By Eugene Fischer
6 April 2009
"I heard a gunshot this morning," Marilyn says to Gerry when he gets home.
"You heard one yesterday morning," he tells her. "It was the neighbor's dog. It had died during the night and they were putting it down." Marilyn is sitting in the chair facing the living room window. She's wearing one of her dressing gowns, the one with the sturdy-looking brick houses with perfect ovals of white smoke puffing out of the chimneys. Gerry comes up behind her and gives her a hug around the shoulders and then, when she turns to face him, a kiss.
"They should have brought it to you," she says.
"They should have. But they're very hands-on. Not the type to pay for something they think they can do themselves. We don't like them very much."
"At least they didn't dig up our cable this time," she says. Less than a year prior to waking up the neighborhood by shooting their dead dog at dawn, the neighbors had decided to self-install a fiberglass swimming pool. They rented a backhoe to excavate with, and promptly used it to break the neighborhood's fiber optic line. Gerry smiles at his wife's recollection.
It's dark out. Marilyn is just looking at her own reflection in the window, so Gerry closes the blinds. He extends a hand and helps her from her seat. When she is standing he can see a large yellow stain on her dressing gown.
"Did you spill something?" he asks her.
She follows his gaze down her front and clutches at the stain. "I spilled something on myself," she says. "It's orange juice."
"Good choice! Nice and sticky. How about we go upstairs, and you let me give you a bath?" She nods. He gives her his arm to hold and they head up the steps together. In the bathroom he helps her out of her gown. She has definitely lost weight. Her hip bones are underlined by shadows from the bright heat lamp in the ceiling. He can see all the different parts of her shoulder. Her ribs ripple the skin below her breasts.
Gerry starts the tub filling, then takes the gown downstairs and tosses it in the washing machine. He looks in the kitchen and finds the bottle of orange juice still sitting out on the counter. He puts it back in the refrigerator. Then it's back up the stairs, two at a time.
In the bathroom, he helps Marilyn into the tub and strips to the waist. He kneels next to the tub and turns off the water. "Okay, let's clean you up," he says as he works a soapy washcloth into a lather. He gathers her hair out of the way, and starts with her upper back, putting the soap on with the washcloth and spreading it over her smooth skin with his hand. After her back, he washes her arms, and then her chest. He puts a hand under her knee and lifts her leg out of the water to wash that, but she stops him.
"Stop it," she tells him, "I hate this." She pushes his hands off of her body.
"I hate all this stupid washing!" She hits the water with both hands, not at the same time. "I hate the way you always wash your hands after you touch my pussy. I'm not dirty! It makes me feel disgusting, Richard!"
He puts the washcloth down in the water and sits back on his heels. He presses wet fingertips into his eyelids. When he opens his eyes, the accusation is still sitting there on her face.
"You're not dirty," he tells her, "and I don't do that." He takes her hands—she tries to pull them away, but he is insistent and holds them tightly. "I have never done that. I'm not Richard. You know who I am. I'm Gerry. Your husband, Gerry."
This phase of Gerry and Marilyn's life together begins with Marilyn sitting high up on a tall bed covered by a sheet of noisy white paper, and Gerry sitting closer to the ground, on the hard cushion of a doctor's office chair. Harsh lights and cold filtered air fill the room. It is a scene they have shared before.
The first time was in the office of their general practitioner. Marilyn, up on the paper, was scornful. Gerry was relieved. He had been trying to get Marilyn to come with him to the doctor for weeks. He noticed that she had become forgetful. Sometimes she would ask him a question more than once, insistent that no answer had been provided. Once she couldn't remember how to get to the grocery store. Gerry's suggestion that a visit to the doctor would be appropriate, or even that her behavior had been unusual, was not easily accepted. "I'm just stressed out right now," Marilyn would explain. "If you were still waiting to find out if you were going to have funding for next year, you would be a little distracted too." Her rationalizations were insufficient, however, the day Gerry discovered her in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on a roast beef sandwich that was identical to three others already on the table. Three superfluous sandwiches led to their first trip to the doctor.
Their second doctor's visit was to the office of a neurologist, the neurologist that their GP had referred them to. This second iteration involved Marilyn opening her arms like a cross and touching her nose and reciting lists of words. Little games that were somehow supposed to reveal what was happening inside of her skull.
The third time was in a special facility called the Stonewood Imaging Center, a place with the infrastructure to run more technically advanced tests. In this place Marilyn had her blood drawn while up on the table, and then efficient and impersonal technicians fed her into a tube and took pictures of her brain. Gerry paid sixty dollars extra to have two copies made of those pictures.
Now they are back in the neurologist's office, and the neurologist, eventually, arrives. "The popular term for it is EOA," he says, "which is short for 'early onset Alzheimer's,' although the jury is very much still out on whether or not Alzheimer's disease and EOA are the same. It is extremely rare. The two diseases are alike in that they are both neurodegenerative diseases: forms of dementia. EOA progresses somewhat faster than typical Alzheimer's, and the mental symptoms are sometimes accompanied by a degree of muscular atrophy and loss of coordination." The neurologist goes on to talk about treatment, care facilities, lots of things that hardly make an impression on Gerry, who is focused on his wife up on the table, new and fragile and mysterious.
When they leave Gerry asks, "Do you want me to drive?"
"I drove here. I can drive us home," Marilyn tells him.
"I know you can. I was just asking if you want to."
She does. The trip is mostly a silent one, filled with the nothing of a radio news broadcast. At home Marilyn heads into the kitchen and gets a can of dough out of the refrigerator. "I was thinking I would make a pizza tonight," she says.
"Why don't you let me make us dinner tonight. You've had a rough day," says Gerry.
"I can make us dinner. I'm fine."
"You aren't fine!" Gerry says. "I'm not saying you can't make dinner, but you aren't fine! You can't keep pretending anymore that nothing's wrong."
"I'm not pretending anything. Though I might want to pretend that you understand how freaking out and abandoning my normal routine is the last thing I need right now."
"Okay. So, if you're not pretending this isn't real, then talk to me."
"I don't want to talk about it!" Marilyn shouts.
Gerry doesn't say anything, just stands behind her as she gets the pizza pan out of its cabinet. When she looks back at him, she seems to see that he needs something more from her.
"Look, alright, I'm sick," she says, "I acknowledge that. I'm sick, but I'm fine. I can make us dinner, and I'll go to work tomorrow, and I'll take my prescriptions, and everything is going to be fine. Let's not make this any bigger of a deal then it has to be, okay?" With a can of dough in one hand and a pizza pan in the other, she hugs her husband. "And if I forget to take the pizza out of the oven, you'll just have to do it for me."
When he goes into the clinic and his receptionist asks after Marilyn, Gerry tells her that Marilyn is comfortable at home and doing very well. That is his standard answer to questions about Marilyn. The truth—that she seems to be getting worse every day, that sometimes she can't remember words, that he is planning to sell her car next week and hasn't discussed it with her because there would be no point—the truth is a little cumbersome for people to grapple with.
Today Gerry's first patient is a standard poodle with arthritis. It moves with some difficulty, but it is a friendly animal. It goes out of its way to lick Gerry whenever one of his appendages comes within range. Its joints are not in bad enough shape to warrant surgery. Gerry recommends putting the dog on glucosamine.
Next is a family with a nine-year-old boy and a dead parakeet. They aren't just dropping off the carcass for deactivation and disposal, they've come to have Gerry, a professional, explain death to their son. It's not an uncommon request; "disposal lesson" is a preprogrammed item in the clinic's computer billing system. Gerry talks to their son about what happens to the bodies of animals when they die, and points out to him the things that make it clear that his bird is dead: the uncoordinated motion, the abandonment of normal behaviors, the lack of interest in water. The bird is recently dead, and probably isn't terribly poisonous yet, but Gerry tells the boy that the longer it remains active after death, the more poisons will build up inside of it. He gets out a cotton swab and pokes the bird through the bars of its cage, trying to get it to demonstrate some aggressiveness, but this particular carcass is, at least for now, more insensate than ferocious.
Gerry puts gloves on, opens the cage, corners the bird and removes it. He has the family follow him out of the examining room and takes the bird to an operating table and straps it down. "Do you want to help me with this?" he asks the boy, and glances at the boy's parents, who nod. The boy says he does, and Gerry gets him a small pair of nitrile gloves. Then he shows the boy all the different sizes of clippers and asks him which one would be the best size to use. Sometimes kids, boys especially, will say that Gerry should use the largest one, regardless of the size of the animal. But this little boy picks the second smallest, and that is the one they use. Gerry gets a stool for the boy to stand on, and lets him hold the clipper. He puts his hands over the boy's hands on the handles and helps him guide the tool so that the parakeet's neck rests under the upside-down V of the blades. Then they push the handles in and together they snip the bird's spinal cord, and it stops moving.
Gerry never talks about people when he is giving one of these lessons. He always says, "this is what happens to the body of an animal when it dies." Humans are outside of his jurisdiction, and he leaves that to their parents to take care of. Or to pass off to someone else, the way they passed responsibility for explaining the death of a pet off to him. Maybe to their Sunday school teachers. When Gerry was in Sunday school he was taught that when a person dies his or her soul goes on to the afterlife, and the person's body becomes so distraught that it wanders the Earth, looking for a new soul to live inside of it. But then, he was also taught that animals don't have souls, even though they are just as active after death as people are. Now he thinks that maybe the church has it backwards. Maybe, after death, the soul stays in the body, trapped in a genie's bottle of nervous tissue, until the body breaks and sets it free from its captivity.
"So what does the biology department plan to do with a coyote?" asks Gerry of the redhead sitting across the table from him in the university commons. She had shown up at the end of Gerry's shift at the university animal hospital to pick up a specimen that had been delivered there. The specimen turned out to be a coyote in a bulky cage, which, after the redhead mentioned that the elevator in the biology building was out of service, Gerry offered to help transport across campus to the lab that would be its home for the foreseeable future. The two of them had to carry the cage up four flights of stairs. Gerry took the bottom end, and the coyote inside poked its twitching proboscis through the door of the cage at his face as they climbed. By the time their exertions were over, so was Gerry's shift, and he invited the redhead, who said her name was Marilyn, to lunch with him. She accepted.
Marilyn digs through the basket in front of her for a crunchy-looking french fry, and asks, "Do you know anything about the research that Dr. Zilker is doing?"
"I've never even heard of Dr. Zilker," says Gerry.
"He's the principal investigator on my project. His research is on the sensory organs of carrion hunters, like coyotes. We know that coyotes use those long noses to smell dead things, but we don't really know how it works. So the project is to come up with a model for how they identify the dead, and then reproduce the effect in the lab."
"So you're building sort of a death-detector?"
"Well, right now I'm analyzing aerosols. But yeah, if we are actually able to reproduce the effect, the next step will be to build a sensor. Dr. Zilker says he might collaborate with some people in engineering if he gets that far."
"That's actually really exciting!" says Gerry. "I hope you get it working. A sensor like that would be pretty useful for us veterinarians. Did you know that we have to role-play in class dealing with people who refuse to believe that their pet has died?"
"Oh no. Is that very common?"
"It's common enough. Actually, I was one of those people once. When I was a kid, I had a goldfish, and I refused to believe my parents when they told me it was dead. I screamed and screamed at them that they were wrong."
Marilyn laughs at his story. "It's funny that you mention fish," she says. "That would actually be one of the most exciting applications of the sensor if we could make it. Since the behavior of a fish out of water is more or less the same whether it is alive or dead, any given fish you pull out of the ocean may be alive or may have been dead for weeks. Having to do individual safety testing really limits commercial—" She stops short, because her cell phone starts ringing. She digs it out of her purse and looks at it, and her face falls. "I'm sorry. Just a second," she says, and answers the phone. "Hello, Richard. No, I'm busy right now."
It is not wrong for a man to take pleasure in the body of his wife. That is what Gerry has to remind himself. There are long periods when Marilyn is unresponsive, and sometimes it makes him feel like a rapist. But it is just a change in their relationship; they need to learn how to relate to each other in this new circumstance. Marilyn has been a sexual being for a lot longer than she has had EOA.
He always tries to find a way for her to enjoy it. He strokes her hair and massages her back. He has found that she enjoys sweet things, so he keeps a box of breath mints next to the bed and will put one in her mouth while they are making love. She likes that. But it is hard for him to adjust to always being the initiator, and to doing all of the work. She often can't remember how to stimulate him, or if she can is liable to suddenly forget what she is doing. During times when she is unresponsive, Gerry avoids kissing her on the lips, because she often does not remember that she is supposed to kiss back.
This was what she wanted. She wanted Gerry to take care of her. "I'm not going to some retirement home to die of infected bedsores," she had said.
"That's not what we're talking about!" said Gerry, who had printed out a brochure for an assisted living center in Des Moines that specialized in Alzheimer's patients.
"Yes it is. You're talking about people forty years older than me, and canned soup, and MRSA. I'm not doing it."
"With what they charge, I doubt that they serve canned soup."
"If they don't, they should. It's not like any of the patients would be able to tell the difference."
"That's really probably not true. The whole point of a place like this is that the staff are experts at Alzheimer's care. There's every reason to believe that the patients there are doing better than they might be otherwise."
"I don't buy that for a second, Gerry," said Marilyn, sliding in a bookmark and clapping her book shut. "If I'm going to have problems with memory consolidation, the worst thing for me is to go somewhere where what I can remember is irrelevant. And you are both a health professional and someone who, you know, loves me. You can care for me better than anyone else. Hell, your medical specialty is dealing with patients who can't communicate with you, right?"
"My patients aren't human. You shouldn't compare."
"Well, maybe you can find a book about humans and adapt your techniques. Because you're hired. The job is yours."
The pictures in the brochure showed elderly patients doing a jigsaw puzzle on a covered porch, and cheerful nursing staff changing bed linens. "Marilyn. I don't know that this is a job I can do."
"Well that's too bad, isn't it! You applied for it, and it is yours! Do you regret applying for it now? Are you saying you want to quit?"
"No! Of course not!"
"Well good. Because I'm not going to some retirement home to die of infected bedsores."
"No, you're not," Gerry had assured her, "of course you're not."
Tonight the two of them are upstairs in the bedroom, getting ready to turn in. Marilyn has been very quiet today. Gerry has seated her facing the window while he gets undressed, because she likes looking out of windows. If it were light out she would be able to see the fiberglass pool, empty save for a layer of moldering leaves, in the yard which used to belong to the irritating neighbors before they moved away. Gerry gets into his drawstring pants, not bothering to tie them, and then helps Marilyn into her pajamas. He thinks he will be taking them back off of her once they are in bed, but having a set routine is important for her, so they go through the motions.
Gerry is seven. In his room he has a dresser, which is covered in smiling faces from a sheet of stickers that came free with a subscription to a children's magazine. On top of the dresser is a new fishbowl in which a goldfish is poking at bright blue gravel. He got the fish two weeks ago, as a party favor at the birthday party of a classmate. He had never had a fish before, and after the party his parents took him to the pet store where he held the plastic bag with the fish in it up to each bowl and tank and decoration and asked, "Do you like this one?" as they picked out something for the fish to live in and bought food and tools. He named the fish Alvin.
His parents warned him when he got it that goldfish usually don't live very long. But it has been two weeks now, and Alvin is still doing just fine. Light moves like a candle flame over his scales as he bobs around the rocks. Gerry pushes a chair next to his dresser, stands on it, and uses the green net his parents bought for cleaning the bowl to scoop Alvin out of the water. Alvin jerks and flops with no real rhythm as water drips off of his body, through the green mesh and back into the bowl. He looks different in the net than he did in the bowl. Not luminous any more, just slimy and drab. Gerry drops Alvin and the net back into the water, and runs to the bathroom to get some paper towels to take back to his room. He folds the paper towels into a mat next to Alvin's bowl, and then scoops him out again and plops him down onto the towels, with the net resting over him like a cage. Gerry doesn't really know how long this takes, so he leaves Alvin flopping there for an hour before returning him to the water. Alvin stays still for a while, then swims down and circles the bottom of the bowl. He doesn't go back to poking at the gravel, but seems contented enough.
After several days of food flakes building up and decomposing on the surface of the water, Gerry's parents tell him that his fish is dead. Gerry disagrees. He screams. He refuses to let them take Alvin away, but of course they do anyway. They offer to get him another fish, but he says he doesn't want one.
In the future, Gerry will remember everything about this event clearly, and think of it often. But he will never tell anyone the story of leaving Alvin on the dresser. Gerry will always maintain the fiction of not believing the fish was dead.
Gerry had a dream last night. It went like this: he is on a mountain. It might be Mount Olympus, or Helicon; it is one of those mountains popular among immortals. He is dressed in paper. Sometimes clothing made of paper, sometimes rolled up in paper like a rug. He is visited by three goddesses. They come to him, each carrying a year in each hand. Actually, their hands are different sizes, so one of them carries slightly more than a year per handful, and one of them carries slightly less, but it averages out. They rub the time into him: into his armpits and chest and eyes and nostrils and anus. He wants them to touch his penis, but they don't, and he is too embarrassed to ask for it. They tell him that he must transcend himself. He must stop being flesh wrapped in paper. He must learn how to be paper wrapped in flesh. The dream ends when Marilyn wets the bed. Maybe that's the only way it could have ended, and if he hadn't forgotten to replace her diaper it would have gone on forever.
Gerry thinks about the dream as he drives home for lunch. It has inexorably fragmented in his mind, despite his attempts to retain it. He can remember something about turning inside out. He thinks it might have been a sex dream.
He has Chinese takeout sitting on the passenger seat of his car. He only asked for one pair of chopsticks. Going home doesn't feel like going home. It feels like he is still at work. At work all day he has been handling animals. Now he is going home to handle Marilyn. She doesn't talk anymore. He's put a bed on the ground floor, where Marilyn sleeps now so that she can't fall down the stairs. But she rarely gets up on her own.
When Gerry pulls into the driveway, he sees that there is an animal on the front porch. It is a coyote. There have been lots of them in the neighborhood ever since the new neighbors started keeping chickens in their backyard. As Gerry walks toward it carrying the Chinese food, the long tube of its nose twitches toward him, and then the animal runs off.
Inside the house, Marilyn has gotten out of bed. "I got us Chinese food," he says to her. She is crouched in the corner, and there is something strange about her face. Gerry comes closer and sees that she has put a cockroach in her mouth, and its antennae are sticking out between her lips. This is his fault. He's been letting the dishes stack up in the sink, and he was a little late in getting here. She got hungry, and she was confused. He goes to her, tries to take the roach out of her mouth. When he puts his hands to her face, she puts her hands up at his and scratches him and pokes him in the eye.
"Marilyn! That's not food! I got us Chinese food!" he yells at her, and forces her jaw open and flicks out the insect. Her arms are still flailing at his head, so he catches her wrists. She shakes herself back and forth violently at the shoulders, but he can still easily drag her back to her bed, where she will lie calmly, and she will eat Chinese food, and she will keep turning maps around and upside down inside her mind until she figures out a way around the obstacles and figures out how to come back to him again.