Alexandra Marshall

Excerpt

Gus in Bronze

Daphni insisted to her mother that Nicky would need the head when he got lonely, growing up. She said nobody was thinking of poor Nicky, or of what it would be like for him to grow up without a bronze head of his mother to stroke and consult. "You have no idea," Daphni pressed, "the way I do. I mean Nicky just has to have somebody, Mum, when you come right down to it. And well, as I said yesterday, think it over a lot. I just would hate for you to have regrets about poor little Nicky, even though of course I'll be doing all I can for him, which you can bet on, to provide sort of a normal childhood and all. Won't we all, I mean. Have you thought it over?"

"Not yet."

"Well I mentioned it to the nurses, which I hope was okay, and they say it's not too unsanitary or anything to bring clay into your room. I believe it's sterilized clay too, in a way, that Jackson uses. At least I know it's not just mud or pure earth."

"I don't think it's a question of germs."

"Well me neither, but I thought I'd bring it up."

Gus lowered the top third of her electric hospital bed and tucked a pillow under the small of her back while she spelled 1-o-n-e-1-y, b-r-o-n-z-e, and s-t-e-r-i-1-i-z-e-d, spelling the pain's duration with held breath and behind closed eyes. "Please don't sit on the bed just now, Daphni," she said gently, "and see if I can have more ice."

"I understand, and gladly for the ice." Into the breast pocket of her jacket went the pen she had been fooling with in imitation of the doctor who fooled with pens between cigarettes. "Too bad my jacket's only beige," Daphni muttered, "but be right back." She picked up the milky plastic cylinder and briskly left her mother's room, the door hissing shut on her cheerful greeting to an ambulatory patient, her favorite, called Mr. Baum.

Gus let her legs fall from bent to straight and turned out as if unhinged from the hip, as if her legs were shutters being opened to let in light and air. That turnout was left from when Gus had danced for Martha Graham something more than fifteen years earlier, before Daphni was born, when turnout meant working at the barre in plie sequences, rather than the voter turnout it meant that day, Election Day, on which she lay ruined in a private room, her midsection from stern to sternum a complete loss. The trouble was, Gus admitted to herself, that Daphni was selfish but might be correct.

Nicky was only a baby, and though younger than her cancer was, he was growing of course just as furiously. One moment Gus wept with love for him, and the next with grief over her ambivalence. Did she owe Nicky her head in bronze by way of atoning for having given birth to him? But then did she dare leave her head behind for him to curse? Or love him enough to be glad he would have other mothers?

The hospital white was made pearly by the queer low-beam neon fixture whose string switch Gus held by the tin Chinese hat on its very end, the kind of pearly that is greenish, and her legs hardly had form under the sheets. Wasn't there such a thing as an amputee from the breastbone down? They could balance her on a pedestal they could cover up with bishop's robes and cardinal's cloaks, and who would know? They could nail all her organs to the base and roll her around like an I.V. pole, life on wheels, and she could smile and wave and give a proper benediction. Then they could stick the bronze in her place, and who would know? On her day off they'd stick the bronze in her place for Nicky to consult, growing up, Nicky who would prefer the bronze to her because it wouldn't be malignant. Gus pulled the string twice, and it went bright and then went off. The light from the bathroom, coming feet first, was a sunnier color and showed up her legs turned out in that creditable first position. It was only that now if she pointed her toes, her legs would cramp first in the arch and then in the calf and then in the turned-out tops of her thighs.

When Daphni returned, Gus asked her to see where Maya was to find out if Maya wanted to take a homework break. "But don't make it dramatic," Gus instructed, "just ask her if she feels like it, and sweetie, I'd like you please to get started on your homework too."

Daphni didn't like reminders that she wasn't on the hospital staff but was only a visiting ninth-grader. "Must you be so condescending, Mummy? I'm able to care for myself, you know."

"I know."

"I'm sorry." Daphni put her hands on her mother's feet. "Papa told me this morning when I made Nicky cry that I am a brat."

"I'm sure he meant to say only sometimes."

"No, I've been bad all day, and I'm sorry, but can't you tell me something that I can tell Jackson?"

"Daphni, all you can tell him is that I haven't decided yet."

"But couldn't you meet him? Could I tell him that?"

"Not yet, and there's nothing more to say."

"Dammit! Everything in this place takes so long!" Daphni pressed the top of her ball-point pen to make the writing tip move in and out continuously, the clicking ticking fractions of seconds off. "Dammit, Mummy!"

"A better use for that pen would be homework."

"I'm going." Daphni stuck the pen, and it held, in her hair, a trick only she and her father could do with their Byzantine waves and a skill Gus had coveted, she who had received from her mother and handed down to her own second daughter, Maya, a long thin braid. "Okay, I'll tell her."

Maya brought in the Aperture Monograph whose black tones she'd been studying in the solarium's vinyl-covered aluminum bamboo furniture that was too deep for children. What she admired, she guessed, was the pain, Eugene Smith's pain and the purest blacks ever reproduced as symbols for the pain he knew and saw and caught; no grays. Smith's subject was grief.

"Daphni said to tell you she's gone to look at those poor emergency victims all bloody."

"I wanted to ask you something, Maya. Whether or not you think I'd like Jackson."

Maya sat in the padded reclining chair and raised the foot end to bring her boots three feet off the ground. The boots were fashionable Frye's but scuffed and wrinkled. "I guess," said Maya. "Though I can't say his class is great or anything, not like Daphni does. Jackson's okay, and he shows us his heads, which are okay too. Which are good, I should say. If you don't like the clay, you could always tell him don't bother in bronze."

|Gus deliberated admitting to Maya how boring the mornings were. "Would the project be a waste of my time?" she added, "Not that this whole time isn't a waste."

"Well his classes do go fast, I must say, and he tells corny jokes that speed things up."

"Do you think you'd like to have a head?"

"I have all these pictures I took of you, Mom, but I'd like it if he got you right." Tears were boiling up and over. "Can I get you something?"

Gus extended her arm, and Maya stood to be in its circle. She bent for her mother to kiss her hot face, and Gus whispered, "Perhaps I ought to sleep. If you like, stay and read."

Maya stayed and read the photographs in the room in which everything was white, except for the busy chintz curtains behind her. except for the vinylette easy chair in which she sat, except for the flowers. She looked up from Smith's black to her mother's white, and back and up until it was certain that grief is white sheets and bedframe and wall and ceiling and hospital nightgown and arms and face, and that still-life is Gus's mouth framing words that don't have voices anymore. Grief isn't in black, standing up, but a woman who mutters inaudibly, lying down in white. Pain is white, it is black, it is thirteen years old. Maya thought she would boil and freeze to death if something didn't happen fast.