Vox Clamantis

By Jennifer Down
December 5th, 2014

Back to Issue

 

When Johnny told me his mother was dying, really dying, I didn’t know at first what he meant.

“They said ten months first,” he said. “Then they said three. Now they’re speaking in weeks.”

Speaking in weeks. Like that was a language.

On the phone he sounded fine, just tired. I knew he was living in a new place but I pictured him standing in our old kitchen, kneading his forehead with his knuckles, the frontal sinuses where he got pain. I pictured him standing in that bathroom with its pond-green tiles, with that big window that opened out to a view of a vacant lot. He liked to stand there when he was on the phone.

“I know it’s really weird,” he said. “I would never—ever—ever want you to feel like you had to do it. I’ll understand.”

He would have rehearsed that call.

I said I’d come. Speaking in weeks.

I packed some things. I phoned work. I met my friend Suze for coffee. She kept saying I don’t believe it. She really was appalled. She said, “I want you to be mad about it.”

I shrugged. “He’s not forcing me to go.”

“So why would you?”

“He’s not a bad person. It just seems like the right thing to do.”

“What the fuck, a bad person.”

He called again that evening. He asked how much money I’d be losing, not working. I told him not to be silly. He was insistent. He said he’d put it in my account right away. I didn’t know how to be graceful about it.

 

The bus from Tacoma to Portland took three and a half hours. It was the time of year for white skies. I couldn’t see Mount St. Helens at all. I’d offered to drive down, I’d said we could take my car. He said no. I wasn’t going to argue with him. He came and met me at the station. It was midday. The Greyhound depot stank of piss and other people’s cigarette smoke. He was waiting. He put his hands on my arms. He kissed my hair. The first thing I said was I’m sorry.

We went to Blueplate, I think more out of custom than nostalgia. Afterward he drove me back to his new place. It was in Mount Scott. We stood in the kitchen.

He rubbed his eyes. “Listen, I’m sorry, but I have to work tonight.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “But what are they going to do without you for the next couple weeks?”

“It’s not my problem once I’m out of there, but it is until I go.” He opened the refrigerator and stood looking in at its contents. “There’s consommé in there if you want it. I’m just gonna throw it out otherwise. Um. There’s bread.”

“It’s okay,” I said again. He nodded.

 

I didn’t trust his new place, on the other side of the city. I made up my own bed on his fold-out sofa. He hadn’t said when he’d be home. I locked his front door and started up Woodstock, toward the university. I’d lived in this exact neighborhood when I first moved to the city, when I’d gone to college for dance at Reed. After you’ve gone to college for dance there’s not much you can do except low-budget music videos and Disneyland, so I did both of those things. I worked for a year in Anaheim, long days, first cartwheeling down the clean cartoon streets in the twice-daily parades. Then it was six months as a character actress. I was a princess look-alike. Tiana, from The Princess and the Frog. That was what I was doing when I met Johnny. He thought it was real funny. I hated the way he told his mother, the way he made it quaint. I think he even said, Can you believe that’s a job?

Cathy frowned and said, Of course it’s a job, John, Christ. There are all different important ways of earning a living. Cab driving’s a job, grave digging’s a job. Jesus Christ, John, this is not how I raised you. Discussions of class disturbed her in the way they could only disturb the West Coast bourgeois.

She always told people he was a chef, not a cook. She said his name more when she was frustrated with him.

When the Disney contract expired I was finished with it all. It’s a short-term prospect. The Australian girl and the Portuguese girl I’d worked with said they were done, too, and went home. Over dinner Johnny’s mother said, Maybe you need to go to New York.

We moved to Portland and I went to school for nursing. It felt good to be back in the cold with all those trees. At OHSU our scrubs were pine green. Johnny and I had lived in Goose Hollow. For a long time it felt like a new sweet place we’d carved out for ourselves. I never wanted to tear a hole in it until later.

 

In the morning he was up and about, showered before I’d dragged myself off the couch. It wasn’t even light. I wondered if he’d slept at all. I pulled the blanket up over my face and watched his figure moving around the kitchen through the wool. At last I heard him carting bags out to the car. It was my cue to get up. There were two travel mugs of coffee ready to go on the bench. Johnny came back inside, saw me standing with my ass to the heater.

“I kind of wanted to hit the road early,” he said. “You know, it’s just such a long way, and—I’m sorry.”

“No, no, of course,” I said. “I can get ready quick.”

 

That first day was mostly strange. We didn’t speak until we were out of the city. I watched it get light through the windshield. We’d barely talked about his mother. All I knew was this:

 

1. She was dying.

2. She wouldn’t say it, but she wanted to see Johnny settled before she went.

 

Johnny’s mother was what my mother called, a little disparagingly, a bohémienne. But she wasn’t; it was just that she’d always had the money to do more or less whatever she’d wanted. Cathy had come from a Palos Verdes family. She’d studied at Berkeley, then she’d taught Comparative Literature there. She was a small woman. She moved like a dancer. She wore classic navy trousers with the cuffs expertly turned.

Palos Verdes family, Frank Lloyd Wright, Toluca Lake meant nothing to me before Johnny. When I met him I’d never seen the ocean.

He didn’t show it to me.

We’d been separated for almost five months. I’d been in Tacoma for four.

Speaking in months.

Still, though. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t mentioned it to her. Somewhere near Eugene I said, “I sort of can’t believe you never told her we split up.”

I guess that surprised him, as a first thing to say.

“She loves you, Abby,” he said.

“She doesn’t love me. She loves the idea of you being married.”

I guess he agreed with that.

“They could make a reality show about us,” he said at last.

“Two exes forced to behave civilly on a three-day road trip.”

“I feel like my dying mother is a very crucial part of this,” he said. “Anyway, we’re civil, aren’t we?”

We don’t speak enough to know, I thought, but I just said, “I guess we are, Johnno. I guess we are.”

 

We made good time. After Grants Pass he headed out west, and we stopped in Brookings for gas. I got out to stretch my legs while he filled the car. We stood on either side of it.

“How come the coast?” I asked.

“This is shitty enough,” he said, “that I want to do anything I can to make it less so. And anyway, if I ever have to drive the 5 again, I’ll kill myself.”

It was windy and our voices were straining over the car.

“It’s going to take longer,” I said.

“A couple hours,” he said.

I thought maybe an extra day, but I didn’t say it. If it were my mom, I wouldn’t be driving at all; I’d be in an airplane and there by afternoon, but you can’t pass judgment on other people’s grief. Maybe he needed time to warm up to it.

We went to a bakery for coffee. It was right on the highway, in a strip of shops. I knew the ocean must have been beyond there, but I couldn’t see it. While I waited for Johnny to piss, I smoked a cigarette standing in the parking lot. I looked out at the lumberyards. The smoke made ashy columns in the sky.

When he came out he said, “You started smoking again.”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry. I feel like that’s probably my fault.”

“Not everything is about you,” I said. He laughed.

 

Things were easier after we crossed the state line. He played Loudon Wainwright.

“Where are you working these days?” he asked.

“At a blood bank.”

“Huh,” he said. He considered it. “You don’t ever get bored?”

“I mean, no more than you got bored of flipping fancy burgers at Fred Upstairs,” I said. “It was the first thing I got. Anyway, I don’t have to be there forever.”

“I guess you don’t,” he said.

It was strange not knowing each other. There had been a time where we’d talked about being the thing his mother wanted. There was a baby, or the idea of a baby, for a matter of weeks, so it made sense to have those kinds of discussions. We talked about it a lot. We decided together. We drove to the clinic together. What happened after was nobody’s fault, but it turns out there are some things you have to do alone. I think that was when we stopped talking.

“Does your sister know we’ve split up?”

“Of course she does,” he said. He looked offended. “It’s just mom. You know.”

“I just want to be sure,” I said, “who we’re pretending for.”

 

We drove another five hours, and by the time he got to Ukiah, he was tired, and we decided to stop. I was feeling guilty I couldn’t drive his stick shift, even though I’d offered to bring my car so I could share the work. Once he’d tried to teach me to drive his old car, but it didn’t work. We’d finished up yelling at each other in a field somewhere near Astoria.

We passed a Super 8. It said VACANCY in neon letters. Johnny slowed. He said, “Wanna give it a try?”

“Super 8s,” I said, “are where people go to fuck.”

“And we are absolutely not fucking.” He said it shrilly, in mimicry of someone I didn’t know, or couldn’t recognize, and I started to laugh. At the next exit we found a place. I left him in the car while I went in. I came back with the keys, we parked the car, we stood at the threshold of the room as I fumbled with the loose door handle.

I went in first. I took the bed farthest from the door, threw down my bag. I flopped on the mattress with my arms stretched over my head.

Johnny stood by the other bed with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder.

“Separate beds,” he said. I tried to work out his tone. I rolled over onto my stomach. The room smelled like Pine-Sol.

“We are absolutely not fucking. You said it.”

I realized then, too late, that he was sad, and I was sorry I’d been flippant. He sat down on his bed, on his side of the room.

 

Before we went to sleep we both fussed around some, pantomiming bedtime like children in a toothpaste commercial. I laid out my clothes for the next day at the foot of my bed. Johnny phoned his sister. I felt like I should leave the room. I showered and changed into my pajamas. By the time I opened the bathroom door again, let all the steam rush into the cold motel room with its twin queen beds, he wasn’t on the phone any more.

“How is she?” I asked. I was toweling my hair.

“She is not good,” he said slowly, “and I don’t think Nina is great, either.”

“You could fly. Sacramento or San Francisco. You could be there in the morning.”

“What would happen to the car?” he asked.

“Just park it. You can come back for it.”

I moved to the bed where he sat, on top of the duvet. I took his face in my hands. I pressed it to my belly. I stroked his hair.

“We’re partway there now,” he said.

I lay on my own bed again and tried to read, but I was tired, and my eyes kept moving over the same lines. One time I put down my book and looked across the room. He was staring back at me, propped up on an elbow.

“Why did you come?” he asked.

“I would always come,” I said.

When I was a kid, my sister and I had shared a room for years. Our beds were like these, parallel, pressed against the wall on either side. The floor between was where we played and fought. Then came the consciousness of space, and at some point we’d drawn an imaginary line down the center of the room. Each of us would become enraged if the other encroached on her side. A gym sock, a tap shoe, a library book. On the other hand, if one of us left something desirable in that gray area—a pack of scented erasers, a candy bar in the pocket of a jacket—it was quickly claimed by the other sister. This Ukiah motel room, hundreds of miles away, suddenly reminded me so much of that childhood room, that cold demarcation of space, that for a second I had to think about where I truly was.

When I righted myself, I sat up and turned off the light. The switch was on the brick wall, at the midpoint between our beds.

I was almost asleep when he said it.

“You’re the only person I could have asked.”

I thought my heart would break.

 

In the morning he sat inside the car while I finished my cigarette, standing in the glare of the headlights, and when I took too long he blasted the horn. It was a ridiculous, big-dick horn. The sky was still pitch-dark.

“People are sleeping,” I hissed at him through his open window. I stubbed out the cigarette and walked around to the passenger side. I slammed the door as I climbed in.

“No, why don’t you shut it a little louder,” he said. “I don’t think the whole town quite heard that.”

“If you’re so worried about time you could have taken the fucking 5.”

We argued about which way to go. “If we go through San Francisco,” I said, “we will get stuck for hours.” He said we’d miss the rush-hour traffic. He said, How many times have you ever driven this route? I said, How many times have you?

We didn’t even look at each other for hours. He stopped in some tiny town for coffee. On the wall inside was a sign, one of those ones with the white letters that you can rearrange yourself. It said:

 

CARTER’S RESTAURANT

THE LORD OUR

GOD IS MERCIFUL

AND FORGIVING

EVEN THOUGH WE

HAVE REBELLED

AGAINST HIM

DANIEL 9:9

 

I asked for my coffee to go and walked dozens of circles around the parking lot outside. I looked in, once, and Johnny was holding the phone to his ear, passing his other hand through the steam rising from his cup. Back in the car I said, Was that your sister? and he said no. I knew he was lying because he sniffed, touched his wrist to his nose.

When we were gridlocked on the Richmond-San Rafael bridge I looked straight through the windshield.

“Johnny?”

He took a real long time to answer. “What.”

“Eat me the fuck out.”

 

I was so mad I fell asleep, like an infant. When I woke up we were out of the city again and I was sorry for being petty. He was allowed to be mean. His mother was dying.

In Monterey we heard the seals barking before we were out of the car. The wind was gritty; the sun poured out of the sky as if through a gash. I remembered staying with him here one summer. The motel had been right by Cannery Row, with enormous pictures of Steinbeck on the stucco walls. We’d both started to read the novel. Neither of us had finished it.

He parked by the water. Ukiah, Brookings, Portland, Tacoma all seemed a very long time ago. He said, “Can we just be nice for a couple of hours? Can we please just be pleasant about this?” I nodded. I felt ashamed in a dull way. I touched the back of my hand to his. We hooked our little fingers together like kids making a promise.

We walked out on the pier. The air smelled fishy and cold. I bought us each a sandwich, fresh salmon and Philly on white bread, and we both said we were surprised at how hungry we were. The gulls made a sound like falling sheafs of paper when they took off all at once.

We climbed the stairs to the deck at the end of the pier. There was a row of small boats tied neatly down below, painted in blues and whites. I could see dirty rainwater sliding over their wooden decks.

“What are we going to tell your mom?” I asked.

“I think… I mean, just nothing. She thinks we’re still engaged. We don’t need to tell her anything particular.”

Our sandwiches had come in a paper bag, and he was folding and refolding it, running his thumbnail over the creases. “What did you tell your mom?” he asked.

“Just what happened. Just that it ended.”

“Did you go home?”

“No. I just said we’d wait for Christmas.” The sun was in my eyes.

“Did you tell her it was my fault?”

“I didn’t. But she would think that. Mothers always take their children’s side.”

He nodded then, and I nodded to the boats. We began the walk back to the car, that crypt.

 

Only about an hour later, his sister phoned. We were on a winding road so closed in by redwoods that Johnny had thrown on the headlights.

“Hello, Nina,” he said. “Will you hold on? I need to put you on speaker. I’m driving.” He fiddled around with his mobile. He glanced at me. “Okay. I’m in the car. With Abby.”

“Hi, Abby,” his sister said.

“Hi, Neen. Listen, I’m so sorry to hear about your mom.”

“Thank you,” she said. “Johnny. Are you there? How much longer?”

“We’re just about at Big Sur,” he said. “I guess we’ll be another five or six hours. I guess it depends on the traffic coming in.”

“What the fuck are you doing out there?”

“We took the 1.”

“You did, huh. You took the fucking 1.”

“We’ll be there in a couple hours.”

“I don’t know what will happen in a couple hours, John.”

Speaking in hours. Her voice sounded just like his.

We were out of the forest. The sky was wide and bright again. The ocean right there, where it had been all along.

“I can’t get there any faster now,” he said.

“I needed you to be here faster two weeks ago,” she said. “This isn’t some fucking cute road trip. I don’t know what will happen in a couple hours.” She’d reached a crescendo. She breathed. She said, “I apologize, Abby.”

She’d disconnected before either of us had a chance to respond. Johnny yanked the phone from his dash. He held it in front of his mouth.

“NINA—YOU—ARE—A—CUNT!” he screamed, with a kind of intensity that must have made his guts tremble. “FUCKING—CUNT!”

“Johnny.” It seemed the whole car was shaking with his fury. The air shimmered with it. I pried the phone from his white fingers. “Pull the car over. Stop driving.” He must have been doing eighty miles an hour. “John. Stop the car. I’m scared.”

He pulled the car over to the shoulder. It skidded some, lurched there by the redwoods. He threw open the car door. He crossed the highway. I got out uncertainly. I shut his door and stood there dumbly. I was frightened to follow him. I had a feeling he was going to do something crazy.

All he did was yell.

When I say all he did.

It was the saddest sound I ever heard in my life. There were no words, just him with the pain in his lungs, bellowing out smoke from the grief in there. It seemed to me as if all the world, the redwoods and the cliffs and the ocean and whatever birds were out there, was recoiling from him. Johnny was screaming at the ocean, and I was crying but I hadn’t realized it, and my mouth felt slack, like in those dreams where you want to speak but can’t, and then Johnny was hoarse. He took a last lungful of air, spat it out with his broken voice. He crouched on his haunches in the grass. I crossed the road. I knelt beside him.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s okay. I’m so sorry for you. I wish there was something I could do.”

He stood unsteadily. “We have to go.”

“I don’t want you driving,” I said.

“You can’t drive a stick shift,” he said, and flung out a hand toward the car. He sounded deranged. He had mad eyes.

“Then you can fucking teach me. I don’t want you driving.”

We stood by the roadside.

“We can’t stay here,” he said.

“I hate how you’ve—rigged this so I can’t escape. I can’t drive that stupid car.”

“I hate how you’re acting like I plotted this. You didn’t have to come.”

“Of course I did,” I said, amazed. “Of course I did, you fuck.”

I was so on edge I thought I might kill him. I said, “What about that motel we stayed at last Christmas?”

“She’s at Cedars-Sinai. We’re only five hours away. I really just want to get there, Abby.”

I thought of him last night in the dark, saying you’re the only person I could have asked. I thought of him last time we’d been here, standing on a boulder hundreds of feet above the edge of the Pacific, saying I like things that make me feel small.

“I don’t want to get in the car with you driving,” I said again.

“I’ll be safe.”

We were both destroyed. We got back into the car. I wound down the window for that cold, clean air. Brine and soil and spruces. The sky was mother-of-pearl, the ocean was silver. The engine turned over. Johnny accelerated gently, to show me he was keeping his word.

 

It was almost eight p.m. when we got to the hospital. Nina came to meet us in the cafeteria. I was moving like a puppet. I kept having to remind myself that she hadn’t heard her brother calling her a fucking cunt and screaming at the ocean. She’d calmed down some, too.

“I appreciate you coming,” she said to me. I shook my head. I was sitting beside Johnny, and both of us opposite her, at one of the cafeteria tables. She looked exhausted. She looked just like Johnny. “She was conscious today, you know, lucid. It was the first time in a few days. I told her you were coming.”

“Thank you,” said Johnny. “How is she now?”

“She’s not—I mean, she’s asleep again. But the nurses think she can hear. You can go on over.”

He stood. I did, too. I said, “I’ll come with you.”

He touched my arm. “Maybe tomorrow,” he said. “If she’s tired now. You know. I won’t stay long. I think I just want to be alone with her a second.”

Nina walked him over to the Becker building, then she came back to sit with me. We were mostly too tired to talk. I didn’t want to drink any more coffee. I kept looking at her face, smooth and weary, under the fluorescent lights. She’d smile at me. She kept saying thanks for coming all this way with him, as though the distance were the weird part of it all.

 

In the morning he went straight back to the hospital. I brought in our things from the car. Last night we’d arrived and collapsed in our clothes. I went from room to room and pushed open the windows. The air was light and fusty. Something in me wanted it to be nice for Johnny when he got home. I wiped down the surfaces that had begun to collect dust, tipped water on the houseplants. I threw out the milk, the newspapers, the blackened avocados in the fruit bowl. I stood in the kitchen until my breathing matched the puffing of the net curtain at the window over the sink.

He was gone all day. He didn’t say much when he got home. It was already getting dark.

“Nina is with her now,” he said. “With the kids. I told them to come, since she was awake. Neen keeps saying she can’t believe it.”

“Have you eaten?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I thought I’d come home now while the others are there. If you don’t mind—I thought maybe after dinner—I thought maybe we could go back.”

“Of course,” I said. I would have done most anything he’d asked.

The front yard was pretty in the cooling hour. We walked the six blocks or so, sat in a window to eat our burritos and watch the rain.

“She was worse than I thought,” he said.

“Did she know who you were?”

“Yeah.” He wiped his hands on his jeans. He stacked the plastic yellow baskets one inside the other. “Nina said she rallied. Said she’d hung on for me.” He laughed like he didn’t believe it.

“It happens,” I said.

“She’s working tomorrow.”

“I’ll come with you then, too.”

 

We walked back to the house, got into the car, headed straight there. I hadn’t realized I was nervous about seeing Cathy, but when we pulled into the parking lot my palms were damp and my heart was going fast. I was sad for the first time.

“She’s not hooked up to anything anymore,” he said as we waited for the elevator. “I didn’t know that would happen.”

“Yeah, that’s how it works,” I said. “I guess it is kind of shocking.”

“It seems barbaric.”

“It’s the best way,” I said.

The door to her room was open. Before I saw her bed, I saw a rubber mattress on the floor, where I guess Johnny had spent the day, and Nina before him. Nina’s kids were sitting there now, quieter than I’d ever seen them. The boy had his fingers in his mouth. I thought about how kids and animals know things. And then I saw her, crabbed and shrunken in her white sheets. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been the kind of woman you’d describe as “petite,” “diminutive” even. In that bed in the Becker building, there was something fetal about her. She was asleep. Her mouth gaped open like a baby bird’s. I saw her heart thumping beneath her pajama shirt—midnight blue, silk, with cream piping around the collar and cuffs. It seemed it might tear through her chest.

Johnny and Nina nodded at each other. The kids barely registered our arrival, but I bent down and whispered hi, and the boy crawled into my arms. I felt his toddler weight fall against me.

Johnny sat on the edge of the bed. He touched Cathy’s forehead, like a parent checking for fever. “Mom,” he said. “Mom. I’m back. I brought Abby. Abby’s here.” He had to try a few times, but eventually her lids opened and her fingers twitched. I saw the fury of her body trying to pull itself into the world.

“Yes,” she said, like he was telling her a joke. She smiled. Her eyes closed and opened. “My loves,” she said. I moved to kiss her forehead. Her skin was dry.

“Hello, Cathy,” I said. I slipped my hand in hers. I think she squeezed my fingers, but I could have imagined it.

“Oh, I’m so happy you’re here,” she mumbled. “There’s not enough hours in a day. Or we’re greedy. I’m not sure which.” She tried for a laugh. Her chest was heaving in an obscene way. Nina and Johnny were looking at each other with something I registered as wonder, shaking their heads, wide-eyed. I realized this was the best, the most alive, they’d seen their mother. Nina whispered she hasn’t spoken since the weekend.

“You look beautiful, Cathy,” I said.

“I just wish I got to see more of all of you,” she said. “Yes. He’s always so busy, isn’t he, Johnny. What do you suppose he does all day?” I almost laughed. Her eyelids flickered. Her heart thumped away obstinately.

 

Outside the room Johnny said, quietly, “She’s so thirsty. This is barbaric.”

“It’s how it works, Johnno,” I said. “I’m sorry it’s like this. But you have to know—this happens all the time. I know it’s hard to see, but I promise this is all normal.”

Nina emerged from the room. She had the baby on her hip. Her daughter, the older kid, hung in the doorway.

“Thank you for coming,” Nina said. “That was incredible. I’m glad she saw you both.”

“She would have wanted in-home care,” Johnny said in a low voice.

Nina nodded. “Well, thank you for being here when I had to make that decision. Thank you very fucking much for making yourself available.” She looked down at her children, as though she were surprised to find them there.

Johnny and I didn’t speak until we were in the parking lot. Then he said thank you. He said, You are a very good little actress.

 

We got home and began to fuck like it was nothing at all.

Our bodies were confused. It was like coming home.

“I miss this,” he said.

“You don’t. You don’t.”

“You don’t know.”

“Stop saying that.”

We were in the guest room. We were lying on its bedspread, duck-egg blue. I wasn’t certain I could fall asleep beside him, but every other room seemed a strange choice.

“Do you think we could have ever made it work?” he asked.

I sat up. I fished around for my sweatshirt. “No, Johnny.”

“I know,” he said. “I love you like I love myself.”

“You hate yourself.”

“I don’t hate myself. Sometimes I just kind of—can’t bear it. You know what I mean?”

“No.”

“God, Abby, you’re being a real cunt. You’re being so hard.”

“I’m a cunt,” I said. “Your sister is a cunt.”

“Well, don’t talk to me like I’m a stranger.”

“I don’t know how to play this,” I said helplessly. “You can tell your mom whatever you want but we’re acting. That was a past life.”

His face scrunched up in an ugly way. He was crying.

 

I got up and closed all the windows. I ran a shower. When I went back to the guest room he’d fallen asleep on top of the covers. I went to his sister’s room and dragged her duvet to the couch.

In the morning I heard him talking to the woman next door. I looked out the window at him. He was wearing a sweatshirt that must have belonged to his sister. Dartmouth, its crest, white on pine green, the motto: VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO.

 

We drove back to the hospital. The traffic made me hostile. I said, “I hate this city.”

“You wouldn’t if you’d grown up here.”

We were on the freeway. I was feeling like I’d rather get out and walk.

“I hate Wichita,” I said. “I grew up there.”

“Wichita is the butthole of the earth.”

“Don’t talk about it like that.”

“See,” he said. “You don’t hate Wichita. Anyway, there are nice parts of L.A.”

“Like what?”

“The dog park up on Mulholland.”

“The dog park.” I started to laugh and couldn’t stop. I didn’t care if he’d been serious or not. He was laughing, too, both of us weak and sobbing with it, there, not halfway to the hospital. We just could not stop.

 

Cathy passed away before noon. Johnny was with her. I was downstairs on the street, walking around in the sun, on the phone to my own mom. As soon as I set foot back in the room, I knew what had happened. Johnny was sitting on the rubber mattress on the floor, his legs spilling onto the linoleum.

Nina was already on her way in. It didn’t seem fair that she hadn’t been there, with all the vigils she’d kept. She arrived with her husband. She touched Cathy’s hands, folded, then her cheek, then her hair. She looked from Johnny’s face to mine.

“You can stop now,” she said.

But we sat there for a few hours more. None of us was in any hurry. Cathy looked younger than she had in years. All the pain had gone from her face. She was newborn.

 

In the family house that night I fixed us a lazy supper. We watched the evening news. There had been a mudslide in Washington. Two boys were still missing. Their father hoped they might be alive—trapped, somehow, in a pocket of air in the mud. After we ate Johnny went down to the cellar and came back with a bottle of Bryant Family Cabernet. He said, “I’m an orphan now. We might as well.”

We sat out in the yard to drink, on the heavy lawn furniture. I smoked and he did, too. The phone kept ringing inside. After the fourth call he disconnected it. I was very tired. The garden was cool and closed in with pines and oleanders and other things I didn’t know the names of.

That night he slept in his childhood room and I went to the guest room. In the carpeted hall that led from one to the other, we stood opposite each other, and he kissed me with his devastated expensive wine mouth. He held my face with both his hands. He said: “You were great.”