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“John? Ah hate to bother you. Ah’m callin from the ICU. They’re going to cut off mah foot.”
“Ah know you never make exceptions, but Ah might be late with rent this month.”
“Of course I’ll work with you.”
That’s Martha, a tenant in my mobile home park in central New York. She is right; I never work with tenants. Strictly no pay no stay. Anything else is a slippery slope. Charges of selective enforcement, usury laws, payment plans, possible regulation as a bank or mortgage originator – no good deed goes yak, yak, yak. But Martha’s an exception. She has been there forever, and she has never missed a payment. She is a model tenant – and her foot is being amputated. There is no way she is playing me.
Martha starts to cry. “Thank you, John. Ah have never asked for charity.”
“It’s not charity. They are cutting your foot off.”
“How’s that family of yours?”
Martha grew up in Tennessee. She lives in the fourth home from the end of Gamma Street, near the pump house and the pole barn. She has built an enclosed porch addition onto the front door where she and her husband like to sit, drink lemonade, and chat with passers-by in the summer. The home is painted yellow with blue trim. She supports herself and her husband by running a landscaping business. A twelve-inch gravel perimeter surrounds the skirting, and flowers mark the lot boundary. She mows and rolls the lawn twice a week during the summer. Her son lives in the home across from her.
Martha’s husband, who lives with her, is large and works sporadically. Word is that he abuses her verbally. I suspect he is too lazy and slow to get off the couch and hit her.
Six months earlier, Martha had a stent inserted into a blood vessel in her neck to clear some gunk out of her arteries, and she had a toe amputated. The stent has given her a big scar on the side of her neck that you can’t help but stare at when you speak with her. Jee-sus. I’d hate to see that thing when it got angry. She is only a few years older than me, but she looks skeletal, pale, and badly wounded.
I ask the manager, Dee Dee, “Why the fuck didn’t the piece-of-shit husband make that call?”
Eyeroll. “Uh – huh”.
Away from the park, I go to visit an old friend, M, from my days teaching school. M is a French woman, ten years older than me. When she was younger, she was not classically beautiful, but she was desirable. All the men in the school wanted her. The headmaster wanted her. I wanted her. An older, married History teacher wanted her. God knows what the seventeen-year-old boys thought about her.
She turned out to be a lesbian. Her wife still teaches at the same school. We have stayed in touch. Now, she has colon cancer.
When I show up at her apartment, she apologizes for her short hair. The chemo made everything fall out. It has started to grow back, now that she is on new meds – but will fall back out again, shortly. “It makes you look like Audrey Hepburn.”
“That is a compliment.”
She looks old and frail, but I can see the younger, desirable woman still inside the old lady. The big, brown, wideset eyes, the slightly too-big, Gallic nose, the weak chin, the full lips, the way she inhales to emphasize a point. Maybe the same thing is inside every old woman – you just need to have known her back in the day to see it.
Martha looks wracked and horrific, but she reproduced. Somebody, somewhere, sometime, found her desirable at least once. Maybe that quality is still in there, hidden from me.
We sit at M’s home, eat lunch and walk in the park, and then I go home. I tell her about the kids. She tells me about the disease. “No doctor will operate on me anymore. The tumor cells are too robust. I have black tissue falling out of my navel. That was from the radiotherapy.”
“Yes. They can focus the radiation at a point inside your body.”
I try not to think of black matter falling out of her belly button. I can think of other people’s bodies as case studies, but please – not hers.
She has had ten days to recover from her last course of chemo, so she is pretty strong. She walks me to the subway. We hug, and make plans for everyone to get together later. As I walk down the steps, I see that she has stayed at the entrance to the subway. She is looking down at me as I descend, and she is crying.
Martha goes back to work for a while after her amputation, mowing lawns and digging flower beds on her artificial foot. After a year or two, things catch up. Complications from diabetes, hardening of the arteries, liver failure, long-term stress on her system. Dee Dee tells me that the doctors have sent her to a hospice up by the Lake, and given her six months to live. I dread calling her, but I punch in the number because my awkwardness seems trivial. If she thinks she is going to die when we speak, she does not let on. “Martha? This is John. How are you doing?”
“Ah’m not goin anywhere.”
“Well, you know that GRITS stands for Girls Raised In The South.”
“Hah, hah. Bless you, John. How is that family of yours?”
“My son is going to college next year. My daughter is a handful.”
“They are beautiful kids.”
“My wife wants to mutilate me.”
“She’s a smart woman, that wife of yours!”
“Stupid enough to marry me.”
Martha is in the hospice for nine months. Each time I speak with JB or Dee Dee I ask how she is doing and they say, “Still in the hospice”, or “About to die any day.” Her husband runs up big water bills during the winter. Dee Dee tells me that this is because he spends most of his time at the hospice, and runs the water to prevent freeze-ups while he’s there.
That lazy fuck should install his heat tape and insulate the riser. We told him a million times.
How would he fit under the home? How would they get him out? WD-40 and a winch? Scrap the home out from over him?
During the spring, I ask Dee Dee how Martha was doing. “Oh – she’s out of hospice!”
“Not in a box?”
“Yeah – she’s doing well. They put her in an assisted living facility, but she will be coming back to the park any day. She needs to learn to use her new leg. I went to visit her a few months ago, and couldn’t find her. She was in the kitchen, making pigs-in-a-blanket for the other patients.”
“She says that it was like a resort. She had a room to herself, overlooking the Lake. It was the best place she ever lived!”
“She should get terminally ill more often.”
“She was helping Joe Batsakis dig his flower bed the other day. On her artificial leg.”
“While her husband was on the couch, eating pork rinds?”
“She’ll bury us all.”
“Yes, she will.”
Shortly after Martha gets out of the hospice, I visit M once more. This time, she is in the hospital. They have her in a private room, overlooking the river. You can see the Queens waterfront across the way, ferries, a few smaller boats, and helicopters taking off and landing from a pad below her window. The window faces to the east; she must have great sunrises. I am not ready for how frail she looks. Her hair has grown back, but she is old. She is sitting in a reclining chair near the window, with an IV drip attached to her arm. Sitting up, or shifting her weight, is a major production. Going to the bathroom is as tiring as running a quarter-mile for me or you. I have brought her mint and basil from the garden, and some tomatoes for her wife. “I know you can’t eat – but I thought you could smell this”. I put the basil in a vase, and I keep the mint in a ziplock bag, to concentrate the scent. She brings both to her face and inhales deeply, with her eyes closed. My wife shows up for forty-five minutes or so, and then heads back to work. M’s wife is teaching a class. I hang around for maybe two and a half hours; other people come and go, but it is just the two of us for most of that time. At first, she cries and I take her hand, awkwardly, unsure of what is a decent interval to hold on and let go. Then, we just start talking. The disease is her day-to-day now, and she talks about her day-to-day. She tells me that she wears a bag underneath her gown around her stomach, which has to be emptied periodically. She can’t eat because fistulas have short-circuited her intestine. Some have broken through the skin, and that is what feeds the bag. She gets all of her nourishment intravenously. She stands up, and we take a few laps around the hospital floor. Until now, she has been wearing a gown that opens to the back. That is not a problem while she is lying down, but her back needs to be covered while she walks. The solution is for her to put on another gown opening from the front, like a shirt – but the logistics of putting on the second gown are complicated by her fatigue, and by the IV pipes. It is a struggle for her to stand up, but she is still mortified that the first gown will slip. This creates an awkward moment. Will this be the only time I see her butt? I hear G-d laughing. She manages to put on the gown by herself. Once we leave the room, I push the IV scaffolding, and she leans on my arm. We walk around the floor clockwise; another two people, an old South Asian woman and a younger woman who appears to be her daughter, are walking counterclockwise laps, dragging their own IV rigging. When we see them, we nod, as though to another jogger on a track. M is tired after five laps. Back in her room, a few other visitors visit, briefly. One refers to M’s wife as her “social coordinator”. I am glad that she has so many people coming to see her. I suspect that if I die in a hospital or an old-folks home, most of my time there will be spent alone. The wife, if she is still alive, the kids, maybe an old student or an old manager. Mike, the manager at my park in northern New York, is loyal. I have tried Dee Dee’s patience too many times. College friends, fellow teachers, grad-school classmates, people from the lawyer days – they have all dropped away. I don’t use Facebook. Even close friends would find out only after I am dead, if at all. That’s what you get for being an introvert with a thick head. Enjoy it while it lasts. When I have to go, M and I hug, she begins to cry, and we hug again. She is lying on the recliner, and she can barely sit up. I have to lift her up to put my arms around her. She feels like a bag of wren bones against me, but I get a hard-on nonetheless. She would probably take that as a compliment. But I can never tell her.