By Jeremy M. Davies, from The Knack of Doing, a collection of short stories that David R. Godine will publish next month. Davies is the author of two novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015).
I wasn’t happy to hear that my mother had made my diagnosis public. My diagnosis was mine and not hers to publicize. Had I ever publicized her depressions and hunger strikes? Had I ever publicized her flirtations with Rosicrucianism? Had I ever publicized her weakness for amphetamines? Had I ever publicized her six weeks with the White Panthers? Had I ever publicized her mania for the acquisition of Soviet firearms and back issues of Savage Sword of Conan? No. Such things are to be kept “in the family.”
My mother’s friends phone now, incessantly, and ask what my disease is usually called. I can’t help them. I can say the name to myself, yes: silently. I can caress its syllables with the intangible tongue I’m still able to wag in my dreams of health. When it comes, however, to forcing the wet word into the air, and then through the thirty-six pinpricks in my telephone receiver, I am incapable.
“So you’re suffering,” my mother’s friends say.
To answer them I would need not only to be able to speak about my disease but to be able to put into words sensations that I never bothered, when healthy, to acquire the vocabulary to describe. And now that I’m ill, I am unable to do the research necessary to unearth those words that would best describe to the uninitiated what my illness has done to me.
“But pain,” they persist. “Are you in pain?”
I’m certainly not comfortable, I tell them, but am I in pain? They’re slow to understand the problem: that in order to speak with clarity about my illness, I would first need to be well; but, being well, it would be impossible to know the first thing about my illness.
They tell me I am being difficult. I say, “It is difficult to be ill.” They accuse me of wasting their time in order to make a point. I assure them, “There is no point to being ill.”
“In sum,” they say, “you contend that, to speak of your illness, one must, above all, not have contracted your illness.”
“That is the dilemma my mother has put us in by speaking out of turn,” I tell them. “It was selfish of her to tell you about my diagnosis and so to raise your interest in the subject.”
“In what sense selfish?” they ask.
“She’s concerned about her own reputation,” I say. “As a mother. She doesn’t like her name to be associated with someone who’s never accomplished anything. Anything other than being ill, I mean. She doesn’t want to be known as someone who raised a failure.”
“The evidence does tend to point in that direction, we admit. The direction of your failure.”
I’m not a failure, I tell them. What might have seemed like indecision to my mother and her friends was, in fact, preparation. What might have seemed like disappointment to them was, in fact, renunciation. What might have seemed to me like tedium was, in fact, discipline.
I’ve been too disciplined to learn to speak French or to play the violin. I’ve been too disciplined to finish my correspondence course in copyediting. I’ve been too disciplined to paint. I’ve been too disciplined to take a degree in particle physics or molecular pharmacology. I’ve been too disciplined to move out of my mother’s house, too disciplined to marry, too disciplined to contribute to the family finances. All in all, here in my mother’s house, between the accumulation of the evidence of my indomitable discipline and then the evidence left over from my mother’s assorted fads, the halls have become enormously difficult to navigate.
My mother stalks me among the piles I’ve stacked in order to open up a few footpaths. We can’t seem to agree on which piece of evidence is evidence of what. That violin, I say, pointing, is one of the ones I’ve shown too much self-control to master. No, my mother maintains, I won that at an estate auction last year. Well, I say, I’m quite certain that this pipette here is one of the ones I’ve shown too much self-control to return to my old lab. Garbage, my mother rails, that’s a genuine 1946 Artbeck Pyrex turkey baster I haven’t gotten around to cataloguing yet. Well, I say, one thing that brooks no disagreement is that this young man sitting here is one of the ones to whom I’ve shown too much self-control to volunteer my real name. Not at all, my mother fulminates, this is Phil, he’s just passing through, keep out of his way till his money order comes in.
“The news of my diagnosis ameliorates her failure to make of me anything other than a failure,” I explain to her friends. She points me out to visitors, saying, “My daughter is ill.” That is my place in the catalogue.
I hear, through the phone, a breath; some ice cubes squeaking into indifferent liquor. A volley of sips. “You’re being stubborn,” they tell me. “Cut to the chase and tell us what hurts.”
“Why court my illness by learning about it?” I ask them.
“You can’t catch a disease over the phone,” they scoff.
“Since only people who have my illness can understand it, it stands to reason that understanding in any quantity is dangerous. Even my doctors, being educated women — many of them refugees — were canny enough to question me with caution.”
“If your own doctors won’t discuss your illness with you, what was the gist of their diagnosis?”
“My doctors were unable to say more than that I am suffering conclusively from the illness from which I now suffer. As for myself, I am able to say at the very least that I am unable to say more than the very least.”
But my mother’s friends have no patience for wordplay. They want data. They want measurable phenomena. They want, for one, to know how much better than me their own children are doing. So now they make remarks implying that my illness sounds more like a social than a physical disorder; to wit, the embarrassment of still living, at an advanced age, with one’s mother. Upon which I insist that I be allowed to insist that my illness is nothing more than an illness. There is nothing to be said of my illness save that it makes me unwell.
“Then say that,” they say. “Say that you’re feeling unwell. We’re willing to work with generalities. All we ask is that when someone asks after you, we can tell them you’re terrible.”
“Whenever I try to tell you how I am, I feel the terminology that would be most apt retreating down a corridor carpeted in heavy orange on a summer night when moisture has caused the flooring to swell and give voice to wooden giggles and creaks, sounds that locate in a general way the tread of this errant vocabulary as it staggers off, out of my bed, wearing my slippers, limbs lost in my flannels.”
“Yes,” they say, “that’s clear enough, in its way, though this sort of clarity isn’t much use.”
“I’m not here to be of use to you,” I tell them, “but to be ill.”
They say that I am being selfish. They say that my taking to bed the redheaded baker’s boy was pique, not illness. They say that my defacing the Alliance Francaise was acrimony, not illness. They say that my expunging their gendered pronouns was hostility, not illness.
“I don’t blame you, of course, for these errors,” I reassure them. “Misunderstandings are natural, in my condition. There is a gulf between the sick and the well. You’d do better not to lean over it.”
“Threats now,” they hoot. “So you have nothing more substantial to say, as they say, in your defense?” “
As a matter of fact,” I tell them, “I’m building you a three-dimensional model of my illness. It’s in the garage. It’s not finished yet. It will be ten meters by ten meters square, on a raised platform. It will have plaster-of-paris hills covered with fuzzy plastic foliage sprinkled on with an implement not unlike a saltshaker, in six realistic colors, standing in for healthy as well as scorched and dying plant life. There will be pipe-cleaner trees and dirt roads made of dirt. There will be a narrow-gauge as well as a funicular railway. There will be a small town with a single main street. Its cinema marquee will bear little movie titles typed by myself onto decals and applied with fine-point tweezers.”
“A mighty undertaking for someone so unwell,” they say. “Are you doing all this to spite your mother?”
“Why not change the subject?” I ask. “How are your own children doing? I trust they’re prospering?”
“They’re social workers, physicists, brewers, and painters, thanks. None of them is ill. It’s not really in their natures.”
“That,” I say, “is swell.”
“We’ll talk to your doctors directly,” they threaten. “We’ll ask if they can’t tell us what you’ve got, in plain English.”
“What I’ve got will get you nowhere. You’d have to get what I’ve got in order to ‘get’ it. My doctors get paid to say the same thing. From me you get it for nothing.”
“We haven’t gotten a thing. We’re phoning your doctors on the other line. They’re professionals, we’re professionals. We speak the same language. It’s a language that doesn’t need figures of speech.”
“The language of health,” I say. Which phrase pleases them.
“And yet I’m rather concerned,” I resume, “that you might be ailing.”
“Just tired,” they say, confused.
“You sound tired,” I say.
“You’re trying to turn this around on us.”
“I’m trying to turn this around on you. My mother’s oldest friends. Catching their deaths.”
“Who’s dying?” they ask. “So your illness is fatal?” “
My illness in you would be fatal. Me, I’m fine. I’ve got the strength to be sick. The will. But you, you’re not even in the running. You’re feeling your age. You should have another drink.”
“We’ve been alive a long time,” they admit, pouring themselves another drink. “We can even remember you back when you were healthy. How long ago was that? In the playground, giving orders.”
“I had ambitions then,” I say. “Now I have symptoms. It’s not as big a change as it sounds.”
“Unless your ambitions were symptoms,” they snicker.
“This is getting serious,” I say. “I’m worried that we’re beginning to understand one another. You should all definitely see a doctor before it’s too late. You’ll feel better knowing you tried to save yourselves.”
“How is it,” they gripe, “that none of us has doctors in the family? It would be so convenient.”
“The colleges turned your progeny away,” I theorize. “The hospitals wouldn’t let them intern. They could smell it on them. Susceptibility. Genetic predisposition. Next it’ll come for your kids, my illness.”
“We’re squeamish, is all. Too squeamish for doctoring. We don’t like the sight of blood. Only the taste, only the sound.”
“You’re getting worse,” I diagnose. “More and more whimsical. Quick, a diagnostic test: describe for me a landscape as seen by an old lady whose disgusting husband just died, but without mentioning the husband or death.”
“A landscape,” they ponder. “Is it . . . craggy?”
I want to sing, “Aha!” Not to mention, “Quarantine!” Ladies and gentlemen, you’re my mother’s friends, but my mother is the mother of plague, after all. You ought to have known to mind your own business. You don’t appease illness by containing it. You appease it by spreading it.
Instead I say, “You’d better come along with me to my next checkup.”
“May we?” my mother’s friends ask, cowed. “And where do you go, with no job and no money? A charity ward? What’s it like?”
“Rude jests fly back and forth,” I tell them, “as the patients gnaw beef and thrust their muzzles deep into jugs of ale.”
“That’s exactly how we imagined it,” they say.