07/17/13 4:00am
07/17/2013 4:00 AM |

In the evenings, Sarah sat down and told me about her day working in the ICU. She told me about a young man with cancer whose bowels were impacted and how he was probably going to die. She told me that he’d developed an Anorectal fistula. I said, “What the fuck’s that?”

She told me that’s where the body essentially creates a new asshole for you. The acid burns right through the skin and leaks shit. 

I said, “The body can make a new asshole for you?” 

Sarah told me that the body can do anything. So I imagined my body making new assholes. I imagined myself covered in assholes. Assholes, assholes, and more assholes.

And then she told me about another the guy who was in need of a fecal transplant.  She told me about his wife and how she cried and looked afraid.  
I said, “What? Wait. A fecal transplant?” 

She told me about how when the body has been through so much chemo it no longer reacts to antibiotics. So doctors will transplant feces back into the body of a patient. There is bacteria in feces that will fight against infection. 

I said, “Does it have to be your own personal feces, or will it come from like a feces donor? If so, does the feces donor have to be family/related to you?” 
Sarah told me to shut up.  

I asked, “What about accepting feces from another species? Would monkey feces have the same impact?” 

Sarah told me to shut up.

Then I asked her why she believed in GOD. I told her this god she believed in must be a madman. I told her this god was really shitty at what he did, or maybe he was just something else. Maybe he was just lazy as shit and incompetent. Sarah shook her head and smiled. Then she asked me, “You want to know what nurses spend their money on?”

What do nurses spend their money on, Sarah?

Titties. Fake Titties. That’s what they spend their money on. 

She told me about how one of the nurses used a credit card to pay for a breast augmentation. Sarah asked the woman if she was nervous about not paying back the money for her operation.

The ER nurse just pushed out her chest and wiggled her tits around and said, “I’m not worried. They don’t repossess titties, girl.”

07/17/13 4:00am

Jelly and Uncle passed the first tree. It had a small wooden flag nailed to it. Jelly tapped the flag with her fingertips; she liked to do this, signal a passing. “So we follow the green flags all the way to the river?”

“Yup, green is the path that will lead us to the river. Green means go. Red means stop.” Uncle began his story.

“I didn’t mean to save their lives. It was an accident. Something to be done.”

Uncle had protested the war. In the big city square he had approached a man in a National Guard uniform. With his draft card in one hand, he set the card on fire with the lighter in his other. He was placed on a list and followed. The FBI camped outside his parents’ house and knocked on their door, asking where he was and when he would be back. His mother cried. His father frowned. His little brother thought he was a hero. Eventually Uncle turned himself in. The threats to his family were too much. Maybe he was just tired of dodging. Off to boot camp he went for training. Training and testing, and testing he did well—right into a secret corps of code typists. He was made. Set. This was going to be the luxury life for Uncle. No combat, no guns, no limbs blown off in a faraway swamp. But someone caught on. Caught on to the FBI surveillance. The burning of the card. Uncle was no friendly follower.

The big airplanes that transported troops were filled to capacity in those days—airplanes so wide-bellied you could drive five tanks and a company of men comfortably inside. Uncle ended up in one of these planes and got off in Germany: Secretary to a Field Captain. This was still a cushy job. Uncle was lucky. He typed the Field Captain’s notes, ran his laundry, his general errands, and once a week he drove 20 miles into town to pick up Chinese food.

The Field Captain was rigid, very specific—Uncle was never, not once, ever, to eat the Chinese food. Well, with all the marijuana floating around the camp and with Uncle’s general idea about where this war could go, along with this Captain, he did eat the Chinese food, and he did get caught.

They put Uncle back on the big plane—a plane full of men and tanks and bullets; letters from home, care packages, and MREs. Off this time to the South Pacific. Off this time to Vietnam.

The first time Uncle saved a life was when a bomb blew him up.

He was in formation, in line, his platoon was moving north. When the bomb hit, sound disappeared. Uncle was blown forward; his back hurt. He got up and turned around. The man behind him was missing an ear and those behind him a head, a torso, or now they were just a foot. The tank was on fire. Uncle could see the driver. The driver was alive. Uncle was at the tank, opening the door; it was searing flesh off his palm. He was grabbing the driver, pulling the man from the fire and pulling him out before the tank blew.

In the hospital back at base, Uncle was treated for burns. The hair on half his head was gone, his eyebrows vaporized in the heat. He rested for a while, healing. He was a hero and sent back to the front lines.

The land was a wet one, and the camps were hard. The boys of his unit told stories, stories about their homes, about the way the lakes rose in February rain and the Junebug clusters, about homes packed in by snowdrifts and snowshoeing to town to catch a train south.

Uncle would remember these stories when he went back to find them many years later. Instead he found he was the only one left. All had taken their own lives or disappeared into drugs and street life. Uncle still remembers the joints they passed around, and the other time he saved their lives.

Uncle had been sent out for a scout around. A simple circle of the area, then sit on the hill. He circled. He sat. And just inside the tree line was the enemy. Charlie.

“You guys called the Viet Cong ‘Charlie.’ Why?” Jelly never did know why, even though they mentioned it in so many movies.

“A phonetic alphabet. Alfa. Bravo. Charlie. VC: Victor Charlie. Our call signs over coms,” Uncle responded as he walked up a leaf-lined bank.

Jelly nodded her head. “Of course. Victor Charlie. I wonder if anyone has named their child that, on purpose?”

07/17/13 4:00am

We were told to stay out of the woods that fall, but it was too late. We had traipsed through the trees all summer, even chopped down eight skinny ones to make a tepee. Stole Jayne’s mom’s AstroTurf rug from beside her pool so we wouldn’t have to sit in the mud. But we painted our faces with the mud and made crowns from the weeds we thought were dainty flowers. We made a rope swing to guide us as we crossed the brook, tightrope walking on a fallen tree. All of us but Jayne too scared to actually swing across. We knew Jayne hadn’t finished Bridge to Terabithia even though she said she did.

The parents heard about a gang in town. Said they stole from the shops along the highway and hid out in the woods. Our woods. So we weren’t allowed there anymore. But Leigh’s older brother Jonny said there weren’t gangs in the suburbs at all. Our parents were just worried we were becoming a roving bunch of lesbians hiding out in our dirty tepee and touching each other. We told Jonny he wished and pushed our non-existent boobs together and made kissing faces until he swore and walked away.

Ana’s mom asked us why we stopped swimming, why we’d want to hide out in the woods when we had a perfectly good in-ground pool over at Jayne’s. When it was still hot out in September we should be soaking up the sun, she said. That it would be winter soon and we’d regret it. We told her one of us always had our period and we didn’t swim in solidarity. She rolled her eyes and swung her purse over her shoulder. Told us to take Ana’s baby brother Jake with us. To be careful.

Jake was five and whiny but adorable, all fuzzy brown hair and chubby cheeks. Agreed to anything we asked if we said we’d be his best friends. We crowned him in wild daisies and pulled off his T-shirt to paint a jack-o’-lantern face in mud. He said it tickled when we circled his bellybutton with a grin. We told him we always swam in the brook and he should, too. Even though we just threw coins in with wishes or fished for beer cans and plastic bags—signs of gang-related activity, of course.
Ana laughed the hardest when Jake whined he was freezing, mud running in streaks down his pale doughy body. The jack-o’-lantern crying too. We told her she was being mean and to take her brother home. That we’d see her tomorrow. We wiped the mud off Jake’s belly and each gave him a hug, saying: Don’t cry. Wasn’t this fun? Isn’t our tepee wicked cool?

As they left, Jake clinging to Ana’s back, Jayne led us to the furthest part of the woods. Turned out she had a plan and didn’t want Jake to blab. We went to The End, where the woods met the highway, and lines of cars zipped past in blurs. We thought it was funny The End could be so loud when we never heard the traffic back by the tepee. Jayne was curious about the other stretch of woods starting just beyond those four lanes. We didn’t say anything for a while, just listened as Samantha peeled the paper off the back of a Fruit by the Foot and ate it inch by inch. We didn’t say anything until Jayne pulled a bright yellow softball out of her backpack and smiled. Who bets me I can throw this to the other side? she said and stood before we replied. Jayne leaned over the guardrail and let the wind rushing off the cars brush her hair wild.

07/20/11 4:00am
07/20/2011 4:00 AM |

Second night of Camp I walk up on two Disciple boys out in the Prayer Meadow, both of them sweaty and disheveled and looking up at me like, Oh man we are so caught, having also just lit cigarettes like it’s afterwards. So I haul them down to the Chapel and consult Pastor Ron, who’s as upset by the situation as I am.

The Disciples say they were praising, like to explain the sweatiness, but we’re not even Charismatics.

What I suspect, and Pastor Ron concurred after I explained it, is that they were wrestling, adult wrestling.

“This is truly beyond me,” Pastor Ron says. Then, he asks if I mind calling their parents?

Which, goodness, that was an awkward pair of conversations. Blake’s mom implied that she wouldn’t be informing Blake’s father as, her words not mine, he would kick the living Jesus out of Blake if he ever found out that his son is, which he isn’t. And, would I mind keeping this confidential?

Which, yes, of course. Because for me, it’s not about Sodom and Gomorrah, or Adam and Steve jokes. There’s a guy at the office in Payroll who is, or at least we all suspect he is, and I don’t mind.

But then, the rest of the afternoon and later at Dinner too, I can’t help but think: what if that were me? What if I were the one getting a phone call about my Tyler’s adult wrestling with another boy? I don’t know. Tyler’s a Fisher of Men, the youngest group at Camp. This is his first year, and Deb was right: he’s a little anxious about being away from home. That night, after Worship, Pastor Ron has me announce that the Prayer Meadow is closed due to a wild animal sighting. A wolf, actually, is what I say. A wolf that had attacked two Disciples in the Meadow.

I noticed a lot of the other Dads exchanging knowing glances, since, by then, most everyone knew how the Meadow had been defiled, and that the wolf reasoning was more metaphorical, if anything.

Next day at Swimming, Tyler keeps trying to wade out to the diving pontoon where the other Fishers of Men are.

“No, no, Sport. Stay near the shore,” I tell him.

Because for one: he’s not the greatest swimmer. And two: I can’t stop thinking about how those Disciple boys literally discipled the Fishers of Men. They were basically pseudo-counselors for the younger Campers. So who knows what kind of residual influence there might be?

Tyler gets bored of swimming. So I say: what about some catch with your old man? And I grab the mitts.

Then, Mr. Garret pulls me aside and puts his ball-cap over his mouth, like to whisper, and asks me: “Are you, or are you not, seeing what I’m seeing?” And he points out two Fishers of Men, both of them Campers from Tyler’s cabin, who are holding each other spooning-style and jumping off the pontoon and then sinking down to the lake floor.

We watch them do this a couple times.

“Could be a game,” I say.

“Could be,” Mr. Garret says. “Could be foreplay.”

And, I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.

But then, they do it again. Only, this time they stay underwater, frankly, just way too long.

Mr. Garret Mississippi-counts them to almost 30 seconds. He shoots me a look, like saying: See, see that?

07/20/11 4:00am

Jane was walking on Eastern Parkway calculating her debt to the Brooklyn Public Library when she saw a toilet on the sidewalk. It was a fairly ordinary toilet, white with pink flowers strewn around the seat. It must be a specialized recycling day, Jane thought. She knew such days existed, for ink cartridges and air conditioners, for example. Still, it was odd to see that toilet, which had likely been discreetly hidden away for years, now on display. Jane continued walking. She wondered why she had checked out all those books in the first place. As she’d watched the librarian scan the barcodes, she hadn’t been able to picture herself actually sitting and reading them. She had hoped somehow that she would be temporarily replaced by a different version of herself, more practical and studious, someone who would read the books and return them on time. Now she owed the library fifteen cents times the number of books times the number of days plus the cost of the copy of War and Peace that she’d forgotten at the Laundromat where she had, in fact, not read a page.

Jane saw a second toilet. No, two more toilets. They were sitting side by side like old men watching the city pass by. One was taller and a little grayer than the other. If toilet recycling days did exist surely there must not be very many of them, thought Jane, and so it made sense that anyone with a toilet to recycle would take advantage of a collection day whenever one arose. But how many people really had toilets to recycle? Jane was twenty-nine and had never needed to dispose of a toilet.

The next building Jane passed did not have any toilets. There was, however, an accent table, painted the blue of photographed Caribbean coves. On the table was a coffee mug with lipstick on the rim and a magazine folded open. The coffee cup still had coffee in it. The magazine article was an explanation of how to turn plastic shopping bags into more fashionable plastic shopping bags by cutting and crocheting. Jane looked around to see if there was someone nearby wearing pink lipstick and slicing up shopping bags. There wasn’t. She slid the magazine into her purse. She had never been the type for arts and crafts, but it seemed possible that she might decide to learn.

She wasn’t looking where she was going, which she knew one should always do in New York. She was instead pushing down the corners of the magazine, trying to zip her purse. Because of this momentary distraction, she banged her calf on the side of a bed. The bed was positioned across the sidewalk, the head up against the fence of a brownstone and the foot resting on the curb. A fleshy colored duvet covered the bed, and rolled up in the duvet was a man. He opened his eyes and looked around before noticing Jane and glaring irritably at her.

“Can’t you let a person have a bit of peace and quiet?”

“I’m sorry,” Jane said. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” She did feel bad, though it seemed to her that the truck which was just then clattering by made a great deal more noise than she had, and she hardly felt it was fair for the man to place all of the blame on her. Jane waited until there was a break in the traffic, and then she stepped into the street and walked quickly around the bed. She thought it was odd that he had a bed outside, but she supposed it must have gotten too hot in his apartment. Or too cold. You never could tell with these old buildings.

07/20/11 4:00am

It’s 8:00 AM and I can’t stop thinking about licking that hairy leg. It was the shuttle to Fulton Avenue yesterday morning; he was tan, probably Jewish, very Berkeley, in Diadora shorts and a shirt with the sleeves cut off. His head was balding but his arms and pits were dense with black hair. His legs were forested as well. In a glaze-eyed daydream I knelt before him and licked the salty, furred skin from shin to hip, gulping in the yeasty musk of soccer and anointing the fatless thighs with thick kisses.

In reality he sat in the center of the car; I sat 6 seats down and across the aisle. He got off at Park Place and we never exchanged so much as an “excuse me.”

In a similar glazed state I lie here now, in a double bed in my white walled studio apartment, imagining coarse black hairs lodged in my soft pallet. I’ve awoken in the gap between the wall and the mattress. The latex paint is sticky with humidity and Liz is open-mouth breathing the sweet rot-stink of last night’s beer across my face. We’ve been together since the November after my graduation from college. She is my first real girlfriend. Before her all of my long-term affairs were with men̵Mark, Stephen, Eddy, Elvis (really, no joke). But Liz changed me̵she made me a drinker of vodka, an optimist and most importantly, a lesbian.

We weathered the winter together, holed up in my tiny, unforgiving apartment. We survived a minor flood, fostered a kitten together until we realized that she was prohibitively allergic. I love Liz, I’m sure I love her, but now in this oppressive summer bedroom I’m repulsed by the thought of kissing her. She turns face-down in the mattress and sleep talks a phrase like a parrot with its tongue cut out and I am overcome with a sense of impending…something.

Kissing, in these eight months, we’ve done. Reviving her ficus tree we’ve done, even a couples’ backstrap loom class at the Brooklyn textile center we’ve done, but we haven’t consummated. There’s never been any sex between us, and it’s never really mattered. At least Liz had never mentioned that it mattered. But, suddenly and calamitously, last night it did matter.

We had just returned from the inaugural meeting of Liz’s charity arm wrestling league. Although there wasn’t any actual arm wrestling at this meeting, by the time Liz and I finished the half hour walk home we were both gamey. She beat me to the bathroom and flipped the tag hanging on the door, signifying that the room had become “private space,” so I stripped down to my underwear, stuck an ice cube under my bun and promptly nodded off on the couch in front of the fan.

Liz shook me awake ten minutes later, red faced and snotty. She raged̵flailing her arms and barking that “something really bad could’ve happened” and “do I really even want her living with me” and why hadn’t I come running when she said “FUCK! OH MY GOD!” in the shower?

Apparently she had been panicking in the bathroom for at least a whole minute. Like, sixty-mississippi. Somehow I was napping so hard I didn’t notice.

After I apologized enough to get Liz to calm down, she told me that she was freaking out because she had made a huge fucking mistake. She was doing some pubic landscaping, just taking off a little on the sides and around the top, and she noticed that the borders were uneven. It bothered her so she tried to straighten out, and like a crooked heart cut out of paper for a valentine she kept shaving more off each side to balance. Eventually it was all gone. Bald. A paper-white swath of skin save the angry red razorburn left in her shaver’s wake.

07/20/11 4:00am

Mom cannot afford an Earthquake Room for our apartment, not this year either. Which is nothing to get extremely red in the ears about. She is standing near her bedroom against the rounded wall. So I try maturity when I go about the subject, tell her I am nuts for safety, tell her I found coupons for a Flood Room instead. Everyone knows that a Flood Room is a more frugal, sensible option. We have a small nook right between the kitchenette and the front door where it could fit like a dream. Or we could convert my bedroom, and I could sleep on the sectional. You can never pay too much for preparation. But my mom, who does not have life insurance for her big cheeks or her thinning hair, peels a peachy bit of wallpaper from around the doorframe. She asks me how likely it would be for our fourth floor apartment to sink under water, and I clarify: this is for a flood of the more biblical variety. Then she flicks the piece of wallpaper on the floor where there is a little pile forming, because she always peels the wallpaper in the same spot. She gives me an in-your-dreams-young-lady kind of look.

“Sylvia, why not want a bicycle or a pet chinchilla or a hobby for a switch?”
Now: I am wise to the facts. That insurance companies make a killing on Natural Disaster Rooms™. Foisted on overly careful parents for routine practice scenarios. But everyone at McKinsey School uses their Earthquake Rooms as an excuse to cop a feel. All of that chaos, confusion, and how!

So when my mom is working late, I can usually be found at a friend’s place, after school, making safety come first.

Like the time Bridget threw a party for her thirteenth birthday last year and everyone was invited to her house and into the Earthquake Room. Her parents gave each kid a piece of candy at the door. The mom was smiling and patting my shoulder when I walked in. Sung-Jin, who has opinions, thought that they had confused her birthday with Halloween as an irrational reaction to Bridget’s impending womanhood. Bridget was wearing a really low-cut shirt and laughing as an excuse to show off her lack of braces. Sung-Jin was whispering about it but he didn’t have to. Bridget’s parents are so tall that they are deaf. My mom is petite and I say that means her center of gravity is of the down to earth variety.

Bridget’s parents slid some chocolate cake into the room and closed the door behind us. They did not understand why we wanted to celebrate with an earthquake, but they wanted us to have everything we wished for. I wouldn’t call her party orgiastic, which is this word from vocab class. But my performance on her birthday did win me an invite to several other Earthquake Rooms for some one-on-one natural disasters. I used to be a regular at Sung-Jin’s place, but not anymore.

The thing about the room is that it always looks the same, no matter the house. A fairly small space, but with vaulted ceilings. A rough type of carpeting. Not so good for lying down. The far wall always has built-in bookshelves, but only one of the books is ever real. It belly-flops down from the top shelf right at the start of the simulation, so you can predict the fall pretty easily. Bridget was so distracted by all of the birthday attention that it conked her in the noggin. She has these blonde bangs that half-shade her eyes; she’s always peeking at you. Now the bangs were flying crooked and her eyes fluttered.

07/20/11 4:00am

I have a degree in urban design. My friend Eduard picked semiotics. I made fun of him until he got a job at Euro Disney. I was a few months out of school, and no one had yet asked me to design a city. I guess I hadn’t really thought it out. I had good ideas. Skate paths. Mirror buildings that would make some sun reflect into my apartment. And blimp taxis to get crosstown. You could hail them from the street with flare guns left tethered at the stops.

If I wanted to design cities, I had two options. I could hang around the UN cafeteria and hope to meet a benign dictator of a country that had suffered a major earthquake, who “liked my style.” Or I could apply for a job with the city. I went downtown to fill out the forms. I told them I wanted to take a crack at Staten Island. I was signed up to take the civil service exam in October. It was June.

So I cleaned apartments. I’m usually temporary. Hired while someone went home because of immigration issues. People wanted me gone as soon as possible. A college grad house cleaner is bad luck to most people. People’s kids would stop doing their homework once they found out. I made everyone so nervous that I started telling them I was a felon.

I could only bear to clean for a few hours. So I usually had time to read, sleep and go through their drawers. The minute they left the apartment, I found myself drawn to the bedroom where I’d go through closets, hampers and sock drawers while their pets watched me suspiciously. I found bank accounts. Mood medication. A second diaphragm hidden in a gym bag. I think it made me a better cleaner. The key to cleaning, like anything, is specificity.

By September, I still hadn’t really prepared for an exam that required me to know if a proton is smaller than a neutron. Or not. Or what they were. So I had an idea. I needed to focus. I’d been living in the city for years and I’d never bought pot on the street. They used to offer it to my Dad when he visited and I think it pleased him. I think he wanted to buy some just to see if he still could negotiate a street sale.

A guy came up to me immediately. I asked for a dime. He put it in my hand. But it was the weirdest thing. He wouldn’t take my money. Instead, he started giving me directions to Rockefeller Center. He pointed vaguely in that direction, and he disappeared.

I couldn’t figure this out, until I looked to my right and saw a police car was now ten feet away. I started walking away from the park. And I heard “Hey you” in that way that you know they’re talking to you. And I turn around and the cop on the passenger side is looking at me.

“What do you have in your hand?”

The trick is not to make them get out of the car says my roommate Mikey. Mikey actually ended up at the Tombs downtown for buying heroin on Fourth of July weekend. I went to see him on the way to the beach. He stood in a crowded holding pen and I gave him the best advice I could. I told him, “Lose the earring.”

So he doesn’t have to get out of the car, I walk over, and open my palm, act like a bad dog and wait to see what happens. “You know you’re stupid?” I’m thinking—Yeah, I’m the only person stupid enough to be caught buying pot so no one will trust me to design a city—but instead I just said, “Yeah, I’m stupid.” And he took my dime bag, tore it up so the pot blew around everywhere, a lot of it sticking to his hair, and told me to “Get lost.”

07/20/11 4:00am

We played Civil War pretty much every day in the summer. Almost every day we rode bikes out to the open space at the end of the park where there’s this tree that’s really good to climb because it’s really big and it has all these big fat fucking branches that come down really low to the ground so that you can get up in the tree. The tree was our base when we played Civil War. There’s a trail and a creek and a dam for the creek and a bridge and an old barn that we’re not supposed to go in because our friend Bobby fell on a nail in it once and got tetanus. You can walk across the dam because the water that goes over it is really shallow, just like a centimeter. Usually we played Civil War in between the tree and the barn. The tree was the beginning of where we played and the barn was the end of where we played. Usually when we played Civil War it was me, Tommy, Tommy’s little brother Andy, Jeff who we all fucking hate, my little brother Jacob, Bobby and Bobby’s “brother” Danny, who’s this really skinny weird-looking Chinese kid who never says anything and who Bobby’s parents went to China and got one time and brought him back and all of a sudden were like, here, play with this kid, but you have to be really nice to him because he’s been living in this orphanage because his whole entire family was killed by communists.

Bobby and his brother didn’t play with us all that much because their family lived really far away in the neighborhood, like ten blocks down. Me, Tommy, Jeff, Andy and Jacob all live in the same cul-de-sac, which is the one at the very end of the neighborhood that’s right next to the park. Me and Tommy were always the main generals when we played Civil War. Tommy played Union General Ulysses S. Grant and I played the Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson. Andy got to play General William Tecumseh Sherman and Jacob played General Robert E. Lee. He always played Lee because I always wanted to play Stonewall Jackson. I knew that Lee was actually the main General in the Confederacy and Stonewall Jackson was his sidekick, but it was the other way around when we played because I thought Stonewall Jackson’s name was cool. Jeff didn’t care who he was. We would always tell him shit like, come on, there are lots of other generals that aren’t taken yet, like General Ambrose Burnside, General P.T. Beauregard, General George B. McClellan. But Jeff didn’t really give a shit who’s what General, he just liked playing war. Whenever Jeff played with us, we asked him whether he wanted to be Union or Confederacy, and he was always just like, I don’t care, I just want to play. And then we were like, what the fuck do you mean you don’t care? Whether you’re Union or Confederacy is a pretty big fucking difference.

We all live in Clear Lake, Texas. This was the summer The Land Before Time came out. Jacob had just turned six and I was ten. I’m twelve now. Tommy’s a year older than me, Jeff is my same age, and Andy is about my brother’s age.

Tommy and Andy came over to our house and rang the doorbell. Me and Jacob were sitting on the couch watching TV and eating Twinkies. I went over to the door and let them in. Our mom was outside gardening or something.

07/20/11 4:00am

Grandmothers, we allowed, taken individually, don’t die every day. It would be a perversion of the whole natural order and Deb told Geoff as much. We understood that Geoff’s grandmother, who had died this morning, was not an exception. But Geoff conceded that grandmothers, taken as category, do certainly die with a greater reliability than other demographics, like auto mechanics or elephants, maybe. What about poachers? said Eugene, but nobody responded. We’re just talking strict statistics here, man, Bob explained, reaching an arm around Geoff. On the scale, which I drew hastily in the dirt with the end of my croquet mallet, it could be seen that grandmothers fell somewhere between burn victims and goldfish, and given those odds couldn’t a person be forgiven for thinking of this whole affair of Geoff’s grandmother departing the earthly realm as entirely ordinary, maybe even fitting? Certainly it seemed we could agree that death was nothing to get worked up about when the whole croquet tournament was hanging in the balance.

So we thought we’d settled things, put death in its place as it were, said Bob. He had his thumb in the air, testing windshear, and Eugene began to ladle more rum punch into everybody’s cup. Amy, handing out the balls, had just given Geoff orange because we couldn’t very well give him black now, I said.

But I guess logic is always countermanded by the course of actual events because right then Geoff’s dog died. The dog—Harold—was sitting in the sun between the 3rd and 4th hoops. He yawned and then he sneezed. Then he looked thoughtful for a second and concentrated on a daffodil in front of him, and then he fell over. We did CPR and shook the box of treats but we knew from that look, which none of us wanted to name, that there was no calling him back this time.

So then we were sad. Harry was, or I guess had been, a good dog, and we were no longer sure we even wanted to play croquet today. We felt Harry would have wanted us to play, but we couldn’t very well dignify his death having just passed over the grandmother’s. The problem was compounded, as was increasingly evident, by the fact that we were drunk. We felt we could hardly be expected in this state to reason the afternoon into a satisfying conclusion, and this made us sadder and one by one we returned to Eugene, who stood with the ladle in hand, by the bowl of rum punch. Deb, sitting on the steps, rolled her ball from one open palm to the other and back again, and the croquet lawn, dazzling now in the afternoon sun, seemed just out of mallet’s length. We buried our faces in our sleeves.

It wasn’t that we had no respect for human life. We all felt that human life was an important thing, probably sacred, but it seemed that you had to allow for certain mitigating circumstances. And anyway, said Eugene, steadying himself against the grill, shouldn’t human life always come second to human ideas, which are the closest we can get to immortality? Then he threw up a little bit and we all had to lie down.

When you laid down and began to think about it—to really consider it, said Deb—in a lot of ways you could make sense, total sense, out of feelings. She took the scoresheets out of Eugene’s shirtpocket and began to scribble down a few things that no one else could see, and after a minute or two she passed the notes to Bob, who had a reputation for math. He looked at the paper and said her figures seemed accurate. You hated to calculate actual percentages, but when you considered it, really considered it, with all the variables, Harry’s death did seem sadder, significantly so, and therefore more deserving of our attentions. Assuming that you wanted to solve for the grief of those surviving and that this grief correlated directly with the proximity at time of death, both emotionally and geographically, of the living to the deceased, Harry’s death was definitely sadder in that he had died right in front of us and we had liked him more. More importantly, though, we felt, too, that grief must exhibit an inverse relationship to that quantity of joy which the deceased might have created had he or she not—

Out of tact, we didn’t feel we needed to push the arguments any further. There wasn’t much room for debate any more. The grandmother, Geoff acknowledged, accepting his mallet, had been something of a husk of her former self and would not have had much to offer tomorrow if she’d reached it. Meanwhile Harry—a dog through no fault of his own, said Amy—had been taken in that much-vaunted prime of his life, and could have been expected to bring us joy during not just this croquet season but those many verdant seasons of tomorrow (we had reached that elegiac station of drunkenness).

So Amy got a security blanket from her trunk, and while Deb and I helped Geoff out of his rocking chair, Eugene began to roll up Harry. Bob intervened. There was, he said, something terribly informal about the act of rolling the deceased up, something too ad hoc, dare he say too accurate, about that approach to death. We agreed and Eugene sheepishly returned to the punch bowl. Bob laid Harry in the center of the blanket and proceeded to fold the fabric, one side at a time, neatly around him, the way you might wrap a Christmas present, and I had to say that this approach was, if not perfect, at least an improvement. While Bob finished up, we were all beginning to practice our strokes again, making sure the movement was fluid, graceful, without hitch or interruption. Then in one of those small acts of genius that Bob is always demonstrating, he drew the ribbon out of Amy’s hair at the last second, ran it under the folded blanket, looped it around, and tied up the package with a plain square knot.

Cutter Wood

was born in Pennsylvania, but now he lives in Kentucky where he’s the visiting scholar in creative nonfiction at the University of Louisville. He’s currently working on a book about fires.