Contents | March 2002
In This Issue (Contributors)
More on fiction from The Atlantic Monthly.
The Atlantic Monthly | March 2002
irst, last, and foremost, Ling Tan thought of herself as a Christian. So when Mrs. Sheriday said, "Tell me a little something about yourself," Ling didn't even draw breath before responding, "I am good Christian." And so saying, she sat up even straighter in her chair, like a star pupil providing the correct answer to a teacher.
A short story
by Marjorie Kemper
But the employment counselor didn't smile. She didn't even look up. She went on regarding the papers on her desk and said, "Well, yes, I'm sure that you are. But what I meant was, tell me more about your work experience. I see that you were enrolled in a practical-nursing program at Long Beach Memorial Hospital but you didn't complete the course of study."
Ling ducked her head.
"Why was that?"
Ling said nothing.
"Why, exactly, did you drop out?"
Ling smiled and shrugged.
The other woman waited.
The silence got too big for Ling. Twisting her hands, she said, "Had late classes. Afraid to ride bus home at night."
"I see." Mrs. Sheriday looked back down at the papers. "Next time try taking morning classes, because you need more credits." She pointed her pen at Ling's thin résumé. "Your references are very good; I can see you're good with patients. But our doctors and care managers like to see more academic training. You still have time to register for some classes at Long Beach Community College."
"Even if you were just enrolled, I could list them."
"Next semester I enroll," Ling said, and smiled. Americans liked smiling, and Californians smiled all the time, so Ling made it a habit to smile constantly. She smiled when she was alone; she might even have smiled in her sleep.
As Ling got up to leave, Mrs. Sheriday said, "Check with me midweek—I might have something then. I see you've worked with children. I have a pediatric oncologist who is looking for somebody to live in and provide custodial care for a patient who is terminal. You wouldn't have any expenses, and you could save your wages for next school term."
Ling nodded, and in acknowledgment of the seriousness of this new topic, the mortal illness of a child, attempted to stop smiling. But this was not quite possible.
Back in her furnished room, two hours later, Ling drank three glasses of water. She drank the first one because she was thirsty from sitting on the bus-stop bench in the hot sun for an hour; she drank the second and third to trick her stomach into thinking she had fed it breakfast and lunch. She sat in a chair she had placed at the uncurtained window of her second-story room. It was spring, and in a yard beyond a shabby garage two plum trees—unpruned for a generation—were struggling into bloom. Ling let her eyes rest on the white blossoms and took the time to thank God for the beauty he had created in every moment and in every place. Even now, even here. Wherever she looked she could see evidence of his goodness. And the flowering plums were beautiful—if Ling looked only at their canopies, if her eye didn't follow the scaling trunks down to the array of old paint cans and junk lumber nestled in the weeds beneath.
Ling took a deep breath and thanked God for his unceasing goodness to her—air in abundance, strong lungs to take it in, the flowering plums, even the water in her plastic glass. Ling sat in her chair and watched the plum trees until dusk fell and the blossoms melted into the darkness. Then, having no food and no money to buy it, she went to bed. In her neighborhood children played late; car alarms went on and off, seemingly at random; police cars and ambulances wailed on their way to St. Mary's Hospital, a block away. Even after she'd pulled the shades down, the orange streetlights cast a hellish glow on the ceiling. Ling shut her eyes and prayed. She was deep in a prayer of thanksgiving for her many blessings when she fell asleep.
ing called Mrs. Sheriday on Wednesday from a pay phone on the corner of her street. "Ling, I'm glad you called. I got a call from the doctor about that boy. I made a tentative appointment for you to go out and meet his mother, Mrs. Tipton. The parents are divorced."
Ling smiled furiously into the phone.
artha Tipton, the sick boy's mother, opened the door to Ling Tan. While still in the vestibule, Mrs. Tipton said, "Oh, dear, you don't look very strong—you're shorter than Mike."
"Oh, very strong," Ling said. "Not big, not tall, but very strong. Used to working with children."
"Mike's sixteen. He doesn't weigh what he should, of course, but he's tall for his age."
Ling smiled. "Very strong," she repeated.
Mrs. Tipton led the way into the living room. "Well, if you say so. Mrs. Sheriday said you'd be bringing references. May I see them?"
Ling opened her purse and proffered the letters, and Mrs. Tipton sat down on the edge of the sofa to read them. Ling remained standing. The living room was sparsely furnished—a sofa, a piano, a bare coffee table. All of Mrs. Tipton's domestic efforts appeared to have gone into her yard and her plants. From the sidewalk Ling had already noticed, with approval, Mrs. Tipton's well-kept garden. Now Ling's eyes went to a row of African violets on a low windowsill—pink ones, white ones, purple ones—all blooming! Mrs. Tipton was a good steward.
"These are remarkable," Mrs. Tipton said, handing the letters back to Ling. "Let's go back to Mike's room and see if he's awake." When they got there, Mrs. Tipton stuck her head inside. "He's sleeping," she whispered, closing the door quietly.
"Will I sleep close by, so can hear boy if he call?" Ling asked.
Mrs. Tipton nodded and opened the next door—into a small room containing a bureau, a sewing machine, an ironing board, and a single bed. "I've cleared out the bureau for your things," she said.
The room had French doors. Outside, healthy ferns and fuchsias cascaded from hanging baskets, and nasturtiums bordered the brick walk. God's goodness, as well as Mrs. Tipton's fine stewardship, was much in evidence.
ing transported her belongings—a green leatherette suitcase and a canvas satchel holding her Bible and her Bible-study books—on the bus later that afternoon. When she arrived, at six, Mike was asleep again, and Mrs. Tipton was preparing to leave for an appointment with her tax man.
"Mike's had his dinner," she said. "He usually eats at five-thirty. Just go in and introduce yourself when he wakes up. And when you do, give him the pills in this paper cup. I've told him about you, and he's expecting to meet you. If you should need me, the number is on the refrigerator, beside Doctor Mackenzie's."
After Mrs. Tipton had gone, Ling checked on Mike. She stood in the doorway to his room and studied her new charge for a long time. He was blond, pale, and tall, as his mother had said—or, more accurate in the circumstances, long. His bare arms were covered with a light blond down. Ling—who had been orphaned at eight and had survived typhus and thirty-two days in an open boat—could not accept the inevitability of the sleeping boy's death. Inevitability was a concept that ran contrary to her experience. That afternoon, while discussing Mike's illness with Mrs. Tipton, Ling had said that she would pray for a miracle for Mike. Mrs. Tipton's brow had furrowed, and she'd said that it was a little late in the day for that. Ling had quickly dropped the subject, but she could not drop the hope. To Ling, who regarded her own life as an unfolding miracle, miracles were a commonplace.
Later, when Ling heard Mike's dry little cough floating down the hall, she ran to his doorway and spoke quietly. "Mike, I Ling Tan. I here to help Mother take care of you until you get better." She smiled at the boy—who pushed himself higher on his pillows and studied her face. Ling went on, "Mother just go to see tax man. Back very soon."
"I don't know where you got your information, Ling Tan," Mike said severely, "but I'm not getting better. I'm in the process of getting worse."
"Naughty boy!" Ling exclaimed, laughing as she rushed forward into the room to tuck in a loose cover at the foot of his bed. "Now Ling here, you stop getting worse. Start getting better!"
"You could maybe benefit from a little chat with my oncologist," Mike said, taking a pillow from behind his back and pounding it into a new shape.
"I tell him thing or two. You hungry?"
"Mother make you little snack. Leave in refrigerator."
Ling went to the kitchen and came back with a bowl of sliced peaches. "Here," she said. "Look good. Eat peach. Give you energy to get better."
"Have you ever heard of white cells?"
Ling nodded. "Lucky all my life—but not luck really. Grace." She sat down at the foot of Mike's bed. "Grace better than luck. You pray for grace, Mike. Not look nice to pray for luck."
Mike ate a peach slice. "I'll remember that," he said, and he picked up the TV remote from his bedside table. As the TV sprang to life, a sitcom audience screamed with laughter; Mike muted the TV. "I'd like to know what's so damn funny," he said.
Ling said, "Nothing that funny, don't think. I read in magazine, studio bring crazy people to TV shows in buses, to laugh like pack of monkeys."
"Hyenas," Mike corrected. "The expression is 'pack of hyenas.'"
Ling nodded. "Hyenas," she repeated. "Bring them from crazy house."
"That explains a lot," Mike said. He flipped through the channels until he found a rerun of M*A*S*H.
"Oh, like this program," Ling said enthusiastically. "Good doctors on this program. Funny."
"Not very realistic, though," Mike said. "I've yet to meet a doctor with even a rudimentary sense of humor."
Ling nodded brightly.
"Aren't you supposed to bring me my meds?"
Ling looked away from the TV, where Klinger was dressed like a woman. "Oh, I forget! I get them right now."
She handed Mike a glass of water and watched while he transferred six pills from the paper cup to his mouth and swallowed them. She said, "So many!"
"Yes, and they accomplish so little."
"But good for you—make you better."
Mike turned the TV back up. Ling returned to the foot of his bed. She sat sideways and turned her head to watch. "Klinger wear same dress as my auntie," she told Mike, and giggled.
Mike snorted. "I hope it looked better on her."
"Didn't," Ling said with a laugh. "Auntie not look good, but Auntie good inside." Ling tapped her breast. "Here."
She gazed around Mike's room. It had a wall of bookshelves, and a desk and chair by the window. A picture of Mike's parents sat on the bureau, taken when they were much younger. They were holding hands. Ling turned away; photos made her nervous. They were always of things that were over with, gone—a moment, a smile, a person, sometimes a whole country. A poster of an old man with scraggly hair was on the back of Mike's door. The man was sticking his tongue out. Why did Mike have a picture of a crazy person on his door? "Who is that?" she asked cautiously, in case it was a relative.
Ling smiled and nodded.
"He was a physicist," Mike said. "A genius," he added for Ling's benefit, because she still looked blank. "You've heard of E equals MC squared?"
Ling smiled and nodded. "Are you genius too? Have so many books!"
"I'm smart, but possibly not a genius."
"How come he make that face?"
"I try go to college, learn more, but my English not very good," Ling confided. "I quit before bad grades get on permanent record." She had never told this to anyone before.
"Your English isn't so bad," Mike said. "Considering."
"Maybe you help me—tell me when I using wrong word."
"It would have to be a crash course. My mother must have told you I'm on my way out. We're talking months here, Ling Tan." Mike ran through the channels with the remote. "Two, maybe three." He clicked the set off. "Tops."
"Mother can't know everything. Doctors either. I wait and see."
"An empiricist in our midst," Mike said.
"An empiricist is someone who draws conclusions from the evidence."
"Not Empiricist—Christian. Believe in God's goodness. In miracles."
"That's what it would take."
Ling nodded smartly. "Already praying. Start without you. You see. God is good. He bless us every day."
"You could have fooled me," Mike said.
ing quickly fit herself into the routine of the Tipton household. Fitting in was what she did best; it was her special gift. She could be quiet, as she had been when her family had hidden from the soldiers in the forest. She could make herself small, as she had in the boat. If necessary, she could even push herself forward and talk fast and loud, as she had in the refugee camp. With Mike she was cheerful as a rule. Early on they developed a vaudeville routine of sorts, with Mike playing Baby Curmudgeon to her Cheerful Naif.
With Mrs. Tipton, Ling was careful to be quiet and pleasant. Mrs. Tipton's nerves were ragged, and she frequently burst into tears in the course of ordinary conversations. Not wanting Mike to see her cry, she spent a lot of time outside, working in her garden. She came into her son's room at frequent intervals, but rarely stayed long. Usually she rushed off, saying she needed to check on something—just seconds before bursting into tears.
When Mr. Tipton came over, Ling endeavored to make herself invisible. Though she suspected that Mr. Tipton was every bit as sad as his ex-wife, he seemed more angry than sad. He seemed to be angry all the time, at everything and everyone except Mike.
When Ling first met him, she recognized him right away from the photo in his son's room. Unlike poor Mrs. Tipton, Mr. Tipton looked the same as in Mike's photo. When Ling opened the door to him, she said, "Oh! Mike's father! He will be so happy to see you."
"Go to market. Back soon. I'm Ling Tan."
When she heard Mrs. Tipton's car in the driveway, Ling went out to help carry the groceries. "Mr. Tipton here with Mike," she said. Ling put away the groceries while Mrs. Tipton went back to Mike's room.
Shortly thereafter Mr. Tipton came out to the kitchen. He looked very angry. "Mike tells me you're praying for him."
Ling felt herself accused, and ducked her head. "Yes," she admitted.
"Well, naturally you're free to pray day and night, but I'd appreciate your not talking to Mike about it. Or about miracles. We've spent two years choking on hope around here; hope is ancient history. I appreciate your intentions, but the last thing we need is a latecomer peddling miracles."
Mr. Tipton had spoken quickly and softly, and though Ling had certainly gotten the sense of what he'd said, she'd missed some of the words. What, for instance, did "peddling" mean? Looking down at the floor, she said, "Just try to keep up boy's spirits."
Every morning, when she brought in Mike's breakfast and pills, she opened his drapes and delivered her line: "Look, Mikey! God make another beautiful day just for you. He expect you to look at it."
His line was "Close the damn drapes. It's too bright."
"Too bright for moles, maybe," Ling always responded. "You not mole. You boy."
One morning when Ling opened the drapes she saw Mike's mother kneeling in the garden. "Look, Mikey, Mother planting new flowers for you to see out window. Wave at her." Mike rolled his eyes, but he waved. His mother was kneeling in the dirt, transferring pansies from flats into a flower bed around the deodar tree in the side yard. Surprised, she smiled and waved back.
"Your mother best gardener I know," Ling observed. "She love her plants. They feel it and grow big for her."
"She loves me, too, but this is as big as I'm getting."
"You plenty big already," Ling said. "Bigger than me."
"What is this?" Mike asked when Ling lifted the lid from a bowl on his breakfast tray.
"I don't like oatmeal."
"Oatmeal good for you. You eat, then maybe I bring something you like."
"Whose bright idea is this?"
"My idea. I read in magazine when we at Doctor Mackenzie's office, oatmeal cleanse the blood."
"Jesus, Ling, get a clue."
"Won't hurt you to eat little bowl of oatmeal," Ling said.
ecause Mrs. Tipton took pills and slept soundly, one of Ling's jobs was to listen for Mike during the night. If he needed her, he knocked on their shared wall. After helping him to the bathroom, or getting him something to drink or a pill or—on a bad night—a shot, or rubbing his foot when he had a cramp, Ling kept him company until he was able to sleep again. One night, curled up like a cat at the foot of Mike's bed, Ling asked, "You want to watch TV? Maybe M*A*S*H on." It usually was.
"Not really. Has my dad bawled you out about this miracle deal?"
"Not know 'bawled out.'"
"Did he yell at you?"
"Not yell," Ling said. "Father worried for you. Not want me upset you."
"I was afraid of that. I want you to know I didn't complain about you. I only mentioned it to him because I thought he'd get a kick out of it. I was a little off the mark there. Shows you how well I know dear old Dad. Anyway, I hope he didn't hurt your feelings."
"Not hurt my feelings. Don't need Father's permission to pray. Don't need permission for miracle either."
"I wouldn't think so."
"Father love you very much. Tell me getting special doctor for you." Mr. Tipton had informed Ling and Mrs. Tipton that he'd arranged for a psychiatrist who worked with terminally ill children and adolescents to visit Mike.
"You mean the shrink?"
Ling smiled and shook her head to indicate that she didn't know the word.
"S-H-R-I-N-K—that's another word for a head doctor. One of the high priests of humanism."
"Ah," Ling said. "Father's priest?"
Mike snorted. "Close enough. He's supposed to make me feel better about dying."
"He can do that?"
"We shall see." Mike closed his eyes.
"You want me read to you?"
"Same book Father read this afternoon?" Father and son were reading Hegel. Ling had no idea what it was about; all she knew was that it had more hard words than the Bible and no story at all.
"Not this time of night. You pick something."
Ling ran to her room and came back with her Bible. "I read to you from my book." Laughing, she held it up for Mike to see.
"Oh, Dad would love this!"
"He say not talk about miracle. Didn't say about Bible."
"True," Mike said. "I know—read the Book of Job. Let's get a standard of comparison."
"Oh, Job sad story."
"My favorite kind."
But about fifteen minutes into Job's travails Mike's pain pill took effect, and he fell asleep. Ling stopped reading. She sat very still until she was certain that the boy was sleeping soundly, and then she moved to the desk chair. Ling tried to go on reading (she'd left off where Job said, "Wearisome nights are appointed to me"), but the light from the little bedside lamp was too distant to read by, so she shut the book and put her head down on the desk. The miracle she'd been praying for since arriving at the Tiptons' was nowhere in sight, and even Ling, always optimistic, always on the lookout for a blessing, understood that they were running low on time. Mike kept getting thinner, despite the nice meals his mother prepared, meals that Ling spent hours coaxing the boy to eat. Fortunately, she'd been telling Mrs. Tipton the truth when she'd said that she was strong, because nowadays she more carried than walked Mike to the bathroom. They had stopped going downtown to the medical building to see his oncologist. Now Dr. Mackenzie came to the house, rushing in and staying only long enough to rationalize his big bill and to cast a pall over everyone's spirits. Mike's cough had grown worse. At last count nine pills were in the paper cup after dinner, and, most ominous, syringes of pain medicine were now kept in the refrigerator for the relief of Mike's severe headaches, which came on without warning. All in all, Ling had a lot to pray for and about; her head cradled in her thin arms, she was still praying when the sun came up.
he new doctor, Dr. Hanson, the shrink, came to the house three afternoons a week. On his first visit, every time Mike had said anything, Dr. Hanson had responded, "How does that make you feel, Mike?"
"Like death warmed over," Mike had said, trying to fluster him. Or "Makes me want to die," or "Scares me to death." Ling and Mike had exchanged conspiratorial glances, and Ling had laughed behind her hand.
But Dr. Hanson proved to be such a nice young man that teasing him wasn't much fun. In fact, after he'd been coming for a couple of weeks, Mike told Ling that he felt sorry for Dr. Hanson.
"Why sorry for him?" she snapped. "You the sick one."
"Yeah, but he's so damn hopeful, you know?"
"Bible say hope a virtue. Have to hope."
Ling shrugged. "Just hope." She had begun to resent this particular injunction.
"You're saying that this mandatory hope has no object?"
Ling thought for a minute and said, "Hope is to prop open door, so good things can come in. Maybe when you not looking."
"I see. Hope as a metaphysical doorstop. Good one, Ling. Well, anyway, at least Doctor Hanson talks. Doctor Mackenzie hasn't said two personal words to me in weeks."
"He lose interest in us, I think."
"I know. I shouldn't have played so hard to get. And probably I should have eaten more oatmeal. It's abundantly clear that I've no one to blame for all this but myself."
Ling looked at the floor. She'd thrown the box of oatmeal in the garbage a week before. "Maybe should invite some boys, Mikey, come talk to you. You have some nice friends own age?"
"Not really. Do you?"
"Not really," Ling admitted. "We each other's friend now, I think."
"Works for me."
s Mike grew worse, the room filled with sickroom apparatus—first a walker, then a commode, and finally, after a series of consecutive bad nights, a rollaway bed for Ling. While Mike slept, Ling went through the Book of Job, which had become a favorite of Mike's, with a fine-tooth comb, hoping to find some consolation. After God had let the Devil have his way with Job, after Job had brought credit on him, God took him back. The Bible even said that afterward God gave Job new sons and daughters, new cattle and sheep. And, Ling supposed, cattle were cattle, and one cow was as good as another, but children were not cattle. Children had souls. You could not replace one with another. So where was the comfort in all this?
But Mike read Job over and over. He memorized great hunks of it, and insisted on reading his favorite bits aloud to Ling. Sometimes he stopped mid-sentence and laughed.
"I'm in your debt for suggesting this, Ling."
"No problem," Ling said. "God's word count for something in this world, but I not go to college, and not a genius, so I not always sure what."
"Yes you are," Mike said.
Ling shook her head.
"You believe in God's goodness still, don't you?"
Ling turned her back on Mike and looked out the window.
"You do, don't you, Ling?"
"Have to believe in that when I look at God's big world," Ling said.
"There you go," Mike said. "The world is very, very big. It stands to reason that it's beyond our understanding, yes?"
"Yes," Ling whispered. "But used to understand."
"And now you don't. You see, you've learned something already."
"What I am learning?"
"That there's more to heaven and earth than oatmeal and a positive attitude. More than Ling Tan was born knowing. Humility—not to put too fine a point on it."
Humility was a hard lesson, worse than English grammar, and Ling missed her old, blithe assurance as keenly as she might have missed a beloved pet. But she believed what she had told Mikey about hope—that you could use it to prop open a door so that something good might come in. So she hoped. And waited. And prayed for something good to slip through their open door. Maybe at night, while they slept.
r. Hanson was an even bigger smiler than Ling— who these days had to remind herself to smile, and who thought that the young doctor overdid it.
"Doctor Hanson always so cheerful," Ling remarked one day, while she folded laundry on Mike's bed. She didn't mean it as a compliment.
"And why not?" Mike asked. "He's not the one who's dying. Though I don't know why he doesn't get right on it, since he sees it as such a gigantic opportunity for what he calls 'personal growth.'"
Ling giggled. "I think he already grow big enough." The doctor was a little on the plump side.
Mike laughed. "When he was here yesterday, I quoted some Job at him—'Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me.' I wanted his take on that."
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'Beautiful, beautiful!' With this huge, ecstatic smile plastered on that big round face of his."
"How did that make you feel?" Ling said, joking.
"Like I'd been dead three days," Mike shot back.
"Maybe Job beautiful if not about you," Ling said, smoothing a pillowcase. She almost wished she hadn't introduced Mikey to the Bible. She'd certainly had it with Job and his comforters—even Job's God, whom she'd just barely contrived to keep separate from her own. These days, when she had the time and the energy to read, she stuck strictly to the Psalms and the Gospels. But Mike liked Job almost as much as he liked Einstein. Certainly more than Mr. Tipton at this point in the proceedings liked Hegel. Mike had told his mother that Job was his favorite book—which caused Mrs. Tipton to run out of the room in tears, and which she wisely did not pass on to her ex-husband. When Ling brought in Mike's breakfast, he always quoted, in a rising falsetto, "Or is there any taste in the white of an egg?"
Folding towels, Ling said, "I think Doctor Hanson look better if he grow beard. Then his face not seem so wide."
"I'll tell him."
"No, Mikey! Then he know we notice his face fat." Piling the folded laundry back in the basket, Ling confessed, "Mikey, worried about miracle. Afraid prayers aren't getting through."
"Sure they are," Mike said. "It's the answers that seem to be snagged up."
"Same thing," Ling said.
Ling nodded. "Study guide say God answer prayers, but his answer not always one we want. No, I say it wrong: it say, maybe not answer we expect."
"Ah, the element of surprise. One of his favorite devices. As we've learned."
Ling took a deep breath and tried to smile at Mike's little joke. "Not giving up, Mikey. I keep praying. Promise."
"Everyone should have a hobby," Mike said, "to quote the estimable Doctor Hanson." He flipped on the TV.
Dr. Hanson had asked Mike what his hobbies were, and Mike had said that just lately his hobby was dying.
Undeterred, Dr. Hanson had said, "That's more of a full-time job, isn't it? I'm talking recreation. Do you play chess?"
After that Dr. Hanson and Mike played chess. Mike consistently beat him. But instead of saying "Checkmate," Mike would say, "How does that make you feel?"
"Beat," Dr. Hanson would reply. "Walloped."
ou don't think he's letting me win, do you?" Mike asked Ling later that week. He was having one of what he and Ling were calling his "bad days." He'd had a solid week of them. The smell of Dr. Hanson's after-shave still lingered in the room. Even his after-shave, Ling had protested to Mike, was cheerful.
"Doctor Hanson can't beat genius, Mikey."
"I may not be a genius, Ling. It's impossible at this point to tell for sure."
"Close. Maybe not like old Uncle." Ling pointed at the Einstein poster. "But you not old like him either. Smarter than Doctor Hanson for sure! What he thinking? Smiling every minute at boy supposed to be dying!"
"You should talk."
"I know. Used to smile like hyena."
"Monkey! No, monkeys grin, don't they? Hyenas laugh. Lings smile."
"Ling not so much smiling now. Only when something to smile about. You notice?"
"Actually, I've been meaning to talk to you about that. I think it's time to paste a big old smile on your face and leave it there, because we're definitely running out of reasons. Anyway, on you a smile has always looked good."
Ling smiled. It was an effort.
month later Dr. Hanson stopped smiling. Mike was in a coma. Still Dr. Hanson came at his appointed times and sat beside Mike's bed and held the boy's hand—now studded like a clove orange with IVs. Dr. Mackenzie came every day, and a registered nurse came morning and evening. Mr. and Mrs. Tipton took turns sitting in Mike's room—Mrs. Tipton crying freely now, her hands clasped in her lap; Mr. Tipton staring at an open book, the pages of which he rarely turned. Ling sat out of the way, in Mike's desk chair, which she had pulled over to the window so that she could look out at Mrs. Tipton's garden.
On the night before he'd slipped into the coma, Ling and Mike had tried to watch M*A*S*H, but Mike had a terrible headache, and the light from the TV hurt his eyes. Ling had turned it off.
"We see that one already," she said briskly. By then they'd seen them all. "That one sad anyway. Even Hawkeye cry." Mike, eyes shut, nodded. Ling gave him his pain shot and rubbed his temples with a Chinese herbal lotion that her auntie had used for migraines.
"My God, what is this stuff?" Mike protested. "It smells like a bog!"
"All natural," Ling assured him. "Very good for headache. Cleanse the blood. Good for bad nerves."
"I can't believe you're still trying to cleanse this treacherous blood of mine! However," Mike conceded, "my nerves could not be worse."
"Auntie swear by it," Ling said. She smoothed his thin hair back, rubbing his forehead.
Mike looked up into her eyes. "You know where we made our mistake, don't you?"
Ling shook her head.
"Praying for grace instead of luck. We tipped our hand. We indicated we were willing to settle."
Ling bit her lower lip and didn't answer.
"Come on, Ling. 'How does that make you feel?'"
Ling giggled weakly. "Don't," she said. "Too tired to joke."
It was three in the morning. The only noise in the house was the refrigerator humming in the kitchen. Mike closed his eyes and quoted: "God thundereth marvelously with his voice; great things doeth he, which we cannot comprehend."
"That not God, that the refrigerator."
"Maybe, maybe not. You'll admit that the universe, or God—whatever you like to call it—does stuff we don't get. Hegel didn't get it. I'm not even sure Einstein got it."
"He get it. That's why he stick tongue out."
Ling took a long breath. She put the cap back on the bottle of Auntie's lotion and said, "Maybe God blessing us this moment, and we not knowing it."
"Thanks for trying, Ling, but that may be the single most depressing thing you've said to me."
"Not depressing, Mikey. I only mean he bless me with you and he bless you with me."
he morning after Mike died, after she'd packed and before she left Mrs. Tipton's house forever, Ling went into Mike's room. She had made up the empty bed the night before. Now she went to the window and pulled back the drapes.
"God make another beautiful day, Mikey," she said. Then, after blowing her nose and replacing the ragged Kleenex in the pocket of her sweater, she added, "But this one not for you."
Ling stood staring out Mike's window. The dew was still on the grass; though Mrs. Tipton lay sedated in her bed, her lawn shone brightly in the morning light. The little faces of her pansies were turned up to the sun. The beauty of the flowers, and the sunshine they sought, were, Ling still believed, firm and undeniable evidence of God's goodness. Even here and even now. But this knowledge no longer lifted her up. She placed the palm of her hand on Mikey's empty bed and briefly bowed her head.
When she turned to go, her gaze met Einstein's. She had noticed a month before that except for the rude face he was making, Mikey's old scientist looked a lot like the illustrations of God the Father in her Bible-study guide. She had shown Mikey, who had thought this a hilarious coincidence. Now, her hand on the doorknob, Ling looked into the old face that had looked down on them for months, silently regarding everything they had done and suffered.
"Good-bye, Mr. Genius," she said softly. Then, before she sailed out the door, and in recognition, or solidarity, or maybe just farewell, Ling stuck out her little pink tongue.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2002; God's Goodness; Volume 289, No. 3; 81-89.