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By Charles Bock
Published by Random House Trade Paperbacks on 2017-04-18
FICTION / Literary
The award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Children has created an unflinching yet deeply humane portrait of a young family’s journey through a medical crisis, laying bare a couple’s love and fears as they fight for everything that’s important to them.
New York, 1993. Alice Culvert is a caring wife, a doting new mother, a loyal friend, and a soulful artist—a fashion designer who wears a baby carrier and haute couture with equal aplomb. In their loft in Manhattan’s gritty Meatpacking District, Alice and her husband, Oliver, are raising their infant daughter, Doe, delighting in the wonders of early parenthood.
Their life together feels so vital and full of promise, which makes Alice’s sudden cancer diagnosis especially staggering. In the span of a single day, the couple’s focus narrows to the basic question of her survival. Though they do their best to remain brave, each faces enormous pressure: Oliver tries to navigate a labyrinthine healthcare system and handle their mounting medical bills; Alice tries to be hopeful as her body turns against her. Bracing themselves for the unthinkable, they must confront the new realities of their marriage, their strengths as partners and flaws as people, how to nourish love against all odds, and what it means to truly care for another person.
Inspired by the author’s life, Alice & Oliver is a deeply affecting novel written with stunning reserves of compassion, humor, and wisdom. Alice Culvert is an extraordinary character—a woman of incredible heart and spirit—who will remain in memory long after the final page.
Praise for Alice & Oliver
“This hauntingly powerful novel follows a family’s fight for survival in the face of illness. A stirring elegy to a marriage.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“A rewarding reading experience . . . a testament to the resilience of humans and our willingness to forgive.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“The novel’s power is in its two characters’ messy negotiation of their fears, errors and shifting affections. . . . Bock offers a forceful reminder that there are plenty of roiling emotions underneath that till-death-do-us-part.”—Los Angeles Times
“[A] heart-wrenching story of a young couple whose lives change when Alice gets diagnosed with cancer . . . a refreshingly unsentimental look at the vicious disease.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Alice & Oliver [has a] tough-minded commitment to truth-telling.”—The Washington Post
“Even more than the meticulous details of drugs, treatments and side effects, Bock’s tender portrayal of [his characters] in all their desolation gives [Alice & Oliver] its ring of truth. . . . I loved this novel.”—Marion Winik, Newsday
“Alice & Oliver shows that, even in a situation that’s about as terrible as it can be, there can still exist happiness, surprise, and life, that strange strong spirit that’s with us until the end.”—The Boston Globe
“The most honest, unsentimentally powerful novel about cancer that I’ve ever read.”—Michael Christie, The Globe & Mail
“Wrenchingly powerful . . . Bock chronicles the daily struggles of a young wife and mother facing her own imminent mortality. This is a soul portrait of a family in crisis, written with a fearless clarity and a deep understanding of the bonds that can hold two people together even in the darkest hour.”—Richard Price
From the Hardcover edition.
When Charles Bock’s debut novel, BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN, was published in 2008, it was a sensation. But unbeknownst to most readers, in the wake of its success, Bock and his family were undergoing a drama of their own, as his wife was diagnosed with leukemia in 2009 and died two-and-a-half years later, just days before their daughter’s third birthday. Now, in his second novel, ALICE & OLIVER, Bock uses ...
ALICE & OLIVER would be a profoundly emotional novel to read even without knowing about the author’s back story; his personal history, however, makes it that much more poignant. Bock reveals in his author’s note that some passages from Alice’s point of view were directly inspired by the journal his late wife kept during her cancer treatment, writings that she hoped might one day become a memoir. ALICE ...
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PRAISE FOR ALICE & OLIVER 'Alice & Oliver [has a] tough-'minded commitment to truthtelling.' ? The Washington Post 'Even more than the meticulous details of drugs, treatments and side effects, Bock's tender portrayal of [his characters] in all their desolation gives [Alice & Oliver] its ring of truth.' .' .' . I loved this novel.' ? Newsday 'Alice & Oliver shows that, even in a situation that's about as terrible as it can be, there can still exist happiness, surprise, and life, that strange strong spirit that's with us until the end.' ? The Boston Globe 'Heartbreaking, intimate'.' .' . a riveting journey.' ? The Village Voice
'Best-'selling Bock presents a nail-'biting suspense novel that plunges headfirst into a terrifying circumstance that sends a beautiful, vibrant young mother's life into a tailspin.' .' .' . Bock doesn't pussyfoot. The story''inspired by his own experience when his young wife was diagnosed with leukemia''bares all, from routine annoyances and major frustrations to the caring, competent pro? fessionals and staff who operate within a flawed system. The characters of Alice and Oliver are flawed, too, but also loving and memorable. Bock tells a tale that holds a penetrating mirror to our worst fears in a way that fascinates even as it frightens.' ''Booklist (starred review) 'Bock's novel is a searingly honest, wryly funny, deeply loving tribute to those facing mortality and struggling through the maze of health insurance and treatment options while trying to hold on to their humanity.' ''Library Journal (starred review) 'A spellbinding book, pulsating with life and reminding the reader on every page that even when everything is as awful as it could possibly be, life itself is always a curious thing'.' .' . [A] beautiful, complex portrait of a family in crisis.' ''Publishers Weekly 'A scorchingly honest description of cancer's indignities and the toll they take on human relationships; it is, equally, an unparalleled narrative description of intimacy.' ''Andrew Solomon
'Desperately moving and beautifully life-'affirming, Alice & Oliver is a study in the power love has to give purpose to existence.' .' .' . This luminous and unforgettable novel will leave an indelible mark on the literature of our time. ''Matthew Thomas 'So beautiful, so perfectly realized, so lavishly and gorgeously written, so eviscerating, and, most of all, so very true.' ''Ayelet Waldman 'Charles Bock has written a profound and radiant novel.' ''Rivka Galchen
BY CHARLES BOCK Alice & Oliver Beautiful Children
ALICE & OLIVER
ALICE & OLIVER A NOVEL Charles Bock ? RANDOM HOUSE ? New York
Alice & Oliver is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. 2017 Random House Trade Paperback Edition Copyright ? 2016, 2017 by Charles Bock All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Random House and the House colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Originally published in hardcover and in slightly different form in the'United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin'Random House LLC, in 2016. Grateful acknowledgement is made to Mark Arm for permission to reprint two stanzas from 'Flat Out Fucked,' written by Mudhoney, copyright ? 1989 by Better Than Your Music (ASCAP). Reprinted by permission. library of congress cataloginginpublication data Bock, Charles. Alice & Oliver: a novel / Charles Bock. Pages cm isbn 978- 0- 8129- 8042- 4 eBook isbn 978- 0- 8129- 8847- 5 1. Cancer? Patients? Fiction. 2. Married women? Fiction. 3. Terminally ill? Fiction. 4. Domestic fiction. I. Title. II. Title: Alice and Oliver. ps3602.o3255a79 2016 813'.6? dc23 2015022303 Printed in the United States of America on acidfree paper randomhousebooks.com 987654321 Book design by Simon M. Sullivan
For Diana Joy Colbert. For Lily Bock.
PA RT I Induction
here she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked. This brisk morning, the fourth Wednesday of November, Alice was making her way down West Thirteenth. Her infant was strapped to her chest; her backpack was overloaded and pulling at her shoulders. The Buddhist skull beads around her wrist kept a rattling time. She drank coffee from a paper cup. Sweat bubbled from her neck. Her scarf kept unraveling. Her gaze remained arrow straight, focused on some unseen goal. She was rocking knee-'high boots''sensuous leather, complicated buckles. But she was slowing. A businessman only had a moment to avoid running into her. Alice bent over, coughing now, a coughing fit, bringing forth something phlegmy, bloody. This couldn't happen. Thanksgiving plans in Vermont had been set for too long; her mother was insane to see the Blueberry. And an extended weekend at Mom's, with pecan cobbler and free round-? the-'clock childcare, trumped whatever bug she'd caught this time. She'd just have to swallow it, pretend her usual zazz hadn't been absent for the last week, throbs weren't emanating from her temples. This was adulthood, honeysuckle. You soldiered on. She was going to be on time, meeting Oliver at the rental car place. Alice regularly picked up winter coughs like they were sample swatches; 1993
| charles bock she'd spent all afternoon batting that lozenge back and forth between her cheeks (the ground strokes lazy, the rally unending), an afternoon hacking through chores (folding T-'shirts into her knapsack, making sure the baby bag was loaded with Wet-'Naps). Out of their apartment, down the front steps, everything had been ginger. Right until the coughing, three increasingly violent retches. The jewel of phlegm'? its hue the light pink of a rose pearl''was probably nothing but saliva and coloring dye number five. Just goopy residue from the cherry cough drop. The rental agency was on the rim of the West Village, usually a five-'minute walk, ten with the baby strapped to her. It took Alice half an hour. A rust-'colored Taurus was waiting out in front, its driver's door open. Oliver stood on the side, making sure the suited agent documented every last ding. 'Jesus,' he said. 'Honey.' He felt her forehead. 'You all right'? She answered: 'Can you take Doe'? Then they were emerging from the scrum of the city, into the bumper-'to-'bumper hell clogging every inch from Bridgeport to New Haven. Oliver kept blasting heat through the front compartment. No matter how many blankets Alice wrapped around herself, those weird cold sweats wouldn't stop. If anything, she felt worse, the chill deep inside her bones. Now, nearing the western border of Massachusetts, they sped down one of those empty rural interstates, tall barren trees looming dark on either side. Alice's voice quivered: 'Could you pull over please'? Oliver veered into the first roadside rest area he saw, the lights of its parking lot distended and spooky. It's nothing, she assured herself, again. She lowered her seat all the way down, her body following the tight collapse as if her own internal gears and stopgaps had also received permission to give way. The sensation went beyond a mental or physical recognition of her exhaustion: she fell back and lay still in the collapsed seat and shut her eyes. For a time, inside the house that was her body, it was as if she
alice & oliver | 5 were walking out of every room and turning off the lights behind her, one by one. Dimly, Alice was aware of tiny limbs readjusting inside the baby seat, the Blueberry letting out a contented, somnolent breath. She was aware of her husband forcing himself to sound calm, asking: 'Favorito'? Instead of answering, Alice recalibrated, focusing on the pulse behind her eyes, the labored rise and fall of her chest, how much effort it was taking her to inhale. Her weariness so intense now it ached. 'It's okay,' she was told, the sweetest whisper. Alice moved ? toward its kiss. It was not encouraging that her lips were a light purple. 'Could be an early indicator of anemia. Could be something else.' Dr. Glenn trailed off. Instead of indicating what that something else might be, he continued with the task at hand, shifting the small steel disc along the upper part of Alice's back, his concentration resolute, his movements precise, as if placing the stethoscope piece in the wrong location might set off an explosion. 'Deep breaths,' he said. 'Whatever you can do is fine.' She kept looking at the pink goo (wrapped in tissue paper, sealed inside a plastic sandwich bag, ignored on the instrument table). The doctor wrote something in his folder, removed the stethoscope buds from his ears. Alice'd known him since girlhood, but, in the years since she'd last visited his family practice, he'd gone almost bald, just a few white cottony tufts left sprouting around his ears. A crescent of mustard from his lunch still smeared the corner of his mouth. He used to enter this same exam room and point his finger at her as if it were a gun''Alice was barely a teen when she'd first dismissed him: the kind of lightweight who knew he was being an ass but still acted that way. Who actually chose to spend his life
| charles bock flirting with middle-'aged earth mothers, jamming rectal thermometers into their entitled kids? Life of the party in a small hippie town. Presently he looked up from Alice's folder. 'I don't like your temperature and blood pressure so low. Not with this lip color. And what you were telling me about no appetite, the lack of energy.' At once serious as a Protestant but trying to be kind, the doctor leveled his gaze, made sure he conveyed a point. 'We're going to X-'ray your lungs.' To his nurse he added, 'I'll want some blood.' 'What's going on'? Alice said. Fear rushed through her; she felt her chin collapsing. 'What's wrong'? Minutes dragged, then disappeared, time flushing itself into a black hole. Finally, that nice old doctor reappeared, but when he entered the room, he moved with purpose, heading directly to Alice, kneeling in front of her. He touched her knee, looked into her eyes. His face was already in mourning. 'We have to get you to a hospital right now.' Next to the exam table, Oliver Culvert had the baby cradled against his chest. He kept rocking the little one''babies sensed tension, Alice must have told him this a zillion times. Oliver was not one for sentiment''the saccharine of pop songs and greeting cards repulsed him, demonstrative emotional reactions making him freeze like a scared lizard. His natural response to most things was self-'consciousness: How am I supposed to feel? Now he watched his wife's eyes enlarging, saw the fear across her face. The doctor continued, saying one awful phrase after another: you are very ill, this is a grave danger, your white blood cell count'.' .' . Sick recognition spread through Oliver's stomach. He had one thought: No. Then he did his best to get beyond himself, and asked the doctor
alice & oliver | 7 if he could slow down, could he please explain this again. Bureaucrats and medical personnel were shuffling in and out of the room. Oliver had the presence of mind to back away, giving them space to work. His back grazed the far wall, he made sure to hold Doe properly''protecting his child. That was the least he could do. Take care of the small things. Except the small things didn't turn out to be simple. Just putting Alice in the rental car and hightailing her to the nearest hospital wasn't an option, it so happened. 'Do you understand,' Doc Glenn said to Alice, 'you are in the thrall of a neutropenic fever'? Tearing eyes looked at the doctor like he was insane. 'Of course I don't understand,' Alice answered. 'For all practical purposes,' the doctor said, 'your body can't protect itself from anything right now.' She urged Oliver to ignore the old man, 'drive us straight back to the city''our people are there, they can help with whatever needs helping.' In response the doctor let Oliver know that, in his professional opinion, Alice would not make it back to Manhattan alive. 'We have to have an ambulance anyway,' Oliver thought out loud. 'Can't the same paramedic just stand over and care for Alice all the way back to the city'? Oliver volunteered to foot the bill for the mileage costs, then nodded through the doctor's administrative blarney''the drive being a nonemergency, elective use of an ambulance probably not covered by insurance as an in-'network cost. Like he knew or cared what any of it meant. Oliver pressed further. Calls were made. But even if one of the Manhattan hospitals covered by Alice's insurance plan had an available bed''which they didn't, but even if they had'none ? of those wards would accept a body with almost no white blood cells after six straight hours on the road. Frustrating as this clusterfuck was, Oliver''like many of his programming peers and former grad school classmates''had spent huge swaths of his adult life devoted to logical progressions, the
| charles bock evolutionary dances of trial and error that went into problem solving. So, yes, he felt the urge to lash out, punch something solid. But he also understood that every reason something couldn't work provided more information, another small jigsaw piece, the borders and edges gradually filling, a cumulative suggestion developing. This is happening, he told himself. Whether it feels surreal, or melodramatic, or whatever, this is happening. Now two men in dark uniforms angled the stretcher, making sure Alice's legs were raised higher than her head so that the blood would flow toward her brain. 'Precautionary measure,' explained the bulkier paramedic, whose responsibilities seemed to include talking to Alice. 'Keeps patients from going into pulmonary shock.' That's really a possibility? Oliver started to ask. The question stalled in his throat. Its answer was apparent in the black stabilizing straps being buckled tight across his wife's chest, the secondary set constricting her thighs, the exam room now crowded and jostling and serious. The paramedics were counting to one another, one two tres; Alice was looking up, searching, her face pale, waxy. Her eyes were red and brimmed with tears. Now she locked in on him. He would never forget those contractions, Alice taken by pain so encompassing as to be frightening, this highly functioning adult'? this woman he loved so much (he felt his love throbbing inside each of his heart's four chambers)'reverting ? back to her mammalian origins, making horrible, primal sounds, the totality of her being committed, shrieking. Oliver was freaked, admittedly, and self-? conscious to the extreme, but he absorbed the shooting pain from his wife's grip, and squeezed her hand in return; he breathed in tandem with her, and the contractions continued, and, on count, she pushed with all she had (pushpushpush, breathe, pushpushpush), and his gaze remained trained on her spread legs, making
alice & oliver | 9 for damned sure that he was watching every second. Why had nobody told him he needed to watch and stay trained, why had he needed to figure this out for himself? Only after each contraction receded, when the baby was that much closer but not yet crowned, when they had a minute or whatever to recover and get ready for the next push, only then had Oliver looked back up at his wife's face; still continuing to count, still breathing in tandem, he'd used his free hand to pat her sweaty brow, repeating just how beautiful she was, how great she was doing. This time her grip wasn't crushing the long bones of his fingers. Rather, she was clasping his fingertips. When this became too difficult, she was hanging on to the edge of his coat, holding its seam between her thumb and pinkie. Oliver still had the warm bundle of their daughter on his chest. He leaned down. Alice had just begun losing the pregnancy weight from her cheeks and chin. 'I can't believe how much I want to fuck you right now,' he whispered. She coughed out the laugh he wanted. But by then the paramedics were lifting her, she had to let go of his sleeve. For an instant her arm remained hanging, outstretched. She looked back at him, her eyes huge. Shielding his daughter from the sight of Mommy being wheeled out of the room, Oliver shouted, 'Don't worry about anything.' He rocked the baby to his chest, promised, 'We're right behind you. We're with you.' His wife was receding, down the hall, toward an ambulance, away from him. 'We're in your heart,' Oliver shouted. 'We'll beat you there, I bet,' his screams almost gleeful. 'We love you so much. I LOVE YOU SO MUCH.' Flakes of snow, random and swirling, drifted through the darkness of the small twin windows. She followed a single flake: it flipped along a gust of wind, ricocheting off the glass. Alice couldn't guess how long she'd been in here, how long they'd been driving. She
10 | charles bock couldn't hear the sirens, but from the way any pothole jostled her, the ambulance had to be going pretty fast. If she concentrated enough she could block out the beeping updates of her vital signs, the itching down the middle of her torso from this thin cheap blanket. What couldn't be ignored was the weight. Settling atop her chest. She imagined it so clearly. Light but firm. The black box with that black ribbon, tied in a huge, sagging black bow. 'I know this is overwhelming,' Doc Glenn had said. Deep rivulets were etched in the skin around his eyes. 'But whatever you are about to go through, you'll be able to get through it a lot better if you can learn to live with not knowing the answers. It's the patients who can handle uncertainty. They're the ones who deal with these situations better.' The ambulance came out of a turn and slowed, its vibrations lowering an octave. Arriving felt important: one part ending, a new one beginning. This was the transition. These moments were moving her into the part where she found out what was happening inside her body. The engine cut; the ambulance went still; for long seconds Alice looked up through the two long square windows, into the gloom, alone with the darkness and the black box and the anticipation. Then the doors opened; night flowed into the chasm, the chilled air stinging her cheeks. A few orange bulbs scattered light across the loading dock. As the paramedics set Alice down onto the cement landing, cascading flakes landed on their knit hats and thick winter parkas and gloves and thermal masks. She noticed the far wall of the parking area was cushioned: rubber bumpers for when the ambulance couldn't afford to slow down. Alice's stretcher rotated, turning at an angle; she was rolled over rough asphalt. Beyond the boxy silhouette of hospital buildings, she could see the layering of dark mountains, a smear of charcoal sky. Inside swaths of the dock's streetlamp and tower light, the snowfall seemed like fireflies and stardust and the refractions off untold tiny spinning diamonds. It seemed to her the scene could have been manufactured on a Hollywood soundstage, or was part
alice & oliver | 11 of an odd dream. She raised her head from the stretcher; snow stung her cheeks. For long moments she almost believed some peculiar form of magic was indeed waiting for her. Alice could not help herself: she extended her tongue. If she hadn't pulled it together at the rest stop, found a second wind, and recovered enough to convince Oliver to get them to her mom's, so they could all have one nice goddamn holiday weekend, please. If her mom hadn't looked at her daughter in the bedroom that morning and ignored Alice's protests and placed that call. If good old Doc Glenn had been hosting his children and grandkids for Thanksgiving like he did during even years, and had been occupied with all that, instead of just waiting to board a flight, his mind not quite engaged by that newsweekly magazine. If the pay phone hadn't been free, and the doctor hadn't checked his service, heard that panicked call from a longtime patient, and followed up. If what might have been some dinky country office hadn't actually been fairly up-'to-'date, with modern equipment including a gizmo that could take lung X-'rays. If the very same doctor whom Alice had considered a cornball bozo when she was growing up, with such little mental firepower, had indeed been a cornball, and had been satisfied with the X-'ray's discovery of pneumonia, and hadn't ordered a round of blood tests, just to be sure. If that same little office hadn't had access to a blood lab that not only turned around results on the same day but also remained open for business on all days, including legal holidays. If pretty much everyone in the area code with anything resembling a normal life hadn't taken a proverbial hike on the day before Thanksgiving, and if local junkies hadn't had their veins full of a particularly average batch delivered down from Montreal, and if there'd even been a smattering of crazy accidents or family disagreements involving carving knives, so that the skeleton staff working at the laboratory, as often is the case with commercial medical labs, had been dealing with some-
12 | charles bock thing other than a clear and cloudless docket, and had been forced to wait an afternoon, or even into the evening, before processing Alice's samples. If too much time had passed before the discovery that Alice possessed zero white blood cells, zero. If that same lab had discovered that slightly above fifty percent of Alice's blood cells were cancerous, rather than the number they found, which was just barely below. If one of the top cancer hospitals in the Northeast hadn't been available less than two hours away via ambulance''close enough that its doctors could apply their considerable expertise and equipment before more of those infected blood cells had replicated past the point of no return. If Alice hadn't been isolated and her treatments hadn't started before some random nearby person let loose with a stray sneeze whose germs had landed inside of her ridiculously compromised system, or before her pneumonia or fever had finished her off. Any individual clause in the list. Any offshoot of who knew how many other improbabilities. Any of the uncountable possibilities that happened to break her way when they could have easily broken the other way instead. If Alice spent a moment reflecting on any one of these, let alone all of them; if she so much as considered how lucky she'd been to make it to this moment, especially when she couldn't allow herself to conceive of what she still had to go through''the ifs were enough to stop her cold. Do not pursue the past, she reminded herself. Do not lose yourself in the future. She needed to appreciate the now. Day three: her nose swollen outward from the nostrils, her cheeks inflated. A deep crimson discoloration had started behind her ears and now covered the underside of her jaw, the top of her neck. 'Not all that unusual for daunorubicin,' said the disheveled resident. 'I don't think anything for concern about,' added the visiting
alice & oliver | 13 fellow (Mongolian, an emerging star, he'd been called in for a consultation). The next morning, on rounds, the attending physician addressed those students who'd followed him into Alice's room. Exclaiming his pleasure about Alice's lack of a fever, he offered similar talking points about her newest rash (not at all unusual, no cause for concern). This one was a purplish shade, creeping out from under her pits, spilling in all directions. The attending possessed the good sense to keep his mouth shut about the possibility of the two rashes joining in a superrash. And no student doctor was brazen enough to broach the subject. Alice took solace in the attending's air of authority but also had a flash of sorrow for all the years she'd dismissed Dr. Glenn. 'Ointments should take care of the burning,' continued the attending physician. He acknowledged the difficulty of keeping her hands still. Then, as if talking to a child, added, 'Staying away from the rash is how we keep it from spreading or getting infected.' 'I'll be good,' Alice answered. 'Scout's honor.' Still she scratched. She picked. Oliver also noticed her running her hand over her hair. More and more she did it, like one of those poker tells. This concerned him''he wondered if a catheter had wriggled free from a weak or wandering vein in the crook of Alice's right arm; if the IV drip was going into her biceps instead of her bloodstream. The resident, the fellow, and the attending were all sanguine. The infiltrating medicine was not a lethal mix; the swelling would recede. However, they also insisted: she had to keep that swollen arm stationary. And still she skimmed. Incessant, straight swipes with that same fucked-'up arm, her fingers combing backward. To Oliver it now appeared as if his wife's face was in the middle of transforming into a mutant boar's; and watching her'? ridiculously bloated, garishly discolored, frail, weak, covered in blankets, hooked up to all those goddamn tubes''all of that was bad enough. But here she was, willfully and continually disobeying
14 | charles bock doctors? orders, running her hand over her skull, checking yet again, displaying each new wisp that clung to her finger. 'Nothing like the handfuls you'd expect,' she said. Her voice was hopeful, maybe even convincing. 'I've heard stories''women who survived all sorts of chemo and kept a decent head of hair.' The attending physician let Alice get it out of her system. Then he answered, plain as white bread: 'It's all going to fall out.' Of course, Alice's mom checked herself in to the nearby hospice. The white-'haired woman who'd combed out Alice's tangles, apologizing, always, for the pain she caused; who'd asked that Alice hold still, wrapped her hair into untold ponytails, and taught her girl how to braid, ending each lesson with a kiss on the top of the head. The hospice was available for loved ones of long-'terms and potentially terminal cases, and charged twenty dollars a night, more than reasonable, thought Alice's mom, especially with the lodgings being so homey: hand-stitched quilts and Americana on the walls, lace tablecloth and fresh flowers on the common table. Alice's mother was calm and rational and not a complainer in any way, and she quickly proved indispensable, each morning finishing her grapefruit, cornflakes, and strong black coffee, then exchanging best wishes with the sad married couple whose son had been in a hunting accident, and then changing and re-'dressing her grandchild. Whenever she and Doe found their way back to the hospital, Oliver's shift on guard ended, and it became his turn to ride the complimentary shuttle downtown, into four blocks of brick buildings that had been renovated to look historically quaint. This luxury, these few hours to himself, was mainly full of errands: sending necessary insurance faxes from the cluttered rear of the office supply store; settling into the phone booth of the nearby university library's lobby, where he used his long-'distance calling card to update
alice & oliver | 15 friends and family on the latest; concocting plans for how the biz would deal with things while he was stuck here. That afternoon, the sky was heavy-'handed in its grayness, the wind blowing the hail sideways in unending sheets. By the time Oliver found the weathered woodcut pole that the nurses had told him to watch out for, his clothes had long gone damp, his face and hands turned numb. None of the old men turned from their shaving chairs. Oliver picked through the newspaper's meager sections, not daring to interrupt banter about the weather. The wind's bluster had eased into a mild, overcast evening. The baby dozing, Grandma as well. Visitors to the room were supposed to wear surgical mask and gloves. But in the recliner, Grandma's head was unadorned, tilted back, her mouth open wide enough to reveal gold fillings. Alice responded to the door's creak but appeared groggy, confused. Then her eyes went wide, her swollen jaw dropped as if unhinged. 'I wanted you to see it's just hair,' Oliver said. Her hands went over her heart. It seemed she would bawl. 'It'll grow out or it won't,' Oliver continued. 'Who gives a fuck.' 'The most wonderful thing anybody's done in the history of time,' Alice said. She threw both arms outward, set the IV machine jiggling. 'Get over here, silly man. Let me feel, already.' That night he would borrow the electric shears kept at the nurses? station. Alice's hair was more than ready, releasing easily, some clumps falling from vibrations alone. His wife had a long-'standing fondness for brightly colored streaks, exotic highlights, any tweak that might lend a bit of glamour. For important gallery openings, industry parties, or runway shows, it was assumed that a chunk of her afternoon would be devoted to some complexly pinned arrangement, be it chopsticks, feathery wisps, or exotic braiding, whatever the most stylish magazines would be cooing over in six months. Less than three minutes it took now to shave her skull.
16 | charles bock Afterward they perched the baby between them in the crowded bed, her head its own pink planet, practically the size of the rest of her body. What few hairs she had were still short and translucent, their swirling growth pattern forming an almost imperceptible crop circle on the top of her head. Alice's mom fetched an overpriced disposable camera from the gift shop. Oliver pulled his little surgical mask down around his neck. He and Alice leaned their shoulders into one another. Doe gurgled, cooed, kicked out chubby legs. 'There they are.' The nurse counted backward toward the flash. 'The perfect, bald family.' Some things, however, were Alice's alone: the way those tiny lips attached themselves to her areola; how the ridge of those gums wrapped around her nipple; holding the baby's head to her and listening to the soft gurgles, feeling the sensation of her pull and suckle. Through the first five months of her life, Doe had known only her mother's milk. But the cells in Alice's bloodstream changed that. The chemo made her milk toxic. Obstetrics sent a machine that looked like something out of fifties sci-'fi, and when Alice's breasts got too full, she applied the ancient vacuum's suction attachment and performed a distorted version of her normal routine. A nurse in a blue mask, gloves, and lead-'lined radiation gown carried away the results for hermetic disposal. Without much fuss, Alice's mother went out and purchased formula from the Olde Town Apothecary. A tenth-grade ? English teacher for more than thirty years, Alice's mother was a pragmatic, thoughtful woman. Her daughter insisted, so she had to venture out a second time, scouring the few health food stores for something more natural. It took four days until Alice was sure Doe smelled different. Chemical-'y. This new smell made Alice weep, and her body was weak enough that these jags became their own sources of pain. She couldn't help herself. She wept because Doe
alice & oliver | 17 hadn't ever had a diaper rash before and would now. She wept because her baby still reached for Mommy's chest, and began her own bawling when she wasn't allowed to attach. She wept remembering how raw her nipples used to get, and she wept because, with every passing minute, they were getting less raw. At three in the morning, when a nurse came around to take her vital signs, Alice wept with the memory of the body weight of her girl by her side'rustling,' half-'awakening''the memory of plopping a breast into the little one's mouth. Whipping out the feeding curtain at Dean & DeLuca. Leakage spreading through silk-'screened maternity blouses. Those nursing bras that she knew her husband so despised. The visiting doctor from Eastern Europe had a habit of snacking on junk food in the hallways, and this was humanizing to Oliver, especially seeing that the man consistently seemed gracious toward other hospital staffers, so catching up with him outside the nurses? station, using words and mannerisms that included everything short of falling onto his knees and pulling down the guy's pants, Oliver pretty much begged for a promising survival rate, some crack of light, a taste that would help them get through this. 'I mean, she's stabilizing, and we started the chemo, so'.' .' .' With the same flat tone that his esteemed colleague had used to tell Alice that her hair was going to fall out, the attending told Oliver these words: 'Cancer is hell of disease.' Teen years: lonely Bakersfield afternoons, his dad pounding dents out of cars all day in a glorified salvage yard, Mom making copies for an accountant, the stink of fertilizer constant, industrial farmland as far as the eye could see. His escape was a home computer store in a strip mall, Oliver learning code from his cousin's dad, who needed to distract himself from the paucity of people who were shelling out money for Commodore PETs and Atari home
18 | charles bock systems. Even before partial scholarships had gotten Oliver out of that cow town and across the country, allowing him to bust his ass through college and graduate school, his intellectual life''even his understanding of himself''had begun maturing, in no small part, because of his relationship with complexity. Those tedious hours he spent with infinitesimal units, information strings of code, copying the program for another adventure game, whose line progressions were listed in the back pages of Byte magazine. This, Oliver learned, was how massive, elegant structures were constructed. And, gradually, he became accustomed to converting the theoretical into something practical and sturdy and cleanly perfect. It was gut-'churning to hear that man say, Cancer is hell of disease. What felt worse, however''wrong in a way that betrayed everything Oliver believed about the cosmos''was the recognition. A doctor involved with his wife's treatment was openly admiring the elegant complexity eating at her bones and blood. Comrade Doctor put his hands up. 'I try again''? he said. Damaged English followed. 'As personal, I try avoid telling person news he cannot take.' The doctor continued, sharing his belief that honest assessment represent measure of respect, as well as importance give loving ones information so to be prepare selves. 'You're telling me'.' .' .' Oliver began, petered out. 'First hundred days,' the man answered. 'What'? 'We see how she doing. Get sense how things going. Know more.' He patted Oliver's shoulder. 'Hundred days.'
CASE STUDY # 53 Whitman Memorial, 1220 York Ave., 4th floor, Hematology/Oncology (follow-'up appointment: patient background/personal history) He couldn't afford one of the office supply company's high-end ? jobbers, so he'd sprung for your solid, middle-'of-'the-'road, basic ergonomic desk chair. This was what he sat in. As for his diet, he tried, he really did, loading up on greens and boiled chicken, although he still snuck in red meats and fried calamari, more than he'd care to admit. Ever since kids had come into the picture, he'd been lucky to get to the gym once a fortnight. Admittedly he could have dropped fifteen pounds. Twenty pounds. So, basically he was a middle-'aged somewhat-'overweight white-'collar dad going through the rite of manly passage known as chronic back pain. Maybe not a human interest feature in the local paper. But his spasms sure felt newsworthy. Had to pile throw cushions on that desk chair just to sit; pop Advils like they were candies just to get through the day. And rolling around on the carpet with Timothy and Suzy Jo? Please. Then his wife had heard about this acupuncturist from another mom at playgroup. And he wasn't exactly thrilled about it, but he let them put those pins into both sides of his neck, his shoulders, his elbows, his kidneys, his sacrum, the bottom of each foot, the space between each pair of toes. Afterward, he defecated for the first time in four days. Went home and slept like a stone at the bottom of the ocean. Four weeks and twice as many visits to the acupuncturist later, the man received a shot of cortisone from his family physician to take care of the discomfort in his back. He got a script for ciprofloxacin to address his urination problems. The physician discussed whether the man needed an ammonium laxative to deal with his constipation and advised the man he needed to exercise more, and could stand to drop fifty pounds. The man followed the little taped instructions on his plastic pill bottles. He found religion when it came to his dietary habits, more or less, and made an effort to shut down his workstation an hour early in the evenings and get to the gym. Stretched his back for ten minutes before and after. But that belt of electric pain remained, strapped across his lower back. His stomach had gone bloated and tight, as if hands
were constantly pressing onto his abdomen. And he had unsettling stretches of numbness through his pelvis and lower spine. The man was getting night sweats, and at his office he sometimes wrapped himself in this frayed old beach blanket to warm himself, plus he scratched himself all the time, just couldn't stop. It was frustrating beyond words: he was doing everything he was supposed to do, then lapping those efforts by half. Was it so goddamn much to find out what was wrong with him? The gastroenterologist explained that lymphoma was a particularly difficult disease to diagnose, especially when the lymph node beneath the pectoral hadn't yet swollen, as all indications seemed to be in this man's case. All the symptoms were pretty much right down the checklist. A biopsy would provide answers. They'd also find out if the disease had spread. That was the bitch in cases like this, explained the doctor: the time it took for the disease to advance enough to diagnose was also the time it took for the disease to spread.
Ispringexceeding t took more than a month: her absolute neutrophil counts finally five hundred, the magic number necessary to her from Dartmouth-'Hitchcock; the quiet rental car carrying them out of the Granite State, bringing them home, finally surrounded by what was theirs: hanging rolls of Chinese paper acting as curtains along the storm windows that filled the western windows; morning light oozing around the paper's tight borders. Now was bed, consumed by a comforter. Alice stared, without focus, at the large industrial fan above the bed, its blades dappled with brown rust. Lush carpets stretched across the walls for soundproofing. Thanks to them, and the churn of white noise from the air purifier, she barely heard the clatter from outside, some six floors below''forklifts humming and shrilly backing up; workers groaning and cursing as they unloaded frozen sides of beef from semis that had fallen behind their normal delivery schedules, now downshifting into gear, hitting the road. Even these sounds were part of the comfort of what was known, part of what allowed her fear to recede. The big questions were too much. But she and Oliver could handle logistics''couldn't they? True, she hadn't yet found a suitable nanny. She had to make calls later about that, yes. But hadn't she, by herself, negotiated a The now
22 | charles bock matter of exponentially larger importance''the transfer of her care to Whitman Memorial (a well-'regarded, smallish hospital on the Upper East Side)? Hadn't she put out feelers to friends, and hadn't they completed arrangements, scheduled appointments, procured an expert oncologist'an impeccable genius, according to Betsey Johnson's operations officer, ? best reputation in the city'? now locked in, scheduled to take over Alice's treatment. All Alice had to do was bring her slides to that first meeting. And during what she thought would be that routine call, when the nurse in New Hampshire had informed Alice about the hospital policy against sending blood slides to a residential address, hadn't Alice handled the little complication? Hadn't she gotten them sent straight to Whitman? The memory infused her with a rickety confidence, reminding her of the competent professional she'd taken for granted not all that long ago, the woman she hardly still felt herself to be. Except here it was, nine fifteen on a Friday morning, and Whitman still hadn't received their slides. Oliver had lost patience and commandeered control of the cordless. He wouldn't allow shoe wearing inside their loft, and she could hear him pacing in his gray gym socks, coming closer, floorboards creaking. She could hear him confirming that the slides had been sent, asking for the name of the person at Whitman who'd signed for them. 'Thanks a bunch.' Oliver punched a button on the cordless. His naturally curly hair had already grown back enough to be making that first twist, small tight rings sprouting neatly in every direction. His flannel was unbuttoned and untucked, his chest bare and concave, a slight paunch evident, a faint trail of fuzz running toward his pubes. Corduroy pants were slipping halfway down fleshy hips. On anyone else the look would have meant: late riser, barely awake, struggling to get up to speed. But Oliver seemed at home in his dishevelment, as if he reveled in the chaos, was invigorated by the challenge. A glance toward the crib; he ran his hand over the meat and fuzz of his jaw. He kept pacing the length of their
alice & oliver | 23 loft. Their fat tabby scurried out of his path, and he punched at the phone. He gave the new oncologist's secretary at Whitman the name of the guilty party, the one who'd signed that delivery slip. And promptly learned it was her day off. Then a click. Alice's skull''pallid and smooth''peeked out above the edge of the comforter. Oliver pressed the flat pin of the phone antenna against his chin. From behind her downy shield, she murmured, 'You tried.' The phone went back into the cradle. She said, 'The hospital's on top of it.' Oliver stared at the sliver of work space through the partway opened door. Though he couldn't see the computer stations in the main room, he sensed their internal fans whirring, felt their dormant screens waiting to go bright with his first keystroke. 'It's Friday morning,' he said. 'We get to Friday afternoon, they haven't found the things, that office is empty all weekend. You get there Monday and they won't have squat. Doctor doesn't have anything to read? Why even show up'? Her face emerged from behind the comforter: she didn't seem impressed by his logic. Instead, her movements measured, she propped herself onto pillows, let herself be supported by the wall. Alice let herself enjoy the chill of the white bricks against the silk of her pajama blouse. When her lids opened, she checked the corner, locking in on the crib. Other than the usual three tries it took to get her down, and the de rigueur 4:00 a.m. screaming fit, Doe had had a restful night. Was still asleep. Watching her breathe, Alice telepathically warned Oliver to keep his voice low. She massaged a dollop of coconut cream into the back of her palm. Skin that used to be soft now felt dry as chalk, and couldn't absorb moisture quickly enough. Alice straightened her back. She took three deep breaths, each coming up through her diaphragm. With every inhalation, the scent of her coconut cream was overpowering. Everywhere at once. Alice chanted a silent man-
24 | charles bock tra, asking for calm, praying for peace. Her mind returned to the magnetized message she'd placed on the refrigerator door, long-? ago-'memorized words: Before you speak, ask yourself: Does it improve on the silence? Alice did not open her eyes but whispered: 'If you even possessed the slightest hint how many times I've talked to that receptionist in the past three days''? Her index finger preempted, destroying Oliver's answer in its larval stage. 'Can't you just believe that dear intrepid Beth will do her job'? Oliver sat down next to Alice and stroked her hand. He had a flash memory, from not long after they'd started dating, back during a different reality: Alice at her sewing table, cutting the pattern for the pajamas she wore now. Forklifts beeped with faint accusations from the distance below. Alice's oversize Edwardian cuff wasn't buttoned. A black roach of a bruise sat along the thumb side of her wrist. Oliver's eyes followed the faded purple, the sickly green, the eggish yellow. He peered down the sallow length of her arm, recalling the morning when the skin around her port had gotten infected, when an air bubble had inflated, brown and transparent, in the middle of her biceps. Mister Blister Alice had labeled that balloon. But it had deflated. Her piggish bloat had also receded, her recognizable features returning, so that she looked like herself, thank fucking hell. Oliver stared at the close pattern''small blue-and-silver chevrons and fleur-'de-'lis''which covered the former blister's location. For an instant he felt as furious as he'd been when the catheter's slippage had been discovered. Those nurses should've caught the infiltration earlier, should've known better than to go into a weak vein. 'That receptionist,' Oliver said. 'Figure she checks in how many patients an hour'? 'You're not''? 'Humor me, Alice.' 'Oliver'''
alice & oliver | 25 'Figure a patient's showing up to see each doctor in the office every fifteen''? She cut him off, exhausted, barely a whisper: 'Then call again.' 'You think sweet Beth isn't going to be hightailing it out of work on a Friday afternoon? In a goddamn snowstorm'? 'You just called. Look how well that worked.' 'We have to stay on top of them.' 'Oliver.' Her chin quivered. 'I'm going to be dealing with this doctor for at least six months.' Her face flushed. 'If the receptionist hates me before I've even stepped through the door''? 'It's too much to ask you to make sure your doctors have your GODDAMN LEUKEMIA SLIDES'? For a fraction of a moment things on the other side of the room were still. But then it began, a shift in molecules, a stirring, a consciousness turning on, confused. The baby gathered, then belted, at the seismic peak of her infant lungs. 'Wonderful.' Alice rushed, struggling to rise, moving as quickly as her body would allow. 'My hero.' When they'd gotten engaged and first started looking for their own place, Oliver had assured her that it was a steal''this tiny trapezoidal industrial area, just north of the West Village, by far the best value for their buck. He was, to put it tactfully, insane. The Meatpacking District's every daylight hour was dominated by dock thugs and frozen slabs; after dark, rotted zombie addicts held court with leather-'collar sex club slaves and transvestite streetwalkers'? the type of neighborhood that was superb for a night of slummy fun, Alice had no problem admitting that much, ordering the first round of shots, or shaming Oliver into doing the same. If the mood struck her, she'd be the first to hop on a bar and start dancing, and had no problems donating her bra (so long as it wasn't one of her fancier wire-'support ones) to some hole's wall of fame. But as far as bringing a child into the world, as far as raising their infant,
26 | charles bock they'd have been better off if the area had been radioactive. Hell, for all Alice knew, it was. Oliver felt differently. And this was tricky because he was one of those rare specimens: he actually followed up on ideas, possessing a special, almost preternatural talent for blocking out distractions, isolating a problem and breaking it down into smaller, solvable units. On a daily basis this could be annoying, it most definitely had killed more than a few date nights. But how else could he have successfully built a software and technical support start-'up out of little more than underarm sweat and gum wrappers? Applying that same bulldog tenacity, Oliver came to her with a flowchart that showed distances to nearby gourmet grocery shopping and restaurants; he researched school districts, pinpointed the excellent zone they'd be in. Oliver went so far as to present her with a spreadsheet detailing possible upgrades to the apartment, options for what could be done with the rent money they'd save by living here. Equally unfortunate for Alice was that Oliver also had spent more than a bit of his childhood assisting his dad in odd jobs around the house. Meaning he was precise and crisp with a slide rule, knew the purpose of a flathead screw, how to find the load-'bearing part of a wall for a shelving unit, even the dangers inherent in an industrial-'size power sander. It also surely wasn't a coincidence that he'd scoped out the Upper East Side location where skilled nonunion day laborers hung around mornings, waiting for someone to offer them work. Yes, with his piercing intelligence, his formidable collection of technical skills, and his nonstop hustling attitude, Oliver created his own black magic, a momentum that turned feasible what should have been idle banter''daydreams the two of them mulled over while in bed, lying there satisfied, one of them idly tracing a finger up and down the other's inner leg. Naturally, Oliver also happened to cross paths with some guy at a management company who needed quick revenue, and was willing to look the other way about a few pesky residential zoning requirements. Oliver had cajoled Alice, he'd harangued, promising to
alice & oliver | 27 resand and refinish the wooden floors, install a fully operating kitchen with lots of counter space, erect one of those huge walk-'in closets. Any demand she could imagine, he acquiesced, vowing to oversee or take care of it himself. And since the scraps of savings they had were basically his anyway, since Alice was already getting the wedding and going full-'speed-'ahead with her plans for a baby, if Alice hadn't exactly given in on this front, neither had she stood in his way. What she'd done, she'd allowed herself to see what would happen. Editorial assistants at glossy fashion magazines; assistant editors at midtown publishing houses; junior publicists; gallery clerks; massage school graduates; yoginis; gofers; photographers? personal peons; retail sluts; the same neurotic, cooler-'than-'thou trailblazers who'd originally made hilarious and cutting remarks about the wisdom of buying a place in this neighborhood; who'd had first-? rate original excuses why they hadn't visited, or who'd conversely finished their last bites of brunch and gotten down to brass tacks, expressing their heartfelt concern about what Alice and Oliver were doing; time and again they'd stepped carefully, decamping from the warehouse's freight elevator, always holding their breath so they didn't get a full blast of the dried cow blood stench from downstairs, pulling at the collapsing security gate''and then they'd be hit smack-dab ? by that first, full gander: the obscene expanse of square footage, the cavernously high ceilings, the exposed bricks at once dilapidated and futuristic. They gasped, gaped, craned their necks for a better look. They were blown away, these friends who still commuted from outer boroughs where they crammed into shithole apartments with roommates they could hardly stand; who'd spent years fighting like savages to establish their professional and personal lives; who made a point of being impressed by absolutely nothing and positively nobody. They held slack the ten-? dollar bottles of wine and five-'dollar bouquets they'd brought as housewarming gifts. Friends that Alice had originally bonded with during orientation week at fashion school clucked their reserved
28 | charles bock approval for the thick steel cookware that hung from the rack in the center of the kitchen space. Plucked brows narrowed when they saw Alice's pool-'size designing and sketch table, her vintage sewing table from the nineteen twenties, the female mannequin form next to it. Tilda showed no compunction whatsoever about walking straight into Alice's personal closet and letting fly with gutter curses. No better were the boyfriends, the husbands, and Oliver's pals''junior traders from Wall Street, junior partners at midtown law firms, graduate assistants, PhD candidates, bookish band geeks, and/or dudes who were still figuring things out and working by day at bakeries or frame shops. Once they saw Oliver's row of workstation terminals, once they found out how little Oliver'd stolen this place for, and how comparatively little the renovations had cost''palms smacked against foreheads. There had been more than one real live spit take. As if to rub it in, Oliver would roll up the Chinese screens to show off that wall of windows, the panoramic view, only faintly filmed with soot: the abandoned train track, the dilapidated piers, the shimmering expanse of the Hudson. Ego was a small thing. Its pleasures were shallow and venal. Alice had bathed in them anyway. If my friends are jealous, she told Oliver, at the end of more than one such soiree, you know we're onto something. Still. When she was at her worst, when she needed to blame Oliver for something, for anything, she returned to the promise she couldn't forget, high on his list of guarantees: they'd be insulated; the smells from the warehouses, frozen beef and lingering death, wouldn't reach them. But they did.
nd then they were on their way. Or something close to it. The cabbie kept glancing over his shoulder, through the ''? scratched bulletproof divider, getting his fill of the crazy woman in the blue wig and the surgical mask. Well, let him enjoy himself. Ignoring the driver, she asked: 'Don't we deserve a treat? After everything we've been through'? 'Believe me.' Oliver stared out the side window. 'I want a treat just as much as you.' 'And it's not like Thursday night reservations at the Black Tide are easy to get.' Alice paused. 'Honestly. I'm amazed we're discussing this.' Oliver checked his watch, the third time in maybe five minutes. 'I'm not just going to give in and play the martyr,' she continued. 'Just stay at home and be frail and wear a caftan''? 'No one's saying''? 'Friends will visit and I'll flutter my eyes and everyone comes away saying, She's so noble, it's so sad. That may be later. But for now''? He released a breath that Alice knew meant he was trying to hold his temper. 'If you could just walk me through it,' Oliver asked. 'Reservations or not, it's still the middle of one of the coldJust a get-'to-'know-'you visit
30 | charles bock est winters in who knows. If I'm a freshwater crab swimming in the vicinity of the East Coast, I've got to be freezing my balls off.' 'Actually,' Alice answered, 'I think those are the blue crabs.' There wasn't time to enjoy the right corner of Oliver's mouth rising, his grudging smirk. Perched in her lap, Doe had become fascinated with the string and fabric of Alice's mask. Her dimpled mitts grabbed. Alice began the delicate task of distracting her before those elastic bands hurtled, with extra momentum, back into her face. 'Okay. Very good, sweetie. That's right.' Oliver had been up late, she knew, entering Lynx into the UNIX, which could mean entering code, or secretly masturbating, just enjoying some male alone time. Alice didn't begrudge him. She'd been asleep long before he'd come to bed. It was only when the Blueberry needed formula that Alice had stirred, enough to watch her husband clomp in from his work space. Seeing that she already had a bottle prepared, Oliver had been more than happy to get back to work. Presently, Alice admired her husband's perfect nose; she appreciated him having shaven during the night, was impressed by the egg-? blue silk scarf he'd chosen, surprised at how well it matched with the deeper blue of his cashmere topcoat. Usually Oliver displayed a willful disregard for his looks. He often wore the swag she got him through his four-day ? programming benders, unchanged. Alice suspected he actually enjoyed fine garments''not so much wearing them, but putting them through the wringer. As if he wanted to show they weren't so special. Not today. Today, he was immaculate. Groomed and ready to make nice. Still, his eyes were puffy. He didn't just seem worn out, or preoccupied in his usual way, enmeshed in some logic loop or technical quandary. This was different. Since hitting this stretch of traffic, he'd avoided any sustained eye contact, and instead had sat hunched over his splayed legs, looking out the near window. Alice knew he was itching to tell her they should've taken the FDR instead of going up First. She also knew that he knew that, if he opened his
alice & oliver | 31 mouth, she'd remind him about Beth calling from Whitman, chirpily informing Oliver the slides had been found, all crises averted. Oliver checked his watch yet again. 'It's going to be fine,' Alice said. From her leather shoulder bag she coaxed an oversize plastic key ring, prompting a high squeak from Doe, who bounced in place and quickly occupied herself with the task of devouring the toy. Each landing of compact weight on Alice's thighs brought white pain. Alice winced, and followed her husband's line of sight out the window, for a time gazing at the fugue: a bus stop advertisement featuring a muscled white hip-'hop star in sexy briefs; small red neon Hebrew letters blinking from a glatt kosher diner. 'Late or not, we have an appointment. It's not like they're going to refuse to see me.' 'Oh, that'? he answered. 'I forgot all about that. I'm still stuck on, if there's no way crabs are in season, how can that place be having mondo crab nights'? She could have screamed. What did he expect her to do? She hadn't found the right nanny yet, and Monday morning was a nuclear waste zone for sitters, and his parents sure weren't about to hightail it across the country from Bakersfield to help. Which meant there wasn't any choice but to bring the infant, was there? Since they didn't have a baby car seat, she'd asked the driver to go slow. Was it her fault he made a beeline for the far right lane, or idled behind each double-'parked delivery truck, every fourth dry cleaning van? Yes, blame her because progress up First Avenue no longer seemed the result of an engine, wheels, and unleaded gasoline. Osmosis was more like it. Magnets, maybe. 'My sweet lummox,' Alice said. 'The reason Crab Fest is a sensation is because nobody can figure out how the restaurant can be getting fresh crabs off the East Coast during the third week of January. They've had inspectors, government regulators. New York magazine literally staked out the restaurant. One shift of reporters in a van with a telephoto lens focused on the delivery dock. An-
32 | charles bock other crew watching the front entrance through a telescope from a ninth-'floor office across the street''? 'New York magazine doesn't have anything better to do'? 'Nobody has anything better to do.' She laughed. 'It's turned into this whole thing. I'm telling you, every know-? it? all in the tristate area wants to partake in these magical mystery crab boils. Apparently people are crammed into these long public tables covered in newspapers. All kinds of hoi polloi and celebrities are in with you, cracking shells with their hands and thwapping claws with little hammers. Shards and crab goo flying hither and yon, the only thing anybody's talking about is whether they're all being played for fools.' Oliver's grunt suggested a grudging curiosity, even bemusement. 'I bet they just flew them in from Australia.' Between Sixty-'seventh and Sixty-'eighth, the west side of York was nothing but sandstone, limestone, and marble. Remnants of the building's previous incarnation were apparent: Gothic stained-? glass windows, a central cathedral, a rectory spire, parallel statues of the Virgin Mary with her arms out, accepting all in need. Where turrets guarded each building corner, however, the baroque ended, gleaming steel and glass blocking out the dishwater sky. Alice reminded herself to breathe. So long as she kept breathing, the time would pass, she would get through this. Every day brought more humblings, she told herself. It was up to her to accept them. She patted the sprouts of hair atop Doe's skull. The follicles were silky on her fingertips. Pressing lightly, Alice made an effort to absorb each single sensation. Appreciate each stroke. In the puffy pink winter coat Oliver's mother had bought, the little girl was a living doll. Alice kissed the center point on Doe's crown. She raised the miniature hood and its pink fringe over the child's head, and did not rush in passing her girl to Oliver, who was already out of the cab, waiting with the shoulder bag.
alice & oliver | 33 On the curb now, reeling from a blast of wind from off the East River, Alice burrowed into her own coat, watched her exhaled breath vanish. Keep doing the simple things, she reminded herself. She made sure to plant her feet, took steady steps toward the back of the cab, where the driver was lifting the stroller out of the trunk. Alice thanked him, saying, 'I can use all the help I can get.' His eyes returned a kindness that shocked her; she wasn't prepared for such dazzling pity. The wind whistled, truly foul, blue tendrils of Alice's wig swirling into her line of sight. Alice knelt, busying herself with the collapsed metal bars. Two well-'placed yanks and the carriage came alive, straightening, its alacrity almost justifying the ridiculous price. Instinct told Alice to grab her daughter back, but Oliver was already setting Doe into the buggy. Watching her husband's ministrations''at once unskilled and suffused with care'? relaxed Alice, a bit. 'Settle up with the cabbie,' she said. 'I didn't bring any cash.' Leaving his answer behind, she commandeered the buggy's driving position''it was selfish, fine, and she'd need all her energy today. Still, Alice began pushing toward the sliding doors. She was halfway beyond a mulling cluster of doctors on their cigarette breaks. A security guard came out''to offer a wheelchair? 'I just love seeing moms work them baby contraptions,' he said. Hands jerked, kung fu motions. 'BAM BAM.' The foundry stone carved with santa maria rectory 1896; the ornate marble archway with small carved nun; the large letters of modernist font and industrial steel, appearing without any context, spelling out walt whitman memorial. Marble walls yellowed by age appeared that much more decrepit thanks to institutional lighting. With them came the warmth ubiquitous to certain types of lobbies, large rooms open and busy as the waiting area of a train station. A man and woman were inside the entranceway, guiding a dowager so old as to be mummified, all three visitors searching for the location of a certain bank of elevators. People in scrubs zipped past, carrying their morning bagels and coffees. Near the escalator
34 | charles bock row, scattered commuters paused long enough to grab one of the morning tabloids from the nearby blind guy, make change from out of his Knicks cap. Alice noticed, near one of the saggy ferns, the man in light blue jammies''he was expectant, tracking comings and goings from the front entrance. He had no lower jaw. Instead of staring at his deformity, she forced her attention elsewhere, to the nearby gentleman wearing that season's nattiest three-'piece suit, who was pushing a little boy in a wheelchair. The boy's hair was piecemeal, patchy, almost like Alice's had been before Oliver had plugged in those shears. Her grip around the baby carriage handles tightened. Memories assaulted her now, visceral and consuming: the pungent, liquid-? plastic odor of surgical gloves; the sensation of ice chips rattling around inside her mouth'? a recollection so strong she could almost feel the ice against her teeth. In her mind's eye she saw the postcard with the ballerina that Oliver had taped onto the wall across from her bed. She remembered feeling so weak that the act of lying in bed was a chore, so weak that keeping her eyes open was itself exhausting, but also staring for what felt like long stretches, centering her thoughts on that gorgeous ballerina, her poise, her strength. Now Alice remembered the middle of the afternoon when she woke from a nap, and her eyes focused, and inside that hospital room in New Hampshire, she saw Tilda, and her mother, and Doe, each of them peaceful and asleep, slouched in a chair or lying on the foldout bed. Alice remembered thinking that she had to watch them sleep, she had to appreciate the sight of these three astounding women, she had to stay in this moment and soak in this experience, because she had no idea how many more times she might have it, or if it would come her way again. There were other memories: yanking on the plug of her IV tower battery, pushing the tower toward the bathroom and yanking down her mesh hospital underwear; squatting just in time and releasing yet another diarrhea blast into the little plastic hat they kept over
alice & oliver | 35 the toilet and feeling relief, she'd made it, she wouldn't be shitting herself this time, and feeling emptied out, too, because nothing was left inside, and she felt herself bleeding from her vagina, and bleeding from her behind, and then, her body unclenched once more, shitting out another burst. Inconceivable. It was starting up again. She was back in this. 'It's just a get-'to-'know-'you visit,' Oliver said. Alice nodded. 'We're just going to get on the same page.' 'No reason to worry about anything except what's right in front of us.' Her hand was clutching his. She welled up, swallowed, and said: 'Tu esta mi favorito.' 'Tu esta mi favorito,' he said. And in this way, they kept going, following the directions Alice had written in her to-'do notebook, muddling through the lobby, their hands together on that stroller, the sick woman in the blue wig, and her dapper, stubble-headed ? husband, and their baby, too, a small, quiet family, shrinking, moving forward.
Yes, Everything Was Moving Forward T he light hue commonly associated with Creole heritage. Tiny and pretty, dark hair pulled back and away from her face, further highlighting bone structure that was delicate as a bird skeleton's, placing attention on eyes that were small and brown and entirely empty. She had the faint makings of a mustache. She took in Alice's wig and smiled in a manner that was either polite or perfunctory. Introducing herself, she asked, boy or girl, and how old Doe was, and the whole time reminded Alice of a little girl playing dress-'up in her mother's clothes. Alice had to make sure her hands did not tremble, but she managed to write a legible Culpepper in her notepad. Small letters followed: 'intern'? Without fuss, Miss Culpepper led the family beyond the registration desk, into a short corridor. On the walls were framed, yellowing pictures from bygone eras''wimpled nuns tending to immigrants, beehived nurses aiding the bedridden. An obese woman stood just inside the hallway and was using a rolling chair as her support crutch while she placed manila folders into a filing cabinet. 'Before you can proceed to your appointment,' Miss Culpepper said, her voice high, 'I just need to make sure that all your paperwork is in order.' Entering a low-'ceilinged cubicle area, she pulled out a chair. The desk surface empty save for a boxy desktop computer (its plastic faded to the color of curdled milk), an opened
alice & oliver | 37 carton of orange juice, and a series of elaborately framed photos, the same child: smiling in a tutu, smiling with her dollies. 'She has your lovely skin,' Alice said. Miss Culpepper blinked, a few times, as if figuring out how to respond. Allowing herself another minor grin, she sat, smoothed out the front of her skirt. A few taps at the desktop brought a pair of fresh pages from a printer the size of a minifridge, at rest on the floor behind her. 'Review these. If the information on these pages is accurate, the hospital asks you to sign on two individual pages. This first one authorizes us to bill and share the information with your health insurance. Next to the Post-'it, please.' Alice gripped the pen. Keep doing the simple things. Miss Culpepper kept typing. A new page arrived. 'This form, in case your health insurance doesn't cover the costs, or refuses payment. You acknowledge responsibility for the outstanding charges.' 'I don't understand,' Alice said. 'Our policy covered most of New Hampshire, my chemo induction. There's no reason to think this should be different'? The baby rattled and chirped inside the carriage. Three of the lines on the desk phone were blinking. 'By the Post-'it,' said Miss Culpepper. As if this was his cue, Oliver shifted, jutting halfway across the desk. 'We signed a proxy that authorizes me to talk about these matters''I faxed it at least three times. I'm sure a copy got to you.' He unfurled a smile designed to be charming. 'Miss Culpepper? My wife's dealing with enough on her plate. I'm sure you and I can discuss this separately'? Miss Culpepper's eyes were large, but not engaged, or particularly interested. She nibbled her lip. 'We here at Whitman do offer significant financial aid, available for those patients that qualify.' She cleared her throat. 'If and when the time comes that you should feel you need help, I can provide you with that paperwork.' 'So nothing's necessarily wrong with our insurance'? Alice asked her.
38 | charles bock 'Hospital policy is, we can't let you see the doctor unless you sign this form.' 'You're not answering my question,' Alice said. 'Just let me worry about that,' Oliver said. 'Okay'? Yes, everything was moving forward. Alice was even remembering to breathe. Even now she was breathing, releasing her worries as if they were doves outside an elaborate wedding. For the third time since her arrival at the check-? in desk, Alice apologized for the confusion in getting her slides transferred from Dartmouth. Alice told Beth there had never been a doubt the mess would get straightened out, and she thanked Beth yet again for her patience and competence, and, Alice agreed, it was nice to see someone in person after so much time on the phone''she felt like she knew Beth already. Squarely in her line of sight were placards informing of the high risk of infection among patients, and asking that any registering patient let the staff know about cold symptoms, and if you had any kind of rash. Holding the sheet with her orders for blood work, Alice turned her torso away from the desk, and began scribbling in her little pad, two lines beneath her notes about Culpepper, reminders for how to identify Beth. Everything will be fine. One of the other receptionists was occupied by the task of training a new hire, and the morning's backlog of patients was lined up behind Alice, with two elderly ladies bonding over the horrible traffic and how worried each had been about missing her appointment. Pushing herself upright, Alice eased between them, apologizing with a deference one normally reserves for royalty. She felt a light-? headedness, as if billions of carbonated bubbles were dancing and popping inside her brain. Way to sabotage yourself, pushing that carriage all over the hospital. She leaned on a chair for support, wiped her brow, adjusted the
alice & oliver | 39 pinch of the mask on her nose, and took her good sweet time, unzipping, removing, and folding her winter coat. Your body can only do what it can do. Over a long thermal shirt, she was wearing a tight, bright yellow tee. Across her chest, black iron-'on letters screamed: GOOD GIRLS GO TO HEAVEN. BLONDES GO EVERYWHERE. She was wearing Thierry Mugler jeans strategically shredded with a straightedge razor. She was wearing combat boots with three-'inch black rubber soles that were laced to the middles of her calves. She made sure the metallicblue bob was secure on her head. She straightened her back, though not too straight, and lifted her chin, though not too high'she? knew better from being behind the scenes at runway shows, altering and sewing up dresses at the last second while designers barked instructions at models. Alice swallowed the bile that had accumulated in the back of her throat, and, with the poofy jacket a black octopus bulging out from beneath her arm, she returned her focus to nailing each landed step, assuring firm balance. In this way she started back into the waiting room's garden party color scheme, pastels and soft greens, its walls adorned with Impressionists? landscapes. The blood cancer waiting room is how she thought of it. Golf shirts and elastic waistbands and old-'lady Afros and blue surgical gloves, paunches and waddle necks, and oxygen masks and IV stands with clear plastic tubing; elderly people, mostly, reclining or sitting stiffly on comfy couches, their liver-'spotted or gloved hands fidgeting, their eyes darting or downcast. They sat in small groupings, usually pairs. Who wanted to go through this alone? On the nearest couch, a scarf of bright colors was wrapped around the head of a plump woman. A glance showed her to be a fright''swollen forehead, red rashy skin, a huge gauze patch where her left eye should have been, and that ubiquitous egg-'blue bandit mask covering her nose and mouth. As Alice passed, the woman's good eye rose from her paperback copy of A Time to Kill. Her
40 | charles bock mask widened, scarcely containing an obvious grin. She nudged her husband: his white brush of hair rose from a hardback copy of The Firm; he took in the sight, and broke out as well, his face going joyful. Alice walked past a patient strapped onto a stretcher; the bored EMT gave Alice a wink. Past a doctor leaning over and talking softly with two pear-? shaped seniors, telling them it would be at least a half hour before results came in. 'Maybe you want to get some breakfast? When you get back, just tell the desk to let me know.' A man looked up: thin as a twig, gnarled, with a grotesquely humped back. His skin so gray it was almost green, his sunken eyes lively, almost joyful as they tracked her. She noticed an immaculately attired Japanese couple watching her''how excellent the woman's boots were; Alice would have killed for those boots. If these people took something from her defiance, she was happy to be able to provide it. In spades and clovers she could provide defiance. God bless them all, she thought. Oliver had set up an outpost in a corner alcove, and, by the time Alice arrived, she was exhausted, and exhilarated, and deeply emotional, ready to cry, vomit, scream. 'I have to remember that we all have our own times and journeys,' she said. 'Their situation is not my situation. I'm young and I'm strong and I have every reason in the world to get past this.' 'Of course you do,' he said. 'You will.' She snatched her baby from Oliver's arms: the Blueberry was squirmy''exposure to day after day of passing nurses and doctors had turned her into an expert flirter, with an advanced degree in seeking out strangers, but this waiting room was proving to be too much, the child was overstimulated, turning cranky. Mommy. She needed Mommy. Alice's hand went behind her daughter's head. She brought Doe
alice & oliver | 41 in toward her bosom, the infant's eyes widening. Doe spread open her mouth, revealing the pink mountain ridges that were her toothless gums. Instinct taking over, she went straight for Mommy's breast. Alice veered her off and rocked her in place and made clucking sweet sounds. In the child's lumpy potato of a face, Alice still got a thrill from recognizing Oliver's nose, his hard, dramatic brow, his protruding ears. She also felt chagrin, the child had not escaped the curse of Mommy's weak chin. Nonetheless, Doe was clearly her own self, this evident even as she satisfied another textbook baby clich': her baldish head, wondrous eyes, and pink visage belonging to infancy, yes, but also to the ancients. Indeed, Doe's resemblance to so many of the seniors in the blood cancer waiting room was unmooring, and took Alice to a dark place, one deep inside her, a place of fathomless horrors. Behind Oliver, just over his shoulder, a bronze plaque memorialized a beloved patriarch whose family had donated a wing. The air was cool and dry, which Alice knew was to prevent any germs from carrying. On the side table, a half-'filled blue coffee cup was leaving ring stains. The table was covered with back issues of Schlep'''For Jewish Seniors on the Go.' Oliver had been trying without success to get Doe to take her formula. He also had bottled water ready for Alice; all she had to do was glance a certain way. Alice crammed her fears back down into their deep dark resting place, and guided the plastic bottle toward Doe's open mouth. 'Instead of fighting being here'''she sniffed'''probably it would be helpful if I told myself, This is where I'm going to get better.' Oliver ran a hand along Alice's arm. 'If New York magazine spent all that time staking out the Black Tide,' he said, 'they must have found an answer about the crabs.' His face was blank, waiting for a response, which confused her. She easily could have fallen apart. Instead Alice swallowed a laugh.
42 | charles bock 'I couldn't get through this without you.' She wiped at the corners of her eyes. 'You know that? You know, tu esta'? He kissed her hand. He whispered: 'Tu esta.' 'Really though,' he said. 'All those reporters? They had to find out something.' What they found was that the three fresh, polite young people working behind the front desk were backed up to Duluth, and that the exam rooms were all occupied, and that whenever one of those doctors with the bright white lab coats and the expensive ties popped up from the back area, he'd grab a nurse for a quick consultation and scurry off somewhere else. One didn't need a Ouija board to deduce it was going to be a while before Alice would get called for her bloods, let alone her appointment. She and Oliver filled the lag with hangman''Alice cruised in the first game thanks to blueberry (Oliver praising the word choice as excellent), to which Oliver responded with a feeble plop (Alice sussed it in a snap, a lonely oval marking her single misstep). Alice lifted and turned Doe around and smelled her rear. She wondered if they should try to hold out on changing the baby until they got into an examination room (one of those radioactive waste containers then could get put to good use, most likely). Oliver got up and used a hallway sink to wash his hands, as he'd been doing every nine minutes, even though he hadn't touched anything since the last rinse except his own pen. He asked a nurse for some medical gloves and blew them up into balloons with protruding blue fingers. In New Hampshire this had worked to distract the baby, but here, the hypnotic effects wore off after a few minutes. In New Hampshire, Oliver and Alice had passed untold amounts of time lying together in her hospital bed and playing rummy; they would remember to bring cards from now on. Between Oliver's cleansing jaunts and parlor tricks, while he was getting his ass handed to him at hangman, he and Alice delighted
alice & oliver | 43 in the sight of their little wonder charming everyone on the fourth floor's eastern wing, and they further procrastinated about the diaper now sagging with a green slush that Oliver liked to call chana saag, and they reminisced about their shenanigans back in their room in New Hampshire, and they proclaimed themselves incredulous at having nostalgia for that insane time, and they proclaimed themselves thankful for even having the chance to look back, and they proclaimed themselves fortunate for this astounding relationship of theirs, having as much fun in that stupid room as they had, under such ridiculous conditions; and proclaimed they would get through this mess as well, they would survive and look back at all this. Alice also held up a spare issue of New York magazine she'd been leafing through in the waiting room. She told Oliver that the magazine's spies had indeed learned about a special underground, speakeasy-'era, trapdoor entrance to the Black Tide. Instead of printing the origins of those crabs, however, Alice reported, the journalists refused to reveal the answer. 'Hype for hype's sake'? Oliver made a yanking motion. 'The real issue's whether the Black Tide purchased ad space from the magazine as a trade-'off.' 'You honestly think anybody gives a rat's rear if they flew those things in from Timbuktu'? Alice answered. 'People want the mystery. It's better that way.' A man was limping''Alice had noticed him earlier, gnarled, with a small mountain rising from his right shoulder. He stopped in front of them. The gray skin covering his skull was stretched, all exterior layers of flesh having been burned away, so that it looked like the angles of his cheekbones threatened to break through. His eyes were freakish, hazel marbles sunken deep into their sockets. He focused on Doe. 'What a beautiful, wondrous child you are,' he said. To Alice now: 'She's what''five months'? 'Six, yes.' 'You look at one at this age, it rushes up all the good memories from your own.'