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By Michael J. Arlen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1970 Michael J. Arlen
All rights reserved.
He used to joke about being frail and weak, about having had TB as a boy, and then something wrong with his back, and then a car accident (he had been walking across a street) in Los Angeles — but he so clearly didn't really think himself frail or weak, and when things started going wrong for him, going wrong in him I guess was more like it, he couldn't countenance it at all. The pain, yes, or things like that. Discomfort is what they call it. He could manage that all very damned well. But not the fact of things truly starting to go wrong.
It happened in the spring, I think. I remember the time vaguely, April. It must have been spring, but I was in the Army then and not paying much attention to seasons. Fort Dix. White board barracks. All that dust, and boots beside the bed, and those baggy dusty fatigues. A weird soft life, soft amid the weapons, the rifles, the machinery, the sounds of tank battalions and howitzers on the distant ranges. It was a telegram — one of those long telegrams with some of the key words hashed up by the local teletypist. They called me out of formation one morning, into the orderly room — the soft-faced, big-bellied, indoors sergeants sitting around at their desks having coffee. Some corporal handed me this thing, and I opened it and read it standing there. It seemed to read so easily, I read it right through. YOUR FATHER GOING INTO HOSPITAL TODAY ... SUSPECTED CANCER ... EXCELLENT DOCTOR ... CHANCES ARE GOOD ... WILL KEEP YOU ADVISED. And in a strange way I believed it, believed anyway the calm codelike positivism of the message. Suspected ... Excellent ... Chances are good ... Will keep you advised. My mother had a way with telegrams. It was one of the sergeants who snapped me out of it. "What is it, kid? Your girl got pregnant?" No, I said, my father's going into the hospital for an operation; and then I told him some more, and then they all started wheeling into line, stirring things up, papers, forms, one of the roundest and most dough-faced of the sergeants tap-tap-tapping out an emergency pass on a tiny typewriter in the corner. It was very nice, one of those acts of complicity. I couldn't quite understand it at the time and felt apart from them — these strangers who were evidently expressing their own fears and worries. I was too cool for that sort of thing. I could take an emergency three-day-pass or leave it alone. But then I got into New York, and we were suddenly there, inside, in one of those blank, beige, tiled, airless hospital corridors, my mother and I, and I could understand quite a bit.
We walked up and down, walked up and down, and sat. My mother smoked. I told her about Fort Dix. Nurses passed, and all the doctors in the world. Finally, Doctor Gregson appeared — that was his name, Gregson. An excellent surgeon. One of the great surgeons. One of the really great, the very best. He was carrying a trim blue canvas case that unmistakably contained a tennis racket, and was buttoning up his jacket. He had just come from changing and was obviously in a hurry. "I think we got it all," he said to my mother. "It had spread quite far into the lymph. We had to take out a lung ..." A few more sentences like that, and off he went. My father was never the same after Gregson, which is unfair to Gregson, since he doubtless would have died sooner, and probably worse, without him. Maybe if I hadn't met Gregson just then, and just that way, that busy on-my-way-to-the-River-Club look, that bloody tennis racket, like a figure out of some second-rate country-house comedy, I wouldn't still have such a particular sense of that moment in time, of an act ending that afternoon in the hospital. But it's true, he wasn't the same afterwards. There was something crucial gone from him, and not just the lung either, although that certainly didn't help; and neither did the information we received later that the removal of the lung had been more in the nature of a "hunch" than a step that had been absolutely necessary.
It was so terrible really. He knew the lung was gone, and hated that, one more infirmity, and tried to make jokes about it although the jokes wouldn't take. But he didn't really believe about the rest. He would just lie in bed, at first in bed at the hospital, and then in bed at home, and then sitting up at home, and wait for something to happen to him, something to come back to him. In appearance, it wasn't quite all that passive, and much of the time he seemed "fine." He had the wit and the irony and the strength or whatever it is that enables some people not only to survive bad things but somehow to move with grace above them — he could do that part of it very well, and down to the moment he died, about one year later, he managed to "be himself," to be elegant, to be amusing, to be even gay. But there was something gone, and he was then only sixty, "only sixty," whatever that means, and sometimes a look would cross his face, and linger there for a second, and surprise even him, I think, with its weight and bitterness.
In Paris, I remember, about six months later, we met, the three of us, a ghastly meeting really, the weather gray and sour and full of wet, which sometimes doesn't matter too much but then it seemed as if the whole earth, all the grass and trees and leaves and everything bright and sunlit had disappeared, was disappearing, and for good and all. I'd gone over to Germany in the Army, and my mother and father had recently gone back to Europe on one of those trips that are supposed to give sick people a health-instilling change of air or scene — I don't know why hanging around hotels is supposed to be good for people who are feeling lousy, but it seems to be something that people who feel lousy find hard to resist. Anyway there they were, two weeks at the bright and tacky Dorchester in London, and then to the Lotti in Paris. I can't imagine why the Lotti, with its hush, and tiny shipboard corridors, and half-dead old ladies in the lobby — I think they probably felt that the gap between the way they were really feeling and the way the Ritz would expect, or would remind, them to feel would be too great. I came to see them there one weekend. They were in one of those small-windowed, thick-carpeted old rooms with lots of gilt and low-watt lightbulbs. The breakfast tray on the bed. A pile of books on a chair. Detective stories. The Devils of Loudun. The picture my mother always traveled with (a small blue watercolor of a Mediterranean scene, an island) on the bedside table. The curtains drawn. They both were very quiet.
My mother's sister was then in Paris, and so was one of my mother's few old close friends, Louise Ferande — Madame Ferande, who did something at one of the couture houses, a tiny bony woman with one of those sharp, animated, uninterested faces. That first evening we all had drinks together, the five of us perched around a table in the tiny Lotti bar, my aunt talking at length about her hardships, which was okay, since she led, more or less by intent, a life so full of human drama and collision that, like a racing-car driver, she seemed to exist most naturally midpoint between some past near-miss and some awaited one. Right then she was having trouble with her lawyer, who was trying to cheat her, so she said. We talked about that for a while. My father didn't talk much at all. These women could be such bitches really, and then when he had left the bar for a moment they all crowded over the table and cooed and trilled about how marvelous he was, in such good shape, so elegant, not thin at all, well maybe a few pounds, but not thin, such good color. He was nearly dead by then, I think my mother knew that. I think he was beginning to know that. And then the next day it almost happened. In the morning, at dawn, he had some sort of seizure, something to do with the heart, the heart maybe working too hard because of there being only one lung. I don't know, it doesn't matter. But off he was taken suddenly, a now-strange city, a strange hotel, a strange doctor, a strange hospital, some small place out near Neuilly. He was okay, they said out there. The doctor was okay too. Nice. Sympathetic. But christ how crummy it all was — wet, gray, faraway; and he lying there in bed, he seemed so small, and getting smaller. I would go out there with my mother, or sometimes alone, and sit beside the bed, the French nurses running in and out, and try to tell him things about my life, what-I-was-doing, because that seemed to please him. What I was doing. Nothing. I was in the Army. He had this funny idea, I remember, about the Army, about me and the Army, and he hated for me to tell him that I thought it all a lot of nonsense, or especially that I was messing around with it at all. Sometimes, in order to liven things up, I would tell him of some small adventure, an overstayed pass, a wangled assignment — and he really wouldn't have any of it. He wanted me to be a good boy in the Army. The sheet that covered him up to the neck, I remember, rose and fell with the slow rhythm of his breathing. The sound of his breathing filled the room. I talked informatively of the military life.
He got better for a while. The heart was okay, they said, but naturally one must take it easy. He left the little hospital in Neuilly. He was so pleased his heart was okay. He would take brief walks outside the Lotti in the pale sidewalk sun, and have a gin with Joe Baldwin at the Travellers, and get absurdly, miserably, tired. But he was somehow pleased, maybe at just being alive. And then, around the middle of May, they went on down to the South of France. It was a good time for them, I think. They stayed at the Carlton, the big white dumpy Carlton, with the two domed towers, and the dingy little beach, and the bar, the great Carlton bar, where everyone had once sat around, where everyone had once waited for everyone else. Now everyone gone, or nearly, or just not around, or no longer interested. A p.r. man from M.G.M. where Willie Maugham once sat. Two dozen outboards rocketing and churning up the Mediterranean. But still the Mediterranean. In late May my sister went down there for a while. He seems much better, my sister wrote me, hoping it was true. My sister was then attempting to recover from a disastrous romance with an Egyptian (to whom she had been introduced by my aunt), and had taken briefly to writing me letters. My mother also wrote me letters. They were having a nice time. They took walks. They had seen such-and-such. My sister was still being very silly about Ari, who clearly had no visible means of support, and was a bounder, and so forth. Once, on a mostly spurious assignment for the Army newspaper, I ended up one May afternoon in North Africa, covering a golf match at a Moroccan air base, and phoned my parents, full of my new role as foreign correspondent (a military-golfing foreign correspondent), to announce that I might just "drop by" through Nice, where I knew the Air Force ran another flight. But they were having none of that. "That certainly doesn't sound sensible to me," my mother said, which in her language was the equivalent of cursing solidly for twenty minutes. My father naturally didn't want to hear about any of it. If the Army says you should be in Germany, he said, you should be in Germany. But they were well, or sounded well, and that really was good to hear. In a number of ways it must have been horrid then in Cannes, but they had managed a nice time, and that says something about something. I think it was probably the last nice time like that either of them had.
They came on home to New York later that summer, and my father thought he was actually on-the-mend, getting better, feeling better all the time, longer lunches, longer walks, improvement, health, perfection, life, everything better. But then it wasn't so at all. It wasn't better. It was worse. It was awful, that — he couldn't understand it. He was suddenly so tired, couldn't do anything. He felt very bad one day on his way out to lunch, very very bad, and went to bed. He postponed the lunch, which was with a man from Time who was researching a piece on Aldous Huxley, postponed it until the next week, but he never went out again. It was clear then that the doctors hadn't chopped it all out after all; that the excellent bright-eyed tennis-playing surgeon hadn't quite "caught it all," whatever "it" means in these instances. Cancer. The black dank specter. The fifth horseman. He so clearly had it, and even then would not quite believe it. Certainly no one told him that he must believe it, why should anyone tell a man that? He was indoors all the time then. Upstairs in bed for most of the day, and then sometimes, later in the afternoon, downstairs in the library. I had since come back from Europe, back from the Army to my job at Time-Life, and in a fit of filial affection (I think it was that) had set aside my plans for getting-my-own-place — girls, wild parties, at least the pleasures of leaving one's dirty laundry in the middle of the floor — and had moved back into my old room in their apartment. There was such death in that place. In a way, it had always had something of that feeling — an indoors, inward-facing apartment to begin with, short on sunlight, and heavy with my mother's tastes in embroidery, tapestry, thick fabrics, dark wood, dark things, closed curtains, little frou-frous here and there for "gaiety" which only made it all worse. And now there was real death. Sometimes you could almost see it moving into him, the thin edge of a tide moving across the open water. He was so bright, he was still so bright. Mostly he read all the time now, or slept (or slept while reading), and sometimes talked a little with a faint, troubled, hard-of-breathing voice. But sometimes he would connect with something, a memory, an object moving far off across the horizon, and for a few moments would come awake, really awake, the eyes alive, that marvelous quickness, lightness, that so un-Anglo-Saxon passion pushing its way back into his voice, taking him with it, taking him now in some pain, in some considerable pain because of it, even laughing, his breath very short, his eyes seeming to see out for the first time in days or weeks; and then suddenly over, the sentence finished, the eyes dull, the breath coming in great gulps, while we sat around him feeling love and fear, fear for all of us. Death is a hard person to have in the house with one, and I don't know that I was too much help. I couldn't bear the smell of death, couldn't in fact bear to be there, was always finding reasons to get out, and later feeling terrible for having done so. Swearing I would act better. Would not duck out after dinner like that again. For whole days, maybe two days, would sit there dutiful, attentive, providing little bits of talk and whatever affection seemed transmittible — until one evening there I would be again. I'm sorry. I forgot. Have to meet. Won't be long. Won't be late. Didn't think you'd mind, yes, have a good night. See-you-in-the-morning.
He died in June, the last week in June. It was one of those steamy New York summers, everything unnaturally hot, the air heavy, dusty. I'd just come back from an assignment up around Boston and was downtown at the office typing up notes. My sister called me there in the afternoon. He'd gotten very bad, she said, the doctor was there. I went on home. The doctor was leaving when I arrived. He said he was okay, which seemed an odd thing to say about a man with obviously terminal cancer, but he meant he was okay for then. Okay, considering. I went up to see him, but there was a new nurse. He's resting, she said. I went back down the stairs. My mother came down presently. He had this pressure on the lung, she said, almost instructively, and went on to tell me the details of where the pressure came from, what had happened, what the lung could take and so forth. She lived in the details, they supported her. How is he now? I asked. He seems back to normal, she said. It all seemed crazy, and I knew that he would die tomorrow, or that night, or the next day. The next morning he was awake and I went in to see him. He was pretty tired, but smiled, and we exchanged a few words. I told him a little about the Boston trip. "It's important you go to the office," my mother said. "It's important things go on as normal." I went down to the office, towards the office, getting as far as Sixtieth Street, and then came on back. My mother was angry but it didn't matter too much. I stayed in my room reading, or doing nothing, and then around lunchtime I went in again to see him. It was around twelve o'clock, about the only time of day that room ever got any sunlight. He was sitting up in the big bed, with a tray, but not very mindful of the tray. Such a small fierce man. He seemed extraordinarily alive just then, his eyes a deep deep brown and full of life and warmth. We talked, or rather, for the first time it seemed in weeks, in months, he talked. Not very much. About books, as I remember. Some book of Arnold Bennett's that he'd been re-reading, or trying to: Riceyman Steps. "I know you don't read Bennett now," he said, "but you ought to look at him. He wrote some good books." And: "It's funny, isn't it, when I was your age, Bennett was one of my Field Marshalls. I was a corporal, and Wells and Bennett were my Field Marshalls." And: "Bennett and I had lunch together once. I can't remember why. At the Savoy. Bennett talked the whole time about money." He smiled. He seemed very happy. Charles Hughson, a friend of his from England, was in town, and I mentioned that to him, and he talked a little about when they'd first met — Hughson a young reader or some such at Victor Gollancz, and he then new to London, new to writing, new to everything, a young man in a small room off Shepherds Market. His breath seemed almost steady then. He held my hand for a moment. His eyes were half closed as he talked, the man in the bed in New York talking across the years to the man in the small room in Shepherds Market. And then he said he was tired. I think I'll just sleep for a while is what he said. And I took his tray up, which had a thing of custard on it that he hadn't touched, and carried it down. And twenty minutes later, the nurse, who had looked in on him, came down the stairs to tell us he was dead.
Excerpted from Exiles by Michael J. Arlen. Copyright © 1970 Michael J. Arlen. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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