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Original Essays | August 21, 2014

Richard Bausch: IMG Why Literature Can Save Us

Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
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    Before, During, After

    Richard Bausch 9780307266262


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Torch Cover





She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind

her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as

if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other

times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her

bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor —the zipper, the

grapes, the diamonds, and the glass—while he sat on his little stool with

wheels and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she'd stopped

speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was

distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and

he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last

what was wrong.

Teresa held her earrings in the palm of one hand—dried violets

pressed between tiny panes of glass—and put them on, still getting dressed

after hours of going from one room to the next in a hospital gown. She

examined her shirt for lint and cat hair, errant pieces of thread, and primly

picked them off. She looked at Bruce, who looked out the window at a ship in

the harbor, which cut elegantly, tranquilly along the surface of the lake, as if

it weren't January, as if it weren't Minnesota, as if it weren't ice.

At the moment she wasn't in pain and she told the doctor this

while he wrote. "There are long stretches of time that I feel perfectly fine," she

said, and laughed the way she did with strangers. She confessed that she

wouldn't be surprised if she were going mad or perhaps this was the

beginning of menopause or maybe she had walking pneumonia. Walking

pneumonia had been her latest theory, the one she liked best. The one that

explained the cough, the ache. The one that could have made her spine into

a zipper.

"I'd like to have one more glance," the doctor said, looking up at

her as if he had risen from a trance. He was young. Younger. Was he thirty?

she wondered. He instructed her to take her clothes off again and gave her a

fresh gown to wear and then left the room.

She undressed slowly, tentatively at first, and then quickly,

crouching, as if Bruce had never seen her naked. The sun shone into the

room and made everything lilac.

"The light—it's so pretty," she said, and stepped up to sit on the

examining table. A rosy slice of her abdomen peeped out from a gap in the

gown, and she mended it shut with her hands. She was thirsty but not

allowed a drop of water. Hungry, from having not eaten since the night

before. "I'm starving."

"That's good," said Bruce. "Appetite means that you're healthy."

His face was red and dry and cracked-looking, as if he'd just come in from

plowing the driveway, though he'd been with her all day, going from one

section of the hospital to the next, reading what he could find in the waiting

rooms. Reading Reader's Digest and Newsweek and Self against his will but

reading hungrily, avidly, from cover to cover. Throughout the day, in the small

spaces of time in which she too had had to wait, he'd told her the stories.

About an old woman who'd been bludgeoned to death by a boy she'd hired to

build a doghouse. About a movie star who'd been forced by divorce to sell his

boat. About a man in Kentucky who'd run a marathon in spite of the fact that

he had only one foot, the other made of metal, a complicated, sturdy coil

fitted into a shoe.

The doctor knocked, then burst in without waiting for an answer.

He washed his hands and brought his little black instrument out, the one with

the tiny light, and peered into her eyes, her ears, her mouth. She could smell

the cinnamon gum he chewed and also the soap he'd used before he

touched her. She kept herself from blinking while staring directly into the

bullet of light, and then, when he asked, followed his pen expertly around the

room using only her eyes.

"I'm not a sickly woman," she declared.

Nobody agreed. Nobody disagreed. But Bruce came to stand

behind her and rub her back.

His hands made a scraping sound against the fabric of the gown,

so rough and thick they were, like tree bark. At night he cut the calluses off

with a jackknife.

. . .

The doctor didn't say cancer—at least she didn't hear him say it. She heard

him say oranges and peas and radishes and ovaries and lungs and liver. He

said tumors were growing like wildfire along her spine.

"What about my brain?" she asked, dry-eyed.

He told her he'd opted not to check her brain because her ovaries

and lungs and liver made her brain irrelevant. "Your breasts are fine," he said,

leaning against the sink.

She blushed to hear that. Your breasts are fine.

"Thank you," she said, and leant forward a bit in her chair. Once,

she'd walked six miles through the streets of Duluth in honor of women

whose breasts weren't fine and in return she'd received a pink T-shirt and a

spaghetti dinner.

"What does this mean exactly?" Her voice was reasonable beyond

reason. She became acutely aware of each muscle in her face. Some were

paralyzed, others twitched. She pressed her cold hands against her cheeks.

"I don't want to alarm you," the doctor said, and then, very calmly,

he stated that she could not expect to be alive in one year. He talked for a

long time in simple terms, but she could not make out what he was saying.

When she'd first met Bruce, she'd asked him to explain to her how,

precisely, the engine of a car worked. She did this because she loved him

and she wanted to demonstrate her love by taking an interest in his

knowledge. He'd sketched the parts of an engine on a napkin and told her

what fit together and what parts made other parts move and he also took

several detours to explain what was likely to be happening when certain

things went wrong and the whole while she had smiled and held her face in

an expression of simulated intelligence and understanding, though by the end

she'd learned absolutely nothing. This was like that.

She didn't look at Bruce, couldn't bring herself to. She heard a

hiccup of a cry from his direction and then a long horrible cough.

"Thank you," she said when the doctor was done talking. "I mean,

for doing everything you can do." And then she added weakly, "But. There's

one thing—are you sure? Because . . . actually . . . I don't feel that sick."

She felt she'd know it if she had oranges growing in her; she'd known

immediately both times that she'd been pregnant.

"That will come. I would expect extremely soon," said the doctor.

He had a dimpled chin, a baby face. "This is a rare situation—to find it so late

in the game. Actually, the fact that we found it so late speaks to your overall

good health. Other than this, you're in excellent shape."

He hoisted himself up to sit on the counter, his legs dangling and


"Thank you," she said again, reaching for her coat.

Carefully, wordlessly, they walked to the elevator, pushed its translucent

button, and waited for it to arrive. When it did, they staggered onto it and

saw, gratefully, that they were alone together at last.

"Teresa," Bruce said, looking into her eyes. He smelled like the

small things he'd eaten throughout the day, things she'd packed for him in

her famously big straw bag. Tangerines and raisins.

She put the tips of her fingers very delicately on his face and then

he grabbed her hard and held her against him. He touched her spine, one

vertebra, and then another one, as if he were counting them, keeping track.

She laced one hand into his belt loop at the back of his jeans and with the

other hand she held a seashell that hung on a leather string around her neck.

A gift from her kids. It changed color depending on how she moved, .ashing

and luminescent like a tropical fish in an aquarium, so thin she could crush it

in an instant. She considered crushing it. Once, in a quiet rage, she'd

squeezed an entire bottle of coconut-scented lotion onto the tops of her

thighs, having been denied something as a teenager: a party, a record, a pair

of boots. She thought of that now. She thought, Of all the things to think of

now. She tried to think of nothing, but then she thought of cancer. Cancer,

she said to herself. Cancer, cancer, cancer. The word chugged inside of her

like a train starting to roll. And then she closed her eyes and it became

something else, swerving away, a bead of mercury or a girl on roller skates.

They went to a Chinese restaurant. They could still eat. They read the

astrology on the placemats and ordered green beans in garlic sauce and cold

sesame noodles and then read the placemats again, out loud to each other.

They were horses, both of them, thirty-eight years old. They were in perpetual

motion, moved with electric fluidity, possessed unconquered spirits. They

were impulsive and stubborn and lacked discretion. They were a perfect


Goldfish swam in a pond near their table. Ancient goldfish.

Unsettlingly large goldfish. "Hello, goldfish," she cooed, tilting toward them in

her chair. They swam to the surface, opening their big mouths in perfect

circles, making small popping noises.

"Are you hungry?" she asked them. "They're hungry," she said to

Bruce, then looked searchingly around the restaurant, as if to see where they

kept the goldfish food.

At a table nearby there was a birthday party, and Bruce and

Teresa were compelled to join in for the birthday song. The woman whose

birthday it was received a flaming custard, praised it loudly, then ate it with


Bruce held her hand across the table. "Now that I'm dying we're

dating again," she said for a joke, though they didn't laugh. Sorrow surged

erotically through them as if they were breaking up. Her groin was a fist, then

a swamp. "I want to make love with you," she said, and he blinked his blue

eyes, tearing up so much that he had to take his glasses off. They'd tapered

off over the years. Once or twice a month, perhaps.

Their food arrived, great bowls of it, and they ate as if nothing were

different. They were so hungry they couldn't speak, so they listened to the

conversation of the happy people at the birthday party table. The flaming

custard lady insisted that she was a dragon, not a rabbit, despite what the

placemat said. After a while they all rose and put their heavy coats on,

strolling past Teresa and Bruce, admiring the goldfish in their pond.

"I had a goldfish once," said a man who held the arm of the

custard lady. "His name was Charlie." And everyone laughed uproariously.

Later, after Bruce paid the bill, they crossed a footbridge over a

pond where you could throw a penny.

They threw pennies.

On the drive home it hit them, and they wept. Driving was good because they

didn't have to look at each other. They said the word, but as if it were two

words. Can. Sir. They had to say it slowly, dissected, or not at all. They

vowed they would not tell the kids. How could they tell the kids?

"How could we not?" Teresa asked bitterly, after a while. She

thought of how, when the kids were babies, she would take their entire hands

into her mouth and pretend that she was going to eat them until they

laughed. She remembered this precisely, viscerally, the way their fingers felt

pressing onto her tongue, and she fell forward, over her knees, her head

wedged under the dash, to sob.

Bruce slowed and then pulled over and stopped the truck. They

were out of Duluth now, off the freeway, on the road home. He hunched over

her back, hugging her with his weight wherever he could.

She took several deep breaths to calm herself, wiped her face with

her gloves, and looked up out the windshield at the snow packed hard on the

shoulder of the road. She felt that home was impossibly far.

"Let's go," she said.

They drove in silence under the ice-clear black sky, passing

turkey farms and dairy farms every few miles, or houses with lit-up sheds.

When they crossed into Coltrap County, Bruce turned the radio on, and they

heard Teresa's own voice and it shocked them, although it was a Thursday

night. She was interviewing a dowser from Blue River, a woman named Patty

Peterson, the descendant of a long line of Petersons who'd witched wells.

Teresa heard herself say, "I've always wondered about the art—I

suppose you could call it an art—or perhaps the skill of selecting a willow

branch." And then she switched the radio off immediately. She held her

hands in a clenched knot on her lap. It was ten degrees below zero outside.

The truck made a roaring sound, in need of a new muffler.

"Maybe it will go away as mysteriously as it came," she said,

turning to Bruce. His haggard face was beautiful to her in the soft light of the


"That's what we're going to shoot for," he said, reaching for her

knee. She considered sliding over to sit close to him, straddling the clutch,

but felt tied to her place near the dark window.

"Or I could die," she said calmly, as if she'd come to peace with

everything already. "I could very well die."

"No, you couldn't."


"We're all going to die," he said softly. "Everyone's going to die,

but you're not going to die now."

She pressed her bare hand flat onto the window, making an

imprint in the frost. "I didn't think I'd die this way."

"You have to stay positive, Ter. Let's get the radiation started and

then we'll see. Just like the doctor said."

"He said we'll see about chemo. Whether I'll be strong enough for

chemo after I'm done with radiation, not about me being cured, Bruce. You

never pay attention." She felt irritated with him for the first time that day and

her irritation was a relief, as if warm water were being gently poured over her


"Okay, then," he said.

"Okay what?"

"Okay, we'll see. Right?"

She stared out the window.

"Right?" he asked again, but she didn't answer.

They drove past a farm where several cows stood in the bright

light of the open barn, their heads turned toward the dark of the woods

beyond, as if they detected something there that no human could. A


Copyright © 2005 by Cheryl Strayed. Reprinted by permission of Houghton

Mifflin Company.'

Product Details

Mariner Books
Strayed, Cheryl
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
February 2006
Grade Level:
9.16x6.70x1.13 in. 1.32 lbs.

Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

0 stars - 0 reviews
$ In Stock
Product details 336 pages Houghton Mifflin Company - English 9780618472178 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Strayed's descriptions of her characters' lives...ring true and clear and make this novel an unforgettable read."
"Review" by , "Strayed has a gift of getting to the core of the human condition without artifice....A hauntingly beautiful story written with tenderness and endowed with true insights into the frailty of relationships."
"Review" by , "Strayed shows a deep appreciation for the rhythms of small-town life....[S]he discerns within one family's crisis the painful, shifting nature of familial relationships."
"Synopsis" by ,
"Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!” Thats the advice Teresa Rae Wood gives the listeners of her popular local radio show, Modern Pioneers, and she has taken it to heart in her own life. She fled a bad marriage, escaping to Midden, Minnesota (pop. 408), where she fell in love with a carpenter who became a loving stepfather to her children, Claire and Joshua. Now Claire is away at college, Joshua is laboring through his senior year of high school, and Teresa and Bruce are working to make ends meet. Despite their struggles, their love for each other binds them as a family. Then they receive the devastating news that Teresa has cancer and at thirty-eight may have less than one year to live. Those she will leave behind face something previously unimaginable — a future without her.

In Torch, the award-winning writer Cheryl Strayed creates from one family's shattering experience a novel infused with tenderness, compassion, and beauty.

"Synopsis" by , Grounded in the everyday particulars of life in a small town, leavened by earthy humor, this book presents the saga of a family coming to terms with death--a tale of love and loss, grief and redemption set in rural Minnesota.
"Synopsis" by , Be incredible!" That's the advice Teresa Rae Wood gives the listeners

of her popular local radio show, Modern Pioneers!, a kind of

hippie Prairie Home Companion. Teresa has taken the advice to heart

in her own life. As a teen mother and abused wife, Teresa escaped with

her two children to rural Minnesota, fell in love with a local carpenter,

and raised good kids, Claire and Joshua. Then, aged only thirty-eight,

she receives the devastating news that she is gravely ill. In just a few

weeks, she is gone.

Strayed has a deep appreciation for the shifting rhythms between siblings and parents and for the beautiful terrors of learning how to keep living. Torch is a novel of uncommon candor and wisdom.

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