think?”
He smiled, crinkling his eyes into slits. Marianne had plenty of concentration. It was the intensity of her attention span that set her apart from other children. He tapped her shoulder as he told her so, and she felt warmth spread through her chest as she smelled the tobacco Eric tamped into his pipe. She was taken back to a memory of herself as an eight-year-old child.
“I made the invitation myself. It isn't a lot to ask, is it? Just once a year for a father to attend his daughter's birthday party?”
“It's okay, poppet. You didn't really think he'd show up did you?”
“No, I guess not.”
“He's to be pitied, Mari. We only give what we can take. Somewhere along the line someone must have hurt him. His rejection of you is just a rejection of himself, you know?”
She shook her head. “How can you defend him? I thought you hated Daddy.”
Eric laughed. “Of course I don't hate him. But he hasn't been much value to us, has he, leaving your Mom before you were even one? He could pass me on the street and I wouldn't even recognize
him. He gave the world you, though, and that's something for which I will always be grateful. Here, let me tell you a story.” Eric took down a brown leather book of Aesop's Fables. He spoke in a sonorous voice and Marianne found herself sitting up straighter, leaning forward towards him as she furrowed her brow in
“An ant nimbly running about in the sunshine in search of food came across a chrysalis that was very near its time of change. The chrysalis moved its tail and thus attracted the attention of the ant, who then saw for the first time that it was alive.”
Eric raised his voice to a falsetto. “'Poor, pitiable animal,' cried the ant disdainfully. 'What a sad fate is yours. While I can run hither and thither at my pleasure and, if I wish, ascend the tallest tree, you lie imprisoned here in your shell, with power only to move a joint or two of your scaly tail.'
“The chrysalis heard all this but did not try to make any reply. A few days after, when the ant passed that way again, nothing but the shell remained. Wondering what had become of its contents, he felt himself suddenly shaded and fanned by the gorgeous wings of a beautiful butterfly. 'Behold in me,' said the butterfly, 'your much-pitied friend. Boast now of your powers to run and climb as long as you can get me to listen.'
“So saying, the butterfly rose into the air and, borne along and aloft on the summer breeze, was soon lost to the sight of the ant forever.”
He snapped the book shut and put it down on the table. “So …”
“Things aren't always what they appear to be at first?” She looked at him hopefully.
“Yes. That's it, exactly, dearest clever Mari.”
Eric's skin was summer brown and his blue eyes icy in contrast. He brushed a lock of hair off his forehead. “Your father was a good looking guy when your mother met him. He spoke well and dressed in fancy clothes. But it was an illusion. He gave up the important things in his life and ran towards the meaningless. The loser, of course, was him.”
He stood up and put a record on his old gramophone. “Listen. This is the piece you're working on.”
He moved his head from side to side. “Largo.” He hummed along with the music, which rose and fell like Eric's breathing.
“Hear how the sound feels like the sensation of longing, the horns answering one another. It's a call from far away that moves closer and closer and increases in intensity without ever speeding up.
“Coming home. There is no quick way. You have to journey to get to any destination.” His head nodded appreciatively.
It was her second grade exam piece, but it was hard. She couldn't resist the urge to go faster as the piece progressed.
“Slow down, Mari. You have to call and answer. The most poignant parts are measured. Draw out the longing. Draw out the sad knowledge of a traveler. Capture the birds flying. Hear the flutes twittering in your head as you make your way back to where you began. That repeated sound is what conveys the nostalgia of the piece. It's critical.”
She tried her best, working across the black and white keys of his mahogany piano, but her small fingers couldn't sustain the sound long enough. She got a B-plus on the exam, but she knew that she had failed to please her Grandfather. Her tears made a similar pattern to the notes, falling in order on the piano keys: E, G, G, E, D, C.
She wanted to draw out the longing from each note, to convey the beauty he kept pointing out to her, but she just played more quickly, her fingers burning as they flew, jarring, destroying the music as the song transformed itself into something else, nostalgia giving way to bitterness.
She could hear Eric's voice, a deep echo: “What a sad fate is yours, imprisoned in your shell.”
“Marianne. MARIANNE, are you OK?”
Citrus replaced the musty pipe smell as she tried to sit up. “Just lie still, honey. You're pale as a sheet.” Lily held a cold cloth against her head and pressed her lips against Marianne's cheek while pulling her gently up. “Here, drink this juice slowly. Are you okay?
“Russell!” Lily yelled out the window.
Marianne rubbed her head as she drank the juice. “I'm sorry. I… I don't know what happened.”
Lily stood up. “I'll open a window. It's hot in here. You're probably exhausted.”
Russell stood in the doorway, his hair a lion's mane around his face. “What is it?”
“Mari fainted. Come and give me a hand.”
“I'll get some water.” Russell set a glass of water next to the juice and put his arm around her. “What happened?”
“I need the toilet.” Marianne lifted Russell's arm off her shoulder and walked off in the direction of Eric's bathroom.
Sitting on the cold toilet seat she wondered whether Eric was just in his chrysalis phase; a temporary moment of silence before breaking his cocoon and flying out. She was still dizzy and leaned
forward to put her head in her hands, crossing her fingers.
“Please let him wake up,” she said repeatedly under her breath, the whispered sibilance flushing away with the water. She washed her hands and returned to the living room.
“Your color's back, Mari. How do you feel?”
“A little better.”
“I want to stay here. Or maybe we can go back to the hospital. I need to speak with Grandpa.”
“He isn't really there, Mari. You heard the doctor. Anyway, we'll go back tomorrow. Russell and I need to talk.”
“Don't I get a say? Are you two going to discuss it without including me? What about what Grandpa wants?”
“Mari, you heard what the doctor said.”
“He isn't dead yet. You can't just turn your back on him. He hasn't even been in the hospital for one day.” Marianne's voice competed with the loud 'chchch-chee-ree' of a warbler outside.
“Listen, hon. I know that you and Grandpa were close. But he's my father too. I know that he wouldn't like to lie there in - what did the doctor call it - a persistent vegetative state? He's a vegetable, Mari. He'd hate that. You aren't the only one who understood Grandpa.”
“Oh, sure. He'd rather you killed him off as quickly as possible. What if he wakes tomorrow or in a week or two? How can you make that decision?”
“I haven't. We haven't made any decision yet. But we need to talk about it.”
“Did you find anything, Lil?”
“No. Nothing except the book he was working on. We'd better go home. We have a lot to discuss.”
“Let's go.” Russell sighed. “I feel uncomfortable here without Eric. As if we were trespassing.”
“I'm staying.” Marianne picked up one of the chess pieces still on the floor and put it on a starting square.
“Honey, please.” Lily took Marianne's hand and pulled her towards the door.
“We're lucky this happened on a weekend. Next week is a horrific one for me. I'm presenting to the Board on Tuesday,” Russell said.
Lily pulled Marianne into the car and Russell took off while she closed the door.
“How can you say that, Russell? Dad didn't have his stroke to suit you. Slow down.”
“You know I didn't mean it that way. Ah, shit, I just went through a red light.”
“Lucky there aren't any police around. What's that about there never being a policeman when you need one?”
Marianne wondered how you determined whether you were lucky or not. Could you take a scale and simply put the good stuff on one side and the bad on the other and see which one was heavier? How would you know where to put things if they weren't clearly good or bad? Some things start off looking good but turn out bad.
Like when she was shortlisted for the Chopin award. You might put that on the good side of the scale, but Lily cried about her own lack of music, and her father didn't even knew about it. Grandpa wanted her to begin practicing right away and then it was the 'competition' all the time and she had to prepare and everyone had expectations and she had to wear the label 'prodigy' like a sign around her neck, even though she was only fourteen and just wanted to go swimming or something where there was no pressure to win.
Marianne knew she would lose in the end and hurt everyone except her mother who was secretly pleased but held her close and said it didn't matter. Of course it mattered. But you could probably find good and bad in everything that happened, which meant that there was no such thing as luck, only perception. This was just the sort of question she would have to ask Grandpa about when he woke. He would know the answer. He always did.
Eric handed Marianne a book of Chinese silk. The cover was delicately embroidered and there were blank music staff lines inside. It was tied with a string.
“This is for your secret music. The wild stuff in your head. Write it down. You never know when you might need it.”
Eric's hair needed a cut. It stuck out in a wing on the left side. Marianne flipped through the rice paper pages carefully. She wanted to leave it pristine. Once she began writing, her clumsy penmanship would ruin it.
“What you create matters, Marianne.” He reached out to touch her arm.
“Yes, Grandpa. It matters,” she echoed, believing that he would always be there to cheer her on. She was only seven years old but she was already writing her own music, her chubby fingers trying out different combinations on the piano before rushing back to capture them in arched handwriting, along with Italian words indicating how it should be played: arpeggio, rit, staccato.
“Let me see, Mari.” Lily leaned over the pages, but she had no ear for music. Everything was visual to her. The notes were only pictures, black ink against beige. They were soundless; contrast and texture. Lily was tone deaf, but Eric could read Marianne's music and always knew what she was trying to say.
She copied out the first page of the Ode to Joy from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony as practice, humming each line before entering it into the book. Freude, schöner Götterfunken Tochter aus Elysium. She could almost capture the exuberance; the pure joy, shouted from the rooftops, which Schiller might have been striving for as she then began her own piece, called 'Joy', and didn't eat or drink until it was finished, ten hours later.
When she played it for her piano teacher, Mrs Hendrix looked at her with shocked eyes. “Did your Grandfather make you do this?”
She was usually annoyed at Eric's interference and accused him of pushing her too hard. She praised the piece, though, and told Marianne she had a great future and from then on let her move as quickly as she wanted, rushing through six or seven pieces a week to get to the next level.
“This one can't be rushed Marianne, take it slowly. You might need a few weeks.” But Marianne was back the next week, her fingers aching from hours of practice - despite her mother's urging to get outdoors and play - ready to move on to the next song.
“She's so good,” she overheard Mrs Hendrix saying one day, shaking her head. “She needs her own piano, Eric. She's outgrown me. What are you going to do with her?”
Eric patted Marianne proudly on the shoulder. The book in her hands gave off a musty odor. She shut it, wondering why it mattered, and to whom. Her grandfather's pride was gone and her own talent wasted. The delicate silk was stained with ink, the pages brittle with a decade of neglect, and her handwriting was nearly unreadable.
“I remember when he gave you that music diary. You took it to bed with you every night. I was jealous of your relationship with Grandpa. You were kindred spirits.” Lily blew her nose while stroking her daughter's shoulder with her other hand. “I wish I was able to talk to him the way you could. You should take up the piano again. You play so beautifully.”
“I still have a relationship with him. He isn't dead yet.” Marianne stood up, dropping the book onto the faded pink carpet, a childhood concession to femininity. “I can't read it now anyway. The writing's a mess.”
Marianne left Lily alone on the bed and went into the kitchen. She could still see her in the window reflection above the sink as she washed the dirty dishes. Her mother's golden hair was wrapped in two chopsticks, the loosened tendrils curling around her face; a white splotch of paint on her cheek. Although Lily was crying, her face was clear. Even her neuroses were attractive.
In contrast, Marianne saw herself as a shadow; Lily's mousy daughter. Her dark hair was frizzy, her skin wan and her breasts too small to attract the attention of boys. She could never figure out how to wear makeup and she always somehow stained her clothes. There wasn't even an iron in the house. Lily didn't need one for the stretchy bodysuits and slinky tank tops she wore under her smocks.
“Oh honey, you have a perfect body,” her mother would say, absentmindedly, her mind full of some abstract image of her daughter - a multicolored Picasso in profile or one of the sketched nudes she had lying about the studio. Lily was warm and loving when she wasn't depressed under her covers or running around the house in a fit of hysteria. But Marianne sometimes wondered who Lily saw when she looked at her.
Marianne dried her hands, went to the stereo to put on a Chopin record and closed her eyes, letting the twinkling piano sound flow around her body, her fingers moving softly in time against her cheek. Her mother was right. It had been long since she'd played. She pictured herself walking on stage to a cheering audience. She'd worked hard but somehow it all occurred without her involvement; an act solely for the sake of the performance until she took her bow and the curtain went down.
The real Marianne came out then, an empty vessel for a talent that had already begun to fade. She was too old now to be precocious or cute. Moving her fingers around her eyes, her nose and mouth, she tried to get a blind man's sense of what she looked like. Her features were nondescript - large eyes, a small
uninteresting nose and simple mouth. No high color like her mother or beautiful shining golden hair. How could she live up to the expectations of her grandfather?
Then she got up, the music still playing, and finished washing the dishes. She could see her face reflected in the window, but her features were floating away from one another, distorted by a crack running down the left hand side of the glass. They needed a new window, a new kitchen, a new house. Her
mother was always saying it.
“Do you want to talk?”
Russell stood in the doorway of Marianne's room like a pelican, balancing a foot against his knee and then shifting to the other side. Stepping in, he picked up a small glass swan off the bookshelf. “I remember when I bought this for you at Adventureland in that mock Bavarian village by the flume. You wanted it so badly.”
He turned it around so that the thick glass reflected blue beams of light on the wall opposite. “Do you remember? After your mom said no, you cried so hard I snuck it up to the register when she
wasn't looking. Not much of a father figure, eh? One tear and I'm lost.”
Marianne looked up from the bed. “I gave you away with my squeal when you slipped it to me in the car. Mom was really pissed.”
“I told you not to say anything.”
“I was always a lousy liar.”
“She was wrong anyway. You're not exactly spoiled.”
“Long time ago now. God, it's gone fast. And look at you. All grown up.”
“Yeah. It's like another life altogether. Sometimes I wish I could get back to that little girl.”
Russell laughed gently. “When a glass swan was your biggest problem?”
“Mmm.” Marianne shook her head, drying her eyes with the back of her sleeve.
Lily was in her studio, a converted garage attached to the house. Paintings were scattered around the limited space with unframed finished work around the periphery and canvasses in varying states of evolution in the center.
Marianne adjusted her eyes to the strong light, blinking until she could make out the whole room in a glance. Like Picasso, her mother had different periods, and the paintings were roughly grouped accordingly. In the right corner she could see the series of empty cereal cartons, some vividly colored and some in muted siennas. Marianne imagined herself eating through the mountain of boxes Lily took in here to copy. Cereal was an easy meal. You only had to add milk, and not even that if you were hungry enough; just put your hand in and start eating the vitamin fortified pieces. She could live off those boxes for years, reaching into the canvas and pulling out something sweet and crunchy.
Lily liked to paint the same thing from different perspectives with small variations of shade or texture.
Then there were the cartoon animals, crying, laughing and socializing. Lily could work for days at a time, not stopping to eat or sleep until she ended up sobbing on one of the canvasses, paint on her face. Then Russell or Marianne would take her, floppy and lethargic, to bed while she muttered about how she was wasting her time, her life, had no talent, no worth, wasn't a good mother, while Marianne stroked her hand and whispered “it's not true” in her ear until she fell asleep.
Marianne always knew what would happen and how. It was a play in which all the lines were memorized, all the parts issued. Still, Marianne never knew whether maybe just once the plot would vary, or her mother would decide to do something stupid and unchangeable. She couldn't take the risk. Couldn't just say “oh shut up already”, though she sometimes thought it, while gentle, kind words flowed from her mouth and the show went on.
“Do you like them, honey?”
There were beads of sweat above Lily's mouth as she stood in front of her latest monochromatic work. Marianne tried looking closely and then from a distance. The paintings had shadow and depth and she could see things in them; curled up bodies, ghostly faces and buildings on top of other buildings. Marianne felt dizzy and uncomfortable, as if something ugly had been exposed in her. There was paint on Lily's shirt, hands and in her hair, which was loosely tied up in a clip.
Marianne tried, but she couldn't say how she felt about them. She felt the work's pull, a kind of gravity, but it was a painful one. Looking at them she thought of Kandinsky, of Baudelaire, of a saxophone playing an intense high note. She felt the power of the art in her gut almost as a loss; a cold wind moving through the tightly packed buildings and black scratches on the canvasses. The work contained her pain, her mother's pain, and other things that couldn't be said.
Marianne wondered whether this kind of talent was passed on through the DNA. She would like to be able to pick up a paintbrush and capture the chaos in her brain, creating meaning that others could see and feel. She imagined people standing in front of her work, tears rolling down their faces as they instantly understood her in an effortless hit. Was this what Lily was aiming for, she wondered. It was the same thing Marianne felt when her fingers moved across the piano; a wordless desire that suddenly changed her individual and meaningless experiences into something bigger, universal, spiritual.
Marianne suddenly wanted to hug her mother, to return to those days when they would whisper in one another's ears as confidantes.
“Mom, have you and Russell talked about Grandpa yet?”
Lily looked pretty in her smock, concentrating on a single point of light on one of the canvasses. She took up painting shortly after Marianne was born, bringing her young child with her to art courses. The teachers always made the same jokes - “she's starting early” - while Marianne drew pictures or wrote out simple stories.
Lily was the child with a child. Marianne's grandparents lived close by and were always there to baby-sit, their house still the place she associated with the concept of home. It was a subtle association, tied up with the smell of coffee in the morning or home-made pancakes with applesauce and Canadian maple syrup. They were her grandmother's smells, no longer real except as memories.
In the corner was a faded painting of an abstract apron, white against blue, with no one in it. It reminded Marianne of her recurring nightmare, banging on the bathroom door trying to get her mother to open it. She could see the door moving, the vibrations making tangible impressions in the air, but her voice was soundless, the pain in her cramped hands radiating down her arms. She couldn't get the door open or work out the nature of her fear until the scene ended with the clean smell of Grandma Cotton's apron.
Lily's paintings conjured that dream - the mixture of fear and helplessness followed by comfort.
“Not really. We haven't decided anything yet,” her mother said.
“I feel like Grandpa is trying to communicate with me.”
“What? Oh, Marianne, you're still upset, I know. We all are, but it doesn't help to go loopy.”
“Sure, you're always sane and rational.”
“Don't start now. I have a show coming up and a load of work to finish here.”
“You told me you'd include me in the discussions.”
“When? When have you?”
“Look, this isn't easy for anyone. You're not the only one who's suffering. I miss him too, but …”
“But what? He doesn't want you to turn off his life support. He doesn't want you to kill him. I know it.”
“Oh, shit. Listen, this isn't a good time for me. We'll talk later.”
“Sure we will. When you and Russell have already made the decision. I'm not a child, Mom. Grandpa was like a father to me. I don't want to lose him.”
“It's too late, Mari. You've already lost him. I mean, he's already gone. It isn't something you or Russell or I have any control over. This is only an administrative decision.”
“That's a crock. Grandpa's life isn't an administrative decision!” She pushed an old chair over while Lily kept painting, concentrating on the canvas.
“Don't ignore me.”
“I'm sorry. Look, I don't mean to ignore you, but I've got to get this painting done. Can you please just give me some space?
We'll talk more later, okay? I promise. We won't do anything without talking to you first.”
“Yeah, sure. We'll talk another time.”
Marianne went outside, kicking sticks along the ground, swallowing her anger.
It was one block to the end of Mission Street and another to Pacific Boulevard where she walked up the steps to the gray wood boardwalk and down the ramp onto the sand.
Marianne lay on her back without a towel. It was still cold enough for the beach to be empty aside from the silhouettes of a few dedicated surfers out in the waves. She closed her eyes and imagined herself disappearing forever into the grains of sand beneath her until she was no more than an outline, blown away by a gentle breeze. Then she would be a memory too, like Grandma.
She lived with the fear of losing Lily for most of her life, but not Grandma, who looked immortal in her white apron, making another batch of cookies while her Grandfather wrote in his study. Lily's years of self-abuse meant nothing versus an aging body. Marianne could see Lily laughing in her studio, coming out of her stupor to pick up a brush, splashing more paint on another picture.
“Smelling of roses,” Russell would say, “while I continue to shovel the fertilizing shit.”
But Grandma, who took nothing worse than a cup of coffee and occasional piece of cake, had her insides eaten away by cancer. It wasn't the kind of dream death dissolved into the gentle ocean which Marianne imagined. It was hard work, Grandma running off to throw up after a session of chemotherapy, tired always; and towards the end, those sharp hospital smells and the endless visits where no one knew what to say. Eric put on a brave face, covering sorrow with work and ineffectual speeches about the impermanence of matter.
Marianne could hardly remember the actual day. What she did remember was that impending smell of death, the leaked urine which the antiseptic couldn't cover up and her grandmother's papery hand on hers while she stifled the urge to yell “don't go! I need you, Grandma.”
Sweat poured down her head as they lowered the coffin. She wore her favorite pink dress that Grandma gave her for her birthday. But it was no comfort, especially since everyone else wore black. Grandpa suddenly looked old, his philosophy no help to him.
Everything changed after that. There was no more coffee in the kitchen. No more waking to pancakes with applesauce and maple syrup. No stacks of Vogue and National Geographic magazines to cut pictures out of. Eric hired a cleaner and Marianne went home to her mother and Russell.
After Grandma's death Lily wouldn't even take an aspirin. She held onto her manic energy as long as she could.
“You want me to have a lobotomy like Frances Farmer? Keep me quiet? I could maybe paint portraits or still lifes of flowers and fruit?”
“At least that would be lucrative.”
“You think I don't want to sell my work?”
And now Marianne could do anything she wanted. Lily and Russell were too busy with their own lives to worry about her. Grandpa still paid for piano lessons, helped her with homework, sent her to summer camp, took her out on his boat, read to her and played chess, backgammon and Parcheesi with her. He helped with Lily's attacks too. When he was there it wasn't so awful when Lily was down. He'd roll his eyes after bringing Lily a plate of food that Marianne prepared and they'd giggle, cutting intricate snowflakes from paper to hang on the windows just before Christmas.
Without Grandpa's logic and firm hands, it felt like the edges of her world had slipped. Lily's depression went on for days, Russell was always out and Marianne sat alone in her bedroom, biting her nails so hard they bled. She could skip school and swim at night in the ocean or even drown in the waves, eaten by a white shark like a scene out of Jaws, and still her mother wouldn't leave the bed, shivering and asking in that quiet voice for more covers and apologizing again and again for how bad a mother she was and how it would be better if she were dead. Marianne held her mother's hand instead, saying nothing, wiping Lily's eyes, her nose, and letting her rant. It was just a matter of waiting out the blackness.
Then Lily would be up again, tidy her hair, dress with casual elegance, and laugh at everyone, even herself. Lily could pull herself together in a way that appeared effortless and Marianne wondered with a pang of guilt whether at least some of her mother's tears were put on. She looked terrific no matter how long she'd been lying in bed, no matter how much crying and pillow banging she'd done.
As for Russell, he was out, as always. That was the way with men, Marianne thought. They could leave any time they wanted; walk out and start over or slip away and disappear, shedding the past like a lizard's skin. Marianne hadn't disappeared though. She sat up, lifting her hands and feet out of the sand and brushed herself down while looking out at the ocean. Dark teal faded to a hazy gray at the horizon, the water blending imperceptibly into the sky.