Richard by Mary Feuer
crying, his frail body heaving so hard I'm half expecting his visible ribs
to crack. "Please. Don't look at me," he wails.
"I'm not," I say, but of course I am: how can I not? I've never seen a man broken like that.
We're in the yard of Richard's condo building in Cambridge. The afternoon air is cold, bone dry, and the lawn has gone to shit, far past brown and into grey. We're sitting on swings and the whole swingset creaks under each shift. The chains are rusted. There haven't been kids in the building for years.
"Shh," I tell him, and run my fingers through his babyfine, curly new hair. It's nothing like his old hair, which was thick and walnut brown, perpetually cowlicked, unkempt. The new Richard is soft, a newborn. He's going out the same way he came in.
"All the things I've written," Richard chokes, "All those plays.... Will someone remember even one?"
"Of course they will. I'll remember them all."
"You're my director, Allison. You're my friend. You don't count," he snaps, not friendly at all.
Some people live and others die. A woman I work with at my day job, at the phone company, had a tumor in her brain. The brain is a sensitive neighborhood, easily upset by unknown growths, and yet the chemo saved her -- plucked her permanently near bald, but still, she lived. Richard will not, despite the fact that you might think a leg is not as dangerous a place. You think, worse comes to worse, they'll cut it off and that will be that, but it's not so simple. I can't explain why. Richard has grown new hair, and he will keep his leg, but he will die, most likely, this week.
"You look better today," I say after a while.
"Better than what?" Richard wants to know.
But Richard's done talking. He's done crying too, the last few bitter sobs wrenching the chilly air.
So we're finished in the yard, finished with the gentle swinging that in Richard's world of illness is called "exercise." Richard and I used to walk around the reservoir, three and a half miles every day. Now when we're finished Henry has to come down.
Henry is Richard's husband; they married as soon as Massachusetts allowed. They've been together twenty years, longer than any couple I know except my parents. Despite how close I've been with Richard, I don't know Henry well. He's been in the background, maybe shy, maybe aloof, sandy-haired, gap-toothed, sweetly boyish though he's forty, like us. He smiles a goofy smile even now.
"You kids ready to come in?" Henry asks, concern skittering around the edges of wan cheer.
Richard opens his mouth to say hello but instead coughs uncontrollably, hacking his soul up. The cancer jumped into his right lung last week.
It takes both of us to get Richard off the swing and to his feet, but once he's up Henry can carry him alone. He looks so delicate, so much smaller than Richard, and yet he hoists him easily; he's made for the job. Richard leans his new cherub curls into Henry's neck and encircles it with useless arms as Henry climbs the three flights to their condo. I trail behind a step or two.
This is the condo Richard's parents bought him years ago. Although the space is large, the rooms are closed-off boxes, connected down the middle by a central wood-floored hallway. When Richard dies the condo will stay in the family, which means his parents will let Henry live here until the end of the year; then he'll have to find somewhere to go. Twenty years isn't long enough to make him family, I guess.
Henry is a painter, but he's never shown his work, not that I know of, anywhere outside this house. He doesn't care about recognition, which makes him all the more a stranger to me.
I'm not saying that Henry's a hack. He does have a certain technique. But most of his paintings are copies, basically, surreal revisits to works of other styles. A Mona Lisa who smiles at Degas' ballerinas popping out of Warholesque soup cans; that sort of thing. He idolizes Dali, and has reproduced nearly all of his works. The copies are spot-on, but that just means he's an excellent thief. Since Richard's been sick, though, I have to admit something new has emerged, especially in a series of originals named "Where and When" hanging here in the room Henry and Richard call the parlor.
In these paintings, here in the parlor, young men who are versions of Henry rip their chests open, displaying not hearts and lungs but buildings or forests, toll booths or kitchens. The expressions on their faces are blank, pleasant, like Henry's generally is when he's not watching his lover die. Though the colors are bright, the paintings oppress the room.
On the mantle over a non-working fireplace is a series of framed vacation photos. In them Richard and Henry stand, side by side and in that order, at a dozen different sites around the world. Here they are at Buckingham Palace. Here at the Parthenon. In Saint Petersburg Square. The Leaning Tower of Pisa. They stand in each photo, Richard on the left, Henry on the right, at exactly the same distance from the camera's lens, in exactly the same position, with the same exact looks on their faces. Only the backgrounds change.
"Hon, I need some," groans Richard, as Henry sets him down in the wheelchair.
Henry grabs a plastic bottle from the end table. Liquid morphine. He squirts it from a dropper into Richard's mouth, mama bird feeding baby bird a worm.
"Wow," I say, "He's still on the pills, too, right?" The last time I was here, they were mixing a drop or two with juice.
"The liquid's for between pills. For breakthrough pain," replies Henry.
"You're giving him kind of a lot."
"It just takes the edge off till pill time, you know? The doctor said give him as much as he wants from now on."
He stops a moment, smile frozen in grief, as if he's just figured out what that means. From now on.
The dope fills Richard's bloodstream, takes more than the edge. It takes the center. He recedes. Henry and I sit in silence for a moment, both memorizing Richard.
"Can I show you something?" Henry asks eventually. "I've been working on it for a while."
He brings me to an easel in the bedroom. "It's a collaboration," he explains. "Richard told me a dream of his, and I'm painting it."
On the easel is a portrait of Richard, standing in the middle of a sky blue background. Around him swirl sheets of paper with tiny writing I can't read at first, but then I realize these are the titles of Richard's many plays. His expression is ecstatic. There's a bright sun shining down.
There are people behind him, a ring of people watching benevolently, granting him something: benediction? Absolution? There's Henry, there's Richard's sister Gwen, there's his mother, his father, his little niece Amanda, Henry's parents, the minister of his church. I am not in the painting.
I should be there. I should be. In the painting Richard's work is all around him, flying loose and liberated, and in reality I am the person who freed it. I've staged nearly all of his plays, even the incomprehensible ones, even the ones everyone else thought were shit. These people have rarely been there. Not even Henry saw them all. I'm the one who has supported Richard's work unconditionally. And I'm not in the painting.
"It's beautiful," I say, choking back anger, choking back tears. "Amazing."
"It's important to me that you like it." His sincerity catches us both off guard; to break the tension Henry heads off to wash his hands. I hear a moan from down the hall.
Richard's head is bobbing. He's agitated, mumbling. I rush to his side.
"What do you need, Richard?"
"Where's Henry?" He rasps.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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