Publish the Word
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Angelus -- Chapter 23

 

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

                              Chapter 23

 

Two days later as she and Julie were in a taxi on their way to the airport, she opened the two letters Udo had pressed into her hand during their awkward farewell.  After hurried promises, hugs and cheek-kissing, the two girls needed to be pried apart so they wouldn't miss their plane.  She gently unfolded a letter written in her mother's handwriting, unchanged in script from the letters she had received at college, except it was in German.  She managed to read as the car jounced through the mid-morning city.                                                                                                                                                   18 July, 1941

Dearest Mother and family,


I know you expected me back from Salzburg Thursday the last, but I am writing from Berlin with some news.  I hope to God it is all right that you became a mother-in-law the 15th of July.  You don't know how much I wanted to tell you, but I didn't know what to say without giving away our secret until we saved a little money.  Emil thought we could keep a secret until September, but every time he went home it was harder to say goodbye.  Nobody knows yet, but he is going to write his mother today.  I hoped we could come home this weekend to tell you, but we are unable to travel for a week or two.  I wish you could have seen my wedding.  An old judge married us.  He said he never saw anyone so scared as me.  We walked around the building about five times before we had enough courage to go in.  When I started walking up the stairs my knees gave way and I began to cry when the judge said, Do you take this man to be your husband?  I could hardly talk after it was all over.  I said a little prayer.  I wished we would have had your blessing, but I'm happy as it is.  I couldn't ask for a better husband than mine and if anyone thinks I had to get married, they are crazy  because I'm sick right now.  I suppose it will be in the newspaper Sunday morning, then everyone will know.  Happy Birthday, Dear Mother.  I think you are the most wonderful mother in the world.  And thank you very much for everything you did for me.  I must stop writing because my husband will be up soon.  Poor man is working hard now, and I too am working -- at a packing house.  I got 52 hours this week.  Please don't worry about me.  All my love, and Emil's too.

  Monika

The second letter, undated, was typed on brown government stationary.  As she unfolded the creased paper and tried to steady herself as their taxi driver swerved maniacally into the opposite lane to pass slower traffic and then dodged an oncoming truck as he swung back, she noticed Julie gazing out the open window, sniffling, the trees, houses, pedestrians and traffic blurred into abstraction.  When she began to read, she recognized a sentiment virtually identical to a letter David had written her years ago, when they too, had been in love.

My sweet Monika, 


The letter I mailed you last Friday was just delivered to me today as I foolishly addressed your letter to myself.  As I reread what I had written, my words seemed so inadequate, so I will try again to express how I feel about you.  I wish I could think of something romantic.  You mean so much to me I am without speech.  I wish we could relive every moment we have been together, and in truth, I confess I do close my eyes and feel your warm and sweet breath upon my face.  I cannot imagine what life would be without you.  To think if we had never met!  You are a fire burning inside my chest.  I marvel at how understanding you are and how uncanny the way you seem to steal the words from my mouth.  I must pinch myself now, ouch! to make certain you are real.  You are, and I pray you will be mine forever.  I do not deserve to be loved the way you love me.  I want to shout my joy to the world.  I will close this letter with a kiss.  I touch my lips to this paper and wish it were you.  More love than you know,   Emil.

She read the letters a second time while the plane sat stalled on the runway awaiting clearance.  These words, she thought.  Proof of blind love amidst so much death.  Sustained by simple passions, she and he could see only each other, the pale glow of  her hand upon his chest, a scented candle wavering in the small room, unvarnished wooden floor, the bed, epicenter of their desires, dark and warm, enfolding this braille of love, skin to skin, the world without end encompassed in the moment he became her and she him.  So young, radiating such innocence.  Devoid of subtlety.  So as of yet unbroken.

When the plane at last sheared upwards, the rapid acceleration seemed to perforate her eardrums.  She placed her hands over the throbbing and held her head, eyes shut.  The plane shuddered through her.  Up they went, airborne, strapped and angled back, an equation of x-mass and velocity.  She counted silently, as if to obliterate the laboring plane and the blue cube of window to her left.  They banked right when she reached 86, leveled at 135.  Julie was tapping her to get by for the restroom.  They were elliptical over rainforest, over ocean, north by northeast.  She massaged her temples, began to breathe again.

Paraguay fell away, the trajectory of all their lives controlled now by instruments of radar and geosynchronicity, wind and speed and barometric pressures.  For the second time in her life she was rising through the same air space over Asuncion, 45 years in the future, the girl buried deep within the woman, coexistent with the cancer, another secret her body may have carried for years like an infidelity, this betrayal by someone you love, a ghostly traveler.  She was leaving Udo again, now more her brother than ever before.  And Carmela, with her quiet anguish and strength, Evita, the sister Julie might have had, the landscape of memory etched like dark valleys in the occipital lobe. 


She glanced out the window.  Cloud rubble floated underneath.  The upside-down sky was endless about them, without perspective, an illusion the eyes played.  She never liked flying.  Days after she could still feel the drone of the engines and the cold in her body.  A flight attendant bent toward her, offered a soda, unsalted peanuts, fluffed a pillow and laid it beside her on Julie's seat.  Her fellow passengers were accepting drinks, taking up magazines, tilting back or stretching.  They might have been, she thought, patrons in a small cafe, drinking aperitifs and chatting amicably, not really hurtling 800 miles an hour above the lime-bluish south Atlantic.  Flying may have been statistically safer than driving, but all the same, she thought, a fender-bender at 35,000 feet was inevitably fatal.

When Julie returned, Ava got up to use the restroom, but saw several other passengers in line ahead of her.  She went back to her seat, then got up again to remove a blanket from the overhead compartment.  She pushed aside the carry-ons, stuffed them back to stay, suddenly had to brace herself as the plane hit turbulence.  Julie reached out and took her firmly at the forearm until she scrunched back into her seat.  I hate that, Julie said.  You have no warning.

A few minutes later Ava went back to the restrooms, entered an unoccupied one, gasped at the odors others had left behind.  She had to breathe through her mouth as she wiped the seat, as she wriggled down the chino slacks, as she lowered herself to the molded styrofoam.  The exhaust fan whirred in the ceiling, the updraft evident, but not enough, she thought.  Not nearly enough.  She was grateful to have not seen the previous occupant, but she averted her eyes from the face of the woman waiting outside the restroom, for now she would be suspect.


Julie was slumped in her seat.  Eyes closed, she wore headphones, the image of quiescence, the perfect, self-avowed traveller who, in her words, enjoyed the rush of takeoffs and landings.  She was not fretful of flying, never worried about crashes or near-collisions, nor did she complain about chemical toilets in cubicles with lingering smells.  Such detachment she inherited from David, also a small-aircraft pilot for several years early in their marriage.  After one trip north into Canada where they met an unexpected squall that battered their Cessna Cub for hours, she swore she would never fly with him again.  Shortly after he traded the plane for a 32-foot sloop, but he would never admit that he, too, had lost his fervor for aviation.  He had advertised himself as the flying realtor who on numerous occasions flew prospects over rural acreages, but it was less and less a tax deduction and more an excuse to be gone for days at a time.  She knew.  And he knew that she knew.  But soon they had two small children and their life was less wrinkled if she ignored his absence.  She could learn to breathe without inhaling.  She had two small children to care for, two children she would make in her image, with her capacity for stoicism.

After two hours in flight, spasms began in her lower abdomen.  She wobbled from one aisle seat to the next until she reached the rear of the plane, entered the restroom, scented stale cigarettes and what might have been vanilla perfume.  Manageable, she thought.  The distress she had feared for weeks had finally accosted her.  Armed with Kaeopectate and mint-flavored chewables, she kept expecting the water in Paraguay to burble inside her or some pesticide-laden fruit to sear her intestines.  So she bought bottled water when she could.  She scrubbed the life out of mangoes and plantains and guavas.  She warned Julie who said she was paranoid.


Someone rattled the door handle.  Ava stared hard at it, wished them away.  She bent forward from the waist, head lowered, agonized, the wrath  pouring forth, so egregious and sulphurous, it seemed, and six miles above the earth.  Oh, to be home.  After twenty minutes she managed to stumble back along the aisle to her seat, to Julie who was asleep.  The liquid sealant was packed inside her suitcase, but she found two plastic-wrapped lozenges in her purse.  She sucked them until they dissolved.  And she prayed to be constipated for a week, she didn't care, if only the next six hours would spare her further grief..

She tried to concentrate on the in-flight movie, a subtitled Spanish film.  A woman in a nameless European city was being stalked, apparently by a former lover.  He left her photos of  them -- a beach scene, another with an alpine vista in the background, but he inscribed her head with a death's skull, a subtlety the woman understood and which elicited overacting Ava would have enjoyed in any other context.  But the greater impending terror, for Ava, was that she would rush to the back of the plane and not find an empty restroom.

When they touched down in Miami, she and Julie were with the final stragglers from the plane.  Ava's turmoil had settled, a blessing, a small blessing, she thought as she hung her purse and flight bag over her shoulder.  Waved through by uniformed, bilingual inspectors, they left the custom stalls, rode an escalator up to the concourse and soon found the tributary which carried them to their next departure gate. 

It's weird to hear English again, isn't it? Julie said.  To be here, to be home in a couple hours.  To be back at school in a day or so,  back with my sorority.  In a week I'll wonder if I really was in South America.  Maybe I dreamed it all.  Know what I mean, Mom?      

Yes, she said.  Yes.  You dreamed it and we're not really here.

Julie stared at her placidly, tousled from the flight, then said, it's unnerving when my mother becomes more sarcastic than me.


They had an hour until their flight left for Chicago, so they waited in a roped off area adjacent to their departure gate.  Julie watched the planes taxi past the floor to ceiling windows, while Ava stood near a television suspended from the ceiling to hear CNN with its roundelay of headlines and weathermaps and stock reports, the world every thirty minutes, an anchor mannequin with perfect hair said.  A special bulletin flashed onto the screen, something of more significance than the regular newsbreak.  A bomb explosion, the man said.  In Miami, he said.  This very city, Ava thought, that she and Julie were soon to leave.  Magnetized by the same riffle of interest other passengers drew closer, a hush and attentiveness to the images now appearing on the screen.  They saw an aerial view of mushrooming smoke and black flames rising from a grid of streets, the view simultaneously affixed in the consciousness of thousands of people, she thought.  Smoke and fire, combustibles and accelerants, elements of great drama soon to be deleted from our memories by tomorrow, eclipsed by a tornado, a terrorist strike, an alien abduction.  Life in breaks and bits, in bytes and briefs.

Julie, look at this.  An explosion, here in Miami, Ava heard herself say without turning her head from the cascade of flames.

For real? Julie said.  An explosion?

They watched the screen together, the live feed unedited, the man with wondrous hair told them.  They were consuming images, swallowing down the raging smoke and fire into their minds which would be overdubbed by this time tomorrow.  A live feed.  An announcement she might hear over speakers at a zoo or a pet store before a white mouse twitches, terrified, at the boa's approach.

Julie went to the window as if to search for smoke rising into the immaculate sky.


Their group of ten or twelve, huddled close to the television, watched, alert to a woman now at street level, the fire framed behind her, a church she was saying, a Jewish church, I mean a synagogue, she corrected herself in response to the voice she might have heard inside her ear.   She accented her words as if English were not her first language.  Her hair was black, drawn into a blossom at the back of her head.  Police received a call shortly before the blast from a group identifying itself as neo-Nazis, she told Ava and Julie and the others listening.  The woman turned slightly.  The fire was over her left shoulder.  She held her right hand to her ear.  She said, nearby buildings have been evacuated, but officials say the fire is being contained.

I didn't see it, Julie said beside her.

At that instant Ava noticed the man and the woman trailing two children.  A family, she thought, hauling a suitcase on wheels, a Jewish family, orthodox by his twin strands of dangling hair, their clothes, his black porkpie hat, full beard, her wire-rimmed glasses and calico dress, unseasonable for Florida in September. They crossed directly behind the television, oblivious to the images of fire, a Jewish fire, a neo-Nazi fire, this conjunction of reality and transmitted electrons.  Ava felt overwhelmed, a flush of heat on her cheeks.  She sat down, felt the green cushion, saw the unbroken tile with its flecks, like embedded ash, like flickers.

The words, not the images, resonated inside her.  Jewish.  Nazi.  All her life she had carried the imprint of victim, an invisible tattoo across her forehead, numbers on her arm, but now, as if reversed in a mirror, she saw with clarity.  She was executioner, she the daughter in black boots and pantalooned uniform.  She was Gestapo with the death's head insignia behind her eyes.  Neo-Nazi was her progeny, with their shaved heads and swastikas and angry mouths and bombs and illiterate obscenities, spawn of her bloodline.


Ever since she heard the fable become real from Udo and held Eva Braun's diary between her hands and took the poison words inside her like cyanide capsules, she had avoided the phrase which was now drifting upwards like smoke into her thoughts:  Hitler's daughter.  Hitler's daughter.  It repeated itself as the live images traveled through miles and miles of  satellite and  fiber optic miles and the Hasidic family was absorbed into the flow of travelers carrying their own histories into planes and rental cars and courtesy vans, off to their personal diasporas.  For days she had refused to consider the thoughts which now flared up.  For days she had pretended Udo and she had spoken of other people who might have been fictional characters.  Who might have committed atrocities.  But now she heard the words in English, in her own voice, clear and dispassionate.  She heard and she knew that this cancer would indwell her forever.

 

David met them in the Green Bay airport atrium.  He was waiting as the procession fanned past him, passengers embraced by relatives or business travellers who headed directly to  baggage claim.  He accepted Julie's hug, could not avoid some gesture of affection toward his wife, even a fraudulent one, so he embraced her and touched his mouth to her cheek, a dry kiss of no consequence.  He said welcome home, you're tanned, you two look healthy.

He had not seen Ava's short hair grown back and though the silk swathe was around her neck and not her head, he still made no mention as he shouldered their bags and led them to the car.  Accelerating onto the highway, he half-turned in his seat and asked if they were hungry.  Julie was, so they stopped at a diner in Brussels.  The light was falling into dusk.  Such mild air, Ava thought, and dry, slightly acrid, the scent of burning leaves or perhaps the papermills from Suamico.  So different from where they had come.  She sipped iced-tea across from David and let Julie summarize the past two weeks:  a whirl of dance clubs and beaches with her cousin, new friends, classes in Spanish at the university, the street markets, no malls, a drive to the country, new clothes and old churches -- she couldn't wait to go back, maybe Christmas, if she could save any money.

Did you forget I went along? Ava added.

How was your brother? David asked her.


Grown up, Ava said.  He's a composer with a sweet wife and daughter, Evita, who you heard is now Julie's alter-ego in South America.  A hard trip, but I'm glad we went.

The essential truth was more elusive, not merely surface textures nor the narrative in reverse, not just streets filled with dark-skinned people or foods she would never eat again or the sky's quality of reflectance.  Asuncion would forever remain ambiguous, a city of opaque memory.  She had brought back the diary, a key, two letters, a photo of herself cradled by Eva Braun.  She carried Udo's music inside her.  She had not declared these items at customs.  Nor would she tell David.

I sold a marina while your were gone, David announced as they drove.  And someone robbed the bank -- midday with tourists all around, can you imagine?  What other news? he asked aloud.  Record high temperatures.  Played golf a few times.  I remembered to water your plants.  What else?

Did my sorority call? Julie asked.

I think, he said.  I left a stack of messages next to the phone.

She was approaching re-entry to this life, the twilight fields now familiar, the dome of lights ahead probably Sturgeon Bay, the taste of the air, the voices swirling inside the car, the liquid sleep pouring through her body as other cars hurtled past in the night, such emblems  yielded easy interpretation.  She leaned back, drowsing.  David's voice buzzed inside her head.  Then Julie's, her inflections mirroring his voice, contrapuntal, as she told about the concert on the lawn, the party afterwards where she met a young man who raised orchids for export, a raft on which she almost drowned, and then his voice saying you were damned lucky.


When they reached home Ava's intestinal distress had signalled her again.  She massaged her bloated stomach to relieve an onset of cramps.  After twenty minutes in her own bathroom while David and Julie unloaded the car, she joined them in the living room where Julie was digging through her suitcase.  Here, she said, handing her father a folded shirt.  It's a waffle knit made of natural flax from Brazil.  I thought it would be comfortable to play golf in.

Ava gave David a wall hanging she had watched an Indian girl weave in the market.   It was of a cockatoo, its bright feathers flaming above its head and gold beak, its claws like arthritic hands, the size of her own, clasped around a branch.  The background was saffron and melon green, a weave too intricate to trace with her eyes.  She had stared at it for a long time the day before they left.  She had defocused her vision, had tried to read the fibers with her fingers. .  The girl was fifteen.  She had woven the bird in two days without a pattern, except for the impression in her mind.  She had sold it to Ava for the equivalent of six dollars, and without haggling, expecting to go cheaper, Carmela had said, perplexed, as Ava counted out the guaranis.

Beautiful, David said.  I'll have it framed.

David left early the next morning before Julie was aware he had slept in the study.  At noon Ava made an omelet and wheat toast for she and Julie, then helped her daughter pack her car.  They dialed David on his cellular phone and in fifteen minutes he arrived, hugged his daughter as he had the day before only he was sending her off again, back to school and a life they had little knowledge of.  Julie held her mother, spoke words at her ear, thank, miss, and love punctuated by you, a triptych of vowels, the sounds like granite shattering her resolve to not cry as she always did when Julie left for the semester.

Thanksgiving break is only eight weeks away, Julie said consolingly.  I'll call, I promise.


Let us know you got safely back, David said.  And then they were waving like little cartoon figures as she drove away, her car trailing blue exhaust, the day now suddenly emptied of warmth and color, Ava thought, monochromatic.  David said, I've got a luncheon at the Kiwanis, and then he, too, was backing his car down the drive and roaring off without looking back or waving.  She went into the house, into its stored silences, its rooms of absence and contrition.

A cold front swept rain down from Canada for the next two days.  On the third day grey fog concealed the world beyond the house.  Ava cleaned the floors and walls, she repotted the plants David had over-watered, she replenished the birdfeeders and deer lick.  She picked camomile leaves and brewed tea in her ceramic pot adorned with Chinese peacocks.  And in such rituals she created temporary solace, intervals of nonbeing.  On the fourth day she phoned her art students and invited them over.

It's Saturday, she said to Whitney, Saturday, to the two sisters, Jennifer and Amy.  Their mothers brought them at one o'clock, promising to return at four, unless Ava wanted them for the weekend, ha ha, the sisters' mother had said with an amused expression.  I would trade two teenagers for ten babies any day, she had said as she wrote out a check for the session.  Any day, she said again.

Whitney resurrected an oil painting she hadn't touched in months, a tranquil scene of a doe in a shadowy glade beside the ribs of a fishing boat half-swallowed by tall grass.  A dying  sun lit the background with magenta and ocher and too much viridian.  Tone it down here, Ava said pointing.  Soft strokes, she said, whispers of light.

Jennifer, the oldest at sixteen, had started another painting in her lion series.  She sat close to the radio and needed little prompting.  She was also the most naturally talented of Ava's students and with years of disciplined work could surpass her mother's or anyone's expectations.

Amy daubed listlessly at her canvas until Ava demonstrated a new technique.


She showed the girl how to mass in a large area by thinning the pigment with turpentine to create a wash similar to watercolor.  Sploge in the color, Ava said, a cool, thin light, raw sienna, maybe some cobalt blue, some violet, you see?  Allow the paints to run together.  You can even mix them on the canvas rather than the palette.  At this stage, you are more concerned with shapes and patterns,  with light and dark, you see, diffuse light, glowing and  translucent, you see?  She said she did, so Ava handed her back the brush. 

She made cocoa for them with tiny, floating marshmallows.  She found a package of chocolate bars in a storage cupboard.  They painted and ate and told jokes, overflowing the studio with vitality, a simple joy she could find with other people's children, but not her own daughter, not even when Julie was this age.  How remarkable, Ava thought, as she gazed out at the autumnal woods and simultaneously watched the girls in reflection in the window glass.  What intimacy there was among the four of them, a gift.  She wanted to remember that it had been like that with Julie, she was certain, yes, once it had, before Julie started school, the two of them best pals, hikes up the rocky path, carry me, chirping like a bird, carry me, sweetness and such uncompromising trust.  What had happened?  School, she thought, had changed everything.  The yellow bus had taken her daughter away and imperceptibly the school, some teacher, the other children, who knew? had immutably altered her daughter and had unwoven the delicate and precious bond.


She hovered over the girls, moved quietly behind them, complimenting, absorbing their energies which made her feel rejuvenated, this elixir of innocence.  She could instruct other people's children.  They politely called her Mrs. Hall and were always reluctant to leave.  No corrosive words.  No shutting-out, no walls, no shells to slip into.  Did other people live in perpetual tension?  In junior high Julie had gone three weeks refusing to speak to her and had left folded notes around the house which said I HATE YOU and MONSTER.  She sometimes felt that she and David and Julie were the family psychologists had added the adjective dysfunctional to.  And now that Julie was back in Madison, she missed her so much she felt like someone was wringing the life out of her heart.

The storms resumed for another day and night, a virulent rain that lashed the house and stripped her birch and oak trees.  She rose from bed late Sunday, drawn to the window by muffled detonations of thunder at the horizon, intermittent flashes and tracers in the night sky.  Wrapped in a blanket, she stood and watched the aerial bombardment.  David was sleeping in Julie's room, but nothing disturbed him, not even if the house were lifted from its foundation.  The night Jeffrey was born she had to drive them to the hospital because David was drugged with sleep, unable to stay awake.  He had slept through tornado sirens, through their children's illnesses, through her night tremors inaugurated by her cancer.

Still, not having him sleep in the same bed was her punishment, a penalty neither had clearly defined, but which, in time would surface in some argument.  The separation would be her fault, hers to commute.  She would have exiled him, yes, the words would tumble from his mouth with such constrained fury her breath would be snatched away.  She would stare at him and blink and stare, without speech.  That was the usual scenario.


On Monday the storms lifted and the sky glowed with a blue radiance vast and inviolate, not even a bird in the cleansed air.  After David showered and left, Ava opened the windows for cross-ventilation to clear the house of a desiccated, musty odor which clung to everything.  She tuned in the public radio station to fill the rooms with classical music.  She thought of Udo ten thousand miles south, a hemisphere away, his music in her head merging with the radio.  Udo -- such an enigma.  The way others escaped  into drugs or television or confessional novels, Udo disappeared into the intricate structures he carried in his head.  Such elaborate compositions, to her, were beyond logic. To hear all the notes at once.  To order each sound with mathematical precision -- dazzling, pure genius.  She would be months yet decoding all his nuances and complexity and  baffling ties to others.

Her own art had never been much of a catharsis.  She painted from her eyes, not her deep psyche, a representational art.  The way she perceived the world was expressive only to a point of safety.  If she discovered any insights in her painting, it was that she could exert tremendous control over the medium, a control she lacked in other aspects of her life.  But she could not live inside her art the way Udo did his music.  She still felt too enmeshed with this world, too earth-bound, perhaps too fearful to release herself from the lives of others, a selfish fantasy she constantly fought against.  It may have been her desire to always please, her feminine flaw, she wasn't sure.  Pacifism often masqueraded for weakness, David had once read her from his notebook..

 

Susan Bell, a mid-thirtyish gallery owner in town phoned her late morning to invite her for lunch, if the notice wasn't too short.  Ava was flattered and agreed to meet the woman at a new restaurant which had opened early summer in time for the tourist migrations.  Give me two hours, she said.  I've felt quarantined these past days by the weather and my own lethargy.  I need to shower and pull myself back together.

Ava had never been to the restaurant which served mostly organic foods and whole grain breads with thick, vegetable soups.  She ordered an avocado salad topped with alfalfa sprouts.  She tried the raspberry tea.  She explained her cropped hair, the chemo, her trip to Paraguay.

I like your hair, Susan Bell said.  I'd cut mine for convenience if I were brave.


It's not about bravery, Ava thought, but she remained silent as Susan redirected their conversation to her new gallery, her second, which she planned to open in Bailey's Harbor, across the peninsula.  I want to offer more of your work, Susan said.  I'll have double the space, a high-traffic area.  Your landscapes have always sold well. 

Of course, Ava said.  I've been off-schedule for a while, but normally I'm more productive during winter months -- nothing else to do but paint.

Several local galleries handled Ava's work, but she felt Susan had always been more responsive and less a dilettante than some of the other owners.  Divorced and with a high school daughter, she had moved up from Chicago several years ago and soon became an attractive, articulate member of the arts guild.  She had an art history degree from an East Coast college, Bryn Mawr or Wellsley, one of those, Ava thought, plus a settlement from her ex, an attorney, probably an annuity and the desire for a down-scaled life, a safe school for her child, a wood-shingled gallery with a view of the bay.  Art galleries in Door County were break-even propositions, either a converted sunroom by working artists or like the handful of shops along Main Street squeezed between antique marts, the German delicatessen and Danish Bakeri -- a tax investment for women torn between art and revenge.  She didn't know Susan well enough to name her compulsions.

There's one other thing I need to discuss with you, Susan said.  I find this really awkward.

About commissions? Ava asked.          

No, no, Susan said.  Same terms, if that's all right?  No, I'm sorry to even be in this situation, but, well, bluntly I'm leasing the new gallery space from your husband.

Oh? Ava said, all at once aware of a nervous shift in the air between them.  Oh, yes, Ava said, recovering.  You'll be in the new waterfront mall he's building.  I've seen the plans.


That's it, Susan said.  She glanced away, shifting her posture and continued, her voice measured as if she were gingerly approaching a guilt she was prepared to confess.  When we drew up the lease a couple weeks ago, I did something stupid and naive of me, I guess.  Your husband invited me to dinner -- to sign the papers.  I went, a business meeting, so I told myself, but I knew you were gone.  I didn't know what to expect because, well, you know he can be quite charming.

Especially to single women.

Yes, she said.  I'm sorry.  But reason prevailed, and I told him, if I were vulnerable to seduction, it would not be with a married man.  I won't betray my friends for a glass of wine and dinner, not in any way, I told him, not you, his wife, who I respect a great deal -- I want you to know that.  I said so, firmly.  Well, the next day a dozen yellow roses were delivered to my gallery.  I called him and said I'm sure you don't treat your other clients with such solicitude. You're not my other clients, he said.  He's left a couple messages on my answering machine since then, but I ignored them.  The lease is signed.  The space is mine.  But I felt obligated to be honest with you, in case someone would say they saw us at dinner.  That's all it's been.  No infidelity.  One dinner.  Finis.  I told him, but I wanted you to know.  I can't afford to jeopardize our professional relationship.

Thank you, Ava said.  I appreciate your integrity.  I really do.  But inside she felt a fissure open, some part of her break off into jagged shards.  She felt flooded with shame and this woman's anger, now hers, too.  She had been down this street before, deja vu, all over again, the woman's coffee-blonde hair and blue eyes and sparkly mascara and nose and lips transmuted onto other women, always young, always divorced, always lithe under the same lingerie, without tan lines or those bruises like violet skinflowers, inflicted by the men they love.  No, she was sympathetic to this woman, grateful, even.


She drove home from the luncheon and got into bed.  She buried herself up to her neck with covers and willed herself into a kind of trance, a semi-conscious state where the edges of her life blurred into greyness.  This was not, she knew, socially responsible behavior.  This was expunging, an enforced amnesia.  She would lie motionless and listen to her breath leave her mouth.  Gradually, the warmth from her body would enclose her in a radiant cocoon,  a warm and safe cloud of forgetfulness, she thought, the day now emptied, flushed away.  She let the phone ring itself out.  Sunlight in the backyard turned muddy, went black.  At last she got up, changed into her nylon jogging suit and went into the kitchen.  She turned on the overhead fluorescent light, then the gas burner.  She unwrapped a tea bag and held it before her, aromatic jasmine in gauze on a string noose.  Use once and discard.  It was seven p.m. by the wall clock, the family hour, she thought, all over America.  She went into the living room to turn on the television.  And when she went back to see if her water was boiling, she could imagine the voices behind her were not from the television at all.

 


The next day she went to the public library where she checked out two books, William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, by Alan Bullock.  She sat in her car in the parking lot and skimmed the indexes for page references to Eva Braun. She found several in both volumes.  The names, she thought, as she drove on to her doctor's, had always existed at the perimeter of her awareness, tucked in with Neville Chamberlain and Stalin and Versailles and Guadacanal in a mélange of vague dates and places.  But now, she thought, but now.  What were the statistical odds, she wondered, of awakening some morning into a mythological realm where your parents were winged griffins or demons, drooling mouthfuls of blood and cooing, I love you, child of my flesh?  As likely as chatting with one's guardian angel.  Perhaps she was slipping into insanity.

The sting of the needle brought her back.  The nurse with bifocals who usually had trouble hitting a vein on the first pierce said the doctor was gone for the day, she didn't need to see him anyway.  They would send her blood on to the lab.  In a couple days the doctor would phone, he would interpret the results, a CEA test, she said, the hematologist's report.  He won't call on Thursday, though, she added as she capped the vial of dark burgundy.  He plays golf on Thursdays.

Ava's physician phoned on Friday, late in the afternoon.  She was in her studio sorting through her Paraguay studies.  She had lined up the charcoals and watercolors as a panorama: the courtyard from different angles, the shaded pool, the balcony as viewed from beside the pool, river and sky and boats, a retrospective of sketches and quick washes, the shorthand of memory which she hoped to develop into larger paintings.

Her doctor's voice was flat and devoid of emotional content, almost as if, it occurred to her, she were listening to a voice generated by computer. The doctor was still hitting 9-irons while his computer made the mandatory calls.  The voice said, your white blood cell count is elevated.  Close to 40,000 -- whereas normal is in the 5,000 range.

What does that mean? she asked.

Perhaps an infection, perhaps a systemic response to your treatments.  How are you feeling?  Are you feeling all right?

I just got back from two weeks in Paraguay.  That was not an answer, she thought.  That was an inference, a logical de-construct.  I'm fine, she said, too generic a response.  Tired, she added, but not sick.  No pain.  Wouldn't I have pain?


Not necessarily, the doctor said.  I'm going to send these results on to Mayo.  Let's wait for their response until we decide anything.  Let's hear from them first.

She went into the house, took down the Woman's Encyclopedia of Health and searched for information on blood tests.  She located blood, and a see also hierarchy which began with cells, clots, coagulation, corpuscle, count, disorders -- she read the roll-call of subjects until she reached tests.  Under tests she found for cancer, for pregnancy, for syphilis.  An unholy trinity, she thought, a roulette of choices.  Toss the red  dice to see what you win, a crab, a baby, a chancre.

As she began to read the section on blood count, she remembered reading the same passage months before, all about platelets and plasma and the capillary beds.  She studied the transparency overlay with its map of veins, forking and branching into rivulets and streams infinitesimally small, the body's geography laid out in two dimensions, all roads leaving her heart, the capital city.  Her blood journeyed along 60,000 miles of arteries and veins, four times the earth's circumference, sent forth by ventricular contractions, six liters a minute, those molecular nomads, trillions of them, each bearing her unique, genetic image.  Now, however, it seemed her white knights of defense had reproduced themselves overwhelmingly out of whack.

When David arrived home that evening at nine, she had decided hours earlier not to mention her conversation with the doctor.  No mail today? he said.

I forgot to get it, she replied.  I'll run out to the mailbox now.

Never mind, he said.  I'm dressed, I'll go.

When he returned she asked if he was hungry.  She had kept veal cutlets warm on the stove and rice pilaf.  She had baked a fresh loaf in her breadmaker, his gift to her last Christmas. 

I ate, he said.  Any calls?

No, she said.  None at all.


David went into their bathroom and soon Ava could hear the shower.  In a few minutes he came back in khakis and a polo shirt, his wet hair combed flat.  He sat on the love seat opposite her.  They watched the last half hour of His Girl Friday, a black and white comedy from the '30s in which Rosalind Russell played ace reporter to Cary Grant's machinations as her editor and ex-husband.  Such witty, energetic pummeling, she thought, such verbal foreplay to the inevitable reconciliation, but on her terms, a subversive idea for the time.

We need to discuss something, David said.

The nebulous something made Ava stiffen.  She wrapped her legs underneath her, a protective gesture he didn't notice.  He was gazing at the television, she realized, as if it had become a teleprompter and the prepared script was scrolling up.  He seemed so rehearsed, she thought.  The words lacked combustion.  They were stale, so worn out.  I need to stay on top of this mall, he was saying, before the weather becomes too inclement, before the contractors bleed me dry.  I need to supervise this project, he went on, to meet code for the  financing, so our investors, you know, feel secure because they expect me to keep on schedule and on budget. 

I thought you were on schedule and budget, she said in the pause.

Only because I can play the SOB who gets things done.  Straight-up, he said, I need to be there, six days a week until the first of the year.  I'm going to move some things tomorrow to Bailey's Harbor.  I've got a vacant rental cottage just walking distance.  You're welcome to come.

You plan to move there?

I'll be home Sundays, he said.  Just for a couple months.  


Who knew how memories got cross-wired in the cerebral cortex, Ava thought.  Her chest felt suddenly constricted and the sense of suffocation brought back a dream she once had, years ago, when she was still a girl.  She and her mother had been to the aquarium in Chicago, one of their rare excursions together, and Ava had stared too long at a blue whale exhibit, imagining how the enormous mouth had gulped down a bearded prophet, a miracle how he managed to breathe three days amidst a thousand pounds of plankton, krill and digestive slime.  That night she dreamed herself into the whale and had awakened, startled, half-believing.  She was drenched, her sheets wet, but what remained was the constriction an hour later as she sat upright, still unable to fill her lungs with air.  Exactly how she felt now as David's voice spiraled about her.

Now that you've bounced back, he was saying, now that you made your trip. . .

She forever after had a fear of whales and of swimming in water where she couldn't see the bottom.  She was also terrified of snakes, and as his voice went on and on, coiling about her body, she wondered how a dream could lie dormant for years, hibernating in the moist folds of her brain, perhaps a nest of dreams like watersnakes that someday, beckoned by a certain word or moment of import will rise up into the tunnels behind her eyes.   She watched his mouth as if she might see the words shed their invisibility and swim about them in the air, but he stopped, mercifully, and crossed his arms at his chest.

What do you want me to say? she asked.

Nothing, he answered.  I'll be there alone, if that's what worries you.

I'm not worried, she said, as if by instinct.  He had been leaving her for years.  He had gradually blotted himself out of their marriage until he was little more than a colorless void in her life, a string of clichés, excuses, blatant indiscretions.  Nothing much would change.


She remained in bed the next morning until she was certain he had left.  Her teenage artists cancelled for the afternoon, a school fundraiser, they said, a carwash, bring your car, we'll make it shine.  The sky was overcast with distended clouds.  She spent an hour in her studio, then went on a hike up the limestone bluff.  The woods should have been ablaze with autumn foliage, but the maple and oak leaves had quietly shriveled, leached of color by two weeks of cool rain.  The normally scarlet japonica was diseased with black splotches.  So unlike Paraguay, she thought, where a dropped seed would sprout before it hit the ground.  Late September and already the northern lakes were turning over, the fish settling into pockets of warmth.  As she grew older, her love-hate relationship with the winter had intensified.  For her, the long whiteouts of solitude were productive, but the icy roads and impenetrable drifts confined her for weeks stretching into months until May, it seemed, when they were still not immune from Arctic blasts.

On Sunday morning she opened her daybook which she had not touched since her return and with her calligraphy brushes and colored, acrylic inks she sketched and then began to decorate several lines of verse.

 

Daybook, October 2

Awake, O Sleeper!

The fields not blaze with golden light.

Sparrow and robin have taken wing.

Kiss adieu sweet, beloved night.

Listen!  Yon rooster begins to sing.

 

On Tuesday as Ava was flipping through a new issue of American Artist, a woman phoned from the Mayo Clinic.  When can you arrange to come?  she asked.

Any time, Ava replied.  Is it my blood work?  Is there something wrong?


I'm just the appointments secretary, the woman said.  I don't have that information.  What is your insurance company?

She scheduled for 2 p.m. on Thursday, two days to prepare herself for the labyrinth of grey corridors under the interconnected buildings that sprawled like Mecca, a great wall city above the Minnesota prairie where pilgrims from all over the world presented their diseased bodies for healing.

David sounded irritated when she reached him on his cel-phone.  I'm knee deep in wet cement, he said, fading out.  This connection is bad.  Let me call you back in an hour.

When he rang back she told him she had to return to Mayo on Thursday.  She tried to infuse her voice with sufficient meekness.

This catches me at a bad time, he said.

I can go by myself, she said, apologetic.  I didn't expect you to come.

After a long pause David said, I'll be home tomorrow evening.  Book us on an early flight.  I hope to hell we won't have to waste more than a day.

 


Dr. Lin was unavailable, gone on a three-month sabbatical to Europe with his family, Ava was informed by his appointments secretary.  She had been re-scheduled to see Dr. Laura Esquival.  So as she and David sat in Dr. Esquival's outer office, six floors above the parking lot where she could pick out their rental car's sapphire roof amidst a shimmer of vehicles from Iowa and North Dakota, even Idaho, she thought of how cancer had become the new growth industry, this complex like a theme park where you could wait for hours to climb aboard some fantastic machine.  A young attendant would strap you in, would warn you not to move, would dial the controls, and the apparatus would hum, would slide you forward, surrounded by space music and strobes and the luminosity of your own skin.

Who invented those machines? she wondered.  When she was a child there was little need for cancer technology because no one knew she had cancer.  It was an exotic disease, rare in her circle of acquaintances, someone's grandfather, perhaps, who had smoked unfiltered cigarettes all his life, three packs a day.  Not like now, she thought, an inevitability in the air, in treated tap water or the flesh of apples we've been instructed to eat.

When they were summoned to Dr. Esquival's office, a mid-forty something woman with thick, auburn hair that fell onto her shoulders shook their hands.  She offered them coffee and apologized as she read Ava's files which she had just received that morning.  Ava glanced out the window to her left, onto a different parking lot.  Beyond lay a neighborhood of single-story, brick homes with maple and elm trees nearly defoliated.  She wondered about life along those tranquil streets named Willowbrook and Cedar Glen.  Did the looming presence of the clinic appear in people's dreams like a massive Chernobyl with its vague threat of spillage or radioactive isotopes in the drinking water or neon flashes across the night sky?  Was there a higher incidence of lesions on the dogs?  Did the children seem more listless and irritable than children in nearby towns?  She wondered, as she gazed at the vista where the sky joined the sprawling farms.


And she puzzled over her own involvement in this landscape as she awaited the new doctor's assessment, why she was staring over acres of concrete, worrying about people she had never met, avoiding for as long as she could the impatient foot-tapping of David, her dutiful husband.  Who did live in those homes?  From the sixth floor, she thought, through this large window which faced west, you could see summer storms coming from miles away, gigantic, black, nuclear funnels vacuuming up the countryside, whirling furious toward this fortress of disease.  And the winds, she thought.  How far they must travel across so much emptiness.

When Dr. Esquival spoke, her eyes drifted toward the ceiling, as if the graphs and computer printouts she was interpreting were hidden in the textured plaster, a rune poem or tarot only she could see.  Science is an imperfect process, she told them, of probabilities and analysis, of trial and error, of one patient responding and another not.  These treatments, she was saying as Ava leaned forward, intent on every nuance, are promising, but experimental and not necessarily for everyone.  And Ava was thinking, am I everyone or not everyone?  She was equivocating, this new doctor who avoided their eyes, her voice tentative at each word, her eyes hazel and without recognition of the panic Ava felt in her face and all through her body.

Why is my white blood count so high? Ava asked, interrupting.

Any number of factors, Dr. Esquival said.  Histologic factors, genetic tendencies, your own systemic response.  At your age, hormonal variability also affects your lymphoid organs.  I may sound like high school biology 101, but you have several types of white cells -- phagocytes, which attach to and then devour intruders such as virus, fungus, bacteria.  And your normal lymphocytes, the B and T cells which produce molecular antibodies to eliminate pathogens, but during a chemical or immuno intervention -- well, as I read this data, apparently your body is reacting to the TIL approach recommended by Dr. Lin.  I don't know why.  But I recommend we suspend further trials at this time.

What about the cancer Dr. Lin thought was metasticizing?


We can detect that with testing.  She shuffled the papers into a neat pile and wrapped the manila folder around them.  I would like to draw some blood and bone marrow before we send you home, she said.  As if she were sensing Ava's dismay, she said directly to the both of them that Dr. Lin would advise the same caution at this point.  To do no further harm is preferable to starting you on any other treatment cycle.  We need to determine an optimal approach for you and then proceed.  But I don't believe in gambling with this or that drug until we find what's effective.

I appreciate that, Ava said.  She nudged David lightly on the knee and asked if he had any questions.

Is she better or worse? he asked.

I don't know, the doctor said, shaking her head.  How are you feeling, Mrs. Hall?

Good, in general.  I seem to wear out more easily, but other than the usual aches that come with aging, I haven't been sick in the past month or so.  I would some symptoms or some pain if there were a more serious problem, wouldn't I?

Probably, Dr. Esquival said.  Her eyes searched the ceiling again for several seconds and then she spoke to David and then Ava.  I'm sorry if it appears I'm coming in on the middle of Dr. Lin's work with you, but I do want to assure you these blood results are no cause for immediate concern.  I think if we monitor you closely until we assess your clinical status, weigh our options and then determine the best approach, we'll do you the most good in the long run.  We can do a conference call with Dr. Lin if you feel the need.

No, I don't want to disturb his vacation, Ava said.  If I feel worse, believe me, we'll track him down.  But for now, let's go your route.  It seems sensible to not rush ahead with some other drug.  What do you think, David?

He leaned back in his hair, hooked his hands behind his head and sighed.  Then he snapped his hands down onto his thighs.  I guess, he said.  Too bad we couldn't have done this over the phone.


Ava rose and let the doctor take her hand and shake it, too embarrassed by David to even stammer a thanks or a goodbye.  They rode the elevator in silence down to the lab.  David wandered off to find a coffee machine once she settled into the waiting area.

A dozen or so others, mostly elderly, sat in identical plastic chairs, some tagged with ID numbers at the wrist, two in shapeless, hospital gowns, a husband and wife, a mother and grown daughter perhaps, others alone, all waiting for their names to be announced by a phlebotomist in green fatigues who would lead them along the tiled corridor to an open cubicle and then with no hesitation plunge the narrow gauge of the needle into a blue vein.


 
   

 

 
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