Many years ago I fancied myself a budding author of fiction. I wrote a few novels, some finished and some half-finished. While I know now that I’m no novelist, and I know that my fiction writing is not the best, I do want to share it. So every Friday I will be sharing a chapter from this novel I wrote called View from the Pepper Tree.
View from the Pepper Tree
Leda arrives at the hospital to find Diane in the waiting room, a sanitary-smelling box of bland wallpaper and ugly floral arrangements, the television blaring CNN’s coverage of the latest explosion in the world’s newest unstable country. Diane is sitting, seemingly calmly, then she turns, her face a mottled mess of red and tears sliding down her round apple cheeks. She stands when she sees her mother, who knows that her husband has had a stroke but doesn’t really know; she hasn’t seen him yet, the droop of his lip, the gray hue of his skin that grows more overcast in the face, the lifelessness in his eyes, usually full of sparkly mischief. Diane embraces her mother, Leda who is still relatively innocent of the day’s events, Leda who has no idea this is the beginning of the end, Leda who rubs Dianes back with her age-spotted hands, hoping to stanch the tears that are flowing into the collar of her silk shirt, the one she bought at Macy’s.
A doctor interrupts the reunion, knowing that Leda must be The Wife, the widow-to-be, the woman who must now face her husband, a gravely ill man without a chance. Diane lifts her head in embarrassment, as if a child caught doing something naughty, when the doctor approaches, his glossy-black shoes clacking rudely on the harsh tile. The doctor clears his throat and shifts from one foot to the other, studying his fingernails too religiously while Diane straightens up like the grown woman she is, fluffing her light brown hair with a manicured hand. She sinks back into the hard plastic of the chair behind her, allowing her mother privacy with the doctor, the bearer of ill will.
The doctor explains that Walt has had a stroke, a severe stroke, possibly paralyzing him—well, not possibly, but most likely, definitely—and he’s not conscious now, and most likely won’t ever be again, and if he does regain consciousness he probably—most likely—won’t be the same, won’t talk, won’t be able to feed himself, won’t walk, won’t be able to use the toilet alone. The doctor’s issue of the diagnosis is rehearsed, as if he’s reading lines from a cue card, or repeating lines not quite memorized but almost so. He offers to take Leda to see her husband, telling her she should be the first to see him, giving Diane a glance that half-explains, half-apologizes for her stay in the waiting room, now and before Leda arrived.
The Wife follows the doctor, who walks briskly through the tall doors marked “Personnel Only” and down the tile of the hallway to a large metal elevator, one that can fit a gurney or two, those carrying the ill, the afflicted, or the dead. His shoes continue to click-clack, click-clack down the hallway, a hallway that seems to be closing in on Leda, her short legs shuffling quickly yet reluctantly after the tall man. She tries to concentrate on the elevator before her, twenty more feet, fifteen, then ten, but her vision seems to be failing her now, just as her husband’s body has failed him. She can’t see where she’s going, but she knows she’s still going toward Walt as the doctor’s shoes guide her with their tapping sounds. She wonders if he gets sick of wearing such fancy dress shoes in a building filled with cheap tile, stark walls, and the bodily fluids of every patient. Vomit. Blood. Fluid from the bag of waters . . . the thought makes Leda blush, for nobody used to mention such things in her day, but now her granddaughters are having babies, describing the details of giving birth, mucous plug and all. Leda cringes, goosebumps rising all over her body.
She enters the elevator. She can see again, but still feels as if she’s blind, following this doctor to an unknown room in this bare building, knowing but not really knowing what she’ll find. She knows she’s going to see Walt, but something deep in the pit of her stomach, something she saw in Diane’s brown eyes, tells her she won’t find her husband there. What will she find? This she cannot imagine, she does not want to think of the shell of him, the body, once strong and virile, now an old man’s body, maybe suddenly devoid of life. She does not want to think of this. No.
The doctor presses the convex button that says “4.” The intensive-care unit. Leda notices that his square-tipped finger, the nail neatly cut and cleaned, lands exactly in the center of the button. He must be practiced in pushing that button, taking people to see their loved ones that aren’t their loved ones any longer, the loved ones who still exist but soon won’t.
The doctor stands straight after the doors close, the dull white coat hanging perfectly on his square shoulders, the crease of his dress pants like a ramrod, perfectly hanging up and down. Leda cannot understand why he is so well-dressed, dark creased wool pants, shiny clacking shoes, a silk red tie peeking from the mouth of his coat. “Does he do anything? Shouldn’t he be wearing scrubs, blood-stained and wrinkled from working on my husband, on others?” Leda worries.
The elevator gasps as it lurches upward, a sensation that seems wrong to Leda. Shouldn’t they travel down to see her husband, a man who has, as this doctor says, gone downhill in his capacities? She sees her blurred reflection in the silver metal of the doors. She wears a short green blazer over her silk blouse, the small fabric-covered buttons lined up perfectly down her front. She sees them, distorted in the reflection, but knows they are perfect. She wants to rip the blazer open, see the buttons pop off in a flurry of activity, maybe becoming bullets that will ping ping ping around the elevator until one hits her—and the doctor, of course—in the heart. They could both die there together, one deserving because of his callus manner and one because she needs an easier way to cope with the pain that is about to reveal itself, pain that will explode in her heart, just like the bullet-button could. She wants to scream and rip the blazer open, but she doesn’t, good manners holding her back. She grits her teeth to hold herself back as well.
The doors glide open noiselessly, an eerie contrast to the lurching and scraping the contraption did on the way up. The doctor, still straight-backed and poised, motions for Leda to exit first. She hesitates, not knowing where she’ll go once she’s out, but she goes first anyway, knowing the doctor won’t budge until she does. It occurs to her that maybe she doesn’t want him to budge, maybe they could stay like that forever, the elevator doors open, the tall doctor’s hand outstretched in a gesture of gentleman-like flair, Leda refusing to move because she doesn’t want to face Walt and the medical problem he has become. She keeps walking, past the rubber-lined crack between the elevator and the slick-tiled hallway, crossing the threshold into Intensive Care. The doctor follows, his long legs passing Leda before she can feel bewildered about where she should be headed.
She follows the click of the shoes, which seem to be coming faster and faster, like a metronome out of control. The doctor is in the home stretch, almost to the point where he can gesture to the machine-controlled body of The Husband, offer more robotic explanations, courses of treatment, descriptions of the monitors and tubes, then depart, leaving The Wife to grieve and cope with the tragedy. He does not have all day; another family is waiting for his explanation, this time of a heart attack, a condition he can describe with the same robustness as a stroke, the same factual voice, the same authority yet detachment. He must hurry, people are waiting.
He enters Walt’s room first, noting that the droning of the heart monitor can still be heard, relieved that he won’t have to present a corpse, just yet, or hide one from her after the journey she’s already made. Leda follows him into the room a few seconds slower than he would’ve liked, and she’s timid, as if she thinks her husband will jump out from behind the door and say “April Fool’s.” Her face collapses when she sees him, eyes closed, oxygen mask over his mouth, tubes running through him, pumping fluids from bags surrounding the bed. The Wife doesn’t lose control, but her face does. Her once apple-like cheeks, which she has passed to her daughter, are not so round; the wrinkles from age become more prominent, the gray streaks of her hair seem to lighten, and her mouth twists, the red lipstick smearing.
She walks stiffly to the hospital bed, a mess of metal underneath and blankets on top. She stands at Walt’s feet, looking at them, as if they are what had the stroke, as if she can’t bear to see his face. She finally looks up, slowly, raising her lids unwillingly. She sees a man surrounded by the sounds of technology, whirring, ticking, and beeping. She sees an old man, older than her husband for sure. She thinks, this isn’t Walt. There’s been a mistake. But it is no mistake, and she realizes that, too, that’s there’s no mistake. This is Walt, but it isn’t her Walt. She stares at his face, the part she can see above the mask, while the doctor, stiff as cardboard, again explains that his condition is acute, bad, hopeless. As he drones on, his nasal voice buzzing in her head, Leda tunes him out, lost in a tunnel that at the end contains her husbands face, his gray, death-mask of a face. His eyebrows are the same grayish-white they were this morning, when he awoke, tickling her with childlike vigor. A few hairs stood longer than the rest, a coarse forest of wire. His hair remains a steely gray, dignified and age-appropriate, but no longer holds the carefully combed peak just off-center, the James Dean style he still wore. He’d left the house with Diane for lunch, his hair combed just so, his plaid collared shirt tucked neatly into his jeans. He’d worn sneakers with velcro latching. Leda glances down to his feet again, lamenting the loss of those sneakers. Where were they now?
She looks up the length of his body, noting that none of what makes him familiar is there. His sneakers, for one. But the jeans—gone. The wide leather belt stamped with swirling patterns—gone. The plaid shirt, his bleach-white undershirt—gone. Leda can see his messy chest hair peeking over the top of his hospital gown, the thin fabric unfamiliar and ordinary. She studies his face again. The same nose, same mouth (though twisted slightly, not in the grotesque way she had imagined at the doctor’s description earlier), same eyes, now shut as if in peaceful slumber. But it isn’t him, not the man that left the house, eager to eat at Carl’s Jr. Eager to order a bacon-filled burger, eager to taste the richness of the fatty juices, something Leda never allowed. His health didn’t allow it, Diane knew, but she couldn’t stop him, couldn’t snatch the bacon before it disappeared into his mouth, going down like a poison and becoming his last meal.
Leda feels a sob rise in her throat, like a glass filling with water. She releases it, a garbled noise of animal proportions, startling the doctor from his diatribe. He does not finish his explanations of Walt’s condition, his patients prognosis. He pats her shoulder with a wooden hand, clicks out of the room, leaving Leda to her feelings, the sounds of which are creating a symphony with the other sounds of the room.
Leda puts her hand around Walt’s toe, then cries. The squeak of dull-white nursing shoes slow each time they pass, a shadow entering the room, a feminine voice asking if she’s okay, if she needs anything. She ignores them all, holding on to Walt’s toe and wailing, letting out her grief in great hiccups of sound, the ugly cry, as Oprah would say.
After what seems like hours but is probably only a few minutes, maybe a dozen, Diane rushes in, her shoes not squeaking or clacking, her voice not unfamiliar yet offering comfort. Her comfort is real, although unable to wake Walt from his hospital bed, remove Leda from her vigil. Diane is now rubbing her mother’s back, large circles meant to do—what? Push out the sadness? Swirl it around? She doesn’t know, she just mimics what Leda had done, hoping it will work. She tires of the motion, her forearm aching with effort that seems to be doing nothing, for Leda is still sobbing, her eyes now naked and reddish pink.
It is then that Diane notices her mother’s hand tightly gripping her father’s toe, holding on for dear life. This reminds Diane of her children—her six boys—who spend hours playing video games, the joy stick caught in their grip. She imagines her mother is playing a game, controlling Walt with his toe, and if she maneuvers it correctly, she’ll win, the prize being her husband, her healthy husband, not just his body on machines. Diane finds herself cheering internally, goading her mother into holding the toe hard, squeezing it until it works. She shakes her head, clearing these ridiculous thoughts. She knows what she must do.
Diane stops circling on her mother’s back. She slowly runs her hand down Leda’s arm, a gentle caress, a tentative start at what she must do. She notices her skin against her mother’s, skin she thought was getting old but that looks young, unlined, smooth. She compares their hands, the same hands, rounded nails, white-tipped and lacquered. Small knuckles, slightly raised greenish veins. One is older than the other, but neither is young. She wraps her fingers around her mother’s fist, now shaking with exertion. Diane plans to yank the grip from the toe, but she doesn’t have to. Leda lets go, and Diane leads her to a chair. They sit in the darkened room, silently sobbing together while the other instruments keep on whirring.
Leda collapses in her daughter’s embrace, warm and companionable. She sleeps after hours of intermittent crying, watching, talking, waiting, and crying. She sleeps and dreams.
I’ll post Chapter 2 next Friday!