A Journey with Virgil
She meant to race out with him right this moment, but the nurse did something to her IV and someone turned the television on, laughter reaching her from a corner of the ceiling, and she could tell time had passed, because it was prime time.
It was prime time, and she was wasting it by sleeping. The expense of spirit in a shame of waste. She wanted to stay awake, to be alert to what was happening to her. After all, you only die once --- and she laughed to herself.
--- I'll wait till you're ready, Virgil said.
While she was asleep, Blaze and Oscar had joined him. All the little dogs in her life.
--- Hi, Blaze, hi, Oscar, she said.
--- Do you want to see the old man? Blaze, her father's dog, asked.
--- Yes, of course, yes, yes. Where is he?
--- I'm here, her father said. He was standing behind Blaze, the leash --- lead, he'd learned to say in England --- in his hand. He tugged Blaze back a bit. Blaze's white forehead seemed to shine in the room lit only by the flickering TV. She couldn't see her father very clearly, but she recognized his voice, and in his non-leash --- holding hand, he gripped a violin by the neck.
--- Oh, play me something! she said. Play the Bach Chaconne.
He did, and the music poured into her mind, a Niagara of notes.
--- Where is Mom? she asked, when he had reached the end.
Oscar, the inscrutable Oscar, with his punched-in muzzle and tail like a golden dragon, said that her mother was writing a book called Do You Want to Live in Heaven?
--- She didn't even believe in heaven, Nina said.
--- Maybe not, but she always believed in staying busy. Oscar blinked his Chinese eyes. Her father nodded. Blaze scratched himself.
--- Am I just imagining all of you?
--- Why do you say "just imagining," Nina? her father asked. I always thought you took imagination seriously.
Virgil nipped at her ankles as if to say, If you could call me up with your imagination, wouldn't you have done so long before now?
--- Oh, Virgil, I would have.
--- I'm glad you're finally using my name.
--- It's such a heavy name for a little dog. I don't know why I burdened you with it. I regretted it right after I filled out your AKC papers.
--- I know why you named me that, he said, but her mother came on the scene just then. They watched her type on the ancient manual Remington on which she had once typed dissertations for Cornell students, clicking away on the keys like there was no tomorrow. And, of course, there wasn't.
--- There you are, she said. Nina. We've been waiting.
--- Am I going to have to deal with all your neuroses forever? Nina asked her, hoping to know from the beginning what the score was.
--- Your father doesn't mind.
--- Dad has always been patient.
--- You put us through the wringer too, if you remember. Besides, everyone learns to be patient here. It's the nature of eternity.
--- I thought you'd be playing the violin.
--- I do, most of the time. But this book is a natural. Someone had to write it. Did I ever tell you I came in second in the state competition for the fastest typing in Mississippi? I would have won if my father hadn't been standing beside me the whole time, commenting on my every move.
--- Where's ---
--- Your brother? That's still a sore spot.
Virgil barked. His sturdy little salt-and-pepper body, his jaunty tail gladdened Nina's heart.
--- What is it? Nina asked.
--- We have to keep going, Virgil said.
--- But . . . I thought. . . . She had thought they had already arrived somewhere, but as she looked around, everyone began to disappear, her father first, then her mother. Blaze and Oscar ran after them and faded from sight too.
--- Come, Virgil said.
The TV had been turned off. Palmer was still there, holding her hand. She wished he would talk to her, but she knew he'd feel odd talking to somebody who didn't respond. She knew also that if she pointed that out to him he would say, What do you think I do in the classroom? Talk to students who show no response!
She missed sleeping beside him. His bulk, the heat of his body, even his snoring if it wasn't too loud made her feel safe, made her feel as if she were guarded by a fortress, as if in the central hearth of the fortress there burned a fire that warmed but would not destroy.
She and Virgil were passing through scenes of incredible beauty. Sometimes people were in them and sometimes she saw only clouds and mountains, or wild grasses and sea oats, or sun on rooftops. At every stop, she felt her heart would burst from a surfeit of beauty.
--- But if everything is so beautiful, she asked Virgil, how does anyone come to appreciate any of it?
--- You don't have to listen to bad music to appreciate Beethoven, he said. You just have to listen to Beethoven.
Now there were stars, stars, and more stars --- everywhere. The light from them was cool and blue and distant. She felt she was swimming in stars.
--- You're allowed in heaven, Virgil?
--- Didn't your father tell you dogs are more than welcome in Paradise?
--- He had Alzheimer's. He didn't always know what he was saying.
--- Can you really believe that any community based on love would exclude dogs?
Palmer had been holding her hand for so long that she could no longer distinguish between her hand and his. She was so far away from him and still so close.
--- Over there, Virgil said, pointing with his whole body as if he had ferreted a rat from its hiding place.
Nina turned in that direction, expecting --- what was she expecting? She had no idea. Perhaps --- a sentence, a sentence that would sum up everything that needed to be said.
What she saw was not a sentence, not a brilliant fire burning words onto the black screen of outer space.
--- Do you see? Virgil asked.
She did. She saw, and what she saw was good and beautiful and true, but it was too late to tell anyone.--- From A Kind of Dream
©2014 Terrace Books
University of Wisconsin Press