SARAH RETURNS THREE DAYS AFTER OUR FIGHT.
I was wondering if I’d ever see her again, wondering if I cared either way, maybe glad I didn’t have any photos of her to mull over, when she shows up with an older brother she’s never mentioned before. The same bony features, pale skin and freckles, everything’s the same in him just stretched out and wiry. No smiles from either of them, just a quick introduction where Sarah won’t meet my eye. She brings us two clean jelly jars and a fresh bottle out to the porch before returning inside.
Her brother’s name is James, same as mine, which I think might get us off to a good start. But when he rolls up his sleeves, exposing a leering skull on his forearm and a bull’s-eye tattoo further up—with blotches I’m pretty sure are not part of the tattoo, nor oversized freckles—I don’t take it as a good sign. The look in his eyes isn’t promising either. Just a hard stare, like Plan B is to kick my ass and he’d be more than happy to skip over whatever Plan A is. He’s skinny as a 2 X 4 but it seems a dangerous kind: Rattlesnake skinny. Live wire skinny. Earphones collar his neck, the music still on full, a melody that sounds like a racing engine.
His hand vibrates as he cracks the whiskey’s seal and fills the jars just shy of the top, handing me mine as he sits beside me on the porch swing. Our knees nearly touch, like we’re courting.
He grinds his teeth. I drain my glass. He picks up the bottle, refilling me to the rim as he clears his throat.
"Sarah says we got a problem."
A raccoon scrambles up from the storm grate on the opposite side of the street. My eyes aren’t really that good anymore. It could be a stray cat.
The brother gets up, upsetting the swing, leaving me swaying, and I check myself to make sure it isn’t the alcohol—I’m drinking faster than I like to. He stands in front of me, blocking my view.
“Yeah man, we've got a problem and I want to know what the fuck you're going to do about it."
His finger pokes my chest and I notice his shoes: A brand new pair of combat boots. The eyelets gleam. I’d been wrong about him, which tips me a little further off balance. A man who cares about his shoes generally has his act together. I have one pair of shoes: Worn-out wingtips I can’t bear to throw out.
I shrug my shoulders, have my glass half-raised when he knocks it out of my hand. Whiskey spills across my shirt and the glass bounces and rolls its way along the porch, skittering to the end of it.
"The way I see it, man, that's a major part of the problem," the brother says.
His hands lump and unclench. Though he’s a good twenty years younger than me, I have the weight advantage on him by at least thirty pounds and a wild part of me thinks I might be able to take him, or at least get a good punch off, though it’s been years since I was in a real fight. A big part of winning a fight, I know, is having better reasons than the other guy. I realize I don’t have any, except for a whiskey stained shirt and wanting to be done with the whole thing.
I fumble out a cigarette. With both hands involved I keep the match steady. This must be how it feels to act in a movie. I take the smoke in deep and speak around it. "Your sister bought it, you poured it. I just drink it."
I tighten my jaw, waiting for the punch, hoping I can at least take one like a champ.
But he doesn’t throw it.
He looks over my shoulder and I turn to see Sarah framed in the window, watching us, her face puffy and colorless, her arms hugging herself.
She looked just the same the first time I met her at the animal shelter with that squirrel. She named it Houdini only after she was sure it would survive whatever tragedy of the city had befallen it. Later, she brought it over a few times and it perched on her shoulder like a nervous bird, eating peanuts from her fingers. One day she found Houdini, the rodent that had escaped certain death, dead, limp and clamped in the jaws of one of her three-legged cats.
Turning back to her brother, I study the force of that unthrown punch rising into his face, twisting it purple.
"Look you fucking cradle-robber, there are two choices here and one of them is not a choice," the brother says.
I want to laugh but my face feels numbed from the whiskey. "A shotgun wedding."
"Call it what you like, man, if anyone dies it's not going to be the kid."
To the side of his head, the raccoon or cat or whatever it is drags what looks like a severed hand—though it might be a glove—back into the sewer. I glimpse a ringed tail then it’s gone. Back into the undercity.
I watch the grate till I’m sure it isn’t coming up again then turn back to Sarah and blow her a kiss.
* * *
My wife and I decided early on that we wouldn’t have any children. We had our lives, our careers. My wife left me years ago and I thanked the stars there weren’t any kids there to watch daddy unravel, to listen to him jabber about how the windows of the towers could have been melted into a ribbon of glass 20 inches wide, stretching for 65 miles.
* * *
Our wedding is a no-frills, civil ceremony downtown. Her brother stands witness and I learn that, unlike me, he has a nickname: Skull. Skull sports a baseball cap over his shaved head; a once white hat sweated gray. His bloodshot eyes track me as we all sign, making it legal, as though he’s afraid I might bolt out the courthouse doors if given the chance.
Married now, out on the street, Skull’s demeanor changes completely. He throws his arms over both of us and kisses my cheek. His earphones are on, music blasting. He shouts, “Congratulations. Mazeltov, brother. Can I call you brother?”
He’s laughing, almost hysterical, his weight leaning into me, talking non-stop. I smell old sweat on him. He’s shy a front tooth and I wonder how I missed that before.
He snaps pictures of Sarah and I with a disposable camera. The winding mechanism creaks as he shoots one after another. I wonder if I’m in frame at all. I wonder if the photos will show me as here or if they’ll just be a ghostly outline where I’m supposed to be.
“Yo, take one of me and sis.” Skull thrusts the camera in my hand. The box feels too light, too insubstantial to record the huge, sunlit smiles on their faces. My finger hovers over the shoot button. I make a clicking noise with my tongue and teeth, not snapping the picture, and hand the camera back to Skull.
I see a young man in a wheelchair waiting for the bus and I try to convince myself I’m lucky, of the “I still have my arms and legs” variety of luck. I hear a seagull’s cry but when I look up to find it my eyes catch on a diptych of billboards. One says Visiting hours are not only on Sunday--God. The other is a picture of an old man in a top hat. Dark eyes peer into me over a mustache as big as a propeller.
Sarah squeezes my hand. “Let’s go see him. I love magic.”
I know it’s an ad for a magician playing one of the casinos, some guy called Mephisto. But gazing into those unblinking eyes I feel something inside me shift and, for a moment, I cannot move.
* * *
Was it wrong to keep my wife’s clothes? When I first bought this house, I hung her clothing in the closet of the extra room upstairs. I remembered what a friend had told me of his medical school days. How the cadaver fridge was filled with corpses in hooked plastic cases and the pathology students would slide them back and forth on their runners like giant wardrobe bags. All those refrigerated bodies awaiting dissection and study, I'd thought of that as I ran her clothes down the warped rod into the dark of the closet.
I don’t really give my wife’s clothes much thought anymore. I spend most of my time out on my screened porch, watching this street, not really thinking much of anything. A famous photographer said, life is better observed than lived. The porch screens frame my view, the mesh softening the focus.
I watch the neighbors work their lawns into the same green crew cut and mount flags on their porches. I watch them play with their kids and paint their near identical houses and sometimes wave to me. I always wave back, though I can barely remember their names.
They stopped inviting me to their parties months ago. I guess they didn’t know what to make of the bachelor who drank their best booze and sat quiet in a corner of their plush carpeted living rooms. The unemployed neighbor who was lousy at Charades and Pictionary and dated a girl younger than some of their kids, I guess I made them uncomfortable which was just how they made me feel.
This distance is good. A wave keeps things civil. Enough to make them feel I’m not a terrorist or a serial killer or, if I am, that I have no reason to dice them up and put their head in my refrigerator.
I track the far off whine of the cars passing on the highway, their oceanic drone rising and fading out. Sometimes I hear a crash. I picture bodies hauled from burning cars, faces studded with glass, severed limbs draped over guardrails. The screaming chorus of victims and survivors.
Around six-ish, a car departs the smooth tar of the highway and heads down our cul-de-sac. Sarah hums to herself as she climbs out of her ancient Nova and works her way up to the porch. Grocery bags balance against blue-jeaned hips—jeans so tight they’re faded at the junctions of her body—as she pushes in the creaky screen door of the porch and blows me a kiss.
“How’s the novel going,” Sarah says.
I toast her with my glass of whiskey and drink down a fat gulp.
“Like a forest fire.”
It’s a joke we perfected over the two months we’ve been seeing each other. There’s no novel. I am not even a writer. There’s only the porch and the world viewed from it. It’s a slice of world I imagine exists immobile, tarnished like a sepia stained photograph. But maybe that’s the drinking. The “whiskey eyes” as Sarah calls it.
Just how much younger Sarah is I've never asked and she’s never offered, and the fact that she can keep the secret of her age makes her just old enough.
* * *
My wife was 28 when she vanished. She’d always claimed she would, some day, and she did. Maybe she was in the World Trade Center along with the 2500, or so, other people. Sometimes I think of it like a grand magic trick, a David Copperfield TV special. On a normal weekday the towers collectively housed about 50,000 office workers. The towers were 1362 and 1368 feet tall, respectively. Each tower had 104 passenger elevators, 21,800 windows and an acre of space on each of its 110 floors. My wife might have been there. Though thousands of tons of rubble were excavated and my wife’s body was never found. (Abracadabra.)
* * *
Five months ago I’d drove to the animal shelter in hope of finding some abandoned hound. I imagined a noble dog, an easy dog, all his barking out of the way years ago. A dog content to watch the street as I was. I had a Great Dane in mind.
The vet was a short man with scarred hands.
"Just put a good one down yesterday. Damn shame," he said, eyeing me like I was a horse who might have a broken leg. “Take a look at what’s here or ask Sarah.”
Call it fate or destiny, that’s what Sarah said it was. I don’t really believe in those things myself, but not two minutes later Sarah came rushing in with that busted up squirrel, not yet named, in a milk crate.
I noticed her hair first, its insistent red. It was wild and unbrushed then and she was on the edge of tears.
The two of them ignored me as they crouched over the rodent or whatever a squirrel is. Backed against the wall, I noticed the milk crate was lined with a hand-knit sweater, now torn up, little turds clinging to its frazzled wool.
Sarah took me to her place while she waited for the vet to finish with Houdini. Her apartment was a mini-hospital of mangy cats and broken winged birds, creatures that wouldn't last a day on their own. That’s what I remember if I wonder why she’s with me: The smell of piss and the mournful look of abandoned pets and broken creatures of the wild.
She hadn’t been much of a drinker then and, though she drank it fast, I was sure she didn’t like the taste of beer.
“Are you married?” She asked me. “Cats are better for couples.”
My hand went to my ring finger. Even after the ring was gone there was still a phantom weight there. I saw still lives in my head: Fires. My wife disintegrated. I imagined her jumping out a window, frozen in air, her fingers interlaced with those of a stranger (from the observation deck one could see 45 miles on a clear day).
“I’m in the 70 percent club of failed marriages,” I said. “Does it show?”
She nodded over her beer and her face seemed to soften a little, making her even prettier.
“Married people look different.”
Taking my time with my cigarette, I watched her over the match flame. She held my gaze, hardly stirring across the table.
“I meant that I’m divorced.”
She finished her beer and wiped some foam from her upper lip.
“Same fucking difference,” she said. “Do you see any dogs you like?”
Then I noticed her eyes, green as fresh dollars. Eyes that maybe held hope. She could be a poster girl for some Irish beer, that’s what I thought then and I forgot all about my dog.
* * *
Of course Sarah isn’t drinking now. A month or so pregnant, she does all the right things. I ante up for the doctor visits and the dozen vitamin and herbal supplements she insists on taking. She brings the first sonogram home and tapes it right on the fridge so every time I go for a beer I see it. The faint blur of what is supposed to be a baby floats in a watery landscape, one that has the quality of those Shroud of Turin X-rays. I try and connect this picture with what grows inside Sarah, what I have planted, but her belly is still as flat as a table and this baby no more real to me than a newspaper photograph.
In the evenings we play Gin Rummy and eat pickles from the jar. Most times she spends the night. “Kicking up the dust devils,” she calls it. I never bothered to buy a new mattress, just hauled the old one up from the basement, and you can see the stuffing bursting through when the sheets kick off, our sex belching clouds of dust from that exhausted bed. I left everything as it was when I bought the house; even the mattress went back in its spot by the window.
I like to think I’ve inherited the pattern of the former owner’s life: The mattress catches the morning sun, the sharp light sending me out of bed early; the nail-hung mirror in the bathroom covers a hole in the plaster. The whole backyard has been roto-tilled for gardening, though it’s lain fallow since I’ve owned it—I figure it saves me the trouble of mowing. I envision the old owner placing these things, adjusting them for a measured and constant life.
I’ve inherited other things, too, things that seem to infect my dreams. I dream the garden blooming with fruits; the sweet smell of roses stuffs my nose. Sometimes I wake with the ambition to buy seeds and fertilizer, to reclaim the backyard from the wild. But by the time I throw back my first coffee and skim the morning paper’s litany of disasters, those plans are forgotten with all the rest of them.
Sometimes the baby talks to me. He has no mouth and I hear his voice in my dreams like the echo of a whisper. I wake not knowing what he’s said or how I answered but hoping I told him to go back, not to come forth, that there’s nothing in this world for him.
* * *
I used to be an amateur photographer. There was the work I did for extra money, the people shots in color—weddings, parties, portraits—and the work I did for myself. I shot pictures of buildings for myself. I did a series on the buildings of New York—the Chrysler, the Flatiron, the Dakota, the tenements of Harlem. I shot buildings in the details: The grain of a brick, the curve of a wrought iron railing. Whole buildings never interested me as much as their parts. Maybe it was growing up in the South. Maybe a whole New York City building was more than I could take in at once.
I never shot the World Trade Center. I never thought it had much style, really; its lines were too clean, too cold. I find myself wondering if, somehow, things would have happened differently if I had. Like some sort of protective spell, the way photos freeze memory, make it permanent.
I left my camera, darkroom equipment, all the photographs and negatives behind when I moved. I left nearly everything behind me.
* * *
Sarah loves to talk. I’m a good listener. I can sit immobile for hours, a rare trait in men, she tells me. Painting her chewed nails she tells me again how she wants to be a veterinarian and has taken night classes in biology. How her father died when she was nine, her mother went crazy and lives with her aunt in Florida, Skull is a speed freak but a sweet guy with a baby of his own. She doesn’t know I’d been a so-so photographer. She doesn’t ask about my wife.
Sarah never asks any of the usual questions about dreams or life ambitions that plague the young. Maybe that’s why I stayed with her before I had to. She calls me “old-timer” and slaps my belly but never once does she try and corner me on what the hell I think I’m doing out here with no friends, or job, or even a telephone. That’s one of the benefits of dating a younger woman. By the sheer fact of your age they assume you must have some wisdom and being quiet seems to speak volumes for them.
Coming home from her job at the animal shelter she finds me on the porch, smiles sweet, and heads inside to fix us some simple dinner. We eat our macaroni and cheese or spaghetti with garlic bread in silence. She sits out there with me for hours, talking less these days, respecting the quiet. Nothing more comes from her lips than a tiny sigh when the sun sets. Her hands on her belly, running over it, searching for movement. Sometimes she places my hands there, too. I can’t imagine what’s going on inside. I envision a black and white space, little by little gathering my features.
Sometimes Skull drops by with his own baby. I wonder about his wife and, as if reading my mind, he says, “My old lady doesn’t leave the house much.” I nod, understanding, conjuring an image of a woman like me over the sounds of his kid’s bawling. An indefatigable Sarah bounces it in her arms and talks gibberish to it for hours while the kid continues to howl, its lungs like windsocks.
Skull disappears in the house and Sarah flashes me a look that says, drugs, then returns her attention to her inconsolable nephew. I wonder if I’m supposed to do something. If I’m supposed to play daddy to her brother, too, sit him down and have a talk with him, set him straight on fatherhood. Before I can make up my mind Skull is back, earphones glued to his head, music booming. He grabs his kid from Sarah and begins to spin like a dervish. Sarah and I watch with open mouths, silent in the face of impending disaster, as Skull turns, faster and faster, him and the child blurring into one, till finally he stops. Panting, sweating, a little unsteady, he stretches the child out to Sarah again. The infant silent at last, its breath long and steady with sleep.
“We’re naturally nomadic, man.” Skull says. “Like the Bedouin. You know their babies only cry when the caravan stops moving.”
* * *
I spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. I hardly paid attention to my face before. Now, I hold perfectly still, imagine the mirror a photograph, that time has ceased to pass. I inspect my face; search for hints of grief, signs of tragedy. Do I look different? That crease in my forehead, is it new? The gray at my temples? There was a silly face I made, one that always got a child smiling for his portrait when all else failed. I try it out in the mirror.
* * *
I launch myself into the next few weeks. I resurrect my so-so carpentry skills and build a crib. Sarah wants us to move into her place because it’s closer to “things.” She even gives away most of her animals and takes the ones she can’t to the shelter.
I tell her there’s no better place on the planet to raise a child than right here. Neighborhood’s full of children, the schools are good. Here a child can have a solid, normal upbringing. I hold her when I say these things and there’s a closeness we've never had. Our bodies fit in new ways, a mound of life between us, as I whisper plans.
But these words feel strange in my mouth. As if they belong to someone else, someone who does not think only in shades of gray. They are words too big for us to keep in that house. They slide out the door after being spoken. I imagine them disappearing through the neighborhood and out of sight. I envision the baby squirming at the hollowness of them. He must know the tone of bullshit. I gave him that at least.
Because I don’t believe in plans anymore. I don’t believe one has any control at all or that there’s such thing as normal or solid in this world. And I’ve lost sight of what I want. Do I want this? Life doesn’t answer, nor does it seem to care; it just rolls on.
I want to tell Sarah these things, to try and make her understand, but she’s happy, so happy that I can’t bring myself to say a word. So I whisper these things to the baby. While Sarah’s asleep I speak at her belly, my voice so soft I cannot even hear my own words.
I tell him how good he has it now. No decisions to be made in there, nothing yet to be lost. I tell him there is too much here that can never be understood. The game is rigged, I tell him, and one day you wake up and your little cache of luck has run out. I give him numbers. Tell him about the Twin Towers, that enough concrete was used in the construction of the WTC to build a five-foot sidewalk from New York City to Washington, D.C.
He answers in my dreams. He says to me, I'm coming, dad, I’m coming soon.
* * *
Sarah comes out to the porch with an armload of my wife’s clothes. She brushes dust off the plastic.
“What are these?”
“Those? They were left here. I was going to take them to Salvation Army.”
We’d decided to turn the extra room into a nursery and I’d forgotten all about the clothes.
She looks at me; a look that seems borrowed right off her brother’s face. Sarah has a decent bullshit detector, too
“Salvation Army? You’re crazy. These are really fancy. Look at this one.”
She holds up a dress I’d bought for my wife. I remember exactly what I’d paid as Sarah wriggles in to it, and the red silk falls over her jeans, and her hands smooth the fabric over her hips.
“It’s a touch big on me. Betcha it fits in a couple weeks, though.”
And it does. All of my vanished wife’s clothes fit her more and more perfectly as the days pass by.
* * *
We paint the sloping walls of the extra room a soft pink and Sarah stencils animals on them. It’s the nicest room in the house now. There’s a brand new mattress in the crib I built and it’s the only room with curtains.
It’s finished finally and there is nothing to do but wait. We sit on the porch. Me in my jeans and flannel, Sarah, overdressed, in one of my wife’s suits. It seems the room upstairs waits too. All those painted animals frozen on the wall in a state of readiness, hibernating, till they’ll come alive in a child's head.
* * *
It’s been a long time since I waited for anything. For a while I waited for my wife. There were conversations we needed to finish, things that had to be said. Confessions made.
I used to hear footsteps on the 48 steps of our Brooklyn apartment and imagine it was her. There was no way to know for sure that she was not coming back. She could still show up tomorrow, pissed that I never looked for her, wondering about this young girl I live with, this girl who looks like she’s playing dress-up in her clothes.
* * *
I watch Sarah asleep in the moonlight. Her spilled hair drained of color. I watch the way her chest rises and falls, the way her eyes flutter with dreams. Eyelids like camera shutters. How merciful, I think, to go through life with our eyes so often closed. Closed in sleep. Closed for the thousand times a day we blink our life into a series of instants, with only the illusion of continuousness. Like that grand trick of cinema, the persistence of vision, where each still bleeds into the next and our eye ignores the black between.
I listen to us breathing in turns, like we’re singing a hushed round. Sarah sleeping, maybe dreaming of gardens, dressed in one of my wife’s nightgowns.
I close my eyes and I am with her. I smell my wife, hear her breath. I put my head to my wife’s belly and hear the child breathing, whispering. He says he’s seen my wife, she’s doing fine, she says hello…
There’s a crash outside. I creep to the window and down below, in the backyard, an animal buries its head in an overturned garbage can. Its black-ringed tail swishes as it dines on our leftovers.
* * *
“How do you know when an animal’s time has come?”
Sarah doesn’t say anything for a long time.
“If no one claims them for a month. Or if they’re sick, or dangerous.”
“Is it hard?”
She looks at me, her hands crossed over her belly, her green eyes glowing in the dusk light.
“What the fuck do you think?”
* * *
That last morning my wife was tired and hard to rouse. The night before we’d been up late, drinking a bottle of merlot, watching a Tracy and Hepburn movie. If I’d let her go back to sleep. If I’d still loved her and told her so and maybe we’d have made love. If the hot water had run out in the shower as it did so often. If she’d stopped for coffee and the line was long or the man at the corner bodega’d had to snap a fresh roll of quarters, or if she had broken a heel or stopped to buy a Times and missed the train.
“Don’t forget my dry cleaning.”
That was the last thing she said to me.
* * *
I am moving through the garden.
Plants surround me, growing over my head, swaying as though underwater, their fruit brushes my clothes, my hair, the seeds I scattered grew overnight and I bend to pick up a pinkish melon and a child curls within it, eyes huge and luminous. Hundreds of these melons litter the ground, each with a child inside, ripe, waiting for release, which one is mine, I wonder, as my child begins to scream.
Confused in the dark, feeling wetness on the sheets, thinking I must have pissed the bed, trying to remember how much I’d had to drink, till I smell a thing like copper.
Turning on the light I see the blood. Sarah clutches her belly, her thighs coated red. For a moment I’m not sure this is real and, if it is, I’m not sure I didn’t stab her in my sleep, that the crazy part of me didn’t finally win the toss. Not thinking at all, I dial 911, squeezing Sarah’s hand, silently thanking her foresight in making me get a telephone. The operator’s voice is calm and calmness begins to fill me too. I find comfort in the hard facts of the situation: The operator’s instant knowledge of our address and how long it will be before an ambulance arrives.
Sarah’s eyes are closed, her breath quick and shallow. Sarah a poisoned Snow White: the chalky color of her skin, even her freckles going lighter, the blood dripping from her, the cramps coming like waves.
Then the ambulance arrives and a pony-tailed EMT smiles like this is all a big joke.
“You the father?” He says. “Has your daughter been drinking, taking drugs, anything like that?”
“No, no, nothing. I’m not her father. I’m the father of…”
I want to smack that grin off of his face but he knows what to do, moves so casually around blood, puts some sort of gauze thing between Sarah’s legs as she moans and opens her eyes. The other EMT is so fat I marvel that they make a uniform in his size and he’s hurrying around her too, taking her blood pressure and pulse. They hoist Sarah to her feet, throw her arms over their shoulders and walk her downstairs.
“Shouldn’t you use a stretcher?” but they don’t hear me or ignore me and I follow, not knowing what to do, as they take her out the porch and down the steps.
The ambulance illuminates the street in a red arc. Neighbors pull back curtains and peer through their windows. A few stand on their perfect lawns in robes, watching us like we’re one of those reality TV shows, thinking to themselves that they knew all along I’d bring trouble eventually.
Just a matter of time, the wives say to their husbands.
Probably stabbed her, the husbands say to their wives.
Then to the hospital and Sarah’s eyes open, full of tears, while the smiling one keeps smiling as he puts an IV needle in her and I wonder what the hell he’s smiling about, so I ask him, “What’s so goddamn funny?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing at all," and his expression doesn’t change a bit.
And I wonder why the fat one doesn’t drive faster, why the sirens aren’t on, what that clear stuff in the IV is and I think how badly I could use a drink as I hold Sarah’s hand and her eyes keep saying, Do something, James, do something to make this all right. And I would but there’s nothing I can do, or if there is I can’t think of it, so I smooth back her hair, feeling her sweat.
At the emergency room we wait for hours and Sarah, stretched out on a gurney, squeezes my hand so tight the bones of my fingers press together. There’s a tuxedoed guy next to us with an oyster fork stuck in his neck, reading Better Homes and Garden. A cop sleeps soundly next to him.
Sarah’s bled through the gauze. I take off my flannel shirt and press it between her legs. So much blood. How can there be so much blood from something so tiny?
Sarah’s asleep when the nurse finally comes to take her and I move to follow but the nurse shakes her head. So I wait, and think of what I could have done if I’d been awake and I think I’ll never sleep again and almost immediately I’m asleep in the hard plastic chair.
* * *
I’m flying over the dark city, toward the casinos’ glow, toward the ocean, and the billboards are there and as I glide past the picture of Mephisto, who’s smiling now, I reach out my hands to his eyes, eyes the size of basketballs, Eyes of God, and I ask for forgiveness for whatever I’ve done and my hand comes away with a thick wad of paper and I see that beneath his eyes there is only night sky.
* * *
A hand shakes me awake.
It’s Skull. In the harsh light of the waiting room he looks ancient, a young man in an old man’s skin, his eyes bloodshot and unblinking, his lips scaly and split.
“Why the fuck didn’t you call me?”
I nod, too confused to speak. His face has that Plan B expression again.
“It’s fucking lucky I got a police scanner and recognized the address. What the fuck happened, man? What the fuck did you do?”
“Nothing. I did nothing.”
And I think that unthrown punch of so many months ago will finally connect, maybe knocking me out of this persistent vision.
Instead he slumps into the chair next to me, his thin face in his hands, the skull tattoo on his forearm vibrating. His words muffled.
“Shit, it must have been all those abortions… This is gonna break her fucking heart.”
His frantic eyes fix on me. “You must be relieved as hell, right? You must have prayed pretty fucking hard for this.”
I can’t think of a thing to say so I put my arm around him and he lets me, and I think, here we are, side by side again. This, the silver lining of misfortune.
“You’re the boyfriend?”
A doctor, who seems as young as Sarah, stands over us. Skull shakes his head and points at me. I catch the doc.’s eyebrows raising before he continues. He speaks at my chest as though searching for signs of a heart.
“She’s fine. She’s asleep now. We had to perform a D & C, scraping out the last of it. She lost a bit of blood so we’re going to keep her over night.”
Skull tells me I might as well go home, she’ll be out till morning and there’s no way he’s going to sleep, he doesn’t sleep much anyway. “You look like you need it more, man,” he says and not knowing what else to do, I catch a taxi back to the house.
* * *
In our bed, the sheets are twisted into a thick rope spotted with blood that looks old and dark, as if this happened months ago and not hours. I grab a trash bag and begin to gather the sheets up when I find it. There, in the center of the bed. A tiny clot, hardly bigger than a snail. My child. I hold him in the palm of my hand, nudge him with my finger. There are the crude beginnings of head and arms and tiny eyes that will never open.
I stand over the toilet, ready to flush him.
But I can’t let go.
I grab one of my wife’s white blouses and carefully wrap him in it, knotting it at the top.
Beneath a clouded moon, I set him on the ground and burrow into the dirt with my hands. I hear the buzzing of streetlamps. Cars pass on the highway. There is the fresh smell of soil as I drop the blouse into the shallow hole and cover it back over.
I want to say something. Something more than “ashes to ashes” but my mind is vacant. I whisper over the tiny mound, “grow,” before heading back upstairs to the bedroom.
I finish stuffing the sheets into the trash bag and take another drink from the bottle and then, before I can think it over, I yank my wife’s clothes from the closet and begin stuffing those in, too. The dark space of the closet smells of something I can’t describe. It doesn’t smell like my wife. Churning machines and chemicals erased her smell long ago.
This is a house smell. An old and dull smell that exists in every house. A smell retaining all the things lived in a house that are fading into the past, a past pulled deeper into the dark of the wood and plaster, pushed out by a future steadily taking its place, covering the things we leave behind. Our smells, our stuff. My wife with her clothes, her enigmatic exit from our marriage.
My eyes close. The whisky churns my gut, my head spins, faster and faster and images come, all those things leftover from September 11th, as I stuff her clothes into black plastic, all that dry cleaning, still hanging in plastic sleeves, endlessly riding the laundry carousels of New York, mail piled up, uncollected, never opened, library books overdue, unfinished, bookmarks still in place, bills unpaid, poems unfinished, food uneaten, conversations hanging. Unborn babies that never spoke their parents' names. The weight of all those things, the outlines of real tragedy, not like a wife that leaves her numb and useless husband, but like a thousand photos of shoes and suitcases leftover from WWII and human silhouettes burnt into sidewalks and my chest collapses and I gasp, the weight so heavy I am pushed back on the bed and imploded.
* * *
It is a long time before I stand again. Throwing the bag over my shoulder, I descend the stairs on wobbly legs to the backyard. Outside, I hear a scratching in the garden.
My child crawls awkwardly from his fresh grave. White and pale in the moonlight. Rubbing my eyes, I see him shivering a little, cold from the night air. I go to him. I will gather him up to my chest and warm him, my child.
Than he darts from the garden, down between the houses, and I drop my bag and follow, walking fast, then running, as I glimpse a black-ringed tail.
We are in the street now and I make out the raccoon, dragging my child’s silken shroud, racing toward the storm grate and I’m running full out, trying to cut her off, just reaching the grate as the shroud disappears and the striped tail goes under.
On my knees I peer into the grate, searching the darkness under the street. I see brown eyes bouncing back moonlight, whiskers glowing like filaments. We stare at each other, neither of us blinking.
Michael Harris Cohen
Michael Harris Cohen is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at Brown University. His writing has appeared in the the Virgin Fiction anthology, the online-Conjunctions, The Land Grant College Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Lurch, The Sofia Echo and a number of other fine journals, in addition to several times having his words performed on the stage and the screen. He is the recipient of a Fulbright research grant to translate Bulgarian folk and fairytales as well as residencies at the Djerassi Foundation, Jentel Artist Residency, and The Blue Mountain Center. He lives in Bulgaria with his wife and two daughters, Seana and Lila, and teaches creative writing and literature at the American University in Bulgaria. He also founded and oversees the university’s literary journal, Flyinthehead. The short story “Leftovers” is one of a cycle of short stories set in Atlantic City and loosely structured around the Monopoly board.
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