Le Morte D'Amy
By Susan O'Doherty
Jonathan doesn’t give a flying fuck. He’d tell you so himself. In fact, he wishes one of those librarian teacher nurse murderers would come up to him right now and say, “Mr. Pointer, you are drunk in the CCU,” so he could answer, “Fuck you, I don’t give a flying fuck.”
The nurses are having their own little par-tay, with fancy-ass green-and-red sugar cookies, which they don’t offer him. Some blonde, taller than Jonathan, is wearing a red velvet Santa hat and earrings made out of little glass tree balls, one red and one green, and Jonathan realizes it’s not a sarcastic sound track in his head, Burl Ives really is belting out, “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” right behind his grandmother’s head, from somewhere inside the cluster of machines that bleep and flash and keep her breathing, for now, and he has to laugh. “Holly jolly asshole,” he says aloud, and Grandma Amy stirs and smiles without opening her eyes. She reaches for Jonathan’s hand, and he grabs it, or the part of it that he can, through the rag-doll mitten they make her wear to keep her from pulling out the tubes. He sees her lips working though no sound comes out because of the goddamn trache. He leans in closer and says, “What, Grandma?”
Her lips move again, and he stops breathing, afraid to miss it. This is the moment when she will tell him what he needs to know—that she has always loved him best; that she has changed her mind and wants the feeding tube back in; that there is a fortune in gold under a certain floorboard in the bedroom of her apartment; how to grow up and start acting like a man, a husband and father, for god’s sake.
Here it comes, Amy’s gem, the Final Communication: “Jamie.”
Jonathan feels that tickle in his throat that means he is going to throw up. Weird how when he’s not about to vomit, which is most of the time, he forgets about the throat thing, and even when he does remember it, it doesn’t seem so bad, either the spasm or the puking itself, and then when the tickle does come he is overcome with dread, would do anything to stop its overflowing, but is powerless. So he knows that if he thinks, I’m going to throw up now with any equanimity, it’s because he’s not. The way he was able to contemplate inheriting Grandpa Brendan’s Rolex watch, his by right because those dents in the gold case are artifacts of his emerging baby teeth; he could imagine nonchalantly shooting his shirt cuff (like how Janine used to make those faux-casual gestures with her left hand when he first bought her the ring, back when he was still promising), and of course pretending not to gloat about the enduring proof of his grandfather’s favoritism, the one time he has ever beat his father at anything. The way he could anticipate the relief of never again being called on to reprogram Grandma Amy’s cell phone or rescue her from one of her brilliant PC shortcuts. Because it was all hypothetical, until three years ago when he got the 4 a.m. call about Grandpa Brendan; until Thanksgiving, when Amy said, “Do the Brussels sprouts taste a little off?” and passed out at the table. Until this moment, when he’s just able to push out, “It’s Jonathan, Grandma” while he fumbles with his foot for the pedal on the waste can before the tickle and the dread take him over and blow him up.
He might have saved his puking heaving breath, because look who’s here, lady and gentleman, the star of the show himself, making his careful entrance as the beloved child of the wreck on the bed, the concerned father of the loser by the door; taking in the mittened hands, the beeping monitor, the retching son, the aroma of piss and blood and now partially digested frozen spinach lasagna laced with Chianti.
“Good show,” Jamie says to Jonathan. “Respectful.”
“Happy crappy asshole,” Jonathan replies, even though he’s sober now, even though Burl has ceded the airwaves to Brenda Lee, who is rockin’ around the Christmas tree, or maybe because of these things, maybe because he is the anti-Jamie, the non-communicator, the one who doesn’t go around saying, “Good show” so people—in this case, the tall blond nurse with the Christmas balls who just stuck her head in to make sure “everything is okay”—will ask him if he’s British, so he can smile self-deprecatingly and say, no, I went to school there and I guess some of it stuck, so they will ask where, and he can look surprised and abashed at the question and say, “Oxford.” Whereas Jonathan is at least honest about his fuckedupness and doesn’t put on a show—except that he’s pretending to be still drunk, and stupid, isn’t he, and what was that about showing off the Rolex, which he still can’t make himself wear? So who is the asshole here, actually?
“We’re fine, thanks,” Jamie tells her, like she’s their waitress.
“Superduper,” Jonathan adds. “Never been better.”
“If you’re not feeling well,” she begins, looking at Amy.
“Food poisoning,” Jonathan tells her. “Not contagious.”
“All the same, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
What did he expect? Still, wouldn’t you be pissed? “Sure,” he can’t help saying. “Can’t have her getting sick, spoil the fun of watching her starve to death.”
“That’s enough.” Jamie lays a hand on his shoulder. And, miraculously, it is enough, the hand is for Jonathan, not Mary Christmas here, he can feel that through his jacket, and he shudders and is still.
Amy, too, is still. Jonathan registers her rasping breath, her grimaces, only now, in their absence, and his emptied stomach heaves again with the lead weight of loss, but then he tunes back in to the machines, still humming and beeping. And it’s just Kathleen Battle singing Ave Maria, not some cheesy celestial audio accompaniment to the departure of another soul for higher realms.
Amy is in Paris, Jonathan sees, in a tiny chappelle she wandered into, lost, after stalking away from Brendan and Jamie following an intense argument about whether the experience of dining in a certain restaurant specializing in authentic Provençal cuisine was worth the tourist-gouging price. He has heard the story so often it has become his memory, too—her rage (fueled by growing hunger) at Grandpa Brendan’s stubborn philistinism and unwillingness to try new experiences, especially in Paris, where he was convinced the snooty residents were laughing at and cheating him; her realization, as the sky darkened and the streets thinned, that she had no idea where she was and had no taxi money; the sight of the tiny church and the decision to throw herself on the mercy of any religious she happened upon inside; and then the chain of miracles, the nuns singing the Ave Maria, a cappella, a choir of angels, and her sudden comprehension of overwhelming love for Brendan, who was not truculent so much as scared (and hungry too); the directrice’s surprising mastery of English and even more surprising revelation of the proximity of the chapel to the hotel, where Brendan and Jamie waited with growing trepidation, too familiar with Amy’s impulsive wanderings and total lack of geographical sense to have any faith in a happy ending. The tearful reconciliation, the cheap, delicious meal in the Arab quarter, the renewed commitment to Brendan, to their marriage, lasting through Brendan’s demise and beyond. She always gets That Look when she hears Ave Maria, and this is the first time she hasn’t repeated the story, and Jonathan knows, now, that she really is leaving them.
He has heard the story from Jamie, too, of course, and others like it, all reflecting Amy’s naïve, theatrical belief in the life-changing importance of exposure to the Old World, bred by a youth spent incarcerated in deepest Brooklyn and an addiction to Victorian novels; the forced “transformative” moments; Grandpa Brendan’s Dewar’s-enhanced acquiescence to her idiotic schemes and her romantic after-the-fact descriptions and interpretations. She had shoved Culture down Jamie’s throat like a sword, like, all right, like a feeding tube. And Jamie wasn't given the option of demanding its removal. All right.
But would Jamie have gone back to Europe, on his own, made it his own, if Amy had caved and taken him to Disney World and Great Adventure? “Sometimes people don’t know what they want,” Jonathan says. “Sometimes they don’t know what’s good for them.”
“She knows what she wants,” Jamie tells him.
“I really need,” the nurse begins again.
“In hora mortis, mortis nostrae, In hora mortis nostrae, Ave Maria!” Kathleen wraps it up. She’s an asshole too, Jonathan has read, kicked out of the Met for bad behavior, impossible to work with, a loser like him.
Or maybe not. Maybe she needs all her goodness for her music, with nothing left over. Maybe she is exactly who she is supposed to be; that voice redemption enough.
“To clear the room,” the nurse says, Ms. Lake, her nameplate reads, her earring ornaments bobbing emphatically.
“Right,” Jamie tells her, faux-Continental again, but again she doesn’t take the bait; she folds her arms and waits. Jamie guides Jonathan out into the hallway, toward the exit. “We’ll just get a cup of coffee, wait until the shift change,” he whispers into Jonathan’s ear. “We’ll get through this.”
Of course it won’t happen that way. They will argue; Jonathan will stomp back upstairs too early and be kicked out for the night. He will never get to kiss her again because Amy will die two hours later, Jamie cradling her now naked hand. Janine will take the kids and leave, for good; next year she will marry a C.P.A. Did you believe this was going to be a Transformative Moment? All the same, just then, Jonathan hears, in that whispered “we,” through Jamie’s asinine inflection via his bitter, over-caffeinated breath, the song of the angels.
Susan O'Doherty's self-help book, Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity, will be published by Seal Press in June. In addition to three stories in VerbSap, her creative writing has been featured in Eureka Literary Magazine, Northwest Review, Apalachee Review, Eclectica, Reflection’s Edge, Literary Mama, Carve, Word Riot, Style & Sense, Phoebe, and the anthologies About What Was Lost: Twenty Writers on Miscarriage, Healing, and Hope (Penguin, 2007), It’s a Boy! (Seal Press, 2005), The Best of Carve, Volume VI, and Familiar (The People's Press, 2005). New stories will appear in Hospital Drive and in Sex for America, edited by Stephen Elliott. Her
Herstory “Passing” was chosen as the
Photo "Heart Beat" courtesy of Luke Walker, Peterborough, Great Britain.
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