Authors: Laura Z. Hobson
“I don’t know. Yes, maybe, but I’m not sure of anything. I think one thing, then it changes and I think the opposite. That will level out, I suppose.”
“You will level out. But about Ken, I can’t make up your mind for you on this.”
“But can he stand it? You’re his doctor, you’re the only one who can calculate that.”
“He can stand it if he wants to stand it.”
“Oh, Mark, you’re telling me, a layman, to decide for myself.”
“It’s not simply a medical question. If you start out now by concealing this from Ken, because you are afraid to shock him, when will it seem right to tell him? Next week? Next month?”
“I thought perhaps after Jeff had started with the analyst, after we had more idea, after we knew if there might be any hope.”
“Yes, if that could all happen in a day or two. But suppose it took time, perhaps months—”
“You mean it would only be worse for Ken, knowing then that he’d been kept in the dark.”
“Think about it for a day or so, Tessa.”
“I didn’t mean waiting for months.”
“But a week of silence? A few weeks of silence? It gets harder every day to find the right time.”
“All right, I’ll have to think about it. Thanks, anyway.” She left his office quickly, but no sooner was she alone again than she felt a turbulent resentment rising within her. He had left the decision to her. It was a medical decision and he was the medical expert, but he was saddling her, the layman, with the responsibility of making it. “I can’t make up your mind for you on this.” “Think about it for a day or so, Tessa.”
Medical ethics, she thought, like that damn nonsense of letting you be the one to decide whether to call in another doctor for a consultation. How am I supposed to know whether Ken’s nervous system can stand this amount of stress this soon, I who haven’t had years of medical training? Why couldn’t Mark take over on this and say do tell him or don’t tell him?
She strode along the street thinking, All right, I’ll tell him the minute he gets home, and then we’ll all find out whether it’s too soon or not too soon. It isn’t as if this were the same sort of strain as some problem at the office or something wrong with a contract She tried to imagine Ken reading Jeff’s letter, but memory assailed her, of his pale face above the hospital blanket, his lower lip pulled slightly askew at one corner. Without apparent logic, her resentment at Mark Waldo went quiet and then died away.
“You look all in,” Ken greeted her. “Is anything wrong?”
“You look depressed.”
“I’m upset over something. I’d rather not bother you with it right off though.”
“Something at the office?”
“Another row with Jeff?”
“Not a row, just something.” He nodded and she saw that he was relieved that she did not want him in on whatever it was. He had aged a good deal in the past year, aged in subtler ways than the new lines in face and forehead, and the further receding and whitening of his hair. Unlike the disappearance of the muscular drag of arm and leg, there was still, somehow, a persisting drag to his mood, a dejection which he could not banish, as if he were always aware that he had been defeated in an irreversible score, with no miracle to be hoped for in the last minutes of play. He was a tall man, thin, handsome still, though his own sadness seemed a skillful robber of the bright good looks he had always been comfortably aware of. Not that he was a conceited man, merely one who knew that others found him attractive. She sometimes looked at pictures of him taken twenty years ago or longer, and marveled that the passage of time could show so sharp a change to the camera when to her own eye it was, in the process of happening, all but imperceptible.
Since his stroke she had sometimes wondered often whether it was not the same with all the sophisticated equipment in Dr. Waldo’s office—had not the routine annual electrocardiograms, year after year after year, been as unaware of any deterioration in him, in capillary or vein or artery? That had shaken her, that one fact, that Ken had been pronounced well and fit just a few weeks before the C.V.A. Cardio-Vascular Accident—what a name for that first break in the lovely red thread of life.
Everything came so suddenly.
As she went to the front door for the mail this morning she had been wondering whether to ask the Wisters to dinner the next weekend Jeff would be home, asking them to bring Suzy too, and perhaps treat Jeff and Suzy to seats at some hit show. The theater was becoming so expensive—fifteen dollars for a pair of good seats—that young people couldn’t go on their own any longer, the way they did when she was young; balcony seats for a dollar or so were unheard of now, even to shows about to close for lack of paying audiences. Even the producers of shows about to close still treated the going price scale as sacred and kept their prices intact in their empty theaters, except for the occasional issuing of “twofers,” which you never heard about in time. How futile, how foolish, their unwillingness to accept reality and offer dollar tickets to students and to people too poor to pay the big inflated prices.
I’m running again, she thought. You’d think my greatest concern was the state of the theater and the fate of producers and playwrights and flop shows. Jeff didn’t run, why should I? If ever there was a direct facing up to something, that letter of his was it. No disguise, no fake optimism, no side excursions into other problems, just a flat-out statement, just will-you-help?
A wave of heat seemed to assault her skin. She was ashamed. Ashamed of the evasions, the wrigglings, the pendulum swings of horror and hope. Perhaps she needed to see a psychiatrist or analyst too, to go through this with more maturity, to remember that her pain must be nothing compared to Jeff’s pain, her horror puny compared to his.
Again that complex question of parentship, that pulsing lifeline no electrocardiograph could ever trace with its inky squiggles on graph paper. She had to resolve that question more carefully now than ever before; it was vital in a new way, in new ratios, than ever it had been with the other children. Or I will lose him forever, she thought, or I will lose my poor troubled son forever.
“What’s bothering you?” Ken asked in sudden sympathy from the bar table where he was pouring a drink for himself. “You said it was nothing serious, but you’re as jumpy as a cat.”
“Am I? I’m sorry.”
“Let me get you a drink. You’ve practically drowned that plant anyway.”
She looked down at the watering can in her hand. It was always kept on the window, half full, and she had indeed been flourishing it with abandon. “I never knew I had the thing in my hand. I was thinking about other things.”
“Sure you don’t want to talk about them?”
“Not really. Not for now, Ken.” She gave him the flash of a smile, the false smile one manages to give people in hospital beds. “I just want to think this out for a while. Sometimes when you verbalize things, you establish a stance that’s hard to shift later on.”
“Now you’re quoting me back at me,” he said. “Or don’t you remember where you got that wisdom from, about ‘firming up a stance’?”
“You ought to feel flattered. How many wives, after twenty-six years, still really listen?” She was pierced with a longing to blurt it all out, to get Jeff’s letter from its hiding place in her purse and hand it over to him, as if sharing this terrible knowledge could somehow decrease it. But she did not move toward her purse, or blurt out a word, not so much out of love for Ken as of fear, as if already she could hear the screaming siren of an ambulance racing to the hospital. “I’m thinking about finding an analyst for Jeff,” she finally said. “A real one, not just Mrs. Culkin.”
“But why? I thought that was all done with.”
“But problems keep arising, new problems—” She turned sharply away, in a new decisiveness. “I meant that, about verbalizing.”
“Start him with a professional analyst,” he said, half in jest, “and he’ll never get loose again.”
“That’s not so, Ken! You’ll be saying ‘the shrink’ next.”She made it sound light, almost merry, and he laughed.
“I guess I’m feeling stingy about any new bills from any new doctors, after being stripped so clean last year.”
“We can manage it,” she said comfortably. “I asked Mark Waldo to find somebody good in New Haven, and it probably would only be a couple of visits a week, and not cost millions.” She moved to the bar table.
“Have you told the school? They’d have to know.”
“Not yet, but I will, of course.”
“What about talking to Jeff? Have you at least done that?”
“In a way.”
“He’ll turn you down flat,” he predicted. “He’s at that age where you don’t do things your parents want you to do. Conscientious objectors, all teen-agers.”
She laughed a little. “This time I know he will.”
“Remembering this past summer, I can just hear you two going at this, the arguments, the yes-buts and no-buts, with Jeff shouting and you finally crying.”
“He knows about it already, and he wants it himself. He’s being very mature about it, and he’d be grateful—”
“Grateful to parents? A cardinal sin.”
“Well, do let’s skip it for now. I probably shouldn’t have said this much.”
He turned back to his drink, clicking on the television set for the evening news. He looked acquiescent enough, ready to stop pressing her, but she saw a jumping pulse at the side of his throat and in the vein at his temple. Veins, she thought. She never used to think, Veins, but now she had an awareness of his veins whenever there was stress for either of them.
Suddenly she felt that she was mishandling this. She was behaving meanly; either you told it or you did not, but half telling and half withholding was paltry and mean-spirited. She had resented Mark Waldo because she had been afraid she would make the wrong decisions and do the wrong things, and sure enough, she was doing them.
But perhaps they were not so wrong. It was better to have Ken perplexed than to shock him to death. The literal meaning of the phrase made her draw back. In crisis, nothing was wrong and nothing right; there was only urgency and the one way to meet urgency was with whatever kindness and tact you could manage. It would all come clearer soon.
The telephone rang and she jumped for it, but it was a wrong number. She had been waiting for it to ring since she came home in the late afternoon. “Phone collect when you can,” her wire had said, and after allowing time for Western Union to deliver it in a sealed envelope, she had been waiting for Jeff to call and say whatever it was he would say.
“Gee, Mama, it’s swell of you to be this way.” She could imagine some such words, faltering, not wanting to thank her openly for her support, yet wanting her to feel it.
“There’s nothing swell about it,” she would answer, minimizing it, making him feel that this was his due, any child’s due.
God, I hate myself, she thought. She shoved the telephone away as if it were mocking her.
N THE WEDGE OF
space as the door opened, Jeff saw an inch of Miss Tierney and a yellow envelope in her hand. It was for him. He knew it before Mr. Klingman talked with Miss Tierney, who was from the Headmaster’s office, and before Mr. Klingman called his name and said, “You may look at it now, Jeff. A telegram.”
He said, “A telegram,” not just to put a name to it, but to imply, This must be important, otherwise it wouldn’t be a telegram, so you may read it right away, although the rules are that class cannot be interrupted for messages or telephone calls or letters.”
Jeff went up slowly, knowing that everybody was watching him, and took the sealed envelope. An excitement seemed to pump all through him.
“I hope it’s not bad news,” Klingy said, watching his face for a clue.
Jeff ripped up the flap with his thumb, opened the envelope and drew out the stiff sheet inside, holding it so nobody could get a glimpse of anything in it. The words
PROUD OF YOU
jumped up at him and he said quickly, “Oh, no, sir, it’s not bad news.” Then he took one more second to read all of it, stuffed it into his pocket, and with his face burning, went back to his seat.
There was a general stir and buzz about him, but Mr. Klingman said, “Now, class,” and the voices stopped and the shuffle and movement fell away. Jeff sat straight as if nothing had happened, but he could almost feel the crispness of the sheet and envelope in his pocket, as if he had his hand around them, touching them. He would have to hide the telegram even though she had written it so it didn’t give anything away, or even say anything anybody could start guessing about. Except what kind of specialist and why. But that was nothing much; about six of the guys went into New Haven for their hours with analysts, and everybody knew he had been having sessions with Mrs. Culkin, a kind of child psychologist, though some of her patients were pretty grown-up, the way he was.
But telegrams didn’t come about ordinary things like Mrs. Culkin or hours like the ones other guys had. His face burned again; it was hard to believe that not one person in that whole class knew what the telegram was about. Not one person in the whole school. Suddenly he was again hearing the happy roar that had gone up from the whole of Placquette at the game last Saturday when he had intercepted that Hotchkiss pass in midfield and hurled himself free of the tackles, raced left from one blocker, then right, faking another, and gone fifty-two yards for the touchdown. “Lynn, Lynn, Lynn,” they had shouted. “Lynn, Lynn, Lynn.” If one of them had dreamed the hotshot halfback of their football team was turning queer, if they ever found out that maybe he was, or said he might be, he’d damn well shoot himself.
Maybe it was that horrible fear that finally made him write the letter. It already seemed fifty years since he mailed it, and another fifty since he first thought he would have to write it. He was going crazy over it, really crazy, knowing that he could never tell her face to face and ask for help that way. She would cry and he hated her when she cried. The old man would be worse! Ever since his goddamn stroke, if you said one word he didn’t like, you felt like a murderer.