Matthew knew, even before he came fully awake, that Nora's side of the bed was empty. He sat up. Wind whistled in the eaves; the shop roof banged. Then the wind died for a moment and the house was still - no whisper of bare feet on the kitchen tiles, no furtive rustlings. Thanks be, no smell of smoke. Matthew reached for his robe. He knew where he would find her.
The den was in near darkness. Nora sat motionless in her chair by the window, wrapped in something black and shapeless, a blanket or a coat. Light from a gap in the curtain touched the tip of her nose, her chin, the wiry white spikes of her hair. "Good morning," Matthew said, opening the curtains. "If the wind lets up, it's going to be a nice day." He waited. "I'll get the coffee going," he said after a while, and gave her shoulder a squeeze.
In the kitchen he unlocked the drawer beside the stove, took out the control knobs, fitted them onto their stems and set the kettle to boil. The silverware drawer too was locked; all the drawers and cupboards were. Matthew had spent a weekend six months ago, installing the unobtrusive hardware, sinking the brass fittings flush with the surrounding wood. Framed color photographs covered the wall above the kitchen table, the display dominated by a poster-sized blow-up of an eagle striking a jackrabbit. Though the bird itself was little more than a blur, the hare looked solid. Dense. Heavy and immediate as a rock as its fur erupted from between the scaly talons. The photos were Nora's work. "Eagle and Hare" had been an Audubon cover.
The kettle rattled on its burner and began to sing. "You want eggs?" Matthew called through the doorway. "Of course you do," as he fussed with butter, garlic and parsley. "Am I right? Of course I'm right," dropping bread into the toaster, setting out a pot of jam and the little brown pharmacy bottles. Leading her from den to table, sitting her down, tucking one napkin into her lap and another under her chin. He spooned egg into her mouth and wiped up spills, all the while carrying on half of something like an ordinary long-married couple's breakfast conversation. It was Saturday, the LPN's day off. Alan was up from Bakersfield for the weekend, he reminded her. "He'll be here soon. Maybe this time he'll bring the kids."
The shop, a low corrugated-metal building, faced the house across the driveway. Nora's darkroom was at one end, with Matthew's tools and materials taking up the rest of the space. For years, wood- and metalwork had been his hobby. Now, retired from teaching sooner than he'd planned, he didn't know what to call his hours at workbench and lathe. Refuge, he supposed.
Brass clips on a pegboard above the bench held hammers, screwdrivers, pliers. The whole shop smelled comfortably of wood shavings, oil and sweat, and of darkroom chemicals. From time to time, every week or so, Matthew would unscrew the caps and let the bottles breathe, just to keep their odor in the air.
Checking his watch, he switched on the intercom so he could hear if Nora began to move around. He'd left her studying jigsaw puzzle pieces jumbled on a TV tray. She'd gotten the puzzle from the closet herself, and set up the tray. A good sign; puzzle days were good days. Good therapy too, the doctor said. She liked 1000-piece reproductions of the masters — Leonardo, Titian, Rembrandt. Sometimes she'd stare for an hour or more at the scattered tiny shapes spread out before her and then, with bewildering speed, assemble the picture with scarcely a false move. Sometimes she'd turn the pieces over and put the puzzle together just as quickly with nothing showing but the cardboard back. Once in a while she'd find a way to fit the pieces into a design that bore no relationship at all to the picture on the cover of the box.
Alan arrived a little after ten. Matthew heard the car and waited in the doorway, wiping his hands on a shop rag and watching the boy approach. Boy indeed! Alan would soon be forty. His head was as bald as Matthew's own, his beard almost as gray. He had come alone, of course. Karen and the children no longer visited. Not once in the year since Nora's accident.
"Hey, Pop," Alan said.
"Hey yourself." The two men embraced, then Matthew held his son at arm's length. "You're looking good."
In fact Alan looked terrible. He'd put on weight and his tan only superficially disguised the unnatural ruddiness of his cheeks. "That southern climate must agree with you," Matthew said, though he knew without asking that the tenure-track position at the community college had not materialized, that when the academic year ended in a few months his son would once more be unemployed.
"I brought the brochures." Alan spread glossy leaflets on the workbench. Attu Island. The Aleutians: A Birder's Paradise. "Wish you'd change your mind, Pop. Come with us. It's just for a week. Karen says we'll probably add at least twenty species to our lists."
Matthew liked birds. He built nesting boxes and feeders, and kept a pair of binoculars on a shelf near the kitchen door. Shaking his head, he smoothed open a brochure. Towering ice floes, water blue as ink, a single swooping tern, pure white. He could see himself shoving off from shore in a canoe, a cold strong current snatching him up and bearing him away. "Maybe next year," he said, "when Mom's better."
"Maybe next year?" Alan rolled his eyes. "Come on, Pop. You sound like the coach whose team just lost the big game." He winked, grinning in the way that had always made Matthew want to shake him. The wind gusted, flagged, gusted again. The loose corner of the roof gave a pained squawk, nails working against metal. "You really ought to fix that thing," Alan said. "It's been like that for a year."
"I've been busy," Matthew said wryly. "I'll get around to it."
"I knew you'd say that." Still grinning, Alan reached into his jacket pocket. "I found this in a Junque Shoppe-QUE, PPE," his fingers supplying the quotation marks. He held out a disk of cardboard on which was printed TUIT. "What's this?"
"Something to do with intuition?" Matthew guessed, slipping against his will into the familiar play-along that had shaped his relationship with Alan for so long.
Alan beamed. "I knew you wouldn't get it. It's a round tuit, for people like you who put things off. You know, 'one of these days I'll get around to it,'" again shaping the quotes with his fingers. He chuckled. "I thought it was pretty funny."
"A round tuit," Matthew said. "That's awful."
"Absolutely," Alan agreed. And that, of course, was the point.
Matthew couldn't decide what he thought his son should have done with his life. Any¬thing, it sometimes seemed, except what he had done. Alan had finished the course work for a doctorate in sociology, but ten years later his dissertation remained unwritten. He had no real gift for teaching, no interest in further research that his father was able to see. He was an academic gypsy, neither gifted nor aggressive nor even ingratiating enough to have found a permanent niche. In some ways he seemed more adolescent now than he had at seventeen.
"So how's Mom?" he asked, tucking the cardboard disk back into his pocket.
"You mean today in particular, or in general?"
Alan shrugged. "Both, I guess."
"She's quiet." Matthew picked up a square of copper sheeting and examined it critically. Nora. Who'd have believed that quiet might ever be the best that one could say about her? "Yesterday she wasn't so good. And the day before that. . . ." He glanced at the intercom. Neither Alan nor his sisters knew about the fires. Nobody, not even the doctors, knew about the fires. There were times when Matthew could almost believe he didn't know about them either, that they had happened in someone else's life, or in a movie he had seen. "We went to Lake Elizabeth last Sunday. She liked that. Mrs. Wentzel went along — our neighbor? The two of them had a great time."
Alan raised an eyebrow. "Mom told you that?"
"Not in words. But when you've been married forty-five years. . . ." Matthew stared at his son, unblinking. Alan met his eyes for a moment, then looked away. "She's still there," Matthew said, louder than he'd intended. "I know you think she's not, but she is. She'll come back to us. It's only a matter of time."
Alan sighed. He moved restlessly about the shop, picking up tools and setting them down. "About the cameras," he said at last.
Matthew laid the copper sheeting on the bench. "What about them?"
"You know what about them."
"Why don't you just go on and borrow the Leica?" Matthew said. "The Hassy's too bulky; you don't want to carry it."
"Why don't you just go on and sell us the Leica?"
"Not mine to sell. And what's the point? Everyone's using digital these days. Karen should get one of those. We've been all through this." And they had. Three or four times since the Aleutians trip had come up.
"Karen wants. . . ." Alan began.
Indeed Karen did want, and was used to getting what she wanted. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth, Nora used to say. Too bad she didn't choke on it, Matthew thought now, as his son, scowling, clicked the blowtorch igniter again and again. Yellow sparks few up from the flint and vanished, one after another.
"You know you're welcome to borrow," Matthew said. "But your mother's going to need her gear again, when she gets well." Alan clicked the igniter. His eyes followed the flying sparks. After a while Matthew laid a hand on his son's shoulder. "Come on, let's go say hello."
Nora hadn't moved from her chair. The puzzle, a Monet landscape with poplars, was nearly finished. "Look who's here," Matthew said. "You've got a visitor."
Alan bent to kiss her cheek. "Hi Mom, it's me."
Matthew allowed himself a moment of hope as he watched her face. Not a twitch, not a flicker. One, two, three more puzzle pieces snapped into place, completing the impossibly peaceful blue-green view. "I'm going to fix lunch," Matthew said to his son. "Why don't you sit and talk to Mom."
He knew it wouldn't work. And sure enough, not many minutes passed before Alan appeared, hangdog, in the kitchen doorway. "Pop, I just can't."
Matthew opened Tupperware containers of cheese, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts "Hand me the paring knife," he said. And then, "When are you going to bring the kids?"
"Don't start, Pop. You know how Karen feels."
"I'm not interested in Karen. I'm interested in your mother. Who hasn't seen two of her grandchildren in over a year."
"Has she asked for them?"
"Lucy brings the girls. And Marj was here last month, with the baby. All the way from Denver."
"Good for Lucy and Marj." Alan balanced the knife on one finger. "Look, Pop, I know it's harsh. But I want. . .Karen and I want Mark and Susie to remember her the way she was." His gaze passed over the framed photos above the table and settled on a faded Polaroid of a stout, white-haired woman in lumberjack shirt and jeans, bent over a tripod. In the background, tall red sandstone needles, Ford pickup, vast empty Utah sky. "That's who their grandmother is, not . . . .""Keep your voice down," Matthew said. "She isn't deaf." He added, after a moment, "She knows when the girls have been here, and little PJ. No," as Alan opened his mouth, "she doesn't say so, but she knows." He sliced cheese, rinsed lettuce and sprouts. "Besides," he went on, "it won't kill Mark and Susie. Children are tougher than you think."
Mark and Sue were fourteen and twelve. They looked enough alike to be twins, except that the last time Matthew had seen them, his grandson's hair had been electric blue-for-boys, while Susie's was iodine orange. Together Matthew and Nora had watched the white Volvo drive away, Karen at the wheel as usual and the kids in the back seat, slumped down so that only the tops of their garish heads could be seen. It looked as if the parents had been to a carnival, and had won a pair of giant stuffed toys.
"Millions of kids have to deal with far worse things than visiting your mother, every day of their lives," Matthew said, his voice bitter. "Millions of kids have to face real problems, and somehow they survive." He stopped himself, pressing his knuckles against the counter to steady his hands.
"Pop," Alan began, "I know it's been rough."
Matthew lined up scallions on the cutting board, slicing them into rounds. Rough wasn't the word. There was no word. He'd been standing right there, fixing salad exactly as he was doing now. She'd rushed in from the shop, a still-wet contact sheet in her hands. He'd seen her stumble; seen her arms flail and the contact sheet swoop across the room; seen — and heard — her head strike the corner of the table. He had seen, yet what he had seen, exactly, failed to register. Even as the first convulsion had set her heels to drumming the linoleum he had waited for her to climb to her feet, dust herself off, laugh at him for worrying. When at last he'd called her name, the terror in his voice had seemed to belong to someone else. "Nora! Get up!" And then, "For godsake! That's enough!"
There were times now when it was almost too much. The silence, the seizures and aphasia he had learned to live with, and the panic attacks and rages. Despite the doctors' doubts he felt sure that this would pass. What disturbed him most was his own rage. At the doctors' inability to explain exactly what had happened - whether a stroke or other event (ridiculous word!) had caused her to stumble and hit her head, or whether she had fallen first, with the blow to her head trig¬gering the seizures. Rage at his own helplessness. At the unfairness of it all. And at Nora herself. For there were times when her violence seemed so focused - his clothing ripped, his toothpaste smeared on the wall, lately his magazines and books set ablaze - that he felt it had to be the up-welling of some long-nursed grievance, something he had done, or not done, years and years ago.
Sometimes he wanted to shake her, make her look him in the eye and accuse him outright. Sometimes he was convinced that she behaved this way on purpose, that she could stop if she wished, that she was enjoying herself. And then last week, after a day filled with tantrums so violent that the LPN had left in tears, he had somehow neglected to lock the knife drawer. Left it standing wide open, a clear invitation - to what, exactly, he couldn't bring himself to think.
"Please bring the kids," he said to his son. "You can call first, make sure it's one of her good days."
"I'll talk it over with Karen." Alan moved to the window and looked out across the back yard. He laced his fingers, cracked his knuckles, rocked up on his toes, back on his heels. Up on his toes, back on his heels. Crack! went his knuckles.
Matthew took a jar of fruit from the refrigerator. "It's hard to know what to give her," he said. "One day she'll eat applesauce, the next day she spits it out." Frowning, he squatted to check the lower shelves. "Strawberry yogurt? Cottage cheese? Funny how she won't eat fresh fruit anymore." He closed the re¬frigerator door, unlocked a cupboard, took down a jar of baby food. "Apricots."
While Matthew spooned orange-brown puree into a bowl Alan continued staring out the window. Suddenly he said, "Why don't you come with us, Pop? You need to get away."
"The LPN's already asked for that week off. Her sister's getting married." Matthew stirred the apricots. They were an awful color, a putrid orange-brown. "Mom has appointments, therapy. I have to be here."
"Can't you get another nurse? Or," when Matthew didn't answer, "how about temporary residential care?"
Matthew cut him off with a gesture.
"If you're worried about the cost, we'd be glad to help."
"They gave you a raise already?" The words left Matthew's mouth before he could think, and he listened helplessly as his voice continued, acid with sarcasm: "Congratulations. I'm glad you're doing so well."
Alan dropped his eyes first. Matthew took a deep breath and then another. "I appreciate the offer," he said, "don't get me wrong. Next year, when Mom's better, we'll all go. Now come on, son, make yourself useful. I need a couple of plates."
"Pop?" Alan made no move toward the china cabinet.
Alan cleared his throat. He picked at a hangnail on his thumb. "Look, I know what happened is terrible. But you can't let it just. . . ."
"Just what?" "Matthew got the plates himself, lifting them carefully from the shelf, setting them carefully down.
"Take over your life," Alan blurted. "She isn't going to get better. You know what Dr. Barr says. Or doesn't say, which is worse. I've been on the phone to him, I've talked to Marj and Luce, and we all agree. You've got to think of yourself too, you know. You can't go on like this."
"Like what?" The knife drawer open, the medicine cabinet unlocked? And lately his dreams: her fall in slow motion, repeated again and again, and the ghastly little spurt of relief in his gut when finally, finally, her head strikes the table at just the right angle, and she lies still. Some mornings he'd wake doubled over the side of his bed, ill with shame and fear. "For christsake," he said. "You don't know anything about it."
Alan reached out as if to touch Matthew's arm, then shoved his hand into his pocket. "Okay, Pop, you're right. I don't. But if you won't come with us, at least get away somewhere for a while. Go to Reno and gamble or something; drive down to the desert. You look like hell. How much weight have you lost?"
Matthew folded paper napkins into triangles, smoothing the folds with his thumb. He could hear the ticking of the wall clock, the creaking of Nora's chair in the other room, and a heavy liquid drumming that he decided was the beating of his heart. "Twelve pounds," he said. "How much have you gained?"
Alan's eyes narrowed. A muscle jumped in his cheek. Come on, Matthew urged silently. He felt strangely elated. Come on! as if to fight his son might solve something. But Alan had already turned away. "Forget it, Pop," he muttered. "Just forget I brought it up."
"Make a deal with you," Matthew began. "You get Karen to bring the kids for a visit...." Outside the window a crowd of juncos had settled on the feeder and were searching for sun¬flower seeds in the wild bird mix. Flax, rape and millet showered to the ground. Matthew watched distractedly.
"And?" prompted Alan.
"And?" He forced himself to focus. "And I'll go on that trip with you. Talk it over with Karen," he told his son. "And meanwhile, why don't you and I take Mom to Coyote Hills this afternoon."
It was a half-hour drive from the house to the regional park. The wind had calmed and the sky was brilliant blue; "Appalachian Spring" played on the radio. In the back seat, Nora hugged herself and rocked. Matthew took this to mean that she was glad to be outdoors, glad to be with her husband and son.
Suddenly Alan said, "You know I wasn't rehired for next year." He had been staring out the window and didn't turn his head to speak.
Matthew turned the Copland down. "Oh?"
"I don't know why I even bothered to go down there last fall," Alan went on. "It was obvious they had their guy-their gal, I mean-picked out before I came."
Matthew concentrated on the road ahead. He wished Alan would. . .not be quiet, exactly; he was glad his son wanted to talk. At least he hoped he was glad. He had never understood why these rare confidences always seemed to inspire as much irritation as sympathy.
"I'm a straight male Cauc, right? A war-monger, a poisoner of the environment." Alan's voice shook. "It's humiliating; it's enough to make you crazy, Pop. I mean, Bakersfield's not exactly Harvard, you know, and I debased myself, I wanted that job so badly. I offered to cut off my dick: 'Hey, I'm really a girl!' I offered to cut off a leg. Did they have their quota of Disabled Persons yet? Next time I'm going in blackface. I'm going to wear stick-on Chinese eyelids. I'm going to wear pink tights and carry a purse!"
A response was called for. Matthew knew that. His mind groped and fumbled, searching for words of fatherly counsel. Behind him, Nora shifted in her seat, shifted again, farted. Alan laughed. "Tell it to the dean, Mom!"
Leaving the freeway, they followed the county road past an industrial park and flat cultivated fields. The day was warm, the bushes alive with red-winged blackbirds. "Damned red¬wings," Alan growled. "They remind me of Hell's Angels, the way they descend on a place and just take over. Thugs!" he shouted out the window. "Rabble! Hoi polloi! Why don't you go trash Bakersfield?"
In the parking lot Matthew settled Nora into her chair and tucked the patchwork afghan around her. He wheeled her onto the boardwalk where it angled directly across the marsh. Alan followed. In moments the tules had cut them off from sight of the cars and Nature Center. Matthew breathed in the dark, heady aroma of rotting vegetation. In a pond off to their left a carp rolled lazily, barely breaking the water's surface. At the far edge of the marsh they met up with a group of Scouts, gathered with a ranger beside a shellmound. A few of the boys stared at Nora. Alan's face flushed. "Where to?"
Matthew could hear, over by the creek, the angry-insect drone of miniature engines. "The model-car club must be meeting. You want to give me a hand with Mom's chair?"
"I'll take her!" Alan scooped his mother from her seat, her white head bobbing above his shoulder, the multicolored afghan trailing down. Off he went, a heavy man in thin-soled city shoes, ignoring the gravel path, splashing recklessly through the weeds. Matthew followed with the chair.
A pheasant burst from the brush almost at Alan's feet, filling the air with the clatter of wings and its harsh croaking cry. Alan lurched to a stop. Nora lifted her head, and Matthew caught his breath as she followed the bird soaring black against the sun and then ablaze with coppery light as it dropped again to the scrub-covered hillside.
"Pop!" Alan wheezed eagerly as Matthew joined them. He was purple-faced and sweating, breathing in gasps. "Did you see that?"
"I saw!" "Nora's glasses sat askew on her nose. Matthew leaned down to straighten them but hesitated, his hand inches from her face. One gray eye regarded him steadily over the top of the frame; the other, magnified and warped by its thick lens, could have been focused anywhere. "I saw," he said again, even though, as on the night of her fall, he wasn't sure what he had seen. Or what she saw now as her gaze locked onto his face just long enough to process the pattern of his features, then disengaged once more. He straightened the glasses carefully, his hand as steady as stone.
"Is that all you can say?" Alan demanded. "She watched that bird, Pop! She knew what it was!" And off he barged again, Nora's head bouncing above his shoulder.
Shading his eyes and peering after the lurching silhouette that was his wife and son, Matthew felt himself grow oddly weightless. He could leave now, he thought. Go back to the car, get in, drive away. Leave Alan to cope.
And cope Alan would, surely. Given a real problem, something as undeniable as his mother's condition, Alan would find the strength to do what must be done. Given a genuine occasion, surely he would rise to it. On some level, Matthew reasoned, his son might even welcome the opportunity.
In his mind, Matthew watched himself unlock the car door and slide behind the wheel. The engine throbbed as he turned the key in the ignition. Where would he go? Cut off from Nora, cut off even from the need to care for her, what would he do? No answer came to him, but the questions themselves opened a door he hadn't known was there. He felt the wind cold and clean on his face and saw the road uncoiling before him like a ribbon off a spool.
Alan had made it halfway to the creek by that time, staggering beneath his mother's weight. Across the creek on the paved bike path, tiny bright cars raced up and down, outrunning the whine of their motors as a group of men and teenagers stood by with control boxes in their hands. Overhead, a yellow model biplane barrel-rolled and looped-the-loop. Three or four younger boys knelt beside the path, intent on something Matthew couldn't see. Pressing forward through the weeds, Alan stumbled, splashed ankle-deep and caught himself again. Nora's white head wobbled. The keys in Matthew's pocket outlined themselves against his thigh.
At the edge of the creek, Alan set his mother on her feet and pointed to the model cars. Nora hunched her shoulders. One of the cars hit a rough spot and flipped into the air. Alan pointed again. Nora turned away and headed resolutely upstream, toward the road. When Alan caught her by the hand, she sank onto the grass, where she sat with arms crossed and legs straight in front of her, like a stubborn child.
Just then the smaller boys began to laugh and shout, their voices carrying faintly above the engines' gnatlike whine. They pointed skyward. At first Matthew thought one of them had thrown a ball into the air. But the ball sprouted flapping wings, a head, a long, plumed tail. Banking jaggedly upward in the slanting light it glinted first silver and then iridescent blue.
It was an ornithopter. Many years ago, when Alan was six or seven, Matthew had bought one for his son — a rubber-band-powered plastic bird with a hawk's fierce beak and preposterous peacock tail. Wind it up, toss it into the air, and its wings had flapped busily for twenty seconds or so before it tumbled to the ground. Now, in the stillness as the yellow plane coasted to earth and the model cars fell silent one by one, Matthew heard, or thought he heard, the clacking of brittle vinyl wings. He unfroze his hand from the wheelchair and took a step back¬ward, shading his eyes to follow the clumsy, labored flight. When the toy fell, he could go.
Ten seconds passed. Twenty seconds. More. But instead of dropping, the bird rose sharply, caught in an updraft that lifted it higher and then higher still. It rose and dipped and rose again, wings flashing in the sun.
Alan too had seen it. He knelt beside his mother on the grass. Laughing, he tilted her chin, aiming her face as the ornithopter spiraled almost directly overhead. Still laughing, he held and guided her with both his hands. Another gust sent the toy spinning out over the creek, still rising. Letting go of Nora's chin, Alan heaved himself to his feet and pulled her up beside him. "Look!" he shouted, his voice carrying across the marsh to Matthew. "Mom, look!"
Did she respond? On her own, unguided, did she lift her eyes to watch? Matthew couldn't tell. But the plastic bird still flew. It still flew. He held his breath and watched it stagger upward, against all reason upward, on and on.