|I don’t understand – what are we doing wrong? It’s not like we asked for this and yet we are made to suffer. The worst is seeing those we care for, those we love, succumb to this ill fate.|
This matter of the face mask, for instance.
Well, just a half mask, a green gauze mask, of the kind that medical workers wear. Not a full-face mask—that would be ridiculous.
Even before the floods, landslides, and firestorms of the past several years, Luce (sometimes) wore a gauze mask. Not in public! Just at home.
When it seemed to her that the wind “smelled funny,” “smelled wrong.”
Especially from the south. There are industrial cities to the south. Her town, Hazelton-on-Hudson, is a hundred miles from New York City, and far fewer from the notorious power plant, with its majestic white plumes of poisonous smoke that are sometimes visible to those who search the sky with binoculars whenever there is an air-quality alert.
This mask, acquired at a medical-supply store, Luce hurriedly removes if Andrew returns home unexpectedly, for her husband disapproves of what he calls her “overreacting” or “catastrophizing.”
(Is that even a word—“catastrophizing”? Luce understands that Andrew means to affect a comical tone, a sort of cartoon rhetoric, to soften the mockery and the annoyance he so clearly feels; yet “catastrophizing” also acknowledges the very real, the surely imminent catastrophe.)
Today, Luce is not wearing the mask, though the wind from the south does indeed smell funny, wrong. And the rank smell of the soil around the house has returned, is, in fact, stronger this spring. Luce has scanned the scene with her binoculars and has discovered nothing to alarm her unduly, except that the repair work on the upper stretch of Vedders Hill Way, which was recently washed away in a mudslide, seems to have temporarily stopped. Ugly yellow construction vehicles are parked haphazardly at the edge of the narrow road, a goddam eyesore.
A fleet of jets from the military base passes overhead with ear splitting noise, tearing a seam in the sky.
Her violin! Luce runs into the bedroom to fetch it, quickly, before Andrew returns. She hasn’t touched the instrument in weeks but is desperate suddenly to cup it to her chin, wield the bow—and snatch from oblivion a few minutes of a Bach partita she first memorized as a music student at Columbia, nothing more exquisite, more soothing to the soul.
“We’ll give a dinner party. It’s been too long.”
“God, yes! But better hurry.”
This is a joke. A mild one, as Andrew’s jokes go. Still, Luce winces. For it isn’t funny, entirely. Luce resents this attempt at humor from her husband, at such a precarious time.
It isn’t that their friends are old. Not by the calendar. Not most of them. Edith Danvers, for instance, Luce’s colleague at Bard College, one of their few remaining neighbors on Vedders Hill Way, recently diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer, is only fifty-one—Luce’s age exactly. And Andrew’s lawyer friend from Yale, Roy Whalen, a former Olympic swimmer and a longtime resident of Hazelton-on-Hudson, afflicted with worsening stenosis of the spine, is only fifty-seven. Todd Jameson, Andrew’s tennis partner, stricken last year with a mysterious autoimmune disorder that mimicked certain of the symptoms of lupus but was (evidently) not lupus, is just sixty—a youthful sixty. Heddi Conyer, Luce’s closest friend in the Hazelton Chamber Orchestra, recently diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, is only fifty-six. Lionel Friedman, who died last year, wasn’t old—sixty-four. (Indeed, it is usually healthy young swimmers and divers who fall prey to the deadly Naegleria fowleri—brain-eating amoeba.) Others in the Stantons’ approximate generation, whom they’ve known since they moved to the area, in the early nineties, are reporting cases of diverticulitis, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer (in someone who hasn’t smoked for thirty-seven years), leukemia, lymphoma, failing kidneys, failing hearts, inflamed joints, neurological “deficits,” even strokes! And there is the latest, shocking news about fifty-nine-year-old Jack Gatz, for years the district attorney, and the best player in Andrew’s poker group, whose early-onset frontotemporal dementia was diagnosed last week.
“As Jack deteriorates at poker, the rest of us will greatly improve,” Andrew says, “but it will hardly give us much joy.”
“I should hope not!” Luce says, shocked. “And I hope you didn’t say that to Jack.”
With the air of an actor whose script has assured him a perfect rebuttal, Andrew says, “That was a joke, darling. In fact, it was Jack’s joke, when he told us the news.”
Rebuffed, Luce retreats. Laughs awkwardly, apologetically.
In marriage, as in tennis, one player is inevitably superior to the other. After nearly thirty years, Luce is still never altogether certain how to interpret her husband’s tone and facial expressions. Disdain for her obtuseness, sympathy for her naïveté, affection for her good heart? Or all, or none, of these?
They met in front of Butler Library, at Columbia University.
Descending the icy steps carefully, still she’d slipped, turned an ankle, would have fallen if a tall young man ascending the steps hadn’t deftly gripped her elbow and held her upright. Hey! Got you.
Luce’s eyes, blurred with tears from a cold, wet wind—the Hudson River was only a few blocks to the west, though invisible from where they stood—looked up in surprise and gratitude. The strong fingers holding her arm did not immediately relax.
Thirty years. Her life decided for her.
By what circuitous and vertiginous yet (seemingly) inevitable course did they travel from that moment to this, the chastened wife retreating from the husband’s expression of veiled triumph?
Hey! Got you.
Initially, the question is: Who in our circle will die first?
Then: Who is next?
Then: Don’t ask.
Luce lies awake in the night thinking of their afflicted friends in Hazelton-on-Hudson. Beside her, his back to her, Andrew sleeps the blissful sleep of the oblivious.
Luce is concerned for her fellow-musician Heddi, but she is more concerned for poor Edith Danvers, as (she reasons) colorectal cancer is more life-threatening than Crohn’s disease, which can be controlled with medication, if not cured. Edith has long been Luce’s yoga partner, as well as her (adjunct) colleague in the English department. She has been Luce’s confidante, and her companion at Code Pink protests in Manhattan. Since her diagnosis, Edith has become terrified that, because she will have to wear a colostomy bag, her husband will “never touch her again”—a revelation that makes Luce tremble with indignation. (Though the fear is familiar to Luce, for she has seen that fleeting expression on Andrew’s face, something like repugnance, at times when she is less than beautiful, sneezing, graceless, unkempt. When she looks her age.)
Andrew feels more sympathy for swaggering Jack Gatz, whom—frankly—he has always admired. For Jack had the most prominent public career of anyone in the Stantons’ circle. The Gatzes’ house—glass, stone, redwood, burnished copper, loosely described as “in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright”—was the most spectacular house on Vedders Hill, until it was reduced to an ignominious pile of rubble in the firestorm of the previous fall.
No, Luce thinks. It isn’t that they and their friends are old. Or that they haven’t taken good care of themselves—their medical insurance allows for a generous array of mammograms and prostate screenings, colonoscopies, electrocardiograms and echocardiograms, biopsies, CT scans and pet scans, MRIs and fMRIs. Roy Whalen has undergone a week of intensive tests at the Mayo Clinic, Todd Jameson at Johns Hopkins. Pete Scully, the concertmaster of the Hazelton Chamber Orchestra, is said to have dialysis three times weekly. And their friend Samantha Plummer is scheduled to undergo the most complicated and expensive procedure of all—a stem-cell transplant involving a barrage of chemotherapies followed by quarantine in germ-free isolation for a minimum of six weeks in a specially constructed apartment owned by Sloan Kettering, in Manhattan.
Their friends and neighbors are collapsing all around them—in mimicry of the collapsing roads of Vedders Hill.
“ ‘The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire.’ ”
Andrew is entertaining, and Andrew is chilling, channelling the voice of the eighteenth-century Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards. Who reputedly terrified congregations with his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (Unaligned with any college or university, Andrew is a self-styled private scholar; his most renowned book is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “An Intellectual History of America from the Puritan ‘City on a Hill’ to the ‘Great Society.’ ”)
It’s Andrew’s (half-serious) opinion that, in the twenty-first century, damnation is a matter not of Hell but of inadequate medical insurance.
“We are spiders dangled by fate over the fires of Hell, and the slightest slip will plunge us into an eternity of misery—kept alive by machines, for which we may have to pay ‘out of pocket.’ ”
Andrew’s listeners laugh, uneasily. He may be joking—or half joking—but this is the nightmare that everyone in America dreads.
We know what our punishment is, but what was our sin?
Global warming, Luce thinks, digging with a trowel in the rich, dark soil that she has created over many years of composting, but which now smells strange to her, rotting, feculent, as if teeming with toxic microscopic life. The hairs at the nape of her neck stir. There is no longer in this part of North America a guarantee of the protracted subzero temperatures that once killed off such virulent life.
- Oates, Joyce Carol. “‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 4 Oct. 2019, Angry Gods