Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 10

 

 The Lord gave the word: great was the company of those that published it. Psalms 68:11

                     Chapter 10  

 

All the beautiful hair of all the lovely women, she thought, as she stared into the mirror at her own wispy strands, clumps of forlorn weeds in a snow field, she thought, her husband's electric razor poised in her right hand.

The raven tresses of Rapunzel falling like a lifeline, little Golden Locks, the telltale musk of bears on her smock, hair like Oriental curtains, the coarse, midnight hair of Mona Lisa, the soft, sad hair of Mary Magadeline drying the feet of Jesus, hair like silver chords, Raphael's Madonna with her woven, flaxen hair, Modigliani's naked women, their hair iridescent, otherworldly, the hair of the Sabine women, the Medici women, the queens, the martyrs, Lady Godiva, Joan of Arc, cut nouveau for 15th century France, she saw the hair of Veronica Lake falling, the hair of Scarlett O'Hara, braided and beribboned, she saw bouffant hair, teased, frizzed and Sandra Dee-d hair, but it made no difference.

I don't really care, she said.    The razor Hhmmmmmmmm'ed, patient and detached.

She laughed at her own absurdity as she began to snip off the last sentries, some fallen to their knees, others already dead perhaps, but clinging to her scalp.  This is about purity, she thought, about bravery, an initiation before battle.  She held a heart-shaped mirror aloft and behind her to reflect the back of her head, aiming the razor awkwardly.

Rather than nurse the few remaining patches, she had decided she would shave her head completely.  Liberating, yes, she thought, free of split-ends, cowlicks, dandruff, free of other women's approval, free of styles and fads, free, free, free.  No more bobs or blunt cuts, no rollers,  perms or technicolor accents, no snazzy streaks or pageboys or pixie shags or bouncy curls or crimpers or gels, no bangs to hide erosion or her retreating hairline.  Just sleek skin, au natural.


She massaged her head, a tactile sensation, the smooth curve of a melon, spherical, like an illustration from Gray's Anatomy, she thought, turning sideways to study the lines of her neck which flowed down into the seventh cervical vertebra.  When she flexed her facial muscles, her head looked like a clay maquette about to be bronzed.  No more pretending, she said, the square root of zero is zero.

I look like a Buddhist monk, she thought.  A woman shorn for her sins.  No, she realized, I look like the women of Dachau or Auschwitz, the women of war.

 

Her courage failed when David returned home late afternoon, so she swathed her head in  purple, a silkish turban.

We need to talk, he said.

About?

About your ring, he said, holding it out toward her on his open palm like an amulet, a sorcerer's ring of power.  Take it, he said.  Take it, he insisted.

I gave it to your little playmate.

My what?  His forehead wrinkled.  He thrust his open hand at her, annoyed, she could tell, increasingly so.

She went over to the sofa, a Danish modern, not at all comfortable, but sufficient for entertaining.  She sat on the edge and stared at him, inviting him to continue.  The ring, she thought, could as easily have melted in his hand.  She wasn't going to take it.

I don't want the ring.

That's not the point, he said, snappish.

No, that is the very point.

If you don't want the ring leave it in your jewelry armoire, but don't harass my secretary with your twisted little joke.

Joke?  Who's laughing?  Do you find adultery humorous, David? The way you treat our marriage is the joke.

For your information, Kim has been struggling through a messy divorce.

How noble of you, David.  I'm sure your friendship is just platonic.

I don't need your permission to console a friend.

She glanced away, her eyes resting on the distant bay framed by the latticed window.  She bit at her lower lip, gathering the words inside her.  Her voice was measured when she began.  For your information, I saw you consoling her at Peninsula State Park yesterday.  You were on a blanket together.  Need I go on?

It was as if the wind in the room had suddenly shifted, David wetting his lips with his tongue, his eyes now moving away from her.  He went over to the window, his right hand closing over the ring, squeezing the color from his fingers.  It made her think of how Superman would crush a piece of coal into 21-carats of diamond.  She expected him to somehow deny the obvious.

Okay, you saw us, he said, subdued.

How could you go to our favorite beach -- so public?

You think I'm cheating on you?

Are you?

I will remember every facet of this moment, she told herself, David in profile, the silence in the room, a manifest silence, the instant he cleared his throat but did not speak, the flywheel of the mantle clock turning its internal gearwork, her own breathing, his breathing, a preternatural calm over everything, yes, this will be a moment of absolute clarity.

There's no emotional involvement, he said at last.  Just a physical thing.  He paused, his eyes still averted. I don't love her, if that's what worries you.

Is this another mid-life fling? she said.  An itch to scratch?  You think I won't mind because there's no emotional involvement, is that it?  Like a workout at the gym?  Just physical?  A round of golf with a client, huh?  Just physical?  Why can't you be a man and admit you're cheating on me?

Okay, I'm cheating on you.  Happy now?

She was not happy, could never be again, she thought.  She had suspected, had at last known, but to hear the words tumble from his mouth so cavalierly cut her to the soul.  And though she had rehearsed her reaction all day, stoic, steely, pressing the attack, at this crucial instant she faltered.  Her voice began to quiver.  She's not the first one either, is she?

No. I'm not going to lie anymore.  Why do I care if you know?  He finally turned to face her, his resignation transformed to rage which began to fill the space between them like a white heat. She felt it radiate outward from him.  His voice seemed shrill.  She's not the first, he said. There were others.  Many others.  I can't even remember all their names, and ask me if I care.  Does that repulse you?  My secret life?

You betrayed me from the start?

Not at first.  I loved you, in fact, though you won't believe me, I still do.  For most men, sex is not about love.

She was sobbing now, from deep inside.  I loved you too much, she cried, to cheat or lie.

Men are not by nature monogamous, he said.

You're rationalizing.

I'm being truthful, he said. What's the matter?  Do you want the truth or more lies?  Who do you think built this house, pays the bills, indulged your art for thirty years?  Not you. You're not paying Julie's tuition.  You don't make the insurance payments or do the taxes.  You hardly even cook anymore.

There's no one home to cook for, she said, wiping her forearm across her eyes.  She had not prepared for this onslaught.  I've been faithful to you for thirty years, she said.

You want a medal, do you?  You live such a sheltered, pampered life on your little mountaintop -- this tiny, fantasy world you've created.  I hustle just to make a buck in the real world every day, but you don't know anything about that.

She tried to inhale deeply, but her breath was ragged. I live in the real world, too, she said.  Who do you think went to all of Julie's music concerts and took her to the doctor and sat up nights when she was sick?  It wasn't you.  I've been a good wife and mother.

Hooray for you, I'm so impressed, he said sarcastically.

You have a cold heart, she said.

I have no heart, he said.  And frankly, I don't care.

Do you care about anything . . .  except satisfying. . .  your whims?

Not really.  As Shakespeare said in Hamlet --

She interrupted him mid-sentence. I don't care what Shakespeare said in Hamlet. She was panting, her anger restored by the vacuous indifference she saw in his eyes.  What has happened to you?

Examine yourself, he said.

I do, every day.  You think I asked for this?  She pulled the turban from off her head.  I can't look into the mirror without thinking about cancer.  Or dying.  I have this constant reminder.

He began to turn away, as if to leave.  This is love, for your information.

You're pathetic, he said.

Thanks for your support, she said.

Let's end this conversation, he said.

I'm not finished yet.

I am.  He hesitated, then added, I refuse to argue with a bald woman.

You're more than cold, she said.  You're evil.

Whatever.

I know you've blamed me all these years for Jeffrey's death, she said.  He was my son, too.  I ache every minute at his loss. I can't forgive myself?

We've covered this before, he said.  It's boring.

She shook her head, deflated, the scarf in her right hand, her left hand tight upon the sofa's armrest.  The churned-up whirl of emotions seemed to dissipate inside her as she stared at him, her indignation now a sadness, an all-pervasive dust that covered them, covered the room, their lives, poisonous, his face impassive, his eyes so cold and dead. She didn't move as he left and went out through the kitchen, into the garage, started his Lincoln Town Car and drove away.  Her sigh, the pent-up release of air from her lungs, was, in the stillness, shattered glass.

   
   She didn't see him until late the next evening and then they barely spoke.  He carried a cup of coffee toward his study to catch up on paperwork.  She was silent and still wounded, coming out of their bedroom to latch the back door.

I'll sleep in the guest room, he said.

Fine, she replied.

He was on the telephone later, but she was dozing, her table lamp still on, a paperback copy of a Steinbeck novel pressed against her chest.   His voice seemed like a faraway waterfall of indistinct words that foamed under her door and pooled at her ears.  She was not upset with him, not anymore.  She was resigned to this, her life.

The next days flowed from light to dark, a chiaroscuro time.  Morning light pierced Venetian blinds across her bed, then shadows vined up the wall at midday; afternoon dwindled into  early evening grays, then the spider web of stars beyond her window, above the silver maple, gave way to intervals of sleep.  Her thoughts ebbed, monochromatic.  Mostly she stared at the room and swallowed pain pills that did not soothe.  She phoned her doctor one drizzly day.

Make an appointment to come in, he said.

When?

Let me check with my secretary, he said, sending her into a limbo of Muzak.  She held on to the phone, an umbilical to her life, she thought, waiting for a disembodied voice to promise hope.  She hadn't showered, had hardly eaten.  Her hands were bony and yellow, she thought, or maybe the light was jaundiced or her eyes unfocused, she couldn't tell.

A week from Thursday? a female voice said at last.

No sooner?

Not unless we have a cancellation.

Call me if you do, please, her voice imploring. 


An itchy nub, she thought, as she shampooed her head that evening.  Drying herself afterwards, she vowed to climb out of the emotional morass she felt sunken into.  She could wear self- pity like an emblem.  She could listen to David come and go without a word.  She could even let her routine of garden work, painting and household chores slip by for days or weeks.  But a persistent image of the angel -- she had seen him, had spoken to him -- kept intruding into her anguished soul.

Something phenomenal had crashed into her mundane world, she thought.  She just could not find a logical explanation for the why?   What assurance was he bringing?  You have found favor.   What could that possibly mean?  She was not a religious woman, but she understood suffering and love, and yes, she hoped in the balance her life would tilt toward affirmation.  But why her?   Why now?  Was she standing at the intersection of mystical and madness?

She wasn't suicidal, even after David's confession when she thought, I could be murderous.    He had hurt her, yes, but not unexpectedly.  For years she had mistrusted his lapses of time and his overnights and dinners with clients until 3 a.m.  She had adjusted to her life and his colliding only intermittently.

 

So she phoned her trio of favorite students, the sisters Jennifer and Kelli and their friend Whitney, all  home-schooled.  They swept like a wave of energy into her studio, curious and eager for whatever Ava had planned.

We're glad you're feeling better, they said in unison.  Jennifer, the oldest at 15, had slipped her hand affectionately onto Ava's shoulder.  They normally came on Saturdays, but Ava had not held classes since the operation.  And though the chemo sapped her enthusiasm, she had been right to invite the girls.

Once they began painting they became a quartet of voices, like chamber music, hers contrapuntal to their exclamations and questions.  They were an ensemble of joyful discovery.  This was the nourishment she had needed.  The girls were always to attentive to Ava's suggestions.

Look at this smear, Whitney whined above the others.  She was thirteen, her eyes as brown as two caramels.

We'll fix it, Ava reassured her.  Give me your brush.    She demonstrated how water moved, how the ripples and froth reflected light. Her students practiced tentatively at first, then with liberated strokes they copied her.

Water's color depends on the surroundings, she told them.  All the weather's mood are mirrored, and the sky and trees and the boats, their curved, reflected bow.  Try this, she said, blending cobalt blue and titanium white.  See?  See how I wriggle the brush to create a wash?  She how it's done.

She demonstrated how light creates form: the three-dimensional shape of a skiff, the darker, cerulean blue of its shadow, the bay now tinted yellow ocher and cadmium red by the sunset.

She listened to their conversation bounce about like a video game: planned vacations, newborn puppies of a neighbor's dog, boys, actors and musicians who were out or in, all alien to her, of course, now that Julie was away at college.  She felt a reservoir being refilled inside her, thanks to the presence of her three sprites --  a boon to her bane she told them.

What's that mean? they asked to Ava's amusement.

Before she knew, two hours had elapsed and Whitney's mother had arrived to collect the girls.  They left Ava with hugs and promised to reappear next Saturday, they learned so much, thank you, we hope we paint as well as you someday, bye, see you soon, bye bye.


In her studio's settling quiet, their fragrance remained as afterglow.  To be so bright, she thought, so uncomplicated and absorbent, to have your whole life stretching up before you like a crystal staircase.  Those are the graces, she thought, my muses.  Not the disappointment, if she were honest, that her daughter was.  Julie had no interest in art, no matter how Ava had tried.  She had given Julie camel hair brushes, watercolor and acrylic paints, charcoal, even a pottery kickwheel one year for her birthday.  And though Julie was a fair student, she really didn't excel in anything, not music, not athletics, not even friends who seemed to drift perplexingly out of her life.

 

Daybook, June 16

What I lived for:

In this twilit garden,

vespers of wind fallen at my feet,

the thousand tongues of the dead still silent,

I am commissural, wanting this life and the next

wanting, like Dante's Beatrice, to be holy,

aflame like this symphony of fireflies,

their radiance internal, their ecstasies and memory

freeze-dried for the long journey.  I want to leave

this trot-line of sorrows, unencumbered,

and rise weightless, above the trees,

rise like the flocks of angels rise

on their nightly migration from this world

to the next, to the blue shores of the Empyrean,

through starfields and light travelling

at the speed of itself, to be discharged,

this is what I want: love, without its pinpricks,

trust, its glass-ceiling splintered,

marriage, a blood-covenant in our veins,

so when it dies, we die, then rise

in our reborn bodies, spectroscopic, beyond

the constellations of loss and regret, the rosary beads

of this life, vanishing one by one, joyful mysteries,

sorrowful mysteries, glorious mysteries, this creed

which orders my coming in and my going out.

 

The morning of June 17 she awoke with an arthritic ache deep in her back.  Rain was falling, an oily, oppressive glaze that continued like a post-nasal drip into late afternoon.  It seemed to wear her down with its barometric weight, she thought, like Paraguay was always humid and the air dense with flying insects in her memory.

She poached two eggs, set them on a bed of toast, tried to sip a glass of apple juice.  Her appetite was gone again. She felt listless.  The heating pad rammed against her lower spine brought no relief.   Analgesics made her queasy.  So she ate nothing and went back to bed, the sheets damp and uncomfortable like wash that had come out of the dryer mid-cycle.

David came home a little past eight, ruffled, ragged and unshaved with his tie askew.

            You mind if I get some clothes? he asked.

Go ahead, she replied

He paused and tilted his head like a Macaw, she thought, his eyes birdlike, too, a silk Japanese bathrobe in his hand.

Your skin is yellowish, he said, approaching the bed then bending the table lamp full onto her face.  It might be the light, he said.  Do you feel all right?

No, she said.  I feel sick.  Chemo is not wonder bread, you know.

You've spent a lot of time in bed lately.  His hand rose palm up to touch her cheek, but she flinched away, as if his hand were a snake.  I know you're upset, he said.  And I know it's my fault.

My back is killing me, she said.  I can't get comfortable.

Roll over, he said.  Let me massage it.

She turned onto her side and let him slide his hand below the sheet and begin to rub her back.  Lower, she said, still ambivalent about him touching her.  She wanted to sustain her anger as long as she could, but when she felt around inside, there was no emotion, only a small void.  She bore an outer ache and an inner numbness.  Her hatred was no longer fiery.  She had no words to tear like shrapnel.  Her passion had drifted away into stellar space.  She felt frozen at absolute zero, the cessation of all life with no gravitational pull toward anyone, just a solitary, inward spin, alone with the ghost-light of the stars that faded long after they implode.  Nothing, she felt nothing, and had nothing left to say.

It doesn't help, she said.  Go away.

After the shower stopped running she heard him in the kitchen, then the guest room, laughter and indistinct voices from the television, David talking on the phone, she thought.  Her pain spiraled upward, diffuse.  She couldn't sleep, kept shifting her position, feverish, but her extremities were cold.  And then the first waves of nausea sent her to the bathroom.  What time? she wondered.

She knelt on the Spanish tile, her encircled arms supporting her head.  She felt cool porcelain through her nightgown. Late, past midnight, she thought. Vertigo throbbed her head and her stomach churned it sour butter.  The pitch of reverse peristalsis, she remembered from biology, the polite term.  But for her, dry heaves.  She hated that feeling of retching and gagging and nothing there because her stomach was empty.  She fogged out but didn't for how long?  Her fiber of her body ached.  She strained to force up air, a cud of phlegm she spit into the bowl.  She fumbled for a tissue.  
            She said, Oh God, Oh God.

David heard her, miraculous, she thought, all at once steadying her elbow and smoothing her forehead.  After a minute he went to get her a ginger ale.  The carbonation bubbled at her nose, fizzing as she swallowed, but it cleared her head.

I'll call the doctor, he said.

He'll be in bed.

I don't care, David said.  You're sick.

She didn't protest as he guided her back to bed, her awareness wavering at the threshold, then lucid when he returned.  He laid his hand gently onto her forehead and said solemnly,  I'm going to drive you to the hospital.

Right now? she asked.

He said it's probably a reaction.  He said, it's better to be cautious.  I'll put some toiletries in a bag.  You want anything else?

My slippers and my robe, the chenille one.  I'll try to dress, she said.  Her hand seemed palsied and her legs rubbery as she pulled on her silk warmup suit.  She had eaten half a peach that morning, a couple bites of toast and egg for dinner, little else.  Now she understood why old people struggled with physical movements.  Her legs swung akimbo, out of control.  Her hand strength seemed to fail.  She couldn't grasp the zipper.  I'm too young for this, she told herself.

She managed to lumber to the car without complaining, fearful David would recognize her trembling hands as something more serious than she thought it was.

She glided in and out of consciousness as they drove, the car radio somnambulistic, a call-in discussion with a child psychologist.  Were any parents up then? she wondered.  David drove at warp speed, as usual, but they encountered little traffic, a periodic gathering of light rushing toward them and then a whoosh going past.


Are you all right, he asked several times.

Yes, she said.  Her body ached like the flu, a viral ache and she hoped they would dispense an antibiotic and let her return home.  No one recovered in the hospital with its all-night bus station of  activity, the patients' hacking coughs, never dark nor quiet, incessant prodding and poking, the bed too high, too narrow, too institutional.  And too cold, always too cold for her.

She knew when they reached Green Bay because the shuddering night had awakened with more cars, tractor trailer rigs, surreal floodlights of the burger restaurants, traffic sounds and diesel fumes and the rushing in her head.  What time? she asked.

Almost three a.m.

As they entered the Outpatient/Emergency anteroom she thought of Goya's painting, The Third of May Executions, and its aftermath: a battered looking man and woman, the right side of his head wrapped in gauze; another woman held a wheezing infant; a police officer spoke quietly with a drunk who seemed disconsolate, he had that homeless grizzle.  In the dim light they could have been entering a restaurant.  The admitting maître d' sent her to an examination room off the

main corridor while David stayed to give insurance information.

She felt wobbly easing herself onto a chair as she waited for David or a doctor.  She wished she had been adamant about not phoning until morning.   She could be suffering at home in bed.

A physician knocked and then entered her room.  He was sixtyish, with a puffy face and thinning, laurel leaf hair that wound about his head.  He was eating ice cream out of a styrofoam cup with a plastic spoon.


Mrs. Hall? he asked, extending his hand and taking hers which he pressed limply.  I'm Dr. Dixon.  I don't have your files, he said.  The mainframe's down.  But I spoke with your GP, and he filled me in.  Let me page my nurse, he said.  We'll look you over, then take some blood, but no one's in the lab right now, so I'll have to hunt up a tech.

She was a compliant ragdoll, turning this way and that, lying on the tissued table, breathing in, breathing out, his hand probing her abdomen, his stethoscope hopskotching across her chest.  She lifted her arm so the nurse could Velcro the blood pressure cuff around her biceps.  They withdrew a vial of blood, told her to bend her arm and press the cotton puff firmly.  They left her with a plastic beaker and said the bathroom was around the corner, please leave them a sample.

She felt as if she were being prepared for sacrifice, the ritual offering to the chemo gods.  At least, she consoled herself, they had not inflicted her with a pelvic exam.  Thank you for small blessings, she said.  But the urine sample?  How did one act nonchalant?   Whether she left her gold like a gift or presented it matter-of-factly to the nurse, her beaker still held urine.  She managed to dribble several ounces then  returned to her examination room.  David was there, bleary and disheveled, his polo shirt on inside out, she realized.

I'm beginning to loathe hospitals, he said.  Who invented managed care, Rube Goldberg?

They waited fifteen minutes until another nurse, a woman who appeared to have dragged  herself straight from bed, announced wearily, I'm going to take you to your room.  She had a wheelchair parked outside the door, but Ava declined.  The nurse insisted.  Hospital rules.

What floor and room? Ava asked.

220 west, the nurse said. We'll ride the elevator.

David accompanied them to the elevators then hesitated and said he would catch a couple hours sleep at the Holiday Inn and come back early.  She could phone him if she needed to, but he was exhausted.  Then he pecked her on the cheek, a perfunctory ritual he could have skipped, to which she nodded and said okay, she'd be fine.


 


 
 
 

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