It was some months before Frederick agreed that leukemia was merciful. It was, actually, Maggie's suggestion. Since it was she facing chemotherapy, he took the idea seriously.
"Remember Will Epstein?" she had said one day. "Linda told me about it at WLA. He was diagnosed with liver cancer and he died five weeks later. We have time," she added.
It seemed macabre. She cited John Donne to him. They had always written letters to each other, leaving them on tables and desks or handing them to each other shily. She wrote him now about mementi mori; she accustomed him to thinking of death. She lost her beautiful hair, and he wept over its loss alone in his office where she could not see.
They had had two years. He had hoped for more, but she reminded him not to hope, and she was more prepared than he, from the beginning to the end.
Taking her first was, he thought, God's last joke. Frederick would not allow another. They had always assumed that she would outlive him.
"I don't want to," Maggie said. "Judith is twenty-five, and she doesn't need me; not that way. I want to die when you do."
He had smiled indulgently at her youthful face, so fierce, so cavalier about death. She wore that same smile, patronizing and false, whenever he said, as he did to bait her, that she was his little girl. When he was forty-six and she twenty-two, the difference had seemed greater than it did in her last days, when he rose from their bed each morning, his sixty-seven years such a weight in the first minutes of waking.
August 17. The anniversary, she had reminded him after they were married, of the first day of the class where they had met. It was August 17, the second since her death, and he was preparing dinner. Maggie's death dayher term, that she had taught himwas June 25. He had observed the first anniversary, and the anniversary of cremation a few days after, and that of her birth, of their first wild night of sex, of their wedding, of Judith's birth, and Mother's Day, and all the other milestones of empty passing days, each with the same uncolored ceremony.
He stood at the sink, grinding herbs for a can of soup.
"You can't just eat canned soup, you know. All it takes is a little invention, and it becomes real food." She would put basil in canned minestrone, and fresh oregano, and once, the only time he'd had them, turnip greens.
The soup was cream of broccoli, and the herbal mix was grey: it was always grey, of course. The jar of grey powder he kept sequestered on the back of a top shelf, only accessible if you stepped carefully, balancing unreliable joints, on the two-step stool he'd bought when her height, not his delicacy of equilibrium, required it.
The powder was tasteless, like dolomite. When Judith was born, Maggie had needed calcium supplements, and he had learned to make bread and added to it dolomite powder. It was, after the first half year, hardly noticeable in the culinary sense. He still made his own bread, gritty, grey-brown, for his private use.
"What a time to discover a new poet!" she had said one evening. He cocked an eyebrownearly a verbal response, after twenty-four years. "Jeffers," she explained. "Robinson Jeffers. Oh, I read 'Roan Stallion,'" she said, "in graduate school or something. And some of the political poems. But I happened on his last poems, a book called The Beginning and the End. There's this wonderful poem." She retrieved the book from her desk; she read the poem to him. It was Jeffers at his most morbid, after his wife Una's death, reflecting on the "enskyment" of being devoured by vultures, a kind of literal immortality.
She looked up triumphantly after the last line. "That's what I want," she said primly. "Not cremation. Feed me to vultures. Like an Indian on a pallet in the sun."
"Don't," he had said.
She came to him then. She had taken to wearing long scarves bound around her head like gypsy turbans, the ends trailing like veils even when she moved slowly. She sat beside him; she had taken him, his grey burr-cut head, like a child's in her arms.
"I mean it," she whispered in his ear. "Cremation. Reduced to a cup of ash. It's so impersonal."
He drew a breath. "It's legal," he said, raising his head and looking away.
She sighed, as if acknowledging that she was being unreasonable. "It's nice to think of, though."
He had remembered then the time he had joked with her that she was to compost him when he died. It had been her turn then, back when the universe was rolling forward with Augustan propriety and his health, not hers, was the imagined boundary of their life together, to say, "Don't," and his to comfort her.
He poured the powder from the mortar into the soup. He stirred the mixture, watching the occasional bubble form and pop on the simmering, vanilla-pudding-colored surface. His stirring raised bits of green, chunks of broccoli, that broke like lazy fish through the surface and sank again.
The powder was a private matter. "Judith would not understand," he had murmured on the firstno, it was the secondoccasion. It was true, private as their sex life. Of course she knew they had a sex life, and Maggie reported to him, in their bed, the brief, discrete conversations she had with Judithsome of them, at least. He wondered what Maggie might have told Judith, after all. He kept this ceremony private.
He poured the soup into a big bowl, and placed the bowl on a plate, then wedged bits of bread around it and carried it to the table, a soup spoon in his other hand. Two years. The table was too big for a solitary dinner. He imagined Maggie's wry smile facing him across the table. It would not, never for all time. He ate slowly, did his few dishes, retired to read till exhaustion. Exhaustion comes much later in the night than the young imagine.