The body's death, to judge from those I have seen, is in itself sufficient punishment, that absolves all.
– Albert Camus, The Fall
Jack Daniels Tennessee whiskey stains his white shirt, the paisley print tie, a present from his granddaughter Michelle last birthday. Or was it Father's Day? No matter. He is drunk; his plans have gone awry and the hour has grown very late.
It had taken him a humiliatingly long part of the morning to get dressed for the occasion. Tying his tie was a black comedy, drawing his thick black belt through the small pant-loops was a burlesque. Tucking his shirt into his pants was pure vaudeville. How he ever got his socks on his feet was another miracle of mirth.
He draws the Browning .22 semi-automatic up to his mouth. Inside the mouth this time or else he could mess it up, as he had nearly with Katherine. His hands, hands that used to fit so snugly, confidently, around the heft of a hammer, hands that played the violin delicately enough to make his mother cry, were now red and bloated with useless age. They shake so hard while holding the Browning, he is afraid he'll fail.
The whiskey helps.
O Katherine, my love, the truths I could have told but I chose to spare you instead. Just as I spare you now from another ICU, another morphine drip. Truths can be more hurtful than a bullet to the brain.
Doctor San shouts at him, prior to checking-out time, "You lucky man, Mr. Oslaw, be in such good health, age eighty-four." Pats the bed beside him. Oslaw can tell that Dr. San finds raising his voice distasteful. But the assumption is that at age 84, Mr. Oslaw must be deaf, already half disappeared from this life and one must hail him back, as one would hail a taxi from a long way away. No need to shout. Oslaw's hearing is fine. Besides, he might point out but does not, it is Dr. San who has traveled such great distances to arrive here in Palo Alto, along with most of the interns and nurses, and now, they're saying, the food and the pharmaceuticals, too. It's a strange thing—and perhaps it's just the fading fumes of the morphine drip that brings on this thought—it's as if all these foreigners with colorful faces and colorful accents have arrived all together from another world to rescue us from disease and disaster.
Dr. San, age indeterminate, a few streaks of gray in the neat hair, few wrinkles, thin, a man in a lab coat, the most modern of men—the final face of godly authority and solace many will see in this life, now that all the good priests are gone.
"You need to stay off your feet a few days. But this time the bone will heal fine."
"Will I need a walker?" Oslaw is aware his voice is coming out in a phlegmy growl, residue from the morphine.
Dr. San frowns slightly and nods. "Yes, it's advised. Just a few weeks, then we'll see." He pauses, seems to consider. Then asks, "Were you in the war, Mr. Oslaw?"
"Just wondering, did you hurt your leg in the war? Strange pin, not great fix. I thought maybe the Army."
"Oh," Oslaw says, "actually, the Navy. The South Pacific."
"Ah! The South Pacific," Dr. San nods and smiles.
"I never really saw combat, though," Oslaw continues though he has no idea why. Perhaps the morphine again. "I made Quonsets with a construction battalion."
Dr. San's smile turns quizzical.
Oslaw clears his throat. He doesn't think he has the energy for this and in all likelihood Dr. San doesn't really care either, is just being polite. "I was a carpenter. I fought the war with a hammer in my hand. The Japanese would sometimes come by the islands and bomb us. That's how I broke my thigh." He settles back, exhausted. "Not great fix, I guess."
"Not great fix," repeats Dr. San with a smile and another pat on the sheet. "But better now."
Katherine, on the other hand, really might be going deaf. It is hard to tell these days. Over the years she's slowly lost her social graces, like shedding her under garments one by one and tossing them to the wind. A byproduct of the forgetting, Sheila the visiting nurse says—the cursing out loud, the shocking, unnerving remarks. It is not predictable what she will remember or hear or say aloud on any given day.
The week before his fateful fall, in a living room full of people: his son Norman and Norman's wife Georgiana; Michelle and Michelle's best friend, a dark-skinned girl named Cynthia. Katherine in her upraised medical chair in her light blue gingham dress and a long bib. Under the dress she wears a diaper. An eighty-year-old woman in a diaper and a bib. A college graduate, a good wife and mother and churchgoer, a kind and thoughtful friend and neighbor, a volunteer for most of her adult life at the Wilkerson nursing home and the local food pantry.
Now this woman, his wife, oblivious, eyes fixed on the TV while her family sits around the room chatting nervously trying to ignore her presence. The volume is down low, but one of those loud-mouthed afternoon TV judges is holding court, a balding black man banging his gavel, mock-anger in his voice chastising a cowering defendant over some petty theft.
From his easy chair across the room, Oslaw sees Katherine cock her head up in an attitude of sudden recognition and he knows all at once that something terribly unwelcome is coming and it is too late to stop it. She waits for a lull in the conversation, points at the TV and announces in a loud voice: "Nig-boy" and turns to face the girls, Michelle and Cynthia, who are sitting together on the flowered couch, as if she is proud of this observation, this surprise revelation: "Nig-boy," she repeats and points again at the TV screen and the gesticulating judge.
There follows an awful silence. Michelle looks at her friend, stricken. Cynthia looks down and sucks in her lower lip and instantly withdraws into herself. Norman and Georgiana quickly sweep the girls out of the room, down the hallway toward the kitchen. Georgiana, her freckled face ablaze, her cheeks nearly the color of her orange-red hair, throws Oslaw an infuriated look, as if it were his fault. More would come later, he knows. "Michelle's grandmother is very ill," she whispers to Cynthia on the way out.
He lingers. He wants to say something to her, to his Katie, or whoever or whatever cruel and strange entity is inhabiting her mind and body these days. But what is there left to say? Three years of her slow, terrifying descent into this other being, barely sensible, barely sentient, and he has run out of words to describe, let alone propitiate. His brief is with God, not her. He sometimes asks God in angry silent prayer: why her, why not me? I'm the bad one. Why are you punishing her? I'm the one who used crude and insensitive language that she often felt obliged to correct. I'm the one who took the hard line in the arguments after Uncle Walter's nightly newscasts, chastised her soft spot for the underdog: the Mexican grape pickers, the Haitian boatpeople, the LA rioters, the Gay Marriage crowd. Her favorite saying, "Every act of kindness is an act of greatness," emblazoned on her stationary and note cards could have come from Christ himself. Now as if in mockery of her sweet, naïve faith in a better world emerges this filth, this abomination.
He rises to his feet and kisses her on her forehead and walks slowly down the hall to face his son and daughter-in-law.
"Dad, my God, let her end her life with dignity."
"She's not dying."
"You know we're not talking about physically." Georgiana taps her temple with a lacquered fingernail. "She doesn't even remember who Michelle is. How long before Norman? Or you?"
"I won't put her away in a cage like an animal. She deserves better than that."
"First of all, it's not a cage. It's a home, a very fine home where she'll get the best of everything," she goes on. "Second of all, deserve? Do you really think she deserves this? Humiliating herself in front of her family and friends?"
"She wouldn't survive in one of those places. She'd be lost."
"And what about you? How long do you think you can keep this up at your age? " says Norman.
And so on.
As they are putting on their coats, Georgiana says, "This isn't over."
He's too tired to do anything but nod.
Katherine, do you remember how it began? San Luis Rey, right outside of Bakersfield, the overpowering smells of sour grapes and horse manure, so hot, so dry, the manure turned to powder and got into your eyes, your very pores. You couldn't wash it off, not with a river of water. It was disgusting, until you got used to it and then you never noticed it again, until you went away for a long time and then came back, then you wondered how you could ever have stood it.
Me in my white counterman's cap and white apron in my father's ice cream and soda shop. It was the Depression, of course, something I guess my father forgot when he got his inheritance. He told the story of oh how he danced a jig the day he opened up, back in 1934 when they rolled in those ten-gallon barrels, so cold they smoked, so cold the ice cream burned your tongue, and how he believed the money would come rolling in right behind them. Forty-seven flavors, all his own inventions but, he soon came to say, they might as all have been vanilla. Then one day when I was sixteen, he went out one hot as Hades night after supper to get some water for the car, he said, and never came back.
You'd come in every other Saturday morning or so with that maid, that colored woman, Cleo, her name was. Remember Cleo? Of course you do. You looked like a storybook princess, with your pretty green eyes and bobbed brown hair with the red or white or blue ribbon and long, cool, light-colored dresses and order Butter Pecan in a dish. Had to be Butter Pecan. Had to be a dish. I fell in love with you back then, the way one would fall in love with someone from far off and far away, somewhere in the clouds, maybe. I never could believe you were really within the four walls of our dirty, dingy, little soda shop, even if for just fifteen minutes every other week with a chaperone. What you ever saw in it. In me, either. Never could figure that one out. Never could figure that one out, Katherine
Do you remember that peculiar fellow, used to hang around the Dell Street tracks, name of Rooney or Roney? Old man with white stubble all over his chin, had no teeth, not a single one, always wore those grease-stained blue overalls, and an old beat up engineer's cap? You wouldn't have known him. Far below your station. Far below my station. Used to work the railroad up near San Jose at one time. Then he retired, or they fired him, I guess, or he had a pension, I don't know. Who knows? Who cares? Is there anyone alive today who ever thinks about that old man, besides me? Who remembers that such a creature once lived among us and breathed the same air? Used to take in all that good clean oxygen and give back nothing but bad breath and the same whining complaint. "Where's my bluebuckle?" he would howl in his mushy voice at my mother and me, each morning, noon, and night he came into the shop, "I want my goddam bluebuckle." Until him, I never thought it possible to hate a man with no teeth. But I was young, dumb and naive about a lot of things back then. He would come in and ask for a cone of something my father had invented and named Blueberry Rococo. Only, for some strange reason, Old Man Rooney (or Roney) called it his "Bluebuckle." And, of course, when Dad blew town, we didn't know the first thing about making any more "Blueberry Rococo." Once that ten-gallon barrel was gone and used up, there wasn't anymore of whatever it was that was in it and never would be again. For weeks, he'd come in and give us the same routine. "Where's my goddam Bluebuckle?"
And oh, those flies! The flies that stuck to the walls, mating like mad, multiplying in front of our eyes. My mother had a little saying for the neighbors: "Time heals all wounds, and time wounds all heels."
We never did find out if that was so.
On our wedding night in that San Francisco hotel room, I told you how sorry I was, for the pain and the blood. There was no pleasure for me either, not really, because I took it at your expense. I was so large and so awkward, an ogre crushing your small trembling body. You wept as I lay beside you, panting.
Then came the war. Too soon the war.
The man floated down with slow grace, his gigantic wings arched against the violet sky, now half lit by the dying sun, now in shadow again. "He's coming to save me," Oslaw thought. He was flat on the ground, far from where he once was, last he remembered. His right leg was in terrible pain. Around him the sour acrid odors of burning bamboo and charred metal. "Is it Jesus?" someone near him shouted at the man in the sky.
Gerald Haney's voice cut through, "No, it ain't Jesus, you jackass. It's a Jap."
The man swung to and fro gently in the wind as he fell.
He and Haney were the only ones at the Quonset when the bombs fell, he remembered that much. They were settling in for guard duty with a deck of cards when the explosions began. He remembered Haney yelling, he remembered running.
Now on his back, his right leg ablaze with agony, as if sawed in half, his eyes were affixed on the angelic man in the parachute.
"He's heading downwind!" Haney shouted.
The rifle fire began in sharp cracks of one and two but quickened in intensity. The falling man twitched violently in his straps, lifted his head, mouth open. Perhaps he screamed but if so, it was unheard by Oslaw. He landed two hundred feet from them on the side of the airstrip. The parachute fell over him, a billowing white shroud.
How remarkable it all was, Oslaw later reflected. In a war for nearly three years, the only human being he ever saw die.
Her name was Pat Donovan and in the end, she didn't care that he was married. Every man on Pearl had a girl back home and the ones who didn't, well, by definition they weren't worth bothering with, were they? Either queer or a loser, it amounted to the same thing. Oslaw had a big athletic body and a cute homely face and pretty hazel eyes and he was a decent conversationalist for an enlisted man. Had a thing for classical music, that was unusual. Hard to imagine a violin in those big hands.
It was a bit difficult with his right leg up in traction, a steel spike through the knee and all those ropes and pulleys but Pat Donovan was nothing if not inventive. She was tiny, barely over five feet tall, not even 100 pounds and her butt was small enough to sit astride him and with the minimum of motion they both managed to make the most out of it. By the end of three months, when the traction came down and the spike was removed everybody on the ward knew and many of the other men were jealous, but she didn't care. She only had eyes for him, as the song went. There was more than just the sex, after all.
There was more than just the sex, he thinks now after another swallow of Jack Daniels, the Browning beside him on the bed. There were the whispered conversations, the jokes, the gossip, the gifts, the confessions. He listened to her tales of a childhood on the South Dakota prairies, he told her of the ice cream shop and Ol' Man Rooney (or Roney). But really, it was the sex, he confesses to himself fully now, as if for the first time. But not really the first time, not at all, was it? The Jack Daniels fogged his brain but oddly sharpened the memories. The truth was, it was, oh my darling Katie forgive me, the best sex he would ever know. Those long pornographic nights, Pat Donovan's black hair undone, her nurse's tunic unbuttoned, her knowing smile, pink tongue on teeth and those sharp blue eyes half-lidded. There was something about their restricted movements, and his own physical helplessness that heightened the sensations. Oh Katie, forgive me my darling, but dear Jesus it was ecstasy.
And worse, so much worse, he had never lost his nostalgia for what he and Pat Donovan did on that cramped and sweaty hospital bed in the long, long ago past. After his return, for years he lived in dread of screaming Pat Donovan's name out loud while with Katie. Pat Donovan with her dark, dark hair half-obscuring her face contorted by passion lived on inside him, like a demon, he sometimes thought, inside his eyelids vivid and lurid. It was a miracle, really, that her name had never escaped his lips in all those years. And so he came to hate Pat Donovan and their illicit, exquisite lust. Because, oh Katie God forgive me, he sometimes needed her image to complete the act with Katherine, came to feel disgust and self-loathing as afterwards he lay panting next to his wife. Perhaps it helped that she was not the slightest bit adventurous when it came to sex. She never got past her shyness or maybe the whole business didn't really matter to her. He would never know because out of deference or shyness—perhaps out of old-fashioned dignity or politeness, they never discussed it. All he did know was that she was purer than the rest, himself included. There were things she would never know and he would never have to tell, but things for which he knew he would never escape his punishment, one way or another. He had never confessed to his affair or his licentious thoughts to any living soul, not even to a priest in a confessional, though there were plenty of opportunities for that. Why hadn't he? he asks himself when now, Browning in hand, blood on his hands and more to come, it was far too late. But he knows why. Because it was something he could never repent.
O my love the truths I could have told.
The last normal family affair—that is how Oslaw thinks of it—was Thanksgiving three years ago. Norman was there, and Georgiana and Michelle and the annual guest from the Wilkerson Home, invited by Katie, this year a shy old woman in her upper eighties with patchy white hair and pointy silver glasses named Miriam, recently widowed.
Amidst all the white napery, Katherine's fine China, the wine goblets, the polished silverware, the solemnity of grace and then the loose aimless conversation and laughter that followed, there was no portent, no hint, no evil foreboding lurking in the solid walls surrounding them. Walls he had built with his own hands, the first of scores of houses and the most satisfying. It had stood up well over the years, he thought to himself at times. Stood up against calamities both inside and out: a miscarriage, Norman's bumpy teenage years, the elm that crashed down on the roof during a wind storm in 1965, the earthquake of '89.
And then that night, after the dishes were washed and put away and the wine was corked and the crystalline voices had departed, a strange postlude had occurred between the two of them. Perhaps it was the afterglow from a house full of people, perhaps it was the wine. Perhaps it was Miriam, who had maintained a dazed-looking silence throughout the dinner, showed barely a flicker of a smile amidst all the frivolity. True, she was out of her element, with total strangers, except for Katie. Probably it was a mistake to sit her next to Michelle who responded to her shyness by simply ignoring her. On the drive back to the Wilkerson Home to drop Miriam off, the old woman sat staring disconsolately out the window, and Oslaw wondered if she were lost among the ghosts of Thanksgivings past or simply lost.
Later he and Katherine lay side by side in bed. He'd just turned off the light. He assumed she was asleep.
"Promise me something," came her voice out of the near darkness.
It startled him. "What's that dear?"
"Promise me when it's time you'll let me die at home."
"Of course, dear."
"No, listen to me, David. This is important. This is very important. I don't want to go to one of those places."
"Like the Wilkerson Home. The thought of it horrifies me. The more time I spend there the more it horrifies me. Crazy old men and crazy old women without any hope, with nothing to look forward to. They've lost everything: their families, their independence, their money. All they have are their memories. And some of them not even that.
"So promise me, David. No matter what."
He slowly turned his head toward her. There were tears in her eyes. Those beautiful green eyes, as beautiful and green as the day he first met her in the little ice cream shop in San Luis Rey. It's a wonder, he thought, no matter what happens to the rest of us, the eyes
never change. The eyes remain true. He grasped her hand firmly. In that moment, as in all the moments of their lives together, he could refuse her nothing.
It is the end of a long tiring day and he should have known better. The box of recyclables isn't heavy but it's bulky and he can't see exactly where he's going. He opens the side screen door to the path leading to the garage and feels with his right foot where the step should be. But on the step, inexplicably, is one of Katherine's bright red tennis shoes. The color was Sheila's idea, to help strangers identify her when she took one of her impromptu walks. It's a tip that had come in handy more than once.
But he sees the tennis shoe too late. He finds no purchase; his ankle twists and he is suddenly afloat in mid-air. It can't have lasted more than a second but even so, even within the shock and anger and horror at his own stupidity, he pictures the angelic Japanese pilot falling, falling with such leisure out of the blameless, blissful white sky to his death. The still point, when all goes quiet before all goes black. Then Oslaw lands very hard and awkwardly and with his full weight on his right leg. He hears the awful crunch and loud snap, like a gunshot, feels the ripping pain go through him.
When a neighbor finally hears his yells, the first thing Oslaw screams out to him isn't "Call 911." It is "Don't let Katherine leave the house."
But Katherine is about to leave the house. Three days later, Norman and Georgiana give him the news in his hospital room.
"They believe they'll have a vacancy in two weeks," Georgiana tells him. "Now please don't argue. I mean thank God you're all right but maybe this accident was a blessing in disguise. It was too much for you before, but now it's impossible."
"I'll be out in a week." He has a tube in his nose and another in his wrist. That one has the morphine drip.
"Dad, c'mon, don't be ridiculous," Norman says gently. "What are you going to do, chase her down the street with a walker?"
"I won't need a walker."
"Says who?" Georgiana says.
He doesn't answer her but thinks, She really is especially annoying today.
"It's all been arranged, Dad," says Norman. "So you can just rest and heal."
In the end, he can't shoot Katherine. He tries, his finger on the trigger while she stares at him blindly, uncomprehendingly, but his arm pulls up and the bullet goes into the ceiling. The blast in the small bedroom is deafening. She slowly covers her ears with her hands and she sinks onto the bed as if she's actually been shot. She whimpers. The room is pungent with gunpowder. A small piece of ceiling falls to the bed.
He tries to discharge the casing and realizes that his hand is shaking violently. He drops the gum on the bed. He looks down at his stricken wife, looks into her confused and frightened eyes. Among its many atrocities, the illness has turned what was truest into a lie, about the eternal in Katherine's once beautiful green eyes, now gone as if it never were. Tears stream down his cheeks. He picks up a pillow and places the pillow over her face and presses down with both hands with all his strength. They are big hands, but they are now old and uncertain. So he slowly slides his chest and torso on top of the pillow and allows his full weight to crush the pillow down upon her. She struggles but she has no chance against his masculine bulk. He lies on top of her for twenty minutes, long after the last tremor of life beneath him has ceased. He is weeping.
He had thought that Katherine would be the hard part and the rest would be easy but
he was wrong about that. Life will come up with any excuse at all to keep on living, he thinks. And it's a bitter thought. Between swigs of whiskey, his mind remains mired in an endless loop of longing and regret, a strange inner monologue, dissecting all the wrong turns, all the paths not chosen, the chances lost and never found again. But not the big things, the small things, the querulous grievances of a lifetime he would never have described to anyone, on the whole, as unhappy: "I should have told the sonofabitch to go to hell. I can't believe I didn't just take that money and run. The bitch screwed me out of that contract. I was always too accommodating to that lazy bastard" and so on and on and on. Eighty-four years—such a long life, yet strangely, in the end not long enough to outlive even one's tiniest regrets. Hours go by and he finds himself near day's end still very much alive.
But at last through the fog of whiskey and self-pity and petty recrimination, he remembers where he is. Remembers that in this moment he is, after all, in the midst of murder, with his wife grown cold beside him. He gently closes her eyes and kisses her on each eyelid and picks up the gun, tastes the blue-black steel of its barrel inside his mouth.