Kelly Cherry Click to

kelly-cherryFormer Eudora Welty Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kelly Cherry is a prolific writer of poetry, essays and fiction. Her many books include Death and Transfiguration: Poems (LSU, 1997), The Life and Death of Poetry (LSU, 2013), The Woman Who [Stories] (Boson Books, 2010) and A Kind of Dream [linked stories] (2014). She received the Carole Weinstein Prize in Poetry in 2012, and a new collection of poems, Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer, was recently released by LSU.

She brings him African violets, geraniums. A breeze from the harbor nudges the white curtains aside, probes. Sounds—a crying gull, a screeching car alarm, the pneumatic gasp of bus doors opening and closing—are separate and distant, like islands: they do not touch this couple brought together after so many years, do not impinge. Within the room, the only sound is of the lifted curtains snagged and pulling briefly on the geranium and then sliding free again. And his breathing, of course. She listens, and the room seems to her as glaring as a tropical beach: white sheets, white walls, white bureau, the white curtains rising and falling as if breathing too. Beyond the room, she knows, everything is blue: blue sky, blue water. Waves rubbing against the hulls of boats like cats winding around people’s legs. But not tropical: this reunion takes place in New Jersey, a place that to her seems like an outpost, the last and farthest place she could imagine herself in.

She smooths and tightens the sheet, fits it more closely to his sides. The chemo caused his hair to fall out months ago. His large head is now the most aggressive thing about him, large and intellectually dominating. Though he was always intellectually dominating! She would like to be able to read his mind. She would like to be able to turn the pages of his mind. Know how the story began. How he summarized it to himself.

How it ends.

The dark eyebrows, the gaze which, in those early years of discovery and argumentation, of shaping a self, had hurled itself against its object. . . .

But now his eyes are shut, the lids thin as thread darned over holes in a sock heel.

Until early evening, she sits beside him and reads to herself. The white light turns bluer, as if a mistake has been made something has gotten mixed in that should have been kept separate a blue bleed in the laundry the whites gone aquamarine and watercolor.

Quite suddenly (but it has gotten late), it is dark.

A waltzing blackness. Then an orderly switches the hallway lights on.

She slips her book back into her bag. She has rented a room in the kind of motel where people stay for a week, spending their days at the shore and never going out at night but instead heating up tasteless microwave macaroni-and-cheese to dine on in front of the television; how else can a single woman (all these years when they would have been married, if he hadn’t panicked and run, a young man afraid he had lost himself, his future, well, what future now!) afford a vacation? Not that this is a vacation, and not that the only people registered here are beach-goers. There must be others, like her, visiting the sick, the discouraged, the sad, the doubtful. She leans over the figure in the bed. She kisses him on the lips and it is like kissing a thought, not a person. She traces the curve of his large head from the temporal lobe to behind his ear, and it is like touching the idea of a man but not the man.

She makes a small sound in spite of herself, a short cry as if she is a sort of gull; as if she is a kind of island despite literature, and each slowly falling tear is like a drop of water on a laboratory slide. She imagines herself viewing her tears under a microscope. In her tears she would be able to see the biology of him, the way he used to be, hot-tempered and verging on violence, his dark, mole-bedecked skin, the contained, tumultuous blood, the nerve-endings that were as brilliant as stars.

The many constellations of them, their synapses, designs and meanings, and do not forget the neurotransmitters as swift and showy and portentous as comets.

But she remembers that when they were together she let it slip that she didn’t think he was as intelligent as others thought he was and certainly not as intelligent as he thought he was. You must never belittle the male ego, her mother once told her, but she, of course, she, herself, thought her mother was foolish, unliberated and not up to date. Well, her mother had been right. She had to give her that. Her mother had known whereof she spoke, didn’t she.

If she could have him back, she would admire everything thing he accomplished, praise him unstintingly. By now she knew no one was hugely intelligent, much less herself. Definitely not herself. What a waste of energy it was to worry about intelligence. A waste of time, too.

She moves back toward the hospital bed. If he opens his eyes, will tell him he was the most alert man she ever knew. She will tell him she never stopped loving him. She will tell him how painful it is to live with her guilt. She will