By Paul Negri
Marilyn Johnson lost her husband John on the same day Stew Daley lost his wife Dale. They lost them in the same place, Barton Memorial Hospital, at about the same time, 3:30 or so on a snowy January morning.
John and Dale were fond-of-fatty-foods-and-sweets-overweight-smoker fifty-somethings. Both diligently ignored the signs of an impending cardiac event for two days prior to waking up in the middle of the night with the same stabbing pain in their chests and the same sickening certainty in their stricken hearts that their trip to the hospital in the siren-shrieking ambulance would be their last trip anywhere this side of eternity.
Racing from opposite directions along Sunset Boulevard, the ambulances nearly collided as they made their sharp turns down 3rd Street to the hospital. In John’s ambulance, Marilyn was thrown to the right; in Dale’s, Stew was thrown to the left. John’s ambulance beat Dale’s to the emergency room by a hair.
Marilyn had called her son Brian immediately after her call to 911, just as Stew had called his daughter Susan. Susan lived further from the hospital than Brian, but she drove, as always, like a bat-out-of-hell, racing through yellow-turning-red traffic lights. Brian proceeded, as always, with deliberate haste, coming to a nearly full stop at every stop sign, and so Susan arrived a dozen minutes before him. Brian found his mother pacing up and down at one end of the emergency room; Susan found her father sitting with his hands in his lap at the other end.
“Where’s Mom?” asked Susan, breathing hard and clutching her father’s arm.
“They’re working on her,” said Stew, in a calm, low voice.
“Where’s Dad?” asked Brian, quietly, stopping his mother in her tracks.
“They’re working on him,” sobbed Marilyn, throwing her arms around him.
They had actually stopped working on them about 20 minutes before and were now simply tidying them up for viewing. The attending physicians—Dr. Cheng for John and Dr. Dasgupta for Dale, both young, new additions to Barton Memorial—were talking with Trudy Treadwell, the long-time crisis intervention social worker and habitual bearer of bad news, about informing the families.
“Remember, do not use terms like ‘passed away’ or ‘passed on.’ Just say died,” said Trudy, a tall, stern, African American woman, looking over the tops of her glasses down at the pinched, pained face of Dr. Cheng.
“There’s nothing wrong with ‘passed on.’ We used ‘passed on’ in Cleveland,” protested Dr. Cheng.
“You are not in Cleveland,” said Trudy, slowly and deliberately, as if she was informing Dr. Cheng of something he might find difficult to accept. “Perhaps in Cleveland they pass on; in New York, we die.”
Dr. Dasgupta said something in his quick and musical but often incomprehensible East Indian accent. Trudy held up a hand to him, like a traffic cop at a dangerous intersection. She was still dealing with Dr. Cheng.
“Dr. Cheng, our procedure here is to state clearly and unequivocally that the patient—your patient—” she glanced down at her clipboard, “John Johnson has died. I expect you to conform to this procedure.”
“Stupid procedure,” muttered Dr. Cheng, “to put words in my mouth.”
Dr. Dasgupta began to say something but Trudy stopped him. “Your patient, Dr. Dasgupta—Dale Daley—Mrs. Daley—has died. Do you understand? Please, speak clearly and slowly.”
“Mrs. Daley has died,” said Dr. Dasgupta, in a suddenly quasi-British accent and smiled slyly at Dr. Cheng.
“By George, I think he’s got it!” said Trudy.
“We are professionals—doctors, Mrs. Treadwell,” Dr. Cheng sputtered.
“And I’m old enough to be your momma,” said Trudy. “So, listen to Mother Treadwell. When you’ve got a few more dead patients under your belt, you’ll understand why we have these procedures. But for now, understand them or not, you’re going to conform to them.” She put up her hand to signal the end of the discussion. “Now I’m going to confirm the location of the deceased, make sure they’re suitable for viewing, reserve the consultation room, and go fetch the families. We’ll do Mr. Johnson first, as he was the first to go.”
“You mean die, don’t you Mrs. Treadwell?” said Dr. Cheng snidely.
Trudy ignored him. “I’ll beep you when we’re in the consultation room, Dr. Cheng. Then we’ll repeat the process with the Daleys, Dr. Dasgupta.” She sighed. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a doubleheader,” she muttered and hurried down the hall to start the ball rolling.
To Marilyn Monroe—who could never forgive her parents for branding her with that iconic name and setting in motion years of dreary and witless jokes and comments—John Johnson was low-hanging forbidden fruit, deliciously poisonous and within easy reach.
He was black, an atheist, a professed Maoist and her boss at the small publishing firm where they both found their first jobs out of college in the early 1970s. While Marilyn was not strictly a virgin when they met (she had been self-deflowered), her sex with John included a number of firsts, as well as one or two lasts.
He was tall (although not as tall as she took him to be), muscular (although with curiously skinny legs) barbarously black-bearded (although he had two little alopecious bald spots under his chin) and wore a habitual look of outraged solemnity (although his laugh was almost a giggle).
He was the blackest black man she had ever seen, a rich, deep, flawless black that took her breath away. With John at her side Marilyn felt infinitely better armed in the guerilla warfare she had been waging against her wealthy parents through college, as if she had suddenly acquired a nuclear warhead. She planned to detonate it by eloping with John to Las Vegas and sending her parents a photo of the honeymooning couple, preferably in their bathing suits, gulping Harvey Wallbangers. John, however, protested.
“I don’t run, Ace,” he told her, using the nickname she had invented for herself to erase the dreaded mock Monroe moniker. “We can’t start a life together by running. I need to look your father in the eye and tell him.”
“That will ruin the surprise,” moaned Marilyn.
But John was adamant and Marilyn comforted herself with the anticipation of the stunned look on her parents’ faces when John strolled into their Belle Haven, Connecticut home with her on his arm.
Manfred and Lois Monroe, however, once more let their daughter down. To Marilyn’s utter shock and dismay, after betraying initial surprise and not a little curiosity, they took John rather easily in their stride. Lois walked him through the garden to show him her prized wisteria and Manfred, after inexplicably producing a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book from the oiled walnut bookcases in the study, sat down with John and discussed the contrasting nature of revolutionary movements in Western and Eastern societies.
By the end of the day, John was disarmed and delighted despite himself, as were Manfred and Lois, and everyone seemed genuinely pleased except Marilyn Monroe.
Trudy Treadwell weaved her way through the crowd in the emergency waiting room, gently but firmly moving aside anyone in her path, and found Marilyn and Brian silently standing with their backs to the wall. Marilyn watched her approach like doom and knew immediately, without understanding how, that John was dead.
“Mrs. Johnson?” said Trudy. Marilyn nodded numbly. Trudy looked inquiringly at Brian.
“I’m the son,” he said softly.
“Where’s John?” said Marilyn.
“Let’s go to the consultation room, Mrs. Johnson,” said Trudy, putting a hand on her arm.
Marilyn shook the hand off. “Where is my husband?” she said more loudly.
“Mom,” said Brian, “please.”
“Is he dead?” said Marilyn, her voice breaking.
A young Hispanic woman sitting in the chair beside her looked at Marilyn and then at Trudy and made the sign of the cross.
“Dr. Cheng is waiting for us in the consultation room and he’ll tell you all about John,” said Trudy, getting an arm around Marilyn’s waist and beginning to shepherd her through the crowd.
“Can’t you just tell me if he’s dead,” Marilyn shouted, “for God’s sake?” Heads turned, people moved out of the way, someone began to cry.
Trudy took firm hold of Marilyn and looked her in the eye. “We need you to sit down with Dr. Cheng and we’ll answer all your questions and then you can see John. Would that be alright, Mrs. Johnson?”
Marilyn felt the fight go out of her. With Trudy on one side and Brian on the other, they made their solitary way through the crowd.
“Oh God,” said Susan, pacing up and down at the opposite end of the room. “Did you hear that woman?”
“I think everybody did,” said Stew, sitting stiffly in his chair, watching a man sitting opposite him. The man was rocking a fussing baby girl in his arms. He had no shoes or socks.
“Maybe we should ask about mom,” said Susan, patting the back pockets of her jeans and frantically realizing that she had left her cigarettes home. “Somebody must know something.”
“Let them do their work, Sue” said Stew.
“But we don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Why can’t they at least tell us what’s going on?”
She was on the verge of what Stew knew would be clamorous tears. He got up and tried to make her sit. “I don’t want to sit down,” she said, and began to pace again. Stew sat back down.
The baby girl being held by the man with no shoes began to wail.
Stew Daley’s mother had never married and while she had no regrets, the same could not be said of her son. As he grew from childhood to adolescence, the very things that had made his mother Arlene different and more fun than other mothers—the ramshackle house where they grew their own vegetables, the lively protest marches and demonstrations for myriad worthy and worthless causes, her benign indifference to his grades, the irregularity of their meals and her employment, the spread-eagle tattoo on her left forearm—began to make her different and more embarrassing.
By his senior year at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, Stew had moved out and was sharing an apartment with a seminary student. He had started attending mass on Sundays at St. Agnes RC Church, had voted for Richard Nixon and was barely speaking to his mother, which confused and angered them both.
One day the seminary student introduced him to the friend of a friend, Dale Scarlatti, a raven-haired angel, who had, unbeknownst to Stew, been hovering over him for a month of Sundays as an alto in the choir at St. Agnes. Dale was the oldest of five children (she had four brothers) from an Italian family in Bensonhurst. She still lived at home with three of her brothers (one was in the army) and her parents, Joseph and Maria.
Joseph and Maria were an austere and hardworking couple who had not had sex until a year after they were married, out of respect for Maria’s mother, who had suffered a sudden heart attack and died at their wedding.
Dale was quiet but cheerful, diligent but not dull, and modest but, in the odd words of the seminary student, “stacked like hot buttered pancakes,” a simile Stew did not fully understand, but instinctively felt hit the mark.
After a few dates with Dale and several Sunday dinners with the Scarlatti clan, Stew was in love with her and in envy of her family life—loud and good-naturedly chaotic at mealtimes and family gatherings, but fundamentally wholesome, regular and sane. Stew saw in Dale a girl with whom he could lead a happy, respectable, and comfortably ordinary life and dreaded introducing her to his whirling dervish of a mother.
“She’s—unorthodox,” he explained.
“You mean she’s Jewish?” said Dale.
“No, of course not,” he said and paused. “Would that make a difference to you?”
Now Dale paused. “No,” she said tentatively. “Not really. I mean, you’re a Catholic.”
“She’s just—different. Always been on her own, does things her own way. The different drummer thing, you know?”
“And you never met your father?” said Dale, holding his hands. Stew shook his head. “How come?”
“She’s not really sure who it was,” said Stew with a nervous laugh.
“That’s her, Dale. Not me.” Dale kissed him.
Stew took Dale to his mother’s house in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn for what he hoped would be a brief introduction, quick meal, and speedy departure. His mother Arlene opened the front door as they approached. She was holding a small hatchet.
“Well,” she said, with a wide, toothy grin, “you must be Dale.” And then seeing Dale’s eyes on the hatchet laughed. “You’re a sweet and tender little thing, but I think we’ll still go with the chicken I planned on.”
“I thought you stopped raising chickens, Mom,” Stew complained.
“Well, I guess they’ve come home to roost, Stewie,” said Arlene, taking Dale by the arm and leading her to the back door in the kitchen. “I’ll let you pick one out, just like choosing a lobster in a fancy restaurant, Dale sweetie. We’ll pluck it together.”
“For God’s sake, Mom, can’t we just have something normal?” said Stew. “I don’t think Dale wants to pluck a chicken.”
“Nonsense,” said Arlene. “The family that plucks together—”
“Mom!” said Stew, too loudly.
“It’s okay,” said Dale. “It’ll be an adventure.”
Four hours that seemed to Stew like four days later Arlene and Dale sat on the old worn couch in the living room, hip to hip, chatting and going through the family photo album. Stew sat sullenly watching a football game, in which he had no interest, on the static-laced TV.
“Wow, is that you with Martin Luther King?” said Dale. The photo showed Dr. King with his arm around Arlene’s shoulder as she stood apart from a crowd of young women.
“Yes, it is,” said Arlene, taking the photo out of its plastic sleeve to get a better look at it. “That was in Washington in ’58, one of the early marches. I was in awe of him—still am. And he had quite an eye for the chicks, let me tell you.”
Stew gave her a look and Arlene gave him one back. “Don’t worry, Stewie, you are not Martin Luther King’s son. You were already six by then.”
Dale whispered to her, “So you never—you know—with him?”
“No,” said Arlene, “but I wish I had,” and they shared a conspiratorial giggle.
On the train ride back to Bensonhurst, Stew talked a blue streak, detailing some of the standout moments in what he had come to consider a traumatic childhood. Dale was very quiet.
“I’m sorry we had to stay so long,” he told her.
“That’s okay,” she said.
“She’s something else, isn’t she?” said Stew shaking his head.
“She certainly is,” said Dale nodding and Stew thought uneasily that he detected a note of admiration in her voice. She leaned her head on his shoulder and closed her eyes.
Dale looked like she was asleep but not peacefully so. She looked the way she usually did after one of their frequent late-night fights when Stew would finally come to bed and she’d be laying there rigidly, faking sleep. Her face was puffy and a little red and her hair was combed in an odd way, as if done by the hand of a stranger. She seemed large and bulky under the white sheet that covered her to the chin. Susan cried spasmodically as Trudy Treadwell talked in low tones to Stew who wasn’t really listening to her.
“Would you like me to ask the hospital chaplain to stop by?” asked Trudy.
“No, she didn’t believe in that anymore,” said Stew. “You know, she used to sing in a church choir a long time ago.”
“Is that right?” said Trudy.
“The Church is a fucking travesty!” cried Susan. “They excommunicated her. You just keep them away from her now.”
Stew put his arms around her. “It’s alright, sweetheart.”
“It’s not alright, there’s nothing alright about it,” said Susan in a loud but shaky voice. “You fought with her, I fought with her, everybody fought with her and now she’s dead.”
“Do you want me to leave you alone with her for a while?” asked Trudy quietly.
“And that doctor,” Susan ranted on, “I could hardly understand a word he said. What fucking planet is he from?”
“Dr. Dasgupta is from India,” said Trudy.
“Leave us alone for a bit, please” Stew said to Trudy. “And thank you.”
Trudy squeezed his hand, nodded and left. She walked two doors down to the room where Marilyn sat—and had been sitting for the past thirty minutes—at John’s bedside, as if waiting for him to wake up.
“Where’s your son, Mrs. Johnson?” asked Trudy. “Is he okay?”
“Oh yes. He’s okay. Calm, cool, and collected, just like his father,” she said in a dull, flat voice. “He’s making calls.”
“Is there anything I can get you?”
“No thanks,” said Marilyn. “I’ll be going soon. You know when that doctor said he passed on I thought he’d said ‘passed out.’ I thought John had just fainted.”
Trudy winced. “I’m very sorry about that,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Marilyn. “In my heart, I knew. I knew the moment I saw you in the waiting room.”
“You just let me know when you decide to leave,” said Trudy and left to hunt down Dr. Cheng.
Marilyn stood up and leaned over the bed. John seemed grayer than she had noticed before, not just his hair but his skin, his beard scruffier, his stomach bigger under the billowing white sheet.
But aside from that, he didn’t look much different from when she’d find him napping in his big easy chair in the den in front of the TV as he snored through the endless cooking shows it had become his habit to watch late into the night. She put a hand on his chest, gave him a little shake and whispered, “John?” She looked up and found Brian standing in the doorway looking confused and embarrassed. She could never understand how he had ended up so light-skinned, the color of a café latte.
“I called everyone,” he said.
“Okay,” said Marilyn. “Your father will stay tonight. Tomorrow we’ll get him the hell out of here.”
“Why don’t you get the hell out of here?” Marilyn shouted at John. She knew she should stop, but she couldn’t help herself.
“Why don’t you just calm down for a moment,” said John. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you.”
“Do you know why they promoted that little prick instead of you?”
John sighed. “Let me guess.” He tilted his head to one side and stroked his beard, as if deep in thought, then snapped his fingers. “Because I’m black?”
“Because you’re black! How can you let them get away with it? Twenty years selling more children’s books than anyone else in that firm, directing the whole sales force and they give the VP sales position to some little prick who’s been there just a couple of years who doesn’t even have children and has probably never read a fucking book in his life.”
“He was a children’s librarian. He’s directed a sales force twice the size of ours. He’s worked his balls off the last three years,” said John.
“Well, at least then he knows what happened to his. What happened to yours?”
John flinched and for a fleeting moment he felt like he was going to hit her, but the moment evaporated and left him sad and weary. “It’s all so black and white to you,” he told her. “It must be nice to have such a simple explanation for everything.” He brushed past her and went through the kitchen door out to the yard, trudged over the patchy grass to the sagging hammock and laid himself down. He knocked a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his shirt pocket, lit it, took a deep, deep drag, pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes and tried to remember a time when Marilyn thought he was the biggest, badest, ballsiest man in her universe.
And he was, for the first several years—working for the small radical left-wing publisher selling books that many people wanted banned; forcing the local real estate agency to show them houses in white-on-white neighborhoods; standing tall in the midst of riotous school board meetings, as he argued the benefits of busing; campaigning for local liberal politicians; and generally taking on whatever came his way, never backing down, often not winning, but never giving in.
But years past, time’s changed and John changed with them. Brian was born and John developed a passion for children’s books and eventually took a job with a small, innovative children’s book publisher. He coached Little League, discovered he enjoyed cooking, and began to prefer a really good meal to the really routine sex of a decades-old marriage. His proud and hardworking father—who was the biggest, badest, ballsiest man in his universe—died of a sudden heart attack while driving his cab through the night in Atlanta.
At some unnoticed point, the fire in John’s belly went out and the smoldering embers seemed to inflate it, gradually turning it from hard and flat to soft and round, a comfortable place to rest his hands while lying in his hammock, gently swaying over the un-mowed grass of the back yard.
“I’m sorry.” Marilyn was standing by the hammock. John kept his cap over his eyes. “It’s not your fault,” she said.
“Don’t do that to me, Ace,” said John.
“I guess I just didn’t think I’d end up this way.”
“What way’s that?”
Marilyn shrugged. “Nice lawyer son, nice neighborhood, nice house, nice yard—nice husband in a nice hammock.”
“A happy ending—like in the kids’ books you sell.”
John said nothing. He didn’t pull the cap up away from his eyes until he heard the kitchen door slam and knew that Marilyn was gone.
Stew was beside himself once more. “If you take off your clothes in public, you’ll be arrested. It’s just that simple. It’s illegal. And it’s embarrassing, for God’s sake.”
“People need to pay attention. It’s not embarrassing for me,” said Dale, working on her poster in the basement, dragging on her cigarette.
“It’s embarrassing for me—and for Susan and for your parents. Why don’t you think of someone else for a change?”
“I’m thinking of the 40 million animals each year worldwide that are slaughtered so a bunch of rich bitches can wear their skins.”
She finished with the ink marker, turned to face Stew and held the poster flat against her. It read BETTER TO BE NAKED THAN WEAR MACY’S DEAD ANIMALS.
“The poster will cover me,” she said.
Stew looked at her. “You’re going to need a bigger poster.”
“Fuck you, Stewie.”
Stew turned and walked angrily up the basement stairs. Dale turned back to her worktable and positioned the stark black-and-white photo of a skinned raccoon on the poster. Her cell phone vibrated silently in her hip pocket, giving her a pleasant little tingle. She flipped it open and saw by the number that it was Santiago, the young Chilean animal rights activist and self-proclaimed “chubby chaser” with whom she had recently and inexplicably had oral sex. It was just the second infidelity she had allowed herself in a long, dwindling marriage (the first was four years earlier with an older doctor she met on the picket line at a Pro Choice demonstration).
She didn’t answer the call. She had resolved not to give in to such animal urges again until she and Stew had settled things one way or the other. She sat down at her worktable and flipped through her desk calendar scanning the next two months and thought that perhaps she was doing too much and should cut back on her commitments and try to spend a little more time with Stew.
But then she thought not. She had spent the first ten years or so being a model wife and mother (Stew’s model) and she figured she had paid her dues. Little by little and over the course of the years she had done less with the PTA, spent less Sundays with her parents, went to church less, ate less red meat, fussed over Susan less, cooked less, cleaned less, read more, thought more and argued with Stew more.
But it was not until Stew’s mother Arlene’s death—she had been hit by a car while hurrying across Herald Square in Manhattan on her way to a demonstration—that Dale launched the public phase of her radically evolving character. She quit her job as HR director of a medium-sized retail furniture chain and joined WOM (Women on the March), the organization that Arlene had co-founded many years ago with a renegade Catholic nun. She was on the front line, as well as strategically behind the scenes, in “actions” on Pro-Choice, anti-war, against big oil, for gay rights, destroying racism, saving the planet and a myriad of other liberal causes. All of this brought pain and embarrassment to Stew, who hated controversy of any sort, and Susan, who was rebelliously conservative.
Marilyn was arrested once (at a sit-in protesting the use of trans fats at McDonald’s) and excommunicated from the Catholic Church by the local bishop (for accusing him of concealing child abuse by priests). It turned out the bishop had no authority to actually excommunicate her (she then insisted on being excommunicated by the Pope himself, who ignored the situation).
Dale trudged up the stairs, stopping near the top to catch her breath. She found Stew sitting at the kitchen table drinking a cup of tea and carefully cubing potatoes for a soup he was making for dinner.
“You want to talk?” she asked him.
“When you sang at St. Agnes I thought you were an angel,” he said.
Dale turned and went back downstairs to the basement.
Three days before their fateful rendezvous at Barton Memorial Hospital, John Johnson and Dale Daley sat two stools apart at the green and white marble counter of Buddy’s Old-Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor on Acheron Avenue, about midway between their houses. They had both been studying the menus a while and Buddy, a skinny old man with a permanent scowl of disapproval etched on his aged face, stood behind the counter growing impatient.
Dale glanced at John and said, “Too many choices.”
John laughed. “Yeah, but you can’t make a wrong choice. It’s all good.”
“Isn’t that nice for a change?” said Dale.
“Nice, nice, nice,” said John and laughed more than seemed appropriate.
Buddy looked at them sternly. “Why don’t you two get a booth?”
Dale and John exchanged glances and smiled. They slid off their stools and walked back to one of the dark wood booths. They both had trouble squeezing in behind the table.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” said John.
“I don’t do it often,” said Dale.
“Fight with your husband, right?” said John. Dale nodded. “Ditto,” he said. “I mean with my wife.”
“A one-scoop or two-scoop fight?”
“I’m thinking banana split. What about you?”
Dale turned the menu to face him and tapped the top right-hand corner. “The Kitchen Sink, baby.”
“Whoa! That’s eight scoops, four toppings, and a Mount Everest of whipped cream. If you can eat one alone, they give you a second one free.”
“I can’t do it alone, but with the right man behind me—”
“Dale, I’ve got your back,” grinned John.
An hour later John and Dale walked heavily to the parking lot, shook hands, and got into their cars. They waited, one behind the other, to let a siren-shrieking ambulance pass by, before driving off in opposite directions into that good night.