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Authors: Ann Tatlock

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BOOK: Travelers Rest
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“I see.”

“No one can pronounce their real names, so everyone just calls them Hoboken and Sausalito.”

“And”—Jane looked from one to the other—“which is which?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Sausalito said. “We will answer to either name.”

“But our real names are not so hard,” Hoboken added. “They are Hangson Bwambale and Bwanandeke Baluku. Easier than the nicknames we’ve been given.”

“That’s what you think,” Seth said. “By the way, I haven’t introduced you to . . . ” He paused a moment before going on. “ . . . to my friend, Jane Morrow.”

The young men acknowledged her with smiles and nods. “So how long have you been in the States?” Jane asked.

“Almost two years,” Sausalito replied. He was on one side of the bed now, unlatching the straps, while Hoboken was on the other side doing the same. “We are both students at the university. We work here at the hospital part-time.”

When the straps were unlatched, the two young men rolled Seth onto his side, tucked the sling up against his back, rolled Seth onto his other side, then pulled the sling out from under him.

It’s like rolling a log,
Jane thought. Insentient wood. Dead weight. Anyone could do anything to Seth, and he couldn’t stop them.

“What are you studying?” Jane asked, trying hard not to feel unnerved.

Sausalito lifted the bag of urine and hooked it onto the side of the bed. The catheter snaked its way upward from the bag and disappeared underneath Seth’s shirt. “We are both in the nursing school,” he said. “We have an uncle in Uganda who is a doctor. Right now he works in a hospital in Kampala, the capital, but he wants to open a rural clinic where there has never been one. We will work for him.”

“That’s wonderful.”

Seth said, “Hoboken is taking special classes in how to push a wheelchair without killing the patient.”

The cousins laughed again, and Jane joined in. Seth was still there, his sense of humor still in place. It made her feel hopeful.

Sausalito began to pull the sheet up to Seth’s shoulders and then paused, looking thoughtful. “Mr. Seth, why don’t you show Miss Jane what you accomplished in physical therapy today?”

Seth looked up at Sausalito, then looked away. “It’s nothing.”

“Oh no, Mr. Seth. It’s not nothing. It’s something very good.”

“What is it, Seth?” Jane asked. She took a step closer to the bed.

“Come on,” Sausalito prodded. “Show her what you can do.”

The luster evaporated from Seth’s eyes, and his face turned stony. For a moment Jane wasn’t sure whether he was angry or simply concentrating. Then, finally, she saw the movement, the slightest bit of lift to his left shoulder. His arm rose from the bed an inch, maybe two, before falling again.

“Seth! You can raise your arm!” Jane cried.

Both of the cousins smiled proudly. “He did it for the first time today,” Hoboken explained. “It’s a huge accomplishment. It is for Mr. Seth . . . how do you say? It’s a red-letter day!”

“Oh, Seth, it’s wonderful,” Jane said.

Seth looked at her, said nothing, looked away.

After a few more words of encouragement, the two aides left, taking the wheelchair and the lift with them. The room was suddenly very large and very quiet.

Seth looked at Jane, then up at the ceiling. “Well,” he said, “I hope you understand now.”

Jane placed both hands on the bed railing. “What do you mean?”

“We had wanted a simple life. Nothing is simple now. You can see that, can’t you?”

Jane drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll learn to do whatever needs to be done. Other people do it all the time.”

Seth’s head moved from side to side on the pillow. His voice was quiet and calm when he said, “I don’t care what other people do. I don’t want you spending your life taking care of me.”

“But what if that’s what I want?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” he snapped.

The Seth of a moment before was gone. Jane reeled against the sting of his words. “I’m going to pretend as though you didn’t say that, Seth.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“Listen, do you know anything about the reality of this? And don’t think it’s going to be just like taking care of an infant, Jane, because it’s not. Babies don’t get bedsores. Babies don’t have catheter tubes embedded in their groins. Babies grow up—”

“Seth, I never said it would be like taking care of a baby—”

“You’d be a full-time nurse. Twenty-four seven. Being a nurse is not the same thing as being a wife—”

“Yes, I realize—”

“So I want you to really think hard about it, what life would be like if we got married.”

“I
have
thought hard about it. It’s almost all I’ve thought about for the past six months.”

“And how do you think we’re going to manage?”

“We’ll manage the way other people do who are in the same situation. I’m willing to try if you are.”

“It will never be what we’d dreamed of.”

“So we change the dream.”

“To what, Jane? I’m helpless and I’m useless. I can’t do anything.”

“You’re not useless. And anyway, you might improve. I mean, look, you can raise your arm now.”

“So? So maybe someday I’ll feed myself with a spoon strapped to my hand. Big deal. I won’t be getting my fine motor skills back. They’ve already told me that. I’m not like Stephen Hawking who can do his brain work from a wheelchair. I’m a carpenter. I work with tools and wood. I work with my
hands,
Jane.”

Oh yes, he worked with his hands. How often had she watched him work his magic? To Jane, he was more than a carpenter, he was an artist. He could take ordinary wood and fashion it into objects of beauty. Even before he began a new project, he saw the end, the finished product, the way Michelangelo was said to see the statue in the untouched slab of marble. Seth’s talent was a gift. What was he to do if he couldn’t use his gift?

As though he could read her thoughts, Seth asked, “So what am I going to do now? How am I going to make a living?”

Jane frowned as she shook her head. “You can get disability. I’ll keep teaching. We’ll be all right.”

A small muscle worked in Seth’s jaw. “I can’t decide whether you’re trying to be a martyr or a saint.”

“I’m not trying to be either one. I’m just trying to marry the man I love.”

“Yeah? Well, the man you love doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Oh yes he does. I saw him just a minute ago when those two aides were here, though he seems to have left right along with them.”

He didn’t take the bait. Instead, shifting topics, he said, “I’ll never build you that house now. I was going to buy us a plot of land, build the house from the ground up.”

“It’s all right, Seth. I don’t have to have the house—”

“And what about children? You always wanted children.”

After a long moment, Jane said, “If we can’t have our own, maybe we can adopt—”

Seth cut her off. “If we had children, I could never pick them up, put my arms around them.” Then, in a whisper, “Please don’t do that to me.”

Jane backed away from the bed. She walked to the window and looked out again. “Listen, I can’t figure it out all at once. I can only get through today and that’s it. Getting married and having kids, that’ll come later. We’ll handle those things when we’re ready.”

She gazed up at the cloudless sky, but the blue escaped her. She didn’t see anything except what might have been. At length Seth’s voice, a wounded whisper, drifted to her across the room. “Jane?”

“Yes, Seth?”

“I’ve been thinking a lot since yesterday, since you were here yesterday,” he said.

She turned from the window. “About what?”

A pained look settled on his brow. “Do you really still love me?”

“Of course, Seth. I love you.”

“Then, will you help me?”

She took a step toward him. “You know I’ll help you. I’ll do anything.”

“Anything?”

She went to him then and, bending down close to his face, laid a hand on his cheek. “Yes. Just tell me. What do you want me to do?”

He looked up at her beseechingly, his eyes restless on her face. “I don’t want to live like this,” he said quietly. “If you love me, please help me die.”

6

C
hurch bells were ringing somewhere. Jane could hear them through the open window in the breakfast nook of the kitchen. She wondered whether they might be the bells in the Basilica of St. Lawrence, but she decided that the downtown church was too far away. It must be another church, one closer to the Penlands’ house, sending out a hymn on this warm Sunday morning.

Jane took another sip of coffee. She had scarcely slept all night, and what little sleep she could manage was filled with troubled dreams. At 5:00
A.M.
she’d finally given up. She’d come to the kitchen to drink coffee and wait for dawn. Three hours later she was still drinking coffee while watching the sunlight play across the grass. The two rat terriers, Roscoe and Juniper, lay curled up at her feet beneath the kitchen table, waiting for breakfast.

Jane wasn’t aware of the dogs or of her own gnawing hunger. Both hands circled the ceramic mug as she gazed intently out the window and back in time. The morning light gave way to a darkened room in the Rayburn house where she sat beside her mother, watching the movie on video that they had already watched over and over. Meredith Belmont in silk and crinoline, the leading man heartbreakingly handsome in the pale gray uniform of the Confederate soldier . . .

“Good morning, Jane.”

Jane jumped at the sound of Diana’s voice. She turned and saw her friend headed toward the coffeepot. “Oh, you startled me.”

“Sorry about that.”

“It’s all right. Carl still sleeping?”

“Like a baby. You looked like you were deep in thought.”

“I guess I was.”

Diana poured herself a cup, then sat down beside Jane at the table. Roscoe came to have his ear scratched, and Diana obliged. “Well,” she said, “as the old saying goes, penny for your thoughts?”

Jane gave a small, tentative smile. She raised the mug to her lips, took a sip, set it back down on the table. For a moment she considered lying, then decided to tell the truth. “I was just thinking about my mother,” she confessed.

Her friend looked puzzled. “What about her?”

“Oh, you know, about the movies.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, you remember how she used to sit in our apartment at the house watching those three or four movies over and over, the ones that ended up on videotape?”

Diana nodded. “Yeah, I remember.”

“When I was real young, she would sometimes pat the couch and invite me to sit down beside her. You know, watch with her. And when it came to certain parts, she’d point to the television and say, ‘Look, Janie. That’s your mother. That’s me.’”

“Uh-huh.” Diana sounded decidedly unimpressed.

“I couldn’t understand it. I’d look at that beautiful young face on the screen, and then I’d look at the woman beside me, and . . . well . . . I didn’t believe her. I thought she was lying. One day, though, I saw the credits, and there was her name, her maiden name, Meredith Belmont, and I realized the woman in the movie really was my mother. But it still didn’t make sense. It was this huge mystery to me. Kind of like . . .” Jane paused and laughed lightly. “Kind of like Jim Nabors, you know? How could someone who talked like Gomer Pyle sing like Jim Nabors?”

Diana guffawed at that. “I know what you mean,” she said. “By the time I knew your mom, I’d never have guessed she’d once been a Hollywood beauty.”

“You’re right. And it wasn’t because she was old or because she had let herself go all that much. She might have still been pretty, if it weren’t for the sadness. She was just so sad and weary and, I don’t know, worn-out before her time, I guess.”

“And I don’t think the alcohol helped.”

Jane turned her gaze toward the window. She felt her throat tighten. “I’m sure it didn’t.”

“I’ve always thought when she bled to death, more booze than blood came out.”

They were quiet then, remembering. Roscoe turned circles under the table, then lay back down and closed his eyes. Jane said, “Once, I asked Laney why Mom was so sad. Laney stopped what she was doing, and she sat me down at the kitchen table. ‘Jane, honey,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell you why your mother’s so sad if you promise not to tell her I said so.’ I told her I wouldn’t say anything. I just wanted to know what was wrong with Mom. All these years later I still remember how Laney put it. ‘It’s because no one worships her anymore.’” Jane paused in thought. “She said Mom went and fell off her throne when she couldn’t get any more parts in the movies. Then Laney just kind of patted my hand and went back to cooking like I was supposed to be satisfied, but I still didn’t get it. I just couldn’t understand why Mom was depressed, why she’d sit in our apartment watching herself on television. I wouldn’t understand for a long time.”

Quietly, Diana asked, “And do you think you understand now?”

“I think so. She had five good years in Hollywood. She lived her dream. She made it into the movies. She could go to the theater and see her own face up there on the screen. For a few years she was adored by her fans, and she got addicted to the attention. I mean, it really did become an addiction, like she had to have it to stay alive, you know?”

Jane looked at Diana, who nodded.

“Then, the roles dried up,” Jane went on, “and she couldn’t get any more parts. She became a has-been. Finally, I think more out of financial desperation than anything else, she married Dad.” Jane frowned thoughtfully. “Dad was in his hippie phase back then, drifting around out west, trying to find himself. I don’t know if he ever found himself, but he did find Mom, and not long afterward he brought her back to Troy, a place where no one seemed to recognize her. Or if they did know who she was, they didn’t care. She became just another small-town nobody, a role she could never accept. And so began the long downward spiral that killed her when she was only forty-three.”

Diana got up from the table and headed back to the coffeepot. Watching the stream of steaming coffee flowing into her cup, she was conveniently turned away from Jane when she said, “Your mother killed herself, Jane. She wasn’t killed by circumstances.”

BOOK: Travelers Rest
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