All the blaring television could tell Alan was that insurgents in Kirkuk were continuing to kill Iraqi police. He sat on the bed and waited. Hours passed; sunlight chased the dirt patches around the tiles until it fell away in boredom. Still, he had faith that sooner or later what he waited for would appear in the doorway.
“Hi there, stranger,” he said when it did.
Terry rushed to him, panicked. “What are you doing, Alan? Why are you up?”
“I can come home.”
“What do you mean home?”
“I thought the plan was for you and Meredith to find an apartment.”
“An apartment for two people.”
“I can’t come with you?”
Her eyes darted about the bed’s perimeter. “What happened to you?”
“The miracle drugs are working.”
She stood like a statue.
“This is the miracle people pray will happen.”
As silent as Lot’s wife.
“To their loved ones,” he added.
“Are you telling me,” she said looking at the dirty floor, “that you’re not going to die?”
“Oh, I’m gonna die all right. Maybe I’ll die next week. But right now my body’s fighting back.”
“Like what the French didn’t do in 1940.”
Still the statue.
“You don’t look ecstatic about this.”
“I don’t care about your fucking fighting body, Alan. We don’t have a goddamn cent, and here you are telling me you can come home?”
“I love you too, Terry.”
He now understood what it was like to be a child yelled at by an adult pacing and shouting, waving her arms.
“You took all our money!” she hollered. “Your fighting body bled us dry. And now here you are saying ‘I’m alive! It’s a miracle!’ Well somebody give this guy an Oscar!”
“I plan on getting back in the game.”
“After what you did at IFCO? Alan, you didn’t just get sick; you got sick and you burned your bridges when you had everyone’s pity.”
“Christ almighty, Terry. Who the hell thinks ‘My Future at the Firm’ when he’s got a lung full of cancer?”
She stopped pacing. “We don’t have a stick of anything to leave to our children. Do you realize that?” Now the veins in her neck were sticking out. She looked like a dried piece of fish curled at the ends. He was too undone to wonder when this had happened. All he could do was stare back.
She retained the vein-bulging dried fish position for a moment before making a dramatic exit just as Neddy Sims arrived.
“I feel really bad,” Alan told his friend.
Neddy shrugged in the boyish and hugely empathetic manner picked up from his brother the rabbi. “Alan, man, I’m sorry.”
“I feel really bad right now.”
“Alan, I know it’s hard. But you’re supposed to be out of here. They mean today. It’s dark outside.”
“Look at me, Ned. Look at how I look. Spanish down the hall, isn’t that what they call it? Nothing good is coming back. The cancer is just . . . somewhere but it’s not gone.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You’re making me walk out of here a ticking time bomb.”
“Alan, this is not my choice.”
“Ned, I’m not doing the cancer countdown all over again.”
“I know it’s bizarre. And I know I can’t understand the way you’re feeling right now. But you’ve got to go with it and be grateful—this medically incredible thing that’s happened to you. This just doesn’t happen much in life—even to the really nice people who deserve it.”
“Don’t you have some suicide pill to give me?”
Ned shook his head. “Alan, this isn’t like you.”
“Who the fuck even knows what’s like me? My only friend in the world is Tracy the trash-talking nurse—and even she’s left me.”
“You’ve got your family.”
“You just saw my family.”
“She’s in shock. Give her a few hours.”
“Can you give me a phone? I used to have a phone. I used to have people to call—numbers, with lives attached.”
With Ned’s phone he called Meredith. “Mom just told me,” said his daughter. “How did you get my cell number?”
“Daddy, we were supposed to put half teaspoon of your ashes where Critter last peed.”
“I know, sweetheart.”
“I made myself already go through this and move on. It’s like I already lost you and I’ve already got over you.”
Two hours later, after Todd arrived to facilitate a painful debriefing, Alan was delivered home to Belmont in the back seat of a taxi that Todd had called and Neddy paid for. Alan wouldn’t let either man drive him home. He felt like someone let out of prison matter-of-factly after a DNA test had cleared him of a crime. Let out after half a lifetime—a non-media event, with no living person on the other end willing to take receipt of the package.
In his feeble condition, it took forever to shuffle up the small hill to the front door. It was unlocked; he found his wife in the kitchen.
“I like your Civic,” he told her.
“You’re lucky your daughter’s not home.”
“She still driving a Beamer?”
“You’re lucky she’s not here to see you like this.”
“You look like a pedophile,” she said, staring at the drooping shoulders of his jacket.
“I’m sick, Terry. I’ve been sick for as long as I can remember.”
She looked away from the sickness.
“You see this?” He held up a Manila envelope and let it drop to slap the granite countertop. “This is the life they gave back when they kicked me out. My license has expired.”
She again turned away.
“You didn’t leave one piece of clothing there for me.”
Her eyes returned to the jacket.
“These are clothes from some guy who—guess what happened to him, Terry? He died. And you know what else I have?”
He let drop the stash of Todd’s folders in grocery store plastic. She winced.
“You spent money like a maniac while I was dying.”
“I was depressed.”
He opened one of the folders and swooshed his hand across a stack of statements. “For nearly two years you bought all these clothes. You bought a French vacuum cleaner. You bought six tickets to Spamalot.”
“They were for Meredith.”
“We were in a bind, Terry. We—us, all of us—our family.”
“Do you realize how much of my life I’ve already spent in hospices,” she cried, “around dying people?”
“If you had allowed me to come home here for more than two days I’d be dead a year ago. I wanted to be at home, even Shahib wanted me to come home. But you didn’t want anyone dying in your living room so you shipped me back. Twice you shipped me back.”
She looked away.
“And while we’re on the subject, thank you for sticking me in the Sam’s Club of nursing homes.”
She shook her head like he would never understand.
“Christ, everything’s in boxes. Where are my clothes?”
“Gone.” She pointed to a sealed cardboard box. “That’s your memorabilia stuff.”
He stared at the box, wondering where she had intended to send it when he died.
“I want a divorce, Alan. The kids are leaving me because of you.”
“What do you mean leaving you? They’re twenty-one and twenty-two years old.”
She looked disgusted. ‘That was last year, Rip.”
He couldn’t even yell if he wanted to. “All the more reason then. They’re done with the school that I paid for.”
“You’ve wrecked my life and the lives of my children. I don’t want to waste my words anymore. OK?”
Well, he thought with a gulp; that sounded like the last word. He wanted desperately to sit down but he couldn’t do it here.
“Here are your options,” he told his wife. “I can stay here tonight with you and my box of things, or you can let me take that car and I’ll go away.”
She left the room and came back with her purse, producing a set of keys that she dropped on the pile of papers.
He took the keys and tried to walk decently out. He left the front door wide open.
“Good luck getting back in the game!” she yelled from the doorway. “Find yourself some more lives to wreck!”
At that moment what he felt like was this: a dog that, for most of its brief lifetime, had remained inside an electric fence. And then one day it goes crazy chasing a squirrel—and realizes the fence isn’t even on. The domestic pet is now outside of something; it could have got outside this something all along. But without its jailor it now stands shivering with terror, unable to move.
He got in the car and just sat for a long time before doing anything with the key. He listened to the silence of spring in this much-desired enclave off Pinehurst Road. Why did you do it? he heard himself being asked in another voice. In old movies the inevitable crisis point arrives in the form of the British gentleman who admonishes the hero “Think, man!” Why did he do everything for his wife and children? What was the compulsion? Think, man!
Finally, there came a moment when he had to put the key in the ignition. The engine startled itself into motion. He drove away from his sale-pending house in a car that smelled like East Somerville. He was in a dead man’s clothes, without a license, and two-years’ tired. He clicked on the high beams because he hadn’t a clue where to turn.