A dazzling new collection carries Reed's trademark blend of sentiment and sting.
- Wesleyan University Press
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- 6.00(w) x 8.97(h) x 0.70(d)
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In Now Voyager ... The hell of it is he can't remember what in Now Voyager. Not important. Bill is sharp. He walks two miles every morning, reads the paper, does the taxes, writes regularly to the children, keeps track of the bills. People treat him the same. But Sara. Sara is like one of those scraps you cut out of magazines and present at the supermarket register, in hopesa blank coupon, waiting to be redeemed.
People ask, "Is she OK out here in the open like this?" when they mean, Is she going to fall down in our store? Their look says you poor bastard. "You must be ..."
Don't tell me what I must, or how I am.
They go to the Southside Publix in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Thursdays, Bill dresses Sara nicely in his favorite figured silk that didn't used to be so loose on her and clamps her hand over his elbow like a sheaf of quills so he can lead her to the Graymont van.
If the sky has turned silver and a morning breeze tatters the palm fronds and disturbs the water off the point, he is too intent on his task to see. Let go of her elbow for a minute and Sara will veer off, falling off the curb or blundering into the treacherous, springy Bermuda grass where she'll collapse in the little sigh of air that escapes from under her skirt. It irritates him that she can see these hazards just as plain as he does and still walk into them. Although the others sitting in the van simmer and hiss he takes his time withher, and although he might as well be walking her into a closet or a meat locker for all Sara knows, she smiles at him and gets on. You look up one day to discover the person that you think you know is no longer that person; she's drifting out to sea, drawn by the tides into an unknown ocean while you stand, helplessly ranting, as she bobs away.
Hesitating in the cereal aisle he tries to return her to the shore of the familiar. "Is it Wheat Chex that we like with bananas or is it Rice Krispies?" A flicker is all he hopes for, anything to remind him who she once was. With his heart thudding he tries heavy lifting: "Oh look, that cereal Willy's kids used to like so much when they came to our house. Lucky Charms." My God, she turns and smiles, but he has no way of knowing whether it's their son's name or the Hershey bar he's given her that makes her face so bright, all shimmering eyes and teeth brown with sweet milk chocolate.
Sara is postverbal. "Oh look," Bill says, because when they don't talk it makes you talk too much. "Here are cookies just like the ones we used to have at home."
That smile goes on like the light in a refrigerator: because you're looking in. He would put a pillow over her face and have done with it; no, he'd put her into the health center where the nurses want her and move into town but for that radiant, indiscriminate smile. I'd walk a million miles ... Bill's memory goes back too far, which is how to your astonishment you end up old. He doesn't feel like an old guy but he sees it in the way people look at him. Their spot judgments as he sits her down next to him in the movies and plies her with candy to keep her in place, or pretends Sara is choosing the new dresses he buys for her: why are you wasting your time?
Listen. You can bring back even patients who have spent months in a coma through patterning. He's done a lot of reading about this. Surround them with familiar objects and keep talking and you can teach them just the way a baby learns. You can restore atrophying muscles, you can even reconnect synapses through exercise. Bill has read that through patterning, autistic children can be made to speak and recognize the speaker; they can even learn to hug back, and God, if he gets impatient it is because he still believes if not in happy endings then in convergence, that effort is rewarded and everything you try, no matter how futile it looks to others, has effect.
But when he puts her on the bed and moves her arms and legs in the exercises on the physical therapist's sheet Sara smiles as if she gets it, and when he stops it's as if none of this has taken place. It's like dropping a pebble into deep water; for the moment you disturb the surface. Look back and the last traces are gone. Deteriorating is a medical name for something you don't necessarily see from up close. Live with a person and you note without remarking them the increasing degrees of difficultythings you didn't used to have to clean up after; that when you're dressing herwhen did you start dressing her?it's a little hard to bend that intractable right arm, and without being able to help it you touch your own shriveling face. Sometimes he gets too close and yells; forgive him, sometimes he wants to hit that face, to see it charged with shock, pain, anything but that unalterable, uncomprehending smile.
Exasperated, he shouts, "Sara if you would just." Come back.
"I, Sinue the Egyptian ..." Yes. Wander, forever damned. I will find my lover no matter how far she's traveled or how completely she's lost; I will bring her back even if I have to broach the Nile at ebb tide and scour the putrid hollow where the Pharaoh's intestines coiled and fill it with spices, earning my freedom in the bowels of the City of the Dead. But he and Sara are like the prisoners at the end of Land of the Pharaohs, listening as giant stones slide in to seal the pyramid.
Today she does her exercises just the way you tell her, dutifully counting when you count, and if she tugs against you it could just be the mirror image, Sara distracted because whatever she does she does with her eyes fixed on your face as if you arenot the sun, exactly, but something she needs to watch.
"I thought maybe here." He coughs and starts over. "I thought if we could just get someplace where you'd have a little help ..."
If he agreed to sell the house and move to Florida; if he agreed to buy an apartment at Graymont and eat the goddamned communal evening meal with all those old fuds it was for Sara's sakelaundry and maid service on Tuesdays and Thursdays at a time when he told himself that was all she really needed, regular meals that spared them both the knowledge that when they sat down to eat at night, if they sat down at all, Sara would have managed boiled chicken breasts. Apple sauce from the jar. Two spoons. The move spared them the bleak refrigerator with forgotten ground beef freezer-burned to death and it spared them the sticky floor and overlapping burns on the loose, bleached skin hanging from her wrists. They were also sparedif Sara was still alert enough to respond to things he took to be obviousher chagrin at her failure, the tears. It's been a long time since she cried.
Are you still in there? Whether he begs or shakes, thinking to shock her back into herself, she only blinks and blinks.
Yet at night when he touches her Sara stirs against him as though still in need, and this stops him. It would be like raping a child. He holds her close so he won't see her incomprehensionno. He holds her close so he won't have to see the pearly skin incandescing as she smiles at him like a baby at the moon.
Take your vitamins and do your morning exercises. Stay strong, because you are the beacon or is it the Judas goat leading her forward, or are you the torchbearer in the cave? If your light gutters out, she plunges to her death.
After the war he was dispatched to Parris Island; he couldn't get quarters on the base so Sara stayed in Beaufort, jammed into a studio apartment where their two little girls slept in the window seat. They paid a high school girl to take them to the Saturday movie at the Breeze, and gave her extra to sit through it twice. Try not to bring back the way Sara looked in those days, with her quick, quick mouth and that dark hair.
A month before Bill was discharged a drill sergeant on a night march ordered his platoon of boots into the marsh where currents are swift and the mud can swallow you whole. Marsh shifts and tides can suck the ground out from under you but next to Iwo this was nothing, and if the D.I. was ready to give everything in war, he expected as much of his men in peace. The night was thick and black but orders are orders and by the time the first boot stepped in quicksand, gargling for help, it was too late. Five men were lost. Base personnel were mobilized for a search that went on long after it was clear there was no point; even though he was a supply officer, Bill put on boondockers and flotation gear and waded out.
The next day he staffed the emergency command post, fielding phone calls from the press and marking areas covered on a chart of those waters, and as the first body was found, dispatching a junior officer to break the news to the family. Movement is not action but it gave him the illusion that he was doing something, methodically moving those pins across the grid.
The other bodies were never retrieved. For weeks afterwards he couldn't sleep. In civilian life he would have pulled Sara close and lost himself in her, but she was stacked like a log next to their two girls on the divan in Beaufort, ignorant of most of this, and he was in the rack in the BOQ listening for anythingsirens, shouts, a quickening of the tempo of trafficanything that would tell him the lost men had been found.
The waters that surround Parris Island are murky and the mud apparently bottomless and Bill already knew as well as the D.I. did what had become of his men. Later the drill instructor would be court-martialed and the matter declared closed, but such matters are never closed. Four boys lost out there with their mouths wide and their hair streaming, submerged in the mud! Sometimes Bill still sees them marching in lockstep, blind eyes wide and feet moving in unison because lost is lost and death is terrible but orders are orders, even in the muck at the deepest part of the channel where strong currents have carried them. Yes he knows better. After all these decades the lost platoon is well and truly dead, and if he cherishes the idea that they crawled ashore on the mainland and spent the rest of their lives AWOL, it's because nobody wants to give up hope for good.
Thank God he was just about to be mustered out of the service. "Oh Bill," Sara said, forgetting for once that their own flesh was sleeping on the far side of the veneered coffee table. "This is so terrible."
Death! Hugging her, he agreed.
Neither of us knew what terrible was.
But in a life without change, or without changes that Bill is willing to admit to, things will sometimes happen. Do. At dinner that night the Advent screen is wheeled into the Graymont dining room so residents and servers can keep track of an approaching storm. This morning it looked like nothing but now it's an event, which the local weather watch covers like the invasion at Normandy, with advisories and status upgrades and gaudy visual aids, tracing flood tides and the movement of the storm center in contrasting colors on a computer-generated map. Dauntless reporters in slickers lean into sheets of rain on thunderous waterfronts to shout for the camerasbulletins from the front. In the absence of news, weather is news.
From his assigned place at their assigned table Bill watches the TV with gratitude because it spares him the nightly responsibility to his assigned table mates.
New to Florida, some of the residents are worded.
"It's nothing," says the overblown woman at the next table, a longtime Floridian whose children put her here. "I've survived worse."
This isn't good enough for the smart aleck who comes to Bill and Sara's table in the ersatz captain's cap. "What's this place built on, anyway?"
He and the fourth at their table watch Sara with mean, judgmental eyes; they are like crows waiting for the unprotected moment; let Bill look away for a second and they'll peck her to death. He hates the smart aleck less than he hates the plump widow who beggars Sara with her lavish flesh, but in a way he is grateful because without them to push against there would be nothingno talk, no action, just Sara with her sweet, unremitting smile.
As they leave the dining room a nice old guy just about his age stops him under the canopy. "You have to crack a window on the lee side of the house or the storm makes a vacuum. I've seen plate glass windows sucked clean out." Like Sara, this man's wife Elsa is postverbal but she's managed to keep one word. "Blazing blazing blazing blazing." It is strange and beautiful. "Blazing blazing ..."
Patting Elsa's arm, Bill groans. "I know." Blazing. Like the skies in the black-and-white Hurricane, an entire Polynesian island leveled by the storm, villagers flying like pennants from palm trees until they are torn loose by the wind and swept out to sea.
His heart makes a secret, savage leap. He can almost see it: his life, the present, Sara, everything torn loose and cleansed and blown away and if he is blown out to sea along with herwell.
The last hurricane Bill was this close to was his last week in the service. When the winds died high tides obliterated the perimeters of Parris Island; as is often the case in coastal South Carolina, land and water became one. He and the others paddled inflatable boats up and down Officers' Row like large children, when he should have been trying to get through to Sara on the mainland to tell her to keep the children inside. In all he and Sara had three. They had Willy after he was discharged. When Sara told him she was pregnant they made love as if to raise the dead, and Bill was astounded by how easy it was to pick her up and turn her around. Sara had begun by wailing, "What are we going to do?" while in fierce, secret triumph he considered the ledger and made a checkmark on the credit side. When he set her down again she was smiling; what had he said? "Love him, I guess."
"I heard you," Bill says and with impatient hands hurries Sara past. He always reads the paper to her after dinner. He makes her watch the TV evening news.
At ten he gets a call from Ellie at the Health Center, offering to keep Sara for the duration of the storm. She tells him what he already knows; regular services here are probably going to be interrupted, Graymont has an auxiliary generator but they may still lose power. If the water broaches the top of the seawall, they'll have to evacuate. Ellie says gently, "She'll do better here."
"We can handle it."
"Sometimes these old people get disoriented." The nurse uses a word he resents but is no longer surprised to hear. "She's pretty frail."
When they were in their sixties they vowed never to get like that. No. Like this. Sara's sitting in her chair looking frail, if that's what they want to call it, but just as pretty as she ever did in the new dress. He's like the prince contemplating Sleeping Beauty: If only you could speak. He tells Ellie, "Thanks, but we can handle it." Clinging to royal palms at right angles like Terangi and his love, if they have toathletic feats in which he and Sara wave like banners, brilliant in the wind.
Athletic feats are not out of the question. Once Sara flew, but only for a moment. Drunk on spring, they left the supper dishes and went tumbling into the fresh grass behind their postwar house. The little girls hung close, but Willy hitched across the grass and lunged behind a bush where only a protruding scrap of nightgown located him, like the tail of Casper the Friendly Ghost. Bill's oldest girl pushed him down on his back in the grass. "Make me a flying angel." She leaned forward to take his hands. He planted his feet firmly in her midsection, raising her until she was horizontal, floating above the earth. At first she wavered and gasped but eventually she let go and lifted her head and her arms as if in a swan dive, soaring, with Bill's supporting feet her only contact with earth. "Me," somebody cried and Bill let her down gently and held out his hands to the next angel, thinking it would be his younger girl. "Oh, please. Me."
And this was how, that evening in Newton, Massachusetts, with his children jiggling and crowding and her sweet breath damp on his face and her face framed by the heartbreaking violet light, he held his wife, Sara in midair, suspended for the moment before his legs buckled under her weight and with a little shriek of rage, she pitched off. Before she landed she lashed out at him, "Fool!"kids, Sara, everybody in a tumble, with the little girls murmuring "Oh mommy," while his wife picked Willy up and clamped him to her Like a shield.
Over the baby's head she shot Bill a look that suggested this was no better than she expected, that she might love him forever, but this failure she could never forgive.
It makes him sad to see his grown children getting old; touch your face and think: am I. The house he bought to raise their family was the house he sold for the down payment here; in other circumstances he would have willed it to their kids. If the superintendent at Graymont said, "Sometimes people show remarkable improvement after they move here," it was a factor.
Things you have to believe so you can do what you have to do.
When she wakes in the night he goes to the pocket fridge just the way he always does at this hour. He gets her a vanilla Jello pudding, prodding her lips with the spoon until she flinches at the pressure of the cold metal and begins to eat. She'd rather sleep; so would he, but this is important. She eats so little during the day that it's important to give her these little meals whenever you can get her to eat. Sleepy, he says automatically, "You've got to get your strength back," where he used to say, "You have to keep up your strength." Frail. She looks all right to me.
After they had their schnauzer put down, he dreamed he and the dog were at the top of a stone tower and the dog was flying, dipping and wheeling around his head. He woke reluctantly. Sara was shaking his arm, and breathless from being dragged out of sleep he gasped, "What's the matter?"
"How am I supposed to know what's the matter? You were laughing," she said.
To his shame he dreamed last month that Sara was lying in her bed and at the benevolent distance dreams sometimes grant the dreamer, he also saw that she was severely altered by whatever change is marching over her in jackboots, pushed so far that she might never make it back. Then he saw his wife leave her body, Sara transfigured. No. Sara restored, dark-haired again, with that sweet, quick mouth; real Sara, that he knows. She separated herself and lifted, departingit was so perfect. He was so glad. Then just before she disappeared from the upper right-hand corner of the room he saw her turn back and blow a kiss at the figure on the bed. It made him feel happy, terrible.
Sometimes it's simpler to go on being a fool. Pretend everything's OK until they rub your nose in it. Evacuate. You have a hard enough time taking care of her in a place she knows and the last thing you want is to pry her out of Graymont like a snail out of a shell and set her down someplace new. Pretend you can stick it out here. When he wakes to a power failure he sees no need to panic Sara and no need to keep calling the desk, but he is prepared. He has Sara's night things and all her medications in a bag, and as a precaution adds food: cheese, fruit and the chocolate granola bars his kids send, imagining they can get their mother to eat. He fixes her cold cereal for breakfast and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.
When the aide doesn't come he reconciles himself to the fact that services are going to be interrupted but he can't help anticipating dinnertime, when he and Sara can join their assigned tablemates at that wretched assigned table for hot food and he can compare notes on the storm. Sara's restless; usually they take a walk now. Pretend. They paddle in the halls, Sara stumbling even on industrial strength carpeting. By midafternoon even though the winds have died, water is crashing over the breakwater, creeping closer to the Garson Building where they live.
From the window he sees handicapped vans and ambulances removing patients from the health center, and as he watches, neighbors with overnight bags start coming out of the main door below. There's a procession of cars snaking out of the parking lot in water almost up to the axlesold models, mostly, but most of them top of the line. Motors flood out and won't start again. Watching, Bill decides that if the time comes he and Sara will be better off leaving by bus. When the faucet belches muddy salt water, he knows it's time. Even before the desk calls to alert them, they are standing out front with the others in the continuing rain. He's surrounded by poor old people in straw hats and plastic rain hats, hunched and miserable; as the bus pulls up and they bump each other in the rush to hoist themselves on he thinks she may not talk, but Sara's no worse than the rest.
There's more storm damage than he thought. Power is out all over town and flooded streets are clogged with shorn branches and felled trees. The bus driver says they're only going a short way; Bill was a fool to imagine they'd be taken to some nice safe motel where he could just check in and try to make Sara think nothing's changed. Instead they are delivered to a downtown church where the patients from the health center are already being rolled into little clusters in their wheelchairs or bedded down on pews. These old people look terrible. Until you see them together like this, until you see them yanked out of context and jammed in here in the aggregate, milling in escalating confusion, you don't know how bad it is. Here are his erstwhile neighbors, here are the lame, the halt, and tottering next to him, some old wreckmon semblableno, he has to stop himself. He has to distinguish Us from Them. He has to ignore the change disruption wreaks in people who looked OK to him in the cushioned safety of the Graymont dining room; in this context it is essential to make the separation. My God, these people look like all those wounded soldiers laid out in Atlanta just before the intermission, you know, in Gone with the Wind.
Every old person in the place seems to need somethingthe drenched, the hungry, the bed and wheelchair patients who need their medications, bedpan, fresh Attends. There isn't enough staff to go around. Bill can see the superintendent helping an old man toward the sacristy; there's only one bathroom on this floor. In spite of the staff's best efforts the nave is filling up with complaints; voices roll in on top of voiceshungry, anxious, querulous, disturbed. He thinks he hears Sara beginning to whimper; wouldn't you? And just as she tugs at his elbow another batch comes in. In ordinary times Bill would whirl and stare into her face, trying to catch the ghost of an expression. She's been so free of emotion for so long that he needs to see Sara altered by circumstance, even Sara distressed, but here's Ellie from the health center, saying in confidential tones, "This is awful. I don't know what we're going to do with them."
It's like Parris Island. "We've got to get organized."
The nurse is so pressed by circumstance that she simply accepts the we. "I could use a little help."
"Wait." Now he does turn to Sara, who smiles that smile. No. It's the smile she gave him that night in Beaufort, brave: this isn't so bad. Yes, he tells himself. She's all right. "Now you stay here." He kisses her on the forehead and sits her down in a pew next to a nice old lady who's perched like a confused pigeon, clinging to her purse. "This is my wife, Sara Penney. We're neighbors." As she gives him a wary scowl, he says, "She won't be any trouble. Look, she's smiling at you."
Then he looks for Ellie. She's at the door, where newcomers are pooling like tadpoles in a storm drain. "Give me your clipboard. At least I can check these people in."
Through the night Bill works, helping these old folks slog in from the bus and try to dry themselves, rounding them up when they start to wander, serving coffee, carrying trays, and if a part of him knows that Sara has drifted out of the place where he left her, he tells himself Ellie has an eye on her and besides, he's needed here. He has work to do.
He's of more use here than he was at Parris Island. He acknowledges now that was only busy work. At Parris Island he needed to think he was doing something for the dead boys when he knew there was nothing anybody could do for them. Here he hands out food and people thank him; he brings medicine to the ones who need it on a regular schedule and they take it; he boils water on the gas stove in the basement and brings it up for the nurses to pour in the paper cups he takes around with the meds. He has the pleasure of doing something that gets results.
In a way it was a relief to him when Willy caught up with the dead recruits in age and passed into the safety of his late twenties. If in fact you do some things because of certain other things, you can't afford to make too much of it, or think of the events as tightly linked. Not Willy's fault that as he grew Bill had to suppress images of his son marching with the dead boys. He was just grateful that Willy wanted to be a doctor and had no interest in the service. Thank God he was exempt from the draft.
And just when he is busiest, clicking on all ... Just when he is at his most effective, Bill discovers that Sara has wandered off. She isn't anywhere. At first he thinks she's gotten lost in the choir loft or one of the basement bathrooms, but when he's looked in all those places he had to admit to himself that she is gone. Distraught, he goes from one attendant to another: "Have you seen her?" "Have you?" Vivian Leigh in Atlanta, looking for, oh stop. Nobody has. He can't ask them to stop what they're doing just to look for one old lady who may have wandered off. Even Ellie, who has designs on her, is too caught up in the exigencies. He can't even ask one of the old people to go out in the rain and help him look. Bill is exhausted by this time, surprised by the fact that his efforts have left him so shaky, but he can't sit down. Sara's gone. It's raining again, but not enough to keep him from going out, and, terrified that he'll lose herno, that he won't lose hergalvanized by a spasm of guilty love, he rushes out of the church and goes looking for his wife.
Terangi, watch out. He blunders along the rain-torn streets and although in the dark like this everything is confusing, finds that he's wading along the main road back to Graymont. From Graymont, town seems so far, but it's such a short walk! Struggling against the water that covers the toes of his shoes, he rounds the last corner without any sense of how long it's taken him to make it this far. Leaning against the carved Graymont sign with a strangely fated feeling, he can't know whether it's because he's so impoverished, so bereft of imagination that this is the only place he can think of to look for her or whether he's trying to second-guess Sara, who is beyond guessing, because he hopes blind instinct has led her back to the one place she may know.
Just maybe the waters are receding; debris and dead palm fronds clog the walks in a pattern left by high tide. He can't see much; it's raining hard. If he calls her, will she know her name? If she hears him, will she come? He's too drained and guilty to call very loud. Terangi vowed love forever, but what can you do? What can you do?
Then he sees her under the canopy in front of the main building, standing with the security guard who just found her and the charge nurse who left her post in the health center at the guard's call. Recognizing Bill as he emerges from the rain, the guard, who locks the Garson building at night and unlocks it in the morning, touches his wet cap and turns away as if what happens next is going to be so private that he is embarrassed. The nurse stands with her arms around Sara as if trying to dry her out and get her warm at the same time. Bill doesn't have to hear her say, How could you? Too pressed to speak, he holds out his hands. With a scowl the nurse releases his wife and delivers her to him, sodden and desperate, frail Sara, his nemesis, his loveSara, who turns to him with her lovely face leached to the skull and beautiful, drenched eyes that hold not an intimation, not even a ghost of recognition. The nurse is angry, Sara terrified and trembling; she does not have to say: She can't go on like this.
This is true.
He puts his hand on top of his only wife's head like a cop handing a prisoner into a patrol car and thus he relinquishes her, perhaps releasing all of them. It's raining too hard for Bill even to hear the farewell words that ambush him as the nurse takes his wife, his only love, and leads her inside. Now.
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