Syracuse, NY 13210
Volume 11, 2011
Don't Look Back
Christopher Stark Biddle
I am looking in the side mirror, and out of the glare of a setting sun I see this big white SUV and a country club blue hair waving at me to move on and holding a cell phone with a dog in her lap. I am sitting at a T intersection and what I know and she doesn’t is that there is a big red pickup truck coming down on the left and I would have been splattered like a pumpkin the day after Halloween.
It is one of those white-sky March days with no pattern to it and I am feeling trapped like a fish in a net at this intersection. Plus, little things detonate me these days so I reach out and give her the finger. Then she drifts forward and bangs the back of my Chevy. Just a light tap but enough to bounce me forward an inch. So I lose it and return the favor with a little backward caress of my own and I see her head jerk forward like a bird pecking at a worm. At that point it dawns on me that we have all the makings of a disaster and I need to get out of there. My guess at this point is that Ms. Tight-Ass Road-Rage has no doubt hung up on her stockbroker and is now dialing her lawyer.
I am running over these thoughts as the traffic keeps flowing when there is tap on the passenger window and I look through the window at the face of an older lady with blue-misted hair. Damn if she is not smiling at me. Of course I find this confusing since most women would not get out of their car at an intersection and come up to some guy in a beat-up Chevy who has just given her the finger. Plus the fact that she is smiling which seems a bit weird and I begin to wonder if this is a smile or some grimace of homicidal malice. The thought crosses my mind that she might be holding a gun since I had read in USA Today that lots of women these days were taking pistol lessons. It also occurs to me that the sort of women who take pistol lessons are the sort of women who deep down want to shoot some man in the testicles for the fun of it and so when they tap on your window after you have given them the finger it may be best to accelerate out of there.
So at this awkward moment, my dog that is asleep in the passenger seat wakes up and he sees this women and he starts barking and slathering at the window so that it steams up. The predicament is that if I roll down the window, the dog may jump into this gal’s face. Then, with all the barking my son who is in the back seat wakes up and says “What the fuck!” and I say, “Don’t talk like that” and then I tell the dog to shut up and a reasonable amount of quiet ensues. But then she taps a second time and at that point my son who is 16 going on somewhere between 12 and 25 says to me “What did you do, Dad?” which requires a longer explanation than I want to give plus the implication that I have screwed up. So I don’t answer knowing full well he will ask again in 3 seconds which he does and knowing full well that he would be just delighted to hear his old man had given the finger to a blue hair.
But all I can do is to roll down the window and of course the first thing I say is a lie, which is “It was a mistake” at which point she says “Don’t you remember me?” and I get this wave of dizziness since things are unfolding faster than I can process and none of it seems to make sense. I look carefully at her face and her clothes that are about the same as any other suburban blue hair. The be-bop nose, the tan beach skin, the lacquered lips and the sharp gray eyes that are tough because behind them lies the cash that can flatten you. She is wearing the predictable gray cashmere sweater, a little blue scarf, some pearls and funny little silver earrings in the shape of saddle stirrups. At first I thought a memory might blossom but nothing unfurls. And so I say “No, Madam.” The “Madam” is for politeness to defuse the situation and alleviate any later accusation that I have been a jerk. And then she says, “Are you sure?” and she keeps smiling and I sense we are playing a game. Then my son pipes up and he is speaking to me in his grown-up 25 year old voice and he says, “It’s Mrs. Duquesne, Dad.”
And then I am rescued because she says “The hospice, for Janet. About 3 months ago,” and my heart thump thumps and my mind starts to go in a direction I do not want it to. Though the memory is still coagulating, I do remember the hospice. I remember the day Janet asked for the phone and she called them and asked for help. This is unfurling in my mind when I get this picture of a women in a pant-suit and tweed hat walking up our pavement on a white-sun day and knocking on our door and the bulb flicks on and there is Mrs. Duquesne standing there giving me the same smile she was giving me then.
At this point I hear the short beep of a horn and I look back and there is a Fed Ex truck jammed up behind the SUV in high dudgeon to get by. Now my primary goal at this point is to get away from all of this confusion but I can’t leave Mrs. Duquesne just standing there like a hitchhiker and so I say “Oh . . . Of course” and she says “It is nice to see you,” and she looks at my son and says “How are you, Andrew?” and my son says something which I can’t hear because the Fed Ex blows again. At this point, Mrs. Duquesne disappears and I see her emerge behind my Chevy like a flushed partridge and she gets back into her SUV. I feel this sudden relief since the road is now clear and so I pull forward and take a left and accelerate and I don’t look back.
But then my son says “What the fuck!” in an accusatory sort of way, which makes me mad because I hate that word plus the fact that he is basically telling me in his own articulate way that I am a rude jackass. So I slam on the brakes, the tires squeal, the dog goes flying into the dashboard, somewhere a horn blares and I veer off the road splattering gravel. My son says “What the fuck” again.
I take a long hard look at Andrew. He is a thin kid and for some reason has big ears and cuts his hair short and has a small tattoo of a lightning bolt on his neck. Today he has a cold and his nose is red and his hazel eyes are watery. Both he and the dog are looking at me as if I have just burst into flames and I am noticing the sweet metallic smell of burning brakes. I want very much to say something to him but I am not sure what it is. We are looking at each other and I can hear my breathing and I know something is going on between us. His rheumy eyes remind me of tears and I feel dizzy and tired and the anger or whatever demon it was that slammed on the brakes flies out of the window like a bat.
At this point just about the worst thing imaginable happens when I look over and see the white SUV and the little blue rimmed face of Mrs. Duquesne and, yes, she is smiling and I see she is unbuckling her seat belt and starting to get out and I am Bonnie and Clyde at the roadblock.
Mrs. Duquesne was the only hospice volunteer we had. She came about 7 or 8 times plus most of the last week. She always wore a cashmere sweater, had an emerald ring, read horse magazines, smelled of perfume and had blue bleached cotton candy hair. Maybe she was or 55 or 65 but you couldn’t tell because she was carefully packaged and wore a perpetual biblical smile which seemed designed to ward off any ugly impropriety that might attempt to wedge itself into her day. She would come in and tell me about some flower show or a trip that she was planning and then she would go into Janet and give her a bath and rub her arms and legs. I could hear them talking and sometimes laughing and then long silences. And just once a moan that made me want to leave the house.
Once I heard her reading a poem about a girl that had been sucked out of the broken window of an airplane and as she fell the wind peeled off her clothes and she could feel the clouds blowing through her rotating limbs. I heard Janet saying, “That is so lovely,” which seemed odd but caught me in the gut and after that I didn’t listen to their conversations.
During those last 10 days or so I did all the cleaning. I would scrub and deodorize the house every day and change the sheets. For the last week it was just the 3 of us during the day waiting together and Mrs. Duquesne helping with the dinner and feeding Janet and making me promise to call in the night if there were developments. In the evening Andrew and I would play cards or read and he would spend time with Janet before going to bed and then I would crawl in beside her. She was usually asleep by then and most of our talking was over as is usually true when you have been with someone for a long time. Of course at the end she did have trouble sleeping and once she kicked the blankets off and swore and another time she sobbed for a few minutes and all I could do was to rest my hand in the valley of her hip.
On the last night Janet woke me and asked for Mrs. Duquesne. I remember she spoke so clearly and her voice was strong with authority and I thought this could not be the end because her tone was bell clear. And Mrs. Duquesne came and was with Janet for about two hours and once or twice I would go in and they were just sitting there holding hands, not talking. Janet looked so strong and healthy that I was surprised when Mrs. Duquesne came into the living room and told me she had died. It had happened quickly, there was no pain. She was so sorry that I was not there. I said that really didn’t matter and thanked her for her help.
So Mrs. Duquesne is at my window and I am rolling it down with the automatic button and there is no way in God’s green earth that I know what to say. I am sitting with absolutely no words on my mind like an old broken windmill and of course wishing that all this would end. I can hear Andrew snuffling and wheezing and smell the burning brakes and as the window spools down Mrs. Duquesne’s blue rimmed smiling face seems to flow into the car like ink in water. I start muttering and Andrew is stuttering hello and the dog is up and bouncing around and waving his tail and then there is a book being handed through the window. And then the window is spooling up and Andrew and I are sitting together and he is thumbing the book open to a creased page and a stalk of forsythia is dropping down into his lap.
I imagine that Mrs. Duquesne lives in a stone house with a circular driveway. There is a fountain in the center of the lawn and the steps to the house are marble with box bushes in planter boxes on either side that will be taken into the nursery in the winter. When you come into Mrs. Duquesne’s hallway you look through double doors to a piano in the distance and a sloping lawn beyond that. In Mrs. Duquesne’s house there is a library to your left and a dining room to your right and there are always cocktails and quiet conversation. I try to think of Mrs. Duquesne coming in from the lawn and walking toward me. She passes by the piano and through the double doors but then she disappears and so I start her walking again with no success. Sometimes I try from the side thinking perhaps she is in the library and reading a book and she will hear the bell and get up and move with decorum into the vestibule but then she always disappears. I tried once and only once to think of her lying in bed under a thick white down comforter. She is reading a book but I can’t see the title and she is falling asleep but I can’t see her eyes.
On that last night Mrs. Duquesne did the dishes. It was the first time I had seen her hands at work. She had very thin wrists and long fingers that curled around the glasses like seaweed and she moved her arms like a conductor, organizing and scrubbing and drying. I remember looking at those hands that had held Janet’s and wondering what memories they possessed. I wonder if you can dream when you die? Do you dream of fingers relaxing and slipping apart or of poems you have read or perhaps of being born?
I never did ask her the question. Perhaps there was not much of an answer but I do speculate. I can hear quiet breathing and see the veins on the back of her white hand. My thumb—or is it Mrs. Duquesne’s—lies across the top of her wrist and the pulse is steady. The sheets of the bed are cool against our arms and there is a distant hovering of lavender in the air. The book is open across her chest and rises and falls as she breathes. And she must be dreaming of the forsythia in the yard and of running through the grass with her son and perhaps of being a bird and then of falling through the sky and shedding shreds of satin, velvet and cotton that bloom up behind her like a meteorite of glory. What haunts me is that instant of transition, that slipping behind the cloud, that infinitely tiny moment of vaporous time. That was taken away from me.
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