Bad Acts


 Martha Cooley, Fiction

 

At seventy-two, Diana's former father-in-law is already an old man, his bathrobed body slumped in a wheelchair. The once-sharp planes of his face have dulled; he can no longer be called handsome. Yet something compelling persists: the arch of his eyebrows, perhaps, or the aquiline nose, still assertive despite its mottled surface.

Diana bends over and brushes her lips against his cheek. He smells of soap, the wrong kind—-its scent vaguely floral, nothing he'd ever have used himself. He still has his hair, thick and curly, steel-gray. And those long graceful fingers. But the flesh on his wrists is dry and yellowed.

Diana makes herself take one of his hands in hers, stroking it for a moment. Nearly weightless, it gives off neither heat nor coolness, inert as a prosthetic.

I'm here, she says to him. It's me, Diana. I'm so sorry. 

He does not look at her. He is gazing at whatever he gazes at: anything, nothing.

 

She has known him for nearly twenty years. 

He used to be an appellate judge. When she and his son, Arthur, were married, he officiated at their civil ceremony, forgoing his black judicial robes for a wool-and-silk suit. She remembers how he'd stared as Arthur leaned in to kiss her, his expression momentarily quizzical. What had he been wondering about—the rightness of the marriage he'd just sanctioned, its likelihood of thriving? Afterward, as she and Arthur were readying for the airport, he'd slipped a check into Arthur's pocket. For your honeymoon, said the note attached to the check. Be lavish

They'd vacationed in Sardinia, returning bronzed, looking like the carefree couple they weren't. Arthur's business, a technology-transfer company, was floundering. To keep it afloat, they refinanced the house they'd bought at the start of their relationship, six years before their marriage. Within a few more years, they'd racked up considerable debt. Arthur kept pushing the rock uphill, then pushing it again after it rolled down; his determination would not yield to the warning signs. Periodically, a check would arrive from the judge, along with a one-line note: I bet your skis could use an upgrade. If you're thinking of a vacation next month, go on up to our condo in New Hampshire. There's a terrific series at the Public this fall. 

As rescue funds, those checks were insignificant—Arthur's company was seriously undercapitalized. But he'd deposited the money into his business account anyway; he needed every cent simply to meet payroll. He'd asked Diana not to tell his parents what was happening; it wasn't theirs to worry about, he'd insisted. They'd been generous all along, and he didn't want them thinking they'd have to bail him out. 

She'd done as he asked, and stayed quiet. Her earnings as a law-school professor weren't anywhere near enough to salvage Arthur's company, and in any case, she understood that her role wasn't to get her hands on capital but to buoy Arthur's self-image.   

Then he began saying he wanted a baby. Which she couldn't imagine having, under these or, in fact, any other circumstances. Within herself she could locate no desire to be a mother, no picture of herself in the role. She hadn't ever wished for it, with Arthur or anyone else. And though she tried, she could find no way to activate wishfulness, to make herself want to want a child. 

It was as if—she sometimes told herself—a chapter of the book she was living, the book of her life, were simply missing. The story would go on; it wouldn't halt. But it wasn't going to play out as expected. 

Which felt right, even at times exhilarating, though also full of danger.

She'd kept quiet about that, too.  

 

Diana and Arthur have been divorced for five years. 

She stands near him now, in the entrance hall of the chapel. At his side are his new wife and their six-month-old child, who's crying softly. The new wife has already made a point of greeting Diana; that bit of awkwardness is over.

Milling around the entrance hall are numerous people Diana recognizes: members of Arthur's extended family, dozens of friends. All have gathered for a memorial service for Arthur's mother, who has died of heart failure—eight months after her second heart attack. She'd been faring poorly, Diana has heard, since the first attack three years earlier. 

Diana waves quietly at a handful of the mourners. A few of them smile at her in surprise as they wave back, though no one approaches her. The judge sits mutely in his wheelchair. His bathrobe is made of cashmere, black with white piping; it lends him a regal air. His silence is an aura, a kind of glow. Parkinson's disease has largely released him from language; it is dismantling his neuromuscular function, cognitive abilities, and memory. Once in a while (Diana has learned from Arthur), he musters a word or two. 

Several relatives come over to greet the judge; when he does not respond, they move away from his wheelchair. Watching, Diana realizes that what she most wants is to cup her hands on his ears, raise his head as if it were a dog's, and tilt it upward so his gaze will meet hers. She wants to be recognized. Wants the new wife to see the old wife being recalled. Wants to crawl into the cage of his helplessness and prod him to speak. 

About what, though? About Belgium—that wrongdoing, something he wouldn't have spoken of, even before he became ill? Then why imagine it would be sayable now? 

 

Arthur's two sisters begin ushering people into the chapel as a string trio plays Bach softly. 

Diana watches the new wife as she rocks the baby in her arms. Its cries have grown needling; its face reddens. Arthur confers with his spouse, who frowns and shakes her head. After some negotiation, he takes the baby from her and moves to a corner of the entrance hall. There, the child's wailing continues as Arthur jostles and cajoles. 

He's still legible, Diana thinks. Never good at self-concealment. She can read frustration as well as fatigue and grief in her ex-husband's face. He's having a hard time playing competing roles: son, brother, husband, father.

Shortly before their marriage ended, he'd said to her, I can find nothing to celebrate in you. The judgment lacerated her, until she realized he'd aimed it at himself as well. He'd tried and failed at business; there was no getting round that. Even with his father's help, he'd made a mess. 

As for her, she'd failed at her belated move toward motherhood; that chapter, the missing one, wouldn't let itself be written. She'd finally begun attempting—not wishing for it, yet at least giving it a try. For about a year, she'd used an ovulation thermometer, sensing all along that such diligence was pointless, that her body would not play host. For Arthur, it was the waiting—delaying—that had been the important failure, and it was hers alone. Not their error but hers. They'd separated shortly after she threw out the thermometer, no longer able to pretend she wanted what it had failed to help produce.

 

No family members or friends remain beside the judge. Everyone is heading into the chapel. 

A nurse's aide stands by the wheelchair, awaiting orders. The judge sits unmoving, his head lowered, hands in lap. His hair, Diana observes, has been neatly combed, its waviness tamed. A small scar, the only mark from the car accident ten years earlier, forms a pinkish U on his chin. 

Diana wonders if he's even breathing. He's that motionless, that still. Yet his eyes are open: he can see. Is seeing something. Thinking, feeling something.

 

Between them, everything had always transpired via glances. 

Though his gaze traveled lightly across Diana's face, she'd sensed him gauging her frame of mind, her moods. Observing her interactions with Arthur. The hazel eyes intelligent, cool, penetrating. 

Her own glances at him had been swifter, less sustained; sometimes she felt shy in his presence. Yet this, their glancing, had been their way of communicating. They gave each other sidelong looks in response to certain turns of phrase, displays of wit. Whenever the four of them—Diana, Arthur, and his parents—went out to eat at some new bistro in Tribeca or on the Upper West Side, the judge would tell her about some thorny case he'd heard recently in his courtroom, knowing she'd grasp the legal subtleties. She'd describe to him the law classes she was teaching, the texts she was thinking of using.

He viewed her, she knew, as a professor, not an attorney. But he noted with admiration her study of philosophy as an undergraduate. That, he'd said to her once, was the best grounding for a lawyer. Epistemology, phenomenology, the limits of the known, the knowable.

Arthur and his mother had joined such discussions infrequently. Their own preoccupations—theater, film, newly opened restaurants—made them averse to abstractions, verbal or visual. Which meant neither of them was a fan of Wassily Kandinsky, or a regular visitor to the Kandinsky room in the Guggenheim Museum—where Diana and the judge had run into each other unexpectedly, one spring afternoon.

They both loved Kandinsky's work, as it happened. And each was in the habit of popping up to the Guggenheim from time to time for a bit of solo art-viewing. Hence (the judge said afterward) the inevitability of their encounter, surprising though it had been. Their paths would have crossed eventually. 

 

They'd stood before a painting called "Small Pleasures"—whose title, Diana remarked, seemed not at all apt.

The canvas seethed with movement and color.

Some critics, said the judge, claimed it contained references to the Last Judgment. But that wasn't what Kandinsky intended. He'd simply wanted to scatter small pleasures across the canvas—those were the artist's own words.

Watching unnameable energies spill forth from the painting, Diana shook her head.

If that's Kandinsky's idea of small pleasures, she said, imagine what his large ones must've been like.

I know, said the judge.

Or, Diana added, since all human acts, good and bad, are meant to be part of the Last Judgment, maybe Kandinsky figured there'd come a point when the process would look like that.

She pointed at the canvas. Maybe, she said, he was trying to paint the good acts.

Well, said the judge, Michelangelo showed us the bad ones, didn't he?—in his own "Last Judgment." Not a pretty picture...

He turned to address her. There's no escaping them, he said. And they do have to be paid for.

Even unintentionally bad acts? she countered.

Those get paid for differently, he said, but they have their price.

 

Arthur is bouncing the baby in his arms. Its cries are less urgent but haven't yet ceased.

His tall frame gyrates smoothly as if around an invisible pole. The baby stops crying and laughs a little.

For a brief moment, Diana visualizes Arthur above her during sex, his hips torquing lightly. She studies his face. Below grief and fatigue is contentment: she can read it. He has always wanted this, she thinks. Fatherhood has come late, it's tiring him, but he's glad for it. 

A photo of his deceased mother rests on an easel in the entrance hall a few feet from Arthur. Her fine hair is like his, like his child's. Diana closes her eyes. At weddings and parties before the accident, the judge and his wife had sometimes danced together. They'd been graceful waltzers, their footwork deft—unlike that of their son, who, though a good athlete, had been clumsy on the dance floor. His mother had known how to tease him about it without hurting his feelings, pulling him out of his seat and into dances he could handle—the twist or something equally silly, so he'd feel no more foolish than anyone else. She'd been skilled at protecting his self-image; it was a job she'd done well. She grasped male insecurities, knew how to provide cover.

The judge had asked Diana to dance a few times. She'd relished the low-pitched hum of attraction between them, palpable yet unthreatening. His hand at the small of her back, his fingertips directive. 

You dance nicely, he'd murmured to her once. You should do it more often, with Arthur. He could use some reinforcement.

It's not our strong suit, she'd said. It's not what we're good at.

Later she wondered what stopped the judge from speaking the truth. She'd had her husband's love, and he hers, but marriage required a project—a child or some shared life—labor, some large avocation. Anything to redirect longing, stave off disappointment. 

The judge had said nothing further to her, then or thereafter, about her marriage. Nor did he speak when Arthur called to tell his parents that Diana had left him. By then—a few years after the accident—the judge could no longer sift evidence, decide on the merits, or reach judgments. His illness had already commenced its assault. His wife did whatever talking there was to be done.     

 

The accident took place outside Bruges, in Belgium. 

The call from Arthur's mother came over a raspy international line. She and the judge had flown to Brussels, rented a car, and driven to a cottage they'd leased for two weeks so that they could attend a local music festival. The accident occurred a few days after their arrival in Bruges. 

A woman was driving the other car. Her teenaged son was in the passenger seat. The son was uninjured, the woman dead—struck head-on by the judge, who'd been driving alone. 

He had somehow migrated into the oncoming lane. No one knew how or why. Afterward he remembered nothing, though he hadn't been hurt; no broken bones, no internal injuries or concussion. A few cuts and contusions on his face—that was all, miraculously. A mini-stroke, some sort of blackout? The first fleeting hint of the illness that hadn't yet installed itself? The doctors couldn't say. The driver of a van several hundred yards behind the judge's Peugeot had seen nothing unusual, just a last-second veer into the opposing lane.

There would be a trial. The judge would be exonerated but would have to pay a civil fine for reckless endangerment. No, they were not seeking any counseling; a few hours of that had taken place already, mandated by the hospital. With a social worker. And the judge?—he was recuperating, he'd be all right. No, he wasn't in pain. No, they didn't want to talk to Arthur. The best thing, in fact, would be to not speak of any of it further. They'd be in touch when they returned home. 

 

Arthur had resisted Diana's account of his mother's phone call. 

Why didn't you say I'd call them back, so I could speak with them? he'd asked.

Your mother didn't want that, Diana answered. Neither of them can talk about what happened. 

In what sense? Legally?

No, said Diana. They just can't deal. Especially your father.

After a handwritten letter arrived from Arthur's mother, he said nothing further about the accident. When his parents came home, Arthur spoke with his mother on the phone, skirting Diana's questions about their conversation. 

Why don't you urge your father to get help, Diana asked. You should get him to talk about it. 

Not if he doesn't want to. 

You should let him know you're worried.    

I don't want to add to it by pushing him, Arthur said.

Don't you see what's going on? Your mother is telling your father he's got to put the whole thing behind him. Your father's afraid she's devastated by it, though—appalled by his having done it—and she's just telling him it's okay so he'll feel better. 

Arthur shook his head.

Your mother, Diana continued, will carry on as if the accident never happened. But your father won't buy that—he knows it'll backfire. He doesn't know how, just that it will... Because he did something bad, even if he didn't mean to. Your mother will dwell on it—on the death—no matter what.

Her comments angered Arthur.

You don't know what they feel—either of them, he said. Leave them alone! 

They are alone, Diana wanted to retort but didn't. When you're married, you are alone. 

 

Diana goes into a crouch before the wheelchair. She gets level with the judge and stares directly into his eyes. 

He appears to be staring back. 

Recognition, is he still capable of it? And of reasoning, judgment? 

His eyes are open; she trusts his gaze.

Diana, says Arthur, materializing at her side. You should take a seat. We'll begin in a moment. I've got to get Dad situated. 

He is still holding the child. Cocking his head, he signals Diana to step away from the judge.

We've decided not to bring Dad up to the front, he says in a low voice. My sisters think the music in the service might upset him. Occasionally he gets agitated when he hears music. We're not sure how he'll react... I'll seat him in the back.

He motions to the nurse's aide, who wheels the judge into the chapel and off to one side, at the back. Pulling a wool throw from a pouch, the aide drapes it carefully across the judge's knees, covering his hands.

Diana follows Arthur into the chapel. I'll stay with your father, she murmurs to him. Tell the aide to leave—she can come back when the service is over.

Arthur glances toward the front of the chapel, where his wife and sisters are sitting. Then he utters a fast instruction to the aide.   

Thank you, he says to Diana as the aide exits. 

Go sit, she says. They're waiting for you.

 

A silver-haired woman stands at a lectern—the officiant, Diana supposes. Arthur and his sisters have organized the service. It will be short, as their mother would've wanted it to be.

The mourners rise; an invocation is offered. First one and then the other of Arthur's sisters goes to the lectern. They are followed by several of the dead woman's oldest friends, one of whom breaks down midway through her remarks. Another is eloquent and humorous. A male cousin speaks next, recounting childhood incidents. He speaks of his dead relative's self-discipline, her flintiness. Then comes a former colleague from the fundraising office where she'd worked, who praises his co-worker's discretion. She'd had, he said, a gift for protecting donors' privacy, so important in their line of work. 

Everyone attends closely to each speaker. A few people are crying. No one is looking in the direction of the judge. A final eulogy is offered by Arthur, who manages to retain his composure, though his grief is undisguised. 

If only, he says, we'd managed to make her feel lighter in spirit, in her heart. But we don't get to do that, do we? We don't get to say, I'll take that burden for you.

He sits. The trio begins playing more Bach as the mourners gather themselves, readying to exit.

Diana kneels at the judge's side. She squeezes his forearm—sinew and bone under a loose cover of flesh.

Listen, she tells him. You killed her by accident. You didn't mean to. It wasn't a bad act.

He does not look at her. 

You've paid, she says. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. You killed that woman by accident, she repeats.

Now he turns to her, slowly, and speaks in a voice she recognizes, though it is very low and ragged from disuse.

Which one, he says.