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I’m trying to look as if I’m suffering. I have this anguished expression on my face but it’s wasted since I’m wearing a surgical mask and anyway the focus here is really on my wife and the doctor is right there between her legs and he’s shouting Push, and my wife is doing this astounding thing, she’s pushing yet another human being into the world, a world that so far seems to be pushing back,
and the baby’s heartbeat is down to 90 so the doc says, I think maybe one more try, then we do the Caesarean, so things in the room really are a bit tense, it’s definitely a moment that demands a lot of attention, and my wife is gathering whatever shreds of strength remain in the shaking exhausted sleeve of flesh her body has become, the blood and sweat and fluids everywhere, and this is It!—when I hear the attending nurse standing just behind me saying to this guy in scrubs standing next to her, I think he’s the anesthesiologist’s assistant,
By George Bilgere Featured art: Long Exposure Coupleby Jr Korpa
I walk past Erin’s house at dusk and there she is at her kitchen table, working on her book about the Reformation.
She needs to finish it if she wants to get tenure, but it’s slow going because being a single mom is very difficult what with child care and cooking dinner and going in to teach her courses on the Reformation, which I can see her writing about right now, her face attractive yet harried in the glow of her laptop as she searches for le mot juste.
Featured art: Abstraction, 1906 by Abraham Walkowitz
I am floating in the public pool, an older guy who has achieved much, including a mortgage, a child, and health insurance including dental.
I have a Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express, and my car is quite large. I have traveled to Finland. In addition, I once met Toni Morrison at an awards banquet and made some remarks she found “extremely interesting.” And last month I was the subject of a local news story called “Recyclers: Neighbors Who Care.” In short, I am not someone you would take lightly.
But when I begin to playfully splash my wife, the teenaged lifeguard raises her megaphone and calls down from her throne, “No horseplay in the pool,” and suddenly I am twelve again, a pale worm at the feet of a blonde and suntanned goddess, and I just wish my mom would come pick me up.
Featured art: ‘Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)’ by Vincent Van Gogh
I’m walking home late after work along Meadowbrook Road when I realize the guy half a block ahead of me is Bill, from Religious Studies. I recognize his bald spot, like a pale moon in the dusk, and his kind of shuffling, inward-gazing gait. Bill walks like a pilgrim, measuring his stride for the long journey, for the next step in the hard progression of steps.
Someone thinks I’m beautiful again & likes posts of my day, comments. I stifle smiles & feel uncontainable— bungeed off ether & the interplay. Punch-drunk in this blue-sky space, a rush of the past, the in-between, whole chapters, I open annuals & albums from storage. His change in status: single. Papers in hand, this backlit man heaves toward the kite’s trailing end: What if?— that butterfly. My youngest lights onto my lap. Who’s that?— as a key turns the lock, I log off.
Of the way you spend Saturday morning in your room, instead of helping Papaw with the lawn work. You watch him on the riding mower, in customary slacks and suspenders, coasting back and forth beneath your window as if the ragged scream of the machine will summon you like a siren to your manly duty. You raise the binoculars Papaw used when he was stationed in West Africa during WWII, long before his shoulders bowed and his skin darkened with liver spots. They are clunky, large in your hands even though you’ve had a growth spurt and you’re well on your way to catching up to Peter, who’s a whole six feet and had college basketball scouts watching him at every game last season. It was Peter’s senior year of high school, your freshman year. The fall had been glorious, riding the cloud of popularity as Peter Thompson’s younger brother. The other kids, the teachers and coaches, cafeteria ladies, librarians, all looking at you with an expectation that was not yet a burden. You joined the Fellowship of Christian Students, which Peter was president of, and took the Advanced Placement classes he’d taken. You had more friends than you’d ever had before. Through the lens, Papaw’s face jumps up at you. You’re intimately aware of every wrinkle, every nose hair. He guides the mower in long, straight lines, first in front of your window at the corner of the house, on the second floor, and then away toward the county road. The motor’s howl falls to a low growl, builds back up as he returns exactly two feet to the left, is eventually reduced to a low grumble at the back of the house.
I drive past motel signs advertising free cable for bikers, truckers numbed by cracked asphalt. A looseness, as if everything is slipping away, and the sky shaved thin as mica.
Stretch of dusty storefronts hung with local art—warriors astride painted horses, mesas. The Rio Grande cuts in and out, shape-shifting between cottonwoods. In the café, regulars remove their hats, sit alone.
Featured art: “Beach of Bass Rocks, Gloucester, Massachusetts”by Frank Knox Morton Rehn
Everything made my mother nervous: the baby crying, sand on the floor, the flies. So we went out to the beach. I took my bucket and shovel. My mother sat my little brother up on her shoulders and carried the towels and a canvas chair for my father, who was too weak to carry anything. He wore his cabaña suit, light green with white palm trees, his legs, pale like the sheets in the hotel room. He hadn’t shaved.
A late afternoon after work, Rosa puts the flame down under the rice and beans and sits with her feet up in Laureano’s recliner. The knock on the front door Rosa thinks must be Mondo’s social worker, the only person she knows who doesn’t just walk in the back door. Mondo is in detention again for defacing a wall, or an overpass, something.
But it isn’t the social worker, it’s little Esmeralda, daughter of the Mexican grocer on Moody Street, who comes in politely, sits opposite her with a notebook, and asks Rosa can she ask her some questions. Hah, like the social worker, Rosa thinks, then corrects herself. This is a child she used to see sitting on the floor of her father’s abasto sorting red beans. The girl tells Rosa she needs to write a biography of an older person for her fifth grade class.
Ah, Rosa, with her aching feet, feels old.
Not old, old; just older than me, says the child. She used to be in Rosa’s catechism class at St. Justin’s and was notably better behaved and brighter than any of the others.
Hokay, says Rosa, not yet realizing what will happen to her.
It was dark, sure, but the city’s halo whitewashed the stars. We drank good bourbon from Dixie cups to mock our sophistication. Two black men and a white one who needed a brother. We drank to Ghana advancing, not so naïve to believe they had a chance against England. We toasted our wives of many colors and our barefoot children chasing fireflies like the first night in Eden. But it was Oakland. So when the boy climbed the porch steps cupping a winged and glowing offering, I called him by the wrong name, as if I did not know him, as if his father was not my friend. The brothers exchanged their look, too polite to call me out on a summer night in paradise. And we all pretended not to notice the bats that let go their roosts to flap old patterns in our chests.
Somehow it’s good to know the wildfires have not touched the face of our local TV anchor delivering her lines with a touch of sadness that never approaches despair, even as her bangs cascade onto her forehead like evening clouds descending the Coast Range. I think of her in her dressing room before she offers her face to us— the one that will help us fall asleep— while a line of flames somewhere far away descends the ridge and licks into a kitchen, melting the refrigerator magnets, popping cans of spray oil, and setting the dog out back to howling, jerking against its chain. I see her in front of the mirror, surrendering to the ministrations of tiny brushes— a makeup artist leaning in like a lover. Foundation first, an A-side attack on brow furrows and laugh lines.
There are two, as if some ark came to rest on the high school football field and Noah flung them through an open window to test whether this cement-skinned town can sustain life. See them there, trimming lava-dipped wings in the sky above Costco, bills curved like question marks. And what do they ask, out of earshot of the man with sunflower seeds? Do you know what it means to circle, to draw and redraw the tightening circumference of your life above the grid of 50-year roofs, in steak smoke risen from backyard barbecues? The parrots’ owner is no prophet. Summer evenings, he wrenches on a ’67 Mustang that drips its innards onto his Avenue L driveway. And at dusk, he makes his arm a perch, takes the two from their cage, feeds them from his lips, knowing if they love him he need not maim their wings.
“Hypergraphia is a behavioral condition characterized by the intense desire to write . . . ” “It is a symptom associated with temporal lobe epilepsy.”
It’s as if . . . , he says, It’s like . . . , or, It’s ABOUT things being simply THERE, molecular, blue, strewn, flattened, aflame. He pulls up the shade and looks out. There’s this kind of accounting he does: sidewalk, hedgerow, phone pole. He lists the round and the ready-made. He notes the hand-carved and the curved. He sorts by color and shape. He lists by size and by brightness. He notes the nautical, normal and nameless. It’s Wednesday and he’s moved from columns to rows: alphabetic, magnetic, majestic . . .
Pull up any rug, there’s a hole. An easy chair sits on a trap door, which leads to a slide. I am still surprised, after all these years, how many tunnels are in my house.
In the basement, which is under the place you would consider the basement, is what I call “the secret room.” But all my rooms are really secret rooms. It has a large colored map on the wall, a folding table under a fluorescent light, a red couch.
I wanted to smell less like a restaurant and more like a woman. I tried my best. All the women I know could have sex with famous men like J Hamm or Leo D or BJ. All the women I know smell like French Vanilla perfume and fresh cigarettes. They smell like thin people. When I describe them I say, she is thin like a rich person. I say, she eats paper and melts diamonds, to stay thin— she huffs paint thinner. I say, she has never touched another person’s ranch dressing or brushed it onto her thigh where it looked like the seed of a famous man or anyone really.
Though they’re meant to be our protagonists, we detest these teenagers who fall for the same tricks and traps in every film and because they keep coming back dumber and hotter decade after decade with their perky breasts and discernible abs and the way they throw themselves mercilessly against one another in backseats and on twin beds and because they smoke cigarettes and slug soda and beer and because dialysis and diabetes will never creep like Freddy into their dreams. Because they’re always in love and loneliness is as unimaginable as feigning sleep so the person next to you will stop kissing your neck though you still care for her and he’s still beautiful or maybe you don’t and maybe he’s not or maybe the workday has emptied you of desire for anything but seven hours of silence and maybe these are the words you say that can’t be forgiven. Curse the children
10 my dog, climbing trees, apples, my sister On two separate car journeys, one with my mother, one with my father, I ask each of them to choose the last thing they’d give up. At ten, my questions take this form with some regularity: exaggerated parameters, carefully explained rules. “It can be food or water or something solid, but it doesn’t have to be. You only have twenty-four hours to live.” Both ask if they can think about it. Both remember to answer by the end of the journey (a hastily added rule).
My father: “the capacity to love.” My mother: “to know I am loved.”
11 anywhere outside the classroom; mud, cold, leaves, not sports, lists I start smoking in ditches. I ask my father if he’d still love me if I went to prison. “Of course.” He doesn’t hesitate or ask what crime I will have committed. I think about this and watch the back of him digging. I don’t doubt his words but I am curious. “What if I joined the IRA?” There is a long pause and he straightens out for it. The Irish Republican Army is in the news a lot. They drive fear into every school child, make public transport and Saturdays anxious. There are no longer bins on the streets, litter blows frightened of b-o-m-b-s. “There will always be things you could do to make loving you harder. That’s not the same as not loving you. Difficult doesn’t mean no.”
Don’t ever make him a take-me-back mix CD. But if you do, open with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me.” If Kim from high school wants to wait in the really long line for the panda at the zoo, don’t complain. That panda is going to be so cuddly cupping its paw around the bamboo, your heart will do a somersault. Besides, you’ll miss Kim when you’re away trying to tell her updates before the metro goes underground. “I’m going on a date and wearing eyeliner.” “You’re going on a date with a minor? ”
Mawwage is what bwings us together. —The Princess Bride
At five, a clamorous bird proposed outside our window: Will-ya will-ya will-ya, then? when a high-pitched vireo like a shotgun bride interposed fuck-you fuck-you before his liquid goddess could reply, with a flirty little who-me who-me? followed by something like my mother’s tch-tch-tch-ing at my father’s stories she’d heard a million times before, nattering away as if strapped on currents of confused desire, but finally speeding up to an ascendant trill—I do I do, I do / aspire to—
“Come here—quick!” You know it, her serious, nearly whispered call. She says, “I think it’s a squirrel.” Brown bulb of fur, it’s tucked behind an old chair. The kids sleep upstairs; you have both abandoned your evening’s screens. You are here, a step away from a baby flying squirrel. You grab the wicker hamper. She says, “Don’t scare it.” Hamper in one hand, towel in the other, you wonder how to catch it without scaring it. The big-eyed squirrel knows you’re there. “Be careful,” you hear as you swipe at the squirrel who scampers, fast as life, into the wicker trap you lift and close. Then she says, “It’s in there,” a statement of fact that feels like a question. You say, “It’s in there,” your voice an octave too high. She peeks through the wicker gaps to snap a picture. You relax your grip on the lid, and the wild thing wriggles free.
When I order fast food, I feel superior to the place I am in, the people who serve me, and the grease about to grip my gut, but the cashier asks “Is that poetry?” pointing at the distressed volume I hold. I say, “Yes,” and she says, “Yes, I thought so,” her eyes bloom, no longer machines. Her hand rests on the input screen as she quotes Frost or Dickinson: something about “long sleep, a famous sleep,” and she adds, “Was ever idleness like this?” Flustered, I reply: “I’ll take the double with mustard and pickles.” She sees into me, a mass-produced poetry patty stamped for the look of flavor. She sees my surprise and knows that beneath our exchange, burger for cash, is deeper change: The life I’ve slept inside, she takes, discards, and watches me wake.
Featured art: Chinese Zodiac Animals in Harmonyby Kerima Swain
On my birthday, the twenty-fifth anniversary of a space shuttle disaster, I move in with Uncle, who lives next to a trash heap. The heap is privately owned, not the county dump, not open to just anybody, and it’s haloed with crows. I squirrel myself upstairs while Uncle watches the video of the spaceship disintegrating into smoke, repeating. I mention in passing an ex-boyfriend with fists like cans of beans, that he’s looking for me, probably. Outside the crows bicker while I hide under the covers, the house full of Uncle’s sobs back to the television.
The shuttle exploded hours before I was born. A question of timing, my mother said.
Featured art: Three Dogs Fighting by Antonio Tempesta
They are big and smelly and mean, and they’re living in her basement. I think they are dogs, but they might be wolves. Eight or eighteen of them, something like that. They all would bite me if I gave them the chance, so I’m really careful when I herd them out into the yard. What is it with my mother? Most families just have pets—usually one dog and a cat, nothing like this. How did she let this happen to her?
Featured art: Buste van een oude vrouw by Anonymous
There are five recliners in a circle, each with a spongy blanket. The lights have been dimmed, but an aide has left behind her walkie-talkie and it sounds like it’s ready to lift off. My mother is in one recliner, I’m in another, an easy way to spend time now that she’s afraid of the color red and distrusts windows as if the glass weren’t there and the fingers of the dwarf palmetto would reach in and pull her down into its dark center to cut out the last cluster of syllables huddled beneath her tongue.
I look over to see if she’s sleeping and her eyes are open as though she’s forgotten to close them. Maybe she’s on some dusky street where half-drawn figures drift and sounds almost blossom into meaning. Maybe she opens a door and her aunts from Brooklyn are there and clutch her to their mountainous breasts where she could stay forever.
To make a good book you need what William Faulkner called “the raw meat on the floor.” So before I started in I got some ground beef and dropped it on the hardwood with a Spat! It felt wrong. Like dropping a baby. But I did it for art. When my son came home from school he said, Why is there meat on the floor? I said, Art. He nodded like maybe that made sense and said, It’s kind of freaking me out. I know, I said, me too. We all have to make sacrifices. Is that blood leaking out or juice? he asked. I’m not sure I’m one to make that distinction, I said, mostly to avoid answering the question. I didn’t tell him how strange it was to unwrap the meat so carefully, the plastic peeling away like a onesie on a warm day, and then just sort of hurl it down at the hardwood with a Spat! Are we still going to eat it? he asked after a bit. I’m not sure, I said. I think it depends upon a lot of different factors, a lot of ins and outs. Is this a writing thing? he asked, because you have that weird look in your eye. I’m your father, I said. I held you as a baby. I’d never use a moment like this just to make a poem.
Eons ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch, the jaguar left his home and traveled across the cold arid grassland: his resolve set. The floods were coming again. If he stayed, the land would either be covered with water or be broken into land pockets, from which there’d be no escape. The time was now. He had to go.
In him the jaguar carried echoes of history, tens of millions of years’ worth of heat spikes, ice ages, tectonic upheavals, and mega-explosions. Time swirled uniquely around him. He felt two trajectories at once—like a stone cast into the deep lake of time, sinking down to the bottom where all life may have begun, as well as the outward rippling cat’s paw upon its surface. History. Present. Future. All there, his for the grappling.
Alone he headed south: crossing over what one day would be named the Ber- ing land bridge. Well-suited to the task, weighing close to 400 pounds, the norm then, he ran through a dense mantle of cold and silence. In the morning light his rust-colored coat appeared red, broken only by dotted circular cave-black rosettes. The travel was hard, but the jaguar came into it, growing stronger as he went—proof he’d done the right thing by giving his instinct its due.
I was choosing a bag of almonds at the grocery when a volcano erupted. These almonds were an impulse buy, and now they commemorate catastrophe. The volcano is elsewhere, so I won’t experience cinders bruising the sky. On another continent ash settles on buildings and my snack is dusted in cocoa powder, the packaging says semi-sweet. I’m realizing this is the wrong flavor for a natural disaster. Nobody can pronounce the name of this volcano. I can’t speak its name and I want to know it, to know destruction, the reality of molten rock. Instead I’m standing around the store, befuddled by almonds, by how to choose. If enough pressure built under the surface, I could be relieved of every decision.
I can’t handle cherries. When I see them at the store, full of tart surprise, I pass them up; it’s the breaking of tight skin and release of flesh. I want the thing ten steps down from the ecstatic. Instead of cherries, cherry soda. So how could I handle South America? What would I do with a sea, with salt air winding through me like a shell? I live the nub of life, the thumbnail sketch, fish sticks and cigarettes. I would never survive the cherries of South America. What’s a cherry soda after a cherry? What do I dream of after Brazil?
Like each of us, it could only guess at its own begetting. A careless cigarette, electrical spark, Molotov cocktail hurled by an angry senior who had his letter to the editor rejected, we never found out how the fire started. Only smoke suddenly billowing above the town. Shreds of ten thousand newspapers upon the air, in slow drift through open windows, coming to rest on the eyelids & lips of men sleeping off the night shift at the furnace. Embers floated for hours through the streets, through back alleys, & ended up in the black fur of cats, gray hair of old men playing checkers, on the tongues of children who didn’t know better. A shroud upon the impatiens & petunias in tire & barrel gardens, on the feathers of pigeons in rooftop cages. In the silos the tatters found space amid the grains, & our news made it across the oceans: liquidation sales, stories on the alderman’s affair, the mayor’s new dog. And one death—one obituary. Larry, the boy who jumped his dirt bike into the canal. His name now upon the air, with our questions for him. We looked up at a sky that whirled with clouds of his name, & saw on that air once more the arc of his bike between the bridge and the rest of his life. His name rained down upon us, confetti for a parade of his absence. For years we found his name—in our underwear drawers, in our cereal boxes, in the big hair of our pageant contestants. In the open bags of sugar in the Home Ec classroom, the ones that girls would name and care for, & come to remember when their own babies were held up, his half-burned name against the brilliance of the sugar crystals, these sugar babies, each one named Larry.
Sometimes you know things before you know things. Mrs. Tisdale comes to the door, and I know something is wrong. I know. From the top bunk of my bed, I watch her coming up the sidewalk, walking fast but walking like a woman who is already lost, her skirt moving quickly around her, like a wave to anyone who spies through the window.
I know the doorbell won’t ring. She is not a bell person. She is too good a friend of my mother’s to announce herself that way. She knocks once and opens the door. What she doesn’t know is the bell doesn’t work anyway. It is shorted out somewhere along its line and my father has never pulled the wires and traced down them to find the problem. I hear Mrs. Tisdale’s voice flow up the staircase, so faint I can barely make it out, strained and pitched higher than normal. Her voice sounds like an animal she is trying to keep on a leash, trying to make it heel. Because her voice wants to run away from her. I hear my mother fall back on her nurse’s voice, that healing tone. I climb off the top bunk and move closer to the doorway.
“Now, Roberta, we shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” my mother says. “Let’s not worry until we have something to worry about.”
I ran into the boxer Leon Spinks in 1992. Spinks had won the heavyweight belt 14 years before from Muhammad Ali. He had also won bronze in the Olympics and gone to the penitentiary for possession. By the time he got to me he was all done with fame and fortune. But he still scrapped with life, just trying to be. At that time, I was staying with my brother in Springfield, Missouri. He ran a pool hall and kept an apartment in back of the place. I snuck into the kitchen late one night for a slice of that industrial orange cheese that I was addicted to. I flipped on a light and there was a large man sleeping on a cot in the middle of the white-tiled room. But I went ahead and opened the fridge because when you are visiting someone, nothing is unusual. It should all be that way, every day, everything new, but it rarely is. I reached in and lifted out a long orange sleeve. That’s when the sleeping man said, “Leon hungry,” and instantly I remembered my brother telling me that Spinks had started coming into the bar, but I did not believe him. It had been so matter-of-fact that I barely retained the anchor to the info.
We didn’t say a word when the officer visited our classroom. We didn’t pass a note or mumble, didn’t blink when the TV flickered on, when the stats, wrapped in white, settled on the screen. We didn’t dare color outside the lines of the worry-eyed cartoon character buying weed from a teenage bully or the gang of stick figures shouting in the margins.
We pretended not to see each other, not to know the smell of bong smoke, late at night, how it would drift through the air vents with their laughter, how it would rise in a fog as we slept.
She says it feels like flowers blooming in her veins. The lilies watch her, unmoved in the window. She becomes the petals’ white polyester sheen, its rigid spine, slumped posture leaning against the rim of an old coffee mug filled with week-old cigarette butts. This is how I will remember her: bottles of pills, the walls scumbled yellow, a flower blooming in her veins, her gray breath rising
For the past hour, Alli had been sitting against the small oak, her eighteen-month-old son latched to her breast. His molars had finally—thank God— broken through, and now he suckled, cheeks sticky and eyes lolling with pleasure. Alli had hoped another mom would show up. Jeannie was off visiting her parents in Vancouver and Clay, well he was just plain off, so she hadn’t had an adult conversation in days. She wanted someone, anyone, to gab with about the impossibility of lost sleep, errant husbands, and teething. But there were only the crows, waddling around the rim of a garbage can, diving in for pizza crusts then flying off across the playground to the giant cedar.
Alli’s daughter, Tavia, looked at the birds from under her floppy sunhat, and then dumped a handful of sand onto an accumulating pile, patted it down. Alli mimed eating, mumbled yum-yum as she had been since they’d arrived. “Do you like it Mommy?” Without waiting for an answer, Tavia ran back to the production center beneath the slide.
Jack continued suckling. Both breasts were drained and she’d become a giant pacifier. His eyelids fluttered and his blond feathery hair stuck to his forehead, ear crusted with milk and peanut butter. She picked at it, and he swatted her, still sucking hard. Enjoy them while they’re young, people said, but she couldn’t wait to toss these days onto the slag heap of motherhood.
Featured art: ‘The Thirty-Six Star Flag of the United States of America’ by an unknown artist
—in memory of Scott Christopher Maxwell 1961–2007
First thing is, I got as much right to get my foodstamps as the next man. Second thing is, what I make of em is my own Han Solo. State aint got no right comin around sniffin halfway up my ass, tryin to catch some little whiff of a goddamn infringement. If I wanna fetch my breakfast with em, fine, let a cowboy fry his bacon. If I wanna sell em for cash or trade em for dope, that’s my own Han Solo. You think I’m gettin rich outta this? You think I’m puttin some greenbacks away someplace? Saint me somebody if I’m flush in more than bellybutton lint. And anyways I’m only sellin em to veterans. That’s the third thing. A lotta vets can’t even get no foodstamps, and you mind tellin me why?
In the photo on the left, the first Jesus poses with a thorny crown scratching his skull and his right arm slung around the cross as if he and the cross are friends or first-time prom dates, while his mane, miraculous, immaculately tumbles to his shoulders in loose curlicues, the bounce of which you can easily imagine though scarcely believe considering the dry, desert air, and his skin (that skin!) is a goldilocks-bronze, is light enough not to alarm the whites is dark enough not to alarm the historians, and his eyes are trustworthy and inevitable—you don’t get to say you’re the son of God with any old eyes, no, they need to be more lamblike than lifelike—
My father never exercised. He chased me upstairs after a fresh word at the dinner table once or twice—quick sprints that ended with a face-slap photo finish—but no trips to the gym, hardly even a ball game on TV. On weekends, he wore sneakers—not tennis shoes—always sneakers, as if that’s what one did to hide silently from the world of sport.
But that day—my sixth birthday—after he made the cake and gave me the Frisbee, he said to my surprise, “Let’s see if it spins.” I was out the door in the backyard before he had laced up the first shoe. Neither one of us was very good, but there we stood, spinning the bee in front of the sugar snap peas he had planted, when we heard Aaron, the boy next door, scream in a high, inhuman pitch—a cartoonish noise I thought only diving eagles made, or the ricochet of bullets in old westerns. I almost laughed. My father knew better. He straightened and ran toward Aaron in the side yard between the houses. He leapt over the chainlink gate with a quick hop, following behind the crying boy until he caught him by the arm and saw where Aaron was pointing. “What?” my father asked.
When I worked as a janitor at the courthouse I met a detective in the Sheriff’s department whose son, I learned, had committed suicide some months earlier. Having lost a son myself in a car-train collision, I tried to offer my condolences. “Your boy kill himself?” the detective asked bluntly. “We never knew,” I replied. The detective grunted noncommittally and opened his desk drawer to take out a photo of his son, a young man in his twenties, kneeling and embracing a dog as he grinned for the camera. “Two days before it happened,” the detective said. “About the same age as our son,” I said. The detective stared at the photo for a moment. “You got a dog?” he asked. “Two,” I said. “Thing about a dog,” he said, “a person can screw up a hundred ways, and his dog will love him when he can’t even love his self.” “Our son’s dog still sleeps at the foot of his bed,” I said. The detective turned the photograph over on its face and glanced up at me, his eyes as cold as stars. “Ain’t his dog,” he said. “It’s mine.”
Of course death is on its way, and life’s a blink, and yes the unexamined one sucks, and doubtless we’re well-advised, periodically, to expose ourselves to the nuisance of these truths, waggling their fingers with their thumbs in their ears, ever heckling us with the raspberry of our mortality.
Still, we cannot carpe every diem, squeegee the universe of each last moment, shovel our noses 24/7 into the coffee or the roses or what-have-you. Virgin-bedding stratagems aside, some days, maybe even most days, the unforgiving minute’s happy just to be left alone, frittered on some dopey soap opera, or stewing over a parking ticket.