Excerpt from Black River

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The music, she thinks, is supposed to comfort. It’s meant as a kindness; they are relentlessly kind here. It comes from a small plastic stereo the nurse switches on after helping Claire onto the bed. Claire thinks she recognizes the melody, and feels mildly ashamed for not being able to put a name to it. Wesley would know.

He’s outside, in the waiting room. Not reading. Not watching the endlessly looping cable news. Certainly not placing pieces in the unchanging, half-completed jigsaw puzzle near the registration desk. No, Wesley goes still at hard moments. Sets his jaw, lets his features stiffen into an impassive mask, quiets his hands. If some well-meaning person who isn’t wearing scrubs or a white coat tries to say hello or offer a commiserating smile, he either won’t notice or will pretend he hasn’t. But he’ll be watching the comings and goings of every nurse, every doctor. Every opening of the door leading to where she is.


The music isn’t comforting. Too many violins and horns and drums going all at once. Cacophony.


Years ago they didn’t offer sedation for bone marrow biopsies, only lidocaine. Her first time, while Claire lay face-down on the bed, waiting for numbness to replace the stinging in her skin, a nurse who looked like a child placed the 4-inch trephine needle on a tray in Claire’s line of sight.

Maria, Claire’s doctor had said, we try not to let the patients see those.

Like a meat skewer, Claire decided. Or a knitting needle.

Afterward Wesley asked her if the pain had been bad, and she lied and said not really. He has never liked to be told even gentle untruths, so he doesn’t ask anymore.


She likes simple melodies. A series of single notes that leave a trail she can follow.


Afterward they help her to one of the reclining chairs in the infusion suite and get Wesley. Without asking, he takes a chair from the nurses’ station and rolls it to her side. His hair is backlit by the blue light of a fish tank behind him. He asks how long they have to wait before the nurses will let them leave—it’s a question he asks just for the sake of speech; he knows this routine as well as she does—and she says twenty minutes. She is about to tell him she’s cold, but he’s already standing, moving across the room to the heated cupboard with the warmed blankets folded inside.

Wesley hates coming here, but he now occupies this place as though it is their home, with none of the deference he showed the staff in those first days and weeks. They have become used to the hospital in different ways, she and her husband. Claire feels less like herself here. Meeker. She lets people usher her from room to room, guide her through the stages of her illness. Wesley treats the hospital as territory to be conquered. He is impatient, uninterested—for the first time in his life—in policies or procedures. Wesley is one of those Montana men whose mouths hardly move when they speak, for whom words are precious things they are loath to give up. Here, though, she has heard him raise his voice at the nurses’ station loud enough that she can hear him in her room down the hall. Here he has interrogated and threatened and—once—even begged. Sometimes, when he thinks she is asleep, he prays aloud. He is confrontational with God.

One of the nurses breezes by, depositing two cans of orange juice on the table. More of that maddening courtesy: snacks for the spouse as well as the patient, unasked. For a moment neither Claire nor Wesley moves, and then she begins to unwrap herself from the blanket.

Don’t, he says. I’ll get them.

Wesley, she says. The cans have pull rings on top. He can’t manage pull rings. He fumbles with one anyway, his skewed fingers unable to get enough purchase on the ring to lift it. His face doesn’t betray him—sometimes Claire thinks he trained all the expressions out of his face when he was working at the prison—but she watches the skin over his swollen knuckles blanch and knows it hurts him.

Wesley, please.

The can slips from between his fingers and clatters against the tile, rolls under her chair. He leans forward to pick it up, but stops halfway, bent, eyes in shadow. Claire reaches from beneath the blanket and puts her hand on his bowed head, brushes his hair back from his forehead. It’s reddish blond, a color more suited to a little boy than a grown man.

Leave it, she tells him. It tastes tinny anyway.


Claire hopes that when Wesley dies, it will be quick. Heart attack. Stroke. Aneurysm. She cannot imagine him with a lingering illness like this one, cannot imagine him subjecting himself to the doctors and nurses, bearing whatever necessary pain they might inflict. Not after the riot.


It is always the two of them waiting. Waiting for the lab results to come back, for Claire’s name to be called, for the drugs to drip into her veins. Waiting for remission. Waiting for news, good or bad. Now they are waiting in one of the exam rooms in her oncologist’s office, on the bench beside the empty countertop where he will plunk down his laptop, open the lid, tilt the screen toward them. Wesley is sitting nearest the counter, so his body will be between hers and the doctor’s numbers. The verdict.

She aims her eyes out the window. The September light has just begun its slow fade from summer-bright, and its gentle cast gilds the edges of the buildings downtown. Claire has never grown to love Spokane, has never come to think of it as her home. It is too obviously fallen from grace, a city with grand but dilapidated architecture and residents who speak fondly of a golden age none of them remember. And the mountains in the distance are so small. Claire misses the mountains in Black River, their immediacy and immensity. These hills are shades of what she left behind.

I hate this fucking clock, Wesley says quietly. The first time she’s heard him swear in thirty years of marriage. Claire looks. An ugly red plastic rim, a pharmaceutical logo emblazoned across the face.

I suppose it was free, she says, but she knows what he means. It’s a loud clock. The hand moves audibly, every second sounded. Gone.


She doesn’t worry about him. He knows how to endure.


They could be wrong, Wesley says in the truck on the way home. They’re at a red light, and the engine idles so loudly she has to strain to hear him. He says, There are other doctors. Better, maybe.

We’ve seen them, Claire says. Seattle. A bigger hospital, more doctors with more letters after their names. More treatments that weren’t quite effective enough. We knew this was coming, Wesley.

We might find someone still willing to try a second transplant.

I’m not, she says. Willing.

Her doctor was kind but honest. He used words like terminal, palliative, hospice. Claire can almost see Wesley turning the conversation over in his mind, looking for the loophole. The sun is on his side of the car, and it slices through the window, bright on his skin. Sweat beads above his upper lip, darkens the hair above his ears. She is cold all the time now, but she says, It’s getting a little warm in here, and he cracks the window.

The light turns green, but there is still a man in the road, crossing the street with a slow, swaggering gait. Wesley sinks his foot against the accelerator, cuts close behind the man, who turns just before the curb and gestures with one hand, his mouth opening, the syllables obliterated by the rush of air past the window.


No. She does worry. His father was a suicide.


Wesley turns onto their street. His fingers hang over the edge of the steering wheel, neither curved nor straight, but caught in their permanent seize. He slows the truck, eases the tires over the wide, weed-split cracks in the asphalt. Each time the truck hits one of the cracks, Claire feels it. She feels it everywhere her blood goes. When the doctors first told her there was something wrong, she lay very still at night and tried to feel the disease, the cells building up in her marrow, thickening her blood, coursing through her veins. Now there’s nothing but the pain of the illness and its treatments, always there, under and above everything else.

The house, a postwar bungalow of yellow brick, is small, though it had seemed large when they signed the papers. They put a new roof on it after the first winter, two fresh coats of paint on the trim since. A cherry tree in the yard blossoms once a year and drops sour fruit on the lawn months later. The cherries are past ripe now, black and full but still clinging to the branches.

Wesley kills the ignition, and the engine ticks. He brings his hands together, rubs one over the other. He must have clenched his fists while her doctor was talking; she should have noticed and stopped him. Claire reaches across the seat, takes his right hand in both of hers. She moves her fingertips over his knuckles, down the healed bones of his fingers, around each outsized joint. Coaxes his pain away.

I want to go to Black River, she says. She looks at him, and he stares through the windshield at the fence. The muscle in front of his ear jumps once, twice.

All right.

She lets go of his right hand, holds her palms out for his left. I don’t mean for a trip, she says.

The bench seat’s springs creak as he twists to give her his other hand.

I know.


She will miss the cherry tree.


Wesley doesn’t look at her the way he used to. Now it’s all half-glances, stolen looks when her own eyes are directed elsewhere. When he does look at her directly, he maintains absolute eye contact. Looks for her soul, avoids her body. Claire understands. When she goes into the bathroom now, she leaves the light off. In the truck, she doesn’t pull the sunshade down even if the sun burns right in her eyes, because the mirror set into it finds the worst of her: the white glare of her scalp through tufted hair, the taut patch of scar tissue below her collarbone, where her port sits beneath the skin. When her older sister, Madeline, was feeling cruel when they were girls, she would tell Claire that she looked like a German milkmaid, all rounded curves and thick blond hair. Claire, eleven or twelve and oblivious to the sensuous potential of such an image, would suck in her cheeks and make a futile effort to comb her hair straight and sleek. Now she must work to find the milkmaid in her reflection, and even then it’s mostly imagination.


Claire leaves most of the chores to Wesley, but she calls her son herself.

Of course you can come, Dennis says. For as long as you want.

She can hear the boy in him then, the wishful thinking. As if what she wants has anything to do with it. Wesley’s coming, too, she tells him.

He hardly pauses, but she hears the edge come into his voice. That’s fine, he says.

He’s my husband, Denny. I love him.

I know, Mom. I said it’s fine. He’s angry now, talking through his teeth.

I want to be with you, she says. You and Wesley both. When it’s time.

She wishes she had said, When I die. When my heart stops beating. When this disease takes the little I have left and kills me. He needs to hear it. He needs to understand. But even Wesley still says if something happens. If. Never when.


Something she has never told Wesley: when they left Black River eighteen years ago, without Dennis—when Wesley made her choose—Claire didn’t go because she needed him. She didn’t go because she thought he was right. She went because she knew her son, even at sixteen, would be all right without her. She couldn’t say the same about her husband.


Wesley is glad to have tasks. Over the next days, he approaches each with single-minded purpose: calling her doctors here, calling the hospice there, arranging time off work (Claire suspects this is harder than he reports; he has already taken so much). He counts out her medications, checks labels, calls in refills. Lays out more clothes than she’ll ever wear. Sorts through photographs and mementos, wraps everything she could possibly want in layers of newsprint and bubble wrap. He stacks the things he packs in their bedroom, against the far wall. Two suitcases, one duffel, three boxes. He is packing for the time he hopes she will have. For more time than the doctors have suggested she will have. Is this delusion, she wonders, or denial?

He sits on the edge of the bed. We can go tomorrow, he says.

I’m glad.

They’re predicting sun the whole way. Ought to be a pretty drive.

Where’s your fiddle?

A sharp look. What?

You haven’t put your fiddle with the other things. You have to take your fiddle.


Get it.

He stands, slowly. Goes to the closet and reaches to the top shelf, pulls the worn chipboard case down and sets it on the foot of the bed. His fingers leave clean black streaks in the dust on the lid, linger over the tarnished brass clasps at either end of the case. He speaks without looking at her. Ain’t no reason to bring this.

Don’t leave it behind, she says. He won’t come back after.


Something else she has never told him: she still wonders if she made the right choice.


Sometimes she can’t put it out of her mind. She’s dying. Not Hey, we’re all dying from the day we’re born, but really dying. Here. Now. When she can’t stop the panic in time, when it threatens to take hold and overwhelm her, there’s one way to hold it at bay: she thinks about her last moments. About what will happen when death arrives. People see things. Loved ones. A tunnel. White light. Science thinks it has explained all this. Electrical impulses. Firing synapses. Chemical reactions.

Claire doesn’t care. She’s never been a believer, and if it is only science, isn’t that wonderful, too? A built-in safety net, an evolutionary shield to protect a person at her most desperate moment. It doesn’t matter if what she experiences as she dies is real or not; what matters is that she experiences something. Claire already knows what it will be. Sound. Song. Wesley’s song, “Black River.” He first played it the day they met, at Harvest. It came to be his most well-known tune, though it wasn’t fast, didn’t end with impossible cascades of notes and broken strands of horsehair dangling from his bow. It was slower, wistful. Bittersweet.

Everyone loved it. Claire loved it. Wesley, though, was never quite satisfied. Every day it was the last tune he played before his fiddle went back in its case, and every day it changed. Just a bit. The changes became smaller and subtler over the years: adding a grace note, dropping a double-stop, digging his bow more deeply into a string. Each time he played it, Claire knew she was one day closer to hearing a masterpiece. And then the riot. Bobby Williams. Dust on a chipboard case.


Claire got the musical terms mixed up, always called it a lament. Wesley would shake his head. It’s an air, he’d tell her. Laments are for the dead.


Claire is the first to know that they won’t be going to Black River. She wakes in the dark with a pressure building in her chest, a hand closing on her throat. Wesley is asleep beside her, his teeth clenched tightly, the line of muscle along his jaw taut. He is never peaceful when he sleeps, and this lets her wake him without guilt.

Sit up with me, she says. The words come out more quietly than she intends, but he is awake.

You’re burning, he says, and goes to stand.

Stay, Claire says. With me. She wonders if he will. If he’ll be able to let this be.

He stays at her side all day, sits with her in bed so she can lean her body against his. He is very still. A nurse comes, one Claire doesn’t know. She is kind, and does less to Claire than she is accustomed to nurses doing. Wesley goes to the hall to talk with her. Claire cannot hear them, though they are near enough she should be able to. Wesley keeps his hand on the doorframe, and she watches it until he comes back to her. Something is wrong with his fingers.

Time becomes untrustworthy. It is day, the only one Claire remembers since waking Wesley. But her fastidious husband has more than a few hours’ worth of stubble on his face. (It is gray, not blond, and this makes her feel peculiarly sad.) And this is not the gown she wore to bed. Is it? She’s angry; if time has ever mattered, it matters now.

Breathing becomes a conscious, messy act; she is choking on her own saliva, on the mucus in her nose and mouth and lungs. There’s a strange sound in the room, a wet rattle, and at some point she realizes it is her. She’s afraid Wesley will be disgusted by these things her body is doing, but he wipes her face and strokes her hair and rests her head on his chest.

I can hear your heart, she tells him.

That’s good, he says.

For a long time the light in the room is a slow, sweet gold. And then it is dark, and Claire cannot understand how a day has gone by. (One day? more?) She wishes the window were nearer, so she could look out and see the mountains, black against black. She has always loved the mountains here.

Play for me, she says.

Wesley’s body stiffens beneath her cheek. What?

Play, she says again. Play your fiddle for me.

He sighs. A long breath like she will never have again.

Not for long, she tells him. One tune is all.

Claire . . .



A lament.


He sits on the edge of the bed and rests his fiddle on his knee, cradling the neck in his left hand. Golden varnish, unblemished ebony, the bright lines of the strings. He holds the bow loosely in his right hand, the stick lying across the bed. The horsehair leaves a fine white line of rosin on the blanket. Wesley passes his thumb lightly over the fiddle’s strings, and even Claire can hear the discordant notes, knows it isn’t in tune.

Wesley looks over his shoulder at her. What do you want to hear? he asks.

You know, she says.

“Black River.”


He watches her for a long time, and it’s been thirty years—thirty years—but she cannot read his expression. She wants to tell him that the color of his fiddle is like the color of his hair, which is like the color of summer evening sun, but the thought of forming the words overwhelms her, so she closes her eyes and waits. The bed moves as Wesley shifts his weight, and Claire wants to look at him again so she can see the fiddle under his chin—he looks almost haughty when he plays, and she has always loved this about him—but she is so tired. She hears the brush of his skin against wood, the light touch of the bow as horsehair comes to rest on wound steel. The breath before the note.


 She listens.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015