Paul Lisicky: Mask

(an excerpt from the memoir THE NARROW DOOR)

It’s just me and Denise in her room at the hospice.  Her family has just stepped out to the waiting room down the hall, and they’ve given me some minutes to be alone with her.  I look at her sleeping face, grab her big warm toe poking out from beneath the sheet: monkey feet, she called them.  It’s not even Denise’s face anymore: it’s impersonal, a mask.  So hard to believe she was literally on her feet, out at a restaurant twenty days ago.  Just yesterday, according to Nancy, her sister-in-law, she smiled when she heard I was coming.  She said, “Paul?” And her eyes opened wider, if my coming on short notice would be the most surprising thing of all.  Why would she think that, after all this time?  Denise.

But I have come too late.  She’s not even the person I know anymore.  She’s breathing of course, head turned turned to the left, but her eyes are closed for good now.  She’s moving–I can feel it in my cells.  As awkward as it is to admit it, a part of me is relieved that we don’t have to say those final things.  Too much pressure, and how could human language ever carry us to whatever is coming next–even if it’s a blankness, a null set?  Better to hold onto her toe.  Better to think of peace.  Better simply to wish her out and away.  Her mind and body are already wanting two different things, and the fight isn’t going to be pretty.

I tell her I’ve been rereading her work all week.  I tell her I’ve gone back to Good Deeds, her first novel, I tell her I’ve read her essays.  I tell her she’s beautiful writer.  I want every single word to matter, but my words don’t ring so true without other people in the room.  Three months ago, at my mother’s hospice bed, my brothers and my father started naming family memories, not even the contents of the stories, just the headlines.  The time the boat ran out of gas at Anchorage Point and Mr. Forte came by to save us.  The time we couldn’t find a place to stay in Tennessee, and we all came close to sleeping in the car.  “Just give me some peanut butter crackers and I’ll sleep in the car all night,” my mother cried, and we all made fun of that line for years, as if that were the funniest thing.  My mother’s eyelids started moving.  So many stories, the loosest threads keeping them together: a family’s life in time.  How could she not have been happy to be among us, the head of us?   But I can’t do that with Denise, maybe because that kind of ritual needs other people in it.  This feels lonely.  We know there’s a script, and even though we don’t want the script, we feel like the script is required of us.

I go back out to the waiting room and sit in the sofa with Denise’s family.   Lights are too bright for my eyes.  We look out at the view of Center City: the modernist PSFS building, the statue of William Penn, the blocky squat Liberty Center, which looks today the beginning of some downfall: the end of tradition, dignity, grace.  There’s a huge space between where we are and those buildings.  The sky goes grayer, as if it wants to storm.  We drink shitty coffee.  We look toward the program on the Food Channel with more absorption than the show deserves.  An elaborate yellow cake is being pulled from the oven, to be iced with chocolate frosting and jelly between the layers, and one of us says, I’m just gaining pounds looking at the thing, and everyone laughs gently, as they’re supposed to laugh, but we know that the laughing has nothing to do with cake, or even the joke.

Just before six, the nurse calls us down the hall.  Now we have a job to do; now we’re helping to write the old story: she died surrounded by family and friends.  The dozen of us move one by one through the doorway, and settle on our places around the bed.  Austen closest to her mother’s head, Denise’s mother opposite.  Her ex-husband nearby, me by her feet.  All the lights and lamps are off.  Flames shudder in votives.  Joni sings from her brother Joey’s laptop, the bare-bones demo of “Good Friends.” from one of the CDs I made for her many months back.  No one knows that Denise once called it our song when it first came out in 1985, and I like knowing that it’s coming on now, as if we’re passing a secret back and forth. That’s followed by “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which would really make her guffaw if she were writing this story.  Irreverent Denise.  No narratives of grace and comfort for her.  Her favorite writer of her final months?  A.M. Homes, where the parents smoke crack, and the children have sex with their dolls, and no one is rewarded for any good deed.

We’re watching her face.  We’re waiting for something to happen.  It’s a little like waiting for a scary but holy movie to start, and it’s unbearable, this watching, this waiting.  No group of human beings could ever be in practice for such a thing.  And we probably realize this, in our own separate ways, at about the same time.  Along with the shock that we wish the movie would get to the heartbreaking part.  Frankly, it’s not so easy to be in a position where we can’t go out to pee, or reach for our phones or eat some of that disgusting cake we saw on the TV.   Ironically, this is time without boundaries.  Time without boundaries is a little like being–we’re in a boat, little rocking boat, a hundred miles out, no trees or shorelines in sight.  But we don’t want to hurry this on.  We want Denise to feel us in her bones, her blood.  That’s why we’re here.  A part of us is going with her, and we don’t know what to do.

A nurse asks if we need anything.  The nurses.  The calming presence of the nurses.  Their human neutrality, never too concerned, never not nearby.  I can’t imagine what it might be like to be them, to live inside of such intensity day after day.   Perhaps they walk through the everyday like clear glass houses.  Or else they shut all their doors and windows down once they’re off duty.  I don’t know how else they could buy food, pay bills, wait in line at the DMV, without thinking of the ways, all the ludicrous ways, we go about distracting ourselves from the fact that we’re dying.  But maybe they’re simply in better practice than we are.  Maybe it isn’t too hard to get where they are, and it feels damn good to live with that truth.  You get a jury duty summons on the day of your best friend’s graduation: so what.  You think of that beautiful writer down the hall, the one who made you laugh every time you edged a needle inside her vein, and you think, well, if she could do that.

We’re waiting.  I wonder if Denise is aware of our waiting.  It must be hard enough to die, to squeak from the coat of your body, without worrying about the people you’re leaving behind.  There is a story of a man out on Long Island, a former neighbor, who made his exit on his own terms.  He found a good woods, mashed down the weeds like a deer, then lay down and went to sleep on the ground.  Word had it he covered himself with leaves.   The story is passed around as neighborhood legend: the saddest story in the world.  Such a gentle man.  Meticulous gardener, good friend, frozen in snow for days on end, and this is how Creation watches out for him.  Yet it doesn’t sound that bad to me.  Would we want so many faces, even if they are benevolent faces, trained on us when it’s our time to go?  No, not me.

I hold onto her toe for a little while longer.  An hour goes by; then, two.  The thunderstorm outside the window has passed.  Then, one by one, we’ve decided we’ve had enough.  Some of us wander to the waiting room; some of us wander off toward the elevator, heads down, as if we’ve disappointed someone, though we don’t exactly know who that someone is.

The elevator is falling.  I’m remembering my friend.  It would make sense that someone so attached to her writing–with the allure of perfect shape–would want to mess things up a little at the end.


The titles of Paul Lisicky’s books reveal a writer concerned with the process of building and demolition—of the self.  Whether he’s writing fiction, memoir, poetry, or, more recently, blurring the lines between those genres, Lisicky explores the process and power of identity.  He and his characters struggle to create the narratives which help them define and understand their world, only to see the wrecking ball of chaos lay them bare.  Robert Olen Butler said of Lisicky, “(he is) one of the select writers who continues to teach me about the complexities of the human heart.”  Lisicky is the author of the novels Lawnboy (1999) and The Burning House (2011); the memoir, Famous Builder (2002); and the forthcoming collection of prose pieces, Unbuilt Projects; and the memoir, The Narrow Door.

His work has appeared in Tin House, Fence, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, Story Quarterly, and in many other anthologies and magazines. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Henfield Foundation, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was twice a fellow. Lisicky has taught in the writing programs at Cornell University, New York University, Rutgers-Newark, and Sarah Lawrence College. He is currently the New Voices Professor in the MFA Program at Rutgers-Camden.

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