Excerpt from Never Change by Elizabeth Berg, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Never Change

by Elizabeth Berg

Never Change
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  • First Published:
    May 2001, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2002, 224 pages

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These days I work for a Boston agency called Protemp, as a visiting nurse. When I was hired, I asked for easy patients; I was tired of high acuity levels. Now that I've been there for ten years, I don't think I could hear a heart murmur if it were as loud as sandpaper on sandpaper. But I'm happy. And when I sleep now, I am back to dreaming only gauzy mysteries.

I have some clients I see daily: Rose Banovitz, who lives in a seedy area on Commonwealth Avenue and needs her morning dose of insulin, and who often sings to me in her high, quivery voice. Fitz Walters lives in Chinatown and needs me to check his blood pressure and his wildly erratic heartbeat in order to determine his dose of Nitropaste. He goes to strip clubs every night, Fitz, though he is blind. The Schwartzes live in the heart of Brookline and need weekly visits to supervise their medications and to keep them from killing each other. Another once-a-weeker, a black woman in Dorchester appropriately named Marvelous, I will keep on seeing even after I'm no longer paid to help her with her colostomy. I also see one DeWitt Washington, because nobody else will put up with the combination of his personality and his neighborhood in Roxbury. I have to go every afternoon and change the dressing on his gunshot wound.

I give eyedrops daily to a rich woman in Back Bay, Ann Peters, who can't see to do it herself and whose family can't be bothered. And since last week, I've been going to Allston to see a fifteen-year-old girl named Grace to help her with the baby she just had. I gave her my home number, and she leaves me messages at least once a day. Things like, "Okay. His shit looks exactly like scrambled eggs. No way is this normal. All I do is fuck up, and he don't even cry. Can you call me? Sorry for the swears, can you please call?"

You know the boy who once called me in high school? That was Chip Reardon. He called because he knew I had been talking to his girlfriend, Diann Briedenbach. They were having trouble. He wanted advice, some inside information. He felt comfortable asking me -- we'd had a lot of classes together and he knew how carefully I observed things. Once, in fact, after an essay of mine had been read aloud in English, he stopped me after class to compliment me on my perceptiveness. I treasured that small event, carried the memory of it home from school like a wrapped gift. I even decided, foolishly, that had the bell not rung, that conversation might have led to something more. I remember getting home and looking at myself in my parents' full-length mirror, wondering if I'd finally worn something right, something that would make a boy like him really see a girl like me. I'd worn the same outfit a week later, down to the same color tie to hold my hair back, but of course nothing happened.

Anyway, when he called that night I told him only that he shouldn't worry, Diann loved him, I knew that for certain. He thanked me, though it seemed to me that his relief was not so great. But then I decided I was only making that up, trying to make him less invested in her than he really was. After we hung up, I put my fingers to the place his voice had come from.

As there is one of me in every high school, there is one of Chip Reardon, too. Other end of the spectrum. Every girl's dream boy. The handsome star athlete with a good head on his shoulders, too. And a genuinely nice guy. Everyone fighting over him for college.

He went west. That's what he said, to keep from bragging about Stanford -- nobody from Ashton High had ever gotten in there. But now he's back here. I know because I got a message from my agency, asking if I could possibly fit in another client. A man called Chip Reardon. Fifty-one years old. Brain tumor, end stage, apparently; not too much to do. Probably home to die -- he'd only need comfort measures.

I called my agency back. I said, yes, I could take another patient. They told me it would be daily visits at first, starting tomorrow. Then they told me where his parents, with whom he would be staying, lived. It was in the south part of town, a newer, wealthy area that is in marked contrast to the rest of this mostly blue-collar area. It's too far to walk to the hardware store from there, to the library or the bakery or the common; but it is close to open areas of farm lands, with their lovely stone walls, their rolling hills and peaceful populations of sheep and cows. I wrote down his nice address and his terrible diagnosis, entered it next to the 2:00 P.M. slot for Wednesday. And you know something bad? You know something bad about me? When I wrote that, I felt happy. I thought only one thing. I thought, Good. Now I can have him.

Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Berg

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