Home > Commonwealth(11)

Commonwealth(11)
Ann Patchett

Patsy was his nurse today, a child-sized Vietnamese woman who swam in her XXS lavender scrubs. She waved at him from across the crowded room as if it were a party and she had finally caught his eye. “You’re here!” she said.

“I’m here,” he said.

She came to him, her black hair braided and the braid caught up in a doubled loop like a rope to be used in the case of true emergency. “You’re looking good, Mr. Keating,” she said.

“The three stages of life: youth, middle age, and ‘You’re looking good, Mr. Keating.’”

“It all depends on where I see you. I see you at the beach lying on a towel in your swim trunks, I don’t think you look so good. But here”—Patsy dropped her voice and looked around the room. She leaned in close. “Here you look good.”

Fix unbuttoned the top buttons on his shirt and pulled it back, offering her the port in his chest. “Did you meet my daughter Franny?”

“I know Franny,” Patsy said, and gave Franny the smallest raise of the eyebrow, universal shorthand for The old man is forgetting. She pushed a large syringe of saline to clear the port. “Tell me your full name.”

“Francis Xavier Keating.”

“Date of birth.”

“April 20, 1931.”

“That’s the winning ticket,” she said, and pulled three clear plastic pouches from the pockets of her scrub top. “Oxaliplatin, 5FU, and this little one is just an antiemetic.”

“Good,” Fix said, nodding. “Plug ’em in.”

From outside the seventh-story window the bright Los Angeles morning came slanting in across the linoleum floor. Patsy skated off to the nurses’ station to input the details of treatment while Fix stared up at the silent advertisement playing on the television that hung from the ceiling. A woman walking through a rainstorm was drenched and dripping, lightning shooting down around her. Then a handsome stranger handed her his umbrella and as soon as he did the rain stopped. The street was now some British gardener’s idea of the afterlife, all sunshine and roses. The woman’s hair was dry and billowing, and her dress trailed behind her like butterfly wings. The words “Ask Your Doctor” parked across the top of the screen, as if the advertisers had anticipated everyone turning off the sound. Franny wondered if the drug was for depression, an overactive bladder, thinning hair.

“You know who I always think about when I’m here?” Fix asked Franny.

“Bert.”

He made a face. “If I ask you a question about Bert or his pyromaniac son, that’s called making conversation, being polite. I don’t think about them.”

“Dad,” Franny said. “Who’ve you been thinking about lately?”

“Lomer,” he said. “You didn’t know Lomer, did you?”

“I didn’t,” she said, but she knew that story too, or some version of the story. Her mother had told her a long time ago.

Fix shook his head. “No, you wouldn’t remember Lomer. You were sitting in his lap the last time he came over. He was carrying you around everywhere with him. He didn’t even put you down when he ate his dinner. It was just a couple months after your christening party, I remember now. You were a pretty baby, Franny, and you were sweet. Everyone made such a fuss over you and it drove your sister crazy. Before you came along, Lomer paid all his attention to Caroline, which was how she liked it. I remember Lomer saying to her, ‘Caroline, come up here, there’s plenty of room,’ but she wasn’t having it. She couldn’t stand to see the two of you together.”

“Well, there you go,” Franny said. To the best of Franny’s memory, the only lap Caroline had ever wanted to sit in was their father’s, even after they had moved to the other side of the country.

Fix nodded. “Kids loved Lomer, all of them. He was always letting them get in the car, turn on the siren, play with the handcuffs. Can you imagine the lawsuits people would file if someone did that now, handcuffing a little kid to the rearview mirror for fun? They had to stand up on the front seat, they loved it. Lomer gave cops a good name. I remember when he left our house that night after dinner, your mother and I talked about how sad it was the guy didn’t have any kids of his own. We thought he was so old and he was what then, twenty-eight, twenty-nine?”

“Was he married?”

Fix shook his head. “He didn’t have a girlfriend, at least not when he died. He got his nose broken in the Navy and his nose was a mess but he was still a good-looking guy. Everybody used to say he looked like Steve McQueen, which was an overstatement because of the nose. Your mother was always wanting to set him up with Bonnie and I said no because I thought Bonnie was an idiot. Too bad I got my way on that one. It would have saved the world a priest.”

“Maybe he was gay,” Franny said.

Fix turned his head, a shadow of such bewilderment crossing over him that it was clear he thought there had been a misunderstanding. “Joe Mike wasn’t gay.”

“I meant Lomer.”

And with that Fix closed his eyes again and kept them closed. “I don’t know why you have to do that.”

“There wouldn’t have been anything wrong with it,” Franny said, but she was already sorry. Once upon a time in the city of Los Angeles there was a smart heterosexual cop who loved kids and looked like Steve McQueen and didn’t have a girlfriend; whether she thought such a thing was possible didn’t matter. Gay or straight, Lomer was just shy of fifty years dead. The chemo bag had just gone up and they had another hour and a half to sit in this room and either talk or not talk. “I’m sorry,” she said, and when he didn’t answer her she gave his arm a small poke. “I said I was sorry. Tell me about Lomer.”

Fix waited for a minute, deciding whether to nurse the grudge or let it go. Truth be told, Franny irritated him, the way she looked like Beverly but without Beverly’s sense of knowing what to do with her looks—her hair in a ponytail, the drawstring pants, not so much as ChapStick on her face. He knew people here, sometimes his doctor came by during treatment. She could have made an effort.

And she didn’t know the first thing about Lomer either. Sitting in his lap when she was a year old was as close as Franny ever got to a man of Lomer’s caliber. That old guy she’d been so crazy about when she was young, the one who’d robbed her blind, and even her husband, who may be nice enough but had clearly married her because he needed a babysitter for his children—Franny had no taste in men. Fix had hoped that someday his girls would meet a man like Lomer but no luck there. The picture in his mind—his partner at the dinner table holding Franny, Beverly in the kitchen dressed like she was going out to dinner instead of making dinner—that was enough to make the decision to keep his eyes closed, but then he felt a single, electric jolt run through his esophagus, as if the poison coursing through him had suddenly washed against the side of the tumor, and Fix remembered again what he was constantly forgetting: this was going to kill him.

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