He’d seen her wheeled in just last Friday, mid-heart attack, curly brown hair floating past on the gurney, doctors in a rush around her.
He didn’t think much of her, if at all. She was just another patient in his temporary white-walled prison, another person crowding the tight rooms, grumbling. He was counting the days, the hours, the minutes, until his release, and he kept marching through the halls, searching for something to do, something to focus on besides himself. He stumbled upon her in the hospital library the next day. She was fluttering through the books, smiling and commenting, and tossing them into a great pile in the center of the library table. She was animated, talking to herself, occasionally laughing and gesturing at the texts.
He came in silently, pausing at the door for a brief look around. The room was pleasant by hospital standards; it had deep mahogany furniture, green and brass library lamps, and stacks and stacks of books. Unfortunately, the books were mainly the donated variety: the middle English version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, at least 20 Louis L’Amour novels, several awful Danielle Steele romance novels with the sex scenes dog-eared, and the occasional self-help book, How To Love Yourself with 100 Words A Day.
He noticed those books discarded in a growing mass and chortled, “Don’t care for fiction, do you?”
She turned, startled, resting her eyes on him, “I’m looking for something a bit more inspiring, something to let my mind soar for a minute or two.”
Not bad looking for 60-year-old just after a heart attack, he thought. Her skin was glowing and taught, and her eyes were bright and clear.
“What did you find in the mish-mash, any gold?”
“Oh, only an American anthology, probably left by a college student,” she said, pulling up a chair, her small frame easily sliding next to the table. “Maybe some Emerson is hidden in here.”
He sighed, exasperated. But for a brief moment, he was intrigued; he was finally going to have a genuine conversation in this horrible place. And of all people, here was a transcendentalist! He hated transcendentalists.
They were just a bunch of overblown vagabonds with too much time spent outside, coddled from civilization and reality. Of course, when no one is talking to you, you can make the rules and be as happy as you want – but it’s a lie. We are not wood nymphs, he thought as he grasped the table edge. We need something much more than parks and ponds. We need something linear, logical, human.
He looked at her, his face flushing. How could she smile at him? This woman had just suffered a heart attack.
Clearly, Walden Pond hadn’t saved her. She should know better.
He placed his personal paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged on the table, and nudged it towards her.
“Why not try a little Ayn Rand? I’ll lend you my copy. That’ll toughen you up.”
Her eyes flashed, and she threw a haphazard barb, “Aren’t you a bit old for that ridiculous idealism?”
His face reddened—apparently, transcendentalists with single stents in their hearts didn’t soften their blows. He rubbed his bandages, a scar was forming from his recent surgery, expanding and contracting with each breath. He sat down. “Are you saying that with age comes the loss of ideals? Have you given up so soon?”
She carefully closed her book and took a solid look at him, brushing her curls back. “Clearly, you’ve never read Emerson. He has plenty of ideals, and he speaks from the heart.”
She looked at his bandages and then looked into his eyes.
He avoided her gaze, and instead, picked up his book. “Are you saying that Rand doesn’t have heart?” He wielded his book like a sword, waving it in the air.
“May I?” She held her hand out, and he placed the book carefully in her palm. It was brown, worn, and passages had been circled with a ball point pen. “Let me see what I can find in here.”
He watched her pore over the book. She raised her eyebrows, sighed, muttered a few words, smiled again. “Oh that’s a good one,” she paged through for a few minutes and then straightened up. “Here, here we go. Let me quote her. Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction.”
She looked up at him and raised her eyebrows, “What are we supposed to do with that statement?”
“It’s the truth. Take it in,” he nodded at her, keeping his eyes averted and his face to the door. “Money makes the world go round.”
She inhaled and exhaled, sharply, “How can you say that? Rand is so incredibly narrow.” She shook her head and thumbed through the book again. “The best moments can’t be found in a bank statement. When I keel over, I hope that I’ll be considering the joys that I’ve experienced in my life.”
“Brought to you by the dollar,” he said, tapping the table. “Your free time, your vacations and your hospital stays have a price tag.”
“I’m not against the dollar,” she said, and then paused, waiting for him to look at her. He brushed his hand through his silver hair and threw her a short glance.
“I just don’t think the dollar is everything, and Emerson doesn’t even really mention the ‘economy.’ Have you actually read him?”
“I…” he paused, looking down, thinking. The books in his library only covered economic theory and particle physics, all part of his 30 years at the DOE. He felt his temples throbbing again, and he sighed. He was too exhausted to lie.
“I have read Thoreau, some Hawthorne, but no. No Emerson.”
She leaned back. “Oh, well, of course, then. That explains it. Why don’t you give it a try? Twenty minutes of reading, maybe an hour will get you through all of Self Reliance, one of his best.” She put his book down, and then reached back to the anthology, paging through eagerly.
He drifted off, idly flipping through L’Amour’s Riding for the Brand. And then he stared straight ahead, almost frozen, with only his green eyes clouding up. He was considering his relationship with his late wife. He had been missing her and alternatively cursing her all day. She had argued with him on the very same subjects, but bitterly, in angry 10 minute tirades, and he never had a moment to get a word in edgewise. He had learned to tune out.
Anna stopped reading and watched his eyes and face—bitterness crossed his brow, then resignation, then abrupt sadness. “You don’t have to like Emerson,” she said, quietly. “I’m just suggesting you try something new. I didn’t read him until well out of college, not until my forties. And it was in my weaker moments that somehow, I could find some strength in his words.”
“Are you a teacher?” he asked, crossing his arms.
She laughed, “No, not really. Well, I do occasionally teach watercolor classes. That’s my passion, but mainly I’m a mother. I’m a new grandmother, too. And I love to read.” She laughed again. “That’s plenty.”
Her light and easy laugh put him at ease, and he leaned back in his chair. “Why is that funny?”
“I don’t know. Just so many changes.” She glanced down at her chest, her smile growing faint.
“Yes. I understand,” he twirled his mustache. “It’s hard to know what to expect. You think you’ve finally got a handle on it, and then, well, then you have a heart attack.” He looked at her now, and they exchanged a long glance.
“That’s it exactly,” she said, touching her cheeks. “Sometimes, a good book can carry me past all the confusion and hurt. Emerson just reminds me of what I’ve forgotten. I need a reminder now and then.”
“That’s how I feel about Ayn Rand.”
Anna picked up his book, “You know, I’ve read all her books. I have liked her at times. Just not so much over the years.”
“She speaks for the individual,” he nodded at her. “You can have that copy, if you like.”
“Oh, I couldn’t. It looks like this book has been your friend for a while, and I’ve read it twice already. Anyway, why do you dislike authors whom you haven’t read? That’s hardly fair, you know?” She patted the anthology. “We have to give people a chance.”
He began to answer. But the door, which was half open, swung wide and slammed against the metal garbage can with a loud clang. Only a tiny hand emerged, belonging to a golden haired boy. His thirty-something year old mother followed, her flaxen hair forming delicate wisps around her flushed face.
The woman hurried in. “Oh Mom, I knew you would be hiding in the library. Aren’t you supposed to be in your room? Isn’t someone supposed to be monitoring you?”
“You know how I like to sneak off,” Anna said. They embraced for a long time.
“Sarah, this is my new friend, Mr.—” she paused. “I don’t believe you gave me your name.”
“It’s John,” he smiled and extended his hand. “We were just discussing books,” he added.
“Oh, I see Mom is rambling on her favorite topic again. And you’ve endured it!” she shook his hand. He felt the warmth spread up his arm.
“It really hasn’t been all that bad, honest,” he said, with tacit sincerity.
“Yes, it’s not that bad, not at all,” Sarah said. Her eyes were bright, but the edges were about to brim over.
Anna put her arm around her, “Let’s get some lunch. They have a really awful salad here, I’m told. Would you care to join us, John?” They waited by the door.
He paused. “Oh no, you enjoy your family. I’m just going to peruse through the library here a bit longer. I’m in room 57. Perhaps we can discuss books later, if you care to stop by.”
“Sure,” she said. “I will.”
The curly-haired group bustled down the hall, and he watched them go, carefully closing the door. His only visitor that morning was his sister, who had come and gone in a rush, and he had another unfortunate day of rest and monitoring after his surgery. There was nothing else to do but to consider his life and his past, and he’d had just about enough of himself that day.
Anna had left the thick 1000-page American anthology closed on the table. Thumbing through it, he found Thoreau and scoffed to himself, “What an idiot!” and then there was that essay by Emerson, the one she had mentioned, Self-Reliance. He paused.
It was a warm spring day, and there was a nice bench under a maple that he had been eyeing. Anything was better than that dull white hospital room, the soap opera blaring and his neighbor alternately snoring and complaining. He stood up and collected the book in his arms and then wandered down the hall.
He didn’t even notice that his step was light.
Deanna Wulff has been a ranger, a river guide, and a dance instructor. She began her writing career as a news reporter, then shifted into technical writing and editing and has now arrived at fiction and creative non-fiction.