My father was on his long taxi journey when my mother said she might have a crush on someone. “Someone who doesn’t do quixotic things for quick money,” she flounced. In the year before the little shuttle I had been in real love. That boy’s rare blood disease made me overqualified in the matter, more pent-up with useless expertise than the PhD swabbing our school floors. I had known love’s sickening tingle. I asked my mother who she was crushing on. “Is that the expression, then?” she asked. “Crushing on?” She reckoned the phrasal verb was effective.
It was on her writing teacher. The one who said memoir as we knew it was dead. “He told me something that changed everything,” she said. “Since we’re heading for the year 2020, our vision as writers must be perfect and, he would argue, even 50/50, in order for us to see things precisely from a greater distance.” I considered 50/50 a slice of nonsense, and I said so. She responded with a handbrake turn to the kitchen counter, where she took out her notebooks one by one and set them squarely on the granite. Then the Le Pen felt-tips. Then the memoir about someone born with no arms. Then the one about the man, his girlfriend, her autistic daughter, and their road trip from New Hampshire to Santa Fe; each campground earned a chapter. The memoirs I had flicked through to determine if they’d make good films. The notebooks I hadn’t broached, for fear of florid descriptions and things too bodily.
My father’s voice buzzed within reach once a week. He had set up a satellite transponder so we could hear him. He told us the best times of day to tune in. But where he was, he could not hear us. That was understood from the off. If we had lived further north, as up north as the Hebrides in Scotland, we might have had a better, clearer chance, he said. For the most part his transmissions were static chatter, like someone eating chips and chewing the packet as well. Other times they sounded like an orgy of wasps. I mapped the Hebrides—islands expelled like zit-juice from Scotland’s forehead. A body of water called the Little Minch separates them. If we had lived in a hipster college town, there would have been homemade radio stations devoted to picking up voices like my father’s. But we were in the belly button of Georgia, which wasn’t rugged granola coastline like the Hebrides, which had no sci-fi geeks, and where nobody cared about things like the curious prettiness of names like the Little Minch. Even though my father could not pick up a word, I grumbled on into the sea-black space between us.
When his words did slip through, they were piercing and clear as glass. “You wouldn’t believe how beautiful it is here. I wish I could show you.” I told him I had already researched the view. It was said that men up there could see plumes of smoke when the towers went down in New York. I said how awful if he had to witness something like that. Catastrophic weather encircling the continents. Nuclear meltdowns and tsunamis. How hopelessly helpless he would be. I would worry more for his grief than for ourselves, for the garden fence crumpling like cardboard and our furniture surfing a filthy heaving river. I fell to crying just thinking about his remoteness. That was the true test. I told him I was proud of him. He had qualified without a hitch for the cool detachment this job called for.
Then I remembered Laika, how that little dog had qualified too. You couldn’t find a more optimistic-looking terrier. They stuffed him in a can and shot the poor little tyke to his doom. Kismet, the boy with the blood disease called it. Laika must have seen beautiful things before being liquidized. Constellations, Saturn’s ringed rainbow. The boy with the blood disease said beautiful things were worth all the pain. He said his mother grew the thorniest roses, let them tatter her hands, because they were the best looking. She grew Rugosa and Seafoam and Van Fleet. Their poetic names and their severity made me like her all the more.
My mother must have thought my father might not come back. She said she had started a series of memoir-ish accounts of being an astronaut’s wife. “Having been, I should say. Having had been. He’s not much more than a space cadet now.” She had not been keen on the new job. “Shuttling supplies to the space station is just like making a run in a taxi,” he said to set us at ease. I liked the picture: my father in a yellow capsule with a telephone number on the side and a lit-up pizza box on top. My mother was not for amusing. She said he should have gone into admin when he had the chance. She said only hopeless souls drove taxis; I added people who just wanted to tell stories about their homes, like the man from Ethiopia who said nearly forty years ago he ate flies for food. Or he ate them before they ate him. He couldn’t remember. He had lived in our town for too long to remember the intentions of those flies. He would like to not remember. He spoke straight ahead to the window, the streets, when my dad asked him what brought him to this country.
I was dying to read those memoir-ish accounts, but I was also afraid they would make me resent her to the point of murder. The boy with the blood disease once said I would be surprised at the number of kids who killed their parents. He was jumpy and juiced that day. He did not mean the high-profile cases, like the creepy dark-haired brothers in Beverly Hills he read a book about. He meant little staged accidents—a slick of sunscreen in the bath, poisons. Thinking scientifically often helped distract him, so I made suggestions. He laughed to cramping at my sliced brakes and loosened wheel nuts. He aimed a quaking finger at his parents’ SUV. I wondered if they would come out at the sound of his laughter. Those were days when hacking and shuddering could be one thing or another.
They loved him frantically. There was no killing of them in his heart. Still, I could see how he might have set a pillow on his father’s face when that forlornest of men closed his eyes and prayed for hours, asking God and a bus full of saints to ease his son’s suffering. But at least these parents were not the kind of people who would write a memoir about their son. There was no Lorenzo’s Oil on their bookshelves. There was nothing about parents who grew another kid to give the sick one some new innards. Instead they read books about gardening and cooking stuff from your own veg patch. He said he was sick to death of collards and kale. I took his hands between mine, and they stayed there like a cool prayer. We said nothing awhile. It was one of those days on the porch I knew to be significant, even as it was happening, even as it shied away like the eight o’ clock light between his mother’s loblolly pines.
I fumbled with seriousness and a heavy weight in my throat just before my father took off. He had three weeks of prep in Florida, and then he would be airborne. His last night was a Wednesday, my mother’s first writing class, and she said it would be very bad form to miss it—the syllabus, prefatory comments, the stuff that let you know the tone of the class. She hailstoned kisses on my father’s jaws. She told him she loved him, and he was to travel safe. Safely, I wanted to say, but didn’t. He called her back and zipped her leopard print collar to her chin. Something darted between them in her small, brief smile, his thumbs tucked under her ear. I noticed that they were still surprisingly tall and surely still right for one another.
My father and I ate spaghetti Bolognese. I made it, and he allowed me the second garlic clove. He joked about enrolling me in Garlics Anonymous, how I’d have to dial it back if I wanted to kiss boys. I thought about telling him so far the only boy who wanted to kiss me had a disease. He probably guessed that that had been the only boy, and he went on to make an enthusiastic fuss about needing ice cream. We went to Friendly’s. I had black raspberry, he had pistachio, and when he started to eat the empty waffle cone in fastidious bites I started to cry. Big sobbing honks, like those birds that swoop grimly over our roof once a year. I couldn’t master things, so we left and walked round the premises until I was tired out, bored even, by my own grief. “There now, kiddo,” he said with his hand to my back, “there, now.” I thought, Where now? Wherever it was, I couldn’t go. And I couldn’t tell him I was afraid for when he got back. Maybe there’d be no there there anymore. That phrase came back to me in the car outside Friendly’s—a line from a book at school, the most serious girl in the English class reading it somberly, the way she read everything, but I’d forgotten what book it was from and what it meant.
At home I asked my father to let me reverse the car into the garage. I was getting good with tight corners, angles. He said I was nearly skilled enough to dock at the space station. We watched a cooking show where people made vivid skyscraping cakes. My father said all the chefs looked high on sugar. My mother came home flushed with words and praise. Someone had said they liked her in-class micro-memoir. She twirled happily and shed her coat, then turned happily for the kitchen. My father and I huddled closer on the couch and listened to twenty bleeped curses when a Chrysler Tower cake collapsed. “What the fucking fuck did they expect?” my father whispered, and he and I laughed on and off until the show ended in a tie.
The boy with the blood disease would have liked the details of my father’s last night. Particularly that the cake show was a big chunk of it. He would probably have revised the word chunk, first to segment, then to slice. He was as interested in Iron Chef as he was in Achilles and Patroclus and Hector. There wasn’t much he wasn’t interested in. I asked if his enthusiasm came from being sick. He upped and dropped his flimsy shoulders and said, “Listen to this great title for spam! I got an email today: Jules Verne Seeks Dreamers for Long-Distance Travel in Time. Isn’t that tempting? Wouldn’t you want to open it?” I told him I would, but the last time an e-mail enticed me with a poetry-sounding subject line I had found angry close-ups of crevasses and hair and something that could have been one thing but was probably another. He asked me what the subject line was. I told him On Either Side the River Lie. He laughed so hard his mother came with the big plastic cup, the drinking straw like a wilting flower.
I confronted my mother. Why was she telling me about the writing teacher, the love she might be in? What if I told my father? She reminded me that he couldn’t hear a thing I said. I would be saying it only for myself and not for him. She said she had reached a tipping point in her life where something cataclysmic, this crush on the teacher, was inevitable, inexorable even. She said she could not have gotten out of the way of it even if she had tried. I was stunned silent by the information dump. Maybe she thought we were pals just because I was fifteen and we took the same size in jeans. Maybe she wanted me to rat on her. Inside my ears I shouted at her that her teacher wasn’t an asteroid and yes she could get out of his way if she both tried and wanted.
She and I stared across the kitchen table, each daring the other to up the ante. Chicken korma congealed in my bowl. I recalled how the boy with the blood disease had talked about walking into oncoming traffic. He wasn’t about to do it, he assured me, but still it was interesting to contemplate how likely a person would be to lose nerve at the last second, by which time it would be too late. Especially if something as inexorable as a multicar tractor trailer was bearing down. He said you would never get out of the way in time. I loved how he made terror and tragedy sound delicious and thrilling, something you would want to watch from a safe vantage point. I held my glower until my mother spoke, this time about a student who cried all the way through someone else’s workshop. She said she admired such open-heartedness, especially in a middle-aged man. I considered the teacher, a wide tall man colliding with my mother, flattening her, toy cars raining from his shoulders down around them both.
Films about deep space and inner space. Films about the abyss. Films where creatures sneak into the holds of craft and gain deadly foothold. I watched them all again. Boys in my class made reference to my father, but it was always doofusly done. How was my dad doing up there delivering Chinese food? Would he get tipped by whoever answered the door at the space station? Everyone thought they knew stuff because it had been in two local papers a full year before he zoomed away. Hometown Hero on Mission to Mars. They were off about almost everything. Including my age, where I went to school, what my mother did for a living. Still, they couldn’t have reported it as “nothing,” so instead she was a “homemaker and budding author-artist.” The piece was still pinned to the corkboard in my room. I added “and teacher-licker” and willed her to find it.
When she didn’t, I blotted it under a heavy ink rectangle. Redaction, the boy with the blood disease had called it when we found a book similarly stained—The Last Temptation of Christ. He had Amazoned it because, he said, it had a fantastic cover—a massive nail going through a clutching hand—and the author’s name was neat, too: Nikos Kazantzakis. It had to be shipped from the UK. We agreed that the crucifier nail, helmeted and ribbed, looked like something else. The boy said it hinted heavily at the real persecution in the book. I wondered what his parents would have done if they had found it. Then again, he was at a stage where he could have gotten away with anything. We wondered who had owned the book and hated it enough to redact sentences. We held the pages up to daylight in the kitchen and we slid them under seedling lamps in his mother’s little greenhouse. We knew those hidden sentences dealt with longings of the flesh. We said we wanted our guesses to be more shocking than the real thing. But when it came down to it we couldn’t devise anything beyond Mary Magdalene’s hair that smelled of other men.
I thought about him during empty afternoons in the hot mote-filled front room waiting for my father’s voice to crackle through. The only temptation that passed between us was a kiss, and it could not have been called a succumbing, really, since he had asked and I had agreed. There was no falling back on a couch, no groping and rending clothes. We were sitting on the porch hammock, idling back and forth. Every few minutes his bedroom A/C dropped a slow single tear on my knees. I heard bees hitting on one another in the rose patch. He said he liked the name of the old space station better than the new one. “Mir, like myrrh.” He suggested that the new one be called Frankincense, or at least something somewhat evocative.
The week before, he had corrected me on the difference between provocative and evocative. He used an elaborate example involving a skirt that aroused the wrong attention and made an old man whistle versus a skirt that reminded the same old man of a color worn by his first girlfriend when he was an exchange student in Italy. We swung in time with our thoughts, agreeing that International Space Station was a cop-out name. I compared it to the band my dad liked: The Band. The boy liked that, laughed at it, and said it made him want me to kiss him. He asked me if would. I leaned in and asked if my jokes were provocative. My mouth swarmed his. I fell in love before I agreed to that kiss. Somewhere behind us a door opened and closed with effortful quietness.
My father asked about my mother’s writing class. It was the one sentence that came through intact during an hour of waiting. The rest was space garble. I worked through a packet of the Utz chips my mother bought in bulk online. Bought for me, an offering for my silence. I was outraged that she thought me too busy with Wavy Pit BBQ to testify to her shenanigans. On the Utz box’s arrival, I had asked if she thought I was some kind of pig. She said no, she did not, of course not. It was just that she remembered me loving Utz when we had them in Boston. I told her never to mention Boston again.
My parents had brought me north for five days. Days when I would not go to school or even open my eyes from sadness. It was after the huge music-filled funeral of the boy with the rare blood disease. I stopped brushing my hair. I got constipated. I lay in my bed night and day. They said enough was enough and a holiday was the best tonic. In lofty elegant Boston we museumed and aquariumed and rode a truck that became a boat. The driver was dressed as a pirate and he was as enthusiastic as a preschool teacher. We sometimes bought lunch food at a supermarket near those duck-trucks. That was how I got hooked on Utz.
On our last night they booked a meal in a sophisticated restaurant where we could see the entire city from fifty floors up. They held hands and we ordered dessert—cookies that were baked right there and then. Macadamia, ginger, chocolate. When the cookies came out on a white rectangular plate, I cried. I couldn’t bear the goodness any longer, the way my mother and father waited with saintly patience for me to choose my flavors first.
My father said he didn’t mind if. The rest was scissored away. I had started tuning in at night. What I didn’t hear was probably as much my fault as the satellites’. I was tired out from heat and homework and periods that seemed to last two weeks.
If what? Let’s see. If she wrote trash about him. Maybe it would be good for her. Like the spring of the terrible brown paintings. Did I remember those paintings and how happy she was when they were out of her system? Did I ever. It was almost impressive, that many depressing shades beyond the brown corner at Benjamin Moore. Her trees were toast and mud. Skies were ochre. A river bubbled hot chocolate. She said they stood for how we had parched the planet.
She spoke about them at an exhibition organized by her art class. That was where I met the boy with the blood disease. His mother had six paintings on show. I liked them better than my mother’s. They were white, in an unsettling way. I walked closer and saw the white was composed of eerie bands. Off-whites and palest greys. Milks and creams. And every one of the white paintings had red somewhere in it. Tiny as a pinprick or a paper cut, but it was there.
Someone materialized like a Sith beside me. “It’s my mother’s way of dealing,” he said. I noticed the mother instead of mom before I noticed he was bald and veined like an alien. We were surprised to live only a few streets apart and never have seen one another. Then he said he was not that surprised at all, considering he was a shut-in. Our mothers spoke of processes and themes. I had a terrifying time not reaching for his white, white hand.
He didn’t go to school. He had a tutor to keep him up to speed, but if he were to be honest the tutor was a lazy thinker who didn’t push thesis statements and talked too much about the lush daughters of a wealthy Indian doctor he taught on weekends.
The boy went to Atlanta for weeks at a time, and his parents stayed at a Holiday Inn near the hospital. He described the treatment as something that just got more boring the longer it went on. He said two nurses once made a mistake because they were bitching and moaning about another nurse, and he ended up shot through with something that felt like burning Gatorade.
He said someone played a song at the same time every day. I Can Feel It Coming in the Air Tonight.
Some of the patients always wanted to smoke straight after their lines were taken out, but they were expressly forbidden. Because they were fifteen, not because it suppressed their immune system. He said it was too late anyhow—“Long since breached.”
He learned to speak like Mark Twain was said to—slowly enough to piss off the doctors about how he was bearing up after a catheter went the wrong route into his chest. The report of his death, he drawled, was an exaggeration.
His mother made more and more paintings, and made was the word, not painted. She often brought her little pots to the hospital. He said he could not tell the difference between one and the other, but she assured him Pantone Snow White and Pantone Bright White had a whole world between them.
His father was interested in my father’s career, and dug up the glory days to read to the boy during the Atlanta weeks. And once, late at night, when his parents had gone back to the Holiday Inn, he took out the clippings and put my father’s story in reverse. The man grinning in triumph after eight successful missions turned into the boy welcomed at Georgia Tech at the age of sixteen.
I thought about my father keeping him company like a thrilling book or an intrepid toy.
In the news they began speculating again about the cost of the space taxi program. They tried to price the people, my father and the guy riding shotgun with him, Brandon or Brendan-something from Montana. Two girls in my class were infatuated with his white-blond hair. The news people guessed some high wild paycheck. A dollar figure flashed green neon. Then a huge equal-to sign. Then, pop: a school in a poor neighborhood. “These men are bringing home what it would cost to reopen these kids’ afterschool program.” Pause. “And keep it open.” Dead-eyed stare. “For ten years.” Then the high line about the mighty fallen. “Used to be these men went into space for research.” Pause. “Back in a day when it really meant something to fly to the moon.”
My mother hissed at them. She said someone in her class tried to write an essay where every sentence contained a dollar amount. This was supposed to be an indictment of living paycheck to paycheck. The teacher, vexed, cocked both index fingers at the student and told him he had no right on God’s dirty earth to channel that subject. The student, a mortgage advisor, was redly dejected. He said he would scrap the paychecks and follow the teacher’s directive to write about baseball. My mother was outraged on his behalf, saying he did not need to be humiliated so. “Especially not by a bitter little pedant.” I could tell the charismatic leader was losing his luster. Like the parts of Mir that got rusty and dented, and needed bigger and bigger new panels to fix the wear and tear.
When the teacher asked her to go for drinks she refused. She said he asked all three women in the class. She believed he was not as professional as she first appraised him. “Remoteness, healthy distance, is part of professionalism. He just does not have the necessary distance.” I mentioned the science teacher who got fired because he lived remotely in the mountains and turned up halfway through class periods and often smelled of sour mash. He was in addition cold, mean, and red-haired, and was said to have laughed fiendishly when a girl swallowed acid from a pipette.
The writing teacher tried to egg people on with negative exercises. If her husband preferred being in outer space to being on solid ground, he suggested, then surely she must have some good grudgey shit. Everyone did poorly on short essays leading up to the mid-semester break.
I had known this metamorphosis first hand at my high school: when our grades turned up worse upon bad, teachers unfastened their nice nodding heads and swapped them for those of narrow-eyed narcotics officers. They strode up and down between our desks, barking discipline, but by then it was too late, for by then we did not give a damn.
During her mid-semester week off, my mother set out to write against everything the teacher told her. That, she said, would be her contribution, and her commitment. She got busy on the laptop, hunching over, leaning in, playing her sentences hard behind the big black lid. The boy with the blood disease had told me about Glenn Gould, the famous pianist who was brilliant and weird and Canadian. One night he suddenly knew the autograph he gave backstage at an opera house would be his last, because he was going to end his public career that very night. He knew it with beautiful finality. Like death, I thought but did not say. My mother looked gaunt and haunted in the wash of laptop light. I wondered how Gould had known when it was right to bow out.
She joined me once that week to listen for my father. I was late to the receiver because of the show where twins were deathly ill with a mysterious degenerative disease, and the couple’s six other children spoke in turn about what it meant to them. I was delighted this family lived in a fairyland Connecticut suburb instead of the usual double-wide in a trailer park in the South. Of course I was also sad for their terrible predicament. But I pried myself away from it to tune in to space. My mother was already there, the room moody with candles. She was quiet, eyes lowered as if praying. It was the first time in ages she had tuned in, and she managed to get full sentences. I heard my father. His words clapped like brass bells. He wanted to know if the foreclosure on the corner had gotten snapped up.
I left her to it—just her luck, and my bad. I hoped he would fade out any minute, and on the verge of something important. I emptied the dishwasher loudly. The plates were smooth hot stones. I stood the cups upside-down on a dishcloth to let the collected water run out. Our neighbors were playing the old rockers again. They probably had sex to it, or used it to drown sex out. My father called it caterwauling, and I never knew if he meant the rocker music or the sex. I liked those neighbors. They were older than my parents, and they always came out the front door holding hands, as if they had been holding them indoors all morning. They probably emptied the dishwasher holding hands, lifting and passing deftly, like shackled prisoners cooperating.
I held that boy’s hand twice only. I included the time near the white gallery paintings because later I could not tell if I held his hand or just badly wanted to. It was best to say that yes, I did hold it then, and again near the end. But not the end in the hospital. Our true finale was under the low walnut tree in his back garden, and it did not even have a kiss. It had ice cream. Later I wrote a paper about that day for English class. The teacher had given us one word as a prompt: faith. Her prompts were always like that. Hope. Charity.
I wrote about arguing ice cream with the boy with the blood disease. He was a Rocky Road believer. I described the way he described it: A mutt. A mongrel. Wrongness in a bowl. Invented by someone cutting up marshmallows with his wife’s sewing scissors and dropping them into his chocolate ice cream.
We spent that hour tending spoons back and forth, devising descriptions like a wine expert on public radio. He used words like bouquet and bass notes. He even swirled and spat. I theorized that the man cutting up marshmallows must have been bored. A bored house-husband. The boy with the blood disease would have none of it. He considered the marshmallow man a romantic, an artist. Someone looking for something better than these degraded times. The boy worked a white nugget free. His spoon brought it to my tongue. He went on feeding me until the ice-cream tub was a crumpled brown slick, and my hand a tight cuff round his wrist.
Only because I needed to wipe the table did I gather the pages my mother left behind in favor of vanilla candles and my father in the front room. Only because I tidied them one on top of the other did I see the sentence. My mother opened with being six when a space shuttle exploded on television. She watched it in school. Everyone was called in, as to an assembly. Some kids jostled impatiently, others did not know what they were gathering for. Near the bottom of the first page she remembered her teacher announcing that they had assembled to watch the first teacher in space. Christa from New Hampshire. Her teacher shone with importance, as if Christa was family. The countdown began. The numbers went by fast, faster than one Mississippi, two. My mother noted that one boy got his counting ass-backwards. The speaker on television clicked out terms like velocity, nautical miles, down range. Percentages were given. Challenger made a beautiful twist, a curve, like a dolphin. Some kids were still laughing at the boy who messed up the countdown when the dark blue sky turned into the Fourth of July.
The speaker on television kept giving information, my mother wrote, as if mathematics could solve the strangeness of a body of white smoke rushing and splitting in two, like arms, dancing arms flung up in rapture. I reread this description, in disbelief that she could write something so wondrous. The teacher started screaming, which made the kids scream too, and one girl started to cry. Nobody spoke on television, and when someone finally did it was in broken language. Malfunction. Contingency. The teacher sat on the floor and put her head on her knees. My mother remembered that two of the teacher’s toenails, the littlest ones, the tiny claws, were not painted coral like the others. She wrote that much later she would remember television minutes of Christa’s mother in a pale fur collar, then Christa’s mother and father walking away as if they did not fully know what was going on and hoped someone would tell them.
My mother remembered that fur collar much later, in a bar in a college town, while looking at Columbia’s beautiful firebird tail, its boosters splitting away like a job well done. One of the astronauts was named McCool, and what a great name she thought it was. Six months later she was cleaning up breakfast in a rest home, her worst summer job, when Columbia broke apart. Someone shook her arm and moaned in the direction of the huge television. She remembered the beautiful Indian astronaut Kalpana Chawla, how she was a youngest child. Another astronaut was Husband, and it seemed the most terrible name to have that morning.
Later still a piece of Columbia would be found in Lubbock, Texas. My mother admitted she almost ruined a date with my father when he could not remember that detail. She said she almost did not marry him when he said he would go into space someday. He was cocksure of himself. He told her in no uncertain terms that it was not worth all that engineering, all those hours flying jets, if he could not get up there and check it out for himself. She tried not to laugh in surprise and delight at his send-up of President Kennedy and Urgent National Needs. Perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very ends of the solar system itself. Vowels as broad as the road, a cliff-hanging emotional wobble. She relented when my father said it would be an appalling waste of his visual acuity and excellent blood pressure. She gave in because he was just that funny-sexy. She gave in because maybe he would die.
Because I could not stop for death. For a while I wanted it to burn its brakes and stop for me. I did not see what the boy looked like after the blood disease had had its greedy way with him. I liked to think he shone whiter than all those rooms he spent time in. That his cheeks blossomed forward from the basins where they had been hushed.
More than a year had passed and still I saw his eyes, the liveliest thing about him; they had done all the running for every other part of him slowly shutting down. I convinced myself that his parents left those eyes open when he was lidded, covered over.
The cross Irish singer came through the neighbors’ wall after the funeral. I can put my arms around every boy I see. But they’d only remind me of you. There was some word for this kind of coincidence. The boy would have known it. He would have won Scrabble on it. I wondered if his mother was still tending all those angry roses in the backyard.
The front room was quiet and dark, like a boxful of night. The transponder was on, giving nothing. Then I heard tiny sounds. My mother’s iPod was budded to her ears. Maybe she had music on all along, that music she said helped her think. Lonely cello, visited by violin. I hung back at the door, wondering if I would have told the boy with the blood disease about her essay. He might have asked about the epiphany. For a while he was big on epiphany in short stories, until he realized it was mostly orchestrated, there so we would feel we learned something from life. He called it bullshit—the first curse I had ever heard him emit. He was the politest person I knew. It must have been the chemicals roaring sourly through him, making him tough as a biker. “Life has nothing whatever the fuck to teach,” he growled. “We pass through it like a class where the teacher is drunk on the desk, or something.”
In spite of all the things against us, we smiled because we remembered the sacked science teacher. We smiled as though we felt tenderness for that Red Hills dud. But more than the essay, I thought he would have liked how I scattered the pages back in disarray. He was keen on chaos theory, and his room had been papered in beautiful hallucinogenic fractals. He would have liked that I could not let those stagey pages alone. That I pressed a coffee mug ring on the bottom corner of the last one, just to hint I’d been and gone.