When you can only peck out words a letter at a time with a long metal rod taped to your forehead, you learn to be succinct. Not that I had far to go. Maybe it’s an occupational hazard. I never thought of it like that before. Wonder if OSHA’s got it listed in their manuals—WARNING: the construction of crossword puzzles can be hazardous to the health of your communication skills. I make up for it by thinking conversationally.
Martha probably wouldn’t buy it. She’d say it was the other way around, that I went into writing puzzles because I was such a close-mouthed, evasive bastard to begin with. Wives are like that. They won’t let you blame your shortcomings on anything external. And they don’t understand how your mind works even if you try to describe it. All they know is it’s not like theirs, and that makes it automatically suspect.
You’d think that with Martha being in insurance, she’d be more open to the idea that a lot of what happens in life is unexpected and unexplainable, and that such things can shape your personality, or at least color your outlook for a while. Like how our marriage started—oldest story in the book. I stayed even after she lost the baby, though. That ought to have counted for something. But Martha said it was just my outmoded sense of duty, or maybe laziness or fatalism. She stayed with me, I think, because she couldn’t face getting back into the spin of baiting and dating and waiting. Plus, I do believe she actually loved me.
It’s ironic, but now that I can’t speak any more, I’d like to talk to her about it. And about the puzzles and how they make me filter everything through fragmentary meanings, through puns and synonyms. The synonyms are especially insidious. They lead you to believe one thing is just about as good as the next. You begin by treating words as interchangeable, you end up treating people that way, too. They’re all the same in the dark, a friend of mine was fond of saying. He had a hare-lip and had a hard time getting girls, so he usually ended up with losers. Sometimes he even went with hookers. The dark was his friend in more ways than one.
I only had a hooker once. My father got her for me. On my eighteenth birthday. He drove a delivery truck for Bond bread. That night, he pulled up to the corner where I was milling around with some guys and told me to get in. That meant riding in the back of the truck, because it was one of those old, squat panel jobs with just a stool for the driver up front. She was back there. She’d dumped out God knows how many trays of hamburger buns to make a mattress. I guess even whores have some regard for their working conditions. She was eating a jelly doughnut, and she made me wait ’til she was done. I didn’t argue with her. I was an embarrassed virgin and a polite kid anyway. My father drove us around for two hours. Thank Jesus she was quiet about it. I’ve preferred quiet women ever since. Mostly. And to this day, I’ll only eat a hamburger if it’s served on rye bread.
Martha’s due any minute. Though she has missed a day here and there, and she left early yesterday and the day before that. Or was that last week? I don’t blame her. A deathbed’s a dull place when death comes too slowly.
Lou Gehrig cried when they took him to Yankee Stadium for a fans’ farewell. He was a man of the body, and the withering grip of the sclerosis must have terrified him. An ending before the end. But the brain is an organ, not a muscle, and as a man of the mind, I should be able to handle it better. Theoretically. I am managing, at least, to continue to build my puzzles, interlocking words like some reverse Tower of Babel. I climb steep black staircases and traverse neatly partitioned white hallways, where each step must be precise. Every meaning is distilled from a host of associations, yet it must hint at those associations, too, reverberate with the memory of them, if you will, like a perfume extracted from a rare, bog-born flower or from the sexual glands of a small African cat. Good clues don’t come as easily as they used to. I find myself falling back on fill-in-the-blank song titles or the names of European rivers and ancient cities. The brain’s not a muscle, but it can tire out. It can tremble and refuse to obey. Maybe these bouts of mental indolence are akin to what Gehrig felt when the bat first began seeming heavy and resistant in his hands, when his fingers couldn’t clench the thick leather of his glove quite as carelessly any more.
Never thought I’d go like this, by inches. Never thought about it at all, really. If I’d been pressed, I guess I’d have said I’d go—or that I’d like to go—in media res, especially if the res were the nether regions of some young piece with few inhibitions and only enough sense to make her presentable in mixed company. I always liked a girl who was ready. Big legs are a plus. A pretty, photogenic face, not a beautiful one. Beauty can be like quicksand.
There’s the door now.
Only the nurse, come to take the rod off my head. They don’t like me to overexert myself. What do they think I should be saving my energy for? I’d like to pinch her ass.
A fine, broad ass it is, too. I’d like to give her a good pinch and maybe a swat, as well, just to let her know there’s still a man in here, inside this scarecrow’s body. Couldn’t scare a crow if I tried, though. Couldn’t try. If a crow were to fly in through that window that’s never opened, he’d be free to strut right up my chest, shit on my face if he wanted, perch on top of my head and caw his crow news on all sides. Quoth the raven, Nevermore. But if I used “raven” as a clue, it wouldn’t be so obvious an answer as “crow.” I’d go for “devour” or “despoil,” the “short a” meaning. That’s the thing about clues without modifiers: they can point you in a completely erroneous direction. Context is everything.
Where is Martha? Maybe she meant it after all. I didn’t think she had what it takes. To face down people. I mean, she’s the kind of woman who sends a thank-you note when someone gives her a ride home in a rainstorm or buys her a cup of coffee and a croissant. My remaining friends are few and far between, but even disinterested parties would consider a wife who walked out on her failing husband to be a cold-hearted witch. Failing, there’s another one. Intransitive, as in “losing strength, fading away,” or transitive, as in “disappointing the expectations of trust?” Martha would say I fit the bill, whichever.
But those letters she found are so old. The one fluent outpouring of my life, and look where they’ve landed me. That is, look where I’ve landed if she really has the nerve to go through with leaving me. Christ, what’s the point of marriage if you end up dying alone? Where’s the pay-off for all the dull dinners, the spurned temptations (there were some), the discretion when temptation won out, the compromises on vacation destinations, on living room furniture and movies? In sickness and in health. She meant those stale words. It wasn’t a shotgun wedding in her eyes. It was “meant to be” or some such crap. But one test, and she crumples. One last test, anyway.
“The last straw,” she said yesterday, or the day before, or whenever it was. God, I wish they’d leave the blinds up on that window—then at least I’d be sure of day and night, have some sequence to count. Last time I typed “up,” though, the nurse propped me with four pillows at my back and disappeared for as many hours. Felt like four hours, anyway. Four hours is the tag my mind seized on, the way I sliced that particular afternoon (or morning), like Martha slices thickly iced cakes with a knife dipped in hot water so the pieces come out clean and smooth. Time will never be like that again. A philosopher would say it never was. Not knowing where I lie in the temporal flow, the philosopher might insist, is not the fault of the closed blinds, but is only natural reality asserting itself. Two more good ones: blinds and lie.
I had a friend—not the guy with the hare-lip; this guy was wet-panties good-looking and a real sharp mover, too—this friend, he had a working theory about last straws. He said you could get away with anything with a woman who loved you as long as you didn’t lay on the last straw. Now, this could be different things in different instances. He applied it to practical situations and to his own particular ideas about karma. For example, you could, he said (and did), have it off with another woman as long as you avoided the old in-and-out. (That still leaves a lot of room for some very satisfactory maneuvers.) Or if there were extenuating hardship circumstances, like your wife was out of town or on the rag (he hated seeing blood on his dick). Secrecy was a kind of code of honor with him. He truly believed he was protecting his wife rather than deceiving her. He even told me he chose to suffer rather than hurt her—suffer by denying in silence the attachment he had a few times felt for what at other times he called his “side dishes.” He was a real piece of work, no two ways around it. But it pays to have a point of view. He successfully argued his way out of several dicey scrapes. An artist of sorts—artisan, at the very least.
It was vanity, I suppose, that made me keep the letters. Adrienne’s to me. What was it made me keep mine to her? It had pissed me off at first that she brought them back to me. She could have just thrown them out. Quietly, without the melodrama. But even though I was pissed, I couldn’t destroy them. Especially not after that night I sat and re-read them all, hers and mine. Rented a goddamned hotel room just to do it. It was stupid to keep them. My friend with the code of secrecy would never have done it. They were some kind of proof, I guess—evidence that I could feel deeply and, what’s more, that I could tell it. Get out of this head for once, past the fence of hints and clues and gimmicks. Then, after the accident, it seemed indecent to get rid of them, like burying Adrienne twice.
You wouldn’t believe Adrienne and Martha were sisters, and not just because Adrienne was brunette and Martha blond. Two women couldn’t have been more different. Martha’s serene and pale and open, like the full moon. Adrienne was like a forest. You could get lost in her. You could go to her again and again and never know what you’d find, but it’d always be good. Usually always. God, though, she could make me laugh. The things she said, the quick comebacks, the little, unexpected asides. She even made me laugh out loud once right as I was coming—I can’t remember now what she said—and the laughter convened every inch of me into one long, smooth, rushing sensation, like I was a divining rod jerked down into the sweet promise of water.
I was a good husband to Martha. She never wanted for anything. Got the house she wanted, the two kids, the engraved Mr. and Mrs. Stationery—a picture-perfect Christmas card life. I wonder what got to her worse—Adrienne being her sister or Adrienne being older. Martha never said it in so many words, but I know she thought being 15 years younger than me was some sort of lucky hex against my “roving ways,” as she quaintly put it once during our short engagement.
She had her charms, my Martha, certainly. Still has. One of them being her blandness, her stillness, like a Communion wafer. I could never have lived with Adrienne. It would have been like breathing pure oxygen or staring at the sun. Oh, the tantalizing sting of her! Just to hear her voice slow down and waver on the phone when she was about to shift into sex talk, to see the turn of her wristbone as she reached across our kitchen table for the salt or the way she scooped her thick, dark hair off her neck and pinned it up with the carved tortoise shell clip I brought her from Isla Mujeres.
It frightened me, sometimes, what I felt for Adrienne. It wasn’t an obsession, exactly, nor quite love, nor mere lust. With Adrienne, in snatches as brief and exhilarating as lightning, I was my pure self, and nothing else ever felt as dangerous or as calming. She could be difficult, though—carefree and seductive one day, petulant and challenging the next. She was so strong and direct, yet there was something wounded about her, and the wound seemed basic to her nature, like the little hole some people need to have cut in their throats so they can breathe. I think I staved that wound, but I know I never healed it, and Adrienne both didn’t expect me to and held it against me that I couldn’t.
It started at a parade, of all places. Martha was marching in it, with the girls’ Scout troop. I’d thought they were getting old for that sort of stuff, but Martha was set on instilling a sense of civic duty or stick-to-itiveness or something in them. They’d refused to join the Future Homemakers of America, but Martha had managed to keep them in Scouts. Adrienne was covering the parade for her newspaper. It wasn’t her regular beat; she was doing a favor for a hung-over friend. Normally, she covered petty crimes, fires, high school stabbings, things like that. She was good, too. She could take you inside someone’s head just at the moment when their emotions were the most keen or just at the pinpoint of a realization. She had the sensibilities of a diamond-cutter.
It was a sunny July day, and after most of the parade had gone by, we slipped into the inviting gloom of a nearby bar to cool down with a beer. It was like a cave in there. We sat at a booth of padded leatherette. The other patrons were on stools along the bar, a line of pot-bellied men and women who leaned in close to one another when they spoke, the men occasionally daring to rest their hands across the women’s shoulders. During lulls in conversation, the men stroked the sides of ashtrays and played with their change, and the women took slow sips of their drinks, letting the edges of the wet glasses linger on their lips. It was Adrienne who said it first. That there was a dense air of sexuality in the room. She wasn’t even looking at me when she said it, and she may not have meant it as a signal, but when I put my hand on her thigh under the table, she didn’t push it away. Twenty minutes later we were locked in the bar’s tiny bathroom at the end of a long hall lit by a single orange light bulb in the ceiling. And it kept just as urgent and just as hot between us every time after that, too, for five years running.
There’s the door again. Good thing, too, ’cause my eyes have been falling shut the past few minutes, and sleep’s pressing in like an August fog on Cape Cod. Does that mean it’s night? Can’t be. Martha doesn’t come at night.
I hear her skirt rustling. Taffeta. Maybe it is night, and she’s on her way out to a party. I can smell her perfume. A familiar scent, but not her usual, perhaps one she used to use long ago. Musky. Maybe one Adrienne gave her. Adrienne was always giving Martha perfumes she had concocted herself from essential oils.
I hope Martha puts the writing rod back on me. I’ve got to make her understand. Come up with a word or two or three. Important and necessary. Essential. They were both essential to me. I’m not a man who can be wholehearted, but that doesn’t mean I’m heartless.
Why hasn’t she spoken? I’ll have to force my eyes open so she doesn’t think I’m asleep.
That meddling nurse must have slipped in while I was dozing and dimmed the overhead lights. Martha’s standing in a grove of shadows. Makes her hair look as dark as moss. Ah, better. She’s moving closer, her hand outstretched. She’s trying to forgive me. Take me back. That’s what I’ll type when she gets me my rod: take me.
She’s bending over me so slowly, it would be erotic if I weren’t so weak. Her face is entering the little zone of light from the night lamp at the top of the bed. Musk and taffeta. Glints. Glints. Dark brown eyes. The sheen of a smooth wave of brown hair. A tortoise shell clip.