Strong Like Water

Literature

stronglikewater2.jpgby Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner

The same week Karmine discovers her husband is having an affair with a man, she takes her mother to a doctor, who finds a tiny patch of cancer on the tip of the old woman’s nose. Abby, Karmine’s seventy-five-year-old mother, cannot be convinced she has not contracted the malignancy from her late neighbor, a young woman stricken with lymphoma, who regularly, at the conclusion of Abby’s visits, kissed the old woman on the nose. Abby’s little spot is a garden variety cancer, the result of too many years’ unprotected exposure to the sun, years and years of wear; its removal requires but a small operation and the maintenance of a periodic check-up. All the same, Abby is sure she’s caught lymphoma from kissing. She is convinced she will shortly die. “You’re not going to die,” Karmine says. “There’s nothing fatal about a tiny spot on the end of your nose.” It is snowing hard—icy flakes click softly against the windshield. It is the sound, Karmine imagines, of parakeet feet, unnumbered parakeet feet, walking on glass. She turns the wipers to the highest speed. The blades rush back and forth, and though Karmine doesn’t entirely realize what is happening, the vigorous back and forth, this motion of winding a watch, has begun to stiffen her neck.

“Lymphoma,” Abby insists. She examines her nose in the visor mirror, but doesn’t touch the cancer. “I should have never let her kiss me.”

Karmine is Abby’s youngest child, and for all practical purposes, Abby’s only child. Harlan, Karmine’s older brother, lives in Detroit, an automotive engineer. He calls Abby weekly and visits as he can, usually on major holidays. It causes a guilty moment, this resentment Karmine feels for her brother, his distance and freedom from Abby’s unreasonable aging. Karmine resents Harlan for his careless assumptions, and for his useless and insufficient gratitude. She resents him most, however, for the same reason she resents her father, who is dead—she resents them both for leaving her alone and terrified Abby will die.

“You’re not listening,” Karmine says. “There are no lymph nodes on the end of your nose. And even if there were, you don’t catch cancer like some virus.”

Abby pushes the visor to the ceiling and as an after thought—though they are almost home—checks that she’s locked her door. “This is the beginning of the end,” she says calmly. “You remember this conversation. This is the beginning of the end. I give myself three months.”

In Abby’s driveway, Karmine turns off the car. The windshield wipers stop, and she is immediately grateful for the stillness. “The beginning of the end,” as far as Karmine is concerned, has long passed. The end had begun five years earlier when Karmine’s father, a man ten years older than Abby, died of heart failure. On the day of her father’s funeral, Karmine hadn’t given her despondent mother three months, much less five years. Now she is distressed, put off, by Abby’s arbitrary death predictions. She is put off by the arbitrariness of death. For five years Abby has deteriorated—lost much of her sight, some of her balance, a little of her memory—but she has not died. Abby slips away much like a child grows, in increments beyond perception, with only memory and the passage of time for measurement. The more frail Abby seems, the more frightened Karmine becomes. Strange, it strikes Karmine, that now, when Abby can no longer offer the comfort and reassurance of the mother, that she, Karmine, is most terrified of losing her. Perhaps it is because they need each other again, as in the child’s early life. For very different reasons they need, though they can no longer truly help one another. Karmine sometimes wonders if it would have been easier (for her, for Harlan, for Abby) had Abby, in fact, died as predicted, shortly after her husband’s death.

“I hope Peter doesn’t take this too hard,” Abby says. Peter is Karmine’s husband. “I was hoping he’d come along today. He’d have been very upset by the lymphoma. I don’t think Peter is going to take this well.”

Karmine gets out and comes around to help Abby. Abby adores Peter, and Peter adores Abby. They have adored each other for twenty-six years, since before Karmine adored Peter. Peter’s adoration of Abby was one of Karmine’s first reasons for loving Peter. In the twenty-five years of Karmine and Peter’s marriage, Peter has made no distinction in time and concern and service between Abby and his own mother. So much adoration, in light of all Karmine must keep to herself, must keep from her mother, only complicates the needing—needing Peter, needing Abby.

“Peter had a meeting after school,” Karmine says. She takes Abby’s elbow, pulls her gently from the car, bracing herself against a slip. It is still snowing, and Karmine intuits the uncertain footing. Her muscles, without permission, flinch and tighten, a phenomenon she remembers from years of carrying infants across Utah winters.

“A meeting,” Abby scoffs. She knows few meetings keep Peter away. “I hope it wasn’t a church meeting.”

“Not church,” Karmine assures. “A meeting with the administration to plan this year’s tour. He would have canceled had it been anything else.”

Abby grunts but seems satisfied with Karmine’s explanation. Near the back door the old woman stops and looks at her yard. January and already a hard winter. Drifts from Peter’s shoveling stand as tall as Abby, taller in places. He has shoveled off her carport roof, beaten the snow from her bushes. The temporary stain of Ice Melt stretches like blue carpet from the carport where Abby’s car awaits Peter or one of the older grandchildren, Harlan when he is in town—the few people who drive the aging vehicle now and then for the sake of maintenance.

“It’s going to snow for a long time,” Abby says, shuffling toward the door. “I can feel it. I wish you Mormons would stop praying for snow.”

“We stopped that a long time ago,” Karmine says. “We’re praying for snow-blowers now.”

Because of Peter, Karmine and Abby can say these things to each other. Karmine’s conversion to Peter’s faith, the fact that she abandoned her parents’ faith, works because Abby loves Peter. It works because Karmine and her parents, always suspicious of Mormons, loved Peter more than they suspected Mormonism. To his credit, Peter never once asked Karmine to convert. He married her suspecting full-well she never would. Peter, himself, suspects Mormonism, has been openly skeptical at times, which is why, perhaps, he has never been promoted beyond choir director in the lay clergy. On the other hand, the remarkable results he pulls from one hopeless congregational choir after another may be the better answer. Peter is very good at what he does.

Inside Abby’s house, Karmine helps her mother remove her winter clothing; she hangs Abby’s coat in the closet, removes the old woman’s boots and covers her feet with lamb-skin slippers. Positioned haphazardly about the house are a half-dozen walkers, four pronged canes, landmarks of Karmine’s determination to keep her mother on her feet. They are rentals, some with wheels, some without, different designs procured in the hope that variety and novelty will tempt Abby to use one. Karmine picks up the nearest walker and places it next to the couch, where her mother sits.

“Diane next door was skin and bones by the time she went,” Abby says. She shakes her head sadly, but without the drama Karmine has come to expect from her mother. Abby, convinced she has lymphoma, seems remarkably content to have it. It occurs to Karmine that her mother is more concerned with the fact, the certainty, of the disease than troubled by the consequences of having it.

“You’re going to lose some skin off your nose, Mom.” Karmine smiles. “There’s no bone at the end of your nose, only cartilage. Your nose is already down to skin and cartilage.”

Abby glances at her daughter, a look of mild reproach. She points at her nose without touching it. “It’s like the entrance to a coal mine,” she says. “One little opening for all those miles and layers of tunnels inside.”

Karmine imagines her mother as a diagram, something late nineteenth century, with obscure, ominous markings, a cut-away illustrating a network of roughly organized mining tunnels beginning at the tip of Abby’s nose, arrows and measurements for the miniature miners burrowing away inside. It is an image Karmine understands; it explains so much. The hollowing, the consumption, a bite at a time, from the inside out. She wonders what such a diagram of herself might reveal, how intricate the tunnels would be, what pieces of what would be missing. And a diagram of Peter? How much of Peter would be gone?

“Well,” Karmine sighs. “When the doctor takes off the tip of your nose, I’ll have him shine a light down the shaft. If the back of your head glows, we’ll run tests for lymphoma.”

Abby throws her head back and laughs. Karmine smiles, and after a moment, begins to laugh, too.

“I have to tell you something,” Abby finally says. She smoothes the front of her blouse. “For the last week, your father’s been spending the nights. He sleeps right where I’m sitting. Here, on the couch.”

Karmine blinks rapidly. She resists an impulse to open her mouth wide, as in a yawn, to open the chamber and release a sudden pressure behind her ears. For the past nineteen years, since converting to Mormonism, she has slowly assumed the accouterments of the faith. It is no longer beyond her, as it was before her conversion, to consider the spirit world viable, the distance between mortals and their predecessors small. It was a thing she sometimes hoped for and sometimes dreaded. Yet, even after so many years, she is not certain her hope constitutes actual belief.

She stares at the couch, then at the carpet by the heat vent. Since before her father’s death, her mother has slept on the living room floor. Every night for five years, Abby has unrolled the foam-rubber mattress, made her bed with sheets and blankets. Every morning she has removed and folded the bedding, rolled the mattress. What began as a consideration to her ailing husband is now a safeguard against falling out of bed. And, too, it is warmer, she claims, on the floor near the heat vent.

“Every night?”

“Except last Thursday,” Abby clarifies. “He didn’t come at all last Thursday.” She seems mildly perplexed by this.

Karmine starts to shake her head but stops herself.

“When I wake up to use the bathroom he’s here, so I put a blanket on him. It’s been so cold, you know.” Abby pauses, absently petting the cushion beside her. “His hair still has that beautiful black curl.”

Abby is pleased with her secret, as pleased to have such a secret as to have her husband again spending the nights. Karmine does not begrudge Abby her pleasure, nor her visions, but she is distressed and angry, nonetheless. She is angry because a sign, if it is a sign, should bring more comfort than distress. Comfort to her, Karmine, as well as to Abby. She is angry, too, because her mother, who has never believed in the supernatural, the preternatural, the spiritual, has without question accepted the whole as real. Karmine has heard of such things before, which distresses her. Whatever the cause, whatever the reality, she suspects that in the world at large people experience similar occurrences quite regularly. And usually (in Karmine’s limited experience) to their own demise.

Abby stands, using the walker to leverage herself up. “I’m going to show you something.” She abandons the walker and haltingly crosses the room. She passes into the hall and returns a minute later carrying an accordion folder. Before returning to the couch, she drops the folder in Karmine’s lap.

“Diane next door went about this thing the wrong way,” Abby says. “The way she shriveled away to nothing.”

Karmine opens the folder. It is full of papers, pamphlets, envelopes. She pours it all out. “The Hemlock Society,” she says.

“My damned eyes,” Abby laments. “Given the clientele, you’d think they’d print everything in large print.”

Karmine stares at the pile. She can not make herself touch the papers. She is thinking that Peter will soon have to climb on the houses, Abby’s and their own, and shovel off the snow. Peter is a large man, very strong and sure on his feet. He is capable of shoveling heavy snow for hours, throwing it, if need be, fifteen or twenty feet without shifting his feet for balance. His physical strength, and the way he smells after hard work, musky but without the stink Karmine has smelled on other men, are qualities she has always loved. Karmine wonders what Abby would say about Peter. She wonders what Peter would say about the Hemlock Society.

“You do not have lymphoma, Mother,” Karmine says. “You simply do not have lymphoma.”

“Fine.” Abby smiles. “But browse a little, anyway. Tell me what you think.”

Her children grown, no longer demanding so much time, Karmine often walks to the high school to watch Peter rehearse the Wind Ensemble. Summer through fall, marching band season, she takes an active role, sewing uniforms for the flag team, filling large water coolers for those long pre-game rehearsals. Peter respects her opinion; he asks for her criticisms and suggestions. And over time, Karmine has assumed ownership, staked a claim in his artistry. Standing high on the bleachers to better view the formations, sitting in the band room listening to Peter work the counterpoint between the trombones and French horns, Karmine has sometimes lost herself in the precariousness of Peter’s work. All those awkward children struggling too hard to be indispensable, yet fearing, as they squeeze those oft-times paltry notes to life, that the opposite is true. And during transitional years, when the performances have not been the best (though even in the bad years the bands are large), Karmine has watched the talented students try to bring the others along, knowing that some people are at their best bridging chasms created by those around them.

It has been a week since she’s last attended a rehearsal, and though it is bitter cold outside, she still walks the two blocks to the high school. Peter smiles, appears pleased, when she comes in. Students are opening cases, sucking on reeds, screwing on slides. It is already much too noisy to talk, and Peter is much too busy, so Karmine removes her coat and pulls a chair from Peter’s office.

“You’re feeling better!” a young flutist calls. Some of the other students wave. Karmine smiles and nods and returns the waves. Apparently, Peter has explained her absence as illness, and perhaps this is, after all, not such a bad explanation. In the middle of the band, their youngest child, Timothy, warms up with the French horns. If he is surprised or pleased or unhappy to see Karmine, he doesn’t indicate it. This is Timothy’s usual response, and Karmine is not offended. She knows it must be difficult for a fifteen year old boy to have his father for a teacher and his mother for a teacher’s aide.

Karmine knows she is taking this step toward routine, the routine that is her routine, because she can determine no other step to take. So far, Peter has not said what he intends to do. What are you going to do? As a question, a sentence, it dangles between them, a road block that no one has yet ventured to challenge. Their three children know nothing.

Karmine is not sure what it means, that her husband is having an affair with a man. She is not sure she understands the specifics of such an affair. She is not sure she understands the generalities either. For her ignorance, she cannot blame Peter. He has tried—and there is something of a tidal wave in his efforts—to convince Karmine to listen, to let him talk.

She watches Peter tune the band. From the podium, he leads his students through a series of simple sounding exercises, etudes derived from the mountains of tricky-sounding exercises he has, over the years, simplified because they did not work. When it comes to training a band, Peter says, the deceptively difficult is almost always more useful than the blatantly difficult. Peter claims this to be one of his most valuable secrets, a secret not because he hides it, but because so many of his colleagues find it difficult to understand. Karmine, sitting in this same chair listening to these same exercises, has watched Peter produce some of the state’s finest high school bands.

Karmine has seen the man Peter loves, but she does not know him. He plays keyboard, does freelance work for the ballet, the opera, local theaters and studios. For years, Peter has brought in extra money playing freelance—the ballet, the opera, local theaters, studios. French horn, like Timothy. Peter has a reputation for being consistent and dependable. Peter claims it has been evolving for years, this love affair, though only recently has he allowed it to become physical. Physical?, Karmine wonders. When she thinks of physical, Peter as physical, she sees him throwing snow twenty feet without shifting his stance, she sees him moving quickly for such a large man, and confidently, down the basketball court at the church gymnasium. Only recently has he allowed it to become physical. Karmine does not feel much of anything one way or another for Peter’s pianist.

What she does feel is foolish. She feels foolish for having never suspected Peter, and though now, looking back, there may have been much to suspect, she is still uncertain as to which of those things, exactly, she should have suspected. It is not computing well, Peter’s claim after a quarter century of marriage that he has, through the years, been desperately lonely in his attraction to some man. Surrounded by his family, in bed with his wife, he has been so hopelessly lonely it is all he can do to hold his secret until morning. And from morning until night. Twenty-five years. Where was she those twenty-five years? This is not Peter’s question, but her own. When Peter arrives at this point in his story, Karmine refuses to hear more, but she cannot help but remember odd moments, like finding him in the bathtub, lights out, weeping for no explainable reason–no reason he was willing to explain, anyway. More times than she can separate into a single memory, Karmine has felt surprise, relief, when, after weeks without a single caress, he has suddenly reached for her under the covers.

About this, their love-life, she feels the greatest confusion, for while his touch has been unpredictable (with passing anniversaries, little more than seldom), when he does touch her, he is a wholly unselfish lover. Peter has declared extraordinary gratitude during lovemaking, particularly when Karmine has been needful, giving herself over to selfishness. Not always, but often enough, their lovemaking has been of a quality and sincerity that tempers, almost removes, the uncertainty grown in the gentle but passionless companionship between touches. Yes, she has been uncertain, but her uncertainty has moved along like a narrow highway cutting at night through the wheat fields of some distant state, rolling slightly, taking the pit of her stomach one moment, compressing her the next. Up or down, it hasn’t much mattered, because the road has still taken her forward. Until now, the rolling highway has never dropped too quickly nor risen too steeply.

Karmine studies Peter as he tests the trumpet section, player by player, to see if a difficult fanfare has been mastered. He taps his baton against the stand, meting out the beat so the nervous students can concentrate on the manuscript and the fingering. Without harassing, Peter teases the students, and his smile, when he encourages or criticizes, never changes. He is forty-seven, two years older than Karmine, and except at his center, where he has begun slightly to spread, he has managed to remain respectably firm. On the podium, rehearsing and performing, he moves lithely like a dancer, like an athlete.

Karmine, too, has maintained herself. She has given birth to three children but, being small and elastic, has never struggled with weight. All the same, her confusion during Peter’s periods of disinterest has often found her looking twice in mirrors. Though Peter insists it isn’t so, Karmine knows she has failed her womanhood, that her womanhood has failed her, and in a way, to an extent, beyond anything she might have feared while turning this way and that in the mirror, wondering when Peter will reach for her again.

Peter wants to know what she is going to do. Karmine does not even know what the options are. She is waiting for him to decide what he is going to do. She knows less today than she did a week earlier when, for that instant after his confession, she had understood how some people can kill their mates.

The bell rings and the students begin disassembling their instruments. Wind Ensemble is the final class of the day, and the students move off at different speeds. Some remain seated, rehearsing their parts. Timothy waves, finally, and carries his French horn to his father’s office. It has been the same ritual for all of their children, Peter carrying instruments to and from school each day, even on days he does not drive, so the children, without the hassle of dragging the instruments back and forth on their own, will have them at home to practice.

“I’m going to the writing lab,” Timothy calls, hurrying from the office. “I’ll be a little later than usual.”

Karmine smiles and without cause or precedent doubts her son’s excuse.

The room is nearly empty before Peter finishes with the questions and answers and excuses that detain him. Karmine attempts her typical concern for the few students who stop to tell her how they’ve been. Peter gathers his music and puts it in a folder. He steps down from the podium.

“This is a good sign, maybe?” he asks. Karmine can tell by his open, awkward posture that he wants to embrace her but doesn’t dare.

“It’s not really a sign at all,” she says.

Peter nods agreeably. Lately, they are both thin-skinned. It is too easy to draw blood. She doesn’t apologize.

“I haven’t told you about Mom’s visit to the doctor,” she says. “That’s why I’m here.”

“Okay,” Peter says. They both know she might have waited until home, but neither points this out. “Do you want to sit?”

“No.” Karmine looks at the door.

“Okay,” Peter says again.

Karmine pauses; she does not like the sound of spite, particularly in her own voice. “It’s nothing serious, really.” She feels lame and awkward, doesn’t like this beginning but presses on. “Mom has a little skin cancer. Which really isn’t the problem—” She shakes her head, disgusted with herself. “She’s convinced she has lymphoma.”

“Lymphoma?”

“That spot on the end of her nose.” Karmine sighs. “She thinks she caught lymphoma from Dianne before she died.”

“Dear Momma,” Peter says knowingly. He purses his lips and looks at the ceiling.

“She gives herself three months.”

“So long?”

“That’s not all.” Karmine breathes deeply. “Apparently, Dad’s been spending the nights. Sleeps on the couch. She covers him in the night with a blanket when she gets up to pee.”

“Holy cow!”

Karmine smiles despite herself. She has always liked Peter’s self-depreciating use of phrases like “holy cow” and “groovy” and “neato.”

“Dad’s hair is as black and curly as ever.”

“Your dad always had nice hair.”

Karmine thinks of the Hemlock Society. She has hidden the accordion folder in the downstairs freezer, behind a case of orange juice. She’s mentioned it to no one.

“She’s going to be mad as hell if she doesn’t die.”

Karmine has finally said what she’s come to say. Knowing this, Peter watches her for a moment.

“Maybe I should talk to her. Do you think it would help?”

Karmine shrugs. She is determined not to show Peter the gratitude she feels. Though she knew he would make such an offer, she is more relieved than she’d thought possible.

“It might,” she says.

Peter begins sleeping in Karmine’s sewing room. Karmine calls it her sewing room though she has only recently moved the sewing machine and the table up from the basement. For eighteen years the room has been Marcee’s, and it still is, though Karmine’s only daughter is away at school, a freshman at Brigham Young University. Marcee lives with her older brother, Jake, and his wife. Jake is a graduate student in music composition and his wife is trying to finish her bachelor’s degree. Karmine suspects her daughter-in-law is also trying to get pregnant. Nearly daily, Karmine resists the impulse to call Marcee and beg her to major in prelaw, premed, to resist the Mormon pressure to marry young. Except for the sewing table, the machine and Peter, Marcee’s room remains the same. Karmine wonders what they will do the next time Marcee comes home for a weekend. She wonders what they will do when Timothy begins asking questions.

It has been three weeks. When she counts the days, Karmine does not know how time can pass so fiercely, with the blurring velocity of a summer storm, and not blow or wash or dissolve anything away. Peter is still here, and Karmine, and maybe Peter’s pianist, though she is not certain. Abby is still around, and her lymphoma, though the tip of her nose is now missing. The Hemlock Society is still frozen, gathering frost behind the case of orange juice in the downstairs freezer. Abby’s daily question remains the same, and Karmine’s answer:

“I’m still reading,” she lies, assuring Abby she is sifting through the pamphlets, the newsletters, the legal action forms. “And by the way,” she sometimes adds, “how’s Dad?” She can’t resist the irony—that at about the same time her father returns from the dead to sleep with her mother, her own husband retreats, moves to their daughter’s room.

And so, after three weeks, it is the nothing that torments Karmine most. Peter is kind and gentle and patient, the things he has always been. He defers and defers with courage and stamina and humility. For her more than for himself, he has moved from their bedroom. He is trying to do his part, whatever that is, but has, at present, so little to work with. Karmine resists helping him, but still longs for a something more than this nothing, a longing she also dreads, knowing that most desires are answered one way or the other, sometimes too absolutely, in the mere passage of time.

* * *

“There are two middle-eastern women sitting in my car,” Abby tells Karmine. It is late afternoon, clear and cold. The sun is preparing to set. Karmine shifts the phone to her other ear.

“Middle-eastern? Like from Saudi Arabia?”

“How should I know?” Abby shrieks. “They’re wearing those veils over their faces. How do you expect me to know which of those countries they’re from?”

Without thinking, Karmine turns off the stove. The oven is on, too, a casserole inside, but Karmine has not for any conscious reason turned the surface element off and does not think to do the same with the oven. Instead, she wedges the phone between her ear and shoulder and places her hands, palms flat, on the warm oven door. She leans forward, siphoning heat into her hands and thighs.

“Well, Mom…,” she says.

“Don’t ‘Well, Mom’ me,” Abby snaps. “They’ve been sitting there all day. I want to know what they’re doing. What if they steal my car?”

“Do they look like they’re trying to steal your car?” Karmine, who cares nothing for Abby’s car, has begun to feel frantic. Peter appears in the doorway; he’s been reading in another room. Still pressed against the stove, Karmine watches him from the corner of her eye. Without looking directly at him, she grimaces for his benefit. He puts his hands in his pockets and leans against the door frame.

“What would that look like?” Abby asks. Karmine can see her mother bent before the kitchen window, squinting blindly to make out the two veiled women sitting in the old Chrysler.

“Like they’re trying to start the car, Mom.” Karmine shakes her head. She’s neither asking the correct questions nor giving the correct answers. “I don’t know, maybe they’d be fiddling under the dashboard.”

“They’re not fiddling,” Abby declares. “They’re just sitting there, the same as they’ve been sitting there all day.”

“It’s awfully cold to be sitting—“

“I know how cold it is,” Abby says. “Any minute they’re going to want to come inside and get warm. What am I going to do then?”

Karmine looks at Peter. “I’m coming over.”

“Good,” Abby said. “And bring Peter. Who knows what these people intend to do.”

Karmine lets Peter drive—she has always let Peter drive. They’ve spent so much time sidestepping, it feels strange to be sitting side by side, sharing the same air.

“Have you said anything to the children?” Peter asks.

“No.”

“They’ll hate me.” Peter does not look at Karmine when he makes this declaration. He steers with both hands, looking straight ahead. Karmine’s self-consciousness evaporates. She studies him openly.

“Probably. At first, anyway,” she says. And she knows it is true. Peter is not trying to elicit pity, nor is he asking her to keep his secret. His is a pronouncement, part of an ongoing progression toward a circumstantial, consequential awareness. It has been coming to them both in one line snippets.

“The church will excommunicate me.” Yes

“Our friends will desert us.” Yes.

“We are too old, too damaged to start again.” Yes.

Yes.

It is not the first time in these three weeks Karmine has felt sorry for Peter, for what Peter is doing to himself. At times, Karmine has even forgotten what Peter is doing to her. And perhaps this is why she has said nothing to anyone. If she cannot find a way to hold him, she can at least for a time protect him.

“I’ve stopped seeing him,” Peter says.

Karmine chews on her lip and watches the road.

“I’ll understand whatever you decide to do,” he says. “But I’ve stopped seeing him. I’ve stopped seeing him no matter what you decide. I can live without all of that. I didn’t know it before, but I do now. There are too many other things I don’t want to live without.”

Peter looks at Karmine, she can feel it; he takes his eyes from the road until Karmine’s silent, forward glare convinces him she will not look back. She wants to know about the “all of that,” why a month ago, two months ago (years ago for all she really knows), he couldn’t live without it. And she wants to know about the “other things,” too, the “many other things” he, at one point, had been willing to risk for “all of that.” Peter’s decision to stay doesn’t surprise Karmine. She has expected it. But she wants to know about the “all of that” and the “many other things,” the interchangeability, particularly considering what seems to her a ponderous inequality between the two. Had Peter somehow felt it an even trade, a man in exchange for a wife and three children, a life, so many lives?

Karmine rolls down the window and turns her face into the frigid wind.

At Abby’s house, Peter parks at the base of the driveway. Karmine and Peter climb from the car. They pause, doors open, to look up the drive to the carport. At the back of the yard, the car hunkers beside the barn-like workshop, under the pitched overhang. Abby has turned on the carport lights, and unless the Arab women are ducking, the car is empty.

“Must’ve heard the Marines landing,” Peter says. He closes his door and starts up the drive.

“They’re probably in the house torturing Mom,” Karmine says. She follows Peter.

Abby is waiting at the back door, coat in hand. She’s seen them pull in. “That was good thinking,” she says. “Blocking the driveway so they can’t make off with the car.”

Karmine kisses her mother on the cheek and steps into the house. “Peter watches a lot of spy movies,” she says. It has been two days since Karmine’s last visit. As a rule, she sees her mother three, four times a week; she calls her twice a day. In two days, the house has taken on a sour odor. Abby looks tired and disheveled and frantic.

“You should have called us earlier, Mom.” From the kitchen window, Karmine can plainly see no one sitting in Abby’s car.

“When did you first see them?” Peter asks. He has joined Karmine at the window.

“Yesterday night,” Abby says. “Or maybe yesterday morning. I keep hoping they’ll just go away.”

“I think they finally have,” Karmine says.

Abby hurries slowly to the window. She looks at the car, then casts her daughter a disgusted glance. Karmine smells Abby, the sour, acrid odor of the house, but stronger. “You need a closer look,” Abby says. She moves to put on her coat. Peter helps her.

It hasn’t snowed for nearly a week. The stratified flow of passing storms has tattered the customary Utah inversion. It is clear and painfully cold—a cloudless February night. Abby shuffles between Karmine and Peter, allowing her children to guide her by the elbows. When they reach the car, Peter produces a key and unlocks the passenger door.

“Look at them,” Abby exclaims. She tapped angrily on the side window. “Don’t they have any respect for other people’s property?”

“Mother,” Karmine says. She opens the door. She is trying not to plead. “There is no one in the car. There are no middle-eastern women sitting anywhere in this car.”

Abby stares at her daughter. She turns and stared at the Arabs. “What are you doing in my car?” she demands. “This is America. Don’t you know you can’t just sit in other people’s cars?”

“Look,” Karmine insists. She slides onto the front seat.

“What is she doing?” Abby asks Peter. “Is she crazy?”

“Karmine,” Peter says. He offers his hand.

Karmine gets out reluctantly “You try,” she tells him.

“Someone with some sense needs to do something,” Abby agrees.

Peter leans over so the Arab women can see his determined face. “I think you need to leave now,” he says, sternly. “You’ve been here long enough.”

“Are they leaving?” Karmine asks.

Abby slaps at her daughter’s hand.

“Maybe they don’t speak English,” Peter suggests. He clears his throat and begins to speak in broken Danish. Karmine is horrified and on the verge of hysterical laughter. Peter, who has spoken little Danish since his Mormon mission, begins gesturing wildly, perhaps to compensate for his limited vocabulary. He steps away from the car and points at the street. He wags his finger, scolding. He offers his hand, a pantomime twice enacted, and helps the women from the car. He looks cautiously at Abby.

“Just drag them out of there,” she declares.

“Mom,” Karmine pleads. Peter puts his hands in his pockets.

“Why did you even bother?” Furious, Abby turns and shuffles back toward the house. Karmine tries to take her elbow, but Abby won’t have it. Peter shuts and locks the car, then follows silently, a step or two behind the women.

“They’re going to have to pee,” Abby predicts. “What am I going to do when they want to use my toilet?”

After the diagnosis, Karmine calls Harlan and tells him their mother’s kidneys are failing. Too old for a transplant, too much damage everywhere else. Bad breath, vomiting, hallucinations, edema. Her bones hurt and her lungs are filling with water. Harlan wants to know if he should come yet.

“We probably have a few months,” Karmine says. “But come if you want.”

Harlan thinks they should start looking for a nursing home. Abby has enough money, and if not, Harlan will cover the rest. Karmine and Peter have sacrificed enough already, he decides. Sacrifice, Karmine thinks as she listens to her brother, the engineer, draft their mother’s final days. Here is the thing about sacrifice: The investment and the expense make it impossible to pull up and back out. Though there seems nothing left to gain, there is far too much to lose. Karmine does not explain this to Harlan, but she knows she will never put her mother in a nursing home. Abby—and Karmine, too—are confused enough as it is.

“Keep me posted,” Harlan says.

Sure, Karmine thinks, I’ll send you a memo on Mondays.

Since receiving the diagnosis, there is something of an “I told you so” in Abby’s disposition. She cannot be convinced that lymphoma hasn’t caused her kidneys to fail. Nor can she be convinced that her hallucinations are not reality. She is rather content to have proof of her dying, and much too content, as far as Karmine is concerned, to be dying. The doctors have given her medication. An obligatory, if meager, attempt at cure to go along with a most sincere effort to secure her comfort. And though Karmine can not deny her mother’s failings, she is struck by Abby’s lucidity in the midst of so much confusion. She is amazed by her wellness as she falls increasingly ill.

“You’re going to have to read faster,” Abby tells Karmine. “At the rate we’re both going, I’m liable to die before I get a chance to kill myself.”

“It’s a sin to kill yourself,” Karmine says.

Abby laughs and touches her breast. “This is a sin.”

Karmine agrees. In truth, she has little use for sin—Abby’s, Peter’s, her own. She knows she is supposed to believe in the hand of God, in the dangers of sin and the blessings of trial. Fate, however, has assumed an increasing appeal. It is satisfying, for example, to nod at fate when considering the circumstances that make it convenient, a relief, even, to spend her nights with Abby, away from Peter. To attribute the same to
God only angers her. After so many years of attending church, of giving her time and money and energy to a religious society, she is surprised at how little her faith draws her now, at how little, frankly, she wants anything to do with it. Karmine’s non-Mormon parent is dying, her husband has been sleeping with a man, and Karmine can find no contingency plan in the church’s version of God’s scheme. That the Mormons will probably throw Peter out does not concern Karmine. Karmine suspects she would pay little attention even if they suddenly threw her out too. It startles her that she can so easily accept this failing after so many years of trying. There is simply neither time nor energy to waste on that which cannot help her.

For two weeks, Karmine stays with Abby, taking only short breaks when she becomes desperate enough to allow Peter or Timothy to take a shift.

“Maybe we need to hire a nurse’s aide,” Peter suggests. “Someone to watch her during the day so you can have a break.”

Karmine has not been sleeping well. She has not been feeling well. She will not let Peter relieve her for much longer than an hour, two at the most, even on weekends. She is afraid Abby, whose increasingly vigorous campaign to enlist Karmine’s help in dying, will turn to Peter instead. It is strange to Karmine that after twenty-five years of marriage she does not know what Peter will do if Abby asks. Peter’s suggestion offers a wisdom and a compromise Karmine thinks she can accept. There have been moments of anger so compelling she’s been forced to flee, leaving Abby alone, though only for minutes, while she walks, runs, drives around the block.

“How would you feel if we hired a nurse to spend some time with you during the days?” Karmine asks Abby.

Abby has taken to sitting by the kitchen window, where she can watch the Arab women. In her favorite chair (Peter and Timothy have moved it at Abby’s request), she sits and watches and waits for them to need her bathroom. Peter has offered to drive them away, to park the car elsewhere, but Abby has become far too interested in these exotic women who can sit for weeks without food or water or toilet.

“That would depend,” Abby says, “on whether I could find a nurse more willing to help me than you seem to be.”

Karmine is too tired to hide the anger. “You might. Or you might find someone who thinks you should be locked away in a nursing home for your own protection.”

“You wouldn’t do that?” Abby whispers.

“No,” Karmine says. She begins to cry. “I will never put you in a nursing home.”

“I don’t want a nurse,” Abby says. She turns back to the window. “I don’t want anyone but you.”

Karmine goes for a walk around the block.

Peter visits daily, bringing groceries and books, videos. On occasion, Karmine allows him to touch her.

When Timothy can stay with Abby, Peter takes Karmine places—to dinner, to movies, for long drives. Karmine is worried about Timothy, about his eating and his school work and his emotional well-being. But Peter is reassuring. Though difficult, the past weeks have been good for Peter and Timothy. Lots of time together, lots of learning.

“Sometimes there are good things, too,” Peter tells Karmine.

It is becoming easier for Karmine to acknowledge, with favor, Peter’s efforts. He is solicitous without presumption. Committed and consistent. He has canceled his freelance work to be more available to Karmine and Timothy and Abby. Less available to anyone else. Peter’s face seems older to Karmine, worried and pale, and she is inclined, in her own need, to let him derive whatever comfort he can from the comforts she accepts from him.

“Mom’s seeing something new these days,” she tells him.

Peter, as usual, is interested.

“Hippies in the back yard having a party,” Karmine says. “They’ve rigged lights to the house. Last night was non-stop drinking and screwing and frolicking in the snow until dawn.”

“Cool,” Peter says. He is impressed and amused, which, for reasons Karmine can’t explain, pleases her.

“That’s not all,” Karmine continues. “There was music, very loud music. Mom was frantic some neighbor was going to call the cops.”

“It’s not possible to have a frolic without music,” Peter says with concern.

“Henry Mancini,” Karmine says. “Judy Garland. Frank Sinatra. Nat King Cole.”

“Nasty, that hippie music,” Peter agrees.

“This morning, after they gave up and left, she wanted to go out and take a look at the mess. When we get out there, she says, ‘Tricky bastards.’”

“Tricky bastards!” Peter whistles. He loves it when Abby curses.

“’What do you mean?’ I ask her.”

Peter takes Karmine’s hand. She does not withdraw it.

“She says, ‘No footprints.’ ‘Your right,’ I say. I figure maybe the medication has started working. My mistake. Apparently, before leaving this morning, the last two hippies spread a long rope between them and pulled it across the yard, under the snow. While she was watching, they refluffed the snow.”

“Tricky bastards,” Peter says with admiration.

Karmine nods. “Now she’s in a panic about the electric bill. All those lights.”

“Well,” Peter says. “Tell her if the bill goes up, we’ll pay the difference.”

Patiently, Peter is waiting. Karmine knows he will wait, without asking, without pressing, without knowing, forever if necessary. This is the quality in Peter that Karmine, of late, values most, and distrusts most as well, for it is but more of the same patience and silence and determination that has lead them through the past twenty-five years. It is a gift, Karmine thinks, to be able to embrace uncertainty, as Peter has. Certainty—Karmine’s own certainty in Peter’s regret, in his good intentions, her certainty that her mother’s death quickly approaches—is difficult enough to embrace.

“You’ve been wonderful with Mom,” Karmine says.

“I love your mother.”

“I know.” Karmine lifts her chin. “But thank you anyway.”

Peter watches Karmine. “Someday, maybe you’ll be able forgive me.” He seems very sad, suddenly. Karmine sees him soaking in the bathtub, lights out, weeping.

“Forgiveness isn’t the problem,” Karmine sighs. “I forgave you a long time ago.”

When Harlan calls, he talks to Abby first. He doesn’t mention a nursing home to his mother, but when Karmine takes the phone, he is agitated. Karmine pictures him on the other end, spitting into the receiver.

“This is out of control,” he tells Karmine. “She told me the hippies just hang it out or squat to pee in the snow.”

“That’s better than it seems, Harlan,” Karmine says. “It means they’re not asking to come in and use the bathroom.”

“Shit!” Harlan says. “Admit it, Karmine, it’s time for a nursing home. This is just too much for you guys to handle.”

“We’re doing fine, Harlan.”

Harlan pauses on the other end. “Look,” he says. He is trying to be calm. “I think I need to insist, Honey. I know you’re doing everything you can, but when it comes right down to it, we have to worry about Mom.”

“I know you’re worried.” Karmine looks at her mother. The kitchen light is off. Abby sits before to the window; she watches the hippies drink and dance and screw in her snow. Peter sits beside Abby, watching with equal intensity. “Mother is dying, Harlan. I can think of a hell of a lot of ways to make the dying more difficult. I haven’t come up with too many ways to make it easier.”

“All right,” Harlan sighs. “Maybe I can get away the end of next week. This isn’t something we can really decide over the phone, anyway.”

“It’ll be nice to see you,” Karmine says.

She lights the candle in the potpourri dish while Harlan restates his position one last time before saying good-bye. Without returning the phone to its cradle, she leans on the counter, over the fragrance. The small ceramic pot is barely warm, but she can already smell the cinnamon. The potpourri is a gift from Peter. Karmine admires the design and the efficiency, that a single candle under a miniature pot can spare at least one of the senses the by-products of dying flesh. Karmine watches the flame in the tiny stove, the patterns it plays on the surrounding tile. Harlan, she thinks, would be offended most of all by Abby’s odor.

Karmine joins Abby and Peter by the window. It has begun to snow. Large flakes fall evenly through the glow of the carport light.

“Harlan says he may come the end of next week.”

Abby points. “The clothes they don’t wear. It’s amazing those crazy people don’t get sick.”

“Maybe they’re part of that one club,” Karmine says. “Those folks, you know, who cut away the ice in frozen lakes and go swimming.”

“I can think of better things to do,” Abby grunts, trying to pull herself from the chair. “Like sleeping. It’s past my bedtime.”

Together, Karmine and Peter put Abby to bed. Karmine unrolls the foam-rubber mattress and makes the bed beside the heat vent. Abby still insists on the living room floor, though the getting down and the getting up have become too much. On the couch, Karmine spreads a sheet and places a folded blanket across the arm rest. A symptom of her failed kidneys, Abby seldom needs to use the bathroom, but she will wake up, nonetheless, to check on the hippies and to cover her sleeping husband with a blanket.

“Would you like me to turn up the thermostat?” Karmine asks. She covers her mother with a quilt. Abby’s eyes are already closed. She doesn’t hear Karmine’s offer.

Karmine waves Peter from the room then lingers for a moment, watching her mother breathe. This watching, it seems a remarkable need, an instinct. Countless parents standing every night over sleeping children, watching them breathe. Countless children standing every night over sleeping parents, watching them breathe. Sometimes, standing over her own sleeping children, Karmine has whispered secrets, voiced the impossible for the simple necessity of giving the words to someone who matters. It is her diary, of sorts, secreted deep inside her children’s brains. Unconsciously, her children know things about their mother, and Karmine is satisfied to believe that her secrets have forever changed her children, and their children, even if but slightly.

“Oh, Momma,” Karmine whispers. “I think I know what to do.”

In the hallway, Peter is waiting. Karmine allows him to touch her. He touches Karmine’s hair first, and then her face. When he kisses Karmine, she moves closer. Peter is weeping, but Karmine takes his hand anyway and leads him to the bedroom.

It is her childhood bedroom and Abby, in Karmine’s absence, has covered the walls with photographs of Karmine and Harlan, Karmine’s family, Harlan’s. Karmine kisses Peter and begins to remove his clothes. Peter does not help, but makes himself available, like a young child being undressed for a bath. There is a sequence, and Karmine moves deliberately.

When Karmine, too, is finally undressed, she lies back and closes her eyes. With her eyes closed, she can concentrate on Peter’s movements. They are small and refined and accurate. She listens to Peter above her, sobbing silently. She runs her fingers down his ribs, to the swell of his hips. Karmine loves Peter, and she is sorry for him. But for once she has the benefit of prescience. She knows for all his efforts and all her own that this particular desperation is inevitable.

“You’re going to be fine, Peter” she says. “You’re going to be much better than you think.”

Peter laughs apologetically, more sob than laugh. He puts his head down, chin to chest, and his hair brushed Karmine’s forehead. He moves on, the steady, familiar motion of their twenty-five years together. The motion, Karmine thinks, of water, the Strong One, with the power to wash away earth, extinguish fires, ignore wind. Strong like water, but weak like water, too, flowing always undirected down the paths of least resistance.

Afterwards, Karmine caresses Peter, waiting. She holds him until he climbs from the bed.

“I’m sorry,” he says. He gathers his clothing from the floor. “I’ve got to get hold of myself.” Rubbing his face, he stands half stooped, a weight-laden man, then bends the remaining distance and kisses Karmine. “I’ll come early tomorrow and shovel. I think it’s going to be a bad storm.” He leaves quickly, still crying. Karmine hears him pull the back door closed behind him.

Alone, finally, Karmine listens to the popping and the settling of an old house under the accumulations of a rough winter. The furnace ignites, and Karmine hears this too, a rumbling, comforting sound that warms even before the air flees the vents. As a child she would stand barefoot on the floor vents, the air burning the arches of her feet, filling her nightgown with warmth. It was always a temptation, when the heat clicked off, to turn up the thermostat and ignite the furnace again.

Getting up, she takes a blanket from the bed and wraps herself in it. The vents have stopped blowing, so she pauses in the hall to turn up the thermostat. She waits for the furnace to rumble, then switches on the kitchen light. From the refrigerator, she takes the milk, fills a glass, returns both the carton and the glass to the refrigerator. It in an unnecessary preparation just as well left until later, but Karmine prefers, at last, to have it all waiting. She’s been thinking about this for some time. Without telling Abby, she has learned which medications will most immediately, most efficiently, do the job. She gathers the bottles, removes the lids, dumps the pills in a salad bowl, the blues with the reds with the greens with the yellows. Changing her mind, she pours the pills into a candy dish. Abby has a sense of humor; she will like eating pills from a candy dish.

Abby’s sleep will be short, Karmine knows, so she turns off the light and sits in the chair by the window. Waiting, she watches the snow fall on Abby’s play. She listens, can almost hear the music. She cannot help but imagine how strange all those hippies frolicking naked in the snow must seem to the two Arab women.

First published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1994

Art by A New Eric.

9 thoughts on “Strong Like Water

  1. This story is devastatingly beautiful, on many levels. I really had a strong reaction when I first read it, an almost physical reaction. Cathartic in a way, but also tension-inducing. Wonderful.

  2. It’s true — it’s very moving.

    One interesting point is that it’s not clear whether it’s supposed to be pure tragedy or about resolving tragic situations in the best way possible. Maybe it’s meant to be for the reader to contemplate.

    Particularly the situation with the husband and wife choosing to stay together. By my reading, the main character’s life is built around her husband. It looks like her desire to stay with him is about half love and about half just the fact that she’s not sure what she would do without him. And he has this aching longing for a relationship with a man, but he’s chosen to go back to trying to suppress it because he doesn’t want to shirk his responsibilities or lose the family and life he’s built as an upstanding LDS father. So they reaffirm their relationship by passionlessly going through the motions of making love — which he can’t get through without crying.

    It’s artfully and beautifully expressed so one can’t help but have an emotional reaction, but my primary emotional reaction to the lovemaking/reconciliation scene was “Wow, how horrible for them!”

    Is it just me? Am I reading this wrong?

  3. My reading of the ending is that, in spite of his offer to stay, they both know that he has to leave. I think that’s why she says to her mother (in her sleep), “I know what I need to do.” If she expected them to stay together, I don’t think she’d say that, because it wouldn’t be a revelation she needs to tell anyone.

    Also, when she says, “You’re going to be fine, Peter. You’re going to be much better than you think,” I read it as an acknowledgment that he’s going to have to take a path moving away from her. Ditto his statement that, “I’ve got to get hold of myself.” If they were going to be staying together, she’d still have the same resentment, but her allowing him to make love to her is a kind of gift, an acknowledgment that she has to let him go.

    That’s my reading, anyway.

  4. Ah, I hadn’t thought of that. I had thought that the line “weak like water, too, flowing always undirected down the paths of least resistance” meant that they were going to keep chugging along, not try to make some difficult, dramatic change…

  5. I think part of the great tension in this story is the confusion and fundamental ambiguity about what constitutes strength. Is it strength for him to leave or stay? Is it strength for her to encourage him to stay or to encourage him to go? Also, while the mother has her own part, and is not merely a symbol, I think she’s also at least partly a symbol in that she represents Karmine’s resistance to but eventual acceptance of the idea of letting someone (something) go, of letting her (it) die with dignity.

    Again, this is just my take as a reader. I’ve never discussed this with the story’s author, but then I’m sort of an “author is dead” postmodernist who thinks that the author doesn’t have a privileged viewpoint. The text must speak for itself.

  6. Yeah, this is top-notch stuff. Hadn’t read it before–thanks for posting it. If you enjoyed this, Van Wagoner’s novel Dancing Naked is definitely worth picking up. It’s been so long since I’ve seen anything new from VW and I hope he publishes again soon.

  7. I read the ending as a farewell lovemaking encounter that brings the emotional truth to the surface. Peter has now spiritually/emotionally died to her as a marriage partner, just as Abby will physically die from her too on this same momentous night.

    The protagonist finds strength in letting these significant others flow away from her like water, taking their natural paths of least resistance. I’m not sure I personally agree with their essentially giving up like this, but that’s definitely something to chew on. Either way, the story is a beautifully rendered human dilemma.

  8. I was fascinated by the end of this. It feels so abrupt, a contrast to how slowly Abby degrades before her daughter’s eyes, and yet a direct correlation to how suddenly everything seems to degrade from Karmine’s point of view.

  9. That makes sense in a whole story context to see it as demonstrating that he has spiritually/emotionally died to her as a marriage partner. I had thought that by initiating sex, she was symbolically inviting him back into her bedroom (and that was what she meant she knew she needed to do). If it’s goodbye, why do it with sex?

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