Friday, November 12, 3 p.m.
He was precisely on time.
For most of the afternoon, Delia Chandler had busied herself with small tasks around the house. She had already vacuumed the upstairs and downstairs that week, but she did it again, taking care to move tables and chairs to ensure she got the head of the vacuum everywhere that dust could hide. One of Simon’s tenets was cleanliness: She did not want to meet him for the first time with as much as a speck of dirt anywhere in the house.
She ran the dishwasher and cleaned the dish tray. She even washed the bar of soap in the bathroom. In his communications with her, Simon had said that the key to health was to take care of your environment as you took care of yourself. She had followed his advice very closely indeed, preparing the teas exactly as he detailed, drinking them at the prescribed times of day, taking gentle exercise at exactly six a.m., and getting into bed at nine p.m. to make sure she got nine full hours of sleep every night.
His ministrations—however long-distance they were—had been invaluable in keeping her strength up until he could come. The cancer was in her bones now, and it had spread like a moss through her pelvis and into the surrounding tissues. Dr. Lewiston had laid out for her the palliative options: Once the pain got too intense, she would be moved into the hospice, where it would be "managed." She imagined herself being put to sleep like a dog. Her sons, Robert and Dennis, had said they would pay whatever costs were involved to ensure her comfort. Sweet boys. She agreed to whatever they proposed, knowing that, when the time came, she would not need their help at all.
At two thirty, Delia went upstairs and changed into something befitting the guest she was about to receive. She pulled on a new pair of pantyhose and then stepped into a blue wool dress. Any movement of her arms above shoulder level shot a scatter of pain throughout her body, as if a tiny grenade had gone off in her hips. She eased the dress up over her chest and shoulders and sat down to catch her breath. Then she stood and looked at herself in the mirror. She was quite presentable for an eighty-one-year-old, dying woman. She put on a pair of black low-heeled shoes but thought better of them and put the orthotics back on. Simon would not want her to be in pain for the sake of looking good for him. No, he would not approve of that kind of vanity.
The doorbell rang at three o’clock on the button. She even saw the second hand hit twelve at that very moment. She took a deep breath, smoothed the dress over her stomach, and opened the door.
Simon stood on her doorstep, bearing a heavy valise. He was terribly thin, perhaps one of the thinnest human beings she had ever seen. It gave him the appearance of height. He wore a long black coat and a black derby on his head, and his face was deeply lined. He had the aspect of a gentle elder, even though she knew he was younger than she was, by at least thirty years. His was a face with all the blows of life nesting in it. Her heart went out to him, even though it was she he had come to succor.
"Mrs. Chandler," he said. "Thank you for inviting me to your home."
She drew the door wide and gestured into the house. "Simon, I am honored to welcome you."
He entered and removed his hat, placing it silently on the hall table. He undid a black silk sash from under his chin, and slid out of his caped coat, and handed it to Delia. The outside of the coat was cold from the fall air without, but inside, where his body had been, it was warm. She went down the hall a little and hung it for him. When she came back, he was sitting on the couch, eyes scanning the room, and his long hands clasping his knees. "I imagined your house would be just like this, Mrs. Chandler."
"Please call me Delia."
"Delia, then. This house is as if I’d dreamed it. Come and sit near me." She did, lowering herself uncomfortably into the chair beside the couch. When she was seated, he lifted his valise onto the table and opened it. A smell of camphor emerged from inside. "We needn’t truck in chit-chat," he said. "It’s as if we are already old friends, no?" She smiled at him and nodded once in assent. It delighted her that his demeanor in person was entirely of a piece with how he was in his e-mails: grave, but not humorless, and quietly authoritative. He drew out half a dozen vials from the valise. They were filled with dried plant matter and powders. He lined them up neatly on the coffee table. "How have you been?" he asked. "How’s your pain?"
"It’s manageable," she said. "I take the lantana for the pain in my bones, and it works for a couple of hours. But I don’t mind. A little respite is all I need while waiting for you."
He smiled at this and reached out to take her hand. He clasped it gently. "I choose very carefully, Delia, who I come to see. Only those who are completely committed will do. Are you still completely committed?"
"And you are not frightened?"
She hesitated here and looked away from him. "I have told myself to be truthful with you, so I will say that I have been scared, yes. A little. But not now, not at this moment."
"Good," he said, and his voice told her that it was all right to have experienced some trepidation. It meant she had faced it and moved past it. "We should get started then."
"Yes," she said.
"I do have to ask you to do one thing for me first, however. It will make you somewhat uncomfortable." Delia looked at his eyes and waited for him to explain. "I must look at your body, Delia. I need to see your skin before proceeding."
She blanched at this, and thought of herself picking through the few dresses in her closet for one that would make her look the most presentable. Now he wanted her to stand exposed before him? But she did not question him; rather she rose and faced him in front of the low coffee table. She reached behind herself with one hand and drew the zipper on the back of her dress down, wincing in pain.
"Hold on," he said. "I don’t want this to be difficult for you." He stood and came to her, went behind her, and unzipped her the rest of the way. The dress fell to the floor in a pool of blue wool. She felt him unsnap her bra, and she shook it off down her arms, and then her hands traveled down the puckered, pale flesh over her belly and she pushed her underwear and pantyhose down. "Thank you, Delia. I’m sorry for the discomfort. Are you cold?"
"No," she said. She felt his finger tracing her spine, and she imagined he was pulsing energy into her, burning away the wild cells under her skin that were eating her life. Simon held her shoulder and gently turned her. She half expected to catch his eyes, as if this could be a romantic moment blooming—and what would she do if it were? If the last person to show her real compassion also wanted to show her love? But no, all of that kind of love was gone from her life forever. The last time she’d stood naked before a man she had ruined lives. She wondered how far into the past her own purity had to extend for Simon’s purposes, and she debated whether she should tell him. Then, selfishly, so she thought, she decided to keep it to herself. There was only this now, no past, only this. He lifted her arms and looked into her armpits, then lifted