P. J. Murphy
My wife was in the gazebo again. With the track lighting and the brighter flashes of the digital cameras, one could clearly see among the cushions Rebecca’s thrashing legs, even from this side of the pool. The man, pumping butt and straining thighs, seemed anonymous, pure instrumentality, and the crowd, I suspect, was gathering more as gracious guests than lascivious voyeurs. My spirit went out to them, those kind people.
The night was warm and a bit oppressive, not at all typical of northern California, but ideal for such a party as we threw, necessarily hidden behind tall hedges of Silver Queen pittosporum. The music of the Charlie Hunter Trio drifted from strategic speakers and the bass notes sounded softly above the dark susurration of the sea. There was the smell of burning wood and the stars shone weakly, except to the south, where the fires still burned and smoke obscured the sky. I stood with my latest portfolio and felt wobbly and out of place.
Apparently, the long-awaited crisis grew near. There were noises, as if someone slammed a pig against a wall, followed by soft screams, mournful, dying cries. The guests readied themselves. A few minutes later my wife appeared smiling at the gazebo gate, followed by a younger man I now recognized as Kevin, a newcomer to our group. The crowd cheered and held their cards high—9.5, 9.7, 9.7—such good scores almost certainly more a matter of courtesy than aesthetics, though I might be mistaken.
Portfolio Photo #1
There I am, still fat and fully functional, but in a wheelchair nonetheless—hospital regulations. A nurse pushes me down a long hallway, and I display a jaunty grin, with the hint of something else, something slightly repressed, just behind the eyes. The strong perspectival lines of the lemon-colored-and-scented hall seem to meet just behind my head, a halo of pure serendipity.
Rebecca grabbed a towel from a stack sitting on a small table and wiped herself down, rubbing it across her breasts, squatting slightly to get between her legs, looking rather unlovely at that moment, though she was still a trim, attractive woman, young enough to wear her dark hair long. She slung the towel around her neck and started toward me. I turned and walked away. Earlier, she’d wanted a divorce, but cancer changes everything. In this case, it inspired in her a great patience, and, since the operation and the first unsuccessful session of chemo, she’s become solicitous, nearly maternal. She’s playing (at least I think she’s playing) at being the nurturer, a role followed shortly, I would expect she expects, by that of the consolable widow. Now, I pictured her running up and stroking my face, gifting me a thousand tender kisses, and I fled to the living room, my legs shaking, my equilibrium off, as if my muscles were still trying to steer a hundred pounds of phantom fat. It felt strange being slim and impotent, as if I were suddenly monk Morrison, mortifying the flesh and in touch with greater mysteries. I rather enjoyed it. The new me.
The living room was more crowded than I had anticipated, the guests driven there most likely by the quiet and the view from the bay window of the fire on the far side of the cove. I pressed through, as best I could, kneading the small of the back on Charles Maguire, one of the few spots without hair, and cupping the naked fanny of Lilian Greski, one of my former favorites. The crowd parted.
Ahead, through the double-paned glass, I saw the black emptiness of the ocean stretching out to distances unimaginable, and to the left, the glowing, twisting string of orange which I knew to be our local fire. The California hills burn each summer, and I imagined the hardy men trudging through that unfortunate property with their axes and tanks of foam and whatnot. Overhead, there’d be helicopters dropping bags of water or orange plumes of fire retardant, and there’d be film crews standing at the burning edge, taking it all in. Which brought my portfolio to mind.
“I’d like to show you some things,” I said.
“Oh, Morrison,” Rebecca cried, fondly, but a bit impatiently.
I hadn’t seen her come in, but now turned and smiled at her. She hated it when I displayed my pictures. I’m sure, secretly, she thought it morbid or something beyond her private list of acceptable perversions.
“They don’t want to see that,” she said.
“Sure they do.” I wasn’t at all certain they did. I took my pictures over to the cocoa-colored leather couch and set them up one by one on the seats. “What do you think?” I asked.
Several of the men put their arms across their chests, obviously deep in critical thought, while others leaned forward and peered.
“Nicely done,” Graham, an old insurance buddy of mine, said a bit uncertainly.
Charles nodded agreement, for what it was worth, then scratched his pectorals.
“You’re going to spoil him,” Rebecca said.
Talking while naked on any subject other than sex is a strange and mysterious activity. There are layers to the conversation, the pretense of normalcy always hiding an awareness that items were bobbing around uncontrolled, that one was behaving rather boldly. Now, I suspected there was a layer of politeness added, a refusal to notice the content of the photos.
“I was hoping,” I said, “to hit a few of you up for a favor.”
Portfolio Photo #2
Twenty-four hours after the operation. My stomach is stitched and bandaged and demurely out of sight beneath the crisp white sheets. Hanging bags above me drip drops into my veins and a tube snaking into my nose and down my gullet is busy sucking fluid from my small intestines. A stocky nurse stands beside me, encouraging me to perform leg exercises while breathing deeply. I stare up at her with a baffled expression.
They waited, polite guests that they were. I explained about my project, how I wanted to capture each of the stages in my dying, to create a photo-essay on the glorious passing of Morrison Graber, husband, citizen, retired convention planner. All my life, I’d been setting up ceremonies and displays for others. Now, I wanted to set up something for myself. And already, I’d missed so much good material! There was the rather nondescript, elderly nurse with me on one arm, my enema kit clutched in the other, as we tottered to the Oz of the bathroom together; and a touching scene with Rebecca standing bird bent over me and spraying into my gaping mouth 0.5 ml of artificial saliva; not to mention the operation itself, as my stomach popped open and the cancer sprang out, everything all red and jolly.
“You want us to take pictures of you while you’re dying?” Graham asked.
I smiled and nodded. “Exactly. Rebecca helped me out with some of the early shots, but absolutely refuses to take any more.”
“While you’re dying,” Graham repeated.
There was silence, and much of the party sparkle seemed to fade. Carla, a heavyset friend Rebecca had been trying for years to set me up with, was in tears.
“See?” Rebecca said.
Charles raised his arms and stretched and then asked, “Why wait?” He looked around at the group. “I mean, you might die right here on the rug.”
“Or by the door,” Graham said.
“Exactly!” Although it wasn’t what I planned, I was taken with the idea.
Eight or nine of the couples traditionally bring digital cameras to capture moments for their private collections, and suddenly the room filled with pointing lenses. Everyone became a director, ordering me to lie here or there. I sprawled half-on, half-off the couch, my arms spread wide. My tongue dangled out the left side of my mouth.
“You don’t look dead enough,” Graham said, and Carla, with eyebrow liner, drew black Xs on my lids. She leaned closer and printed one cheek with a lipstick kiss.
They took me into the master bedroom and propped me up against the headboard, while four lovely naked women, Carla closest on my left, snuggled in and attempted to look satiated, while I attempted to look lifeless.
“That’s the way you’ll probably go,” Charles said and laughed. Everyone was laughing. I joined in. I mean, why not? Then they grew tired or bored and gradually drifted out of the room, searching for something else to do.
When I rose slowly from the bed, Carla helped me up.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
“I’m fine,” I whispered back. “Why are we whispering?”
She stared at me with a look hard to face. “I hate this,” she said. “I really do. It’s not funny at all.”
“It is, a little. It’s just a game.”
I returned my photos to the portfolio, then walked Carla back to the pool. I watched her wander in the grass along the hedge. She’d gotten another glass of wine, and I wondered how many she’d had. It was getting late, and the guests were dividing into groups, splinters of lasciviousness, but there was an almost obligatory feel about it all. The smoke in the sky seemed closer.
Portfolio Photo #3
There I am, sitting propped in bed just before my first run of chemo, proudly displaying the scar across my stomach. The operation was over; I’d gone home and healed a bit, and then returned, losing much of my body in the process. Loose flaps of skin fall across my chest. I still have my hair, but my face seems pinched, my eyes dark and large, and yet I’m smiling bravely through it all, the plucky California lad.
A half hour later, Kevin called me into the living room. “You’d better put some pants on,” he said and pointed to the door.
When I finally opened it, two young men in jump suits and hard hats seemed simultaneously tired and impatient. A white SUV with the county shield on the side was double-parked in the street. Beyond it, the Pacific Ocean swallowed all the light and, down the hill to the left, I saw small dark figures moving back and forth among all the formerly quiet houses. I thought I could guess what this was about and stepped out onto the front porch, closing the door behind me.
One of the men handed me a sheet of paper with the Emergency Evacuation Route clearly marked. The wind was picking up, they said, and there was only a 30 percent containment. They advised me to leave within the hour, though there was no immediate danger, no need for unnecessary panic.
“It’s sort of an adventure,” I said.
They seemed uncertain about that and started emphasizing the seriousness of the situation, the speed of the fire, the heat it generated. This grew boring, and I nodded my head, yes, yes, then finally cut them off, letting them know I’d spread the word. Evacuate immediately. I stepped inside and closed the door and watched from the window as, a few seconds later, they turned and headed for their car.
“What was that all about?” Kevin asked.
For a moment, I was young again, back negotiating terms, wearing the business face while setting up the deal. “They were just keeping the neighborhood posted,” I said. “Fire’s already 30 percent contained.” I smiled and undressed and, eventually, Kevin smiled back. We walked together through the house to the pool, talking about my wife and his recent experiences with her. He was properly appreciative.
Outside, the smoke seemed markedly closer, leaning over our shoulders, and the smell had thickened. Or, perhaps, I just noticed it more. My mood brightened, and I looked at the sky and imagined my body changing in the dark, reforming, growing octopus tentacles of cancer. I wanted to make terrifying noises and leap out at folks, but I simply waved to those swimming in the pool, and touched the shoulders of those lounging in the chairs.
My wife wasn’t around, and I suspected she was enjoying one of the bedrooms. Charles, too, seemed to be missing, but I doubted if the two of them were together. They hadn’t gotten along very well recently.
Carla stood in front of the gazebo, talking to two men, both friends of my wife. I chatted with the three of them for a while, then pulled Carla aside. No one, sadly, seemed to object.
She stood too close, and I felt her breasts brush against me.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, haven’t we?” I asked, deliberately not stepping back.
She looked up at me, drunkenly, yearningly. “Sure,” she said softly.
“Then, I want you to do me a favor.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
“Without asking any questions or making a fuss, I’d like you to get dressed and get in your car and go home.”
Her face froze. “Am I that drunk?”
I put my hands on her warm, freckled shoulders and smiled. “If you were, I’d call you a taxi. This is just as a favor to me.”
Her eyes were wet again.
“I’ll make it up to you,” I said, hating all the emotional nonsense going on between us. “I promise.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, then hugged me and kissed my cheek.
“It’s just something I want you to do.” She stared at me a moment, then turned and grabbed a towel from the back of a chair. She walked along the pool and disappeared into the house.
I felt bad; I felt good. It was an evening of contrasts.
Portfolio Photo #4
The end of the second week of chemo. I’m sitting in bed, like an Alice in white. My hair is gone, my skull dull and eczematous. On my face, I wear the expression of a startled baby bird, peering up, uncertain. Actually, I seem rather cute, open and defenseless. “Metastasize,” like “dirigible,” is a fun word to pronounce.
The music changed, conforming to the hour. Frank Sinatra sang “Fly Me to the Moon” and other favorites. Rebecca had wheeled the drink cart out, and there were twenty or so of us sitting in the chairs around the pool. Quite a few of the guests had left already or had found themselves a private nook to frolic in. Occasionally, a wife or husband would come tipsily by, asking if anyone had seen their spouse. Linda, a former lover, walked up to me sobbing. She’d had freshets of tears many times before, brought on by pique or a bit too much to drink; there was no sense plumbing for causes. I pulled her onto my lap and tenderly caressed her breasts. I have no idea if this helps her, but I always enjoy it.
“I better go find him,” she finally said, leaning over and whispering in my ear.
I had no idea of whom she spoke, but agreed that it might be just the thing to do. As she rose, I spanked her butt, purely avuncular, and watched her wobble off.
I lay back among all the normal party talk, resting, regaining my strength, and simply looked at the smoke obscuring the stars. I imagined great distances and worlds of sterile rock spun by unknown galaxies. Stars birthed in silent cataclysm, and I might have dozed for a moment.
At some uncertain time later, I noticed the hedge shake on the far side of the pool. There was a coughing or a grunting, and people were suddenly on their feet. A woman gave a muted cry as something large and pointed struggled in the pittosporum. I couldn’t move for a second, and then it was through and facing us, an eight-point buck. It held its head down, panting, and its coat shone with sweat.
I stood and then had trouble focusing. The first glowing sparks sprinkled down from the blackness. “What do you think it wants?” I asked my neighbor, but she just glanced at me and then back to the beast.
Someone shouted, “The Fire!” and everyone was screaming and running, quite unnecessarily, I thought. The deer had its head up and danced backward into the hedge, then spun and jumped a chair and another; it seemed pure grace, bounding around, until someone grabbing for his pants forced it against a small table, and it staggered and nearly fell. Its horns ripped the air quite pathetically.
The deck cleared until only the buck and I remained. I watched it shaking, its eyes wide and rolling, then I turned, leaving it to its destiny, and walked into the house, through the hall, and into the living room. Guests ran in and out, shouting to each other, and I sat for a while on the couch next to my portfolio and watched all the activity. No one can say I don’t throw one hell of a party.
When the crowd thinned, I picked up my photos and walked out the front door and watched as the party-goers ran to their cars, backed and filled, and roared off to the right. To the left, at the bottom of the hill, came the fire.
The street and the yards of the houses below were jammed with vehicles. Massive trucks and red vans parked haphazardly. Men in yellow raincoats walked busily back and forth and I started down, the very image of nonchalance. I knew I was still naked, but didn’t see now how it really mattered, how anything really mattered. And, for a while, no one noticed.
Portfolio Photo #5
The pride of my collection, the endoscopic photo of the interior of my stomach, entitled, “Infiltrative Gastric Adenocarcinoma,” with my name and patient number delicately printed beneath. Unlike other normal stomachs, where the rugae are pretty in pinks and reds, mine has the characteristic, rather disgusting, “leather bottle” appearance with the extensive mucosal erosion. Actually, in this photo, the inner man is not looking all that spiffy.
At one house, halfway down, people were still packing up. A teenage girl dragged a small screaming boy by one arm across the lawn. Her mother, bent under a stack of hangered dresses, walked slowly to the back of a large recreational vehicle, while her father stood at the front door, shouting and hugging a big-screen TV. I waved, delighted, but no one bothered to respond. In the distance, directly in front of me, a tsunami of fire and obscuring smoke moved across the flatlands. Above me, the clouds glowed red, and sparks had replaced the stars. A fine soot rained down. All in all, it was rather pretty, I thought, and imagined it an item in my portfolio, Morrison’s end, with the hill aflame and gouts of water arcing high. Unfortunately, yet again, there was no one around with a camera.
As I threaded my way through the emergency vehicles, I wondered briefly where Rebecca might be and pictured her and one of her many admirers fighting their way through the flames. They’d be panicked, beating against the tacky dashboard with their fists as the heat rose around them. Or so I imagined. I grew conscious of my feet against the rough asphalt and regretted not putting on shoes.
I passed a worker in overalls leaning into the open side of his van and nodded to him pleasantly. As I moved slowly on, he grabbed my arm and shouted something. “Hey!” perhaps it was.
I stopped and turned to him. “Good evening,” I said above the sounds of the engines and the pumps and such. He seemed nonplused or amazed, and I explained that these were merely photos I was carrying, treasuring them, as it were, but otherwise having a wonderful night.
He seemed not to hear and pulled me roughly along the street. Only seconds later, we were standing by an ambulance.
“I’m perfectly okay,” I said, but again my words seemed without effect. It grew rather irritating. A woman in a hard hat and white jump suit stood at the vehicle’s rear door and reached in and brought out a blanket and wrapped it around my shoulders.
“This is unnecessary,” I said, stepping back, shrugging it off.
“You’ll be okay, sir,” she said.
“No, I don’t think I will.”
The man in overalls grabbed me from behind and held me, goose-stepping me closer to the woman. She wrapped me again in the cloth and pointed to the interior of the vehicle. “We’ll take care of you, sir.”
They seemed intent on ferrying me to the hospital. For a second, I couldn’t think, overcome with the irony of it all. I stopped struggling, and they helped me up the step and forced me into a cot and strapped me down.
“My portfolio,” I said, as she leaned over me. “Please.”
She grabbed the leather case and placed it on my legs and walked away.
As the minutes passed, I lay there surrounded by the cold metal walls and listened to the sounds outside, the shouts and the revved engines. There were two distant explosions, and I contemplated how strange the night had been. I would miss it all, I thought, and then suffered yet again a dark shiver of fear, of terror.
“Hey!” I shouted. “I haven’t got all night!” I banged on the wall and started laughing. I just couldn’t help myself.