Route 7 Review - Page 127

my age might die. She worked as a nurse at the same hospital where I was born. She glanced at me over her shoulder and didn’t say anything for a long time, and I knew it was a question with a hundred sharp edges, one I should have left in the drawer. She was quiet so long I thought she wouldn’t tell me, but then she gave a list: In car wrecks and fires, in rivers and lakes and swimming pools. Some were killed by wild animals or big dogs that jumped fences. Even then she knew I had an active imagination, and I believe she was reluctantly trying to narrow my fears. There were ways she didn’t mention. She did not say some kids get sick. But she didn’t lie and say they went to sleep. Once on the way home from the grocery store, a cardinal darted in front of the car. We pulled into the gravel drive, and there it lay on the front bumper. We pushed it into a brown paper bag and buried it in a pile of cinders. Its feathers were red as my grandmother’s lipstick. My grandfather was a volunteer fireman. After a call he often slept well into the morning. Once he came out in his old white robe. He still smelled of smoke, rancid and harsh. His face had black streaks from soot. There was something in the way he moved that scared me, the thickness of his reluctant voice, as if any sound might break him. My grandmother filled the bathtub and steam billowed into the hall. My brother was still just a tiny thing. She took my grandfather’s hand, led him to the tub. He shed his robe, stepped in, and she settled my brother in his lap. They lathered his hair with baby shampoo, rinsed it with water from a tea cup. She scrubbed the soot from my grandfather’s neck, washed his shoulders. Then she toweled him off and he fell asleep in the recliner with my brother on his chest. My grandmother made us coffee in the kitchen, cut the crusts from my sandwich. She said that a young girl had died in a fire last night, that my grandfather had found he r hiding under her bed, cradled her, brought her out but couldn’t revive her. When I closed my eyes I could smell the smoke on the dead girl’s skin. I’d thought of death as far away, a hundred years, farther than China, beyond the stars or Santa Claus. But now the idea crawled in close, and carved a den in my imagination. I didn’t want to sleep. My parents brushed their teeth and crawled into bed. I listened as they watched the local weather on their small black and white that sat on the cedar chest. Reruns of Columbo or Quincy followed. Sometimes the National Anthem would play and leave only the soft fuzz of the channel gone off the air. Most nights they’d lie there talking, my father’s voice a rough, unintelligible mumble, my mother’s like a timid bird. Long after they stopped talking, I would think of what fire does to the flesh, of the tips of cigarettes and how curtains catch and rooms erupt in flames. I imagined boats swamped with water and the squiggly things in the muck. I began to think of death as a person, not dressed in the dark cowl of old movies, but a naked child who looked like me. This idea must have come from a dream— that when I was born so was my death, half a world away. When I lay with my ear turned into a feather pillow, my heartbeat echoed there, the soft crunch of footfalls in the snow. I could hear the slow and steady progress as this other child searched for me. My sleep was his animation. When my eyes closed I shined like a beacon that drew him in. Like a dream that falls apart, the image of his arrival was frayed at its end. I can’t tell you how old I was when I came up with this, but I was still in early elementary. I never said a word to my friends, worried such talk would give him breath and skin. I was careful to sleep so I could not hear his movements, silence an amber that held him in place, lost in the leaf litter of the woods where his feet were cut by stones and twigs. This fear stayed past high school and car payments, past retirement funds and advanced degrees. I often wonder where he’s wandered off to. April when the sun is gentle. October when the leaves burn bright and wine is crisp on my tongue. The losses add up. A nephew who dove for a volleyball and never got up, a friend whose heart attack was so sudden he broke his nose in a fall and was found after school by his daughter. My father-in-law who couldn’t sleep at the end. Sometimes even the best doctors don’t have a thing they can do. Scientists in the lab have tripled the lifespan of the mouse, and there are jellyfish that never die but remake themselves perpetually. I do not think they dream or sleep, that they have reason to think of twins flagellating toward them through the depths. They are born without hearts, without brains to spin dreams from the dark.