After a long silence—during which we pulled our troops from Vietnam, the dreary events of September 11th precipitated the collapse of Iran, and the Quixotic landed safely upon the red face of a distant planet—I was surprised to hear from an old, dear, absent friend. How he got my email address was a mystery, but within the muddled starch of cyberspace he found me, and on through some luck quirk in my anti-spam software did he end up in my inbox, as his email address was not among my approved contacts.
With only a bottle of wine, Michael had long been the perfect entertainment—a lively raconteur, a great wit, always the last to leave a table. It was therefore all the more surprising to read his recent emails. As one might expect, he dispensed quickly with the formalities of our reunion and attempted to resume in its place that spirited, sprawling conversation begun many years earlier, which both of us had considered one of the great joys of our shared life. Our new conversation, however, was a little one-sided, and not on my part—he was rambling at times, heavy on nostalgia, tending toward the morose, even coming precipitously close to the cliffs of despair. He wrote that he felt trapped. He was not in the place he had hoped to be. Life was so full of odd twists and turns, he half-wished it all to be over, etc. I could understand these sentiments to some extent, old as I was. At times, sitting with my wife at the oak table in our warm kitchen far out in the Vermont woods, we found ourselves—almost against our will, and always delicately—discussing time’s cruelties, until, without warning, sorrow crept into the corners of our eyes, and one or the other of us would suggest some new distraction, a cup of tea or a game of Scrabble—or what’s better (and with a wink) a rusty romp between the sheets. But above all, this cannot be underestimated: we—that is to say, my wife and I—had each other, whereas my friend was alone, had no one, was utterly alone.
I found that his messages, while scattered and often hysterical, still managed even at their worst to reveal glimpses of that singular distinction that existed between him and other men, that is, his tendency to be the first to plunge headlong into the bracing waters of life, his active search for fruit at its ripe sweet prime, his encyclopedic knowledge of historic wars, his refined musical sensibilities, and that enviable, elusive capacity of his to place on his head any given hat—be it a beret or a bearskin—without looking ridiculous as another man might (me, for instance), but on the contrary, to bring to an otherwise absurd cap the dignity and romance its makers dreamed for it during the designing stage—in a word, his prepossession of more of the stuff of life than was found in more ordinary men. Take, for instance, this little bit of claret in a clear glass, which I abridge from a longer, cloudier message:
… wine, and music, and dancing—nothing the good old Greeks did not have in their time, Jack, though with a few modern thrills. I’m thinking of a double roll over the San Juan Islands in a little two-seater Cessna and the force of gravity on my chest, or the trill of my favorite sportscar. I know “trill” is a word of sound, but I tell you, Jack, I tell you now: I felt it—the trill of the motor communicated to the leather steering wheel and onto my gloved hands as I made the speedometer of that dorable red bullet climb to a hundred and five in the deserted Utah desert. The list, alas, goes on. The run of the razor down my lathered cheek … that unquenchable hollow between V.’s shoulder blade and collarbone …
- for Vanessa, my friend’s devoted, beautiful, oft-betrayed wife. Within the hour, I had another message from him, which contained this small lucidity:
Once, as I walked down Barrow Street in the West Village in early fall, not long after having published my first collection, I remember with such clarity the effect, both sweet and melancholy at once, of a sudden uprush in that neighborhood of an autumnal ambiance that seemed to seize the air, the street, the streets, my soul, and turn all of us for the length of a strong cool breeze into the very essence, the concentrate dose of a changing season. I was just about to climb the stairs leading to the brownstone of some friends of mine who were hosting an afternoon party in my honor, when I happened to glance right and catch the imprint of a copper-and-honey-hued leaf turning on the white belly of a cement truck doing some work on the other side of the street. As the belly turned, so did the leaf, and my anticipation was to find it coming around again in no time, when, quite unexpectedly, as if color and shape could simply peel themselves at will off the face of reality, the leaf detached itself from the truck and floated down near my feet, no bigger than the palm of my hand. The momentary transposition that had tricked me into mistaking a leaf for a logo was a miracle of distance and perspective that I am sure I never encountered again in life, and will never … never again … this goddamn jar!
Startling iridescence! Enviable sensuousness! Even in his addled state, still capable of conjuring the life I longed for for my poems. But the brute fact of the matter remained. On the occasion of his first email to me, by all accounts, he had been dead for over forty years.
Hospitals were wretched then; I remember he was allowed to smoke in bed.. Leukemia aided by Lucky Strikes. Vanessa never left his side. He had a constant craving for ice. One of the nurses called him Shakespeare. “Please,” he replied. “Rimbaud will do just fine.” His major complaint was with the number of times he had to witness the raising and the lowering of the blinds. This activity was as crude as day marks on a prison wall, and the cumulative effect, he claimed, made him drearier than the drugs. He also pointed out the unfortunate in compatibility between hospitals and zoos, and even more regrettably, hospitals and steppes, for he had a lusty urge to see a live lion again before dying. He introduced new visitors to his death bed by encouraging them to give a good push on all its mortal coils. He coughed like a Soviet miner and read Yeats aloud to the television as the casualty numbers mounted. Once, on an unplanned visit, I found him kicking a soccer ball around the hallways with a bald girl of ten during a shift change at the nurse’s station. He died a month later. His final words were an exhortation to his wife: “Ride more horses, darling.”
A few days prior to this instruction, I arrived for a visit bearing fresh figs, a favorite of his. Just before entering I sensed something amiss. He and Vanessa were arguing. He had lost much of the strength of his voice by then; from my vantage outside the room, it was like eavesdropping on a phone conversation. Vanessa would speak heatedly, a pause would ensure during which I might hear a mumble or two, she would rejoin with even greater passion. Whatever the matter, it was clear. He was pro, she contra.
“But it’s stupid, Michael!” she cried. “Just stupid. And vain. And gruesome! I won’t do it.” There followed some soft pronouncement. “Slight possibility? A slight possibility? Michael, come on. There is nil—none!” Pause. “Don’t you see, you idiot? I want to throw your ashes to the sea. Only the ocean can contain you!” Pause, sobs. “Oh, I will be melodramatic, I will. When if not now?”
I knocked. I sensed immediately my bad timing. “Should I come back later?” I asked.
I had to move into the room to hear him, poor fellow. “No, no, Jack, come in,” he said. Vanessa had retreated to the window, where she stood with her hands touching her face. “Just a little …” Here he paused to think of the right term. “…a little pre-mortem disagreement between Ness and I. What one might call the death rattle, eh, Jack?” His head was back on a big mound of pillows and he wore a full-length white tunic which obscured his withering thinness, though it looked appropriately biblical. “Oh, so good to see you,” he said to me, taking my hand—not to shake it, but to hug it with his own. He was one for tender greetings among old friends. “Figs, wonderful. Put them by the geraniums. You’re just in time. We are about to prepare the evening’s first round of contraband martinis. Ness?”
She remained at the window. When she withdrew a moment later, she turned and smiled at me. One might have confused her bravery for cold-bloodedness. “Yes,” she said. “Cocktails.” She approached; lightly we kissed each other’s cheeks. “I even remembered to bring olives this time,” she said, for the last time I was with them, she had forgotten the olives, and he had been unkind to remark that she had deprived him of one of the three or four last olives of his life. “Jack,” she added, removing the liquor bottles from a tote bag. “Will you get the door for me please?”
On the day he died, I dismissed my students in the middle of a disquisition on a favorite Dickinson poem (“I cannot live with You—It would be Life—and Life is over there—Behind the Shelf”) and rushed to the hospital. I never reached the room. Vanessa had wandered into the waiting area just outside the main corridor. There she sat, incapacitated by grief, in an unused wheelchair.
“He told me to ride more horses,” she said absently.
“Oh, Nessa,” I said. I got to my knees and embraced her.
We sat in that florescent foyer with the fake plant and the fire extinguisher until late in the evening. We made a religion of him. We compared his chest to a mountain. We recalled his wrestling match with Picasso, when he was twenty and the painter seventy-three. He took no mercy and pinned the older man in four moves and wouldn’t let him up until Picasso agree to make him an honorary illegitimate son. Sangria, red-blood horizon—I said the Riviera would be buried with him.
“No,” she said. “No burial. No viewing. Nothing.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “A ceremony, at least.”
“Oh, of course a ceremony,” she replied. “He wants three days of bonfire with all those annoying gypsies. But no burial.”
Vanessa went distant again. Her eyes were cold and vacant as stars. “Could I stand by/And see You — freeze,” she recited, “Without my Right of Frost — Death’s Privilege?”
“How odd,” I remarked. “How very odd.” I was truly startled. “I was teaching that very poem, Vanessa, this afternoon.”
She looked down on me in her wheelchair. “The insane bastard’s having his head chopped off and mailed to quacks in New Mexico,” she said.
The arrival of a dead man’s emails came at a bad time for me; they coincided with my wife’s final illness. I could think about nothing but her—sadly, we had no children—and the frosty Vermont winters without her body in my bed. The prospect was terrifying. Watching her grow steadily worse was no different than having my veins, those corridors of red hot blood, drained, and all the fire with them, leaving me chill and white and naked, wandering lost through snowy woods calling her name until the wind buried me under an embankment. The dull cause was cancer. She smiled famely from her sick bed. Every Thursday we drove to Boston; every weekend she got weaker. What did I want more than anything? To sit forever in our chairs warming our feet by the fire. To walk into the kitchen carrying firewood and find the old delicate beauty bent over a hearty, rustic, gently boiling stew, tentatively bringing her lips to the wooden spoon’s shallow pond of fire. I wanted fifteen more years, fifty, five hundred.
Meanwhile, my friend’s emails arrived, sometimes as many as a hundred a day, and he made it clear by them that he had not yet recovered from his own loss. It is not for me to speculate on the sincerity of the retrospective ardor a faithless lover attaches to that which he can no longer possess, no matter the degree of his indifference during a happier time. Death, it seems, concludes memory’s accuracy. My friend’s rehabilitated passion for long-suffering Vanessa might have smacked of sour grapes, but as I was soon to learn, grief is a ghost that haunts each of us in our individual way, and I did not feel up to the task just then of chastising poetic fancy with cold historic fact.
I recall in my last days [he wrote] watching the nightly news. They were interviewing a soldier wounded in that worthless war. All limbs torn from his body. (Lucky man, who could still feel the sun on his back!) Vanessa entered. She took my hand in hers—her hand held mine—our hands grasped our hands. “Which one of us is dying?” she asked. Her confusion, Jack, was perfectly sincere. She did not know. And for the moment, I was as confused. It must be her, I thought—at least, I would have had it that way had it been up to me. Sound cruel? On the contrary. Our love was such that the one left behind would suffer the greater death.
Because I had to care constantly for my wife, I never stayed at my computer for long. I did not trouble her with the strange and unexpected emails I had been receiving, in part because I myself couldn’t make heads or tails of them. Was it all an elaborate hoax? Was the intense emotion flooding through me as I witnessed the inexorable depletion of the one I loved most causing me to hallucinate? Was I dying?
I went upstairs and entered her room. Now that we were into the summer months, I was occasionally surprised to find her bed empty. She was a dedicated outdoorswoman, and despite her weakness, in defiance of dying, and against all my requests that she reserve her strength, she summoned the will to spend at least a few hours every day outside in the fresh air.
On my way back down the stairs I crossed paths with Nancy, the hospice nurse. A robust and stoic Asian with a root system of chin whiskers, Nancy thundered up and down the stairs, read the Romantics aloud to my wife in a Mandarin accent, and did knee bends in the kitchen.
“Nancy,” I said. “Mrs. Turner isn’t in her room.”
“Mrs. Turner go out. She tell me tell you don’t worry.”
I gripped the banister and looked past Nancy through the window. To the right of the driveway—a graveled path bordered by trees on both sides—sat the barn. The driveway stretched a half-mile to the main road. I saw no sign of my wife. “I wish there was some way we could keep her inside, Nancy. She’s just not strong enough to be out there.”
“You’re wife have mind of her own, Mr. Jack.”
It was true. I nodded solemnly before proceeding down the stairs. Another email awaited me, of course—this one, if possible, even more berserk and self-pitying than the others. All together they were beginning to make me feel distinctly uncomfortable—coming, as there were, from a dead man.
In my current state, Jack, you cannot imagine the torment I suffer. My memory rages. It perfectly burns. The day before death, she lifted her skirt. Bent at one knee, she slid her panties with the aid of a thumb down her honeyed heron legs. Black lace filled her feet. With one foot and then the other she stepped free and approached the bed. She got on top and walked on her knees along both sides of me, skirt hitched, until I could reach out and cut the half-moon of her in my hands. I pulled her near. She put her hands on the wall. I gazed up. Her lovely white throat was stretched to heaven. I held her in my mouth, the brackish wet and human fume that is both shock and calm, revolt and hunger, life and love. Then I wept into her childless womb. But who, what am I now? who can neither cup, nor lick, nor cry—
I set aside his sad memory momentarily; I thought I heard my wife coming in from outside. I returned up the stairs to her room.
“Oh, sorry, love,” I said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
She opened her eyes. “No,” she said. “Come in.”
She had already changed out of her outdoor gear and into the pallid nightgown she wore when she took to bed. Once again she had exhausted herself and had collapsed without getting underneath the sheets. She lay curled up in a ball. “Look at you,” I said, sitting down next to her and removing something—part of a leaf, perhaps—caught in her darkly silver hair. She smiled at me. “You’ve tired yourself out again.” I took her hand. “I really wish I could convince you to stay in bed. You don’t have the strength, darling, you just don’t have…” My eyes shut. “Oh,” I said. Tears hot as coals, my feverish hand clutching at my face, I shook my bowed head helplessly. My soul shattered as a Sevres inside me. I fell to her chest, weeping like a child. The poor thing had close her eyes again and fallen into a swoon.
Without words, then, I collected myself, moved off the side of the bed and, unsure of myself at first, almost left the room. But that was not my intention, nor my desire, and soon I found myself at the foot of her bed. Delicately I climbed up on my hands and knees. Her eyes opened as the mattress shifted and the bed springs moaned. She peered down the bed at me. With all heaven’s tenderness I turn her to lay on her back and inched apart her legs. I waited to read her body’s reaction; it told me without any hesitation that she was strong enough for me to continue and so I bent down between those two old bookmarks—her thighs—that held my only Bible—and I prayed—I spoke in tongues—I was filled with the Light and the Word. She bit the tip of her index finger between her delicate teeth and shut her eyes in ecstatic abandon.
That afternoon, while she dozed, I composed my most famous poem, “Brackish Wet.”
I replied to him at last. I was terrified. I asked him to forgive my silence and understand my suspicions. My wife was dying. Was I conjuring his voice at a time of desperately needed comfort? Or was the whole thing hoax? He sent me inimitable indications of his authentic identity. The story of his real parents I found plausible, even unimpeachable. I told him that Vanessa had remarried, had changed her name and had died in a car accident 1997—she was driving one of his beloved Aston Martins—I did not hear from him for two days. An uncharacteristic silence. I know you wrote back with a single inquiry: did she follow his chosen path to the grave? Vanessa and I had a falling out, I was afraid, though I told him I had read a news report that said she was buried in Rome. The Italian Prime Minister was in attendance; he was rumored to have been her lover.
After that, good God! Despair, torrents of despair. One morning I woke up and turned on my computer to find over three hundred unread messages waiting for me in my inbox. My available storage was cut in half overnight. He wavered between his rage at Vanessa’s betrayal (“She promised, the bitch—on my deathbed!—to make the leap with me.”) and the hopelessness of the life now confronting him (“It’s no life, Jack, it’s damned eternity. Without her, Hell—you know the poem.”). I said I wasn’t sure Vanessa deserved to be called a bitch; he said quite right, she deserved worse, much worse. I tried to comfort him; he was inconsolable. I told him I was terribly busy tending to my wife. He acquired Instant Messaging capabilities. He sent me faxes. I demanded he stop haunting me. He refused. I was forced to pay him a visit.
I left instructions with Nancy to do everything in her power to keep my declining wife indoors while I was away. Over the summer months she had weakened considerably from her exertions, and yet it seemed nothing could prevent her from taking in all the fresh air while her day’s allotment of energy lasted. I beseeched her myself before leaving and got a faint reply.
“I’ll try,” she promised. “I’m just afraid, you know, this may be my last summer.”
“Nonsense,” I said, and nearly broke down. She touched my cheek and said something I couldn’t quite comprehend. I was distraught, and there were occasions a fever made her delirious.
I took the first available flight out of Boston. I left additional instructions for Nancy to keep me apprised of my wife’s condition every hour, but never to give my cell phone number to anyone. To be entirely safe, I suggested that if Caller ID indicated an incoming call from anyone but me, she simply not pick up the phone. Certainly she should refuse any knock at the door. Before leaving, I unplugged my computer and fax machine; not feeling that was sufficient, I carried both out into the garage and hid them behind some lawn-care implements.
I drove away from Albuquerque airport in a rented Ford Bold that reeked of pine needles, except on the one or two occasions I was overcome by an assault of stale tobacco. I prayed to god that dead men did not communicate with carburetors, and during the drive kept eyeing the radio warily. I drove south on Interstate 25 before cutting east on a dusty two-lane highway. Just before reaching the Valley of Fires, I reversed course and headed north. The road leading to the facility was a pristine smooth blacktop affair that agreed with my bald tires and bad shocks.
I came upon the desert fortress and was made to stop at an electrified gate. There the guard asked for identification. I gave him the name of the man I was meeting with and the hour of our appointment. He checked the validity of that information on his clipboard, returned my license to me and launched into elaborate parking instructions. Then the gate moved back of its own accord, he waved me through, and I inched forward at the posted speed toward the farrago of hope and human folly, housed in a Pentagon double.
Funeral home couch, Tomorrow magazine and a short wait were succeeded by handshakes, key cards and white corridors. Dr. Havemeyer, in lab coat and necktie, was my guide. He was an amiable, vigorous man, gray-haired and tan, head of the scientific end of things, so happy to find me at last. I have always been slightly suspicious of men who appear to spend two weeks of every year golfing the greens in heaven, so fit and happy are they. But he soon won me over with words of admiration for my poetry. I had mistaken him for a man for whom a serious life meant nothing but beakers and Blavatsky. “You read poetry,” I remarked.
He smiled. “Of course. There’s more to life than just extending life, you know,” he said, winking at me manfully.
We toured the place. With great pride he showed me the laboratories, the elaborate mainframes, the cryogenic vaults. The latter a visitor could view only through a reinforced casement a bullet-proof glass, and due to that limited perspective I saw only the astonishing breadth of the storage facility wherein dwelt the “Hospitality Cores.”
“I find it astounding,” said Dr. Havemeyer,” astounding and absolutely thrilling, that he found you. I had no idea that someone could prove to master the interface so effectively. You say he even sent you faxes?”
“Yes, well,” I said, “he was always a very headstrong man.”
“Since our success at bringing him online,” he assured me, “we have of course been actively engaged in a search for his next of kin.” We had reached the middle of an endless white corridor, which was lined on both sides by numbered doors. Dr. Havemeyer and I stood outside Room 640 as he withdrew his keycard. He paused before opening the door to finish his thought. “Be we found no trace of his wife, and the only other name we had on file was yours. And despite your reputation, we couldn’t seem to find you.”
“His wife is deceased,” I replied. “And I am not listed. Few people come looking for old poets, Dr. Havemeyer, but those who do are pure fanatics.”
“Well, I’m just happy you made it,” he concluded. “Ready to be reintroduced?”
With that, he swiped his keycard, and we entered.
The room, brightly floresced, windowless, and refrigerated almost to the point of discomfort, hummed with the imperturbable health of automatic cooling systems. A table of brushed nickel was pushed against the far wall. On the table sat a sleek, high-end, high-speed notebook computer. To the left of that, a metal device whose base was bolted to the table rose two feet or so into the air. The device provided the structural support, clamps and so-forth, necessary to hold fast a cylindrical glass tube, vacuum-full of transparent liquid. O-rings within the tube—the custom container was blown from a single piece of glass—allowed it to suspend with the liquid the unmistakable, the grotesque, the miracle of earthly life: an exposed human brain. His human brain.
Dr. Havemeyer, when I turned to him, smiled. “Please,” he said, and gestured me further into the room. “Have a seat.” The room’s only chair sat directly in front of the computer; he pulled it out for me. “Talk to him.”
“Talk to him?”
“Yes, he’s all hooked up,” the doctor assured me. “All you need to do is type.”
I looked down at the computer. The screen was blank. The cursor blinked steadily.
I sat. I glanced over at the dead man’s brain; it was indeed penetrated here and there—at what I assumed were strategic locations—with probes attached to wires which exited the glass tube at the back and terminated at a number of ports alongside the laptop. I turned back to Dr. Havemeyer.
“I’ll wait outside,” he said.
After the door closed I set my hands upon the keyboard. I had only one thing to ask him—well, countless things, really. And in time I would get to them. But for a moment, I could think only of my wife—her ravaged organs, her irradiated skin—wasting in the Vermont woods. I dispensed with pleasantries and commenced to beg him.
<Jack here> I wrote. <Tell me, you must tell me at once. What awaits after death? Anything?>
<Jack?> he replied. <Jack, old boy, have you come for me?>
<Please, Michael. My wife is dying. What awaits?>
There was … I suppose it could be called a silence. And then: <Emptiness. Darkness. Nothing.> A moment later: <Sorry, old boy.> And a moment after that: <Jack? Jack? Jack, old boy! Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack Jack!>
That single word scrolled on and on, until at last I broke my silence.
We spoke then of less consequential matters. I asked why he had chose to have only his brain frozen; he replied that at the time, the nitwits running the show believed better results were likely if the complications of the body were dispensed with; no one was aware of how rapidly technology would improve. Besides, he was a poet. He believed all he needed were the words in his head. Now he knew his mistake. He spoke achingly of the physical world. He longed for the wind. The memory of a kiss tortured him.
Yet all that would be no torment at all if his wife were alongside him. It was just like him to ignore someone else’s deep suffering and concentrate on his own specious, superior grief. He went on very poetically about it, how at the very least he might have enfolded Vanessa with fissures, and she pass her vagus over his meneges, and other technical procedures I couldn’t follow. He had gained an intimate and exhaustive knowledge of the brain’s anatomy.
<Why?> he asked. <Why did she not stick to her promise?>
I called for Dr. Havemeyer. “I’ll be taking him home now,” I said.
Technicians in white uniforms sealed the contraption—glass tube and metal casing—in Styrofoam packaging for safe transport and carried it out to my car. They buckled him into the backseat just as if her were a child, and they placed the laptop on the passenger seat in case I needed to communicate with him.
“What’s this running me?” I asked.
“Prepaid,” replied the doctor.
It was a nifty machine to be handed gratis—certainly better than the one I had at home. “And he’ll keep?” I asked.
“Oh, there’s enough dry ice in there to last for days,” said Dr. Havemeyer. “You could practically drive home.”
Then he proceeded to give me strict instructions. I was told never to expose him for any length of time to such-and-such a temperature. I listened attentively, then asked the doctor if he had any general literature; having toured the place, my curiosity was piqued. He came back out with a stack of booklets, a DVD, and a business card with his private number where I could reach him with any questions. I thanked him and we shook hands. Just before stepping into the car, I wished him the best of luck on god’s back nine. He smiled and nodded at this queer remark, as if it made all the sense in the world.
I drove off with my old friend at my side. His relief that I had arrived to take him away quickly evaporated into a familiar discontent. Wine, and music, and dancing—all that the Greeks had enjoyed now lost to him; his Nessa dead; a great betrayal heavy on his phantom heart. He was surly and uncommunicative. I suggested that is his situation was so dire, I toss him out the window like a ripe melon. No response. <Are you familiar with the abbreviation “LOL”?> I asked. He replied that he was not a teenager and could we please have a little silence, I was giving him a headache. I bent down the lid of the notebook.
My worst fears were confirmed when I called home and Nancy informed me that my wife was out of bed again. I chastised her, threatened to have her replaced, called her names I later regretted—and then the phone rustled and my wife came on. “Jack,” she said. “Don’t be hard on Nancy, Jack, you won’t believe how I’m feeling today.” She claimed to have an outrageous appetite, no nausea, perfect clarity of mind, and more energy than she could recall having as a healthy woman. I was wary. “No, Jack, you have to believe it, though I can hardly believe it myself. And I can’t explain it, it happened so suddenly, but I haven’t felt this good in weeks.” I had to admit to a certain spark, and undeniable change in the strength of her voice. And it was good to hear her call me by my name again.
I spoke with Nancy one last time to confirm the change and apologized for my rude behavior. She repeated much of what my wife said, and together they convinced me of the upturn. When I hung up, my heart burst with hope.
I opened the notebook. <I’ve made a decision. My wife is feeling better. I’m taking you on a little scenic detour.>
<Don’t be insane. Scenic detours are dead to me.>
<Stop acting like an infant> I Scolded him. <I will describe everything and you can live again through me.>
He made some rather disparaging remarks comparing his delicate, exquisitely tuned apprehension of the world to my crude, binary, black-and-white once. I refrained from reprisals and pursued my plan.
I had not packed for anything like the dry heart of the Southwest, so in Amarille I stopped at a T.J.Maxx for a pair of shorts. Soon we were kicking up the dust of an abandoned Texas back road and I was typing out the dry scene for him—fields of dun-colored brush, a tricorn cactus. He persisted in his stubbornness. But when we reached the spot between Abilene and San Antonio where our ceremony of bonfires had commemorated his life, he began to perk up. He wanted the names of all those who attended, a description of activities and titles of poems read, a compendium of drugs taken and the number of tears shed. We stopped for the night in Shreveport. I called my wife again to see if her turn for the better had held; she practically sang in my ear. In the morning I called Dr. Havemeyer and engaged him on several topics I’d found interest in my previous night’s reading. He answered all my questions expertly and with enthusiasm. When our conversation concluded and I checked out, Michael complained of being unplugged from the computer for so long; intrigued, I wondered if that was now what passed for pain in his world. In all caps, he wondered how I would feel if I had to spend eight hours as a deaf mute. I apologized. I asked him what he thought I should have for breakfast.
<Are you torturing me?> he asked.
On the contrary, I was trying to engage him the only way I knew how. Omelet or French toast? Pancakes or eggs Benedict? Reluctantly he admitted that if it were up to him—if they were his elbows on the crumb-specked table, if his hands held the greasy menu—he would order it all. And so that’s what I did. When I returned to the car full-to-bursting, I described everything to him—the soggy pancakes, the crisp bacon, the burnt coffee. <How I loved hating a bad cup of coffee> he remarked. I drove north for a stretch, stopping once to transfer him to the other side of the back seat when he complained of excessive jostling, or maybe the heat. I indulged us in a winding road that took us past a gorgeous archipelago of Arkansas lakes. I tried the drive with the windows down and found it was more enjoyable than the artificially cooled air; there was the sultry pleasure of the wind and the smell of southern trees—I described it all. <Sap on bark! Is that what you’re smelling, Jack, sap on bark?> In Macon, I felt obliged to stop in on an old queer cousin of mine; he and I drank mint juleps on his verandah while he cooled himself with a Japanese fan and blotted his fat red cheeks with a scrap of peau de soie. <Fresh mint sprigs, Jack?> Michael asked when I returned. <And real Kentucky Bourbon? Oh, quenching a thirst! Is there any greater pleasure? You know the longtime rumor about the julep, Jack? The Civil War began not over slavery but when a Yankee came south and put nutmeg in the gentleman’s julep. Remember the time I stood on the rooftop of the New Orleans hotel, where Tennessee Williams finished “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and waved the Israeli flag while singing “Ne Me Quittez Pas?” Why did I do that, Jack? Because of the wind! Because of the gin! Because I was alive!> We crossed the Mississippi; he begged me to skip a stone. <Hold it in your hand, Jack—a smooth, sun-baked stone. Bob it. Feel your fingers stretch along its curves. And then, brother, whip it across the water and watch it skip!> I did as he requested and told him all about it when I returned, but not before I was waylaid by some hippies having a barbeque who invited me to join them. I stopped another night, this time at a rather sketchy motel just outside of Savannah; before turning in for the evening I transferred the computer to the trunk for safekeeping. He wasn’t happy about this; I tried to explain the circumstances. <You can see actual whores?> <Yes.> <Where?><This motel is a duplex. They’re hanging off the banister on the on the second floor.> <I would give my entire limbic system to see a whore SMACK DOWN again, Jaaack.> <To see a whore smack down—what does that mean?> <Go ahead, put me in the goddamn trunk.>
I slept well but not long. In the morning before I departed the sun was already up and working; I told the unhappy, overweight waitress that in Vermont, we were already seeing the leaves change and the cool crisp nights of autumn that many of us there lived for. She explained the inconsistency as she refilled my coffee. “Global warmin’, darlin’. It’s ‘bout to send all us to hell. More creamer?” Back in the car, the Bold’s cheap sedan seats singed what sparse hair remained on the underside of my old thighs, and an instant perspiration beaded my brow. I laid my handkerchief under my legs, but it still took me till Coosawhatchie to feel comfortable again. I reported every detail to him, and I think it made him happy.
<Smack down! Epithalamion in encephalon: thou art reprieved. Smack down, smack down, smack down >
<She really said “‘bout to, more creamer?” Beautifulidiom, American. SMACk dowN>
<Why do you keep saying “smack down,” Michael?>
<Are we—SmacK DOWnn. Righttttttttttt””—almost there, Jaaaaaaaaa?>
I drove up the Eastern Seaboard. I have never understood the appeal of North Carolina, except the Outer Banks. I got stuck in the goddamned gridlock that infects the Beltway, and in the evening Travis, my long-suffering agent, invited me to Gotham for dinner to discuss my chances of winning a notable prize. <Let me describe an unbelievable dinner for you> I said just before pulling out of the Plaza. I had hardly slept a wink. Things had cooled off considerably by the time I reached New England. A detour into New Hampshire even forced me to put the heat on. I was on the phone with Dr. Havemeyer again when I crossed over the Vermont border and things were looking good, things were looking very good, when, without warning, the weather turned. Only then did I receive an incoming call from Nancy.
At first I mistook it for pollen adrift in the wind. I had to think back on the canny remark of my southern waitress to make any sense of it. How else could someone move from hundred-degree heat to snow in three days? I had picked up the pace considerably and was now gunning the old Bold’s engine. How stupid and selfish of me to drive!
Nancy had gone to my wife’s room with breakfast and found the bed empty. It was still empty at lunchtime. She began to search senselessly about the house. When she didn’t find her there she circled the house three times and walked the half-mile gravel path to the main road. No sign of her.
“Sorry, Mr. Jack, but she not here. I look. I look everywhere.”
“She may be feeling better, Nancy, but I don’t think she feels up to a snowstorm just yet, do you?”
“No, she tell me tell you everything okay, but everything not okay, Mr. Jack. You wife sick, she sick.”
“You were lying to me?”
“She tell me tell you, but she not okay. Last night she took turn for worse. Now she not here.”
“What do you mean she took a turn for the worse? Nancy? Hello? Nancy?”
My damned cell phone had dropped the call. I tried her back. Fast busy signal. I tried her again—nothing. The conditions on the road grew worse, and as I got nearer the house I was forced to slow down to keep the car from slipping and sliding on the wet pavement. The snow was coming down now at a surprising pace; even by Vermont standards this was a freak storm. Perhaps oddest of all, to both sides of the two-lane road where the dense forest began, the snow had begun to stick.
<Ja-Ja-Ja-Ja not feeling so. Hot-t-t-t-t-t-t. Donne if you don’t turn down the fire of these inflaming eyes or of this loving heaaaaaaaart.>
<Can’t type. Must drive.>
<Goddamn it Jack feeling cold!!! Got shakes, spear in brain. Feeling very Hot! Mistrust I nothing like the sunnnnnnn>
I was over half an hour from home, twenty minutes, ten, trying Nancy over and over, always to no avail, and growing more and more anxious. My wipers blinked furiously back and forth; the snow fluttered in the eddies clouding my vision. When I was but three miles from home, something off to the side of the road caught my eye. It came out of nowhere and just as quickly disappeared again, lost in the haze behind me. It took some patience to slow the car down on the slick road. I pulled over to the shoulder. I looked in the rearview mirror by saw nothing.
I took up the laptop in the passenger seat and placed it on my lap.
<Listen, old friend. You and I both know this is no life for you. Still, I’m sorry to be the one to do this to you. Hope you enjoyed the past couple of days.>
<Jaaaaaa no shut Gaze down! Life life! Life life! Jaaaaaaaaa—
I closed the lid of the laptop and placed it in the backseat. Just to be sure, I unplugged all the ports. Then I blasted the heat and stepped out of the car. I heard the wind, nothing but the wind, until—what sounded like a distant clopping. I listened. It grew closer—clop-clop, clop-clop—until at last she emerged out of the battering, blinding snow: my wife on top of a horse.
She was thrown forward in nothing but her white nightgown, gripping the animals sinewy neck. She shivered in the cold, her teeth chattered, her face was drained of color. I carefully pried her bloodless hands from the horse’s withers and carried her in my arms to the car.
“Yes,” she said, “let them chop it off then, if that’s what you want. Anything to be with you, and I’m so tired of arguing, Michael, so tired.”
“It’s Jack, darling,” I whispered to her. “It’s your Jack.”
“I will ride them. I will ride them day and night. I will ride them until the day I die.”
When we arrived home I carried her up the stairs, hollering for Nancy. I laid her down on the bed but didn’t bother with the covers.
“It won’t hurt, will it, Michael, when they chop it off? I’ll be dead then, won’t I?”
Nancy pounded up the stairs. I instructed her to collect—I did not know how—as much snow as she could from outside and bring it to me at once. She looked at me as if I were insane. “Go!” I cried.
I turned back to my wife. “I have wonderful news, Ness. They don’t chop it off anymore. They keep it all intact. There’s no reason to be afraid.”
“And then we will be together, is that right? You and I forever? There’s some chance, isn’t there? It would be life—”
“It would be,” I said. “It will be, yes.”
She had lost consciousness. Using the home telephone, I dialed Dr. Havemeyer and instructed him to send a Readiness Team. Nancy reappeared carrying a mop basic. I took it and, by the handful, began to pack my dying love in the fresh fallen snow.
Joshua Ferris is the bestselling author of three novels, Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. He was a finalist for the National Book Award, winner of the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, and was named one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40”writers in 2010. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, and Best American Short Stories. He lives in New York.