Deathbed, Tea, Wife
This morning Uncle Pers rose out of his deathbed to join us for tea.
We hear him shuffling out of the dark cluttered recesses of his house. We hear the slow thumping of his walker in the hallway, and when the thumping pauses we hear his rattling breaths. Then he emerges into the sitting room, blinking and squinting like some pale wrinkled creature of the underground, stopping to shade his eyes against the light reflected off the pastel buildings and the bay and the arid blue sky.
"His will to live is phenomenal!" Aunt Mavis says emotionally, though exactly what emotion she is expressing is hard to say.
I should clarify "deathbed." He has been lying there for weeks, but it became clear some time ago that he was not about to die in it. And now he is up and coming to tea. But no one is fooled into thinking that the deathwatch is over. Uncle Pers is old and very sick, and any recovery he makes will be short-lived; within days, weeks at best, he'll be having tea in bed again, and it can't be long before he dies there.
Pers stops, leaning hard on the walker and glaring at Mavis. "And why do you assume that my will has anything to do with it?"
"Because you have reason to live. Because you have work to finish!" She glares back, nods shortly, smooths his shock of thin white hair, and gives him a pat, or a slap, on his unshaven cheek. Mavis is old too but you have to look closer to see it. She's fit and ruddy, and always dressed as if for some special occasion, if only a costume party. Today she's wearing a slithering kimono thing and a sort of headdress streaming silk and ribbons, and the scent of some exotic woodsap hangs in the air in her wake. She helps Pers into his chair and joins Kate in the kitchen preparing the things for tea.
I should clarify "tea." We have tea twice a day, at ten o'clock and three o'clock, but in fact we never actually have tea. We have coffee, mineral water, juice, wine, beer, gin, brandy - almost anything except tea. But tea is what we call it. With tea we also have food, though not the kind that satisfies hunger, that nourishes bodies and sustains life. We eat delicate things, the foodstuffs of ritual and illusion: tiny sculptures and still lifes that crunch once or twice, then disappear in the mouth like vapors and resonate in the stomach like dreams.
The old man stares out the window toward the brown hills of Marin, the hazy refineries of Richmond.
"Well, it's all still in place, I see. And it still hasn't rained, has it?"
He seems to be addressing me, but Mavis, coming into the living room with the tea tray, answers instead. "Not a drop! One gorgeous day after another, drying us up. It's so gorgeous out, that Kate and Will and I are planning a sail."
"Good for you. Of course, there isn't any wind, is there?"
"The wind will come up."
"It could. And if it does, you may have a gale by afternoon."
"Katy will captain. She's very competent. After all, she was taught by one of the world's finest sailors."
Pers has gin, Mavis sherry, and they argue about the wind. Kate and I sip coffee and wait for the argument to run its course. Such arguments also are part of the rhythm of life in this house, as ritualized as tea, as impossible for an outsider to comprehend.
I wonder if the tea thing comes from Mavis' side of the family - people with old money, is my impression, and plenty of time on their hands. Or maybe it's a Flemish tradition from Pers' childhood, or one of his Anglicisms, acquired in his youth along with his mastery of the English tongue. In the years before he began to make his way in the colonies he studied in England - prep school, university, reform school, I'm not sure exactly, though I ought to know. It's my job to know. I'm paid well to get such details in order. And I'm not bad at it, actually. I can be systematic and analytic and efficient. I can click my way through a few icons on Pers' computer, and the screen will light up with lists of folders and files, diagrams, indexes, outlines: essential organizational tools, because there are an awful lot of details.
Reprinted from The Road Builder by Nicholas Hershenow by permission of Blue Hen, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Nicholas Hershenow. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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