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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

In This Light (8 page)

BOOK: In This Light
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That night I found Emile sleeping in a doorway. Shrunken little man with a white beard. No blanket, no coat. He opened one eye.
Cover me
, he said.

I held out my hands, empty palms, to show him all I had.

With your body
, he said.

He held up his own hands, fingerless.
I froze once
, he said.

In the tunnel I found the Haitian man. Every time a train came, people tossed coins in his case and left him there. Still he sang, for me alone, left his ragged words flapping in my ribs.

Listen, the lungs float in water.

Listen, the lungs crackle in your hands.

Out of the body, the lungs simply collapse.

For my people
, he said.

His skin was darker than mine, dark as my father’s perhaps. His clothes grew bigger every day: he was singing himself sick. By February he’d be gone. By February I’d add the Haitian manchild to my list of the disappeared.

But that night I threw coins to him.

That night I believed in the miracles of wine and bread, how what we eat becomes our flesh.

It was almost Christmas. I put quarters in the phone to hear the words.
Come home if you want
, Adele said.

Clare made me remember the inside of the trailer. She made me count the beds.
Close the curtains—it’s a box
, she said.

Clare made me see Adele at the table the morning she told me she was going to marry Mick.
It’s my last chance
, my mother said. I wanted the plates to fly out of the cupboard. I wanted to shatter every glass.

I smoked a cigarette instead.

I was thirteen.

It was ten a.m.

I drank a beer.

I felt sorry for Adele, I swear. She was thirty-four, an old woman with red hair. She said,
Look at me
, and I did, at her too-pale freckled skin going slack.

I thought, How many men can pass through one woman? I thought, How many children can one woman have? I tried to count: Clare’s father and Clare, my father and me, two men between, two children never born whose tiny fingers still dug somewhere. She didn’t need to make the words,
I feel them;
didn’t need to touch her body,
here.
I knew everything. It was her hand reaching for the cigarettes. It was the way she had to keep striking the match to get it lit. It was the color of her nails—pink, chipped.

If she’d been anyone but my mother I would have forgiven her for what she said.

I can’t do it again.
She meant she had another one on the way. She meant she couldn’t make it end. So Mick was coming here, to live, bringing his already ten-year-old son, child of his dead first wife; the boy needed a mother, God knows, and I saw exactly how it would be with all of them, Mick and the boy and the baby—I could hear the wailing already, the unborn child weeping through my mother’s flesh.

Clare made me remember all this. Clare made me hang up before my mother said the words
come home
again.

Storm that night, snow blown to two-foot drifts; rain froze them hard.
Forever
, Clare said.

She didn’t know which needle, didn’t know whose blood made her like this. She didn’t know whose dangerous breath blew through her in the end. She told me she had a dream. We were alone in the trailer. Our little hands cast shadows on the wall: rabbit, bird, devil’s head. She said,
Someone’s hand passed over my lungs like that.

I wanted to go home. I didn’t care what she said. I saw the trailer in the distance, the colored lights blinking on and off, the miles of snow between me and them. I saw the shape of my mother move beyond curtain and glass.

It’s too late to knock
, Clare said.

She made me remember our first theft, Adele’s car, all the windows down, made me see her at fifteen, myself at ten. We weren’t running away: we were feeling the wind. We drove north, out of the dusty August day into the surprising twilight. I remember the blue of that sky, dark and brilliant, dense, like liquid, cool on our skin. And then ahead of us, glowing in a field, we saw a carnival tent, lit from inside.

Freaks, we thought, and we wanted to see, imagined we’d find the midget sisters, thirty-three inches high; the two-headed pig; the three-hundred-pound calf.

We wanted to see Don Juan the Dwarf, that silk robe, that black mustache. We wanted to buy his kisses for dimes. Wanted him to touch our faces with his stubby hands.

We wanted the tattooed woman to open her shirt. Pink-eyed albino lady. We wanted her to show us the birds of paradise on her old white chest.

We wanted to go into the final room, the draped booth at the far corner of the tent. Wanted to pay our extra dollar to see the babies in their jars: the one with half a brain and the twins joined hip to chest. We wanted to see our own faces reflected in that glass, to know our own bodies, revealed like this.

We wanted freaks, the strange thrill of them.

But this is what we found instead: ordinary cripples, a man in a violet robe promising Jesus would heal them.

We found children in wheelchairs. We saw their trembling limbs.

We saw a bald girl in a yellow dress.

Two boys with withered bodies and huge heads.

We saw all the mothers on their knees. We thought their cries would lift this tent.

Busted driving home. Adele knew who had the car but turned us in.
That’s why I left
, Clare said.

I’m waiting for you on the road.

You could be anyone: a woman with a blond child, or the man in the blue truck come back. You could be the one who wants me dead. We meet at last.

I’m not trying to go home. I’m heading north instead.

Clare’s tired. Clare’s not talking now. If you’re dangerous, I don’t think she’ll tell me.

I see swirling snow, pink light between bare trees, your car in the distance, moving fast. I speak out loud to hear myself.
Clare’s gone
, I say. But when you spot me, when you swerve and stop, she surprises me. She says,
Go, little sister, get in.

She whispers,
Yes, this is the one.

I don’t know what she means.

If you ask me where I want to go, I’ll tell you this:
Take me out of the snow. Take me to a tent in a field. Make it summer. Make the sky too blue. Make the wind blow. Let me stand here with all the crippled children. Give me twisted bones and metal braces. Give me crutches so I can walk. Let my mother fall down weeping, begging the man in a violet robe to make me whole.

First, Body

TWO NURSES WITH SCISSORS
could make a man naked in eleven seconds. Sid Elliott had been working Emergency eight months and it amazed him every time. Slicing through denim and leather, they peeled men open faster than Sid’s father flayed rabbits.

Roxanne said it would take her longer than eleven seconds to make him naked. “But not that much longer.” it was Sunday. They’d met in the park on Tuesday and she hadn’t left Sid’s place since Friday night. She was skinny, very dark skinned. She had fifteen teeth of her own and two bridges to fill the spaces. “Rotted out on smack and sugar. But I don’t do that shit anymore.” it was one of the first things she told him. He looked at her arms. She had scars, hard places where the skin was raised. He traced her veins with his fingertips, feeling for bruises. She was never pretty. She said this too. “So don’t go thinking you missed out on something.”

He took her home that night, to the loft in the warehouse overlooking the canal, one room with a high ceiling, a mattress on the floor beneath the window, a toilet behind a screen, one huge chair, one sink, a hot plate with two burners, and a miniature refrigerator for the beer he couldn’t drink anymore.

“It’s perfect,” she said.

Now they’d known each other six days. She said, “What do you see in me?”

“Two arms, two ears. Someone who doesn’t leave the room when I eat chicken.”

“Nowhere to go,” she said.

“You know what I mean.”

He told her about the last boy on the table in Emergency. He’d fallen thirty feet. When he woke, numb from the waist, he said,
Are those my legs?
She lay down beside him, and he felt the stringy ligaments of her thighs, the rippled bone of her sternum; he touched her whole body the way he’d touched her veins that night in the park, by the water.

He sat at his mother’s kitchen table. “What is it you do?” she said.

“I clean up.”

“Like a janitor?”

Up to our booties in blood all night
, Dr. Enos said. “Something like that.”

She didn’t want to know, not exactly, not any more than she’d wanted to know what his father was going to do with the rabbits.

She nodded. “Well, it’s respectable work.”

She meant she could tell her friends Sid had a hospital job.

He waited.

“Your father would be proud.”

He remembered a man slipping rabbits out of their fur coats. His father had been laid off a month before he thought of this.

Tonight his mother had made meat loaf, which was safe—so long as he remembered to take small bites and chew slowly. Even so, she couldn’t help watching, and he kept covering his mouth with his napkin. Finally he couldn’t chew at all and had to wash each bite down with milk. When she asked, “Are you happy there?” he wanted to tell her about the men with holes in their skulls, wanted to bring them, trembling, into this room. Some had been wounded three or four times. They had beards, broken teeth, scraped heads. The nurses made jokes about burning their clothes.

But the wounds weren’t bullet holes. Before the scanners, every drunk who hit the pavement got his head drilled. “A precautionary measure,” Dr. Enos explained. “In case of hemorrhage.”

“Did the patient have a choice?”

“Unconscious men don’t make choices.”

Sid wanted to tell his mother that.
Unconscious men don’t make choices.
He wanted her to understand the rules of Emergency: first, body, then brain—stop the blood, get the heart beating. No fine-tuning. Don’t worry about a man’s head till his guts are back in his belly.

Dr. Enos made bets with the nurses on Saturday nights. By stars and fair weather they guessed how many motorcyclists would run out of luck cruising from Seattle to Marysville without their helmets, how many times the choppers would land on the roof of the hospital, how many men would be stripped and pumped but not saved.

Enos collected the pot week after week. “If you’ve bet on five and only have three by midnight, do you wish for accidents?” Dr. Roseland asked. Roseland never played. She was beyond it, a grown woman. She had two children and was pregnant with the third.

“Do you?” Enos said.

“Do I what?”

Enos stared at Roseland’s swollen belly. “Wish for accidents,” he said.

Skulls crushed, hearts beating, the ones lifted from the roads arrived all night. Enos moved stiffly, like a man just out of the saddle. He had watery eyes—bloodshot, blue. Sid thought he was into the pharmaceuticals. But when he had a body on the table, Enos was absolutely focused.

Sid wanted to describe the ones who flew from their motorcycles and fell to earth, who offered themselves this way.
Like Jesus.
His mother wouldn’t let him say that.
With such grace.
He wished he could make her see how beautiful it was, how ordinary, the men who didn’t live, whose parts were packed in plastic picnic coolers and rushed back to the choppers on the roof, whose organs and eyes were delivered to Portland or Spokane. He was stunned by it, the miracle of hearts in ice, corneas in milk. These exchanges became the sacrament, transubstantiated in the bodies of startled men and weary children. Sometimes the innocent died and the faithless lived. Sometimes the blind began to see. Enos said, “We save bodies, not souls.”

Sid tasted every part of Roxanne’s body: sweet, fleshy lobe of the ear, sinewy neck, sour pit of the arm, scarred hollow of the elbow. He sucked each finger, licked her salty palm. He could have spent weeks kissing her, hours with his tongue inside her. Sometimes he forgot to breathe and came up gasping. She said, “Aren’t you afraid of me?”

And he said, “You think you can kill me?”

“Yes,” she said. “Anybody can.”

She had narrow hips, a flat chest. He weighed more than twice what she did. He was too big for himself, always— born too big, grown too fast. Too big to cry. Too big to spill his milk. At four he looked six; at six, ten. Clumsy, big-footed ten. Slow, stupid ten.
Like living with a bear
, his mother said, something broken every day, her precious blown-glass ballerina crumbling in his hand, though he held her so gently, lifting her to the window to let the light pass through her. He had thick wrists, enormous thumbs. Even his eyebrows were bushy.
My monster
, Roxanne said the second night.
Who made you this way?

“How would you kill me?” he said. He put one heavy leg over her skinny legs, pinning her to the bed.

“You know, with my body.”

“Yes, but how?”

“You know what I’m saying.”

“I want you to explain.”

She didn’t. He held his hand over her belly, not quite touching, the thinnest veil of air between them. “I can’t think when you do that,” she said.

“I haven’t laid a finger on you.”

“But you will,” she said.

He’d been sober twenty-seven days when she found him. Now it was forty-two. Not by choice. He’d had a sudden intolerance for alcohol. Two shots and he was on the floor, puking his guts out. He suspected Enos had slipped him some Antabuse and had a vague memory: his coffee at the edge of the counter, Enos drifting past it. Did he linger? Did he know whose it was? But it kept happening. Sid tried whiskey instead of rum, vodka instead of whiskey. After the third experiment he talked to Roseland. “Count your blessings,” she said. “Maybe you’ll have a liver when you’re sixty.” She looked at him in her serious, sad way, felt his neck with her tiny hands, thumped his back and chest, shined her flashlight into his eyes. When he was sitting down, she was his height. He wanted to lay his broad hand on her bulging stomach.

BOOK: In This Light
8.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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