Cold Day in Hell

When I wasn’t in the room, Janine and Claire did have either some kind of heart-to-heart or a fight–I don’t know which because neither of them said.

When Janine left Claire pretended to be asleep (again?) but she was snuffle-crying, which made it a hard act to believe. I took it as a sign she wanted some privacy and said to her–in case she was listening–that me and Remo were right outside if she needed anything.

Courtney must have gone back to Boston at that point. It’s difficult to remember exactly what happened when. The reason I think that is because I’m pretty sure she had left before Claire and I had a certain conversation, and I’m pretty sure that conversation came after whatever she and Janine had talked about.

And it was also after she’d banished Remo for a while. Not very long. Maybe an afternoon. I didn’t hear what he said to get in the doghouse, but he seemed to accept it without overmuch consternation and retreated to the hospital cafeteria. By then Flip and Chief were also gone, so we didn’t have the RV in the parking lot to visit anymore.

Anyway. The conversation. Another hand-holding conversation at her bedside. By then she’d been through all the tests and stuff. This is the thing. I don’t remember any conversation where any doctor just flat out told us to get ready for her to die. They told us in bits and pieces, in dribs and drabs. Like one day we learned the tumor hadn’t really shrunk significantly from the chemo. On a different day we learned that meant the plan to operate to remove it was off the table. On a different day we learned her recovery from the bowel obstruction was going well but that other things were worsening. Maybe it was just complex and a lot of things were going on–a lot of things to treat, and talk about–and maybe we weren’t asking the right questions.

Or maybe we didn’t want to know the answers. I know Remo’s optimism that she could “fight” it was getting downright annoying at times. Normally I appreciated Remo’s unrelenting positive attitude but I dunno. I was tired.

So was Claire. “Do I remember rightly that you told me you left school early?” she asked.

“Yeah, I did.”

Her skin felt almost papery, her hand in mine. “Do you regret it?”

“No. I’d learned what I set out to, and the next step for my career as a musician was to get out. Bart didn’t finish either.”

“He’s your friend?”

“My best friend, yeah.”

“Still?”

“Yes. The bass player I told you about. And cellist. The one with the girlfriend who designs purses and stuff?”

“Right. I remember now.” She seemed to nod off for a little while, which perhaps she did. Even if she wasn’t on opiods, she was on some kind of painkillers. When she opened her eyes again, though, she went on as if there hadn’t been several minutes of pause. “Courtney told me she’s graduating in May.”

“Yeah. From Emerson.”

“And that you paid for it when your father wouldn’t.”

“Oh, he might’ve kept paying for it, but she didn’t really want to deal with his bullshit.”

“Presumably he would’ve had to stop paying anyway, given his financial disaster.” She said the words “financial disaster” with a dramatic drop of her voice into her lower register.

“True. I was happy to pay it, though.”

“Were you really?”

“Sure. It’s just money.”

She narrowed her eyes in that way that meant her bullshit detector was set on high. “Just. Money.”

“Yeah. I bought a house. I’m clothed and fed. I don’t see a lot of better things to spend that money on.”

“You could be saving it for your old age?”

“Well, if you want to be mercenary about it, something tells me that having a sister with a college degree is a better investment in my future solvency than sticking thousands of dollars in the bank where I’d just be tempted to spend it.” I was getting a crick in my neck. I scooched my chair over a little to change the angle I was looking at her with. “I mean, that’s what money is for, right? For things that mean something in life. Otherwise, it’s just a number. Like an SAT score or something.”

“Do you remember your SAT scores?”

That was a weird question, I thought. “Why?”

“I remember them. I remember you scored 780 on the math.”

“I suppose I did.” I might have been getting a C in pre-calc at the time, so I didn’t think it counted for much.

“I remember it because you outscored some of the so-called geniuses in town.”

I decided not to remind her about the C. “I really wasn’t into comparing myself to other kids.”

“Oh, but that’s what all the mothers did. At garden club and at church auxiliary and all that. All they wanted to do all the time was talk about how wonderful their children were. Well, and complain about their husbands. You’d think they were all raising geniuses borne from the loins of idiots.” She didn’t have it in her to laugh right then, but a half-smile was just as demonstrative as far as I was concerned. “After your sisters left it was sort of difficult for me.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. “Should I apologize for being such a let-down?”

“Oh, no, that’s not what I mean at all. I just mean… you were different. You weren’t a sports star or in debate club or even in school band or choir! With all your musical talent!”

“Um–”

“I was so jealous of your father. Getting to see you on stage all the time.”

“What?”

“Oh, be serious. I knew perfectly well about Digger ‘sneaking’ you out at night to play in bars.”

I wasn’t really surprised about that. I was mostly surprised that she was talking about it. “I thought you disapproved.”

“I did! But, well, you know the other reasons I had to stay away from all that.”

The Remo-related reasons, I supposed. “But Claire, you wouldn’t even–”

“It’s water under the bridge now, I suppose,” she said quickly, which I took to mean she wanted me to treat it as such. “I’m so glad I got to see you play with him, though.” Him meaning Remo. She swallowed hard. “That time.”

In Kansas or Missouri or wherever we were that time. “What are you trying to say, Claire?” I still wasn’t sure if I was being scolded or praised.

Or neither, since maybe it was about her and not me. “Just, you know. It’s sinking in that I might not have that chance again. And… you know.”

No, no I don’t know, Mom. That’s why I’m asking. “I… I’m glad you got to see it, too. But–”

She started to cry then. “I’m afraid I’m not going to live long enough to see Courtney graduate from college. And I really want to.”

What could I say to that? Her fear was real and not something I could do anything about. But I tried. “It’s not over yet. Didn’t they say next week we can move to a long-term care facility? If you were about to die you wouldn’t need long-term care, right?”

“Oh, I suppose,” she said. “That’s the big difference between you and your father, you know.”

“No, what?”

“When I would get all dramatic and emotional he would get all caught up in it. He’d try to outdo me, even. You just come back with the most earthly common sense.” She huffed. “If the situation weren’t so dire, I’d be irritated at you.”

Which I guess meant she was at least slightly pleased with me?


(Another rootsy blues hit from 1992. Maybe Remo picked the wrong time to take a hiatus…? -d)

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