Read The Banks of Certain Rivers Online

Authors: Jon Harrison

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Drama & Plays, #United States, #Nonfiction

The Banks of Certain Rivers (9 page)

The body at the center. Wendy. My wife. Her mouth hangs open in the
dark, and her eyes stare at nothing above sharp cheekbones. Both
fragile wrists are curled from atrophy, and her left middle finger,
eternally bent backwards from the break it endured when it was
wrenched from the pool grate, points up at the ceiling.

Christopher has pulled a chair to the side of his mother’s bed,
and he leans close to her and whispers things I can’t hear.
There’s a new donated quilt covering her bed, and Chris
straightens it out before placing his paper bags on top of it. He
pulls a tomato from one of the bags and holds it under his mother’s

“Smell this, Mom. Tomato. Smell it? I got it at the farmer’s
market this morning.”

I rub Wendy’s bony ankle and grab her chart. I’ve gotten
pretty good at reading it. Caloric intake, normal. Bilirubin
elevated. Bedsore on right lower flank almost healed. Weight as of
yesterday: ninety-two pounds. And so on. It’s like a
conversation. Through these statistics, my wife manages to speak to

“This is rosemary, Mom. The herb. You can smell it better if I
rub it between my fingers like this.”

It’s impossible not to miss the similarities between the boy
leaning forward and the woman in the bed. They have the same rounded
faces, the same fine, dark hair. Chris got his mother’s brown
eyes, but not her fair, freckled skin. Instead he carries my
almost-olive cast, quick to darken in the sun, and the contrast is
evident as he brings his face close to hers.

I peek through the window blinds into the courtyard between Long Term
and Palliative. A young man is out there, talking on a cell phone
with a hand to his forehead like he’s trying to shield his eyes
from the sun.

“This is cheese. I forget what the guy called it. It smells
good though, doesn’t it? Here, I’ll try some and tell you
how it is….”

And so on.

I step out of the room and walk down the hall. I want to give Chris
some time alone with his mom, but also, to be honest, I can’t
always handle seeing them together like this. It can be too much, so
I decide to take a lap. It’s a pretty busy day in Long Term,
Saturday morning and all, and many of the rooms are populated by
ambulatory visitors. I recognize some of them and we smile and nod to
each other. That’s as close as any of us get; there’s a
distance we maintain in this place. Outside one of the rooms, a man
stares at me with a stunned expression, like he’s astonished I
could be so casually strolling along. Family member of a new
resident, obviously. He hasn’t learned the drill yet.

Lesson number one comes from the name of the wing:
Long Term
Settle in, buddy.

He’ll figure it out soon enough.

Just beyond the man in shock, one of the new aides, Irina, a tiny
bleached-blond woman clad in pink scrubs, is typing something into a
computer on a rolling cart in the corridor. I greet her as I walk

“Hello, Mr. Kazenzakis,” she says, my last name rolling
off the tip of her Eastern European tongue. “Mrs. Kazenzakis is
looking very good today, yes?”

I smile and nod. The man in the hall stares at us like he can’t
believe this is actually happening to him.

Sometime after Wendy’s
, when Chris was a freshman and I’d finally gone
back to work, I overheard a conversation between two girls by the
lockers outside my classroom door. One of them was talking about an
electronic diary she was keeping; it was, she explained, nothing more
than an email account she’d had her aunt set up with a password
she wouldn’t be able to find out until sometime in the future.

“It’s great,” the girl told her friend. “I
just send it anything. What I’m feeling, what I’m mad
about, whatever, right? I mean, I’ll probably open it up when
I’m in college or something and totally cringe at what a dork I

The next time I saw Cory, the district’s overworked computer
tech, coming down the hallway, I called him into my room.

“Problem, Mr. K.?” he asked. While many of our past IT
guys had been pasty with black tee-shirts and stringy hair, Cory
brought a clean-cut sincerity to his job that reminded me of a Mormon

“No, nothing’s wrong,” I said. “Just a
question. If I wanted to set up a personal email account for myself—”

“That’s easy!” he said.

“I know that, I have one already. But if I wanted to set up a
second one—”

“Like that forwards to your main account? That’s easy

“No, hold up, let me finish. I don’t want it to forward
to me. In fact, I don’t want to be able to open it. Basically I
want it to have a password that no one knows. Not even me.”

Cory screwed up his face. “Well sure, you could do that, but
what’s the point?”

“You could say it’s like….” I considered my
answer for a moment. “A diary. I want to be able to just write
to myself. In the moment. It’s not important that I see them

“Ohh,” he said, nodding. “Like a therapeutic

“I guess so.”

Cory watched over my shoulder as I set up an account with Wendy’s
first initial and last name. He didn’t say a word. Either he
didn’t know anything about her, or, like the best computer
guys, he simply kept a blank face and acted like he didn’t. He
instructed me to turn my head while he reached over me to fill in a
password and complete the form.

“There,” Cory said. “Now you’ll never be able
to get in.”

“But you know the password.”

“You think I’m going to remember what I typed there?”
he asked, shouldering his gear bag to leave. “I can’t
even remember the passwords I’m
to know.”

It was a few days before I could actually bring myself to try it. I
was, admittedly, pretty self-conscious about writing messages to the
address at first. Was I afraid I’d receive a reply? I started
out with “Hi.” Letter H, letter I. Pause, think,
backspace backspace. Try again. H followed by I. Hit send. Type some
more. Hit send again. I typed and hit send over and over again, and
soon enough weeks went by and spilling my guts to an unconscious
woman became habit.
I miss you. I’m lost.
Months passed
and I slipped from confessional to quotidian. What did I wear that
day. What did I eat? What were my stupid thoughts? Do you really want
to know?

Dear Wendy: Do you want to know my stupid thoughts today?

I’ll tell you. I’ll tell you and hit send.

In hitting send, somehow, I felt a little better.

Chris is waiting, looking
perplexed, outside his mother’s room when I return.

“You okay?” I ask.

“There’s makeup on Mom’s face,” he says.
“Someone put makeup on her.”

I frown and follow him into Wendy’s room, where I turn the
control on the wall above her bed to bring up the lights. Sure
enough, she’s wearing lip-gloss and eye shadow, and her nails
have been painted a subtle glossy cream color. I check her feet and
find her toenails have been painted too.

“It creeps me out,” Chris says. “I don’t like

“I don’t either. Hang on.” I head out to the
nurses’ desk.

“What’s up, Mr. K?” Shanice asks. She can see it in
my expression.

“Someone put makeup on my wife,” I say. “I’m
kind of—”

Shanice scowls, an unusual look for her. “Must have been
Ukraine,” she says. “I’m going to have a word with
Ukraine.” She emphasizes the first syllable, like YOU-kraine.
Even in this moment, it strikes me as funny that she refers to her
employees from the former Soviet Bloc by their country of origin.

“She was just down the hall,” I say. “I’ll
talk to her.”

“You don’t need to, Mr. K. I’m very sorry about

“No, no, it’s nothing, she didn’t know. I’ll
talk to her.”

I find Irina farther down the corridor. She’s set up at a new
location, typing something into her console again.

“Irina? Did you put that makeup on Mrs. Kazenzakis?”

She looks up at me. “You do not like it?”

“I do not. Please don’t do that again.”

“She does look very pretty, I think. She is very pretty woman.”

“Thank you,” I say, “but I’d appreciate it if
you didn’t do that again. I’d appreciate it too if you’d
clean it off of her. She never wore makeup when she was alive.”

Irina’s face goes hard. “She is alive
, Mr.
Kazenzakis.” She turns away and stomps off down the corridor,
pushing her computer cart ahead of her.

I suppose I understand her indignation. But I’m beyond the
point where I could care.

From: [email protected]

To: [email protected]

Sent: September 8, 12:03 pm

Subject: Sorry.


You know what I meant by that, right?



On the highway home, running,
I’m having a
hard time finding any sort of rhythm.
Normally when I’m out like this, alone, away from everything,
my mind goes blank in a trance of white noise, and my body goes on
autopilot. I don’t think about anything, and it makes me feel
alive. A lot of my students run with iPods; they ask me why I never
do. The simple answer is I just don’t like it. But it’s
something more than that, really: any sort of music would barge in
and ruin that blank slate feeling I’m chasing after.

There’s no blank slate today. I changed in the nursing home
restroom and said goodbye to Chris, and we made plans to catch up
before he leaves tonight for his overnight basketball gig. Then I
went running. I can’t count the times I’ve followed this
route home, but today it’s like the first time I’ve ever
been on it; almost thirty minutes out and no rhythm. I’m
stumbling over my own feet, bristling at the few cars passing me on
the road, critical of my form, critical of my thoughts.

The real reason, I know, is Irina. What I said to Irina. Just what
does it mean to be alive, anyway? You’d think, with the past
few years to dwell on it, I’d have some sort of answer to this
question. I don’t. Am I alive because I can run? I feel alive
when I run, sure, I know that. But the best running for me is when
I’m not thinking. Does this mean that being alive most means
thinking the least? If this is the case, Wendy—the blankest of
blank slates—is more alive than any of us, and Irina was right
to be angry with me.

It’s confusing, for sure.

Wendy, though, cannot be confused by any of this. I’ve got that
on her. After the accident, she stayed in the university hospital in
Madison for a few weeks while we waited for the impossible, waiting
to see if she’d recover at all. Maybe it was four weeks. Things
were a blur then. I slept in a hotel just off campus while her
condition was most tenuous; at first it didn’t look like she’d
make it past the first few days. Chris was there, Carol was there, my
brother Michael was there and gone, there and gone. My older brother,
Teddy, responsible Teddy, angling for tenure at the University of
Chicago at the time, dropped everything—his family, his job—to
come and make all the official things happen. He pointed to the
places on the medical paperwork I needed to sign. My sister Kathleen
showed up. My parents came from their retirement complex in Florida.
All a blur. And Wendy at the center of it all, purple-faced and
bloated from the drugs, unrecognizable with tubes like snakes
emerging from her nostrils and mouth, with oily hair framing her
swollen features, with medical lines taped crisscross to her cheeks
and arms.

Days passed in Madison. People came and went. It became obvious over
time that Wendy was not leaving us, but she wasn’t coming back
either. Stuck somewhere in between, and the doctors—they were
such good doctors—explained that as long as we provided her
with nourishment she would hang on, she would linger. Like a reflex,
like breathing, she would take things in and pass things out, but she
would never think again. There was another option, a passing
discussion, the denial of nourishment; mentioned once and not
discussed again. She would linger, we decided. We decided this by
deciding nothing at all. We would need to find a place to facilitate
these lingering functions. She would need to be moved.

We found a place not far from home. Kathleen and Carol did most of
the groundwork; Teddy handled the paperwork. My state insurance
through the school district would cover it all. And Michael, Saint
Michael, blasted up on his motorcycle from Chicago week after week to
cook for us, to feed us, to keep our home clean, to keep Christopher
going to school.

It’s still hard for me to admit that I had fallen apart.

Why should I think about this now? I’ve dwelt on that shame
enough. Now is now, I need rhythm and white noise, but it isn’t
coming. Another mile, and I might as well be running in clown shoes.

I stop and wait on the shoulder for a car to pass, check both ways
two times, and jump up and down, mashing my feet into the gravel of
the shoulder. “Damn it, damn it,
damn it!
” I shout
with each stomp. Then I put my hands on my hips and double myself
over to breathe, pursing my lips to make a
sound at
each exhalation. Like I could purge all this from me so simply. It’s
worth a try.

I start again, thinking anything, thinking nothing. I manage about
fifty yards before coming to a sandy pair of tire ruts headed off
through the pines toward the lake. I’m just about at the
northern end of Leland’s resort, and there’s a chain
strung across with a ‘NO TRESPASSING’ sign hung from it
like bait. I veer off the road and jump the barricade.

In the trees, in the flashing blades of light, there’s quickly
a sort of rhythm. I push myself, the soft track gives resistance, and
it’s not long before my breathing comes harder. Before I know
it, I know nothing at all. Irina is gone. I’m through the trees
and over a dune, and now I’m running, panting, nearly sprinting
along the beach.

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