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Authors: Michael Cadnum

Edge (8 page)

BOOK: Edge
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If you didn't know any better, you would think we were having a fight. We weren't. In a weary, amiable way, my mother and I were firing on all cylinders, getting along fine. But what we were really doing was trying to act normal, people remembering their usual roles, actors with Alzheimer's. “I forgot all about tooth stuff,” I said.

“Walgreen's is closed,” she said.

I used to think motels were fun, staying with my dad on collecting trips to Palm Springs for the Yucca moth and to Ashland for a new species of pine borer. I was crazy about ice, using the big metal scoops in the ice machine, filling the plastic container from the dresser, even though my dad did not drink cocktails and didn't need three pounds of ice for the glass of cold water he liked to drink before going to bed.

“I bet you forgot your own things,” she said, kindly, complaining out of compassion for me. She has a way of putting a hand on her stomach when she talks and shaking her head a little, a little extra editorial spin: don't mind what I'm saying.

My roll-out bed was a mattress on spindly wheeled legs. The wheels squeaked. It folded out into what looked like a piece of lawn furniture, a bed for someone who wasn't committed to sleeping. It accepted my weight with a fine, wheezing steel whisper, like a screen door creaking open.

Mom had always believed Dad would drift back to her. I think she secretly continued to think of herself as Flo or Renny, Dad's pet names for her in those old days, when he had time for us. I wondered what he called Sofia.

Mom was in the bathroom, the door open a crack. She was smearing something on her face, and I could see her making expressions in the mirror, silent shrieks, fiendish grins, keeping those muscles taut.

Then she was in the room with me, leaving the bathroom water running, sitting oh the bed, face goop all over her forehead, her cheeks. She did not say a thing, just sitting there.

I turned off the water in the bathroom and brought out a towel. I have no idea how people get the gunk off their faces. She took the towel but made no move to use it.

She had attended weekend seminars: Smile Your Way to Millions. She had taught classes: A Positive Attitude, Your Winning Number.

I called the hospital. The hospital voice said that she would transfer my call to the Intensive Care nursing station, and I froze. This is it, I thought. News. I sat down on the edge of the bed.

Mom saw my expression and stood up with the towel in her hands, draped so she could cover her face with it.

“Can I ask to whom I am speaking?” asked the next voice I spoke to, a male nurse or one of the detectives.

I told him I was Theodore Madison's son and gave him my name, feeling that this was the way our future would begin.

I braced myself to accept whatever he told me.

Unchanged and stable
. The phrase repeated over and over in my mind.

The man behind the counter looked up as the motel office door made a sweet-sounding chime. “You better tell the people in the pool to go back to their rooms and go to bed,” I said.

“Are they being noisy?” he said, soft-voiced man, muscles going to fat, as though he couldn't hear the voices, someone starting a game,
to be answered, from another part of the dark
, the kind of fun Dad and I used to have in motel pools.


“I can't go anywhere looking like this,” she said, gazing in the bathroom mirror with the light off, her reflection a shadow.

We had not even tried to sleep. It was 5:03 in the morning. We had just turned off a movie about an ex-con who lived in San Francisco just before World War II, the city of the movie empty of tall office buildings, nothing but white apartment buildings and hills, and the blank Bay in the background. The man had plastic surgery so he could start a new life, but he didn't seem like someone with a new face. He encountered the people he met like someone accustomed to the muscles of his smile.

Mom did not put on what she called her Street Face, although she did brush her hair as we drove the streets. I was careful at each stoplight, some of them blinking red, too early Sunday morning for the normal red/green/yellow. She brushed her hair, finding snags, working the boar-bristle brush I had bought her for Christmas along with a matching rosewood hand mirror. She sawed the bristles through the tangles fiercely, as though she wanted it to hurt, taking a bitter satisfaction from the pain. It was dawn the way you hardly ever see it, the constellations fading in the east.

We had plenty of empty spaces to choose from. If I made up tests I wouldn't ask questions about how a bill becomes a law, or the formula for photosynthesis. I would ask Where do you like to park, under a tree or near a streetlight or out in the middle of nowhere?

The hospital was full of light. Sofia arrived just as we did, explaining that her sister had driven up from Santa Monica to stay with Daniel.

The nurses passed among us with soft steps, and when they hurried into his room it was the way people zip in to do something already planned, responding to a schedule and not to any sudden urgency.

But we did not go in to see him. We didn't even ask. We wanted to be close, but we did not want to alter the tempo of what was happening.

My mother and Sofia talked about private schools for Daniel when he was old enough, how important it was to control the amount of television he watched. Sometimes the effort of being patient with Sofia tightened my mom's lips and made her close her eyes for a moment. But what kept all of us calm now was not mutual understanding so much as very great weariness.

“I was born in a hospital, wasn't I?” I found myself asking, as though I wanted reassurance that I had some past connection with a place like this.

“Daniel was born down the hall,” said Sofia. “The staff was so friendly I just couldn't believe it.”

Sometimes I thought maybe my mother was right about Sofia. Sofia is always saying she just can't get over the weather or the traffic, or how she just can't believe something. For Sofia, a pleasant vacation was
really neat
, a kind person
. Dad told me she had a brilliant head for statistics, the number of termite eggs per cubic meter.

“Kaiser Hospital in Oakland,” said my mother, answering my question at last. “You knew that already,” she said, not really chiding me, understanding: we had to keep talking. “Dr. Chung couldn't be there, so that doddering Dr. Luke talked the whole time about his new computer. ‘Is that the baby's head,' I would ask, and he would say, ‘hang in there,' and rattle on to the nurses about battery technology.”

“I didn't have any trouble, did I,” I asked. “Breathing?” Becoming alive, I meant.

She understood why I needed to know. She put out her hand, although she was sitting across the waiting room from me, touching the place where my hand would have been if I was sitting beside her.

Why can't I remember how the nurses looked? Each word they spoke was so important. But they dashed in quietly, hovered, and flashed softly out of the room.

He looked the same as he had before, a man being choked by tubes. A part of me wanted to cry out that he was worse than before, shrunken. But there was a presence to him, now, without a single movement on his part.

One eyelid struggled to open. The eyeball beneath it made a rapid-eye-movement dance. The lashes parted, dark iris glittering.

“He can hear you,” said a nurse, a little inappropriately, not seeing what we saw, too busy at the foot of the bed.

“You're doing so well,” said Sofia, leaning over the bed. “So fantastically well, Teddy.”

His mouth was stuffed like a deep-sea diver's with the air tube. We could all see stupefied curiosity in his eye, wonderment, almost fear.

“You're in the hospital,” said my mother, the just-the-facts words contradicted by the softness of her voice. “You were shot, but you're going to be all right.”

I didn't feel as awkward as I had the first time. Maybe one part of me sensed that my father would remember our first visit and find the sight of us less like the vigil for someone who was not likely to survive. But why didn't I say something more articulate? Why were my words so insipid? “I'm here, too,” was all I could say.

Dr. Monrovia wore new white running shoes and a zipper jacket. “Pneumonia is going to be a threat,” he said. “Infections are always—” He made his hand go this way and that: you know how germs are. “But—” he added emphatically, upbeat, in a hurry to leave, meaning a great deal with one syllable.

Mom looked innocent without her makeup, her hair rust red, her face, which was naturally pink cheeked, all the more ruddy in the warm air of the hospital. The doctor could see the unasked, impatient
but what?
in her eyes.

He smiled, not looking like my father just now. My father's smile is infectious, while Dr. Monrovia smiled like someone having his picture taken, just enough to look pleasant. He said, “The crisis is over,” like he was letting us in on a secret, just don't tell anyone else.

And it didn't sound like good news, the way he said it. He meant that the crisis was over, but something else wasn't. My mom and Sofia seemed to want to cooperate, smiling with wan relief. I was the one who said, “So he's going to be all right?”

“It's really out of our hands,” said the doctor. It was one of those moments when an authority figure makes the appeal: remember I am a person, too. Remember I have feelings.

“He's not going to die,” I said, a croaking little voice.

The doctor said, “The odds are in his favor now.”

“He'll recover,” I said. “He'll be the same as ever.” My mother took my arm, trying to pull me away.


Detective Unruh was lifting a garment from the backseat of his Toyota Camry and carrying it to the open trunk. He stretched the robe carefully on the gray carpeting, smoothing the plastic dust covering carefully, straightening it so it covered the garment completely. I was hurrying back across the parking lot with a bag full of blueberry bagels, my mother's request, the Sunday paper wedged under my arm.

Morning sun dazzled, the sort of light that made me wish I wore sunglasses more than I do. I had approached the detective, but now I wondered if I should bother him as he fussed with the folds of the robe.

“Zachary Madison,” he said, instead of hello.

Do you call a detective
I wondered. “My dad is okay,” I said.

“I was just inside,” he said, not smiling but delivering something with his bearing, a kindliness he could not have communicated with words. He tore two sheets from a roll of paper towels, one sheet after another, carefully.

“You're a judge,” I said, nodding toward the robe under its One Hour Martinizing plastic. I meant it as a joke, but then I thought: I don't know anything about this man.

“Church,” he said. My expression prompted him to add, “I sing in the choir.”

I absorbed this information as though it mattered very much to me, and in a way it did. The car was a metallic blue, about the same color as my Honda, with a residue of car wax etched in around the
. The windows were smoke gray, the interior a mystery. A bumper sticker had been removed, leaving a ghost, a smidgen of glue. As I watched, the detective sprayed Windex on a bird dropping on the roof.

“I forgot it was Sunday,” I said. Although my family had rarely gone to church, I was aware of religion as an activity, and I was familiar with Sunday as a day that began and ended the week, an island of relative stillness. We went to Glide Memorial in San Francisco once to hear an ex-mayor give a talk about famine in Eritrea, and one of my mother's few friends was a thin, athletic woman who as a substitute organist played Bach energetically, mangling most of the other hymns.

“My wife convinced me to take it up,” he said. I was expected to say something about myself, what kind of music I liked, but instead I said, “You won't be working today.”

His posture was that of a man who would be hard to knock down, his feet spread just wide enough, his body balanced squarely. He let the Windex soak into a second curlicue of bird turd for a few moments, and then he wiped it. I was caught up in watching how careful he was. Spit works, too, I wanted to tell him. It's the enzymes in human saliva. Great for dissolving bug scabs, anything.

Detective Unruh took some pleasure in having an audience. “I usually work with a partner,” he said. “But she fell off a balcony.”

“Chasing a perpetrator,” I said, not asking, trying to get him to tell more.

“Termites and dry rot,” he said. “Old Victorian three story, party time. She has herself a herniated disk and two broken legs. They are using a new improvement in surgical pins, gold electroplate. It'll be a while before she runs wind sprints again.”

“That's too bad,” I said.

My words surprised him a little. I was just being polite, but I was serious, too. People look at me like this sometimes, the men friendly and measuring, the women ready to flirt. People tend to like me. He was getting ready to tell me something, the words ready in his mouth.

“We have a witness,” he said.

I looked at him like someone stalling, trying to remember how to spell and define
. But maybe it was the faintly religious weight to the word, like people who witness for Jesus, that confused me.

He said, “A man who saw the shooting take place.”

“Who?” I asked before I could think. I didn't understand why it troubled me that someone had seen it happen, but it did, my dad suddenly helpless in broad daylight.

“A merchant,” said the detective.

The word sounded like something out of another century, caravans and camels, sacks of spices from the East.

“He came forward and said he saw it from beginning to end.” Everything the detective was saying sounded unreal and archaic.
Came forward

BOOK: Edge
3.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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