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Commonwealth(9)
Ann Patchett

“Name this one Albert,” Fix said.

“If it’s a boy.”

“It’ll be a boy. You’re due.”

Cousins looked at Frances asleep in her father’s arms. It wouldn’t be the worst thing if they had another girl, but if it was a boy then maybe they would call him Albert. “You think?”

“Absolutely,” Fix said.

He never did talk about it with Teresa but he was there in the waiting room when the baby was born and he filled out the birth certificate—Albert John Cousins—after himself. Teresa had never much liked her husband’s name but when would there have been an opportunity to bring that up? As soon as they were home from the hospital she started calling the baby Albie, Al-bee. Cousins told her not to but he wasn’t ever around. What was he going to do, stop her? The other kids liked it. They called the baby Albie, too.

2

“So you’re telling me that you named Albie?” Franny said.

“I didn’t name Albie,” her father said, the two of them following the nurse down a long, bright hall. “If I’d named Albie I wouldn’t have given him such a stupid name. You could trace a lot of that kid’s problems back to his name.”

Franny thought of her stepbrother. “There was probably more to it than that.”

“Did you know I got him out of Juvenile once? Fourteen years old and he tried to set his school on fire.”

“I remember,” Franny said.

“Your mother called and asked me to get him out.” He tapped his chest. “She said it would be a favor to her, like I was so interested in doing her favors. When you think about all the cops Bert knew in L.A. you have to wonder why they were bothering me.”

“You helped Albie,” she said. “He was a kid and you helped him. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“He didn’t even know how to set a decent fire. I drove him over to see your uncle Tom at the fire station once I got him out. Tom was back in L.A. then. I said to Bert’s kid, ‘You want to burn up a school full of children then these are the guys who can teach you how to do it.’ You know what he said to me?”

“I do,” Franny said, not pointing out that there had been no children in the school when Albie had set it on fire, and that he’d done a pretty good job. Say what you will for Albie, he knew how to set things on fire.

“He said he wasn’t interested anymore.” Fix stopped, which made Franny stop, and then the nurse stopped too to wait for them. “People don’t still call him that, do they?” Fix asked.

“Albie? I don’t know. That’s what I’ve always called him.”

“I’m trying not to listen to this,” Jenny said. The nurse’s name was Jenny. She was wearing a name tag but that didn’t matter, they knew her.

“You can listen to anything you want,” Fix said. “But we should be telling better stories.”

“How are you feeling today, Mr. Keating?” Jenny asked. Fix had come to the UCLA Medical Center for chemotherapy so the question wasn’t entirely social. If you didn’t feel well they sent you home and the entire process was pushed even further out into the unknowable future.

“Feeling fine,” he said, his arm hooked through Franny’s. “Feeling like light on the water.”

Jenny laughed and the three of them stopped in a large, open room off the hall where two women wearing head wraps sat with digital thermometers in their mouths. One of them gave the newcomers a tired nod while the other stared ahead. All around them the nurses came and went in their candy-colored scrubs. Fix sat down and Jenny gave him a thermometer and wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around his arm. Franny took the empty chair next to her father.

“Just to get back to the original point for a minute, you and Bert talked about what he should name his son before Albie was born?” Franny had heard the story about the fire and the phone call that came after it a hundred times but somehow the one about Albie’s name had never come up before.

Fix took the thermometer out. “It wasn’t like we talked about it later.”

“Hey!” Jenny said, pointing, and Fix put the thermometer back in his mouth.

Franny shook her head. “It’s just hard to believe.”

Fix turned his eyes up to Jenny, who unwrapped the cuff. “What’s hard to believe?” she said for him.

“All of it.” Franny opened her hands. “You and Bert making drinks together, you and Bert speaking, you knowing Bert before Mom did.”

“Ninety-eight on the nose,” Jenny said, and ejected the plastic thermometer sleeve into the trash. Then she pulled a length of bright-pink tourniquet out of her pocket and tied it around Fix’s upper arm.

“Of course I knew Bert,” he said, as if he were being denied the credit he was due. “How do you think your mother met him?”

“I don’t know.” It wasn’t a question she’d ever thought to ask. There was no time in her memory before Bert. “I guess I thought Wallis introduced them. You hated Wallis so much.”

Jenny was kneading the inside of Fix’s elbow with her fingertips, searching for a vein that might still be open for business.

“I’ve known junkies who shot between their toes,” Fix said with something approaching nostalgia.

“One more reason you don’t want a junkie for a nurse.” She tapped another minute on the papery skin and then smiled, holding the vein in place with one finger. “Okay, mister, here we go. A little stick.”

Fix didn’t flinch. Somehow she had managed to slip the needle straight in. “Oh, Jenny,” he said, looking into the part of her hair as she bent over him. “I wish it could always be you.”

“Did you really hate Wallis so much?” Jenny asked. She plugged in a rubber-topped vial and watched it fill up with blood, then she filled another.

“I did.”

“Poor Wallis.” She slipped out the needle and taped a cotton ball in place. “Just hop up on the scale and then I’ll be done with you.”

Fix got on the scale and watched as she tapped the metal weight back with one fingernail. Tap-tap down, another pound, another, until the scale balanced at 133. “You’re drinking your Boost?”

When they were finished with what were called the preliminaries, they went farther down the same hall, past the nurses’ station, where doctors stood reading reports on computer screens or their phones. They went into the large, sunny room where the patients lay tilted back in recliners, tethered to trickling streams of chemicals. Someone had turned the volume off on all the televisions, which meant they were freed from commercials but left with the discordant beeping of monitors. Jenny led Franny and Fix to two chairs in the corner. It was a gift, considering how busy the chemo room was. Everyone with the energy for preference preferred the corner chairs.

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