The magicians assistant, p.1
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
At the Intersection of George Burns and Gracie Allen
About the Author
Copyright © 1997 by Ann Patchett
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
For information about permission to reproduce selections of this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print version as follows:
The magician’s assistant/Ann Patchett.
ISBN 978-0-15-600621-7 (pbk.)
At the Intersection of George Burns and Gracie Allen
PARSIFAL IS DEAD. That is the end of the story.
The technician and the nurse rushed in from their glass booth. Where there had been a perfect silence a minute before there was now tremendous activity, the straining sounds of two men unexpectedly thrown into hard work. The technician stepped between Parsifal and Sabine, and she had no choice but to let go of Parsifal’s hand. When they counted to three and then lifted Parsifal’s body from the metal tongue of the MRI machine and onto the gurney, his head fell back, his mouth snapping open with no reflexes to protect it. Sabine saw all of his beautiful teeth, the two gold crowns on the back molars shining brightly in the overhead fluorescent light. The heavy green sheet that they had given him for warmth got stuck in the guardrail lock. The nurse struggled with it for a second and then threw up his hands, as if to say they didn’t have time for this, when in fact they had all the time in the world. Parsifal was dead and would be dead whether help was found in half a minute or in an hour or a day. They rushed him around the corner and down the hall without a word to Sabine. The only sound was the quick squeak of rubber wheels and rubber soles against the linoleum.
Sabine stood there, her back against the massive MRI machine, her arms wrapped around her chest, waiting. It was, in a way, the end of Sabine.
After a while the neuroradiologist came into the room and told her, in a manner that was respectful and direct, the one thing she already knew: Her husband was dead. He did not pluck at his lab coat or stare at the floor the way so many doctors had done when they had spoken to Parsifal and Sabine about Phan. He told her it had been an aneurism, a thinning in a blood vessel of his brain. He told her it had probably been there Parsifal’s whole life and was not in any way related to his AIDS. Like a patient with advanced lymphoma who is driven off the freeway by a careless teenager changing lanes, the thing that had been scheduled to kill Parsifal had been denied, and Sabine lost the years she was promised he still had. The doctor did not say it was a blessing, but Sabine could almost see the word on his lips. Compared to the illness Parsifal had, this death had been so quick it was nearly kind. “Your husband,” the doctor explained, “never suffered.”
Sabine squeezed the silver dollar Parsifal had given her until she felt the metal edge cut painfully into her palm. Wasn’t suffering exactly the thing she had been afraid of? That he would go like Phan, lingering in so many different kinds of pain, his body failing him in unimaginable ways—hadn’t she hoped for something better for Parsifal? If he couldn’t have held on to his life, then couldn’t he at least have had some ease in his death? That was what had happened. Parsifal’s death had been easy. Having come to find there was no comfort in getting what she wanted, what she wanted now was something else entirely. She wanted him back. Sick or well. She wanted him back.
“The headache this morning,” the doctor told her, “would have been brought on by a leak.” His beard was not well trimmed and his glasses were smudged, as if set in place by greasy fingers. He had the paleness of so many neuro-radiologists.
Sabine said she’d like to see the film.
The doctor nodded and returned a minute later holding a large paper envelope stamped DO NOT BEND. She followed him into what looked to be a closet and he put eight large sheets of gray film on the lightboard. Each had fifteen separate pictures, Parsifal’s brain sliced in every conceivable direction. In the dark, narrow room Sabine studied the information, her face painted in a bluish white light. She stared at the shape of Parsifal’s head, at the deep, curving trenches of his brain. In some pictures things were recognizable, the strong line of his jaw, the sockets of his eyes. But most of the pictures were patterns, aerial views of an explosion taken at night. Again and again she saw the shadow, the dark, connected mass the size of a pinto bean. Even she could see where this was going.
The doctor tapped the obvious with the tip of his pencil. “There,” he said. He faced the light when he spoke, and the pictures of Parsifal’s brain reflected in his glasses. “In some people they stay that way forever. In others they just give out.”
Sabine asked for a moment alone and the doctor nodded and backed out of the room. When these pictures were taken, just slightly over an hour before, Parsifal had been alive. She raised her hand to the film and traced her finger around the top line of his skull. The beautiful head she had held. The night Phan died, Sabine had thought the tragedy was knowing that Parsifal would die, too, that there was only a limited amount of time. But now Sabine knew the tragedy was living, that there would be years and years to be alone. She pulled down the films and put them back in the envelope, tucked the envelope under her arm, and tried to remember where the elevators were.
The empire that was Cedars Sinai hospital lapped up the last blocks of Los Angeles before it became Beverly Hills. Buildings were connected by overhead tunnels called skyways. Waiting rooms were categorized by the seriousness of the wait. The halls were lined with art that was too good for a hospital. Sometimes it seemed that every wealthy person in Los Angeles had died at Cedars Sinai, or their loved ones had died there, and what they had been left with was not bitterness or fear but a desire to have their name on a plaque over some door. The abundance of money took away as many outward signs of hospital life as possible. There were no sickly green walls, no peeling floors or disinfectant smells. There had been nights when Sabine had walked those halls so short on sleep that the place became a giant hotel, the Sahara or Desert Sands in Las Vegas, where she and Parsifal used to perform their magic act years before. But tonight, as Sabine went to the nurses’ station to call the funeral home, it wasn’t even late; the sky still had the smallest smear of orange over Beverly Hills. All the people who would one day come to Cedars to die were only beginning to think about going to sleep.
Sabine knew what had to be done. She had practice. Phan had been dead fourteen months and fourteen months was long enough to forget exactly nothing. But with Phan it had been different. He had worked towards his death so steadily that they knew its schedule. After the doctor came to the house for the last time and told them a day, maybe two, Phan had died the next morning. With Parsifal, it was only a headache.
“I had a dream about Phan,” Parsifal had said that morning.
Sabine brought him coffee and sat down on the edge of his bed. It had been Phan’s bed, Phan’s house. Parsifal and Phan had lived together for five years. Since Phan’s death, Parsifal had had a handful of dreams about Phan which he recounted faithfully to Sabine, like letters written by a lover in another country.
Parsifal woke up quickly, clearheaded. He took the cup. “He was sitting by a pool. He was wearing one of my suits, my pearl gray suit and a white shirt. He had taken off his tie.” He closed his eyes, searching for details. Phan was in the details. “He was holding this big pink drink, a mai-tai or something. It had fruit all over the glass. He looked so rested, absolutely beautiful.”
“Was it our pool?”
“Oh no. This was a capital-P Pool—dolphin fountains, gold tiles.”
Sabine nodded. She pictured it herself: blue skies, palm fronds. “Did he say anything?”
“He said, ‘The water’s just perfect. I’m thinking about going for a swim.’” Parsifal could mimic Phan’s voice, perfect English sandwiched between layers of Vietnamese and French. The sound of Phan’s voice made Sabine shiver.
Phan didn’t swim. His house had a pool, but pools dominated the backyards of Southern California. Having one was not the same as wanting one. Sometimes Phan would roll up his pants and sit at the shallow end with his feet in the water.
“What do you think it all means?” Parsifal asked.
Sabine ran her hand over the top of his head, bald now from who knew what combination of things. She put no stock in dreams. To her they were just a television left on in another room. “I think it means he’s happy.”
“Yes,” he said, and smiled at her. “That’s what I think.”
There was a time not so long ago that Parsifal never would have told his dreams to Sabine, unless it was a ridiculous dream, like the time he told her he dreamed about going into the living room and finding Rabbit in the wingback chair, two hundred pounds and six feet tall, reading the newspaper through half-glasses. And maybe he hadn’t had that dream, maybe he only said it to be funny. But Phan’s death had made him sentimental, hopeful. He wanted to believe in a dream that told him death had been good to Phan, that he was not lost but in a place where Parsifal could find him later. A place with a pool and a bar.
“What about you?” Parsifal said, covering her hand with his hand. “Any dreams?”
But Sabine never remembered her dreams, or maybe she didn’t have them. She shook her head and asked how he was feeling. He said fine, but there was a little bit of a headache coming on. That had been eight o’clock in the morning. That had been on this same day.
After basic arrangements had been made, Sabine took the elevator to the main lobby and the electric glass doors opened up to turn her out into the night. It was January and seventy-two degrees. A light breeze had blown the smog far out over the Pacific Ocean but had left nothing behind it. She wished she could still smell the blossoms from the distant industrial orange groves, the scent of flowers and citrus that as recently as May had settled on her clothes and in her hair like a fine dust. She kept expecting someone from the hospital to come after her. “Where are you going?” they would say, and wrap her in their arms. “You’re in no condition to be out here alone.” The nurse had asked her if there were someone she could call, but Sabine said no. There were a hundred people to call, and none of them the person she wanted. Parsifal had no family at all, except for Sabine, who was always moved to see her name on the line of the medical records that said “Next of Kin.” She would wait until she was home to call her own parents, because if she called them now they would insist on picking her up from the hospital and bringing her home with them. Sabine wanted to be in her own home tonight. Phan’s home and then Parsifal’s home and now her home.
It felt a little bit like being drunk, the way her knees grew soft from the shock, the very edges of the grief that was coming for her. She had to concentrate to keep from stepping into the bank of rubbery green ice plant along the sidewalk. She couldn’t remember where she’d left the car. She walked down Gracie Allen Drive and when it intersected with George Burns Road, she stopped. Outside a hospital where every building was named for someone, and every floor of the building and every room on the floor, Gracie Allen had a street, something that couldn’t be bought. The street did not call to mind Gracie Allen’s life, but her death, running, the way it did, between two sides of the hospital, the Broidy Family Patient Wing and the Theodore E. Cummings Family Patient Wing, stopping there at the Max Factor Family Tower. Every time Sabine walked down that street she thought that Gracie Allen must have suffered at the end of her life, and that it was her suffering that led the city to give her a street. And maybe her husband had walked down that street some evenings. Maybe when he missed her most he would drive to Cedars Sinai and walk past the ficus trees and the agapanthus bushes and all of the needlepoint ivy, the full length of the street that bore his wife’s name. Then one day when he felt himself getting older and the walks more difficult to make, he had gone to his friends and asked if possibly he could have a street for himself. It was not vanity. It was a marker to say he was in love with her. Sabine wished that streets could be bought, like patient wings, so that she could buy one for Parsifal. She would buy it as for away from Cedars Sinai as she could get it. She would give him that, knowing full well that the street that would intersect it would not bear her name.
It was almost nine o’clock at night when Sabine found her car parked at the emergency entrance. She thought on the drive home that she could use the guest list from their wedding to contact people for the funeral. “Not just for tax reasons,” Parsifal had said in front of the rabbi. “I do love you.” Parsifal said he wanted Sabine to be his widow. And Sabine deserved to be married. She had been in love with Parsifal since she was nineteen, since that first night at the Magic Hat when he had done the passing-rabbit trick, pulling rabbits out of his sleeves, his collar, his cummerbund, the way Charming Pollack pulled out doves. She had been a waitress at the Hat, but on that night she became his assistant, putting down her tray of drinks when he held out his hand, coming up on the stage even when the owner had clearly told her that to volunteer was the God-given right of the drink-buying audience and did not belong to staff. She had fallen in love with him then, when he was twenty-four years old and stood in the pink stage light wearing a tuxedo. She had stayed in love with him for twenty-two years—let him saw her in half, helped him make her disappear—even when she found out that he was in love with men. “You don’t always get everything you want,” Sabine told her parents.
At the turn of the key in the lock Rabbit hopped slowly down the hall, making a thumping sound like loose slippers against carpet. He raised up on his hind legs and stretched his front legs up towards her, his nose pulsing in lapin joy after such a long, dull day alone. Sabine picked him up and buried her face in the soft white fur and for the first time thought of the white rabbit muff her parents had bought for her as a child. There had been many rabbits, but none as smart, or large, as this one. “It’s more impressive to make a tall woman disappear,” Parsifal had told Sabine. “And it’s better to pull a really big rabbit out of a hat.” Sabine was five-foot-ten and Rabbit, a Flemish giant, weighed in at just under twenty pounds. Like Sabine, Rabbit had once had responsibilities. He practiced with Parsifal and learned the tricks. The third of the white working rabbits Parsifal owned, he was by far the smartest and best behaved. Rabbit wanted to work. But since he’d been retired he’d grown fat. He hopped aimlessly from room to room, chewing electrical cords, waiting.
Sabine carried Rabbit down the hall towards Parsifal’s bedroom. Her own bedroom was upstairs. She had lived there since before Phan died, when they needed so much help there was never time to go home anyway. And besides, the house was huge. She had slept in four different bedrooms before choosing the one she liked. She had taken another room as a studio. She set up her drafting table. She brought over her architectural models. At night, after everyone was cared for, after everyone was asleep, she sat on the floor and made tiny ash trees that would one day line the front walkway of an office complex.
Sabine did not turn on a light. She ran her hand along the wall to find her way.
“My funeral...,” Parsifal had begun. He’d said it at the breakfast
Sabine put up her hand. “I’m sure this is a very healthy thing, that you’re able to talk about it, but not now. That’s a long time off.”
“I’d like to do it the Jewish way, buried by the next sundown. Your people are so much more efficient than mine. Catholics will lay you out in the front parlor for a week, let all the neighbors come by.”
“Just don’t do the part where everyone has to shovel in the dirt,” he said. “I find that very morbid.”
“No dirt,” Sabine said.
“I don’t suppose cremation is terribly Jewish.”
“You’re not Jewish. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“I just don’t want to offend your parents.” Parsifal closed his eyes and stretched. “Do you think Johnny Carson would come to my funeral? That would really be spectacular. I wonder if he remembers me at all.”
“I imagine he does.”
“Really?” Parsifal brightened. “I had such a terrible crush on Johnny Carson.”
“You had a crush on Johnny Carson?”
“I was too embarrassed to tell you back then,” he confided. “See, Sabine, I tell you everything now that we’re married.”
Sabine put the rabbit down on the floor and switched on the lights. The bed wasn’t made. Parsifal had stayed in bed that morning until he couldn’t stand the headache anymore. When they left, they left together, in a hurry. He wore dark glasses and held her arm.
What she needed now was clothes. Fourteen months and still Phan’s underwear was in the dresser drawers. Phan’s and Parsifal’s clothes filled two walk-in closets: suits and jackets, wire racks of ties. (Did they have any sense of ownership where ties were concerned? Did a tie belong to one and not the other?) The white shirts were first and then the pale blues and then the darker blues. She knelt beside them, ran her hands down the sleeves. The shoe trees held the shape of their shoes. Sweaters were arranged by material and folded into Lucite boxes. Parsifal needed something to wear, something to be cremated in. Parsifal and Phan had talked together about what Phan would wear. When they decided, Parsifal took the suit to his tailor and had it cut down to fit. All of the clothes grew in the night, Phan used to say.
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