In the Room of the Angels
A Story

Hendersen had not been to see his invalid daughter Polly in longer than he liked to admit. Lately, the child had been in his dreams. The dreams were vague, but the feeling had grown in him that if he did not go see her, something bad was going to happen. When he asked himself what, there was no answer, and he rationalized that his feeling was a simple desire to see her again because she was his.

He parked at the gate so that he could walk the rest of the way up the drive and overcome his reluctance to go inside. He turned up the collar of his overcoat against the cold and plunged his hands into his pockets. In one, he carried a small camera, though he was unsure if he would use it. He could not imagine what Polly would look like by now. Some of his imaginings were horrible.

His pace quickened, and on an impulse he left the long circular drive and cut directly across the lawn. He came to an empty white marble fountain surrounded by wood benches. He paused, breathing heavily, and experienced a moment of vertigo. The lawn, which seemed a blank expanse of brown, welled up and met the sky in a horizontal line in Hendersen’s vision. He blinked and shifted his gaze toward one of the wood benches, hearing again a faint persistent ringing in his ears, and thought with slight panic of giving up coffee, or at least cutting back. He felt stiff, constricted, a hint of pain in his eyes. He closed them and rubbed the back of his neck where the hair was short from a recent haircut. It was a source of satisfaction that he could afford a good haircut. He thought of sitting in the chair and the haircutter’s hands moving over his head and precisely trimming the tips of his hair on an angle that made the layers lie smoothly. But why was he thinking of his haircut unless to avoid thinking about Polly? He breathed in deliberately and focused: If it’s January 1985, then the last visit was—He could not be sure. Well over a year, he thought, with a sense of shame for not having reckoned the time and better prepared for the moment. With a sudden sternness of will he righted himself, and his dizziness receded, leaving a dull headache. He opened his eyes and returned his hand to its warm pocket, pressing his thumb against the cold tip of his little finger and then across each of his fingertips, folding them, fanlike, to the center of his palm, sending a light, cold, tingling sensation up his arm, through his heart and into his body. He absently repeated the motion, which comforted and reminded him of himself. The expression on his face was bleak, determined.

In front of him was a wood bench, and he nodded at it, as if at someone, and considered the day when he had sat there with his wife, Nina, and agreed that they would not come to see Polly for a while. The visits were difficult and upsetting for weeks afterward. The image of his wife rigidly seated at the head of the hospital crib that held their crippled daughter tormented him. Nina was overwhelmed; the child, pathetic, isolated. Her spasms made her almost impossible to hold. Each time he and Nina went to visit, Nina behaved stoically and held back her tears. Afterward, she turned coldly resentful and fell into deep depressions that lasted for days, which bewildered Hendersen and put him in silent and despairing rages. She would not see a psychiatrist because she did not believe in it, and, left to himself, he could not find a balance between grief and duty, to say nothing of love.

Once, as he lay beside Nina in bed and spoke soothingly, she had turned a hard, bitter look on him and said, I can’t look at her anymore. That’s all. I can’t.

The effect on Hendersen was paralyzing, and for several months they did not speak of Polly, Hendersen waiting and thinking that time would heal.

In the spring, he and Nina seemed better, began going out with friends again, shyly began making love, and, then, there had been another visit to Polly.

It was a Sunday in April, when Polly was turning a year and a half, and Hendersen convinced Nina at the last moment to go with him. He was waiting for her to finish getting ready. He listened to the sound of her movements—coat hangers sliding on the rack, drawers being opened and closed—and felt a great sense of intimacy. Her shadow moved across the white carpet in the closet doorway. Her movements seemed to be his own. They were animal-like, deliberate, as she laid out her clothes. She began putting her hair up in an elaborate twist. When it didn’t come out right, she started again. She was aware of him waiting but neither rushed nor delayed. They were a force of gravity to each other, a downward pull in the bones. Each of them had wanted the same things: the pleasure of an adult life, a mate, family, domesticity. From the first, it was unspoken, assumed. They were joined as though in a collision.

Nina dressed in a beige suit and a matching pillbox hat that had been her mother’s and that Hendersen had never seen Nina wear. She barely spoke on the drive up, and Hendersen felt as if he were with a stranger. On the backseat was a present wrapped in blue paper with white swans. I bought her some little nightgowns, Hendersen said. They’ll be nicer than those hospital things, don’t you think?

I don’t think she’ll know the difference, Nina said.

Well . . . little children don’t, Hendersen said. That’s why they have parents—to make fashion decisions for them. He smiled and reached from the wheel to put a hand on Nina’s shoulder. It’s going to be okay, he said hopefully.

Nina thought of dressing the child. She saw the cramped, rigid posture, the limbs pulling against their own movements, the muscles opposing each other, resisting her efforts to put an arm in a sleeve. She saw the pale, faintly translucent skin of Polly’s chest, the small, pale, rusty orange aureole, the feathery heartbeat behind the tiny ribs. The heartbeats were rapid and even, but as Nina watched she saw a pause between each contraction, and she had an urge to stab the heart with her finger. To puncture it. She imagined cupping the heart in her hand, lifting the heart from the child’s broken chest and pressing the dark heart, warm, wet and still faintly beating, to her own face, her neck, her breast. Blood ran through her fingers. She began silently to cry.


What? She flinched toward him, jostling his hand on her shoulder.

He took his hand away to steer through the tall ornamental gate at the hospital’s main entrance.

Do you want to sign the card?

She stared angrily, a terrible pain in her eyes. What card?

For the present.

Stop it, Nina said. Just stop it. She is not normal. She is not going to be normal. There’s no use pretending. Nina’s voice ended in a suppressed cry.

I’m not pretending, Hendersen said. It’s just that she’s our child. It’s for us, as much—

She’s not mine, Nina said.

Moments passed in which the shock of denial solidified. She would not take it back. Nothing could make her.

Hendersen tapped the wheel, deciding that she was not strong enough yet for what he was asking, and that he shouldn’t have asked. She didn’t mean what she had said. I’m sorry, he said. We should have waited to come.

Nina gave a wild, frightened look and then turned away. She did not want to forgive, and she did not want to be forgiven; forgiveness meant more nonsense, more talk, more life being taken away from her. He parked the car and turned off the engine. It made a ticking noise, cooling. Hendersen and Nina stared straight ahead. His hands rested on the wheel. You go, Nina said. I don’t know why I came. It’s not for her. It’s not for me. It’s for you. You go. Hendersen turned toward her, thinking to say something but nothing came. The odd little pillbox hat was tilted on her head at an angle that she had taken care to achieve, and the beige suit with its three gold buttons down the front seemed at once too large and too small for her. It fit in all the wrong places—too tight in the shoulders, too loose at the waist and hips. Nina was petite but too muscular to wear her mother’s cast-off Chanel. She was like a girl playing dress-up. She was backed against the door as though cornered.

Hendersen nodded and carefully lifted the present from the backseat. The dark blue paper with white swans and ribbons seemed beautiful. He had picked it out himself, and, in spite of Nina, he felt confirmed in having come. I won’t be long, he said, and she seemed not to hear him. She was looking in her pocketbook for a tissue.

As he crossed the lot and entered the building, his courage weakened, but whether from fear of visiting his daughter alone or losing his wife he didn’t know.

In the lobby, he stood in a daze and, without thinking, turned left and wandered down the hall where the doctors’ offices were. Someone would be there, and he struggled to formulate a question.

Behind him, the receptionist was calling out for him to wait and signaling for an attendant to come.

The hall was lined with mahogany doors with opaque glass panels numbered in gold leaf and lettered in black with the doctors’ and administrators’ names and titles. Hendersen went to the first door that showed light through the glass panel and, without knocking, turned the knob and went in. A small, bald man with a wrinkled brow and wire rims looked up from his desk. He sat in a large, high-backed brown leather chair. Light reflected off his spectacles. Please, Hendersen said abruptly. The man frowned and gestured toward a chair. The nameplate on his desk said Dr. Jordan. Hendersen spoke the name and then faltered. You have a child here, the doctor questioned gently. He recognized the look of crisis on Hendersen’s face and was prepared to advise the decision that the parent would not allow himself to come to on his own.

Later, when Hendersen came out, Nina wasn’t in the car and, after peering anxiously about, he spotted her on the bench. When he called to her, she didn’t answer, and he went over. She was tearing shreds of Kleenex from a small package in her lap. She had left her hat and shoes in the car and walked in her stocking feet across the lawn. Her hair had come partly loose and was in wisps around her face. She seemed bereft and stared absently past him. He knelt and picked up the shreds of tissue around her feet. How is she? Nina said.

Hendersen hadn’t expected the question and hesitated. Fine.

Did you give her the nightgowns? Nina’s voice was neutral.

Yes, Hendersen said. He searched her face for a clue to her feeling and saw an impassive mask behind which the light in her eyes had receded deep within her.

I was thinking, Nina said, that you had to open it for her. Did you dress her?

Hendersen, half risen on one knee, paused, thinking what he could say. He had an impulse to lie and say that Polly looked good in the nightgowns, but the truth was that he had overestimated her size. She had not grown in the three months since their last visit, and the gowns were too big, enveloping her like a blanket and creating a danger that she would get the sleeves or hem into her mouth and choke. The hospital’s close fitting T-shirts were safest for her, and Hendersen had asked the nurse to give the nightgowns to an older, healthier child who could use them. If he lied to Nina and painted a pretty picture, she would feel left out; she would feel regretful, envious; and if he told the truth, she would suffer the image of her sick child all over again; and either way, she would feel guiltier and worse than before. The bitterness of the situation was on Hendersen’s face.

A few small tears started from Nina’s eyes and she reached a hand toward his cheek. I’m sorry, she said.

Hendersen took her hand and kissed it. No, he said, it’s all right. One of the nurses opened the present. They took good care of her. He rose and put his arms around Nina, and they sat holding each other. The skin of her face was soft against his cheek. Their breaths came quietly, unevenly. Nina sighed. All at once they began to speak and each pulled back to look at the other.

Nina shook her head. Next time I’ll be okay. I wasn’t prepared.

Hendersen’s lips turned down and he shook his head. Suppose we don’t come again.

What do you mean? Nina said.

You’re right, he said. It’s me. I’m just torturing myself. And you. He shook his head. I won’t—we won’t come anymore. He pressed her hand.

What do you mean? she said. Ever?

Hendersen shrugged and looked away at the fountain. I don’t know, he said and turned back to her. Ever is a long time. He frowned as if thinking about it. We won’t plan the next visit. Let’s just see.

They sat, watching the water play in the fountain, its sound like rain, and then Hendersen reached in his pocket and produced two quarters, holding them up between his thumb and forefinger like a magician. Here, he said, take one, let’s each make a wish for the future. I don’t know, she said. Uncertainty made her mind blank.

I’ll make one for you, Hendersen said and winked. What do you say? He turned to the fountain, and after drawing himself up and pausing with his arms open at his sides, he made a soft underhand toss of the coins. Grinning, he turned to Nina.

What did you wish? she said cautiously.

Hendersen smiled mischievously. If I tell you, it won’t come true, will it? He held out his hand. Let’s go home.

Nina took his hand and stood apprehensively, and suddenly Hendersen lifted her in his arms and carried her.

As he put her in the car, she said, Are you sure?

Yes, he said, I’m sure. The ease with which he convinced her reassured him. Nevertheless, he continued to visit Polly on his own, without telling Nina, until the loneliness of the visits depressed him, and, gradually they became less frequent. Hendersen raised his head and scanned the old, red brick buildings, which presented a dark, uniform face of barred windows. He let out a sigh of exasperation, determined not to give in to self-pity. He recalled that in the springtime the grounds were green and lovely; old willows and tall oaks shaded the lawn and beds of azaeleas; and here, in the noonday sun, which was warm on his face even in its hazy winter paleness, water would spray in beautiful, delicate rainbows from the urn-shaped fountain, filling the dish at the top, and overflowing it to the next, and the next, and finally falling like a rich silver curtain into the square pool at the bottom. Hendersen’s wishes—for his life with Nina, and children who would be normal and healthy—had come true. Hendersen took heart, and crossed the drive and entered the main building.

He had not called ahead to say that he was coming and was chagrined to discover that Polly’s original doctor, Dr. Jordan, was no longer on staff and that her new doctor—he had a comic name, Dr. Quick—was not in the hospital on a daily basis but was called in, as needed. Hendersen at once suspected the hospital of giving inadequate care, but he restrained his feelings. Apparently, the old doctor had recently retired, leaving a small case load that did not require a new full-time staff member. The receptionist hung up the phone with a satisfied expression at having solved the mystery.

I guess I’m just surprised, Hendersen said, in an questioning tone, that no one informed me. The face of the young man at the reception desk showed irritation, and Hendersen quickly assumed a polite expression. The success of his visit suddenly seemed to depend on being in harmony with whatever he encountered.

If you’ll have a seat . . . the receptionist said noncommittally.

The lobby appeared unchanged since Hendersen’s last visit. The same, square chrome and vinyl chairs against the wall; the terra-cotta floor with dried traces of the mop and, in the air, the smell of ammonia; overhead, the domed ceiling with yellowing hairline cracks in the plaster; and in the center of the room, the mahogany pedestal table with the out-of-date magazines and the tall Chinese Chippendale ceramic lamp with the pleated shade.

The atmosphere, Hendersen decided, was one of governmental thrift softened by modest, private philanthropy. In the past, he had not recognized these aspects of the place, so preoccupied had he been with Polly and Nina and glad, too, that there was a well-recommended hospital to help them, yet now he saw that he had unconsciously been taking everything in with some degree of discrimination from the first.

His palms were moist. He rubbed them against his overcoat and gazed stiffly around, trying to distract himself.

An orderly appeared and led Hendersen off through a series of wards. One was empty and echoed with the sound of Hendersen’s heels. He was dressed for a sales meeting that he was supposed to be conducting in the city. Later, he would explain that he had been suddenly ill and forced to go to the hospital, which was true enough, he thought. He would invent an ailment to explain his absence. In the meantime, they would be worried about him, and he wondered to what extent he should be worried about himself.

Abruptly, he heard a crunching sound underfoot and halted. He looked down at the toes of his black shoes. They rested in a rubble of mortar and shards of broken terra-cotta flooring. Hendersen looked to the orderly, who had stopped and was turning back toward him. The orderly started to speak but Hendersen cut him off. What happened here?

The inmates pulled it up.

Inmates? Hendersen thought irritably. Polly was a patient, not an inmate. What do you mean they pulled it up?

They tore it up with their bare hands. The orderly snapped his fingers and gave a sharp laugh.

How? Hendersen said. How is that possible? Wasn’t someone watching them? I know! the orderly said. You can’t believe how quiet they were. They did it in the middle of the night. They started with a loose tile by one of the beds. The orderly described what happened, and, against his will, Hendersen listened, a picture forming in his mind of the invalids getting up out of their beds in the dark and bending to the floor. They were old men, bald, with lean necks and pale eyes, like a tribe in a forest, digging with their fingers. One of them suddenly looked up at him, and he felt horrified.

The orderly was saying, It took twenty minutes, and do you know how long it’ll take to repair it?

Hendersen surveyed the room. There was a huge heap of broken tiles in a corner. The white patchwork of missing tiles in the floor and walls looked like a monstrous puzzle. Hendersen said he thought it would take weeks.

Weeks, the orderly agreed. You bet.

Hendersen stepped forward on the rubble. Could we go find my daughter now? As they walked, the orderly spoke of an old Corvette he was repairing. He wanted to be done in the spring so he could take his girlfriend driving in the mountains.

They entered a ward where Hendersen’s first impression was of heads on pillows, each round shape identical in the long rows of beds that receded toward the end of the room. The heads were like stones in a field of snow. The image was of a cemetery, and Hendersen recognized it from his dreams of her. The orderly was saying that Hendersen had probably not been here before, and as it dawned on Hendersen that the ward was hers, his impression of identical heads on pillows shifted and he was aware of the individual postures and features of the invalids—the rictal mouth of the thin Asian boy lying on his side in the nearest bed, the hyperextension and slow scissoring of his legs, the soft laboring of his breaths. The boy’s eyes seemed to implore without seeing. A dry, airy sound hovered waist-high over the beds, and vanished eerily into the high ceiling. The sound was of hurt, ragged breathing and the small, rustlings of arms and legs in the bedsheets: a kind of soft wind-in-the-trees sound. The orderly led Hendersen forward, and as they neared Polly’s bed, though still at the distance of half the ward, Hendersen looked eagerly ahead and recognized her. He caught the orderly’s elbow, took his hand and shook it, offering thanks that were a bit too profound. It was an awkward moment. The orderly had been on the point of explaining the condition of the patients on the ward, as a way of updating Hendersen on his daughter. But Hendersen wanted to be alone.

The orderly took a backward step and turned. He paused at the bed and straightened the patient and placed a folding wood chair for the father.

The orderly’s rubber soles squeaked and made a whisking sound as he went away.

Hendersen moved forward to the bed. His face held an expression of grief, his jaw open but his lips tightly compressed. He stood in his overcoat, his hat in his hands, and gaped at his daughter.

Her face was turned away from him. Her head was long and narrow. The thread of her pulse moved in the vein at her temple, the same vein that showed in his face when he was tired. He reached up to his brow and touched the short vein there. It occurred to him that the blood to her brain flowed through fields of dead tissue. He lowered his hand and thumbed his hat brim.

Her head was shaved, for ease of care, and her forehead was distended, as if from encephalitis or Downs instead of a birth injury. Her eyes were almond shaped and large. There were hollows in the planes of her face, making the bones sharp and the bridge of her nose whitely prominent. She was extremely pale, with roseate blotches under her eyes and along her throat where the cartilage showed like ribs. He wanted to put his hand on her forehead to see if she had a fever but hesitated, not wanting to touch her without her recognizing him. He somehow wanted her consent.

Her lips resembled his, though hers were plumlike, parted, showing her two upper front teeth, which were oversize. The biting edge of each tooth had three perfect, scalloped ridges, and he realized that her teeth were never used for eating. She had to be fed with a tube. He wondered if it was painful, and if she could in any way look forward to food, and if there were any foods that she liked? There was a dull weight in his heart.

The doctors had said that she would never develop beyond the stage of two or three years. The last times he had seen her, some part of her was always moving in spasm. Now, she seemed catatonic. He glanced around the ward. High on the wall in one corner was a large TV that was turned off. He wondered who watched it.

His heart began to beat more quickly and a sharp pain at its center took his breath for an instant, and he stood straighter, forcing his shoulders back and stretching his chest, and willed himself to pay attention to her.

She was breathing through her mouth. Its darkness in the pallor of her face amazed him. The tongue protruded in a slow undulation and then retracted, leaving a film of moisture glistening where the inner surfaces of lip and cheek met. He held his breath, staring intently and imagining that she might speak, and when, after a moment, she did not, he recognized the terror and hope that he held.

He spoke her name.

The pupils and irises under her half-closed lids moved as though searching for something. Hendersen understood that he was watching nerve impulses. The whites moved like the sudden dartings of small fish.

He glanced down at his fine cotton shirt cuff protruding from his coat sleeve, and at his strong wrist. His hand rested on the bedrail. A sheet and light blanket were turned down at Polly’s chin. Her body was long and, in spite of her emaciation, developed in an extraordinary fullness of breast and the slight curve of her hip, which was canted up in an awkward torsion. A tremor passed through Hendersen: She was a young woman, nineteen. He thought of buying her a dress.

With a crooked finger, he reached out and lightly brushed his knuckle against her cheek. There was no response: Not even the simplest sucking reaction. He repeated the touch. Her skin was hot and oddly pliant. Then, her eyes rolled down, and the dark irises were visible. She blinked several times as if clearing her vision. Her face seemed to relax, her eyes flickered, a smile crossed her lips. A faint burble rose in her throat and suddenly became a hoarse cry, followed by sharp spasms through her body. Her cries grew louder and raised cries that seemed to pass from bed to bed, in waves. The noise climbed to the ceiling and echoed in Hendersen’s ears. The sound had a wild cadence, a chaotic call and response, like men and women speaking in tongues. He was an intruder. He had no reason to be among them. The wholeness of his body, the confusion of his need communicated insult and threat. The patients’ cries racketed unbearably around him and crescendoed. The voice of the helpless was raised, and he wondered why no one came to investigate. Perhaps noise was normal. Perhaps it was not as loud as it seemed.

He looked around and up into the high ceiling, not knowing what to do, not wanting to call for help.

Gradually, the din subsided to a low undercurrent of labored breaths. Polly’s face was damp. Her right arm was rigidly draped across her face, as though to ward him off. The arm was bare below the short sleeve of her hospital gown and was thin and sinewy. Its posture seemed impossible, disjointed and flattened from the shoulder. The forearm twisted down to the wrist. The hand was drawn up on itself in the shape of a club. He thought of lowering the arm to a more comfortable position by her side, but the arm appeared to have a life of its own. Hendersen sat down on the folding wood chair. He would stay a few more minutes.

Outside, the winter clouds shifted, and sunlight fell in the windows and cast patterns of iron bars and grillwork onto the beds. The sheets were pale blue, soft and faded from laundering, and looked greenish where the sun touched them. He tiredly closed his eyes. He imagined the suffering, the daily incremental wasting away of flesh. She had lived years longer than the doctors predicted.

He got up and moved fitfully in place, uncertain what to do. His arms opened, his knees sagged. His eyes burned. He lumbered and shuffled, swaying toward her. His hands lighted on the bedrail and suddenly he backed away and sat on the chair and untied his shoes. He took them off and placed them by the chair. He stood up and took off his overcoat and folded it onto the seat and did the same with his suit coat. His hat lay on the windowsill. He moved the hat on top of his coats. He took a deep breath and turned to the bed and let down the bedrail. He climbed in beside Polly and held her. She was gangly and amazingly light. The room seemed intensely still.

There was a sharp tickling in his throat, and he stifled a cough. The noise was alarming. He looked around, afraid someone would come.

Slowly, he moved his face close to her forehead and lightly blew on it. He kissed her. Her body fluttered. She smelled clean, a hint of hospital lotion and then of flesh that was his own. He remembered holding his other children. How strange and forbidden holding this grown-up child seemed. He breathed on her forehead. The warm breath billowed back into his face.

He spoke her name. Polly? . . . Do you know your name?

She blinked and cried out and the others on the ward lifted their voices. Their shouts rose and fell across the room.

He spoke again and the noise increased. It whirled around him.

He took her face in his hands and tried to see into her eyes.

Her head twisted. Her throat clicked up and down.

If you hear me, he said desperately, blink.

Her tongue flicked across her lips, she wrenched from his grasp and shrieked. Hendersen found himself crouching over her and sank down onto her like a wrestler pinning an opponent. He rolled to his side, drawing her with him, and began to rock her. He kept his rocking small and precise like the beats of a metronome. The bristles of her shaved head rubbed harshly against his cheek. He didn’t hear the aggrieved cries of the other patients nor her screams but only the rasp of her head against his cheek. What do you want me to do with you, he thought, what do you want me to do.

Her spasms grew violent, her elbows knocked his ribs, her feet struck his shins. He clamped her legs between his. If he let go of her, they might fly to pieces. Tears streamed down his face, and he made a groaning noise underneath her shrieking. Her bowels voided, and the diaper leaked feces in a thin pool on the bed. He began to laugh—abrupt out-of-breath laughter within his groaning. Suddenly, he thought of a store window manikin, of a puppet on strings. He smeared a kiss on top of her head and continued rocking. Her voice grew high and thin and broke open within him. He pulled her face into his armpit, into the pillow, pressing her until the sound stopped and she went limp.

The ward was in turmoil, but Hendersen was oblivious. He released her, and they fell apart, as if repelled, and lay there, Hendersen’s arm under her head, both of them facing upward, his heart thudding.

Hendersen raised himself and searched her face for signs of life, of recognition; she was contorted, reddened from almost smothering, a trickle of blood and mucous smeared under her nose. She stared furiously. Trembling, he took her into his arms. And with her bones pressed into his flesh, they lay as if clinging to a single life.

Originally published in Story.