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Peer Work

Home  >  Peer Work
The Rose Arbor
By Martin Palmer
Genre: Fiction Level: Adult
Year: 2006 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

Lying in bed, he had been contemplating the pooling early light and examining the old photographs, all family, hanging on the west wall of his bedroom when the telephone rang.

"Yes?"

"That check you gimme. There won't enough money to..." the whining tone was more than he wanted to hear at that hour. "Resubmit it," he cut in, hanging up. What could he do about a check on Sunday?

Knees. Trying to straighten them out enough to get to the toilet to relieve a pressing bladder defined every rising. Time to feed the dog and cat. Time to shuffle outside in the morning dusk so that the dog could piss and poop and he could pick up the morning paper. All through the fading winter he had stoically gone out no matter what the temperature to train her away from the puppy pads. It was working. Bowser the cat was bigger than Martine the poodle, but with her black Astrakhan pelt she was impervious to winter cold and summer clusters of mosquitos, pulling the leash in her stumpy, rocking little gait like one of the lesbian pilots at the Talkeetna airfield..

With the aid of a 2 mgm lorazepam pill he slept fitfully most nights and woke at 5 to his established routine. Deviations annoyed him. If he spilled a pill on the floor, the dog ran to smell it, guiding him to it; he couldn't see it half the time. Fuzzy pills turned up when he swept under the fridge or under the wine rack. He swallowed them anyway. So what if they were old. Prescriptions cost too much to throw them away.

If the dog didn't go, he had to reset his plans. This morning she did, and peed too, saving a pad. The telephone call was annoyance enough already. The day was chilly but might be clear. His knees ached. His legs ached. His back ached. His shoulders ached. He shuffled crab-like to the toilet and squeezed out a faltering stream of urine, tightening his detrusor muscles to help empty his bladder. He farted flabbily. It was hard to control them now. He remembered giggling as a child at some of the old women and old men who razzed loudly and just kept on talking.

He emptied the cat box, sifting turds into the toilet. This morning was a six turder. Bowser had eaten well, as always. The puppy pads were clear. His training was showing results. All that wobbly walking in all weathers up and down the dirt road in front of his house, sometimes leaning against Valley windstorms that whooped, tearing at his clothes and whomping him in the back like a manic Shriner on parade. But on certain crystal winter nights the stars crowded the black velvet sky like jewels scattered from a burst bag.

He oriented himself by Orion, trailing the largest jewel as he plunged prone. On other nights, usually late, auroras raced and flared across the sky in icy greens and yellows, or hung pulsing with bursting nodes of yellow lights moving acoss its swaying curtains.
Knees cracking and needling, he fixed his invariable breakfast of sliced banana, Quark--a special yogurt he picked up in town from New Sagaya--and grapefruit slices, all mashed together, orange juice he sqeezed on a rickety plastic hand sqeezer he'd had for years. Sometimes he ground coffee, but if his stomach burned he fixed Keemun tea. Tea today. His indifferent appetite kept his weight below 140--same value as his last cholesterol. Then the NPR news and the Anchorage Daily News.

On the door of a closet he had taped photos from the paper of coffins returning from Iraq; an anguished U.S. soldier kneeling by a fallen comrade's helmet, the rifle stuck bayonet down in th ground, tears plainly visible on his cheeks; a woman, slender white hand against her neck, gazing down at her baby killed by Chechen Islamists; a family clenched in grief, folded flag on the father's lap as the son's coffin was lowered ino the grave; a screaming man peppered with shrapnel in a littered Baghdad street. And more. Periodically some whining airhead, usually female, wrote a letter of protest to the newspaper for printing such photos. He nodded when he read a hard, furious letter from a man who pointed out that the whiners elected a president who started the war that produced such photos. What the hell did they expect? So get used to it. He'd quote bulgy-eyed, crusty old George V, limited even for a Windsor, on things foreign, especially fitting for Arabs: "Away is bloody." Then he'd laugh into a coughing fit. How he loathed them. All of them. And anyone else who was Muslim. He wished he could buy a hundred rolls of Charmin with suras printed on every square. Christianity was trouble enough. Let us prey.

Appointment with Dr. Beiler at 10. She was to do both colonoscopy and gastroscopy next week (he told a credulous acquaintance that sometimes the scopes crashed into each other in that netherworld, sending glass shards all up and down throat, stomach, intestines). He was a new patient and she had to check him out first. After clicking off the frothy inanities of morning TV (who was JLo? He'd never heard of either), he showered, glued in both bridges with Fixodent after they'd soaked in dish-watery Efferdent all night, and sat on the bed. He sighed.

He reached over and unhooked his favorite photograph and held it up, studying it closely. The black and white photograph was studded riotously with roses, roses, roses, making a white scattered constellation over the arbor and its picket fence and gate near the right lower corner. Aunt Mary Meginniss, who lived next door, stood in her long black skirt, white blouse, and one of her wide brimmed straws (her big hats quivered gently as she sat at the organ in St John's Episcopal Church leading the choir--he was a choirboy--in a vespers hymn he liked, "Now the day is o-o-o-ver, night is drawing nigh--igh, shadows of the e-e-evniing steal across the sky..." and sang). His mother, a tiny woman wearing a white summer blouse with lace around the sleeves and her white long skirt, smiled as she held up a branch of the Belle du Portugal arbor roses, so fragrant and abundant in the summer air. How lovely the picture was. He heard Aunt Mary again, laughing at how she and Celie, his mother and Aunt Mary's best friend, would collapse laughing, Aunt Mary's fingers still on the piano keys, Mother's violin bow tapping the piano stool, as they prepared to repeat the passage from a Brahms duo they had foundered on.

The picture always brought peace. Love and peace and so long ago a brightness. 1915. He didn't come along until 1927.For him, that era had a glow that he could summon up when he played a CD of Ravel's shimmering "La mere de l'Oye" with its echo of horns so distant and nostalgic that they came straight from that era. That glorious arbor had been destroyed when he was a child; when the Meginniss house was demolished for a Standard Oil filling station. He rubbed his forefinger over his mother's white summer dress and then, slowly, over the roses. Fragrance took him back; he remembered it. His back ached. He had to get up.

He had never known her. Mother. She died of a puerperal infection when he was two weeks old. His older sister, who was 11 then, had described her fever, her delirium washing into calm periods. Putting a bunch of violets, her favorite flower, on a burning palm. She knew she was dying; they all did. Papa. Uncle Charlie Ausley had delivered him. Fatally. What must his mother have thought, leaving a newborn baby? Mag, her black nurse and nanny, would tell him of their anxiety and their grief, her voice segueing into the singsong cadence of an epic. "We was so busy with your po' mama, so busy trying... Den I said, Oh, Lord, I forgot my baby, forgot to feed my baby! And you was blue! Yes sir, blue! Mama Sudie was so cross with us. Cross with herself she was. But we was all so sad. So sad..." He would shiver with woe and snuggle more firmly against her, his fortress against want.

He developed a duodenal ulcer when was an intern at Charity Hospital. In those days, all ulcers were caused by stress and the stressed were bloated and belching and constipated with cream and milk on the Sippy Diet. Uh-oh. The next step was the talking cure. The psychiatrist, Dr Friedman (at $15 an hour), took his cigar out of his mouth to pronounce that it all began then. Martin was fixated on men because he tried to be her, his mother. He would fix that. But the analysand had to want fixing. Freud was Dr Friedman's Torah and Kabbalah. Amen. But Martin went right on lowering his door key on a string from his gallery overlooking Royal Street, hauling in likely catches who had wandered down from the Bourbon Street bars.

As he tightened his belt he suddenly remembered going with Mama Sudie into the narrow, shelf-lined pantry, wood-lidded flour and grain bins at the far end; he must have been four or five. On the shelves along with other cans and jars, some brought in by country patients labelled "pere cain sirrup," were Mason jars filled with fig preserves put up by Mother before she died. Papa kept them until he was forced to throw the moldy mess out. He had never been able since then to slake his need to eat his fill of home-made fig preserves. No one makes them anymore. A niece might now and then. Those were from the thick-boled old trees in the lower garden, loaded with clusters of sweet ripe figs. Their low, almost horizontal limbs were fun to climb in, the sticky white sap staining clothes where branches broke.

Squirrels, rats and birds, especially blue jays, loved them too, drilling the fruit with deep holes from sharp beaks. Robbers. "Deeds! Deeds! Deeds!" they cried, streaking away, white-barred blue wings flashing. Was he really 79 now? Who then would have believed it? He could hardly believe it now. He touched the photograph once more then turned away to dress, groaning as he bent his knee to pull up a sock. Why were inanimate things so hard to manage?

He considered his appointment the day before with his cardiologist, Dr Bleibtreu, who announced that the aortic stenosis (he refused to call it "his") had narrowed to 9 millimeters from the normal 3 centimeters. Surgery, said Dr B., could wait till he started having syncopes. "Syncopes!" he exclaimed. "What if...driving?" A faint then? He was really alarmed. "No," Bleibtreu answered, "it'll happen only with exertion. Or stress." Right in the middle of sex, then? No way!

And he might as well tell him now, he thought, "Murray, in the evening a few tokes help with this damned neuropathy. Will that make it worse?"

Bleibtreu laughed, "Prolly not, but don't tell that to your other docs. Hell, I toked my way through med school. See ya in six weeks."

Well, at least he might live through the summer, Might even get to McCarthy in September, his favorite spot and season. Time to start for his appointment with Dr. Bellew. She scheduled the gastroscopy and colonoscopy for the 9th but wanted to see him today. Chitchat first in her consulting room; he sat on the examining table, shirt off. She put her stethoscope on his chest after rubbing the bell briskly to warm it a little.

"That is a murmur," she murmured. They all said that.

At Hopkins they learned the gamut of murmurs, long before echocardiograms and computerized cardiography made such learning quaintly archaic. He remembered patients with aortic problems, their murmurs grinding away like machines behind their ribs, legs swollen, lungs soggy, moving inexorably into congestive failure, panting like dogs in August heat. His murmur--he laughed to himself: his murmur!--he had steadfastly refused to listen to it, even when he was alone. He wanted no confirmation, nothing to do with it. The slouching beast of mortality dragging its feet through his thorax. No; leave it where it was; at least it wasn't in his head yet.

She listened to his lungs then moved the stethoscope bell to the base of his neck, then to the other side. "No thrill. Yet," she added. Now she bent slightly and put the bell at the 5th intercostal space just left of his sternum and stood listening intently for about 20 seconds. "Here." she said taking the earpieces out of her ears and quickly fitting them into his ears before he could turn away. There it was. His heart sank. it was not a metaphor. "So here it is at last, the distinguished thing!" Henry James wrote to Edith Wharton after experiencing his first stroke. Wrong, he thought. It's a machine. A damned machine. A threshing machine like the McCormick ones wheat famers got from the dealer. Expensive and efficient. Not human.

Dr. Bellew was talking, explaining the procedure, handing him a printed brochure and several prescriptions written on bright yellow paper from her pad. He looked at her. More precisely, through her, intently, hoping she thought he was listening. "Wal-Mart pharmacy has the whole outfit," she finished, turning back to her desk. "See you on Thursday. Finish every step" she smiled impersonally, pointing her pen for emphasis. He was dismissed.

Driving home down Swanson Avenue distracted, he tried to listen to NPR news. He passed an empty pocket park. Just outside its gate, on the sidewalk, a lone mallard hen tried to defend her single remaining duckling from a flock of screaming seagulls. One darted down at the duckling as the frantic mother beat her wings at him and pecked futilely. They will win. He turned away and sped up. "Nature, red in tooth and claw," he murmured. . Fixing his supper on the tray to carry to the living room, he felt something was wrong. As he sat on the sofa he looked at the plate and silver. Why did he put the fork and spoon on the left? He was obsessive about "correct things," such as this. He had never done this before. The ping of the stove when it finished cooking drew him to pick up his small quiche and salad. He reached for the spatula to lift the quiche to his plate then walked with it over to the fridge and opened the door. He slammed the door and stood looking at a magnetized photo of his last standard poodle, Allegra, so pretty and fluffy after a grooming, her expressive brown eyes. "God Bless the Palmer Household" was written across the top of the small flowered oval frame, a "gift" from an Indian Reservation priest soliciting money. He opened the fridge door again and lifted out his quiche, still on the spatula, to put it on his plate, which he'd meant to do in the first place. Don't go there, he told himself, thinking of these robotic moves. Dementia? Or just senior moment stupids.

He stepped outside with Martine on her leash. Time for her pee & poop run at 9:30. He wouldn't think about the winter yet. The evening was still in the light. He heard the snarling roar, the angry insect screams of motocross machines clear across the valley in the stillness. No fairy horns from Mother Goose, which was running through his head. They were in the peace of memory; memories that didn't even belong to him. Mosquitoes swarmed to the backs of his hands, busying him in smashing several at each swat. He didn't hear their whines. Delicate and elegant, they reminded him of early airplanes.

He shook some off his hand, not swatting them.They reproduced. And they must then have a libido too in brains the size of a period. An almost perfect ball of translucent midges vibrated in the slanting sun about a yard in front of him. What if he stepped right through them? Would they know? Might he be somewhere else then? Poor old thing, he mocked himself. P.O.T. Martine lunged at a glittering dragonfly perched swaying on a dandelion, pulling it forward. Those bugs, those spots, they communicate! The idea had never occurred to him. And they must mate too, then, he went on, not knowing where the hell he was going with this. And Listerine kills germs by the millions... but they just split. That didn't count. He felt relieved. He stubbed and slid sideways on some loose gravel, almost falling. He stood looking around him, swatting bugs again. Pioneer Peak rose to a point as sharp as the one on that insurance building in San Francisco and was still streaked with snow. It was dark purple. He heard the sandhill cranes in the marsh on the other side of the ridge trilling to each other as they roosted for the still sunlit evening. Where was I? he asked himself and shivered.

At the end of the road he and Martine entered a path leading into the woods. On his right he passed the trunks of four cottonwood trees, all from the same roots and so close together they almost rubbed bark off each other.

Why should he suddenly think this was some sort of sign? He passed twenty yards of aspens, birches, spruce, cottonwooods so thick they filtered the light. At their feet in moss were broad leaves and thick thorny stalks of devil's club. Against the moss were dwarf dogwood, each just one flower, exactly like the scores of flowers in the dogwood trees where he came from. Where he came from? Tiny purple flowers sprang on slender stems straight up from the mosses among hem. Were they wild orchids? He and his friend Lila, who liked exploring, found clusters of them in spring on their walks in the Eagle River Nature Center A hermit thrush's belled notes ending in a slurry of keys followed him through the wood.

As he stepped into the clearing he looked up to see the Isler house on the corner where no corner should be. It had existed thousands of miles from here and was demolished in 1944. He was standing in a dirt street, St Augustine Street, with no cars in sight. The light was brighter, as if it were noon. The heat was the heavy moistness so familiar to him as a child playing outside in the summers. He looked again. Yes, It was the Isler cottage.

On his block then, on Adams Street, running right in front of the capitol building, Papa's house--408 South Adams Street always, telephone 71--and yard took up half the city block. An old barn stood at the bottom of the yard gardens. Fig trees in the lower yard too; gardenia bushes along the driveway and Aunt Jetty camellias in the front yard extending to Adams Street under arching live oaks. The Meginniss's house and yard were next door, taking up the other quarter of the block. But that was so long ago! Yet there it all was.

He was suddenly so fatigued he swayed, almost letting go of Martine's leash. But he inhaled and like a filling balloon, with the air came strength again. He was unable even to ask himself a simple question. His thoughts seemed to have drained away. His brain felt as blank and fresh and moist as a mullet roe. He started walking toward a gate at the bottom of the Meginniss's yard. As he reached it, he could see his mother in her white summer gown with Aunt Mary in her wide straw, middy blouse and dark skirt, posing with the roses cascading over the fence and gate in fragrant masses. In front of them crouched a man under a black cloth apparently focusing the camera. He could see the old fashioned tripod.

Lucile Saxon Palmer turned, laughing to Mary Meginnis." Do you think we're poster material, two middle-aged married ladies?" She lowered the mass of roses and turned to the photographer."Thank you so much for coming over to do this, Mr. Adams," she said. "You're always so good. While the blooms last, I wanted a picture for the Doctor and Mary wanted one for Judge Meginniss. Could I get you some ice tea in this heat?"

Mr. Adams raised his head and began folding his equipment. "No, thank you, Mrs. Palmer. I have an appointment at the studio in 15 minutes." He picked up his large case and at the gate, turned and doffed his hat. "Good day ladies. These will be ready next Tuesday." He walked off toward his studio on Monroe Street.

"Oh, Mary, just smell these Belles du Portugal. They were in Mother's garden too. I've loved them ever since."

"Celie, dear, time for me to go and see that Lily is fixing Ben's dinner."

"And I have to feed Sarah Ball. She'll be six weeks tomorrow. Flourishing like the green bay tree."

"Is Henry coming upstairs to eat with you? Does he usually have patients now?

Lucile laughed. "If he does, he's likely to bring one or two along with him. Julia and Minerva know to set the table for five or six of us. Bryan is home from V.M I. for the summer and might show up."

Both turned to see a man standing at the gate holding a leash. The dog wasn't visible. He was a stranger who looked to be in his fifties or sixties, red hair sprinkled with gray cut almost to his scalp, dressed oddly in a sweatshirt and sweat pants in this sweaty weather. He had a strange expression on his face, a fixed stare.

Feeling a bit anxious and puzzled at the sight of this stranger, Lucile, always courteous, said, "Are you admiring our lovely arbor, sir? The roses are Belle du Portugal, so fragrant. Please join us and enjoy them. We've just been photographed with the blooms."

Mary glanced at her nervously. Lucile beckoned to the stranger. It was broad daylight, after all, and the servants and the Doctor's office were within calling distance. As he came through the gate and closed it behind him the women saw the small black dog at the end of the leash.

"Oh, how cute!" Lucile exclaimed, relieved to have something to talk about to the stranger. "What's its name?"

"What a lovely curly coat," said Mary, "Just like astrakhan. What breed is it?" Both women half kneeled and reached out to Martine, who held back.

"She's a miniature poodle," answered the man, trying to keep the small dog from wrapping the leash around his ankles. "But I'm afraid she's not well-socialized." The stranger reached Lucile's small hand and guided it near Martine's nose. She let Lucile touch her. At this the man's expression was unreadable. As he held Lucile's hand he was blinking rapidly. She saw that his eyes were filling with tears. "Oh," he said, "there must be pollen all about. I get instant hay/fever. Please excuse me."

The women looked politely concerned at this news, murmuring, "What a shame" and "How inconvenient, with all this loveliness..."

"No, no, no," he said, I grin and bear it. Your roses are gorgeous, and so fragrant. The scent must fill most of your block."

"Yes, it comes into the dining room up there." She pointed to the second story windows along the side of the house next door. "Sometimes when the breeze is right we can taste it, almost like ice cream, which my husband loves." She looked at him. "You're perspiring in this heat. Can I send for some ice tea? I'll just call Julia in the kitchen at the top of those steps." She turned.

"Oh, no ma'am. Please don't go to the trouble. We were walking. I'm cooling right now." He mopped his forehead with the butt of his palm. "My name is Martin," he added.

"Are you related to George and Newell? The drugstore on Monroe, near Burdines."

He hesitated a moment, noticing the port wine stain high on Lucile's forehead, which she covered with a curling strand of auburn hair. How tiny she was; barely five feet tall, he estimated. He was only five five and he could look down at her. "Yes ma'am. I'm," he hesitated, "a cousin." They looked reassured, and their smiles were friendlier." I'm here from Orlando."

"What a lovely town," said Lucile. "All those lakes and gardens and big oaks. I went there to a medical meeting with my husband." She was making easy conversation, a small, perfect skill that Southern ladies seem to absorb from birth. "I read recently that now, in 1916, it has grown to 35,000. Imagine that. The state, they say, is growing in all directions. Why Tallahasse is already 15,000. Ten years ago it was barely two thirds that." She reached up to take the small gold chatelaine watch pinned to her lawn collar and turned its face up. "Oh, my goodness, it's almost one. I have to feed my baby and see to the Doctor's dinner too. I don't ever know how many friends he will bring along for meals. Sometimes right off the street when he meets them going to the Piggly Wiggly or stopping by the M & N for coffee. He does all the shopping."

Suddenly a loud chorus of "pot-trac! pot-trac" erupted from behind the fence. "We keep guinea fowl, and they tend to be loud birds," Lucile explained. "And our Muscovy ducks, Rhode Island reds, and the pigeon cote in the barn too. My husband loves squabs and Julia makes divine chicken salad"

They had wandered down a brick path as they talked. Martin bent over one spot and inhaled. "Violets!" he exclaimed. "How big and fragrant yours are. My favorites. Just one bunch can perfume a room."

"Yes, indeed," Mary agreed." They're Celie's favorite too. I always think of her when I smell them. Her violet beds are much better than mine. She has the proverbial green thumb. Hers are on the other side of the house."

Martin stood, silent and apparently remembering something. "Thank you, ladies," he finally said. "Thank you so much for sharing this lovely garden with me. I'll smell those roses in my dreams."

Why, how poetic," Mary smiled. She picked a branch of the blloms and buds, handing it to Lucile. "Here, Celie, give these to Mr. Martin to remember us by"

"What a good idea," Lucile smiled as she took the thick end. "Ouch! Look, Mary, I've pricked myself and there's a drop of blood. Let me get something to wipe it..."

"No!" cried Mr. Martin, taking it from her hand. "I'll do it later. I forgot the time in such pleasant company. I must fly or I'll hold up the Martins. We're going to lunch at the Dutch Kitchen just down the street, and I'm late."

You'll enjoy their food," called Lucile as he opened the gate to leave. "Tell George and Newell how much we enjoyed meeting you, and give our regards to Mrs. Stewart at the Dutch Kitchen." Mr. Martin was already crossing the street, pulling Martine and carefully holding up the arch of roses. "Goodbye, and thank you again," he called, not looking back.

In the small clearing where he found himself standing, swatting away mosquitoes, Martin looked around. Birch and alders, aspen and poplars, spruce and swamp willow, devil's club and dwarf dogwood on the moss. The sun was lower but still bright. He looked at his watch: almost eleven. Martine's jerking, straining and pulling as she jumped at insects, forced him...back, if that was the right word to describe his feelings.

His old knees hurt, and he balanced unsteadily, clutching a dried, spiny stick of Devil's club he couldn't remember picking up. He examined it closely. It hadn't a single stain on its rugose, brittle stem. Throw it? Keep it? He'd put it under his magnifying reading glass when he got home. But for what?

The evening songs of a score more of hermit thrushes rang through the woods. The sweet uncontrolled wobbling song of a robin joined in. The ball of midges coalesced in front of him again. Does sweat attract them, he wondered. He was dripping and shivering at the same time. And he had to pee, too. My trabeculated old bladder must be the size of a walnut, he grumbled as he dripped on a cluster of dwarf dogwood. Lila and I once found a tiny stand of tiny wild orchids in a place like this, his mind wobbled away. Had he said that before? "Let's go home," he said to Martine, jerking her nose away from a large spider. "A bear might scarf both of us down in two minutes." Would they then have to bury the whole bear? Was he sinking into idiocy?

Later, as he lay in bed thinking, he couldn't bring himself to look at the photograph of the rose arbor. He had seen the whole thing in vivid, living detail. He had read in medical journals and texts and Oliver Sacks' books and anecdotal tales about people with brain tumors, usually parietal and temporal, who had vivid, complex, sustained waking dreams, or whatever that state was called.

Then he thought of the account of the two English ladies, teachers, who insisted that on a vacation visit to La Petite Trianon both together suddenly found themselves plainly observing Marie Antoinette and her court ladies engaged in a fete champetre. He couldn't remember whether the observed had seen or heard the observers. Lot of sceptical notoriety about that; years ago. Now just a weird anecdote. English spinsters. Frustrated, some said.

And then it was gone, he thought. What was he feeling? Might he cry? If I started, he told himself, I might never stop. His heart throbbed and he put his palm over where it was supposed to be. The thresher in the twilight wasn't palpable--yet. He sneezed twice. Allergy Valley, he called this place where he lived. The day had been hot, and he didn't like heat; it made him feel sick. Maybe that was what...No, it wasn't that. The TV news. Interchangeable blonde young women with long straight hair, Botoxed to the gills, voices like crows, segued blank-faced from car bombs in Baghdad to a bulgy-eyed woman who ran away at the altar to mobs in Seoul (there seemed to be mobs on tap in Seoul for every occasion) to Brad Pitt humping Angelina Jolie to the swaggering mince of the President approaching his podium in the rose garden. To lie about the war some more, he surmised. The eerie twilight of an Alaskan summer midnight had settled down over everything and a cooling breeze made the round aspen leave jiggle madly like green pocket change.

Why couldn't he fall asleep? Martine had settled herself on the pile of pillows opposite his head and would topple off during the night Bowser crept across his stomach to gather himself in and reach his cheek with a velvet paw. His purring was barely audible. Martin groaned, got up, went to the drug drawer in the kitchen and swallowed a lorazepam with a mouthful of Nancy's Honey Yoghurt.

"Oh Lord, protect us all the day long until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed and the fever of life is over...." His favorite from the Book of Common Prayer, for the old pagan.

Will I die tonight? Is that what it meant? I'm already two years past the actuarial tables.

He got up, took a blue bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream Sherry out of the cabinet and poured himself an aperitif glass full. His hands shook, spilling the top part into the paper napkin hed wrapped around it.

Settling back in bed, he sipped the rest slowly. La viellesse, c'est un naufrage. De Gaulle was right. He put his CD of Kiri Te Kanawa singing Richard Strauss's Vier Letzte Lieder with Solti conducting.

He once told Fred Hillman he wanted Beim Schlafengehen played at his funeral--with the best sound system, of course, He loved it best. He had tried to translate the lyrics, a short, simple poem by Heine, a-b-a-b-a-b, many times because he thought the translation in the notes inadequate. But he was so emotionally involved with the words and the sublime musical setting that he was never successful, never satisfied.

As the music began in the dimming light, he finally glanced at the photograph of the rose arbor, now a blur. The music swelled, soared, around, through, above Te Kanawa's clear, beautiful soprano. Hands, leave off your busyness; brow, forget all thoughts....And my soul, unguarded, floats free, to live in night's magic circle, deeper a thousandfold...He was drifting, drifting off to sleep.

A breeze billowed the curtains above his pillow, dragging across his nose and he surfaced again. The descending whine of a mosquito filled the silence as it settled just above his ear. His heels were burning.

In the bright evening he pulled Martine's leash as they set of down the dusty gravel road on her pee and poop run, as he called it. He slapped the mosquitoes appearing in whining squadrons out of the tall damp grass. Martine liked its feel as she made her way through it like a sea otter through kelp. More clouds of mosquitoes rose behind her. A swarm of midges highlighted by the slanting light danced just before him, keeping together in a large ball as they vibrated. "They communicate!" he said aloud, having never thought of this before. Now it was obvious. They have a brain, that tiny? Well, of course. And he had killed them. And killed mosquitoes by the dozen as he walked. They reminded him of the early airplanes, so charming, so elegant, so delicate. They mated, too. And he killed them. Listerine kills germs by the millions, something said to him. He was appalled. Then he remembered that germs only divided themselves, so it didn't count. He stumbled and almost fell on a small bank of loose gravel. What am I thinking? Why am I thinking like this? He was suddenly paying attention again as Martine leapt at a glittering dragonfly hovering on a dandelion. He could hear the sandhill cranes in the marshes on the other side of the ridge trilling as they roosted. Pioneer Peak stood above the row of woodland trees, still streaked with snow

 
About the Author: Martin Palmer, 79, lives in Wasilla.
 

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