The Man with a Big Chin — pt.2
She was already wasting away the day I met her, and now I foresaw that the more help I provided, the faster she would let herself evaporate. What no one ever said about Cassandra, but I believe we all knew by instinct or intuition, was that she was the kind of person for whom any act of kindness could be the occasion for self-neglect rather than any type of advantage. The notion of self-interest was foreign to her. On some evenings when I retrieved my ceramic bowl I noticed remnants of turkey and white toast, or corned beef with sauerkraut, scattered on her kitchen table, but I knew those were scraps from the lunch that Argenon brought with him. I believe the only times she used her oven was when she reheated his meals. The gossips in the building had a running joke about Cassandra’s gas bill, suggesting that it existed only to provide her a place to put zeros. They had another joke too, suggesting that Argenon could hide a cured ham or whole pizza beneath his chin while he walked down the street holding a conversation. Gradually it occurred to me, leaving a full bowl every morning and picking up an empty bowl every evening, that Cassandra most likely received his visits in the same manner as my food. She was too polite for open refusals, so she accepted everything with the silence of her native modesty, and never said a word good, bad or indifferent.
Some of the upstairs gossips whispered that Cassandra was born overseas and spoke no English, but that was obviously false. She was already living in the building when the government took the last census, and I saw two public employees stand in her doorway with a survey and interview Cassandra at length, receiving fast and fluent answers to their questions. There was no need of a translator or special forms; there was nothing at which to snicker for a bystander listening in. It seemed that she simply preferred not to talk otherwise.
Our routine, such as it was, continued through the coldest winter months. It went on unchanged until one weekend in late February, when the first big thaw arrived. The temperature rose steadily towards the end of the week. The wooden joints and beams of the building began to crack as they warmed, and melted ice ran in streams down the shingles and dripped onto the sunlit ground. On Friday morning the gravelly earth and walkways of the neighborhood emerged like bald patches through the snow, and thin white plumes of smoke leaked from the chimneys overhead. The sky was bright blue and the sun shone. As I left for work I encountered several delivery men lugging heavy suitcases and a duffle bag up the sidewalk towards the front door. I cocked my head but thought little of it at the time. When I returned in the evening, however, I walked into the lobby and realized that a new rumor had swept through the building while I was away. The women standing around the big empty fireplace caught me by the elbow and began to tell me a story, interrupted by their own whispering arguments. I stood before the hearth in mute disgust, half listening, holding my satchel of papers and staring moodily at the proud obsolete family crests hanging above the mantle.
The gossips said that after I left for work a second delivery company had arrived with another set of luggage. They said that the first delivery certainly carried the clothes and toiletries of Argenon’s wife, who had been touring Europe for several months and was only now landing back in the States. This was the big arrival, the big homecoming and confrontation. The wife had pestered her husband for weeks before going overseas, swearing she would leave him for good and cajoling him with wicked enticements and entitlements. They said Argenon had driven her mad with jealousy over the attentions he paid Cassandra, which no one bothered trying to conceal. Finally the wife put her foot down, because he had not even had the decency to make up some lies out of shame. They said Argenon simply came and went as he pleased from one’s bed to the other’s. So before leaving, the wife had exacted a promise that immediately upon her return she would either be moved into the apartment directly above Cassandra’s or be granted a speedy divorce. They said that as she traveled through Italy she had, purely out of spite, taken up with a younger man and showered money and gifts on him. Coupling with a foreign lover was mere revenge, merely one more form of punishment, both for her husband and herself. They said that the second set of luggage to appear, full of brown leather suitcases, must belong to the Italian man. They said that the wife was going to arrive any day now, perhaps any minute, and the only question remaining was whether or not she would come with her lover in tow, parading arm in arm with brazen shamelessness.
I tried to make a joke and asked the gossips if they were taking bets, but I couldn’t convince myself into any kind of levity. I told the women they were born gamblers always waiting on some result. I turned and walked down the hallway on shaky legs. Some kind of cold nervous lump was growing in my intestines and making me tremble. Out of my old familiar compulsion, but with a new sense of dread, I walked to Cassandra’s door and knocked. I waited ten seconds, then opened the door and stepped inside. Although the weather outdoors had warmed, the air in her apartment felt cold as ever. The thought crossed my mind, as I scanned the room for signs of life, that perhaps her radiator was broken or simply turned off. The light outside was already dying, but she had not switched on any of her lamps. It looked as if nothing had been touched. Cassandra lay, of course, in her bed, her face to the wall. I approached and bent over her small form. Her bony shoulder stood upright, barely moving with each breath. I turned to her bedside table and saw with sad curiosity my blue porcelain bowl still filled with oatmeal, now cold, congealed and brown at the edges. The spoon was embedded, stuck upright like a stick in frozen sand. None of it had been touched.
I bent again over Cassandra and studied her face. Her eyes were closed, her lips slightly parted, her breathing subtle, uneven and soundless. Had she been awake at all today? I placed my left hand on her left shoulder, squeezed it, and pulled it slowly towards me until she rested flat on her back. She breathed, sighed, and started to snore. I began to panic, my back straight with grief and stricken with solicitude. Suddenly I lowered my face and kissed Cassandra’s cheek, for the first and only time. I dug my nails into her shoulder and shook it. I opened my mouth and spoke out loud.
“Cassandra,” I said. “Wake up, please. You have to get up. At some point you have to leave this room. You have to get out.” I had the feeling she was there, alert and listening the whole time. But if that was the case she never let on. Her eyelids fluttered, then separated. I saw her look at me, then she blinked and looked past me. I saw her now, and I looked straight into her eyes, knowing all the while that she no longer saw me.
“Are you sick?” I said. “You have to wake up, Cassandra. Are you okay?”
Cassandra stared back, her eyes wide open. “I’m still asleep,” she said, slowly and carefully. “I’m sick, too, I know. I know that by now. I thought it had gone away, but it hasn’t. This god, whoever he is, just won’t leave me alone. He is worse than any man. It doesn’t ever stop. He won’t quit me…. I’m sick of this, I’m weak and I’m tired, but I’m going to sleep soon. Soon I’m going to be free of him. These gods, they’ve wasted their own power over me. They’ve ruined themselves. I no longer make any prayers, because there is nothing in the world I would want to be given, and nothing left in this world that I would ask them to preserve. The gods have left themselves nothing by which they could hurt me. I am very weak now, but finally free. You are strong, all of you, but you are not free. You walk holding heavy chains, and you are strong enough to carry them to and fro, but you have to hold them. You have to do it…. I lapse in silence. My god leaves me, and I lie back dreaming alone. Asleep I think of cures, sculpting, with shaking hands, the handsome portrait of a cure. My father will wake me too, lately, but I have dreamt with my eyes open. I thought I was yelling, Dad. I told on you. But that is past helping now. I would call the nurses to my mattress and swallow the bedside pistol. I would cringe at your winking, and swallow the widow’s gun. But I’m still sick. Either I am very weak yet free, and you are strong but very unfree, or else I am strong but unfree, and you are weak yet free. You walk with chains wrapped around your legs and shoulders, and you carry them far and wide on your strong back. But you have to carry them. And I’ve gotten on. I’m riding, and I’m going to the end.”