Corde, who led he life of an executive in America---wasn't a college dean a kind of executive?--found himself six or seven thousand miles from his base, in Bucharest, in winter, shut up in an old-fashioned apartment. Here everyone was kind--family and friends, warmhearted peple--he liked them very much, to him they were "old Europe." But they had their own intense business. This was no ordinary visit. His wife's mother was dying. Corde had come to give support, but there was little he could do for Minna. Language was a problem. People spoke little French, less English. So Corde, the Dean, spent his days in Minna's old room sipping strong plum brandy, leafing through old books, staring out of the windows at earthquake-damaged buildings, winter skies, gray pigeons, pollarded trees, squalid orange-rusty trams hissing under trolley cables.
Corde's mother-in-law, who had had first a heart attack and then a stroke, was in the hospital. Only the Party hospital had the machines to keep her alive, but the rules were rigid there. She was in intensive care, and visits were forbidden. Corde and Minna had flown a day and a night to be with her but in five days had seen her only twice--the first time by special dispensation, the second without official permission. The hospital superintendent, a colonel in the secret police, was greatly offended because his rules had been broken. He was a tough bureaucrat. The staff lived in terror of him. Minna and her aunt Gigi had decided (Corde took part in their discussions) that it would be polite to ask for an appointment: "Let's try to have a sensible talk with him."
On the telephone the Colonel had said, "Yes, come."
Minna, when she went to see him brought her husband along--perhaps an American, a dean from Chicago, not quite elderly but getting there, would temper the Colonel's anger. No such thing happened. The Colonel was a lean, hollow-templed, tight-wrapped, braided whip sort of man. Clearly, he wasn't going to give any satisfaction. An institution must keep its rules. Corde put in his two cents; he mentioned that he was an administrator himself--he had worked for many years on the Paris Herald, so he spoke French well enough. The Colonel politely let him speak his peace; he darkly, dryly listened, mouth compressed. He received, tolerated, the administrative comparison, despised it. He did not reply, and when the Dean was done he turned again to Minna.
There had been an impropriety. Under no circumtances could the administration tolerate that. Outraged, Minna was silent. What else could she be? Here only the Colonel had the right to be outraged. His high feeling--and he allowed it to go very high--was moderated in expression only by the depth of his voice. How sharp could a basso sound? Corde himself had a deep voice, deeper than the Colonel's, vibrating more. Where the Colonel was tight, Corde was inclined to be loose. The Colonel's sparse hair was slicked straight back, military style; Corde's baldness was more random, a broad bay, a straggling growth of black hair. From this enlarged face, the brown gaze of an intricate mind of an absent, probably dreamy tendency followed their conversation. You could not expect a Communist secret police colonel to take such a person seriously. He was only an America, a dean of students from somewhere in the middle of the country. Of these two visitors, Minna was by far the more distinguished. This beautiful woman, as the Colonel was sure to know, was a professor of astronomy, had an international reputation. A "hard" scientist. It was important for the Colonel to establish that he was not moved by such considerations. He was in as hard a field as she. Harder.
Minna spoke emotionally about her mother. She was an only child. The hearing the Colonel gave her was perfectly correct. A daughter who had come such a distance; a mother in intensive care, half paralyzed. Without knowing the language, Corde could understand all this easily enough, and interpreted the Colonel's position: where you had hospitals, you had dying people, naturally. Because of the special circumstances an exception had been made for the doamma and her husband on their arrival. But there had been a second visit (here the incensed emphasis again), without permission.
Minna, in terse asides, translated for her husband. It wasn't really necessary. He loosely sat there in wrinkled woolen trousers and a sports jacket, the image of the inappropriate American--in all circumstances inappropriate, incapable of learning the lessons of the twentieth century; spared, or scorned, by the forces of history or fate or whatever a European might want to call them. Corde was perfectly aware of this.
He nodded, his brown eyes, bulging somewhat, in communion with the speckled activity of the floor, uniformly speckled over the entire hospital. The director's office was tall but not much roomier than a good-sized closet--a walk-in closet at home. The desk, too, was small. Nothing was big except the Colonel's authority. The electric fixture was hung very high, remote. Here, as everywhere in Bucharest, the light was inadequate. They were short on energy in Rumania--something about subnormal rainfall and low water in the dams. That's right, blame nature. December brown set in at about three in the afternoon. By four it had climbed the stucco of old walls, the gray of Communist residential blocks: brown darkness took over the pavements, and then came back again from the pavements more thickly and isolated the street lamps. These were feebly yellow in the impure melancholy winter effluence. Air-sadness, Corde called this. In the final stage of dusk, a brown sediment seemed to encircle the lamps. Then there was a livid death moment. Night began. Night was very difficult here, thought Albert Corde. He sat slumped and heavy-headed, his wide head seking the support it could not get rom its stem. This brought his moody eyes forward all the more, the joined brows, the bridge of his spectacles out of level. It was his wife with her fine back, her neck, her handsome look, who made the positive impression But that was nothing to the whiplash Colonel. Perhaps it only reminded him that this distinguished lady had defected twenty years ago, when she had been allowed to study in the West, was here only because her mother was dying, arriving under the protection of her husband, this American dean; landing without a visa, met by a U.S. official (this meant a certain degree of influence). The Colonel would have all this information, of course. And Minna was not in a strong position; she had never formally renounced her Rumanian citizenship. if it had a mind to, the government could make trouble for her.
Valeria, the old woman, was not a Party member now, hadn't been one since, as Minister of Health, she fell in disgrace. That had happened thirty years ago. She was then denounced publicly by press and radio, expelled, threatened with prison, with death too. Before he could come to trial, one of her colleagues who fell in the same shake-up had his head hacked off in his cell. This old militant who had survived Antonescu and also the Nazis was butchered with an ax or a meat cleaver. Dr. Valeria somehow came through. Dr. Valeria herself had founded this very hospital, the Party hospital. Three weeks ago, probably feeling the first touches of sickness (Corde thought of it as advance death thrill, the final presage, each of us in peculiar communication with his own organs and their sick-signals), she began to make the rounds, out all day on the buses and trolley cars, said Gigi, calling on old acquaintances, arranging to be admitted. She had been rehabilitated late in the fifties, her pension restored, and she had quiet connections of her own among the old-timers of the bureaucracy.
So she was hooked in now to the respirator, scanner, monitor. The stroke had knocked out the respiratory center, her left side was paralyzed. She couldn't speak, couldn't open her eyes. She could hear, however, and work the fingers of her right hand. Her face was criscrossed every which way with tapes, like the Union Jack. Or the windowpanes in cities under bombardment. Corde, an old journalist before he became a dean knew these wartime scenes--sandbags, window tapes. Never saw the crisscross on a face like hers, though; too delicate for it. Still, the next step, a tracheotomy, was even worse. He was an experienced man. He knew the stages.
Before you were allowed to approach Valeria you had to put on a sterile gown and oversocks, huge and stiff. Also a surgical cap and mask. Valeria understood that her daughter had come,and her eyes moved under the lids. Minna was there. And protected by her husband--further proof of his dependability. When Corde spoke to her, she answered by pressing his fingers. Her son-in-law then noticed for the first time a deformity of one of her knuckles. Had it been broken once, was it arthritic? It was discolored. He had never before seen her hair down, only braided and pinned. He would never have guessed this fine white hair to be so long. There was also her big belly. Beneath it her thin legs. That, too, was painful to see. Every bit of it moved him--more than that, it worked him up; more than that, it made him wild, drove him into savage fantasies. He wanted to cry, as his wife was doing. Tears did come, but also an eager violence, a kind of get-it-over ecstasy mingling pity with destructiveness. Part of him was a monster. What else could it be?
These reactions were caused by exhaustion, partly. They must have been. The trip had been long. he was fagged, dried out. His guts were strained. He felt plugged in the rear. Circulation to the face and scalp seemed insufficient. And a kind of demonic excitement rose up, for which no resolution seemed possible. Like evil forces, frantic, foul, working away. At the same time, his tears for the old woman were genuine, too. For the moment, he could suppress nothing, force nothing. Equally helpless before good and bad. On the electronic screen of the monitor, symbols and digits shimmied and whilred, he heard a faint scratching and ticking.
The Colonel, towards the last of the interview, put on a long, judicious look--cunning, twisting the knife--and said that Valeria was removd from the intensive care unit, Minna might come as often as she liked. Unhooked from the machines, the old woman would die in fifteen minutes. This of course he did not spell out. But there was your choice, madam. This was the man's idea of a joke. you delivered it at the point of a knife.
That part of the conversation Corde had missed. Minna had told him about it. "My homecoming," she said after the interview, as they were going down the cement walk to the parking lot.
"Like tying a plastic bag over your face and telling you to breathe deep."
"I could kill him." Perhaps she could, from the set of her face--big eyes, intaken lips. "What should I do now, Albert? She'll be expecting us, waiting for us."
Saul Bellow - The Dean's December