I shivered as I put aside my morning coffee. It was never going to taste any better. I picked up my two year-old copy of The Sentinel — its worn pages as delicate as my Lucy’s hair. She had never lost her beautiful hair, not even with the chemotherapy. Lucinda Kramer Russell had been born, the paper said, on the second of December 1934 at Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans, Louisiana and died on the fifteenth of December 2005 at Forsyth Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina — survived by her husband of fifty years, Robespierre.
The radiator in my one bedroom apartment wheezed, providing mustiness but no warmth. I turned it off, put the paper down, and got my fleece jacket out of the closet. The tumblers in the front door resisted but then gave way. Outside, the leaves on the stone steps at the building’s entrance crackled under my feet. I could feel through my shoes the skeletons of the acorns on the sidewalk of this once fashionable section of the West Georgia town where I grew up. On sunny days my friends and I traveled this route as we made our way to school. Often, on our way home, we stopped and played along the riverbank. I had moved back to town toward the end of last year, but my friends were gone, along with Lucy, and now the days were cloudy and cold.
Lucy’s last hospitalization had begun with a visit to the emergency room on the first day of December. Dr. Jefferson met us there and told us that her malignancy had reached her lungs and kidneys. I stayed at the hospital and provided what comfort I could while she slipped away, under the watchful eyes of the hospital staff and her physicians, in a medication and cancer-induced metabolic coma. Several days later I hung up on a local attorney who called on behalf of a Philadelphia firm suggesting that they sue the doctors and the hospital on my behalf.
I had always respected people from Pennsylvania, ever since I finished my internship at their University in 1964, but Philadelphia lawyers were different. They started our country’s first law school in 1791, and the next year issued our first life insurance policy.
Lucy’s life insurance had lapsed. The agent had explained that the company’s new flexible premium policy was cheaper and paid more interest than our old policy. Never having understood insurance, I didn’t realize the interest had stopped covering the premiums.
Medicare and our supplemental health insurance paid only a portion of Lucy’s hospital bills. The lawyer assured me that we could expect a nice settlement which would be offered by the hospital to avoid the publicity and distraction of a prolonged legal battle. It wasn’t as though I didn’t need the money. Lucy’s medical bills had drained our retirement and at seventy-five I was past the age when I could expect much in the way of payment for my work.
As I reached the downtown area, I was thinking how different things had been when I was a boy. There were more stores then, and a raised sidewalk, several feet above the road, which protected the stores from the river’s flooding. We kids had loved taking canoes into the flooded streets.
Now the dam upriver kept the Chattahoochee within its banks, but only a few semi-abandoned shops remained in what had once been a lively commercial center. After the cotton mills had closed, the merchants tried to maintain their properties, but steadily lost business to the modern establishments across the state line. I had read that they were building an assembly plant for foreign automobiles across the river, but the shopkeepers were marking time, waiting for retirement or an opportunity to move elsewhere.
Near City Hall, I came to a small park, its grass and trees withered by the winter’s cold and the municipality’s inadequate maintenance. I stopped at its only bench. “Good morning, Mathilda,” I said to the old lady who was huddled on the right side of the stone slab which rested on two vertical chunks of shaped concrete providing seating for two visitors.
“Good morning neighbor,” she said, as she moved over to make room for me. She was dressed in well tailored, somewhat faded, vintage apparel. A woolen coat and kid gloves shielded her from the cold. “May I interest you in resting awhile in this prime viewing area?” She spoke in a way which recalled for me her patrician northeastern background. “It’s not a box seat at the Met,” she said, her pale blue eyes laughing beneath her gray curls and cloche hat and softening her sharp features. “But then, the kids aren’t doing Rigoletto this morning.”
She knew this was my favorite opera because she, unlike my other neighbors, shared my interest in opera. Nine years older than I, she reminded me of my favorite grandmother. We watched two girls about twelve years old chase a chubby ten-year-old boy down the street toward the bus stop, pelting him with small stones, doing little damage except to his self respect.
“More like Falstaff,” I said. “I guess it being Saturday and them having no school, they have nothing better to do. But then neither do we.”
“At least we have the afternoon broadcasts,” she said. I knew she relished the weekly radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera, which were as close, given her financial situation, as she could get to a live performance. She had seen many of the Met’s performances at Lincoln Center and at the old house while I had only seen other companies’ performances while traveling during my working years. “It’s not the same as being there, though,” she said.
”But then, nothing’s the same as it was,” I said, “in our lives or even in our operas. I once saw a production of Traviata which made the return of Alfredo and his father in the last act a hallucination. To deny the noble dying girl her final visit by her lover — to take a sad opera and make it even sadder — I would rather have just listened and provided my own interpretation.”
“Ah, but the music,” she said, her tremor disappearing as she warmed to the conversation. “With Verdi the greatness lies in the combination of the libretto and the music. You know, of course, in Dumas’ play and novel, just as in the production you saw, Violetta’s only comfort resides in the knowledge that Alfredo, and God, will understand her sacrifice. I was just rereading the novel, and all the while I could hear the music in my head, making me forget my troubles as I became involved in the suffering of the characters. After my husband died music and reading provided my only relief from the awful desolation. Now, of course, things are better. By the way, you know today’s broadcast has Anna Netrebco, as Juliette,” she said, taking from her pocket two chocolate covered mints, like the ones they used to put out on the pillows of nice hotels at night, and offering one to me. “My niece sent me these. She sent me some biscotti, too. One of these days we will have to try them out with some tea.”
“I had forgotten today’s broadcast,” I said, thanking her for the mint and putting it in my jacket pocket. “Gounod is one of my favorite composers. But you are right about the way opera can depict memorable characters. Just look at Hugo’s Triboulet, transformed by Verdi and Piave into Rigoletto — a character worthy of Shakespeare.”
“You always turn our conversations to your favorite opera,” she said. “Although I agree with you, I have always been a little disappointed by Gilda. She perceives her sacrifice as a noble act which will take her to a meeting with her mother in heaven, but some see it as a form of suicide which would prevent her going there. This is, of course, even more of a problem for the overtly suicidal Juliette. Violetta, on the other hand, is trying to stay alive, despite her unhappiness. I have read there was an especially good modern production of Traviata from Salzburg last year with Netrebco trying to hold back a giant clock counting down her remaining time on earth. And as for the production you saw, if Violetta is dying, and has a bit of happiness, does it truly matter whether it is fantasy or reality?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I do know it is always a pleasure talking with you in the mornings.”
“Better than in the afternoons when the old brain gets tired and won’t work without my afternoon tea,” she answered. “Now, I must be off to the market so that I can be back in time for the broadcast.” She got up with my help, and made her way down the street toward the corner.
I sat on the bench for a few minutes thinking about my conversation with Mathilda. I had met her in the park shortly after I moved back. Expatriate and prodigal, we had enjoyed our discussions while resting after trips downtown. I had considered moving into the retirement apartments they had put in my old school at the top of the hill, or into the new low-income housing where the public swimming pool had been. But I knew I had more in common with neighbors like Mathilda than with the worn-out mill workers or the new automobile assembly plant people.
The clouds had moved in covering the sun and I was shivering again. I turned up the collar on my jacket, crossed River Street, and walked out onto the bridge over the Chattahoochee. The wind swept down along the muddy river from the hills in the north. I could hear the birds scavenging along the mud flats on the bank. The clouds were pushed along by the wind which also brought the smell of chemicals from the water-treatment plant and decay from the underbrush along the river bank. The cold from the metal railing spread from my hands into my chest as I leaned over to get a better look at the patterns in the swirling water. I thought about the condemned man, not far from here in Bierce’s story, imagining he was returning to his family as he fell to his death during what my neighbors called “The War Between the States.” What would I experience as I fell into the maelstrom, and what about afterwards? Perhaps I would find Lucy again and we would be as we were before the aging and the cancer. But as Matilda had reminded me, for people who weren’t forced into it, the afterlife might be considerably different. If I went over the railing, I would probably be numb with fear during my descent, sink in the cold water, and end up as flotsam on the mud flats downstream.
Perhaps Mathilda’s way was better. Perhaps I should go home, have a cup of tea, and listen to the broadcast. I still had some of the green tea Lucy used to make for us. I would always miss the feel of her beside me, especially in the evenings, but there was no guarantee I would find her in the depths of the river. The library carried DVDs of some of the Salzburg productions. Perhaps I could obtain Netrebco’s Traviata from the library and invite Mathilda over to watch it with me. Later, I could borrow her copy of Dumas’ novel. There were still things which were worth doing, and the river would be there tomorrow, if I needed it.
Most of the clouds had moved downstream and the sun felt good on my neck and shoulders as I walked back across the bridge toward my apartment.
Robert Turner, M.D. grew up on the Chattahoochee River in West Georgia and East Alabama. His work has appeared in a variety of medical publications. He lives with his wife in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he is at work on his first novel.