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Authors: Melanie Rae Thon

In This Light (9 page)

BOOK: In This Light
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No one was inclined to offer a cure. He started smoking pot instead, which was what he was doing that night in the park when Roxanne appeared.
, he said afterward,
out of smoke and air.

But she was no ghost. She laughed loudly. She even breathed loudly—through her mouth. They lay naked on the bed under the open window. The curtains fluttered and the air moved over them.

“Why do you like me?” she said.

“Because you snore.”

“I don’t.”

“How would you know?”

“It’s my body.”

“It does what it wants when you’re sleeping.”

“You like women who snore?”

“I like to know where you are.”

He thought of his sister’s three daughters. They were slim and quick, moving through trees, through dusk, those tiny bodies—disappearing, reassembling—those children’s bodies years ago. Yes, it was true. His sister was right. Better that he stayed away. Sometimes when he’d chased them in the woods, their bodies had frightened him—the narrowness of them, the way they hid behind trees, the way they stepped in the river, turned clear and shapeless, flowed away. When they climbed out downstream, they were whole and hard but cold as water. They sneaked up behind him to grab his knees and pull him to the ground. They touched him with their icy hands, laughing like water over stones. He never knew where they might be, or what.

He always knew exactly where Roxanne was: behind the screen, squatting on the toilet; standing at the sink, splashing water under her arms. Right now she was shaving her legs, singing nonsense words,
, like the backup singer she said she was once. “The Benders—you probably heard of them.” He nodded but he hadn’t. He tried to picture her twenty-four years younger, slim but not scrawny. Roxanne with big hair and white sequins. Two other girls just like her, one in silver, one in black, all of them shimmering under the lights. “But it got too hard, dragging the kid around—so I gave it up.” She’d been with Sid twenty-nine days and this was the first he’d heard of anykid. Heaskedher. “Ohyeah,”shesaid. “Of course.” She gave him a look like,
What d’you think—I was a virgin?
“But I got smart after the first one.” She was onto the sec-ondleg, hummingagain. “Prettykid. Kidsof herownnow. I got pictures.” He asked to see them, and she said, “Not

“Where?” he said.

She whirled, waving the razor. “You the police?”

She’d been sober five days. That’s when the singing started. “If you can do it, so can i,” she’d said.

He reminded her he’d had no choice.

“Neither do I,” she said. “If I want to stay.”

He didn’t agree. He wasn’t even sure it was a good idea. She told him she’d started drinking at nine: stole her father’s bottle and sat in the closet, passed out and no one found her for two days. Sid knew it was wrong, but he was almost proud of her for that, forty years of drinking—he didn’t know anyone else who’d started so young. She had conviction, a vision of her life, like Roseland, who said she’d wanted to be a doctor since fifth grade.

Sid was out of Emergency. Not a demotion. A lateral transfer. That’s what Mrs. Mendelson in Personnel said. Her eyes and half her face were shrunken behind her glasses.

“How can it be lateral if I’m in the basement?”

“I’m not speaking literally, Sid.”

He knew he was being punished for trying to stop the girl from banging her head on the wall.

Inappropriate interference with a patient.
There was a language for everything.
Sterilized equipment contaminated.

Dropped—he’d dropped the tray to help the girl.

“I had to,” he told Roxanne.

“Shush, it’s okay—you did the right thing.”

There was no reward for doing the right thing. When he got the girl to the floor, she bit his arm.

Unnecessary risk.
“She won’t submit to a test,” Enos said after Sid’s arm was washed and bandaged. Sid knew she wasn’t going to submit to anything—why should she? She was upstairs in four-point restraint, doped but still raving; she was a strong girl with a shaved head, six pierced holes in one ear, a single chain looped through them all. Sid wanted Enos to define

Now he was out of harm’s way. Down in Postmortem. The dead don’t bite.
Unconscious men don’t make choices.
Everyone pretended it was for his own sake.

Sid moved the woman from the gurney to the steel table. He was not supposed to think of her as a woman, he knew this. She was a body, female. He was not supposed to touch her thin blue hair or wrinkled eyelids—for his own sake. He was not supposed to look at her scars and imagine his mother’s body—three deep puckers in one breast, a raised seam across the belly—was not supposed to see the ghost there, imprint of a son too big, taken this way, and later another scar, something else stolen while she slept. He was not to ask what they had hoped to find, opening her again.

Roxanne smoked more and more to keep from drinking. She didn’t stash her cartons of cigarettes in the freezer anymore. No need. She did two packs a day, soon it would be three. Sid thought of her body, inside: her starved, black lungs shriveled in her chest, her old, swollen liver.

He knew exactly when she started again, their sixty-third day together, the thirty-ninth and final day of her sobriety.

He drew a line down her body, throat to belly, with his tongue. She didn’t want to make love. She wanted to lie here, beneath the window, absolutely still. She was hot. He moved his hands along the wet, dark line he’d left on her ashy skin, as if to open her.

“Forget it,” she said. The fan beat at the air, the blade of a chopper, hovering. He smelled of formaldehyde, but she didn’t complain about that. It covered other smells: the garbage in the corner, her own body.

They hadn’t made love for nineteen days. He had to go to his mother’s tonight but was afraid to leave Roxanne naked on the bed, lighting each cigarette from the butt of the last one. He touched her hip, the sharp bone. He wanted her to know it didn’t matter to him if they made love or not. If she drank or not. He didn’t mind cigarette burns on the sheets, bills missing from his wallet. As long as she stayed.

The pictures of his three nieces in his mother’s living room undid him. He didn’t know them now, but he remembered their thin fingers, their scabbed knees, the way Lena kissed him one night—as a woman, not a child, as if she saw already how their lives would be—a solemn kiss, on the mouth, but not a lover’s kiss. Twelve years old, and she must have heard her mother say,
Look, Sid, maybe it would be better if you didn’t come around—just for a while—know what I mean?
When he saw her again she was fifteen and fat, seven months pregnant. Christina said,
Say hello to your uncle Sid
, and the girl stared at him, unforgiving, as if he were to blame for this too.

These were the things that broke his heart: his nieces on the piano and the piano forever out of tune; dinner served promptly at six, despite the heat; the smell of leather in the closet, a pile of rabbit skin and soft fur; the crisp white sheets of his old bed and the image of his mother bending, pulling the corners tight, tucking them down safe, a clean bed for her brave boy who was coming home.

Those sheets made him remember everything, the night sweats, the yellow stain of him on his mother’s clean sheets. He washed them but she knew, and nothing was the way they expected it to be, the tossing in the too-small bed, the rust-colored blotches in his underwear, tiny slivers of shrapnel working their way to the surface, wounding him again.
How is it a man gets shot in the ass?
it was a question they never asked, and he couldn’t have told them without answering other questions, questions about what had happened to the men who stepped inside the hut, who didn’t have time to turn and hit the ground, who blew sky-high and fell down in pieces.

He touched his mother too often and in the wrong way. He leaned too close, tapping her arm to be sure she was listening. He tore chicken from the bone with his teeth, left his face greasy. Everything meant something it hadn’t meant before.

She couldn’t stand it, his big hands on her. He realized now how rarely she’d touched him. He remembered her cool palm on his forehead, pushing the hair off his face. Did he have a temperature? He couldn’t remember. He felt an old slap across his mouth for a word he’d spat out once and forgotten. He remembered his mother licking her thumb and rubbing his cheek, wiping a dark smudge.

He thought of the body he couldn’t touch, then or now— her velvety, loose skin over loose flesh, soft crepe folding into loose wrinkles.

His father was the one to tell him. They were outside after dinner, more than twenty years ago, but Sid could see them still, his father and himself standing at the edge of the yard by the empty hutches. Next door, Ollie Kern spoke softly to his roses in the dark. Sid could see it killed his father to do it. He cleared his throat three times before he said, “You need to find your own place to live, son.” Sid nodded. He wanted to tell his father it was okay, he understood, he was ready. He wanted to say he forgave him—not just for this, but for everything, for not driving him across the border one day, to vancouver, for not suggesting he stay there a few days, alone, for not saying, “It’s okay, son, if you don’t want to go.”

Sid wanted to say no one should come between a husband and a wife, not even a child, but he only nodded, like a man, and his father patted his back, like a man. He said, “I guess I should turn on the sprinkler.” And Sid said, “I’ll do it, Dad.”

They must have talked after that, many times. But in Sid’s mind this was always the last time. He remembered forever crawling under the prickly juniper bushes to turn on the spigot as the last thing he did for his father. Remembered forever how they stood, silent in the dark, listening to water hitting leaves and grass.

He was in the living room now with his mother, after all these years, drinking instant coffee made from a little packet—it was all she had. It was still so hot. She said it.
It’s still so hot.
it was almost dark, but they hadn’t turned on the lights because of the heat, so it was easy for Sid to imagine the shadow of his father’s shape in the chair, easy to believe that now might have been the time his father said at last,
Tell me, son, how it was, the truth, tell me.
it was like this. Think of the meanest boy you knew in sixth grade, the one who caught cats to cut off their tails. It’s like that. But not all the time. Keep remembering your eleven-year-old self, your unbearable boy energy, how you sat in the classroom hour after hour, day after day, looking out the window at light, at rain. Remember the quivering leaves, how you felt them moving in your own body when you were a boy—it’s like that, the waiting, the terrible boredom, the longing for something to happen,
, so you hate the boy with the cat but you’re thrilled too, and then you hate yourself, and then you hate the cat for its ridiculous howling and you’re glad when it runs into the street crazy with pain—you’re glad when the car hits it, smashes it flat. Then the bell rings, recess is over, and you’re in the room again—you’re taking your pencils out of your little wooden desk. The girl in front of you has long, shiny braids you know you’ll never touch, not now, not after what you’ve seen, and then you imagine the braids in your hands, limp as cats’ tails, and Mrs. Richards is saying the words
stifle, release, mourn
, and you’re supposed to spell them, print them on the blank page, pass the paper forward, and later you’re supposed to think the red marks—her sharp corrections, her grade—matter.

He could be more specific. If his father wanted to know. At night, you dig a hole in red clay and sleep in the ground. Then there’s rain. Sheets and rivers and days of rain. The country turns to mud and smells of shit. A tiny cut on your toe festers and swells, opens wider and wider, oozes and stinks, an ulcer, a hole. You think about your foot all the time, more than you think about your mother, your father, minute after minute, the pain there, you care about your foot more than your life—you could lose it, your right big toe, leave it here, in this mud, your foot, your leg, and you wonder, how many pieces of yourself can you leave behind and still be called yourself? Mother, father, sister—heart, hand, leg. One mosquito’s trapped under your net. You’ve used repellent—you’re sticky with it, poisoned by it—but she finds the places you’ve missed: behind your ear, between your fingers. There’s a sweet place up your sleeve, under your arm. And you think,
This is the wound that will kill me.
She’s threading a parasite into your veins. These are the enemies: mud, rain, rot, mosquito. She’s graceful, not malicious. She has no wish to harm, no intention. She wants to live, that’s all. If she finds you, she’ll have you. She buzzes at your head, but when she slips inside there’s no sound.

It’s still so hot.
He wants to bang the keys of the out-oftune piano. He wants a racket here, in his mother’s house. He longs for all the dark noise of Roxanne, his plates with their tiny roses smashing to the floor two nights ago, his blue glasses flying out of the drainer. She wanted a drink, and he said she could have one, and she told him to fuck himself, and then the dishes exploded. He thinks of her walking through the broken glass, barefoot but not cutting her feet, brilliant Roxanne.
Roxanne Roxanne.
He has to say her name here, now, bring her into this room where the silent television flickers like a small fire in the corner. He wants to walk her up the stairs to that boy’s room, wants her to run her fingers through the silky fur of rabbit pelts in the closet, wants to explain how fast his father was with the knife but too old, too slow, to collect tolls for the ferry. He wants to show her the tight corners of the white sheets, wants her to touch him, here, in this room, to bring him back together, who he was then, who he is now.

So he is saying it, her name. He is telling his mother,
I’ve been seeing someone
, and his mother is saying,
That’s nice, Sid—you should bring her to dinner
, and he understands she means sometime, in some future she can’t yet imagine, but he says,
Next week?

BOOK: In This Light
2.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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