I: the time machine
I invented the time machine so I could see Nia as often as I wished. It happened right after I wrote to her father who, like me, had missed the funeral. I didn’t learn this fact until several weeks after I had moved to Africa, when her mother sent me an angry email whose central thesis was that the cruelty of men is compounded in times of grief.
The email was also sent to Nia’s father, which is how I obtained his address; it’s also how I knew he had boycotted the funeral because Nia wasn’t being buried in Johannesburg. Her father was famous but I had never met him and I put off writing him for the same reason I avoided Nia’s funeral: to write about her death was as bad as watching them put her in the ground. Eventually I caved, but my letter hardly acknowledged the death. Only my use of the past tense suggested she was no longer here.
I didn’t know how much he knew about us, so I couched everything in terms of polite sympathy. I knew your daughter. She was remarkable, both as a doctor and as a woman. Remarkable! A handwriting expert would have noted the way my pen hesitated before writing that word. In times of grief, restraint is a talent few of us have; that letter, I think, was a work of art. But artistic or not, I received no reply and I put the matter from my mind – the matter of Nia’s father, that is, not the matter of Nia herself.
There wasn’t much to my time machine. The key components were a few photographs, some letters, and a blue t-shirt which held her scent for a miraculous length of time. By inhaling this aroma, I could go anywhere I wished. Secreted beneath my mosquito net, I could revisit conversations, arguments, vacations, sex. At sunrise, I would return to the present and crawl from my hammock, head throbbing with the hangover that comes from drinking too much of the past.
Time travel is easy in Africa. You’re already in a bubble. Wherever you go, it feels like you’re in the past. When I first arrived, the foundation I worked for assigned me to a hospital whose assortment of beds and equipment hailed from every decade except the one we were actually in. I spent my days doing harsh and thankless work. I think I became a fine doctor, but at some point I lost my name. Everyone called me exactly what Nia had called me the first day we met: Young Doctor. Of course I encouraged it. This was time travel too.
Five and a half years went by. I lost contact with my friends. I missed the birth of twin nephews, something which earned me my sister’s wrath. She didn’t have the slightest idea what it was like for me. In her world, all doctors were rich. She didn’t understand that I slept in a hammock, ate very little, and lived the pauper’s life.
“They’re turning six,” she told me during our monthly phone call. “You’ve never met them. To them, you’re Uncle Africa.”
“It’s not easy to get away.”
My sister, as always, read my mind. “You don’t have to go to the cemetery, you know. Just because you come home, you don’t need to visit her grave.”
But I didn’t believe her. I would be drawn to that cemetery; only the oceans and continents could protect me.
“If you don’t come for Thanksgiving, color yourself disowned,” she went on. “Don’t call again unless it’s to tell me you’re flying home.”
I checked my savings. I had enough for a flight, but I would be destitute when I returned. But my sister was the last thread. If I let it break, I knew I might spiral away for good.
It was around this time that Nia’s father came to the hospital to find me. He didn’t give his name, but this attempt at hiding identity didn’t work. He was a great writer and very well known. Given his fame – and presumed wealth – my supervisor instructed me to treat him as a king. They made me banish the sweat from my face; my supervisor even combed my hair.
Jackson Pope sat impatiently on an examination table that had serviced service men during the Second World War. He was a tall man with a badly shaved cheek. There was a hint of Nia in his face. A familiar aspect to the neck. An echo of something in the line of the jaw.
“I hate doctors,” said Jackson Pope.
I nodded. Nia had told me this many times.
“I never wanted Nia to be one.”
I nodded again. Nia had told me this too.
“Medicine was her mother’s idea. She hoped it would keep me away. It’s unholy the way we use our children.”
Nia hadn’t told me this. But I nodded just the same.
“I need you to promise absolute discretion,” he went on.
Discretion meant a sickness. And absolute discretion? Something worse. He handed me a plain brown envelope, which he handled as one might hold a treasure of glass.
“My newest work,” he said.
I had been keeping up with all the news on Jackson Pope – after all, I needed to tell Nia something when I time traveled. Nobody likes a visitor from the future who comes without news. Only last week, while revisiting a vacation Nia and I had taken to the south of France, I told her it was being widely reported that her father was writing a memoir. Walking along the beach – a blustery day, the sand tearing our eyes – I remarked that the rumor was being greeted with both applause and fear. Jackson Pope had been against apartheid and had moved in and out of prison. He had probably collected a great many secrets about people who were still alive.
Jackson Pope explained that he had sent the manuscript to his agent. Then he handed me a piece of stationary on which his agent had written a terse reply:
Don’t send me things you wrote when you were drunk.
The first question was obvious. “Were you drunk?” I asked.
Jackson Pope swore he existed on nothing but Coke. “I want you to read it. Nia once told me you were the only man she knew who had a competent understanding of my work.”
So she had spoken of me after all. It was the first new piece of information about Nia I had heard in five and a half years. My sweat made the envelope damp. I promised to read it as fast as I could.
That night, beneath my mosquito net, I time traveled and brought the manuscript with me. I took myself to Nia’s bedroom in the apartment she had been living in when we met, the one she had shared with Elodie Smith. We made love and then read the manuscript together until we fell asleep.
I returned to the present, knowing exactly what was wrong with Jackson Pope. Nia was dead and I was young but we were still the best doctors around.
II: the most dangerous place on earth
I was born in Los Angeles and like most of my friends and neighbors, I thought I would live there all my life. I went to UCLA and completed my internship in Beverly Hills. I was involved in several high profile surgeries, including the one that made the deputy mayor’s impressive nose significantly less impressive. I was on my way to a lucrative career until I started hanging out with Charley Chase. Large and dopey, Charley should have been an introvert, the sort of awkward soul who studies Klingon in his spare time. But he was gregarious and popular and held Gatsby-esque parties in an apartment too small to contain them. It was at one of these parties that I overheard a very dark and beautiful girl denounce the life that late I led.
“Doctors are supposed to serve the sick. But we waste our talents helping people who don’t need us. Take the deputy mayor’s nose. Was that an illness? Was that something that needed to be cured? They are rich and they are powerful. You can change their noses but they are still the faces of decadence. A life in their service is a betrayal of something true.”
It was like coming down with the plague. Her words infected me and for days I couldn’t sleep. Eventually, I asked Charley about her. He just laughed.
“That’s just Nia,” he said. You could hear him italicizing the name. Not everyone can speak with italics, but Charley Chase had the knack. With the slightest inflection, he could stylize complete sentences. “She lives with Elodie. I’d stay away from her. She’s always got a problem, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m more interested in Elodie anyway.”
“Well why didn’t you say so?”
I knew Elodie Smith, so it wasn’t exactly a cold call. But it didn’t take her long to figure out why I was really on the phone. She gave a great, almost elaborate sigh. Poor Elodie. People were always calling her when they really wanted to speak to Nia.
“One of these days,” said Elodie, “a young doctor is going to call to talk to me.”
“Never mind. I’d rather talk to you.”
“Don’t tell me stories, young doctor. Start hanging out at the Botswana Café. You’ll see her soon enough.”
The Botswana Café was just down the street from where I lived. I had studied for the MCATs there; I had once prescribed their shorba to a visiting professor who complained of a bad cough. On my next day off, I rose early and went to the Café. At fourteen minutes past eleven, Nia Pope swept in wearing a orange dress, looking just as dark and beautiful as she had been the night of Charley’s party. Her age was indistinct – later I learned she was twenty-eight. She was with Elodie, who grinned when she saw me. Elodie Smith wasn’t a fat girl, but she had a fat grin: it took over her entire face.
“Well, well! Nia, this is the young doctor who called about you last week.”
Nia’s face grew tight as a stitch. People were always calling Elodie when they really wanted to speak to Nia – and Elodie was always telling them to come to Botswana Café. She ambushed Nia every chance she had. Elodie was studying to be an actress while Nia was in her last year of residence in South Central. They sat with me for almost an hour until Elodie realized she wasn’t wanted – they had carefully arranged signals for such things. That was their life in those days. People were always calling Elodie; Elodie was always ambushing Nia; Nia was always casting signals to let her know when she wanted to be saved.
This time, she didn’t.
“Why do you come here all the time?” I asked when we were alone. “Are you from Botswana?”
“Jo’burg. I know. I have no accent. It’s a terrible thing.”
“Did you come here when you were young?”
“With my father. He wrote some of his books here. That’s why I like it so much.”
“Do I know your father’s books?”
“Ever read The Laws of Naai?”
I started. “Your father is Jackson Pope!”
“My father is Jackson Pope.” She repeated it as if she didn’t believe it herself.
I told her I had been reading Jackson Pope for years. Because of his outspoken opposition to apartheid, Jackson Pope had spent years in exile, during which time he had lectured at my sister’s university. She had been so taken with him that she had turned us all into devotees. I was pretty well informed of all the events in his life which, by the time I met Nia, included his triumphant repatriation, a drunken appearance at the SAFTAs, the loss of the Booker Prize, rumors of tremendous debt, and the scandalous tale that he was romantically linked with diamond magnate Robert Greene, one of the richest men in South Africa.
“Is your father in town?”
“My father is never in town. He’s in Western Cape. He hates to travel. It’s probably for the best. We share the same opinions, so we tend to get into trouble.”
“I like your opinions. I heard you talking about them at Charley’s party. You disturbed me, but not in a bad way.”
“Was that a compliment? I can’t tell.”
“I’ll try to get better at them.”
From that day on, we were inseparable. We moved from lectures to theatres, always ending the day at the café. It was weeks before I was finally allowed to press my lips against that very-wonderful mouth. More bridges were crossed and I soon found I could only sleep when she was coiled against me, small and hard as a fist. She slept every night in the same blue shirt, an oversized thing that was nearly transparent with age. Not the most erotic lingerie but it did the trick: that t-shirt became synonymous with sleep and sex and lazy Sunday afternoons.
During our first Christmas together, I almost proposed while we walked along the beach. I had it planned out but I turned coward when the moment came. My sister once told me that no proposal should ever truly be a surprise; if you doubt the answer, you shouldn’t be asking. I definitely doubted the answer. Nia’s master plan was to move to Africa when her residency was complete. She wanted to work in the rural communities, which were forever in need of qualified help.
“Any doctor who does not spend at least a year in Africa is a disgrace,” she told me. “In the Hippocratic Oath, we swear to do no harm. But aren’t we causing harm just by staying away? They need us. We have an obligation to help.”
“Does that mean you’ll only be gone for a year?”
“I’ll be gone forever, my young doctor. Africa is my home.”
My only hope was to go with her. But how could I do that? In Los Angeles, I had achieved a certain success. It wasn’t just that great miracle I had performed on the deputy mayor’s nose; my clients now included the rich and famous who flocked to me to be tucked and lifted and endowed. I wanted to be the thing that would keep Nia from leaving but she was resolute. Not even a handsome young doctor could have made her stay. She had her ambitions; the daughter of Jackson Pope did not believe in sacrifice. Soon, I was unable to enjoy my work. Like my patients, I could no longer tolerate my own skin. At last, I gave in.
When I told her of my decision, Nia threw her arms around my neck and kissed me from my forehead down to my chin. I had done the impossible: I had defied her expectations. With amazing speed, we cashed in our lives. I gave up my apartment and my practice; I sold everything I owned.
My sister flew into a rage. Our parents had died and she had practically raised me; now she reverted to the sort of hysteria reserved for mothers who see their children leaving the nest.
“She’s poisoned you!” she declared. “She cares for nothing but herself! Who demands that you go halfway across the world just for them?”
I did my best imitation of Charley Chase. “She didn’t demand anything. I volunteered.”
“At least keep your apartment. Sublet it until you get back.”
“We’ll be gone forever.”
“Your trouble is you’re a romantic. Only romantics use words like forever.”
Two days before we left, Charley Chase threw us a party. We agreed to meet there so Nia could run some last minute errand. At the party, Charley paraded me and I danced with Elodie, who smiled sadly the whole time. My sister was there; she tried one last time to dissuade me from my plans.
“You hear such stories about what goes on over there. Some people say it’s the most dangerous place on Earth.”
It was at this moment that someone called with the news about Nia. Africa is dangerous, but so is South Central. They tell me that Nia was caught in some sort of crossfire. She was trying to help a boy who had been shot. The wrong corner at the wrong time; Nia had been in L.A. when she should have been on the other side of the world.
I didn’t stay to read the articles or be interviewed by members of the press. I didn’t stay to see her become a martyr and a symbol and a cause. I didn’t stay to see her grave. I boarded the plane two days after she died and sat next to an empty seat and clung to her blue t-shirt, so sharp with her scent that I found it impossible to sleep.
III: the spider bite
So I met with Jackson Pope for the second time. He looked tired. All his life he had suffered from insomnia which he had combated by working until he knocked himself out. Now he was afraid to write and slept maybe two hours a night. He said that his dreams were infested; in each one, he had insects under his skin.
“Just tell me the truth, Young Doctor” said Jackson Pope. “Is my manuscript a waste of words?”
“It’s not that it’s a waste. It’s just that some of it isn’t true.”
“History is written by the winners. This is never more true than when that history is your own.”
“Unfortunately, it’s not really a question of interpretation.”
I explained the problem. Some of the mistakes were small – the wrong place, the wrong time – but there was one mistake which was all too glaring. In his own memoir, Jackson Pope didn’t seem to know that his daughter was gone. According to Jackson Pope, it was Nia’s mother who had been caught in the crossfire that terrible day.
I liked his version of events. In his universe Nia was still alive. In Jackson Pope’s universe, you didn’t need a time machine; you just needed to get on a plane.
I told him I wanted to run some tests.
Our hospital never has the right equipment. As is often the case here, I had to settle for what was possible rather than what was needed. It was dementia, I thought, although exactly how long he had suffered from it was impossible to tell. After all, he hated doctors and was almost always alone. It could have settled slowly, like a broken curtain. Jackson Pope remained optimistic. He pounded his chest like an ape. Having made a living through the powers of his mind, he refused to believe it could ever betray him. I was not so convinced. When the playwright Henrik Ibsen had a stroke, he lost the ability to read; the mind is a lot more fragile than any of us like to believe.
For many years, Jackson Pope had been living in a small cottage on a farm about an hour from the hospital. I have no idea how he obtained it. It had once been the quarters for servants and bore a gloomy air. The farm was owned by the Krebs, a corpulent and illiterate couple who knew Nia’s father was famous but had no idea if it was deserved. It was Adamson Krebs who had bought the cases of Coke that had become part of Jackson’s new diet; it was Miriam Krebs who fed him cheese and bread so he wouldn’t fall apart. Jackson Pope owned almost no clothing and his cupboards were stocked with typewriter ribbon (on hearing that his favorite brand was being discontinued, he had bought a lifetime supply).
A week after I delivered my diagnosis, I invited myself up to see him. I had to hitch a ride and was forced to sit in the back of an old truck with several other stone silent men, each making their way across the country in search of work. The Krebs’ farm was a crummy place, dilapidated as a slum, yet it sat in such beautiful country that it was hard not to be charmed. Miriam Krebs proved to be a bullfrog with a distracting chest. She might have been forty or eighty; it was hard to tell. She was a ruined farm too and seemed to creak with the breeze.
“I’m looking for Jackson Pope.”
“I’m a doctor.”
“I’m a friend. I knew his daughter.”
“Ah!” she said and it was clear my romance had preceded me.
Reluctantly, she led me across the field to the cottage. The door had been propped open with a crushed tin can and the wind carried a rank smell that abused the nose. I found him at the typewriter, curved as a scythe. He had returned to his writing, determined to recapture the thing that had been lost. The latest chapter sat on the table and he made me read it while he finished. These new memoirs were just as disastrous as before. It was as if he was reinventing his life – and, perhaps not surprisingly, he had inserted himself into a wonderful world. I wondered if I should leave him be. Why bring him back to the weary reality in which the rest of us lived?
“It says here that after your exile, you came to New York,” I said.
“I lived next to a psychic. She told me my future.”
“You came to New York. But you never left the airport. You stayed for three days waiting for a flight to California.”
“And that’s where I met my wife.”
“Yes! You met in the departures lounge.”
“We swam nude in the ocean.”
“If you did, it was later.”
“We had two daughters.”
“There was only ever one.”
“We had twins. One of them died at birth.”
I didn’t know whether to believe it. But how I wanted to! Another new fact about my Nia, something extraordinary to tell her the next time I traveled in time.
For the next few days, I lost myself in work. Then I received a visit from Adamson Krebs. He wanted me to know that Miriam Krebs had found Nia’s father lounging in his own filth. And two days after that, said Adamson, he had found Jackson Pope wandering the fields in his nightshirt.
In school, we were taught dementia is a spider bite. Like so many spiders, it paralyzes its victims and devours them over many months.
Huddled behind my mosquito net, I inhaled the scent from Nia’s t-shirt and traveled back to the Botswana Café. It was the day we met. There was Elodie enjoying her revenge; there was Nia’s scowl, formed by the lovely downturn of her lips.
“He wrote some of his books here. That’s why I like it so much.”
“Do I know your father’s books?”
“Ever read The Laws of Naai?”
“Your father is Jackson Pope!”
“My father is Jackson Pope.”
At the mention of his name, something changed in my heart. The trouble with time travel is that it’s only useful if you can use it to alter the present. Otherwise it’s a purely academic pursuit.
“I like your opinions,” I said. “You disturbed me, but not in a bad way.”
“Was that a compliment? I can’t tell.”
When she rose, I thought I saw every muscle shift beneath her dress; I thought I could see her blood and liver and heart. Everything pulsed the way a wave shudders as it rockets towards the shore. She glanced back at me from the counter and winked; at the same moment, something sharp pricked my arm.
I was back in the present; I returned just in time to kill a mosquito with one blow. There was a hole in the net; my hammock had become a nest.
The next time the Internet was working, I placed a call overseas.
“Unbelievable!” said Elodie Smith. “She’s dead and people still call to talk about her.”
Elodie’s career had been going well. She had filmed a few pilots and had just played a love scene with a very famous actor. Even so, her life was a struggle. “I hope you’re not calling for money,” she said.
I didn’t want money. I wanted the past. “Send me anything that was hers. Photographs. Emails. Letters, if you have them.”
“I don’t have much. I mean, I kept everything for a time, but it’s been six years.”
“It’s been five and a half. Just send me what you can.”
A few days later, Elodie emailed a folder containing pictures and scans of everything she had left. Most of the photos were of her and Nia. But a few showed Nia in the arms of men I had never known. They looked hard and mean and I immediately decided they were sour things who, like me, had never seen her grave. But I printed everything and hitchhiked my way back to the Krebs’ farm.
I found Jackson Pope slumped over the typewriter, staring at what he had written.
“Someone has stolen all the D’s,” he complained.
“Leave it for now. Look: I brought some pictures.”
Elodie had found a small bundle of letters written to Nia by Jackson himself. She had scanned these and sent them along; once I had printed them out on the hospital’s cheap printer, they were difficult to read. Jackson’s eyes couldn’t make out the words.
“I could read them,” I said. “Though they might be personal.”
“Read them,” he sighed. “Someone is stealing the D’s. Clearly, my life is no longer my own.”
So I began to read his own letters back to him, which is how I finally learned all the things that Nia had never told me, all the things that had never been written in the press during all his years of fame. I learned about his exile and his drinking. I learned about his tremendous debt. And I learned that he had once been involved in a clandestine affair with a mining magnate. Nia was the only one who knew.
“Look at us!” said Jackson. “We both have daughters in America! And they’re both doctors!”
I frowned. The letters I was reading were in first person. Jackson Pope had lost track of the narrative; he thought I was reading him letters I had written myself.
I could have corrected the mistake, but how could I when it suited me so well? I wasn’t a young doctor hiding in Africa. I had been transformed into a great author of the world.
“You must be very proud!” he exclaimed.
“I am,” I lied. Jackson Pope had put books and politics and a daughter into the world. What had I done other then honor my Hippocratic Oath? I imagined Nia would be proud.
iv: nia pope is dead
One day I arrived at the farm to find Miriam Krebs waiting for me. “It smells like death,” she told me and she nodded in the direction of Jackson’s cottage. But Jackson Pope wasn’t dead. He just hadn’t bathed. And he had soiled the bed. At the back of the cottage was a tiny water closet with a bathtub hardly long enough for a bath. It was an ancient clawfoot tub: you could sit in it, but something would always be lolling over the sides. Miriam Krebs turned away when I stripped Jackson Pope down; with great care, I scrubbed away at his legs. Jackson woke as I worked but it was clear something was wrong. His movements were sluggish.
“Wash behind the ears,” he instructed. “Remember, you promised absolute discretion.”
“You had an accident. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Miriam Krebs still had her back turned as I helped Jackson clamber out of the tub.
“Hey Miriam!” he said. “Don’t be such a prude!”
“There’s clean laundry on the line,” said Miriam Krebs.
“It’s nothing you haven’t seen before!” he called but Miriam had already run from the room in tears. He turned to me. “You wouldn’t know it, but that woman’s in love with me.”
“Married women love other men all the time.”
His face relaxed. A light fell into his eyes. His lopsided grin revealed an error in his face. Some of the muscles wouldn’t respond.
I convinced Adamson Krebs to drive us back to the hospital so I could put Jackson under observation. He stayed for a time, but it became clear at once that they could never meet his needs. It took all my power just to keep him from sharing a bed. Here was a great struggle. Was Jackson Pope so much more important than my other patients? Would even my Nia have wanted me to steal a bed from them? I knew the answer and within a week, Jackson was back at the farm and I had to convince the Krebs to move him into the room which had once belonged to their son, now dead for almost thirteen years.
“He needs constant care,” I told them. .
“You had better hire a nurse.”
“Couldn’t you do it?”
“What do you think we do out here, Young Doctor? Do you think we have time to care for the dead?”
“He’s not dead yet.”
“Either you hire a nurse or I hire someone to help on the farm. Both ways cost money – for you.”
As Miriam said, Jackson Pope had no friends. But he still had associates. I decided to call his agent. Finding the man’s phone number was easier than using it; it took all afternoon for me to connect to Johannesburg. The man had a belligerent voice and sounded like he was perpetually chewing on the end of a pen.
“Jackson is very sick,” I said. “He’s forgetting all sorts of things. He no longer believes that apartheid ever ended.”
“A lot of people feel that way.”
“He thinks his wife is dead.”
“Sounds like a blessing to me.”
“You aren’t taking this seriously.”
“Tell him to come back. We have better doctors anyway.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the doctors here.”
But that pen chewing agent was right. It was better over there. Better doctors, better equipment. And Jackson Pope used to live in Johannesburg. Might the familiar street corners not be good for his failing mind?
“How much would it cost?” I asked.
“Too much. On second thought, you might be better to let him be. I don’t know how you hope to get paid. I control his money and you should know: he’s pretty broke.”
I crawled back to my dormitory and buried myself beneath the mosquito net. I intended to travel back as far as I could go but to my horror the past eluded me. I grabbed Nia’s blue t-shirt only to find I had inhaled the last of its scent; now it was just a relic. My time machine was gone.
I lay in the dark with my head against the pillow that had once been Nia’s shawl. I had only the present and the terrors of the future. I thought about money. Nia’s mother had it but I doubted she would help – Jackson was the husband who had killed her off and I was the boyfriend who hadn’t stood at her daughter’s grave. My sister wouldn’t be any help. There was no one but the mosquitoes. And even them I exiled; I used Nia’s shirt to patch the hole in my net.
The next day, I went to see the Krebs. “This is what I can afford,” I said and I gave them a number I thought was fair.
Above me, their ceiling fan wheezed; beneath me, their chair groaned under my weight. It was almost Thanksgiving. My nephews were having another birthday. My sister would be more than upset. I might never be allowed to call again.
At some point, the media heard about what was going on. It was probably that pen-chewing agent who did it: I imagine him letting it slip to a reporter that his famous client had been secluded on a shabby little farm. I had promised absolute discretion but the agent was a different story. He did not see himself as a gatekeeper protecting Jackson’s pride. I wasn’t there when the first men appeared but Miriam Krebs was an excellent guard.
“No autographs!” she said.
“I’m with the Mail and Guardian,” the reporter argued. But what did Miriam care? There’s an advantage to not knowing how to read: journalistic credentials are never impressive.
I was trapped at the hospital for a time, dealing with an outbreak of dysentery. I was in the thick of it when Adamson Krebs finally arrived to report on the reporters. He said it was a circus and that pilgrims from across South Africa were sitting by the gates of the farm. Miriam Krebs still wasn’t letting them inside; but it scared Adamson Krebs to think his own name might be in the papers.
“I live out there because I don’t want to be found,” he confessed.
When my supervisor learned I needed to help Jackson Pope, he gave me special consideration. Such was the power of fame; it didn’t hurt that I failed to mention Jackson Pope was broke. My supervisor probably thought there would be a large donation once all of this was done.
Before we left, I made Adamson stop so I could buy a paper. The great writer’s illness wasn’t on the front page; but it wasn’t on the back either. It sat snugly in the middle, as if the editors couldn’t decide how important they wanted the news to be. Famed author Jackson Pope is reportedly bedridden due to an undisclosed illness. The wording made me wince. Undisclosed illness was a euphemism; anyone who read this would think the worst.
When I reached the farm, I saw that Adamson Krebs had taken a bit of poetic license. It was hardly a circus: there were less then half a dozen men sitting in their cars.
“This is the writer’s young doctor,” said Adamson Krebs.
“Can you tells us anything about his condition?” asked a reporter.
“Please, Jackson Pope wants to be left alone.”
Inside, Jackson Pope was a wild mountain, craggy and imposing. But he was having a good day. He had found all the D’s and the typewriter keys flew at breakneck speed.
“Miriam says there are reporters outside,” he grunted.
“You have an undisclosed illness. We’re dealing with them.”
“Bring them here! I’ll deal with them.”
“I don’t want people seeing you like this.”
“Only way to handle the media is to give them what they want. Otherwise they make up the story. And that’s always worse.”
He grew so manic that I worried what would happen if I refused: the wild mountain might crumble to the sea. So I brought the reporters into the farmhouse and led them to the second floor. Donning the hat of press agent, I warned them they would have only five minutes. I wondered if this wasn’t too much time. I wanted them to see the great writer at his best. How long do you need to say something absurd?
“My young doctor is taking excellent care of me,” said Jackson Pope.
“Let’s get a picture of the two of you together.”
“I’m still able to write.”
“Aren’t you working on your memoirs?”
“Will it be very political?”
“All my memories are political! My memoirs will be too.”
A camera flashed as our photo was taken, the great writer and the young doctor, sitting side by side.
“All right,” I said. “Jackson Pope needs to rest.”
“Thank you for speaking to us.”
“My pleasure, boys. I wouldn’t want my daughter to think I have an undisclosed illness.”
The reporters glanced at each other and in the silence I thought I heard a distinctive sound: a mountain was tumbling down.
“I’m sorry,” said a reporter, “but I thought your daughter had died.”
“Ha!” said Jackson Pope. “She’ll outlive us all.”
I led the reporters away, doing my best to smile at Jackson Pope as I closed the door. To their credit, the reporters waited until we were outside and out of earshot before questioning me. I tried to protest but they were centipedes, crawling over me with their hundreds of legs. It was there, standing on the Krebs’ farm, that I had my outburst. Before I knew it, I had said what I had never said to Jackson Pope, what I had hardly said to myself, what I had been fighting to ignore ever since that night my sister told me Africa was the most dangerous place on Earth.
“He was wrong. Nia Pope is dead.”
The reporters smelled the tragedy. Opening the paper the following day, I found a photograph of me with the great writer, each of us smiling at the camera. But below that, the intrepid writers remarked, politely, that the bedridden Jackson Pope appeared to be “slightly confused”. And there was my quote, printed in black and white, on paper and in cyberspace, the truth emblazoned forever in my own voice.
I had stayed with the Krebs and gone into the nearby town for the paper; now I stalked back to the house in a cold fury. I was going to tell Jackson Pope the truth. I had kept him company in his comfortable fiction for weeks; he owed me a little solace. I imagined dragging him onto a plane and across the ocean, taking him all the way to Nia’s grave. We would stand over it together. Dementia could take everything from him but I wasn’t going to let it take this. If I couldn’t abolish it then neither could he.
I found Miriam Krebs sitting on the top step, her face in her hands. In his room, the great writer had fallen in an awkward pose. His head sat on the mattress as the rest of his body was knelt on the floor. The bed was a cliff, the body a waterfall. I crashed into Jackson Pope and rolled him onto his back. I banged his chest. I breathed into his lungs. I clawed at his body and yelled into the deathmask, demanding that he return. His spirit ignored me and why not? It probably knew why I wanted it back.
I don’t truly remember the following weeks. I wanted to avoid Jackson’s funeral, as I had avoided Nia’s, but no one else would take charge of his body and the responsibility fell to me. I was forced to stand at his grave. When the coffin went into the ground, it took my broken time machine with it. Jackson went into the earth with Nia’s t-shirt, her shawl, and the many letters and pictures Elodie had sent. I buried Nia and her father together. I had to. For me, they died on the same day, even though it happened five and a half years apart.
The papers brought notoriety. People ask for me by name and sometimes they bring an old photograph of the great writer and the young doctor that was printed all those months ago.
“This is who I want,” they say. “I want the man who tended to Jackson Pope.”
I could avoid all this by just going home. But here I sit. Like my sister said, I’m a romantic. I believe in words like forever.
© Copyright 2019 Joel Fishbane
Joel Fishbane is a novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. His novel “The Thunder of Giants” is available from St. Martin’s Press while new short fiction will appear in upcoming editions of New England Review, Litbreak, and Shift. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Find out more at www.joelfishbane.net.