Interview By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 4.2, June 2010 Easily one of Singapore’s most accomplished poets, Toh Hsien Min has authored three poetry collections: Iambus (1994), The Enclosure of Love (2001), and Means To An End (2008). He has been […]
Month: June 2010
Interview by Laura Ellen Scott, for Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 4.2, June 2010 Danny Collier’s An Abbreviated Family Dictionary is a web-based literary compendium of words, sounds, and unexpected definitions that are often more intimate than sensible. The Dictionary is under construction but open for […]
Drama, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Lauretta Frost – 40, elegantly dressed.
Ben Frost – 43, her husband.
The lovely home of Lauretta and Ben Frost in the heart of American suburbia. Front and center is the kitchen which leads directly into the living room. Both rooms are neatly kept and clearly visible.
Lauretta stands in the kitchen, unpacking groceries. Three full bags sit on one of the counters. Ben sits on The sofa, engrossed in a newspaper.
Classical music plays in the background —a light, airy piece by Vivaldi.
There’s silence as Lauretta removes a few canned goods from one of the bags and places them in a cupboard. Then she freezes for a moment as if she just recalled something important.
I forgot what I remembered to tell you.
(after a beat)
What was that?
As I was leaving the grocery store, I remembered something I’d forgotten to tell you, and I meant to mention it as soon as I got home. But now that I’m home, I forgot what it was.
It’ll come back.
Not after it went away. It rarely comes back after it goes away.
It always comes back to me, usually at the most unexpected time. Like the middle of
(Lauretta pulls two large tomatoes from a bag.)
Look at these heirloom tomatoes. They’re the size of somebody’s fist.
(Ben doesn’t look up. Lauretta places them
in the refrigerator.)
What was the subject matter?
Can’t remember. But it wouldn’t matter if I did.
Of course it would. It would help you remember what you forgot.
It wouldn’t. Let’s say the subject was Daniel. Or Dartmouth. Knowing that wouldn’t help me one bit…Granny Smith apples were on sale but I prefer the Fuji so I bought four Fuji. I also like the Johnagold and the honeycrisp. I hate the Pink Lady. I hate the Pink Lady with a passion.
Was it about Daniel?
I told you I don’t recall.
No, you told me you forgot what you recalled. So you did recall at a certain point.
Well, not at this point. At this point I have no recollection. But I don’t think it had anything to do with Daniel or Dartmouth.
Was there something at the store that bothered you? Did you have an unpleasant encounter at the counter?
Actually I did encounter a rather unpleasant situation. I was in the Under Fifteen items line, and the blowsy, bleach blonde battle-ax behind me had the gall to count my items which were still in the cart. She came up with sixteen. But she was counting each apple and each orange separately. Isn’t that ridiculous?
Were the oranges the same kind?
Both were blood. I didn’t really want the blood, but they didn’t have one stinking Valencia left. Only blood. Not even a navel.
Is that what you wanted to tell me?
If I remembered something that I’d forgotten to tell you, and the last time I saw you was hours prior to my trip to the grocery store, nothing that took place in the store holds any significance.
Fine. I won’t mention the store again.
(Lauretta pulls out a two-pound calf’s liver in butcher paper.)
The calf’s liver was on sale. I thought we might have it tomorrow.
(She puts it in the cabinet above the oven. As she
reaches, she strains her back.)
You don’t think of me as forty, do you?
Of course not.
Thank you, Ben.
I think of you as forty-one.
But…I look ten years younger, don’t you think? I hear that all the time, how much younger I look. My dress size hasn’t changed in a decade.
What’s important is how old you feel.
Absolutely. And I feel thirty. One.
(Very softly, almost to herself)
I honestly didn’t remember putting that cherry blossom pink scarf in my jacket pocket at Saks. I remembered seeing it, feeling it, even thinking it would be the perfect splash of color with my slate gray blouse and black skirt. But I could’ve sworn I put it back on the shelf with the other steaks.
Will you go shopping with me next time, Ben?
If that’s what you want. As long as we don’t go to that health food factory. I’m not the least bit interested in sprouts or greens.
Greens. Good for optimum health. I think it had something to do with greens.
What did? The thing you wanted to tell me but forgot?
Ah, then it couldn’t have been very important. I mean, how urgent can bib lettuce or broccoli spears be?
Chopping. Chopping greens, chopping celery. She was chopping celery, that’s right.
Who was chopping celery?
In her lovely new kitchen. Valerie du Plexis Rose.
(The pleasant classical piece on the radio comes to an abrupt end, allowing the mournful moan of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3 to fill the air. Ben suddenly comes to nervous, jittery life. Alarmed, he tosses the newspaper down, focuses on Lauretta.)
You saw Valerie du Plexis Rose chopping celery?
When did you see Valerie du Plexis Rose chopping celery?
Where did you see Valerie du Plexis Rose chopping celery?
At her house. On Swansdown Drive.
I know where her house is.
Yes, I’m aware that you know the location of her lovely house. Are you familiar with that unique smell of water on the sidewalk? Her sprinkler was going at full blast, hitting more cement than grass, and in light of our impending drought, I became angry. What a waste of water. I thought it was terribly irresponsible of her to let this happen. The front door was unlocked so I wandered in to tell her to turn the darn sprinkler off.
You entered her house.
Yes. I followed what sounded like chopping. Sure enough, Valerie du Plexis Rose was chopping celery on a wooden block in her lovely, cerulean-colored kitchen. I really don’t know what you saw in her, with that frosted hair and those artificially plumped lips. She had a plastic sheen, like processed cheese…I devoted myself to you Ben, every day for twenty years. We raised a son, and now that he’s in college I thought we’d have time for ourselves. Instead, you made time for Valerie du Plexis Rose.
She was terribly surprised to see me. Stunned, one might say. So she put the knife down and asked what I wanted.
You told her about the sprinkler?
I told her I wanted a cup of coffee. A pot was brewing and it smelled so intoxicating. You know how I love the smell of coffee. I almost love its scent more than its taste. ‘All right’, she said in that throaty voice. “I’ll pour you a cup.” That was nice of her, don’t you think?
I thought it was exceedingly nice, considering the circumstances.
It was phenomenal. Extraordinarily nice.
Well let’s not get carried away. It was nice, not deserving of a Nobel Prize.
At that point, she turned away from me with those colossal breasts on exhibit, like an avant-garde piece of art. She turned toward the cabinet to fetch a coffee cup, and I grabbed the knife which was heavier than it looked. Then she turned to me quickly, and came closer. In her speed, she accidentally impaled herself on the sharp blade of the knife…Then something awful happened Ben, something I’m not terribly proud of. You’ll think it was positively thoughtless of me and I wouldn’t blame you.
Tell me. Now.
Valerie was standing inches away from me, with the sharp blade firmly in her stomach, an inch or so to the left of her navel. Or Valencia. Instead of pulling the knife out, I turned it clockwise, one complete rotation. And then I pulled it out. She was staring at me with an odd, confused expression. Quizzical, but slightly impressed, as if she admired me for having the guts to do such a thing. She couldn’t speak, but I’m sure that’s what she was thinking—that she admired me for having the guts to do such a thing. You won’t believe what happened next, Ben. What happened next was truly tragic and amazing.
What happened next, Lauretta?
The poor bitch was losing blood quickly. It came gushing out of her, like an oil well. Not spurting, but gushing. Not cascading. Closer to surging. But gushing is what it was. The blood was gushing as if it couldn’t wait to exit her skinny body. But that’s beside the point. Here’s what happened next, Ben. Next, Valerie du Plexis Rose took the deepest breath she could muster, gathered every ounce of her remaining strength in her weakening body, and punched me in the stomach. Hard. She wanted to knock me on my ass. Unfortunately for her, I didn’t fall to the floor. I certainly didn’t want to get blood all over my pale pink Zac Posen summer dress, especially her blood, the blood of my husband’s mistress.
What did you do then, Lauretta?
I poured myself a cup of coffee and opened the refrigerator to get some milk, but the only thing the aging whore had was a half-filled container of Half & Half, and you know I don’t care for Half & Half. However, I did find a pint of vanilla bean ice cream in the freezer. So I grabbed a spoon and put a scoop of it in my coffee cup. Wasn’t that resourceful? I took a few sips, and then I drove home. The knife is in the back seat, so there’s blood in the car. (Eyes light up like lanterns.) That’s what I forgot to tell you, Ben! The car needs washing!
What time does the car wash on Witch Hazel close?
(Ben gazes at Lauretta in disbelief. He reaches for his cell phone, races out the front door.
Lauretta stands perfectly still, dazed but oddly content, enjoying the surge of adrenaline her body produced.
She doesn’t realize she has one more item to unpack, a fist-size fist, until its blood began seeping through the paper bag and dripping on the white-tiled floor, like thick raindrops splashing on a windshield.)
THE LIGHTS FADE OUT.
-END OF PLAY-
Drama, Vol. 4.2, June 2010 CHARACTERS Bruce Brinkman Phil Christian Thief Officer Stage: Living room of a very old house, with furniture found on street corners. There is a sofa that fits three, a coffee table, and two chairs. The furniture forms a semi-circle around […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010 There is rain. It is raining. The children, they play. The rocks are knuckle bones. The jacks dried cartilage. The paint is red and the red is blood and the blood is what they took from one another when no […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Stealing through the stranger’s yard, Virginia Marple regretted once more how she’d lost her temper at the Elysian Fields rest home earlier, the way she’d lashed out at the three women around the table—her oldest friends, now a twice-weekly bridge club.
“I am not Miss Jane Marple,” she had declared when Cass compared Virginia’s recent concerns to those of her “namesake”—stiffening sharply. “And don’t any of you dare….” Some small breaking point had been reached, her prided composure gone.
But even now, with her eyesight already strained and the branches overhead muddying the scant moonlight, Virginia pictured ever more clearly—and with renewed astonishment—the spinster detective’s pink cheeks and blue eyes, her hair fixed up in a bun, the way the old woman had been content to knit by the fire, watch birds through her binoculars, tend to her garden… so sunnily tranquil. The comparison had been enough to make Virginia want to forsake the tulips budding back in her own yard, the pink and white vincas, the lush marigolds soon to emerge, the red and purple salvia set to carry her through to fall.
And yet hadn’t their comparison been accurate? Wasn’t that why she was here tonight, dressed head-to-toe in black, her frail joints aching as she squatted in the shadows of first one oak tree and then the next, her knobby fingers pressed against their hides? Didn’t she hope to prove that she was indeed as keen as Agatha Christie’s old maid?
Virginia couldn’t bear the thought of being shut up in the Elysian herself, of Preston taking away her license, stripping her of what freedom she did have. And after all, she hadn’t read all of the clues wrong.
- The driver had wide shoulders, a fierce expression, short blond hair, an earring. (Even in the rearview mirror, that gold hoop had been vivid, winking nastily in the morning sun. Virginia had never gotten used to earrings on men…)
- The passenger had a thin face, wide eyes, an open mouth, a ponytail. (Virginia had seen her from two angles, once in the mirror and then in profile as the driver swerved around Virginia’s Cadillac and sped away.)
- The truck was a silver Toyota SUV. (Virginia heard the television jingle dancing through her head—Oh, what a feeling!—even as she had emphasized to the policeman that it was an “SUV,” careful to use the right term.)
- The license plate was MSW 1158. (Martin Senour White: the color her husband had used for each of their rooms, declaring, “Where paint is concerned, Gin, this house is a patriarchy.” November 1958: The birth month and year of her only son, Preston.)
Three extraneous details:
- Moments before the accident, staring into the rearview mirror, Virginia saw that the trees along the street were thick with caterpillar nests, densely meshed and angular, reminding her of the first time she’d seen them more than sixty years before and of the rusting rake in her father’s hand, of the flaming rag balanced at its tip, and of her relief that the web—and the small life writhing incandescently within—were so far just out of her father’s reach.
- Virginia’s knuckles had turned white as her hands locked around the steering wheel, preparing for the impact.
- Drivers get younger every year.
Assessments from two of Virginia’s friends at the Elysian Fields:
- “Issues of personal responsibility are a foreign notion to young people in this day and age,” said Margaret, adjusting the gauzy scarf tied tight around her long, thin neck, picking a speck of lint from the white linen suit she often wore for Wednesday church. “It’s the culture they were brought up in, the world we live in today. They’ve become vermin. They’ve become slugs.”
- “It’s the same old story: teenaged sweethearts out all night playing lovey-dovey, and then ‘Oops! What light through yonder window breaks,’ and ‘Wake up, little Susie, we gotta get you home.’” Cass, a former English teacher, cinched the belt of her silk kimono, smoothed the flamestitch lapels, secured the copy of True Detective magazine in her pocket. “Today’s morals are no different from ancient times. Young boys just don’t know what to do with all that testosterone. Their little peckers start growing and their brains cut off.”
The components of one camouflage outfit, pieced together from various corners of Virginia’s home:
- Donna Karan slacks in the perfect shade of flat black.
- A black Jill St. John knit sweater generally too warm for August, but pulled out of winter storage early for the occasion.
- A black beret picked up years before in Paris with her late husband. Worn only once, to a theme party at the neighbors’.
- A large black handbag containing a wallet, a cell phone, and a scrap of paper with the numbers for the police and the hospital. Also hiding an orange flare gun her husband had kept for the boat they’d once owned. Found in a shoebox in the top of the hall closet with a trio of flares. Unloaded, for safety.
As she eased across the yard toward the lighted window on the west side of the house, Virginia tried not to notice how the boxwoods looked like sentries or how the streetlights cast ominous shadows on the yard. She tried not to think of the phone call she’d received from James Hildred, the man who owned this house, the man she now found herself stalking, or of what the policeman had told her when he finally phoned to follow up on the incident. But she could not avoid recognizing that she was now closer in age to Jane Marple than to the younger women who turned up in Christie’s romantic subplots, the ones she had always identified with the first time she’d read the books. She could not entirely avoid pretending that the girl inside the house—Jill was her name, Virginia had learned—that Jill was one of those innocent young women, waiting for some slim salvation. And throughout these thoughts drifted images of the Elysian Fields rest home, of women who stared idly at the parlor television all day and of their parade of walkers, wheelchairs and ailments. And of Nell too, her third friend at the Elysian Fields, squat and plump in a frayed terrycloth robe, her long gray hair rolling in ringlets around her face, her hands motionless as they clutched along the edge of the table, that thickening glaze of her eyes, that silence.
The branches of the bushes scraped against Virginia’s sweater as she pushed through the shrubbery. Pine needles crunched beneath her feet. Keeping her eyes focused on the sinister glow from the window farther down the wall, Virginia stopped in her tracks, waiting for another light to shine suddenly or a door to open—for some voice to cry out, “Who’s there? What are you doing in my yard? What do you want, old woman?”
Excerpts from four conversations, mainly one-sided, that Virginia couldn’t entirely untwine anymore:
- “What has gotten into you, Ginny? Don’t you know burning is the only way to get rid of them? Those caterpillars would destroy the crops. Now don’t you ask me about it again, you hear, girl?”
- “Mrs. Marple, this is Jim Hildred. I just got in from out-of-town and heard from my wife that you and my daughter, Jill, were involved in a little fender-bender this morning. Instead of you filing on the insurance, I’d like to pay the repairs myself.”
- “Yes, ma’am, that’s right: a girl. I can see how you might’ve thought otherwise with those big, slumped-over shoulders of hers, but it was her all right, right down to those gold hoop earrings you mentioned. ’Course, she tried to say it hadn’t been her, but the badge goes a long ways toward persuading folks, and I twisted her arm enough that she finally fessed up to what she’d done. The mother came home soon after that and told me that they’d been having trouble with their daughter lately—trouble at school, trouble at home. And to tell the truth, the mother looked about as wrung-out as the girl did.”
- “So the driver was a girl. Well, I guess that shoots my testosterone theory all to hell. And worse, Margaret was right all along: Just some irresponsible little twit behind the wheel. But mark my words: I wouldn’t have gotten it wrong myself if you’d just gotten it right in the first place. ”
- “Don’t you dare grab at this rake again, you hear me? You best learn your place, young lady, or I’m gonna tan your hide for real. And don’t you be cryin’ none. I barely touched you, and you know it.”
- “No, my wife did not tell me that Jill had just driven off like that, and I had no idea the police had come by my home. Mrs. Marple, I don’t tolerate lying in my household, and I won’t tolerate my daughter’s behavior toward you this morning. Let me assure you that I take discipline very seriously, and there’s a good many lessons to be learned by everyone here. My daughter will sorely regret having been so careless and irresponsible, and as for my wife….”
- “Yes, ma’am, I ended up not putting the hit-and-run on the official report. Just listed it as an accident with the girl at fault. I’ve seen enough of these cases to know that some of these parents… well, ma’am, you know how young’uns are. You have somebody snatch a knot in your tail—excuse my language, ma’am—but if you do, you won’t make the same mistake again.”
- “Anger and arrogance. That’s right—it was all anger and arrogance when you had some little peckerhead pegged for swerving into you with that gas-guzzling deathtrap. Then you find out it was a girl behind the wheel and now you’re chock full of compassion. But listen up: Whether it was an accident or not, she all but ran over you, Gin, and would’ve left you there without a second thought for your safety.”
Three persistent images, one imagined:
- Caterpillars falling like shards of sunlight to the ground—wriggling, wrestling, pop pop pop.
- James Hildred doubling his belt in his hands, snapping it tight, seething in the hallway as he waits for wife and daughter to emerge from their hiding place in the bathroom.
- Nell’s gaze drifting around the parlor at the Elysian Fields, her focus never clearer than when her eyes settle on some empty spot on the wall or some vacant corner of the room.
Questions for two of the men from Virginia’s past—never asked:
- Why can we not paint the walls in the living room yellow, or have green in the bathroom? What’s wrong with a nice mauve when we lie down for bed?
- But what about the butterflies?
One series of questions from her son Preston, asked on the phone:
- “Mama, are you sure that you were already stopped when that truck hit you? Are you sure you had your foot on the brake? Did the policeman seem at all skeptical that the accident was the other driver’s fault?”
Wedged behind the boxwoods, pressed tight against the brick, Virginia leaned her head back to stare up at the open window above her, its frame covered only by a lightweight screen. Voices murmured inside, but she could barely hear them over the clatter of Preston’s questions in her memory.
“One foot off the pedal, one foot closer to the grave,” said another voice—one of her friends at the Elysian Fields—and though Virginia couldn’t recall which one had said it, she knew it was true. The years passed so quickly. Inevitability bred consent, and soon consent became its own inevitability. We chose a path, bided our days, slowly disappeared.
All too soon, Preston would ask again for her license. She pictured herself moving away from the Martin Senour White walls she had learned to love, and saw her lawn falling prey to leafspot and mildew, aphids and Japanese beetles, caterpillars and slugs. She imagined her hands clutched around the edge of a card table, struggling for some balance in what was left of her life. Her gaze too might drift off from disuse.
But now there was still time to see. She hadn’t gotten all of the clues wrong, and she felt certain that the new clues were trying to tell her something. Margaret had first called the driver of the truck a slug, but now Virginia wondered if there might instead be something else behind these walls, struggling to be born.
Once more, Virginia tried to make out the voices through the window, recognized the deep bass of the man who’d called her on the phone. Once more came the echoes of other words in her memory: I don’t tolerate… I take discipline very seriously… my daughter will sorely regret…. you best learn your place, young lady… you best or… tan your hide… snatch a knot in your tail…. And what would she herself say when it was all over? Look here, Preston. I can see things well. I can see things that you don’t see, that no one saw but me. I can take care of myself. I can take care of other people. And if I can do all that, then surely I can drive myself around town, can’t I?
Virginia fumbled in her handbag and shifted through its contents. As she removed the orange gun, she smiled to consider how she suddenly envied old Jane Marple.
And when I’m done here, I’ll drive down to the paint store. I’ll drive down to the paint store, license in hand, and buy myself a gallon or two of paint.
She loaded the flare, shifted her weight, rose to her knees.
Monarch yellow , she thought, as she gripped her fingers around the windowsill and hefted the flare gun in her other hand. “Swallowtail blue,” she said aloud, to catch the man’s attention before she pulled herself up and set her sights inside.
Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010 I Age seven. In order to impress my rawhide and steak-bone grandpa, I ate a cigarette butt out of his coffee can ashtray. It tasted like charred plastic, soggy firewood and spit, but also like hairy chests and manhood. I […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010 After searching the city for weeks, I have finally found a fountain that can console me. It is not a particularly striking fountain; not architecturally significant. There is nothing about its design that would catch the eye of the fountain […]
Fiction, Vol. 4.2, June 2010
Nine armless, legless torsos are laid out in front of us on the table. All males, all plastic. The one they gave me, the lungs don’t work, so every time I breathe in I can’t tell if I’m doing it right. The others’ chests rise and fall, but my guy’s just lays there, flat, dead. I asked if I was blowing too soft, and the instructor said I was doing fine, that it was just a normal breath. He said, “When we get to the babies though, someone like you blows too hard and you’ll pop their lungs, actually cause ‘em to explode. So small breaths then.”
We sit around two cheap rectangular tables pushed together in what looks like it used to be a front reception area for a converted business office building. My fellow students, there’s eight of them, all female, every one of them is a nurse, or was a nurse, has since moved up in the medical chain. They casually use words like perfusion and pulmonary. Neonate. They’re not showing off their vocabulary. It’s just the right word, the most clear way to get across their point. They know the correct way to hold their hands even before the instructor shows them, fingers interlaced. They’re calm. You’d definitely want them to save your life. They’re Laotian and Jamaican, a smiling older woman from Columbia, a shy white girl from Northridge, a Malaysian anesthesiologist with bright cherry red lips. I wish I could date all of them. Especially the Jamaican girl. Some people just have a presence that draws you, this beauty that thrills you, and it’s all so individualized, what attracts humans, but with her I felt a strong pull, a wish that I was brave enough to ask her out. I’m so single it’s painful. Last month I made California minimum wage through a temp agency. This month, nothing. They make $37 an hour. They must have the best health plans on the globe. I wish I would have followed their life paths. I wish I would have listened to my parents and did what was financially wise instead of going after my dreams, because after a year in L.A. you realize that to become a professional actor you have to have rich parents; that’s about it, the only real prerequisite. You don’t even need talent. At least all the actors I’ve met. You ask about their lives and find out they grew up in Malibu, had lawyer dads, third generation Yale grads. My parents were teachers. My dad started off at $4000 a year. I’m assuming none of these women in this room wanted to be actresses or if they did they wisely put that on hold until they were sure they could pay twelve months worth of rent. I’m also assuming they didn’t grow up in Malibu, that they don’t have Wall Street moms. Their childhoods were bilingual, with immigrant parents, grew up on coupons. Now they live comfortably. They have wedding rings, boyfriends scheduled to pick them up at 2:30 p.m. They have lives.
We’re learning CPR, how to open an airway, how to give abdominal thrusts to a choking victim.
The instructor gives us a smoke break, the only one of the day. Only one person actually smokes—the instructor. The only guy in the room other than me. He walks out. We all sit, an uncomfortable silence. Two of the nurses start a quiet conversation in what I think is Spanish. The sole white girl stands, slowly sidesteps along following a series of wall photographs depicting the proper application of the Kendrick Extrication Device; she looks like she’s at an art museum, head cocked.
I go to the unisex bathroom, try the handle, but it doesn’t move. The Columbian woman looks at me, not smiling. I creep outside.
The instructor is simultaneously thin with a high body fat ratio, skinny with a beer gut. He’s a paramedic in Brea and I know he can lift 125 pounds by himself because he told us that all EMTs and paramedics have to be able to do that. “I should quit these,” he says, holding up his Marlboro.
I haven’t touched a cigarette in eight months and want to brag about it, but hold back. “How long you been a paramedic?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Six years,” he says, “Seven.”
He nods yes, blows out smoke.
I notice he’s missing half of his left ring finger.
All day long, all through the entirety of adult CPR, and I never noticed the finger. He notices me notice it, so I try to think of something to say, but luckily he covers for me.
“So you’re just taking this to learn,” he says, “That’s great.”
“Yeah,” I say, putting my head down. I don’t want to tell him why I’m here, but I could feel a big question mark in the room when we had to go around telling about ourselves and why we were taking the class. Everyone said the hospital or clinic or nursing home they work at and said it was their “refresher.” That’s how it went around the room. “Jan Chang. Children’s Laboratory, Encino. Refresher.” “Mireya Grant, Valley Presbyterian Maternity, Van Nuys, refresher.” When it came to me, I said my name and that I don’t work at a hospital and left it at that. I felt like people didn’t like my vagueness. The instructor paused to see if I’d say more and when I didn’t he looked at the next person and she said who she is, filled in the silence. My eyes got teary, bad memories and a reaction I have whenever I feel like I don’t belong in a room, so I reached down and untied my shoe, retied it.
I’d finally started talking about it with my V.A. counselor. It’d taken twenty-two years, but it had come out, an accident, nine months of conversation with my current counselor, a day when she sat quiet, a lull at the opening of the session and she said, “I have to ask, why do you always sit with your knee like that, up by your face? Do you feel threatened?”
I put my knee down.
“It blocks the photo,” I said.
The photo was her family—her husband (tall, British, not good looking, a radiant sense of kindness), her daughter (braces, serious and studious face, beautiful straight blonde hair), and a baby (tiny, giggling) in her daughter’s arms. I wasn’t sure if the counselor was a mother or grandmother.
“Why would you want to block the photo?”
And then I had to figure out why.
It was a relatively happy family, as happy as any family can be with its guaranteed fights and tears and broken windows.
“The baby,” I said.
“And why don’t you like the baby?”
“It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that I don’t want to see it.”
I had told her about my loneliness, about my daydreams about holding a pregnant wife in my arms, about wanting to have children, so I could feel that playing back to her, that inner tape of our conversation, and so she knew it wasn’t that.
And then it came out. I actually like those moments of therapy, where your tongue unleashes and you say things you didn’t even know were in there. And for me, I’m sixteen, babysitting for our neighbor, Mrs. Goneimi, who needed to head out for an hour. She loved me, Mrs. Goneimi. I used to be hyperactive, used to constantly tease her, and I’d have her laughing. She trusted me while she was out—only an hour—while I watched her baby. “She’s asleep,” she said, “She’ll be fine and I’ll be right back.” And she was fine.
For forty minutes she slept, and then woke up and cried, and the crying was something that, at sixteen, frightened me worse than horror movies. I was too nervous to touch her, to pick her up. I’d seen people pick up babies and I always worried that their neck was going to break. They seemed like they were made of glass. Like they were more fragile than the thinnest paper. And the crying got worse, wailing, so that I looked at the clock and rushed to the window and paced and prayed, and I never pray, unless it’s absolutely necessary, because I have always believed you only get a certain number of prayers and then God just gets sick of you. But the wailing was not normal, there was this intense urgency so I got down on my knees because I’d seen that on Christian cartoons, the one with the talking dog, that that’s how you’re supposed to pray, so I did it, and I hadn’t prayed since our championship Little League loss, so I felt that God owed me since he didn’t fulfill my last request, and maybe God heard that thought, because right when I was praying the gagging started and I had all this water in me that was just ready to flood out, because I had no greater fear than death and death of babies in particular and Mrs. Goneimi was stupid enough to allow me to get caught in this position, so I rushed to the phone on the wall—this was pre-cell phone days—and dialed my mom and she didn’t pick up—and this was pre-answering machine days—and the thirteenth and fourteenth rings were maddening, like I was losing my mind, and when the baby wouldn’t stop, I didn’t drop the phone, I threw it against the wall, pretending the wall was God’s face, because this was ridiculous and then the crying stopped and that was worse.
I stood over the crib and saw that her breathing had quit, and don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have made sense to anyone listening, fragments of thoughts, and I was going to have to conquer one of my greatest fears and touch a baby and they didn’t know that, Mrs. Goneimi didn’t know that, that I’d never so much as even touched one, because I was sure I’d drop her. I’d dropped baseballs at key points exactly when you’re not supposed to drop them. And I’d dropped a dozen roses right when Kathy Wooly came to the door for the first date I ever went on. And so why wouldn’t I drop a baby? So I was so cautious it was like I was guilty. The neck, in particular, I was so gentle with, just being sure that it stayed as straight as I could keep it, and the face seemed to be turning blue, and I tried to hurry to the front door but I couldn’t run, because I just had horrible images, and the door wouldn’t open and I’m sure I was crying at this point and then it opened and I walked out in the middle of the street crying holding this dead baby, this blue baby, and in my mind it was dark blue now, it was skeletal now, and I saw a neighbor come, Mr. Cort, come out of his house and walked straight for him and gave him the baby and he took it and ran with it into his house, actually ran, and when he took it he wasn’t careful with the neck and I dropped down on his driveway and he must have washed his car earlier in the day because the pavement was wet and I could feel it in my knees and I kneeled like that with the Lameer boys watching me. I don’t know how I got home, or got into my bed, or anything, I just remember my mom saying that the baby was fine, that it was OK, and I told her that it was blue and she said that Mr. Cort didn’t say anything about the baby being blue and then I was back in the counselor’s office and in the reflection of the photograph I could see myself and my face was red and worn and it felt like some kind of deep dark heavy metal door in my chest had opened and years of bad air was finally able to come out.
And the counselor didn’t tell me this, because she didn’t tell me much really. Her job seemed easy to me. It seemed like she just took notes. But I had the idea, just like the idea that I needed to quit smoking, the idea that I needed to never be like that 16-year-old again, and coming to this class I was hoping would change me. It was on a list of four things I’d written down to help change my life. This was step number three and I was getting that much closer to having a life too. I was single at thirty-eight. And I think I’d first started to put my leg up to block that photo right around the time when we got into it about smoking, how it was a pack a day, how it was the way I was trying to kill myself, cigarette by cigarette. At least that’s what I deduced. The counselor didn’t tell me anything. I just had this strong image that I had to quit smoking. And this strong need to take this class. And one thing was leading into the next. It was a really strange plot that God was setting up for my life. And if He had to write all of this out, I thought it must be exhausting, planning all these intricate interconnections, all these Sherlock Holmes clues to our psyches. Crazy.
I wanted to say all of this to the instructor, but I didn’t.
I wanted to tell him that I felt this awe that he must have saved a hundred lives by now, but instead all I said was, “How do you handle the gore?”
All of the things I could have said and wanted to say and that’s what I said.
“The blood and stuff.”
He told me he had been an EMT for the majority of his years doing this, that he’d recently become a paramedic, and he said that despite being called an Emergency Medical Tech, the majority of his calls were non-emergencies. “We’re basically medical taxi cabs,” he said, “You pick up an elderly patient not feeling well and you drive them to the hospital. Where’s the gore in that?” He also said that even now as a paramedic doing emergency calls the blood and guts don’t get to him, that it’s never really fazed him. “Although I hate dandruff,” he said, “That makes me want to vomit. I had one patient, this woman, she had so much dandruff and she was itching her scalp and it was just floating in the air, like snow, and I was breathing it in. It drove me crazy.”
He sucked in his final smoke, put out the cigarette in a red barrel, and said, “I’ve seen a lot of corpses. And that doesn’t really bug me. It just doesn’t. Even kids,” he said, “I’ve seen dead kids and I thought that that’d give me nightmares and stuff and it hasn’t. I don’t know if I’m in another mode when things are, you know, major MCI stuff, but we had one night where we got an MVA. That’s a Motor Vehicle Accident call, you get those a lot, and it was a family, a family in an SUV. Bad. You have two vehicles in a head-on each going 65 miles per hour, that’s like a car going 130 miles per hour into a wall. I don’t know about the other car. But we took the SUV family to the hospital. And I was fine. I was fine until we got to there, where there was this pause where I was leaning against the wall. And there was this moment where they were all lined up. They had them in a line, these four bodies. It was a mother, a father, a son, and a daughter, all next to each other.” At this point his eyes filled with water but the tear never fell, just glassy and beautiful. “And, I don’t know, seeing them like that, it hit me, how fast you can lose everything, how an entire family can go, just like that.”
I noticed he didn’t have a wedding ring, but I could see him looking past me, seeing his wife, kids, just felt that he had them. That he must take his ring off when he teaches, when he works.
“We have to get back,” he said, bending over to pick up a butt on the ground, throw it away. “What you do anyhow?”
“For a job?”
“Well, I wanted to be an actor, but I’m starting to kind of give up now.”
“You should be an EMT. Ten weeks of school, you start making thirty grand a year. Tons of pretty nurses at the hospitals you’d be working at. It’s a good life.” He walked back inside.
Like magic, all of the adult CPR torsos had gone. One of the nurses must have put them away and replaced them.
In front of each of us was a baby. Plastic, yes, but there was a believability to their faces. I still got the impression that they were scared, fragile, and that I needed to practice, not only saving them, but practice just holding one.
I picked mine up, not like you’d normally pick up a dummy, but with real care, cradled it, gentle, and looked down at it thinking, “I’m going to save your life,” and I looked up and the Columbian woman was looking at me smiling. So was the Jamaican nurse.