The rooftop is speckled with pigeon droppings and the slate tiles are covered in
lichen and moss. The patterns look like fossilized plants pressed into the
stone, but the effect is slick and treacherous.
"This probably makes no difference, Malcolm, but I think I know a little
about how you're feeling," I say, trying once more to reach him. "I
have a disease too. I'm not saying that it's cancer. It's not. And trying to
make comparisons is like mixing apples with oranges, but we're still talking
about fruit, right?"
The receiver in my right ear begins to crackle. "What in Christ's name are
you doing?" says a voice. "Stop talking about fruit salad and get him
I take the earpiece out and let it dangle on my shoulder.
"You know how people always say, 'It'll be fine. Everything is going to be
OK'? They say that because they can't think of anything else. I don't know what
to say either, Malcolm. I don't even know what questions to ask.
"Most people don't know how to handle someone else's disease.
Unfortunately, there's no book of etiquette or list of dos and don'ts. You
either get the watery-eyed, I-can't-bear-it-I'm-going-to-cry look or forced
jokiness and buck-up speeches. The other option is complete denial."
Malcolm hasn't responded. He's staring across the rooftops as if looking out of
a tiny window high up in the gray sky. His pajamas are thin and white with blue
stitching around the cuffs and collar.
Between my knees I can see three fire engines, two ambulances and half a dozen
police cars. One of the fire engines has an extension ladder on a turntable. I
haven't taken much notice of it until now, but I see it slowly turning and begin
to slide upward. Why would they be doing that? At the same moment, Malcolm
braces his back against the sloping roof and lifts himself. He squats on the
edge, with his toes hanging over the gutter, like a bird perched on a branch.
I can hear someone screaming and then I realize that it's me. I'm yelling the
place down. I'm wildly gesticulating for them to get the ladder away. I look
like the suicidal jumper and Malcolm looks totally calm.
I fumble for the earpiece and hear pandemonium inside. The critical incident
team is shouting at the chief fire officer, who is shouting at his
second-in-command, who is shouting at someone else.
"Don't do it, Malcolm! Wait!" I sound desperate. "Look at the
ladder. It's going down. See? It's going down." Blood is pounding in my
ears. He stays perched on the edge, curling and uncurling his toes. In profile I
can see his long dark lashes blinking slowly. His heart is beating like a bird's
within his narrow chest.
"You see that fireman down there with the red helmet?" I say, trying
to break into his thoughts. "The one with all the brass buttons on his
shoulders. What do you think my chances are of spitting on his helmet from
For the briefest of moments, Malcolm glances down. It's the first time he's
acknowledged anything I've said or done. The door has opened a crack.
"Some people like to spit watermelon seeds or cherry pits. In Africa they
spit dung, which is pretty gross. I read somewhere that the world record for
spitting Kudu dung is about thirty feet. I think Kudu is a kind of antelope but
don't quote me on that. I prefer good old-fashioned saliva and it's not about
distance; it's about accuracy."
He's looking at me now. With a snap of my head I send a foaming white ball
arcing downward. It gets picked up by the breeze and drifts to the right,
hitting the windshield of a police car. In silence I contemplate the shot,
trying to work out where I went wrong.
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