“Come on Harold,” Natalie said. “Let’s do it. We can pretend to be Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire.”
The water main on Monroe and Front had exploded the night before, lifting the street into a mini, rupturing volcano. MLGW was quick to jack-hammer all night long to repair the main line. He saw how the freshly-cemented sidewalk was now calling his wife’s name.
“Marilyn and Fred were never an item, Natalie. And it’s too dangerous,” Harold said. “Leaving foot and handprints in cement? Leaving our DNA? Just another way for them to track us. No, thank you.”
Natalie stomped her wedged heel and pouted her Mary Kay tinted lips. Harold saw her knuckles rounding as she gripped the handle of her 1950’s style purse that she devoutly used every Sunday. She released one hand from her vintage possession to adjust the hearing aid that hid behind her wavy hair. He wondered if that was her subtle way of telling him she wanted to hear a different response. He looked away, toward the blue light flashing across from him.
“Oh, come on, let’s live a little while we are above cement!” she said.
Live a little. The words stung. Did Natalie know? He thought he knew her mind so well, but now he couldn’t read her thoughts. She stood there, waiting. Just as she did thirty-three years ago when they first met in the lobby of the inpatient psych ward, waiting to be discharged at Western Mental Health Institute in Bolivar, Tennessee. He remembered how her lips trembled. At that time, she was white-knuckled clutching a small suitcase. He, too, was feeling uneasy after signing himself out against medical advice. But from the first moment he saw Natalie, he’d known exactly what to do with her, with life. He didn’t even have to think. He grabbed her sweaty hand and placed it in his equally sweaty hand. You see this, he thought and wanted to shout out to the orderlies, I’m not paranoid with strangers. “Let’s go, before they try to stop us,” he told Natalie.
They had made their way out into the world together. Natalie and Harold hand in hand, against the world, against the mental labels given them. Countless love promises soon followed, including his promise to protect her fragile brain.
He wasn’t going to mess it up now. He’d spent a lifetime making lists, timelines, and theories about her triggers for depression. And whenever he could, he calculated and guided her to a safer path. This was the reason he could count her relapses on one hand. All the while she urged him to stop calculating, to be spontaneous.
“As long as Big Brother is watching, let’s give them something exciting to report,” Natalie said. She was staring down at his Red Wing shoes, something he figured she did when she was disappointed in him for not taking risks. She always teased that his lifelong loyalty to Red Wing shoes summed up the kind of man he was. He took that as a compliment, up until a few year ago when she’d pause and add, “for better or worse,” with a heavy exhalation. In Harold’s mind there was nothing better to walk through life in than a pair of Red Wings. “This business of for better or worse I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he’d reply.
They stood there on the corner of Monroe and Front. He saw Natalie’s disappointment gathering in the furrow of her brows, her gaze shifting from his shoes to the moist cement, that was slowly solidifying into its own death, of sorts. He knew time was closing in. There were forty-seven in his pocket. He rustled the coins around while looking at her downcast eyes. Would this be a good time to tell her? And the lies he’s told her since that first doctor’s visit four months ago when it wasn’t certain, only a suspicion. “Doc says I need to stop following your fad diets,” he said, when she questioned him about his weight loss and weakness. It was the third visit that really peeved Harold.
“Your cancer is spreading at an exponential rate,” the doctor said.
“Exponential? Like what, to the 7th or 10th power?” he had asked.
The doctor took his reading glasses off, scratched his head and said, “Exponential, like to the lungs and liver now, Harold.” Harold wanted some figures, some numbers he could understand. Instead, the doctor gave him a rundown on a double-blind study for a new drug that he might be able to participate in. If the drug worked, it may or may not add another six months of life. Another 180 days, roughly, he thought. He could take Natalie on one of them senior cruises to the Bahamas. Paris would please her too—a walk along The Seine under a Parisian moonlight. He envisioned placing raspberry macarons in her sweet mouth.
“You can’t tell me for sure?” he asked.
“No, I can’t,” the doctor replied.
“We know that the closest star is 4.24 light-years away,” Harold began to ramble. “Scientist have calculated the distance down to the .24 light-years and you’re telling me you can’t count my tumors, my “exponential” rate? What kind of bogus practice are you running here? No, I have no desire to be a government guinea pig in your trial.”
“Maybe you’d like to go home, give it some thought, discuss it with your wife,” the doctor said.
Harold just knew that the doctor would report every lab result, every twitch, to the Surgeon General. No government-appointed stooge would ever track him. Instead he gambled big. The way Natalie always asked him to. He took their life savings and sought alternative treatments. There was the snake massage therapy and the Psychic Surgery performed by John of God from Brazil, to name a few. He never even went to Brazil. Yet, what he paid for in psychic surgery would have been enough for several first-class tickets to Brazil. No cure, now dying, now broke. He twirled the forty-seven cents between his fingers.
Natalie whispered in his ear, but all he could hear was Live a little. She grabbed his hand and led him toward the cement. The massage snakes popped into his mind. He ran his hand across his chest to subdue his pounding heartbeat. His chest felt tight, as if the snakes were again, wildly and gently, squeezing his rib cage. He tried the breathing exercises he was instructed to do before his psychic surgery. He dropped to his knees beside Natalie and said, “This may be the last thing I ever leave you, Nat.”
Side by side, they placed their hands into the cement. His stomach fluttered as the smooth, cool, cement pushed up between his fingers. The wet snugness of the cement surrounding his hands made him feel the same way he had when he first took Natalie’s hands. This is forever, he thought. He leaned his weight further into his hands. But, never once did he forget about the flickering blue light from the Memphis Police Department camera high on the light pole across from them. How he would love to do some flickering of his own, like his middle finger at the camera, but he kept his head and all ten fingers down. If he was going to get arrested, he’d make them work for it. This whole camera and satellite business. Monitoring the free citizens of the world. It’s made Columbo-inspired detectives obsolete. He pushed harder into the cement.
“That’s the way, Harold!” Natalie said. His anger over the camera dissipated. If he’d known better, he’d have thought it was a twelve-year-old giggling beside him. That laugh. It was different: so delicate. It bubbled up from her like a fountain. He couldn’t remember if he’d ever heard her laugh like that.
As he stood up, Natalie remained on her knees. She grabbed wipes from her purse and cleaned her hands. After handing Harold a wad of wipes, she swept her hands over his knees and shins, brushing from his tweed pants any possible dirt, invisible to the human eye, but known to Harold.
When she finally stood, she thanked him. “That was wonderful,” she said, “Shall we do our feet now?”
“No,” he said, “We’ve given the boys in blue more than enough.”
They headed into their building. Harold looked back at the cement. Their handprints looked carefree as they dried into place.
As Natalie fell asleep, Harold went to the middle of the living room. There, on the hardwood floors, where Natalie had pulled him close many times to dance to Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me,” he stood and practiced his monologue. “Nat,” he whispered. “I have something to tell you … Nat, you know how I’ve been losing weight? Natalie, our life savings, well, your widowed-future, is gonna be okay.” He would soften the blow by reiterating how she would still have the house, the two small rental properties, plus social security. He pulled out an old bible. It smelled of a stale used bookstore. A bookmark still held the place to the only passages he enjoyed reading, from the Book of Numbers. He once had the Biblical tribe names and their population numbers memorized. It awed him how even during the time of Moses they could give accurate accounting of descendants, clans, armies, and livestock. Yet, the doc couldn’t give him any exact numbers? He searched the passages for an answer, a number, that he could give Natalie, that could, too, lead him out of this state of wilderness. How was it that people bragged about finding the answers to their dilemmas by just opening the Bible? He opened and closed the Bible, repeatedly. Hopefully. Until, finally, he returned it to the shelf, where it had rested for years.
When the sun rose, Harold grabbed a kitchen chair and carried it to the bedroom. He had always told Natalie bad news standing, to appear strong and in control. He chose to sit this time, because he needed her to see him for how he really was, without explicitly stating it.
As Natalie opened her eyes, squinting to the morning light, Harold sat, staring at her. After looking him up and down a few times, she asked, “What are you doing?”
His throat suddenly clenched. He refused to use the word cancer. “Natalie, I, I …” he started, “I have something growing at an exponential rate … inside of me. I don’t have an exact calculation.” Damn, he thought. It’s not how he had practiced it all night. He started again, “It’s all inside me, all over. It’s gonna take me.”
Natalie turned to her right side, in fetal position, with her head laying on her hands in prayer position.
“I know,” she said.
The words were so faint, Harold thought he may have only imagined hearing her speak. He stared at her. She nodded. He realized he’d been so self-absorbed he had failed to see that Natalie knew about his diagnosis. And she appeared just fine.
So he told her about his alternative therapy adventures. The snakes. The herbs. The psychic therapy. Brazil, but not in Brazil. He spilled it all. The depletion of their savings. Natalie remained quiet, not a fraction of movement to her facial expression.
“The savings, it’s all gone.”
“You, Harold, my husband, had snake massage therapy?” she asked.
Harold nodded, “To reduce my stress.” He figured she must be in shock. She must not be hearing or not understanding what he was telling her. Why was she asking about the snakes? And not the money?
“How did you feel?” she asked.
Harold wanted to rattle off all the figures of every snake length, weight, and circumference from all his massages. But, for the first time ever, the numbers in his head felt scrambled. To buy time, he took one deep breath, filling his cancer-ridden lungs, and calmly recited a few of the snakes’ weights: 36.3, 42.1, and 47.9 pounds.
“No, how did you feel?” she asked again.
“They were more scaly than slithery,” Harold said.
“Harold! How did you, not the snakes, feel?”
“On a scale of one to —”
He sat quietly, thinking. Natalie’s face was still puffy, as it always was upon wakening. It was subtle and pure. He had done his best, all these years, not to give her a single worry, nor a single wrinkle. Quality-collagen and a quality husband, he often heard her tell her friends that complimented her youthful glow. She reached out for his hand. “I felt,” he tilted his head up, “I felt so scared.”
“Scared,” she repeated. “And the psychic surgery?” she asked.
“Do you understand what I am saying, Natalie? I’m telling you I have the big C, cancer. And that I’ve spent our money.”
He started again, recounting the events of the most expensive of all the treatments he tried: the psychic surgery from Brazil. A box containing four golf ball size concoctions of herbs were sent to him by mail. To his surprise, they were shipped from San Francisco, not Brazil. “That should have been my first clue,” he told Natalie. One night after Natalie fell asleep, he followed the instructions to a tee. He boiled two of the tightly wound ball of herbs, dusted with a brown powder, until they fell apart. He drank the tea, went to sleep, while the surgeon operated psychically. The next morning he prepped a tea from the two remaining balls.
“And how did you feel?”
“Oddly enough, I felt so … alive. Placebo-effect, I guess.”
“And what did that feel like? To finally feel alive?”
“Like the Golden Spiral,” Harold explained. “Complex, beautiful, sacred. So natural. But, you know how the logarithmic spiral—it’s moving further away, Nat. And I don’t know … I don’t know how to hold on to it,” Harold lowered his head. Once he knew exactly everything to do and now he only knew the one thing to do: to take Natalie’s hands.
She pulled him toward her onto the bed. He spooned her as tightly as humanly possible. “You’re my Golden Spiral,” Natalie said, cupping her hands around his. Hearing that, he closed his eyes. For once, he rested, with no care of who may be monitoring.