I asked my mother when Henry was coming. We were in the car, on our way to the hospital.
She didn't answer.
"Mom?" I said.
"When's Henry coming in?"
She said that he had a wedding to go to on the Cape that Saturday, and he'd either come before or after.
"Are you tired?" I asked.
At red lights, she stopped, coasted, stopped, coasted. I was getting carsick. "Do you want me to drive?" I asked.
"I can drive," she said. But she pulled over and got out, so I could take her place at the wheel.
My father had plastic oxygen tubes in his nose. He didn't smile when he saw me. "Hello, love," he said.
I bent down to kiss his forehead.
He was in a VIP suite, which had wall-to-wall carpeting, a mini refrigerator, and velvety wallpaper. "This is a brothel," I said.
He said, "Don't tell Mom."
Out in the hall, I saw Dr. Wischniak and asked when my dad would be going home.
He said, "I can't answer that yet."
I said, "Is my father dying?"
He looked at me steadily. "We're all dying, Jane."
All through the day, my father's doctor friends visited, in their white coats. They sat on his bed and patted the blanket where his legs were. My dad asked them questions about their children--"How's Amy liking Barnard?" or "What's Peter up to this summer?"--trying to make them comfortable.
When he asked how my job was, I said, "Okay."
"Really?" he said.
"No," I said. I told him that I wasn't sure I belonged in publishing. "I'm getting worse instead of better."
"You keep talking about whether you're good at this or not," he said. "The real question is do you enjoy it?"
"I might hate it," I said.
He reminded me that I loved books.
"I don't read books," I said. "I read manuscripts that aren't good enough to become books."
"What do you think you'd like to do instead?" he asked.
I said that I'd been thinking about writing a series of pamphlets called "The Loser's Guide." I said, "Like 'The Loser's Guide to Careers.' Or 'The Loser's Guide to Love.'" I wasn't sure whether I was kidding or not.
"Any other ideas?" he said.
I told him about a jewelry store with the sign PIERCING--WITH OR WITHOUT PAIN.
"But I wouldn't want to pierce anything but ears," I said. "Maybe the occasional nose."
The drugs he was getting made him nauseated, and my mother tried to tempt him to eat. "What about a pastrami sandwich?" she said. "Maybe tomorrow I'll bring a baked potato and a nice steak."
I said, "You always say, 'a nice steak,' like there are also mean steaks."
On our way out to the hospital parking lot, I told her that maybe talking about food while Dad was nauseated wasn't such a great idea.
"He has to keep his strength up," she said.
The way she spoke reminded me more of humming than thinking.
At home, we had a glass of wine on the screened-in porch, both of us still wearing our visitor tags from the hospital. The sky was the dirty violet of rain coming.
I tried to bring up topics other than my father. I asked about the neighbors I remembered. "How's Willy Schwam?" He had a scholarship to Juilliard. "What happened to Oliver Biddle?" His father died; mother and son moved to Florida.
The Caliphanos lived there now; they were raising their granddaughter, Lisa, because her mother was a drug addict. Lisa was a serious little girl, my mom said, adorable in braids; she'd knocked on the door last week and said, "I have a feeling there are rabbits in your backyard."
"What did you say?" I asked.
"I said, 'Let's go see.'"
My mother told me about all the neighbors, going up one side of the street and then the other. After she went upstairs to bed, what stayed with me wasn't the good news--the scholarship or babies or golden anniversary--but Lisa growing up without her mother, Mr. Zipkin losing his job, and the Hennessys getting divorced. I sat out there on the porch, with a cigarette and another glass of wine, listening to the crickets and the occasional car. It occurred to me that the quiet in the suburbs had nothing to do with peace.
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