The hospital is on top of a hill. Three stories of red brick, cement cornices and a black slate roof, all built before the Civil War. Bars on the first floor windows were added in the early seventies. It used to be a college for women, a place they could learn to be doctors, the first in the state. There are pictures in the lobby of early graduates in high collar black dresses, lined up on the balconies. Now it's a place to die that's affordable. Only the ivy climbing the south-facing wall has any life to it.
They moved him here in March, from his apartment. His cat had already been taken to the shelter, probably by his son. When I went to see about adopting it, they said it had been put down the day before. I'm glad I didn't promise to save it, only try. It was old and ready to die but still.
I can see his window three blocks away. Once it's there in sight my legs move quicker. The hill is a small one but he's at its top. Every time I climb it, I'm breathless.
While he sleeps, which is mostly all he does anymore, I spit-polish the wheelchair they gave him. I hate the fucking thing but my face reflected in its dented side panel is a solace, a confirmation of some blur or fracture long suspected.
For the most part, the nurses are kind. At first they looked at me strange but now they leave me alone. It's been at least a month, more than that, so maybe I count now as a fixture. It's good because I can't bear interrogation or probing. I don't think anybody else comes to visit. His son maybe on weekends, but I never see the car. I'd have to leave if I did. I think the staff are just happy that he has someone. So many people don't.
One of the nurses, Angela, has an asymmetric haircut, and green bracelets, interwoven baby's breath, tattooed on either wrist. We meet at the picnic table out back, the only place you're allowed to smoke. Watching men lay cement for a sidewalk, she says suddenly, My boyfriend does these big air-conditioning installation jobs. He's setting up a system on the Cape right now. He's going to be gone the rest of the week.
The sentences hang in the air between us.
It's Spring and I have yet to see a single tulip or daffodil. It's this part of the city maybe, or just a bad year for them, so cold and wet. He loves flowers even though he claims not to. The roses I bought him at the corner bodega are already wilting.
I don't know what to say to her, Angela. It feels like an invitation, all that information revealed in a rush. But I don't want to hurt anyone. Sex feels remote to me now, the wellness of my body compared to his a betrayal. Our relationship was always improbable. He wanted to be adored one last time. I wanted to be with a man, held and needed, in a way I wouldn't look back at after with shame or regret. Even at the beginning it was kind of over, the way you sometimes have to write the end so you can know where to start. Letting go . . . I was learning how too quickly, again.
Later, back in his room, I stare at the chalkboard on which nobody fills in the sentences "Today is—" and "The weather is—" and "My nurse is—." I could but don't. Instead, I stare at myself in the wheelchair. As demented as my face gets, I never forget who it is reflected there, all melted and liquescent. I read somewhere that Francis Bacon said the so-called Screaming Popes were motivated more by a desire to work with ecclesiastical purple than anything he held against the pontiffs. But the way Innocent X looks, as if he's facing Hell . . . I wonder about a man who takes pleasure in a decomposing face, his own or anyone else's.
He said once, when we knew the shape it would take, the end, You don't have to stay. I wouldn't. We always listened to old recordings of him playing piano at the Bishop's Lounge, the Red Curtain. Places now you only read about. There was a quality to those tapes despite the scratches, despite the decay. With him was always like being in two places at once—here and where he'd been happiest, most productive. You should have seen me back in the day, he would say, his voice a scratchy whisper. You should have seen me back when.
When nobody else is in the room I hold his hand. It's cool and dry like newspaper. I trace the riddled blue veins on its back, turn it over for the love line, life line, in the palm. They're gorges beneath my forefinger, creases signifying what he held closely, what hid loosely in his fist. Fingers that drew such sweet discord from the piano now so bent and gnarled. He had boxes of tapes, pictures, and news clippings that his son took. I don't know where they are now, stored or thrown away.
When I hear footsteps I lean back, let go.
When Angela comes to check his vitals I say, not looking at her, Can I give you a ride home?
At some point, the doctors discovered that when he heard certain kinds of music, he would become highly animated. His arms would windmill until somebody either turned it off or gave him a pencil. Then he would grow quiet and for hour after hour mark up paper with tiny proportional lines. The staff didn't understand the code—what music tripped him, what need and longing it set loose. One of the doctors said to me, What do you think they are? Handing me one of the pages. This doctor wore glasses he kept pushing up his nose, even though they weren't falling. I glanced down—it was Pachelbel I think, one of the Magnificat fugues, slightly altered. He loved Baroque, unfolding it into almost everything he played. But I was wary of answering the doctor, of showing my familiarity that way. They didn't know who they had. Was I going to tell them, who wanted the music to be our secret as long as possible? You can't be too careful. I said I didn't know. You could tell by how the doctor smiled, hardly showing any teeth, that he didn't believe me.
It was days before I felt safe enough to come back.
Angela gives me directions to her place while we drive. I roll the windows down because otherwise the car smells like wet cigarettes. There's duct tape on the passenger-side seat, holding down the red leather. She says over the wind, Can we go the long way? Holding her hair away from her mouth. We could be in a movie, I think. We can go anyway you want, I shout back.
Angela lives in one of the trailer parks outside the city. As we wind deeper into it, all she does is point. Turn here, turn up there. When we stop at hers, dented with green trim, she asks do I want to come in. I don't know what I want, is what I can't quite bring myself to say.
We get out and smoke on the hood, watching the city shimmer in the distance. I keep smelling the sea or thinking I do. How far away is the Cape, I want to ask but don't.
After a while I put the car radio on. Tom Petty is singing "Refugee." I saw him play once in Saratoga and couldn't believe how short he was. I ask Angela to dance and we sway beneath a pine tree I can tell is dead by the color. We sort of touch but not really. Mostly our bodies graze above our waists. Tom Petty turns into Chrissie Hynde singing "Precious."
The screen door to her trailer pushes open and an old dog waddles out. It's beagle-colored, more belly than leg, and flops down beneath my car. It pants, as if just watching us is exhausting. When we're done, I'm tired, too. Angela asks again do I want to come in, but the dance has taken something out of both of us. Next time, I say. But there isn't always, I know that now.
Nights I listen to Randy Rhoads on the Ozzy records, sometimes slowing them to 16 rpm so I can hear all the notes. People think he was just fast, that only, and he was, but it was more than that. It's never just how much speed you can bring, but how you pitch the notes, lay them up against each other. The mode is the many folds. It matters to me, understanding where the music in him started, how he found a way to let it out.
I'll break your heart, he warned. It won't be pretty.
Sometimes, in the hospital, when I think he can hear me, I talk about Randy Rhoads—how he died, how the airplane was the same make and model as the one Buddy Holly crashed in. I have a hard time separating history from loss, mine or anyone else's. I never said much about my music or asked him ever would he listen to it. I said yes a lot, or okay. Or it will be okay. He always slept badly, getting up for the bathroom or to look at the clock. I showed him a picture of Randy Rhoads once and he said, He looks like a girl. And he did, a pretty one.
When I'm not listening to the records, I transcribe his solos. I have mixed feelings. Writing them down the way I do, note for note, isn't easy. It was at first a way to get closer. But the nearer I get to him, the farther away he becomes, like a reflection you can see but not touch. And I know then that I'm not reaching for music, but for a man that I can't, couldn't ever, have.
I pick up my guitar then, even though it means getting lost. I make notes about chord progressions, melodies that could reel across them, scales that might gather in blistering seams. My thoughts become so dense and tangled that I lose them altogether. If I can sleep, I do. If I can't, I go to the hospital. That's the only place I want to be now anyway. Thank God I found him.
One day Angela tells me she's broken up with her boyfriend, the one who works on the Cape. That afternoon we make love on the pull-out couch she uses for a bed. Desire confuses me, mine or anybody else's, but my body responds as if just because. What I want and what it takes, or will accept, blurs in those moments when I touch her skin, bend to the well of her thighs.
Angela lifts her chin and whispers, Oh. Her hands tighten on my shoulders. When I come I close my eyes as if scared of what I'll see. After, I sit by the window looking out at the dim porch lights of the nearby trailers. I can't sleep. I can't believe I'm here, and who is here with me.
One day, when I arrive at the hospital, Angela meets me at the elevator. It's mid-morning, later than usual, and she pulls me aside to say, He's getting worse. When I rush into the room all the doctors are there and make me sit. I can only see bits of him through the wall of their bodies. They have clipboards, taking notes. Is this man your uncle, they ask.
I don't know how to answer.
Did you tell the nurses this man was your uncle, they ask.
I can't remember what I said. My hands start shaking and I want to sit on them but they'll notice.
Are you related to this man? When I don't answer, they tell me to stay where I am. Someone call the son, one of them says. They go into the hall, talking all at once. I want his eyes to open, but they don't. I kiss him fast a last time, tasting what must be the meds they gave him earlier, the apple juice to wash them down. His skin is softer than you'd think. This business of recognizing who you love and who loves you . . . I can't, I never do.
I slip away through the crowd of doctors and nurses, the cloud of their rising voices. Down the stairs, into the parking lot. I walk around for hours while the sun sets. Angela finds me on a back street, smoking, still trying to keep my hands from shaking. Who was he? Who was he really? I don't answer her. I can't. It doesn't matter the way I thought it did, or wanted it to. It's okay, she says. It will be okay. All I can think is that if I look up, I'll see his window a last time. But I don't, until it's too late.
That old beagle mix watches us every time we make love. You can't tell him to go away because where would he? After, when he and Angela are asleep, I pace around the trailer. She collects ceramic angels and I like to move them around, pretending they prefer this view to another. Maybe they do.
Sometimes I put the records on—Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman—and drink. I don't play guitar anymore. When Randy Rhoads died, they had to identify his body by the jewelry that he wore. Writing down his solos so long the way I did was a kind of cartography. There are all these shapes my body will assume so what is it, am I, really? Note after note, bar after bar, until at last an opening appeared. You have to want a way out, no matter how much you miss him.