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Commonwealth(10)
Ann Patchett

“I hope you have a good day once this is over,” Jenny said. Jenny didn’t administer chemo. It was only her job to get the chart ready for the nurse who would take over his case from there.

Fix thanked her and then settled in, using both hands to push himself into the recliner. When his head tilted back and his feet levered up he gave the small sigh of a cop in his chair at the end of a long day on the beat. He closed his eyes. For five full minutes he stayed so still that Franny thought he’d gone to sleep before the line was even started. She wished she’d thought to bring a magazine with her from the waiting room and was just starting to look around the treatment room, because sometimes magazines got left in there, when her father went back to his story.

“Wallis was a bad influence,” he said, eyes still closed. “She was always sitting in our kitchen going on about liberation and free love. What you have to remember about your mother is that she didn’t have her own character. She turned into whoever she was sitting next to. When she was sitting next to Miss Free Love then free love sounded like a great idea.”

“It was the sixties,” Franny said, glad he was awake. “You can’t pin the whole thing on Wallis.”

“I’ll pin anything I want on Wallis.”

It probably wasn’t a bad idea. Wallis had died ten years before of colon cancer, and for all her talk of free love and liberation, she had stuck it out with Larry, who she had married when she was a junior in college. Larry saw her out of her life as patiently as he had seen her through it—giving her bed baths, counting her pills, changing her colostomy bag. Larry and Wallis had moved to Oregon after Larry sold his optometry practice. They grew blueberries and paid an extraordinary amount of attention to their dogs because their children and grandchildren so rarely had the time to visit. Wallis and Beverly had been maintaining their friendship from opposite sides of the country since they were twenty-nine years old, since Beverly left for Virginia to marry Bert Cousins, so Wallis’s late-life move hadn’t affected them at all. Los Angeles, Oregon, what difference did it make when you lived in Virginia? If anything, they were closer after the move because Wallis had no one but Larry and the dogs to talk to. Beverly and Wallis had e-mail and free long distance now. They talked for hours. They sent birthday presents to one another, funny cards. When Beverly married her third husband, Jack Dine, Wallis flew from Oregon to Arlington to be the matron of honor, as she had been the maid of honor at Beverly’s wedding to Fix, but not in Beverly’s wedding to Bert, which had been conducted privately and without friends at Bert’s parents’ house outside Charlottesville. Later, when Wallis got sick, Beverly flew to Oregon and they sat up in the bed together and read Jane Kenyon’s poetry aloud. They talked about the things in life that had mystified them—mostly their children and their husbands. Wallis hadn’t liked Fix Keating any more than he liked her, and she never minded that he assigned to her full responsibility for things that could not possibly have been her fault. If she could shoulder the burden of his blame while she was alive, it was hard to imagine she’d be bothered by it now.

“Are you cold?” Franny asked her father. “I can get you a blanket.”

Fix shook his head. “I don’t get cold now. I get cold later. They’ll bring me a blanket when I need one.”

Franny looked around the room for the nurse without letting her eyes linger on any of the patients—the woman asleep with her mouth open, hairless as a newborn mouse, the teenaged boy tapping on his iPad, the woman whose six-year-old sat quietly in the chair next to hers and colored in a book. How had chemo gone for Wallis? Did Larry drop her off or did he sit with her? Did their sons come up from L.A.? She would have to remember to ask her mother.

“They’re slow getting started today,” Franny said, not that it mattered. The soup and the bread that Fix wouldn’t eat were ready at the house. Marjorie would be waiting for them. They would watch Jeopardy! Franny would sleep in the guest room upstairs.

“Never be in a rush to have someone poison you. That’s my motto. I can sit here all day.”

“When did you get to be so patient?”

“The patient patient,” he said, pleased with himself. “So do you and Albie keep in touch?”

Franny shrugged. “I hear from him.” Franny had talked about Albie too much in her life, and now, as if she could make up for it, she made a point of not talking about him at all.

“And what about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head. “Single.”

“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well, that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it, and maybe he did, but he had asked her the same questions a month before and he would ask her again a month from now, pretending that he was old and sick and didn’t remember their last conversation. Fix was old and sick, but he remembered everything. Keep examining the witness—that’s what he had told her over the phone when she was a kid and her ID bracelet had gone missing from her locker. She had called him from Virginia at five o’clock, the minute the rates went down, two o’clock California time. She called him at work. She had never called him at work before but she had his business card. He was a detective by then, and he was her father, so she figured he’d know how to find the bracelet.

“Ask around,” her father had told her. “Find out who was changing classes and where they were going. You don’t need to make a big deal about it, don’t let anyone think you’re accusing them, but you talk to every kid who walked down that hall and then talk to them again because either there’s something they’re keeping from you or there’s something they haven’t remembered yet themselves. You have to be willing to put in the time if you’re serious about finding it.”

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