His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.
Saunders, George. Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel (pp. 303-304). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Last Thursday, my organization, People Reluctant To Kill for an Abstraction, orchestrated an overwhelming show of force around the globe.
At precisely 9 in the morning, working with focus and stealth, our entire membership succeeded in simultaneously beheading no one. At 10, Phase II began, during which our entire membership did not force a single man to suck another man's penis. Also, none of us blew himself/herself up in a crowded public place. No civilians were literally turned inside out via our powerful explosives. In addition, at 11, in Phase III, zero (0) planes were flown into buildings.
During Phase IV, just after lunch, we were able to avoid bulldozing a single home. Furthermore, we set, on roads in every city, in every nation in the world, a total of zero (0) roadside bombs which, not being there, did not subsequently explode, killing/maiming a total of nobody. No bombs were dropped, during the lazy afternoon hours, on crowded civilian neighborhoods, from which, it was observed, no post-bomb momentary silences were then heard. These silences were, in all cases, followed by no unimaginable, grief-stricken bellows of rage, and/or frantic imprecations to a deity. No sleeping baby was awakened from an afternoon nap by the sudden collapse and/or bursting into flame of his/her domicile during Phase IV.
In the late afternoon (Phase V), our membership focused on using zero (0) trained dogs to bite/terrorize naked prisoners. In addition, no stun guns, rubber batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, or bullets were used, by our membership, on any individual, anywhere in the world. No one was forced to don a hood. No teeth were pulled in darkened rooms. No drills were used on human flesh, nor were whips or flames. No one was reduced to hysterical tears via a series of blows to the head or body, by us. Our membership, while casting no racial or ethnic aspersions, skillfully continued not to rape, gang-rape, or sexually assault a single person. On the contrary, during this late-afternoon phase, many of our membership flirted happily and even consoled, in a nonsexual way, individuals to whom they were attracted, putting aside their sexual feelings out of a sudden welling of empathy.
As night fell, our membership harbored no secret feelings of rage or, if they did, meditated, or discussed these feelings with a friend until such time as the feelings abated, or were understood to be symptomatic of some deeper sadness.
It should be noted that, in addition to the above-listed and planned activities completed by our members, a number of unplanned activities were completed by part-time members, or even nonmembers.
In London, a bitter homophobic grandfather whose grocery bag broke open gave a loaf of very nice bread to a balding gay man who stopped to help him. A stooped toothless woman in Tokyo pounded her head with her hands, tired beyond belief of her lifelong feelings of anger and negativity, and silently prayed that her heart would somehow be opened before it was too late. In Syracuse, New York, holding the broken body of his kitten, a man felt a sudden kinship for all small things.
Even declared nonmembers, it would appear, responded to our efforts. In Chitral, Pakistan, for example, a recent al-Qaida recruit remembered the way an elderly American tourist once made an encouraging remark about his English, and how, as she made the remark, she touched his arm, like a mother. In Gaza, an Israeli soldier and a young Palestinian, just before averting their eyes and muttering insults in their respective languages, exchanged a brief look of mutual shame.
Who are we? A word about our membership.
Since the world began, we have gone about our work quietly, resisting the urge to generalize, valuing the individual over the group, the actual over the conceptual, the inherent sweetness of the present moment over the theoretically peaceful future to be obtained via murder. Many of us have trouble sleeping and lie awake at night, worrying about something catastrophic befalling someone we love. We rise in the morning with no plans to convert anyone via beating, humiliation, or invasion. To tell the truth, we are tired. We work. We would just like some peace and quiet. When wrong, we think about it awhile, then apologize. We stand under awnings during urban thunderstorms, moved to thoughtfulness by the troubled, umbrella-tinged faces rushing by. In moments of crisis, we pat one another awkwardly on the back, mumbling shy truisms. Rushing to an appointment, remembering a friend who has passed away, our eyes well with tears and we think: Well, my God, he could be a pain, but still I'm lucky to have known him.
This is PRKA. To those who would oppose us, I would simply say: We are many. We are worldwide. We, in fact, outnumber you. Though you are louder, though you create a momentary ripple on the water of life, we will endure, and prevail.
The pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms hulked to the mudroom closet and requisitioned Dad’s white coat. Then requisitioned the boots he’d spray-painted white. Painting the pellet gun white had been a no. That was a gift from Aunt Chloe. Every time she came over he had to haul it out so she could make a big stink about the woodgrain.
Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would turn, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.
Safe inside the rock wall, the shot one would go, Guys, look at my butt.
As a group, all would look at Gzeemon’s butt, exchanging sullen glances of: Gzeemon shall indeed be limping for the next nine million years, poor bloke.
Because yes: Nethers tended to talk like that guy in “Mary Poppins.”
Which naturally raised some mysteries as to their origin here on Earth.
Detaining him was problematic for the Nethers. He was wily. Plus could not fit through their rock-wall opening. When they tied him up and went inside to brew their special miniaturizing potion—Wham!—he would snap their antiquated rope with a move from his self-invented martial-arts system, Toi Foi, a.k.a. Deadly Forearms. And place at their doorway an implacable rock of suffocation, trapping them inside.
Later, imagining them in their death throes, taking pity on them, he would come back, move the rock.
Blimey, one of them might say from withal. Thanks, guv’nor. You are indeed a worthy adversary.
Sometimes there would be torture. They would make him lie on his back looking up at the racing clouds while they tortured him in ways he could actually take. They tended to leave his teeth alone. Which was lucky. He didn’t even like to get a cleaning. They were dunderheads in that manner. They never messed with his peen and never messed with his fingernails. He’d just abide there, infuriating them with his snow angels. Sometimes, believing it their coup de grâce, not realizing he’d heard this since time in memorial from certain in-school cretins, they’d go, Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name. And chortle their Nether laughs.
Today he had a feeling that the Nethers might kidnap Suzanne Bledsoe, the new girl in homeroom. She was from Montreal. He just loved the way she talked. So, apparently, did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.
All suited up now, NASA. Turning awkwardly to go out door.
Affirmative. We have your coördinates. Be careful out there, Robin.
Whoa, cold, dang.
Duck thermometer read ten. And that was without windchill. That made it fun. That made it real. A green Nissan was parked where Poole dead-ended into the soccer field. Hopefully the owner was not some perv he would have to outwit.
Or a Nether in the human guise.
Bright, bright blue and cold. Crunch went the snow as he crossed the soccer field. Why did cold such as this give a running guy a headache? Likely it was due to Prominent Windspeed Velocity.
The path into the woods was as wide as one human. It seemed the Nether had indeed kidnapped Suzanne Bledsoe. Damn him! And his ilk. Judging by the single set of tracks, the Nether appeared to be carrying her. Foul cad. He’d better not be touching Suzanne inappropriately while carrying her. If so, Suzanne would no doubt be resisting with untamable fury.
This was concerning, this was very concerning.
When he caught up to them, he would say, Look, Suzanne, I know you don’t know my name, having misaddressed me as Roger that time you asked me to scoot over, but nevertheless I must confess I feel there is something to us. Do you feel the same?
Suzanne had the most amazing brown eyes. They were wet now, with fear and sudden reality.
Stop talking to her, mate, the Nether said.
I won’t, he said. And, Suzanne? Even if you don’t feel there is something to us, rest assured I will still slay this fellow and return you home. Where do you live again? Over in El Cirro? By the water tower? Those are some nice houses back there.
Yes, Suzanne said. We also have a pool. You should come over next summer. It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on. And also, yes to there being something to us. You are by far the most insightful boy in our class. Even when I take into consideration the boys I knew in Montreal, I am just like: no one can compare.
Well, that’s nice to hear, he said. Thank you for saying that. I know I’m not the thinnest.
The thing about girls? Suzanne said. Is we are more content-driven.
Will you two stop already? the Nether said. Because now is the time for your death. Deaths.
Well, now is certainly the time for somebody’s death, Robin said.
The twerpy thing was you never really got to save anyone. Last summer there’d been a dying raccoon out here. He’d thought of lugging it home so Mom could call the vet. But up close it was too scary. Raccoons being actually bigger than they appear in cartoons. And this one looked like a potential biter. So he ran home to get it some water at least. Upon his return, he saw where the raccoon had done some apparent last-minute thrashing. That was sad. He didn’t do well with sad. There had perchance been some pre-weeping, by him, in the woods.
That just means you have a big heart, Suzanne said.
Well, I don’t know, he said modestly.
Here was the old truck tire. Where the high-school kids partied. Inside the tire, frosted with snow, were three beer cans and a wadded-up blanket.
You probably like to party, the Nether had cracked to Suzanne moments earlier as they passed this very spot.
No, I don’t, Suzanne said. I like to play. And I like to hug.
Hoo boy, the Nether said. Sounds like Dullsville.
Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said.
He came out of the woods now to the prettiest vista he knew. The pond was a pure frozen white. It struck him as somewhat Switzerlandish. Someday he would know for sure. When the Swiss threw him a parade or whatnot.
Here the Nether’s tracks departed from the path, as if he had contemplatively taken a moment to gaze at the pond. Perhaps this Nether was not all bad. Perhaps he was having a debilitating conscience attack vis-à-vis the valiantly struggling Suzanne atop his back. At least he seemed to somewhat love nature.
Then the tracks returned to the path, wound around the pond, and headed up Lexow Hill.
What was this strange object? A coat? On the bench? The bench the Nethers used for their human sacrifices?
No accumulated snow on coat. Inside of coat still slightly warm.
Ergo: the recently discarded coat of the Nether.
This was some strange juju. This was an intriguing conundrum, if he had ever encountered one. Which he had. Once, he’d found a bra on the handlebars of a bike. Once, he’d found an entire untouched steak dinner on a plate behind Fresno’s. And hadn’t eaten it. Though it had looked pretty good.
Something was afoot.
Then he beheld, halfway up Lexow Hill, a man.
Coatless, bald-headed man. Super skinny. In what looked like pajamas. Climbing plodfully, with tortoise patience, bare white arms sticking out of his p.j. shirt like two bare white branches sticking out of a p.j. shirt. Or grave.
What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.
Dad had once said, Trust your mind, Rob. If it smells like shit but has writing across it that says Happy Birthday and a candle stuck down in it, what is it?
Is there icing on it? he’d said.
Dad had done that thing of squinting his eyes when an answer was not quite there yet.
What was his mind telling him now?
Something was wrong here. A person needed a coat. Even if the person was a grownup. The pond was frozen. The duck thermometer said ten. If the person was mental, all the more reason to come to his aid, as had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves, but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?
He snagged the coat off the bench.
It was a rescue. A real rescue, at last, sort of.
Ten minutes earlier, Don Eber had paused at the pond to catch his breath.
He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.
Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.
That is, if you’re still set on the boulder idea, the other said.
Which still strikes us as kind of fancy-pants.
Seemed like one guy was Dad and the other Kip Flemish.
Stupid cheaters. They’d switched spouses, abandoned the switched spouses, fled together to California. Had they been gay? Or just swingers? Gay swingers? The Dad and Kip in his head had acknowledged their sins and the three of them had struck a deal: he would forgive them for being possible gay swingers and leaving him to do Soap Box Derby alone, with just Mom, and they would consent to giving him some solid manly advice.
He wants it to be nice.
This was Dad now. It seemed Dad was somewhat on his side.
Nice? Kip said. That is not the word I would use.
A cardinal zinged across the day.
It was amazing. Amazing, really. He was young. He was fifty-three. Now he’d never deliver his major national speech on compassion. What about going down the Mississippi in a canoe? What about living in an A-frame near a shady creek with the two hippie girls he’d met in 1968 in that souvenir shop in the Ozarks, when Allen, his stepfather, wearing those crazy aviators, had bought him a bag of fossil rocks? One of the hippie girls had said that he, Eber, would be a fox when he grew up, and would he please be sure to call her at that time? Then the hippie girls had put their tawny heads together and giggled at his prospective foxiness. And that had never—
That had somehow never—
Sister Val had said, Why not shoot for being the next J.F.K.? So he had run for class president. Allen had bought him a Styrofoam straw boater. They’d sat together, decorating the hatband with Magic Markers. WIN WITH EBER! ON THE BACK: GROOVY! Allen had helped him record a tape. Of a little speech. Allen had taken that tape somewhere and come back with thirty copies, “to pass around.”
“Your message is good,” Allen had said. “And you are incredibly well spoken. You can do this thing.”
And he’d done it. He’d won. Allen had thrown him a victory party. A pizza party. All the kids had come.
Kindest man ever. Had taken him swimming. Had taken him to découpage. Had combed out his hair so patiently that time he came home with lice. Never a harsh, etc., etc.
Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.
Once the suffering began, Allen had raged. Said things no one should say. To Mom, to Eber, to the guy delivering water. Went from a shy man, always placing a reassuring hand on your back, to a diminished pale figure in a bed, shouting CUNT!
Except with some weird New England accent, so it came out KANT!
The first time Allen had shouted KANT! there followed a funny moment during which he and Mom looked at each other to see which of them was being called KANT. But then Allen amended, for clarity: KANTS!
So it was clear he meant both of them. What a relief.
They’d cracked up.
Jeez, how long had he been standing here? Daylight was waiting.
I honestly didn’t know what to do. But he made it so simple.
Took it all on himself.
So what else is new?
This was Jodi and Tommy now.
Big day today.
I mean, sure, it would have been nice to have a chance to say a proper goodbye.
But at what cost?
Exactly. And see—he knew that.
He was a father. That’s what a father does.
Eases the burdens of those he loves.
Saves the ones he loves from painful last images that might endure for a lifetime.
Soon Allen had become THAT. And no one was going to fault anybody for avoiding THAT. Sometimes he and Mom would huddle in the kitchen. Rather than risk incurring the wrath of THAT. Even THAT understood the deal. You’d trot in a glass of water, set it down, say, very politely, Anything else, Allen? And you’d see THAT thinking, All these years I was so good to you people and now I am merely THAT? Sometimes the gentle Allen would be inside there, too, indicating, with his eyes, Look, go away, please go away, I am trying so hard not to call you KANT!
Rail-thin, ribs sticking out.
Catheter taped to dick.
Waft of shit smell.
You are not Allen and Allen is not you.
So Molly had said.
As for Dr. Spivey, he couldn’t say. Wouldn’t say. Was busy drawing a daisy on a Post-it. Then finally said, Well, honestly? As these things grow, they can tend to do weird things. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be terrible. Had one guy? Just always craved him a Sprite.
And Eber had thought, Did you, dear doctor/savior/lifeline, just say craved him a Sprite?
That’s how they got you. You thought, Maybe I’ll just crave me a Sprite. Next thing you knew, you were THAT, shouting KANT!, shitting your bed, swatting at the people who were scrambling to clean you.
No sirree bob.
Wednesday he’d fallen out of the med-bed again. There on the floor in the dark it had come to him: I could spare them.
Spare us? Or spare you?
Get thee behind me.
Get thee behind me, sweetie.
A breeze sent down a sequence of linear snow puffs from somewhere above. Beautiful. Why were we made just so, to find so many things that happened every day pretty?
He took off his coat.
Took off his hat and gloves, stuffed the hat and gloves in a sleeve of the coat, left the coat on the bench.
This way they’d know. They’d find the car, walk up the path, find the coat.
It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.
He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.
His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.
Let. Let me do it cling.
Estimated time of overtaking the Nether, handing him his coat? Approximately nine minutes. Six minutes to follow the path around the pond, an additional three minutes to fly up the hillside like a delivering wraith or mercy-angel, bearing the simple gift of a coat.
That is just an estimate, NASA. I pretty much made that up.
We know that, Robin. We know very well by now how irreverent you work.
Like that time you cut a fart on the moon.
Or the time you tricked Mel into saying, “Mr. President, what a delightful surprise it was to find an asteroid circling Uranus.”
That estimate was particularly iffy. This Nether being surprisingly brisk. Robin himself was not the fastest wicket in the stick. He had a certain girth. Which Dad prognosticated would soon triumphantly congeal into linebackerish solidity. He hoped so. For now he just had the slight man-boobs.
Robin, hurry, Suzanne said. I feel so sorry for that poor old guy.
He’s a fool, Robin said, because Suzanne was young, and did not yet understand that when a man was a fool he made hardships for the other men, who were less foolish than he.
He doesn’t have much time, Suzanne said, bordering on the hysterical.
There, there, he said, comforting her.
I’m just so frightened, she said.
And yet he is fortunate to have one such as I to hump his coat up that big-ass hill, which, due to its steepness, is not exactly my cup of tea, Robin said.
I guess that’s the definition of “hero,” Suzanne said.
I guess so, he said.
I don’t mean to continue being insolent, she said. But he seems to be pulling away.
What would you suggest? he said.
With all due respect, she said, and because I know you consider us as equals but different, with me covering the brainy angle and special inventions and whatnot?
Yes, yes, go ahead, he said.
Well, just working through the math in terms of simple geometry—
He saw where she was going with this. And she was quite right. No wonder he loved her. He must cut across the pond, thereby decreasing the ambient angle, ergo trimming valuable seconds off his catchup time.
Wait, Suzanne said. Is that dangerous?
It is not, he said. I have done it numerous times.
Please be careful, Suzanne implored.
Well, once, he said.
You have such aplomb, Suzanne demurred.
Actually never, he said softly, not wishing to alarm her.
Your bravery is irascible, Suzanne said.
He started across the pond.
It was actually pretty cool walking on water. In summer, canoes floated here. If Mom could see him, she’d have a conniption. Mom treated him like a piece of glass. Due to his alleged infant surgeries. She went on full alert if he so much as used a stapler.
But Mom was a good egg. A reliable counsellor and steady hand of guidance. She had a munificent splay of long silver hair and a raspy voice, though she didn’t smoke and was even a vegan. She’d never been a biker chick, although some of the in-school cretins claimed she resembled one.
He was actually quite fond of Mom.
He was now approximately three-quarters, or that would be sixty per cent, across.
Between him and the shore lay a grayish patch. Here in summer a stream ran in. Looked a tad iffy. At the edge of the grayish patch he gave the ice a bonk with the butt of his gun. Solid as anything.
Here he went. Ice rolled a bit underfoot. Probably it was shallow here. Anyways he hoped so. Yikes.
How’s it going? Suzanne said, trepidly.
Could be better, he said.
Maybe you should turn back, Suzanne said.
But wasn’t this feeling of fear the exact feeling all heroes had to confront early in life? Wasn’t overcoming this feeling of fear what truly distinguished the brave?
There could be no turning back.
Or could there? Maybe there could. Actually there should.
The ice gave way and the boy fell through.
Nausea had not been mentioned in “The Humbling Steppe.”
A blissful feeling overtook me as I drifted off to sleep at the base of the crevasse. No fear, no discomfort, only a vague sadness at the thought of all that remained undone. This is death? I thought. It is but nothing.
Author, whose name I cannot remember, I would like a word with you.
The shivering was insane. Like a tremor. His head was shaking on his neck. He paused to puke a bit in the snow, white-yellow against the white-blue.
This was scary. This was scary now.
Every step was a victory. He had to remember that. With every step he was fleeing father and father. Farther from father. Stepfarther. What a victory he was wresting. From the jaws of the feet.
He felt a need at the back of his throat to say it right.
From the jaws of defeat. From the jaws of defeat.
Even when you were THAT you were still Allen to me.
Please know that.
Falling, Dad said.
For some definite time he waited to see where he would land and how much it would hurt. Then there was a tree in his gut. He found himself wrapped fetally around some tree.
Ouch, ouch. This was too much. He hadn’t cried after the surgeries or during the chemo, but he felt like crying now. It wasn’t fair. It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him. He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.
Years ago at “The Illuminated Body” he and Molly had seen this brain slice. Marring the brain slice had been a nickel-size brown spot. That brown spot was all it had taken to kill the guy. Guy must have had his hopes and dreams, closet full of pants, and so on, some treasured childhood memories: a mob of koi in the willow shade at Gage Park, say, Gram searching in her Wrigley’s-smelling purse for a tissue—like that. If not for that brown spot, the guy might have been one of the people walking by on the way to lunch in the atrium. But no. He was defunct now, off rotting somewhere, no brain in his head.
Looking down at the brain slice Eber had felt a sense of superiority. Poor guy. It was pretty unlucky, what had happened to him.
He and Molly had fled to the atrium, had hot scones, watched a squirrel mess with a plastic cup.
Wrapped fetally around the tree Eber traced the scar on his head. Tried to sit. No dice. Tried to use the tree to sit up. His hand wouldn’t close. Reaching around the tree with both hands, joining his hands at the wrists, he sat himself up, leaned back against the tree.
How was that?
Maybe this was it. Maybe this was as far as he got. He’d had it in mind to sit cross-legged against the boulder at the top of the hill, but really what difference did it make?
All he had to do now was stay put. Stay put by force-thinking the same thoughts he’d used to propel himself out of the med-bed and into the car and across the soccer field and through the woods: MollyTommyJodi huddling in the kitchen filled with pity/loathing, MollyTommyJodi recoiling at something cruel he’d said, Tommy hefting his thin torso up in his arms so that MollyJodi could get under there with a wash—
Then it would be done. He would have preëmpted all future debasement. All his fears about the coming months would be mute.
This was it. Was it? Not yet. Soon, though. An hour? Forty minutes? Was he doing this? Really? He was. Was he? Would he be able to make it back to the car even if he changed his mind? He thought not. Here he was. He was here. This incredible opportunity to end things with dignity was right in his hands.
All he had to do was stay put.
I will fight no more forever.
Concentrate on the beauty of the pond, the beauty of the woods, the beauty you are returning to, the beauty that is everywhere as far as you can—
Oh, for shitsake.
Oh, for crying out loud.
Some kid was on the pond.
Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.
You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own—
Damn. Damn it.
Kid tapped the ice with the butt of his gun.
You wouldn’t want some kid finding you. That could scar a kid. Although kids found freaky things all the time. Once, he’d found a naked photo of Dad and Mrs. Flemish. That had been freaky. Of course, not as freaky as a grimacing cross-legged—
Kid was swimming.
Swimming was not allowed. That was clearly posted. No Swimming.
Kid was a bad swimmer. Real thrashfest down there. Kid was creating with his thrashing a rapidly expanding black pool. With each thrash the kid incrementally expanded the boundary of the black—
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree-to-tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med-bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint bird feeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
He started to fall again, caught himself, froze in a hunched-over position, hurtled forward, fell flat on his face, chucked his chin on a root.
You had to laugh.
You almost had to laugh.
He got up. Got doggedly up. His right hand presented as a bloody glove. Tough nuts, too bad. Once, in football, a tooth had come out. Later in the half, Eddie Blandik had found it. He’d taken it from Eddie, flung it away. That had also been him.
Here was the switchbank. It wasn’t far now. Switchback.
What to do? When he got there? Get kid out of pond. Get kid moving. Force-walk kid through woods, across soccer field, to one of the houses on Poole. If nobody home, pile kid into Nissan, crank up heater, drive to— Our Lady of Sorrows? UrgentCare? Fastest route to UrgentCare?
Fifty yards to the trailhead.
Twenty yards to the trailhead.
Thank you, God, for my strength.
In the pond, he was all animal-thought, no words, no self, blind panic. He resolved to really try. He grabbed for the edge. The edge broke away. Down he went. He hit mud and pushed up. He grabbed for the edge. The edge broke away. Down he went. It seemed like it should be easy, getting out. But he just couldn’t do it. It was like at the carnival. It should be easy to knock three sawdust dogs off a ledge. And it was easy. It just wasn’t easy with the number of balls they gave you.
He wanted the shore. He knew that was the right place for him. But the pond kept saying no.
Then it said maybe.
The ice edge broke again, but, breaking it, he pulled himself infinitesimally toward shore, so that, when he went down, his feet found mud sooner. The bank was sloped. Suddenly there was hope. He went nuts. He went total spaz. Then he was out, water streaming off him, a piece of ice like a tiny pane of glass in the cuff of his coat sleeve.
Trapezoidal, he thought.
In his mind, the pond was not finite, circular, and behind him but infinite and all around.
He felt he’d better lie still or whatever had just tried to kill him would try again. What had tried to kill him was not just in the pond but out here, too, in every natural thing, and there was no him, no Suzanne, no Mom, no nothing, just the sound of some kid crying like a terrified baby.
Eber jog-hobbled out of the woods and found: no kid. Just black water. And a green coat. His coat. His former coat, out there on the ice. The water was calming already.
Kid was only out there because of—
Down on the beach near an overturned boat was some ignoramus. Lying face down. On the job. Lying down on the job. Must have been lying there even as that poor kid—
It was the kid. Oh, thank Christ. Face down like a corpse in a Brady photo. Legs still in the pond. Like he’d lost steam crawling out. Kid was soaked through, the white coat gone gray with wet.
Eber dragged the kid out. It took four distinct pulls. He didn’t have the strength to flip him over, but, turning the head, at least got the mouth out of the snow.
Kid was in trouble.
Soaking wet, ten degrees.
Eber went down on one knee and told the kid in a grave fatherly way that he had to get up, had to get moving or he could lose his legs, he could die.
The kid looked at Eber, blinked, stayed where he was.
He grabbed the kid by the coat, rolled him over, roughly sat him up. The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer. He had to get the kid warmed up. How to do it? Hug him, lie on top of him? That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle.
Eber remembered his coat, out on the ice, at the edge of the black water.
Find a branch. No branches anywhere. Where the heck was a good fallen branch when you—
All right, all right, he’d do it without a branch.
He walked fifty feet downshore, stepped onto the pond, walked a wide loop on the solid stuff, turned to shore, started toward the black water. His knees were shaking. Why? He was afraid he might fall in. Ha. Dope. Poser. The coat was fifteen feet away. His legs were in revolt. His legs were revolting.
Doctor, my legs are revolting.
You’re telling me.
He tiny-stepped up. The coat was ten feet away. He went down on his knees, knee-walked slightly up. Went down on his belly. Stretched out an arm.
Slid forward on his belly.
Then had a tiny corner by two fingers. He hauled it in, slid himself back via something like a reverse breaststroke, got to his knees, stood, retreated a few steps, and was once again fifteen feet away and safe.
Then it was like the old days, getting Tommy or Jodi ready for bed when they were zonked. You said, “Arm,” the kid lifted an arm. You said, “Other arm,” the kid lifted the other arm. With the coat off, Eber could see that the boy’s shirt was turning to ice. Eber peeled the shirt off. Poor little guy. A person was just some meat on a frame. Little guy wouldn’t last long in this cold. Eber took off his pajama shirt, put it on the kid, slid the kid’s arm into the arm of the coat. In the arm were Eber’s hat and gloves. He put the hat and gloves on the kid, zipped the coat up.
The kid’s pants were frozen solid. His boots were ice sculptures of boots.
You had to do things right. Eber sat on the boat, took off his boots and socks, peeled off his pajama pants, made the kid sit on the boat, knelt before the kid, got the kid’s boots off. He loosened the pants up with little punches and soon had one leg partly out. He was stripping off a kid in ten-degree weather. Maybe this was exactly the wrong thing. Maybe he’d kill the kid. He didn’t know. He just didn’t know. Desperately, he gave the pants a few more punches. Then the kid was stepping out.
Eber put the pajama pants on him, then the socks, then the boots.
The kid was standing there in Eber’s clothes, swaying, eyes closed.
We’re going to walk now, O.K.? Eber said.
Eber gave the kid an encouraging pop in the shoulders. Like a football thing.
We’re going to walk you home, he said. Do you live near here?
He gave a harder pop.
The kid gaped at him, baffled.
Kid started walking.
Eber drove the kid out ahead of him. Like cowboy and cow. At first, fear of the popping seemed to be motivating the kid, but then good old panic kicked in and he started running. Soon Eber couldn’t keep up.
Kid was at the bench. Kid was at the trailhead.
Good boy, get home.
Kid disappeared into the woods.
Eber came back to himself.
Oh, boy. Oh, wow.
He had never known cold. Had never known tired.
He was standing in the snow in his underwear near an overturned boat.
He hobbled to the boat and sat in the snow.
Past the bench and the trailhead and into the woods on the old familiar path.
What the heck? What the heck had just happened? He’d fallen into the pond? His jeans had frozen solid? Had ceased being bluejeans. Were whitejeans. He looked down to see if his jeans were still whitejeans.
He had on pajama pants that, tucked into some tremendoid boots, looked like clown pants.
Had he been crying just now?
I think crying is healthy, Suzanne said. It means you’re in touch with your feelings.
Ugh. That was done, that was stupid, talking in your head to some girl who in real life called you Roger.
Here was a stump.
He sat. It felt good to rest. He wasn’t going to lose his legs. They didn’t even hurt. He couldn’t even feel them. He wasn’t going to die. Dying was not something he had in mind at this early an age. To rest more efficiently, he lay down. The sky was blue. The pines swayed. Not all at the same rate. He raised one gloved hand and watched it tremor.
He might close his eyes for a bit. Sometimes in life one felt a feeling of wanting to quit. Then everyone would see. Everyone would see that teasing wasn’t nice. Sometimes with all the teasing his days were subtenable. Sometimes he felt he couldn’t take even one more lunchtime of meekly eating on that rolled-up wrestling mat in the cafeteria corner near the snapped parallel bars. He did not have to sit there. But preferred to. If he sat anywhere else, there was the chance of a comment or two. Upon which he would then have the rest of the day to reflect. Sometimes comments were made on the clutter of his home. Thanks to Bryce, who had once come over. Sometimes comments were made on his manner of speaking. Sometimes comments were made on the style faux pas of Mom. Who was, it must be said, a real eighties gal.
He did not like it when they teased about Mom. Mom had no idea of his lowly school status. Mom seeing him more as the paragon or golden-boy type.
Once, he’d done a secret rendezvous of recording Mom’s phone calls, just for the reconnaissance aspect. Mostly they were dull, mundane, not about him at all.
Except for this one with her friend Liz.
I never dreamed I could love someone so much, Mom had said. I just worry I might not be able to live up to him, you know? He’s so good, so grateful. That kid deserves—that kid deserves it all. Better school, which we cannot afford, some trips, like abroad, but that is also, uh, out of our price range. I just don’t want to fail him, you know? That’s all I want from my life, you know? Liz? To feel, at the end, like I did right by that magnificent little dude.
At that point it seemed like Liz had maybe started vacuuming.
Magnificent little dude.
He should probably get going.
Magnificent Little Dude was like his Indian name.
He got to his feet and, gathering his massive amount of clothes up like some sort of encumbering royal train, started toward home.
Here was the truck tire, here the place where the trail briefly widened, here the place where the trees crossed overhead like reaching for one another. Weave-ceiling, Mom called it.
Here was the soccer field. Across the field, his house sat like a big sweet animal. It was amazing. He’d made it. He’d fallen into the pond and lived to tell the tale. He had somewhat cried, yes, but had then simply laughed off this moment of mortal weakness and made his way home, look of wry bemusement on his face, having, it must be acknowledged, benefitted from the much appreciated assistance of a certain aged—
With a shock he remembered the old guy. What the heck? An image flashed of the old guy standing bereft and blue-skinned in his tighty-whities like a P.O.W. abandoned at the barbed wire due to no room on the truck. Or a sad traumatized stork bidding farewell to its young.
He’d bolted. He’d bolted on the old guy. Hadn’t even given him a thought.
What a chickenshittish thing to do.
He had to go back. Right now. Help the old guy hobble out. But he was so tired. He wasn’t sure he could do it. Probably the old guy was fine. Probably he had some sort of old-guy plan.
But he’d bolted. He couldn’t live with that. His mind was telling him that the only way to undo the bolting was to go back now, save the day. His body was saying something else: It’s too far, you’re just a kid, get Mom, Mom will know what to do.
He stood paralyzed at the edge of the soccer field like a scarecrow in huge flowing clothes.
Eber sat slumped against the boat.
What a change in the weather. People were going around with parasols and so forth in the open part of the park. There was a merry-go-round and a band and a gazebo. People were frying food on the backs of certain merry-go-round horses. And yet, on others, kids were riding. How did they know? Which horses were hot? For now there was still snow, but snow couldn’t last long in this bomb.
If you close your eyes, that’s the end. You know that, right?
His exact voice. After all these years.
Where was he? The duck pond. So many times he’d come out here with the kids. He should go now. Goodbye, duck pond. Although hang on. He couldn’t seem to stand. Plus you couldn’t leave a couple of little kids behind. Not this close to water. They were four and six. For God’s sake. What had he been thinking? Leaving those two little dears by the pond. They were good kids, they’d wait, but wouldn’t they get bored? And swim? Without life jackets? No, no, no. It made him sick. He had to stay. Poor kids. Poor abandoned—
His kids were excellent swimmers.
His kids had never come close to being abandoned.
His kids were grown.
Tom was thirty. Tall drink of water. Tried so hard to know things. But even when he thought he knew a thing (fighting kites, breeding rabbits) Tom would soon be shown for what he was: the dearest, most agreeable young man ever, who knew no more about fighting kites/breeding rabbits than the average person could pick up from ten minutes on the Internet. Not that Tom wasn’t smart. Tom was smart. Tom was a damn quick study. Oh, Tom, Tommy, Tommikins! The heart in that kid! He just worked and worked. For the love of his dad. Oh, kid, you had it, you have it, Tom, Tommy, even now I am thinking of you, you are very much on my mind.
And Jodi, Jodi was out there in Santa Fe. She’d said she’d take off work and fly home. As needed. But there was no need. He didn’t like to impose. The kids had their own lives. Jodi-Jode. Little freckle-face. Pregnant now. Not married. Not even dating. Stupid Lars. What kind of man deserted a beautiful girl like that? A total dear. Just starting to make some progress in her job. You couldn’t take that kind of time off when you’d only just started—
Reconstructing the kids in this way was having the effect of making them real to him again. Which—you didn’t want to get that ball roiling. Jodi was having a baby. Rolling. He could have lasted long enough to see the baby. Hold the baby. It was sad, yes. That was a sacrifice he’d had to make. He’d explained it in the note. Hadn’t he? No. Hadn’t left a note. Couldn’t. There’d been some reason he couldn’t. Hadn’t there? He was pretty sure there’d been some—
Insurance. It couldn’t seem like he’d done it on purpose.
Little panic here.
He was offing himself. Offing himself, he’d involved a kid. Who was wandering the woods hypothermic. Offing himself two weeks before Christmas. Molly’s favorite holiday. Molly had a valve thing, a panic thing, this business might—
This was not—this was not him. This was not something he would have done. Not something he would ever do. Except he—he’d done it. He was doing it. It was in progress. If he didn’t get moving, it would—it would be accomplished. It would be done.
This very day you will be with me in the kingdom of—
He had to fight.
But couldn’t seem to keep his eyes open.
He tried to send some last thoughts to Molly. Sweetie, forgive me. Biggest fuckup ever. Forget this part. Forget I ended this thisly. You know me. You know I didn’t mean this.
He was at his house. He wasn’t at his house. He knew that. But could see every detail. Here was the empty med-bed, the studio portrait of HimMollyTommyJodi posed around that fake rodeo fence. Here was the little bedside table. His meds in the pillbox. The bell he rang to call Molly. What a thing. What a cruel thing. Suddenly he saw clearly how cruel it was. And selfish. Oh, God. Who was he? The front door swung open. Molly called his name. He’d hide in the sunroom. Jump out, surprise her. Somehow they’d remodelled. Their sunroom was now the sunroom of Mrs. Kendall, his childhood piano teacher. That would be fun for the kids, to take piano lessons in the same room where he’d—
Hello? Mrs. Kendall said.
What she meant was: Don’t die yet. There are many of us who wish to judge you harshly in the sunroom.
Hello, hello! she shouted.
Coming around the pond was a silver-haired woman.
All he had to do was call out.
He called out.
To keep him alive she started piling on him various things from life, things smelling of a home—coats, sweaters, a rain of flowers, a hat, socks, sneakers—and with amazing strength had him on his feet and was maneuvering him into a maze of trees, a wonderland of trees, trees hung with ice. He was piled high with clothes. He was like the bed at a party on which they pile the coats. She had all the answers: where to step, when to rest. She was strong as a bull. He was on her hip now like a baby; she had both arms around his waist, lifting him over a root.
They walked for hours, seemed like. She sang. Cajoled. She hissed at him, reminding him, with pokes in the forehead (right in his forehead), that her freaking kid was at home, near-frozen, so they had to book it.
Good God, there was so much to do. If he made it. He’d make it. This gal wouldn’t let him not make it. He’d have to try to get Molly to see—see why he’d done it. I was scared, I was scared, Mol. Maybe Molly would agree not to tell Tommy and Jodi. He didn’t like the thought of them knowing he’d been scared. Didn’t like the thought of them knowing what a fool he’d been. Oh, to hell with that! Tell everyone! He’d done it! He’d been driven to do it and he’d done it and that was it. That was him. That was part of who he was. No more lies, no more silence, it was going to be a new and different life, if only he—
They were crossing the soccer field.
Here was the Nissan.
His first thought was: Get in, drive it home.
Oh, no, you don’t, she said with that smoky laugh and guided him into a house. A house on the park. He’d seen it a million times. And now was in it. It smelled of man-sweat and spaghetti sauce and old books. Like a library where sweaty men went to cook spaghetti. She sat him in front of a woodstove, brought him a brown blanket that smelled of medicine. Didn’t talk but in directives: Drink this, let me take that, wrap up, what’s your name, what’s your number?
What a thing! To go from dying in your underwear in the snow to this! Warmth, colors, antlers on the walls, an old-time crank phone like you saw in silent movies. It was something. Every second was something. He hadn’t died in his shorts by a pond in the snow. The kid wasn’t dead. He’d killed no one. Ha! Somehow he’d got it all back. Everything was good now, everything was—
The woman reached down, touched his scar.
Oh, wow, ouch, she said. You didn’t do that out there, did you?
At this he remembered that the brown spot was as much in his head as ever.
Oh, Lord, there was still all that to go through.
Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?
Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please.
Because, O.K., the thing was—he saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—had never been—his to withheld.
The kid came out of the kitchen, lost in Eber’s big coat, pajama pants pooling around his feet with the boots now off. He took Eber’s bloody hand gently. Said he was sorry. Sorry for being such a dope in the woods. Sorry for running off. He’d just been out of it. Kind of scared and all.
Listen, Eber said hoarsely. You did amazing. You did perfect. I’m here. Who did that?
There. That was something you could do. The kid maybe felt better now? He’d given the kid that? That was a reason. To stay around. Wasn’t it? Can’t console anyone if not around? Can’t do squat if gone?
When Allen was close to the end, Eber had done a presentation at school on the manatee. Got an A from Sister Eustace. Who could be quite tough. She was missing two fingers on her right hand from a lawnmower incident and sometimes used that hand to scare a kid silent.
He hadn’t thought of this in years.
She’d put that hand on his shoulder not to scare him but as a form of praise. That was just terrific. Everyone should take their work as seriously as Donald here. Donald, I hope you’ll go home and share this with your parents. He’d gone home and shared it with Mom. Who suggested he share it with Allen. Who, on that day, had been more Allen than THAT. And Allen—
Ha, wow, Allen. There was a man.
Tears sprang into his eyes as he sat by the woodstove.
Allen had—Allen had said it was great. Asked a few questions. About the manatee. What did they eat again? Did he think they could effectively communicate with one another? What a trial that must have been! In his condition. Forty minutes on the manatee? Including a poem Eber had composed? A sonnet? On the manatee?
He’d felt so happy to have Allen back.
I’ll be like him, he thought. I’ll try to be like him.
The voice in his head was shaky, hollow, unconvinced.
He heard her in the entryway. Mol, Molly, oh, boy. When they were first married they used to fight. Say the most insane things. Afterward, sometimes there would be tears. Tears in bed? Somewhere. And then they would—Molly pressing her hot wet face against his hot wet face. They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—
She came in flustered and apologetic, a touch of anger in her face. He’d embarrassed her. He saw that. He’d embarrassed her by doing something that showed she hadn’t sufficiently noticed him needing her. She’d been too busy nursing him to notice how scared he was. She was angry at him for pulling this stunt and ashamed of herself for feeling angry at him in his hour of need, and was trying to put the shame and anger behind her now so she could do what might be needed.
All of this was in her face. He knew her so well.
Overriding everything else in that lovely face was concern.
She came to him now, stumbling a bit on a swell in the floor of this stranger’s house.
AT SIX MR. FRENDT comes on the P.A. and shouts, “Welcome to Joysticks!” Then he announces Shirts Off. We take off our flightjackets and fold them up. We take off our shirts and fold them up. Our scarves we leave on. Thomas Kirster’s our beautiful boy. He’s got long muscles and bright-blue eyes. The minute his shirt comes off two fat ladies hustle up the aisle and stick some money in his pants and ask will he be their Pilot. He says sure. He brings their salads. He brings their soups. My phone rings and the caller tells me to come see her in the Spitfire mock-up. Does she want me to be her Pilot? I’m hoping. Inside the Spitfire is Margie, who says she’s been diagnosed with Chronic Shyness Syndrome, then hands me an Instamatic and offers me ten bucks for a close-up of Thomas’s tush.
Do I do it? Yes I do.
It could be worse. It is worse for Lloyd Betts. Lately he’s put on weight and his hair’s gone thin. He doesn’t get a call all shift and waits zero tables and winds up sitting on the P-51 wing, playing solitaire in a hunched-over position that gives him big gut rolls.
I Pilot six tables and make forty dollars in tips plus five an hour in salary.
After closing we sit on the floor for Debriefing. “There are times,” Mr. Frendt says, “when one must move gracefully to the next station in life, like for example certain women in Africa or Brazil, I forget which, who either color their faces or don some kind of distinctive headdress upon achieving menopause. Are you with me? One of our ranks must now leave us. No one is an island in terms of being thought cute forever, and so today we must say good-bye to our friend Lloyd. Lloyd, stand up so we can say good-bye to you. I’m sorry We are all so very sorry”
”Oh God,” says Lloyd. “Let this not be true.”
But it’s true. Lloyd’s finished. We give him a round of applause, and Frendt gives him a Farewell Pen and the contents of his locker in a trash bag and out he goes. Poor Lloyd. He’s got a wife and two kids and a sad little duplex on Self-Storage Parkway
”It’s been a pleasure!” he shouts desperately from the doorway, trying not to burn any bridges.
What a stressful workplace. The minute your Cute Rating drops you’re a goner. Guests rank us as Knockout, Honeypie, Adequate, or Stinker. Not that I’m complaining. At least I’m working. At least I’m not a Stinker like Lloyd.
I’m a solid Honeypie/Adequate, heading home with forty bucks cash.
. . .
AT SEA OAK there’s no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx. Min and Jade are feeding their babies while watching How My Child Died Violently. Min’s my sister. Jade’s our cousin. How My Child Died Violently is hosted by Matt Merton, a six-foot-five blond who’s always giving the parents shoulder rubs and telling them they’ve been sainted by pain. Today’s show features a ten-year-old who killed a five-year-old for refusing to join his gang. The ten-year-old strangled the five-year-old with a jump rope, filled his mouth with baseball cards, then locked himself in the bathroom and wouldn’t come out until his parents agreed to take him to FunTimeZone, where he confessed, then dove screaming into a mesh cage full of plastic balls. The audience is shrieking threats at the parents of the killer while the parents of the victim urge restraint and forgiveness to such an extent that finally the audience starts shrieking threats at them too. Then it’s a commercial. Min and Jade put down the babies and light cigarettes and pace the room while studying aloud for their GEDs. It doesn’t look good. Jade says “regicide” is a virus. Min locates Biafra one planet from Saturn. I offer to help and they start yelling at me for condescending.
”You’re lucky, man!” my sister says. “You did high school. You got your frigging diploma. We don’t. That’s why we have to do this GED shit. If we had our diplomas we could just watch TV and not be all distracted.”
”Really,” says Jade. “Now shut it, chick! We got to study. Show’s almost on.”
They debate how many sides a triangle has. They agree that Churchill was in opera. Matt Merton comes back and explains that last week’s show on suicide, in which the parents watched a reenactment of their son’s suicide, was a healing process for the parents, then shows a video of the parents admitting it was a healing process.
My sister’s baby is Troy. Jade’s baby is Mac. They crawl off into the kitchen and Troy gets his finger caught in the heat vent. Min rushes over and starts pulling.
”Jesus freaking Christ!” screams Jade. “Watch it! Stop yanking on him and get the freaking Vaseline. You’re going to give him a really long arm, man!”
Troy starts crying. Mac starts crying. I go over and free Troy no problem. Meanwhile Jade and Min get in a slap fight and nearly knock over the TV
”Yo, chick!” Min shouts at the top of her lungs. “I’m sure you’re slapping me? And then you knock over the freaking TV? Don’t you care?”
”I care!” Jade shouts back. “You’re the slut who nearly pulled off her own kid’s finger for no freaking reason, man!”
Just then Aunt Bernie comes in from DrugTown in her DrugTown cap and hobbles over and picks up Troy and everything calms way down.
”No need to fuss, little man,” she says. “Everything’s fine. Everything’s just hunky-dory.”
”Hunky-dory,” says Min, and gives Jade one last pinch.
Aunt Bernie’s a peacemaker. She doesn’t like trouble. Once this guy backed over her foot at FoodKing and she walked home with ten broken bones. She never got married, because Grandpa needed her to keep house after Grandma died. Then he died and left all his money to a woman none of us had ever heard of, and Aunt Bernie started in at DrugTown. But she’s not bitter. Sometimes she’s so nonbitter it gets on my nerves. When I say Sea Oak’s a pit she says she’s just glad to have a roof over her head. When I say I’m tired of being broke she says Grandpa once gave her pencils for Christmas and she was so thrilled she sat around sketching horses all day on the backs of used envelopes. Once I asked was she sorry she never had kids and she said no, not at all, and besides, weren’t we her kids?
And I said yes we were.
But of course we’re not.
For dinner it’s beanie-wienies. For dessert it’s ice cream with freezer burn.
”What a nice day we’ve had,” Aunt Bernie says once we’ve got the babies in bed.
”Man, what an optometrist,” says Jade.
NEXT DAY IS THURSDAY, which means a visit from Ed Anders from the Board of Health. He’s in charge of ensuring that our penises never show. Also that we don’t kiss anyone. None of us ever kisses anyone or shows his penis except Sonny Vance, who does both, because he’s saving up to buy a FaxIt franchise. As for our Penile Simulators, yes, we can show them, we can let them stick out the top of our pants, we can even periodically dampen our tight pants with spray bottles so our Simulators really contour, but our real penises, no, those have to stay inside our hot uncomfortable oversized Simulators.
”Sorry fellas, hi fellas,” Anders says as he comes wearily in. “Please know I don’t like this any better than you do. I went to school to learn how to inspect meat, but this certainly wasn’t what I had in mind. Ha ha!”
He orders a Lindbergh Enchilada and eats it cautiously, as if it’s alive and he’s afraid of waking it. Sonny Vance is serving soup to a table of hairstylists on a bender and for a twenty shoots them a quick look at his unit.
Just then Anders glances up from his Lindbergh.
”Oh for crying out loud,” he says, and writes up a Shutdown and we all get sent home early. Which is bad. Every dollar counts. Lately I’ve been sneaking toilet paper home in my briefcase. I can fit three rolls in. By the time I get home they’re usually flat and don’t work so great on the roller but still it saves a few bucks.
I clock out and cut through the strip of forest behind FedEx. Very pretty. A raccoon scurries over a fallen oak and starts nibbling at a rusty bike. As I come out of the woods I hear a shot. At least I think it’s a shot. It could be a backfire. But no, it’s a shot, because then there’s another one, and some kids sprint across the courtyard yelling that Big Scary Dawgz rule.
I run home. Min and Jade and Aunt Bernie and the babies are huddled behind the couch. Apparently they had the babies outside when the shooting started. Troy’s walker got hit. Luckily he wasn’t in it. It’s supposed to look like a duck but now the beak’s missing.
”Man, fuck this shit!” Min shouts.
”Freak this crap you mean,” says Jade. “You want them growing up with shit-mouths like us? Crap-mouths I mean?”
”I just want them growing up, period,” says Min.
”Boo-hoo, Miss Dramatic,” says Jade.
”Fuck off, Miss Ho,” shouts Min.
”I mean it, jagoff, I’m not kidding,” shouts Jade, and punches Min in the arm.
”Girls, for crying out loud!” says Aunt Bernie. “We should be thankful. At least we got a home. And at least none of them bullets actually hit nobody.”
”No offense, Bernie?” says Min. “But you call this a freaking home?”
Sea Oak’s not safe. There’s an ad hoc crackhouse in the laundry room and last week Min found some brass knuckles in the kiddie pool. If I had my way I’d move everybody up to Canada. It’s nice there. Very polite. We went for a weekend last fall and got a flat tire and these two farmers with bright-red faces insisted on fixing it, then springing for dinner, then starting a college fund for the babies. They sent us the stock certificates a week later, along with a photo of all of us eating cobbler at a diner. But moving to Canada takes bucks. Dad’s dead and left us nada and Ma now lives with Freddie, who doesn’t like us, plus he’s not exactly rich himself. He does phone polls. This month he’s asking divorced women how often they backslide and sleep with their exes. He gets ten bucks for every completed poll.
So not lucrative, and Canada’s a moot point.
I go out and find the beak of Troy’s duck and fix it with Elmer’s.
”Actually you know what?” says Aunt Bernie. “I think that looks even more like a real duck now Because some-times their beaks are cracked? I seen one like that down-town.”
”Oh my God,” says Min. “The kid’s duck gets shot in the face and she says we’re lucky.”
”Well, we are lucky,” says Bernie.
”Somebody’s beak is cracked,” says Jade.
”You know what I do if something bad happens?” Bernie says. “I don’t think about it. Don’t take it so serious. It ain’t the end of the world. That’s what I do. That’s what I always done. That’s how I got where I am.”
My feeling is, Bernie, I love you, but where are you? You work at DrugTown for minimum. You’re sixty and own nothing. You were basically a slave to your father and never had a date in your life.
”I mean, complain if you want,” she says. “But I think we’re doing pretty darn good for ourselves.”
”Oh, we’re doing great,” says Min, and pulls Troy out from behind the couch and brushes some duck shards off his sleeper.
JOYSTICKS REOPENS ON FRIDAY. It’s a madhouse. They’ve got the fog on. A bridge club offers me fifteen bucks to oil-wrestle Mel Turner. So I oil-wrestle Mel Turner. They offer me twenty bucks to feed them chicken wings from my hand. So I feed them chicken wings from my hand. The afternoon flies by. Then the evening. At nine the bridge club leaves and I get a sorority. They sing intelligent nasty songs and grope my Simulator and say they’ll never be able to look their boyfriends’ meager genitalia in the eye again. Then Mr. Frendt comes over and says phone. It’s Min. She sounds crazy. Four times in a row she shrieks get home. When I tell her calm down, she hangs up. I call back and no one answers. No biggie. Min’s prone to panic. Probably one of the babies is puky. Luckily I’m on FlexTime.
”I’ll be back,” I say to Mr. Frendt.
”I look forward to it,” he says.
I jog across the marsh and through FedEx. Up on the hill there’s a light from the last remaining farm. Sometimes we take the boys to the adjacent car wash to look at the cow. Tonight however the cow is elsewhere.
At home Min and Jade are hopping up and down in front of Aunt Bernie, who’s sitting very very still at one end of the couch.
”Keep the babies out!” shrieks Min.” I don’t want them seeing something dead!”
”Shut up, man!” shrieks Jade.” Don’t call her something dead!”
She squats down and pinches Aunt Bernie’s cheek.
”Aunt Bernie?” she shrieks. “Fuck!”
”We already tried that like twice, chick!” shrieks Min. “Why are you doing that shit again? Touch her neck and see if you can feel that beating thing!”
”Shit shit shit!” shrieks Jade.
I call 911 and the paramedics come out and work hard for twenty minutes, then give up and say they’re sorry and it looks like she’s been dead most of the afternoon. The apartment’s a mess. Her money drawer’s empty and her family photos are in the bathtub.
”Not a mark on her,” says a cop.
”I suspect she died of fright,” says another. “Fright of the intruder?”
”My guess is yes,” says a paramedic.
”Oh God,” says Jade. “God, God, God.”
I sit down beside Bernie. I think: I am so sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t here when it happened and sorry you never had any fun in your life and sorry I wasn’t rich enough to move you somewhere safe. I remember when she was young and wore pink stretch pants and made us paper chains out of DrugTown receipts while singing “Froggie Went A-Courting.” All her life she worked hard. She never hurt anybody. And now this.
Scared to death in a crappy apartment.
Min puts the babies in the kitchen but they keep crawling out. Aunt Bernie’s in a shroud on this sort of dolly and on the couch are a bunch of forms to sign.
We call Ma and Freddie. We get their machine.
”Ma, pick up!” says Min. “Something bad happened! Ma, please freaking pick up!”
But nobody picks up.
So we leave a message.
. . .
LOBTON’S FUNERAL PARLOR is just a regular house on a regular street. Inside there’s a rack of brochures with titles like “Why Does My Loved One Appear Somewhat Larger?” Lobton looks healthy. Maybe too healthy. He’s wearing a yellow golf shirt and his biceps keep involuntarily flexing. Every now and then he touches his delts as if to confirm they’re still big as softballs.
”Such a sad thing,” he says.
”How much?” asks Jade. “I mean, like for basic. Not superfancy.”
”But not crappy either,” says Min. “Our aunt was the best.”
”What price range were you considering?” says Lobton, cracking his knuckles. We tell him and his eyebrows go up and he leads us to something that looks like a moving box.
”Prior to usage we’ll moisture-proof this with a spray lacquer,” he says. “Makes it look quite woodlike.”
”That’s all we can get?” says Jade. “Cardboard?”
”I’m actually offering you a slight break already,” he says, and does a kind of push-up against the wall. “On account of the tragic circumstances. This is Sierra Sunset. Not exactly cardboard. More of a fiberboard.”
”I don’t know” says Min. “Seems pretty gyppy.”
”Can we think about it?” says Ma.
”Absolutely,” says Lobton. “Last time I checked this was still America.”
I step over and take a closer look. There are staples where Aunt Bernie’s spine would be. Down at the foot there’s some writing about Folding Tab A into Slot B.
”No freaking way,” says Jade.” Work your whole life and end up in a Mayflower box? I doubt it.”
We’ve got zip in savings. We sit at a desk and Lobton does what he calls a Credit Calc. If we pay it out monthly for seven years we can afford the Amber Mist, which includes a double-thick balsa box and two coats of lacquer and a one-hour wake.
”But seven years, jeez,” says Ma.
”We got to get her the good one,” says Min. “She never had anything nice in her life.”
So Amber Mist it is.
WE BURY HER at St. Leo’s, on the hill up near BastCo. Her part of the graveyard’s pretty plain. No angels, no little rock houses, no flowers, just a bunch of flat stones like parking bumpers and here and there a Styrofoam cup. Father Brian says a prayer and then one of us is supposed to talk. But what’s there to say? She never had a life. Never married, no kids, work work work. Did she ever go on a cruise? All her life it was buses. Buses buses buses. Once she went with Ma on a bus to Quigley, Kansas, to gamble and shop at an outlet mall. Someone broke into her room and stole her clothes and took a dump in her suitcase while they were at the Roy Clark show. That was it. That was the extent of her tourism. After that it was DrugTown, night and day. After fifteen years as Cashier she got demoted to Greeter. People would ask where the cold remedies were and she’d point to some big letters on the wall that said Cold Remedies.
Freddie, Ma’s boyfriend, steps up and says he didn’t know her very long but she was an awful nice lady and left behind a lot of love, etc. etc. blah blah blah. While it’s true she didn’t do much in her life, still she was very dear to those of us who knew her and never made a stink about anything but was always content with whatever happened to her, etc. etc. blah blah blah.
Then it’s over and we’re supposed to go away.
”We gotta come out here like every week,” says Jade.
”I know I will,” says Min.
”What, like I won’t?” says Jade. “She was so freaking nice.
”I’m sure you swear at a grave,” says Min.
”Since when is freak a swear, chick?” says Jade.
”Girls,” says Ma.
”I hope I did okay in what I said about her,” says Freddie in his full-of-crap way, smelling bad of English Navy. “Actually I sort of surprised myself.”
”Bye-bye, Aunt Bernie,” says Min.
”Bye-bye, Bern,” says Jade.
”Oh my dear sister,” says Ma.
I scrunch my eyes tight and try to picture her happy, laughing, poking me in the ribs. But all I can see is her terrified on the couch. It’s awful. Out there, somewhere, is whoever did it. Someone came in our house, scared her to death, watched her die, went through our stuff, stole her money. Someone who’s still living, someone who right now might be having a piece of pie or running an errand or scratching his ass, someone who, if he wanted to, could drive west for three days or whatever and sit in the sun by the ocean.
We stand a few minutes with heads down and hands folded.
AFTERWARD FREDDIE TAKES US to Trabanti’s for lunch. Last year Trabanti died and three Vietnamese families went in together and bought the place, and it still serves pasta and pizza and the big oil of Trabanti is still on the wall but now from the kitchen comes this very pretty Vietnamese music and the food is somehow better.
Freddie proposes a toast. Min says remember how Bernie always called lunch dinner and dinner supper? Jade says remember how when her jaw clicked she’d say she needed oil?
”She was a excellent lady,” says Freddie.
”I already miss her so bad,” says Ma.
”I’d like to kill that fuck that killed her,” says Min.
”How about let’s don’t say fuck at lunch,” says Ma.
”It’s just a word, Ma, right?” says Min. “Like pluck is just a word? You don’t mind if I say pluck? Pluck pluck pluck?”
”Well, shit’s just a word too,” says Freddie. “But we don’t say it at lunch.”
”Same with puke,” says Ma.
”Shit puke, shit puke,” says Min.
The waiter clears his throat. Ma glares at Min.
”I love you girls’ manners,” Ma says.
”Especially at a funeral,” says Freddie.
”This ain’t a funeral,” says Min.
”The question in my mind is what you kids are gonna do now” says Freddie.” Because I consider this whole thing a wake-up call, meaning it’s time for you to pull yourselfs up by the bootstraps like I done and get out of that dangerous craphole you’re living at.”
”Mr. Phone Poll speaks,” says Min.
”Anyways it ain’t that dangerous,” says Jade.
”A woman gets killed and it ain’t that dangerous?” says Freddie.
”All’s we need is a dead bolt and a eyehole,” says Min.
”What’s a bootstrap,” says Jade.
”It’s like a strap on a boot, you doof,” says Min.
”Plus where we gonna go?” says Min. “Can we move in with you guys?”
”I personally would love that and you know that,” says Freddie. “But who would not love that is our landlord.”
”I think what Freddie’s saying is it’s time for you girls to get jobs,” says Ma.
”Yeah right, Ma,” says Min. “After what happened last time?”
When I first moved in, Jade and Min were working the info booth at HardwareNiche. Then one day we picked the babies up at day care and found Troy sitting naked on top of the washer and Mac in the yard being nipped by a Pekingese and the day-care lady sloshed and playing KillerBirds on Nintendo.
So that was that. No more HardwareNiche.
”Maybe one could work, one could baby-sit?” says Ma.
”I don’t see why I should have to work so she can stay home with her baby,” says Min.
”And I don’t see why I should have to work so she can stay home with her baby,” says Jade.
”It’s like a freaking veece versa,” says Min.
”Let me tell you something,” says Freddie. “Something about this country. Anybody can do anything. But first they gotta try. And you guys ain’t. Two don’t work and one strips naked? I don’t consider that trying. You kids make squat. And therefore you live in a dangerous craphole. And what happens in a dangerous craphole? Bad tragic shit. It’s the freaking American way-you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole. And finally maybe you get a mansion. But at this rate you ain’t even gonna make it to the somewhat less dangerous craphole.”
”Like you live in a mansion,” says Jade.
”I do not claim to live in no mansion,” says Freddie. “But then again I do not live in no slum. The other thing I also do not do is strip naked.”
”Thank God for small favors,” says Min.
”Anyways he’s never actually naked,” says Jade.
Which is true. I always have on at least a T-back.
”No wonder we never take these kids out to a nice lunch,” says Freddie.
”I do not even consider this a nice lunch,” says Min.
. . .
FOR DINNER JADE MICROWAVES some Stars-n-Flags. They’re addictive. They put sugar in the sauce and sugar in the meat nuggets. I think also caffeine. Someone told me the brown streaks in the Flags are caffeine. We have like five bowls each.
After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream and Hershey’s syrup in their bottles and we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.
”I miss Bernie so bad,” says Min.
”Me too,” Jade says sadly.
The babies start howling for more ice cream.
”That is so cute,” says Jade. “They’re like, Give it the fuck up!”
”We’ll give it the fuck up, sweeties, don’t worry,” says Min. “We didn’t forget about you.”
Then the phone rings. It’s Father Brian. He sounds weird. He says he’s sorry to bother us so late. But something strange has happened. Something bad. Something sort of, you know, unspeakable. Am I sitting? I’m not but I say I am.
Apparently someone has defaced Bernie’s grave.
My first thought is there’s no stone. It’s just grass. How do you deface grass? What did they do, pee on the grass on the grave? But Father’s nearly in tears.
So I call Ma and Freddie and tell them to meet us, and we get the babies up and load them into the K-car.
”Deface,” says Jade on the way over. “What does that mean, deface?”
”It means like fucked it up,” says Min.
”But how?” says Jade. “I mean, like what did they do?”
”And why?” says Jade. “Why would someone do that?”
”Check out Miss Shreelock Holmes,” says Min. “Someone done that because someone is a asshole.”
”Someone is a big-time asshole,” says Jade.
Father Brian meets us at the gate with a flashlight and a golf cart.
”When I saw this,” he says.” I literally sat down in astonishment. Nothing like this has ever happened here. I am so sorry. You seem like nice people.”
We’re too heavy and the wheels spin as we climb the hill, so I get out and jog alongside.
”Okay, folks, brace yourselves,” Father says, and shuts off the engine.
Where the grave used to be is just a hole. Inside the hole is the Amber Mist, with the top missing. Inside the Amber Mist is nothing. No Aunt Bernie.
”What the hell,” says Jade. “Where’s Bernie?”
”Somebody stole Bernie?” says Min.
”At least you folks have retained your feet,” says Father Brian. “I’m telling you I literally sat right down. I sat right down on that pile of dirt. I dropped as if shot. See that mark? That’s where I sat.”
On the pile of grave dirt is a butt-shaped mark.
The cops show up and one climbs down in the hole with a tape measure and a camera. After three or four flashes he climbs out and hands Ma a pair of blue pumps.
”Her little shoes,” says Ma. “Oh my God.”
”Are those them?” says Jade.
”Those are them,” says Min.
”I am freaking out,” says Jade.
”I am totally freaking out,” says Min.
”I’m gonna sit,” says Ma, and drops into the golf cart.
”What I don’t get is who’d want her?” says Min.
”She was just this lady,” says Jade.
”Typically it’s teens?” one cop says. “Typically we find the loved one nearby? Once we found the loved one nearby with, you know, a cigarette between its lips, wearing a sombrero? These kids today got a lot more nerve than we ever did. I never would’ve dreamed of digging up a dead corpse when I was a teen. You might tip over a stone, sure, you might spray-paint something on a crypt, you might, you know, give a wino a hotfoot.”
”But this, jeez,” says Freddie. “This is a entirely different ballgame.”
”Boy howdy,” says the cop, and we all look down at the shoes in Ma’s hands.
. . .
NEXT DAY I GO back to work. I don’t feel like it but we need the money. The grass is wet and it’s hard getting across the ravine in my dress shoes. The soles are slick. Plus they’re too tight. Several times I fall forward on my briefcase. Inside the briefcase are my T-backs and a thing of mousse.
Right off the bat I get a tableful of MediBen women seated under a banner saying BEST OF LUCK, BEATRICE, NO HARD FEELINGS. I take off my shirt and serve their salads. I take off my flight pants and serve their soups. One drops a dollar on the floor and tells me feel free to pick it up.
I pick it up.
”Not like that, not like that,” she says. “Face the other way, so when you bend we can see your crack.”
I’ve done this about a million times, but somehow I can’t do it now
I look at her. She looks at me.
”What?” she says. “I’m not allowed to say that? I thought that was the whole point.”
”That is the whole point, Phyllis,” says another lady. “You stand your ground.”
”Look;” Phyllis says. “Either bend how I say or give back the dollar. I think that’s fair.”
”You go, girl,” says her friend.
I give back the dollar. I return to the Locker Area and sit awhile. For the first time ever, I’m voted Stinker. There are thirteen women at the MediBen table and they all vote me Stinker. Do the MediBen women know my situation? Would they vote me Stinker if they did? But what am I supposed to do, go out and say, Please ladies, my aunt just died, plus her body’s missing?
Mr. Frendt pulls me aside.
”Perhaps you need to go home,” he says. “I’m sorry for your loss. But I’d like to encourage you not to behave like one of those Comanche ladies who bite off their index fingers when a loved one dies. Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive. If your aunt’s death has filled your mouth with too many bitten-off fingers, for crying out loud, take a week off, only don’t take it out on our Guests, they didn’t kill your dang aunt.”
But I can’t afford to take a week off. I can’t even afford to take a few days off.
”We really need the money,” I say.
”Is that my problem?” he says. “Am I supposed to let you dance without vigor just because you need the money? Why don’t I put an ad in the paper for all sad people who need money? All the town’s sad could come here and strip. Good-bye. Come back when you feel halfway normal.”
From the pay phone I call home to see if they need anything from the FoodSoQuik.
”Just come home,” Min says stiffly. “Just come straight home.”
”What is it?” I say.
”Come home,” she says.
Maybe someone’s found the body. I imagine Bernie naked, Bernie chopped in two, Bernie posed on a bus bench. I hope and pray that something only mildly bad’s been done to her, something we can live with.
At home the door’s wide open. Min and Jade are sitting very still on the couch, babies in their laps, staring at the rocking chair, and in the rocking chair is Bernie. Bernie’s body.
Same perm, same glasses, same blue dress we buried her in.
What’s it doing here? Who could be so cruel? And what are we supposed to do with it?
Then she turns her head and looks at me.
”Sit the fuck down,” she says.
In life she never swore.
I sit. Min squeezes and releases my hand, squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases.
”You, mister,” Bernie says to me, “are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it, I’ll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I’ll try to get you five a day, at twenty bucks a pop. So a hundred bucks a day. Seven hundred a week. And that’s cash, so no taxes. No withholding. See? That’s the beauty of it.”
She’s got dirt in her hair and dirt in her teeth and her hair is a mess and her tongue when it darts out to lick her lips is black.
”You, Jade,” she says. “Tomorrow you start work. Andersen Labels, Fifth and Rivera. Dress up when you go. Wear something nice. Show a little leg. And don’t chomp your gum. Ask for Len. At the end of the month, we take the money you made and the cock money and get a new place. Somewhere safe. That’s part one of Phase One. You, Min. You baby-sit. Plus you quit smoking. Plus you learn how to cook. No more food out of cans. We gotta eat right to look our best. Because I am getting me so many lovers. Maybe you kids don’t know this but I died a freaking virgin. No babies, no lovers. Nothing went in, nothing came out. Ha ha! Dry as a bone, completely wasted, this pretty little thing God gave me between my legs. Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks! Like in the movies, big shoulders and all, and a summer house, and nice trips, and in the morning in my room a big vase of flowers, and I’m going to get my nipples hard standing in the breeze from the ocean, eating shrimp from a cup, you sons of bitches, while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, all hard for me, that’s one damn thing I will guarantee you kids! Ha ha! You think I’m joking? I ain’t freaking joking. I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane. But that was that life and this is this life. My new life. Cover me up now! With a blanket. I need my beauty rest. Tell anyone I’m here, you all die. Plus they die. Whoever you tell, they die. I kill them with my mind. I can do that. I am very freaking strong now. I got powers! So no visitors. I don’t exactly look my best. You got it? You all got it?”
We nod. I go for a blanket. Her hands and feet are shaking and she’s grinding her teeth and one falls out.
”Put it over me, you fuck, all the way over!” she screams, and I put it over her.
We sneak off with the babies and whisper in the kitchen.
”It looks like her,” says Min.
”It is her,” I say.
”It is and it ain’t,” says Jade.
”We better do what she says,” Min says.
”No shit,” Jade says.
All night she sits in the rocker under the blanket, shaking and swearing.
All night we sit in Min’s bed, fully dressed, holding hands.
”See how strong I am!” she shouts around midnight, and there’s a cracking sound, and when I go out the door’s been torn off the microwave but she’s still sitting in the chair.
IN THE MORNING she’s still there, shaking and swearing.
”Take the blanket off!” she screams.” It’s time to get this show on the road.”
I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head.
”You, Jade!” she shouts. “Get dressed. Go get that job. When you meet Len, bend forward a little. Let him see down your top. Give him some hope. He’s a sicko, but we need him. You, Min! Make breakfast. Something homemade. Like biscuits.”
”Why don’t you make it with your powers?” says Min.
”Don’t be a smartass!” screams Bernie. “You see what I did to that microwave?”
”I don’t know how to make freaking biscuits,” Min wails.
”You know how to read, right?” Bernie shouts. “You ever heard of a recipe? You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are gonna have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me! Turn down the thermostat! Make it cold. I like cold. Something’s off with my body. I don’t feel right.”
I turn down the thermostat. She looks at me.
”Go show your cock!” she shouts. “That is the first part of Phase One. After we get the new place, that’s the end of the first part of Phase Two. You’ll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you’ll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb. And Jade’ll work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how that works? Now get out of here. What are you gonna do?”
”Show my cock?” I say.
”Show your cock, that’s right,” she says, and brushes back her hair with her hand, and a huge wad comes out, leaving her almost bald on one side.
”Oh God,” says Min. “You know what? No way me and the babies are staying here alone.”
”You ain’t alone,” says Bernie. “I’m here.”
”Please don’t go,” Min says to me.
”Oh, stop it,” Bernie says, and the door flies open and I feel a sort of invisible fist punching me in the back.
Outside it’s sunny. A regular day. A guy’s changing his oil. The clouds are regular clouds and the sun’s the regular sun and the only nonregular thing is that my clothes smell like Bernie, a combo of wet cellar and rotten bacon.
Work goes well. I manage to keep smiling and hide my shaking hands, and my midshift rating is Honeypie. After lunch this older woman comes up and says I look so much like a real Pilot she can hardly stand it.
On her head is a thumbprint. Like Ash Wednesday, only sort of glowing.
I don’t know what to do. Do I just come out and ask if she wants to see my cock? What if she says no? What if I get caught? What if I show her and she doesn’t think it’s worth twenty bucks?
Then she asks if I’ll surprise her best friend with a birthday table dance. She points out her friend. A pretty girl, no thumbprint. Looks somehow familiar.
We start over and at about twenty feet I realize it’s Angela.
We dated senior year. Then Dad died and Ma had to take a job at Patty-Melt Depot. From all the grease Ma got a bad rash and could barely wear a blouse. Plus Min was running wild. So Angela would come over and there’d be Min getting high under a tarp on the carport and Ma sitting in her bra on a kitchen stool with a fan pointed at her gut. Angela had dreams. She had plans. In her notebook she pasted a picture of an office from the J. C. Penney catalogue and under it wrote, My (someday?) office. Once we saw this black Porsche and she said very nice but make hers red. The last straw was Ed Edwards, a big drunk, one of Dad’s cousins. Things got so bad Ma rented him the utility room. One night Angela and I were making out on the couch late when Ed came in soused and started peeing in the dishwasher.
What could I say? He’s only barely related to me? He hardly ever does that?
Angela’s eyes were like these little pies.
I walked her home, got no kiss, came back, cleaned up the dishwasher as best I could. A few days later I got my class ring in the mail and a copy of The Prophet.
You will always be my first love, she’d written inside. But now my path converges to a higher ground. Be well always. Walk in joy Please don’t think me cruel, it’s just that I want so much in terms of accomplishment, plus I couldn’t believe that guy peed right on your dishes.
No way am I table dancing for Angela Silveri. No way am I asking Angela Silveri’s friend if she wants to see my cock. No way am I hanging around here so Angela can see me in my flight jacket and T-backs and wonder to herself how I went so wrong etc. etc.
I hide in the kitchen until my shift is done, then walk home very, very slowly because I’m afraid of what Bernie’s going to do to me when I get there.
. . .
MIN MEETS ME at the door. She’s got flour all over her blouse and it looks like she’s been crying.
”I can’t take any more of this,” she says. “She’s like falling apart. I mean shit’s falling off her. Plus she made me bake a freaking pie.”
On the table is a very lumpy pie. One of Bernie’s arms is now disconnected and lying across her lap.
”What are you thinking of!” she shouts. “You didn’t show your cock even once? You think it’s easy making those thumbprints? You try it, smartass! Do you or do you not know the plan? You gotta get us out of here! And to get us out, you gotta use what you got. And you ain’t got much. A nice face. And a decent unit. Not huge, but shaped nice.”
”Bernie, God,” says Min.
”What, Miss Priss?” shouts Bernie, and slams the severed arm down hard on her lap, and her other ear falls off.
”I’m sorry, but this is too fucking sickening,” says Min. “I’m going out.”
”What’s sickening?” says Bernie. “Are you saying I’m sickening? Well, I think you’re sickening. So many wonderful things in life and where’s your mind? You think with your lazy ass. Whatever life hands you, you take. You’re not going anywhere. You’re staying home and studying.”
”I’m what?” says Min. “Studying what? I ain’t studying. Chick comes into my house and starts ordering me to study? I freaking doubt it.”
”You don’t know nothing!” Bernie says. “What fun is life when you don’t know nothing? You can’t find your own town on the map. You can’t name a single president. When we go to Rome you won’t know nothing about the history. You’re going to study the World Book. Do we still have those World Books?”
”Yeah right,” says Min. “We’re going to Rome.”
”We’ll go to Rome when he’s a lawyer,” says Bernie.
”Dream on, chick,” says Min. “And we’ll go to Mars when I’m a stockbreaker.”
”Don’t you dare make fun of me!” Bernie shouts, and our only vase goes flying across the room and nearly nails Min in the head.
”She’s been like this all day,” says Min.
”Like what?” shouts Bernie. “We had a perfectly nice day.”
”She made me help her try on my bras,” says Min.
”I never had a nice sexy bra,” says Bernie.
”And now mine are all ruined,” says Min. “They got this sort of goo on them.”
”You ungrateful shit!” shouts Bernie. “Do you know what I’m doing for you? I’m saving your boy. And you got the nerve to say I made goo on your bras! Troy’s gonna get caught in a crossfire in the courtyard. In September. September eighteenth. He’s gonna get thrown off his little trike. With one leg twisted under him and blood pouring out of his ear. It’s a freaking prophecy. You know that word? It means prediction. You know that word? You think I’m bullshitting? Well I ain’t bullshitting. I got the power. Watch this: All day Jade sat licking labels at a desk by a window. Her boss bought everybody subs for lunch. She’s bringing some home in a green bag.”
”That ain’t true about Troy, is it?” says Min. “Is it? I don’t believe it.”
”Turn on the TV!” Bernie shouts. “Give me the changer.”
I turn on the TV I give her the changer. She puts on Nathan’s Body Shop. Nathan says washboard abs drive the women wild. Then there’s a close-up of his washboard abs.
”Oh yes,” says Bernie. “Them are for me. I’d like to give those a lick. A lick and a pinch. I’d like to sort of straddle those things.”
Just then Jade comes through the door with a big green bag.
”Oh God,” says Min.
”Told you so!” says Bernie, and pokes Min in the ribs. “Ha ha! I really got the power!”
”I don’t get it,” Min says, all desperate. “What happens? Please. What happens to him? You better freaking tell me.”
”I already told you,” Bernie says. “He’ll fly about fifteen feet and live about three minutes.”
”Bernie, God,” Min says, and starts to cry. “You used to be so nice.”
”I’m still so nice,” says Bernie, and bites into a sub and takes off the tip of her finger and starts chewing it up.
JUST AFTER DAWN she shouts out my name.
”Take the blanket off,” she says. “I ain’t feeling so good.”
I take the blanket off. She’s basically just this pile of parts: both arms in her lap, head on the arms, heel of one foot touching the heel of the other, all of it sort of wrapped up in her dress.
”Get me a washcloth,” she says.” Do I got a fever? I feel like I got a fever. Oh, I knew it was too good to be true. But okay. New plan. New plan. I’m changing the first part of Phase One. If you see two thumbprints, that means the lady’ll screw you for cash. We’re in a fix here. We gotta speed this up. There ain’t gonna be nothing left of me. Who’s gonna be my lover now?”
The doorbell rings.
”Son of a bitch,” Bernie snarls.
It’s Father Brian with a box of doughnuts. I step out quick and close the door behind me. He says he’s just checking in. Perhaps we’d like to talk? Perhaps we’re feeling some residual anger about Bernie’s situation? Which would of course be completely understandable. Once when he was a young priest someone broke in and drew a mustache on the Virgin Mary with a permanent marker, and for weeks he was tortured by visions of bending back the finger of the vandal until he or she burst into tears of apology.
”I knew that wasn’t appropriate,” he says. “I knew that by indulging in that fantasy I was honoring violence. And yet it gave me pleasure. I also thought of catching them in the act and boinking them in the head with a rock. I also thought of jumping up and down on their backs until something in their spinal column cracked. Actually I had about a million ideas. But you know what I did instead? I scrubbed and scrubbed our Holy Mother, and soon she was as good as new. Her statue, I mean. She herself of course is always good as new.”
From inside comes the sound of breaking glass. Breaking glass and then something heavy falling, and Jade yelling and Min yelling and the babies crying.
”Oops, I guess?” he says. “I’ve come at a bad time? Look, all I’m trying to do is urge you, if at all possible, to forgive the perpetrators, as I forgave the perpetrator that drew on my Virgin Mary. The thing lost, after all, is only your aunt’s body, and what is essential, I assure you, is elsewhere, being well taken care of.”
I nod. I smile. I say thanks for stopping by. I take the doughnuts and go back inside.
The TV’s broke and the refrigerator’s tipped over and Bernie’s parts are strewn across the living room like she’s been shot out of a cannon.
”She tried to get up,” says Jade.
”I don’t know where the hell she thought she was going,” says Min.
”Come here,” the head says to me, and I squat down. “That’s it for me. I’m fucked. As per usual. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Although come to think of it I was never even the freaking bridesmaid. Look, show your cock. It’s the shortest line between two points. The world ain’t giving away nice lives. You got a trust fund? You a genius? Show your cock. It’s what you got. And remember: Troy in September. On his trike. One leg twisted. Don’t forget. And also. Don’t remember me like this. Remember me like how I was that night we all went to Red Lobster and I had that new perm. Ah Christ. At least buy me a stone.”
I rub her shoulder, which is next to her foot.
”We loved you,” I say.
”Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?” she says. “Why? Why was that?”
”I don’t know,” I say.
”Show your cock,” she says, and dies again.
We stand there looking down at the pile of parts. Mac crawls toward it and Min moves him back with her foot.
”This is too freaking much,” says Jade, and starts crying.
”What do we do now?” says Min.
”Call the cops,” Jade says.
”And say what?” says Min.
We think about this awhile.
I get a Hefty bag. I get my winter gloves.
”I ain’t watching,” says Jade.
”I ain’t watching either;” says Min, and they take the babies into the bedroom.
I close my eyes and wrap Bernie up in the Hefty bag and twistie-tie the bag shut and lug it out to the trunk of the K-car. I throw in a shovel. I drive up to St. Leo’s. I lower the bag into the hole using a bungee cord, then fill the hole back in.
Down in the city are the nice houses and the so-so houses and the lovers making out in dark yards and the babies crying for their moms, and I wonder if, other than Jesus, this has ever happened before. Maybe it happens all the time. Maybe there’s angry dead all over, hiding in rooms, covered with blankets, bossing around their scared, embarrassed relatives. Because how would we know?
I for sure don’t plan on broadcasting this.
I smooth over the dirt and say a quick prayer: If it was wrong for her to come back, forgive her, she never got beans in this life, plus she was trying to help us.
At the car I think of an additional prayer: But please don’t let her come back again.
WHEN I GET HOME the babies are asleep and Jade and Min are watching a phone-sex infomercial, three girls in leatherjumpsuits eating bananas in Slo-mo while across the screen runs a constant disclaimer: “Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones! Not Necessarily the Girls Who Man the Phones!”
”Them chicks seem to really be enjoying those bananas,” says Min in a thin little voice.
”I like them jumpsuits though,” says Jade.
”Yeah them jumpsuits look decent,” says Min.
Then they look up at me. I’ve never seen them so sad and beat and sick.
”It’s done,” I say.
Then we hug and cry and promise never to forget Bernie the way she really was, and I use some Resolve on the rug and they go do some reading in their World Books.
Next day I go in early. I don’t see a single thumbprint. But it doesn’t matter. I get with Sonny Vance and he tells me how to do it. First you ask the woman would she like a private tour. Then you show her the fake P-40, the Gallery of Historical Aces, the shower stall where we get oiled up, etc. etc. and then in the hall near the rest room you ask if there’s anything else she’d like to see. It’s sleazy. It’s gross. But when I do it I think of September. September and Troy in the crossfire, his little leg bent under him etc. etc.
Most say no but quite a few say yes.
I’ve got a place picked out at a complex called Swan’s Glen. They’ve never had a shooting or a knifing and the public school is great and every Saturday they have a nature walk for kids behind the clubhouse.
For every hundred bucks I make, I set aside five for Bernie’s stone.
What do you write on something like that? LIFE PASSED HER BY? DIED DISAPPOINTED? CAME BACK TO LIFE BUT FELL APART? All true, but too sad, and no way I’m writing any of those.
BERNIE KOWALSKI, it’s going to say: BELOVED AUNT.
Sometimes she comes to me in dreams. She never looks good. Sometimes she’s wearing a dirty smock. Once she had on handcuffs. Once she was naked and dirty and this mean cat was clawing its way up her front. But every time it’s the same thing.
”Some people get everything and I got nothing,” she says. “Why? Why did that happen?”
George Saunders escreveu o que é, até agora, um dos meus livros favoritos deste ano, o livro de contos "Tenth of December". Acontecimentos recentes na minha vida puseram-me também a pensar na 'bondade' enquanto atitude de vida, no bem que fazemos ou não aos outros ou pelos outros. Soube-me assim muito bem ler este discurso que o dito George Saunders proferiu na Universidade de Syracuse para a classe de 2013 e que o New York Times publicou na íntegra.
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time "dances," so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: "Looking back, what do you regret?" And they'll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they'll tell you even if you haven't asked. Sometimes, even when you've specifically requested they not tell you, they'll tell you.
So: What do I regret? Being poor from time to time? Not really. Working terrible jobs, like "knuckle-puller in a slaughterhouse?" (And don't even ASK what that entails.) No. I don't regret that. Skinny-dipping in a river in Sumatra, a little buzzed, and looking up and seeing like 300 monkeys sitting on a pipeline, pooping down into the river, the river in which I was swimming, with my mouth open, naked? And getting deathly ill afterwards, and staying sick for the next seven months? Not so much. Do I regret the occasional humiliation? Like once, playing hockey in front of a big crowd, including this girl I really liked, I somehow managed, while falling and emitting this weird whooping noise, to score on my own goalie, while also sending my stick flying into the crowd, nearly hitting that girl? No. I don't even regret that.
But here's something I do regret:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be "ELLEN." ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat's-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased ("Your hair taste good?" – that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she'd look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she'd drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: "How was your day, sweetie?" and she'd say, "Oh, fine." And her mother would say, "Making any friends?" and she'd go, "Sure, lots."
Sometimes I'd see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn't.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here's something I know to be true, although it's a little corny, and I don't quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded...sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?
Those who were kindest to you, I bet.
It's a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I'd say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.
Now, the million-dollar question: What's our problem? Why aren't we kinder?
Here's what I think:
Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we're central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we're separate from the universe (there's US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we're permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).
Now, we don't really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what's actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.
So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?
Well, yes, good question.
Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.
So let me just say this. There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation's good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.
Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include...well, everything.
One thing in our favor: some of this "becoming kinder" happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we're not separate, and don't want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was "mostly Love, now."
And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won't care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That's one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever.
Congratulations, by the way.
When young, we're anxious – understandably – to find out if we've got what it takes. Can we succeed? Can we build a viable life for ourselves? But you – in particular you, of this generation – may have noticed a certain cyclical quality to ambition. You do well in high-school, in hopes of getting into a good college, so you can do well in the good college, in the hopes of getting a good job, so you can do well in the good job so you can....
And this is actually O.K. If we're going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously – as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.
Still, accomplishment is unreliable. "Succeeding," whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there's the very real danger that "succeeding" will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There's a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there's also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare's, bright as Gandhi's, bright as Mother Theresa's. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
And someday, in 80 years, when you're 100, and I'm 134, and we're both so kind and loving we're nearly unbearable, drop me a line, let me know how your life has been. I hope you will say: It has been so wonderful.
Congratulations, Class of 2013.
I wish you great happiness, all the luck in the world, and a beautiful summer.