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Joan Wilking

Lizzyís Bed

My friend Lizzy is dying a little less today than yesterday. Yesterday she couldnít eat, couldnít sleep, words poured out of her in an incoherent stream. Today the words have come together again, have coalesced for the moment at least.

"Janie." Lizzy says when she opens her eyes and sees itís me. "When are we going to go out and have some fun?"

"Youíre back," I say, stroking her hand from the wrist down to the fingertips splayed out on the coverlet as if sheís taking the temperature of the bed.

"Donít get your hopes up," her daughter Nikki reminded me before I walked into the room. "Itís only the drugs."

The fickle steroids have resurrected her again. But for how long?

I try to visualize the inside of Lizzyís head, the spiderís web of alien cells, replicating, threading themselves through, displacing Lizzy from herself.

Was it really just a year ago we climbed a mountain in Peru? I was fearless then. Iíd walked straight out to the edge of a rock to watch emerald hummingbirds swoop into the plunging river valley below.

"If this rock breaks off right now and sends me hurtling, Iíll die happy," Iíd said.

Lizzy had laughed at me and put her hand out like a crossing guard.

"I want us all to remember this," sheíd said, sweeping her hand back and forth across the dizzying view.

Nikki, impatient to keep moving, had hummphed. Lizzyís boyfriend Lou had stood apart, aiming the lens of his Nikon at us. We didnít know then what we know now.

This year what we will remember is Lizzy in her bed.

 

Itís a big bed; queen size, dressed in a white linen skirt, white sheets, white quilts, white coverlet, white pillows. Pillows stacked up behind her, around her, beneath her. The room is white too, the window trim, the baseboards, the door, bright, the walls, a mushroomy eggshell. A bay window frames a triptych, a minimalist landscape of ocean, marsh grass, and sky. The colors change every day.

"Lou should set up the Hassleblad," I say, looking out. "He should set it up right here and take a picture every day at exactly the same time."

Nikki is draped across the end of the bed, thumbing through one of Lizzyís Architectural Digests.

"What on earth would he want to do that for?" she asks.

A look clouds her face. She crawls closer to her mother, curls up to her, stroking the cashmere watch cap thatís keeping the draft from Lizzyís addled head, hairless now from the treatments that didnít work. Lizzy smiles and leans into her touch.

"Youíre O.K. sitting with her for a while?" I ask. She nods.

Sheís close to thirty, but still looks like a little girl in her tight tank top, shorts and sneakers, her hair pulled back into a sleek blonde ponytail. Sheís a gym rat, snatching every extra minute she can to work out or run or bike. She has spent these months meticulously going through all of Lizzyís things, her linens, her silver, her books, her jewelry. Sheís ironed and polished and divided everything into plastic bags, each with a handwritten note.

Nona cross-stitched these in 1955.

Mom bought this set at Pratesi in 1989.

And so on.

In the living room, cardboard boxes filled with photographs, empty albums, and piles of small antique frames are scattered everywhere. I reach into one of the boxes and pull out a tattered photo, a snapshot, Lizzy, so young, still beautiful, pushing a stroller. 1968? 1969? I put it back again.

 

The kitchen is full of men.

At the table, Gary, Lizzyís ex-husband sits, half-glasses perched on his nose, shuffling through piles of loose papers: insurance forms, financial statements, bills. He gets up when he realizes itís me.

"Well look who it is," he says. "I havenít seen you in nine, or is it ten, years."

We hug. "Awful, just awful, isnít it?" he says. I canít disagree.

Everyone else says, "Isnít it wonderful. Garyís here." But I think, "Why not? Itís easy for him now that all thatís left is a little time and a lot of money."

"You look good," I say, although I notice the sweater heís wearing would have made Lizzy laugh in the days when she could still laugh about him. Itís one of those multi-color knits, too many patterns patch-worked together. Something he never would have worn when she was his wife. His pain looks genuine and it surprises me that it should, for appearanceís sake at least, look as real as mine.

"You look good too," he says, but Iím sure heís noticed the pounds Iíve put on, and the change of hair color from dark to a blonder brown.

Lou stands at the stove dressed in a baseball cap, sneakers, and blue jeans. Heís wearing an apron over his T-shirt, probably one of Lizzyís flea market finds. Itís pink, with a bib and rick-rack. He hasnít shaved today. Blue flames lick at an object heís waving over the stove. For a split second I recoil, thinking itís some sort of animal heart, before I recognize it for what it really is, a red pepper.

"She loves these," Lou says in the too cheery voice thatís beginning to drive us all a little nuts. "This is the way her Nona used to make them. She taught me. You have to get them right down into the flame," he says, as if heís conducting a cooking lesson.

I walk around to the other end of the table and pry the lid off a bright yellow Kodak box. In the midst of Lizzyís dying Lou is hanging a show of his photography at a local gallery. When he isnít sitting with her, or cooking, heís bathed in the red light of the darkroom. These pictures, eight by tens, black and whites, are Cuban street scenes, Peruvian markets, ancient Vietnamese women holding startled looking babies, boatmen on a river in Thailand

Nikki loves Lou. She hasnít seen much of Gary since the divorce, less because of him than Lizzy. That her father is standing in the kitchen of her motherís house might seem unremarkable to anyone who hadnít known Lizzy before. For the rest of us itís as foreign, as unlikely a place for him to be, as the most remote locations in Louís bright yellow box.

"What did Nikki do with the balsamic?" Lou is asking. "What happened to the garlic? I like to press a lot of garlic on these. Thatís the way Lizzy likes them."

"I donít understand," Gary says. "It seems to have happened so fast. I couldnít believe it when Nikki called. Sheíd been so fit, all that tennis, skiing, the mountain you climbed in Chile."

"Peru," I say. "It was Peru."

 

On a side street off an open air marketplace in the thin air of Cuzco, Lizzy and I sat in a cafe watching a picture postcard woman in a straw brimmed hat, brightly colored striped shawl, and full skirt, wait for the light to change. In one hand she held a rope tied to an alpaca. It stood behind her, patient, like a dutiful child. Strapped to her back was a bundle of greens, trailing almost to the ground. In her other hand she held a stick which she deftly spun around and around. As we watched, the ball of yarn at the top grew. Trucks and mopeds sped by. We sat watching the inevitable clash of cultures, sipping mate tea to ward off the headaches we were likely to suffer from venturing so high, talking about what we always talked about. How we would most likely never marry again.

"Your two were crazy bastards, but even so, the thing I still canít figure out is that you didnít care once they were gone, you pushed them both out the door," sheíd said, part of a conversation we had had over and over again.

"What was the point of hanging on to it? All that bitterness. Look at you. Itís way past time to give it up. You let it poison everything you do."

"Easy for you to say. Your husband didnít come home after twenty-two years and announce that he wanted romance and passion in his life but not with you."

"If I remember correctly there were some extenuating circumstances."

"What do you know about it? Maybe I had reason."

"But that was all years ago. You got a pile in the settlement."

"I got taken to the cleaners. Those lawyers are the only ones who really made out."

I knew it wasnít true. Iíd been in the bright red Jaguar, the house at the beach, the downtown condo full of the yard sale and country auction finds she loved as much as her expensive antiques.

"What about Lou?" I asked. "He treats you like youíre some kind of goddess. What about him?"

"Oh, him. Thatís nothing. Heís too old for me."

"Thatís ridiculous. Heís only three years older than you are."

"Not in the head," sheíd said. "Not in the head."

Talk.

Thatís what Iím going to miss the most, that and her pixie face, her impeccable eye, her edge, her rippling undercurrent of anger, never far away, that too.

 

"Sit down. Sit down everyone," Lou is saying. "Try these."

His smile is brittle. I take one of the plates. Itís delicate painted porcelain, very old, very good. The pepper looks like a pumped up poinsettia petal. I cut into it with the edge of my fork and take a taste. Itís a pungent combination of sweet and sour, garlicky but not too.

"Theyíre perfect, Lou," I say and he smiles a smile so sad-eyed it sucks the last little bit of hope I have left out of me.

 

I do the right things. Wash the dishes when everyone is through. Put the vinegar, the garlic and the oil away. Scrub the counters clean. Comment on Louís photographs. Listen to Gary lament some more before I go to in to say goodbye.

Nikki is still stretched out on the bed. Sheís giggling. Lizzy is snoring like a truck driver.

She gets up and comes to the door when she sees me.

"Iím going to take Dad in after you leave," she says.

"Are you sure?" I ask.

She knows what Iím thinking. That Lizzy in her last gasp might leap from the bed to attack him.

"Iíve already told her heís here. She just smiled. So weird. You know. After all thatís gone on."

"You need to do what feels right to you," I say. "It isnít anyone elseís business. Not now."

 

Lizzyís quiet, propped up, her arms sheathed in the sleeves of a white cotton gown. She looks like a doll, a decoration. The hat has slipped off. It lies next to her head. Her hair is beginning to grow back in. Itís gray. Gone is the perfectly sun streaked blonde. She was never hung up about her hair, even though the facelift scars made her bald head look like the handiwork of Dr. Frankenstein, sheíd gone hatless, wigless, everywhere until she got too sick to go anywhere anymore. Everyone who sees her now comments on the same thing, her sweetness, her lack of vanity. It wasnít always that way. This Lizzy is a kinder gentler version of who she used to be.

Thanks to Nikki the room doesnít look like a sickroom. No pill bottles or vials, no bedpans, or walker visible anywhere. The room is quiet, peaceful, flooded with afternoon light reflected off the marsh. I sit down on the edge of the bed and slip my hand into hers. The bones feel birdlike against my more padded fingers. I squeeze and she squeezes back.

"How you doing sweetie?" I say. "Iím headed home now but Iíll be back tomorrow.

"They say there is a man here I used to be married to. Is that true?" she says, her eyes still closed, her voice just a wisp.

"Yes, itís true. He came to help sort things out, to help Nikki, to help you."

"Is that so?" she says. "Someone came. Someone Iím supposed to have been married to. He claims to have been my husband. Isnít that something," she says with a chuckle, her eyes open now, seeing me, knowing itís me as she lapses into babble as animated as if the words sheís speaking are making perfect sense. The drugs are wearing off.

When I turn toward the door Nikki is standing there. She looks frail, so small. Lou stands behind her holding a plate of peppers cut into neat bite-size squares, too red, too fresh against the white of the porcelain plate. He looks ridiculous, a grizzled elf in a baseball cap and apron. Behind him Gary is leaning, his face turned to the hallway wall. Louís eyes are glazed with tears. Nikki is dry-eyed. Cried out? Or maybe sheís saving them up, keeping them on account, for the days and weeks to come.

 

The phone rings. 5 a.m. Not a good hour. Something inside me clenches its fist.

Itís Nikki. It canít be. Itís too soon.

"She canít sleep." sheís saying. "Sheís been up all night. I waited as long as I could. Sheís been so restless, insisting she has to talk to you."

Thereís a pause and I can hear her positioning the receiver. I can see every detail of the room, Lizzy in her white bed. Thereís so little of her left now. Sheís floating thanks to the morphine, drifting away from us in the half-light. I draw a breath.

"Can you tell me?" Lizzy says, her voice echoing. "Can you tell me what the hell I was so pissed off at him about for so long?"

"Everything," I want to tell her, wanting to summon her anger back. I want it to shake her, to force her to live some more. But I donít dare tempt that fiery ball. The hard lump left behind when it cools will be too heavy for the rest of us to carry alone.

"Nothing," I say, hoping for Nikkiís sake sheíll be able to sleep. "Absolutely nothing," I lie to my friend who, in these early morning hours, is still dying at the other end of the phone.


Joan Wilking lives with one daughter and a large dog in a small house at the edge of the earth on the Northeastern coast of Massachusetts. Her short fiction has been published in The In Posse Review, Ablemuse, and The Harvard Summer Review.

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