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
"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
The fickle steroids have resurrected her again. But for how
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
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
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
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
"What do you know about it? Maybe I had reason."
"But that was all years ago. You got a pile in the
"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
"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
"Not in the head," sheíd said. "Not in the
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.
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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.