Glad for Gladys
Gladys Spinet is dying. Not that it matters much to most people, but she’s dying and that should be worth something. It should matter—make a difference.
Elsie Flowers told me today—about Gladys dying. Walking down the main road, along Mrs. Flowers’ fence, I saw her in her garden and heard her hoot me over. She asked if it were hot enough for me and since it was I told her, “yes, plenty warm, thank you.” She brought her hoe over to the fence and wanted to hear all about me and what I was doing. When I told her, I was working on my doctorate, she thought I was going to be a physician. So, I explained I wouldn’t be that kind of doctor, not the kind that looks down your throat. Then she talked to me about her cabbages and politics and all kinds of things, and, right in the middle of something else, she said, “Oh, ya know, don’t ya, ‘bout how Gladys Spinet is dyin’?”
I stood there, trying to remember who Gladys Spinet was and feeling profoundly sad that knowing someone was dying didn’t matter much to me—no more than Mrs. Flowers’ cabbages or Senator Jennings Randolph, who she found too liberal.
She leaned on her hoe, as if to make it final, and said, “She is…really…dyin’.”
A tiny necklace of dirt ringed Mrs. Flowers’ neck. Her garden and her sweat gave her a necklace like kids get when playing ball on a hot, dusty day. It reminded me of Julia, the eight-year-old girl I’d seen that morning wearing a necklace of the pop-tops from soda cans. I took her picture and asked if the tops ever cut her neck. “Jist sometime,” she said, “ain’t they purdy?”
I wanted a picture of Mrs. Flowers with the necklace of dirt around her neck, thinking how it would look beside Julia’s picture. Julia had been leaning on her bike and Mrs. Flowers was leaning on her hoe. I imagined the photos, in identical black frames, stark against the white of my study’s walls. I was on the verge of asking to take her picture when Mrs. Flowers said, “Cancer, rite here,” pointing to the end of her dirt necklace right below her ear. “Too late to ketch it and she’ll be dead ‘for winter. It’ll eat up to that little part of your brain with the long name. Jason tol’ me what’s it called, but I forgit. Anyways, when it does, Gladys’ll die, quick-like.”
I almost said, “you can’t ‘catch’ cancer,” since I thought she meant ‘catching it’ like the mumps or a bad cold. Luckily, I paused long enough to realize she meant “it can’t be treated.” Then I caught myself about to say that the part of the brain she meant was the medulla obbligato, but with Gladys Spinet dying that didn’t seem important enough to mention. Suddenly, all I could think of was that the next time there were cabbages in Mrs. Flowers’ garden, or a senatorial election so she could vote for the Republican, there wouldn’t be Gladys Spinet.
And as hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to make it matter as much as I wanted it to.
Gladys Spinet, Mrs. Flowers told me, “went to Charlottesville las’ month.” Going to Charlottesville—to the University of Virginia Hospital—was the kiss of death where I grew up. You only went to Charlottesville when no doctor in southern West Virginia had any answers. And Charlottesville didn’t have answers either. In Charlottesville they did research on things without answers.
Mrs. Flowers rambled on about how her nephew, Jason, worked at the hospital in Charlottesville and what a good job it was and how beautiful the mountains there were in fall. “There bein’ more maple there and maple turnin’ brite red.” While she talked, I thought about Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house in Charlottesville, about the big calendar clock that covers a wall of that house, keeping perfect time after all these years, counting out the moments of Gladys Spinet’s life.
When I got away from Mrs. Flowers, carrying three Big-boy tomatoes in a brown paper sack for my uncle, I stopped at a road-side grocery to buy a Dr. Pepper from a fat woman whose name I couldn’t remember just then. Her name is Mrs. Goins or Mrs. Cones or something like that. When I paid her, she asked me about her bursitis since my uncle had told her I was studying to be a doctor.
I was about to explain Ph.D. and M.D. when Sam came in, his hands greasy black from working on cars, to buy some Lucky Strikes. Sam is my age—a Little League teammate who dropped out of the high school where I excelled. He asked where I’d been and what I’d been doing and how I came to be visiting ‘home’. And then he told me, in the matter of fact way he said everything, “ain’t it sumthin’ ‘bout Gladys Spinet dyin’?”
For Sam, she was already dead. There’s something about cancer, something about how much we fear it, something about how some people—Sam, for one—call it ‘the big C’, that makes the diagnosis final, a death warrant.
“The big C’ll git ya, Richie,” Sam told me solemnly, “never fear. Never fear.”
I was on the verge of saying that ‘fear’ seemed an appropriate reaction toward cancer and death and about to tell Sam that I couldn’t remember the last time I was around someone who smoked Lucky’s when, without warning, a picture of Gladys Spinet jumped into my mind with both feet.
I saw her, clear as day, running down the main road in winter, ignoring the icy patches on the pavement and the snow piled almost as high as the fences on the shoulders. She was running like mad, in my unexpected memory, coatless---running to her retarded brother, Casdy, who was sitting in the middle of the slippery road playing with something he’d found there: a small animal, a chipmunk or something, dead.
I remembered Gladys’ face then. It was a soft, round mountain face—like my mother’s, like mine beneath my beard—with small eyes and thick brows, full lips and a weak chin. Sam’s face…and Mrs. Goins’ face. Mrs. Flowers’ face, and Julia’s. Gladys Spinet’s face leaped into my memory, out the mirror in my bathroom.
Someone once told me that Gladys Spinet changed Casdy’s diapers even though he was almost fifty and very fat. Her other two brothers, I remember hearing—one not much brighter than Casdy and the other a preacher of some ilk—wouldn’t lift a finger to help. So, Gladys Spinet changed Casdy’s diapers and took the dead things he collected along the road out of his pockets each night.
I remember Casdy the way you remember bad dreams. He is so large and so retarded, drooling a lot, that he frightened the wits out of me as a small child. I even remembered the dead things he carries around in his pockets. Dead things are always frightening to little kids…or fascinating. I’m too old to remember which.
Standing there, talking to Sam, I remembered how Casdy isn’t afraid of his dead mice or frogs or birds at all. Casdy takes them out of his pockets to show you as if he were showing you something glowing, or a shiny quarter he had to buy some gum.
My ‘killing time’ with my uncle, back where I grew up, suddenly seemed pointless. I had wanted a week or two way from my apartment and my thesis, a few weeks to take pictures and sleep late and walk the mountains without thinking or reading or writing. Instead, I’d walked right into the drama of Gladys Spinet’s death—a drama that depressed me because it didn’t seem to matter.
I’m going back to Cambridge day after tomorrow. I’ve decided I actually want to be near the library. There are several things I need to know about Stephen Crane before I can finish what I’ve been working on. I won’t find out those things here. All I can find out here is more about how Gladys Spinet is dying. I realize there’s nothing I can do to prevent that, or even make it matter much to me.
Gladys’ dying may matter to Casdy—someone else, after all, probably someone less gentle and loving, will have to chase after him and change his diapers. But he’ll most likely think of Gladys as one more dead thing he found and wish he could put her in his pocket.
I’d like to write Gladys a note, but it would be maudlin and vain and she wouldn’t remember me or understand. I’d like to tell her, somehow, if I only could—“O God, Gladys, I am sorry you’re dying.” But for all my good intentions, it still wouldn’t matter much.
What would matter is if I could tell her something hopeful, joyous, glorious. Like that her life will soon be still and over. Like that I’m glad for her. Glad.
Conklintown, West Virginia 7/28/74