Maps in a Mirror, page 5
MaryJo looked at Mark cheerfully and winked and laughed. “Sounds like Amy’s had a busy day, doesn’t it, Mark?”
Mark could not smile. He just nodded as MaryJo straightened Amy’s disheveled clothing and led her toward the kitchen.
“MaryJo,” Mark said. “There’s something I have to talk to you about.”
“Can it wait?” MaryJo asked, not even pausing. Mark heard the cupboard door opening, heard the lid come off the peanut butter jar, heard Amy giggle and say, “Mommy, not so thick.”
Mark didn’t understand why he was so confused and terrified. Amy had had a sandwich after school ever since she had started going—even as an infant she had had seven meals a day, and never gained an ounce of fat. It wasn’t what was happening in the kitchen that was bothering him, couldn’t be. Yet he could not stop himself from crying out, “MaryJo! MaryJo, come here!”
“Is Daddy mad?” he heard Amy ask softly.
“No,” MaryJo answered, and she bustled back into the room and impatiently said, “What’s wrong, dear?”
“I just need—just need to have you in here for a minute.”
“Really, Mark, that’s not your style, is it? Amy needs to have a lot of attention right after school, it’s the way she is. I wish you wouldn’t stay home from work with nothing to do, Mark, you become quite impossible around the house.” She smiled to show that she was only half serious and left again to go back to Amy.
For a moment Mark felt a terrible stab of jealousy that MaryJo was far more sensitive to Amy’s needs than to his.
But that jealousy passed quickly, like the memory of the pain of MaryJo’s fingers pressing into his back, and with a tremendous feeling of relief Mark didn’t care about anything at all, and he turned around to the coffin, which fascinated him, and he opened the lid again and looked inside. It was as if the poor man had no face at all, Mark realized. As if death stole faces from people and made them anonymous even to themselves.
He ran his fingers back and forth across the satin and it felt cool and inviting. The rest of the room, the rest of the world receded into deep background. Only Mark and the coffin and the corpse remained and Mark felt very tired and very hot, as if life itself were a terrible friction making heat within him, and he took off his robe and pajamas and awkwardly climbed on a chair and stepped over the edge into the coffin and knelt and then lay down. There was no other corpse to share the slight space with him; nothing between his body and the cold satin, and as he lay on it it didn’t get any warmer because at last the friction was slowing, was cooling, and he reached up and pulled down the lid and the world was dark and silent and there was no odor and no taste and no feel but the cold of the sheets.
“Why is the lid closed?” asked little Amy, holding her mother’s hand.
“Because it’s not the body we must remember,” MaryJo said softly, with careful control, “but the way Daddy always was. We must remember him happy and laughing and loving us.”
Amy looked puzzled. “But I remember he spanked me.”
MaryJo nodded, smiling, something she had not done recently. “It’s all right to remember that, too,” MaryJo said, and then she took her daughter from the coffin back into the living room, where Amy, not realizing yet the terrible loss she had sustained, laughed and climbed on Grandpa.
David, his face serious and tear-stained because he did understand, came and put his hand in his mother’s hand and held tightly to her. “We’ll be fine,” he said.
“Yes,” MaryJo answered. “I think so.”
And her mother whispered in her ear, “I don’t know how you can stand it so bravely, my dear.”
Tears came to MaryJo’s eyes. “I’m not brave at all,” she whispered back. “But the children. They depend on me so much. I can’t let go when they’re leaning on me.”
“How terrible it would be,” her mother said, nodding wisely, “if you had no children.”
Inside the coffin, his last need fulfilled, Mark Tapworth heard it all, but could not hold it in his mind, for in his mind there was space or time for only one thought: consent. Everlasting consent to his life, to his death, to the world, and to the everlasting absence of the world. For now there were children.
DEEP BREATHING EXERCISES
If Dale Yorgason weren’t so easily distracted, he might never have noticed the breathing. But he was on his way upstairs to change clothes, noticed the headline on the paper, and got deflected; instead of climbing the stairs, he sat on them and began to read. He could not even concentrate on that, however. He began to hear all the sounds of the house. Brian, their two-year-old son, was upstairs, breathing heavily in sleep. Colly, his wife, was in the kitchen, kneading bread and also breathing heavily.
Their breath was exactly in unison. Brian’s rasping breath upstairs, thick with the mucus of a child’s sleep; Colly’s deep breaths as she labored with the dough. It set Dale to thinking, the newspapers forgotten. He wondered how often people did that—breathed perfectly together for minutes on end. He began to wonder about coincidence.
And then, because he was easily distracted, he remembered that he had to change his clothes and went upstairs. When he came down in his jeans and sweatshirt, ready for a good game of outdoor basketball now that it was spring, Colly called to him. “I’m out of cinnamon, Dale!”
“I’ll get it on the way home!”
“I need it now!” Colly called.
“We have two cars!” Dale yelled back, then closed the door. He briefly felt bad about not helping her out, but reminded himself that he was already running late and it wouldn’t hurt her to take Brian with her and get outside the house; she never seemed to get out of the house anymore.
His team of friends from Allways Home Products, Inc., won the game, and he came home deliciously sweaty. No one was there. The bread dough had risen impossibly, was spread all over the counter and dropping in large chunks onto the floor. Colly had obviously been gone too long. He wondered what could have delayed her.
Then came the phone call from the police, and he did not have to wonder anymore. Colly had a habit of inadvertently running stop signs.
The funeral was well attended because Dale had a large family and was well liked at the office. He sat between his own parents and Colly’s parents. The speakers droned on, and Dale, easily distracted, kept thinking of the fact that of all the mourners there, only a few were there in private grief. Only a few had actually known Colly, who preferred to avoid office functions and social gatherings; who stayed home with Brian most of the time being a perfect housewife and reading books and being, in the end, solitary. Most of the people at the funeral had come for Dale’s sake, to comfort him. Am I comforted? he asked himself. Not by my friends—they had little to say, were awkward and embarrassed. Only his father had had the right instinct, just embracing him and then talking about everything except Dale’s wife and son who were dead, so mangled in the incident that the coffin was never opened for anyone. There was talk of the fishing in Lake Superior this summer; talk of the bastards at Continental Hardware who thought that the 65-year retirement rule ought to apply to the president of the company; talk of nothing at all. But it was good enough. It distracted Dale from his grief.
Now, however, he wondered whether he had really been a good husband for Colly. Had she really been happy, cooped up in the house all day? He had tried to get her out, get to meet people, and she had resisted. But in the end, as he wondered whether he knew her at all, he could not find an answer, not one he was sure of. And Brian—he had not known Brian at all. The boy was smart and quick, speaking in sentences when other children were still struggling with single words; but what had he and Dale ever had to talk about? All Brian’s companionship had been with his mother; all Colly’s companionship had been with Brian. In a way it was like their breathing—the last time Dale had heard them breathe—in unison, as if even the rhythms of their bodies were together. It pleased Dale somehow to think that they had drawn their last breath together, too, the unison c
Dale’s grief swept over him again, surprising him because he had thought he had cried as much as he possibly could, and now he discovered there were more tears waiting to flow. He was not sure whether he was crying because of the empty house he would come home to, or because he had always been somewhat closed off from his family; was the coffin, after all, just an expression of the way their relationship had always been? It was not a productive line of thought, and Dale let himself be distracted. He let himself notice that his parents were breathing together.
Their breaths were soft, hard to hear. But Dale heard, and looked at them, watched their chests rise and fall together. It unnerved him—was unison breathing more common than he had thought? He listened for others, but Colly’s parents were not breathing together, and certainly Dale’s breaths were at his own rhythm. Then Dale’s mother looked at him, smiled, and nodded to him in an attempt at silent communication. Dale was not good at silent communication; meaningful pauses and knowing looks always left him baffled. They always made him want to check his fly. Another distraction, and he did not think of breathing again.
Until at the airport, when the plane was an hour late in arriving because of technical difficulties in Los Angeles. There was not much to talk to his parents about; even his father’s chatter failed him, and they sat in silence most of the time, as did most of the other passengers. Even a stewardess and the pilot sat near them, waiting silently for the plane to arrive.
It was in one of the deeper silences that Dale noticed that his father and the pilot were both swinging their crossed legs in unison. Then he listened, and realized there was a strong sound in the gate waiting area, a rhythmic soughing of many of the passengers inhaling and exhaling together. Dale’s mother and father, the pilot, the stewardess, several other passengers, all were breathing together. It unnerved him. How could this be? Brian and Colly had been mother and son; Dale’s parents had been together for years. But why should half the people in the waiting area breathe together?
He pointed it out to his father.
“Kind of strange, but I think you’re right,” his father said, rather delighted with the odd event. Dale’s father loved odd events.
And then the rhythm broke, and the plane taxied close to the windows, and the crowd stirred and got ready to board, even though the actual boarding was surely half an hour off.
The plane broke apart at landing. About half the people in the airplane survived. However, the entire crew and several passengers, including Dale’s parents, were killed when the plane hit the ground.
It was then that Dale realized that the breathing was not a result of coincidence, or the people’s closeness during their lives. It was a messenger of death; they breathed together because they were going to draw their last breath together. He said nothing about this thought to anyone else, but whenever he got distracted from other things, he tended to speculate on this. It was better than dwelling on the fact that he, a man to whom family had been very important, was now completely without family; that the only people with whom he was completely himself, completely at ease, were gone, and there was no more ease for him in the world. Much better to wonder whether his knowledge might be used to save lives. After all, he often thought, reasoning in a circular pattern that never seemed to end, if I notice this again, I should be able to alert someone, to warn someone, to save their lives. Yet if I were going to save their lives, would they then breathe in unison? If my parents had been warned, and changed flights, he thought, they wouldn’t have died, and therefore wouldn’t have breathed together, and so I wouldn’t have been able to warn them, and so they wouldn’t have changed flights, and so they would have died, and so they would have breathed in unison, and so I would have noticed and warned them. . . .
More than anything that had ever passed through his mind before, this thought engaged him, and he was not easily distracted from it. It began to hurt his work; he slowed down, made mistakes, because he concentrated only on breathing, listening constantly to the secretaries and other executives in his company, waiting for the fatal moment when they would breathe in unison.
He was eating alone in a restaurant when he heard it again. The sighs of breath came all together, from every table near him. It took him a few moments to be sure; then he leaped from the table and walked briskly outside. He did not stop to pay, for the breathing was still in unison at every table to the door of the restaurant.
The maître d’, predictably, was annoyed at his leaving without paying, and called out to him. Dale did not answer. “Wait! You didn’t pay!” cried the man, following Dale out into the street.
Dale did not know how far he had to go for safety from whatever danger faced everyone in the restaurant; he ended up having no choice in the matter. The maître d’ stopped him on the sidewalk, only a few doors down from the restaurant, tried to pull him back toward the place, Dale resisting all the way.
“You can’t leave without paying! What do you think you’re doing?”
“I can’t go back,” Dale shouted. “I’ll pay you! I’ll pay you right here!” And he fumbled in his wallet for the money as a huge explosion knocked him and the maître d’ to the ground. Flame erupted from the restaurant, and people screamed as the building began crumbling from the force of the explosion. It was impossible that anyone still inside the building could be alive.
The maître d’, his eyes wide with horror, stood up as Dale did, and looked at him with dawning understanding. “You knew!” the maître d’ said. “You knew!”
Dale was acquitted at the trial—phone calls from a radical group and the purchase of a large quantity of explosives in several states led to indictment and conviction of someone else. But at the trial enough was said to convince Dale and several psychiatrists that something was seriously wrong with him. He was voluntarily committed to an institution, where Dr. Howard Rumming spent hours in conversation with Dale, trying to understand his madness, his fixation on breathing as a sign of coming death.
“I’m sane in every other way, aren’t I, Doctor?” Dale asked, again and again.
And repeatedly the doctor answered, “What is sanity? Who has it? How can I know?”
Dale soon found that the mental hospital was not an unpleasant place to be. It was a private institution, and a lot of money had gone into it; most of the people there were voluntary commitments, which meant that conditions had to remain excellent. It was one of the things that made Dale grateful for his father’s wealth. In the hospital he was safe; the only contact with the outside world was on the television. Gradually, meeting people and becoming attached to them in the hospital, he began to relax, to lose his obsession with breathing, to stop listening quite so intently for the sound of inhalation and exhalation, the way that different people’s breathing rhythms fit together. Gradually he began to be his old, distractable self.
“I’m nearly cured, Doctor,” Dale announced one day in the middle of a game of backgammon.
The doctor sighed. “I know it, Dale. I have to admit it—I’m disappointed. Not in your cure, you understand. It’s just that you’ve been a breath of fresh air, you should pardon the expression.” They both laughed a little. “I get so tired of middle-aged women with fashionable nervous breakdowns.”
Dale was gammoned—the dice were all against him. But he took it well, knowing that next time he was quite likely to win handily—he usually did. Then he and Dr. Rumming got up from their table and walked toward the front of the recreation room, where the television program had been interrupted by a special news bulletin. The people around the television looked disturbed; news was never allowed on the hospital television, and only a bulletin like this could creep in. Dr. Rumming intended to turn if off immediately, but then heard the words being said.
“. . . from satellites fully capable of destroying every major city in the United States. The Pres
Dale’s mind could not stay on the program, however, because he was distracted by something far more compelling. Every person in the room was breathing in perfect unison, including Dale. He tried to break out of the rhythm, and couldn’t.
It’s just my fear, Dale thought. Just the broadcast, making me think that I hear the breathing.
A Denver newsman came on the air then, overriding the network broadcast. “Denver, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the targeted cities. The city has asked us to inform you that orderly evacuation is to begin immediately. Obey all traffic laws, and drive east from the city if you live in the following neighborhoods. . . .”
Then the newsman stopped, and, breathing heavily, listened to something coming through his earphone.
The newsman was breathing in perfect unison with all the people in the room.
“Dale,” Dr. Rumming said.
Dale only breathed, feeling death poised above him in the sky.
“Dale, can you hear the breathing?”
Dale heard the breathing.
The newsman spoke again. “Denver is definitely the target. The missiles have already been launched. Please leave immediately. Do not stop for any reason. It is estimated that we have less than—less than three minutes. My God,” he said, and got up from his chair, breathing heavily, running out of the range of the camera. No one turned any equipment off in the station—the tube kept on showing the local news set, the empty chairs, the tables, the weather map.