by J.W. Hendrix
Through my window I saw Martin Chase shuffle by the side of the house and I could see him go down the driveway into my back yard. He would walk down the street from his house every other weekend or so, smoking a cigarette after lunch. If I didn’t go outside to meet him he would walk around the house a couple of times and then either knock, if he particularly wanted to talk, or wander back up the street. When he walked back home he would move any newspapers that he saw on the sidewalk up to the right doorstep. Chase liked a tidy street.
This time he did knock, and I greeted him at the door. I turned down the music and offered him a chair. Usually he wouldn’t say much at first and I generally asked after Elizabeth, his wife. She was in poor health and had been having problems with her heart.
Chase spoke about her recent trip to the hospital where she had been treated for fainting spells and chest pains. Their insurance plans weren’t covering very much, he said. After the deductibles and various things that weren’t allowed he wound up paying over one-third of the bill. His own doctor had told him to quit smoking, he added, but he hadn’t made much progress. Chase had the habit of dropping the cigarette butts on the lawn, which wasn’t as untidy as it sounds — it was a way to check on how often I cleaned up outside.
Chase looked around the room as he talked and gestured over to the stereo cabinet. “I see you’re using the same cabinet for your loudspeaker that Charlie did,” he said. We got up and looked at the oak cabinet that Charlie, my grandfather, had built into the wall. “Those angles,” he said, “the angles and the framing joints fit good and tight. You don’t find that kind of fit in furniture today.”
I nodded. “He didn’t take any short-cuts,” I said. “You can tell right away what he built throughout the house, by how good it looks or works.” It was true. I had moved into my grandfather’s house in the San Fernando Valley a year before he died and I was still living there. I had been there long enough to notice, and then appreciate, and then take for granted the customized improvements and changes he had made. He was a carpenter by trade and was always working with something, always building. He would add shelves, or cabinets, or a whole room to accommodate someone or something. Many of the changes were to help Pauline, his third wife. She had struggled with Parkinson’s disease for years. Over time Charlie had modified this drawer or that lighting fixture for her benefit. Long after I moved into the house I kept coming across little changes he had made: a special folding shelf that he had built into the kitchen wall, or a unique way that a closet would open, or a peculiar light switch for Pauline.
There were a lot of memories in the house. Charlie had been married three times: divorced once, widowed twice. He had worked for film studios in Los Angeles for years and had acquired a lot of studio memorabilia over time. Pauline was an avid collector herself and I still hadn’t done anything with many of the remaining dolls and commemorative dishes and spoons and ceramic pitchers that filled shelves in some of the rooms. I had gotten used to having them around, or maybe they were used to me.
To be accurate about memories, there wasn’t anything in the house that had to do with his first wife, Geneva, my grandmother. They had gotten a divorce while they were living in L.A. and soon after the divorce Charlie moved over the hill to Burbank. It was a painful affair and Charlie didn’t save any honeymoon pictures.
Charlie Webber and Geneva Davis grew up near each other on family farms in southern Indiana. The two families were close and Charlie spent a lot of time helping with one thing or another at the Davis farm while he and Geneva were going to high school. In Charlie’s closet I came across a picture of him with his high school graduating class. The picture was taken at a small schoolhouse set in the middle of early corn. There were twenty graduates that year. The boys and girls had the solemn, almost glum expressions in photographs from that time, and they all looked about thirty years old. Their futures were apparent in their faces: farmer, minister, teacher, homemaker. I found another picture of Charlie, though, that had a different look to it, an expression that somehow set him off a little bit from the other graduates. The photograph showed Charlie in a more casual setting, leaning against a tool chest. He looked young, cocky, confident, with an expression that you get when you think you are ready for whatever is coming.
The next winter, Charlie’s parents had him spend a lot of time at the Davis farm. It had something to do with a major overhaul of tractors and other machinery, and a debt between the families. The setting must have been very cozy — a long Indiana winter, a lot of time indoors, not overly-large farm houses, very Germanic families that stayed in touch with one another. It wasn’t a formally arranged marriage but it was close.
It was the twentieth century though, and it wasn’t always enough to have similar backgrounds, similar ancestry. This wasn’t to be a happy marriage. The newlyweds had trouble early, starting with a conflict about a cross-country trip to the west. Charlie wasn’t interested in farming and wanted to see what California was like. Geneva didn’t care about farming either but she wanted to stay with her family in Indiana. After some wrangling they drove out to the west coast in an old Ford pickup, back when a trip like that took about two weeks. Charlie started work in a machine shop in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles, and Geneva tried to adjust.
They didn’t stay in California long. Geneva had problems with her first pregnancy and wanted to return to Indiana for the delivery. They drove back and stayed there for a couple of years after the birth of their daughter, my mother. Charlie took on a couple of jobs in nearby Louisville, still avoiding work on a farm.
They got back to Los Angeles and this time Charlie really tried to dig in and get settled. He was a worker. Whatever job he could find he took and stuck to it with a dogged persistence until he found something better. He had other trips to Indiana (they went back again when my uncle was born) and other interruptions in his jobs, and he took them all as they came. His role was provider for his family and he didn’t just accept that role but grasped it firmly. Mechanic. Electrician. Carpenter. Making, molding, shaping.
They grew like other families. Charlie began a long career as a carpenter for the Disney studios. They moved around town from one apartment to another while their kids grew up. Charlie got laid off, went on strike, quit the studio once, but always went back to work somewhere. And throughout the years, the distance between Charlie and Geneva widened. Geneva was unhappy and complained a lot, and in spite of her attachments to her family in Indiana, resented her own family life in L.A. and the endless obligations. Charlie retreated further into his hobbies or his work. Back then there weren’t many alternatives.
Until, that is, Geneva began a scandalous affair with the landlady’s son, who was about nineteen, the same age as my mother. Even today this would have been messy enough but at the time it was positively sensational. Charlie finally confronted Geneva about the relationship and she admitted it. She did quite a lot more than admit it: she said she was going to continue the affair. Charlie didn’t say another word. He grabbed his hat and left the apartment, for good. Sometimes there’s not much to talk about after twenty years of anger and resentment.
The incident dissolved the family. Charlie got a quick, uncontested divorce and moved to the valley. He was so bitter that he stopped seeing his own children for a time, and then only occasionally afterwards. My mother and uncle left Geneva as soon as they could, to college or to the Army. Geneva was dumped quickly by the landlady’s son. She moved to Hollywood, which would be as far away from southern Indiana as you could get. She never married again but she did keep my mother busy over the years with emotional demands and preposterous tales of romance and heartbreak. I remember her rare visits to us in Arizona during which she would terrorize me and my sisters with her dour Germanic expressions and her chain-smoking and a hideous two piece bathing suit that might have looked good on her when she was sixteen. She lived ten minutes from Burbank and never saw Charlie again.
* * *
It was an interesting contrast with Chase, at any rate. He had been married to Elizabeth almost sixty years. Like Charlie, he had arrived in Los Angeles from the Midwest, from a Wisconsin farm. But Chase hadn’t moved around much after that and he had spent most of his working life at one place, the Lockheed plant at the Burbank airport. Chase usually wore his old greenish-tan work clothes after he retired and he had them on as he sat in my living room, speaking in a slow methodical cadence that underscored each word.
Chase would talk about farm equipment, or how the transmissions worked on early Oldsmobiles or Nashes, or how the pistons worked on the tractors on their Wisconsin farm. He described the Ford truck that his family bought for the farm and he remembered an early Ford advertising slogan: “It’ll take you there and bring you back again.” A no-frills slogan.
Chase had a lot of memories from his years at Lockheed. He was a methodical and precise worker and did well in the shop. His days were spent fitting complex hydraulic systems into wing and fuselage assemblies which required an enormous amount of attention to small details. He could spend hours routing a single line around a difficult electrical fixture (and he could take just as long to tell me about it). He would work with mirrors and angled tools in these difficult jobs, his hands working instinctively to make an orderly pattern. Everything in its place and a place for everything. Chase needed things to fit right and to look right. It felt better that way.
Chase also needed order in his work relationships. He would tell me of his relationships with engineers, with shop stewards, with management, with other union members. He lived in a structured world with well-defined guidelines about behavior. When he would describe a character to me he would first tell me their ethnic background; second, their position and relationship to the union; and third, how good they were at their job. There was no four or five.
“There was a party that was new to the shop,” Chase once told me, “A thin Italian fellow. Liked to tell people how to do things, this party did.” Knowing Chase, this probably meant that the thin Italian fellow once mildly suggested a new way to bend tubing. “I was laying out a line in the wings on one of the Constellation lines, one of the cargo models. They had changed the flaps design,” Chase waggled his hands to show, “…and made us move the entire path forward about six inches. I had been underneath the wing for close to an hour, re-routing, when I see the Italian behind me, watching.
“He stays behind me, and I says to him, `When did you get promoted?’ He don’t answer, just looks at the wing, and says `You’ll need to do that line over, with longer stock. The specs say that you can’t have a join between there and the cylinder, and you’ll be short with the length of tubing that you’ve got.’ He was working on the other side, doing the same job on the other wing. `If you want to sit down while they order the longer stock, go ahead,’ I says back to him, `I’ve got work to do.’ Trying to tell me about where the cylinders were. You know that one model, it had the hydraulic cylinders tucked higher up in the …”
“Why did the guy say anything at all?” I interrupted. Chase could have easily spent thirty minutes talking about the cylinders.
“Didn’t want to re-do the line, I suppose, if the single piece were to come up short. But it wasn’t short. I knew it weren’t. The Italian fellow leaves, and after a time he come back with the shift engineer, to look it over. `Don’t want to use a longer piece?’ the engineer asks me. `We can get it for you PDQ.’ Then the foreman comes over to see what the fuss is. Well, he knows me, and he doesn’t ask anything, just watches.”
That was quite a little scene for Chase, an encounter with the engineers, co-workers, his boss. Measuring his worth. Chase didn’t measure the routing of the piping with a tape but he knew anyway. He had been doing this work long enough and his fingers knew. And there he was in the spotlight thirty years ago, with the audience waiting for him to come up short after all that effort.
“Well, it took a few more minutes to finish, and I had the foreman look it over,” Chase said. “I showed him the excess tubing I had to cut off. I had a half-inch too much, at the cylinder. So he takes the piece over to the other fellow, and says `Keep this to measure with, so you know what a half-inch is.’
“And that’s what the shop called him after that. Half-inch. He left at six months or so, went to Pennsylvania.”
Chase related this story, this vindication of his abilities, his link to his work, with obvious enthusiasm. More emotion than he usually showed. A triumph of intuition and experience, of the hands.
* * *
Charlie’s own search for order and continuity wasn’t as simple. The studio produced training films for the Pentagon and Charlie worked for a time in a converted hangar that was shared by other defense contractors. He got involved with a secretary from Grumman, Edna Belton, a quiet, introspective, almost eccentric woman that didn’t seem his type at all. (Not that Geneva was his type.) Still, Charlie and Edna got married about a year after they met, and they moved into the Burbank house.
I had never learned much about Edna. They were only married a few years. I didn’t know her history, or how they got together. What I did know a lot about was her illness. Edna developed ovarian cancer a couple of years after the wedding and Charlie had kept copies of the medical expenses and other records. I still had them in the desk, along with his old utility bills, union dues receipts, and buttons saved from worn-out overalls. Charlie had saved doctors’ bills, hospital bills, medical supply bills. Time cards that showed when he started working overtime to pay some of the bills.
Then out of the blue I came across a letter that Edna had written to Charlie after her illness had gotten serious. It was in a file for insurance receipts, of all places. It wasn’t a letter from a different state or anything, or from the hospital. Just a private note from Edna. It wasn’t very long.
This feels strange, writing a letter to you instead of speaking with you. We’ve been able to talk about so many things in our lives. But now I worry that in speech I will use the wrong words, or give the wrong impression. These written words can be redone or erased. Spoken words can’t, even though they are gone quickly. So I hope that sitting here alone I can order my thoughts and make them more clear. It will be less emotional for me, too. I find myself having such intense feelings now that I don’t always trust my thoughts, and there is so much of my true, constant feeling that I want to tell you.
The first, most important, is my love for you. Nothing will ever change that, especially this illness. Your love for me, your devotion and hard work are more than I deserve. And I am in anguish over the limits I now have in returning that love. Please don’t think that my love for you is distorted or heightened by my pain, or medication, or despair. In my pain I have said, and will say, many things. But I tell you now as clearly as I can that I will always love you.
In a wonderful and terrible way this illness has made me realize many things. I feel much closer to you, and much farther away. For the times of being distant, please forgive me and try to understand. I see, although I have paid dearly for it, that I have been given a precious freedom. Freedom from my thoughts, from my body, from my life. And Charlie, please understand, freedom from you too. This freedom is so piercing sometimes that I feel almost swept away, part of nothing, away from everything. I need you now to hold on to.
So much of my time now is spent inwardly. Please don’t begrudge the time, being away from you. It has taken me so long just to acknowledge this illness, and I have to do much more than acknowledge it. Perhaps I can’t accept it, but I can accept an alternative to despair. I am trying Charlie, and I couldn’t even try without you. But if I fail, you must believe that despair is my own fault.
Now I see that I should ask your forgiveness again, for all these words. Maybe it should be much simpler: please understand when I am too sick to speak clearly. Or even more simply: I realize now that I will miss you more than my own life.
The note had just been waiting in the folder, next to a change-of-address form that had never been used. It’s the kind of discovery that makes you tread lightly in life, that keeps you from planting your feet too firmly. You never know when you will find something that will knock you over.
After I read the note I looked at the paper closely, to see how much handling it showed. Hardly any. Well, I couldn’t argue with that. It was a letter that had a lot of sharp edges. And it was a letter that was more from Edna than it was to Charlie. He wasn’t a words guy and he wasn’t a very emotional guy. Charlie liked to talk about politics, and society, and had a very Jack Londonish view of workers and bosses. His church would invite modern writers and philosophers to speak as often as they would schedule visiting pastors. Still, Charlie was more of a worker than he was an intellectual lover. His blunt, solid manner wouldn’t connect very well with such a letter. His capacity for caring was seemingly inexhaustible but it wasn’t complicated. To him, Edna would need support and love. She would need more care and attention as she suffered more. There would be more details to look after: insurance forms, bills, IV pumps, oxygen bottles. Charlie’s hard work and dedication was his expression of his feelings. He kept plugging away at the physical things — carpentry, detailed records, meticulous housekeeping — to answer the emotional questions.
For Edna, it may have been the right answer. Edna wondered if her letter was too wordy but I could understand why she would write it. She would use, even exploit, the contrast in their personalities. She could indulge in her feelings of freedom knowing that her relationship with Charlie would pull her back home. He would have been a solid link to the world, all right. If anybody was going to help you accept your fate in Burbank in the twentieth century, it would be Charlie.
According to the records, Charlie spent another nine months after the note caring for Edna. The bills and records that he kept in the desk for all those years track her progress: more frequent hospital stays, more medication, more IVs. The last two months were at home, in the Burbank house. Charlie hired a nurse to help: $325 per week. He took two weeks off work to stay home. The bills for medication got higher. One Thursday night the doctor made a house call and Charlie noted that he stayed 35 minutes, charged $135. Easy to calculate, I guess. Edna died the following Monday, in April, in what passes for spring in southern California.
* * *
Later that same year, drawn to the thick green summer farmland, Charlie drove to Indiana. Probably in a Ford — it’ll take you there and bring you back again. His trip took him back to his home town, back to the hot, humid cornfields, slow rivers and lazy ponds, and the noisy cicadas in the afternoons that turned into silent fireflies at dusk. The thick air made everything look hazy and indistinct. It was a real summer, not the kind that you get in Los Angeles. In southern California you lose track of the seasons and you float along in a kind of timeless daze from year to year. In farm country the seasons thump you on the head every three months and say, “Another season has come and gone, are you paying attention?”
Charlie visited relatives and friends and he even saw a few of his high school classmates who had remained in his home town, the ones in the class picture. The farmers or ministers or teachers. Of the 20 graduates, 12 were still living in the area and Charlie was the only one who went as far away as California. One student from a later class, Pauline Bunch, had taught music to children in the area for twenty years. Pauline had a lively character, even more lively red hair, and she must have made a startling contrast with the rest of the Germans around there. She had never married. Charlie must have seemed like a pretty interesting character himself, coming all the way from California with one wife divorced and another passed away. Pauline must have thought so, for they met again after thirty years and soon were spending a lot of time together.
It had been during winter when the families locked up Charlie with the dark-haired Geneva. This time, during summer, it was with the red-headed Pauline, and I always thought that the summer season, and the rich earth, and sultry breeze, were the matchmakers. Charlie proposed to Pauline during that same trip and by the end of summer they were making plans to marry before Thanksgiving.
The pictures he saved from this wedding show quite a bit of the Webber family. Still very old-world, very stiff. Charlie’s mother in particular was wearing a severe, harsh expression, as if she was suspicious of the entire world and couldn’t relax for a moment. She was also probably wondering about the propriety of this third wedding. Charlie hadn’t exactly fit the farmland social mold. In one of the wedding pictures she is looking grimly at the couple, as if their happiness was tempting fate somehow.
Social mold or not, on this third try Charlie hit the jackpot. Their interests, their demeanors, were a match. Pauline was his type. It made questions about Charlie’s drive back to his home town after Edna’s death unimportant: questions about whether he was too little affected by his wife’s death, or driven by a deep longing for life, or just lonely. It gave a hint of the connection within Charlie to something deep, something that had a plan of its own.
At any rate, Charlie and Pauline fell immediately into a compatible and rewarding life together. Travel, collecting, hobbies, music. They would breeze in to visit us in Arizona with their van full of baked treats and gifts and a gay change of pace. Pauline would liven up the house with boisterous piano playing and her flaming red hair, and then she would show us again, flaunting her buoyancy, how she floated like a cork in the swimming pool. After a day or two they would sail off to their next stop.
Charlie and Pauline retired early so that they could travel more; Pauline from teaching music and Charlie from Disney Studios. One of the Disney artists drew a wonderful cartoon for Charlie’s retirement, signed by all of his co-workers, including Walt and Roy. Their plans for the future together looked bright.
But there was a different plan, as it turned out: Pauline developed Parkinson’s disease. If there is a conspiracy theory streak in you, you might observe that Parkinson’s would be particularly damaging for someone who needs precise finger and voice control. Or you might say it just happens that way sometimes.
The Parkinson’s started slowly, with almost negligible trembling and just a slight quaver in her voice. It didn’t interfere much with their activities in the first year. But her condition worsened steadily. I grew up and moved around, so I heard about her progress sporadically and second-hand from my mother or my sisters. I learned about her in installments every few months: Pauline couldn’t walk much anymore; her hands and arms were getting worse; she was confined to a wheelchair; Charlie had found a nursing home to care for her; Charlie had to sell part of Pauline’s extensive doll collection to pay the bills; Charlie had to sell Pauline’s grand piano. Each time I heard a new development it seemed like a new shock, a reminder of the whole story. I didn’t think about it the way Charlie or Pauline thought about it, living with it each day. Waking each morning knowing Pauline would be responding a little less, showing the palsy a little more. Looking ahead, getting ready for whatever was coming.
After college I moved to Los Angeles and started visiting Charlie every now and then. One Sunday he asked me to visit Pauline with him at the nursing home. She had been there for a few years, and had been non-ambulatory, as they say in the trade, the whole time. The nursing home was near Charlie and he had seen her every day when she was first admitted. She soon lost her speech and eventually she was unable to move or respond at all. After a couple of years Charlie visited her two or three times a week.
On Sundays Charlie brought the newspaper, fruit that was cut up into sections, and some of Pauline’s laundry that he had washed. I didn’t recognize her as we walked in her room and I saw her in her bed. She had shrunk dramatically and her hair was white, and she had lost all of the facial expressions that I remembered. Total loss of voluntary muscle control does quite a makeover. Charlie wasn’t protected by a fading memory, either. He still had old photographs of Pauline at his house, with her bright red hair and her animated, smiling face. Every day he could compare the pictures with how she looked when he visited.
Charlie read some of the headlines from the paper to Pauline, and then he held up the comics in front of her face. Her eyes moved a little bit back and forth. He described some of the action. “There is Snoopy again, flying his plane,” he said. “Here is Dagwood asleep at his job.” Pauline stared at the bright colors, with a little bit of eye movement.
While he was reading aloud, Charlie was feeding the fruit to Pauline with toothpicks, one piece at a time. She looked at the comics and then at Charlie. She looked at me briefly, and then back at Charlie. He kept up a pleasant, cheerful tone with her, probably the same tone he had used for all of the years that she had been in here. He didn’t let up. The love might slip away over the years, visit by visit, the heart might grow a protective layer, but the tie was still there. Charlie was familiar with the caregiver role, anyway. But his face did show, inevitably, the expression of someone who has braced themselves for heartache a thousand times.
I saw Charlie every couple of weeks, visiting with him at home or at one of his favorite restaurants. We would watch television or talk in his living room, kept dark and curtained to save energy. Our conversations stayed on relatively safe topics. He told me about life in Los Angeles years earlier, about the schemes for grabbing water from up north by southern California, about the conspiracy of tire and automobile companies to kill the L.A. trolleys. He had a traditional populist thinking that went well with his humanist-leaning religion, very concerned about justice in the world, about preventing the strong from taking advantage of the weak.
I didn’t ask him about justice for his own life in those conversations, about God and his life and how it fit together. He wouldn’t have been impressed. He would have thought the question a little petty. You think I should complain? he would say. File a grievance with God? Charlie wasn’t self-centered enough, he didn’t have a big enough ego, to be interested in questions like that. He kept a strong faith and was very dedicated to his church. I remembered a conversation between Charlie and my mother from the past, in which Charlie had triumphantly described how a famous atheist had dramatically asked, on his deathbed, to be given last rites by a Catholic priest. It was Charlie’s kind of proof, a working man’s logic. You can talk about the finer points if you like, he might have said, but I am still where I am, and Pauline where she is.
So we let the finer points be, and Charlie stuck to his job. He was cataloging and selling more of Pauline’s dolls that were still in the house, talking with dealers, dealing with the hospitals and insurance companies. Through all of this he still enjoyed eating out with me at greasy neighborhood restaurants and he still took an immense pride in keeping his house and yard well maintained. Sometimes in the afternoon I would come over while he was talking with Chase in the backyard. The two old men in their lawn chairs, sometimes talking, sometimes watching the clouds. I’d wait for Chase to leave before I showed myself.
And I did find out, after all, what Charlie got out of it all, what he got for sticking with the plan. Several months after my move to Los Angeles, Charlie phoned me in the evening and told me about a funny feeling he had felt in his left arm a few days earlier. The feeling had gone away and then came back, and he had seen his doctor about it. Charlie said that after several tests the doctor wasn’t sure, and said that it needed to be confirmed, “but the results are not good,” Charlie said calmly. He sounded like he had discovered termites in his garage. The doctor thought it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Charlie said, Lou Gherig’s disease. In his matter-of-fact, interested tone, he told me that he had looked up some information about ALS. Its origins, its progression, its effects on different areas of your body. I interrupted him and told him I’d come over. I didn’t want to hear this at all, and certainly not over the phone.
It was a warm night and Charlie had his shirt off when I got there. He hadn’t expected me to come over. I could smell him clearly, not rank, just unwashed on a hot evening when he was too frugal to run the air conditioner. The conversation was fairly light. I found myself slipping into simple denial: the doctors are probably wrong, it’s just your lousy diet, you need more exercise and less stress. I was just diverting, just changing the subject, just like the doctor did when he had said to Charlie: “We need to confirm, we’re not absolutely sure, we need a second opinion, you never can tell in cases like this.”
Only you can tell.
Charlie still seemed interested in the Lou Gherig aspect and brought up other prominent people that had the disease, like Jacob Javits. We talked about Pauline a little bit, and how this would affect things. And then I found myself repeating what his doctor had said: well, we need to wait for the second opinion. No reason to jump off the bridge just yet. And yet in my mind I was going over the chronology:
Marriage, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Charlie got his second opinion. As luck would have it, one of the world’s leading experts on ALS was based at a nearby hospital. Charlie was able to get an appointment with the expert, Dr. King, who would make the official diagnosis. How lucky can you get?
I left work one day and met Charlie at the hospital, in an examining room. He had already been poked and prodded and stuck by one group of doctors. They had left him sitting on a high examining table, half naked and with his legs dangling above the floor. Charlie was glad to see me. He was looking around at the brightly lit, windowless room. You would hate to be a germ trying to hide there. A few months earlier he would have been more interested in some of the unusual fixtures for the room and how they were made. Now he had slipped into a less practical, but still aware, manner.
With a burst of talking and footsteps, three doctors bustled in without knocking. They were all tall and white-jacketed, and they had just come from a meeting and were still animated and talking about it as they entered. Now they had to shift gears and tell a skinny old man that he would die soon. The first doctor, obviously the head guy, made a slight closing remark to one of the others before turning to the new patient. “Mr. ..uh “ he looked at his chart. “Mr. Webber,” he began. “I am Doctor King. How do you do.” There’s an opening line, I thought. How do you think he is doing? “These are my associates, Doctors Randall and Craig.” Charlie nodded, in his polite and attentive way. They were the doctors. “Mr. Webber, we’ve all looked over the previous test results, and the data from the examination today”, he said, and they all flipped through papers on their clipboards. “And our feeling is, that these results are, …consistent with the …uh… original…uh… diagnosis.” They all stopped flipping and looked solemn. Charlie didn’t say anything. King cleared his throat. “We don’t know very much about the process, unfortunately. We will want to keep monitoring your progress, of course, on a regular basis, and provide all the help we can.” He paused again.
“He means you’ve got ALS,” I said to Charlie. Even I was wondering if he understood. But Charlie just nodded. He knew. He had known for months, probably since his arm first went numb. What other ‘data’ did he need? King looked at me, assessing if I was another doctor or a lawyer. “It’s one of those difficult things,” he said, “where we are just now finding out a very little about how it works, and how it progresses.”
“He means that we don’t know what to do about it,” I said to Charlie. He still hadn’t said anything.
After another short pause Charlie finally spoke. “There is one thing, Doctor,” Charlie said. “How will this affect my getting around? I am still looking after my wife, who is bedridden at the Flower Garden Home near my house. She’s had Parkinson’s disease for several years. I visit her about twice a week.”
King shook his head sympathetically. “It never rains but it pours,” he said.
I stared at him, stunned. I felt a little unsteady and I took hold of a chair for a moment. Nobody spoke, the other doctors were expressionless, almost as if they hadn’t heard what I heard, and I wondered in the silence of the small room if those words had really been said aloud. Words vanish so quickly, Edna had said.
“How … how long will he be able to go to see his wife,” I said to King. “He wants to know how long he can walk and move around. That’s what he is asking you.” It never rains but it pours.
King looked at me again. “What makes this kind of thing so difficult, is that we don’t know.” He turned back to Charlie. “There has been a significant deterioration just in the last two months, but we can’t say if it will continue at the same rate.” King saw my expression and added, “I would expect that the ambulatory capacity will be lost within a year. That means you will find it more and more difficult to walk, and probably will be using a wheelchair in that time.”
Charlie looked at the floor briefly, and then nodded again. He didn’t look like he was bitter or depressed, or repelled by the doctors’ detachment. He even made me feel a little ashamed. It was easy for me to take offense; I wasn’t sick. Delivering death sentences all day long must take a lot out of anybody, it must make them say absurd and ridiculous things. And maybe it was better here in this stark little room where nothing was hidden from the bright lights. Maybe it was better than hearing it from a sympathetic counselor who could say nice, appropriate things in a nice, paneled office.
Anyway, Charlie didn’t seem surprised or upset, just thoughtful. There were a lot of questions that I might have asked, of Charlie or of King. Instead I asked the doctors about therapy and drugs and chances for remission. Things I already knew about. King was willing to talk for a few minutes but he was very busy and had other patients to see. It never rains but it pours. The three white doctors smiled and said good-bye, and hustled out again. I watched Charlie dress, not wanting to offer help, and then we left.
* * *
A few months later I started to visit Pauline alone. Charlie kept losing weight and muscle tissue and I moved out of my apartment and into his house. He got weaker and didn’t get out much at all. When I first suggested that I visit Pauline without him he took an immediate interest, and showed me (although I had seen him do it a dozen times) how to cut the fruit into sections, and how the toothpicks were best placed. He set out the newspaper on a table by the door for me to take as I left. Always careful. Full of care.
I visited Pauline about once a week after that. Charlie got thinner and weaker and moved to a nursing home further out in the valley. Often I would take him in a wheelchair to see Pauline and we would take the comics and fruit like always. Then he had a bout of pneumonia which kept him in bed for several days, and after the pneumonia Charlie was too weak to go anywhere. We didn’t talk about it much. I just said that I would keep going myself, and he seemed pleased. Again I felt the sense of duty, of love, that kept him visiting Pauline for all those years. That had kept him going, two and three times a week, to talk to someone who would never answer, who would never say his name.
When I went to see Pauline a few weeks later I did the fruit, and then the comics, and then I talked a little, like always. I would usually talk to Pauline about Charlie and what he was up to, about students of Pauline that might have dropped by the house to ask about their teacher. I would make up stories about some of Pauline’s dolls that were still at the house. (The Belgian dolls are very upset about the new neighbors, I might say. The neighbors collect these silly cloth baby dolls with puffy faces, not proper collectibles.)
But this time was a little different. I had something else to say. “Pauline, I need to tell you something,” I said in a loud voice, as if she were only deaf. “Charlie has been sick, and he can’t get around much anymore. He can’t come to see you anymore. He’s too weak.” She was looking at me. No reply. “He can’t be with you anymore, but he sends…” I had to stop for a moment, “…he sends his love, and I will be telling him what you are doing from now on.” I wondered if this was like prayer. “And I’ll let you know how he is getting on.”
I couldn’t get my voice to sound normal. I thought about talking like this every week, year after year, and I could imagine the cells and nerves in my body gradually breaking down. Losing the connections, like ALS.
Pauline kept her eyes on me, as she always did. I told her a little more about Charlie’s nursing home and how he was doing. “I’ll see you next week, Pauline,” I said finally. “Take care.” She watched me as I left, as she always did.
Things change, and I didn’t have to return. I wasn’t able to make it the following week and then the hospital called one day and said Pauline had died the night before. In her sleep they said, but they couldn’t have known that. Even if her eyes were closed. It never rains but it pours.
* * *
Chase, sitting in the living room, was listening to the song that had been softly playing. “The weakness in me,” somebody sang.
It’s not your touch
Or your smile
It’s just the luck
of the draw
I could handle this thing
But I get dizzy in spring
I just get dizzy in spring
“Dizzy spring,” he repeated to himself, hearing the words from the song, and then said it louder. “Dizzy spring. That’s what we would call it, when the horses and mules got hard like to handle. For the early plowing some years you had to use a two-by-four to get their attention. Seems like they were always pulling a-this way or a-that way, never straight. That warm, cool air just made everything jumpy, it seemed.” He paused for a moment, remembering the feelings. Fifty years in Los Angeles is a long time without seasons. A long time to not stay indoors three months of each year. A long time to not lose your head each spring, drunk on the soft breeze. Chase breathed deeply as if he could smell that air again.
“I was set to repairing a disker one spring,” he began. “One of the discs on the left side had turned inwards, bending the smaller shaft down.” He gestured with his hands, showing how the disker looked. “It was a McEntire disker,” he explained. “That model had a new kind of bearing on each pair of discs, and you had to take off the bearings on either side of the one pair of discs, to get to the smaller shafts.” Chase was using his finger to look like the bent shaft, and the gnarled finger looked more misshapen than any damaged shaft could have been. He looked at his finger for a moment, and turned it slowly, as if measuring how much it was warped.
“I had been working on that disker all morning, trying to get the bearings off without bending the rims,” he continued. This was almost sixty years ago. “I had wanted to go into town, but my father had decided to get the disker ready for the lower fields.” Chase gave a hint of a smile, recalling the farm’s autocracy. “I remember talking with him about it — we weren’t going to be doing the lower areas for at least two weeks, they were too wet. But he wanted the disker ready to go.
“I had a good set-up for my workbench. I could swivel it out of the barn, so’s to sit in the sun while I was working. That way I could also see down the road into town, if one of the Millers or Gaults were going that way and could pick up something for me.
“But you know, instead, I saw Elizabeth coming up the road, leading a pair of horses. She was taking them over to…” he paused, trying to remember. I hoped that the remembering wouldn’t distract him. “To Minton’s farm, I think. Minton’s. The road was still muddy enough in parts to stall a truck, so Elizabeth was walking them over ‑ about four miles. Them horses was acting up too, wanting to pull away, but she was holding them down rightly.”
Back then, Elizabeth was a small girl, no more than a hundred pounds. I pictured her in a long shift, with small, sharp features. Long black hair. I pictured her walking up the road holding down the horses, avoiding the muddy sections. Chase’s monologue continued and he described in his heavy cadence how he left his workbench and began talking with Elizabeth. They lived about three miles apart, and Chase gave the impression that Elizabeth hadn’t taken the shortest route from her house to the Minton’s farm.
Chase walked with Elizabeth to deliver the horses that day, leaving the disker not just unrepaired but disassembled and strewn about the barn. He told me that they also went into town after that, and he didn’t get the items he was wanting earlier. He didn’t say what happened at home later, with the disker, or with his father. His parents might have considered the walk with Elizabeth to be inevitable, how it was during spring, unless they wanted to use the two-by-four.
Chase stirred in his chair after a long pause. “You say Charlie’s first wife is still alive?” he asked, changing the subject. Yes, Geneva was alive and in a retirement home herself. She was still going, seemingly healthier than all of us, still drinking and smoking and making up crazy stories about romance.
But Chase was really thinking about Elizabeth, who wasn’t healthier than any of us. Her heart was failing and she would die soon. Chase showed this in the way that he talked and moved. Without Elizabeth he wouldn’t live long himself. He would shuffle around in his empty house, and I would spend more time with him, but he was too close to her, too entwined. I wondered how often he remembered Elizabeth on that dizzy spring day when he left the farm to walk with her.
He stirred again. “I’ll be getting back,” he said as he rose from the chair. “Elizabeth will be wondering about supper.” Twenty thousand times he had gone to dinner with Elizabeth. The vine they had grown together seemed solid and immense.
“Wait, Martin” I said, using his first name. “I’ll go over with you for a minute.” We walked out together and I asked Chase to come with me to the back of the house. There were new roses and camellias by the fence and I wanted Chase to take them to Elizabeth, to their vine.