Ann K. Ryles


Notes on Morbidity: Cancer Wife Phones Cheating Husband


When I call Gordon, whom I already miss and forgive, I’ll tell him I found the birdcage in the corner of my grandparents’ dining room, the same place it always was. I remember my grandparents’ birds were yellow, canaries, something common, and they didn’t have names so I couldn’t keep track of how many died and were replaced with new, identical yellow birds. At night my grandmother shrouded them in a white sheet so they knew it was time to go to sleep because canaries must be the sort of stupid creatures who don’t know when they’re tired, Gordon, when it’s time to call it a day.

I’ll tell him the house was like a junkyard, a regular time warp, and how the sight of such long-forgotten things--my grandfather’s favorite hats--all of these artifacts from my childhood, made me feel like I was old, or dying, the word lobbed out and hovering between us like a gigantic shimmering, iridescent bubble, until it pops and disappears. I’ll cradle the phone to my shoulder and look at myself in the motel mirror, taking off the red beret that has become my favorite cancer clothing (poor, ill-fated chapeau), and I’ll long for my long, lost hair almost as much as I long for him. 

It’ll grow back, everyone says; he’s so supportive, everyone says; I don’t encourage false hope, the oncologist warns, and these are the words I’ll hear as I turn from the mirror and stare out the motel window at the empty train tracks, the black-and-white crossing bars pointing skyward, the water in the creek reflecting the pink sky. And I’ll remember my aunt telling me only yesterday, hunched in her wheelchair at the sour-smelling convalescent hospital, her body a waste but her mind sharp as a tack, that they don’t use these tracks anymore, it’s a dead route for the railroad. So no more screaming locomotive whistles to scare me to death like they did when I was a kid, Gordon.

I’ll tell my betraying, beloved Gordon that it was all there in my grandparents’ abandoned house: the mangle for ironing, the miniature colored glass bottles in the china cabinet, the bowl of plastic fruit in the center of the table, the upright piano, everything, like a tiny little grandparent museum. My grandfather’s fedoras lined up across the top of the piano, their beautiful molded felt shapes all in a row, the ribbon hatbands of each adorned with a small decorative feather, the sort of thing Humphrey Bogart would wear. And, Gordon, I still cannot believe it, in the exact same spot, the enormous hanging birdcage that looked like a ghost when it was covered with a sheet at night so that I jumped every time I saw it because it gave me the heebie-jeebies, a real case of the willies.

“The things people hold onto,” I’ll say. 

“Would you like me to bring you a hat?” I’ll say.

I won’t say, I bet you’re glad I’m away so you can forget about me for a while. I won’t say, I know you never signed up for all this medical cancer shit. 

I’ll say, “I like a man in a hat. It’s distinguished.”

“Pick one for me,” he’ll say. 

     “I’ve never known you to wear a hat.”

     “I will now.”

     “Why?”

     “Because you like a man in a hat.”

     “Don’t do it because of me.”

     “Why not?”

     “Because it’s knee-jerk, Gordon. It’s here, doggie, doggie, go fetch the ball. It’s like you’re a bird in the birdcage. I’m your keeper. You’re trapped. It’s like you’re a bird in the birdcage and I cover you with a sheet when I want you to go to sleep.” 

“It’s not,” he’ll say. “I should have come with you.” 

I’ll say, “I’ll bring you a hat if you promise not to wear it.”

I won’t say, I read your deleted e-mails and I know all about her. I won’t say, I’m glad you have someone to hold your hand, to get you through this, because sometimes it’s too much for you to take.

“What did you do with the birdcage?” he’ll ask, knowing of my efficient piles: discard, giveaway, recycle, keep.

“Tossed it. It wasn’t worth saving. It was an old-fashioned birdcage, but not antique. Old, but not old in the right way. So it had to go. Not like the hat I’ll bring you. It’ll be timeless, a classic. You’ll never get rid of it.”

“How are you feeling?”

“He asked the woman in the birdcage.”

“What?”

“I’m fine. I’m nostalgic. You know my grandfather never liked that birdcage, or the yellow birds. He liked cats. He used to say he was going to get a kitten and bring it into the house. He said he’d hold the kitten right up next to the birdcage and let it swipe its paws against the metal bars to see if the birds or the cat would turn queer first. Queer. That’s the word he used. A bird escaped from the birdcage once. It flew out the window and was eaten by a cat. Grandpa swore he didn’t have anything to do with it. Grandma said it didn’t do the bird any good to get out, look what happened.”

“Better off in the birdcage.”

“Yessiree.” 

After I hang up the phone, I’ll put my red beret back on and I’ll crawl between the thin, stiff sheets of the motel bed and wonder when and where he might have seen her while I’ve been away. There are so many places for them to go. I’ll be sorry I bored him with my drivel about the birdcage, but I’ll tell myself he loves me anyway, that he used to say he loved me because of all of my funny, strange, angry stories. I’ll remind myself that I am a survivor, the odds are in my favor. And then I’ll close my eyes and wish for the sound of a train rushing past, as if in flight, shaking the windows of my room, following a route the railroad has deemed dead, the tracks soon to be pulled up from the ground and sold for the value of their steel, according to my aged aunt, who is the last survivor of her generation.