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Authors: Carol Cassella

Oxygen (21 page)

BOOK: Oxygen
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“Now,” says Lori, “every time you hit it focus on one particular gripe.” Her voice catches as she heaves another rock. “That one was for the adviser who convinced Gordon the NASDAQ was at an all-time low.” She laughs and reaches down to collect more rocks. “Here, Marie. Pitch a few at the lawyers.” I hurl a clotted mass of studded concrete in Donnelly’s name. It feels revengeful and cleansing.

“Now I understand why you see all those signs pocked with bullet holes,” I say. “Here’s one for the expert witness, may he rot in his Brooks Brothers suit. And this”—I cock my arm back behind my ear, gripping a particularly vicious chunk—“this one is for the smirk on Darryl Feinnes’s face.” The stone clangs against the metal sign and reverberations radiate across the pockmarked field like the prize bell in a carnival game. Lori clutches her stomach in laughter and throws her arms around me. Sweat is running down my cheeks, sweat and tears both, and I can’t tell if I’m crying with laughter or desperation but it doesn’t matter, because either extreme is better than staying helplessly numb. We sit on the hood of her car and she hands me a Kleenex.

“Here. You’re striped,” she says, taking the tissue from me and wiping my face. The Kleenex turns gray with construction dust. “You know, it means a lot to me that you’ve come here. Now, I mean—when things are hard for you. It means a lot to me that you consider this a safe haven. At least, I hope that’s why you’re here.” She is the one being on the earth who most intimately shares my history and my genetics. As divergent as our lives have grown, I know I may never be closer to another human.

We’re both quiet for a while; the sunlight is tingeing the deeper gold of late afternoon. Lori slides off the car and walks across the littered ground, pulling up one of the orange-flagged stakes. “Do you remember that day we were riding one of your friend’s horses through that cornfield? And we found all those surveyor’s stakes?”

“Oh yeah. Mary Ann Coker’s horses.” Her dad had a place east of Dallas. The corn truly had been “as high as an elephant’s eye.” All three of us loped bareback down a farm road into the forest of ripening stalks, horse sweat and girl sweat making dark, slick ovals across the horses’ backs, yellow froth working up and down along the arcs of rein. The land was at the fringe of a much younger Dallas, downtown spiking the horizon, and ageless, sun-crackled farm shacks waiting for the creeping sprawl to bring bulldozers and cement. We wound through the rustling corn, a symphony of dry leaves, and emerged into a flat dirt yard before three bungalows, gray slats shedding white curls of paint.

An elderly black man rocked on the nearest porch, lifted a hand in greeting as if we were expected. “Evenin’.” A woman stepped into the doorway, cast in the half-gloom of the interior. And there in that cornfield clearing, like some glitch in the linear track of time, we all passed our simple greetings and moved on.

Winding back toward the stables, we crossed, I remember now, a small cemetery plot, stone grave markers bare but for bits of moss clinging to depressions that were once the names of grandparents and too-fragile infants. All along the ride home we pulled up the wooden surveyor’s stakes and flung them randomly throughout the fields, like children raising hands against a tidal wave.

“I haven’t thought of that in years,” I say. “Decades now, I guess. Where were we?”

“Out past Greenville Avenue. Gordon and I went to a dinner meeting near there a couple of years ago. There’s a Hooters restaurant in the middle of that cemetery now.”

“So what will happen with this land?” I ask. “Has Gordon completely lost his option on it?”

She shrugs. “I haven’t asked him lately. I don’t know, maybe you should write him a prescription for one of those fancy new antidepressants. Don’t they fix just about everything?”

“Is he any help with the kids at all these days?”

She shakes her head and tucks her skirt between her knees, staring out at the dented and broken signs promising her financial security. “Sometimes I lie awake at night and decide that, starting tomorrow, I’m going to stop telling anybody to get dressed, get in the car, pack your lunch, do your homework. I’m going to quit using the words
get up
pick up
hurry up.
I’m just going to shut my mouth, stand aside and see if the whole family really collapses.”

“What would happen, do you think?”

“Well, either the Health Department or Child Protective Services would lock me up within a couple of weeks, or I would find out that everybody figures out how to take care of themselves just fine without me. And I’m not sure which one of those is scarier.”

“It’s hard, what you do. Being a mother. Harder than I give you credit for, I know,” I say.

“It’s hard. And wonderful. But I’m not saving lives every day, like you.”

I smile at her generosity. “You’re saving lives.”

She squeezes my hand and whispers, “It’ll happen for you, too, Marie. It could still happen.”

I squeeze her hand back, hard, and feel tears coming again. “It’s funny. Anesthesia is filled with all these algorithms, planned pathways you’re supposed to follow in an emergency so you never find yourself trapped in a dead end where you can’t rescue a patient.” I stop for a minute and wipe my eyes. “I should have planned one out for my life. How did I forget that, somewhere along the way?” At this tears begin to fill her own eyes and she hugs me, rocking me gently back and forth.

“Lori?” She looks up at me, ready to accept whatever I want to tell her. “I think I should go to Houston.”

“Good.” She nods, as much to herself as to me, then hugs me again. “I think that’s great. When do you want to go?”

“Well, never. But since I could get called back to Seattle anytime, I think I should go tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? Wow. OK. How long do you think you’ll stay with him?”

“I don’t know. Long enough to figure out what he needs. Or at least as long as I can stand it.”

She studies me for a minute, thoughtfully. “You were so close to him when you were little. You were his dream girl, Marie. Smart, organized, always on top of everything—destined to do something important with your life.” She says this hopefully, without any note of jealousy, as if urging me to reclaim some personal history I have let slip away. “He was so protective of you, almost doting. Do you remember the day you cut your back on the rake? He was tossing us into the leaf pile after he’d raked the backyard, and he’d left the rake buried under the leaves, and you landed on it. I remember him carrying you into the kitchen; his face was white. He looked so shaken, I thought you must be dying. You must remember that day, don’t you?”

A recollection stirs, and then sinks under other memories. That day is hers now more than mine. When do we stop crying over our injuries? When we get old enough to swallow our tears, or when the people we love stop responding to our cries of pain? “Not clearly,” I answer her at last. “I guess I remember other days.”

We are both silent then, until Lori asks, almost whispering, “You’ve never felt forgiven, have you?”

“Well. Forgiveness has never exactly been his strong suit.”

“No. It hasn’t. We needed Mom for that.” She slips off the car into the dust and takes my hand.


Elsa awakens me by softly blowing on my eyelashes. I startle and grab her arm, dreaming I’ve been paged for an emergency, and we both laugh.

“I forgot where I was.” I push myself up to a sitting position and pull her toward me. She drops her face onto my chest, as if she were a little girl again.

“You’re leaving tomorrow.”

“You got my note.”

“You just got here.” A whispered plea.

I stroke her hair and press a kiss on the crown of her head. So sweet to replenish the physical memory of her smell, her shape, the resonance of her voice through my flesh instead of a telephone. “I know. It makes me sad, too. But I need to visit Grandpa, and I can’t be away from Seattle for too long. I have an idea I talked to your mom about, though. Want to hear it?” She sits up and I catch a tear trailing down her cheek. “What’s this? All because I have to go?”

She shrugs and more tears fall; her lips and nose are plush with emotion. “Hey. Tell me.”

“Have you ever…?” She stops until I nod. “I hurt Sierra’s feelings. I said something really mean, and I don’t even know why.”

I pull her near again, so her head is tucked under my chin. “Want to talk about it?” She shakes her head. “Was it about Dakota?” She doesn’t move. I cradle her next to me, give her all the silence she wants. Her length is startlingly equal to mine. After a time she talks, though not about her regret, telling me about the dance routine she has to learn for the Spirit Club, and how they finally took a vote on their costume design because nobody could agree, and the iPod she’s saving up for, and, finally, as if she’d almost forgotten, she asks me what I talked to her mom about.

“Well, we thought maybe you could fly up to Seattle at the end of the summer for a week. Before school starts.”

“By myself?
mom agreed to that?” I smile and she jumps up, electrically happy. “Oh my God, I have to call Sierra. She will never believe this—she loves Pearl Jam. Can we go shopping together?’

Before she leaves the room, practically ready to pack, I take her hand. “Hey, Elsa. Remember: sometimes just saying you’re sorry can make things a whole lot better—for both of you.”


My father’s house is old,
built of brick, as all the old houses in the neighborhood are. Up and down the street big, boxy new homes with circular driveways are crowding onto the expensive lots once occupied by small bungalows and grand oak trees, the sidewalks and street curbs buckled by their heaving roots.

I reach up to press the doorbell and feel the weight of a million disappointments and silent quarrels settle over me like accumulated drops of water, none of them burdensome alone, but their collective mass suffocating. It is finally the professional part of my mind, the part that has practiced how to keep emotion out of decision making, that lets me push the small brass button. I hear his hard-soled leather slippers scrape across the worn oak entry. Then the heavy door swings back.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Well. You made it at last.”

“The traffic coming in from Hobby was awful. I should have called you.” It feels sadly fitting, somehow, that I should begin this visit with an apology. “It’s good to see you.” I lean toward him to brush his cheek against mine but, stretching over my suitcase, it becomes easier merely to press his arm with my hand.

It is almost frightening to see him—his eyes rheumy and distorted behind the thick lenses of his glasses, his head tilted to capture my face in the ring of remaining vision that surrounds his central core of blindness, like a ring of cherished light being sucked down a well—alarming to discover his stooped frame and stiffened gait. Three years at this end of life, as at the beginning, rush parabolically along the axis of physical change.

“Well. No harm. Let me help you get your things inside.” He reaches for my suitcase and together we lift it across the threshold and into the dimly lit hallway. The smells of the house tell their own story—earthy coffee and cigars, his pleasures, barely mitigating the tinge of urine and stale eucalyptus, the hint of mildew and Mentholatum; the scents of his residual comforts nip at the odors of decay.

“Dad, let me take this. Do you want me in the twin bedroom? Go on and sit down. I’ll unpack and be out in a minute.”

“I’ll carry it. I’m not dead yet. Thought you might prefer the double bed, so I made that up. Better light in there, anyway.”

I allow him to take the suitcase from my hand and bump it down the back hallway ahead of me, cringing as he hauls it onto a low brocaded chaise at the foot of the bed; the heft of it upsets his balance and lands him on the cushion beside the bag. Behind him a window-unit air conditioner groans and sweats against the humid air; I am reminded of midnight pushing matches with Lori to drape ourselves over an even older model, pleading for some relief from the heat before the whole machine froze up like an ice-encrusted ship waiting for spring thaw. Most of my memories inside this home, though, are limited to college holidays. My parents moved from Dallas to Houston at the end of my junior year of high school, when my father took a professorship at Rice. I have always felt like a guest in this house.

“Have you eaten yet? Let me take you out to dinner,” I tell him, brushing a damp strand of hair off my face. “I thought you might enjoy getting out for some Mexican food. Do you still like Mexican?” His eyes roam over my face like the sweep of a lost traveler’s lantern searching for the road home. He squints up at me and I can’t tell if he’s angry at the suggestion or just trying to focus.

“Mexican food?” The words seem to make him weary, as if the experience required packing and flying to the country itself. “You want Mexican food?”

“Well, no. I mean, only if you do. I thought
might like some. Is that little place in University Village still open? The one Mom liked so much?” I sit next to him and try to catch his roving pupils, to meet his eyes directly. I watch him struggle with even the notion of the effort it might take to back his old Buick out of the narrow garage and weave through traffic to the restaurant. How is he getting his groceries? How does he make it to his doctor’s appointments? In the still, musty room with the ticking heartbeat of the painted porcelain clock on the bedside table, the shifting weight of responsibility presses me into the thin cushion.

“Only if you want to, Dad. Or I can run to the store and pick up something to cook here.”

“Suit yourself.” He shrugs and braces his hands against the chaise, his fingers arched with knotted joints. “Get yourself unpacked and I’ll start some tea water. Lie down if you want. Rest after your trip.”

“Thanks. Maybe I will lie down for a few minutes.”

He pushes up from the chaise and steadies himself with a hand on my shoulder. Or is it a gesture of affection? As he shuffles toward the hallway I catch myself diagnosing him, ticking off a list of clinical signs—the awkward angles of arthritis that skew the pendulous swing of his limbs; the slight swoon when he stands, until his aging vestibula settle his center of gravity; the gradual compression of his vertebral discs that has lowered his looming stature, dropped his face nearer my own. Even his dampened smiles and scowls, and the barely visible tremor that could be Parkinson’s. As soon as he leaves the room I close the door and lie down on the bed, stare up at the ceiling. What will we talk about hour after hour?

I pull the telephone onto my chest and dial Lori’s number. “Hi. It’s me,” I say as soon as she answers. “I’m at the house.”

“He’s bad, isn’t he? I can hear it in your voice.”

“He’s just gotten so old. So suddenly.”

“It’s not so sudden, Marie. You just haven’t seen him in three years.”

“I know. I mean, I didn’t know. That he’d have changed so much. I didn’t expect it would be so dramatic.”

“How dramatic is it?” Her voice has a ping of alarm in it, a familial radar scope raised to detect impending cataclysms. “Is he OK? Should I fly down there?”

“No. No, it’s not anything like that. I don’t know, he may have been this way when you saw him last. I just wasn’t expecting this much decline. This much frailty.”

Lori sighs and seems to reach for words. She answers with a tone of sympathy—for me more than our father, I think. “I know. I never would have believed I’d be describing him as frail someday.” We both sit silent as the gulch of our father’s neediness tests our undeclared boundaries of accountability. “So are you going to talk to him about moving?”

“God, Lori, first I have to figure out how to talk to him about what to eat for dinner.”


I reach over to turn on the bedside lamp and my fingers are en-twined in the dusty threads of a spider’s web and its long-desiccated occupants. “I think I’m going to spend every day cleaning. Maybe before I leave I can at least arrange for a regular housekeeper to come in.”

“How are you going to get him to agree to that? He’s never even paid to have the oil changed in his car.”

“I’ll pay for it, then.”

She doesn’t answer immediately, and I try not to imagine judgment in her pause. “Well, I suppose money can fix part of this.” The background sounds of her house—children calling and the dog barking, a television set turned up too loud—are muffled as she covers the receiver. “I have to race. Call me later tonight or tomorrow and we’ll talk. Try not to stress about it—we’ll figure something out.”

“OK. You too. Tell everybody ‘hi’ for me.”

As I’m about to hang up I hear her call out. “Hey, Marie? I’ve never said anything to Dad about, you know, about the lawsuit. I’ve never told anyone at all.”

“Thanks, Lori. Thank you.”

I cradle the receiver and rest my head against the wall. This bedroom had been Lori’s once. I remember this wallpaper, embossed with pink rosebuds and English ivy, remember running my fingertips over its textured pattern in the dark when Lori and I lay awake talking, while the house cooled and eased back down onto its footings with the weight of the night, as if it, too, had to settle down from the bounding of teenaged girls in and out of the wire screen doors, bounding across the thresholds of womanhood. We hated that wallpaper, both of us. Its femininity mocked our liberation from hair curlers and petticoats and folk music—an era before the word
was sarcasm. Mother chose the decor for her room when Lori was away at a music camp, and I remember her vigilant supervision over the handyman, insisting the seams be perfectly matched so the vines could twine unbroken across the wall. Maybe, in a funny way, these roses bonded the two of us in our conspiratorial pretense of satisfaction with our mother’s idealized view of our tastes and our world—poised as we were in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, emerging from the trough of student protests and Black Power and Woodstock, ready to strike out after a decade of national rebellion had mellowed, offering us some choice about where on the measuring stick of sexual freedom and political activism and domestic duties we might pin ourselves. So in the middle of the night we would wait until my parents slept and turn the volume down low on the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd and imagine what our lives would become, my fingertips tracing the ivy and roses across the wall behind us as we talked of college campuses, and the meaning of life, and boys. The darkened circles of paper behind the bed mark where our heads had rested, the graying knots of the fringed white bedspread where our heels had crossed. Everything in the room is stained and worn out, well past its prime.

In the corner of the living room the grandfather clock chimes, muffled through the walls of the house. It is five thirty in Seattle. Charlie Marsallis might be home already with his wife and son, waiting for dinner or watching the news, or preparing briefs for some other impugned doctor. I claw my cell phone from the bottom of my purse. The unblinking light assures no message is waiting, but I still punch in the code for voice mail just to hear the recorded voice declare that I have “No. New. Messages.” Something about the flat, mechanized tone sounds like a jeer: “There is no news for you, Dr. Heaton. No end in sight.”

I dial Marsallis’s office, not even knowing what I’ll dictate into his answering machine. I’m completely caught off guard when he answers the phone.

“Oh. Mr. Marsallis.”


“I didn’t expect…It’s…This is Marie Heaton. I wanted…Were you able to schedule a meeting with the district attorney?”

“I have.”

“You have? You’ve got something scheduled? You said you’d call me.”

“I got off the phone with him twenty minutes ago. I was about to dial your cell phone. Is that where you’re calling from?”

“I’m in Houston today. At my father’s. Yes, on my cell phone. What did he say?”

“I’m meeting with him next week, Tuesday. He said he doesn’t have anything definite yet—hasn’t finished reviewing whatever evidence he’s been given. I didn’t pick up any cues from him. I don’t think he’s bullshitting about that. You don’t need to be there for this meeting, but if the state does file a charge I’ll want to get things moving quickly. Is that going to be a problem?”

“I can fly back whenever you want.” I have to hold my breath for a moment to try to slow my heart rate down. Suddenly the threat of eternal purgatory seems more palatable than the possibility of a conviction. “Did you get any information from him?”

“No. Nothing. Which is exactly what I’d expected at this point. Remember? You’re letting me worry right now.”

“Mr. Marsallis?”


“Charlie. Could I go to jail? I mean, is that absolutely crazy? Or could I go to jail if I were convicted of negligent homicide?”

He doesn’t answer me, and I can almost picture him standing with his thumb hooked on his belt, throwing his head back at my ridiculous question. I hear him suck his lips against his front teeth before he answers me. “Yes. That’s conceivable. But unlikely. Extraordinarily unlikely.”


In the kitchen my father has set two mugs of steaming water on the counter and rummages through a drawer. “Can’t find the damn tea bags.” He pulls forth bottle openers and broken clothespins and boxes of toothpicks and an ancient book of Green Stamps. The wings of a dead moth flutter to the floor.

“Dad, let me help.” I open the upper cabinet and rifle through rusted tins of paprika, curry powder, more toothpicks, and a swollen carton of salt before spotting a package of reasonably new Lipton tea bags on a lazy Susan.

We sit at the yellowed Formica table with its gold boomerangs and silver trim, and concentrate on dipping the bags in and out of the hot water. “Are you still lecturing up at the museum now and then?” I ask, pouring some milk from the quart he has set out. Congealing curdles rise up from the bottom of the cup to float like tiny white birds across a muddy lake. “Or for any of the local schools? Weren’t you doing something for the school district?”

“Oh, golly. I haven’t done that for years now.” He stirs and sips, stirs and sips. The kitchen sink faucet taps out a slow drumbeat of drips.

“Lori and Gordon are doing well,” I say. “Her kids are beautiful. Really. Elsa isn’t even a child anymore.” He nods and stirs and sips his tea. “She looks, just a little bit, like pictures of Mother at her age.”

“Is that right?”

I clear my throat and trace the handle of my ceramic cup with my finger, run it along the rough seam of a crack threatening to split clear through and drench me in hot tea and curdling milk. “It looks like a lot of new houses are going up in your neighborhood.” I can’t tell if he doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t care to comment. “Do you still keep up with that couple in the corner house? The gray house?”

He shakes his head. “They moved three or four years ago. She had some memory problems. I think he found one of those apartments with nursing care.” With each sip he takes, a thin brown trickle meanders from the rim of his cup to the prominence of his chin, until it bleeds onto his shirtfront. I clench the napkin in my hand to keep from reaching across the table to blot the damp fabric. I wonder if he would engage in the conversation more avidly if I told him I was facing criminal charges and might not be able to visit him once I was in prison.

“So, Dad, I’d like to meet your ophthalmologist while I’m here. I thought maybe we could try to get an appointment and I could go with you.”

BOOK: Oxygen
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