published in Crazyhorse 41 (1991): 106-31
How Lance Got His Limp
As they were lifting Lancelot Ulysses Beauchere into the ambulance, he turned his head and saw Mrs. Anna Louisa Varens (nee Cortez) looking at him. She looked more ticked off than concerned, and not only did Lance think then that she looked like any other thirty-five year-old woman preparing to do battle with age by jogging and playing tennis and working on her tan, but he thought also that her purple velour jogging suit did absolutely nothing for either her complexion or her figure. He thought too that that same jogging suit, which a mere month ago he had reverently picked up to sniff and press against his cheek while she was in his shower, that same jogging suit would end up in the Junior League’s second hand shop. She would, inevitably, change her mind about both jogging and the Junior League. Who knows, in a year’s time she might even attend one of his mother’s teas, and God knows, she and his mother might talk. He groaned.
A flabby, sweaty man with no shirt on stood next to Anna Louisa. The man turned to her and said, “Do you know him?” Anna Louisa said, “No. No, I don’t.” Somebody pressing on his foot said, “It’s all right, not long now,” and then the ambulance door closed and he couldn’t see her anymore.
Not long now, indeed, but it wouldn’t be all right when somebody called his mother and said, “Mrs. Beauchere, your son has shot himself in the foot down at Winslow’s Pond.” He tried really hard to figure out what he would say to his mother when she came to the hospital and gave him that look that said “child, you have been a trial and tribulation to me since the day you were born.” But then he thought, good Lord, it might be even worse! His father might be at the hospital. He might be right in the middle of cutting somebody open or stitching somebody up, and somebody might say, “Dr. Beauchere, your son is in the emergency room with a bullet hole in his right foot.” Then his father wouldn’t rush or miss a lick; he would just nod and then go on methodically and precisely as he did with everything till it was finished. And then there he’d be giving Lance that look that said “when are you going to do something useful with your life?” The worst of it was that they would treat this hole in his foot as the latest in a lifelong series of falls and scrapes.
Nonetheless, he tried to tell the ambulance attendant to tell the driver to take him to University Hospital where his father would most certainly not be, where Lance would have to wait to be seen for hours with all the poor people with ice picks in their sides and wrecked limbs barely hooked up to the rest of their bodies and poisons in their bellies. That, he thought, was what he truly deserved: to wait and wait in the company of those for whom life wouldn’t get any better no matter how many stitches or splints they had or how often their stomachs were pumped. Why, he might bleed to death before he even got past Vital Signs, and then he wouldn’t have to try to explain anything to anyone. “University,” he muttered.
“No, Methodist,” the attendant said.
Lance winced. His father would surely be at Methodist Hospital, but it might be even worse than that because other people there might know him. He had washed test tubes and filed x-rays there when he was in high school and even sometimes when he was in college, even after it became clear that he’d never make a doctor. Just now, he wanted to be able to pray. If he could have, he would have prayed: Dear Lord, just this once, let me disappear from the face of the earth and make everybody forget my name.
His mother could pray, but that had just been a development of menopause. “I guess it’s better than her taking to drink,” his father had said. Anna Louisa might have prayed when she was a Catholic, but she had turned into a Baptist when she married Jim Varens, and how could she pray if she drank and danced too, not to mention the other thing she had done with Lance? Wasn’t the God of the Baptists reluctant to forgive such things? Anna Louisa would go through menopause in ten years, maybe less. Maybe it was best that she had no intention of divorcing Jim Varens to marry Lance after all. Lord, but he was glad that he hadn’t been able to shoot her! It would have been worse than divorce.
A doctor and two nurses met the ambulance at the door and checked the pulse in his foot and looked in his eyes and pressed on his foot some more. They transferred him to a rolling bed and rolled him to a room where he resigned himself to a flurry of demeaning attentions from nurses and nurse’s aides. He couldn’t tell how many there were; he could hardly tell them one from the other. They spoke among themselves, but no one addressed him directly. He was about to observe aloud, for the benefit of no one in particular, that his foot really didn’t hurt that much, when he began to wonder what that fat, stern one there was going to do with those scissors in her hand. Good Lord! They were cutting his pants off!
He reflected that it had taken just one woman to make a fool of him, and now it was taking a damned gaggle of them to shame and humiliate him utterly.
Shortly before this thing with Anna Louisa had started, his mother had come into his room one morning. He was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling just as he had every morning for the past three months. She opened the curtains with a vengeance.
“I don’t understand you, Lance. It’s ten o’clock and here you are lying in bed!” She began to bustle noisily around his room rearranging this and that so he’d never be able to find anything. “You go to college, just like everybody else. But you come out with a useless degree in literature. You go to Europe, just like everybody else. But you spend three months on Crete. You did not even go to Paris, France. Everybody goes to Paris, France! But you.”
“Aw, Mama,” he said.
“Aw, Mama, aw, Mama,” she said, stalking right up to the edge of his bed with a pair of dirty socks in her hand. Why don’t you got to law school or graduate school or something? Isn’t that what people do when they don’t go to medical school?”
“Next to being naturally rich,” he said, “those are the things, in that order, that people do. Right again, Mom.”
“I do not understand why you’re so sarcastic,” she said. “We’ve given you everything you need or want. We’ve supported you in whatever you’ve done as long as it’s been the right thing. Now here you are grown, twenty-two years old, and lying around the house like a slug for three whole months. It’s almost May, Lance!”
“Yes,” he said, “yes, you’ve given me everything and you’ve always supported me if, if it’s been ‘the right thing.’ How do you decide what’s ‘right?’ Does Jesus whisper it in your ear?”
She put her hands up to her ears and, muttering something about thankless children, she turned and walked out of his room. He leapt up from the bed, and covering his genitals by making an X of his hands before him, he followed her into the hall. “Three months,” he said. “What’s three months? I need time to think.” He halfway expected her to laugh and forgive him–she usually did–but she was mad now. He really shouldn’t have said that thing about Jesus.
She turned to face him. “Well, what are you going to do with your life? And don’t tell me you’re going to read books. Everybody can read.”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Well, you have to do something,” she said. “I don’t understand! You were such a serious child, you always did so well in school, and then you just threw your hands up and quit doing anything that means anything. Don’t you have a lick of common sense? I don’t understand!”
“Neither do I,” he said.
“And for goodness’ sake,” she said emphatically, “put a robe on when you leave your room!”
That very day he got a job tending bar at Lola’s, and he rented a garage apartment on Euclid Street. The next morning when he had loaded everything up in his car and was ready to leave, his mother walked him out of the house, acting as if he were moving ten hours away instead of ten minutes. She touched his arm and said, “Love you, Lance. Call. Come to dinner.” He kissed her forehead and they embraced.
As he was pulling out of the driveway, he looked back and saw that his mother was stepping after the car and saying something. He stopped and stuck his head out the window. “What is it?” he yelled.
“Wear underwear!” she shouted. He waved, tooted the horn twice, and drove away. Why hadn’t she added, “And stay away from married women”? A month later this business with Anna Louisa had started. But he wouldn’t have listened to his mother on that subject any more than he had listened to her about underwear.
The old semper ubi sub ubi joke popped into his head just as the nurses finished cutting his pants off. They made no sign that they knew he hadn’t worn underwear ever since somebody had told him that Hemingway didn’t. They pulled his shirt off over his head, for all the world as if they were emptying a sack of potatoes, and for a split second he was as naked as he was the day he fell from his mother’s womb. He would have covered himself if they had not started immediately to stuff his arms into the sleeves of a hospital gown.
All but two of them briskly left the room. The two who remained–the fat one who had wielded the scissors and the red-cheeked blonde who had dumped him out of his shirt–proceeded to try to get an IV needle into his left hand. Twice it wouldn’t stay in. The blonde said, “Don’t look,” but he looked anyway. The third time, the needle jumped violently from the vein and was followed by a little spray of blood that spattered Lance’s gown, the nurses’ uniforms, and a small portion of the wall behind them. He saw the blonde one blanch. The fat one said, “I give up” and left the room to get a doctor.
Lance stared at his hand and thought about pithing the frog in zoology class his second semester of college. He had dissected all manner of animals before, but he had never actually killed one. “Hurry up, Beauchere,” Mr. Winnow said; “we don’t have all day.” Lance held the frog properly, put the needle in at the right place, and jiggled the needle rapidly till Winnow said, “Done. Let it go.” But when Lance let go, the frog was not quite dead yet, and he almost fainted when he saw its spasms. Winnow had to pick it up and finish it. Later, Winnow stopped Lance and said, “If stuff like that gets to you, Beauchere, you’re not gonna make it.” He was right. It was Lance’s last semester in pre-med, but not just because of the frog.
As the doctor put the second part of an X of tape over the cotton over the place where the needle went in, he said, “Done. Now don’t jerk your hand around or you’ll undo the IV. OK?”
“OK,” Lance said. Then they wheeled him into a corridor and the blonde told him that he was waiting for x-ray, as if that would require special effort on his part. The commotion over, they left him there alone. Maybe his father wasn’t here, he thought. Maybe he could lie about his name. Why hadn’t they asked him his name so he could smirk and say “Mr. X”? Where were his sunglasses? Where were his shoes? Could he run away? MADMAN GNAWS IV TUBE! HOBBLING ESCAPE FROM HOSPITAL! TRAIL OF BLOOD: FEW CLUES TO WHEREABOUTS! He hadn’t shot himself on purpose, but he knew nobody would believe that. Why hadn’t anyone asked him so he could try to make them believe?
In the first week of June, Brad Brandon, Lance’s oldest and best friend and the son of Judge Brandon, who had taken Jim Varens on as his law partner, took Lance to a party at the recently renovated Winslow area home of Jim and Anna Louisa Varens. Lance vaguely remembered not only having seen Anna Louisa here and there around town for years, but having served her a Singapore Sling or two at Lola’s. He had hardly ever looked at her, for there was nothing unusual about her. Later on, of course, he was to think that he had noticed her striking ebony hair and her mellifluous laughter all along. But that was just one of those revisions of the past that love sometimes makes as it seeks to insert a vision of the beloved in every empty place, and Lance had plenty of empty spaces.
Even at her party he did not really notice her until her sons, two little lanky, tow-headed boys, came and stood at the foot of the stairs to say good night. When she leaned to kiss them, she seemed suddenly to be the most beautiful creature that Lance had ever seen. It was not the same feeling he had had for any of the women he had dated or slept with since he was seventeen. Rather, it was as if he had been hit with the full force of all the figures of women toward which he had directed all his mysterious yearning as a boy–engravings of Pocohantas, Florence Nightingale, and Madame Curie; photographs of Hayley Mills, Sophia Loren, and Bridget Bardot; and the entire bra and girdle section of the Sears catalog. It was suddenly as if she were all women or the only woman, and Lance could have died in a fit of rapture when he saw his–already he thought his, dark-haired Madonna bend to kiss her sons.
Trembling and breathless, he watched her watch her sons go up the stairs. When she turned around, she saw him staring at her. She looked him straight in the eye, smiled, stepped toward him. “Are you feeling all right?” she asked.
He had to clear his throat before he could speak, and even so, the first two words came out in falsetto. “How old are they?” he said.
She laughed. “Ten and twelve. How old are you?”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Not that I know of.”
“You must meet my sister Elizabeth,” she said. She took him by the hand and, pulling him behind her, began to thread her way through the crowd.
Lance had seen his share of good-looking women–the world, after all, is full of them, and it is not rare for a young man to meet one, two, or a dozen–but Elizabeth Cortez was beautiful, and if Lance had not been enthralled by her sister a mere three minutes before, he would have noticed this. Instead he thought, as he looked from one to the other, that Elizabeth’s auburn hair was not as black, her blue eyes were not as green, her Greek nose was not as Roman, nor was her rosy skin as olive as her sister’s.
“Elizabeth,” Anna Louisa said in that breathless way of hers with which he was to become so unfortunately familiar, “I want you to meet a perfectly charming young man.” Turning to him, she said, “This is my sister, Elizabeth Cortez. Elizabeth, this is . . . Why, I forgot your name!”
“Lance Beauchere,” he said, leaning forward to shake Elizabeth’s hand and, accidentally, brushing his arm against Anna Louisa’s breasts.
“Hello,” Elizabeth said. Then she looked at Anna Louisa and, in a Hollywood version of a Southern accent, said, “Why, Anna Louisa, really, I can meet young men on my own.” She laughed and Anna Louisa sighed with mock exasperation.
“He’s really very nice,” Anna Louisa said, as if defending a pet who’d behaved poorly.
“You don’t even know me,” Lance said, laughing.
Anna Louisa narrowed her eyes and said, “I know you.” And instead of taking this as a bit of flirtatious presumption, Lance had taken it as an absolute statement of recognition. He had taken it to heart at a time when there was so little that he could take to heart. Surely, he thought, surely she was his heart’s desire! Surely this was love!
A chubby nurse who had swished up to his rolling bed said, “I know you.” This gave Lance quite a start. It frightened him when transitions in real life resembled transitions in fiction because that meant that there might not be any difference, and where would that leave him? Now his little reverie had been spoiled. The nurse frowned and said, “Aren’t you Tommy Jamison?” as she began to check his IV.
“No,” Lance said.
“Hunh,” she said, moving to check his foot. “You look just like him.”
“Well, I’m not,” Lance said.
“I guess his hair is a bit darker,” she said, as if she were not quite willing to give up her misapprehension (ah, who among us ever is?). She frowned again, said, “But you look just like him,” and scooted off down the corridor.
Lance turned his head to the side and stared at the place where the baseboard of the wall met the floor. There it was: the thing he’d discovered about hospitals early on: they all smelled like antiseptic, and they were scrubbed and cultured day in and day out, but there was always that little bit of dirt in the corners and along the edges of the walls. It seemed to him that things were always threatening to turn into something else. It terrified him to think of how fragile identity was, to think that it could be erased bit by bit or all at once and absolutely.
For most of the month of June, Anna Louisa’s arms and thighs had made him forget that dead was dead, that being alive was a process of getting dead, that there was a point at which difference, differences among or within species, even differences of sex, made no difference at all. What was the sense of seeing and hearing and feeling and doing if things were so fragile? He had wanted one thing, just one thing that would make the fact of death irrelevant, and he had thought, he had thought it was Anna Louisa, but maybe he just hadn’t thought at all. He couldn’t tell.
The Tuesday after her party he had a late shift, and for no particular reason he went to the zoo that afternoon. The polar bears were swaying in the heat. He watched them for a long time. Occasionally they’d lope toward their mucky pool of water and slide in, only to lift their sad, noble heads as they paddled sadly about. For the most part, they stood on their dingy, white-washed ledge, swaying back and forth, shifting their weight from left to right and back again in a slow dance of misery. They seemed so horribly displaced that he was on the verge, damn it, of weeping when he suddenly heard Anna Louisa’s voice behind him: “Oh, Lance! Is that you? Fancy meeting you here! Hello!”
They walked together from polar bear to lion, from hippopotamus to emu, from chimpanzee to elephant, and when they went into a false cave to observe a newborn giraffe, why, she leaned toward him and touched his arm as if it were the most innocent and natural thing in the world. He did not pay much attention to their conversation; when Anna Louisa asked him what reticulated meant, she could have asked him what ambrosia or pleasure or paradise meant, and it would have been all the same to Lance. They moved on to the llama.
As he was describing the occasion on which this very llama now before them had spit at him, she looked at him as if in a fit of delight and said, “Not only are you handsome, but you’re so smart.”
“Not really, he said, not even realizing that she hadn’t been listening then to his story about the llama at all.
“Oh, but you are! she said. “And I do so wish you’d take my sister Elizabeth out. She’s smart too and she went to Berkeley!”
As he walked her to her Thunderbird, she babbled about Elizabeth, about Blufftown, about how her husband wanted her to join the Junior League but she was too young to spend her time with a bunch of snobby biddies, about how she redecorated her house all by herself almost, about nothing, nothing, nothing. His eyes wandered from her wonderful face to the embroidered figure of a parrot on the breast pocket of her blouse, and as she drove away, he worried that he’d been grinning like a fool.
Wednesday was his day off. He was smoking a joint and gazing out the window at a street light that he liked to watch come on on Wednesdays, when he saw a dark-haired woman walking up toward his apartment. He watched. She stopped briefly to peer into his car. He heard light, quick footsteps on the stairs, then a rapid knock on the door. He hoped it was Anna Louisa; he knew it wouldn’t be; it was.
She was just passing by on her way to a yoga class at Blufftown U., she said, and she thought she’d stop by and say “hello.” He offered her a drink. She had a bourbon, neat, and he forgot instantly that she also drank Singapore Slings, said things like “fancy meeting you here,” and thought that going to Berkeley was the bee’s knees. She said the same things that all women said when they saw his tiny apartment: said it was like a treehouse, said it was charming, said he had a fine sense of color. They made love on the floor between the split-leaf philodendron and the stereo. He had never been so happy; he had never spent such long moments just not thinking at all, just not thinking that he was thinking or that if he wasn’t he had to.
On Thursday, he called Elizabeth Cortez and asked her if she’d go dancing with him when he got off work. She said, “Yes.” Elizabeth was the thing that he really hadn’t thought about. Oh, God, he thought suddenly, what a son-of-a-bitch I was. And she knew. She knew.
An orderly popping chewing gum in an irritating manner disrupted Lance’s line, as it were, of thought by rolling him into x-ray where he recognized and was recognized by a slender, red-haired x-ray technician. Now he lies quietly hoping that she will not say “what happened?” She doesn’t.
When the orderly had rolled him to yet another room as white as the margins on a page of print, he stared at the ceiling and thought about the question. What did people mean when they asked “what happened,” when the “what” of the matter was obvious? They meant “how” or “why” surely, but what was it they expected? Wasn’t it always the same? Even when the question referred to something human, they wanted something simple, clear, reasonable--as if the mind and heart were as straightforward as an engine or as predictable as the course of some disease. They wanted something you couldn’t give them.
It had been that way with his father after he had been so distracted by grim meditations on our common fate that he had almost flunked zoology. His father hadn’t even looked up from the fish he was cleaning when he said, “You’ll never get into medical school with grades like that. What happened?”
Lance said, “I don’t know. Maybe I should give up.”
“I didn’t say that, son,” his father said.
Lance watched the scales flying into the air at each stroke of his father’s knife. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he said; “I just don’t have the heart for it anymore.”
He had seen his father on the verge of tears once when his father had accidentally decapitated a frog with the lawnmower, but if he had mentioned the torment of pithing the frog it wouldn’t have been sufficient. It wouldn’t have been sufficient to say that he had been brooding for three months over the notion that the more highly differentiated an organism was, the more numerous were its possibilities for being violated intimately and beyond recovery. It wouldn’t have been sufficient to say that night after night after night he dreamed of stacks of bones beyond sorting out or reconstruction or of throngs of mutant, gibbering, wailing, hardly human forms. It wouldn’t have been sufficient to say that he had tacked a large drawing of a paramecium above his desk and that he had spent hours admiring its simplicity and wishing that he could forget his own humanness. It wouldn’t have been sufficient to say that his despair was punctuated by an incapacitating tenderness for the things and people around him, that then it wasn’t that he couldn’t forget that bothered him but that he would have to at some point remember because things changed and disappeared, sooner or later changed and disappeared.
Nothing he could have said would have made his father understand. His father didn’t believe that one thing could lead to another without actually causing it.
Old Dr. Michael, who played golf and went deer hunting with Lance’s father and persisted in quizzing Lance on medical terms, as if Lance would one day soon straighten up and fly right, came into the room, and Lance was glad to see his kind face. He had taught Lance how to tie seven kinds of knots when Lance was a boy, and he greeted Lance as if Lance were there for nothing more serious than a sore throat or an ear ache. He looked at Lance’s foot and said, “You’re lucky you didn’t hit a major artery, Lance. At any rate, you did hit some digital arteries, you broke a few metatarsals, and there’s some burned tissue we’ll have to clean out. Know what we call that?’
“Debridement,” Lance said.
Dr. Michael laughed. Lance was glad he laughed because that might take his mind off any questions he might have about what the hell Lance was doing at Winslow’s Pond with a .22. Dr. Michael said, “We’ll give you spinal anesthesia, so you’ll be awake the whole time.”
“You know,” Lance said, “it really doesn’t hurt that much.”
“You won’t say that in the morning,” Dr. Michael said. he patted Lance’s arm and gazed at him for a moment. “See you in a little while,” he said and left.
Lance had kind of enjoyed taking Elizabeth out, and though he almost always had to squelch the desire to ask about her sister’s life, he sometimes almost forgot that she was Anna Louisa’s sister. He found Elizabeth pleasant company. She was quick-witted, she could hold her liquor, and she was kind except for once when she said something about her sister’s “shallow acquisitiveness.” He had started to see Elizabeth two or three times a week, and everyone, even his parents, thought that he and Elizabeth had a thing.
In the meantime, he had managed to work out a schedule at Lola’s that left all the times when Anna Louisa might be able to see him open. She came to see him on Wednesdays from seven till nine when she was supposed to be in yoga class. She came to see him on Tuesdays or Thursdays from two till four when her sons were at baseball practice. And once she made a radical detour as she was jogging around Winslow’s Pond and came to see him early on a Monday morning. They usually stayed at his apartment, and she insisted on having a shower before she went home. They made love in all the places and in all the ways that lovers in the quick of love always do. Lance was full of a lover’s tropes and Anna Louisa was full of the encouraging moans and monosyllables that have given rise, as it were, to lover’s tropes for centuries. On the days that she could not see him, he got up early in the morning and drove or walked to Winslow’s Pond and secretly watched her jog.
He slept awhile. When he awoke, his father was standing by his bed. His father looked at his foot and said matter-of-factly, “Son, that was a damned fool thing to do.”
“I know,” Lance said. A nurse and two orderlies came in to wheel him away to the operating room. Lance turned his head from his father so his father would not see his eyes.
He was almost in a fetal position when they gave him the local and then the spinal anesthesia. He thought suddenly that he had never even watched Anna Louisa sleep.
When for the third Wednesday in a row Anna Louisa was to come to his apartment for their usual romp, Lance bought a dozen yellow roses and hid them in the kitchen, planning to give them to her before she left as a sort of anniversary gift. They were lying in bed and Lance was gazing steadfastly at her face as usual when she said, “What, what are you looking at?”
“I was looking at the lovely little lines around your eyes,” he said, smiling, happy as a lark.
He was shocked when she slapped him and leapt up from the bed. As he lay there listening to her take a shower, he couldn’t figure out why she had suddenly become so furious. He wanted to know so that, whatever it was, he could apologize.
When she came out of the bathroom and started to put her leotard on, he said, “Anna Louisa, I don’t know what I’ve done.” And she knelt next to the bed and kissed his arm, his chest, his face.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’m just in a bad mood.”
He gave her the roses, and she said “How sweet!” and kissed him again. After she left, he dressed and got in his car to drive past her house several times as he always did now. About a block from his apartment, he saw yellow roses, or maybe they were white, he couldn’t tell, scattered in the road, pale and forlorn in the street light. He couldn’t imagine what vicissitude of love might have led someone to abandon such a gift to be given or to be received. I made him feel grateful and happy that Anna Louisa had accepted a similar gift of his own with such obvious delight.
The anesthesiologist began to prod her way up his legs. “Tell me when you feel it,” she said. “Now,” he said when she got to his groin.
Anna Louisa didn’t come to him on the Thursday after he’d given her the roses; she called and said she had to go to the hairdresser’s, but she invited Lance and Elizabeth to a dinner party at her house the following Tuesday when, to his dismay, she would not be able to visit him in the afternoon. He counted the days, and he didn’t think then, but he thought now, about why Anna Louisa had made him a pair with her sister for her dinner party. What a regular puppy he had been! He cringed to think of it now.
He had been extremely polite to Anna Louisa’s wide-faced, good-natured husband. He had felt that he could afford to be nice because Jim Varens had the bad taste to own two pairs of white shoes (a fact culled from Elizabeth), because Jim Varens did not even know that he, Lance Beauchere, had seen the thin white crescent-shaped scars beneath Anna Louisa’s breasts, scars left from the breast lift that Jim had given her for her last birthday, at her request, instead of a new car. Anna Louisa seated Lance next to her at the table and pressed her knee against his a good part of the time and watched his face to see how he was taking it. He loved to be so tormented by her, but it made it damned near impossible to carry on polite conversation or eat or afterwards push his chair back and stand up with any degree of grace. Elizabeth had looked at him and arched her brow when he dropped his fork the second time.
After the party, he took Elizabeth back to his apartment with him. She walked around the apartment while he fixed drinks. He was grateful that she didn’t say the usual things about his apartment because Anna Louisa’s having said them last had made them kind of holy observations. From the bedroom door, Elizabeth called to him. “Lance?” she said.
“What?” he said, walking toward her, putting the drink in her hand: “What is it?”
“Could we take our clothes off and get in your bed?” she said.
He laughed. She laughed. “Sure,” he said.
Afterwards, as she was buckling the strap of her sandal and he was loving the sight of her ankles, her wrists, her brown shoulders, she said, “I don’t want to see you again.”
“Tell me when you feel this, OK?” the anesthesiologist said as she began to prick him with a set of pins. She got to his navel before he said, “Now.”
He had thought that Elizabeth must be kidding. She kidded a lot. “Was it that bad?” he asked, grinning.
“It wasn’t bad,” she said, and she stood up and tucked her blouse into her skirt. “I just think that if you want to see my sister, you can do it all by yourself. I realized tonight that you are using me for a cover. That’s not the way I want it.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, still grinning, trying to look relaxed, amused, still hoping this was some joke.
“You know what I’m talking about,” she said, and she said it without malice, without a trace of heat in her voice. She walked to the door and paused, turning to look at him. “Anna Louisa has always gotten what she wanted,” she said. “I just wanted to see what she got this time. You don’t have to put your pants on. I can find my way home.” Then she left.
When they draped a sheet over a circular frame they’d set up over the middle of his body, he couldn’t see his foot anymore, and he couldn’t feel anything below his chest. He stared intently at the blank between him and the indelible mark he had made on himself. Why couldn’t things be as clean and tightly stretched as this sheet? Why could he not go back and erase it all, erase himself? Wouldn’t it all be erased soon enough anyway?
When he closed his eyes he saw colors, and he suddenly remembered the time when Miss Robin had told him to draw a heart to bring to school for Valentine’s Day. He had drawn a human heart that was as close to the image in one of his father’s anatomy books as his seven year-old eye and hand could get it in blue, yellow, pink, and scarlet crayons. His parents had been amused by his misunderstanding, but he had been so full of shame that he had locked himself in his room and wept for hours. It was the last time he wept. Until Anna Louisa.
“We’re starting now,” Dr. Michael said; “ready?” Lance said, “Ready.” Then he stared at the sheet, trying to remember what he’d been thinking of or if he’d been thinking at all. Then it was there.
After Elizabeth left, he stood awhile with one leg in and one leg out of his jeans, just as he had been standing when she said those stunning things. For the first time, he began to reflect then on what, exactly, he was doing with Anna Louisa. He dressed, got in his car, bought a six pack, and parked his car in front of a house two doors away and across the street from Anna Louisa’s. He stayed there until the maid left and all the lights went out. Then he began to drive around in an errant circle past Elizabeth’s apartment, past Brad Brandon’s house, past the home of his parents. He had never felt that it was possible to speak with someone else about how he felt. He knew that he needed to speak with someone now, but he did not know how to go about it and was not even certain that it could be done. And anyway, there were no lights on in any of the places where his heart could have found shelter. He rode round and round.
Lance knew that he was not by nature a callous young man, nor was he cruel. But as he rode around it did not make him feel any better to think that even kind people, not people who simply adhere to the kind formulas of our daily exchanges, but people who are motivated by and reflect from a tender regard for their fellow beings, even such people can behave callously and cruelly when a single affection–for an idea or a woman, for example–begins to loom much larger than the small but constant and important affections that determine the tenor of our lives as social beings. It did not make him feel any better to think this, because he could not think it in his heart. His passion for Anna Louisa did not seem to be dangerously intense and irrational at the time: it was like breathing or like rain, it was there, it was everything. He knew that something was wrong, and he felt ashamed, but being unused to moral deliberation, he couldn’t tell exactly what was wrong.
He was having an affair with a woman who was married to another man and had had that other man’s children. After he pondered this statement of his situation awhile, he decided that the deception involved in this was what was wrong. Without really thinking about it, he had tried to deceive Elizabeth, who had never been anything but lovely and kind, but that deception was merely part of the other deception–the deception of Anna Louisa’s husband and of both their families, friends, and acquaintances. He hated lying; it shocked him to think that was what he was doing. He reflected suddenly that if he and Anna Louisa must lie about what he thought of as their love for one another, then their love itself became a lie, and this simply could not be.
And what did our young man decide as he abandoned his holding pattern and drove out to the reservoir to stare at the dam? Why, he decided the thing that seemed clearest and simplest to him and the thing that was also the most impossible: this deception must stop. He and Anna Louisa must let the fact of their love be known. He knew that there would be disapproval, tears and pleading, on the part of everyone they knew, but their love, he was certain, would make them strong, and who knows, others, seeing the strength of their love, would soon accept them, perhaps even celebrate and praise them. He felt much better about things the following night as he waited for Anna Louisa, and he planned to discuss this problem of lying with her.
But Anna Louisa did not show up for her yoga session with Lance that night. By seven-thirty, he had begun to sink into a despair interrupted only by surges of hope when his lover’s ear turned the creaking of a tree branch or the far-off slamming of a car door or the rattling of a window shade in the breeze into the sound of her foot on his stairs, her hand on his door. How could she do this? She did not even phone! He was certain that her husband was holding her up! Why, she must even now be as anxiously disappointed as Lance himself! Surely she wanted to phone him, to say, “Oh, my darling! I want to, but I can’t!”
By eight-thirty what had passed for a moral argument with himself the night and morning before had dissipated entirely. Jim Varens was to blame for this, Lance thought. Jim Varens was to blame not only for Anna Louisa’s present absence but for her occasional presence as well. If Jim Varens hadn’t been Judge Brandon’s law partner, then Brad Brandon would never have taken Lance to a party at the Varens’ house, and then Lance would never have seen either a good part of Anna Louisa’s left breast or her remarkable transformation as she leaned to kiss her sons good night, now would he?
By nine o’clock, Lance was not thinking that Jim Varens was indirectly responsible for his wife’s infidelity as much as he was thinking how much better, easier, and longer things could be with Anna Louisa if her husband simply did not exist. Why, Jim Varens could never have existed at all. Or Jim Varens could just drop dead from a stroke or a heart attack–that happened to people in their late thirties sometimes, even when they seemed in perfect health. Or maybe he would have a cerebral aneurism and then Lance could comfort Mrs. Varens in a million ways while she waited for her husband’s head to explode. He liked that version, because it excused, or even made necessary, his presence in Mrs. Varens’ life, in addition to her presence in his.
But by eleven, he had decided that it was useless to hope for Jim Varens’ sudden removal from the earth. It was clear to him that he must make Anna Louisa listen to reason: she must divorce Jim Varens as quickly as possible and go live with Lance in New Orleans or somewhere. Who knows, maybe her sons would live with them and slowly grow to love Lance and think the world of him. Maybe they could have more children or adopt children so they could spread around the overabundance of love and joy that they were sure to have. Why was Anna Louisa postponing even the mention of what her heart must be telling her must be done sooner or later? Why was she married? Why did she have children? Why was she thirty-five?
Dr. Michael looked around the side of the sheet and said, “Lance? How are you doing?” It took a minute for Lance to register the words. “I’m OK,” he said.
He hadn’t slept at all when Anna Louisa came by the next afternoon. “I can’t stay long,” she said, pulling away from his embrace.
He did not think to ask her why she hadn’t come or called the evening before. “Anna Louisa, Anna Louisa,” he said: “You must get a divorce and marry me.”
“What!?” she said, alarmed.
“This sneaking about is hateful,” he said. “There is no reason we can’t be together always!”
“Good God, Lance!” she said. “Where did you get such a foolish idea? You sound like something out of a book!” She looked terrified. She was not being at all as brave as he had expected.
“But we love one another!” he cried.
“Not that way,” she said. She caught her breath and put her hand on his shoulder. “Lance, Lance, we mustn’t see each other any more.”
“What!?” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about it, Lance,” she said. “This has been a wonderful fling. No. Really. It’s made me feel so much better about myself, and you will always be dear to me. Please, Lance, believe me. But it’s over.”
“But I’m in love with you!” he shouted. “I love you!”
“Lance, Lance, people have little affairs all the time. You must look on the bright side of things. Didn’t we have fun? You’ll get over it. Now I really must go.”
Then, good Lord, oh Jesus, holy God, he was hanging onto her pants leg as she tried to walk out the door. He was weeping and begging her not to leave. He shuddered to think of it now.
Dr. Michael peered round the side the sheet. “You didn’t feel that did you?” he said.
“Not much longer, Champ,” Dr. Michael said and disappeared behind the sheet again.
Lance had called Lola’s and said he was sick as a dog and wouldn’t be able to work for at least a week. He bought a pair of wraparound sunglasses and went to the Owl Street Inn, where he figured Jim Varens would be having lunch with all the other lawyers. Sure enough, Jim Varens was there. With his sunglasses on, Lance sat at a dark corner table, drinking beer and ignoring his pastrami sandwich. He watched Jim Varens eating and he wondered if he could send a little note over to Jim’s table, something to the effect of: Your wife is confused. Meet me outside when you finish your veal cutlet.
But he didn’t send a note. He didn’t do anything. He simply felt entirely helpless as he watched Jim Varens, who could have Anna Louisa any time he wanted her, finish his meal and lumber good-naturedly out the door and into sunshine that was too bright, into a day that was too clear.
He couldn’t remember if he’d slept or eaten or not, though he remembered drinking a great deal and playing his stereo so loud that the neighbors called. After that, whenever his phone rang, he would pick it up and listen for her voice; it was never her, so he just hung up. He remembered driving as usual to the spot near Winslow’s Pond from which he could observe Anna Louisa jogging. There she went, panting, right past him, just as if she’d never laid eyes on him in her life.
Brad Brandon had come by at some point–was it Sunday or Monday? Everything was all jumbled up. Brad had said, “I’ve been trying to call you! You look like something the cat dragged in. What’s wrong?”
“Everything,” Lance said morosely.
“A woman?” Brad asked.
“No. Her sister.”
“You mean Mrs. Varens?! Holy Jesus!”
Lance just looked at him.
“Get hold of yourself, man,” Brad said. “Why don’t you take a shower and I’ll clean this place up?”
“Don’t want a shower,” Lance said.
“Look, Lance,” Brad said, “young men have affairs with older married women all the time. Well, sometimes. At any rate, they rarely last long, and they don’t happen for the same reasons that other affairs do. This is not the end of the world, Lance.”
“No reason. This is different,” Lance said mournfully.
“Look, Lance, tomorrow I’m driving down to the coast for a week. Now will you take a shower and pack some clothes and come with me? You can spend the night at my house tonight. Mama’s been asking about you.”
“Don’t want the coast.”
“All right. All right. I’ll call you in the morning before I leave. Think about it. Now will you answer the phone? And will you try to get this foolishness out of your head? And for God’s sake will you stop drinking?”
“Cross my heart,” Lance said.
After Brad left, Lance phoned his parents’ house but they weren’t home. Then he got it into his head that he had phoned just to make certain they weren’t home. He drove over, let himself in, and got the gun. It was clear to him that he had to shoot Anna Louisa.
Dr. Michael said, “Done.” Then he stood next to Lance’s head and said, “How are you, Tiger?”
“OK. Thanks,” Lance said. He felt very tired.
Dr. Michael said, “We’ll put a cast on this, and then you’ll sleep. It won’t take much longer. All right?”
“All right,” Lance said. Dr. Michael disappeared again. And there was the sheet again–clean, blank, white but for his remembering.
It had been clear to him that he had to shoot Anna Louisa, and he knew when he would do it, but he didn’t really think past getting the gun, loading it, going to Winslow’s Pond in the morning and waiting for her to jog by. When he left his apartment the phone was ringing.
He stationed himself between two pine trees and held the gun at his side, for all the world as if it were as innocuous as a tennis racket. He watched her coming around from the other side of the pond. He was certain that she couldn’t see him, but she slowed her pace before she got to where he was, and when he called to her and she stopped, it was as if she would have stopped anyhow, whether or not he had called her name, and it began to dawn on him in a misty sort of way that she would have had an affair with a young man whether or not it had been him.
When she turned to face him, she looked somehow sly and supremely irritated at once, and she suddenly seemed as ugly as she had once seemed beautiful. She didn’t look familiar at all. Her eyes fell on the gun and rose to his face again. He had his finger on the trigger, but he could not raise the gun. And even before she hissed “Damn little fool,” he knew not only that he could not shoot her and that it had been mad to think he should, but that he did not even know her, that he had been beguiled and duped not by her but by his own need. It was in the shock and confusion of this sudden knowledge that he pulled the trigger anyway and put a hole in his foot.
He heard the gun’s report and its small echo, but he didn’t know immediately what it meant, and thought for a moment that he had actually shot Anna Louisa until he opened his eyes and saw that he was lying on the ground. A panting middle-aged man had appeared and was taking his sweat shirt off and then pressing it to Lance’s foot. Anna Louisa was jogging away to a telephone; he watched the back of her Nike’s till they disappeared. He gazed up into the interlocking branches of the pine trees. He ignored the man’s questions–they didn’t make any sense–and listened instead to the ducks quacking and splashing away in the pond. He heard a familiar rattle and screech and clank as two young black boys who mowed yards in the neighborhood pushed their lawnmowers by. They stopped near him for a moment and one of them said, “Takes a white boy to shoot himself in the foot like that.” They giggled loudly and whispered to one another as they rolled and clanked away. Lance closed his eyes until Anna Louisa returned with two burly ambulance attendants who put him on a stretcher and took him away.
By the time Dr. Michael finished putting the cast on, Lance was asleep, and he slept for a long, long time. He dreamed that he was in zoology class, but it was really his high school chemistry class somehow. He had lead poisoning and would die if he didn’t write the chemical formula for it correctly. In the dream he thought: how can something so thoroughly in the blood have a formula of its own? Mr. Winnow, whose name was Mr. Minnow in the dream, stood behind him saying, “Figure it out for yourself, Beauchere” and setting a loud timer that he placed on his desk. Lance stood in front of the blackboard trying to write it out, but every time he put a letter down it came out looking like some other letter and then he forgot what letter he’d wanted to put down in the first place. It always started to look like Anna Louisa’s name, and over and over he erased it and tried again. “Figure it out, Beauchere. We don’t have all day!” Mr. Winnow-Minnow shouted. Lance turned to him, stepped toward him to plead with him to re-set the timer, but as he did so, he stepped into a small metal garbage can next to the desk and fell on the floor. He couldn’t get the garbage can off his foot no matter how furiously he pushed at it and pummeled it. The timer on the desk began to go off. Then its shriek became Lance’s own as he pushed at the garbage can and wept, saying over and over that he didn’t want to die.
When he awoke there were hot tears in his eyes, and the garbage can was still on his foot but it was even smaller and it had teeth. He lifted his head and saw the cast; it was pink-rimmed from the bleeding. The pain in his foot was like another presence in the room, something he would have to reckon with, but nothing he would have to answer to. He would have to answer for something, but he couldn’t remember what it was.
The door opened and his mother came in, quietly swishing and bustling toward him. She had that look of kind compassion and pained concern on her face that she had always had when he was hurt or sorely disappointed as a child. She bent to him and, framing his face with her hands, she kissed him on the forehead. Her hands were cool and she smelled like vetiver–she always did. She said, “Lance, my son.” Then with one hand still on his cheek, she said, “What happened?”
And Lance gave her the only answer he could: “Mama, I shot myself in the foot.”
published in Crazyhorse 41 (1991): 106-31