Read an Excerpt
The Other Side
By Mary Gordon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Mary Gordon
All rights reserved.
When this happened, Vincent Macnamara thought it was the end of everything. As things turned out, it was not.
He was a tall old man of eighty-eight, and strong, but he was lying on the floor of his dark living room. He knew he had broken his leg. A thick medal of pain formed on the left side of his thigh, fanned out to thinner ribs, and flashed up and down his leg from thigh to calf. It interested him, as if it were happening to someone else. His leg was light and foolish underneath him and he couldn't move. But it was important that he move. He could see Ellen, his wife, wandering on the half-lit street, the outlines of her body visible to him through her white nightgown.
He didn't know how far she'd walk. He could imagine her walking until the land stopped, and then into the water. He couldn't stop her.
If he cried out, it would be shame for him in the world. Shame in the neighborhood. If he didn't cry out, then she could wander off and be killed.
She'd begun having strokes six years before. She'd no control left over herself, it had been months since she'd had any. It had been months since she had stood up by herself. And then she did this.
It was because she wouldn't take her pills.
He'd put her in front of the television. John, their grandson, had hooked up the remote control for her. He was in televisions now. They said he'd found himself. Vincent had put the TV on so she could see the Mass. He knew that she cared nothing for the Mass. But Theresa, their daughter, had told him she might be taking something in. Theresa stood in church now, with her arms spread out, talking directly to the Holy Ghost. She told her father he could talk directly to the Holy Ghost if he believed he could, but Vincent knew he couldn't.
Theresa wanted her mother in a home.
"Swear," Ellen had said, lying next to him when they were each no more than thirty. Her eyes were wild; he could tell in the dark. What had made her think of it? What had put the thought in her, and the wildness, so that her nails bit into his palm, as if she knew the small pain would make him remember? "Swear you'll let me die in my own bed. Not among strangers." He swore. Her nails pressing made dents in his palms, a dull, shallow pain.
He'd sworn. He'd thought he could keep it from happening.
It happened because she wouldn't take her medicine. He gave it to her, but she kept it in her mouth. Three pills, red and gray, red and yellow, dark pink. He'd gone into the kitchen to get a dish of ice cream for her. He thought he'd make her spit the pills into his hand, then he'd bury them in the ice cream and she'd swallow her pills without knowing.
When he came back into the living room, he saw she'd switched the picture from the Mass to a cartoon show. A zebra family was dancing on the screen. A zebra mother hung a pair of striped pajamas on the line. Ellen was staring at the screen and her mouth was open. Had she opened her mouth to laugh? In opening her mouth, she'd let the pills roll together on her lap. He saw the three of them, wet, stuck together at the center of her lap. He bent to fish them from the valley of her lap so he could hide them in the ice cream.
And then, for the first time in months, she stood up. She put one arm in front of her breasts and raised the other against him, knocking him heavily to the floor. She walked out of the house. He could see her wandering up and down the street in darkness.CHAPTER 2
Vincent and Ellen Macnamara have been married sixty-six years. For sixty-three years, they have lived in one house, 128 Linden Street, Queens Village, ten miles from the center of Manhattan. He is younger than she; she was twenty-four when they were married; he was nearly twenty-three. Already at that time, they had lived other lives, mostly on another continent. Europe, from which they set themselves adrift.
They crossed the ocean to the place, America, that had been called at home "the other side." Now Ellen is dying. She is over ninety; no one is surprised but she. She has, of course, expected death, but now that it is near it is a shock, an intrusion, an affront. No one knows how long she'll live. She is furious in her long dying. She is powerful in her last sickness, in her dying, in the ending of what is still her life.
The thin, translucent skin stretches across her forehead, beautiful, as if the soul were winning visibly over the flesh. You would expect the brain packed down beneath this tight-drawn skin, beneath this skull that has become a feature, this skull of a saint in triumph, you would expect the brain beneath this bone and skin to be serene. But it is not.
Constant words fill the air around her bed. They are terrible words for an old woman taken up in the long business of her dying. Curses. Maledictions. Dreadful wishes. Also simple filth. What kind of life would have brought up these words? She lived a hard life, but not the kind to know these words.
Within the nearly visible skull, the brain, disintegrating fast, reaches back past houses, curtains, out to ships and over oceans, down to the sea's bottom, back, down, to the bog's soaked floor, to mud, then to the oozing beds of ancient ill will, prehistoric rage, vengeance, punishment in blood. And all the time, the bars of her hospital bed shake with her rage. She is tied down, has been drugged, but whatever she has been given fails to stupefy. She will not stop telling what she has seen. It is dirty; there is nothing; we should suffer, all of us, for it is all that we deserve.CHAPTER 3
Outside the room, scattered around the house Ellen has lived in since 1922, is her family. They are here because they are waiting to celebrate Vincent's return. It is the summer of 1985, August 14, vigil, for those who note such things, of the Assumption. Vincent would note this; Ellen, furious if he'd brought it up, would not. Since the eighteenth of October of the year before, Vincent has been away from the house. For two months he was in the hospital; it wasn't his leg that he broke that night, it was (much worse) his hip. After he'd been in the hospital two months, Cam, his granddaughter, who is a lawyer, arranged that he should go to an experimental nursing home. Today he's coming home.
That night, October 18, 1984, lying on the floor of his dark living room, in pain, he thought he wouldn't be able to keep the promise he'd made to his wife nearly sixty years before. That he would let her die in her own bed. But they had kept it for him. Cam had stood up to her aunt Theresa, did the things, interviewed nurses, hired people to be there around the clock so Ellen could stay home, so she could be waiting for him. Waiting till today, when he would come home to her. Only he doesn't want to go home.CHAPTER 4
Nearly all the surviving members of the MacNamara family are in the house now, waiting for Vincent to come home. Almost all of them live within forty-five minutes of Queens Village, where all of them spent their childhoods: an oddity in mobile, shifting America.
One of Vincent and Ellen's children is dead; John, their only son, killed in the War. His son, Daniel, born after his death, stands outside his grandmother's bedroom, waiting to see if she's asleep. Dan's daughters, Darci and Staci, Vincent and Ellen's great-grandchildren, are expected by the middle of the afternoon.
Vincent and Ellen's older daughter, Magdalene, is in her room, two blocks away, a room she has left only rarely in the last fifteen years. Her daughter, Camille, is upstairs, working on a legal brief. The only one of Vincent and Ellen's children in the house is Theresa, their second-born, a medical secretary who speaks to the Holy Ghost. Her husband, Ray Dooley, is here, and her son, John, and daughters, Sheilah and Marilyn. Marilyn is the only one of the family to have moved far away. She is a registered nurse, taking her vacation here so she can supervise her grandfather's settling in. When he is settled in, tomorrow, or the next day, she'll go back to Los Angeles, to the clinic where she is director, serving a largely Chicano population, to her three children and a house without a husband now. It's another thing she's here for: she must tell her parents her third marriage has failed.
She checks the IV that leads into Ellen's arm. She sees her family arrange themselves in various positions in Vincent and Ellen's small, tree-darkened house. The net of kinship spreads around them, spreads and draws. There is a place for everyone, she thinks, but not all places are equal and not everyone is happy with his place.
Theresa and Ray Dooley are sitting in the living room watching one of their favorite TV shows, The People's Court. As a family, the MacNamaras have an interest in the law. Dan and Camille are lawyers, specializing in divorce; Ray Dooley is a retired cop.
Idly hypnotized, Dan sits down beside his aunt and uncle on the couch. Despite himself, he is interested in the case: a woman has been given a bad permanent—a quarter of her hair fell out and the rest will take six months to return to normal. She wants restitution from the man who owns the beauty shop. She wants enough money for wigs, hats, and scarves, six months' worth of them, and two hundred dollars for emotional duress. She wins.
Ray turns to Dan. "As a lawyer yourself, Dan, what would you think of the verdict of the judge?"
"I'd say it's fair, Ray. I'd say I'd do the same thing in his shoes."
But Dan isn't thinking of the judge's verdict, he is thinking of his grandfather, of what will happen in the house when Vincent walks into it, of who each of them will be then.
He thinks what he has often thought: My grandfather is an honorable man. He tries to understand what he means by the word honor. He's always imagined Vincent's life as a line, stretching back, emanating from Vincent's body, back to a time Dan can't imagine, through this house, curving through his descendants to him, Dan, and through him to his children, Darci and Staci, living with their mother in Seattle. But for the summer they are with him in Quogue, near the Long Island Sound, in the house he shares with Sharon Breen, whom he has lived with for twelve years, but never married.
He thinks of the differences between him and his grandfather. His life isn't a single line that stretches back to history and forward through the generations, through one house, through a life lived beside one woman, through children going out and coming back to do him honor.
His children live a continent away. One of them will never let him know her. To allow herself to be known would be to forgive, and she will not forgive her father for leaving her mother, for leaving her.
Dan walks into the room where Ellen is lying asleep. Her hair is done in two thin braids, imprisoned now beneath the sharp blades of her shoulders. He releases the braids and places them carefully one on each side of her shoulders, on the blue nylon case of her pillow, specially designed, its package said, for "long-term patient care." He rolls one of the braids between his thumb and second finger and he thinks: At least I was able to do that.
"Don't cut her hair."
He'd said that to the practical nurse, Mrs. Davenport, and to his aunt Theresa. They were about to cut Ellen's hair. It was a nuisance long, they said, another thing to care for.
He used on them a voice he'd learned, a voice he'd used in court, to make someone afraid of something. He almost never used it in private life, the voice that suggested that if it were defied there would be consequences. He looked at Mary Davenport, who kept opening and closing the scissors as if by cutting Ellen's hair she could be through with something, and for good. He looked at Theresa, whose interest was in punishment. Theresa drummed her shell-pink fingernails on the white plastic armrest of Ellen's hospital bed. Mary Davenport put down her scissors. He had won.
He never told them what her hair had been to him, let down, washed outdoors once a year, on the first warm day of spring. Once a year he would come home from school and she would be there in the fenced-in yard, her presence public but only for him, shocking, sitting in the open air, her hair undone, let down, loose on her shoulders. Her hair was gray; she must have been in her fifties. She combed it with a gray comb; its wide teeth raked her scalp that he could see a hint of: pink. Even then her hair was thin.
She was jubilant, her wet hair down, and young, an outlaw. She didn't say anything but he knew what she meant: Celebrate with me. Feel the sun. Underneath the earth things stir. You and I know this. We mark it now.
She waited on those days till he came home, till the others were away. He was completely happy then. Music rose up, fantastic music, like the music of angelic singing showgirls, forming themselves in movies into the shape of a violin, a piano. Curves of music, rising, curving up.
She never said anything about what she was doing.
He would come near her, kissing her. He'd smell her clean wet hair. "You're home, then," she would say.
"Your school all right today?"
She'd close her eyes, the both of them would close their eyes to hear the music, to feel properly the warmth that drew the wetness from her hair. In half an hour, saying nothing, she'd comb her hair, braid it, pin it up once again into the irreproachable pile at the top of her respectable, now law-abiding head.
"Don't cut her hair," he said, and they had listened.
He'd been able to do that.CHAPTER 5
At Maryhurst, an experimental catholic residence on the East End of Long Island, people keep coming into Vincent's room to say goodbye. Mothers and children knock at the door; usually, the children are allowed to knock; Vincent keeps getting up from his green Leatherette chair. He knows everybody's name. "Well, then," he says, opening his door to each of them. "Isn't this a fine surprise." Some of the mothers and children bring him presents—candy or drawings; there isn't much at Maryhurst that can be bought, and only the old people have money. The old people are there because they're old, the mothers and the children are there to be hidden, or rescued, to add life. At Maryhurst, welfare mothers and their children are mixed in with the old who can't care for themselves entirely, but don't need much help in getting through a day in which their food, their warmth, their safety is insured.
It's not easy to get into Maryhurst, particularly for the old. Vincent got in right away because Cam is a close friend of Otile Ryan; they work together on the board of a shelter for battered women. Otile Ryan, a Sister of the True Cross (formerly Sister Benedicta), runs Maryhurst. It was her idea.
Maryhurst, originally called Bower House, was built in 1887. It was the house of the O'Connell family. The O'Connells, Cam had learned, were one of those Irish families who'd come over early enough to make a fortune and manifest it by building a great house. A family trip to England had made Gerald O'Connell fix on Victorian architecture, and he built for his family, in the fashionable seaside town of East Hull, on Long Island, a mansion built of pale yellow stone with green roofs; he put gingerbread trim around the porches and windows and walls, and it was said he made heart-shaped flower beds of pinks, lilies of the valley, moss roses, peonies, and poppies in the fashion of the day. In 1934, Gerald's granddaughter, Gertrude Rose, unable to keep up with taxes, gave the house to the Order of the True Cross, who had educated her in their school for Catholic Young Ladies on Fifth Avenue.
Gerald O'Connell's mansion became the Order's Motherhouse. But by the time Otile Ryan had become Superior in 1981, the order had dwindled to fifty members, whose median age was sixty-two. Financial advisers urged her to sell the property, buy something cheaper, easier to heat and to maintain for the housing of the older sisters and send the younger ones, who could be self-supporting (they were equipped with MSWs and Ed.D.'s), out to the world, meeting like other sisters in informal consortiums, spiritual communities that involved no real estate and were free from the horrors of failing boilers and French doors whose hinges could no longer be properly replaced.
But Otile Ryan, who preferred to be called O.T. (her middle name was Therese), was interested in social experiment. She decided to turn Maryhurst into a place for the aged and for battered wives seeking shelter with their children.
Excerpted from The Other Side by Mary Gordon. Copyright © 1989 Mary Gordon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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