The Last Civilized Act

A short story from CityScapes

Lunch in Washington and dinner in New York – all in one day – would be perfect, Constance Steele thought, if you just didn’t have to go through New Jersey.

She stared out the window of the Amtrak coach thinking how much she hated the disorder of the right-of-way. Even nature conspired to create a mess, bunching piles of fall leaves in gullies and around trees. Scattered among them were the discards of habitation: a refrigerator, a sofa of indeterminate color, a stove, its oven door ajar like the slack jaw of a skull.

This trip is a paradigm, she thought – one end of her life anchored in the legal career that had taken her to Washington for the day, and the other firmly attached to her husband, Graham, in New York. Gentle Graham, whose only passions were for her and for his books. Somewhere between the law and Graham was the truth. Truth was in her own body. The truth was that she was dying.

It also was her birthday and Graham would be waiting to take her to dinner. Nausea tugged at her stomach, but she would not plead illness and deprive him of the pleasure of celebration.

The tunnel under the Hudson cut out what was left of a gray autumn sunset and made a mirror of the dark window. Constance examined her reflection as she stood to retrieve her worn briefcase from the overhead rack. The Chanel jacket, piped in black, disguised the fact that she was wearing the latest in medical paraphernalia, a miniature pump strapped to her waist that dripped poison into her liver upon the command of a silicon chip.

“The device,” she called it, and proudly explained its workings to the few close friends and family who inquired about the experimental treatment. To herself she called it “the vise”; she hated the feeling of being at the mercy of modern technology and ignored the fact that it represented a last, desperate effort to stem the ravages of cells gone mad. At least it did not show. A judicious choice of clothing kept her silhouette unremarkable. Her hand smoothed the waist of the reflection. She did not look at her face. The train moved into the station and the image disappeared, erased by dirty yellow lights.

Graham stood in their glare, a small man in a dark suit, dark hat, British all-weather coat in the crook of his left arm, and hands folded over the grip of a collapsible black umbrella. There must be only ten men in Manhattan who still wear a homburg, she thought, smiling at the ridiculous hat on his head. He reminded her of a Magritte painting. His clear gray eyes often allowed his thoughts to be seen as easily as a bird flitting about an open cage. Lately, the cage seemed to be draped.

He came toward her as she reached the door of the car, ready to offer assistance. She wasn’t too proud to take his arm and hand him the heavy briefcase. As they made their way into the terminal, she slipped her arms into a mauve silk raincoat.

“How was your day?” he asked. Concern pulled his eyebrows toward the bridge of his nose.

“Spectacular. I think we’re going to win before the S.E.C.,” she said.

His expression did not change during her short recitation of the day’s events. “But, how do you feel?” he asked when she had finished.

“Oh, all right. Look, let’s not talk about it. Okay?”

Graham didn’t answer, but turned his attention to hailing a taxi. They used to walk everywhere from their apartment just east of Central Park: to the grocery and meat market, the cleaners, drug store, and shopping. One lazy Sunday, they walked all the way to the Battery, just for exercise, but now he insisted they ride in cabs for even short distances.

He directed the cab to a restaurant, a half-block off Washington Square. It was their favorite, an unpretentious Italian restaurant, down a few steps from street level.

The sight of snowy linen and clean crystal, dark wood, and a minimum of red wallpaper pleased Constance. Ordinarily she also anticipated the well-blended odor of tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. Tonight, she fought a battle with her gorge instead.

Graham ordered carbonara, she a plainly-dressed angel hair, half of which she ate, along with a crusty roll. The wine was sour on her tongue.

Conversation ranged from news to sports, to weather, to inane, and culminated in a near fight over whether their tickets to a performance at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre were for Friday or Saturday evening of the following week.

“Okay, Graham, okay,” Constance said, “I give up. I was wrong.”

He looked at her, uncertain.

“Not about the damned tickets, about it – me. We’re acting like the proverbial elephant is in the room, which everyone ignores. The elephant’s real and I can’t ignore it another second. It’s my birthday and we both know it’s probably the last one.” The word “probably” echoed in her ears. Had she inserted that word for herself or for Graham? Short of a miracle, there was no “probably” about it.

“We don’t know that. The doctor said ….” he began.

“Graham, don’t.” She concentrated on pleating the stiff linen napkin against her thigh.

“But …”

“Graham! Screw the doctors. I’m dying.” The forbidden words were said, and they hung like stale cigarette smoke between them. Constance felt a rush of relief followed by pangs of doubt. She stole a look at her husband.

His face sagged like the hem of an old gray sweater.

“Oh, darling,” she said, “it’s bad enough for me, but I hate it for you. God – to have to go through it all over again. It just kills me.” She winced at the inappropriate cliché.

Graham seemed to rally. “That was different,” he said.

“How? Hers was breast and mine’s liver. What’s the difference?”

“Well,” he hesitated, “Mother was sick so long.”

“What makes you think I won’t be?”

“There’s no reason to discuss what we can’t possibly know, Constance.” His tone was dismissive, but his pale eyes slid away as if in fear.

The waiter brought coffee and colonna, one with a single birthday candle, the dessert Graham had arranged in lieu of a cake.

Constance dutifully made a wish and blew out the candle.

“Did you make a wish?” Graham asked.

She nodded. She could see the curiosity in his eyes, but he probably had guessed what the wish was. “God, please make it quick and I don’t want to hurt … at least for very long.”

After a bite of the colonna, she said, “Promise me something, Graham”

He waited, wary.

“No extreme measures … and lots of drugs. If it can’t be quick, have them make it painless, and if it can’t be painless, for God’s sake make it quick. For both our sakes.”

“I doubt if there is often much of a choice in that respect,” he said. He looked helpless.

“But there might be. So promise.”

“What are you asking me?”

She stared at him and he returned her gaze without wavering.

“Constance, in all my life I have tried never to do an uncivilized act. Please don’t ask it of me at this point.”

“Not uncivilized, Graham; just be kind.” She hesitated and added, “I’m afraid.”

For a moment, he did not respond. His fingers absently stacked and restacked the teaspoons, which lay unused by his plate. Constance could see the same faraway look in his gray eyes that shut her out when he was engrossed with his books.

“You are asking me to be your kaishaku,” he said.

“My what?”

“In Japan, according to Shinto tradition, when someone commits suicide, ritual hara-kiri, there is always a second, the kaishaku, a nobleman who stands by with a sword, ready to cut off the head of the victim and end the pain. You’re asking me to do that.”

She felt a tiny prick of guilt. “I don’t know. I guess so,” she faltered.

“The problem is,” Graham continued, “it sounds like a good idea now, sitting here at the table. I almost feel noble about being asked. About your confidence. But what happens when I have to act?”

“I don’t know,” she said, her voice hollow and forlorn. A moment ago, in the urgency of trying to make him understand her feelings, she had felt sure.

He looked away and signaled for the check. She stirred her cold coffee to hide the tears.

“Connie,” he said and gently pulled her chin up so that she had to look at him, “I don’t want to talk about any of this because I’m scared. I don’t know if I can take it. Not just the end, but everything in between. I know it’s selfish, but it’s me I’m worried about. It was so long with Mother, and I guess I’m afraid I don’t have what it takes to stand up to what’s coming. You’ll be fine. You’ll bear up. But, I feel … out of gas.”

As the waiter approached with the bill, Connie excused herself and made her way casually between the tables to the ladies room. Her lack of haste was a deception, for the benefit of those around her and for herself. The moment she was in the bathroom, she went to one of the stalls and vomited everything she had eaten. She leaned with her hands against the wall until she felt settled enough to flush the toilet and turn to the lavatory. The girl from the coat check counter came in.

“You okay, Mrs. Steele?” she asked, a look of concern on her pretty face.

Connie nodded, “I’m fine.”

“Okay,” the girl said. “Just thought I’d check. I saw you come in and you looked a little pale.”

“Thanks,” Connie said, “I appreciate your trouble.”

The warm feeling of being cared for eased away some of the lingering nausea. When the girl had gone, Connie filled her palm twice with cold water and rinsed her mouth. Then she filled it twice again to get enough water to wash down two Dilaudid capsules. She had eaten them like candy all day. Smoothing her jacket, she could feel the plastic pack at her waist.

Graham looked at her suspiciously when she rejoined him.

She raised her eyebrows in dismissal and shrugged into her coat.

They left the restaurant and began to quarrel over transportation.

“Come on,” she said, “the Fourth Street Station is right here and we can catch the F …”

“No, let me get a cab.”

“Please, I want to walk. I love New York in the rain.”

“But those gangs, or punks, or students, or whatever the stupid people are called sometimes ride the F. And there’s all that business of transferring at Fifty-third and the walk home.”

“Gra-ham,” she pleaded.

“Oh, all right. What the hell do I care if we get mugged or …” The words came in a rush of anger and then stopped abruptly, leaving him panting. His breath smeared almost invisible traces on the damp air.

“Killed?”

He didn’t answer.

Constance put her arms around his waist. She could feel the smooth twill of the coat beneath her palms. The muscles of his back were tense columns flanking his spine.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry,” she said.

He put his free arm hard against her shoulders, pulling her against him. He spoke the words into her damp hair.

“Connie, a man is bound by the marriage oath to protect his wife. Right now, I just don’t know how.”

She looked up and smiled a radiant smile. Graham’s reference once again to duty, honor, and contracts warmed her with the first real amusement she had felt all day.

He smiled in return, shook his head and kissed her. Then he turned away from her embrace and guided her firmly toward the subway station. Their heels on the pavement tapped a companionable duet. He carried her briefcase in his left hand and held the umbrella open above her against the first real drops of rain.

The subway platform was neither crowded nor deserted. Constance stood close to Graham, his right hand protective against the small of her back. The lightly furled umbrella hung from his wrist and she sometimes felt it tap against her buttocks.

Like a herd of gazelles, the knots of silent, waiting people raised heads in unison as a rush of teenage boys with the faces of men poured through the turnstiles onto the platform. Their voices were loud, shouting in the intimate assurance of a private patois.

Graham’s worst fears, thought Constance. But the gang seemed more restless than threatening. Heedless, they roiled across the concrete, jostling the people on the platform, pushing them toward the tracks. Graham’s hand pressed against Constance’s back, making little grasping motions against the silk of her raincoat, as though to keep her from falling into the pit. They were pushed to the steel edge of the platform. Still the crowd pressed forward. Someone bumped roughly against her elbow, her shoulder. She heard the thud of the briefcase as Graham dropped it and clutched at her with both hands. Other, younger hands grasped at her body, arms, hair, thighs. She felt the slick fabric that encased her slip away from the pressure of fingers. She was falling; damp gravel and bits of waste paper, steel rails, and torn Styrofoam rushed at her. Excruciating pain in her hip pierced the shield of Dilaudid. She moaned, her mouth wide open. She tried to rise, to move away from the rail. Pain and the rasp of grinding bone prevented her from doing more than moving her right arm and her head. Then, the pain seemed to drain away into a great lethargy. Only her arm and her mind had energy or volition.

A sea of white eyes, round with surprise, looked down at her. A young man paused in the act of climbing down from the platform, one long leg over the steel edge, a white sneaker almost touching the dirty gravel. He stared as she stretched her hand toward the third rail, her fingers barely missing the lethal electrified metal.

Graham saw the movement, too, his sad face a pale, almost featureless oval below the somber hat.

Constance tried to speak but no sound came. “Help me.” She mouthed the words to Graham. With a barely perceptible movement, he flicked the half-open umbrella from his wrist. It made a graceful arc and fell just within her reach.

© 2010 Janet Taliaferro