Early evening, August. In the stillness of the suburban house, the telephone rang. Mitchell hesitated only a moment before lifting the receiver. And here was the first wrong note. The caller was Mitchell's father-in-law, Otto Behn.
Not for years had Otto called before the phone rates went down at 11 P.M. Not even when Otto's wife Teresa had been hospitalized.
The second wrong note. The voice. "Mitch? Hello! It's me Otto." Otto's voice was oddly lifted, eager, as if Otto were a farther distance away than usual and worried that Mitchell couldn't hear him. And he sounded affable, even buoyant -- as Otto rarely was these days on the phone. Lizbeth, Otto's daughter, had come to dread his calls in the late evening: as soon as you picked up the phone, Otto would launch into one of his riffs, complaint-tirades, deadpan, funny, but with a cold fury beneath, in the long-ago style of Lenny Bruce, whom Otto had much admired in the late 1950s. Now, in his eighties, Otto had himself become an angry man: angry about his wife's cancer, angry about his own "chronic condition," angry about their Forest Hills neighbors (noisy kids, barking dogs, lawn mowers, leaf blowers), angry about being made to wait two hours "in a refrigerated room" for his most recent MRI, angry about politicians, including even those he'd helped canvass votes for in the first heady flush of his retirement from high school teaching fifteen years ago. It was old age that Otto was angry about, but who could tell the poor man that? Not his daughter, and certainly not his son-in-law.
Tonight, though, Otto wasn't angry.
In a warmly genial, if slightly forced voice he queried Mitchell about Mitchell's work, which was corporate architectural design; and about Lizbeth, who was the Behns' only daughter; and about their grown, beautiful, departed children, Otto's grandchildren he'd adored as kids and this went on for a while until at last Mitchell said uneasily, "Uh, Otto -- Lizbeth is out at the mall. She'll be back around seven. Should I have her call you?"
Otto laughed loudly. You could all but see the saliva glistening on his full, fleshy lips. "Don't want to talk to the old man, eh?"
Mitchell tried to laugh, too. "Otto, we've been talking."
Otto said, more seriously, "Mitch, my friend, I'm glad you picked up. Not Bethie. I can't talk long and I'd prefer, I guess, to talk to you."
"Yes?" Mitchell felt a touch of dread. Never in their thirty years of acquaintance had Otto Behn called him "friend." Teresa must be out of remission again. Dying? Otto himself had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years before. Not a severe case, yet. Or was it?
Guiltily Mitchell realized that he and Lizbeth hadn't visited the older couple in almost a year, though they lived less than two hundred miles away. Lizbeth was dutiful about telephoning, usually Sunday evenings, hoping (usually futilely) to speak first with her mother, whose telephone manner was weakly cheerful and optimistic; but the last time they'd visited, they'd been shocked by Teresa's deterioration. The poor woman had had months of chemotherapy and was bone-thin, her skin like wax. Not long ago, in her sixties, she'd been exuberant, fleshy, sturdy as an earthenware pot. And there was Otto, hovering about, tremors in both hands that he seemed to be exacerbating out of comic spite, complaining brilliantly about medical workers, HMOs, and UFOs "in conspiracy" -- what a strained, exhausting visit. On the drive home, Lizbeth recited lines from an Emily Dickinson poem-- "'Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood, and consurnated dull!'"
"Jesus," Mitchell said, dry-mouthed, shivering. "That's it, isn't it?"
Now, ten months later, there was Otto on the phone speaking matter-of-factly, as you'd discuss selling some property, of a "certain decision" he and Teresa had come to. Teresa's "white-cell blood count," his own "shitty news" -- which he wasn't going to discuss. The books were closed permanently on that subject, he said. Mitchell, trying to make sense of this, leaned against a wall, suddenly weak. This is happening too fast. "at the hell is this? Otto was saying, in a lowered voice, "We decided not to tell you and Lizbeth, her mother was back in Mount Sinai in July. They sent her home. We've made our decision. This isn't to discuss, Mitch, y'understand? It's to inform. And to ask you to honor our wishes."
"We've been looking through albums, old photos and things, and having a ball of a time. Things I haven't seen in forty years. Teresa keeps saying, 'Wow! We did all this? We lived all that?' It's a weird, humbling thing, sort of, to realize we'd been goddamned happy, even when we didn't know it. I didn't have a clue, I've got to confess. So many years, looking back, sixty-two years Teresa and I've been together, you'd think it would be depressing as hell but actually, in the right mood, it isn't. Teresa says, 'We've already had about three lives, haven't we?'"
"Excuse me," Mitchell said, through a roaring of blood in his ears, "--what is this 'decision' you've made?"
Otto said, "Right. I'm asking you to honor our wishes in this respect, Mitch. I think you understand."
"I -- what?"
"I wasn't sure whether I should speak with Lizbeth. How she'd react. You know, when your kids first left home for college." Otto paused. Tactful. Ever the gentleman. Never would he speak critically about Lizbeth to Mitchell, though with Lizbeth he could be blunt and wounding, or had been in the past. He said now, hesitantly, "She can be, well -- emotional."
On a hunch Mitchell asked where Otto was.
"Are you in Forest Hills?"
Otto paused. "No, we're not."
"Where are you, then?"
Otto said, an edge of defiance in his voice, "At the cabin."
"The cabin? Au Sable?"
"Right. Au Sable."
Otto let that point sink in.
They pronounced the name differently. Mitchell, 0 Sable, three syllables; Otto, Oz'ble, one elided syllable, as locals pronounced it...
Excerpted from FAITHLESS: Tales of Transgression, (c) Copyright 2002 by Joyce Carol Oates. Reprinted with permission by Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins. All rights reserved.
Faithless: Tales of Transgression