MargaretWhen Margaret Hughes found out she had a brain tumor, she stared at the black-and-white images illuminated on the screen behind her physician's desk-"slices," he called them. She was surprised to see that her brain looked like two halves of a desiccated walnut.
Her physician spoke of cisterns, vessels, ventricles, a star. Of cells that had forgotten how to die. It was so complicated, so difficult to understand, but in all fairness she had no one to blame but herself. She was the one who'd insisted on seeing the images, made him promise that he'd be straightforward, tell her the names of things, explain why she'd been experiencing these headaches, these slips of the tongue, errors in cognition, apparitions. The fact that he continually referred to the images as "slices" only made matters worse; Margaret had already been so flustered before her appointment that she'd left home without finishing breakfast.
Dr. Leising pointed out the mass effect of the enhancing something-or-other as seen on Coronal Slice #16. Margaret's stomach rumbled.
I can't believe it, she thought. I forgot to eat my jelly toast.
Her physician concluded his speech and asked Margaret how she wished to proceed, what interventional options she wanted to pursue, and was there anyone she'd like to call. "Stephen perhaps?" he suggested, rather too lightly. "Mightn't he want to know?"
Well, of course her ex-husband would want to know. Couples don't go through what she and Stephen had without forging some kind of enduring connection-even (although few people understood this) a complicated, battle-comrade kind of love.
But there was something irritating in Dr. Leising's tone-as if he didn't think she should hear his prognosis in the absence of a male shoulder to weep on. As if she couldn't handle things without the benefit of counsel by some father-by-proxy. Margaret had managed her own affairs nicely for most of her life. She wouldn't be railroaded, pitied, or bamboozled now. I might look like a nice, diffident old lady, she thought, but I'm not about to be treated like one.
She asked a few pointed questions. Dr. Leising gave answers which she considered unacceptable, evasive, patronizing, and then launched into yet another discussion of her "slices." Would it never end?
Margaret couldn't listen anymore, so she excused herself to the rest room, took the elevator down to the street, and walked until she came upon a cafe with the words "Desserts, Etcetera" painted on the windows. She deliberated. On the rare occasions when she had to leave the house, she made sure to have as little contact as possible with other people; on the other hand, she was so hungry that she felt nauseous. Peeking through the window, Margaret saw that the cafe was open but empty of customers. This was satisfactory, so she went in.
Inside was a display case filled with artfully presented pies, cakes, cookies, and an assortment of French pastries. Margaret whispered their names: Génoise à l'orange. Mousse au chocolat. Crème Brûlée. Roulade à la confiture. She felt better already. Hanging over the counter was a menu written on a large chalkboard which included sandwiches and soups as well as desserts.
An anorexic-looking girl with short blue-black hair and black lipstick was talking into a telephone behind the counter. "I don't give a shit, Jimmy," she was saying, her voice tense and hissing, "You CANNOT use the juicer at three o'clock in the morning, I don't care HOW aggravated your 'vata' is!" Margaret waved to get the girl's attention. "Gotta go. Bye."
The girl hung up and loped to the counter. "Yes," she enunciated through clenched teeth. "What can I get for you?"
"It all looks so good," Margaret said. On closer inspection of the girl's face, Margaret was alarmed to see that she was wearing a gold ring through her right nostril. She tried not to stare at it. "What is your soup of the day?"
"Split pea," the girl said, and sniffed.
God, Margaret thought, I hope she doesn't have a cold.
"Well, in that case . . . I'll take a slice of raspberry cheesecake, a slice of pear ganache, the crème brûlée, and the caramel flan."
Nose Ring began punching the buttons of a small calculator. Her fingernails were painted dark blue and sprinkled with glitter. They looked like miniature galaxies. "Do you want whipped cream on your flan?"
"Excuse me?" Margaret said. "Whipped what?"
"Cream. On the flan."
"No, thank you," Margaret said without thinking, but then, "I mean yes! Why not? Whipped cream!"
"Will that be all?"
"Tea, perhaps. Do you have peppermint tea?"
"Have a seat," Nose Ring said. "I'll bring it out when it's ready."
Margaret awaited her desserts. On the café walls there were several black-and-white photographs of empty buildings, streets, docks, parks. Margaret didn't much care for them. There were no people in the photographs, and something about the time of day the photographer chose or the angle at which he took the photos gave even the most benign landmarks-the Seattle-to-Bainbridge ferry, the pergola in Pioneer Square, the Smith Tower-a menacing, doomsday appearance. They made Seattle look like a ghost town, and they reminded Margaret of an old movie. . . . What was it? It took place in New York City; it was about the end of the world. . . . She had found the movie very disturbing, although she couldn't say why. She couldn't for the life of her remember the name of it.
"The World, the Flesh, and the Devil," said Nose Ring as she arrived at Margaret's table.
"That old black-and-white movie about the end of the world. You were saying that you couldn't remember the name of it."
"Uh-huh." Nose Ring began unloading dishes and tea things from a large tray. "Harry Belafonte, Inger Stevens, and Mel Ferrer. The World, the Flesh, and the Devil."
"Unless you mean On the Beach."
"I don't think so."
"Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire? Directed by Stanley Kramer."
"No . . . I would've remembered Fred Astaire."
"Or you could be thinking of Fail Safe. With Henry Fonda as the president."
"I think you were right the first time."
Nose Ring stood up straight and announced, "I'm a film student."
"I see." Margaret smiled and nodded. She made another effort not to look at Nose Ring's nose ring. "Well, that must be very interesting!"
Nose Ring sighed. "Do you have everything you need?"
"Yes! Thank you! It looks lovely."
Nose Ring resumed her place behind the counter.
Margaret took a small, yellowed photograph out of her wallet; it was a school picture of Daniel, taken when he was eight. She stared at it.
The whole thing was quite simple, really.
According to Robert Leising, MD, and the various other neurology, oncology, and so-on-colleagues with whom he had consulted, Margaret had a very common type of malignant brain tumor: an "astrocytoma." A slow-growing star. The traditional treatment was surgery followed by radiation.
"What's the prognosis?" she had asked.
"Well," and here Dr. Leising had pulled one of six sheets of film off the light board and scrutinized it, "your age is-?"
As if he doesn't know, Margaret thought. "Seventy-five."
"Seventy-five." Dr. Leising nodded thoughtfully. He glanced at Margaret before resuming his study of the film. "Depending on the characteristics of the tumor-which we can't clearly define without getting in there and removing as much of it as possible-with treatment you have a chance of living as long as several years or as little as two."
"How much of a chance?"
Dr. Leising didn't look up. "Twenty-five percent."
"That's with treatment?"
"What happens if we don't do anything?"
"I mean, if I only have a twenty-five percent chance of surviving this anyway, why don't we just leave it alone?"
"Maybe I haven't made myself clear, Margaret," Dr. Leising said, as if he were speaking to a nincompoop. That was when he resumed his discussion of Margaret's slices in a way that clearly constituted the American Medical Association's form of filibustering.
So, this was her choice: She could either undergo a lot of treatment and die, sooner or later, or she could undergo no treatment at all and die, sooner or later.
"Is something wrong?" Nose Ring had returned. "You haven't tried anything."
Margaret swallowed hard. Now that all of this lovely food was in front of her, she found that she wasn't hungry after all. She took a sip of tea, just to be polite.
"Is that your grandson?" Nose Ring asked, leaning closer. "Cute."
She's quite a young girl beneath all that makeup, Margaret realized. And much too thin. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
Nose Ring shrugged. "What is it?"
"Well, it's a rather trite question, I suppose, but if you found out that you had only a short while to live, maybe a year or two, how would you spend your time?"
The girl frowned. She picked absentmindedly at her fingernails, and showers of silver glitter flaked off and fell toward the floor. Margaret tried to follow the trajectory of the glitter, but it seemed to vanish into thin air.
"I suppose I'd think about whatever it is that scares me the most-relationshipwise, I mean-and then do it. Do the opposite of what I've always done."
Margaret studied Nose Ring. She'd always assumed that people who embraced dramatic vogues in fashion were actually compensating for an innate dullness of character or chronic insecurity. She'd expected someone who looked like Nose Ring to offer a superficial answer to her rather trite question: "Take up hang-gliding! Sail around the world! Race hot-air balloons!" Something along those lines.
"It would be a last chance, wouldn't it?" the girl went on. "To break all your old bad habits?" She caught herself worrying her hands and promptly stopped. "Well anyway, here's your bill. Pay whenever you're ready." She made her way back to the counter, looking pensive.
Margaret contemplated her own habits. She stared at Daniel's photo. He had been at that age when most children are self-conscious in front of a camera. But in this picture his expression was relaxed, serious, and sage. "You can see exactly what he's going to look like when he's twenty!" Margaret remembered saying to Stephen all those years ago, when the package they'd ordered came home from school: one 8x10, two 5x7s, four 3x5s, and many, many billfolds.
But Daniel would never be twenty. The 8x10 remained unframed. The billfolds were never passed out to school friends and teachers. Margaret wondered if Stephen still kept a photograph of their son in his wallet, along with pictures he surely carried of the children he had with his second wife. His living children.
"Jimbo?" Nose Ring was on the telephone, speaking gently. "I'm sorry I yelled before. . . . Yeah, I know. . . . I love you, too. You want me to pick up some Häagen-Dazs on the way home? . . . No, I'm not kidding."
Maybe it was time for a change. A commuted sentence. Margaret had no difficulty knowing what was required. Daniel stared back at her, without forgiveness, but without condemnation, either, his eyes alight with the detached, loving wisdom of a little monk. Margaret tucked the photograph back into her pocketbook, sipped her tea, and waited until Nose Ring hung up the telephone.
"Excuse me, dear," she called across the room. "Have you a pen I might borrow?"
"Sure. Are you a writer?"
"Oh, no," Margaret said automatically. "I'm . . ." I'm anything I want to be, she thought. Anything at all. "I'm the woman who invented the garlic press!"
"Ah." Nose Ring handed over her pen. "I'll get more hot water for your tea."
"Thank you, dear. That's very kind."
Margaret turned over the bill and began writing. "Room for rent in large Capitol Hill home. $250. All utilities included. Month-to-month. Private bath . . ." By the time she was satisfied with the ad, her appetite was back. She started with the crème brûlée.
Magnifique! she thought, not minding that the café had begun to fill up with customers and she was no longer alone. C'est parfait.
Before she actually placed the ad she would have to ask permission. Of course she would. She couldn't just willy-nilly start taking in boarders without consulting her housemates. After all, they'd lived together practically forever. She'd tended their needs, kept them pristine and perfect, sheltered them. With the exception of those few intervening years when Stephen and Daniel had shared the house, they'd had her completely to themselves. Her devotion was unquestionable. Still, she knew they'd feel threatened. They'd never stand for a unilateral decision. It would take finesse, skill, and diplomacy to pull this off. What she intended would be a hard sell.
Of course, they'd want to know what was in it for them. They'd have a point. She'd have to come up with something.
Praise? Admiration? That might be an incentive. They'd be in contact with another set of human eyes. What could be the harm in that? They'd be ogled and applauded by someone besides her. That should be enough for the vast majority. Most of them were a bit shallow anyway. Fools for flattery. Yes, that could work. And she'd never take on anyone clumsy or bullish, that was certain. The more diffident among them could be reassured about that. They'd be in no danger.
So there. That was settled.
The next question was, how would she broach the subject? And who would she speak to first? Who would be the most receptive to change?
Not the soup tureens; as a group, they were consistently unimaginative and stodgy. The game pie dishes at least had a sense of humor, but they were cowardly, and always took sides with anything lidded. Which eliminated the teapots and casseroles and so on. It was very tricky, as the lot of them were quite cliquish. All of the figurines were out; in spite of her best efforts, she could never manage to address them without sounding condescending, and they resented her for it. One or two of the teacups might be sympathetic. She also considered the gold-encrusted inkstands, who, for all their decorative excess, had always struck her as fair-minded and sensible.
But, no. The others would never be convinced by anything so diminutive as an inkstand. She'd need an ally that was at the very least physically impressive. Objects responded to things like size and blunt speech. Margaret roamed the rooms of the house in her mind's eye: the Aviary Suite, Bonbon Dish Room, Smoke and Snuff Room . . .
Aha! She had it. The pair of Qing Dynasty garden seats. They'd be perfect. Large and commanding, with their sea-green celadon glaze, they were not only elegant but wise and plain-speaking. The fact that they once sat in the open air had given them more free-thinking views. And if all that weren't enough, there was the added prestige of their appraised value: eight thousand dollars each. The other garden seats were worth five thousand or less. If she could win over the Qing twins, Margaret knew, they'd get everyone to give her a fair hearing.
Margaret reviewed her defense. She headed out to the sunny atrium (also known as the Chinese Garden Seat Room), cleaning flannel in hand. She'd surprise all of them with a thorough polishing first to get in their good graces. Then she would plead her case to the Qings.
Copyright © 2004 by Stephanie Kallos. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.