THE ELECTRIC STAIRS
While Ed Ritter was on the land line with the manager of Mobility Lift and Elevator, he had to keep a finger in his other ear so he could hear above the noise of the giant vacuum cleaner upstairs.
“I’m sorry, sir, could you repeat that?”
“I asked, if I’m not being invasive or anything, what’s your father got?”
“He’s got lymphoma,” Ed said, then immediately regretted splashing the emphasis back in the manager’s face. In the months he’d been coming to New Jersey to see his father Joel through doctors’ appointments and visits with friends—visits that had recently acquired a valedictory tone—he was learning to forgive the awkward questions and comments of people who meant well. “He believes he’s going to die in the next few days. I was hoping to get you guys out here before that.” The first time Ed had called Mobility, he had followed the manager’s instructions and measured the width of the staircase in the mock Tudor house, and the manager had pronounced it too narrow for the brackets they had in stock to hold the chair’s track in place; the manager would call as soon as the special bracket came in from the supplier. But no one from Mobility had called again, and Joel was becoming impatient. “I want to die upstairs,” his father had been repeating at least twice a day.
“Tough, tough break,” the Mobility manager said sympathetically. “I have to remind you there’s no resale value on stairs installed to specification.”
“My father knows that,” Ed said. “He wants it, even if he uses it just once.”
“Then I’ll get the bracket today. My guys’ll show up tomorrow in the a.m. and we’ll get the chair in. Okay?”
Ed told his father Joel the chair would be installed by late tomorrow morning; by tomorrow evening, he said, it would be as though Joel were riding the roller-coaster at Palisades Park again. Joel nodded. He would have to tolerate one more night stuck downstairs in a hospital bed in the sunroom, which was bisected by the tentacle-like tube running from the oxygen condenser to his nostrils
Almost a month earlier, in June 1999, Ed had left his wife Laurie and their daughter Rachel in Los Angeles to come east to stay with his father. Ed had been doing this, off and on, since Joel’s diagnosis the previous year. After two rounds of chemotherapy, Joel’s cancer had gone into remission. When the numbers looked bad again, his longtime girlfriend Zina, seething because Joel was still resisting marriage, announced she was not a nurse and needed to protect her future. Joel, a decade older, continued to work through chemo and radiation at his law firm in Hackensack, while Zina, at 59, took a retirement package from her brokerage company and now had time on her hands.
Her frequent departures played havoc with Ed’s marriage. If Ed were being honest with himself, however, he dutifully hurried to New Jersey each time because it had become simpler, if not easier, to be with his dying father than with his wife and daughter. In Teaneck, Ed’s purpose was clear—to care for his father; in Los Angeles, Ed, a writer who hadn’t sold a script in years, no longer knew what purpose he served. Laurie, a casting agent, paid most of their bills now.
At a Sherman Oaks poker game in June, Aaron Gitler, one of the un- or underemployed writers at the game, said to Ed, “You’re abandoning your own daughter to go east and play nursemaid to your father?”
“Somebody in this game has to go to work,” Ed said, annoyed, and the others went “Ooooh,” and Ed, dealing the cards, said, “Omaha, eight-low qualifier.”
On his most recent flight to Newark, the previous week, Ed misplaced his cell phone on the plane and didn’t even bother to contact the airline about it. The instrument was encoded with too many of his failures.
They were waiting for Zina to return from another pre-vacation shopping spree, but Sylvia the hospice nurse, a Swiss woman of frightening efficiency, arrived first. Sometimes Sylvia came in the morning, sometimes the afternoon, her voice ringing with Alpine cheer. A few days earlier, when Joel could no longer negotiate the narrow stairs to go up to his own bed, Sylvia ordered a hospital bed placed in the sun room. To ease his increasingly labored breathing, Sylvia also ordered an oxygen condenser. The only pleasure Joel took from being in the sunroom was listening to the radio, tuned to WCBS-AM, its All News All the Time format underscored by the sound of a phantom teletype machine. In the New York senatorial race, Hillary Clinton has agreed to debate Rudy Giuliani. WCBS news time: ten-forty-seven. It looks like the swift-serving Mark Philippoussis, who forfeited at Wimbledon due to torn knee ligaments, will forego the Davis Cup as well.
“Vitals are good, Joel!” said Sylvia shouting as though her patient were on the other side of a lake. She went through Joel’s meds, their bottles arrayed on the overtable like sentries: Allopurinol and Allegra for his allergies, Lactulose for bowel movements, Compazine for nausea, Dyazide for the edema, Megace for his non-existent appetite, Amoxocillin for the teeth rotting in the back of his mouth, those high-octane pain-fighters, Oxycontin and Percoset, and the steroid Prednisone. Making notes on a chart, Sylvia said, “We don’t need some of these anymore”—meaning Joel no longer suffered the symptoms treated by them, or that he was about to die? Ed couldn’t be sure.
“What I need,” Joel said, “is to be upstairs in my own bed.”
“Oy. Here we go,” Ed said.
A car trunk closed in the driveway. “That must be Zina now!” Sylvia half-yodeled. Joel’s eyes moved to the window facing the driveway, as though Zina might appear there. Earlier that day, Joel had sworn Zina was going away with her new boyfriend. “A boyfriend?” said Ed, skeptical. “I thought she was going to the Catskills overnight to place tennis.” Joel replied, “The guy’s name is Lenny. She says she’s enrolled in Total Tennis, but who goes to a tennis camp for one day? She’s with Lenny.”
Zina entered the house and set two shopping bags on the floor. Magda and Kristofer, the Polish housecleaning couple—each wore a wedding ring and Ed only assumed they were married to each other—excused themselves to get past her as they carried mops, squeegees, and an industrial-sized vacuum cleaner out the front door. Ed could hear them loading the equipment into their van. Zina came into the sunroom and kissed Joel on the head. “How are you feeling, honey?” she asked, placing a manicured hand across his forehead. Sylvia busily tucked in the coverlet at the end of the hospital bed. Then the housecleaners poked their heads into the door frame. Ed thought it was turning into the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera in there.
“Finished for the day,” Kristofer said, who touched Joel, then nodded to Magda to do the same. “God be with you, Joel,” he said. “Zina, we will phone you about the paint.” The couple retreated; within another few seconds they were outside.
Ed said to Zina, “You’re having a room painted?”
“The cellar floor,” Zina said. “This is a realtor’s secret you can have for free. Now Joel, honey, once they start painting, you know the cellar will be off-limits.”
My father’s not dead yet, Ed thought, and already she’s making arrangements to unload the place. And yet, over the past few weeks, Ed had tried to imagine what he and Laurie would do with their house in Los Angeles if they divorced. Where would Laurie and Rachel live? Where would he live?
“I don’t care about the basement,” Joel said, “as long as I can be upstairs.”
“He doesn’t understand,” Zina said to Ed, as though Joel’s lack of interest in the cellar floor indicated dementia.
While Zina was changing into clothes she had just purchased, Ed saw Sylvia to the door. “I’ve left some Roxanol with Zina to give to your father,” said Sylvia, peering at him over her half-glasses, “but only if he needs it. When he dies, what’s left must be flushed down the toilet. Do you know what I’m saying?”
Ed nodded. “Does Zina?”
“She knows what to do,” Sylvia said.
Zina twirled into the sun room modeling her new tennis outfit, showing off her thoroughbred legs. Ed invariably went cold at these runway moments. But Joel admired the outfit and grunted his approval.
“Oh, Lenny will like that,” Joel said.
“You’re delirious, honey,” said Zina. Half-pivoting to Ed, she said, “Names from his past just seem to just float up, don’t they?”
Ed carried Zina’s valise and hat box out to the driveway, where her SUV sat behind Joel’s old Volvo.
“Ed, you are a true gentleman,” Zina said, jingling more keys than a school janitor. “I’m sorry to have to bring this up, but now’s the time to call some mortuaries. All I know is Guterman’s, but you’ve probably got several options.” He knew Guterman’s; they had handled the funerals of his grandparents.
“I’d feel funny making those calls when he’s right in the next room,” Ed said.
“Oh, that’s right! Lost your cell, poor boy. Just call from the upstairs phone here so he can’t hear you. Be sure to ask if he should be buried in a Jewish shroud.”
“Joel? I think he’d prefer being rolled up in a tortilla.”
“You don’t know your father very well, do you?” said Zina. “Believe me; arrange it now and it could be half the price. After all, it’s your responsibility.” Ed knew she wasn’t wrong; as executor of his father’s estate, he was the one to handle funeral arrangements. “Mwah,” Zina said, presenting her perfumed cheek. “I’ll be back tomorrow night. You’ll be fine with him, won’t you?”
“We might not make it to the Mercury Lounge tonight, but we’ll hold our own,” Ed said. “Big day tomorrow. Mobility’s coming and putting in the stairs he wants.”
“Oh? I was under the impression they couldn’t get the quote unquote part.”
“They’ve expedited it, or something,” Ed said.
Zina looked up at the house she co-owned, started to say something, then apparently thought better of it. “I have my cell with me,” she said, firing up the SUV. “You boys behave.”
When Ed went back inside, he found Joel asleep. Although there would be another three hours of daylight, he felt it was time for a gin and tonic. He deserved it. To keep noise at a minimum, he made the g & t without ice and, holding the perspiring glass as though it had been grafted to his fingers, carefully turned the pages of the day’s Times as he read through it. Saudi’s Visit to Arms Site in Pakistan Worries U.S. Pete Conrad, Commander of Apollo 12 and the Third Man to Set Foot on the Moon, Is Dead at 69. My father’s age, Ed thought; one man flies into space and earns glory; the other goes to an office each day to defend the indigent and disenfranchised. Soon Ed had worked up enough courage to tiptoe up the stairs, get out the Bergen County white pages and find the phone number for Guterman’s, its name and number larger than any others on the page. Emboldened by the alcohol buzz, Ed phoned. Was this an emergency? No, Ed said, not yet. In that case, he was told, Barry Guterman would call him back.
In the evening Joel, no longer able to swallow food, took his glass of Carnation Instant Breakfast. “Join me?” he said, raising the glass to Ed.
“I’ll stick with my Percoset and lime,” Ed said, actually mixing his fourth or fifth gin and tonic. Ed put on a Jo Stafford CD—it was a present he’d given Joel because she’d been Joel’s favorite singer during his high school years, and her liquid amber voice was comforting to him; yet Ed knew he’d bought it also because Jo Stafford was missing from his own collection and he would surely inherit it. I want a Sunday kind of love, Jo was singing. They went through a shoebox of photographs—emulsion-rich Kodachromes and muddy-looking Polaroids—of Joel’s old girlfriends. Some of them were, to Ed’s eyes, lovely camera subjects, but Joel recalled the names of only a few. It irritated Ed, this self-absorption of his father’s, yet he forgave it. Following several rounds of chemotherapy, Joel’s hair had grown back surprisingly darker, but his body was otherwise withered and flaccid. Sex was only a memory now. Maybe, Ed thought, that’s one reason Zina kept taking trips: a woman who has defined herself by her desirability suddenly discovers she’s no longer lusted after at home; her desirability is affirmed only when she goes out and attracts healthy men.
“Where do you think she is now?” said Joel, as though he could read Ed’s mind.
“Zina may surprise you, Dad. Try her cell.”
Joel grunted and said, “Go over and get David Bar-din. He’ll get me back upstairs.” Ed tried not to feel insulted: he was smaller than his father, even now, and David Bar-din was the size of a buffalo.
“Dad, it’s nearly eleven o’clock. I am not knocking on David Bar-din’s door to ask a favor.” Ed wanted nothing to do with the man. Now and then Ed would see him in his driveway. “Ah, so, Mr. Ben Hecht is in from Hollywood,” David Bar-din once called out to him. “Our cup runneth over!” “Do you need a napkin?” Ed called back, and David Bar-din smirked and shook his head. Ed was used to such condescension, though it usually came from people who worked in show business.
“I thought you were here to help me,” said Joel.
“Help you? I’ve changed my life for you!” Even as the words leaped out of his mouth, Ed knew it wasn’t quite true. “Lie back, Dad. Let me get under here.” Ed removed his father’s khaki shorts which, after three days stuck to Joel’s body, had begun to smell like mushrooms, and put a new pair of Depends on him. Two weeks after his final radiology appointment, traces of the radiologist’s henna-colored, Aztec-like markings were still visible on Joel’s chest. Through the humiliating process and the chatter of the radio, Joel kept a forearm stretched across his eyes. His body began to tremble. It took Ed fully half a minute to see that his Joel was crying.
“Ed, do you hate me?”
“No, I adore you,” Ed said, and this, at least, was the truth. He kissed his father on an eyebrow and turned the radio down. Sitting in the Naugahyde chair facing the hospital bed, Ed finished the day’s Times and drank himself to sleep.
The lamp was still on when he woke to the irregular flatulence of the oxygen condenser, and a man’s voice barely decipherable beneath it. WCBS news time, four forty-seven. Estimates are that ninety thousand people were in attendance when Mia Hamm and the USA team win the Women’s Soccer championship. Joel’s tongue seemed to be straining for moisture. Ed put lemon glycerin on a cotton swab and put it to his father’s mouth, which closed around it. Ed turned the light out. How much longer could his father—feeble, incontinent, and occasionally hallucinating—hang on? Why would he want to? In another hour dawn began to creep through the wooden Venetian blinds. Ed was awake for it.
Sylvia brought him a coffee from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Englewood. In the next hour she would change Joel’s bedding and run her tests. With Sylvia there and the Mobility installers scheduled before noon, Ed took a break and drove to Edwards, an air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted super-cavern giving shoppers asylum from another near-hundred degree day. Ed liked to pretend that Edwards was his store, named specifically for him, and if anyone made a crack about the package of the Depends on his shopping basket, he could ban the offender forever. He also bought tonic water for himself and pre-made things like potato salad and cold cuts—foods he didn’t have to cook and disturb Joel’s sense of smell—and, because the store had run out of Carnation Instant Breakfast, Joel’s preferred nutrition drink, a case of vanilla Ensure.
When he returned to the house he found Sylvia in the kitchen talking on the wall phone. “Yes, he has just walked in,” she said, declining to meet Ed’s eyes. Her voice was unusually subdued. It must be Laurie, Ed thought as he put away the groceries; I should have phoned her yesterday. His fingers brushed against a refrigerator magnet half-covering one of the first directives Sylvia had written out after the hospice had sent her over: Please, No Bad News. Sylvia cleared her throat and said to Ed, “Zina would like to speak with you.”
“Steffi Graf!” said Ed into the handset. “How’s that backhand?”
She was not in the mood. Zina explained to Ed that she had called off Mobility. It was her decision about her property—50% now, 100% upon Joel’s death—and she did not want the place disfigured for an eleventh hour whim.
“Zina, you’re a regular Clara Barton,” Ed said.
“You little shit! You’re trying to run my house and you won’t even stay in yours!”
Ed heard her click off. He could feel his blood racing. He had been called many names over the years, but never a little shit. Trying to keep the fury out of his voice, he phoned Mobility. The manager told Ed that his stepmom had canceled the job.
“She’s not my stepmom,” Ed said, “and I’m overriding her. Come anyway. It’s what my father wants.”
“Ach, I already sent my guys to another job. Think about it and call me tonight if you want to reschedule.”
Unsatisfactory as it was, they left it at that.
When Ed stepped into the sun room, Sylvia was fussing with the buttons of Joel’s denim shirt. The air conditioning had turned the room downright cold. Joel gazed past her shoulder, up at Ed. “What’s the matter?”
“I’ll tell you later, Dad,” said Ed, indicating Sylvia with his eyes.
Sylvia grabbed her medical bag and snapped everything shut. “Until tomorrow, Joel!” she shouted, no more eager to stay than Ed, irrationally feeling betrayed, was eager to have her stay. Off to see other patients, she closed the front door behind her.
“Ed, what did you want to tell me?”
“I . . . They were out of Carnation Instant Breakfast,” Ed said. “I picked up some Ensure. I hope you won’t mind.”
“I don’t mind. You can do me one favor, though.”
“Get me upstairs,” said Joel, his desperation aimed like an arrow between Ed’s eyes.
“Okay, we’ll try.” Ed suspected they were just going through the motions, but he quickly went up and turned on the air-conditioning because the big bedroom, unoccupied by Zina the previous night, had become unbearably hot. Back downstairs, it took four or five minutes to get Joel out of bed. Joel grunted, mashed his swollen feet onto his moccasins and tried to stand up straight. Ed allowed his father to lean on him as they began the slow shuffle to the bottom of the stairs.
“Ready, Dad?” said Ed.
Joel gripped the banister. Ed braced his whole body behind him, his cheek intimately flush against his father’s lower back, just below the beltline of his khaki shorts. By the eighth step, more than halfway there, Ed’s thighs were straining for purchase. Ed took a breath and pushed Joel up one more step.
Upstairs and downstairs, the phones rang; Ed could hear them in a kind of stereo trill, the two rings harmonic but not identical. Ed prayed it wasn’t the mortuary guy. Later, he wouldn’t be certain if he’d dropped away from his father because he was surrendering to a well-trained impulse to answer the phone, or if the sudden ring had caused Joel to let go. In another half-second, however, Joel had crashed into the banister. The railing cracked, unmooring several balusters from their bases, but remained sturdy enough to keep Joel on the staircase, though on his stomach, his denim shirttail rolled halfway up his back. The phones stopped ringing.
“I’m so sorry, Dad. Let’s get you up.” Ed squatted next to his father’s left leg.
“This is Kristofer!” said the voice exploding from the answering machine upstairs.
“Let me just lie here a minute,” Joel said.
“Zina,” Kristofer continued on the answering machine, “we have called your mobile many times, but never an answer! We have bought the paints! Call us back, please, when you get this message!” Ed could hear the machine click, punctuated by a moment of dial tone.
Ed surveyed the damage. The banister buckled grotesquely, like something out of a German Expressionist film. One of Joel’s moccasins was lodged between two broken balusters, its scuffed mate turned upside down on the floor below. Ed had inadvertently knocked a framed photo of Zina and Joel, evidently taken at a bar mitzvah or a wedding—both of them were smiling; Joel was wearing a yarmulke—and now the frame was tilted between the first and second steps, each step sprinkled with broken glass.
“I don’t suppose that was Mobility calling,” said Joel.
“It was Kristofer about the basement. Should I call him back?”
“Better leave it to Zina. You know how she needs to be in control.” Joel groaned. Ed was amazed to hear the groan become a laugh. “She’ll be good and pissed.”
“I certainly hope so,” Ed said, laughing too. Then he bent over and placed his father’s arms around his own neck, and together they made it to the top of the stairs.