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Roberta Silman's Short Stories

“Tightrope” from Voices Louder Than Words

The telephone rang the morning after Kate had the dream, one that recurred with a peculiar regularity over the last twenty-five years: She was young and thin and wearing her old brown winter coat. The weather was damp and gray with no sign of leaves on the elms yet, although she could spot a few crocuses near the roots of the old thick trees as she scurried from building to building in a vain effort to avoid his angry stare and cold voice. When, at last, something unknown forced her to enter his cluttered office where, even in her dream, she could taste the dust, he would say, “Why haven’t you come to see me?” and she would awaken in a cold sweat.


Why that dream? It had no basis in reality. She had never failed to visit Professor Nossiter—at least twice a week that last year, once in her official capacity as reader for his literature course, and another time, usually over the weekend, just to talk. He had never been angry at her. “Henry isn’t an angry man,” one of his colleagues had said when Kate first asked about him. Nor did Kate think she had any guilt. Yet the dream persisted, and its appearance usually presaged a letter from him, or a message through a third, or sometimes a fourth party.


So she wasn’t surprised, when, at a little before eight in the morning, the telephone rang, and it was Henry. His voice was a filament of sound and all he said, all he seemed to have the strength to say, was, “I think you can come now.”


“I’ll be there late this afternoon. I don’t know exactly when, but sometime around six.”


Her first thought upon hanging up was: Let the snow hold off. Then she threw on her jacket and hurried out to the barn to tell her husband that the call she'd been expecting had finally come. He nodded as briefly as if she’d told him she was going to the feed store; when their eyes met, he said, “I’ll drive you to the bus.”


Unlike her relatives and friends, Henry Nossiter had registered no surprise when Kate announced a few years after graduating from college that she was marrying a Virginia farmer and planning to live on the edge of the Piedmont Plateau south of Roanoke. Henry had lived on a tobacco farm in upstate New York when he was a boy and in adulthood he had lived his bachelor life in many places; he knew that what you needed to live you brought with you.


The day she told him about her marriage she went to his office and he insisted they look up the town on the big map of the United States he kept folded in his desk; she recalled how he chuckled with delight that her town was not far from one called Rural Retreat. “That’s perfect, what every poet needs,” he said. Then he stood for several minutes in front of the ancient literature section of his library and finally presented her with an Aeschylus—in Greek and English. “None of the translations are that good,” he admitted, something he would never do before, “and at least you will have the Greek to refer to.”


He was not even dismayed when later she confessed she barely had time to read when her four children were small. Or when she aged more quickly than she might have when the children were small. Kate was careless about the Virginia sun, so her face became lined quite early, her hips had widened with each child, and her hair was tied back simply into a thick bun that had more gray than brown in it. Still beautiful hair when she let it down, but what with the children and the chores and the poems gyrating in her head, she wore it pinned up most of the time. Only when she was pushing open the door to Henry Nossiter’s office on her yearly, then less frequent visits to New York, would Kate admonish herself for her bun and her hastily daubed makeup. Yet none of that seemed to matter to him.


“Prettier each year,” he would say, then make his way around his enormous desk filled with piles of books and papers and bend his head and kiss her delicately on the lips. She was a tall woman and he was a few inches taller than she.


Kate’s last visit was in spring; she had her youngest child, Jamie, a boy of ten, with her. After the three of them had walked slowly to the cafeteria for lunch and then back to Henry’s office, Jamie had whispered, “If Mr. Nossiter is getting old, why does he walk like a young calf?”


A while later she sent Jamie on an errand. Then Kate turned to Henry and told him she would come and take care of him when he needed her. He had no one else who could. He was the youngest of a large family, now all dead. He lived in an apartment he'd shared with his brother and his brother's wife; it had been assumed that his sister-in-law would take care of him, but she was in a nursing home suffering from senile dementia.


“My nieces and nephews have their own lives, and they all live out of town,” he admitted. And of course there were former students, some of them famous teachers and writers. “They do beautiful eulogies,” he had once told her, “but that's about all.”


When Kate was finished presenting her case, Henry thanked her and told her his plan, which was to go into a home—a paragon home, he assured her, one of the lucky things about living in this city. “But I must go soon, when I’m able to walk and in my full senses, otherwise they won’t take care of me when I get sick.”


Kate shook her head. She couldn’t see him living away from his office and his apartment. The thought of him leaving his life a day earlier than he had to was more than she could bear, more, she knew, than he could bear, so she replied very quietly, “There’ll be no more talk about a home. Stay in your apartment and come here to your office every day as you always have, and when you can’t do that, call me, and I will come.” As she spoke she wrote down her telephone number on a piece of file card. When she saw him place it in his wallet next to his identification, Kate knew he would do as she wished.


She had spoken that day last spring as firmly as he had told her, twenty-five years before, “You are a poet. Forget about teaching and get yourself a job that will allow you to eat and write your poems. I've been in this business for a long time and I know the real thing when I see it.”


Incredulous, she had stared at him, but Henry Nossiter did not back down. Each time a poem was published, then the chapbook, then the real book, and a second, he was the first to receive them. When she visited him all her work was on his desk, within reaching distance of his chair, next to the ashtray and the ever-present carton of cigarettes: Fatimas when she first knew him, then Camels, and finally Kents, when he had been told he had a spot on the lung.


Before Kate went to pack she stood at the kitchen sink hoarding the view of the morning sun as it veered through the deciduous hillsides of the mountain, then lit up the flat spot—what they called the “overlook”—in front of a stand of hemlocks. She had not known when she married that this exquisite valley would be hers each day, but now that she was required to leave it for who knew how long, she needed to fill her eyes to the brim with it. Whenever she went away, she sometimes longed for it so badly that her throat ached, and once she had been troubled by nightmares of great logging trucks and saws ripping through the woods.


When her husband kissed her goodbye at the bus station where she would get the bus to Washington before boarding the train to New York, he placed two hundred-dollar bills into her palm—money that he must have been saving for this emergency. Kate smiled gratefully; as usual she hadn’t even thought about money.


“Don’t forget Jamie’s recital a week from Saturday,” she reminded him. “And be sure to give yourselves enough time to prepare for Alice’s party.” Their second child was going to be sixteen in three weeks; for a moment Kate's eyes burned at the thought that she might be gone that long, but her husband didn't blanch at her cautions. They had been over this plan of hers many times, and he had reminded her of its pitfalls: that she was not a nurse and might have to get one, that she would be terribly cooped up in the apartment, that she would miss the children. There was no need to go over it any more.


What you must do, you must do, his eyes now told her, and quickly Kate boarded the bus.


New York was bone cold, colder than the Blue Ridge, colder than she remembered from her college and working days there, colder than anything she had ever known in New England when she was a child. As people left Penn Station they adjusted scarves across their noses and mouths like children playing gangster. A fist of icy air buffeted her face as she stepped out into the city, and the new buildings, “the needles,” the cab driver called them, rose like knives slicing off more light, and more, to create caverns of shadow that grayed and deadened the grid of broad avenues and narrower side streets.


Now, at the end of the working day, a blanket of hatted and kerchiefed people covered the sidewalks in a closely woven swath that amazed and depressed Kate. How could they live with so little air, so little sun? How could she live without the openness of the valley for this coming stretch of time? Then Kate remembered her husband's eyes and swallowed hard and asked the cab driver why there were so many people. “It looks like Christmas, but that was almost two months ago,” she said.


At the next light he turned and stared at her. He was too old to bother with the sliding window between them. “They live here, lady. And they say it’s worse in Tokyo.”


She didn’t answer, and he ignored her until they began to approach the address she had given him, an old apartment house on Central Park West where movie stars and news anchormen and talk-show personalities lived. “You work for one of those celebrities?” he asked with sudden interest.


“No, I’m going to visit an old teacher. He’s sick.” But the truth only whetted the man’s curiosity. As she paid he looked her up and down, and she could hear him telling his wife about a big woman in an old jacket and slacks and heavy hiking boots who had gotten out at this fancy apartment house.


Though she was earlier than she had predicted, the doorman had been alerted to her arrival, and he insisted on carrying her bulky leather suitcase through the lobby that looked like a gracious old club. As Kate let herself breathe in and out more normally, she realized how frightened she was.

Henry had waited to call her as long as he possibly could, and now a very sick, hunched over man in his pajamas and bathrobe and slippers stood before her. When they kissed Kate noticed they were the same height. His skin was leaden and felt like wet plaster, but behind his glasses his eyes still gleamed faintly. He walked with a cane, and when they reached the living room he sank into the pillows of the sofa as if he had returned from a long journey. On the coffee table were three items: the scrap of file card, another piece of paper with the name, address and telephone number of his doctor, and an ancient ivory box Kate recognized from his desk. It was filled with fifties and hundred-dollar bills.


“The doctor wants you to call,” he told her, then leaned back and closed his eyes. “Being home at dusk is strange,” he added. “The city is less alive than late at night.” His habit for the last fifty years had been to leave his office no earlier than midnight and sleep until around nine. His first class was never before eleven when he was teaching.


“I’ll call the doctor after you get back into bed,” she told him. He nodded and she led him to his room, which was surprisingly neat. He had lived in this apartment for the last ten years; before that he had had his own small place farther uptown closer to the university. “I haven’t been to my office for a week,” he said as she helped him into bed, “but they sent a packet of mail this afternoon. I’ll go over it in the morning.” Since his retirement almost a decade ago he had spent most of his waking hours attending to the mail.


When Kate helped Henry remove his robe she saw that his neck and chest were a series of depressions covered by an almost transparent layer of skin. The sight made Kate start, she had never seen him in anything but a suit or sport coat and always a long-sleeved shirt and tie, for she rarely saw him in summer.


How will we manage? she suddenly asked herself, then pulled a chair closer to the bed so he didn't have to turn his head to see her. But when she saw the relief in his eyes that she was here, she thought: I have managed before, I will manage now. Her unexpected apprehension reminded Kate of her mother's quivering voice after she had called to tell her she was settled on the farm. “But you don't know a thing about cows and horses,” her mother had said.


“I will figure it out as I go along,” Kate had replied cheerfully. And so she would now.


In about an hour Henry was breathing peacefully, so she went into the kitchen and called the doctor. The man told her what she knew: Henry was dying—of emphysema and lung cancer. He had refused all treatment and the only thing he would allow administered was pain medication, first by mouth, then, later, with shots. “We can get a visiting nurse for those,” the doctor offered.


“No, it won’t be necessary. The cows get shots all the time.”


“Of course. How stupid of me to have forgotten that,” the doctor said. Although they had never met, the man knew all about her. He told her he had ordered a hospital bed to be delivered tomorrow. “And whatever drugs you need, and a commode,” he added. When she had dialed the doctor’s number, Kate had thought she would ask him how long, but now it seemed irrelevant. And obscene.


There was a second bedroom, larger than Henry's, where Kate had thought she would sleep, but it was easier to put sheets and blankets over the couch in the living room and stretch out there. The next morning she saw that the bedrooms were too dark for either of them; a new building had gone up next door, and living in those rooms was like living in a shaft. She decided she would put the hospital bed in the living room and move the couch back into a corner near the window. That way Henry could see her whenever he wished.


On her way out to get groceries she asked the doorman if the fireplace in the living room worked. “Why, of course, Madam,” he replied, as if everyone in this city had a working fireplace.


“Can you get me some wood?” she asked. When he mumbled something about it being scarce, Kate put a fifty into his hand. Immediately his manner changed. “I will need enough to keep a fire going steadily,” she told him, then hurried out. She moved slowly through the crowd, trying to make eye contact, hoping for a faint Good Morning or even a narrow smile.


But nothing until she reached the sparkling clean deli around the corner where she was greeted with, “And what can we do for you today, young lady?” Kate was so grateful she had to stop herself from buying more of the overpriced merchandise than they needed.


When she returned Henry was in the living room. His cane had slipped to the floor, but he was proud to have made it out here all alone. She had hoped the sleep last night would refresh him, yet he was still so very pale and weak. But his eyes brightened when he saw the newspaper she'd brought from the neighborhood kiosk. Then he looked around.


“The cleaning lady retired a few months ago, after the summer. I called an agency, but what they sent was awful. I’m sorry. The back rooms are even worse.”


“Not to worry,” she said. “We won’t bother with the bedrooms anyway. We can put the hospital bed right here, in front of the fire, and I’ll be comfortable on the sofa.”


Henry shook his head. “The fireplace has never worked properly.” Kate didn't answer and made some tea and toast, which he nibbled, then she insisted he go back to bed. She wanted to tidy the living room before the bed arrived.


By early afternoon the living room smelled of furniture polish, the bed was set up, the fireplace had been seasoned and was glowing steadily. The fingers of frost that had sprouted on the insides of the windows had begun to melt so the peeling sills were wet. Kate put some old towels on them, then considered the next task: a bath. She had thought Henry might try to resist, but when she mentioned it she saw he simply didn’t have the strength. He lay in her arms as placidly as Jamie had last year when he had the chicken pox. How thin he was! His bones seemed about to poke through the skin and where there were no angles the flesh fell in neat folds. But there was nothing even remotely embarrassing about it, and when she had to lift him from the tub, Kate thanked God for all the diets she hadn’t been able to stick to; she would need every ounce of brawn she had for the chores that lay ahead.


When he was bathed and shaved and dressed in fresh pajamas, Henry looked better. He managed to eat some of Kate’s soup, and while she was sorting his mail, he caught her eye and whispered, “Katie, remember how hard I used to work to define Agape?”


She stared. Of course she remembered. The first lectures each fall: Eros, Agape, Sophia, Hubris. Two kinds of love, wisdom, pride. And he was the only person in this world she allowed to call her Katie. But before she could answer, his eyes closed and his chin fell gently onto his chest.


* * *


After about four days Kate established what she described to her husband as a holding action. Henry wasn’t getting better, but the strength didn't seem to be seeping out of him as rapidly as it had when she first arrived. So she wasn’t surprised when, at breakfast on the fifth day, he said, “I think it’s time for the eulogizers,” and directed her to the top drawer of his desk. There she found a list of his former students. A few who worked here in New York had already called, but he had instructed her to tell them he was recovering from the flu. Now it was her job to go through the list and tell them the truth.


Kate would rather have done all the milking by herself for a week than make those calls, but she forced herself to check off each name. When she finished he said, “You look exhausted. It was a replay of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich,’ wasn't it?”


She sat down and shrugged. “Not exactly. I think they’re all going to get here.”


But Henry knew. “The ones who wanted the most from me will show up last. I’ve seen it time and again.” Then he tried to read the paper. She didn’t mind it when he sat and stared into space, or slept, or tried to eat; it was when she saw him trying to read the same line over and over in the paper that Kate could feel herself wanting to cry.


The men all had the moldy look of scholars about them: Some were bald with long flowing fringes of hair, others had thick moustaches and beards, all of them looked older than their photos. The women were surprisingly chic. As each one arrived Henry introduced Kate as clearly as he could, but her identity remained a secret, because if any of them had heard of her through her poems they knew her only by her maiden name. And most of them were older than she; from their manner she knew they thought she was a family retainer, for they treated her with the polite but disinterested courtesy that most intellectuals reserve for menials.


In many ways it was a relief. After the third day of visitors Kate stopped wearing a skirt and stockings and decent shoes and got back into her old clothes and hiking boots. It didn’t even bother her when, one evening as she was filling the compactor with garbage, she overheard, “She’s a long-lost relative from the farming part of the family, I think.”


“No, you're mistaken. She’s a practical nurse who took care of his brother. I can swear I’ve seen her before. It must have been when his brother was sick.”


Kate could have cleared it up by saying, Of course you saw me—with my husband and two older children at the party for Henry's seventy-fifth birthday six years ago. Then I was a guest, like you, and my hair was done and my clothes were party clothes. But that would have embarrassed them because they all prided themselves on their marvelous memories. Still, if she'd had the choice she would have preferred not to hear, “Such a big gawky woman, isn’t she?”


“No, just a little plain. But she's gentle with him and seems capable.”


Finally, the last of them had come and gone. By then Kate had been here a little more than two weeks. Henry left his bed less and less, the baths dwindled to every other day, then every third, the pain medicine was administered more often, the doctor came and strengthened the dose. Henry’s food was largely liquid, but he still had some interest in it.


The living room had become a world. Every few days more wood was delivered, often a bag of pine cones was included, and the fire became a steady presence that breathed with them. They both listened for it and for each other. Although Kate spoke to her family on Sundays, thoughts of her husband and children seemed to grow fainter, receding to some distant future place, just as the books which lined the walls of this room seemed to drop farther from her line of vision. Henry slept more and more; when Kate had to leave the apartment for food or drugs, she would leave a large sign hanging at the foot of the bed so he wouldn’t be frightened if he woke and found himself alone.


At the beginning of the third week the poems began to come: Line after line rushing through the air, hovering around her head like gnats until she could write them down. Astonished by the flow of words that assailed her, Kate tried to fix each phrase, put it exactly where it belonged. Once she found herself reciting T.S. Eliot’s lines: “Words strain / Crack and sometimes break, under the burden / Under the tension, slip, slide, perish, / Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, / Will not stay still.” But if he recognized them Henry gave no sign and only smiled when he opened his eyes and saw her sitting on the sofa, surrounded by mounting piles of paper.


“How good that you can work,” he murmured when Kate looked up and smiled back. Then she continued to cover the paper with her hurried scrawl. For it seemed to her that all the poems she had been carrying in her head as she bent to the myriad tasks of her life—to her husband’s and children's and animals’ needs—all those poems were surfacing and were there, in the very air around her, to be had for the taking.


* * *


The doctor came again, and then again. The pantry grew bare, was filled, grew bare once more. Slowly the fist of cold outside loosened. Henry spoke very little now, saving his words only for the important things. Phrases tightened to monosyllables, small clues to what he really wished to express. Sometimes Kate understood, sometimes she didn’t.


But when he curled up on his side and grimaced with pain, she could reach out and put her hand on his; when he opened his eyes she was there for him to watch; when he tried to eat she would tell him about her husband, their children, that beautiful valley. Sometimes, and only if she was sure he was asleep, Kate would recite her own poems aloud, testing the words upon the fragrant, piney air.


Life was suspended, she realized—yes, this is what it means when one says those words. She felt as though she and Henry were venturing very slowly across a tightrope. Yet now, neither of them was afraid. She didn't even wish this slow, arduous journey would end. She could go on like this forever, she sometimes thought.


One afternoon a gust of wind blew a pane from one of the windows. While they were waiting for the handyman to come and replace it, Henry motioned her to lift the bed into a higher, almost sitting position. The break in the routine had made him more alert than she had seen him for at least a week. As Kate cranked the bed she could see him summoning all the energy he had, more energy than she thought he still had, and her body grew rigid with fear. The doctor had warned her that this sometimes happened right before the end. But when he spoke, in a voice Kate recognized from the past, all he said was, “I didn’t know when I called that it would take this long.”


“There’s no rush,” Kate told him. Then she smoothed the blankets over his legs and feet and went to the door to answer the bell.