Oh, Cardinal Directions!

You’ll be the father of nations. Genesis 17:4

Ginny listened for the door and keyless lock of her husband’s car, but Leonard Cohen heard the pull of the engine, the whirring pattern of its moving parts and their ritual breakdown. He ran to the heater, a perch with a view to the street, and pushed the thin linen curtain up with his head. In the window he looked like the Virgin.
“Christ-bearer,” Low said, “you dog-headed saint. Who do we pray for today?”
Leonard’s tail moved like a rudder.
“Low,” Ginny said, “Ricky called. He wants to come up.”
“Anytime. Christ, any time. How did he sound?”
“But I mean was he in good spirits?”
“He sounded tired.”
“Well, sure.”
It had been 18 months since Low took Ricky’s call in the kitchen. He was pulling down floral paper and painting the avocado walls a blue-gray from Behr. It was October. The sky over Milltown was the brightest dark blue, the grass where Leonard Cohen chased urban rabbits was still green and still growing. Inside, Low painted wood paneling white and dripped Manhattan© on the blue-gray linoleum floor. They’d keep the porcelain sink, the room’s anchor. She would make new lace curtains. The first Spring had come and now this, the second, and he hadn’t finished and she hadn’t started. These were the circumstances of their perpetual remodel: his commute, her friends’ weddings, bad planning, too many old layers of paint. There had been baptisms and funerals, mail, so much mail, tax seasons, new clients. There was Ginny’s sick-leave after the miscarriage. There was Ricky’s quarantine after the transplant. By then Ginny and Low had stopped entertaining. They meant to invite friends and neighbors for dinner, for Christmas, but the cabinet doors stayed on Low’s laundry room workbench, the laundry stayed on the love seat from college, clean socks and
underwear stood on the washer and drier in towers. Items were shifted, procured. Leonard Cohen came when Ginny stopped painting the nursery. In the kitchen, in October, Low answered the rotary phone. Ricky said the pain in his back and shoulders wasn’t from sleeping on couches. It wasn’t, as Low said but hadn’t believed, from stress or from baseball. The knees, Low thought, it should be the knees. Hey now, 27, swing, batter, batter! Maybe from catching Division III hitters stealing? Why not the hands? All that classical gas, Greensleeves and Bach since he was 7, since his parents divorced. The things you learn in a stat lab, a diner. “Ricky, play that Willie Nelson. ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.’ Play Seven Spanish Angels, Nails In My Coffin, through the ages I’ll remember/blue eyes crying in the rain. Ricky, sign off of AIM, it’s bad for your hands.
” Why not the hands?
“Lymphoma,” he said.
“Holy shit.” Low sat on the floor.
“But it’s early.”
“So we treat it.”
“So we treat it.”
“So we fucking kill it.”
“Well, we’re gonna fucking try.”
“You’re gonna be fine. Rick, you have to know you’re gonna be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“I know it.” As a rule, Low hated lying but now it came easy. “How do you feel?”
“We don’t have any secrets,” Ricky said. “So I’m not afraid to tell you. Brother, I’m
fucking scared.”
But Ricky didn’t say that.
“You’re gonna be fine. Rick, you have to know you’re gonna be fine.”
“I hope so.”
“I know it.” As a rule, Low hated lying but now it came easy. “How do you
“Well, my back really hurts. And my shoulders.”
“But, I mean, I don’t know, emotionally?”
“I’m fine. It is what it is. I’ll do what the doctors say. Shave my head. Shave my balls. I’ll do what they say.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“I hope so. Ever since I was little, I’ve had this short view of life. This feeling that I wasn’t gonna be around very long. Not a fear. Just a feeling. That I wouldn’t have kids or get married. That I’d miss out somehow. Something like this.”
“You have to stay positive.”
“Oh, I’m positive. I’m Non-Hodgkin lymphoma positive.”
Low knew that was defense, that it was South Park, a joke about AIDS. “Christ,” he said. “Remember when that shit was funny?”
“Yesterday, brother.”
“I’m sorry I said it. I don’t have to tell you what to do.”
“Don’t worry. We have to laugh.”
“It’s not funny.”
“Life is funny. That’s what we’re talking about. That’s what we’re dealing with now.”
“You believe that? That we’re dealing with life?”
“Right now we are, sure. I’m still breathing. My back hurts. My shoulders. My ass. I go for treatments. We see.”
“When do you start?”
“Next week. I have to come home. I have to quit the post-bac. I have to find some kind of insurance. I’ll drive up on Friday. I’ll pack what I can and have the rest shipped.”
“You need me to come down? I helped you move all that shit in the first place. It’s only fair. We’ll get gravy fries at the diner in Maryland. The waitress with the tits.”
“No. You have a wife and a house and all of that. It’s three hours one way. My dad’s coming down. Aren’t you trying to have a baby?”
“What’s the hold up?”
“Lucky, I guess.”
“Shit, man. You have the life. The love of a good woman. Who for some reason wants to have kids with you. Shit.”
“I know. I know it. Listen,” Low said, “You’ll have yours, too.”
“If this doesn’t kill me or my boys.”
“Pft. You’ll have yours. Your tribe of funny-looking gapped-tooth towheaded Dutchmen who’ll read Latin and Greek before English. You’ll have a whole team.”
Ricky laughed, coughed into the phone. “You have the life, Ludlow Nelson. Brother, you’ve got it made.”
From the front room, Harvest Wheat© , Leonard Cohen heard Ricky’s red truck quit and stop. “Simmer!” Ricky said through the mail slot. “Leonard Cohen, you sit! Down boy! You beautiful Gypsy!”
Ginny opened the door. “Hello, Mrs. Nelson.” They hugged. “Is the Master at home?”
“He’ll be right down. Grab a seat.”
“Low! Get a move on. I’m hungry! What’s that, Leonard Cohen? Oh, look, you brought me a pen. You want my autograph don’t you?” he said. Ricky scratched the white hair under Leonard’s chin with his fingers, massaged the brown rubber of the dog’s mouth with his thumb.
“That’s not a pen–” Ginny started and stopped. “Bad Leonard Cohen! Boy bring it here!”
“Not a thermometer, boy. Please, God, no. Not another.” Ricky moved in his seat. He was laughing. Leonard Cohen dropped the white stick in his hand. Ricky squinted then knew. The cruciform reassurance of what Ginny’s body was saying, what Low couldn’t yet see.
“Holy shit!” Ricky said.
“Shhhhh! Shut up and listen. Low doesn’t know. I hid it to show him. When we’d be alone. Bad Leonard Cohen! Bad boy!”
“Shit,” Ricky said. “I shouldn’t know before Low. That makes me feel awful.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Goddammit, Leonard Cohen!”
Ginny laughed. “I’m sorry, Ricky. It’s been, well, you know.”
“It’s fine.”
“And now I can’t even tell my husband the right way.” She started to laugh and then cry.
“Listen,” Ricky said, “Ginny, I won’t tell him I knew before he did.”
“I’m going to take another test. When he’s with me. And we can both look at it together, at the same time, like before. With our eyes closed and we’ll count and we’ll look together.”
“There you go.”
“I’m sorry, Ricky. Listen, I’m being emotional. I’m being stupid. You must think I’m an idiot.”
“I think you’re perfect for Low if that’s what you mean.” Ginny laughed. Ricky didn’t say that he hoped she’d have a boy, that he was lonely. He didn’t say he was dying. Leonard Cohen climbed onto the sofa and dug his long muzzle into Ricky’s armpit and licked. “Good boy,” Ricky said. “It’s okay.”
They took the Bronco to John’s Plain and Fancy. They bought Mike Schmidt cards at Lester’s Sports Collectable Kingdom and played guitars in the dehumidified room at Sam Goody. Ricky, playthe nylons like Willie, play the Dobro, the Taylor. Rick, buy a banjo. Wouldn’t that be a kick! Low, let’s go to the diner. Again? One with beer. Ricky and Low ate steak and eggs and drank Lager.
“How’s your sex life, Charlie Brown?”
“Good,” Low said. “Fine. Married. Good for married. Fine by your standards.” He dipped steak in egg yolk. “What about you?”
“Meh,” Ricky said.
“My balls are fried. I’ve got no libido. The thing about being in the hospital so long is you get a long view of the species. You have your doctors, your nurses, your techs, your orderlies. Specialists. Everyone in shifts. Split down the middle, I’d say, sex-wise. In the beginning you’re picky about who you think of. The one sixteenth you see that’s hot blonde helpful ass. Stay long enough, they all look the same. Did they all get pretty or do they just look alive? By the end you can’t tell and don’t care. Your balls are fried, you’re dried out on chemo, can’t get your shit hard. A girl is a girl is a girl.”
“What about now?”
“Not so much luck. It takes awhile.”
“Shit,” Low said.
“Shit. And that’s not considering the potential sterility.”
“You froze some beforehand?”
“I did. I wasn’t gonna. But you never know. So I did.”
“I’m glad. I told you to do it.”
“It cost a shit-load. Stuff I’ve been throwing out for years.”
“How fried out are you?”
“Low count. Low motility.”
“Some boys left in the tank, though.”
“I’m not spayed and neutered.”
“You’ll have a team of them, brother.”
“We’ll see.”
Ginny traced flowery patterns in the gold and off-white fringed pillows. She was exploring. Ricky’s guitar case sat on the floor, beaten like black music binders. Leonard Cohen sat between Ginny and the arm of the sofa, long hairs on his forearms hanging down, also fringed, light brown, almost blonde, the foamy head to the chestnut stout of his body. In the spring, in the sun, their hair was tinged red like Coke in glass bottles. Ludlow was fair. Ricky was bald. The knot on his head was something she hadn’t expected. She knew what it was, a port for medicine that was making him better by killing his compromised parts. His arms were small and his body hesitated through its usual gait, missing the usual weight of his limbs, the physics were wrong, his walk was off-kilter. Low would notice. But what did it mean? Her fingers walked paisley roads, treble clefs, commas. She thought she might pray. She remembered the EPT, the pee-stick, Ricky called it. She prayed that what grew inside her would live, that what grew inside Ricky would die, that God would flow through them, and through Leonard Cohen. She prayed to Jesus.
“I ought to have been on my knees.” She moved from the sofa and kneeled. Lord, would you bless us and keep us and shine your face on us? God, would you please keep us safe? Don’t turn me home, I just can’t face myself alone again. Don’t run back inside, darling, you know just what I’m here for. I’m scared and I’m thinking that maybe we’re not that young anymore. I’m scared and I’m sorry. I’m scared. Glory Days. In spiritu sanctu. Amen.
Ricky finished his third Lager and told Low his news.
“Buddy,” Low said, “you beat this already. You beat this twice.”
“Third time’s a charm.”
“Fucking shit. Ricky.”
“Don’t mope for me, Low. I need your sense of optimism. Didn’t you tell me the
moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice? Brother, I need you to
“I didn’t write that.”
“I didn’t write Bobby McGee but you still make me play it. So now say something positive, Low. Say it’s gonna be fine. Say if we’re gonna elect a black president, your old boy Ricky can beat cancer three times in a row.”
“You’re Rocky. It’s Drago. You’re a piece of iron.
“Do you believe it?”
It’s fucked.”
“Pissing lightening, crapping thunder.”
“Fuck, that’s just how it feels!”
“That’s no so bad.”
“Try it some time.”
“Yes we can!”
The kids next door have gauges and posts, tattooed elbows and throats, invisible chins farming thick, pointed beards. They’re tall and friendly, college-age but don’t go. My wife and I are older, out of grad school, almost 30. We bought this house for the nursery when she was still pregnant. They rent their half of the twin from John Walsh. We’re on the end of our row in the West End of Milltown, ten blocks from where the city is already bad, twenty blocks up from the meat packaging plants and textile mills that rot on the river, where squatters and junkies honeycomb their dead lion corpses. The Ramath Lehi, the arterial water once bringing products to market from counties inland, once sending coke steel to Europe, once drawing the awe of the nations to Milltown, this river cuts under its old skeletonpatrons, eroding their bleached postmortem holds on wrecked concrete, new grass. The West End rises from 18th street on the east and builds toward 30th, no longer Milltown but South Milton Township, antiqued street-signs and new garbage bins. There, ten blocks west from our home, Milltown City Schools yields to the South Milton System. We’d move the short distance when our boy, he’d felt like a boy, she said, started kindergarten. Before that, we’d walk him past the bar on our corner to the Montessori School, the playground, the market, the doctor. It was a walkable neighborhood, we’d said that. We can walk to the grocer, the theatre, the fair grounds, fours churches. We can walk to the druggist. But I walk the dog east, toward the car-dealerships, the dive diners, the urban saloons buffeting some Maginot Line that keeps moving.
We usually hear Jordan and Jess, these kids and their friends, sailor-girl pinups with dark eyes and black hair, reticent color like oil in rain or the grease-sheen on crows. I have never been like these boys that receive them, but my wife had a tongue ring when she conjured herself in the common room of my college house when I was a junior; she took it out the day before she met my parents. I miss the weight of it in her mouth, its small bob on oceans, on waves of the new becoming the known. She had blue hair the first time she kissed me and we fell asleep on the plaid couch my dorm room. I went to my first class smelling her bergamot coriander, connecting the freckles on her lips in my head. She said I was coy, a flirt, in short, trouble. She made a spiced chai cake for my birthday, kept me awake with 70’s rock. I made her watch Nick-at-Nite. For Halloween we were Holly Golightly and Optimus Prime. It happened the first time after Ricky’s open mic set. Ginny was 19, I was 20. Rick called me up to sing Jim Croce with him, I know it’s kinda late/I didn’t want to wake you/What I have to say just can’t wait/I know you’d understand. I said I loved her in a song. People clapped. I stood on the table and made her get up. We kissed and they cheered, bought us drinks and threw popcorn. Next door the boys have band practice, mostly basslines and wandering loops, they are nomads in white grommet belts and black jeans. We hear conversations, loud sex, “faking” I say, and now plastic balls cracking, dropping in pockets, rolling down tubes, collecting. There’s a black curtain over their door you can see from the street and when they bring the dog out you can see the TV. When we bought our house from John Walsh, the Professor, my wife called the same space in our home “the Hello room”, no TV, we agreed, but new furniture that matched our harvest wheat walls and white trim. The assembly-line sound of eight-ball comes from what should be their dining room. Here we have antique pecan chairs and a table and hutch with good glass and china. At night, after work, we talk about our day and how we’re depressed. She’s sick this week, I hate my job. In the Hello Room we talk about medicine, quitting, we hear ultimate fighting and motocross, Jordan and Jess playing bass, playing pool, playing X-Box. Shadow, their black and white pit, barks like laughing. Our cat buries herself in the fringed needlework pillows that match our new sofa.
“I think they got a pool table,” I say and I look through the thick wall at their half of the twin. They watch TV from the table and wear hoodies and cargo pants and it’s dark, I think, a place people crash.
“We should move the pecan set downstairs and bring up the TV. We should eat salty shit and watch cartoons and Cheers. We should put our dorm couches and microfridge on the porch, we should smoke and play pool and 8-bit Nintendo with games from the 80s. We should put He- Man and She-Ra in the hutch and our china and glass in the coal room. In the spring we should watch baseball with the windows all open even when it rains.” The cat lifts her head and buries it again. My wife rubs her temples, closes her eyes, nods. She feels like shit, she says. I talk about quitting.
“It’s different each time, you know. But it’s always the same, somehow, too,” Ginny said. She held Ludlow’s hand. The doctor said “what do you mean?” Low moved in his seat. His wife, when she worked, was also a therapist. She counseled drug and gambling addicts. He resented the tone of the woman in front of them, judged her dull eyes, her bad posture. He hated her shoes. What was she, forty? Had she had any kids? Had she ever wanted them? He wanted to make her sit up, square her shoulders, listen, bitch, listen. You don’t know shit about shit.
“The first time, there was” Ginny paused, turning red. “The first time there was spotting.
Just a little at first. Sometimes that’s normal, you know?” Low remembered believing it. He held her hand. “We were at his cousin’s wedding,” she said, nodding at Low, seeing him with still-loving eyes. He loved her, too. This wasn’t about that. “And his great uncle, who’s delivered half the people ever born in Milton County, he said, ‘Ginny, no more spotting’ when we left. He was trying to be encouraging. I could tell that he was scared.”
She recounted that evening’s details, the pain, so much pain where the baby should be. This was the start of their 12th week, the end of the first trimester, the clear. They had read to him, expected him, made plans to move. “New house, new baby” their relatives said.
“The second time, Low wasn’t home.”
“Oh,” said the doctor.
“I couldn’t get off of work. His parents invited us with them and his sister up to Lake
George. I told him to go. I practically made him. I stayed behind and went to our niece’s 3rd birthday party.” She stopped. Her face was flush, God, she looked ripe, he loved all her features. She couldn’t speak.
“She called me from the bathroom. We weren’t sure if she was even pregnant, yet. It was so early.” Low put both feet on the floor and sat at perfect angles. “She was bleeding pretty bad. She went to the hospital. They told her that she had been, that she wasn’t. That it would be okay.” Ginny’s fingers were burning in the wet heat of his hand. “Everything is always just about to be okay.”
You came over in red high tops from a yard sale and your old bandana with a Rubbermaid trunk of things for me to keep. Your Junior Legion plaque. Records from the bank you worked at one summer, but you never worked at a bank. You worked in a furniture factory and a Bible software company. There were toy baseball bats that I thought I might let my son play with but would maybe keep wrapped forever, a baseball with funny faces, binders from Seminary and records. “Have you heard any news?” I asked, afraid of why you were doing this. “I haven’t heard,” you said and I tried to remember how I felt when you were given back to us. I don’t remember what I said when I found out, like I’d missed the news but still knew it, like I coveted the chance I must have had to jump and yell and strip and beat my chest. I should have bruises there like butterflies, their brown shadow wings spreading from my sternum. My knuckles would be burger meat, my lungs would break my ribs, my throat would cut and chafe on the impossible proclamation, would scab and petrify, vanity, I’d bleed the truth out in a dribble. If only you could. If you hadn’t really died, once, if I found out they had been wrong, a clerical error, a fix, resurrection. What they can do with medicine, now. But I don’t remember. I think you better leave me with the trunk, too, so I have a place to keep this all just how it is, you know, and I don’t say just in case because just in case is doubt and doubt kills t-cells, eats your organs. You have been so positive. You smile at everything you show me. “I probably shouldn’t have taken these,” you say about the jump drives from the bank that are branded with Jerry Dior’s batsman.
“They might be interesting.” I wonder if you were lucid all those mornings you slept through class, if you were conjugating Greek declensions, parsing Hebrew in your dreams. I wonder if you parse me now, if first and second person are constructs of the living. If your Thou to my I is only feltboard Jesus. I understood that you were private, but I understand now, after our reunion is consumed by things I can’t sleep through — my wife calling after church to wake me up for lunch, my son in the background saying “Hallelujah, Daddy!” — why you didn’t have a funeral. You couldn’t say goodbye and wouldn’t let me, either. And so when you visit in the morning, as often as the intervals in which I’d always seen you, we don’t have to talk about how we miss each other, I don’t have to ask if the end hurts or know how scared you were to go. The night is hypothetical and we both are only sleeping. Who are my sons, brother? What have you named them? I think that colic is the preternatural knowledge that you’re the first-born but not oldest, that people are missing, your friends and your kin. Leonard Cohen sings blues for old Broncos. He licks Ginny’s stomach. We wait.

Christopher Cocca

Christopher Cocca earned his MFA in creative writing from The New School in 2011 and has been published in various online and print venues, including Brevity, Theives Jargon, elimae, Creative Nonfiction, HuffPost, and more.