I flashed awake to find the room dark. Santiago, the night
nurse, must have snapped off the light at some point. The
throbbing in my head was like a blender on pulse, and my
feet seemed immobilized. I sent my hand down to scout
around and learned that my coat had slipped off my knees
and was now draped across my shoes. The scout, dissolute
bastard that he was, sensed hooch nearby, and began
feeling around in the inner pocket for the fifth of scotch
inside. We shook the bottle in the darkness, he and I. There
was just enough left for a decent eye-opener, and like they
say across the pond, bottoms up. It was liquid cashmere,
just what you’d expect from eighteen-year-old single malt,
but even as an anniversary gift to myself I had no business
handing over a C-note for it, given our huge medical bills.
What sold me on it was its age. It had entered the world
the same year as our son. How often do you get to drink a
The digital clock next to Gretchen’s bed read six forty-five. I
studied her inert form and wondered if she was up yet. You
couldn’t tell without standing right over her. Not even then,
if she wanted you to think she was asleep to avoid fielding
My head felt like a demonstrator being dragged off by the
cops as I got up to peek through the blinds. Night, too, was
challenging the order to vacate. Only a faint blip marked
where the sun ought to be through the great tent of clouds
that loomed over the city like a sinister big top.
I let go of the blinds. My gaze flitted to the wall-mounted
TV where CNN was airing footage of earthquake damage in
Central America. Gretchen liked the set on all night. She
seemed to find comfort in the personal injury lawyers and
infomercials, the has-been entertainers flogging songs of
the ‘70s and impossibly buff people ready to rid you of your
belly fat. Onscreen, the picture had returned to the
newscaster, an Asian woman whose lips worked soundlessly
while her voice emerged from the speaker on the bed rail.
This disconnect seemed apt in a place where people ate
through their abdomens and breathed through their necks.
Soft footfalls at the door announced Santiago. Time for
“Helloo, Mr. Dave,” she said, in her peppy morning voice. As
she advanced breezily into the room, I couldn’t help but
notice how the tubing of her stethoscope rode the attractive
swell of her chest. She went into the bathroom to wash her
hands. “You no sleep?” she called over the water.
“Been up for ages,” I responded. We both knew it was a lie,
but it was better than saying, “I just came to after passing
out for six fucking hours.”
The yells made the issue of Gretchen’s sleep status moot.
Her eyes were fully open by the time Santiago leaned over
her, crooning, “And bueno to you, Senora. How you sleep?”
My wife considered the dozen or so nuanced replies she
might give to such a question, and answered in the only way
she could. She moved her eyeballs up and down.
I’d come to think of her predicament in New Testament
terms. She had a camel of information to convey, but it had
to pass through the eye of a needle—eyes, plural, in this
case—those of a 42-year-old accident victim with a crushed
brain stem. Bobbing eyeballs signified “yes” or “OK.” But
they could just as easily mean, “I was sleeping fine until my
besotted husband woke me with his snoring and I had to
watch part of an old Abbott and Costello movie and I hate
Abbott and Costello.” A steady gaze meant “no,” or “never.”
Or possibly, “Get me the hell out of here, I‘m going mad.”
It’s all about verbal economy in eyeball-speak. She could
express complex thoughts, but only by spelling things out
laboriously as I pointed to letters on a chalkboard.
I mouthed a silent “Happy Anniversary” to her, hoping she
would blink a few times—our signal that she wanted to
reply. Nothing doing.
“It’s our anniversary,” I told Santiago.
“Ooooh, how especial!” she squealed, patting Gretchen’s leg
under the bed sheets “How many years?”
“Nineteen,” I answered. Gretchen remained impassive.
Santiago let the side rail fall and quickly took Gretchen’s
temperature, pulse and blood pressure before changing the
urine bag. The used bag she held to the light as if it might
A nurse’s aide helped with the next chore: suctioning and
cleaning the trach, the hole in Gretchen’s windpipe that
linked her to the ventilator. It’s an intricate job and I
dreaded Gretchen coming home because I’d have to do this
daily, along with cleaning the feeding tube that snaked into
her stomach through the hole in her belly. The thought
creeped me out.
With the aide’s help, Santiago turned Gretchen on her side
facing me. My wife was no sylph. Though she’d lost weight
here at the rehabilitation hospital, she was still on the
chunky side. I studied the cryptic blue of her eyes. One
could only guess at the thoughts that crashed against the
seawall within. Desperation for sure, likely mixed with guilt,
frustration, anger and loss, the gamut of negative emotions
that we cannot stop our brains from churning out, any more
than we can will away a tumor.
Santiago was gone less than a minute when one of
Gretchen’s doctors appeared. He was a short, bull-necked
neurologist who favored tasseled loafers and liters of
Canoe. I hadn’t seen him in weeks. He was a hard man to
catch. He was also kind of a dick.
He pointed his little flashlight into Gretchen’s eyes, panning
slowly back and forth, then ran a pin along the soles of her
feet. She flinched ever so slightly.
I took heart. “She’s moving, isn’t that a good sign?”
I didn’t expect him to click his heels, but his response was a
distinct letdown. He folded his arms and pulled at his
earlobe. “In one sense, yes. In another, no. She’s probably
going to start feeling it when she gets an itch.”
It took me a minute to appreciate the full horror.
“You mean . . .?”
“I do mean. There are other lousy aspects to locked-in
syndrome than an inability to talk or move. More than one
circle of hell, so to speak.”
I saw Gretchen’s eyes widen in alarm. The doctor saw it too.
Belatedly, he pulled me into the hall.
“No need to upset her prematurely,” he said, though the
damage was already done. “So, yes, she’s regaining some
feeling, but it could cause more harm than good. Whatever
discomfort she experiences she’ll have to bear in silence.”
I imagined a maddening itch that I could neither scratch nor
seek help for—nor even explain what needed scratching
without enduring a torturous spelling bee. Definition of
eternity: the time required to say, “M-Y S-C-R-O-T-U-M I-T-C-
“That sounds demonic,” I said.
He shook his head sadly. It was hard to say whether the
show of empathy was genuine. It’s a look they probably
teach you in med school for when your juju runs out. He put
his hands in his pockets and fiddled with some change. “I
will tell you that in my book, this is the worst thing that can
happen to you short of full-body, third-degree burns. But
usually you die from that. Your wife could survive in this
state for years. She’s an otherwise healthy woman. Pretty
banged up by the crash, but that’s mostly been taken care
I was loath to let go of my fleeting glimpse of hope, which
had done an Amelia Earhart since the accident. “But if she’s
getting some feeling back, couldn’t that at least mean she
might recover some other functions?”
He took a while with the question before giving me another
“Probably not. I hate to say it, but with LIS, what you see
after a few months is generally what you get. On the good
side, it’s not a vegetative state. Her cognition is fine. On
the bad side, it’s not a vegetative state. She knows acutely
what’s going on. But the damage to her brain stem is so
extensive that neurological messages can’t get through. And
that’s unlikely to change.”
This raised a delicate issue. Before the crash, Gretchen had
often told me I should put her out of her misery if she was
ever in a situation like this. We all say such things when
we’re healthy, never expecting to face the actual question
till we’re old and senile.
He must have read my mind. Looking around, as if we were
under surveillance, he said, “Just between us, if it was me, I
wouldn’t want to be kept alive. Imagine the isolation. Too
bad we’re not in Switzerland where they can help people die.
Here, our hands are tied.”
I nodded. The guy was letting me know where he stood. You
have to respect that.
He looked at his watch. It was Saturday and he appeared to
be in a hurry. “Look, I’m sorry to run off, but I have to finish
my rounds. We’ll keep monitoring the situation, and maybe
I’ll be proven wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
He called goodbye to Gretchen, then extended a hand that
felt as hot and dry as a desert breeze. I still had questions.
Weren’t there treatments on the horizon? I’d read about
brain implants that let patients move artificial limbs just by
thinking. Stem cells that make nerve tissue grow back. But
he was already motoring off in his Fendis.
“So I guess we have no options?” I bleated.
“Think Zurich,” he called over his shoulder. “I hear it’s nice
this time of year.”
* * *
I needed a walk around the floor. I passed a room where an
old woman was screaming, “Help me, somebody, for God’s
sake, help me!” while the staff resolutely ignored her. In the
corridor, a man struggled to walk on two heron-like
prosthetic legs. He cut a chimerical figure, as if I’d wandered
into an Arcadian forest where at any moment I might run
into a centaur or a griffon.
Feeling edgy, I realized I hadn’t had a cigarette since last
night’s dinner. That sent me to the parking lot, where I
stood coatless under the threatening skies. For all the
gloom, the clouds’ output seemed limited to a pervasive
mist, but it was enough to dampen me to the skin. On my
way in, I stopped at the first-floor men’s room to dry myself
off with paper towels, but there was only a hand drier on
the wall. Gambling no one would walk in, I stripped down to
my Jockey shorts, and let the hot air flow over my flesh
while I did a grotesque adagio. The heat was good, so good
I went all in and took the Jockeys off too. Something about
it was more restorative than the cigarette, and I felt like a
new man as I rang for the up elevator.
By the time I got back to Gretchen, she had been turned so
she was once more supine, eyes closed. I stood over her
while the ventilator kept up its reptilian hiss. Swaddled in
sheets, she looked disturbingly enigmatic, like the mummy
of Ramses II that I’d seen once on a trip to Egypt. Enigma
was not a term I’d have applied to her before the accident.
She was a passionate, impulsive woman who was never at a
loss for words. Could there be anything more ironic?
Our marriage was a cancer survivor. We’d had our early
rough spots, mostly over my drinking. She used to harangue
me about my getting ripped every night. I argued that the
liquor made me mellower, but she said it was like spending
your life with a bobble-head doll of the person you married.
“Loss of consortium,” she called it, giving it her customary
legal spin—a vestige of the eighteen months she spent in
law school before getting pregnant.
One night I arrived home looking forward to the first of the
Johnnie Walkers that illuminated my evenings, when I
discovered that she had locked the liquor cabinet. Formerly
an armoire, it was an intricately carved piece of cherry taller
than me that dated back to her great-grandparents.
“You’re joking, right?” I said.
“It’s no joke, David.”
“I agree, it’s not funny. So open it, okay?”
She dug into her slacks, extracting a small key, which she
dangled over her mouth.
“Very dramatic,” I said and put out my hand.
Her response was to place the key on her tongue, where it
sparkled like a piercing. “Wath ith,” she said, and proceeded
to swallow it. “Mmmmm” she went, as if it were a petit four.
I could only gape. “You’re insane. What did that
“It’s going to take a couple of days to work its way out of
me. You’ll have to poke around in my shit to find it.”
“For Christ’s sake, there’s hundreds of bucks worth of alcohol
“I’ll force the motherfucker open.”
“You wouldn’t dare. You’d scratch it up and my mother would
cut your heart out.”
“I’ll hire a locksmith.”
“It’s my property and I won’t let anyone touch it.”
“Screw it, I’ll just stop at the store every night.”
“You’re too goddamn lazy. Not to mention cheap.”
“May I ask what you’re trying to prove?”
“That you’ve sunk so low you’d rummage through a navy of
turds to get a drink.”
She was right.
Eventually, she left, took Travis and went home to
Minneapolis, refusing to come back until I went into
treatment—an ultimatum for which I will forever bless her.
It ushered in twelve golden years of sobriety during which,
like some people in arranged marriages, we awoke one day
to realize we actually liked one another.
But that was before ten thousand pounds of truck
annihilated our universe. She and Travis had just left his
swim team practice in our old Saturn when she ran a red
light. The car had no side air bags, so the impact killed him
instantly. Gretchen’s injuries occurred when the Saturn rolled
over, lashing her head around like a tetherball.
It was hard to say what she remembered of the crash. She
was out of it for weeks. When at last she regained full
consciousness, and I told her she’d been in a wreck, I left
Travis out, not wishing to heap too much on her initially.
But days passed and not once did she ask me about him, a
fact I found incredibly strange. Not that she lacked
opportunity. Every day I’d engage her in conversation. But
other than to spell out, “T-H-I-S R-E-A-L-L-Y S-U-C-K-S” or,
“F-O-R-G-E-T M-E. I-M J-U-S-T D-R-A-G-G-I-N-G Y-O-U D-O-
W-N,” she rarely volunteered any feelings. Finally I
concluded that I had to say something about our beautiful
son, if only for my own mental health. I thought by
consoling her I could console myself.
“You need to hear about Travis.”
She blinked as though her eyelids were on motor drive. I
readied myself for anything except what she had to say.
“S-A-V-E Y-O-U-R B-R-E-A-T-H. H-E-S D-E-A-D. I A-L-R-E-A-
“Don’t you want to talk about it?”
“I B-E-G Y-O-U N-O-T T-O P-U-T M-E T-H-R O-U-G-H
I had little choice but to let it go. Once again, I tried to
picture what her interior life was like. She had never been
one for self-pity, but these were extraordinary
circumstances. Why was she being so miserly with her
feelings? Was she aware that I was attempting to be strong
for her, and that her refusal to lean on me was hurtful? Did
she know the accident was her fault (I had left that out too)
and if so, how was she managing that?
Managing. What an impoverished term, like you’re keeping
an office humming. It doesn’t begin to describe the effort
that goes into holding oneself together in the face of the
unthinkable. Had I been managing these past months,
burying a beloved son by myself while adjusting to the fact
that my wife would never again be able to so much as
straighten my tie? I guess I had, though there were days
when I felt like a grocery bag with the bottom soaked
As I stood there, Gretchen’s eyelids popped open suddenly
and she began to flutter them wildly, like leaves before a
I almost knocked over a water pitcher reaching for the
chalkboard. As my finger leapfrogged through the alphabet,
I concentrated on her eyes. They had always had a
translucent quality, hinting at unseen worlds within—it was
one of the things that first attracted me to her—but now I
found myself drawn below their surface, plunging swiftly
through a dreamy blackness as if towed by a whale. Down,
down I went on my fathomless journey, until all at once I
was yanked back to the surface by her emerging message.
“I W-A-N-T Y-O-U T-O K-I-L-L M-E.”
Pain slashed through me as if I had the bends.
* * *
The storm clouds, after dithering all morning, chose to let
loose just as I left the hospital. Bad luck, but it was my own
doing. I hated the cafeteria coffee so much that I’d made
the espresso bar a block away my base of operations. Even
sprinting with a newspaper over my head, by the time I got
there, I was drenched.
Balancing a steaming double shot on a saucer while
stamping my wet shoes like a bedraggled sumo wrestler, I
made my way to a table and settled down to take stock.
Gretchen’s plea had ripped open a cache of feelings I had
been pretending weren’t there. I had no moral qualms about
ending her life, I just lacked the balls. But that was only
part of it. The shameful fact was I could not do without her.
Her existence, however impaired, was the thing that made
my own possible. Since childhood, I’ve been petrified of
being alone. Before Gretchen, my love life consisted of
frantic leaps from one relationship to another. I visualized
myself that way, hopping video game-like from rocky
pinnacle to rocky pinnacle above a sea of fire. Gretchen
ended that. She may not have completed me, but she saved
me. Now I needed her to keep doing the job by staying alive
at whatever cost to herself in suffering. Essentially, her
ventilator tube was my umbilicus.
As I faced this ugly truth, I became aware of someone
watching me. Looking up, I noticed a huge, very unkempt
man in a nearby armchair peering darkly at me. He wore a
soiled maroon sweat suit and his great round face,
weathered enough to place him in his late forties, reminded
me of how political cartoonists used to portray the world—as
a person with a globe for a head. The chair was absurdly
small for him and I almost laughed, thinking it might stick
to him if he stood up. But his eyes, small and black behind
thick spectacles, glinted with a flame that reminded me of a
refinery in the night sky. It made him seem slightly
He went on staring at me well past the time for hellos.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Can I help you?” I said.
He looked startled, as though I were a mannequin he hadn’t
expected to come to life. “Yes,” he answered. “What are
you? I would very much like to know this.” His voice was
crackly, like he didn’t use it very often.
The accent was Eastern European. The question itself I
couldn’t make sense of.
“What am I?”
“Yes,” he persisted. “Your people. What are they?”
It dawned on me he meant my heritage. I don’t know why
but I felt I should answer, though the question was not only
nosy but touched a nerve. I’m Italian, which I dread
disclosing. When people respond with some mob joke as
they will (and even if they don’t, I know they’re thinking it),
I’m left with the choice of sucking it up good-naturedly, or
acting pissed and sounding like a jerk.
“I’m Greek,” I lied.
“Oh. I see.”
I had the absurd feeling that I’d let him down. “What did
you think I was?”
“Give me a moment and I will tell you.” He got to his feet
stiffly and started piloting his great bulk in my direction. It
took a full thirty seconds before he was lowering himself,
uninvited, onto the chair opposite me with an alarming creak.
“Nothing against you Greeks,” he assured me, “I just
thought from your looks you might be a countryman of mine.”
“And what country would that be?”
“Why, the historic republic of Moldova,” he announced
grandly, “the gem of the Danube.” He spoke with such pride
that I wondered if he hadn’t asked for my background just
so he could declare his.
He offered a gigantic hand and we shook vigorously, as if we
had exchanged names, not ethnicities. I searched for a
rejoinder—but all I knew about the Moldovan people was
from a travel article that said they drink an awesome
amount of wine.
“Well,” I improvised, “that’s not too far from Greece. All on
the Mediterranean, right?”
His smile faded. “Absolutely not. Your geography is
atrocious, sir. Where did you go to school? Moldova, it is
hundreds of miles northeast of Greece and landlocked.”
He tapped his fingers on the table for a while. His knee was
jiggling too, rattling my cup as if a jackhammer was on
outside. Though he was not the most disheveled person I’d
ever seen, he was in the ballpark. Hair hung to his shoulders
from his balding crown in long greasy ribbons, as from a
maypole, and the lower half of his face was a savanna of
stubble that continued down his neck, dark whiskers like
flyspecks against the gray ones. Beneath his sweatshirt, I
noticed he had an appreciable pair of man tits.
At length, as though I were a child to whom he was granting
a second chance, he asked what part of Greece my people
hailed from. I told him I didn’t know.
“Not good,” he said. “Confound it, man, life is a mysterious
enough journey. At least you should know from whence you
As if someone so grungy-looking could be a source of
“Where did you set sail from?” I asked.
“Chisinau. It is a lovely city. There is none like it.”
“Do you return often?”
“Almost never. I travel the world. You know, like your man
Odysseus.” He shot me a sly grin, and I felt shabby. Here he
was, making congenial jokes, and I’d betrayed him with
Suddenly, he placed a finger under his nose and, unable to
stave it off, sneezed twice with almost gale force. Sighing,
he brought forth a very soiled handkerchief, in which he blew
his nose with all the grace of a cape buffalo. “I have a
damnable cold,” he said, placing the snot-stiffened rag on
the table in front of him. “Something warm would be most
welcome. I will take a cup of coffee, if you would be good
He might as well have made some Mafia reference because
once again I had to select between bad options: Saying “no”
and sounding ungracious or “yes,” and coming across as a
chump. I was this close to telling him to shove off, that I
didn’t fetch coffee for people with such terrible manners, but
he seemed vaguely combustible and I decided to humor him
“Sure thing,” I said, with a sarcasm I hoped wasn’t lost on
him, and started for the coffee line.
“Mit schlag,” he called after me. “Lots of cream. And don’t
forget sugar. Two spoons.” The man was beyond
My plan was to suddenly make for the door, but a look
outside cured that. The rain was pelting down harder than
ever and I’d had enough of being wet. And to be frank, there
was something compelling about the guy. He was a curious
mix of sensitivity and arrogance and part of me wanted to
know his story.
I brought coffee back, along with two blueberry muffins.
“What’s your name?” I asked, cutting into mine.
“Just that. Arkady.”
“Well, I am Dave, Arkady. Pleased to meet you.”
My new companion took up his muffin and bit into it on the
bias, like a shark. He came away with most of one side,
which he proceeded to chew with his mouth open. I watched
the purple-yellow mash spin around like clothes in a dryer.
As much to banish the sight as make conversation, I asked
him where he lived.
His muffled reply, accompanied by flying specks of muffin,
sounded like “Hawaii.”
“Come again?” I had visions of him in hibiscus-patterned
bathing trunks the size of a wall hanging. “You live in
“Eh?” He looked at me as if I was nuts. “No, no, I’m living at
the Y. The YMCA.”
I was taken aback. Despite his boorishness, something
about him didn’t resonate with rooming at the Y. “It’s just
till early June,” he said, “until I leave for a conference in
I tried to imagine someone like him in polite society. “What
sort of conference?”
“Mathematics. It’s on high-order, three-dimensional,
reshocked Richtmyer-Meshkov instability.” He seemed
amused by my consternation. “In other words, applications
of WENO simulations. You have heard of WENO simulations,
I couldn’t tell if he was being condescending or truly thought
I’d be conversant with such things.
“You’re a mathematician, then?”
“No,” he said solemnly. “Actually, I am a ballet dancer.”
He stared at me deadpan for as long as he could manage,
then his face burst open like a cake at a bachelor party and
he fell into convulsive laughter, supremely tickled with
himself. “A mathematician. I am this, yes.”
Allowing his merriment a slow death, he took a long pull of
coffee before smacking his lips and saying, “You may also
be interested to know I am the world’s largest
“I believe it. Is that by weight or height?”
“By any measure. Circumference, surface area, total volume,
whatever you wish. ”
He explained that he was in town for a semester-long
residency at the University of Chicago. The school had
offered to put him up at the faculty club, but he’d declined,
choosing instead to bunk at the house of a math professor
he knew slightly who, it appears, was as much of a piece of
work as he, for they soon quarreled over some arcane point
of number theory and it came to blows, with the host, who
was from Dublin, swinging a shillelagh, and Arkady
defending himself with a cafe chair. Needless to say, he
moved out that night, taking refuge at the Y.
“In hindsight, I should have gone there in the first place,”
he told me. “I stay in Y’s whenever I can in the U.S. Believe
it or not, they have a lot of amenities.”
Aside from a certain crypto-gay song from the 1970s, you
seldom hear endorsements of the Y as a hotel chain. I was
still contemplating this when he began asking probing
questions about me: my work, et cetera. Very quickly I came
around to telling him about Gretchen. I’ll admit he made an
imperfect sounding board, but I’d gone months with only
Gretchen’s bitchy mother to confide in and it felt good to
pour my heart out to somebody I’d never see again—even
one as odd as he. Far from being surprised, he said he knew
something about locked-in syndrome. He had first
encountered it as a boy reading “The Count of Monte Cristo,”
in which an elderly nobleman suffers from the condition. “On
a more personal note,“ as he put it, there was his twin
brother Modest, who, while not a LIS victim per se, was
severely autistic and rarely communicated with anyone.
“There’s a reciprocal here,” he said. “My brother has the
necessary equipment to speak but cannot formulate words.
Your wife has the words but lacks the equipment. The net
effect is the same. But I’m curious. How has her condition
It was like asking me my opinion of my lungs. “There aren’t
really words for it,” I said. “All three of our lives came to an
end that day.”
A look I interpreted as compassion crossed his face. “I see.”
“Now she wants to make it official.”
“She’s asked me to help her die.”
“And what did you say?”
“Nothing. She caught me flat-footed.”
He blew his nose into the handkerchief pensively then said,
“Some people would consider it the humane thing to do.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think I’m the man for the job. Be-
sides . . .” I hesitated to air my shameful secrets to a
stranger, though he was not just any stranger, he was a
very strange stranger. Somehow that made it easier. “I’m
not sure I can face living without her. I don’t do very well on
He took another generous chomp of muffin. For several
minutes, he lapsed into silence, seeming to have retired to
some inner sweat lodge. Not daring to interrupt, I waited
like the guy in the joke who climbs a mountain to seek out a
guru. Only I wasn’t after the secret of life. I was just hoping
someone with his brainiac credentials could suggest a way
out of my trap. What he came up with was almost as good.
“You know what you need?” he said abruptly, a grin opening
like a fissure in the midst of his stubble. “You need some
sort of deus ex machina to swoop down and save you. As a
Greek, you should know that better than anyone.”
For the first time in many weeks, I laughed.
As I would learn later that day from a search engine, his
last name was Sadovici and not only was he a
mathematician, he was a renowned one, legendary as much
for his reclusive ways and dreadful people skills as his
brilliance. The previous autumn he’d been awarded an
international prize worth a million dollars for solving a
problem that had baffled peers for two centuries. But at the
ceremony he had mumbled only a few incoherencies, and if
he was spending any of his prize money, it was not
apparent in his daily life. He had no home, but traveled
incessantly, staying in hostels and the like, sometimes even
sleeping in railway stations and airports. He had never
married, had few, if any, friends, and lived almost
exclusively inside his head, where his furniture consisted of
integrals and derivatives, slopes and asymptotes, theorems
and prime numbers. “A world-class eccentric,” was how one
blogger described him. “A towering but ultimately pathetic
figure,” wrote another.
In the days that followed, Gretchen became ever more
obsessed with death. All of our exchanges flowed toward
that sad, oppressive realm, the way a valley’s waterways
always find the river. Even her coloring had gone ghostly
white, so that she resembled a carving on an alabaster
No conversation was immune to her morbidity. When I’d
play audio books for her—thrillers I hoped would fan her
interest—she’d start fluttering her lashes in the midst of the
denouement, making it plain her thoughts were elsewhere.
“W-I-L-L I S-P-E-N-D E-T-E-R-N-I-T-Y L-I-K-E T-H-I-S W-H-E-
N I D-I-E?” she’d ask.
“I wouldn’t know why. Most of us are sickly wrecks at the
end. It would be hell to go through the afterlife like that.
Why should God sentence everyone to hell?”
She would spell out elaborate ways that I could cause her
death without ending up in prison. Undetectable poisons. A
microscopic hole punched in her breathing tube. Antibiotic-
resistant bacteria I could get on the black market that could
pass as a hospital-acquired infection.
I’d pretend to seriously consider these Hitchcockian
schemes, never once telling her the truth, that I don’t have
the stomach for them.
She would propose trips to Oregon, the Netherlands or other
places where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. I would tell
her that these jurisdictions require you to be a longtime
resident—precisely to discourage such suicide tourism.
As you’d figure, my occasional pep rallies were poorly
received. I’d suggest that the nervous system has its own
timetable and she should give the recovery period a fair
chance. She’d look at me with scorn (how someone with
facial paralysis could bring that off is beyond me). “F-O-R W-
H-A-T?” she would sneer. “T-O S-E-E I-F M-Y P-I-N-K-Y C-O-
M-E-S B-A-C-K? “
Then there was the weeping. This is how I knew she had
gone over the edge. In all our time together I’d never known
her to cry. She was a woman who reveled in her hard-boiled
persona. Now tears routinely overflowed their levees to
wend soundlessly down her cheeks—proof that whatever
else nature may rob us of, our anguish is out of its reach.
And all the while, one thought ran through my mind: “I’ll be
here for you forever, just please don’t die.”
One evening, when she seemed particularly down, I told her
about meeting Arkady, and how he had found a way to wring
value from an alternative life. She shocked me by saying she
would like to have met him. This after she had given me
strict orders not to let any of her friends visit.
I took it as a sign that she could still feel a modicum of
interest and was momentarily buoyed. But then something
made her add: “B-E N-I-C-E T-O T-A-L-K T-O S-O-M-E-O-N-E
Was she joking? Needling me? Did she really mean it? Who
could say? All I know is that right after that, her eyes
closed. The sound of it was deafening.
That night, as usual, I brought along my friend Johnnie, but
he was unable to help me sleep. Around three a.m. I slipped
out of the room for a 360 around the floor. I found Santiago
putting pills in little paper cups.
I announced myself with a cheery, “So this is what you do
She spun around so quickly that she spilled the pill bottle
and dropped to a crouch. “Oh, it’s you, Mr. Dave,” she said,
holding her throat. “You frighten me.”
I bowed like a comic butler, and said, “I apologize most
sincerely, dear lady.”
“Is okay. No importa.” She turned back to her task with a
smile that, in a previous life, might have inspired Leonardo.
I noticed how beautiful her earlobes were, covered in
velvety down and barely visible under the sweep of her
luxuriant brown hair. They reminded me of pink cedillas.
“Did the doctors tell you your wife might be going home
soon?” she said.
I felt a steel ball start down the raceway of my gut. “No,
that’s news to me.”
“She needs a little more PT, and then, maybe...”
Physical therapy on someone who might never again move
so much as a toe seemed like bill-padding to me. ”Isn’t that
“Not at all. We no want her to rust, do we?”
“Heaven forbid,” I started to say, but the moment seemed
wrong for irony.
When each little cup on the tray contained at least one pill,
and all the name cards had been filled out, Santiago put
away the medicine bottles and locked the cabinet.
I was suddenly conscious of the way her perfume mingled
with the pina colada scent of her hair, and especially of the
proximity of her bare skin under her baby-blue scrubs. There
is something undeniably erotic about scrubs, maybe the
ease with which they are surrendered to lust.
“When did nurses stop wearing white uniforms and caps?” I
“I don’t know. These are more easier to clean.”
“And white nylons. Do you guys still wear them?
She giggled. “Next you are mentioning the Scotsman and his
All at once, I reached out and drew her close. I felt her body
relax against mine for several seconds, but then, as I went
to kiss her, she gently, if firmly, pushed me away.
“Mr. Dave, you are the bad boy,” she said, with a good-
natured finger waggle. “You go back to the Senora now.”
I could have made a second stab. Her heightened breathing
belied her words. But my passion had deserted me like a
fickle friend who finds my life’s vagaries tiresome.
In the morning, wooly from lack of sleep, I touched my lips
to Gretchen’s porcelain cheek before going home to the
suburbs to get ready for work. If she was awake, she gave
I was shaving when it occurred to me to play the Arkady
card. For whatever reason, Gretchen had shown she could be
intrigued by something besides oblivion. Perhaps his
brilliant otherness might be what could pull her back from
the precipice. I was so impatient to catch him on my way in
to work that I got pulled over and nearly arrested. The cop
smelled alcohol on my breath and made me walk a
hypothetical balance beam. By the time I got to the Y,
Arkady had left for the day. I scribbled a note inviting him to
the hospital. “Come any night,” I wrote. “Help me drink my
hemlock.” I signed it, “Socrates.”
Three evenings later, a nurse pulled me into the hall to tell
me we had a visitor. Arkady was at the nurses’ station
wearing a once-elegant Russian cap whose fur had
contracted some sort of mange. He cradled a hefty green
plant and was lugging a portfolio. His pants cuffs ended well
above his ankles and his reindeer sweater was so ratty it
could have been a throw-in from a thrift shop. Above one
boob was a visitor’s pass. You could have assumed the
place he was visiting was Earth.
I was already half in the bag as I led the way to Gretchen’s
room. He ignored my light banter and assumed the air of a
consulting doctor called in at an inconvenient hour.
“What’s her status?” he demanded. “Is she asleep?”
She had seemed so when I left the room, but on pushing
open the door, we found her fully awake. What’s more, she
seemed expectant. Luster had returned to her face. How she
knew we had a visitor is beyond me.
Arkady set the plant on the nightstand and, grasping her
hand, bent down and kissed it. The courtly gesture from him
was like parquet flooring in a monkey house, but Gretchen
Without releasing her hand, he said, “Dave has told me a
great deal about you.”
Her eyes batted. “She has something to say,” I noted, and
picked up my trusty chalkboard, but Arkady shooed me
away. Unzipping the portfolio, he removed a magnetic board
featuring plastic letters and numbers. The letters were in
alphabetical order, but had been divided into five numbered
rows of five letters each, and a sixth for the letter “Z”.
Gretchen had simply to move her eyeballs to designate a
row, and voila, there were eighty percent fewer letters to
point to. The simplicity of it shamed me.
“Ingenious,” I said.
“Hardly,” Arkady replied. “It’s a very basic code.”
He motioned for me to help turn Gretchen on her side. Then
he pulled up a chair, and holding the board where she could
see it, said, “Let’s try this out, shall we? What was it you
wished to say?”
“T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U F-O-R C-O-M-I-N-G,” she spelled out much
faster than usual.
He smirked at me before turning back to Gretchen.
“Poor girl, you’ve really had a time of it lately, haven’t you?”
You could tell she was surprised by the question. It seemed
to offer a measure of release. “Y-O-U H-A-V-E N-O I-D-E-A,”
”Indeed,” conceded Arkady. “But I want to understand. It
might help you to let your feelings out.”
She hesitated, searching for words. ”I-T-S L-I-K-E I-M B-U-R-
I-E-D A L-I-V-E. M-Y B-O-D-Y-S B-E-C-O-M-E M-Y
Arkady nodded. Sitting cross-legged in his threadbare hat
and clownish pants he might easily have been a seedy
psychiatrist with offices on a park bench.
“Totally understandable,” he nodded. “But the way I see it,
we are all in coffins from the day we are born. We’re rolling
along on a funeral train that we don’t remember boarding,
with no clue to where we’re going or when we’ll get there.
It’s an incredible outrage, when you think of it. Above all,
there’s no way to stop the train.”
She appeared unmoved. “F-I-N-E F-O-R A-N A-B-S-T-R-A-C-T-
I-O-N. B-U-T T-H-I-S I-S H-O-R-R-I-B-L-Y R-E-A-L.”
“A matter of degree, wouldn’t you say? The difference
between you and everyone else is you have no distractions
to take your mind off your plight. You should see these
distractions for what they are: a monstrous fraud. What we
call life is misdirection thrown up by a fiendish magician who
wants to draw our attention away from our destiny. Each of
us is the star of our own horror film.”
Gretchen’s lashes beat like hummingbird wings.
“W-H-A-T A S-T-U-N-T-E-D V-I-E-W,” she said. “H-O-W D-O
Y-O-U G-E-T T-H-R-O-U-G-H A S-I-N-G-L-E D-A-Y T-H-I-N-K-
I-N-G L-I-K-E T-H-A-T?”
Arkady shrugged with a look of amusement, and they were
off and running. For nearly an hour I sat by while they
argued about the value of living, with Gretchen the unlikely
apostle of hanging in there. When the evening ended, she
was infinitely more engaged than I had seen her since the
I escorted Arkady to the elevator.
“She’s delightful,” he said.
“Misdirection,” I replied.
He laughed. “May I come again? Please?”
“By all means.”
And so he did. The next time he showed up with a laptop
that he had talked a U of C neuroscientist into lending him.
By calculating what he called “evoked potentials” and other
data picked up by sensors taped to her skin the computer
could discern what letters she wanted without any eye
movement from her, then displayed the words onscreen.
As the weeks wore on, he started coming every evening,
then most afternoons as well. I’d find him already at the
hospital when I got there. Often he stayed till midnight, the
three of us watching movies on the laptop.
He read the newspapers to her. He introduced games:
computer chess, with Gretchen’s eyes indicating moves
using board notation; Monopoly with Arkady flinging the dice
and advancing the little pieces. There were onscreen
crossword puzzles he helped her work. Goofy videos he
found for her to watch. When he learned she liked classical
music, he made her mixtapes of Vivaldi and Mozart.
When June came, and it was time for him to leave for Kiev,
he was clearly chagrined. His farewell sounded heartfelt, as
did his promise to return.
“I shall be back in a month,” he vowed, his big hands
enveloping Gretchen’s. “You are now my family and I will be
thinking of the two of you at all times.”
In the following weeks, Gretchen seemed to retreat into
herself, initiating few conversations and replying in
monosyllables to everything I said. On the plus side, she’d
stopped asking me to murder her.
When I reached the limits of my tolerance, I broached the
matter as casually as I could. “What’s on your mind?” I
asked her late one afternoon.
She was slow to respond. I noticed how the window blinds
were casting the fading sunlight into gold ingots across the
At last, she answered, “I M-I-S-S A-R-K-A-D-Y.”
Out in the corridor, I heard the dinner-laden food cart
rumble by. “That’s not surprising,” I said. “So do I.”
“B-U-T T-H-E-R-E-S M-O-R-E T-O I-T.”
Deep within me, I felt something load-bearing start to give
way. “Tell me,” I said.
She closed her eyes. When they reopened, they were wet.
“I T-H-I-N-K I-M D-E-V-E-L-O-P-I-N-G F-E-E-L-I-N-G-S F-O-R
I didn’t say anything, so she added, “H-E M-A-K-E-S M-E F-E-
E-L A-L-I-V-E A-G-A-I-N.”
My mind was suddenly flooded with irrelevancies: How hot
the room was with the sun beating in. How Arkady’s plant
could stand watering. How strange our conversations must
sound to those in the next room, like I’m delivering an
“O-H D-A-V-I-D I-M S-O S-O-R-R-Y. I S-T-I-L-L L-O-V-E Y-O-
I remained speechless.
“H-E W-A-N-T-S T-O H-E-L-P M-E S-T-A-R-T A B-L-O-G. I-L-L
C-A-L-L I-T ‘F-R-O-M W-H-E-R-E I L-I-E.’ “
“That’s a wonderful idea,” I managed to croak.
“H-E A-L-S-O W-A-N-T-S T-O H-E-L-P M-E F-I-N-I-S-H L-A-W
I nodded. It seemed beside the point that I could have
helped her with these things. I hadn’t thought of them.
“What should I do? Go away?”
“N-O,” she said, though the word, lacking inflection, left in
doubt how strongly she meant it.
“Do you want me to stay?”
Y-E-S,” she insisted, “V-E-R-Y M-U-C-H. B-U-T I-T-S Y-O-U-R
And so it was. To the extent that free will exists, anyway.
Not surprisingly, my choice was stasis, the term biologists
use for when an organism tends to stay put. Inertia, a
physicist would call it. By any name, it led to a peculiar
living arrangement once Gretchen was allowed to go home.
For months, the three of us existed under one roof in a sort
of sexless ménage-a-trois, with Arkady and I constantly
bumping into one another tending to Gretchen, like the
Alphonse and Gaston of caregiving.
Not that he was trying to muscle me out. In fact, he made a
show of deferring to me. “Ooops,” he’d exclaim, backing off
with hands high to allow me to pick up the catheter bag or
whatever. If I were alone with Gretchen, he’d knock
discreetly but stay out of sight, as though we might,
however improbably, be in flagrante delicto.
This farce continued until I gradually perceived myself
becoming odd man out. The bond between the two of them
continued to strengthen, despite my attempts to obstruct it,
and there seemed to be no place for me anymore. No
amount of pleading or breast-beating was going to change
that. What shreds of self-respect I had left demanded that I
I announced my departure on a Sunday night. Gretchen put
up a token fight, but seemed immensely relieved. If Arkady
felt triumphant, he didn’t show it, but neither did he try to
change my mind. I’d come to realize that in his eyes all
human beings, with the exception of Gretchen, were simply
points on a graph. All I was doing was changing coordinates.
It had an unearthly feel, my last day. The moving truck
showed up at nine in the morning and by ten all my things
had been loaded. Fighting to control my trembling, I kissed
Gretchen for the last time, squeezed her hand when her
tears began to flow, and waved bravely from the bedroom
doorway, as if about to step onto a gangplank.
Arkady walked me outside. How implausible it all was, the
accident, Travis’ death, Gretchen’s fate, but nothing was
more implausible than this outlandish suitor standing next
to me. A true sui generis, he seemed all the more striking
against the Mobius strip of suburbia. I marveled for the
hundredth time at the mysteries of human attraction.
He held out his bear paw. “Stay in touch,” he urged. “Don’t
be a stranger.” His Old World diction and formal manner
added ludicrous gravity to the throwaway expression. It also
drove home how utterly we had exchanged roles.
I knew to the bone that it was this image I’d carry with me
into my exile. Not Gretchen in her crystalline repose, but
Arkady hulking amidst the hydrangeas, the sprinklers and
the recycling carts. Why that should be, I had no idea.
I climbed into my car and followed the aged moving van as
it coughed and bounced toward the storage facility, a run-
down affair that was adjacent to a long, gloomy underpass
beneath the expressway. To the swoosh of vehicles
overhead, the movers, a gray-bearded Jamaican man and his
twenty-something son, bent to the embarrassingly brief task
of unloading everything I had in the world. The son, whose
dreadlocks poured down his back, kept shooting me
apologetic looks while making trips that often consisted of a
single table lamp or a coffee table book. When they were
finished, I paid them in cash, per our understanding. Then I
impulsively cleaned out my wallet and pants pockets, down
to the penny, for a tip of nearly two hundred dollars. On my
wrist, my watch seemed to raise its hand, so I threw that in
as well. The father eyed me as if I was crazy.
“You na have to do that, mahn,” he said, affronted.
“I’m losing weight,” I said.
He took off his glasses, breathed on the lenses, and held
them up to the sun before wiping them on his work shirt.
Something in his manner suggested he’d stood at a
crossroads sometime in his past.
“Then I say to you, God bless,” he proclaimed, and made a
tiny ceremony of strapping on the watch.
With a wave, the two of them rumbled off, and I watched as
they disappeared the way we had come. When I couldn’t see
their taillights anymore I got back into my car and coaxed it
slowly into the murkiness of the underpass. Long ago the
city had installed tinted lights to render its walls a blushing
pink but now the color was mostly obscured by decades of
grime and the spray-painted cuneiform of street gangs.
About halfway through, I stopped. A homeless man was
stretched out in the shadows. All I could see of him were his
brogans poking out from under a filthy woolen blanket. I
stood over him a moment, and the blanket peeled down like
the top of an anchovy tin to expose two terrified eyes.
“I won’t hurt you,” I said, and he sat up painfully. His
cheeks were crusted with eczema and his beard curled into
itself like an ancient Assyrian’s.
“Put out your hand,” I said gently, and still looking fearful,
he complied. His fingers were knobbed and arthritic, but
they curled up well enough from long practice.
“This is for you,” I said, pointing at the car and laying the
keys onto his palm.
“But I got no place to put it, Senator,” he said, sensibly.
“It’s okay. Drive it, sell it, sleep in it. You’ll come up with
He continued staring at me stupefied while I folded my
windbreaker over my arm and began heading for the far end
of the underpass. The day was heating up and in the semi-
darkness I felt the flesh-toned walls suddenly come to life
and press in on me, their dampness and the gathering
warmth enveloping my body like a second skin as I pushed
on toward the distant light.
Jeff Lyon is a former newspaper columnist and editor whose
journalism has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald, and
Chicago Today. He was a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. He
now teaches journalism at Columbia College in Chicago, where he
lives with his wife and TWO large dogs who are of invaluable
assistance to him in his fiction writing. His most recent short story
appeared in Blue Lake Review.