By Greg Walklin
The hospital lobby’s hum sounded like a high C. Bertrand sat in the wheelchair in front of her clutching his oxygen tank in his lap like a child with a stuffed animal. In hopes of sneaking out, Carol had covered the tank with a t-shirt quilt and dressed Bertrand, despite the heat, in a hooded Huskers sweatshirt and matching sweatpants. It was the only thing she could get him into easily. Over the course of the week they’d been in the hospital, Carol had struck up a friendship with the front desk receptionist who, like Carol, was Vietnamese. Chatty, she had quickly revealed that she was a foreign adoption, and they had bonded over their life story similarities. The receptionist, after hearing their plight, quickly agreed to look the other way. In his current state, Bertrand was not yet aware of the plan—though at this point, he wasn’t aware of much.
“Where are we going, Carol?” he asked when they were in the parking lot.
“Home,” she replied.
The heat wave in Phoenix, reaching unusual temperatures for the late winter, had everyone complaining. Already sweating through her blouse, Carol had managed to get Bertrand out of the wheelchair and into the car without either of them breaking a bone. As she was stepping into the van, she heard the telltale jangle of beeps that comprised her ringtone, a selection their grandson had made the last time he had visited. The call, unsurprisingly, was from the Colonel. For the third time that day, she declined to answer. After informing him of the diagnosis, she had not been able to talk to him again.
“But why are we going?” he asked.
She scanned him to see if he had noticed anything, but he seemed placid and distant. “You wanted to go,” she finally said.
“I don’t want to go anywhere. I just want to be left alone. What’s the point?”
“That’s not what you said.”
“When the hell did I say that?”
She thought back to the day, their trip three years ago—another era, now, when they were another couple. “When we were in Arlington.”
“Well I don’t remember that,” he said, increasingly cross.
She knew he remembered it quite well, and that his memory and his crossness were half something he couldn’t control, and half an act. Slowly, the van began to cool with the A/C. Sweat lingered on their foreheads.
“We didn’t pack, Carol.”
“I know, dear.”
“I suppose it doesn’t really matter.”
“We have all the things we’ll need in Nebraska,” she offered.
“I think I left the fan on in the bathroom.”
She knew he hadn’t—she had been back home to gather a few things before returning to the hospital to pick him up. Water, for example. A box of cookies. The remaining ripe apples and bananas. Cereal, but with no milk because the milk wouldn’t keep in the car. Two cans of soup she expected to drink, cold. Their remaining caffeinated sodas. Lincoln, Nebraska was, even with minimal stops, at least 20 hours from Phoenix. The bed from the hospice center was due to arrive at the same time.
I-17 TOOK THEM NORTH and out of the city, and Phoenix faded away. When Bertrand wasn’t sleeping, he was dozing, and when he wasn’t dozing, the medicine left him mostly hazy—his responses sounded like he had marbles in his mouth.
Unlike other old couples, who passed meals without speaking, this silence was unusual. From their first date, decades ago, they had never stopped having things to say to each other, despite having spent so many waking moments together. For two decades, Bertrand had practiced law, estate planning and will drafting, and she had served as his paralegal. Tired of his practice, Bertrand had sold his share of the practice to his law partner and used the money to buy a bridal shop with Carol, which meant they spent all day together. He had gone from being her boss to her employee. She had taken care of the management, the dresses and the sales, and he did everything she didn’t want to do—the books, the taxes, the backroom deals. They had sold the business to a corporate chain and purchased the duplex in Arizona.
“Did I dream that hospital?” he asked. “Or were we at a hospital?”
“We were at a hospital,” she said, instantly wishing she had lied. “Now we’re going back to Lincoln.”
“We don’t go back until March, at the earliest,” he said, matter-of-factly, like she was a stupid child. “Usual April.”
“We’re going back earlier this year.”
For the last week, she had been trying to get accustomed to this from Bertrand: going from clarity to confusion and back to clarity again, as if his mind were turning itself on and off.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said.
“We’re just going home.”
“I don’t want a fuss.”
“Nonsense,” she said.
“Are you doing this for me?” he asked.
She didn’t answer. Only remnants of greater Phoenix remained to pass, little developments cut into the rock and desert, settlement never really seeming to end. Bertrand fell back to sleep. They were halfway to Flagstaff before the desert really began to take hold again.
Nearly as soon as they’d arrived in Phoenix for the season, Bertrand started declining. His left knee began to ache, and the doctors eventually decided on surgery. That left him unable to golf or move around the house much. Then winter brought with it a severe cough he never quite got over. He could not even walk around the house without becoming short of breath. Mornings, he woke early with chest pains. They saw a specialist in Tempe and at the Arizona State Medical Center, received chest x-rays that showed that Bertrand had a metastatic cancer that would leave him only with one month—at best—to live.
To compound Carol’s confusion, Bertrand had responded to the news in a manner she did not expect. Surprisingly, he was not at all surprised when the doctor gave him the one-month prognosis.
“I’m ready,” he’d said to Dr. Bhatava, barely missing a beat.
“You’re ready?” Carol asked him, incredulous.
“Carol,” he started in a patronizing tone of voice, “I’m more than ready.”
Dr. Bhatava smiled at both of them and excused himself. She tried to read her husband. Besides their business, his other great love had been local theater—Bertrand had also long been a regular for the Nebraska Shakespeare Company: Jaques and Malvolio and even, one season, Claudius and then Macbeth. Was this the kind of effect he had adopted as he waited behind the curtain for Hamlet to kill him, or as he spoke of how the tale of life signified nothing?
She had hoped they would be talking on the drive back, really talking like they used to, but over the course of the last few days—only a week had elapsed since the diagnosis—Bertrand had nearly fallen apart; each morning he awoke, he appeared to be a lesser version of himself. Dr. Bhatava had insisted that they keep him around for a final series of tests to see if there were any last-ditch surgical options, but Bertrand didn’t want any, and Carol knew they would only likely make things worse. It was days, surely, but it could even only be a matter of hours, of minutes.
They filled up at a small station in a town outside the Petrified Forest National Park, and Carol pumped the gas, something she hadn’t done in years. On one trek back from Phoenix, they had stopped at the park, after having passed it so many times. The trees were mostly from the Late Triassic. She remembered the rock banding, the layers that appeared to be painted, as if the rocks were wearing garish make-up; she saw the iron that had dissolved into the wood, leaving patterns around the edges, like sloppy lipstick. During the tour, the guide told them that humans’ corpses often lasted longer than their lives. In a coffin, the guide said, it can take decades for even the tissue to decay. Buried in average soil, even without a casket, bones can last hundreds of years.
“Just put me in the backyard and plant a mulberry bush,” Bertrand had said to her as they exited the hospital that first day after his diagnosis. “Cheaper than one of those giant headstones, all that money they charge you to dig a hole. The bush will mark where I’m buried.” It was a reversal from everything she understood he wanted.
“Stop it,” she’d replied, “it’s not funny.”
“Can’t fertilize anything from a casket.”
When she returned to the van, convenience store coffee in hand, he had fallen asleep again. He was so quiet, she checked to ensure that he was still breathing.
They had been to all of the forests—Gila, San Juan, Manti-La Sal—and of course to the Grand Canyon multiple times. This drive skipped all of them.
THE TIME THEY WERE MAKING was even better than she had hoped. Everything past Denver, once the violet Rockies were out of sight and before the yellow cornfields of Nebraska had appeared, was desolate. It was as if the land itself had died. Five a.m., everything faded and fading, and she was desperately trying to stay awake. The sun had not even provided a hint that it might, just like every other morning, rise again.
When the van broke down, they were about a half hour from the Colorado-Nebraska state line, with the sun finally appearing over the horizon. Like Bertrand, she thought bitterly, it had quit without warning: the check engine light, a knock and a puff of charcoal-colored smoke out of the rear exhaust.
After ten minutes, only two cars had passed, and neither had seemed interested in stopping—if they had even seen her in the dark, they weren’t going to stop. She could call their son, Sean, but by the time he’d arrive, she now wasn’t sure if Bert would still be around: the drive, the hurry, had obviously taken a toll.
Just three years before, they traveled constantly. They had visited D.C., Arlington National Cemetery the first stop on what would become, more or less, a heritage tour, after they had sold the shop and were both retired. They would eventually head to the war sites, to Belgium, Luxembourg, France, and Germany, and to Bertrand’s ancestral homes in Wales. This was early June, and the flags from the Memorial Day remembrances at the cemetery were still ubiquitous. They advanced to the Tomb of the Unknowns, on the eastern steps of the gleaming white Amphitheater. Two guards paced in front of the monument.
Looking around the crowded Amphitheater, at the fannypacked tourists and the student groups and the other retirees, Carol knew what everyone was thinking: a Vietnam veteran come to see his buddies’ graves, and the woman he’d brought back with him, some sweetheart from Saigon. Carol had indeed been born in Vietnam, and Bertrand was right about the age of most men who had served in the war, but the truth was she only remembered growing up in Nebraska—she was adopted as a two-year-old—and with a 4-F deferment, Bertrand had never held a gun.
They were at the Amphitheater for Bertrand’s father. A medic, he had most likely died in the Ardennes. A few months after he failed to return, the Army had eventually declared him KIA when there had been no identified recovery of his remains. Carol hadn’t understood the reason Bertrand wanted to go to the Tomb of the Unknowns; he had insisted on it to an unusual degree. But when they finally stood there, his face betrayed a unique expression, a sort of placid surrender, and it occurred to her that they had visited Arlington—and would be visiting the countries in Europe where his father had served—not just to see these sights, but also to feel if his father’s remains were there, if his father was the Unknown Soldier.
Bertrand’s behavior at the monument was the first sign of some re-emerging spirituality; he would try to hide it later, try to explain it away, but she could not forget the authentic moment of faith. He had conducted himself in solemnity—lowering his head and closing his eyes in front of the monument, just as the changing of the guard was beginning. The soldiers, in full uniform, crossed each other and paced in perfect synchronicity, their footsteps a spare hymn.
Then he opened his eyes back and looked at her and said, just above a whisper, “He’s not here.”
Regardless of whatever happened between them, whatever lies they had told each other or lies that arose out of omissions, she wasn’t going to see him die freezing on the side of the road, she wasn’t going to stick him under a mulberry bush, and nor did she want to call a hospital and let him die in some sterilized room in Colorado. Her parents had likely been left in trenches stacked on top of each other; she had seen photos of what the Viet Cong had done to the Degars. Bertrand’s father was lost, as well—forever.
As she stood on the shoulder of the Interstate, she needed someone to come quickly. The solution had been obvious as soon as the van broke down. Seeing the three missed calls, she knew she had no other option than to call the Colonel.
On the phone, he did not hesitate. “What’s the nearest exit?” he asked.
THIS YEAR, LEAVING THE COLONEL in Nebraska while they wintered in Arizona proved to be somewhat of a relief. But the days passed and the weeks too, and winter—the unusually scorching winter—proved interminable. Then Bert was diagnosed, and she went into a tailspin. As had become his custom, the Colonel spent the winter in his lake house near Lake McConaughy, which, she was now incredibly grateful, put him only an hour from where they were now stuck.
In his Cadillac, the Colonel pulled up with the sun rising, a detail that didn’t escape Carol in its significance. As he parked behind them on the shoulder, Bertrand stirred.
“Are we back in Nebraska?”
“No, honey, we’re having car trouble. We’re stopped but getting some help now.”
He turned and looked out of the passenger side window and saw the Colonel approaching.
“Oh,” he said. “Jack’s here.”
Carol was instantly confused. “You know him?”
“Sure,” he replied, still a little horse. “He’s the man you’re seeing.”
Heat rushed up from her chest through her face, and her cheeks suddenly felt like they were on fire.
The Colonel, by now, had stepped up to the window, smiling. He looked even tanner than she remembered him, odd for the winter. She opened the door and stepped out to greet him, closing it behind her.
“Hi,” he said in his usual singsong way.
She leaned in to whisper. “He knows about us.”
The Colonel was many things, but not a dissembler. She could already gauge his reaction.
“You know that he knows,” she said.
“He called me,” the Colonel replied, “a week ago. After the diagnosis. He overheard us on the phone one day. Then he told me he should be cremated and tossed in a community garden. That’s what I was trying to call you about.”
The passenger side door opened, and Bertrand, with a big sigh, stepped out of the vehicle. Instantly, Carol hustled over. The Colonel followed, and together the two of them—the Colonel carrying Bertrand’s oxygen tank—guided him from the van to the Colonel’s sedan.
“It’s just an act, you know,” she said.
“It’s all sound and fury.”
The Colonel was analyzing her, she could tell, but if he had a professional opinion on this, Carol didn’t want to hear it. While he was technically a colonel, he was actually a doctor. Only Carol called him “the Colonel”—it was an embarrassing sobriquet for him, so he only indulged her. He had only joined the Air Force much later in his medical career, after a stint in private practice and eventually a longer stint in the VA, and so he had not worked his way up from ROTC or attended the academy, but had instead started as a lieutenant colonel.
At first, the Colonel had been so fluid, so easygoing, that to spurn him would have offended the higher power all the pastors discussed. Yet spurn him she did. But she kept seeing him in places, and the Colonel kept asking her to have dinner with him.
With Bertrand in the backseat, like he was their child, they drove on. Although the Colonel was, like her, an inveterate chatter, the circumstances made none of them want to talk. The barrenness of northeastern Colorado gave way to the corn and soybean fields of Nebraska, patches of yellow and green split by the silver irrigation equipment, the land coming back to life, the colors saturated in the morning sun. They were nearly to North Platte when Bertrand spoke up again, this time with even more ire.
“Will you just leave me by the goddamn side of the road? I’m sick of the car. I’m tired of this—of riding and being a burden.”
“Nonsense,” the Colonel said.
“Jack,” Bertrand continued, “I’m going to try to be polite here, especially given what you are doing with my wife. But I’d ask that you shut the hell up.” He fell into a series of coughs again. “There’s a hospital in North Platte. Just leave me there and go live on together. I’m sure the burial arrangements can be made later.”
“But Sean and our grandson—”
“And I’ve decided that I don’t want a funeral. I don’t want a giant picture of me and my cold gray face sticking up out of a casket. I don’t want the trouble.” After more coughs, he resumed. “All this last week: me, me, me. Everybody calls but nobody talks about anything else!”
“We had arrangements—the funeral—”
“I don’t want any of that. Shouldn’t I have some say?”
Having no funeral—nothing—felt like an additional betrayal. She knew what everyone would think of her, once they found out about the Colonel. Though her adoptive parents’ funerals had been tough, they were all important to her; they were large occasions, filled with people she had not met or hadn’t seen in years. Her father’s had even had a flower car, a Cadillac limo adorned with all of his favorite varieties—snapdragons in a range of oranges and yellows, stargazer lilies, gladioluses, daisies, peach and white roses—varieties that he had so carefully cultivated in their backyard.
After Arlington and Washington, they had flown across the Atlantic into Belgium and stopped in several countries on the continent. From Brussels, they had driven into Liege, and then from there to the Henri-Chapelle Cemetery, the biggest grave site of the American soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge, in a tiny village called Hombourg. A local took them to the battle sites, to memorial markers and tank turrets with plaques, to the locus of the Baugnez Massacre, where Americans taken hostage had been killed. It had all been a pilgrimage. Throughout, Carol had been waiting for some kind of comment, like he had made in Arlington, which finally came on the long flight home: “The worst tragedy is that he has to be so far away.”
THEY ARRIVED, SEVERAL HOURS LATER, in Lincoln. Sean’s car was in the driveway. He had arranged to wait for the delivery of the hospital bed in case they didn’t make it on time—as they had not. Sean’s wife and son would be arriving later in the evening.
“Park down the block,” she suddenly commanded the Colonel.
“Just park in the driveway,” Bertrand said.
Of course, the Colonel followed the latter instructions, which she found irritating. She was halfway out of the car when Bertrand spoke up.
“A moment with Jack,” he said.
With a moment’s hesitation, Carol stepped out of the vehicle, her legs creaking with her blood flow’s restoration.
Under his own power, Bertrand eventually stepped out of the vehicle, and did so with such vigor, momentarily, that she imagined the diagnosis was somehow mistaken, that there was no way they could actually be so close to the end.
She let him walk away from her, up the front step inside the garage and into the house. She heard Sean’s voice in greeting.
“What did he tell you?” she asked the Colonel, who by then was standing in the driveway.
“He mostly just talked about his father, really.”
Kissing the Colonel on the cheek, she followed her husband into the house.
Greg Walklin is an attorney and writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His fiction has appeared in Palooka, Midwestern Gothic, and Pulp Literature, among other publications. His reviews and essays have appeared in Necessary Fiction, The Millions, and Ploughshares, and he is a regular book critic for the Lincoln Journal-Star. He and his wife, Tiffany, spoil their feisty Yorkshire Terrier, Mocha.