Gretchen Hayes (continued)
by D. E. Lee
“—the blood of—”
Doris finishes the song from the other room.
April and I giggle. “You don’t suppose,” April says.
“Naw,” I say. “She’s a vegetable. She don’t know what she’s saying.”
The rain taps the window. The kitchen light throws shadows across the floor. I lift plastic wrap from a pie tin and fork a blueberry bite into April’s mouth. She says, “Mom died the next day.”
“Like a testimony.”
“Yes. Just like that. I’ve been melancholy ever since. We told her it would be all right. All blood’s the same. It wouldn’t harm her.”
“That’s what we said.”
Instead of mourning my mother’s death I engaged in quiet ontological disquisitions on symbols. She was a devout Christian and bristled about a blood transfusion. Then she died as if to prove a point. The events made me think a lot about Jesus. Here was God-made-man whose blood was shed for our sins. He died for us. Death had always seemed such a solitary act. Yet if it were possible one could die for another it seemed as likely one could live for another. And how far might that extension be taken? Might it be possible to be someone else entirely? Or to be anything else? A dog, for instance?
The more I considered these metaphysical transfusions the more convinced I became that these exchanges, in fact, were not only possible but were probably already occurring. Merely contemplating these abstractions was bewildering. Reifying them. Utterly unsettling.
Dave bounds from under the table when Doris comes into the kitchen and sits at the counter. He sidles next to her. She answers the phone. He nuzzles her leg. She scratches his ears. He bounds to the water bowl and slurps rapidly. Then he wanders into the living room and curls up on the warm carpet.
“Phone’s for you.” Doris peeks around the corner. “And April got a call earlier. Here.”
She gives Dave the message she’s scribbled down.
“Give it to her. You know I hate delivering messages. Especially from Gretchen Hayes.”
Dave sets the message down on the nightstand. He looks upon April. Smiles at her wonderful, youthful face. The tumor makes her memory blotchy and she won’t remember she had asked Gretchen to call her. He sets the message in plain sight so she’ll be sure to see it. Just in case. He brushes loose strands of hair from her comatose eyes.
At the fair one night when the weather turned blustery April was a galloping girl. Smothered in a heavy jacket. Shirt-tail hanging loose and flipping about in the wind like linen on a line. On the Super Loop she giggled and screamed all at the same time.
“Who’s on the phone?” I fold a blanket across April’s legs. She’s our baby sister. Although fragile she’s also the one who exuberantly dove into life as if it were a sparkling blue ocean.
Doris is the middle child. She studies rat behavior. I brought tuna sandwiches one afternoon and walked downstairs to the basement of the psych lab. Doris was hidden behind a computer. She showed me around.
“One experiment,” she said, “involves a mixed schedule of reinforcement. Two or more schedules are presented to an organism in an alternating and random fashion with no discriminative stimulus correlated with the schedule in effect.”
I looked at stacked coolers, wires, listened to clicking sounds.
“The rat,” she said, “learns to be sensitive to these unannounced changes and responds accordingly.”
“Smart. Very smart.”
“If he had thoughts. Could tell us those thoughts. He’d probably describe a world that seemed odd or confusing, something superstitious, perhaps. But something that still worked. The genius of the program. No guides, no kickstarting needed. It just works.”
Doris leans around the corner. The message extending from her fingers. “Preacher Martin. He wanted to know how April was doing.”
I take the message. “What’d you tell him?”
“She’d gotten worse.”
He doodles on the cover of the phone book. Three rings. “Brother Martin? Yeah. I’m holding up well. Well as expected. That’s right. And thank you. Thank you and Gretchen for the food. Great dinner. Sure was. I’ll be calling sometime tomorrow. Too late today. Not today. No. What can anyone expect? I know. Yes, yes. Thanks. Thanks for calling.”
“News is on,” Doris calls from the kitchen. She sets out leftovers. Fried chicken, butter beans, collards, cornbread. They eat on trays. The sun shines through the western window. Dave lowers the shade and falls back in the rocker. TV blur crosses his eyes. Wrapped in a quilt Doris is quiet in the corner. Her hands poke out as she molds bits of clay. A bowl rests in her lap.
“I remember the lines now,” I say.
She stops working. “I knew only five stanzas. Then I forgot it completely.”
Ever since our mother died we’d been trying to recall the lines of “The Wife of Usher’s Well.”
April’s eyes fall on me. A listening pattern.
I sing: “She fixed them a bed in the backside room / And on it she put three sheets / And one of them was a golden sheet / Under
it that the youngest might sleep.”
“Yeah. That was it,” I say, setting my bowl aside, wrapping myself tighter within the quilt. “I’m glad you remembered.”
April rocks with lines of late sunshine crossing her pale face. Her eyes are distant dark orbs. I hold up a small bird I’ve been sculpting.
“Pretty,” I say and stare out the window. Doris loves the small bird with her eyes. Her fingerprints mark the bird’s wings, belly, and beak. She sets it on a wooden shelf to dry.
“I’m going to bathe and change her.” Doris has laborer hands. She pauses by the door. She opens it and turns around. “It’s Jack Martin the priest. Want him in? Or you outside?”
Father Martin waits by the door. His collar is distinct against his coat like a flower on a dark cake. I step outside.
April and Doris splash in the tub, spilling water over the sides in great sheets. Doris has suds piled like snowy mountains on her hair. April swims underwater. Their mother sits on the edge of the sink and watches her children glide like pink fish. Toys float around their bodies. A wave launched by April’s diving tosses the toys. With one great hand their mother loads soap on a cloth and scours the girls as if she’s sanding wood. Their eyes are red and puffy. “Go under,” she says to Doris after working shampoo into her hair and scrubbing her scalp.
The evening air is warm. A shade of blue. A hint of mimosa. Dave stands on the edge of the step and looks over the yard.
“Your plans for the funeral are set,” Brother Martin says. He’s found a chair, crosses his legs.
“Yes.” Dave steps from the edge, sits in the vacant chair. “We’ll bury her at Bayside.”
Brother Martin lets the gray evening slump into his lap. He stretches his neck. A light breeze crosses it.
He’s a weathered man. A former charter boat captain. Before that he lost two fingers when his hand got caught in a drill press.
Dave watches the orange sun disappear between the trees. Mosquitoes are bad. Dave asks, “What does the word mean?”
“The Word is Christ, God, the Holy Spirit. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
“But what is it? Does it mean more than the Godhead? Does it have something to do with what is said? Something like the language we use to explain what we mean by anything at all?”
“God said ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life.’”
“But I mean the word word. Can’t it have a meaning apart from what it seems to mean? Can’t it have a meaning that language itself creates? What we regard as the world? Some sense that everything we do and say and think is guided by the content of the word but not the thing the word refers to?”
April wears black canvas tennis shoes with white socks. Her legs are ugly. Thin around the knees. She keeps her hair from her eyes by brushing it back, calling it a bad habit. She stands over her mother’s grave and cuts her arm. Blood drips on the slab in abstract patterns.
Brother Martin snaps at a mosquito and stretches his neck. The tag on his collar jingles. Dave leans forward. Rests his elbows on his knees. He’s trying to decide if Brother Martin has heard him. If he’s thinking about what he’s said. He pats Brother Martin on the head and scratches behind his ear. A furry hind leg begins to tremor.
“But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?”
Brother Martin pants. His tongue licks at mosquitoes. His neck stretches for the breeze. A howl comes from somewhere in the neighborhood. He bounds, barking and yapping, from porch to fence. He claws at the ground. Shoveling dirt behind him.
Dave jumps up. “Stop it! Stop it! Come here, boy!”
Brother Martin races back to the porch.
“Good boy. Good boy.”
Brother Martin scratches the underside of Dave’s chin and watches the moon coming over the opposite side of the yard. The moon, bright like an eye, throws long shadows across the grass. With his arm slung around Dave’s shoulder, furry warmth climbing through his shirt, Brother Martin muses on the ascent of the moon. The higher it goes the smaller it gets.
I recall driving Gretchen Hayes to the dentist. She was fifteen and lived next door. I was in the eleventh. She called me to her house one afternoon during summer vacation. What she said to get me to come over I can’t remember. When she opened the door I noticed the drab industrial configuration of her braces. My stomach churned. My heart raced. She wore a flannel shirt with several buttons open. I couldn’t see anything except the darkness beneath the flannel. Much later as I was thinking about that shirt I finally understood why she’d called me over. But at the time I was too innocent to understand. The next time she called me she asked me to take her to the dentist. Her appendix ruptured and she died.
My memory has been shiftless ever since. Connected events fly past like boxcars at a crossing. The moment I fix my gaze on one another replaces it. I’ve lost faith in the fastness of the physical world. Upon reflection it’s possible Gretchen Hayes never called me to her house. Perhaps no flannel shirt or dismal braces. She may never have existed. Memory is not like the infallible God but like the Holy Spirit descending in brief moments of revelation.
April sits next to Dave. Their legs touch at the knees. She clasps his hand. The porch is wide and stretches the width of the house and looks toward the road but also toward the yard. Never quite sure which direction to face.
“Always looking up there, aren’t you?” she says, brushing hair from her eyes.
“Always looking up there,” she says again. “As if you expect to see Christ riding down from a cloud.”
She’s referring to the sky. Now a twilight vision with Venus blinking down. Dave’s the deep thinker. He considers his location. His place on the porch. Thoughts spreading outward to the yard of oaks and azaleas. Then farther out to town. To the edge of the city. He wonders if somewhere there’s an exact opposite spot. Someone, perhaps his own image, staring back. Having in his mind his very own thoughts. God had said, “Let there be light.” He spoke a world into existence. Dave might observe light and name it. But to name a thing. To create it by naming it required absolute temerity.
April nudges him. “Staying out here all night?”
“No,” he says, “I’ve just been thinking. Might call Brother Martin. I’d like to ask him a few things. See if he can help me understand.”
She laughs. He watches her face, concentrates on the fine scar below her eye.
They’d been practicing golf swings. He showed her the proper form. She stood behind him. A moment later he heard a dull thunk! He froze, terribly afraid that any sudden movement would make her crumble. He shook so hard he couldn’t speak for hours.
She felt warm and thin. Perfect stillness in the trees. Her hands floated to her face. Flattened against the coursing warmth of the blood on her hand. A long and scratchy scream had torn itself from her mouth. She stumbled across the grass toward the house. Her hands led the way. She followed as if they were not a part of her but detached floating guides.
Doris finds him with a preoccupied look on his face. She doesn’t cry or startle. Instead, she closes the door to be alone with him. Before the others come in she sets him fast in her memory. She takes the Bible from the nightstand and holds it in her lap. Across from him she rocks but cannot recall the lines to the song.
“Remember that,” April says, touching the scar below his eye.
“I thought I was going to die,” he says, rubbing the scar, remembering how painful it was getting the stitches out.
“Me too. I thought I killed you. You know, I haven’t swung a club since that day.”
Doris tucks his legs neatly beneath the sheet. The bandage around his skull rests like ice cream on a cone. April slumps on the chair against the wall. She smoothes her hands down the front of her skirt. Bits of clay smear the fabric. Doris stands propped against the bed. They jump when the phone rings. Dave brings the phone into the room and looks at Doris.
“Who is it?” she asks.
A long time ago, one summer, they had built a tree fort in the woods. April was too small to climb the rope. They watched her through cracks in the floor until she went crying home. They snacked on chips and root beer and played name the song and name the movie. Each had long stories to tell. They found the wet remains of a magazine and thumbed through it with growing confusion. Before they fell asleep there was an odd moment. All external sound and movement had ceased. All history and memory had disintegrated. They were exhausted and no longer had words. Their seclusion was absolute. Bundled together in a sleeping bag they closed their eyes without the slightest notion of impermanence. When blue shadows fell sharpest in morning’s dim hours an icy shriek from the woods made them tremble.
Dave hands the phone to Doris. “It’s Gretchen. She’s been trying to reach you.”
He sits next to April. She’s like Spring. He inhales the scent of her hair. Crossing her legs on the chair she hums a dirge.
Doris finishes the call, shrugs, and says, “Wrong number.”
She seems tired and hard. She kneels by Dave. Puts her head on his lap. She murmurs, “I remember the words Mama used to sing to us.”
“Me too,” April says, gently playing with Doris’s hair, rolling it between her fingers, tucking it neatly behind her ear. Her face is like marble. Shadows make her pale and childlike. “It just came to me.”
Doris touches April’s leg and looks at Dave and says, “I always wanted to be you.”
Dave sighs like the last light out at bedtime. “And I you,” he says.
April is motionless against the wall. Dave leans across the space between them and kisses her cheek. April sings, “Dear mother it’s the faults of your poor proud heart / That caused us to lie in the clay / Cold clods at our head, green grass at our feet / We are wrapped in our winding sheet.”
Doris moves to the bed where he lies dead. At last. She lifts the sheet and takes his paw in one hand, strokes the hairy snout with the other. Then unwraps the bandage from his head and cries into the cloth. Dave unbuckles the collar and sets it on the nightstand.
You feel confused and simple and lost. You hug April, then Doris, then both at once. You don’t have a lot to say. Their bodies quiver beneath your touch, your arm tight around Doris’s shoulder, loose around April’s waist. As confused as you feel about the particulars you understand clearly what is happening. Someone’s died. And people give comfort. And you can connect to that. It’s not the physical location or identity of each body but the relation between them that matters. Nothing happens without reference to the other. Nothing can even be said. Like reading an appendix to understand a story.
A tear rolls over April’s mouth. Hangs a moment. Falls.
Where would you be and where would I be?
Early one morning, a few years later, you are walking through Bayside and you notice the headstone. You look at it a few minutes. The sun rises, spreads orange rays, a path across water to the foot of the marker. You feel elated noticing the headstone faces east. You’ve relied on logic all your life but there’s nothing logical at all about headstones facing east. You understand how it is with folks. Some bright morning the Lord will come from the east on a cloud of glory. The machinery of logic portrayed in the abstract as faith. All the human faculties are playthings in an infinite playground. You pray for understanding. Your prayer begins boldly. But as you continue your words lose certainty and sputter until they are incoherent.
You meet April and Doris for coffee. They have lilting voices, happy countenances. In their presence you have forgotten all thoughts of the infinite. Doris reads your mother’s favorite passage from Luke. The coffee shop din strikes you as being precisely the stuff of humanity. Mundane chattiness. Doris reads, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”
You catch April’s glance. Serene, content. No matter how mixed up you might get everything sorts itself out eventually.