Fiction by Kenneth Butler

- no title specified

The Accident

 

It was late in the day. Sissy St. Hilaire did not know it was Ash Wednesday as she sat on her king-sized bed in her home on Ginger Snap Lane, listening to her husband George beat the bedroom wall with a titanium tennis racket. He had already smashed through the plaster. Bits and chunks swirled through plaster-dust clouds to land on the Vicuna carpet, the velvet brocade bedspread, and to float in Sissy’s afternoon cocktail. At one point, she reached up to brush back her bangs and came back with pieces of the wall.

        “I’m through putting up with you jumping into bed with anything – with – anything…”

        “Anything in pants?” Sissy suggested.

        He bashed the wall with a good forehand while she searched for her vintage 1960’s Playboy Club cigarette lighter. She was fond of this lighter.

        “You have no proof of anything,” Sissy said.

        “Everyone at the club is talking about you!”

        “Oh, no – not the club,” she said. “They’re not talking at the office?”

        “They’re all afraid of me at the office. Temple Locke told me after squash today, for my own good, he said. It was humiliating. You’re a disgrace. You don’t even have the integrity to admit you’re cheating on me.”

        She did, actually, but simply didn’t want to. She had been having affairs for years, brief and loveless. She was aware of herself becoming a parody of the bored, rich, alcoholic, adulteress wife. The prospect of divorce filled her with a mild excitement.

        George continued to beat the wall a few more moments, wailed once like a banshee, then slammed out. Sissy heard his car fire up and screech away.       

        She still had a mild hangover that her noon wine had done little to alleviate. She had had an easy morning and counted her blessings regarding breakfast. Her teenage son and daughter, Thatcher and Buffy, dependably ate microwave pizza and burrito offal, washed down with Cokes. Her husband George insisted on an elaborate morning meal that had to be prepared reverently by his hands alone. She would not be going to her real estate office, and Sittina, her Sudanese cleaning woman, spent five hours working on the large house, picking up after Sissy’s slob family without complaint, and additionally doing dishes, windows, and ironing. Sissy regularly had attacks of guilt and would increase Sittina’s undeclared pay.

        Sissy needed to think about getting rid of her current lover, also named George. She planned to do this while she nursed her hangover and savored her loneliness. Then George came home from squash.

        Obviously something had been said to him by one of the holograms, as she called them, at the club, who knew no greater delight than to fill in the small space in George’s imagination with rumors of his wife’s latest rollick. George had started their talk all testy and clumsy. When Sissy’s well-built firewall of responses sapped his patience, he went for the racket.

        After George’s abrupt fit and exit, she took a Valium and a nap. At six in the evening she awoke to the sounds of her children downstairs. She took a long, restorative hot, then cold shower, and was standing naked when her cell phone rang. It was her sister-in-law, an RN at Vermont-Green Mountain Hospital.

        “Sissy, they just brought George in. He’s in a coma. He was in a car accident.”

 

The Priest

 

        Father Brendan Malcolm O’Toole finished conducting the daily Mass. He had lobbied for the elimination of morning Mass on Ash Wednesday, as there were two additional Masses on this Holy Day. O’Toole’s superior, Bishop Reed at the diocese in Burlington, said no. His argument was based solely on considering the two dozen or so misfits, obsessives, frightened ill, and elderly women who attended at eight each morning. O’Toole was tempted to suggest the diocese pay to relocate these unfortunates to a rural Irish village. Instead he countered with the convenience of two other Masses on this very same day. Reed, imported from Ulster, brogued that the early morning Mass was more convenient to the old ladies. Unassailable Irish logic.

        O’Toole was thirty-eight, and looked a decade younger. When he exited his church, St. Helena, to cross to the rectory, he saw that Neith Boyce, the pretty blonde featured singer for the choir, was waiting for him near the statue of Saint Anthony in the gardens. He felt that singular sense of vitality only danger could bring. She asked him flirtatiously what kind of priest wore Louis Vuitton sunglasses.

 

 

Prognosis

 

        Sissy was waiting impatiently with her assembled family in the warm décor of the hospital’s third floor lounge.

        “Oh, for Christ’s sake, stop crying, Belinda,” Sissy said to her daughter. “He’s not dead or seriously injured.”

        “He’s in a coma!”

        “Buffy’s right. I think that’s a pretty good reason to be upset, Mom,” said her brother Thatcher.

        “Stop posturing,” said Hobart, an accomplished posturer. Hobart was the oldest, a senior at Bennington, whence he had rushed to his father’s bedside.

        “The doctor said we can assume neither the best nor the worst at this point. Let’s just stay rational and deal with the facts,” he said.

        “Thank you, Robot Man,” Thatcher said. Buffy choked on another wet sob.

        “I’m going out for a cigarette,” Sissy sighed.

        “Again?” Thatcher said.

Dr. Fangmeyer headed her off as she rose to go. “Good news!” he said. “He’s conscious!”

        The children exclaimed in loud delight, then Buffy sobbed. Dr. Fangmeyer was pummeled with questions and waited for quiet.

        “He seems fine. He’s speaking without difficulty, no slurring or aphasia. His vision is focused, sense of hearing, sense of smell are fine. His thought progression appears linear.”

        “So what is the extent of his physical damage, Doctor?” Hobart said, stepping forward as the heir apparent and tallest child.

        “Hematoma from the concussion, which was neither mild nor severe, but middling. Spontaneous pneumothorax.”

        “English,” Sissy said.

        “A collapsed lung,” Hobart said.

        “That’s right,” said Dr. Fangmeyer.

        “The prognosis, Doctor?” said Hobart.

        “Oh, knock it off, will ya?” Thatcher said.

        Fangmeyer said, “We need to keep him here for a while – observation for the brain injury, but primarily for the lung to heal. Right now he’s got a chest-tube intercalated with the ribcage for inflation, plus a drainage-hose for fluid depletion.”

        Buffy produced a gagging sob.

        “Thatcher,” Sissy said, “Why don’t you take your sister to the snack bar for a Coke?”

        “You mean the Dietary Kitchen?” he said.

        “Beat it.”

        The two teenagers scowled off. Fangmeyer cleared his throat. “Shouldn’t be more than a few days — the forearm is in a cast, a small cast – he won’t be playing squash or tennis for a while. Some nasty cuts and contusions — it’s quite remarkable he’s not more seriously injured.”

        “Or dead.”

        “Hobart.”

        “I’m grateful, Mother, as we should all be.”

        “Go get a Coke, Hobart.”

        They watched him walk off with hurt dignity. Sissy addressed Dr. Fangmeyer. “So I can expect a complete recovery?”

        “I should think so, yes. There’s no indication of any serious or permanent damage.” While he paused, Sissy could practically taste one of her unfiltered Nat Sherman Havana Oval cigarettes. “Still, there’s always the possibility of…” The doctor trailed off.

        “What? There’s always the possibility of what?”

        “All kinds of things.”

        Sissy stared.

                “You can see your husband right away if you’d like. Just don’t tire him out.”

        Sissy proceeded to her husband’s private room without gathering her children. When she arrived, George looked up from the remains of a snack of cottage cheese and pineapple on a tray angled in front of him. His head was bandaged, his right arm in plaster. The gurgling, bubbling electronic pump on a wheeled stand near the bed disturbed her the most. Two tubes snaked from it under her husband’s blue hospital gown – one thick and yellow, one clear, through which bloody fluid was visibly coursing. The television played with the volume low.

        “Boy, was I hungry!” he said.

        She thought this an odd greeting. Odd, but charming. She went to him and kissed his cheek. He smiled up at her.

        “I’m happy you’re alive,” she said.

        “I’m happy you’re alive,” he replied.

        She moved the tray, smoothed down the blanket, and sat on the bed.

        “How are you feeling, George?”

        “Never better.” He smiled and patted her hand. In over twenty years of marriage he had never once patted her hand.

        Sissy was puzzled. She noticed her three offspring, slighted and sulking in the doorway.

        “Are you up for seeing the kids, George?”

        “Oh, I love kids.”

        “I mean our kids.”

        “Heck, yeah!”

        Sissy looked to her progeny and raised her eyebrows. They knew this as the signal to enter. George beamed.

        “What a great-looking family,” he said.

        “Hi, Daddy,” Buffy said.

        “Dad,” Hobart said.

        Thatcher smiled close-mouthed, more of a grimace.

        “Don’t look so grim and determined,” Sissy said to him. “We’re trying to cheer your father up.”

        “No need,” said George. “I’m lucky to be alive. I’m banged up, but I’ll heal. No permanent damage.” He tried to hail them with his broken arm, but stopped, wincing.

        “You’re only supposed to be here a few days,” said Buffy. “Then you can come home. We miss you.”

        Sissy checked an impulse to point out that her father had only been a patient for a few hours. And that an ugly argument had preceded the crash.

        “So, Dad,” Hobart said. “How did you crash the car?”

        “A deer. A little doe. I jerked the wheel at sixty-five, spun out and flipped.” He grinned.

        “Did your life flash before your eyes?”

        George looked stumped. “I don’t think so.”

        “How about when you were unconscious? See any bright lights or welcoming dead relatives?”

        “Hobart,” said Sissy.

        “I just had a Coke,” said Hobart.

        “No,” said George. “Nothing like that.” He had, however, a thoughtful frown that was lingering.

        “Dad,” said Thatcher. “Can I look at those tubes stuck in your chest?”

        “Thatcher,” said Sissy.

        “Sure,” said George.

        Before Sissy could stop him, the boy had skipped to the other side of the bed, gently moved the sleeve of

George’s gown and peered in. He whistled. “Wow! Looks like a gun-shot blast!”

        Buffy moaned.

        “That’s it,” said Sissy, standing. “Your father needs some rest. Say goodnight and get out.”

        Partings were exchanged, with Thatcher, the last, inquiring about saving any extra painkillers before being pushed out by his mother. She returned to the bedside. George was still lost in thought.

        “You sure you’re okay, George?”

        He didn’t look up immediately, but then noticed her. “Hmm? Oh, yes – I’m fine, Cecelia.”

        She stared at him for some time. “You never call me that, George.”

        “Call you what?”

        “Cecelia.”

        He smiled. “Well, I should start.”

        She smiled back uncertainly.

 

George the Second

 

        While her husband slipped in and out of drugged sleep in the early hours, Sissy had awakened in their king-sized bed next to George Humphreys, who was sleeping soundly.

        Humphreys was one of her husband’s senior vice presidents, and Sissy joked sourly to herself that she, a very vocal lover, chose him for the convenience of his Christian name.

        George Humphreys had made it plain from the moment he had joined Kukol that he was hot for Sissy.

        “He’s always snuffling around me like a pig,” she complained once to her husband.

        “You’re quite the truffle,” said George. Sissy found her husband’s flattery disarming. George St. Hilaire was certainly more charming than George Humphreys. He was also funnier, sweeter, better looking and a superior lover. George Humphreys had once again confirmed this last fact only a few hours before. So why was she with George Humphreys, or any of her meaningless extramarital partners? She searched for an answer as others might look for God.

        Sissy heard a noise. All three children seemed concerned about their father, and had chosen to distract themselves by spending the night with friends. None would

return home unexpectedly, especially at this hour. Still, Sissy was nervous. Humphreys never came to the house, and here he was sleeping in her marriage bed.

        Sissy heard the sound again, and identified it as her two fat Persians, Augustus and Fluff Ball, flinging each other around the hallway. She decided to use the bathroom down the hall, wanting distance from Humphreys. She slipped from beneath the quilts and stood, suddenly aware of the asinine pink baby-doll nightie she was wearing, a gift from her now snoring swain. She pooled it to her ankles, kicked it aside and entered the hall. The clawless cats batted each other, collided, then disappeared into the darkness, devoted to Sissy only in the daylight.

        Sissy reached the bathroom, flicked on the light, squinted, and seated herself. She was considering the cover of a National Geographic “How Planets Mate” when the usually dormant landline telephone jangled on the wall two feet from her.

        “Yes?”

        “Cecelia?”

        “Yes?”

        “It’s George.”

        “Yes?”

        “Stop saying yes.” A pause, then he chuckled. “I’m sorry. I know it’s early, but I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to hear your voice.”

        “Oh, yes, yes – sorry – no. No, I mean, no, it’s fine you called! I wasn’t asleep.” Sissy was flustered, and she hated being flustered.

        “What are you doing?” he asked.

        I’m taking a piss naked. I just stripped off a Victoria’s Secret valentine that your idiot business partner had me wear while he fucked me. What are you up to?

        The imagined reply was not meant sardonically. She was insulting herself.

        “Nothing, darling,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep either.” There was silence on George’s end. “George?”

        “I’m here. That was really nice.”

        “What was?”

        “I can’t remember the last time you called me darling.”

        She felt a pang of embarrassment, even guilt. He was right. She was surprised to hear herself murmur, “I miss you. I wish you were here.”

        “I’ll be home soon.”

        “Do you think you can sleep, darling?” The word slipped out again.

        “Maybe. You?”

        “Maybe.”

        “Okay, Pumpkin. Good night. God bless you.”

        He waited for her to say good night, but she was speechless at his unprecedented pet-name and remark. After a moment, he hung up. She kept the dead receiver to her ear for a half-minute before hanging up.

        She returned to bed and sleep, waking with Humphreys beside her three hours later.

        “How ‘bout I make us some breakfast?” he said eagerly. “You haven’t tasted my huevos rancheros yet. Best in the whole damned world, if I say so myself, and others have said so, too.” He grinned at her. She was naked, but the covers were pulled to her neck. He was naked, but he had tossed the quilts and sheets aside to display his body in a pose from a gay skin magazine. His member was neither limp nor tumescent, but in an indistinct state like its indistinct owner. Sissy regarded both with disdain.

        “One of the kids might come back – you know – unexpectedly? Take a quick shower and we’ll breakfast out.”       

        He studied her expression and realized there would be no morning sex to get his blood pumping. He sighed and got up. “Yes, Ma’am. We shall breakfast out.”

        “And not at IHOP, either. There’s a new place on the lake. I don’t think we’ll bump into any snobs or woodchucks down there.”

        Woodchucks was the upscale snob‘s derisive term for backward Vermonters; country folk lacking gentry charm.

        Humphreys turned on the shower, tested the water, then abruptly turned it off. Wiping his hand on his bare thigh, he returned to the bedroom.

        “Would you please put something on?” she said.

        “When you say we won’t bump into anyone, you mean we won’t be spotted together first thing in the morning?”

        “That’s what I mean, yes.”

        He leaned against the doorframe and crossed one leg behind the other. It struck Sissy that now he looked like a gay pick-up in a bus station.

        “I have a problem with that,” he said.

        She glanced at her watch. “Can you make it fast?” She wanted a cigarette, but would not smoke in the house. “And put on some pants?”

        He smirked, but pulled a purple bathrobe from a hook on the door. Sissy almost objected that it was George’s robe, but stopped herself. This was George’s bed, house, and wife, after all. Giving status to his robe would be silly. Humphreys cinched the belt at his waist.

        “Sissy, do you realize how many people in this town already know we’re having it off?”

        “I couldn’t care less.”

        “That’s hard to believe.”

        “Those people don’t pay my bills.”

        “You really don’t care what they think of you?”

        “Or think of you? You’re married and cheating, too, remember? What’s the point of this?”

        “If you don’t care what people say or think, why the low profile?”

        “Because the less they have to talk about, the better, obviously.”

                He crossed to the bed and sat down, which annoyed her. “Listen, Sis…”

        “Don’t call me Sis.”

                “Your schematic says we screw and get out of here to avoid the children and eat some place with low visibility.”

                Sissy looked into her lover’s eyes, and asked, “George, what are you trying to say?”

                He sat for a moment, shuffling his hand of possibilities.

                “Leave George and I’ll leave Helen. We can move to California…”

                His pipe dream again. What was he going to say next – I feel cheap? She felt like the man in this tawdry situation. She would not leave her family, loved them, despite her ambivalence. She was living a wealthy, more than comfortable life-style thanks to George’s salary, inheritance, and investments, but she also enjoyed a good income from the small real estate agency she had built on her own. She had earned two degrees. She was aware of her sophisticated sense of style and good looks. She could live independent of George, and had walked that tightrope for several years.

        She glanced over at Humphreys, who was babbling about buying a marina in Southern California.

        She was reminded of President Clinton’s remark that he had cheated largely because he could. The thought that the president was as much of a shit-heel as she was remained reassuring.

        She would compartmentalize. She had been well-practiced in this approach since adolescence, when in the space of one month both her divorced parents remarried, her college football star brother died from a head injury, and her 18-year-old sister married a washed-up writer forty years her senior.

        “We’ll talk about this later,” she said. “I’m hungry.”

        “That’s what you always say.”

 

Released

 

        George St. Hilaire stayed in Vermont-Green Mountain for five days. When the gurgling of his pump diminished, the tubes were removed and his raw incision was finally stitched. Sissy and Buffy planned to collect him the morning he was discharged. Sissy offered Thatcher the chance to skip school to pick up Dad, but he argued he had an in-class presentation and couldn’t let down his Intro to Economics partners. His mother doubted his sincerity.

        Sissy was seated on Buffy’s bed as her youngest decided what to wear.

        “It doesn’t have to be anything special,” Sissy said.

        “But it’s a special occasion. Isn’t it?”

        “Yes, I guess so.”

        “What about my green sweater and the flowered skirt?”

        “The one with the palm trees? No.”

        “Okay.”

        “How about your little blue and purple dress?”

        “Okay.”

        “But you hate that dress,” Sissy said.

        Buffy glanced sideways, wary and confused, at her mother. “I don’t understand,” Buffy said.

        The girl was on her way to becoming a permanent doormat, and Sissy was playing games. Still, the mother

felt she had shared a pleasant morning with her daughter, with no arguments.

        When they arrived at the hospital, George was already in the lobby, seated in a wheelchair, his two bags next to him.

        “Did they evict you?” Sissy asked.

        “No. I wanted to get up and get going, and somebody was ready to move in, so I moved out. The wheelchair’s just hospital policy. I feel tee-rific.”

        Sissy went to the business office to confirm that

an itemized list of costs would be mailed to her as well as

their insurance company. When she returned to the lobby, she was astonished to see George with a loudly giggling Buffy on his lap. He was twirling and running the wheelchair, his plastered arm and violated chest seemingly oblivious.

        “What the hell are you doing?” Sissy yelled.

        “Taking Buffy for a spin!” His daughter was laughing so hard she was spluttering, her arm clutching her father’s shoulder.

        “You’re wearing a skirt, Belinda. Every guy in the place is getting a free show,” Sissy said.

        “Lucky guys!” said George. Buffy convulsed again, trying to cross her legs and pulling down her skirt.

        “We’re leaving,” said Sissy sharply.

        As they packed up one of their two SUVs and helped the patient from the wheelchair into the vehicle, a nurse in greens and a cartoon character smock ran out to them.

        “I forgot to pack your book, George! My fault –sorry!”

        “Don’t be sorry, Dear Prudence,“ George said.

        Sissy intercepted the battered hard cover that looked like something bought at a yard sale. Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. She had a vague recollection of the name — a priest or mystic? — and an early, bad death.

        “Where’d you get this?”

        “A Catholic priest visited, and he had it with him and gave it to me.”

        “Just like that?”

        “Yeah.”

        Sissy slid the door closed on her husband holding his book, and her daughter already tooling her BlackBerry, and slipped behind the wheel.

        “’Dear Prudence’,” said George from the backseat. “Remember that Beatles song from the White Album?”

        George had a tin ear and no interest in music. Sissy was aware of an uneasy feeling.

 

God’s Grace

 

        When George got home, he was so animated he made Sissy nervous.

        “George, that lung has knit itself back to your rib-cage, and the doctors said you need to take it easy. No sudden moves or heavy lifting or golf or tennis or anything.”

        “I understand.”

        “Good. I want you moving like you’re made out of blown glass for the next few weeks. No stress, either. Got that?”

        “Cecelia, I feel completely at peace.”

        “Really? Why is that?”

        “I know why.” He had an expression like a boy hiding a frog.

        “Why, George?”       

        “God’s grace.”

        She stared for a moment, and heard herself say, “Huh?”

        “I have a lot to explain, Pumpkin-Butt, and I’ll be happy to do it. But first I want to sit in the Jacuzzi for a nice hot soak. Join me?”

        Sissy declined, and when George left the room she pulled her phone from her purse and called the hospital.

        The receptionist was unable to connect her to any of George’s doctors, but managed to track down a physician’s assistant familiar with his case. She waited while the P.A. retrieved his file. When she returned, Sissy asked, “What are the drugs prescribed for my husband?”

        “Let’s see.” Pause. “Just Percocet. He can take Tylenol with codeine if he wants. Is he in pain?”

        “Was he given anything unusual while he was in there?”

        “Unusual? No. A Morphine derivative, Benzotriazipan, Sevoflurane with nitrous oxide – “

        “Anything that would make him act weird?”

        “Shouldn’t, no. How weird is he acting?”

        “He’s not quite himself.”

        “Mood swings? Suicidal or violent?”

        “No.”

        “Then let’s put it down to the trauma of the accident and the shock of the concussion and collapsed lung.”

        Sissy was standing in the kitchen and watched George through the sliding glass doors. He had emerged from the first floor guest room, his white, hairless buttocks a vivid contrast to his tanned limbs and torso. He strolled nonchalantly across the deck toward the hot tub. He carried no towel or swimsuit, and was presumably in full view of the neighbors and his children, if any cared to look.

        “Okay,” said Sissy. “Let’s do that.”