Winner of the 2016 J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction
Linda McCullough Moore
I’m sitting in my daughter’s kitchen, mentally askew, as though some whirlwind’s swirled me into space and with some sudden change of currents dropped me here; my visit that planful, that calculated for success. I’m sixty-four. My daughter Julie turns thirty-three this fall. How to reconcile the day’s reality with numbers that unlikely—make peace with years’ accumulating with no by your leave—and now, this terror twist.
“Would you like coffee?” Julie doesn’t turn, but stands lip-counting teaspoons into the coffee pot. I want to say she did this as a child, but truth demanding to hold sway, I have to say that I recall so little of her then. I look at old pictures and wish that it were possible to enlarge the frame a hundredfold, to see not just the captured child or parent, but the room, the house, the yard, the neighborhood. Posed pictures, home movies, only show things the way we wished they were.
“Mother, coffee? Juice? Toast? Oatmeal?” Julie says.
I’ve been here twelve hours, and I have been offered eighty-seven things.
I sit in what we used to call the breakfast nook, under the guise of studying the backyard. I watch as Julie opens up a can of pumpkin. It takes her three tries, then as she scoops the filling into a mixing bowl she drops sticky brown-orange dabs on the counter, on the bowl rim, on the floor.
She looks up in time to catch the pity in my eyes.
“I was not a good mother to you.” The words betray my desperation to be guilty of some sin worse than spilling pumpkin all around. Plus, today she looks so old, and I am still her mother. I have not spared her even this.
“What are you talking about?” Her voice betrays
What if I had known how to offer such distraction when she was a child, awkward in the kitchen—if she was; she probably was—dropping cookie dough on countertops, sifting flour on the floor. You would think that thirty years might take the edge off, but it only sharpens certain guilts.
“What are you making?” I say.
“Ummm, sounds good.” I’m trying way too hard.
Why is it with certain people—certain offspring—you must vet every phrase, evaluate each shrug before you even think to raise a shoulder? So self-conscious. So other-conscious. For a dozen years I’ve wondered, What if we just spoke? What if every breath did not require a pause, a weigh-and-measure? As it is, we’re careful beyond reason, our tight constraint spun out to brittle sticks; restraint calcifies our conversation until, sooner or later, the exchange just cracks, and one or both of us blurts out some horror.
We are the soul and substance of politeness, that is, until I sigh and say, “Why didn’t you think to marry someone decent?” or Julie murmurs, “Aunt Louie always said you were the coldest person she ever knew.” Then a stony silence takes the place of spite, until by suppertime we are reduced to: “I wonder if I might possibly ask you to pass me the salt.”
“You don’t have to come today,” Julie says. At 3 o’clock she’s seeing the oncologist her GP has recommended for the big what-next.
“I’m coming,” I say. Too little. Far too late. “I’m coming.”
The doctor is thirteen. He’s wearing braces. Talk about too little, too late. He’s still got acne. He will never be handsome. Most people won’t be. Most people aren’t now. There are
“I’m sorry?” I say.
“Do you have any questions?” the adolescent doctor says to me.
So, I’m still the mother then. I seem to have lost consciousness after he said the word prognosis. But what does he know? He’s known Julie fifteen minutes. I’ve known her all her life, and I’ll be damned if I am going to sit by and let him enroll her in the ranks of his statistics.
“When?” Julie says.
“Next Tuesday morning,” he says.
“No,” I say. “What?”
“Surgery, Mother. Pay attention.”
“I’ll drive you to the airport if you want to fly home on Monday,” Julie says once we reach the car.
“I’m staying here,” I say.
At 3 a.m. the lighted numbers on the clock are coded symbols for the information that I have lived my life wrong. Every minute click-change signals more regret. Afternoon naps on the big chair in the sunroom are much the same. I close my eyes against the sunlight, unroll the looping scroll of my misgivings.
My neighbor, Judy Wilson, has a son, Joe, who at the age of twenty-seven was struck by lightning—or close enough. On a Tuesday he was well, on Wednesday had the sniffles, Thursday a slight temp. By Friday, he was in a coma. Encephalitis. For six ungodly weeks he lay unwitting—nothing more than some spectral receptacle for plastic tubes and metal patches—inert and unresisting. In the seven months that followed his awaking, he has not returned.
Another man has come to take his place, a younger, softer, gentler version of the son/husband/father that he was, then two years married with an infant daughter.
Judy told me on the phone that she and her husband rowed out on the pond one night last week, under a full moon, remembering how often they had paddled there with Joe in moonlight, sung together, gliding without effort or direction. She names the songs they sang, Joe singing tender tenor, Joe’s dad carrying the melody—sung an octave lower—Judy harmonizing. She’s told me of their singing, oh, so many times. I even heard them once. They sounded like a choir. Down to the River to Pray. That was one song.
Judy’s life is a waking nightmare. Her life is broken in a hundred different places, and I envy her with a soul-damning, black-green, evil-ended envy—I believe: with cause. I envy her because I’ve no canoe to paddle in, no pond, no moon, no man to carry the melody—no matter in what octave—or to remember anything with me. No man, or worse, far sadder: nothing much for memory to bring back. On not one night in all my life have I drifted through dark water underneath a serious moon with men I loved and harmonized. In the last fifty years I’ve known no midnight that was not drained of all but sleep—or loneliness, or fright. Poor planning. Lousy planning on my part. Poor living. I’ve laid in no supply of memory against this day, nothing to call back, no lake to lie upon and dream.
By now I see I’ve got the full attention of the courtroom—the jaded judge, the well-intentioned jury, the robot court reporter—they all want to know why all I have to offer Julie today is sitcoms on TV. We two never did anything together that we might repeat with any sort of pleasure. Why not? the judge will have me tell. Why not? the jury parrots. I never took the trouble to have fun or love with anyone, or not in any moonlit, velvet-nighted way.
Why not? they want to know.
Do I own up, avow I never liked the people I might do such things with.
I say: I was afraid.
Afraid of night and wind and water, afraid of day and calm and dry land too. I have encountered nothing in my life I was afraid to fear. Some people are afraid to be afraid of everything. They’re fearful they’ll miss living.
Me, I went to see the redwood forests once with Julie—the trees had lived a thousand years—and I was frightened by the isolation of the forest air. My fear outgrew the trees. In my mind I saw two rednecks in a beat-up pickup truck come to murder us and leave our bruised and broken bodies in a pile beside the massive, knobby roots. I am afraid in lonely places—locations I routinely populate with made-up menace, conjured perils wrought by scruffy lowlifes in plaid hunting jackets, men who bear the mark of ugly childhoods and one too many generations of inbreeding.
But what about that business of not liking the people?—The judge reminds me I am still under oath.
It’s the truth. I haven’t liked most people who have come my way. I am always holding out for someone better. I always think that people should be more amazing. I can’t accept that anyone I meet is it. I think the good ones are just out of reach, at a party on a screened porch down the block, their laughter and the sound of ice clinks in their glasses telling all. In the end I pretty much rejected everyone except this daughter—whom I so rarely see—and you cannot make a world out of two people, not even if you scotch tape them together, decorate them in crepe paper, festoon them with bright balloons. Not even if they call each other every afternoon, and say, “What did you do today?”
“What are you thinking, mother?” Julie nudges me. “You were just groaning.”
“I don’t think you ever asked me that before.” I think all anybody really wants is another person who cares enough to ask and wait around to hear the answer.
“Are you worried about Tuesday?” Julie says.
“No. I am worried about the last sixty years. I am not worried about the future. That can change. That can be good. It will be good for you, I know it.” I can’t do much, but I can be the one who speaks those words.
The past: this void I have created, this empty gulley I dug out of what I could have made into a life. The future: I cannot let my mind go there.
We have to be at the hospital by 5 a.m. I remember when I was growing up my mother and my aunts would spend five days in a row in the hospital “for tests,” and now they give you a heart transplant and send you home that afternoon. You used to spend the night before an operation there—as though a night in a skimpy johnny with a last meal of meatloaf, canned applesauce, and Wonder Bread somehow prepared your body for the onslaught . . . slaughter?
“Did we turn off the heater?” I don’t know what else to say.
When I was seven years old I cried and told my mother how the dentist frightened me. “I don’t know what to say,” my mother said. I always damned her for not making up a comfort for the child, but in this cold gray morning, I know too well the emptiness a mother is.
“Did you ever read . . . ?” My voice trails off. I can’t think of a book.
I want us to be on the other side of this, but God will have us in a holding pattern, circling around the moment when my daughter dies for at least an hour. An anesthetist told me once that basically his job was killing people and then bringing them back to life. He loved his work. His wife was the saddest woman I have ever known.
“Your hands are cold,” I say.
“They always are,” Julie says. I try to think if this is something that I knew.
“It was so cold the winter you were born,” I say, “there was so much ice one day that I had to get down and crawl from the car to the house, I was so afraid I’d fall and hurt you.”
But, no matter how much care you take, or for how long, life will wait you out, will leave you standing in an ugly corridor beside your pale and peaked daughter lying all but frozen on a gurney, and the only thing that you can think to do is make inane conversation.
“When I was little,” Julie says. Her voice trails off. She’s pretty drugged. “It was the house on Clement Street.” She waves her hand like Queen Elizabeth at a passing nurse. She waves at me. I wave back. “There was this little boy,” she says.
“Julie McKenzie?” A man in blue pajamas walks over to us and begins to push my daughter off toward the heavy doors that open far too roughly with a mean jerk. He stops and turns and smiles my way, not at me, but close enough. I turn and plop down in a wheelchair standing empty and nearby, and for perhaps the first time I can remember I actually feel the slow descent to sleep. Death should be this kind.
I haven’t prayed for years, but now I batter the gates of heaven with a metal ramrod, yelling out, “Trade. Trade.” Alone at night in the dark kitchen, I cry, “Take me instead.” I spell it out for God: “How can you let me live? How could you waste on me the twenty years you won’t give her?”
“Why is life like this?” Julie speaks the clear words out of the ether fog. “How am I supposed to die?” she says. “How do people do that?” “What were are those years for?” “Where is Daddy?” Her father gone, these several years. Now, as ever, beyond my reach.
And I would walk the world and back to have an answer, even one. I would stomp across the planet, not bothering about cliffed mountains or the sea. I would walk forever just to find one true thing I might say to her. I would even have her father here, with his dark glowering at me, his old, schooled, scolding disregard, but with his sure devotion to our daughter.
“Daddy loved you most of anybody in the world,” I say.
I would give my life for hers, but I will not tell her one more lie.
“I saw God,” she says, waking from a nap. “He was riding on a horse.”
“A donkey?” I say.
“That’s what I mean. He was wearing a striped bathrobe. He had this rope he held that was attached to a tiny barrow.”
“Burro?” I say. “Is that Spanish?”
“Is God Spanish?” she says.
“Maybe,” I say. “Probably.”
“The burro was for me. I want to ride it. God said he’ll take me to the fair. He said that I could sleep with the other
When Julie was maybe four or five, we took her to the county fair. One time. I don’t remember going more than that one year. There was this odd tent set up in the middle of all the animal stalls. It had tables with brochures, tables covered with white cloths and little vases of field flowers. It seemed so random. Julie was fascinated. She said the tent was where all the animals camped out at night. She told us they had sleeping bags and they curled up together and told ghost stories, and outside the tent a bonfire burned, where the animals roasted marshmallows and figs. The details are fuzzy, but I do recall the figs. We never were the sort of family who went camping, so I don’t know where she got the idea. Our exposure to nature was pretty much confined to documentaries and IMAX screens, some of them a bit too real. We all liked natural history museums, wildlife stuffed and mounted, wired and bolted into place. Julie begged and begged us to return to the tent before we left the fairgrounds so she could show us all the animals asleep. Her dad, who had so little trouble saying yes to her, made sure we went back to that tent far later than we ever would have stayed. It must have been nine-thirty. We were both shocked that Julie had managed to stay awake.
Jake wanted to please Julie always, but I think his willingness to go out of his way to this extent that night was also born of his desire to disabuse her of any idea of magic, of any mystery in the order of things. He wanted to show her cows asleep in daytime stalls and horses in their caravans and cubicles. We had to walk a far distance to reach the tent, which was at the very border of the fairgrounds. Julie grabbed us both outside and shushed us, demanding that we tiptoe quietly and not disturb the snoozing pigs and lambs inside. It was she who lifted up the heavy tent flap, it was she who stood in front of us until our eyes adjusted to the darkness, just enough to let us see them sleeping there, stretched out, side by side in random rows, covered up with blankets and coats: a sea of children, sound asleep. A form rose from the farthest corner, a round, black shape that moved toward us, stepping carefully across the sleeping bodies. “What?” the shadow woman said. And Julie was the one to speak. “What’s going on here?” I’m positive those were the words she spoke, the authority of her voice so sharp and strong. “The children are asleep,” the woman whispered. “They travel with the carnival; they work hard all day, and so the owner lets them go off early in the night, and come here to sleep.”
“I want to be with all the other children,” Julie says now, her voice so druggy, and then she seems to fall so deeply, suddenly to sleep.
Could any human beings have missed the boat as stupidly as we, crafting for ourselves and for our helpless daughter this flimsy life facsimile? We worked at it. We were intentional. We stripped our lives of mystery, chipping away and peeling off a layer at a time, scraping any residue of belief in anything we couldn’t palpate. If something didn’t make a loud noise if you hit it with a hammer, it did not exist. The real was limited to just what we could see—we, with our blinders fixed in place, the curtains drawn, light filtered by dark shades. We fought the holy, tooth and nail; we railed against all source of solace in our straight-laced lives—unless of course the palliatives were chemical. The real: science. The sacramental: chemistry. How fitting that it’s now the god I charge to save us. There is one more drug they have the nerve to say they try in hopeless cases. The folklore is it worked two times in Norway—wresting two remissions when all hope was gone—anecdotes the data.
“The other children,” Julie mumbles the words, but doesn’t open up her eyes.
I sit alone in Julie’s sunroom. The sky has gone a soft gray color, but patterned with shaped clouds that seem to move with purpose against the distant white, a background there only to allow some definition. A lowering sky has always given me a feeling I would betray myself to name. It’s not hope. Better. It’s like the hoped-for come to be. I want to say it’s like a joy—if that were not a blatant contradiction of everything I’ve struggled my whole life to not believe.
“I want to sleep with all the other children in the tent,” Julie says again. “In the white tent.” She struggles to raise her head.
That night we stood above the bodies of the sleeping children, Julie moved, stepping carefully to a vacant space, and started to lie down.
“Stop,” Jake cried out, far too loudly. “No. Don’t,” he said, as though were her body to so much as touch the hard-packed ground, she would be lost to us forever.
We guarded her, not just from faith and fairytales, but from the being in any faith community with other people, which I think now the very sum and substance of believing.
Sitting here, the sky has lightened to a bright and arid white. Gray gone and with it any joy I might have had to fight against and drive away. There’s only evil now and pain—my long familiars.
We are in a tunnel in the bottom of the earth. The only thing missing from this picture are metal miner’s caps with lights that work, and grimy coal dust smeared across our shabby clothing and sunken faces.
“I don’t want to die in my condo,” Julie says, “but I sure as hell don’t want to die down here.”
“Sure as hell,” I say. I’m trying out my voice.
“Sure as hell,” Julie says, just as a paunchy, black guy in pale aqua scrubs sticks his head out of one of the x-ray chambers and calls Julie’s name. With the little flourish of a curled index finger, he beckons in a way that’s more than playful.
“Good grief,” Julie mutters as she rises.
“There is good grief,” the man says. “And then there is grief that’s black night, dark pit, lonely awful. My name is Harold.” He sticks out a hand, turning his head to wink at me, like I know better. “Yeah, Harold. Call me Harold, call me anything you want, just don’t call me late for dinner.” Then he laughs, so hard, so long, that by the time he’s finished, everybody lined up to be irradiated here is halfway giggling too. Julie just shakes her head, but I can see her shoulders have surrendered half the weight they carried through the door.
“So how you feel, my lady?” Harold’s voice carries crystal clear out from the unseen room, a fact which I suspect he knows full well. “We’re gonna’ be doing some temporary tattoo business on your jelly belly here. The ladies seem to like it. Freaks the average white man out the door. Long as it’s okay, I won’t close up the door. I got this little case of what you might call claustrophobia. I get the heebie-jeebies in a room that’s closed. Be at ease. I done this fourteen hundred times before. Why, shoot, girl, I had this whole radiation done twenty times one summer on my own six-pack abs here.” I swear I hear him pat his flabby belly.
I listen hard, but hear not so much as a neck-creak nodding in response.
“Who’s that bright-eyed, bushy-tailed female sitting there beside you?”
“My mother,” Julie says. “My dear, old mother.” Does Julie know she is addressing the entire waiting room, every person present pretending deep absorption in some magazine?
“Your sweet mama. Oops, sorry, the ink’s leaking just a bit; you got you a new, purple-colored wart down by your belly button here.”
I imagine Julie wincing. I have in four weeks’ time memorized the things her body does when it’s inclined to speak on her behalf.
Now they’ve gone dark silent. Dead of night, cell-killing silent.
The small, graying woman right across from me looks up at me above her reading glasses and wrinkles up her face and shrugs her shoulders in some dogged show of camaraderie.
I want to tell her it’s okay. But she would know it for a lie.
“Now I am going to be zapping you with thunder,” Harold says, “and I want to you to lie there letting every cancer cell in your whole body get itself blasted to smithereens. You ever seen a smithereen? I didn’t think so.”
I hold my breath to see if I can hear Julie breathing.
“Why, don’t be scared, girl,” Harold says, his voice gone slow and soft. “Jesus had it worse, way worse than this, and look at how He turned out. He got himself all resurrected, walking up and down the town and showing off his holey, holy body, healing randomly-selected gents and ladies and scooping up the rest to put them on the first train out to glory. Let’s them jump the line. Lucky bastards.”
“Good grief.” Julie’s voice is raspy, an old woman’s, a child’s.
“Can I get you anything else?” I ask Julie. I’m going to the health food store—that enclave of holistic vipers, that crowded dispensary that grows fat and prosperous on the naive desperation of a lot of people who are really sick. They should call it the sick food store. Everyone I meet there these days is on some hopeful mission, full of vivid descriptions of some unsavory complaint or other, clutching armloads of large boxes and little brown bottles that cost $23.95 a piece, regardless of their contents.
“I don’t know why you’re here,” Julie says.
“I don’t either,” I say. We talk a lot of truth, we two. “So, can I pick up anything else?”
“I can’t stand Harold’s God,” she says, pushing away the bowl of cereal she has barely touched. “Way too much fire and thunder for my taste. Way too much cancer he lets metastasize.” Julie barks a sharp cough. “Harold told me yesterday that Elie Wiesel said you shouldn’t say anything about God you couldn’t say standing over a pit full of babies’ bodies.”
I can’t conceive of a response.
“Get me some damned carrot juice,” Julie says.
I grab my purse, and head off to alfalfa land.
We’re back at radiation central. I do not believe old Harold here is one bit claustrophobic. From what I can tell, he’s fearless. I think he likes an audience.
“So just what kind of ghoulish god demands that anybody pay?” The voice coming from Harold’s x-ray chamber is a young man’s, belonging I imagine to the one with black eyes sunk deep in, with bones that jut, with lungs whose breathing sounds like he is carrying several Harolds on his back.
Everybody in the waiting area sits holding their magazines so still there is no rustle. No one turns a page.
“Say some guy murders your little girl, you gonna’ let the guy walk free. You think God’s less just than you are, are you shittin’ me?”
The old woman beside me takes in one deep raspy breath, and shakes her head.
I raise my eyebrows in reply. Actually, truth told, I get this fiery, fearsome God just fine; it’s the God of love that I’m not buying.
“I had a dream last night,” Julie is sitting at the tiny table in the morning kitchen sun. She looks better in the dark. In this light, her skin has this see-through quality, not translucent—translucent is nice—but see-through, as though if you could bear it and keep staring, you might see through to bones and veins and things.
“I dreamed,” Julie says, “that I walked into a house and a fourteen-year-old boy was there, and all around were these creatures, and they were evil, they were evil in bodies and I was terrified, and I said to the boy, What do we do? and he said, We do nothing, but, I started to pray, and these angels came, and they were scarier than the demons. They were huge and fierce and frightening, and I was afraid of them, but I also knew that they were powerful as hell, and they all just stood around me, totally around me, and I knew I was completely safe.”
“Wow,” I say, which is pretty much what I say in response to anything that Julie is willing to share with me these days. Wow, I say, or sometimes, Holy Cow.
“The angels had wings,” Julie says, “but they weren’t made of feathers, they were made of steel and mist.”
“Steel and mist,” I echo.
“It’s the damnedest thing,” Julie says. “Oh yeah, Harold is coming over for lunch.”
So we have Harold and the angels made of equal parts of steel and mist, standing at the ready, itchy to avenge, scary as
“What is that?” Julie points at what I’m doodling.
“Steel and mist.” I say. “Mist and steel.”
“Harold gave one of his kidneys to one of his patients.” Julie is standing by the window looking with some intent at trees blown wildly by a wind that seems to howl today by fits and starts. “A total stranger. But still the woman died.”
There is no conversation these days where death’s name remains unspoken.
“Harold is so un-Harold-like,” I say. “I would call him Bobby, or Vince, I think.”
“Vince? Vince is Italian, Vince is five-foot-six, five-foot-seven tops. Vince’s skin is olive, not ebony. Vince keeps his kidneys for his own exclusive use.”
“Harold told you he gave away this kidney?” I say.
“No, the nurse did. She said he’s like this saint. She said he prays for people, and their cancers go away. Stuff like that.”
“Do you pray for me?” I hear Julie ask Harold through the always-open doorway to the radiation room, a few days later.
“That God will heal me?”
“And what does not God say?”
“Nada. Zippo. Not a word.”
Then silence. Silence ringing from the room and out into the corridor and down the hall, filling up the place like radiation, like the silence of the vacant skies. That lethal.
“Harold thinks that one day I’m going to show up in heaven and stand there in front of the Jesus and he’s going to say, ‘Julie, glad to see you, girl.’ Harold totally believes this stuff. He’s a bloody idiot.” Julie takes a therapeutic breath. “Do you think I’m gonna’ make it?”
“To heaven?” I say.
“To earth, for some extended stay?”
I wince. She seems not to even notice. “You’re going to beat this thing, no question.”
“Harold says One day in heaven will make the worst life ever seem like one night in a bad hotel. He’s bringing bagels over in the morning.”
This guy must have dinner with somebody who’s got magic marker drawings sketched across his body seven nights a week.
All my life I’ve wanted to be really good at something and now I am. I am a champion hall sitter. No one would ever mistake this corridor for a waiting room. It is a passageway, a corridor from one place to another. I feel like I have come by my expertise quite honestly. I have spent large expanses of my existence plopped down at the side of one thoroughfare or other, watching all the other people on the planet pass me by.
I know how to sit and wait. I know how to be watchful. The trick today is not to read a magazine or drink things. The trick is to pay attention. Old men, old women, younger people, children come to wait here. And with the children, I catch their eye and make outrageous faces, put my head back, balancing my car keys on my chin, stick a finger up my nose if all else fails.
Older people watch my antics too. They don’t let on, but I have caught a grin or two before it disappears into some shirt collar or turtleneck or is swiftly hidden by a scowl.
Why do we think even in the face of death, we cannot sit and laugh at people, unless they’re on TV?
Julie has a longer treatment today. They are repositioning some of the lines on her belly, which means more time with Harold, which means more Jesus talk when we get home. It also means more throwing up.
An old woman in a long tweed raincoat she must have bought in 1950 walks in, followed by a man who at first glance seems almost featureless. His body bulky, his face smooth and hardly marked at all by his small eyes, flat nose, thin lips. He looks erased, or maybe never drawn properly in the first place.
They sit down side by side across from me. The woman reaches over to unbutton his coat and struggles to free his short arms from the tight sleeves. She hands him a magazine and pats his knee. He reaches over and pats her knee in return, then smiles at her, and tells her that today is Tuesday and that Tuesday is macaroni day.
And now I’m given to decide which one of them has cancer. Which would be worse? Because whatever’s worse is surely what it is.
He holds his magazine up to the tip of her nose, and says, “Matt Damon, Matt Damon,” and she sighs, “My beau.” He laughs, the sound as flat and featureless as his face, which I can see now has something far better than sharp features. I want to look at it for a long, long time. And I want him to hold a magazine up to my nose and show pictures of a movie star for me.
I want to watch his soap operas with him from one till four every afternoon, have him explain to me that it is Tiffany and not Rebecca who has the horse farm—not impatient ever, even though he has to tell me every other day. I want at night to help him into striped pajamas, kiss his fat warm cheeks, and feel his kisses on my bony face.
“Hello.” His mother speaks to me across the several feet of space that divide us.
I’ve been staring at them, I only realize now.
“Your son is lovely,” I say.
“He is,” she says. “His name is Paulie.” She smiles, altering her wrinkled face considerably. “I don’t really like Matt Damon.”
“Matt Damon,” Paulie says. “You love Matt Damon. Matt Damon loves you. He’s your boyfriend.”
He says the litany: Matt Damon Matt Damon Matt Damon as the two make their way down the hall. It won’t occur to me till later tonight when I am watering the two sad houseplants that I didn’t register which name was called by the tech who came to tell them that it was their turn.
“Let’s get out of here.” Julie sounds spunky as she walks over and pulls on her jacket. “I’ve had enough of Harold, thank you very much, for one day.” She laughs. Out loud.
We get the phone call that night. I’m the one who answers. I’m the one who can’t breathe, who can’t see clearly, or stand up. My body, on its own, slides down the wall until I’m sitting on the kitchen floor.
“Harold’s dead,” I say, as Julie hurries over to me, already calling out, before she hears me speak the words which, in a heartbeat, alter everything. I won’t put it into words, into thoughts, until days later, but something in me knows instantaneously that if this man could die—did die, is dead—then none of us is safe; we are all in peril every moment of our lives. There have been times, no more than a dozen perhaps, when I have felt this ungodly, unearthly, earthly peril; moments in a row when I have been required to remind myself to take a breath in, let it out, breathe in again; to not carelessly drink poison; push the hair dryer into a sink of water, or, as I said, forget to breathe. Life hanging by a thread. Life being that thread . . . the one that breaks. I know the moment I get the call that Julie is going to die. It comes to me as somehow the natural consequence of Harold’s death. I can’t look up at Julie’s face to see if she knows this too.
“What do you mean?” Julie says. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
Have seconds passed? Is it still the same night?
“Harold is dead,” I say. “They called to tell us. He was shot, on the street, walking home, and now he’s dead.”
I know that I will have to say this over and again. I know the night will make me. Could they not have told us in the daylight. Could God not as easily, as randomly, have taken someone else.
At some point, deep into the black night, Julie falls asleep. I didn’t want her to. It’s hard to tell sometimes if someone sleeping is alive. So often in those early days—those years of life so fragile—if Julie was ill, I’d creep into her room at night and put a finger, mustached beneath her nostrils, holding my own breath till I felt the warmth of air coming from inside of her. It was always warmth that told. Now, tonight, it’s sound: raspy, reassuring for all that. I wander room to room. Like some sentinel, prowling the perimeter, making sure that neither death nor any sort of harm is hiding in the draperies, crouched behind the sofa, devising menace in the shadows. I’m on guard, as I have been I think since childhood; then, a young girl, with neither any god nor grown-up to take the night shift now and then.
It’s been two days, but every single person in the waiting area sits stunned, as though we have only just now heard the news: that Harold was the victim of a drive-by shooting, in a part of town where that has never happened. We sit somber, self-contained, until a young girl sighs the words, “I just can’t take it in,” and we are just that easily freed to speak. We talk like family, when shockwaves dynamite long history, jarring truth loose, shaking sisters open, making fathers finally speak. I’ve never been a fan of what’s called sharing, too many variations of deceit to my mind, too willing an acceptance of the phony, so readily accepted if one only shares some tears or something brash and brutal, or maybe wildly kind; but our talking now is different.
There’s not a person in the place who did not love this man.
“Where was his God Monday night?” an old man who looks dead already speaks.
You need to live a lifetime if you want to know just what’s inside your heart. That’s the reason suicide’s not on, because it’s possible that it is with your last breath life’s work gets done. I don’t know why I know this but I do. Julie is insistent upon our going to the funeral. If her cell count were one point higher I would flat-out refuse. Something about the idea of going scares me, feels dangerous in a way of some contagion or persuasion. If one Harold can make you rethink your whole time on the planet, what might a whole congregation do.
But once we’re in the church I find it fairly easy to focus on the amazingly-dressed women. I could shop for seven days and seven nights and still not come away with dresses, hats and jewelry, make-up, put together with this style. I study these women whose costumes surely must belie their daily lives. The church is in a slum, the building in grand disrepair, pews worn to smoothness of soft skin, wood worn by Sunday touches, clutches when the week demands you hang on for dear life. And yet the women in this shabby sanctuary look newly-minted—bereft for certain, but it is as though the care and beauty of their clothing honor death and very likely God and one another. The tears on black cheeks only glisten, they do not redden and make ugly as they do white faces.
I feel safe sitting here. The women and the music will protect us. From what? Jesus? Probably. Julie and I weep at every mention of Harold’s wild and holy ways, warm tears.
The whole thing makes me much more willing to go with the entire group over to Harold’s sister’s house for the reception, where easily two hundred people pack the small, shabby clapboard house, filling all the rooms with scents as warm as they are floral, the air made heavy by the heat—a blessing—more than any scent, the comfort here.
A gray-haired woman extends her hand to me.
“I’m Rusty,” she says. And for a moment I imagine she means rusty at shaking hands or some such thing. Out of practice.
“Me too,” I say, my perennial ploy. I always claim to have whatever condition the person that I’m talking to is describing at the moment. It is disingenuous beyond all bearing.
I do not recognize my daughter. She moves so easily among the relatives, speaks so freely; I see her cry and laugh out loud. Why is she never this way with me? Why is she a doleful, solemn person when I’m there?
I catch her eye. She looks away, as though chastened. I walk over to the little clutch she’s part of, but this free woman is replaced by the Julie I know. I laugh too heartily at something someone says; she looks stricken.
The funeral was not till seven—I guess so people could come after work—and when I check my watch, it’s after ten. I want to leave, but not until Julie can revert to the better self. I buy her a ticket: “I’m going out in the backyard,” I say, forbearing to add, “so you can be joyful. Or sad. Or sentient. Or, this better self I see.”
I walk through the kitchen, through what feels like so much good will, so much sorrow, so much of worth, wound round with feeling, shot through with emotion—salve on every fragile-rigid moment; feeling: what keeps a person from just breaking into pieces.
Outside, the air is thick, the night seems blanketed in heaviness the souls inside the house have so well kept at bay. Out here there’s no protection. Harold is dead. Julie is dying. I am shrunken to a wrinkled core. Night wins. Darkness has the final say. As my eyes adjust I see a tent has been set up in the yard. It looks so out of place, so odd, so purposeful. The back door opens and I turn to see Julie, a silhouette now of a woman, thin beyond all bearing.
“Well, look at that,” she says, the pleasure I loved—I probably envied—now back in her voice. She laughs that free laugh, and it covers me like soft air touching skin. “Look at that,” she says. “A tent. They told me about it inside. It’s for the children; all the cousins, all the little ones, are sleeping there tonight. They knew that other people would be staying late, and so they set this up for all the ones who will sleep early.”
“Julie, I’m sorry,” I say.
“Tell Jesus that you are,” she says, her voice a timbre I do not remember. “I just can’t believe it,” she says, and moves slowly across the grass toward the tent. She lifts the flap, and turns—my little girl—to look at me and smile, before she goes inside.
I am alone now with the night. The tent is gone, if it was there. The air has cooled, the only sound that I can hear is laughter, chatter, coming through the open back door of the house.
Laughter, chatter, trumpets sounding, angels—steel and mist—their racket raucous. Night skies opening with a crack, a roll of thunder, cries of morning breaking, the soft sound of infants sleeping, breathing even breath.
And all I need to do—it should be so very easy—is just cover up my ears.