Selections from The Week
I bought my mother a small hospital with a decent operating budget and she picked out a rheumatologist, an oncologist, a cardiovascular surgeon, an orthopedist, and an anesthesiologist, and that used up the salary lines, but then she replaced the anesthesiologist with a nurse anesthetist and there was enough left over to add a phlebotomist and a Reiki practitioner. Architecturally, it was a very nice hospital, more like a mad house, with ivy on the walls, and expansive grounds and willow trees, and my mother, when she saw the willow trees, said, "Maybe I'll learn how to make aspirin," and I said, "Mother, I didn't buy you a hospital so you can learn how to make aspirin," and she said, "No, dear, of course not," and she said, "Does the lab here have a tablet press?" and I said, "Mother, it's a fully equipped lab," sharply, because I hadn't thought to inventory the lab and could that possible oversight point to additional oversights? And if so, what could they be? We walked inside the hospital, and I showed my mother her room. I'd arranged it so that it was nearly identical to her room in her former home. Instead of apple trees, she could see willow trees from her window and that wasn't a bad trade, an even trade I'd say. Also, there was a skylight at the end of her hall. Her former home had no such skylight. Beneath the skylight, I'd arranged a dozen massively potted aspidistras. I walked my mother to the end of the hall and she said, "This is lovely," and I said, "Thank you, Mother," and she admired the aspidistras ("These are lovely aspidistras.") and she said, "When your Uncle Billy came back..." and I said, "Poor Uncle Billy," and she said, "...he told me he felt very comfortable in Vietnam because the jungle was filled with houseplants," and I said, "Do you want an exercise bike?" and she said, "No, dear, the hallways are so long." We walked a lap around the whole first floor to get back to her room and then I said goodbye. Driving away, I felt wonderful about buying my mother the hospital. And since that first day, I've learned more about the hospital—that Al Jolson died there, and that Georgios Papanikolaou once came to give a talk—and I feel more confident than ever that I did not make a mistake, even though I failed to inventory the lab and, it turns out, check the elevator inspection notices and the generators. The lab is fine; the elevators are fine; the generators are good as new and never been used. My mother says everything is perfectly pleasant and I feel good about that. As tens, hundreds, thousands of adult children start buying hospitals for their mothers, I feel good that, by acting quickly, I managed to buy my own mother the most desirable hospital. It's in the best area for our purposes, a rural county neither too close nor too far. I used to get phone calls about it from would-be buyers, but for months now I've kept my phone turned off, and when the contract expires I will cancel the plan altogether.
My father goes to the pines. He checks on his hive. His hive is destroyed. The bear wrecked the hive. My father goes to his house. He paints his body with honey. He applies many coats. He goes to the pines. He goes to the wreck of his hive. He lies in wait for the bear on the wreck of his hive. He wears six coats of honey, six full-length coats. It smells like pines in the pines, and it smells like strong honey. Honey attracts. My father waits for the bear to attack, to come through the pines, to rush toward the honey-thick smell in the pines. Surprise! There's no hive in the pines. The hive is destroyed. Dead bees. Mangled boards. No hive. A decoy in pines. It's not a hive... it's a man! My father smiles. Silly old bear. My father will kill the bear with his hands. Every man wants to kill a bear with his hands. Every silly old man. My brother calls my father a silly old man. My father is old. He has no teeth, has no hair. He has very strong hands. The bear will rush through the pines. My father will smile. Surprise! He will put his hands on the bear. Even now he is preparing to choke out the bear. My brother has entered his prime. He's not a boy. He knows his own mind. He knows my father will fail. It's not hard to see: a silly old man, his old hands, and a bear. My brother proposes an alternate plan. He'll spread tacks. He'll plant mines. "Come back inside," he yells, but my father does not respond to commands. He won't surrender the field. He is lying in wait, his toothless head in his hands. It's not hard to see: my father will die. This is the plan. My brother throws a grenade at the pines. It rips through the bear, but my low-lying father, my father is spared. He comes through the pines. He comes through the smoke. He is covered in hair, all that honey covered over with all the bear's hair. On his head, on his cheeks and his chin, on his chest and his legs, on the backs of his hands and the tops of his feet. My father looks young, a dark, hairy young man. He holds up his hands. He says, "That bear destroyed his last hive." He's alive. That's the plan. He comes out young and alive. My brother pretends he was nowhere nearby. He trims his black hair. He builds his own house from the pines. He feels too alone then remembers that honey attracts. He pants his body with honey. He waits. Driving with the window rolled down, his future mate brakes. She smells pines. She smells something strong: warm caramel, red clover. She leaves the car on the side of the road. She walks to my brother's pine house where he's waiting outside. She sees ants thick on honey, but beneath the honey, she sees the shape of a man.
Now that the son is grown and wants to move the parents into a smaller house, he needs to convince the parents—who are not incompetent, not in the legal sense of the word, just impractical, stubborn, dangerous, and very old—that a smaller house will be suited to their needs. They can manage and afford a smaller house, and they can't manage and afford the house they have now. The son might say this to the parents, but he knows saying it would not convince the parents that they should move into a smaller house. The parents have never felt that they need to be able to afford or manage anything in particular. When they can't afford something, they do without it. No only do they do without it, they disdain it. Who needs that thing? It's amazing, isn't it, how many things are available today that people really don't need? When the parents can't manage something, it blows up or falls apart or gets away from them. It creates a bad situation that either disappears on its own or doesn't, gets better or worse or stays the same. And so? The parents have survived innumerable bad situations. They've survived far longer than the son, who thinks life is supposed to be easy, that situations don't arise. The son can show the parents where their roof is leaking, where the stovepipe from the basement furnace glows orange and flickers with the black shadows of flames. He can talk about the rising cost of gasoline, the distance between their house and a supermarket, their house and his house, their house and a hospital, their house and another house, any house, a house where they can find help, reach help when they need help in haste. But the parents don't need help. That's what the son doesn't understand. The parents don't need the son. They did without the son before and they can do without the son again. They don't need each other. They don't need themselves, not really. What selves do people think they're hanging on to anyway? Not their old bodies, their very old bodies? Who wants to hang on to a very old body, even your own? People remember being young and they think that's what they need, those selves, supple and strong, but they don't. They don't need them. Not really. Those selves are gone and people make do without them. Every day people have less of those selves, but they go on living. The parents do enjoy living. They enjoy puttering in the yard, feeding the birds, making late night pancakes, watching TV, and feeling warm inside the big, untidy, half-rotten house that the son can't convince them to leave. It's a death trap, a money pit, a pigsty, an eyesore, an outpost. It's more than the parents need. The parents need so little, though, it's unforgivable that the son would try to take that little bit away.
A wealthy woman of my acquaintance was just deprived of her fortune. Never having had a fortune myself, I did not understand that a fortune, once possessed, is as essential to a person as a limb or organ. I had always thought of a fortune as something external, something that could, and even should, be expropriated from the wealthy in the service of the greater good. For example, I had judged my acquaintance negatively for buying shoes that cost more than two weeks of my salary when she might have bought herself more attractive and serviceable shoes for under $300 at a department store and sent the remaining money to earthquake survivors or given it as a startling, perhaps life-changing tip to a taxi driver. Once she paid my airfare to Italy so I could visit her and some mutual friends for a week at her home in Tuscany; that was, of course, very generous. When she showed up at my door asking to spend the night, she was no doubt calling in that very favor. However, I almost sent her away from my door, not out of malice. I didn't recognize her! Her lower jaw seemed longer, her facial skin was scabby and everywhere red-threaded with capillaries, and her clothing hung on her body in a way that suggested double mastectomies or drug addiction. I took her in the first instant for a stranger, someone who would tell me a story about the tank of gas or bus ticket she needed to get home to her children. I noticed, though, upon further inspection, the complexity and impracticality of her footwear. Her footwear was obviously hand-stitched; the design was one of kind but also familiar. As soon as I noticed the footwear, I realized my acquaintance stood before me, a woman I knew fairly well but who was now changed in some essential way I didn't yet understand. I invited her to dinner and at dinner, she told me her story. I'd always heard that she'd inherited her fortune from an old uncle who lived, and died, in Johannesburg, but what my acquaintance told me that night was this: she had inherited her fortune from a young uncle who lived in Johannesburg and died in Malmö, Sweden, where his body, per his last wishes, had been kept ever since at low temperature in a private hospital. After two decades of failed attempts, the doctors were able to restart his heart. Her uncle was no longer dead, and so the fortune that she had come to depend on now reverted to him. Even in Sweden, the cost of reviving a dead person and maintaining him or her in this revived state is very high. Her uncle would need every penny of the fortune to maintain himself, and so when he died again there would be nothing left for re-inheritance. His new life and the fortune, explained my acquaintance, were coextensive. I found my acquaintance's story interesting, and I was impressed with her phrasing ("His new life and the fortune are coextensive"), although now I think it likely she was parroting her lawyer. At the time, I saw the situation as highly specific, singular really. I didn't find in my acquaintance's formulation a general principle about wealth. Our conversation for the rest of the night was confined to reminiscences. Several weeks later, I heard from our mutual friends that she had died. My acquaintance had died the second the funds in her final bank account were transferred to the uncle's bank account in Sweden. Our mutual friends knew many of the forensic and legal details surrounding my acquaintance's death, but no one knew what was going to happen, or had already happened, to her shoe collection. All I could ascertain was that she hadn't left it to any of them. She obviously hadn't left it to me, either. She was single, no siblings or children, so the whole thing was even more mysterious. Is it possible that the uncle's executor was petty enough to repossess my acquaintance's shoes? The shoes were worth quite a bit, so I suppose it is possible. Maybe the shoes ended up getting shipped to the private hospital and the female doctors divided them up amongst themselves. Once I had this idea—the female doctors working around the clock to keep the uncle newly alive while wearing my acquaintance's shoes—I couldn't get it out of my head. I knew it was the truth of the matter, even if it wasn't strictly speaking what came to pass.
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