Life Designs



The trip to town was about six miles, first on a dirt road along the narrow peninsula, the colorless bay sometimes visible through the trees, then a turn onto a paved numbered route that passed some fields and barns, crossed an iron bridge. Conversation along the way was deliberately bland: How many people live in the village? How do they earn their living? Meg could have bitten her tongue for having told Peter about Jim’s screwing around during their marriage, which had served no purpose but to make this expedition to see him even more awkward than it would have been otherwise. Her gut felt queasy. She’d developed a headache that was like a narrow-gauge drill bit intermittently entering her skull above her left eye.

Meg pulled into the parking lot in front of the nursing home, and they got out. The home, a white wooden structure with striped awnings, had been a private house in the days when sardine canneries had brought moderate prosperity to the town. Now it looked as defeated as the industry that had funded it, the awnings tattered by winter storms and the wood needing a coat of paint. Still, Meg told Peter as they walked up the steps, the aides were kind and competent, and in spite of its age and makeshift repairs, the place was kept pretty clean. You couldn’t hope for much more than that.

They found Jim in the dayroom, in a wheelchair parked near a window that overlooked the marsh. She saw her husband now through Peter’s eyes: his hair not exactly gray, but faded and much thinner, the mouth drooping, spittle leaking from one corner. Tall as ever, but the muscles gone as slack as his mouth, so that he had to have a strap buckled around his shrunken torso, as if he were a dummy stuffed with rags, and his neck propped inside a surgical collar. The sweatshirt and jogging pants he wore were easier than regular clothes for the aides to manage when they dressed and undressed him. How the irony in that must rankle, since Jim had prided himself on his fitness. As if it were her own, she felt Jim’s shame. She should never have brought Peter here.

He carried two chairs across the scuffed tile floor, which was laid out like a checkerboard, and set them in front of Jim’s wheelchair.

“Hello, Jim,” he said, settling himself into one of them.

Jim did not try to speak. Maybe it was Meg’s imagination, but his expression seemed wary—frightened, even.

“It’s been a long time,” Peter said. The near-echo of what he’d murmured to Meg last night, his tongue licking at her nipple, made her wince and turn away. She almost would have preferred him to exclaim, “You look grand, Jim,” and clap him on his bony shoulder.

She didn’t take the chair next to Peter’s. Instead she stood at a card table on which lay a jigsaw, half completed. The picture was of a whitewashed cottage, yellow roses climbing a trellis along the left-hand border. Distractedly she chose a puzzle piece and turned it this way and that, trying to fit it into gaps on the trellis. In a far corner of the room an ancient gentleman moaned in his sleep.

Peter began to tell Jim about a paper he’d recently completed, a scholarly problem he thought he’d solved. “The Digby Magdalen,” she heard him say, and she recalled that decades ago when he was a graduate student Jim had written a seminar paper on a play about Mary Magdalen, which had given him fits. For some reason he’d expected Peter to help him with the project, and resented it when Peter went on devoting himself to his own research instead. She looked up and saw that Jim’s pale eyes had begun to water at the corners. If Peter weren’t here, she’d have lifted an edge of the cloth diaper knotted around Jim’s neck and wiped them for him, and the slobber at his mouth. His feet, in their fuzzy bed socks, stirred. A kind of gurgle, impossible to interpret, came from deep in his throat.

. . . indeed a miracle play, Peter was saying . . . absolutely a coherent whole . . . bridge between medieval and Renaissance . . . Bernardine doctrine . . . by her miracles the Magdalen comes ever closer to divine transformation . . . is not confused with, but becomes the mother of God . . .

Like an egg balanced on end, Jim’s head wobbled at the top of his stiff collar. His left hand lifted from the arm of the chair, flopped down again. Meg began to move toward them, diagonally across black and white squares.

Peter leaned forward in the chair. Mysteriously he said, “I did it for you, Jim.” His voice seemed to drop a little. “I’m very glad I came.” For a horrifying moment Meg thought he was going to confide in Jim what had transpired in the upstairs bedroom. And perhaps he had—with his smile. Gently he touched the sleeve of Jim’s sweatshirt and said, “Good-bye, friend.”

Out at the car, Meg discovered that she still held the yellow jigsaw piece in her hand. She placed it on the dashboard, thinking she’d return it the following day, and turned the key in the ignition. They didn’t speak at all on the way home.