Death Of DanaŘs
Peter Feibleman

     "Twinkle-toes," she said. Then she whispered: "Oh, my God."
     "Sarah, be normal . . ."
     The nurse said: "I met Nurse Baldwin in the hall, that's your nurse, she asked me to tell you they still have him in the operating room, they're doing everything they can, he isn't in any pain, he's full of locals and they're giving him a general too, that's anesthetics, he should be down from there in a half hour, maybe less."
     "Thank you, dear," Mrs. Rhale said. "We understand."
     "We?" Aunt Sarah said. "We? Speak for yourself."
     "Honey . . ."
     Aunt Sarah said to the nurse: "Always tries to make out she's one of the family. I can't think why. I never do that around her family. We've been living together since last February; ever since we each of us figured the other one looked too lonesome. So we each got sorry for the other and she came to live with me for company. We have a wing of Edmund's house to ourselves. And I tell myself I'm doing her a favor because she was so lonely with nobody to look after her and if you ask her separate she will tell you she is doing the favor to me because Edmund and Mayann don't need me or anybody else but themselves and I was lonely. But you have to ask her when I'm not around. That way we each of us think we are doing the favor and it gets rid of the ugliness of knowing we don't have a reason to pump air any more. So pretending lends us a reason and it makes it possible, you see. Which is fine. But why for God's sake should she make out she's one of the family? It's just the the two of us, you see."
     "Oh, yes," the nurse said.
     "Dear," Mrs. Rhale said. "Aunt Sarah . . ."
     "I'm not your aunt; just don't call me that. The only persons I know don't call me aunt are Mayann and Edmund and they are the only niece and nephew of mine that I have. So it's a mystery to me why everybody should call me aunt."
     "Oh," the nurse said.
     "Did you ever see an accident?"
     "A what?" the nurse said. "What kind?"
     Aunt Sarah said: "I wish you could have seen the wheel hit him."
     "No," Mrs. Rhale said. "Be normal and think what you're saying in front of the girl."
     Aunt Sarah said: "Mayann's not a girl. Nurse, I wish you could just have seen the wheel hit him."
     "No," the nurse said, "well no. I'm as happy not to have seen, I'm sure."
     "I wish you could. I just wish you could have seen him when the wheel hit him. And the two of us there behind. Not Gwendolyn, she had to write postcards, she only got here an hour ago to the hospital. Only the three of us this morning on that bridge. Did they tell you about it, the other nurses?"
     "Well . . ."
     "The three of us . .
     "No, careful; no indeed," Mrs. Rhale said. "Sarah . . ."
     "... out on the bridge; they probably told you about it down the hall. I heard you whispering down the hall. Why do nurses always whisper down the hall? See, listen, it was just the three of us. Us three. And Mayann in the middle and she had one arm through Edmund's and the other arm through mine. But when we came to that bridge, the sidewalk is so narrow Edmund stepped ahead. He walked a ways ahead, so I was with Mayann when the truck came. And I remember how quickly Edmund walked, and me thinking he wants to cross in a hurry so he can be with Mayann again. These old clouds in the sky used up from the rain yesterday. I saw one shaped like me when I was . . . I had a habit to stand on one foot, you see, with all my weight on one foot like this when I was her age...
     "... But it was wrinkled and . . ."
     "Sarah . . ."
     "... gray and it was all used up like all the rest just waiting for the wind to take and break it into nothing. It, the wind, was doing that while I watched. The cloud broke apart and changed into something else that disgusted me; but I don't remember what. But that was when Mayann said, 'The wheel.' Her voice was so soft, you see, like I say, not, 'The wheel.' And I said, 'What wheel, dear?' I couldn't see but the top of the truck coming because I was walking on the inside next to the railing and Edmund was in the way. Then Mayann said, 'The wheel is loose.' She said that louder, in her usual voice. And I said, 'What do you mean, dear?'; because I really couldn't see, I mean actually see, what she meant. And she said quite loud, she said, 'The wheel will never hold.' Well, when she said that I looked at her and I wish I could tell you what I saw in her face right then that made me cold . . . I saw she hadn't been talking to me. Or talking to herself either . . . She was just talking. Just out loud to nobody, you see. And I had no more time to say, 'Mayann,' when she stopped, sudden, there on the pavement. And she slipped her arm out of mine and she stood there. She stood and she said once more, exactly before it happened, she said, 'The wheel.' And when she said it that last time her voice was louder than anything else afterwards. But she didn't shout it. You wouldn't want to say she shouted it. She said it, that's all. And I thought then about when she was little and used to look outside whenever there was a storm beginning, and she would cry and cry when nobody could tell her why the white wind wailed so loud around the house. And in that instant I thought, she won't ever ask again, now she knows. Because I've never, ever, heard anybody use their voice quite that way. She wasn't talking to me, you see; or to Edmund; or even to that truck. She was talking the way the wind talks to nobody."
     Mrs. Rhale said: "Stop it, I order you to stop; now you listen. With Mayann right here with us and all, and Edmund up there on the operating table, how can you even think to . . .. ." Aunt Sarah said: "I am thinking. Sure I'm thinking. And Mayann isn't here. She looks to be; she's not. She's inside her own self, she doesn’t know I have my mouth open. And Edmund is inside himself and he's dying up on that table and she knows it and I know it. We saw it, we know. But nobody knows Mayann. Edmund thinks he does, but in that, only just in that, Edmund is stupid. And the two of them don't need me so it doesn't matter what I say; now or any time, it never did matter. Yes, I am thinking, yes, I am wondering how many times you will ask me to tell the story, Gwendolyn, after he's dead... you and everybody... tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that. How do I get by those days? What about me? How often will I . . . Listen, take your hand away from me, don't for God's sake diddle at me. There's nothing wrong with me, I saw too much. That's all that's wrong with me and I knew too much before. I always knew too much for an ineffectual talky damned old bitched female. And I'm afraid. Now I am afraid. That's what's wrong with me."
     "He won't pass over," Mrs. Rhale said. "I'm sure he won't pass over. So don't . . ."
     "Pass over where? You mean die? Yes, he will probably die," Aunt Sarah said, "and it's not his dying I'm afraid of."
      The nurse cleared her throat and put one foot behind her. She stepped on the base of a long-stemmed standing ashtray. The base had a round bottom filled with lead and the whole stand tipped forward and began to rock. The nurse stopped it with her hand.
     No ashes spilled, but for an instant the air smelled of burnt cigarettes. Then the smell went away.
     Aunt Sarah said: "I wish I could tell you what I'm afraid of, but I'm not afraid in words. I wish I could say it now for you to hear. Oh, I wish you might have seen what the wheel did. And us three standing there. And Mayann didn't move. She never made a motion. I saw one edge of the wheel wobble with my eyes, I saw it loose and wobbly. But I didn't see it come off; that was too quick. And Edmund spun around three times on the railing, like a dancer, and he stopped, facing us, exact, he stopped and stood like a dancer. With that twisted round metal thing from the wheel stuck halfway out of his side. And his arm near torn off at the elbow, hanging there by the coat sleeve. He stood and watched Mayann, and the red gush pumped out of his arm and splashed all over the sidewalk, and it went on pumping. And Mayann never moved. The rasp, the scream the truck made when it went down on one fender there, and the sparks, the scream, the truck screamed before it stopped. And the driver was swearing, I could hear him swear. He swore and swore, I hope to tell you, the language, I never heard him then but I remember it now. And Edmund and Mayann just standing facing each other on the sidewalk, staring at each other. And Mayann didn't move; not even when Edmund leaned back and slid down against the railing and dropped in his own mess. Not when all those people came and there was a crowd and some woman held Edmund's arm this way to keep all his blood from spilling out. Not till the ambulance got there, Mayann didn't move. All that time, from right before it happened, she just stood there. And the doctor took her by the arm and led her and me to the ambulance, and then she let him lead her. But if he hadn't, she would still be there. Because she didn't move. You didn't. You didn't, you didn't move."
     "Hush," Mrs. Rhale said, "for God. Don't get her out of control too. Talk to me, talk to us. Don't talk like that to Mayann, you shush; you'll get her upset too."
     "Right," the nurse said.
     "... Upset?" Aunt Sarah said. She laughed into her handkerchief. "Mayann? Upset. Upset. Upset?"
     Mrs. Rhale said fast to the nurse: "I think she's going to turn hysterical, dear."
     "Not turn," Aunt Sarah said. She giggled and said: "I already am. I'm just as hysterical as I'm ever going to be. Are you blind?"
     The nurse said: "A little smelling salts, I think."
     "Just stand where you are," Aunt Sarah said, "don't think; just stay there. I don't need smelling salts. I can shut up when I want to."
     Stillness groped back into the room and spread through the air.
     Aunt Sarah kept her handkerchief tight over her mouth. Her choked sobs made her look and sound as if she were retching.
     "Good for you," Mrs. Rhale said. "Fine."
     "Right," the nurse said.
     The stillness.
     The nurse wiped her hands for business. She stepped under the fan and put her hand up to the beaded chain.
     And Mayann said: "No."
     "... What?"
     "... What, sugar?"
     Mayann said: "Please don't put the light on." The words caught in the air.
     "Oh," the nurse said. "Oh. I beg your pardon . . ."
     "Thank you," Mayann said. She uncrossed her ankles and rose in one movement. Then with her finger tips she touched the top of Aunt Sarah's head and leaned down and kissed her.
     "Princess," Mrs. Rhale said.
      Mayann straightened. She moved forward under the fan.
      The nurse said: "Miss, can I do something to help?"
     "Thank you," Mayann said.
     "Did you hear what I came to say about their bringing him down soon now?"
     "No," Mayann said. "Yes. It doesn't matter. Thank you very much," she said.
     "... It's such a sad tragedy," the nurse said.
     "Yes." Mayann walked past her to the middle of the room. Then she turned sharp to the left. She walked two steps more over the empty floor, and turned to the right, and went directly to the windowseat. When she got there she bent and slid into it. One foot tucked behind the other ankle, she sat sideways and watched the close screen.
      The nurse shook her head. She shook it again and came up to Mrs. Rhale. "His daughter?" she said.
      Mrs. Rhale nodded.
     "Such . . . such . . ." the nurse said. "Such a lady."
     "More than a lady," Mrs. Rhale said.
     Reflected light from the ground beyond the oak touched Mayann's straight short hair. The light appeared to shine on her like a crown.
     The nurse said: "Look at how she sits. That's the loveliest face I ever saw."
     "It's the way she uses it," Mrs. Rhale said, wiping under her glasses.
     "She wasn't crying. She was smiling. She even smiled at me."
     Aunt Sarah lifted her handkerchief away from her mouth. "Of course," she said, "you're damn right; of course she was."
     "Smiling . . ." the nurse said, "I never saw such a lady."
     Aunt Sarah said: "Of course. Stupid. Go back down the hall and whisper some more. Jesus Christ. Pass over where? Of course she was."

     Back in November with the first ice the two men came to town. They were in the Hotel Roosevelt before anybody knew about them. The tall one looked about forty and the other maybe ten years older. Both were dark, with black brilliantined hair and dark eyes, too studied in their dress. Neither was ever seen to wear the same clothes twice. They had foreign accents and every day two pair of natty foreign shoes, narrow and pointed. They went to the best restaurants and at night they usually went to the Country Club; they gambled small sums and generally won and they were very discreet about everything. The younger man was quite beautiful.
     People might have thought they were tourists or even businessmen. People might not have thought about them at all if old Mrs. Wiston hadn't remembered the name Bufardi. They were introducing themselves wherever they went as the Bufardi brothers. Bufardi was the maiden name of Edmund Choate's first wife.
     Then gossip went underground and spread like roots. It was known that the men were not in town on business, at least not proper business. They behaved as tourists should the first week but after that they never went anyplace during the day except to a restaurant for lunch; and they stayed on in New Orleans. Some nights they walked through the red-light district--always alone.
     By the second week people said they were enormously polite blackmailers.
     Lydell Wainscott's mother told Lydell to have Mayann over for dinner. When he asked her, Mayann said her father was not feeling well and she preferred not to go out in the evenings for a while.
     After that it was a sort of agreement--an unsounded note--to help Edmund protect his daughter from those two men. Doors and mouths slammed shut and no one of any importance, man or woman, talked to the men at the Club. The men were ignored and people who had been introduced to them snubbed them. The underground gossip shrank and was avoided: there was poison in it.
     But the men stayed on.
     The third week it was noticed that Edmund looked worn-out and considerably older. He did look older.
     The third week was when those men confronted Mayann for the first time in a public place.
     She was dressed in a gray steel blue that day, the shade of a fading winter sky; having coffee with Libbie Mills and her daughter in the coffee shop on Royal Street. Mayann had to be home early and she excused herself and said goodbye at five-thirty. The men were sitting at a table for two on the side wall, behind her chair, right where she had to pass. When she came near, the men rose from their seats together; they got up in silence, turned a little outward, for her to walk by. The whole coffee shop was quiet then. Libbie Mills (who had known the men were there for most of an hour) now teetered on the edge of a sneeze, looking as if she had just been stabbed in the back. Even the lady cashier froze with all the fingernails of one stiff hand pointed up at nothing. Of all the people there only Mayann did not hesitate. The cashier made a croaking sound. And Mayann bowed her head down and to the side toward those two men. Gravely, in her porcelain walk, she passed them with her head bowed down. The two men sat again as the blue bowed figure wound between the silent tables and out onto the street. Afterwards nobody could say for sure whether she had bowed to them for any reason--even a queen can bow without a reason. Mrs. Mills never got to the sneeze; but she blew her nose back into action. She blew it loud.
     Talk was sharper after that. A lot of people said they hoped Aunt Sarah would take Mayann on a vacation to New York till something could be done.
     Two days later Edmund was in Pierre's Restaurant waiting for Mayann to come and join him for dinner. It was late, eight o'clock of the evening Edmund always went to Pierre's. The restaurant was full to the back room and Edmund was at his usual table reading a folded newspaper. He had already said hello to the Wistons and the Wainscotts and the Crabbes, who owned Maison Rose, and the Corcorans, Mrs. Rhale's daughter and son-in-law, and the rest. The right people (the Friday people) were mostly there.
     Those men were there too.
     They had been sitting in the Picture Room and had not been observed until they walked straight in to Edmund's table; they stood on either side of him. They spoke low and what they said was not heard in full by anyone but Edmund. But Elizabeth Crabbe said she heard some talk about their meeting the next day--about Edmund's meeting them if they would go away immediately from the restaurant. Edmund did not look at the men: he kept staring into the center of his own table while he spoke with them. His back was rigid and his hand white and knuckled around the bunched newspaper. Mrs. Crabbe, Mr. Wainscott, Edmund's friends were all ready to come and stand by him. But Edmund would not look up.
     Then Mayann was in the doorway.
     Mrs. Wainscott grinned like a madwoman and waved to divert her but Mayann only said, "Good evening," with that gentle nod, smiling as she passed each table and her blue silk skirt swished crisp and clean. She nodded to everyone. And she did not stop walking until she reached Edmund's side.
     "Good evening," she said.
     Edmund got to his feet.
     The two men bent slightly from the waist; then they started around the table, their backs to her, heading for the door.
     Mayann said: "Father, please. Please," she said.
     Edmund said loud: "Gentlemen."
     The two men stood still. The older one turned.
     "I know," Edmund said, "... I assume you did not mean rudeness to my daughter. This is my daughter. Not a waitress." His voice was wrenched out, separated from him.
     Edmund said: "Mr. and Mr. Bufardi. My daughter, May LeGrange Choate."
     Mayann went forward. She said: "I'm so glad." She gave her hand to each of the men. Each took it and bent over it.
     The Wainscotts and George Crabbe were standing at their tables.
     Mayann said: "Buona sera, signori. Finalmente. My father does not speak Italian any more but I have studied it. Perhaps one day soon we will speak in Italian, if you can excuse my speaking badly; I have not had much practice."
     The beautiful man swallowed, and choked. He coughed.
     Mayann said: "Are you ill?"
     The man shook his head.
     "Good," Mayann said, "this is dangerous weather. You must be very careful here now. I hope you are not angry with me. I didn't stop to speak to you the other day because I knew you had not yet met my father. Did you understand?"