Maps in a mirror, p.4

Maps in a Mirror, page 4


Maps in a Mirror

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  “MaryJo,” he called. “MaryJo.”

  She came into the study, looking afraid. “Yes?”

  “Why is there a coffin in my study?” he asked.

  “Coffin?” she asked.

  “By the window, MaryJo. How did it get here?”

  She looked disturbed. “Please don’t touch it,” she said.

  “Why not?”

  “I can’t stand seeing you touch it. I told them they could leave it here for a few hours. But now it looks like it has to stay all night.” The idea of the coffin staying in the house any longer was obviously repugnant to her.

  “Who left it here? And why us? It’s not as if we’re in the market. Or do they sell these at parties now, like Tupperware?”

  “The bishop called and asked me—asked me to let the mortuary people leave it here for the funeral tomorrow. He said nobody could get away to unlock the church and so could we take it here for a few hours—”

  It occurred to him that the mortuary would not have parted with a funeral-bound coffin unless it were full.

  “MaryJo, is there a body in this?”

  She nodded, and a tear slipped over her lower eyelid. He was aghast. He let himself show it. “They left a corpse in a coffin here in the house with you all day? With the kids?”

  She buried her face in her hands and ran from the room, ran upstairs.

  Mark did not follow her. He stood there and regarded the coffin with distaste. At least they had the good sense to close it. But a coffin! He went to the telephone at his desk, dialed the bishop’s number.

  “He isn’t here.” The bishop’s wife sounded irritated at his call.

  “He has to get this body out of my office and out of my house tonight. This is a terrible imposition.”

  “I don’t know where to reach him. He’s a doctor, you know, Brother Tapworth. He’s at the hospital. Operating. There’s no way I can contact him for something like this.”

  “So what am I supposed to do?”

  She got surprisingly emotional about it. “Do what you want! Push the coffin out in the street if you want! It’ll just be one more hurt to the poor man!”

  “Which brings me to another question. Who is he, and why isn’t his family—”

  “He doesn’t have a family, Brother Tapworth. And he doesn’t have any money. I’m sure he regrets dying in our ward, but we just thought that even though he had no friends in the world someone might offer him a little kindness on his way out of it.”

  Her intensity was irresistible, and Mark recognized the hopelessness of getting rid of the box that night. “As long as it’s gone tomorrow,” he said. A few amenities, and the conversation ended. Mark sat in his chair staring angrily at the coffin. He had come home worried about his health. And found a coffin to greet him when he came. Well, at least it explained why poor MaryJo had been so upset. He heard the children quarreling upstairs. Well, let MaryJo handle it. Their problems would take her mind off this box, anyway.

  And so he sat and stared at the coffin for two hours, and had no dinner, and did not particularly notice when MaryJo came downstairs and took the burnt potatoes out of the pressure cooker and threw the entire dinner away and lay down on the sofa in the living room and wept. He watched the patterns of the grain of the coffin, as subtle as flames, winding along the wood. He remembered having taken naps at the age of five in a makeshift bedroom behind a plywood partition in his parents’ small home. The wood grain there had been his way of passing the empty sleepless hours. In those days he had been able to see shapes: clouds and faces and battles and monsters. But on the coffin, the wood grain looked more complex and yet far more simple. A road map leading upward to the lid. An engineering drawing describing the decomposition of the body. A graph at the foot of the patient’s bed, saying nothing to the patient but speaking death into the trained physician’s mind. Mark wondered, briefly, about the bishop, who was even now operating on someone who might very well end up in just such a box as this.

  And finally his eyes hurt and he looked at the clock and felt guilty about having spent so long closed off in his study on one of his few nights home early from the office. He meant to get up and find MaryJo and take her up to bed. But instead he got up and went to the coffin and ran his hands along the wood. It felt like glass, because the varnish was so thick and smooth. It was as if the living wood had to be kept away, protected from the touch of a hand. But the wood was not alive, was it? It was being put into the ground also to decompose. The varnish might keep it alive longer. He thought whimsically of what it would be like to varnish a corpse, to preserve it. The Egyptians would have nothing on us then, he thought.

  “Don’t,” said a husky voice from the door. It was MaryJo, her eyes red-rimmed, her face looking slept in.

  “Don’t what?” Mark asked her. She didn’t answer, just glanced down at his hands. To his surprise, Mark noticed that his thumbs were under the lip of the coffin lid, as if to lift it.

  “I wasn’t going to open it,” he said.

  “Come upstairs,” MaryJo said.

  “Are the children asleep?”

  He had asked the question innocently, but her face was immediately twisted with pain and grief and anger.

  “Children?” she asked. “What is this? And why tonight?”

  He leaned against the coffin in suprise. The wheeled table moved slightly.

  “We don’t have any children,” she said.

  And Mark remembered with horror that she was right. On the second miscarriage, the doctor had tied her tubes because any further pregnancies would risk her life. There were no children, none at all, and it had devastated her for years; it was only through Mark’s great patience and utter dependability that she had been able to stay out of the hospital. Yet when he came home tonight—he tried to remember what he had heard when he came home. Surely he had heard the children running back and forth upstairs. Surely—

  “I haven’t been well,” he said.

  “If it was a joke, it was sick.”

  “It wasn’t a joke—it was—” But again he couldn’t, at least didn’t tell her about the strange memory lapses at the office, even though this was even more proof that something was wrong. He had never had any children in his home, their brothers and sisters had all been discreetly warned not to bring children around poor MaryJo, who was quite distraught to be—the Old Testament word?—barren.

  And he had talked about having children all evening.

  “Honey, I’m sorry,” he said, trying to put his whole heart into the apology.

  “So am I,” she answered, and went upstairs.

  Surely she isn’t angry at me, Mark thought. Surely she realizes something is wrong. Surely she’ll forgive me.

  But as he climbed the stairs after her, taking off his shirt as he did, he again heard the voice of a child.

  “I want a drink, Mommy.” The voice was plaintive, with the sort of whine only possible to a child who is comfortable and sure of love. Mark turned at the landing in time to see MaryJo passing the top of the stairs on the way to the children’s bedroom, a glass of water in her hand. He thought nothing of it. The children always wanted extra attention at bedtime.

  The children. The children, of course there were children. This was the urgency he had felt in the office, the reason he had to get home. They had always wanted children and so there were children. C. Mark Tapworth always got what he set his heart on.

  “Asleep at last,” MaryJo said wearily when she came into the room.

  Despite her weariness, however, she kissed him good night in the way that told him she wanted to make love. He had never worried much about sex. Let the readers of Reader’s Digest worry about how to make their sex lives fuller and richer, he always said. As for him, sex was good, but not the best thing in his life; just one of the ways that he and MaryJo responded to each other. Yet tonight he was disturbed, worried. Not because he could not perform, for he had never been troubled by even temporary impotence except when he had a fever
and didn’t feel like sex anyway. What bothered him was that he didn’t exactly care.

  He didn’t not care, either. He was just going through the motions as he had a thousand times before, and this time, suddenly, it all seemed so silly, so redolent of petting in the backseat of a car. He felt embarrassed that he should get so excited over a little stroking. So he was almost relieved when one of the children cried out. Usually he would say to ignore the cry, would insist on continuing the lovemaking. But this time he pulled away, put on a robe, went into the other room to quiet the child down.

  There was no other room.

  Not in this house. He had, in his mind, been heading for their hopeful room filled with crib, changing table, dresser, mobiles, cheerful wallpaper—but that room had been years ago, in the small house in Sandy, not here in the home in Federal Heights with its magnificent view of Salt Lake City, its beautiful shape and decoration that spoke of taste and shouted of wealth and whispered faintly of loneliness and grief. He leaned against a wall. There were no children. There were no children. He could still hear the child’s cry ringing in his mind.

  MaryJo stood in the doorway to their bedroom, naked but holding her nightgown in front of her. “Mark,” she said. “I’m afraid.”

  “So am I,” he answered.

  But she asked him no questions, and he put on his pajamas and they went to bed and as he lay there in darkness listening to his wife’s faintly rasping breath he realized that it didn’t really matter as much as it ought. He was losing his mind, but he didn’t much care. He thought of praying about it, but he had given up praying years ago, though of course it wouldn’t do to let anyone else know about his loss of faith, not in a city where it’s good business to be an active Mormon. There’d be no help from God on this one, he knew. And not much help from MaryJo, either, for instead of being strong as she usually was in an emergency, this time she would be, as she said, afraid.

  “Well, so am I,” Mark said to himself. He reached over and stroked his wife’s shadowy cheek, realized that there were some creases near the eye, understood that what made her afraid was not his specific ailment, odd as it was, but the fact that it was a hint of aging, of senility, of imminent separation. He remembered the box downstairs, like death appointed to watch for him until at last he consented to go. He briefly resented them for bringing death to his home, for so indecently imposing on them; and then he ceased to care at all. Not about the box, not about his strange lapses of memory, not about anything.

  I am at peace, he realized as he drifted off to sleep. I am at peace, and it’s not all that pleasant.

  “Mark,” said MaryJo, shaking him awake. “Mark, you overslept.”

  Mark opened his eyes, mumbled something so the shaking would stop, then rolled over to go back to sleep.

  “Mark,” MaryJo insisted.

  “I’m tired,” he said in protest.

  “I know you are,” she said. “So I didn’t wake you any sooner. But they just called. There’s something of an emergency or something—”

  “They can’t flush the toilet without someone holding their hands.”

  “I wish you wouldn’t be crude, Mark,” MaryJo said. “I sent the children off to school without letting them wake you by kissing you good-bye. They were very upset.”

  “Good children.”

  “Mark, they’re expecting you at the office.”

  Mark closed his eyes and spoke in measured tones. “You can tell them and tell them I’ll come in when I damn well feel like it and if they can’t cope with the problem themselves I’ll fire them all as incompetents.”

  MaryJo was silent for a moment. “Mark, I can’t say that.”

  “Word for word. I’m tired. I need a rest. My mind is doing funny things to me.” And with that Mark remembered all the illusions of the day before, including the illusion of having children.

  “There aren’t any children,” he said.

  Her eyes grew wide. “What do you mean?”

  He almost shouted at her, demanded to know what was going on, why she didn’t just tell him the truth for a moment. But the lethargy and disinterest clamped down and he said nothing, just rolled back over and looked at the curtains as they drifted in and out with the air conditioning. Soon MaryJo left him, and he heard the sound of machinery starting up downstairs. The washer, the dryer, the dishwasher, the garbage disposer: it seemed that all the machines were going at once. He had never heard the sounds before—MaryJo never ran them in the evenings or on weekends, when he was home.

  At noon he finally got up, but he didn’t feel like showering and shaving, though any other day he would have felt dirty and uncomfortable until those rituals were done with. He just put on his robe and went downstairs. He planned to go in to breakfast, but instead he went into his study and opened the lid of the coffin.

  It took him a bit of preparation, of course. There was some pacing back and forth before the coffin, and much stroking of the wood, but finally he put his thumbs under the lid and lifted.

  The corpse looked stiff and awkward. A man, not particularly old, not particularly young. Hair of a determinedly average color. Except for the grayness of the skin color the body looked completely natural and so utterly average that Mark felt sure he might have seen the man a million times without remembering he had seen him at all. Yet he was unmistakably dead, not because of the cheap satin lining the coffin rather slackly, but because of the hunch of the shoulders, the jut of the chin. The man was not comfortable.

  He smelled of embalming fluid.

  Mark was holding the lid open with one hand, leaning on the coffin with the other. He was trembling. Yet he felt no excitement, no fear. The trembling was coming from his body, not from anything he could find within his thoughts. The trembling was because it was cold.

  There was a soft sound or absence of sound at the door. He turned around abruptly. The lid dropped closed behind him. MaryJo was standing in the door, wearing a frilly housedress, her eyes wide with horror.

  In that moment years fell away and to Mark she was twenty, a shy and somewhat awkward girl who was forever being surprised by the way the world actually worked. He waited for her to say, “But Mark, you cheated him.” She had said it only once, but ever since then he had heard the words in his mind whenever he was closing a deal. It was the closest thing to a conscience he had in his business dealings. It was enough to get him a reputation as a very honest man.

  “Mark,” she said softly, as if struggling to keep control of herself, “Mark, I couldn’t go on without you.”

  She sounded as if she were afraid something terrible was going to happen to him, and her hands were shaking. He took a step toward her. She lifted her hands, came to him, clung to him, and cried in a high whimper into his shoulder. “I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”

  “You don’t have to,” he said, puzzled.

  “I’m just not,” she said between gentle sobs, “the kind of person who can live alone.”

  “But even if I, even if something happened to me, MaryJo, you’d have the—” He was going to say the children. Something was wrong with that, though, wasn’t there? They loved no one better in the world than their children; no parents had ever been happier than they had been when their two were born. Yet he couldn’t say it.

  “I’d have what?” MaryJo asked. “Oh, Mark, I’d have nothing.”

  And then Mark remembered again (what’s happening to me!) that they were childless, that to MaryJo, who was old-fashioned enough to regard motherhood as the main purpose for her existence, the fact that they had no hope of children was God’s condemnation of her. The only thing that had pulled her through after the operation was Mark, was her fussing over his meaningless and sometimes invented problems at the office or telling him endlessly the events of her lonely days. It was as if he were her anchor to reality, and only he kept her from going adrift in the eddies of her own fears. No wonder the poor girl (for at such times Mark could not think of her as completely adult) was distraught as
she thought of Mark’s death, and the damned coffin in the house did no good at all.

  But I’m in no position to cope with this, Mark thought. I’m falling apart, I’m not only forgetting things, I’m remembering things that didn’t happen. And what if I died? What if I suddenly had a stroke like my father had and died on the way to the hospital? What would happen to MaryJo?

  She’d never lack for money. Between the business and the insurance, even the house would be paid off, with enough money to live like a queen on the interest. But would the insurance company arrange for someone to hold her patiently while she cried out her fears? Would they provide someone for her to waken in the middle of the night because of the nameless terrors that haunted her?

  Her sobs turned into frantic hiccoughs and her fingers dug more deeply into his back through the soft fabric of his robe. See how she clings to me, he thought. She’ll never let me go, he thought, and then the blackness came again and again he was falling backward into nothing and again he did not care about anything. Did not even know there was anything to care about.

  Except for the fingers pressing into his back and the weight he held in his arms. I do not mind losing the world, he thought. I do not mind losing even my memories of the past. But these fingers. This woman. I cannot lay this burden down because there is no one who can pick it up again. If I mislay her she is lost.

  And yet he longed for the darkness, resented her need that held him. Surely there is a way out of this, he thought. Surely a balance between two hungers that leaves both satisfied. But still the hands held him. All the world was silent and the silence was peace except for the sharp, insistent fingers and he cried out in frustration and the sound was still ringing in the room when he opened his eyes and saw MaryJo standing against a wall, leaning against the wall, looking at him in terror.

  “What’s wrong?” she whispered.

  “I’m losing,” he answered. But he could not remember what he had thought to win.

  And at that moment a door slammed in the house and Amy came running with little loud feet through the kitchen and into the study, flinging herself on her mother and bellowing about the day at school and the dog that chased her for the second time and how the teacher told her she was the best reader in the second grade but Darrel had spilled milk on her and could she have a sandwich because she had dropped hers and stepped on it accidentally at lunch—

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