Read an Excerpt
Kay hurried down the hospital corridor, trying to
balance the bag of gifts in one arm and the bouquet of
flowers in the other. Her shoulder purse banged against
her hip as she half-walked, half-jogged toward her
mother's room, and her hair spilled out of its pins,
wispy against her flushed face. Hastily she rehearsed
the rules she had set for this visit: she would be light
and charming; she would not complain about her
husband nor brag about her son; she would not cry --
as she had after the last operation when she saw what
was left of her mother's leg -- and she would not tell a
single lie unless she had to. She checked the number
inked on her wrist to make sure she had the right
room, tucked her bunched blouse back into her skirt,
and raised a hand to knock. The bag immediately
slipped, tore, and spilled out of her arms. Not fair! Kay
thought. The hangover she had been fighting all day
kicked in and her throat watered with savage longing for
a cigarette. She gathered the things, straightened, took
a deep breath, and knocked again.
Ida, propped on pillows in a gold satin bed jacket, did
not turn. She was staring out the window. "You took
your sweet time," she said.
"Sorry." Kay tried to think of an excuse that would
work. There was none. "I left work late. There was a lot
of traffic. I got lost."
Ida turned and looked at her over the tops of her
glasses. "You got lost coming to the hospital?"
"No. I got lost in the hospital. Don't look at me like
that. It's a big hospital."
"You've been lost all your life."
"Sorry," Kay repeated, adding, "How are you?" which
was the wrong thing to say. She braced herself,
expecting to hear, "How do you think I am? I just had
my last leg cut off. How would you be if you just had
your last leg cut off?" But Ida only said mildly, "Fine.
Except it seems I've caught bronchitis."
"Can you 'catch' bronchitis?"
"I don't know. One of the surgeons was sneezing all
over me. Oh what are we talking about? Come give me
a kiss. Christ! Don't sit on the bed."
"I wasn't going to."
"You most certainly were. You were going to knock me
"No, I was..."
"I have no balance at all. I roll around like a papoose.
How would you like to be me?" Ida stared at her,
glittering. How beautiful she was, Kay thought. Even
now. Those huge eyes, dark as the sapphire on her
clenched hand. The creamy skin. Cleft chin. Valentine
mouth. The heavy diamond earrings were in place, only
three days after surgery, and the surgical cotton
dabbed with L'Heure Bleue was secreted somewhere
inside the silk bed jacket; the whole room reeked of it.
"I would not like to be you," Kay said.
"Right. Do you know what Francis calls me now?
Humpty Dumpty. Can you believe it?" Ida's eyes were
full of tears and something else, some lit and sparkling
secret life. Laughter, Kay thought, shocked. "I better
not fall off any walls," Ida said gaily.
"A wall ought to fall on Dad."
"Oh he can't help it. I wish he'd call though. I haven't
heard from him all day. What did you bring me?"
"Just these." Kay unfolded the sheath of flowers. They
looked battered; not the brave flags she had seen in
the florist's window, nothing but a bunch of bent and
broken stalks. She tried to smooth them straight.
"Gladiolas," she apologized. "They reminded me of
"They're lovely, darling. What color would you call
"Let me see. No. Bring them closer. I can't come to
you. You may not have noticed, but I don't have any
legs. And not in my face! I'll get pollen up my nose!
Can you believe this? Bronchitis? Did you bring a
"I'll ask a nurse."
"I wouldn't if I were you. The nurses here are all dykes."
"Maybe there's one in the bathroom."
"Oh they're all over."
"I meant a vase."
"There might well be a vase in the bathroom. I wouldn't
know. I can't go to the bathroom, Kay. I can't walk.
"Yes, well, I'll go down the hall and find one. Here,
Nicky made you a card. And I made macaroons. And
here's a new novel from work I thought you might like."
Ida picked up each item and studied it closely. "There's
been a mouse in the pantry," she said, shaking the
cookie bag. Kay licked a crumb from the inside of a
tooth and shrugged. I'm forty, she thought. I need to
eat. She watched Ida examine Nicky's card. It was one
of his nicer ones. Or was it? She leaned forward.
Oh-oh. It showed a little boy with no hands running
from a house on fire. "Don't Be Scarred" was crayoned
on top. "I wonder why you let him use gilt," Ida said. "It
makes such a mess."
Kay looked at the festive salting of gold and silver that
had fallen from Nicky's card onto her mother's hospital
sheet and let her eyes finally move past the lap to the
two short lengths of thigh and then to the flat empty
place where the rest of Ida's legs ought to be. There.
She had looked. A roar of pity thundered in her ears.
She had loved her mother's legs, their angles and
curves, the saucy way they kicked out when Ida
danced, the way they dovetailed together when she
arced off the diving board. She had loved the sheen of
the ivory-colored skin after shaving, the hard knees with
their freckles, the strong square toes with their bright
red polish. It had been hard to accept the loss of the
first leg, a year ago, but this second loss was worse.
Oh, what was the matter with Ida? Why couldn't she
follow the diets, quit the cigarettes, do the exercises,
forgo the martinis? Why did she have to lurch out of the
wheelchair, slip in the bath, fall off the commode?
Every time she hurt herself she got gangrene and every
time she got gangrene she had another amputation. It
was endless. "Mom," she said, "oh Mom."
Ida, ignoring her, picked up the novel and studied the
author's photo on the back. "She's about my age, isn't
she? Maybe even older. And this is her first book?
Well! There's hope yet!"
"There's always hope."
"Easy for you to say." Ida set the book down. "Do one
thing for me? Bring the phone a little closer? Just in
case Francis calls while you're out finding that vase?"
Kay moved the phone as far as the cord would stretch
Ida watched her leave. Then she rubbed her sapphire
ring against the sheet to make it shine and rested her
head back against the pillows. This morphine was
stronger than the last time. She felt about six years old
and it had been hard not to let Kay know that she was
hallucinating. She turned her head -- it felt as light and
breakable as the bowl of a wine goblet -- and looked
out the window again. The horse was still there. Mr.
Know-It-All. Bright blue. He had spent the morning
advising her on flight. How it would feel, how she would
do it. She would want wings, nothing fancy, the horse
had said, but serviceable, strongly feathered wings; her
own arms were too puny. She would have to strap the
wings on, wheel herself to the window, and hoist
herself out. Once out, she would fall -- not far -- a floor
or two, and then she would rise. She would ride a wind
current home. It would be hard sweaty work but she
had never minded hard work and she would soon see
her own house, tucked like a glass castle in the green
folds of the mountain. She'd knock on the skylight and
Francis would look up from his crossword puzzle and
smile at her the way he used to, as if she were the
most delightful creature in the universe. And then she'd
settle down with Coco barking welcome and she'd float
through the front door. And once I'm home, she hissed
to the horse, you'll be gone. And once you're gone, I'll
be all right.