The mattress springs creaked overhead as he awoke and rolled over in bed. The coffee had just finished brewing, but the eggs weren’t done. I turned up the flame and stirred the eggs around in the frying pan even faster, keeping one ear attuned to the rasp of the springs and the creaking of the floorboards.
I grabbed a plate from the cupboard and scooped the eggs on. A gobbet of egg missed the plate and fell to the breakfast tray. Oh, I would hear about that — but no time to deal with it now. Plate on the tray, napkin, fork, knife, coffee cup, coffee. The carafe dribbled as I poured the fresh brew; I mopped the drops off the saucer, and the drips from his cup, then carefully carried the tray up the stairs.
Tom was sitting up in bed, his left hand just about to hit the little silver bell on the bedside table, the kind of bell you sometimes see at the desks of hotels. Tom had been a month in a convalescent home for intensive physical therapy after he’d broken his hip. When he was ready to be discharged, a young aide there had shown me how to buy the bell online. Like many things, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Hello?? Oh, hello dear. No, nothing’s wrong. I was just hoping it was Ruth and my grandkids calling. Yes, I’m sure they’ll call soon. You know how busy young people are these days. Uhuh. Well, thank you for thinking of me, I appreciate your call. Bye.”
Today is Marta’s birthday. It’s a big one: she’s turning seventy. All Marta really wants for her birthday is to see her grandkids. She hardly ever sees them, because her daughter, Ruth, is always “too busy” to come visit. She’s also “too busy” to talk on the phone, and she never invites Marta over, either. Marta can count on the fingers of one hand how often she’s seen Ruth’s family in the last few years.
She lives alone, with a cat named Valentino, and a hallucination named Sally.
Aspen are remarkable and unique trees. In fact they are so different that it may be better not to think of aspens as trees. First of all, a stand of aspen is really only one huge organism where the main life force is underground.
Aspis, the aspen’s Greek name, means shield and amongst the Celts its lightweight wood was indeed favoured for making shields. These shields were more than mere physical barriers between warrior and enemy; they were imbued with additional magical, protective qualities to shield the bearer from psychic as well as physical harm.
For a long time, she’d never connected that word on paper with the word as it’s said out loud. When she read it, she’d pronounced it in her mind as “mizzled” — like “puzzled”. So gentle when pronounced that way, like the papery sound of the aspen leaves above her, trembling and shimmering in the breeze.
But the real word: mis-led. Heavy, solid, cold. So fitting to the feeling in her stomach and chest as she sat by the river, re-reading the letter. The letter he hadn’t even left on her desk, merely handed to a library aide, addressed to her. She tore it to bits.
As she released the scraps from her hands, the breeze picked up, ruffling her hair the way her mother used to do to comfort her. The slender trunks of the aspens leaned in the wind, bending down over her head. The leaves rustled harder, like applause. The bits of the letter blew away, following the river. And she cried.
* * *
“Eating alone again, I see.” His tongue tickles my left ear as he whispers this, sliding past my shoulder to slip into the place across from me in the diner booth. “This is getting to be a habit.”
“She was tired. And I don’t like conversation over breakfast, anyway,” I reply, hoping that for once he’ll get the hint. He just tilts his diamond-shaped head to one side and smirks, his tongue continuing to flick in and out. The waitress comes by to take his order: rabbit, live, and a bowl of water. I look down at my plate and concentrate on my bacon and eggs over hard, hoping he’ll just find a newspaper and not torture me. But no.
“I’d like to sup with my baby tonight…” In the shower, she calls herself Laverne, and she sings Cole Porter into the microphone that doubles as her bath brush. Her adoring audience stares up at her, cocktail glasses frozen at their lips, so captivated that they forget to take a sip. On stage, she resembles the heroine of an overwrought romance novel, the kind her grandmother used to read. Her slinky dress is an emerald green that sets off her flame-colored, waistlength hair and her flawless ivory skin.
Outside the shower, she is Kathy Jane, brunette and thirty-five. She favors khaki slacks and cream-colored blouses that blend perfectly into the off-white walls and sand-colored carpeting of her workplace. She would actually look stunning in emerald, but jewel tones call attention to the wearer, and Kathy Jane is terribly shy. Hyperventilate-in-front-of-strangers shy. Can’t-look-anyone-in-the-eyes shy. The kind of shy that breaks her into a cold sweat when she runs into someone in the restroom, that reduces public transportation and night classes to hypothetical, mythological concepts. Painfully, pathologically shy. But not socially anxious. “Social anxiety disorder,” the internet tells her, “is a fear of social situations so severe that it causes major problems in our overall functioning and quality of life.” And in this era of private cars, Amazon.com, ATMs and 24-hour supermarkets with self-check-out registers, Kathy Jane functions just fine.
His mother is dying. He stands in her sterile white hospital room, a needle in his hand. Can he do this? He can’t even boil a crab without a twinge of regret.
Tubes snake into her nostrils and down her trachea. Behind her, machines beep and lights blink. The clock on the wall ticks away the seconds, the minutes, the hours.
This is what she wants, he knows that. At least, he thinks he does. What if she changed her mind? This helpless wisp in the bed doesn’t even resemble the mother he remembers. Why would he think he still knows her thoughts?
By her bedside, he waits for a sign. But there is no sign.
The IV tube feeds the vein in her right arm, her emaciated arm that will never link with his again, whether he does this or not. He has only his own limbs now, hands that tremble as they insert the needle into the feeding tube. He takes a deep breath.
“I love you, Mom.”
Then he guides the plunger home.
Image: Death and the Maiden (1915) by Egon Schiele. Source: Wikiart
An excerpt from Umberto Eco’s essay from 1990 (collected in How to Travel with a Salmon and other essays). Yes, this really is our library.