Shea awoke and looked reflexively at the bedside clock. 3:23. Outside a wind had kicked up and was ‘howling’. The enormous decrepit oak in the front yard could be heard hissing and tossing, its stupid single foot planted firmly, its moonlit arms probably waving wildly in the black turmoil. All the foliage out there could be heard moving around, stupefied and bitch-slapped and helpless to respond. Or possibly the helpless waving around is a coherent response, a satisfactory response? There in the dark, Shea immediately imagined the worst. His mother will have been awakened by the windstorm, slipped out of her bed, taken the elevator down and crept unnoticed by the attendant at the front desk. By now she would be out of doors, in the wee hours, in a roaring pitch dark tempest, shuffling along the city sidewalks in a wind-torn nightgown, reaching her arms out like the blind; helpless, adrift, weeping and gnashing, hair flying, tears blown back along her crows feet like raindrops on a freeway windshield. Calling Shea’s name. She did not own such a nightgown, but its being plastered against her fragile, osteoporotic body in a midnight storm added to the horror-fantasia Shea now entertained from the warmth of his own useless bed now that he lay awake again. The wind grew explosive in gusts. He thought the oak tree might actually give it up this time, surrender to the elements and come plowing down through the recently renovated roof.
Friday morning and the tempest had passed, the azure sky so crazily clear the racket of the night before, and the waking horror-film of his mother, Eleanor, shuffling through the nightmare storm, seemed itself to have been a sleeping dream and not a waking one. Shea placed the phone call. The receiver was picked up, followed by what sounded like a small struggle and some angry murmuring.
“Hello!” As usual she answered in the irritated manner of someone in the precise middle of some vexing chore.
“Mom, Alan calling.”
“Well, hey!” Her sudden brightening always caused his eyes to mist.
“Feel like going for a drive?” He wouldn’t mention the doctor yet.
“Oh, anything, anything Alan! Oh, my god, yes!”
Town and cityscape moved by outside the car windows in the same welcoming, deluded fashion as it had on Tuesday. Southern California sun bathed the trees, parks and slate-roofed office and commercial buildings in the same honey-colored glory. The storm had scoured the elements. Shea had to admit to himself that despite present circumstances the day was indeed beautiful. Would the doctor think so? Though his exam room had a largish window that looked out on trees, flowers, an embarrassingly glorious city park and a handsome, well-tended parking lot crowded with the shining cars of robustly insured clients, he would need to minister to Eleanor’s needs. Her generally annoyed confusion and litany of self-same jokes and gags would test the doctor’s professionally inured patience yet again. His hurried manner always managed to include the inference that she was uniquely difficult to suffer.
After several minutes of drivetime chit chat during which she asked three times “So how’s the family? What’s happening in your neck of the woods?” she finally popped the question. The question itself was, as usual, preceded by that quietude that told Shea his mother was connoitering and hoping not to embarrass herself. There were still marbles. Increasingly, it became clear that she was aware that they were leaving her. The last dregs of cognition taking the stage to announce closing time.
“Where is it we’re going?”
“To the doctor.” At that she turned stiffly in her car seat with something like alarm, but no more or less like alarm than any of the dozen or so other times that day she would wheel and yelp with surprise from behind the restraining straps of her seat belt. Her whiskered, jowly face, her flyaway eyebrows, the sore on her cheek he couldn’t get her to stop picking at, the faint organic funk that accompanied her; these elements of Present Day Eleanor were so utterly unaligned with the gorgeous sloe-eyed visage of 60 years before, Alan often had to visualize her 1942 iteration just to keep her Truth in his sights and they trundled about on these days.
“The doctor? Why?”
“Your leg,” Shea abbreviated, hoping he didn’t sound angry. She craned her neck to look down at her leg in the shadows under the dash.
“What about my leg?”
“You hurt your leg. Remember? We’ve been to the doctor three times this week.”
“Why, no.” She experimentally lifted her left leg in the confined space under the dash. So she did know at least which leg they were discussing. There were times when Shea wondered briefly if all her bewildered pronouncements were a semi-masterful charade meant to drive him mad. “What’d I do?”
“Who knows?” Shea shrugged elaborately, but then felt awful. “Mom, you don’t remember. Many many people have asked you that very question. ‘What happened, Eleanor? What happened to your leg?’”
“And what do I tell them,” she asked wryly, the whole patterned and repeated exchange taking on the nuances of choreography.
“You tell them you don’t know.” The quiet again.
“Well, I don’t.”
“What do we think happened?”
“Uh, you may have fallen down outside. Yesterday you seemed to remember briefly that you had taken a spill while out on your walk. So that may have been it. But, uh, it’s not clear what sort of fall could’ve hurt just your shin like that.” She looked down again and with some effort pulled up her pant leg.
“There’s a sore.”
“You barked your shin on something. Hard.”
“Well, what happened?”
“Well, what might’ve happened?
“You probably fell down. But nobody knows.”
“I don’t even know.”
They drove on. The sky was truly and literally cloudless; a dumb, depthless loudmouthed blue. As they drove past the park a teeming crowd of children in the company of a single beleaguered adult, probably a teacher, wheeled through the crosswalk ahead like a flock of earthbound birds, laughing with uncontained energy. Shea flashed on the cracked sepia photo of his mom on the fridge at home, her unscathed, smooth, beautiful little face peeking out shyly from beneath an old-fashioned knit cap, canted on her head in the manner of most such photos from that period. She can’t have known at the moment the picture was taken that her distant future lay in wait, the swollen leg and whiskered visage, her shuffling walk and cryptic, not entirely unpleasant odor, the long lamplit days and nights, the long stretching clockless hours of being attended to and ministered to and patronized and gathered up.
What child can guess at this stuff? No child can. That’s mercy. It’s impossible to foresee. And so we gather laughing on the playground at recess and daydream aloud about getting married and being men and ladies and getting jobs and getting houses, abuzz with the Future, a cartoonish and harmless entertainment, a fantasia. It’s often not till deep into middle age that the long-running grin of expectation falls a little, Shea thought, and then the second fantasia of the autumn years looms up like a vaguely familiar uninvited guest, wearing your favorite coat, the one you thought you’d lost. Give me back my coat. Shea often realized with almost physical pain that this was where his mother found herself, in her intermittent moments of actual self-reflection. She recognized she was missing her coat and that a stranger could be seen in the middle distance boldly walking around with it, the asshole. Give me back my coat. My mother’s coat, though, is not coming back into her possession, Shea thought. It’s draped over a sunstruck rock on the beach below the Officer’s Club at Ramey Air Force Base in Puerto Rico, hung on the back fence behind quarters 4G on Wheelus AFB in Libya, tossed carelessly onto the sun porch floor in Cheyenne. That was Warren AFB. A missile base. Shea’s fondest and most dreamlike childhood memories were of places built around ballistics and defensive aeronautics; fighter jets and parade grounds and ossified cannonade with plaques and salutes and dad in his peaked major’s cap lifting him up in the blanched sun of a wintry day, hidden silos and Military Police in crazy white helmets smiling sidewise at Shea while saluting his father, and sir and ma’am and the intense amber glow of the darkened Officer’s Club bar backlighting what looked like hundreds of gemlike bottles of booze, a tall highball glass of Coke with a cherry nestled atop the ice cubes, Eleanor on the next stool sipping a Grasshopper and languidly scissoring her legs.
“There doesn’t seem to be any injury to the bone or anything like that,” Dr. Fleming explained, his forelock and stethoscope dangling. Looking on from his seat in the corner of the shadowless office, Shea wondered for the umpteenth time at the phenomenon he had come to call “Doctor Hair”. It seemed that doctors, be they surgeons, specialists, or general practitioners, were either neatly, cinematically bald or possessed of Vince Edwards hair, or Richard Chamberlain hair. He’d yet to meet a tonsorially careless doctor, he’d never seen a doctor with mousy or nondescript hair. Shea had long since decided that patterns were afoot in this finding. Did a thickly-forested scalp connote in-built determination, fortitude? You would need the sort of hair that could be tossed aside with a head-flip if you were to successfully march through the horrors of med school and residency. Did a powerful and frank pattern baldness signal these same qualities?
“Is it getting better?” Shea asked.
“Hm. Yes,” Fleming equivocated. “You see this area around the wound.” He gestured with a tongue depressor. “The skin shows edema. You see how it’s stretched here. There is fluid under there. But the wound itself is closed, it’s stopped weeping. Possibly it drained enough to relieve some of the pressure and the tap’s closed.” Shea’s mother broke in impatiently and with an air of being perturbed.
“Well. What happened to my leg?”
Fleming looked up wearily from his lowered position. “You tell us.”
Eleanor gathered herself. “…I’m sure I don’t know.” But she sounded uncertain, and a neat, hot little blade slipped into the sac around Shea’s fluttering heart. Fleming turned to him now. “The swelling has gone down but the area surrounding the former wound is embarrassed,” he said, then added, “That’s a medical term. We call this being embarrassed.” He gestured again with the tongue depressor. “There is activity here, subcutaneous, and the surface shows it. See the angry pink.”
“Has she been elevating it?”
“Elevating her leg?”
Shea wanted to bark out with laughter, grab Fleming’s stethoscope and pull him close; Bogart upbraiding a lackey. “I doubt it very much.”
“Well,” Fleming said, sinking back onto his stool in an attitude of resignation, “She has to elevate it. Right?” He glared wearily and accusingly through his forelock. “Three times a day for an hour each time. Uh, the leg has to be higher than her heart. Sitting and watching t.v. with it propped up won’t work.”
“I know,” Shea said, eyeing the stethoscope. He realized anew that despite, or maybe because of, the crazy rigors of their years-long training, these doctors knew not how the daily world worked, knew not how their pronouncements and half-wit instructions clanged in the ears. Three times a day? Can he know how idiotic that sounds? Yes, Dr. Fleming, you’ve guessed correctly. I neither spin nor toil. I can spend hour upon waking hour sitting at the foot of my mother’s bed, seeing to it that her goddamned leg is correctly propped up so that the fluids flow back to the heart and are properly dispersed. I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to oblige us both in this, you over-educated moron. “I’ll see to it,” Shea said flatly, glancing at his mother and meeting her unexpected gaze. In that glimpse he saw her expression of consternation flash quickly into a grin, radiant and unconditional.
As promised, Shea’s older brother Carl arrived in mid-February, and as usual Shea had the sense that this was both a helpful visit and a kind of reprimand. From the moment they met at the airport their mother took up the space between them and crowded out any of the banal and difficult subject matter that might otherwise have preoccupied them.
“I’ll be interested to hear what you think. How she seems,” Shea said, heaving Carl’s suitcase into the trunk.
“Well, we’re grateful. I want you to know we’re very grateful for what you and Marie are doing. I hope you know that. You guys are doing a super job.” Many years earlier Shea’s brother and sister-in-law had very frankly called him on the carpet for being a procedurally crappy godfather to their son, his nephew Steven, these days a terrific, well-adjusted twenty-something with a Masters and a thriving job in Vermont. In the throes of his own boneheaded youth Shea hadn’t fully apprehended the gravity of the honor, hadn’t done the requisite things, hadn’t mailed the birthday letters or made the phone calls to celebrate the achievements or concur in the clear brilliance and laudable forward motion of Steven. Shea had dropped the ball, lavishly, and had been, of a fated phone call in his own mid-twenties, reprimanded with a polite scalding that yet stood his hair on end to recall. “I’m sorry,” Shea had worked up the gall to say by phone. “I’ve really dropped the ball with Steven.” “That’s all right,” Beth had said. “We figured you sort of didn’t know any better.”
“No need to thank.” Shea was as usual wary of lifting the portcullis and allowing in this probable Trojan Horse of conciliation. And the gratitude had long since grown moss-covered. It’d been ten years since Shea and his indomitably cheery, supportive wife had driven out to Tucson, packed up the family homestead and moved Eleanor to Shea’s hometown in sunny California. When the last box had been maneuvered into the UHaul Shea had walked though the saddened, empty shell of the house for a final goodbye, his sense of forever, of things that quietly and dully go away forever, as acute as a toothache. Full sun poured perversely through the uncurtained windows and the aged carpet bore, like tribal scarring, the precise imprints of where the furniture had stood all those years, all those nights of watching t.v. with his parents, his girlfriends, or marching through on Saturday afternoons with his pals from school. “Here come the bad guys!” Eleanor could always be counted on to holler when his high school posse arrived, and they would duck their heads and laugh politely, hearing it for the thousandth time. Where did those afternoons go? Why hadn’t he seen the gold leaf? Why are we so stripped of our senses while in the moment? Does the natural mechanism know that full-bore Presence is insupportable? Shea walked into his former high school bedroom and looking quickly around for witnesses closed and locked the door, his former Maginot Line. He touched all the walls, lay his palms against them, then pressed the sides of his face against the walls, too. Finally he got down onto the floor of his former sanctuary, found a passably clean section and licked the carpet. The moment demanded it. Allowing this Forever Farewell to simply seep osmotically through the cheap and unreliable scrim of the senses was never enough. Never. There wasn’t enough sight and sound to carry out of there. He wanted to physically contain the house, what it had been for him, those years, that epoch, the long evenings doing homework to the helpful white noise of his cheap Zenith tuner behind his locked bedroom door, his girlfriends, his living, breathing father in baggy boxer shorts. He wanted to hold these things as more than insubstantial neural filigree. He wanted it in his tissues.
Prior to the move, and in the years after Shea’s father’s death, Eleanor’s creeping loneliness had become increasingly evident. Over time Shea had pressed Carl to help with a move of some kind, either to Carl’s town or Shea’s town, but these entreaties had been rebuffed. The conversations took on a pattern, and in one of the last before the move Shea had nearly pleaded.
“She doesn’t really have any friends any more. When dad died they sort of stopped calling.”
“Well, the thought of her out there with nothing going on, nobody to talk to, it makes me a little crazy. She doesn’t have a single friend now!”
“Whose fault is that?” Carl had asked more than once, without rancor, and Shea was obliged to concede the logic in the question. It was clear to Shea that Carl was not in his corner on the Eleanor move, though on other occasions Carl had encouraged Shea to do what he thought was right, but offered no other support or affirmation. Shea didn’t know at the time how to put a house on the market, how to arrange to have a moving van stuffed with belongings, how to maneuver through the many unnamed and unpredictable logistics of a grand transition from one life to another. He’d wanted help, guidance, and had made it clear he was himself ready and willing to foot the bill, to assume the flawed privilege of playing Forever Host Son to Eleanor if Carl would just help get the ball rolling. No dice. Then one morning at work Shea had received the phone call whose effect would be that of tectonic plates shifting, not to devastate, but anyway to dramatically rearrange.
“Mom called, crying,” Carl had said. “Something’s happened. Her money is gone.”
“It’s all gone, she says. I think someone has taken advantage.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” Carl had said, with inappropriate impatience. “I wonder if you and Marie can maybe go out there and move her. I think it’s time for this to happen. Sorry to have to ask. It sounds like her money is gone”
“Move her? Someone took her money?”
“I think so,” Carl had sighed, almost longingly, or in surrender. “It is time.”
Now he and Carl were sitting beneath a lamp with Eleanor, flipping through a photo album Carl had brought in his suitcase, had pointedly assembled at his home 1800 miles away. Shea pictured him doing it, alone at his sumptuous dining room table in Virginia, brow furrowed, occasionally smiling at a particularly good find, and felt a pang of love. The photos were of a mélange of periods, some predating Shea’s birth. In the week of this visit Carl had acquitted himself with the usual fervor. He’d punctiliously seen to all manner of things in his practical, unhurried, unstoppable manner, taking their mother to expensive lunches, seeing to her domestic needs, buying her new magnifiers in tortoise-shell to replace her most recently misplaced pair. There was a businesslike bustle about it all, and Shea knew this was partly his brother’s uncorked can-do positivism, and partly the unacknowledged fact that she would be taken from them at an hour and moment of God’s choosing; or Merlin’s; or at the whim of the mischief-making ether.
Now in Shea’s lamplit apartment in the evening, they thumbed through the album, a crazy non-sequential hodgepodge that jumped around unpredictably between family epochs and geographies, whose design and purpose was to jar in Eleanor some animating little flame, the crazy-quilt selection thought more likely to produce some useful traction on her irrecoverably smoothing consciousness. The room was hushed at Carl’s unpracticed and unknowing insistence. He saw this photo album ceremony as a sort of liturgical episode, the atmosphere pregnant with awaited comment, revelation, spoken memory. They stopped at a photo that featured Eleanor, young, aglow, in a sparkling 60’s-era ball gown, her dark luxuriant hair a jiffy-pop poof with a flip. Hugely grinning, she held a full highball glass and was toasting the photographer. The bedecked wall behind her was hung with garland and baubles; a Christmas party, then. In the corner of the photo, half out of frame, a mounted USAF insignia on an easel, lest the revelers forget under whose paternal auspices they celebrated. It was an Officer’s Club somewhere. Eleanor placed her open hand, it’s blue hydraulic veins and papery skin, flat on the photo.
“Where was that taken, mom?” Carl asked. “Florida? Puerto Rico?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said dismissively with some heat, the question boldly idiotic. Her eyes remained fixed on the photo. Shea and Carl exchanged glances behind her inclined head. After a moment of consensual silence she murmured “That was the happiest day of my life.”
The phone rang in Shea’s fabric-covered cubicle. It rarely summoned him and he picked it up warily.
“University Admissions, this is Alan.”
“Yes.” He hunched slightly. The identifying second beat of the conversation already bore the hallmark of an emergency.
“Hello, Alan. I’m-calling-from-Valley-hospital-your-mother-has-had-an-accident-and-we-found-your-card-in-her-fanny-pack.” The noun “fanny pack” rang crazily in the suddenly vivid Threat Moment.
“Her arm is broken in three places.”
Good God. “What happened? How did it happen?”
“She fell,” the caller professionally understated.
“Where – is she all right?”
“She’s been moved out of ICU.”
“Intensive Care,” Shea said. “For a broken arm. Is she all right?” The leg had just begun to bounce back, the wound had closed. The swelling had subsided. Of course Eleanor had quickly dismissed the expensive support brace and circulation-encouraging wraps the doctor had finally recommended for her injured leg, and which Shea had purchased immediately on leaving the appointment. She’d immediately disappeared the devices, like an impatient South American despot. She had disappeared many necessary things in the ten years since she’d moved to town. Shea continued to provide her with the gadgets and salves the healers numbingly insisted upon, and often on leaving her apartment he would cast a sort of saddened lover’s glance at some pricey, already vestigial remedy resting in imagined panic on her coffee table, some gizmo Shea knew he would never ever see again. He sometimes anthropomorphized the disappeared items into a chatting gang of Eleanor’s cast-offs in the town’s landfill. Now that the leg, on which his life had pivoted these several weeks, was finally in a state of quiescence and repair, she had severely broken her arm?
“She’s – she’s not responding well. She’s asking for you,” the caller said. “We could use your help.” Could use his help? This was a new rhythm, and drew a rush of warm blood to Shea’s head. But the incident otherwise fit neatly into the now familiar pattern. Shea would go to her, in the middle of his workday, as he had many times before. He wouldn’t make it back to the office. His supervisor’s patience had long since been tested and found tensile, his unlikely job security a harbor of calm in Shea’s whirling milieu of spontaneous inconvenience and trial. The world of Ongoing Medical Emergency heeded no schedule. Clocks stopped, institutions capitulated, work-flow was dammed in these instances. It turned out that all of teeming, productive Life, all the urgent doing and achieving, all the scrambling attainments were a thin little charade that could, without harm, be set instantly aside in the event of a loved one’s downfall.
In the hospital lobby he saw a man who looked to be in his seventies walking some paces ahead of his own very decrepit father, the gray son affecting with some embarrassed effort a studied insouciance that nevertheless did not disguise his discomfort at being in the company of this elaborately bent and aged person; his father. The older gentleman was so old his head was completely bare, even the pattern-baldness fringe having long-since made its exit. Shea saw through it, of course. He knew the ancient guy had been dancing and screwing and fighting, given his generation’s habits and their deployment over the Earth’s face for this or that reason. At what point do these familiar lovers, our parents, become removed from us, become affronting strangers? It’s as if in the autumn years we become yet again as embarrassed by our parents as teens.
Shea made it up to the third floor nurse’s station where a small cluster of medical personnel in their pastel baggies exchanged gossip and pleasantries amid the computer screens and life-monitoring readouts. Immediately on seeing him a young man broke away from the small group and came to him with a tattooed extended forearm.
“Hi! I’m Paul.”
Shea took the outstretched hand. “Alan. My mother is here. I got a call. Eleanor Shea.”
“Room 314,” the young man told him immediately. “She’s a spirited lady.” He was a long-haired, pony-tailed handsome youth with a wry and excitable way of speaking. One of the mistakenly self-assured. Shea was taken aback and felt an odd umbrage. Paul’s glad, snappy assessment was a splash of cold water, his dumb summation of Eleanor an affront. What did Paul know about Eleanor? Nothing.
Shea padded cautiously down the hall, preparing himself as he had many times before. He couldn’t help but glance sidewise into the other rooms as he passed, the door-framed tableaux of shock and mild misery, family members convoking by garish hospital lamplight, talking with forced buoyancy and clutching hands, the helpless beloved in repose under screwed-up blankets, the tray gantry shoved aside with it’s light purple water pitcher and plastic glass with straw, gelatinous dinner discarded and sparkling under blanched fluorescence. Stunned mortals in a scene which after these eons should not be so unfamiliar or frightening or dismaying. Why is all this so foreign to us? What about our neural wiring hasn’t yet been able to adapt to and accept the inevitable? Is this truly not supposed to happen? Is Genesis right? Is all of mortal death an unwanted accident that wasn’t in the original plan?
Shea stuck his head into Eleanor’s room in the manner of all hospital visitors, angled it in so that only head and shoulder appeared at first, a Three Stooges entry.
“Hey, mom.” She looked up and seeing him did not beam as she usually did, but regarded him angrily, as though he’d done something to her.
“Oh, hi,” She said distractedly. She was sitting up in bed, her left arm in a black complicated-looking sling of some kind. Shea knew that her world would be in a state of confusion, and as he sometimes did he thought he would defuse her bewilderment with his good nature, which really never failed to work, to his constant relief. She shared the room with another patient, now but for a pair of feet peaking the bedsheets anonymously hidden behind the thin opaque curtain that divided the small room. The curtain slid along a shiny but otherwise common-looking pipe, hung by the metal rings one sees in a shower stall. Shea had been struck many times at the incongruity of having to suffer the humiliations of illness and injury and life ebbing in the company of similarly discomfited but otherwise unfamiliar bedfellows; the little curtains, ceiling-mounted t.v. sets and atmosphere of professional concern always unnerving. It was checking into a factory to say goodbye, sometimes temporarily, sometimes not, to the world and all of love; so long to the platinum-limned daily minutiae we previously took for granted receding from us without enough warning, longed-for treasures stored in some location outside the hospital environs, our jarringly final anguishes taking place in sudden dormitories, in the company of strangers and oddballs. The famous conceit is of course that modern medicine and it’s life-giving but soul-stripping appliances belittle us just when we ought to be exalted. But is writhing in a mud hut surrounded by hollering village elders exalting? Shea often mused on these visits that the bronze-age totems of dignity whose death ceremonies we venerate are likely just as enraged at the last, and are covered with filth into the bargain. Despite the poets’ entreaties there isn’t any good way. Again, despite the eons!
“What in the hell happened to you?”
“I don’t know.” She sounded alarmed this time, and not just annoyed.
“You fell and broke your arm. You broke it in two places. No, three places.” He made a comic show of counting the breaks on his fingers. “They think you’ll probably need an operation.”
“What’s happened to me?” She was very suddenly beseeching. The utterly unfamiliar tone startled Shea, and the room seemed to grow minutely darker. It was then he noticed the straps that held her to the bed.
“Mom!” He took a step closer. His mother was strapped down like a prisoner, the incongruity of it filled him with a feral determination, anger blossomed in him and spread like a cold fire. He bent down and began fumbling with the buckles and got them undone in a fury of yanking and twisting, his heart hammering. Did Paul do this? He turned on his heel and strode quickly out to the nurses station. “Hello!” he said to the chatting gang in their baggies, waving his hands like a diner trying to get the waiter’s attention. He saw Paul leaning over a console of some kind and called out to him, his voice rasping. “Paul!”
The young man looked up from the console and then immediately past Shea. ”Alan, no!” Shea jerked his head around to follow Paul’s alarm and saw Eleanor tottering uncertainly out of her room like the dreaded Golem in a horror movie, one arm outstretched, the other in its complicated-looking black sling. She steadied herself on the doorjamb, looked at Shea with a moment’s deep confusion then broke into an almost weeping smile of recognition. She released her hold on the doorjamb and seemed about to run to Shea when the group from the nurse’s station flowed past him from behind, flowed to either side of him and rushed to Eleanor, gently capturing her as two cupped hands capture a moth. They clustered around his fragile mother and just as in a nightmare he saw her eyes, the lifelong-familiar eyes of his perfectly familiar and uncomplicated mom, searching for and finding him through a breach in the throng of rescuers.
He’d never heard her call out to him that way, never in his life. The shock of her cry startled and stunned him, the young people surrounding her seemed to him figures from a dark reverie. They bore her back into the room, she fluttering in their midst, and Shea leaped forward, charging into the room after them, and they already had her down on the bed again, and they were applying the straps, Paul shooting Shea a dark look in the midst of the melee, and suddenly one of them produced a hypodermic and they administered the serum as Eleanor, with unexpected vigor, tried to writhe away. The straps held her.
“Jesus Christ!” Shea shoved his way to the bed and the youngsters parted like chaff, and Eleanor turned her wild eyes to him, but the spark was going out, her eyelids went quickly to half-mast even as she yearned and yearned to reach for him, he could see it in her failing posture, in her faint struggle to free herself from the straps that held her. Shea briefly grappled with the straps again but the edges of his vision began to darken, and to his own astonishment and relief he went down on his knees beside the bed. “Mom!” he cried, and took her twisting hand where it danced on the sheet, in order to still it. The healers looked away, but not with alarm or embarrassment. This was a timeworn template. They filed out into the hallway, Paul looking back, once, meeting Shea’s eyes, and to Shea he looked suddenly worn, broken, and the young man cast his eyes down and drew the door shut. Shea turned back to Eleanor, registered very briefly the mild buzzing of the little t.v. set on its bracket near the ceiling, and to his own surprise cried out again. “Mom!” his voice breaking, ringing in his own ears, the shock of hearing from afar his own sound, a little boy sound but basso profundo, fluids rushing, eyes bulging, all the blood on the move, capillaries hurriedly dilating to give the man his space. “Mom!” Shea grasped her bony, paper-covered little paw and pressed it to his forehead, the lightweight bird-bones popping lightly as he squeezed.
He stared at a full length bathroom mirror. He was in decent shape though his thorax sagged perceptibly under the incessant pull of gravity, a force still largely couched in mystery but whose central feature is nevertheless our cosmetic and actual undoing, a quantum conundrum which starts out serving a function essential to life but then morphs into a killing millstone. He pulled his pajama shirt back on and returned to his brother and sister-in-law on the couch. They were flipping through Eleanor’s photo albums. That journey, these changes, all the places she’d been, her denoument. Powerfully impossible, in every sense but the literal.
And here was a curling picture of Crashboat Beach, in Puerto Rico, 1956, at the foot of Ramey Air Force Base, that particular stretch of sand and surf a scene of so many storied parties and languorous afternoons drinking and talking and laughing with Air Force chums and wives, a rough circle of lawn chairs, the men leering comically at the camera and hoisting cans of Falstaff beer, Shea’s laughing father there with a can in each hand, his smile-worn dimple catching the late afternoon shadowfall just so, his black curly hair already hinting at the premature gray that would soon compel comparisons to the actor Jeff Chandler. In the fading picture the women are wearing scarves over their hair, and capri pants, beautiful bug-eyed sunglasses. Their legs are crossed, they’re all laughing with their lady heads thrown back, yaps open forever. The men and women and the kids present are all turned toward the camera in some attitude of hilarity (one! two! THREE!), my brother, too, his grin guileless and toothy, his right arm flexing to show the nascent little bicep of a nine-year old. Over the sea, in the sky behind the party, a single towering cumulonimbus cloud boils straight up into the sepia sky with frozen, explosive force, and Eleanor has her feet up on the lawn chair and is hugging her knees. Though her face is turned away the flesh is seen to follow the smooth cornice of her jawbone where it meets her neck, cleaves as snugly as the velour skin of a new love seat. She’s looking away from the camera and out to sea.