A saffron pool of light on the wall, an unidentifiable stringent smell. I woke early
and could not for the life of me remember where I was. It was the same odd, foreign
sensation I experienced whenever I went camping with my father as a boy, waking
to unfamiliar surroundings, shapes, strange aromas in the piercingly cool breeze.
Then I saw the IV holder, the tube that connected to Christy’s wrist, Christy asleep
on the hospital bed, her pink slippers with the embroidered fleur-de-lis on the
floor. On the bed stand was a green and white brochure that read, Cancer and Your
Child. Everything came rushing back to me with the incomprehensible speed
and momentum that can only be assigned to reality. It will be different from now
on, I thought.
They did not want parents to use the same bathroom as their children—too much
danger of infection due to weak immune systems. The charge nurse took me to a private
bathroom, where I changed my clothes and began shaving. I’d left Nina and Christy
sleeping back in the room, had drawn the blinds to keep the intrusive sun from waking
There was a knock at the door. I set my razor down and answered it. Dr. Marks. When
he saw my lathered face, he said he would come back when I was finished.
“Don’t be silly. Come in. I want to talk to you.”
He entered the bathroom and remained standing awkwardly behind me as I resumed shaving.
For someone who invaded bodies as a matter of routine, you had to wonder why the
simple act of shaving should strike him as intimate. I addressed his reflection
in the mirror, asked him when the spinal tap would be drawn.
“As early as possible. I sent a nurse into Christy’s room. We’re
prepping her now.”
“And the first chemo injection?”
He hesitated a moment, found my eyes in the mirror. “Directly afterward.”
I rinsed my razor and turned around. “Why does it have to be given in the spinal
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It shouldn’t hurt.”
I had not yet finished shaving, but now it hardly seemed important. I picked up
a fresh towel and wiped the lather from my neck. “Just tell me why, though.”
“In case any of the leukemia cells have found their way to the spinal fluid or the
brain. It’s precautionary, a standard procedure.”
I picked up my comb and turned again to the mirror. “How long has Christy had this
“We have no way of knowing that, Mr. Dillon.”
I wet the comb and ran it through my hair, straight back. “She had a blood test
a year ago. It was normal.”
Dr. Marks nodded, considered. “Sometime in the last nine months, then. The swelling
of the neck—that’s due to the swollen lymph nodes. The bruising on her ankle,
fatigue—other symptoms. Anemia. She’ll need a transfusion today, as
“Transfusion? Nobody said anything about a transfusion.”
“She needs blood.”
“Then,” I said, “you can take it from one of us. I don’t want
“Can’t. You can’t be a blood donor. If we use your blood, then we
can’t consider you later on as a bone marrow donor. Besides—it takes time,
days, a week.”
Every time I thought I understood what would be done to Christy, what her treatment
entailed, two, three new procedures were launched upon me as a surprise. Always
throwing me a curve. I asked this young man, this very young man, what he was talking
about—bone marrow transplant. “A possible alternative treatment,”
he explained. “In a worst case scenario, we might want to rely on what is
known as an allogeneic bone marrow transplant.” I later learned what that
meant: first Christy’s marrow would be destroyed through high doses of
chemotherapy, possibly radiation, then the donor’s healthy marrow would be
injected through a needle in a vein. “But that’s just a possibility. It
may not even come to that. Still, we’d like to be able to consider relatives as
donors, and we can’t, once they give blood.”
It seemed like Russian roulette, a blood transfusion from a stranger. So personal,
blood. So goddamn dangerous. When I told him what I was thinking, the possible
catastrophes, he smiled and assured me that blood testing these days was extremely
advanced, that Christy would be fine. The point was, how could I know, how could I
know for sure that she would be fine? Even after he left me alone in the bathroom,
I worried that question, spun it, wrung it until there was nothing left of it, just
the comfortless conclusion that I could not know. Nothing was for sure any
“You make a big deal of it, and all she’ll do is worry. Believe me; I know
what I’m talking about.”
“I didn’t say anything about making a big deal of it. I just
think she’s old enough to be told what’s being done to her. I think
we have an obligation.”
Nina and I were standing in the hallway having our first disagreement since Christy’s
diagnosis. It seemed important to me that our child should be told each step of
the way what was being done to her. It was, after all, her body.
“And what are you going to say—‘Honey, the doctor wants to see if the cancer
has spread to your brain?’ That’s just what she needs to hear, Jesse. Jesus, use
The preceding day and night had been unkind to her, and now she was being unkind
to me. Hair pulled back, no makeup on her face, lines of fatigue etched in her forehead,
she looked hardened, severe.
“Don’t do this to me, Nina.”
“You just keep quiet in front of her. I’ll do the talking.”
“She’s my daughter too, you know.”
“This isn’t a contest, Jesse. Grow up.”
She walked away after having said that, and my first impulse was to slam my fist
through the wire-enforced window of Christy’s room. But I bit my tongue, counted
to ten, and suddenly wished I had a cigarette. When that momentary desire passed,
I followed her dutifully into the hospital room. The last thing we needed was an
Two nurses helped Christy onto a rolling bed. I stood off to the side, still feeling
petulant and somewhat demoted. When Christy asked, “Where are they taking me?”
it took everything I had to keep silent and defer to Nina.
“To another room, just for a test, sweetheart,” Nina answered.
“Do I have to get a shot?”
“Maybe a little one. The doctor will tell us all about it.”
“Can you and Daddy come with?”
The procedure room was compact and overly bright. Fluorescent tubes lined the ceiling,
chased even the possibility of shadows from the corners. There on a counter were
two frightening looking syringes. Nina stood at the head of the bed and lightly
brushed Christy’s bangs with her fingertips.
They had called in a Dr. Kaufman, another youngish man, who seemed uncomfortable
immediately. “Is it Kirsty?”
“Christy,” she corrected him.
“All right, Christy. You need to sit up.” A nurse helped to lift her. She had been
given a hospital gown, and now the gown was opened from behind. “You’re going to
feel a pinch and some pressure.”
“Is it a shot?”
“It’s not a big one. First we’ll numb up the area. You don’t
have to hold your breath or anything. Relax. But stay very still. Try not to move.”
The local anesthetic was a simple process; the tap was something altogether else.
I watched the needle go in, but had to look away almost at once. I heard Christy
say, “Oh!” and was torn between fainting and grabbing the syringe out
of the doctor’s hands.
The doctor muttered under his breath to a nurse at his side. “I can’t get
any...it should be right here.”
“Oh!” Christy said again.
Two, three more jabs. Little drops of perspiration lined the doctor’s temples.
“Get Marks up here,” he said, under his breath. One of the nurses left the
“I’m here, sweetheart.”
“Hold my hand.”
I moved around the doctor to Christy’s side, grabbed her fingers in mine. They were
cold, moist. “Is there some problem, Doctor?”
“I’m having trouble getting fluid from the spinal cord. I’ve called
Dr. Marks in. It should just be a minute.”
His latex glove pressed along Christy’s spine. As he lifted the syringe again, I
said, “Perhaps you’d better wait for Doctor Marks.”
“It should be right here,” he said, as if to himself.
“Daddy, what’s happening?”
Nina cautioned me with her eyes. “The doctor wants to get some fluid from your back,
honey. It shouldn’t be much longer.”
“I want Doctor Marks to do it,” she said. I could have kissed her on
the spot. It’s so much easier for children to get away with being honest than
it is for adults.
“She’s used to him,” I said to Dr. Kaufman, an attempt to spare his
“I understand,” he said.
Nina’s face was set and hard and revealed little or nothing. I knew what she was
going through, was going through it myself, but I had not counted on her method
of coping. She had put up a wall, sealed herself off from everyone else, including
me. I wondered how long this would go on.
Dr. Marks proved more facile with the syringe, but still the ordeal was no more
pleasant for that. The chemo injection was a lengthier procedure than I had imagined,
and some of the fluid burned the skin of Christy’s back, turned it black. Her eyes
watered, but she was such a tractable child, always had been, that she didn’t utter
a sound or a complaint. I think she was wearing a brave face for our sake. I wished
she hadn’t felt the need. I wished so many things—that I had attended her
riding lessons more often, that I had understood earlier how fleeting childhood
actually is, that Christy had never gotten sick, that there was no such thing as
leukemia. But wishing is just a byproduct of hope, and hope is such a desperate
activity—an ongoing last resort.
There were cancer cells in Christy’s spinal fluid.
Windy Acres Farm was just outside the town of Long Grove, a riding stable with sprawling
fields rimmed by copses and thickets. A white plank fence ran along the perimeter
of the roadway. Violet wild flowers grew rarely in clusters among the long prairie
grass, like little botanical galaxies, and I tried to avoid stepping on these as
I walked to the office—a simple two-story house. To the side of the entrance
there was a doorbell, painted over, and I wondered if it worked, or whether I needed
to ring it before entering. From the stable itself I heard the whinnying of horses,
an occasional snort. I rapped on the windowsill of the door, visored my eyes with
my hands to lose the glare of the sun. A middle-aged woman behind a desk looked
up and motioned me in.
This was Mrs. Kelly, pink-cheeked, blue-eyed, old-world Irish. She must have been
very lovely when she was young, for there were still traces of beauty, evidence
of it, in her angular features, particularly around her eyes, her mouth.
“Mr. Dillon, isn’t it?” she greeted me.
“Yes. I was looking for your husband.”
“How’s your little girl, Mr. Dillon?”
We had lived at the hospital for ten days, all three of us, and now we had come
home, though home felt alien, unfamiliar. Christy had had two more spinal taps,
three more transfusions, and chemo treatments every other day. Her appetite had
virtually disappeared. She had lost nine pounds—the nausea. It was more or
less constant. We kept a bucket near her bed, and just yesterday I had held her
as she vomited, over and over again, held her by her shoulders to keep her
supported; she had grown so weak, and I felt so helpless. How’s your
little girl, Mr. Dillon? You wanted people never to ask questions like that,
but they didn’t know. It wasn’t their fault.
“I’m afraid she’s not doing very well.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. I’d expected her to begin her lessons
again by now. Do you mind—is it serious?”
I didn’t mean to be blunt, to floor her, but she asked, and I simply said,
Her hand shot up to her mouth, covered it an instant, and I knew what the reply
would be before she even said it. “Oh, no. I’m so sorry.”
There was a water cooler in the corner, and I suddenly wanted a drink badly, but
did not wish to intrude. “Your husband—do you suppose I could have a word
“Of course. He’s in the stable, or he was the last time I checked. If
it’s about billing, you won’t be charged for lessons missed. I take
care of the business.”
“Maybe you could tell me, then. Christy’s favorite horse, Rusty—I
understand he’s for sale.”
“Oh,” she said, pushing her chair back and standing, “she loves
that horse with a passion. But we sold him just a few days ago.” My heart
fell. I should have called, as I’d promised to do. But there had been so many
things to see to—changing my schedule at work, arranging for home teaching
for Christy. “I’ve got the paperwork right here.” She began shuffling
through papers on her desk distractedly, and pulled a legal size sheet from a stack.
“The horse is still here. The couple who bought him, the Bartlemans, won’t
be picking him up till Friday.”
“Well, that’s that,” I said.
“She’ll be terribly heartbroken, and the poor thing so sick.”
“Do you suppose I could have a drink of water, Mrs. Kelly?”
She said, “By all means,” and went to get it for me. “I didn’t
know about your daughter, Mr. Dillon. But it’s a business that we run.”
I took the cup from her and said, “I know. I understand.” I swallowed the
water, crushed the cup in my hand, and because I didn’t see a waste basket, I
held on to it. “How much does a horse like that go for?”
“But Mr. Dillon, he’s already been sold.”
“I was just curious.”
“Seven thousand dollars. Then there’s the upkeep, which is substantial, as
you can imagine.”
“Yes.” I did not know what else to say.
She took a step closer to me and searched my eyes with her own. “Certainly you
weren’t thinking of buying him yourself?”
I stood there awkwardly, feeling limp, and wondering what I would say to Christy.
“I don’t know what I was thinking, Mrs. Kelly.”
I played with the crushed paper cup in my hand, and she took it from me. “Would
you like to see the horse?”
I hadn’t originally even considered such a thing, but now I said,
Mrs. Kelly put a sweater over her shoulders and walked with me to the stable, chatting
along the way, inquiring about Nina and how she was taking it, Christy’s illness.
I had not very good news to report on that subject and said as little as I could.
Then I thought about Nina, about her seeming resentment for me, and I wondered if
it was possible that she somehow blamed me for what had happened. Lately whenever
we were together, which was not often, I felt as though I wanted to say, “But
it’s not my fault.” Mrs. Kelly told me that her sister once lost a child
to crib death, “though it’s not the same thing,” she qualified,
but still, she said, it was important for the husband and wife to lend one another
strength, to be supportive. She advised me to do little things for Nina, little
things that she wouldn’t expect, and I said that that made sense.
Mr. Kelly was a barrel-chested man, balding, his remaining gray hair neatly trimmed
and combed back. He shook my hand as his wife told him about Christy, and how I’d
come to find out if Rusty had been sold. He reacted to the word leukemia the way
most people did, as if it had slapped him across the face. “My God, man, I’m
sorry,” he said, with the remnants of a slight brogue. “That child?
That child looked so healthy.” I hadn’t come for sympathy, and
usually handled it badly, but with these two people it was different, and I was
suddenly glad to be there with them. I hadn’t been aware of it until now, but
for the past ten days I had been lonely.
I followed Mr. Kelly, Peter, as his wife called him—or rather I followed the
broad outline of his plaid flannel shirt, stretched to its limits—to a stall
where a rust-colored horse stood. He was magnificent. Beautiful coat, trim, sinewy.
Big soulful eyes. He regarded me in that semi-monocular manner that horses have.
It was a strange moment for me as I reached out to touch Rusty’s powerfully
built neck, an important one, it seemed, to come in contact with the object of my
“Mr. Dillon,” Mr. Kelly said, after I had been petting Rusty for several
“Jesse,” I said. “Call me Jesse.”
“Jesse—maybe I could talk to the young couple who bought the horse.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“Now, I can’t speak for them, you understand—but maybe they’d
be inclined to let young Christy visit him sometime.”
“That would be very nice,” I said. Then I saw how they were looking at me,
as though their hearts were in their eyes, and I grew embarrassed. I thanked them both
for all they had done, and turned and walked out of the stable, back to my car. For
a moment or two behind the wheel I felt as though I could not catch my breath. I
thought of Christy, how sallow and ashen she looked when I kissed her good-bye that
morning, and how I missed the way she used to run around the yard in the summertime.
I had traded two classes with Jeff Brody and William Tunny, and was only on campus
Tuesdays and Thursdays. Nina had adjusted her schedule so that she could be at home
with Christy on those days. It was like living a relay race, and as a result we
saw each other only as one of us was arriving and the other was leaving. Twice a
week Christy had to be taken to the hospital for chemotherapy on an outpatient basis,
usually Wednesdays and Fridays. It worked out well that the driving fell to me.
Whenever she was feeling particularly weak, she needed to be carried from the car.
The parents in the waiting room played a reciprocal game, and I soon caught on.
We refused to look at each other’s child with anything like sorrow or pity in our
After I left Windy Acres, I taught two lit classes and a Comp 101 and spent an hour
in the library researching acute lymphocytic leukemia. I learned that there are
three stages of treatment—induction therapy, consolidation therapy, and maintenance
therapy. Christy was in the first of these stages. The purpose was to induce remission
by killing off as many leukemia cells as possible. However, because leukemia cells
were found in her spinal fluid, she also required radiation therapy to the brain,
and what was called central nervous system prophylaxis. I took in all this information
as dispassionately as I could, went about my study as though it had no subjective
relevance to my life, or my daughter’s. It was the only way I could get through
I photocopied several pages of treatment overviews, tucked them in my briefcase,
and then sat near a window that overlooked a courtyard, just to give my thoughts
a badly needed rest before my next class. I watched students walking in the dappled
light between classroom buildings, in little groups, or alone, young students, fresh
faces, their biggest worries a term paper, or who to ask out for Friday night. I
thought of the kid in my lit class that morning who had remarked that after having
read the Book of Job, it was his opinion that Job had been set up rather heartlessly
by God. And I had agreed with him.
As I approached my office a few minutes later, I saw a man in a gray suit standing
in front of the door, reading my posted schedule.
I said, “May I help you?”
He turned, studied me momentarily, or I should say he assessed me with the aloofness
of an accountant skimming through a quarterly report. “Are you Jesse
“Yes, I’m Doctor Dillon.”
“May I ask why you don’t keep your office hours?”
“Well, that depends.”
He raised his chin at me. “Oh? On what?”
“On who the hell you are.”
The corners of his mouth tensed, apparently an effort to imply some sort of puissance.
“I’m Doctor Bradley Walters, the new college president.” There
were instances when I possessed an acute sense of timing, and then there were others,
like this one. “Now may I ask why you don’t keep your office hours,
which are required under the terms of your contract?”
He had no lips at all. I noted the coordinated pocket handkerchief, the soft rich
leather of his imported shoes. He had about him the patina of a corporate CEO, clearly
not an academician.
“I’m sorry we got off to a bad start,” I said. “Perhaps
we should begin again.”
“I’m still waiting to hear an explanation for why you don’t keep
your posted office hours.”
I had not been talked to like this since Catholic school, when Sister Veronica
discovered that I could not sing Gregorian chant. “I’ve had to alter my
schedule since the beginning of the term. My daughter is ill.”
His line of vision swept down me, to my wrinkled khaki slacks, my worn Hush Puppies.
“We all have our problems, Doctor Dillon. I expect the new hours to be posted
immediately, and to be kept.”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand—my daughter has been
“That will be all, Doctor Dillon.” He clasped his hands behind his back
with the air of a drill sergeant and walked brusquely away. I stood in the hallway
outside my office for a while and tried to determine what had just run over me.
“The son of a bitch ambushed me. I’d been in the library for an hour
between classes and he was waiting for me, treated me as if I’d been playing
“You’re talking about a man who’s never seen the inside of
a library, Jesse.”
I was in the Grid Iron Sports Bar, talking to Jeff Brody, waiting for the Stolichnaya
to hit my system. “I was too stunned to react.”
“It’s the beginning of his reign of terror, is all. He’s taken
the concept of condescension to new heights so that we’ll shiver in our boots
rather than complain when he begins to dismantle shared governance.” Jeff
stirred his drink with a cocktail straw. I watched the lime slice spin into orbit.
“You know what his modus operandi is, don’t you?”
I was thinking of Christy then, experiencing a fresh wave of guilt for not having
gone directly home after my classes were done. But I needed time—time to decompress,
to talk to someone. Still, the pinpricks of culpability. “What?” I asked.
“Big ego, small penis. Every time he dresses one of us down, it’s emotionally
commensurate with unzipping his fly and saying, ‘Look!’”
I recalled how he’d jutted his jaw at me, those appraising eyes. “The
man’s a dictator.”
“Only if you assign him that kind of power. He’s actually more like
a dinner guest.”
“An overly aggressive dinner guest who you wish would leave the table. What
we have to do is uninvite him.”
“And how do we do that?”
Jeff raised his glass and sipped his vodka slowly. “The minute he oversteps
his bounds, tries to abolish or ignore one committee, even one,
we continue the committee as if he hasn’t acted, and then call for a vote
of affirmation by the Faculty Senate. It will be the beginning of his undoing.
Democratic mutiny. He’ll react by stomping his feet, and we’ll react
to that by ignoring him, until at last we force him into public acts of irresponsible
power mongering. We’ll finish him off with a vote of no confidence and take it
to the Board. Bye-bye Bradley.”
Jeff understood political strategy and how to implement it. I had reached that point
of my drink when the soft lulling blanket of vodka spread over me, took me to interior
regions. I saw Christy sitting up in bed next to Brownie Bear, her favorite stuffed
animal, the vestiges of her beautiful sandy hair cut short, growing between patches
of exposed scalp. It was to this girl I would have to bring the news that her favorite
horse had been sold, that she would never see him again. Without offering Jeff an
explanation, I got up from my bar stool and strolled out the door to the patio.
Jeff followed me outside. I brought out a package of Marlboros from my shirt pocket,
opened the pack, lit a cigarette with a match.
Jeff stared at me for some time and finally said, “There are things that can tear
us apart, if we let them.”
I finished my drink in one gulp. “Funny,” I said, “I didn’t
know I had any say in it.”
I had stayed too long at the bar, got swallowed up in rush-hour traffic, and at
the last minute remembered something Christy had said the night before. “Maybe
I wouldn’t look so funny with a baseball cap.” When I asked her what her
favorite team was, she said, “The Cubs. And Cleveland. And Santa Barbara.”
She knew nothing of baseball. She just wanted a cap. So I stopped at a sporting goods
outlet and picked her up Cubs, Indians, and Dodgers caps. The Santa Barbara Dodgers.
By the time I got home, dinner was a memory, as was daylight, and Nina welcomed me
with guns blazing. I was a little drunk, more than a little, and I accidentally dropped
one of the baseball caps. When I leaned over to pick it up, my cigarettes, traitors
that they were, fell out of my shirt pocket. I scooped up the pack and became woozy
when I stood back up. Nina moved in close, blocked me like a mid-court center. “You
lied to me.”
“I didn’t lie.”
“You told me you’d just had one cigarette that day with that girl.”
I did not answer. It was an old argument, and I didn’t have the psychic steam to
correct her as to exactly when I had started smoking again. Her anger was not over
the cigarettes, anyway. I knew that, recognized it in the despondent mask her face
had become—vacant, remote, lifeless. Strange. In the midst of a quarrel, I
wanted to hold her, feel her warmth, her skin, but she defied touch. And then I
felt guilty again, this time for having disappointed her so badly.
“What’s the matter, Jesse—one case of cancer in the house isn’t
“Oh, God. Don’t, Nina—”
“Don’t you don’t-Nina me. If you cared about
your daughter—who, by the way, has been asking for you hourly since six
o’clock—you wouldn’t be out drinking, smoking, doing whatever
you’re doing out there, with whoever you’re doing it with.”
She leaned toward me to sniff for perfume, seemed a little disappointed when she
didn’t detect any. She wouldn’t have listened to me anyway, and I did
not want Christy to hear us arguing, so once again I waived my right to a defense.
In the kitchen I poured a Stoli on the rocks, swirled the glass, watched the ice
cubes dance. Every now and then Nina would appear in the doorway like an angry apparition
and simply accuse me with her eyes. I do not know how I managed to detach myself
so completely, but now I think it was wise that I did. On the kitchen table I found
a hastily scribbled note on a yellow message pad. “Bartleman—” and then
a phone number. I lifted my glass, let the vodka play over my tongue a moment, swallowed,
set the glass down. The Bartlemans’ number, when punched into a digital phone, sounded
something like “Camptown Ladies.” I wondered if this had been deliberate.
A woman answered, and after I identified myself, she said she was glad that I had
phoned. Her voice was sweetly sonorous, the way some women’s are. She covered the
mouthpiece and I could hear her call her husband. An extension was picked up; now
I was talking to them both. I thought of asking about the melody of their phone
number, and then thought better of it.
Apparently Mr. Kelly had told them about Christy, and the story had made an impression
on them. “It just about broke our hearts,” was the way Mrs. Bartleman put
it. Her husband wondered if we had anything planned that weekend, if perhaps Christy
would like to come out to their place and ride Rusty. I held the Cubs cap in my hand,
ran my fingers over the soft, ductile cotton, felt a stinging warmth in my eyes,
the back of my throat. It was an odd world that had room for the disparate likes
of Bradley Walters and the Bartlemans.
“This weekend? No, no plans. Nothing.”
They gave me directions to their house, which I jotted down hurriedly on the back
of the receipt for the baseball caps, hoping that I would be able to read them later
on. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to thank you for this,”
I said. Mrs. Bartleman told me there was no need for that, in that rich voice of
When I ran upstairs to give Christy the good news, that she could spend Saturday
with her beloved Rusty, she was already fast asleep. I tiptoed to her bedside and
set the Cubs hat on the pillow beside her, my eyes slowly adjusting to the swarming
darkness of her room, till her features disentangled themselves from the shadows.
The swelling of her face could not entirely betray her beauty, in fact enhanced
it peculiarly, the way a silo against flat prairie farmland exaggerates its
expansiveness. I kneeled, witnessed a soft exhalation, and then lightly brushed
my lips against hers as she lay dreaming of God-knows-what.
The Bartlemans lived in Barrington, an extremely wealthy community where people
belonged to country clubs and had things like Porsches and horses. It was a beautiful
day, an idyll. Swatches of blue sky peeked through tree branches laden with brightly
mottled leaves, and sunshine reflected off the pavement of the road that snaked
ahead over hills and around bends. A plastic bowl lay on the car floor, in case
Christy became sick to her stomach. Little appurtenances like the bowl could cut
the day in two, take a perfectly wonderful moment and ruin it with the reminder
that my daughter had cancer. The day wasn’t any less beautiful, only now I
didn’t care anymore.
“Do they have riding trails?”
“They must. Not much point in having a horse if you have no place to ride
Christy looked out her passenger window, turned so that I could only see the back
of her Dodgers cap and the bare skin of her scalp beneath it. She had refused breakfast
earlier, afraid she could not keep it down, and seemed generally listless. She had
sipped some of her orange juice unenthusiastically, as a personal favor to me.
“Do you think Rusty will remember me?”
“Oh, I think so. It hasn’t been all that long, and you know what they say, that
horses never forget.”
“That’s elephants,” she corrected me.
“Oh. Well, I think horses have pretty good memories, too.”
But it did not go well. Christy was too sick. Even as the Bartlemans—Nancy
and Jay, they insisted I call them—led us across the patio down to the stable,
Christy’s slight frame, so much diminished now, seemed to move haltingly,
awkwardly, as if even the process of walking was too much for her. There was a
certain rigidity to her gait that called to mind palsy, and this frightened me,
assuming as I did that such problems were caused by brain abnormalities.
Nancy, a pretty woman in her mid-thirties, took hold of Christy’s hand, and
I thought of the comfort that women can give. I thought of Nina. We had not made
love since Christy had become ill.
Jay said something to me about being glad I had taken him up on his offer. I told
him it was very kind of them both. Not at all, he said. “Do you know why Nancy
enjoys this so much?”
I shook my head. “No,” I said. “Is there a special reason?”
“She’s wanted a daughter of her own for a while now. We both have.”
“Really? Have you looked into fertility therapy?”
An autumn breeze stirred and rustled through the trees. They virtually had their
own forest here. Jay smiled, looked down at the path and began to walk slowly. I
followed. “No, Jesse. It’ll happen when it’s supposed to. We just
have to have faith that it will.”
Still, my money would have been on the therapists. “You really believe
His head snapped up in surprise. “Oh, yes,” he said, a tight ringlet
of hair at his temple moving in the breeze. “Faith is the greatest power of
Out by the barn, Nancy lifted Christy into the saddle. “She’s actually
a very beautiful girl,” I said.
“Of course she is.”
“No,” I said. “I meant before she got sick.” And then I
immediately hated myself for having said it, as though I had to apologize for my
I remember Christy in the saddle, holding her arms out to me, saying imploringly,
“Daddy, take me down,” too weak to ride, too shy around our hosts to
find their eyes with her own. I lifted her gently, felt the slackness of her body
against me, shared her disappointment that former simple pleasures had now become
impossible. I set her down upon a stool beside the chestnut horse so that she could
at least pet him, feed him carrots from a basket, murmur soft sounds that only he
could understand. When we left her alone in the barn with the horse, I stood outside,
furtively watching through the cracks between the wooden slats, a sentry going through
the motions of protection. Big shafts of sunlight poured in through the open door,
creating light bars on the floor, serried between shadow, light against dark, hope
—From A Song of Innocence, Book Baby (10 February 2013)
is currently a professor of English at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine,
Illinois. He began writing professionally in his twenties with an investigative
report on gangs for The Chicago Tribune Magazine, “Inherit the Streets.”
Soon afterward, he met with his literary hero, J.D. Salinger at Salinger’s
home in Cornish, New Hampshire, a meeting that resulted in his first national publication,
a profle/interview with the iconic author. It influenced Herriges to turn to
fiction writing, and years later inspired his book-length JD: A Memoir of a
Time and a Journey (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2006).
He is the author of novels, short stories, and articles, as well as a series of
literary DVD documentaries, including Thomas E. Kennedy: Copenhagen Quartet,
and the award-winning TC Boyle: The Art of the Story. His short works
have appeared in Story Quarterly, The Literary Review, The South Carolina Review,
The Encyclopedia of Beat Literature, and Great Britain’s Popular Music
and Society and World Wide Writers.
Herriges’s new anthology The Bay of Marseilles and Other Stories
was recently published by Serving House Books, and his ebook novels Streethearts
and Lennon and Me are available in ebook shops everywhere. A Song of
Innocence is his sixth novel.