Pamela Carter Joern
In Reach Excerpt
Wayne McManus sits at the hospital bedside of his dying cousin. He’s reading Mary
Oliver poems aloud, the poet lying on her stomach, studying a single blade of grass, a
grasshopper’s wings. His own spindly legs are crossed knee over knee, bony silk-socked
ankles nested in black wing-tipped shoes polished to mirror the sky, the laces new and
waxy. His blue dress shirt snugs into the waistband of gray pleated trousers, belted with
Italian leather. Glasses in small metal frames pinch a narrow nose, his eyes an icy blue.
Blond hair, trimmed and tidy, shot through with gray. He looks like a character from
Masterpiece Theater, not a bank teller who’s lived all his life (save one indescribable
summer) in Reach, Nebraska.
The body on the bed shifts. The younger man is quiet now, morphine dripping into his
arm, his skin translucent. Wayne has read about that. The lesions, too. One high on Mark’
s forehead, another on his arm. Wayne helped the nurse turn him once. Put his hands a
skeleton, the bones loose and jangling. He feared that some part of Mark would break off,
his leg, say, or a brittle arm that would shatter on the floor to be swept up by Hazel, the
scowling cleaning woman.
Mark strains to raise his head. Wayne lays the book of poetry, open and pages down,
on the bedside table. The room smells of antiseptic, the walls white and sterile, but as he
leans over Mark, his nostrils twitch at the foul odor emanating from Mark’s mouth.
“Do you want water?” Wayne asks.
Mark shakes his head. “What’s that?” he says, his voice whispery and coarse.
“Water?” Wayne repeats.
Mark rolls his head toward the book. “No, that.”
“Mary Oliver,” Wayne says. Then, quoting from the poet, “Tell me, what is it you plan
to do with your one wild and precious life?”
“I like Bond,” Mark says.
“Oh, dear,” Wayne says.
What do they have in common, really? Mark’s lived in San Francisco. He once
personally met Jerry Garcia. Except for an occasional Christmas card, Wayne hasn’t
heard from him in twenty years. He only found out that Mark was sick because Maude,
the hospital receptionist, called him.
Back at the bank, through a small window, Wayne smiles at his customers (he knows
them all by name), and counts out tens, twenties, hundreds, bills creased and soiled from
human hands. He wears gloves.
Later, inside his house, he walks past leather upholstery, cases of books, water color
paintings to a back bedroom where his hand slides along a pebbly plaster wall, flips a
switch that lights 150 Hurricane lamps crowded on shelves lining the room. More than
half have been electrified, but the other 63, with their original oil wicks intact, are
illuminated by lights recessed within the shelves. The lamps displayed here are his current
favorites. Another 450 are boxed and labeled and tucked away in his basement. He runs
his hand over the pink roses, the delicate fluted edges, hand-painted globes of exquisite,
After supper (a meal of cold turkey and salad), he dons a light jacket to ward off the
October chill and walks three blocks to the Albertsons’ house. He raps lightly on the
door, stands patiently while Mary looks through the peephole. She lets him in, stands
there in her black lace-up shoes, a gray crepe dress, her white hair mashed under a net.
Her back is stooped, the only real change in her since she taught his fifth grade class fifty-
three years ago. Propped in an overstuffed chair, her brother Dave’s arms rest on long-
necked swans crocheted into doilies, a needlepoint pillow of pansies behind his head. He
doesn’t rise or speak when Wayne steps in. Wayne sits forward on the edge of the
Edwardian couch, signaling that he won’t stay long.
“How’s business?” Dave asks. The tube to Dave’s oxygen tank snakes across the floor,
his breathing shallow and labored.
“Not the same without you,” Wayne says, though Dave has been retired from the bank
for twelve years.
Mary seats herself in the rocking chair, pulls her knitting into her lap. Heavy brocade
curtains veil the windows, the room spiked with shadows. No television, of course. A
lamp with fringed shade. Antique tables, hand-carved. An oil painting grown dark with
age, a bucolic landscape, sheep on hillsides, far from the Nebraska prairie. There’s
nothing of tumbleweeds or windmills in this room. Wayne wonders, as he always does,
what they do all day. They don’t allow any other visitors. Their groceries are delivered
from the Jack & Jill to their back door. After the boy has gone, Mary retrieves the bags
from the back porch. If they’re too heavy, she waits for Wayne and asks if he will carry
them to her kitchen counter.
Wayne first came here because Dave told him they had an old kerosene lamp that had
belonged to their mother. The top globe broken. Worthless, Dave said. Wayne asked if he
could take a look at it, and when he did, he could hardly conceal his excitement. Some
unknown but gifted artist had painted a picnic by a river, two laughing young men against
a backdrop of shimmering yellow and autumn gold. One extended his hand toward the
other. Apart from them, seated on the ground, a woman wearing white clutched a parasol
and looked off across the river, her face invisible. He bought it from them for $15.00. He
took it to an antiques restorer down by Ogallala and had a top globe hand-made, painted
with sky to make a roof over this perfect world. Whenever Mary asks about her mother’
s lamp, he lies to her. Not much could be done. Packed away in my basement. Because
he lies, he mows their lawn in the summer. Lights the pilot light on the furnace in the
winter. When they need to go to the doctor in Scottsbluff, he drives them.
“Any news?” Mary asks.
Wayne clasps his hands, clears his throat. “My cousin Mark is in the hospital.”
“Wilhelmina’s grandson?” Mary says.
Wayne nods. “Truman’s boy.”
Mary knits a row. She’s making socks, narrow cotton yarn, gray. She’ll wear them
herself, bunched around her ankles above low-heeled shoes.
“Truman was in my class,” she says.
Wayne nods again.
“Not much of a thinker,” she says.
Wayne bristles, and, at the same time, can’t fathom himself. Why should he, of all
people, want to stick up for Tru?
“Mark’s dying,” Wayne says, to punish her a little.
Mary’s needles stop for a fraction of a second. He waits for her to ask him why. He’s
decided he will say that it is cancer, which it is, by now. But she doesn’t ask. She goes
Back in his living room, it’s only 8:00 p.m. Not enough time used up. He pours himself
a glass of red wine, settles into his leather recliner, adjusts the lamp, and lifts a book. He
finds that he can’t concentrate, thinking instead that Mary could be a mean teacher,
batting the backs of hands with rulers, raising red welts on knuckles, making big, dumb
kids—like Tru—cry out in pain.