Authors: Sally Mandel
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition September 2013
The damp December chill penetrated Sharlie's sheepskin coat. Her gloves were too short, and she yanked at her sleeves trying to cover the chapped red circles around her wrists. The last bus in the uptown caravan had just hissed to a stop at the corner, but she resisted the impulse to run for it. That faint jingling sound she heard was probably the Salvation Army band over on Fifth Avenue, but since her attacks sometimes began with bells, she stood still, watching forlornly as the bus slammed shut its doors and roared up Madison Avenue.
One kneesock had slipped down inside her boot and rode painfully against her ankle. She bent over to fix it, sleet trickling down the back of her neck. Sharlie's mother despised kneesocks. After all, she said, a twenty-six-year-old woman isn't a cheerleader anymore, not that Sharlie ever could have been one.
Suddenly the cold and her own bleak exhaustion overwhelmed her. She was going to be late for dinner anyway, and if there had to be a scene, she might as well rest in preparation. She peered downtown past the brightly decorated windows. It was hard to tell without her glasses, but none of the blurry shapes appeared to be a bus. She picked up her soggy shopping bags, hoping they'd hold together until she got home, and entered the steamy warmth of a coffee shop on the corner of Fifty-third Street. No coffee. No tea. Too dangerous, all that caffeine upsetting the careful balance of chemicals in her bloodstream. She ordered a hot chocolate and settled the packages under the counter, remembering her father's admonition about leaving things behind in restaurants. She put one foot on either side of the shopping bags and took mental inventory of her purchases: a book on maritime art for her father, which he would leaf through once and display in his office; a pair of opera glasses for her mother (Sharlie had left the old ones on her seat after
and since these were really a replacement and not a gift, a long silk robe, rose and silver, which would look wonderful on Mother. Everything did, with her long, graceful body. For herself, she'd bought a pair of furry slippers, hoping they'd ease what she called the blue-feet syndrome. Cold feet, warm heart. Sick heart.
The waitress brought the hot chocolate, and as Sharlie cupped the mug with her hands, warming her fingers and enjoying the rich, sweet steam in her face, she tried to picture herself in her mother's new robe. She grimaced, imagining her feet catching in the silvery folds to send her sprawling in an unladylike heap on the Oriental rug. Mother, on the other hand, would look chic in overalls and orthopedic shoes, though of course she'd never be caught dead in such things. And I, Sharlie thought, in the most expensive basic black little number somehow always end up ripping the dry-cleaner tag off my sleeve after an evening at the opera. Even so, it wasn't that she didn't have the proper lean lines. It was just that they bent in the wrong directionsâelbows, knees, all the angles sticking out like those accordion measuring sticks that open into zigzags.
Sharlie sighed, took a sip of her hot chocolate, and wondered if the habit of losing things was an unconscious impulse to leave some kind of impression, a legacy that said, I Was Here Once.
Suddenly she looked up, startled, holding herself very still. There had been a sound, and this time it was definitely not the Salvation Army tambourines. A menacing, discordant jangling, all too familiar, clamored in her ears. She struggled against the rising panic, trying to quiet the uneven hammering in her chest. She exhaled slowly, leaning on her elbows and letting her body slump toward the counter. She gazed down into the soft swirls of warm chocolate, concentrating on them and excluding everything else from her mind. Hot chocolate.
What Hot Chocolate Means to Me, by Charlotte Converse. Hot chocolate means a warm drink before bed when the sheets are going to be cold. Hot chocolate means steamy comfort after a January outing of skating in the park.
â¦ No, she thought. Forget the fiction, that's risky. No skating for Sharlie, never was, never will be, world without end, ah-ah-men, ah-ah-men. The color, concentrate on the color.
After a moment the frantic clatter under her rib cage quieted. She squinted at her watch and imagined her parents sitting like statues in the living room, martinis sticking out of their hands, the clocks ticking away inside their heads. Her father would be furious, she thought, but at least he wouldn't worry.
She's perfectly all right, Margaret. She's only lost track of time or gotten on the wrong bus. Why in God's name can't she take a cab? I always tell her â¦
She says she likes the human contact,
her mother would say with a shudder, imagining all those warm bodies pressed against one another.
And they did feel good, Sharlie thought, as ten minutes later she stood, crushed upright in the bus full of shoppers. Warm and secure, she swayed with the lurching stop-and-go motion, sweating in the stifling heat. She surveyed the other passengers, particularly enjoying the black lady with the ferocious face and the bush of hair that circled her head like an electrified halo. Sharlie imagined the feel of it, soft and yet assertive.
Suddenly there was blackness all around her. She closed her eyes, held her breath, and opened them again, but it was still there, the dark that wasn't really dark because it was so alive with bursting, brilliant flashes. No ambiguous ringing this timeâinstead the ominous thud from deep inside her chest. The sweat she'd relished as evidence of shared humanity betrayed her now, turning cold. The empty thump sounded again, as if some vital piece of machinery had malfunctioned, abandoning its corresponding cog to knock away all by itself, beating against nothing, altering its rhythm in a bewildered attempt to catch up with its fellow gears.
She shut her eyes, speculating about the useless gelatin that seemed to have replaced her legs, grateful for the force of the other bodies packed against her, supporting her. A man's voice, gentle and far away, spoke from somewhere way above her head.
“Hey, are you all right?”
Her eyes refused to open, but with an effort she whispered, “The door â¦”
Her body squeezed through the crowd, the calm voice propelling it.
“Air for this lady. Let us through. Ring the bell, somebody.”
And as she was expelled out the door into the icy darkness, the ding of the bus bell grew louder until it blurred into a roar. She looked up at the face of the man who held her arm, tried to smile, murmured, “Sorry.”
Then she fell, Christmas lights swirling around her.
She woke to the monotonous clicking of the cardiac monitor machine. No bells, no roar, just the reassuring tick of her heart. She kept her eyes closed, letting her sense of smell come back to life next. She inhaled tentatively and breathed in the familiar aromasâdisinfectant, starched sheets, and, always, mashed potatoes and gravy. Saint Joe's. She moved her left hand gingerly, anticipating the stiff resistance of the IV tube.
Eyes still closed, she guessed she was on the eleventh floor, in either 1106 or 1108. Her father always insisted she have a private room with a view of the park. The light on the left side of her face seemed stronger, warmer, indicating that the window was on her leftâ1108, she thought, and opened her eyes.
She looked around the room, taking sardonic pleasure in her accuracy. Only an expert could discriminate among these impersonal cubicles, even with eyes wide open. It's so damn
in here, she groaned to herself. In my next life hospital rooms will be papered with soft lilac prints. There'll be squishy furniture and heavy old brass lamps. The dinner trays will exude aromas of garlic and peppers, and there must be tea cozies. The ones that look like roosters maybe.
Sharlie shifted her body, taking inventory. With the tiny movement her head swam, and she recognized the drifting sensation of Demerol. She would float on her cloud of relief for a little while, but soon the crushing pain would drag her down for the cruel hours until they could shove the needle in her arm again.
She wondered now, as she had before she even knew the words to ask the question: Whatever did I do? Whom did I offend? She had been born this way, after all, so whatever the crime, it must have occurred
Maybe there was a twin fetus in there and she'd strangled it with their umbilical cord. Prenatal fratricide? Sororicide? Or maybe she'd explored her unfinished body a bit too adventurously, poking half-formed fingers into places they weren't supposed to know about.
But the voice at the back of her head, the place where she first felt prickles when deeply moved by beauty or tenderness (and horror, too) said,
Nothing, Sharlie. You did nothing to deserve this. You have been ill-treated.
And she supposed that the twisting she felt in her stomach and the heat around her temples could be described as disembodied apocalyptic rage.
The pain was very bad now, and she'd been breathing slowly and deeply for an hour already, trying to survive it. Through a long inhalation she heard a rhythmic swish of white-stockinged things marching toward her door, and with exhausted relief she exhaled and looked up into the pink face of Mary MacDonald.
“What's new, Sharlie?”
“Just the same dull story. How about you?”
The nurse took Sharlie's wrist and started timing the weak little taps, ignoring the monitor in favor of human contact. Sharlie smiled at her and thought that in her next life she'd be a hospital administrator or a floor supervisor like Mary. That sturdy, corseted body deflected germs and anxieties like an immense lady buffalo galloping through a field of butterflies.
“I didn't think we'd see you for a while,” Mary said. “What'd you do, climb the World Trade Center?”
“What's the fun in that?” Sharlie said weakly. “Everybody's doing it.”
And for the first time, she searched her memory for the events that had put her there. There were lots of lights, she thought, and it was hot. No, cold. She shook her head, remembering a man's voice, a tall, gentle presence.
Mary put Sharlie's wrist down and reached out to stroke her hair. The nurse's hand was warm and round and soft.
Sharlie closed her eyes. “Don't be nice to me, Mary, or I'll fall apart right now.”
Instantly the hand stilled, lifted away, and with an abrupt pat on the arm, Mary said, “Okay, kiddo. I'll send Rodriguez in with your shot.”
Sharlie squeezed her eyes shut tightly, then relaxed her facial muscles and thought about blue sky. No clouds, no smog. Blue sky that went on forever. Gradually she felt herself being drawn into it, and soon she was asleep.
Margaret Converse stepped off the elevator onto the eleventh floor. She unbuttoned her trench coat and let it fall open, revealing a rich fur lining. In her arms she carried a large bouquet of yellow roses, and she glided down the hall, head high, like a well-rehearsed but aging Miss America.
Grace under duress, Margaret thought, conscious of shoulder aligned with hip, legs swinging relaxed, just as Miss Newhouse had trained them in that soft southern voice, 'way back when. Duress to Miss Newhouse, however, meant showing up at a benefit in the same gown as the hostess. Not this incessant confrontation with death.
Margaret's eyes, frightened shiny circles in the smooth face, darted here and there, seeking someone in authority. Heaven knows hospitals could be intimidating places, she thought, but thank God for Saint Joseph's. Of it all, she most dreaded the weeks when Sharlie recuperated at home where there was no one to make complicated on-the-spot decisions. Except for Walter, of course, but eventually he went off to the office and left her alone with his lists of instructions and the memory of his face filled with mistrust and apprehension.
She stood hesitating near the reception desk when Mary MacDonald suddenly appeared from a doorway down the hall and swished toward her, carrying an aluminum basin. She nodded curtly and marched past. Margaret's stomach muscles tightened with familiar reticence, but she gathered her courage and called after the nurse.
“Uh â¦ Nurse MacDonald. I wonder â¦ could you â¦?”
Mary glanced over her shoulder, eyebrows raised in polite irritation.
“Charlotte â¦” Margaret stumbled on. “Which room this time? Has Dr. Diller â¦ ?”
“Eleven-oh-eight. She's asleep, but you can go in and sit with her if you want.”
Margaret nodded at the nurse's retreating back and walked obediently toward Sharlie's room.
She looked down at her white-faced daughter and was overcome with the familiar sensation of helplessness and exasperation. Why hadn't they fixed her? Was it so much to ask in these days of space exploration and test-tube babies?
She averted her eyes from Sharlie's bed, uncomfortable with her own resentment. There was no call for ingratitude, she thought guiltily. Everyone at Saint Joe's was so kind, always helpful and solicitous. Why, Sharlie felt more at home here than she did in her own townhouse on Seventy-fifth Street Heaven knows she'd spent more time here than anywhere else, even including the trips abroad for rest cures.
She glanced at Sharlie again. That poor pinched face on the pillow. Margaret's jaw ached from clenching her teethâwhere
She started hunting around the room for a vase, checking in the bedside cabinet for one of those lumpy cardboard containers that were supposed to pass for china. Sure enough, there it was. She busied herself arranging the roses, then shut the curtain against the late afternoon light that came pouring through the window all brazen and cheerful as if there weren't a sick person anywhere in the world.
“Please leave it open.”
Margaret whirled, startled to see Sharlie regarding her with burning eyes. She had remarked to Walter once that their daughter's eyes must be like those of Joan of Arc or some other martyred religious fanatic. So strangeâhuge, an indefinable greenish gray, but very dark, and always gazing at you as if they knew something you didn't, something very important, like the origin of the universe. They made Margaret uncomfortable. Walter thought she was being ridiculous. Big eyes in a small face, he'd said.
Sharlie turned away now, but Margaret had seen the ripple in her forehead.
“Is there much pain now, darling?” she asked.
“How long until the next injection?”
“Don't know. I think it's only been an hour.”
Margaret patted Sharlie's hand, and the two women were silent for a moment.
“How did Daddy take it?” Sharlie murmured finally.
Margaret drew her hand away and fussed nervously with her hair.
“Oh, fine. I mean, of course, he's
“Of course not. He's concerned.”
Sharlie's mouth twisted up at the corners, and she deepened her voice. “âWhy the hell didn't she take a goddamn cab?'”
Margaret looked down at her lap.
“Well, dear,” she said quietly, “there's no reason to subject yourself to those wretched buses. It's intolerable for anybody, much less someone in your condition.”
“âAnd irresponsible, too,'” Sharlie said in the same hoarse parody.
She lay silent for a long time. Margaret thought she was asleep, and sat chastising herself for being harsh. But as she uncrossed her legs in preparation to get up, Sharlie whispered something. Margaret leaned down next to her daughter's face.
“What is it, darling?”
“I don't want to see him.”
“Your father? How can I â¦” Margaret began, but Sharlie had closed her eyes. After a moment she rose and went out into the hall to look for Walter. Before she actually set eyes on him, his penetrating voice informed her that he had arrived and was holding forth around the corner, at the nurse's station.
“â¦ you to page Diller,” Walter was saying. “He's not in surgery. I've been trying to reach him since last night. He'd damn well better not be on the golf course in Dorado Beach.”
There was silence for a moment, then the voice growled again. “I'll be here until eight. Find him.”
Margaret stood out of sight behind the corner, wondering how on earth to keep the proprietor of that bellow out of Sharlie's room. An orderly emerged from a nearby doorway, and Margaret pretended to be fixing the clasp of her handbag. The man's curiosity embarrassed her, so finally she lifted her head and walked down the hall. Walter caught sight of her just as the loudspeaker cracked and intoned, “Dr. Diller â¦ Dr. Carlton Diller.”
He strode toward her, tall and massive, his large square face set in what Margaret described as his Challenge Expression (Sharlie called it the hard-hat look, but only to Margaret, of course). Whatever anybody might say about Walter Converse, she thought, he's a reassuring man to have around in a crisis. But how in the world was she going to keep that hulking two hundred pounds of authority away from his own daughter?
“Hello, Margaret,” he said. He put his hand on her arm and, without slowing, propelled her toward Room 1108. “First day on the job, the kid at the desk.”
“Uh, Walter â¦ she's asleep, I think. Let's let her rest and come back in a little while.”
Walter said, “Hmm,” which meant that he hadn't heard her. “MacDonald around? Where the hell is everybody?”
Margaret stopped walking and plucked at his elbow. “I really need a cup of coffee.”
“Go ahead, then,” he said. “Take your time. I'll wait here for you.”
And he barged right in with Margaret following, trying to avoid Sharlie's accusing stare. Sharlie rarely complained and absolutely never lost her temper. But her eyesâsometimes it seemed as if they would burn up the world with their blazing fury.
Walter sat down next to the bed and took Sharlie's hand.
“Hi, Chuck. You hanging in there?”
“I'm getting Diller up here, and we'll take care of this thing, okay?”
Sharlie closed her eyes wearily. “Oh, Daddy â¦”
Walter inspected the room as he spoke. “Now, let's not have a discouraging word around here. We have not yet begun to fight.” He rose and walked to the window, closing the curtain with an emphatic whoosh. Margaret held out her hand in mute protest, but Walter sat down again, and neither Margaret nor Sharlie felt inclined to listen to his discourse on the evils of sunlight in the sickroomâall part of the Unstimulating Environment Theory, straight from the mouth of Walter's mother into his collection of proven scientific facts.
Two weeks ago Sharlie had dreamed that under all of that steely hair her father's head secreted a rectangular slot into which he could insert cassette tapes. The image pleased Sharlie, and she entertained herself by composing the tape library Walter would compile for himselfâselections from such luminaries as John Wayne, Ernest Hemingway, Anita Bryant, Billy Graham, but most often contributions from the wisdom of Christine Converse.
In her father's face Sharlie saw the old woman's jaw, the straight line of her mouth, disapproving as always. Sharlie and her mother had always dreaded grandmother Converse's visits; though, despite her anxiety, Sharlie had secretly enjoyed watching Walter snap to attention, trembling with eagerness to please the old harridan and never quite succeeding.
Christine Converse died when Sharlie was about ten years old. Walter had been crushed with a silent, black grief that lasted for nearly a year. Once, to her astonishment, Sharlie had heard her father's muffled sobs through the heavy mahogany door of his study.
After that Walter's devotion to his dead mother's doctrines became family ritual, until Sharlie could recite them word for wordâand often did, for Margaret's amusement Sharlie's grandmother had been tyrannical, bigoted, misinformed, but worst of all, terribly, excruciatingly boring. Sharlie found the resemblance between Christine and her only son a profoundly compelling argument against heredity.
Now Walter was gripping her hand, squeezing hard for emphasis. For a devotee of the Unstimulating Environment Theory, Sharlie agonized, this man could be ferociously stimulating.
“â¦ and no more screwing around with this chemical horseshit,” he was saying. (Not the Billy Graham tape, Sharlie thought gratefully.) “We're going to whip you into surgery and finish this up once and for all.”
“I don't want those tests again.”
“Look, Chuck, nobody likes tests, but if you have to do it, you have to do it. It'll be worth it, because this time you're going to get well. And you do want to get well more than anything.”
Margaret glanced at Sharlie's face and read the question there.
More than anything?
Walter squeezed his daughter's hand again.
“If you're determined to get better, you
Norman Vincent Peale, Sharlie decided, trying to keep her face averted. Walter reached out, hooked his big square finger around her chin, and turned her face to his. Taking note of the damp eyelashes, he shook his head.
“You can do it, Chuck. We're all counting on that fighting spirit.”
Margaret said softly, “She needs to rest, dear. There's been a lot of pain today.”
Walter patted Sharlie's hand and rose.
“Okay. I'll just see if I can track Diller down, and we'll get the old team into action.”
He and Margaret left the room, and Sharlie murmured bitterly to herself, “Rah rah rah. Sis boom bah.” But the final “bah” was more of a sob than anything else. With her parents' departure, another familiar visitor had entered. Sharlie called him Agony Jones. Unlike the occasional uncle or aunt, he remained a faithful companion and seemed unimpressed by hospital visiting schedules. His powerful presence filled the room now like a malevolent fog, pressing down on her chest until she felt she must be forced right through the mattress onto the floor and mashed like one of those ephemeral silverfish that disintegrate into dust at the touch of a careless toe. The cold sweat prickled the space above her lip, but her arms throbbed so acutely that she couldn't raise them to wipe her face.
Pain, pain, go away, come again some other day.
She lay very still, concentrating on blue sky, trying not to cry out like some animal in a trap, knowing that once she got started, the howling would never end.