Black Box

Originally published by Paragraphiti.

Michelle sat in Alice’s large, stuffy living room, trying not to be angry with Alice. Outside on West 86th street, ten floors below, the traffic must have snarled, for horns blew urgently. The sound penetrated through the shut windows, as if to remind Michelle of the teeming city life and further hassle waiting outside: A long subway ride home to Queens. She was receiving nothing in return for being here. Many weeks had passed since her last visit.

Alice lay on her back on the sofa, gazing upward in placid resistance, the roundness of her moon face a side effect from years of corticosteroids.

“Don’t you want to see yourself? The editor needs your signoff. You look like Gertrude Stein in your picture.” Michelle tilted the coffee table book toward Alice, to make it easier to see, and added with a fake chuckle, “Before the flowers of friendship faded, friendship faded. Right?”

The book, in galley proofs, featured portraits and interviews of celebrated American playwrights, including Alice, unresponsive to Michelle’s Gertrudism.

Michelle leaned back in the armchair, which was too low and aggravated her sciatica. “Okay. Did you eat dinner yet?”

“Mitch!” Alice cried. Her delighted smile flashed her small spaced teeth. She pointed to Michelle then tapped her own chest. “Mitch and Al!”

Anger came, hot. Sweat sprang up along Michelle’s hairline, between her breasts, under her arms. Was this a guilt trip? “No one calls me Mitch anymore,” she said.

“She got a good appetite!” the aide called from the kitchen. “I put the leftover pork in the blender and she eat all of it!”

“Great! Thanks!” Michelle shouted. “But I asked her!” Alice’s swallow reflex had been compromised by the strokes. She needed thickener in her liquids and solids puréed. But meat in a blender? Repulsive. Michelle couldn’t bear to watch Alice eat. She was glad to have missed the dinner ordeal.

Alice crooked her finger. “Mitch the bitch.”

For an instant Michelle recognized “Al,” the powerful woman who’d once been capable of annihilating her. You’re a manqué, Al had decreed years ago, reducing Mitch to tears. In the hot airless apartment, the memory still pained Michelle. It was true. She was a failure. “Al, the asshole,” she said.

Alice guffawed, clapping her chubby hands. That smile full of milk teeth.

Despite herself, Michelle gleaned satisfaction from that laugh. Twenty years younger than sixty-four-year-old Alice, she was still eager to please. She rarely allowed herself to think about “Al,” anymore. Al was an apparition who existed in the framed Obie award certificates on the walls of Alice’s rent-controlled apartment; in the theater posters in Italian, German and French from when her plays were produced in Europe; in the personal letter of appreciation from Katherine Ann Porter for Alice’s adaptation of Granny Weatherall. She lived in Michelle’s memory like a fragment of a dream, glittering and jagged as a broken wine bottle.

This coffee-table publication had resurrected Al. Michelle didn’t know it existed until an editor phoned to say that Alice had not responded to multiple emails and messages. Why are you calling me? Michelle had snapped. But, of course, she was the one people called.

In the photo, Alice is seated in the armchair, big and braless, her polo shirt unbuttoned at the collar, her frizzy gray hair down to her shoulders, and a quizzical autocratic expression, she almost conveys her bygone brazenness. My characters write the plays. I don’t know where they come from, she says in the interview.

Just the sort of disingenuous statement Michelle despised.

Now, Alice’s hair was sheared off in a crew cut for easier washing, looking more like Gertrude Stein, actually, than she did in the photo. She couldn’t sit in the armchair anymore. It was too low. Her legs were too weak to get out of it.

From the sofa she gave a contented sigh. At least she was happy. Did she remember the interview? People could live for decades disconnected from their former lives, losing their capacity in fits and starts, until every moment flowered anew as in the undiscovered world of a baby, with every need just as basic and urgent. It could happen even to a self-proclaimed “genius” like Al who’d lived by her wits and her words. My mind is like a black box, Alice would claim, I don’t know what’s in there until I start writing.

Deep in that black box of Alice’s mind lived the former Michelle, “Mitch,” the aspiring actress and playwright who’d caught the older playwright’s eye. Mitch, with her dreams and her debts and her youth and her talent. No one else even knew Mitch existed. People at work called her “Shelly,” unaware that she’d ever had higher aspirations than the paralegal she eventually became. Artistic achievement, influence, fame: these were concepts she no longer traded in.

Being a good person would have to be enough. There was freedom in that. Michelle slammed the book shut and bent over to write checks, carefully tearing them along the perforations of the checkbook. Because Alice had delegated power of attorney to her, Michelle knew that Alice’s funds were being suctioned out at the rate of $13,000 a month for her round-the-clock care. Legally, they were Michelle’s funds, now. The nest egg had been signed over to her, a step toward transferring the cost of Alice’s needs to Medicaid. Alice’s money would evidently expire before Alice would.

Money. If not for that money, what miserable state-run home would Alice have been shunted to, drugged probably, unwashed, neglected, abused? The bathing, dressing, diaper-changing, hair and nail cutting provided by the changing shifts of health aides enabled Alice to lie contentedly on her sofa, caught in her Mitch-and-Al time warp, turning to gaze at Michelle with naked adoration.

“Stop that,” she said. The adoration enraged her. “I’m going home. I’ll tell the editor you’re pleased.” Michelle had to step sideways between the sofa and the coffee table in order to bend down and peck Alice on the cheek. But Alice turned full frontal, pressing her lips against Michelle’s, slipping her sour-milk tongue in, as if she were still Michelle’s lover and she still had something to give.

***

Several weeks later, after successfully deflecting various requests for appearances by Alice in honor of the book—from people ignorant of Alice’s strokes and Cushings disease and vascular dementia—Michelle received a complaint from the head aide about Alice’s temper tantrums. Alice had apparently bitten someone.

Michelle arrived at the Upper West Side apartment carrying a bouquet of fresh purple tulips that she’d purchased at a deli on Columbus Avenue. Springtime had erupted since the cold gray winter afternoon of her last visit, and daffodils bloomed in the dirt patches under the spindly magnolia trees that grew along the sidewalk. Daylight savings time had begun.

In the deli where she’d bought the flowers, the radio played a soft-rock song from the 1970s, and the lyrics wormed through Michelle’s mind. On and on, you keep on trying and you smile when you feel like dying.

Alice’s apartment was as airless as always, the eternal season of indoors. “You have a visitor!” the aide shouted over the news blaring on the television. Images of the Air France flight that had crashed into the Atlantic Ocean last summer flashed on the screen because the black boxes had finally been located on the ocean floor.

Michelle was surprised to find Alice sitting on the sofa, rather than lying down. Her eyes were bright, her feet clad in lace-up walking shoes. Switching the television off with the remote, Alice said lucidly, “Lovely to see you. Simply lovely.”

“Thanks, Alice.” Michelle was confounded by the joy that arose inside her. Oh, she missed the old Alice. “You look good. Do you want to go outside?” she asked. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”

Alice nodded. “I don’t understand anything anymore.”

“It must be hard,” said Michelle. Still holding the flowers, she perched on the edge of the sofa. “Is that why you lose your temper? Because you understand how much you don’t understand? Do you remember biting someone?”

Alice frowned. “Mitch goes, Blah blah blah.”

Blah blah blah ignited an old argument between them regarding Michelle’s supposed insincerity and the resulting boredom of her company. You’ll never be an actress, Al once declared. You try too hard to be pretty.

“I don’t have to be here, you know.” Michelle stood and took the tulips into the kitchen.

At the table the aide was hunched over a catalog with her cell phone and a glass of soda neatly beside it. “Sorry, just have to get that vase,” said Michelle, reaching past the woman’s face to the shelf behind. “She’s in a bad mood today, isn’t she? Did she have another tantrum?”

“No, no.” The aide ducked her head dramatically. “She’s sweet today, very nice. But she don’t like to go out. And she don’t want to be alone for a minute. She be calling me a hundred times a day. She likes me.”

“She likes people who do her bidding,” said Michelle, turning to fill the vase at the sink. With the water running, she couldn’t hear the aide respond. Al had always played others against Mitch, to prove her insignificance. Be strong, Michelle told herself. Be the superior person. She added the packet of plant food, arranged the tulips so each one bowed delicately over the rim of the vase, and carried the vessel into the living room, where she placed it on top of the coffee table book about American playwrights.

Alice sat there, watching. “My shrink yelled at me. She didn’t want to believe I’m an atheist,” she said.

“You haven’t been in psychotherapy for years,” said Michelle. “So I question the truth of that statement.”

“I said I didn’t believe in god,” said Alice. “And she called me a liar.”

“God called you a liar? The nerve of her.” As she sat down in the too-low armchair, Michelle felt like a child falling backward. It was true, she was insincere. The flowers resembled purple mouths, gulping for breath.

Alice stuck her tongue out. She’d recently guzzled a glass of thickened milk by the look of it.

“Does that mean you’re mad at me?” said Michelle. “You’re going to start in with blah blah blah again? I don’t give a shit whether there’s a god or not. Just get through the day with some dignity. Who cares what you believe in?”

“Oh you,” said Alice, her eyes brimming over. “What about love?”

Did that mean she loved Michelle? Or did it mean Michelle had pleased her? Or were they the same thing?

“You’re the know-it-all. You tell me about love.” Michelle examined the bookshelves filled with the published journals of Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury set, filled, too with the works of Gertrude Stein, Chekhov, Ibsen, books on Newton and Turing, on science and politics, especially the atom bomb, great tomes demonstrating Alice’s intellectual heft, now dusted once a week by the cleaning service.

Two shelves from the top, leaning on the spines, Michelle noticed a wrinkled photograph of Alice. With dark curly hair and a wide, happy smile, at the height of her playwriting fame, Alice was standing in front of the West Side Arts Theater, wearing a red coat and a long colorful scarf she’d knitted herself. Back then she’d knitted constantly like Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, weaving the fates of the characters through the best of times and the worst of times. Michelle had shot the photo, could it be ten years ago? She remembered the cold air and static electricity, how the applause in the theater had been like a great wave of love carrying her over the audience, as if the clapping had been not for the performance, but for her, all for her.

She got up and turned the picture around to face the books.

“Precious baby,” said Alice. “So sensitive.” A line of drool stretched from her chin to the shelf of her bosom. The gulf between her now and her then was glaring and dreadful.

Michelle’s tears came with sudden fury.

“No crying.” Alice patted the sofa. “Come to Al.”

Tearfully, Michelle stepped around the coffee table to sit beside Alice, taking her hand, which was warm and soft. She pressed Alice’s hand to her own damp cheek, remembering the soft touch of those hands on her face, her body, how it made her ache for more. The softness had come to feel manipulative and mean.

“If only you weren’t sick,” she said. “We could’ve…” she trailed off.

…Ended it, Michelle had meant to say. Her tears vanished. She was the mean one now. She didn’t want to be, but she was. She tried to imagine her healthy energy as a golden light absorbed by Alice through their palms, healing Alice and bringing her back. Bringing her back so Michelle could leave her finally, leave her imperious and successful in the world of drama and critics and culture, the stage and the press. She couldn’t leave a demented woman, alone, in no world at all.

The radiator hissed dry heat. The sun’s glare against the windowpanes faded. She sat, holding hands with Alice, wordlessly affectionate, and felt not quite resignation not quite acceptance but a respite from the obligation for either. The “now” is the kernel at the heart of the mystery, Al had said in the interview. In the timeless dusk, nothing else existed.

***

The next morning, Michelle woke with the desire to hold Alice’s hand again. Not wanting to wait until evening, she called in sick at work. Michelle didn’t love her job but it paid okay if she included the benefits, and it required a lot of drafting and revising documents. In some sense, she wrote for a living, as Alice had once done. Not plays, but legal papers. She acted, too, impersonating an efficient and cheerful worker, friendly and serviceable. She enjoyed her routine: Tuesdays and Thursdays after work she volunteered at the animal shelter; Wednesdays, water aerobics; Saturday, a matinee or bike ride. Her life was her stage. Her character desired simplicity.

Though Al had praised and critiqued Mitch’s attempts at drama, she had never championed Mitch in the world of agents and producers and theaters. You’re not ready, she’d said. Mitch had toiled on one play for several years, revising and submitting drafts to Al, trying to go deeper. You finally seem to understand dialogue and subtext. Now you have to think about foreground, middle ground and background. Meanwhile, Mitch had transported Al to doctor’s appointments, run her errands, arranged her schedule, cooked her dinner, accompanied her to galas and opening nights, typed her manuscripts, and became her lover. If she’d thought that made them equals, she had only herself to blame.

Calling in sick on a beautiful day, they’d know she wasn’t actually sick. But she could borrow Alice’s illness. She’d already explained to her boss, My dear friend suffered a stroke and I’m the health proxy. Like a legal term, “dear friend” hid the chaos of reality beneath its innocuous surface.

As Michelle walked toward Alice’s building from the subway station, she saw a slumping figure in a wheelchair under the awning. It was Alice, her face tilted upward as if to receive the air’s caress. She noted that while Alice had refused to go outside yesterday with her, Alice was outside now, alone. This observation provoked a sudden achiness in her knees and elbows.

“Mitch.” Alice called, though she kept her eyes closed.

“How did you know it was me?”

“I smelled.” Alice inhaled deeply.

“I called in sick,” said Michelle. “I thought I’d surprise you. But I’m the one surprised. What are you doing out here?”

When Alice didn’t respond, Michelle’s hurt feelings turned to anger. In the past, Al had used the nonresponse to imply that Mitch was mere vapor in her life, dispensable, an underling. Back then, she still had her brain and her Obie awards and famous actors coming and going. “Where’s the woman who takes care of you?” asked Michelle.

Alice opened her eyes and shrugged, an exaggerated lift and drop of her shoulders, turning her palms up.

“What does that mean?” said Michelle. “Does it mean you don’t know? Does it mean you don’t understand the question?”

Again, the dramatized shrug and the pleased expression, like a toddler who’d learned a gesture that seemed to impress the adults.

“Stop acting the fool!” said Michelle. “Say something! I can’t fill in the blanks!”

Alice mumbled something incomprehensible; spittle bubbling between her lips. “Repulsive,” perhaps she said.

Michelle rummaged through her purse for her cell phone, ready to berate the head aide.

“I love Mitch.” Alice grabbed her arm.

“Stop it. You don’t love me. You need me. There’s a difference.” Michelle wrenched free. She leaned against the building and slid down the granite wall until she was sitting on the sidewalk next to Alice’s wheelchair. As she scrolled through her phone for the number, she was aware of Alice watching her. She could feel those eyes on the crown of her head, sticky with desire, sense them as if they were her own skin cells oscillating, until she was compelled to meet Alice’s gaze.

But Alice was sound asleep, her head back, her mouth fallen open. It shocked Michelle. For a moment, she couldn’t breathe.

What was life about when a blocked artery to the brain could simply erase the constellation of memories, thoughts and functioning that formed a person?

Al had chosen Mitch out of all the aspiring playwrights in the workshop, and anointed her. You’ve got something here. Don’t waste it. That pronouncement had expanded Michelle’s world beyond what she’d thought possible. Come live with me and be my love, Alice had seduced her with that line. At the time, their entwinement felt like destiny.

Michelle had no family, just as Alice had no family, though their circumstances were different. Michelle was adopted, an only child, and her parents had died a long time ago. Alice had broken off contact from her family who were probably still alive, some of them at least. Her estranged daughter had died five years ago, a tragedy that Alice hadn’t mourned because, directly afterward, she had been hospitalized with numbness and tingling on her right side. She was diagnosed as having suffered a transient ischemic attack, or mini-stroke, an augur of her later big one.

It seemed to Michelle that Alice used her poor health as insulation from her guilt and grief, from all emotions, because, upon her release from the hospital, Alice had obsessed not about her daughter’s death, but about her own heart, her blood and cholesterol levels, and her pluck and resilience.

We endure by enduring, she’d said, and she quickly completed a play in which a young woman falls to her death, the part, she claimed she’d written for Mitch.

But the director refused to cast Mitch because she’d blanked when she read for the part. She’d stuttered. Her mouth had gone dry. She’d spilled the water the casting director had given her.

You humiliated me. You screwed up the audition, said Al.

I was scared, said Mitch. Why did I have to try out? You know I’ll be good, it’s my part!

You’ve made yourself deliberately stupid, said Al.

That was it. Stupid to have stayed so long with someone so repulsive and manipulative! You disgust me! And so it ended, the proverbial last straw. Reality replaced hope and Michelle’s world shrank back to a manageable size. She enrolled in paralegal job training, which she couldn’t have done without Alice’s money, and moved into her tiny sublet in Queens with funds borrowed from Alice.

The play went on to win an Obie. But even though Michelle left, even though they had broken up, she had fantasized Al begging her to return. Repulsed or not, for a few years, she was alert for the begging. Years. Compressed into her memory, the long series of days that comprised half a decade were a series of evanescent tracer patterns traveling through empty space.

The call came several months ago when Alice phoned from her summer house by the lake, the house Mitch might have been at with her, to say she’d had a minor car accident, something with the brakes, and she drove the car into a ditch. You probably hit the gas by mistake, Michelle said, conscious of keeping her voice normal, as if they’d picked up a dropped conversation from hours ago, rather than years.

But that wasn’t the point of the call. Triple-A had pulled the car out of the ditch, and Alice had driven home. She’d sat down, intending to rest for five minutes before putting the groceries away. Several hours later she woke in the dark, and the ice cream had melted through the paper bag and pooled on the floor. A stroke, they’d figured out in retrospect, that began with the car accident; the first of many strokes. Help me, Alice had said. My mind has gone dry.

Michelle pressed her palm into Alice’s pudgy ankle, the part she could reach while sitting on the sidewalk, and wondered if this nap right now in the wheelchair was actually another stroke occurring, the one that would finally kill Alice. They weren’t related by blood, but Michelle couldn’t abandon her. Was it love? Sitting on the ground beside Alice’s wheelchair with the noise of the city all around them, the question came like a revelation. Was this terrible, burdened sense of responsibility, this pity beyond all telling, love?

The head aide’s voice mail came on and Michelle left a diatribe: I came here to find her unattended in a wheelchair. This is a dereliction of duty. Negligence bordering on abuse. Unacceptable. There will be consequences. Though Michelle was screaming into her phone, Alice did not wake up.

***

That night, Michelle’s phone rang, jolting her from sleep. On the other end she heard the sound of the television, and perceived Alice’s stifling apartment. A rhythmic tonal series of beeps indicated someone punching in a phone number. “Al, are you okay? It’s Mitch! Can you hear me?” she yelled. Her throat hurt.

The air went dead. A dial tone sounded. It was two o’clock in the morning but Michelle pulled her jeans on. She called car service and ran outside to wait. It was chilly but she was drenched in sweat. The streets were eerie, with furtive shadows between pools of light from streetlamps. In record time the taxi shot through the midtown tunnel, across town and several blocks north to the upper west side.

Unlocking Alice’s front door, Michelle stepped in quietly, like a trespasser.

Wheels burped against parquet wood as Alice pushed her four-wheeled walker, her “rolls,” up the hall from her bedroom. “Bad, Mitch, bad.”

Michelle realized the old t-shirt she’d been sleeping in had twisted and hiked itself up, revealing a swath of her abdomen. She judged herself harshly: a dumpy middle-aged woman sweeping through the city in a deranged panic, the kind of woman who barely held her life together and managed only because she’d kept to a routine so rigidly, it provided a refuge. “You called me,” she said.

“I’m going to die,” said Alice. Or did she say, I want to die?

Down the hall, in the spare room, a light went on. The aide emerged, gripping the flaps of her robe together. “What’s going on? What are you doing here?”

“Alice called me,” said Michelle. “I can’t trust that she’s being taken care of so I came over. I’ll put her to bed.”

“For God’s sake. It was five minutes. She was happy sitting there by herself!” That had been the excuse the aide had given. She had gone around the corner to the drugstore because she’d ran out of baby-wipes. Now she shuffled up the hall to peer into Alice’s face. “You okay, dear? You want your friend to put you to bed?”

When Alice gave a resounding “yup,” the aide slipped back into her room, leaving the door ajar. “You call me if you need me, you hear?”

Even with her “rolls,” negotiating Alice to the bedroom was an arduous process. Her legs buckled. Shifting into her bed she leaned so heavily on Michelle that Michelle’s lower back muscles went into spasm. At last, she was horizontal, breath gurgling in her throat, and Michelle tiptoed back up the hall to the living room.

She lay down on the sofa, but the drooping stems and scattered petals of the tulips disturbed her. The cushions smelled like pee. She got up and dumped the flowers into the trash. From the bookshelf she grabbed the photo of Al, in her prime, in her red coat and her long vibrant scarf, gleeful and proud and celebrated. A moment in time that would not have existed had it not been recorded by Michelle. She pressed the picture to her heart as she curled up on the sofa.

***

She dreamed that she and Alice were sorting through boxes in a mostly-empty apartment, a just-moved-into place, as yet unpacked. The boxes were full of nice things: candlesticks and cloisonné vases, pink crystal wineglasses and painted china plates, tablecloths and cloth napkins. In the bedroom, framed pictures were stacked against the wall, awaiting hanging. The sheets of the unmade bed were printed with medieval etchings of the solar system, rumpled and wrinkled as if someone had just woken up. Breezes blew in through the open window. Police tape blocked the apartment door.

Michelle knew, as she was dreaming, that this was not a dream. She had accompanied Alice to this very apartment after Alice’s daughter had jumped to her death from the bedroom window.

Michelle had met the daughter only once, in passing, one night when she and Alice were walking to a restaurant on lower Broadway, a fancy place where celebrities gathered. They encountered a sharp-chinned young woman whose numerous piercings, eyebrow, lip, tongue; and acne-scarred cheeks had telegraphed self-hatred. Well, mother, isn’t this kismet? she’d said. I need money and I know you carry your checkbook in your purse.

Not a red cent! Alice had autocratically raised her hand, as if to slap. For Michelle, it was like watching a play.

Fuck you, stupid old hypocrite! The girl spat, literally. Spit had landed on Alice’s shoe.

Shame on you! Michelle had jumped in to protect Alice. At the same time, Michelle had experienced a surge of joy and kinship with the girl. For all of Alice’s success, here was proof of her failure. Michelle had endured Alice’s exploitation, and doubted herself when she felt ill-treated, like a servant, because the reward outweighed her feelings: proximity to fame, living grandly, being needed. She is a hypocrite, she wanted to tell the girl, and the strange surge of energy only escalated when Alice had insisted on going to the restaurant, saying, I don’t know why she chooses to live this way.

You wouldn’t know because you’re barely in contact, Michelle had said. She’s not much younger than me.

She cut me off a long time ago, said Al. You’re more like a daughter to me than she is, my neophyte, my orphan, my love.

Less than a year after that encounter, the girl had moved into a new apartment on the twelfth floor of a high-rise building, an apartment that Mitch knew Al had paid two months rent, one month’s security and a broker fee for. Within the first week, the girl had jumped. An appalling thought had occurred to Michelle, what a waste of money it had been.

We artists are terrible people, said Al, sifting through boxes. Robert Frost’s son shot himself. Collette’s daughter committed suicide. James Joyce’s, too.

All people are terrible, said Mitch. Not just artists.

It’s not my fault? Al had said, like a question. And Mitch hugged her, saying, It’s a tragedy. Of course it’s not your fault.

Am I good person? asked Al.

You are if I am, said Mitch.

You’re a very good person. A better one than me. We artists are terrible people.

Michelle often dreamed about the sun-soaked apartment, the east-facing windows, the jump, the boxes of expensive objects, clothes, cosmetics. It haunted her because she had envied Alice’s daughter. It was crazy, she had been jealous of an unhappy, unstable suicide victim because that victim had nice things and a mother who gave her money to move into a high-rise.

She awoke in a sweat to a crackling sound, like electricity running through wires. At first, she imagined she was back in that apartment. Then she found the photograph, crumpled beneath her. She stumbled down the hall. Alice looked peaceful, sleeping like a child, and didn’t stir when Michelle perched at the foot of the bed. She and Al used to sleep in this bed together, Mitch’s side next to the closet, with her own reading lamp. She listened to the wheeze of Alice’s breath. Her own breath came quicker, yet all her limbs, her spine, her neck relaxed. With the relaxation came sorrow for all the envious people in the world and people who had never fulfilled their potential and people who’d suffered strokes and suicides. With the sorrow, came clarity. She knew why she’d been summoned, and why she’d had the dream.

“You called me,” she whispered. “You said you wanted to die. You said I was a better person than you.” Creeping to the head of the bed, she grabbed one of the pillows and pressed it over Alice’s face.

Alice kicked and twisted and whimpered. Surprisingly strong, she flailed her fists. Strange animal grunting emitted from under the pillow. Michelle climbed on top to stop the thrashing. Her elbows burned, her wrists and hands cramped, but she forced that pillow down. The bed thumped.

A light went on across the hall. “Is she biting again?” cried the aide.

Michelle threw the pillow on the floor. From the bed, Alice’s eyes glittered. Their panting filled the room. “Everything’s fine!” shouted Michelle. “She had a bad dream.”

***

A week later, despite the Do Not Resuscitate orders that had been hanging on the refrigerator door, Alice lay in a hospital bed, breathing with a ventilator, being fed through a tube. Against all directives, the aide had called the ambulance when Alice seemed unresponsive. It might have been connected to Michelle’s attempt to free her, or it might have been arbitrary, but the aide had claimed she was afraid not to summon the ambulance. She didn’t want to be delinquent in her duties.

Sitting in the uncomfortable visitor’s chair near Alice’s bed, exhausted from the subway journey after a long, tedious day at work, Michelle’s mind was empty. She didn’t understand anything anymore. The breathing machine hissed rhythmically. On and on, the words in her head rolled through in synch with that rhythm. Alice was dead, though mechanically alive. It was up to Michelle to instigate the removal of life-sustaining treatments. But they should never have been installed. The directive had been clear. Michelle felt paralyzed and so terribly tired.

“You had your chance,” she told Alice. “I tried. Now, what? What should I do?”

A nurse came in, adjusted the tubes, and glanced at Michelle. “You must have loved her very much,” she said.

“I hate her,” said Michelle. She realized she was crying and wanted to say something about hope and cruelty and love. But, as she reached into her mind, she found nothing, a black box.